Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 2 #3

X-MEN #32-33

I was hoping, when I flipped through this, that the issues featuring Juggernaut (not to mention the indication of the cover of the collection) were his firs appearances.  Turns out that was wrong.  These issues were a return engagement, but also an expansion on the mythology of the character.

Still, they solve one of the mysteries in the volume, the big secret Professor X has kept in his lab and has been working on for several issues now.  Juggernaut, Cain Marko, is Xavier’s step-brother, a fact anyone who watched the classics 1990s cartoon knew already (but a fact that didn’t factor in X-MEN 3: THE LAST STAND), and so his personal interest shouldn’t be surprising, but the fact that Juggernaut is otherwise just another villain that the team is defeated by and later defeats should count as a little disappointing, but indicative of the storytelling of the time.

Roy Thomas continues to have fun with pop culture, referencing several hip things even readers in the 21st Century will recognize, but whether or not writers in the Marvel Bullpen actually cared about any of it is a matter for debate, more like window-dressing is how it comes off, even in the story itself, trying to make the young characters seem relevant to young readers who would’ve needed such excuses.  (Curiously, and pointedly, no movie based on a Marvel character so far has made any such efforts.)

Scott is still anguishing over telling Jean that he loves her, and keeps postponing it, even though they’re now spending a considerable amount of time together, and having jettisoned Warren successfully from the love-triangle (having now been replaced simply by Scott’s anguish and general angst).  You’d think a romance so protracted would have longer ramifications to later stories, but Jean was killed off permanently years ago (unless she returns in AvX), and few writers seem interested in memorializing either the relationship or Jean (which again, is just baffling), leaving it to the past as if it’s no longer relevant.

Oh, and Juggernaut is put back into deep freeze at the end of this two-part story, but not before apparently an apparent connection to another long-standing recurring element, the threat of Factor Three, is made.  If anyone wanted to rewrite history, they’d rename Factor Three X-Factor.  And give Jean Grey her due.

Predator or Prey?

Grant Morrison’s vision of the Dark Knight finally returns.  For those unfamiliar with this saga, it began in 2006, with BATMAN #655, when Damian was first introduced into the mythos (having been conceived in SON OF THE BAT), adding a ripple of complication into Bruce Wayne’s life.  Damian is his child with Talia Head, daughter of Ra’s al Ghul.  Morrison previously put Batman through the ringer in “R.I.P.,” FINAL CRISIS, and THE RETURN OF BRUCE WAYNE, though he developed the budding Damian in BATMAN AND ROBIN, and brought Bruce back up to speed the original volume of BATMAN INC.  The culmination of Morrison’s run has concerned the emerging threat of Leviathan, who has necessitated the building of an alliance around the world of Batmen (including Batwing, who stars in his own New 52 series).  This issue is the beginning of the end, and reveals the identity of Leviathan, but doesn’t miss an opportunity for another rollicking (as has been the pattern for every issue of BATMAN, INC.) adventure, this time centering around a would-be assassin obsessed over his own son, even as he puts Robin in the crosshairs.  There’s a thousand things that would help you better understand exactly what’s going on, but Morrison helpfully frames most of it in pithy moments that ground the action, and leaves you begging for more.  Well, hopefully at least eleven more issues.

Mike Costa and Antonio Fuso have been doing some of the best comics around for a few years now, and now they’ve folded both the villains and the heroes under their auspices.  I haven’t been able to read COBRA regularly for some time now, but clearly they haven’t missed a beat.  Ever since Cobra Civil War began (which, by the way, was an event initiated by these guys), the series has been able to dive still deeper in the rich psychology available with existing characters these stories have mastered.  The best example from this issue involves the confrontations Chameleon (who used to work for Cobra) has with defector (by matter of elimination in choices) Tomax Paoli (yes, the surviving brother of the two Cobras who seemed to exist to have silly names in some previous life) and other Joes who try and walk her through this process.  She has a violent reaction, but the situation plays out beautifully, as does ever other moment in the issue, and the series, in its several incarnations at this point.  If you’ve never read any of it, you owe it to yourself to correct this omission.  This is one of the best comics being published today, and that has been true for years now.

This is the first issue where Jason Todd might once again be considered the villain he was when he first returned as the Red Hood, back from the dead and menacing Batman.  There’s good reason for that, because he’s back in Gotham for “Night of the Owls” in a story that seems like Scott Lobdell was both rushed into this moment and therefore wasn’t entirely prepared for it, and what he embraces it like he has the whole challenge of this series.  None of this should have worked.  After “Under the Hood,” no one really seemed to know what to do with Jason (COUNTDOWN TO FINAL CRISIS seemed like just another in the series of missteps, including an awkward stint in NIGHTWING), but suddenly the New 52 fresh start seemed like an excellent way to start over.  This is a series about a team that’s not really a team, just three characters running around together, and Jason happens to be at the center, and it’s Lobdell’s narrations for him that really makes everything work so well, what keeps me coming back.  Although it seems like barely the surface of the book’s potential has been scratched so far, it’s one of the best books to come out of the reboot.  I’m hoping Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort stick together for a long time.  Then they can get around to telling that story where Jason gets to confront these Batman family chuckleheads on his own terms.  Except this time he’ll really get to make his point.

I’ve been meaning to read another issue of this one ever since discovering what a wonderful series the TV show has become.  I read a handful of issues fairly regularly a few years ago, but have never become a devotee.  It just never caught my imagination as something that needed to be read regularly to have processed and understood as a worthy enterprise.  Basically, it’s the same thing every issue, these survivors struggling to survive, without a lot of progress being made one way or the other.  This issue, it seems they’re finally at the point where they must decide whether they’re the predator or the prey.  Maybe that’s what Robert Kirkman has been driving toward.  You’d think after a hundred issues he’d have gotten around to something else, too, but maybe that’s what he really wants his fans to think about, the act of survival, how it changes you.  Maybe the title of this thing is more ironic than you’d think.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 2 #2

X-MEN #s 29-31

What is the fate of Cal Rankin, the Mimic?  In the first of these issues, he seems to have adjusted into the arrogant outsider as a member of the X-Men that anyone could have seen coming.  The rest of the team is enjoying a little relaxation (figure skating, another sure sign that these comics were originally created in an entirely different era, referencing the fairly obscure Carol Heiss of all figures), though Scott Summers beggars off, trying to cope with the anxiety of figuring out how to control his powers, unwittingly awakening the Super-Adaptoid, apparently the Marvel version of Amazo (with far less longevity).

