Monday, June 18, 2018

Longbox Junk - Azrael (Vol. 2) Part 1: Issues 1 - 9

I said it once and I'll say it again. . .it ain't easy being an Azrael fan.

After an unimpressive introduction in the "Death's Dark Knight" mini, I pondered the question of just how good an ongoing series starring the uninteresting character of Michael Lane could be. . .

It ran for 18 issues, so there was SOME push behind it, but from what I can see on the internet (O Internet! Fountain of Comic Knowledge!) nobody really cared. A continued lack of care is reflected in the REBIRTH Bat-books where Azrael has been re-introduced, but as a strange version of Jean Paul Valley wearing a Suit of Sorrows with some sort of ancient A.I. computer built into it. 

 Rebirth Azrael is a steaming pile of WTF, but Michael Lane seems to have been completely forgotten by. . .well. . .everyone.  There is very little information on this series beyond the first issue to be found.

So here's a look at the ongoing series starring the Azrael nobody asked for, nobody cared about, and nobody remembers today.  I kind of feel sorry for it, because to tell the truth. . .it ain't bad.


AZRAEL (Vol. 2) 
DC (2009 - 2011)

ISSUE 1
ANGEL IN THE DARK

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon 
COVER: Jock

First issue. Here we go

First off. . .great cover by Jock!

This first issue of Azrael featuring the Michael Lane version of the character was surprisingly good after the lackluster introductory mini that preceded it (Death's Dark Knight). The story is split into 3 sections. . .

The first is Azrael's hunt for a serial killer that is preying on a specific list of Catholic Church members. The ending was surprising in that Azrael figures out who the killer is (a contract assasin working for victims of a child molesting priest and working his way through those who turned the other way or protected the priest, saving him for last) and confronts him, but ultimately lets him go to finish his job. . .showing that Azrael is more concerned with justice than being a traditional hero.

The second story thread involves Michael getting settled into his new role as Avenger for The Order of Purity, and is mostly exposition for those who didn't read the mini.

The third storyline. . .and most interesting. . .is a flash-forward 8 months ahead with Harvey Bullock and the GCPD investigating the death of Azrael. I like that they were already considering the end of the story at the very beginning of it.

Let's talk about the art a bit. 

In other reviews I've seen of this first issue, 90% of them bagged on the art. I have to disagree. I REALLY liked the gritty, realistic, somewhat chunky and darkly-inked art. I think that the penciller, inker, and color artist really work great together and that the art is actually the best part of this book for looking nothing like one would expect in a mainstream comic series. I especially like that they don't draw Lane himself as a super-heroic figure, but as a compact, muscular bulldog of a man. . .not really physically imposing at all when out of costume.

Overall, I found this issue to be a surprisingly good read. I liked that the story touched on an extremely uncomfortable topic for a mainstream DC superhero book (child molesting priests), had great, gritty art, was pretty much a self-contained one issue story, and hooked me in by giving me a flash forward mystery. There's really nothing bad I can say about this issue. Well done!


ISSUE 2
GHOST IN THE LIGHT

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Jock

As Azrael tries to learn more about the Order of Purity, his mission, and the curse on the Suit of Sorrows he wears, he is lured into a confrontation with Ra's Al Ghul's servant, The White Ghost, and is forced to choose between saving only one of two innocent people.

Another surprisingly good issue. Once again, it's pretty much done in one issue, while still exploring some threads for the overall story. I'm really liking the "one and done, with a little extra" narrative structure of this title so far. 

I also liked that (like last issue), Azrael doesn't take the obvious path to solving the problem at hand. In this case, he talks his enemy into a corner, forcing him to help him with the "impossible" test Ra's Al Ghul has set up for him (deciding which one of two innocent people to save from certain death).

The gritty, realistic art continues to impress. This issue has a brief appearance by Birds of Prey-era Huntress that is particularly nicely done.

Overall, there's really nothing bad to say about this issue.


ISSUE 3
A SINGLE GRAIN OF SAND

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Jock

While racial tension heats up in Gotham City, Azrael discovers that a killer is one of the men he went on a secret mission to Iran with during his time as a Marine. . .

Another good "One and Done, with a little extra" issue. I'm really liking the narrative style of this title. Also, as in the last two issues, Azrael doesn't solve the problem in a traditional "heroic" way as he's forced to confront some of the evil things he did during wartime and decide if he has the right to judge someone who was there with him.

