Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reviews for June 27th, 2012

ALL STAR WESTERN #10

The beginning of the new arc for Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Grey's "All-Star Western" title picks up from the closing pages of the previous issue. Moritat once again renders the late 19th century version of Gotham in an interesting style, similar to the work of Sergio ("Lone Ranger") Cariello, albeit with a hint of manga to it. This is apparent in female faces, making Tallulah Black stand out from the more caricatural faces of Jonah and Dr. Arkham. The longtime "Jonah Hex" supporting character provides Hex' motivation for getting tangled up in the confrontation between the followers of the Religion of Crime and the Court of Owls.

"All-Star Western" is once again forced to provide history for the elements of Batman mythos, but at least in this particular case they've been seeded throughout the series so far. The interesting dynamic between Hex and Arkham continues to provide the spirit of the series, which is particularly apparent in the scenes with Tallulah Black. While certainly a far cry for a historical comic, "All-Star Western" continues to fill in an interesting niche of the DC universe.

The steampunk western series is not without its flaws, as the spotty pace continues in #10. Palmiotti and Grey seem to be fond of chapter breaks, structuring their story so that each arc effectively ends in the middle of the third issue, but the stops and starts sometime prevent the more natural scene transitions. Likewise, the unlikely duo is basically without clear motivations of their own, making them merely agents of someone else's interest. In a story like this, it seems that Hex and Arkham act primarily to appease the interest of the Batman editorial, which prompted the "Night of the owls" tie-in, which is less than ideal, no matter how much the creators try to present their involvement as siding with Tallulah.

In the back-up, the writers are joined by Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez for a story featuring Bat Lash. The smug gambler uses his ten pages to portray himself as a charming rogue, but comes off conceited and obnoxious. The story is merely a sketch trying to carry over the appeal of the character, by escaping the obvious approach of scaring away the new reader with trivia. The longtime western character's unbearable portrayal is hardly going to win him any new fans, but the veteran artist presents the story in clear, lavishly detailed style that makes the most impression on the reader.

The back-up primarily acts to justify the 4$ price tag, but it also seems to be there to justify the title, as the constant riffing on Gotham's history largely prevents the company to feature their cowboy characters similarly to the way they were used in Grey and Palmiotti's previous "Jonah Hex" series.

AQUAMAN #10


Geoff Johns and Ivan Reis continue their second arc on the revived "Aquaman" title with a solid issue, featuring two action sequences that derive most of their intrigue from the uncertain status quo of the "New 52" continuity. Even then, the opening featuring the Operative feels overlong and largely superfluous to the wider plot. The superspy sequence works to introduce the character in the context of the wider "The Others" arc, but it serves largely to prolong Johns' decompressed storytelling. The writer does get around to following up on the last issue's cliffhanger, and the addition to Aquaman's past feels tragic enough to have the character's origin mirror that of some of Marvel's superheroes. Otherwise, the cliffhanger provides the only other important plot point, reminding the reader of the infamously decompressed issues of Brian Bendis' "New Avengers".

On the other hand, Reis' pencills, as inked by Joe Prado and Andy Lenning continually betray a rushed and look that breaks from the more polished look of the series debut. And while DC's schedule necessitates that Reis' layouts fall short of Bryan ("the Ultimates") Hitch's detailed style, there is no such excuse for the clumsy insertion of the one page sequence featuring the supporting characters that stand on the margins of the Aquaman/Black Manta fight. The problematic page both breaks from the visual continuity and disturbs the pacing, once again spotlighting the structural problems of the issue. As a chapter in the wider story arc, illustrating Aquaman's ties to a group of Atlantic superheroes, #10 feels like an entry on par with the ones preceding it. The particularly strong flashback sequence is a definite standout, feeding into the mythology reestablished by Johns and Reis, but otherwise, "Aquaman" continues to be the titles best sampled in collected form.

FLASH #10

The Francis Manapul/Brian Buccellato take on "Flash" continues with another self-contained issue, picking up on the plot thread introduced several issues ago. The book has so far been a solid piece of superhero action, distinguished primarily through Manapul and Buccellato's innovative art. This issue is primarily distinguished by Manapul's absence from the artistic contribution, with Marcus To filling in as the book's penciller. Therefore, a lot of good will directed towards the series is put to the test, as To brings in a standard house style that, coupled with a decidedly sub-par script forces the readers to rethink their commitment to the series.

Is the increasingly strange angle of looking at Speed Force, reminiscent of the mythology of TV's "Lost", coupled with a decent try to reinvent little Flash's Silver Age cast enough to make the audience stick with the book in a crowded marketplace? The weirdly generic plot of the opening "Mob Rule" arc was in many ways elevated by the formal techniques used to provide lush art with innovative layouts. Since then, the story has settled into a pattern of single issues building upon the reestablished mythology, while presenting the creative team's take on Barry Allen's enemies. The final page of #10 strongly implies that the Rogues will be forming a new alliance, but until then the reader is left to judge each issue on its own.

Weather Wizard is a typical example of a gimmick villain that works better as part of a concentrated attack on Flash. The character is primarily defined by his powers, and by merely retaining the color scheme of his costume and his last name, Manapul and Buccellato had a chance for presenting a more innovative take on the character. The creative team ultimately opted to have him as a part of their South America drug cartel story, and it's hard to call the result satisfying.

The creators posit a scenario that is a colorful break from the previous stories, focusing on the Flash's background as the police forensic expert. The problem is that the cold case Barry's girlfriend investigates naturally rejects the superhero elements. The visit to Guatemala and the workings of the crime cartel beg for more space to be fully established, and never really allow for the addition of superpowers on the part of the champions of both sides.

The story is slight enough to be inoffensive, but the relationship between Patty and Barry once again feels strained and unnatural. From the start, its clear that the creators are gearing toward uniting the Flash with his long-time girlfriend and wife Iris, while his strange relationship with Patty, feels perenially rushed and wrongheaded. At the end, due to the predicament Patty has found herself in, the creators make their over-reliance on the girlfriend hostage trope a story point, but there's little doubt that Manapul and Buccellato are using the situation merely to get Barry together with Iris, who is herself still trapped in the science fictional prison from the previous arc.

I VAMPIRE #10

Following the "Rise of Vampires" crossover with "Justice League Dark", the Joshua Hale Fialkov and Andrea Sorrentino are free to follow their own plots on "I, Vampire". The leisurely paced title is a rare DC book with a more personalized art style, and while Sorrentino's pages routinely feel like they follows Jae ("the Sentry") Lee's example, the highly contained minimalism adds up to a whole that feels like a rare genuinely creator-driven book in the line-up.

Amusingly, Fialkov starts the story by a conversation between Andrew's allies and their captors, the Van Helsing sect. The scene carries to the fight between Andrew and Mary, juxtaposed by the continuing dialogue between the professor and the vampire hunters' leader. The color coded caption boxes act to help keep the two apart, but the voices inevitably get confused by the reader, while sapping the vampire fight from most of it's impact.

The one saving grace is that he philosophical confrontation gets refreshingly high minded, despite the familiar arguments seen on both sides. Both the professor and the cult leader are human bystanders forced to react to the vampire threat. That the fanatical Van Helsings ultimately decide to attack Bennett's servants comes as little surprise, but at least their plan does provide for an interesting cliffhanger.

Mary's comments remind the reader that her former lover has amassed a lot of power following the crossover, but Fialkov and Sorrentino shy away from any of the more traditional displays associated with the idea. In the end, #10 is but an early chapter in the new arc, yet it reminds the readers that the title posits a welcome diversion in the bloated superhero line, while avoiding the trap of taking itself too seriously.

JUSTICE LEAGUE #10

Geoff Johns and Jim Lee continue "the Villain's Journey" with another issue of set-up, further elaborating the enemy's origin and reasons for attacking the League. Several issues in, Graves is still a cipher with ill-defined powers and a generic character design. Interestingly, a similar complaint could be made for the creative team's reinterpretation of Darkseid, but Jack Kirby's master-villain's very presence and the allusion to the wider Fourth World setting added some gravitas to what was otherwise a generic alien invasion plot.