Mimic decides to quit the team and actually deludes himself into believing the Adaptoid will prove a better fit for his abilities (on the surface, yes), until figuring out how wrong he was, and helps the X-Men prevail, before once again seeming to lose all his borrowed abilities and returning to a normal life.  It’s about as average an issue for the team as possible, but shows off exactly the right elements.

The next one resurrects Merlin, renaming him for some reason Warlock, and apparently a sinister personality bent on world domination.  Long story short, it doesn’t work.  What’s more interesting, or perhaps perfectly obvious, is that Marvel Girl, Jean Grey, is dragged once more into the center of the plot as Warlock’s intended bride (everyone has the hots for her, possibly because she’s the only regular female character in the book). 

The final issue in this trilogy of aborted villains features Cobalt Man, who is more likely an Iron Man villain, considering his whole story revolves around Iron Man (much as Warlock had a hard-on for Thor; this kind of inter-continuity probably played a large part in making Marvel in very short order become the preferred comic book publisher, since there was a near-instant sense of familiarity with a bunch of characters who had really only just come into existence).  But Cobalt Man is also the brother of Ted Roberts, the college campus love interest of Jean Grey, solving one of the riddles in this collection, the angst of the otherwise perfect Ted Roberts, always fretting over comparisons to his brother.  Turns out his brother is just as nutty as every other egghead in Marvel, as likely to make bad decisions without really learning from them.  But once again, it’s a story revolving around Jean Grey, who perhaps is not coincidentally codenamed “Marvel Girl.”  Could it be that in some alternate version of Marvel history, she was meant to be the star of the book, and perhaps a central character in the publisher’s lineup?  No wonder that “The Dark Phoenix Saga” eventually made her one of the most memorable figures in Marvel lore.  If the company ever actually rebooted, it would be a tough argument not to make her a star again.

Many Happy Returns

I haven’t read a new Atomic Robo adventure science Free Comic Book Day.  Excuse me, let me clarify, FCBD 2011.  I didn’t read this year’s installment, because for the first time in five years, I missed FCBD.  Heroes & Dragons doesn’t participate.  I may ask them if they can at least get me copies of the free comics I wanted (the annual Atomic Robo offering, plus my regular dose of free DC).  Anyway, back to the matter at hand, I’ve just read Atomic Robo, which I’ve enjoyed doing for four years, give or take, now.  His adventures have been among the most clever material I’ve ever read in a comic book, as if BONE had never gone into deep fantasy, and remained lighthearted.  It’s primarily been the work of writer Brian Clevinger and artist Scott Wegener, but the distinctive appearance of the character has long inspired fan art, and so it was only a matter of time before Wegener actually gave way to other artists.  REAL SCIENCE ADVENTURES is essentially an anthology title that accomplishes exactly that, Clevinger delivering exactly the same kind of witty, sparse storytelling, and our first chance to see variations on the basic style already well-established (there are six paperback collections if you’d like to see for yourself).  There are clear parallels between Robo and Hellboy, but whereas Hellboy is involved in fairly steep mythology and franchise at this point, Robo is still his trademark blissfully carefree self, like the most pure form of what a comic book should be.  In fact, if that’s how you want to consider Atomic Robo, then I would encourage and endorse that view!

At the start of the year, I rather pithily dismissed the launch of this series, but now I get to benefit, so I’m going to quickly and quietly reverse my position, if only for one issue.  I’m a big fan of Stuart Immonen (and his frequent collaborator and wife, Kathryn), but until this issue I haven’t seen the Marvel version of Stuart Immonen compare favorably to the transcendent version I enjoyed at DC at the end of the last millennium.  I would go so far as to say that version of Stuart Immonen as one of the best creators of his generation, both as writer and artist.  The Marvel version of Stuart Immonen has tried a variety of ways to be the exact opposite of that Stuart Immonen, and suffice it to say, I really don’t see the point.  So it was with great pleasure that I saw this issue, which features Spidey teaming up with She-Hulk in a throwback adventure in so many ways.  It’s at once an argument that Stuart should do Peter Parker (he did Pete once before, in ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN, but that was Bendis Spider-Man, not Immonen Spider-Man), and that maybe he wouldn’t be such a bad fit for She-Hulk, either (and yes, I acknowledge that Kathryn was the writer of this tale and not Stuart, but for me, when Stuart’s art is the art I best associate with Stuart, the whole story becomes associated with him).  So, Marvel, take note, or if you don’t, then at least let Stuart notice that at least some of his fans are.  This might have been a random issue of a series that doesn’t really seem to have a coherent point to it, but its significance is greater than you can imagine.

One of Marvel’s periodic attempts to chronicle its own fictional history in a journalistic fashion, this comic is also evidence that Marvel has produced many, many stories with a bare minimum of coherence, which may be fun to read at the time, but don’t actually make up a history that inspires a lot of confidence.  This is what people think of when they think of comic books, and maybe that helped THE AVENGERS wildly succeed as a movie, but it’s not a lot to take seriously, unless you don’t look very closely.  A DC version of this would read differently, is all I’m saying.  I know that MARVELS managed to make this kind of history lesson look remarkably impressive, and maybe the same thing could be done today with the same effect, but to see how many times Marvel has changed characters and attempted to kill them off, only to backpedal and still pretend that every single story its ever told actually exists in continuity, well…to a perpetual skeptic who can still appreciate the odd story, it just beggars the mind.  Fans really prefer, on general majority, Marvel to DC?  Maybe it’s because Marvel does the cliché comic better than anyone, I don’t know.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but every now and again, it’s probably worth living up to the hype instead of coasting on reputation.  Just saying…

Speaking of which, this is a book that many fans seem to assume is doing exactly that, when it’s doing anything but.  Geoff Johns has been building a coherent story since the launch, and this is an issue that really rewards faith in that, even if you haven’t always been, pardon me, a true believer.  His angle has from the start been about the world’s perception of the League which is why Steve Trevor is relevant as a character for the first time in decades, and why a new villain named Graves (for the moment?) may be the most significant new adversary for the team since Prometheus, emerging first as an anonymous cheerleader who literally wrote the book about the team, and then became embittered and disillusioned, an arc Mark Waid tried to do in THE KINGDOM, but which here may actually work.  The best comic book stories in this millennium will always tell stories on at least two levels: 1) from the ordinary perspective of the characters involved, and 2) from the greater perspective of how that story relates to the world the characters live in, which more or less means they work on objective and subjective levels.  There are many ways to do this, and Geoff Johns has perfected his, first with Green Lantern, and now with the Justice League.  Sit back and enjoy the ride.

