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Comics: Shakethrus: 2006 | 2005 | 2004 | 2003 | 2002

December 30, 2004

The Walking Dead Vol. 2: Miles Behind Us
Robert Kirkman, Charlie Adlard
Image, 2004
Rating: 4.4
This second volume to collect The Walking Dead follows Robert Kirkman's motley crew of human survivors as they leave their makeshift camp on the outskirts of Atlanta to search for shelter from the cold, and more importantly, safety from the hordes of zombies stalking the remnants of society. Supplies are running low and conflicts are heating up, as even the typically reliable and mild-mannered characters begin to buckle under the pressure of surviving in a zombie apocalypse. New relationships are formed, while existing ones become strained, and new faces are added to the mix even as familiar ones are taken out of the picture in horrifying ways. Both an abandoned housing complex and a farmer's family offer the group brief respite from the dangers around them, but it isn't long before problems arise, whether from nightmarish ghouls or from the darker side of human nature. As with the previous volume, Days Gone Bye, this collection's serial format allows Kirkman to explore aspects of the zombie plague rarely considered in more limited formats, such as the contrast between compassion, denial and survival when dealing with monsters that were once human. Meanwhile, Charlie Adlard takes over on illustration, and while he brings a rougher visual style to the book than Tony Moore did, it's still as engaging a read as ever. Kirkman continues to make us care about these characters, whether we like them or not. And since their safety is never assured, it makes each turn of the page (not to mention the wait for the next trade paperback) as tense as any classic horror film.

::: Dave Brennan

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November 24, 2004

Doom Patrol: The Painting That Ate Paris
Grant Morrison, Richard Case, John Nyberg
DC/Vertigo, 2004
Rating: 3.7
The second volume to collect Grant Morrison's now-famous late 1980s/early '90s run on DC's troubled Doom Patrol charts the precise moment that the groundbreaking writer peaked on the book and slid into uninspired oddity for its own sake. The first collection, Crawling From the Wreckage, promised great things for the formerly moribund title. Morrison, then still a relative unknown, exhibited a bit of comic-book genius in carrying the Doom Patrol's milieu -- the bizarre, unexplainable corners of the DC Universe -- to lysergic extremes, pitting the group of outcasts against such imaginative concepts as a work of meta-fiction threatening to write itself over our reality and the visually intriguing Scissormen, gruesome nursery-rhyme stormtroopers come to life. Painting's titular storyline builds on those moments, as the heroes enter a painting that has, well, swallowed Paris whole. Slathered with references to beyond-the-fringe concepts and culture, "Painting" is an inspired inversion of the superhero comic; Morrison's antagonists -- the delightfully absurd Brotherhood of Dada -- poke great fun at the patently ridiculous aspirations of standard supervillains. But after a stand-alone story in which Robotman travels into the subconscious mind of the team's multiple-personality powerhouse Crazy Jane, Painting simply begins feeding on itself, blindly throwing strange concepts (the Pale Police! The Shroud of Stilts! The Wound!) against the wall to exponentially decreasing effect. (Although the closing issue here, a diverting done-in-one deliriously updating The Brotherhood of Evil's Brain and Monsieur Mallah as pining lovers, is great fun.) In fact, Doom Patrol never quite recovered after the "Painting" arc, despite consistently sturdy pencils from Richard Case (and appropriately jagged lettering from John Workman). Morrison would later prove that his gift for uncanny characters and beyond-the-fringe epics worked best within genre restraints, as on JLA. Too bad: The first half of Painting, like Crawling before it, is brilliant.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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August 11, 2004

