Thursday, July 26, 2012

Last Week's Comics and an Epic Showdown

It should be noted that sometimes "last week's comics" will include some purchases that were not actually released last week.

Aquaman #10 (DC) Ever since Brightest Day, Geoff Johns has made it his mission to revive Aquaman as a legitimate presence in comics.  DC has tried just about everything in many different revivals to achieve this over the years, but Johns alone seems to have had the radical approach of merely making Aquaman himself interesting.  As he's done with Green Lantern, Johns has achieved this by widening the scope of Aquaman's career.  Previous efforts to this regard have always centered on underwater kingdoms, and while some of these have an impact, they did not succeed in making the character for whom these kingdoms were created...relevant.  Aquaman is not defined by underwater kingdoms.  If he were, he'd be no better than Black Panther, an incredibly negligent ruler, spending so much time hanging out with other superheroes who notably have no interest in this faraway responsibility.  Some creators have also tried to make his human origins interesting, to little avail other than extremely temporary visibility.  Aquaman, unfortunately, is a character who can be summed up in an entirely dismissive fashion: he talks to fish.  Johns decided to ignore all that and instead reveal a side of the character that speaks to his strengths in a far empowering way, as a guy who had an entirely separate group of allies who link his undersea world to surface concerns in ways that are still being explored nearly a year into the series and a rivalry with his archnemesis that has turned decidedly personal.  Aquaman has always been portrayed as the victim in his stories (which is really weird), but Johns is turning him into a multifaceted and even culpable figure.  Like Wonder Woman, he has always been a character who was supposed to be important just because he supposed to, and during Flashpoint last year their common significance as warriors was made plain.  Yet being a warrior isn't enough.  But being a tragic hero might be.  This is a good issue to see how Johns is accomplishing this.

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #2 of 4 (DC) What's absolutely fascinating about this issue has a connection to Alan Moore's story that could almost have been entirely forgotten in the midst of hype for being the best superhero story ever told.  Darwyn Cooke and Amanda Conner remind readers of the social significance of it, too, as they outline the insidious plot to turn drugs into the next big consumer hit, a habit that doesn't need to provide anything lasting in order to create its own constant demand.  Laurie is just beginning her career as a costumed crimefighter, something she never thought she'd do, but it's another habit, in effect, that she can't overcome.  If there's a message, it's that one of these habits is productive and the other isn't.

Cobra #15 (IDW) Longtime fans of G.I. Joe will know that one of the big developments in the late 80s continuity was the revelation that Cobra Commander had a hidden son named Billy.  Billy hits Cobra in a big way this issue, only he's not the boy we used to know, but a man, who in the opening pages sounds suspiciously like the Cobra from earlier issues, the ones trying to sell the organization to the public.  If he's not evil, then he certainly has an ego, and could have easily been used by his father's allies, possibly without him even realizing it.  It's this malleable sense of morality that allows this series to remain so brilliant.  You know who the bad guys and the good guys are, but they're both forced to exist in a world where it's not so easy to keep those distinctions separate when something needs to be done.  This is not a G.I. Joe book in any traditional sense.  You don't even need to care about G.I. Joe to enjoy it, and I'm certain that you don't even have to have read the several other dozen issues behind this one to start enjoying it now.

Justice League #11 (DC) I don't think Graves will go down as one of the most memorable villains in JLA history, and I don't think Geoff Johns thinks so, either.  He's a catalyst, a means to an end, to make a point, that this team is not perfect, even though its reputation in the book and as a comics commodity suggests so.  Readers from any number of eras will tell you that the Justice League is fallible.  The different and the distinction Johns is making here, and certainly in this issue, is that even a membership comprised of its most iconic members has visible chinks in its armor.  The underlying story from the beginning of the series has been Wonder Woman's journey, and it's fair to say that Johns has been doing more than other writer of the team to make her relevant.  Her relationship with Steve Trevor, which takes a considerable step this issue (but not one you might be thinking of), has been at the center of this significance, but the big splash is her fight with Superman and Green Lantern.  It's something of a cliche to try and help out a character's reputation by putting them in a situation like this, but for Wonder Woman, she's rarely had a moment like this.  In recent years she's come to be defined more closely as a warrior than ever before, but Johns has managed to channel that into someone who can be irrational and rational at the same time.  She can be reasoned with.  (It's also amazing that Johns is willing to show Green Lantern as so vulnerable in these pages, considering he's gone a good way into making the character his signature work in comics.)  The Shazam backup continues, and can it really been only the fifth installment?  Johns and Gary Frank are owning the former Captain Marvel as no one since Jerry Ordway.  I don't think he'll be overlooked again anytime soon.

Nightwing #11 (DC) The subplot of Detective Nie that Kyle Higgins has been sowing throughout this run is starting to come to a head.  I don't know why Nightwing seems to elicit these kinds of characters (Chuck Dixon and Devin Grayson previously worked similarly extended angles), but I'm glad it's another thing that Higgins is most assuredly doing write in this book.  There's plenty of story threads to keep reader interested this issue, including a visit from Sonia Branch, the daughter of Tony Zucco (the mobster responsible for the death of Dick Grayson's parents), who turns our hero down for a loan due to the established risk involved; a conversation with Damian, loaded with references to recent comics that also helps Nightwing riddle out some detective work; and the villain Paragon, who's there to exploit as much as possible.  Guest artist Andres Guinaldo is hit-and-miss, especially with Dick's hair for some reason, but the coloring makes a good contrast of Nightwing's basic gray and the new red swash.  All in all, this is a book that rewards regular readers.

Now here I'm going to talk about some recent new series from cult favorite writers Jonathan Hickman, Brian Wood, and Brian K. Vaughan.  Hickman's been famous recently for his work with Marvel, notably Fantastic Four, but he originally made his name on creator-owned titles for Image.  Wood is known for Demo and DMZ, while Vaughan is probably the biggest name of the bunch, having crafted Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, two long-running titles that had readers invested in the unusual lives of their central protagonists.

I read these issues last week:

The Manhattan Projects #3 (Image)
from Hickman

The Massive #2 (Dark Horse)
from Wood

Saga #3 (Image)
from Vaughan

Of the three, I'm most impressed by Saga.  Hickman is known for having a wild imagination, but cycling it through either historical figures or established characters (sometimes blending the two, as in S.H.I.E.L.D.), and Manhattan Projects is not so different from this mold, even though it seems to have a little more breathing room than usual.  As the title implies, it deals with the development of the atomic bomb, and Hickman's idea of the greater things going on around it.  He gets to play with Einstein, Roosevelt, and a wacked-out version of Truman (if this is even close to truth, my history teachers have a lot of explaining to do), among others.  This particular issue handles the actual deployment of the bomb that resulted, and so it's fun (insofar as that bomb was "fun") to read Hickman's depiction of these events, although there's little indication of what exactly he's doing to build a larger story.  Maybe I need to read another issue.  The Massive, meanwhile, appears to be part-Wood and equally parts Dark Horse reviving Arvid Nelson's brilliant Zero Killer, but in a decentralized form.  For this reason (because I loved Zero Killer), I'm perhaps less inclined to view Massive as a singular creation, even though it's a book (like all three of these titles) that has a considerable amount of buzz around it, mostly because of Wood's involvement.  Saga, meanwhile, is something totally new from Vaughan, at least as far as my experience goes.  Maybe his Runaways was similar.  At any rate, this is a story set on an alien world, and Vaughan has embraced its otherworldliness, almost to a degree that I must ask you to see for yourself.  It's like Neil Gaiman doing Pixar (Coraline only gives you so much of a clue).  If you ever sampled Grant Morrison and had a hard time figuring him out, Vaughan might have provided an adequate window into that kind of storytelling, like Seaguy but without being a parody of superhero comics.  This one demands to be read again.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Passing the Green Flame

Green Lantern: Passing the Torch
collects Green Lantern #s 156, 158-161

The final issues of Judd Winick's run on Green Lantern features the aftershock of his signature storyline, the outing of supporting character Terry Berg and the resulting sever beating he receives because of it.

