Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Comics we'll be talking about in the coming weeks...

While Comics Reader takes a brief hiatus, know that we still have plenty to talk about (besides the death of a major character in at least two of this blog's favorite comics from 2012), including:

Action Comics #17
Batman Incorporated #7
Before Watchmen: Comedian #5
Django Unchained #2
Green Lantern #17
Happy! #4
Justice League #17
Justice League of America #1
Legends of the Dark Knight #5
Nova #1
Punk Rock Jesus #6
Red Hood and the Outlaws #15
Saga #2, 8, 9
Saucer Country #10, 11, 12
The Amazing Spider-Man #698, 700
Avenging Spider-Man #15.1
The Superior Spider-Man #1
Star Trek: The Next Generation - Hive #3
Think Tank: Military Dossier
Threshold #1
Wasteland #42
Wolverine #313
Womanthology: Space #4
Wonder Woman #15
All-New X-Men #4, 5
Young Avengers #1

Additionally, the Reading Comics feature on The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 continues as well as new installments of Quarter Bin, plus a series chronicling 52, issue by issue much like the current Annotated series.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Nightwing #15 (DC)

writer: Kyle Higgins
artist: Eddy Barrows

(via dccomics.com)

"Death of the Family" kicked off in October, but the major event kicked off in December.  DC created nifty die-cut covers, which is not represented in the above image.  That was an alternate cover for the issue.  The one I have has the "face mask" of the Joker as he currently exists included as a flap under which is Nightwing's own face.  Apparently there was the chance that Joker was actually going to cut the faces off Batman's allies (the only time I heard about this before the conclusion of the story in the recent Batman #17 was in relation to Jason Todd, who shares the Red Hood identity with the Joker, who had that persona before his transformation into the Clown Prince of Crime), so these covers would have been pretty ironic in hindsight.

And so goes the cleverness of the whole arc.  Some fans were disappointed that Joker didn't have a "Death in the Family" (in which he murdered Jason, who got better) or The Killing Joke (in which he crippled Barbara Gordon, who got better) moment, while others thought it was all about the emotional impact.  As in "Night of the Owls," Dick Grayson and his current writer Kyle Higgins enjoyed the story by making it extra personal, and once again tying in the renewed Haly's Circus connection that has been the hallmark of this New 52 series since its launch.

Early on I was a pretty big cheerleader of both the series and Higgins.  Lately I've cooled on both.  It's become easier to skip issues, and it's much for the same reasons that I've found it so easy to not read Higgins pal Scott Snyder's Batman.  When Snyder first starting writing the Dark Knight in the pages of Detective Comics, it seemed like he would be a writer who would really be able to exploit the character's rich lineage.  There was a moment where he actually had the crowbar used by Joker to murder Jason on auction.  Then Snyder got Batman in the New 52 relaunch and started writing in arcs that the whole Batman family got to participate in.  He and Higgins had previously written Gates of Gotham together, so it was no surprise when Nightwing had a little extra significance in "Night of Owls," and at that point I still believed that Higgins had a vision, the way Chuck Dixon and Devin K. Grayson (no relation to Dick) did before him.  He started out so well.  But he's since begun wallowing in randomness, meandering through rather than exploring Nightwing's life, using something relevant to do nothing at all with it, which is Haly's Circus, where Dick grew up, where he lost his parents, and where a connection with a character named Zucco only goes so far (Tony Zucco called the hit on his parents, while Sonia Zucco is his current love interest).

Sometimes a slow burn is worth it.  Sometimes it's just a writer spinning his wheels.  Maybe it's because Higgins has to write around Snyder, maybe it's because he trusts Snyder too much, along with so many Batman fans.  And I'm not reluctant about Snyder because he's supplanted Grant Morrison as the main Batman writer (while Morrison is still writing Batman), but that his stories never seem to go anywhere, either.  I read the early issues of American Vampire because Snyder was working on that book in association with Stephen King, who wrote a separate narrative that did go somewhere, while Snyder didn't.  Sure, King's work ended early while Snyder's continues (currently on hiatus, though), but every now and again I want my faith in a writer to be rewarded.  King has proven that many times over.  Morrison has.  Snyder hasn't, and Higgins has reached that point, and I'm afraid he won't get beyond it.

Solicitations for future issues of Nightwing have him agonizing over the fallout of "Death of the Family," yet as evidenced in #15 there's really nothing to worry about.  Sure there are personal deaths associated with Joker's actions at Haly's Circus, but these are characters Higgins has really only just introduced.  Part of Dick Grayson's problem is that he's never had a consistent supporting cast.  He's had Batman, Barbara (maddeningly always only a would-be lover), the Teen Titans.  I mean, Jason has managed to go further with Starfire than he ever did, and Dick married the girl!  (Although the wedding went horribly, thanks to Raven, not that anyone cares.)

Anyway, this is to say that Nightwing in my experience with "Death of the Family" was certainly no Batman and Robin, which you'll remember I was gaga over.  Brilliant work there.  Not so much here.  More like frustrating.  I want something to happen in this series.  Dick has proven time and time again that he's not just a supporting character in Batman's world.  Higgins has returned him to his own.  But in many ways, he's also brought him right back to where he started, under the shadow of the Dark Knight.  That's just not right.

Reading Comics #97 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #6"

(via vertigocomics.com)

Sandman #6 continues the story from the last issue, which itself continues the arc from the first issue, and if you can accept my chronicle as such, you may also like to know the issue also draws from that first issue more directly, since it too follows a bunch of random characters as they are affected by the continuing manipulation of Dream's function.  That's what the overall story has been, Morpheus working his way back to what he was before the start of the series (and actually the series is really about his ultimately relinquishing that role to Daniel, so it's kind of funny how it all begins).

Doctor Destiny, John Dee, has come into the possession of Dream's last remaining totem of power, a ruby he used and altered in his career as a supervillain when he fought the Justice League, before ending up in Arkham Asylum.  He's become grotesque, a rotten husk of a man, but he still has the ruby.  Last issue Morpheus discovered that Dee does in fact have control over the ruby, which leads him to a diner, where he affects the lives of its regulars.  Neil Gaiman takes the opportunity to explore some fairly mundane lives, where people have been kidding themselves, dreaming big as it were, for years.  With Dee's influence, over the course of twenty-four hours, their dreams become nightmares and they kill each other.

