Tagged: reviews

Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern #2

POAGL - 2 - coverLast issue’s introduction to this crossover series gave us some familiar elements from both franchises and enough hints as to the unfolding plotline to persuade me that reading issue 2 would be worth my while. One of the most sympathetic ape characters of the original movie franchise, Cornelius made a good viewpoint character and his transformation during that first issue (culminating in him wearing a Red Lantern uniform and killing a mutant) was both interesting and more than a little disturbing. Add in a de-powered Hal Jordan washing up on the shores of a ruined New York and there’s certainly potential for a good story here. Is that potential developed in issue 2? Let’s find out…

Issue 2 opens with Hal waking up on the aforementioned beach with the help of some less than tender prodding from one of Zaius’ apes. Hal reacts pretty much as you might expect and, without the power of his ring, is eventually subdued. What happens to Hal through the rest of this issue is almost identical to what happens to Taylor, Charlton Heston’s character, in the original film: the hosing with water, the beatings, the discussing him as if he’s a lesser animal. The differences are telling, though. Hal gets to keep his clothes on and, oddly, he gets to keep his ring, too – a concession whose justification (that removing it was too much effort) is less than convincing given the brutality and single-mindedness we’ve seen from the ruling apes so far.

The idea of Hal as surrogate Taylor is only reinforced when we realise very early on in this issue that Taylor is dead, killed by the mutants in an attempt to retrieve information from his mind. This confirms that the book is indeed set in an alternative timeline for both Lanterns and apes. With no Taylor to blow it up at the end of the second movie, maybe this Earth has a shot at survival after all. The sequence in which Cornelius finds the dead Taylor and manages to restrain himself from killing the mutants responsible is really rather affecting. The creative team take Cornelius through the gamut of emotions – from anger at what the mutants have done to Taylor, to the willpower necessary to keep himself from killing them, to compassion (although the colours wrongly show him as a blue lantern at this point, the insignia is that of the Indigo Tribe) for his dead friend. It’s a powerful moment in the book and leads to the next big departure from established Planet of the Apes continuity – Cornelius’ effortless dismantling of the nuclear bomb the mutants had been worshipping. For the best of intentions, Cornelius determines that he is going to make the mutants gods themselves and somehow conjures up additional universal rings to give to them.

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Well, I’ve got that first film on DVD if you like…

Confused? Mystified? It’s a good job we’ve got a big massive infodump coming up then, isn’t it? Not a man to take ‘mind your own business’ for an answer, particularly when one of his friends has mysteriously disappeared, Guy Gardner pays the Guardians a visit and, after some initial wrangling, finds them in a considerably chattier mood than in the last issue. If, like me, you were wondering about the universal ring’s apparent similarity to the phantom ring, you’ll be happy (or slightly disappointed, depending on how you view the revelation) to know that the universal ring is, in fact, a cheap knock-off of the phantom ring, an attempt by guardians less skilled than renegade guardian Rami to replicate his creation. (And, presumably, sell them at street markets and car boot sales all over the galaxy.) This ring, however, is “alive” and has a desire to reproduce itself as well as “pacify”, although what exactly is to be pacified remains unclear. Apparently, the guardians decided this ring wasn’t going to pan out so they exiled it to an Earth that exists in its own time loop separate from the rest of “hypertime”. This is what is known as a ‘technobabble’ explanation and it raises as many questions as it answers, not least of which is the not unreasonably one of why can the Guardians not dispose of their crap properly? Surely, chucking the ring into the heart of a nearby star or black hole would be a better option? Then again, if the ring is, in some sense, ‘alive’ that would be tantamount to murder, wouldn’t it? Perhaps they could have just stuck it in the same vault as Volthoom? Hmmm. Maybe not.

The writers do at least attempt to answer the question of why the universal ring was banished to Ape-Earth and, while I don’t find it all that satisfying myself, it does lead Guy Gardner to do something very odd at the end of the issue, which we’ll get to in a moment. After explaining that Sinestro has used some kind of “sorcery” to locate and activate the universal ring, the Guardians helpfully  provide Arisia, Guy and Kilowog with devices that will take them through the ‘chronoscape’ (no, I have no idea either) and will protect them from the universal ring’s “endless hunger”. Okay, then. (There’s a spare one for Hal, too.)

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So, no Charlton Heston in this story, then.

Meanwhile, Hal escapes with some help from some nice apes, Sinestro shows up unexpectedly (he doesn’t twirl his moustache evilly, sadly) and Guy and his two fellow Lanterns go to Belle Reve to pick up this issue’s surprise guest star… which doesn’t really make a lot of sense except in the most broad thematic way. For one thing, if Guy and his fellow Lanterns are successful in rescuing Hal, they have no way of getting the guest star back home. For another, the guest star is not someone I would trust as far as I could throw him. Which is not very far at all. But, this is Guy, this is comic books and crossover comic books at that. We’ll see what happens.