Terry's friend happens to be Kyle Rayner, the erstwhile Bearer of the Last Ring, who takes the attack badly, exiling himself to space rather than confront his lost faith in humanity.  John Stewart once again wields the emerald power in the first issue, and himself struggles to find something to believe in, while Rayner and Jade, the daughter of the first human Green Lantern, Alan Scott, try to shepherd a new generation of Guardians, and try to find some new direction.  Ganthet sets them on a mission that plays like an episode of Star Trek, before they discover that one of the Guardian foundlings has gone missing and forces everyone to face some harsh truths and face what they've been avoiding.

Being a fan of Kyle Rayner since his introduction in 1994, and especially Ron Marz's extended run with the character, I was disappointed to leave him behind when I parted ways with comics in 1999.  I missed Winick's run originally, but the Terry Berg arc was one of those unavoidable developments, one of the signal comic book stories of that era.  In its own way, it's a Green Lantern story that compares to the famous Green Arrow road arc from the 1970s.  Winick does not let Rayner off the hook, and neither does Terry, for his decision to run away from his problems rather than confront them, as he essentially abandons his friend in his moment of need.

If that's not a reason for you personally to read Passing the Torch, there's Rayner's trademark deep immersion into the whole Green Lantern mythos, which was always strangely appropriate, considering he was coming in at a moment when it seemed all the old ways had been lost thanks to Hal Jordan.  The collection includes the return of Mogo, famously the planet Green Lantern, whose profile would be heightened in the reboot of the franchise that would come several years later.  It also features a handy timeline of Green Lantern lore, as if making a statement for everything new fans from the Geoff Johns era might want to know.

As a character and a moment, much of Rayner's time as Green Lantern may now seem anachronistic, even the Guardian foundlings, since these little blue men are in current continuity once again the same old guys they always were.  Reading Passing the Torch is a nice reminder of what that time was like without needing to be bogged down by its particulars.  John Stewart wonders if he should become a member of the Justice League.  The long journey and development Kyle has enjoyed in his ten years dominating the franchise seems to be reaching a natural ebb.  The title might refer to the characters in the collection, or that subconsciously, it's a goodbye to the fans who followed these adventures and refused to let Kyle be forgotten (he currently stars in Green Lantern: New Guardians, using his unique talents as a conduit between the many different corps).

The fun thing is that the writing from Winick is never better than when he's handling Kyle and Jade, treating them as the centerpiece that they are.  Kyle became famous for his relationships, both with Jade and Donna Troy, that never seemed to work out.  His most recent doomed love was with Soranik Natu, the daughter of Sinestro.  I'm sure he's got a few more in him.  He's the new Dick Grayson in that regard.  So yeah, you can just have reading it, too.

The Blue Amazon

Concluding a story begun with Superman's Metropolis and Batman: Nosferatu, Wonder Woman: The Blue Amazon is an Elseworlds one-shot that adapts classic silent cinema (in this instance The Blue Angel and Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler) from writers Randy and Jean-Marc Lofficier.

Wonder Woman has long been identified as the third member of DC's Trinity, yet she has rarely had the same opportunities as her compatriots.  This is a rare instance where someone had to go out of their way to give her the nod in a separate project.  Though it is the final chapter of a trilogy, one might read it separately (as I did) and not miss a beat. 

The Blue Amazon explores a nightmarish world dominated by two surreal figures, the inheritors of three founders who left a lasting impression, and not always for the better.  The third of this new ruling class has been kept prisoner by a psychopath who takes her for granted, until the day she's unleashed thanks to the appearance of her greatest foe.  The whole thing sets off the intrinsic worth of Wonder Woman without referring to any of her familiar elements, except for Steve Trevor.  It's a testament to a potential that has rarely been explored, unless in very simplistic ways.  It doesn't help her cause that of the Trinity, only she lacks a link to the real world.  In Blue Amazon, this is seen as a strength, and any continuing skeptics might take this lesson to mind.  It even suggests the one thing Wonder Woman has never really been allowed to explore, the biological capability that sets her apart and would make her instantly identifiable.  That's another reason why Blue Amazon is a must-read, not just for existing Wonder Woman fans, but those who might appear in the future.

The art, it should be noted, does not seem to know that all female characters in comic books must be depicted as sexually attractive as possible.  In fact, like the rest of the world around her, this Wonder Woman is almost grotesque.  It's just one of the signifiers that you're reading something special. 

The Dark Knight Rises

For the record, Christopher Nolan finally succeeded in turning Batman into something other than a comic book character.

THE DARK KNIGHT RISES is the story of a revolution, and Nolan’s Batman has become a legend worth remembering.  The story begun in BATMAN BEGINS is most definitely concluded here, and the ominous portents of THE DARK KNIGHT fulfilled.  The wonderful thing is that Nolan has succeeded in setting different but complementary tones to each of the films in this trilogy.  The first one was about psychology, the second was about the law, and now this one is about justice.

This is now the definitive Batman story.  It has a beginning, a middle, and an end.  I made the first statement in this paragraph referring to the trilogy, but it might as well speak directly to DARK KNIGHT RISES.  This may be the rare threequel where you don’t need to have seen the first two films to understand what’s going on, much as clearly most viewers of DARK KNIGHT hadn’t come to the party with the first one.  DARK KNIGHT was a meditation of chaos, and its mayhem was its own kind of spectacle.  Yet now, you can begin to see it in reference to the rest of the story.

Nolan’s central concept has always been of duality.  Nearly every character in these films has two sides to them, obviously Batman/Bruce Wayne, but even seemingly neutral ones like Jim Gordon and Alfred Pennyworth, who are trying their best to adhere to systems that don’t come naturally to them.  The villains all have split personalities, whether obvious like Two-Face or Henri Ducard/Ra’s al Ghul or subtle like The Joker, whose apparent lack of history is its own kind of history, something he’s free to make up as he goes along.  I won’t go out and spoil the one in DARK KNIGHT RISES, but that continues.  But even more than in the other two, this one puts a heavy weight on Batman’s.  This is Nolan’s concluding thoughts on what it all means, so you know the exploration is juicy.

The reason I say this is not a superhero story is because there’s meaning and consequence to every action, in exactly the way these things are only played at in, say, THE AVENGERS.  It is not escapism for the sake of escapism, though Nolan protects Batman from even his worst defeat, knowing that his message would be tarnished if the full effect of Bane’s presence were felt, the way the comics did in his original appearances.   There is not violence for the sake of violence, but rather so that you know these characters are forced to make life-altering decisions, which is something that has been another theme of the trilogy.  This is not to take away from Bane or to say you don’t worry for Batman, but it’s enough for both that this is the first time in a movie with costumes where the fighting feels real and momentous.

