Friday, February 28, 2014

Batman and Robin Annual #2 (DC)

writer: Peter J. Tomasi
artist: Doug Mahnke, Patrick Gleason

I've mentioned a few times here how much I love Peter Tomasi's Batman and Robin.  It got to the point last year where I was ready to name it to the top of the 2013 QB50 (it ended up settling for fourth), which makes it from this point a perennial contender for that spot, however long the run lasts (hopefully a good bit longer).

It's one of those series that I want to add in its entirety to my trade collection, and in fact is at the moment how I've been reading it (not quickly enough, but it's an excellent way to savor the work all the same).  Every so often, though, I dip back into the individual releases, and this annual seemed like as good a time as any to do so again.

The story brings Damian back.  Damian, the son of Bruce Wayne and Talia al Ghul, was famously (or infamously, depending on who you listen to) killed off by creator Grant Morrison last year in the run-up to the conclusion to both Batman Incorporated and his Batman run in general.  Any new Damian story, then, is bound to be notable.

This one isn't really a Damian story at all, but a Dick Grayson one, looking back at his debut as the first Robin.  Since Dick's glories days are firmly in the Golden Age, and readers are far more familiar with his Teen Titans transition period or his Nightwing years (I'm still wondering how I feel about the Forever Evil developments), anytime there's a new Dick Grayson/Robin story, it's pretty much the same as a new Damian story these days.  One of the famous examples from years past is Batman Chronicles: The Gauntlet, a one-shot from 1997 (that's how infrequent it is), although there has also been Batman: Dark Victory and All Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder (which angered fans because it portrayed Batman as...grim; no, really), neither of which was as direct a focus on him, though.

Add this one to the mix.  And it kind of leaves you begging for more.  Sometimes in comics, which are often hard-pressed to move on with the careers of superheroes, you end up with a situation where progress has been made and suddenly you realize there's still more to tell about that earlier period.  It's all well and good if you're Batman, but if you're Robin?  You're kind of screwed.

Tomasi's Batman and Robin has always been more of a Robin (and Batman) than anything, the lost Robin solo series that remembers Robin sometimes is most distinctive in association with his old partner.  With the loss of Damian, the series has become not so much a team-up book, but a series that explores Batman in relation with other characters.  Lately that character has been Two-Face (I've been savoring the prospect of reading that one, all at once, the way I read the first arc of the series, by accident, but that's exactly how it should be enjoyed, all at once).  For the annual, Robin gets to return.

And so, this is a Year One story for Robin, Dick Grayson's version.  Nightwing is known as a Spider-man kind of guy, always cracking jokes.  It can sometimes be easy to forget that he was like that as Robin, too.  That means, in essence, he was hardly the grim crusader Batman tends to be, and consequently that Batman probably had a hard time dealing with that.  Tomasi gets that.  He gets everything.  That's what makes his Batman so great.

The way Damian is incorporated acknowledges that he is technically dead and so not able to be an active participant.  I love these little reminders Tomasi is able to do.  In a few months, a new storyline in the series will feature Batman and Damian all over again, but with another twist.  (It will also feature Frankenstein, the Grant Morrison, Seven Soldiers of Victory version.  I still can't believe he had his own New 52 series.  I still can't believe I never read it.  I will have to correct that.)

Tomasi also has room to create an interesting villain in the story, a Dick Grayson foe, Tusk.  I'd love to see that whole story expanded.  Maybe Tomasi will do that some day.  Hopefully!

Also noteworthy, besides the assist from regular collaborator (and fellow Batman and Robin saint) Patrick Gleason, is the art of Doug Mahnke.  Mahnke is best known recently for his Green Lantern collaboration with Geoff Johns.  For some reason, even though he became one of the go-to guys during that run, Mahnke's name never really became especially elevated.  The fact that he's illustrating an annual is at once awesome because it's for Batman and Robin, and also a little worrying.  Surely the guy deserves another high profile assignment.

It's especially nice to see a distinctive style from Manhke in the issue, one that's different enough from his Green Lantern work that you might almost not even know it's the same artist, but still very much the same remarkable talent.

Maybe this is a way of saying that if Gleason isn't available for an issue of Batman and Robin, it's Mahnke we'll get instead?  Because that would be nice.  Because Gleason and Tomasi are too perfect together to settle for something worse.  Mahnke isn't worse.  He's almost as perfect a match for Tomasi as Gleason.  And that's pretty awesome to see.

Even if you're not obsessed with Batman and Robin like I am, I think this annual is easy to recommend, to see Dick Grayson as Robin, and to see Damian once again in that role, too.

Cover via Comic Book Database.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Batman '66 #5 (DC)

writer: Jeff Parker
art: Ruben Procopio, Colleen Coover

When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the Adam West Batman.  It was the whole reason I became obsessed with Robin, why when I referenced the Boy Wonder to 1989 people who suddenly knew only the Tim Burton Batman, they had no idea who I was talking about, because there was no room for Robin in Burton's Gothic landscape.

Just as there was suddenly no room for West's Batman.  By the time of Joel Schumacher's Batman, this had become painfully obvious.  It's the whole reason movies have to take superheroes more or less seriously these days ("more or less" because Tony Stark and Joss Whedon and a bunch of their friends take considerable liberties).

Does this mean there really isn't room for the so-called Camp Crusader?  All of a sudden there does seem to be room again.  The West Batman is finally going to be released on DVD.  And there's Batman '66, a digital-first series DC has been releasing since last fall and subsequently publishing in print.

Does it work?

Actually, you know what, it really does.  It's not even all that different from the famed Bruce Timm/Paul Dini animated Batman from the '90s.  This may be the most shocking admission ever made on the Internet.  Remember this moment for posterity.

The Timm/Dini Batman famously grafted as much of the Burton Batman as it could into its adventures.  If you remember the theme music, you may know the most obvious element of this Dark Knight exchange program.  It was the Timm/Dini Batman who first acquired a Robin, and then Robin showed up in the movies, too.

Famously, Batgirl first appeared in the West Batman.  She appears in the backup feature from this issue, too, matching wits with Catwoman (the Eartha Kitt version!).  The lead features Sandman, not the Wesley Dodds or Neil Gaiman version, but very much the West Batman version, only with trippier storytelling, more visual, than was possible on 1960s TV (unless you had chemical enhancement).

The best moment in the comic when Sandman makes this comment: "Even if he's a popular athlete, why would I care about such trivia?  He only matters because he's Batman."

It comes in the classic moment of any West Batman story, when the villain has Batman and Robin safely under wraps (for the moment).  It seemingly happened in every West Batman story.  Yet the West Batman only existed as Bruce Wayne when he needed'll get back to you on that.  Simply put, Bruce Wayne didn't really matter.

