Saturday, December 30, 2006

Reading Allowed #4

Angela Carter
“American Ghosts & Old World Wonders”

I’m a bit of a magpie when it comes to books, preferring to experience as many different authors as possible rather than enthusiastically ploughing through an author’s entire oeuvre. However, I find myself drawn back to Angela Carter time and again, from Shadow Dance to The Magic Toyshop and, earlier this year, The Passion Of New Eve. In basic terms, I love Carter’s use of language, her fantastical storytelling and her ability to evoke empathy with even the most extreme of her creations. Angela Carter died in 1992 and American Ghosts & Old World Wonders is a posthumous collection published the following year. Comprising short stories, in some cases narrative sketches, American Ghosts… hints at the work that Carter would have continued to produce through the 1990s and beyond. Revisiting her fascination with fairy tales and the circus, particularly her desire to explore and tease out the fear and horror that resonates, this collection features (in)famous characters, historical (19th century patricidal killer Lizzie Borden, astronomer Tyco Brahe) alongside the fictional (Cinderella, Lewis Carroll’s Alice). The stories also display an impressive range of styles. The Merchant Of Shadows is an echo of The Passion Of New Eve’s gender challenging exploration of Hollywood, albeit told in a more traditional manner. John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s A Whore juxtaposes the Jacobean dramatist’s dialogue with that of his American film director namesake, Carter’s additional commentary creating an incredibly effective piece. Humour resonates throughout: the belching, hard drinking Sister in The Merchant Of Shadows; the ludicrous image of Archduke Randolph consummating his relationship with a fruit femme in Alice In Prague, or The Curious Room; the deliciously dark retellings of the Cinderella story in Ashputtle or The Mother’s Ghost. Yet the horror of the (real?) world constantly casts it’s shadow. Despite being arguably the most straightforward and predictable narrative, Gun For The Devil is one of my favourites. With it’s Mexican border town setting, “ a town without hope, without grace”, and a population leading a “poverty-stricken half-life”, this hell-on-earth setting is perfect for the story of two men’s pacts with the devil and the price that these deals exact. Whilst it’s eclectism may suit the convert rather than the first-time reader, American Ghosts & Old World Wonders demonstrates that even Angela Carter’s ‘works in progress’ were a cut above most contemporary writers in her field. Inspired by storytelling of the past, Angela Carter in turn has left a body of writing that similarly inspires.

Angela Carter on Wikipedia

Footnote: Bizarrely, there's a Lizzie Borden hotel which boasts "Apart from that bloody murder all those years ago, our hospitality is impeccable" (?!) Their website invites visitors to "axe us about our guided tours". If that's not enough to discourage you, have a look, just don't say that I recommended you...

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Stripping Down #12

Essential X-Men #146 (Panini UK)
“The End Of History” by Chris Claremont & Alan Davis (Uncanny X-Men #445-447)

To those of a certain age, Alan Moore and Alan Davis’ revival of Captain Britain* in the 1980s remains one of the greatest superhero sagas committed to the comic book page (*Not wishing to overlook Dave Thorpe’s contribution as original writer on the revamp). Key to it’s success was the cast of incredible characters, not least ‘Mad’ Jim Jaspers and uber killing machine, The Fury. The latter quite rightly established itself as the ultimate in unstoppable foes, cutting down superheroes like so much chaff; even Captain Britain himself was killed (and subsequently resurrected by Merlin) before the relentless cyborg could be stopped. Although this may have had more to do with Moore’s acrimonious split with Marvel soon after, the fact that The Fury hasn’t reappeared in the mainstream Marvel universe since has cemented it’s reputation as one of the company’s most memorable foes. Now, Chris Claremont – and returning X-artist Alan Davis – have decided to resurrect the character. Does the story enhance, or shatter, The Fury’s reputation? What do you think? Stretched over three US issues, the story starts off well enough, as a small team of X-Men discover The Fury in the bowels of a demolished and deserted Braddock Manor (the ancestral home of Captain Britain). In the first part’s promising cliffhanger, the X-Men completely underestimate the threat posed by their unknown foe and appear to pay a heavy price. However, remember this is the X-Men written by Chris Claremont, where characters are despatched and resurrected with reckless abandon. Therefore, where Alan Moore’s characters were constantly outfought by The Fury (and, Captain Britain aside, stayed dead when they were killed), here the ‘ultimate killing machine’ struggles to nail C-listers like Cannonball. After a drawn out battle, Claremont proceeds to wrap things up with his usual tired devices. X-Men joining hands to ‘channel’ their powers through a focal point? Check. A truckful of alien tech cluster bombs, handily stored in the armoury, lobbed in for good measure? Check. Compared with Moore’s Captain Britain saga, where the heroes were forced to rely on their abilities, strength of will and ‘proper’ team work to win the day, Claremont’s plot adopts the stereotypical approach of bombing the shit out of something until there’s nothing left to fight (hmmm, sounds familiar…). The closing panel sees a rather smug team, revelling in their bonding experience with little concern for the missing Captain Britain. A victory perhaps but, for this reader at least, a pyrrhic one. The irony is that, if you want a story featuring The Fury that remains true to Moore and Davis’ original vision, you’ll find it in Panini UK’s younger readers’ title Spectacular Spider-Man Adventures, courtesy of writer Jim Alexander, Jon Haward and John Stokes (see my review in Stripping Down #2). I’m just praying that Claremont doesn’t focus his attention on the aforementioned Jaspers or Moore’s superlative superteam The Special Executive. That will truly be The End Of History as far as I’m concerned…