Noble Causes Vol. II: Family Secrets
Jay Faerber, Ian Richardson
Image, 2004
Rating: 3.7
Jay Faerber's charming superhero soap opera doesn't disappoint in its second volume. Faerber wisely avoids the kind of over-the-top melodrama the concept so easily lends itself to, and shows a deft hand at characterization in the process. Family Secrets centers on the pregnancy of the capricious, club-hopping Zephyr Noble, the youngest child (a minor, no less) of the powerful Noble superhero clan, obviously meant to signify a callow Britney/Paris/Christina type. But Faerber invests even this manipulative, sexually active little girl with a streak of innocence. Meanwhile, Gaia, the family matriarch, continues to zealously safeguard the family's media presence and determine who leaked Zephyr's pregnancy to the press; Celeste, the wife of man-turned-android Rusty Noble, continues her affair with Rusty's black-sheep half-brother Frost (who keeps pestering Gaia about his paternity); the demon Krennick, family friend and estranged son of Draconis, the Nobles' arch-enemy, harbors an unhealthy obsession with Zephyr; and Liz Donnelly, the non-powered, recent widow of speedster Race Noble (and the reader's surrogate), continues to navigate her way through her new adopted family. It's all good, lightweight fun, and Ian Richardson's mainstream, animation-style pencils keep things grounded in a cartoon-world setting. Noble Causes isn't hardcore, ultra-realistic superhero fantasy, and doesn't try to be. But in its human characterizations and capable pacing, it offers plenty pleasures of its own.

::: The Gentleman

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August 10, 2004

Batman: Hush Vol. 1
Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee
DC, 2004
Rating: 3.2
The announcement that writer Jeph Loeb and superstar artist Jim Lee would be pairing for a run on Batman generated a lot of hype, most of it centered around the fact that it would mark Lee's return to drawing a monthly comic. Indeed, it's a pleasure to once again indulge in Lee's detailed linework, further brought to life by inker Scott Williams and colorist Alex Sinclair. And judging from the first five issues of the team's Hush storyline collected in this paperback volume, the familiar glow of Lee's artwork is this story's main selling point. Loeb's certainly a capable storyteller, as his many collaborations with artist Tim Sale make clear. But the plot here is mostly setup, and rather workmanlike. Loeb somewhat laboriously stretches out a mystery involving Killer Croc, Poison Ivy and Catwoman, stokes the fires of a possible Batman-Catwoman romance (without yet plausibly establishing why Batman would suddenly give in to such feelings) and teases the audience with a bandaged observer who keeps showing up at key moments to mutter cryptically to himself. Loeb also introduces a childhood friend of Bruce Wayne's, who's such an obvious red herring (could he be the mysterious figure?) he insults the intelligence. Lee's scratchy, vivid pencils keep the reader entertained, but in this volume, Hush doesn't quite justify the noise it's generated.

::: The Gentleman

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August 10, 2004

The Avengers: Living Legends
Kurt Busiek, George Perez
Marvel, 2004
Rating: 2.5
This writer came down rather hard on The Kang Dynasty, which collected Kurt Busiek's last issues on The Avengers. So it's worth stating that Living Legends, which collects a run of issues that predates Kang, is a better read. But it offers more evidence, if any were needed, that Busiek plays it extremely safe when he helms a mainstream superhero title like this one; Living Legends is a prime example of classicist superhero storytelling, dependent upon dusty corners of Marvel continuity populated by second- and third-rate villains. Busiek pits the Avengers against the Exemplars, servants of a group of ancient figures engaged in a contest called "the Wager of the Octessence," and Kulan Gath, a wizened sorcerer eager to assume his delayed destiny as a god. A subplot involving public antipathy toward the Avengers, and the manipulations of a spiritual organization known as the Triune Understanding, is similarly executed with clockwork efficiency. These kinds of stock adventure tales move Marvel continuity forward, but they don't add anything of importance to the characters' ongoing stories. In contrast to the Morrison-Porter-Dell run on DC's JLA, Living Legends offers few opportunities to explore the Avengers' status as, well, living legends.

