Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Comics Recap #4: Batman/Superman Origins

To go out on a limb, I'd wager that of all the superheroes in the known universe, Batman, Superman, and Wolverine have had their origin story rewritten, rebooted, reimagined, and reconstituted more than anyone else.  In the last couple of months I had a chance to read some of the Batman and Superman origin stories.

I have actually read the original Batman origin story from way back in 1939.  The Dark Knight's career begins with Bruce Wayne and Commissioner Gordon pretty much sitting around the parlor smoking cigars and drinking brandy until Gordon asks, "Hey Bruce, wanna see a dead body?"  Which struck me as hilarious because I doubt even in 1939 the cops would let a civilian onto a crime scene, especially a civilian who has no real credentials.  But it was a long time ago, so maybe they did.

That wasn't an actual origin story.  That came later, after Batman became more popular and got his own title.  That origin pretty much stayed intact until the whole Crisis on Infinite Earths shake-up in 1985.  Then they decided Batman needed a new, grittier origin and who better to do it than Frank Miller, author of The Dark Knight Returns?  I didn't like that book or pretty much anything else by Miller I've read, but Batman: Year One was actually good.  I think mostly because Miller doesn't let things spiral out of control into camp and silliness like TDKR.  There's no Reagan or Letterman or Superman to muck things up.

It's a noir-ish story that splits its time between Bruce Wayne/Batman and Jim Gordon, who has just arrived in town from Cleveland.  The animated version actually seems to spend more of its time on Gordon, which I figured was because they paid Bryan Cranston (Heisenberg and future Lex Luthor) to voice Gordon while Batman was some dude I hadn't ever heard of.  It's more balanced in the book.  It starts with Bruce's first fumbling attempt to find out about crime in Gotham, which leads to a run-in with Selina Kyle, the future Catwoman.  It's after this where Bruce realizes he needs to be more than just some guy punching people.  The weakest link in the story is probably how he gets the idea to dress as a bat.  Meanwhile Gordon deals with a pregnant wife, a failing marriage, a hot chick in his department, and the ire of his coworkers on top of trying to track down a guy who dresses up like a bat.  If you watched Batman Begins then you can spot some of the material they lifted, like when Batman calls on the bats from the cave to escape from the cops. There are some holes in Batman's origin, such as where he was after his parents died and how he learned to fight and all that stuff.

The Long Halloween isn't really a Batman origin story.  It's more of an attempt to pick up after Year One to show how Gotham developed from the noir-ish city run by the mob into a city dominated by freaks in costumes.  In particular it's a Two-Face origin story; if you watched The Dark Knight then the tale of Harvey Dent's downfall into Two-Face should be somewhat familiar.  I liked this less than Year One.  It took 12-13 issues and after a while just seemed to wear on a little too long.  Plus the "solution" at the end isn't all that satisfying.

Batman Earth One is a rewrite of Batman's origin story.  The main difference is that Alfred instead of being a butler is a former Royal Marine who teaches Bruce how to fight and stuff.  This is an idea being used in the new Beware the Batman TV show/comic.  I read the first issue of that comic since it was free and really in both cases the Alfred thing just strikes me as wrong.  It seems like the kind of lazy thing I do where I don't want to introduce a butler and a ninja master, so why not make one character:  a ninja master butler!  It makes Batman more like The Green Hornet, who was created by the same people as the campy 60s Batman TV show--they even guest starred on the show!  It also borrows elements from previous movies/comics, like Bruce taking stuff from Lucius Fox's lab to make his bat suit and such.  Anyway, this really has no reason to exist because it doesn't add anything of substance to Batman's origin.

Back in November I also read the novel Wayne of Gotham, which isn't an origin for Batman, but is more of an origin of Batman's parents.  Which really Thomas and Martha Wayne have probably more different backstories than their son.  In all cases Thomas is a doctor and in many Martha is some kind of socialite activist.  I think it was the Earth One book where Martha is related to the Arkhams and lived in what would become Arkham Asylum.  In the New 52 Batman as backup features during the Court of Owls storyline there's a story about Alfred's father, the previous Wayne butler and events leading up to Thomas and Martha being killed, for what largely seems like Martha making some enemies by trying to institute some reforms.  In the novel Thomas and Martha are childhood best friends and while Thomas would like them to be more, Martha is more interested in someone else, until things change.  The book alternates between Thomas and Martha in the 50s and Bruce in "present day."  There are some things that didn't seem right, like how Bruce makes Alfred his press agent and then is constantly getting pissed at him.  His body armor seems more like Iron Man's than what you traditionally see in the comics or movies.  But this isn't official canon; it's more of a curiosity--or Elseworlds tale in DC parlance. 

