Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 In Review: Significant Comics Events

Anyone who keeps up with any kind of industry or hobby will undoubtedly notice the plethora of "Top (x) Lists of 2011" going around in their field, and it's no different in comics.  There are lists I've seen at Comicvine, Newsarama, and, and there are sure to be plenty of others I missed.  And, being the original and non-conformist individual I am, I've decided to do one as well.

This list is less about what I've read in comics, since I'm not very good at getting and reading the new stuff as it's arriving in stores and on the shelves.  It's more about which events were significant enough to me throughout this year that they made it on my radar and either made me happy to be a comics geek, caused me to think about how comics were and would be affected, or made me reflect on comic books in general.

So, without further ado, here's my list:

10.  Captain America: The First Avenger--I had been waiting for this movie for a long time, and was filled with adoration for it by the time the credits finished. Not only did it make a good lead-in to next year's The Avengers film, but it brought a sense of fun back into the storytelling in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I felt had been largely absent since we first saw it in Iron Man in 2008. We'll see if it can be replicated in The Avengers, but in the meantime this movie made for an entertaining story all on its own.

From left to right: Johnny Storm, Mary Jane Watson, Peter
Parker, Gwen Stacy, May Parker.  Peter's final thought to
May: 'It's all been worth it, because I was able to save you.'
9.  Ultimate Spider-Man's Death--I'd been waiting for a "Death of Spider-Man" storyline for some time, not because I want to see my favorite comic book character die, but because, at some point, it happens to everybody.  What makes this death noteworthy is that it's not an epic, cosmically charged saga in some grand arena.  Quite the opposite: it's a neighborhood brawl, one injured, determined kid defending his family, house, and turf against six super-powered would-be murderers who all have it in for him.  It makes his death all the more personal and all the more painful as a result.  He's eventually succeeded by Miles Morales, a half-latino, half-black character who I haven't yet been able to follow.  I should've figured they'd want to at least make it seem permanent with this character, which to me explains why they killed off the Ultimate Universe Peter Parker and not the "real," Earth-616 Spider-Man, who continues to fight crime in the pages of several publications.

8.  $2.1 Million Sale of Action Comics #1--Ah, to have that kind of money.  I don't know who bought it, or if it really is the copy from Nicholas Cage's collection, but I do know that the comic featuring the first appearance of Superman shattered the record for the amount paid for a comic book, set by Detective Comics #27 (Batman's first appearance) last year.  Those two heroes can never stop competing with each other, it seems...
"Come on, you bastards!  Let's dance!"
7.  Human Torch's Death, Replacement by Spider-Man--So, Marvel sullied this a few moths later by bringing Johnny Storm back to life for Fantastic Four #600, but at the time it was a big move, effectively leaving a large void in the roster of the legendary super-family team, the Fantastic Four.  Spider-Man was tapped to replace him, which he did for a while, bonding with Johnny's nephew Franklin and doing what he could to bring levity and an edge to the team.  Now things are more or less back to normal--as normal as they get in the Marvel Universe, anyway--but there's no denying the impact felt all around during this time.

6.  DC's Mega-Reboot--I've never been a huge DC Comics fan, but I do like the Batman titles and the occasional Superman story.  That said, when I heard about the impending reboot of the entire DC Universe and the re-launching of 52 of their titles at issue #1, I couldn't help but think that this was a horrible idea.  Knowing as you might how I feel about the use of the reset button on comics continuity (in short: if you do it, it better be damn good), I was pretty sure this would end disastrously for DC.  I haven't seen any of the new titles yet, but the initial reviews seem to be, for the most part, very positive.  Hopefully DC will pull this off, and I'll have a convenient jumping-in point for more aspects of their mythology.  At this point, only time will tell.

5.  Wizard Magazine Fades to Nothing--Wizard Magazine first started just a couple of years after I first started reading and collecting comics, so when it was announced that it would cease print publication this year and go digital as Wizard World Magazine, I was more than a little upset.  As for the existence of the digital magazine... it does exist, but it's not easy to find without a link.  In any case, it seems now it covers pop culture and film in addition to comics.  I might check them out occasionally for information gathering purposes, but I don't see them making my feed reader.  It's nothing like the Wizard Magazine I remember.

4.  Digital Comics Same-Day Delivery Becomes the Norm--I don't yet really read comics digitally--my main method is to check the collected paperbacks out from the library--but it's not hard to imagine the impact this will have on the industry.  Until recently, you basically had to wait a little longer for the digital version of a comic to come out than the print.  The argument was that if you could access the digital version at the same time as the print version, sales of the print comic would be hurt.  DC in particular seems to have decided to see if this is actually true, and it looks like others will be following suit as well.  Movie industry, you might consider taking a page from the comics in this arena...

3.  Batman: Arkham City--Oh. Wow.  What a game!  I'd actually just played its predecessor, Batman: Arkham Asylum, earlier this year, so by the time October came around, I was primed and eager to continue the saga told in these amazing games.  If you want a video gaming experience that will come as close as possible to letting you actually be Batman, then look no further.  Arkham City expands the playing area and continues much of the story began in Arkham Asylum, featuring plenty of action, fighting, puzzles to solve, and a healthy dose of villains from Batman's infamous rogues gallery.  Add to that a number of developments and Easter Eggs, including a plot twist that you would never expect to see coming, and you'll virtually be screaming for another sequel.

Mike Meyer, St. Louis resident.
Superman fan.  Robbery victim.
2.  Superman Fan Robbed--One of the more memorable events of 2011 was unfortunately one of the most appalling, in which Mike Meyer, a St. Louis resident who is a big fan of Superman, was robbed by a former co-worker of a significant bulk of his collection of Superman memorabilia. The robber, professional jerk Gerry Armbruster, quietly removed the items in question from Meyer's house while an accomplice distracted him by watching Superman films. It's a story that fills you with disgust at just how despicable some people can be. Of course, without events like this we wouldn't get reactions like the next one...

1.  Superman Fans Respond to Robbing With Generosity--This was far and away my favorite moment in comics this year, and made me proud of just how generous people can be. Fans from across the country and across the world sent Meyer replacement gifts for his stolen Superman collection, and did so in droves. And though the jerk who robbed him in the first place was soon caught, it was uplifting and reassuring in the meantime to see so many comics enthusiasts come to the aid of this one Superman fan who really needed it.

And there you have it.  I felt that 2011 was a good year for comics, and look to 2012 with a cautious hope that things will be even bigger and better.  As technology and economics influence our reading habits and the way comics are created, and the companies that make them respond, there's no doubt that many interesting changes are in store for the industry in the near future.  In the meantime, I'll continue reviewing, commenting, and musing on comics.

There will doubtless be much to talk about!

Friday, December 30, 2011

GN Review -- 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente / Wilfredo Santiago

I will admit, graphic biographies haven't really been my thing.  I look at them and, at first, roll my eyes, thinking, "Do I have to read another account of someone's life again?"  Usually my apprehensions are laid to rest once I get started, but it usually takes a while before I can relax and just let the narrative take me in.  Happily, 21: The Story of Roberto Clemente broke this cycle and pulled me in from the get-go.

I must congratulate Fantagraphics on publishing this work by Wilfred Santiago.  It was a book that held my interest, didn't demand a lion's share of my cognitive faculties, and actually made me care about the protagonist.  It probably helps that I used to love baseball as a teen, but I credit both the publisher and the artist who made this work for creating something absorbing and engaging.

Baseball enthusiasts undoubtedly know the details of Clemente's life, about his childhood in Puerto Rico with his impoverished but loving family, his young career as one of baseball's rising stars, and his struggles for respect and dignity throughout.  This volume presents these and other various facets of his life in an accessible, affectionate and ultimately life-affirming package, reflecting on the career and personal life of a man who was as well renown for his politeness and charm as much as his athletic grace and ability.

Throughout the narrative, Clemente demonstrates himself as more than a great athlete and baseball player.  He has unbridled energy and passion, and a desire to help others that goes far beyond his work as a future Hall-of-Famer. He wants to reach out to kids, to help people in need of aid, and uses much of his power, fame, and wealth to do so.  It says a great deal about him that the abrupt end to his life came due to his desire to fly aid into Puerto Rico during a disaster, and even though we see it coming, it doesn't make the actual event any less sad to read.

