Monday, April 28, 2014

Digitally Speaking...#15 "Jake Parker"

The Antler Boy and Other Stories
From 2012.

This is a collection of short works from Jake Parker previously published across a wide spectrum of outlets (including Image) from 2004 to 2012.  Parker has worked at Blue Sky Studios (responsible for the likes of the Ice Age flicks) and also illustrated the Michael Chabon book The Astonishing Secret of Awesome Man.  If you know him at all, it may be thanks to his Missile Mouse books published through Scholastic (which released the color versions of Jeff Smith's Bone through the same imprint).
Most of the stories feature distinctive lead characters, several of which recur, including the above Hugo Earhart (who rides a flying whale) as well as Missile Mouse (who was immediately the standout, from the classic John Carter/Buck Rogers/Adam Strange/Star-Lord model of a space hero coming to a strange world and rescuing it from destruction, a story that would be hugely ironic on Krypton).

The titular character, just based on the imagery alone, calls to mind Jeff Lemire's Sweet Tooth from DC's Vertigo imprint, but the story is more like a fable than anything, a curse Antler Boy recounts in years later. Like the rest of the material in the collection, it's close to all-ages (although you might use caution for some images of light violence).

It's not surprising that Missile Mouse is Parker's main claim to fame, because that particular entry reads most smoothly.  I'm glad there is more material with the character, because my strongest reaction coming out of the collection is that I wish Parker would stick with one story rather than a bunch of shorts.  But that's the nature of the collection.  As a reader, I can sometimes be impatient with the idea of a short story collection.  If the shorts individually don't impress me, I tend to grow impatient, even if the talent behind them is obvious.  I just want to see what the creator can do with longer material.  It's the same in prose as well as comics.  So it's fortunate that Parker has some stuff that breaks loose from his restraints here, and that there is more material from the strongest character in the bunch.

I get the sense that Parker isn't particularly interested in mainstream comics success, though if he wanted it I think he could have it.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys #5 (Dark Horse)

writer: Gerard Way, Shaun Simon
artist: Becky Cloonan

Gerard Way is best known as lead vocalist of the recently retired rock band My Chemical Romance, but he's been working in comics for a few years now, and he's (*ahem*) one of the unsung gems in the medium.  Starting out with The Umbrella Academy (also at Dark Horse), he's been one of the most imaginative writers around.

And now he's done The True Lives of the Fabulous Killjoys as well.  It's a post-apocalyptic landscape with its own version of superhero mythology going around, and it's the kind of storytelling that isn't too worried about being busy, and a story you can drop into the middle of and not feel out of place.

All of this, as far as I'm concerned, is a huge endorsement.  What else do you need to know?  After this one, there was a final issue released at the start of the year, and so yes, that means you can, if you so choose, go ahead and track down the whole series.

The series is actually directly related to the MCR album Danger Days, which makes Killjoys a lot like the Coldplay comic from last year, Mylo Xyloto, based on the album of the same name.  I guess that was just something that was going around last year.

The lead character is the sole survivor of the original Killjoys, looking for a way forward, which she finds at the end of the issue, which even for someone who has zero experience with the rest of the material is still satisfying.  It's pitch-perfect execution, filled with big ideas presented in a way a Grant Morrison fan can appreciate.

So far Way has stuck with Dark Horse, which is interesting enough as it is.  Both projects could just as easily be at home with Image, and aren't very representative of the typical Dark Horse output.  But the publisher strays from its usual licensed product template on occasion.  Way is a considerable asset in that regard.  The more work he does, the better off both will be.  But it'll be interesting to see how things develop.  At the moment, I'm sure a lot of fans still consider Way to be a dilettante, while his fans are probably the "kewl kids" who will take any novelty at face value.  He has real talent to contribute, though.  In time he may end up with a much higher profile in the medium.  And a bloody rock god all over again.  

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles #27 (IDW)

writer: Kevin Eastman, Bobby Curnow, Tom Waltz
artist: Mateus Santolouco

Like a lot of thirty-somethings, I grew up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Not so much the original comics, but the slightly later cartoon series and movies.  I loved those.  I was a Michelangelo guy, the freest of these half shell free spirits.  He was the one who loved pizza the most.  And I always loved pizza.  And because a lot of my early pop culture impressions had to do with color, this one stood out for me because his was the orange mask.  Green is my favorite color, and orange the second.  So, it just goes to stand.

