Superhero Comic Capsule Reviews

After my reviews of five “indie” comics yesterday, here are five DC and Marvel superhero comics. (Ok, one of them is in a smaller imprint, but it still features superheroes.) Two of these were complete stories, but the other three are new ongoing series that I’m reviewing based on the first few months.

I’m not sure if this experiment with capsule reviews was successful for me or not. I did manage to review several things that I wouldn’t have otherwise, but it takes me much longer to write this way. And there are some comics that I’d rather wait and review once they’ve had a longer run, instead of jumping in with a “capsule” after a few months. I’m not sure if it makes sense to review some comics quickly and wait on others. I’ll probably return to this format again in a few months, but I’m not sure what I’ll decide long-term. If you have any comments, let me know.

Batman Incorporated

Batman Incorporated

Batman, Incorporated

(Based on issues 1-6)

I’m relieved that I wasn’t writing my blog during the first few years of Grant Morrison’s Batman run. Sometimes it was frustrating, sometimes it was incredible, as the larger story wove through multiple series, often with very different feelings to them. The excellent payoffs at the end were heavily dependent on the reader being familiar with the less good parts, and an awareness of other key stories throughout Batman’s decades of history didn’t hurt, either.

Batman, Incorporated makes a fairly clean break with Morrison’s past writing, and provides as convenient a jumping-on point as any Batman title ever could. Bruce Wayne has publicly announced that he “funds” Batman, and is ready to recruit new heroes for a world-wide society of Batmen. These are globe-hopping adventures, with Batman adding a new superhero to his team in Japan one issue and Argentina the next. This is the perfect environment for Morrison to throw out ideas as fast as he can come up with them.

The comic itself is slightly schizophrenic. Sometimes it seems to be caught in the moment, enjoying the fact that DC is finally letting Batman be fun again, and that the latest status quo offers almost unlimited potential. Other times it seems to be caught up in the complex pacing of a new Grant Morrison epic, trying to call back to past events, foreshadow future ones, and keep up on multiple current plots at once. So far, though, the references and subtext have just been a nice bonus, rather than requiring the readers to get them all. At least for now, what we have is an accessible, fun story that packs each issue full of ideas and actions. It’s exactly what a superhero comic should be.

Grade: A-

Batman: Judgment On Gotham

Batman: Judgment On Gotham

Batman: Judgment On Gotham

Why is it that superhero cross-overs always end up feeling especially lazy? What should be an opportunity to get readers to try out different books usually gets derailed by creative teams not quite meshing together and editors choking all creativity out of the process. This recent crossover among the Batman titles was abysmal even by those standards, however.

The problems began even before the story should have started. “Judgment On Gotham” was promoted as a 3-part event starting in Red Robin #22, continuing on to Gotham City Sirens #22 and concluding in Batman #709. But despite the marketing claims, it actually started in Batman #708, and so my first experience with the story was to wonder why my first issue was labeled “part two”.

It just got worse from there. The premise of “Judgment” is that anti-hero Azrael has decided Gotham City is full of sinners and must be destroyed. In each issue, Azrael gives a new hero a “test” to see if they are righteous enough to save the city. The premise is a little ridiculous (Azrael was working with the heroes a few months ago, and this villainous turn is forgotten so quickly that he’s even shown on the Batman Incorporated cover above), but the thing that really derails it is the quality of the tests. Robin wastes his issue passing physical challenges and saving innocents, only to be told he failed because he doesn’t believe in God. In Gotham City Sirens, Catwoman fails her test because she isn’t willing to murder her sister as a “sacrifice” to God. Not only is this preposterous on multiple theological and storytelling levels, but it isn’t even an interesting story. The tale of Catwoman’s sister also implies that it truly is the will of the Christian God to destroy this city, but that’s never followed up on. In every issue, the writer is obviously doing his minimum for an editorially-mandated story and hoping the other issues will make it interesting.

The final Batman issue, though it does contain art in by the brilliant Guillem March,  just features the heroes talking to the villain until they convince him to check something obvious that proves he should change his ways. DC didn’t even have enough respect for their readers to tell them which comics this story was appearing in; why should I have expected any effort put into the conclusion?

Grade: F

Incognito: Bad Influences

Incognito: Bad Influences

Incognito: Bad Influences

Perhaps hedging their bets, writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips take the occasional break from their excellent Criminal for this series. Incognito is certainly not bad, but its first run failed to bring in much of the noir influence that Criminal had. Without that, it didn’t feel distinct from all the other “realistic superhero” comics out there.

