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 Brian's Books (the other 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.

The Amazing Spider-Man #34 or 475
writer: J. Michael Straczynski, artists: John Romita, Jr. and Scott Hanna

After suffering a huge whupping at the hands of Morlun, Peter stumbles back to the safehouse offered him by the mysterious Ezekiel. Much to his dismay, Ezekiel tells him that it's too late. Now that Morlun has a taste of Peter, the "vampire" will be able to find him anywhere. And so the hunter and the hunted must play a game of cat and mouse, with Peter trying to find time to contact his loved ones and say goodbye.

By contract, Straczynski cannot actually kill Peter. And yet this threat really, really makes it seem like that's a possibility. This month Peter still has the tendency to spout spider-clichés, but again, the plot is so riveting that it's forgivable.

The art team only adds to the tension; Peter Parker looks beaten, and badly. Perhaps the most evocative panels Romita has ever drawn consist simply of Spider-Man's hand dialing a payphone. It looks like it hurts, and the sheer magnitude of the punishment he has taken comes through more here than in the fight scenes.

Where can he go from here?

Batman: Gotham Knights #20
Sons and Lovers
writer: Devin Grayson, artists: Roger Robinson and John Floyd

Don't be fooled by the cover; the appearance by Superman here has nothing to do with the overall plot. But once again, Grayson proves that she writes some of the best characterization in comics. Can we just give her a Batman comic called Batman: Friends And Lovers?

Bruce Wayne visits Metropolis for a business meeting with Lexcorp. Of course, he really wants to see Talia, who has become CEO since Luthor became President. Superman checks in with him, a concerned friend who nonetheless believes "…it's a wonder anyone's still talking to you, Bruce." Upon his return to Gotham City, Bruce gets hit with the news that he cannot adopt Dick because he still has a living grandfather. Or does he? That mystery should keep us all talking for another month or so.

The art team makes the whole thing look vaguely like Jae Lee drew it, but their storytelling works very well. Their take on Superman looming over Metropolis (and it is looming) rivals some of the best work in the Man of Steel's own books.

This book does exactly what DC said it would, which is shed light on the human relationships of the Bat-family. In Grayson's hands, it stands out as the best in an already strong line.

Crux #5
writer: Mark Waid, artists: Steve Epting and Rick Magyar

Waid stops the superheroic struggles for an elegiac issue. The Atlantean team sits in the rubble of their city, wondering why they failed to revive their failed citizens. Each member of the team ponders a particular coffin, and remembers the people they left behind. No Negation, no violence, just a touch of humanity (okay, so they're not technically human) that makes this book one of the best this week.

Somehow Magyar's inking looks different this month, but the effect remains strong. The art team might not stand out as daringly different, but they provide solid work page after page.

This month serves as a good breather from the regular action, and helps to make the mystery more poignant. If you see the CrossGen guys in Chicago, tell them Fanboy Planet sent you.

Dead Again #3
Dead End
writer: Steve Vance, artists: Leonard Kirk and Rick Burchett

This week things get a little muddy. For some reason, Deadman cannot remember the events of the previous two issues, and strong hints are dropped that his mission may not be what it seemed.

The big problem, though, is that, at least compared to Flash and Robin, Superman did not really die. Yet Deadman leads him to that white light (which, interestingly, Superman seems pretty cool about entering). Overall, this issue adds little to the already existing Superman story, spending a lot of time simply observing the sequence of events that led to his "death."

At least a surprise villain shows up, and the groundwork may be getting laid out for the ongoing series. Making this a weekly book, though, seems a cruel hit on the wallet during an already overburdened summer.

Elektra #2
writer: Brian Michael Bendis, artist: Chuck Austen

Maybe the best thing about the book is its opening page. Dealing with a complex plot, Bendis provides the reader with a neat re-cap leading right into the action of this issue. If he keeps it up, he won't leave us behind, which otherwise would be pretty easy to do.

Elektra, of course, is a master of ninja tricks, so little that we see happen is actually as it happened. Got that? Poor S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Stanley didn't. Convinced that he shot her point blank, he suffers through all kinds of mind games in a debriefing by Colonel Nick Fury. Meanwhile Elektra hides in the shadows, deciding whether or not to aid Fury in his current fight against HYDRA.

As always, Bendis writes a rich, complex, and dangerous world. Austen's art complements him neatly, though every now and then a panel sneaks in that looks suspiciously like something from King of the Hill. Give him time; you don't get gritty all at once.

Like Elektra herself, we couldn't stop this book if we wanted to.

The Flash
Iron Heights
writer: Geoff Johns, artists: Ethan Van Sciver and Prentiss Rollins

Okay, this book beats JLA for creepiest superhero comic of the month. In his continuing (and successful) quest to make Keystone stand out as a fictional city, Johns introduces us to its super-powered prison, known as Iron Heights.

