Blue Beetle: Road Trip

By John Rogers, Keith Giffen, Cully Hamner, Rafael Albuquerque & various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1361-9

As the most recent incarnation of the venerable Blue Beetle brand settles into comic-book limbo, at least with trade paperback editions around there’s still a chance that this wonderfully exuberant version can find the audience it deserves: hopefully to rise like the immortal scarab it references…

At the height of the Infinite Crisis (ISBN: 978-1-4012-0959-9) El Paso teenager Jaime Reyes found a strange blue bug-shaped jewel. That night it attached itself to his spine transforming him into a bizarre beetle-like warrior. He was promptly swept up in the chaos, aiding Batman and other heroes in a space battle. He was lost for a year…

Returned home, he revealed his secret to his family and tried to do some good in El Paso but had to rapidly adjust to some big changes. His best bud Paco had joined a gang of super-powered freaks, the local crime mastermind was the foster-mom of his other best bud Brenda and a really scary military dude named Peacemaker started hanging around claiming the thing in Jaime’s back was malfunctioning alien tech not life-affirming Egyptian magic…

The second volume (collecting issues #7-12 of the fun-filled monthly comic) begins with ‘Brother’s Keeper’, a guest-star filled recap of his career to date before ‘Road Trip’ itself in which Jaime, Brenda and Peacemaker go looking for answers by consulting young Dan Garrett, cyber-geek and self-proclaimed expert on the previous Blue Beetles. As the first hero’s granddaughter she also has a fair claim to being the rightful owner of the gem, but a potential squabble and their research is interrupted by the return of a monstrous hunchbacked maniac determined to destroy the “demonic” new hero.

Following is ‘Inside Man’, the true story behind Peacemaker’s unwilling involvement in Jaime’s life and then Brenda finds herself in a world of trouble… She lives with her aunt who is secretly La Dama, crime boss of El Paso, and a felonious clearing house for stolen super-technology and magical artifacts, so it was only a matter of time before Brenda stumbled upon something really dangerous. Whisked to an far-distant world in ‘Should’ve Taken that Left Turn at Albuquerque…’ and ‘The Guns of Forever’ Beetle and La Dama come to an uneasy truce so that the Jaime can rescue Brenda, consequently encountering a selection of New Gods and hungry aliens.

The book ends on a thematic cliffhanger with ‘Meet the New Boss’ as Beetle and peacemaker investigate cattle mutilations, battle a giant bug monster and are introduced to its owner – an extraterrestrial envoy from The Reach who claims to be the creator of the scarab…

There are precious few comic-books that combine action and adventure with fun and wit, but authors John Rogers and Keith Giffen make this look easy in an innovative and wryly engaging saga impossible to resist, especially with the artistic endeavours of Cully Hamner, Rafael Albuquerque, Duncan Rouleau and Casey Jones making each page a visual treat.

So the latest Blue Beetle is still a fresh and delightful joy to me – and as I’m eager to pass on that feeling to all the other fuddy-duddies who are alive enough to locate an internet connection… Go Read This!

© 2006, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Showcase Presents the Flash vol. 2

By John Broome, Gardner Fox, Carmine Infantino, Joe Giella & Murphy Anderson (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-4012-1805-8

The second Flash triggered the Silver Age of comics, and for the first ten years or so, in terms of artistic quality and story originality, it was always the book to watch. Following his debut in Showcase #4 (cover-dated October 1956) police scientist Barry Allen was characteristically slow in winning his own title but finally after three more trial issues stood on his own wing-tipped feet in The Flash #105 ( a February-March 1959 cover-date so it was out for Christmas 1958).

He never looked back and his first experimental endeavours can – and should – be economically yours by purchasing the previous volume of this series (ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1327-5, covering Showcase #4, 8, 13 and 14 and Flash #105-119).

The comic-book had gelled into a comfortable pattern of two tales per issue alternating with semi-regular book-length thrillers and this volume begins with a glorious example of the latter from Flash #120 (May 1961). The majority of adventures were produced by peripatetic scripter John Broome and the slickly innovative art-team of Carmine Infantino and Joe Giella, and ‘Land of Golden Giants!’ saw them at their very best in a fanciful science fiction drama where a small expedition of explorers including Barry and his protégé Wally West – AKA Kid Flash – were catapulted back millennia to the very moment when the primal super-continent (or at least the parts that would become Africa and South America) was splitting apart.