Random attacks by the Talons in “Night of the Owls” continue, and for Nightwing, they’re surprisingly personal.  Kyle Higgins continues to exploit his opportunity to give the Grayson family line the same amount of depth writers have been giving the Waynes for years, so that Dick Grayson is no longer just the orphaned son of circus performers who served as a useful surrogate for Bruce Wayne’s war on crime, but rather someone with a rich history of his own.  In fact, Scott Snyder seems to have unwittingly ceded the most relevant part of his epic to his partner in crime.  This issue reveals both the strengths and the weaknesses in the concept of the Court of Owls, how random an opponent they really are, and how convoluted it is to make them relevant in the way they’re supposed to be.  Higgins, though, makes it work in surprising fashion, and it would do well for future Nightwing writers to remember this issue.  This is a greater concern than you’d think, because most new Nightwing writers tend to ignore what’s come before them (there are exceptions, but then if there weren’t, there wouldn’t be a rule).  What Higgins is really doing here is establishing once and for all that Dick Grayson is a viable character in his own right.  I for one hope that Higgins remains onboard for many years to come.

I’ve been intrigued by this title ever since I learned of its existence.  This is the first issue I’ve actually been able to read, but I’m still infinitely glad and gratified.  Peter Pan as a cultural icon is fascinating, the first time in pop entertainment where a child is held up as an ideal, even if he’s a deeply flawed one, suggesting that youth and experience are not always mutually exclusive in surprisingly profound ways.  Of course, one of the distinctions in the traditional story is Peter’s relationship with Wendy, and by sheer coincidence, this issue of PETER PANZERFAUST, a vision of the character by Kurtis Wiebe that recasts him into WWII, is the introduction of Wendy into the narrative.  Sometimes luck really does work that way.  I don’t know how long this series can last, but I’ll be a faithful reader for as long as possible.

Not surprisingly, this is going to be a series that deepens its own mythology with every new issue, exploring and meditating on the same themes as they unfold, one narrative and vision, which just so happens to be pretty profound.  What is the proper relationship one should have with fringe experiences?  Like the TV show FRINGE, SAUCER COUNTRY does not have easy answers, but Paul Cornell wastes no time getting beyond that and plunging deeply into his story.  Maybe things won’t happen very quickly, but they’ll be interesting.

I’m still shocked that most fans have skipped out on this one, but pleased that DC saw fit to give James Robinson a full year to explore one of the more fascinating elements of his late, critically acclaimed STARMAN series, a reformed villain with a rich history and a thorny future, all of which is intertwined in this story.  I’ve missed three issues since the last time I was able to get my hands on THE SHADE, and you’ve got to know that ensuring I didn’t miss the rest of it was one of my primary concerns in opening a box at Heroes & Dragons. So then, here we go again.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Essential Classic X-Men Vol. 2 #1

Part of the reason I tried to quit reading new comics last year was because I had a series of burgled packages from (which in itself might have been prevented had the postal service actually been performing competently).  The one way the apartment tenants seemed to atone for this was in the random appearance of ESSENTIAL CLASSIC X-MEN VOL. 2 in one of the periodic we’re-moving-out pile of boxes to be scavenged by anyone helping to thin out unwanted possessions.  I must repeat, this discovery was pretty random, because when I first moved into those apartments, it was a pre-retirement community, and only gradually became something else (less trustworthy).

Anyway, so I got my hands on one of those thick black-and-white reprint volumes that serve as an inexpensive window into other comic book eras, and even though I don’t read X-Men comics with anything close to regularity, I was pretty happy.  The only real question was when I was going to actually start reading it (a regular concern for me, because I have more reading material than I can keep up with).  Well, that day has finally come.

I’ll be providing regular commentary as I make my way through it.  Part of what makes ESSENTIAL CLASSIC X-MEN VOL. 2 is that it represents the era that almost killed the franchise, collecting X-MEN #25-53, from the late 1960s.  The X-Men were unpopular, but they were liked enough for Marvel to keep around for the cult audience that grooved to a bunch of merry mutants.  The stories in this collection are written by Roy Thomas, Gary Friedrich, and Arnold Drake, names that don’t exactly resound with quite the same significance as Stan Lee, Chris Claremont, and Grant Morrison (Thomas comes the closest).

So far I’ve read:
X-MEN #s 25-28

This is still within the formative development of the team, and so features the classic, original looks (in fact, Beast looks definitively human throughout the collection), even though within these few issues alone new costumes are already introduced.  It shows that Marvel survived on romance comics before the big superhero boom at the start of the decade, because one of the central storylines to be found is the love triangle between Jean Grey (“Marvel Girl”), Cyclops, and Angel.  Jean has in fact recently gone off to college, and is pining after some bloke named Ted Roberts, and Mimic (probably the archetype for the character of Morph from the classic 1990s cartoon) happens to be on campus as well, biding his time for another run at the team, though the circumstances that rapidly bring him into conflict with it quickly transition him into an unlikely new “deputy leader.”  None of the villains in these issues make a lasting impact, though Banshee debuts as yet another Marvel character to start out as an antagonist, only to join the good guys (seriously, how many have there been?).

