Tuesday, October 17, 2017

On Justice League: Their Greatest Triumphs

This bargain-priced 170-page, $9.99 trade paperback seems to have been assembled specifically to give retailers something to point anyone interested in DC's premiere super-team because of next month's movie towards.

As a long-time fan of the Justice League, I was pretty curious about its contents, as "greatest hits" collections are almost never actually that. Given that their limited page-count, they are inevitably limited to single-issue stories, and the editors generally stick to in-continuity, relevant stories rather than looking to something from, say, a comic based on a cartoon or in an alternate universe (So I wouldn't expect anything from Justice League Adventures or Justice League Unlimited, or from Adventures in The DC Universe or the Paul Dini/Alex Ross one-shot JLA: Liberty & Justice).

Of course, the sub-title here doesn't necessarily promise the greatest or best stories, but the greatest "triumphs," whatever exactly that might mean (Given that they are limited to one-issue stories, though, it's not like they can actually include their greatest triumphs, as those generally come at the end of stories of some scope and size. I guess they could use the final issues of story arcs like "Rock of Ages"...?).

These sorts of books also generally reveal more about where the publisher's collective head is regarding a franchise: What they consider the best or most important stories, which iterations of the League are the most important or relevant ones, which characters and creators they find important or relevant to the line at the moment. I knew without even cracking it I was probably going to disagree with many of the inclusions.

Looking solely at the table of contents, there are only three distinct teams or "eras" represented: Grant Morrison's "Big Seven Plus" roster (although nothing actually written by Morrison is included), Brad Meltzer's short-lived, one-arc team and Geoff Johns' post-Flashpoint team. To the extent that any earlier iteration of the team exist, it is only in flashback form in the Meltzer-written issue.

The average age of the stories is nine-years-old, with a Mark Waid, Mark Pajarillo and Walden Wong story from 1999 being the oldest, and a Bryan Hitch, Daniel Henriques and Scott Hanna story from 2016 being the most recent. Geoff Johns scripted three of the seven issues, with the four other writers each getting an issue a piece of the remaining ones. Three of the stories are set before Flashpoint, the other four in the post-Flashpoint DC Universe.

What accounts for the selection? The heavy representation of Johns feels slightly icky given his current prominence in the publisher's leadership--President & Chief Creative Officer--so it feels a little like flattering the boss. On the other hand, from what we know of the upcoming movie, it seems to be somewhat inspired by Johns' first Justice League story (which was also the basis of the direct-to-DVD animated film, Justice League: War), and the film's line-up reflects the post-Flashpoint, Geoff Johns inclusion of Cyborg on the team (aside from a weird, seemingly aborted line-up initiated by James Robinson, Cyborg was never on the team until Johns' relaunch).

It's possible the specific stories are included to offer suggestions of villains in the movie, but that actually seems a little unlikely, as in addition to a Parademon or two, these include The White Martians, The Construct, Ocean Master, a couple of cameos by Crime Syndicate of America and whatever the hell was going on in Bryan Hitch's first "Rebirth" Justice League arc.

Here are the comics included within...

Justice League #1
By Geoff Johns, Jim Lee, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair

This is the 2011 first issue of the previous Justice League series, the official launch of The New 52. Despite having the New 52 version of a Big Seven on the cover--all of whom are appearing in the film, save Green Lantern Hal Jordan--the actual issue just features Batman, Jordan and, on the last page, Superman. A pre-Cyborg Victor Stone makes an appearance (in his origin for the League, Johns tied Cyborg's origin to the invasion of Apokolips and the formation of the team), as does a Parademon or two.

Given the collection's sub-title, it seems like a random choice, with the final issue of the arc seemingly a better one (That at least features the whole roster, as well as Darkseid). Johns and Lee, another DC Comics executive, only collaborated on two story arcs, neither of which is very good, and neither of which was broken into strong individual chapters in such a way that would make the inclusion of any single issue read smoothly all on its own.

So on the one hand, while I totally get why a chapter of this arc is in here--it's Johns and Lee, it's apparently a pretty strong inspiration for the film--it also doesn't make much sense at all to include it here.

If a reader wants to find out what happens next, this story is collected as Justice League Vol. 1: Origin.

JLA #33
By Mark Waid, Mark Pajarillo, Walden Wong and John Kalisz

This one actually kind of baffles me. Waid did have a decently well-written run on JLA, picking up the baton from Grant Morrison at the conclusion of Morrison's World War III arc. Waid's run kicked off with a pretty great, over-sized original graphic novel with Bryan Hitch and Paul Neary (JLA: Heaven's Ladder), and  then ran through issues #43-60 of the ongoing monthly title. Unfortunately, the art was a mess, as he was officially teamed with Hitch, who was unable to ever complete an arc (In that sense, the Waid/Hitch run peaked before it even began, as Heaven's Ladder was the only complete story Hitch managed, start to finish).

Waid was writing JLA stories before his run began though. In addition to scripting the prequel miniseries A Midsummer's Nightmare and then JLA: Year One, he wrote two great, two-issue fill-in arcs during Morrison's run, and returned again for two-issue fill-in stint in 1999, featuring two done-in-one-ish stories that kinda sorta dealt with the "No Man's Land" mega-story in the Batman titles. This was the last Waid-scripted fill-in, and it was penciled by then frequent JLA fill-in artist, Mark Pajarillo.

A follow-up to Morrison's first arc, which had the League re-forming to stave off a White Martian invasion, this issue has Batman assigning then-Leaguers Orion, Big Barda, Steel, Plastic Man and Green Lantern Kyle Rayner to investigate Bruce Wayne (actually a White Martian assuming Wayne's identity), while Superman and Wonder Woman investigate The (or is it "a"...?) Flash, a new version with a new costume who was refusing to reveal his true identity to just about everyone.

This was a fun story in several ways, including Pajarillo's drawings of Orion fighting with the tuxedo he goes undercover in, and one of Plas' skeeviest disguises as an inanimate object, plus an overall weird grouping of heroes interacting in the ways that Morrison's ongoing narrative rarely allowed for. It's still a weird choice for the book, though. Not only do few of these heroes seem to appear in the film, but it ties in to a couple of pretty specific and temporary plot points from other comics.

If DC wanted to choose a Waid-written issue, JLA #50 might have been a good one, as it was a stock-taking issue that transitioned between the arc that had just ended and the one that was beginning (and featured bearded Aquaman; he is clean shaven and short-haired in all of these issues), and aside from a compelling cliffhanger, it had some pretty classic Justice League-ing.
The best done-in-one, fill-in from during Morrison's run, however, was probably JLA #27, by Mark Millar, Pajarillo and Wong.

Essentially an Atom story, it features classic Justice League villain Amazo and the entire Justice League reserves (i.e. everyone that was a Leaguer and was still alive at the time) showing up before it's all over. It's a very clever story, too, harkening back to classic, Silver Age League comics. It feels weird suggesting anyone read a Millar comic in 2017, but this was back in the days when Millar seemed to really want to be a comic book writer, before he realized he could used comics as a stepping stone to Hollywood films, and started turning his Elseworlds pitches into analogue comics to entice filmmakers into adapting them.

Morrison had a lot of great short stories, but these were generally two issues long, rather than a single issue long. The only done-in-one of his I can think of is JLA #5, which was full of guest-stars and had some good Martian Manhunter moments but, for the most part, was a Superman and Tomorrow Woman story. Unfortuantely, Superman was going through his electric phase at that point, so I wonder if it would just confuse and repel readers of this particular trade collection...?

At any rate, I'd recommend one read the entirety of the Morrison run and, once that's finished, check out the Waid run as well...or, at the very least, Heaven's Ladder.

Justice League of America #1 #0
By Brad Meltzer, Eric Wight, Ed Benes, Alex Sinclair, and a whole bunch of artists

Huh. That's weird. The table of contents refers to this as Justice League of America #1, the first chapter of Brad Meltzer, Ed Benes and company's "The Tornado's Path" story arc, but it's actually JLoA #0. This was the start of prose novelist-turned-terrible-comics writer Brad Meltzer's run on the newly relaunched JLoA in 2006. Following the events of Infinite Crisis, this over-sized issue was mainly a vehicle for an exploration of Justice League history, as revised on the fly by Meltzer, although because it was coming off of a cosmic, continuity rejiggering, this time there was at least an in-universe explanation for the changes (Those in his Identity Crisis, on the other hand, were just mistakes).

Among those changes was to reinstate Wonder Woman as an original member of the Justice League of America--following Crisis On Infinite Earths, Black Canary II was a founding member in Wondy's stead, as Wonder Woman was being introduced into the DCU for the first time in the then-new continuity--and this issue was basically Meltzer having the "Trinity" of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman getting together to discuss who should be on the new Justice League of America line-up, flashing back to various meetings between the three at various points in DC history as it existed at that point and, oddly, a few glimpses into future meetings of the three.

