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December 30, 2002

Queen & Country: Operation: Morningstar
Greg Rucka, Brian Hurtt
Oni Press, 2002
Rating: 3.8
The second story arc of the British espionage title Queen & Country may seem like a well-rendered bit of war profiteering, but for the fact that it was conceived before the events of September 11th, 2001 made the Taliban a household word. In an understated display of his versatility, novelist and omnipresent comics scribe Greg Rucka (Critical Space, Batman) crafts a taut spy tale involving the hunt for a list of anti-Taliban (given the equally valid, if jarring, spelling Taleban here) contacts, stashed away by a journalist-slash-spy moments before he's arrested and executed. But as efficiently suspenseful as the search for this MacGuffin is, Rucka's handling of psychologically adrift "minder" Tara Chace gives the collection its lasting emotional resonance. Still scarred by her assassination of a Russian general in the series' previous collection (Operation: Broken Ground), Chace is further bracketed by feelings of impotence arising from her superior's decision not to send her on the Taleban mission in Afghanistan. Rucka's deft hand with an ever-widening cast of characters is impressive, especially given the fact that a "roster" of names, faces, titles and background info is needed in the beginning of the volume to keep everyone straight. Brian Hurtt's artwork is subtly effective, never drawing undue attention to itself while appropriately employing murky blacks for dramatic tone when needed. Tara's redemptive legwork in helping to retrieve the list of contacts from afar is both believable (in terms of espionage-story plausibility) and well-handled, with Rucka refraining from troweling on the melodramatic suspense a la Tom Clancy. Operation: Morningstar further establishes Queen & Country, with its spy-procedural tone and attention to character, as a much-needed broadening of the spy comic's limited horizons.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 30, 2002

Y: The Last Man: Unmanned
Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Jose Marzan Jr.
Vertigo/DC, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Imagine discovering that the world's entire male population, human and animal alike, has died off in an abrupt and wrenching cataclysm of mysterious origin, and that you're the only man left in a world full of females. Every able-bodied young man's dream, right? To his credit, Brian K. Vaughan explores the truly staggering implications of such a tragedy in Y: The Last Man, one of the year's runaway sleeper comic hits. Vaughan has sketched an eerily realistic world from this scenario, filled, of necessity, with a wealth of well-written, fully realized female characters -- a rarity in modern comics, to be sure, but all the more impressive an achievement for the byzantine, utterly plausible plot threads these characters populate as a result of his premise. Not all of Vaughan's devices deliver satisfying payoffs -- Yorick's insistence on tracking down his girlfriend, a rather bland cypher of a character conveniently hiking in Australia when the mysterious cataclysm occurs, is a forced attempt to give our male protagonist a quest. Yorick's mother, who just happens to be a U.S. representative, is a likewise contrived way for Vaughan to introduce wider plots involving politics and science. Yorick's sister falls in with a man-hating cult known as the Amazons, ratcheting up the soap-opera feel by a few notches. And then there's Ampersand, Yorick's pet monkey. But despite these very visible seams, Vaughan manages to weave a fairly taut and compelling tapestry, aided in no small measure by the clean, simple less-is-more penciling of Pia Guerra, which recalls the uncluttered craftsmanship of Steve Dillon. Vaughan's world of supermodels turned corpse collectors and militant wives of dead Republican congressmen, cloning experiments and geopolitical gamesmanship is vividly rendered, and Unmanned lays the groundwork for an engaging tale with the epic scope of Vertigo's Preacher or 100 Bullets.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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November 16, 2002

Kissing Chaos (Vol. 1)
Arthur Dela Cruz
Oni Press, 2002
Rating: 2.5
Arthur Dela Cruz received an Eisner Award nomination for Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition for his work on Kissing Chaos, a by-the-numbers descendent of guy-and-girl-on-the-run tales like True Romance. With all due respect to Dela Cruz and the nominating committee, such a distinction is premature at best. Kissing Chaos shows promise, true, but not any more promise than you'll find in the sketchbooks of hundreds of aspiring hopefuls lined up for advice at comic conventions coast to coast. Tried-and-trite tropes riddle the pages of this slim collection like bullet holes: two of the three central characters are named Damien and Angela; Angela is given to florid, prosaic reveries about "true love" that make even the jejune "song lyrics" peppered throughout Terry Moore's Strangers in Paradise look good by comparison. Dela Cruz's sense of pacing and structure is practically nonexistent, and there never seems to be any real impetus to the action: we don't know what Damien and Angela are running from, exactly, despite the queries of sassy, overbearing third wheel Raevyn, who scores an embarrassing name hat-trick. But it's Dela Cruz's angular yet murky illustrations, often marred by nuance-free gray shading to the point of near-incomprehension, that ultimately drag this work down. A handful of tacked-on "extras," padding out the anemic eight-issue story (said issues weighing in at a mere handful of pages apiece), actually only detract further from the story: a newspaper headline in one short scene referring to the three fugitives makes no sense, given that no such media awareness of the trio exists in the main story -- a fact upon which the final moments hinge. Such sloppy work wouldn't irk so much if it weren't for the accolades it's received, which won't push Dela Cruz to sharpen his talents and only lower the bar for other aspirants whose work just isn't quite there yet.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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October 18, 2002