It should be noted that the team consists of Professor X, Jean, Cyclops, Angel, Beast, and Iceman, and that Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and Thor (in reference) make appearances.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Swear to Bendis, I'm Not Becoming a Convert

I feel like I’ve been reading a lot of this book recently for some reason, don’t know why…Anyway, this particular issue is the newest one and is a tie-in with the “Night of the Owls” event inspired by events in Scott Snyder’s BATMAN, and features young Damian Wayne getting to exert himself against a Talon and a bunch of army officers he’s attempting to rescue, one in particular who has become a target of the Court thanks to some unresolved business from centuries ago, the American Revolution to be precise.  If anything, Peter Tomasi helps make clear that the Court of Owls is basically a Freemasons type of secret society in this episode, even if he kind of stumbles in the few scenes not dominated by Damian (any scene with Damian is dominated by Damian).  Nothing overtly connected to previous issues occurs, but there are subtle connections.  Patrick Gleason will be back, and hopefully the regularly scheduled storytelling will also resume next issue.

CHARMED #21 (Zenescope)
My sister is kind of obsessive about CHARMED, the TV show, though she enjoys the comic book, too.  My access to the comic was severed last year when I backed out of my subscriptions with Midtown, so I jumped at the opportunity to resume access to this book, along with some others.  My sister seems content to read the trade collections (there are now three), so I’m actually wondering if I should even pass these individual issues to her anymore.  The comics tend to be a little less about the Halliwell sisters and more about the big stories, which I suppose might simply be a difference of the mediums.  Another difference?  Prue can finally return, as has apparently happened.  Prue was the sister played by Shannon Doherty, who left the TV show at the end of the third season, never to be seen again.  Hopefully Paul Ruditis nails this opportunity.  The current big story?  The sisters have lost their powers, while everyone else in the world now has them, and disaster has resulted.  And yes, this is when Prue returns.

I’ve been investigating exactly the background Paul Cornell enjoyed before entering the exciting world of comics, and it was usually summed up with, “worked on DOCTOR WHO.”  Turns out he started out as a fan who got to write some fiction, book-form, and some of that led to work on the actual TV version of DOCTOR WHO, and he’s also got a few pieces of original fiction out there, but it may be safe to say that his name has gained greater recognition as he’s begun his career in comics.  Since coming to DC, Cornell has truly blossomed, certainly in his Lex Luthor arc in the pages of the pre-New 52 ACTION COMICS (must-read material), and now in the pages of DEMON KNIGHTS, a fantasy series that functions much in the same way as his acclaimed CAPTAIN BRITAIN AND MI:13, sadly cut short before its time.  DEMON KNIGHTS is what that series would have been like had Cornell been given complete creative control (one of CB&MI13’s most notable arcs was a tie-in with SECRET INVASION), and in many ways feels like what Grant Morrison’s SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY would have read like as an ongoing series.  Most of the characters involved have their own agendas, but their common destinies (as of this moment, since characters like Jason Blood/Etrigan and Vandal Savage are active in modern times as well) are currently involved in the continuing legacy of Camelot.  The famed wizard Merlin is a virtual stand-in for Walter Bishop from FRINGE, which I find utterly fascinating.  It’s Cornell’s ability to make anything fantastic to be relevant that marks him not only to be one of the best writers in comics today but arguably a threat to be the best writer of tomorrow.  If that’s not enough reason to read him now, I don’t know what is.

The secret origin of the Indigo Tribe is exploded by Geoff Johns in this issue, and as usual, he manages to tie it in with the intricate mythology he’s both inherited and greatly expanded on within the Green Lantern mythos.  If you’re a fan, you know who Abin Sur is, and how he helped set BLACKEST NIGHT into order; now it becomes clear that he was looking past those events, too, and that’s why he helped create the Indigo Tribe, under circumstances and with a partner you’ll have to read this issue to fully enjoy.  Suffice it to say, but this is probably the most important issue so far in the New 52 era, and is probably the one that finally links the work Johns was doing previously with the soft reboot that “War of the Green Lanterns” helped usher.

MOON KNIGHT #12 (Marvel)
One of the things referenced in the letters column substitute from BRILLIANT #3 was this wrap-up of the series Brian Michael Bendis improbably agreed to do, handling one of Marvel’s problem children, a character who’s had multiple chances at ongoing series and pretty much failed at all of them, for decades now.  Bendis, so far as I can tell with this issue, seems to have concluded it makes sense to make Moon Knight actually seem crazy and isolated, given that his tenuous grip on reality has always suggested that.  If I’d known this earlier, I might have sampled the series earlier, but for many years now, I assumed Bendis was a Marvel stooge the company’s fanboys embraced simply because he was ubiquitous and seemed to write every other title for them.  Granted, a lot of his Avengers work (and there was an avalanche of it) definitely seemed to support that theory every time I sampled it, but there was other stuff that suggested he was more competent than that.  BRILLIANT nailed that for me, and so now I’m free to approach Bendis from a new perspective.  This is one of my rewards.

This is another.  I sampled the first issue of this second reboot of the Ultimate Spider-Man adventures (the first to not feature Peter Parker), featuring the introduction of Miles Morales as only the third new Spider-Man in Marvel history (I’ll give you a nickel for naming the other one, and I’m not referring to clones who may or may not answer to the name Ben Reilly).  It’s amazing how vividly inspired Bendis has been by his long tenure with Ultimate Spider-Man.  This alone has secured his status in comics history, and I’m kind of hitting myself for not reading another Morales adventure until now.  But this is a good one to jump back into with, as he finally learns the truth about Uncle Aaron, which is another of those brain-numbingly obvious superhero stories that few writers have actually done it.  Treat yourself and discover it for yourself.

Another issue!  Concluding “Under the God,” Michael and Abi finally get to leave the Cross Chains town of Godsholm, sort of like THE BOOK OF ELI but with less Denzel Washington, and shev off back along their journey to A-Ree-Yass-I, along with Gerr, who will soon help all of us better understand what exactly is going on.  This is an epic adventure that may finally find its audience once it concludes so that there can no longer be any doubt concerning its brilliance.  Christopher Mitten may be working on other stuff, too, but this will be his legacy.  