Flash stories always found a way to make cutting-edge science integral and interesting. A regular filler-feature was the speed-themed “Flash-Facts” which became a component of the stories themselves via quirky little footnotes. How many fan-boys turned a “C” to a “B” by dint of their recreational reading? I know I certainly impressed the heck out of a few nuns at the convent school I attended! (But let’s not visualise; simply move on…)

Issue #121 saw the return of a novel old foe as ‘The Trickster Strikes Back!’. The costumed criminality was balanced by Cold War skulduggery in the gripping ‘Secret of the Stolen Blueprint!’ (guest inked by the brilliant Murphy Anderson). Another contemporary zeitgeist undoubtedly led to ‘Beware the Atomic Grenade!’, a witty yarn that introduced a new member to Flash’s burgeoning Rogues Gallery when The Top turned from second-rate thief to global extortionist by means of a rather baroque thermonuclear device.

In counterpoint Kid Flash dealt with smaller scale catastrophe in ‘The Face Behind the Mask’ wherein a pop-star with a secret identity (based, I believe, on a young David Soul who began his showbiz career as a folk singer known as “the Covered Man” because he performed wearing a mask) was blackmailed by a villainous gang of old school friends.

Gardner Fox didn’t write many Flash scripts at this time, but those few he did were all dynamite. None more so than the full-length epic that literally changed the scope of American comics forever. ‘Flash of Two Worlds’ introduced the theory of alternate Earths to the continuity and by extension resulted in the pivotal multiversal structure of the DCU, Crisis on Infinite Earths and all the succeeding cosmos-shaking crossover sagas that grew from it. And of course where DC led, others followed…

During a benefit gig Flash accidentally slips into another dimension where he finds that the comic-book hero he based his own superhero identity upon actually exists. Every adventure he had absorbed as an eager child was grim reality to Jay Garrick and his mystery men comrades on the controversially named Earth-2. Locating his idol Barry convinces the elder to come out of retirement just as three Golden Age villains, Shade, Thinker and the Fiddler make their own wicked comeback. And above all else, Flash #123 is a great read that still stands up today.

Utterly unaware of the stir that was brewing in fandom’s ranks, it was business as usual with #124’s alien invasion thriller ‘Space Boomerang Trap!’ which featured an uneasy alliance between the Scarlet Speedster, Elongated Man and the sinister Captain Boomerang whilst the back-up ‘Vengeance Via Television!’ tested our hero’s wits when a mad scientist used TV waves to expose his secret identity.

‘The Conquerors of Time!’ (Flash #125 December 1961) was another mind-boggling classic as time-travelling aliens attempted to subjugate Earth in 2287AD by preventing fissionable elements from forming in 100,842,246BC. Antediluvian lost races, another pivotal role for Kid Flash (easily the most trusted and responsible sidekick of the Silver Age), the introduction of the insanely cool Cosmic Treadmill plus spectacular action make this a benchmark of quality graphic narrative.

The drama continued unabated in the next issue when Mirror Master resurfaced in ‘The Doom of the Mirror Flash!’ whilst the second story looked into Barry Allen’s past in ‘Snare of the Headline Huntress!’ wherein childhood sweetheart Daphne Dean tries to rekindle Barry’s love to boost her Hollywood profile. In #127 ‘Reign of the Super-Gorilla!’ saw Grodd return, using his telepathy to run for Governor (not as daft as it sounds, honest!) whilst Kid Flash resolved parental problems in ‘The Mystery of the Troubled Boy!’ Flash #128 introduced time-travelling magician and psychotic egotist Abra Kadabra in ‘The Case of the Real-Gone Flash!’ but still had room for the intriguing vignette ‘The Origin of Flash’s Masked Identity!’

Fox and Earth-2 returned in #129’s ‘Double Danger on Earth!’ as Jay Garrick ventured to Earth-1 to save his own world from a doom comet, only to fall foul of Captain Cold and the Trickster. As well as double Flash action, this tale pictorially reintroduced Justice Society stalwarts Wonder Woman, Atom, Hawkman, Green Lantern, Doctor Mid-Nite and Black Canary. Clearly Editor Schwartz had something in mind…

For the meantime though it was back to basics with ‘Who Doomed the Flash?’; an intriguing mystery that seemingly pooled the threats of Trickster, Captain Cold, the Top, Captain Boomerang and the Mirror Master in a superb conundrum, brilliantly solved by the Vizier of Velocity whilst his junior partner had problems enough with the Weather Wizard when ‘Kid Flash Meets the Elongated Man!’