JLA: Terror Incognita
Mark Waid, Chuck Dixon, Scott Beatty (writers); Bryan Hitch, Mike S. Miller, various artists
DC, 2002
Rating: 3.1
No discerning comics reader expects dazzling, literate and post-modern brilliance on a monthly basis, even from a title that's historically delivered same. This is, for all its pretensions, still a commercially-driven pulp medium at heart, and as high-quality as it is, no one expects every episode of NYPD Blue to ring with echoes of Shakespeare. Nonetheless, it's disappointing to witness a drop in quality on an otherwise exemplary title, as is the case with JLA: Terror Incognita. Writer Mark Waid, coming off of the sharp, masterful Divided We Fall storyline, forsakes the fevered invention with which he and former JLA scribe Grant Morrison built the book's reputation. Granted, the collection's main tale -- involving the revenge of the White Martians imprisoned by the JLA during Morrison's first story arc -- is well crafted in its twists and turns and smart in its pseudo-science (especially a sequence involving removing the moon from its orbit). But if it hovers a level or two above the average superhero tale, it nevertheless lacks the gonzo freshness of past arcs -- there's a definite and growing sense of re-treading, and a slight but marked shift in emphasis from the fantastic to the conventional (albeit conventional done with considerably more intelligence than the norm). A pair of unconnected tales only drags the collection down further: The first, involving a "Joker-ized" magnetically-powered villain unhinged enough to shift the earth's axis, leaps into its plot in the middle, leaving the reader to catch up. And an obligatory Christmas tale, while amusing enough, fares slightly better, but fails to elevate the nonsensically named Terror Incognita above a nagging level of seen-it-before, workmanlike efficiency.

::: The Gentleman

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October 05, 2002

The Incredible Hulk: Boiling Point
Bruce Jones, Lee Weeks
Marvel, 2002
Rating: 3.6
Despite its title and inflammatory back-cover blurb, Boiling Point -- which collects Hulk issues #40-43, picking up where the Return of the Monster  trade paperback left off -- doesn't actually explore what it takes "to push a man past his boiling point." Yes, there's a desperate gunman involved in a convenience store holdup, but the things that drive him to the brink are telegraphed in the story's first few pages. And of course, there's Bruce Banner, who gets pushed to that point quite often (he does have to turn into the Hulk, after all), but there's nothing particularly harrowing or unique about the stimuli he receives in this collection. Enough kvetching: Boiling Point details what happens when the above-mentioned gunman attempts to stick up a convenience store wherein Bruce Banner decides to do some shopping, and some mysterious men in black show up to snatch the crime scene out of the hands of hostage negotiator Sally Riker. Writer Bruce Jones doesn't display the same originality that made Return so compelling: Riker's troubled past will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever watched a cop drama. The agenda of the interloping suits is slightly fresher, however, and the scenes of property damage are all the more chilling for their lack of cartoonish detachment. Lee Weeks lays out the action in clean, precise strokes (save one or two questionable action sequences -- where does Riker get that all-important dart at that crucial moment?), and his style -- favorably comparable to that of John Romita, Jr. -- abets a sense of continuity with Return, further aided by the shaded color work of Studio F. Boiling Point proves disappointingly slight, but displays Jones' keen dramatic sense to enough effect to more than warrant waiting for the next installment in his sharp, detailed run, which still manages to breathe some welcome new life into the franchise.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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October 02, 2002

Daredevil: Love's Labors Lost
Dennis O'Neil, Frank Miller (writers), David Mazzucchelli, John Buscema (artists)
Marvel, 2002
Rating: 3.0
No one enjoys a good Daredevil trade paperback more than we here at Shaking Through, and the talent that produced the issues reprinted here would definitely seem to make Love's Labors Lost a shoo-in for "good Daredevil trade." Unfortunately, the stories contained in this collection are an erratic lot. And despite the back-cover blurb, it's difficult to read it as a cohesive story arc about love and loss. Sure, the elements are there: Heather Glenn, onetime paramour of blind attorney Matt Murdock, Daredevil's alter-ego, hangs herself in a fit of despondency, and Murdock's increasing moodiness threatens his relationship with current flame Glorianna O'Breen (not to mention his friendship and law practice with best friend Foggy Nelson). But famed comic scribe O'Neil drops certain narrative threads at jarring moments, and attempts at out-there, experimental plots (including Daredevil "teaming up" with Marvel Western character Two-Gun Kid from the safety of their respective times, and a fish-out-of-water jaunt to Italy) seem forced. In the book's penultimate installment, Daredevil's foggy sense of frustration and rage comes out of left field, as just one chapter earlier he seemed to have "stepped into the light" of acceptance and understanding. In truth, Lost feels more like an attempt to cash in on a string of issues penciled by Mazzucchelli (Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Born Again, but even that falls flat, as some of the work reproduced here is sketchy and lacks the vitality of his more acclaimed works. To make matters worse, a tacked-on fill-in issue by Miller and Buscema, which originally ran in the middle of this arc, is disappointingly obtuse. All involved have an obvious affinity for the character of Daredevil, but in this instance, their labor of love is a loss.

::: The Gentleman

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September 25, 2002

DV8: Neighborhood Threat
Warren Ellis, Humberto Ramos, Sal Regla
Wildstorm/DC, 2002
Rating: 2.5
It may be ungentlemanly to say so, but the fact of the matter is that Humberto Ramos is an "artist" of such logic-defying, jaw-dropping incompetence that his continued exaltation as one of comics' best and most popular creators is an affront to the order of the universe. Ramos' astonishingly horrible "artwork," which combines the anatomical ineptitude of a Rob Liefeld with the gross over-exaggeration of features common to anime, drags this collection of Wildstorm's DV8 comic down by at least a full point (although there is some relief, courtesy of a couple of fill-in artists). The book itself concerns the Deviants, a group of super-powered (or "gen-active") teens raised in captivity by the shadowy intelligence organization I/O and employed as enforcers and thieves by an amoral former I/O operative. Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, the Authority) deserves credit for twisting the teen-superhero idiom inside-out: the Deviants are the flipside of, say, Young Justice or Wildstorm's own similar Gen13, of which DV8 is a spin-off. Its members are directionless time bombs of pent-up aggression and boredom, numbly devoid of scruples or even a sense of teamwork as a means of mutual self-interest. It's intriguing to watch Ellis put these wretches through their paces as they slowly shake free of their jaded, hardened shells, and fun to watch him introduce drug use, murder, mindless sex and even incest into a mainstream (anti) superhero title. Intriguing or not, however, Ellis is clearly capable of better, and eventually the novelty of his "slumming it" here wears off. And then there's Ramos, whose atrociousness is best ignored, lest it consume the soul and lead to an inured state similar to Ellis' characters'. While his latter-day work on titles such as Crimson and Impulse has shown improvement, his crimes against comic storytelling here, complete with gratuitous and egregious exaggerations of the female form into absurdly deformed shapes, are nigh unforgivable.