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Crossing the Threshold

Sometimes it takes seeing a familiar story in a new light to understand it.  Everyone has a chance to experience this, even if the first reaction is to reject the new version in favor of the familiar one; writers are faced with this challenge all the time.  The main difference between DC and Marvel is that DC has for most of its existence been reinventing itself and its most famous characters.  Grant Morrison accepted the biggest challenge of the New 52 by tackling Superman, who has long been accused of being irrelevant to today’s readers, a relic who survives on nostalgia and tradition.  True, he didn’t toss out or drastically remodel the Man of Steel (even the blue collar “costume” from the first few issues gave way to an updated version of what Superman has been wearing for some seven decades), but rather made some of the most familiar elements of the story as vibrant as he did, famously, in ALL STAR SUPERMAN.  This particular issue does that all over again, with an alternate Superman announced on the cover, who just so happens to still have Lex Luthor as a mortal enemy.  What’s truly interesting is an alternate Lois Lane and Clark Kent who stumble onto this world.  A couple of key differences, before we proceed: the lead Superman is black, and the visiting Clark Kent is not an ordinary guy.  And yet, like in ALL STAR SUPERMAN, Morrison dwells on one of the more overlooked aspects of the Last Son of Krypton, that his abilities do not stop at his powers, as both the Superman and Clark Kent in the story demonstrate.  Morrison never presents his vision of the icon as an infallibly brilliant individual (the delusion of which fuels Luthor and is also what many other characters and creators sometimes try to and horribly botch in execution); in this one issue, which is totally out of canon (but strongly suggests MULTIVERSITY, the project Morrison has been working on for several years now), Superman is both human and superhuman on multiple levels.  It’s essential reading in that regard alone, and is probably the best single story Morrison has done for the character.  As an added bonus, Sholly Fisch adds in his backup feature further ruminations that will challenge anyone who believes they’ve got everything figured out.  Read it and then tell me what I meant (it doesn’t hurt if I now suggest that you consider the presidency of George W. Bush).

I wrote my first letter to a comic book because of this, mostly because Brian Michael Bendis pitiably laments the lack of such things so far in the letters column he has to fill with an extended interview concerning current Marvel events (before shamelessly plugging his collected works, as he always does).  I love that he is one of the creators who still insists on having letters columns, even if I have not regularly read his books.  BRILLIANT is his reteaming with historic collaborator Mark Bagley (ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN), who is now thoroughly back in his element after the TRINITY experiment that killed DC’s weekly series concept by making it too cuddly (DC’s Big Three are many things, but they are not cuddly, and that’s the general Bagley style).  “Brilliant” is also the way to describe this effort from Bendis, who can get a little carried away with doing a million variations on the same Avengers story without really getting anywhere (yes, HOUSE OF M got somewhere, but it took other creators to get there), though when he’s focused (such as in POWERS or introducing Miles Morales or Peter Parker) he’s really good.  BRILLIANT features a focused Bendis, working with a whole group of precocious teenage geniuses this time, who have created superpowers and now don’t know exactly what to do about it.  This ought to be a really good ride.

EARTH 2 #1 (DC)
James Robinson is a creator who can either get fans to love him or get them to hate him, and it really depends, like Bendis (but with the fans actually caring about the results), if he’s got a good handle on what he’s trying to accomplish.  STARMAN, for instance, was James Robinson knowing what he wanted to do.  EARTH 2 looks like it be Robinson working like that again, but it may be a little early.  Most of this debut issue features a variation on the story Geoff Johns told in the opening arc of JUSTICE LEAGUE, the invasion of Earth by the forces of Apokolips, and the shocking sacrifices of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman to get the job done this time.  The fascinating implication of this setup is that the Justice Society characters who for several generations now have represented a quasi-older generation of superheroes even they were all created after Superman, who only had the benefit of sustained popularity to keep him youthful and current for decades, will finally get to be the second generation again.  Maybe that’s why DC did away with the name “Justice Society” in the nU, much as in an earlier time these heroes gave way to their own succeeding generation in an alternate timeline, with Infinity, Inc.  That’s really the best way to explain EARTH 2, as a way to remove the dust from characters with a rich history but who have even in their second Golden Age (the two ongoing series Geoff Johns helped launch, the first with the help of Robinson) been reduced to heroes who can hardly be expected to be the first line of defense, always supporting others, second-class citizens even though they also helped inspire everything DC is now.  Well, now Alan Scott won’t just be that guy who wasn’t a member of the Green Lantern Corps but nonetheless worked under the name Green Lantern; he’ll be his own man.  Here’s to seeing what Robinson actually does with this.

Kyle Higgins was a virtual unknown when he was announced as the writer of the New 52 NIGHTWING, which caused me all kinds of panic, since I believed that Dick Grayson was being relegated back to relative obscurity, even though he’s been around since virtually the start of the Batman saga.  But Higgins started his DC journey on BATMAN: GATES OF GOTHAM, a mini-series he co-wrote with Scott Snyder, who has for many readers become the new definitive Dark Knight creator and current ringleader of the Court of Owls epic.  GATES OF GOTHAM has itself become increasingly important, which is unusual for a mini-series, though not totally unheard-of, especially for Batman (examples to include SWORD OF AZRAEL, for instance, or just about every relevant Bane appearance outside of “Knightfall”), and yes, Higgins is now getting to take advantage of that fact within NIGHTWING, especially in this issue, and how Dick factors into “Night of the Owls.”  That’s as much as you need to know to enjoy this issue, which may be the most important one of the series so far.  It’s a strong indication, too, that Higgins knows exactly how to keep Dick Grayson’s profile both high and significant, and that’s a very good thing.

Amazing Cosmic Mignola

Anyone who’s seen THE AVENGERS in theaters over the past few days or so should know by now that the dude with the big chin in the credits is Thanos, lead villain in THE INFINITY GAUNTLET, a famous Marvel event written in the ’80s by Jim Starlin, who also did a DC event called COSMIC ODYSSEY, which featured the art of Mike Mignola, who is the actual subject of this piece.