The art. . .especially in the flashback scenes. . .remains very nicely done. I really like the chunky, more realistic look of this title. It's almost like a Vertigo book.

Overall, this title still remains strong three issues in, with a "Cast the first stone, he who is without sin" self contained story and a great, gritty look.


ISSUE 4
BLOOD SIMPLE

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

After taking down a Satanic cult, Batman and Robin discover the person responsible for the murders of Azrael's brother and sister. 

And so we come to the first "clunker" issue on this run. . .and fairly early too.

It's not BAD, it's just not as good as the previous issues, with a story that still follows the "one and done, with a little extra" framework established from the beginning of this title, but with Azrael finding out that his own Sister In Law murdered his brother and sister. . .and that "The Devil Made Her Do It" Literally.  It's a bit weak, and frankly the way they just sort of leave it hanging is unexplainable.

The art remains strong in this issue, but for some reason, the art team does a poor job with Batman and Robin, with the exception of a few panels.

Overall, this is the weakest issue so far. . .and being only 4 issues into an 18 issue run, I hope it's not the start of an early downward slide.


ISSUE 5
SEAMS UNDONE

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

As racial tension between Jews and Palestinians in Gotham reaches a boiling point, Azrael encounters Ragman and learns that fighting on the "Right" side all depends on the point of view. . .

Another fairly weak issue, making it two in a row. It involves tension between Jews and Palestinians with a confrontation between Ragman and Azrael as champions of two different religions as sort of a proxy battle of words and faiths. The IDEA is interesting, the execution is not so much. There are a few thought-provoking moments, but to be honest, the whole thing feels more than a little forced.

The art returns to an outstanding level in this issue. A particular standout is a double page spread of Azrael being forced to mentally confront the truth of all the blood that has been shed by those wearing the cursed Suit of Sorrows. I guess the art team just has some sort of problem with Batman and Robin, because it's all good in this issue.

Overall, a weak story with a good concept, an interesting guest character, and poor execution.


ISSUE 6
UNSPOKEN

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael studies ancient texts to learn more about the Suit of Sorrows and those who wore it previously. He discovers a secret code that claims to tell him who his real enemy is. . .The Order of Purity that he serves.

This was probably the best issue of the run so far. Good news after 2 pretty weak issues. 

Told mostly in flashback as Michael Lane secludes himself and studies the history of the Order of Purity and journals of previous Azraels, he discovers a code that tells him that The Order is his REAL enemy.

The story is tight and very well written, and the art is especially impressive this time out. In particular, a past confrontation between an Azrael of St. Dumas and an Azrael of the Order of Purity is VERY nicely done.  All that AND the cover of this issue is one of the best so far.

Overall, this issue is a winner in every way!


ISSUE 7
SLOW DEATH

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael's sanity starts to fray around the edges as he tracks down "Hide and Seek", a team of two criminals who have kidnapped a child.

After the fantastic previous issue, this one feels like a bit of a disappointment. Not to say that it's bad, just not as good as it COULD be. The story is pretty simple and straightforward. . .another "one and done" that also snips the loose end of Lane's sister-in-law being acquitted for the murder of Lane's brother and sister because. . .the DEVIL made her do it! Whatever. It's just a one page WTF in an otherwise decent issue.


ISSUE 8
LET HIM WHO IS WITHOUT SIN
PART 1

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael follows a trail of clues and dead bodies to France, leading him to a secret temple beneath a church and a cult that worships sin who try to force him to become the avatar of the 8th Deadly Sin. . .Faith.

You know how they say when a T.V. show goes on the road for a "Special Episode" where they go on vacation to Hawaii, or visit Disneyland (for example), it's on the way down? Yeah. . .I get that feeling with this issue.

There's a lot of heavy questions here about unquestioning faith being a sin itself, but basically, this is the first "Continued" issue, and is mostly a fight with supervillains from “The Eighth Deadly Sin” storyline found in BATMAN ANNUAL #27 and DETECTIVE COMICS ANNUAL #11.

The art remains gritty and grounded, but I definitely see signs of story fatigue as the writer moves Azrael toward continuity-based supervillain battles.

Overall, it's not awful. . .but it ain't that good either.


ISSUE 9
LET HIM WHO IS WITHOUT SIN
PART 2

SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Ramon Bachs
COVER: Francesco Mattina

Azrael is forced (somehow that isn't really explained) into becoming the avatar for the 8th Deadly Sin, Faith. He gets a brutal new helmet and joins the La Saligia team for an attack on The Vatican. 

