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Panel Beating - 29th June 2006

I don't think I've seen a week of comics like this in a very long time. I bought eight titles, and it would have been ten had my comic shop actually ordered enough copies of certain things to go around (although in the case of Flash, later downloaded, that proved to be a blessing in disguise). Not just that, but the majority of them were A-grade books, or even better. Indeed, I think this must have been the best week, quality-wise, since I started buying comics regularly (as opposed to sporadically) a few years back, and it made for a timely reminder of just why I spend so much money each week on these bloody things. So, shall we get cracking?

All Star Superman #4, cover by Frank Quitely


Publisher DC (All Star line) • Writer Grant Morrison • Pencils Frank Quitely • Digital Inks Jamie Grant

Four issues in, and All Star Superman continues to both meet and exceed expectations, to the extent that it's almost becoming a review-proof book. But I'll try, anyway. Simply put, once again, this is fucking brilliant stuff.

The focus is shifted off Superman slightly this issue, and onto Jimmy Olsen, albeit a quite different Jimmy to the one readers of the last twenty years or so of the comic will be familiar with. Rather than painting him as a bit of a likeable loser, the sort of guy who Superman almost only seems to treat as his pal under sufferance, this Jimmy is in fact a pretty cool guy, beloved by all. It makes sense, really - if one individual in the world appeared to be singled out as Superman's mate, then it surely follows that everyone else would think "Well, if Superman is friends with him, he must be a great guy". Ergo, rather than being a slightly geeky photographer, Jimmy writes a weekly feature in the Daily Planet, and is a classic "guys want to be him, girls want to do him" figure. It's an interesting twist - made more amusing by the fact that, in terms of appearance and outfit, he's closer to his "classic" version - and I was apprehensive about it going into the issue, but Morrison - of course - makes it work.

This issue is arguably the closest that All Star Superman has so far come to "Ultimizing" the character and surroundings, taking established core elements but placing them in a new setup. Hence the "cooler" Jimmy, but also some staggeringly inventive yet recognisable use of things like Bizarro (now an "evil side" to Superman's personality rather than a separate creature) and Doomsday (a creature that... well... I won't spoil the surprise, but it's delightfully done). As befits a story about a nosey journalist working for a day on a top secret research project, the issue is bursting at the seams with insane ideas from Morrison's hyperactive imagination, yet if you buy into the insanity of it all, nothing ever feels forced.

Frank Quitely's art just continues to get better and better, if such a thing were possible. Plenty of credit must also go to Jamie Grant for the digital inks that aid Quitely's inch-perfect precision and the colours that add to the sense of vibrancy, but FQ is clearly having the time of his life. His portrayal of Superman has settled down into something more consistent than in the earlier issues of this title, and it's one that works well, with echoes of the Fleischer, Alex Ross and even Christopher Reeve versions all at once. The level of precise detail is again staggering, and he manages to get many moments - such as the lovely shot of Superman flying into space, or the destruction of the Planet globe - that would make for fantastic, full-page splashes into smaller, individual panels. And as for his version of Lucy Lane... well, she's the strongest possible counter to those who say his women are ugly, let's put it that way.

It really is getting difficult to avoid running out of superlatives to describe this book now, though. It practically reads like an instruction manual on how to make great superhero comics. There's nothing on the stands to match it for sheer, unbridled fun and inventiveness, and it looks a million dollars. This really is about as good as it gets. A+

Hellblazer #221, cover by Lee Bermejo


Publisher DC (Vertigo) • Writer Denise Mina • Art Leonardo Manco

I've been a bit critical of the last couple of issues of Hellblazer, suggesting that after a strong start, Denise Mina was beginning to struggle with pacing, dragging the story out unnecessarily, and failing to fully make use of the medium to aid comprehension in a manner that might have been possible in the prose to which she's more usually accustomed. Happily, however, while I still feel the storyline has run for too long, a number of those concerns are addressed by this issue. A lot of the threads from previous issues are tied together, in an issue that essentially explains what's been happening up to this point, in addition to introducing one or two fresh twists. You could, perhaps, criticise the blatantly expository nature of much of the issue's dialogue, citing the fact that it wouldn't be so necessary if much of the earlier run had been clearer, but it's so welcome that it's hard to find real fault with it.