Mignola is best known for Hellboy, who is best known for his movie adventures.  Mignola is incredibly respected within the comics community as one of the most passionate creator-owned writer-artists in the business.  I have not actually read a lot of his work, but I do now have THE AMAZING SCREW-ON HEAD AND OTHER CURIOUS OBJECTS under my belt, which is basically a short story collection and is a great introduction to Mignola’s style.

Irreverent, would be one way to put it.  Abraham Lincoln technically factors into the lead story, in the same way that I have technically made anyone currently obsessing over THE AVENGERS interested in what I’m actually writing about.  The lead character is a robotic head that screws into the necessary bodies to accomplish his adventures.  The other major story in the collection features Professor Snap, who is executed (“They did me like a pirate.”) in his efforts to discover what happened to his colleague Cyclops, and inadvertently thwarts a Martian invasion and gets a new body for his efforts (this one’s the real highlight for me).

Like Red 5’s excellent Atomic Robo (a fact I’ve been trying to make for years, and anyone who frequents Free Comic Book Day will always have an easy way to acquaint themselves with), Mignola, at least represented here, is easily one of the most fun talents around, with a distinctive art style that features bold, deliberate renderings in cartoonish fashion.  The only other time I’ve read stuff this fun (besides Atomic Robo) is the web comic PX! by Eric A. Anderson and Manny Trembley (collected into several volumes by Image).

Anyway, as I said, AMAZING SCREW-ON HEAD is a good argument for Mignola’s place in comics history, just by itself, ably demonstrating the merits of his contributions and also a strong indication that creating collections like this is probably something more creators should do.  In notes on the project that follow the stories, he even explains how the effort allowed him to rework “Abu Gung and the Beanstalk,” redoing the art and expanding it by several pages.  It may be a small indication that what George Lucas has been doing with Star Wars hasn’t been as horrendous as some people tend to suggest.  It’s the creator’s prerogative.  Maybe you just need to hear someone else say it, casually, about something you probably won’t have seen the original version of.

Anyway, I highly recommend this collection, and I guess Mike Mignola in general.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bottom of the Ninth: the future of comics?

I've just heard of Bottom of the Ninth, Brian Woodward's new comic that actually features animation within its panels.  If anyone (and I'm talking about Scott McCloud here, and maybe Mark Waid's recent ambitions) has figured out what tomorrow's comics will look like, Brian has.  This may be the argument for anyone still looking for one (that's people like me) to start embracing digital comics.  You only have to sample it to see just how brilliant and obvious it is.  Seriously, go look now.

[end endorsement]

Long Tack Sam

To start out with an irony, I bought THE MAGICAL LIFE OF LONG TACK SAM in a bargain books sale.  The whole point of the book was author Ann Marie Fleming rediscovering the lost legacy of her great-grandfather, a magician and acrobat known as Long Tack Sam.  Discovering Long Tack for myself in a consignment sale therefore is not only appropriate but a little sad, too.  Won’t history finally be kind to this guy?

Fleming previously made a documentary out of her research, and subsequently adapted it into a graphic novel, and the result I read is as much a chronicle of her search as her discoveries about Long Tack’s remarkable journey and career into fame and back into obscurity.  At the height of his success he rubbed elbows with famous names like Harry Houdini and Cary Grant (before he was Cary Grant), crossed all kinds of cultural boundaries, and experienced history as we know it from a remarkable perspective.  Yet he was also a victim of the times, a well-compensated one, but whose fall from memory was built into the way his life unfolded.  When his contemporaries were making the transition from traveling acts to Hollywood, Long Tack continued to ply his skills the traditional way and became doomed to the existence of a novelty, one that was well-known at the time, but could never extend past the memories of those who saw him in person.

Even his own family barely remembered him!  That’s what Fleming discovered, even as they harbored relics of Long Tack’s glory days, completely ignorant of what they represented.  Putting all the pieces together produced a number of possible origins as well as documented proof of his success, but Fleming could never explain why it all fell apart so spectacularly, so mundanely.  Everyone wanted a piece of the act, but no one wanted, in the end, Long Tack Sam himself.

His story is remarkable, part of George M. Cohan, part BIG FISH, part Charlie Chan; THE MAGICAL LIFE OF LONG TACK SAM is one step into transforming the man into a legend, no matter how difficult it may prove to keep him in active memory.  To succeed, he had to become something more than himself, and in the transition lost a great deal of what he was.  Today, Long Tack can actually achieve greater success than he could ever have imagined, or even what Fleming herself could accomplish with her efforts.  There was a real Long Tack Sam, yes, but he was more sensational than reality could manage to properly convey.  And so he could very well enjoy a greater career as a fictional character.

Care to embrace this challenge?

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Dean Motter, Psychearchitect

There’s a hidden genius in comics, and his name is Dean Motter.  My first experience with him was UNIQUE, a parallel worlds mini-series he did in 2007.  I’d heard of him earlier, when he’d worked on TERMINAL CITY for Vertigo, but it was when I stumbled across MISTER X that I discovered his essential worth in the medium as a pioneer of what I’d like to call noir psychology.  MISTER X is all about the building of a city of the future along deliberate designs that cause its citizens to slowly lose their minds.  The outcast lead architect is the eponymous Mister X, the boogeyman who is at once at the peripheral and center of the story.  It’s an abstract storytelling technique that’s unlike what just about anyone else was doing at the time or later.  There’s a lot of Golden Age influence to his methods, notably Will Eisner’s Spirit (which also inspired Frank Miller’s SIN CITY), which become all the more apparent with Motter’s more recent ELECTROPOLIS, which features a cameo appearance from Mister X that ties all of his projects together, like a Grant Morrison so far out of the mainstream all the kookiness has been replaced by genre tropes (but then, isn’t that what Morrison has been doing these days?).

Like hardboiled fiction exemplified by Dashiell Hammett and recently echoed in more mainstream works by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, ELECTROPOLIS: THE INFERNAL MACHINE is at its heart a near-parody of standard gumshoe storytelling, featuring a steampunk robot who’s stumbled into the career of his late owner, and just so happens to be solving his murder sixteen years after the fact.  Nearly every name in the plot is a pun, and helps make the book perhaps Motter’s most accessible effort, if you want to take it as a lightweight adventure down a corridor you find comfortably numb.  But there are layers to this onion, and you eventually discover that Motter has a lot of ideas up his sleeve, and Mister X’s appearance is the red herring, so to speak, that exposes his true motives.

