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Panel Beating - 30th May 2006

Sometimes a week of comics comes along that really surprises you. And after a couple of weeks in which I've bought only a handful of books, with only one or two being real standouts, I left the shop this week with no less than seven titles - with a consistently solid level of quality. You may notice that most of the grades this week are the same - but that's a reflection of the general "Yeah, that was pretty good!" feeling I had while ploughing through the week's stack. Such a thing is made all the more pleasant by not having really expected any of them - save Powers and Batman - to be any great shakes. Read on, then, for my thoughts on a busy but rewarding week's reading...

Powers v2 #18, cover by Mike Avon Oeming


Publisher Marvel (Icon imprint) • Writer Brian Michael Bendis • Art Michael Avon Oeming

Ah, Powers. Powers, Powers, wonderful Powers. Look at it, there, with its effortlessly-great Blade Runner pastiche cover. It's the sort of book you just feel grateful is on the racks even when it's not at its best. And when it is at its best, as with this month, you're reminded just why you read these comic things in the first place. You can even forgive it being a bit late when it's this good.

Seriously, this issue is like a distillation of everything that has for a number of years made this book the best thing Brian Michael Bendis has ever done. It's got everything. The "Club Cinderella" scenes that have run throughout this arc are explained in a thoroughly satisfying way that sits as a neat example of structure (namely because, it turns out, they've all been taking place after the events they've been interspersed with). There's a classic Powers-style double page spread turned on its head slightly (it's a staple of the book to have scenes where a number of random heroes or characters are questioned, but here we instead see their pictures as a witness eliminates them as suspects), not to mention being filled with easter eggs for longtime readers of the book. There's a startling, sudden and poignant resolution to the current whodunnit, and one that in fact turns the entire story on its head somewhat, leaving you sympathising almost as much with the "killer" as with the victim. There's a character named Cho who looks just like Frank Cho. There's terrific dialogue between Walker and snarky FBI Agent Lange (I eagerly await the day that Bendis properly delves into the history between those two).

And, once again, there's a starkly-drawn contrast between the lives of Christian and Deena. We're led to feel genuinely happy for Christian in a neat and quite unexpected coda to the main murder mystery arc; meanwhile, there's another difficult scene following Deena's continued descent into despair, culminating in a real "Oh, no, seriously, don't..." moment. Ostensibly, this issue is the end of a story arc, but we're still not given any satisfying resolution to Deena's current story - indeed, it's almost taking the structure of a TV series, with a longer arc running underneath the individual stories. Once again, you just can't shake the feeling that this is going to end really badly.

If you're not reading Powers yet, the next issue is being billed as something of a "new jumping-on point", and so I seriously suggest you give it a try - even if you've tried it before and it didn't quite take. It's often worth it for Oeming's art and Pantazis' colours alone - indeed, the last page of this issue, despite being about 80% pure black, is an absolute masterpiece. With Planetary drawing to a close, no new monthlies from Alan Moore on the horizon, and Vertigo lacking a Sandman or a Preacher, you'd be hard pressed to find a more consistently brilliant book on the racks than this. A+

Green Lantern #11, cover by Simone Bianchi


Publisher DC • Writer Geoff Johns • Pencils Ivan Reis• Inks Oclair Albert

Well, now. This was a pleasant surprise. I dropped Green Lantern from my pull-list after the incredibly dull first One Year Later issue, and because I've never been too enamoured with Hal Jordan as a character (there are countless more interesting GLs than him - Kyle Rayner, Guy Gardner, Kilowog, even bloody G'Nort!). But I picked up this issue because I heard it included the return of a character I was quite enamoured with - and it turned out to be really quite entertaining.