RSVP-ing to a landmark guest-shot in Green Lantern #13 (‘Duel of the Super-Heroes!’ – see Showcase Presents Green Lantern vol. 1, ISBN13: 978-1-4012-0759-5) the Emerald Crusader again joined with our hero to defeat alien invaders in the engrossing feature-length ‘Captives of the Cosmic Ray!’ whilst #132’s lead ‘The Heaviest Man Alive!’ returned the speedster to the dimension of Gobdor (‘The Man Who Stole Central City’ from #116 and the previous volume) for another tense, super-scientific puzzle that was also a sly poke at the new Television generation. The second tale featured ‘The Farewell Appearance of Daphne Dean’ as the starlet returned to make amends in a quirky little tearjerker.

Abra Kadabra stole a rather silly encore in ‘The Plight of the Puppet Flash!’ in #133, but this was more than compensated for by the witty and sensitive Kid Flash back-up ‘The Secret of the Handicapped Boys!’ as deaf, blind and mute classmates (one disability per boy, ok?) each discovered the young hero’s secret identity.

In Flash #134, Captain Cold was ‘The Man who Mastered Absolute Zero!’ in a flamboyant thriller that co-starred Elongated Man, whilst Iris West’s father (and Flash’s prospective father-in-law) paid an unwelcome call in the cleverly comedic ‘The Threat of the Absent Minded Professor!’, whilst Kid Flash got a beautiful new costume in the invasion thriller ‘Secret of the Three Super-Weapons!’ in #135.

‘The Mirror Master’s Invincible Bodyguards!’ actually weren’t but the scarlet Speedster had a lot more trouble when a seedy blackmailer claimed ‘Barry Allen – You’re the Flash – and I Can Prove It!’ This type of clever human-scaled story was slowly disappearing in favour of the more colourful costume epics – none more so than the wonderful ‘Vengeance of the Immortal Villain!’ Another incredible Earth-2 crossover, this saw the two Flashes unite to defeat 50,000 year old Vandal Savage and save the Justice Society of America: a tale which directly led into the veteran team’s first meeting with the Justice League of America and the start of all those aforementioned “Crisis” epics.

Garner Fox scripted ‘The Pied Piper’s Double Doom!’, a mesmeric team-up with Elongated Man, but once more the Kid Flash back-up stole the show, introducing the singular thespian Dexter Myles to the steadily growing cast in a charming comedy of errors ‘Mystery of the Matinee Idol!’

Flash #139 introduced the hero’s ultimate nemesis in Professor Zoom, a 25th century criminal who duplicated his super-speed to become the ‘Menace of the Reverse-Flash!’ a taut thriller that even found time to include a cunning sub-plot about nuclear Armageddon, and this volume closes with the contents of #140 (November 1963) which debuts the super arsonist Heat Wave in the stylish ‘The Heat is on for Captain Cold!’ and finally pitted the Monarch of Motion against ‘The Metal-Eater from Beyond the Stars!’ a bizarre energy being that could nullify the speedster’s powers.

As always the emphasis was on brains and learning, not gimmicks or abilities, which is why these tales still work nearly half-a-century later. Coupled with the astounding art of Infantino these tales are a captivating snap-shot of when science was our friend and the universe(s) was a place of infinite possibility.

These tales were crucial to the development of our art-form, but, more importantly they are brilliant, awe-inspiring, beautifully realised thrillers that amuse, amaze and enthral both new readers and old lags. This lovely collection is another must-read item for anybody in love with the world of words-in-pictures.

© 1961, 1962, 1963, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.


By Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-85286-024-0

I’m not going to review Watchmen: there’s already too much hype around because of the movie. But since that kind of media overkill can have a detrimental effect on a property I am going to tell you why – and even how – you should read the graphic novel.

Originally released as a twelve-part maxi-series from September 1986 to October 1987, the work was originally commissioned as a reworking of the Charlton Comics “Action Hero” line (Blue Beetle, The Question, Peacemaker, Nightshade, Thunderbolt and Captain Atom) and follows the events that develop after one of those characters is murdered on an Earth very like yet radically different from our own.

That’s all the plot you get from me.

Watchmen is the perfect example not only of the perfect superhero tale, liberated as it is from the commercial tyranny of periodical publishing, but also of just how the nature of graphic narrative, the seamless marriage of picture, word and symbol, fundamentally differs from all other art forms.