That's pretty much the whole issue.  It's a little strange, given that the series is called Sandman and not Doctor Destiny, but that's the way Gaiman has been doing it so far.  Leslie Klinger has few notes to make throughout this particular installment.  He talks about what's in the original script, mostly, and also how one particular character from the diner has some relevant connections to later developments in the series.

On page 16, Klinger helpfully points out how Gaiman returns to the motif of the three witches featured in the second issue, which is another echo to be found here, while there's another song referenced (as in the Constantine issue) on page 21 that has a connection to a relevant movie starring Sting called Brimstone & Treacle that I would otherwise have probably never known about, but may be worth checking out.  (Though it's still odd to think that Sting was ever once so motivated to be an actor, because that's not in his current interests at all; his most famous role was in David Lynch's Dune, which incidentally also has one of Patrick Stewart's earliest screen roles.)

I enjoyed the random insight into page 23 as well, which is six panels of Dee doing pretty much nothing except observing and eventually eating a fly.  In the script, apparently, Gaiman thinks he should be eating a raisin.  Obviously the artist went in a different direction.  It seemed to go that way a lot.

Oh, and Morpheus finally shows up on the last page.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Justice League #15 and 16 (DC)

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Ivan Reis

(via dccomics.com)

"Throne of Atlantis" is the crossover event with Aquaman, also written by Geoff Johns.  These are the first two issues of the arc outside of the other series, showing how the conflict begins and how the League finds a formidable challenge in Ocean Master, Aquaman's brother and current holder of the eponymous rule.

Moreso than in Aquaman, Geoff does a good job of juggling ongoing arcs within Justice League itself, notably the relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman.  In #15 they talk about the concepts of secret identities, with Superman explaining what Clark Kent means to him, which also means Wonder Woman dons glasses in the New 52, as her civilian presence routinely did previously.  It's a sequence you wish could play longer, even though there's a lot of superhero goodness that follows, big epic stuff that Justice League has been doing since the start, what I've called the monthly event book, though after the first arc of the series this is the only the second instance where the book actually feels like an event.

A lot of that is owed to artist Ivan Reis, who is a regular collaborator of Geoff's in his Green Lantern work, including Blackest Night.  He knows exactly how to do big action, and these issues are almost worth it just to see him at work.  If anyone could follow Jim Lee, it's definitely Reis.

An interesting undercurrent of the issues is also Cyborg's continuing arc.  He's been a featured member of the League since the first issue, including his origin.  Originally Cyborg was a founding member of Marv Wolfman's New Teen Titans thirty years ago.  His graduation to the League was one of the biggest shifts in DC lore in the New 52, though Geoff has taken his time returning to him.  These issues feature as has been the undercurrent of his role Cyborg's conflicted feelings about being a man with so much machinery, fearing that he's losing his humanity.  Yet it's this concern that keeps him human.  Otherwise he can be fairly functional in nature, providing tech support in most situations.

By the end of #16 he's made a huge personal decision as well as the call to bring in backup for the League, essentially acting as the voice of the team.  Most of the other members tend to represent themselves first, and that's as much as it should be.  Cyborg is there not only as the only member without his own book, but as the glue that keeps it together and the connection to the larger community.  For the record, the faces seen on the last page are labeled Green Arrow (who previously failed to draft himself into the team), Shazam (who's the star of the backup feature and erstwhile Captain Marvel), Black Lightning, Hawkman, Black Canary, Firestorm, Vixen, Zatanna, Element Woman, and Goldrush.

Now, Firestorm just had his monthly book cancelled.  It seems whenever that happens the editor is quick to say the character will live on in a team book, and this is most times a totally wasted reassurance, because these appearances tend to be meaningless.  Geoff himself made good on this in Teen Titans when he redefined Bart Allen (formerly Impulse, since Kid Flash) and even Superboy, and Cyborg is all but another success in that regard.  Time will tell if Firestorm joins those ranks.

Element Woman, meanwhile, is a new version of a character associated with Metamorpho, who made her first appearance, technically speaking, in Geoff's Flashpoint.  Goldrush is an entirely new character, which is something that should happen in a Justice League book, especially one written by Geoff Johns.  The others are all more or less established players in League lore.  Vixen and Black Lightning are two characters who were elevated in previous revivals of the team, so it's good to see them back in the mix.

Shazam, meanwhile, continues in the backups with Geoff and Gary Frank.  He and friend Freddy Freeman are still trying to exploit his powers for mischief, but Billy Batson is beginning to learn that there are certain responsibilities involved as well.  He alienates Freddy when he claims he won't switch out of the Shazam form, but decides differently when Black Adam shows up and proves that it's after all not just fun and games.  To escape his dark mirror, Billy switches back to being a kid.  Black Adam was a signature element of 52, which Geoff wrote in conjunction with Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, and Greg Rucka.  Chances are that future installments will reflect the character's more subtle features.

Reading Comics #96 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #5"

(via vertigocomics.com)
The Sandman #5 is a lot more of Neil Gaiman's take on mainstream DC lore, heavily featuring Doctor Destiny as well as Mister Miracle and Martian Manhunter.  Morpheus, alias Dream alias Sandman, is once again a supporting player in his own book.

Interestingly, based on the way Gaiman writes, Leslie Klinger's first notes for the issue actually reference Alfred Hitchcock, from his TV shows.  Hitchcock has resurfaced in pop culture recently, from the clear visual cues of Despicable Me to a few movies based on the director himself, one starring Anthony Hopkins.  Chances are in generations hence readers will still know who he is.

Doctor Destiny has so far played a surprisingly large role in Sandman, a bogeyman who came into possession of the last totem on Dream's list, a ruby that allows him to manipulate reality.  By "him" I refer to John Dee, the last best representation of the corrupting human appropriations of Dream's responsibilities for the last seventy years, an arc begun in the first issue.  Artist Sam Keith, Gaiman's main collaborator in this opening arc, has perhaps his signature visual in Doctor Destiny's warped and horrific visage, very much a nightmare itself, although in a twist of dark humor the woman he steals a ride from upon breaking free from Arkham Asylum seems to take everything about him in stride.  It may be Gaiman's way of saying that we can rationalize just about anything.

