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The Comix Corner

Sleeper: All False Moves
Wildstorm/DC Comics

(w) Ed Brubaker
(a) Sean Phillips
FC, 144 pgs w/ ads
$27.95 CAN / $17.95 US

When reviewing comics, I try really hard not to use phrases like "gripping, edge-of-your-seat thrill ride". They're cliché and easily dismissed, which is why they belong on the covers of cheesy paperback beach novels rather than a convincing literary evaluation. And then along comes Sleeper and, well…it's a gripping, edge-of-your seat thrill ride. There's no better phrase to describe it, because I couldn't put it down. Sleeper is one of the best comics I've read in years.

Special agent Holden Carver has seen better days. An alien artifact has melded itself to his nervous system, giving him regenerative powers but destroying his ability to feel anything. And that's not the worst of it. The head of his own agency - John Lynch - has blackmailed him into infiltrating a super-powered crime syndicate, run by the ruthless and enigmatic Tao. Now, Lynch - the only man who knows the truth- is in a coma, leaving Holden stranded behind enemy lines and unable to trust either side. His only hope is to remain undiscovered and wait for an extraction that may never come. And even if it does, after four years of playing with the bad guys, which side will Holden choose?

All False Moves collects the concluding six issues of Sleeper's first volume, and things are heating up. A mysterious figure has emerged from the shadows, but though he claims to be Holden's salvation, can he be trusted? Meanwhile, a dangerous relationship with the sadistic Miss Misery gets serious, as Peter Grimm - Tao's suspicious right-hand man - looks for a way to take Holden out once and for all. And when an elaborate trap is set, Tao's diabolical intentions are finally revealed, forcing Holden to make a choice that might determine the fate of the entire world.

A solid concept is nothing without a strong execution, and this book has both in spades. Writer Ed Brubaker has done his homework - this book is intense. Holden Carver is the perfect embodiment of both collected professionalism and panicked desperation. Unsure of every step, unable to trust anyone, he is forced to rely on his training to survive a deadly game of cat and mouse. As the avenues of escape slip through Holden's fingers, it creates a pervading sense of tension and paranoia within every panel of this series. And beyond the well-developed characters and deeply layered conspiracies, there's the entire science-fiction approach to contend with - super-powers and costumed heroes are an accepted occupational hazard in the world of Sleeper, and they're given a realistic treatment despite their improbable nature. It's basically X-Men combined with The Losers meets Donnie Brasco, and Brubaker pulls it off without a hitch.

I wasn't immediately impressed with Sean Phillips' artwork, but by the time I flew through the first chapter, I was sold. His style is rough, but it's a great match for the gritty story it illustrates. There's some inventive use of shadows and solid colors - not unlike the treatment found in The Losers - and somehow, his characters manage to look simple yet highly detailed at the same time. Every page is worth a second look, and while the illustration is nothing revolutionary, it does an admirable job of completing an amazing package.

If you're not reading it now, Sleeper is one of those books that you'll feel fortunate to have stumbled across. It's an incredibly smart mix of intrigue, espionage and action - a story that erases the line between good and evil and leaves you second-guessing until you hit the final page. The first issue of volume two has just been released, so check out the volume 1 trade paperbacks to see where it all began.

Final Grade: A+

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The Flash: Blitz
DC Comics

(w) Geoff Johns
(a) Scott Kolins and Phil Winslade
FC, TP, 224 pages $19.95 US / $30.95 CAN

They say that a hero is only as good as the villains he faces. If that's true, then the Flash is one of the greatest comic book heroes of all time. Much has been said about writer Geoff Johns' transformation of Keystone City's Rogues Gallery into a force to be reckoned with, and the man deserves every compliment that comes his way.

