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.
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.
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.
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.
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" 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 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.