Before his escape, Dee runs into Jonathan Crane, the Scarecrow, a more traditional superhero villain and known inmate of Arkham (Doctor Destiny is by comparison pretty obscure).  Dee's mother has just died, and that's his main motivation.  Gaiman takes the opportunity to reflect on the true patterns of villain behavior, as well as the conversation Dee has with the woman in the car.  A note to deconstructionist writers out there: this is your cue as to a better approach, your target being the villain rather than the hero.

Mister Miracle makes an appearance mostly because he's at this point a member of the Justice League. His dreams are disturbed by his origins, a child of New Genesis swapped with a child of Apokolips, the good and evil homes of Jack Kirby's New Gods in the Fourth World.  Too often writers who depict characters from this setting don't have a clue what to do with them.  Sometimes it's enough to meditate on the setup, because that alone resonates like the myths Kirby always meant to reflect.  Mister Miracle, alias Scott Free, is an escape artist, but his dreams lock him back into his worst memories.  Gaiman later did The Eternals for Marvel, based on a similar concept created by Kirby, although I would much prefer his New Gods.  It's worth noting again that he did write the brilliant American Gods, as well as Good Omens.  The dude does the macabre, but he's also clearly fascinated by thoughts of divinity.

The odd thing is that Mister Miracle can't help Morpheus, but he can redirect him to Martian Manhunter, one of the most fascinating, underutilized characters in comics.  And yet that sequence is brief in comparison.

By the way, if you're struggling to keep track of everyone's multiple names in this post, just know that this is something Klinger certainly appreciates.  It's a constant refrain in his notes, as it is a theme for Gaiman, and perhaps the true relevance of Doctor Destiny, John Dee, who at one point this issue says "D" could stand for anything.  The entire family of The Endless, of which Dream is a part, is named with that letter.  The next most famous member of this family is Death, who's even more quintessentially goth than Dream.  Though they make a good match.

If there's any surprise in Klinger's notes for this issue, it's that he takes the task of cataloging the contents of the Justice League storage unit lightly.  Or Gaiman and Keith generalized most of its contents.  When Morpheus finally reclaims his ruby, it's the end of the issue.  Dee has tampered with it, and thus marks the first cliffhanger of the series.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Happy! #3 (Image)

writer: Grant Morrison
artist: Darick Robertson

(from comicbookresources.com)

Happy! can seem like something of a repetitive experience.  For three issues now we've been treated to the sordid life of Nick Sax and the unexpected appearance of a tiny floating blue horse into his life, and the fact that Nick doesn't believe in said horse or at least doesn't see the point in Happy's intervention in his life.  This issue, even though we get something of an origin story for Nick, it's the same as the previous two issues.  Almost ho-hum, which for me is not something I'm used to experiencing with Grant Morrison.

I'm a big fan of Morrison, but I haven't read all of his work, and in the grand scheme of things can barely say that I've read him as he's originally been published.  Some critics have tended to take the stance that he's not everything people like me tend to make of him, and perhaps it's because they don't take a look at the bigger picture, because for a writer like Grant Morrison, it's always about the bigger picture.  Issue by issue (when his projects work like that), sometimes individual moments do seem ho-hum.  But, there's always the bigger picture.

For a four issue mini-series, that bigger picture would have seemed to be Nick's odd relationship with Happy, and yet Morrison finally reveals what it really is with this installment.  All along, even though Nick himself has been in near-constant mortal peril, there's been a little girl Happy has been trying to get him to save from the clutches of a sadist dressed in a Santa Claus costume (though it's something of a Christmas tale, you'll be forgiven to overlook that fact, because publication began and continues after that season).

I will note that the phrase "Happy Christmas" is used this issue, and while that is I believe how the English say it, Americans will always default to "Merry Christmas."  If there's an excuse for this lapse, it's that the series is indeed called Happy and features a character named Happy.  Except it is set in the States, where that phrase is after all not in use.  I don't know if it's a deliberate goof or simply a rare instance of cultural differences being overlooked by mistake.

Anyway, let's get back to the bigger picture.  That little girl?  ...Maybe I shouldn't spoil it.  One way or another, the bigger picture is revealed this issue.  Maybe I'll talk about it next issue, when the story concludes.  Suffice it to say, Happy! already has a happy ending in my book.

Reading Comics #95 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #4"

(via vertigocomics.com)

Well, you gave it your best shot, Neil, but as of The Sandman #4 it all goes to hell.

Ha!  Well, have to try and be funny every now again.  In all seriousness, Morpheus does in fact go to Hell so he can reclaim his helm, the visual link between this incarnation of Sandman and the original Golden Age superhero (the one with the gas mask).  You might think the issue is Etrigan-heavy, but Jack Kirby's Demon is only featured for a few pages.  Otherwise this may be the biggest indication in the series so far that it's not going to be just another horror or DC comic.  

Leslie S. Klinger makes a lot of his opportunity to annotate the issue by drawing from Gaiman's original script, giving his readers a chance to read the original scripting thoughts on what Hell should look like, which as it turns our are not always exactly followed.  There are some pretty seedy things going through Gaiman's head as he envisions territory previously explored by Dante (and Bill & Ted).  

There are three rulers of this Hell, the first of them Lucifer (who would later receive a spin-off series, believe it or not), and the others Beelzebub (who is also Lord of the Flies, and as such is depicted as a fly) and Azazel.  No Neron (featured in DC's 1995 event Underworld Unleashed), then.  Lucifer is the star of the triumvirate, though, while Klinger also makes reference to the greater significance and later appearances of Nada, glimpsed on page seven.  As explained by Klinger, Gaiman also includes a classic riddle challenge for Morpheus to handle, which may be familiar to anyone who's enjoyed Peter Jackson's The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, in which Gollum exhibits an entirely new way to captivate audiences (which of course was also in the book).

