Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cable Vol 4: Stranded

Title: Cable Vol 4: Stranded

ISBN: 9780785141679
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2010
Artist: Paul Gulacy, Gabriel Guzman, Mariano Taibo
Writer: Duane Swierczynski
Collects: Cable # 16-20

Rating: 3/5

The son of X-Man Scott Summers and a clone of Jean Grey, Nathan Christopher Summers was infected with a techno-organic virus as a baby. He was only saved by being sent through time, subsequently spending his formative years in the far future where he became an unlikely and largely unwilling savior of assorted humankinds against mutant overlord Apocalypse and his vile minions such as the clone-warrior Stryfe.

Afflicted with a stubborn certainty that he always knew best – probably due to his hard-earned foreknowledge and weary experience of how bad the days to come would be – Nathan evolved into time-travelling super-soldier Cable and gradually inserted himself into the lives of key figures in mutant history: figures such as Professor Charles Xavier and his own father Cyclops – the Moses and King David of mutant-kind…

Using his phenomenal psionic abilities to hold at bay the incurable, progressive condition inexorably consuming his flesh and only held in check by the victim’s indomitable force of will, the mysterious grizzled veteran slowly began interacting with and reshaping the past…

Hope Spalding-Summers was the first Homo Superior born on Earth after M-Day, when the temporarily insane mutant Avenger Scarlet Witch used her reality-warping powers to eradicate almost all fellow members of her terrifying sub-species from existence.

Considered by many to be some sort of mutant messiah, the newborn girl was “appropriated” by militant warrior Cable – no stranger to the role of Sole Saviour – who raised her in the furious future, training her in all manner of lethal survival skills before she inevitably found her way back to the present where she was adopted by X-Men supremo Scott Summers AKA Cyclops.

Hers was a horrifically memorable childhood as this slim, satisfying collection (gathering issues #16-20 of the monthly Cable comic book from July-November 2009) will surely attest…

From the start Hope had implacable foes hunting her. The most resourceful was another time-tossed former X-Man, Lucas Bishop, who was convinced the child would cause the diabolically dystopian alternate reality he originated in. To prevent such horror ever occurring, Bishop determined to kill her before she could become a mutant anti-Christ and not even Cable’s frequent temporal relocations would deter him…

With the entire time-busting saga scripted by Duane Swierczynski, the action here begins with the 2-part ‘Too Late for Tears’ – illustrated by legendary comics icon Paul Gulacy – as Cable and nine-year-old Hope prepare to again jump into the safely camouflaging corridors of chronality after a particularly contentious battle.

However, the increasingly rebellious girl strikes out at her protector during a fateful moment and the time-shift goes wrong…

Hope materializes in the same post-apocalyptic location but two years earlier in time and, with no further information to go on, endeavors to make herself secure until Cable finds her. Stuck in her future, Cable patiently waits for her to “catch up” but his techno-viral contagion flares up and threatens to end his appalling life before she gets then…

And 127 years prior to Cable’s latest crisis Bishop activates his own time-machine and remorselessly continues his pursuit of Hope…

Stuck, but not without resources, the girl explores a dying Earth where only two warring cities are still inhabited. Soon she is approached by a young boy named Emil who is instantly smitten by the lethally self-sufficient waif…

Just as Cable forces back his latest bout of all-consuming transmogrification by invasive code, Bishop arrives and a deadly destructive but ultimately inconclusive battle breaks out. The follower’s plan is obsessively simple: as soon as he sees Hope he will end her by detonating a nuclear device inside his body.

But she isn’t with Cable any longer…

In another era, Emil has gradually broken Hope’s wall of distrust but, just as she feels she can finally relax, the girl discovers that the revered spiritual head of the boy’s band of survivors is her very familiar foe. The “Arch-Bishop” has been so patiently waiting for his time-bending bĂȘte-noir to resurface…

The seemingly benevolent holy man has no problems wiping out his entire flock to finish her for good but Hope perpetually avoids him and Bishop just can’t trigger the nuke until he’s absolutely certain.

