The fourth major "All Star Western" storyline concludes, wrapping up the "War of Lords and Owls". At this point, it's clear that the creative team's initial plan for the title stretched to the end of the first year. There is a distinct feeling of closure as the characters get back to the Crime Bible cultists that they initially banded together to confront. Therefore, the inclusion of Court of Owls gets revealed for what it was - a late addition to the already plotted storyline, providing a tie-in to the well-selling "Batman" story arc.
Tallulah Black continues to feature extensively, and basically takes the lead on most of the action sequences. This is fitting considering Palmiotti and Gray's decision to incorporate her as the permanent addition to the cast, which proves very justified. The character based storytelling has continually benefited the company's only period piece title, and Hex's lover brings a unique dynamic to the proceedings.
The use of chapter breaks continues to provide for an abortive pacing, but the stylishness of Moritat's pencils and inks and the unique subject matter more than make up for the shortcomings. The artist boldly realizes these bulky characters whose wrinkled period clothing fills up the pages. In this issue, the artist finds space (and time) for little else but the figures in his panels, leaving it mostly for the colorist to provide mood and atmosphere. The female character's manga-like features have yet to fully integrate with the style he strives for on this book, but otherwise, the art continues to imbue the book with a lot of energy and identity.
The Terrence 13 backup wraps up the Scott Kollins illustrated story in a way that focuses on debunking the story behind the Haunted Highwayman. The issue sets him up as a tragic villain, whose makes Dr Terrence's intervention personal, bringing out the doctor's cold, scientific mind to its rational extreme. It's a decent story, finishing up on a point that links the character to his original Silver Age incarnation.
Francis Manapul returns on art, as the title begins a two-part story, building on the string of oneshots that preceded it. Aided by Brian Buccellato, the artist is quick to restore the title back to its position as a lush, gorgeously realized book. The creative team uses several double page spreads and inventive layouts that maximizes the reader's goodwill, and makes them more tolerable when it comes to the story.
On the other hand, the creative team feels much more comfortable presenting the Glider's debut as the new leader of the Rogues. By returning to a broader canvass of episodic storytelling and interweaving subplots, Manapul and Buccellato go a long way to regaining the narrative footing lost since "Mob rule".
Such an open, plot-heavy approach seems to merge well with what DC wants the book to be. Having an art-centered traditional superhero title go through the motions of updating the Silver Age Flash stories for an audience grown up on "Heroes" and "Lost" certainly seems as a valid approach. As such, the wholesale Rogues revamp still feels chaotic and underdeveloped, despite the buildup in the previous issues.
Having all these characters running around Keystone at the same time, in the same issue, leads to most of them having little more than a cameo role. Just focusing on the Heatwave/Glider/Cold dynamic would go a long way to covering pretty much the same ground, despite limiting the somewhat epic scope of the arc.
On the other hand, having the threat escalate so fast makes it very hard for the creative team to properly wrap up the arc in the upcoming Flash Annual #1. In any event, the creators will likely use the double-size issue merely to establish the size of the threat. So far in their run, the Rogues have proven largely ineffective, which goes a long way to justifying the decision.
It remains to be seen whether Manapul and Buccellato ultimately succeed in making the Rogues into an interesting team of villains they have proven to be in Geoff Johns' run. There is certainly a lot of potential inherent in the both these characters and the title. The creators have for a time stepped away from grounding the title in the police procedural, and it will be interesting to see where they ultimately choose to go with "the Flash". For the moment, a still largely generic Barry is forced to contend with Dr. Elias, another character that begs for some fleshing out.
The Fialkov/Sorrentino title reaches the end of the arc starring the Van Helsing cult. Surprisingly, the editorial choose this point to foster a crossover with "Stormwatch", with the characters of the former Wildstorm title providing a fresh, superhero perspective on the complicated events of "I, Vampire".
A lot of the issue is thus spent on recapping previous events, while the vampire/zombie situation keeps spinning out of control. By the middle of the issue, it's an absolute mess, that the characters recognized as being unmanageable. Fialkov provides a version of Stormwatch that basically represents a rebooted Authority, with a single reference to the secret society aspect of the team.
Besides the generally well depicted members of Stormwatch, the writer manages to have the main "I, Vampire" remain in the spotlight, and many of the issue's best moments involve Tig, Mary and Andrew. Sorrentino remains solid throughout, with layouts kept clear and characters largely distinctive. The sepia-toned colors maintain the specific atmosphere of the title, but the issue derives most of its impact from the ending, that features yet another status quo change.
And while the creators keep their sense of humor in the tense last moments of their first year of stories, there is no doubt that many DCU crossovers have burdened the title to the point of preventing the creative team from introducing new characters, and fully exploiting the premise. Hopefully, following the #0 issue, the editorial will see fit to enable the title to tell its own stories without the crossovers and tie-ins - providing Fialkov and Sorrentino with a platform for their creative best for as long as they are able to preserve retailer attention.
Picking up from the cliffhanger of the previous issue, "Justice League Dark" #12 opens with a one page origin for the character that betrayed the team, before setting the course that will take the book to the end of the storyline. Both heroes and villains regroup as the mastermind behind Faust's plan announces his intentions and declares his revenge against Constantine.