Curiously, the issue is followed by the same note included in Klinger's introduction, Gaiman's explanation of the series' origins that was originally printed in the letters column of Sandman #4.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Green Lantern: New Guardians Annual #1 (DC)

writer: Keith Giffen
artist: Scott Kolins

(via dccomics.com)

Keith Giffen is a talent DC has been wise to keep around for decades.  He's versatile enough to serve as  an artist (he provided the breakdowns for the entirety of 52, the fifth lead after the famous quartet of writers Johns, Morrison, Rucka, and Waid) as well as writer (co-scripting the "Bwa-ha-ha" League with J.M. DeMatteis), emphasizing an irreverent perspective (he created both Lobo and Ambush Bug).

He's the writer of Green Lantern: New Guardians Annual #1 mostly because it's the launching pad for his latest series, Threshold.  The lead star of Threshold is rogue Green Lantern Jediah Caul.  Now, normally I will subscribe without deviation to the belief that a good name is the first part of a good character.  Jediah Caul is not a good name.  It's not even a decent one.  But the character still works.  First off, a rogue Green Lantern pretty much sells itself.  I happen to be a big fan of the Green Lantern franchise, so I'm happy that there's so much of it floating around these days, and now part of it floating around in a series that isn't really connected to it.  ("Jediah Caul" is pretty much the opposite of the name you'd expect, so maybe I'll just refer to him as Threshold.)

Being an issue of Green Lantern: New Guardians, Giffen does in fact handle the stars of that series, and in that regard it's an excellent way to demonstrate the goodies already in the franchise.  Arkillo of the Sinestro Corps, Carol Ferris of the Star Sapphires, Saint Walker of the Blue Lanterns, and Kyle Rayner of the Green Lantern Corps are our main characters, all mingled together as they have been in New Guardians, interacting with each other as their different approaches contrast.  Carol Ferris, the sometimes girlfriend of Hal Jordan, is the other focus besides Threshold, is assigned by her handlers to a distant region of space for somesuch mission (it doesn't ultimately matter).  She ends up trapped in a reality show, a version of which has been featured in Death Race, The Condemned, and even Charmed.  Only Threshold can break her free, although in the process he becomes the latest contestant, and that will be the subject of his first story line in the spin-off.

Giffen is an ideal writer for some of the more alien possibilities of a Green Lantern story.  Often our hosts also dictate the approach, and in a Green Lantern story that hosts are invariably one of the many human Green Lanterns (Kyle is the resident human in New Guardians, obviously, although he has support in Carol, while Guy Gardner and John Stewart headline Green Lantern Corps, and Hal and Simon Baz are featured in the main title, and even Red Lanterns introduced a human recruit).  It's often something of a lost opportunity, because this is a franchise that ought to be free to explore the possibilities of space.  In this particular story, that's not the case, and it's nice to read, because Giffen is obviously having fun.

Sometimes, of course, when a comic book removes the human element, or transports the story to an unfamiliar time period (even the Legion of Super-Heroes can be guilty of this), it can become an exercise in impenetrable storytelling.  Yet Giffen doesn't let that happen, either.  He doesn't and won't write the New Guardians stars on a regular basis, yet he seems perfectly at home with them.  His introduction of Threshold is equally effortless.  If rebellious characters aren't exactly a novelty, Threshold stands out in his sheer indifference either to his status as a Green Lantern or anything else.  He's a loose-cannon through and through.  He has the potential to be very, very fun to read.

Reading Comics #94 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #3"

(via vertigocomics.com)

The third issue of Sandman as annotated by Leslie S. Klinger is probably my biggest exposure to John Constantine to date.  The erstwhile star of the long-running Vertigo series Hellblazer (final issue being released on 2/20 ahead of a DC relaunch as Constantine) is something of a legend, if not simply a cult favorite, originally found in the pages of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing and recently brought back to the mainstream thanks to Brightest Day and Justice League Dark.  He was the subject of his own movie in 2005 (also named Constantine) starring Keanu Reeves (physically and nationally the opposite of the part).

Morpheus, also known as Dream and of course Sandman, is trying to reacquire certain totems that contain the bulk of his power.  He was previously informed that Constantine was in possession of the pouch of sand, or at least was the last-known possessor.  The whole issue is basically a Constantine comic guest-starring Morpheus, with a minor in pop music (I'll explain that in a moment).

I've tried reading Hellblazer in the past, but it seems most of the writers in the title's history were less interested in making it accessible than telling bizarre tales.  The series, in fact, seemed the main depository of everything Vertigo was supposed to be, short of establishing its own distinct identity.  Constantine was basically the host of his own series, the main character but mostly a guide to whatever the writer wanted to explore.  It happens.  I could also be wrong.  Like I said, I don't have any real experience with the series or character, part of the lore of the medium that's always just eluded me.

Yet in Sandman #3, Constantine ends up being pretty engaging. Neil Gaiman is a writer who understands character pretty well, so it's not so surprising that he's able to make Constantine pop.  Klinger has a number of notes about his life and career, context that I find lacking whenever I try to read Hellblazer.  To me, Gaiman's approach is the only way to do a character like this.  I read Mike Carey's Devil May Care, the first in a series of novels about a similar character, and that was comparable (Carey is another notable Vertigo writer, I might add), as is Gaiman's own Shadow from American Gods and Anansi Boys.  I guess what I'm saying is that Constantine is prosaic.

Gaiman's Constantine is concerned with one particular relationship, which also explains what happened to the pouch of sand, and its nasty effects.  While we follow Constantine around, the story ends with Morpheus being a pretty good guy for the first time in the series, giving Rachel a last moment of peace after years of the pouch ravaging her.  There's not so much to know about Rachel other than Constantine's relationship with her, but that's enough.

Throughout the issue Gaiman takes the opportunity to invoke the pop music that references the topic of dreams, some obvious ("Mr. Sandman"), some I wasn't as familiar with ("In Dreams" from Roy Orbison).  I've already mentioned that Klinger is doing a service for readers of the future as much as those of the present.  We sometimes believe that pop music will live forever, and in some ways it will, now that we keep recordings of everything, but the music that was popular today, much less yesterday, will not maintain its popularity forever.  What you may take for granted as being ubiquitous today may very well be obscure tomorrow.  Short of providing a soundtrack with the collection, Klinger's notes will help to keep Gaiman's references relevant.

