Review: Aliens Vs. Predator Omnibus Vol. 1 trade paperback (Dark Horse)

Monday, March 29, 2010

[This review comes from Collected Editions guest-reviewer Doug Glassman]

I’m looking forward to two movies this coming summer. One of them, naturally, is Iron Man 2 (which I’ll talk more about when I review some Invincible Iron Man and War Machine trades). The other is Predators, the long-awaited revival of the Aliens/Predator franchise. With Adrien Brody and Laurence Fishbourne starring, Nimrod Atal directing and Robert Rodriguez producing, it should be able to wash away the lackluster Aliens vs. Predator films. (Maybe I’m being too soft on Requiem by calling it lackluster.)

While awaiting this film, I’d like to go back to the very start of the franchise with the first Dark Horse Aliens vs. Predator Omnibus. This volume collects over four hundred pages of story in digest form for $25. Unlike Marvel's Essentials and DC Comics' Showcases, these keep the stories in full color, if not the original size.

[Contains spoilers for the Aliens vs. Predator Omnibus Vol. 1]

For a long time, I wouldn’t go near this franchise. It’s not because of any quality issues — it’s because, to be honest, both of the titular species scared the living crap out of me. Growing up in Baltimore, I used to go to a shop at The Mall in Columbia called Forbidden Planet (at least I think that’s what it called — feel free to correct me in the comments if you remember the store). It was amongst my first exposures to science fiction and general nerd culture. It also had life-size Alien and Predator models in the front windows which terrified me. Eventually, I saw Aliens and Predator and started to get further into their respective universes. This omnibus is my first foray into the comics, and I was impressed by what I found.

The meat of the book is a pair of storylines: the initial, unnamed story (which will be called “AVP” for the sake of this review) and its sequel “War,” both written by Randy Stradley with art by Phil Norwood (Chris Warner steps in for one chapter). These star Machiko Noguchi who, in the first story, survives a hunt on the planet Ryushi, is branded by a dying Predator hunter, and eventually joins up with them. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it’s because this arc very loosely inspired the plot of the first Aliens vs. Predator film. There are a few other bits picked up by the movie, such as the sequence of the eggs being taken from the queen, but the “AVP” comic has a much tighter plot and a much more interesting main character.

While Machiko is more or less a Ripley clone — pardon the Alien Resurrection pun — she has a nice character arc, going from ice-hearted office drone to action girl, driven by the desperate circumstances around her. Unlike some of the films where you root for the characters to die, the characters presented here, especially the doctor dealing the loss of her husband, actually click with the reader.

“War” picks up one year later with Machiko living amongst the hunters. As they go on another hunt, she meets three other characters … from another comic. It gets a little annoying, in that the story crosses over with Aliens: Berserker, not collected in the omnibus (although it is available in Aliens Omnibus 4). The events of Berserker are explained in enough detail to get the plot moving, but this half of the story falters because of the crossover and in part because, in my opinion, Machiko’s arc moved too fast off-panel. It does wowever wrap up the storyline nicely and sets the stage for Aliens vs. Predator: Three World War, which is well worth a read, even if the trade won’t be out for quite a few months.

Sandwiched between “AVP” and “War” are “Blood Time,” again by Stradley and Norwood, and “Duel,” by Stradley and Javier Saltares. The former is a nearly-silent character piece about a hunt uninterrupted by humans. This is how my dream Aliens vs. Predator movie would play out: no humans, no talking, just a two-hour bug hunt. It’ll never happen, of course, but it’s nice to see that it could actually work. “Duel,” bridging the gaps between the two major stories, is closer to the tone of Aliens, featuring the first sign of Colonial Marines in the comic. It references the “Acheron disaster” (the first film), has one of the few mentions of Weyland-Yutani, and introduces what would become part of the franchise’s nadir: the Predalien. In the book’s defense, the creature is executed much better here.

Ian Edginton takes over writing duties for the final third of the Omnibus, joining up with Alex Maleev for “Eternal," with a story that I can’t bear to spoil here. This is easily one of the cleverest stories in the franchise despite an odd bit of Predator physiology that I don’t think is ever brought up again. If the new Predators does as well as I hope it should, then I’d really like to see “Eternal” adapted as its sequel. (If push comes to shove, I’d even write it myself!) Maleev also writes and draws the tantalizing “Old Secrets,” which folds the Predator into our own history and religion.

The last story is “The Web,” by Edginton with Derek Thompson, and Brian O’Connell drawing the black-and-white art. This is an unexpected mad scientist tale about a character from “AVP” that I had nearly forgotten about. It seemed unfinished, and worthy of a much longer story than the one provided.

After reading these seven tales, a template for the Aliens vs. Predator stories develops. Basically, humans land on a place seeded with Alien eggs, the Predators come to hunt, and the humans get stuck in the middle. Where the stories get interesting is how they play with the formula. “Eternal” and “The Web” use this formula to turn the Predators into prey; “War” and “Blood Time” go into Predator society to understand why they hunt. Because any scenes without humans are essentially silent, the authors use the room to add monologues which speculate on the creatures; Stradley especially uses the interplay of words and images to consider human culture in view of the Predators. This actually gets a little boring after a while, but the art kept my attention throughout.

Thankfully, none of the stories in this volume have overly glossy, early-Image-Comics-style art despite being published in that dark, dark early '90s era. The art is surprisingly non-gratuitous; perhaps the fact that both species of creatures bleed green helps reduce the bloodiness. Norwood and Saltares have a sketchier style to their art, while Maleev’s art is shadowy and atmospheric, much like his later work on Daredevil. In all cases, the artwork is extremely detailed, with care taken to draw every Predator’s mesh outfits, every Alien’s organic ridges and the labels on every piece of human technology. None of this is lost in the shrinking of the pages down to digest size. My only art complaint is again with “The Web,” but only in that it looks like inked pencils and not like a full comic; I would love to see it fully colored and fleshed out. Thankfully, none of the bizarre yellow-green lighting that sometimes makes appearances in Dark Horse books (I’m looking at you, Dark Empire) appears here.

Aliens vs. Predator Omnibus Volume 1 is a great look back to one of the backbone franchises of Dark Horse Comics. Some of it might seem cliché now, but keep in mind that this originated many of the tropes seen in the franchise. The smaller size does nothing to hurt the story and in fact might make the details even easier to see (it's also cheaper than tracking down old issues or out-of-print trades!). Check this out if you’re a fan of the franchise or just of science fiction comics in general.

[$24.95. Does not contain original covers.]

