Friday, 30 September 2011

Project 52, Week Five (Voodoo/Aquaman/i, Vampire/All-Star Western/Blackhawks/Flash)

Part two of this, the final week of Project 52's reviews of every single #1 in the DC's New 52 initiative, brings our most surprisingly positive review yet, an angry inner dialogue on sexual politics, and what Bret has been teasing on Twitter as a "430 word bitch slap" straight to the face of the Fastest Man Alive.
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Voodoo #1
Written by Ron Marz
Art by Sami Basri
Reviewed by Alex

Immediately before reading this comic, I did something potentially rather silly. After last week’s apparently rather pervy selection of comics, I read Laura Hudson’s piece on Catwoman and Starfire’s apparent ‘liberated sexuality’. It was a well considered, satisfying read which filled me with exactly the right type of righteous indignation. Then I did something much, much sillier: I read the comments.

To quote one choice example:

“Sorry PC Police!!! - The Perverts & Fan Boys are taking Back comics!! - just like in Video Games & Japanese Anime - You’re sorry ass Gender blurring B.S. doesn’t sell. NO One wants your Close-Minded “world view” and twisted social gender role restructuring. DC wants to get NEW readers and by New they mean one’s that are “Normal” and don’t hate Sex”

So when I opened Voodoo, and was greeted by the sight of our heroine on all fours, displaying her cleavage to the reader, surrounded by dollar bills, I … it didn’t make me feel good about humanity.

It turns out this ‘Voodoo’ (apparently DC’s first black female to get her own ongoing series) is a stripper with a mysterious past. And so it is that we’re treated to a page of her dancing and posing in her pants, before cutting away to the comic’s actual characters: two government agents - one woman, one man - watching the show. It is at this exact point that my mind splits in two.

Alex #1 [reading page three]: Ah, okay. I see what they’re doing here: the guy’s not being played sympathetically. He’s got big reflective shades on. I’ve done enough Film Studies to know my audience metaphors: the shades hide his eyes, the way a screen or page removes us from the reality of pornography. He’s the Male Gaze, and he is not an attractive prospect.

Alex #2: But what exactly is it that’s being reflected in those shades? A woman stripping, in comics’ classic far-as-we-can-go-without-being-softcore cheesecake fashion. And [page four] here’s a waitress encouraging him, also with a big rack and a top we can conveniently see down in every single panel.

Alex #1 [page six]: Ah. Um… Hang on! Here’s the ballsy female agent. The one that straight up told the pervy audience metaphor he was a jackass and stormed out. And look! Her non-stripper presence has irked some underage gentlemen trying to get eyes-on with their first pair of titties. These men are definitely not sympathetic. They called her ‘lady’…

Alex #2: …and then immediately accuse her of either “looking to party” or being a lesbian.

Alex #1: Exactly! Unsympathetic! They’re That Guy from the comments thread. And [page eight] she just knocked them all out. Damn satisfying.

Alex #2: I’ll concede that. Look I was about to make an argument about the problems with the Female Hardass archetype, but [page nine] we’ve cut to the strip joint’s dressing room. Where all the woman are conveniently in the process pulling their tops off.

Alex #1: It certainly is all very Showgirls… with the standard ‘oh, we’re all doing it to pay for college/our kids’ clichés and bitching about the “balding fatty” clients. Um, is Showgirls feminist or misogynist? I forget.

Alex #2 [page twelve]: Shhh, it’s time for another action scene. By which I of course mean stripping. Which goes on for … [page fifteen] four pages!

Alex #1: (During which, to be fair, the sunglasses fall to the ground with a noise that, if you listen closely enough, sounds distinctly like ‘METAPHOR!’) [page sixteen] But that’s all okay because Hardass Lady Agent’s back and…

Alex #2: …and she’s having sex with the male agent and wants him back so she won’t be alone tonight. [page seventeen] Before jumping back to more stripping!

Alex #1: Yes. But stripping intercut with a one-panel moment of horrible surgical violence and [page eighteen] Voodoo’s transformation into a big scaly monster.

Alex #2: A monster which is still wearing lacy pants and has its breasts covered by a few demure strands of hair.

Alex #1: Thus turning both of those cheesecakey signifiers inside out, surely? Who’s turned on by the breasts of the Creature From The Black Lagoon?

Alex #2: C’mon, Alex, you’ve been on Deviantart.

Alex #1: Ick. But… [page nineteen] the violence! The blood! The return of the shades and the dead open eyes of the pervy audience-representative. This can’t be meant to turn anyone on, can it?