All in all, this is a decent issue. Bagenda’s art remains good. His depictions of Cornelius are particularly impressive, although his Hal looks just a little on the young side at times. The script is generally good, too. We needed some background on the universal ring and that’s what we got, but the revelation that it’s a variation of a superweapon only introduced in the regular Green Lanterns book a few months ago is kind of disappointing. In a way, though, it’s entirely consistent with the approach of the writers so far. We’ve been presented with a quick whirl through some of the more familiar elements, moments and tropes of both series, and this does imbue the story with a rather unfortunate sense of déjà vu. That said, there are indications that we’re about to veer off into more unfamiliar territory and that alone suggests that the series is worth sticking with.

NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.

 

Big Lie; Big Idea – Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys, issue 2

Okay. Confession time. When I was a kid, I read a lot of stuff. Doctor Who novelisations were my main obsession, but there were a ton of popular children’s book series I was into in addition to the adventures of the man with the long scarf and the mop of curly hair and the floppy broad-brimmed hat. The Hardy Boys and, to a lesser extent, Nancy Drew were among them. Those stories offered a mix of atmosphere, mystery, incident and intrigue. The Hardy Boys and Nancy themselves were, well, a little dull – too clean cut, too earnest to be truly compelling protagonists, but the stories themselves were fun. In Dynamite’s re-imagining of the characters, that sense of fun and mystery is still there. To an extent.

NancyHardy002CovATILTDaltonWe start this issue with a quick recap of issue 1. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew have grown up and the boys are in trouble. Their father, detective Fenton Hardy, has been murdered and the boys are suspects. Nancy’s got troubles of her own. Her mother is dead and, we find out in this issue, Nancy has recently found out that her father was cheating on her before she died. While purists might decry this rather dramatic departure from the protagonists’ domestic situations, it does remove the cloying cosiness that was sometimes noticeable in the original stories. The stakes are raised here and there’s a clear sense of everyone being outside their comfort zone. Well, almost everyone.

The issue is narrated by Nancy and Del Col writes her as an exceptionally clever, driven and confident girl. The problem is that she also comes off as rather manipulative. She’s more than happy to play the Hardy boys off against one another, counting on their sibling rivalry to keep them invested in a plan about which she has not been entirely forthcoming. While this keeps the plot moving and adds a fair amount of tension to the book, it does run the risk of making Nancy feel far less sympathetic a character than she could – or should – be.

The book’s final third is where the story really takes off as Nancy’s plan to ingratiate herself and the boys with local criminals in an effort to gain information about who killed Fenton starts off smoothly but quickly unravels when she pushes the brothers too far and Joe seems to betray them. The issue ends on a pretty decent cliffhanger and I’m tempted to pick up the next one to see how things develop.

Overall, then, this is a pretty solid issue. To fans of the original stories – or, like me, those readers who have mostly fond memories of them – the updating of the characters may feel a little disrespectful, but del Col fuels his plot with it, making it an integral part of the story rather than merely a change for change’s sake. Werther dell’Edera’s art tells the story well and he’s adept at using perspective for dramatic or disconcerting effect. His style is a little too sparse for me, but it works well enough and communicates emotion and mood pretty effectively. Stefano Simeone’s colours are nicely muted for the present day and washed out for the flashbacks, with page 7 being particularly noteworthy in suggesting Nancy’s changing view of her father.

The issue as a whole is coherent and well-structured, with the final few panels of narration unexpectedly referencing those on the opening couple of pages. And, speaking of narration, del Col’s portrayal of Nancy is good throughout, even if she does come across as just a little smug at times. To sum up, then, while not exactly mind-blowing, this issue was engaging enough, featuring a well-told character-driven story and some clear artwork. If you’re even remotely interested in Nancy Drew or the Hardy Boys, it’s worth a look.

Tricks And Revelations

American Gods: Shadows #2 (Dark Horse)

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David Mack’s really pulling out the stops on those variant covers!

Hear that? That sound of punches flying, mysteries swirling mysteriously and antagonists finally showing up to throw shade at our (anti)hero? That’s the sound of Dark Horse’s adaptation of American Gods finally hitting its stride, that is. And I, for one, am very relieved. It is, after all, an uncomfortable feeling reviewing the comic version of an iconic story and finding it… underwhelming. That is not, fortunately, the case with this issue. Read on and I’ll explain why.

Issue 2 starts off exactly where the main strip last issue left off. In the john. Mr Wednesday’s repeating his job offer to Shadow, in the process pointing out that the ex-con doesn’t have a job because his best friend died in the same car crash that killed his wife. It takes some written evidence from a local newspaper to convince Shadow, but, eventually and somewhat reluctantly, he agrees to become a bodyguard-cum-chauffer for the extraordinarily charismatic stranger. The two seal the deal over a drink and things begin to get strange. Or, at least, stranger.

