Podcast: Schizopolitan – Episode 1 – The Saga Begins…

It’s been a long time, but Schizopolitan has risen from the grave… and this time we’re trying something a little different – presenting the SCHIZOPOLITAN PODCAST! I’ve teamed up with my friend and occasional collaborator Jehan Ranasinghe (on Twitter as @Maustallica) for what we’re hoping is going to be a regular series of podcasts looking at the world of Movies, TV, Animation, Games, Comics, and whatever else grabs our attention. It’s our first attempt at anything like this, so bear with us as we figure out various problems, wrestle with technical difficulties and generally ramble like there’s no tomorrow.

In this debut episode (running for 95 minutes), we use the recent aftermath of San Diego Comic Con to discuss some of the con’s announcements and reveals, but that soon spirals into a general discussion of blockbuster cinema in general – there’s talk about Star Wars and the new TV animated show Star Wars: Rebels, the first photo of the Wonder Woman costume and how much we know about Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, the potential upcoming DC Universe movies, and then a more wide-ranging talk about the ‘problem’ of a Female-fronted superhero blockbuster and why Hollywood seems so nervous about the idea…

Hope you enjoy our first episode, and stay tuned for more editions of Schizopolitan: The Podcast soon!

(The opening and closing music on the podcast is ‘Ouroboros’ by Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com). Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0. creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/)

The Wednesday Webcomic: The Abominable Charles Christopher

The Abominable Charles Christopher Karl Kerchel Webcomic

(Webcomics are, to be honest, completely awesome. Produced purely out of love (and occasionally going on to acclaim and publication), they’re comics unfettered from the restraints of the commercial market. There’s a massive variety of comics on the web – and so, in the spirit of exploration, I’ll be doing a relatively regular showcase every Wednesday of stuff you should be reading – webcomics that are fun, experimental, adventurous, or just plain insane. And if you have any recommendations of webcomics you’d like to see highlighted, please let me know in the comments below…)

We start off with one of the best out there – The Abominable Charles Christopher. The work of writer/artist Karl Kerschel, this is a weird, sprawling and wonderful epic that’s part magical fantasy, part environmental fable, part tragedy, and part comedy. The closest comparison I can get is if you imagine a cross between a Looney Tunes cartoon and a Hayao Miyazaki film, but even that doesn’t quite capture the mixture of poignancy and playfulness that Kerschel gets away with here. It’s the story of a silent, often confused and yet difficult-to-stop abominable snowman named Charles Christopher, and what happens to him when he wanders into a magical realm full of talking animals – and fans of Jeff Smith’s epic comic book series Bone should absolutely check this out. While there’s a main overarching plot going on throughout The Abominable Charles Christopher, there’s also room for the kind of four-panel charm, oddity and humour that you’d normally find in a really well-crafted newspaper cartoon, but if you do get involved in the story, be prepared to weep bucketloads as well – when this comic goes tragic, it really doesn’t mess around. Running since 2007, Kerschel has done a pretty good job of keeping this updated with a new page every wednesday – there’s a lot of story for you to read, and you can catch up on the wonderfulness of The Abominable Charles Christopher right from the start by clicking here.

The Abominable Charles Christopher Karl Kerchel Webcomic

Comics Review: The DC New 52, Week 4 – Batman, Birds of Prey, Blue Beetle, Captain Atom, Catwoman, DC Universe Presents, Green Lantern Corps, Legion of Superheroes, Nightwing, Red Hood and the Outlaws, Supergirl, Wonder Woman

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

Batman 1 cover art Greg Capullo DC New 52BATMAN issue 1
  Scott Snyder ~ Artists: Greg Capullo and Jonathan Glapion ~ Price: $2.99 ~

[xrr rating=5/5]

Scott Snyder is turning into one of the major stars of the relaunch – he’s been assigned to two of the highest profile titles, and after the success of Swamp Thing, he’s scored another slam dunk here. Considered as the more ‘superhero’ aimed Batman title (in contrast to the grittier-slanted Detective Comics), Batman issue 1 is a cracking piece of comics storytelling that does everything you’d want from a first issue, bringing the reader up to date with the current status quo while also throwing in some fantastic narrative curveballs. With plenty of ideas on show and a likeable, engaging storytelling style, Snyder has this under control from page 1, utilising exactly the right level of atmosphere, delivering some great dialogue and building everything up to an effective cliffhanger. On top of this, there’s Greg Capullo’s art (with Jonathan Glapion on inks) which pulls of a nice mix of cartoonishness and atmosphere that avoids too many current superhero visual cliches, giving us some great moments (including the gorgeous Batcave double-splash page). Packing in plenty of value, this sets the flagship Batman title off at a brisk run, and looks to be one of the strongest comics in the New DC 52 line up.

Birds of Prey 1 cover art DC New 52BIRDS OF PREY issue 1
  Duane Swierczynski ~ Artist: Jesus Saiz ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=2.5/5]

Really? Birds of Prey without Oracle, or their long-time writer Gail Simone? The long-running title where Barbara Gordon spent most of her time as info-tech jockey Oracle is relaunched here (only just over a year after the last relaunch), and while Swierczynski packs in some characterful moments and good setpieces, this is a long way from being either distinctive or interesting. Admittedly, it is a women-centric DC comic that isn’t jaw-droppingly exploitative (which, in the week of Catwoman issue 1, is a definite good thing), but while there’s some enjoyable banter it isn’t like we get to know either of our two main characters that well, while Jesus Saiz’s artwork is a little stiff and lifeless at times (especially in a couple of the action sequences). Leading up to a cliffhanger that acts as the working definition of ‘out of nowhere’, Birds of Prey feels like a title that’s in need of a distinctive identity if it isn’t going to end up feeling a little on the mediocre side.

Blue Beetle 1 cover art DC New 52BLUE BEETLE issue 1
  Tony Bedard ~ Artists: Ig Guara and Ruy Jose ~ Price: $2.99 ~

[xrr rating=3.5/5]

One of the few ‘legacy’ superhero characters who hasn’t ended up killed off so that they can be replaced by their older (supposedly ‘better known’ predecessor), Mexican kid Jaime Reyes has made it into the DC New 52, athough the story of the Blue Beetle gets a fairly big revamp here. Now, the powerful alien scarab that Jaime inherits is a dangerously lethal war machine, and there are some clues that this take on the series is going to be a little harder edged than DC’s previous Blue Beetle offerings. There aren’t many surprises here, but Bedard does a good job of getting everything in place and making Jaime an engaging protagonist, while we also get a couple of intriguing continuity nods (especially the fact that eccentric supervillains The Brain and Monsieur Mallah (a brain in a jar, and a communist talking gorilla with a french accent) are alive and well in the New DC universe. It’s good to see such a likeable and enjoyable teen comic getting another lease of life, and so far Blue Beetle is looking to be one of the better of DC’s sub-family of ‘Young Justice’ comics.