If Batman existed only in his own right, wouldn't it make equal sense for his adventures to be as outlandish as the West Batman presented them?

So it's probably safe to read these comics.

Cover via Comic Book Database.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Secret Avengers #11 (Marvel)

writer: Ed Brisson
artist: Luke Ross

Part of the "Infinity" crossover, which involves Thanos (the Big Chin at the end of The Avengers movie) and the Inhumans (which are an even more sadsack version of the X-Men who never even had the good sense to be popular among fans), this is also one of many Avengers comics that are more or less interchangeable, despite various titles.

(Really, I have no idea why Marvel does that.  Brian Michael Bendis could get away with it when he was writing the Avengers, because he was writing a thousand different Avengers books.  But if you have multiple writers working on them, you ought to be able to differentiate a little better than "Jonathan Hickman, not Jonathan Hickman."  It's just not good enough to slap "Avengers" into the title and then do the same general story with all of them.)

The Secret Avengers were originally concocted after Steve Rogers had temporarily bought the mortal coil, and then came back to find Bucky Barnes, the erstwhile Winter Soldier, was doing a pretty good job as Captain America.  Since Steve wasn't about to just slap on another superheroic identity, he instead became an unmasked agent of S.H.I.E.L.D., and subsequently put together...another team of Avengers.  There were the New Avengers and the Mighty Avengers at the same time, and other than one of them being sanctioned (from the continuing effects of Civil War) and the other not, they did the same kind of fighting all the same.

Because Maria Hill is heavily featured in this series, you know it's all but a S.H.I.E.L.D. series.  Because there's actually a S.H.I.E.L.D. series on TV, I'd suggest it would make a ton more sense to name this series after that and not just as another Avengers title.

But what do I know?

The story frets over Inhumans, and Maria Hill frets over not being active in the field, and the villain character frets over being misunderstood.  Besides Hill there's also the new Nick Fury, who is exactly like the Ultimate Nick Fury but not like the original Nick Fury (read: he's exactly like the movie Nick Fury, which is one of the more unfortunate shoehorning jobs in recent comics history) as well as dear Phil Coulson.  The whole lineup's there, Marvel.  Why pretend otherwise?

Actually, other than random moments of superpowers, this isn't even an Avengers title.  Only its cover suggests that.  But you'd be hard-pressed to assume otherwise.  Just rename.  Or reboot again.  Because Marvel loves it some reboot.  Because this is not an Avengers series at all.  Maybe the storytelling isn't so sharp right now, but with a little more confidence in the concept, there's no reason why this has to be such a...secret.

Oh, I get it.

Cover via Comic Book Database.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Digitally Speaking...#7 "The Darkness"

FCBD 2011 The Darkness 2: The Confession #1 (Top Cow)
Previously in this column I spoke about how terrible an example another Top Cow offering from Free Comic Book Day had been.  This would be more or less the opposite case.  This one's actually pretty good, and what's more, helps makes sense of a comic book property until that had only managed to baffle me.

The Darkness is Top Cow's second best known property after Witchblade.  That alone seems to have been its reason for continued existence, because otherwise it never really distinguished itself as a concept, other than the fact that it was a horror property in the general vein of Todd McFarlane's Spawn, anchored to a mob figure with the unfortunate name of Jackie Estacado (which remains one of the worst comic book names ever).  Simpy put, I never understood it at all.  I thought it was just another example of dumb nonsense from people who wanted to create something new in superhero storytelling but really had no idea how to do it.  (After all, until the Yancy Butler TV series, Witchblade was most distinguished by her relative lack of clothing, which really only identified her with all the other '90s "bad girls," until Ron Marz came along and expanded on the mythology, which has led to the whole Artifacts concept that DC borrowed for Aquaman's new allies the Others, who are soon to receive their own ongoing series.)

Besides "Jackie Estacado," "The Darkness" was also a fairly dubious moniker.  What did it mean?  Again, I never had any idea.  The concept simply existed.  It was never explained, except in the most general ways.  No wonder it never found the same mainstream success as Witchblade.

Except, maybe it does deserve a better fate.  And perhaps it would even make a better TV series.  Actually, it probably would.  In the current TV landscape, The Darkness would make perfect sense.

Thanks to this comic, even the concept does.

It's still not perfect.  Jackie has long hair.  He always has.  Like everyone else I've seen plenty of gangster movies.  I've never seen one with a character who has long hair, which is kind of the opposite of the tough guy image.  The closest equivalent would be Robert Rodriquez's Mariachi character who appeared in three films, but he's Mexican and was portrayed by Antonion Banderas in two of them.  Jackie isn't Mexican.  He seems to be vaguely of New York lineage, but one of the continuing weaknesses of the concept is that all of the gangster elements are pretty standards elements.  The free comic's story includes a version of the classic Crow story of dedicating a career to a lost love, which is another element not usually associated with tough guys.

But the concept of the Darkness itself begins to shine in this release.  This is the first time I read anything about its mythology, and that in itself is pretty interesting.  It's the elemental evil from biblical creation, distilled into demonic form and passed on from generation to generation as a curse.  Jackie has his possession explained to him by his grandfather, which if written by James Robinson would be iconic but is instead just another relatively untapped element of Darkness lore.

The success of this comic in explaining an otherwise obscure concept makes it clear that in the right hands Jackie and his Darkness could really work, not just because a small company needs it to but because it works on its own.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Comics Recap #7: Odds & Ends Part 2

I finally got through all the comics I bought around the holidays, so I haven't been reading as many lately.  Here are a few I did pick up:

Golden Age Captain America Vol 1 by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby:  Golden Age comics are fun to read sometimes.  It was a simpler time back then when plots and characters were kept simple because they were intended mostly for kids.  In this case we get the humble origin of Captain America, when he was actually a man IN time.  The actual origin of his powers is almost an afterthought in the first issue.  There's no thought given to why Steve Rogers is there to get the serum or where he comes from or who his parents are or anything like that.  He's just there and gets injected with a serum that makes him superhuman and then a saboteur kills the doctor before Cap stops him.

Despite the famous cover of Cap punching Hitler, he actually does almost no fighting overseas.  The focus of the book is on Nazi saboteurs.  Private Steve Rogers operates out of an Army camp in New Jersey with his young pal Bucky and either the bad guys come to them or they read something in the newspaper and go investigate.  There's no government oversight or Nick Fury or any kind of direction to it.  Steve's army life seems pulled from Beetle Bailey for the most part.  In a bit of irony, the main female character's name is Betty Ross, the same name used for the Hulk's girlfriend about 25 years later.  Anyway, one of these saboteurs is the Red Skull who is just some guy in a red sweatsuit with a swastika on it and who wears a red skull mask.  The first time he appears there's a Scooby-Doo ending where they pull off the mask to see who he really is.

