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

December 31, 2006

Top 10: The Forty-Niners
Alan Moore, Gene Ha
America's Best Comics, 2006
Rating: 3.6
Alan Moore and Gene Ha's prequel to the America's Best Comics series Top 10, released in paperback earlier this year, is largely rendered in a kind of charcoal-sketch tint -- all muted grays and browns -- that lends the proceedings an air of sepia-toned nostalgia. Set in 1949 (hence the title), The Forty-Niners chronicles the early days of Neopolis, a city constructed as a home for the world's burgeoning super-powered, supernatural and otherwise "different" population -- the perfect setting for the coming out of sixteen-year-old Steve Traynor, also known as the flying ace Jetlad. The larger tale against which Steve's sexual awakening is set -- involving the city's rookie police officers, a vampire crime family and a Nazi scientist's time machine -- is diverting enough, and there are a couple of appealing characters, most notably Steve's new friend, the reformed German combatant Sky Witch. But coming from Moore, whose ABC title Promethea remains one of the most complex, layered and under-appreciated comic series in memory, it all feels a little superfluous; the graphic novel ends up memorable more for inventive character concepts/throwaway visual gags like Puzzleman, a walk-on in a costume of black and white grids who talks in crossword puzzle clues, than for Jetlad's sexual discovery. And ultimately, the book's faded-photo-album feel only underlines its status as a curio belonging to another, simpler time. Which may have been the whole point, but nonetheless helps keep The Forty-Niners from staying with you for very long after it's over.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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December 31, 2006

Ultimate Galactus Book 3: Extinction
Warren Ellis, Brandon Peterson
Marvel, 2006
Rating: 3.7
The final installment in Warren Ellis' updating of the Galactus template for Marvel's Ultimate universe brings things to a satisfying conclusion, combining the writer's penchant for sci-fi concepts and high-tech action with the sub-surface spark of watching classic characters (Misty Knight, Moondragon, Captain Marvel) get made over for this more modern milieu. Extinction suffers a bit for lack of a central character or team -- the Ultimates, S.H.I.E.L.D., the Fantastic Four and Jean Gray and Professor X all get face time, as does Ellis' version of Sam Wilson (the Falcon) and the aforementioned Misty Knight. This is by-the-numbers stuff for Ellis, although that doesn't mean he doesn't work in a couple of grace notes (like the Ultimate version of Captain America questioning his own faith in the face of the swarmlike threat of Gah Lak Tus). And while the Ultimate Galactus trilogy never coalesces into the kind of big-bang event its elements promise, Ellis does build things to a fever pitch (especially in the final action sequence), reminiscent of the widescreen theatrics of The Authority or The Ultimates -- and that's plenty good enough for a science-oriented mainstream comic-book action-adventure blockbuster.

::: The Gentleman

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December 31, 2006

Wolverine: Enemy of the State
Mark Millar, John Romita Jr.
Marvel, 2006
Rating: 4.0
The premise is genius in its fanboy simplicity: Wolverine, the Marvel Universe's bestial killing machine (and arguably its most popular character) is brainwashed by his longtime enemies in the ninja clan known as the Hand, made an unstoppable weapon turned loose on his friends and allies. The first half of this storyline (collected in two paperbacks and one complete hardcover in 2006) gets some decent mileage out of that setup, but it's in the second half, wherein Wolverine is deprogrammed and sets out to get revenge, that this really becomes a slam-bang popcorn event. Romita gives the plot -- involving the Hand, the villainous cabal Hydra and a scheme in which scores of superheroes and villains are killed and resurrected into an army of mindless soldiers -- the cinematic sweep it requires without sacrificing clarity the way a David Finch might (is there any better artist at work in the Marvel Universe today?). For his part, Millar keeps the action amped up to 11 and even provides a few shocks (including the death of a relatively shocking X-Man), although Wolverine's remorse rings false. Part of that may be an unfortunate byproduct of the fact that the character's continuity has gotten so convoluted, removed from the internal struggle Chris Claremont so skillfully established in his classic Uncanny X-Men run. But that's a minor complaint, as Enemy of the State produces a bona fide thrill ride akin to watching a great B-movie on Saturday afternoon.

