COMICS: John’s Wednesday Winners for 1/21/09

Hey, everybody!  It’s time for the debut of a new feature on WITWAR, in which I briefly examine some of the latest comics to hit stands each week.  It’s by no means comprehensive, but it should give at least a bit of insight into the current comics landscape.

After the Fall #16, Cover A

Angel: After the Fall #16, Cover A

We begin this week’s list with Angel: After the Fall #16. It feels a little funny to start reviewing a series so close to its finale (After the Fall concludes in #17, leading into Aftermath in #18,) but there are still plenty of things to say about it.  Angel is in mourning after the loss of someone extremely close to him (man, can this guy ever catch a break?) but manages to turn Wolfram & Hart’s tactics against them and restore something resembling a status quo to post-Apocalyptic Los Angeles.  While issue #15 was clearly the climax to this story, this month saw many of the dangling plot threads resolved, only to create a new set of problems for our brooding hero.  As usual, Bryan Lynch makes use of his fantastic wit to give the characters some excellent gallows humor, and any appearance by the dragon is always a crowd-pleaser.  Franco Urru’s art is perfect for the story, providing tons of fiery action to the apocalyptic scenes and a healthy return to something like realism afterward.  After the Fall is a great read for anyone who enjoys modern fantasy comics, and while a bit of Angel plot and character knowledge is certainly beneficial, it is by no means required (I watched a grand total of 90 minutes of the series, and I’ve been keeping up without any problems.)

Astonishing X-Men #28

Astonishing X-Men #28

Next up is Warren Ellis and Simone Bianchi’s Astonishing X-Men #28.  I had thought that the days of long delays between issues were over when Whedon and Cassaday left the series, but no such luck so far.  Nevertheless, this issue is out and there’s more Ellis/Bianchi goodness inside.  The X-Men are exploring the ruins of a Chinese mutant stronghold that was partially destroyed on M-Day, only to find that it is far from uninhabited.  There’s no real action until the center staple, and the fights themselves all are rather brief, but that’s forgivable.  Mr. Ellis continues to write the X-Men with his usual flair (especially Wolverine and Emma, who can’t help but affect a bit of the old Midnighter/Spider Jerusalem and Jenny Sparks attitudes, respectively.)  Beast is both intelligent and witty – as he should be! – and even Cyclops seems to have a smaller stick up his behind.  Simone Bianchi continues to shatter expectations with his artwork, and the fight scenes are really rather incredible.  My favorite moment: Wolverine blocking several laser blasts by reflecting them off his claws.  Yay, comic book physics!  If you’ve been following the series, there’s no reason not to get this one.  If not, perhaps a back issue or two would help you understand the story a bit better.

Ruins #1 (original cover)

Ruins #1 (original cover)

The Warren Ellis train doesn’t stop at Astonishing this week, though.  Marvel also released a reprinted version of Ruins, a series that I completely missed its first time around.  I’ve heard it described as the incredibly bleak version of Marvels, and while I’ve not read that seminal work by Kurt Busiek & Alex Ross, it does seem somewhat like a fun-house mirror image of it.  Ruins also reminds me a bit of a mini-series called Powerless, written by Matt Cherniss and Peter Johnson.  If Marvels is a view of the awesome spectacle of superheroics from a normal human’s perspective, and Powerless is a glimpse at a world where the Marvel heroes aren’t super-powered (yet still have compelling adventures,) Ruins is a universe where nothing has gone right.  None of the Marvel characters are heroes, just victims of horrific tragedies.  Wolverine is a short, angry Canadian with a debilitating bone disease, the Avengers are a group of idealistic yuppies who die trying to end the Vietnam War, the Hulk is a horrible nuclear testing accident whose every moment of life is agony, and poor Phil Sheldon is just an unlucky reporter trying to find out where the world went so wrong.  Ruins is bleak from start to finish, with only one page daring to brighten the skies of this depressing alternate universe.  It’s Warren Ellis at his darkest, and that’s pretty gosh-darn dark.  Cliff and Terese Nielsen’s artwork is powerfully heart-wrenching, though somewhat murky throughout (perhaps that fits the book’s atmosphere, though.)  There are a few brief moments of sharpness and clarity, such as Johnny Blaze’s last stunt ride and Phil’s dreams of a better world, but the rest is compelling in the same way as wartime photos: It’s horrifically depressing, but an important sight to behold.  If you liked Marvels and don’t mind being thoroughly depressed, Ruins is an excellent read.  If you’re looking for some light-hearted escapist fantasy to brighten your day, avoid it at all costs.

