Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Post #100 -- My Proudest Moment In Writing Thus Far

A couple of days ago, I hit 90 consecutive days of blogging on The Comics Cove.  For the last three months, I've managed to write at least one fair-sized post on comics--be it a review, a comics-related musing, or some other relevant nugget of incoherence--every day.  Tonight, I'm writing (and you're reading) post #100 on The Cove, and in about a week I'll hit 100 straight days of blogging here.

These are some significant milestones for me.  I mentioned in my first post that I've made past attempts at writing consistently, and failed.  This has been for good reason.  Consistency and discipline have never been my strong suits when it comes to writing.  I've always had talent--or at least, the feeling that I've had talent--and have had aspirations to be a writer ever since I was a child.  But it's never been something I've really buckled down and worked towards, until recently.  The Comics Cove marks a major achievement for me, as it's the first solid evidence to the world and myself that, when I really want to, I can do this.

I've learned a lot in the last three months.  I've learned that my love for comics and sequential art is truly as deep and abiding as I'd thought when I set up The Comics Cove--I was scared that my interest in them was superficial and wouldn't sustain this blog for long at all, as I'd failed with many others.  I've learned quite a bit about Blogger and how to use some of its functions to my advantage (thank goodness for scheduling posts, for instance!).

Perhaps most valuable, I've learned that the difference between wanting to be a writer and actually taking the steps to make it happen really isn't that wide a gap, even if it may seem that way from the safe side.  I feel justified in calling myself a writer now.  I may not be a paid writer, but I am at least writing consistently.

Looking forward, I plan to expand my writing endeavors.  Because I just have way too much free time between work, a social life, video gaming, and blogging about comics.  But seriously, part of the reason I think The Cove has been as successful as it has isn't just because it's been about comics, but that it's been nonfiction.  It's been book reports and reviews about subjects I love, and it's comparatively easy for me to write about topics I have opinions about.

It's given me focus, which I've desperately needed.  Now I need to take that focus and apply it to fiction.

Fiction is what I've aspired to write since I was little, and it's time to turn my attention to that on a more consistent basis.  It is therefore my intention to start another blog in the near future, upon which I will be posting my creative fiction for people to read, critique, and hopefully enjoy.  Look for a story from me to linked from this blog in the coming days.

Me and my workspace, in all its cluttery, triumphant glory!
Many thanks to everyone who's read The Comics Cove, who've followed and commented, and who've liked and discussed my reviews in other forums.  Your feedback is a major factor in what keeps me going, and it really helps to know that when you're laboring on an endeavor such as this, you're not doing it in a vacuum.  Hopefully I'll keep things interesting enough that we'll be celebrating in another hundred or so posts.  Or maybe a year from now.

Onwards and upwards!

Comic Review -- Avengers: X-Sanction #1-2 / Jeph Loeb, Ed McGuinness, Dexter Vines, & Morry Hollowell

Avengers: X-Sanction #1: Midnight
The cover for this issue isn't bad, but not great, either.  I like the use of colors, and the depiction of Cable and Captain America, who have fought on the same side many times, locked in mortal combat is conceptually interesting, but the facial expressions ruin it for me.  This is a vicious, balls-to-the-wall fight--there should be more expression on both their faces.  Gritting teeth, eyes locked on each other... something more that what I'm currently seeing.  As it is, it just seems too contrived and pre-posed for me.

The Avengers are called out to stop a jailbreak.  As they take on the Lethal Legion, Captain America goes after Whirlwind.  Falcon gets shot while watching Cap's back, and Cable drags him off to his base.  Cap eventually pursues, and upon finding Falcon held captive in a medical vat, gets ambushed by his former ally.  Both put up a vicious fight, but Cable narrowly wins, shackling Cap to a chair, turning a gun on him, and pulling the trigger with a loud bang, ending the issue.

So, apparently Cable's been dead for a while, having sacrificed himself for his adopted daughter, Hope Summers.  Now he's back, looking to kill all the Avengers with the vague goal of protecting her.  It seems that when people come back from the dead, or limbo, or wherever the heck they are that takes them away from the world, they come back with a few screws loose.  It looks like Loeb has decided to take this tack with Cable, and it gives me pause.  Much as I've enjoyed his writing in other stories, I can't help the feeling that, come the climax of the story, we're going to see that Cable's been made into a foolish old man, manipulated by someone else into doing something he otherwise never would have done.

It's not just the sickish sense of discomfort created by Cable so coldly and unfeelingly shooting down Avengers, or viciously beating down his former comrades, which he justifies ad nauseum throughout the narrative.  It's not just how he's able to best Cap in hand-to-hand combat, however narrowly.  It's not just the feeling that this plot feels so much like a flimsy excuse for a lead-in story to the upcoming Avengers vs. X-Men event later this year that I know there's no real risk here.  I mean, really--Captain America's going to die in a limited series, at Cable's gun?  Come on.

It's all of these things together.

I've generally liked Jeph Loeb's work, particularly when it involves showcasing one adversary per issue during a larger story arc, then moving to another.  But this is off to a shaky start, for a number of reasons.  I realize he may be constrained by narrative mandate at Marvel, but I'm so far only mildly intrigued by the Cable-as-Terminator thing we've got going here.  Hopefully it'll get better.

Artistically, I'm only moderately impressed.  Ed McGuinness does a good enough job with the supporting characters--Spidey, Wolverine, and Iron Man all look great in their appearances--but falls a little shorter when it comes to the two heavies in this issue.  Cable, I know, is not a small man, as neither is Cap, but they seem a little too widely rendered at various points in their fight, as if they've both consumed large amounts of cheeseburgers right before their brawl.  I'm also not sure I like how Cable's face is looking, and I don't just mean due to the effects of the techno-virus.  It's like every scar, vein, and wrinkle have been purposely exaggerated, and I don't like it.

Overall, I can't help but feel more than a little disappointed at how this story is starting off.  I like the overall concept, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired.  I'm confident in Loeb's ability to turn things around, but I have to say the start doesn't feel so great.  Recommended, with reservations.

Avengers: X-Sanction #2: Dawn
Okay, I like this cover because it basically shows that Cable's playing the role of the Terminator.  It's very simple, but sinister and expressive.  But I have to wonder, does he have to adorn all his guns with stylized X insignias on them?

Iron Man notices that Falcon and Cap have disappeared, and follows Redwing, Falcon's sidekick, to Cable's hideout.  Cable, of course, is ready for him, and they engage in a duel of technological and firepower proportions, with each getting the upper hand on the other at various points.  Cable finally dispatches Iron Man and shackles him to another torture chair like Cap's, and starts his version of monologuing before he's shot in the back by Red Hulk, who's eager for a crack at the mutant from the future.

For someone who's getting closer and closer to death with each passing minute, Cable's putting up a hell of a fight.  He just physically bested Cap, and now he puts his brain and technological know-how to the limit by taking down the "mighty" Tony Stark and his vaunted Iron Man suit.  I'm hoping he'll finally stay down now, with his breathing problems and the techno-virus working him over so thoroughly, but I'm skeptical that will be the case.  By all appearances, Red Hulk is on deck for the fight next issue, and I'm sure Cable will reach deep down and think of Hope and suddenly have the ability to fight him.  I hope not, but that's what I fear will happen.

Artistically, there's been improvement, now that Cap isn't one of the focuses.  Iron Man appears comparatively slight to Cable, which is appropriate.  It looks like there'll be plenty of thick-fest next issue with Red Hulk, which is fine for that hero.  It just really bothered me with Cap.  Cable's facial expressions are also better in this one; there appears to be more emotion in his face and less emphasis on veins, wrinkles and scars.

