Friday, July 29, 2011

The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen--Century 1969

It’s 1969. Right in the height of that era that everyone knows by three things, and three things only: sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well, this latest edition of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen certainly has all of those things in spades.

First of all, there are some major reasons for a little bit of beginning grumblings. This is the second part in a trilogy entitled The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: Century. It’s a prestige format book. I haven’t checked but it must be about 80 or so pages. Well, this just came out in July 2011, and can anyone remember when part one was published? I had to check the indicia on the previous volume...1910 came out in April 2009. Whaaaaaat was the holdup, guys. I can’t remember what kind of a release schedule was promised for this series two years ago, but I want to take a guess that they said six months between installments. ****I just had to look this up...the original schedule was for one book a year. They’re only one year behind schedule at this point.**** So this is just craziness. It’s been so long between the two books that the price went up from $7.95 for 1910 to $9.95 for 1969.

So anyway, maybe it would be good to move on to the actual comic. Mina Harker, Allan Quartermain, and Orlando make up the League in this story. As usual, the book is full of characters who will be significant to you if you can remember another story in which you might have already encountered them. In this edition of LXG, we have an analogue for the Rolling Stones in the Purple Orchestra. There is a free concert in Hyde Park for their dead bandmate. He was killed in a pool by some hooded occultists, but the general populace doesn't hear about things like that. 

The League is trying to stop Oliver Haddo (a stand-in for Aleister Crowley) from taking over the body of a rock star. This will apparently be a good next step for the man who wants to bring about the Antichrist. I guess it makes sense. The stuff is sometimes referred to as devil music, I suppose.

There is no shortage of reasons to keep this book far, far out of the reach of children. Maybe one of them involves the fact that the story's climactic battle between Mina and Haddo on the astral plane really makes it seem like drugs might just be the answer after all.

I feel like I enjoyed this volume a lot more than I liked 1910. I say this while being pretty fuzzy on just what happened when I read that comic two years ago, so maybe my opinion should be taken with a grain of salt. I feel like part of the reason is that I was able to catch some references. 

Things like "oh, this is like when Brian Jones died and the Stones had to carry on without him."

"That guy is just like Mick Jagger, and the song he's singing is just a slightly more nefarious version of Sympathy For The Devil."

This makes me wonder about the exact merit of Alan Moore's work here. Does someone with a familiarity with Michael Moorcock's novels have a better time reading this stuff? If I had no idea about the Rolling Stones would I be able to get into 1969? I know that the idea is to create a story that is totally enjoyable on its own, but does this really work? Let's get somebody who doesn't know a lot about anything and plop this book in his or her lap. Or wait, let's not...there's a lot of "details" in this book that would probably scare away somebody who hasn't had ample preparation. 

Favorite character whom I recognized from another work of fiction? Well, I was quite surprised to see that Lord Voldemort himself had a significant role, albeit in his early days as Tom Marvolo Riddle.
Kevin O'Neill's artwork is at all times a joy. He has that admirable combination of cartoonishness and complexity to his pages that just makes the whole book worthwhile. It's almost too bad that this page featuring the Nautilus winds up being just a tease since it isn't seen anywhere else in 1969.
Well, at this point all that can be said is that the LXG saga is finally progressing, and it would be really nice if we didn't have to wait another two years to see how the Century trilogy concludes. 

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Judge Dredd: Mega-City Masters Volume One

Mega-City One sure does sound like an awful place to live. With a population of 800 million and an unemployment rate of 87%, well, it’s easy to see that things might get a little out of control there. This is the grim future in which Judge Dredd lives. Crime and chaos call for some harsh justice, and Dredd and company are there to make sure that citizens abide the law at all times. 

Running through the streets when you should really only be walking? Say goodbye to your kneecaps.

Holding down multiple jobs when nine out of ten people can’t even get one? You’re holding society back, citizen.

Judge Dredd is just a guy doing his job. He’s great with his gun, maybe a little less great with his people skills. But after reading Mega-City Masters Volume One, I got hooked on  the world that is presented in the 2000 AD stories.

This collection was made to showcase how great these British comics are to an American audience. I’m really glad that 2000 AD is expanding and bringing their stuff across the pond in a more direct fashion than they have in the past. This is just one book out of many that have only recently been printed up for people who might otherwise not have the chance to experience them.

It’s quite the “who’s who” in the credits on this book. That was, of course, a major selling point for Mega-City Masters: it’s an effort to get people in the US to realize “hey, this guy worked on Judge Dredd? And so did this person? Cool.” So it’s tons of fun to see that Steve Dillon drew a story in this collection, as did Alan Davis and Charlie Adlard.

Another thing that I really appreciated about this book was that it took stories from across the different eras of 2000 AD. Dredd has been filling pages for over 30 years now, and it’s amazing that John Wagner, one of the Judge’s creators, is still involved with the writing. Sure, he’s had a lot of help from Alan Grant, but you can tell that there’s a unity to the Judge Dredd saga that’s really lacking in, say, the American superheroes.

