Thursday, 8 September 2011

Project 52: Week Two (Men of War/Green Arrow/Swamp Thing/Stormwatch/Animal Man)

You remember how DC are scrapping all their comics and launching 52 new ones, right? You remember how we're reviewing them all? Me, Tim, and Bret? Good. Then enjoy the first dose of this week's Project 52, including reviews of Green Arrow and Swamp Thing.
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Men Of War #1
Written by Ivan Brandon
Art by Tom Derenick
Reviewed by Tim

Men of War is one of DC’s attempts to branch out a little beyond straight-up superheroics – in this case, to a military anthology title. That said, it’s still located within the DCU – the main story in this issue (a modern day version of Sergeant Rock) features a US Army operation that goes tits up when a mysterious superhuman attacks the same target as them. The back-up strip, titled “Navy SEALs: Human Shields”, is much more of a standard military tale, located, like the main story, in some unnamed Middle Eastern country, featuring a team of SEALs pinned down by sniper fire.

Both stories are heavy with military jargon (helpfully annotated with translations) and gung-ho spirit. The Sergeant Rock story casts the main character as a scarred enlisted infantryman, still only a Corporal at the beginning of the book, who disobeys his superiors but makes brilliant tactical decisions. His mentor is an equally rebellious badass who is killed in action at the issue’s end, field-promoting our hero. Ivan Brandon creates a compelling tale of what military action in a superpowered world might look like, contrasting the power of one powered individual against the human squad, and Tom Derenick’s art is dynamic and atmospheric, with suitably craggy-faced heroes and explosive action.

The back-up strip didn’t work quite as well for me. Jonathan Vankin’s writing felt overly expository, and Phil Winslade’s art, while agreeably reminiscent of British military titles like Commando, was too sparse and his faces all look the same. In addition, there was a hefty undercurrent of conservative values (know your audience, I suppose) with some unfunny homophobic “jokes” and digs at the Peace Corps, as well as a “oh course I’m not racist, some of my best friends are black!” moment that felt a little preachy.

Overall, as a genre I’m unused to, I enjoyed the first story more than I thought I would, but the second spoilt the experience for me somewhat.

Final Grade: C+

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Green Arrow #1
Written by J.T. Krul
Art by Dan Jurgens & George Perez
Reviewed by Bret
Out of the 4 new comics I picked up today, Green Arrow was the one that interested me most. I’ve seen Smallville and liked what they did there with the green leather-wearing archer, Oliver Queen (even if they were trying oh so hard to make him Batman). Sadly the first issue of Green Arrow misses out on the emotional complexity and the “do what it takes to get the job done” attitude we saw from ol’ Ollie in the show. Instead, his new solo comic ends up reading more like a Saturday morning cartoon. And not a very good one at that, with a parent friendly “it’s not good to be a bad guy” moral brought up every other panel and all.

I think it’s the fact that, despite passable foreground artwork, the background of the panels were often a single colour block rather than showing any hint of detail. That and the fact that heavy amounts of text were used to tell the story. This made the characters come off as simple and patronising to me. But then maybe Green Arrow has a younger audience in his line of sights. Having said that though, I did find it odd that our seemingly child friendly hero went from using concussive, blinding and freezing arrows to shooting a guy through both palms and forcing him to accidentally electrocute himself. The sudden burst of blood and violence felt very out of place in this black-and-white world of right and wrong.

Overall lazy colouring, generic characters and text to explain what I should be seeing explained through art make Green Arrow misfire.

Rating: D-
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Swamp Thing #1
Written by Scott Snyder

Art by Yanick Paquette
Reviewed by Alex

For a comic about Swamp Thing, this issue sure is a brilliant advertisement for the New DC Universe. It opens with a sleek panoramic view - Clark Kent in Metropolis, Batman under Gotham, Aquaman in an unidentified ocean. And so, in three pages, it manages to establish a credible worldwide threat and introduce the heroes and universe better than last week’s Justice League managed in its full 40 pages.

It helps that Yanick Paquette’s art is so incredibly gorgeous, of course. Superman’s a square-jawed lump of handsome, and the new costume manages to look regal. Even Aquaman looks good in this comic.

And then the Swamp Thing story begins, and it’s an intriguing one. The changes to the Swamp Thing mythos - one with which I must admit only a passing familiarity - don’t feel unnecessary. It feels like a true fresh start, and the changes are woven into a compelling mystery. But that’s not all! Then there’s a brilliant horror sequence that’s probably the creepiest bit of comics I’ve encountered. But wait, there’s more! It alludes fascinatingly to “the events of last year!, just suggesting the slightest edges of a history. And there’s some fun Palahniuk-style facts about botany. And! And! AND!