Spectacular Spider-Man Adventures
(Panini UK)

“Night Of The Goblin” by various

For some time, Panini UK have been producing homegrown comic strips for their younger readers’ Spectacular Spider-Man title. This handy pocket sized book collects a year or so’s worth of stories for a mere £3.99 and provides a consistent level of quality throughout. Given the limitations of the comic strip format – 11 page standalone stories inspired by the 1990s animated TV series, with only the occasional nod to continuity – there is inevitably little in the way of character development. However, what’s apparent in the latter part of the book is an editorial shift that sees the comic strip adopt a Marvel Team-Up format, but also allows for greater depth in the narratives. This is particularly evident in the collection’s closing story – and sole two-parter, To Save Tomorrow/The Rule Of Four by Mitchel Scanlon. Exploring an alternate world where the roles of Mr. Fantastic and Dr. Doom have reversed to tragic and disastrous effect, Scanlon’s writing provides a neat set up, underpinning narrative and a conclusion which satisfies on several levels. As writer on ten of the fifteen stories collected here, Ferg Handley provides a sure narrative steer throughout, the highlight being Stormy Waters, featuring the Sub-Mariner. The Marvel Team-Up approach enables both the writers and artists to flex their creative muscles on Marvel stalwarts like the Fantastic Four, Wolverine and The Punisher, as well as lesser known (to the target readership, at least) characters like Silver Sable and Captain Britain. Jim Alexander’s writing on the latter is the best of his three contributions. Despite narrative constraints, the story packs in a mini-origin for the Captain, his first meeting with Spidey and an enjoyable climatic battle with The Red Skull, all ably illustrated by Jon Haward and John Stokes. In fact, this pocket book is a strong showcase for Haward, whose art at times evokes classic Spidey artist John Romita. The other artists – John Royle, Simon Williams and Paul Marshall – all produce work to rival their US counterparts. Knowing how much the Spectacular Spider-Man comic strip has continued to evolve and improve since the stories reprinted here, I hope that further collections won’t be too far behind.

Panini comics website

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Friday, December 29, 2006

Jukebox Juicebox #24 - Remixamatosis

Various Artists “Future Retro” (2006)