::: The Gentleman

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July 09, 2004

Fantastic Four Visionaries: John Byrne Vol. 2
John Byrne
Marvel, 2004
Rating: 2.7
Writer-artist John Byrne is credited with reinvigorating Marvel's first family of superheroes when he took over Fantastic Four in the early 1980s, and rightly so -- for the most part, that is. As this second volume to collect his long and acclaimed run on the title makes clear, Byrne's tenure on the book was hit-or-miss (as opposed to his recent work, which is pretty much all miss). An arc in which the FF is pitted against the planet-devouring force Galactus, due to the machinations of Terrax, Galactus' former herald, combines Byrne's formidable strengths (slam-bang superhero action and smartly executed cosmic opera) to fine effect. But an arc involving Doctor Doom, the team's arch-nemesis, is strangely uninvolving, despite a plot that forces Doom and the FF to work together to overthrow the tyrannical new ruler of Latveria, the nation Doom once ruled. A bit involving the premature aging of Franklin Richards is flat and unsatisfying, and the closing two-issue tale, involving Gladiator of the Shi'ar Imperial Guard, likewise lacks much punch; its resolution is numbingly easy to guess, and Byrne's squeaky-clean linework robs even the slugfests of any real drama. (This arc is all the more disappointing given that the tale wrapped up in the title's 250th issue -- usually a landmark commemorated with events of weight and import rather than what feels like filler.) Worse, gimmicky standalone tales like "Render Unto Caesar!" and "Nightmare!" are workmanlike at best, the kind of stories that usually crop up as "inventory tales" by no-name teams to fill scheduling gaps. There's certainly much to admire about Byrne's run on Marvel's flagship title. But this volume only offers a fleeting glimpse of the capable plotting and high adventure with which the once-vibrant creator imbued "The World's Greatest Comic Magazine." Chalk it up to sophomore slump.

::: The Gentleman

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June 16, 2004

Jimmy Olsen: Adventures by Jack Kirby, Volume One
Jack Kirby, Vince Coletta
DC, 2003
Rating: 4.1
This first of two volumes to collect Jack Kirby's legendary run on the moribund Superman's Pal: Jimmy Olsen, the title he used as a springboard for launching his Fourth World saga into the DC Universe, possesses a rough-hewn charm. Kirby's artwork is serviceable, but lacks the vivid, uncontainable imagination that leapt from the pages of his Fantastic Four work just a few years before -- save for the psychedelic collages he loved. But it's the jagged edges of Kirby's story that stand out, making Jimmy Olsen an intriguing curio of the early 1970s. Kirby's attempts at mind-blowing spectacle -- the Mountain of Judgment, a group of semi-Utopian, hippie-ish biker clones known as "The Hairies," a secret government project producing a rash of Jimmy Olsen clones -- look incredibly dated and loose by today's standards. Likewise, his attempt to introduce the cosmic saga of Darkseid, Apokalips and the New Gods via a Metropolis criminal organization called Inter-Gang is a bit clumsy (the despotic alien ruler of another planet using street thugs to carry out his will on Earth?). And there's no discernible reason for the presence of overbearing wannabe reporter Goody Rickels, a mirror-image double of comedian Don Rickles, when the latter makes a two-issue appearance. And the title character's presence in his own book often seems little more than an afterthought: Kirby famously used the title as a way to show the DC brass the kinds of stories he could do with Superman. Still, there's an inventiveness at work in these pages that proves infectious, and the historical significance of these stories alone makes them worth seeking.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 12, 2004

