Man, I’m not even supposed to be writing this week…

Been transcribing the promised Civil War column for a couple weeks now, and at two thousand words strong, it was nearly ready to be posted, least until the shipping list for this Wednesday was released. There are at least five CW tie-ins scheduled to drop, and that number gave me the special feeling that only results from columns with lots and lots of words in them. So, I was just gonna hold off, ignore the deadline (which of course, I’ve never done) and make up the balance next week. Two things happened though. One, I got sick last week, and went several days without writing, probably my longest string in years actually, and two, the room stopped spinning long enough for me to read some new releases. And a few among them demand additional mention, leading to this unplanned and unrehearsed piece.

Remember when I reviewed All-Star Superman #1 in exhaustive, and borderline obsessive detail a few months back? Well, of course you do, that was only a rhetorical intro question. Issue 4 is now on the stands, and positioned squarely in my fanboy heart. This is why, along with a few other recent hits, which made it home, and despite some worthy competition, were simply just…oh, you can still see the title from here. Brace yourselves and read on, we’ll begin with the goodness that is Superman written by Grant Morrison.

(Page 1)
“What are they talking about? I’m Jimmy Olsen! I look great!”

Fantastic intro to the sometimes strange world of Jimmy Olsen. Lucy Lane, dressed like a flight attendant from another planet, complaining that her boyfriend has been voted (again!) the worst dressed man in Metropolis. Him explaining that it’s all bad timing, and the result of a gypsy curse, even though his apartment is lined in cool crap, including a Viking helmet, a genie’s lamp, and a city trapped in a bottle. And then comes the hilarious reveal of Jimmy, holding a blond wig, wearing a bra and a pair of red heels, sealing the deal…this ain’t your usual story of Superman’s best “pal.” It’s something very different, and dare I say…cool? Uh-uh, that can’t be right.

(Pages 2-3)
“…I have to hand it to you, Olsen. Half the guys in the country hate you, the other half wanna be you. And let’s not forget the half that wants to date you.”

“That’s three halfs, chief. And so far they’re all guys.”

More fun with Perry White, revealing that Jimmy’s recent “for a day” features are a big hit, and asking him how he can possibly top the majesty of “I was America’s Sweetheart…for a day.” From the first issue, Morrison has found adequate opportunities to showcase the supporting cast, making them just as cool as they deserve to be, and Perry allowing the perpetual photographer to actually write features seems a natural extension of that. All the basics are still here, but the tweaking of tiny details gives it a progressive feel it might not even deserve, but you can’t argue with results, and three pages in, I like Jimmy more than I ever have. And only the hardest, most jaded heart can’t love the title of this installment, “The Superman/Olsen War!” Classic bit, that is…

(Page 4)
“Shield your eyes, Mister Olsen. The Electrokind are tungsten gas life forms with a brittle glass exoskeleton. Their language is purely optical, and some sentences in this greeting may cause instant blindness.”

LOVE Leo Quintum, so I’m cool whenever he can show up, especially since I’m fairly convinced he will be the man to ultimately cure Superman. With stuff like this, one of Morrison’s trademarks rears its head, and I can’t believe there are people that actually dislike his propensity for littering the story with really cool ideas, that do little more than fill the background of his scenes. It’s something fairly exclusive to him, and it gives his dialogue, and his comics in general, a verbal spring that no one else has, and apparently, I’m of the mind, there can never be enough of it. Tungsten glass life forms that communicate entirely with a form of sign language that can accidentally cause blindness? Who else would script that except Grant? And who the hell would want him to stop?

(Page 5)
“Jimmy Olsen presents: I was P.R.O.J.E.C.T. Director…for a day! So much for the gypsy’s curse!”

Only five pages in, and we’re ready to go, Olsen donning the Technicolor coat, and asking what’s naturally the most obvious question about any secret organization. Didn’t notice it until now, but after Jimmy puts glasses on, he bears more than a passing resemblance to The Doctor from The Authority. Must be the hair. Anyway, the last shot here lets you know something really insane is about to happen. Trust me, I’ve read enough comics to be able to sense these kinds of things, before they even happen. Really crazy, really cool, give it a couple pages.

(Page 6)
“If we can first unify the fundamental forces in our imagination, you see, all else will follow…”

Another good dose of “Morrison-speak” here, the obvious highlight though is panel 3, and the red tinged door with “DO NOT OPEN UNTIL DOOMSDAY” painted on it. Now, given the Silver Age type gloss we’ve seen thus far, my first question is exactly what “Doomsday” is being referenced. Obviously, you have the somewhat simple villain of the same name, who killed Supes back in the early nineties, but not sure if Morrison will take it there, because despite his history, that’s hardly a “classic” character. Still, suppose it is a big moment, far as these things go, but who can even tell? This could easily be the only time we even see it, honestly.