What helps, of course, is that there's a whole load of harkening back to the early-mid '90s, which regular readers may know I've always had a soft spot for. The Manhunters, who were the subject of a cracking Giffen/JDM JLI issue I recently read for the first time in about ten years after buying it at Bristol, are apparently the main focus of this arc. Fair enough, they're an established Green Lantern menace, you expect them to show up at some point or another - and indeed they already did, shortly after this series' original relaunch. What I did not expect, however, was to see B'wana Beast show up! And not the original one, either - but the black South African version who took over in Animal Man and called himself "Freedom Beast" instead! It certainly raises some interesting questions over how much of the mid-late section of Grant Morrison's AM is actually now considered canon, but for the meantime it's simply an extremely amusing cameo to have turned the page and been surprised by.

And then, of course, on the last page, in all his glory, is the big man himself - the character I bought the issue for. Yep, Hank Henshaw - the gloriously cheesy evil scientist-turned-mechanical-superbeing who was the "Cyborg Superman" in The Return of Superman (just Wiki it or something, I haven't got time to explain), and who is really now more of a GL villain - despite still wearing the "S" shield on his snazzy new costume - thanks to the whole "destroying Coast City" thing, is back. He's keeping captive a number of presumed-dead GLs, and wearing their rings into the bargain. Which can only mean that next issue is going to be tremendous fun.

Elsewhere, Guy Gardner is on top form ("Yippie ki yea" indeed), and Reis' art shows a marked improvement on last month. All in all, after something of a false start at the beginning of OYL, this one might just be starting to come good - and it may just work its way back onto my pull list. After all, you really can't go wrong with a maniacal Superman-lookalike cyborg, can you? A

Batman #653, cover by Simone Bianchi


Publisher DC • Writer James Robinson • Pencils Don Kramer • Inks Wayne Faucher

An interesting change of pace, this - as we stop for a self-contained issue that concentrates solely on Harvey Dent. Tortured by the apparent re-emergence of Two-Face into his personality, he spends the issue conducting a conversation with his evil side - manifested in the mirror - and we discover more about the way he was left in charge of protecting Gotham by Batman, and what transpired in the time he spent doing so. And for 19 of its 22 pages, it's good stuff. It's really good stuff.

And then it's completely ruined by the ending.

Not that I have any objection to Harvey becoming villainous again - if anything, the issue actually provides really strong narrative justification for it. It's more the way that it happens. It just feels cheap, easy and cornily unrealistic. Not that comics should be a bastion of realism, of course - but the idea of Harvey calmly pouring nitric acid down one side of his face, then fine-tuning by carving with a scalpel, and coming out looking exactly like he used to as Two-Face (rather than, say, writhing around on the floor in agony for a bit), is really stretching suspension of disbelief somewhat. I know that it's not just a normal face, that he'd had reconstructive plastic surgery - but it would still bloody hurt, wouldn't it?

I just feel there's more that could have been done with Harvey turning evil despite "looking" good, rather than simply going the easy way and having him look like Two-Face again. And it's particularly disappointing when the rest of the issue is so good - a really strong, in-depth examination of the tortured dichotomies of Harvey's psyche, in addition to providing some intriguing insights into the "year off" (such as Batman's comments about Cassandra Cain). Some also believe that this issue makes it clear that Harvey is the mystery killer - I don't agree, actually, I think it's still being left fairly ambiguous. It is quite strange, though, that the solicitation for this issue bears absolutely no relation whatsoever to its contents. In conclusion, though, a terrific issue, marred slightly (albeit, on reflection, not devastatingly) by a naff ending. A

Quick Bites!