Blitz collects issues #192-200 of The Flash, and it's a spectacular showcase of what makes this book work so well. The first half of the trade paperback pits the fastest man alive against Gorilla Grodd, as the mad monkey orchestrates an outbreak at Iron Heights Penitentiary, where super-powered criminals are kept under close surveillance. In the destruction that follows, Rogue profiler and close friend Hunter Zolomon is paralyzed, setting the stage for the book's earth-shattering second half. Outraged by the Flash's unwillingness to change the past, Zolomon assumes the mantle of Zoom - the reverse Flash - and his horrific actions bring about an event so traumatic that its repercussions will impact the Scarlet Speedster, if not the entire DC Universe, for years to come.

Considering the limitations of a hero whose sole power is to run really fast, this title reads as quickly as the Flash himself. Wally West is a well-developed superhero with a stellar supporting cast, but this book's most notable achievement is the lineup of costumed villains Johns has assembled. The Rogues Gallery is completely captivating. A motley crew of colorful, campy and deadly lunatics, everyone from Fallout to Captain Cold is written with surprising believability, no matter how absurd their powers may be. These are much more than your standard archenemies - they're fully-fledged characters that represent a very real threat, and each of them are given complex motivations and backgrounds. Best of all, they interact with each other within their underground community, allied by their mutual hatred of the Flash but never losing sight of their own vile interests. This is a dynamic rarely found in most superhero titles, and the Rogues' ever-shifting rivalries and alliances could easily carry their own spin-off title.

This collection represents artist Scott Kolin's final run on The Flash, and the pencils alone makes this book worth picking up. From the smallest panels to the jaw-dropping splash layouts, every page is packed with kinetic detail. Kolins is as adept a storyteller as Johns, and together they have created something truly special.

The Flash is one of the best reads out there - as well as one of the most underappreciated - and Blitz is a perfect jumping on point for new readers. This high-impact volume gives readers a glimpse into the character's past, a new direction for the future, the best villains in the industry and one of the most significant sacrifices ever made by a costumed hero. If you missed out on these issues the first time around, now's your chance to get up to speed.

Final Grade: A

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X-Men #159
Marvel Comics

(w) Chuck Austen
(a) Salvador Larroca
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

A dictionary dedicated entirely to four-letter words couldn't begin to describe my hatred for Chuck Austen's X-Men. So let's keep it simple: This is, quite possibly, the worst comic book I have ever read in my entire life.

Xorn's black-hole-head still threatens to wipe out the entire planet, and Havok's powers seem to be the only thing stabilizing it. (If you're wondering how, then the joke's on you, asshole!) So what to the X-Men do? They fight each other, of course! Juggernaut calls Iceman "Icepick"…because Iceman is made of ice! Not to be outdone, Iceman calls Juggernaut "Bin-Head"…because this book is retarded! So for half the issue, they trade grade school insults and bitchslap each other as I drool and clap my hands delightedly. But when Havok is forced to rely on their protection, can these two reluctant teammates put aside their differences? I'm shitting my pants in anticipation, I can tell you that much!

In other news, THE EIGHT IMMORTALS are back. They've had a change of heart whilst off-panel, so now everyone can be friends! But can THE EIGHT IMMORTALS be trusted? I guess we'll find out next issue, because the evil Collective Man is here! He's this Chinese guy, see, whose costume looks like the flag of the People's Republic of China, and his power is to multiply into billions of people…because, see, he's Chinese and…uh…there's a lot of people in…China and…uh…THE EIGHT IMMORTALS!

Folks, I realize Austen-bashing is an easy bandwagon to jump onto. That's partly because the bandwagon is like a magic rainbow full of wonder and alcohol, and on that wagon it's always time for chili, and you never have to do your homework. But it's also because as far as comic books go, this is as bad as it gets. Through an incompetent grasp on these characters and his ham-fisted teenage drama writing style, Austen is forcing me to hate characters I have known and loved for years. It's kind of like a comic book Clockwork Orange, and though I'm hanging around thanks to a combination of morbid curiosity and dedication to the franchise, sometimes I think I'd rather lose a testicle to fire ants than to keep suffering through this juvenile garbage. It is truly painful to read X-Men these days.

