Friday, 31 October 2014

Arkham Manor #1 [The New 52] - DC Comics

ARKHAM MANOR No. 1, December 2014
As far as ideas for (yet) another “Batman” title goes, the decision by “DC Comics” to merge two of Gotham City’s most iconic landmark institutions together within a single comic book has got to be one of their most intriguing. Few who have encountered the exploits of the Dark Knight, irrespective of the medium with which they’ve followed him, will not have heard of the Elizabeth Arkham Asylum for the Criminally Insane or the family home of the Caped Crusader himself, Wayne Manor. But the thought of Bruce Wayne’s mansion actually becoming the fictional psychiatric hospital and housing the super-hero’s Rogue Gallery is unthinkable...

Enter author Gerry Duggan, who with this startling first issue, not only portrays a Gotham City devoid of any Arkham Asylum, following the building’s total demise in the events of Issue Thirty of “Batman Eternal”, but consigns Wayne Manor to become its replacement with the stroke of Mayor Hady’s pen. What follows is an insightful look into Batman’s psyche and just how dear to his heart his parent’s home actually is to him. Throw in a couple of mysterious murders at the freshly opened ‘Arkham Manor’ and Bruce Wayne going deep undercover as an inmate himself, and this title has all the hallmarks of being a very gritty, deep dark look into what really makes The Batman tick.

Unfortunately the comic’s interior art has been drawn by Shawn Crystal, who despite producing a compelling piece for the main cover, fails to deliver the goods for the majority of the pages inside. The former “Marvel Comics” “Deadpool” inker and penciler certainly provides the book’s illustrations with a unique look, and one that is not dissimilar to the awkward-looking ‘trademark’ style of popular “The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen” artist Kevin O’Neill. But that simply makes it quite hard to differentiate between some of the main characters within the storyline, including Bruce Wayne.

Worse, the Americana rtist seems perfectly capable of drawing some very nice looking well-proportioned scenery around his figures, which makes his characters’ elongated limbs, square-looking edges and rectangular heads look all the more bizarre and amateurish. Although his depiction of a somewhat dishevelled Dark Knight is actually rather good and fits in well with the storyline's eerie atmosphere; even if the inconsistent grizzled look of Batman’s chin, one panel slightly whiskery and the next sporting a full beard, is somewhat disconcerting.
The variant cover art of "ARKHAM MANOR" No. 1 by Eric Canete

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Rogue Trooper Classics #1 - IDW Publishing

Created by Gerry Finley-Day and Dave Gibbons back in 1981 for the British science fiction comic “2000 A.D.” the adventures of the Genetic Infantryman called Rogue have been repeatedly reprinted over the decades. As a result the decision by “IDW Publishing” to just recolour the old issues and simply republish them seems a rather controversial one for the American comic book publisher to have made. Although considering the company also decided to print a new "Rogue Trooper" title depicting fresh original adventures simultaneously perhaps makes it a more understandable choice. Regardless it is perhaps not unsurprising that what started out as a planned twelve-issue limited series was curtailed to only eight issues, following “lower-than-expected-sales.”

However there is still a lot to be gleaned from Issue One of “Rogue Trooper Classics”. It certainly isn't just a simple alternative source of these stories than Volume One of “Rebellion Developments” “Tales of Nu-Earth”. To begin with this edition has been published with two rather nice alternative covers, including a new illustration of the sole survivor of the Quartz Zone Massacre by artist John McCrea and colorist Andrew Elder. However the subscription cover, a colourful micro-version of Dave Gibbon’s cover art to Programme 228 of “2000 A.D.” is especially eye-catching and as such probably the better of the two when it comes to attracting potential collectors of the series.

Indeed it is probably the actual colouring of the old black and white comic strips which makes this periodical such a worthwhile purchase. Admittedly at times Adrian Salmon’s choice of colour tone is rather dark and heavy-handed, but it is great to see Gibbons’ excellent pencils resplendent in blues, reds, browns and greens. For once you can really see the swirling soup of Nu-Earth’s poisonous atmosphere and the seemingly perpetual claustrophobic inkiness which surrounds the action. In addition the sheer quality of the printing on thick paper really makes the illustrations ‘pop from the page’ and a joy to behold. 

Unfortunately the arrangement of each page is a major disappointment as a result of the original panels being quite significantly reduced in size in order to better fit within the smaller American comic book format. As the drawings have been proportionally de-scaled it essentially means that a quarter of every page is just blank space and although “IDW Publishing” have utilised much of it to display a greyed-out ‘Rogue Trooper Classics’ banner, it still distinctly gives an amateurish feel to the comic book’s composition.
The regular cover art of "ROGUE TROOPER CLASSICS" No. 1 by John McCrea and Andrew Elder

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Savage Hulk #3 - Marvel Comics

SAVAGE HULK No. 3, October 2014
Presumably on paper the plot to Issue Three of “Savage Hulk” seemed like a reasonably good idea. Take one of the Marvel Universe’s most popular and powerful telekinetic super-heroines and imbue her with the near limitless strength of one of the comic book industry’s strongest anti-heroes. Certainly such a staggeringly formidable combination of super-powers within one individual provides writer and penciller Alan Davis with the opportunity to illustrate a ‘hulked up’ Marvel Girl towering over a defeated (original) X-Men for the edition’s front cover.

Unfortunately though, once the English author actually starts to explore the creation of such a “jade giantess” and begins to move his storyline forward things frankly start to get very silly and extremely confusing rather quickly. Indeed by the end of this comic book, having lost my way on several occasions with the numerous and seemingly random plot twists and turns, it came as a massive relief that the entire twenty pages are actually nothing more than ‘just a dream’. The entire concept being a simple ploy by The Leader to distract Professor Xavier whilst his robot army ambushes and defeats the X-Men.

