Sunday, July 20, 2014

Hellboy: The Midnight Circus

Title: Hellboy: The Midnight Circus

ISBN: 9781616552381
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2013
Artist: Duncan Fegredo
Writer: Mike Mignola

Rating: 4/5

People rejoice, for the great team behind some impossibly great Hellboy stories are reunited for an original graphic novel. Indeed, Mike Mignola, Duncan Fegredo and Dave Stewart, those behind such stories as Hellboy: The Wild Hunt and The Storm and The Fury are back as they try to tell an original story featuring a much younger Hellboy, one with perhaps a tiny bit of innocence still left in him. While it may be particularly great for fans of the beast of the apocalypse, is it perhaps something that readers unaware of the mythos of the series might enjoy? More importantly, is it good?

It is my belief that the answer to both these questions would be in the positive, as Mignola is able to mix childlike sensitivities, a feeling of horror and the Hellboy mythos flawlessly without alienating any of these aspects in favor of the others.

Speaking about each of those aspects, the childlike sense of wonders comes directly from the point-of-view of the titular character, Hellboy himself. In this story, though, readers are treated to a much younger protagonist. Gone is the tough supernatural detective, replaced by a character much more akin to the younger self readers grew to love from stories such as Pancakes. The innocence of Hellboy is not only a particularly refreshing take on the character, but it is also what propels much of the story forward. His fears and his sense of wonders plays a huge part in the atmosphere of the story, magnifying everything as it passes right through the emotions of the character.

It is a blessing then that he is written very well, with a certain sense of mischief, of adventure and a desire to be part of something. Like a lot of children, Hellboy simply doesn’t know any better and gets in trouble, which is the highlight of the story as things he doesn’t understand begin to gravitate toward him. Despite his wishes and what he’d like to be, the story plays a huge part on developing certain traits of his. Being part excitable and gullible, it is a wonder to see him get excited about his favorite comic book, Lobster Johnson or when he is being attacked by monkeys and all sort of beasts in the circus. As the point-of-view for the horror and the marvels of this weird world created by Mike Mignola, the younger Hellboy works like a charm.

What also works very well is the much more horrific aspect of the tale. Playing with some of the more classical tropes of what people might attach in terms of fright to a circus, Mignola adds some other things of his own to the regular horrors connected with the concept. We do have the animals, the helpers and the like to rely upon for the fearful elements, but Mignola weaves in demons, illusions, crazy dreamscapes and some fables in his story that adds quite a lot in terms of concepts. Weaving in the mythology built around his character to the mix, Mignola does so without destroying the effects some of the elements may have on the readers. Fans might get a bit more from this story knowing who Astaroth is, but the key concepts around the character are clear enough for the non-initiated to be aware of just what kind of person he is.

Perhaps the only element that is weaker than the rest is the story itself, though, as it doesn’t accomplish much except perhaps add a bit of mythology for Mignola to use in the current Hellboy series. The general elements and the progression is fairly standard as far as plotting goes, with the story handled in the same manner as a child tale, which is part of its charm, yet it doesn’t do much in terms of complexity. It’s the classic tale of a child running away, only to learn the lesson that he shouldn’t have done so in the first place. The direct reference to Pinocchio is quite apt in the story itself, considering that angle, yet the strength of this graphic novel doesn’t lay in the basic plot behind it, but in its execution. There are a few twists here and there that fans of the Mignolaverse may get more of a kick out than other readers, but they aren’t exactly clear-cut in the narrative. They don’t retract anything, yet not everyone can exactly gets all the references. It’s strong work, yet not necessarily for the occasional readers.

The strongest aspect of this whole thing, though, is the art by Duncan Fegredo. In this graphic novel, he uses a good number of different styles, conveying a certain sense of wonder on one side with a more traditional Mignola approach on the other. The circus scenes have a different design, with the lines being a mix between Fegredo’s approach to storytelling and Mignola’s, with some unfinished lines combined with complete ones. There is also a certain opaque sense of details when dealing with the circus elements, enhancing the otherworldly sensation in the pages and panels dealing with this setting. The other style is much closer to the rougher, but also very fitting approach of Mike Mignola, with a certain focalization on rougher lines and shadows. The character designs, expressions and poses are all top-notch, with their reactions being very fitting for each new twists or concepts thrown in the story. The backgrounds, needless to say, are simply gorgeous as it becomes clear that this graphic novel took a lot of work from Fegredo. They are striking, memorable and full of life as close to none of them are lifeless, making the pages brimming with details without becoming chaotic or simply unfocused. Fegredo understand the strength of empty spaces in terms of storytelling, as he is able to balance things out in order to use them without making the pages look empty as well. The story flow is good, the panel sequencing is great and much of what is found there is good. This is an excellent display of Fegredo’s talent.

