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The Non-Marvel Action Hour – 01/30/8

Losers do it right and the tastiness of frozen Circles is debated.

Employee’s Pick

Catwoman fights stains!

[DC] Catwoman Vol. 3 #1-4

Catwoman’s previous regular series, which ran ninety-four issues, ended with her "dying," opening the way for a rebirth of the character under the direction of Ed Brubaker and Darwyn Cooke. When creators of that caliber are involved, you know you’re in for something special. Selina Kyle cast aside the porn star proportions Jim Balent had saddled her with as easily as she cast aside her old costume, and Cooke provided a sleek new look befitting a rooftop-jumping cat burglar/crimefighter. As much an afterthought was the reintroduction of Holly Robinson, an old friend of Selina’s who’d been killed off a decade earlier. Brubaker has this way of doing things – like resurrecting long dead characters – that are usually annoying if not downright infuriating, and making you love him for it. Holly wound up being my favorite character in his run, with the possible exception of Catwoman herself. Could he have done as well with another character, new or old? Perhaps. I don’t care.

The problem with bringing people back from the dead isn’t that it’s inherently bad – not in a fantastic setting, anyways – it’s that you have to know what you’re doing, and too many writers don’t. If anyone can come back at any time for any reason, then dying is no more than a vacation. And that’s the point it’s gotten to in the DCU. Superboy Prime can punch a wall, or Booster Gold can time travel, or whatever you please, and there’s a character back from the dead. Which is fine when the story’s crap (e.g. Countdown to Infinite Crisis), but not so much when you’re dealing with a character fans voted to be put down (Jason Todd) or who sacrificed his life in one of the most memorable scenes in comic book history (Barry Allen). You also need a good reason to bring them back. A good resurrection story is a plus, but what’s key is that you have stories to tell that can’t be told without that particular character. Their return should have as much or more of a dramatic effect on the book’s main character(s) as their death had, or else why are you doing it?

Catsuit Click to enlarge.

Anyways, Holly’s back because she’s fallen into prostitution again (we’re running with Selina’s Batman: Year One origin as a hooker with a mean right hook), and some nutjob is killing streetwalkers. Selina’s dealing with an identity crisis now, but thanks to good pacing she’s all but over it, and this is just what she needs to push her in a definite, heroic direction. As Selina says, she’s all shades of grey, but as Batman tells her, she’s basically a good person. Issue two firmly defines Catwoman’s new role as protector of Gotham’s East End, of the people the cops don’t care about and Batman hasn’t the time for. After solving the murder mystery, she hires Holly to be her new partner, rescuing her permanently from life on the streets.

Cooke is a master of his craft, an exceptional storyteller who wields myriad tools with aplomb. Expressions, body language, fluid action sequences, motion effects… anything you want to show, Cooke can show it. His style is cartoonish, similar to Bruce Timm’s, yet it doesn’t put me off like most cartoonish artists do. The trick is, Cooke has a firm grasp of proportions – most cartoony types draw exaggerated, goofy-looking characters – and his art is always clear and easy to follow.

New-Type Books

Wondy 16

[DC] Wonder Woman Vol. 3 #16

Beatin’ up nazis is all well and good, but there’s only so much you can do with two-dimensional villains. Fortunately, Wonder Woman also has the Circle (no relation to the next comic in this column), a foursome of misguided amazons who feel it’s in the best interests of their beloved Queen Hippolyta, and indeed, of all Themiscyra that Wonder Woman dies. They tried to prevent her "birth" in the first place, fearing (somewhat logically) that one member of the barren Amazon race having a child would drive the others to envy, insanity, and inevitably to death, likely at one another’s hands. That, of course, didn’t happen, as Diana was so awesome that everyone loved the hell out of her. It’s kind of her thing. Still, Hippolyta’s bodyguards, the Circle, hold a grudge to this day. I expect next issue, the fourth and final part of Gail Simone’s opening story arc, will show us the attempted murder of the amazonian princess that had the previously unmentioned Circle lounging in the dungeon until now.

