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 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
Writer:
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…

TV Review: Doctor Who S6 E05/06 – ‘The Rebel Flesh’ / ‘The Almost People’

Cast: Matt Smith, Karen Gillen, Arthur Darvill, Raquel Cassidy, Marshall Lancaster, Mark Bonnar ~ Writer: Matthew Graham ~ Director:Julian Simpson ~ Year: 2011

Doctor Who Season 6 The Rebel Flesh The Almost People Matt Smith The Doctor Publicity Shot

[xrr rating=3/5]

The Low-Down: Showing that the deeply traditional base-under-siege Doctor Who story ain’t always as easy as it looks, The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People make up a potentially interesting two-parter that’s let down by some major pacing problems and misconceived villains, although is ultimately saved from total mediocrity by some interesting concepts, Matt Smith being brilliant, and one hell of an ending.

What’s it About?: Running into a solar tsunami, the TARDIS ends up making a sudden landing at an industrial station on a future Earth, where a dangerous acid is being mined with the aid of ‘Gangers’ – artificial duplicates of the mining crew, used in dangerous environments and casually disposed of when broken. However, when a second solar wave hits, the Flesh that makes the Gangers becomes self-aware, and it’s up to the Doctor to prevent the situation spiralling into bloodshed, especially when one Ganger starts preaching revolution…

The Story: (WARNING: As with most of my Doctor Who reviews, the following contains a hefty load of spoilers…)

It was never going to be easy following The Doctor’s Wife – which was not perfect, but did feature the kind of fast-paced inventiveness that Who does really well – and as I said in my last review, Matthew Graham wouldn’t have been my first choice to follow up Neil Gaiman, especially after the less-than-impressive S2 episode Fear Her. Well, the resulting two parter is definitely a much stronger story than that infamously weak episode, and also holds together better and more consistently than last year’s Silurian-themed two parter The Hungry Earth/Cold Blood… but it also shows that out of all the reactions Who should be aiming for, the very worst is a middling kind of ‘meh’.

This isn’t a story that thrives on the shock of the new – whether it’s a fresh take on an old Who enemy, or an odd, attention-grabbing twist we haven’t seen before – and in fact, up until the deeply surprising final two minutes, it’s engaginglyy played but very rarely surprising. We’ve seen this kind of story done plenty of times before, ever since S2’s The Satan Pit, but there isn’t enough pace or invention to distract us, while the plot also manages to echo S4’s Planet of the Ood (with the unfair exploitation of a race that yearns to be free) and especially the S5 Silurian two-parter, directly throwing humanity up against a dark mirror and showing what happens when we’re confronted with our own natures.

The central concept of the story – the Gangers themselves – is an interesting one, and the way the story deals with political subtexts is sometimes very effective (even if it’s also a little bit too subtle for its own good). Trouble is, we’ve seen Ganger-like duplicates before, and the fact is that they (and the twist of a Ganger version of the Doctor) aren’t quite strong enough a concept to hang a whole 90 minutes of television on.

While much of the character-based drama is well-played, it simply isn’t quite gripping enough, and it’s hard not to think how much stronger and focussed the story could have been if it had been a single episode. Added to this, you’ve got the slightly murky approach to the Gangers themselves – the potential was there for a ‘who’s the double?’ tension-fest in the manner of The Thing (which does seem to have been the initial intention), and in certain ways its good that they do try and explore the different levels of the Gangers, ultimately proving themselves to be just as worthy (and as flawed) as the humans.

The problem is that this doesn’t make for very dynamic bad guys – a necessity for Doctor Who to work – and it also undercuts the story’s tension. With large chunks of the plot involving various characters regularly switching sides (making it worryingly reminiscent of the 1970s Who story Colony in Space, much of which consists of miners and colonists capturing and recapturing each other ad nauseum), it’s like the story never quite catches fire. There are some excellent lines, and yet there are also some deeply clunky ones, and the lack of scale (with the perspective of the story completely confined to the Island monastery) meaning that the threat never quite feels big enough.

Given this, it’s a surprise how much of the story does motor along in an entertaining way. Despite the lax pacing, the direction pulls out plenty of atmosphere, the performances are largely strong (aside from a couple of exceptions, including an especially unconvincing child actor), and Matt Smith once again proves that he’s one of the most gleefully eccentric actors ever to get his hands on the role of the Doctor. Emerging from the TARDIS and exclaiming “Behold, a cockerel!”, he’s a delightfully kooky presence who brightens up even the less exciting scenes, while there’s also some nice nuances and depth given to Amy and Rory’s relationship (although I suspect some dialogue about Rory’s reasons for being able to sympathise with the Ganger Jen – thanks to his 2000-year-old experience as an Auton duplicate – may have been cut, and would have helped a lot).