It's all very simplistic and yet campy fun, like watching Superfriends or Adam West Batman.  And for the $3.99 I certainly got my money's worth because each issue has at least 3 illustrated stories plus a "novelette" written by some guy named Stan Lee.  And there are two back-up comics featuring Tuk the Cave-boy and the Hurricane, who is a Greek god who fights the devil.  On a side note, for people who make disparaging remarks about Batman and Robin's relationship, Steve and Bucky actually share an army tent, where they sleep only inches apart.  Modern cynicism would have a lot of fun with that.  (4/5)

X-Men Season 1 by Dennis Hopeless:  This is basically a reboot of the original Stan Lee version of the X-Men, when they all had matching yellow-and-black suits like the ones they used in the First Class movie.  Only this is set in present day.  It has the familiar set-up where Charles Xavier wants to show the world mutants aren't dangerous so he rounds up five of them to make a superhero team.  There's Cyclops with his optic blasts, Angel with his wings, Ice Man with ice powers (duh), Beast with his um beast powers, and Marvel Girl (Jean Grey) with her telekinesis.  They do battle with Magneto--and with each other.  If Marvel ever wanted to do a teen-oriented show as DC has done (and continues to do) this would be a good place to start because there's a lot of teen angst mixed in with all the punching and optic blasting.  It mostly comes in two forms:  worry about fitting in with the outside world and crushing on someone, often someone on the team.  Like any reboot it's mostly familiar but fresh enough not to feel like a complete rerun. (3.5/5)

Punisher Enter the War Zone by Greg Rucka:  This was apparently the end of Rucka's run with the Punisher so he decides to go out with a bang by pitting Frank Castle against the Avengers.  After the Punisher steals one of Spider-Man's web shooters and uses it to help escape from a tight spot, Spidey convinces the Avengers they should finally go after the Punisher.  If they really went after him at full-bore it wouldn't be much of a fight.  To drag it on through five issues they first send Black Widow after him, but she gives up when the Punisher leads her to rescue a bunch of enslaved kids in Africa.  Then Thor goes to pound a few ales with him and convince him to quit, but he doesn't.  So finally the whole team gets involved, but Castle has a few surprises in store for them.  It was OK but really feels like it was playing with loaded dice since the whole thing could have been wrapped up in one issue.  I mean all that needed to happen was Thor shows up and fries him some lightning or pounds him into paste with his hammer.  And since it mostly focuses on the Avengers, I think the Punisher has maybe ten lines (other than grunts or screams or whatever) through the whole thing.  So not exactly a character building exercise there.  Anyway, I'm sure by now the Punisher has escaped from the Avengers's clutches so it really doesn't mean a lot.  (3/5)

X-Men: Curse of the Mutants by Victor Gischler:  A while back I read the Namor portion of this storyline since it was on sale.  When they put the main story on sale, I figured I might as well buy it.  The set up for this is that San Francisco is beset by vampires led by Dracula's son, who has taken the vampire throne by chopping off the old man's head.  His idea is that by teaming up, vampires and mutants can take over the world.  What should be an epic showdown between vampires and mutants turns out to be a turkey shoot, so really after four issues building it up it ends with a sad trumpet sound or maybe that loser music from the Price is Right.  But I guess it is pretty obvious when you have guys who need to bite people in the neck going up against people who can turn their skin to metal or diamond or stone.  Blade joins in on the vampire slaying fun, though he's not a mutant.  I'm not sure what the title is even supposed to mean since there's really no "curse" in this.  Anyway, it was kind of disappointing. (3/5)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Reading Comics #117 "Just Who is Hal Jordan, Anyway?"

So, just who is Hal Jordan, anyway?

The answer seems simple enough for comic book readers.  He's Green Lantern.  For diligent readers, he's the second Green Lantern, who debuted in 1959's Showcase #22, the second of the signature DC Silver Age icons to reinvent a classic Golden Age persona.  Unlike Barry Allen's Flash, Hal Jordan represented a radical departure from the original model, introducing a whole corps of space cops, an entirely new superhero concept, one that is still seldom duplicated (Marvel's Nova Corps is the rare exception).

This has made Hal and the Green Lanterns themselves a little hard to identify in the same iconic way as other superheroes like Batman and Spider-Man.  Hal's origin is mostly one of luck.  After the previous protector of the space sector of which Earth is a part is mortally wounded, his ring is sent to the nearest ideal candidate, who turns out to be test pilot Hal Jordan.

Since the whole concept of test pilots lost its romantic allure when its brightest era gave way to the dawn of space exploration, Hal's primary human occupation has been one of the many challenges the character has faced over the years.  The 2011 movie version based a portion of Hal's appeal on the continuing legacy of Top Gun, a movie released twenty-five years earlier.  The comics have softened the transition by emphasizing Hal's military experience (which to my mind would be more relevant if he had war memories such as the Mogadishu crisis featured in the film Black Hawk Down).

That particular aspect of Hal's background is also another of the many elements that may be more of a stumbling block for new fans than anything.  There are many competing characters in Green Lantern's own mythology.  As previously noted, there's a whole corps of fellow space cops, and there have been to date four other humans.  One of them is John Stewart.

John may actually lay claim to being the most famous mainstream Green Lantern after his prominent role in the Justice League cartoons.  Being one of the rare black superheroes, John is also in a unique position to represent something other than strictly being Green Lantern.  For that reason, there have been arguments that if Green Lantern should become relevant to the mainstream again, it ought to be in the form of John Stewart and not Hal Jordan.  John has been depicted as both soldier and architect.  He also briefly worked for rival space cop agency the Darkstars.

Besides John there's also hothead Guy Gardner, who at times has been a comic figure but has also branched into his own mythology.  Although John was the first one to gain his own spin-off series (the short-lived Green Lantern: Mosaic), Guy had one for longer, which was eventually retitled Warrior (when someone realized that, incredibly, no superhero had ever claimed that name before).  Guy has worn the green ring, a yellow ring, and had independent powers granted to him by alien DNA.  When the entire corps was wiped out for a time, there was Kyle Rayner.  Recently there was also introduced Simon Baz, who represents the modern world of the war on terrorism.  (No human Green Lantern has ever been a woman, unless you count the stint by the Golden Age version's daughter Jade; plenty of aliens have been, however.)

Really, what distinguishes Hal?  Some comic book fans argue, very little.  The failure of the 2011 film would seem to support that.

