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Panel Beating - 25th April 2006

Bit of a strange one for me this week; I didn't manage to get my hands on half of the things I wanted to review (particularly annoyed that my LCS "ran out" of Robin before they even got to my bag, making me wonder what the point of a pull list is - surely the idea is that you order enough copies for your reservists and then a few for the shelves?), and the stuff I did manage to get didn't exactly make for a hugely inspiring week. Birds of Prey is struggling to hold my interest since it remains fairly impenetrable to the new reader, while Hellblazer is difficult to review since anything that could be said about the prior issues can be said about the current one as well (which is basically that Mina is doing a solid job, but after a strong start needs to wrap up this arc soon because it's getting a bit tiresome, and that the art is terrific). So there were only two books out this past week that I was really able to write anything about. And also, since I didn't get round to writing a column last week, I've got a couple of overhanging opinions of stuff from then. So let's rattle through them, shall we?

Ex Machina Special #1


Publisher DC (Wildstorm) • Writer Brian K. Vaughan • Pencils Chris Sprouse • Inks Karl Story

Regular readers of this column will know that, while I never consider Ex Machina anything less than an essential read, I've found it tough going of late, as Vaughan's most political story to date has made for some decidedly uncomfortable moments. All kudos in the world to him, therefore, for recognising that while his political stories do extremely well (and are extremely good), there are a good number of Ex Machina readers who are just as interested in the flashback tales of the Great Machine's superhero career as they are in his political one; and that instead of making them wait until this latest arc is over to be catered for, he can instead put out a pair of specials that focus on that other side of Ex Machina's story. And while this two-part story certainly doesn't make for anything approaching "light" reading (because this comic never does), it's certainly something of a welcome contrast to the main title.

Without any of the jumping around between time periods that this book's narrative usually offers us - save for a brief framing sequence at the beginning - this is a straightforward flashback to the early days of Mitch Hundred's superhero career. Following an attempt to discover just how the Great Machine was able to "tell" a camera to stop recording, something unexplained happens to tech student Jack Pherson, and some eerily familiar - yet slightly different - abilities begin exhibiting themselves. Yep, the Great Machine has his first major "archenemy", and so we get a typically Ex Machina-style dark twist on a standard facet of superheroics.

Darker and more violent twists on superheroes never really seem that special to me these days, simply because there's very little left that can be done with that kind of approach in the wake of some of the fleeting yet defining moments of brilliance that the last couple of decades have offered. But Ex Machina isn't gritty like Watchmen, nor gloriously over the top like The Authority - and neither is it attempting to ape them or anything else that came between them. For that reason, it somehow manages to put a fresh spin on the idea of telling a darkly realistic superhero fable - perhaps because it's one of the most downright human superhero stories that's been told in a very long time. Littered as usual with some great moments, this issue is a perfect example of the series doing what it does best, and anyone not currently reading would do well to grab this excellent opportunity to jump onboard (it represents a far better way in than the current mired-in-continuity arc, anyway). As for the art, meanwhile, I was a little apprehensive of someone other than Tony Harris taking on this book - but I needn't have worried. Sprouse and Story are proven talents (good enough for Alan Moore, no less) and their style is extremely similar to the book's usual look - in fact, they even achieve the impressive feat of making all the characters look just as they do when Harris draws them. It's the sort of class you expect month in month out from this book, but that never makes it any less welcome. A+

Manhunter #21


Publisher DC • Writer Marc Andreyko • Pencils Javier Pina • Inks Fernando Blanco

Manhunter has been one of the surprise successes of One Year Later so far, a book that had begun to build up a decent level of buzz just prior to the event, and so one that many people saw the relaunch as an ideal opportunity to jump on to. It's pleasing to see, as it demonstrates that it's not just the Supermans and Batmans of the world that are benefitting from what has, on the whole, been a pretty successful company-wide reimagining by DC.

I personally am one of those late bandwagon-jumpers; in fact, I'm an even later one, because I didn't manage to get hold of a copy of issue #20 (the first OYL issue) back when it came out. Fortunately, though, if you do a little reading up on the series' concept beforehand, it really isn't a difficult book to get into at all. The main storyarc, only an issue old, is easy to pick up - Kate Spencer (laywer-cum-FBI-agent-cum-vigilante) is having to defend a villain who caused unimaginable chaos and slaughter during the near-apocalyptic events of (we presume) Infinite Crisis #7 (interestingly, for such a small book, Manhunter is offering us the first glimpse of the Crisis' climactic battle in Metropolis). This, obviously, is causing her something of a moral strife. It's clear, even to a new reader such as myself, that morality is a strong theme in Manhunter - its central character, after all, spends her days serving justice as a lawyer and her nights hunting down villains that she feels have unfairly escaped justice - and it's good to see yet another slant being put on this theme by the current arc. Spencer herself, meanwhile, is a strongly-drawn character - she's likeable without being soft, perhaps even something of a Jessica Jones for the DC Universe.

