Sunday, January 29, 2012

Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews for 01/25/12

It's time again for the Weekly Crisis Comic Book Reviews!  We've got some heavy books on deck, including Justice League #5 and Secret Avengers #21.1, so let's stop beating around the bush, shall we?  Hit that jump to see how they all stacked up!

Written by Ed Brubaker & James Asmus
Art by Franceso Francavilla

After the opening issue of Ed Brubaker, James Asmus, and Francesco Francavilla's new run on Captain America and Bucky, I was a little underwhelmed.  The whole thing was so steeped in Captain America continuity that it was almost impenetrable to someone like myself who might be somewhat new to the character's comic book exploits.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, I wasn't actually intending on picking up this issue, but my local shop had set it aside for me, and I didn't realize the fact until I got home.

Having purchased the issue, I obviously made my way through it, but I found that the problems I had with the last issue held true here.  Captain America, the original Human Torch, and William Naslund III are working frantically to figure out what's going on and what the (apparently) nefarious Adam II had to do with it all.  Unfortunately, like last time, no one really takes the time to explain why Adam II is such a bad dude.  Instead, they just talk about how bad of a dude he is, seemingly relying on the reader to fill in the blanks, which comes off as rather unconvincing.

The whole thing is quite frustrating, as the initial arc of this series was incredibly approachable for less familiar readers, as time was always given to fully explain anything that would be necessary to fully appreciate what was going on.  That is decidedly not the case this time around, which makes for an unsatisfying read if you don't already know everything about the characters involved.  While it is clear that the threats posed by Adam II and the fake Bucky are very serious in the minds of the characters, without any context it comes off as meaningless to the reader.

Notwithstanding these complaints, I will say that the action scenes are purty as all get out.  I haven't yet found a Francesco Francavilla book that didn't look amazing, and this issue is no exception to that pattern.  While most of the talking and exposition went pretty far over my head, Francavilla's art more than ensures that I can at least appreciate the excitement of the action and violence.  His style is as expressive as ever, really selling the movement and momentum that he puts to the page.  And I must complement the colour-scheme he's been going with.  It's very red and yellow heavy, making things seem especially dangerous and brutal.  He mixes in some blues to cool things down a bit, but they mostly end up emphasizing how stark the contrast is between the cool and bold colours.  It's different than what you'll find in most books, and while I wouldn't want everything to look this way, I think it works pretty well here.

Verdict - Check It.  Once again, if you know your Cap and you dig him, this book is probably for you and you're likely already all over it.  However, if you are, like myself, a bit less familiar with the character, this book is not going to help you get much better acquainted.  For how steeped it is in continuity, it sometimes feels like it's written in another language, but at the very least, Francavilla makes it a veritable feast for the eyes.

Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Jim Lee & Scott Williams

What do you do with a problem like Maria Justice League?  When I realized that Justice League #5 was being delayed a week, I saw it as a possible chance to jump off the title.  But when push came to shove, I ended up snagging myself a copy nonetheless.  Having read through it, I'm still not sure if I made the right choice.

I don't think I'll take anyone by surprise when I say that Justice League has essentially been a popcorn comic.  This book is about as deep as a puddle, seemingly preferring big action explosions and one-liners to challenging storylines and nuanced characterizations.  There's nothing intrinsically wrong with such a choice, although I will admit that I'm glad that most books don't share the same preferences.

As big action goes, it must be said that Justice League #5 does a pretty good job of it.  Darkseid's first appearance in the DCnU is followed by some pretty impressive scenes, including Flash and Superman trying to outrun his eyelasers, with Superman ultimately getting tagged and subsequently captured by Darkseid's forces.  However, it does feel like a bit of a cop out to take Superman out of the game just as the heroes are getting ready for the big fight.  It strikes me as a rather transparent way to force reader attention onto the other members of the League, especially when Johns shortly thereafter has Batman decide to go rescue Superman on his own.  While the decision to split the book into a Superman-Batman story and an everyone else story could mean that the other characters will have some time to stretch their proverbial wings and shine, I imagine all that work will be wasted once Supes and Bats show up at the last moment to bail everyone else out of the fire.  But I digress.