Mina also introduces a strong new character this issue. The idea of a strong, smart, foul-mouthed and witty female character as a foil to Constantine has been a recurring trope in Hellblazer ever since the days of Garth Ennis' Kit, but that doesn't mean they're unwelcome. For some reason, this sort of character works perfectly alongside John, perhaps because you know they see through his bluffing and hence don't take any crap from him. On early evidence, Nicola certainly seems set to join the ranks of Kit, Ellie, Angie et al. The dialogue and banter between her and John sparkles with wit - it's a clear strength of Mina's, and I'll reiterate once again that it's just great to see a writer who makes Constantine sound as he should.

Plaudits once again, too, for Manco's artwork. His technique of apparently using printed lines for recognisable logos and suchlike (including, in this issue, a Peugeot 206) lends the work an extremely grounded, earthy feel - just the right sort of tone for a story like this. He gets the iconic Constantine look down pat, too, with an absolutely terrific opening splash page reminiscent of Tim Bradstreet's covers work. It may not read like something as explosively brilliant as those halcyon Ennis/Dillon days, but this title's definitely on an upsurge now. Once this storyline wraps up, I'm certainly looking forward to where Mina's going to take us next. A

Eternals #1


Publisher Marvel • Writer Neil Gaiman • Pencils John Romita, Jr. • Inks Danny Miki

Well, now. That'll teach me to lower my expectations.

Neil Gaiman is pretty much my favourite writer in any medium - Sandman was responsible for reawakening my love of comics in my mid-teens, Neverwhere is my all-time favourite novel, and I've met the guy twice and found him to be an exceedingly nice bloke and a brilliant and compelling public speaker. John Romita Jr., meanwhile, might just be my favourite ever Spider-Man artist, a one-of-a-kind penciller with a distinctive style that no-one has ever managed to copy. And yet, I wasn't hugely looking forward to Eternals. Why?

I blame 1602, Gaiman's much-heralded first "return to comics" a few years back. While it was well-crafted, it didn't really do anything of note, and was really quite dull despite providing an interesting twist at the conclusion. So perhaps I was just expecting Eternals to follow suit, to be something throwaway as the second Marvel work done simply to pay for the Todd McFarlane lawsuit, and bashed out inbetween having something better (you know, another New York Times bestselling novel, or a movie script) to do. In addition, the concept didn't really thrill me a great deal - Jack Kirby came up with some pretty crazy stuff in the later part of his career, and I've never really been too fond of any of it.

Well, colour me well and truly wrong. This was terrific stuff. Gaiman sucks the new reader into an unfamiliar concept by the eons-old trope of giving us the perspective of a character with no memory of who they used to be, who then encounters a former ally who attempts to jog their mind. Say what you like about how cliched it is, but it works. There are a lot of questions left unanswered by the end of this first issue, but damned if the whole thing isn't made compelling enough for a reader to want to find out more.

Gaiman is, of course, a master of dialogue, and it shows here. Every line is careful, tight, and feels like it's been worked on rather than simply thrown out. There's time and care in this, and that goes for the pacing and structure, too. It's easy to forget, for all his success in other media since Sandman ended, that Gaiman is first and foremost a comics guy. He's not some "outsider" from another medium - he genuinely has a deep-rooted understanding for how good comics work, honed by years writing some of the very best the industry has to offer. And his usual armoury of true-to-life pop culture representation ("It's just so Sprite!") is present and correct. Although, while I knew that this series would be an attempt to tie the Eternals to the Marvel Universe, what I didn't expect was a direct reference to Civil War - and it's one that's handled in such a way that it's almost laugh-out-loud funny.

The other draw to this book, and one almost on a par with Gaiman, is Romita Jr., and he's on absolutely scorching form. Perhaps helped by some strong work from inker Danny Miki (who appears to have come on leaps and bounds since his promising work on Ultimate X-Men), his work looks stronger and more consistently solid than it has done in some time. It feels like he was born to draw this sort of thing - he's probably one of only a handful of artists around who could take on the challenge of drawing all this insane, whacked-out Kirby stuff, and he doesn't disappoint. He even manages to actually draw the Earth in one beautiful frame, rather than simply resorting to dropping in that same old stock photo.