::: The Gentleman

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September 25, 2002

Fantastic Four: 1234
Grant Morrison, Jae Lee
Marvel, 2002
Rating: 2.8
Turning lysergic superstar comics scribe Grant Morrison loose on the Fantastic Four, Marvel's flagship nuclear (or is that cosmic?) family, sounds like a creative slam-dunk. Unfortunately, in Fantastic Four:1234, Morrison, who's worked varying degrees of magic on titles like JLA and New X-Men, proves merely to be treading water, adding little that's new or intriguing to the mythos of one of mainstream comics' most fertile playgrounds. Given the Fantastic Four's status as adventurer-explorers of far-flung realities, one would expect Morrison, who bent the rules of space, time, relativity and physics (at least, as those concepts apply to the world of superheroics) in DC: One Million and JLA, to be in his element. Instead, he churns out a poorly-paced and largely unremarkable variation on an all-too standard device: Victor Von Doom, the FF's chief nemesis, lays out a complicated and supposedly foolproof plot to systematically destroy his adversaries. But Doom's plot is sloppily unfolded, with Morrison relying on inventive technobabble and second-rate psychodrama to fill in the gaps. He does show an affinity for the character of Reed Richards, allowing brief glimpses of the directions he could take said character, although he plagiarizes his own past cleverness: a sequence in which Richards stretches, or grows, his brain to comprehend Doom's reality-warping chess game is borrowed from a similar Martian Manhunter trick from JLA. Jae Lee's artwork, always an acquired taste, makes up for some of this disappointment with some arresting visuals, but all too often his storytelling is murky and confusing, leaving the painted colors of Jose Villarubia to shoulder the visual load. 1234 has the makings of a better tale, but ultimately proves a rare stumble from one of the genre's most gifted and surreal creators.

::: The Gentleman

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September 15, 2002

Howard the Duck
Steve Gerber (writer), Phil Winslade, Glenn Fabry (artists)
MAX Comics/Marvel, 2002
Rating: 3.6
It's telling that throughout the bulk of this collection, which reprints the issues #1-6 of the "mature readers" miniseries relaunch of '70s cult-classic comic Howard the Duck, that the eponymous protagonist doesn't even resemble a waterfowl (thanks to a gene-altering soup courtesy of his absurd arch-nemesis Dr. Bong). That's because the 21st century incarnation of Howard -- a cigar-chomping outcast "trapped in a world he never made" -- proves a much different beast from his predecessor. Gerber's sharp wit is still in evidence, but apparently in decline -- more often than not, his attempts at smart satire fizzle into facile parody of the sort one might find in vintage issues of Mad or Crack'd magazines. Where the '70s title was a fittingly psychedelic romp, this version proves little more than an excuse to show some occasional nudity (courtesy of Howard's long-suffering flame Beverly). That, and a handful of lame "send-ups" on the order of the Doucheblade (a mystic artifact known for its breast-enlarging and vaginal cleansing properties) and the "Boarding House of Mystery," supposedly a stab at DC's Vertigo line, with unfunny representations of Hellblazer, Transmetropolitan, the Sandman and (in a desperate attempt to equate his own work alongside Vertigo's cream of the crop), Gerber's own short-lived Nevada (which also featured artist Phil Winslade). There's little actual point to these "parodies," although a takeoff on Preacher involving a pathetically-obvious Oprah dig merits a few chuckles. The highlight of Howard the Duck comes at the end, in a hilarious dialogue between Howard and a bored, disaffected and disappointed God that almost reads like an issue of Alan Moore's Promethea; the Almighty reveals, among other things, that the universe as we know it was a freelance job, a "work made for hire." Although Gerber's reach exceeds his grasp even here, there are enough flashes of true wit in this final chapter to redeem much of what comes before.

::: The Gentleman

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September 10, 2002

Animal Man: Origin of the Species
Grant Morrison (writer), Chas Truog, Tom Grummett (pencils)
DC, 2002
Rating: 3.8
Fans of Grant Morrison's later convention-warping work on such superhero titles as JLA and New X-Men -- to say nothing of his less easily-categorizable work on The Invisibles -- might find Origin of the Species simply an intriguing curiosity. And truth to tell, it is somewhat disconcerting to witness Morrison's lysergic wit take its first baby steps within the constraints of mainstream superhero comics, especially in contrast to his decidedly less-traditional work on Doom Patrol during the same period as the Animal Man issues (#s 10-17) collected here. But if Morrison's socio-political sermonizing (Animal Man as strident vegetarian and environmental activist) proves aggressively treacly, he does nevertheless lay the groundwork here for the irreverent post-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity-shattering he later perfected with the "Hypertime" concept in DC's larger superhero milieu. In fact, Morrison's metafictional dismantling of both DC's hidebound concept of continuity and Buddy Baker (Animal Man)'s life -- which came to fruition in the issues immediately following those collected here -- should prove of historical interest to fans of the healthy and brilliant disregard for superhero orthodoxy. Chas Truog's goggle-eyed artwork, meanwhile, remains an acquired taste more than a decade after the fact, while fill-in artist Tom Grummett displays the clean linework and storytelling flair he'd later bring to DC's Superman line.