Whether this sudden separation is for good or ill, it does raise the important question of pacing.  Splitting up the team is all well and good, but did it have to wait all the way until issue #5?  When you consider that it took until issue #4 for the team to finally all be in the same place, it's hard to see how it could have happened sooner, but that really shows just how decompressed the storytelling has been.  While there's near-constant action gong on, the actual plot of the book seems to be moving at a snail's pace.  We're five issues in, and there's not a whole that's happened.  The heroes got together, they met the bad guy, and they have an incredibly vague idea of what the nefarious plot is.  There are books that accomplish more than that in a single issue.

This isn't to say that there aren't some eye catching moments happening here.  We have the aforementioned Flash / Superman retreat, but I was particularly partial to Green Lantern's response to that event.  Seeing the trouble his new found colleagues are in, GL takes it upon himself to take on Darkseid.  Of course, it being Darkseid, Hal doesn't stand much of a chance, getting beaten to a rather broken pulp.  While I'm happy to see Hal get beaten up as much as the next guy, what I really liked about this scene is what it said about his character.  He knows that he doesn't stand a chance going into this thing, but he keeps fighting anyways.  It's clear that he'd fight to his last breath, and say what you will about this book, that's a solid example of showing instead of telling.

We hit the scene where Bruce reveals his secret identity in the Moments of the Week, and I must admit that the whole thing really grabbed me.  I wasn't sure how I felt about it at first, but I actually kind of like it in the end.  Green Lantern not knowing who Bruce Wayne is was a nice touch, but I think that it also says a lot about who Bruce is as a character.  He's often been interpreted as the ultimate loner, but things like Batman Inc. and the ever widening Bat-family have shown how much he really needs others, and that's what I believe Johns' is hitting on here.  At least for Justice League, it looks like we might be getting a Batman who's a bit more open to others.  It could be seen as a radical change from the norm, but in a book that's been overfilled with the same old, same old, I found it adds a lot to the story.  Having that kind of departure from the norm could mean that this won't necessarily be the clichéd action story that it's been thus far.  Maybe.

All this being said, my biggest frustration with this book remains its glacial pace.  It's often failed to offer enough substance in each issue to warrant picking up the next one.  It's obvious that this whole thing is going to read better as a trade, so if they aren't writing for the individual issue, why should I waste my money on the singles (especially, I might add, considering that they're charging $3.99 for 20 pages of comics, something we all know I deplore)?

Verdict - Check It.  As you can see, I'm a little conflicted here.  The slow pace, clear predilection for writing for the trade, and the high price-to-page ratio are definite turnoffs, but it's not all bad.  Jim Lee's art is terrific (even if I didn't really mention it at all above), the action is solid, and there are some genuine character moments buried underneath it all.  I'd say if you can swallow the ridiculous price, then why not?  Otherwise, waiting for the trade is the way to go.  They way this thing's getting written, there can be no doubt that one is coming.

Written by Rick Remender
Art by Patrick Zircher

I keep wanting to like Secret Avengers.  I was excited for Warren Ellis' run, but ultimately jumped off due to the $3.99 for 20 pages of content price point.  With Rick Remender coming onto the title, I figured I would give it another look.

This issue, which acts as the explanation for why Captain America is stepping down as leader of the Secret Avengers and why Hawkeye will be coming in as its new point person, was a more than serviceable comic, but it never really managed to grab my interest.  It has all the requisite ingredients, including undercover sleuthing, quality fights, and an intriguing set piece (taking place in the nation of Bagalia, a red light country where anything goes), but it all felt a little flat to me.

Throughout the entire mission, Cap and Hawkeye are having a side conversation about what it means to be a leader and attitude and so forth, and while that is clearly for the above-mentioned reason of the forthcoming changing of the guard, its prominence throughout the issue ultimately changes it from being a side conversation into being the focus of the story.  And in consequence, all the cool action pieces come off as feeling unimportant.  When neither Cap nor Hawkeye seem to give any credence to the danger around them, those threats become a lot less threatening in the reader's mind.  Even when Captain America is captured by the new Masters of Evil, he doesn't seem terribly concerned, treating it as just another day at the office.

Part of the problem is that all of this plot development is crammed into a single issue.  Introducing something like Bagalia and the mission to save an American Senator is more than enough for twenty pages of comics, but forcing something as big as a literal change in direction for the Secret Avenger team is just too much.  As much as I love done-in-ones, this story needed more space than it had.  The end result is that, beyond the depicted events feeling unimportant, it also comes off as feeling forced and rushed.  Things are happening so quickly that familiar tropes are almost a necessity to help the reader keep up, meaning things become a little formulaic.