One thing I learned in the notes was that Constantine is one of the few characters (the Psycho Pirate is the most famous example) who are aware of Crisis on Infinite Earths.  To most of DC's characters, the exact details of the Crisis became immediately fuzzy.  If you yourself don't know much about this seminal event, it was the original attempt to rectify the continuity of the multiverse, basically by collapsing it into a single universe.  While various Elseworlds tales allowed DC to keep alternate versions of characters around, it wasn't until 52 that the multiverse returned.

For the fledgling Sandman, Gaiman does the same for Morpheus that he accomplishes with Constantine, grounding him in a little more concrete context.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Green Lantern #15 and 16 (DC)

writer: Geoff Johns
artist: Doug Mahnke

(via dccomics.com)

What's most impressive about Green Lantern these days may be obvious, but it needs to be stated, because I think it's being taken for granted: the introduction of an entirely new human member of the Corps.  Since last September's #0 we've been following Simon Baz, alleged terrorist and man riddled with guilt over an accident that left his sister's husband in a coma.

I want to contend, finally, that Simon is the most interesting addition to the Corps since Hal Jordan.  Yes, this means that I think he's more fascinating than John Stewart and Guy Gardner (who only became interesting when he developed a chip on his shoulder), both of whom were basically not Hal Jordan.  Simon is more compelling than Kyle Rayner, even, whose claim to fame is being the "alley rat" (Sinestro's description) who was at one point the last Green Lantern.  Simon is the first one since Hal to have a story happening to him that has nothing to do with being or becoming Green Lantern.

Some critics have found caveats to the character, that he is both inspired and hackneyed.  I'd go with the former rather than the latter, obviously.  He's the first significant Arab-American, post-9/11 or otherwise, in mainstream comics.  That Geoff Johns paints him as a suspected terrorist, even if due to circumstances more than personality, is a much-needed addressing of the times we live in, whether related to 9/11 or the Arab Spring.  The truth is Americans are still grappling with their relationship to the Middle East, regardless of the twin wars that have been fought there for the past decade.  Simon is one way to finally get working on this.

In the two issues being considered here, Simon is still learning the ropes any new member of the Corps must figure out, including the limits of the ring's charge and discovering their colleagues.  As usually happens in comics, the circumstances are less than ideal.  Simon has just tracked down the man who actually loaded the truck full of explosives he himself was caught driving, unaware of the cargo, and Agent Fed (who I'm still hoping will be developed into a distinctive supporting member of Simon's cast).  The ring runs out of juice, the Guardians' Third Army attacks, and a Green Lantern who happens to look like a squirrel shows up.

The middle detail is just one element of why Geoff's approach is working so well.  He's chosen to keep Simon out of the "Rise of the Third Army" crossover event, allowing Peter Tomasi and Tony Bedard in other books from the franchise to run with that story.  Simon is firmly focused on his own.  Most writers would have preferred the traditional trial by fire, yet Geoff remains firm.  Simon has a specific mission in mind, his personal redemption, first in clearing his name, and then in #16 making good for his brother-in-law.

That's a crucial, defining moment as well.  B'dg cautions him that he can't use his ring like that, but Simon persists, concentrating all his will on the man in the coma.  Incredibly, significantly, he's successful.  Each Green Lantern, every human Green Lantern, has a distinctive story, even if their arc takes some time to explore, and a particular approach to using their ring.  They have individual strengths, which was something Geoff developed as far back as Green Lantern: Rebirth.  This is the first sign that Simon continues that tradition.

B'dg also helps him access messages from Sinestro and Hal, currently lost in a nether region, warning of the threat the Guardians pose.  Sinestro also reveals that he instructed the ring to find someone like himself, which should add an interesting wrinkle to future stories.  Like Anakin Skywalker in the Star Wars prequels, or the arc Sinestro has taken, there may be dark times ahead in Simon's future, which makes it all the more significant that he follows this message with the big moment of saving his best friend.

I've been saying since the start of this New 52 reboot that this is arguably the strongest material of Geoff's tenure with the franchise, which may sound odd considering how long he's been at it now and the big stories he's already told.  Sometimes it's not the big stories, though.  He's only now getting to the heart of Green Lantern, and he's using a new character to reach it.

Reading Comics #93 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #2"

(via vertigocomics.com)

My reading of Leslie S. Klinger's Annotated Sandman continues:

In the second issue of Neil Gaiman's Sandman, the reader gets a better idea of the comic book origins of the series, as well as its precedents, specifically in the appearances of Cain and Abel, who at one time served as hosts for House of Mystery and House of Secrets, respectively.  Klinger, as with the first issue and no doubt in many to come, is good to provide the exact details.  Somewhat curiously he also provides the complete biblical text for the famous siblings, possibly to catch any reader unfamiliar with them up to speed.  It is odd to think that so overtly religious figures would appear in comics that were otherwise not particularly religious, but this was also a time when Hollywood was routinely basing many of its high profile films on incidents from the Bible.

One way or another, it's a nice twist not just for the story at hand but on the relationship between the two.  You may recall that Cain slew Abel, the first murder.  They're the embodiment of the issue's title, "Imperfect Hosts" (that's something I neglected to mention with the first entry), which Klinger also explains in one of his notes.  The naming of individual issues in a series can often be a thankless art, but that's another thing that doesn't go overlooked in this project.

Recently liberated from nefarious clutches that kept him a prisoner for seventy years, Morpheus is trying to reclaim his life, and he needs figures like Cain and Abel to do it, to give him back some of the power that has basically been stolen from him.  A little like the Horcruxes in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter saga, tokens that Voldemort used to impart a portion of himself for safekeeping, Dream specifically has three items to retrieve: a pouch of sand, a helmet, and a ruby moonstone.

What's interesting about the early Sandman is its more direct ties to DC lore.  At the start, of course, there was no Vertigo, and so Sandman was more or less merely a quirky DC title.  It was a new vision of a character who'd existed since the Golden Age, Wesley Dodds, who was subsequently featured in the Vertigo series Sandman Mystery Theatre as well as in Mark Waid's Kingdom Come.

In this issue, one of the more obvious links to the mainstream is the appearance of Doctor Destiny, an old Justice League villain who also appears in Grant Morrison's Arkham Asylum from the same period. We in fact visit him at Arkham in the issue, but he's not a very imposing figure at the moment.

