REVIEW: ACTION COMICS ANNUAL #1

(w) Sholly Fisch
(w) Max Landis (Back-Up)
(p) Cully Hammer
(p) Ryan Sook (Back-Up)

While reading this issue of Action Comics, I was reminded of the age-old question pondered by superheroes and frat boys the world ’round: if I went crazy then would you still call me Superman? It’s a really, really bad song and the line itself is awful, but it actually has a meaning. It hearkens to the unyielding need to be loved no matter what and the subsequent madness that comes from trying to attain said love. In the case of Clay Ramsay, that need manifests itself as the Kryptonite Man, or K-Man. Action Comics Annual #1 is a full-out awesome comic book good time. That’s right — I used six adjectives in a row to describe a single issue. It’s that good. I don’t want to make it sound like I haven’t been enjoying Grant Morrison’s run on the series, but Sholly Fisch plays the story with flare instead of poignance. For a series heavily embroiled in mythology and thick narrative, Action Comics Annual #1 is lighter and more easily enjoyable, even considering the circumstances of the issue’s events.

Clay Ramsay — the man a young Supes stopped after years of beating his wife — is still bitter with rage at the Man of Steel for destroying his life. Ramsay signs up for a “government” program that will give him powers beyond Superman’s by way of kryptonite. This is the first time kryptonite has been used in the ‘New 52’, and Fisch does an amazing job introducing the xenomaterial (as an substance from outer space is to be known now, I guess) while not immediately making it evident that it can affect Superman so aversely. The battle between Superman and K-Man is a total page-turner, with each panel more engaging than the last. It’s difficult to convey enlightenment, but the point when Ramsay recognizes that the kryptonite radiation is a force unto itself against Superman is so spot-on that I found myself literally smiling.

The inclusion of John Henry Irons and his extended tale is a major plus for Action Comics Annual #1. Irons was last seen helping out in Metropolis when Superman went off to battle the Collector of Worlds up in space. His return here is not only welcome, but completely organic and fluid — in no way does his presence feel forced or stressed at all. Fisch uses Irons as a metaphor for how superheroes really affect humanity; they inspire hope in people, and for us to strive to be our best. After aiding in the clean-up of Metropolis, Irons decides to spread his knowledge across the globe in the form of a “socially responsible tech company” called SteelWorks. Fisch understands that in the modern day, a man like Irons wouldn’t take a moniker and become a superhero in the same fashion as the Justice League (he even has Irons explain it to Superman).

Action Comics Annual #1 is an example of how ‘Annual’ issues should play out; a fun story, great character writing, and fantastic cultural insight. 

GRADE
9/10
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REVIEW: WOLVERINE and THE X-MEN #19

(w) Jason Aaron
(p) Nick Bradshaw
(i) Walden Wong

I started reading Wolverine and The X-Men at issue nine when the series started it’s “Avengers vs. X-Men” tie-in arc. At the time, I found the book to be inexplicably irritating. To this day, I can’t explain (even to myself) why I was so averse to reading about the Jean Grey School of Higher Learning. After seeing Logan and his students through the events of “AvX”, I’ve come to appreciate Jason Aaron’s whimsical and off-the-wall take on a school for mutant children. Wolverine and The X-Men #19 is the first issue to be published under the ‘Marvel NOW!’ banner. One might assume this is only because “AvX” is over, and in that assumption, one would be wrong. Aaron goes to great lengths, this issue, to give readers a good jumping-off point for the series. 

The biggest result of “Avengers vs. X-Men” was the activation of new mutants across the globe. Since the JGSHL is the only school equipped to deal with such a situation, Kitty Pride is attempting to prepare for an onslaught of new students. Husk has been put on medical leave for psychological reasons, meaning Kitty’s got potentially hundreds of new students to enroll with one less experienced teacher. Aaron has some fun with these pages, having random mutants and heroes from around the Marvel Universe applying for the job including Blade, Sasquatch and Puck (from Alpha Flight), Damian Hellstrom, Dr. Nemesis, Ghost Rider (???), and, of course, Deadpool.