All of the characters in DARK KNIGHT RISES have something to say and add to the story.  You know the new names (Anne Hathaway, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Joseph Gordon-Levitt) plus those who’ve been with us since the beginning (Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, Gary Oldman).  As with the earlier films, there’s very little overlapping between performances so much as specific pairings, so each actor and their respective role gets a chance to achieve full impact without stepping on each other’s toes.  More than its predecessors, DARK KNIGHT RISES has definitive arcs for nearly all of them, like how Nolan mapped out Batman in the first one.

I love finding little quirks in films that speak to a greater film experience.  Hardy’s Bane, for instance, is similar to his role in STAR TREK NEMESIS, and it’s something of an odd coincidence, because Bane’s story is most definitely Bane’s story.  There’s also a vast improvement over the weakness that ultimately sabotaged ANGELS & DEMONS, the key moment of DARK KNIGHT RISES (hopefully now that I’ve pointed that out, you will be able to identify it for yourself without my needing to spoil anything here; as a hint, it involves Ewan McGregor’s character in the former and a certain vigilante in the latter).

DARK KNIGHT RISES is about a revolution that might have taken place in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, had there existed a legend like Batman.  In these films, strongmen attack Gotham because it is a symbol, and the city is in turn protected by a symbol.  Nolan asks us if the ends justify the means, and there may be a suggestion of his own answer here, or perhaps just the only one that makes sense for this story.

If nothing else, this is the best of the Batman films.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Quarter Bin #41 "Gotham Central and For Tomorrow"

From April 2004

From October 2004:
Harking to another Comic Book Resources article, I found myself finally reading some issues of GOTHAM CENTRAL, a Batman family comic that centered on the regular police presence in the Dark Knight’s home turf, written during its run by Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, two creators who have made names for themselves by mostly staying within a more realistic interpretation of superheroes.  Rucka has stuck mostly to crime comics, though he remains one of the best Wonder Woman writers of the modern era, while Brubaker, who has done his share of similar comics, has in the meantime made his name most familiar with a sustained run with Captain America, in which he totally transformed the franchise (and influenced the coming movie sequel by introducing the concept that Bucky Barnes managed to survive WWII by unwittingly becoming a Russian agent codenamed the Winter Soldier).  These particular issues of GOTHAM CENTRAL were written by Brubaker.  I was persuaded to read these because of the covers.  The first features a misleading reference to the Joker, who I was assured had been handled brilliantly in the series, though he is not in this issue, which rather features fairly routine police work from pretty much everyone in the book who didn’t actually become name characters (those survivors would be Crispus Allen, who would go on to be the new host of the Spectre; Jim Corrigan, who I assume was used as a red herring, because he shared the name of Spectre’s original host; and Renee Montoya, whose profile was subsequently elevated when she became the new Question in the pages of 52).  The effect of this is that GOTHAM CENTRAL reads like a comic book adaptation of any TV procedural drama you can name, and is not an impressive demonstration of the quality I’ve heard about.  The second issue has Harvey Bullock on the cover, with a reference to the Penguin (which is either ironic, given what Geoff Johns did with BATMAN: EARTH ONE, or a story he was actually referencing, and the reason I got this one), which actually pans out in the story.  This one was worth reading, not just because I knew and therefore cared about the characters, but because it made sense as a standalone read.  Coming out of the experience, I’m not sure I would personally recommend GOTHAM CENTRAL, at least not if you’re willing to make a bigger commitment than a few sample issues.  Following the perspective of the regular law enforcement of Gotham City is a worthy subject, but I’m not sure it’s a good idea to ignore Batman when you’re doing so.  Any issue should reference him a little more prominently than was evidenced by these issues, not because it’s relevant, but because it’s conceptual necessary.

From May 2005:
This was the conclusion to Brian Azzarello and Jim Lee’s “For Tomorrow” arc, a sort of culmination to everything DC had been trying to do during the first decade of the millennium prior to INFINITE CRISIS, or in other words five years of desperately attempting to make Superman cool and relevant to readers.  Since that time the company has cooled its jets a little, trusted its creators a little more, and even gotten some of them to embrace writing the character for the character’s own sake.  “For Tomorrow” features a continuity that no longer exists, another of those interpretations of General Zod that I personally consider to be instantly irrelevant after Geoff Johns’ ACTION COMICS run (and subsequent New Krypton adventures).  Yet it makes an interesting point, and one I suspect was Azzarello’s intention, that for a guy whose origins are defined by great loss, Superman has made a life out of preventing bad things from happening to anyone else, kind of overlooking that good can sometimes come from tragedy.  I would use that as an argument to get Azzarello writing more Superman, see what else he can say about that.  The artwork from Jim Lee, meanwhile, looks more like his Image material than his current JUSTICE LEAGUE work (or either of his Batman projects), and is a little more distracting than it is a draw, and I think that’s another reason why “For Tomorrow” has fallen between the cracks since it was originally presented, harking back to an era that not only no longer exists, and isn’t something anyone besides Kurt Busiek is interested in revisiting, other than in the pages of the late SUPERMAN/BATMAN, which itself became increasingly irrelevant before disappearing at the dawn of the New 52.

Batman #11

writer: Scott Snyder
artist: Greg Capullo

In the conclusion to Scott Snyder's Court of Owls story, Batman battles Lincoln March, who last issue claimed to be Thomas Wayne, Jr, Bruce Wayne's secret brother.  Thematically this makes leagues of sense, considering the Court was all about secret histories and ties to Gotham City that Batman theoretically could not match, making it an adversary that posed a unique threat to the Dark Knight.  The problem I have with it is that this is a development that probably should have been tied in with the whole story.

Here I ought to confess that I did not read the entire Court of Owls story.  This is only the second issue I've read of Snyder's New 52 series.  I read a few of his Detective Comics previously, but given that my Batman allegiances belong to Grant Morrison, I had a hard time stomaching someone else being considered the architect of the franchise, especially when it became clear that Snyder was setting the Court up to be something of a long-term deal.  It seemed kind of sudden, and the idea of the Court seemed a little fuzzy, a giant conspiracy that wasn't really represented by anyone except the Talons.  The previous issue I sampled, #6, was a showdown between Batman and a Talon, and stylistically, there's no difference between that issue and this one, a random fight that Batman has to survive and looks at several points as if he won't, as if this whole Court just happens to spring up and serve as a challenge he can't overcome without an extreme force of will.  It doesn't chart with Morrison's stories, or the buildup "Knightfall" received, or feel anything like organic.  Maybe that's a price I pay for not reading the whole story, or maybe that's what the story has actually been like, I don't know.

I do know that #11 is a pretty good issue aside from these concerns, magnified as they were by the fairly senseless "Night of Owls" crossover event that further signified that the Court was essentially a random creation that could affect any of the Batman family members with equal ineffectiveness, aside from the general pathos of its existence.  (There's a Talon series launching in September, in case you were wondering, and will probably make better use of Snyder's creation than anything that's been done so far; consider yourself warned, though, because this is basically an update of Azrael.)