The second half of the issue delves more into what is obviously something of a longer-term story, as Kate chases down Dr. Midnite of the JSA to ask him some questions about her past; again, though, even though there's a lot of detail previously unknown to the newcomer, the scene is written in such a way that it's easy to understand - it's clear that, for whatever reason, Kate is trying to ascertain if Al "The Atom" Pratt was her biological grandfather. Credit again to Andreyko for hooking the reader into this story - even if we didn't know the character previously - enabling us to hit the ground running. Indeed, it's rare to see a tight, intelligent series such as this keep itself so accessible, and after a good issue showing us the courtroom side of his lead, Andreyko has certainly succeeded in keeping this reader around to witness her vigilante side. B+

Superman #651


Publisher DC • Writers Kurt Busiek & Geoff Johns • Artist Pete Woods

The Superman books continue to be as good as ever following the One Year Later relaunch, although while last week's Detective Comics upped its game a bit, Busiek and Johns maintain rather than improve upon the established quality. This, however, is tremendously good fun - but how can it not be with the Prankster around? Yep, our esteemed writers continue to tap into the spirit of the Man of Steel's most memorable eras by bringing back another member of his classic rogues gallery, and his antics are an absolute hoot. Indeed, with reappearances (or reimaginings) in recent weeks of Metallo, the Toyman and the Kryptonite Man, and Luthor back in good old Evil Genius Scientist mode, there's a definite invoking of the Silver Age spirit (albeit without as much completely out-there, zany, Silver Ageness as there is in Grant Morrison's All-Star Superman, which is probably a good thing for the core titles) with a neatly modern slant going on here, and as such it continues to feel like an iconic take in-waiting. And that's still before Clark's even got his powers back yet.

What makes this work is that Clark Kent isn't being presented as a one-dimensional character who loses all his interest as soon as he takes off his cape. Busiek and Johns are fully aware of the fact that twenty or thirty years of life experience - and the influence of people around him like Lois and Perry - have gone towards making Clark a rounded, interesting, intelligent and resourceful person, irrespective of whether or not he's able to leap tall buildings at any particular time. What also makes it work, of course, is the continued tightness of the plot, dialogue and art working beautifully in tandem - and indeed, I'm pleased to see that we're getting a bit of Busiek/Woods "overtime" after this storyarc finishes, as they're staying on Action for a bit before the as-yet-unnamed writing team and Adam Kubert take over. Terrific stuff once again, then - and continuing evidence that the big hitters really are here to stay. A

Green Arrow #61


Publisher DC • Writer Judd Winick • Pencils Scott McDaniel • Inks Andy Owens

This issue annoys me, despite the fact that it's really quite good. Why's that, you may ask? Well, simply put, issue #61 is what issue #60 should have been. This is the second issue of Green Arrow's One Year Later relaunch, but it actually works perfectly as the first. It makes last month seem like a waste of time - a pointless exposition issue that didn't even show us Ollie until the last page.

The worst part is that there was nothing demonstrated in that issue that isn't dealt with here in much more succint and concise fashion. Star City suffered in the crisis, it's partly in ruins with a massive wall cutting off part of it, and Ollie Queen is its new mayor. Simple as. Here, we get the added bonus of sticking with Ollie himself from page one, in a highly entertaining press conference scene to boot. At a well-judged, breakneck pace, we rattle through a series of scenes - shady corporate types discussing their attempted "removal" of Hizzona, some Ex Machina-style dialogue between Ollie and his aides (you knew it was coming at some point, thankfully it's done well), a big ol' siege that leads to Green Arrow's triumphant return from people-thinking-he-was-dead, a little layer of intrigue added to Ollie's motivations as one of his aides makes a good point of the glaring sort that would undoubtedly have been pointed out by fanboys had Winick not got there first, and then best of all, Deathstroke showing up and, in a single panel, getting the best line of the whole thing and promising a great next issue.

As the first issue of Green Arrow One Year Later, this is terrific - well-paced and funny, with just the right balance of talkiness and action. It gets straight to the point, everything you need to know about the new setup is either outright stated or heavily implied, and with a lot going on it feels like a meaty read. So why oh why wasn't it the first issue? Happily, though, despite last month's disappointment, Winick does enough here to keep this on my pull list for the foreseeable future. A

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