Comic book reviews: Human Bomb

Human Bomb is the latest four issue miniseries written by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti to reboot the characters from DC Comics’ old Freedom Fighters series for the post-Flashpoint / New 52 continuity.  The new Human Bomb is Michael Taylor, a former member of the United States Marine Corps who served with distinction in Afghanistan.  Michael is due to receive the Medal of Honor from the President, but in the weeks leading up to the ceremony, he is having nightmares that he is somehow going to explode, destroying the White House.

Reporting to work at the construction site for the new World Trade Center in Manhattan, Michael and his co-workers are horrified when a series of explosions begin going off, first throughout the City, and then the rest of the country.  Encountering another member of his unit, Michael suddenly remember how, during their deployment, they were captured & experimented upon by an organization called C.R.O.W.N. and turned into sleeper agents, literal human bombs who can explode when ordered to.  For some reason, Michael is able to disobey the command to detonate, and discovers he can fire off energy blasts.

After a battle with members of C.R.O.W.N., Michael is brought in by agents of the covert government agency S.H.A.D.E. (presumably the same group Frankenstein & the Creature Commandos work for).  Two of S.H.A.D.E.’s operatives, Uncle Sam and the telepathic Joan, fill in Michael on C.R.O.W.N.’s background.  They inform Michael that the reason why he is able to control his ability to explode, and not be killed, is that unlike the hundreds of others abducted by C.R.O.W.N., he was a latent meta-human, and the experiments gave him permanent super powers.  Michael decides to join S.H.A.D.E. and take the fight to the terrorists who turned his compatriots and many other innocents into unwitting suicide bombers.

Human Bomb 1 cover

Human Bomb has some quite good writing by Gray & Palmiotti.  The first issue effectively sets up an intriguing mystery, the second is an extended piece of exposition that details the background of these events, and the third & fourth issues contain some really exciting action sequences.  Gray & Palmiotti also do a nice job with the character of Michael Taylor, a patriotic everyman who is thrust into extremely bizarre circumstances.

I appreciate how C.R.O.W.N. was developed by Gray & Palmiotti.  After the first issue, I thought that it would be explained to be the usual nefarious shadow conspiracy you see lurking about comic books.  Instead, the forces behind C.R.O.W.N. are alien.  Yep, as in invaders from outer space, which takes the story to an entirely different level.

As much as I enjoyed the writing on Human Bomb, the major reason why I picked up this miniseries was the artwork by Jerry Ordway.  I’ve been a fan of Da Ordster for some time now.  He’s done amazing work over the years.  Among his diverse credits, he worked on the Superman books from the mid-1980s to the early 90s, co-created WildStar with Al Gordon at Image Comics, wrote, illustrated & painted the Power of Shazam graphic novel (featuring the original C.C. Beck version of Captain Marvel), both wrote and created beautiful painted covers for the follow-up monthly Power of Shazam title, and drew several issues of Alan Moore’s Tom Strong.  It was Ordway’s Captain Marvel stories that really caused me to become a huge fan of his, both as a writer and an artist.

Human Bomb 3 pg 12

The unfortunate thing about Ordway is that, even though he does amazing work, he is often quite underrated.  I do not think he has had a regular assignment drawing a monthly title for a number of years now.  He’s drawn plenty of fill-in issues and miniseries such as Human Bomb, but not a single ongoing book.  I try to keep an eye out for Da Ordster, so that when he does have new work published, I can pick it up.  But sometimes that’s difficult.  I did not even know Human Bomb was coming out, or that he was drawing it, until I saw a review of the first issue on one of my favorite blogs, Too Dangerous For A Girl.  Yeah, as far as I can tell, DC did little to promote this miniseries.  And that is a total shame, because the artwork by Ordway is up to par with his usual extraordinary efforts.

Coincidentally or not, a few days before Human Bomb #4 came out, Ordway wrote a post on his blog Random Thoughts entitled “Life Over Fifty.”  He addresses how, despite the many years of dedication he has given to DC Comics, currently it is difficult for him to locate steady work.  It is an excellent piece, and I highly recommend reading it.

Really, it is such a shame that this is the current state of affairs because, as I said before, Ordway is an incredible artist.  I sent my girlfriend a link to his blog post, and she agreed with me, that it’s a very unfortunately situation that Ordway has found himself in.  And when I showed her a few pages of his artwork from Human Bomb, she flat out declared “That’s so much better than half the shit being published nowadays!”

Human Bomb 4 pg 6

Okay, I didn’t mean for a blog about the Human Bomb miniseries to turn into a rant about ageism in comic books, or a rambling piece about how much Jerry Ordway is underrated.  But he did an amazing job on this book, so I really encourage people to track down the issues.  Combine that with an exciting story by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti, and this really is a miniseries that is well worth reading.