It is mainly noteworthy for all the great artists involved. Ed Benes, who would be Meltzer's main pencil artist for the remainder of the writer's short, 12-issue run, drew many of the modern day scenes, and Eric Wight drew many of the earliest past scenes, with an all-star roster drawing everything in between. Among the artists were those who had worked on previous runs of Justice League comics before, including Kevin Maguire, Dan Jurgens, Howard Porter and George Perez.

In that respect, it is probably a good issue to include in here. If you want to find out what happens following this story, and I wouldn't recommend it, you can check out Justice League of America Vol. 1: The Tornado's Path. In retrospect, the most interesting thing Meltzer brought to the franchise was including new blood in the form of Black Lightning, Hawkgirl and Arsenal-turned-Red Arrow Roy Harper, but the line-up Meltzer spent 12 issues gradually assembling would begin being dismantled almost immediately.

This volume of the League book ultimately lasted five years and 60-issues, and featured work from talented writers like the late, great Dwayne McDuffie and James Robinson, but it was a complete mess, and perhaps the nadir of League history. (Seriously; I'll reread the Detroit Era and Extreme Justice before looking at these comics again.)

Justice League #16
By Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado and Rod Reis

This is a particularly perplexing inclusion, as it is the third chapter of the six-part Justice League/Aquaman crossover "Throne of Atlantis," and, as such, doesn't really stand on its own at all. The basic story is that Aquaman's evil brother Orm, AKA "Oceanmaster," is leading the armies of Atlantis against the United States and the Justice League, and Aquaman is caught in the middle. In this particular chapter, he fights Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, while Cyborg is trying to sort everything else out elsewhere.

"Throne" was a pretty decent story, maybe the best of Johns' run, and Reis' pencil art was pretty great, but as just a single chapter, this is kind of a pointless read as anything other than perhaps an enticement to buy the trade it is collected in (Actually, this story appears in two different trades, both of which reprint the entire thing, which I imagine must have been awfully fucking frustrating for anyone following both of the Johns-written series in trade; Justice League Vol. 3: Throne of Atlantis and Aquaman Vol. 3: Throne of Atlantis). It does feature characters that appear in the film, so I guess there is that.

Justice League #29
By Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke, Keith Champagne, Christian Alamy and Rod Reis

This is the final inclusion from Johns' Justice League, a 2015 issue tie-in to that year's Forever Evil event series, which was also written by Johns. It has a rather striking cover, featuring the Metal Men appearing in the shapes of the Justice Leaguers, but little else to recommend it. It is basically a Cyborg solo story, and sees Vic recruiting Doc Magnus and The Metal Men to help him take on The Grid, the evil version of Cyborg that was colluding with the Crime Syndicate of Earth-3.

If you read this and find yourself dying to know what happens next (and I can't imagine you will), then it is included in context in Justice League Vol. 5: Forever Heroes, and you'll probably also want to check out the poorly-drawn Forever Evil collection.

JLA #107
By Kurt Busiek, Ron Garney, Dan Green and David Baron

So, if you had asked me at the time who should follow Mark Waid on JLA, I would have told you that Kurt Busiek would have been the ideal choice. Instead, DC chose Joe Kelly, a writer who wouldn't have even been on my radar at the time, but who nevertheless turned out a remarkably strong 30-issue run on JLA, which then continued into his Justice League Elite book and then returned for a single issue of JLA before reaching its conclusion. That was probably the last high-quality run on a League book until...well, I don't think anyone's matched it since, actually.

For whatever reason, DC de-emphasized the importance of JLA around 2004, perhaps because they were focused on Identity Crisis and the ramp-up to Infinite Crisis. The result was about two years in which the book became an anthology series, with different arcs by different creators, few of which had anything to do with one another, let alone with the DC Universe at large: Denny O'Neil and Tan Eng Huat did a forgettable two-parter; John Byrne, Chris Claremont and Jerry Ordway did a barely readable seven-part storyline that included a soft reboot of the Doom Patrol; Chuck Austen and Ron Garney did a series of solo stories which kind of defeated the purpose of the book (all of these character already had at least one solo book at the time, after all, with the exception of Martian Manhunter) and then there was "Syndicate Rules," of which this is the first chapter.

If anyone was still paying attention to JLA, they would have been rewarded with this eight-part story written by Busiek (finally!) and penciled by Garney, featuring a rematch with the Crime Syndicate, the first since Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely reintroduced them in their original graphic novel JLA: Earth-2. Entitled "Maintenance Day," it featured what was left of the Big Seven version of the League, which now included Green Lantern Jon Stewart in for Kyle Rayner and The Atom apparently out of his self-enforced semi-retirement.

While the storyline would eventually grow pretty epic in scope, this first issue is kind of a low-key start, a day-in-the-life type of story in which the impatient Flash Wally West and Martian Manhunter perform a series of tasks needed to keep the Justice League's lunar Watchtower in working order. This includes a conflict with The Construct.

It was a strong enough story arc that it became all the more depressing that the JLA/Avengers writer never had a proper run on JLA, but he would kinda sorta get his chance a few years later with the weekly Trinity series. To read all of "Syndicate Rules," you can try to track down the out-of-print JLA: Syndicate Rules trade or JLA Vol. 9, which includes it along with Geoff Johns and Allen Heinberg's Identity Crisis tie-in, "Crisis of Conscience."

Justice League: Rebirth #1
By Bryan Hitch, Daniel Henriques, Scott Hanna and Alex Sinclair

No, I don't know why these books aren't presented in anything approaching chronological order, but instead keep jumping back and forth.

After his poor showing as the pencil artist during Mark Waid's run on JLA, and a rather poor showing as a writer/artist on his own book entitled Justice League of America (which he hadn't yet finished when this series launched), Bryan Hitch got another crack at the League with the relaunched, "Rebirth" version of the title. The line-up was essentially the same as it was when Johns and Lee relaunched the rebooted League in 2011, only instead of one Green Lantern in Hal Jordan, they now had two Green Lanterns in new, Johns-created characters Simon Baz and Jessica Cruz. Oh, and instead of New 52 Superman, they now had pre-Flashpoint, post-Convergence Superman. What his deal was would eventually all get ironed out in the Superman books, but, at this point, much of the character's interactions with his teammates were colored in distrust, as they didn't know who exactly he was or understand what the fuck was going on with Superman continuity (Join the club, Justice League!).

As with all of Hitch's League writing to date, I read this--three times now!--and couldn't really tell you what happened in it, or why. It's all apocalyptic, wide-screen, disaster picture stuff, but it is also strangely boring, lifeless and unsubstantial. If you read the chapter and find yourself intrigued, however, you can see how it all plays out in the pages of Justice League Vol. 1: The Extinction Machines.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

On DC's Rebirth line, vis-à-vis my own personal pull-list

A few Wednesdays ago, DC shipped the fourteenth and final issue of All-Star Batman, crossing another of the publisher's "Rebirth"-branded ongoing series off of my pull-list, and reducing the number still on that particular list to just three. It seemed like a good time to revisit the May 2016 publishing initiative, seeing as how precipitously my own purchasing of the Rebirth line had dropped in the past year and a half, and that it wasn't just me gradually dropping books, but also DC canceling some of them.

(Quick caveat: I don't know that this will be of any particular interest to anyone out there, but, well, the same could be said for everything else on this blog. I know I would be interested in reading it if I weren't me though, so I'm going to write this up (um, which could also be said for everything else on this blog). I know I'm just a single, incredibly persnickety comics reader, so this isn't a diagnosis for any particular problem with the publisher or the initiative, just my own personal takes on the various books that I like enough to start buying and reading, and why I eventually stopped buying and reading them. If it's evidence of anything it is, therefore, just anecdotal evidence.)

To review, in May of last year DC published DC Universe: Rebirth #1 by the writer (and the company's president and chief creative officer) Geoff Johns and a handful of popular, talented artists. The stated goal was to reinvigorate the DCU setting and line, not unlike what Johns had previously done as the writer (and just writer) for specific franchises with Flash: Rebirth and, more remarkably, Green Lantern: Rebirth.

It introduced an odd, "Everything You Thought You Knew About The New 52 Is Wrong!" mystery, which was mainly odd in that DC had not yet gotten around to really explaining what the deal was with The New 52 and the character Pandora's role in creating it (er, in-story, of course). It also teased an eventual, perhaps inevitable crossover between the characters from Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons and company's Watchmen and the DC Universe in general. These various plot-lines would very, very gradually be explored in a variety of books, including Detective Comics,
The Titans, the Superman books (Action Comics in particular) and a Batman/Flash crossover story, "The Button."

