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Jason Schachat most closely identifies with Blossom.
Jason Schachat's Weekly Breakdown
August 20, 2004

Each week, Jason Schachat takes you along for his ride on the four-colored pulp pony. Feed the addiction, and the addiction feeds you.

Wow, what a disappointing week for comics. Crossovers keep going, mediocre new minis keep starting up, and, dammit, the store sold out of Powerpuff Girls #53 before I got there.

Not that I…

Moving on…

Maybe I was born too late. A time when cosmic comics were few, watered down, and on the way out. Maybe it’s because I’m constantly pissed off at how the Green Lantern and Fourth World franchises keep getting devalued; but Jim Starlin’s Cosmic Guard #1 really gets me. The story of a hopeless young boy getting powers from the last hero of a fallen world is nothing that new. Swarms of marauding ships, aliens and robots running around, insanely huge beams of energy leveling whole cities -- we’ve seen it all before. It doesn’t feel tired, here, though. It just feels outstandingly old school.

The dialogue and certain character designs may look dated to some eyes, but the art is Starlin in top form with enough decadent splash pages to give you a toothache. THIS is the kind of cosmic story I was hoping for on the last few arcs of Green Lantern and just about every Star Wars comic I snore through. The kind rarely attempted and even more rarely successful (the only recent triumph I can recall being Robert Kirkman’s Tech Jacket). Why is that? I mean, it’s not like all the good artists have something against drawing spaceships and aliens… I guess you just need the magic touch. Starlin has it. We all know it. Give it a read.

Still, female vampires are alluring...
In the latest attempt at a magically unholy union, IDW teams with Konami to give us CVO: Covert Vampiric Operations – Human Touch #1, a new comic about an American black ops group that incorporates vampire agents, and, as you may guess, the result is less than spectacular. The first half follows an attempt by the team to take out a North Korean nuclear missile plant in Mongolia. Frankly, I don’t see what’s so covert about these goons. They just walk right up to the electrified front gate, rip it off its hinges, and march on in through the gunfire.

Of course, only three members of the team are vamps, so everyone else is gunned down in five seconds. None of the agents have the intelligence or finesse required in a covert ops story, and the climax is painfully dull. Alex Garner’s follow-up story presents some flashier art with a silent story that’s truer to the nature of how a covert ops vamp might operate, but it still doesn’t go beyond a simple action scene (and, when that’s all you’re drawing, you really need to understand what an exit wound is and how it looks). Hellsing was more than ample proof this concept has legs, but CVO is certainly not off to a running start. (Or a running continuation -- this is the third mini-series or one shot featuring the concept.)

Nor is Doctor Spectrum, the first spin-off series from Supreme Power; a surprisingly good read mired by the summary nature of this first issue. For any who don’t know, Doc Spectrum (essentially a Green Lantern knockoff) is a highly specialized soldier brought in to test a weapon: a crystal from a crashed alien ship that responds to the will of whoever’s near it. Only problem is it needs a handler of exceptionally strong will, or their subconscious takes over and uses it for more… primal reasons. That, and it can kill them. Enter Doc, who takes to the crystal right away and has a ball using it until it bonds with his hand and puts him in a coma.

Of course, we already saw all this in the pages of Supreme Power. What Sara Barnes brings to this series is the untold story of Doc’s battle against his inner demons and the crystal itself while in the coma. I know; it doesn’t sound like anything special. But it works well enough, and I can mildly recommend it to Supreme Power junkies and newcomers alike. The art, on the other hand, is high caliber work that can stand toe to toe with Gary Frank’s masterful work on the main series. Travel Foreman rises to the task with a deft light pencil touch that flows into Studio F’s colors and solidifies with John Dell’s inks. Oh, fine, give it a look. You know you wanna.

And, in case you haven’t seen that Brian K. Vaughan is ON FIRE, Ex Machina #3 came out this week to drive the point home. The story of Mitchell Hundred, a superhero turned Mayor of New York, picks up from last month’s new conflicts (a sanitation worker-murdering gunman to challenge the superhero; a controversial painting in a public museum to plague the mayor) with examinations of racism, politicking, a bit of sociology, and a peek inside the jumbled mind of the man-machine himself. Like Vaughan’s best writing, Ex Machina has so much going on, it’s sheer torture to have to wait between issues.

The flashback nature of the early plotting has been left behind as we settle into Hundred’s tenure as mayor, but payoffs are already on the horizon (including a possible Unbreakable-style subplot that could actually WORK, this time). Tony Harris’ art is simply gorgeous, complementing Vaughan’s character oriented writing much like Pia Guerra’s clean work on Y: The Last Man, but in a far more realistic and nuanced way. The facial expressions on some of his characters edge close to photo-realism while beautifully maintaining that signature clean line. It almost makes you want to cry. Almost. Just buy it, damn you.