Review: Superman: Mon-El hardcover/paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Even as I lust after DC Comics' Starman omnibus volumes, it's hard to believe I might use the phrase "currently much-maligned" and "James Robinson" in the same sentence. And yet, I write this just after the controversy surrounding the violent conclusion of Robinson's Cry for Justice miniseries, and mixed reviews over Robinson's work since he returned to DC Comics -- including my own review of Superman: The Coming of Atlas, which I had trouble with initially but subsequently came around to.

As such, I had some anxiety about what I'd find in Robinson's Superman: Mon-El; fortunately, the news is good. Mon-El affords Robinson the canvas on which I think he works best -- a blank slate -- and at the same time allows him to clear up some of the difficulties previously found in Atlas.

[Contains spoilers for Superman: Mon-El]

I mentioned in my REBELS review that my fond memories of Vril Dox are when he saved Superman from Eclipso; indeed, my familiarity with Mon-El (nee Valor) begins about that time, too. Setting aside a Legion of Super-Heroes connection about which I was only vaguely aware, Mon-El was essentially to me a Superman-esque blank slate who became, in the Valor series, kind of a goofy space-faring swash-buckling hero (with a cameo in the first couple issues by the Matrix Supergirl and a long-haired Lex Luthor), until that series ended in a confusing Legion implosion at the end of the Zero Hour crossover. Mon-El appeared a couple other contradictory times: with Superboy Kon-El in the past and future, but then again in Jeph Loeb's Superman: Return to Krypton storyline, and then again when Supergirl joined a still different Legion of Super-Heroes herself. Which is to say, for all the times I've read about Mon-El, there was never one specific version or characterization I felt I could hang my hat on. Until now.

Helped immesurably by the short Geoff Johns/Richard Donner story that begins this book, James Robinson posits Mon-El as Superman's adopted brother and a stranger in a strange land, and ultimately that's about all we need to know. As Mon-El begins a new life in Metropolis, Robinson smartly draws attention to Mon-El's stilted speech pattern, reminding us at every turn that not only is Mon-El not from around here, but he's been cooped up in the Phantom Zone for twenty years and is therefore as unfamiliar with Earth customs as he is with the customs of his native Daxam -- he's experiencing everything for the first time, he only has about a year to live before the lead in Earth's atmosphere kills him, and despite it all he still wants to be a superhero out of loyalty to Superman. Robinson creates in Mon-El a kind of wobbly newborn Bambi, optimistic, heroic, and full of wonder, and it's an engaging combination that makes the reader want to follow Mon-El as he stumbles through learning how to protect Metropolis.

Equal in the spotlight is the Guardian, Mon-El's opposite number and Metropolis's new Science Police chief. Whereas the Guardian Jim Harper is himself a clone of the Golden Age hero and returning to Metropolis after a long hiatus, he functions in the story as the voice of experience, calculating every move against Metropolis's super-villains while Mon-El learns on the fly. At times, with dynamic-but-realistic art by Renato Guedes, Robinson's tough-as-nails Guardian seems a far cry from the more cartoony Tom Grummett-drawn Guardian in Karl Kesel's Superboy series (which I encountered some time before I read Jack Kirby's original), but there remains an inescapable thrill to see the Guardian back in the pages of a Superman book. Robinson's choice to pair the Guardian romantically with the Justice League Dr. Light seems almost ridiculous, so different were their worlds in the mid-1990s, but now makes a strange kind of sense. As with Mon-El, what works here is Robinson's driving force behind the characters -- he gives them so much personality that it's impossible not to be swept up with them, and as such one's willing to accept just about anything Robinson throws their way.

Atlas makes his next major appearance in this book after Coming of Atlas, and the sequence redeems to an extent Robinson's previous volume. The Atlas-centric final chapter features a knock-down, drag-out fight between Atlas and Superman's ally Steel, with frankly not much dialogue and multiple large-panel pages of the two punching and kicking one another. Artist Pere Perez mimicks Guedes style well (though sometimes the two-page horizontal layouts are tough to follow), but at first I was a bit offput by the bevy of quick-read action pages. This is what I didn't like in Coming of Atlas either -- and then I recognized Robinson's intent here. Atlas is meant to be a force of nature, a Doomsday-level threat, and when Atlas lets loose, the entire story comes to a halt, focused entirely on the action, because that's the effect that Atlas has. I like my comics wordy, but I see what Robinson's getting at, and that assuages my concerns somewhat.

Indeed, I felt gigantically relieved that Robinson handled the relationship between Clark Kent and Lois Lane with seriousness and sensitivity in this volume, after a somewhat silly and sexually gratuitious showing in Coming of Atlas. Robinson gets the unenviable job in the Superman: New Krypton project of writing the scene where Clark tells Lois he's leaving Earth for New Krypton, and Robinson handles the pages with cinematic aplomb, intercutting Clark's conversation with Lois with a similar conversation with Ma Kent, avoiding melodrama, and giving Lois and Ma the understanding one would expect from the wife and mother of Superman. Further, there's a similar scene where we see Superman bid good-bye to his friends and allies in miniature, and then later we read the conversations in full (possibly having to do with the scene repeating between the connected Superman and Action Comics titles) that I thought Robinson handled especially well; again, the word "cinematic" comes to mind, and I imagine the reader benefits from Robinson's screenwriting abilities in his comics writing.

But as engaging as Robinson's Mon-El is -- and I don't want to lose track in this review of the basic point that I liked this book and think it's worth a read -- finishing this book did leave me with a sense of having seen it all before. Robinson's Mon-El isn't terribly far from his Starman Mikaal Thomas, nor does Atlas in this book differ much, in moral uncertainty, from Robinson's Shade or Bobo Benetti. Indeed, two prison guards discussing Derrida in one sequence practically screams "written by James Robinson" much like Copperhead opining on transistor radios in the pages of Starman, only then it seemed ground-breaking and now it seems showy. What's changed, I'm sure, is not Robinson but my reaction to his writing; when Robinson imbued his Starman characters with backgrounds and interests in the mid-1990s, this was something we'd rarely seen in DC Comics before, but a decade later after Robinson went on hiatus and begat Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka, Judd Winick, and Brad Meltzer in his place, Robinson-ian characterization is now the norm. If anything, there's a bit too much Robinson in this volume, now that the writers who came after him have built on his methods.

In Superman: Mon-El, James Robinson quickly loses the constraints of writing under seventy-five years of the Lois/Clark relationship or getting up-to-date on Lana Lang's status with LexCorp, and gives Mon-El and the Guardian his own, quite enjoyable sensibilities. There's still a bit about Mon-El I'm fuzzy on (like, if Superman knows the Mon-El is destined to be released from the Phantom Zone by the Legion of Super-Heroes and live out an important life in the future, why does he still stress about -- or even consider -- trying to free Mon-El in the present?), but one thing I know for sure is that Superman: Mon-El goes a long way toward convincing me that James Robinson is back in comics in force. I'm very, very curious to read Cry for Justice given all the outcry about it; you can be sure there'll be plenty of space given to that here at Collected Editions a few months from now when it comes out.