If all that isn't enough just in the last year the Batman comic book series had a "Zero Year" arc and the video game Arkham Origins was released, both again focusing on Bruce Wayne becoming Batman.  And I guess now there's also going to be a TV series called "Gotham" that is basically "Smallville" only with Bruce Wayne instead of Clark Kent.

For the most part, though, all these origin stories seem to do is rearrange the furniture a bit.  The basic framework has always been that Bruce Wayne's parents were murdered and so years later he dresses up like a bat to beat up criminals.  You have to wonder why we're so fascinated in retelling this story time and again.  With the exception of Batman Year One, I don't think any of these really add much, if anything to our understanding of the character.  But I suppose like the point behind Year One, the idea is every generation needs the story updated to fit within its time period.

And the same holds true for Superman.  As with Batman, an actual "origin" story didn't occur until after his debut, once he took the world by storm.  That's when we first heard about Krypton and being sent through space and all that.  Again in the mid-80s there was a reboot from John Byrne, which I read a while ago and found chock full of 80s corniness.  And since that time there have been other attempts to retell the story.  I read Jeph Loeb's Superman for All Seasons, which was better just because it didn't have the 80s cheese but was otherwise the same story.  For the New 52, Grant Morrison used most of his Action Comics run to introduce a young Superman just starting his career, which I mostly enjoyed.  In 2013 of course we had "Man of Steel" with its overly complicated, sometimes head-scratchingly dumb origin for Superman.

J. Michael Stracyzinski (creator of Babylon 5) chimed in with Superman: Earth One.  A lot of it is pretty similar to Man of Steel, though slightly less convoluted.  Krypton is destroyed and some aliens try to track down the last survivor, who is of course Clark Kent, who at the time is trying to decide what he should do after two years in junior college.  If they'd stuck to this the movie would have been better.  And it also lacks the 80s cheesiness of the Byrne reboot, so that's nice.

Basically if there is a point to this it's that while some things change, the substance of Batman and Superman's origins remain the same and will for perhaps another 75 years.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Digitally Speaking...#4 "Avengers, Bad Medicine"

Avengers #12.1 (Marvel)
From 2011.  This was part of the kick-off to the "Age of Ultron" event that has nothing at all to do with the upcoming Avengers: Age of Ultron movie.  But it's also perfectly readable as a window into the decade-long Brian Michael Bendis era in the franchise, which ended a year ago.  The Avengers you know from the movies more or less came ready-made from a Brian Bendis comic.  Bendis is known as the godfather of decompressed storytelling, in that he can string any story out for many issues at a time.  The funny thing about this issue, however, is that it seems to be severely compressed, the exact opposite.  We go from the captured Spider-Woman to the Avengers arguing about how to handle the news (being delivered by a fairly complete nobody) to the Avengers finding Spider-Woman in a split second, right after we've heard her kidnappers hint at why they did it, to the revelation of Ultron's involvement.

There's a lot of trademark Bendis banter.  I mean, that's the playbook to every Bendis script, bantering between a large number of characters.  Especially in this issue, he might have benefited to streamline the players, so that the ones who actually contribute to the story better stand out rather than randomly comment here and there.  It makes the whole team seem poorly led and extremely inexperienced.  On the one hand, it makes things less intimidating to new readers.  And obviously, when adapted to the big screen very popular, but...it fails for anyone looking to have a more-than-decent comics reading experience.  Maybe when Bendis is writing a thousand different Avengers books (besides everything else he writes), it's easy to spit out the Bendis banter, but it's probably not great for his overall legacy, except to say that he's spent a huge amount of time writing Avengers (and Ultimate Spider-Man) adventures.

I'm always flip-flopping on Bendis.  This particular experience is no different.  A focused Bendis would be ideal, but a popular Bendis is an in-demand Bendis, and so I guess maybe that's not really an option.  Obviously the guy has talent, and can come up with enough stories to fill a thousand monthly adventures...It'd be nice to find out what's possible if he tried to do a more finite story, I guess is what I'm saying.