I forget who coined the phrase ‘repetition celebrates and devalues’, but this is aptly applied to the music industry. Artists and songs are resurrected, repackaged, rereleased, reworked and remixed ad nauseum, The Beatles mash-up/megamix Love being one of the most recent examples. With downloads of all stripes likely to be eligible for the ‘singles’ chart in the near future, U2, Oasis, Westshite and McFly will likely be jostling for pole positions with the Fab Four, Elvis, Abba and Michael Jackson. The 1980s, which seems to have enjoyed a continual revival since, er, the 1990s will probably figure strongly in this. The fascination with the decade that taste arguably overlooked has resulted in countless contemporary updates of it’s memorable – and not so memorable – musical moments, the latest being the Future Retro compilation. Currently available in the UK on import only, the project is a labour of love for compiler ??? who commissioned all of the remixers on this album. On the whole, it’s a pretty consistent collection though inevitably there are a few tracks that miss the mark. Tiga’s mix of Depeche Mode’s Shake The Disease is halfway through before it starts to make an impression, whilst Jaded Alliance’s take on Erasure’s A Little Respect sounds like an ill-matched mash-up. Surprisingly, several tracks remain faithful to their origins: The Crystal Method speed up New Order’s Bizarre Love Triangle, losing some of the key hooks in the process, but without undermining the main melody; Infusion’s similar handling of The Walk by The Cure is even more effective. The latter part of the album contains some real gems. Devo’s Girl U Want is roughened up by Black Light Odyssey whilst obscurity Boy by Book Of Love (which I admit I’ve never heard of) benefits from a beefy “rockstar mix” by the equally unknown DJ Irene (presumably not the Home And Away character moonlighting on the wheels of steel). Adam Freeland transforms B-Movie’s Nowhere Girl into a guitar dub dirge that echoes U.N.K.L.E.’s Unreal, but the best is saved for last with the unexpected yet obvious pairing of Morrissey and Sparks. Moz’s debut solo single Suedehead gains an epic stature, with chopped up vocals laid over sweeping strings. A perfect close to an imperfect but worthwhile compilation.

Tracklisting: 1. The Cure: The Walk (infusion mix) / 2. Yazoo: Situation (richard x remix) / 3. Echo & The Bunnymen: Lips Like Sugar (way out west remix edit) / 4. INXS: Need You Tonight (static revenger mix edit) / 5. Depeche Mode: Shake The Disease (tiga remix) / 6. Erasure: A Little Respect (jaded alliance 'electrospect' remix) / 7. Howard Jones: New Song (peter black & hardrock striker mix edit) / 8. Alphaville: Forever Young (hamel album mix) / 9. New Order: Bizarre Love Triangle (the crystal method extended mix)/ 10. Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel: White Lines (Don't Don't Do It) (elite force mix) / 11. Devo: Girl U Want (black light odyssey mix) / 12. B-Movie: Nowhere Girl (adam freeland mix) / 13. Book Of Love: Boy (dj irene rockstar mix) / 14. Morrissey: Suedehead (sparks remix)

Shirley Bassey “Diamonds Are Forever…The Remix Album” (2000)

On the surface, a project that seems completely unnecessary. That is, until you realise that this album followed hot on the heels of the Welsh diva’s collaboration with Propellerheads on History Repeating, which became both a theme tune (Channel 4’s So Graham Norton) and a chart hit. Unsurprisingly, Propellerheads reappear here, with Goldfinger repeating their then-successful formula of funky beats and wah-wah guitar. Groove Armada and Nightmares On Wax also play to type, the latter to particularly good effect on Easy Thing To Do. Some tracks miss the point entirely, notably the dreadful comedy cut-up of Big Spender, but Kenny Dope’s drum-driven reworking of The Doors’ Light My Fire perfectly complements Bassey’s belting vocals. Given it’s inconsistency, it’s advisable to either pick this up cheaply as I did or download key tracks. Either way, don’t overlook it altogether.

Tracklisting: 1. Where Do I Begin (awayteam mix) / 2. Goldfinger (propellerheads mix) / 3. Light My Fire (kenny dope remix) / 4. Diamonds Are Forever (mantronik 007 mix) / 5. Easy Thing To Do (nightmares on wax) / 6. Never Never Never (groove armada mix) / 7. Big Spender (wild oscar mix) / 8. Spinning Wheel (dj spinna remix) / 9. Light My Fire (twelftree’s lady mix) / 10. If You Go Away (dj skymoo mix by moloko/rob brydon)

Carl Douglas “Kung Fu Fighting Remixes (Dub Drenched Soundscapes)” (2003)

…And if the Shirley Bassey remix album seemed unnecessary, then what the heck does one make of this? Douglas’ early 1970s disco track is not one that immediately suggests a relationship to dub and in truth, not all of the artists involved strictly adhere to that principle. The frankly bizarre concept of stretching this single track over 16 remixes (17, counting the hidden a capella track) and 80 minutes also means that it’s nigh on impossible to listen to the end result as an album in it’s own right. Anyone who has previously bought dub remix compilations on the Select Cuts or Echo Beach labels will find the usual suspects here: Rob Smith, Dreadzone, Don Letts/Dan Donovan, Kid Loco; however, it’s the lesser known acts that impress, notably G-rizo, Pole and Dubbelstandart. The Ruts’ Andy Gill delivers a funked up but essentially unchanged version of the original whilst Audio Active take the trakc to it’s logical (ludicrous?) extreme. It’d be nice to think that the songwriters – Carl Douglas and kitsch producer Biddu – will benefit from further royalties as a result of this album. However, given it’s limited appeal, I wouldn’t recommend that they break out the bubbly just yet.