Teen Titans: A Kid's Game
Geoff Johns (writer), Mike McCone, Tom Grummett (artists)
DC, 2004
Rating: 3.6
In the early-mid 1980s, Marv Wolfman and George Perez catapulted New Teen Titans to the top of comic sales charts and a rivalry with Marvel's gangbusters Uncanny X-Men. The series rapidly devolved in the latter part of the decade, and subsequent attempts to revive the franchise have all come a cropper. Popular work-horse scribe Geoff Johns gives it a go with the new Teen Titans series, and this collection shows promising signs of succeeding where other attempts have failed. That's because Johns doesn't try to keep the early-80s team, now well past their teens, intact, as recent books have done. Instead, he allows characters Wolfman and Perez created for the '80s title -- Cyborg and Starfire, along with comic relief Gar Logan (whom they didn't create but gave new life to) -- serve as mentors for a new generation of teen heroes, formerly of Young Justice: the current Robin and Kid Flash (formerly the annoying Impulse) as well as Superboy, the young Superman clone introduced in the Return of Superman storyline years ago, and Wonder Girl. This inter-generational approach allows Johns to bring back classic villains from the Wolfman-Perez run (Deathstroke makes an appearance in an arc that points out the real arguments against teen sidekicks, and Brother Blood and Trigon will eventually resurface as well) while also focusing on the complications and inner turmoil of (relatively) fresh young faces. Additionally, a showdown with members of the Justice League allows for some classic "Don't tell me how to live my life!" venting that teen readers will no doubt appreciate. Mike McKone's artwork straddles the line between cartoonish (thanks to Jeremy Cox's over-reliance on primary colors) and action-oriented, which is a good fit for a book as deeply rooted in mainstream superheroics as Teen Titans is. It's early yet, but Teen Titans may yet blossom into a mature and absorbing title that does its legacy proud.

::: The Gentleman

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March 17, 2004

New X-Men Vol. 6: Planet X
Grant Morrison, Phil Jiminez
Marvel, 2004
Rating: 4.2
For the penultimate story arc in his invigorating run on New X-Men, superstar comics writer Grant Morrison reintroduces the X-Men's chief adversary -- Magneto, the master of magnetism. Just how he does so is a plot point we won't reveal here, except to say that it's the same classic, "Didn't see that coming" twist Marv Wolfman and George Perez did in the "Judas Contract" storyline in The New Teen Titans in the early '80s. Improbably, things roll downhill from there. Magneto overtakes New York City, causing untold devastation and death as he prepares to finally usher in the era of mutant supremacy over humankind. This should be an endorphin-boosting development, but Morrison critically downplays the "Aww, cool!" factor; there's precious little sense of urgency here (save for the plight of Wolverine and Jean Grey, who struggle to find a way off an asteroid that Magneto has set hurtling for the heart of the sun). Morrison does cleverly hammer home the point that Magneto's methods and thinking are hopelessly outdated, as symbolized by his addiction to a mutant power-enhancing drug, and his tired, Return of the Jedi-esque rehash of a plan to shake the world to its foundations; he also continues to make the scrawny mutant Beak a sympathetic and even likable addition to the X-Men pantheon. Phil Jiminez's artwork, a sleek update of the Perez style, is as sharp and detailed as ever; Jiminez gives the story what Authority and Ultimates-style epic scope it possesses. But he's hindered by the largely murky palette of colorist Chris Chuckry, which leaches a fair amount of drama out of the book. Planet X ends on a compelling tease involving Jean Grey's Phoenix persona, setting the stage for the final storyline, which takes place 150 years in the future. If it's occasionally disappointing in its levels of high drama, Planet X does hit a few well-executed adrenaline highs getting to its finish, reminding us of Morrison's enviable ability to cast familiar comic book conventions in bold new configurations.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 17, 2004

The Flash: Crossfire
Geoff Johns, Scott Kolins
DC, 2004
Rating: 4.0
With Crossfire, Geoff Johns proves why he's among the elite of superhero comic writers. Every moment of every chapter of the titular multi-part tale unfolds with a watchmaker's precision, with Johns moving his various players along like Gary Kasparov sliding chess pieces into position. While the Flash's enemies, the Rogues, create havoc in Central City, its neighbor Keystone City falls prey to The Thinker, a former supervillain who's now a living computer virus colonizing the minds of everyone in town for purposes of data storage. Various subplots -- involving a mysterious killer named Plunder; the Rogues' enigmatic leader Blacksmith, head of an underground fencing/supply network; a murder frame pinned on the Flash's friend (and former Rogue) Pied Piper; and a former villain turned union organizer -- clack into place like dominos. Along the way, there's much property damage, surprising revelations are unveiled at a prolific pace, and action and suspense are kept at electric levels. Scott Kolins' pencils and James Sinclair's colors continue to ground the story in the Flash's working-man's milieu, nicely complemented by guest artists Rich Burchett and Justiniano and a host of capable inkers. The Flash doesn't wow with the force of its post-modern ideas, a la JLA or New X-Men, but it's not meant to: It's designed to be one of the best and most satisfying plot-driven superhero books currently available, and Crossfire proves that it more than meets that goal.