Thanks for stopping by!

Top Green Lantern Trade Paperbacks

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

I'd venture a strong majority of the searches for collection information on the Collected Editions blog regard Green Lantern TPBs, whether because of Hal Jordan's new life at DC Comics, Ryan Reynolds in the new Green Lantern movie, or the popularity of the Blackest Night miniseries as of this writing. Either way, I'm long overdue for a list of the best and essential Green Lantern collections out there (see our previous Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and Flash lists).

* Green Lantern Hal Jordan - Pre-Crisis
Setting aside any of DC Comics' Green Lantern archives (or Showcase Presents volumes, for that matter), there's just a handful of pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Green Lantern Hal Jordan volumes I'd recommend (and of them, some of them are "cheats"). To wit, the collection of the ground-breaking 1970s Green Lantern/Green Arrow crossover title, which dealt with generally untouched topics like racism and drug abuse, is still in print and referenced in today's continuity.

Two books not necessarily still in continuity (and not actually published pre-Crisis, either) are JLA: Year One and Flash & Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold -- these books have been superseded by other Justice League origins, but I think they're worthwhile in their depiction of the friendship between Hal Jordan and Flash Barry Allen. DC has also recently published collections of the 1980s Green Lantern Corps mini-series and series under a Tales of the Green Lantern Corps banner -- these are not my favorites, especially the later stories, but have recently been referenced more and more in the modern Green Lantern series and the Blackest Night crossover.

(Edit: As discussed in the comments, DC: New Frontier is an out-of-continuity story, but gets to the core of Hal Jordan in a dynamic and beautiful way. For someone like me who came to Green Lantern via Kyle Rayner, all I needed was Darwyn Cooke's New Frontier to make me a Hal Jordan believer.)

- Green Lantern Chronicles Vol. 1
- Green Lantern Chronicles Vol. 2

- JLA: Year One
- Flash & Green Lantern: The Brave and the Bold

- Green Lantern/Green Arrow Collection HC

- Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Vol. 1
- Tales of the Green Lantern Corps Vol. 2

- Absolute DC: The New Frontier

* Green Lantern Hal Jordan - Post-Crisis
Given Hal Jordan's popularity right now, you might be surprised to find that only the beginning and end of his previous series in collected format. Emerald Dawn are two collected miniseries that functioned like Superman: Man of Steel and Batman: Year One after DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths reboot, and The Road Back collects the first issues of that Green Lantern ongoing series. With that series' fiftieth issue, Hal Jordan became Parallax (of sorts) and Kyle Rayner became Earth's Green Lantern. A notable one-shot from this era is Ganthet's Tale by John Byrne and Larry Niven, introducing the titular Guardian who was important to Kyle and in the current Green Lantern series.

- Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn Vol. 1
- Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn Vol. 2
- Green Lantern: The Road Back
- Green Lantern: Ganthet's Tale
- Green Lantern: Emerald Twilight

* Green Lantern Kyle Rayner
I, for one, wasn't much of a fan of Green Lantern post-Crisis -- the Corps history too inscrutable, the aliens too unrelatable, and the conflict between gray-haired Hal Jordan and smarmy Guy Gardner often dissolving into so much bickering. So I for one jumped onboard when DC wiped the slate clean and introduced Kyle Rayner as the all-new, all-different Green Lantern, and much of my exposure to the Green Lantern mythology came in these books. Per my DC Trade Paperback Timeline, Kyle has a big moment in the crossovers Zero Hour and Final Night. Kyle's first and seemingly definitive writer was Ron Marz, through to Emerald Knights, but Judd Winick's run from New Journey through Passing the Torch is equally notable in establishing Kyle's place in the DC Universe. Out of continuity, but written by Marz and worth a creepy read, is Green Lantern Versus Aliens, featuring both Hal (in the past) and Kyle.

- Green Lantern: Emerald Twilight/New Dawn
- Green Lantern: A New Dawn

- Zero Hour: Crisis in Time

- Green Lantern: Baptism of Fire
- Green Lantern: Emerald Allies

- Final Night

- Green Lantern: Emerald Knights
- Green Lantern Versus Aliens
- Green Lantern: Circle of Fire
- Green Lantern: New Journey, Old Path
- Green Lantern Legacy: The Last Will of Hal Jordan
- Green Lantern: The Power of Ion
- Green Lantern: Brother's Keeper
- Green Lantern: Passing the Torch

* Green Lantern Hal Jordan - Current Series
In 2005, in something of a DC renaissance between Identity Crisis and Infinite Crisis, writer Geoff Johns resurrected Green Lantern Hal Jordan in spectacular fashion. If Green Lantern: Rebirth weren't enough, DC saw similar success with the Sinestro Corps War crossover (the kind of in-title crossover that subsequently lead the way for Superman: New Krypton and Batman RIP). This new Green Lantern title, as most everyone knows, continues strong, having just surpassed its fiftieth (and formerly Hal Jordan-removing) issue and serving as the cornerstone of the Blackest Night crossover and subsequent Brightest Day event. Alongside the book, Ron Marz returned to write a twelve-issue Ion miniseries starring Kyle Rayner that lead in to Sinestro Corps War.

- Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth
- Green Lantern: No Fear
- Green Lantern: Revenge of the Green Lanterns
- Green Lantern: Wanted - Hal Jordan

- Ion: The Torchbearer
- Ion: The Dying Flame

- Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War Book One
- Green Lantern: The Sinestro Corps War Book Two
- Green Lantern: Tales of the Sinestro Corps

- Green Lantern: Secret Origin
- Green Lantern: Rage of the Red Lanterns
- Green Lantern: Agent Orange

* Green Lantern Corps - Current Series
As I mentioned, I was never much for the first iteration of Green Lantern Corps, but the gritty space police-procedural that emerged alongside Green Lantern: Rebirth, written first by Dave Gibbons and later by Peter Tomasi, has become one of my favorite series. Maybe it's because, again, there's a crime and horror undertone to this series that resonates better with me than the Justice League humor of the 1980s, or maybe it's because the writers have taken a page from Beau Smith's book and portray Green Lantern Guy Gardner as a person, rather than a caricature, but I always look forward to these books. Green Lantern Corps crosses over with the Sinestro Corps War titles, and also with Blackest Night.

- Green Lantern Corps: Recharge
- Green Lantern Corps: To Be a Lantern
- Green Lantern Corps: The Dark Side of Green
- Green Lantern Corps: Ring Quest
- Green Lantern Corps: Sins of the Star Sapphire
- Green Lantern Corps: Emerald Eclipse

* Blackest Night
The following collect the Blackest Night miniseries and Green Lantern and Green Lantern Corps issues, the Tales miniseries and "resurrected title" one-shots, and also six character-specific miniseries: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Justice Society, Titans, and Flash.