Though it owes a debt to Arkham, Iron Heights very quickly establishes an identity of its own. The mysterious warden rules with an iron (and possibly meta-enhanced) hand, with unique methods of punishment for the super-criminals under his care. Possibly the worst of these villains is the previously unseen Murmur, a serial killer compelled to cut out the tongues of his victims.

Barry Allen gave the testimony that put Murmur away, but not as the Flash. For a change, a rogue has no real beef with the scarlet speedster. But because he cannot stand noise, Murmur has managed to unleash a deadly virus within the walls of Iron Heights, and now Wally West and Jay Garrick must race to cure it before all of Keystone gets infected.

Along the way, Johns introduces a bevy of new/old villains, some remembered fondly, and some not. In either case, he lays the groundwork for a lot of headaches for Wally.

The creepy part comes in the form of Double Down, a man who apparently has carved a possessed deck of cards out of his own flesh. As drawn by Van Sciver and Rollins, his debut panel stands out as particularly nightmarish. And they keep the tone up through the whole book. It will be darker days ahead for Wally than he has ever seen before.

In a month filled with extra specials, Iron Heights may be the one worth the extra special price.

JSA #27
writer: Geoff Johns, artists: Rags Morales and Michael Bair

The lonely Hawkman peers into his foreordained love's window, only to see her kissing Sand. As a single bolt of lightning pierces the sky, Carter Hall flies away in confusion. So does Sand.

And, as in Sand and Kendra's clench, nothing is as it seems this month. Captain Marvel seems headed for a fight with Black Adam, and Hawkman and Sand would seem about to knock heads over JSA leadership. But Johns is a much savvier writer than that, twisting things into unexpected directions. And just when we have our footing, a new (and fun-looking) menace raises its ugly head.

Those who loved the late Hourman book know what great pencils Morales provides. He is very welcome here, and Bair provides excellent inks. Together their work crackles.

Though not as popular as JLA, JSA has great team action, great team interaction, and, though challenging, doesn't leave you scratching your head in confusion afterward.

Just Imagine Stan Lee With Jim Lee Creating Wonder Woman
Wonder Woman
writer: Stan Lee, artists: Jim Lee and Scott Williams

We almost passed this one up. The Just Imagine…Batman book hurt so bad. The good news is that Wonder Woman isn't nearly as bad as that. The bad news? It still isn't good.

This time around Lee turns to Incan legend, to tell the story of a sun god avatar. The power of the avatar lies dormant for centuries, until Maria Mendoza, seeker of justice, calls upon it. Donning a mystical armor with an uncomfortable resemblance to the Witchblade, Maria becomes Wonder Woman.

Well, not at first. First she has to spout a heck of a lot of expository dialogue. Somehow captions are okay when describing ancient history, but not for personal history. Lee has forgotten the beauty and the usefulness of the thought balloon. The concept here is better, and moves further away from the more traditional hero bearing the name. Lee himself has said that he got a little nervous dealing with the big three, but got braver as he went along. But the simple truth is that Stan Lee, giant genius as he is, tells story in a style long gone by.

After two over-priced issues, this stunt looks like nothing more than a stunt. We deserve more than that.

New X-Men Annual 2001
The Man From Room X
writer: Grant Morrison, artists: Leinil Francis Yu and Gerry Alanguilan

Once again ingesting something likely illegal before sitting down to write, Morrison introduces us to Xorn, a mutant locked away in a Chinese prison. The secret to his power? He has a star in his head. No, not a symbol. An actual miniature star.

The X-team gathers in Hong Kong to investigate the murder of Risque, a mutant with the power to implode objects and people. While they work on that, they cross paths with an evangelistic huckster who has turned to trafficking in mutant organs in order to turn ordinary humans into mutants. The results he calls "The Third Species."

You just know they all have to collide.

Morrison explains just enough to keep new readers from getting rebuffed by continuity, and the whole book just races along. This probably takes place after the current storyline in the regular book, as Emma Frost appears to be quite comfortable as an X-Man…and too comfortable with Scott.

The bold experiment with this book lies in its "wide-screen" approach. Yes, it's bound on what would normally be its bottom. Curiously, it works. It might not on a monthly basis, but Yu take good advantage of the cinematic effect, giving a flow that an "upright" book doesn't have.

Maybe it's just easier to flip past the ads.

Peter Parker: Spider-Man #34 or 132
If Thine Eyes Offend Thee…
writer: Paul Jenkins, artists: Mark Buckingham and Wayne Foucher

As good as Amazing Spider-Man is this week, Peter Parker: Spider-Man falters.

Young mutant William escapes from a monastery to experience the outside world. He means no harm. As long as he remains upright and opens his eyes, uncontrollable energy lashes out at anything in his path. Do you see the flaw in this so far?

Meanwhile, Peter's really hot neighbor invites him to a street fair. Aunt May, stopping by to drop off some salt and pepper shakers, thinks that's a good idea. Step back. Aunt May encourages Peter to date. Aunt May who loved Mary Jane. Aunt May who knows that (repeat after me) Mary Jane is not dead.

