kiev4am: (jennysparks)
[personal profile] kiev4am
Just a few more old WildStorm reviews. Again, these first went up on Comixology and co. when the issues came out.

On reflection, it's weird that I've never reviewed Peter David's X-Factor. I love that book to distraction, but I seem to have the notion that my reviewing efforts are redundant unless they're aimed at a book that needs all the help it can get. When I wrote the Authority stuff, passionate user reviews were the only exposure that book was getting. X-Factor by contrast is all over the comic critic radar, wins awards, gets properly promoted by Marvel, and pisses off all the right people on CBR's X-forums. But I don't really think user reviews raise a book's profile all that much (they sure as hell didn't save WildStorm), so maybe I should stop being so stupid-earnest and write them for fun.

Secret History of the Authority: Jack Hawksmoor
What a great book. It's a mystery the way Wildstorm's mistakes sink fast into collective fan-memory, to be rehashed on message boards for ever, when inspired creations like this gem of a miniseries can pass under the radar completely. "Secret History of the Authority: Hawksmoor" is a rare thing, the perfect comic book: an original and intriguing story, carefully thought out, internally consistent and beautifully told.

This trade collects all 6 issues of the series, written by Mike Costa and drawn by Fiona Staples (both Wildstorm rookies at the time, now well-established on other Wildstorm projects like "Resistance" and the upcoming "North 40"). Notionally it's a companion to Mark Millar and John McCrea's "Secret History of the Authority: Jenny Sparks" mini which came out in 2000-2001. That book was fun but slight, featuring the first lady of the Authority in an unconnected set of 'Authority prequel' adventures that favoured set pieces and what-ifs over logic and continuity. This book is different – serious, cohesive and very writerly, with a strong story to tell. It starts in typical Authority fashion as the team finds an irritable pagan god harrassing the city of Kiev, but this storyline just brackets an extended flashback to Jack's life before Stormwatch. It begins in widescreen, with a giant robot menacing the Golden Gate Bridge, but with the arrival of a classic femme fatale it quickly evolves into a lean, fast cyber-noir tale of murder, loneliness, revenge, city-souls and self-discovery. It really is Jack's secret history.

The real success of this story lies in Costa's hugely inventive exploration of Jack's urban powers. All too often, these have been reduced to a vague superhuman mix of free-running and head-kicking, but Costa has made them fascinating again. His prose style is genuinely literary, with echoes of William Gibson in the technological punk-poetry of Jack's inner voice. "I know the dates of the newspapers burning in the trashcans near the Presidio... I feel the trains come in and out like blood in the chambers of the city's concrete heart." But a solid half of the book's impact comes from Fiona Staples' unique artwork. Jagged yet graceful, with a tense kinetic quality that makes everything look a little architectural, it complements the writing perfectly.

North 40 #2
North 40 is like an arthouse version of a 50s B-movie: clever, freaky and loads of fun. It's one of Wildstorm's new clutch of creator-driven titles, announced earlier this year – a welcome addition to the imprint beside the long-established Wildstorm Universe and the various licensed properties. Following the fortunes of a small midwest county after two bored college kids expose it to a plague of magic and mutation, it's written by Aaron Williams (Nodwick, PS238) and drawn by Fiona Staples, who made her mark at Wildstorm with the excellent Hawksmoor miniseries.

Issue #1 of 6 introduced us to our cast just before and after the fateful opening of the 'misplaced library book' that starts all the trouble. Everyone 's a familiar smalltown archetype – the geek/Goth students, the diner waitresses, the unflappable sheriff, the farmboy, the kissing couple, the family of troublemakers, the savvy wrong-side-of-the-tracks girl. If it were a zombie film, you'd be making bets at this point on which of them would get the axe and which would make it to the abandoned mall; but there was an extra wit and shiver in the writing and art that raised expectations high above that level.

Issue #2 bears this out by showing us the new social dynamics being laid down by the bizarrely altered townsfolk. Charmingly, these locals mostly just go about their business, fazed but not panicked by the extra tentacles, putting their abilities to use with stoic practicality. The goons bully; the sheriff keeps order; the guy in the diner with ten eyes just wants to finish his coffee, ma'am. When the newly initiated witch turns up, blood-stained scythe in hand, the sheriff simply observes, "you appear to have soiled your farmin' equipment, Miss Amanda." Her reply is equally deadpan: "And if somethin' eight feet tall with six legs files a complaint, you can arrest me." This smart dry dialogue nicely balances the Lovecraft-speak of Amanda's mysterious teacher. It's an ensemble book, so the characterisation is just getting started; however special mention should be made of the wonderful Sheriff Morgan, the county's sardonic moral compass. I can't help wondering if his striking resemblance to the writer William Burroughs is deliberate. A surreal, occult tale-spinner with a gun fetish seems like a good role model for the lawmaker of Conover County.