FCBD 2012 Bad Medicine (Oni)
The comic itself seems to be a gloss on the TV series Fringe (and hopefully the writers knew that, because nearly element is an exact duplicate, although in every sense less inspired), so why did I bother reading this?  Because of the art, from Christopher Mitten.  Mitten drew much of one of my all-time favorite comics, Wasteland, also published by Oni, in collaboration with writer Antony Johnston.  He became a little burned out and subsequently bowed out of the project, but is returning in time for the final ten issues, hopefully all of them to be released this year.  His artwork in Bad Medicine is similar to his Wasteland work although not as distinctive, perhaps because Bad Medicine itself is not all that distinctive.  The real bonus, the real treat for me, was the unexpected Wasteland backup tale from Mitten and Johnston, which nails perfectly everything to love about the series, the main characters Abi and Michael along their journey to I-Ree-Yass-I stumbling in classic Wasteland fashion into the middle of someone else's story (which is what half the series became in the city of Newbegin) even while providing more dazzling hints into the true nature of these deceptively complicated characters (their magic healing powers do not seem to be limited by decapitation, a throwaway joke aimed at Highlander fans).

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Comics Recap #3: Superior Spider-Man

In the 90s a big trend was to replace a superhero with another character.  Remember when Superman "died" and was replaced by four characters?  Or when Bruce Wayne was broken by Bane and was replaced by Jean-Paul Valley?  Or when Hal Jordan went insane and destroyed the Green Lantern Corps and was replaced by Kyle Rayner?  And Marvel has plenty examples of its own too.

One of the latest examples was when in Spider-Man issue #700, Dr. Octopus switched brains with Peter Parker just before his old body was killed.  While this could have been just a couple-issue arc, Marvel has carried it on into the "Superior Spider-Man" series.  Since they were on sale before the new year, I bought the first 5 issues.  Later I bought issue #6AU which is the Age of Ultron edition, in which Superior Spidey learns a little humility and to be a team player.

Despite that it was a cheap, shopworn stunt, I found I did actually find this Spider-Man superior.  The reason why is simple:  this Spidey is smarter than the old one.  Peter Parker had a tendency (especially in the Raimi movies) to sit around going, "It's so hard being a superhero and dealing with MJ and Aunt May and a job.  Oh, woe is me!"  By contrast, the Superior Spider-Man analyzes the problem and then finds a solution to it.

That's what these first five issues largely deal with.  Starting off, a new gang claiming to be the Sinister Six tries to rob a bank.  In swoops Superior Spidey, but when he finds it tough, he retreats and then formulates a new plan.  His efforts to win back Mary Jane don't go as well.  Meanwhile he uses his job at a lab to create new gadgets to help him fight crime, especially little spider-bots that allow him to spy on all of New York.  This is obviously supposed to make us think of drones, the NSA, the Patriot Act, and so forth.  Is it better to be free or safe?  The thing is, Superior Spidey doesn't give New Yorkers a choice about it.

Which is part of the charm.  Maybe he doesn't stick to the superhero playbook, but he's pretty damned effective.  The climax of this first volume involves an old foe who's escaped from prison and gone on a rampage.  This leads Superior Spidey to make that ultimate decision:  take the guy back to jail to probably escape again or just kill him now and be done with it?  You can probably guess the answer.  And really I can understand the logic behind it.  How many times has Batman let the Joker get away to go on another rampage?  When do you say enough is enough?

No matter which side you come down on with those issues, to me what they've done is make a replacement character who's in many ways better than the original.  It made me think if they'd done this with one of those Superman characters or with Jean-Paul Valley in the early 90s maybe people wouldn't have been so ready to welcome Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne back.  Because let's face it, a lot of times with these replacements they rig the deck.  Because I'm so familiar with that story, Jean-Paul Valley was definitely rigged to be unlikable:  French, paranoid, and part of religious cult--that's not how you're going to win over readers!  If they'd allowed him to be more likable then maybe people would have realized that a Batsuit with flamethrowers has it all over tights.

Anyway, in the end I'm sure Peter Parker will get his mind back somehow.  Maybe via another deal with the Devil or something.  In the meantime, though, it'll be interesting to see where they take this character.  If they let people vote to decide like 25 years ago with Jason Todd's "death" then I think you know which one I'd choose.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Digitally Speaking...#3: "Atomic Robo"

Atomic Robo #1 (Red 5)
From 2007.  This is the very first Atomic Robo appearance.  I fell in love with this guy immediately, and remain perpetually perplexed that everyone else hasn't either by now.  I think it remains a problem of being published by an otherwise completely pointless comic book company.  As far as I'm concerned, Robo is the Hellboy model improved, which I know is a kind of heresy among third tier comic book icons, but based on comparisons and execution of the concept, that can be my only conclusion.  Hellboy and Robo are both fairly exceptional individuals who are nonetheless presented in situations not of their own making, where they are agents of some other entity.  Hellboy is a member of the B.P.R.D.  You know him from a couple of movies.  His secret origin is not completely different from Spawn's, actually.  Robo is a creation of Nikola Tesla, the great forgotten scientific genius.  He (Robo) is entirely fictional, of course, but he's the rare effort to present scientific genius, much less Tesla (Jeff Smith's RASL is the other), credibly.  I know, this is a comic book staple, especially in Marvel storytelling (which may explain why I am generally not a Marvel guy), but it's usually done so poorly.