It is also a display of why Dave Stewart won a good number of Eisner awards, as the colorization fits the tone and the style in an excellent manner. Stewart use a vast number of colors to great effects, with most pages showing a different style to add to the marvellous aspects of the script. The invocation in the circus, the belly of the whale, the discovery of the circus, the hellish landscapes, the library scenes and a variety of others showcase a very different palette each time, creating a rich visual diversity that simply add so much to the tale. Contrasts are visible everywhere, enhancing the focus on certain elements, yet are done without brushing away other elements. It’s excellent work from Stewart, plain and simple.

Combining horror, a sense of child-like wonder with a subtle touch of Mignola’s own mythology, this graphic novel simply astounds on many levels, the strongest being the art of Duncan Fegredo and Dave Stewart, which can only be summarized as breathtaking. In simpler terms, it’s a beautiful and impossible strong piece of work from everyone involved.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Cobra: Son of the Snake

Title: Cobra: Son of the Snake

ISBN: 9781613775479
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: IDW, 2013
Artist: Antonio Fuso
Writer: Mike Costa
Collects: Cobra #13-16

Rating: 3/5

G.I. Joe (or Action Force to British readers with long memories) is at its best when it forgets its toy store origins and focuses on delivering solid stories of warfare with a touch of the fantastic. Cobra: Son of the Snake is a good example of what the franchise can be used for. A tale of double-dealing and espionage, it works on multiple levels – as a decent spy thriller, but also as a reasonable detective procedural with a nice sprinkling of action adventure.

A catastrophe has severely reduced G.I. Joe's resources. This ups the game slightly; the heroes can no longer rely on ridiculous super-technology to track bad guys and shorten the chase, and now they have to use their heads a little bit instead of just beating the tar out of villains. The cast of characters has been selected fairly carefully. Some of these heroes will never get their own action figure, and that’s a good thing; it allows the tale to focus on believable characters in a larger-than-life world.

The artwork is messy and gritty, but still manages to be very easy on the eye. The action scenes are strong, without resorting to cheap gimmicks, and violence is used sparingly and to good effect, with a hyper-violent scene early on serving as an anchor for later events.

Fans of the more recent Bond movies, as well as those who dig shows such as NCIS might want to consider taking a look at G.I .Joe: Cobra – Son of the Snake. This particular serpent really has shed its skin and become something much more interesting than an extended toy advert. There’s enough here for fans of the franchise to enjoy but it’s also a good stepping-on point for new readers.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Azrael: Angel in the Dark

Title: Azrael: Angel in the Dark

ISBN: 9781401228743
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2010
Artist: Ramon Bachs
Writer: Fabian Nicieza
Collects: Azrael #1-6

Rating: 3/5

Some people seem adamantly against superhero comics or characters touching on certain real-life issues in stories. For instance, Greg Rucka and Judd Winick are two writers who’ve caught flack in the past for telling stories involving gay characters and the persecution they sometimes face. Personally, I think it all depends on how you portray the issue, and whether you come off as preachy.

In Azrael: Angel in the Dark, Michael Lane is a soldier of the cross, tasked with carrying out God’s justice. But what does being God’s Dark Knight actually mean? Our new Azrael is presented with several conflicts that test his merit, both as a person and as a hero. To an extent, how he fares is up to the reader to decide. But keep in mind, this book implies that the Suit of Sorrows (which Azrael wears as his armor) will one day drive Michael Lane insane.

I really want to give this book to a Catholic minister, just to see what his/her reaction is. At the end of the first issue, we see an image of Lane being CRUCIFIED. I’m not a heavily religious person, and that surprised me. I can only imagine how a devout Roman Catholic would feel.

The book also touches on the Israel/Palestine conflict. Lane is a war veteran, having served in Iran. In the third issue, he protects a Palestinian who has been savagely beaten in a heavily Jewish area of Gotham. Then, he and his former batallion-mates confront another fellow soldier who’s been killing Muslims in Gotham City. Lane has to decide whether this man deserves to live or not. The decision he makes is a bit surprising.