- Blackest Night
- Blackest Night: Green Lantern
- Blackest Night: Green Lantern Corps
- Blackest Night: Rise of the Black Lanterns
- Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps
- Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps
- Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps

* Green Lantern One-Shots
We'll round this list out with a bunch of Green Lantern collections that don't necessarily fit in continuity or otherwise stand on their own. Notable about Green Lantern: Fear Itself (by Ron Marz) and Traitor is that they feature multiple generations of Green Lanterns (Hal and Kyle, and then Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott in the former and Hal's predecessor Abin Sur in the latter). In Brightest Day is a "greatest hits" collection of sorts, hand-picked by Geoff Johns as inspiration for his current Green Lantern run. Willworld is an original graphic novel starring Hal Jordan and written by J. M. Demattis, which I believe was meant mainly as a vehicle for the late dynamic artist Seth Fisher to produce some DC work. JSA Presents Green Lantern are Alan Scott-focused stories culled mainly from the JSA Classified series.

- Green Lantern: Fear Itself
- Green Lantern: Traitor
- Green Lantern: In Brightest Day
- Green Lantern: The Greatest Stories Ever Told
- Green Lantern: Willworld
- JSA Presents Green Lantern

I think that covers it -- if you find a trade I missed, please let me know. You can see these books in easier-to-browse format at the Collected Editions Trade Paperback Store.

I've listed some of my favorites above, but I'd be curious to know what's your favorite Green Lantern story?

Review: DC Universe: Origins trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 22, 2010

[This guest review comes from Derek Roper]

Since I’m not a novice to the DC Universe, the DC Universe: Origins trade doesn’t do much for me; I only bought it because I’m a Secret Six collector and liked that they streamlined the origin of some of the characters. I do recommend it, however, as a gift to someone who is thinking about crossing over from Marvel to DC or getting back into comics after a long hiatus.

The trade features the origins of practically everybody, from Adam Strange to Zatanna; every reader should find a favorite inside. These origins were backup features in 52 and Countdown and were omitted from the trades that actually collected the series, so this is a nice companion to those trades.
But it doesn’t cover every last character in the DCU [Maybe that's for the coming Who's Who -- ed.] and I think the origins of characters like Beast Boy could have been left out for other stars more prominent in 52 and Countdown like Mary Marvel and maybe the Deep Six (as a memorial).

In many ways, however, Origins only serves to show how fractured the DC Universe continues to be. Mark Waid and Howard Chaykin write and draw respectively the origin of Black Canary; it begins, incongruously, with “Not many super-hero careers are motivated by a need to annoy your mom.” Longtime fans know Black Canary did not take up the mantle to annoy her mother; she took it up because she heard her mother and uncles telling stories of their Justice Society of America experiences. And later, in the book's take on the first meeting between the Justice League and Justice Society, Black Canary Senior isn't even shown. It's possible that these are reboots, but not ones addressed elsewhere and not ones that uplifts the characters.

Similarly, I found it both interesting and confusing that Nightwing Dick Grayson apparently has an encounter with a Monitor from Crisis on Infinite Earths, who revealed he was supposed to die in Infinite Crisis. The Monitors come off too much like editor’s brackets, and all the business about Superboy Prime punching through walls and changing history, and Mr. Mind morphing into a “Hyper-Fly” and eating its way through worlds, leaves one wondering why any of it was necessary in the first place.

The Countdown heavily featured the New Gods, but Origins doesn’t reflect that. Darkseid and Desaad have their time to shine in the book, but Mr. Miracle, Orion and the rest of the gang don’t get a mention; although the late Big Barda is shown in the origins of the Birds of Prey. In multiple interviews, Grant Morrison said the events of Countdown diverged from Final Crisis -- so while these origins are entertaining, the material collected in this volume doesn’t necessarily reflect what happens in Final Crisis, or really lead up to the current status quo of the DC Universe.

On the other hand, one of the more entertaining origins is the Joker. Here, the book presents the reader with three possible origins, leaving the mystique to the Joker intact. It adds to Joker’s character because it could be one of those origins or it could be none and just a manifestation of his insanity. I also appreciated that Harley Quinn's bio is written by Bruce Timm, one of her creators, and that Poison Ivy appears in Harley's bio and vice versa; it's all a nice introduction to Gotham City Sirens before that book's first trade hits the stands in April.

The cover is nicely painted by Alex Ross and features DC's Big Seven Justice Leaguers running into battle -- though, unfortunately, it's a recycled cover to the giant sized JLA: Liberty and Justice book that was released in 2003. DC Universe: Origins might be a good introductory book for a new fan, but if you have some experience in the DC Universe, you might feel like you've seen a lot of this before, right from the cover and through to the last page.

Review: Manhunter: Forgotten trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, March 18, 2010

The final collection of the Manhunter ongoing series, Manhunter: Forgotten, provides an interesting snapshot of this series as a whole. Forgotten is not the best collection of this series by far, but the story within is one that writer Marc Andreyko presented when the title has already been almost cancelled twice and was on limited reprieve. As such, it's far more self-contained than the Manhunter volumes so far, and knowingly spotlights the best (and worst, which are often even better) attributes of the characters.

Andreyko caps the final current story here (leaving aside the two-part epilogue set in the future) with the two best aspects of the Manhunter series. First, Manhunter Kate Spencer offers a remarkable closing statement in the trial of a drug company that's been experimenting on kidnapped women, and I appreciated this ending much more than Andreyko's other endings to Manhunter when it faced cancellation before. Previously, Andreyko's endings focused on Kate's relationships with her friends, in whom she inspires a fierce loyalty despite (or perhaps because) of how curmudgeonly Kate is; it's sweet, but the closing statement gets more to the core of Kate's power, and the power of the series -- even as Kate prosecutes this drug company, Andreyko flashes to all the lives in the DC Universe affected by the company, from the villain Bane's Venom drug to the hero Speedy's HIV medicine. It's a "shades of gray" moment -- the drug company does bad, but also good -- that hits just the right morally complicated note to end this book.

Second, Andreyko brings Kate home to where her young son Ramsey has just discovered burgeoning super-powers -- and Kate proceeds to ignore him. At times, I've lamented that Andreyko has made Kate too "good," especially post-Infinite Crisis -- when we started this series, Kate was a chain smoking, negligent mother on the outs with her ex-husband; that Kate subsequently miscarried a new baby during a fight with a super-villain but harbored no jealousy of her ex-husband's new wife's baby, and even gave up smoking, seemed too far removed from the self-destructive behavior that originally made Kate so engaging. I don't by any stretch advocate ignoring children, but I liked this final hint from Andreyko that Kate wasn't 100% redeemed; DC Comics is filled with heroes who by popular pressure can hardly say a cross word, and it's these aspects that made Manhunter unique.