Lincoln March himself is fascinating.  I love that he chatters on about his story as he pursues and batters Batman through Greg Capullo's artwork, which takes every opportunity to ape Frank Miller, at least as far as Batman goes.  Whether or not he's actually Batman's brother is somewhat irrelevant, and plays into the psychology of the Court really well.  These are some points Snyder should have considered more closely when he outlined the story.  Given that he writes almost all of his comics the same way (whether American Vampire or Severed), with some kind of weird connection to the past, Snyder should have considered who the star of this story was all along, and how to make it feature Batman without falling into beats that might seem gratuitous or unnecessary.  He's good at world-building, but I'm not sure he knows how to maneuver around it.

Bruce has a conversation with Dick Grayson once it's over, and while there are a lot of words exchanged, it's the same kind of hollow writing, a lack of a sense of consequence (in wrestling, it's called no-selling), as if Snyder really doesn't feel responsible in the same way fans (and DC) have gravitated toward him as the new voice of the franchise.  Perhaps given more time he's feel more comfortable, but at the moment it's affecting his ability to be effective.  In a backup feature with art from American Vampire collaborator Raphael Albuquerque, Snyder (along with co-writer James Tynion IV) explore the Pennyworth side of things, attempting to put a little bow on everyone's lack of awareness.  The art is terrific, but again it's like Snyder is writing something other than Batman, and it's not just the shock of a new approach from a reader who liked an old one, but rather an inauthenticity from a voice that doesn't seem to truly know its subject and is therefore trying to fake its way out of a mess.

I don't know, maybe it's best that I simply avoid reading Snyder's Batman.  Maybe it's simply not for me.  There's plenty of Batman stories I haven't read, and I'm certainly reading others.  There's stuff to like and stuff to at best feel apathetic about.  I wish there was more of the former and less of the latter.  Maybe it's also weird because for Snyder Damian doesn't exist, and to me, it's impossible (Batman Incorporated, Batman and Robin) to picture the current Bruce Wayne without thinking of his son, and in this unbalanced equation everything is thrown off.

Unbeatable Comics From Last Week

Here's a quick roundup of the comics I read last week:

Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures #4 (Red 5) is another fine entry in this anthology series, with a highlight of the continuing Bruce Lee serial, in which the late martial arts master admits recruiting Robo as a pupil because it's hard for a guy like Bruce to find a decent sparring partner.

Batman and Robin #11 (DC) sees Damian continue to work his way through past Robins by confronting Jason Todd (a rare appearance by the Red Hood outside of his own book) while the Terminus gang brands people with the bat symbol.

Before Watchmen: Minutemen #2 of 6 (DC) features the team coming together for the first time and probably sees Darwyn Cooke give more characterization to Silhouette than any previous appearance.  (Perhaps more notable given that Before Watchmen collaborator J. Michael Straczynski did a version of the character in his own epic The Twelve.)

Charmed #22 (Zenescope) makes a little more sense than the last issue for readers who haven't exactly been following the series regularly, especially as concerns the return of Prue and her relationship to the Charmed Ones.

Demon Knights #11 (DC) moves the story along more than some issues, with a huge push from King Arthur and assist from the first appearance of Morgaine La Fey.

Peter Panzerfaust #5 (Image) moves the boys along to Paris, where they discover their Nazi troubles are far from over.

Saucer Country #5 (Vertigo) may be the best issue of the series so far, showcasing the cleverness of Arcadia as she kills two birds with one stone, learning more about what happened to her during a hypnotherapy session without letting on what she actually remembers to a duplicitous psychiatrist.

The Shade #10 of 12 (DC) demonstrates our antihero doing pretty much the same thing against the enemies who set Deathstroke against him in the first issue.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Aether Flying

Sometimes you read something you found in a bookstore and you know that you're still reading something very few others have. Dick Lupoff and Steve Stiles' The Adventures of Professor Thintwhistle & His Incredible Aether Flyer is definitely one of those experiences.

The edition I picked up was published in 2010, and I was working in a bookstore at the time.  It stuck around for so long eventually I had a good look at it, because I kept mistaking it for some kind of companion book for someone's book series (it's exactly the size for that sort of thing).  In fact, I lost track of how long it'd been sitting on the shelf.  It almost became legendary, just some oversized, thin volume that sat there for what seemed like forever, and all that time I had no idea what it actually was.

Well, the bookstore and the whole company went out of business last year, and during the liquidation process this oddity of course lingered just like it had since the store got it, and so I had more opportunities to have a look, and to my surprise I discovered that it was basically a graphic novel.  This was a little weird to discover, because the store definitely had a graphic novel section, and this was something that had haunted the sci-fi section.  Maybe it was a fluke of categorization (though some notable graphic novels could be found in the biography section, so this wouldn't be the only instance where a graphic novel was not listed with the rest of the graphic novels).

And yes, as the title suggests, there's a certain goofy charm to this thing.  The "aether flyer" is basically a steampunk spaceship, and Lupoff's inspiration was a parody of the books he'd been reading, sci-fi published between 1880 and 1920, basically the golden age of the genre.  You can enjoy Professor Thinwhistle completely on its own as a totally ironic story that might have been made into a typically bad Ed Wood flick in another lifetime, or appreciate how it reflects the somewhat warped sensibilities of an era when science fiction really was science fiction, before the technology boom heralded by Edison and Tesla.  It's like John Carter as viewed through a kaleidoscope.  As the movie John Carter recently bombed, it shouldn't be a surprise that Professor Thinwhistle seems to have bombed, too.

Its road to publication is as convoluted as anything else about it.  Lupoff tried to make a graphic novel of it in the 60s, but only got any interest at the suggestion he turn it into an actual novel, which he did, Into the Aether, published in 1974.  Then Steve Stiles, one of the friends Lupoff originally discussed the project with in 1966, helps him create the graphic version for Heavy Metal magazine, and eventually the whole thing as originally envisioned becomes a reality in 1991.

It's the definition of a passion project, and geared toward aficionados who may not exist in the numbers some might have anticipated.  But it's a fun little curiosity, and well worth my accidental devotion.  

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Batman: Earth One

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Gary Frank

The idea of the the Earth One graphic novels is to present updated origins for iconic characters, so that hopefully new readers will have something they can easily understand.  Two years ago J. Michael Straczynski presented Superman: Earth One, and is on the verge of releasing a second volume.  Marvel has since launched Season One graphic novels that have borrowed the concept, which is funny, because its Ultimate line was the originator of the concept (though having since become an entirely separate ongoing continuity now more than a decade old), which DC tried to match with its All Star line, also featuring Superman and Batman.

I think Batman: Earth One may be a better representation of the concept.  Combining certain elements of Christopher Nolan's cinematic Dark Knight (including character profiles for Alfred and Lucius Fox) with a revised version of the classic origin story, it's a more successful attempt to match the kind of thing movies and TV shows have been doing for decades, presenting a version of a known comics property without any of the baggage decades of comics have dropped on it.

Part of what will energize existing fans is that Batman: Earth One comes from Geoff Johns and Gary Frank, two superstar creators who've done this sort of thing before but have arguably reached the most important phase of their collaboration, a graphic novel that tackles the most successful comic book creation of all-time. Retelling Batman's origin is not exactly a fresh concept, but finding a way to make it relevant again, especially in the pages of a comic book, is.  The last time this was done was Frank Miller's "Year One," a companion piece to his famed Dark Knight Returns, which explored a more vulnerable Bruce Wayne trying to find his way.  Johns chooses a similar approach, but combines it with the approach Jeph Loeb took in The Long Halloween, with a direct challenge from a new understanding of the status quo as it existed in Gotham City before the rise of Batman.