We also get appearances by Batman & Robin, Huntress and Ragman. Solicitations advertise Azrael as “a crusader forever linked to Batman’s destiny.” (But do they mean the Dick Grayson Batman, or the Bruce Wayne one?) Batman is also featured on this book’s cover, presumably to boost sales from casual readers. I’m really hoping this book doesn’t go the way of Gotham Central and get cancelled in the midst of its prime. I’m really enjoying this series, if for no other reason than it’s not afraid to be in that religious realm. But at the same time, it’s not preachy. Best I can tell, Azrael’s adventures are never intended to be anything but fantasy. Still, some of them make you ask moralistic questions of yourself, and that’s pretty cool.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Ghost World

Title: Ghost World

ISBN: 1560974273
Price: $11.95
Publisher/Year: Fantagraphics, 2013
Artist: Daniel Clowes
Writer: Daniel Clowes

Rating: 2.5/5

The relationship between comics and Hollywood has always been a difficult one. Comic adaptations of movies are often slapdash and careless. While movie-makers are prone to taking liberties with characters, bending them to their own needs and alienating fans in favor of the mass market. Which is one reason why it was so refreshing that, while adapting Ghost World for the silver screen, director Terry Zwigoff involved creator Daniel Clowes in making of the movie. Having said that, we maintain that it’s always best to consume the original version before the copy, so catch the graphic novel first if you haven’t already seen the film.

Ghost World is the story of two teenage girls, struggling to leave the childish things of their past behind but finding the alien landscape of adulthood to be strange and unforgiving. The girls are superbly realised, surrounded as they are by a host of caricatures – the extremist teenager who rebels against liberalism, the shy young boy who finds himself at the wrong end of the girls’ sexual frustrations, the parents who can’t do the right thing and a supporting cast of assorted weirdoes.

Clowes’ artwork is black and white, but adds green as the go-between. At first this seems a bit strange, as the black on white would be more than sufficient, though the extra colour adds a subtlety of depth that shades the world with a ghostly and atmospheric hue, brining the teenagers’ world alive.

This book is a fascinating insight into the mind of the disenfranchised youngster, and anyone who can remember being there will probably understand the journey the girls are going on. Insecurity, anxiety, frustration and inevitability are mixed with friendship, love, independence and fun. It’s a heady mix that Clowes captures wonderfully with poignant dialogue and drawing that’s very easy on the eye.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Harbor Moon

Title: Harbor Moon

ISBN: 9781897548950
Price: $19.95
Publisher/Year: Arcana, 2010
Artist: Pawel Sambor
Writer: Ryan Colucci, Dikran Ornekian

Rating: 2/5

When Ryan Colucci tweeted that he'd send signed copies of Harbor Moon for only $10, I couldn't resist answering the call. I don't regret adding this graphic novel to my collection at all. It takes an old story (werewolves versus hunters), and gives it a modern flair and flavor.

Yes, this is a werewolf story, and I’m really not that interested in traditional monster stories – that’s just the way I am, man! However, this is an interesting comic for a few different reasons – Colucci spins it just enough to make it entertaining, if not a completely unique take on werewolves, and the art is quite cool. In the story, a man named Timothy Vance ends up in the town of Harbor Moon, Maine, looking for his father, who invited him to the town but was then killed under mysterious circumstances. Vance finds that the townspeople, like any good townspeople in weird towns in horror stories, aren’t particularly friendly to outsiders and not interested in helping him out – the sheriff simply lies to him about the presence in town of any O’Callaghans (his father’s name). We know this has something to do with werewolves, but we’re not sure what it is. Colucci does a nice job at hinting around at what’s going on and dropping enough hints before revealing the true reasons things are happening – unlike long-running serials where one sometimes wonders if the writers have worked everything out before they start dropping clues, Colucci has to wrap everything up in one book, and he does a nice job balancing the need to explain things to us with the need to tantalize us with a mystery.