The ring worn by a Green Lantern channels willpower, allowing its bearer to create whatever they can imagine with green energy.  The conceit of a magical ring is rare in comics, but common in literature, famously in J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  A Green Lantern must have great willpower and also have the ability to overcome fear.

In Green Lantern lore, fear became represented by the rival yellow ring, eventually wielded by Hal Jordan's mentor and one-time friend, Sinestro.  (When Guy had it, he used it more as an alternate to his lost green ring than as a weapon of fear.)  There are a number of other rings, including the red ring (representing rage), the violet ring (representing love), the blue ring (representing hope), the indigo ring (representing compassion), the orange ring (representing greed), the black ring (representing death), and the white ring (representing life, as well as the so-called "one ring to rule them all").

So what makes Hal special, other than being the first of these new Green Lanterns?  Plenty.

Hal is the rebel who also represents the mainstream, the challenge to authority who is nonetheless routinely considered himself an authority.  His initiation into the Green Lantern Corps was not without controversy.  Sinestro worked alongside his predecessor, Abin Sur, and never considered Hal worthy to wear the same ring.  On Earth, Hal is just another superhero.  In space, he's just another Green Lantern.  And yet, Hal never let either of those ignominious descriptions limit himself.  It was his effort to combine both these roles that led him to have such a rough relationship with the Guardians of the Universe, the Oans who created the corps.

John and Guy only became Green Lanterns themselves because Hal frequently stepped away from his responsibilities.  Kyle became at that time the last of them after Hal became possessed by the fear entity Parallax and went on a murderous rampage.  Simon inherited the ring after the Guardians awarded it to a reformed Sinestro, who subsequently lost it.

Hal's legacy as Green Lantern, then, is one of the few erratic superhero careers, one that is as much defined by his deeds as his efforts to avoid performing them.  His ambivalence is informed by a tortured relationship with Carol Ferris.  All comic book characters have tortured romantic relationships, but Hal and Carol's remains unique.  They are former working colleagues, former boss (Carol) and employee (Hal), and even rivals (Carol was the first of the Star Sapphires, after gaining possession of a violet ring early in Hal's career).  To this day they have never resolved their conflicts.

Hal's relationships often define him, moreso than any other solo character.  John and Guy were both alternates, and Hal met both of them before passing the ring to them (both eventually got their own and became regular contemporaries, as did Kyle).  His relationship with Sinestro is one of the most unique in comics: former friends, former mortal enemies, former grudging allies.  Hal is also defined by his relationship with Green Arrow.  The two were presented in a classic series of stories featured social commentary as natural opposites.

As a character with apparently no definable characteristics, Hal has managed to carve out quite an independent role for himself, a true maverick in a medium that often plays at the type but more often succeeds in presenting variations on the same lone wolf archetype.  Hal has always been different.  He never really struggled with the role of Green Lantern so much as what it represented.  He was doubtful about his place in the grand scheme, and found it hard to reconcile with what he had known before being drafted into the role, infinitely capable and equally skeptical.

The 2011 film is more representative than fans might think.  Part of its relative failure was Hal's lack of mainstream pedigree, as well as the fact that superhero movies in the twenty-first century most succeed when represented as distinct brands.  There's Batman, Superman, the X-Men, Spider-Man, and the Avengers, the most successful of the genre.  When you stray from them, the results are always erratic. Green Lantern was no different.

Fans less familiar with the Green Lantern comics often have a hard time reconciling with Hal Jordan's selection over John Stewart for the honor of being the one represented in the film.  To them, as with general audiences who had never heard of the concept, everything was totally new.  Apparently it didn't work, but I thought it did.  Often a failure is the result of something that seems to too limited in its appeal.  Superman Returns, for instance, was deemed as too reliant on the legacy of movies that at that point were two decades old.  Green Lantern had nothing to do with Christopher Nolan's films, or anything else.  It was in a bubble, right when it was much cooler to be connected to something else.

It tried to explain everything about Hal, and everything about the Green Lantern concept itself.  To someone like me, who was already familiar with both and very much enjoyed the effort, it made total sense.  To others, it was a cluttered mess.

So what to do with Green Lantern in other movies?  The suggestion goes, ignore the 2011 film and move forward with something new.  John Stewart, obviously, so some say.  The beauty of the Green Lantern concept is that you can do it both ways, and it would make total sense.  You could have the same continuity, have your John Stewart, and still return to Ryan Reynolds' Hal, use them both at the same time, in any number of combinations.

Green Lantern as a property has never been hugely popular.  It was always more of a cult thing.  Consequently, the mythology expanded beyond the norm for superheroes.  It wasn't until Geoff Johns came around in 2004 and brought Hal back that the character and franchise became truly important to DC, where it now stands as a cornerstone of the New 52 (with Green Lantern, Green Lantern Corps, Green Lantern: New Guardians, Red Lanterns, Larfleeze, and soon Sinestro all present as monthly publications, with plenty of room for more).  It was this expansion that gave birth to the mainstream credibility the 2011 film represented as an initial offering.

With a little more momentum, Hal Jordan won't need to be explained anymore.  As a character who can easily identify with the struggles of an ordinary human and the responsibilities of being a superhero, his storytelling potential is limitless and really is only beginning to be explored, more than fifty years in the making.  In fact, all his supposed weaknesses are strengths, which Hal's publishing history has proven time and again.

Who is Hal Jordan?  Someone any self-respecting comic book fan ought to know.  And now you know why.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Review: Arrow

Marc Guggenheim and company have done what many others, including geek apostle Kevin Smith, have failed to do:  make Green Arrow cool.  In the comic book world Green Arrow was kind of like Aquaman in a character who's been around for a while but wasn't all that highly regarded and only sporadically was able to keep his own comic book title.  He's the kind of character who'd show up for a Justice League comic or two but wasn't really part of the first-string team most of the time.  In the '70s he was actually attached to the Green Lantern title as sort of a foil for the square Hal Jordan.  He was largely known for having a variety of trick arrows like a boxing glove one and so forth.

With "Arrow" the Robin Hood-esque character gets the Christopher Nolan treatment.  After 5 years on a deserted island, billionaire playboy Oliver Queen returns to Starling City on a mission to take out a group of rich jerks who've been screwing over the little people.  He of course does this in flamboyant, impractical fashion by running around in a green hooded costume and shooting arrows at people who are armed with guns.  When not dealing with "the list," he tries to reconnect with his mother, sister, and friends.

That's how it starts but gradually more comic book elements are introduced into the storyline.  As well what seems at first like a simple Robinson Crusoe story on the island turns into a Lost-esque saga.  And like Spider-Man he keeps revealing himself to people.  It starts with his bodyguard John Diggle and then a nerdy IT girl named Felicity and then his best friend.