::: The Gentleman

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August 30, 2002

Superman: Our Worlds At War, Volumes 1 and 2
Various writers and artists
DC, 2002
Rating: 2.6
While the much-heralded "reboot" of DC's various Superman titles from a couple years back breathed much-needed fresh air into the franchise of the world's most popular comic book icon, of late it appears that said air has grown stale indeed. Our Worlds At War, one of those massive, headache-inducing multi-part crossover storylines that superhero comics so rarely get right, tries to concoct a sense of impending-doom urgency and a villain against which even Superman is supposed to despair. To say that it fails miserably is meager, undeserved praise. Imperiex, a giant planet-destroying collective being decked out in thrift-store Jack Kirby gear, is as lame a foe as DC has dreamed up, and a pretty transparent and pathetic Galactus knock-off, to boot. It's obvious that the DC powers that be stuck this white elephant of a "saga" in the Superman titles because Imperiex, whatever he/it is, would be laughed out of even a halfway-decent issue of JLA. The "action" flutters between the various Superman books, Wonder Woman, an issue of Young Justice or two, and a handful of one-shots with all the tension of a busted slinky. Of the assembled talents, Mark Schultz does his usual high-caliber work, as do Phil Jiminez (overqualified writer and artist for Wonder Woman) and artist Ed McGuinness, whose cartoony style is enhanced by vibrant color palettes; these folks do the best they can with the material they're given. The story itself is a convoluted, uninvolving mess that throws together Darkseid, President Luthor, and just about every DC character still drawing breath. While certain scenes, including one of Superman surveying the wreckage of Topeka, Kansas, are fun to look at, the proceedings are increasingly painful to wade through. Perhaps most noxious of all are chapters in which the text of famous speeches in American history (Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt's Pearl Harbor speech) are portentiously employed as background narration. Here's hoping future Superman collections go back to pick up where 'Til Death Do Us Part left off; even the ludicrous tale of Lex Luthor becoming President of the United States would be better than this overblown mess.

::: The Gentleman

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August 29, 2002

Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga
Paul Levitz, Keith Giffen, Larry Mahlstedt
DC, 2002
Rating: 3.4
The Great Darkness Saga, recently reprinted in trade paperback after years as a hard-to-find collector's item, is widely hailed as the defining Legion of Super-Heroes storyline, a relic from the innocent days of the early 1980s, before convoluted continuity made the book (about a large 30th century intergalactic superhero group) and its later offshoots a chore. It's easy to see why: There's plenty of action, and mounting suspense regarding a mysterious and seemingly all-powerful enemy. Since the cover of the paperback gives away the biggest "surprise" (which isn't hard for any careful fan of DC comics history to piece together), we might as well tell you: It's Darkseid, the evil granite-faced lord of Apokalips created by the visionary Jack Kirby in his New Gods saga. There are plenty of moments of the sort that make young superhero fans whisper "cooool....!", not least of which involves an entire race of super-strong beings reshaping the face of a planet into a likeness of Darkseid's visage. The ungainly cast of characters and Keith Giffen's acquired-taste artwork (which only worsened in later years) take their toll, but on the whole The Great Darkness Saga is a pleasantly epic diversion for fans of futuristic sci-fi/fantasy and continuity-heavy superhero books.

::: The Gentleman

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August 11, 2002

Ultimate X-Men Vol 2: Return to Weapon X
Mark Millar, Adam Kubert
Marvel, 2002
Rating: 3.4
As with Ultimate Spider-Man, Marvel's Ultimate X-Men updates the popular mutant franchise for the 21st century with a modern-day start-from-scratch approach meant to be easily accessible for new fans unwilling to wade through decades of clogged and confusing continuity. Return to Weapon X, the second volume to collect Ultimate X-Men in trade paperback format, isn't quite as engaging as the first volume, Tomorrow People, since the element of surprise (seeing classic characters recast in interesting new forms) is gone and the title largely settles into the mechanics of month-to-month serial storytelling. But Mark Millar (The Authority, The Ultimates) keeps the "cool" factor on high, introducing the "Ultimate" versions of Nightcrawler and Rogue, among others, as unwilling conscripts in SHIELD's mutant-slave-labor program Weapon X. Millar's intriguing post-modern touches (Jean Gray as a free-spirited, sexy 19-year-old; Colossus as a Russian gangster in hiding; Nick Fury as an arrogant, efficient and super-high-tech black super-spy with a link to Wolverine; a younger, hipper Charles Xavier with a mysterious agenda) keep the interest level afloat when things devolve into standard four-color superhero fare, and he shows a steady hand at refreshing latter-day morality: The Weapon X administrators sport a chilling sadism toward their mutant charges, torturing their agents at whim; Jean Gray is forced to commit murder without the easy-out last-minute-save one expects; most of the program's cynical mutant slaves laugh derisively when offered the chance to join the idealist X-Men. Adam Kubert's slightly cartoonish pencils come into their own, sporting a more fleshed-out look than the sketchy art found in the previous volume. Overall, Return to Weapon X shows Ultimate X-Men as a sturdy and occasionally intriguing title, not quite as viscerally inventive as Millar's work on The Ultimates but more agreeably post-modern in its approach than the streamlined Ultimate Spider-Man. Which is to say, still formulaic, but with a few liberal sprinkles of spice mixed in.