The difference when Robo does it is that his adventures approach science the same way they approach everything else.  And reading this debut over again, it's striking to realize that he's basically Superman.  Seriously.  Brian Clevinger, genius creator and writer of these adventures, should have been given all kinds of work once everyone discovered how great he was, and here and there he's been given opportunities, but mostly for Marvel (I guess it kind of figures) when it's DC that should be scooping him up, even if he's only given as a trial run a completely out of continuity tale of Superman.  That should happen.  The whole point of Robo is that he thoroughly outclasses all his opposition, and his stories are always still completely fun to read.  It's the execution.  Isn't the knock against Superman that he's too powerful to be a credible read?  Robo has been proving that argument a joke since 2007.

Atomic Robo FCBD 2008
The genius of Red 5 is that it has been presenting Atomic Robo adventures on Free Comic Book Day since 2008.  Even if you haven't somehow discovered Robo yet on your own, Red 5 is confident enough to keep giving you the free option, like clockwork, every year.  You will enjoy Atomic Robo, damnit!  And these freebies are no cheapies, either.  They're just as awesome as the regular comics.  This one, which once again exploits the great artwork of Robo stalwart Scott Wegener, also helps demonstrate another of Robo's unique characteristics, that he can be presented at any point in history after his creation, which is why the previous story is set during WWII and this one in 1961, and Robo himself doesn't change at all.  He's still an agent of the US military, just as ambivalent about that now as then, but just as willing and capable of throwing himself into a crazy situation, which here involves another scientific genius who the Russians hid for years, who gets to deliver an epic speech that in many other hands would have been wordy-wordy-wordy but in Clevinger's play to all conventions and still works, just like everything else about Robo's adventures.

Atomic Robo FCBD 2009
Witness the hilarious debut of Dr. Dinosaur!  In order for any character to truly become a classic, they need at least one more classic character next to them.  That's Dr. Dinosaur, and this whole issue is dedicated to explaining how perfectly awesome he is, and how he helps explain the great appeal of Robo's adventures.  And it was free!  This story takes place in 1999, by the way.

Atomic Robo FCBD 2010
This one's comparatively lightweight, just a fun lark with "the least extinct birds" you'll ever meet, which has some fun with Robo as part of a team.

Atomic Robo FCBD 2011
This one's set in 2011 (and 2021), and features Robo attending a school science fair.  But it gets better!  Dr. Dinosaur better!  And the best part isn't even Dr. Dinosaur, but rather gifted young Emma, who might be a great way to sell Atomic Robo to kids (or in this instance, give it away!) through her sheer enthusiasm, and of course love for Robo and how he tells her to wait until she's old enough to join him and then she does and then does.  It's classic Robo.  Also, if you like Doctor Who there's a good bit in this one for you!

Atomic Robo FCBD 2012
"Because I am the wizard of all spreadsheets!"  Robo has a couple of unlikely allies in this one, including...Dr. Dinosaur!  Until Dr. Dinosaur turns the tables!  This one is written and drawn by Wegener.  No discernible loss in awesomeness!

Atomic Robo FCBD 2013
This one rather ominously presents a real threat to Robo, another robot who is far less easy to beat than his other foes so far.  (Although it should be noted that like the last issue, this one's set in 2010.)  Some evil military types realize that because this robot was stopped not by Robo but by a weapon, can probably be used as a weapon against Robo, especially if there are more of them.  Is Atomic Robo in trouble???  Perhaps only Free Comic Book Day 2014 (May 3!) will know for sure!!!  (Although the preview doesn't suggest so.)

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Reading Comics #116 "Scott Snyder and Batman and the Joker"

I'll admit that I haven't been reading Scott Snyder's Batman as faithfully as other fans.  I check in every now and again, but the last time I did seriously was with "Night of the Owls," which is now two major crossover arcs and in fact years ago.

But maybe I'm inching closer to it.  I've had a somewhat closer look at the "Death of the Family" arc recently, and I think I'm starting see Snyder's vision of the Dark Knight take shape.

I see influences of past standout stories such as "Hush" and even "Batman R.I.P." hiding just below the surface.  If you remember, "Night of the Owls" ended up with the question of whether or not the lead villain was in fact Bruce Wayne's heretofore unknown lost brother, Thomas Wayne, Jr.  If you remember how "Hush" eventually solved the riddle of Hush's existence, or perhaps simply how Paul Dini later explored it, you may recall the story of Tommy Elliot, who was essentially Bruce Wayne's mirror opposite.  In "R.I.P.," Grant Morrison teased Doctor Hurt's true identity to be Thomas Wayne himself.