In fact, if a regular reader of this title was on an especially tight financial budget, I strongly doubt their enjoyment of entire “The Man Within” story-arc would be in any way impinged if they gave this third and penultimate instalment a miss entirely.

Unfortunately Davis’ artwork for this edition is almost just as much of a mess as the plot, and seems almost rushed as his figures’ facial features appear slightly distorted from the norm. Now this could be due to the artist wanting to hint at the ‘dreamscape’ nature of the adventure, or emphasise the mutant super-heroes strange almost bestial aggressiveness towards their mentor when Jean Grey takes command of the team. But that seems doubtful.

"The ClanDestine" creator's design for the new-look Marvel Girl is also sadly disappointing though arguably fitting bearing in mind the story is attempting to emulate the sexist Late Sixties and Early Seventies. Relieving Lorna Dane of her headgear, as Polaris coos “My headdress looks so much better on you”, Marvel Girl transforms her costume into a bizarre bikini-like assemble with leggings. A move which clearly meets the approval of her eager male team-mates who whoop “Hhhot… with a capital sizzle!” and “I’ve always had a thing for tall women.”

The English artist does however still manage to impress with a series of panels towards the back of the book, which depicts a ‘Professor Hulk’ battling a horde of Marvel characters; both friend and foe. The Rhino, Sandman, Absorbing Man, Abomination, Sub-Mariner and even the Silver Surfer all make brief appearances as a result. But the ‘battle in Bruce Banner’s mind’ is a fleeting one and is quickly replaced by (even) more pages of “supercharged” and “wildly escalating…” explanatory dialogue.
Writer & Penciler: Alan Davis, Inker: Mark Farmer and Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth

Monday, 27 October 2014

Rocket Racoon #4 - Marvel Comics

ROCKET RACCOON No. 4, December 2014
Issue 4 of “Rocket Raccoon” surely comes with some of the strangest variant covers “Marvel Worldwide Incorporated” has ever published. For none of them encapsulate the raw energy of the concluding action to Skottie Young’s “A Chasing Tale” and only one of the three illustrations actually portrays the title character. Indeed if you didn’t know what you were looking for then the Hasbro variant cover by Alex Kropinak, complete with action figure photographs, would have you firmly believing you held an issue of “Captain America” in your hands. Whilst the retailer incentive Deadpool 75th Anniversary cover by Kalman Andrasofszky, which depicts a wonderful homage to “Tales To Astonish” issue 13, would easily fool you into thinking that Groot was the star of the show; something particularly difficult to achieve considering that the Monarch of Planet X is blown to pieces on page three.

However, having read the first quarter of this edition, anyone purchasing the ‘Stomp Out Bullying’ variant by Pascal Campion, which shows an uninspiring illustration of Rocket and Groot chatting over lunch in a school canteen, will probably think they’ve picked the cover most representative of the comic book’s contents – as its easily the wordiest and talkiest I’ve seen writer and artist Skottie Young be. Obviously there had to be some build-up for the big reveal as to who was behind Rocket’s framing for murder, but six pages worth… and then it turns out to be “… just a rabbit.”

Fortunately the inclusion of Blackjack O’Hare, first seen in issue 271 (1982) of “Incredible Hulk”, really sparks this comic back to life as laser beams fizz, fists crack and the fur really flies. Throw in the mightily miffed Amalya, and a horde of Rocket’s other ex-girlfriends, and it is panel after panel of endless fisticuffs. All of which are zanily illustrated by Young and his unique and cartoony drawings. Indeed this has to be one of the best ‘punch-ups’ seen in a comic book, with combatants exchanging everything from double-punches and ear-jabs to ‘lite’ pokes as they literally beat one another unconscious.

Surprisingly though this fun story does end with a real sting in its tail, and one that swiftly wiped the smile from my face as I guffawed at the sheer comical carnage taking place. There’s a genuine sensitive side to the wise-cracking raccoon not often seen and Young’s portrayal of a sad lonely tearful Rocket, upset at the fact that it now appears certain he is the only one of his kind is a poignant conclusion. At least until the very last few panels that is…
Numerous variant covers to "ROCKET RACCOON" Issue 4 by Pascal Campion, Kalman Andrasofszky and Alex Kropinak

Sunday, 26 October 2014

Tomb Of Dracula #9 - Marvel Comics

TOMB OF DRACULA No. 9, June 1973
If vampires actually existed and had nightmares then it would be easy to imagine that the Lord of the Damned’s precarious situation during the first few pages of Issue Nine of “Tomb of Dracula” would be at the top of their list. For this “midnight excursion” by Marv Wolfman places a semi-conscious recuperating supervillain in the enclosed back room of a church with little in the way of fixtures except a large “cursed crucifix!” Unsurprisingly Dracula is far from happy with this particular turn in his undead fortunes. However he is unable to exact any kind of lasting revenge upon the citizens of Littlepool for the entirety of the book due to the ill effects from having previously been struck by a poisoned dart.

Indeed The Lord of all the Undead has seldom been seen in such a poor weakened condition and the Brooklyn-born comic book writer takes full advantage of this unusual state of affairs in “Death From The Sea!” No longer able to simply fly to safety or rely upon his great inhuman strength and savagery, Dracula instead has to use his wits and cunning to buy himself sufficient time to identify a hapless victim and regain his potency. As a result the 1973 Shazam Award-winner places the blood-drinker in the amusingly absurd situation of first being offered a room for the night in a church and then in the uncomfortable position where he must calm the concerns of the local townsfolk by recounting to them the adventure which led him to their minster’s doorstep.