"Villain's journey" was preceded by couple issues of prologue setting up the scope of the League five years from the events of the first arc. Following the artistic fill-ins, Jim Lee returned to start the story in earnest, but despite the artist trying his best to define DC's house style at it's strongest, the story still feels off-kilter. Expanding on the world of the League to present their organization in a slightly more realistic manner is a welcome change, but having them as the target of a madman's morbid revenge scheme still feels forced and misguided.

Keeping the roster stable, Johns maintains his grip on the characterization, with DC's heroes maintaining their individual identity other than their powers, as well as something resembling believable relationships between each other. The villain's command of mystical forces plays upon this to visualize some of their anxieties, but the scenario still feels like it suffers from being rooted in horror other than science fiction. With the torture of Steve Trevor, who is arguably the emotional center of this second arc, the plot hints at being inspired by crime fiction revenge stories, which certainly provides a unique look at the League.

Meanwhile, the Gary Frank drawn "Shazam" back-up continues its own slow development, this time providing merely a single complete scene and the first half of another. Once again, Johns couples character based writing around the severe renovation of a superhero property, but it's still too early to judge whether the company has found a sustained take on the Golden Age superhero.

DC was quick to shy away from Jeff ("Bone") Smith's 2007 take on the original "Captain Marvel", but at this point its uncertain how long will it take for Johns/Frank to tell their first story with the character. Frank both pencils and inks his pages, resulting in thick lines depicting gritty surroundings along with expressive faces of these characters, in line with the general approach of recreating the modern fairy tale in today's surroundings.

Contrasting the altruism of Billy's foster parents with Dr. Sivana's mad dash for power, the children wind up being the most nuanced characters. This is fitting a story told from the point of view of a child, and while the creative team have barely begun their work on Shazam, the story still provides a grounded counterpoint to the relatively traditional modern day superheroics of the main feature.

JUSTICE LEAGUE DARK #10

"Justice League Dark" presents the second chapter of "the Black room", Jeff ("Animal Man", "Essex County") Lemire's introductory story designed to re-position DC's supernatural superhero title more in line with the book it notionally spins off. In doing so, Lemire tries to distance the book from its origins in the "Flashpoint: Secret Seven" mini-series, but still largely continues most of Peter ("Shade the Changing Man", "X-Statix") Milligan's set up and characterization.

Forcing the characters in conflict with Justice League's handler Steve Trevor and ARGUS does hint at a concrete direction, but it still feels arbitrary and wholly dependent on the reader's nostalgia for seeing the Vertigo characters reintegrated into the DC superhero line. Having Lemire write the series following his success on "Animal Man" is a sound idea, but the editorial might have just given him an assignment that is almost impossible to be made to work.

Given a single character, the writer was able to find a singular focus and build on his publishing history in a way that largely feels fresh and invigorating. Continuing on as the writer on a book featuring the mix of the characters that have little in common except for skirting the line between horror and superhero is definitely something else. Mikel Janin provides the same solidly rendered figures, but his work still lacks the personal touch needed to truly distinguish the book.

Thus, "Justice League Dark" solely depends on the reader's interest in seeing long time Vertigo tropes such as the House of Mystery and the Books of magic, rendered in a more literal way, in line with the protagonists once again existing as mystical heroes side by side Flash and Superman. Lemire keeps Constantine at the forefront of the team in order to help the audience grasp the elusive appeal of the title.

The current issue basically slows down the plot with heavy exposition, as the team settle in what appears to be their new base of operations. Lemire and Janin continue to prop up Madame Xanadu to deliver the same apocalyptic prophecy that the team was supposedly put together to prevent. The book sticks to Deadman's portrayal as a womanizer and the least knowledgeable in the arts of arcane, but it's much different to get any kind of reading on characters like Zatanna, Dr. Mist and Black Orchid.

They are fairly familiar superhero archetypes, defines primarily by their powers, and do little more than fill up the line-up, while the team collectively hurry after the McGuffin. Mystical superheroes were always a hard sell, but in a market that cannot support a "Dr. Strange" title, a generic team made up by characters that have continually failed to win over the audience's attention can scarcely hope to except to stick around indefinitely, not unless the creative team come up with a much stronger presentation.

THE MIGHTY THOR #16

"The Marelock", Matt Fraction and Pepe Larraz's storyline reaches the penultimate issue, which serves its purpose by setting up the stage for the final showdown between Thor and the two simultaneous attacks on Asgardia. Stranded between two more important storylines, "the Marelock" feels subdued and unwieldy. There is no real connection between Enchantress' plan to use Donald Blake's anxieties and the plan of ancient enemies of the Norse realm, except that they threaten Blake's superheroic other half.

The problems regarding Don Blake's role in "Thor" arise from JMS writing him back in the story and exiting the title before he came close to realizing the inherent potential. Therefore, any kind of use Fraction finds for the character a positive for the series overall, even as it speaks against Marvel's strategy of having the new scribe continue the previous story, no matter how unwieldy. Following "Fear Itself", Fraction seemed to have finally reshaped the setting in a way fit for the stories he wanted to tell with the character, which judging from "Marelock" still comes off as a creative compromise.

Having gone through the ordeal of returning Loki as his younger self and killing and resurrecting Thor, the writer still struggles to portray him as anything other than a noble hero with father issues. Moreover, recasting Asgardia as the capital city of the Nine Realms, led by a democratic council of female archetypes, the story still reads like a typical issue of the superhero title. The hero beset by a magical presence that leads him to a dream-like reality is almost a subgenre by itself, and in 2012, it takes five issues to play out. The scope is justified by the parallel plot and the impromptu supporting cast, consisting of various victims possessed as the enemy advances on to the World Tree.

It's difficult to really appreciate each of the plot strands, as they advance marginally before tying together at the end. So far, the Faustian gamble Don Blake makes with the Enchantress has mainly played out as a weird tangent for the character, with a heavy dose of black humor. As of #16, a clear villain arises from the duo's dealings, dubbed Fort by Fraction, who will hopefully find a way to use him as something more than a blackguard to be dispatched by Thor starting next issue. The relationship between him and Enchantress hints at being perverse, but is at this point fairly standard when it comes to the genre.

And while Fraction sets up a new villain as a replacement for Executioner, the immediate plot concerns the supporting cast finding a way to deal with the change Thor has gone through thanks to a new addition to the collective dreaming. The Deconsecrator seems like a typical early "Spawn" villain, but his origins stem from a Mountain Goats song parodying the relationship a couple of small-town teenagers have with death metal. When you have the successful writer going out of his way to dramatize an underground satiric song as a Marvel superhero story while he struggles with JMS' set up of Asgard coexisting with a fictional mid-western town, it's easy to dismiss the whole of "Marelock" as merely a placeholder while the company prepares the upcoming crossover with "Journey into Mystery".

Larraz' slick, caricatural arc goes a long way to providing a stylistic continuity to the work of Pasqual Ferry and to a lesser extent Olivier Coipel, making the decompressed story at least easy enough to parse. The biggest indictment is reserved for the cover, featuring the work of Walt Simmonson, whose unparalleled innovation turned "Thor" into a successful fantasy title that transcended Lee and Kirby's superhero origins. Unfortunately, ever since the writer/artist's historic run, the title has floundered with the basic foundation, birthing a series of successive takes that failed to catch on in a major way. Despite his efforts, and the acclaim garnered for the "Ages of Thunder" oneshots, as well as the relative success of the Thor-centric "Feart Itself" crossover, Matt Fraction has struggled to make a permanent mark on the title. Issue 16 is a perfect example of the way he tries to construct the story that will please both himself and the Marvel editorial.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Wayne Shelton 5 - Vengeance

The first of Thierry Cailleteau's "Wayne Shelton" stories closes with "Vengeance", showing the reader precisely the difference the script makes in a Christian Denayer pencilled story. The writer starts with the exposition, bringing the reader up to speed with the events of the preceding album. Using the new character, another of Shelton's longtime military friends, as the recipient of the overlong plot explanation goes a long way to setting up the tone of the story. Contrasting the previous album's Vietnamese survivors with an insurance agent reflects directly to the plot, showing that the protagonist no longer wants to stop his nemesis, but dismantle his criminal empire in tow.