And two long years later, Cable moves into one of the two cities, makings plans, winning allies and waiting, waiting, waiting…

When at last 11-year old Hope is reunited with Cable, it’s as both cities are on the verge of mutual destruction and the mutant has no time for her protests. He has spent his time constructing a working space ship and after forcibly dragging his furious charge aboard takes off for the safety of space leaving a heartbroken Emil behind. Happily for the lovesick lad the wonderful Archbishop can also construct star-craft. Very soon they will all be reunited…

Artists Gabriel Guzman & Mariano Taibo take over for the eerie alien encounter ‘Brood’ beginning with ‘Bishop Takes Pawn’ wherein Bishop and Emil lead their people into a final battle with Cable’s ship and crew on the edges of the solar system. Thankfully the boy finds Hope before the mutant hunter does and she convinces her long-lost paramour of the deranged cleric’s true intentions before falling to Bishop’s murderous rage.

With nuclear obliteration seconds away events overtake all the manic participants as both ships – locked together in the vacuum of deep space – are invaded by creatures even more ferociously dangerous…

The Brood are ghastly alien parasites and rapacious intelligent body-stealers who lay eggs in hosts and use the victims’ genetic material to augment their unborn generations. For uncounted centuries they have greedily hungered for the exceptional advantages gained by infecting mutants and metahumans…

In ‘Queen Takes Bishop’ the disgusting matriarch of the invading beasts specifically targets Hope as her overwhelming spawn decimate the last remnants of humanity aboard both ships. However, the little lass has met Brood before and knows just how to deal with them. Elsewhere Bishop and Cable also manage to survive the appalling assault, both obsessed with finding Hope for their drastically opposing reasons…

As an entire space fleet of the noxious beasts zero in on the last humans alive, Bishop utterly succumbs to his obsession by allying himself with the Brood Queen to ensure the final fate of Hope, but has completely underestimated the child’s resiliency, Cable’s compulsive dutiful determination, and the unmatchable power of young love in the blazing conclusion ‘Checkmate’…

Time-travel tales often disappoint and frequently make people’s heads hurt, but this bombastic romp (augmented by covers and variants by Dave Wilkins & Rob Liefeld) manages to always stick to the point, offering sly tributes – and some not so much – to Les Miserables and Alien whilst following the pain-wracked consumption of Cable by of his own non-fleshly invaders through a clever and poignant Fights ‘n’ Tights sci fi horror drama that will impress and delight older fans of the genre(s).

Sunday, May 14, 2017

G.I. Joe Volume 1: The Fall of G.I. Joe

Title: G.I. Joe Volume 1: The Fall of G.I. Joe

ISBN: 9781631402203
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: IDW, 2015
Artist: Steve Kurth
Writer: Karen Traviss
Collects: G.I. Joe Vol 4 # 1-4

Rating: 3/5

G.I. Joe has won the war against Cobra, or so some would have you believe. Cobra has apparently given up the fight, and suddenly transitioned to a global peacekeeping force, set to rival the United Nations. In the aftermath of apparent victory, the Joe’s political enemies come out of the woodwork, along with a laundry list of covert agencies looking to siphon off the Joe’s resources, and claim their top operators for themselves. The team is in for a new kind of fight, one that takes place in the shadowed halls of the power brokers and puppet masters, not on the war-torn battlefields that they are used to. All the while, Cobra bides its time, plotting and waiting to strike at the perfect moment… The moment that will bring about the fall of G.I. JOE!

As a fan of both the original toy line, and of the Marvel comics series (mainly due to the writing by Larry Hama), I originally approached IDW’s version of G.I. Joe with a bit of trepidation, not knowing what to expect. After reviewing the first issue of this series, I came away more than satisfied with the adaptation, hoping that the tone of the initial issue would be carried throughout the rest of the series. After reading this collection, I have to report that, not only does it replicate the feel of the first issue, it builds upon it. The story by Karen Traviss is light on explosions, firefights, and battlefield action; it instead takes place in the shadows, with double agents and betrayals galore, portraying a Joe team fighting not only the obvious enemies, but politicians and covert agencies seeking to disband the unit.

