Comic Judgment: Debuts and Curtain Calls

There’s nothing like a hefty Wednesday haul, especially when the books are as good as mine were this week. From a promising upstart to two venerable titles that took their bows, there’s quite a bit to cover. Here we go:

Better. Stronger. Faster.

The Bionic Man #1: Can a comic book based on a classic TV show withstand the white-hot expectations of readers full of nostalgia? Or will said nostalgia warp one’s view, resulting in an overly positive or negative response?

Though Dynamite’s new Bionic Man comic had me at “Oscar Goldman,” I still approached it with caution. Col. Steve Austin, astronaut, loomed so large in my childhood that I successfully lobbied my parents to buy me his doll – uh, action figure when I was 7 or 8. As I began reading, I thought of the great RuPaul’s advice to his drag competition contestants: Don’t *%$! it up.

And they didn’t. The Bionic Man #1, written by Kevin Smith and Phil Hester, is quite an enjoyable read. There are some welcome references to the source material, but this is definitely a modern and more mature-skewing story with some of Smith’s familiar potty-mouthed dialogue. I’ll leave you to judge whether that’s good. I’m also pleased to see talented Wonder Woman scribe Hester on this book as co-writer.

This version of Steve Austin is a cocky test pilot who is a pain in ass of his superiors. He gets away with it because he’s good and apparently fearless. He has randy but loving conversations with his fiancé, Jamie Sommers (Yes, that Jamie Sommers) before brazenly showing up late to an assignment: Pushing a stealth bomber to Mach 8, which I assume is insane. It’s not spoiling anything to say that the mission takes a bad turn.

A good deal of the action begins before we even see Steve, though. In the opening scenes, a man/machine trashes a lab, brutally dispatches some men in white coats, and steals some experimental tech. It’s not the first incident, and this is of grave concern to Oscar. Instead of the sharp-dressed government agency head from the TV show, Oscar is a rumpled, weary man who tolerates screaming military officials. In one of the book’s most entertaining moments, he has a bit of fun with an angry general who loathes Steve. And robots.

The story is straightforward, well-constructed and briskly paced. Smith and Hester succeed at paying homage to the TV show — look, there’s Dr. Rudy Wells! — without being slavish. I don’t know whether this was intentional on artist Jonathan Lau’s part, but at least once, Steve does that arched eyebrow/classic Lee Majors thing. And speaking of Lau, he’s a good choice for a series that’s going to be very heavy on action. I was a tad disappointed by the washed-out colors, though they are kicked up a notch in the dramatic conclusion. The familiar words in those closing panels made me smile. Grade: B

Teen Titans #100 : The overriding theme of this historic issue is “Let’s thrash Superboy Prime.” If you dislike the character as much as I do, that’s an attractive premise indeed. Though the title lost steam in recent issues, writer J.T. Krul deserves a lot of credit for making Teen Titans a book people wanted to read again. And oh, that lovely art from Nicola Scott! This final, pre-relaunch issue brings various DC superteens together to defeat Prime, his clones, and other assorted young villains who have descended upon Titans Tower. Superboy Prime remains pure hatred, still bellowing about the loss of his world, how Conner Kent is an inferior photocopy, how he was robbed, etc. His rage is bottomless, so this is a fierce battle that requires every ounce of teamwork and brawn that the Titans and their allies have. Fortunately, they’ve got Robin and Ravager. Everyone does more than their share, but it’s these two rascally scene-stealers who have some of the most memorable and festive moments. There are some beautifully executed splash panels to enjoy, and Jason Wright’s luminous colors make them even more eye-popping. That close-up of Superboy Prime’s blue eyes, blazing menace under that spit-curl and angry eyebrows, gave me chills. Because Rose Wilson is one of my favorite characters, it was genuinely touching to see a softer, sensitive side in a post-battle moment with Conner. What might have been? We’ll never really know, but not all questions need to be answered — especially when the finale is this well done. Grade: A

Captain America and Bucky #621: Ed Brubaker and Marc Andreyko’s story, narrated by Cap’s partner, is just right for readers with scant knowledge of the teen hero. Issue #620 was an excellent introduction to Bucky, a military kid (and eventual orphan) who routinely knocked teeth out of his enemies’ mouths. After losing his parents and his sister, who was shipped off to boarding school, he’s given an outlet for all that anger: Intense combat training and an assignment to work alongside Captain America. Brash and perhaps a little too eager to brawl, Bucky complements the slightly older but much wiser Steve Rogers, who understands the cost of killing. But it’s not all sober life lessons. There’s a funny movie theater scene where Bucky bristles during a cornball newsreel clip portraying him as a golly-gee-whiz sidekick: “What am I, Rin Tin Tin?” (I seriously thought he was going to deck the guy who kept telling him to pipe down.) You want more? How about artist Chris Samnee, whose signature art elevates an already good story to a great one? I read issues #620 and 621 twice, just to linger over the panels. Believe me; you don’t have to care a whit about this classic superteam to enjoy Bucky’s short, colorful journey. Grade: A

Wonder Woman #614: Diana’s Odyssey may have been overly long and bumpy, but it reaches a satisfying end on the eve of DC’s seismic relaunch. It will surprise no one that our favorite Amazon triumphs, and it’s a delight to see her emerge as the Wonder Woman we know and love. Writers JMS and Phil Hester find a nifty way to bring Diana back to herself without dismissing the significant bloodshed and self-sacrifice that took place this past year. Fans who worried that Wonder Woman would remain an immature heroine-in-training for the long haul will be very happy to see her smiling and soaring again. This book has weathered a lot of criticism, including commentary from yours truly. But to be fair, parts of the series were quite good — especially once Hester entered the picture. Every time I gave up hope, a subsequent issue would provide at least one clever, surprising or just plain fun moment that kept my interest from dying. The references to classic Wonder Woman and the re-introduction of old foes like Dr. Psycho were nice touches that seemed intended to tell the reader, “All will be well.” The art quality ranged from very good to fine, and though that sounds like damning with faint praise, Wonder Woman fared far better than other books with multiple artists. If you’ve stuck with it this long, you owe it to yourself to read the pleasing last chapter. Grade: B

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8 thoughts on “Comic Judgment: Debuts and Curtain Calls

  1. I am looking forward to reading WW-614.
    And the Bionic Man sounds nifty… I always loved Oscar Goldman!
    But I would have loved it to be a comic about Jamie Sommers instead of Steve Austin, I loved her show much more and funnily so did my brothers.: )

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  2. more importantly kevin smith can’t right very well. i still remember his work on batman… regrettably. SO many insipid you’re-a-homo/crotch jokes. i just finished reading the six million dollar man launch. not much better. the only way it’ll get better is by sticking as closely to martin caidin’s tone as possible. what smith did in issue one was closer to the book (which i’m not saying was mesmerizing prose, btw, but at least had a more matter of fact gravitas than the show) than the show, though it had enough touches to keep tv fans happy. still, smith needs to rein in his kneejerk predisposition to frat boy snark disguised as wittiness, or this will be a no go by issue three.

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  3. I’ll skip the Bionic Man, I’m not a Smith fan, and the cyborg thing’s been pretty well covered. The original, short-lived Deathlok the Demolisher was easily the best (was chuffed to pick it up recently in Masterwork format, the comics are lost somewhere in my unsorted stacks). Will probably check out the others, though…

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