Forgotten includes a bunch of guest stars, and the sense they give of Manhunter finally finding her place in the DC Universe is both welcome and strange given the end of this series. Blue Beetle, star of a forthright teen superhero book, might seem an odd match for Manhunter, but both are "non-traditional" characters in the historically white male DC Universe, and both represented a new beginning in the Identity Crisis/Infinite Crisis era; I was glad for them to meet (and for Andreyko to use some of Beetle's supporting cast, too) before each series was cancelled. The "both sides of the law" Suicide Squad is a natural pairing with Manhunter and firmly places her in the Checkmate/Outsiders/Suicide Squad camp (my favorite corner of the DCU); I would have been curious, had Manhunter continued, to see how the Manhunter/DEO Director Bones/Amanda Waller triangle had worked out. Finally, Andreyko repays Birds of Prey's use of Kate with a cameo; amazingly, the formerly-violent Huntress comes off as tame here compared to Manhunter, and Ray Tate at Comic Bulletin's Silver Soapbox makes a good point that pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths, Huntress and Manhunter actually had quite a bit in common character-wise.

Though Forgotten is relatively self-contained as compared to previous Manhunter volumes (each of which suffered from endings right in the middle of arcs), the book's cancellation leaves many plotlines up in the air, which casual comics readers might find offputting. I very much appreciate the richness of the supporting characters with which Andreyko populates this book, but the title's fits and starts obviously took its toll; former Manhunter Mark Shaw reappears midway through this book having left and returned previously in an unresolved story about the Azrael cult of St. Dumas. Kate's assistant Dylan Battles arrives in Gotham City to face down the Joker, of all people, only to have the series end; Andreyko offers a bit of controversy when fan-favorite Cameron Chase considers aborting she and Dylan's baby, but this too remains unresolved. Manhunter stories continue as a back-up to Paul Dini's Streets of Gotham, and I'd be eager to see some or all of this to be addressed there.

Andreyko ends, as I mentioned, with a two-part story set in the future. In a note, he describes the story as more carefree than normal Manhunter fare, but as ending on one of the book's central themes, the mother-son relationship between Kate and Ramsey. In comparison to Kate's ignoring Ramsey in the past, the story obviously speaks well for Kate's future, in addition to the new, stable relationship we find Kate in. I felt these issues lacked a bit of the punch of the present ending (in addition to a rotating art team that made it difficult at times to see who was doing what), but I enjoyed that Andreyko referenced Sweeny Todd, one of Manhunter's first villains, and as such it's a fair ending to a book that's faced this same cancellation scenario one too many times.

[Contains full covers, character bios]

Manhunter was a welcome addition to the DC line and I'm sorry to see it go, but obviously all the false endings affected the book, and its cancellation is probably for the best. I'm looking forward to the collection of the Manhunter co-feature, and I'll be curious to see how it's similar or different from the ongoing series.

Thanks for reading!

Review: Astonishing X-Men: Gifted hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, March 15, 2010

[This guest review comes from Silver Tomato Productions]

I have a confession, guys. This confession may make you click the red X in the corner of your browser faster than you can say "Excelsior," but hear me out. I've read two, maybe three, Marvel trades. All of them, in my honorary opinion, were poorly written, badly drawn, and had all the writing finesse of the back of a cereal box.

There was strike one.

I'd heard a lot about Joss Whedon, but never really cared either way about him. So, as far as I was concerned, his name on the cover of the book didn't win any prizes from me.

There was strike two.

I kid you not, readers, as I flipped to the first page of Astonishing X-Men: Gifted, I was the cynical comic book guy. Literally, as I opened the book, I muttered aloud, “Show me what you’ve got, Mr. Whedon.”

To recap: two strikes, and a critic more nitpicky and crass than Statler and Waldorf combined.

Despite all of this, if you’ll pardon the pun, Astonishing X-Men: Gifted, well, astonished me.

The plot, at first glance, seems fairly formulaic. We follow mutants Emma Frost, Cyclops, Beast, and Hugh Jack -- err, Wolverine, as they try to train a new generation of students, in the absence of usual mentoring master, Charles Xavier.* Meanwhile, world-renowned geneticist Dr. Kavita Rao sends shockwaves through the mutant community, having supposedly found a cure for the so-called "disease" of being a mutant.

And if that’s not enough, there’s aliens!

Yes, folks, on top of Dr. Rao’s supposed “cure for the mutant disease,” the newly gathered X-Men have to stop an apparent takeover by your resident Skrull stand-in, Ord, an alien from a mysterious place called the Breakworld. In the middle of the press conference in which Kavita Rao presents her cure, Ord decides to pull a few robberies, leading to a violent confrontation with the newly-formed X-Men team. Considering that most of the regular, average citizens of the Marvel Universe seemingly have the intelligence of a dog chasing a laser pointer, they immediately associated “conquering vile alien” with “mutant,” only adding to the prejudiced stigma our heroes bear.

If you’re like me, however, that’s just not enough for you. You need character development, and emotion, and, God forbid, dialogue that’s witty and natural. Good news: there’s that, too. Whedon seems like he’s been writing these characters for at least three or four years, even on his first issue. It doesn’t feel like all the characters are interchangeable, nor that they’re all carbon copies of each other. Their dialogue quirks and personalities are so real and varied that the cliché of “the character leaps off of the page!” is actually applicable here.

I’m serious when I say that every main cast member, with the exception of resident booze-happy action hero Wolverine, gets a moment to shine under Whedon’s spotlight. For example, I used to think of Kitty Pryde as an X-Men equivalent to Scrappy Doo. That is, before she managed to pull a Batman-esque psych-out by kidnapping several guards from under the floorboards, give a verbal lashing to Emma Frost that must be seen to be believed, and council a new student about embracing his talents even after he calls her several nasty names, all in the span of twenty pages.

And it’s not limited to just Kitty, either. Beast shows more moral depth in the pages of Gifted than I’ve seen him show in all his animated appearances and the first three volumes of Ultimate X-Men combined. Out of all the X-Men, his life has been, perhaps, the one most affected on a personal level by his status as a mutant. Even though he’s one of the gentlest, most chivalrous, and most selfless people you could possibly meet, nearly every human in his life has been scared of him. That’s why it makes sense, organically, for him to break into Dr. Rao’s lab and steal the cure. He’s internally conflicted by this new development. Did he steal the cure for himself, as Wolverine believes, or to find out its shady and mysterious origin, as was his original goal? In comics today, you generally find that characters are motivated not by how they would really react in a situation, but simply as stepping stones to whatever eventual goal a writer has, a la "One More Day." This isn’t the case in Astonishing X-Men. It really seems as if the characters act in the way they would, and no one goes on a rampage or becomes evil for no reason whatsoever. The story Whedon tells here isn’t built on action, but rather reaction, characters who mingle and bounce off of each other.

