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Jason Schachat tells nothing but pre-Crisis stories...
Jason Schachat's Weekly Breakdown
December 2, 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.

Does anyone else find it funny how “War Games” and “Disassembled” have ended, yet we’re still getting pre-War Games and pre-Disassembled stories? I know we shouldn’t expect every title to suddenly link up chronologically, but, when some of Batman and Captain America’s own books still can’t get it all straightened out, I think of that whole “room full of monkeys banging away at typewriters” gag…

Though every other DC Focus title has been ripped clean off the racks, Hard Time keeps chugging along (yes, it’s almost lasted a year!). This month with Hardtime #11, the wonderfully plotted superpowered-teen-in-prison drama investigates the links between Ethan, the crazy old man that claims his powered are derived from ancient Sumerian deities, Alyssa (one of the victims of Ethan’s unintentional shooting spree), and the dreams they share.

And that’s before Ethan’s lawyer proposes marriage to Ethan’s mom, Curly’s estranged granddaughter visits the jailbirds, and the Aryans drive the latino Diablos to murderous rage!

Not the face! Not the face!
If only one title could survive the death of DC Focus, I’m glad it was this one. It was the best of the bunch, and, if it goes to the DC mainline, it’ll be one of the best there, too. Few books manage to create such a massive cast, much less weave them in and out of such an involving story. As if that weren’t enough, the creators seem to have finally broken past the fear of cancellation *crosses fingers* and are developing Ethan’s powers in a way that’s both surprising and natural.

In fact, I can’t think if a single complaint for this book. Steve Gerber’s writing here is the quality premium cable dramas aspire to, and Brian Hurtt’s bold art keeps it from being lumped in with superhero books while playing to the strengths of comic styles. Trust me when I say this book has been a joy to read every time and doesn’t look like it’ll let up any time soon. Strongly recommended.

The first book I reviewed from DDP’s new Aftermath Universe left me pretty cold. It promised to be a new kind of superhero story and failed very early on. Infantry #1 doesn’t exactly strike me as boldly different, either, but it’s already off to a better start. Our first moments are spent with an odd couple pair of investigators rummaging through the remains of a burnt down drug lab in the South Pacific. Apparently, a pharmaceutical company was testing allergy medicine in such a way they needed total isolation under the cover of dense jungle in the middle of nowhere.

We then segue to Los Angeles where a supervillain is hired to assassinate a political candidate by a paramilitary group calling themselves “Nemesis." Then a van crashes through the wall and an armored vigilante proceeds to pummel the living snot out of the baddies.

Now, while many of the trappings are very familiar, I have to say this story hits some original notes every here and there. Joe Casey’s supervillain is a very interesting character, and it’ll be a shame if he doesn’t figure into the story in the future. Rarely do we see a reasonable criminal with such a clear head. Our hero, for the most part, comes across as a silent one man army, but it looks like they’ll delve into his origin story a bit more next issue. What they DO get across here is an atmosphere of (for lack of a better term) newness.

Though some of his proportions seem off in perspective shots, Clement Sauve’s art packs a lot of action onto the pages and manages some impressive layouts without getting confusing. Quieter scenes don’t work so well, and some character designs are a little… off, but, ultimately, it flows with the story. I can’t say if this book will last, but the storytelling’s certainly stronger than Defex. Mildly recommended.

Logan, Logan, Logan...keep those things sheathed during an electrical storm...
I also didn’t have any great hopes for New Avengers #1. It’s not that Avengers ended in a way that closed the book forever. It’s not that I thought the Bendis and Finch team couldn’t make it work. It’s not that I didn’t like the roster. I DIDN’T like the roster, but that didn’t mean the book would suck.

No, my great worry was this would be another money-minded re-launch. Marvel brings out the big guns of Spidey and Wolvie, shaves off some confusing continuity, and keeps the beloved powerhouses Iron Man and Captain America. Sure, Bendis threw in Spiderwoman and Luke Cage for a bit of Alias nostalgia, but it’s hard to argue that putting the most popular X-Man of all time on the Avengers isn’t selling out.

But, man oh man, does Bendis do us right.

We open with a one page recap of “Disassembled," summing up that Scarlet Witch went nuts and the Avengers disbanded. The book then avoids any connection to Avengers for the rest of the issue. We get a quick meeting where the perennially ridiculous-looking Electro accepts a job in the stereotypical “dingy warehouse office” and kindly disappears until the end of the issue.

Meanwhile, Matt Murdock, Jessica Drew, and Luke Cage (aka Daredevil, Spiderwoman, and… well, Luke Cage) meet outside The Raft supervillain penitentiary. Drew escorts them in to the facility, droning on about how impenetrable the facility is, allowing Luke Cage a tense moment looking into the eyes of the Purple Man, before the lights suddenly go out. Then the lights go out in Manhattan. Then the lights go out in the rest of New York. Then a massive lightning bolt blasts one side of the prison into kibble.

I think you get a pretty good idea what happens from there.