Art-wise, I think this is a very memorable book.  Santiago eschews the realistic approach for extreme angles and cartoony shapes that allow for a maximum of expressiveness.  It evokes the nostalgia for the era of Clemente's time, and makes interesting what would otherwise be some difficult locations to make visually appealing.

Minor nitpick: I occasionally would be confused by time shifts that are unannounced through the narrative.  This mostly occurred at the beginning of the work, and was overcome with more familiarity, but it did distract slightly from the work at times.  This is forgivable though, as the writing and art kept me interested and reading anyway.

Overall, I'd say this is a worthy addition to any graphic novel collection.  Baseball lovers should enjoy it, as should fans of the biography or anyone looking for an engrossing story with interesting art.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

GN Review -- The Guild / Felicia Day and Jim Rugg

Whenever I find a comic book adaptation of a show that I really like, I'm always excited and apprehensive: excited to find more stories from a mythology I've become fond of, and apprehensive that the people in charge of the comic will somehow lose the essence of the show in translating it to a new medium.  Thankfully, when I saw Felicia Day's--Cyd Sherman herself!--name on the cover of The Guild, I knew it would be good.  And I was right.

The Guild acts as a prequel to the popular web series of the same name, told from Cyd's perspective and relating the story of how she came to get involved in the online fantasy world of The Game, in which she and her guildmates spend so much time during the run of the show.  It also chronicles how she, in piecemeal fashion, comes to the acquaintance of Vork, Bladezz, Tinkerballa, Clara, and Zaboo, her eventual comrades in arms in their guild, The Knights of Good.

Things start off well enough, Cyd supposes.  She "has it all": she plays in an orchestra (way in the back), has a boyfriend (who ignores and takes advantage of her), and a perpetual schedule with a therapist (who doesn't seem to understand her).  So, she can't figure out why she's not happy.  While trying to support her boyfriend's band, she ends up buying The Game, and is almost immediately enthralled by it.  It gives her a semblance of control over her life: she can craft her avatar's look, name, and decide what she does in the game.  So she creates her online persona: Codex, a healer.

While gathering flowers in game, she meets Clara, with whom she strikes up a friendship when they chat live over their mics and speakers.  Others follow, and Cyd is further enchanted by the friends she's able to make and somewhat "manage" in game.  Her boyfriend and therapist do not share her enthusiasm, and deride her interest in the game, with her boyfriend calling her interest in it selfish, and her therapist chiding her interest in people who "aren't real" relationships.

Things come to a head when she finds her boyfriend making out with another man, and she invites all of her new game friends to work together in a contest for in-game loot.  Gradually gaining confidence in herself from her in-game performance, Cyd begins to assert her own independence in real life.  Unfortunately, that involves setting fire to music she wrote for her boyfriend's band, which also sets his cello on fire.  This gets her fired from the orchestra and in debt to her boyfriend for $100,000.  But, she has closure on the relationship, and finds her escapism into The Game to be just what she needs at the moment.

This was a supremely entertaining read, and felt very much like an enhanced group of episodes of the web series.  It uses a lot of the same scenes, situations, and humor from the show, along with the added bonus of actually seeing the characters as their online personas in The Game.  The dialog was spot-on, particularly Cyd's awkward humor, and the personalities of the characters were accurately reflected in this narrative.

The artwork is fabulous, by and large.  Jim Rugg does a good job of capturing the looks of all the characters, both in their online and real life personas.  There is the occasional picture of Cyd that looks a little off, but this is easily forgivable, as she's the one he has to draw the most often.  I also really liked the differing art styles between online and real-life environements: it's more traditional ink-on-paper in real life, and more of a painted appearance in the fantasy world of The Game.  Both settings look great, and add a visual dimension to the story that has never been present during the show.

Overall, a wonderful adjunct to the series.  Fans of The Guild will undoubtedly enjoy this work, as well as just about anyone who plays MMORPGs like World of Warcraft or Star Wars: the Old Republic.  Newcomers to the show might be slightly confused in some places, but overall the humor is pretty well handled and easy to get.  Non-gamers might not get a lot of the situations and references, and I do pity those poor souls.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Advantages and Pitfalls: The Ups and Downs of Collaboration on a Comic

I've only mentioned this in passing so far, but I am an aspiring comic book creator.  I write stories in my occasional free time, and, enjoying the medium of comics as much as I do, am intensely interested in seeing them in sequential art format.  I admire comics as a legitimate form of entertainment, expression, literature, and even education and literacy.

I'm not a coffee drinker, but the rest
of this photo is a fairly accurate
representation of my desk.
I think comics can reach reluctant readers where prose works may fail, and I feel a debt of gratitude to the medium for keeping me as entertained over the years as it has.  That it's come into its own form of acceptance by the mainstream as movies is no surprise.  In fact, it's about damn time.

Over the years, I've taken the occasional crack at creating my own comic out of the scripts and ideas that I have, and I've learned a lot along the way.  Most of these lessons stem from failure, my biggest being that I still have yet to create a work worthy of being published.  It isn't due to lack of effort--I can produce plenty of short scripts at a moment's notice these days--but a lack of illustrating ability.  My biggest Achilles heel here is that I can't, in my opinion, draw anything good enough for publication as a comic.

It isn't that I can't draw.  I can draw, marginally better than most people will admit of their own abilities, anyway.  But I'm not good.  I'm not professional-level, and I don't think I have the patience to develop my abilities that far.  So, like every good writer who can't draw and wants to make a comic of his very own, I've tried working with artists on several occasions.

Character design of Marissa, one of
the main characters in my comic.
Artwork by Charlotte Tarlitz.
There are plenty of advantages and potential pitfalls when it comes to collaborating with other creative types.  Let's start with the good.  For one, it spreads the workload around.  In my case, I just worry about writing duties and leave the illustration to the experts.  I can offer insight into the visual presentations, and with the artist's intuition and skill, help them bring to life what I'm seeing in my head and on the script.

I get to ooh and aah when I see others' renditions of the characters, settings, and situations I've penned; there really is nothing quite like it.  Even the unfinished interim designs are beautiful and feel like Christmas presents when I see them for the first time.  A good artist will not only see and intuit what you're trying to express in writing, but they will find a way to make it look gorgeous, striking, and exciting, be it finished pages, character designs, storyboards, or concept art.

Finally, there's the feeling of accomplishment when you finish a project with an artist.  Together, you've both created something that neither of you likely would have done without the other.  It leaves you both giddy and exhausted, and says a lot for the power of collaboration.

But there are plenty of potential drawbacks to collaborating as well.  For one, you split the credit, and by and large, the court of public opinion tends to favor those who craft the look of the work.  It's not always the case, but it tends to be the norm from what I know of the comics industry.  The artists, it is felt, do the bulk of the work, and it's very difficult to argue otherwise.  The writer, by and large, is simply not as appreciated as the artist.

Second, it can be expensive.  If you aren't doing a back-end split for publication (which I typically don't--I prefer work-for-hire projects I can pay for up front), you have to be willing to pony up cash at the beginning of a project, and that can be a significant chunk of your discretionary income.  Depending on your budget, you have to be careful how much you spend, so that getting your comic project off the ground doesn't sink you financially.

Finally, there is the potential difficulty of working with the artists themselves.  They are individuals, with their own lives, loves, problems, and approaches to their art.  There are legions of talented artists out there in the world, but finding one that is reliable, easy to work with, flexible, and timely is not easy.  You have to be careful about who you choose to work with you on your project, or you could end up wasting time, money, talent, and paper and ink.  I've started projects with several artists that have ended up going nowhere, and the sense of frustration at that point is an effective teacher in picking your collaborators wisely.