It's one thing to make me enjoy a comic like All Star Superman, where I've already bought into the character and concept wholesale. It's quite another to take subject matter like this and get me genuinely interested. I should have known that a team as winning as Gaiman and JRJr could have delivered. I shouldn't have doubted them for a second.

But how much does that cover look like Miracleman, eh? A+

Ultimates 2 #11, cover by Bryan Hitch


Publisher Marvel (Ultimate line) • Writer Mark Millar • Pencils Bryan Hitch • Inks Paul Neary

It bears repeating yet again that I'm going to miss this comic desperately when it's finished. The fact that it's going to be replaced by the probably-awful Ultimates 3 (by Jeph Loeb and Joe Madueira) and the probably-worse Ultimates 4 (sorry, but I hate Ed McGuinness' style, always have, and it's about as unsuited to this book as you can get) just makes it all the more sickening. But at least it provides more encouragement to cherish each issue of this while we still can.

As Millar builds towards what will hopefully be a rousing finale, then, what we have here is another "Fuck, yeah!" of an issue, filled with "Fuck, yeah!" moments as the Ultimates begin to strike back against the Liberators. It doesn't really matter that Millar already did this story (too-powerful and potentially ideas-above-their-station superhero team gets taken down by state-funded superhero team making bastardised use of the same powers) in The Authority a few years back, because it's still bloody entertaining here, not least because of the strength of characters he gets to work with. He continues to make both Captain America and Hawkeye put their 616 counterparts to shame in the coolness stakes, and both get some great moments here. Meanwhile, the mystery over whether or not Thor really is a God is apparently cleared up. Or is it? After all, we haven't actually seen Loki use his "powers" since the invasion started, and his explanation for not doing so here could be an excuse rather than a reason. I'm not sure how likely it is, but Millar has been twisting and turning this thread so much over the course of volume two that it's hard to know what to believe until we're given some authoritative proof.

The issue is generally just a load of big fight scenes, setting the scene for what will presumably be one monumental one next time out. As such, it's not exactly the most compellingly-written issue that Millar has ever turned in, but when it comes to huge, widescreen action, you can't beat this title. Especially when Hitch is on as spectacular form as he is here - the epic, explosive shots demonstrate why he's the one and only artist for this sort of thing, and the Air Force One sequence is an absolute tour de force. And what can you say about that ending? It's silly, it's over the top, and I'm sure we all saw it coming (although it would have been nice if more than two issues of Ultimate Wolverine vs Hulk had managed to come out prior to it), but damned if it doesn't inspire a big daft grin. Roll on issue #12, and thank heavens it's double length - not least because there's so much still to wrap up, but also because you just want to get as much of this stuff as you can before it finishes. A

Quick Bites!


I'm still not convinced that Whedon is telling an absolutely great X-Men story in this title - this is nothing we haven't seen before, and it's no E is for Extinction, either. What he is doing, however, is telling a perfectly passable story in a thoroughly entertaining way. When someone like Joss comes along and writes dialogue so perfectly honed yet seemingly so effortless and natural, it really makes you realise how hackneyed a lot of current comics writers can be. And if nothing else, his run can be remembered for some truly brilliant comedic moments - chief among them the brainwashed Wolverine stuff in this issue, in which pure shock on the part of the reader ("they really didn't just do that... did they?") gives way to raucous laughter. Yet make no mistake - he's not turned it into a Giffen/deMatteis-style comedy book. The humour in Astonishing works like the humour in Buffy did - isolated moments, and all the richer for it. John Cassaday continues, of course, in his usual majestic form, making this one of the most finely-crafted books on the market. I do hope that he's not going the obvious route with Emma, though, and that this really is building to something. A


After the agonising events of the last story arc, and then the two-part special that took us right back to a significant moment in Mitch's superhero career, we're back to the bread-and-butter stuff with this issue. Once again, Vaughan takes a hot political topic and throws it at Hundred to deal with, and so we get some typically excellent dialogue between him, Dave and Candy as they discuss cannabis laws. At the outset, this seems like a much "softer" topic to be dealing with after the terrorist incidents of the last arc, but it quickly builds into something more ominous. For starters, Journal's sister is on the scene - and an immediate twist (not an entirely unpredictable one, given the way her character comes across in those early pages) lends a sinister overtone to the storyline. Are we starting to see the beginning of the end of Mitch's incumbency? Meanwhile, we're given a particularly shocking ending (even for this title's standards) that raises all sorts of questions about where this story is going next. Textbook quality, as ever, but as always with this book it's hard to judge a storyline until it really gets going. A