While there are many familiar faces included in the story (Scarlett, Duke, and Roadblock being a few), the story chooses to travel a different path, one that focuses on behind-the-scenes dealings, and on entities that have their own shadowy agendas, rather than straightforward action. Despite having a number of parallel ongoing subplots, the flow of the story is never overwhelmingly convoluted, and the motivations of the various players are readily determined. This is a good portrayal of covert, black-bag ops, with the emphasis on covert. The Joe’s resident ninja would have a field day with this type of stuff, but unfortunately (from a long term fan’s perspective), Snake-Eyes is nowhere to be found. Oh well, the story is well-crafted and highly entertaining, even without his presence. Good stuff, indeed.

Steve Kurth’s style of art is a rather sketchy, roughed-in approach, which works both in the full color panels of the release, and in the black and white pieces that exist in the introduction to the collection. When working with close-up shots, Kurth’s line work definitely defines his character’s outer form, and then becomes more subtle with strokes that mold the character’s overall appearance and the play of light and shadow over the figure. Drawing back into more widescreen panels, he allows the dialogue to differentiate the various characters, dropping his detail and focusing on dynamic movement. While there is a dearth of true action sequences, his depictions of the few that are contained within the release are dynamic, free-flowing, and cleanly rendered. His panel composition moves the story along, at a goodly pace, and the reader is never left confused by a sudden misplaced panel. His character composition and sense of motion are both strongpoints, and highly contribute to the success of this book.

The cover art by Jeffrey Veregge is another key component to the overall appeal of the collection. When it comes down to it, a cover artist is tasked with coming up with a concept that not only draws the potential reader’s eye, but boils down the appeal of the release into a nutshell. The first thing a new reader is drawn to is the cover art, and this is a make-or-break moment, one that defines the art of selling the overall package to a potential new fan. Veregge’s clean line work, bold character design, and retro art deco style accomplishes this perfectly. Simple yet ornately designed, his cover art never fails to impress.

All in all, this is a rather superb, utterly satisfying release. It represents my first opportunity to check up on an ongoing series, after reviewing the first issue, and I’m more than pleased with the progression of the storyline. Containing an intricate, well-thought-out plot, well-crafted interior illustrations, and eye-catching cover art, this collection is an all-around win. With more double agents and double crosses than you can shake a stick at, fans of spies and covert action teams should seriously be taking a look at this series… Seriously! Happy reading, all!

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural

Title: Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural

ISBN: 9780785144090
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2009
Artist: Jefte Palo, Gabriel Hardman, Alessandro Vitti, Alex Massacci, Gene Colan, Geof Isherwood, Mickey Ritter
Writer: Rick Remender, Roy Thomas, Len Wein, Doug Moench, R.J.M. Lofficer
Collects: Doctor Voodoo: Avenger of the Supernatural # 1-5, Doctor Voodoo: The Origin of Jericho Drumm, The Book of the Vishanti: The Mark of the Vodu

Rating: 3/5

Stephen Strange held the mantle of Sorcerer Supreme for a very long time, so long that it was probably quite discouraging to young magicians in the Marvel universe. I wouldn't be surprised if many of them looked up at that glass ceiling and promptly opened a rift into the Vertigo dimension, where they could be free to climb higher and higher up the ropes of employment, cursing and having dangerous sex as they did. So for Jericho Drumm, the man known as Brother Voodoo, to assume that office after Strange's fall from grace, it couldn't be easy. It's like Truman's first week in the White House, tripping over all those wheelchair ramps. Luckily for Voodoo, he had a couple of things going for him. The help of the outgoing Nikola Tesla Stephen Strange, the wispy remnants of his twin brother Daniel who speaks only in blue, and a fine creative team in Rick Remender, Jefte Palo, and Gabriel Hardman.  But then again, maybe the creative team didn't make it so easy for him.