I've been lucky enough to work with incredibly talented artists, some of whom are also an absolute dream to team up with.  But I've also had a few failures, unfortunately.  Discouraging as those can be, you can never let those failures define your project.  Embrace them.  Learn from them.  And move on.  The show must go on, as they say.  And grateful as I am to the medium of comics, my journey continues onward.  Hopefully I'll get there in the relatively near future.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

GN Review -- Artichoke Tales / Megan Kelso

Set in a fictitious world where the people have artichoke leaves instead of hair, and queen artichokes are occasionally born into a generation with a physically different appearance to the populace, Artichoke Tales weaves several different narratives from various times and places, attempting collectively to tell a larger story.  Does it succeed?  My guess is that it depends how much time and effort you want to put into absorbing and synthesizing the various parts of the plot.

I've never been a huge fan of Fantagraphics publications, but that doesn't mean I won't give them a read from time to time.  I feel their approach to sequential art is a little too far from the beaten path, as though their desire to avoid the appearance of commercialism trumps even their desire or ability to tell a simple, straightforward story.  I've heard them called an "arthouse press", with all the negative connotations that applies.  I suppose I agree to an extent, but I'm not above using sequential narrative to tell a different kind of story, or to do so in a way that's different.  It's just that, so far, Fantagraphics has yet to really wow me.

Artichoke Tales is told from the perspective of three women, all from the same family but different generations, set against the backdrop of a civil war between the North and South of their civilizations.  The youngest, Brigitte, falls in love with a cannon worker from the North; her mother, Ramona, having convinced her husband to move to the South with her, gradually loses her connection with her family as she pursues her own path of mysticism and worship; and the grandmother, Charlotte, tries to pass on her knowledge to Brigitte even as she struggles with her own memory and the realization that Brigitte will eventually leave her, possibly very soon.

I really didn't feel a sense of connection with this story.  The conclusion of individuals' lives getting swept up in the greater story of the war felt emotionally distant and far removed for me.  It was often difficult to keep up with the shifts in perspective, as they are abrupt and sometimes characters in one time period look like characters from another.  Aside from all that, I often had a hard time understanding what the bigger underlying meaning behind the work was supposed to be.  I'm not saying that it doesn't exist, but that it would probably require at least another full reading for me to put it all together... and frankly, I just don't feel any enthusiasm for that idea.

I both liked and disliked the artwork in this story.  Kelso's delicate linework is visually pleasing in its apparent simplicity and cleanliness. However, it feels like more effort could have been employed to make the characters more distinctive from one another to alleviate the confusion I mentioned regarding shifts in perspective. This would have made the story much more readable.

Overall, this story felt far more plodding and arduous than I think a sequential art narrative should be.  This story might appeal to older teens, arthouse crowds, and even lovers of historical fiction, but in the final analysis I can't recommend this as a particularly exciting or emotionally involving work. Chances are I'm not the ideal audience for it.  Recommended, with reservations.

Monday, December 26, 2011

GN Review -- The Invincible Iron Man, volume 2: Worlds Most Wanted, Book 1 / Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca

When Marvel's Civil War came out a few years ago, I thought it was one of the most exciting and high-stakes storytelling event Marvel had done in some time.  There were so many noteworthy events going on within its pages, from the pro- vs. anti- registration camps of superheroes, to Spider-Man's public unmasking as Peter Parker, to even the X-Men's maddening neutrality on the issue.  I became completely involved, if not in the specifics, then in the overall outcome of the tale.  

And I could tell I was involved, because the conclusion of Civil War ended with two events that left me snarling with outrage.  First, Tony Stark, aka Iron Man, aka the leader of the Pro-Registration heroes, won the Civil War and was elected to head up S.H.I.E.L.D. in Nick Fury's absence.  And second, to add insult to injury, Steve Rogers, aka Captain America, aka the leader of the Anti-Registration heroes, was gunned down and killed while on the way to court to stand trial for leading the heroes who dared to stand against Tony Stark and the U.S. government.

Now, I know Captain America eventually comes back from the dead.  And I know Tony Stark endures more than a few of his own planet-sized headaches as a result of being He Who Is In Charge Of All Superheroes Everywhere In The United States.  But at the time, I was furious at Marvel for this story--though furious in a good way.  Furious in a, "That was a great story, but you ended it the way I totally didn't want it to end!" and not in a "Oh, my god, Quesada, WHY did you give us One More Day, WHY?!" kind of way.

I didn't really follow the aftermath of Civil War for very long after it ended, but when I came across this volume of Iron Man stories, I will admit that it brought a smile to my face.  As much as I may grumble about the ending of Civil War, it definitely was necessary to make this collection possible.  And this collection did something that, up until I read it, thought wouldn't be possible.

It got me to like Tony Stark again.

Tony has lost a lot at this point.  He's no longer King of the World.  S.H.I.E.L.D. has been disbanded, and replaced by H.A.M.M.E.R., an organization conceived and run by Norman Osborn, the former Green Goblin who now somehow has the world convinced that he's not an insane sleazeball and is capable of policing the entire world's security.  And the story begins on Tony's last day on the job, where he is to hand the keys of the world off to Osborn and go back to being a civilian.

Knowing Osborn is a lunatic, and that giving access to all the secret identities of all superheroes to him would be cataclysmic, Tony plants a virus that wipes out all but one copy of the Superhuman Registration Database, which resides in his own cybernetically enhanced brain.  Osborn is enraged, and demands that Tony be found, along with his associates, Pepper Potts and Maria Hill.  The trio split up after initiating a memory wipe of Tony's brain, and must now work separately to orchestrate their own counter-offensive to Osborn's manhunt.

Reluctant as I initially was to pick up this volume, I quickly became engrossed in the story.  Matt Fraction does a good job telling a tale of Iron Man on the run from the rest of the world, keeping things well paced, funny, and even chilling in places.  The characters ring true--Tony's brilliance, wit, and even flirtatious nature are as well crafted as the subtleties of Osborn's megalomania, insanity, and desire for control.  There's even a tale where Tony goes at it with Namor, the Sub-Mariner, whose royal arrogance and disdain are spot-on for the character.

My biggest complaint is that things are not resolved in this volume. Still, cliffhangers aren't all bad, and I think I'll be picking up the next part to this story in the very near future.

I also really enjoyed Salvador Larroca's artwork in this volume.  It's detailed and realistic, and very beautiful in places.  I'm not exactly sure what method he's using, but his work with shading and textures gives the story an organic look that you don't often see in comics, and I think it works exceptionally well with the story that Fraction tells.

Overall, an enjoyable read.  It's good to see Tony Stark dealing with things from a position of vulnerability, particularly after the high horse he was on during and directly after Civil War.  If you like superhero stories, definitely check this out.  Recommended.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

GN Review -- The Nobody / Jeff Lemire

When a stranger with an odd appearance and mysterious past takes up residence in a sleepy, dull small town, how much does the curiosity of the town's denizens about him factor against the stranger's tight-lipped desire for peace and privacy?  Canadian comic creator Jeff Lemire explores this question in his 2009 drama, The Nobody.

The Nobody is essentially a reimagining of The Invisible Man, with the setting altered to be the approximate present day and the location to be a rural fishing town, Large Mouth.  John Griffen, a scientist who developed and tested an invisibility formula on himself, has rendered himself permanently invisible and must now completely cover himself from head to toe, making for a strange and unsettling appearance to others.  He has set up shop in the small town to work on an antidote for it, but soon finds that the townsfolk are more than just mildly curious about this new stranger.

The daughter of a local diner owner, Vickie, takes a personal interest in Griffen, eventually striking up a friendship with him.  But as the townsfolks' intense distrust of him simmers, his life becomes complicated by the visit of a former colleague, who tries to blackmail him.  When events take a dark turn, Griffen finds himself on the receiving end of the town's suspicions over the disappearance of a local.  He is chased by the frenzied mob despite any wrongdoing, and events unfold in a way that show the townsfolk of Large Mouth are truly the ones to be distrustful and paranoid over.

I really liked the writing of this story, from the concept of a present-day invisible man to the portrayals of Griffen, Vickie, and the townsfolk of Large Mouth, who have varying levels of curiosity and suspicion about their new resident.  The dialog is simple and straightforward, much like the plot, though neither fails to keep the reader interested in the story at hand.  Of particular note is the tragedy infused in Griffen's battle against insanity, which seems to be caused by the condition rendering him invisible.  It gradually worsens through the narrative, placing a timer and giving some urgency to his quixotic quest to find a cure for his condition, but also makes him a tragic figure.