This three-page flashback sequence is very well written with the Lord of the Damned explaining away his ghoulish attacks upon innocent travellers by referring to them as operations and blood transfusions. To the people of Littlepool this clearly comes across as a reasonable tale of ill-luck by a stranger in poor health. But to the reader, who has seen the true tale of Dracula’s exploits via the illustrations of Gene Colan, it is clear that the Lord of Vampires is at his manipulative best.

Unfortunately the Will Eisner Comic Book Hall of Famer is not quite on top of his game throughout these twenty pages with the majority of his pencil work appearing workmanlike at best. There’s a definite lack of detail to many of the panels’ characters and a rather simplistic, almost rushed feel to the artwork. Certainly the illustrations lack the signature-style of fluid figure drawing and extensive use of shadows for which the Silver Age comic book artist is best known for.

However much of this criticism may actually be down to inker Vince Colletta, who despite being one of Jack “King” Kirby’s frequent collaborators during the Fifties and Sixties, does not seem to have had such a positive influence upon Colan’s work as the title’s regular contributor Tom Palmer did. Indeed the Italian inker was replaced by Jack Abel in the following issue after publisher Stan Lee felt he had taken unacceptable shortcuts on the inking. Later Colan himself would go on record as saying that Coletta "didn't take his time with my stuff."
Story: Marv Wolfman, Art: Gene Colan, and Inking: Vince Colletta

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Superman #35 [The New 52] - DC Comics

SUPERMAN No. 35, December 2014
Completest collectors of Issue 35 of “Superman” must have found themselves leaving their local comic store with a serious stash of books under their arm, as “DC Comics” have decided to publish a number of alternative covers for this particular edition. None of ‘The New 52’ illustrations are particularly eye-catching or well-drawn but at least the Monsters of the Month variant by Jason Pearson ties into the company’s seasonal re-imagining of their characters as Halloween creatures. Though I am rather uncertain as to why the American comic book artist has decided to portray the Man of Steel as a Cenobite. 

Chapter Four of “The Men of Tomorrow” will also be one of any comic book collector’s swiftest reads, as writer Geoff Johns’ word count drops sharply for large portion of this issue. Indeed eight of the twenty-three pages within the comic contain six or less words and that is not including a series of panel sequences dotted throughout the storyline where the Chief Creative Officer at DC Comics plumbs for just the occasional spattering of dialogue. 

As a result vast swathes of the action could be both easily and quickly overlooked by an impatient casual reader with such an act being both unsurprising and forgivable given the somewhat lacklustre artwork of John Romita Junior. Workmanlike and competent, there isn’t anything especially wrong with the American artist’s illustrations as such. In fact coupled with the rather splendid colouring of Laura Martin the book’s panels are rather pleasing to the eye.

But an edition with so little within it to actually read, with the exception of a somewhat wordy opening and ending, must rely upon the quality and detail of its artwork to enthral and captivate. Unfortunately any such scrutiny by the reader of Romita Junior’s drawing will do nothing but alienate the audience as square-nosed, outrageously long-limbed and one-dimensional silhouette-like figures abound. 

However not all is lost for the son of one of the foremost Spider-Man artists since the Sixties. A proportion of the action takes place during a torrential downpour, and this lashing weather really works in Romita Junior’s favour, affording the artist plenty of opportunities to produce his infamous line hatchings. Of particular note is his double-page spread of Superman and Ulysses lifting an enormous cargo vessel out of the ocean, with water pouring over the two super-strong heroes.

Sadly, despite a clear Jack “King” Kirby ‘Galactus’ influence, the artist’s final double-page illustration, depicting Ulysses opening a space rift to his “better world” is less than impressive and ends the issue on something of a wasted opportunity.
Numerous covers to "SUPERMAN" Issue 35 by John Romita Junior and Mike McKone

Thursday, 23 October 2014

Judge Dredd The Early Years #2 - Eagle Comics

There is little doubt that British illustrator Ron Turner could produce some simply stunning drawings, as his artwork on the “The Daleks” serial for the weekly comic “TV Century 21” attests. But the cover to Issue Two” of “Judge Dredd The Early Years”, depicting two giant Heavy Metal Kid industrial robots fighting one another, is a competent piece of work at best. Indeed one could almost be uncharitable and suggest that it is easy to see why the comic book artist abandoned doing cover illustrations in the mid-1960’s and turned to producing ‘paint-by-number’ paintings instead. However this would be mightily unfair as the illustration would actually appear to be a ‘blow up’ of a far smaller picture, minus the kneeling judges, found within the issue. This therefore seems an odd choice of cover art by the publishing company, as there are far larger and frankly, better penciled, drawings spread throughout the book’s pages.

The story choices for this anthology would also appear to be a little bizarre, although all are written by Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner; albeit “Death Hotel” is credited to one of his pseudonyms Robert Flynn. The conclusion of the multi-issue ‘event’ ‘The Robot Wars’ is an obvious inclusion but following on from its epilogue are arguably three of the Mega-City One lawman’s least memorable early adventures. Admittedly “Dreams That Money Can buy”, “The Wreath-Killer” and “Death Hotel” are all taken from 1977 issues of the British science fiction comic book “2000 A.D.” but none of them pre-date Call-Me-Kenneth’s robot revolution and none are even printed in chronological order.

So where are the very earliest adventures of Judge Joe Dredd? Why is his first ever story, fighting the judge killer Whitey, not included in a collection of republished early stories? 