If there was one worry fans had when Bendis came onboard Avengers, it was that he didn’t write anything like typical Avengers scribes. No one should pigeonhole him as a gritty crime writer, but you have to admit it was a strange marriage of fan-favorite and franchise. The result, of course, was the loud and chaotic “Disassembled," and it was pretty… “eh”… for the most part.

With the beginning of New Avengers, Bendis and Finch make it clear “Disassembled” was just them wiping the chalkboard clean to teach us a new lesson. This is the beginning of something different. Gone are all attempts at compressed storytelling, old school plotting, and standard team formation. Just as Mark Millar’s Marvel Knights Spider-Man and The Ultimates have revamped standard Marvel heroes, New Avengers immediately does the same— Bendis-style.

The only thing preventing me from going ga-ga and forcing everyone, at gunpoint, to get this book is the typical Bendis method of plot maximization (wherein any three pages of a Silver Age book translate into a full issue of a Bendis book). Technically, very little happens in these pages. But what does happen is friggin’ awesome. I questioned the wisdom of slaughtering the old Avengers wholesale when Ultimates still seemed to be bringing new readers to the old book, but this first issue gives me hope (despite the fact that David Finch’s Matt Murdock looks way too much like Scott Summers). Recommended.

menage a supes.
In a less permanent attempt at reinvention, Superman/Batman #15 continues its romp through an altered reality (where Batman and Superman dominate humanity) with the fight for freedom hinted at last issue. Wonder Woman leads Uncle Sam to the mound where Abin Sur was buried and retrieves the green lantern and power ring. They then gather Phantom Lady, The Ray, Doll Man, and The Human Bomb to their banner and launch an attack on the stronghold in New York.

Supes and Bats slaughter Zatanna and imprison Deadman in a distant arctic wasteland, but quickly rush to the battle between the freedom fighters and their brainwashed Legion of Superheroes lackeys. The tide begins to turn, but Wonder Woman takes out Batman, sending Superman into a rage. The only question: did the fight distract the villains long enough for the surviving freedom fighters to set things right?

I have to admit this is a weird time for me to be reading this story. It feels like I’m reading alternate reality books all the time. Exiles and the Elseworlds books usually do enough to satisfy my cravings, but the reality hopping going on in Teen Titans, JLA, and Superman/Batman are pushing me over the edge. As alternate reality stories go, it’s okay, but nothing special really happened. Next month promises bigger developments, but, what with the new volume of Marvel’s What if…? coming out, I’m going to need more from Superman/Batman than “Look! It’s an alternate reality!”

It’s a pity, too, because Carlos Pacheco’s art is beautifully clean. When he needs to inspire hope in us, it comes shining through. When the art needs to be terrifying, we get a double helping. Unfortunately, this issue plays out as the sagging middle of a larger arc, and no amount of pretty art can make up for that.

But, if you’re like me, every month without a book drawn by Bryan Hitch is agony, and, since Ultimates only comes out once in a blue moon, that means I buy Excedrin by the truckload. However, the end of the last volume was so lackluster, I had to question what drew me to it in the first place. You can’t deny that Hitch’s artwork is gorgeous, but what about Millar’s story?

He starts out The Ultimates #1 of this second volume with a quick romp through Iraq with Captain America. This prompts the press to scream and shout about the use of America’s superheroes in foreign affairs, but Tony Stark attempts to defuse this by appearing on Larry King Live with a large thermos full of martinis and the drunken charm he imagines is so endearing. Thor, however, has publicly protested the actions of the Ultimates and officially resigned. Of course, Thor also appears to be talking to himself when he thinks he’s conversing with gods, so why should anyone listen to him?

Cap and Jan Pym pull their lives together with a few dates, and Hank Pym tries to run away from his own by working on his Ultron and Ant-man projects with Bruce Banner. Hawkeye, Black Widow, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, and Nick Fury pop in just long enough for us to remember they exist— Hell, everyone’s here!

Except the plot. It must be on vacation.

Sure, that may be kinda harsh, but this is a cold start that doesn’t give us a thrilling mini-adventure like Cap’s World War II battle in the first volume. Instead, we check in with all the characters, see things haven’t changed much since last issue, and get an inciting incident towards the last pages. In a monthly book, that’s torturous. In an irregular not-quite-quarterly like this one, it’s evil.

I try to keep in mind that Millar has entertained me in the past, but his recent work on this book simply rubs me the wrong way. The dialogue tries too hard to be irreverent and audacious, resulting in moments that are too unrealistic and madcap for us to link with the characters. I can believe it when a few characters make brazen sexual/excretory jokes in public, but so many different characters doing it in so many different settings doesn’t sound real. It sounds like the writer speaking through the characters.

Bryan Hitch and company do the same bang-up artwork they’ve been giving us since they wrapped Stormwatch six years ago, and it’s an especially great feat since so damn little actually happens. If you’re buying this title for the look of it, this is money well spent. But, if you want a new Avengers story that promises big widescreen action with clever storytelling, just pick up New Avengers.