I found it interesting that in the older stories, there are two pages in color while the rest is in black and white. I think that manga does this a lot too. I’m on the fence about whether it’s neat or if it’s simply jarring.

The last bullet point I want to touch upon while I’m extolling the virtues of this collection is that I loved the format for the stories. 2000 AD is a weekly anthology and Judge Dredd only makes up a part of it every issue. So the stories in here typically run to 6 or 7 pages. It makes for some tight-paced stories. I remember reading an Alan Moore interview where he said that it was such a great challenge to write concise stories for 2000 AD (sadly I don’t know of any Dredd stories he worked on). There is so much that can be done in such a small amount of page space, and Wagner, Grant, and company prove it over and over throughout Mega-City Masters.

Onwards to a few standout stories:

Steve Dillon draws “The Wreckers,” and it’s a story that is genuinely creepy. A bunch of people hang out around an abandoned war zone. The highway goes right through it, and drivers know that they are taking their lives into their own hands as soon as they enter. A sign reads “MAINTAIN SPEED. CLOSE ALL WINDOWS. DO NOT STOP FOR ANY REASON.” Breaking any of those commandments is like saying that you want to be killed by the wreckers. They’ll have no problem with beating your windows until they break and throwing you out of the car and driving off. It comes to a point where the wreckers are just causing so much damage that the judges can’t afford to ignore the problem any longer. Judge Dredd gets called in with a few of his pals and everything gets cleared up, at least for now.

“The Law According to Dredd”: Kevin O’Neill is the artist here, and he is absolutely perfect for it. An ugly, brutish monster guy claims to be Judge Dredd. He’s ruling a little town all by himself. When the real Dredd comes to pay a visit, he is surprised to be accused of being an impostor. The fake Dredd really, really annoys the Judge. Take a guess who walks away from this fight.

“A Mega-City Primer”: This one really stands out because it is painted by Simon Bisley. The text is almost entirely reprinted from another story in the collection (“Joe Dredd’s Blues”), which is a little strange, but I enjoyed the comparison between this version and the original, which was drawn by John Higgins of Watchmen fame. If only comics could have sound to go with them...the “Primer” is a song about Judge Dredd and his typical day. It’s quite humorous.

“The Rise & Fall of Chair Man Dilbert”: Trevor Hairsine draws what is probably the most messed up tale in Mega-City Masters. A big part of the appeal of the Judge Dredd shorts is their emphasis on satire, and this one is really taking it to the extreme. Dilbert Bowels inadvertently becomes the world’s first-ever human object d’art. He poses as a chair for people to sit on. Famous people are calling him up for his services, he gets his own exhibit in which he poses as a different piece of furniture every day...things are looking pretty good for him. He’s not used to success. Now what happens to priceless works of art? Well, sometimes lowlifes like to steal them. And this is what happens to Dilbert Bowels...he winds up hidden away in a cell forever because he was such a great piece of art.

“Block Out at the Crater Bowl”: John Byrne must have pulled some strings to get to work for 2000 AD at the peak of his career. Dredd is called in to do some crowd control at a riotous sporting event. Thousands of people are all crammed into one place, and the wacky game of Block Out gets their collective blood boiling. Dredd’s final line in this story: “Next year, we use the riot foam before the game starts!” Just classic.

Mega-City Masters Volume One gets the praise that 2000 AD would be pleased to hear: I’m already looking for Volume Two. Consider me the latest person to become a fan of Judge Dredd.

To close things out, a really nice Alan Davis cover.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Random News & Notes From San Diego 2011

Here we are, once again. San Diego Comic Con has come and gone. I was nowhere near San Diego (couldn't get much farther and still be in the Lower 48), but thanks to the online coverage there's plenty of stuff to learn about.

This is just a scattered listing of things that caught my attention, in no order of importance:

Well, I knew this right away when I saw the teaser images that Dark Horse put out. Tom Morello, guitarist of Rage Against the Machine, Audioslave, and the one and only Nightwatchman, is doing a series called Orchid. Of course I'm intrigued, but we'll see how this pans out.

I just got annoyed and glad to see something. A recent headline on Comic Book Resources right now is about the Incredible Hulk being relaunched. Things to be glad about? Jason Aaron and Marc Silvestri. Sounds great actually! Things to be mad about? Well, it sounds like the Hulk story I had tucked away in my head since I was a kid might be being told now...Banner and the Hulk finally separating, if only temporarily. Hey, I read ALL of the Peter David Hulk comics...I tried to think of the one thing he didn't tackle in all that time. I'm sure Aaron and Silvestri will do good work, and I'm not bitter at all.  :)

Here's a project that's not exactly my kind of thing, but it still deserves mention: Star Trek/Legion of Superheroes miniseries. Original series cast and Great Darkness era. Chris Roberson of iZombie writes.