Anyway, so I didn't grow up with the Turtles as a comic book phenomenon.  Like a lot of fans from that time, I wasn't even particularly aware of their origins, but of course the truth always was that they were among the earliest and most successful small press creations.  I watched as various efforts were made to make them relevant as comic book entities again.  Like a lot of '90s efforts, their Image incarnation was pretty grim.  I think one of the four was killed off, another maimed.  That sort of thing.  But I just never got around to reading any of this material.

Recently, they've become another of IDW's licensed properties.  One of the Turtles's creators, Kevin Eastman, is involved in this series (the other is Peter Laird), involved in the conception of the stories along with Bobby Curnow.  It's Tom Waltz who actually scripts.

This issue falls near the end of the "City Fall" arc, which rings fairly accurately with all those latterday Turtles adventures I've mentioned.  One of the Turtles has been turned (Leonardo, the one with the blue mask) and the others are trying to get him back.  A number of other familiar characters (Casey Jones, for instance, who is looking to get back into action, plus of course April O'Neil ) are present, while there are others present I don't particularly know.

It's disappointing, though, that the issue reads so generically, especially in terms of the villain.  Other than Leonardo's predicament, "City Fall" doesn't seem like a major arc as I know it from other comic book properties.  It won't convince anyone to care about this series if they don't already.  It seems much more geared to fans of the existing IDW landscape, which is fine.  I like being able to step into a story, any point, and feel at home.  That's not really the case here.  I don't feel like I'm missing anything.  I mean, I don't feel any compelling reason to continue reading, see what I missed, see how it ends.

It's disappointing.  But more power to the fans who have been a little more faithful to the Turtles' origins.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Superior Spider-Man Annual #1 (Marvel)

Via Comic Book Database
writer: Christos Gage
artist: Javier Rodriguez

This prelude to the last arc in the whole Doctor Spider-Man saga, "Goblin Nation," comes from the pen of Christos Gage, who happens to have been Mike Costa's original co-writer in the Cobra cycle over at IDW.  So it's interesting that both Gage and Costa have ended up contributing to Doctor Spider-Man.

As you will know, Doctor Spider-Man is my nickname for the Superior Spider-Man, who is technically still Peter Parker, except the consciousness belongs to Otto Octavius, the erstwhile Doctor Octopus (thus...).  This is to date very easily Dan Slott's most ambitious and more than likely defining arc in his ongoing Spider-Man run, and he's written most of the stories.  Every now and again someone else gets to play in the sandbox, and for this annual, it's Gage's turn.

The story is simple enough, as all the Doctor Spider-Man stories have been.  How much can Otto conform to the heroic standards of Peter Parker?  As often as he expresses remorse for his previous villainous career, Otto also sees his new position as a means to improve not just on Peter's life (which is something he has liberally done) but his own as well (given that he was defeated by said Mr. Parker on countless occasions, no matter how awesome he thought he was, and in fact still believes himself to be).

Like the Jean-Paul Valley version of Batman, Doctor Spider-Man has developed a reputation for being a little more ruthless than the more traditional one (i.e. the original, actual version).  This annual is all about that.  In fact, it's not very imaginative about it, and it's a little surprising that it's Gage and Slott who reaches the point where Otto finally crosses the line.  "Azbats" (Valley's Batman, given that he was once and again known as Azrael) killed a man, or rather allowed him to die, and that was the signal moment in that version of this story.  Otto tortures and kills someone. Very deliberately.  Cocksure.  Thinks he can get away with it.

Well, Slott's endgame with Otto's Freaky Friday turns in the same direction as seemingly every other Spider-Man story.  The Green Goblin.  If you particularly like the Goblin, this probably sends your own tingling through you.  If you have Peter Parker's version, you probably see it as, well, a weak ending.  (Like I do.)

