Monday, 28 May 2007

Reviews: Action Man ATOM, Criminal, Hellblazer

Action Man ATOM Alpha Teens On Machines issue 23 “Deadly Shadows!” by Ed Caruana (script and editor), Jack Lawrence (pencils and inks), Jason Cardy & Kat Nicholson (colours) and Alex Foot (lettering), Panini Magazines, 16 May 2007, 12 pages of strip (out of 36), £1.99

All I knew about this comic, when I picked it up out of a desire to see what was available by way of adventure comics in the UK these days other than 2000AD and superhero reprints, was that it was based on a line of toys by way of a French animated cartoon. The toys, by the way, are unrelated except by name and manufacturer to the Action Man military dress-up dolls of my youth (this was the brand name in the UK of the US GI Joe dolls, themselves long since replaced).

The plot involves the Alpha Teens protecting an old enemy, now in prison, from a group of ninjas who are killing members of his old covert operations unit , to which the father of one of the teens also belonged. The story is rather confusingly told, and no-one has any identifiable characterisation. I assume that the French animated cartoon adopts an anime style, as the fight scenes contain a lot of striking of poses and shouting of random nouns. As a result, not much actually happens over the course of the twelve pages: this is manga pacing without the space needed to make it work.

The artwork also seems to fit to an animated cartoon template, with blocky, simply-delineated figures against minimal backgrounds. There aren’t any technical errors that I noticed in the art, but it seems merely functional.

With only a third of the comic given over to the strip proper, there is a lot of filler. Some of this is useful. The story doesn’t explain who the Alpha Teens are, but this is set out in an introductory page. There’s another recap page before the story starts, and a two-page bio of the ninja leader, Dragon. The rest is made up of quizzes, reader art, posters, and the worst advice on drawing cartoon characters that I have ever seen. Obviously, this isn't intended for middle-aged men, but even as a child I recognised this sort of stuff as being mere ballast. Taken as a whole, this comic is poor value for money.

Criminal issue 6 “Lawless” part 1 by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, with colours by Val Staples, Icon/Marvel, May 2007, 26 pages, US$2.99

Soldier Tracy Lawless is released from eighteen months’ solitary confinement for doing something that the army wanted covered up, only to learn that his kid brother Rick has died in the meantime. Breaking out and deserting, Lawless sets out to find out what happened to his brother, by infiltrating the small-time gang of criminals to which Rick belonged.

The most notable thing about this story is Brubaker’s control of a narrative which uses multiple levels of flashback without ever becoming confusing. Characters and situations are sketched in with the same economical ease that typifies Sean Phillips’ starkly shaded artwork. These are the opening panels.

The reader is also grabbed by the throat right from the start.

My only complaint is that Brubaker makes things too easy for us. Lawless kills two men in the course of this issue. One is a mafia bagman who threatens Lawless’ own life. The other – whom Lawless kills so that he can take his place as the driver in his brother’s gang – is established as scum by a sequence in which, after having sex with a prostitute, he refuses to pay her and beats her up instead. That is just a little too convenient a way to allay the consciences of readers who are being asked to empathise with a murderous protagonist.

But, overall, this is compelling stuff that will probably not allow me to wait for the trade paperback collection.

Hellblazer issue 232 “Wheels of Chance, Systems of Control” by Andy Diggle (writer), Leonardo Manco (artist), Lee Loughridge (colourist), Jared K Fletcher (letterer) and Casey Seijas (editor), cover by Lee Bermejo, Vertigo/DC Comics, July 2007, 22 pages, US$2.99

John Constantine begins to pull himself together and reclaim his past, as he plots to break the bank at a casino with his bluff-and-willpower style of magic. Diggle provides another solidly characterised story, racking up the tension even though no immediate threats to life, limb or sanity are involved. Manco once again populates the pages with real-looking people in real-looking places, all solid shapes and smokey shadows.

But this comic also reveals me to be a hypocrite. For all my sneering at fans and writers who want to bring back their favourite version of the Legion of Super-Heroes or whatever, I did get a little thrill from seeing Constantine once again as Alan Moore and company originally created him, his clothes as sharp as his brain, rather than the scruffy drunk that Jamie Delano and John Ridgway turned him into. It’s a shame that no-one told cover artist Lee Bermejo.

For similar, “my version of the continuity is better than yours” reasons, this is my panel of the week.

Take that, Hollywood!

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