Superhero & mainstream comics—May and early June, 2011

Superhero & mainstream comics—May and early June, 2011

“Everything will change…in a flash!” With the recent news that DC will relaunch its entire line following the conclusion of Flashpoint at the end of August, the miniseries’ tagline has a brand new meaning. New #1’s across the boards (including Grant Morrison on a Superman title and Geoff Johns on Aquaman), Jim Lee redesigns of every major character, and digital day-of-date release are major shake-ups for the company, and what better way to usher in a new age than by having everything instantly change in DC’s big summer event? 

Even before it unveiled the relaunch plans, DC’s hype machine was on overdrive for Flashpoint, which teams DCU mastermind Johns with superstar artist Andy Kubert for a story that gets by on craft rather than the familiar plot: Professor Zoom has altered the timeline and only Barry Allen knows anything is wrong. Barry never became the Flash, Cyborg is America’s favorite superhero, and Batman is Thomas Wayne, who lost his son and wife one fateful night in crime alley. The story has a lot in common with Marvel’s House Of M, with major status changes for most characters, including tyrannical versions of Aquaman and Wonder Woman, with the latter seizing control of the UK with her Amazon sisters and castrating any men who set foot on what’s now called New Themyscira. The emotional tether of the story looks to be Barry’s relationship with his now-alive mother, and it will be interesting to see how the more personal elements of the script fare as the plot grows wider in scope.

What Geoff Johns does best is build worlds, and the strongest scene of this issue is Cyborg’s conference with the heroes of the world, a group consisting of Batman, Citizen Cold, Shade The Changing Man, and more than a couple new faces. Kubert has some inspired designs for both new and existing characters, and part of the thrill is seeing the modifications he makes to familiar looks. Incorporating red into the Batman design, splitting Captain Marvel into six teens, and giving Cyborg a major upgrade are some of the aesthetic changes, and there’s a whole world of characters still waiting to be explored—and most of them are getting their own tie-in series. More than 20 new books will cross over with the main series, which is serious overkill, even for DC. 

Johns is a capable storyteller, and even if this first issue doesn’t incite the kind of must-read excitement that justifies picking up 20-plus new books—especially for what is essentially an alternate-reality story—the future of the DCU looks uncertain but exciting. While many changes can be chalked up to marketing (Is there any doubt that Action Comics won’t be renumbered at #1000?), what matters is the quality of the stories, and Flashpoint instills confidence in Johns’ ability to spearhead line-wide changes. It’s the Flashpoint tie-ins that will prove how good other creators are at carrying the torch after he lights it. 


Brian Michael Bendis has been itching to work on Marvel’s schizophrenic superhero Moon Knight for years, and he reunites with long-time collaborator Alex Maleev for Moon Knight #1 (Marvel), a new ongoing that relocates Marc Spector on the West Coast. With a new job as the executive producer of Xena-styled syndicated fantasy series “Legends Of The Khonshu,” Spector balances his Hollywood day job with evenings spent as the ivory defender of Los Angeles, a mission assigned to him by fellow Avengers Spider-man, Wolverine, and Captain America. In an inspired twist on Moon Knight’s mental illness, Bendis has the character take on the personalities of his Avengers teammates, imagining their presence and guidance as he uncovers a plot involving a deactivated Ultron and a mysterious glowing opponent making a power play for the city. Spector’s current condition is a mix of schizophrenia and dissociative identity disorder, a shift that allows Bendis and Maleev to use the graphic medium to bend the lines between illusion and reality.  It’s a clever way to play on Moon Knight’s current Secret Avengers status while exploring the Marvel Universe’s largely ignored West Coast.

Maleev alters his style to evoke classic Moon Knight artist Bill Sienkiewicz, and the looser line-work takes away the stiffness that occasionally results from Maleev’s use of photo reference. These are some of the most dynamic pencils of Maleev’s career: The action moves swiftly across the panels, building to splash pages of Moon Knight flying toward the reader. As illogical as a white costume is, it makes a great visual with Maleev’s shadowy renderings, and Matt Wilson’s coloring intensifies the atmosphere of the individual scenes. Bright yellow and orange dominate the opening “Legends Of The Khonshu” sequence that also serves as a retelling of Moon Knight’s origin, and Wilson uses a blue-heavy palette for the issue’s climactic fight sequence. Swaths of red highlight particularly brutal fight choreography, and a whited-out orange obscures the issue’s mystery villain while contributing to the eerie ambiance. Moon Knight is the best work from Bendis and Maleev since their famed Daredevil run, and if they can offer the same insights into Marc Spector as they did Matt Murdock, they might have another classic on their hands.  