Until he's hatched his scheme, Shelton has to rely on Honesty and Larkin, his friend's former butler, that has slowly established himself as an integral part of the series. There is nothing much to the character so far, except for his being a good humored British gentleman, more advanced in age than Shelton, and quite happy to help. Honesty's role is again supportive, with Shelton's lover disappearing for dozens of pages only to show up for a night of love making before Shelton's confrontation with Hooker certainly won't endear the series to female readers. Yet, even though the character plays no part in the final strike against the villain that was two volumes in the making, she remain the only character Shelton is compelled to be completely honest with, and who gets to ask him the relevant questions concerning the morality of her actions.

An interesting plot point regarding her own age gets picked up in a discussion and dropped immediately. Volker, Shelton's friend working for Lloyd's insurance indicates that they have been together for at least 15 years, which would make misses Goodness likewise on the cusp of the middle age. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Denayer's depiction of her, with the artist depicting Wayne's old flame as hardly a day over 30. This is consistent with Luis Chuelpas' character designed that sported similar problems regarding individuality. The character resurfaces for a brief role that goes a long way to elevating bluntness of his previous portrayal, but once again serves to confuse the readers.

The character's now highly muscular body completely breaks away from his previous relaxed disposition, which serves to once again pull the reader out of the story. Yet, most of the story's problems seem to do fall on Cailleteau's part, as his complicated plot requires the characters to twist and contort their morality as fitting the scene and the point the writer wants to make. With Honesty's help, Shelton tracks down one of Hooker's accomplices, but the brutality he displays in the confrontation far exceeds his objective. The elderly weapons maker is at best a third party contact, making the protagonist's behavior thuggish and dissonant. The question of morality that rears its head in the final act likewise appears superficial, considering that Wayne himself dispatches Hooker's bodyguards without a single thought.

In Cailleteau's script, its completely normal that the protagonist slices through the hired help simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, yet he opposes Chuelpas taking Miss Yoon's life when she could be of assistance for tracking her boss. More immediately, the long monologue Shelton engages in while he himself confronts Hooker's right hand almost manages to stop the story cold. Having the hero and villain discuss the number of shots fired in regards to the ammunition remaining in the chamber is a common enough trope, but to have the protagonist launch in a diatribe regarding the specific make of his weapon is so surreal that it almost borders on parody.

Unexpectedly, half through the second volume, the writer raises the stakes and re-contextualizes some of the previously seen events regarding Hooker's pirate operation. The complicated scheme involves two different Jakartan computer firms, and revolvers around the data Volker was hiding from the insurance company. Shelton picks up on the opportunity and uses the situation to not only locate Hooker's whereabouts, but to formulate the concrete plan which will help him deal with the war criminal by turning his associates against him.

Unfortunately, for the complicated plot to work, Cailleteau has to continually keep slowing down the story, introducing complex corporate manoeuvring at the last possible moment. The results may be more realistic than the typical "Die Hard" action scenario, but the road the creators took to get there leaves much to be desired. Effecting a false double cross using a crooked secretary might seem innovative, but it betrays the set up of the previous volume, relegating it as merely the back story behind Hooker and Shelton's army days. Likewise, Wayne's motivations automatically assumes that he was profoundly shaken by the conclusion of "the Survivor", which serves to justify his every action in the follow-up.

Despite the creators' insistence, it's hard to accept "Vengeance" as a separate story detailing Hooker's current operation. The broad characterization and the heavy focus on the plot ultimately still end up with the final act feeling rushed and he too easy, with epilogue that further seems tacked on and unnecessary. Shelton's complete confidence no matter the complications make it hard to really empathize with the character's emotional state. It's never in doubt that he'll have his revenge on Hooker, who remains a one-dimensional villain, making for a story that seems all too familiar and redundant.

When Cailleteau started, he set out to write what seemed to be a definite "Wayne Shelton" story, pitting the character's Vietnam war past with his status as a present day independent operative, but somewhere in "Vengeance" the characterization made way for plot mechanics, and the story never recovered. It's strange to find out that the conclusion actually works against the merits of the first part of the story, but Cailleteau and Denayere have definitely managed to present Dargaud with an effort that on the whole seems subpar compared to Van Hamme's introductory albums.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Wayne Shelton 4 - the Survivor

"The Survivor" is the fourth album in Dargaud's "Wayne Shelton" series, and the first volume fully scripted by Thierry Cailleteau. Once again pencilled by Christian Denayer, the story is designed as a two-parter, extrapolating on Wayne's tour of duty in Vietnam. By picking up the obvious story point, the new scribe is working more or less in the same vein as a lot of the early "Punisher" stories, with a piece of unfinished business coming back to haunt the veteran in the present day.

Shelton's Asian girlfriend is nowhere to be seen, with the creator reestablishing Honesty Goodness as Shelton's partner. Sandra's unceremonious exit from the series is relegated to a couple of panels, and even those are used to further define the leads. The story opens with a high society fundraising attempt serving to introduce the pair to new readers, as well as provide the inciting incident for the story as a whole. Thus, the ceremony is predictably disturbed by an outside force, in this instance a modern hippie wanting desperately to get in touch with Shelton.

The hostility Wayne shows the character is once again as surprising as its sudden, but the protagonist decides to listen to the plea for help. Denayer's character design communicates a broad portrayal of a wild haired male, whose youthful recklessness is supposed to be symbolized by his T-shirt. Despite the characters continually alluding to the Cannabis symbol on Chulepas' shirt, it's clear that the script calls for a more youthful, and immediately more despicable type, than what Denayer shows us. When the closest pop cultural archetype your shifty loser hues to is of an elderly hippie scientist, clearly there is a case to be made against such cardboard characterization.

More importantly, Chulepas reminds Wayne of a particular episode in his military career, which prompts a two pronged flashback. Despite showing a much more traditionally heroic Shelton, the creators use these pages to set up the villain of the two-parter as a completely irredeemable wild dog. Hooker is presented as cunning and ruthless, involving Wayne and his squad in the drug-running CIA operation, and forging an enmity that lasts for decades. In the mean time, the slobbish war criminal has made a life for himself as a pirate in Indonesia, which is the designated exotic locale of the story.

Most interestingly, Chulpas hints that Wayne's own son is calling for his help against Hooker, and if anything, the album revolves around the relationship between the two. For a start, Shelton is unaware of having sired any illegitimate children while in Vietnam, with revenge being his primary goal for flying to Jakarta. Honesty's role is a much more fleeting one, as she plays the role of the girlfriend with whom the protagonist reconciles. Even then, she exits the story before Wayne meets the man claiming to be his son, and is absent during the tragic events that finish out the volume. 

Presumably, Cailleteau is repositioning her to help Shelton in the next album, but at the moment, the crux of "the Survivor" revolves around the Tran, asking Wayne's help in getting out of the prison and having revenge on Hooker. Having a prison break as a major plot point in two of the three stories so far seems repetitive, but Denayer circumvents the problem by portraying a fairly interesting helicopter rescue. As always, each of the vehicles is depicted in high detail, with clear layouts providing an interesting sequence executed from the high view.

Yet, the prerequisite action sequences  in "Wayne Shelton" gain most of their impact through character work, with the second half of Shelton's Vietnam flashback serving to set up the connection between him and Tran. As he learned of his origins, the Vietnamese youth has praised Shelton for his altruism, but the rest of his background seems arbitrary and under-worked. It's just assumed that he would seek to destroy Hooker, but there is little to the character besides. Tran is used to underline the distinction between the two Vietnam veterans, who have both continued on as mercenaries. Cailleteau picks up on Van Hamme's lead, but contrasts the morally ambiguous Shelton with far more compromised characters.

Hooker, as depicted by the creative team is a predator in human form, who continues to spread terror, thus making it easy to sympathize with the lengths Tran and Shelton go on to finish his threat once and all. The album closes with a betrayal and a personal loss that paint the protagonist in the corner, forcing him to fight back from the perspective of the underdog. Hooker's female accomplice is likewise depicted as a bloodthirsty sadist, positioning the villains as the complete opposites of Shelton and Honesty. 