Captain Atom 1 DC New 52 cover artCAPTAIN ATOM issue 1
  J T Krul ~ Artist: Freddie Williams II ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=3/5]

One of the many DC comics that had me thinking “Why would I want to read a comic featuring that character?”, Captain Atom doesn’t really succeed in coming up with any particularly convincing answers to that question. Of course, the thing that’s interesting about Captain Atom is that he’s a character originally published by Charlton Comics, and who was used as the loose basis/inspiration for the god-like Dr Manhattan in Alan Moore’s Watchmen, and it looks like the story is certainly heading in a direction that’ll be exploring pushing Captain Atom’s powers in a more deliberately cosmic direction. The art from Freddie Williams II is wild and energetic, especially when it comes to depicting the title character, and there’s several intriguing moments, but the issue doesn’t come together, and there’s several pages that seem to wander into complete bizarreness without any warning whatsoever. There’s a certain amount of ambition on show here, but this needs a bit more focus – and heaven only knows what any brand new readers would make of all this…

Catwoman 1 Guillem March cover art DC New 52CATWOMAN issue 1
Writer:  Judd Winick ~ Artist: Guillem March ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=1.5/5]

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. The issue that essentially set the internet on fire (resulting in articles like this very astute analysis from Comics Alliance’s Laura Hudson) is a working example of how cranking the lever marked ‘Sexy’ up to eleven sometimes isn’t the wisest move. There’s been lots of chatter online recently about superhero comics and their general approach to female characters as well as female writer/artists, and I was never really expecting this first issue of Catwoman to be a particularly progressive example (the cover pretty much tells you exactly what kind of audience they’re going for). Plus, with a writer like Judd Winick and especially an artist like Guillem March, subtlety was definitely off the menu, but even so I wasn’t expecting something quite so leery and exploitative, even for the remarkably broad standards of a Catwoman comic. Somewhere behind the insane number of cleavage and bra shots, there’s the vague potential for a decent attempt at setting up Selina Kyle’s character in the course of one issue, but it’s pretty thin stuff, and the emphasis is so strongly on softcore titilation that the effect is pretty ridiculous. And that’s even before we get to the end of the issue, where (SPOILER WARNING) Catwoman and Batman spend multiple pages engaging in some incredibly ludicrous sex, while still keeping their costumes ‘mostly’ on. Laughable and horribly adolescent, this is the kind of comic that clearly states that yes, female superheroes can be confidant and wildly sexy as long as they flash their bra at least three times an issue – and it’s not even the worst of DC’s female character excesses this week…

DC Universe Presents 1 cover art DC New 52DC UNIVERSE PRESENTS issue 1
  Paul Jenkins ~ Artist: Bernard Chang ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=4/5]

What’s planned as a series of stories spotlighting the smaller characters in the world of the DC Universe gets off to a promising start with this look at Boston Brand, aka Deadman, a circus daredevil turned unwilling spirit who now has to help others in the hope of rebalancing his karma. One of the more significant resets in the new DC U (wiping out all the recent shenanigans which involved Brand being resurrected in the pages of Brightest Day), this is an engaging old-school take on Deadman which manages to be characterful and engaging, as well as packing in plenty of material. Giving a nicely supernatural edge to the DC Universe, it’ll be interesting to see how this title evolves, but so far writer Paul Jenkins is aiming in some promising directions.

Green Lantern Corps 1 cover art Doug Mankhe Christian Almy DC New 52GREEN LANTERN CORPS issue 1
  Peter J. Tomasi ~ Artists: Fernando Pasarin and Scott Hanna ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=3/5]

The Green Lantern franchise juggernaut continues, as the title which up until now has been ‘everyone except Hal Jordan’ gets a relaunch, setting up the new status quo with Lanterns Guy Gardner and Jon Stewart. While there’s a certain level of bewilderment in the level of detail, making this not the most friendly of the issue 1s, this does at least feel like a genuine attempt to bring the audience up to speed, and certainly feels much more like an actual fresh start than last week’s Green Lantern did. Of course, there’s still the usual mix of melodrama, heroics, weird space opera and over-the-top violence, while the end-of-issue cliffhanger is a little clunky, but this is at the least a fine new start for one of DC’s most popular titles.

Legion of Super-heroes issue 1 Cover Art DC New 52LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES issue 1
  Paul Levitz ~ Artist: Francis Portela ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=1/5]

Last week’s Legion Lost was fun, if a little on the flawed side, and at least managed to be relatively intriguing for someone who knew nothing about the Legion of Super-Heroes. This week’s Legion-related outing is, on the other hand, a borderline incomprehensible mess that makes virtually no concessions to any new readers. Yes, there are captions that introduce the characters, but I lost count by the time we reached what felt like character introduction no. 15, and at no point do we get any idea of what the setup is, what everybody’s relationships are, or even what the Legion of Superheroes actually does. There is action. Things blow up. Lots of things are shouted. There’s a completely bewildering cliffhanger. For regular Legion readers, this probably all makes sense – but the whole point of this relaunch was to welcome in new readers, and this issue 1 is likelier to make them want to hurl the comic across the room.

Nightwing 1 cover art DC New 52NIGHTWING issue 1
  Kyle Higgins ~ Artists: Eddie Barrows and J P Mayer ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=4/5]

After his stint as Batman, Dick Grayson is back in the costume as Nightwing – with a new, slightly more Red ensemble – and what we have here is one of DC’s best traditional superhero books so far. Giving us a characterful reintroduction to Nightwing’s world, writer Kyle Higgins does a much better job here than on Deathstroke in giving us a protagonist we actually care about, while giving the dialogue plenty of spark and energy. On the story alone, this would be a fun and engaging start – what lifts it further is the art from Eddie Barrows and J P Mayer, which gives the book a cinematic style and impact, but also uses some imaginative panel layouts to give the story its own distinctive visual identity. This is old-school superhero action, but pulled off with a considerable amount of class and style.

Red Hood and the Outlaws 1 cover art DC New 52RED HOOD AND THE OUTLAWS issue 1
  Scott Lobdell ~ Artist: Kenneth Rocafort ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=1.5/5]

And then, of course, we get to the other point of contention this week. For about 50% of the time, Red Hood and the Outlaws (featuring ex-Robin turned criminal/mercenary Jason Todd, aka the Red Hood) is a dumb but energetic action comic that’s firmly aimed at the audience that laps up similarly dumb action comics like Marvel’s Deadpool, and which also benefits from some attention-grabbing artwork from Kenneth Rocafort. Unfortunately, for the other 50% of the comic we’re dealing with the relaunched version of longtime Teen Titans character Starfire, and while the softcore take on Catwoman is merely misguided and trying way too hard, what they’ve done with Starfire is downright creepy. An alien princess who’s always had a habit of not wearing very much, Starfire’s never exactly been a flagwaver for progressive superheroines, but at the least she was an engaging, warm-hearted character with a broad-minded attitude to sex and a long and complicated love-life. Post relaunch, she’s been transformed into a joyless blank-slate sex doll who (apparently thanks to her previous life as a sex slave) barely even remembers any of her past lovers, spends the whole issue striking porn star poses, and sleeps with new Red Hood sidekick Roy Harper simply because he’s there. The level of exploitative frat-boy ogling in the art (which, amazingly, has actually been slightly toned down – originally, Starfire’s skimpy bikini in the beach sequences was supposed to be slightly see-through) is just downright wrong, and while Lobdell fairly obviously has some plans to explore and expand Starfire’s character, resetting a well-known character (especially thanks to the fun TV cartoon Teen Titans) into nothing but a sex object is a blatant way of pandering to the predominantly male audience, as well as being lazy and retrograde storytelling of the highest order. DC stated upfront before the relaunch that they were mainly chasing an audience of 18-34 males – I just wasn’t expecting them to give the female comic-reading audience quite so many reasons to stop reading…

Supergirl 1 cover art DC New 52SUPERGIRL issue 1
 Michael Green and Mike Johnson ~ Artist: Mahmud Asrar ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=2.5/5]