Overall, I'm still none too impressed.  We're halfway through this, Red Hulk will be the fight in the next issue, and I'm sure Cable will find some way to beat him, too, despite his ridiculously deteriorating condition.  I'm just none too excited for what's coming next.  I'll continue to read, because I'm a completist, but at this point I'm not expecting things to get much better.  I hope I'm proven wrong.  Barely recommended, with serious reservations.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

GN Review -- The Complete Persepolis / Marjane Satrapi

I've reviewed a few biographies on this blog, but it's fair to say that they're not typical reading fare for me.  One of the more memorable biographies I've read as a graphic novel is Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis, which is collected in its entirety in one large volume.  I wasn't able to put it down once I started reading it, and consider it to be one of the so-called "literary" graphic novels that actually doesn't feel like pretentious garbage; it's a captivating character study as well as a historical and cultural story.

Marjane Satrapi is an outspoken, strong-willed girl growing up in the midst of the Iranian Revolution, when dictators and their generals are replaced with disconcerting suddenness, often with devastating consequences for individuals and families close to them.  Marji, who aspires to be a Prophet, spends much of her time vying for dominance among her circle friends, in pastimes such as competing for who has the best family prisoner stories, or trying to persecute the children of those who had killed or harmed others.  Her intolerance for hypocrisy and occasional disregard for authority lead her activist parents to fear for her safety, so they send her away to France, where she can grown into a young woman.  Marji struggles to make friends and assimilate into the general culture of the time, often losing touch with her own cultural heritage and identity.  When the disconnect becomes too much to bear, she asks to return home, and her family gladly brings her back.

Marji's return home, however, is nowhere near as smooth as she would like.  She at first does nothing but watch television, sequestering herself away from the country she no longer knows for a substantial period of time.  The Iranian government is as oppressive as ever, and Marji, who is as outraged at hypocrisy as ever, brings her ire to bear on the difference between how male and female college students are allowed to dress at university.  She enters into a relationship, soon followed by a marriage, which also soon dissolves as she realizes that she doesn't love her husband.  With all of these pressures mounting, her parents decide she must leave Iran again.  Her mother, in an act of love and personal distaste, forbids Marji from ever returning to Iran again.  Marji agrees, and leaves a second time, noting in the narrative that her departure was the last time she ever saw her grandmother alive.

Satrapi does an amazing job of capturing an accessible, genuine voice in this autobiography.  Her cartoon counterpart is charming, flawed, and both inspiring and impressionable.  Her struggles to live her way, despite environments that for one reason or another make it considerably difficult, is easy to relate to in a world where people often feel personally oppressed, isolated, or otherwise disjointed, however true or not that might actually be.  Other issues, like having to listen in secret to your favorite kind of music, or have a party where alcohol is served, are so far removed from the Western experience that their incredulity intrigues readers, who will react with horror, sympathy, and relief when the stories are told.  It makes for a wonderfully varied reading experience that will hold the reader's interest and keep them engaged.

Artistically, Satrapi's style is very simple, but very consistent and carefully rendered.  The expressiveness of her characters is striking, as she uses good narrative structure and layout as well as the natural contrasts between black and white to deliver a uniquely memorable visual experience to her story.

Overall, I really enjoyed this story, and think it's a good introduction to the graphic novel format for reluctant readers.  Those who like biographies, cultural and historical dramas, and stories of personal journeys will no doubt enjoy this book.  Highly recommended.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Returning to the Comics Collecting Fold

If you read this blog with any regularity, you've probably noticed that, lately, I've started reviewing single issue comics.  Often I do this in groups of several issues of the same title, though I have made at least a couple of exceptions as of late, and reserve the right to do so for other occasions.  There are a few reasons I'm doing this.  It's certainly not due to a lack of other older collected titles to read--what I've read alone could probably last me for a year's worth of reviews.

It's at least partially due to a desire to include content that's a little more current, as I imagine many comic readers are reading more than just the trade paperbacks you can check out from the library.  I read Comic Vine's reviews fairly regularly, and I will admit more than a little envy as not getting to read some of the newer storylines out there as soon as they hit the streets.  I've tended to wait and read trades, which has worked fine for a while, but I think it's time to start diving into and discussing the current stories with other readers.  I will continue to review trades and comics of all types, but feel like exploring the more recent stuff will not only attract more readers to this place, but will also be more fun.

So, in the name of aforementioned fun--not to mention to keep current on my current reading--I've essentially resurrected my long-dormant passion for collecting comics.  I recently acquired some comic bags and backing boards for my single issue purchases, and plan to buy a comics box or two in the coming days.

I'm sure that, right about now, some of you are doing one of two things: the comic book geeks are going, "WTF?  What does he mean, 'resurrecting collecting comics?'  He already lives and breathes comics--spend more than 30 seconds with him and you'll wonder why he's not wearing a Spider-Man lapel--and yet he doesn't collect them?!"

And those who aren't, are probably asking, "What the hell are comic bags and backing boards?"

And if it helps, I'll just say that you need them to properly store comic books, and leave it at that.

Truth is, I haven't seriously collected comics since high school.  In the adjoining time between then and now, I've borrowed issues from friends, read the trades, checked them out from the library, and occasionally purchased a special single issue, but I really haven't tried to maintain them as a collection until now.  I feel like this, in addition to giving me a constant source of fuel about which to write, is a pastime that simply feels good, and feels right to me to resume at this point.

I've always loved comic books, ever since I was re-introduced to them at about age 12.  I collected them for a few years, then stopped due to a variety of factors: too expensive, life is too hectic, the characters have changed too much, and on and on.  It's time to come back.  As a collector, as a blogger, and as an aspiring comic script writer, it just feels right, and it feels especially like now is the most natural time to rejoin the new issues fold.

Even if the prices have jumped a whole lot since I last had a collection! :-)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

GN Review -- Batman: Harley and Ivy / Paul Dini, Judd Winick, Bruce Timm, & Joe Chiodo

A more cartoony, delightfully campy predecessor to Dini's work on Gotham City Sirens, Batman: Harley and Ivy explores the relationship between these two female characters that started in Batman: The Animated Series where Harley originated.  It also demonstrates the fact that, despite the overuse of the device, buddy comedies are timelessly entertaining.

Batman: Harley and Ivy collects three tales that showcase the characters' relationship.  "The Bet" focuses on Ivy betting Harley a dollar that she can get every man in Arkham Asylum to kiss her.  Things are going fine, and Harley doesn't seem to mind losing, until the Joker is suddenly returned to Arkham, and Ivy includes him in the bet.  Harley must use every trick in her charmingly demented book to thwart Ivy's attempts to kiss her man, leading to a chuckle-worthy ending.

"Harley and Ivy: Love on the Lam" starts off with Harley and Joker pulling a job in a museum when Two-Face and his men show up.  When Harley suggests a relatively bloodless solution to their problem, Joker throws Harley out on the street again, leading Harley to seek out Poison Ivy so they can pull a job and make some money.  Ivy, skeptical that Harley's doing this to get back in the Joker's good graces, agrees to do so on the condition that Harley consider working on her own, that and the fact that the company they're robbing is a major polluter of rain forests.