Despite the quick pace and a continual string of action sequences, "the Survivor" serves mainly to set up the rivalry, and raise the stakes in such a way that the reader legitimately wants to see the hero triumph, and rid the world of a psychopath that has done so much evil to both himself and the world. With the threat explained and Shelton reminded that the present day Hooker is every bit as ruthless as he was decades ago, the creators have more than justified the great lengths Shelton would go to get his revenge in "Vengeance", the adequately titled follow-up.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Wayne Shelton 3 - the Contract

The third entry in the "Wayne Shelton" series of Franco-Belgian comic albums is a complete story, co-written by Jean Van Hamme, and once again pencilled by Christian Denayer. The departing writer ties up most of the loose ends in a script provided by the new regular writer, Thierry ("Aquablue") Cailleteau. The result is a fairly lighthearted entry in the series, that provides a genre rarity - an actual attempt at closure following the deaths of the secondary characters, while providing a genuine threat for the protagonist.

In many ways, "the Contract" is a holdover from the previous two-parter, albeit with a distinctively more modern bent. The new characters rely heavily on the use of computers, which nicely contrasts with Shelton's more traditional skill set. The Vietnam war veteran following a code of honor helps flesh out the world the story takes place in, and slowly introduces the idea that he has a price on his head. Wayne's changes the locale with each of these visits, that the creators also use to provide for well choreographed action scenes, never forgetting that the series is first and foremost an international spy drama. The protagonist is clued in to the nature of the threats on his life by an unorthodox police detective, the technologically savvy Sandra Luan.

There is some visual confusion when it comes to her character, as Denayer's introduction to the female detective looks very similar to Wayne's on/off girlfriend Honesty. The script establishes her as Oriental, but the character design the artist has chosen to employ differs from Honesty primarily by the nature of her hairstyle. Otherwise, Sandra plays a strange role in the volume, falling for Shelton's roguish charm in a set of circumstances that could only happen in an actioneer. Thankfully, the creators present her as being both smart and resourceful, but interestingly, they choose to sideline her for the latter part of the story. By effectively removing her from the most interesting part of the story, the creators opt to return the focus on the intimate motives of the villain.

By bringing back Horace Quayle, Shelton's employer from the previous story whom the protagonist have very definitely punished for aborting the mission and endangering his team's lives, the creative team must have been aware that they were employing the most common of adventure story cliches. Returning the villain from a certain death always strains the suspension of disbelief, but to do it so soon after his demise could mean only two things. It could be understood that Van Hamme was simply tying up a loose end as he was departing for the story he co-created, but it was more likely a simple case of the creative team not willing to depart from the good villain so soon after his introduction.

As depicted in "the Contract", Qualye's already failing health is being artificially continued in an expensive Romanian locale, meaning that he is quite literally living only to take revenge on Shelton and the remaining members of his original team. As a story, the album thrives on its villain, even including a very interesting story locale for the final showdown. Trapping Wayne in a building that is about to be demolished is something that is unlikely to be easily replicated in a movie, and the creators combine it nicely with the technological aspect of the story.

Unfortunately, Wayne's plan and the execution of the final sequence does feel a bit rushed, with the story ultimately hurting from the protracted first half. More problematically, though, the logistics of the plan once again operate around a very goofy premise that squares off against the relative realism of the plot. Having a more grounded version of James Bond is a pleasant surprise and one of the biggest strengths of the series, but to routinely feature reveals straight out of "Charlie's Angels" does tend to catch the reader unprepared.

The one page epilogue contrasts the strength of the previously established cast against Sandra Luan, and it's hard not to think of her as an unnecessary addition. This is probably why the character hasn't reappeared in Cailleteau's stories following the "the Contract". With the inclusion of Van Hamme's name in the credits, the story ultimately makes it hard to judge the new writer's contribution, but it's nevertheless fun and satisfying.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Wayne Shelton 2 - the Treason

The other half of Jean Van Hamme's opening story concludes with "the Treason", once again pencilled by Christian Denayer (the one constant in the publication of "Wayne Shelton"). The story structure is almost mathematical this time around - with the first 30 pages serving to set up the operation, and the rest split equally to cover the execution of the plan and the attempted getaway. It goes without saying that Shelton's plan fails to cover every eventuality, but the writer executes the story in such a way that the protagonist still manages to improvise and finish the mission on his own terms.

Such a far fetched plot necessitates some naivety, but the creators manage to make most of these scenes charming enough that they continue to entertain. Despite the downbeat ending, "the Treason" never stops being diverting, and as such it absolutely succeeds as escapism. Shelton's plan to infiltrate the ex-Soviet community in order to position himself and his associates never stops being dubious, but it's mostly due to the brevity of their stay. Honesty has clear reasons for spending most of the album in the hospital, but it's Boyadsik the actor who suffers severely from the hurried pace.

For the elderly expatriate to fall in love with the in keeper so quickly and so completely just days after meeting her seems far fetched, even in a story where seemingly every ten pages a truck bursts through a building, causing confusion everywhere. The addition of the character otherwise works to keep the story grounded, and present a civilian perspective.

On the other hand, the assignments that Shelton gives to both Vanko and Honesty count as typical spy fare, albeit still being functional for the purposes of the story. Thus, the copying of a key gets presented in great detail, while some of the more far fetched aspects of assuming another identity get moved to the margins. Most interestingly, Pierre Madrier emerges as a full rounded character, with Van Hamme doing some very interesting work to follow up on the clues left to his identity.

"The Mission" concluded with Honesty finding some seemingly contradictory information regarding the accomplice that has wormed his way into the operation. This next volume sees Madrier as another cog in Shelton's plan, providing the reader with the inside perspective of the prison the group is trying to break into. It comes as no surprise when the independent minded young man reveals his own agenda, which actually humanizes him in the the creators continually avoid when it comes to Lord Belly and Juan the stuntman.

All of these characters act their professional best when the mission finally starts in earnest, but the chief set piece still comes off as a little goofy. Having people masquerading as part of the effort to get someone out of the prison remains a campy trope, no matter the execution. Yet, having Wayne come up with a tactic that frees up the whole prison in the process seems too excessive and calculated primarily to have Denayer come up with impressive visuals.

Wayne's mission is instantly deemed a success, with the only potential setback lying in the getaway. It would be nice to say that the bloodletting that starts and never really lets up until the end of the volume has something to do with Shelton's approach to freeing the prisoners, but there is no evidence to support this in neither the text or the illustrations.

Shelton and Honesty ultimately end up punished through a lack of competence in one of their new allies, and the betrayal on the part of their employers. The latter (ie. the titular treason) is set up in the opening volume, but still comes as a shock to the reader, unsure which of the many variables will come back to trouble the protagonists.

Both the character deaths and the raised stakes feel much more natural than the prison break the whole story revolves around. Except for the slightly off-key sequence involving a sealed off mine, the creators proceed to finish the volume on a somber, if righteous note. The epilogue is as sudden as it is brutal, firmly establishing the main characters as well-trained people willing to forge their own path.

Unfortunately, Van Hamme's involvement with the series vanes following the second album, with his returning only to plot the next volume. It will be almost ten years after he started collaborating with Denayer on the title, that the the reunited on "Wayne Shelton". "The Treason" than is another fine chapter in the adventure series, nicely drawn and nicely paced, that works to round out the introductory two-parter but on it's own doesn't seem as smart as "the Mission".

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Reviews for Wednesday, June 20



DAREDEVIL #14

Mark Waid's "Daredevil" run has started out strong, but has since become somewhat uneven, with the meandering crossover plot and the artistic changes. The distinctive innovative retro stylings have been all but lost in the shuffle, as the "Omega effect" crossover has helped the sales of tie-in books, but at the cost of throwing the critically acclaimed title off balance. With the #12's addition of a new regular artist, it's clear that the editorial has done work to help the beleaguered title.

On the other hand, it's hard to think of Chris Samnee as the regular penciller when Marvel wants to keep putting out multiple issues of the title each month. Taken on its own, Waid and Samnee's latest effort harkens back to the more stable days of the title, by once again playing with science fiction to present a challenge to the hero's powers, and in effect get away from the everlasting shadow the Frank Miller's neo-noir stylings left on the title. Following the issue in which Samnee showed the character going on a date in his civilian identity, his Latverian adventure sees nothing but superhero adventure. Daredevil's in costume throughout, and from the start Waid presents him with a trap he must escape from.