Marvel and DC are always copying each other's ideas, and here's the latest iteration of that: Marvel will soon be rolling out a new line of original graphic novels called Season One. Does this remind anyone of DC's Earth One OGNs? I thought so. Preview art looks pretty iffy to me. Pass...

A crossover that is probably more preposterous than the one previously mentioned, but one that I am 100% a fan of already: Archie Meets KISS. Because it's going to be nuts. Oh yeah, and a separate and new KISS series from IDW. Gene Simmons has been busy on the phone setting up these new comics licenses.

Frankenstein: Alive, Alive: IDW has Steve Niles and Bernie Wrightson picking up where the original novel left off. Look at the preview art and tell me this isn't going to be amazing.

Bruce Timm-related news: There was a panel for the new Green Lantern series. This show is definitely on my radar. It's been too long since we had Timmverse TV, and the computer graphics makes me more excited to see how this will turn out. ANNND The Dark Knight Returns will be getting a two-part release in the DC animated movie format. That's something people have been waiting for since the series started!

Brian K. Vaughan is finally back to making comics: Saga from Image. This sounds great, but maybe I'm little bit biased. Can't wait to crack open some new BKV.

There was a Torchwood panel and John Barrowman was wearing a Captain America shirt and announced that he had spent $2,000 on the convention floor before walking into the panel. Then he ended the panel by singing. This probably would have been a highly entertaining way to spend an hour at the con.

Marvel was all about the Avengers movie. There's a trailer now, posters, art, etc. I'll get to it when I get to it.

News from Fantagraphics: They have the license to reprint EC Comics stories now. I like how they aren't doing the same formats that have been tried already. The approach involves volumes dedicated to specific creators. They're also releasing them in black and white, which is a choice I wouldn't expect, but I think it's a good one. Al Williamson sci fi, Wally Wood, Harvey Kurtzman...looks like I'll finally have some EC on the shelf.

And finally, it was SDCC, so of course the Eisner Awards were given out. I did pretty well with my few predictions back in March: Chew took Best Continuing Series, Wednesday Comics got the nod for Best Reprint, and Tiny Titans took the prize for Best Kids' Publication. iZombie wound up losing to American Vampire in the Best New Series category, but at least it was still a win for DC and Vertigo!

Of course there was far, far more that was announced, revealed, teased, etc, but these were some of the things that stood out to me.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Scarlet Book One

“Rage against the machine.”
“The world is broken and no one will fix it.”

These are all quotes from Brian Michael Bendis’ script for the first issue of Scarlet, which is reprinted as a bonus feature at the end of the collection. The Scarlet Book One Hardcover collects the five comics that reunited Bendis with Alex Maleev for their first major project together since Daredevil. It is far from the typical comic book story, and it’s a kind of yarn that has been all too rare for Bendis since he “hit it big time” and became Marvel’s go-to writer. 

Scarlet Rue is a woman who has been through a lot. She has been victimized by a corrupt society. Sure, there’s plenty of people who have suffered injustice, but hardly anyone is actually able to turn around and say “I’m not going to take this any longer” like she does. Scarlet is going to have to be extreme, and she needs to get results so that she can prove that the world is a place with really huge problems that people seem not to ever notice.

What makes a modern day revolutionary like Scarlet? She once hung around with people in Portland, Oregon who just might have looked like derelicts. They were truly harmless, and Scarlet was in love with one of them, a punkish-looking guy named Gabriel Ocean. A police officer decides to start some trouble, demanding that they empty their pockets because “they must have drugs on them.” Actually, the cop has quite an addiction himself, so anything he finds will be seized for his own private stash. He’s done this kind of thing before. Scarlet and company really don’t have anything and the whole procedure is inappropriate. Gabriel punches the officer...and then a foot chase follows. The end results: Gabriel is shot and killed (and later an online headline falsely proclaims that one of Portland’s “most dangerous drug dealers” has been brought to justice), and Scarlet gets a bullet to the head that doesn’t kill her. She wakes up in the hospital, changed forever. Someone evil has ruined her life and is time for two things now: revenge first, and revolution second. 

Things seem to proceed pretty easily and quickly for Scarlet. She’s making full use of the things that we all use and hear about everyday. A video is posted online of her taking revenge on her boyfriend’s killer, and the following phone conversation between her and the Portland Chief of Police. Enthusiastic supporters participate in a flashmob that gathers hundreds of people in downtown Portland. Scarlet builds herself into a force that cannot be ignored, and Book One promises to show just the beginning of a new kind of revolutionary.

In his introductory notes in his script for Maleev, Bendis remarks that “You’ll also notice that I am using structure and narrative techniques that are anti-cinematic.” This was something that I absolutely loved about Scarlet. It seems like many people tend to think of comics as movies put down on paper. Sure, there is a common visual element, but one has audio and the other has text. And there are plenty of things that can be done in a comic that can’t be accomplished in film. 