Admittedly this edition does include some interesting examples of 'primitive' Judge Dredd artwork, with Mike McMahon’s ‘goldfish bowl’ shaped judge’s helmet clearly taken as ‘gospel’ by fellow artists Ron Turner and Ian Gibson. But surely this book would be a great opportunity to show case Massimo Belardinelli’s interpretation of the future lawman, complete with the (censored) revealing of Dredd’s face, or possibly the excellent pencil work shown in “Krong” by co-creator Carlos Ezquerra? Devoted followers might even hanker for the early work of John Cooper, whose five–page treatment of ‘Muggers Moon’, despite not being published in “2000 A.D” until issue 19, was actually the first Judge Dredd story commissioned.
"JUDGE DREDD THE EARLY YEARS" No. 2 reprints stories from "2000 A.D." issues 15-17, 24, 26 & 32

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

G.I. Zombie #1 [The New 52] - DC Comics

G.I. ZOMBIE No. 1, September 2014 
If ever there was a genuine case of hoping a comic book title was going to be ‘third time lucky’ it must surely be “DC Comics” agreeing to print “G.I. Zombie” as an ongoing series. For ‘the soldier hungry for war… and some brains too’ would never have seen the light of day if the American comic book publisher had not first cancelled “The Unknown Soldier” in May 2010 and then it’s re-imagining, ‘The New 52’ title “G.I. Combat” in December 2012. Perhaps even more miraculous however is that the company have also given the reins entirely over to Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray; the back-up feature co-writers on the most recent series during its seven-issue run.

Fortunately there are a fair few differences between the contents of this title and its immediate predecessor. To begin with, despite the fact the comic carries the “Star-Spangled War Stories” logo on its cover, the horror/war story inside focuses solely upon the exploits of Sergeant Jared Kabe and his new partner. There’s none of the rotating cast and jockeying of creative teams which readers experienced when the title’s forerunner tried to depict the exploits of “The War That Time Forgot”, “The Unknown Soldier” and “The Haunted Tank” all within a single edition. G.I. Zombie is also an entirely new character, with a very fresh supporting cast and plenty of questions to be resolved by writers in future issues.

As a result this first issue doesn’t play out like a simple rehash of a past Unknown Soldier story. It is very different in content. Very different indeed and worthy of the Rated T+ warning on the front cover as the title character is literally tortured to death; well as dead as a living animated corpse can get anyway. Lastly this book is not about some super-heroic soldier simply rushing from one battlefield to another, wreaking havoc upon the enemy and implausibly turning the tide of the fight against all the odds. “G.I. Zombie” is all about fighting the enemy within, the subversive homeland terrorist, and the undercover lengths some modern day soldiers and secret agents need to resort to in order to keep their comrades and the larger national population safe.

Sadly the artwork of Scott Hampton is not good. Not good at all, especially when compared to the atmospheric main cover art by Canadian cartoonist Darwyn Cooke. The pale, single-tone colouring, also by Hampton, does not help matters either, as combined they make each drawing appear featureless, bland and (no pun intended) lifeless. There’s a real lack of detail to the penciling, with each figure simply being drawn with a striking black silhouette but no actual detail except for eyes, nose and mouth. Very lacklustre, very bare and disappointingly very unimpressive.
The variant cover art of "G.I. ZOMBIE" No. 1 by Howard Porter

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The Thing #4 - Marvel Comics

THE THING No. 4, April 2006
Every now and then writers seem to think it would be a good idea to produce a storyline based upon the everyday exploits of super-heroes; a kind of ‘behind-the-scenes’ exposé on the ordinary lives of extraordinary people if you will. Issue Four of “The Thing” is one such attempt by Dan Slott, but rather than show us a simple ‘day in the life of Ben Grimm’, the American comic book writer also throws in some of the daily doings of his Fantastic Four team-mates as well as the Inhuman teleporter Lockjaw.

This inevitably results in the reader catching sight of a marital argument between Sue and Reed Richards and the sexual aspirations of Johnny Storm. Unfortunately this means there is nothing new here at all, and these ‘insightful everyday situations’ which gave so much character to Marvel’s foremost super-hero family during the time of Stan Lee and Jack “King” Kirby, have long since worn out their welcome. The treatment of the Human Torch’s character is particularly cringe-worthy, with Hothead displaying a staggering amount of immaturity as he spends the entire issue feverishly trying to reconstruct a female celebrity’s telephone number from a burnt piece of paper.

Fortunately the inclusion of Lockjaw, escort to the Royal Family of the Inhumans, does breathe some freshness into the proceedings. There’s some great scenes set within the City of Attilan depicting Karnak, Gorgon, Triton, Medusa and Black Bolt ‘at rest’, as well as some action towards the end of the book which demonstrates just how formidable an opponent the alien bulldog-like being actually is.

Even so, the sheer banality of this comic book’s main storyline would cause this issue to become a particularly unmemorable edition if not for the superb artwork by Andrea Divito. The Italian comic book artist brings some stunning expressions to the face of the Inhuman with his “Hmph!” at an unhelpful Watcher being a particular ‘laugh-out-loud’ illustration. The beast’s sudden awakening of Triton, who moments before had been sound asleep within his water tank, is also drawn with great mirth.

As a result “Paws & Fast-Forward” is a fun readable experience with a slightly sickly sweet final message about money not necessarily buying happiness. And whilst there is perhaps one too many drawings of Lockjaw going “Hurr Hurh Huhh” whilst energetically humping Ben Grimm’s leg, there’s plenty of visual treats stored within the pages for the reader to enjoy.
Writer: Dan Slott, Penciler: Andrea Divito and Inker: Laura Villari

Monday, 20 October 2014

The Flash #3 [The New 52] - DC Comics

THE FLASH No. 3, January 2012
Midway down the second page of Issue Three of “The Flash” is the line “I didn’t get a manual with my powers.” But if this comic book’s opening is anything it is a reader’s guide to the formidable super-powers of Barry Allen’s Scarlet Speedster; at least as far as the creative writing team of Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellatop are concerned. And what a wish-list of extraordinary abilities it is too.