In addition, there's a bit of controversy in this storyline regarding the resurrection of a certain fallen X-Man. I thought it was handled skillfully, but it did come off as a bit contrived. We really don't get to see the fallout from this event, which is definately a teeth-gnashing moment, but Whedon took the cards he was dealt, and, in my opinion, came out unscathed.

Art isn’t usually a factor in how I judge a comic, unless there are notable differences from panel to panel or issue to issue, such as Fables or Ultimates Vol. 3. I do think the art is great in this book, but the writing is so good that you’d hardly notice it if the art was simply a transposed, photocopied image of a stick figure.

I do have one minor complaint, though, which I’m sure some of you will find more of a positive. Although Emma Frost is written well, and also drawn well, we don’t need to see her breasts as often as we do. I’m not talking Dark Knight Strikes Again levels of cheesecake, and we certainly don’t get as much cheesecake as we could’ve, but when it happens, it distracts a bit from the story, if only because you spend a minute pondering what the point of a panel of cheesecake is. Still, it’s not enough to take away from what otherwise is an awesome story.

If that’s still not enough, Astonishing X-Men features Cyclops wearing a tutu for a panel. I mean, if that’s your thing ...

Thanks for reading!

* I don't know exactly why he's gone, because I'm not a regular reader of the X-books. Either way, no Xavier for you!

Review: Kobra: Resurrection trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Let joy rain down from above -- it may say Kobra: Resurrection on the cover of this book, but this is actually the unnamed fifth volume of Greg Rucka and Eric Trautmann's Checkmate series. The quality of stories in this volume isn't exactly steady from beginning to end, but overall it's an impressive and creative collection, and DC Collected Editions Group Editor Georg Brewer, Editor Sean Mackiewicz, and the rest of the department should all be proud.

[Contains spoilers for Kobra: Resurrection]

Kobra: Resurrection is essentially the collection of the recent Faces of Evil: Kobra one-shot special (which itself leads in to Trautmann's JSA vs. Kobra series) padded out with filler material. DC has filled out the collections of a couple shorter storylines recently to fair effect (Superman: Back in Action and Escape from Bizarro World are two in recent memory), but Resurrection well illustrates the value of this approach. Not only does Resurrection include two pre-Crisis on Infinite Earths Kobra stories that lead in to the Faces of Evil book (one story drawn, no less, by Jack "The King" Kirby), but also the three-part "Castling" story that concluded Rucka and Trautmann's Checkmate run (#23-25), the only issues that were, until now, criminally uncollected.

Whereas Rucka and Trautmann's other last volume of Checkmate, Fall of the Wall, effectively concluded the book's long-running Amanda Waller storyline, "Castling" brings Checkmate full circle from the events of Rucka's The OMAC Project where it all began. Over the course of Checkmate, we've seen the organization recruit a who's who of the DC Universe, including the Outsiders, Shadowpact, the Martian Manhunter, and more, but "Castling" involves the heavy-hitting Justice Society and Justice League -- and most importantly, it's three charter members, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

OMAC Project readers know that if anyone has a reason to distrust Checkmate, it's DC's Big Three, after former Checkmate-head Maxwell Lord nearly killed Batman using a mind-controlled Superman before Wonder Woman killed Lord to free Superman. Superman states from the outset that he doesn't like Checkmate when they deputize him to stop a Kobra plot, and Black Queen Sasha Bordeaux wises rips up the deputation order in favor of asking for help; this first step launches "Castling" as a story about how Checkmate has changed, especially in comparison to the all-too similar Kobra cult.

At the end, Sasha faces the choice to kill a deadly nursery of Kobra infants, and instead chooses to raise them under Checkmate jurisdiction; it's a surprisingly bloodless move that's surprising from the often tough-as-nails organization. The writers emphasize (with artist extraordinaire Joe Bennett) Wonder Woman's face when she tells Sasha that she looks forward to working with Checkmate again, and there's no greater compliment the organization can receive given their history. "We have time. Checkmate isn't going anywhere," Sasha says, and it's a wonderfully hopeful message, this reader interprets, from Rucka and Trautmann, that a Checkmate series or mini-series might find it's way to the stands one day.

In contrast, then, I found Ivan Brandon's Faces of Evil: Kobra tale at the end of this book less satisfying. In the classic issues here, we meet Kobra leader Jeffrey Burr -- a Siamese twin kidnapped as a child by the Kobra cult -- and his brother Jason, teamed with Batman to try to stop his brother. Jeffrey seemingly kills Jason, but in the Faces of Evil story, Jason apparently returns to life and takes on his brother's role. I say "apparently" because what's going on in the story is not at all clear; far more pages are spent on a bloody shoot-out than explanation Brandon tells the story well, but it's too much of a bridge to JSA vs. Kobra -- the book just ends, rather than concludes, without any answers, and feels unfinished.

That said, to be sure Kobra: Resurrection gets an honored place on my shelf. Checkmate was a smart, worldly, political series that fully immersed itself in the DC Universe, and signifies for me much of the good that came out of DC Comics "One Year Later" after Infinite Crisis. If enough of us pick up this book, maybe DC will see fit to reconsider Checkmate and publish another.

[Contains selected covers, classic Kobra Who's Who page and pin-up art]

Thanks for reading!

Trade Perspectives: I Can Has Superman/Batman Movie?

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Comics sites reported director Christopher Nolan's announcement today that he will be involved with the new revised Superman movie franchise, and that the Superman movies will exist in a separate universe from the Batman ones (to quote the LA Times: "[Nolan emphasized] the idea that Batman exists in a world where he is the only superhero and a similar approach to the Man of Steel would assure the integrity needed for the film.").

To which the Collected Editions blog says: why?

Seems to me (being not a popular and successful director) Superman and Batman can easily exist in the same movie universe* without it needing to be confirmed nor denied. Easily from a story perspective one can posit that Batman's such an urban vigilante that he might be below the notice of Superman (yes, even Superman), or that if one event takes place in Gotham and another in Metropolis, the twain need not intersect.

The reason for fan concern, of course, is that separating the universe negates the possibility (of sorts) of a Justice League movie (Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths being a good start, but not quite the "real thing").

And I can't help but think, once again, Marvel is farther-sighted than DC in this. Fans like team-ups -- it's why the Avengers and the Justice League has worked for years -- so even if a team-up movie isn't necessarily in the works, teasing it like Marvel has done across Iron Man and Hulk seems a lot better idea than dismissing it out of the gate.