Issue #170 never seemed so far away. I shake my fist at thee, Chuck Austen.

Final Grade: F-

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30 Days of Night: Return to Barrow #4
IDW Publishing

(w) Steve Niles
(a) Ben Templesmith
FC, 32 pgs w/ ads $5.60 CAN / $3.99 US

What's black, white and red all over? Every single issue of this miniseries!

Ha ha. But seriously, folks, in the latest issue, those dirty no-good vampires finally make their move against the barricaded town of Barrow, Alaska. And this time, they're packing. That's right - it's a good old-fashioned vampire vs. human gang war, as bullets fly and heads explode, with both sides taking on heavy casualties. Meanwhile, infighting among the vampire horde may give the humans the edge they'll need to win this unholy conflict.

Does anyone else feel like we're beating an undead horse, here? Aside from the guns, we've seen all this before. Vampires hate humans, but don't trust each other. Some humans don't believe in vampires, but others do. And there's plenty of violence, captured by Ben Templesmith's gritty illustrations and limited color palette. Taken on its own, Return to Barrow is a decent horror tale, but as a follow-up to both the original 30 Days of Night and Dark Days, it's pretty much redundant. Niles should have left well enough alone - considering he's working on about fifty different projects these days, there are plenty of other stories that I'd rather see him tell.

Final Grade: B-

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The Incredible Hulk #74
Marvel Comics

(w) Bruce Jones
(a) Dougie Braithwaite
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

Big Things, part four. Tony Stark finally tests his anti-gamma suit, but the arrogant bastard has secretly upped the blast tonnage, leaving him high on radiation. Apparently, gamma poisoning is a bit like a coke bender, and it prompts the overconfident, hyperactive Iron Man to blow up everything from F-86 fighter jets to his own test lab, all while talking incessantly. This of course leads to a fight with the Hulk. Wrapping things up, Richard Cummings makes an appearance, and he's dressed up like a policeman, and it turns out his sister didn't commit suicide after all. So everyone's happy, except for the characters that die, and the radiation goes away and this story is a pile of ass.

Honestly, this was one of the most senseless, irritating and just plain stupid stories I have ever read. Everyone is written as either completely out of character, an asshole, or both. Beyond that, their motivations don't make sense and the plot goes absolutely nowhere. Big Things is basically an excuse for a superhero fight needlessly stretched out over four issues, and an absolutely awful one at that. Next month, issue #75 promises to tie up the whole "fugitive" storyline, while I promise that it will be the last Incredible Hulk comic I read for a long, long time.

Final Grade: D-

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B.P.R.D.: A Plague of Frogs #5 (of 5)
Dark Horse Comics

(w) Mike Mignola
(a) Guy Davis
FC, 32 pgs w/ ads $4.25 CAN / $2.99 US

The first B.P.R.D. mini-series comes to a close this month, and it's been quite the unexpected surprise. Written by creator Mike Mignola and set firmly in his mythos, this series has provided fans with familiar faces, startling revelations, long-lasting consequences and - most importantly - a recognizable tone that makes it a true Hellboy tale, even though Mignola's signature character is absent from the story.

The frog monster crisis in Crab Point, Michigan has been more or less been contained. Unfortunately, Abe Sapien has taken a spear through the chest, and he may or may not be dead. As his worried teammates try to revive him, the majority of this issue follows Abe's out-of-body experience through time and space, and it's a hell of a ride.

Long ago in the ruins of an underwater temple, a group of scientific investigators has discovered a mysterious blue stone. Back at their headquarters, an ethereal Abe bears silent witness to a ritual that releases an ancient entity from the artifact, rendering one of the scientists - a man named Caul - unconscious. The scientist and Abe's "spirit" become one, and from the startled observations of his acquaintances, we can gather that the man has undergone a strange transformation…one that requires complete submersion in water.