Tracklisting: 1. Kung Fu Fighting (noiseshaper rmx) / 2. (dreadzone rmx) / 3. (belleville shaolin rmx by kid loco) / 4. (rob smith’s kung fu skanking rmx) / 5. (adrian sherwood’s on-usound rmx) / 6. (uptone rmx) / 7. (audio active rmx) / 8. (g-rizo rmx) / 9. (pole rmx) / 10. (don letts dub cartel rmx by dan donovan) / 11. (shaolin rmx by the strike boys) / 12. (karl möstl rmx) / 13. (dubbelstandart rmx) / 14. (salz rmx) / 15. (dave ruffy/mark wallis rmx) / 16. (rmx by the name of seeed) / 17. (g-rizo acapella) [hidden track]

Visit Venus “The Endless Bummer Rmx Appendix” (1999)

One of the consequences of a ubiquitous remix culture is that it’s possible to own tracks but have no idea what the original version sounded like. This is a case in point, the result of a trawl through the ‘5 for £16’ shelf at Plastic Wax Records in Bristol. I have no idea who Visit Venus are, or what they sound like but, looking at the artists involved, figured it was worth shelling out a few quid for. As it happens, it turned out to be another one of those serendipitous musical purchases. Rae & Christian kick off proceedings with a typical funky breakbeat mix of the charmingly titled Space Nazis Must Die. The opening bars of For A Few Euros More are reminiscent of Adam & The Ants’ similarly Western-inspired The Magnificent Five, before Carsten Meyer aka Erobique takes it back to late 80s Chicago house. There are three remixes of Planet of the Breaks: Matthew Herbert’s mix actually sounds a bit like Slam in places, whilst Jazzanova’s ‘mix of two halves’ with languid lounge beats during the former, welded to an uptempo jazzy latter more characteristic; my favourite of the three is omar santana’s electro edit, with hip hop beats, computer game vocals and ominous synth strings. Another highlight is Jimpster’s Hurt Of A Nerd, a funky, bass-driven number with some 1970s inspired flute and strings. Closing track Kinski Disko Fox Machine starts off like a Transglobal Underground track, with Eastern beats and driving bassline, before reverting to the more typical Groove Armada sound. And, just when you think it’s all over, there’s an extra tucked away at the end. Leading off with some hilariously inept rapping, there is a brief acoustic/vocal reprise of For A Few Euros More, with sci-fi samples from The Big Tilt thrown in for good measure. An hour or so’s worth of great tunes, with several surprises, make this a great album to hunt down on eBay or, better, in your local secondhand record store. And maybe I’ll get around to checking out Visit Venus one day too…

Tracklisting: 1. Space Nazis Must Die (rae & christian rmx) / 2. For A Few Euros More (erobique dance mix) / 3. Planet of the Breaks (herbert remix) / 4. Planet Of The Breaks (jazzanova remix) / 5. Children Of The Rave Solution (visited by: funkstörung) / 6. Planet of the Breaks (omar santana edit) / 7. The Big Tilt (dmx krew rmx) / 8. 144.000 (runaways rmx) / 9. The Big Tilt (dj koze rmx) / 10. Hurt Of A Nerd (jimpster rmx) / 11. Kinski Disko Fox Machine (groove armada rmx) / 12. For A Few Euros More (reprise) [hidden track]

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Thursday, December 28, 2006

Stripping Down #11

The Mighty World Of Marvel (v3) #50 (Panini UK)
“The Titannus War” by Robert Kirkman & Paco Medina
(Marvel Team-Up (v3) #13)

“Games Godlings Play!” by Steve Gerber + Len Wein & Jim Starlin (Giant Size Defenders #3)
“Tomb Of Dracula” by Robert Rodi & Jamie Tolagson
(Tomb Of Dracula (v4) #4)

“The Peerless Power Of The Silver Surfer” by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby
(Fantastic Four Annual #5)