The other half of the issue is dedicated to the attack on Broo at the end of last issue — the under-18 version of the Hellfire Club shot the pacifist Brood child and left him for dead in a field. While Beast attempts to recruit the greatest scientific minds on the planet in efforts to restart Broo’s damaged brain, Wolverine and Rachel Grey scour Westchester County for the assailant. Broo has been a fan favorite since he was introduced, and it’s sad seeing him broken in a hospital bed, stuck in a coma. Jason Aaron is very good at tugging on heart-strings and it shows this issue.

I’m actually very much anticipating this coming year of Wolverine and The X-Men. The series only got eight issue under it’s belt before being forced to connect to “AvX” events, so it will be fun and interesting to see how Aaron handles the series going forward.

GRADE
8/10

FEATURED REVIEW: AQUAMAN #13

(w) Geoff Johns
(p) Ivan Reis and Joe Prado

“The Others” concludes this issue after a six-month adventure featuring the rag-tag team of misfits that Arthur Curry once allied. Geoff Johns has done a stellar job going beyond a simple character reboot, and has made Aquaman one of the preeminent characters in the ‘New 52’. While the first arc, “The Trench”, did well to give readers a general structure for Arthur and the series in general, “The Others” has been all about character development and growth – Arthur’s history with Black Manta isn’t as black and white (eh? eh? Get it??) as it was pre-‘New 52’, and that’s led Johns to make both characters more interesting and fun to read than they have in years. 

Don’t get me wrong, “The Others” has it’s fair share of faults — Aquaman’s constant violent bitterness, Mera’s ineptitude when it comes to Arthur’s feelings, a whole new cast of characters that only somewhat make an impression — but these nitpick-y criticisms are part of a larger picture that Johns is drawing concerning the King of Atlantis. Obviously, this isn’t the last time we’ll be hearing from Arthur’s old teammates, so it makes sense that Johns didn’t want to reveal everything about these characters in their introductory arc. After learning that Arthur had a whole life before meeting her, Mera doesn’t really know how to approach her husband, and that’s exactly what the character needs at this point in her narrative.

The biggest problem I had with “The Others” was Arthur’s irrational anger and ‘Lone Ranger’ attitude that continued to get him into trouble. It’s becoming more and more clear that Johns is using ‘mystery’ as a story element that applies to Arthur on a variety of different levels — his ancestry, this friends, his motivations, etc. Arthur is an introvert, and one that seemingly gets explosively angry when others impede on his isolation. I understand wanting to make Aquaman a little rougher around the edges, but making him a huge jerk to his longtime friends is not the way to do it, per se.

That being said, Aquaman #13 turns the entire story around for me in a positive light. Arthur is finally starting to understand that by pushing away those who love him the most, he was putting them in more danger than if he had just accepted their help. At the end of Aquaman #12, Others member Vostok was murdered by Black Manta. Vostok was the most secluded of the group, spending decades waiting for the team to come back together so he could have a purpose once more. Arthur doesn’t handle Vostok’s death well, but in a good way. Obviously, Arthur is heartbroken that one of his oldest allies is dead, but the half-Atlantean hero uses this horrific event to motivate himself to be better than he’s been.

The message Johns tries to convey with Aquaman #13 and “The Others” as a complete arc, is that Arthur Curry used to be a different man, one that used violence and anger to solve all his problems until those same qualities became the source of all his problems. Black Manta’s presence was the trigger that brought the old Arthur bubbling to the surface. It’s a truly genius way to write a story, letting the tale almost tell itself as Arthur’s past starts to make more and more sense in context with the rest of his team. Arthur even admits, “I didn’t tell you…because I’m ashamed, Mera.” Arthur understands that his past is just that — the past. He wants to separate himself from the chaotic man he used to be, but the ghosts of former mistakes keep rearing their heads.