Humankind #1 pretty much cements the sad theory that the nineties are back, giving us hugely muscled monstrosities, more hatching than the average Leifeld drawing of Cable screaming (which is nearly all Leifeld drawings of Cable, come to think of it…), and enough bold experiments in female butt-cleavage and barely hidden nipples to justify its own swimsuit issue. I’m not too sure, but I THINK the main story follows a duo of human detectives on an alien world where mankind has been cultivated and enslaved following nuclear and biological holocaust on Earth. Either that, or they’re the side story to a Russian astronaut’s Planet of the Apes adventure after he’s been mutated into some kind of war-beast by a mad scientist on the aforementioned planet.

It’s kinda hard to tell since Tony Daniels’ story tosses us into this interesting alien world with no idea of what’s going on. Not a bad M.O., actually, when you consider the number of boring plots that suddenly become mystery-thrillers if you cut out the prologue, but it could also mean the series doesn’t have as much going on under the surface as Daniels wants us to believe. My worry is that Humankind will turn into another “gumshoes on an alien world” story and then run out of gas. This first issue has life, but anyone looking for a new series to get into might be in for a letdown.

Look! Pulp-like substances!
Sometimes, we fail to appreciate the careful balance that makes Geoff Johns’ JSA the treasure it is, so DC has decided to remind us by letting Kevin J. Anderson helm the new JSA: Strange Adventures six part mini. Okay, maybe that’s being a little harsh, but Anderson hasn’t exactly been batting a thousand, and this story of the JSA defending America from foreign baddies (with a parallel plot about Johnny Thunder writing stories for pulp magazines) during World War II strikes out.

Barry Kitson’s art works every now and again, but his cyborgs appear too modern by half and the zeppelin he gives us owes more to Goodyear than rigid airships of the time. Johnny Thunder looks like a creepy middle-aged man who still lives in his mom’s basement, and the big JSA conference scene is a great example of what not to do when seating your characters at a round table. Anderson drops as many ‘40s pop culture references as he can manage, but strikes out with certain oddballs like Jay Garrick comparing Johnny to Robert Heinlein and Isaac Asimov (both were little-known rookie short story writers, at the time). But what’s most telling is how desperately this series is trying to give us that Golden Age charm and how far they are from the mark. If the JSA can do no wrong for you, give this a look; otherwise, run.

But don’t run before you get Plastic Man #9; quite simply one of the best and funniest time travel comics of all-- ever! I… words just escape me. I’m not sure how anyone can describe the wicked joy you feel reading this. Plas, Woozy, and Morgan punch a few more holes in DC continuity before embarking on their crucial mission to assassinate Lincoln. Borrowing Superboy’s time machine (No, the other Superboy; It’s a time paradox thing), they accidentally drag innumerable innocents and historical figures around the timeline before finding John Wilkes Booth and convincing him to shoot the President. Then he gets run over by a horse and buggy. Yeah, I think you see where this is heading. Kyle Baker goes so far beyond the absurd, I can’t even think of a name for it. Whatever. Plastic Man should be a regular on everyone’s shopping list. So get it. You hear me? Every time you don’t read it, God kills a kitten. There. I said it, and I’m glad.

Batman crossovers are always a pain for those of us not loyal to ALL the Bat-books, but Bill Willingham and company manage to pull off a decent story in Robin #129, bringing the Gotham gang war to Tim Drake’s school when Darla Aquista, daughter of a “normal, innocent union representative," finds herself the target of Scarface and the Odessa Mob. Tim struggles for a moment, but gives in to his hero’s instinct and rushes to save Darla as carloads of gangsters empty out on the school lawn, forcing him to marshal the students to safety inside the school. This entree works largely because it brings together so many series threads, rather than giving us an issue-long fight scene or shifting the focus away from the main characters (a standard operation for far too many crossover stories). Tim finally has a reason to reclaim the mantle of Robin (even if just for a brief time), and Darla makes for a great tie in to the gang war powering this crossover. I still want to see more of Stephanie, but Robin seems to be faring well during “War Games."

Starjammers is also doing better, but it’s still just an adequate read. Issue #3 finds our young cadet prisoner and slave to the Starjammers as they crab and moan about equality and other stuff, yadda yadda yadda, standard High Sci-Fi pirate story. This just isn’t a good week for Kevin J. Anderson. True, this issue is far better than the last one and Jorge Lucas (*snicker*) redeems himself with much more consistent art that demonstrates an imaginative flair for architecture (almost making up for his failures drawing humans). By now, I’d say it’s safe to write this series off, so only browse this issue if you’re desperate for quasi sci-fi (if you want a cosmic story, Cosmic Guard all the way).