::: The Gentleman

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August 06, 2002

Blaze of Glory: The Last Ride of the Western Heroes
John Ostrander, Leonardo Manco
Marvel, 2002
Rating: 3.5
Much as DC sought to load some fresh rounds of vitality into the rusted chambers of the long-cancelled Jonah Hex title in the mid-'90s, in 1999 Marvel dusted off some of its long-dormant Western properties for this horse opera miniseries. Although the collection's subtitle ("The Last Ride of the Western Heroes") is something of a misnomer -- this paperback's release coincides with the arrival of a sequel on comic store racks -- it does indeed spell the end of the dusty trail for some of Marvel's six-gun-toting vigilantes of yesteryear. John Ostrander (a far-too-underused comics veteran) does a right serviceable job of drawing together a motley collection of the company's Wild West characters, too many of whom come with "kid" stuck somewhere in their names. The assembled -- Kid Colt, Rawhide Kid, Two Gun Kid and Outlaw Kid, along with Red Wolf and a handful of others -- converge in a standard plot involving a mining magnate (and former masked outlaw)'s attempt to take over the peaceful (and valuable) settlement town of Wonderment, Montana. As expected, there are enough gunfights, double-crosses and tight scrapes to gladden the heart of any fan of the genre. Leonardo Manco's atmospheric pencils lend equal amounts of grit and gravity, aided immeasurably by the color work of Mariana Sanzone. If it gets a mite difficult to tell some of the principals apart during the fast-and-furious battle scenes, well, that's no doubt one of the reasons for this herd-thinning tale. Although a bit too by-the-numbers, Blaze of Glory does offer a solid, old-fashioned entertainment alternative to the glut of superheroes clogging the comics mainstream.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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August 06, 2002

Crux: Atlantis Rising
Mark Waid (writer); Steve Epting, Paul Pelletier, Rick Magyar, Mark Farmer (artists)
CrossGen, 2002
Rating: 4.0
It's too bad that Mark Waid has bolted from the ranks of the nicely-developing comics upstart CrossGen, because his brief tenure with the Florida-based publisher has yielded perhaps the best work of his career. While not a tour-de-force on the order of Ruse, Crux is an intriguing and well-crafted tale that at the very least proves more thoughtful, coherent and suspenseful than such superhero circle-jerks as Kingdom Come. The story: Atlantis, home to an advanced civilization charged with watching over and shepherding the nascent human race along its evolutionary path, comes to a crossroads when a large number of its citizens decide to partake in a mass ascension to a higher state of being. Those who elect to stay behind go into a form of suspended animation, expecting to awaken in time to carry out their obligations to mankind. But when a handful of the Atlanteans is awakened by a mysterious stranger, they're shocked to learn that Atlantis is submerged, the planet is evacuated, and 100,000 years have passed. Waid deftly sets up solid personalities and believable and propulsive histories and relationships between his characters, and an effectively chilling and enigmatic race of alien antagonists known as the Negation. Storywise, Atlantis Rising does little more than establish the characters and the series' purpose -- finding out what happened to the human race -- but Waid's inventiveness helps push things along (in one amusing and intriguing development, the characters learn that Earth is now a theme park run by an interstellar corporation, with exhibits of different cultures and eras of Earth history). Steve Epting (Avengers) also turns in compelling and evocative work (as with Ruse, special mention must go to the colorist -- in this case, Frank D'Armata). Crux is obviously designed as an open-ended, epic quest, and one hopes Waid's departure doesn't sink a promising and rewarding title from the company that seems to be succeeding where Valiant and other companies have failed -- crafting a commercially successful alternative to superhero universes.

::: The Gentleman

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August 06, 2002

Sojourn: From the Ashes
Ron Marz, Greg Land
CrossGen, 2002
Rating: 3.6
CrossGen's high fantasy title Sojourn sports all the trappings of tried-and-true sword-and-sorcery. And while it's competently designed and executed, it's also a bit too formulaic, right down to the dangerous quest to recover five pieces of a mystical artifact with the power to summon a champion in a time of great need. Mordath, a ruthless warlord bent on world domination, is defeated by this champion in the distant past, only to be resurrected much later by a mysterious being who grants him the power of the Sigil, CrossGen's all-purpose, power-dispensing emblem. The action begins when Arwyn, a skilled archer whose family is slain by Mordath's marauding trolls, sets out on a reckless hunt for revenge. From the Ashes introduces the series' major players, including a dashing rogue with an eye-patch and a devil-may-care attitude and an enigmatic sorceress who charges Arwyn with the aforementioned quest. Writer Ron Marz knows how to keep the fantasy-adventure engine turning, with dank dungeons, last-second escapes and pitched battles galore. And artist Greg Land's talent for drawing attractive females lends the title an aesthetic appeal. But Sojourn has a long way to go before its potential to transcend its conventional genre trappings (by dint of its connection to the larger CrossGen Universe), making From the Ashes simply a perfectly capable adventure tale.

::: The Gentleman

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August 02, 2002

The Authority: Earth Inferno and Other Stories

Mark Millar, Frank Quitely and others
Wildstorm/DC, 2002
Rating: 3.4

Gifted writer Mark Millar (Flash, Ultimate X-Men, the Ultimates) continues to up ante on gratuitous violence (beautifully, cinematically rendered by Frank Quitely) and convention-shredding shock value in this third collection of Wildstorm's ass-kicking and name-taking JLA on steroids, The Authority. Unlike his predecessor, the insightful Warren Ellis, however, Millar isn't as disciplined at restraining the sex, graphic violence and wide-scale property damage; more than in Ellis's run, the shocks, more than the stories, seem to be the point. While scenes of a tornado devastating the Vatican and Manhattan getting submerged by monstrous waves rival or better the realistic destruction in the film Independence Day, such visuals soon grow stale, losing their impact without a compelling story to back them up. There is a story, and a decent one; a former inhabitant of the role of Doctor (a long line of planet-guarding shamans), who went bad and is tucked away in a prison located 20 million years B.C., regains some of his power and turns the planet against its inhabitants, clearing the way for a knock-down drag-out battle with the Authority, the planet's self-appointed, super-powered guardians...once the inhabitants of the Earth have been evacuated to countless parallel worlds. There are more than enough moments of super-powered cockiness and wholesale natural disaster to make any fanboy salivate, but one keeps waiting to see the increasingly arrogant superteam get its due. (To be fair, this issue is addressed later on in the series, in issues due to be collected into book form later this year.) Further plummeting the collection's entertainment value are three sub-par filler stories (culled from annuals and other sources), including one penned by Ellis himself. Between this bit of page-count padding and a growing sense that Millar is more interested in wide-screen "wow" effects than in digging deeper into the book's intriguing premise, the Authority loses a bit of its fuck-it-all appeal in this slight collection.

