Sunday, September 04, 2005

Comic Reviews for August 31, 2005

Great week, with Spidey, Runaways, Astro City, and more.

Amazing Spider-Man 523 – "Extreme Measures"
By J. Michael Straczynski and Mike Deodato, Jr.
Cover by Terry and Rachel Dodson

Okay, I have got to give JMS credit for taking an idea more or less thrust on him by another writer and totally running with it. His portrayal of Spider-Man as an Avenger is actually better that Bendis's, as we see Spidey bring his best qualities to this new position and highlight both why we love him as a hero, and why he makes a kickass Avenger.
The gloves come off and the balls go to the wall in this issue, the all-out action showdown between the Avengers and Hydra. Mainstays Captain America and Iron Man get some good moments, but of course the highlight is in how Spider-Man interacts with them. His snark to the goon squad as the backup arrives, how he calls Iron Man "boss," his unswerving dedication to the ideals of heroism, the mutual respect between him and his teammates, his hidden feelings of awe and wonder, and above all his unswerving dedication to the ideals of heroism; this is good Spidey storytelling. Now, of course, I don't believe the peril Spidey's in is too dire, but the emotional beats work, and seeing Spidey on this stage is a nice change of pace. It won't last forever, of course, but I'm enjoying it for now.
Deodato gets to pull out his action stops here, and this is where he excels. Explosions, fight scenes, laser blasts, punching, shields clashing; you get the idea. His photrealism in the nons-pandex scenes doesn't quite fit as well as this, so getting an entire issue of it is the comic equivalent of Romero coming back to zombie movies. For me, anyway.
JMS & crew have single-handedly disproved the current conventional wisdom of mainstream superhero comics. You don't have to slam a mega-event down the readers' throats, make the heroes unheroic, kill third-tier characters left and right to inflate drama, or promise that nothing will ever be the same again. Just take heroes, villains, and excitement, mix well, and serve with plenty of fun.
Grade: A

Runaways 7 – "Star-Crossed, part 1"
By Brian K. Vaughan and Takeshi Miyazawa
Cover by Chris Bachalo

I love this comic. I love it like I love 80s music. I love it like I love jumping on the bed. I love it like I love dogs playing in the park. I love it like I love Cinnamon Toast Crunch and cartoons. I almost love it like I love redheads in fishnet stockings. Well, ok. Not quite like that. But I love this comic.
A character moment that fans have been waiting for at least since the launch of this volume happens this issue, and while it goes more or less as expected, the doors that it opens (and the unexpected wrinkle that arrives at the end of the story) have great promise for several of the characters, and it's all so damn organic that I'm just in awe and glee at how well this story is coming out. That it hinges on several serious and universal teen (and human) experiences continues this book's trend of realistic and sensitive portrayal of its protagonists. And in between, we get one of my favorite C-list villains, a bonding scene between the new recruit and my favorite Runaway, a Calvin and Hobbes reference, and trademark Vaughan dialogue. What's not to like?
Miyazawa's fill-ins are always a nice break from the usual pace of a book, and I like him as the backup guy for Runaways. His portrayals of the characters stay on model while sticking to his own style, one that works very well with the low-key but heavy emotional beats Vaughan's script requires for this story. I love how he brings out the innocence and fun of these characters, while still being able to take the tone serious when necessary. The versatility serves him and the story well, and he's perfectly suited for this kind of book especially. The "anime-style" has gotten some heavy criticism, and not without undue reason, but this is the perfect example of how, well-used, it can heighten and instruct comics on this side of the Pacific Rim.
Did I mention that I love this comic? I did? Good.
Grade: A

Young Avengers 6 – Sidekicks, part 6"
By Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung

