DC Comics/Vertigo – Mike Carey (w); Marcelo Frusin (a)
I’ve stated repeatedly my affection for Brian Azzarello’s work. The incredible job that he does every month (well, theoretically every month, since the book is usually late) on 100 Bullets was solely responsible for my return to reading comics. That having been said, his work on Hellblazer was, in my opinion, shaky at best. There were several instances in his moderate-sized run where I thought he was really starting to get a firmer handle on what made both the character tick and the book work, playing up Constantine’s amoral attitude and the book’s need for atmospheric, psychological horror. But for every arc like that, it seemed there was at least one where the ending was a complete letdown or Azzarello simply didn’t seem to get Constantine at all. So as much as I love Azz’s work, it was easy to deal with his departure from the book to begin with and much easier when it was announced that Mike Carey (of Lucifer fame) would be taking his place.
Even still, I was a bit nervous about him taking over. I enjoy his work on Lucifer, I think it does a good job of emulating the more epic aspects of Sandman (the book that it spun off of). However, writing one book well does not always translate into writing a similar book well (see Geoff Johns on JSA vs. Geoff Johns on Avengers). That having been said, after reading this issue and coming to an epiphany about the arc’s plot, I can safely recommend Carey’s run.
And the epiphany is this: this arc, essentially, is a supernatural mixture of two of my favorite books, The Maltese Falcon and Red Harvest, both by Dashiell Hammett
Essentially, the plot begins with Constantine being drawn, against his will, into a sort of magical mob war, as two (or possibly more, I assume) factions face off against each other (just like Red Harvest). As Constantine, being the nosy git that he is (much like Raymond Chandler’s Phillip Marlowe, I might add), unravels more and more of the conflict, he learns that the war is over possession of a mysterious artifact, the titular Red Sepulchre. However, the problem is that no one seems to know why exactly the Red Sepulchre is so valuable (just like the Maltese Falcon itself, which is sought after for no apparent reason than the fact that it is reputed to be sought after), much less what it looks like.
If you’re a Hellblazer purist, this arc marks the beginning of a transition towards a style of story that is probably more to your liking. However, it’s unlikely that Red Sepulchre is exactly what you’re looking for, as it seems to lack the basic horror of the earlier stories. There’s certainly violence and mysticism, but there’s nothing explicitly terrifying about the events in question; they’re more…well, interesting…than anything else.
However, if the concept of a supernatural noir tale does it for you (and it does for me), this arc is really shaping up to be a good one, so it’s worth checking out.
Three Days in Europe #1
Oni Press – Antony Johnston (w); Mike Hawthorne (a)
It’s another book about relationships, something the comic book market seems to have no shortage of sometimes. However, rather than being the typical “boldly honest” look at love in the 21st century that most claim to be (and rarely deliver on), Three Days in Europe plays out like a screw-ball romantic comedy of the black-and-white era of Hollywood, something that I could see Katharine Hepburn in with Cary Grant. And I really got a kick out of it, because some of the lines seems to have been veritably torn out of my mouth and put onto the page.
Jack and Jill (the cutesy-named protagonists) are a couple whose relationship is clearly falling apart. He’s a marketing executive; she’s a small-time art dealer. Both of them want to do something special for the other to try and repair the small rifts in their lives that have slowly grown over the years. If the synopsis sounds a bit like the pitch for a Meg Ryan movie, it should; the book bills itself as a romantic comedy, after all.
As is inevitable, there are complications involved in their respective ideas. Jack wants to fly Jill to Paris for the opening of an exclusive art gallery. Jill wants Jack to go with her to London, where she’s secured concert tickets and backstage passes to Jack’s favorite band.
I got a kick out of the dialogue here (and, let’s be honest, a book like this is made or broken by the strength of the dialogue, since there’s precious little that could qualify as “action”), hearing Jack complain that his girlfriend always says, “I dunno, what do YOU want to do?” That’s my life in a nutshell, man.
And it’s actually charming to see them bicker over who gets to have their way, since each of them are trying to do something for the other, not themselves. They’re essentially fighting over who gets to be extra nice to the other.