There’s a temptation to dismiss Motter as just another peddler of someone else’s dreams, junk sci-fi the way SKY CAPTAIN & THE WORLD OF TOMORROW became instant nostalgia, or JOHN CARTER fell victim to his own descendents.  If there was a movie made of his ideas, it would go the same way.  That’s probably what happens to all of his comics, why readers haven’t toasted him as essential each time he comes out with something new.  But then, bold ideas told in fashions that seem tired are usually overlooked, except by cult audiences.  Just look at FRINGE.  Morrison has escaped this fate by sheer sensationalism.  That’s not what Motter does, however.  He doesn’t even go for surreal escapism, like ATOMIC ROBO, or insulated journey, like RASL.  He’s overt, but he’s also complicated.  He tries to let the reader do some of the work, to figure out what he’s trying to say.  Often Motter is described as exploring yesterday’s future today, but it’s a very particular vision, one that seeks to penetrate the heart of where our impulses are taking us.  Today we decry the polluting effects of the Industrial Revolution as a time-delayed bomb of sorts.  Tomorrow, Motter postulates, we’ll be sabotaging ourselves in real-time, and the only way to cope will be to seek comfort in the structures we already know.

Menlo Park, the robot P.I. at the heart of ELECTROPOLIS, has the ability to bounce back from injury by replacing damaged parts with whatever’s on hand, and seems none the worse for these improvised patch jobs.  Motter has been bouncing for years around the comic book industry, and his current patrons at Dark Horse have been reprinting his greatest hits for a few years now.  Here’s hoping they like him for a few years more.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Quarter Bin #39 "Untold Tales of the Past"

From November 1996:
I’m got a bad relationship with Garth Ennis.  The last time I read him was in the earliest issues of THE BOYS, which I wrote a reaction about at Paperback Reader, inspiring an angry reaction from fans of artist Darrick Robertson.  Hey, it was the biggest reaction I ever got from writing about comics.  (I suggested that his popular style didn’t allow for a very good depiction of a dog’s face.  His fans didn’t like that.)  Ennis is someone who doesn’t like superheroes, to the extent that he doesn’t understand them, and he has increasingly chosen to represent this in his stories, especially in THE BOYS (this is not an endorsement).  He’s best known for PREACHER, but his work on HITMAN also produced a cult following.  Tommy Monaghan is another product of the 1993 Bloodlines annuals, and is probably the most successful creation to come from it, but because he’s a Garth Ennis character, he’s become nonexistent since Ennis packed his backs and moved on to other projects.  (He gained X-ray vision in the event, but only uses it to ogle women.)  The reason I’m talking about HITMAN now is because I came across a glowing endorsement of the series last week, and so decided to finally take a look, and decided that the FINAL NIGHT tie-in issues that was referenced had to be the safest bet.  I was and remain a huge fan of THE FINAL NIGHT.  In this issue, Ennis seems fairly subdued, possibly because he writes himself out of any superhero connections, and instead focuses on his own characters and their own lives, violent enough for any Vertigo book (not out of place, for instance, in a typical SCALPED scenario).  In fact, I get the impression that HITMAN would have made a very good and very typical Vertigo book today.  Maybe that’s why people are still talking about it.

From 1986:
Marv Wolfman and George Perez made their own history with CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, and this was one of the many things that resulted from it.  Wolfman chronicles DC history as it was known at that time, a fictional piece of nonfiction that is still fascinating today, even if some things are changed or no longer relevant.  The tour encompasses some actual world history that is in itself interesting to see contextualized: how long, for instance, it was between the classic Egyptian dynasties and the world of Greek legends.  I learned new things about what the Guardians were up to as well, in the distant past, which is really odd, because for a lot of writers, that has been fertile territory for years, at least in reference, just like the origin of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World, but even that sounds different in this telling.  It was interesting to see Booster Gold referenced, because not only does he sport a cape (which I’d never seen on his costume before), but because this was the very year he debuted.  Yes, now this whole thing is an artifact, to a time when it was relevant, for one thing, and when creators were still working on this particular narrative of DC, which soon enough transitioned into event book and stories as a matter of course, and then things really loosened, and then Geoff Johns wrote a sequel to CRISIS, which created a different kind of narrative momentum, and now we’ve got the New 52 starting things anew.  This is exactly the kind of discovery that makes it worth spending time pouring through back issue bins, which is what I was doing when I stumbled across HISTORY.

Teenage Wasteland

Here I go again.  I really shouldn’t have, but I opened a box at Heroes & Dragons, meaning I will be reading comics on a regular basis again, in a more limited capacity than I have in the past, when I didn’t have a ton of impulse control.  This time I’ll be reading on the stuff I really want to read.  Some of my selections have been shaped by the extended trial I’ve been on for the past year, some by decisions I made before it.  It’s really an effort to read books that may be unavailable typically, things I don’t want to miss, things I won’t have had the ability to catch if I hadn’t made this decision.  For instance, as visitors to Comics Reader will know by now, I’m a fan of Oni Press’s WASTELAND, a comic that spent a great deal of time recently not actually being published, but the circumstances that forced that particular break were recently resolved, and throughout 2012 it’s been back on a regular basis.  I haven’t seen it in any comic book store I’ve visited since Newbury Comics, so in order to read it without a lot of hassle, opening up a box was a decision that was more or less necessary.

There are two kinds of people who read comics: those with arrested development and those who are simply developing.  I don’t mean to disparage either group, but the fact is, it takes a special kind of person to be interested in stories told in illustrated form, especially when the most popular stories in the medium feature outsized personalities in colorful costumes.  Part of what drove me to reading comics in the first place was vindicated frustration from a childhood deprived of them when I was most keen to do so; I’ve been playing catch-up for twenty years.  I was a teenager by the time I was able to fulfill this ambition, and it so happened that at the time, there were a lot of comics being published that rewarded continued interest, and that helped develop a habit.  Yes, reading comics is a habit; otherwise they wouldn’t be released in monthly increments.