They’re my favorite sort of villains. They have a genuine motivation aside from "Rar! Evil!" It’s more out of stubbornness and mistaken conclusions that they’re villains than some inherent blackness of the heart. And yet, they probably won’t see the error of their ways at the end. It’s possible, but if they weren’t convinced Diana was more lovable than Rover Dangerfield before, why would they be now? Especially with that whole Hippolyta-maybe-getting-killed-and-Diana-could’ve-saved-her-if-she’d-gotten-there-sooner thing. Oops. Did I mention the monkeys? The [s]monkeys[/s] gorillas are back, in full battle gear, fighting at Wondy’s side. S’pretty sweet, though I like them better as comic relief. Little room for that now, as the story has shifted into serious mode. Ah well. There’s more subplot with Etta Candy and a certain god who figured prominently in Rucka’s WW run. I can scarcely wait to see what he’s up to.

[Image] The Circle #1 & 2

Circular logic

Brian Reed, best known for his work on Ms. Marvel, Captain Marvel, and an upcoming issue of Young Avengers Presents featuring Hulkling (Captain Marvel’s son), also has a creator-owned book with artist Ian Hosfeld. The Circle is some sort of mercenary group on the run from a rogue CIA agent. This agent Y, whose full name isn’t revealed, frames the Circle for the theft of a missile train from glorious nation of Kazakhstan, and tracks them down to… Well, certainly not to kill them. Oh, she wants to kill them, but with this style of writing – I believe "pulp" is the term – she can’t properly try. I’ve never been a fan of this sort of thing. You take characters who are not superhuman, in a realistic setting, and you elevate them above everyone else, placing them in a protective, drama-free bubble.

One of your characters is surrounded by guntoting gangsters? No problem. He’s far more accurate than they are, able to stand straight up with no cover and whittle their numbers down at close range. Oh no! He ran out of bullets! Fortunately, these guys have the accuracy of Cobra soldiers, and aren’t in any hurry to put your character down, while he has no such reservations and goes about taking down gunmen with only his bare hands while they intentionally shoot where he isn’t. This is a recurring theme in The Circle, as characters the author wants to keep using are afforded advantage after advantage by foes who would rather be killed than do anything worse than capture the heroes and maybe rough them up a bit. You can already tell how issue three’s going to go from how two ends, with one member of the Circle surrounded by thugs and the other surrounded by thugs and Agent Y, who’s been shown to be a ruthless killer when fodder is involved.

It’s possible to pull the pulp style off, to suspend disbelief to the breaking point without turning the reader off. Ed Brubaker regularly has street level heroes with little or no superpowers dodging bullets, but he gives you ample reason to forgive what could destroy a lesser book. For one, he makes you care about the characters, and when you like someone you aren’t too upset when they don’t die. With the decompressed style that leaves us with something vaguely resembling the beginnings of a plot in The Circle, you’d think there’d be ample room for character development, but it’s similarly sparse. Y is crazy and evil, Ulee is protective of Ilona, Ilona is a fiery redhead, and Wallace is the naive POV character you’ve seen before if you watched Black Lagoon or the Hellboy movie, or a thousand other examples. They might develop personalities and such later on, but I won’t be around to see it. It’s a shame, because Hosfeld’s art is quite easy on the eyes. Ilona and Y, with their modestly proportioned bodies, are more attractive than the average supergal. If The Circle were all about being shiny and pretty and awesome instead of grim and gritty with an inability to decide whether it wants to be realistic, I’d have an easier time getting behind it, but it fails on the surface as well as below.