Rick Remender is really sort of a bastard. In the opening pages of this volume, he pits Voodoo against the nefarious Dormammu, handing the good Doctor an early and impressive victory over one of Marvel's gnarliest villains. But at the conclusion of that first issue Voodoo's dealt the hand of Doom. Little Green Riding Hood takes him on a cosmic level Tom & Jerry marathon through the nether realms in pursuit of the articles of the Sorcerer Supreme. Without getting too specific, all hell kind of breaks loose. Or a good enough portion of it to keep Doctor Voodoo scrambling for a way out in the first few days of the job. Walking away from encounters with Dormammu and Doom in one issue? It's only the start of an incredibly ambitious storyline. 

What I love about Marvel's magic universe, it's arcane frontier, is the same thing I revel in with their cosmic offerings. Every word balloon's a party bag of possibilities. Forget hoary hosts of Hoggoth. How about 'psychlodermic mindphibians'? As with his Frankencastle tenure on The Punisher, Remender serves up some truly trippy concepts. His reverence for the Marvel monsters is clear, but he's also done his homework on voodoo culture and lore. In his introduction to the collection, Roy Thomas talks about creator Len Wein's initial reluctance about constructing an ongoing series around voodoo magic, concerned that there wouldn't be enough material to draw upon. Remender shows the texture of this culture, of the loas and the greater mythology. He also shows how Stephen Strange's brand of magic isn't the only way to operate in the Marvel U. That there are other demons and other planes and other approaches to this office of Sorcerer Supreme. There is a point where Voodoo is chided for his audacity, and I think that's part of what we love about what Remender's been doing at Marvel. I'll admit to being among the fans who was disappointed when he signed an exclusive contract with Marvel, thinking that company work might be a waste of his creative ferocity. That's hardly been the case. Creativity isn't about making something of nothing, but taking what you have and making something great. Remender has adopted the Marvel monsters and done some pretty compelling things with them. At first it seems that he's treating them with absolute abandon. But it turns out that pushing them to their limits and beyond is actually the best way of respecting them.

I was incredibly saddened to learn of the series' cancellation, and I have no grasp as to whether this five issue story is everything it was meant to be. If it's the organic end to a chapter or if that final issue was adjusted for truncation. Either way, this often feels like a tremendous six or seven issue story trapped within five. Those final issues tell of a large scale battle involving the entire magical community, I won't spoil the extended cameos here, but there are some real crowd pleasers. It doesn't fully gel, so for a lot of readers, this might seem like abstract magical concept after abstract magical concept. It's really difficult to make solutions seem concrete when they're anything but, and that's the tragic flaw for many stories of this kind.

Jefte Palo can draw a terrific shrunken head, and he's incredibly well-suited to capturing dire nightmares. His style is a little sketchy, but that's perfect for all these hellscapes and magician's parlors, all those faces twisted in agony. Doctor Voodoo himself is almost constantly dour, a very serious man with an impossible burden. Most importantly, Palo is dynamic. These aren't just wizards pointing wands at each other. This magic hurts. And it moves. The equally talented Gabriel Hardman steps in for sepia-toned flashback sequences that tell of Drumm's childhood and his curse. It's pure pulp, and the old man who puts a hex on the boy is one of the scariest character I've seen in a mainstream comic. Real Universal horror. There are a lot of books out there with characters three times as popular as Voodoo, and they don't look nearly as good. This was a labor of love and the look is 100% first class.

This isn't a book for every reader. It will assume you know the intricacies of Marvel magic or, more likely, that you're willing to live with a little ignorance and proceed into the dark. Which, you know, if fun sometimes. It certainly prodded at my imagination. If you're hungry for magic. If you love a little Doom. If you like more than a little audacity in your comics, it's definitely worth a peek.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

X-Men: The Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic Vol 1

Title: X-Men: The Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic Vol 1

ISBN: 9780785117148
Price: $29.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2014
Artist: Terry Dodson, Steve Epting, Nick Napolitano, Joe Bennett, Ian Churchill, Roger Cruz, Alan Davis, Trevor McCarthy
Writer: Howard Mackie, John Francis Moore, Brian K. Vaughan, Scott Lobdell, Ralph Macchio, Terry Kavanagh, Judd Winick
Collects: X-Men Chronicles # 1-2, Tales From the Age of Apocalypse: By the Light, X-Man #-1, X-Man `96 Annual, Tales From the Age of Apocalypse: Sinister Bloodlines, Blink # 1-4