Why isn’t Gail Simone in a more prominent position at DC? Her original run on Birds Of Prey established the book’s lasting potential post-Chuck Dixon, her underrated run on Wonder Woman offered classic superheroics with a progressive female voice, and Secret Six consistently shocks with Simone’s masterful combination of perversion and wit. Hopefully she’s writing a couple of books post-Flashpoint, because her work keeps getting stronger, with Birds Of Prey #12 (DC) bringing a new artist to fix the book’s struggling visuals. Jesus Saiz puts storytelling above cheesecake, and his female characters are strong without being hypersexualized. When two women strip down in the issue’s opening scene, there’s no eroticism, just tension. Huntress desperately needs a new costume, though, as the exposed midriff is basically a big “shoot here” sign, and traipsing through the sewers in booty shorts is just bad judgment. As a teacher, Helena should have better judgment in these matters. Honestly, it would be nice to see the characters just wear the outfits they have on the cover. Superhero-meets-business-casual is a good look for this group.

Simone’s banter between the Birds is the selling point of this title, and although there are a few too many puns when Huntress tries to recruit the Question to the team (might as well hit up Batwoman too, God knows she’s not doing anything), the snappy dialogue keeps the pace moving quickly. As Huntress and Question team up to take down a group of crooked cops, Oracle sends the rest of the team on an undercover operation that puts them face-to-face with Secret Six’s sadistic Junior, the sister of that team’s delightfully psychotic Rag Doll. There’s not a clear reason given for the group’s mission, but the issue’s cliffhanger brings the two storylines together in a way that will likely be clarified in the concluding chapter. And any chance to see Lady Blackhawk attempt subtlety is bound to be a hoot. A year after the book’s relaunch, Birds Of Prey has found its wings again. Hopefully Jesus Saiz will stick around for the long haul. And get Huntress a new costume.


Also…

The massacre of Alpha Flight was one of the cheapest deaths in recent history, but the Canadian superteam’s revival during Chaos War has raised their profiles as the writing duo of Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente take on the fan-favorite characters. Alpha Flight #0.1 (Marvel) introduces new readers to the team, an eclectic group assembled from various corners of the Marvel Universe. A mermaid, Bigfoot, a goddess, a troll, and mutants all on one team? That’s an awesome lineup, and this issue is a solid old-school superhero done-in-one that gives each character a moment in the spotlight. X-Man Northstar returns to the team with his P.R. agent/boyfriend Kyle, and it’s refreshing to see their relationship given a prominent role in the book. Next issue begins the Fear Itself tie-in, in addition to debuting regular artist Dale Eaglesham, who will give the book a more classic look than the sleek, digital art of Ben Oliver. The action can be stiff at times, and Songbird’s arms are mysteriously absent in one panel, but seeing such a traditional team rendered in a more modern style helps take away some of the inherent silliness. Fan interest seems to come in waves for Alpha Flight, so it will be interesting to see how Pak and Van Lente’s run will be accepted. But if they can make The Incredible Hercules a hit, anything is possible.

There’s a strong Umbrella Academy influence throughout Gladstone’s School For World Conquerors #1 (Image)—from premise to artwork to typography—but writer Mark A. Smith and artist Armand Villavert go for an all-ages tone that makes it a charming standout in Image’s recent slew of new series. Ashu Gladstone was an awful supervillain, so he opened a school to teach future generations of criminals by stealing the playbook of actual badass Ironside. After petrifying Gladstone in the school’s courtyard, Ironside assumed control of the curriculum, turning Gladstone’s into the prestigious institution of evil it is today. With a course catalog including “Your Henchman And You” and “So You’ve Started A Criminal Organization,” the idea has a lot of potential, and a peek into “Victory Speeches 101” shows that Smith will be approaching the story from a more humorous angle. That’s not to say there isn’t serious action: Recess is a brutal free-for-all between hyperactive costumed mini-villains. Villavert’s art looks like Gabriel Bá meets Brandon Graham, and there’s a sleek animation cel quality that gives the book a Saturday morning cartoon vibe, but with more guns. A lot more guns. The issue’s cliffhanger suggests that Smith’s telling a bigger story of which Gladstone’s is merely a piece. If the series can maintain the quality of this first issue, it will be a fun ride exploring Smith and Villavert’s adorably mischievous world. 

