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Alias #21
writer: Brian Michael Bendis
artist: Michael Gaydos

While Marvel confirms that yet again they've saved Spider-Girl from cancellation, Bendis has been quietly making all the Spider-Women into the characters really worth reading about. Though their tenure in the pages of Alias appears to be over, they're more memorable than they ever were in their own titles.

Of course, this book still has something to do with Jessica Jones, and her story has also heated up. With a little help from guest-artist Mark Bagley (Bendis' books sure do get incestuous) on flashbacks, tantalizing glimpses of Jessica's Jewel days appear.

Apparently, she worked with The Defenders as well as The Avengers. And considering how ill-fated her superhero career seems to have been, that teaming makes more sense.

Overall this arc, "The Underneath," has brought the book tighter into the regular Marvel Universe. We get a sense of the final fate of the most recent Spider-Woman, current Avenger Ant-Man is firmly established as Jessica's boyfriend, and, with Bagley's art, we see Jessica in four-color glory.

All this and Speedball, too. This truly is the book for Marvel's third-tier characters to find a strange afterlife, and maybe even a little dignity.

Perhaps the greatest contribution, though, lies in Bendis' invention of Mutant Growth Hormone. An insidious drug, its appeal to normals is obvious. But it's the unflinching look at what the drug costs its source that makes it particularly ugly and memorable. Suddenly I wonder where HGH, which I hear touted on the radio all the time, comes from.


The Blackburne Covenant #1
writer: Fabian Nicieza
artist: Stefano Raffaele

For Dark Horse Comics' latest foray into horror, the publisher turned to (or accepted a pitch by) their Buffy The Vampire Slayer writer Nicieza. Teamed with Italian artist Raffaele, the result is dark and moody, but not yet as creepy as they hoped it would be. Nor does it stray as far from the Buffy formula as I'd like.

The premise is intriguing enough. Richard Kaine has written a medieval romance (or so it seems to be) that becomes a runaway best-seller. Covering a battle between a Wicca coven and Christian land barons, the novel, Wintersong, apparently has a wistful tone over the possibilities lost when the Wiccans are crushed.

Whatever the subject matter, Kaine considers it a flight of his fancy, merely grateful that it has catapulted him into fame and fortune. In a savvy touch on Nicieza's part, fans of the book believe that it has to be non-fiction, revealing a hidden history of the world. Kaine knows better. According to him, he "…wouldn't know the Monroe Doctrine from Marilyn Monroe."

But what if something dictated this history to his unconscious? And something else is very unhappy that the truth has been revealed.

First triggered by a bottle of Remy Martin, Kaine begins hallucinating. Then in a scuffle with someone bearing the markings of one of his characters, Kaine displays fighting skills he simply shouldn't have.

Unfortunately, this aspect smacks of The Slayer; whatever gave Kaine knowledge has also given him power. Instead of vampires, we seem to have Templar Knights, called in Kaine's book The Blackburne Covenant. It's still told compellingly enough, with Nicieza withholding a lot of plot secrets - specifically just what secret the covenant does not want told.

Like Buffy, though, this horror tale smacks just a little bit too much of superheroics. And in a hurry to set up his situation, Nicieza rushes much of this issue.

Bringing in Raffaele, though, was a great move. He makes much of the mood work, and the first two pages detailing the end of Kaine's novel have a great feel to them.

Coupling this with Hellboy Weird Tales, Dark Horse's horror line is off to an intriguing start. But can the market bear something merely intriguing? I hope that Dark Horse has enough time to let it blossom. Into a dark red, bloody, man-eating flower older than time itself.


Daredevil #45
writer: Brian Michael Bendis
artist: Alex Maleev

Mutant Growth Hormone rears its ugly head again this week. Granted, it's still in a book by Bendis, but here the MGH trade seems so matter of fact that you could easily see this drug taking over the streets. Of course, Daredevil can't let that happen.

