Uncanny X-Men #512 (Marvel): In a week when price point finally became a noticeable issue, more than half of my purchases clocking in at $3.99 instead of $2.99, this was the only book that offered so much that I felt I was getting my money’s worth. If you were to cross everything I love about the X-Men with Matt Fraction’s sleeper steampunk hit The Five Fists of Science, you’d get this issue. It reads like a hearty self-contained annual, but with solid links to events in all of the current X-books. Beast is able to explain the time jumping technology more coherently and succinctly than Ellis could in Astonishing X-Men or Kyle & Yost could in X-Force. Fraction’s script is overflowing with fun ideas and quotable lines. In an attempt to secure a century’s old set of DNA samples, the team stumbles into a plot to secure technology involving the Hellfire Club, a movement about the rise of the “Overman,” creation of pre-Sentinels designed to defend Home Sapien from Homo Superior (aka: the “Overman”), and leading us to the Dreaming Celestial. Nemesis shines here, as does his mother Mrs. Catherine Bradley, who is probably my favorite new character of the moment. I’d love to see Fraction or Ellis run with her in a period spin-off book in lieu of Ellis’ recent creations like Anna Mercury or the protagonist of Ignition City. As far as the art is concerned… umm, can Yanick Paquette just be the regular series artist? Like, forever? Please? His pencils are competent and consistent in the talky bits and during the action, without the visual ticks of either Land or Dodson. He was born to be paired with Matt Fraction on Uncanny X-Men. Along with Cory Petit’s lettering (check out the seers sequence), these guys instantly became the dream creative team for me, turning in my favorite issue of the post-500 to date. Grade A+.
Northlanders #18 (DC/Vertigo): Brian Wood and Danijel Zezelj offer up the first of a two-part arc entitled The Shield Maidens. Zezelj is one of my favorite artists working today, his representational figures and use of negative space unparalleled. Wood seeks to test the notion that “fate is relentless” with a story (and hell, a book) that has the heart and power to supplant the (comical by comparison) stories of Conan. Now that might sound like inciteful blasphemy, but Wood’s stories are deeper and richer, they have roots in the real world, and are far more relevant to today’s world and reading audience. He’s got a mind for historical research (construction techniques of the Romans) and an ear for dialogue that brings insight into the characters of the age and the types of insults they might hurl – “...here to send you to your nailed God.” So far, Wood’s Northlanders arcs have examined a sociological principle, perhaps this will be a period examination of sexism and male/female roles(?) Grade A.
Detective Comics #854 (DC): It’s a little known secret that I went to high school with Jim, err… JH Williams III. Heck, I still have a print of Rogue he drew back in 1992 and signed issues of Demonic Toys from Eternity Comics (obscure alert!), long before he really started to break in with DC’s wonderful Chase book written by Dan Curtis Johnson. Anyway, it’s good to see him here with Greg Rucka on the longest continuously published comic in the United States. While the inclusion of Kate Kane is a paper thin (late!) attempt by DC to diversify the characters in their line, the lesbian loving Blue Stater in me rejoices! At this point, it’s a bit passé to mention how brilliant Jim’s page layouts and panel designs are, but they are soooo sweet! They fit the tone of Rucka’s crime writing perfectly, juxtaposing the crimson and shadows against the Gotham skyline in a breathtaking way. His brilliance is there in the details too, whether it’s the “J3” hidden on a wall or the detail of the ridges on the inside palm of Batwoman’s gloves. I love seeing Kate’s relationship with Dick being fleshed out, evidenced here in the way she handles his unsolicited advice. The art team really pulls out all the stops, small details like the coloring in the bags under her eyes or big David Mack inspired watercolor renderings really make this something special. Rucka’s script is quick to point out that Kate’s crime fighting choice is already costing her relationships, and I enjoyed her dad playing half Alfred, half Microchip, to her Bat/Punisher archetype. Overall, this is a great intro to who Kate is, her relationships, the b-players, her sexuality, etc. Rucka is establishing long form foils, and I loved the look of the coven leader. She looks like White Death, complete with fleur de lys motifs and Amidala lipstick. The Rucka/Cully Hamner back up story featuring The Question is just a competent little thing, about a Grade C, and the “Magic Egg” from DC Editorial was uber-lame, but overall you gotta’ love how this run about Batwoman is shaping up. Grade A.
