That Looks Interesting: Northlanders, Ultimates, JLA

Reviews by KC Carlson

NORTHLANDERS #1 (DC/Vertigo Comics) — In Northlanders, writer Brian Wood has taken his teen-age love for Vikings and all of their trappings and turned it into a very adult quest for identity and redemption.

The first issue starts off right in the thick of a battle, a confrontation between two longboats that is more sloppy and brutal than traditionally epic. And thus it sets the tone for this opening installment — this is a world that is unexpectedly and randomly savage. In the course of the battle, the aggressor’s leader, Sven of Orkney, encounters a messenger with grim news of his homeland. Seven’s father was killed on the high seas and his brother Gorm has claimed his wealth and power — which actually belongs to Sven, by birthright. Further, Gorm has enslaved the townspeople. Enraged by this news, Sven literally kills the messenger and sets sail for Orkney to claim his inheritance.

Once there, Sven discovers that the situation is much more dire than he was informed. Within five minutes of his arrival, he is brought down by the marauding guards and brought directly to Gorm. Gorm quickly sizes up his nephew and with the aid of his men, beats and humiliates Sven in front of the townspeople, before he is dragged off to the harsh, barren countryside to be left for dead. But Sven learns one thing from the encounter — Gorm fears him.

As is the case with most current comics, this first issue is but a taste of what is to come. But it’s a great appetizer for what appears to be a good hearty meal for those with an appetite for big adventure. Wood’s extensive research for the series pays off, as he has created a frighteningly believable world of uncivilized cruelty. Artist Davide Gianfelice’s art fully embraces the premise as he captures all of this worlds’ inherent brutality without flinching. He’s also able to convey the desperate loneliness of the open seas and the stark, unforgiving landscape. Special note should be made of Massimo Carnivale’s (Y: The Last Man) stunning cover contrasting dark vs. light with a very modern design smashed up against an old-world feel.

Northlanders is suggested for Mature Readers for its brutal violence and course language.

ULTIMATES 3 #1 (Marvel Comics) — First off, I am not the intended audience for this book. Despite the fact that I love super-heroes and have been reading them for over 40 years, there is just something about this title that always makes me want to shower after I have read it. I’m not 20 years old anymore. I don’t play video games (well, I do, but I like the old-school silly stuff like Frogger and Centipede and Donkey Kong). I’m not a fan of violence for violence’s sake and I tend not to watch too many action movies or TV series. For me, it seems that the whole series was conceived in the wake of such great post-modern deconstructions of the super-hero — like Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns — but misses their point entirely. It’s like watching the film Apocalypse Now and commenting that “they sure blew up a whole lot of $#!%,” ignoring the allegory completely.

But if you’re a big fan of “blowing $#!% up” — and more power to you! — then Ultimates 3 is the book for you! In fact, I would go so far to say that it’s the “ultimate” in shutting your brain down for 10-15 minutes and just going along for the ride. When the “real world” is filled with such seemingly relentless muck and despair, I can certainly understand the need for some good old-fashioned escapist fare. And the Ultimates is the top of the heap in that regard. (Just not for me. I’d rather read Captain Carrot. As we used to say, “different strokes for different folks.”)

But I have a question. And it’s about the presentation of the artwork in this issue. Not the artwork itself — Joe Mad can certainly portray power and strength! — but the way in which this entire issue seems like a primer on how many variations of brown there are available in a computer palette of colors. To say this issue was muddy would be an insult to mud. There have been a lot of comics colored this way, ever since the advent of the Image days, with the emphasis on “grim & gritty” colors. Do you guys like this?

I’m not advocating that we return to the days of “flat” 100% representative color (i.e. Superman’s cape is always red), but color is incredibly important to the language of the comic book story, as well as a tool for building clarity of the storytelling itself. If you can’t see the details of the artwork clearly, you run the risk of not understanding the details of the story. This “new” style of coloring seems based on the dark and moody coloring of most current shooter-style video games. And it works for video, because the video provides its own light source behind the color, making it easier to pick up details in the art. You don’t always get this in the paper medium of comics. In fact, I began reading this issue in a room with a normal light source, and I couldn’t see much of anything in regard to detail. It wasn’t until I took the comic to my desk — where I flooded it with high-intensity light — that I was able to make out the fine detail in the artwork. And I’d imagine that the book would look great on a computer screen. But, for now anyway, comics are still printed on paper and colorists — especially those who do their work on computer (which would be virtually all of them) — must be aware of how their work will look in its final, printed form.

If you are telling a story, clarity must trump all — including style.

JUSTICE LEAGUE OF AMERICA #15 (DC Comics) — Frank commented the other day on how sales (at least at RC) of this title have gone down slightly, although in comparison to other similar titles its still relatively high. Sure, sales will just naturally erode the longer a title goes on. That’s based largely on external factors, such as a change in creative team or a change in the direction of the storyline. And I thought, in this case, that it was an unusual situation, because things have only slightly changed.

First off, there has been a creative change, but only the writer. Brad Meltzer came in and did exactly what he set out to do, restart the team within the historical context of the entire series going way back to 1960, as well as giving it a new direction. Artists Ed Benes and Sandra Hope have remained.

Usually it’s the artists changing that causes sales to flux, but that’s not the case here. Benes and Hope are a good choice for this series, as their sense of detail balanced with their obvious ability to depict power more than make up for the occasional cheesecake shot. Benes seems to have gotten slightly better at this since he’s got a lot more men to draw. Although, incredible as they are, the artists need to be able to make their pin-up shots a little less obvious and make more sense within the storylines.