What I most enjoy about this book is the subtlety and humour with which the creature-feature is played out; like a good B-movie, it's a vehicle for experimenting with genres rather than going for the obvious. The forbidden book and its horrors are familiar from Lovecraft, but I also saw echoes of the quieter, creepier American Gothic of Ray Bradbury, as well as films like 'Tremors' and 'Near Dark.' And Fiona Staples' artwork perfectly suits this story. Full of contrasts, her linework is harsh and graceful at the same time, with a watercolour look that's almost soulful, even when she's drawing all-out gore. Fantastic.

North 40 #3
Is it too early to say 'best limited series of 2009?' North 40 is a total joy to read: smart, quirky and original. Working off a forbidden-book plot device, it takes traditional backwoods horror-film elements – beleagered sheriff, ragtag townsfolk, geographical isolation and supernatural excess – and applies a benignly slanted view to them. Half the fun is in watching the story dodge expectations, such as the way the community reacts – or rather, doesn't – to the spontaneous mutations and superpowers inflicted on it. Whole story arcs could be devoted to watching people freak out at, then adapt to, their unwanted evolution; it's been done before. But Aaron Williams wisely skips the cliched superhuman angst in favour of wry black humour and a weirdly affectionate view of 'everyday' monstrosity, aptly demonstrated here by Sheriff Morgan ending a typical police-radio exchange by hesitantly asking the dispatcher what it was like being twenty years dead. The response? An unruffled I-just-work-here.

In this issue, the town kids stick to their plans for a school dance despite the fact that half of them have stranger abilities and possibly more eyes/limbs than they had a few days ago. The kids catch each other up on who turned into what, take advantage of Mom & Dad's panic to swipe beer, and warily decide which faction of powered kids it'll be least fatal to hang out with. My favourite panel is the three boys sitting on the ground beside the school, discussing whether to go in and join the sideshow or walk home. Two seem 'normal' and the third is a bullet-holed ghost, but none of them makes the distinction. It's beautiful.

Alongside these moments, the plot is brewing up fantastically. The Sheriff recruits a deputy, some turf-war battle lines are drawn, the junkyard is a baaaad place to be at night, Dyan the book-opener is up to no good, and zombies are gatecrashing the school dance. Amanda's witchy mentor drops more hints that these grassroots changes are just outriders for something much bigger and badder, and I'm intrigued as to how all these threads will unravel in the next 3 issues.

As ever, Fiona Staples draws the hell out of this stuff. She is phenomenally talented and her light, edgy, bittersweet style is perfect for the book.

WildCATS #19
This month sees new creative teams and story arcs for both WildCATs and Authority. Far from rebooting its World's End concept, Wildstorm has grittily chosen to stick to its guns; although both titles show a change of pace and direction, they remain in direct continuity. They're now very closely aligned; WildCATs #19 picks up where Authority #18 left off, in the wake of the Carrier's abrupt unplanned departure. This dovetailing extends from the books' rosters (Apollo and Midnighter staying on Earth, while a few stray 'CATS have jumped aboard the Carrier) to the cover art (each month will see the two books' covers sharing a double-page image by a guest artist – here, it's George Perez).

The issue kicks off with an old-school face-off between the Kherans and the Wildstorm ground crew, and quickly escalates to a melee of hack/slash, street demolition and aerial bombing as Sliding Albion's shiftships join in the UnLondon land grab. This isn't as random as it sounds, Sliding Albion having played a bit part (pun intended, if you saw the fate of the ringleader, Lorenzo) in Abnett and Lanning's Authority run. The sequences here reference the pyrotechnics and property damage of Brian Hitch's early Authority panels, especially Apollo's human-meteor battle tactic and the splash page of Albion's shiftships breaking out of the Bleed. It's fun, showy stuff that hits the ground running in the same way as Authority #18; new readers who prefer a gentler introduction may be frustrated, but personally I think that's an issue for them.

Writer Adam Beechen and artist Tim Seeley have made no secret of the fact that they plan to draw in as many characters from around the Wildstorm Universe as possible. A splash page early on sets out the stall: a technicolour double-page dust-up crammed with 30-odd heroes and villains knocking the tar out of each other. But this image comes with name-tags, a nice way to tell us that this isn't crowding for its own sake. It'll be interesting to see how Beechen and Seeley juggle their story among so many viewpoints, and whether they can do it without reducing too many of their adopted heroes to filler; but I'm not too worried, seeing the way the cast is played in this issue. The action is dotted with nice character touches – Midnighter's 'fashionably late' quip to Apollo, Spartan calling Zealot by her Kheran name, Winter tearing a well-deserved strip off Jackson King.

Tim Seeley's artwork is energetic and expressive, with an old-school 90s vibe. He's clearly put a ton of work into devising distinctive new character designs for his huge cast; personally, the nostalgic Silver Age tone doesn't appeal to me as much as, say, the modern downbeat feel of Simon Coleby's Authority designs, but I can see the reasoning behind it; when you have this many characters, it makes sense to draw them boldly. It's probably also a response to the negative reactions that World's End faced originally; who says the apocalypse can't be colourful?