"Batman: Harley and Ivy" deals mostly with the antagonistic relationship between the villainous duo, as Ivy can't stand Harley's general air-headedness and incompetence, but also can't bring herself to abandon Harley completely.  After Harley botches their latest job, Ivy escapes from Arkham, intent on leaving Harley behind to go to Costa Verde by herself.  But Harley's not far behind, and manages to tag along on Ivy's adventure, causing equal amounts of grief and chaos for her begrudging partner, much to the delight of readers.

The plots are fairly light and trite, and rightfully so.  This is a focus on the characters, and it's hard not to be charmed by these two lead characters.  Not only are they gorgeous bad girls, but their comedic chemistry is undeniable.  Theirs is one of the classic comedy friends duos, with Ivy as the more uptight straight woman, while Harley gets the role of wildly demonstrative comic relief.  Ivy easily gets frustrated with Harley's childishness, but can never bring herself to really abandon or hurt her friend, despite how doubtlessly easier her life would be if she didn't have to worry about her.

The humor was very clever in places.  One of my favorite moments is when Harley knocks out an actor playing the Joker in a Hollywood production of a movie about Harley and Ivy.  The actor murmurs, "Yoda?  Dagobah System?" as he falls to the ground, a playful dig at Mark Hamill, who voiced the Joker for so long.

Art-wise, it's very delightfully modeled after the animated series look, with the exception of "Love on the Lam."  There, Chiodo's illustrations in that story, while still very cartoony, also have a more rounded, finished look that belies his work as a pin-up artist.  It's very lush and sexy in places, an obvious fit for two of the ladies who would come to make up the Gotham City Sirens.

Overall, I enjoyed this book on several levels.  The comedic team these two make up is quite a joy to behold, as are their mildly cheesecake depictions by the various artists who draw them.  If you like Harley and Ivy, or want to see the basis for their madcap relationship, definitely check it out.  If you enjoy buddy comedies, this is a good depiction of one.  Highly recommended.

Comic Review -- Teen Titans #3-4 / Scott Lobdell, Brett Booth, & Norm Rapmund

Teen Titans #3: Better to Burn Out... Than to Fade Away
I love how comic book covers can so often be a study in misdirection, if not the perpetual outright lie.  Red Robin and Bunker look great as they clash here, but the closest they come in the story is preparing for fisticuffs... right before Bunker gives Red Robin a great big hug.  They're friends from that point onward.

Kid Flash continues to vacillate between usefulness and idiocy, as he escapes N.O.W.H.E.R.E. custody quickly, with Solstice in tow, but slips and falls off a cliff in the Antarctic, causing her to have to save them.  Wonder Girl impersonates a nurse to intimidate one of the mercenaries from last issue into telling her more about their employers.  And Bunker just happens to run into Red Robin while hopping a train across America, coming across a cocooned Skitter.  They form an alliance, and Red Robin encounters a psionic junk heap called Detritus before having his memory erased of the encounter and being sent back on his way with Skitter and Bunker as if nothing had happened.  I'm sure nothing sinister will come of that.  Finally, as Kid Flash looks up from where he and Solstice fell, he sees a village in the snow, and tries to make for it before it's too late--in vain, the end of the story would suggest.

This was a better section of the story, for me.  While devoid of any real high-octane action, we still have a few significant moments of character developments as the Titans fight each other, bumble rescue attempts, and otherwise find bold ways to get themselves in trouble.  We only see one page worth of Cassie in this issue, but Lobdell makes full use of her appearance, using her hardcase nature and gift for infiltration to make a very believable threat against a man for information.  It makes me eager to see what she'll do with it in the next issue.

I had a similar reaction to Red Robin's incredulity at Bunker's appearance, but at least they were kind enough to lampshade the one-in-a-million possibility with Bunker's response about praying for it to happen.  Based on how his viewpoint was written, I don't think Bunker's some kind of evil N.O.W.H.E.R.E. plant, so I'll take that for what it's worth.  The Detritus skirmish kind of annoyed me, especially with how brief the encounter was.  I can accept that it got the drop on Tim--who doesn't occasionally get surprised and then schooled?--but it seems kind of tacked on or inserted unnecessarily in the story.  Finally, what the heck was a village doing in Antarctica?  Isn't that where Kid Flash and Solstice are?  I hope that gets explained, and quickly, next issue.

I did enjoy Bunker giving Red Robin a big hug when he found out who he was.  Tim was the picture of confusion for a couple of panels there.

Art-wise, I enjoyed Booth's depictions of the Antarctic cliffside, Kid Flash's multi-point escape and rescue of Solstice, and the brief appearance of Detritus.  No real issues with any of it--Booth seems to have gotten away from the occasional nose-lessness of characters that I saw in the last issue.

Overall, this was a good continuation of the story.  The writing was tighter, and the artwork was pretty good.  I'm eager to see the Titans come together, which should happen in the next issue or so.  Onwards and upwards!  Highly recommended.

Teen Titans #4: Danger Squared!
Now this is a fun cover!  Not only is the image of Wonder Girl and Superboy's clash pretty epic in and of itself, but it's making use of a large screen in Times Square to give a more detailed look at the slugfest going on right in front of it.  The art, the storyline suggestion, and the action all made the cover alone make me want to pick up this book.

The Titans--sans Wonder Girl and Superboy--finally all appear at Tim's home in the North Tower Penthouse of Lextower.  Wonder Girl tries pushing her way through a crowd in Times Square as N.O.W.H.E.R.E.--and more specifically, Superboy--track her and instigate a knock-down, drag-out fight.  As Kid Flash and Solstice mysteriously appear at Tim's door, Skitter bemoans her misfortune and the rest of the team gets to know one another.  Finally, footage of the fight between Wonder Girl and Superboy hits the media, and the Titans--minus Skitter--head out to Wonder Girl's aid.

Okay, I'm starting to get a little annoyed with all of the unexplained miracles that keep popping up in this story.  Bunker and Red Robin finding one another was okay, as long as it was that one instance (and was properly lampooned a bit), but now it's getting ridiculous.  What was that village that suddenly appeared to Kid Flash and Solstice in the Antarctic?  Why did it lead to Tim's door--exactly where they needed to go?  The continued occurrence of this kind of deus ex machina is annoying enough, but to not even attempt an explanation is really insulting to your readers.

On the other hand, I really did enjoy the fight between Superboy and Cassie.  The fact that they're attracted to each other didn't have any effect on how hard each fought--clearly the stakes are high for both.  I was a little surprised that nothing was made of the people who must have been in the buildings they demolished, but I can understand how that can be a tertiary concern when you've got two powerhouses intent on beating each other's brains out.  Wonder Girl's use of the lasso to save herself and redirect her flight back into Superboy was really clever.  Clearly this girl's a cunning fighter, even if she may not entirely realize it.

It was impossible for me not to imagine Superboy using Brandon Routh's voice during this story.  Nothing against that actor, but his voice comes off as kind of douchey to me, and Superboy's just such a... well, you know... in this story.

I also really enjoyed Bart's stealing of Tim's clothes.  It was a hilarious running gag, even if only for this issue.  Tim's freaking out and going all Prince Zuko on him was a little over the top for me, though.  There were other ways to show that Tim's a bit of a straight-laced jerk without going to that particular overdramatic place.

Finally... it's good to see the team assembled as they get ready to take on Superboy.  I'm definitely interested to see how this fight goes!

The art here was really good.  I especially liked the visual of Superboy in front of Lex Luthor's image on the big screen... it made him look especially sinister.  The Times Square slugfest was of course a lot of fun to look at as Superboy and Wonder Girl tore into each other.  Finally, the team assembly on the last pages was extremely well drawn.  Bart wearing the red Robin suit made me laugh out loud.