Only -- does this characterize a difference in the moviegoers? Lots of non-comics fans saw Iron Man, but so did a lot of comics fans, and they loved the little hints of other superheroes. But I'd venture (totally unsubstantiated) that even more comics and non-comics fans saw Dark Knight, and hardcore Dark Knight fans -- "Batman doesn't sleep, doesn't smile, and he's not friends with that silly Superman" -- might not want any Superman in their dark Batman movie. That is, maybe Marvel-on-film lends itself to a shared universe better than DC-on-film does.

Me? I actually liked Superman Returns.

* Don't Superman and the current Spider-Man exist in the same movie universe? "You're not Superman" and all that?

Review: JSA Presents: Stars and STRIPE Vol. 2 trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 08, 2010

JSA Presents: Stars and STRIPE is an odd egg, a two-volume collection of the entire run of a good-but-not-critically acclaimed Justice Society lead-in series. Of course we know it's not the series' JSA ties that warranted its collection, nor even its popular appeal (else we'd have a JSA Presents: Hourman collection by now); rather this series ought be called The Geoff Johns Collection: Stars and STRIPE, and therefore the real intention of the collection might be more pronounced.

Regardless, however, of whether you come to this series for the story itself or the role it had in shaping DC Comic's new chief creative officer, Stars and STRIPE is an enjoyable read, hitting the mark of "teen comics" in a way Teen Titans isn't and Supergirl has struggled to, and shows the first hints of thematic depth that we'd later recognize would make a comic "Geoff Johnsian."

Stars and STRIPE has always been about nontraditional legacies; obviously the step-parent/step-daughter relationship between former Stripsey Pat Dugan and new Star-Spangled Kid Courtney Whitmore is one. Most interesting in this second volume, however, is not just the familial relationship, but also that Dugan bucks superhero tradition by formally bestowing the mantle of Star-Spangled Kid on his step-daughter rather than, specifically, his own son Michael who's asking for the legacy. Johns underlines the unusualness of this in the book's first chapter, where the original Star-Spangled Kid Sylvester Pemberton refuses the "Starman" name in favor of Ted Knight giving it to his son Jack.

In both cases, we know the mentor's choice pays off, but I wished Johns had more time with this series to explore the implications of Dugan's choice, specifically regarding the secret reasons Michael has for wanting to be the Star-Spangled Kid. In what's mostly a light-hearted book, the reader cheers for Courtney becoming "official," but at the same time Dugan brushing off his son seems unexpectedly cruel. Perhaps to its benefit, this book about second chances and starting over never had a chance to examine the consequences of past mistakes, but there's an intriguing glance here as to where this title might have gone next.

It's difficult, in a way, to separate Stars and STRIPE from Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory miniseries that came a few years afterward. In the last volume, the heroes re-vanquished the Nebula Man, one of the Soldiers most noted foes; here, former Soldier Shining Knight returns, his cry for help having brought Pat Dugan to Blue Valley in the first place. Johns sets up plotlines involving new iterations of Solders Crimson Avenger and Spider, though those stories end prematurely; Johns would later show the Crimson Avenger in JSA, but both Spider and Shining Knight have subsequently been replaced by Morrison's versions. This volume of Stars and STRIPE is appealing in that it offers a more traditional sequel to the Golden Age Justice League/Seven Soldiers stories, but it's not ultimately take that became most firmly entrenched in current DC Comics continuity.

From the art perspective, it's also notable here that when artist Lee Moder takes a break, Scott Kolins comes on; Kolins would later draw part of the Flash run that would make Johns a household name. With inks by Dan Davis, Kolins' characters are a bit darker and more "squareish" than with Doug Hazelwood on Flash (or, later, Kolins inking his own work), and I think this volume bears examining as a sample of Kolins' work in transition, and not just Johns'.

The second volume of Stars and STRIPE moves past some of the villain-of-the-week and high school antics of the first volume to a prolonged-but-exciting battle between the heroes and the Dragon King, with detailed stops along the way for Seven Soldiers history; in this way, I found it very entertaining. I might not have kept reading this book in monthly issues (in fact, I didn't) because the tone's still a little light for me, but in comparison to a book like Teen Titans that's felt like "no fun" lately, I think Stars and STRIPE hits the right balance.

[Contains full covers, sketchbook by Lee Moder (including revealing who some of the villains in the book were originally intended to be)]

More reviews on their way ... stay tuned!

Review: Teen Titans: Deathtrap trade paperback (DC Comics)

Thursday, March 04, 2010

What might've been the start of a new era for Teen Titans and its associated titles has unfortunately ended in tragedy. Whereas the Titans: Lockdown that leads in to this book had some high points, Teen Titans: Deathtrap, by writers Sean McKeever and Marv Wolfman, is overly-violent, irreverent, and as a comic book crossover, at times just plain sloppy. Once upon a time, Teen Titans was on the top of my to-read list; I know there's a new team coming up, but I feel about ready to drop this title.

[Contains spoilers for Teen Titans: Deathtrap]

At least one difficulty with Deathtrap is that the idea of bringing together the Titans family of titles -- Teen Titans, Titans, and Vigilante -- is stronger than the crossover itself. Deathtrap roots around a long time for a plot; the climax of the story is passable, but beforehand the Titans simply travel from one location to another fighting antagonists Jericho and Vigilante, having the two escape, moving to a second location, and repeating. Beast Boy, recovering from his breakup with Raven, is the only one with any passably interesting emotion; otherwise it's a mostly low-rate superhero slugfest.

A big selling point for this book ought be the contribution of New Teen Titans creator Marv Wolfman, but I hate to say even Wolfman didn't seem on his game in this book. The crossover starts right in the middle of Wolfman's Vigilante title's ongoing story and Wolfman makes no effort to clue the reader in on who's who; I might otherwise have found Vigilante interesting, but instead I was just confused. And then there's instances like Wolfman writing Jericho lecturing Wonder Girl, of all characters, about the mythological gods -- facts the reader knows Wonder Girl's already aware of, but it seems Wolfman or his editor was not.

And the continuity errors don't occur just in the writing. The character Red Devil's costume appears and disappears from chapter to chapter (and changing artist to changing artist); one cliffhanger ends with Cyborg's head nearly shot off, only to have him fairly whole the next time he appears. The story turns on following Jericho as he travels though different bodies, but the depictions of these characters are so different that sometimes I didn't realize it was the same person, or that it was Jericho in the scene.