Choosing deliberately to start out "blind", the writer makes the issue a distinct storytelling unit, albeit one that comes with familiar "to be continued" at the end. The issue then centers around Daredevil's coming to terms with the villain's predicament, which tries its best to completely overwhelm him by the issue's end. The classic trope of superhero's powers giving up on him certainly presents a more interesting challenge for a hero whose powers come from his enhanced senses, and Waid seems to delight in narrating Matt's gradual realization. More problematically, the writers also posits a too familiar view of Latveria as a fantasy medieval kingdom with a dark twist.

While this is in keeping with the more traditional superhero approach, it also leaves the character in an underdeveloped setting that is overtly familiar to longtime readers. Using Doctor Doom's banker as the villain might have been inspired had the creative team not opted to depict him as a late 19th century feudal noble, which completely undermines the diverting potential of the economic references. More problematically, Samnee's Daredevil seems unsure and generic, lacking a personalized take.

Always a solid storyteller, the artist manages to get across the nuance in Waid's quirky script, but does little more besides, which is certainly a step down from the work of Rivera and Martin that preceded him. Given time, there is every indication that the artist will get more comfortable with the character and embellish his own style to get the most out of it, but coupled with the fill-in issues necessitated by the accelerated schedule, Marvel has turned "Daredevil" from an artistic showcase to merely an above average superhero title that hints at a greater potential.



PUNISHER #12

Greg Rucka and Marco Chechetto's leisurely paced relaunched "Punisher" series continues in much the same vein, while not picking upon the zombie threat teased at the ending of the previous issue. Once again, the decompressed storytelling results in a competently crafted comic that reads well in larger chunks. On its own, it's a very slight episode, featuring little more than a single scene, as the younger, more modern Punisher confronts his protegee in the fall-out of the "Omega effect" crossover.

Police lieutenants Ozzie and Bolt are kept to the peripherals, yet they use the little time they have to advance the subplot of the older detective's gradual acceptance of his young colleague, as the newly promoted detective finally starts owning up to some of his unprofessional behavior. Rucka also picks up on the Daily Bugle reporter, continuing the development of her relationship with Rachel, which has an interesting dynamic of its own. Norah's role in this chapter is also much more organic than that of the two police officers.

The character confrontations culminate with the fight between Frank and Rachel, which feels somewhat overlong and predicated on a piece of a particularly loaded symbolism. Chechetto's solid, clear work gets overtaken by a particularly intrusive piece of special effects when it gets to the featuring the two characters trading punches in the rain. The resulting sequence is at least a page too long and muddy, which takes away from the intended effect of shock and emotion. When the two characters finally start talking in a close space, Rucka hangs the sequence around a photograph from Rachel's wedding, a prop that has reappeared numerous times since debuting as the series' opening panel.

It makes some sense to have Rucka visualize the object of their quarrel, seeing as how the comics are a graphic medium, but the execution falls short of memorable. Thankfully, by the time the sequence has ended the two characters have come to the beginning of a new phase in their relationship, which has so far served as the emotional core of the series.



VENOM #19


Rick Remender's concluding arc on "Venom" is still building up to a crescendo, as co-writer Cullen Bunn presents a particularly tense issue. In the year and a half since the title's debut, the series has lost both it's original penciller and it remains to be seen how much longer it will maintain the presence in the market following Remender's exit. The original "Fables" artist Lan Medina gives a more representational look to the grim and gritty series, while losing some of Tony Moore's nuance when it comes to black humor. The over the top moments are still there, but his Toxin-possessed Eddie Brock feels much cruder and uncertain than some of the apparitions Moore designed in the series' entries to the "Circle of Four" crossover.

Plot-wise, this could be seen as a controversial issue, as it revolves around the Venom's relationship with Crime Master endangering the women in his life. Once again, the Spider-Man parallels are inevitable, with the writers going so far to underline the spin-off aspect of Flash Thompson's adventures by calling back at perhaps the worst tragedy in the life of Marvel's wall-crawler. It's entirely in their hands how much the execution will grate against some of the most controversial genre tropes.

Thankfully, the result is on par with the best issues of the title. There is not much to say about the issue in which Flash/Venom is still reacting to his enemies plan to punish him for insubordination, except that it hints at most of Remender's plots being tied up by the end of the "Savage Six" arc, while making progressing the character in order to leave Bunn with a foundation for a new direction that will hopefully continue to be supported by the fan base.



WALKING DEAD #99

The penultimate issue until the milestone #100 is decidedly an understated affair. With news of record breaking orders of the next issue, the present effort seems largely overshadowed and perfunctory. Simply put, Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard present another in a long line of issues that minimally advance the plot, while continuing the character subplots. All that happens in Walking dead #99 is that Rick and his friends plan their next move and head out once again, while mourning their loss from the previous issue.

Thus, the reader is focused to ponder Kirkman's propensity for seemingly randomly killing off major characters. That the cast has always consisted of characters that worked to a different degree of success in regards to the series was always a given. By killing another alpha male vying for dominance, it's tempting to say that the creators have subconsciously once again reasserted Rick's role of the protagonist. It seems almost indecent to note that with Rick freed of the shackles of family and the attempt of a relationship outside the core group of survivors, his taking up with Andrea seems almost logical.

The character has come a long way from the leader of the small band of stragglers, and has almost become an ends justify the means usurper that disrupts the order of the larger communities and uses his hardened stance to assert himself as an authority on everywhere he goes. This thuggish side of the character is largely depicted as a tragedy out of necessity, but his continued survival means that the creative team have to continually challenge him, while trying to effect sympathy from the existing audience.

Kirkman and Adlard have time and again introduced other characters as possible leaders that could ensure that Rick steps down from responsibility and settles down into the role of the father, but they have continually proven unstable and ill suited next to the series' protagonist. This strange dynamic is arguably the most interesting thing about "Walking Dead", and it remains to be seen how the creators plan to develop the character.

Obviously, having Andrea die and Rick advanced to begin a relationship with Michonne, while he becomes the leader of yet another larger community would not be the creatively most interesting outcome. In the meantime, Kirkman and Adlard produce yet another readable issue, most interestingly contrasting Rick and Andrea's first attempts at living together with the plight of Glenn and pregnant Maggie, as well as another local couple. Outside of these attempts at poignancy by these people who must go on with their lives in spite of the constant sense of life threatening danger, there is little new to discuss.

Charlie Adlard continues drawing both the melodramatic and the horror elements with equal precision, professionally going about the assignment at a fast pace, and Kirkman continues to tease the climatic break from the fortified community in which Rick and his people have spent the last several years of publication. With the advent of the anniversary issue, big chances are liable to be visited upon the series, which is viable to shake up the status quo and introduce new characters and come up with the new roles for the existing cast.


WONDER WOMAN #10

Brian Azzarello concludes the three-parter involving Wonder Woman's debt to Hades from the previous arc. DC's insistence on "New 52" titles sticking to the regular schedule means that the issue has two pencillers, but Kano and Tony Akins styles adjust enough to provide for a unified experience. The drab atmosphere suits the fantasy/horror premise of the series, while paradoxally clashing with Hades as established in the previous issue.

Some of the playfulness has been lost in the transition between pencillers, which is not mitigated by all the fighting that goes on following Wonder Woman's decision to escape her wedding in the Netherworld. As always, the character designs for these version of Greek gods are the visually most interesting part of the book, but at this point it can be safely said that for all of their observed storytelling, the fill in artists still lack when compared to the flair in the work of the regular penciller Cliff Chiang.

Azzarello's Wonder Woman remains as resourceful and enigmatic as ever, but for all the effort she still remains little but the reader identification figure in this strange and wonderful world. At one point the writer hints at the special attributes of Lennox, but his two companions get little more than the complimentary dialogue to remind the reader they were there. Despite the brevity of the issue, the creators finish on a nice sequence liable to make the reader satisfied with what has been a slow building, but certainly one of the most consistent titles of the DCU relaunch.