In a sensible world, we’d have gotten the Power Girl team of Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray, along with Amanda Conner on art duties, and considering how incredibly charming their take on Supergirl was in Wednesday Comics, it’s hard to imagine who would have complained. Of course, we don’t live in a sensible world, so here we get the first appearence of the all-new Supergirl, a character who’s had her fair share of reincarnations and reboots. In this case, she’s a confused Kryptonian who’s just crash-landed in Siberia, and while this title may be going for the teen alienation theme, what it boils down to is an entire issue that’s not much more than Supergirl being bewildered and punching various heavily armoured men. The art from Mahmud Asrar packs in plenty of energy and vigour, but the heavy emphasis on the visuals means this is another DC title that feels dangerously thin. Especially for a comic that’s going to appeal to a female readership, it might have been nice to have a little more characterisation and content – as it is, I’ve gotten to the end of issue 1 and I still have no idea where exactly this is heading, which isn’t the best way of getting new readers to stick around for more…

Wonder Woman 1 cover art DC New 52WONDER WOMAN issue 1
 Brian Azzarello ~ Artists: Cliff Chiang ~ Price: $2.99 ~

[xrr rating=3/5]

If there’s one character that was desperately in need of a focussed and straightforward relaunch, it’s Wonder Woman. The last couple of years have seen the ill-advised J. Michael Straczynski-helmed story ‘Odyssey’, which also saw the controversial costume change, as well as the much-discussed and eventually shelved Wonder Woman TV pilot episode, leading to a general feeling that nobody really knows how to handle this character. Getting a writer with the reputation of Brian Azzarello in is a good idea, and artist Cliff Chiang is an interesting collaborator, and the advance reviews led me to believe that this would be exactly the kind of sharp, action-packed adventure WW needs. And yet… what we actually get is nothing short of bewildering. Azzarello goes for the ‘throw us in at the deep end’ method of storytelling, giving us violence, death and horse-murder, and the end result is a comic that basically reads like somebody decided to do an ultra-violent update of Xena: Warrior Princess. The handling of Wonder Woman herself is mostly excellent (although it’s hard to imagine that any other DC superhero would have had their first scene being discovered naked in bed), giving the character lots of impact and showing off her physical skills in a well-executed fight sequence. However, from the bloody horse decapitation on page 5 to the limb-slicing in the combat sequences, this is a graphic book that’s taking a more deliberately horrific angle on the mythology of Wonder Woman, but doesn’t always feel like it’s concerned about taking the audience along with the ride. Too much of this issue 1 is bizarre or inscrutable, and while the setup it delivers is promising, there’s also the sense that the one ingredient that’s lacking is a sense of fun. While this may be exactly what some fans want from Wonder Woman (the lead character kicking arse and killing lots of mythological creatures), as a first issue this is more befuddling than intriguing, and the new version of Wonder Woman is going to need a lot more shape and direction if it’s going to be a true success.

Previous DC New 52 Reviews:

The DC New 52, Week 3 – Batman and Robin, Batwoman, Deathstroke, Demon Knights, Frankenstein: Agent of S.H.A.D.E., Green Lantern, Grifter, Legion Lost, Mister Terrific, Red Lanterns, Resurrection Man, Suicide Squad, Superboy

The DC New 52, Week 2: Action Comics, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batwing, Detective Comics, Green Arrow, Hawk and Dove, Justice League International, Men of War, O.M.A.C., Static Shock, Stormwatch, Swamp Thing

The DC New 52, Week 1: Justice League



Comics Review: The Week in Comics (7/9/2011): Casanova – Avaritia 1, Morning Glories 12

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

Casanova Avaritia 1 cover art Matt Fraction Gabriel BaCASANOVA – AVARITIA issue 1
Writer: Matt Fraction ~ Artist: Gabriel Ba ~ Publisher: Icon

[xrr rating=4/5]

It’s been a long time coming. Fast becoming known as the ‘Velvet Underground’ of indie comics, Casanova is a sprawling, wild and deeply bizarre mix of sci-fi and demented spy thriller that built up a major following when it was first published in a stripped-down, adventurously cheap ‘two-colour’ format back in the mid 2000s. Now, following a full-colour reprint of the first two series, we’ve now got the first brand new Casanova material in years… and it’s unsurprisingly tricky. Matt Fraction’s since risen to fame as one of the biggest new writers at Marvel (especially for his work on The Invincible Iron Man), but Casanova is something different, and weirdly personal in spite of its seemingly too-cool-for-school mix of spies, sex and alternate universes. Everyone involved in Casanova has moved on in one way or another during the ‘hiatus’, so it’s no surprise that this feels different – for a start, we have an uninterrupted 32 page chapter (which also means the price has gone up to $4.99 an issue), and also the storytelling is a little bigger, and not quite as fiercely compressed as before. That isn’t to say Fraction and his team aren’t still experimenting like crazy – there’s a dizzying whirl of techniques here, including seventies-style freeze frame captions, genuinely effective thought balloons, and sixteen different alternate universes on a single page. But with the story much darker, as Casanova finds himself stuck annihilating realities under orders from his ‘father’ (only to then discover something much more significant), this isn’t quite the full-on, no-holds-barred explosion of pure comics that Casanova has managed before. New arc, new theme, new style – I may have been ever-so-slightly disappointed with the first instalment of Avaritia, but I’m willing to give Fraction the benefit of the doubt and settle in for what’s sure to be a wild and unpredictable journey.

Morning Glories 12 cover art Nick Spencer Joe Eisma Rodin EsquejoMORNING GLORIES issue 12
Writer: Nick Spencer ~ Artist: Joe Eisma ~ Publisher: Image

[xrr rating=2.5/5]

Oh, Morning Glories. You had me. You really did. I was buckled in for the ride – the first six issues hooked me with their mix of Lost, The Prisoner, and the early (best) years of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. You even had Nick Spencer, one of the most promising writers out there, and the man reponsible for the Jimmy Olsen special that was, frankly, close to being the comic of the year. So why exactly did I end reading issue 12 of Morning Glories by deciding that 12 issues, frankly, was quite enough? Honestly, it’s because the second six-issue helping (I hesitate to call it an ‘arc’) started really well, but has ended up leeching all the momentum out of the story. The concept of doing character-centric issues is a good one – it’s very Lost, and it should have given us time to get to know our characters. And it did, in a manner of speaking – but Spencer’s decision to pile mystery on top of mystery has ended up with lots and lots of intrigue, but a glacial storytelling pace that feels like it’s going nowhere.

Added to which, most of the mysteries haven’t been followed up on in the slightest, meaning it’s been rather like reading six issue ones in a row, and I’ve gotten fed up of waiting for the story to start. Lost-style longform storytelling is risky in a monthly comic book format, because you’ve got to give the audience enough meat to feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth, and with Morning Glories it’s as if I’ve been buying 22 pages of tease for the past few months. Even issue 12 (which features some strong moments, seriously intriguing reveals and a couple of big revelations) still manages to introduce another new character and a whole selection of other things we don’t have answers for, and the results are more frustrating than entertaining. Added to this, there’s Spencer’s occasional moments of dialogue clunk, particularly when someone decides to say something significant in bold and italics for extra emphasis in case we hadn’t gotten the message that this was important… and then there’s the art. I’ve given artist Joe Eisma twelve issues to convince me, and his line-heavy, slightly bare style simply hasn’t won me over, while it’d be nice if he could draw more than one female character (Scarlet) who doesn’t have the same face as everybody else. It’s a real shame – Morning Glories has tons of potential, and properly entertained me for its first six issues, but right now I’m leaving this high school thriller to it. I’ll check in once the third arc is out in trade, but for now, Morning Glories is on its own.