(Page 7)
“You’re looking into the dense foundations of reality, where time itself cools to a solid.”

Perfect line there, as we’re introduced to the concept of the Underverse, a basement level reality hidden beneath the known universe. Which isn’t a new thing, even for Morrison, but there are references to superheavy gravity and Bizarro infra-technicians, to make up the difference. Funny how Jimmy’s only had the Technicolor coat on for two pages, and he’s already calling for help, though as he says, perhaps it’s not wise to mess with the queen of the gypsies.

(Page 8)
“…uh…oh, my land, Perry! I just remembered I left the oven on at home! Gas mark 5!”

More perfection, because of its relative simplicity. How many times have we seen Clark Kent dash out of the Planet, and make the change into the red and blue tights? Everything is just stripped down here, establishing shot, Clark’s ears perking up, sprinting from the office with a quick excuse that makes absolutely no sense, a flash of disturbed papers, and the money shot of Superman streaking through the sky, completely understated. Usually, you’d see some big ass shot, the camera up Supes’ nose, and as pretty as it likely would be, it’s a bit unnecessary, and Quitely proves it here. This series is all about the little details, and again, something else that’s just right.

(Page 9)
“Superman. I don’t want to worry you. But I think you should back away slowly from the object while we spin a gravity-bottle to contain it.”

Again, there’s no shot of Superman breaking into the lunar base, screaming, “JIMMY,” just the hero on-scene with little explanation, and the actual rescue even occurring off-panel. By panel 2, Jimmy’s back on the platform, watching Supes fish an unknown object out of the super dense gravity. Something he probably wouldn’t even have the strength to do, if that killer dose of solar radiation hadn’t juiced his powers. That’s secondary though, to the actual execution, with is remarkably subtle, a trait not usually found, or even expected in superhero comics.

(Pages 10-12)
Black kryptonite.”

Not the best dude when it comes to the Silver Age, so I’m not sure if we’ve ever seen black kryptonite before, but it’s pretty cool here. Can already see I’m going to beat this word to absolute death this week, but here it is again…subtlety. The change comes over Superman in a slow wave, and the first indicator is the defacing of a desk with a little S-shield. Another fantastic little flourish is the increasing blackness that spreads throughout his word bubbles as the rock takes him over. And that Jimmy knows immediately something is up, which kills the usual two or three shots of Olsen slowly figuring it out, and burning time. Jimmy gets it instantly, Superman fights it, and his bubbles change color again, but ultimately he loses, because I mean, what kind of drama would it be if he didn’t?

(Pages 13-14)
“Who’s going to stop me from doing anything I want, Jimmy Olsen? You?”

Dude still isn’t giving up, but eventually, the unthinkable happens and Director Olsen is forced to call a P.R.O.J.E.C.T. red emergency. Which involves the activation of the three anti-Superman weapons, that Superman obviously helped create. First panel of 14 is somewhat notable, with a bunch of Bizarros fired by cannon at the escaping Supes. Anybody that remembers any details from the ill-fated Waid/Morrison/Millar/Peyer proposal might recall a particularly brilliant idea that involved a planet that launched Bizarros at Earth. Or something really cool like that. Regardless, it’s good to see that element creep into the story, even on a very small scale.

With the Kryptonite weapons a no-go, the Phantom Zone cannon is the next drastic measure up, but Olsen is hearing none of it, because there’d be no coming back from that. And Superman has saved his life a zillion times. Which leaves only Doomsday…

(Pages 15-16)
“Superman. I can’t let you embarrass yourself like this.”

The Superman/Olsen War kicks off for real, and one of the first things evil Superman does is wreck that globe on top of the Planet, in yet another exceptional Quitely panel, that if I try to describe here, won’t sound that way anymore, so you’ll just have trust me. Or buy the book, whatever. But it’s pretty, and what’s the word for this week…subtle. So, Jimmy and Supes trade a couple blows, with Agatha screaming over the comm. link that Doomsday is just too dangerous to unleash. But Director Olsen doesn’t give a damn. He mans-up and sticks himself in the neck with the fancy needle.

(Pages 17-18)
“Olsen has thirty seconds left before Doomsday overloads his nervous system. 28.”

Superman versus Jimmy Olsen, covered in a Doomsday skin, and relatively invulnerable, which is as cool as it sounds. Quitely gets a couple nice shots in, and I’m surprised that I was hesitant to see things go down this path, because this is pretty tight. Actually turning Jimmy into Doomsday was probably what did it, but still, surprised I’m surprised.