The Flash is fast, so fast in fact that he can run on water without sinking, he can create and direct vortexes using his hands, and he has the ability to vibrate through solid objects. He can also make other objects similarly oscillate in order for them too to pass through dense matter, and actually demonstrates this incredible power by shaking a large airliner so fast it safely passes straight through a motorway bridge and comes to a shuddering halt alongside Central City docks. Oh… he can go invisible as well apparently. Clearly he’s learnt a few extra tricks since ‘The New 52’ started…

Unfortunately for this issue however Filipino-Canadian artist Manapaul  hasn’t. The (already overly expensive) variant cover by Jim Lee, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair is a beautiful illustration containing both a cracking drawing of The Flash and some gorgeously vibrant colouring. Manapul’s version pales in comparison, with a muted purple and white theme which simply makes the drawing appear half-hearted and unfinished.

His interior artwork is equally as lacklustre and uninspiring, though Buccellato should take some of the responsibility for the depressingly drab colour choices. I’m also unconvinced by some of the pair’s decisions regarding the arrangement of the panels on various pages. The multiple windows within a single page showing Allen’s brain tapping into the Speedforce has been seen before, and much more convincingly too.

But apart from showing how clever they are, I can’t work out the reasoning behind the first page’s airliner shaped montage comprising of an ‘over the shoulder’ view of the plane’s cockpit as it crashes towards the freeway bridge. Especially when the entire drawing is partially buried as a result of the title “Flash” being emblazoned down the illustration’s length in a rather rude choice of orange. The ghastly font used to spell out "DC Comics proudly presents..." makes the entire page appear amateurish at best.
The variant cover art of "THE FLASH" No. 3 by Jim Lee, Scott Williams and Alex Sinclair

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Batman: Battle For The Cowl #1 - DC Comics

Batman is no more... and this time Bruce Wayne hasn’t just had his back broken by Bane. The man is actually dead, having been killed by Darkseid during the “DC Comics” event “Final Crisis”… or rather he’s dead for the duration of this three-issue aftermath mini-series anyway.

Dick Grayson, heir apparent to the Mantle of the Bat doesn’t want it, and that’s probably just as well seeing as he’s soundly bested in the sparring ring by his elderly butler, Alfred Pennyworth, midway through this issue. Tim Drake, the third and arguably best Boy Wonder, is simply too young to become the Dark Knight, and Bruce’s son, Damian Wayne, well he’s just a psychopathic brat.

However all is not lost, despite the mass riots and rise in crime in Gotham City, as a mysterious individual has decided to don the cape and cowl for themselves instead. Throw in the largest Rogue’s Gallery this side of the Joker, as well as more Bat-allies than you can throw a handful of bat-a-rangs at, and you’ve got a seriously action-packed thrill-ride of a storyline.

Unfortunately writer Tony S. Daniel’s artwork isn’t quite up to task of depicting all this excitement, and it’s clear the American comic book author and artist should probably have stuck to just coming up with the dialogue and plot for this mini-series. That isn’t to say his illustrations, nicely inked by Sandu Florea and colored by Ian Hannin aren’t competent. They’re just infuriatingly inconsistent. Daniel’s depiction of Robin and Squire chasing after three clown-masked criminals through a ruined building is superbly penciled, with plenty of detail and shadows providing some excellent atmosphere. But this is then followed by a series of panels showing Batman’s Network in action, where characters such as Nightwing, Batwoman and Batwing appear to have been hastily pulled straight out of an aspiring artist’s sketchbook; they’re all straight lines, inanimate and seemingly lifeless.

Things get worse towards the end of the book as Nightwing and Damian Wayne are literally blown out of the sky and into another derelict building. Long-limbed is an understatement as the artist struggles to illustrate the gliding duo both being shelled mid-flight and then staggering away from a team of masked gunmen without them anatomically resembling spider monkeys.

Fortunately the final full-page panel of the ‘new’ Batman, crashing in upon the armed criminals, pistols discharging shell after shell is very well drawn and definitely ends the first issue of “Batman: Battle For The Cowl” on a high note.
The Main Cover for "BATMAN: BATTLE FOR THE COWL" No. 1 by artist Tony Daniel

Saturday, 18 October 2014

Howard The Duck #2 - Marvel Comics

HOWARD THE DUCK No.2, March 1976
As far as comic book villains go Turnip-Man is probably one of the least known or well-remembered characters created by “Marvel Comics Group”. Indeed unless you happen to be a fan of the publisher’s Seventies title “Howard The Duck” it is strongly doubtful that you’ll ever have heard of him.

However, in many ways he is probably only second to Doctor Bong in my memory of this particular period of the Bronze Age of comic books… and most of this is actually due solely to the striking Frank Brunner cover depicting “The Deadly Space Turnip” trying to fry the anthropomorphic duck with his eye laser beams. You see for many years this piece of cover art was my earliest and thus proudest edition of Steve Gerber’s creation and therefore took pride of place displayed upon one of my bedroom shelves.

Unfortunately the storyline to “Cry Turnip!” is not as good as Brunner’s illustration, and after a strong start, depicting the demise of Killmallard the Warrior (also known as a Howard the Duck nightmare), the plot rather fizzles out until a final frantic confrontation between Phelch, the aggressive space vegetable, and the former inhabitant of Duckworld.