::: The Gentleman

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July 08, 2002

Ruse: Enter The Detective

Mark Waid, Butch Guice
CrossGen, 2002
Rating: 4.4

CrossGen has built its unlikely success story on a foundation of titles that eschew mainstream superheroics for a cross of science fiction and high fantasy, but its best title features neither swordplay nor spaceships. Instead, Ruse mines creative gold from an unlikely genre; Victorian-era detective fiction. Ruse revolves around the exploits of Simon Archard, an insufferably arrogant and impersonal sleuth cut from the same cloth as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's immortal Sherlock Holmes, and his Watson, the intuitive and intelligent Emma Bishop, a headstrong woman hiding a secret; she's a bearer of the Sigil, the mystic symbol of power found in many of CrossGen's titles. In Enter The Detective, which collects the first six issues of the ongoing series, Archard and Bishop cross paths with a mysterious sorceress bent on mind-controlling the leading lights of Partington, the capitol city of the planet Arcadia. Writer Mark Waid (JLA: Divided We Fall) hits a career highlight -- Emma Bishop emerges as a fully realized character, while the frustratingly aloof Archard never descends into cartoonish self-parody, even when offhandedly exposing murderers and crooks with all the excitement one brings to clipping one's toenails. Waid expertly sets up the title's ongoing touchstones -- Emma's power, Simon's penchant for disappearing without a trace, and elusive snatches of backstory involving his nemesis and former assistant Lightbourne -- while moving his plots along with compelling, can't-put-it-down urgency. But more impressive even than Waid's contributions are those of artists Butch Guice and Mike Perkins and colorist Laura Depuy, who render the streets, docks and elegant manses of Partington with impressive clarity and masterful detail. Even though it's set on a far-flung future planet, it's very likely that Ruse's consistently high level of quality will allow the title to take its place alongside such exemplary works from and about the turn-of-the-last-century as the works of Doyle, Haggard, Burroughs and Wells, Alan Moore's From Hell and League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and the ultra-obscure, incredibly short-lived Sam Waterston television series Q.E.D.

::: The Gentleman

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July 08, 2002

Star Wars: A Long Time Ago Vol. 1: Doomworld

Roy Thomas, Archie Goodwin (writers); Howard Chaykin, Carmine Infantino, various others (artists)
Dark Horse, 2002
Rating: 3.0

A long time ago, in a comics marketplace far and away from today's, Marvel Comics kept the Star Wars franchise alive between installments with a long-running monthly comic that probably still gives hard-core continuity Jedis the shivers. But if Marvel's Star Wars series didn't always adhere to the internal logic of the movie that inspired it, it nonetheless served as entertaining space opera; the four-color equivalent of the classic movie serials that helped to inspire George Lucas, shot through with lots of patented Marvel melodrama. This inaugural Dark Horse reprint collection, the first of seven volumes, starts at the beginning, with the rudimentary six-issue Star Wars: A New Hope movie adaptation, which is best skipped over for all but the most devoted Lucas devotees. The first couple of post-movie issues falter, with a distinctly chivalrous, out-of-character Han Solo heading up a ragtag band of misfits, Magnificent Seven-style, in defense of an impoverished village on a backwater desert planet. But once the late, legendary Archie Goodwin takes the scripting helm, things kick into a higher gear, starting with a war between scavenger pirates and dragon-riding raiders on a distant water world, moving into personal and political intrigue on a space station known as the Wheel, the Empire's answer to Las Vegas. Nothing ever lurches into science fiction hyperspace, and the artwork (even that of Infantino and inker extraordinaire Terry Austin) proves inconsistent at best. Still, fans of the first couple of light-hearted, Ewok-free films -- not to mention the vintage exploits of Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, et al. -- will find plenty of worthwhile diversion here. (One caveat; a hefty $29.95 price tag puts this 20-issue collection out of the reach of casual fans.)

::: The Gentleman

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July 08, 2002

The Incredible Hulk: Return of the Monster

Bruce Jones, John Romita Jr.
Marvel, 2002
Rating: 4.1

Superstar Marvel editor Axel Alonso transformed the moribund Hulk title into a creative and popular juggernaut with the six issues collected in this hot-off-the-presses paperback. Bruce Jones's stroke of genius is to reinvent the title as a psychological suspense thriller. A steely Bruce Banner (thankfully free of the self-pitying milksop caricature many writers lazily fall into) struggles to evade a manhunt in the wake of constant media footage of a Hulk rampage seen to cause the death of a small child. Trading messages via laptop with a mysterious benefactor named Mr. Blue who seems to know just when trouble's headed his way, Banner moves from a fleabag hotel on the mean streets of St. Louis to the grain-drenched Kansas countryside, pursued by a pair of mercurial assassins straight out of a Robert Rodriguez fever-dream. Jones ratchets up the tension like a master, throwing player upon player into the fray before letting the constantly simmering pressure boil over. It's to his credit that the Hulk's few brief appearances are all the more chilling and effective for their infrequency and brevity; the reader gets mere glimpses of an imposing behemoth in action, rather than a snarling, monosyllabic Rain Man on steroids. Romita's stark, scratchy linework proves admirably suited for Jones's brand of coiled-cobra storytelling, underlining his credentials as one of the most versatile and distinctive artists in comics -- and his Hulk is perhaps the scariest ever put to paper. Jones perhaps piles on one too many twists before revealing some much-needed answers in the final chapter. But that's a minor, gladly forgivable sin given his taut storytelling, which has made the Hulk monthly a must-read. One can only hope that Ang Lee's upcoming Hulk film (due in 2003) achieves a similar tone.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 18, 2002