More palpably, it was an in-universe justification for the publisher's "Rebirth" initiative, which was closer in spirit and effect to their June 2015 "DCYou" effort than 2011's "New 52" reboot. They may have re-set the dials on all of their books' numbering with new #1 issues as they did with The New 52 (with the exceptions of Action and Detective, which saw their pre-New 52 numbering re-stored), but continuity remained the same. There was a greater emphasis on new creative teams, new directions and a handful of new books, much of which seemed like a course correction for many of the mistakes of the hurried New 52 launch, but, beyond that, there was also unified cover dress and a two-tiered schedule tied to price-point: The more popular books would still cost $2.99 and would ship twice a month, while the others would cost $3.99 and ship monthly...and we have seen a handful of titles slip from the first category into the second as their sales gradually dwindled.

I actually tried the first issue of every single one of the "Rebirth" titles (as you may or may not remember), in large part because I had the opportunity to do so without buying them all personally (I was still writing for the Robot 6 blog on Comic Book Resources and Comics Alliance at that point).

So, after trying at least one issue of each, the below titles are the ones I added to my pull-list, whether or not I kept buying them and why not...

All-Star Batman (Canceled by the publisher.) I really loved the first arc of this book, in which regular writer Scott Snyder collaborated with John Romita Jr. on the biggest--and only second, really--Two-Face story of the post-Flashpoint era.

Romita, by the way, was really the "All-Star" referenced in the title, as the stars referenced there seemed to be the creators, rather than the character which, after all, was just Batman and his friends and foes, month in and month out. After that initial arc, structured like an over-the-top action movie in which a bunch of massively redesigned minor Bat-villains--mostly for the better, for a change--tried to collect a bounty on Batman, who was on some mad quest to "rescue" his captive enemy Two-Face, something literally the entire world, from Commissioner Gordon and Alfred to the KGBeast, was attempting to prevent.

The two arcs that followed weren't quite as strong, and the second one suffered somewhat from changing artists each chapter, but this has been the all-around best-made of the three Batman books since the "Rebirth" re-launches. I was quite surprised to see how much worse it sold than Batman proper, however. Sure, it was more expensive at $5, but each issue did feature a back-up, and for the first two arcs at least, those back-ups seemed rather important.

Additionally, with Snyder attached as writer, All-Star has been the Bat-book that most directly followed his run on Batman, and rather directly leads into his Dark Nights: Metal epic (and to the Batman and The Signal miniseries, though I can't imagine people are going to be as excited about that as they are about Metal). Put another way, much more so than Batman itself--which has spent the summer absorbed in an extended flashback story arc--All-Star has been the one Batman book that "mattered," but it hasn't been selling as such.

As DC's third best-selling book at the moment, this cancellation is more likely about trying to find a different format at which Snyder-writing Batman can move more issues--at least, that's my understanding, as the plan is apparently for the stories Snyder was originally planning to tell with the artists he was planning on working with in All-Star are going to show up somewhere or other.

Batman (Still reading.)Tom King's scripts are often quite well-written, and even his current "The War of Jokes and Riddles" story arc is technically well-written, although it engages in far too much telling-not-showing for a comic book, and is supremely frustrating for a fan with even passing knowledge or interest in any of the many characters involved, as few seem to be acting much like themselves, the title character most particularly. Unfortunately, how good the comic ends up being often depends on who is drawing it. Because it is a twice-monthly book, it has two primary artists, one good and one bad, and then fill-in artists are occasionally needed as well.

I can't say I won't drop the book ever--I might have already done so if the poorer of the two primary artists were drawing this current storyline, for example--but for now, this seems like the DCU book I am least likely to drop, as well as the DC book that is least likely to ever be canceled, as it's the publisher's best-selling book that isn't Dark Nights: Metal by a long, long way.

Deathstroke (Dropped due to price increase.) This was an unusual case in which I was a fan of the writer, not the character, and became a fan of the book despite the subject matter, so skilfully was Christopher Priest scripting it. The art was even more uneven than many of the other twice-monthly books, but it was never too poor.

Unfortunately, when DC moved it to a more sensible monthly schedule--this was the third time they had launched a Deathstroke book since 2011, so if selling it once a month was challenging, surely trying to sell it twice as often was a little over ambitious--it also moved from the $2.99 price-point to the $3.99 price-point, which is pretty much a red line for me when it comes to consuming Big Two comics serially.

Detective Comics (Still reading.) I was on the fence with this book as soon as it was announced, as I was okay with the writer, liking more of his comics than I've disliked (James Tynion), not a fan of the primary pencil artist at all, even though few DC Comics could have regular artists at the twice-monthly pace (Eddy Barrows) but intrigued by the cast and concept.

That concept was basically that of having Batman organize his many allies into a kind of super-team, a little like Batman, Incorporated, but as a Gotham City-based team of heroes-in-training, as opposed to a worldwide network of Batmen.

I don't think its yet met its potential, and I confess that this is the comic book I continue to read despite not really liking it, month in and month out (I may drop it after the current story arc, which I'm reading out of pretty intense curiosity).

More than any of the other books, 'Tec seems to suffer from the worst-of-both-worlds phenomenon inherent in DC's post-Flashpoint New 52-boot, and it suffers further from the fact that it feels so much like fan-fiction. Even more so than, say, Nightwing, which has similarly relied on particular characters created by and associated with particular creators, 'Tec has a tendency to read like fan-fiction.

I know that's probably a charged term, and might even sound nonsensical when describing the comics for a corporate entity like Warner Bros' DC Comics or Disney's Marvel, given that almost all of the books they publish feature creators who didn't create the toys they are playing with, but I think there are degrees to the ickiness, depending on the age of the characters and the number of other creators who have worked on them before (That is, DC may technically own Batman and Anarky and Doctor Manhattan, but, for now at least, using those last two feels a little wronger to me than it does to use Batman, as Anarky still feels like more of a Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle character and Doctor Manhattan an Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons one, while Batman is so far removed from his first few years under creators Bob Kane, Jerry Robinson and their collaborators that, well, it feels less fan fiction-y to me to read a Batman comic than it would, say, a Superman vs. Doctor Manhattan one, as DC has in the works, or Tynion's run on 'Tec, which has basically been a Batman comic in which Tynion has paraded his favorite Batman characters from the '90s through a New 52 filter).

I might be more forgiving if Tynion were doing new or interesting things with all of the characters, but aside from his attempt to turn Clayface into a good guy, the series has been a really weird arc by arc cycle of Batman and his team discovering a new secret society and combating them, only to discover a new one in the next arc (The Colony, The Victim Syndicate, The League of Shadows, The Order of St. Dumas).

Gotham Academy: Second Semester (Canceled by the publisher.) On the one hand, it's kind of shocking that this book wasn't an gigantic hit for the publisher. Even if the finicky direct market rejected it, Gotham Academy really seemed like something that should have done gangbusters in the bookstore and library markets, as the elevator pitch was basically "Batman + Harry Potter" (Which I say having never read any Harry Potter books, or watched any movies after that first one; perhaps it's more accurate to describe it as a book about a Gotham City Hogwarts, only with detective work and vigilante crime-fighting instead of magic, maybe?).

On the other hand, once it was clear that the book didn't catch on in its first year, it is not at all surprising that it didn't survive the Rebirth era. In fact, it wasn't quite ready for the Rebirth era relaunch, and thus it took a few months to start being published under its new title (That is, with the colon and the words "Second Semester" attached).

I'm kind of loathe to diagnose exactly what or where the book went wrong.

It's possible that it was at once too Batman-specific (see the school's teaching staff, which consisted mostly of half-forgotten villains from Batman '66) while not being Batman-specific enough (Bruce Wayne and Batman flitted through the book more than once, and Robin Damian Wayne had some memorable guest-appearances, but despite the occasional tie-in to Batman franchise crossovers like "Endgame" and "Robin War," it wasn't exactly mandatory reading for the Batman audience).

I've also heard that there may have been some behind-the-scenes problems, particularly regarding the particular art process that gave the first volume of the book's early issues' every panel the look and feel of an animation cel.

From my standpoint as a comic book reader and a semi-professional comic book critic, DC did everything right to promote the first volume of the series, and by the time they launched Second Semester it really felt like the publisher must have known it was on it way out, and gave what was left of the creative team plenty of space to finish up their ongoing story in a way they saw fit (I do wonder if the length and scope of that ongoing story may have hampered the book too; Brenden Fletcher and company played a very long game in terms of plotting overarching, intertwined mysteries, but the book was at its most fun when it was concentrating on smaller, more immediate events). The "Yearbook" story arc, which basically just hit the pause button on that story (or any story, really) for months and months, temporarily turning the book into an anthology series, was probably ill-considered.

I'm definitely going to miss Maps though, and, in a perfect world, we will get Maps and Damian team-ups...somewhere or other, eventually.

New Super-Man (Dropped due to the price increase.) The Gene Luen Yang-created (or re-created, I guess) Superman starred in the most intriguing book in what was originally a overly ambitious five-book Superman line, as he was a brand-new character, his story was set in China and, well, he was the creation of Gene Luen Yang, one of the most influential and talked about cartoonists of the last decade or so.