Alex #2: Can it?

And I can’t decide. This is either a clever satire which plays with your expectations by titillating, titillating, and then dropping a big boner-killing landmine in your lap, or a prime example of comics’ dodgy politics, which remembers on the last few pages it’s supposed to be a thrilling sci-fi story. Either way, it’s all told very competently, setting up three characters, killing one off and ending with a compelling thrust to the next issue. And, when it’s not focusing on improbable breasts, Sami Basri’s art is beautiful and complemented well by Jessica Kholinne’s colours. But at the end of the day how much I like this comic boils down to which Alex is right and so…

Alex #1's Rating: A-
Alex #2's Rating: E

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Aquaman #1
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis
Reviewed by Tim
Poor Aquaman can’t get no respect. He’s the ruler of 70% of the Earth’s surface, but to most people, he’s a cheap punchline, the guy who talks to fish, who rides a dolphin to emergencies and can’t help out unless the fight is taking place next to a convenient inlet, or possibly a fjord.

Geoff Johns takes on all of these issues and more in this comic. It’s the most “mission statement-y” of all the first issues I’ve read, and as such is a very strong opening comic. Unlike so many of the other DC relaunches, it spends only five pages on setting up the plot mechanics of the first arc (which it does with sparse elegance), and instead spends the time with Aquaman on a semi-typical day, building a voice for the character and addressing the preconceptions we have built up around the King of the Seas.

In a great first scene with the hero, we see Aquaman take out some bank robbers in an armoured van, and get disrespected by both the robbers and the police on the scene, who can’t fathom why he’s at a crime that doesn’t involve fish. Johns and Ivan Reis keep the action tight, with Aquaman notably taciturn. Between Reis’ art and John’s writing, we quickly build up a portrait of a hero who may well have a bit of a chip on his shoulder about being seen as a perennial joke, and who doesn’t have the time or inclination to play up to people’s expectations, or try to win them over.

Shifting the action to a nearby seafood restaurant, we have Aquaman dropping by for a fish and chip lunch, to the dismay of several other diners. Johns gets the necessary exposition out through the device of a blogger who wants an interview (perhaps a sly dig at Internet culture’s tendency to view Aquaman as a relic of the Silver Age) and isn’t afraid to bring up the tough question that everyone is thinking: how’s it feel to be nobody’s favourite super-hero?

Aquaman only really gets articulate at the end of the issue, when he meets up with Mera, his wife, and expresses his desire to leave Atlantis behind to fare for itself, and live a simpler life with her. Here, we find that as uncomfortable as he is among the land dwellers that reject him and snigger at him as he’s saving their lives, he’s just as much of an outsider in Atlantis. In a flashback, his father tells him “someone has to watch the shores”, and that feels like a summation of what this series will grow to be about: a hero of both worlds, belonging to neither, but standing on the shore between the two, protecting them from each other and the darker elements within the both of them. It’s a strong central theme, and gives Aquaman a place in the universe and an idea to hang stories on.

By focusing on the character, the issue avoids the problem of feeling like Part 1, as opposed to Issue 1, and gives itself space to establish Aquaman without feeling rushed or laden down with exposition. The issue shows a self-awareness that is rare in comics, and by having the character acknowledge his own lack of popularity, it feels like Aquaman is dusting off his shoulders, saying “Haters gonna hate” and going ahead to star in the most accomplished first issue I’ve read of the DC relaunch.
Rating: A+

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I, Vampire #1
Written by Joshua Hale Fialkov
Art by Andrea Sorrentino
Reviewed by Bret

Or, as it sounds more like a bemused question to me, I Vampire? On a scale of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Twilight, the new iVampire definitely falls into the category of Twilight. How do I know this? Yes, I know those types of women and yes, I’ve been dragged to see these films. Team Jacob! Sarcastic Woo!

If you’re a fan of Vampire Romances (of which there seems to be a lot now days) then maybe this comic is for you. Really, I feel the need to judge it from 2 perspectives. Firstly as a comic, and secondly as it’s about vampires. Now this may seem like I’m being overly critical. I mean, I never judged Green Lantern for the ridiculousness of an intergalactic police force that uses special rings, why would I focus on the supernatural elements in Eye Vampire, the Vampire With Too Many Eyes? The reason being is that most of DC’s title characters are very original, where as Ilene Vampire is clearly a punt at the teen girl market and if you’re going to be almost exactly the same as something else that’s already on the market then I need to compare you to give an informed review… like I did with Deathstroke and Punisher.