Overall, I'm very pleased with this story.  It provided plenty of action, lots of character development, and the promise of more to come.  Someone had better start explaining those miracle occurrences soon, though, or I'm gonna really lose it.  The artwork is good, the writing is good, and I've got to see how things turn out from this point.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Oscar-Worthy Graphic Novel Films: A History of Violence

This post is the final part of an article I was asked to write for the Houston Public Library blog. The final article will be posted some time in the near future, in its entirety, on that website.

A History of Violence

A crime thriller with a uniquely-executed plot by John Wagner and art by Vince Locke, this story was first published in 1997 by Paradox Press.  The film was made in 2005, directed by David Cronenberg and stars Viggo Mortensen with a script adapted from the graphic novel by Josh Olson.

The film received two Oscar nominations at the 78th Academy Awards, including Best Actor -- William Hurt, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) -- Josh Olson.  It won neither award, losing Best Actor to George Clooney for Syriana, and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay) to Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana for Brokeback Mountain.

Plot: Tom Stall, a diner owner in Milbrook, Indiana, lives a peaceful and relatively low-key life until a pair of killers enter his establishment.  He defends himself and his co-workers with remarkable skill, and is hailed as a hero for the incident.  But his fame attracts more trouble, as mobsters from out of town have identified him as a man who crossed them a long time ago.  Tom maintains his ignorance of these men, but as they target his family, he is forced to defend them, raising further questions about Tom’s past and who he really is.  When he confronts the truth about his youth, Tom finds he has unwittingly made targets out of his family, and must do whatever it takes to make sure they don’t have to pay for his mistakes.

Differences from the graphic novel: Considerable, in places.  The first half of the film is pretty faithful to the source material, with only cosmetic changes like Tom’s last name (it’s Stall in the film, McKenna in the graphic novel) and the location (Indiana instead of Michigan).  Later in the story, however, things diverge significantly from the original narrative.  The pivotal character of Richard, for example, is nothing like the character from the graphic novel.  There, he was Tom’s childhood friend who helped him double-cross the mob.  In the film, he’s Tom’s brother, who is a mobster, albeit one whose life was made more difficult by Tom’s youthful actions.  The reaction of Tom’s family to finding out about his past is also handled differently in the film.  Whereas in the comic he is quickly and heartily forgiven by his wife and kids, the film seems to handle it more realistically, with his wife especially reacting with shocked outrage at how he kept his past from them and endangered them because of it.  It’s one of the few instances where I praise the veracity of the film more than the graphic novel.

As one might argue from their now regular rate of adaptation to the big screen, graphic novels have clearly become a more acceptable form of literature and entertainment by mainstream society.  With their recognition from entities like the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, graphic novels are solidifying their status as viable source material for popular audiences.  If you haven’t done so already, it may be worth it to consider browsing your local library or bookstore’s collections of these easily digestible and artistically expressive tomes.

You never know--you may end up reading a story that someday wins an Oscar!

Friday, February 24, 2012

Comic Review -- X-Factor #107: Punch-O-Rama / Todd Dezago & Kerry Gammill

You know this issue is going to be hilarious just from the cover alone.  Never mind the conceptual image of Strong Guy and Blob knocking each other around like a pissed off pair of bop bags with arms.  Just look at the artwork!  They're so overly dramatic and ridiculously extended, flexed, and stretched, you can't help but giggle at the depiction.

In this laugh-a-panel issue of an otherwise none too interesting series (to me, at least--I just wasn't a fan of Havok in those days... err, well, ever), Strong Guy, whose civilian name is the equally hilarious Guido, tries to catch a plane at an airport, and ends up catching the Blob trying to hijack a plane to some doubtlessly sinister destination.  Guido tries to stop Blob, and of course, a fight breaks out.  Fat jokes, name-calling, and physical humor abound as they slug it out for dominance, to the amazed watchfulness of the airport and the possible destruction of the entire area.  X-Factor sees their teammate taking on his foe, and rushes to his aid, but by the time they get there, Guido has beaten the Blob, saved the airport, and basically won the day.  Before he can be interviewed, he collapses from exhaustion, leaving his teammates to say that he has no comment at this time.

Oh, my god.  I first read this story in college, some 15 years ago when I borrowed it from a friend, and I think I very nearly herniated myself as I laughed from one scene to the next at these two.  By the time I put it down, I had tears rolling down my cheeks, was shaking with laughter, and my stomach was viciously sore.  I finally found it in a comic shop this evening, purchased it, and sat down to read it, to very much the same effect as previously.  Best $3 I've yet spent on a comic book.

The writing in this story is top-notch if you're looking for a comedy.  This story is about these two ridiculously sized men beating the ever-lovin' crap out of one another--no more, no less--and it's brilliant.  Dezago keeps the pacing tight and the jokes are always present, from the very first line ("Today I learned that gravity is not our friend.") to near the end when describing how the Blob smelled like bacon as Guido dragged him away from a fire.  In a particularly amusing scene, they very briefly put aside their struggle when the luggage truck they're fighting on nearly barrels into a fuel truck due to the terrified driver's incompetence.

"Turn left!" the Blob screams, as Guido tries to right the truck.
"WHOSE left?!" Guido replies.
"THEY'RE BOTH THE SAME!!!" the Blob thunders.

Okay, I got this one for the lulz, and I swear to Godhand it's every bit as funny today as it was when I read it fifteen years ago.

Art-wise, the issue delivers very well.  I'm not familiar with Kerry Gammill's work, but he does an excellent job of support Dezago's script, keeping the expressions over-the-top, the positions weighted for maximum visual humor where needed, and the ridiculous size of the story's two stars in the forefront.  I really think these two guys had a whole lot of fun with this issue, and were probably laughing with one another through the entire scripting and illustrating process.

Overall, I really can't recommend this issue enough.  I'm generally not a fan of this incarnation of X-Factor, but this story alone is pure comedy gold in comic book form.  The script just pops with humor and slapstick, and the art amply supports it.  If you want some mindless violence with plenty of insults, physical humor and name-calling hilarity, look no further.  This story is exactly what you need.  I laughed from almost panel to panel, and so will you.  Very highly recommended.

Oscar-Worthy Graphic Novel Films: Persepolis

This post is the third part of an article I was asked to write for the Houston Public Library blog. The final article will be posted some time in the near future, in its entirety, on that website.


Biographies and cultural studies aren’t usually my reading preferences, but Marjane Satrapi’s remarkable account of her childhood growing up in the repressive atmosphere of Iran in the late 1970s into the 1980s is a noteworthy exception.  It was published in 2000 by Pantheon Books, at first in French, and then in English, when the two existing volumes were combined into one book.  The film, animated in the same style as the graphic novel, was made in 2007, written and directed by Satrapi with Vincent Paronnaud.

The film was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 80th Academy Awards.  It lost to Ratatouille.

Plot: Just before her return to Iran, teenage Marjane Satrapi remembers her childhood in 1978 Tehran, where she is a charming and headstrong young girl whose aspiration is to become a prophet.  Her parents are active in the political movements of the Iranian Revolution, and Marji’s outspoken manner cause them to fear for her safety, and they send her to France to live for a few years.  Despite making friends, her sense of isolation becomes unbearable, and she returns to Iran as a young woman who must struggle to regain her sense of cultural identity.  She eventually does so, and once again finds life in Iran to be too oppressive.  She leaves Iran for good this time, but not before coming to terms with her identity as an Iranian.