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Much of the strangeness comes from Mad Sweeney, the self-professed leprechaun who shows up at the restaurant and appears to be, as Shadow says, “about ten feet tall”. Already known to Wednesday, Sweeney provides a fair bit of incident in this first section of the issue. Where Wednesday prefers to sit and make conversation, albeit of the decidedly enigmatic sort, Sweeney likes to provoke Shadow into a fight. Which the Irishman eventually loses. The fight is prompted by both Sweeney and Shadow’s skill with coin tricks and the latter’s desire to know how Sweeney’s managed to pull off a particularly impressive bit of sleight-of-hand. This is rather fitting given how much of this story so far has been concerned with deception and things not quite being as they appear.

After the fight, Shadow celebrates his victory with a drink or seven and wakes up on the highway in Wednesday’s car. Wednesday helpfully informs him that his wife’s body is available to view at a nearby funeral parlour and even more helpfully drops Shadow off there. And it’s here that my earlier suspicions about just what’s been going on between Laura and Richie are confirmed, when Richie’s widow enters and spits on Laura’s face. When Shadow catches up to her, she informs him that Laura’s mouth was wrapped around her husband’s gear stick (this is not quite how she describes it) at the time of the crash. Which would explain why he lost control, I guess.

Not for the first time, I’m somewhat taken aback by Shadow’s muted emotional response here. I can only assume that this is deliberate. More so than his time in prison or his conversations with Wednesday, Shadow’s memories of his wife seem to be idealised and almost dream-like. His ongoing reaction (or lack thereof) to both the death of his wife and subsequent revelation of her betrayal seem like he’s suffering from some sort of dissociation. This may, indeed, be deliberate, but it continues to make empathising with him more difficult than perhaps it should be. That said, the plot is moving now, and it’s well-constructed enough to hold the interest regardless of the slightly flat lead character. (And, to be fair, he’s nowhere near as flat as he was in the first issue.)

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The book closes with Shadow being drugged and encountering a deeply unpleasant fat boy in a limo, and it is clear that the boy is much more than he initially seems. The dialogue here is clever, merging the language of computer science with that of religion. The boy has a warning for Mr Wednesday and it is clear that, in taking Wednesday up on his job offer, Shadow has chosen sides in some kind of conflict. Once again, Shadow is dropped off where he needs to go – this time the Motel America – and, with no back up this time round, the issue ends with him heading inside.

Well, this was better. The dialogue between Wednesday, Shadow and Sweeney really crackles and the encounter between Shadow and the fat boy in the limo demonstrates Gaiman’s wit very nicely. There’s a definite sense of impetus now and, although Shadow’s not quite as engaging as you’d expect a main character to be, Wednesday is and I definitely want to see more of him. I also want to find out more about the wider situation Shadow’s got himself into. There’s a genuine sense of intrigue now – and danger. Scott Hampton’s artwork is of pretty much the same standard as last issue, but the bar fight is dynamic and his portrayal of Sweeney as a mercurial, slightly grotesque braggart is very engaging.

All in all, this is a good example of comic book storytelling: the plot is intriguing, the characters fleshed out in interesting ways, the dialogue lively and the art, though still a little on the restrained side, is detailed and clear. Shadow is growing on me and Wednesday is so far the star of the book. There’s certainly enough here to hook the reader into the unfolding larger plot and I’m now very interested to see how this story develops.

This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website. Check them out for some great reviews of DC, Marvel and indie books!

Hedonist Hell? – Vampirella #1 (Dynamite Comics)

 

TNVampi201701CovATanAfter the intriguing and, at times, dramatic 0 issue, I was eager to have a look at issue 1 and see how some of the hints dropped in that self-contained prologue are developed in the series proper. Well, there’s only one way to find out…

 

Before I go any further, it’s perhaps worth pointing out that I am not what you would call a die hard Vampirella fan. I don’t particularly bear the character any ill-will, but my experience of her is confined to a few issues of the original Warren anthology mag and Grant Morrison’s gloriously over the top take on the character in the 90s. I may have an axe to grind, but not a Vampirella-shaped one. More seasoned fans of the lady from Drakulon may have a very different take on this and I’d be delighted to hear from any of them in the comments below. With that in mind, it’s onwards and, in this case quite literally, upwards as we see Vampi climbing her way out of her underground tomb pretty much exactly where we left off at the end of the 0 issue.

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He’s ‘armless now. Heheh. ‘Armless. Oh, dear.

 

The red on black line of commentary which appeared towards the end of the previous issue is also present, offering a succinct insight into Vampirella’s thought processes as she emerges from the subterranean passages only to be confronted by the winged creatures who dispatched one of our rebels last time. These creatures turn out to be, on the surface, angelic in nature, although Vampirella can smell sulphur on them. Vampirella shakes them off, making spectacularly short work of one of them. (If you ever want to see someone being beaten up with their own recently removed arm, then this is the place to come.) Having ascertained that she can still sprout wings in this brave new world, she flies off and, using Mount Rushmore as a landmark, navigates her way to LA.