Rating: 1.5/5

Over the years, comics (through its main genre of super-heroes) has taken to the idea of alternate realities like no other medium. Television and cinema has had brief flirtations with the concept over the years – Star Trek mirrorverse episodes, Sliders, Sliding Doors – and has recently started to push the concept to the mainstream with shows like Lost and Fringe. Comics has been actively dabbling with alternate realities since the 1950s though. In 1984 DC had one of its biggest publishing events ever, Crisis On Infinite Worlds, built around the concept, traipsing through alternate worlds in a way that a more mainstream piece of fiction would still struggle to get away with now.

The alternate reality has become a staple of the super-hero comic and it’s not hard to see why. Most comic book super-heroes have either been around since the 1940s-1960s or are tied into shared universes that have been. It’s hard therefore to take a character or a concept and completely reinvent it from the ground up the way one could with a film or television entity. Alternate realities offer that opportunity and few have done it so well as the Age of Apocalypse.

Created in the mid-90s, the Age of Apocalypse was yet another X-Men cross-over story. Unlike its predecessors and successors such as the X-Cutioner’s Song and Operation: Zero Tolerance though the Age of Apocalypse was a true “Event” with a capital E. For four months, every X-Men related book disappeared from the schedules, replaced with eerie doppelgangers. Generation X was replaced with Generation Next, Cable became X-Man, and the X-Men were no longer Uncanny but Astonishing and Amazing. Characters went through radical overhauls. Beloved heroes became amoral monsters, resolute villains turned into tragic heroes, as they all tried to survive in the world under Apocalypse’s boot heel. This wasn’t some run of the mill alternate universe where Superman happened to be going grey or most people were left-handed. This was a topsy-turvy dystopia.

It was also wildly successful, with a legacy that still continues. Despite the Age of Apocalypse being a world gone wrong that shouldn’t exist, tonnes of its characters managed to escape through into the ‘real’ Marvel universe. Nate Grey (the eponymous X-Man and alternate version of Cable), the villainous Sugar Man, the twisted Dark Beast all made the jump. Blink and Sabretooth would both reappear a few years later as core members of Exiles, along with a slightly different version of fellow AoA stand-out Morph. Exiles would later manage to return to the Age of Apocalypse and pick up Apocalypse’s son Holocaust. Recently, Uncanny X-Force went there as well, picking up the native version of Nightcrawler and setting up a new ongoing sequel series, nearly twenty years after the original event. It’s also inspired stories on several X-Men cartoons and even a video game. Not bad for a four month event.

The more immediate aftermath of the Age of Apocalypse was sporadic prequel stories through various X-Men titles of the mid to late 90s and that’s what makes up this nominal first volume of the Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic collected edition series. Which is a shame, for two reasons.

The first problem is that really, the first volume of this trade-paperback series should just be the first wodge of issues from the original Age of Apocalypse titles. Readers in the 90s were dumped straight into the event with little heads-up. Well, ok, there was a preceding storyline that showing the time travel shenanigans that lead to the change into history that created the Age of Apocalypse (reprinted as Age of Apocalypse: Prelude), but beyond that it was ‘hey, all the X-Men you know don’t exist any more, meet these guys.’ Putting all the prequel material first rather kills that. It’s similar to making someone who’s not familiar with Star Wars watch the modern prequel films before the original trilogy. It neuters the original story’s impact. Finding out that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father isn’t as suspenseful when you’ve just watched three films of him as a mewling brat and sulky teenager. While that twist is now common knowledge, a lot of readers are going to be coming to the Age of Apocalypse trades not having read it before and are going to be confronted with a first volume that pisses all over the rest of the series’ surprises. The X-Man annual included in here is especially bad as it almost blatantly explains how the whole event ends, let alone shows the fate of Nate after the series. Prequels may be set before an original story, but by their very nature they should be read(/watched/heard/played) after.