Differences from the graphic novel: A few, but this animated feature is for the most part remarkably faithful to the style and presentation of the graphic novel.  The animation style in particular looks very much like the director simply had the book animated and put to motion, making an ideal bridge to the source material for movie-goers.  The scenes that take place in the “present” (relative to the rest of the story) are done in color, which was never present in the original story, though this is for just a minute segment of the film.  A few minor dialog and plot changes were made, none of which had a significant impact on the story.  For instance, after getting home from nearly being arrested as a child, Marji sings “Kids In America” in the graphic novel, where in the film she blasts a song from an Iron Maiden tape--which, amusingly, is not an Iron Maiden song at all, but a song by the films composer, Olivier Bernet.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Comic Review -- Green Lantern #6: The Other Hero / Geoff Johns & Mike Choi

Decent cover, and actually fairly indicative of what Sinestro ends up doing to Hal, even if it's not until the very last page of the issue.  Who'd have thought he'd have to force Hal to put on a Green Lantern ring?

Hal Jordan actually seems to be getting along fine without being a Green Lantern any longer, enjoying his life with Carol and getting his heroic fixes in other, smaller ways.  Sinestro, in the mean time, is on the hunt for Lyssa Drak, and uses a former villain named Starstorm to track her down.  She captures both of them, and comes into contact with a page from the Book of the Black, where he experiences a surge of apocalyptic images, including his own death.  Once he defeats her, he decides Starstorm is useless, and de-powers him again, reluctantly deciding to enlist the help of the one man he can't stand: Hal Jordan.  He appears to Jordan and forces a Green Lantern ring back onto his hand, stating that Jordan's time as a Green Lantern is far from over...

It just goes to show you that sometimes the best break-up stories are about the ones you get reminded of right as you finally get over them.  Hal actually appears to be loving his life, now that he's gotten over the need to be a superhero.  Sinestro is perfectly happy to not have to put up with Hal ever again, even as he hunts down the rest of his traitorous Yellow Lantern brigade.  But Starstorm's cowardice proves to Sinestro that, despite all his faults, Hal is a damn good Lantern, and that he may really need him in the face of such catastrophic possibilities.  He clearly doesn't want Hal's help, but he's level-headed enough to recognize that he needs it, much to Hal's chagrin.

I'm not familiar with Starstorm, but the story gives enough context as to who he is, was, and what he's likely to be in the future that I'm able to appreciate his role as a foil to Hal Jordan, at least in Sinestro's mind.  Lyssa Drak is also unfamiliar to me, and if she weren't in possession of the artifact that gave Sinestro such traumatizing visions, I probably would just write her off as some generic monstrous, semi-mystic female antagonist.  I'll be interested to see what part, if any, she plays in the rest of this story.

Mike Choi's art is a definite stylistic change from the first story arc, with a smoother, more painted appearance and quality than Mahnke's line work in the previous issues.  Hal has a noticeably different appearance, though it's close enough to a general description of Hal Jordan to cause only a momentary double-take.  Sinestro, Lyssa, and Starstorm all look good, and the bits of interaction with Lyssa Drak and her chains was interesting from a visual standpoint.

Overall, I like the start of this arc.  Now that Hal's been dragged back into the mantle of the Green Lantern after accepting his ouster and moving on, it'll be interesting to see how he handles himself.  The introduction and setup is good, the art isn't bad, and I'm interested to see what's next.  Bring on more!  Highly recommended.

Oscar-Worthy Graphic Novel Films: Road to Perdition

This post is the second part of an article I was asked to write for the Houston Public Library blog. The final article will be posted some time in the near future, in its entirety, on that website.

Road to Perdition

This gripping revenge story by writer Max Allan Collins and illustrator Richard Piers Rayner was first published in 1998 by Paradox Press, an imprint of DC Comics.  The film was made in 2002, directed by Sam Mendes and stars Tom Hanks, Paul Newman, Jude Law, and Daniel Craig, with a script adapted from the graphic novel by David Self.

The film was nominated for six Academy Awards at the 75th Academy Awards: Best Supporting Actor (Paul Newman), Best Art Direction, Best Cinematography (Conrad L. Hall), Best Original Score, Best Sound, and Best Sound Editing.  Of those, Hall won the Oscar for cinematography.

Plot: Michael Sullivan is a respected mob enforcer for John Rooney, who treats Michael and his family as his own.  When his older son Michael, Jr. witnesses his father kill a man during one of his jobs, he is sworn to secrecy.  But Rooney’s son Connor, who caused the murder to happen, is determined to silence the potential witness, and murders Sullivan’s wife and younger son, and has another mobster try to kill Sullivan.  Forced to run in the face of this betrayal, Sullivan takes his surviving son and embarks on a desperate quest for both survival and revenge.  When Rooney refuses to give Connor up for Sullivan’s revenge, his associates dispatch an assassin to hunt down both Sullivan and the boy.  Through their struggle, Sullivan and his son gradually come to understand and respect one another, eventually becoming comfortable with their similarities as well as their differences.

Differences from the graphic novel: Numerous.  Some minor changes, like the streamlining of O’Sullivan’s name to just Sullivan or the changing of the Looney name to Rooney, were purely cosmetic.  But there were also some substantially major differences as well, like the inclusion of Jude Law’s character, the photographer and assassin Harlen Maguire, who never existed in the original story at all.  He’s an interesting addition to the story, but I’m not sure he was really necessary.  In the graphic novel, O’Sullivan is known as the Angel of Death and feared in mob circles, and demonstrates this in several very violent action scenes as he takes on gangsters virtually singlehandedly.  In the film, his reputation, while still respected, is significantly toned down, and there is much less action violence than in the book.  One noteworthy change which made no sense was the narration, which is done by Sullivan, Jr. clearly as an adult in the graphic novel, but voiced over by the same character when he is a boy.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Oscar-Worthy Graphic Novel Films: Ghost World

This post is the first part of an article I was asked to write for the Houston Public Library blog. The final article will be posted some time in the near future, in its entirety, on that website.

As Oscar fever descends upon movie-goers this year, it’s worth noting the rise of graphic novels as popular formats to adapt for the big screen.  Be it films from comic books, superhero films, or movies made from realistic graphic fiction stories that happen to be told using text with sequential art, it’s pretty easy to pick out films we’ve seen in the last few years that were adapted from the medium.  Some movies even end up surprising audiences when they realize that it first existed essentially as a comic book.

Among these, there are a few that were exceptional enough to have been nominated for Academy Awards in one or more categories.  While it would be easy to list a number of big-budget superhero films that achieved this distinction--and there are quite a few--it’s also worthwhile to take notice of some of the less flashy, more realistic stories that have been told in these mediums.  So, for your consideration, I’ve looked into several significant films that have attained recognition from the Academy in the last ten years.

Ghost World
Originally published as serialized fiction in the alternative comic Eightball in the mid-1990s, Daniel Clowes’s Ghost World was collected into a trade paperback in 1997 and published by Fantagraphics, to considerable critical and commercial acclaim.  The film was made in 2001, directed by Terry Zwigoff and starring Thora Birch, Scarlett Johansen and Steve Buscemi, with a script adapted by Terry Zwigoff and original author Clowes.  

The film was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay -- Daniel Clowes and Terry Zwigoff at the 74th Academy Awards.  It lost to Akiva Goldsman for A Beautiful Mind.