I was a little conflicted about the book, almost from the beginning. I really liked Kenan Kong, the title character, who in everything from his age to his arrogance reminded me of the 1990s Superboy, the young clone of Superman who emerged during the "Reign of the Supermen" storyline. The stories were cool, featuring a rather remarkable swathe of the DC Universe filtered through a new, rarely-seen setting and culture (in addition to a Chinese, teenage Super-Man, there was also a Wonder-Woman and a Bat-Man, and their first villains were modern Chinese echoes of The Freedom Fighters, favorite characters of mine), as well as pre-existing characters like I-Ching and The Great Ten and maybe the most unexpected character of all time, who is arguably the publisher's first characters.

The book also featured perhaps what is--no lie, no hyperbole--the greatest cliffhanger in DC Comics history. I saw the last page of that issue in the shop, but I didn't see how it turned out, so maybe it ended up being a head fake?

As much as I liked the characters, the scripting and the overall direction, however, the art was fairly lackluster, and, in a time of seemingly peak comics like this, "just okay" or even just "pretty decent" art isn't really worth paying attention to anymore. Viktor Bogdanovic was the original pencil artist, and I understand Billy Tan has come and went a few times since.

The design work was always solid, but the art just didn't grab me, and it seemed particularly poor compared to that of everything other Yang comic I had read or seen, and I think I would have preferred this if any Yang collaborator from projects past had been attached (the same could be said for Yang's pre-Rebirth work on the Superman franchise too, though). I understand the argument for a visual style that more closely fits in with the median of the DCU line's artwork but, on the other hand, I don't know that this book's ideal audience is the direct market (sales analysis suggests that it is now), but the book store/library market where Yang's past work has flourished, so it seems to me a smarter move to hire more Yang-friendly artists.

So when sales apparently slid to the point that New Super-Man made the jump in price-point from $2.99 to $3.99, I wasn't exactly broken up to move it from my monthly pull-list to the Wait For The Trade list that exists in my head.

Nightwing (Still reading.) Putting Dick Grayson back in his Nightwing costume, and his pre-Flashpoint color scheme was a smart and welcome move, as was eventually putting him back in BLudhaven, after the somewhat flailing narrative arc of the character over the course of the past five years. I wasn't crazy about this book's first story arc by now long-time Dick Grayson writer Tim Seeley, but when he returned to Bludhaven, it started to feel a lot more like a Nightwing book should, while managing to retain new elements from more recent Dick Grayson-starring comics, like his relationship with current Robin Damian Wayne, his time as a super-spy in Grayson and so on.

The art hasn't been anything special, and the art teams have changed with enough frequency that I couldn't even tell you who the primary artists on the series have been. Given the always-increasing focus on how sexy Dick is suppose to be, I'd kinda like to see an artists who specializes in sexy dudes take on the series...and/or the cover, but I don't know that the Big Two have ever been especially adept at drawing beefcake to go with their cheesecake.

A new creative team is coming on shortly, and sales on the book have looked poor enough that I wouldn't be surprised to see it go to the $3.99 price-point before too long.

Suicide Squad (Dropped due to chaotic art/format.) In the heady days when the Suicide Squad movie was still just an awesome-looking trailer, this book seemed to have the makings of an "it" book, and it looks like DC went to some pains to more closely align it to the version of the team that would be/did/had appearing/appear/appeared in the movie. They even got Jim Lee to draw it! Of course, in order to get Lee to draw it, they came up with a rather weird format, in which Lee drew short chapters of a continuing story arc in each issue, and the rest of the issue would be filled-up with an origin story for one of the characters, each of these drawn by a guest-artist.

That worked fine, but, once all the origins were told, the book then had the problem of filling 20-pages a month. Which, really, shouldn't have been a problem once Lee moved on, as it's not like they had to accommodate the extremely popular artist (and company co-publisher) any longer. Suicide Squad could very easily have resumed a "regular" format, with a single art team drawing a 20-page chapter of an ongoing serial narrative each issue.

That's not what they did, though, and the narrative then got pretty damn messy, as art chores as well as stories were seemingly arbitrarily divided into chunks. I stuck with it through the end of the John Romita JR-drawn arc because, well, because it was JRJR drawing it, but that's as much as I could take, and w/out an artist of his caliber there, it wasn't really worthwhile.

I do think writer Rob Williams did a pretty great job on the book...I certainly read it a lot longer than I read the last two attempts at a Suicide Squad ongoing (As with Deathstroke, the Rebirth initiative marked DC's third attempt at a Suicide Squad book since September 2011).

I think one of the essential problems with his take, one that is thrown into sharp relief when one is reading issues of it between DC's releases of trade collections of the original John Ostrander-written series, is that the team is too consistent, with very, very few comings and goings. While Ostrander's Suicide Squad had a core cast, both among the civilian support staff and the super-villains, it also had a lot of guest-stars, and characters who would be there for an issue or an arc or 20 issues and then leave, either because they were needed/being used elsewhere, or they paid off their debt to society/Amanda Waller or because they were killed in action. For a task force with the word "suicide" in their nickname, this squad never seems to take any casualties.

The other problems are ones that can't really be addressed, and, actually, contribute to the one I just mentioned.

I've likely said this before, but because the post-Flashpoint DCU is so young, it's not stocked with minor characters from decades worth of scores and scores of comics Williams could use as cannon fodder, or even just to give the cast character. I mean, as we've seen in the previous two iterations of the book, there are minor characters aplenty that can be used, but on the other side of a reboot, they don't really matter in any way, as they are just recycled codenames attached to costume redesigns.

Finally, because of the short history and relative instability of the post-Flashpoint DCU, there's no real sense of place, history, consistency or import to the setting. Ostrander's Suicide Squad was set in a world that was a fantastical version of the real world, where there were multiple government agencies dealing with meta-humans, and where real-world politics and/or fantasy versions of real-world politics set in and around fictionalized countries played a role. Now Amanda Waller doesn't really have anyone to engage in bureaucratic battle with, because I don't know that there is a Checkmate, a Peacemaker Project, a Project: Captain Atom and so on. I mean, I've heard "Checkmate" mentioned, but don't know what it means anymore. I don't even know who the President of the United States is. Is there a Kobra, and is it like I thought it was? Is it the same from issue to issue, book to book, appearance to appearance?

The team books all suffered the most from the New 52-boot, and Suicide Squad and Justice League more than most: Saving the world isn't terribly compelling when "the world" is vague and ill-defined, you now? The former can work, and often does, but it worked a lot better when it had a cohesive, consistent universe to operate in.

Superman (Dropped due to unscheduled fill-ins.) With Action Comics' attention devoted to various continuity hijinks, making sense of the pre-Flashpoint/post-Convergence Superman replacing the dead New 52 Superman and the Mr. Oz plot, this has been the Superman comic worth reading, as writer Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason steamed ahead telling new stories starring Superman, Lois Lane and the new Superboy, their son Jonathan, mostly in the rather non-Supermanly setting of rural Hamilton County.

When DC did their latest Superman reboot--which, I admit, completely lost me--this book got a bit confused too, but, for the most part, it has managed to not dwell on continuity overmuch. Frequent guest-appearances by Tomasi, Gleason and sometimes pencil artist Doug Mahnke's apparent favorite characters, like Batman and Robin and Frankenstein and The Bride and a very unexpected character from my favorite comic book series ever (which Tomasi used to edit for DC) helped keep it fun.

After the last big arc--which was mostly designed to push the Kent Family out of Hamilton County for good, but had the unfortunate side-effect of revisiting a modern classic Superman story for the fifteenth completely unnecessary time--the direction seemed to have stalled out for about a half-dozen issues, and the "regular" creative team (which, admittedly, on the twice-monthly Rebirth books gets less and less regular as the weeks pile up) went MIA, Superman lost focus. And I lost interest.

One thing Marvel has taught me over the last few years is that it's really not that hard to just wait for the trade.

Wonder Woman (Dropped due to new creative team/direction.) I found the specific strategy on this twice-monthly book, in which the one writer would tell two storylines set in different time periods of the character's life in alternate issues, alternating between two different time teams, to be interesting enough to be intriguing at first. As Greg Rucka's run wore on, however, the same general issues I had with his previous run on an earlier volume of the title--like, three launches and at least one major reboot ago--began to become apparent again, and, in retrospect, I found Rucka's return a little frustrating, as he essentially just told a single, if complexly structured, origin story, and then bounced. (In that respect, it reminded me of Brad Meltzer's poor run on Justice League of America, which was just a very long origin story, the modern equivalent of a writing launching a new series and then leaving as soon as the first script was submitted.)

I was more than willing to give the next writer Shea Fontana, a temporary fill-in writer, a chance, based on how strong her work on the various DC Super Hero Girls original graphic novels was, and my curiosity regarding how she would fare with a script in the tonally opposite and overall much more constrained DC Universe shared setting. She did fine though, and I read all the issues of her run.