A bumper 100 page issue celebrates MWOM’s half-century, no mean feat given the crowded UK newsstand comics market. After a year long build up, the current Marvel Team-Up run comes to an end with a climatic melee featuring Spider-Man, Hulk, Wolverine, Dr. Strange, She-Hulk, Ms. Marvel and Nova versus super super Skrull, Titannus. Typically, the aftermath suggests that the story is far from over, but Robert Kirkman nevertheless provides a satisfying tale, with greatly improved art from Paco Medina. Tomb Of Dracula also concludes with a major battle this issue, as Blade faces off against the titular Lord Of The Undead. Despite the fact that the series has borne no resemblance whatsoever to it’s original (and unquestionably superior) incarnation, it’s been an enjoyable read. Jamie Tolagson’s art has been a notable asset and surprisingly consistent, given the small army of inkers involved. The Defenders return for an encounter with The Grandmaster, guest-starring original MWOM headliner Daredevil. The story exemplifies Gerber and Starlin’s tendency in the 1970s to juxtapose ‘out there’ splash panels with huge swathes of text. As with Tomb Of Dracula, several ink artists are involved, though in this case predictably diminishing rather than enhancing Jim Starlin’s pencil layouts. A fun, but unexceptional, addition. Rounding off this anniversary issue is the Silver Surfer’s first ever solo story, courtesy of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Frank Giacoia’s inks bring out the cosmic majesty of Kirby’s pencil art and whilst adversary Quasimodo isn’t the most memorable of Marvel villains, this is a great example of Lee and Kirby’s strengths as a creative force. As ever, MWOM is an excellent showcase for the Marvel universe, it’s mix of the new and the old, the familiar and the obscure a winning formula that promises to keep on delivering.

Panini comics website

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Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Stage Presence #9

“Ménage à Un” by Richard Herring
The Comedy Box, Hen & Chicken, Bristol, 02/12/2006

With the odd exception (Josie Long and Reginald D. Hunter, step forward), the acts at The Comedy Box have been at the very least entertaining . On this basis, and despite not having seen Richard Herring’s live act before, it seemed like a sure thing for a night of top notch comedy with a couple of friends. What I forgot to take into account was the mercurial nature of the audience, who can often make or break a show, despite the best efforts of the performers. And so it was tonight. Compere John Richardson seemed to have his work cut out for him, though over the course of the evening managed to bring the audience on side with some witty observations and brutal, but not aggressive, verbal lobs to the crowd. Support act Lee Nelson's chav Londoner persona was less successful. To be honest, I just couldn’t see the point, when the real world version borders on self-parody and pretty much renders the whole of Nelson’s act redundant. The minutes were peppered with irritating ‘innits’ and I found myself counting both down to the point when he left the stage, presumably to audition for a bit part on The Catherine Tate Show. Digressing slightly, it’s worth briefly describing the atmosphere at this point. I’d say that roughly a third of the hundred or so people in the room seemed to be there to meet with friends and get drunk, the fact that there was a comedy show (which they’d paid for) also taking place largely incidental to their evening’s entertainment. Our table was directly behind one such gathering that seemed to grow in numbers and volume as the evening progressed. Directly blocking my wife and I’s view of the stage was a giraffe-like crusty with upwardly mobile dreads, paired with a bizarre hybrid of Billy Idol and Aggie from Channel 4’s How Clean Is Your House? Man, woman or androgynous lab creation, I still couldn’t tell by evening’s end. Each took turns to stand up to address friends across the table, go to the bar for drinks or just swap seats for the sake of it with a frequency that someone with ADD would be hard pressed to match. Having set the scene, I’ll add that Richard Herring had spent most of the time leading up to his performance on the sidelines, observing both the warm-up acts and the audience. I’d have forgiven him for turning tail at this point and heading home. However, he took to the stage, to the seeming indifference of (roughly a third of) the audience. It was quickly apparent that Herring’s material was going over the heads of Aggie Idol and friends, plus another table of ‘lads on the lash’, but this only seemed to encourage Herring to plumb deeper and darker with his material. Imagine an episode of Chris Morris’ Jam performed live on stage and you’re some way there. Early in the set, Herring singled out a 16 year old girl in the front row, referring to her genitalia as a ‘squirrel’s ear’ and talked about popping the cap on her coffee jar. All this whilst her parents squirmed with discomfort across the table (what were they thinking when they decided on this as a family night out?!) This was probably the point where Herring lost (at least) another third of the audience, the line between stage persona and reality smudged beyond recognition for many. Some of the material was more accessible, including an amusing skit on ‘sky potatoes’ and a riff on two (intentionally) ill defined characters that end up sidelining their creator and hogging the stage. However, for the most part, Herring largely continued to poke at the membrane separating comfort and unease, which included exploring the desire to fornicate with the crucified Jesus’ orifices, to a collective admonishing tut from (by now at least) three quarters of the assemblage. Ménage à Un is a difficult show to watch and the crowd, who seemed to be predominantly seeking inoffensive, unchallenging, ‘easy’ laughs, were never going to ‘get’ it. I think this had an effect on Herring, particularly towards the end, which is a shame. If there’s no room for performers like Richard Herring, who are prepared to challenge convention, push the envelope and take risks with their material, then the world really has become a sad, narrow minded place.