So! As a comic? It’s okay. The art work was nice but failed in its primary job. Yes it was very nice to look at, but it wasn’t till I reached the last page that I realised the two girls who appear in the book weren’t in fact the same person. I get it, shadowy, non-detailed faces adds to the noir element but if it stops me from understanding the story then it’s too much. Apart from that, the story is about a good vampire killing bad vampires. But not in a cool Blade style because he’s constantly whining about how evil his evil vampire girlfriend is. It’s pretty much what you’d except from a modern vampire tale. Lots of statements about how wrong it is to be immortally young, all powerful and sexy or how difficult love is when you’re all dark and mysterious and broody. Interestingly, it is set in the standard DC universe. So it’d be interesting to see when happens when the JLA find out vampires exist. Wipe them out in one blow I should imagine!

As a story about vampires… well… it left me with one or two questions. The Munsters were popular, as was Buffy the Vampire Slayer. That, however, doesn’t mean that every time we see a tale about vampires that every other supernatural has to be represented somewhere as well. Vampire Diaries and True Blood I’m looking at you. In Iron Vampire starring Robert Downey Jr, the vampires seem to also be werewolves. There’s quite a bit of shapechanging going on which I know is a Dracula thing but still. Also, when grouped together, vampires seem to move and behave exactly like zombies. On their own, quick and nimble, put them in a group and they're slow and clumsy. Like Stormtroopers! And when a vamp is in their true form… what the hell is that coming out the back of them? Is that a fish tail? Are they mermaids as well? I just don’t get it.

I dunno. I, Vampire gets a D from me. It wasn’t a bad read, it’s just nothing new and I understand that I’m not the target market but that’s no excuse for just copy and pasting what you know is popular. People making vampire fiction could maybe try and vary up what their pumping out because if this wasn’t just the same old stuff it would have got a better score. I think Gandhi said it best when he said “An I, Vampire for an I, Vampire makes the whole world lame.”

Rating: D

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All-Star Western#1
Written by Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray
Art by Moritat
Reviewed by Alex

There’s been quite a lot of talk about DC’s New 52 branching out a little, genrewise, from pure superhero stories. Horror and fantasy have crept in a little more, over the boundaries marked ‘Vertigo-land’, along with the war tales and cosmic sci-fi Tim’s been exploring for us.

Well, All-Star Western is, surprisingly enough, a Western. I’m not especially fond of the genre, in any medium. It’s also a detective story, of which I am much fonder. But, like all of those other titles, it’s also recognisable as existing in a universe built for tales about superheroes.

Where those three genres meet is what makes All-Star Western interesting. The engine that drives the plot is a mysterious killer, who has been murdering prostitutes. With the period setting, and Moritat’s scratchy art, it’s a little reminiscient of Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome, From Hell.

But instead of Victorian London, this is Gotham City, circa 1880. The Batman connections are all there - one of the main characters is Amadeus Arkham, founder of the famously ineffective asylum; the Waynes are namedropped; there’s even one character drawn into the foreground with a very Joker-esque appearance, recalling Grant Morrison’s suggestion in The Return of Bruce Wayne (which, on its travels through time, also touched on this particular soil) that these archetypes repeat throughout history.

Joining Arkham is Jonah Hex, he of the hugely unnsuccessful movie with Megan Fox in. He’s basically a cowboy superhero, with six-shooters instead of heat-vision. The genres fold into each other organically, and satisfying to read in the same way as listening to a good mashup, seeing what fits where. I’m flicking back through now, noting Mayor ‘Grandaddy of The Penguin’ Cobblepot and enjoying the way Arkham drinks green absinthe, prepared with the proper equipment, while Hex knocks back ‘Deadman’ brand whisky. If the devil is in the details, then this comic’s fuller of Satan than a ceiling-bound Linda Blair.

However: it doesn’t hang together all that well. A murder mystery is the most compelling force in all of narrative, if you ask me, and yet here it struggles to grip. The story elements are bit scattershot, the narration occasionally a little clumsy, Moritat’s art never quite consistent. The final page reveal is quite lovely, told through the most stunning series of panels the comic has to offer. But it’s not quite enough to elevate the comic beyond a pleasing novelty, beyond being merely ‘quite good’.

