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Batman – Full Circle (Review/Retrospective)

23rd July is Batman Day, celebrating the character’s 75th anniversary. To celebrate, this July we’re taking a look at some new and classic Batman (and Batman related) stories. Check back daily for the latest review.

In a way, Mike W. Barr and Alan Davies’ Full Circle feels a bit like Steve Englehart and Marshall Roger’s Dark Detective. It’s a cap to a run on the character, something of a forerunner to DC’s recent “Retroactive” initiative, reteaming classic creators on a particular character in an attempt to recapture past glories. Like Dark Detective, Full Circle doesn’t quite work. It’s a direct sequel to Barr’s Year Two – albeit with recurring gags and characters thrown in from the rest of his Detective Comics run – and it seems to exist solely to make sure the reader understood what Barr was doing with Year Two.

Given that Year Two was hardly the most subtle of comics, Full Circle occasionally runs the risk of bludgeoning the reader into submission.

It's a Boy Wonder he doesn't get killed...

It’s a Boy Wonder he doesn’t get killed…

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X-Men: Season One by Dennis Hopeless and Jamie McKelvie (Review)

This May, to celebrate the release of X-Men: Days of Future Past, we’re taking a look at some classic and modern X-Men (and X-Men-related) comics. Check back daily for the latest review.

X-Men: Season One is a weird beast. The core of Marvel’s Season One initiative has been offering accessible standalone graphic novels that take their iconic characters back to their roots – as if to have something that you could point a new reader towards, say “this is how [character] got started.” The line hasn’t always lived up to that promise, with the quality of the collection of graphic novels being quite uneven in practice, but it’s a solid starting point.

However, the X-Men were always going to seem a bit strange when this approach was applied. After all, many of the most iconic X-Men character – from Wolverine to Storm to Rogue – didn’t appear for years after Stan Lee and Jack Kirby launched X-Men. Beast didn’t have blue fur for quite some time. Magneto was fairly generic and one-dimensional. For a comic book series about an oppressed minority, the characters were all white, middle-class and straight; Jean Grey often felt like the token girl.

The Tomorrow People...

The Tomorrow People…

So revisiting the roots of the X-Men was going to be different from exploring the origins of The Avengers or Thor or Ant-Man, because a lot of what people take for granted about the X-Men didn’t exist in those early years. Trying to find a way to encapsulate what makes the X-Men so successful and appealing into the context of those early stories is a pretty ambitious task, making X-Men: Season One seem like an almost impossible challenge.

Luckily, Marvel recruited some top-notch talent for the book. Artist Jamie McKelvie is one of the best artists working in comics today. His linework is clear, his action sequences are stylish – but he’s also fantastic with characters. McKelvie can offer a lot in a small amount of space – body language, facial expressions. He’s paired with writer Dennis Hopeless, who has a bit of a knack dealing with potentially troublesome assignments turning Avengers Arena from ruthless Battle Royale (or The Hunger Games) knock-off into a pretty compelling read. The X-Men are in good hands.

The child protection agency is going to crucify Charles for this one...

The child protection agency is going to crucify Charles for this one…

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Spider-Man: Chapter One (Review/Retrospective)

This April, to celebrate the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, we are taking a look at some classic and modern comics featuring Spider-Man (and friends). Check back daily for the latest review.

Spider-Man: Chapter One is a strange little comic. In context, it makes a great deal of sense. Spider-Man has always been one of Marvel’s most popular and iconic comic book heroes. In the late nineties, the comic book industry was trying to figure out how to push forward, following the sales explosion and implosion of the mid-nineties. With superheroes like Spider-Man and the X-Men primed for a transition to the big screen, revisiting the early days of these heroes made a great deal of sense.

And John Byrne was the logical choice for a book like this. Byrne was a unique talent. He had enjoyed incredibly successful runs on Uncanny X-Men and The Fantastic Four at Marvel. More than that, though, he had already overseen the successful relaunch of another classic character. In the wake of DC’s universe-altering line-wide Crisis on Infinite Earths, John Byrne had been the writer who re-drafted Superman’s origin as part of the Man of Steel miniseries in 1986.

Boundless enthusiasm...

Boundless enthusiasm…

And so, Marvel gave us Spider-Man: Chapter One. The comic was a reimagining of the earliest days of the wall-crawling superhero, spanning thirteen issues and covering many of the character’s earliest encounters with his classic foes. John Byrne was writing the script and providing the artwork for the comics, which seemed primed to introduced Spider-Man to a whole new generation of readers, giving audiences a back-to-basics take on Spider-Man that was fresh and accessible.

