Sunday, 10 June 2007

Reviews: Atom, Detective Comics, Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, 2000AD

The All-New Atom issue 12 “Hunt for Ray Palmer” Part One “Never Too Small To Hit The Big Time” by Gail Simone (writer), Mike Norton (penciller), Dan Green (inker), Alex Breyaert, Travis Lanham and Mike Carlin (editor), cover by Ladrönn, DC Comics, August 2007, 22 pages of strip, US$2.99

Ryan Choi returns to Ivy Town from Hong Kong, to find traffic problems, a welcome home party, and an ambush.

Now, this is how superhero comics should be: revelling in the absurdity of the DC universe, Gail Simone throws in shapeshifting dummy taxidrivers, a disembodied alien head playing the sort of techno that only miniature invaders that live on the backs of dogs know how to do well, half-naked maths groupies, and a six-page demolition of the old Atom’s rogues gallery. There’s what appears to be real optical science applied to an impossible situation. The whole thing is punctuated by pages from the Ivy Town Chamber of Commerce’s “Welcome to Ivy Town!” (sample quotation: “Newly lowered radiation levels mean it’s probably okay to reproduce again!”), in a gambit reminiscent of Simone’s storytelling from Welcome to Tranquility.

Norton and Green produce some smoothly flowing and competent art (which sounds like a poor complement, but is a major improvement over some past episodes).

Only two debit points: it’s a shame that Simone has reversed her earlier stance that Dr Choi should not be a martial artist just because he’s Asian; and it’s worrying that next issue is a Countdown tie-in. If this comic turns all grim and driven by botched continuity, I shall not be happy.

Oh, and this panel is an obvious cry for attention from Chris Sims, which he has cruelly spurned.

Detective Comics issue 833 “Trust” by Paul Dini (writer), Don Kramer (penciller), Wayne Faucher (inker), Travis Lanham (letterer), John Kalisz (colourist) and Peter Tomasi (editor), cover by Simone Bianchi, DC Comics, August 2007, 22 pages of strip, US$2.99

A magician’s assistant, murdered on stage, turns out to be an old friend of Zatanna, so Batman calls her in as he tracks down the killer. (Of course, that’s “old friend” in the Murder, She Wrote sense of the term: someone we’ve never heard of before, and never will again.)

The previous issue of Detective by Dini and Kramer that I looked at seemed distinctly ordinary. But there was good reason to expect that this issue might have a bit more spark, given that Dini is himself married to a top-hatted magician, Misty Lee. (The image below is taken from her web-site.)

But this is still meat-and-potatoes stuff. Pacing, dialogue and art are all competent enough, but a bit stolid. There’s a badly staged sequence in which Batman stands right next to the killer and does nothing to stop him as he pulls a gun from the back of his waistband and shoots someone; and I disliked on principle the flashback sequence of Zatanna and Bruce Wayne meeting as children. So Zatanna is the same age as Bruce Wayne is the same age as Clark Kent is the same age as Lex Luthor … it has a flattening effect on the richness and texture of the world they inhabit.

On the other hand, Dini scores credit for an interesting murder method, and for a genuinely unexpected last-page twist – though if you look back over the previous few pages, he and the art team have led up to it with a nice precision.

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane issue 19 “The Thoughtful Thing” by Sean McKeever (writer), David Hahn (art), Christina Strain (colours), Dave Sharpe (letters) and Mark Paniccia (editor), plus The Mini Marvels “Hulk Date” by Chris Giarrusso, cover by Miyazawa and Strain, Marvel Comics, August 2007, 26 pages of strip, US$2.99

I had heard lots of good things about this comic, so I decided to sample an issue while there were still separate issues to sample. Sean McKeever leaves after number 20, and Marvel has yet to solicit orders for any later issues.

The story: Flash Thompson is secretly working in a diner because his father is out of work. Mary Jane persuades his friends to support him in non-intrusive ways. Spider-Man asks Mary Jane’s advice about whether to agree to his girlfriend, Firestar’s, suggestion that they share secret identities. And yes, that is a metaphor.