::: The Gentleman

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March 17, 2004

Superman: Return to Krypton
Various writers and artists
DC, 2004
Rating: 3.2
Here's the plot of this latest volume to collect various issues of the Superman titles: A strange rocket with Kryptonian markings arrives at the Smallville doorstep of Supes' parents, the Kents. A holographic projection of a man claiming to be Superman's Kryptonian father Jor-El throws doubt over everything Clark Kent thought he knew about his planet of origin. Soon, Superman's scientist friend Emil Hamilton is sending the Man of Steel (and Lois Lane) into the Phantom Zone, to a world that seems for all intents and purposes to be Krypton; no explanation for this is given or even much pondered, not that anyone involved seems to care. On this Krypton, Clark and Lois encounter a young couple who appear to be Jor-El and Lara, Superman's parents, and adventures ensue in which the Els and other free-thinking Kryptonians clash in a civil war with hidebound genetic purists led by the military tyrant Zod. Still, no one involved appears to give this much thought. Later, Superman returns to this Krypton, still not sure if it's the real planet of his lineage, and fights alongside his alleged father in another civil war. A perfectly reasonable (in superhero comic terms) explanation is eventually given for the existence of this Krypton, although the revelation does little to stem our consternation that no one has spent much time questioning its existence in the first place. As usual, Ed McGuinness' cartoony style proves wholly inappropriate, even for scenes in which Lois and Clark rocket around Krypton having adventures as if the post-Crisis retooling of the Superman mythos had never taken place. Also as usual, Jeph Loeb, Geoff Johns and Mark Schultz comport themselves best among the many Superman scribes -- that is, if you can overlook the central flaw that dooms Return to Krypton, that being that no one ever seriously questions the existence of this Krypton in the Phantom Zone; all involved just take it on faith that things will eventually get straightened out. Except the reader, whose frustration eclipses any potential enjoyment of this otherwise serviceable escapist entertainment.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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February 11, 2004

Fantastic Four: Unthinkable
Mark Waid, Mike Wieringo
Marvel, 2003
Rating: 3.0
Continuing his overhaul of the Fantastic Four franchise, which got off to an admirable start with Imaginauts, writer Mark Waid trots out the team's baddest of bad guys, its most formidable foe: Doctor Doom. In his continuing quest to crush Reed Richards, Victor Von Doom -- newly reinvested in the sorcerous side of his persona, having hatched an alliance with a trio of demons -- orchestrates a plot in which Reed and Sue Richards' son Franklin languishes in Hell, and Reed must likewise languish in abject humiliation. Give Waid credit for this much: the leader of the Fantastic Four turns that humiliation to his advantage, and acknowledging his limitations proves a crucial plot point (not to mention a critical key to defeating Doom). Unthinkable is a decent enough standard superhero jaunt, but it begins to show some cracks in the Waid/Wieringo team's armor, leading one to wonder if Marvel may have been right to remove him from the book (a move so unpopular with fans it was later reversed, a rare capitulation on the part of the House of Ideas). Waid's FF is altogether too wordy, in a way that recalls the '80s series Power Pack. And Mike Wieringo's cartoon-y style critically undermines the drama at every turn, warping our perception of a grim, resolved Reed Richards so that we see instead a touchy-feely Alan Alda in an elastic blue jumpsuit. Lastly, Waid's Doom seems too easily bested; too obviously dismissive of the threat posed by his newfound demonic allies, until it's conveniently too late. Waid appeared on the verge of something promising with Imaginauts, but here he turns in nothing more or less than an everyday superhero yarn. With Flash, Kingdom Come, JLA and other titles, he's proven capable of better.

::: The Gentleman

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
 2.0-2.9: Mediocre
 1.1-1.9: Bad
 0.0-1.0: The worst

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