Comics Review: The DC New 52, Week 2 – Action Comics, Animal Man, Batgirl, Batwing, Detective Comics, Green Arrow, Hawk and Dove, Justice League International, Men of War, O.M.A.C., Static Shock, Stormwatch, Swamp Thing

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

Action Comics 1 New 52 Rags Morales Grant MorrisonACTION COMICS issue 1
 Grant Morrison ~ Artists: Rags Morales ~ Price: $3.99 ~

[xrr rating=4.5/5]

A manic, hyper-energised rush of a comic, this is Grant Morrison in full-on superhero blockbuster mode, and certainly one of the most outright entertaining comics of the New 52 so far. Action Comics is also a take on Superman that hasn’t really be seen since the early 1940s – the Man of Steel as a young bruiser and social crusader, standing up to the corrupt in Metropolis while also trying to figure out his gradually growing powers (this is a Superman who hasn’t mastered flight as yet). Simultaneously modern and retro, this is lively comic-book storytelling that throws in plenty of wit and some glorious in-jokes (like the Smallville-referencing “Somebody, SAVE ME!” dialogue on the first major splash page), while also being the best Superman comic in a very long time. Superman was the one piece of the DCU that needed an update more than anyone else, and so far it looks like this relatively radical take is absolutely going to pay off.

Animal Man 1 Jeff Lemire Travel Forman DC New 52ANIMAL MAN issue 1
 Jeff Lemire ~ Artist: Travel Foreman ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=3.5/5]

Starting off with a pretty daring opening page (an interview with the character, presented as a wall of text), Animal Man is one of the more adventurous new DC titles, which perfectly fits with the title’s more adventurous and experimental history. This is much more in the realm of the Vertigo era of Animal Man than the self-referential Grant Morrison era, and while Buddy Baker may be a very grounded example of a superhero (especially since he’s one of the few allowed a proper family), this story’s obviously going to be pushing him in some seriously bizarre directions. Jeff Lemire’s script is atmospheric and well-executed – the art, on the other hand, will take some getting used to, feeling more at ease with the weirder elements than it does with the traditional dialogue (especially with the occasional distorted faces). Nevertheless, it does start off the weirder edges of the new DC Universe, as well as hinting at some deeply disturbing stuff to come…

Batgirl 1 cover Adam Hughes Gail Simone DC New 52BATGIRL 
issue 1
 Gail Simone ~ Artist: Ardian Syaf and Vicente Cifuentes ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=4/5]

This was the one real problem I had with the new DC setup – the fact that they were bringing the previously paralysed Barbara Gordon, who’d spent years as computer info-expert Oracle, back as Batgirl – but trust Gail Simone, one of the best and most consistent mainstream superhero writers, to dispel all my fears. Batgirl #1 is a really sharp, well-executed comic, and Simone gives Barbara a very distinctive voice that’s a mixture of cocky adventurousness and genuinely understandable fear. The previous history of Batgirl (and especially the attack from the Joker which caused her paralysis) is an integral part of  the story, and Simone packs this full of value, with good character moments and strong storytelling. It’s occasionally let down by a couple of moments of awkward visuals, but otherwise this is damn good fun and one of the highlights of the new DC Universe so far.

Batwing 1 DC New 52 cover art Judd Winick BatmanBATWING 
issue 1
 Judd Winick ~ Artist: Ben Oliver ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=2/5]

A pretty new character briefly introduced in recent issues of Batman Incorporated, the idea of an African spin on Batman is certainly interesting, but Batwing doesn’t quite manage to make it all work. Judd Winick’s script does pull off a couple of well-played moments, and there’s fragments of a good story here (along with a promising central character), but the cliffhanger comes at a very odd moment, and there’s a slight overreliance on gory shock tactics. Plus, the art may have plenty of texture and atmosphere, but it also manages to completely leave out any backgrounds, meaning this is an African-set comic where we never actually get to see Africa. Combine that with massive panels populated by tiny word baloons, and Batwing ends up as a very threadbare, empty-feeling comic that’s over before it’s properly begun.

Detective Comics 1 DC New 52 Tony S. DanielDETECTIVE COMICS 
issue 1
 Tony S. Daniel ~ Artist: Tony S. Daniel and Ryan Winn ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=4/5]

I’d heard mixed things about Tony Daniel (or, as he now likes to call himself, Tony Salvador Daniel) and his previous run writing and drawing Batman, but this first issue of the relaunched Detective Comics (which, like Action Comics, renumbers a title that had previously been going uninterrupted for over 70 years) is surprisingly good stuff. There’s a lot here that’s traditional and expected – anyone wanting a gritty tale of Batman on the streets of Gotham battling a grotesquely violent Joker will find plenty to enjoy, while also setting up the new Gotham-based status quo in a brisk fashion. Daniel’s take on the Joker is good without being classic, but it’s all well-executed, muscular superhero comics – until we get to the ending, which is an absolute, out-of-nowhere “Did they seriously just do that?” moment. One of the most enjoyable things about monthly comics are when they get the cliffhangers right, with endings that simply demand that you read the next instalment, and Detective Comics – a title I wasn’t even expecting to be that good – has made me seriously keen to discover what happens next…

Green Arrow 1 DC New 52 cover artGREEN ARROW 
issue 1
 J.T. Krul ~ Artist: Dan Jurgens and George Perez ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=1.5/5]

Oh dear. Remixing Green Arrow as a freewheeling corporate tycoon who moonlights as a Robin Hood-style vigilante is a fun idea, but did it have to feel quite so much like the pilot episode to a rather poor superhero TV series circa 1987? A combination of weak dialogue and the ultra-traditional art of Dan Jurgens and George Perez leaves this whole issue feeling rather lifeless, and propped up with the tired device of superheroes fighting supervillains simply for the sake of it. A couple of good moments and some funky trick arrows doesn’t make a decent comic, and Green Arrow feels locked in the past rather than something that should have been looking to the future.

Hawk and Dove 1 DC New 52 Cover art Rob LiefeldHAWK AND DOVE issue 1
 Sterling Gates ~ Artist: Rob Liefeld ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=2.5/5]

Speaking of the past… we have the return of Rob Liefeld, the comic artist superstar with the ‘questionable’ attitude to anatomy, who bestrode the Nineties comics world like a colossus (or, at least, a colossus who really didn’t like to draw character’s feet). Hawk & Dove, following the adventures of (believe it or not) the Avatars of War and Peace, is a comic that’s so ridiculously Nineties it should come with a health warning. There’s plenty of energy here, alongside some absurdly overblown melodrama (and the expected moments of weird, impossible anatomy), but this is certainly one bit of the relaunch that isn’t aiming at anyone but longtime comics fanboys. I certainly can’t think of anyone else who’ll get anything out of such a ridiculous, over-the-top and dated concept – despite a couple of mildly exciting sequences, this one doesn’t really get out of first gear.

Justice League International 1 DC New 52 Cover Art Dan JurgensJUSTICE LEAGUE INTERNATIONAL 
issue 1
 Dan Jurgens ~ Artist: Aaron Lopresti and Matt Ryan ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=4/5]

Another fanboy-aimed title, this DC adventure aims to recapture the spirit of the more comedy-oriented JLI, and goes about its business with an enjoyable sense of fun. Justice League International is the first of the mainstream ‘middle-of-the-road’ DC titles to actually feel like it’s working, bringing together a team of mismatched characters to tackle international threats to the globe (and doing it a lot more briskly and more enjoyably than Geoff Johns’ Justice League). Dan Jurgens is a very old-fashioned writer, but this gets the mix just about right, and the end result is a comic that’s in no way exceptional, but which delivers enough old school fun and entertainment that the reader doesn’t really mind.