 

And this is no LA you have ever seen before. Not for the first time with this title, I am reminded of 70s sci-fi flicks – there’s a distinct Logan’s Run feel to the panels in which Vampirella explores a futuristic city that manages to be both brightly and cleanly gleaming, while at the same time revelling in a kind of loveless and crass hedonism. It would be an exaggeration to say that dildos are everywhere in the LA of the future, but they’re certainly more… ahem… prominent than in the present day city. Costumes are gauche and vulgar; architecture and ornamentation are blatantly phallic.

 

Vampirella’s choice of costume is clever, then. In marked contrast to the in-your-face crudeness of the locals, it’s a throwback to the late 60s and early 70s – sexy but stylish (I do love me a pair of arm-length gloves) and the short hair is a bold move that I think on the whole works very well. Even more attractive is Vampirella’s character. Cornell presents her as intelligent, inquisitive, self-assured and extremely likeable. And dangerous. Her encounter with a citizen whose look is part-Clockwork Orange, part Behind The Green Door does not end well for the young man concerned.

 

The issue ends with Vampirella smearing her iconic bat symbol on her red top, grinning wickedly and declaring that she’s here to “wreck” the shocked onlookers’ world. Which is, on the whole, pretty cool.

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So, is this worth persevering with? Yes, I think so. Cornell writes a sexy, clever Vampirella with a new look that really works. The world she finds herself in is interesting both visually and thematically. Broxton’s artwork is inventive and clear and, when it needs to be, dramatically visceral. The mystery of what’s going on in this strange city, of what lies beneath its superficial perfection, is deftly developed through a series of well-scripted encounters. Vampirella’s meeting with the clothes shop clerk is beautifully written and the clerk’s plaintive “You don’t know what you just did to me” provides an intriguing clue to the emotional cost of this hedonist’s heaven.

 

That said, I have some reservations. I could be wrong, but I think we might be in anti-Trump political commentary territory here. Cornell’s a liberal chap and the presence of a decayed Mount Rushmore, a much diminished and explicitly whitewashed LA and the references to money suggest that the evil that is at work here is an analogue for, if not the tangerine one himself, then possibly a GOP who, liberals would argue, hides its venality and corruption between a veneer of morality, rather like the mono-syllabic ‘angels’ who attack Vampirella while reeking of sulphur. Does this worry me? Not at the moment, no. I have no problem with politically influenced and motivated art, provided it’s done well and doesn’t get in the way of good story-telling. The moment things get preachy, I step off. As I mentioned last time, I’ve been reading Cornell’s stuff for a long while and, the odd wrong step notwithstanding (yeah, Demon Knights, I’m looking at you), I have confidence in his ability to write exciting, memorable stories peopled with interesting, believable characters.

 

Although there are one or two slight niggles (why do the ‘angels’ not follow Vampirella to the city, for example?), this remains a very enjoyable issue. There’s enough here to keep me interested in the series, and there are (just) enough hints dropped to prompt some theorising about the nature of the situation in which Vampirella finds herself. Broxton’s art is very good; Cornell’s script is witty and fun. All in all, this is worth checking out.

 

Across The Universe – Planet of the Apes and Green Lantern #1

img_comics_37827_planet-of-the-apes-green-lantern-1DC fans are experiencing something of a crossover renaissance at the moment. Batman’s hanging out with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on what seems to be a semi-regular basis. The Justice League is currently teaming up with the Power Rangers. Heck, even He-Man and the Thundercats are getting in on the team-up fun. Already in the middle of a sequel to last year’s well-regarded adventure in the Star Trek universe, the Green Lantern gets yet another slice of the crossover pie – this time dipping his toe into the world of one of the most iconic sci-fi movie franchises of all time. Yes, it’s the Planet of the Apes/Green Lantern crossover. Is it a bright shiny ring of a series? Or more of a banana skin? Let’s find out…

Before we do, though, that cover… Ethan van Sciver has long been a fan favourite and it’s not hard to see why. There’s a raw power to the image of the ape hand thrusting towards the sky, the ring glowing on its finger, that is really impressive. The GL corps members hovering in the background look great too – even if their number appears to include a disco ball and a giant onion in a sweater. That the internal artwork doesn’t quite reach van Sciver’s level is a little disappointing but not deal-breakingly so. Barnaby Bagenda’s art is impressive enough, although it is, I would suggest, less polished than his work on Omega Men, although that may be down to colouring issues. On the whole, though, it’s dynamic when it matters and faces are expressive and consistently drawn.