In the end, Johns reveals that Black Manta’s entire mission was simply building up to the upcoming “Throne of Atlantis” crossover with Justice League. Manta answers to someone, but we don’t yet know who. It’s most likely Arthur’s half-brother, Orm (more popularly known as Ocean Master), but knowing Geoff Johns and his penchant for throwing curve balls, it may be someone even more sinister. Aquaman #13 is as perfect a conclusion issue as one can get. It neatly (but not too easily) wraps up “The Others”, shows how the protagonist has learned and grown because of the events that transpired, and it deftly makes readers excited for the next story.

GRADE
9.5/10

THE WEEK (OCT 31-NOV 6, 2012)

FEATURED REVIEW
Aquaman #13
(w) Geoff Johns
(p) Ivan Reis and Joe Prado
Even though this issue got pushed back a week, I won’t hold that against it. Aquaman #13 finally wraps up “The Others” and starts on the path toward the “Throne of Atlantis” crossover with Justice League starting in December. While this arc has been fun and interesting, it’s really time for it to be done, especially after having to wait an extra month due to “Zero Month”.

A+X #1

(w) Jeph Loeb, Warren Ellis
(p) Dale Keown
I was planning on making this ‘Marvel NOW!’ title the FEATURED REVIEW of the week before I remembered how difficult it was to pump out five paragraphs of writing focused on two very short stories in the pages of AvX: VS. A+X is basically the same premise – two stories, ten pages each, one Avengers and one X-Man – except this time the Avengers and X-Men are teaming up instead of whooping each other til the cows come home.

Action Comics Annual #1

(w) Sholly Fisch
(p) Cully Hammer
Grant Morrison takes a break and let’s Sholly Fisch – regular back-up story contributor – take a crack at the main tale of Action Comics in this Annual issue. This story apparently takes place directly after the Brainiac events and features a villain known as the Kryptonite Man. Maybe he has some connection to Metallo? Maybe it’s just a completely new character. Only Fisch and DC editorial knows!

AvX: Consequences #2-4

(w) Kieron Gillen
(p) Steve Kurth
I’ve been only somewhat impressed by Kieron Gillen’s AvX: Consequences, mostly because it very much feels like a lot of the happenings in these pages could have easily been integrated into other Marvel titles. Instead, we get a weird anthology series that throws us multiple stories whose only connection is their timeframe. If we connected things like that in the real world, there would be no organization. At all.

Justice League Dark Annual #1
(w) Jeff Lemire
(p) Mikel Janin
It’s the explosive finale to “War for the Books of Magic”! And it guest-stars new JLD team member Frankenstein, as well as Princess Amethyst from Sword of Sorcery! Lemire is such a talent, and adding Frank and Amy into the mix is just a deft move. I love this series the more and more I read it each month.

Swamp Thing Annual #1

(w) Scott Snyder
(p) Becky Cloonan
While this issue doesn’t fit directly into the current “Rotworld: The Green Kingdom” arc, Swamp Thing Annual #1 does give readers an in-depth look at the origin of the rivalry between Swamp Thing and Anton Arcane. Maybe it’s just me, but it often feels like Scott Snyder is just constantly jumping back in time to explain current events. This isn’t bad when done sparingly, but Snyder seems to be over-saturating Swamp Thing with ghosts of the past, as it were, instead of building the character as he is now.

REVIEW: SUPERMAN #13

This review was originally published on PopMatters.com.

