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Panel Beating - 16th May 2006

A bit of a quiet week for me and new comics this time out, with only three things of note picked up (although one of them was very important and anticipated, and the other two were stonkingly good). So we'll come to those in a minute, but despite the dearth of "new" issues, I did end up buying a lot of comics this week. Why? Well, for the first time, I found myself venturing into comics-con waters, by attending the Bristol Comic Expo, the UK's biggest solely comics-orientated event.

Now, I'm no Rich Johnston, and I can't bring you gossip from the event, the panels, the hotel bar or the Eagle awards, namely because (a) I don't know any big-name creators personally, (b) I was only there on the Sunday, and (c) I didn't attend any panels. But I can at least offer you a brief and staggeringly uninteresting outline of my experience as a con-going n00b - but don't worry, it's not very long, and there's a 52 review shortly afterwards.

Best part of the day, naturally, was getting sketches from the ever-brilliant Dave Gibbons and the extremely accommodating Gilbert Shelton (who, as I grabbed him shortly after his arrival and before he'd officially started signing, was still game enough to do me not one, but two Fat Freddy's Cat sketches so that my Dad could have one too), in addition to buying some signed issues of Albion from Leah Moore and John Reppion, who may just be two of the nicest people in the industry. I also had the briefest of words with Geoff Johns, who was sat next to Gibbons, telling him I liked Infinite Crisis. Because, you know, that book's had a lot of flak, and he's a good bloke.

There was a good selection of stalls at the con - including, amusingly, the Forbidden Planet International (not to be confused with Forbidden Planet the shop) one being (wo)manned by the manager of Worlds Apart, my old LCS in Liverpool. It seemed that, whatever sort of condition you were after your back issues in, you could find them - from Incognito Comics offering bagged and self-graded issues for market prices, to the stands that had an incredible array of tattier, unbagged reading copies for 50p a pop. Both being the sort of guys who buy our comics to read, not to hermetically seal, you can imagine that it was to the latter stalls that myself and James tended to gravitate. In addition to picking up a bunch of Milligan/Allred X-Force issues (I only came onboard when it relaunched as X-Statix, thus missing out on - among other things - the hilarious letters from angry fans of the old Liefeld team), I was able to make a healthy bit of progress along my slow-but-steady quest of obtaining as many Giffen/deMatteis Justice League comics as possible. Already owning the first (and only) trade, the issue that followed it and a smattering of issues afterwards, thanks to Bristol I was able to fill in another handful of consecutive issues along the early run, and pick up a few other randoms to drop in. Best of all, I got hold of JLI Annual #3, something I remember reading as a kid and which still stands up as one of the funniest single comics ever written. I also picked up a couple of Armageddon 2001 issues (an Action Comics and the first issue of the crossover itself), for my sins. What can I say? I'm a sucker for late '80s-early '90s DC fluff.

Anyway, all in all it was an enjoyable day - despite the apparent lack of anywhere open to eat anywhere nearby the station and convention hall, necessitating a lengthy walk around Bristol and an even lengthier spell of getting lost on the way back - and it was nice to be able to immerse myself in some proper comics fandom for a day (although it's not the sort of thing you want to spend your whole life getting stuck in). We didn't hit any panels or anything, largely due to the time constraints of only being there for a day (with an hour of that being taken up by waiting for Gibbons), and also due to the bizarre fact that the ticket sales, and all the panels and events, were a good five or ten minutes walk away from the main con hall. Never mind, though - there's always next year...

52 #1, cover by JG Jones


Publisher DC • Writers Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka and Mark Waid • Breakdowns Keith Giffen • Pencils Joe Bennett • Inks Ruy Jose

For something that's supposed to be a major, brave step into a new way of comics storytelling, and one with an extremely impressive quartet of writers at that, 52 hasn't half found itself in a weird position in terms of the story it's going to, erm, tell. Infinite Crisis is done with, and with the exception of Wonder Woman and Justice League, just about all the major One Year Later books are already ticking over quite nicely and so we already know what's happened to the likes of Superman and Batman. We also know that none of the main cast of 52 are being allowed to be seen One Year Later and that, on the flip side, the big guns won't be seen in 52 (thus denying us the chance, probably, to ever see such things as what the Bat-clan got up to during their year abroad).

Confused, yet? Well, unfortunately, the first week of 52 does little to clarify things. It's a bit all over the place, frankly. I imagine things will settle down a lot more when the plotlines are allowed to breathe at their own pace, with some stories and characters coming into focus in one issue, others in the next, and so on. At the moment, though, we're in the unwelcome position of having to cope with a cast of five main characters - Booster Gold, Steel, Ralph Dibny, the Question and Renee Montoya - being thrust upon us at once, in addition to having some of the continuity changes brought about by the Crisis gradually explained.

Speaking of those main characters, if there's one thing that really feels off about the first issue, it's the portrayal of Booster Gold. Booster has grown and evolved over the years, and we last saw him a man shattered and changed by various experiences culminating in the death of his best friend, heading back to the 25th Century. It's quite disconcerting, then, to see a quite irritating version of him, one that's very close to the corporate-shilling guy that, when introduced in the late '80s, was so indicative of his time. Part of me wonders, in fact, if this is even the same character who said a solemn goodbye to old comrade Fire during The OMAC Project - and as such a big fan of the Giffen/JDM JLI, I'm almost beginning to hope not.