Men of War 1 DC New 52 cover artMEN OF WAR issue 1
 Ivan Brandon ~ Artist: Tom Derenick ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=2.5/5]

An interesting idea – the life of traditional soldiers in the DC Universe – gets an execution that doesn’t always live up to its potential. Essentially an update of the classic, long-running 1940s -set Sgt. Rock comics (here starring Rock’s grandson), Men of War pulls off some very strong moments, especially the way it captures superheroes as a dangerously lethal force-of-nature. Trouble is, the visual storytelling is sometimes a little stiff and the art doesn’t always have the life it needs. It also doesn’t help that the back-up strip (a completely non-genre war story, so far) is, despite being shorter, a lot stronger and more effective. It’s good to see DC trying a variety of styles and executions, but unless this improves drastically, I can’t see it living very long.

O.M.A.C. 1 DC New 52 cover art Keith GiffenO.M.A.C. 
issue 1
 Dan Didio and Keith Giffen ~ Artist: Keith Giffen and Scott Koblish ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=5/5]

Oh yes. Deliriously nutty, colourful and intensely visual, O.M.A.C. is the most deliberate pastiche to Jack Kirby that I’ve seen for a while, and is also a tremendous amount of fun. Perfectly capturing the Kirby mix of energy, fizz and out-of-nowhere strangeness, this updated, retooled version of the O.M.A.C. concept packs in a tremendous amount of action, while the art (by both Giffen and DiDio) pulls off ludicrous visuals with tremendous style. It’s hard to know what non Kirby-fans will think of this, but the mix of sheer comic book pizzazz is so giddy that hopefully others will be swept along by O.M.A.C.’s infectiously lurid insanity. One of the most deliberately loopy of the new DC titles, and also one of the most enjoyable, O.M.A.C. is a must-read for any lovers of comic-book strangeness.

Static Shock 1 DC New 52 cover artSTATIC SHOCK issue 1
 Scott McDaniel and John Rozum ~ Artist: Scott McDaniel, Jonathan Glapion, LaBeau Underwood ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=2.5/5]

Originally part of the ‘Milestone’ universe created by the late Dwayne McDuffie, in Static Shock we basically have a fun, lively if not-exactly-revolutionary Spider-Man-style teen comic, with art that’s tremendously energetic but doesn’t always keep things coherent. The story throws in some fun setups, and once we get into the second half of the issue things start to pull together. However, the whole thing once again feels very Nineties in approach and execution, and while the central character does pull off some fun and charming moments, overall Static Shock doesn’t escape the feeling that we’ve seen all this before.

Stormwatch 1 DC New 52 Cover Art Paul Cornell Miguel Sepulveda Apollo MidnighterSTORMWATCH issue 1
 Paul Cornell ~ Artist: Miguel Sepulveda ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=3.5/5]

This was always going to be tricky – a relaunch of a long-running, well-known title that essentially launched Warren Ellis’ career, and which takes the controversial core team from Wildstorm comics (better known as the Authority) and drops them down in the DC Universe. Considering that two members of this team are, essentially, a gay version of both Superman and Batman (here known as Apollo and the Midnighter), this was certainly a risky and intriguing move by DC, and what we get is Stormwatch, a comic that’s big, bold and energetic, even if it (understandably) can’t live up to the title’s long, complicated and controversy-heavy history. For newcomers, Stormwatch are the people in the shadows, who’ve been looking after the DC Universe for much longer than these newly arrived cape-wearing wannabes, and Cornell pulls off some great cinematic moments here, while introducing a bizarre and intriguing threat. The character interplay is well-executed and often fun, but it’s also sometimes dragged down by Sepulveda’s art, which feels a little too stiff and doesn’t give the story the right level of visual impact (especially in the final splash page). There’s room for growth and improvement, but this is a promising beginning…

Swamp Thing 1 DC New 52 Cover Art Scott Snyder Yanick PaquetteSWAMP THING issue 1
 Scott Snyder ~ Artist: Yanick Paquette ~ Price: $2.99

[xrr rating=5/5]

One of the most visually impressive of all the DC Universe titles, Swamp Thing also sees writer Scott Snyder taking on a difficult character who’s seen multiple versions and relaunches (most famously, in a classic run by Alan Moore that essentially redefined what mainstream comics can do), and finding a unique take that has its own sense of identity and purpose. Snyder’s execution here is pretty much faultless, giving us strong characterisation and some graphically nasty horror, while also placing this new version of Swamp Thing firmly down in the DC Universe, with the sequences featuring Superman being among the issue’s best. Matched brilliantly by Yanick Paquette’s gorgeous, textured artwork, this is atmospheric dark fantasy that’s stylishly mounted and brilliantly done, pointing in some very intriguing directions. It’s hard to say if Snyder’s run is going to live up to this character’s very weighty history, but he’s certainly off to an excellent start.


Previous Reviews:

The DC New 52, Week 1: Justice League

Comics Review: The Week in Comics (31/08/11) – Flashpoint #5, Locke and Key: Clockworks #2, Secret Avengers #16, Angel & Faith #1

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

Flashpoint 5 cover Andy Kubert Geoff JohnsFLASHPOINT issue 5
Writer: Geoff Johns ~ Artist: Andy Kubert ~ Publisher: DC Comics

Hard as it is to believe, there were other comics than Justice League #1 published this week – like Flashpoint #5, the finale to the timeline-altering crossover miniseries which has never quite managed to be as interesting as all the tie-in Elseworld-style action going on around it. Naturally, it all comes down to family, and Geoff Johns ends the story in a way that will surprise nobody who’s ever seen a ‘Dangers of altering time’ tale, but does at least provide the right levels of colourful melodrama. It’s an average comic that doesn’t really deserve the weight of being the final comic published by DC as part of the ‘regular’ universe (although the big change happens here) – Flashpoint #5 isn’t actually bad, but it also isn’t quite the world-shattering conclusion that we might have expected, even if the often-used promise that ‘things will never be the same again’ does at least seem to be partially true now…

[xrr rating=3/5]

locke and key clockworks issue 2 gabriel rodriguez joe hillLOCKE AND KEY: CLOCKWORKS issue 2
Writer: Joe Hill ~ Artists: Gabriel Rodriguez ~ Publisher: IDW Comics

Another Locke and Key issue, another home run, and another example of what’s probably the most consistent and inventive comic currently being published. It’s a kooky, deliriously twisted mix of dark fantasy, emotional drama and outright horror that’s continuing to excel – this is one of the quieter instalments, but one which builds to a powerful finale, as Hill starts pulling all the storytelling strands together. There’s still time for some gorgeous visual moments and off-kilter wit, while one particular revelation arrives a hell of lot sooner than I expected. There’s only ten issues of the overall story left following this, and while I don’t know where Hill is taking the characters, I’m sure it’s going to be (a) traumatic and (b) unmissable.

[xrr rating=5/5]

Secret Avengers 16 cover John Cassady Warren Ellis Jamie McKelvieSECRET AVENGERS issue 16
Writer: Warren Ellis ~ Artists: Jamie McKelvie, Matthew Wilson ~ Publisher: Marvel

Now, that’s the kind of creative team that gets me reading a comic simply to see what they’ll do, and it doesn’t disappoint. Ellis does fast, whip-smart action combined with sarcastic one-liners better than anyone, and combine that with Jamie McKelvie’s clean, crisp artwork and you’ve got a witty, wild and hugely entertaining romp. Okay, I barely had an idea of what had gone before in the series (which follows Steve Rogers and various other characters on ‘black ops’-style missions), but by the end of it I was having so much fun that I didn’t care. Worth it, simply for lines like: “Relax. I’m too borderline psychotic to feel pain.”