The other problem with all the prequel material in this volume is that it’s largely utter dreck. It’s painfully bad in places, in all aspects, from the writing to the artwork. The very nature of these sorts of Expanded Universe stories is that they go and shed a light on parts of a story not fully explored before, regardless of whether there’s any real benefit to doing so. And for comic book alternate realities, there’s often a case of ‘I wonder what this guy was up to during all of this?’ So here we get a story that shows what happened to Cyclops and Havok’s father, Corsair, in this altered reality, that’s ultimate points are to a) rather redundantly foreshadow Cyclops’ disillusionment with his place in Apocalypse’s regime (which, if this is the first volume you’ve read of AoA, won’t have really been fully explained or familiar to you) and b) answers continuity questions no-one was asking. Then there’s another story whose raison d’etre is, again, to foreshadow Cyclops’ disillusionment, while showing you what’s up with the Inhumans in the Age of Apocalypse (a question on the minds of precisely no-one). Just fuck off and let the original story deal with Cyclops’ disillusionment.

More palatable is the story that shows the early days of Magneto’s X-Men, with their initial school in Wundagore, that at least shows why Scarlet Witch wasn’t in the main series, but this again feels the need to clumsily foreshadow the main series by having Wanda, with her dying breath, tell Rogue to be Magneto’s friend in the future. Because they end up a couple, you see. And you couldn’t have accepted that without a story where Wanda tells Rogue to do it. Or the other story that shows them getting together. Sigh.

All of this would be more bearable if it was well written, but it’s really not. I’d be surprised if anyone who worked on any of this material (with the exception of Judd Winick on the lame Blink mini at the back, who was clearly sounding out ground for the later, greater Exiles) wasn’t just doing it for the paycheck. One issue is so bad that I actually couldn’t finish reading it. I just had to give up. I’ve been reading American comics for over a decade, in huge amounts and though I’ve read plenty of stuff that isn’t good, that’s only the second time I’ve ever managed to not finish something (the other being the X-Treme X-Men: Savage Land mini series about 8 years ago).

And then there’s the art, which manages to cover all the bases of crap 90s comics art. You’ve got Jim Lee/Image imitation from Ian Churchill (whose work I have a soft-spot for, I have to say, even though it’s not terrible good in this period) through to roid-rage Ed McGuinness knock-off Joe Bennett (whose art seems to be in a fight with Scott Lobdell’s script to see which can make the least sense and be more awful) and then some grotesque crap that I assume is aiming for ‘cartoony’ by Trevor McCarthy on the Blink mini. There are some very good artists present in this volume – Alan Davis, Steve Epting and Terry Dodson namely – but their art is either before their prime or compromised by poor inking or self-indulgent, experimental computer coloring. There are rafts of mistakes as well. Blink, who is quite blatantly a character with bright pink skin (though she’s described as ‘purpley’ in one issue’s script for some reason) is colored grey for an entire issue in here. One in which she is the focus character. Morph is miscounted as navy blue at one point, a mistake made worse by the fact that the panel’s reused on the back cover.

So, bad writing, bad art, no good reason to exist. The Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic volume 1 is hardly a good introduction to this influential alternate reality event. Putting this out as the first volume is a real shot in the foot by Marvel and I have to wonder how many willing customers have picked this up and been driven away from the rest of the series because of it. If you’re interested in the Age of Apocalypse, do yourself a favor and start with volume 2.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Harley Quinn Vol. 2: Power Outage

Title: Harley Quinn Vol. 2: Power Outage

ISBN: 9781401257637
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2014
Artist: Chad hardin, John Timms, Marco Failla
Writer: Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti
Collects: Harley Quinn #9-13, Harley Quinn: Futures End #1, Harley Quinn Invades Comic-Con International: San Diego #1

Rating: 3.5/5

Power Outage collects Harley Quinn issues #9-13, the Futures End issue, and the Harley story from Secret Origins. Of the monthly issues, the final three are a Harley Quinn/Power Girl team-up, and the first two involve Harley's hijinks in a burlesque show and a roller derby. This combines what I liked best about the first book, Hot in the City -- Seinfeldian stories about "nothing" where Harley goes on with "normal" life in her Harley Quinn way -- with what I felt could be improved; the first book was mainly given over to a spy caper whose jokes were outside my realm of familiarity, whereas writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti riffing on Power Girl's costume and Thanos-analogue "Manos" is right in my wheelhouse.