Is Abe witnessing his own origin? It certainly seems that way. The laboratory here is identical to the one we found in Seed of Destruction, and there are references to Abraham Lincoln's assassination - the date of which was discovered on Abe's abandoned stasis pod. In the end, a newly revived Abe - as well as the reader - is left with more questions than answers. Who was this man Caul? What is the entity that was contained in the stone? What is Abe's connection to the frogs that rain down from the sky? Despite the lack of a full explanation, we learn more about Abe Sapien in this single issue that we have in every other Hellboy book combined, making this a highly notable milestone in Mignola's saga.

With escaped frog monsters still on the loose, Johann Kraus' spirit trapped in a decayed dog and Abe's origin unresolved, the final issue of this series doesn't exactly leave the audience with a sense of closure. However, it helps to remember that this is but a chapter in a much larger picture. In a few months, the Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense is set to return in The Dead, a new miniseries that promises more clues to Abe's past, more frogs, and more Mignola. All things considered, not a bad way to spend your time until Hellboy makes his inevitable and triumphant return.

Final Grade: A-

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The Amazing Spider-Man #509
Marvel Comics

(w) J. Michael Straczynski
(a) Mike Deodato Jr.
FC, 32pgs w/ ads $3.25 CAN / $2.25 US

If the soap operatic world of comic books has taught me anything, it's that death is, at best, a minor inconvenience. Just about every four-color hero or villain has made a "shocking" return from the grave at least once in their career - Mr. Fantastic, Jean Grey, Green Arrow…even Superman has been given the resurrection treatment, just like Jesus Christ, Tupac Shakur and the unstoppable cyborg zombie Dick Cheney.

There are some comic book characters, however, that have given up their lives not as a gimmick, but to define a hero and to serve a greater story. Captain America's old teenaged sidekick Bucky, for example, is one of the industry's best-known "permanent" comic book deaths, just as Batman will be forever haunted by the death of Jason Todd, the second Robin. And for Peter Parker, the death of girlfriend Gwen Stacy has always been a painful reminder that "with great power comes great responsibility". That said, in the latest issue of Amazing Spider-Man, J. Michael Straczynski grabs his shovel, exhumes Gwen's worm-ridden corpse, and makes it talk just like a horrible, decaying hand puppet straight from the bowels of Hell.

Well, that's not exactly or remotely true. But Peter does receive a strange letter in the mail…a letter written in Gwen's BLOOD! Well, actually it's just written in her handwriting, but that's still pretty damn mysterious, considering she's been dead for years. Seems the letter was written to Peter long ago, when Gwen was on vacation in Paris, and it refers to a shocking revelation! But this is not simply a case of delayed postal delivery, dear reader, oh no, because this particular letter was postmarked June 23, 2004! And the page with the shocking revelation is missing! And when Peter traces the call, he finds out that it's coming from…INSIDE HIS OWN HOUSE!!!

Sorry. Anyhow, Peter is understandably upset, so to cheer himself up he visits Gwen's grave on a dark and stormy night. But his mourning is interrupted when he is attacked by what appears to be a pair of high-tech ninjas with a personal vendetta against Peter himself. With the help of a passing truck, our hero narrowly escapes, as one of the would-be assassins reveals himself to be…someone I've never seen before. Although he does look somewhat like Peter Parker, but I'm going to go ahead and blame that on an unclear panel; I'm not about to sow the seeds of clone controversy just yet.

Is Gwen Stacy back from the dead? Probably not - she's too much of an untouchable plot point in the Spider-man mythos - but JMS has crafted an interesting little mystery here. What was Gwen's secret? Who sent Peter this letter? And why are purple ninjas out to get him? Only time will tell, I suppose. As for the artwork, Mike Deodato Jr. (The Incredible Hulk) takes over this month, which in my opinion is an improvement over John Romita Jr., as his style is a better fit for this story's shadowy subject matter and more personal tone.