Anyway, the inevitable twist is amusing enough by itself, even if it is a bit predictable. At the airport, Jack convinces Jill that they should just both take their trips alone, since neither of them is really interested in what the other has planned. So he will go to London for the concert and she’ll go to Paris for the art. And naturally, in their hurry to be off, they both board the wrong planes.
Queen & Country: Declassified #1
Oni Press – Greg Rucka (w); Brian Hurtt (a)
Queen & Country is a book that gets a lot of good press from both print publications and websites. I, personally, enjoy the book, but find it to be so wholly overrated sometimes that it sort of queers my enjoyment of the book. I mean, I can see that there’s nothing really like it on the market and that Rucka certainly does his homework when it comes to crafting the stories, but I think that the arcs tend to run about an issue too long and that the book has been severely hampered by some poor artistic decisions (which have resulted in sometimes indistinct panels). So it’s rather amusing to say that the spin-off mini-series is possibly better than the regular series itself, at least based on what I’ve read so far.
Queen & Country: Declassified takes place in the late ’80s, prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, at a time when the Cold War was still being waged. Paul Crocker, Tara Chace’s boss in the regular Queen & Country series, is still a field operative in the organization. To put the plot as simply as possible, Crocker’s mission goes awry (what’s new?) and when he arrives back home for some all-to-brief downtime, he questions the worth of the work that he does (again, what’s new?).
If it sounds like this mini’s plot is essentially the standard Queen & Country story, minus Tara Chace, that’s because (at least so far) it is. However, the angst is done with a slightly different tack than usual. Whereas Tara tends to be a bit more vocal about her soul-searching (she has a therapist, after all), Crocker takes it all with the stereotypical stiff upper lip. The collapse of his marriage is imminent and all-too-apparent, making for a saddening dynamic that simply isn’t present in stories about Tara.
Basically (and this is going to come off as sexist, but here it is), I find the Crocker version of this story more interesting because, frankly, he takes it like a man. Tara tends to be wracked with guilt or self-doubt or a penchant for self-destruction or something similar. Crocker, on the other hand, just sucks it up and chalks up his feelings as a side effect of the job. Granted, Tara never fails to deliver when it counts, but Crocker hasn’t needed to be forcefully sent to the shrink yet either and I think that counts for something.
Regardless, if you didn’t like Queen & Country before, this issue certainly isn’t going to change your mind. If, however, you (like me) already think that the regular series is a nice change of pace from the usual spandex-clad antics, Declassified is a good read that provides some much-appreciated background information.
DC Comics – Jeph Loeb (w); Jim Lee (p); Scott Williams (i)
Let me put it this way: I was excited about this second issue, so I read it pretty soon after I got my books. However, when it came time to actually review it (scant days later), I had a hard time remembering what exactly happened in it.
Essentially, this is another story about how Batman can’t do everything on his own and how he has to rely on the safety net that he has in the so-called “Bat-family” of characters. This time, it’s The Huntress that saves his bacon. In addition, there’s a flashback into Bruce Wayne’s childhood, adding a previously unrevealed layer (read: retrofitted into his history for this story arc).
To be real honest about it, this issue just didn’t do it for me (and that’s saying a lot, when you consider that I’m a really easy sell on Batman books). Lee’s art is clearly suited to more action-oriented stories and Loeb is simply taking his time with this arc. The first issue of their run started out nicely, setting up both the plot and the atmosphere nicely. However, the second issue is already dredging up bad memories of Kevin Smith’s Quiver arc on Green Arrow, which I felt completely bogged down around the middle of the story. If Hush (the current Batman arc) is slated to be a 12-issue story, it really needs to pick up soon or run the risk of losing readers hand over fist.
Fantastic Four #63
Marvel Comics – Mark Waid (w); Mike Wieringo (p); Karl Kesel (i)
OK, I’ll admit it. I just don’t get this book. It seems that a lot of people are really enjoying it and I can’t fathom why that would be.