Again, none of this is a bad thing.  In fact, I think it’s a very good thing, because comics have an ability to remove the filter many storytellers force on themselves, making their tales more mundane, more ordinary, more constrained by things that have actually happened.  That in itself isn’t a bad thing, and in some instances can be a very good thing, but the universal is at its best in the sublime, when it activates the imagination.  There are more benefits to looking beyond the simple and embracing the abstract.  Comics do this better than any other expressive form except perhaps music.  For some reason, but you combine a static image with words, the words become more important, if you let them.

That being said, let’s look at some examples:

Geoff Johns continues to expand his vision of Aquaman beyond the simple parody that pop culture has embraced in the past ten years, abetted by lackluster comic book portrayals in endless relaunches throughout many decades (Tad Williams, I contend, remains the sole exception) since the character’s creation.  Some creators have understood the potential of his unique setting, the mythology that Aquaman alone can truly tap into, but Johns is looking beyond that simple vision and tapping into how Aquaman’s life and career can be shaped outside his connections to the Justice League and embrace, like his Green Lantern stories, a far greater world than ever before.  To wit, Johns opens this issue with the young Arthur Curry attempting to distance himself from humans who could never understand him, following the death of his father, thrusting him into a dawning awareness of his Atlantean heritage.  He eventually meets others who understand him, but they aren’t the Justice League, but rather a whole myriad of outcasts.  As I’ve been saying, anyone who hasn’t read AQUAMAN yet should probably start doing so soon, because if history is any indication, Johns has a lot more planned, and this is just the foundation.

THE AVENGERS #1 (Marvel)
A reprint of the 2010 relaunch, Brian Michael Bendis (guru of all things Earth’s Mightiest Heroes) picks up the pieces of many conflicts he himself has helped engineer, reassembling the team once more and then bringing back time-traveling Kang for a more specific purpose.  There are moments where the gravity of what everyone’s been through is clear, but there’s also the trademark flippant style of Bendis that has likely built him his following (it’s no wonder he moonlights as the Ultimate chronicler of Spider-Man, since that’s his natural character vein).  This one’s a freebie, which is really smart, given the movie that pretty much everyone is going to see this summer, many in multiple visits.

I got this reprint, too (had to pay for it, though), the one that looks like the most obvious gimmick in a long series of Marvel events since Bendis came aboard, but it spears someone really did figure out that there’s a story to be had, too.  Bendis started the ball rolling with HOUSE OF M (not to mention “Disassembled”), but the House of Ideas finally figured out what to do with mutant messiah Hope, too, tying her in with the Phoenix saga that was the highlight of the Claremont era that made the X-Men rise to the prominence it still enjoys today.  If this event figures out how to handle all of what it promises competently, it may be the most important story from Marvel in the past decade.

Seeing this even earlier issue from the story I snapped up in one of my previous visits, I couldn’t pass it up.  I am now thoroughly convinced that the series has already earned a prominent spot in the eventual 2012 QB50.  Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason are creating the most important in-continuity Batman stories, period.

Another issue that fills in one of my gaps, Paul Cornell’s period heroics are just as astonishing as everything else he does, featuring historic heroes in ways only Grant Morrison previously approached with SEVEN SOLDIERS OF VICTORY.  If you want, consider this an ongoing series inspired by some of the mini-series in that project.

Geoff Johns again, once again putting the focus on a relative outsider, approaching the League from the outside in.  This time it’s Green Arrow, more famously depicted as an older, more cynical hero obsessed with social causes and his own legacy.  As a younger version, he does seem a little more superfluous, so it’s no wonder the League wants nothing to do with him (even if they have other reasons besides), even when he finally, petulantly, gives voice to the reasons he wants to join, which more accurately reflect the Oliver Queen we know and love.  The backup Shazam feature continues, and is already a definitive version of the character.  But what else did you expect from Geoff Johns?

I can’t decide whether I actually want to read this series on a regular basis, but I keep getting drawn to it because Jason Todd is such a compelling character, a damaged individual with a tragic past, sometimes awful tendencies, and a road to redemption.  Scott Lobdell has captured this perfectly, and Kenneth Rocafort is an extremely unusual artist for DC (the only negative this issue is the cartoonish fat woman who’s the villain of the story), and another strong draw.  Forget the backlash concerning the costume of Starfire.  You need to at least sample this series.

Sometimes it’s better to miss the first issue of a comic book, and in this case, it’s almost mandatory.  Arcadia Alvarado will be running for President, but she believes she was abducted by aliens.  Do you believe her?  That’s the whole thrust of this series from Paul Cornell, finally getting the chance to stretch himself a little, with a concept entirely created by himself, in a book that has the potential to be the next great Vertigo project. 

THE TWELVE #12 (Marvel)
WATCHMEN as retold by J. Michael Straczynski and Chris Weston finally concludes.  Okay, it’s not really WATCHMEN, more like Captain America retold in the manner of WATCHMEN.  Regardless, this was an ambitious project of motivations and fate that proved fascinating and then frustrating when Straczynski took an extended break, leading many fans for several years to fear that it would never be concluded.  So important to Weston, actually, that he produced a one-shot on his own to continue the saga of the WWII heroes suspended and then revive in modern times, only to succumb to their own failings, THE TWELVE comes to a worthy if quiet conclusion, befitting its focus on character ahead of sensation.  Hopefully it will take its place among the seminal superhero stories.

It’s a little strange for this reader to dive back into the series now that RESURRECTION artist Justin Greenwood has settling in as replacement for Christopher Mitten, whose distinctive style helped shape the early issues of Antony Johnston’s epic vision of the future, especially after having read (and written synopses for here at Comics Reader) the first six collected editions.  I have missed four issues between the last one featured in the paperbacks and what I was surprised to find waiting for me last week.  Michael and Abi, on their way to A-Ree-Yass-I, have stumbled into another town overrun with overblown egos.  If you were at all hesitant about WASTELAND before, it may be easier to catch exactly what this series is all about with these new issues, with new art but the same complex storytelling Johnston has been employing from the start.