I was never a Norman Osborn guy.  Not even in the movies.  Especially not the movies.  As much as I love Willem Defoe, he could not redeem that ridiculous character design.  It helped torpedo the infamous Broadway musical, too, as far as I'm concerned.  The Green Goblin is no Joker.  Heath Ledger by all rights should have put the final nail in that coffin.

And this just isn't that imaginative.  I like Doctor Spider-Man a lot more when he's struggling to better himself, not giving in to his ego.  I like a redemptive arc.  I don't know how the story ends.  Ended.  Superior Spider-Man #30 was released a few weeks ago, and the next and final issue drops this Wednesday, with the all-new Amazing Spider-Man #1 coming up on 4/30 (a few days before Free Comic Book Day!).  There are probably spoilers somewhere.

Bottom line is, if you want to experience any of this for yourself, I don't particularly suggest this issue.  I mean, if you must see the pivotal turning point, sure.  But it's just disappointing, is all.  So, spare yourself.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Digitally Speaking...#14 "Tuki Season One"

Tuki Season One (Cartoon)
This is Jeff Smith's third comics project, following his iconic Bone and the more recent RASL.  Unlike his other works, Smith has decided to release Tuki directly on his website, in page-length installments, which basically means it's a web comic.  He began publishing it last fall and wrapped up the "first season" (which amounts to twenty-six pages and therefore first issue by conventional standards) earlier this year.  As a big fan, I've been keeping tabs on it, and I've enjoyed the results quite a bit.  Among many other things, Tuki is a good mix between Smith's earlier efforts.

The story, if you must know, is about an African from 2,000,000 years ago who becomes the first person to leave the mother continent.  It is an epic heroic journey (again, much like Bone and RASL before it), distilled to perhaps its most simplistic form, not simplistic as in childish or unsophisticated, but shorn of nearly all cultural trappings from, well, the last thousand if not million years.  But of course there are callbacks all over the place.  It's familiar and strikingly so to our own time.  It takes a creative genius like Smith to make the distant past read like our own times, not because he's transposed our world to that time, but because he sees the vivid links that make the past come alive.

To Smith, the past doesn't mean that his star is merely a primitive man.  I mean, he is, but that's not to say he's some stupid brute, which is what a lot of people might imagine.  He's no caveman.  His urges are our urges.  Mostly, he's just looking for some grub.  He's thirsty, and he's got these things called monkey oranges that keep popping up.  And he looks hungrily after carrion feasts, or living beasts he can hunt.

It's fun, because the initial pages see our host, whom I assume is the eponymous Tuki, in wordless adventure.  Smith's art ends up looking a lot like the work of Sergio Aragones, best known from Mad Magazine and Groo, the comic version of Conan.  Much of RASL was communicated visually, almost impressionistically, with Rob's adventures across multiple realities something he observes grimly (it's basically a tragic love story), and of course there was a lot of visual emphasis in Bone, often to comic effect, but also to the fantasy and horror elements (and whatever the stupid, stupid rat creatures represent).

Tuki eventually comes across the classic wise old wizard character (think Obi-Wan Kenobi or Gandalf) who helps explain what exactly his heroic journey is going to be and why it's so significant.  What's neat about this particular character is that he represents Smith's vision of this earlier world, when many stages of human development were present simultaneously.  The wizard is more primitive than Tuki, but more in connection with the lore of the world (hence, a wizard), so in some ways he's more sophisticated.  But it's Tuki who is the bold figure who defies everything, not so much because (to this point, by the end of the season) he's trying to, but because that's where his life is leading him.

The wizard mentions a few great tasks Tuki has already accomplished, but these are incidental comments.  Big things normally just happen to Smith's characters, certainly in Bone, where the cartoonish cousins enter into a much wider world in the Valley after being banished from their homeland.  Otherwise they would never have met Rose, or any of the other things they experience.  (Rob, it must be acknowledged, deliberately seeks out his particular form of adventure, but can't know how far down the rabbit hole, as it were, that he ultimately travels.)

As always, Smith has weaved an intricate tapestry with its own mythology.  Each time, even if they can seem like variations, his stories are entirely unique from each other.  Tuki is no different.  The more I read it, the more I love it.  Again, typical for Smith.  I hope he picks up the story again soon, but there's no rush.  This is one creator who has absolutely earned the right to do it his way, and he's chosen to do so in a way that seems familiar but once again feels specifically his own.  That's Jeff Smith's magic.