Take for instance the way that Bendis and Maleev give nice and tidy recaps of what happened in a character’s life that brought them to where they are now. Plenty of details of Scarlet’s life are told in just three pages. A simple small image and a caption inform the reader of anything from “birth” (a screaming baby fresh from the womb) to “first job” (a teenaged Scarlet standing behind the counter at some kind of a fast food joint) to “first true love” (a dreamy picture of Gabriel).

Scarlet's backstory, told in a way that only comics can.
Another thing that adds to what makes this comic tick is the narrative style. Scarlet directly addresses the reader, breaking down the fourth wall and carefully explaining herself to anyone who wants to know her story. Scarlet actually isn’t the only character who does this: Detective Going also makes her points clearer by drawing the audience in personally. I’m wondering if when Book Two of Scarlet begins being published we will see more and more characters taking part in this kind of narrative device.

I guess that there are some implausible things that are difficult to ignore in Scarlet. I understand that Bendis loves Portland. But I found it kind of hard to believe that she could successfully remain in hiding in a city like that. She’s killed a police detective, she stands out in a crowd, and she never moves from shouldn’t be too hard to find her, right? Scarlet makes me feel like the fictional Portland Police Department is pretty much useless, and I can only hope that their real-life counterparts are a little better at their jobs! 

Also in the “stretching credibility” department: Scarlet survives being shot in the head. Okay, this is fine, I guess. It spurs her on to become the person she never expected to be. And I guess an officer could mess up on a headshot. But by the book’s end Scarlet has survived yet another thing that really should have killed her. Let’s just say that a grenade is used and she somehow mysteriously escapes unharmed. It just seemed unlikely to me, that’s all.

Put those things aside and just sit back with a refreshing indie-feeling comic that just so happens to be put out by two of comics’ biggest stars. Both writer and artist are clearly challenging themselves in Scarlet and pushing themselves to do things in new and different ways. Now we can only hope that moving on to Scarlet Book Two remains a priority for Bendis and Maleev. We’ll see how that pans out...the team is already hard at work on a new Moon Knight series, and personally, I’d rather see more of Scarlet.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Batman: Holy Terror

Here's the second installment of my "DC Elseworlds" series of posts: it's a short review for a short book.

It was a good idea to get Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle to do something for the Elseworlds imprint, or really to kick it off, since this was the first comic to be published bearing the Elseworlds logo. They were pretty popular as a Bat-team back in the day. They took full advantage of the Elseworlds framework and clearly took a wild idea and ran with it. In Holy Terror the modern world is a very different place because Oliver Cromwell didn't die (excuse my shoddy observance of the history of England) when he did in reality but lived on to see old age. The resulting change in history is that theocracy spread throughout the world, even to Gotham City. 

Bruce Wayne is on track to becoming an ordained minister, but then he finds out the truth behind the deaths of his parents: they were not simply gunned down as he was led to believe. Rather, they were executed by the state for giving medical attention and support to social deviants who sought "counter-reproductive" lifestyles. Bruce wants revenge on the society that would allow for such discrimination.

So it isn't explicitly said, but this is a story of ideologies: religious conservatism vs. all that is deemed "immoral" by the same theocratic Bible-beating leaders. Batman is a force of chaos against the order imposed by the church-run state. He finds that fighting an ideology is not nearly as simple as fighting a person or even a group of people. He resolves to fight even though he knows it will be far from easy.

I definitely understood why this graphic novel is generally held in high esteem. There's a lot to think about with this story, and the Grant/ Breyfogle team is really at the top of their game here. For added fun, there are plenty of DC characters who make appearances throughout the 48 pages. Society's "freaks" are not looked upon favorably in a world that favors conformity.  There's a strange sort of Justice League that forms in Holy Terror.

Any complaints? Well, this story could have really filled so much more than just a thin 48 pages. There are some later Elseworlds projects that are pretty lengthy, and this one, the first one, really tries to cram too much into too little. So I guess we can all be glad that Holy Terror was both good and successful because it allowed other projects of more ambitious lengths to be created. I'm sure that by the time you get to the end you'll be saying "Hey, I want to read more about this Batman who roams around Gotham wearing a priest collar!" 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

GI Joe Classic Volume One

I really missed the bandwagon on GI Joe. Well, that's not really true at all. I missed out on the kind of GI Joe that we're talking about here today, what I like to call the "superheroes in the military" GI Joe. See, when I was at the perfect age for collecting GI Joes they were only making the real-life 12 inch figures. I loved them and had a bunch: a Marine with swampland camos, a firefighter with a scruffy beard, and my first and favorite: the snow patrol Army soldier. 