(Pages 19-20)
The big climax, a confused Superman begging for his life, and whimpering “am Superman…no can die,” at Jimmy’s feet, which is more than ironic, given the “hook” for this twelve issue run. Was also really clever using Jimmy’s signal watch as the hypnotic trigger that “rescues” his mind from the Doomsday weapon, and the image of him holding a neutralized Supes in his arms, the giant letters of the Daily Planet littering the background is a good one. As was his concern that people would see Superman in his very diminished condition. What a great pal, right?

(Pages 21-22)
“…have you seen the moon? What do you think? Did my curse wear off?”

Tight ending that brings everything full circle, as all good endings do. Jimmy has his greatest feature ever, but can’t tell a soul about it, and he spent the annual budget of P.R.O.J.E.C.T. in an afternoon. But he still needs one last thing, an incredibly obvious, yet incredibly funny gag that was there from page one, and will end his day as any dude hopes his day to end.

And with that, the curtain is closed on another excellent issue of All-Star Superman, brought to you by Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, and Jamie Grant. Accept no substitutes, and feel the Superman fever. Movie in theatres tomorrow night, like you don’t know. We had to endure that horrid ass X-Men movie a few weeks ago, and hopefully, come Tuesday, we’ll know the reason, and if it was all worth it.

And now, let’s move on to some very honorable mentions for the week, including a book that nearly stole the crown.

Astonishing X-Men #15 (Joss Whedon/John Cassaday)
“I dreamed this…I dreamed you phased away. I dreamed you couldn’t stop.”

Joss Whedon is my hero…one of them anyway.

Much of that sentiment, reserved only for the storytellers that manage to inspire me on a truly profound level, stems from blazing my way through the Buffy- Chosen Collection I scored around Christmas. These last several weeks, I’ve been re-watching the entire series from its humble beginnings, and just the other day experienced the incredibly amazing overwhelming excellence that is “Once More, With Feeling.” That’s the “musical episode” from season 6, for you poor folks that ain’t down, and just like any worthwhile piece of entertainment, every single time you sit down with it, something else jumps out that you didn’t notice before. And you realize this stuff you’ve sat around telling yourself for so long is so great, might just actually be a little greater than that, and how often does that happen? If you can actually make it through an extended stretch of this show without being struck over and over again by how incredibly well executed it is, there is a strong possibility you have no brain. Almost certainly, no soul. So yeah, a bigger Joss Whedon fan you’ll seldom find, which brings us to this very particular issue of Astonishing.

The return of the Hellfire Club has been fairly incredible thus far, and yes, that’s even without the Cyclops centric issue 14, giving some well-deserved screen time to my, and every thinking man’s, favorite X-Man. Here, under an almost haunting cover by Cassaday, is the classic “takedown” issue, Shaw and company breaching the mansion, and dismantling the entire squad, in a series of confrontations cut into one another, and only interrupted by a brief interlude that makes things even worse on the horizon. Which is hard to believe, given how this ends, with Cyclops catatonic, Wolverine neutered, Beast completely gone in the head, and Colossus accidentally beating himself up. Now, all that’s left is Kitty Pride, Emma Frost’s most secret weapon, and she’s more than a little pissed off. Right, right, what’s Shadowcat gonna do? Hell if I know, but I bet you money next issue is even cooler than this one…

The Ultimates 2 #11 (Mark Millar/Bryan Hitch/Paul Neary)
“Relax. Room’s secure.”

Best in the biz.

Once again. The Ultimates proves why it’s the premier book of widescreen spectacle in the game, and yes, that W-word has been beaten into submission, after years and years of carelessness, but trust that I only use it, because the shit is true. Nobody does this type of book better than Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch, with every single convention, dope image, and cool line, delivered in just the right spot for max effect. Everything is rounding the corner here, with Thor’s “delusions” finally proven correct, and Captain America again beating the odds, and turning into a character I really enjoy. But the vibe is just undeniable, the heroes striking back after being the victim of a couple superb “takedown” issues, where any and everything was ripped down. Making this even cooler to see, as Cap and Wasp arm up, Hawkeye comes back in one of Hitch’s finest moments, Stark heads up to his orbital platform to retrieve Iron Man Six, and another member returns, in yet another of Hitch’s finest moments. Something that put a huge grin on my face, because it was so obvious, I hadn’t even considered it. As usual though, the whole package is all very pretty, all very cool, and of course, the good guys are going to eventually rebound and send the bad guys packin’ in a wonderfully overblown action sequence where everybody does and says somethin’ impressive, but don’t you really want to see how it all ends? Yeah, me too…

Casanova #1 (Matt Fraction/Gabriel Ba)
“It’s not every day you get to leap to your death while shooting bullets at a U.F.O.”