(w) Scott Lobdell
(p) Kenneth Rocafort

There’s something different about Superman in the ‘New 52’. I’m not just talking about the new costume or back-story, or the fact that Grant Morrison is handling his early days in Action Comics – DC has fundamentally shifted the Man of Steel’s position in their mindset, and it basically amounts to a downgrade for the Last Son of Krypton.
Hear me out.
In recent years, Batman has become not only DC’s most popular character, but also arguably the most popular comic book character, in general. Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight” trilogy framed Batman for a modern generation and it became a huge success. Hence, DC has focused a lot more of its comic book efforts on Batman. The ‘New 52’ features 13 different Batman-related titles each month – five of which focus on Bats exclusively or with a partner – while there are only four dedicated to the Superman Family. For as long as Superman has been around, he’s been DC’s poster boy and, frankly, the most iconic superhero in the world – until now.
Of the Superman-related titles, two of them focus on Clark Kent’s alter-ego. Grant Morrison has been guiding Superman through his early years in Action Comics to varying degrees of success, while the character’s eponymous book has been caught in a flurry of creative switch-ups, editorial tightening, and overall dissonance concerning the direction the title should be moving. George Perez publically left the title after revealing a number of woes concerning management at DC dictating creative choices, leaving Superman to flounder for a bit. With no solid course or focus, the title has been lacking. Last month, Scott Lobdell was brought on board for Superman #0 to lead the series into the upcoming “H’el on Earth” crossover between Superman, Superboy, and Supergirl.
I have a rather tumultuous personal opinion concerning Scott Lobdell. While I absolutely hated his runs on both Superboy and Teen Titans, I find Red Hood and The Outlaws to be one of my favorite titles month to month. I can’t really explain it, and at this point, I don’t know that it much matters. Superman #13 affirms that Lobdell is bringing the best of what he brings to Red Hood and The Outlaws – including series artist Kenneth Rocafort – to his interpretation of the Man of Steel. All the stiff dialogue, convoluted plot, and unrealistic emotional drama that littered the pages of TT and Superboy are absent here, replaced by a surprisingly solid handle on Superman as a character with a clearly defined and structured narrative path.
Superman #13 almost acts as a reset button for the series. While events in previous issues are mentioned, it’s mostly to set the scene. The only real thing any new reader would need to know going into this issue is that Clark Kent has been frustrated working for the Daily Planet for some time. Clark’s grand Network­-style exit from the hallowed halls of journalism are quickly (and humorously) tamped when “fashion-obsessed, self-absorbed bobblehead” Cat – a fellow journalist – walks out after Clark and explains how she was inspired by his speech. While Cat wants Clark to feel better about what he’s done, the fact that she came and no one else did points to Clark’s all-around attitude concerning the money-grubbing entertainment conglomerate. It’s a sly move on Lobdell’s part, giving both Clark and Cat more depth as characters with little more than a tactical conversation.
The beginning of the issue heralds a new character, Dr. Veritas. She’s a rather utilitarian-looking figure with a lab coat draped over what looks like body armor. Of course, the more obvious explanation is that Kenneth Rocafort’s penciling style just makes everyone look badass like they’re wearing battle armor. If that’s the case, awesome, if not, then there’s got to be a reason for her unexplained militaristic get-up. Either way, Veritas is already an interesting character because Superman knows who she is and we don’t. Oh, and she has a lab with a machine that can exert the weight of the planet for Superman to bench-press. The machine’s amazing capabilities aside, the fact that it exists and that this woman owns it is incredibly fascinating. I found myself wanting to know more and more about Dr. Veritas and her relationship with Superman the entire time I was reading.
Scott Lobdell is a curious writer, for sure. Some of his work falls so terribly flat I want to go back and save the paper and ink used to make the issues he’s written, and some of goes on my “Must Buy” list for the month. Superman #13 reads fantastic and looks fantastic thanks to Kenneth Rocafort and his chiseled feature-heavy style that compliments Superman so well. I was starting to get annoyed by how frumpy Supes was looking as drawn by Jesus Merino and later Dan Jurgens. Not only does Lobdell start an excellent new chapter in Clark Kent’s life, but he also builds directly up to next month’s start of “H’el on Earth”, featuring the otherlast survivor of Krypton’s death. Basically, if you were reading Superman and got disappointed each month, stick with it. If you haven’t read this series up until now, start here.
GRADE
8/10

EXTRA! EXTRA! (OCT 24-30, 2012)

Batman: The Dark Knight #13
(w) Gregg Hurwitz
(p) David Finch

Batman: The Dark Knight #13 continues Gregg Hurwitz’s phenomenal Scarecrow arc that reintroduces Doctor Jonathan Crane to the ‘New 52’ in a much more frightening scope than he’s ever been before. Hurwitz has been parsing out Scarecrow’s horrid past over each issue instead of dumping it on readers all at once, a decision that’s been paying off in spades as Crane becomes more and more terrifying with each subsequent issue. On top of that, Scarecrow’s new super toxin is forcing Bruce to face his actual fear – that of actually ascending into the light and being able to live a normal life. It’s a poignant perspective to take on Batman, that he indeed had a choice about how to live his life and deliberately chose to chase after the darkness and envelop himself in shadows.