Spider-Man Noir #2

Spider-Man Noir #2

Moving on to something only slightly less grim, we have Spider-Man Noir #2, by David hine, Fabrice Sapolsky and Carmine Di Giandomenico.  Marvel’s new Noir takes on characters have proven to be intriguing and entertaining thus far, and this issue is no exception.  The story of Spider-Man is reimagined as a struggle between idealistic young photographers’ assistant Peter Parker and crime boss Norman Osborn, a.k.a. The Goblin.  The era is during the Great Depression, and the team of Ben Urich and Peter Parker are doing their part to provide the Daily Bugle with heart-breaking pictures and sob stories that show just how bad New York City has gotten.  Parker (inspired by his rabble-rouser Aunt May) is outraged by the Goblin’s choke-hold on the city, forcing the embittered and cynical urich to do his best to explain how the “real world” works.  In this issue, Parker discovers that Ben is just as corrupt as the rest, then sets out to get evidence of one of The Goblin’s latest crimes.  Things go badly, and he ends up being bitten by a spider that is said to be “cursed” by “voodoo magic.”  Suddenly finding himself with enhanced physical abilities, he dons a disguise and attempts to run The Goblin out of business.  Again, things go badly, but I won’t spoil the shock ending of this one.  Suffice it to say that the stakes are rising in the battle between the Goblin and The Spider-Man, and everything Peter Parker holds dear may come under threat if he continues to fight the good fight. I didn’t expect Hine & Sapolsky to make use of super-powers in Spider-Man Noir, but their execution of it is pulpy enough for it to not break the reader’s suspension of disbelief.  The struggle against corruption in a morally bankrupt city would be compelling without the Spider-Man characters, but their inclusion adds a bit of quirky fun to the mix.  Recommended for fans of Spider-Man (possibly moreso than Amazing Spider-Man) or period crime drama.

Thunderbolts #128, featuring Barack Obama

Thunderbolts #128, featuring Barack Obama

Finally, we close the week with Thunderbolts #128 (written by Andy Diggle, illustrated by Roberto De La Torre,) which features a far more interesting appearance by President Barack Obama than in that other Marvel book you might have heard about.  This isn’t the same Thunderbolts as issue #127, however.  Harry Osborn has assembled a new group of villains to serve as his personal black-ops team, carrying out assassinations he doesn’t want the Dark Avengers or H.A.M.M.E.R. (or anyone else, for that matter) to know about.   Only three of the new team members are revealed in this issue: Black Widow II, Ghost and Ant-Man (the bad one.) The plot revolves around President Obama and Director Osborn’s first meeting, wherein our new leader expresses his concerns about having a psychopath in charge of every superhuman in the country.  Osborn is prepared, and immediately begins twisting the situation to his advantage by manipulating the facts and using clever spin tactics to cast doubt on his own insanity.  This all proves to be merely a diversion, however, as the new T-Bolts feign an attack on Air Force One and wrest control of the plane from the Secret Service.  I won’t spoil the big ending here, but it should keep readers guessing for at least another issue.  Osborn is written excellently here as a brilliant, yet dangerously unhinged man (this from a fan who thinks he should’ve never been brought back in the ’90s) and the new team seems quirky, if not in any way sympathetic.  Thankfully, the pressure to follow Warren Ellis’s acclaimed run on the series is lightened by having the status quo for the team undergo a major upheval.  De La Torre’s art is a good tonal fit for the series (dark and edgy,) but I do wish he would put a bit more detail into some of the faces he draws.  The character of President Obama behaves much as I would expect the genuine article to do, but time will tell if this characterization is consistent.  If you like stories about unapologetic villains, or if you simply must have a copy of every comic featuring Barack Obama, be sure to pick this one up (though I hear it’s already sold out at Diamond.  Better move fast!)

Phew!  That was a dark week!  Maybe I should’ve picked up a copy of Doctor Doom and the Masters of Evil #1 (featuring the comedic bumblings of the Sinister Six) to lighten it up a bit.  Perhaps next time…

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