Cobra Commander is dead and the person that kills the most G.I. Joes will be declared Cobra’s new leader. That’s the vicious premise of the “Cobra War” crossover, and Cobra #1 (IDW) relaunches the noir espionage title with an emphasis on the power struggle within the organization. The first issue focuses on Baroness, who has no intention of claiming the Cobra Commander title, but sees an opportunity to increase her sphere of influence in her own subversive way. Mike Costa’s G.I. Joe: Cobra has been one of the better books for G.I. Joe newcomers, telling a solid spy thriller that doesn’t rely too heavily on past continuity, and while Cobra is firmly incorporated with the rest of the G.I. Joe line, it’s still an accessible introduction to the world of the Joes’ greatest enemies. Costa’s artistic collaborator Antonio Fuso is a strong storyteller, and he’s especially good at conveying Baroness’ body language, which is seductive yet still guarded. The issue ends with the reveal that Serpentor has an inside man inside G.I. Joe, further complicating matters for Baroness and adding another layer to the already complex plot. As the crossover escalates, it will be interesting to see how the action plays out amidst the political scheming. 

A mystery threat from beyond is coming for the X-Men, and the pressure rests on Scott Summers’ shoulders to lead the mutant species through their next big event. X-Men: Prelude To Schism #1-2 (Marvel) sets up the Cyclops/Wolverine power struggle that will go down in this summer’s Schism by spotlighting Professor X and Magneto as the two leaders surrender their authority to the younger generation. Paul Jenkins excels in telling personal stories in a superhuman context, and the first issue does that better than the second, as Professor X remembers key moments in his relationship with Cyclops—like that time Scott watched his girlfriend kill herself, or when his time-traveling son stole a baby from him. The second issue delves into Magneto’s childhood and the similarities he sees between his father and Cyclops, but it’s an overly sentimental retelling of events better depicted in Greg Pak’s Magneto: Testament. Jenkins is likely saving the reveal of the story’s threat for the final issue of the prelude, but it’s obnoxious to read about how dangerous something is while skirting around its identity. It’s a cheap way to fabricate suspense, and it doesn’t work. The first issue also benefits from Roberto De La Torre’s art, with sketchy pencils that establish the ominous tone and muted coloring from Lee Loughridge, but Andrea Mutti’s stiff, rushed art in the second issue detracts from the already weak story. Hopefully the rotating lineup of Schism artists will have a better showing. It’s not a great start to an event, but Paul Jenkins hands over the writing reins to Jason Aaron for the main miniseries, which should definitely make it worth a look.  

One-dollar zero-issues are standard practice at Dynamite, but rarely with a creative team and concept as epic as Kirby: Genesis #0 (Dynamite). Reviving old properties and debuting new characters from the Jack Kirby archives, Alex Ross teams with Kurt Busiek and Jack Herbert for a story inspired by The Los Angeles Times’ commissioning an illustration from Kirby as a response to the image of humanity NASA sent into space with the Pioneer 10 space probe. Kirby’s criticism of NASA’s dull choice of art and his spirited drawing are perfect examples of why he is deified among the comics community, revealing a mindset that was always exploring mankind’s potential: “My version of the plaque would have revealed the exuberant, self-confident super visions with which we’ve clothed ourselves since time immemorial. The comic strip superheroes and heroines, in my belief, personify humanity’s innate idealism and drive.” And what better creators than Alex Ross and Kurt Busiek to bring that wildly fantastic yet deeply human vision back to mainstream comics? Half setup and half supplementary material, this zero-issue is light on plot but heavy on atmosphere, and it whets the appetite for the convergence of all the ideas that fly out of the issue’s main story. Jack Herbert’s art has a look reminiscent of Jerry Ordway or Paul Gulacy, but he handles Kirby’s bombastic imagery with ease, working off Ross’ layouts and art direction. Ross contributes typically stunning painted art to the cover and selectively throughout the book, and his combination of hyper-realistic figures with Kirby’s spectacular scope is the main selling point of the series, capturing the mix of humanity and fantasy that defined Kirby’s work.