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

November 27, 2005

Astonishing X-Men: Dangerous
Joss Whedon, John Cassaday
Marvel, 2005
Rating: 3.6
Given the breath of fresh air that Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Serenity mastermind Joss Whedon -- and ace artist John Cassaday -- brought to the sometimes-laborious X-Men franchise with Gifted, their first story arc for the new Astonishing X-Men title, Dangerous, the follow-up collection, feels a bit flat. Whedon's trademark banter remains intact, to be sure, and the writer seeds this arc with plenty of teasers of plotlines yet to unfold. It's unfortunate, though, that those tantalizing flashes (What's Emma Frost really up to? What's this about a side of Charles Xavier we haven't seen?) prove more entertaining than the main story, which involves the team's Danger Room -- a high-tech virtual-reality training ground -- displaying sentience and turning against the team. While the premise is an intriguing one, it's not altogether novel (Joe Quesada's The Mask in the Iron Man from a few years ago being one recent example of the same theme) and not a little hokey. (To be fair, this set-up is a bit more plausible than Iron Man's armor coming to life -- the Danger Room is built from an alien technology that's somewhat sentient to begin with.) And the tension never quite comes to a boil; we're never really convinced of the level of magnitude this threat poses. Dangerous feels like a detour from the agendas and machinations Whedon's set up elsewhere, from an antagonistic government agency to the apparent return of the Hellfire Club. Whedon and Cassaday have signed on beyond their original one-year commitment to the title, which is a good thing, as it will allow the pair to focus on the stories and conflicts it's teased thus far and put this entertaining but forgettable diversion behind them.

::: The Gentleman

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August 15, 2005

Marvel Team-Up Vol. 1: The Golden Child
Robert Kirkman, Scott Kolins
Marvel, 2005
Rating: 3.7
Robert Kirkman has quickly become one of the most popular writers of mainstream comics, and this pleasant Saturday afternoon matinee of a book makes it easy to see why. Kirkman displays a great ear for fresh, funny superhero banter in this revival of the old Marvel Comics stalwart. He also refreshingly expands the "team-up" concept beyond the familiar classic version, in which Spider-Man would pair up with a different character or characters each month. This 21st-century version of Marvel Team-Up bounces between pairings (Spider-Man and Wolverine; Dr. Strange and the Fantastic Four) and tangentially related plots involving a fat young antisocial mutant misfit, a surprising alternate-universe version of Dr. Doom, and a somewhat generic tin-plated villain named Titannus (displaying Kirkman's reverence for and obvious debt to Savage Dragon creator Erik Larsen). The Golden Child is a good light read with breezy pencils (courtesy of former Flash artist Scott Kolins) to match, no more or less than a fun, fast-paced romp with some familiar Marvel faces. And there's nothing wrong with that.

::: The Gentleman

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June 05, 2005

Marvel Knights 4 Vol. 2: The Stuff of Nightmares
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Jim Muniz, Staz Johnson
Marvel, 2005
Rating: 3.5
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa continues his fresh take on Marvel's first family with The Stuff of Nightmares. The playwright's modus operandi is to invert the sense of scale usually associated with the Fantastic Four, trading in cosmic spectacle for the street-level feel endemic to the Marvel Knights line. And while Nightmares proves less satisfying than its predecessor, Wolf at the Door, it further develops these approaches with satisfactory results, and in the process takes that inversion a step further, playing with a couple of characters' iconic personas. Aguirre-Sacasa visits the well-worn triangle of Reed Richards, Susan Storm-Richards (now dabbling as a somewhat inappropriately dressed high school teacher) and the arrogant Namor, the Sub-Mariner, allowing him to show the brilliant, emotionally reserved Reed as a jealous, impetuous hothead, and he likewise continues charting the emotional maturation of actual hothead Johnny Storm (the Human Torch), still trying to prove his worth as a New York firefighter. The second, dominant arc, from which this collection derives its title, involves the somewhat ridiculous villain Psycho-Man; it's an odd choice, given this title's earthier milieu, but Aguirre-Sacasa makes it work, exploiting his characters' fears and pitting them in a campaign against the emotional manipulator that relies more on stealth and cunning than grandiose sci-fi gadgets and spandex fight scenes. Not everything rings true: specifically, a revelation regarding Sue Storm-Richards' psychic connection to Psycho-Man feels like a contrivance conjured to fit the plot. But Aguirre-Sacasa balances that with a more agreeable revelation regarding the conclusion of his destitute-superhero plot from Wolf, and character interactions that don't simply belabor the easy mold set by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby more than 40 years ago.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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June 05, 2005

Daredevil: Golden Age
Marvel, 2005
Rating: 3.4
The gulf between good ideas and good execution is a perilous chasm for many writers. Golden Age throws this into stark relief. Daredevil writer Brian Michael Bendis' storied run has been fueled by bold concepts that stomp all over the status quo of so many superhero comics: he's outed blind lawyer Matt Murdock as the costumed vigilante Daredevil, and had him assume the mantle of Kingpin of Hell's Kitchen. But Golden Age is hampered by rough pacing and the writer's distracting dialogue tics, which aspire to mimic real speech but instead achieve the effect of making everyone in the Marvel Universe seem to have a severe stuttering problem. Alexander Bont, a tough-as-nails thug who was the original Kingpin before Wilson Fisk assumed the mantle, gets out of jail and begins a campaign to humiliate and kill Murdock, who not only bested him as Daredevil but also had the temerity to refuse to represent him in his lawyer guise. (The intro text to this collection states that Murdock was once Bont's lawyer, in blatant contradiction of what we later read.) The involvement of Melvin Potter, formerly the costumed thug Gladiator, is a nod toward the title's rich past, but Bendis never bothers to adequately develop Bont's hold over him (there's a throwaway line, late in the game, suggesting he's threatened Potter's daughter). Fight scenes are murkily staged (for which some blame must go to the increasingly scratchy artwork of the capable Alex Maleev), and the plot's herky-jerky structure betrays a love of artsiness over clarity. As a result, the ultimate payoff lacks any dramatic resonance. By now, Bendis knows that an intriguing premise is only the beginning; one wonders if the skewed inspiration/perspiration ratio is responsible for his imminent leave-taking from the title that's made him a star.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 27, 2005

