Monday, July 11, 2011

EXPRESSions - Week of July 6th

So after a busy weekend involving a bike accident (among other things), I finally found me some time to write out some thoughts about a few more of the comics that came across my reading chair this week.  Some real gems here, along with a few lesser books.  On the whole though, yet another solid week of comicdom on my end.  Let's hit those reviews.

CHEW #19
Written by John Layman
Art by Rob Guillory

For those not in the know, Chew is one of the best new series from last year and remains one of the best ongoing series today.  Published by Image Comics, Chew stars Tony Chew, a policeman who lives in a world where chicken has been banned after a deadly outbreak of bird flu killed in the United States killed over 23 million people.  Following this event, the FDA has gained an enormous amount of power, doing most of the legwork in enforcing the chicken ban and acting as an organization on par with the FBI.  The crazy part is that Tony Chew is a cibopath, which means he gets psychic impressions from what he eats.

If this all sounds a little strange, it's because it is.  However, Layman and Guillory have somehow managed to put all these separate pieces together (along with many others) to create a comic where it all works.  The world and the people that Tony meets throughout his off-the-wall adventures are all believable, in their own way.  Guillory's exaggerated art style goes a long way to selling the whole concept, as does Layman's excellent writing that melds both the humourous and the serious into one neat package.

This issue continues the "FlambĂ©" storyline, presenting part 4 or 5.  Of late, things have gotten even crazier, with weird alien writing appearing in space and space research stations exploding, among other things.  This issue in particular focuses on Tony and his twin sister Toni (who works for NASA) going on a secret mission to Area 51.  The series is often fast-paced with a razor sharp whip, and this issue is no exception.

As many issues of Chew do, the issue opens with a prologue that relates in some way to the story that comes afterwards.  These moments are always fun and Chew #19 does things a little differently by spending the entire 3 page prologue explaining that the violent events the reader is witnessing never happened.  It's a nice little change of pace that still manages to set up what's to come, because the scenes that didn't occur are what Tony and Toni end up working to stop.

Throughout the rest of the issue, there are tons of great moments, with lots of time given to the seemingly continually expanding cast of characters.  Tony, his boss, his partner, his girlfriend, and his sister all have plenty of moments to shine throughout the pages of the book, and the pacing is spot on.  Every scene feels like it gets just enough time and has just enough explanation to let the reader know what's going on and why it matters.  Nothing feels like a waste of time or space, which is always a plus.

With the slight delays Chew has been facing of late, it's nice to finally have another copy in my hands.  Fortunately, it was well worth the wait, as Layman and Guillory offer up yet another great issue featuring everyone's favourite cibopath.

Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Andy Kubert

I still don't know how to feel about this series.  Things continue to happen, and they continue to be kind of interesting, but it's still not clear why any of this is going on.  I don't know why, but this book doesn't seem terribly concerned with explaining why its characters act the way they do.  It seems as if Flashpoint has been more concerned with showing all the different ways that the Flashpoint Universe is different than the regular DC Universe, and while Flashpoint #3 does offer some plot movement, it falls into this same habit as well.  There are a lot of scenes that feel like they were written for the "oh look who that is!" or "look how things are different!" instead of for actual storytelling reasons.  That is not the best feeling to have while reading a comic.

The last issue saw Barry Allen getting severely burned after being struck by lightning in an attempt to regain his powers.  Flashpoint #3 opens with Barry lying in the Batcave saying that his memories from the regular DC Universe are being overwritten by events from the Flashpoint Universe.  He insists that they have to try the experiment again, so that he can get his powers back so that he can not forget.  Of course, as the cover shows, the second try is a success and he quickly regains his powers.  That done, he and Batman do some research on the world of Flashpoint to try to from the Justice League to battle the Reverse Flash.  The whole process comes off as kind of forced.  Barry rebecomes the Flash because the story needs a Flash.  They want to reform the Justice League because the story needs a Justice League.  Throwaway lines are offered to rationalize these choices, but they aren't terribly convincing.

In the midst of this sequence, Cyborg is relieved of his duties as an agent of the US government and two pages are dedicated to showing that Lois Lane is an undercover agent in New Themyscria (the Amazonian-occupied United Kingdom) and that she has found the Resistance (led by Grifter, who gets a full splash page so that DC can show that a Wildstorm character has entered the story).  These moments also come off as disingenuous.  They clearly only exist to serve story purposes later on.  Admittedly, that's what most moments in a story will often do, but the scenes should be more than moving pieces around or revealing information so that the reader understands how a character got to a particular location or why a character made a particular choice.  These moments should be believable and interesting, and these scenes don't quite cut it.

The rest of the issue continues in mostly the same manner, with the recently fired Cyborg agreeing to infiltrate the government he so-recently worked for because that's the only way that Batman will help him fight the Atlantean-Amazonian war.  Again, not super convincing.  Regardless, this results in Superman's first appearance in the book (again, as the cover shows).  The different between Flashpoint Superman and regular Superman is that this one was found by the government and has never seen the sun and is consequently gaunt and emaciated instead of the strongest man around.  It's kind of an interesting interpretation, but the book doesn't do anything with it.  It's just of there, at this point seeming to exist simply so that readers can recognize the difference between the two versions of the character and leave it at that.