Plot: After graduating high school, best friends and social misfits Enid and Becky drift listlessly through life, observing and commenting on the people and popular culture that pervades their unnamed small town in ways that are alternately amusing and eye-roll inducing.  Their friendship changes as they start to think about what they want to do with their lives, and they begin to drift apart.  Becky, who seems the more “normal” of the two, eventually takes steps to build a typical life, while her wilder friend Enid has a series of adventures with Seymour, a similarly lonely older man.  Eventually, she leaves town on a bus, to start a new life for herself.

Differences from the graphic novel: Thematically and plot-wise, the film is remarkably similar to the graphic novel: they essentially present a portrait of listless post-adolescent women as they try to keep themselves amused and figure out their places in the world.  I think the film’s deeper level of expressive possibilities make the characters easier to relate to in than in the graphic novel.  It’s nice to hear them talking about people, where there are more nuances and emotions conveyed than if you simply read the text and see a comparatively occasional picture of them.  One of the film’s characters, Seymour, played by Steve Buscemi, is a composite of several people from the graphic novel, and has a much larger part in the film than in the source material.  Because of this, several plot points arise in the film that are simply not portrayed in the  graphic novel, one example being a romance that happens due to a personal ad the character places early in the story.  In the comic, this is merely a setup for Enid and friends to torment the poor man, and we never see beyond that point.  In the film, we see the relationship form, progress, and eventually end.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Comic Review -- Teen Titans #1-2 / Scott Lobdell, Brett Booth, & Norm Rapmund

Okay, a few things before I launch into these reviews.  I'm pretty unfamiliar with the Teen Titans, and mostly picked it up because Tim Drake seems to be leading the charge in this incarnation.  He's always been my favorite Robin, and I have always been curious to check out this team, as they're essentially a junior Justice League, at least at first glance.  There are a bunch of characters here I'm not familiar with, so if my reviews of them come off as uninformed, that's likely because I don't know them very well yet.  Still, I'm really enjoying this series so far, and like its premise.  

With all that said, here we go...

Teen Titans #1: Teen Spirit
Nice cover!  Not really indicative of what's happening in this issue, but it's a nice team shot that looks cool and shows the coming lineup of the team.

The team starts to come together in this issue, amid a crisis of unsettling magnitude.  Super-powered teens are disappearing at an alarming rate, apparent victims of an organization called N.O.W.H.E.R.E.  Tim Drake, also known as Red Robin, monitors several heroes, including Kid Flash, from afar before he's confronted by N.O.W.H.E.R.E.'s agents.  Escaping them, he heads off to find Wonder Girl, who doesn't want anything to do with him at first, but helps him fight off an assault chopper sent by N.O.W.H.E.R.E.  Realizing that Red Robin is becoming a thorn in their side, N.O.W.H.E.R.E. decides to sic its biggest gun on him and his allies: Superboy...

I really like how Tim operates in this issue.  He's like a cross between Ozymandias, with his world-monitoring, and Julius Assange, with his information dumps and willingness to expose sensitive data to the public in the name of his cause.  He's also extremely proactive about finding and recruiting allies, which will serve him well.  Kid Flash annoyed me a bit, but I'm pretty sure that was the intent with his brief appearance.  Wonder Girl was intriguing and cute, but I hope she becomes a little less reactionary and a little more trusting as time goes by.  Overall, the characters were interesting and the action was well paced.  N.O.W.H.E.R.E. seems interesting so far, mostly because I know so little about them right now.  It'll be interesting to see how they're developed.

I enjoyed the art very much.  Brett Booth may not be Jim Lee, but he's not far from the mark in terms of making his characters visually appealing and heroic.  His characters are expressive and his poses for them are realistic, well-positioned, and iconic where they need to be.  Definitely a good fit for superhero comics.  I'll be pleased with the visuals of this story as long as he continues.

Overall, I think this is a promising start to a larger story.  It's much like Justice League, where the team has yet to assemble, but is gradually coming together.  It's beautifully illustrated, and as long as the action is tight and the buildup continues, I'm confident this will be a fun story arc.  Highly recommended.

Teen Titans #2: Underground and Overwhelmed!
Interesting cover.  I'm not familiar with Skitter, but they do a good job of making her look vicious, powerful, and interesting with this one shot.  Of course, you never actually see her web any Titans up in this story.

Kid Flash is stuck in prison, lamenting his superhero decision.  Wonder Girl allows Tim to stay on the couch at her place as thanks for helping her with N.O.W.H.E.R.E.  When he leaves, he sees a story about Skitter, and finds her sister to learn where she is.  He comes into contact with three agents from N.O.W.H.E.R.E.  A fight starts, but when they teleport to Skitter's location, she handily beats them.  She turns on Tim just as he arrives, but Wonder Girl steps in and saves him.  She then tells him she was only paying him back for yesterday, and that she doesn't care about N.O.W.H.E.R.E. and other metahuman teens, and leaves.  Kid Flash escapes from his prison, and finds another captive teen named Solstice, apparently in great pain...

There's a little bit of downtime for the heroes to catch their breaths before the action resumes, and it's well-spent on character development.  The brief insights into Kid Flash and Superboy were good, though it would have been better to give them something to do, however briefly.  Tim continues hunting for super-teens and analyzing N.O.W.H.E.R.E., and Cassie makes a slight effort to get him to open up to her.  The fight scenes are okay, but I was more impressed with the dialog, particularly Tim's response to Templar still being alive after the last issue.

Skitter was viciously impressive, but had little role in this story once Wonder Girl trounced her.  I was a little confused that she seemed to dispatch three guys in little to no time, but gets laid out by one punch from Wonder Girl.  Tim's immediate reaction to Wonder Girl's sudden intervention was amusing, though I'm skeptical of it leading anywhere.  Cassie doesn't seem like she's attracted to him, at least not yet.

Oh, and when Kid Flash busted out of captivity, I found myself asking how long it would be before he messed up and got captured again.  Hopefully I'm wrong, but based on what little I've seen of him so far, I couldn't help thinking it.

One minor issue I have with Brett Booth's art in this issue is noses.  I know they're hard to draw head-on, but in some places his characters look like they simply don't have one, or have an afterthought of one, and it distracts me.  It's a rare occurrence, but I did notice it a couple times in this issue.  Very horrifically impressive drawing of Skitter for her brief appearance.  I'll be interested to see more of how she's portrayed in future issues.

Overall, I wasn't as impressed as I was with the previous issue.  It felt a bit slow in places, though the lull scenes were well-handled.  I think the writing could have been a little tighter, and the characters just didn't pop with as much personality as in the last comic.  Still, the story is progressing, and I want to see how things turn out.  Recommended.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Update: Comics New Year's Resolutions for 2012

I figured I'd give a quick update on the comics-related resolutions I made for this year, since I actually have made some progress on one of them and think I have a good shot at pulling both off this year.

A little over a month ago, I posted about New Year's resolutions, and how most of mine have failed miserably whenever I made them.  I decided to tone down the seriousness this year, and made two New Year's resolutions that were specifically comics-related.  They were to attend at least one comics convention that occurred outside my current hometown of Houston, and to construct at least two different cosplay costumes this year.

Nothing too serious, but fun goals for me to reach for in the coming year.  Well, I'm proud to announce that I've started taking the first steps to creating one of my cosplay costumes, specifically Nightwing.

One of the steps I've resolved to take in conjunction with this particular resolution is to purchase or otherwise acquire some part of some costume at least once a month.  At the tail end of January, I put in an order for a black pair of boots that I thought would make good footwear for my Nightwing costume.  I received them a few days later, and present a few choice pictures for your viewing pleasure.  Please forgive any quality issues, I shot them on my phone camera, and am a noob when it comes to photography in general.