Superman: Unconventional Warfare
Greg Rucka, Matthew Clark, Renatos Guedes, Paul Pelletier
DC, 2005
Rating: 3.6
Novelist and comics scribe Greg Rucka's recent take on the Man of Steel in Adventures of Superman hasn't quite received the media attention given to the Brian Azzarello/Jim Lee run on the flagship Superman title. Rucka, after all, isn't paired up with an industry megastar like Jim Lee. But neither half of that higher-profile pairing is widely regarded as capable of the character shading Rucka accomplishes in this slight but entertaining collection. The central storyline, revolving around the mysterious reappearance (seemingly) of an old Justice League opponent named Replikon, is fairly standard: the creature is obviously being manipulated into public acts of terrorism, and Superman attempts to find out by whom. But the more engaging moments occur outside of that frame. Since Superman has recently returned from a long absence, his alter ego, Clark Kent, has to settle for a less-glamorous assignment than his previous investigative reporting gig, and we witness moments of slow burn as he absorbs humiliation from the new leader of Metropolis' Special Crimes Unit (who, wouldn't you know it, has the hots for the Man of Steel), a disdainful young-gun journalist and even his own editor, as a consequence of playing the classic bumbling Kent role a bit too well. In fact, it's the focus on the workaday world of Superman, Kent and Lois Lane that makes Unconventional Warfare refreshing. A subplot involving Lane's assignment as an embedded journalist in the fictional war-torn country of Umec provides some late-in-the-game spark, dramatically underlining Superman's self-imposed helplessness to save lives in such man-made disputes (to avoid the appearance of taking sides). The Replikon story never really catches fire, and a brief appearance by the impish Mr. Mxyzptlk is too cutesy for its own good. But when it strikes the right notes (characterization and its on-the-job milieu), Warfare proves an unconventionally diverting read.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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March 27, 2005

Ultimate Fantastic Four Vol. 2: Doom
Warren Ellis, Stuart Immonen
Marvel, 2005
Rating: 2.4
Warren Ellis and the Fantastic Four -- even the Ultimate universe version -- should be a match made in comic-book heaven, given the FF's high-tech gadgetry and strong science fiction background. But this second volume to collect Ultimate Fantastic Four, with Ellis stepping in for the team of Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Millar, proves surprisingly disappointing. Just as that duo sapped the Ultimate FF's origin of any tension by stretching it out over a laborious six issues, Ellis takes the same amount of space to craft a story of frustratingly little dramatic weight. The writer starts off strong, linking Victor Van Damme -- this world's version of Doctor Doom -- to the lineage of Vlad Tepes (the real-world basis for the Dracula myth). But things just take too long to develop here, and when Van Damme sends an army of little robotic insects after his former colleagues at the Baxter Building think tank/school for prodigies, there's simply no sense of menace. Some of the blame can be laid at the drawing table of Stuart Immonen, whose sketchy layouts here don't suggest the work he's capable of. But it doesn't help things any that this younger Fantastic Four is, oddly enough, less relatable than the original version -- at least in the case of a young twenty-something Reed Richards who's all awkward science geek without any of the mature charisma that makes the Marvel Richards a natural leader. Even the reinvention of Doom as a kind of hooved, mechanical satyr leading an Eastern European cult comprised of brainwashed backpackers and bohemians fails to excite the way it should, given the abysmal pacing and resulting lack of urgency (the climactic battle on the cobblestoned streets of Copenhagen isn't even remotely visually compelling). Doom just never even comes close to realizing its potential.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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January 16, 2005

Marvel Knights 4: Wolf at the Door
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Steve McNiven
Marvel, 2004
Rating: 4.2
Victims of embezzlement by a shady accountant, the world's premier superhero team declares bankruptcy and is forced to find normal jobs to get by. That's the premise of Wolf at the Door, the inaugural paperback to collect 4, the Marvel Knights title featuring the Fantastic Four. It's a preposterous idea, and it shouldn't work -- at all. (What about all those patents from Reed Richards' many inventions, for starters? Surely he'd keep that income separate.) But if you're willing to suspend disbelief -- and what superhero comics reader isn't? -- it does work, and disarmingly well at that. That's because writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa uses this idea to focus on the four central characters on a human level, as a family making sacrifices to survive intact as a unit. As brilliant scientist Reed Richards struggles to connect to his young son Franklin, talks a frustrated man out of committing suicide and declines a shady offer of help from the mobster Hammerhead, Aguirre-Sacasa's deft characterization makes reading 4 feel more like watching an HBO series (in comic form) than slogging through another superhero comic. Steve McNiven's clean line work, enlivened by the vivid work of inker Mark Morales and colorist Morry Hollowell, only adds another filmic (one hesitates to use the cliché "realistic") dimension. Even the second story arc collected here, about a camping trip with Franklin and his friends that gets interrupted by aliens, avoids succumbing to action-oriented melodrama in favor of further fleshing out four believably relatable people. Action-oriented melodrama certainly has its place, but Wolf at the Door provides a pleasant change of pace. One wishes this material were running in the main FF title, instead of the current Mark Waid/Mike Wieringo run. But that's a critique for another time.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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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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