Each week we take a critical look at some of the best books on the stands, courtesy of Big Guy's Comics (the unofficial comic book store of FanboyPlanet.com) and Heroes (the other unofficial comic book store of FanboyPlanet.com, in Campbell, California). If you publish a book that you want us to be covering, contact us. Or contact Derek. He doesn't have enough to do.

Hey Kids! Comics!

Yes, I shame-facedly admit it -- this piece is late. Due to holiday food poisoning and an inability to work from home (fire up the Mac and the 2 year old wants to play a game), I had to wait until my regular work schedule resumed. Fanboy Planet regrets the inconvenience, and promises to work extra hard in January.

Action Comics #786
writer: Joe Kelly, artists: Pascual Ferry and Scott Hanna

Every now and then, it's cool to see a villain just get thrown away. So it goes with Iconoklash, a satanic-looking robot likely named by Rob Liefeld. His sole purpose must be to provide the line, "It's Superman! And he's fighting Satan!" spouted by a young tourist.

Kelly does shift gears from those opening pages, telling a story that neatly explores Superman's character without bogging it down in continuity. In a nutshell, an exploited and beaten down alien race recruits the man of steel to free them from their conqueror. The catch? Their world revolves around a red sun. The longer Supes stays there, the weaker he becomes.

And when it turns out that the conqueror is an old, old enemy (identity concealed because it's fun), we get a reminder that Superman is not the big dumb brute a lot of would-be galactic emperors would like to assume.

This issue also has a clean art job by Ferry and Hanna. Reminiscent of Ernie Colon, the whole layout has a strange Harvey Comics feel. It's different, but it works.


Batman #598
Santa Klaus Is Coming To Town
writer: Ed Brubaker, artists: Scott McDaniel and Andy Owens

Remember when using child psychopaths as characters seemed outrageous? How times have changed. Here they serve merely as henchmen, but clearly these "elves" know what mayhem they're causing.

Brubaker serves up an odd Christmas story that explores one of the villains introduced in Last Laugh. Surprisingly, it's not stupid, and Santa Klaus, if forgotten for a couple of years, could be an interesting occasional baddie. Gifted with the ability to see the evil that men do, he spends the yuletide season meting out fatal punishment.

Some of it may feel lifted out of Batman Returns, especially in its climax, but Brubaker writes a fairly taut thriller, contrasted with Sasha's insistence on bringing holiday spirit to Wayne Manor.

Hopefully, no writer will succumb to the urge to make Sasha a romantic interest. She has become an interesting character, but giving her an attraction to Bruce seems too easy. And too obvious. That leaves only one question: what does she get Bruce Wayne for Christmas?


Bloodstone #3
Like Life, Only Colder
writers: Dan Abnett & Andy Lanning, artists: Michael Lopez and Scott Hanna

Once again, this title provides two extremely guilty pleasures, as a Buffy rip-off and as an effort to tear to shreds all the great Marvel monster comics of the '70's that scared the crap out of me as a kid.

Which actually may be a shortcoming overall. The major villains on Buffy may often provide laughs, but when the chips are down, they are a source of real danger. In the past three issues of Bloodstone, no monster has provided a credible threat.

This month, Elsa teams up with the Living Mummy (okay, he is kind of a stupid concept) to easily best an ancient evil arising out of Egypt. Worse, she gets the undead hero using a lot of what passes for teen slang.

And if Lopez and Hanna could stop drawing pin-ups when Elsa demands not to be treated as eye candy, things would be much better.

As it is, this book just gets guiltier and guiltier…


Catwoman #2
Anodyne, part two
writer: Ed Brubaker, artists: Darwyn Cooke and Mike Allred

Selina continues trying to solve the mystery of who is killing hookers in Gotham. Or rather, she comes to accept that she has to be the one to solve it. For some reason, such crimes do not rate quite high enough on Batman's agenda (unlikely, but a necessary assumption for the plot to work, I guess), and the cops aware of it happening either turn a blind eye or see if the corpse has any money left.

Gotham is a harsh town, after all. And Brubaker is one of the few writers who really understands how terrible it can be, without using hideously scarred madmen. Though Selina references him, the shadow of the Bat is almost non-existent here, putting Catwoman in a whole new milieu.

She may be struggling to find her identity, but the book isn't. Brubaker writes crime fiction, and it's only coincidental that his detective wears a leather catsuit (which, by the way, as drawn by Cooke and Allred, is not form-fitting).

At last the streets of Gotham have a protector who may actually be believable. We'll wait and see.