Morpheus next visits another old DC host, Lucien, who was once Mr. Raven, and current custodian of Dream's home, which has suffered much in his time away.  He moves on to the Hecatae, Gaiman's embodiment of the Greek Fates (with apparently an abundance of other incarnations), who give him clues as to the current locations of the items he seeks.

Perhaps none of this is what you'd expect from a series that has been lauded long and loud, and yet it's exactly what it needs at this point.  As with many Gaiman stories, it's something of a travel narrative, a journey the main character takes in preparation of something greater.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Reading Comics #92 "The Annotated Sandman Volume 1 #1"

(via vertigocomics.com)

If any mainstream comic book besides Watchmen will ever be acknowledged as a literary classic, it'll be Neil Gaiman's Sandman.  Perhaps one of the first signs is the existence of Leslie S. Klinger's The Annotated Sandman, which is now the version of the series that I hope to read in its completeness.  As the title suggests, this is Gaiman's comic book, reprinted in its entirety, with annotations from Klinger, who is an old friend of Gaiman's.  It is reprinted in black and white, but Sandman is a series that is more than capable of selling itself with or without color.

My previous experience reading the series is wholly incomplete.  I've read the first regular collected volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, as well as the first issue itself, and barely anything beyond that.  It's another series that I kick myself for not reading when I originally had the chance, because it was still in regular ongoing print when I was reading comics for the first time in the 1990s.  Still, this is a malady that can be corrected these days.

This series of posts will feature my thoughts as I read through at least the first volume of The Annotated Sandman, with thoughts both on Gaiman as well as Klinger.  (The second volume was released last November and the third is scheduled for January next year.)

It strikes me, first off, that Klinger provides something of a historical archive with the note on the cover of the first issue, since I would probably have never known without seeing the issues themselves that Sandman was originally subtitled Master of Dreams.  Few comic book readers ever think about life after the single issues (although famously, The Dark Knight Returns was originally just The Dark Knight, with different subtitles for individual issues), although of course the collection culture has grown over the last decade.  What we'll have in a few decades more, especially as it becomes more and more standard to have and to keep collections in publication, is a disconnect between the readers of the original series and the story as it emerges in history.  (Which means that the sometimes bitching I do about DC's lack of a letters column really doesn't matter all that much.  I find even myself not really caring about that feature as much as I once did.)

Another key feature of Annotated Sandman that I want to put on record before I forget is that each page is numbered, and more than that, each page of each issue is also recorded.  It's a continuing pet peeve of mine that this is less and less standard, whether in a single issue or a collection.  So that's something that this work absolutely gets right.

I also want to detail the approach I will be taking as I read the collection.  This is not my first time reading an annotated work.  Whether it's history books or Susanna Clarke's excellent Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, a work of fiction that cleverly incorporates notes into the narrative process, I've done plenty of trying to read a main text and the extras meant to further illuminate it.  The trouble is that editors don't usually know how to present the notes.  Sometimes they crop up at the bottom and sometimes they're stuck in the back (which is incredibly laborious unless you develop a method).  Here, though, the notes are presented alongside the pages they reference.  (This is a hugely oversize volume width-wise.)

I intend to read the page and then read the notes, which reference the exact panel in question.  So far it seems to work, and keeps me at a measured pace, not to mention putting a greater emphasis on just what Gaiman accomplishes page to page.

A lot of Klinger's notes are historical in nature, at least in this first issue, explaining what Gaiman might have taken for granted as far as the knowledge of his readers is concerned.  Some of it also points readers in the direction of where characters are headed, where they pop up again.  Some of it simply explains the arcana incorporated into the narrative, the particular tapestry the characters who trap Morpheus, otherwise known as Dream of the Endless Ones, rely on in order to believe they have an understanding of things.

As far as the story of the issue itself goes, Dream is trapped for seventy years, drastically affecting his ability to regulate that human activity, with a particular effect on several subjects who end up suffering from the "sleepy sickness" that you might know from the excellent Robert De Niro/Robin Williams film Awakenings (which is duly noted by Klinger).  This will be at least my third time reading the opening chapter of the saga, so at this point I'm developing a familiarity with it, almost a fondness, the dopey stupidity of the men who think they have any bargaining space with Morpheus, who finally frees himself when a guard finally falls asleep in his presence.

In an odd sort of way, Klinger's notes will force me to read the collection in much the way it was originally presented, issue by issue.  This first one is forty pages, but subsequent ones are the more tradition twenty-four.

This should be fun!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Django Unchained #1 (Vertigo)

writer: Quentin Tarantino
artist: R.M. Guera

(via vertigocomics.com)

I have not yet seen Django Unchained the movie (though rest assured when I do I will probably enjoy it, as Tarantino is a favorite).  Reading this comic, which adapts the complete script regardless of what actually made it into the film, then becomes my first experience with it.

Apart from anything that can be said about the story, it suddenly occurs to me what sets Quentin Tarantino apart from other filmmakers.  Plenty has been made about his influences from watching and obsessing over other movies, but the aspect I will choose to emphasize here is his writing.  Actually, it may be more obvious reading him in comic book form than watching him in his movies that Tarantino approaches his storytelling very much as a storyteller.  I'm not talking about the nonlinear way he presented Pulp Fiction, but simply in the way he crafts scenes in general, the way he progresses his narratives, even when you're talking about a lengthy dialogue scene like the opening act of Inglourious Basterds, when Lanza reveals how he's come to know what the French farmer refuses to admit outright, that he's hiding a family of Jews under the floorboards.  (If by some chance you've never watched a Tarantino movie, much less that one, it's perhaps the best possible way to enjoy his craft.)

As I said, that becomes apparent when reading this comic.  I figure I will try my best to read the rest of the mini-series adaptation, as it now seems just as relevant as seeing the movie itself.

Interestingly, by complete coincidence I was able to enjoy the first comics work from Tarantino and artist R.M. Guera (best known for his exceptional work in Jason Aaron's Scalped) when they first collaborated for some "deleted scenes" first published in Playboy (see? it really is possible to read Playboy!) from Basterds.  Perhaps at some point it will be liberated from its obscurity, included in some special edition of that film or something.  (Feel free to tell me if this has already happened.)