A vision of corrupt Gotham is not exactly new, but framing it in the way Johns does is.  One of the key alterations is with Bruce Wayne's mother, who has become a member of the Arkham family, known for her work with the mentally ill (her previous maiden name was Kane, as in Bob Kane, the creator of Batman).  Thomas Wayne's money and legacy is also firmly rooted in his profession as a doctor (something that amusingly comes up with Bruce's later visit to Lucius Fox, which as already noted otherwise sticks to the Nolan template).  The manor that for so many decades has served as one of the most famous aspects of Batman lore is abandoned, a legacy of the Arkham family everyone would sooner forget.

It is not so great a spoiler to say that Oswald Cobblepot, the Penguin, is the villain of this piece, and the long-tenured mayor of Gotham, whose personal corruption informs much of what the city has become, including the cynical detective James Gordon, who gains an unlikely partner in Harvey Bullock, a svelte Hollywood personality looking for a shot at redemption by visiting a place he's only seen in recreation on a reality show he used to host.  Together, they try to figure out what the deal is with this Batman who crashes Cobblepot's party, looking for answers from a cop who was at the scene of his parents' murders, still unsolved ten years later.

Batman is still learning his craft, and Alfred is a reluctant tutor, who doesn't believe Bruce Wayne is ready to assume a reckless quest suggested to him by a visit to a mausoleum festooned with bats.  Alfred, by the way, is an old army friend of Thomas Wayne's, who becomes Bruce's legal guardian, but introduces himself as butler when he doesn't have the heart to reveal the truth to a wounded boy looking for a sense of normalcy.  In the brisk 144 pages of this adventure, a lot of details are glossed over, but none of the heart is missing.  Much of it is a mystery worthy of a TV detective, and the Penguin will be recognizable to anyone who saw Batman Returns but wished it had been less Gothic.  You will recognize this Batman, but will be thrilled to follow him along this adventure, which could easily be mistaken for the first time you've ever read him.

Trust me, you'll want more.

Unbeatable Comics: Justice League #10

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Jim Lee

"The Villain's Journey" starts to heat up, with the League finally confronting Graves directly.  Graves was formerly the writer who literally wrote the book on the team, but whose faith fell apart when he lost his family and these apparent gods could do nothing about it.  It's a classic story of hero worship turned sour, but Geoff Johns is able to put more into than usual because it works so well with everything he's been doing on this book since the beginning, approaching the team much as Graves did, and thus allowing us to feel more of his disappointment than we otherwise would.

Much of what happens in this issue is much what happens whenever a new villain attacks a team, seemingly gaining the upper hand with what appears to be an easy victory, yet Graves is plagued throughout the episode with delusional flashbacks to those he lost and still grieves, and it's not so much to provide him with sympathy or to explain how the League will eventually rally and defeat him, but to continue the tapestry.

From the first issue, Johns has been careful to write this series straddling the line of iconic and grounded perceptions of the characters, and this has extended to the figures of Steve Trevor, the team liaison who has a troubled relationship with Wonder Woman, and now David Graves, whose transformation into a superpowered villain is depicted in the opening pages.  It has a mirror in the continuing Shazam backup feature, in which Billy Batson struggles to get past his resentment and become the hero he already is while Dr. Sivana releases Black Adam in an effort to claim power he's only read about.  Johns has an ability to understand the psychology of superheroes (and villains) and infuse his stories with it, and Justice League has managed to do that with multiple characters.

Unbeatable Comics: Earth 2 #3

writer: James Robinson
artist: Nicola Scott

The dude on the cover of this issue is Alan Scott, which is ironic, because it's the previous issue that most observers will associate with the character, in which this incarnation is revealed to be gay.  That was big news for the media, but not so surprising for James Robinson as a writer, who's started making a career of revealing characters to have different sexual orientations than previously assumed.

Anyway, this issue is more significant as far as the storyline goes, since Alan emerges from the wreckage of the explosion from last issue, scarred and approached by a green flame, which rehabilitates and recruits him to be Green Lantern, which as before (since the Guardians had not yet been invented) has nothing to do with the space corps most people now associate with the name.  Like Jay Garrick before him, Alan converses with his unlikely benefactor, trying to understand what exactly is going on, but unlike Jay, it's likely we'll have more chances to uncover the mystery of this new origin.

The new (old) Flash, meanwhile, has an interesting encounter with Hawkgirl, who impresses on him the importance of knowing how the fight above and beyond his spectacular new abilities.  Robinson has been making a fine serial of this series, and Jay and Alan have both been beneficiaries so far.  Perhaps this is necessary because both of the characters he's been putting at front and center were in a previous lifetime very much old and experienced, whereas now, with nothing to take for granted, everything needs to be built back up again from the ground up.  From an objective standpoint, I can't imagine anyone really having a problem with this.  I haven't been reading the New 52 Flash series, so this is the most I've had from anyone able to identify themselves as the fastest man alive, and I'm liking it.

Unbeatable Comics: Ozymandias #1

writer: Len Wein
artist: Jae Lee

If Ozymandias has any reputation at all, it's as the member of the Watchmen who went rogue and thought he could fix the world with selective destruction.

In this introductory issue from the continuing Before Watchmen project, we're reintroduced to the man behind the mania, especially his obsession with Alexander the Great, another guy who thought he could make the world better by uniting it single-handedly.  As with Alexander, we know Adrian Veidt will ultimately (theoretically, at least, since Alan Moore ends Watchmen ambiguously) fail for the same reason of failing to secure his empire with able allies, capable of supporting his vision.

Yet we now have the chance, as I said, to see the humanity of the superhuman a little better.  A boy genius who felt compelled to hide his abilities, Veidt slowly learns that perhaps it's better to keep them out in the open.  Yet he becomes Ozymandias for the same reasons he reaches his flawed conclusion in Watchmen, failing to acknowledge those around him, in the instance of this debut issue a lover he leaves behind too much.  Writer Len Wein, a DC legend who often doesn't get the respect he deserves, understands that the story of Adrian Veidt is one long tragedy.

Illustrating this book is Jae Lee, whose last notable project was Marvel's Dark Tower comics.  Here he's shorn of the painterly sheen exhibited in that effort, but is no less sensational, filled with the appropriate level of presumption that defines Ozymandias.

Like many of these Before Watchmen books, it's not the first issue that defines what the rest of the mini-series will really be like.  This one's another superb setup, leading the reader to wonder what the rest of the story is going to be.

Unbeatable Comics: Nite Owl #1

writer: J. Michael Straczynski
artist: Andy & Joe Kubert

I don't usually acknowledge the inker (when I wrote for Paperback Reader, I used to get to plug in the entire creative team, so maybe that's why I don't do that anymore), but in this instance it's as notable and necessary as pointing out that this is another entry in DC's Before Watchmen project.

The reason is that Andy Kubert is being inked by his father, Joe, and the difference is huge.  It's the first time I'm familiar with where Andy's art ends up looking like his father's, and it's undeniably because his father's inking it, lending a huge influence to the effort that creates something distinctively familiar and new.