Both episodes, despite their flaws (and a couple of especially weak CG shots), have more genuine invention and cleverness than The Curse of the Black Spot, although they’ve also got their fair share of logic errors as well (like exactly why it was necessary for the Ganger Doctor to sacrifice himself (other than to tie up a plot end), and where exactly did the second sonic screwdriver come from?). Ultimately, it’s an episode that’s a little too busy exploring the human condition to deliver the kind of adventurous scariness that Who does so well (and which The Doctor’s Wife pulled off with aplomb). A medium episode of Doctor Who is still good fun – it just has the danger of possibly not sticking in the memory, which is something you can’t say about most RTD episodes (even if they were sometimes only memorable for being extremely bad…)

Some of these problems (especially the ones of scale) are obviously down to money. The cuts in the show’s production budget were relatively obvious last year, and the gap between the blockbusting episodes and the smaller-scale stories does seem to becoming a little more extreme in Season 6 (with this being the second story this year to revolve around a small number of characters trapped in a relatively confined environment – and from the looks of things, there’s at least a couple more to come).

The end result is that the storytelling needs to get sharper and more imaginative to compensate, and while the budget could only stretch to a handful of shots of the surprisingly nasty Japanese horror-style mutant Jen Ganger in the climax of the episode, I can’t help feeling that this two-parter would have been much more gripping – and a hell of a lot more fun – if they’d eased off on exploring the human condition and just given us a cracking ‘The Thing’-style monster story.

However, while there is a lot of online grumbling about this initial slate of episodes (One thing Doctor Who fans never run out of is things to complain about), it’s worth remembering that last year had its own fair share of middling or not hugely impressive episodes. S6’s strike rate isn’t as initially strong as S5 – but then, I just end up looking at the major quality wobbles in the first seven episodes of S2 (excepting The Girl in the Fireplace, of course), and remind myself that creative teams are allowed to stumble a bit from time to time, and can sometimes take a while to truly get to grips with how difficult Who can be to pull off.

Some of this grumbling is, of course, because of the intricate story arc (and, simply, that Moffat is comitting the cardinal Who sin of – shock, horror! – attempting something that’s new and ambitious and not like what’s gone before), but the arc elements actually play into The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People rather well. We have the fact that the Doctor now knows more detail about his death in The Impossible Astronaut, there’s the slightly over-fast line that states we possibly may not have seen the last of the Ganger version of the Doctor…

…and there’s the ending.

Curiously enough, the last-minute revelation that Amy has been a Ganger duplicate for months (potentially since the appearence of the Silence in the White House bathroom?) is another mirroring of the Silurian two-parter and its sudden execution of Rory, although at least this feels a lot less tacked on and a far more organic part of the plot. The slightly hazy morality of the scene in question – the fact that we’ve spent the whole story establishing that Gangers should be treated humanely, and the Doctor essentially kills Amy’s non-self-aware Ganger – only really hits once the episode is over and you’ve had a chance to think about it (rather like the pregnant dream-suicide in Amy’s Choice). It’s still a magnificent twist, though, as well as a fantastically disturbing one, and it does raise the stakes massively for next week’s mid-season finale.

It’s also a natural evolution of Who storytelling – going from simply having something like ‘Bad Wolf’ turn up (and jerry-rigging a slightly convoluted explanation at the end of the season), to experimenting with full-on arcs that demand a lot of attention. There are potential risks involved; I think some of the episodes in this half of the series could have been stronger, and I’m also hoping that enough explanations are coming next week for this to feel genuinely satisfying – but I’m not about to start bitching about Moffat daring to do his own thing and approach the show with some serious ambition. I just feel like sometimes his cerebral approach doesn’t always suit the material, and that tonally S6 should possibly have had a little bit more fun upfront, and a little less dark and spooky character-driven soul searching.

The Verdict: A two-parter that does entertain but mostly leaves the needle firmly stuck on ‘average’, The Rebel Flesh and The Almost People is really just the latest in a long line of trad-Who two parters that didn’t quite come off (from Rise of the Cybermen/The Age of Steel to Daleks in Manhattan/Evolution of the Daleks, and even The Sontaran Stratagem/The Poison Sky). It does, however, set the scene for next week’s mid-season cliffhanger, and certainly has me hoping Moffat is going to have something seriously big to deliver in ‘A Good Man Goes to War’…

Previous Doctor Who Season 6 Reviews:

S6 E04 – ‘The Doctor’s Wife’

S6 E03 – ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’

S6 E02 – ‘Day of the Moon’

S6 E01 – ‘The Impossible Astronaut’