Story and art alike are gently paced to the point of placidity, and avoid melodrama. The characters are nicely set out, and – with the obvious exception that one of them has super-powers – plausible. It’s likeable rather than fun – characters do not have the preternatural wit that we are used to in teen movies like Heathers, Clueless or Mean Girls. Generally, it would seem like a nice change of style from the over-emphatic bombast of superhero comics, except that there’s a superhero in it. Spider-Man fits into the high school relationship drama well in some ways. It was an important part of the character’s conception. But so too was an energetic physicality that is wholly missing here, as Spidey spends several pages sitting still and talking. The full-face mask also makes him unsuited to the nuances of facial expression Hahn is able to use to good effect elsewhere.

“Hulk Date” is cute and funny. Perhaps not so cute and funny that it needed to appear in at least three different Marvel Comics this week, but we’ll let that ride.

2000AD Prog 1540, cover by Jock, published by Rebellion, 6 June 2007, 29 pages of strip, £1.75
Features: Greysuit “Project Monarch” part 1 by Pat Mills (script), John Higgins (art and colours), S J Hurst (colours) and Ellie De Ville (letters)
Nikolai Dante “Thieves’ World” part 3 by Robbie Morrison (script), Simon Fraser (art), Gary Caldwell (colours) and Annie Parkhouse (letters)
Judge Dredd “Tartan Terrors” by Gordon Rennie (script), Jock (art), Chris Blythe (colours) and Annie Parkhouse (letters)
Detonator X part 7 by Ian Edginton (script), Steve Yeowell (art), Chris Blythe (colours) and Simon Bowland (letters)
Defoe “1666” part 1 by Pat Mills (script), Leigh Gallagher (art) and Ellie de Ville (letters)

This Prog launches two new series, both written by 2000AD’s creator, Pat Mills. I am always in two minds about Mills’s writing. On the one hand, it is hugely energetic – something 2000AD desperately needs right now – and Mills has the ability to create instantly iconic concepts and characters. On the other hand, he is wedded to repetitively hard-boiled hard men heroes, and writes with a sledgehammer lack of subtlety. There is none of the ambiguity that his old colleague John Wagner uses to leaven his scripts. Especially when touching on modern politics, Mills tends to be overbearingly preachy rather than slyly funny.

Of the two new series, Greysuit seems most likely to fall foul of this, as it deals with a super-powered British agent involved in Middle East politics (as the story opens, he is selling tanks to the Iranian government), but who is recovering his conscience, much to the alarm of his bosses. But it’s a well structured opening episode, and John Higgins is an ideal choice for the artwork, lending everything a convincing solidity. The fight scene is remarkably brutal.

Long-term 2000AD fans will recall that one of the series with which Mills began the comic was MACH 1, about a super-powered British agent. At first, it was a straightforward rip-off of The Six Million Dollar Man, but in time it became focused on the way in which its hero was manipulated and abused by his cynical secret service bosses. Greysuit seems to be leaping to that point from the start.

Defoe is about a zombie hunter in a version of seventeenth-century England where the Great Plague of 1666 created an infestation of the undead. In his brief appearance, our hero, Titus Defoe (presumably named after Daniel Defoe, author of The Journal of the Great Plague Year) comes across as a seventeenth century Judge Dredd – appropriately enough, as Mills originally had that name earmarked for a witch-hunter in the same period, before Wagner borrowed it for his futuristic lawman. Alhough I’m not sure that the world needs another zombie story, this is again an efficient scene setter, with a lot of violence.

Leigh Gallagher’s art spills hatching and ink splatters over solid compositions to create a highly energetic effect that makes good use of the decision to run this strip in black and white.

Elsewhere, Nikolai Dante and Detonator X continue as usual. Judge Dredd has a stand-alone encounter with a festival full of Cal-Hab residents – the Dredd version of Scotsmen, all ginger-haired, mean, drunken, kilted and fed on deep-fried food. It’s done with bounce, and both Rennie and Jock are Scots themselves, but I can’t help but wonder whether an equivalent US comic portraying African-Americans as eye-rolling cowards singing spirituals and eating watermelon might not raise an eyebrow or two, even if produced by, say, Dwayne McDuffie and Trevor Von Eeden. Oh, hold on, wasn’t that a Spike Lee movie?

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