The townsfolk are also memorable too, though certainly not in a positive light.  Some defend Griffen's right to privacy at first, but as the events of the story unfold, most of them show themselves to be a bunch of overly curious, suspicious, and paranoid dullards, more interested in keeping things predictable and in line with their narrow worldview than in accepting differences in people.  This becomes especially true towards the end of the narrative, when paranoia and hysteria overtake reason in their search for a local who has gone mysteriously missing.  Many tragic events occur that could have been avoided with a more reasoned approach.

Lemire's artwork has certainly improved over the years, having gotten tighter, and more stark.  His linework makes for characters that are simplistically yet realistically drawn, and he doesn't shy away from portraying the haggard, drawn faces of the townsfolk, whose lives are probably both simple in routine and hard in daily toil.  It makes for a slightly surreal experience, but one that works very well with the story he tells.

I do enjoy Lemire's works, and can't deny that I was pretty well hooked on this book from the get-go.  Anyone who enjoys a good story will like this work, as will fans of Invisible Man stories or portrayals of small towns and the personalities that may dwell within them.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

GN Review -- Batwoman: Elegy / Greg Rucka and J.H. Williams III

What happens when you have a personal vendetta against an organization?  Does it blind you to the facts that you otherwise would have seen coming?  What happens when that vendetta leads you to make a mistake that forces you to question not only what you do, but also the people closest to you?  The people who helped you get where you are and become the person you are?

These are the questions Kate Kane unwillingly confronts in Batwoman: Elegy.

Knowing the Religion of Crime, a cult she'd had an apparently near-deadly run-in with some time ago, is greeting their new leader soon, Batwoman plans a pre-emptive strike on her arrival.  After things go awry and she ends up watching their leader, a crazy woman named Alice, fall to her death, Kate can't escape the notion that Alice might have been her twin sister Beth, who had apparently died some time ago.

In investigating this possibility, we are shown in flashback Kate's childhood ties with Beth, along with the kidnapping they endured, which apparently ended in Beth's demise.  We go on to see her path to becoming Batwoman, including her discharge from the United States Military Academy for being a lesbian despite her stellar grades; her initial encounter with Batman; and her journey to put her training to use to become a crimefighter as her own personal call to serve.  Her father, who was involved in her rescue from the kidnapping, agrees to help her, providing training, contacts, and in some cases on the field assistance to her.

Finally, back in the present, she confirms that Alice was indeed her sister, prompting a confrontation with her father about Beth's ultimate fate during the kidnapping.  Claiming that Elizabeth had been warped or altered to the point that she was no longer the girl her family knew, he maintained that she was effectively dead, even if she had been the lunatic Alice.  Kate agrees that Beth is dead, but says that she killed her, after watching her sister fall to her death.

I've known of this Batwoman's existence for some time, but until recently, have only had the most tangential of glimpses into her life.  I'd read DC's 52 series a couple years ago, and knew she'd been romantically linked to Detective Renee Montoya, but aside from a few of her appearances there, I knew little else about her.  In Batwoman: Elegy, we get a good overview of who the character is, how she came to be Batwoman, and some of the things that motivate her.

We don't get everything, though, which demonstrates just how serialized comics are like serialized TV shows: you pick up in one place, and even if you catch on to what's going on, chances there are going to have at least a few unanswered questions.  What exactly did the Religion of Crime do to Kate before this story that's prompting her vendetta?  Who exactly are the shapeshifting humanoids that rescue her and her father when Alice gets the upper hand?  You can't help but ask some questions like that if you're a newcomer to the modern Batwoman.  Fortunately, they're minor enough not to detract from the overall narrative, and I'm sure are doubtless answerable by former volumes, fans, or possibly even the Internet.

Elegy is a powerful story that really saves the gut punch for later.  We get to see Batwoman's past and present, as well as a look at her military father's influence on it.  She's clearly a complex character with a lot of potential, and is given depth by Rucka's deft characterization.  I'm definitely interested in seeing where she goes from here.

The art is pretty good as well, particularly when you consider the switch-up in styles Williams employs when switching between the past and present.  Opting for a realistic yet slightly surreal style in the present, he then goes to a simpler presentation reminiscent of earlier comic book styles from the 60s or 70s to help narrate the past.  He does both styles well, and manages to play around and make each flourish to support the narrative.

Overall, I'd strongly recommend this for fans of Batman, fans of superhero comics in general, and anyone who wants to read a good story with good artwork.  I'm sure I've read Rucka's work before, but this is the first that'll stick with me for some time.  Highly recommended.

Friday, December 23, 2011

GN Review -- Transmetropolitan: Lust for Life / Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

I picked up the first volume of Transmetropolitan, entitled Back on the Street, and was blown away by it. This second volume continues the story of Spider Jerusalem and his journalistic adventures in The City, with the raw, in-your-face tone and dark satire of human culture intact, as well as a healthy dose of mishaps in store for our favorite ball-busting columnist.

The first half of the book is a series of three stories, involving human consciousness downloads into a nanotech life-form, the woes encountered by humans cryogenically frozen and revived from the past, and a very futuristic and literal take on what a human cultural reservation is. The final half is a three-part story in which Jerusalem is systematically cut off from his support at his newsfeed, the Word, and then hunted by a group of people for a crime his wife committed right before she had her head cryogenically frozen.

Through it all we see Spider's relationships with people, past and present, and how his pursuit of a story for his column has wrecked people's lives in a big way. A police dog (who presumably used to be human) has a huge bone to pick with him due to a past incident or two, and his relationship with his assistant, Channon, crumbles further as he fails to demonstrate enough compassion for the situations she's currently enduring. And one of the Word's staff, a former assistant to Spider, has a big grudge against him, going so far as to sell him out to assassins, for a perceived wrong he committed while they were on the job years ago.

In a way, the former half of the book supports the latter half, since the exploration of different future cultures and life forms inform the people hunting Jerusalem, while the cryonics plays a part in how Jerusalem's wife was being preserved. Both arcs are engaging and entertaining, often swapping insightful and cynical observations about human nature with the teeth-gritting, eye-popping rage that Jerusalem so often feels or invokes in others. Whether it's his editor Royce's feverish cigarette-smoking anxiety over Jerusalem's status and fate; Jerusalem's wife, currently dead, loudly and viciously flipping her husband off from her virtual nirvana; or Jerusalem's own subdued condemnation of the human culture of the time, one that has no interest in learning from the past or its denizens, there's no doubt that Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson know how to pack a wallop when they tell a story.

Transmetropolitan continues to shock and entertain me as I read it. Spider's a cynical bastard who loves pressing people's buttons in his pursuit for the story, with friends who'd as soon punch his lights out as give him an exclusive interview or do him a favor. Lust for Life keeps the wheels spinning, ensuring I'll return to this series whenever I get the opportunity. In the meantime, I'd urge anyone who hasn't read this angry, insightful series to give it a try. It just may become your next guilty pleasure. Or un-guilty pleasure. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Hitting the Reset Button on Continuity, part III: When It's Done Badly

The reset button, while a potentially volatile and dangerous thing, is not inherently bad.  In the last post, I gave an example of a good use of the reset button, as well as some reasons why, in the hands of a respectful and skillful writer, it can be a necessary and benevolent change to an established mythology.  Unfortunately, there are for more examples of how the reset button can cause confusion, resentment, and even outright anger at the caretakers of a mythology.  My example for this post is a storyline from one of my favorite superheroes that left me feeling insulted, the Spider-Man known as One More Day.

Must... pull... finger!
Think what you will about the One More Day storyline, but you can't deny that it was heavily controversial among fans of the comics.  It came about from the editorial decision at Marvel to end Peter Parker's marriage to Mary Jane, under the guise of preserving the character's longevity for the next couple of decades.  The reasoning was that a younger, single Spider-Man was more easy for readers to relate to, therefore Spidey's marriage would be dissolved.