You might want to drop an e-mail to the folks at both DC and Marvel encouraging them to hire Jerry Ordway for an upcoming project.  He says he’s years away from wanting to retire, and judging by his recent work, he’s still very capable of producing top-notch work.

And considering that Gray & Palmiotti have done a lot of good, solid work rebooting various members of the Freedom Fighters — The Ray, Phantom Lady, Doll Man, and now Human Bomb — hopefully DC will let them at least write a miniseries featuring the characters working as a team.  That would be a great book for Ordway to draw.

Oh, yes, one last thing.  I’m usually not a huge fan of computer coloring.  But I thought the colors by Hi-Fi were excellent, and complemented Ordway’s artwork perfectly.

Comic books I’m reading, part one: DC and Marvel

Back when I was a teenager and in my twenties, I read a lot of books published by DC and Marvel Comics.  I was very much into the mainstream superhero titles.  Over the last several years, though, my tastes have gradually changed.  Additionally, comic books have become more and more expensive, now costing around $2.99 to $3.99.  I don’t have as much disposable income as I used to, so I cannot afford to buy as many books.  Additionally, a lot of titles have become very decompressed and long form in their story arcs.  That means it takes more issues to tell a story while, conversely, much less time to read each actual issue.  I don’t see the point in spending three to four bucks for a ten minute read.

So, what ongoing series am I picking up?  From DC, I’ve been following Justice League International, Wonder Woman, and Blackhawks, and the last of those three was just canceled.  That leaves just two.

JLI is a pretty decent book.  I decided to give it a try because I liked the creative team of Dan Jurgens & Aaron Lopresti.  Also, the cast of the book contained Booster Gold, Fire, Ice, and various other so-called “second-stringers” who do not have their own solo titles, enabling Jurgens to engage in character development.  I also enjoy the interaction between Booster and Batman, which is almost of a student/mentor relationship.  So far, it’s been pretty entertaining.  The main ongoing subplot concerns a group of superhuman anarchists.  I’ll be sticking with JLI for the immediate future, to see what happens.  Lopresti’s art is very nicely done.  I just wish that he was also drawing the covers, but I guess David Finch is a hotter creator.

Justice League International #8

(I am somewhat curious about the main Justice League title, but seeing as it’s penciled by Jim Lee it is inevitably going to end up collected in trade paperbacks, so I can always check it out later.)

On Wonder Woman, the major draw, so to speak, has been Cliff Chiang’s stunning artwork.  It really is beautiful.  I am not nearly as much sold by Brian Azzarello’s writing.  Something about it doesn’t quite click with me.  He is one of those writers who play a very long game, so the plotlines he’s set up could take years to resolve.  I’m not sure I want to stick around that long to see it all pan out.  The major distinction for the Wonder Woman revamp has been Azzarello & Chiang re-imagining the Greek gods.  Instead of a bunch of people in white togas standing around spouting pseudo-Shakespearean dialogue, they are a dysfunctional group of freaks with murky motivations.  They really feel like mysterious, dangerous deities who could do some serious damage with their manipulations.

For me, the two best books DC has released lately have been miniseries.  I absolutely loved The Ray, which I initially picked up for Jamal Igle’s artwork.  Igle is an incredibly talented creator, and his artwork on this four issue miniseries is stunning.  What made The Ray such a great book was that the writing by Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti was of an equally high standard.  If you haven’t already, I highly recommend tracking down back issues of this series.  I don’t know if there is going to be a TPB collection of this, but if DC has any sense, they will collect it.

The Ray #1

The other miniseries I enjoyed was Legion: Secret Origin written by Paul Levitz.  He does an excellent job setting down the post-Flashpoint origin of the Legion of Super-Heroes.  Levitz introduces the characters and the world of the 31st Century in a manner that will please long-time Legion fans such as myself, yet is accommodating to newer readers.  Legion: Secret Origin is also an excellent example of how to set up a miniseries in such a way that it is self-contained and stands on its own, but at the same time plants the seeds for future storylines elsewhere.  Also, the series boosts superb artwork by Chris Batista & Marc Deering.