[xrr rating=4/5]

Angel and Faith cover issue 1 Christos Gage Rebekah Isaacs Joss WhedonANGEL & FAITH issue 1
Christos Gage ~ Artist: Rebekah Isaacs ~ Publisher: Dark Horse

Biggest surprise of the week was how much I enjoyed this – the first issue in the next phase of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s comics-bound afterlife. The 40-issue long Buffy Season 8 was fun in parts, but arguably got out of control and certainly went on a bit too long; now that Dark Horse has the rights to Angel back from IDW comics, they’re now going to be running parallel series dealing with the new Buffyverse reality, where the world’s been sealed off from magic (thanks to Buffy’s actions at the end of season 8), and where Angel is now having to deal with the repercussions of his actions as Twilight, including the murder (while he was possessed) of longtime character and ex-Watcher Rupert Giles. Briskly written, entertaining and packing a hell of a lot into its 22 pages, this is everything you’d want from a spin-off comic, while the art from Rebekah Isaacs carefully rides the line between cartoony and capturing decent likenesses of the cast. It’s no classic, but it does look like this latest arrival from the Buffyverse is going to be worth keeping up with…

Comics Review: The DC New 52, Week One – Justice League #1

Writer: Geoff Johns ~ Artists: Jim Lee, Scott Williams ~ Publisher: DC Comics ~
Price: $3.99 ~ Buy it in digital format from Comixology.com 

Justice League issue 1 Cover Jim Lee Geoff Johns New 52 DC Comics[xrr rating=3.5/5]

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

So – after all the hype, and all the build-up, it actually starts here. The ground-up remix of the New DC Universe has officially begun, and the comic that kicks it all off is Justice League issue 1 (one of only two comics published by DC last week, a ridiculously rare occurrence). The whole aim with this is to (except in a few cases) make the continuity accessible, and provide an easy jumping-on point for an entire superhero universe. People have been saying that it’s either going to save comics, or it’s the beginning of the end – either way, there’s an awful lot riding on this experiment, and Justice League is going to be one of the heavy-hitters of the new DCU, whether people love it or hate it.

And issue one? Well… it’s actually not bad, and rather enjoyable in places. Not being the world’s biggest fan of either writer Geoff Johns or artist Jim Lee (who, at the moment, are basically the two biggest names at DC Comics), I knew from the start I was unlikely to love Justice League. As it is, they’ve given this first issue a very cinematic feel – the visuals are sharp and well-crafted, and there’s some very nice imaginative touches (especially in the use of the Green Lantern ring constructs). This first arc of Justice League is going to be a ‘getting the team together’ story, especially since this story is set five years before the new ‘present’ of the DC Universe – this is a world where the first superhero, Superman, has only recently appeared (a story that’s going to start in next week’s Action Comics), so currently there’s a rather Marvel-style mix of wonder and fear about all these new costumed vigilantes that are popping up. So, we’re very much heading down a ‘heroes in a world that doesn’t trust them who need to find a way of working together for the common good’ path – we know pretty much where this road’s going to take us, it’s all about how good the journey’s going to be.

And so far, the journey looks like it’s going to be fun, if not quite remarkable. As one of DC’s core titles, this really does have to be an appeal-to-everyone blockbuster, so I wasn’t expecting narrative fireworks. Johns is a very reliable writer – he’s going to give you exactly what you expect (solid storytelling, a few well-placed dialogue zingers, some very literal plotting) and not much more. Here, he gives us Batman and Green Lantern on the run, going up against mysterious cybernetic aliens with a very specific (but shadowy) agenda, leading up to a cliffhanger which introduces us to the next member of the line-up.

That’s one of the biggest caveats for this comic’s approach – I can understand taking the slow-burn approach, especially in terms of decompressed storytelling and not overwhelming readers who possibly haven’t read a comic in a very long time. But it does feel might strange to pick up a Justice League comic with the whole team on the cover, and only have half of them show up in the story (one of whom, Vic Stone, hasn’t even been transformed into Cyborg yet). I get the principle of starting with your most recognisable heroes, but it does make things feel a little skewed.

Added to this, there’s the fact that while this does feel very modern and sharp, it’s very much going for a heavy visual feel, with lots of splash pages and minimal panels, meaning the end result does feel a bit sparse. This isn’t a self-contained chapter in the slightest – this is the equivalent of the first ten minutes of a summer blockbuster, and while general comics readers are perfectly happy with comics that are very clearly ‘written for trade’, I was hoping the new DCU would skew slightly more towards making the issues as satisfying as possible, considering that’s what DC are betting the farm on.

The other factor to the visuals is that this is one of the first comics I’ve seen where, for most of the pages, it feels very much structured to work digitally. The panels are laid out in a way that most of them will very comfortably fit on the iPhone/iPad screen – many of the pages are only made up of about three panels, laid out in a widescreen manner, and it looks good, but it does also mean that the comics storytelling isn’t especially adventurous, or even that exciting. The ‘panel by panel’ approach in digital does sometimes reduce the comics storytelling down to feeling like a slideshow, and that’s what the print version of Justice League occasionally feels like – a weird first step down a road where comics are thought out first for digital, and second for print. (It’s worrying to me, as a long-time comics fan, simply because it’d be very easy for even more comics storytelling devices to be ‘bred out’ of mainstream comics, in order so that they can fit better into the digital world, when it’s the adventurous and ‘do anything’ nature of comics that excites me about them).

But then, Justice League isn’t aimed at me. It’s aiming wide, and so far seems like an exciting, fun and engaging start to the DCU, if one that’s a long way from being revolutionary. There’s only a small level of cheesy dialogue, and there’s plenty of fun to be had in Johns’ take on Batman, as well as the general entertainment of watching them building a superhero universe from first principles. It ain’t a classic, and could have been a hell of a lot ballsier than it is, but Justice League #1 ain’t a bad start to this brave new world of superhero comics…

Comic Review: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century 1969

Writer: Alan Moore ~ Artist: Kevin O’Neill ~ Colours: Ben Dimagmaliw ~ Publisher: Top Shelf/Knockabout ~ Year: 2011

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969 Cover Art Alan Moore Kevin O'Neill[xrr rating=3.5/5]

Reviewer: Saxon Bullock (aka @saxonb)

The Low-Down: The long-awaited latest volume of Comics Mastermind Alan Moore’s exploration of pulp fiction continues the eccentric course begun with the first instalment of the Century trilogy back in 2009. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century 1969 is a trippy, explict and disturbing trip through the dark side of the Sixties that’s full of amazing moments, even if it never quite reaches the heights of previous volumes.

What’s it About?: Eleven years after recovering the Black Dossier, the remaining members of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – the immortal trio Wilhemina Murray, Allan Quartermain and Orlando – return to the now Swinging London of 1969. There’s evidence that the satanic cult they tracked in 1910 is once again active, and dark forces are linking the worlds of hedonistic pop stars and criminal gangsters. But as one particular rock star aims for a spectacular live performance in Hyde Park, our immortal heroes find themselves in darker danger than they suspected…

The Story: Patience. That’s the main ingredient for being a fan of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a series that’s been published on an increasingly irregular schedule for the last eleven years (a fact that hasn’t been helped by author Alan Moore’s regular run-ins with major comics publishers, resulting in the series being moved from DC imprint Wildstorm to indie publishers Top Shelf and Knockabout). Even with the current trilogy of volumes, what was originally scheduled to be published from 2008-2009 might finally be finished in 2012 if we’re incredibly lucky (although 2013 is probably a safer estimate), but with the infamously outspoken Moore finally stepping away from all mainstream comics work, the LOEG is a project that looks to always follow its own bizarre pace. Moore and O’Neill are going to go at the speed they’re comfortable with, no matter how frustrating it might be.