WINTER SOLDIER #7

Interestingly, the Ed Brubaker spin-off title "Winter Soldier" has actually improved following the first storyline. With Butch Guice gone for the duration, the writer has followed up on Bucky and Black Widow's adventures with Michael Lark. One of the writer's original "Captain America" artists, Lark offers a completely different dynamic than the heavily atmospheric Guice. The resulting dynamic, here in its second issue actually makes for a better story, if familiar to the long time readers of Brubaker's take on the mythos.

With "Broken Arrow", the writer is actually developing a similar dynamic to the one in the "Captain America" that this title is spinning-off from, with an opposite number villain being a figure from the character's violent past. So far, both of the antagonists have little to show in way of actual character, but at least in "Winter Soldier" Leo Novokov does manage to bring the best out of both Bucky and Brubaker. After the slow start, the issue starts picking up with an extended sequence designed to streamline Black Widow's updated origin.

Redefining the character as Bucky's girlfriend might seem insensitive, but at least in this instance, the writer never stops showing Natasha as a strong and fully capable woman. The character was introduced as a supporting player and has historically been largely remembered due to the association with Daredevil, for the brief time that the two characters shared cover billing while relocated to San Francisco. Recreating a similar dynamic with Bucky, involved perhaps the largest Marvel retcon in a decade, explaining that Captain America's original sidekick survived WW2 as a brainwashed Soviet assassin, but in that framework the relationship works.

On the other hand, the new connection of the two characters didn't necessitate that the character specifically mentions some of the details of her previous origin as memory implants. The brief reference not only disparages previous creators work, but more importantly, it takes the reader out of the story. Thankfully, Brubaker paces his work so well that there is otherwise hardly a wrong beat in the entire, well structure scenario. Starting on the next page, the reader is treated to a fantastic spy action scene, phenomenally choreographed by Michael Lark.

The whole of this sequence is basically a blueprint for making superbly crafted action comics, as Lark maintains the sense of place and dynamic while changing the point of view. Despite the characters being highly capable operatives, suspense never lets up and the creators carry the reader through what could have been yet another familiar ticking clock situation. It feels earned even when the creators unambiguously compare the sequence with Bucky's original Silver Age demise, itself a retcon. Having a sense of pride over the moment that is quite clearly the best executed sequence in the title so far merely identifies Brubaker and Lark as creators who take pride in their good work.

The closing sequence exists to tease the next issue and underline the importance of the Widow's flashback. Once again, Brubaker underlines Natasha's importance to the title and rises the stakes in a way that seems natural and organic. Gone are the motivations built around Latverian cyborgs and nuclear weapons, as Ed Brubaker finds that at least one of the Soviet agents of the opening arc was too many. Looking at "Black Arrow" so far, a single one was more than enough to cause serious problems for Bucky and Natasha.

More importantly, with the title finding its own identity as a post Cold War spy epic, there is no need to return to Super-Apes and Doctor Doom once Butch Guice returns to the art. This level of assured, confident storytelling should be enough to assure the fans to stick with the title.

Wayne Shelton 1 - the Mission

In 2001, the longtime "XIII" scribe has negotiated a deal with Dargaud, to have the publisher invest in the new spy actioneer along similar lines. Illustrated by Christian Denayer, "the Mission" both looked and read like a "XIII" album, but with some clear differences. For a start, Jean Van Hamme begins his story as a detective mystery, divorced of the trappings of global conspiracy and Cold War intrigue. The titular Wayne Shelton is a veteran soldier turned realist, hired to put together a team of mercenary friends in order to fulfill a mission in regards to corporate interests. That his financiers come from France instead of America seems almost an afterthought, as the work derives most of its aesthetic from cinematic excesses and crime novel inspired plots. Yet, it's the distinction that makes the strongest impression on the new reader.

Wayne Shelton himself of course isn't French, but his creators are, and that's what makes all the difference. At one point, the late 40s protagonist specifically mentions Steven Spielberg's "Indiana Jones" movies as part of a ploy to get a new acquaintance to join his group of specialists. By inviting the comparison, Van Hamme deliberately poses his narrative as that of a more nuanced genre work, something that doesn't wear its influences on the sleeve. A more apt comparison would be to "James Bond" movies, with the chief difference being that Van Hamme and Denayer employ an ensemble cast to achieve the objective.

It's telling that of all of Shelton's military friends, the protagonist remains the most brutish, albeit genuinely likable. The opening scenes featuring Shelton in a trench coat did bode for a one-note characterization, but thankfully the creators sidestep that approach in favor of something a bit more interesting. As presented, Shelton is well connected when it comes to operating in the Middle East and the former Soviet republics, and the introductory volume serves mainly to set up the mission which takes place in the second volume, concluding Van Hamme's original proposal.

The introductory volume thus roughly corresponds to for the first hour of an action movie, with Van Hamme plotting a dense story that still manages to maintain tension throughout. The veteran scribe starts off with a tense scene followed by the expository dialog, a common technique, but even then the "XIII" creator is careful to provide some diversion so as to avoid page after page of tedious background information. The writer continues in a similarly lively fashion, depicting the characters charming their way through numerous potentially dangerous situations, only resorting to their fists when they have no other choice. For a world weary adventure story featuring a band of mercenaries, "the Mission" is decidedly restrained, while still teasing a messy showdown in the next volume.

Thus, after the protagonist gets his orders, most of the volume is taken up by his approaching new and former specialists, while gathering the team to go to the fictional Kalakchistan. As for the immediate drama, the creators pick up on one of Shelton's friends and use his middle Eastern predicament to provide for a diversion. Lord Bellie is certainly an interesting character, in that he maintains the English nobleman facade even though he has long since become a smuggler and a grifter like the rest of his friends. The creators steer off from going too far into camp, following Bellie's debut with a scene which serves to give the reader some concrete information on Shelton's background, while stealthily setting up a new addition to Shelton's crew.

Despite the bluster, "Wayne Shelton" is a comic that thrives on details, and the complicated set-up still manages to be entertaining and genuinely smart the whole way through. On the surface, each of Shelton's associates is a familiar genre archetype, such as a smuggler turned bordello owner, but the creators still manage to make them seem fresh individual. Except for the movie stunt-man that gets little more than a cameo appearance, Shelton's associates strike an interesting dynamic. Most interestingly, the sole female of the group, Honesty Goodness (a tongue in cheek name if there ever was one) enters the story as a stage magician that humors his ruggedness for the sole purpose of avoiding boredom.

Compared to the overweight Kalahar pleasure den owner, the flirty Honesty provides more than comic relief, and does more than play into the archetype. As unlikely as it seems, following Wayne himself, the gorgeous ms. Goodness is the closest the series gets to a fully fleshed out character. More often than not, Shelton himself seems just like a walking series of cliches, but there is a genuine attempt at characterization on the part of the creators. Sidestepping his genre-requirement street smarts and the ability to put together an international operation, Shelton's instant enmity to his client's secretary does seem like interesting in that he never stops with the hostility. Likewise, his smooth talking an expatriate Kalakchistan actor does seem contrary to Shelton's no nonsense attitude, but this, along with the hint of age creeping up on Shelton at least work toward rounding him out as a more realistic character.

As for the presentation, Denayer offers a more traditional comic book style than somewhat rigidly realistic Vance on "XIII". The artist still relies heavily on research for the setting and vehicles, but his characters are much less static and seem don't appear to be photo referenced. That kind of spontaneity animates the character designs, which are designed so clearly and distinctively that they wouldn't be out of place in the better known series. Most effectively, Van Hamme breaks up some of the longer scenes with a last panel establishing shot that works against the cohesiveness of the individual page, but helps with the pacing. Just seeing the story cutting away to an interesting new location mid page works to keep the reader interested and unable to put the book down.

And while the mix of real world settings and fictionalized locales does serve to remind the reader of some of the troubling simplifications made in all too many of the underwritten actioneers, only a particularly gung-ho scene featuring the escape from a orientalist gang lord particularly grates of working in tropes so broad so as to approach self parody. Otherwise, "the Mission" remains a well told, competently put action comic that does more than enough to entertain the reader and set up the sequel that completes the protagonist's introduction to the world of Franco-Belgian comics.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Change of direction and the value of the protracted Second Act (PART FOUR)

The decades of creator-owned comics in America have shown us the stories that actively break from the conventional superhero standards. Characters would die and stay dead ("Hellboy"'s Roger the Homunuclus), they were allowed to have a definite victory over the chief villain ("Fables"), with the creators capable of completely changing the setting and the cast in a way that felt much more realistic ("Walking dead"). Even when it came to superhero titles, Paul Grist's "Union Jack" displayed a confident, well paced storytelling that functioned in a much more organic way, without the clunky narration that supposedly shed a light on the impossible to relate characters.