Much like Before Watchmen.  This one is all about Nite Owl, the Blue Beetle surrogate Alan Moore created that most outsiders will probably assume is a stand-in for Batman, especially for the general look.  A legacy hero (like Blue Beetle), Nite Owl is both the Minutemen's Hollis Mason and the Watchmen's Dan Dreiberg.  The transition from one to the other is the crux of this issue, which portrays Dan growing up in an affluent household with a father who doesn't understand or support him, leading Dan to idolize and then seek out Hollis, who retires from the vigilante business and decides to train the eager youngster to replace him.

It's with Nite Owl perhaps that it becomes clear that Dan Dreiberg is at the center of the whole Watchmen story.  Some might argue that the Comedian is, or perhaps Dr. Manhattan, but it's Dreiberg who connects two generations most clearly, and forms key relationships with the second Silk Spectre and notably Rorschach, the psycho who serves as the most colorful of these characters.  It's the dynamic between Nite Owl and Rorschach, emerging in this issue, that may serve as one of the more intriguing revelations of Before Watchmen.  J. Michael Straczynski writes the standard Rorschach here, and it may seem like a parody or it may prove the real strength of Moore's original vision.  Perhaps we won't know until Rorschach's own book, but here he emerges as a more entertaining figure than anyone previously imagined.

There's a lot to learn in Before Watchmen, and Nite Owl may prove to be the source for the most knowledge.

Unbeatable Comics: Batman Incorporated #2

writer: Grant Morrison
artist: Chris Burnham

The thrust of Batman Incorporated in both of its incarnations has been that Grant Morrison would finally conclude his run on the Dark Knight, and reveal who Leviathan was.  In the first volume, there was a lot of exploring the reach of Leviathan.  In the second volume, we learn who Leviathan is in the first issue, and so in this effort, Morrison gets to explain why exactly Talia Head, the daughter of Ra's al Ghul and mother of Damian, the current Robin and son of Batman, took on this identity and decided once and for all to deal with the problem of her ex-lover.

I've heard the issue described as an unnecessary wikipedia retread, basically a lot of information fans already knew.  If that's what it actually was, I doubt Morrison would have written it.  Instead, it's a character study, something Morrison doesn't ordinarily do, at least not outright, and so it's interesting to read strictly in that regard.  Talia's mother has usually been glossed over, because her father is one of Batman's most infamous foes, and how can you compete with that?  Here we get an idea of the impact of being separated from her mother has on Talia, and being considered a pawn by her father, never being good enough, the product of the parenting skills that say simply getting everything you ask for is good enough.  She's perhaps turned into a version of Batman whose parents weren't killed when he was a child, only one of them, and the surviving one shaped her into a weapon he had no idea what to do with.  Most writers have neglected Talia as much as her father.  Until the romantic liaison with Batman and the conception of Damian, she was superfluous, and continued to be until Morrison brought Damian back.

Now we see that Talia may truly be the biggest threat Batman has ever faced, a product of a continuing legacy and a writer who knows what to do with it, and that's why an issue like this is necessary, to explain all of this, and to move past it, so Morrison can continue with the story he's really working on, much as he has dipped back into the R.I.P./Final Crisis timeline a few times to fill in some gaps.  This is exactly like that, except in the middle of the story he's telling.  It's a crucial issue to Morrison's entire tenure with Batman.

Unbeatable Comics: Atomic Robo

Atomic Robo and the Flying She-Devils of the Pacific #1
writer: Brian Clevinger
artist: Scott Wegener

Atomic Robo Presents Real Science Adventures #3
writer: Brian Clevinger
artist: Ryan Cody, Gurihiru, John Broglia, Christian Ward

Atomic Robo is one of the greatest comic book properties almost nobody knows about.  I'm not saying that it's an obscure indy title with limited budget, distribution, and awareness.  It's published by Red 5 Comics, and has been nominated for the prestigious Eisner Awards.  Red 5 is probably several steps below wide recognition, but it's had some cult hits on its hands, including Zombies of Mass Destruction.  Anyway, Atomic Robo is like Hellboy if Hellboy wasn't so Gothic.

Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener have been creating Atomic Robo comics since 2007, and I've tried my best to read each of the successive mini-series released along the way (as well as a series of Free Comic Book Day giveaways).  Flying She-Devils of the Pacific is the seventh, and it proves beyond a doubt that this is not getting old anytime soon.

As with every Atomic Robo story, our hero stumbles into a sensational situation.  This time it's a not-implausible scenario where all those weapons and stuff left behind by WWII troops in the Pacific have become subject to competing parties looking to exploit them.  Robo runs into a band of, well, flying she-devils, American women who don't much care to return to their normal lives and have become pirates securing these weapons from more sinister forces looking to do evil with them.  Although he's indestructible and a match for the scientific genius of those he's worked with over the decades, including creator Nikola Tesla, Robo is invariably depicted as baffled by just about everything, but game to play along, because one way or another he'll figure his way out and save the day.  These are parodies of the traditional superhero archetype, but written smartly, using science in ways Mythbusters would appreciate, without knocking the reader over the head with it, perhaps more like Fringe, actually, if Walter Bishop's pet cow Bessie were a robot and did all his adventures for him.

The one thing Hellboy really has over Robo is a strong supporting cast, including the BPRD.  Real Science Adventures seems to be an effort to expand on that, an anthology series with different artists working alongside Clevinger, some starring Robo and some that don't.  The six-part "To Kill a Sparrow" doesn't, for instance, but it's recognizable as an Atomic Robo story all the same, set during WWII and featuring some adventurers looking to steal the Crown of Thorns back from the Nazis.  The one-off "Tesla's Electric Sky Schooner" features Clevinger's version of the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, if they were all real historic figures, and is done in manga style.  The six-part "Leaping Metal Dragon" also continues this issue, with Robo attempting to learn from Bruce Lee, in ways Robo probably never considered.  "Atomic Robo and the Electromatic Dream Machine" is the most surreal entry of the issue, stripping Clevinger's instincts to its most minimal approach, and is probably as good a summary of the Atomic Robo phenomenon as you'll get.

I'm always hoping Robo will get more fans, and the fact that he now has two books seems encouraging.

Unbeatable Comics: Action Comics #11

writer: Grant Morrison
artist: Rags Morales, Brad Walker

Last issue's surprising development of Superman sacrificing his Clark Kent identity was less a stunt (see: "The Death of Clark Kent," a 90s arc, for evidence) and more Grant Morrison continuing his unique look at the Man of Steel, and now we get a little more about that, though not exactly in the "shocking reason" advertised on the cover.  We already know why.  This is the fallout.

In a revealing conversation with Batman, he admits that it was perhaps a rash mistake, but this is a more human, more vulnerable Superman, who is capable of overreacting.  This is not so far off from the Superman of other eras, who wasn't always at the same level in his stories as he was in DC's publishing schedule.  In Crisis on Infinite Earths, he's basically just another hero in the mix.  It wasn't until the Man of Steel relaunch that he started to take the center of importance, culminating, arguably, in Morrison's own Final Crisis.  Most writers, for many decades, have struggled to come up with stories that depict him in the godlike fashion dismissive fans have pegged on him.