Comics as a business cannot allow valuable properties to wither or die. Their intrinsic value is not as vehicles for great stories but as a means of assuring sales. Superman, Robin Hood, Captain America (and Bucky), Leonidas of Sparta, Hal Jordan, Roland, Barry Allen: in the pantheon of heroic mythology who stayed dead and who got better (or worse yet, replaced)? The great themes of Life and Death, Courage and Responsibility, Duty, Sacrifice and Victory lose their worth if the hero has a guaranteed “get out of Valhalla free” card.

And I’m not saying that any film, TV show, radio play, novelisation or even musical of a graphic novel is necessarily less good than the original material – but they are never a substitute or successor to it. Beyond a basic, fundamental sharing of textual moments and characters they are different. And it works both ways: I don’t care who draws Casablanca or scripts House on the Borderland; the only way to appreciate a masterpiece is in the original form that its creators crafted. Everything else is well- intentioned homage or scurrilous cashing in no matter how much you enjoyed it, or indeed how well the adaptation worked on its own terms. Kubick’s The Shining is not Steven King’s, Romeo and Juliet is a play, not an extended pop-video, and not even a ballet; and South Pacific is a great musical but not the awesome novel written by James A. Michener.

How many of you who have read League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or V For Vendetta prefer or are even honestly satisfied by their filmic incarnations?

Watchmen uses its antecedents; it cherishes and celebrates them. It tells a tale with a beginning, a middle and a conclusive end, and tells it brilliantly. It neither deconstructs nor wields a revisionist machete to the core themes of super-heroic tradition. Crusading Legacies, Justice rendered by the individual not society, Costumes, Gadgets, even death-traps and masterminds are accepted on their own terms, not cynically mocked whilst being exploited.

The art by Dave Gibbons is superb and usually understated. At no moment is the reader unsure how to proceed, never does the drawing kidnap the attention, and at no time in this alternate world do we break the flow to wonder at what the intention was: whilst reading, that world is completely real.

Whatever your position on the film, positive or not, I beg you to read the book if you haven’t already. And I’ll even provide these handy “rules for reading Watchmen”:

1) Read the text pages: they’re important and there for a reason.

2) Look at each picture properly: what’s happening at the back, middle and sides of the panel are usually more important than what’s occurring in the foreground.

3) Pay attention: this is not a work to browse. Everything, EVERYTHING has been constructed to work as part of a perfectly completed whole. Nothing is irrelevant – not even the pirate comics stuff.

I’m writing this using my 1987, Graphitti Designs limited, slip-cased collected edition which has loads of extra features in the back but there are many versions available. Heck, even my local library has a couple of copies. There is no better superhero tale ever told. You owe it to yourself to see it in the manner it was made for.

© 1986, 1987 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Daredevil: Yellow

By Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN: 978-1-90415-912-5

Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale set their retrofitters’ sights squarely on Daredevil’s personal relationships for this light but engaging re-examination of the sightless superhero’s early career, the six-issue miniseries more or less paralleling and in-filling the gaps of the first five Man without Fear adventures as originally crafted by Stan Lee, Bill Everett, Joe Orlando, Vince Colletta and, nominally, Wally Wood. Those classics are readily available for your perusal and delectation in such sterling volumes as Essential Daredevil volume 1 (ISBN: 978-0-7851-1861-9) should you feel the need to contrast and compare…

Matt Murdock has just lost the love of his life and here uses the rather hackneyed device of writing letters to the departed as a means of coming to terms with his grief to review his career and friendships. It’s clever, pretty and effective but defuses a little too much tension and drama to be properly tragic or compelling.

Still and all, the dialogue is sharp, there are some intriguing modern insights into the glory days of Marvel, and there’s a wonderful gallery of silly villains such as The Owl, Electro, Killgrave, The Purple Man and a mercifully brisk cameo by the risibly malevolent Matador to keep the tale chugging along. (You have to wonder how any creator concocts such a potential nemesis: “DD has horns on his head so his ultimate villain should be…”).

