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Panel Beating - 8th May 2006

Iiiiin the blue corner, with the planet-smashing and continuity waves, it's DC Comics, with Infinite Crisis! And iiiiin the red corner, with the political intrigue and angsty superhero arguments, it's Marvel Comics, with Civil War!

Seriously, it does almost feel like Marvel and DC have chosen to deliberately face off this past week, if only so that comics reviews columns like this one can have fun comparing two crossovers that, at their heart, really couldn't be more different (aside from each one's much-trumpeted claims to have lasting and shattering effects on their respective universes). A happy coincidence of the fact, anyway, is that I can spend ages blathering about the pair of them before devoting some perfunctory space to the week's other purchases. Hoorah for Big Events In Competition!

(Incidentally, does anyone else remember when 6 issues used to be the standard for a miniseries? When did seven parts suddenly become en vogue?)

Infinite Crisis #7


Publisher DC • Writer Geoff Johns • Pencils Phil Jimenez, George Perez, Ivan Reis, Joe Bennett • Inks Too many to list!

Infinite Crisis has drawn criticism in many quarters, not least because it threatened to have much more of an impact than it actually did. We were all expecting something that would drastically shake up DC's universe, bringing in elements of the pre-Crisis multiverse and perhaps finally giving us a firm foundation on which to understand all those alternate versions of characters, stories and other such guff. What actually happened, though, was that the DCU Earth was ripped apart back into its component multiple Earths... and then smooshed back together again into something that's pretty much almost identical to what we had before, with a few random instances of things that the editors felt the need to retcon and iron out. Less, then, a Crisis on Infinite Earths-style ripping up of what's gone before and starting from page zero, more an affirmation of the new direction DC want to take things in. Furthermore, its impact was dulled somewhat by the fact that almost all of the One Year Later titles - starting, in case you hadn't twigged, a year after the end of IC - have begun by now, with some a good couple of months in. DC can say what they like, but I refuse to believe this was the original intention from the beginning, unless they wanted to spoil the fact that this really wasn't a new, blank-canvas universe they were setting up.

But even if all that really changes as a result of Infinite Crisis is that Batman is less of an arsehole and the DCU is a bit more streamlined and focused, does that make it a worthless venture? I don't think so (not least because those two aforementioned changes are both things that really needed to be done). I'd prefer to judge it on how good a read it was - and after an admittedly slow start, the series certainly picked up towards the end, building to a particularly strong finish with issue #7.

Indeed, in the end, it turned out we weren't building up to some universe-shifting, cosmic storyline in the style of the old Crisis after all; what the story was really about were the twin threats of the cataclysmic assault of the villains on Metropolis (is this the first time that quite so many villains have descended on one place in a comic?) and the emergence of Superboy Prime as a dangerous new enemy, and the sacrifices that certain heroes make to save the world. Alex's plans were in ruins by the end of issue #6, leaving #7 ready for the great big storming fights that were to follow.

And, by and large, it turns out to be good stuff. The Superboy Prime scenes, admittedly, are far better than the Metropolis scenes; there's a real sense of scope and desperate energy in the assault, first, of the assembled GL corps, followed by the terrifically cinematic scene of the twin Supermen thrusting Superboy towards, and through, the red sun and down onto the surface of Mogo (nice nod to Alan Moore, there). Admittedly, the final fight between the three of them, and the death of Kal-L, feels a little anti-climactic, although the moment of Old Supes' death itself is nicely handled, with the lovely retro shot of the "ghosts" of Clark and Lois reunited. While we're at it, I have to say I'm not one of these people incredibly annoyed about killing off the man who is, technically, the first ever superhero. The way I see it, that character "died", or at least ceased to become relevant, as soon as he was relegated to the status of "Earth 2 Superman". At that point, he became an anachronism, and the tales that were told with him - up to and including the original Crisis - never really gave him enough gravitas to make him feel as truly important as he should have. The Kal-L character is a world away from the character who appeared in Action Comics #1, and the fact that they are supposedly one and the same is, to me, a technicality brought about solely by a later editorial decision, so I find it hard to get too upset about the manner in which he's killed here; nevertheless, he remained a significant character within the context of the DCU, and his fitting send-off was, to me, a suitably powerful moment.