Snyder's possible master arc may be bigger than all those combined.

Remember in Tim Burton's Batman when the Joker rebuffs efforts to tangle his and Batman's origins in a tidy "I made you, you made me" bow?  Well, I'm saying maybe, just maybe, that's Scott Snyder's ultimate idea, too.  But in a different way.  In a potentially incredibly awesome way.

Comics tell some of the same stories over and over again.  That's why origin stories are so common.  Some stories are iconic, speak so intrinsically to the character they feature that they're a way of ensuring the future of said character, because it's as much that story as the character that will help develop an iconic status that not just current but future readers will appreciate.  That's how we got Achilles, King Arthur, Robin Hood, Zorro, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, any of those characters who have survived a number of iterations and have become ingrained in the culture as a result.

Sometimes the story changes.  I'm saying here that perhaps Snyder has one of the biggest revisions ever in mind.  I'm saying, I'm suggesting, that perhaps the end of "Death of the Family" is only the beginning.

I'm saying, what if the Joker is Thomas Wayne, Jr.?

That is, what if the Joker and Batman are brothers?  Can you imagine the story potential in that???  A lot of fans would be upset by such a development.  There's a vocal subset of fans who exist to be upset, of course.  I don't particularly care about them personally.  Sometimes they cause necessary change, but that doesn't mean they're right.  To my, they're necessarily wrong.  They hate something simply because nothing will ever please them.

Anyway, what if that's Snyder's long-term plan?  To my mind, such an idea would instantly catapult him to the very status some fans have given him all along, but he's only scratched at since he first started writing Batman in the pages of Detective Comics.  Very much like a Geoff Johns, he's always been interested in continuity, things he can possibly add or reinterpret.  If he pulls such a trigger, that would be his legacy, no question.  It would be the biggest Joker story ever.  And that's a character who has a number of stories that challenge for the title already.

Just imagine...

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Comics Recap #2: Wonder Woman New 52

Protect the baby!
About a month ago the entire New 52 series of Wonder Woman went on sale and so I decided to buy the whole thing in large part because I was bored and also because the Onion's AV Club recommended it as the best DC mainstream title of the year.

I've read a few New 52 titles and generally what they do is have a story arc that lasts a few issues and then move on to another story arc.  Brian Azzarello takes a different approach by having essentially the same story arc through all 25 current issues.  (Spoilers ahead!)

That story arc can be summarized as "protect the baby."  For some reason Zeus has gone missing from Mount Olympus.  But if you know anything about Greek mythology you should know how promiscuous the sky god is, so it's no surprise that he's gotten some girl in Virginia knocked up with his baby.  For whatever reason this baby is some kind of Chosen One and so Wonder Woman decides to protect the girl, which draws the ire of Hera and other gods.

While it is essentially one story arc it has different phases.  First Wonder Woman takes the girl to Paradise Island, which leads to her mother being turned into clay and her fellow Amazonian warriors into snakes.  Over 20 issues later and they're still that way!  Eventually she tangles with Hades and Apollo and so on until (spoiler!) she becomes God of War.  Which come to think of it except for the protect the baby thing was the plot of that video game series.

(Another spoiler!) Azzarello does a major revision to Wonder Woman's origin story.  Since George Perez's reboot of the franchise in the 80s the idea has been that Wonder Woman was made from clay by her mother, who was unable to bear children.  Her mother then prayed to the gods to give her a child, so they made the clay baby come to life.  It's kind of like Adam in the Bible (or Pinocchio) I suppose but as far as I know it's a unique origin for a hero.

In Azzarello's version Wonder Woman's mother Hippolyta is just another in Zeus's long line of conquests.  Again if you know anything about Greek mythology you know Zeus was always coming down to get with some mortal girl, often as a cow or swan or some other critter.  (The Greeks were into a lot of nasty stuff including pedophilia.)

I found Azzarello's version boring just because it's been done so often.  Hercules, Perseus, and Theseus are all examples of demigod heroes.  In comics we already have full gods like Thor, so who cares if she's half a god?  Yawn.  You might say the clay thing is a little silly, but at least it's something that hasn't been done hundreds of times before.  Taking away that unique characteristic for something so shopworn didn't really sit well with me.