Loeb and Sale have produced some masterful stories about the early years of comicbook icons but this falls too short of their capabilities. A good read but no classic, I fear…

© 2001, 2003 Marvel Entertainment, Inc. and its subsidiaries. All Rights Reserved. (A BRITISH EDITION BY PANINI UK LTD)

Green Lantern Corps: Ring Quest

By Peter J.Tomasi, Patrick Gleason & various (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84856-116-8

Following on from the bombastic Sinestro Corps War, this volume (collecting Green Lantern Corps issues #19, 20 and 23 through 26) of the space opera/cop procedural drama finds the battered but triumphant interstellar peacekeepers on a deadly clean-up duty.

Dispatched by the Guardians of the Universe to collect or confiscate the deadly yellow power rings of their dead foes, an elite team of GLs is ambushed by the monstrous son of Mongul, a ruthless alien despot who controls one of the most insidious and horrifying weapons in creation. And now he’s started collecting yellow rings and rebuilding the Sinestro Corps…

Glossy and gritty, it’s tension and confrontation all the way in this highly readable thriller, but there’s still room for a few “buddy-movie” moments as Earth Lanterns Guy Gardner and Kyle Rayner spend their downtime trying to open a cop-bar on the Guardian’s precinct-planet Oa…

Although this is highly continuity-dependent, determined newcomers will still be able to extract a vast amount of histrionic enjoyment out of this explosive action-blockbuster – and you could always buy the other volumes to get caught up…

© 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Countdown to Adventure

By Adam Beechen, Eddy Barrows & Allan Goldman (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-1-84576-866-9

Spinning out of the weekly miniseries 52, (see Volumes 1-4: ISBN: 1-84576-552-4, ISBN: 978-1-84576-553-8, ISBN: 978-1-84576-604-7 and ISBN: 978-1-84576-624-5) wherein Adam Strange, Starfire and Animal Man were lost in space for a year, this tale of two worlds originally ran as the lead feature in the comicbook miniseries Countdown to Adventure #1-8 (the back-up spot revealing the history and fate of the Forerunner – a living weapon created by the Monitors of the Mulitiverse as a kind of intelligent attack dog): a sidebar saga to the then-ongoing Countdown to Final Crisis.

All caught up? Splendid.

Earthman Adam Strange is reunited with his family on the distant world of Rann when he is forcibly retired as Planetary Champion and replaced by the obnoxious film and Ultimate Fighting celebrity Steven “Champ” Hazard. Whereas Strange solved threats with his wits and good heart, The Champ is psychotically brutal and aggressive, preferring to shoot first and keep on shooting till he’s the only person still breathing.

In San Diego Buddy Baker has returned to his job as a stuntman, since his Animal Man powers are malfunctioning, but at least that’s better than Princess Koriand’r of Tamaran, who has lost her energy-casting abilities completely. For weeks she’s been unconscious in Buddy’s spare room, resting, recharging and not contacting her old super-hero friends in the Teen Titans.

But when Buddy’s son and other people start exhibiting signs of a “Rage-Plague” extraterrestrial contagion experts isolate the city and prepare to sterilise everything in it if they can’t find patient zero, who must have brought the rapidly spreading infection to Earth…

On Rann the same symptoms are ripping through the citizenry, fomenting violence, intolerance and even physical transformations. And then on both worlds the infected begin to chant a phrase Strange, Koriand’r and Buddy last heard from the religious zealots of Lady Styx, a death-worshipping monstrosity they killed a year ago and a zillion light years away…

This interplanetary bio-plague thriller has lots of pace and action, and keeps the tension high, but falls just short of being exceptional or compelling since even newest recruit can plainly see that everything’s going to be all right in the end. Fine for a lazy afternoon but hardly a keeper and adds nothing to the lustre of its stellar, fan favourite cast.

© 2007, 2008 DC Comics.  All Rights Reserved.

Sword of the Atom

By Jan Strnad & Gil Kane, with various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-4012-1553-8

Wonderfully reminiscent of his superlative Blackmark paperback venture (collected in Blackmark: the 30th Anniversary Edition ISBN: 1-56097-456-7), artist Gil Kane was inspired in this retooling of Silver-Age B-List hero The Atom, removed from his comfort zone of scientific crime-busting to become the sword-wielding champion of a barbaric fantasy kingdom.

Starting off with a four issue miniseries and followed by three giant-sized Specials, the sword and lost science saga revitalized a once great character who had fallen on very lean times and set him up for his eventual return to the big leagues (I apologise for the puns – lowest form of wit, I know!).