It's not a bad issue at all, this, even if it does struggle to nail down where it's really going as yet. It just feels a little low-key for the opener to what's meant to be a massive event, and with four writers such as we've got, you really tend to expect fireworks from the word go (I wonder, for example, just how much Grant Morrison has actually got to do with this at the moment). I can imagine it being damned near incomprehensible for the new reader, although I can't really imagine that DC ever hoped to attract masses of new readers to buy both this and the One Year Later titles, thus having to buy into not one but two different lines of continuity. But for the fans, meanwhile, there's been a lot of anticipation leading up to this book, and - particularly as we'd already seen half of it in previews - it's been nowhere near sated by the first issue. Lucky, then, that we've only got to wait a week to see if things are going to start catching fire. B+

Superman #652, cover by Terry and Rachel Dodson


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

In some wonderful parallel world - not that there are parallel worlds, timelines, possibilities or outcomes as far as DC are concerned, but all the same, in some wonderful parallel world - all Superman stories are like this one. Well, obviously, some of them are like All-Star Superman - but the honest-to-goodness, in-continuity, mainstream Superman stories are told with as much care and affection for the character as Kurt Busiek and Geoff Johns are currently putting in. And after four excellent issues featuring a powerless Clark Kent and showing us that we don't need the Man of Steel in costume to tell a great story about him, they've only gone and turned out an even better issue now that he's got his powers back.

We had the "locomotive" last issue; now we get, on the bookending pages of the issue, the "tall building" and the "speeding bullet". Right from the start, this is an issue rooted in the very fundamentals of Superman lore; and so, in the early stages of regaining his powers, he can only "leap tall buildings" rather than fly. It's beautifully-handled, particularly as he comes to terms with having to battle a group of Intergang-hired mercenaries at less than full strength - as with Warren Ellis' excellent JLA Classified arc a short time back, it's great to see Superman actually have to think his way around a fight, and one in the eye to those who claim that he consists of little more than his immense powers.

Elsewhere, it's basically just a series of "Yaaaaaay!" moments. While the opening scene is perhaps a little Spider-Man (the movie), the following scene with Lois is great stuff - it's surely tempting, as a writer, to simply portray her as the sort of woman who would prefer it if Clark wasn't out there saving the day. But such a thing loses sight of the fact that she fell in love with Superman as well as Clark, and her reaction - and his reaction to her reaction, come to that - are neatly stated. And so we get a classic-style suiting-up scene before a triumphant return to action at - where else? - the Daily Planet office. It's all very filmic, but given how much awe and wonder was captured in those first two Superman films, evoking memories of them is surely no bad thing. The "something" that Superman needs to kick off the mental blocks stopping his powers fully returning, meanwhile, makes for a superbly triumphant end to the issue - and one that I really don't want to spoil here.

Pete Woods has been turning in career-best art throughout this arc, but he too ups his game here - you can tell he's been dying for the opportunity to properly do Superman in costume. I'm really liking the Superman Returns-style raised-S on the costume, so it's a shame that it's probably just a result of his style rather than an editorially-mandated template that will be followed in the near future. He gets the classic, broad-chested, slicked-back-hair-with-kiss-curl (a point about the hairstyle is even made by Lois) look right on the nail, and it really suits the pre-Silver Age feel to much of the issue, with Superman leaping rather than flying around.

It's just really, really great stuff, this. It's everything a superhero comic - or, indeed, specifically a Superman comic - should be. It's inspiring, it's action-packed, it has funny moments, it has good character moments, it looks superb, and it leaves you eagerly awaiting the next issue. I've said it before, but if DC are using runs like this - and Robinson's Batman - as the template for their next "age" of comics, then I'm behind them one hundred percent. A+

Ex Machina #20, cover by Tony Harris


Publisher DC (Wildstorm) • Writer Brian K. Vaughan • Pencils Tony Harris • Inks Tom Feister

Damn you, Vaughan. You're not allowed to do that.

You're not allowed to write an arc so distressingly topical and downright depressing that your readers only remain hooked into what you're doing by virtue of sheer awe at how good it is, and then reward them with a payoff final issue that leaves a satisfying sense of justice done and faith in the characters (in addition to including a staggering, full-page flashback to the Great Machine's heroics on 9/11), before turning it all on its head by giving us the mother of all kicks to the stomach on the last page.

You're not allowed to create a character who's beautiful, funny, smart and sure to be a pivotal part of the book's overall story, have something really nasty happen to her relatively early in the run so that we think she'll come out of it alright because of who she is and how early in the run it is, and then, just when we think it's all going to be alright, sodding well kill her off, because that's what happens in real life.

And what you're really not allowed is to do all that in such a way as to continue to make Ex Machina one of the most completely unmissable comics out there.

You bastard. A+


52 continues, of course... only 50 more to go after this! I'll have to make a decision soon as to whether or not to actually review it every week, or just intermittently. Elsewhere, there's a mouthwatering confrontation in prospect in Green Arrow as Mayor Queen faces off against Deathstroke, continued intrigue in Manhunter, and the 150th issue of Robin. Oh, and issue #4 of All-Star Batman & Robin finally rears its ugly head, but you won't catch me touching it with a bargepole.

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