Thursday, July 19, 2012

Comic reviews for Wednesday, 18th July


With this issue, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee conclude their two part story concerning Latveria's revenge on Matt Murdock. The story starts with a nine panel grid of all black panels, punctuated at the bottom by a splinter of light, indicating that Daredevil's hopelessly lost with the negation of his powers. The first half of the issue is a heavily narrated atmospheric sequence, attempting to carry over DD's plight, albeit in over-familiar terms. The story of a hero whose powers don't work but he conquers his problems by believing in himself is a common trope that plays out in a fairly typical fashion.

Thankfully, the story picks up once Daredevil dons the costume, starting the chase. It isn't that the following sequence is exemplary in itself, but it at least posits an interesting way of Matt trying to escape Castle Doom. For all the human touch exhibited concerning Matt's hospital nurse, the creative team persist in making the men chasing him nothing more than cardboard cut outs from the jingoistic comics of fifty years ago. The creative team use the remaining pages to set up the next story, at the same time presenting a tonally uneven ending featuring the Avengers.

To be fair, there is a degree of sincerity and subtlety to the Matt's characterization that's been missing in Bendis' highly lauded work on the title, and in the best moments, Waid uses the little details to make for a more believable story. Yet, for all the human touch exhibited concerning Matt's hospital nurse, the creative team can't find a better angle then to play the antagonists as cardboard cut outs. Seeing a modern, inspired take on the title's science fiction premise was a welcome change, but to see the same jingoistic comics cliches of fifty years ago certainly adds a dose of camp that the title could have done without.

All the while, Samnee's artwork is clear and tells the story in an interesting way. By now, the artist's take on the project can be neatly summed up in a sequence in which Matt dangles from the Castle's window.

The panel is well laid out, and instinctively colored, but the building itself is drawn in a way that conveys its age and architecture, but isn't meant to be studied on its own. The drawing is stylish and serviceable, but it's no more than a single panel in service of the story. Samnee is an adequate penciller, but his work on the title can hardly be said to call attention to itself. By now, more than a year since its launch, "Daredevil" is a title for readers sticking to Waid's story, illustrated adequately by a professional in a way that feels consistent to the formally more accomplished work that preceded it.


 The concluding chapter of "Manchester Gods" by Kieron Gillen and Richard Elson is a surprisingly strong entry in the relaunched "Journey to Mystery". The series has arguably been at it's peak with the opening "Fear Itself" tie-in, but has slowly regained some of its charms. The central conflict between the industrial Britain and its rural past is with Loki's help resolved fairly quickly, by a series of well placed strikes.

Having Loki and Leah don "V for Vendetta" masks as they bomb the British countryside has an appropriate mix of tongue in cheek affection both for mythology and the irreverence that has managed to breathe life into this "Thor" spin-off. What started out as a story fairly divorced from the parent title's Norse mythology has, in the hands of these creators finally turned into a genuine "Journey to Mystery" arc, because of the requisite care paid to style and character. The resolution of Leah's status as a "handmaiden" is tongue in cheek and sweet, even melancholic.

Likewise, the seemingly random arc has proven to serve as a direct tie-in to the next month's "Everything burns" event. With the previous issues, the story seemed a bit insular and targeted at the British readers of similar bent to the writer, but ultimately it proved much more manageable than "the Terrorism Myth" that preceded it. Gillen's continued use of Daimon Hellstrom as a supporting character reminds the reader that the laborous "Dr Strange" inspired arc isn't completely dismissibile.

Yet, the continuing use of Richard Elson as the artist does present a problem, particularly when compared to the gorgeous, painterly look of Doug Braithwaite that introduced this incarnation of the title. The comparison might not be fair, but its apt, as Elson works in a much more exaggerated fashion. His clear layouts and playfulness were likewise nowhere to be seen in Braithwaite's somber work, but for all of Elson's strengths, it would have been better if Marvel saw fit to pair up Gillen with an artist more in tune with the previously established stylings.


 Geoff Johns and Jim Lee's second "Justice League" arc reaches a penultimate issue, as the heroes continue to get a better understanding of the villain, but also face dissent in their own ranks. For a story that has spent issue after issue elaborating on Graves' motivation, it's frustrating that his abilities are still vaguely defined, and generally overshadowed by his psychosis. As a villain, he is still most interesting in the effect he causes in the team.
The idea about the Justice League being faced with an ordinary family being a casualty to the side-effects of their own adventures is arguably the most interesting part of the premise. The creators understandably play with the realism just enough to give some pathos to the arc, but ultimately shy away from the implications. Realistically, there is no chance that Geoff Johns and Jim Lee are going to deconstruct DC's flagship title, thus their efforts lean toward establishing the general context of this second arc.

If the first arc was about how the League is formed, this second has been about the place it has in the world, and the implications that come from having a high powered superhuman team in today's media-obsessed climate. The creators' intentions are clear in a scene in this issue where the villain broadcasts their infighting to the whole world - "Justice League" is not Wildstorm's transgressive "Authority", but merely a better thought out version of the familiar superhero ideal.