What ended up happening was this: due to Peter's public unmasking during the events in Civil War, his Aunt May gets shot and sustains a mortal injury.  He goes to every friend, foe, and possible resource he can to save her life, all of whom end up telling him that there is no hope, that Aunt May will die.  Some of his more sensible friends even tell Peter that he's obsessing and needs to let his aunt die; it is, after all, the way life works for everyone.  Peter, well known for never being able to lay down his guilt, can not bring himself to do this, and is at prime vulnerability for Mephisto, Marvel's version of the Devil, to make him a very special deal.

Mephisto proposes to Peter and MJ that he will save Aunt May's life in exchange for their love and their marriage.  He would make it so that it simply never happened.  Aunt May would be alive, the world would be unaware of Peter's identity as Spider-Man, and he and MJ would never have been married.  After some agonizing over the decision, they both agree to Mephisto's terms, and share one last embrace and kiss before reality comes apart around them.  Peter wakes up in Aunt May's house, single and apparently always having been, and kisses her good-bye before rushing off into the new status quo.


Before I launch into a tirade of what my problems are with this particular use of the reset button, let me just make a few things clear.  I have never been a particular fan of Spider-Man's marriage to MJ.  I have nothing against the institution or the character, but I've often seen them as more of a crutch or all-too-convenient plot device for writers to rely on or impede the character in some way.  This isn't always the case, but happens enough that I have noticed and sometimes imagined things would be better without that part of his life.  So the idea of ending Peter's marriage in and of itself is not and has never been a problem for me.

I will also say that Straczynski's actual writing of One More Day is really very well done, as is the artwork.  Despite my issues with Joe Quesada on the existence of this story, I can't deny he did a beautiful job of portraying the two lovers with a horrific decision to make in amazing visual detail.  No, the story itself is actually pretty well told.

My issues are with the existence and the perceived necessity of this story at all.  And even as it is well told, there are still a multitude of sore points that emerge in the narrative.  Let's queue up the bullet point list and go through them:

If I had a kid this insightful who turned it around on me, I'd
probably choose the reality where she wasn't born, too.  
That'd show her.

  • The Reset Didn't Happen Organically.  There are those who would argue with me on this.  They point to Peter unmasking during Civil War, Aunt May getting shot and Peter's vengeful tear upon the perpetrators, even the journey he takes trying to save Aunt May.  And I would agree, all those were organic developments.  What I have an issue with is the sudden, very timely, very supernatural appearance of Mephisto to Peter.  Offering Peter a deal with the devil for purely selfish reasons, which he takes despite all logic, all the advice of his friends, purely to allay his guilt.  I think the scene where his own child rips into him for being selfish at least shows that the Powers That Be were aware of the wrath they were risking (hey, I did say this story was well-written).  But I also think the fact that they went ahead and chose this path makes its deliberate nature all the more insulting to the character.
  • Hey Spidey, let's make a deal...
    You can trust me!
  • It Felt Like a Total Deus ex Machina.  I'm sorry, make that a diablo ex machina, since Mephisto is the one involved.  Still, it's the same basic device.  You put the hero in a supremely untenable situation, with no apparent way out, and then a cosmic being or occurrence appears to set everything right.  Okay, not everything in this case, but in the end, Peter gets what he wants: his elderly aunt is restored to perfect health.  All he had to do was give up his marriage to his beautiful, loving wife in exchange.  Overall, it felt like the creative types at Marvel had done all these ground-breaking things with Spidey, then suddenly felt painted into a corner, and decided to use this mighty reset button device to get themselves out of it.  This is what I consider a prime example of lazy, cowardly writing that could have gone in so many interesting directions if the Powers That Be had displayed some moxie and left the reset button alone.  Even if you don't consider it in those terms, the fact that we have a supernatural solution being utilized in a primarily science-based title also lends to the feeling that none of this rings true.
  • Original Continuity Was Not Destroyed, But Starkly Altered.  Hey, look!  Harry Osborne's back!  What?  He was never dead now?  What about the story in Spectacular Spider-Man where he... oh, he's actually been in Europe all that time?  Oh, well thanks for that one!  I thought none of this made sense!  Quesada made a big deal about preserving the stories already told in the comics, basically stating that the only detail that has changed was that Spidey and MJ simply weren't married during them.  So for example, when Venom went and terrorized MJ upon his inital emergence, that was the only detail that was changed.  MJ was just living with Peter, but not married to him when that fun bit of business went down.  So now, whenever we read any of the stories retconned by this reset button, we need to remember to add that one little detail into our Augmented Reality algorithm.  Having to do that, aside from creating headaches for new and old fans alike, just makes it feel like the people at Marvel just didn't care about the readers.  "Hey look, reality's changed, but it hasn't!  See?"  Yeah.  Lovely.
And don't even get me started on some of the other "details," like how Spidey apparent still unmasked during Civil War, but no one cares to remember the event.  Lazy.

In both the good and bad instances, we can see that use of the reset button is a powerful thing.  And, to quote a relevant source, with great power comes great responsibility.  Stewards of our modern mythology have access to this tool, but they need to respect its power, its potential effect on the audience, and the dire consequences it could entail.  To rely on it as a crutch diminishes the mythology overall, and shows a lack of sophistication among the creative staff.  It can be a wonderful thing when used well by the right people, but it should never be abused, overused, or poorly utilized.  

Take heed, creators.  Use this device at your whim, for it is yours.  Just remember the potential for both good and ill, and be willing to accept the consequences of either.  You have been warned.

Respect mah au-thori-tah!!!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Hitting the Reset Button on Continuity, part II: When It's Done Right

I said in my last post on this topic that, by and large, I'm against the idea of hitting the reset button on the established continuity of a mythology, franchise or property.  This was mostly on the grounds that I considered it lazy writing, if not more than a bit cowardly.

As a fanboy and as a writer, I consider this a very large-scale violation of the mythology's verisimilitude--the appearance of reality within the framework of the mythology--that should be used only occasionally, if ever.  Otherwise, you're basically throwing it in the fans'/readers'/viewers' faces that, "HA! This isn't reality! We can do whatever we want, whenever we want!"  I know most of us are aware that this is all fiction, but to take that kind of action and stance runs the very real risk of alienating your audience, since you may be stripping out parts of continuity that are meaningful to them, on an apparent whim.

But that doesn't mean the reset button is never necessary, or that it can't be done well.  It apparently just doesn't happen very often.

One shining example of timely, justified, and well-done use of the reset button is the 2009 reboot movie Star Trek, in which audiences are sent to an alternate reality of the established Star Trek timeline.  The original seven characters are there, but with distinctly different looks, pasts, and interpretations.  Vulcan, one of the founding members of the United Federation of Planets, is attacked and destroyed by the film's villain.  Kirk and Spock, famous friends in the original series, are hostile rivals for the bulk of the plot.  So many fundamentals from the old continuity have been changed that there was no way it could not be noticed.

And yet, it all worked.  The movie received rave reviews by fans and critics alike, made a ton of money at the box office, and maintains the highest score of all the Star Trek films on movie review site Rotten Tomatoes.  Why did it do so well?