A confident, big-talking issue which makes me look forward hugely to the rest of this run.

Authority #18
This is the first issue by writing team Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman ('The Highwaymen'), drawn by Al Barrionuevo. The close of DnA's 17-issue run saw the team still down two members (the Doctor and Jenny Quantum), but regaining strength and confidence aboard a partially repowered Carrier. Here the Carrier takes centre stage, as a literal bolt from the blue sends it into full recovery. Jack and the others have just a few pages to figure out what's happening, tell as many of their fellow superhumans as possible, and then deal with the choice they present to both 'heroes' and ordinary people – stay or go? As the Carrier starts to leave of its own accord, half the refugees of ruined London flee the ship while others try desperately to get on board. And then more trouble shows up in the form of aggressive Kheran invaders. Frankly, it's mayhem.

Bernardin and Freeman have gambled on a bold, vivid and uncompromising start to their run: after a sparse one-page recap they throw us in at the deep end amid an absolute melee of characters, few of whom are formally introduced (though kitted out, every one, in gaudy new 90s-style costumes). These are superteams from across the Wildstorm universe, most of whom have featured in the ongoing World's End storylines of the last 18 months; although newcomers may find the colourful crowd scenes baffling, the overall message is simple – each character must weigh up staying on the blasted Earth, and working to save it directly, versus sailing into the unknown in the hope of a more powerful solution. Overall the headlong pace of the issue balances out the 'huh?' factor, hooking the attention through sheer verve and momentum.

As the Carrier takes off, it's clear that the teams have been shaken up by the evacuation chaos. There's some surprising but fun-looking additions to the Authority team, and a couple of Authority regulars are notably not on board. For those that don't already know, those two will be regular characters in WildCATs from issue #19. I think this is a strong move that should make for interesting new dynamics in both books.

Al Barrionuevo's art is excellent, equally at home with widescreen splash page extravagance, tight combat sequences and small-scale character work, combining sketchy, textured pencils with fluid outlines. Every character is clearly distinguished, and there's a beautiful double page spread which is almost a Who's Who of the Wildstorm universe.

There are a couple of missteps – for example, Midnighter beating up a pushy bystander felt disappointingly at odds with the dogged protector of civilians we saw in DnA's run. But all in all it's a lively start to a new chapter of Authority.

Authority #19
Wow! On its second issue, Bernardin, Freeman and Barrionuevo's Authority run is shaping up beautifully. Right from the start the action is frenetic and splintered as the Carrier strikes out from Earth at lightning speed, under no-one's control; it's chaos on board, with floors shaking, civilians panicking and everybody grabbing things and yelling at each other in the best traditions of Star Trek warp malfunctions. Gradually a few breathing spaces open up, in which the characters regroup and take stock; for my money, these are the highlight of the issue, even more than the tantalising questions posed by a secretive Jack, a mysterious man and boy, and a looming and hostile planet.

For me, the key to any team book is not so much the action but the characters. If you don't have solid characterisation, it doesn't matter what happens because you won't care; on the other hand, if the characters are written well and fit together in a way that feels warm and realistic, the action is a bonus. Here, it looks like we're going to have the best of both worlds. There's no shortage of incident, but what makes the issue special is the way the writers acknowledge, and have fun with, the fact that at this point the Carrier doesn't really have a crew. The old Authority is gone, with Midnighter and Apollo with the WildCATS on Earth, and Jenny and the Doctor still MIA. Instead we have Jack and Swift and (probably) Angie of the old team, Christine and Flint of Stormwatch, Roxy and Sarah of Gen-13, Grifter and Deathblow of the WildCATS. This, as Jack points out, is the new Authority; but they're not a team – not yet. It's refreshing to see Christine instantly and competently challenge Jack as leader; it's even more refreshing to see the others react to and comment on it. Grifter's take ("Mommy and Daddy are fighting again") is on-the-nail funny; as is Flint's sympathy for Jack and her dry acceptance of her own apolitical nature ("May I go and hit things now?"). The Jack-Christine struggle pulls in a wider culture clash between two teams that are historically opposed: the regimented UN-mandated Stormwatch and the free-for-all Authority. The writers' drive to use all this rather than gloss it over is a strong sign that their run will favour the same character depth and maturity that Abnett and Lanning established for the title. There are other nice character notes, too: Jack's abiding concern for the battle on Earth and attempts to turn back and help; Roxy and Sarah's conversation; Swift and Apollo poignantly reaching out to each other from either side of a Carrier window as the ship clears Earth.

Al Barrionuevo's art is excellent, balancing clear and dynamic compositions with a strong, fine style of pencil work that adds painterly depth and texture to the outlines. The double page of the newly assembled team is especially impressive, as is his varied and lively facial drawing.

A heartening introduction to a new Authority era, full of potential.
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May 2012

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