Admittedly as the alter-ego of Turnip-Man, Arthur Winslow, is supposedly a parody of “Jungle Action” writer Don McGregor then there are probably a fair few in jokes at the American author’s expense which those not 'in the know' simply can’t identify with. It is clear however that “Killmallard” is a jab at the comic book title “Killraven”; a series detailing the exploits of a freedom fighter in an alternate post-apocalyptic future, which McGregor was writing at the time this periodical was published.

Issue Two of “Howard The Duck” does though contain some stunning artwork by Frank Brunner, well inked by Steve Leialoha and coloured by Michelle Wolfman. The battle against the dreaded Muurks and their Septopod during the opening few pages are as dramatically drawn as you can get considering it involves a duck with a ray-gun zapping away at double-headed extraterrestrials.

There’s also plenty of Howard’s scowls, grimaces and predilection for violence as the feathered fowl smart-mouths his way through a transit bus journey from hell. Even the ludicrous Turnip-Man and his purple and green costume is well-designed by Brunner despite it originating from an edible plant. Whilst for those readers with a penchant for bird-watching there's more than a page's worth of panels depicting Howard as naked as the day he was hatched.
Writer: Steve Gerber, Illustrations: Frank Brunner and Inker: Steve Leialoha

Friday, 17 October 2014

Kings Watch #5 - Dynamite Entertainment

KINGS WATCH No. 5, January 2014
Spookily I only purchased this edition with the “exclusive subscription cover” by Ramon K. Perez because it was simply cheaper than the infinitely superior Marc Laming and Adam Street main cover. However what it lacks in dynamism it more than makes up for in solemnity, and therefore seems a far more fitting illustration to open the grim conclusion of this five-issue mini-series.

Writer Jeff Parker somewhat eases off the gas with this final chapter of his ‘Mongo invades the Earth’ storyline, but there’s a genuine reason as to why the action is not as grand-in-scale as its predecessor. It’s because it allows the Oregon-based author to instead concentrate on the character of The Phantom, and provide an abbreviated history as to how the role’s modern-day incumbent came to wear the mask. These scenes between ‘The Man Who Cannot Die” and Lothar become extremely poignant later on, and worth re-reading as a result, because Parker kills The Phantom off in a final noble sacrifice at the conclusion of Mandrake’s confrontation with The Cobra… and the Magician’s crime-fighting friend then dons the mask himself (presumably as the twenty-second Phantom).

Indeed although much of this issue is about endings, such as the death of The Cobra and an end to Ming’s invasion plans following the demise of his amphibian army, it is also about establishing new beginnings. Flash Gordon, Dale and Zarkov fly through the Earth’s gateway in order to ensure it’s ‘permanently closed’ and thus begin their adventures on Mongo thwarting the machinations of the Emperor Ming. Whilst Mandrake, having recovered from Cobra’s venom ring, appears to establish a new triumvirate to defend the Earth with himself, Karma and The (new) Phantom. Even The Cobra has a successor to take his place as the head of the secret cult in Mandrake's (estranged) wife, Narda.

All of these events are competently illustrated by artist Marc Laming and colorist Jordan Boyd, with a full-page panel showing The Phantom killing a “Little Shop of Horrors” Audrey II wannabe with a bazooka, and Lothar turning the five-hundred year-old pages of the first Phantom’s journal being particular highlights.

Sadly the only real negative to the proceedings is the creative team’s depiction of The Phantom’s demise. The pencil work of Laming is strong enough but whereas The Cobra is shown colourfully burning alive, ‘The Ghost Who Walks’ is illustrated on his knees with little to no colour being used in order to portray a blindingly white energy effect. Personally this makes the artwork of the large panel simply appear unfinished…
The regular cover art of "KINGS WATCH" No. 5 by Marc Laming and Adam Street

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Savage Hulk #2 - Marvel Comics

SAVAGE HULK No. 2, September 2014
One of my favourite super-villains, Stan Lee’s Abomination is one of the few characters I’ll actually purchase a comic book solely for; providing the artwork inside is reasonably competent anyway. However I’ve always felt Emil Blonsky’s alter ego has had something of a hard time establishing himself as an opponent worthy of rivalling the Hulk in strength and power. Fortunately Alan Davis’ superb cover to Issue Two of “Savage Hulk”, which depicts the large scaly humanoid seriously giving his arch-foe a good straight left to the chin, encapsulates all the raw aggression and sheer ferocity which once saw the human mutate attain the rank of 54th Greatest Comic Book Villain of All Time by Imagine Games Network.

Indeed under the pen and pencil of the English writer/artist I have not see a more powerful interpretation of the former KGB agent as he additionally battles the original X-Men and swiftly brings both Marvel Girl and the Angel to their knees. As Blonsky states himself this is “no dumb brute” the Hulk faces, but a behemoth who is not only bigger and stronger than Bruce Banner’s gamma-bomb induced form but one which is more intelligent too. As a result Davis gets to draw some simply superb slug-fest moments as the Abomination clearly tries to finish what he starts on the comic book’s front cover. Readers will rarely have seen the Hulk take such an almighty beating as the Russian smashes boulder after boulder into him; all accompanied by the obligatory “Fram” and Throom” sound effects.

In many ways this is real old school Marvel storytelling stuff, back to the heyday of Stan “The Man” and “King” Kirby, as the green giants go toe-to-toe, panel after panel, punch after punch, page after page. However such is the detail and impact of Alan Davis’ masterful artwork, gorgeously green thanks to the wonderful labours of colorist Matt Hollingsworth, that the relentless action doesn’t get monotonous for a moment.

There’s also some nice touches going on in the background, with the likes of Cyclops and Iceman realising they’ve been reduced to second-stringers by the two powerhouses before them, and simply concerning themselves with their own preservation.