And here's the other teenage superteam from the Marvel stable. (Hey, guys: Crossover? C'mon. You know you wanna.) The opening arc for this book comes to a close in a somewhat predictable manner, but again, it’s the execution that pushes it over the top. Heinberg tosses his young heroes through the wringer here, hammering home the crucial lesson of adolesence: That life is not fair, and that sometimes, we have to do the thing we want the least for the good of those we love. Now, what keeps this from being dark and depressing is the beats Heinberg chooses to highlight: the optimism in the face of a crushing defeat, the honor and determination, and the bonds of friendship that unite these characters. In short, it's just the kind of comic today's young people need. And today's old people, now that I think of it.
The last bit of the story sets up the future of the Young Avengers well, and I can't wait to see what's in store next.
Jim Cheung is a very gifted artist, as his work on Crossgen's "Scion" proved. Here, his hardest challenge is in the roller coaster of emotions he has to portray in these characters, and the tone shift from the first two thirds to the ending. He pulls off both admirably; in the first case, he perfectly captures the expressions of anguish, fear, bewilderment, and resignation on the kids' faces. In the second, he takes advantage of the change in setting and dress for the characters to open up, reveal a few new things, and overall make the shift in tone evident, clearing a path for what comes next.
Okay, confession: I'm not completely enamored of some of the new codenames (especially "Stature;" I mean, come the hell on). I do like the new costume designs, though. Cassie's (please let the solicits for She-Hulk be right, and her real codename be "Titan") look particularly strikes me, for whatever reason.
The surprise hit of 2005, Young Avengers has surpassed all expectations, continuing the grand Marvel tradition while still carving its own path. Here's to the future.
Grade: A- ("Stature?")

Astonishing X-Men 12 – "Dangerous, part 6"
By Joss Whedon and John Cassaday

Well, if nothing else, it's pretty. John Cassaday once again pulls out all stops for the action-packed finale here. The "butterfly" redesign for Danger is surprisingly effective, as is the giant Sentinel's bug swarm. Beast going semi-feral shocked me, but was an excellent visual. Overall, Cassaday shows why he deserved the Eisner.
Characterizations remain spot-on, but I'm mixed about the plot developments. The way in which the team overcame the Sentinel, I'm OK with, largely because I trust Whedon to be setting up something in the future that oughta rock. The eleventh-hour reveal about the Professor and Danger, it takes the character interactions in new places, and opens up some story value for after the hiatus, but… does it go too far? I have to digest that. And if the final page's revelation is exactly what it seems to be, I have to say I'm disappointed, as it pretty much negates the last standing improvement Grant Morrison made to the X-Universe. Seriously, Marvel, what was the point of bringing the man on if you were going to wipe away every cool thing he did in eighteen months?
"Danger," in the end, wasn't as strong an arc as "Gifted," but it gave us plenty of great moments (including Kitty's certified badassness in this issue), and it's top-flight work from two great creators, so I can't complain too much. Despite my reservations, I'm looking forward to what they have in store next year.
Grade: B+

Astro City: The Dark Age Book One 3 – "Casualties of War"
By Kurt Busiek and Brent Anderson
Cover by Alex Ross

"Tyranos Rex." Heh. I still love that.
Okay, largely the beats and themes from last issue get repeated, but what we get, what we really get, is twofold: a key point in Charles and Royal's relationship, and the final revelation of the event that changed their young lives. It's not quite what I was expecting, but it explains what happened perfectly, and if nothing else, I'm vindicated in my suspicions of just what the brothers' thought processes were that carried them from then to now. What we have with this opener (and probably the entire Dark age saga, although watch Kurt prove me wrong) is a dual character study of the loss of faith, standing in for what the nation, the comics industry, and plenty of confused people went through in the post-Vietnam era. How it all mixes in with the Agent's fate, the continuing supertrouble, and the mystery of the Blue Knight, well, that remains to be seen, but we do have a concrete beginning, and several issues begging for exploration.
And along the way, we get more fun superstuff. Lava dragons. Jungle kingdoms. Mystical battles. Stuff that reminds us that, even though this world is somewhat like our own, it's still a place of wonder, even if some of the people who live there don't see it all the time.
Let me just state for the record that I couldn't do what Brent Anderson does, consistently hitting the right notes for what these stories, complex and heady as they are, need to do. The man deserves just as much credit as Busiek for what Astro City is and means.
Astro City has a difficult job; it has to remind us why we love superheroes and adventure stories, and also tell us who we are and help us understand the world around us. It's not an easy balance, but it's eminently worth doing.
Grade: A

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