At this point, the mystery villain's working mainly as John's opposite number, and it's not entirely out of the realm of possibility that he is DCU's version of Golden Boy, John's unborn twin from his venerable "Vertigo" title. At the same time, Lemire hints that the character is known to other DCU magic users so that it could might as well be a new rendition of an occult villain that has yet to show up in the title.
For the moment, the Lady Xanadu/Tim Hunter part of the plot appears to have been a red herring. The aforementioned opening page hints at a personal value the Books of Magic may have for the turncoat superhero, with the writer trying hard to make them mean more then a typical McGuffin. Yet, for all intents and purposes that's exactly what they are, as Justice League Dark splits to follow the leads on Faust.
Breaking up a superhero team into two plot strands to make the scenes both more manageable and the characters more distinctive is a tried and true superhero convention, which coupled with the mystery villain kept in the dark really amounts to reminding the reader of the title's modus operandi. This really is a Justice League title focusing on DC's seldom seen shadier characters. It's issues like this one that serve to strengthen the reader's resolve considering the Lemire/Janin collaboration, as the experience seems to be worth it.
The penciler/inker continues to adapt to the challenges of the title, as his characters start displaying a broader range of emotions that jibes much closer with their dialogue. Ulises Arreola's greens and purples continue to accentuate the stiffness in the art though, as the computer coloring never truly cohers into a satisfying whole. Taking a cue from the constant barrage of colorful spells the team members cast, DC seemingly aims at a video game esthetic, but despite the redesign, these characters and the story they are starring in seem decidedly informed by a decades old esthetic.
Still, the creative team's choice of the immediate villain's for the #13 seem as reasonable and fitting, as most of the creative decisions made by Lemire and the editorial since Peter Milligan left the title. Despite a gratuitous death of a woefully underused character that closes the issue, "Justice League Dark" seems finally to be fulfilling its mandate by being an enjoyable superhero-informed romp that abandons the Vertigo imperative for a refreshingly irreverent take on these characters.
On "Punisher", Mico Suayan continues as a fill-in artist, in an issue that spotlights Greg Rucka's unique contribution to the genre. In itself, the story is a complete chapter in the wider Rucka/Chechetto run, but more importantly, it showcases a tactical operation of the Punisher, a vigilante existing in the Marvel universe. The storytelling is patient and economic, hitting all the necessary beats to make it an action thriller.
The wholesomeness of Ruck's craft shows as he illustrates both sides of the conflict, reminds the reader of the particularities of the conflict, which finally culminates in the confrontation that makes up the bulk of the issue. Throughout, both the tone and the pacing never falter, as the creators work in synch to deliver their genre best.
Suayan's photo referenced work feels much more suited to the action at hand than in the previous issue, that introduced the McGuffin. The faces retain an unnatural stiffness, but the tension and the dialogue help distract the reader away from all the close mouths and strange facial expressions. The Bulgarian artist tries, and largely succeeds, to echo a cinematic experience that is the dominant visual of these stories, justifying the use of photo reference in service of the representational art style.
The only other major problem with the story is that, for all of his effort, Rucka never manages to contort the rules of the Marvel Universe, and have his story seamlessly fit into New York that also has Spider-Man in it. Despite his debut in the publisher's flagship, the Punisher has never felt at ease in the superhero surroundings, and contorting the script to provide for the logistics of the fantasy universe only serves to call attention to the problem.
Despite this, for all intents and purposes, "the Punisher" remains the sole title that provides a crime fiction outlet in the publisher's output, and illustrates a high level of competency in delivering what would be a purely generic story in the hands of lesser talents.
The beginning of Cullen Bunn's solo run as the writer of Marvel's "Venom" starts off very unevenly. Picking up the thread from the "Circle of Four"crossover, the writer presents the first part of the occult storyline, featuring Thony ("Spider-Man: Ends of the Earth") Silas on art. "Monsters of Evil" begins with the recap of the issues so far, and presents Venom with both a new mission and a possible new love interest.
Supposedly acting on Secret Avengers mandate, Flash goes on to oppose the Department of Occult Armaments, an secret society featured in his "Fear Itself: Fearless" work. For story purposes, they are just another evil cult that Venom cuts loose on, before fully comprehending their new scheme, and who is standing behind it. Considering how uninformed Flash is at this point, his continual narration consist mostly of conveying his emotions and letting the reader sympathize with him.
This becomes crucial as the issue climaxes and the villain exploits his weakness to bring out the monster in him. Compared to the issues preceding it, at this point the story feels arbitrary and off-kilter. Silas' works here in the expressionistic, caricatural style that evokes artists such as Phil Hester, while exhibiting the typical strengths and weaknesses of the approach. His work here has a lot of energy, but a lack of definition without strong, original stylization, maintains the long struggle the title has endured since Tony Moore's early departure.
At this point, there is little to recommend the title, and unless Bunn finds a way to make the title his own following the"Minimum Carnage"crossover, this incarnation of Venom will likely be remembered for the Rick Remender issues preceding "Monsters of Evil".