My advice, then, is to enjoy the movie and this adaptation, too, because it will be well worth your time.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Cobra #20 and 21 (IDW)

writer: Mike Costa
artist: Antonio Fuso, Werther Dell'Edera

(from unleashthefanboy.com)

The Oktober Guard saga concludes.  Turns out the reports of Ronin's demise (mainly, here at Comics Reader) were greatly exaggerated.  Instead of dying she's taken prisoner and begins a grueling interrogation experience, allowing us to learn more about the Guard in much the same way Mike Costa has explored characters from both the Joes and Cobra previously, proving there's no end to this successful character formula.  While she's enjoying that, Flint puts an extraction team consisting of himself, Lady Jaye, and Chameleon, heading into Russia to put an end to this messy affair.

Except their efforts won't be enough.  They end up captured, too, and it falls to Clockspring, another character like Ronin and Chameleon original to Costa's adventures, to make an awful deal to find resolution.  He turns to the Joes' prize informant, Tomax Paoli, formerly a key member of Cobra, and by the end of #21 we find out just much of a deal with the devil has really been made, and is the true payoff to the Oktober Guard arc.  Not only does it further emphasize the abilities of and rivalry between the Joes and Cobra, but it draws a lovely bow around Costa's efforts to date.  #21 is the final issue of this particular incarnation.  In April G.I. Joe: The Cobra Files will launch, the latest iteration of the series.

In a lot of ways, Cobra in its various incarnations can be described either as the saga of Paoli (and his late brother Tomax) or Chameleon, although it's really both.  It's their journey and relationships with the two key organizations that Costa has used to define his approaches to them, intimate and personal but filled with intrigue.  Like Chuckles in the original stories, Clockspring finds his best definition in relation to one of them.

I've long held that Cobra is one of the best comics on the market, and Costa continues to earn this faith.  Anyone who still hasn't experienced it should at least acknowledge IDW's remarkable commitment to keeping these efforts in print on an ongoing basis.  If it had been a fluke, the first mini-series would have been the end of it, or maybe the second mini-series, which was turned into the first ongoing series in the run.  This is the end of the second ongoing series, leading to a third in just a few months.  Though Cobra is in the title, Costa has never allowed the stories to feature mustache-twirling villains.  He's a writer filled with nuance.  He's one of the best.

Reading Comics #91 "Geoff Johns on Olympus"

Some of my readers might believe this Comics Reader obsesses over Grant Morrison.  This is not strictly true.  I obsess over Grant Morrison and Geoff Johns.  This is an important distinction.  I've obsessed over both of them for about five years now, which is a drop in the bucket of Grant's career and about half of Geoff's.

Grant and Geoff are similar in a lot of ways, the way they revere continuity and build on it, how they've been DC's top writers and world-builders for years.  Otherwise they're very different writers.  Grant has made a career subverting expectations.  Geoff has slowly emerged as a writer who must live up to them.  He's accomplished this in a number of ways.  His first major project was JSA, which was an extension of what first brought Geoff attention, Stars and S.T.R.I.P.E., his first legacy book.  He spent years writing the Justice Society and eventually brought his run to its logical conclusion, integrating the DC superhero legacy project Kingdom Come (written by Mark Waid, with whom Geoff and Grant as well as Greg Rucka collaborated on the seminal 52) with the Society's continued existence as a team dedicated to securing their successors' futures.

His next notable work was an extended run on The Flash, where he became the second most notable writer of Wally West's adventures (after Waid).  Years later Geoff returned to that particular franchise, revitalizing Barry Allen, the classic Silver Age Flash.  Yet as far as individual superheroes go, he will at least at this point always be known for Green Lantern, which he's been working on since Rebirth in 2004.

There have been other projects, like Hawkman, Avengers, Action Comics, and Aquaman, not to mention the events Day of Judgment, Infinite Crisis, Blackest Night, and Flashpoint, as well as another extended run on a legacy team, Teen Titans, but what really distinguishes Geoff from Grant is that he has very rarely done work outside of the superhero genre.

One such project was Olympus, a venture from DC and Humanoids that he wrote with Kris Grimminger in 2005.  A few weeks ago I randomly found it available at Escape Velocity in downtown Colorado Springs and figured I couldn't possibly pass up the opportunity to read it.

As the title suggests, Olympus deals with Greek mythology, from before the time Rick Riordan and Sam Worthington brought it back into the mainstream with Percy Jackson and the new Clash of the Titans.  Reading it, I'm reminded of Geoff's Hawkman, as well as his current Aquaman, like a blending of the two.  Structurally, it's very similar to the films A Perfect Getaway and Into the Blue, the latter of which was released the same years, the former four years later.  Students part of a college archaeological program have taken a field trip to Greece when they find themselves caught in unexpected circumstances, first treasure hunters who mistake their boat for the one some rivals are aboard, and then the ramifications of discovering Pandora's Box at the bottom of the sea.

Classic monsters like the Cyclops and the Minotaur attack them as mayhem ensues.  The artwork of Butch Guice keeps the action grounded yet engaging.  It's really the opposing views of sisters Sarah and Rebecca that drives the story.  Sarah is similar to Shannon from Lost (you can view Olympus as the version of that series that some fans may have preferred if you'd like; Lost began the fall before Olympus was released), while Rebecca is a bit like Locke (though without the "Don't tell me what I can't do!" attitude; she does support, however, the professor leading the field trip who may be losing her job when they get back).

There is something of a plot hole in the character of Deems, who seems to be a lot more significant than he turns out to be, while the ending is more suggestive than conclusive, but otherwise there's so much here to enjoy, either in relation to the material I'm familiar with from Geoff's career or Greek mythology or just the story itself.  Well worth checking out for a comprehensive appreciation of Geoff Johns as a standout comics talent.

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Batman Incorporated #6 (DC)

writer: Grant Morrison
artist: Chris Burnham

(via dccomics.com)

To most fans at the moment, Scott Snyder is the Batman writer of record.  I won't begrudge them that, because he's the one driving the crossover arcs.  I've struggled with this in the past.  I still don't particularly think Snyder rates as high as fans think, but he's at least kept Batman in high profile stories that his fans will probably remember.