Richard Herring's website

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Sunday, December 03, 2006

Stripping Down #10

Avengers United #73 (Panini UK)
“Earth’s Mightiest Heroes” by Joe Casey & Scott Kolins (Earth’s Mightiest Heroes #5-6)
“The End…And Beginning!” by Jim Shooter + David Michelinie & David Wenzel (The Avengers (v1) #175)
“A Viper In Our Midst!” by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby (Journey Into Mystery (v1) #115)

Earth’s Mightiest Heroes is the latest in a long line of series that attempt to reinvent or retcon (retroactively insert continuity into) Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko’s formative classics. Some, like John Byrne’s risible Spider-Man: Chapter One have been quickly (and quite rightly) dismissed by both readers and Marvel themselves. Joe Casey’s Avengers series succeeds by exploring and expanding Stan Lee’s stories, rather than simply updating them for a modern audience. I particularly like the revelation that Hawkeye’s imminent induction to the team results from a meeting with erstwhile butler Jarvis, rather than the recommendation of his employer Tony Stark, aka Iron Man. This issue also focuses on Captain America’s crippling obsession with seeking vengeance on Nazi mastermind Baron Zemo for the death of his partner Bucky at the tail end of World War II. In both cases, the back stories render the original tales more plausible whilst remaining true to Lee’s vision for the characters. Whilst I’m not overly keen on Scott Kolins’ rendition of Thor, and the colour art occasionally makes his pencil art murky and difficult to follow, the visuals on the whole have been an asset to Casey’s writing. The Michael saga has long been one of my favourite Avengers stories and is a welcome addition to this title's archive section. The pace necessarily slows this issue to allow for the eponymous character’s origin and motivation to be revealed, but the cliffhanger promises an action packed final two instalments. Despite the fact that the enormous cast of characters results in their being slightly sidelined, it’s also been good to see the Guardians Of The Galaxy in these pages. A reprint of their origin story, drawn by the mighty Gene Colan, would be welcome in an upcoming issue of The Mighty World Of Marvel. I suspect this may not be the popular view, but I’d be happy to see the back of the second archive strip, Tales Of Asgard. Never a highlight of my Marvel UK comic experience as a kid, these stories really haven’t aged well, with last issue’s take on Little Red Riding Hood the nadir of a consistently underwhelming series. Vince Colletta’s half-arsed inking doesn’t help; I’ve never rated him as an artist, but his treatment of Jack Kirby’s potentially powerful art borders on the criminal. I’d like to see Tales Of Asgard replaced by another back-up strip or, equally preferable, a return to the informative and well-written Avengers Spotlight features, which have taken a back seat of late.

Wolverine & Deadpool #132 (Panini UK)
“Enemy Of The State” by Mark Millar & John Romita Jr (Wolverine (v2) #20)
“If It Ain’t Broke--!” by Chris Claremont & John Buscema (Wolverine (v1) #8)
“A Kiss, A Curse, A Cure” by Joe Kelly & Steve Harris (Deadpool/Death Annual 1998)