Just when you think the translation's gone and you won't hear from him again, he comes back.  And, just perhaps, better than ever.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Superior Spider-Man Team-Up Special #1 (Marvel)

Via Comic Book Database
writer: Mike Costa
artist: Michael Dialynas

For those of you in the reading audience who aren't familiar with the "Superior Spider-Man" concept (what I call Doctor Spider-Man), it's Dan Slott's extended arc wherein Otto Octavius, the erstwhile and dying Doctor Octopus, swapped bodies with Peter Parker, so that he is now operating as Spider-Man.  To his mind, a superior Spider-Man.  (The early comics repeated this motif ad nauseum.  It was awesome.)

As far as I can tell, the resulting stories left Otto feeling pretty smug.  He went about correcting all the mistakes Peter had made in his life.  (So he was also the Superior Peter Parker.)  But he also realized how much he'd screwed up his own life.  The villain who lost to Spider-Man so spectacularly (heh) so many times had been beaten up so often his body had been reduced to a vegetative state, which was the situation that left him with his most desperate, and successful, gamble.  But he was always on the defensive.  How could the stories present him any other way?  Everyone knows by now when a major superhero is replaced or die, they come back.  Otto Octavius was never going to stay Spider-Man.

So the stories have been pretty interesting.  It's the first time this replacement gimmick has been explored so forthrightly.  For most of the arc's run, the writer was, of course, Slott, who has been the sole Spider-Man writer for a few years now.  (A stark contrast to the "Brand New Day" era that had a whole team of writers who rotated on the semi-weekly series.  This included, incidentally, some of the last Mark Waid material I truly enjoyed.  Dude should write Spidey again.  Kismet.)

Finally, some other writers got to play in the sandbox.  One of them is this issue's Mike Costa.  I love Mike Costa.  I adore Mike Costa.  I want to have Mike Costa's babies.  I physically want to change genders so I can do this.  

Okay, I'm perhaps disturbingly exaggerating.  But you get the point.  His Cobra comics for IDW's G.I. Joe franchise are among my all-time favorites.  I've been waiting years to see acknowledge that the rest of the comic book industry recognized his talent.  DC's New 52 launch in the fall of 2011 saw him get one such shot with Blackhawks, but it kind of seemed that company totally misunderstood what he'd been doing.  So to have seen Costa pop up at Marvel more recently was somehow more encouraging.  Usually, DC does what's right by me and Marvel tends to blunder.  But in this instance, Marvel's best foot was forward.

Besides Doctor Octopus, Costa also has another wild high concept from some recent comics to play with.  When Brian Michael Bendis finally left the world of the Avengers behind (his legacy only happens to be the whole Avengers cinematic universe, aside from a few token elements from the Ultimates), he tackled the X-Men for the first time.  In All-New X-Men he had the radical idea of bringing the young X-Men from the team's origins into the present, one that saw founding member Cyclops fallen into the role of the modern Magneto, a would-be mutant savior who has seemingly forever compromised himself.  Become the villain.

There's also Bruce Banner/Hulk thrown in, but the key thing to understand is that Costa's story involves his understanding of both Doctor Spider-Man and the All-New Original X-Men.  He gets both of them really well.

It's refreshing, because he doesn't write anything like his cerebral, methodical Cobra.  Okay, his deep sense of character certainly dominates. This is exactly what his subjects need.  If he's to do a fairly throwaway story, that has them commenting on each other, Otto barely able to control his arrogance, but proving himself heroic enough to overcome all over again his worse instincts, Young Cyclops getting some perspective from Banner, then this is absolutely the comic that should have resulted.

Not essential.  Once you've read one Superior Spider-Man story you've kind of read them all, and this one doesn't advance it at all.  But it's a worthy commentary.  And it proves Costa can adequately play in another sandbox.  More than adequately.  He proves the equal of both Slott and Bendis.  Not bad for the new kid.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Digitally Speaking...#13 "Anathema"

Anathema #1 (Tiny Behemoth)
From 2012.