These boots were about as close as I could find to approximate Nightwing's look in the footwear department.  They come up to about the middle of my calves, and have a smooth appearance that I think works well enough for the costume's overall look and feel.  In concert with some black tights, I think they'll do a good job of emulating the bottom half of Nightwing's costume--you know, the easy part.

The biggest problem I have with these boots is that their smallest size, advertised essentially as idea for size 8-9 shoe wearers, is still slightly loose for my legs and feet.  I can walk around in them just fine so far, but there's a definite difference from the snugness I'm accustomed to when wearing shoes that fit properly.  Still, there are worse positions to be in, and there are ways to coax a little more mass into them to fit better.  We'll see what happens, but in the meantime, if any cosplayers out there know how to deal with this particular predicament, please feel free to let me know.

One other item of interest: I've taken a 4-ft dowel rod and cut it in half, with the intent of taking black duct tape and wrapping it around both sticks to approximate the appearance of the escrima sticks Nightwing sometimes uses.

The next item on my list would be black tights, both for this costume and for symbiote Spider-Man.  Again, being new to this whole cosplay creation thing (well, to this level of detail, anyway), I'd appreciate any advice from cosplay veterans who've done this before and have any suggestions about where to look, what materials to consider, what retailers have worked best for them, etc.  In the meantime, I'll continue to shop around and muddle about as best I can.

On the convention front, Wizard World Austin remains the easiest way to fulfill that particular resolution for this year.  It's scheduled for the end of October, and I definitely want to go if I can get these costumes off the ground.  In the meantime, Comicpalooza comes to Houston in May, and hopefully I can get at least one costume finished by then.  If not, I can probably go as either a Jedi, the Tenth Doctor, or maybe the Crow.

As always, time will tell!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

GN Review -- X-Men: Days of Future Past / Chris Claremont & John Byrne

I've read about this story all my life, or at least all of my life that I've been acquainted with the X-Men.  Any fan can't have gone long without hearing about this iconic narrative about an apocalyptic future in which our favorite mutants--and the rest of the world, it seems--are either dead or enslaved by Sentinels.  There have been stories spun off from this story.  The cartoons have tackled it in various interpretations.  So I'm very familiar with this story, and have been for years, but I had never had a chance to read the original, source material.

Until now.

X-Men: Days of Future Past is actually a collection of the run of Uncanny X-Men #138-143 from the early 1980s, so it encompasses more plots than just the two-issue "Days of Future Past" storyline.  But let's be honest: it's that particular story that's going to make comics readers buy, rent, check out or otherwise act to read this volume.  Still, there are other noteworthy events happening during this phase, from Kitty Pryde's recent arrival to the X-Men fold to Jean Grey's recent death, necessitating Cyclops's presumably brief departure from the team and Storm's replacement as team leader.  We also see appearances by Alpha Flight, Doctor Strange, and a vicious foe from Wolverine's past, the Wendigo.

Reading the stories from this era, it's easy to imagine reading comic books as an exercise for the brain that's very nearly as demanding as reading a prose novel.  Seriously, these stories are packed with text, to an extent that I virtually never see in today's comics.  The first story, in which Cyclops basically narrates the team's history up until Jean Grey's most recent death up to this point, is so text-heavy that it took me the better part of an hour to read (compared with Millar's The Ultimates, where I read the majority of six issues in about an hour).  In addition to viewing and analyzing the accompanying illustrations, it's arguable that reading these comics is a comparable--if not greater--exercise in reading comprehension than purely prose pieces of comparable length and subject matter.

Chris Claremont is a legendary name when it comes to the X-Men, and his stories are always memorable and remarkable.  With that said, "Days of Future Past" itself seemed a bit of a let-down when I finally got around to reading it.  I attribute this to no fault of Claremont, but to any possible number of factors, from the passage of time, the building up of expectations for this story over the years, and the fact that many interpretations and re-tellings of it have taken some of the most iconic moments and images and amplified them to a degree that the genesis story in its initial form simply wouldn't be designed to match.

It seemed tamer in tone and content than I'd been expecting, possibly due to the manner in which the narrative was conveyed over the two issues.  I mean, I understand that the future is dark, and that heroes have been killed, and that Kitty is going back to the X-Men on a desperate mission to change the future.  But then the narrative jumps to focus on the X-Men versus the Brotherhood, and it's hard to see it as much more than another superhuman slugfest, with presumably higher stakes.  Of course, I've also only read it once, and plan to read it again at a more leisurely pace, so I can soak in more of the overall story.

The artwork, of course, is amazing.  John Byrne is nearly as legendary as Claremont, and his pencils show you why during this run of issues.  The man's eye for detail, expression, and characterization shines in his line work, and he handles dramatic poses and pulse-pounding action scenes with equal aplomb.  In particular, his action shots of Colossus and Wolverine stand out as remarkably iconic representations of these men during a crucial time in the X-Men's history.

Overall, this was a delightful treat to the X-Men's sterling past.  If you're wanting to see some of the X-Men's classic storylines by a masterful dream team of creators, you should definitely check this volume out.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Film Review -- Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance / Mark Neveldine, Brian Taylor, & Nicolas Cage

I'll be upfront about the premise of Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance.  It's an over-the-top, none too well thought out excuse for a dark fantasy action movie.  Don't go into this expecting to see a good adaptation of a comic book hero.  You'll be much better off if you go in expecting a so-so special effects action film with a flimsy pretense at being dark that just happens to be using the somewhat recognizable figure from the Marvel Comics pantheon of heroes.

Billed as a sequel to the 2007 film, also starring Cage, we find that time has not been kind to Johnny Blaze since he decided to use Ghost Rider to continue his personal vendetta against the Devil (played in this film with deadened, ineffectual scowls by Ciaran Hinds).  Hiding out in Europe, Blaze is approached by a wine-loving, motorcycle riding man named Moreau (Idris Elba, playing his second Marvel movies character after Heimdall in last year's Thor), who seeks his help in tracking down and protecting a young boy name Danny, who is apparently intended as a vessel through which the Devil can attain his full powers on Earth--if he can be properly sacrificed and possessed.  Agreeing so that he might be free of the curse of Ghost Rider, Blaze sets out to find and rescue the boy, who, along with his mother Nadya, is a target of the Devil's human agents.

After taking the boy from Carrigan, one of the Devil's men, he heads off to the men for whom Moreau works, a secluded order of monks.  The Devil, meanwhile, does not intend to let Carrigan die, and turns him into Blackout, giving him power over darkness and decay so that he can compete with Ghost Rider on his level.  Moreau, meanwhile, helps Blaze to overcome his curse and soon vanquishes Ghost Rider from his life.  The monks wait until this is done before resolving to sacrifice the boy so that the Devil can't have him, leaving Moreau, Nadya and Blaze powerless to defend him.  Blackout appears, murders the monks, and kidnaps Danny, setting the stage for the final conflict as the three heroes set out to rescue Danny and thwart Blackout along with the Devil's plans for the boy.

To be sure, there is a lot of material in this movie that will have you rolling your eyes in disgust, laughing out loud in derision, or shaking your head at the lack of logic.  There are plenty of plot points that are unexplained or glossed over, character development moments that seem trite and contrived, and moments of over-the-top action or lunacy that will hurt your brain.  But, in spite of all that--and, in some cases, directly because of that--I was thoroughly entertained, albeit in a trashy, guilty pleasures kind of way.