GRADE: 8.5/10  

I, Vampire #13
(w) Joshua Hale Fialkov
(p) Andrea Sorrentino

I, Vampire sits rather comfortably outside the main DC universe – though there are crossovers from time to time, a majority of what happens doesn’t directly affect much of the other characters DC has at it’s disposal. That being said, Joshua Hal Fialkov succeeds every month in bringing a new chapter to his fascinating story of Andrew Bennett, his rise into glory and his current fall into darkness. I, Vampire #13 sees Mary Seward – formerly ‘Queen of Blood’ – teaming up with Bennett’s professor friend to find Andrew’s maker, while Andrew and his new prodigy, Tig, track down Deborah Dancer – a woman from Andrew’s past who is only half-vampire. Fialkov is taking big risks in sending his main character down such a twisted and violent path, but such risks can lead to daring results and amazing narratives – I, Vampire easily falls into that category month after month.

GRADE: 8/10

X-Treme X-Men #5
(w) Greg Pak
(p) Paco Diaz

X-Treme X-Men is the weird step-sibling of the X-Men canon of series Marvel produces – it’s events are spun out of an arc from Uncanny X-Men by Kieron Gillen, only one character from Earth-616 is present, and the team travels across various dimensions hunting down evil versions of Charles Xavier. On one hand, it’s a rather limiting premise –  one that doesn’t allow for much diversion – while on the other hand, it has the potential for a literal infinite amount of stories due to the nature of the multiverse. So far, Greg Pak has done a great job bringing short, action-packed arcs that take advantage of a infinite multiverse with cool, alternate versions of the X-Men hanging around. X-Treme X-Men #5 finishes up a two-part tale of evil Xavier in the wild west.

GRADE: 8.3/10

REVIEW: BATMAN, INCORPORATED #4

(w) Grant Morrison
(p) Chris Burnham

FINALLY — an issue of Batman Incorporated that’s not layered in 50,000 levels of misdirection, metaphorical symbolism, intricate backstory, or mind-bending espionage. And it’s the best issue yet. Seriously. Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham’s road has been a bit bumpy so far, with the third issue of Batman Incorporated being the first ‘New 52’ title delayed more than a few weeks, then an “Issue Zero” that took us out of the main story for another month. Batman Incorporated #4 feels like the series is gaining momentum for the first time, and it’s incredible reading. Not to mention that most of Batman, Inc. shows up (including Nightwing and Red Robin) for a massive raid on the League of Assassins.

Grant Morrison announced a while back that he’ll be leaving Batman Inc. after issue 12; an fact that doesn’t bode well for the title, which has been Morrison’s vehicle to bring a conclusion to his years-long, multi-title arc concerning Batman, Talia al Ghul, and Damian Wayne. I honestly thought we’d have to wait until at least issue seven or eight to get deep into plot advancement, but Morrison brings the thunder early this month. Chris Burnham beautifully illustrates Morrison’s epic battle between Batman and his army and the waves upon waves of the deadliest killers in the entire world.

Batman Incorporated has been a victim of circumstance since it began, and though that was partly Morrison’s own fault, it’s now growing into it’s own as a solid title in the ‘New 52’ lineup. I’m skeptical it’ll continue after Morrison steps down, as that would open up a spot for a new title in the roster while also trimming down the already massive number of Batman-related titles. That being said, if DC were to get someone like China Mieville to take over, the series might just stand a chance of continuing.

GRADE
9/10