Following the break-up of his marriage to ambitious lawyer Jean Loring, size-changing physicist Ray Palmer departs on a research trip to Brazil to think things through. Unfortunately he falls foul of drug-runners who down his plane. To the world he appears dead, but in reality he has stumbled upon an alien civilisation, populated by golden humanoids no more than six inches tall.

Lost for uncounted decades in the verdant vastness of the Amazon on a planet of giants, the aliens have built a city around the ruins of their crashed ship, a vessel powered by White Dwarf star matter. Regrettably, since the incredible star-stuff powers and constitutes the Atom’s size changing outfit, the mighty mite finds himself trapped at the same diminutive height and must rely on his physical prowess and a sharp sword to survive…

In the epic manner of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars, Palmer rescues and woos the exotic Princess Laethwen and saves the hidden city of Morlaidh from a usurping dictator in a classic romp of action-packed derring-do. It’s a fabulous dose of ultimate escapism perfectly executed by Kane and writer Jan Strnad, and subsequent sequels continued the magic.

Without wishing to give too much away, the first of these sees a disgruntled and displaced Palmer back in our world, longing for the simplicity of Morlaidh and the love of Laethwen; the second finds Jean doing her own size-shifting (this is probably when she learned the skills she used in Identity Crisis, ISBN: 1-34576-126-X, fans!) as the Tiny Titan is forced to choose between his old life and his current one. The book concludes with Kane replaced by Pat Broderick and Dennis Janke for a rather wordy tale of despots, plague and monstrous afflictions devastating the diminutive jungle kingdom which only the Atom can combat.

Despite the rather tame final tale Sword of the Atom is a flashing, vital burst of graphic excitement that clearly shows what can be done with moribund characters if creators are bold enough and given sufficient editorial support. It’s also a hugely enjoyable read that will make your heart race and your pulse pound – just like comics are supposed to.

© 1983, 1984, 1985, 1988, 2007 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Countdown Presents: The Search for Ray Palmer

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN13: 978-1-84576-868-3

This review feels more like a shopping list than an inducement to share my experiences but if you persevere – with both my burblings and especially this slim tome published as a sidebar to the mega-crossover Countdown to Final Crisis – there’s fun to be had for the dedicated fan.

One of the major plot threads of the main event is that missing physicist/shrinking superhero Ray Palmer holds the answer to an unspecified Great Disaster looming in the future of the DC Universe. A select group of heroes led by a renegade Monitor (a kind of super-watchman assigned to invigilate one of the 52 universe of the multiverse) must search all the realities in hope of finding him before its too late…

A number of Countdown Presents: the Search for Ray Palmer one-shots were released during the weekly, year-long run of the parent series, set on the various 52 Earths (many in fact previously seen alternates or Elseworlds concepts, handily assimilated into the DCU for the occasion).

The first collected here is ‘Running Wild!’ by Ron Marz, Angel Unzueta and inkers Oliver Nome, Richard Friend, Saleem Crawford and Trevor Scott from CPtSFRP: WildStorm #1 wherein Donna Troy, Kyle (Green Lantern) Rayner, Jason (I used to be Robin, and dead) Todd and Bob the Monitor encounter various heroes and villains of the WildStorm Universe in an annoying series of disconnected vignettes that only make sense when read in conjunction with the relevant instalments of the weekly series.

Much more palatable is ‘The Jokester’s Last Laugh’ by Sean McKeever, Jamal Igle and Rob Hunter (from CPtSFRP: Crime Society #1) as the searchers – calling themselves the Challengers of the Unknown – arrive on the world where good is evil and the superheroes are villains. This chapter at least boasts a complete story that can be followed as does the next sinister stopover on an Earth where Batman became a vampire (as seen in Batman: Vampire – Tales of the Multiverse ISBN13: 978-1-84576-645-0).

‘Red Rain: Blood Lust’ by Peter Johnson, Matt Cherniss and Kelley Jones is a brief interlude that originally appeared in DC Infinite Halloween Special #1 and leads directly into CPtSFRP: Red Rain #1 which presented ‘Red Robin’ by Johnson, Jones, Eric Battle, Angel Unzueta, Derek Fridolfs, Vicente Cifuentes and Jonathan Glapion; a gory undead horror from which our protagonists barely escape.