::: The Gentleman

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December 31, 2006

Fantastic Four: First Family
Joe Casey, Chris Weston
Marvel, 2006
Rating: 3.4
Much as he did with the early days of the Avengers with Earth's Mightiest Heroes, writer Joe Casey fills in some of the gaps of the early days of the Fantastic Four in First Family, outlining just how the quartet went from unauthorized astronauts to the Marvel Universe's familial flagship superteam. Casey applies some enjoyable modern touches, detailing how the four are detained at a government installation after their crash-landing back on Earth, and how they gain the trust of the U.S. government after intervening in a fellow super-powered detainee's rampage -- and how this trust translates into Reed Richards' transformation of the Baxter Building into the team's high-tech headquarters. The conflict part of the story, involving that fellow detainee, his repeated intrusions into Richards' brain and his ultimate plan, is serviceable enough -- you've got to have an antagonist to rally against -- but it's those behind-the-scenes, between-the-cracks glimpses (and Casey's handling of Susan Storm, keeping her a modern woman while believably incorporating her fears about the future of her relationship with Reed) that make the miniseries a satisfying read. Chris Weston and inker Gary Erskine render the proceedings in a decent-enough photographic style that at times echoes Jerry Ordway, adding just the right touch of modern-day "reality."

::: The Gentleman

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January 31, 2006

The Ultimates 2 Vol. 1: Gods & Monsters
Mark Millar, Bryan Hitch
Marvel, 2005
Rating: 4.1
The recent news that Jeph Loeb and Joe Maduera will be taking over The Ultimates throws into sharp relief the accomplishments of its current creative team. Since its inception, writer Mark Millar and artist Bryan Hitch have grounded this title in a wide-screen, real-world milieu; Loeb's often-florid prose and Maduera's cartoony, manga-inspired artwork, needless to say, would appear to be a poor fit. But until that far-off day comes, one can still enjoy this thoughtful and adrenalized book, which in its "second season" fires on all cylinders. Captain America's rescue of American hostages in Iraq raises questions that the Ultimates -- cleverly referred to as "persons of mass destruction" -- might become enforcers for an increasingly authoritarian government. The news that government scientist Bruce Banner is the murderous Hulk creates a full-fledged scandal that taints the team's all-important public image and leads to Banner's execution. A disgraced Hank Pym is reduced to associating with the Defenders, a pathetic group of hero wannabes whose first mission ends in utter disaster (to add to his downfall, he beds a 19-year-old member, to boot). And the Ultimates take on Thor, who's either a deluded, powerful maniac or an actual god whose allies have been manipulated by his evil half-brother Loki. There's still one more collection to go before Millar and Hitch's run is complete, and the various threads laid down in the thoroughly enjoyable Gods & Monsters suggest that the talented duo will go out in high style.

::: The Gentleman

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January 31, 2006

Concrete Vol. 1: Depths
Paul Chadwick
Dark Horse, 2005
Rating: 3.7
This digest-sized collection is a bit of an oddity, as it presents past stories of Paul Chadwick's Concrete not in chronological order but according to a theme. But it holds together surprisingly well, ranging from our introduction to the large, stone-imprisoned title character to his truly unsettling, otherworldly origin (captured by aliens, his mind is placed inside a giant, rocklike body as an experiment). It also chronicles a few of his more memorable adventures, from a foolhardy attempt to swim across the Atlantic Ocean to a child's birthday party to a stint bodyguarding a lonely, mercurial rock star. As those capsule descriptions should indicate, Concrete is no superhero comic; it's an intriguing (and occasionally bizarre) look at what life might really be like for someone suddenly trapped in a fantastic and scary body. Depths ably showcases Chadwick's expressive art style and his knack for delineating vivid characters (Concrete's somewhat inept assistant Larry and the fetching scientist Dr. Maureen Vonnegut), and serves as an agreeable re-introduction to a unique character and his talented creator.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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January 31, 2006

The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck
Don Rosa
Gemstone, 2005
Rating: 4.1
In the early 1990s, writer-artist Don Rosa set about tracing the "origin" of one of the most popular Disney characters -- Donald Duck's rich, irascible uncle, Scrooge McDuck. Working strictly from hints and events outlined or mentioned in the Scrooge stories of famed Scrooge creator Carl Barks, Rosa fashioned a twelve-part mini-series within the pages of Disney's Uncle Scrooge comic, following Scrooge's evolution from a scrappy young Scottish entrepreneur to an adventure-prone immigrant in the United States who strikes gold, engages in swordfights in his ancestral Scottish castle and crosses paths with Teddy Roosevelt, among other escapades. Just as the series charts Scrooge's growth as a man as he attempts, time and again, to amass financial wealth, so does Rosa map out the mind-boggling details of this massive creative undertaking in informative "Making Of" essays following each chapter. One needn't be particularly well versed in the work of the revered Barks (who, Rosa notes, is worshipped in Europe) -- or a member of Disney's usual pre-adolescent target demographic -- to appreciate these enjoyable, finely detailed stories. The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck is an immensely readable, family-friendly coming-of-age story about a classic character that can also be appreciated as a charming, incredibly meticulously researched fan letter from one creator to another.

::: Kevin Forest Moreau

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 5.0: Breaks new ground
 4.0-4.9: First-rate
 3.0-3.9: Solid
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