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). 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!

The Adventures of Superman #604
Mirror, Mirror part two
writer: Joe Casey, artists: Carlos Meglia, Sanford Greene, Paco Herrera, Walden Wong, and Carlos Cuevas

The Crime Syndicate was long left out in the cold post-Crisis. (Their reality, and even the possibility of their reality, was wiped out.) Even after Grant Morrison kicked open the door for their return a few years ago in the graphic novel JLA: Earth 2, nobody peeked through.

Until Casey dared last month (no doubt at editorial mandate, but still). And the reason for these evil alternate earthers venturing onto "our" world is a little surprising. Story-wise, the adventure plays with our emotions and keeps us guessing. We might even find ourselves rooting for Ultraman and his cohorts. This would make a thrilling story arc, if the artwork were not so terrible.

Take a look at those credits. Five different pencilers and inkers worked on this, giving the book a uniform look of chaos. It would be one thing if there was a flashback or something to which a different style would fit, but here everyone matches their style to Carlos Meglia. Poorly composed splash pages dominate the count, and those with panels are so awkwardly laid out that it's almost impossible to tell what's going on. (Although confusing pages has been a hallmark of the Superman titles lately, so maybe there is some other, more nefarious force at work.)

It's especially dangerous with two characters who may or may not look exactly alike facially. Meglia and his imitators are so inconsistent that I can't tell you if Superman and Ultraman are supposed to resemble each other. They do, however, have emotional reactions lifted right out of old Don Martin strips. While that does make me nostalgic for Captain Klutz, it irritates me in the pages of Superman.


The Amazing Spider-Man #40
Sensitive Issues
writer: J. Michael Straczynski, artists: John Romita, Jr. and Scott Hanna

Leave it to other writers to try to make brightly colored costumed freaks work. Even as the Sam Raimi film proves that audiences will buy into that, JMS take Spidey in a different direction. A little grim, a little gritty, a little darker. Other writers have tried it, but lost the heart of Spider-Man in the process. So far, though, JMS has kept what makes Peter Parker work as a character while pushing him into more realistic territory.

And by realistic, that is to say it's relative. Somebody has been kidnapping homeless teens, and they're still using superpowers to do it. Whoever it is eschews costumes, though, and even after mixing it up with Spider-Man, wants to keep a very low profile.

The super-powered action, though, takes a back seat to the real struggle Peter the high school teacher wages every day. Earning the trust of his students, trying to save them through education, and discovering that sometimes that isn't enough, even without super-villains on the streets.

There's fun to be had, too. The more May Parker works her one-woman PR campaign for Spider-Man, the more you figure she might just succeed. And thank heavens the stage is set for Mary Jane to at least appear, if not completely return.


Batgirl #28
writer: Kelley Puckett, artists: Damion Scott and Robert Campanella

She's beaten Lady Shiva. She's overcome her own guilt. What's left but a trip to Disneyland? Actually, a mysterious enemy seems to have brought Disneyland to Batgirl, in the form of three robots bent on her destruction as a test of her abilities.

Cassandra passes said test, of course, but the real question remains as to who exactly is testing her. It's not Batman, but a new player, one whose very presence seems to be out of nowhere, though he hints that he has been behind the scenes for a very long time. At any rate, this shakes the book up a bit into a new direction that still carries the theme of the old one. Even without the shadow of the bat hanging over her, Cassandra seems fated to be a continual pawn in somebody else's game.

At least we had the welcome addition of Stephanie Brown, The Spoiler, for a while, and this issue does a fine job of developing and sharpening the friendship between the two girls. And yes, by the time Puckett is done here, it is a friendship, not just an awkward teaming. The transition has been slow, but believable.

Also welcome is Scott and Campanella's rendering of the girls as girls. When getting caught up in all the butt-kicking, it's easy to forget how young these characters are supposed to be, and the art seemed to be forgetting that, too.

With this new villain, the book has piqued my interest anew. At least for a while.


Captain America #2
One Nation
writer: John Ney Rieber, artist: John Cassaday

After an intensely moving first issue, Ney Rieber and Cassaday try to dish out more of the same. This second issue is still somewhat affecting, but it also falls prey to a lot of comic book conventions, starting with the idea that terrorists in the Marvel Universe still behave just like every other maniacal supervillain.

Al-tariq and his followers have taken over a small town that might as well be called Anywhere, U.S.A. Rather than demonstrate their power by simply wiping out the town (as was implied at the end of the first issue), they've set bombs both time and motion sensitive. Psychologically, it could be pretty scary, but it's really all about luring Captain America into their clutches.

For my next prediction, I say it wouldn't be surprising if "Al-tariq" ended up being The Red Skull (mercifully, one of the villains not shown weeping at the World Trade Center).

On the plus side, Ney Rieber delves into the psyche of Captain America, and what it means to truly be a man made for war. It's an examination we certainly could use, and if the writer overindulges himself on the issue a bit, there's still some poetry to it. "Blood on your hands, they say" the Captain thinks to himself, "as though it stops there. At your wrist. Like a glove."

Matching and in some cases overpowering Ney Rieber's words is the artwork of Cassaday. Captain America may be superhuman, but he never looks less than human here. There's grim determination in his face, but also pain behind his eyes. Overall, this is still pretty good stuff.


The First #19
writer: Barbara Kesel, artists: Andrea Di Vito and Rob Hunter
reviewed by Charlie Wentling

Last month, Ingra was betrayed by Braag and Seahn. The two of them seized control of House Sinister. We now learn that Orium was also involved in their plot. Ingra has been turned over to Ervulsh, a new character with an arachnid look to him. Braag is suspicious that his victory was too easy, but Seahn seems oblivious to his concerns.

House Dexter is in mourning for the death of Gracos. Persha uses her ability to find where Ingra is being held. Rather than rescue him herself, she has other ideas. Her goal is to reunite the two houses, and after meeting with Altwaal she is starting to realize that she could be the one to do it. Trenin the Hunter wants to start a new hunt to track down and execute Seahn.

This issue returns to the storytelling approach where ten or twelve separate plot threads are advanced, but none of them takes center stage. Kesel and Di Vito both do a solid job.


Groo: Death and Taxes #4
writers: Sergio Aragones and Mark Evanier, artist: Sergio Aragones
reviewed by Charlie Wentling

Groo's latest miniseries wraps up this month. If there is one thing to say about Groo, it would have to be that it's consistent. After reading more than 150 issues by the same creative team, I can't remember a single bad one. All of the Groo fans out there will be getting this issue by default. If you've never read Groo before, wait for the miniseries to be collected, or pick up one of the other collections.

Groo resolves his dilemma about killing. He had previously taken a vow to stop killing people, with the goal of giving himself a better reputation. His plan had backfired, and his pacifistic ways were actually causing more death. Rather than making a black or white choice, Groo takes the middle ground.

The question of whether it's possible for a person to truly change is answered, and the answer given is an optimistic one. I'm always amazed at the level of emotion Sergio can put into his art. Maybe it isn't for all tastes, but when it works it really works.

Rating: 4.5

For alternate views and other 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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