The White Ghost manages to talk him back down and the two team up to take out half of the Deadly Sins. After their killing spree is over, Azrael declines to join Team Ra's Al Ghul. White Ghost tells him it's only a matter of time before he changes his mind. . .

This second half of the "Let Him Who Is Without Sin" story is basically a long fight sequence, with Azrael changing sides twice and lots of religious questions being asked between punches and sword blows.

I found it interesting that Ra's Al Ghul (via The White Ghost) is becoming a bigger part of the overall story, but other than that, this was a fairly weak issue with some inexplicable moments. . .Michael Lane has to be one of the MOST easily-manipulated characters ever. You can talk him into doing almost ANYTHING.

The art is the saving grace on this story. The fight scenes are very nicely done, and the art team makes even ridiculous supervillains look decent.

Overall, I'm glad this story is done with, and I hope it's not a sign of the direction this title is headed. . .
CONCLUSION

Despite a few weak issues, I'd have to say that I enjoyed the first half of Azrael a lot more than I thought I would.  Here's the thing. . .the Michael Lane version of Azrael is an EXTREMELY forgettable character, but the stories built AROUND the character are good.  All credit due to Fabian Nicieza for turning lemons into lemonade.

 Also credit due to the art team of Bachs, Smith, and Stanisci for giving the book a dark, gritty, grounded look that really sets it apart.  As I mentioned above, I really liked that this Azrael is NOT a hulking, impressive figure, but is a short (he's drawn about 6 or 7 inches shorter than Batman), muscular bulldog of a character.

Overall, I found the first half of this series to be a gritty, thought-provoking take on a religious-themed hero.  There were a few WTF moments to be had. For example. . .one has to wonder why Batman allows someone to go around Gotham killing people because God and The Order of Purity say they deserve it.  In any regular Bat book Azrael would be the villain. . .but Batman and company just sort of let Azrael do his thang for some reason that's never really explained.

But good taken with bad, this series (so far) isn't nearly as bad as it SHOULD be. It's actually pretty good and deserves a read as a nice little piece of Longbox Junk. . .this first half anyway.  We'll see about the rest.

Up next. . .

The back half of the Azrael series nobody remembers!  Issues 10 - 18.

Can this thing stay on the rails?

Be there or be square!

Monday, June 11, 2018

Longbox Junk - Azrael: Death's Dark Knight

Let me tell you something.  It ain't easy being a defender of Azrael.
That said. . .I'm a pretty big Azrael fan, and guess what? I thought he was a decent Batman too.

Yeah, I know.  DC has pretty much admitted that they specifically created Azrael in a sort of "You want this? You got this." response to constant reader demands to make Batman more grim, gritty, and generally 90's - tastic.   But I liked Azrael, and I liked Azrael as Batman, and I liked Azrael AFTER comic fans were like "Whoa, now! Give us back the old Batman, please."

BUT. . .

That was Jean Paul Valley Azrael.  THIS is a whole DIFFERENT Azrael, introduced as part of the "Battle For The Cowl" event, where everyone thought Batman had died in Final Crisis (but he was really travelling through time and Grant Morrison's mind) as one of the handful of tie-in mini's that came along with that merry mess.

So. . .a new Azrael nobody asked for.  Is it any good? Let's find out!

AZRAEL: DEATH'S DARK KNIGHT

DC (2009)
SCRIPTS: Fabian Nicieza
PENCILS: Frazer Irving
COVERS: Guillem March

ISSUE 1
SIMPLE SACRIFICES

Michael Lane. . .former Marine, GCPD beat cop, and part of a secret program to replace Batman. A broken man who has lost everyone and everything he loves. His tragic past leads the Order of Purity to offer him a purpose and a chance at redemption by becoming their Avenging Angel. . .Azrael.

Like the last "Battle For The Cowl" tie-in mini that I reviewed (Oracle: The Cure), this is not so much a big part of THAT story as it is an epilogue to ANOTHER story. In Oracle's case it was Final Crisis, in this case, it's Batman: R.I.P.

The main character, Michael Lane, was one of the three replacement Batmen that the GCPD and the military were training in case Batman fell, and who came under the influence of Dr. Hurt as part of his plan to destroy Batman.

So. . .once again in a "Battle For The Cowl" mini, you might need to wiki up on past storylines. That said. . .it's not a bad start. Not that it's a particularly GOOD start either. It's really pretty average.