I don’t want to give too much away about the story, but the writers manage to take very familiar werewolf tropes and twist them just enough – the werewolves are just people, for instance, both good and bad, even in monster form – that it’s not too annoying. What Colucci and Ornekian do well is give us characters who work pretty well even if they’re not monsters – Timothy is searching for his family roots; Sheriff Sullivan and his son, Patrick, are trying to protect their secrets, even if they might go about it in an extreme way; Kristen, the love interest in the story, wants to trust Timothy but knows she might not be able to. The villains in the story are cardboard characters, which hurts the book just a little, as the book isn’t really too much about the villains, so it’s not too big a deal. Stories are more interesting when the villains are compelling, but for this book, Patrick is kind of the villain, and Colucci and Ornekian do a decent job with him. The book moves along well as Colucci and Ornekian drive the plot nicely, and while it doesn’t rise too far above a standard werewolf tale, the writers make a good try and change things up enough to make it at least interesting.

Sambor is an interesting artist, and he seems heavily influenced  by Ben Templesmith; but his figure work isn’t as strong. He definitely does better with “set pieces,” I suppose – posed drawings of single people where he can take his time a bit. When he gets into characters interacting with each other, he struggles a bit more, but it’s not like the art is awful or anything. As I read through this, I was expecting the inevitable showdown between the werewolves and the villains to not come off well, but it’s better than I thought it would be … although there are some issues. Sambor draws the wolves very well, which helps the big showdown, but because he uses a lot of “special effects” (blurring, electrical effects, blood splatter), because the coloring on the book is naturally a bit darker, and because Sambor’s male characters look very similar, it’s often hard to tell what’s going on. On the one hand, that’s kind of neat, because it’s a messy, quick battle, but on the other hand, it’s hard to tell what’s going on!

Harbor Moon isn’t a great comic, but it’s a very entertaining book, especially if you’re inclined to like horror.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

X-Men: Fall of the Mutants Omnibus

Title: X-Men: Fall of the Mutants Omnibus

ISBN: 9780785153122
Price: $99.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2011
Artist:Walter Simonson, June Brigman, Todd McFarlane, Sal Buscema, Jon Bogdanove, John Romita Jr., Kieron Dwyer, Keith Pollard, Marc Silverstri, Kerry Gammill, Bret Blevins
Writer: Louise Simonson, Peter David, Ann Nocenti, Mark Gruenwald, Steve Englehart, Chris Claremont
Collects: New Mutants #55-61, Uncanny X-Men #220-227, X-Factor #18-26, Captain America #339, Daredevil #252, Fantastic Four #312, Incredible Hulk #336-337 & #340, Power Pack #35.

Rating: 3/5

This hardcover collection of X-Men: Fall of the Mutants is an omnibus in all but name, collecting the contents of 2001’s “Fall of the Mutants” trade with an additional 552 pages of content. There are three stories being told in this collection, with each one focusing on one of the X-teams that were active in 1988.

The Uncanny X-Men face off against The Adversary, a mystical threat with ties to Forge and Storm, resulting in a major change in their status quo.

X-Factor battles Apocalypse, as their former teammate Angel is turned into Death, one of the Four Horsemen of Apocalypse.

The New Mutants go up against the militant pro-human group “The Right", which leads to the shocking death of one of their members resulting in their striking out on their own, away from Magneto’s tutelage and the X-mansion.

The additional issues add context for the crossover, giving the reader a better snapshot of the status quo prior to the event.This crossover isn’t like most X-related crossovers, as it’s only linked by the banner Fall of the Mutants, with no interlinking in the stories. There are three separate storylines here to enjoy, as opposed to a complicated and complex multi-title crossover storyline so common today.

The X-Factor storyline is a major highlight here, as Angel is transformed into Death, a transformation which still reverberates in today’s comics. The quality of the reprints is top-notch, and is a great improvement over prior collections of this material, plus it includes a number of tie-ins, which help flesh out the stories that are presented here. Unfortunately, while reading my copy, a section of pages in the back came loose from the binding. I was able to reattach them, but I would want you to be aware of this defect when you add this wonderful trade to your collection.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

X-Men: X-Cutioner's Song

Title: X-Men: X-Cutioner's Song

ISBN: 0785100253
Price: $24.95
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 1994
Artist: Brandon Peterson, Jae Lee, Andy Kubert, Greg Capullo
Writer: Scott Lobdell, Peter David, Fabian Niceza
Collects: X-Factor #84-86, X-Force #16-18, X-Men #14-16, Uncanny X-Men #294-296

Rating: 3/5

In a way X-Cutioner’s Song marks a fairly significant turning point in the history of the X-Men franchise. The X-Men books were in a state of turmoil. They had lost their long-term writer Chris Claremont only recently, and Jim Lee had departed to work on other projects. The central theme of the books – exploring prejudice and racism – looked to be losing steam slightly as South Africa’s apartheid regime collapsed and the country developed into a truly democratic state. It seemed like the books were struggling to cope with all these changes occurring so rapidly, and X-Cutioner’s Song reads like an attempt to assert control on the franchise – as if to assure readers that everything was okay and it was business as usual.