But I realize that to a lot of people GI Joe is something entirely different. Something about the constant threat of Cobra, something about lots of crazy battles, something about a mysterious guy named Snake Eyes. For awhile I was curmudgeonly. When my beloved 12 inch figures with "real" cloth garments and meticulously crafted scale weapons got pushed off the shelves by Dukes and Destros I was pissed. I'll have to look up when exactly that happened. All of a sudden, after laying dormant for a long time, Hasbro brought back the old characters. This was all a threat to "my" GI Joe and I didn't like it.

Well, plenty of time has passed and I'm over it. Sure, I wouldn't mind if Hasbro started doing their military line again, but that's fine. No, I don't have any plans to watch that movie that came out a few years ago, but I'm getting to be a fan of the "Yo, Joe!" part of the franchise now.

And that's all because of IDW's reprint of the old Marvel GI Joe series. I just read volume one of the Classic GI Joe series, and yep, I'm starting to understand the appeal. This was really my first experience with these characters. Literally they were just the names of action figures to me before I read this. I have no experience with the 80's cartoon.

You have to just enjoy GI Joe for its simplicity. A bunch of cool people fight a never ending war against a freaky evil legion. They seem to fight every day of the week. Cobra always sets up some kind of scheme and it always winds up getting ruined by the good guys. In this book they fight everywhere: two issues feature Manhattan battles, they fight in snow, they fight underwater, and (my favorite) they fight in space when a Cobra missile is launched from undersea to blow up a space shuttle that is carrying GI Joe members.

I have a favorite character already: Scarlet. She proves over and over again that she's more than tough enough to hang out with the guys in GI Joe, and she's got plenty of smarts. And she does martial arts and wields a crossbow. Plus one and plus one there. 

Snake Eyes: well yeah, I see why he's so wildly popular now. I mean, just from the visuals he's pretty neat (and I remember how many accessories the figure came packaged with) but as the mystery unravelled I really did want to learn more about him. That was actually a really good issue...a guy named Dr. Venom had Snake Eyes tied up to a torture device from which he could extract a person's thoughts. The goal was to learn the location of the Joes' secret base. But Snake Eyes is so tough that he forces a bunch of other memories to be seen, and Dr. Venom is livid. It was a great way to provide backstory.

And that would be the cue to mention Larry Hama, whom I probably should have mentioned in this post's first paragraph. Hama is known as the architect behind the GI Joe comics. He wrote just about every issue of the comic and always made sure that it was an actual story rather than just an excuse to showcase the latest toys that 80’s generation kids could hope to find at K-Mart that month. What I saw in Classic GI Joe Volume One was the beginning of a saga. Things build up over the issues and most of the characters are pretty interesting. All due credit to Mr. Hama.

As a complete outsider to GI Joe, I was surprised to see that a lot of the characters I knew already weren't around at the inception of the GI Joe comic. There's no Duke or Destro yet, and I considered those guys to be pretty fundamental to the Joe mythology. Oh, and I always liked the way Heavy Duty and Storm Shadow looked too, but didn't get a chance to learn anything about them because they weren't around in issues #1-10. But I realized that these first ten issues were only the beginning of a comic that would go on to have a very long run, telling a very long story. So I guess I'll be glad to read some more and find out just when all of these characters were introduced.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Elektra: Assassin

This post might be even more scatterbrained than they usually are. That would be because I’m not yet exactly sure of how to react to Elektra: Assassin. First of all, I can’t believe that it’s taken me this long to get to reading it. My writing about it would probably greatly benefit from having the chance to reread it a couple of times, but this will serve as a document of my first time through with a really challenging, strange, and exciting comic.

It must have been great to be Frank Miller in 1986. Seriously, nobody could compete with him. He had recently done great work on Daredevil in the Marvel house style. He jumped ship to do Ronin for DC, a project which undeniably laid some groundwork for the one spotlighted here. Then there was the big one...The Dark Knight Returns. Oh, and I almost forgot Daredevil/Elektra: Love and War, the first Frank Miller/Bill Sienkiewicz collaboration. That’s one of those books that I know I read years ago, but you really can’t ask me for a plot summary. I’ll have to revisit that story soon. So with all of this success, Archie Goodwin at Epic Comics probably just figured “What the hell? Why not just let Frank run amok and do whatever he wants with that Elektra character.” And so we got this.

Elektra: Assassin is a comic that I’m surprised came out in 1986. Surprised and yet very, very glad. Epic Comics was a good place to take this, since they were A.) a Marvel imprint, with all of the rights and privileges which that entails, and B.) not held to the censorship of the Comics Code Authority. It let Miller unleash the madcap genius he usually had to be a little careful about. I suppose I could give a plot summary, but really, this is not a comic in which the plot is essential to its worth. Yes, there is a story being told here, but the most important feature of it is how it is being told. Stream of consciousness narration fills the book and leaves you unsettled and wondering. Elektra is a woman of complete mystery. 