Dwayne McDuffie is the new writer of record, and he came in with both barrels blazing, setting up a major battle between the JLA and the cream-of-the-crop villain team, the Injustice League. It was a gutsy move, coming in with an all-action storyline, but one of which I approved after a year of Meltzer’s excellent but very deliberately paced stories. I think McDuffie’s story suffered a bit in that the first chapter of the story was published in a JLA “wedding special” with an artist that was not Benes, and the result was not promoted very well by DC. Certainly a number of RC regulars were confused after JLA #13, wondering where the first part of the story took place.

I’m thinking that McDuffie was an excellent choice for JLA scripter following his stellar work on the Justice League animated show. But, because of the huge number of characters in his first storyline — over 30! — he doesn’t get to show off much of the wonderful characterization he is capable of. (Best demonstrated in Milestone’s excellent Static series, as well as its animated counterpart Static Shock.) I believe that character development is coming soon in the pages of JLA, now that the Injustice League story is wrapped.

Not that there weren’t incredible moments in his first storyline. The high point for me in the last chapter was the Cheetah turning on Dr. Light in mid-fight based on his past history of being a rapist. And Wonder Woman, in turn, shutting her down, even though she agreed with her. That’s been a long time coming! Batman was sparingly — but effectively — used, butting heads with new leader Black Canary, but impeccable for his reasoning in including the JLA’s newest member (sorry, you’ll have to read the issue!) on the team. But there were a couple of clunkers as well — the running “we’ll talk about it later” banter between various teammates was slightly overdone, and the sex repartee between Hawkgirl and Red Arrow was… uh, kinda creepy (although he is a horndog).

Anyway, I can’t figure out the reason for the sales decline. This is still an excellent book, one of DC’s best. And I, for one, really appreciate the diversity of the current team, which now includes 4 women and 4 persons of color (as well as the usual assortments of aliens and androids, natch). So if you dropped out, for whatever reason, consider checking out the latest issue. It’s still a great read.

SHORT TAKES — I thought long and hard about doing a full-blown review of Countdown: Arena #1 (I certainly have lots to say about it), but I realized I could sum up the whole thing in about 50 words or so. If you’re into big fight comics with fantasy battles between multiple versions of your favorite characters, then this is just the book you want! Also, if you’re into the whole internet thing of trying to clearly identify all the various characters and outcomes and debating the relative merits of the fights, again, you should be in heaven with this title. Me, not so much. I’d really prefer that all the characters are clearly identified and that I can tell what’s going on in the comics themselves. Clarity: it’s a wonderful thing. … If you’re one of the three people who haven’t been reading Messiah Complex in the mutant titles, you missed the surprising return of a long-missing character (and it all seems so obvious in retrospect)! Nice work guys! … Hope you Secret Invasion fans didn’t miss an important revelation in the Avengers: The Initiative Annual! … Don’t get the wrong impression with the Golden Age stories that are reprinted in The Twelve #0 Preview book. There are some great character designs and preview pages by artist Chris Weston tucked away in the back of the book. The new art looks wonderful and it looks like this new series could be a sleeper hit! We’ll find out in January!

3 Responses to “That Looks Interesting: Northlanders, Ultimates, JLA”

  1. Tim O'Shea Says:

    Johanna, thank you, thank you, thank YOU and whomever finally convinced KC to start writing these columns. His opening summation of the target audience for Ultimates is freaking perfect. “It’s like watching the film Apocalypse Now and commenting that ‘they sure blew up a whole lot of $#!%,’ ignoring the allegory completely.” His juxtaposition of that with Captain Carrot was a nice bit as well. Most importantly, thanks for voicing what I think many of us were thinking (I glanced at it on the shelf [yea, I’m THAT guy]) about the coloring.

    His take and reaction on the latest JLA issue jibes with mine. I love McDuffie’s work. I never read Static, but now I feel like I should try to track down the old issues (I assume legal complexities preclude a TPB any time soon…)

    His short takes are instant quotables with lines like “Clarity: it’s a wonderful thing.” (Which makes me want to say “Clarity: It’s not just for breakfast anymore.”)

    But he drove me mad with “If you’re one of the three people who haven’t been reading “Messiah Complex” in the mutant titles, you missed the surprising return of a long-missing character (and it all seems so obvious in retrospect)! Nice work guys! … Hope you “Secret Invasion” fans didn’t miss an important revelation in the Avengers: The Initiative Annual!” C’mon KC work some spoiler space in there for us and give us some more info, please! I’m not a secret invasion fan, but I am curious…

    Finally, I did get the wrong impression on the Twelve preview book. I’ll keep my eyes peeled for January.

    That Looks Interesting is a romp to read and please let KC never forget that. ‘tanks to ya both

  2. Johanna Says:

    I’ll pass your praise on to him, Tim, and I know he appreciates it.

    There was a collection of the first few issues of Static called Trial by Fire that you can find used. It’s a great series. Truly gets to the basics of terrific superhero stories.

    He and I have been talking about how it can be difficult to balance spoilers with content readable by a wider audience. His column is intended to drive sales, after all. I don’t remember the second spoiler, but the first involves Cable, I think.

    Thank you very much for your kind comments.

  3. Tim O'Shea Says:

    Well given that context, please ignore my latter faux venting. If they are written to drive sales, I’ll be honest, it made me want to read the Initiative Annual. I went back and bought Superman Annual #13 after his nod to it in last week’s column. So my LCS owes KC a bit of thanks as well. :)




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