I have several opinions about why this use of the reset button worked:
  • The Reset Happened Organically.  Well, as organically as you can possibly get in a sci-fi franchise utilizing a time travel subplot.  The point is, the reset didn't happen just for the sake of happening; it was a vital element of the story told in the movie.  I think this paid off handsomely for the producers, as it felt natural to mass audiences, critics, and fans alike.  There's nothing worse than feeling like you've been taken for a lame ride on a movie you just paid full price to see, and if audiences had felt that way, it would have been reflected in the sharp drop off of ticket sales after the film's premiere weekend.  
  • The Reset Was Acknowledged and Explained.   This reset, caused by Spock and Nero being pulled into the past by a rift designed to counteract a supernova, was as much of a plot device as it was a reset.  It deserved explanation, and audiences got it.  From Commander Spock's speech to the crew on the bridge about the timeline altering their destinies, to Ambassador Spock's explanation to Kirk about his encounter with Nero, we were given a clear account of how this happened, and why.  That's treating your audience respectfully, something fans especially appreciate.
  • Nods Were Given to the Original Continuity.  From Chekhov's problem distinguishing between v's and w's to Sulu's fascination with swordplay, anyone familiar with the old Star Trek saw something of their old crew in this new bunch.  That did a lot to help bridge the gap and keep fans happy
  • The Reset Did Not Destroy the Original Continuity!  Now, that's a Christmas present!  Anyone who doesn't like this new interpretation of Star Trek doesn't have to stick around or acknowledge it!  The old timeline has actually been maintained!  This is just the reality that the original Spock has caused, and is now living in and observing.  There's no indication that the realities of TOS, TNG, DS9, or VOY have been messed with!  Though I wouldn't have been sad if they could've erased VOY or ENT.  But that's just me...
There are other reasons, but these are the four that immediately come to mind.  They helped make for a good justification of the reset button, which in turn made for a tremendously enjoyable movie, one that remains one of my favorite Star Treks, as well as one of my very favorites overall.

The reset button is not intrinsically a bad thing, but it needs to be handled appropriately by a skilled creator.  When things go bad, fans can feel hurt, insulted, and alienated by the creators.  I'll be discussing an instance of a reset that made me feel this way in my next post, involving one of my favorite mythologies, that of Spider-Man.  Until then, feel free to share your thoughts!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

GN Review -- How I Made It to Eighteen / Tracy White

Imagine you're seventeen years old. You find yourself less and less involved in all the things you used to love in your life. You use drugs to escape the feelings isolation and depression, but that only works for so long. Gradually life seems to lose any and all its flavor, and all you can feel is a drab kind of depression. Uncertain you can feel anything at all anymore, you do something rash, causing serious bodily injury to yourself, desperate to feel something genuine, even if it's only pain. That's what leads to the beginning of the events in How I Made It to Eighteen.

Compiled from a number of "sources," including interviews with the protagonist's friends, doctor and psychiatrist case files about her, and narrations of the main character's present and the past actions that led her here, the story revolves around author Tracy White's avatar, the ironically-named Stacy Black, who has checked herself into a mental institution. She's suffering from depression as well as a number of other issues, and at some point has put her fist through a window, just to see if she can feel anything real. That incident is what makes her realize that something is seriously wrong, that she's really unhappy, and that she wants to feel happy again.

Conveyed through artwork that is almost amateurishly simple yet striking in its subdued portrayal of the depression Stacy suffers, it's easy to see why readers would call this story a downer. There's plenty of white space on the pages, which is emblematic of the emptiness Stacy feels. For a while it feels like Stacy will never change, as she begins to help others yet rejects their own advice to her, suggesting she's too comfortable being miserable. Even the story's abrupt ending makes you wonder where the payoff is. Sure, she realizes she needs to change, and apparently she does so, but why not show it?

I'm uncertain whether to categorize How I Made It to Eighteen as a graphic autobiography or a graphic novel, since it's clearly about the author, though with plenty of artistic license thrown in--hence White's "guaranteed 95% true" statement regarding it. It's not a huge deal, as both will simply go under the GN umbrella label for my purposes, but I can see how the blurring would cause frustration for some--particularly librarians trying to catalog and collocate this book--and glee for the anti-labels crowd.

I have mixed feelings about this work, personally. The story is good, but not exactly a fun read, and I can see why others might patently dislike the subject and tone as well as the structure of the story. The artwork is not impressive at all on a technical level, but conveys the intended gloom of the author very well. I do think this is a good graphic novel for anyone who's dealt with depression, bulimia, and/or drug use, as well as anyone who wants to see graphic novels used as a medium of personal expression. Others might take it or leave it. Moderately recommended overall.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Hitting the Reset Button on Continuity, part I

One of the main reasons I get into pop culture mythologies such as Star Trek, Batman, Spider-Man, and Harry Potter, is that I'm interested in how these things are written. It's a joy, in serialized fiction of virtually any media, to see consequences arise from actions taken in the past, as it shows that the heroes' and villains' choices are important and affect more than just the original moment at hand. But one of the major potential pitfalls in these mythologies comes down to a word that has made writers, editors, and fans alike recoil in disgust, shock, and/or fear.


Quickly and loosely defined, continuity is the consistency of events, characters, plots, places, and objects encountered by the characters in a fictitious universe.

Take Klingons, for example. They're a staple of Star Trek lore, having been around since the original series. They're a huge part of Star Trek continuity for that reason alone. You couldn't really write a story in the Star Trek universe and assume that Klingons don't exist in that universe. You can leave them out of the story; you can choose not to mention them; but by and large, you have tacitly agreed to acknowledge that Klingons exist simply by writing a story based in the Star Trek universe. That is keeping with Star Trek's continuity.

Now, Klingons have changed throughout their tenure on Star Trek. A lot. Originally, they looked like humans with extra heavy makeup. Now they have ridged foreheads. Why is this? This is disruption of continuity, since it alters how we perceived and are now supposed to perceive Klingons, who once looked a certain way but now look another. Sure, there are real-world explanations for these changes; better prosthetics then what was available in the 60s, for example. But what's the in-universe, or in-story explanation? The issue becomes further complicated when you consider that several Klingon characters from the original series (and their actors!) appeared in the later shows with altered appearances from their past portrayals. How the heck do you explain that NOW?!

It's questions like these that cause wild amounts of fan speculation, headaches for show producers and editors, and present either brick walls or unique opportunities for writers.

It's also the reason for many of the caretakers of some mythologies to simply decide to start from scratch. Everything gets rebooted, conceptually, and the writers, editors, directors, producers, etc. don't have to worry about what occurred when in this character's life, or how it affects others or the universe in general. For example, Klingons have always been, as Scotty would say, "horny-headed heathens" in a newly-rebooted Star Trek universe (whether or not this actually happens has not been definitively determined by the movies, to my knowledge). The ground is swept clean of all but the basic structure of the mythology, and people are free to make more of their own new sandcastles, so to speak. For this reason, I refer to this as hitting the reset button.

By and large, I'm not a fan of hitting the reset button. I think it is lazy, sloppy, and cowardly in terms of the creative direction. However, when used very sparingly, and only when it's done well AND justified, the reset button can be a wonderful way to breathe new life into an existing mythology, franchise, or whatever you choose to call it.

In my next post, I'll write about what I consider a good instance of hitting the reset button, with the 2009 movie Star Trek as an example. After that, I'll talk about the "One More Day" storyline on Amazing Spider-Man from a few years ago, which I considered (and still consider) a bad instance of hitting the reset button. While I'm sure many others will have differing opinions, you'll hopefully have no doubt as to why the writing and plot structures of mythologies fascinate me by the time we're done.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

GN Review -- Avengers, v. 1 (2010) / Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita, Jr.

It seems to have been a long while since there was an official, honest-to-goodness Avengers team. With big, universe-shaking crossovers like Civil War, Secret Invasion, Dark Reign, and so forth, there just hasn't been time to put things back together and try to make at least a semblance of a return to the status quo.

Until now.

Brian Michael Bendis brings his flare for grand storytelling and his obvious love for this team and its characters straight to the table, reassembling the team he'd pulled apart in the Avengers Disassembled storyline from several years previous.

Immediately thrusting our heroes into a time-spanning, reality-shifting adventure brought on by the arrival of one of the Avengers' greatest foes, Kang the Conqueror. Appearing from the future, he reluctantly pleads with the heroes to stop their children from becoming horrendous supervillains who ruin reality. Of course, coming from Kang, things aren't quite as simple as he says they are, but it's enough to send the newly-formed team into the future as reality begins to collapse in on itself.

The writing was overall pretty good. It was uplifting to see Steve Rogers, now back from the dead, handpicking and recruiting heroes for the new superhero team. I certainly enjoyed the overall concept of the time/reality plot, although it got a little confusing to follow in certain places, occasionally distracting from the narrative. The dialog was not particularly memorable, though you did get the occasional gem when he paired some heroes--Spider-Man and Spider-Woman come to mind.