“I’m still a little bit wary when I look back on these issues and I’m asked to write an intro for them,” Fabian Niceza’s introduction (reprinted from an earlier collection) suggests, “because for as much as I fondly recall the enthusiasm, the uncertainty, the fear and the gung-ho cockiness we mixed together in working on these stories, I also feel that it was a bit unfair, in retrospect, to expect us to hit a home run in our first time at bat.” It’s a fair point, to be honest, and it’s a brave confession. X-Cutioner’s Song isn’t a perfect crossover. It isn’t even a very good one. However, it is a deeply fascinating one in many ways, because you can detect the seismic shifts occurring in the background.

X-Cutioner’s Song truly ushers in the nineties, as far as X-Men crossovers go. Arguably the biggest crossover was still ahead, with Age of Apocalypse still a bit away, but X-Cutioner’s Song seemed like an attempt to pull the books kicking and screaming towards a new age. The event is, after all, built around the characters of Cable and Stryfe – two Liefeld creations who have come to represent the nineties for many readers. Lots of pouches, lots of guns, lots of scars, badass attitudes and a willingness to kill – without too much remorse or angst about it. For better or worse, the nineties were arriving – the biggest and boldest and loudest decade for Marvel’s merry mutants – and X-Cutioner’s Song feels like an attempt to welcome them.

However, you can sense the ties to the past, the sense that the book shouldn’t stray too far from “what worked” before. In particular, writers Fabian Niceza, Scott Lobdell and Peter David return to Chris Claremont’s ridiculously tangled Summers family tree. Much of the artwork in the collection – with the notable exception of Jae Lee’s superbly atmospheric and stylistic work on X-Factor – seems designed to recall the sort of sharp work Jim Lee used to turn out. That’s not to suggest that there weren’t new ideas (in fact, Niceza shrewdly points out that Stryfe’s Strike File sets up years worth of stories), but just to observe that the story is located at something of a crossroads between the past and the future.

I think it’s hard to make sense of the nineties, in hindsight. It was a post-Cold War, pre-9/11 world. The Berlin Wall had fallen, capitalism had won. There were conflicts, as there always are, but they were relatively contained and far away – places like Bosnia and Iraq. Chris Claremont had found a nice hook for Uncanny X-Men by tying it into the social issues of the day, crafting a racism allegory for a Civil Rights era comic book. What happens when there is nothing to respond to? What happens when the real-life situation driving your central metaphor expires?

X-Tinction Agenda, the last major X-Men crossover, had seen Claremont cling desperately to his “mutants-as-oppressed-minority” metaphor by presenting readers with a fictionalized counterpart to South Africa’s racist apartheid system, with the fascist state of Genosha. It was a last-ditch attempt to anchor the books to the issue of race, something that was becoming increasingly difficult in an increasingly PC world. That’s not to say there wasn’t mileage left in the metaphor (Grant Morrison would shrewdly play it out in New X-Men, as would Peter Milligan in X-Statix), but that it couldn’t continue to be used in the same way.

Even though Mandela was not yet President of South Africa, it was clear that the apartheid system in the country was being dismantled. The last bastion of such direct state-sanctioned racism was crumbling, and would soon be consigned to the history books. The issues of racial identity and equality were no longer problems that would require violent revolution or confrontation to resolve. The barriers had become more subtle, more nuanced. In Western Europe and America, the issue of equal rights for minorities became a problem requiring more thorough consideration and exploration, rather than the type of stuff that Claremont’s Uncanny X-Menhad been dealing with.