Making Batman look well-adjusted...
And, while Doctor Spectrum may just be worth “checking out”, Supreme Power #12 is a must buy. The issue, told in four simultaneous plots (titled “Ominous Tidings Expressed as Four-Part Harmony”), finally sees Nighthawk, The Blur, and Hyperion band together after agreeing the serial killer Nighthawk’s been tracking recently must be super-powered. Doc Spectrum and Dr. Steadman meet to discuss Hyperion’s disappearance and the crystal’s odd powers (linking nicely with Doctor Spectrum #1), but Spectrum senses through the crystal that something’s amiss at the government labs, and Steadman learns of a strange experiment involving the DNA retrovirus which was found in the crashed alien ship along with the crystal and the infant Hyperion. Meanwhile, Zarda (who we may or may not end up calling Power Princess) persists in her attempts to convince Hyperion of his godhood before agreeing that he should tend to his unfinished business while she acclimates to the 21st century.

Supreme Power has been accused of going too slow and taking too long to get to the point. Bull. Issue #12 left me exhausted and drained. This is the best superhero book since the original twelve issues of The Authority and is on the road to being the best one, period. Straczynski has built from the archetypes a pantheon with more depth and complexity than anything else out there. You want to have some fun? Try splitting the group into nearly pure good vs. possibly evil. It comes out to half and half (Hyperion, Blur, and Amphibian being good; Zarda, Nighthawk and Spectrum being evil).

You could do the same test with innocence, humaneness, and simple humanity. Each time, it splits evenly. The point? Each split makes for two teams who could stand-up to each other. In a series where good guys could still be bad guys, that’s an intriguing prospect. Hell, we can almost COUNT on there being a fight with Zarda: her godlike view of herself and Hyperion combined with the way she cheerfully slaughters anyone who gets in her way makes her Grade-A villain material (and, man, is her pre-bronze age matriarchal perspective scary!). At long last, Marvel has me incurably anxious. Best book of the week.

“Carnage” ends in Ultimate Spider-Man #64 with less of the all-out showdown fans might have been expecting and more of the gut-wrenching trauma that made issue #62 so resonating. Admittedly, the issue has a pretty slow start from the splash page at the end of the last issue and Brian Michael Bendis trips along some standard redundant narration for two pages, but, roughly halfway through, the full impact Carnage will leave on Peter Parker is felt and Bendis wisely lets Bagley handle the finale with mostly silent panels. We can only imagine how Spidey can recover from this arc’s collateral damage and Bendis could be getting dangerously close to repeating sins of the past (i.e. further clone stories and more reasons for Peter to retire). However, “Carnage” has made for one of the most exciting and memorable Ultimate Spider-Man stories to date. In Bendis we trust.

Image seems to be filling the gap left when Powers went over to Marvel with Ultra, a new superhero book which, in issue #1, focuses entirely on three girlfriends having a night out. In fact, the cover and some scattered hints are all we have to suspect this is a superhero story at all, since the ladies mostly yammer on about their love lives before visiting an extremely phoney looking fortune teller who doesn’t recognize they’re famous but seems to know an awful lot about them. I like the uber-subtle approach the Luna Brothers are taking with this story. The market’s pretty glutted with stories that end with an “oh, by the way; he/she’s a superhero," and Ultra manages to break away from the pack. The art and production are eye-catching and distinctive, and the plot draws us in and leaves us thirsting for more.

So, what’s wrong with it? Well, the dialogue and characterization feel like a pretty desperate attempt by male writers to create a VERY female cast. It just doesn’t ring true. Also, the art style, while very nice and clean, may be just a touch too subtle for this story. When everything’s so mysterious, we need the artist to create a connection between audience and character a lot faster than this. I can almost see this being a re-written fill-in issue for Birds of Prey, but, without an prior story for this to follow, it’s hard to tell where things are going. I’m definitely going to pick up the next issue, but, for now, this first one’s just okay.

It’s gonna be hard for people to pick up The Watch: Casus Belli #2 for a number of reasons. First, it’s small press, so your shop may not even have it. Second, it’s the third volume of The Watch, so you’ll probably be completely unfamiliar with the characters and setting. Third, this issue lacks the summary page the last issue had, so, unless you can find that first issue, you’re out of luck. Me? I read the first issue, and I’m still puzzled. From the looks of things, Phosphorescent Comics is hoping to lure you to their website so you can buy the back issues. It’s a smart plan, but I don’t think it’ll work too well.

We’ve basically got a massive superhero fight going on when a Magneto-type villain gathers the hordes from his island to attack China. The Watch go in to stop him and his cronies, and yet other villains pop-up. And then former Watch teammates pop-up. And another team of heroes is supposed to pop-up any minute now. Unfortunately, it’s all a big jumble. The fights are fun enough and the demonstrations of powers enjoyable, but it doesn’t play to any of the strengths of the mini-series format. I can appreciate that this crew has a limited operation going and would probably prefer doing an ongoing series to these minis, but the story is weak for the format and makes what could be a very enjoyable read a mediocre indie superhero book.

Hot Predictions for Next Week: Conan #7, Guardians #3, Love Fights #12, Ultimate Fantastic Four #10, and WE3 #1.

Jason Schachat

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