I was much less willing to to give the writer who followed her, James Robinson, that same chance, having read plenty of poorly-written Robinson comics in the past, particularly given the announced direction of his arc: Following up on plot points from Geoff Johns' Justice League arc, "The Darkseid War," which now seems forever ago.

That being said, this is Wonder Woman we're talking about, so chances are I will be back before too long.

As long as I'm talking about my pull-list, here are the other serially-published, ongoing comic book-format comic books currently on it: Archie Comics' Archie, Josie and The Pussycats and Jughead; DC's Bombshells United and Scooby-Doo Team-Up; Image Comics' SagaSnotgirl and Sun Bakery and...I think that's it, actually.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Comic Shop Comics: October 11th

Bombshells United #3 (DC Comics) OMG Clayface totally kills Wonder Woman in this issue...!

At least, she's still hanging from the metaphorical cliff when it comes to this issue's cliffhanger ending, having been absorbed into Clayface (Writer Brian K. Vaughan first pit Clayface against the derived-from-clay Wonder Woman in a 2000 two-parter in the pages of Wonder Woman; I've already forgotten the specifics of this Wondy's origin, but I'd bet you three dollars that she's not really dead, and that it will have something to do with her being made from clay too).

There's a pretty neat scene in this issue in which the various "Wonder Girls" all get one of Wonder Woman's accessories, and use them to continue the fallen hero's fight against the villain, which reminded me a bit of the Wednesday Comics story by Ben Caldwell (only in that it divided Wonder Woman's costume into a little arsenal of sorts, which was what she was on a quest to assemble in the Wednesday Comics story).

I was pretty disappointed to see that there were two artists on this issue-- Siya Oum and Luciano Vecchio--as it means we're back to the multiple artists per issue format for the book, which I was hoping would be one of the things changed by the smaller page counts and tighter, character-specific focus of the new iteration of the series. As per usual, they are both good artists.

Dark Nights: Metal #3 (DC) With Batman sucked into the lower, "dark" multiverse, the focus shifts to Superman and, to a lesser extent, the Justice League. We find out what happened to Superman and Wonder Woman and, once they break free, they briefly reunite with the rest of the League and a few fairly random seeming allies (one of the Doctors Fate, a rather pre-Flashpoint looking Steel and Deathstroke, plus Nightwing, Robin and Green Arrow from the recent multi-book crossover tie-in to Metal, "Gotham Resistance") in Nightmaster's Oblivion Bar (cameo by Detective Chimp).

Cities are falling to the Dark Knights, and there plane is to sink the DC Multiverse down into their own. So a classic Justice League plan is formulated--dividing up into smaller teams to tackle various tasks--while Superman makes a desperate attempt to rescue Batman.

Some of the plot specifics seems almost ridiculously convoluted, like Batman's use of a special S.O.S. code, and an alteration of it, but this is still the best Justice League story in basically forever.

Detective Comics #966 (DC) This is the second chapter of the James Tynion-written "A Lonely Place of Living" story arc, and it's weird. While the previous chapter included some very strong allusions to the 1989 Robin III origin story "A Lonely Place of Dying"--like, so strong several scenes were basically "covers" of those from the earlier storyline--here things get cosmic in a way that isn't always the best fit for a Batman comic, but probably works well enough for the current moment in Bat-history (See the previous entry on this list, for example).

Red Robin Tim Drake is forced to team-up with the Batman from "Titans Tomorrow," the 2004 Teen Titans storyline in which Geoff Johns, Mike McKone and company imagined Tim growing up, taking on the mantle of the Bat and picking up a gun to fight crime. Apparently, Jor-El and/or Doctor Manhattan and/or Whoever put both versions of Tim in this goofy prison. As well as Doomsday, for some reason, who the pair briefly fight this issue.

The main thrust of the issue is the conflict between the two Tims, however, and how they view their lives and careers as crimefighters and, well, their destiny to be Batman. The details can be pretty irritating, as they so often are when continuity plays such a central role in a super-comic, but we get plenty of panels set in Old Man Tim's world, and the ultimate revelation that that Tim is now the grown-up version of New 52-iverse Tim, not pre-Flashpoint Tim, meaning that he can "fix" his own dystopian future one way or another (and he knows exactly how, as he declares it aloud at the end of the issue, providing the cliffhanger ending).

It's hard to assess these individual chapters because so much seems in flux right now, with the upcoming Doomsday Clock (which this is at least tangentially related to) and the in-progress Dark Nights: Metal both potentially having continuity rejiggering potential.

I can say this issue made me feel a lot less uncomfortable than the previous one, and that I'm still no fan of the art, which, again, compares quite unfavorable to the source material its referencing. Also, the colors are dark and muddy--on purpose, I realize, but still not to my liking.

The Kamandi Challenge #9 (DC) No, I did not read any of the previous eight issues of the series, but given the "Challenge" nature of the series--in which each writer handles a single issue and sets up a cliffhanger to stymie whoever is scheduled to follow him on the next issue--I assumed I wouldn't have to. Besides, the sole reason I was interested in reading this issue was that it featured art by Kevin Eastman.

In addition to my affection for his Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles work with Peter Laird and Mirage Studios, which generally guarantees that I pick up and at least look at anything he's involved with, I was extremely curious to see a modern Eastman comic that had nothing to do with the TMNT (although there is a turtle man in the issue, this being a Kamandi comic and all).

Eastman has done a few variant covers for DC--like, a half-dozen, maybe?--so I was glad to see the publisher finally putting him on interiors. Now, to look a gift horse in the mouth, I was a little disappointed that the interiors they put him on were these ones, as I'd rather see Eastman on a story where he gets to draw as many DC characters as possible, and this one only has the one (Plus some animal men and, here, a robot). He also kind of sticks out here, as almost every other writer or artist involved is a regular DC Comics contributor; Eastman is just about the only one whose involvement feels particularly "special."

There were a few surprises here, including the fact that Eastman didn't draw the cover, so a passerby might not even know he had drawn it (Instead, Mark Buckingham did, and in a very, very Kirby-esque style). The issue is also in black and white, and the art credits simply list "Kevin Eastman and Freddie Williams II" as "artists." What does that mean, in terms of who did what? I don't know. I am sure Williams handled the color, even though it is really just tones here, although the images often look particularly Williams-y, so I am assuming he also inked over Eastman's pencils, sometimes aggressively enough that he appears to be finishing Eastman's roughs.

It really reminded me of the old Mirage Studios days, where some combination of Eastman, Laird, Eric Talbot, Jim Lawson and others might all draw an issue together, and it's not always clear who did what, but you could see panels or lines or shading that looked like it belonged more to one artist than another.

The story, by Tom King, is a standalone one, with a creepy, philosophical vibe that really isn't dependent on Kamandi being the star. He awakes on a slab in a weird cell with various animal people from his world. Every so often, a large, indestructible robot with what looks like a smooth, featureless dome instead of a face and long, metallic tentacles for arms comes in, grabs someone and drags them out.

Kamandi always tries to fight it and always fails to defeat it, spending the days between its visits working out to make himself stronger and strategizing different ways of attack. Meanwhile, the various animal people all have different beliefs about what happens when you are dragged out and what lies on the other side of the door, and they all have different ways of coping with it.

So it's basically a Kamandi metaphor for life and death, and it works. Me, I liked the pictures better, though.

Super Sons Vol. 1: When I Grow Up... (DC) This is one of the Rebirth launches I read the first few issues of--three, actually--and decided to trade-wait. But! As you can see by its presence here in this particular EDILW feature, I actually bought the trade, rather than just borrowing it from the library! So that's something! It was literally just the price point--$3.99/20-pages--that kept it off my pull-list.

Re-reading those first three issues, and the two that followed, the two things that kinda bugged me about them the first time through still bugged me, but there was nothing additional that bugged me (Those two things? Naming two of the boys in the Duffy family "Archie" and "Reggie," the fact that the first story arc spun-out of the "Amazo Virus" story arc from the pre-Rebirth Justice League, and the presence of "Superman" Lex Luthor in a large role. Oh, can I add a fourth? Maybe the re-purposing of the name "Kid Amazo." While that first thing just bugged me because it needlessly calls attention to itself and another comic book, the other two just seemed to kind of needlessly embed a new series in the goings-on of other comics. This volume really could and should be an evergreen one, but those specific plot points will date it).

But back to price point; I was pleasantly surprised to find that DC was selling this for just $12.99, within a dollar of the cost of just three individual issues of the series (In singles, it would have cost about $20). There are a handful of Marvel trades within reach of me as I type this, and each of those is much more expensive for the same or less content. Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears Vol. 2--Civil War II costs $15.99 for five issues. Civil War II: Gods of War costs $15.99 for four issues...and about 18 pages from a 1965 annual as a "bonus" feature. And, most egregiously, even perplexingly, Guardians of The Galaxy: New Guard Vol. 3: Civil War II costs $19.99 for just four issues...and 11 pages from the GOTG-free 2016 Free Comic Book Day giveaway which, remember, was something Marvel was giving away for free last year (Seriously, what is the deal here? Do Bendis trades just plain cost more now? What a racket...)