What follows is a wonderfully madcap story, at times ribald, at times ridiculous. When so much of popular comedy, especially movies, creates humor through gross-outs, I appreciate Harley as a true situational comedy -- Power Girl crash lands in front of Harley, amnestic, and of course Harley convinces her that they're crime-fighting partners. The humor is often verbal, and rewards close reading -- especially as Conner and Palmiotti's Harley patters a mile a minute -- as when Harley feigns offense that someone refers to Power Girl's breasts as "crowd pleasers" instead of "party favors," or when Harley chuckles sotto voce when someone says "cups," or "mount," or "cosmic organ." There's a definite Beavis and Butthead or The Office vibe; Harley says what the reader's thinking but would be too mature to speak aloud.

Comic books take a friendly beating in this volume, between a variety of gags about Power Girl's costume and physique; the appearance of Manos, ruler of the Infinity Rings; and Harley opining about where Manos's cosmic children use the bathroom in space. As I've said before, the Harley Quinn comic is the next in a long line of parody comics -- most recently Lobo and Ambush Bug -- that serve perhaps as a kind of pressure valve for the DC Universe as a whole, the place where we can acknowledge Superman (formerly) wearing his underwear on the outside and the ridiculous window in Power Girl's uniform. This culminates, at the end of the book, in the Harley Quinn Invades Comic-Con International: San Diego special, which lampoons geek culture in general and DC Comics in specific, including a cameo by Stephen Amell (the "convention special" being another way Harley Quinn in the 2010s inherits the mantle of Lobo from the 1990s).

Again, as I get these jokes and I'm familiar with these characters, I liked all of this a lot more than Harley battling zoo animals with alter kocker super-spy Sy Borgman. Palmiotti and Justin Gray's Power Girl series got a little too silly for me at times, too, and I didn't much consider myself the right audience for the Harley Quinn/Power Girl team-up miniseries to follow Convergence. But the Harley/Power Girl partnership is riotous -- as when Harley has to ad lib an origin for Power Girl on the spot -- and if the miniseries has the same meta-interpretive tone that Power Outage does, I might give it a look after all.

Weaker here, I felt, was the Harley Quinn: Futures End issue. This is undoubtedly in part because the story has nothing to do with Futures End -- not even that there's no rampaging OMACs, but that it could be Harley Quinn: The Day After Tomorrow as much as "five years later." It's a "Harley crash-lands on a deserted island" story, which does allow the writers to make Lost jokes and Castaway and Joe Versus the Volcano jokes (maybe Tom Hanks should get a royalty). It does also include a basically Batman: The Animated Series Joker, and there's some enjoyment in this Harley and "Mr. J" interacting even if the issue otherwise distracts from the Power Girl story.

This volume also reprints the Harley Quinn origin that I previously read in Secret Origins. The story serves Conner and Palmiotti's purposes well, offering the genesis of the Harley Quinn series's stuffed beaver Bernie. At the same time, the story has a curious leap in logic that I'm not sure is purposeful or not: psychologist Harleen Quinzel enters Arkham as a patient to better rehabilitate the prisoners, but it's seemingly in the span of a panel that she transforms into a cop-killing criminal. That panel is one where the Joker kisses Harley, and we can't see her face as the Joker stares at the audience evilly. The narrative glosses over the change, and I wonder if the audience is supposed to intuit some influence here that changed Harleen to Harley even before her dip into a vat of chemicals.

Additionally, the writers have Harley note that she learns from the Joker how to be "someone who could be anything they wanted. The sex kitten, the seductress, the innocent, the aggressor, the antagonist, the victim, the ditz." This is surely held up in Power Outage, as Harley is manipulating Power Girl one minute and being the comic relief the next. Secret Origins is a venue more amenable to seriousness than the Harley Quinn comic, toeing the line as the origin does between the Harley Quinn Harley and the Suicide Squad Harley, but way at the end of this Harley Quinn run, I wonder if the authors might acknowledge that Harley has been in control all along, and every zany moment was calculated just for the right effect.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Powers: Supergroup

Title: Powers: Supergroup

ISBN: 9780785193098
Price: $15.99
Publisher/Year: Icon, 2015
Artist: Michael Avon Oeming
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Collects: Powers Vol. 1 #15-20

Rating: 3/5

After the comparative disappointment of Little Deaths featuring much non-story material, Supergroup is a return to expectation and form.