At least, that was the idea. In actuality, Spider-Man: Chapter One feels like a massive miscalculation on just about everybody’s part. It seems to be aiming for some middle ground between Kurt Busiek and Pat Olliffe’s contemporary Untold Tales of Spider-Man and Brian Michael Bendis’ pending Ultimate Spider-Man. It seems like Byrne is never sure whether he’s simply re-telling the classic Stan Lee and Steve Ditko run on The Amazing Spider-Man with a few bells and whistles, or trying to make it his own.

You are about to enter... the Spidey zone...

You are about to enter… the Spidey zone…

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Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. – The Girl in the Flower Dress (Review)

The first few episodes of any new show are about finding the right balance, striking the right tone. You experiment a bit, you figure out what works and what doesn’t, you try a number of new things knowing that only a few will pay off. The problem with Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. isn’t that none of the show’s experiments are coming to fruition. It’s that the show seems completely afraid to try anything new at all.

The Girl in the Flower Dress is the show’s fifth episode, but it already feels like something of a reheat, taking the best parts of The Pilot and The Asset, and synthesising them into a single familiar story.

The problem is that the best bits of The Pilot and The Asset weren’t anything to write home about.

A chip off the old block...

A chip off the old block…

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Non-Review Review: Thor – The Dark World

Thor was a gem. I’d argue it remains the best of the Marvel Studios films, expertly and enthusiastically embracing the heightened melodrama of comic book storytelling and boiling it down to faux Shakespearean elegance. With Kenneth Branagh directing and a fantastic cast, the film hit on a lot of the old-fashioned comic book spectacle. Yes, it was sheer nonsense, but there’s something surprisingly affecting about hearing Anthony Hopkins intone Stan Lee’s decidedly corny dialogue. This is sheer unadulterated pop, filtered down and distilled.

A lot of that carries over to Thor: The Dark World. “Some believe that before the universe, there was nothing,” Hopkins’ Odin assured us in the trailer, in a narration omitted from the film. “They’re wrong. There was darkness…” Sure, physicists and scientist might weep at the suggestion, but Hopkins is able to imbue the ridiculous line with a surreal gravitas. “I like the way you explain things,” Jane tells Thor at one point, and the British accents lend the goofiness a strangely convincing air.

It doesn’t make any sense, and it’ll hurt your head too much if you think about it, but that’s entirely the point. This is a movie about a Norse god with an English accent and flying hammer.

It's... wait for it... hammer time!

It’s… wait for it… hammer time!

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Stan Lee & Jack Kirby’s Thor – The Might Thor Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

I am a massive fan of The Mighty Thor. There’s just something so clever and playful about the idea of a classic Norse deity reimagined as a Marvel superhero, a self-aware take on the whole “modern myth” approach to American comic book storytelling that it’s hard not to love. Indeed, I would rank portions of Lee and Kirby’s work on Thor among the best of their output from the Silver Age, a truly epic large-scale epic fantasy narrative that isn’t anchored or tethered to any limitations beyond the imaginations of those working on it.

While The Fantastic Four is a lot more consistent and a lot more important in the grand scheme of comic book history, Thor is a bit rockier. It took Lee and Kirby a considerable amount of time to find their creative voice on Thor – a difficulty compounded by the fact that heavy work loads on other Marvel often forced the duo to delegate the early issues of the book to other writers and artists. As a result, this mammoth tome of Thor serves more as a learning curve, building towards a point where the duo will have figured out quite how to tell compelling and exciting stories featuring the God of Thunders.

Taking the hammer for a spin...

Taking the hammer for a spin…

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West Coast Avengers Omnibus, Vol. 1 (Review/Retrospective)

To celebrate the release of Thor: The Dark World towards the end of next month, we’ll be looking at some Thor and Avenger-related comics throughout September. Check back weekly for the latest reviews and retrospectives.

I’ve never been especially fond of the classic Avengers. The group has always seemed particularly insular and self-centred for a comic book superhero team, with so much emphasis on their by-laws and regulations, their posh fifth avenue mansion and the strange sense of pride that second-tier characters like Hawkeye seem to place on their own importance within the Avengers franchise. There have been great runs, and there have been comics that I have enjoyed a great deal, but I will concede that I am not a fan of the Silver and Bronze Age Avengers aesthetic.

West Coast Avengers is a clear attempt to develop the franchise, to give Marvel a second high-profile Avengers book. Launched in 1984 and running for a decade, the book followed the establishment of a second superhero team branded on the classic Avengers model. Of course, part of me suspects that this was all just a plan to get Hawkeye out of the mansion (“you and Mockingbird can relocate quickly… and the sooner you do — the sooner our west coast team is operational — the better!” Vision insists).

There are moments of wry self-awareness in West Coast Avengers, but far too much of it reads far too earnestly.

And yet somehow this guy has appeared in two of the biggest superhero blockbusters of the past five years...

And yet somehow this guy has appeared in two of the biggest superhero blockbusters of the past five years…

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