I'll offer a more full review of this book at a later point. It's pretty good though. I was even more skeptical of the introduction of Jonathan Kent than I was with the original introduction of Damian Wayne, but, as he did with the latter, writer Peter Tomasi eventually won me over with him. The two play particularly well off one another, largely because they are so much like their dads, only, you know, little kids (Robin Tim Drake and the Superboy that emerged from "Reign of The Supermen" were both extremely different from Batman and Superman).

Anyway, a pretty good comic book, without that unfortunate gouging feeling that can accompany the purchase of a Marvel trade...

Sunday, October 08, 2017

The last half-dozen Marvel trades I've read:

Elektra: Always Bet on Red

Like the Ghost Rider miniseries discussed below, this collection has no volume number on the spine, and appears to be the trade paperback collection of the miniseries. I could have sworn that when Marvel launched Elektra earlier this year, along with new solo series featuring other Daredevil adversaries Bullseye and Kingpin, it was mean to be an ongoing series. I went back and checked the solicitations and, sure enough, at no point did any of the five solicits for the five issues of Elektra refer to it as a miniseries; the fifth solicit mentioned the the climax of "Always Bet on Red," but that could have easily have been read as simply referring to the first story arc, not the entire series (After all, generally miniseries featuring such long established characters have a colon and a subtitle in them, identifying them as miniseries in the first place).

Perhaps shop-owners received more information than consumers, but it certainly appears that this was either a "stealth" miniseries, sold as an ongoing but only planned to run for a very limited time (because miniseries sell so much worse than regular series), or it was always intended to be an ongoing, but Marvel saw how poorly the first issue was ordered and realized immediately the market couldn't support an Elektra ongoing at the moment (I don't know why anyone at Marvel would think it would. If Daredevil was only selling just-okay as a monthly, ongoing series, common sense would dictate that there was much of a market for three Daredevil spin-offs, no matter how good the Netflix show is).

The only other place I can look for clues is in the book itself, and writer Matt Owens certainly seemed to structure the storyline as if he was going somewhere with it. The first arc is kind of a generic, almost random feeling one, in which Elektra stumbles upon Arcade's new version of Murderworld, set up in Las Vegas, where he has reinvented himself as a sort of celebrity crime lord. The plot and the script are fine, but it's the sort of story almost any Marvel character could have been plugged into with only minor variations in the specifics. The ending reveals that Arcade is kinda sorta working for Wilson Fisk, and that he had arranged to engage Elektra at Fisk's wishes, which sends her back to New York City...where the story ends.

I realize those last three paragraphs don't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of the book, but it actually is a rather good, extremely well-made (if generic-feeling) genre story. Whatever shenanigans might have went into Marvel's decision to publish and promote it, that hardly affects the quality of the comic. All in all, this appears to be yet another example of Marvel knowing how to find, recruit and nurture comics talent to produce great Marvel comics, despite all the bumbling that apparently goes on when it comes to selling those comics to the public these days.

Owens is working with artist Juan Cabal, although, in another curious aspect of the comic's promotion, the solicit for the first issue said it would be drawn by Alec Morgan. Cabal's work is pretty incredible. It is highly detailed in a way that allows for maximum "acting" from the characters and clues or gags in the text in the backgrounds, but it is still clean, with a smooth, airy quality that helps ones eyes glide through the story. It reminded me quite a bit of the artwork of Jamie McKelvie or, to a slightly lesser extent, Kevin Maguire. In a rather rare example of this, cover artist Elizabeth Torque's style even lines up quite well with that of Cabal; were Torque not specifically credited, I could honestly be fooled into thinking the same artist handled both the covers and the interiors, only with the cover artist working with a different colorist.

The story, as I said, is fairly simple...to the point of simplistic. Elektra is in Las Vegas, running away from something or other (The last I saw of her, she was taking over Coulson's SHIELD team in Agents of Shield Vol. 2...or was it fighting an undead Hulk in Uncanny Avengers...? Both collections had Civil War II as their sub-titles.) Her bartender chats her up, and Elektra's keen eyes catch a mostly-hidden bruise on the woman's body. Later she finds her pretty badly beaten up by her boyfriend, a lieutenant for "The King of Las Vegas'" crime empire, and, so she puts on her new costume and kills a bunch of dudes. Then come some robots and, with an issue or so, she's being hunted through Arcade's Murderworld for the entertainment--and gambling opportunity--of his ultra-wealthy, low-morale clientele.

It probably shouldn't come as a surprise that Elektra wins, and that she abstains from killing Arcade, for reasons never made quite explicit.

As I said, this could just have easily featured Wolverine--the original, or any of the three versions running around the Marvel Universe at the moment--or The Punisher or a Spider-Man or a Captain America or Deadpool or Daredevil or Gambit or just about anyone who doesn't boast absurdly high power levels. Owens and Cabal make it specific to Elektra at a few points, including once near the beginning where Arcade talks about them as professional rivals, and how maybe he should have had the job/s Fisk had previously hired her for, and a few nicely structured scenes that refer back to her history in the pages of Daredevil.

This short sequence is pretty elegantly done--
--and there's a later once in which the narrative moves in and out of a flashback paralleling the current cation, with Cabal's artwork overlapping, to show here in two different costumes in two different settings, but basically facing similar decisions about how to fight against evil (Hint: She chooses not to knock its perpetrators out, tie them up and leave them for the police).

I'm kind of fascinated by Arcade--in fact, I probably wouldn't have even borrowed this trade if he weren't the villain--as he's such an absurd character, an assassin who spends millions, even billions on robots and so on in order to collect what must be the relatively paltry bounties from the heads of his victims. (Here at least Owens given him an elaborate enough scheme that he seems to be making enough to afford all that nonsense). Though he and Elektra are technically both assassins, I have to assume any semi-sane person in the market for a high-end killer would go for the lady who can quickly and quietly kill a mark with a pair of bladed ninja weapons than the guy who has to build a high-tech amusment park to use as a murder weapon.

Perhaps the most noteworthy aspect of the trade will ultimately be what Elektra's wearing, however. As even the cover image reveals, she's now wearing a sleek, modern, sensible black outfit, with only the red of her mask and the flowing red sash serving as visual echoes of her original design, which has only really barely changed in decades past. You'll notice this get-up looks a lot like the one Elodie Yung wore in Daredevil and The Defenders, which is another point in Netflix's favor over them 2003 Daredevil movie: Better costuming for Elektra.

Ghost Rider: Four on the Floor

There are a few curious aspects about this third collection of Ghost Rider Robbie Reyes comics by writer Felipe Smith.

First, it doesn't have a "Vol. 3" in the title, nor does it sport a "3" on the spine. This is likely because it was a miniseries, and not a continuation of the too-quickly-canceled, really-quite-good Ghost Rider ongoing...but, for the purposes of a trade reader, it's not exactly helpful, especially if the plan is to continue Ghost Rider as a series of mini-series, which the ending of this collection seems to indicate.

Second, the miniseries didn't have a sub-title; it was just called "Ghost Rider". "Four on the Floor" was apparently added later in the marketing of the trade.

I was also a little surprised that the book existed at all, as it isn't often that Marvel cancels a series and then brings it back for an abbreviated engagement like this, although I suspect it had something to do with the fact that Ghost Rider was appearing on the Agents of SHIELD TV show this year. There are a couple of variant covers that are specific to Agents of SHIELD, and that would also explain why Agent Coulson and May are among the guest-stars who show up in the course of these five issues.

And there are a lot of guest-stars, to the point that for much of the book, it seems like Smith is dividing his attention between Robbie and the hero team-up plot, the two mostly parallel plots intersecting only occasionally and, of course, for the climax. That other plot starts with Amadeus Cho investigating a bizarre alien entity of some kind that can take on the characteristics and powers of whatever it comes into contact with. So it moves from the appearance of a stone to a lab rat to a beetle in short order, and once it takes a bite out of a (Totally Awesome) Hulked out Cho's tongue, it gets a major upgrade.

Next on its list is All-New Wolverine Laura Kinney, and, before the series is over, Silk, at which point Cho calls in a couple of superpower-less SHIELD Agents to assist in the hunt. Smith did a pretty great job on this plotline, and he writes a really great--if slang-heavy, rather irritating--Amadeus Cho, and the character's interactions with the completely blase Wolverine were pretty priceless. By the time they run across the very scary, very weird new Ghost Rider for the first time, I found myself wishing that Marvel would have Smith write this version of Ghost Rider, Wolverine and The Hulk into a new, temporary, fill-in version of The Fantastic Four with a Spider-Man somehow (I mean, it's not like they are doing much else with the FF at the moment! Plus, Gabe and Laura's little clone sister Gabby don't get to spend any panel-time together, which seems like a tragic oversight; Gabby would be the world's best babysitter/bodyguard for Ghost Rider's little brother!).