In Metropolis, meanwhile, the main problem is that such a massive event isn't given the scope it really needs to breathe; as such, everything feels compressed into too-few panels, and the infamous lack of ink and colour in the supposedly epic double-page spread doesn't help matters in the slightest, since the selection of characters we do see feels arbitrary at best. Indeed, art and layout lets this down in a few places - there's just so much going on that most of the panels that should be big and epic are instead tiny and cramped, while a lot of double-page spreads feel wasted, such as a fight with Doomsday that seems to serve little purpose other than to give the citizens of Metropolis something to see as "Superman's last fight" by the time of the first part of "Up, Up and Away!" (it's a Catch-22, of course - keep the Doomsday scene in, and it HAS to waste two pages, because it has to feel big and significant). Compare this with Civil War, where admittedly a lot less is happening, but the panels all feel big, meaty and significant (this could be down to the fact that Millar, like so many of the upstart Brit writers, has a much stronger feel for the craftsmanship behind comic book pacing, while someone like Johns is far more concerned with just telling a good story rooted in the superhero mythos he loves so much). Like I say, it's true that there's a lot more to cram in this story - but would it have hurt to spread it out to a couple more issues, in that case? Elsewhere, the multitude of pencillers and inkers employed really don't help matters, with - for example - what should be a wonderful double page spread showing pretty much every hero of the "new era" DCU ruined somewhat by some of the characters looking pretty shoddily-drawn (not that it doesn't still make for a cracking bit of Where's Wally?-style fun, particularly spotting the heroes or costumes that we haven't actually encountered in OYL or 52 yet). Indeed, while the Perez/Ordway art worked well for the Earth-2 and flashback-related scenes, I wish we'd had the opportunity to see Jimenez draw all the "proper" bits of the series, instead of the hodgepodge of styles we ended up with.

Still, though, in terms of the story itself, it does build to a quite satisfying conclusion, the last few pages providing some good payoffs for the various characters. Many have expressed annoyance at the Joker suddenly turning up at the end - but come on, you knew after his issue #1 appearance that, when it got to about issue #4 without him turning up, he was probably going to have something important to do at the end. I'm less certain about the decision to keep Superboy Prime around, simply because I'm wary of him being brought back too soon - how about we let him stay in limbo for a good ten years or more before we even think of making him a threat again, eh? Not least because to have him return too easily would devalue the death of you-know-who.

It's finally over, then, and next week the "Brave New World" of the DCU starts proper with 52, and the fact that the core OYL titles can probably afford to be a lot less coy and vague about what's gone on. Infinite Crisis may not have delivered everything expected of it in terms of important shake-ups, and it did perhaps spend far too long promising to be epic before finally becoming so; but at times, especially near the end, it was successful as a pretty gripping read. A

Civil War #1

CIVIL WAR #1 (of 7)

Publisher Marvel • Writer Mark Millar • Pencils Steve McNiven • Inks Dexter Vines

Right, before I get started, a word about the cover - it's bloody awful. This is supposed to be a massive event, and the best you can do is fill half the page with white space? Honestly, my LCS had put copies of this on the counter, and I really thought they were a promo catalogue rather than an actual comic. Plus, putting the words "A Marvel Comics event in seven parts" doesn't help anyone. The story should stand up on its own, you shouldn't have to put slogans like that on the cover to shout from the rooftops about it.

In fact, it's the hype in general that's got me a little annoyed about Civil War, to the extent that it ruins my enjoyment of the book. Joe Q and the gang have really been rather shameless about the whole thing, particularly with regards to his hawking on various message boards (witness the ludicrous "signatures" he's put out, for MB posters to declare which "side" they're on). The worst part, though, is the two-page extended advert for Marvel's TPB back-catalogue that we get at the end of the issue - it's a quite blatant and unnecessary bit of plugging (not least because the first book he mentions is New Warriors, a set of characters who his own editorial mandate - quite specifically in the case of Speedball - stated should be killed off right at the start of the story). All it really does is add to that aforementioned feeling the cover gives, of this being an extended promo catalogue for the Marvel Universe books rather than a significant story in its own right.

Which is a shame, because taken out of the context of all the bullshit surrounding it, the miniseries itself is shaping up to be a quite decent read. Issue #1, of course, does little other than set up a premise we've all already had thrown at us for the last few months (down to knowing pretty much exactly which hero is on which side), but Millar's getting to be a dab hand at pacing stories like this right now. Given the role the issue has to play, there's only so much he can do other than provide exposition, but we're thrust into the story from page one with a very televisual-in-style "pre credits" sequence, and one that does well at ominously building the tension for what is to come. Later, after we've been bogged down in a fair chunk of the hero-on-hero niggly verbal sparring that I fear is going to become a staple of the storyline, Millar's other opportunity to flex his muscles comes with a cracking scene with Captain America. There's definite shades of the Ultimate version of the character here, which is no bad thing, as I've never been that excited by Cap as a character and am pleased therefore to see him getting his hands dirty a bit. I must admit, I do like the idea of him being the main "rebel" of the story, and having to openly question his own government - the establishment that created him, and that he represents. It's surprising, however, to see this brought out into the open so early in the series - it's a bold move, but one the issue needs, as it means a genuine change to the status quo has already come about.