Following Greg Rucka and Darick Robertson’s Return Of The Native, which was beautiful to look at but a frustratingly sluggish read, Mark Millar and John Romita Jr debut with Enemy Of The State. Hitting the ground running, an exciting opening instalment sees Wolverine go AWOL after being ambushed by zombie ninjas in Japan. SHIELD discover Wolverine sometime later on the brink of death; however, it quickly transpires that he has been brainwashed by Hydra in the intervening period and proceeds to go on a killing spree. Millar’s script plays to his strengths, creating tension and uncertainty in both the characters and the reader. The ever versatile Romita Jr enhances the atmosphere considerably with dark, claustrophobic art that cements his reputation as one of the greatest artists working in mainstream comics today. In a single issue, Wolverine has once again become a “must read”. The second Wolverine story reprints the early issues of his 1988 (first) ongoing solo series. At this point in time, writer Chris Claremont had driven the X-Men into a rut and although the same propensity for overwriting, belaboured points and implausible plots is evident here, there’s also a sense of fun and vitality lacking in the ‘parent’ title. This is particularly highlighted in this issue’s conclusion of a two-part story featuring the Hulk. Both characters have adopted alternate identities: the Hulk as smart, grey-skinned mob muscle Joe Fixit; Wolverine as the less convincing and flimsily concealed ‘Patch’, keeping rival crime bosses in check on the island of Madripoor. Much of the entertainment is provided by the characters’ awareness of each other’s true identity, Wolverine setting the Hulk up for a series of prat falls to amusing effect. There’s a plot hiding in here somewhere, but it’s subordinate to the comedy antics. Unencumbered by the mismatched pairing in previous issues with inker Al Williamson, John Buscema’s art shines here. Co-feature Deadpool’s origin concludes in typically leftfield fashion as his mutant powers kick into overdrive and yet another relationship hits the skids. Given that Deadpool’s latest paramour is the embodiment of Death, this is perhaps no bad thing. Guest artist Steve Harris is no substitute for series regular Walter McDaniel and produces some patchy visuals that fail to do writer Joe Kelly’s script justice. That said, Deadpool continues to be a surprisingly rich comic book experience (which I completely missed the first time around) and an appropriate counterpoint to Wolverine’s grimmer and less self-deprecating narratives.

Batman Legends #41 (Panini UK)
“Family Reunion” by Judd Winick & Paul Lee + Doug Mahnke (Batman (v1) #640-641)
“To Kill A Legend!” by Alan Brennert & Dick Giordano (Detective Comics (v1) #500)

In a sudden, but on reflection unsurprising, move DC have renewed their Batman licence in the UK with Titan, bringing Panini’s title to an abrupt end. Although an anomaly in Panini’s otherwise exclusively Marvel focused Collectors’ Edition line, Batman Legends has been a consistently enjoyable read and I, for one, am sorry to see it go. Thankfully, the final issue ties up the current storyline and (most) plot threads, thereby providing a perfect jumping off point. Two thirds of this issue are devoted to Family Reunion, as Batman discovers that Jason Todd, aka the former Robin Mk II, believed murdered by The Joker, has somehow come back to life as extreme vigilante The Red Hood. Judd Winick’s deft script delivers plenty of action and a satisfying denouement, Batman struggling to comprehend both Todd’s resurrection and hardline stance on battling crime. Artist Paul Lee is a disappointing stand-in for Doug Mahnke in the first instalment, but Mahnke returns with a visually powerful final chapter. The how’s and why’s of Jason Todd’s return are not explained here, but Family Reunion is nevertheless a fitting conclusion to a series that has continually exceeded Jeph Loeb and Jim Lee’s frankly over-hyped Hush that launched Batman Legends. The archive section has also been a delight, with classics from Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams, Frank Miller’s Year One and Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Anarky, to name a few. This issue doesn’t disappoint with 1981’s To Kill A Legend, a story that prefigures DC’s later Elseworlds stories by exploring an alternate world where Batman is able to prevent the murder of his parents. As you might expect, artist Dick Giordano delivers the goods here with some wonderfully realised pages. All in all, Batman Legends ends on the same high note that it’s frequently held throughout it’s three-year run. Titan are relaunching Batman Legends on December 21st. Acknowledging Panini’s success, they are largely replicating the formula, mirroring not only the title but also the Collectors’ Edition branding and three story format. However, the new series will focus on Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s All Star Batman & Robin The Boy Wonder, Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert’s Batman and Son and, most depressingly, Jeph Loeb and Michael Turner’s turgid Superman/Batman series. Although any misgivings I had about a UK Batman title were more than amply addressed by Panini’s assured handling of the title and choice of current and archive material, Titan’s revamp on the surface lacks appeal. Like I said, Batman Legends #41 provides a perfect jumping off point and… I’m poised on the edge.

Panini UK comics website
Titan Magazines' Batman Legends mini-site

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