Elektra: Assassin has to be looked at as a satire. There really isn’t anything that is sacred here...American politicians are buzz sawed, as are a host of other subjects: the portrayal of women in comics, nuclear war (remember this is a “Cold War comic”), robots, violence, sex, even the kind of narration that Miller made so popular with The Dark Knight. Oh yeah, and I always love how the guns that people use are so ridiculously huge that they would never be able to fire them.

Frank Miller’s writing might take a little patience. The narrative is fairly scattershot, rapidly taking you into TV news reports and different peoples’ minds. But once you acclimate yourself to the kind of storytelling that is going on, everything works out. You start “to get it.” Elektra isn’t often the main focus. Garret, a SHIELD agent who gets blown to bits by Elektra and then reassembled by the agency, seems more like the protagonist here. A lot of what can be understood about Elektra comes from his narrative, and he definitely fits into the everyman’s shoes in this story. It’s a story about a person’s journey with a mysterious and deadly woman.

The art of Bill Sienkiewicz is also challenging, but I would say it’s more immediately rewarding than Miller’s script. As a painted comic, it automatically stands apart from whatever anyone could expect as standard. Sienkiewicz wears so many different stylistic hats in these eight issues. It’s just amazing. His characters are cartoonish but seem undeniably real. His portrayals of the politicians say so much: Ken Wind’s face hardly ever changes and looks like a newspaper photo tacked onto the face of a real man. He is a facsimile of a real person and the visuals back this up. Likewise, The President is a hideous disfiguration of a political cartoon, but it makes sense: everything he says is ridiculous and he couldn’t run America no matter how hard he tried. Sienkiewicz also captures the spookiness of SHIELD’s robot technology, making it clear that this is some pretty crazy stuff. 

Apologies if this isn’t an especially in depth look at the series. As I mentioned it’s all still swirling around in my head. What I can say with certainty is that I liked Elektra: Assassin, even if it takes a couple more read-throughs to be able to explain exactly why.   It was a unique comic and I’m glad that Frank Miller got the green light to make it.

One thing that I simply can’t explain: why this story has been so hard to find and read. The most recent printing was in the Elektra Omnibus, which was a big and expensive hardcover that collected other stories along with it. I want to be able to walk into a comic store and just buy Elektra: Assassin on its own and not spend $75 like they are asking for the Omnibus. It looks like it’s been more than ten years since a standard trade paperback has come out, which in my book makes it older than Marvel’s trade paperback program itself. Doesn’t this seem like the perfect story to put into Marvel’s Premiere Hardcover format? It’s just a mystery to me why this isn’t readily available. 

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Justice League: The Nail

I’d like to do a series of posts on DC’s Elseworlds imprint, which sadly has been a thing of the past for some time now. It was a great excuse to just make some fun comics. Top-tier writers and artists set loose with the DC characters and given free rein to put them into whatever kind of new settings they wanted? Sign me up.

The Elseworlds title discussed here came out in 1998, right when I started ravenously collecting X-Men titles. Justice League comics were outside of my radar at that point. The connection here is that after wrapping up this Justice League work, Alan Davis (the double-duty writer and artist on The Nail) took over the writing of the X-Men comics and drew X-Men on a monthly basis. Back then I honestly didn’t like Davis’ style, much preferring the work of Adam Kubert on Uncanny, but wow, with time did my opinion of Davis change. I really love his work now, and I made it a priority to seek out some more of it...the first thing I found was Justice League: The Nail.

In this story, the Justice League exists and looks much the same as it did in, I would say, the post-Crisis DC Comics of the late 80’s. But the Elseworlds spin is that this is a world without Superman. The story is titled after a nail that pops a tire on Jonathan Kent’s truck as that little space pod crashes in a field near Smallville. We’re led to believe that this is the trip that would take the Kents to find a baby Kal-El, but because of the change of one small part of the plot, this never happens.

The Justice League is feared. There’s an anti-metahuman agenda that is largely spread by Lex Luthor, the mayor of Metropolis (he’s still the super-smart rich guy in this version too). The media always seems to be there to capture the perfect shot of a bad guy getting beaten to a pulp. Batman is caught in the act of killing the Joker, which sure does sound like some harsh justice. What the cameras and microphones don’t catch is that the Joker just killed Batgirl and Robin after wreaking havoc throughout Arkham Asylum with some mysterious Kryptonian technology.

It just wouldn’t be nice to give away too much of the story here. Alan Davis definitely packs in a lot of plot in these 150 or so pages, which were originally published as three prestige format comics and later collected into trade paperback. Pretty much any DC character you can think of is at least seen in this book in a panel or two. That’s some Crisis-like ambition on Mr. Davis’ part! I definitely enjoyed The Nail, but I felt that the whole thing was wrapped up far too quickly. This could have used a “Chapter Four of Three” for sure. The reveals and the twists come pretty quickly in the last 25 pages. Minor spoilers: we knew from page one that Kal-El did land on earth, so it shouldn’t be too surprising that he eventually shows up. It just would have been nice to see him do a little bit more, but as the final pages mention, this isn’t the end of a story but the beginning of a new one. You can bet that I’ll be on the lookout for Justice League: Another Nail, the 2004 sequel Davis worked on, soon.