Really by halfway through the first season the original concept of the show--killing people on "the list"--gradually takes a backseat to more superhero-type fare like going after drug dealers and arms dealers and the like, which made the intro to every episode increasingly irrelevant.  I don't find that all that bad of a thing as the evolution of the story is fairly natural.  It's a lot less jarring than say this fifth season of "Archer" where the creator of the series decided to burn everything down and turn the whole thing into "Breaking Bad."  It seems only natural that eventually Oliver would have to branch out because when you set yourself up as the city's protector you can't be so narrowly focused as to miss all the terrible "normal" crime going on under your nose.

The problem with the show is something that I complained about with my Scarlet Knight series of books.  It's that the series is picking up too many characters, which makes some like Diggle increasingly irrelevant as new people are brought in.  Oliver's best friend Tommy became so irrelevant in the first season he had to be dealt with--perhaps permanently.  Plus you end up with all these loose plot threads all over the place as you have all these different villains, some of whom aren't seen for weeks.  It can be hard to keep track of everything.

In a way the show is a victim of its own success as DC has seen it as a way to springboard other new series like a Flash series due out next fall.  In some ways I preferred the simplicity of the early first season episodes, but as I have learned it's hard to keep a series that simple.  Especially with a weekly series you have to have twists and turns to keep viewers interested.

There are sometimes some logical problems, like I'm pretty sure an 18-year-old can't operate a nightclub that serves alcohol.  I mean by all rights they shouldn't even be able to admit her.  Plus you have Oliver's indiscriminate boner; by now he's screwed (or wanted to) every woman on the show except his mom and sister--there's something for next season!  I mean it starts out he loves Laurel, but oh wait he loves her sister Sara too and really he could love Felicity but he doesn't want to screw up their friendship and just for fun let's have a quickie with Summer Glau.  I don't know how he gets any crime fighting done at all!

Even though there are more comic book elements being introduced, so far they've done a good job keeping with the "hyperrealism" of the Nolan Batman movies.  Oliver does have trick arrows but instead of a boxing glove he has ones with explosives or listening devices, or ropes, stuff that's not all that inconceivable.  It definitely provides the superhero action people were probably hoping for with "Agents of SHIELD."  I really wish though they could wrap up the whole island thing soon because it's been dragging on for two years now.  I wish they could have kept that part simple where he lands on the island meets Friday who teaches him how to survive and eventually gets rescued.  Then there's more time to focus on the present.

I keep mentioning the Nolan Batman movies and in fact the series doesn't shy away from the Batman comparisons, especially now that they've included a notable Batman villain featured in the first and third Nolan movies.  Besides that there's the whole idea that he's a billionaire playboy who owns a big company and in public pretends to be a dumbass while at night he dresses up in a costume to beat up criminals but eschews guns and killing people--the latter in the second season at least.  Now he's even got a sidekick!  All he needs is a spotlight with an arrow on it.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give is that the show has managed to crack my TV watching schedule.  Only a handful of current shows can say that.

That is all.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Digitally Speaking... #6 "How (and How Not) to Make Your Own Comics"

Black Powder #1 (Asylum)
From 2011.  Aside from the fact that it seems to be a far less inspired version of Pirates of the Caribbean (meaning, alas, no Jack Sparrow), the art becomes incredibly distracting.  At first I thought it was because writer/artist Dwayne Harris digitally created it.  But then at the back of the issue his process is revealed, and it's bad pencils at the start and then bad digital coloring on top.  The result is a mess.  Not a terrible mess, just not one that inspires a great deal of confidence, much like how Harris assumes the reader will be interested in a story that takes its time getting to the pirates, and then just keeps yacking yacking yacking except for a few stabby pages (stabby pages are good, but they are not a replacement for swashbuckling, which is half the reason to ever tell a pirate story to begin with).  That's really all there is to know about this comic, which you will never have heard of to begin with, and judging on this sample there's absolutely no reason why you should be concerned about that.  Classic case of a really good cover distracting from a hot mess that follows.  Move along.

Bone #1 (Cartoon)
From 1991.  In strict contrast is Jeff Smith's classic Bone debut.  I've read it a number of times at this point, but it never gets old.  Smith is a bona fide comics genius.  This issue introduces the Bone cousins, who look like a trio of classic comic strip characters, and yet are so basic in design it's a marvel to hear them speak, because they at once do and absolutely do not talk like any other comic strip character you've ever seen (except maybe Rat and Pig from Pearls Before Swine).  And the issue starts in the middle of the story, and that middle is really only the start of something far, far greater.  There are a number of teases as to that much bigger story, and great humor besides.  It's Smith's absolute mastery of his craft that strikes you, again and again. It's the polar opposite of a Black Powder, in every way possible.  Both are about as far away from the comics mainstream as you can get, indy productions through and through.  Except in Black Powder it's blatantly obvious how that's usually not a good thing, whereas in Bone it's so impressively professional, no wonder Smith has been lured to the mainstream in the past, both with Bone itself temporarily to the indy professionals at Image, and with Shazam! The Monster Society of Evil at DC.

So, right there in a nutshell, if you ever had dreams of launching your own indy comic, two examples of the probable fate that awaits you.  Hopefully it's clear enough which one you ought to shoot for.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Kick-Ass 2

When the original "Kick-Ass" was released in movie theaters it was savaged by some critics for violence against its young protagonists.  Rogert Ebert was especially harsh and it's just as well he wasn't alive to watch the sequel because it takes things up a notch.  Really I'd say this is the darkest superhero movie ever put on film.

It's really more of a horror movie in all the gruesome ways characters die, including death by lawnmower on the back of a police cruiser.  Though as with some horror movies there's a lot of black comedy involved.  For instance when the evil "Motherf**ker" tries to rape Kick-Ass's superhero girlfriend but can't get it up.  Insert your own Viagra joke.

Like "The Dark Knight" the plot revolves around the idea of escalation.  In the original movie a dorky kid named Dave puts on a wetsuit and gets a couple of batons and decides to be a superhero--with predictably bad results.  Meanwhile a disgruntled former cop and his young daughter have been doing real costumed vigilante work as Big Daddy and Hit Girl.  (Spoiler:  Big Daddy dies and Hit Girl is remanded into the custody of his ex-partner on the police force.)  In the climactic last battle, Kick-Ass blows up a mobster with a missile launcher.

A year or two later, Dave is getting antsy to put the wetsuit back on, so he meets up with Hit Girl to undergo some training.  But when her foster dad guilts her into putting away the costume and being a "real girl" Dave hooks up with some other wanna-be heroes, starting with "Dr. Gravity" (Donald Faison of "Scrubs" fame) and ultimately a group led by "Colonel America" (Jim Carrey), who used to be a mob enforcer until he was born again.