The issue opens with a scene that manages to be dramatic and portentous, while simultaneously raising some troubling questions. On a barren planet, a mysterious hooded figure is engaged in some kind of ritual, apparently drawing on the power of a number of differently coloured Lanterns, each bound and gagged by glowing yellow-orange chains. Now, I’m not a massive Lantern fan, but even I recognise Munk, Saint Walker, Bleez, Gnort, Arkillo and Larfleeze along with a Star Sapphire who is probably Fatality, but it’s difficult to be sure. Whoever this hooded guy is, he must be wielding some pretty impressive power – particularly if he’s captured Larfleeze who, remember, wields the power of an entire corps in his orange ring. What happens to these captive lanterns at the ritual’s climax appears to be fatal and we later see their bodies with smoking holes in their chests. Are we in some kind of alternate reality for the Corps here? Hmmm…

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In space no one can hear you scream. Particularly if you have a bright orange gag over your mouth.

The action shifts to the Planet of the Apes-era Earth where a silent Nova (there is no other kind, I suppose) stands at the edge of a huge crater caused by the impact of what turns out to be a mysterious glowing ring. She’s met by Cornelius who just happens to be out searching for Taylor. This, I think, means we’re somewhere between the first and second movies (the original ones, that is – not the recent remakes). Cornelius takes the ring back to Zira, but already the ring appears to be exerting an influence on him, briefly turning orange at precisely the moment Cornelius is expressing that he can’t leave something as “precious” as the ring lying in a hole in the ground. Aside from being a perhaps ill-advised call-out to The Lord of the Rings, it does hint at the nature of the ring, which seems to amplify (or instil?) the emotions of those near it. There are further hints in the conversation between Cornelius and Zira that follows. As Cornelius expresses his dismay at the warmongering of Zaius and his determination to prevent the general from acquiring the ring, the ring begins to glow a distinctly redder shade of orange.

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Cats – even blue space ones – don’t care about things like honour or chivalry. If they see an opening, they’ll go for it.

Which is appropriate, because the next thing we see is the Red Lanterns attacking Oa (which, in itself, is a massive clue that this story does not take place in current continuity) because they believe the Greens have taken Bleez. The Green Lanterns respond as you would expect them to. There’s some nice action here as well as some entertaining banter between Guy Gardner and Hal. Bagenda’s artwork is pretty impressive here, particularly in the panel in which Dex-Starr attacks Arisia. The Green Lanterns deal with the threat of the Reds easily enough and then we’re back to our mysterious hooded figure who reveals himself to be… Sinestro. Of course he is, complete with evil chuckling. We find out that the ritual that started this issue was intended to lead Sinestro to the “universal ring”, presumably the object Cornelius is currently studying. Despite the fact that he still doesn’t possess the ring, he seems pretty happy with himself, the implication being that he knows where it is.

Back to Cornelius who wonders if the ring, now glowing a bright ruby red, is reacting to his voice, before deciding to put it on his finger. Dramatic things happen, including Cornelius crying out in pain and, back on Oa, Hal’s ring telling him that a “cross-chronal disruption” has been detected. The Guardians turn up to reassure Hal that it’s absolutely nothing to worry about, although they do refer to a “relic of an ancient security system”, something that sounds like it just might be worth worrying about. Hal, of course, isn’t satisfied with that and sets off to locate the disturbance and finds out that it’s coming from…. Earth.

On arriving at his homeworld, Hal gets attacked by Sinestro, who tells him that he has found a “true path to victory”. As their battle unfolds, Cornelius is out in the desert struggling with the ring’s energy that, in a rather nice double-page spread, leaps out of his ring and across universes to disrupt Hal’s fight with Sinestro. Things get weird as Hal’s ring loses power, he plunges into New York harbour and struggles to shore only to find himself on the desolate beach made so famous by the first film’s ending, complete with a half-buried Statue of Liberty. This would be a perfect moment to end the issue, but writers Robbie Thompson and Justin Jordan have one more sting in the tail. Cornelius encounters a group of the underground mutants from the second movie who have been drawn to the power of his ring and the issue ends ominously with the mutants bowing down to him in subservience.

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I like the underground mutants. I really do. I wonder whether Thompson and Jordan will remember that those faces are made of latex.

Well, that was fun. There are a few issues with this story, but there’s enough going on here to persuade me that picking up the second issue would be a good idea. I suppose the main problems with the story are how it might fit into GL continuity and the overwhelming sense that we’re experiencing a “greatest hits” of the Green Lantern Corps. Oa? Check. Hal and Guy banter? Check. Guardians acting like tremendously unhelpful authoritarian dicks? Check. Hal fighting Sinestro? Check. While I’m not overly concerned about how this fits into GL continuity, I do feel that, on the GL side at least, we’re not really getting much new here. At the moment, it’s the Planet of the Apes elements that are hooking me. I was delighted to see the mutants from the second film make an appearance and I’m very intrigued to see where Cornelius’ meeting with them goes.