When I reviewed Titans: Lockdown, I was of mixed opinion how being a villain suited Jericho; now, I'm firmly against it. The presence of Marv Wolfman reminds me that once, Joe "Jericho" Wilson was unique in comics as a pacifist superhero, and a deaf and mute one at that; unmistakable in his mutton-chop sideburns, Jericho was a symbol of something. I didn't much mind when Jericho acted as the villain of "Titans Hunt," corrupted by Raven's soul self, because that at least had some resonance to Titans history; this new Jericho, neither deaf nor mute, but rather spouting hackneyed dialogue like Ming the Merciless, is a travesty. I wasn't offended when Max Lord shot Blue Beetle Ted Kord, sullying years of Justice League International, because I understood the necessity; that Jericho has come to this, and written by Marv Wolfman, for me puts a bit of shame on old classics like The Judas Contract where Joey first appeared.

Teen Titans: The Future is Now was another story that featured the old and new Titans, and I think at least one difference is that story came off as an adventure, while Deathtrap is something darker. More than a few innocent bystanders beg for their lives before being brutally shot here (including one on a gratuitous, entirely unrealistic news report), and that's not to mention the gruesome way Vigilante finishes Jericho. I don't mind my comics serious, but usually when things are bad for our heroes, something's at stake; I had trouble finding that here.

One bright spot amidst the trouble I had with this book is a late-story appearance by Ravager, Jericho's half-sister. Ravager's put-downs of the Teens Titans have long seemed to me to reflect McKeever's own feelings, and it was amazing how much more I enjoyed his Ravager-centric Terror Titans miniseries than his Teen Titans work. Ravager returns here (along with Terror Titans artist Joe Bennett) and it immediately wakes up the story, including a harrowing scene between Ravager and a Jericho-possessed Raven. This book crosses over with McKeever's Ravager co-feature story, and even as I was displeased with this book, I'm very likely to give that collection a shot.

I can't help but wax a little nostalgic these days. Not that long ago, in DC Comics' "One Year Later" endeavor after Infinite Crisis, we had Checkmate, we had Outsiders, we had a Legion title that I liked and the original iteration of Birds of Prey, too. REBELS is a new series I enjoyed, and I'm interested to try some of the Red Circle books -- but thinking about how much I used to like Teen Titans, a book like Deathtrap makes me kind of sad.

[Contains full covers]

Speaking of nostalgia, actually ... reviews of Stars and STRIPE, Manhunter, and Blue Beetle coming up. Don't miss it!

Review: Titans: Lockdown trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, March 01, 2010

Amazingly enough, Judd Winick -- whose Titans: Old Friends showed promise, but left much to be desired -- and Sean McKeever -- whose Teen Titans has so far failed to impress -- join together in Titans: Lockdown for story that's simply fantastic. Titans fans, do not miss this one; Winick loads the bases a story that successfully demonstrates all that's good and bad about the Titans "family," and then McKeever hits a home-run with a single "Day in the Life" issue that well upholds the longstanding Titans tradition.

In his introduction to Outsiders: Looking for Trouble, Judd Winick described wanting to create a super-team with such rich characterization that an entire issue could be spent with the heroes sitting around in a bar talking, and it wouldn't get boring. Winick never did achieve such an issue, but the closest he came was Outsiders #23, not coincidentally also called "Lockdown," and the four-part story found in this Titans collection. Both this and that are great stories, both deal with the team confined to a small space as they seek out a traitor in their midst, and both highly revealing of the characters involved (the similarities, too, to Winick's own Real World experience aren't probably accidental).

Winick sets the tone in the second chapter, where the Titans, to prove none of them have been possessed by former teammate Jericho, privately speak a secret to a lone camera (enter, again, Real World comparisons here). The page literally gave me chills. Beast Boy admits his parents didn't die in a boating accident, Cyborg says "he's not my son" (emphasis mine), Red Arrow admits that [the Green Lantern/Green Arrow issue, presumably] wasn't the last time he used heroin, and Starfire says that "they" weren't all dead when she arrived.

Now, these are blind statements that -- especially with Winick no longer writing Titans -- I don't expect ever to be followed up upon, but the sheer depth it shows, which carries through the story, is astounding. Of course it wasn't the last time Roy Harper used heroin, as it often takes recovering addicts many tries, but nowhere else has another writer been brave enough to confront this. And while I'm not thrilled with the idea of giving Cyborg an illegitimate (or not illegitimate) son, again, a fascinating suggestion.

Just as Titans: Old Friends examined the old sawhorse that family is who you choose and not who you're born with, Lockdown looks at the importance of trust in a family, and what a family is like without it. Winick is wise in noticing former Titan Jericho as the complete antithesis of the new Titans group; a team that's all about trust breaks down completely when Jericho, someone who could be hiding within someone else and therefore betraying that trust, enters the picture. The center can't hold -- as soon as the "Jericho question" abounds, the team very nearly disbands, because it negates the Titans' only reason for being together.

I questioned Winick's use of Jericho as a villain -- after he wasn't, then was, then wasn't again, making Jericho a bad guy again seems rather obvious. It didn't help that, for a large part of the story, Jericho's motivations are mysteriously unclear (and even in the end, he's just "doing bad" for doing bad's sake). But in the middle, Jericho demonstrates how the use of his powers -- often at the Titans' behest -- has driven him crazy, and this makes him the perfect villain for this Titans series. These Titans, at least together, are never going to stop bank robberies; they're going to sit down to breakfast, chat a bit, and then Brother Blood will pop out of the French press and make mayhem. Titans stories should be all about the personal, and the guilt that Nightwing feels in the end for Jericho's trouble is perfect for this series.

Temporary Titans writer Sean McKeever (he departs after the Deathtrap crossover) pens the epilogue to Winick's story, written in the vein of Marv Wolfman's old "Day in the Life" Titans issues. The scenes of Roy Harper reverting to his playboy ways after breaking up with Hawkgirl are wonderfully sad; it's never been clear enough to me that the relationship was so steady that Roy would take it this hard, but his self-destruction is fascinating nonetheless. McKeever also breaks up Raven and Beast Boy, which is great if it's a bump along the road or terrible if it's permanent, but either way made for great reading. McKeever's Teen Titans have never felt this rich to me, and I was pleasantly surprised at his take on the older group.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that no doubt part of what makes Titans: Lockdown better than Old Friends is stellar art by Howard Porter. I remember fondly Porter's JLA days, and while I wasn't much for his side-step into painting, Lockdown is Porter at his best. It's a little thing, but I loved how Porter drew Superman's S-shield slightly raised, as is the current post-One Year Later style; Porter's lines are clean and his figures heroic, and his contribution to this volume is significant.

Maybe nothing gold can stay; I liked this volume of Titans, but it's all set to change in a book or two. I still hold out hope that the "villains for hire" Titans idea will ultimately end with this classic group coming back together; if not now, perhaps some day.

[Contains full covers]

On now to follow the Titans into Deathtrap ... come join me!