The titular supergroup is FG-3, a trio with their own palatial midtown headquarters and known to have public disagreements. After one member executes a villain the team splits, and sinks into pronouncement and counter-pronouncement via the media. Isolated team member Wazz – possibly a term not used in the US as in the UK –  is the obvious suspect when his former colleague Ben Marley is murdered in particularly horrific fashion. He has a convincing alibi, though, that of conducting an interview live on television as the crime occurred. Detectives Walker and Pilgrim begin questioning the one accessible team member, at which point it all goes rather pear-shaped.

Until this point Walker and Pilgrim have pretty well been cocks of the roost, but when the FBI take an interest they’re frozen out, and on the receiving end of the arrogant attitude Pilgrim customarily spreads herself. It doesn’t sit well.

One of many excellent pieces of writing on Bendis’ part, not just here, but throughout Powers as a whole, is how he’ll slip something by the reader, then later slap them round the face with it. He pulls that trick here to brilliant effect with regard to events of the first volume. That Walker. He’s a quiet one, but when it comes down to it he’s a cop with an instinct. Something else at which Bendis is very adept is pulling the rug out from under the status quo. Long-running series generally settle into a formula, as Stan Lee once phrased it “the illusion of change”, yet the next volume, Anarchy, picks up in a very different place for the cast.

Bendis appears to have based FG-3 on the Fugees, and there’s more than a little about this story that has parallels with the murky world of exploitation and manipulation associated with manufactured pop groups. He’s taken that association and dropped it into even darker waters.

As ever, Michael Avon Oeming supplies some fantastic cartooning, although the art’s occasionally problematical when it’s not initially obvious that the page is to be read across the spread rather than down.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Powers: Little Deaths

Title: Powers: Little Deaths 

ISBN: 9780785193081
Price: $15.99
Publisher/Year: Icon, 2015
Artist: Michael Avon Oeming
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Collects: Powers Vol. 1 #7, #12-14, Annual #1, Powers Coloring/Activity Book, Jinx: True Crime Confessions

Rating: 3/5

The innovation that writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming bring to their storytelling has already been evident in Who Killed Retro Girl? and Roleplay. That really slips into high gear here in a story arc titled ‘Groupies’. Just as in the real world the rich, powerful and famous attract sexual favors, so it is with superheroes, and plenty are keen to take advantage.

One of them is Olympia, with an otherwise spotless reputation as a major league hero, who turns up dead in a shabby apartment he maintains for purposes of sex. He has a lot of it, so giving the collection its title. His story is revealed over three chapters, one of them designed as a faux celebrity gossip magazine complete with fake ads and captioned illustrations of characters who’ll feature later in the series. It’s a fascinating innovation, and ‘Groupies’ is well up to the established standard for Powers.

There’s been a playful nature about the series from the start. Bendis and Oeming have involved the characters donated by their creative friends, and name-dropped those friends in passing through the scripts. A later chapter takes the joke one step further by having British writer Warren Ellis drop by, and adds a poke at his trade by increasing even Bendis’ extensive word count for Ellis’ character.

That may seem a little indulgent to some, but it works in a tale that shifts gears from funny to terrifying. Unfortunately, the book then takes a giant step into whimsy and indulgence. It presents the entire coloring and activity book that might be handed out to kids visiting a police station, a story written entirely as a court transcript (or, as it’s known in the trade, not drawn), an interview with Bendis, and his first ever collaboration with Oeming.

The way the Powers story arcs break down, it’s understandable that the four main story chapters weren’t included in the following Supergroup, but they’d have bulked the slim Roleplay very nicely. Around a third of the book is inessential material, which makes this a premium priced product for the four and half chapters of story.