The Robbie Reyes plot mostly picks up where it left off. He is trying to stay on the straight and narrow and raise his brother Gabe, while defending his neighborhood from evil in his other identity, the new Ghost Rider (who is empowered by the evil spirit of his late uncle, and rides not a motorcycle but a haunted, flaming muscle car).

I continue to really dig the specifics of this new Ghost Rider, including his metallic skull that makes him look more like a piece of infernal machinery than a, you know, ghost, and the way he roars with the sound of a revving engine. Additionally, his powers seem to be increasing, and he seems bonded with and able to move through his car in a way not unlike The Silver Surfer with his surfboard.

Robbie's major concern is the ex-con that gets hired on at his garage, a former gang member renowned throughout the neighborhood for his brutal killings of rivals. He says he's turned over a new leaf, but Robbie's not so sure, and Uncle Eli is even less sure, but then, Uncle Eli is always out for blood.

The plots intersect for the first time when Ghost Rider interrupts a Hulk and Wolverine fight against a local gang, and, after Robbie refuses to join them, they accidentally meet up again when Laura brings her monster-damaged car into Robbie's shop for repairs. At the climax, it takes the combined might of all the heroes, and Ghost Rider's magically-derived abilities, to finally shut the creature down.

Smith is mostly absent the artist he launched the series and character with, Tradd Moore (there is a short story entitled "Pyston Nitro Strikes!" in the back of the collection which reunites Smith and Moore), nor does he work with previous Ghost Rider artist Damion Scott, nor does he get to draw it himself. Instead, the art team is Danilo S. Beyruth and suspiciously large number of colorists involved (five). The artwork is fine, but can't help but feel a little lacking given how dynamic, exaggerated and elaborate Moore's art was, which can still bee seen on many of the non-variant covers.

Beyruth handles the storytelling and action quite well though, and there is a pretty great scene with a variation on the old "Fastball Special," where the monster picks up Wolverine by the ankles and uses her as a sword to attack Hulk, something Hulk repeats at the climax. The monster's transformations are also pretty fantastic, and at the climax, when it changes shape to reflect different DNA-derived powers and abilities and starts puking up Coulson-headed, Hulk-bodied extensions of itself to fight its foes well, damn, comic books are just pretty awesome, you know? And this book is a great argument of that fact.

Heroes For Hire By Abnett & Lanning: The Complete Collection

Given the timing of this 400+-page collection's release--in August of this year--it was almost certainly prompted by Netflix's Defenders series, which, despite its name, featured characters more closely associated with Marvel's Heroes For Hire team than any Defenders line-up. It's almost surprising that the image chosen for the cover features Ghost Rider so prominently, rather than Misty Knight, the closest the ensemble book has to a star, although I guess three out of the five characters on the cover have been prominently featured in Netflix's corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

The bulk of the book is filled by the short-lived, 12-issue Heroes For Hire series by writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning and four different pencil artist, plus the five-issue Villains For Hire (which was basically just a continuation of the ongoing under a different title) and a "Spider-Island" tie-in one-shot.

On the face of it, this particular iteration of the concept is rather different from past ones, and actually seems to have a lot in common with the Distinguished Competition's Birds of Prey. The series' constants are Misty Knight and Paladin. Misty is supposed to be taking time off from active superheroing as she recovers from a very weird, very comic book-y trauma, and so she takes on the codename "Control," raiding her Rolodex to contact various specialist heroes for particular parts in various missions, doing so through a secure earpiece and asking the question, "Hello hero, are you for hire?" (She pays them not always in cash, but also in information or favors). Feeding them intel, she walks them through their parts of the missions; meanwhile, Paladin is Black Canary to her Oracle, her constant companion and the one mainstay among the rotating cast.

The heroes called upon vary very dramatically, but include the likes of The Falcon, Black Widow, Moon Knight, Silver Sable, Spider-Man, Ghost Rider, Elektra, Iron Fist, The Shroud and, um, Gargoyle, a character minor enough that I had never actually heard of him before this. Other heroes pass through in less official capacities, like The Punisher and Satanna. Part of the fun is that variety, and the spontaneous, almost random nature of who shows up when.

Despite spanning two different titles and enduring two crossovers of of differing scales--the smaller "Spider-Island" and the line-wide Fear Itself--Abnett and Lanning actually craft a particularly cohesive story that reads more or less like a single, epic, superhero novel...albeit with some sub-plots that don't seem to go anywhere (particularly that weird "Spider-Island" issue, which begins in medias res and ends with a cliffhanger that is never resolved in the pages of the book, just straight up ignored).

Misty is essentially battling a single villain with designs on New York City throughout, and several plots of the mystery villain surface and resurface, including human and exotic animal trafficking from the Savage Land and the sale of Atlantean drugs. "Control" proves to be a lot more than just a codename, as it is the modus operandi of the villain of the first issue, and the villain behind that villain, and, it's also the metaphorical subject of the whole thing; not only is Misty and the villain struggling for control of the city's underworld, but she is struggling for control over her own personal world.

After Heroes For Hire apparently shipped its last issue, Misty changes the operation to Villains for Hire, as she and the final boss villain use similar strategies that include teams of mercenary villains to make war on each other.

As might be expected for so many pages of comics produced in so little time, there are a lot of artists involved. Pencil artist Bra Walker handles most of the Heroes For Hire art, with six issues (mostly inked by Andrew Hennessy). Kyle Hotz pencils three and the Spider-Island: Heroes For Hire one-shot, Robert Atkins draws two issues and Tim Seeley draws one. Renato Arlem draws the five issues of Villains.

I liked Hotz's art by far the best. It's the loosest, most energetic and most dynamic, and his characters are all distinct-looking and have a cartoony edge that makes it clear he's not even trying to mimic reality, but rather create his own. Arlem's work is the polar opposite, and it's both remarkable and depressing how completely different Arlem's version of the main villain is compared to Hotz's version; they look like two completely different characters, the only thing they have in common is the peculiar shade of their skin.

The art's far from perfect, and there are a lot of panels of Misty's hair that look...off, but that's not as weird as the way she is so often posed. Not only does she suit up in red spandex to basically just work a microphone and keyboard in the comfort of her own workplace, she has a weird tendency to put her hands on tables, arch her back and bend over, thrusting her butt out. The tone of the art isn't generally going for this sort of over-the-top sexulization though, it just slips in here and there...enough to draw attention to itself.

The writing's not perfect, either. I imagine Abnett and Lanning inherited Misty's weird Iron Fist-chi-sparked phantom pregnancy from whoever wrote her last, and they try to move past it as quickly as possible, but given that it's the foundation to her current endeavor, it somewhat taints everything that follows. Also, there's repeated talk of the concept as a business, often just in joking terms between Paladin and Misty, but she does spend a lot of money on the likes of Elektra and Silver Sable, but it's not really clear how they make money. Like, I don't need to see a business plan in the comic or anything, but there isn't really any money in what Misty is doing, so she has zero income but crazy high expenses...? Is she independently wealthy, like her ex-boyfriend was...?

That said, the majority of the writing is quite strong, not only in the overall arc of the story and that the writers somehow managed to tell one big story despite the difficulties in doing so across multiple titles, but in the characterization. The characters that appear, from the likes of Spider-Man on down to the D-list villains in the final chapters, all feel and sound like themselves, and, for the most part, the narrative manages to exist within the shared universe setting of the Marvel Universe and use that to its benefit rather than its detriment.

I'm not sure where it originated, but there's a six-page "Heroes For Hire Saga" that basically explains the entire history of the concept in the Marvel Universe, like a Wikipedia article written in character. I confess to really digging it, particularly as I was trying to plug the Netflix versions of the characters into it. Like, I really want Carrie-Ann Moss' Jeri Hogarth to open "Heroes For Hire" with Luke, Danny, bionic-armed Misty Knight and Colleen Wing. That sounds like more compelling TV to me than a Defenders Season 2. They can have Jessica do PI work for them, and Matt Murdock can be their lawyer.

Poking around comics.org as I was writing this, I grow more and more confused by their choice of cover, as it leaves off the book's protagonist, and there are certainly some decent Misty-centric images they coulda went with instead:

Ms. Marvel Vol. 7: Damage Per Second

The title story refers to a three-parter in the middle of this particular collection. It involves a pretty insidious villain, a literal and figurative online troll that knows all of Kamala Khan's secrets, like the fact that she is Ms. Marvel, and is prepared to wreak havoc on her life and those of her friends, threatening to dox their most closely-guarded secrets. It's actually a pretty good story, managing to be relevant without preachy and moving several character arcs forward.