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969 Panel Art Alan Moore Kevin O'NeillIt probably helps that the LOEG saga has, since the climax of the HG Wells-influenced Volume 2, been gradually stepping away from its Victorian pulp origins, embracing the ludicrous ambition of Volume 2’s head-spinning ‘New Traveller’s Almanac’ text portions, which mapped out an entire world and history based entirely on myth, legend and fiction of all shapes and sizes. Since 2007’s The Black Dossier, the League’s story has been a much stranger one – there’s still the sense of subversive adventure and the overturning of pulp archetypes, but the quest to push into ever weirder and wilder worlds of fiction has given the book a much riskier feel. It’s part romp, part twisted satire, part intellectual treasure-hunt, part spot-the-reference (with every single named character (and plenty of the background extras in certain panels) being a reference to another work of fiction), and since the start of the Century trilogy, things have only got weirder, wilder and more obscure.

This brings us to Century 1969, a volume that gives us the most modern version of the League world yet, crashing us into a brightly coloured and vividly trippy version of Sixties London that melds fiction, music and history into a pretty damn heady brew. While Century 1910 felt closer in tone to Moore’s Martian-centric second volume, this is much closer to The Black Dossier in both style and execution, with Moore taking on a whole series of Sixties-related characters, as well as having to do a lot of careful tiptoeing around certain names in order to avoid major copyright trouble. Featuring a cast of gangsters and drugged-out pop stars, there’s no surprise that there’s a hefty dose of controversial 1970 cult movie Performance and 1971 gangster classic Get Carter in the mix, with Moore’s story build a genuinely unsettling atmosphere as it builds to its mind-bending Hyde Park climax.

There’s all the wit, intelligence and playfulness that you’d expect, along with a predictably bleak and downbeat ending that sets things up for the trilogy’s final volume in a memorable way – and Moore also builds on the seeds laid down in Century 1910, with Mina’s perception of her own immortality once again changing, eventually pushing her in some surprising directions. Underneath the colourful gags, the savage violence and the head-spinning references, there’s a very pointed examination of the Sixties going on here, as well as a look at the way fiction evolves with the times (embodied in Mina’s determinedly ‘groovy’ behaviour). Along with this, there’s a sense of cynical despair at the passage of time and the development of fiction that’s hard not to read as partly thanks to Moore’s disillusionment with most mainstream entertainment (and especially comics and movies).

Thanks to this, Century 1969 may be never less than a fascinating read, but it’s not always a fun one either. A lot of this is simply the level of references – it helps to know a lot about Sixties pop culture (I was especially pleased to see the title character from Adam Adamant Lives! making an appearence), but even then there’s a tremendous amount in Century 1969 that’s pitched at a level you’re never going to appreciate without doing research (or consulting Jess Nevins’ excellent online footnotes, which helped me out with a number of references I’d never have spotted without help). There are points where the story feels in danger of disappearing into the realms of literary/pop culture game, with the danger that it’s very easy for a reader to feel excluded from the moments where they don’t get the joke. Moore doesn’t feel as interested in carrying the reader along for the ride here as he did earlier in the LOEG saga, and there are certain sequences that simply end up perplexing and confusing rather than adventurous and satirical (especially the bizarre scene involving a certain ‘Jack C’ and a moustachioed midget).

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969 Panel Art Alan Moore Kevin O'NeillIt’s partly down to being the flipside of the increasingly offbeat identity of the League saga – no matter how much fun the original two volumes were with their energetic pulp adventure, Moore could easily have run that concept into the ground. Instead, in the exact opposite stance of most mainstream comics (at which Moore aims a couple of subtle barbs during Century 1969), he’s opened it out and changed it so that every single League story is different in style and approach. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is still one of the most distinctive, daring and demented cult comic experiences currently available, but Century 1969 has a few too many points where the joke is starting to wear thin, and the chase to keep up with the trail of references and in-jokes gets a little wearing here. Moore is still ploughing his own individualistic furrow, and should be applauded for that – it’s just a pity that he’s not always bringing his audience along for the ride…

The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Century 1969 Panel Art Alan Moore Kevin O'NeillThe Art: One area where the League is still as strong as ever, however, is in its visuals. The only artist to ever have his entire artistic style declared ‘objectionable’ by the Comics Code Authority (back in 1986), Kevin O’Neill has a massively distinctive and individual look to his work that’s only gotten crazier over the years. Angular and detailed, his art is closer to the grotesque of old-school English illustrators like Hogarth than traditional superhero comics, and the League has suited him down to the ground from day one, matching Moore’s creativity and imagination note for note. Century 1969 sees him shifting gears again, and from the dour atmospherics of the gangland sequences to the hilariously extreme and imaginative acid trip, it’s breathtaking work that’s strongly backed up with Ben Dimagmaliw’s eye-popping colours. An extra note of applause has to go to Todd Klein, one of the best letterers in the business, who goes to even more imaginative extremes, making this a visually stunning and arresting experience.

The Verdict: Any new readers shouldn’t even consider starting here – The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – Century 1969 is a distinctive and often extreme tale that won’t be for everyone, and doesn’t quite live up to previous volumes in the series. However, if the mix of pulp adventure, off-beat satire and literary game-play is up your street, then this volume will still give you plenty to chew on – just don’t hold your breath for volume 3, as we may be in for a long wait…

[amtap book:isbn=0861661621]

Comic Review: Locke and Key – Keys to the Kingdom

Writer: Joe Hill ~ Artist: Gabriel Rodriguez ~ Colours: Jay Fotos ~
Publisher: IDW ~ Year: 2011

Locke and Key Volume 4 Keys to the Kingdom Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriguez IDW Comics[xrr rating=5/5]

The Low-Down: The fourth collection of Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez’s dark fantasy is the best yet – a pitch-perfect example of horror storytelling combined with inventive concepts, brilliant characterisation and yet more jaw-dropping artwork.

What’s it About?: Their father was murdered, and the Locke children have returned with their mother to the old family home of Keyhouse. There, they’ve discovered a whole collection of magical keys with bizarre and unearthly powers – and they’ve also come under threat from the creature that used to be trapped in the Keyhouse well. Unfortunately, they don’t know that the creature is now posing as their school friend Zack Wells, who’s starting to lose patience in his quest to find the mysterious Omega Key…

The Story: Ah, expectations can be a killer. Tell a longtime comics fan that his favourite series’ next six-issue outing will consist of four one-part stories and a two-parter, and disappointment will almost immediately set in. Modern-day mainstream comics (especially superhero stories) often seem structured more as six monthly chunks of the final graphic novel than instalments in their own right, and often don’t even work on their own terms as a single instalment. Single issue stories – they’re supposed to be the exception, not the rule. Aren’t they?

However, Locke and Key is a different matter. Ever since volume 2, Head Games, the series has placed just as much emphasis on the character-centric single issue stories as on the bigger, pacier tales (like the three-part Crown of Shadows adventure in volume 3), and while volume 4 does mainly consist of character-driven single done-in-one stories, this is a long way from being filler – in fact, it’s the most inventive and adventurous collection of Locke and Key to date, advancing the story in a number of critical ways, giving us a whole selection of new keys, all while building up to a shocking climax and a mother of a cliffhanger.