On the art side of things, I must say that Patrick Zircher gave me exactly what I wanted.  The great work that I saw on Mystery Men is definitely on display here.  Zircher's pencils and inks are rife with the action and suspense that Remender's writing fails to elicit.  Seriously, if you go solely by the pictures on the page, this book feels like a completely different comic.  The rushed nature of the book ends up sucking a lot of the excitement out of the art, which is a definite shame, because Zircher is putting down some quality images throughout.

Verdict - Skip It.  There was a lot of promise here, but Secret Avengers #21.1 just wasn't able to deliver.  I'm not trying to talk down Remender here; he simply had too much to fit into a single issue, and the book suffers as a result.  While Zircher does a great job all these big ideas onto the page, the writing just isn't able to create the sense of urgency and excitement that was needed for this issue to be a success.  I'm certain that Remender will have a much better go of it on the main series, but I was not a fan of this introduction.

Written by Mike Carey
Art by Peter Gross & Vince Locke

Now this is how you write a done-in-one issue.  Mike Carey and Peter Gross usually offer up some pretty tantalizing stories in The Unwritten, and that has been especially true with these recent .5 issues they've been putting out in conjunction with the recent War of the Words storyline.

This time around, we get a look into the origins of the puppetmaster Madame Rausch, a supporting character who kind of came out of nowhere to her current position of relative prominence in the series.  Like many of the elements of The Unwritten, Madame Rausch is far older than she appears, as this origin takes us back to 1740s Europe in the midst of a crisis of succession for Charles VI, then Holy Roman Emperor.

One of my favourite aspects of this series is how it plays with literature to tell its own story, and these .5 issues have done a very similar thing with history, using moments from the past to further the narrative.  With the Pragmatic Sanction as our backdrop, we're quickly introduced to Private Johann Rausch, a member of the army occupying Silesia to protect it from any dissenting forcing, and Anna-Elizabeth Toller, the young and haunted girl of the family whose house Johann is staying in.  While the rest of the occupying force is satisfied with torturing the local animals and chasing after the town's women, Johann spends his time trying to discover what ails the young Anna-Elizabeth.

What follows is a story that feels much longer and fuller than its twenty pages would usually entail, as Johann's inner-monologue slowly paints the picture of the town and the evidently damaged young girl.  It is an incredibly engaging narrative that highlights the many ways that people can hurt each other - and how this can impact the psyche of a young child.  Tensions between the residents and the occupying forces increase as horrible things start happening in the small hamlet without explanation.  Soldiers fall from roofs, servants cut off their own fingers, and all manner of strangeness begins to build.

Through it all, Johann cannot help but wonder how this is impacting Anna-Elizabeth, and his steadfast concern for her is a point of light in a community that seems to be filled with secrets and lies.  Knowing that this tale will ultimately result in the creation of Madame Rasuch gives the reader a bit of an idea of where the story will go, but despite the dramatic irony, Carey and Gross manage to build the story in a manner that the eventual reveal still comes as a shock and surprise.  This series is one of my favourite things happening in comics right now, and this issue is the perfect demonstration of why.

Verdict - Buy It.  Even if you haven't been reading The Unwritten, this issue tells a brilliant story looking at the depravity and beauty of humanity, as seen through the eyes of a child with extraordinary powers.  If, on the other hand, you have been following this series, it does all that while also providing a fascinating explanation for the motivations of a character who has otherwise been rather enigmatic up until this point.  Either way, Mike Carey and Peter Gross have once again leveraged the comic book medium to tell a great story that anyone can enjoy, regardless of what they have or haven't read, which is something that the industry needs more of.

And there we have it.  Did you catch any of these books this week?  What were your thoughts?  Is Justice League your cup of tea?  Will you be back for more Secret Avengers?  Feel free to share your comments down below!

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Klep said...

Like I said in the Moments comments, Bruce revealing his identity to Hal is just way too far out of character and ripped me out of the story so much that it ruined what was already only a mediocre book for me. Willing to open up more or not, there's just no way that Bruce would ever reveal his identity to someone he wasn't 100% certain could be trusted with that information, and the first 4 issues spent lots of time making it clear that Bruce's opinion of Hal is nowhere near that high. My completionist instinct compels me to stick with the book through the end of this arc, but I'll be dropping it immediately afterwards.