Bad Influences, the second Incognito miniseries, is much more interesting. Instead of watching things build up to a fairly standard superhero status quo, we get to watch them fall apart. Needless to say, this brings in the noir elements that Brubaker and Phillips excel in, as well as making the story feel exciting and unpredictable. The advantage of a superhero story not set in the Marvel or DC universes is that it’s not beholden to years of history or required to maintain a status quo that will sell comics for years to come. It looks like Incognito will take advantage of that freedom after all.

This means that we now have another series worthy of Brubaker and Phillips’ talents. Phillips’ art portrays the expressions, the shadows, and the pain behind tough faces that one would expect from Brubaker’s pulp and noir influences. They make this seem so natural, especially with the essays in the back talking about the proud history of pulp fiction, that it’s easy to forget that they are breaking new ground by adapting this style to a polished, modern comic. This is also one of the few truly good “adult” comics, because it doesn’t treat the ability to show R-rated material as a requirement. It never feels restrained or gratuitous, instead showing exactly what is needed to make the story believable and interesting.

Grade: B+

Iron Man 2.0

Iron Man 2.0

Iron Man 2.0

(Based on issues 1-4)

When superheroes have successful movies, the publisher’s response is often to saturate the market with as many comics featuring them as possible. A more sane approach, shown in Iron Man 2.0, may be to create more comics based on that hero’s situation and supporting characters. This comic is not centered on Tony Stark, but his friend James Rhodes. Contracted out to the military with a state of the art Iron Man suit, Rhodes is an attempt at making a version 2.0 of the character.

Nick Spencer writes a good military action/espionage story when he wants to. The first couple issues of this series set up a high-stakes mystery involving terrorist attacks all done with top-secret military tech. It is introduced with tense plotting and a strange mystery about the identity of the perpetrators.

There are serious problems, though. The first one is the art: The usually reliable Barry Kitson is saddled with multiple collaborators and turns out sketchy, drab results. Issue #4 replaces this team with Ariel Olivetti, who turns in the worst graphics I’ve seen in a major-label comic in a long time. I hate painted art in general, as it usually looks too static to tell a story that needs to flow from panel to panel, and its attempt at “realism” just ends up in Uncanny Valley territory. Olivetti apparently uses computer-generated coloring to approximate a painted feel, for an even worse than normal effect. Backgrounds are often nothing more than painted splotches or the kind of drab room that you could generate quickly from a computer design tool in the 1990’s. In a few awful cases, the backgrounds even seem to be blurry photographs mixed in without regard for how it fits the art style!

The writing has also taken a downward turn in the last two issues. Issue #3 was mostly centered around a conversation between Stark and Rhodes that ended with Stark giving him a new super-suit. Issue #4 was nothing but a supporting character reading through a file for background information. That’s it. If those two had been combined into a single issue, it still would have felt light. It didn’t help that issue #4 contained four separate two-page splash images, none of which were even the slightest bit necessary. (And all of which shone a spotlight on the horrible art.)

The first two issues showed promise, so I still want to give this series a chance. But in the next couple months, it will be crossing over with Marvel’s “Fear Itself” event, which will make it even harder for this to prove its worth as a standalone title. I want to like Nick Spencer’s writing, but my hopes aren’t very high right now.

Grade: D+

Jimmy Olsen

Jimmy Olsen

Jimmy Olsen #1

The darkening of superhero comics has pushed Jimmy Olsen into a kind of limbo. As “Superman’s pal”, who was frequently caught up in zany adventures just by virtue of being around all those volatile situations, it was essential that his stories be fun and inconsequential.Nowadays, it’s a relief that Jimmy’s largely overlooked, because the only other path for supporting characters is as victims of the latest threat.

Nick Spencer’s new Jimmy Olsen story shows a metatextual awareness of this: Jimmy is portrayed as a depressed twenty-something slacker who misses the days when his adventures with Superman were more exciting. But Spencer quickly returns to those glory days when Jimmy needs to prove himself in order to win back a girl. (Chloe Sullivan, making her first comic-book appearance after being created in Smallville.)

The original plan for this story (“Jimmy Olsen’s Big Week”) was to publish it in seven parts, as eight-page backups in Superman’s Action title. The people who were buying the story that way got a bad deal, as DC suddenly changed their pricing formats and comic sizes and ended the series before it could finish. But the entire thing is now published as “Jimmy Olsen #1”, and readers of this collection get the best of both worlds. Because it needed to make sense in eight-page installments, the story is madcap and constantly changing. But when reading it in one sitting, there is also a strong overall story with a satisfying conclusion. (Unlike my complaints about his decompressed writing in Iron Man 2.0, Spencer crams as much as he possibly can into this story.) Aided by RB Silva’s expressive, cartoony art, this is fun and does justice to Jimmy’s history, while also not contradicting the current atmosphere of the DC universe.

Grade: B

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