As such, it should be no surprise that X-Cutioner’s Song opens with the attempted assassination of Charles Xavier. After all, the dream is over, so to speak. Magneto had been removed from the book a little while ago, so placing Charles at death’s door seems like a fair way of acknowledging the ideological conflict between the two was a relic best left in the past. Of course, Magneto would inevitably return (in fact, Niceza concedes that he considered bringing Magneto back in the middle of this storyline) and Charles doesn’t die, but that opening issue makes a bold philosophical statement. The times, they are a-changin’.

However, the crossover suffers from a massive lack of consistency, as well as some difficulties with the general direction. As Niceza notes in his introduction, the writers handling the crossover were still relatively new to their individual assignments. To expect them to handle a massive crossover would be even more difficult, as they were still finding the voices for their own books. As such, the quality, tone and themes of the crossover seem to shift as we move from one chapter to the next – the crossover feels like the disjointed effort of three different authors with three different styles.

Niceza is perhaps the writer who does the best with the big superhero melodrama, and who seems to grasp the core of the crossover. He has a solid understanding of the core X-Men dynamics. In particular, I like his exploration of the idea of family with X-Men comics. After all, the X-Men are one giant surrogate family, covering for the fact that each of the members seems to have difficulty with their own biological relatives. Scott seems to get on better with his team mates than his brother and is, as the crossover notes, an absolute failure as a father. Peter uses the team to cope with his brother’s suicide, unsure how to tell the rest of his family.

X-Cutioner’s Song is the story of the tangled Summers family, juxtaposed against that of the X-Men family. By all accounts, Scott’s family is a broken unit, a group of people related by blood and cursed by a bond that none of them ever sought. Scott and Jean spend most of the story dealing with their failure as biological parents in isolation, on their own terms. In contrast, Professor Xavier spends the whole story surrounded by his surrogate family. Even unconscious, he’s never alone – despite the fact that he is not related to any of the team by blood. Apocalypse remarks that Xavier’s X-Men “play the part of the family” remarkably well, and Niceza’s Uncanny X-Men and X-Force issues tend to emphasis this point.

Indeed, Niceza’s issues seem to hit on the vague sense of existential ennui that was gripping the books, as they entered a completely new era – one where the central metaphor that had made them so successful in the past few decades was increasingly irrelevant. “Maybe it’s just the way o’ the world that did it,” Wolverine suggests. “Maybe the dream is dead. Maybe we should all stop pretendin’ it ain’t– an’ accept the fact we’re livin’ in a nightmare.”

Indeed, more than any other X-Men event, X-Cutioner’s Song is fascinating because so much of what is important to it is happening unseen in the past or in the future, though the story itself unfolds in a somewhat listless present. Stryfe is a rebel from the future, seeking to pay Scott and Jean back for “a legacy of hatred! a legacy of decay!” And yet we never see him develop as a character. We never really see what twisted him so much, or what it is that he’s responding to. The same is arguably true of Cable, who is stuck in a present fighting against a terrible future that is yet to materialize. And yet, X-Cutioner’s Song is never really about time travel. It’s just a crossover where all these sins – past and future – have come back to face the team in an almost contextless present. “How can they defeat me, when I am their tomorrow?” Stryfe asks.

In fairness, Niceza’s writing isn’t particular strong, but it isn’t particularly weak. It’s just straight-forward superhero stuff, for better or worse. I do like the way that he’ll acknowledge the old tried and tested cliches that he uses as he writes, rather than simply falling back on them as simple crutches. The problem is that each of the three writers have markedly different styles and approaches, and so it feels almost like the story is shifting genre as the reader moves from one chapter to the next.

Peter David, for example, proves a much more interesting character writer. His plotting seems to go through the motions, but his characters seem much more vibrant in his chapters than in any of the others. Indeed, one might imagine that a team-up between Cable and Wolverine and Bishop would be a pain to read as nineties machismo oozes off the page, but David makes their dialogue sparkle. Consider this brief interaction between Cable and Wolverine as the former tries to rework his transporter system:
    How long will it take?

    If I do it myself, about twenty, twenty-five minutes.

    And if we help?

    An hour and a half.
The other side of the coin is that David’s characters feel somewhat wrong when handled by other writers. Members of his X-Force, in particular Madrox or Strong Guy, seem slightly “off”in the hands of the other two writers on the crossover – it’s clear that Lobdell and Niceza are trying to channel David’s witty self-aware dialogue, but it doesn’t work quite as well.