At the very same time, the creators faced an uphill battle when their own fan base objected to some of their own creative decisions. Breaking away from the iconic team of the original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, to supplant their pulp adventures with metafictional encyclopedias? It was a choice that only the biggest of Alan Moore's fans actively supported, and even then it's doubtful that they enjoyed the results in quite the same way. Moore and O'Neill's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" appeared in 1999 and quickly filled the pop cultural niche established by Philip Jose Farmer and more specifically Kim Newman, with a group of characters that seemed perfectly poised to explore the darker side of the Victorian fictions. A simple, easily understandable idea around which the creators framed a world of allusions and references to literature both obscure and ambitious.

It's easy to understand how the creators ended up having the movie optioned even before the production of the first issue was complete. This is also how the project ended up being exempt from the Wildstorm/DC buying the rights on all of Moore's ABC imprint. These were experimental books launched by high caliber artists in a very peculiar moment for the industry. It's somewhat understandable that the publisher would wanted some control over the work it was paying the freelancers in advance. Alan Moore's relationship being historically strained with DC, it was understandable that the arrangement was not to prove lasting.

When he finally severed ties with the company, the writer was under obligation to complete the work on the new entry in the series, 2007's the infamous "Black Dossier". The resulting collaboration proved tumultuous, and he once again parted ways with the publisher, vowing never to work for them again. As for the ABC books, the rights to all of them stayed with DC, with "the League" being the sole exception, due to its creator owned status being decided upon before the project was officially brought to Wildstorm/DC. Yet, judging the content of "Black Dossier", it's not difficult to at least understand some of the publisher's qualms. They were paying creators to create highly experimental content, to be produced on varying paper stock, including a 3D section and even a playable record, all the while completely breaking from the well received format of the first two "League" mini-series.

Moore was vocal about breaking from the set-up that he felt being detrimental creatively in the long run, but what supplanted it was both hard to read and even harder to like. Seeing Allan Quartermain and Mina Murray break character and go on a madcap chase, while behaving like a pair of sexually obsessed teenagers seemed largely to confirm solely to the creator's own views on entertainment. That they were losing control of the setting, which was progressively turning into a popular culture an-joke between the two creators. Yet, most problematic of all, the work retained very little of character and energy of the original. Turning a character-centric series into an interactive essay on the nature of fiction was certainly familiar to the fans of Alan Moore's "Promethea", but the "League" was a much more accessible and beloved work before the creators gave in to indulge their every whim.

With "Century", the succeeding third official volume of "the League", the project has managed to emerge back into the realm of comic books it seemed largely disinterested with in the "Black Dossier" compendium, but the result was still problematic. Working for the new publisher assuaged the creator's fears of escaping any kind of censorship, but it's hard to read the pages and not compare it to the original work. It seems that by elaborating on the idea of using existing characters to recreate a superhero universe  adventures in Victorian London and taking it to its extreme end was basically the change of direction that few can truly appreciate. It boils down to the reader trusting Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's taste almost despite their better judgment.

And while certainly, having each phase of the property's life being a story on its own, with its own set of goals and underpinning philosophy, there is also much to be said in exploring an idea to the limits of its potential. By treating the Victorian incarnation of the League as the purely introductory phase of a much wider concept, the creators seemed to benefit with the increased Moore's move from the ABC line allowed them. By focusing all of his comics writing on the "League", the writer felt like he should enjoy the new found freedom and craft the story that he himself would be delighted to read. And certainly, a sizable part of his own audience followed. But, recreating the concept from the ground up would also mean supplanting its initial appeal with an equally likable version of the property, which is simply something that hasn't happened.

Moore and O'Neill may be free to delight in the knowledge that as two veterans of the medium, they are finally reminded of the freedom that comes with no restrictions, but it's doubtful that anyone would want to make a movie based on the versions of the League shown in "Century". Certainly, the core thematic focus on the work is the changing role of the heroic fiction in the modern world, but the movie adaptation, and moreover, the concept that it tried to bring over to the wider audience perception, depended on a particularly appeal group of characters that are nowhere to be found again in the creators' subsequent work.

The sexual frolics the estranged Mina and utterly unrecognizable Allan seem to enjoy with the obnoxious Orlando almost seem to mirror the creators' own attitude to a much liked property. The thoughtful combination of pulp tropes and borrowed characters has given a way to a plot that brings together the fictional versions of Aleister Crowley, focused on recreating the magician's novel "Moonchild" through the open world of the League. Where once the Victorian incarnation of the team lived through their own version of the events of H. G. Wells' "War of the Worlds", they are now rampaging through their writer's favorite occult literature, while poised to make a broader commentary on the declining quality of the cultural imagination.

Having a valid point to make is a chief philosophical underpinning of any serious work of art, but judging the history of the "League", it's almost certain that most of its audience would have been happier to enjoy Moore's intellectual accomplishments in his other projects. Leaving the Victorian League in the perpetual Second Act might have been creatively dry on a deeper level, but proceeding to detail some of their related adventures in text form in the back matter of the second mini-series and "the Black Dossier", in order to free the upcoming volumes to be first and foremost Alan Moore comics seems like a slight to the concept.

Simply leaving it as two heady mini-series could have proven more memorable and inspirational in the long run. Reading in text form about the various groups of pulp heroes and villains meeting around the plot of Gaston Leroux' "Phantom of the Opera" while getting to follow Allan and Mina in a tiresome spy plot which even they don't care almost seems a waste of both O'Neill's talent and the readers' enthusiasm for the League.

Strangely enough, it's doubtful that DC would have handled these two segments of the "Black Dossier" in much the same way if the editorial had a tighter control of the property. Of course, this does not glorify the publisher as an ideal caretaker of the well realized stories, but once again reaffirms that the creators themselves can just as equally lose sight of the core of the titles when they try to head in a new direction. If continuing to hone the craft by producing better and more diverse stories in a manner that presents the strongest version of the property ultimately proves a bore, the creator should still think twice about the commercial potential of a radically different idea before proceeding to deconstruct their own work.

Change of direction and the value of the protracted Second Act (PART THREE)

The creative team set to follow Uderzo on "Asterix" will not seek to undo the appeal of the series with glaring changes in direction. At best, they will be returning some vigor to the long gestating best seller by infusing it with their own talent and energy, but there is no need to artificially change the working formula. Following Goscinny's death in 1977, Uderzo himself has undertaken to preserving the flair of the series' best period, even going so far to sign Goscinny on the albums done decades after his friend's passing.

Without a rigid adherence on continuity these stories work as complete episodes that are fully rounded and accessible, but at a glance might seem slighter than the storytelling model prevalent in American comics. Yet, another regular staple of the "Pilote" magazine illustrates the point much more efficiently.

Charlier and Giraud's "Blueberry" is a comic book series that has endured at least one major change in direction. Starting out as an ensemble piece military western, following the initial story cycle, the creators have started mapping out smaller stories, that complimented each other and basically all fit in the western mold despite the many twists and turns. All told the story of Mike S. Donovan, an roguish character whose travels made for a very engrossing genre adventures. With the writer's death and the main strand of the series finished, Giraud simply shifted the story to Blueberry's final days, determined to tell a Tombstone epic that stood on its own, and hardly qualifies as a change of direction.

Yet, it's clear that the Franco-Belgian premier western title has had its phases and hardly constitutes a single story, except when viewed as the story of Blueberry's life, which is certainly a reading encouraged by its creators, seeing as how Donovan, actually ages through the saga that allowed its creators to create their own spins of most of the typical western scenarios. Precisely this aspect of Blueberry is picked up by Swiss-born Derib, whose "Buddy Longway" presents a much more unified story of a trapper living with his family in frontier, with all of the changes coming naturally, due to the passage of time and his children coming of age.

