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Amazing Spider-Man # 504
writers: Fiona Avery and J. Michael Straczynski
artists: John Romita, Jr. and Scott Hanna

For the past few issues, JMS has been lightening his workload by bringing in protégé Avery. After all, the guy is terribly busy plotting a Dr. Strange mini-series. When the hand-off first happened, the book was still fun, but just not as arresting as it had been. Finally with this two-parter, "Chasing A Dark Shadow," Avery has come into her own as a scripter of Marvel's flagship character.

At first, it's a little off-putting to come into this issue and see Spider-Man bantering so easily with Thor's brother Loki. But remember that for a supposed outsider, the webslinger has actually been around for a long time, and pretty much run into everybody. Besides, the two have more in common than they'd like to admit, at least thematically. Avery makes that point pretty explicitly, and with it comes a vague shape to this entire revamp that began over three years ago.

Peter comments that he doesn't really fit with the supernatural types, but he sure has been fighting a lot of them. It's not just that JMS clearly has an affinity for the Sorcerer Supreme; there's something more at stake. He and Avery moving Spider-Man into the more iconic role in the Marvel Universe that he plays for Marvel the company, making him at ease with how we've always seen him: a major player.

Oh, it's been done before. But never in a way that really made Peter aware of his status.

But it's not just about the wallcrawler; Avery does an interesting job with Loki, too. The cover makes the two seem like adversaries, but JMS and Avery bring out a poignant side to the Asgardian. Though he diffidently comments to Spider-Man that he has fathered many human children over the years ("I'm a Norse god. It's what we do."), he obviously keeps track of them and, if you look closely, cares for them. It's not necessarily out of character, just a facet we haven't seen before.

As usual, the art team does terrific work, Romita being a penciler capable of making even the gods seem human. Equally comfortable with the supernatural and the city, this continues to be a great run.


Batman #624
writer: Brian Azzarello
artist: Eduardo Risso

The previous arc, the one that got everybody so excited about Batman again, appealed to the fanboy that loved the colorful cast of characters, the gruesome villains, and just the idea that a man could dress up as a bat and scare the living crap out of evildoers.

It wasn't a bad idea to shake things up after that. Azzarello and Risso have delivered exactly what they promised. "Broken City" is dark, gritty and not in any way pretty. Lightly kissed in noir, it has shown us the ugly side of Gotham's underworld. Not that we didn't know it was there, but Risso's artwork makes the few villains that have shown up look somehow plausible, tortured freaks whose scarred shells do nothing to mask the corruption within.

At points, it even bears resemblance to Frank Miller's Sin City. If that's your cup of tea, you should be reading this arc. But for the rest of us, as good as it is, it isn't Batman.

There's a guy running around Gotham City wearing a pointy-eared cowl and cape, but he's brutish, likelier to beat information out of a suspect than ask a simple question. Such nastiness may get the job done, but it lacks the elegance that the Dark Knight usually possesses. The costume seems more affectation than necessary uniform, or maybe Azzarello is echoing the point Tim Burton awkwardly made in Batman Returns -- Bruce Wayne is no different from those he fights, jealous, in fact, that he has to wear an outfit to reveal his freakishness. Risso's Penguin even bears a strong resemblance to a Burton sketch.

In his naked hours as Bruce Wayne, this guy also has habits we've never seen before, nor likely will again. To relax, he grills. It's like a detail out of a Jerry Bruckheimer film, thrown in to substitute for real characterization.

So the book has been hijacked for a little while by a guy who only looks like our hero. The covers by Dave Johnson have been great. The story is still interesting, though Killer Croc sure has changed without explanation. And at least the team created an interesting new pair of villains in Fat Man and Little Boy. Maybe next issue's confrontation with The Joker will be really cool. Maybe.

But I want Batman back.


Conan #1
writer: Kurt Busiek
artist: Cary Nord

Kurt Busiek has jokingly called this book Ultimate Conan, since even though Dark Horse has been reprinting the early Marvel work on the character, this new book feels no influence from that. Instead, Busiek has gone back to the basics, and yes, it does feel like Ultimate Conan.

Everybody knew this was going to be good, just from the zero issue produced a few months back, Conan The Legend. And clearly, fans are eating it up, as this issue officially sold out on its first day of release. If you missed it, Dark Horse will be releasing a second printing on March 24th, with a new cover by J. Scott Campbell. An odd choice, to be sure, and almost unnecessary. Nord's art on this book should be enough to sell it. (Though the cover at right is by Joseph-Michael Linsner.)

So what makes this the best book of the week?

Quite simply a great combination of a writer stretching himself with a perfectly chosen artist. In advance, neither one seemed right for this book, which makes it such a welcome surprise.

If you have no knowledge of the character other than dim memories of the California Governor (who allegedly proudly displays his sword in his office), you're only a step or two behind me. When the movie came out, I ran through a couple of creator Robert E. Howard's novels, but now they might as well have been Tarzan books. It's okay, because Busiek is out to school us all.

This issue seems relatively quiet compared to what's to come, as the young Cimmerian stumbles across a village raid, led by ruddy Norsemen slaughtering innocent women and children. Conan runs the raiders off, and after a brief misunderstanding with the returning men of the village, bonds with them. It's a simple story, but it holds the interest, as it leads into an event from Howard's original tales, "The Frost Giant's Daughter." Maybe this issue is directly adapted from Howard, too. It doesn't matter. What does matter is a forward-moving narrative that eases us into the Hyperborean Age.

In a nice touch, though, all the caption boxes have been lettered in a messy typewriter font. It's not hard to imagine Conan's creator sweating out his adventures over a tiny black Corona.

As for Nord, well, he proved himself with the previous zero issue. But here, he continues to excel. Aside from drawing bloody action scenes well, Nord has the nuances of character down. Conan has barely seen sixteen summers, and though he already bears scars and has a brutish physique, the near-constant smirk on his face is that of a teenager who has not really yet come to grips with his own mortality. That may change sooner than he thinks.

Dark Horse also includes a serialized biography of Howard, until a letters page can be assembled. Since many readers may know the man's most famous creation, but not how groundbreaking it actually was, this information is welcome. If you don't want to read the text, at least check out the short comic strip illustrating a moment from the author's life.

The barbarian is poised for a major multimedia comeback, and Dark Horse well deserves to lead the charge.


Derek McCaw


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