…There’s a lot squeezed into this comic. Snyder takes full advantage of the situation that’s been presented to him, in every facet. Even the DC universe being born again in media res is used to create a sense of mystery. And so it makes a convincing case for this entire relaunch - mystery isn’t something we’re used to in the familiar world of Superman and Batman, and without mystery, any sense of wonder can dissolve - and for the way this character - who, in the most praised comics written about him, appeared in a separate reality - fits into a world of superheroes. It’s comics at a hundred miles an hour and this review was meant to be way shorter but I’m struggling to keep up and tell you everything that’s great about it.

Grade: A+

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Stormwatch #1
Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Miguel Selpuveda
Reviewed by Tim

If you read my little introductory preamble to my review of Justice League last week, you’ll know that The Authority was one of the books that reignited my passion for comics after a couple of years of buying purely out of habit. Despite my tastes having changed and my critical eye improved somewhat, it is a series I still love, despite its flaws. The characters were fresh new spins on classic archetypes, and the realpolitik approach to the realm of superheroes, and how they would impact the world was well realised and flawlessly executed. As such, I have a lot of affection for the characters, and a big part of me is excited to see them A) revived and B) brought into a new universe, with a whole bunch of new characters to clash with. However, there is another part that says, “Can these characters, with their particular brand of heroics, function in the idealistic, four-colour world of the DCU? Won’t such a clash of ideals ring false, with the Wildstorm characters feeling gritty for the sake of shock, and the DC characters feeling like relics of a simpler age?”

Luckily, Paul Cornell is at the helm, a writer I have a lot of respect for, and if this issue is anything to go by, he is more than up to the task of balancing these two tones. Stormwatch is presented as an existing organisation, one that has protected from the shadows long before the dawn of superheroes 5 years ago in the new DCU, and one that is more than willing to make the tough decisions and muddy up their morals. As the Martian Manhunter says in this issue, you can be a hero, or you can be a warrior, and Stormwatch is for warriors. Basically, while Superman is saving your life and Batman is foiling your evil schemes, Stormwatch is in ur base, killing ur doodz.

In some ways, the issue echoes last week's Justice League, with disparate heroes uniting, personalities and powers outlined, and a new character revealed on the final page, having quickly dispatched our heroes. However, Paul Cornell handles the necessary exposition much more gracefully and smoothly, laying more groundwork for future stories without sacrificing momentum, and Miguel Sepulveda’s art is cleaner and clearer, telling the story with the minimum of fuss, and some nice touches in the action. The digital colouring and various overlays used as graphics, or to indicate shape shifting are a little distracting, but otherwise it’s a very pretty looking comic. The only downside on the art is the awful redesigns of Apollo and Midnighter, both of whom have traded in simple, classic costumes for awful over-designed crap. Midnighter looks like he’s playing some kind of futuristic version of American football that involves bondage wear, and who the hell decided that giving Apollo a haircut was a good idea?
Still, these are small criticisms against an otherwise very solid first issue – the first of the DC relaunches that I will be picking up next month to see what happens.

Grade: A

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Animal Man #1
Written by Jeff Lemire
Art by Travel Foreman & Dan Green
Reviewed by Bret
Animal Man. Wow. Maybe it’s because I just read Green Arrow and that has made Animal Man seem amazing in comparison but let me tell you right now this gets an A. Screw it! A+.

Animal Man is one of those characters I read once long ago, and saw that they did some interesting things with his powers. This left me to think that he was a cool character, if slightly cheesy. Well it would seem that the new run is not only going to continue the trend of being interesting but has somehow replaced cheesiness with grounded, heartfelt characters and plot. The story has a solid foundation in its opening, showing an interview with Animal Man in a magazine. This does a great job of making you feel like the character is a real person with a believable background.

Next we’re introduced to Animal Man’s wife and kids. Here we get a very interesting look at how a casual part-time superhero / movie star acts in his day to day life dealing with the kids and having to make sure he’s home on time for dinner. The scene changes and now we’re at a hospital trying to help the police with a hostage situation. It turns out that the man with the gun has just had a break down after losing his daughter to cancer and doesn’t know what else to do but blame the doctors. Animal Man deals with the situation with genuine compassion and understanding whilst managing to show off his powers to the reader without seeming like he’s showing off in the book.

Simply put, an amazing tale that had as much tension as it did comedy and feel good factor, all in 20 pages. And with gorgeous artwork too! Seeds are sown for a larger plot and with that ending (no spoilers here) I’m guaranteed to go back and buy issue 2.

My exact words when describing this to Tim Tim Biscuit Tin were “Animal Man is a pie that I’m eating and I can’t quite put my finger on that taste but I know that I want more of it.”

Grade: an easy A+

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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.