So this is another good one, some excellent art from Christopher Mooneyham and writing from Rachel Deering.  I list Mooneyham first because while Deering's work is good throughout, it takes until the end of the issue to understand what truly makes the main character significant.

This is a story about magic.  Dark magic.  It becomes a little like The Crow, a classic tale of mystical transformation and revenge.  But I got a strong Harry Potter vibe from it as well, especially in the telling of how the villain transforms himself into a being of seemingly unlimited power.

I won't use names in this review, however, because naming is not one of Anathema's strong suits.  By the end of this issue, even the title doesn't seem particularly appropriate.  I'll go ahead and tell you what the main character becomes: a werewolf.

And that's pretty awesome and all, because the main character is a woman.  Another of the unorthodox choices Deering makes is the main character being a lesbian.  This is unusual enough, but it's also a (vaguely) period rather than present-day.  Are we at the point where something will get readers just because of sexual orientation?  Then maybe that's your hook, if you consider that a good thing.

It's another project from the comiXology Submit bundle I purchased that may perhaps be a much greater showcase of potential than itself a notable creation.  The naming issues is one thing.  I appreciated finally finding out why I should care about the main character, but that might have been nice to know other than a general sense that I should care just because of general sympathy for her situation.  As such, the most interesting thing about the issue is the dark magic sequence.

And that's as much because of Anathema as my interest in Harry Potter.

I have no idea how the rest of the series (it's six issues long) plays out.  I suspect competently, if this issue is any indication.  But I would certainly love to see more from Deering and Mooneyham.  From Deering, hopefully something of an improvement over a solid foundation.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Reading Comics #121 "Why They Can't Have Nice Things"

Another reason I keep picking on Mark Waid's Daredevil is because no matter what the fans enjoying the run say about it, how it has contradicted most of what you know about the character's legacy, it's still going to play into that legacy.  In that sense, Waid is doing what he does, working to a point, a long-term story.  He did this in his Flash, building for several years toward the introduction of the Speed Force concept that came to dominate Waid's legacy with that character.  His Irredeemable was one long arc, too.

But as far as I can tell, this lighter, less tragic version of Matt Murdock he's doing now seems to be headed in the same everything-collapses-spectacularly! arc that Frank Miller, Brian Michael Bendis, and I don't even care to speculate how many more have done.  Because Matt Murdock, basically, is another Marvel character who can't have nice things.

And I just don't understand that.  Marvel's claim to fame was that it identified, in the 1960s boom, the truly lasting connection with readers that had existed in other forms previously, but shaped a whole landscape of heroes who were easy to identify with, who were defined by their human struggles more than their superhuman battles.  Clearly they resonate as much today as they ever have, finally inheriting the cinematic throne from its competition in DC.  Any Marvel character can be featured in a movie now.  Even a raccoon!
We're constantly told that if we work hard enough we can get what we want.  We're an overall positive society, even if it seems otherwise sometimes.  Perhaps one of the reasons it sometimes seems negative or cynical is that we're so often confronted with figures who seem incapable of embracing that positive aspect.  It gives comfort to those who struggle, though.  That's the whole Marvel approach right there.  In comics, characters are by definition stuck in a kind of stagnation.  If they developed, they would become irrelevant in a few years, and for businesses who love to make money out of known commodities, that would be a bad thing.  Batman gets over his obsessive need to avenge his parents.  Superman achieves world peace.  Spider-Man loses his angst.

Spider-Man and angst.  Daredevil and his persecution complex.  The X-Men and their...persecution complex.  The Inhumans and...their persecution complex.  Actually, come to think of it, Spider-Man and his persecution complex!  And then you have Captain America, totally alienated from his own time.  (There's a whole argument that the '60s Marvel boom was actually about the company talking about superheroes far more than anything else, but that's not where I'm going today.)  One way or another, where many have chosen to believe the company was talking about its teenage readers, that's not really what you hear these days.  Bryan Singer's movies talked a lot more about the LGBT community than teenagers.  Magneto's origins became crafted around the Holocaust.  The other classic X-Men analogy is the civil rights movement.