Another arc draws to a close, and a shadow looms large for the next one. In the meantime, Bendis has brought another formerly lame DD villain firmly into the 21st Century. I still think some explaining needs to be done as to what exactly changed The Owl to the savage personality he has become, but it's welcome.

Finally, too, Foggy Nelson gets to stop being the whiny girlfriend the last year or so has made him. In a tender scene between he and Matt, Foggy unburdens himself of guilt, perhaps the last barrier to Matt's acceptance of his own role as Daredevil.

Both men have been fleshed out by Bendis, sometimes not likably so. But that's what makes them all the more real, not just the almost photorealistic art by Maleev.

As "Lowlife" ends, most things have returned to a slightly uneasy balance. While over in Amazing Spider-Man, Straczynski experiments with the idea that the world might be better off without superbeings, Bendis offers that they can be cool. Even if they sometimes creep us the heck out.


Detective Comics #781
writer: Ed Brubaker
artists: Tommy Castillo and Wade von Grawbadger

Let me partially eat my words from last month's review. Mystery villain Paul Sloan, now dubbed The Charlatan by DC editorial, isn't a barely veiled rip-off of other Bat-villains. Instead, he's a recasting of a Golden Age staple of the Two-Face mythos.

For a time in the forties, Harvey Dent had undergone successful plastic surgery. Mindful that he had a pretty good villain gone to waste, writer Bill Finger set up a fake Two-Face…an actor hired to play Dent on a television broadcast, tragically scarred in a recreation of the accident that first birthed Two-Face. (Comics are big on such coincidences.)

That actor's name? Paul Sloan. Until The Joker started telling his tale in this issue, I'd completely forgotten.

So I hereby admit Brubaker snuck one past me, and instead of chastising him for it, I should applaud him for giving new life to old continuity. Except he still seems a lot like The Film Freak.

But Sloan has an entirely different agenda than he used to have. Not content to recreate the career of Two-Face, he seems bent on eliminating Harvey's competition, then Harvey himself. The Joker, however, seems exempt, but then, we knew that.

Brubaker is not interested in answering the impending question from Loeb and Lee: why doesn't Batman just kill The Joker? Instead, he gives a pretty good battle of wits and physical skill between the two, with Castillo and von Grawbadger doing a good pastiche of Mr. J's late 40's, early 50's appearance. This Joker isn't necessarily insane, but he is deadly.

In the back-up slot, Jon Lewis and Stefano Gaudio contribute an Elseworlds tale called "Gottismburgh" So far, it's interesting, combining the legend of The Bat with that of Robin Hood, possibly in a post-apocalyptic medieval setting. Pouring that many high concepts into one is at least good for a couple of smiles.


Hawkman #14
writer: Geoff Johns
artists: Don Kramer and Prentiss Rollins

Many of the undercurrents running through this series have finally come to a head. For many months, Carter Hall has been wrestling with his own know-it-all attitude and the clear evidence (both here and in JSA) that in past lives, his sense of justice was something very different from its modern incarnation.

Ironically, he externalizes this struggle to Kendra this issue, and ends up on both sides of it himself. More importantly, we see the consequences of past life rashness, giving a heretofore unseen depth to a long-time Hawk foe, The Gentleman Ghost.

When James Robinson did a "Past Lives" that vaguely involved Gentleman Jim Craddock, it seemed like a pale copy of Robinson's work on Starman. Here Johns fleshes the story out, and gives his sometime writing partner's story resonance.

The Gentleman Ghost has a completely deserved rage towards Hawkman that separates him from Starman's immortal adversary/ally, The Shade. Until the Hawks' reincarnation cycle stops (and from all evidence, it never will), Craddock is stuck, unable to move on to his final reward or punishment, nor even able to reincarnate himself.

And just as we digest that, Johns throws in another curve with that final page. One of a handful of writers who really, really know how to utilize the cliffhanger, Johns gives us an obvious development, but it's still cool.

Guest artists Kramer and Rollins bring an interesting look to the issue, though it's not quite as uniform with Morales and Bair's art as last issue's guests did. Some panels look a little rushed, but it's still good work.


Derek McCaw


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