They conveniently write out the love of Dave's life from the last movie in one scene to free him up to start dating "Night Bitch," whose fate I've referenced above.  For while Dave and the heroes are gathering, the son of the mobster he blew up who used to go by the heroic moniker "Red Mist" has decided to become a supervillain called "Motherf**ker" and starts gathering his own personal Legion of Doom.  In particular he wants to bring Kick-Ass down.

After a string of grisly murders and an almost rape, there's finally a titanic clash between good and evil.

Whether you like the movie or not depends on which side of the "Won't someone please think of the children?!" argument you come down on.  Me, I know it's a movie, so I know the kids are never in any real danger.  Also in scenes like when Hit Girl is fighting bad guys on top of a van the CGI/green screen effects are just so awful there's no way you can mistake them for being real.  While it's dark and graphic it does a good job of depicting what a "real" costumed vigilante universe would be like.  It's not all upside-down rain kisses and heroic Hans Zimmer scores.  And it depicts perfectly why when I wrote a column called "Practical Superheroism" on my old blog I always urged people to never, EVER try it at home, because really you're more likely to get your ass kicked than to kick any ass.

In case you're wondering, there are all the pieces in place for a sequel.  "Kick-Ass 3" is currently on its 6th of 8 issues at your local comic book store.  This second movie didn't do great at the box office so without a bunch of foreign or DVD sales I'm not sure that will ever get made.

Anyway, because of where I come down on this argument, I'd give it a solid 2.5/5, which is my grade for competent, but not spectacular movies.  I'm a Hard-Ass like that.  Though my superhero name would probably be Fat-Ass because they already used The Blob.

That is all.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Digitally Speaking...#5 "Batman"

Batman #13 (DC)
From 2012.  This is Scott Snyder's introduction to the "Death of the Family" arc.  And surprise to say, but it's kind of shockingly bad.  Not bad as in it's written or drawn poorly, but conceptually it's so poorly executed that it's surprising something like this would be the start of a major story arc for a major character in a major company.  Internet critics say that sort of thing all the time.  I was following a blogger who trashed just about every issue of AvX that way, and that was an event written by Marvel's top creators.  I've ragged on Snyder in the past.  I know he's supposed to be the best Batman writer in years.  I even recently came to his defense in terms of the conclusion to this very arc and what he might have planned for some grand greater scheme.  But in terms at least of this issue, out of all the "Death of the Family" issues I've read, it's easily the worst.

It begins randomly, Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Bullock talking about omens, and then the next page taking all the steam out of the conversation, and then transitioning to Gordon's smoking habit, and then the Joker randomly appears, and then Batman arrives, and then we have a recap of an apparently aborted story Tony Daniel began at the start of the New 52 in the pages of Detective Comics, the one that got the Joker's face peeled off in the first place.  Snyder never really convincingly explains any of that, but it's okay, because it's the creepy Joker.  Then the Joker becomes all methodical, copying the events of the first time he ever struck Gotham, which becomes a pastiche on how the character operates in Tim Burton's Batman.  And finally we reach the Joker and Batman, and the real story is teased.

Honestly, I have no idea why Snyder had to be so obtuse about it.  Damian mocks the whole thing right from the start.  Maybe that's why Grant Morrison realized he had to go, because he's a barometer.  Unlike how Snyder attempts to present Joker, it's really Damian who cuts every situation down to what it really is.  So it's no wonder that the best "Death of the Family" issue came from Batman and Robin.

It's certainly not this issue.  Definitely not.  I have no idea what Snyder was thinking.  He's not really that bad a writer.  To start a major arc like this, though...When Kyle Higgins started at DC, he was paired with Snyder for the Gates of Gotham mini-series.  But now I'm thinking it's Snyder who needs a co-writer.  There's no great shame in this.  Geoff Johns had co-writers, too.  Snyder had one when American Vampire began (some dude named Stephen King).  He needs someone to help formulate stories better.  He's apparently reached the point where editors can't approach him that way (although the buzz in Negative DC Talk is that all the writers who've abruptly departed the New 52 have done so because of meddling editors), but seriously, reading this issue alone?  Any objective analysis begs for Snyder to get a little help.

That's all he needs really.  He has a lot of good instincts.  He also has a lot of bad ones.  Comics are ripe with this kind of talent.  Ed Brubaker, for example.  Brian Michael Bendis.  Even Mark Waid.  Fans like to lump Morrison in with them, Johns too.  I put Brubaker in with that lot because the best and really only good stuff he did with Captain America involved the Winter Soldier arc.  He got his reward with a whole movie based on that work.  Bendis is an undeniable talent, but he suffers from an acute case of verbal diarrhea that constantly gets in the way of telling real, actual stories (then again, sometimes maybe that's the point).  Waid is his own worst enemy.  He's literally a comics savant, but all his best instincts are usually stymied by his nervous need to rebel.  I don't include Morrison or Johns because it's really a matter of creative differences.  Whereas with Snyder, he can't formulate a story completely.  At a certain point, he just throws out whatever he's got.  He's at a point in his career where most people don't care.  But in the long run, it'll absolutely matter.

And this issue is proof of that.

Batman 101
This compilation is a primer comiXology has that at once serves to provide a checklist for a few noteworthy stories from throughout Batman's publication history, as well as provide previews for all the original New 52 series (plus some vintage covers to round out the set).  As far as the preview pages go, they certainly illuminate the original worth of those series.  Scott Snyder's Batman starts out as promising as most Scott Snyder series.  He's usually good at setting a mood (the above example notwithstanding).  He also helps set the tone for most of the other entries, dominated as they are by caption narration (which as a rule I love in comics).  Tony Daniel's Detective Comics comes off extremely well.  At the time, Tony was more or less being demoted.  After serving as artist during pivotal Grant Morrison issues, he'd become primary writer/artist on Batman.  When the New 52 began, he was shifted to the secondary Batman title.  I'd hoped he'd stick around for a while, but he was one of the earliest disappointments in that regard.  Since being booted from Detective Comics, he's bounced from Superman to Justice League to Superman/Wonder Woman.  I'd prefer the guy have some permanent home.  There's also Peter Tomasi's Batman and Robin, which kicks off a more visual story (which is only fitting, given he's working with ideal collaborator Patrick Gleason).  If these few pages intrigue you, know that there's much more interesting material that follows.  David Finch's Batman: The Dark Knight, a title I never had much faith in, reads about as well as any other in these opening pages.  I guess this one's my bad.  Kyle Higgins' Nightwing doesn't come off as well as it could.  I read a lot of the early issues, and it was pretty good stuff, but here it's surprisingly incoherent.  (Maybe Snyder and Higgins ought to stick together more often?)  Gail Simone's Batgirl might presumably be in the same ballpark as Tomasi's relatively feet-first introduction, but as I have far less faith in Simone than Tomasi, I never found out where she went with it.  Judd Winick's Catwoman is a highlight, but then Winick is far better than most fans care to admit.  Which might explain why his role was so tiny in the New 52, because the stupid fans never admitted as awesome he is.  The only real quibble here is why Catwoman has by default become Sexy Catwoman for the past twenty years.  I mean, I know there was the Jim Balent era in the '90s, but then by default every female character in the '90s was presented that way.  It was more the inexplicable fetish version from the early '00s that decided because she wears latex Catwoman must be Sexy Catwoman, her zipper apparently never able to find the top of her costume (and more often than not, finding it incredibly easy to find the bottom).  Winick is also responsible for the similarly impressive Batwing.  This incredibly long paragraph ends by wondering why the hell J.H. Williams' long-anticipated Batwoman ended up becoming one of the earliest lost titles of the New 52.  Seriously.  Sure, it's still being published (and now written by Manhunter mystic Marc Andreyko), but you'd hardly know it.  What's up with that?  It's enough to make me have to read it myself.  And people, I can't read everything I want to anymore.  I learned the hard way.  But it looks like I'll have to make another exception...