Over at Marvel, well, there’s not much I’m picking up, either.  I used to be such a HUGE fan of both Captain America and the Avengers.  Nowadays, they are hotter than they have ever been but, ironically, I’m just not as interested.  Brian Michael Bendis’ run on Avengers just never did much for me, so it has been several years since I followed any of the titles regularly.  (I did really enjoy Mighty Avengers when Dan Slott was writing it.)  As for Captain America, well, Ed Brubaker has been doing excellent work but, like Azzarello, he sets up storylines that take a long time to pan out, plus his writing style is definitely decompressed.  When the Captain America: The First Avenger movie came out last year, Marvel re-started the book with a new issue #1.  I was sort of underwhelmed by the first five issue arc, “American Dreamers.”  I’ve bought the next five issues, the “Powerless” arc, and read the first two chapters, but just haven’t gotten around to finishing it, despite some gorgeous artwork by Alan Davis & Mark Farmer.  The thing is, I’ve religiously bought every issue of Captain America since 1989, but now I’m actually wondering if I want to continue with it.

I’ve been somewhat more entertained by the original Captain America volume one, which continued the original series numbering, but was re-titled Captain America & Bucky for nine issues, before switching over the second spot to a rotating co-star.  Right now it’s Hawkeye sharing the spotlight with the Sentinel of Liberty.  The two Bucky-related stories were both very good. Part of that had to do with them being self-contained.  I wish Brubaker would write more stories of that nature.  A new creative team came on-board with Hawkeye.  So far, I’m not especially impressed, but I will wait to see how the entire story plays out.  But again, I am uncertain if I will stick around after that.

After a very long time away, I have started picking up Avengers, at least for a few issues.  The legendary Walter Simonson is penciling a six issue arc that ties in with the Avengers vs. X-Men crossover.  I am a huge fan of Simonson, and I have long wanted to see him draw Avengers.  He is doing an absolutely stunning job.  I was blown away by the first two issues out, #s 25 & 26.  In the later, we see Thor in combat with the Phoenix Force out in space.  It is just beautiful work.

Avengers #26 page 17: Thor vs the Phoenix Force!

Mention definitely has to be made of Scott Hanna’s contribution.  He is one of the absolute best inkers in the comic book biz today.  I often think he does not receive anywhere near the credit that is due him.  This is his first time inking Simonson, and the results look fantastic.  I also have to point out the vibrant coloring by Jason Keith, which really stood out in that sequence with the Phoenix.

The writing by Bendis is pretty good, but he could do a bit of a better job making this portion stand on its own.  I realize this is part of a huge crossover, but in the middle of #26, there’s a sudden jump forward in the action, with the explanatory caption “For details, see Secret Avengers #26-28 on sale now!”  That was jarring.

Anyway, despite this, Bendis does have a nice scene earlier between the Protector (not familiar with the character, but I think he’s a Kree agent and a new Avengers recruit) and his cute punk rock girlfriend.  Bendis is usually better at penning more personal character moments like this than monumental superhero spectacles, so it plays to his strengths.  That said, if you are going to do big & cosmic, Walter Simonson is your go-to guy, and Bendis gives him plenty to play with in the issue’s second half.  I would complain that it only took ten minutes each to read Avengers #s 25 & 26, but they both look so amazing thanks to Simonson & Hanna.  So I’m on-board for the next four issues, which they are also illustrating.

Other than that, the only Marvel book I’m following right now is the five issue limited series Hulk Smash Avengers.  It takes place during different eras of the team’s history, and examines their contentious relationship with the Hulk.  Topped off by beautiful covers from Lee Weeks, each issue has a different creative team.

The main reason why I decided to get this miniseries is because the first issue is by Tom DeFalco, Ron Frenz & Sal Buscema.  I have really enjoyed DeFalco & Frenz’s work on Amazing Spider-Man, Thor, Thunderstrike, A-Next, and Spider-Girl.  Buscema is one of my all time favorite comic book artists.  Nowadays mostly retired, he still breaks out the old pen & brush to ink Frenz on various projects.  They go together extremely well.

Their issue is an homage to the early Avengers stories by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, Don Heck, and Dick Ayers.  In it, the Masters of Evil join forces with the Hulk against the original Avengers team.  DeFalco is very much going for a Silver Age vibe with his scripting, which makes it a bit goofy, but a lot of fun.  It was fun seeing DeFalco & Frenz do a story with Thor once again.  And, yay, it actually took longer than ten minutes to read this issue!  DeFalco, like Paul Levitz, really knows how to script a story full of substance.

Hulk Smash Avengers #1 page 3

I haven’t had an opportunity to read the next two issues of Hulk Smash Avengers yet, but they’re written by Joe Casey and Roger Stern, so I have high expectations.  And I’ll be buying the final two installments when they come out.

That’s really about it.  Aside from picking up an occasional issue of a title here or there, right now I’m not really committed to any other specific series from either DC or Marvel.  My interest has been shifting more and more over to releases from “independent” companies such as Image, IDW, Dark Horse, Fantagraphics, and others.  I will be discussing those in an upcoming post on this blog.  Keep an eye out for it.