G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero, Vol. 2

Larry Hama, Mike Vosburg
Marvel, 2002
Rating: 2.5

Given that the G.I. Joe comic series first stormed comic store shelves nearly two decades ago, one has to wonder why Marvel has waited so long to release issues in trade paperback form, and to release two volumes in the quick span of a couple of months. Doubtless the runaway success of the new Image Comics continuation of the popular toy franchise sparked a mercenary fire under the House of Ideas, and the current rage for early '80s toy-tie-in fare (Micronauts, Transformers) certainly hasn't hurt. Hard-core collectors, nostalgic fans and obsessive military-adventure fetishists won't care if Marvel's motivations are purely mercenary, but they may wrinkle their noses slightly at having to wade through the chaff of the series' first couple of years to get to the oddly engaging wheat of later issues. Volume 2, which collects issues 11-20 of the original series, finds Joe scribe Larry Hama (Wolverine) still struggling to hit the stride of later years, churning out clumsily constructed plots strung together with ridiculous soap-opera machinations and a heavy reliance on Tom Clancy-esque jargon; while the issues collected eventually exert a mild pull on the attention span, slogging through the whole set yields as many rewards as a junior high school summer reading list. (The purely rudimentary art of Mike Vosburg doesn't help matters any.) A large part of the problem with G.I. Joe has always been its opposite number -- the inane terrorist outfit COBRA -- a fact made punishingly clear here. After all, asking readers to accept that a legion of uniform-clad dolts good only for cannon fodder, led by a shrill martinet given to elaborately leaden schemes, could credibly threaten the free world strains even the sturdiest geek's suspension of disbelief. Dutiful completists will perhaps be willing to endure the non-invasive boilerplate tales collected here, but less patient souls would be advised to wait for future volumes, or better yet to seek out episodes of the pleasantly diverting mid-'80s cartoon series.

::: The Gentleman

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June 9, 2002

Queen & Country: Operation: Broken Ground

Greg Rucka, Steve Rolston
Oni Press, 2002
Rating: 3.9

Crime novelist (and current hot superhero comic scribe) Greg Rucka (Critical Space), who showed his versatility with Whiteout, further branches out with Queen & Country, a taut and spare English espionage title admirably devoid of Avengers camp or James Bond spectacle. The four-issue Operation: Broken Ground is a winning, if slight, peek at modern-day political gamesmanship, focusing on "minder" Tara Chace, a refreshingly normal operative who becomes a pawn in a tense dance between Britain's Special Section and a band of Russian terrorists. Chace becomes the Russians' target after carrying out a hit on their leader -- an operation, it turns out, that was unauthorized by the mother country's hierarchy; Special Section Director of Operations Paul Crocker slips the mission in under the radar as a favor to the CIA, in a blatant attempt to solidify his own political power base. All of Q&C's tension comes from refreshingly real-world tableaus, such as Tara's anxiety at serving as bait in a trap for her would-be killers. Rucka's scenes of internecine squabbling (between Crocker and his M.I. 5 counterpart) and covert deals are entirely convincing, and newcomer Rolston's stark, black-and-white linework strikes a perfect balance between cartoonish exaggeration and functional photo-realism. (Kudos especially to Rolston for Chace's rather bland, large-nosed appearance, in contrast to the super-sexy spy-vixens of, say, Danger Girl.) But if the action scenes (both physical and political) ring true, Rucka's lack of attention to his character's personal lives is disappointing. Hints at previous relationships and personality quirks are dropped here and there, but left frustratingly out of the reader's grasp. Still, Queen & Country deserves praise for its deceptively simple artwork, plot and pacing, as well as for a spy thriller-plot that doesn't rely on sex or explosions (okay, there's one explosion) to oversell or obscure an already sturdy story.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 5, 2002

 

The Punisher: Army of One
Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon
Marvel Knights, 2002
Rating: 3.5

Garth Ennis (Preacher, Hitman) is, in many respects, the perfect writer for the Punisher. Ennis' penchant for B-movie action plots and over-the-top violence is a natural fit for Marvel's knock-off of Don Pendleton's Executioner, and his twisted sense of humor helps steer clear of any ponderous Death Wish-style moodiness. And as this collection (rounding up issues 1-7 of the character's second Marvel Knights run) makes clear, Ennis knows how to handle such a one-dimensional cipher of a character, neither glossing over his sociopathic nature nor using Frank Castle as a means to preach against vigilantism. The plot -- involving a demented Russian cyborg and an island-nation of cutthroat terrorists -- is admittedly far-fetched, but much more entertaining than the previous paperback, which collected Ennis' first 12-issue take on the character. As always, Ennis' frequent collaborator Steve Dillon takes the ball and runs with it, lending the right leavening, light-hearted touch. It's not Fax from Sarajevo, but Army of One is good, if not-so-clean, fun.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 5, 2002

 

Captain America: To Serve and Protect
Mark Waid, Ron Garney
Marvel, 2002
Rating: 3.0

In Marvel's decades-long history, it's proven difficult -- if not well-nigh impossible -- to strike the right character balance with Captain America, and more to the point, to make him interesting. The snag has always been nailing down the good Captain's function. Since he's not, apparently, a tool of the American military-industrial complex, rather serving a living symbol of the principles on which America was based, how does he best serve that goal? Is beating up super-villains really the best course of action? To Serve and Protect addresses this issue, but not altogether successfully. Writer Mark Waid (strangely uncredited on the TPB's credits page) rather unconvincingly gives us a Captain in the throes of a bigger-than-Jesus media frenzy, and alludes to, rather than shows, this going to C.A.'s head. The denouement rings hollow, especially given Waid's choice of a villain: Like Kurt Busiek and even Peter David, Waid is capable of much better, but settles here for workmanlike, company-man fare. Ron Garney's seemingly rushed art style doesn't do much to elevate things any. There's a gripping story inside this character waiting to get out, but To Serve and Protect doesn't quite capture it.