As I've said the story follows the same arc through every single issue.  I found this a little annoying after a while.  Maybe in part because I'm used to story arcs that don't last for over two years, so as it went on I kept expecting at some point for it wrap up in some fashion.  I guess that won't happen until Azzarello stops writing the series.  It might help if I understood the significance of the baby a little better.  I mean since Zeus has literally hundreds of kids and grandkids and great-grandkids and so on by now (and we added one more with Wonder Woman) who cares that he has another?  Why go to all this trouble to kill it?

If you read or even heard about the New 52 Justice League then you'd know Wonder Woman hooked up with Superman--they even have a comic together now!  But you won't find any of that in this series.  You won't find her traditional boyfriend Steve Trevor either.  In fact the closest to a love interest is a sham wedding to Hades.  Really she has no personal life at all because again every single issue is consumed with the "protect the baby" story.  Which is a shame to me because it's always nice when authors humanize these larger-than-life characters.  It's one of the big reasons people like Spider-Man and why I really liked the early issues of Grant Morrison's Action Comics run.
No wonder the Olympians faded into myth.

I don't usually criticize the artwork since I can't draw, but ugh a lot of this was really bad looking.  Why are most of the gods freaks?  Poseidon is some kind of giant squid-fish thing and Hades has a candelabra melting over his face and Demeter is a giant stalk of celery or something.  Even some of the human-looking ones look weird.  The artist at least did keep Wonder Woman looking more or less like the action figure I have screwing Superman on a shelf.

Count the last bit as one of the positives.  Tony wanted to know why I'd keep reading something I wasn't all that happy with.  It wasn't that I really hated this; I just tend to dwell on the negative.  As tiring as the story could become at times I did keep reading.  I'm annoyed it hasn't wrapped up because I'm not about to start paying $4 an issue for something that could keep going for another 24 months.  I'm not made of money!  And at least unlike the Spider-Woman series I read she doesn't have to get bailed out by a male hero all the time.  Though there are a lot of male gods/demigods who lend a helping hand.

Anyway, if you like Clash of the Titans this is a good series for you.  If you're more of a superhero traditionalist then not so much.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Digitally Speaking...#2 "FCBD 2013 Aphrodite IX Edition"

FCBD 2013 Aphrodite IX Vol. 2 #1 (Top Cow)
From 2013.  Brand-new material presented as one of Top Cow's signature character's returns and launch of a new series.  Actually, this reads as very similar to the work Image (Top Cow's former parent company) did with the likes of Prophet a few years back, updating the character to a new context and hoping new readers will notice.  In this version, the new context is apparently After Earth, whose prelude comic book incarnation reads very similar to this material.  I'm not terribly familiar with Aphrodite IX.  I know other properties from the publisher far better (relatively speaking), especially those tied up in the Artifacts franchise, including Witchblade and the Darkness.  (Top Cow, meanwhile, is very similar to fellow Image spinoff Aspen in sticking to the Scantily Clad Female Hero as its defining aesthetic, something both knew and helped kick around in the '90s.)  As far as I can tell, at least as presented in this issue, the title character really doesn't have much of a legacy at all.  Either I skipped over the word bubble (because this is all very talky, reminiscent of Matt Hawkins' military approach as seen in other projects like Think Tank) that explained her name or it really is as arbitrary as it seems.  The art is another problem.  At first it looks like a key asset, but like the constant stream of mostly non-involving word diarrhea, it becomes off-putting in its increasingly sterile approach.  Digitally speaking, it's also curious that even at the maximum size comiXology allows, the lettering is hard to read.  I don't know whose fault that is.

Bottom line is, I'm glad I read this for free.  There's potential in this relaunch, but it's buried potential.  The best moments feel spontaneous, familiar.  The worst moments feel as if they were programmed by rote, without any emotional attachment necessary at all, which is a problem when you're trying to reach the wide audience of Free Comic Book Day.  Top Cow remains a publisher on the verge for reasons exactly like this.  At this point it's got plenty of history behind it, but that only serves to alienate potential new readers.  Unless you like Scantily Clad Female Heroes.  Although Aphrodite IX will never compare to Witchblade in that department, alas.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Quarter Bin #51 "Icon, Nick Fury, Mark Waid, and other curiosities"

Comics featured in this column were not necessarily bought in a quarter bin.  This is a back issues feature.

Deity #2 (Hyperwerks)
From October 1997:
This is a pretty awful example of the dreck that the '90s boom helped produce by way of the extreme proliferation of comic book publishers.  Actually, I won't dignify it with much discussion other than to note that Brian Bucellato, who has since transitioned into writing such comics as the New 52 Flash with Francis Manapul, was a colorist on this project.  Move along, move along...