Don’t get me wrong. I know that various writers have different ways of writing various characters, and I know that’s one of the necessary facets of a shared universe. Truth be told, I generally don’t mind if two writers have slightly different voices for the same character – after all, they are different books and these are fictional characters. However, it’s quite jarring when structured as part of one crossover, as you change between writers for the same group of characters, and they end up sounding subtly different from chapter to chapter.

Reading David’s chapters made me wish that Marvel would consider releasing his X-Factor runs (both the one here and the current one) in a nice oversized hardcover. It’s one of the X-Men books that very clearly has its own particular voice, and its own place in the shared universe. Of course, I’d also love to see his Incredible Hulk run collected in a similar format, or even in the omnibus line, but I imagine that’s a long way off.

However, the weakest of the trinity of writers working on the book is Scott Lobdell. It’s somewhat ironic that Lobdell would be the writer tapped by DC to script several of their “new 52″ titles, because his issues here seem to demonstrate a lot of what is wrong with nineties comics. There’s a perception that nineties comics were a wasteland, and I’d argue that’s hardly fair. There were any number of important and iconic and clever comics being written inside and outside the mainstream, it’s just that particular art styles and writing styles became dominant.

There are several problems with Lobdell’s writing. The most obvious is his awkward reliance on cliches. Okay, I know that this is the X-Men we’re talking about, but it’s no need for such lazy writing. At least when Fabian Niceza falls back on those familiar storytelling devices, he’s honest enough to have the characters point it out. Instead, Lobdell just used these sorts of outdated plot devices without a hint of self-awareness or irony. “I should take this opportunity to slay them — to cull the chaff from the wheat,” the villain Apocalypse suggests as he stands of a bunch of subdued X-Men, “but to slaughter an unconscious foe is so — unseemly.”That’s just bad writing.

There’s also a surreal scene where Jean Gray is held at the mercy of mechanical tentacles, “servo-arms that push and shove and paw and grope.” There’s actually no plot reason for this scene at all, and the villain seems to have no reason for subjecting her to it. It just reads like the sort of gratuitous objectification that Lobdell got into trouble for last year when writing Red Hood and the Outlaws. It feels slightly disgusting and disturbing, particularly because there’s no need for it. Artist Brandon Peterson even draws a metal phallus near her mouth (when most seem to end in claws) in case we didn’t get the “naughty tentacle” associations.

In fairness to Lobdell, although he is easily the weakest writer of the three, he does a nice job scripting the event’s epilogue, including a nice little subplot that sees Charles granted the ability to walk, if only for a short while. The interactions between Charles and Jubilee make the bond between Charles and his extended family somewhat explicit, with the bald telepath now a grandfather to a diverse range of mutants and individuals. It doesn’t counteract the criticisms of Lobdell’s writing (in fact, it’s just as on-the-nose as the other issues collected here), but it is a nice issue.

There are a few nice moments scattered throughout. I particularly like the way the book allowed Wolverine to continue smoking, even though the writers knew the risks of lung cancer. “Uhm,” Cable remarks, “where I come from — smoking isn’t considered very smart.” Editor Joe Quesada would ban Wolverine from smoking, on the basis that it might encourage youngsters to do the same, although I never understood such censorship. Here, it’s clear that smoking is bad, and everybody is aware of it, but Wolverine just smokes anyway… because some people will smoke anyway. Besides, surely his healing factor negates any risk of cancer? And surely the fact that he has been known to kill in cold blood makes him less of a role model than his smoking habit? What about his drinking?

Still, the biggest problem with X-Cutioner’s Song is the lack of a strong thematic continuity between books. There’s never really a sense of what the event is “about”, apart from an attempt to reveal the identities of Stryfe and Cable. In fairness to Niceza, he tries to make that lack of a theme a theme unto itself – the assassination of Charles Xavier representing the fading of the potency of the “mutants as minority”allegory – but it’s never strong or clear enough to truly work.

I don’t have the same dislike of X-Cutioner’s Song that most commentators seem to have. In fact, I think it was a solid first attempt at something like this from three writers finding their feet. That said, I’m not sure that it should have been attempted in the first place. It has a handful of clever ideas and nice moments, which is enough to avoid it becoming an empty waste of time, but it’s never essential and never truly magnificent. Still, there’s potential to be found in these creative teams, even if you can only really see the seeds of it in this crossover.