Locke and Key Volume 4 Keys to the Kingdom Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriguez IDW Comics Issue 3 Cover 'February'A tremendously skilled writer, Hill continues to serve up outstanding characterisation, adding nuances to character with carefully chosen details, and paying off emotional plotlines with massively affecting consequences. Of course, to anyone who’s read his fiction this is no surprise (Hill’s second novel, Horns, remains the only novel I’ve ever given up on part-way through simply because I knew it was going to upset me too much), but one of the most impressive things about Locke and Key is that, unlike some novelists who end up writing comics (and who often end up producing fine work), Hill really does understand how comics work as a medium, and that they let you do things you simply can’t do anywhere else.

There are points in Keys to the Kingdom where Hill cuts loose with a more daring and experimental approach (from the brilliantly compressed storytelling of ‘February’ to the wonderful and utterly unexpected Calvin and Hobbes homage in ‘Sparrow’), all the while understanding when to let the visuals tell the story. Locke and Key is a comic with a really distinctive identity, and the tonal shifts between off-beat dark children’s fantasy and outright horror just get more and more effective and disturbing. Indeed, it’s incredible exactly how much plot Hill manages to cram into these six issues, while he also gradually cranks the tension up to almost unbearable levels and shows no compunction in going for genuinely horrific violence when it’s required.

Hill’s already declared that Locke and Key will be ending in twelve issues, and the first issue of the fifth miniseries ‘Clockworks’ will be appearing in comic book stores soon – but while the story may be heading towards it’s end, it’s obvious there are plenty of shocks and surprises to come. The long-awaited TV adaptation may have failed to get beyond its unaired (and highly acclaimed) pilot episode, but Locke and Key remains one of the most well-crafted and compulsively readable comic books currently being released.

Locke and Key Volume 4 Keys to the Kingdom Joe Hill Gabriel Rodriguez IDW Comics Issue 2 Incentive Cover 'White'The Art: He started strong, and has been getting better and better through every series, but Keys to the Kingdom sees Gabriel Rodriguez go even further than before. His controlled, cartoony yet distinctive style is still as sharp as ever, as is his design work (virtually every one of the Keyhouse keys is a genuine work of art), but here he also takes on some serious challenges, whether it’s the brilliant war comic homages in chapter four, or the daring and wonderful Bill Watterson homage in chapter 1. Each one of these he pulls off with a major amount of style, while also matching Hill’s script in terms of portraying the character’s emotions (especially in the wonderful third chapter). Combined with Jay Fotos’ gorgeously creative and subtle colour work, and Locke and Key remains a seriously good-looking bit of comic art.

The Verdict: If you like dark fantasy or horror, and you’re not reading Locke and Key, get a move on and catch up with the story so far – you won’t be disappointed. One of the best comic series currently being published is going from strength to strength, and looks to be powering its way towards one hell of an ending.

[amtap book:isbn=1600108865]

Comics Review: Batwoman – Elegy

Writer: Greg Rucka ~ Art: J.H. Williams ~ Colours: Dave Stewart
Publisher: DC Comics ~ Year: 2010

Batwoman Elegy Trade Paperback Cover Art Greg Rucka J H Williams III Kathy Kane[xrr rating=5/5]

The Low-Down: One of the most well-crafted and gorgeous superhero comics produced in years, this collection acts as an excellent introduction to its intriguing central character, while also showcasing some truly astonishing artwork.

The Backstory: Socialite-turned-vigilante Katherine Kane is the latest costumed crimefighter to stalk the streets of Gotham City, taking her inspiration from the Dark Knight and battling injustice under the identity of Batwoman.

What’s it About?: Six months after nearly losing her life at the hands of the mysterious cult known as the Religion of Crime, Katherine is back on the streets and eager to hunt down the Religion’s new leader. But when she encounters this leader – a psychotic Lewis Carrol-obsessed young woman named Alice – Katherine is soon uncovering secrets she’ll wish were left unearthed…

The Story: “Lesbian Batwoman!” That was the main news story when this newly remixed and revamped version of an old-school Batman character was announced back in 2006. Yes, DC were introducing an openly Lesbian superhero into their shared universe, but when Katherine Kane made her first appearance in the year-long miniseries 52, not everyone was impressed. Touches like the rather impractical high-heel boots on the costume didn’t exactly help, and while there was some good writing, the general impression was that DC had ended up with a showy ‘Lipstick Lesbian’ character and not much else.

As a result, this first proper starring role for the character (in the pages of Detective Comics, where Batman first appeared back in May 1939) had its work cut out for it to prove Kathy Kane could work as a genuine protagonist. Getting a successful and engaging bit of superhero action would have been enough – but instead, the two resulting stories collected here (‘Elegy’ and ‘Go’) showcased razor-sharp storytelling combined with mind-blowing artistry.

Batwoman (Double-page Spread) JH Williams IIIWritten by Greg Rucka, the novelist and comics writer behind series like the police-centric Batman title Gotham Central, this is an incredibly strong piece of superhero writing that gets to the heart of an intriguing and well-crafted character. It was certainly easy to wonder if we really needed another Bat-costumed vigilante, but Rucka gives Katherine’s journey through the story a whole series of levels, making her a compelling and interesting character while not turning her sexuality into a cheap bit of titilation. Thanks to her backstory, it’s key to who she is (we find out in ‘Go’ that she was originally training to be a marine, but was drummed out of the service thanks to the ‘Dont Ask, Don’t Tell’ rules that forbid gays from serving in the US Armed forces), and Rucka manages plenty of nicely played character twists, while building a fascinating relationship between Katherine and her father.

Sadly, this isn’t completely self-contained. As with so many superhero stories, there’s past history this links in with (in this case, the lengthy story of ’52’), meaning certain plot twists come as a severe culture shock (especially when a group of shape-changers seem to just turn up out of nowhere). However, unlike many superhero comics that flirt with being adult but only really manage adolescent violence and melodrama, this is a superhero action adventure that feels genuinely grown-up, and will leave you hungry for more – and, after many delays, we’ll finally be getting more in the ongoing Batwoman series finally starts in September 2011 (although sadly without the writing talents of Rucka).

Batwoman - JH Williams IIIThe Art: Some comics look good. Some comics look beautiful. And then, there are the comics that blast your head off with exactly how lush, artful and downright gorgeous they look. J.H. Williams III has been building a reputation over the last decade for being one of the most impressive and experimental artists in the business (especially with his work on Alan Moore’s Promethea and the opening/closing chapters of Grant Morrison’s Seven Soldiers of Victory), and he really pushes the boat out here, delivering some deeply eyeball-frazzling visuals.

There’s barely a page in the whole collection that isn’t breathtaking, from the lush painted style and angular panel structures of the Batwoman-in-costume sequences to the cleaner lines of Kathy Kane’s everyday life. Double-page spreads explode in colour, fight sequences are rendered as lightning-bolt-shaped panels raining down around the central character, and the whole thing is simply a jaw-dropping showcase of the kind of places comics can go when a writer and an artist are prepared to push into new territory. Of course, there’ll be some who’ll look at this sniffily and say “It’s all a bit flashy and hard to read”, but this is the kind of storytelling that only comics can do (and which still works best on the printed page), making the design and structure of the page an integral part of the story. Far more than just eye-candy, Batwoman: Elegy sets a new standard for art and storytelling craft in mainstream comics – and if only there were a few more mainstream titles out there even capable of trying to keep up…

The Verdict: An expertly crafted and characterful introduction to a new superhero gets pushed into must-read territory by some gob-smacking artwork. One of the best mainstream superhero comic books published in a long time – buy it, and give your eyes a feast.

[amtap book:isbn=0857684299]