Rating: C

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Blackhawks #1
Written by Mike Costa
Art by Ken Lashley
Reviewed by Tim

I’ve still got a couple of reviews to finish, plus whatever post-match analysis Alex is cooking up for us, but with Blackhawks, it feels like I’ve come full circle, back to Men Of War, the first issue I reviewed solo for Project 52. While Men Of War was grounded in realistic warfare, but acknowledged that it existed within a universe where superheroes existed, Blackhawks never really brings up any links to the DC Universe, but plays out like a Jerry Bruckheimer film. I’ve never read any of the GI Joe comics (although I’ve heard great things about Larry Hama’s run) but I imagine that this is what they’re like. The over-the-top action (the issue more-or-less opens with a character wrestling with a jet pilot in an open cockpit while hanging onto another man strapped into a bomb vest) is complimented by an array of near-future tech with a particular focus on nanotechnology. The characters exist largely as nicknames, and all tend towards a standard gruff military type personality, all on various positions along the Boy Scout-Renegade spectrum. In some ways it feels a lot like a sub-par Warren Ellis comic (something in the Global Frequency mode), which makes sense considering he recently wrote a new GI Joe miniseries.

The art by Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley is competent but feels a little loose for this sort of comic, which would benefit from a more polished, dare I say plastic feeling, aesthetic. The sketchy lines imply to me a grittier sort of tale than you find here – we’re definitely in Saturday morning cartoon territory as far as plotting and character development goes. As far as the plot goes, there’s little to comment on. At least one long-running plot thread is established, plus one of the main characters seems to be developing some sort of superpowers (possibly the proportional strength of a Kazakh fighter pilot, based on the comic) which could take the comic into interesting new places, but given the lack of inspiration on display in this issue, I doubt will be treated in a particularly unique or affecting way.

The disconnect from the larger DC universe feels like the biggest missed opportunity in this issue. The idea of a black-ops UN team in a world where superheroes operate has some legs to it, but by focusing on a generic terrorist threat, the unit feels a little bit too Team America: World Police, and the idea of the super-tech, kung fu squad descending from their mountaintop base to blow the crap out of the third world carries some unfortunate connotations. Without the greater threat of superhumans (particularly in the new DC universe, where they are a much more recent phenomena and therefore the world would still be reacting to them as a new danger) there is nothing to connect this book to the relaunch. It feels entirely generic and by the numbers, and as I’ve mentioned in previous reviews, that just isn’t enough in the kind of mass relaunch exercise DC is trying.

Rating: C-

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The Flash #1
Written by Francis Manapul & Brian Buccalletto
Art by Francis Manapul
Reviewed by Bret

Okay. First of all, before I even get started on anything else... What the hell? The Flash killed that guy. Like stone cold just to save his own skin. I don’t care that later on in the plot it turns out the guy was already dead beforehand because that’s just convenient and the Flash didn‘t know that. Anyway, if that guy wasn’t already dead he would have been after what the Flash did. And you can’t say “Oh, well the Flash knew the guy was already dead, that’s why he did what he did to save himself” because No. Read page 11. The Flash’s first words when he sees the corpse of the guy he iced are “Killed on impact?”. It’s a damn question. HE DIDN’T KNOW SQUAT! Flash is just lucky that the bloke was already dead.

Which leads me to another thing. What the hell? The police are like “Somebody please tell me I don’t have a homicide with Flash’s finger-prints on it!” and then later “No leaks on this one… anyone talks and they’re done in my department”. So what are we saying here? That if any of the police go to the media and tell them that the Flash might have killed a guy they’ll lose their job? That’s perverting the course of justice! Exactly who are they trying to serve and protect here?

Okay, rant over. Even without from the cold blooded murder, the book wasn’t that great. I loved the style of it, especially the way Flash first changes into his costume and the little two-page intro we get, but apart from that the story is lacking. It felt to me like it was Part 1 of maybe 8, and quite honestly nothing happened that would make me want to go back and buy more. I felt little to no emotional connection with any of characters and even though it’s well established in the book how Flash feels about these people, that’s not enough to make me care as well. Mostly because for me to care about who the Flash cares about… I need to care about the Flash. And that dude's a killer in my eyes now so he can go f*** himself. Especially as the only reason that guy was falling to his death in the first place was because of the Flash put him in that situation. GOD DAMN!

You know what Flash, if you can’t do the job without putting peoples lives in danger AND THEN SACRIFICING THEM TO SAVE YOURSELF MAYBE YOU SHOULDN’T DO THE JOB!!!

Oh, and the art was passable.

Rating: F

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Videogames, film, music, comics: feed them into the Alex-Spencer machine and out come neat little articles. Like the ones you're looking at here.