However, Peter doesn't want to go out because he misses Mary Jane but because he apparently doesn't want to make Jill Stacy jealous. Peter, you dawg, you. You refuse to give up on Mary Jane being alive for six months, but once she leaves to "clear her head," you immediately step out on her?

Anyway, the two plot elements collide and a mawkish time is had by all. At least Buckingham and Faucher draw so well you can almost forget the story.

Rising Stars #16
writer: J. Michael Straczynski, artists: Brent Anderson and Marlo Alquiza

Poet sits in Jerusalem pondering the fate of the Specials, ready to confront the one he fears the most, Laurel Darkhaven. She has the power to manipulate tiny objects, like bloodclots, and has been used by the government as an assassin.

While other Specials do what they can to change the world, Poet and Darkhaven debate how to bring peace to the Middle East. Since this is a work of fiction, they actually reach a solution.

Thank heavens Brent Anderson came on to this book. Just like his work in Astro City (sob, sob), he evokes great emotion. Anderson’s work may not be flashy, but it breathes. And of course Straczynski gives him nothing less than excellent story-telling to support the art.

“Selah” means to pause and reflect. After reading this book, you should.

Shadow Reavers #1
Echoes & Ashes
writers: Mike Searle & Pat McCallum, artists: Nelson and Greg Luzniak

Wizard hyped this book so much that not even the return of Jack Kirby from the dead could live up to it, not even if Alan Moore were dialoguing Kirby’s plots. That out of the way, this book is no Kirby return from the dead.

Two writers join forces with two artists to create cool-looking characters with personalities from a catalog. Let’s see: there’s a hot-headed strong guy, a silent strong guy, a mysterious white-haired stunner, oh, and Buffy is popular, so we’ve got to have a teenager more interested in shopping than the supernatural, upon whom the fate of the world depends.

Facing down our heroes is a mysterious cabal so far known as “The Warlocks,” with individual scary names like Fetor, Wail, and Vigil. It’s as if H.P. Lovecraft wrote the Power Rangers.

The plot doesn’t matter because the book bounces from scene to scene to introduce all its players as hiply as possible, and anyway, you have seen it all before in the works of Clive Barker, Stephen King, and Charles Schulz.

At Black Bull Comics, a deep creative well has been struck. Unfortunately, Garth Ennis keeps using it all up for Just A Pilgrim.

Superman: The Man of Steel #117
Total Abandon
writer: Mark Schultz, artists: Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen

Steel couldn’t even stay dead a month.

To be fair, even he doesn’t know how he resurrected, though my money is on Desaad. Now John Henry Irons inhabits armor made from the essence of Imperiex itself, so within six months it will likely go insane and wreak havoc on an unsuspecting Superman.

The Alliance turns its forces against Brainiac 13, while Luthor tries to dissuade his daughter from serving the super-computer menace. Interesting things are afoot.

Schultz does an especially good job with Luthor; you can hear the silky menace in his voice. And for my money, Mahnke is the best artist on the Superman books today. Nguyen inks a little heavier and shadowier than Mahnke usually gets, but it works. The situation is grim, and the art reflects that.

Even if Our Worlds At War turns out to be not that long-lasting in its effects, it did its job and drew us back to Superman.

Ultimate X-Men #8
Return to Weapon X, part two
writer: Mark Millar, artists: Adam Kubert and Art Thibert

Logan and Scott free Piotr from the influence of a Russian mobster. While the two mutants bond, the ultimate Ororo snuggles up to Hank McCoy. And Jean Grey has doubts about rejecting Logan. Amidst the soap operas, SHIELD plans an invasion of the academy, and all hell is about to break loose.

Though it still doesn’t seem an appropriate book for kids, Millar does a great job of starting over. After Xavier’s machiavellian machinations in the first story-line, Scott’s worry over the lines Professor X won’t cross rings false, but it’s a minor point in an otherwise ripping book.

Kubert and Thibert mix up their styles a little bit, with a really nice softening for a look inside a mind-meld. And of course, they draw really purty wimmin.

Many people still hold out against these Ultimate books. Give in, guys. They’re money.

Universe #1
writer: Paul Jenkins, artists: Clayton Crain and Jonathan Glapion

It starts in 1901, where two stuffy gentlemen visit a friend who has apparently raised some sort of demon. After a horrible evisceration scene (but horrible in a cool way), the action flashes forward to present day, to a disgraced priest who spends his days drinking, coking, and whoring.

A mysterious woman watches from across the street as he carouses, ready for some imminent danger. After the guy finds a silver amulet hidden in the fireplace, the danger arises. One of his whores turns out to be that same demon. We hate it when that happens.

They fight, they transform, they transfigure, and eventually it will all make sense and tie the Top Cow Universe together. But we’ve got the nasty feeling that you have to have already been into the Top Cow Universe to get into this.

It’s not going to draw you in under its own power, no matter how many cool stretchy demon homunculus things it has.

Derek McCaw

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