One event in this story that stood out in a negative way was Wonder Man's attacking of the new team. Yes, he warns Steve Rogers not to assemble them and acts all weird, but we're given no concrete reason why he's doing this, leaving me very frustrated at his sudden disappearance. I also did sometimes feel the strings of repetition being pulled in the back of my mind. So, Ultron and/or Kang are going to be responsible for ending the world, or reality, or existence at some point? Well, I've never heard of that one before. Bendis at least manages to take that particular plot point and infuse a sense of urgency into the endgame this time, leaving us to wonder if and when any loose ends will rear their heads for the heroes.

I was less impressed with the artwork in this story. I've never been a big fan of John Romita Jr.'s style in comics, but it does work well in some places. Sadly, this didn't feel like one of them. I think the exaggerations his art lends itself to, coupled with the number of characters and scale of the events he was drawing, just left things looking under-wrought and mischaracterized in places. His work during Straczynski's run on Amazing Spider-Man was very good. Here, it just seems perhaps he was spread too thin.

Overall, this was a fun read. The plot was not bad, the art is so-so, and the execution felt hurried at certain points, but it was good to see the Avengers--the REAL Avengers--re-formed and back in action. I'll look forward to see what happens next. Recommended.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

GN Review -- Batman: Hush / Jeph Loeb, Jim Lee and Scott Williams

This story is widely considered one of the more recent masterpieces in the Batman mythos. I remember the first time I read this story, I simply could not put it down. It has everything: a wide-ranging story, supporting parts by virtually every character in Batman's life, and stunning artwork.

Starting with a battle against a strangely mutated Killer Croc, Batman discovers he and the many people in his life are being manipulated from the shadows by someone who seems to have an awful lot of insight into his personal life. He is soon led on a months-long journey to gradually discover who has been toying with him, his allies, his enemies... even a childhood friend of his. When all is said and done, Batman is left with another new, insidiously dangerous, addition to his rogues gallery, a villain known by the moniker of "Hush."

Jeph Loeb, whose Batman: The Long Halloween I've also read, is again in top form, scripting a gripping narrative as Batman finds himself questioning who could possibly know so much about him. Loeb uses mini-arcs within the larger story to briefly feature various friends and foes of Batman's, and then moves on to others as the plot dictates. It's a familiar device from him, as he used it in The Long Halloween, and he proves as adept with it in this volume as he was before.

The many characters featured in the story produce some interesting conflicts and more than a few noteworthy moments, such as the Joker insisting on his innocence after Batman finds him standing over the body of a man, just shot, gun in his hand. Batman ends up having to fight Superman, who is being controlled by Poison Ivy, which tests the limits of his mettle and resourcefulness... and shows just how awesome Batman is at taking down a heavy hitter when he has to. His long-standing on-again, off-again relationship with Catwoman blossoms into a full romance during this story, leading to him unmask and let Selina into his life, making for interesting new dynamics as she interacts with the others who know Bruce's secrets.

The artwork in Hush is, of course, as beautifully rendered as you could expect by Jim Lee's pencil work. I know there are some who have issues with his work, but for me, Lee draws superheroes and supervillains perfectly: they're iconic, they're well detailed, and they're beautifully done. As someone who's followed his artwork in comics since I was a teen, I can't help but feel both nostalgic and overwhelmed with awesome when viewing his work. Batman and Superman look larger than life in his renditions, and Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Huntress are beautiful, deadly, and fun to look at. I don't have any drawing skills, nor do I plan to ever try, but if I did, Jim Lee is the comics artist I'd want to draw like.

If you haven't read this story yet and consider yourself a Bat-fan, then get your hands on it and start reading. If you're like me, you'll finish it in one sitting. Hush proves itself to be a fun story that is both gripping and a good look into the life that the Dark Knight and his cohorts lead. Anyone who likes superhero stories should read this. Anyone who likes a good mystery with plenty of twists and turns should read it. Anyone who likes a good graphic novel should read it. Very highly recommended.

Friday, December 16, 2011

GN Review -- My Boyfriend Is a Monster: I Love Him to Pieces / Evonne Tsang and Janina Gorrissen

The My Boyfriend Is a Monster series of books is written to appeal to teens, mixing romance and adventure with a dash of horror. The first book in this series, I Love Him to Pieces, sets things against the backdrop of a zombie outbreak, and questions in tongue-in-cheek fashion if teen love can survive the zombie apocalypse.

Dicey Bell and Jack Chen are two teens who couldn't be more different at first glance: Jack's a brilliant, quiet nerd boy, and Dicey is a loud, outgoing and beautiful jock girl. So when they're paired together to watch an egg for a health education project, the unlikeliest of romances blooms from its completion. Making fun of how different they are, the pair enjoy their newfound infatuation with one another amid the potentially socially stifling landscape of high school.

Things are going great, until an outbreak of zombies threatens everything! Things get complicated with two new developments: Jack seems to be connected to the outbreak in a mysterious way, and then he gets bitten by one of the zombies. The rest of the story revolves around Dicey's efforts to save her new boyfriend's life and get to a safe zone from the zombies. Will Jack survive, or will their relationship be destroyed by the zombie apocalypse?

One of the things I really liked about this story is how there is not a single reference to the impending zombie attack until nearly the halfway point of the whole story. Dicey and Jack are given plenty of time to develop their relationship, flirt with one another, and show the reader that they are not simply thrown together arbitrarily before dealing with the seriousness of the zombie outbreak. That the action really does pick up from that point is a testament to writer Evonne Tsang's ability to blend two types of stories into one.

We could debate the verisimilitude of just about any story with zombies in it, but often they are written as semi-realistic horror stories. This tale is unrealistic, and definitely lacking in much horror, but it is undeniably charming. As big a stretch as the walking dead may be, most of the exaggeration of credibility is in the everyday elements meant to appeal to teens. Jack and Dicey are very likable characters, but complete opposites who are sickeningly perfect in their ways. Jack's scientist parents are not only involved in combating the zombie plague, but have sent agents with a miracle pill that slows the zombie virus's ability to turn the victims--just what Jack needs after he's been bitten! These moments will have some people shaking their heads skeptically, while others will simply be content to enjoy the story as these two battle on to their final fate.

The artwork by Janina Gorrissen is much like the story--not particularly deep, but striking and charming. It's a little more realistic than cartoony, and while it sports some heavy lines in places it doesn't feel weighed down at all. The zombies are drawn to minimize any of the disturbing elements, while the details of the human characters are played up to emphasize their charms: expressive faces, good hair, young, thin, athletic bodies. Again, it's unrealistic, but it also makes for entertaining reading.

Overall, this is an entertaining but not particularly remarkable piece of teen romance literature, with a dollop of zombies thrown in for good measure. Anyone interested in such types of literature won't be disappointed, but readers looking for more weighty material may be disappointed. Horror enthusiasts should, and probably will, definitely steer clear. This is more for the romantics. Recommended.

The Face of Heroism: Great Captain America Moments

With the unfortunate but not really surprising passing of Captain America co-creator Joe Simon at age 98, it has been an unusually somber last couple of weeks for lovers of the Silver Age of comic books. Jerry Robinson, creator of the Joker (among other characters), passed last week, and in memoriam of his contribution to comics, I listed off some of my favorite moments involving the Joker.

In the same vein, I would like to recap some of my personal favorite moments from the lore that has developed around Simon's most prominent co-creation, Captain America.

Captain America is one of the first comic book figures I remember hearing about as a little kid, long before I developed a serious interest in comic books. He was a banner of good, a helpful hero who always fought to the last for what was right, no matter the odds. As I got into comics and read some of his more significant storylines, he struck me as a man who embodies the concept of personal self-sacrifice, as well as service to an ideal and a country.

He was also a more complex character than that, though: he lost friends in World War II, emerged from a frozen block into a future he didn't know, and then lost more friends as the leader of the Avengers. He's had to make unpopular decisions in times of war, lose the faith of his teammates, and, in one case, die for his ideals. Like all good comic characters, his life has not been an easy one, but worthwhile. He's one of my favorite characters, and has a uniquely unassailable place in comics as a man of valor, integrity, and goodwill.