On the other hand, Straczynski's tendency of mining sacred and established Spider-man stories for his ideas is getting a little tiresome. First he spent three years "re-imagining" Spider-man's origin, and now he's brought Gwen Stacy back into the spotlight. He's not exactly changing the past, but rather slipping his own two cents into continuity, trying to pave over cracks that weren't really there. I'd like to see him focus on new storylines, and take this title in a more exciting direction instead of fixing what isn't broken, but it's an intriguing enough idea, and I'm interested to see where it goes…at least for now.

Final Grade: B

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War Stories: Vol. 1
Vertigo

(w) Garth Ennis
(a) Chris Weston, Gary Erskine, John Higgins, Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd
TP, $19.95 US / $30.95 CAN

Historically, mankind's never ending cycle of war tends to be remembered on a large scale. From seventh grade history class to Discovery Channel documentaries, we are taught of colossal battles, glorious victories and coalitions of the willing. Rarely do we catch a glimpse of the individual sacrifices made - of heroic men and women bravely giving up their lives to defend their countries. In War Stories: Volume 1, critically acclaimed writer Garth Ennis shows us the forest for the trees, and takes us beyond the front lines for a more personal look at one of history's most brutal conflicts.

From Preacher to Punisher, Ennis has celebrated the bravery of the common soldier, and this World War II anthology is his most direct tribute to date. Collecting four fictitious standalone issues, War Stories tells the tales of battle-weary soldiers from both sides of the conflict, across every corner of the globe. Johann's Tiger follows a German tank commander, haunted by the atrocities he has committed and concerned with only the safety of his crew. D-Day Dodgers spotlights the unsung heroes of the Italian battlefield, as they sacrifice their lives for nothing more than a newspaper headline. Screaming Eagles is a humorous yet unnerving look at what happens when four soldiers fight the injustices of their own army and earn a hedonistic respite from the war. And Nightingale tracks a doomed destroyer in the North Atlantic as she fights valiantly to protect an Allied convoy.

Read in a collected volume, War Stories truly conveys the awesome scope this conflict encompassed. Regardless of rank or affiliation, every single soldier had to make unbelievable sacrifices. They dealt with bureaucracy, corruption and the pointless whims of their glory-seeking superiors. And all too often, they paid for their selflessness with their friends, their families and their lives.

Taken individually, some of these stories outshine the others. Screaming Eagles is particularly entertaining; a narrative that illustrates the frustrations these unsung heroes had to contend with on a day-to-day basis. Unfairly ordered by an inexperienced lieutenant to secure a general's headquarters, four battered D-Day veterans take a much-needed holiday in a German country house. It's an unsettling balance of humor and injustice, as the soldiers reflect on what they have given up to enjoy this unexpected holiday, one complete with busty ladies and a bathtub full of wine. Do the math. On the other end of the spectrum, D-Day Dodgers focuses on forgotten heroes as they needlessly surrender their lives for a battle they cannot win, just to gain some respect from a world whose eyes rest elsewhere. Ennis provides personal and poignant standpoints for each of his stories, although at times he can't resist going back to his familiar stable of characters with various mental and physical deficiencies. These instances are somewhat reminiscent of Preacher, but they feel forced and overdone, and are somewhat out of place here.

Ironically, for a book that champions the individual soldier, some of the characters are difficult to tell apart, but this is primarily due to the standard uniforms - a problem I've had with previous war comics. The artists involved, however, are at the top of their game. Each of them provides the grit and realism that the topic requires, stripping away the stylized glamour to show the harsh reality of war.

Though the subject may not appeal to everyone, War Stories is a welcome find for history and Ennis fans alike - these four stories provide a unique perspective into one of the 20th century's most significant events, told by one of the medium's most gifted writers. And considering current events these days, it's more than a little relevant to see what's truly at stake when we send our soldiers to war.

Final Grade: B+


--Dave Brennan
[email protected]




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[email protected] | August 2004 | Issue 53
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