In what might become a regular new feature of these reviews, I have some little snippet observations:

I really loved the way that Davis drew the Flash. He was still muscular but kind of skinny. It makes sense that Barry Allen wouldn’t be quite as ripped as most of the other superheroes.

In the “slight disappointment” department, the New Gods characters are all shown and a war starts up, presumably related to all the goings-on back on earth. But after starting, the rest of this conflict isn’t shown. I figured there would be a New Gods/ earth smashup of sorts (I expected Darkseid to be behind some of it) but it all proved to be an afterthought. I guess I would have liked to help Alan Davis out with the plot for this thing, just a little. By cutting out those essentially space-wasting New Gods scenes he could have dedicated a few more pages to padding out the ending better.

Another thing that I think is a bit of an Alan Davis trademark is that sometimes when a character is wearing a mask with the “white eyes” he draws the pupils so you can get a better sense of the character’s emotion. I know that other artists do this too, but for some reason I always get slightly distracted when Davis does it.

Let’s have a round of applause for Mark Farmer, the inker on this fine publication. He’s Davis’ right hand man, and this is a very good thing.

This was a wonderful plot-based superhero story. Look elsewhere if you want to really dive into characterization. A lot of what draws you into the superheroes in this story is what they do. Martian Manhunter is seen doing his “watching TV” routine. Davis painstakingly shows how the Atom gets into a villain’s laboratory. The Nail is an action story told on a grand scale.

If you happen to come across this book in trade paperback format and are slightly interested in, you might as well just snag it. The Nail is an older DC trade and isn’t in print currently. In summary, you really can’t go wrong with the artwork of Alan Davis, and his storytelling, while overly grandiose, is still engaging.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Magic The Gathering: Path of the Planeswalker II

Writing about this book reveals yet another aspect of the geekiness that runs rampant through my life. Magic the Gathering, the grand daddy of all collectible card games, has been something I’ve really enjoyed as a casual fan. I’ve been collecting again only for about a year, and the last time I was really following was about 10 years ago. It’s something that is fun to do with friends and family, and so far I’ve been too scared to ever try any kind of competitive play. It was easy for me to get sucked right back into the world of Magic after a long hiatus because the people at Wizards of the Coast have done such a great job of building an entire saga around it.

This book is one of the ways they’ve built up what is so great about Magic. Path of the Planeswalker II, like its predecessor, reprints comics that were originally published online at the Magic website. They exist to help flesh out the storyline that can really only be hinted at through the cards themselves. So these comics are running along the spiffy interactive websites and the novels in the world building department.

What we have here in this book is quite the grab bag. There should be some kind of disclosure in that if you don’t care about Magic at all, this book is highly unlikely to convert you into being a fan. This is definitely a “preaching to the choir” kind of comic. The stories are handed off between a bunch of different artists and writers (sometimes quite jarringly) and some artists are a little on the amateurish side. It’s nice that they wanted to have a painted look throughout the comic, presumably to retain that same flavor as the Magic cards themselves. As far as buzz names go, here’s what I’ve got: Arthur Suydam, Kev Walker, Brian Haberlin, Mark Texeira, but they are only a fraction of the people who worked on these comics.

Just one more pitstop before some talk about the story. The Path of the Planeswalker books, simply as physical books on the shelf, are among some of the best made trade paperbacks I have in my collection. Wizards of the Coast doesn’t seem to be cutting any expense in making these. They’re printed in the U.S. on some really nice and thick glossy paper and have nice and sturdy binding. It reminds me of an IDW book, but is superior to those...we’ll return to that connection in a bit. This compilation runs to 160 pages and costs $17.95. I don’t see Marvel or DC offering this kind of value at the $18 price point these days.

And now we arrive at the stories themselves. Some things worked a lot better than other things. My favorite parts were the origins for a couple of the planeswalkers. Once I read the stories of Garukk Wildspeaker and Liliana Vess I was expecting the rest of the comics to be devoted to telling similar stories for all of the planeswalkers. I thought they were very good because they really made it clear how Garukk was always going to be a green magic user and how Liliana was always going to be a black magic user. I think that Liliana was my favorite character in these comics, not because I found her particularly likable, but I just enjoyed her sarcasm and her darkness.