Elektra #6
writer: Brian Michael Bendis, artist: Chuck Austen

In a quiet cross-over with last week's Daredevil, Elektra discovers that a bounty has been placed on Matt Murdock's life. As she goes to place a warning in his office, for she dare not face him, she confronts some of the life she might have pursued. Oh, yes, and a younger blonde knock-off of her, intent on killing Matt.

Bendis has constructed an appropriately melancholy story here, far more emotion-laden than the previous five issues combined. And because it's "'nuff said" month, the burden lies on Chuck Austen to really give it life.

Which he does, in spades. At no time in this story are the emotions either hidden or overdone. Every panel strikes just the right tone.

This may be the best of the silent gimmick issues. But of course, it's coming from one of the best teams working in comics right now.


The Flash #181
writer: Geoff Johns, artists: Scott Kolins and Doug Hazlewood

Iris Allen returns.

In an issue dealing with sins of the past and the loss of family, Johns rectifies a mistake made a few years ago when Iris disappeared because she claimed she knew too much about what was going to happen in Wally's life.

No one told Iris about Hypertime.

This may not seem like a major event, but it is. It helps strengthen the tie between Wally and the Flash legacy, and gives him back one of the most influential people in his life. Merry Christmas, Wally.

And Wally needs the gift, because even though he helps the not really villainous Fallout, it's clear that Johns, Kolins, and Hazlewood have a terrible time in store for him with every new member of the Rogues' Gallery that falls into place.

2002 will be one heck of a Flash-ride.


Groo: Death and Taxes #1
writers: Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier, artist: Sergio Aragones
Reviewed by Charlie Wentling.

Hooray, Groo is back! Too bad this is only another miniseries and not a new monthly title.

Groo works on two levels. You can read it for humorous stories of a dimwitted but good-hearted barbarian. But it also works as a sharp social commentary. Both levels shine through strongly in this issue.

Groo notices that everyone he meets is scared of him, and after thinking about it for quite a while, he realizes that people are afraid that he will end up killing them. By this time, Groo's reputation has spread far and wide. In response to this, he vows to stop killing people.

Nothing is ever so simple with Groo though. How long will he be able to go against his own nature? And why are some people unhappy with his vow? This is another classic from Sergio.


JLA #61
Two Minute Warning
writer: Joe Kelly, artists: Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen

The new creative team debuts with a self-contained tale that offers maddening hints about what they have in store. In the meantime, we also get plenty of the feats of strength and derring-do that made people like the JLA as a concept in the first place.

Jumping around in chronology, the story does make the reader work a little harder than it had to do. And in some places, it just doesn't add up. (Wally makes a completely arbitrary visit to Kyle that makes no sense from either point of view.)

But Kelly clearly has some solid character relationships worked out. Something new seems on the horizon between Batman and Wonder Woman. Plastic Man has a private life that Kelly will have to develop further, please. And he is ably supported by the art team.

Since the announcement of Mahnke on this title, I'll admit I've drooled. It was worth the wait. The guy gets that the Martian Manhunter has an alien thought process, and in both private and battle, will not make an aesthetically pleasing choice by human standards. Plus Mahnke draws a pretty cool Plastic Man.

And Kurt Busiek's The Power Company makes its debut in the back of this book. It's too soon to really tell much about any of the characters; like most "preview" stories, they appear in a flurry to demonstrate their powers. But it's Busiek, so that's saying something. On the other hand, do we really need another superteam we've never seen before?


JLA: Incarnations #7
writer: John Ostrander, artists: Val Semeiks and Prentis Rollins

It feels like a long time since the previous issue. And with really great work happening consistently in the regular book, this issue, using the current JLA, seems redundant.

Worse than redundant, though, is the fact that it isn't much fun. Ostrander returns to the League's first enemies, the Apellaxians. They've developed a clever new twist to their ability to take on "battle-forms" - now they can inhabit existing non-living forms. In addition, their leader has declared that they must completely destroy Earth in order to quell a revolution on their homeworld, one inspired by the JLA's initial resistance to them.

Where this story could have flown, it plods, weighed down by the deep "meaning" of it all. Guys, it's superheroes. Even better, it's the best superheroes DC has to offer. We already know a lot about truth, justice, and the American way.

Let's see some butt-kicking.

But it doesn't happen. Not even a battle against a living Lincoln Memorial (you know, the one without the ape face) merits much joy. In the good old days, that would have been worth the cover.