(DC : *deep breath* Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, Keith Giffen, Joe Bennett and Ruy Jose)

A cautious consensus seems to be arising that, so far, 52 is turning out to be a bit of a success. It remains to be seen whether it can keep it up, but should the trend for increasing quality week by week continue, then we should be on to something really explosive by about week fifteen. I can see where it might be pretty incomprehensible to the new reader - if you hadn't read Infinite Crisis, you'd surely be lost with all this "other Luthor" stuff; and if you hadn't read Superman/Batman before that, you'd be similarly lost over why "our" Lex has fallen from grace so - and that's a shame. But it's generally good stuff - the focus is shifted away from Ralph this week and back onto Steel and Black Adam (I worry slightly about the latter, in that from seemingly nowhere he's suddenly becoming one of the real intimidating powerhouses of the DCU, but damned if his unique moral code doesn't keep you on your toes), though an underrunning focus remains on Booster Gold (who I'm by now convinced isn't "our" Booster at all) with the promise of Rip Hunter, of all people, showing up soon. Building and building, then - and it really is quite pleasant knowing that there's only a week between issues. Hopefully the story will remain intriguing enough that the novelty won't fade. A-


(DC : Keith Giffen, John Rogers, Cynthia Martin and Phil Moy)

Keith Giffen and John Rogers continue to defy expectations by, after killing off the beloved Ted Kord, making his replacement's new book a thoroughly entertaining read. I'm still getting quite a Marvel vibe off this, as we watch an inexperienced young hero getting to grips with his powers, but that's no bad thing - and such scenes are constantly a joy to behold. There's slightly less obvious wit in this issue than in the first two, although still plenty of good lines - and I like such nods to the new reader as explaining just why Jaime is calling himself Blue Beetle in the first place. No Cully Hamner this time out, which is a shame, but his fill-in (sorry, "guest penciller") maintains a style pretty similar to his, so it feels consistent. And I'm still digging that costume design, you know. A-


(DC Vertigo : Denise Mina & Leonardo Manco)

The story continues to crawl along at a snail's pace, which doesn't help its quite impenetrable nature one bit. There's good stuff going on - including a rather good if slightly unoriginal twist - but having to refer back to previous issues in order to understand what's happening just isn't something you should have to do with a monthly book. The Constantine scenes are fine, but I'm still struggling to figure out how all the religious stuff fits together. I've a feeling, then, that this will read much, much better in the trade than it does here. Still, though, Mina seems to have an inherent enough understanding of who Constantine is, and Manco's art continues to impress sufficiently, that it's worth perservering with. It'd just be nice if some more stuff could, you know, happen. B+


(Marvel : Brian Michael Bendis & Mike Deodato Jr.)

It feels strangely out of place, this. The rest of the Marvel Universe is getting on with Civil War crossovers and tie-ins and whatnot, yet New Avengers - arguably the company's most flagship title in a number of ways - is still rooted in House of M hangover. And yet we're also given some scenes that seem to tie in directly to SHIELD's relationship with the Avengers around the time of the Nitro incident - which means it would have been kind of nice to have read it before Civil War #1. All of which leads me to wonder just how behind-schedule this issue actually is. Happily, though, it's by no means completely incomprehensible for readers like me, who didn't read a word of HoM and started buying the title again on the strength of the recent Annual. At the moment, despite the tie-ins, it's an exactly-what-it-says-on-the-tin kind of book - an entertaining superhero team book bringing together some big names under the pen of a writer who knows exactly how their characters tick. It's just a shame that, with all this Civil War stuff on the horizon, it's hard to see the book continuing in its present state for much longer. A-


Another busy one, with Action Comics hopefully building on the triumphant latest part of Up, Up and Away!, the debut proper of the new Spectre, another issue of 52 (of course), and the long awaited Superman/Batman #26, featuring a story about Robin and Superboy that Jeph Loeb's son was writing when he died, and which has been finished by a who's who of talent (including Joss Whedon's first ever DC work!) that makes it a must-buy. Meanwhile, in the Marvel corner, Ultimate Spider-Man moves into a new arc that surely can't be any worse than Deadpool, while Amazing Spider-Man will hopefully continue the strong start it's made to all this Civil War malarkey. The best news, however, comes from the indies - issue #5 of the magnificent Local is out, but best of all, after a more-than-two-year gap between issues that puts Kevin Smith to shame, Frank Cho finally sees fit to grace us with #37 of Liberty Meadows. Although I'll believe that one's coming out when I see it...

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