Back Issues

Conan 7

[Dark Horse] Conan Vol. 2 #7

Conan is cold. And angry. Mostly angry. Seems some "friends" of his betrayed him, left him to die in the frozen land of Hyperborea. His companions, his true friends, died, but he survived, and in this issue, he delivers bloody vengeance to the betrayers. There’s not much more to the story, but there doesn’t need to be. Kurt Busiek delivers consummate badassery, an exhibition of why you do not mess with Conan the Cimmerian.

Conan, badass mofo Click to enrage.

There’s also a backup story about a frighteningly skilled assassin sent to kill a merchant (and his many bodyguards) for trivial reasons. She’ll be going after Conan next. Sucks to be her. The art in both stories, by Cary Nord, Thomas Yeates, and Dave Stewart is sketchy and painted over. It generally works well, delivering some great action shots, but many panels are crude, ugly.

[DC] Batman #308

Bat-Freeze

I doubt it’s possible to overstate how much I hate decrompressed storytelling. Done right, it can give a writer time to more fully explore his characters and their relationships, advance subplots, or just take a break from the main plot for a bit of fun. But too many writers use it as a crutch to extend one or two issues’ worth of plot to fill six, placing nothing of substance in the remaining space.

Let us go back. Back to 1979, a time when one-issue stories reigned supreme. Len Wein, John Calnan, and Dick Giordano present a pre-crisis tale of Mr. Freeze, complete with many comic book staples that have since fallen by the wayside. We have thought bubbles, captions that are used solely for the proclamations of an unseen narrator, and notices that the story will continue on the "2nd page following" the ad. Freeze’s scheme this month is getting wealthy businessmen to pay for a treatment he claims will grant them immortality. Only he hasn’t perfected it yet, and it instead transforms them into ice zombies. Soon, he claims, he’ll get it right, and then his gal Hildy can be an immortal personsicle just like him. Batman, who lacks all pretension of detective skill in this issue, learns of Freeze’s activities not by uncovering the disappearances of the numerous businessmen and connecting the dots, but by having the blatant murder of one of those who backed out of the procedure brought to his attention by Commissioner Gordon. Bats then spooks a snitch to find out where Freeze is hiding out, and breaks in to confront the coldhearted cad in his fortress of freezitude. Giggle.

It’s not Batman’s lucky day. Freeze ices his feet and the ice zombies toss him in the zombification machine. How does he escape being turned into another of Freeze’s servants? Why don’t his feet have to be amputated, or even stay frozen longer than it takes to get him from the floor to the full-body freezer? He’s Batman. That’s all the answer you get. Even though the pillow ‘neath his head (aww, Freeze, you ol’ softie) becomes encased in ice, we’re expected to believe that Batman merely covered himself in Bat-just-been-frozen-makeup while you couldn’t see him through the cryogenic gases, which weren’t really cryogenic gases because he’d disconnected the power lines feeding the device and… and… buh? Batman wins, using his two greatest abilities: BS and breaking things. We don’t hear from Gordon again, which figures, since he was naught but a plot device. There are two subplots that do continue, in some future issue. Selina Kyle tells Bruce Wayne she’s going straight, giving up the mantle of Catwoman, and wants to invest in Wayne Enterprises. Will he believe her? should he? Beats me. The other detour doesn’t immediately involve Bruce or Batman, but concerns an old foe of his, one Mark Desmond, better known as Blockbuster. S.T.A.R. Labs attempts to cure him and fails, supposedly killing him, which leads to what was a chilling final page for a kid to read, wherein Desmond’s hands are seen bursting out of his fresh grave. He’s to be Batman’s featured villain in the next issue, entitled "Have Yourself a Deadly Little Christmas!" Scary.