The true nature of the troll--that it's a sentient computer virus, instead of being attached to an actual person--is perhaps a little convenient, as is the way in which Kamala and her friends and allies defeat it. It turns out that, because the troll is learning its behavior and morality by observing human interactions online, to defeat it they merely have to turn the Internet purely good and benevolent for a while.

That they actually succeed is perhaps the most unbelievable aspect of this comic, which stars a young woman who can grow and stretch like plastic because of genes she inherited from an alien race, and part of which is set in a sci-fi African kingdom whose king dresses in a black bodystocking and cat mask.

Takeshi Miyazawa handles the art on "Damage Per Second." That arc is book-ended by two done-in-one stories, the first of which fails where the longer story arc suceeded. Drawn by Mirka Andolfo, it's a cute story about Ms. Marvel battling gerrymandering and encouraging civic engagement, as the same Hydra villains who previously served to give villainous form to urban gentrification reappear, this time with one of them running for Jersey City mayor.

Their nefarious plot is to unseat the current mayor--apparently they aren't reading Captain America: Steve Rogers, or they would know there's no reason to fight over Jersey City when they're about to control the whole country, if not the world--but thanks to Ms. Marvel's involvement, the city elects a noble, third-party candidate who wouldn't have had a chance in hell of winning otherwise.

While writer G. Willow Wilson has Ms. Marvel slap down a lot of the traditional rationale people give for not voting, I found the overall story kind of eye-rolling. It ends with the third-party candidate getting sworn in, and a few narration boxes from Ms. Marvel:
Revolutions don't happen overnight. They're long and complicated and messy and sometimes disappointing. But sometimes, if you hold out long enough, they work.
Of course, a revolution happening overnight is exactly what this issue was all about.

Like I said, the issue's heart is in the right place, and it is pretty effective in some places, but it undermines its own message with how pat it is.

The final issue of the collection is drawn by Francesco Gaston, and it is a Ms. Marvel-less issue of Ms. Marvel. A kind of check-in with Bruno and how he's doing over in Wakanda, where he's enrolled at Golden City Polytechnic Prep, it features Bruno being reluctantly talked into a dangerous caper by his new roommate, who is not at all who he seems. It features a few pages of The Black Panther.

All in all, it's a pretty strong showing from one of Marvel's most reliable titles.

(If I've done my math right, which is only necessary because Marvel randomly renumbered the book despite keeping the same writer and many of the same artists in the rotating roster, there have been 37 issues of the series so far, all written by Wilson. The original 1977 volume of Ms. Marvel only lasted 23 issues, but the reigning champ is still the 50-issue, 2006-2010 series starring Carol Danvers and written by Brian Reed. Fingers crossed Wilson can hang in there at least another year and a half to beat the record...)

Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat Vol. 3: Careless Whisker(s)

This is the third and final collection of writer Kate Leth and Brittney L. Williams' very idiosyncratic take on Hellcat, and I've gotta admit that this book being canceled? That actually kinda hurts. This was probably tied with The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl for my favorite Marvel comic, although I guess I should be thankful it lasted as long as it did at 17 issues; the similarly silly and similarly high-quality Mockingbird only made it to eight issues. (What else to the two books have in common? Female writers who are leaving comics to focus on other stuff, to the detriment of comics in general and Marvel comics in particular).

This volume finishes up the Hellcat vs. Black Cat story arc that was rather awkwardly cut off in the middle at the end of the previous collection, then moves into a weird but fun two-parter wherein Pats catches a bizarre cold (every time she sneezes, reality is altered in a strange but amusing fashion) and her rivalry with Hedy Wolfe is resolved in unexpected and, in the final issue, Jubilee takes Patsy and pals to the mall which, well, it's kind of crazy they went this long using Jubilee as a supporting character and somehow avoided the mall, isn't it?

The last splash page is pretty great, featuring almost every single character who appeared in the previous 17 issues in almost any capacity, all doing something or other at the mall (There's Doctor Strange and Wong, trying on hats at a kiosk, for example, and hey, it's the Cage-Jones family walking by a demon down on one knee, proposing to Hedy).

Farewell, Patsy Walker, AKA Hellcat; I fear you were just too good for this fallen world of ours.

I don't hold out a whole lot of hope that we will see a return of the series by Leth and Williams the way, say, Smith's Ghost Rider came back for a miniseries (above), but maybe, just maybe, someday Leth and Williams will reunite for a Jubilee series of some kind. After all, they are so far the only creative team to make teenage mutant mall-crawling vampire single mother Jubilee really work, without ignoring or somehow downplaying one of those aspects, you know?

Spider-Woman: Shifting Gears Vol. 1--Baby Talk

Alright, let's run through this again real quick. Despite the "Vol. 1," this is actually the third volume of writer Dennis Hopeless' Spider-Woman ongoing monthly, and the second one featuring the presence of pencil artist Javier Rodriquez, Jessica Drew's new costume and new direction (So I'd advise skipping Spider-Woman Vol. 1: Spider-Verse, which is a crossover tie-in in addition to being drawn by Greg Land, and instead start your reading with Spider-Woman Vol. 2: New Duds and then picking this one up...Remember what I said a few reviews ago about Marvel getting in the way of selling their own generally high-quality comic books to fans? The Hopeless/Rodriguez/Fish run on Spider-Woman is Exhibit Fucking A).

Spider-Woman isn't my favorite character, or even one I'm particularly fond of, so this series hasn't really been a particular favorite of mine (particularly since I've had such a goddam hard time reading it in order), but it really is a rather incredible book, and as well-made as anything either of the Big Two publishers have produced in the last few years...hell, it's better-made than about 90% of their books.

A lot of that credit has to go to Rodriguez, whose art isn't just perfectly conceived, designed and rendered, but it is always, always, always perfectly arranged upon the page (this is a good example of not judging a book by its cover because yes, that is a godawful cover). It's not just that the story-telling is perfect, it's that Rodriguez is almost relentless in finding inventive and unexpected ways of handling that perfect story-telling. There are so many splashes and or two-page spreads in this book that are somewhere between beautiful and insane.

This trade collects the first five issues of the latest volume of Spider-Woman, and what appears to be a short, five-page story from the pages of Amazing Spider-Man that brings readers up to speed with what Jessica Drew is up to now: She has stepped away from Avenging on a professional basis in order to open a private investigator business with the Marvel Universe's greatest investigative journalist Ben Urich and reformed Spider-Man D-List villain The Porcupine. Oh, and she's also pretty damn pregnant all of a sudden (the identity of the biological father isn't revealed until the final pages of this collection, although it's not either of the two most obvious suspects; one of them seems like he will be taking on the role of the child's father though, based on the last collection of the series, which, um, I've already read, because of how Marvel numbers this damn thing).
My favorite part of this sequence is Spider-Man's spider-sense  going off as Tony approaches. Although the fact that Tony wears his suit of super-armor to a party when he doesn't even have a secret identity to protect is kinda funny too.
The short serves as a sort of preview or introduction, after which we get a very, very full first issue detailing how the team is handling Jessica's delicate condition (Porcupine is doing all the fighting, which here includes taking on The Griffin and Ruby Tuesday...at the same time! I thought they were heavier hitters than this...?), Jessica, her BFF Carol Danvers and company throw a big "Maternity Leave Party" in which we get tons of guest-stars, we see how Jessica is adjusting to pregnant life and, finally, she visits some kind of crazy super sci-fi hospital that Carol keeps insisting she visit and then Skrulls invade. That's one issue! (Rodriguez's Skrulls look a lot more like the original Kirby ones than the ones that we all got so goddam sick of seeing back during Secret Invasion too, which is cool.)

The next three issues consist of, well, it's Die Hard in a super sci-fi hospital, only Bruce Willis is an extremely pregnant super hero, and instead of Hans Gruber and some terrorists with funny accents, the bad guys are Skrulls who are there to abduct a sullen teenage prince from the cancer ward.

It's pretty far away from what one might consider a "Spider-Woman" story, but given how flexible the character has proven over the years, and what Marvel has done with former Ms. Marvel, current Captain Marvel and Jessica Drew over the last decade or so, it kinda actually is. Rodriguez gets to draw all kinds of wild aliens--the maternity ward waiting room is just a delight to look at--and there are several amazing sequences in which Jessica must sneak through the fantastic settings of the hospital in order to reach one objective or another...when she has to backtrack (while carrying a head in a jar), he even finds a new way to present these settings in new and interesting ways.
The climax includes the most amazing two-page spread, which is basically a post-delivery Jessica Drew in a hospital gown with a pair of laser guns in a huge, deadly brawl against a small army of heavily armed Skrulls for the life of her child. It's...it's something to see.

The final issue is just as full as the one that begins the collection, as Jessica tries to adjust to motherhood and talks through her various insecurities and anxieties with friends who are almost all completely ill-equipped to understand what the hell she's going through...only The Porcupine, who has a daughter, really understands. Well, he and fellow father Ben Urich, who helps convince a reluctant Jessica to get back in the game by the end of the issue.