The cowardly Major Talbot also ‘enjoys’ a supporting cast guest appearance as he begrudgingly orders his infantry and tanks forward to face the duelling combatants. Fortunately the soldier is saved by being able to arrest an unconscious Abomination, who, having inevitably goaded the Hulk once too often, finds himself soundly defeated.
Writer & Penciler: Alan Davis, Inker: Mark Farmer and Colorist: Matt Hollingsworth

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

All-New Invaders #1 - Marvel Comics

ALL-NEW INVADERS No.1, March 2014
As something of a devoted fan of the late Seventies “Marvel Comics Group” title “The Invaders” this was really something of a ‘must-buy’ comic book as it advertised the return of the original roster as created by Roy Thomas and Sal Buscema. Admittedly however the cover by Mukesh Singh is not the most enticing of illustrations as it depicts a painfully grim-faced Captain America, an unnervingly smiley Sub-Mariner and a grotesquely distorted Human Torch.
Fortunately British comic book artist Steve Pugh provides the artwork for the interior of the issue and very nice it is too. There’s a real sharp clean look to his pencils which works especially well with his drawing of the Human Torch and the somewhat oversized Kree Amazonian, Tanalth the Purser. However it is most definitely his ‘flash back’ panels showing the Invaders tackling Baron Wolfgang von Strucker and Hela, Norse Goddess of Death, during the Second World War which really provide a visual treat. Ably assisted by the subtly muted colouring of GURU-eFX.
Besides being well-drawn, Issue One of the “All-New Invaders” is also very well written, with James Robinson telling the story through the eyes (and mind) of Jim Hammond, the original Human Torch. Indeed such is the intimacy that one shares with the world’s first synthetic human, as he walks through the quiet town of Blaketon, eating pie and sipping coffee, that the interruption to his meanderings by a sudden Kree attack is all the more rude and impactive. I certainly found myself being quietly content simply reading about the mechanic going for a spot of lunch and enjoying Pugh’s detailed artwork.
Obviously such an idyllic lifestyle was never going to exist for long but the British writer really produces a shock moment with the appearance of Tanalth and the slaughter of Hammond’s garage-owning boss. It is really very easy to take an immediate dislike to the over-muscled Kree warrior, and Robinson makes it easier still by giving her an atrociously over confident and overbearing personality. In fact I can’t recall disliking a villain so quickly and so intensely, and became surprisingly desperate to see the Human Torch give Tanalth the beating her hubris so clearly deserved.
Equally I’ve not felt that a super-hero needed to get such a dramatic and final come-uppance as Major Liberty does when he feels the withering fatal touch of Hela. So much for the arrogance and excessive pride of a former history teacher who can summon up the ghosts of past American patriots.

Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Rocket Racoon #3 - Marvel Comics

ROCKET RACCOON No. 3, November 2014
Leaping straight into the action of a large space battle Issue three of “Rocket Raccoon” would appear to have attempted to cram in as many explosions, missiles and bullets as any reader could imagine in its opening few pages. This chaotic carnage is dynamically illustrated by artist (and writer) Skottie Young, and wonderfully coloured by Jean-Francois Beaulieu.
Indeed the American comic book artist really produces the goods with some ‘laugh out loud’ moments, such as Rocket going ‘splat’ into his ex-girlfriend’s spaceship, a huge missile with the effigy ‘Die Rocket’ scrawled on it, and the guppy warp being especially well drawn.
However this isn’t a virtuoso performance by the 2013 Inkwell Award winner, as the flow of the action in this opening third of the issue doesn’t always work; certainly I was momentarily confused when in one panel Rocket was ‘stuck’ to the exterior of the bridge to Amalya’s spacecraft and then the next sat safely inside the flying car of Macho Gomez, alongside Groot.
There are also a couple of double-page sequences in this issue which contain little to no dialogue. Such storytelling techniques can really captivate a reader if there’s plenty going on inside the panels artistically. Unfortunately this certainly isn’t the case for Young’s illustrations depicting the end result of the guppy warp as it simply shows the large bloated space-fish spit out Macho’s car and then ‘flump’ to the ground beside the now crashed vehicle.
There’s also an awful lot of words to read in the final third of the comic, almost as if Scottie Young was making up for its earlier absence. As a result the confrontation and subsequent conversation between Rocket and intergalactic bad guy Funtzel is actually rather hard-going, and contains none of the humorous one-liners the writer’s earlier work contains.
The book does though end on a particular artistic high note, with Young drawing one of the best ‘totally dark and blacked out’ gun fight sequences I’ve seen. The pencil work of which is once again extremely well coloured by Beaulieu, with lots of dark blues for the shadows but bright yellows for when the bullets start flying.

Monday, 13 October 2014

G.I. Zombie: Futures End #1 - DC Comics

G.I. ZOMBIE: FUTURES END No. 1, November 2014
I am not very familiar with “DC Comics” Fifties book title “Star-Spangled War Stories” but do know that it ran for over two-hundred issues until the late Seventies when it was renamed “The Unknown Soldier”. I also own the 2008 twelve-issue limited series “The War That Time Forgot” which was a re-launch of one of its most popular regular features.
None of this information is especially relevant to “G.I. Zombie” however, as Sergeant Jared Kabe is actually a completely new character to the DC Comics Universe. It’s just that this new horror/war series has the iconic “Star-Spangled War Stories” banner bolted atop its title. Indeed I’d be entirely oblivious to the modern-day undead soldier if it was not for the stunningly superb 3-D motion cover to this “G.I. Zombie - Futures End” one-shot comic.

