Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Free Comic Book Diary: The Reviews, Part 1

Like I said, I picked up 23 free comics on Saturday. I'm going to break these down into four installments, six books at a time. Up first, the lion's share of the Gold Sponsor Books.

Marvel: X-Men/Runaways

Under yet another spiffy Jo Chen cover we find not one, but three intros to books Marvel hopes to push to young readers. First is the titular story, being a brief fight/crossover between the mutants and the misfits. I liked how BKV set the story against a backdrop of the Runaways searching for a missing Old Lace. The story, short as it is, doesn't have time to do much else than let the characters fight, but it serves as a decent intro to the Runaways concept. Skottie Young's art works well, although his models are sometimes inconsistent. The Franklin Richards story is a fun little outing that doubles as an introduction of the wonders of comics and imagination. There's also a brief preview of the Marvel Adventures Avengers comic; the line-up is certainly unusual, but the pages are quick and action-y, and the device used to introduce the characters to the reader is creative and pays off well in the last panel. That this is mostly new or previously unseen material is an extra bonus. All in all, one of the better Gold offerings.

Archie: Archie's 65th Anniversary Bash

Enjoyment of this story depends on how willing you are to suspend your disbelief that Archie and his family would ever leave Riverdale. If you're able to move past that, however, you'll find a fine introduction to the various characters under the Archie stable, including some you might not expect. The story does get repetitive at times (it's essentially a parade of "Hi, Archie, heard you're moving, hey readers, read this character's comic"), but newer readers will be too busy getting to know the characters to notice. One problem I did notice was that, often, the promo banners at the bottom of the page would run several pages after the characters they were promoting. Other than that, though, it's a perfectly enjoyable comic, with some nice moments (poor Jughead).

Gemstone: Donald Duck

Here we have three Donald tales that range from okay to meh, but none of them are strictly bad. Don Rosa's "Metaphorically Spanking" starts with a great running gag that he unfortunately abandons until the last page, leaving a decent but otherwise unremarkable nephews-ditching-school story. Pat and Shelly Block's "Queen of the Ant Farm" is my favorite of the three, reminiscent as it is of Barks's classic "Mastery" stories; once again, Donald's hubris and competitiveness get the better of him with hilarious results. William Van Horn's "Their Loaded Forebear" is a lesser effort than I expected from this Duck luminary, and I saw one of the twists in the ending coming very far in advance. The younger readers it's intended for, though, will enjoy the stories, and the numerous ads provide perfect launching points for them to explore this rich universe.

Dark Horse: Star Wars/Conan

Randy Stradley and Douglas Wheatley present "Routine Valor," a Clone Wars tale that, while essentially a "Shaggy Dog" story, is well-drawn enough to capture the attention of readers who like big firefights with lots of stuff exploding. Tim Truman and Paul Lee's "The Spear" is definitely the superior of these two offerings, an interesting twist on the old Howard saw, repeated by untold legions of Dungeon Masters, of the dark wizard seeking the object of power. The irony hits full force on page 9, and delivers a conclusion that's both unique and unexpected.

Bongo: Bongo Comics Free-For-All

Bongo saved the best for first with "Comic Book Guy Gets A Life!" From the first panel ("Brian Michael Bendis, you've done it again!"), the creators (everyone involved in the book is credited, but on one page instead of in their respective stories, and as a whole instead of by story, my one complaint with the book) present an amusing examination of the fan lifestyle, as Comic Book Guy receives the standard knock on the noggin and loses interest in his hobbies. Behind the self-parody is a very salient point of following what gives you joy, regardless of how society feels. After a Radioactive Man one-pager, there's a look inside the Bongo offices, a tale of Homer Simpson as Pie-Man, and then what's probably one of my favorite rip-off/gags ever: a "Super-Simpsons" tale honoring the wacky blaxpoitation '70s with Carl and Lenny as "Nuclear Power Man & Iron Foot." Stopping just this shy of copyright infringement, this celebration of fair use laws is laugh-a-panel, easily. Count me in for an "NPM&IF" miniseries.

DC: Superman/Batman 1

I'm baffled as to why DC offered this three-year-old reprint. Being part 1 of 2, finishing the story requires interested readers to either pick up the Public Enemies trade, thereby buying one comic they already have and four they may not want, or hunting the back issue bins for a book that's been sold out for over 36 months. Also, it's not that good; Jeph Loeb overuses the narrative captions to the point of abuse, and the insinuation that John "Metallo" Corben is the man who shot the Waynes is just silly. Ed McGuinness's art is a saving grace, though; his style is just epic enough for these characters, and I kind of wish he were taking on the new Justice League title instead of Ed Benes. Still, this is by far one of the weakest Gold entries.

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