Wall of sound, indeed.

Believe me when I say this was almost the book to receive a page-by-page breakdown. It’s just that crazy, and it’s just that cool on every level. Now, I’ve been following Fraction during his writing career, picking up literally everything with his name on it. It’s a thing with me, some kind of great brilliant victory I want to be able to claim when a creative professional hits that moment of true emergence, when everybody else in the world hops on the bandwagon to say how dope they are, when I’ve been aware of it for years already. Happened with Joe Casey, happened with Brian K. Vaughan, and I’m telling you right now, it’s going to happen with Matt Fraction too. Because dude has skills, and if his Civil War Punisher book doesn’t handle things, it’s all good, because we’ll still have Casanova Quinn. Using the format that Warren Ellis made popular with Fell, Image has another hit on their hands, and comics has another writer to pay serious attention to. Mark the shit down.

Even if this wasn’t such a cool book, the first thought you’ll have when it’s over, is that this dude is tryin’ his ass off. There is such an incredible amount of effort dripping from the thing, every page some new idea, some new development, some incredibly interesting character, as it rockets to the end. Really need to discover it for yourselves, but in only 28 pages, we’re introduced to the world of Cass Quinn, which includes really bad intel, killer naked robots, a helicasino run by three mutant brains smashed together called Fabula Berserko, a very important upper left third molar, a rip in the space-time continuum, clones, déjà vu, supercriminal mastermind Newman Xeno, and paradox backwash. And that doesn’t even address the actual storytelling density of the piece, which is considerable, and won’t crack until you read it at least twice. I know, I know, you don’t want to read comics and have to do the thinking thing, but even if you’re not down with that, it’s all remarkable pretty, as drawn by Gabriel Ba. So now everyone can be happy with this comic, and I suspect this feeling will continue on for quite a while. Fraction seems to be trying too hard for it not to.

And speaking of “sound,” let’s conclude with the albums that served as background, while I wrote this very unexpected, yet somehow necessary, column…

In The Deck-

St. Elsewhere by Gnarls Barkley is incredibly hard to describe. Part rock, part alternative, part hip-hop, it’s almost all crazy, but the very good kind. Cee-Lo Green has been branching out for years, and this collaboration with accomplished producer Danger Mouse is his largest bit of experimentation yet, and also his strongest. Runs a little short, but I can’t complain with songs like “Go-Go Gadget Gospel,” “Smiley Faces,” and “Transformer.” If you had any affinity for DM’s team-up with MF DOOM, or you know, with hip-hop delivering some form of artistic thought or progression, you’ll be in a good place with this album.

The Big Bang by Busta Rhymes is another tight Busta album, which hasn’t been that difficult for him over the years, but it’s still noticeably different from the rest of the catalog. Under the watchful eye of the good Dr. Dre, this one is focused like a laser, with very minimal features, not one single skit or interlude, and not one single appearance by anybody in the Flipmode Squad. Which sounds impossible considering, but it works quite nicely, Dre throwing in a handful of beats, and obviously supervising everything else that got included, because the sound stays as consistent as possible, without crossing the line and all running together. With a couple exceptions, all of these tracks are real songs, and not a string of radio singles masquerading as them. The late J Dilla also delivers one of the highlights, which is fantastic to see.

Legendary producer Timbaland can simply do no wrong. Anybody that knows me is well aware of the obsessive fetish I’ve maintained for his work, going all the way back to high school, and the Ginuwine tape I played until the wheels stopped spinning. Favorite Hip-Hop/R&B producer of all time, and so with that in mind, it’s completely obvious why I bought Nelly Furtado’s Loose, and why it sounds so lovely. Thought her little “bird” song a few years back was cute, but this will be on constant spin for quite a while, because of the undeniable drum patterns of “Timbo Da King.” Didn’t hear Gwen Stefani’s album from last summer, but if it was completely produced by The Neptunes it’d probably sound a lot like this. Pop, without question, but with an R&B vibe, orchestrated by a man who once changed the way radio sounded.

That’s a wrap for the week people, back this time next week with the very massive, and thereby comprehensive, Civil War column. If the editor allows me, there might even be a Superman Returns review floating around somewhere [check out next Sunday’s Slugfest for this – Ed], because for some reason, I keep volunteering myself for extra work. Will likely stop any day now though, before things get too out of hand.

Back soon.

B

 

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