Another issue is that, for readers of the current Green Lanterns series, the concept of the ‘universal ring’ might be just a bit too close for comfort to the phantom ring encountered by Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz in recent issues of their book. How enjoyable you find the issue may ultimately boil down to how irritating you find this and/or the portrayal of the GL Corps.

Personally, I enjoyed the issue and think there’s enough impetus here to take the story forward into some interesting places. Bagenda’s art is dramatic when it needs to be and Jordan’s script is easy to follow and, on occasion, witty. The task of bringing two very different fictional universes together is not a straightforward one, and I think, on the whole, the story manages pretty well. Above all, it’s a fun, if not especially challenging, read. It’s worth checking out, particularly if cross-overs are your thing.

NB: This review first appeared in a slightly different form on the Weird Science DC Comics site.  Check them out for a whole host of comic reviews.

Sinister Spirit – The Spirit: The Corpse-Makers #2 (Dynamite)

After the first issue’s compellingly sinister scene-setting, the second issue of Francesco Francavilla’s pulp noir take on Will Eisner’s most famous creation features some vigilante action, a deepening mystery and the introduction of a couple of new characters. Will it all be enough to maintain the momentum established by last month’s issue?

There’s only one way to find out…

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Once we take in the gloriously moody first page with its ominous Raymond Chandler quote, we’re confronted with a page comprising eight TV screens taking us through Central City’s top news stories. Last issue’s dead homeless man hasn’t managed to make it onto the news agenda; the bank robbery that ended last issue has, but even that takes second slot to the ongoing controversy over the ominously-named ‘crimson coal’, a potential source of energy that has yet to be properly tested by the city’s regulatory authorities. This is the second time the ‘crimson coal’ has been mentioned, although how it might tie in to the rest of the story’s events remains, as yet, unclear.

There’s not much time to ponder this, though, because the story quickly shifts into action mode and, once again, I find myself somewhat awed by just how dynamic Francesco Francavilla’s artwork can be. The double page of the Spirit bursting through the window of the bank robbers’ deserted factory hideout is spectacular enough, but the fight that follows it possesses a wonderful fluidity, at least partly because of Francavilla’s decision to dispense with traditional panel borders. It’s also worth noting that the action is made more dramatic by Francavilla’s use of colour, the Spirit’s red tie dramatically punctuating a fight that is otherwise rendered in blues and blacks.

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How to make a dramatic entrance.

While the Spirit deals with the implications that Eb recognises one of the captured robbers, the narrative shifts to introduce Lisa Marlowe (a nod to Chandler that’s just a little too on the nose for this reviewer), a down-on-her-luck PI who’s watching John Bartlett, a “famous entrepreneur” whose wife suspects him of cheating on her. This being a comic book, the subject of her surveillance turns out to be up to something considerably more nefarious than enjoying the charms of another woman. Arguably, this plot strand is the most interesting part of the story as we realise that Bartlett is the man behind the ‘crimson coal’ venture and something extremely fishy is going on involving the city crematorium and a mysterious, hooded man we last saw injecting Eb’s uncle with some unsavoury looking yellow fluid. The issue ends with yet another homeless man being injected, his scream echoing in the night as a train rattles along the railway tracks overhead.

As the second part of a five-issue series, this does a good job of moving the plot along while raising more questions about just exactly what’s going on in Central City. Francavilla’s keeping the Spirit and the main plot apart at the moment, which is, apart from the occasional bit of flat dialogue, the only thing that niggles me about the issue. We do get to see the Spirit in action – and very spectacular that is, too – but it’s Lisa who’s the vehicle for the plot at the moment and that makes the Spirit feel a bit removed from the main action, which seems a bit odd in a comic that bears his name.

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Francavilla sure knows how to draw speeding vehicles.

That said, Francavilla is a phenomenal storyteller and the comic remains a seductive blend of stylish action and atmospheric scene-setting. There’s a delicious feeling of dread in the latter half of the issue when Bartlett and his fellow conspirators meet; their conversation is rich with euphemisms like “factory” and “merchandise” that hint at a horrible ‘processing’ of human life. And that final page is wonderfully chilling.

In many respects, this is a typical second issue. Threads are unravelling, but have yet to start tying together in any meaningful way. The sense of mystery is palpable, and the Spirit is given the chance to shine, not only in the fight with the bank robbers, but also in the interrogation scene that follows. The sense of menace, of something truly terrible happening that has yet to be fully revealed, is what makes this story particularly compelling and I’m looking forward to seeing how things play out in future issues. If you want a beautifully presented slice of pulp noir goodness with gorgeously atmospheric artwork and a really rather creepy plot, this is most definitely the book for you.

NB: This review first appeared on the Weird Science DC Comics website.

Death, Thy Name Is… Despero – Justice League of America (vol 1) #252

Having only recently re-joined the JLA in order to lead it, Batman is about to face as stern a test as you could wish for outside of nine rounds with Darkseid.