The book ends with government troops surrounding Cyborg, Flash, Batman, and Superman.  Because Superman has never been outside before, he flies off, leaving the heroes surrounded by armed troops, but this isn't really that effective of a cliffhanger.  There are numerous ways that the heroes could get out of the situation without any difficulty, including the Flash's superspeed, Cyborg's many powers, or Batman's genius.  The image might appear intimidating, but there's no real danger behind it.

With all the things that are happening, I'm still coming away from Flashpoint #3 wondering what the point is.  The series is past its halfway point and hasn't really spent any time explaining what's going on.  It's abundantly clear the the world of Flashpoint is different from that of the DC Universe (if this issue wasn't enough, the millions of tie-in comics should be), but no one has made any effort to explain why this has happened.  As it stands, it just comes off as a convenient excuse to explain the reboot / relaunch DC is doing in the Fall.  Flashpoint #4 might turn things around, but after three mediocre issues, I'm not holding my breath.

Written by Brian Azzarello
Art by Eduardo Risso

While the main Flashpoint series isn't doing all that hot, Knight of Vengeance continues to impress.  This series manages to properly balance showing the differences in the world while using those differences to push forward the plot of the comic.  This issue sees Jim Gordon starting to doubt his place in Batman's empire after a line Thomas said last issue that was prompted by the main Flashpoint book.  This subtle nod to the main series is a driving force of this issue, causing Gordon to try to prove himself to tragic results.

In his quest to ensure his place in Thomas Wayne's "good books", Jim meets with this world's version of The Oracle, who is a quadriplegic Selina Kyle.  Risso's layouts and details really make this moment, giving just enough of a hint to the reader before the reveal on the following page.  The scene itself is also incredibly poignant, pointing to how damaging the Joker's actions continue to be in every iteration of Gotham.

From there, Gordon continues to keep Batman out of the loop, heading directly to where the Joker is holding the Dent twins hostage.  As he does so, Batman starts to catch on to the deception and his race to stop Jim is quite moving.  As Oswald Cobblepot states at the beginning of the issue, Jim is Thomas' best friend, and despite Jim's fears, Thomas acts out of worry for his friend's safety, moving as fast as he can to save him from the dangers of the Joker.  Azzarello's writing does a good job of implying this, but Risso's art once again does the heavy lifting, showing Batman's look of dread once he realizes what Gordon is doing.

Unfortunately, Batman can't get there fast enough and Gordon attacks the Joker on his own.  The entire sequence occurs almost without dialogue, and the execution is dead on.  Gordon's attack on the Joker is tense and the eventual outcome is unclear until the very last moment.  Although it's been discussed at length around the internet, I will remain a tad vague as to the particulars.  Let me just say that this Joker is as deranged and perverted as any other I've read, and it works perfectly.

The final reveal at the end of the issue that the Joker is actually Martha Wayne, driven insane by the murder of Bruce all those years ago is terribly appropriate.  In a world where Batman kills, this is the only way that the Joker could possibly continue to go on murderous rampages.  It adds yet another element of tragedy to the equation, because the Joker's actions are even more directly the fault of Batman in such a situation.  It is clear that Thomas takes personal responsibility for her actions, and it works incredibly well.

This series continues to be the best part of the entire Flashpoint event.  I can't wait to see what happens in the final issue next month.  If you aren't reading this series, I don't know what else to tell you.  This is one of the best Batman stories I've ever come across and deserves to be recognized as such.

After these lengthier reviews, let's do a couple of quick ones, shall we?

Written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning
Art by Kyle Hotz

I'm feeling like a broken record, but I really didn't like this Fear Itself tie-in.  It seems as if every single Marvel book impacted by this title suddenly becomes the least interesting comic I can imagine.  I'm not a huge follower of the Marvel Universe, only dabbling in a few books here and there, and this story about hammers unleashing super terrible evil powers in the wielders falls flat in my eyes.  I don't care about it at all.

So opening my issue of Heroes for Hire #9 and finding that it was concerned exclusively with that was a bit of a disappointment.  It definitely didn't help that a large portion of the comic involved the Raft from Thunderbolts, which is the other book I dropped due to unwanted event tie-ins.  I came into this series with high hopes, but Abnett and Lanning haven't captured my interest the way they did with Guardians of the Galaxy (as I said in my thoughts on their Flashpoint books) and with an underwhelming effort in issue 9, I'm done with this series for now.

Written by Shane Houghton
Art Chris Houghton

I had heard a bit about this series a few months back.  All I really knew is that it was an All-Ages title being published by Image Comics that starred a cowboy that rides a bear.  And that's all I needed to know, because that obviously sounds amazing.  Unfortunately, the first issue somehow managed to come out without me realizing it, so when I saw the second issue was dropping this week, I made sure to get myself a copy.  And I was pleased with the finished product.

It was a done-in-one story, featuring some mystical cave dwelling monsters and some bad people trying to find gold in their cave.  I'm personally a big fan of kid's comics, and this is a really good one.  It's nothing super fancy, but it tells a good story, has some exciting moments, and is lots of fun.  I was also really glad that the reader didn't need any background information going in.  Everything you needed to enjoy the story was in the comic itself, which is great.  Best of all, this comic had no ads and was 32 pages long.  And it only cost $2.99.  Wouldn't it be great if every comic could give you so much bang for your buck, eh?  Regardless, I'll definitely come back for more bear-riding cowboy goodness.

That's all I have time for this week, so I'll bid you good night and will see you around next time.

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