If there’s one thing Y: The Last Man doesn’t typically do, it’s give us answers. The plot just smartly dances around them. What happened? What’s happening? What’s going to happen? It’s all been a big damn mystery that’s been delighting and torturing readers for two and a half years. But then the creators drew our attention back to the story’s beginning by having Yorick lose his “magic” ring. Then they brought his schizophrenic sister Hero back into the mix, gave Yorick the plague, destroyed the “magical” artifact that supposedly killed all the men off in the first place.

And now, in issue #29, we finally learn the true cause of the plague is… botulism!?!

Nah, but that gotcha, didn’t it?

As Yorick recovers in his sickbed, Agent 355 and Hero continue their threeway standoff with the Setauket Ring (a rogue splinter group of 355’s own clandestine organization). Hero accuses 355 of being a traitorous murderer and is about to throw her to the wolves when it comes out that the Setaukets killed 711 (355’s former partner from the “Safeword” arc).

Meanwhile, Dr. Mann continues to examine Yorick for possible clues as to what’s killing him but keeps coming up short. Ampersand continues his monkey duties of shrieking and jumping out from around corners, distracting Dr. Mann from the ninja outside the window, and digging through the garbage. However, it’s that last chore which draws Mann’s attention to a dented can of tomato soup. A can which Yorick ate from. A can which gave him botulism, not the plague.

Of course, she figures out what REALLY caused the plague by the end of the issue.

This arc hasn’t had the amazing economy of this summer’s “Tongues of Flame”, but it’s easily made up for it with the constant revelations— or should I say false revelations? It’s dripping with so many fake-outs, half truths, and implications I don’t know what’s real. Hero could be good or bad. Dr. Mann could be tied to the mysterious ninja who works for “Dr. M” (especially since her real name of Matsumori just SCREAMS “my parents hire ninjas”). Heck, for all I know, Yorick could’ve avoided the plague by eating out of the same bowl as Ampersand.

But, as always, the constant tension of the story hooks us like the unsuspecting trout we are. This issue is still a little light on plot movement or the powerful characterization Brain Vaughan occasionally graces us with, but it shoves the story along with such gusto you gotta love it. Recommended.

Just sitting on a telephone wire...
Requested Review of the Week

Every week, we try to do a review in response to the requests you lovely fanboys post on the Fanboy Planet forums. Though I didn’t manage to work Detective Comics #800 into my Breakdown, “RAM’s” request inspired me to look at David Lapham’s continuing work on the series:

Detective Comics #801 steps away from the meticulous investigation stories that characterized so many pre-War stories to delve into the dark uneasy that characterizes Gotham City. Many rolled their eyes and shook their heads in disgust when “War Games” closed with the dissolution of the Bat-Family, knowing that a solo Batman always attracts disenfranchised youths. However, this run shows the promise of a Batman book where he doesn’t have a computer network or armies of caped teenagers assisting him.

The main story follows Bats through the eerie Gotham night, pointing out the few lives he can save as he prowls the city before then showing us those he can’t. Later, we’re whisked off to a charity event where Bruce Wayne sticks to himself yet still attracts the attention of a spoiled teen heiress.

He ignores her, thinking her a foolish child playing adult and flatly telling her so. But, as he later reflects over her corpse, he didn’t remember that she couldn’t go back to being a child. That she didn’t know how. That she desired the attention of a fatherly man, and, when she couldn’t find it, instead went for a younger one with a dose of heroin.

The backup story opts for a less macabre tone, but keeps the creep factor high with a story of murder at a freakshow. A group of traveling carnies come to the outskirts of Gotham and set up camp, but the lovable dog-faced boy meets with a sad end. The leader of the troupe is enraged when the police laugh the case off as the accidental death of a freak, and the carnies band together to seek out the boy’s murderer.

While Mike Carey’s story and John Lucas’ art on the second tale are captivating and far better than so many backups we’ve skimmed over the years, it’s David Lapham and Ramon Bachs’ main story that makes this issue so special. Pulling from the same poetic stylings that made last month’s backup so interesting, “City of Crime” gives us one of the darkest workings of Batman I’ve seen in years.

This isn’t a bloody story or one filled with gratuitous violence. Batman doesn’t spend the entire issue viciously beating thugs or wading through piles of dead bodies. What makes this so powerfully dark is in the implications and single-panel events. Lapham and Bachs create a Gotham so thoroughly devoured by crime that fear and hatred loom over it like a fog.

And then there’s Batman, so consumed in the fight for his city that he virtually becomes the city. Unfortunately, the title page informs us this story is pre-War and reaffirms that with an appearance by Robin, but I definitely think this is the direction the post-War Bats should move in. Lapham’s work on Stray Bullets and Murder Me Dead should have been a clue, but I never expected him to pull off such a terrifying, suffocating vision of Gotham. Hell, I don’t think I’ve been this creeped out by a Bat-book since Grant Morrison played around with the character all those years ago. Definitely recommended.

Want us to review a book you’ve been wonderin’ about? Head to the forums and tell us so!

Jason Schachat

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