Lane's transformation from a broken wreck of a man into a guy shouting about how he's Azrael, Avenging Angel and jumping into battle with Talia Al Ghul's motley band of mercenaries she's sent to recover the stolen "Suit of Sorrows" (which leads one to have to wiki up the "Resurrection of Ra's Al Ghul" story) takes place in the course of about 3 panels.

It's like one minute Lane is in the graveyard not wanting to talk to his sister in law because he's so sad, the next minute, he's like "GET SOME!"

But other than the extremely rushed transformation, the origin of Michael Lane Azrael isn't bad. The art is dark and moody, fitting the story well, but there really aren't any moments of brilliance.

Overall, this first issue of the new Azrael's origin was pretty average. Not bad, not great. The backstory requires knowledge of past storylines to fully understand, but even without that knowledge it's not too hard to figure out. Unfortunately, the bland story and art didn't really excite me for reading the next issue.

ISSUE 2
GIVE AND TAKE

Michael Lane learns the truth about the cursed armor he wears from Talia Al Ghul. . .that every Azrael who has worn it has gone insane.

Another pretty average issue with a few headscratching moments thrown in the mix.

After Talia Al Ghul goes to all the trouble of tracking down the stolen Suit of Sorrows and then having her merry band of mercenaries attack The Order of Purity. . .she sits down for drinks with Lane and tells him all about the curse on the suit, then just sort of. . .goes away. What?

And then at the end of the book, Lane just sort of casually strolls into the Batcave. One would think there would be some sort of security down there. I'd hate to think my friggin' CAR has more security than a crimefighter's secret high-tech hideaway filled with billions of dollars worth of stuff.

But WTF moments aside, this second issue was pretty much like the first. . .extremely average, with decent art that doesn't really have any great moments either.

ISSUE 3
WHY ASK WHY?

After a confrontation in the Batcave ending with Azrael defeated and part of his memory erased, Nightwing and Talia Al Ghul come to an agreement to continue letting Michael Lane operate as Azrael in Gotham, for. . .reasons?

So here we are at the big finish for the origin of the new Azrael. And it definitely lives up to the title of the story. . .Why Ask Why?

A lot of things happen in this issue for no real reason except to cram a new Azrael into DC continuity, tie up loose threads from previous stories, and set things up for the promised new ongoing Azrael series.

 There's quite a bit of WTF in this issue, but it's all presented in such a bland "this happened and then this happened" manner that it sort of. . .happens. There's nothing exciting or particularly interesting about the events.

Overall, I'd have to say that this was probably one of the most uninteresting new character introductions I've read. It was so utterly average in every way that I really had no interest in finding out what happens next. Not that it was BAD, it just wasn't that good. It's just sort of. . .there.

CONCLUSION

So what we have here is ANOTHER Battle For The Cowl mini that is actually less of a Battle For The Cowl tie-in and more of an epilogue for another story written by Grant Morrison during his days of tainting Batman with his peculiar brand of insanity. . .in this case, it's Batman R.I.P. that you might have to wiki up on to fully understand the references in this story.

That aside. . .

The story at hand has to be one of the most uninteresting character introductions I've ever read.  It's not bad, and the art fits the story nicely, but it's all presented in such a bland way that it seems like a minor miracle to me that after this mini DC decided to go ahead with an ongoing Azrael series with this new version of the character.

Was there REALLY that much reader interest? Or was DC just like, "Here's your new Azrael. . .whether you want him or not!"  I don't really understand.  I'm not seeing a clear answer, based on this introductory series.

Up next. . .

I decided to take a look at the confusing question of how such an uninteresting introduction led to an 18 issue ongoing series.  DC's 2009 Azrael. . .the Azrael nobody asked for, but we got anyway!

Be there or be square.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Longbox Junk - Aliens: Berserker

First, let me say that I'm a big fan of the Aliens and Predator universe that Dark Horse established outside of the movie continuity in the 1990's.

BUT. . .

The stories varied wildly in quality.  Some of them were brilliant, and are some of my favorite comics, period.  Others were steaming piles of crap.  The inconsistency of Dark Horse's Alien universe was its weak point. . .and I'm assuming the reason why it eventually faded away for quite a while (They've recently rebooted their Alien/Predator books and the quality is a lot more consistent).

So what we have here is a mini from smack dab in the middle of Dark Horse's Alien/ Predator 1990's heyday.  Is it one of the good ones?  Let's find out!

