- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 28, 2010

This chronic feature lets me review what recently has passed my bloodshot pupils. So pull up a chair, break out the sarcasm filter and welcome to:

Mr. Zad’s comic critique

Soul Kiss, trade-size hardcover (Image Comics, $29.99) - Man of Action Studios’ Steven T. Seagle offers more guidance as to why it’s a bad idea to make a deal with the devil.

This five-issue miniseries has been compiled in a hardbound book highlighting both the colorful story (slightly larger than a standard comic book page) and the behind-the-scenes efforts of the creators.

In the woeful tale, the fine line between flirtation and damnation finds a hardened gal named Lili Bloom on a quest to return her love from hell.

After her car breaks down on a deserted highway, an attack by a bad Samaritan forces Lili to make a deal with Lucifer. The pact for her life results in the loss of her boyfriend, after a kiss, and a terrible counterdeal must be struck to bring him back.

Specifically, our mild-mannered production assistant must kill 10 people via her kiss to return her boyfriend. And death is not pleasant for her victims. Mr. Seagle commands voracious moths to swarm the kissees and consume them into a bloody mess.

The potential for black humor is obvious as Lili must choose her victims carefully or deal with the horrific results of an accident.

Unfortunately, artist Marco Cinello’s angular, sketchy style never feels finished and rarely brings out the humor or horror of the prose. Panels often look like Cartoon Network storyboards.

Despite a clever story that would work well in a “Creepshow” movie-of-the-week format, the $30 price tag makes this a cost-prohibitive favorite for the comic book reader.

Mr. Cinello’s artwork is not enough of a draw, and Dark Horse Comics offers a bunch of much more reasonably priced ghoulish efforts, such as a newly reborn Creepy series ($4.99 each), to satisfy the fan of the macabre.

X-Men Forever, nos. 1 to 14 (Marvel Publishing, $3.99 each) - For those who remember X-Men architect Chris Claremont’s 16-year reign over the Marvel creator chain, have I got a comic book series for you.

Let’s pretend it’s 1991 and allow Mr. Claremont to pick up where issue No. 4 of X-Men (the Volume 2 launch) might have begun. Of course, we know he left the series after issue No. 3 and gave up on his mutants for years.

Unfortunately, there’s no Jim Lee artwork to savor in this new series, but the plot is as angst-ridden as any soap opera. In fact, it’s just like the good old days of the X-Men.

Let’s recap. Fabian Cortez is on the run after killing Magneto and it’s up to the team of Wolverine, Beast, Cyclops, Jean Grey, Rogue, Gambit, Nightcrawler and Shadowcat to find the guy.

With humans more fearful of mutants than ever, Professor X now finds he must work with Nick Fury (the David Hasselhoff version) and S.H.I.E.L.D.

Within the first couple of issues, readers learn that Wolverine and Jean Grey are having a fling, Wolverine has been burned to death by Storm (who’s now a villain working for the Consortium), Wolverine is Sabretooth’s son, and Shadowcat wields one of Wolverine’s claws.

Yes, that’s lots of action surrounding a character who gets killed off in the second issue.

We also learn the mutant gene actually shortens the life of Homo Superior. That’s why we hardly ever see an old X-Man and why Professor X is in a wheelchair, get it?

With no ties to Marvel’s current continuity, it gives Mr. Claremont plenty of room to develop and expand on themes found in his earlier X work, i.e., young Ororo Munroe and the return of the Phoenix.

It’s nostalgic fun with always-epic action that’s loaded with heroes, gigantic villains and the occasional werewolf. Unfortunately, it also delivers a headache’s worth of discombobulated subplots and character introspection.

The reason this series caught my eye was not the writing but veteran artist Tom Grummett’s colorful, lively style. His traditional design of the characters pulls a late-1980s vibe with a Paul Ryan workman attack and John Byrne richness.

He offers vibrant and beautiful versions of heroines such as Rogue (even with her competing hairstyles), Black Widow and Jean Grey, while his Sabretooth and Beast are classic.

Mr. Grummett handles the first five issues of the series, is back for issue No. 11 on and draws all of the covers. His replacements on the middle issues - Paul Smith and Steve Scott - can’t compete visually (compare Mr. Smith’s interiors to Mr. Grummett’s cover for issue No. 7) to the point that it is distracting.

X-Men Forever offers numerous moments for the classically trained X-Men fan to fondly remember his life as a younger comic book reader, but it won’t satisfy today’s sophisticated fan tempted by the work of Joss Whedon, Warren Ellis, Craig Kyle, Clayton Crain and John Cassaday.

Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Colossus of Destiny, graphic novel (Dark Horse Comics, $7.99) - One of the Jedi council’s usually more stoic leaders finds himself an emotional mess on a mission to help old friends caught in the war between the Republic and Trade Federation.

Readers learn a bit about Mace Windu’s past in this standalone, digest-size tale set on the world of Simocadia.

Our Jedi once fought to save the planet from invaders and became close friends with Prince Yojan and his mother, the Empress Sephani.

His appearance now is not so heroic as he fights for the Republic but destroys the freedom of Simocadia in the process.

We also learn Mace is quite an unyielding hothead who is prone to mistakes and that his reckless moments of self-sacrifice can lead to tragedy around him.

Writer Jeremy Barlow’s story plays out to a sad conclusion, offering that neither warring side is right when fighting for a neutral planet, especially when precious resources are involved.

Overall it’s a vintage Star Wars tale for the tween reader complete with Clone Troopers in action, Spider Droids getting skewered, a nearly indestructible robot threatening the royal palace, a space battle and a bumbling Neimoidian leader looking to escape.

The Fillbach brothers’ cartoony art remains a consistent anchor for the series and will take older readers back to the fond days when Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated “Clone Wars” series ruled Cartoon Network.

* Visit Zadzooks at the blog section of The Washington Times’ Community pages (http://communities.washingtontimes.com/) or on Twitter.

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