Batman: Black & White - A Black and White World (DC)
From 1996.  This is an excerpt from Batman: Black & White #2, from an innovative anthology series DC recently revived.  "A Black and White World" is written by Neil Gaiman, which pretty much by default makes in the best story featured in today's column.  The story more than earns the distinction, and in classic Gaiman fashion, deconstructing the world of Batman so that he and the Joker are filming their own roles in a movie straight out of a comic book script (or perhaps are simply aware that they are characters in a comic book).  The funny thing is, Grant Morrison has had them participate in similar conversations, so it wouldn't be so much of a stretch to assume that between encounters, Batman really does visit Joker at Arkham Asylum and they talk exactly like this, the Joker especially, just as if it's all a game.  It's enough to wish Gaiman would write more Batman (he also wrote "Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?", a coda to Morrison's "Batman R.I.P." arc), and especially more Joker.  This few pages is more insightful to the dynamic between the two than everything Snyder did in "Death of the Family" (besides my supposition as to his ultimate, as-yet-unrevealed purpose), especially in the above opening issue.  But that's Neil Gaiman for you.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Comics Recap #6: Event Fatigue

This is a follow-up to yesterday's recap post.  When I was on Goodreads to update my status on one of those graphic novels (Fear Itself, maybe) I saw a review where someone was saying they might have liked the book more but they were just so worn down from one event series after another that they were getting numb from the whole thing.  And I could definitely see that, especially since I read a lot of these in close proximity.

When you think about it, you could do these like in the Bible:  And yea Civil War beget Secret Invasion which beget Siege which beget Fear Itself, and so on...

Another part of it is a lot of these feature the same kind of stuff.  In a prior post I talked about event comics overusing parallel universes and time travel.  The ones I mention above don't really feature that.  Instead they rely on the idea of heroes beating up heroes.  Civil War involves a civil war between superheroes with Iron Man on one side and Captain America on another.  In Secret Invasion Skrull shapeshifters take the form of various heroes, which of course leads to in-fighting among the heroes.  In Siege Norman Osborne leads a group of heroes to attack Asgard and is opposed by Captain America and the Avengers.  And in Fear Itself the evil fear god's minions possess the Hulk and Thing and others, who of course have to be opposed by other heroes.  So you see the pattern there?  It's hard to blame anyone who gets sick of that stuff.

Now granted as a writer there are a few things I like to use again and again.  If you ever get the chance to read all my books (which you should do) you can note a couple of plot elements I use over and over again.  Maybe that's only natural for a person to gravitate towards one particular way of doing or seeing things.  But then I'm only one person whereas Marvel has a bunch of different writers, so you think they might not have this much conformity.  But then a lot of that happens in publishing.  If kids like one vampire series, then every publisher will scramble to put out one of their own.  Or they buy up werewolves, mermaids, angels, or whatever they think will be the next big thing.

What they don't think about is as a reader I don't necessarily want the same thing over and over again.  On my entry about reboots, I was saying it would be nice if they did something NEW, to which Tony said but if they did something NEW I'd probably hate it.  Maybe, maybe not.  It depends largely if it's something that makes sense or if it's something dumb, ie ninja butlers.  I'd probably have more respect for you at trying something new than if you just regurgitate the same old thing.

Anyway, in regards to series, sometimes it's good to take a little break from these big events.  One of the things I liked about Star Trek:  Deep Space Nine was that even though they had this involved story about a war with the Dominion, they'd still once or twice a year throw in a funny Quark episode or something.  Which is a good thing because it breaks up the monotony of the main story.  It gives people a chance to catch their breath before they're plunged back into the main story.  In the culinary world you call it "cleansing the palate."  It's a lot easier to do in comics that run monthly (or more frequently) than for instance when you're writing a series of superhero novels because each novel is essentially an event unto itself.

Really I think what the person on Goodreads was complaining about was there wasn't enough time between these events so he felt like he was being launched from one to another like a trapeze artist.  In my own reading it probably would be good to mix things up a bit, maybe switch more between Marvel, DC, or any other ones.  It would seem less monotonous that way.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Comics Recap #5: Odds & Ends Part 1

Generally with the articles I've written for this site so far I've tried to write about comics I recently read that could fit into a wider context.  Then there are some that either don't or I'm just too plain lazy to write about at length.  So here we go with these odds and ends, mostly Marvel comics because they had a bunch on sale for the Kindle.

Joker by Brian Azzarello:  This came out about the time of "The Dark Knight" and features a Joker who is largely the same as the Heath Ledger version.  The story is narrated by a thug named Johnny who slowly becomes disillusioned with the Joker as he accompanies him from one criminal racket to another until of course Batman shows up.  If you like the Heath Ledger version then you'll like this book.  Which I do, so I did.  If you're partial more to Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson then probably not so much.  (4/5)

Captain America in Dimension Z Volume 1 by Rick Remender:  After Ed Brubaker's lengthy run on the title the new team of writers decided to beam Cap into another dimension ruled by the evil Zola and populated with bizarre creatures.  Cap wakes up in a lab and of course escapes, along with a baby, who over ensuing years he raises as his son.  Meanwhile he joins up with a tribe of creatures (they're not really aliens since technically he's the alien here) to try to survive.  It seemed kind of like the Planet Hulk storyline where the Hulk was banished to an alien planet, except instead of falling in love with a hot chick, Cap gets a kid.  I guess you'd have to read Volume 2 to see how he escapes.  I didn't like this all that much.  I mean when you take Captain America and put him in another dimension, what's the point?  I guess you could say the point was to make him a man out of place and time, but really this might have worked better with another hero. (3/5)