Steve McNiven's art, meanwhile, is terrific, and it's certainly something the series has over Infinite Crisis' reliance on so many inkers and pencillers. I'm not sure how well he's going to stand up in big action scenes, but for weighty talking-head scenes, with lots of superheroes gathered in a room, he's perfect, not least because he draws costumes so well and with such precision. I worry, though, about the pace at which art such as this can be produced, and wonder if, like DC, Marvel aren't going to have to resort to some fill-in artists just to get later issues out on time.

There are still a number of problems I have with the concept of the series as a whole (not to mention the mixed messages I'm getting from Amazing Spider-Man, where Stark's attitude to the Act is in direct opposition to his stance in the main title), and bigger problems I have with the way Marvel have marketed both the comic and themselves (sly digs at DC in your editorial column-slash-TPB-plugging don't help anyone, Joe). I just don't feel it's as interesting or original an idea, nor as earth-shattering a storyline (yet), as Marvel are making out. That said, however, all Millar and McNiven can do is tell the story they're given in the best way they can. In that sense, they've made a promising start. Oh, and kudos to Warner/DC for sneaking in a Superman Returns "Got Milk?" advert so prominently... B+

Quick Bites!


(DC : Busiek / Johns / Guedes)

Don't Action Comics' covers look beautiful at the moment? I'm not sure if they've been using the old-style logo all the time in recent years, but since OYL started there seems to have been a real effort to make the logo central, predominant and beautifully retro-looking. Anyway, it's another great issue of the Up, Up and Away! storyline, and further examination of Clark's power loss coincides nicely with IC #7's revelations about how he lost them. It's one of the strongest issues of the run so far, with some great investigative journalism work from Clark and Jimmy, before a frantic chase scene and a gripping cliffhanger (just how is his secret identity going to survive that one intact?). Pete Woods, despite a cover credit, is absent this week, to give him a chance to get the whole storyline out on time (this issue was already a week late), but he's barely missed - his fill-in Renato Guedes maintains a style (and indeed a level of quality) very close to his, meaning that there's no jarring shift whatsoever. All in all, still so terrifically entertaining you just wonder why the Superman books have been allowed to be so dull in recent years. A


(Marvel (Ultimate) : Bendis / Bagley / Dell)

Fan-pleasing the mention of Miles Warren may be - and this is from someone who liked the Clone Saga - but it still can't hide the fact that I paid for four issues of Ultimate Spider-Man and instead got four issues of Ultimate X-Men with Spidey in them. Sub-par UXM issues at that. Probably the best issue of the arc so far, namely for the fact that it had a scene with just Peter and Kitty that wasn't set on Krakoa, and because Deadpool (an otherwise wasted and completely rubbish Ultimizing) looked pretty cool with his mask off. Roll on Morbius and some proper Spidey action, because Bendis, this is the worst thing you've done since Disassembled. C+


(DC : Robinson / Kirk / Clarke / Faucher)

In which Batman and Robin fight Killer Croc in a sewer (seriously, do they ever fight him anywhere else? Try getting him off his home turf, boys), and discover a dead whale lady with chunks bitten out of her. Orca's death is actually made quite a sad one by the backup Jason Bard story, in which we meet her husband (in a similar way, I don't know why, but I was actually quite moved by the fact that the Ventriloquist was gunned down in a dingy apartment with - and here's the kicker - a half-eaten plate of spaghetti strewn on the floor). I remain concerned that they really are going the old route of never allowing Harvey Dent to escape the ghost of Two-Face and become the good guy he used to be, and that just feels so cliched. Still, though, Robinson's return to American comics continues triumphantly, and the backup story again gives Detective Comics the right sort of, well, detectivey feel. Bard had better not be dead, though. A-


(Marvel : David / Weiringo / Kesel)

Eight issues in, and a writer/artist/character combination who initially promised so much but have thus far delivered so little finally start to come good. Maybe it's because I'm a sucker for this kind of story, but there's plenty of mileage to be had in exploring "alternate timelines" for a character like Spider-Man, and I'm pleased to see that the apparent "return" of Uncle Ben isn't some stupid clone/lookalike/resurrection/amnesia rubbish, but a story that could really carry some genuine weight. Not so sure about this futuristic Hobgoblin, though - he seems a bit Spider-Girl to me (I've nothing against Spider-Girl, I used to buy it regularly, but the MC2 universe really needs to stay where it is). But don't you think the whole setup of the "Ben survives" universe owes more than a significant debt to Peter Bagge's The Megalomaniacal Spider-Man of a few years back? A-

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