Dark Reign: Zodiac #1 (Marvel): I have no idea who Zodiac is or how he fits into this whole Dark Reign affair, but you really had me at hello. Joe Casey? Nathan Fox? Sold. Joe Casey is always worth a look and Nathan Fox is a direct descendant of the Paul Pope aesthetic. In fact, the opening shot even reminds me of Pope’s early work Escapo. Fox’s pencils are delightfully claustrophobic with their details and sound effects merged seamlessly into the action. He offers us wonderful flying cars and inventive forensic bits like the “Z” symbol. Overall, this was a fun intro to a villain that peeks into the amusing world of rank and file HAMMER agents and delivers typical Casey lines (you can almost imagine Godland’s Basil Cronus speaking them) like “That just ain’t how I roll” or comtemplative baddies quipping “Then again, I’m all about the dichotomies that exist inside each of us.” Grade A-.
Astonishing X-Men #30 (Marvel): Ironically, as Simone Bianchi delivers his last issue of AXM, his pencils are suddenly less chaotic and the panel layouts are tame enough for us to finally follow the story. He’s able to capture the manic insanity of Forge while displaying interesting perspective choices. Ellis’ script is subtle and sublime in places, offering interesting bits of regretful pondering as Hank recalls his childhood with Scott. There are also some real zingers in the dialogue, such as “Emma Frost. I didn’t recognize you with your legs together.” While this issue is interesting compared to the relative decompression of the preceding five, it feels rushed – smacking of the last scene in a play or movie in which the villain monologues his intent and fills in all of the story gaps for the audience. Overall, a decent ending to a very choppy and inconsistent arc. The buzz has seemed to fade quickly from this title after Whedon and Cassaday’s run, then the announcement of Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi. I’m unaware of the next creative team and unless it’s someone really special, I’m not sure I care. Grade B+.
Dark Avengers/Uncanny X-Men: Utopia #1 (Marvel): Matt Fraction kicks off yet another Marvel U crossover with a Stamford-like event that catalyzes events to come. The story feels a bit long and drawn out, padding the extra pages I suppose. The ideas at play are politically charged and intense, but unfortunately the art isn’t helping out the script one bit. Marc Silvestri’s current style isn’t to my liking to begin with, and when he’s aided by 4 other artists(!) and 9 inkers(!!) things get a little dicey in terms of consistency, general quality, and certainly readability. The script tries to overcome the odds with great lines like “It’s Mayor Sinclair when I’m yelling at you,” but the art just isn’t all that clear. What’s Emma doing? I don’t understand what Norman offers her in exchage for aiding him. Charles is in jail? He’s alive? Huhwha? Grade B-.
X-Force #16 (Marvel): The best part of the final installment of the Messiah War arc is that it’s full of little moments of heartbreak and stoicism, mostly in Apocalypse’s voice over. I’m also still a fan of Clayton Crain’s dark murky art, notice how he captures the panic on Hope’s face during the fight sequences. Those things aside, this issue was superficially quite rousing, but ultimately hollow, doing nothing but returning us to the status quo, as all poor crossover events do. There’s some mystery insinuated about what Hope truly is, and I guess Kiden is dead? We’re left with a dangling plot thread as to the fate of Boom Boom, and after all his byzantine machinations, Bishop can’t even pull the trigger when he finally has Hope in his sights. Lame. Cable and Hope are still time jumping in the future, Bishop is still determined to go after them, Apocalypse and Stryfe are still alive, and the X-Force squad is still all chewed up. So what was the point? Grade C+.
Berserker #1 (Top Cow): Sea Donkey somehow hooked me up with this issue for free. Is this part of the Top Cow “try it free this year” or whatever thing I vaguely recall…? Anywho, screenwriter Rick Loverd and artist Jeremy Haun give us an odd duck that does read like a movie treatment. We’ve got Top Cow and something called Divide Pictures, Milo Ventimiglia’s name sprinkled prominently about, and then a resurrected Dale Keown for a truly odd assortment of chaps. The basic premise is mildly interesting – watcher types from Asgard and Midgard recruiting powers I guess – but the vignettes are choppy and Haun’s typically refined pencils look rushed and are over-inked. In the end text piece, the writer keeps referencing something called “Untethered,” but that word is nowhere else to be found in the book. Was that the original title? Is it the title of this story arc? This issue? Who knows? The last page is comically gratuitous and by the way, it’s “sabotage,” not “saboutage.” I’m just sayin’. It was free, so Grade C.