Yet Morrison may be the first writer to take the actual depiction of Superman to its most logical iteration, as a guy who runs around in a t-shirt (Sholly Fisch has a typically amusing and informative backup feature about these t-shirts and their unexpected effect on the street level) and is just trying to figure things out and do the most good possible.  He is now spending most of his time as Superman, which at the moment he finds refreshing, and some of it as the firefighter known as Johnny Clark.  You can either dismiss this as completely temporary or enjoy Morrison's ride, because few writers are capable of this level of immersion, and fewer still with a character as supposedly daunting as Superman.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

The 10 Best Comics of 2012 (So Far)

The following are my favorite comic books from January through June.  They are not necessarily my favorite comic books being published in 2012, but the ones that have done the best work so far.

In no particular order:

Action Comics (DC)
Grant Morrison became my favorite comic book writer a little over five years ago.  Before that time I tended to take him for granted, except in cases like his hypermainstream JLA, and have been trying to play catch-up ever since.  Action Comics has since the New 52 launch last September been a fine example of Morrison's best instincts, presenting an iconic character in an iconic way that nonetheless presents an entirely new way to view him.  No other issue besides #9 presents this so well.  Outside of the regular continuity in the series to date, this issue presents an alternate reality Superman who just happens to be black, who ends up being confronted by a Clark Kent (along with Lois Lane and Jimmy Olsen) from yet another alternate reality, and forced together they challenge just about every preconceived notion of the Superman mythos, and is essential reading even if you've never cared for this character a day in your life.  I promise you that you'll know about to understand what's going on, and Morrison will blow your mind.

Batman and Robin (DC)
Pete Tomasi started out as an editor at DC (so did Mark Waid) but has transitioned into one of its most crucial writers, and I think this current stint on Batman and Robin may be the point where readers really start to notice.  While there's a lot of Batman comics out there, and Scott Snyder's dominates all the press, this is the one fans who care about the Dark Knight's continuing legacy really ought to be reading.  I wasn't reading this one at the start of the New 52, and only stumbled into it basically by accident, even though I've loved Tomasi and Patrick Gleason since Green Lantern Corps, and once I started I had to read everything I could get my hands on.  This doesn't happen to me all that often, so I knew I had found something special.  Basically this is the Damian we've all been waiting for, the one who is stubbornly claiming the story as all his own, a Robin with teeth, more controversial and more essential in the role than Jason Todd could ever hope to be, and in the signature story of the year, falling into a trap set by the son of Henri Ducard, famously depicted in Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins as Bruce Wayne's original mentor (and real Ra's al Ghul, lest you forget), and clawing his way out, and even Batman doesn't quite know how to react, a story that's still unfolding.

Green Lantern (DC)
The unlikely redemption of Sinestro hit its stride in 2012 as he set about trying clean up the messes that still remained from his time leading the Yellow Corps, especially on his home planet of Korugar, and then dragging the reluctant Hal Jordan along to confront the Indigo Tribe, whose origin holds the key to unraveling  the Guardians' plans for an impending Third Army.  Originally I didn't understand how Geoff Johns intended to integrate Hal Jordan into his approach to Green Lantern, and this is a statement I make going all the way back to the launch of the 2006 series after Rebirth, but over time I've come to appreciate his vision as starting with a frequently rebellious and controversial member of the Corps to an expansion of the whole mythology that has developed the concept to a greater extent than any other writer in the history of the franchise.  His handling of Sinestro is emblematic of this approach, rehabilitating a character who had long been dismissed as a cautionary tale turned into a generic villain, but now one of the most nuanced figures in comics.  Hal becomes relevant as the one person who has the most to resent in Sinestro's new life, but also the one most likely to give him a fair shot, because he knows better than anyone that a fall from grace leads to a giant leap of faith in accepting a second chance to get it right.  I've been so surprised that Johns has actually lost a lot of the momentum he had earlier in his career, in terms of critical and fan support, that perhaps the more mainstream he's become, the easier it's become to underestimate his talent.  Any other writer might have stumbled in trying to figure out what his story for a franchise he's been writing for seven years will be in 2012, but Johns is still finding new ways to explore that same territory, and keep it interesting without even needing to reinvent the wheel every few years.

Justice League (DC)
The more remarkable thing about Johns is that he's not just writing Green Lantern, or even this book, or Aquaman, but has an official post in the DC front office, too, and he's not wasting his time in any of his commitments.  Justice League has failed to capture the popular fanboy imagination, and like Green Lantern isn't particularly a critical darling, either, but it remains one of the best things to come out of the New 52.  The truly remarkable thing is that as the series has aged since its launch last fall, it still retains an almost mythic appreciation of its central heroes, and has increasingly turned its focus to more earthbound concerns, including a villain Johns has been setting up since the beginning, who finally lost his faith in them when these superheroes couldn't, ultimately, solve every evil in the world, including those that struck his own family.  There's also liaison Steve Trevor, whose growing disillusionment concerning his relationship with Wonder Woman (a classic romance most modern writers have completely forgotten about) is proving to be the true star of the book, and a guest appearance from Green Arrow that challenges our conceptions of both the original and current incarnations of the character.  This is the first Justice League since Grant Morrison's that truly has legs, and if history (and more specifically his tenure with the Justice Society) is any indication, Johns is just getting started.  Equally noteworthy is the Shazam backup feature, in which Johns and Gary Frank update Billy Batson as a cynical orphan struggling to accept life with a new adoptive family, including the kids who are trying to make him feel at home.

Nightwing (DC)
There've been some great runs for Nightwing since he gained his first ongoing series in 1996, but Kyle Higgins is threatening to eclipse them.  He's been busy establishing himself on this book since last fall, introducing a more centralized version of Dick Grayson, grounded in his own story for perhaps the first time ever, revisiting Haly's Circus and discovering unexpected inheritance and corruption, no longer hiding from his roots in Gotham but actually embracing them, even during the midst of a nightmarish revelation that pits him at the heart of the Court of Owls, a fact Higgins and Scott Snyder might have talked a little more about, with perhaps greater results than we actually got.  Still, this is the most fun I've had reading the character in years, and considering he's long been one of my favorites, I hope that's saying something.

RASL (Cartoon)
Jeff Smith's underrated (or at least, underhyped) creative followup to Bone reached its final issues this year, and there's still no telling what the conclusion this month will actually reveal about the story of Rob Johnson, a scientist who saw his life's work turn into a nightmare he decided he had to stop personally, but that ended up proving far more difficult than he imagined.  There's the hopping behind parallel worlds, the girlfriend he thought he lost forever, the affair that he's been finding solace in throughout several alternate realities, and the former colleagues who will stop at nothing to thwart his efforts, believing as he can't that there's no harm in seeing his work through.  For Smith, I can only say that I wish this story could last longer, that we could soak in this world(s) for many more years, but he's reached the end and if RASL is an argument for anything, it's for creative freedom, knowing how far to go, and being allowed to finish the job under the right terms.

Saucer Country (Vertigo)
Paul Cornell has been growing into one of my favorite writers for years now, and I've been waiting for him to work on a book that could truly be considered his.  Saucer Country is that book.  Courting the familiar tales of alien abduction, Cornell subverts expectations by not only blurring the line between perception and reality, but thrusting it into a far bigger story about politics and image, and although the book is only a few months old, it already feels like the next great Vertigo series I hoped it could be, following in the tradition of Sandman and Y: The Last Man.  A lesser writer might have ended up writing X-Files stories already, but this is something Cornell has been thinking about for a long time, and it already shows, in his devotion to a linear structure that can already be considered byzantine, working on characters we're only just meeting as if they already have a rich and distinct history, leaving some critics utterly baffled, but some of us utterly enthralled.