Their next stop is the far more dignified but no less deadly world of Gotham by Gaslight (from the CPtSFRP one-shot of the same name). ‘Night of the Bat’ by Brian Augustyn, Greg Tocchini, Jesse Delperdang, Derek Fridolfs and Paul Neary, a good old-fashioned romp followed by the equally impressive ‘Red Son’ set on a world where that rocket from Krypton landed in the Soviet Union not Kansas. Alan Burnett, Travis Foreman and Lorenzo Ruggiero produced this high-octane cold war incident for CPtSFRP: Red Son #1.

The book, if not the story, ends with ‘Superwoman/Batwoman’ from the eponymous one-shot, a charming and rather peculiar tale from an Earth where the genders of everybody we’re familiar with are reversed. The strangeness comes courtesy of Justin Gray, Jimmy Palmiotti, Kalman Andrasofszky, Jeremy Haun, David Hahn, David Baldeón, Norm Rapmund, Álvaro López, Rick Ketcham and Steve Bird.

On the last page you’ll find that the challengers don’t succeed and that you’ll need Countdown to Final Crisis volume 3 to find out what happens next. As with all the tales here you’ll be reminded that the real story is going on elsewhere and that the confusions you’ve been experiencing were largely unnecessary. The transition from periodical publishing events to book collections is still a young science and every so often the formats simply don’t work together.

This time it would have been best to stick these exceedingly good one-shots into the appropriate places in regular compilations rather than have them stand as the bewildering mess they are here.

© 2007, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Trials Of Shazam! Volume 2

By Judd Winick, Howard Porter & Mauro Cascioli (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-4012-1829-4

Completing the saga begun in volume 1 (ISBN: 978-4012-1331-2) this book reprints issues #7-12 of the DC miniseries and finds Freddy Freeman, once and future super-hero, now successfully blessed with the wisdom of Solomon and the invincibility of Achilles, but only half the strength of Hercules.

Tasked by the 21st century Gods of Magic to prove himself to each of them before winning their powers and patronage, his rite of passage and super-powers have been hijacked by the deadly teenaged psychopath Sabina De La Croix, who intends to steal the magic of the departed wizard Shazam for her coven of evil sorcerers.

Not only has she intercepted some of the might intended for the boy-hero, but she’s even killed one of the gods that should empower him. Freddy must now find a replacement patron simply to complete the trials…

And if that’s not trouble enough some of those remaining gods don’t want their new lives disrupted. They might kill him before Sabina does…

Great thrills and spills beautifully illustrated by Howard Porter (with Mauro Cascioli providing the art for the last three chapters) make this a terrific read for fans of the genre, but I’m still unhappy at the unnecessary division into two short volumes when one complete book would have been easier, cheaper and a more satisfying package.

© 2007, 2008 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

The Trials Of Shazam! Volume 1

By Judd Winick & Howard Porter (DC Comics)
ISBN: 978-4012-1331-2

Inexplicably this is the first of two very slim volumes that collect the pivotal miniseries which redefined magic in the DC Universe after the events of Infinite Crisis. The collection itself (gathering issues #1-6 of the 12 part miniseries, plus the relevant prologue section of the one shot Brave New World) isn’t a conundrum. The story rattles along at a fine clip, full of tension, action and spectacle, and there’s even a little humour.

It’s very well illustrated in an epic, lush manner by Howard Porter. All in all, the tale is a solid Costumes Drama. But what I can’t fathom is why the thing is chopped into two halves when it could so easily – and economically – fit into one volume.

In the aftermath of the aforementioned Infinite Crisis (ISBN: 978-1-4012-0959-9), wild, raw magic escaped into all aspects Earth when the millennial wizard Shazam died and the meta-dimensional Rock of Eternity was destroyed (for further details you should also check out Day of Vengeance, ISBN13: 978-1-84576-230 8). The aged mage was the guardian of magic in our universe and his position was hastily, albeit temporarily, filled by Captain Marvel.

When the senior super-hero unexpectedly ascended to the position Captain Marvel Junior and Mary Marvel – who shared the power – were instantly cut off whilst battling supernatural horrors rampaging across Earth.

Months later with the immediate danger forestalled Freddy Freeman (the human form of Captain Marvel Junior) is offered the opportunity to regain his god-like powers and be a hero once more. But in this new era he must earn them one at a time by completing tasks set by the modern incarnations of the patron gods who supplied Shazam with the power…

Unfortunately its not that simple as a coven of demons and magicians have unleashed their own candidate for the Gods’ abilities and she’s a relentless, ruthless psychopath ready to cheat, steal and especially kill to win the ultimate weapon in the new world older of the supernatural…

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