Drawn by Dave Johnson, it depicts Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray’s creation momentarily surrounded by zombies, before punching one in the head so hard the living corpse’s eyeball breaks free. Gross, bloody and gory it is but also so eye-catching (pun) that it convinced me to purchase the edition just as soon as I saw it. Lucky for the publisher too, for if I’d had an inkling as to the quality of the artwork inside the comic I’d have been sorely tempted to give the book a miss… despite the cover illustration on its own probably being worth the ‘price of admission’.

As a stand-alone story, co-writers Gray and Palmiotti certainly plunge the reader into the action right from start. The very first panel has a would-be looter getting attacked by a hungry ghoul, and before many more have passed you have an American aircraft carrier being overrun by zombie paratroopers. Throw in a family’s headlong dash for Gotham City with a horde of hungry undead biting at their heels, and an aeroplane battle which ends up with a fist-fight in the sky and there’s probably not a great deal more that could be contained within the storyline’s twenty-pages.

Unfortunately it is all appallingly drawn by Scott Hampton, whose indistinct minimalist sketchings leave an awful lot to be desired. There is simply no detail on any of his figures, and as a result most of the panels appear to be filled with just the outlines of people and the suggestion of something taking place. It is certainly no wonder that the freelance comic book artist colours his own illustrations, as I’d imagine another professional looking at his ‘chicken-scratchings’ would not know where to begin.
Writers: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti, and Artist/Colorist: Scott Hampton

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Deadpool #3 - Marvel Comics

DEADPOOL No. 3. February 2013
Now I always thought that cover art was primarily designed to attract new readers. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly flashy like the 3-D motion ones “DC Comics” have used to promote their ‘New 52 Futures End’ event. But purely on a basic commercial footing it makes sense to publish something with a half decent illustration so that people will buy the comic book.
Why therefore “Marvel Worldwide” agreed to publish the third issue of “Deadpool” sporting such an appalling zombie-fest cover by Geof Darrow and Peter Doherty is beyond me. It genuinely looks like something a school boy would quickly sketch out for his playground friends during break-time, with poorly drawn misshapen figures hampered by large bold text and giant arrows. Admittedly the majority of the characters on the cover are the Living Dead, and therefore by definition will lack proper articulation, but I’m convinced that is not the reason why their distorted features and poses are so poorly drawn.
Now it could be that this was possibly an attempt by the cover artists to try and tie into the tongue-in-cheek antics of the ‘Merc with the Mouth’ found within the excellent storyline by Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan. But if it was then it failed quite miserably.
Fortunately things do get better and better as “Dr. Strange Lives or How I learned Deadpool was da Bomb” progresses. I’m not convinced the writers really have got to grips with Doctor Stephen Strange, portraying the Sorcerer Supreme in a rather aloof, almost aristocratic manner.
But once matters move beyond the Sanctum Sanctorum the action picks up quite dramatically and the Earth’s primary protector against magical threats becomes just that; whisking foes off to the Astral Plane and exclaiming “By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!” whenever he can.
Indeed this comic book has some great ‘laugh out loud’ moments within it, all very well written and delivered by Posehn and Duggan. Strange’s chiding of Ben Franklin’s ghost for sleeping with the sorcerer’s girlfriend back in the Seventies, and Deadpool’s quip at Abraham Lincoln for being assassinated by an actor, being particular highlights.
All these zany antics are superbly illustrated by artist Tony Moore and his depictions of all the former American presidents, albeit it they’re dead and rotting, are very recognisable, even those like Gerald Ford and Richard Nixon who are less easy to caricature like Lincoln or George Washington.

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Kings Watch #4 - Dynamite Entertainment

KINGS WATCH No. 4, December 2013
Issue Four of “Kings Watch” begins with a very simple sentence which reads “Earth’s defenders have joined forces, but it’s too late.” and this really does sum up much of the content of the previous two issues; idle inactivity as writer Jeff Parker slowly positions his 'playing pieces' and eventually brings all the main antagonists together.
Fortunately this edition of “Dynamite Publications” five-issue mini-series desperately tries to readdress the balance and churns out some serious action-packed adventure as the invaders from Mongo attempt to conquer the Earth.

Naturally Emperor Ming’s spearhead strikes London, the heart of the British Empire and the greatest threat to his plans for world domination. As a result artist Marc Laming gets to illustrate some cracking panels depicting the British military desperately trying to fend off Lionmen and Rhinomen from Downing Street. Enter The Phantom, Flash Gordon and the misdirecting Mandrake and there’s plenty of very well-drawn carnage for a reader to enjoy. A particular highlight being the rather nice ‘double-page spread’ of the battle for Westminster, the political capital of her Majesty's government, where the linear flow of the panels really adds to the sense of action and excitement.

Laming also seems to try and cram in as many of the different races of Mongo as an Alex Raymond fan could encounter this side of a Thirties thirteen-installment Buster Crabbe film serial. As a result the penciller has Hawkmen, giant lizards, Wolfmen, Boarmen, Minotaurs and water-breathing Lizardmen all making an appearance; not forgetting the Emperor’s own forces, the white-armoured soldiers of Mongo. Which admittedly look disconcertingly similar to George Lucas' stormtroopers but with a fin stuck to top of their helmets. In addition we also finally get a chance to actually see Ming the Merciless in all his despicable dastardliness, as the Emperor nicely bookends the issue.

This really is a very good comic book with both Parker and Laming clearly well on top of their games. Even during one of the quieter moments in the book, when the heroes ‘retreat’ to Skull Cave, there’s some lovely interplay between Zarkov and ‘The Ghost Who Walks’, and then Lothar with Mandrake as the friends briefly squabble over the attention of the witch-doctor Karma. The illustration work depicting The Phantom’s secret lair is also excellent, with a real blending of Pirates of the Caribbean and primitive African culture.
The variant cover art of "KINGS MEN" No. 4 by Ramon Perez