It feels weird having to say that the dud of the week is a Bendis book, but there you have it. Once again, New Avengers fails to inspire. I'm not quite sure how such a flagship book can still be mired down in House of M fallout when the rest of the Universe is worried about Civil War, but there you go. Worse, though, are Bendis' attempts to clear up some of that whole Xorn/Magneto confusion. Sadly, to those of us who don't touch Austen or Claremont books with a bargepole, it just makes things worse - I didn't even know there were meant to be two Xorns, and I still don't know which one is running around now. But then, there's a whole article on the ways Marvel could have better dealt with the fall-out from Morrison's last couple of New X-Men arcs, and a review of New Avengers isn't the place for it. But then, nor is New Avengers the place to address such storylines! Irrespective of that, this is a needlessly complicated and confusing mess of an issue. The fact that it's Bendis means that it at least still has a few redeeming moments, but they're thin on the ground. I'm a bit annoyed that I missed the boat on the early issues of this title thanks to Disassembled, and now that I'm finally onboard it's just about finished in its current form (it won't see Civil War through, that's for sure), with a bunch of lacklustre recent issues to boot. Bah. C+


Insert here a rant at my comic shop about the fact that they didn't increase their orders for 52 despite loads of people adding it to their pull list, and so people like me who've had it on since the beginning missed out. I had to download this one instead, which didn't make me happy. Still, though, after a promising first few issues, it's got a bit staid. I'm a bit fed up of Asshole Booster Gold now, and I hope something's going to be done about him soon - although it looks like it will, and at least something significant does actually happen to him this week, although Ralph Dibny isn't really any less assholeish (saying that Booster wasn't around to save Ted is a bit harsh when you consider he was in a hospital bed at the time, having rescued Ted from an explosion). But is he still the Booster Gold we know and love, or what? The art here isn't great, either - a particular let down in the scene introducing Kathy Kane (who had better be more interesting in her Batwoman costume than out of it), where her beauty is built up by Montoya's narration only to be betrayed by the fairly ugly art. It's been a quiet few weeks for 52 now, though - it's about time it kicked up a gear. B-


Oh, wait, New Avengers wasn't the dud. This was. This was a complete mess, in fact. I appreciate the credentials of the writers of the Flash TV series, and so even though they're untested in comics, I expected better than this. Makes no attempt to clear up the confusion about who the new Flash is going to be, other than to have it turn out that Bart Allen has been lying all along about the Speed Force no longer existing. Attempts to pay lip service to previous incarnations of the Flash, but pretty much skims over Wally West without any real recognition or explanation of what's happened to him. Does absolutely nothing interesting with the now-adult Bart (suggesting to me that the character really isn't going to be at all interesting now he's not a hyperactive teen), and introduces an absolutely horrific supporting character as his room-mate, to boot. And the art, while not catastrophic, isn't much cop either. I know this is suffering from launching so late after all the other One Year Laters kicked off, but it really should have been so much better, given the iconic status of the Flash. Not quite Nightwing-bad (ugh, the thought of that book still makes me shudder), but certainly down among the worst of the recent relaunches. C-


The two triumphant, flagship One Year Later arcs both come to an end at once, as Batman says a fond farewell to James Robinson (in preparation for, *gasp*, Grant Morrison and Paul Dini next month), and Geoff Johns and Kurt Busiek leave themselves a hell of an act to follow when they split off onto Action Comics and Superman. Elsewhere, it's to be hoped that Blue Beetle can continue to cement its status as one of the most entertaining of the new titles. Over at Marvel, meanwhile, the fall-out from The Most Significant Event In Comics History will be seen in both Amazing Spider-Man and The Puls..., sorry, Civil War : Front Line. There's also a Marvel Spotlight featuring the rather bizarre combination of Neil Gaiman and Salvador Larroca which, Gaiman fanboy that I am, I'll probably have to pick up...

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