Again, off the top of my head, here are some of my favorite moments the Star-Spangled Avenger has had, from various comics and other media:

  • Captain America: The First Avenger -- Oh, how I adore this movie. My favorite moment from it happens before he ever puts on the uniform or gets his first dose of the Super Soldier Serum that makes him so strong. Having unsuccessfully tried many times to enlist into the armed forces for the war, Steve Rogers is approached by Dr. Abraham Erskine, who asks him, "So, you want to kill Nazis, do you?" Rogers's reply is classic Captain America: "Not particularly. I just don't like bullies. No matter where they're from." In that moment you see the heart of this character, that he is, more than anything else, a good man who simply wants to do what he feels is right.

  • Captain America Comics #1 -- Okay. I've never actually read this comic, but look at this cover! Wow, what an introduction! Months before Pearl Harbor ever happens, we see the Star-Spangled Avenger in what has become one of comics' most famous covers, punching out Adolf Hitler! I usually don't form opinions of heroes based on a cover, but I can only imagine how much of a hit this comic was when it originally made the newsstands! Very iconic imagery, and a promising start to the character's now sterling career.
  • Marvel: Ultimate Alliance -- One of my favorite console games of all time (just ask any of my friends), this brilliant blend of action and roleplaying elements with Marvel superheroes in a titanic battle against Dr. Doom features a prominent role for Captain America, who is in a significant portion of the cinematic cut-scenes. He is also a great playable character, whose shield throw proves to be one of the most useful and popular skills in the game. In the opening scene, you also get to see him take down several armored robotic opponents with just his shield and a determination to win the fight, simultaneously saving Spider-Man from an attack as well. This was a good game for this character, and he figures prominently into it for anyone who wanted to put a good strike team together.
  • The Ultimates -- This group of Avengers from Marvel's Ultimate universe was darker, more flawed, and less noble than their "regular" counterparts, but Captain America was essentially the same as he always was--which made the adjustment to the present for him all the more difficult. And he's still as bad-ass as ever: when he learns how abusive Hank Pym (aka Giant Man) is towards his wife Janet (aka the Wasp), he tracks Pym down in Chicago, goads him into growing to giant size, and proceeds to still kick the crap out of a several stories high Giant Man. If that's not bad-ass, I don't know what is.
  • Civil War -- ... or rather, the aftermath. Not only does Tony Stark and his Pro-Registration side win the Civil War, but Cap, the leader of the Anti-Registration heroes, is gunned down on the way to his trial after he surrenders. I was livid for both of those reasons, but you couldn't deny the storytelling was amazing. Eventually, Steve Rogers would be brought back to life--comic book characters rarely stay dead--but this event capped the Civil War arc definitively and ensured that things would never quite be the same in the Marvel universe.
So, there you have it. My impressions of some of Cap's most significant moments. Many of them are very recent, and I'm sure there are others more expert on Cap than me, so feel free to share any of your thoughts on this matter. What do you think some of Captain America's most significant moments are?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

GN Review -- Bad Island / Doug TenNapel

Family vacations are often difficult for all involved: teens who don't want to spend time with their family and feel forced into the whole thing, the kids who are marginalized and looking for attention, and the parents who plan and manage the whole thing and feel harried and unappreciated for their efforts. All these characters are present when teenage Reese's family goes on a boating trip for some quality time with one another. When a freak lightning storm during their excursion washes them on a deserted island, it's safe to say that things can't possibly get any worse, right?


First they discover boulders with strange symbols on them. Then one of the rock formations tries to eat them! Soon they discover all kinds of strange, alien things about the island: the flora, the fauna, and mysterious "natives" hunting them. What starts out as a family survival tale quickly becomes a sci-fi adventure, as the family discovers that there is much more to this island--in several ways--than they could possibly imagine.

Doug TenNapel is another graphic novelist I've had the pleasure of meeting, and his personality very much comes out in his writing. He packs the father, Lyle's, love of his family into the narrative very nicely, as well as plenty of his flaws, along with the rest of the family. Reese, who had considered running away from home before the trip, realizes that his father knew this, and had planned the trip as a result of this knowledge. The rest of the story, spiritually, becomes a journey to help Reese rediscover his love for his family and the life he has with them.

The adventure involving the aliens and the island is action-packed, with plenty of opportunities for growth that the characters take advantage of. TenNapel seems to delight in these kinds of narratives, and he handles them with aplomb, keeping things moving and developing while still allowing his characters to breathe (at least figuratively). When all is said and done, the reader may be surprised at just how much depth there is to what appears on its surface to be a mere action-adventure.

The artwork is also fun to look at. TenNapel's cartoony style is punctuated with large, stark features for his characters, such as over-large eyes, that allow for lots of expression. He clearly enjoys drawing aliens and monstrous characters--this is the man who created Earthworm Jim, after all--and he finds plenty of space for them in this adventure. The result is a visual narrative that captivates the reader's interest and works well with the story.

Overall, it's a fun, enjoyable read that keeps itself grounded even as the plot twists and turns at varying speeds. In the end, the moral of the story is that your family will always be there for you, and although it may not always be easy or fun, being there for them in turn is a worthwhile pursuit all its own. Teens and kids of all ages would be pleased with this story, as well as anyone who likes action-adventures and family stories. Highly recommended.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

GN Review -- Baltimore: The Plague Ships / Mike Mignola, Christopher Golden, and Ben Stenbeck

Be careful which vampires you slash in the face in self-defense; they may take it personally, curse you, and make it their mission to cause you hellish pain and unending personal torment. That's the basic premise of this dark and grisly tale, which features plenty of undead to hack and slash. There are also plenty of one-liners, lots of action, and tales told in flashback. The authors and artists have collaborated to create a tale not unfamiliar to comic book readers, that of the dark avenger cursed to fight alone, lest his allies die for being aligned with him.

Set just after World War I, the plague has virtually ended the war, providing ample cover for vampires to feed on the dead and dying without being seen. In the aftermath of a battle in which the protagonist, Lord Henry Baltimore, is lying wounded among the dead, the vampires, in the forms of giant, multi-jointed bats, descend to take their meals. One, named Haigus, sees and goes after Baltimore, who grabs a bayonet and manages to slash the beast across the face, invoking Haigus's wrath and ensuring he would be spared no pain from the vampire's retaliation.

Upon his return home, he finds his parents and sister have been killed by Haigus, who then finishes with his wife only when he's home to witness it. Vowing vengeance, Baltimore now pursues the vampire with a single-minded determination, caring little about anything else but destroying the thing that destroyed his life. In pursuing Haigus, Baltimore begrudgingly enlists the help of a young woman who wishes to leave Villefranche, the town he finds himself stranded in. He relays these tales to her in between a harrowing storm at sea, their washing up on an island full of haunted submarines, and a battle with the undead from those submarines.

The writing really helped make this a fairly entertaining read, as well as a good introduction for me to Mike Mignola's storytelling. He seems to have a good grasp of the dark hero, and sets up an epic that works well as a foray into the horror genre. Christopher Golden isn't an unknown variable to me, and I can feel his fingers on the buttons of creepiness that pervade this story. The weird looking lotus blossoms that sprout to life on the zombies just before they reanimate? That totally felt like Golden.

The artwork by Ben Stenbeck was noteworthy as well. The style is fairly reminiscent of the horror comics from decades ago, particularly the facial close-ups, but he also demonstrates adeptness at bringing the undead back to life. From giant vampire bats (or are they bat vampires?) to fungus-scaled zombies to family-turned-vampires, he clearly has fun drawing them in a cartoony-yet-dark fashion that fits well with the action-horror epic the authors have crafted.

Overall, this was an enjoyable start to a dark saga that could go on for some time. Baltimore has a vampire to hunt, and who knows how long it will take him to reach him. While it didn't feel particularly fresh, it was nonetheless well handled, deftly plotted, and rendered in horrifically beautiful drawings. This would likely be of interest to horror enthusiasts, lovers of revenge stories, and anyone left who still digs vampires in their comics. Highly recommended.