The Secret History of D.B. Cooper (Oni)
Brian Churilla first came to my attention as an artist, but on this book he tackles writing duties as well, and taking readers on a huge leap of faith as he blends the mysterious figure of hijacker D.B. Cooper with an unlikely government assassin who travels into an alternate dimension in order to reach his targets, depicted as gruesome monsters he nonchalantly dispatches in between conversations with a talking teddy bear, all while in the real world dealing with very harsh realities he probably prefers to avoid.  Given that so little is known about Cooper, any legend, no matter how outlandish, can be considered the truth, and over the years a lot of people have been fingered to be the culprit, and Churilla happens to have taken that to the extreme, using fiction at its highest potential to embrace an elusive icon who's already at the fringe of the popular imagination to hopefully elevate him still higher.

The Shade (DC)
The long-awaited followup to Starman sees James Robinson exploring the life of a reformed villain, now so thoroughly engrossed in his own narrative that it seems scarcely credible that he was ever considered anything but what he essentially is, a rogue who plays by his own rules because hardly any others apply to him.  The best issues this year, #s 5-7, involve his relationship with a French vampire, La Sangre, and her own battles, a sidestep from the Shade's investigation into an attempt on his life, which has led him into the darkest secrets of his family line.  This is another book I am incredulous to see get so little critical or popular attention, not the least for its pedigree or its own worth.

Wasteland (Oni)
I've only just been able to read this series again after several years of its scarce availability and inconsistent publishing schedule, but a new artist has not dulled the impact of Antony Johnston's epic vision of an apocalyptic future where the past has become both a mystery and legend and the present is dominated by religious beliefs that don't much ken to outsiders, especially when those outsiders happen to be Michael and Abi, who hold many secrets, not to mention the key to explaining everything.  The story is rapidly bringing them closer to the fabled city of A-Ree-Yass-I, a destination readers have known about from the beginning, making this book that is in so many ways so similar to The Walking Dead, and in more important ways, besides far fewer readers, so different, and better, focused in a way that allows for a heartbreaking world where power rarely saves you from misery, but merely provides a temporary delusion, as the assassin Gerr discovered in #38.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Monorama now available

I just wanted those who might be interested here at Comics Reader to know that I've just released a collection of short stories, including "Back from the Dead," which features superheroes.  You can purchase Monorama at Amazon (also available in handy Kindle edition).

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Quarter Bin #40 "The Mosaic Action Conspiracy of Superman"

From August 1988:
Until 52, COUNTDOWN TO FINAL CRISIS, and TRINITY, weekly comics seemed like an experiment that was never going to happen again.  The first time was when the mother of all comic books, ACTION COMICS, was converted to a weekly anthology title toward the end of the 1980s, for less than a year, the first time in forty years it didn’t star Superman exclusively.  Until recently, I had never read any of it, but had always been intrigued.  Seeing Nightwing on the cover of #613 was what convinced me to finally have a look, in an adventure captioned as “Nightwing flies again!”  The writer is Marv Wolfman, who famously steered the course of Dick Grayson’s evolution in NEW TEEN TITANS.  For modern readers, it may be a little difficult to imagine a time when Nightwing wasn’t established as a viable solo figure, but that didn’t really happen for another seven years, when the first NIGHTWING ongoing was launched.  The weird thing about this adventure is that it co-stars Roy Harper, and is basically a Roy Harper story, featuring Cheshire, but much of the narrative thrust is driven by Dick’s thoughts about moving on from the Batcave.  The other notable story in the issues features Hal Jordan as Green Lantern, written by Peter David, explaining how his power ring actually removed all his fear from him.  David has made most of his name writing licensed novels on other people’s ideas, and he treats this story pretty much the same way he writes those, putting his own ideas that don’t necessarily configure to the established material, so that it seems like it makes sense but doesn’t.  (I used to read his Star Trek books religiously, but gradually became disillusioned, ironically while reading the early Excalibur books.  It’s highly unlikely that people go around routinely tearing off the antennas of Andorians in fights, a fact that ENTERPRISE made clear several years later.)  Among the other features are two-page entries with Superman from Roger Stern and Curt Swan.  I would suggest that Swan’s Man of Steel in these pages looks about as classical as you can get.  I’d read that layout on a weekly basis, easily.  Issue #614 features great Green Lantern cover from Mike Mignola.  Makes me wish he still did DC work.

CONSPIRACY #1 (Marvel)
From February 1998:
I raved about this Dan Abnett ditty recently, a discovery I made from a stack of comics I got a decade ago but only recently sat down to read.  I should amend that previous statement to say that I raved about the second issue, and perhaps it would have been as well to leave it at that, because the first issue is disturbingly similar, except with a beginning that in hindsight isn’t really necessary, as Abnett treats the same conspiracy theory about the disturbing shared origins of the most famous Marvel superheroes in slightly different terms, which is disappointing.  Given that CONSPIRACY was only two issues long and was soundly forgotten by everyone, including any publisher who ever knew Abnett might have written something without Andy Lanning, it’s equally disappointing to know that the brilliance I caught the first time around really might have been a fluke, and that’s why Abnett’s been writing with a partner ever since.  Still, I would say this is worth a look, but if you only have time for one issue, go with the second.  It even helps make THE AVENGERS and that whole movie franchise make sense for comic book fans.

From October 1991
GREEN LANTERN: MOSAIC was a short-lived ongoing series between published 1992-93, and the only issue I’ve ever read is the first one, and its surreal nature has never really left my imagination.  Starring John Stewart, it was about a community of disparate alien cultures brought together on Oa as an experiment, and thus is unlike any other Green Lantern story that I know of.  I discovered that it had its origins in a story arc from GREEN LANTERN, in which John and the reader are introduced to the concept (in modern comics this would have been done back-to-back, without any awkward gap between this and the launch of the series) and John basically gets to express his frustrations with being a Green Lantern.  (I would strongly suggest that a future Green Lantern movie consider using him before Guy Gardner or Kyle Rayner, even if he has to interact with Hal Jordan and make viewers think of Tony Stark and Jim Rhodes.)  There’s few characters with enough integrity to pull off a concept like Mosaic, and John was always the only Green Lantern for the job.  These stories need to be reprinted.

From February 2002

From February 2003:
These are two early Superman stories from Geoff Johns, who at the time was better known for THE FLASH, AVENGERS, and JSA.  His later run on ACTION COMICS produced some of the most iconic Superman stories of the modern era, but at this point he was trying to draw out the man in the Man of Steel, like everyone else at the time convinced that Superman needed to be justified to modern readers.  The writer who famously reinvigorated the Flash’s Rogues Gallery turned to the Royal Flush Gang in the first of these issues, from the perspective of a low-rung member who manages to make Superman feel bad, in a way wounding him.  That’s as much as the Royal Flush Gang will do to him, because otherwise they’re a perennially goofy concept and unworthy of a Superman comic.  This is probably one of their finest appearances.  In the second issue, the “Lost Hearts” story arc sees the Man of Steel hiding out incognito in Hell’s Heart, reconnecting with Lana and more human conflict.  There’s also Traci 13, who would later become a recurring character in the first Jaime Reyes BLUE BEETLE ongoing.  This arc was her first appearance.