The mouse got sleepy so I'm doing this all by keyboard and it's like I'm talking French with my hands.

*There’s some reviews down below, but I ought to mention that the art in the new issue of American Splendor (#2) is really quite nice. I think I was most surprised with Richard Corben’s work; it’s not that he does anything particularly different from his usual pen ‘n ink style, but that I’d never really considered how perfect that style is for writer/creator Harvey Pekar’s world. Take out all of the fantastical elements of the subject matter, and Corben’s visual style is just the craggy, hard-bitten thing needed for the aged buildings and fallen leaves of the world of Pekar. He brings the work a similarly rich, down-from-grace atmosphere as Robert Crumb once did, though surely nobody would ever mix the pages of those two men up.

And hey - two pages of Eddie Campbell! The short strikes an interesting balance between the two forces’ individual styles; most of the story is nothing but Pekar standing around and talking to people in the most understated presentational manner possible, yet there’s a lovely bit of business in the last quarter of the piece with memories from Pekar’s head seemingly splitting free from ‘his’ story on the page and (literally) circling around his narration as he talks, just the sort of beguiling formal horseplay one might expect from Campbell. Very nice issue on the whole, and we even get one of those ‘Harvey listens to someone else tell a story, which we see’ types of tales, and it’s a good one.

*52 Dept: I think it’s safe to say that 52 is inching ever closer to entering Bizarro World when the Lex Luthor’s Team Supreme plot manages to float to the surface as the best of this week. But, you know, it’s kind of fun that various characters are essentially projecting their own personal hopes and biases onto their guesses as to who Supernova truly is; he’s enough of a blank slate that Lex can use him as a fine excuse for another Superman tirade, in the face of any evidence to the contrary (it reminded me fondly of the John Byrne-penned Superman #2, where Lex uses computers to determine that the secret identity is Clark Kent, and then rejects it all as flawed because it clashes with his preconceptions as to how ‘Superman’ would act). And gosh, wouldn’t you know it - Lex doesn’t even have enough hero in him to activate superpowers through science. Cruel fate.

I kind of hope the writing team doesn’t try to explain things any further, since then we’d run the risk of having to choke down another sequence as painful as this issue’s introduction of The New Super-Chief. I’ll admit right up front: I laughed on the first page where The New Super-Chief threw the lecherous annoying man out the bus window. It’s just over-the-top enough to be amusing (I mean, they were even crossing a bridge at just that moment!) while not distracting me with questions like ‘did that man survive?’ Because it’s silly.

But then on the very next page, apparently genuinely concerned that such questions are going to be asked, the writing team feels the need to spell out exactly how the lecherous annoying man was hurt, all the while assuring us that it was a-ok since he was a former convicted rapist and I guess he was probably going to rape that woman he was harassing on the bus. The Metropolis cops even get to give a little speech about how they don’t approve of The New Super-Chief’s methods, but they’re still cool with putting that guy into a hospital bed for that crime he was maybe impliedly going to commit or something, and needless to say the damsel in distress goes all jelly-like over being saved from danger by the possibly heroic The New Super-Chief who is also a brooding bad boy who doesn’t play by the rules and has no time for girls!

And the real joke is, I probably wouldn’t have thought about any of this if it hadn’t all been brushed over with the glaze of realism; as it is, the whole sequence is just kind of ugly and stupid. The rest of his plot this issue has him attending his father’s funeral, hearing the origin of the Super-Chief brand, and smothering his grandpa to death with a pillow, all of it awash with the expected moral ambiguity. I really don’t think Super-Chief, old or new, necessarily benefits from this particular brand of downbeat presentation.

Meanwhile, Doc Magnus talks to one of the Metal Men about how he needs the pills to keep him sane (return of the Crazy! motif), and gets chased around by another plot. It was kind of cool that the writing team bothered to smoothly slip science facts into the action bits, even after making light of that kind of thing through Mercury’s dialogue. That’s what I prefer - taking a joke and (literally) running with it.

Criminal #1

I like how this thing is packaged to appeal to the core Marvel Comics readership (Icon being a label of Marvel’s after all): Ed Brubaker is the writer of Daredevil, Sean Phillips is the artist that brought you Marvel Zombies, and one of the pull quotes selected for the back cover feels the pressing need to inform us all that there are, in fact, no superheroes in this here comic. Because like it or not, if you’re even tangentially among Marvel’s offerings, that sort of trait is still worth mentioning.

The other traits of Criminal are about what you’d expect from the copious pre-release buzz; it does precisely what we’ve been told it will do, and it does it with a reasonable amount of panache. It’s a caper book, the tale of a heist (at least for this initial five-issue storyline), and it’s pleasing in its easygoing appreciation for the common features of the subgenre. Of course we have our reluctant anti-hero who’s reeled back into the game for a big job. Of course a team of crack experts must be recruited. There’s tangled relationships between members of the cast, and secrets in the past, and dirty cops, and shadowy behind-the-scenes machinations. It’s all very direct, very serious with its tropes. The kind of story you know you’ve heard before, but probably wouldn’t mind hearing again if you liked it enough the first few times. The solicitations for future issues indicate that the plot may move into different territory before this first quintet of books are done; that might help, since right now there’s truly isn’t much at work that will captivate those who don’t care for such stories. What twists on the subgenre it offers are those that probably won’t register much with those divorced from an active appreciation for the story type itself; it’s a welcoming book, but not a converter.

What Criminal has going for it most is the polish of assurance; there isn’t a single page in this book where you’ll feel that Brubaker and Phillips aren’t in total control of their storytelling environment, given the story they’re setting out to tell. Leo, our main character thus far, may be your archetypical expert criminal with a dark past, trying to get out and dragged back in, but he’s an effective enough example of the type, with a pleasing emphasis on good planning above mad guts. Brubaker smartly grounds the character in a history of lawbreaking, dating back to his childhood and his father, relating criminality to the only family life he’s every known. He’s a coward too, which means he’s a prudent and cautious man of planning, and that’s how he’s survived even the most disastrous jobs (naturally, bloody flashbacks are provided). Only in a low-down life such as this might a guy be punished for growing some ‘backbone,’ but such are the ironies of life beyond the law, and I expect that will be on tap for exploration in future issues.

Phillips’ visuals are appropriately straightforward; plenty of simple layouts and small panels and shadowy, realist characters that only occasionally indulge in facial overacting. Clean, meat ‘n potatoes visual storytelling, attractive with no more flash than is necessary. Which means it matches the script nicely. Criminal is certainly a well-oiled machine of a book, and I can’t imagine those whose interest might be piqued from the hype being terribly disappointed with it Time will tell where the rest of it goes, but for now it's directly in line with expectations.