Now, maybe it’s my open distaste for anything that involves math (I got a degree in English for a very good reason; I suck at math), but this story arc just doesn’t do it for me. Simply put, you’d think a world famous scientist like Reed Richards would be more competent than he is under Waid’s direction. And a concept that I had thought was (thankfully) long gone, Franklin Richards’ omnipotence, rears its ugly head once again, as he and Reed accidentally create life. Or something. It’s all very boring, to be perfectly honest.
Maybe the renewed affection for this book has something to do with the fact that it’s been so unbelievably unreadable for so long (having recently endured several years of Chris Claremont, a fate worse than any mere cancellation; arguably worse than Heroes Reborn). If that’s the case, I suppose I can sympathize. It only took two issues of Claremont to send me running for the hills, so I suppose after having shoved him off the book, any competent regular writer would seem like a God-send.
But maybe it’s the fact that I’ve been recently re-reading some of the Lee/Kirby issues that has me so down on Waid’s run (a re-reading of Lee/Ditko Spider-Man issues renewed my enthusiasm for Ultimate Spider-Man after I realized how faithful Bendis is to the formula of those classic issues). I’ll confess to not really being able to put my finger on what it is that I don’t like about this book. In any case, I stick to my statement from earlier reviews, that this book is simply trying too hard to be cool and funny and retro all at the same time. It simply isn’t working.
Marvel Comics – Peter Milligan (w); Paul Pope (a)
This book, on the other hand, IS working for me, though admittedly, that’s nothing new. I’ve been an enthusiastic supporter of Milligan’s X-Force / X-Statix since Day One (though initially it was only because I was so happy to see Boom Boom and Cannonball and crew leave). And while the always stunningly pop-art stylings of Mike Allred are sorely missed, Paul Pope’s style (that I call ugly/beautiful) fills in nicely for an issue that marks a sort of change in tone.
An early complaint about this book in my store was that the characters were unfamiliar, unlikable and that the stories never seemed to go anywhere. That is, the team members would bicker amongst themselves, begrudgingly save the day, then go return to their in-fighting. And while those complaints are, at least in some respects valid, I had always felt that the book was building towards something. However, the relaunch of the title with a new name seemed to change the status quo precious little, doing nothing more than adding a few new team members and removing the fan favorite (and unfortunately named) U-Go Girl. However, these past couple issues have ushered in a real spurt of character growth and I can honestly say that I love the new direction.
Last issue marked the first time that that X-Force / X-Statix team members actually functioned a “real” team, voluntarily defending one another and saving the day. At the same time, they did it with their trademark tongue-in-cheek style and with their noses resoundingly thumbed at the superhero establishment. This issue is a sort of epiphany for a lot of the characters, with some genuinely funny scenes. Rather than spoil the plot, I’ll simply say that that heroes act like pre-teenage girls, snobby and exclusive, huddling in a bathroom stall to plot and scheme against someone who’s different from them.
Regardless, this issue is once again a nice place to start. I’d highly recommend pre-ordering the X-Force hardcover from your local shop if you’ve never tried the book, as it collects Milligan and Allred’s entire run on the book (and its ship date is relatively close to that of the first X-Statix trade, as I recall) for a fairly reasonable price.
The Flash #192
DC Comics – Geoff Johns (w); Scott Kolins (p); Doug Hazlewood (i)
Any book that opens with gorillas parachuting out of planes is all right in my book and the entertainment from Johns never lets up in this issue. It’s just all-around solid work, mixing Wally’s life at home with Linda and his career as The Flash. It also returns to a plot thread that had momentarily been laid aside, that of the treatment that Iron Heights’ warden dishes out to the inmates. Additionally, it casts doubt on the assumption that the aforementioned warden is in fact a villain, as he makes some comments to The Flash that imply he’s not so much evil as he is simply uncaring about the rights (or lack thereof) of his prisoners. There’s little that needs to be said here, except that Kolins is stunning as always and this issue begins a new arc centering around Gorilla Grodd. The Flash has arguably the best rogues gallery in all of comics (though I would take Batman’s or Spider-Man’s over his) and they’re looking to factor into the arc as well, as most of them are sprung from prison at the same time Grodd is.