However, I will have a problem with the instant crisis the Court of Owls provided the Dark Knight, just something that appeared and proved in Snyder's mind to be a defining struggle.  I don't necessarily believe that Batman should have a problem like that come about so easily.  It's akin to what Grant Morrison has been doing in Batman Incorporated, and in this issue particularly, which features a climactic battle whose impact is probably cheapened by the stuff Snyder has been doing.

Batman's final duel with Leviathan, the culmination of Morrison's 2006-2013 run with the character, ought to be a pretty big deal.  I guess it's cool that Morrison doesn't mind being upstaged, because he was certainly in the spotlight previously with stories like "Batman, R.I.P," which is echoed so directly in this end game that it may be exactly what Morrison wants, because it's not really about Batman and his final confrontation with Talia al Ghul, but their son, Damian, and where he ultimately ends up.

The most shocking thing to me in the issue is the apparent demise of Knight, the English Batman that Morrison brought back starting with the Club of Heroes arc prior to "Batman R.I.P."  It's a sequence that puts Knight's Robin, Squire, in mortal jeopardy, allowing Knight a heroic rescue that sees him replace her in the cross-hairs of the juggernaut who by the end of the issue has bested Batman himself.  Damian, the current Robin on probation for his own safety, is on the sidelines trying to make the decision to intervene.  Earlier in the rebooted series, Morrison teased Damian's death, so he's certainly not above doing whatever he wants in this book, because he knows he can pretty much get away with anything, and that's because of the Snyder effect.  The focus is elsewhere.  Fans will only take notice again probably with the final issue, to see how Morrison concludes his epic.

Six issues remaining.

Quarter Bin #47 "Resurfacing Cerebus and Others"

Disclaimer: Comics featured in "Quarter Bin" are not necessarily from an actual quarter bin.  This is a column about back issues.

Aquaman Secret Files 2003 (DC)
From May 2003:
I don't have an extensive history reading Aquaman, but I've generally kept tabs on the character during the midst of my comics experience.  Perhaps the most notable stories of the past twenty years came from Peter David, who famously had Aquaman lose a hand and grow his hair out, so that he was more distinguishable from DC's other heroes.  Amazingly, the lost hand stuck around for years after David's run, and was even referenced when the character resurfaced in Brightest Day a few years ago.  After David, the character went back in search of direction, which at one point even included an assist from Savage Dragon's Erik Larsen.  It became pretty random.  Now, before recent years when a series was relaunched it was because a publisher was just trying to draw attention to a character whose visibility had been shrinking but who otherwise was still relevant enough to justify their own book.  Aquaman got that treatment, again, around the release of this Secret Files release.  Things did not really improve for the character, though.  By the end of the series a few years later Aquaman had been killed off and replaced pretty unceremoniously (although the Tad Williams issues of Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis are well worth reading).  The problems can be found here.  Apparently someone had the idea that Aquaman should be a fantasy character.  This is a problem, because Aquaman has always struggled for mainstream credentials.  You will never find mainstream credentials for someone like Aquaman by attempting to shape his stories into a niche genre.  Comics are already a niche genre, especially those featuring superheroes.  To ask a large pool of fans to care about a character you're suddenly limiting that much more in his appeal, without making him more compelling, is a recipe for disaster.  The one thing I learned from this special is that Vulko, a character Geoff Johns has been using in his current and far superior Aquaman, is an established supporting character.  But he's one, along with Mera, that Geoff uses far more effectively, along with everything else.  

Cerebus #262 (Aardvark-Vanaheim)
From January 2001:
One of the things I'm pretty mad at myself as a comics reader is that I didn't read Cerebus when I had the chance.  Cerebus is perhaps the most iconic indy comic that never went mainstream, a step below Jeff Smith's Bone and two behind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  It's most famous for creator Dave Sim's vow to run it for three hundred issues, which he kept.  Part of the reason why it has more limited appeal than its more famous indy kin is that Cerebus was not about anything in particular, but rather whatever Sim wanted to explore.  The main character, like Groo, began life as a parody of Conan the Barbarian, an aardvark warrior of all things.  I had a chance to read some of its final issues as they were released, but at that time I was just getting my access to comic books, and wanted to reconnect with the superheroes I used to enjoy.  But don't feel bad, Cerebus fans.  I also skipped out on the final issues of Bone as well as Grant Morrison's New X-Men and Brian K. Vaughan's Y: The Last Man.  I was pretty much an idiot.  What it means for me as a reader today is that I have a chance to revisit Cerebus for the first time, and this is the very first issue I've ever read.  As I expected, Sim's concept of narrative is pretty loose.  This issue is part of the extended "Going Home" arc (it ran from #232 to 265).  Based on this tiny experience and what I know of the complete series, it may be worth arguing that Cerebus is the most cerebral, philosophical, literary comic book ever created.  I have every intention to eventually read the whole run.

Avengers: The Children's Crusade - Young Avengers (Marvel)
From May 2011:
Young Avengers from original creators Allan Heinberg and Jimmy Cheung was the best comic book Marvel published at the time.  It was a mix of old and new school, and a rare instance of attempting to create a new generation, or a new New Teen Titans if you will, wholesale and actually succeeding.  When Heinberg and Cheung reunited for The Children's Crusade, I expected everyone to be as pleased as the original series was beloved.  Yet it was met with massive indifference.  Now it has some historic importance, since the Scarlet Witch's return in the pages of Children's Crusade led to her considerable role in AvX and subsequent X-Men lore such as featured in All-New X-Men.  This particular issue from the Children's Crusade period was a one-shot that harks back to the original Young Avengers, with a strong focus on Iron Lad, who happens to be the younger version of the classic Avengers foe Kang the Conqueror.  The struggle between these two was a key element of the early days, but the longer the team stuck around the more the focus shifted to other characters, whether the emerging relationship between Wiccan and Hulkling or Patriot's growing ambivalence toward a continued superheroic career.  Yet Iron Lad's conflict remains fascinating and could easily support its own continuing story.  At the very least this special is worth reading to see how interesting it really is.  Because of things that were happening to me as Children's Crusade was being released, not only did I not read every issue (notably missing the finale), but I had no idea this even existed, so I was glad to discover it.  With a new Young Avengers series just begun, it'll always be worth looking back at what came before.