Said infighting is a genre cliche, the way to visually present the characters debating how to approach the villain, but framed in such a way to spotlight Wonder Woman's physical superiority to her peers. It's not the most original or the most interesting way to showcase Diana's worth to the team, but Johns frames it around the Amazon Princess' concern for her former boyfriend Trevor Scott, whose fate hovers above the whole issue.

And while the cliffhanger provides adequate payoff for this particular subplot, the creators don't manage to sidestep the typical problems with superhero team books. With twenty pages a month, it's a given that the creators won't be able to give each of the team members adequate time in every issue, but when dealing with characters with such long histories like Superman and Cyborg, it could be expected that the writer is able to carry over at least a shorthand characterization. The Flash, who features prominently on this issue's regular cover is particularly slighted in this issue, as he contributes nothing to do the plot, either in terms of events or the personality.

Interestingly, the timescale for the story continues to work at odds with the story. The characters making brief mentions about some of the threats they have been dealing with between the two arcs, and the villain's background clearly indicates that at least a couple of years have passed between Darkseid's invasion and his own revenge on the heroes, yet the team dynamic doesn't really support the notion of the five year gap between the stories. Thankfully, DC's mandate regarding their own continuity doesn't prevent the reader from enjoying the creative team's work on its own.

Jim Lee's clear, well realized art continues to be the major draw for the title, despite the inkers' tendency to maintain the focus on crosshatching. The penciller strong, iconic versions of the characters really leap out of the page, and for the most part communicate the best aspects of DC's house style. The work tends to suffer when it comes to smaller panels and close-ups, as the characters exhibit the familiar thin range of expressions, but by and large the book remains the publisher's best looking traditional title. As is the case for all of his work on the title since the first couple of issues, there is a noticeable difference between some of the completely finished pages and the random rushed panel, with the latter calling too much attention to themselves simply for not being up to the artist's usual standards.

Presumably, Johns and Lee will be finishing their weirdly mystical, and highly unusual Justice League story with the next issue. Where the creators take the story following the #0 issue remains to be seen, but it seems to veer towards the event-stories and possible crossovers.

As for the Shazam back-up, it's remarkably fast paced this time around. The creative team behind "Batman: Earth One", Johns and Gary Frank present the hyper violent introduction to the New 52 version of Black Adam, who dispatches Sivana's henchman in a show of power. Johns does manage to provide some diversion in the scene's dialogue, but by and large it serves to remind the reader of the writer's previous work with the character. After several years of his writing Shazam's evil doppelganger in "JSA", the character developed into a truly tragic and complex individual, thus making it regrettable that the continuity perished in the revision.

Yet, unlike the creative team's own run on "Action Comics", Johns has a chance of genuinely reworking the mythos from the ground up, and set reintegrate his addition to "Shazam" in a much more organic way. Meanwhile, the Billy Batson subplot rapidly progress from his first steps in befriending his new family to the start of the character's own initiation in the legend of Shazam. There are definite shades of "Harry Potter" in the creative team's approach, but the protagonist's own cynicism and world-weariness are likely to manifest in his dealing with the world of magic in a very different way.

Gary Frank again pencils and inks his own work on the story, alternating between expressive reaction shots and the more traditional superhero images, which fits nicely with the less then idealized story perspective. The duo are rapidly accelerating the action in the story, making the inevitable clash between Shazam and Black Adam both imminent and most likely crucial in demonstrating the tone of their "Captain Marvel" relaunch.


Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang start another arc on the "Wonder Woman", with Hera returning to plague the Amazon princess with the help of Zeus' other stepchildren. The episode is the strongest in the opening scenes, as it builds on the conversations between well designed deities of the Greek pantheon, but the creators wind up using them merely as the framing for the action set piece that dominates the issue.

The small-town streets serve as the setting for the long teased Wonder Woman/Apollo showdown, with the supporting cast caught in the conflict. Compared to the measured, stylized dialogue at the beginning, the characters don't sound nearly with convincing when Azzarello applies the same approach to their battle quips. Despite the brutality of the action, well choreographed by Chiang, just seeing Hermes throwing a kung fu kick breaks from the classical tradition these concepts are originally hailing from.

Once again, the writer less than convincing when depicting Diana as the superhero protector, and at this point the reader can do little but accept that it was only through this particular title that he could have realized his reinterpretation of the Greek mythology for the publisher. The reader is lead to expect that they will finally see Zeus in the cliffhanger, but once they get to another image of battle-ready Diana, coming mere pages from the fighting sequence, it really seems like the title is at the cross purposes of the creative team's sensibilities.

Chiang's expressive pencils and inks create a very intimate effect under the somber twilight tones of Matthew Wilson, and even if the artist feels like his much more attuned to the dynamics of a superhero title, the title simply continues to be at its strongest when dealing with the intrigues of the Greek Gods. The pantheon's machinations were at the seed of numerous heroic campaigns of ancient myth, whose execution was still miles away from DC's superheroics that it supposedly predates.

Nevertheless, the Azzarello/Chiang "Wonder Woman" remains the line's highlight, and continues strongly into the second year with the creative team that has finally found a way to invite a wider audience to the title.

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