Age of X by Mike Carey:  This is another of those parallel universe event comics I so love.  In this case it's a world where mutants have been hunted to the brink of extinction, except for a fortress Magneto creates by mashing together much of New York's tallest buildings.  Basically every day the mutants fight the same battle with human forces.  Most of the familiar mutant heroes like Cyclops and Rogue have different names (Basilisk and Legacy respectively) so it'd probably help if you're familiar with the X-Men comics of the time, which clearly I am not.  About halfway through the secret of this world is revealed...and it doesn't make a lot of sense.  (Spoilers ahead!)  The idea is that Professor X's son Legion has multiple personalities and one has taken over and used his psychic powers to reinvent the world.  But why it would create such a terrible world made no sense to me.  The only reason I could think of is it wanted to create a world where Legion was an important hero and not a freak.  But really it would have made more sense to do like House of M where the mutants were in charge rather than a world where they're being killed, a dream rather than a nightmare.  But what do I know?  Something that annoyed me is at the end it promises another issue of "the Aftermath" but that's not included.  Instead we get two issues of alternate universe Avengers where Captain America is more of a yes-man thug, Iron Man is a zombie, Spider-Woman is a mute assassin, Sue Storm's family has been arrested for harboring mutants, the Hulk can talk and is rabidly anti-mutant for accidentally dousing him with gamma radiation, and Frank Castle (the Punisher) is basically the Nick Fury bossing them around.  The alternate universe Avengers first try to assault Magneto's lair and then have to stop a bomb plot.  It was OK but sort of pointless.  Mostly I think it existed to answer where the other superheroes were during this story.  Each of the two issues includes backup stories that have Spider-Man being hunted even though he's not technically a mutant and Dr. Strange--Mutant Hunter!  That last one has a clever twist.  (3.5/5)

Marvel Universe The End by Jim Starlin:  When some ancient pharoah comes back to take over Earth, the evil Thanos ends up with all the power of the universe.  This doesn't really involve a lot of superheroes, which isn't unexpected when you're talking about infinite god powers.  There's not a lot of action either.  It was kind of fun, even though by now "The End" has been overwritten. (4/5)

The Ultimates Vol. 1 by Mark Millar:  This is like The Avengers if it had been written by the writers of Grey's Anatomy.  The only action is in the fifth of six issues when Banner becomes the Hulk so "the Ultimates" have someone to fight.  Other than Captain America the rest of the team is fairly different than the big screen version.  Banner is a pathetic loser pining after Betty Ross.  Thor is a Nordic hippie.  I'm pretty sure Iron Man was a closet homosexual.  The Pyms take domestic violence to another level.  There are a lot of circa 2002 celebrity references like Shannon Elizabeth and Freddie Prinze Jr who are probably bussing tables or something by now.  The most ironically hilarious is the joke, "He's been smashed more times than Robert Downey Jr."  It would have been better if they had been referring to Tony Stark.  Anyway, if you like a lot of soap opera drama and not a lot of superhero action, then here you go. (3/5)

Ultimate Wolverine vs. Hulk by Damon Lindelof:  This was the miniseries where the Hulk famously rips Wolverine in half.  The series actually plays this down because it doesn't present the battle between Wolverine and the Hulk in chronological order so what should be this huge moment fails to become a dramatic payoff and is instead shown at the beginning where it has far less impact.  But I guess we already used it for the cover, so it didn't much matter.  Also it comes from one of JJ Abrams's stable of writers from Lost, who also wrote the fairly dumb Prometheus, so you can't expect too much.  Anyway, this was talkier than I expected, with much less fighting than you'd probably expect.  In the end it's about Wolverine and the Hulk coming to have grudging respect for each other or something.  Wolverine's healing powers are taken to absurd extremes to where he can not only be ripped in half but also beheaded at one point and still survive.  I guess that's what makes him "ultimate" eh?  As with any fight between these two it's ultimately (pun intended) pointless. (3/5)

Secret War by Brian Michael Bendis: I remember this story as part of the Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 video game.  Basically Nick Fury goes rogue by using some superheroes to overthrow Latveria, with dire consequences.  There's sort of a deux ex machina in the form of a young SHIELD agent who's barely shown in the first four issues.  (3/5) This helped pave the way for Civil War and then...

Secret Invasion by Brian Michael Bendis:  This kind of reminds me of Deep Space Nine where panic struck Earth once they found out Changelings might be among them.  So then everyone started to get paranoid and worry that everyone they met might be an alien saboteur.  And then one of the Changelings tells Sisko that their are only like 4 of them on the planet and look at all the trouble they caused?  Another example is John Carpenter's version of The Thing, where an alien shapeshifter starts to pick off the humans of an Antarctic outpost.  In this case, the alien shapeshifters are the Skrull, who are vastly different than the mindless minions we saw in the Avengers movie.  The Skrull decide they need a new planet and decide to move to Earth.  They take on the form of various superheroes, which starts everyone wondering who's the real deal and who isn't.  But whereas DS9 used this to thoughtfully contemplate the problem of mass hysteria and John Carpenter used it to induce terror at not knowing who to trust, Bendis uses it as an excuse for heroes to beat each other up.  Again.  Also it's pretty easy for Reed Richards to figure out how to tell who's real and who's not.  But hey it's comics so we shouldn't expect subtlety or difficult answers. (3/5)

Siege by Brian Michael Bendis:  Bendis probably should have looked up the definition of a siege first, because there really isn't a siege at all in this.  A siege is where the enemy surrounds a fortified position to weaken the enemy until they either surrender or become easier prey.  In this case, for whatever reason Asgard has fallen to Midgard and is hovering over a small Oklahoma town.  Norman Osborn and his Avengers team instigate an incident to launch a strike on Asgard.  Which again is not a "siege;" more like a sneak attack or a blitzkrieg.  The real Avengers have to assemble to save Asgard.   (3/5)  And that leads to... 

Fear Itself by Matt Fraction:  While the Avengers are planning to rebuild
Asgard on Earth, Red Skull's daughter finds an old hammer and releases someone called "the serpent" who seeks to destroy the world and Asgard.  Then some other old hammers turn the Hulk and Thing and some villains into gods who go around destroying everything in their path.  Ultimately the focus is on Thor, who is prophecized to kill the serpent.  Since by now all of this has been overwritten it becomes one of those curiosities where you say, "Hey remember when?"  This is also notable for killing Captain America...again.  As far as event comics go it was meh.  (3/5)