Icon #1 (Milestone)
From May 1993:
This is the missing link between Malcolm X and Superman, you'll find yourself thinking if you read this debut.  I have a limited amount of experience with the Milestone experiment from DC (a whole imprint dedicated to black heroes and creators), which most famously led to the Static Shock cartoon, but I've always respected it as one of the boldest efforts ever.  Maybe all those early Superman crossovers weren't such a good thing, because they only served to distract from what made Icon different from the Man of Steel, rather than what made him familiar, a real voice for the social conscience.  Reading this debut makes me wish I could read the rest of the series, just to see if this perspective was maintained.  If it was, that would make Icon one of the most significant fictional efforts in the continuing cultural dialogue of America.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. #36 (Marvel)
From June 1992:
You might be forgiven to believe that the character of Nick Fury only became significant after Samuel L. Jackson started portraying him in the movies.  You might be surprised to learn that the Nick Fury in the comics is in fact a white dude (it's the Ultimate version of the character who resembles Jackson, because he was in fact designed that way, and debuted long before the movie version; the mainstream version was eventually and lamely updated to try and capitalize on this trend).  No, Nick has a long history, and has even had his own solo adventures.  This issue is pretty good, too, featuring a guest appearance from Luke Cage (another character who despite increased prominence in recent years has not been granted a new ongoing series even though seemingly everyone else has), about the PTSD of a former S.H.I.E.L.D. operative who ended up becoming a villain, redeemed by the end of the story.  It's a fairly early effort in the career of Scott Lobdell, and at first it seems obvious that he needed to be transitioned into younger characters (which he famously was in Generation X by the midpoint of the decade), but by the end it really doesn't matter one way or another.  I'm continually impressed by Lobdell.  He's still working toward receiving the accolades he's long deserved.

Mystic #5 (CrossGen)
From November 2000:
I read the Marvel revival of this series a few years back when it was being written by the wonder G. Willow Wilson, and that version is better than this one, though Ron Marz's original isn't too bad, either.

Robotech: The New Generation #12 (Comico)
From December 1986:
I'm apparently still not at the point where I can properly appreciate the legacy of Robotech outside of an action figure or two I randomly acquired as a kid, but this issue was worth looking at if only to remember the legacy of Comico, which was an early publisher of some of the best creators in the medium, including Matt Wagner on both Grendel and Mage.  I think it's about time to give Wagner the accolades he deserves.  He's gotten more of them than Lobdell, but really, not nearly enough.

Ruse #7 (CrossGen)
From May 2002:
Mark Waid has been trying for so long to get on the ground level of a spectacular new comic book publisher (Ape and Boom! besides) that I think it'll ultimately hurt his overall legacy unless someone eventually brings all these disparate projects under one rough in some future reprint effort.  CrossGen was one of those efforts, which as far as I can tell tried to do everything but superheroes, which is fine, and it helped launch the careers (much like Comico) of some truly outstanding talent, but all of that material counts for nothing if the company quickly fades away, as CrossGen did.  Waid ends up being the loser all over again (ironically, Boom seems to be the most enduring of these efforts, but Waid himself departed after completing his Irredeemable cycle, the one time he's returned to superheroes outside DC or Marvel).  Ruse is a detective series in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes, and this issue features some crackling dialogue and romantic chemistry, two things that Waid's stories are not normally known for.  Recently I engaged in a debate over his Daredevil work in the comments section of another blog.  I argued that his Marvel work never compares to his best DC work (which I've recently made quite clear that I greatly admired).  I think all these launch projects are a part of that curious creative psychology of Waid's.  He's a rebel who nevertheless when given the opportunity to play in a familiar setting does the most reverent work ever with characters we only thought we knew.  But he also rebels against his own best interests and instincts.  Needless to say, but I'm still trying to figure out Mark Waid.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Comics Recap #1: Marvel Events

I used to do a feature called "comics recap" on my old blog, which I shut down at the end of 2013.  Tony Laplume has graciously allowed me to start contributing comics-related posts to this blog.  My background on comics is not nearly as extensive as Tony's; basically I started reading some comics in 2012.  Mostly I scoop up what I can get online on sale, so my knowledge is really patchy and almost nonexistent before 1985 or so.  You could consider this more of a layman's opinion than an expert's.

Over the holidays thanks to various sales and gift cards I accumulated quite a few graphic novels and such, so I'll break these down over a few posts.  Today I'm going to get into what I call Marvel "event" comics, a few of those big crossover titles, in particular House of M, Age of Ultron, and Avengers vs. X-Men (or AvX).