But that's some fairly lofty talk I'm not sure the comics have ever really gone after.  I mean, there are comics about Magneto's Holocaust past.  But I think it's a lot more Marvel playing to the pessimists in its audience, the people who sort of understood that superheroes weren't just superheroes anymore, but people who were constantly fighting an uphill battle, but over time, I think, it became much easier not simply to portray that so much as a bunch of people who seem to have every imaginable gift but, well, can't have nice things.  And after a while, it becomes a little old.  I wonder if fans will ever notice that.  Marvel has a way of steamrolling criticism.  It's populism that's a completely different beast than the fanaticism that greeted earlier generations of superheroes, the ones that created the enduring appeal of Superman and Batman, still the only reliable commodities DC has.  Marvel now has a whole cinematic universe, not because any one character approaches either one of them, but because as a whole they keep sending the same message.

We can't have nice things.

Instead of tackling the problem, it's usually much easier just to dodge it.  If you think about any of Marvel's characters too long, they just don't make any sense.  The mutants of the X-Men are really no different from any other superheroes, except they be born with superpowers.  Apparently if you're given them that makes you acceptable, but if you're born with them, you're not special, you're a freak.  This kind of message would never have been possible, say, at the height of the baseball craze, decades earlier.  Babe Ruth was not a freak.  He was so beloved that losing him put the Red Sox into an imagined curse for nearly ninety years.  Lou Gehrig was so beloved there's a disease that was named after him.  Long after people finally forget about his retirement speech, Lou Gehrig's Disease will still be called that, the way we have Tourette syndrome named after some dude no one remembers.

I mean, if you're given special powers in the real world, people put asterisks next to your achievements.

I mean, it makes sense in completely different context, but the X-Men persecution complex is usually presented as a given in the comics, just the way Daredevil's is, or the fact that J. Jonah Jameson is fanatically opposed to Spider-Man, even in a shared universe filled with superheroes.

Dan Slott's Spider-Man finally gave Peter Parker a bunch of shiny nice things.  Spider-Man writers in general have been as fanatical as Jameson in keeping Aunt May alive, to the point where it seemed like a viable alternative to retaining Peter's marriage to Mary Jane.  I understood the logic of ending the marriage.  Some of the best Spider-Man comics ever were written after that.  And we got Slott's Spider-Man because of it, which on the whole has been some of the most focused material ever, warts and all.

But, of course, he took it all away (although it's coming back) with the Doctor Spider-Man arc (what I call the body swap with Otto Octavius).  And so easily, just as easily as how the marriage ended.  When Superman died and was replaced by four wannabes, everyone kind of knew the real deal wasn't among them.  When Batman was temporarily crippled, people kind of figured the maniac who replaced him for a moment wasn't the real deal.  Apparently no one has noticed that Spider-Man hasn't been Spider-Man for a while.

It's because as far as Marvel is concerned, it just makes more sense to keep everyone miserable.  Not conflicted, or confronted with challenges, but outright miserable.  Everything goes wrong.  For a brief moment, things are okay, but then they're thrown into disarray again.  This isn't Hal Jordan, multi-time Green Lantern, having a habitual problem with authority (something that's a leftover from the time just before the Marvel Age).  This is the message that no matter what you do, you're never going to get it right.  Even when you succeed, you fail.

It's a hopelessly depressing model.  And as such, it's convinced a lot of people to like it quite a bit, because misery loves company.  Like I said, depressing.  I've always been a DC guy.  I was originally a Spider-Man guy.  Then I went back and had another look at his predecessor, Robin.  The original reader surrogate.  Robin has been a number of Boy Wonders (and even one or two Girl Wonders).  In the mainstream comics, Spider-Man has always been one guy.  (So, thanks for that, Bendis.  Miles Morales would make an excellent transplant to 616.)  With that mask, he could be anyone.  Shouldn't that be the point of a mask like that?

And Marvel is equally fanatical about never rethinking its model.  Famously, it never reboots.  I mean, at this point its continuity has become far more convoluted and impenetrable than anything DC ever did, but because it's popular there are still lots of readers.  But lose its popularity and I think it becomes an absolute necessity.  Does Marvel at that point maintain its stance?  Or does it finally rethink?  And then, I wonder, will people really think it will have lost something?