Grant McLaughlin said...

@Klep - Fair enough. I'm willing to suspend my disbelief here, going with the assumption that Bruce felt that the situation was dire enough that throwing caution to the wind and revealing his identity was important enough to refocus GL that he was willing to risk it. As he says in the book, the situation is bigger than any one of them. While Johns maybe hasn't properly demonstrated the gravity of things, I'm willing to accept it based on Bruce's dialogue. If we're going under the assumption that there are actually new readers going through this title, having a slightly less paranoid Batman might not be the worst thing ever. All that being said, I'm probably off this book as of this issue, so make of that what you will.

Steve said...

I'm tradewaiting on Secret Avengers and The Unwritten, but your reviews are interesting. I'm super excited to see more Zircher pencils, and the lackluster review for the .1 issue in no way diminishes my overall excitement for Remender's run.

It's great to hear the .5 issue of The Unwritten is as good as the main storyline. I was a little dubious when they announced this new format, but I'm not surprised Carey makes it work. As much as I loved his X-Men run (and I LOVED his X-Men run), this book has felt like the book he really wants to write, and that comes across in each issue. Have they announced how these will be collected? Will the .5 issues be included in the trades or will they be collected in separate volumes? I'm buying 'em either way, but the collector side of me is curious...

Also, speaking of Carey's X-Men run, did anyone pick up X-Men Legacy last week? I thought the .1 issue was decent, and I'm curious to see if the latest issue is any good.

Naymlap said...

Steve: X-Men Legacy was OK. Gage isn't writing the characters as strongly as Carey, but the plot is fun. I'd almost say that this is Carey-lite, but it could be that Gage is just settling in for an arc.
Greg: I agree with your review of Secret Avengers, but the sad thing is that Ellis was doing done in ones before Remember came on. And those were some of the best damn Avengers and/or spy comics out there. To be honest, I thought I didn't like the comic because I really can't stand Hawkeye, and he was really annoying in this issue.

Ryan said...

Per your review of Secret Avengers... couldn't disagree more with you. As a point one issue and especially a transistion issue between writers I feel it hit it's mark. I agree there may have been a lot of info being presented but I'd rather too much than too little. The banter between Cap and Hawkeye not only helps to set the stage for Secret Avengers but continues to reveal Hawkeye's status quo in books like Cap & Hawkeye and even Avenging Spiderman. Just my thoughts though. As always thanks for the reviews, they are electrifying.

jacksyattering said...


I thought he was out of character, at first, as well. Then, I remembered that not only is this a younger Batman than the one we usually read about, its an altogether different (post New 52) Batman than the one I've read about for the past 25 years. Besides, it was a great character moment (in a book that has, in my opinion, been full of great character moments). Maybe I'm in the minority but I like the pacing of this story...It feels epic (and it should. This is the first time these guys have met...This is the birth of the JUSTICE LEAGUE.; and

If you want a Batman that seemed a little off this week, read: I, VAMPIRE. Great book, wonderful art....but Batman's diaologue just reads a little wrong (even for the Post New 52 Batman).

Grant McLaughlin said...

@Steve: I'm not sure how they'll be collecting this Unwritten arc, but however they do it, it will be worth the wait.

@Naymlap: To be clear, I'm not against one shots. They're actually one of my favourite ways to tell comic book stories. I just don't think the Rick Remender was trying to tell had enough space to breath in only a single issue.

@Ryan: Fair enough! Glad you enjoyed the reviews nonetheless!

@jacksyattering: Yeah, I've found it can be hard sometimes to deal with things when the characters we're all familiar with do things that seem off, but I find being willing to give it a chance will often serve a reader well.

Naymlap said...

Sorry if it seemed like I thought you were against theme. I definitely think a story like this could be a one-shot. Especially because it's a .1 issue. My point is that Ellis just did six one-shots that were all amazing. I don't know if you were reading them or not, but if not I highly recomend them. They're filled with action, character and Ellis-brand insanity. Remender's story just does not come close to being that awesome.

Grant McLaughlin said...

Ah, I see what you mean. I definitely heard good things, but didn't have the pleasure to read them. To sound like a broken record, I'm just not fond of $3.99 for 20 pages. I want to avoid supporting that price point as much as I can.

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