Of all the popular Franco-Belgian comics, American genre comics most resemble the popular fantasy "Lanfeust of Troy". Derived from singular creative vision of its creators, the genre hybrid mixes lighthearted epic fantasy with the idea of what can be described in the terms of comics as mutant superpowers, the series has progressed to multiple spin offs and direction changes. After Arleston and Tarquin send their sword and sorcery mutant off on a "Star Wars" like science fiction adventure, and spin-off the popular Troll character into its own open ended "Troll of Troll" series of albums, its difficult to talk about the aesthetic unity and creative cohesiveness. "Lanfeust" is another victim of its own success, with the publisher more than happy to flood the market with dozens of spin-offs. Once again, only the most ardent fans will stick with all of the many incarnations, leaving a more typical medium afficianado to pick and choose what constitutes Lanfeust's story for them. It's clear that the tangential stories hurt the brand and dilute the brand, but "Soleil" so far seems perfectly content to forgo the priorities of a well rounded, well told story in lieu of satisfying short-term financial reports.

To pick a less extreme example, Vance and Van Hamme's "XIII" has followed the progression that thankfully inches much closer to Blueberry's part of the spectrum. The initial five album story was so successful that the creators decided to chart a new course for their popular characters, that tried to expand the conspiracy to more of the XX century hot-spots. This proved every bit as diverting and uneven as this implies, but the "Bourne identity"-inspired mystery provided with a canvas broad enough to let the reader gravitate to Vance and Van Hamme's detailed, entertaining stylings when the story details felt forced and stretched too thin.

Along the way, Vance and Van Hamme finished their run, but have arranged with "Dargaud" to have another creative team follow them. As with "Blueberry", the series was spun-off into a companion title spotlighting the past of the characters prior to the dramatic events of the main series. And while it's still early to tell what course will Jigounov and Sente's "XIII" take, in regards to the continuity of the original albums, it's certain that the editorial oversight will sooner or later return the series to its roots, preserving that much suffering
man with the XIII tattooed on his skin will likely continue to exist in the late Cold war world of spies and characters hinting secrets about his past, quickly forgetting about the original creators' lukewarm epilogue.

Again, despite the fact that most of the cast ended up dead during the course of preceding albums, "Dargaud" is not at fault for continuing in the same mold. Despite the pretense of realism, at its core "XIII" is an adventure serial and as such more than welcome to continue to spin its wheels. After all, Vance and Van Hamme were the first to provide the road map for just such continued exploitation.

Taking a different publishing model into account, it's clear that the American genre comic book still has much more in common with traditional superhero industry than it appears at a first glance. In many ways, with its beginnings at DC and the subsequent Top Shelf edition, Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" becomes a unique mirror to look upon the development of the modern genre comic in America.

Change of direction and the value of the protracted Second Act (PART TWO)


The long derided superhero serial model derives most of it's strength out of the protracted Second Act. In 2010s, both Marvel and DC, historically the sole owners of nearly all of the work done in their superhero lines, have long abandoned their support for new titles. Their superhero lines basically consist of the continuing adventures of characters most of the fans are at least casually familiar with, and typically well past their creative prime

"X-Men" have long since evolved past Chris Claremont and John Byrne's contributions, "Iron Man" is decades away from it's defining Bob Layton and David Michelinie days, but they still have a presence in the market beyond their licensing appeal in other media. Contemporary fans hold out hope for the reinvigorating runs such as the Grant Morrison's take on Marvel's mutants, or even Matt Fraction's take on the armored Avenger, presented as a solid piece of well told genre entertainment. Even on titles like "Iron Fist", that had a late in the day commercial revival, its clear that the authors are mostly calling back on the original incarnation of the character, while recasting it in a more stylistically unified whole.

It's clear that the 1970s popularity of kung-fu in America that birthed the original series is decades away, but in continuing the story and adapting it to the retro sensibility of some the more accomplished modern Marvel titles, the creators at least get to indulge their own sensibilities. Yet, even when they are writing what was marketed to the fans as "the Last Iron Fist Story", and having to abandon it year and a half from the resurgence's conception, even faced with a swift cancellation following the new creative team continuing in the same vein, Marvel refuses to actually finish the story. Even at its most creative, even when there are slim chances that the character will ever garner a large following in the market place, the editorial does not accept anything but an open ending, providing for more stories down the line.

Such stubbornness is easily understandable given that the company makes most of it's sales from its ongoing titles. The older stories, even when they are much more accomplished than "Marvel Premiere" that birthed the kung fu superhero, get treated as nostalgic inspirations relevant to long time customers and discerning fans patient enough to stick with the outdated storytelling and yesterday's superhero trends. Marvel acknowledges the decades of the broad strokes of its own continuity, but theoretically, a new reader accustomed to the superhero stories needs only the working knowledge behind the character's origin and background to follow the latest renovation.

Essentially, the company has settled into the protracted Second Act as a main storytelling model. Regularly, the solicitations proclaim major changes in the direction for all of its titles, but what these do is mostly tease the climatic end of the Second Act, and presenting a possible continuation of the final Act of the story, before backtracking and returning to the Second Act, for a new take. Cumulatively, the collective weight of the hundreds of fall starts end up with a veritable encyclopedia of abandoned plot lines, and underused characters, that are then revisited for thematic resonance, or more commonly sheer novelty.

This is nowhere as clear as in Marvel's "Spider-Man", the title that has made its lead's inability to bring his often self-destructive superhero career to an end a character trait. Indeed, the publisher ultimately saw the hint of closure provided by the character's marriage and the possibility of children as working at cross purposes to the title's appeal in such a way that it went to infamously controversial stories designed with the express purpose of returning the character to his roots.

It can be said that it was Frank Miller that it was Frank Miller who was the first creator to react to this basic contradiction of the market in a creatively memorable way. By publishing his and David Mazzucchelli's  "Batman: Year one", DC was well aware that it was presenting its readers with a thoughtful and stylized reconstruction of the Bob Kane originals that were seldom seen by its audience. Generally, the idea was that the character was improved upon in the years since he debuted, but placing the highly accomplished update of the character's First Act in the pages of the ongoing Batman title, it's doubtful that DC could predict how Miller would react to its eventual popularity.

Instead of producing a follow-up Year Two in the same understated retro aesthetic, to provide for an inspirational break from the continuing Second Act of Batman's regular adventures, Miller produced a much more controversial work. Taking full control of the project as the premiere writer/artist of his generation, he decided to create the final Batman story, distilling the essence of the mythos into a near-futuristic dystopia that owed as much to studio-mate Howard Chaykin as the Bob Kane (co) creations. The resulting "Dark Knight Returns" proved a landmark genre work, that worked not just as the Final Act in the Batman saga, but as a potent work in it's own right, a satire that put its creator and his artistic voice into the spotlight, at the same time both empowering the DC characters he was using, as well as transcending them.

The universal acclaim helped the creator to forge his own path in the medium, but one of the many close minded ways of the industry's reaction was the embrace of artificial endings to the characters purposefully kept young and ideally continually relevant. Perhaps the first of these was Alan Moore and Curt Swan's "Whatever happened to the Man of Tomorrow", debuting while Miller's series was still in publication, ending the story of Superman while the company prepares for the relaunch. Marvel's "The End" line of mini-series likewise make flirting with the Third Act a sub-genre of its own, but it should be noted that there is nothing morally wrong with the company's decision to indefinitely continue the adventures of its characters.

It's all but expected, and in the history of genre fiction generally looked upon as a positive. As long as the audience responds to continuing efforts on the part of the creators and the commercial structure that supports them, the Second Act serves as a viable way to tell the story that was never truly designed with a clear endpoint in mind. Any kind of adventure storytelling basically follows this model, as long it keeps to the episodic format with little to no overall continuity.

The problems accumulated in Marvel and DC superhero universes stem from a number of inconsistencies, both in story and presentation, that stem from the continually changes in creative talent, the rigid approach to continuity and the publishers' propensity of imitating the overall trends of the moment. A much healthier model is presented in Franco-Belgian comics album tradition, where the relaxed publishing schedule and the respect of the original creator's set-up leads to a storytelling model that arguably still produces stories with no set ending, but with one clear difference.