What struck me is there's something pretty same-y about all three.  They all deal with creating parallel universes, though in different ways.  In House of M it's via the Scarlet Witch, who's manipulated by Magneto into creating a world where he and mutantkind are the big shots.  In Age of Ultron it's Wolverine going back in time to kill Hank Pym before he can create Ultron, which thanks to the "butterfly effect" creates a terrible new reality where Iron Man is a cyborg dictator and Asgard fought a war with Latveria where Thor was killed and so forth.  In AvX it's the Dark Phoenix who gives Cyclops and other mutants the power to create a new world where again the mutants are in charge.  This isn't really a parallel universe at first, but it becomes one thanks to the Scarlet Witch and Hope Summers.  Fans who read all these in real-time might not notice the similarities but when you read them back-to-back-to-back like this it's pretty obvious and becomes somewhat tiring.  Ultron was actually the last one I read and by the end I was thinking, "Gee, haven't we already done this before?"

And I know I'm missing probably a few more of these events such as Age of Apocalypse, which I'd like to read but from what I can tell it's in 4 volumes and each one is $13.99 and I don't feel like spending that much money.

I can't single Marvel out on this as DC does this stuff all the time too, notably in Crisis on Infinite Earths, followed by Infinite Crisis, followed by Final Crisis, followed by Flashpoint.  And especially in the 90s DC and Marvel had a whole slew of Elseworld or What If comics.  So it seems parallel worlds are a staple of event comics, or at least they have been since 1985.

It's not to say I hated any of those books.  They're all entertaining and it's interesting to see what different characters and associations the writers can come up with.  But it would be nice if for the next big universe-spanning comic Marvel and DC could come up with something that doesn't involve parallel worlds or time travel.

But perhaps the reason why these are so prevalent is it's hard to come up with a problem big enough for all these heroes.  I mean if you say an asteroid is going to wipe Earth out, then all that needs to happen is Superman goes up there to punch it into little pieces.  Other problems like global warming or world hunger or something could also be fixed pretty easily by some costumed heroes but they just seem to choose not to do it because they don't want to meddle in world affairs or some such nonsense.  When you get down to it, what does that really leave?  Well if you're me it leaves an alien weapon that turns the world's population into women, followed by Omega the World Devourer showing up.

That's it for now!  At some point I still have New 52 Wonder Woman, Superior Spider-Man, and Batman/Superman origins.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Digitally Speaking...#1 "FCBD 2013 Superman Edition"

This year I'm converting to the 21st century a little.  I'm starting to read, finally, comics digitally.  Thanks to handy comiXology, I've got a bunch of free comics to start this process, and I'll be sharing the journey with you.  Really, it'll be no different than any other time I've shared my comics thoughts, but I figured I'd make the distinction anyway...

FCBD: Superman: Last Son of Krypton Special Edition
From 2013.  A reprint of Action Comics #844 featuring the debut of Geoff Johns and Richard Donner's collaboration on the Man of Steel, which I read and eagerly followed from that point forward when originally published.  I got to thinking reading it this time, Perry White gives Jimmy Olsen (as J. Jonah Jameson does Peter Parker) a hard time for failing to capture a perfect Superman action shot.  He says these drastically affect sales of the Daily Planet.  Would they really?  In this version of the Superman story (I wonder if anyone has ever done one only from this perspective), the public apparently doesn't see this too often, so every time it does it's basically like the local baseball team winning the World Series, something that needs to be commemorated, or following a trial like O.J. Simpson's, something sensational but understood to be temporary and therefore must be preserved, because newspapers although designed to be incidental have great potential for preservation (something the Internet doesn't; no one will ever look back on a website's archives nostalgically, unless it's a social arena).  Is that what Perry is saying?  Or are we to believe that every single Superman adventure is followed breathlessly by the public, year after year?  What about a Superman who simply doesn't engage the popular imagination anymore?  Has that story been told?

Anyway, the story in this comic is the start of the Chris Kent saga, a new Kryptonian child arriving on Earth and eventually adopted by Lois & Clark, even though he's actually the son of General Zod.  He goes on to become the new Kryptonian Nightwing during the New Krypton era.  It's one of the more sensational Zod stories ever attempted, and a fine echo of the whole Superman story, which is reflected here when Superman brings the boy to his adoptive parents in Smallville (an otherwise overdone beat that both Supergirl and Superboy have experienced to no real impact except when Johns himself did it with the "What would Superman/what would Lex Luthor do?" arc at the start of Superboy's second ongoing series).  The special edition also includes a preview of Scott Snyder and Jim Lee's Superman Unchained, which actually comes in the form of an interview with the creators.  I missed this last year, so was glad that it was still available digitally.  That's certainly one advantage of the form!