But sadly, this kind of meaningful character building isn’t a focus in too many of the other yarns. There’s a very high quotient of “heroes uniting against a huge threat and oh my god everyone could die very soon” here. Which is okay, and I’m sure that a lot of Magic fans are really looking for that. I just would like to see more of what makes the characters really tick. A lot of the fun of these comics is seeing the characters, creatures, and places that always remain so static as trading cards as they come to life and actually do stuff and become real. But sometimes there’s not quite enough development and everything remains a little hazy. Just scanning the Amazon reviews shows that the fans know when there is a stinker in the Magic canon. I think that Wizards should try to focus on the characters even more and see what happens. They might be able to make more people happy that way.

Path of the Planeswalker II covers a lot of ground storywise. The Eldrazi are seen, the plots of Nicol Bolas are advanced, Jace is out doing his thing, the Phyrexian invasion on Mirrodin is in full swing...they could have made the page count twice as high and it would still be hard to fully satisfy. Understanding that Wizards is doing what they can with these comics, it’s good that we at least have 160 pages of story in a really nice format.

One thing that is pretty exciting is an ad on the last page. It was also included in a free sampler that was distributed back in May for Free Comic Book Day. It’s a pretty great announcement: new Magic comics will be published by IDW this coming fall. It sounds like they’re going to be doing exclusive card inserts too, so that should be a lot of fun. If they have a monthly Magic series, I’m sure that Wizards will have a more steady way to roll out the story they want to tell. Things will be less sporadic. One gripe about this ad is that the link they include still doesn’t exist and it’s been two months since we’ve first seen it. Oh well, when the IDW Magic comics site is up it will be a happy day. So the future for Magic the Gathering’s comics output is looking like it will be in good hands.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Lone Wolf and Cub

Just one great thing about Dark Horse's Lone Wolf books: the first few volumes
have cover art by none other than Frank Miller.

And now it's time for something different.

I've always wanted to be a little more into manga than I am. I've only started a handful of series over the years, and have always been pretty selective of what I pick up. I'm aware that as with most other things manga is a case of the good, the bad, and the ugly, and so far I've managed to stay with a lot of the good stuff.

But the stuff I have liked the most is still Lone Wolf and Cub. I read the beginning and ending parts of the 28 volume series through the local public library. It was strange to read the first handful of volumes and then have to jump to the end of the story. There was really only one thing that I did know for sure...the parts of Lone Wolf and Cub that I could actually get my hands on were unlike any other comics I'd ever come across.

So now probably five years have passed and I recently read through the first two volumes of the series a second time. The plan is to keep going and eventually be able to give a comprehensive 28 volume review of the series. As is typical with manga series, these books are quick and exciting reads, and once you put one volume down it's hard not to dive right into the next!

Lone Wolf and Cub is a story about an assassin for hire named Ogami Itto. He might be known as the Lone Wolf, but he never travels by himself. The Cub is his young son (I'm guessing he's four years old or so) named Daigoro. Those are the only characters who stick around in these first two books. Other important names to remember are the series' creators, writer Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima. Both of these men are just incredible at what they do. The first two volumes already feature more than a dozen unique and interesting stories of Itto's many hired killings. And the art in Lone Wolf is a realistic, inky recreation of feudal Japan down to the last detail.
"Just another day on the job:" the life of Ogami Itto.

I guess I'd like to just point out a handful of scattered thoughts:

Ogami Itto is a man who kills and kills and does so in exchange for money. Sounds marginally scummy at best. But throughout these comics you never doubt that he is a man of integrity, and although he is ronin ( a samurai without a master), he still has honor. The  Lone Wolf is such a complex character and it's because there is so much to take into consideration about him. He's undeniably a caring father and a man who respects people when he isn't cutting them down. And even then, he usually still honors the people he kills.

People looking for great battle scenes should really look no further. Part of the "quickness" in reading Lone Wolf and Cub is that there is always plenty of space dedicated to wordless battles. Kojima's art is so vital and expressive that you get drawn in no matter how many times you see a sword cut strait through someone.

I'd like to officially nominate Daigoro as one of comics' all-time cutest kid characters. He's one smart little boy, and he always has fun riding in the baby cart or dancing and singing for people. Not only is he smart, but the kid is as tough as they come. In one story, Daigoro has to be left behind in a small cave in mountainous terrain while his father completes an assassination. An avalanche is triggered and Daigoro's hideaway is swallowed up in snow. Itto, who is almost always a complete stoic, is obviously worried about his son and thinks that he has died. He looks anyway and finds his young child scared but otherwise okay once he is removed from the harsh wall of frost.

One thing I remembered quite clearly about Lone Wolf and Cub was reinforced by reading again. Although at heart the story is about a man slaying many other men, Koike came up with a host of interesting female characters to round out the series. This is a good manga series to read not only for the battle scenes but also for the depth of the characters, and there are plenty of memorable women introduced throughout the many chapters of the saga.

So far I've only revisited less than 10% of Lone Wolf and Cub, and it's exactly the comic gold that I remember from years ago. I can't wait to get to all of the books that I never had the chance to read before.