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A fantastic cover which does what a lot of covers do and portrays a scene that doesn’t (quite) appear in the book. (Vixen is not purple either.) Oh, and who *are* the Lords of the Ultra Realm? I’ve forgotten…

 

It shouldn’t be quite this dangerous to go hunting in Maine, but, when you add in falling satellites to an area already made famous by writers like Stephen King and H P Lovecraft, I guess a few fatalities are only to be expected. We open the issue with a glorious splash page from Luke McDonnell and Bill Wray which is accompanied by the kind of portentous third person narration 80s comics are all about. Of particular note is the sentence “Unseen by the radar of two nations, molten at temperatures hot enough to vaporise flesh and blood, changing direction as if guided by some invisible force, it hurtles to ground in a remote wilderness: the once-elegant remains of the Justice League satellite.” A triumvirate of fronted adjectivals; powerful words like “molten”, “hurtles” and “vaporise”; a colon: this sentence is perhaps the epitome of dramatic comics narration. The art it refers to is luridly, gloriously straightforward; the glowing embers of the wrecked satellite (it’s been in that condition for about twenty issues at this point) smash into the ground sending, in the foreground, trees flying. A bolder opening to a comic it is hard to imagine.

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Ka-Boom! Is the sound effect missing from this page.

It’s followed by a scene set the next morning in which a hunter (all double chin, moustache, bandana and lifesaver jacket) and his dog are transfixed by some sort of energy beam that renders them a pair of silhouetted skeletons loosely surrounded by a magenta glow. This beam, of course, comes from Despero and it is painful. At one point during his interrogation of the unnamed hunter, Despero bemoans the fact that the man’s “pain and fear” are blocking his thoughts. Best turn off the torture ray then, eh, Despero? You’d have thought so, but, no, it’s just the cue for Despero to take the information he wants (Justice League-specific information) from the man’s mind directly, dissolving his physical form in the process.

This is, to say the least… unsettling. Well, for the reader at least. Despero is just interested in the information and, having determined that the League that sentenced him to Takron-Galtos is gone and that a new League has taken its place, he decides to take his revenge on the newcomers. Because a somewhat unjust revenge is better than no revenge at all, obviously.

At this point, you might expect the narrative to shift to the unwitting objects of Despero’s ire, but you’d be mistaken. Gerry Conway’s got a number of plates a-spinning and, with one eye on a plotline that’s not going to reach its conclusion for another few issues, he teases us with a three page interlude featuring Zatanna, who we last saw naked and strapped to a device that was extracting her DNA in order to pass her powers on to the enigmatic ‘Adam’. In this section, Zatanna manages, despite the pain band around her head making it impossible to focus properly, to get out of bed and walk down a hallway towards a laboratory where Adam is undergoing some sort of process to make him more magically powerful. Zatanna is intercepted by her former tenant Sheri and some other acolytes of Adam, one of whom slams her against the wall thus rendering her, once again, unconscious. The sequence is nicely paced and does a good job of building up a sense of threat for Zatanna personally and the League more generally. Plus, charismatic cult leaders who experiment on themselves are always interesting.

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Typical. You get all dressed up for a nice night out and things go (quite literally) to hell.

We then get a rather pleasant bit of character interaction between the out-of-costume Batman and Vixen. They’re dining at a swanky restaurant in Gotham and, to be honest, look like a pretty good couple. Mari McCabe has one of the most unique and instantly recognisable hair dos in the whole of the DC universe, but the restaurant’s clientele seems to be rather relaxed about it. The conversation drifts towards Bruce Wayne’s love life and the not especially groundbreaking observation that Batman prevents Bruce from having any kind of stable relationship. When Bruce opines that sometimes he thinks “there’s no Bruce Wayne; only the Batman and his… shadow”, however, the script touches on something approaching profundity – or, at least, it asks interesting questions about the relationship between Wayne and his alter ego that arguably form the core of the character. As potentially interesting as this all is, it’s doomed to be interrupted by the arrival of Despero.

Now, I know I bang on a lot about the joys of third person narration, but there’s an example here of just how effective it can be. The bottom of page eight ends with “And they do forget, for a little while…” and, when we turn the page over, we get the grimly regretful “Such a little while…” over a panel of Mari and Bruce reacting to a sudden rumbling sound. Artists McDonnell and Wray then treat us to a huge explosion in the middle of Central Park (sorry, not Central Park – whatever Central Park is in Gotham. Gotham Park, probably. I don’t know…) which is rather impressive. Then things start to spiral out of control.

I must admit I like the fact that Conway and crew decide to show us Mari and Bruce changing into their costumes on the fly. I like too the inner narration from Mari, reflecting that, yes, the Batman is ‘real’ to Bruce in a way that Bruce Wayne can never be. It’s an effective bit of characterisation.