ALIENS: BERSERKER

DARK HORSE (1995)
SCRIPTS: John Wagner
PENCILS: Paul Mendoza
COVERS: Kilian Plunkett

ISSUE 1

In this issue, we're introduced to the crew of the "Nemesis", a Weyland-Yutani Company Hunter/Killer team. A small group of expert mercenaries whose specialty is taking out Alien nests using specialized tactics and supported by a walking tank with a living brain. . .The Berserker.

I found this to be a pretty enjoyable issue. It's mostly introduction and setup. . .following the Berserker team on a mission into an alien nest and showing the military precision and destructive power of The Berserker (a giant, armored power suit with a living person locked inside under sedation until needed).

The art was a bit hit or miss on this one. This is another artist who can draw vehicles and gear with beautiful detail, but struggles with human proportions and faces. The coloring is also WAY too bright, with big primary splashes everywhere. The cover is VERY nice, though.

Overall, this was a great introduction to the specialized Hunter/Killer teams working for the Alien universe's "Evil Corporation". It's a fast reading and enjoyable little piece of hard military science fiction.

ISSUE 2

The crew of The Nemesis is diverted to Terminal 949. . .a space station with a crew of over a thousand, making it the largest Alien nest in history. Unfortunately for them, the Company refuses to call in the Colonial Marines for backup and orders are to take the station intact. . .a suicide mission.

This issue wasn't quite as good as the first one. . .but still wasn't bad. One would think that if it was SO important that the station not be damaged or destroyed, that "The Company" would send a few more teams of Hunter/Killers in, instead of relying on just one team. But then again. . .they ARE supposed to be the best.

Also, there's some clunky dialogue that's supposed to set up a romantic connection between one of the team and their commander that's extremely forced.

The art maintains the same problem as in the first issue. . .the double-whammy of the line artist not doing so well with humans and the color artist being WAY too heavy handed with the primary colors.

All in all, other than a bit of shaky romance subplot with half good/half bad art, this was still a decent and fast-moving read with lots of great sci-fi military action.

ISSUE 3

Things start to go badly for the crew of the Nemesis as team members start dying, communications go down, and their Berserker seems to be having trouble getting started up for battle. . .

Lots of good action in this issue as the Hunter/Killer team realizes just HOW many aliens are on the station and start losing people as they are overwhelmed while their Berserker is having problems.

Once again. . .briskly-written sci-fi military fiction with art that is great in some places and pure crap in others. The awful coloring really stands out in this issue even more so than the previous ones.

ISSUE 4

And now for the big finish!

In order to save the rest of the team, their medic has to take over the Berserker when the living "brain" inside dies. But having an inexperienced pacifist driving a heavily-armed war machine is just the beginning of their problems as they are betrayed by their commander on Company orders and they have to run for their lives to avoid being nuked along with the station. . .

Another fast-paced issue with lots of action as the team tries to escape the station after their commander is ordered to nuke it to protect the secret that The Company has been transporting Aliens.

The art is still problematic, but the scenes where the commander gets his karmic payback via facehugger alien are very nicely done. Unfortunately, the colors are still God-awful.

Overall, this was a good issue, but as an ending for the mini, it left me a little cold. It seems (from a blurb on the last page) that this was actually a prologue to "Alien vs. Predator: War", so there isn't really any resolution as the three surviving team members fly off in a shuttle away from the exploding station. . .just a sort of "To be continued".

CONCLUSION

All in all, this was not bad. I liked it quite a bit.  It's a quick-moving, decent piece of hard science fiction military action.  If you aren't a fan of that genre of writing, then this won't be for you at all. 

 The characters are barely-sketched military cliches, the story is basically an excuse for shooting things, and the ending is a bit disappointing. . .but all that said, it hits the marks for a pretty good hard sci-fi story.

The only real problem here is the art.  Vehicles, machinery, weapons, aliens, and gore are all done VERY nicely.  Human faces and proportions are pretty poorly rendered.  This wouldn't be so much of a problem in this kind of story, but it's compounded by lousy, heavy-handed coloring.  It's all too bright and splashed with primary colors in an extremely distracting way.

Overall, what we have here is a decent sci-fi military story hampered by barely tolerable art.

Up Next. . .

The new Azrael nobody asked for but we got anyway!
DC's 2009 Azrael: Death's Dark Knight 3 issue mini.

Be there or be square!