::: The Gentleman

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March 4, 2002

 

Hellboy: Conqueror Worm
Mike Mignola
Dark Horse, 2002
Rating: 2.8

Mike Mignola's creator-owned Hellboy has always sparkled with potential, but few of the mini-series featuring the character have ever lived up to the promise of the premise. Hellboy, a gruff, demonic-looking creature brought into our world during a Nazi ritual gone wrong, faces down other-worldly menaces as a member of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense. And often, Mignola's flair for Hammer-film atmospherics and Raider of the Lost Ark-style evil Nazi mysticism carry his stories pretty far. But in Conqueror Worm, it's not quite far enough. Longtime followers of Hellboy's saga will appreciate his clash with a couple of nettlesome Nazi foes, but even they might find themselves yawning before this tale runs out of momentum, and even a neophyte will see the end (involving the likable golem Roger) coming a mile away. Also, Mignola's murky artwork sacrifices clarity for mood, creating a couple of instances where the reader has to strain to figure out what's going on. While there are some nice touches -- most especially the mysterious, pulp noir-ish Lobster Johnson -- Conqueror Worm likely will conquer few imaginations.

::: The Gentleman

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February 19, 2002

 

The Mighty Thor: Godstorm (Issues #1-3)
Kurt Busiek, Steve Rude
Marvel, 2001
Rating: 3.0

Godstorm is a curious little mini-series, offering as it does little justification for its existence outside of the names of its two creators. The plot, such as it is, revolves around a series of confrontations between the God of Thunder and the titular Godstorm, a sentient storm pitted against Thor by his evil half-brother, Loki. The framing device (in ancient times, a wizened traveler spins these future yarns for a couple of young Norse lads, hoping to impart a valuable lesson) is serviceable, and the creative team turns in a workable pastiche of 1960s-era Marvel. Rude (Nexus), in particular, draws out the Jack Kirby influences that are always lurking just beneath the surface of his lush, painterly pencils, while retaining the singular style that's served him so well. Busiek (Astro City, Marvels) proves he'd have been right at home churning out copy in the Bullpen's heyday, but so what? Godstorm shows his extensive, intuitive knack for the Marvel Universe's arcana and prosaic style, but he's much more compelling (and interesting) when extrapolating upon archetypes rather than simply painting by Stan Lee's numbers.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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February 14, 2002

 

Hellblazer: Good Intentions
Brian Azzarello, Marcelo Frusin
Vertigo/DC, 2002
Rating: 2.8

With each writer's interpretation, the character of John Constantine takes on more flesh and depth, even as the Hellblazer series as a whole becomes progressively less interesting. Brian Azzarello's turn at bat, while capable, is far removed from the series' Jamie Delano/Garth Ennis heyday. Despite a glowing recommendation from Alan Moore, Constantine's creator, Good Intentions buries an intriguing premise (concerning a small, close-knit community with a secret) in frustrating layers of moody atmosphere and an irritating style that creates more holes than it fills. Frusin's artwork is vividly descriptive and capable, but (much like Richard Corben's turn on Hard Time) fails to elevate the maddeningly muddy storytelling. Constantine, the magic-wielding British con man with a seriously skewed moral compass, deserves better treatment.

::: The Gentleman

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February 12, 2002

 

Captain Britain
Alan Moore, Alan Davis
Marvel, 2002
Rating: 3.0

As a curio -- a peak at Alan Moore's formative early '80s work for Marvel's U.K. line -- Captain Britain is intriguing. As an involving story, however, it's a bit lacking and quite dated. While Moore's flair for thinking outside of normal superhero conventions is evident, his knack for characterization has yet to materialize -- the titular character is a bit of an unsympathetic stiff. There are some admirably comic and inventive moments, including the character of Zeitgeist, who exists only in the most abstract sense, and a peek at a raft of alternate-universe Captain Britains with names like Captain Albion and Captain Airstrip-One. But on the whole, Captain Britain is less a satisfying read than a whiff of the then-untapped potential of principals Moore and artist Davis (whose murky work shows little promise of his future abilities).

::: The Gentleman

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January 10, 2002

 

Uncanny X-Men: Poptopia
Joe Casey, Ian Churchill, Various
Marvel, 2001
Rating: 3.7

The bulk of Poptopia  (which collects Uncanny X-Men issues #394-399) takes place in Merry Olde England, concerning itself with a band of underground mutants targeted by a "genetic cleanser" named Mister Clean. Nicely contrasting the plight of these outcasts, none of whom can pass for "normal," is the tale of X-Men associate Chamber (formerly of Generation X), who falls in with the cynical, manipulative British pop tart Sugar Kane. Casey wisely recognizes that not all mutants sport the good looks of Jean Gray, Cyclops or Wolverine, and that interaction with human society is all the more difficult for these pariahs. Bookending (or padding, if you prefer) the tale are episodes involving a rather powerful young mutant chap who attempts to emulate Magneto's first Marvel Universe appearance in Uncanny #1, and Iceman's visit to a mutant brothel. Casey's scripting is solid throughout  -- he proves himself among the top rank of mutant scribes. Churchill's visceral linework is a standout, although the other pencilers pitching in don't fare as well. An uneven but satisfying collection.

::: The Gentleman

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