A quick word on the art – or, more specifically, the colouring by industry stalwart Gene D’Angelo. There’s a wonderfully hellish lurid quality to the art from the moment that Despero hits the park. It’s excellent and the images of Batman and Vixen heading into battle amidst a hail of glowing embers emphasise their heroism. That heroism is even more apparent when Despero emerges from the flames to swat the heroes aside. Batman’s fortunate enough to catch a nearby tree branch, but Vixen has to concentrate to summon the spirit of some kind of bird to carry her to safety. It’s a close run thing, too, as she still ends up in the park’s lake, which is admittedly better than hitting the ground.

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This is very nice art. Seriously nice art.

The action becomes decidedly surreal at this point as Batman faces Despero alone only to see Despero’s face start to dissolve before his eyes and the familiar Gotham topography transform into a nightmarish world of hellfire-spewing fissures and a demonic mastodon-like creature that makes short work of the Bat. Despero picks up Batman and starts to gloat, gleaning from Batman’s mind that the rest of the League has been summoned before noticing that something else is happening in the detective’s head. He is far too slow to recognise it as an impulse to attack and Batman’s fist connects with Despero’s face in one of the highlight panels of the issue. For a split second, there really does seem to be the possibility that Batman might die, as a decidedly piqued Despero tosses Batman aside and declares he’ll “pluck out [his] eyes… and crush them like eggs beneath [his] feet”. Nice.

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‘Whamm’ indeed!

Vixen saves Batman by catching Despero off-balance and pushing him into the big column of energy behind him. Job done? Er no. Announcing that he is “no longer… flesh as you know flesh” but instead “energy and hate incarnate”, Despero strides from the light towards a grim-faced Vixen and Batman. The next panel is a full-page splash of a huge explosion over the New York (sorry, Gotham) skyline; the words “I am Despero the reborn!” emerge from the explosion lettered in such a way as to suggest that, wherever you are in the city, you will have heard them quite distinctly. Batman and Vixen are in a lot of trouble.

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Vixen is pretty great in this issue. This is almost as great as the Batpunch.

Where on earth is the rest of the league?

Well, as might be expected, they’ve gathered at the league’s cave-based headquarters, wondering who sent the emergency signal. (No one’s on monitor duty, it would seem.) Vibe thinks it’s all part of yet another training exercise set up by Batman, but the Martian Manhunter points out that Gotham is cut off and that the teleport link to the city is now dead. The league take a ride in a helicopter to find out what’s going on.

Once again, the artwork really comes through here. The panel showing the helicopter approaching a Gotham in flames is impressive: a cordon of ships blockades the harbour; the JLA’s helicopter is in the foreground heading towards the city; a further chopper hovers just ahead of it; the city beyond it is engulfed in flames and explosions. The chopper pilot helpfully explains to the Martian Manhunter that Despero has somehow transformed the citizens of Gotham into demonic creatures. The helicopter drops the League off close to the energy barrier that is keeping Gotham sealed off. The hazy outline of transformed Gothamites can just be seen through the flames.

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Gotham never seems to catch a break, does it?

Needless to say, flames are something of a problem for the Martian Manhunter, but he overcomes his initial trepidation and gets on with the job of analysing the barrier, determining that it is vibrating at a specific frequency that Vibe can consequently disrupt. The League makes its way through the barrier, fights past a few ‘demons’ and then, just as the Martian Manhunter is pointing out that it’s all been too easy, the heroes come face to face with… Despero.

Now, by the standards of 21st century comic book storytelling, it has arguably taken too long to get to this point, but the comic has been, I think, pretty enjoyable. There’s a lot going on in this issue and pretty much all of it is well-written. There’s a clear sense of building to a climax throughout the issue. Conway gets his Zatanna interlude out of the way quickly before concentrating on a rather affecting bit of character interaction between Batman and Vixen and then moving on to the main plot. The preliminary encounter between Despero, Batman and Vixen is pretty exciting (that punch is wonderful!) and the sight of the pair of Leaguers subdued and imprisoned behind Despero on the final page is chilling in a decidedly gothic manner.

That’s not to say that the issue is perfect. There are one or two minor issues with the art (McDonnell gets Mari and Bruce’s positions confused during the restaurant sequence, for example) and there’s just a little too much recap when the League get together prior to flying out. It’s worth remembering, though, that this is a monthly title and some of the dialogue serves as a useful reminder to some ongoing issues within the League – although they do seem to be way too relaxed about Zatanna not showing up for what could well be this version of the League’s biggest challenge.

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This. Is. Awesome.

On the whole, though, this is an engaging mix of character beats and all-out action. Despero is supremely worthy of the slow introduction he’s had over the last few issues; the ease with which he dispatches Batman and Vixen is thrilling, particularly given that both of them are presented as very proficient in the use of their abilities. That final splash page is mouth-wateringly good, too. All in all, this is an excellent issue from an oft-forgotten era of DC’s flagship team title.