I don’t know how much of the art is Calnan’s and how much is Giordano’s, but the result is a mess of poor anatomy, awkward posing, and bodies that are stiff whether they’re meant to be frozen zombies or normal human beings. A couple panels feature arms floating in the air, forearms attached to biceps or torsos if anything at all, like the artist drew the hand first and added the body as an afterthought, not caring whether the two matched up. There’s also the infamous cowl shadow, one of the book’s better points, which comes and goes as the situation (or the artist’s mood; the light sources aren’t real clear) dictates. I admire that Wein told a story start to finish in one issue and had space left over for unrelated subplots, but it’s not a good story. Stretching it out may have provided an opportunity for Batman to do some crimesolving, to make the story his own. As it is, you could swap in any hero, any crazy ice-themed villain, any supporting cast, and basically tell the same story. Plus, it’s ugly.

Trade

Losers 1

[DC] The Losers Vol. 1

The first of five trades collecting Andy Diggle and Jock’s Vertigo series about six soldiers who’ve been done wrong. There are six issues here, covering introductions, introducing the premise, and getting underway. And that last is what Diggle does first, jumping straight into the action and letting the details come as they may. Each issue is thickly packed with plot, characterization, and action.

Issue one finds the titular team using a complicated scheme to hijack a military helicopter. There’s the leader, Clay, whose name we don’t get until issue two; the hotheaded jerk, Roque; the wisecracking tech guy/conman, Jensen; the driver/pilot, Pooch; the softspoken sniper, Cougar; and Aisha, the one member of the team who’s not ex-Special Forces, a woman who’s known little but killing her whole life. More complicated schemery leads to the Losers using their stolen helicopter to lift a truck carrying a shipment of heroin. The CIA’s heroin, set to be sold to US citizens. The Losers are less concerned about the drugs themselves than the man responsible for trafficking them, who they believe to be the same man who betrayed them and left them for dead.

The second issue takes the fight further up the chain, to Goliath Oil, who are working in concert with the corrupt CIA agent to distribute the drugs. There’s one sequence where, while infiltrating Goliath’s insurance company to gather intel, Jensen assumes three separate identities in the space of two pages. It’s a thing of beauty. So’s the opening of issue three, which would be criminal to spoil.

This is why books like The Circle bug me. There’s nothing special about it, nothing memorable. It’s not bad per se, it’s just… there. Like a potted plant, minus the spiffy oxygen boost. The Losers does everything The Circle does, does it better, and adds a whole lot more on top of that. The characters are endearing from page one, the book has a definite direction, and sticky situations are resolved using skill and intelligence rather than author fiat.

Issue three wraps up with a traitor in the ranks, leaving four to deal with the fallout and the remaining Losers scrambling to recover in the middle of an operation. The plot slows down but the action keeps rolling, as the fallout stretches into issues five and six. The Losers regroup and take the fight to their enemies – the traitor, who’s working for the corrupt agent who tried to kill them the first time, and Wade, an unscrupulous mercenary on the same payroll.

Jock’s another of those loose, sketchy artists. More importantly, his art’s dynamic and moody, a perfect fit for Diggle’s scripts. Circle beats it for eye candy, but they call it candy for a reason: it gives you a quick rush and then you’re back to square one. Or worse, you’re left wishing there were substance to go with the style. This book has both in spades, a sweet surface with a nutritious underbelly. Diggle writes clever dialogue, complex yet believable plots, and sprinkles awesome scenes throughout. When I first read it, I was reminded of Thief, the six episode FX series that ran a couple years back, although Losers predates it. They both go for a mostly realistic feel, involve complicated plans to steal things, and have an engaging cast. The biggest difference is in pace and action, as Losers is more frenetic by far. The first trade is bargain-priced at $10 for six issues; for that cheap, I’d say it should be in everyone’s collection. Unless you don’t like violence, cussing, and badass muslim chicks.

Truncation

Catwoman – A welcome reinvention of a great character.
Wonder Woman – Still good.
The Circle – If you’re looking for a spy comic, read Queen & Country or Checkmate instead.
Conan – Brutal, as is to be expected.
Batman – Best thing about it’s the cover, useful for making fun of DCD Bat-figures.
The Losers – A fine example of an action comic with no superheroes. Read the original and impress your friends if/when the movie comes out.


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