While the entire series has been a roller coaster of quality, DC could have left this one out and I would not have felt quite so exploited.


Meridian #19
writer: Barbara Kesel, artists: Steve McNiven and Tom Simmons
reviewed by: Charlie Wentling

The island of Torbel plunges from the sky and into the ocean below. Sephie first tries to prevent the catastrophe, then focuses on saving as many of the people as she can.

This issue marks a turning point for Sephie. She finally stops seeing her uncle Ilahn as a greedy and misguided man, and realizes that he is evil. It will be interesting if she ever finds out that he was responsible for her father's death.

Sephie goes past the limits of her sigil, and must be rescued by… someone. Just what happens on page twenty is left intentionally vague and raises questions about the nature of the sigil. It is nice to know that the sigil does have some limits though.


Out There #7
Left Behind
writer: Brian Augustyn, artists: Humberto Ramos and Sandra Hope

The kids have beaten Draedalus, but at the cost of their entire town. Although readers can suspect that another force interfered, the kids don't know anything about it. And so with their mentor and her bus driver/handyman, they leave the ruins of El Dorado for…who knows.

But somehow, Ramos and company have successfully sucked me into another story arc. It seems Draedalus has attempted to cross over before, in a little town in Nevada. That attempt was chronicled in a comic book series (looking, ahem, nothing, no nothing like a title called Out There) that offers little clue as to how the town ended up surviving.

Without re-telling the previous arc, writer Augustyn puts a tragic spin on what might have been, and now the kids can work toward redemption.

Though it obviously puts on hold any answers to just why they were chosen in the first place, the book remains compelling enough to keep you from asking that question.


Ruse #3
writer: Mark Waid, artists: Butch Guice and Mike Perkins
reviewed by Charlie Wentling

Simon Archard investigates the death of Otto Pressmonk, which took place last issue. We learn why Simon flung a handful of maggots onto Otto's corpse. Miranda Cross makes things difficult for him by turning most of his associates against him and having his laboratory boarded up.

This issue improves on issue #2. The dialogue continues to shine. We learn that Simon has an open mind towards the supernatural when he consults with a young psychic girl. He will probably figure out Emma's secret given enough time.

One thing that seemed strange, a thug dresses up as the Grim Reaper and attacks Simon. Why would he do this? Was it just to make a good image for the cover? The art is good, but Guice continues to use unconventional panel layouts that disrupt the flow of the story.


Spider-Man's Tangled Web #9
Gentleman's Agreement, part three
writer: Bruce Jones, artists: Lee Weeks and Josef Rubinstein

The scheme comes to a close. Unassuming and fatally ill cabdriver Charlie manages to set up both Spider-Man and the gang of thieves that caused him to cross paths with the webslinger in the first place.

How it all comes together doesn't quite read as cleverly as Jones wants it to, but it still has a satisfying sting to it, provided you treat these stories more like legends. In a Marvel Universe in which so many people fear Spider-Man, it does not quite ring true that an annual convention would be held in his honor.

As for how Charlie learned Peter's identity, that, too, rings a little false. To the average joe, Peter would be just another guy. Nothing in Jones' presentation would lead a cabdriver to add two and two together.

Still, this arc ends on a bittersweet and not entirely expected note that makes me really want to check out Jones' work on The Hulk (which Daryl Tay has recommended to me; check out his site below).


Ultimate Marvel Team-Up #11
Peter Parker's Day Off
writer: Brian Michael Bendis, artist: Chynna Clugston-Major

It's that time honored tradition of Senior Skip Day (wait -- wasn't Ultimate Peter Parker supposed to be only 15?), and Peter and the gang head out to sample all New York City has to offer them. Naturally, they end up at the mall.

Strangely enough, the students of Xavier's Academy have the same experience. And since one of those students, a troubled older guy who went back to school after a lot of years of hell-raising, has the ability to smell Spider-powers, you know that a clash is coming.

Actually, not at all. Bendis excels at day in the life stories, letting an entire issue go by without any overt use of superpowers. The closest we get is Cyclops describing what his powers are. It's refreshing, even if Bendis' version of the Ultimate X-Men seem a little kinder and gentler than Millar's take. Overall, his teens act a lot like teens, and the dialogue among them all rings true.

Cluggston-Major's art gives the whole thing the look of a severely twisted Archie comic, and it works. We just may have to check out her Blue Monday book.


For alternate views and more books, check out Daryl Tay's site, Unique Frequencies.

Derek McCaw




All comics were reviewed by Derek McCaw unless otherwise noted.

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