Be prepared to suspend disbelief--a lot.  A vehicle crashes in spectacular, frame-bending fashion with a kid inside?  No problem: he was wearing a seat belt!  Ghost Rider banished from Blaze's body, even though the Devil is in possession of his soul?  I mean, really, what's the explanation there?  He made a deal with the Devil, and signed a contract, and the monks can erase that like some standard curse?  Give me a break!  And ever mind how that particular point is resolved--the pain to your faculties is simply not worth pondering.  Just put your mind to the side, and enjoy the chases and action scenes like good little drones.

Where am I going?!?!  I'm going craaaaaaaazy!!!!!!!!!!!
Nicolas Cage's inspired--and some might say inspiring--craziness is on display in its full glory in this film.  There are at least two scenes where he involuntarily convulses, laughs at inappropriate times, and throws the full-on entirety of the histrionic book at the audience and his fellow actors--sometimes all at the same time.  You can either shift uncomfortably in your seat, or sit back and laugh yourself silly at all the lunacy on display here (I chose the latter, and I stand by my decision).  It's seriously hard to beat these scenes for pure entertainment value.  A friend of mine said that Nicolas Cage isn't playing Ghost Rider, but the reverse: Ghost Rider is playing Nicolas Cage, to a tee.  After you see the scenes I've described, it won't be hard to agree.

The action sequences are fun, though.  Whenever Ghost Rider makes an appearance, you know there's going to be plenty of fun with flames, and this is used to amusing effect when he rides two different vehicles other than his flaming motorcycle at various times.  The penance stare--one of Ghost Rider's trademarked abilities in the comics--is both underused and poorly explained in this film, which is a little sad.  He does use fire, chains, and an extremely superhuman tolerance for pain to make up for it, and it makes for some alternately amusing and bad-ass moments in the story.

I'm laughing at my flaming skeleton hand, lady.  And your
injured kid.  Funny, right?  Stop looking at me like that!!!
Overall, if you're just dying to go see a comic book movie, this might hold you over while you wait for the real feasts for later this year--namely The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, and The Dark Knight Rises.  Don't go in expecting anything more than a mindless action flick with little more than aspirations of dark fantasy, though.  If you can handle that, then this movie may well entertain you for a couple hours.  If you're expecting a serious, "good" comic book movie, though, you'd best wait for the later stuff.  I'm thinking this film stands a far less chance than they do of satisfying that particular appetite.  Recommended, with reservations.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Comic Review -- Green Lantern #1-5 / Geoff Johns, Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Keith Champagne

 Green Lantern #1: Sinestro, Part One
Nice cover shot to start the series with, even if it does deliver a healthy dose of WTF? by featuring Sinestro instead of Hal. Looks like he’s the main character of this particular series, even if it’s just for this story arc. It’s a very iconic Sinestro look, full of power and purpose.

Sinestro is forced to wear the Green Lantern ring again and, much to his outrage, finds his homeworld of Korugar enslaved by the Yellow Lanterns he once led. Hal Jordan has been banished from the Green Lantern Corps and is having a difficult time adapting to civilian life back on Earth. When it seems life just can’t get any worse, he receives the surprise of his life: Sinestro, as a Green Lantern, appears at his apartment, informing Hal that if he wants to get his ring back, he’ll do everything Sinestro says.

I think the overarching hook for this issue is how much this is about Sinestro, despite traditional expectations about Green Lantern being about Hal Jordan. Hal’s featured in it--prominently--but it is Sinestro is driving the plot and how his actions are what keep things moving. He’s the Green Lantern. He’s made to take the vow,against his will. He’s the one that needs to take down the Yellow Lanterns on Korugar. He’s the one who enlists a disgraced and de-ringed Hal’s help in doing so.

Yes, Hal’s life sucks without the ring, and hopefully he’ll get it back soon, but for now, this is Sinestro’s story. Hal is just along for the ride.

Art-wise, Doug Mahnke’s pencils are a study in emotional contrast for me. Some of his work I love and think is wonderful, and some of it I can’t stand. His aliens--even the near-humans like Sinestro and the Guardians of Oa--generally look great, but it’s his humans, I’ve noticed, that look a bit off. Carol Ferris looks like she lacks vital detail, while Hal in places looks a little too detailed. Creepy, even, in the amount of detail we can see in his face.

Overall, I’m liking the story, particularly the change in protagonists. It’ll be interesting to see what Sinestro has Hal do in order to get the ring back, or even if the offer’s as on the level as it seems. I’m certainly eager to see more, and will be reading more as I’m able. Highly recommended.

Green Lantern #2: Sinestro, Part Two
This cover, like the story arc title, reinforces the point that, for the time being at least, Hal Jordan is not the star here. It’s not completely accurate--Sinestro doesn’t fight any of these Yellow Lanterns, and the one he does is not pictured--but it is a good action shot indicative of what’s likely to come.

Sinestro offers Hal a chance to wear the Green Lantern ring again, but Hal Jordan, being Hal Jordan, either impulsively attacks Sinestro with it or jumps immediately back into the role of the superhero, failing to listen to Sinestro’s terms. Once Sinestro makes it clear that Hal is very much under his control for the time being, they briefly square off against Gorgor, a Yellow Lantern. Once Sinestro kills him, he tells Hal that his mission is to aid Sinestro in re-taking Korugar from the Yellow Lanterns.

I’m sorry, but I personally think it’s hilarious to watch Hal Jordan get bitch-slapped around constantly by Sinestro, largely due to his own inability to think things through. Attack the guy who gives you a weapon? Really? Ignore the instructions of the same guy, after he’s already demonstrated his superiority? I think the fact that it takes the whole issue for Sinestro to explain why he’s given Hal a ring rests squarely on the fact that Hal seems to have the attention span of a fruit fly. At this point, he clearly needs Sinestro, and he needs to drop the superiority complex.

Mahnke’s pencils seem to be getting better for me in this issue. It’s possibly because we’re seeing less of Hal in civilian duds and no mask. When he’s masked, he looks great. When he’s civilian, I still feel like there’s too much facial detail, particularly around his eyes. Sinestro looks great, and most of the civilians look fine. Loved the scene on the bridge and the battle following it. Clearly Mahnke can do action just fine.

Overall, things are progressing nicely. There’s advancement of the plot, which is a little slow overall, but peppered with amusing and intriguing character developments and interactions. It’ll be neat to see this two go to Korugar and throw down together. Highly recommended.

Green Lantern #3: Sinestro, Part Three
Sinestro, hiding from the Yellow Lanterns--I’m sorry, the Sinestro Corps--makes for a nice, suspenseful cover. The phrase is slightly misleading, as he’s not on the run from them; quite the opposite in fact, he’s coming after them. But it does point up the coming conflict nevertheless.

Hal begrudgingly agrees to help Sinestro liberate Korugar from the Sinestro Corps, after being told that he gets to keep the ring Sinestro made for him. Going over their battle plan, Sinestro reveals that Hal is to take Sinestro’s green lantern into the Yellow Lantern battery once he’s distracted the Corps. Of course, circumstances mess up the timing of the mission for both men, and Sinestro ends up hopelessly surrounded by Yellow Lanterns while we see Hal, green lantern in hand, getting disintegrated by the Yellow Lantern battery, cursing Sinestro’s name.

Oh, and the Guardians are apparently going to try to replace the Green Lantern Corps.

This issue points up a lot of the mistakes Sinestro has made in his decision to let the Sinestro Corp take over Korugar. His distaste at being a Green Lantern again is plain, particularly the notion that he set up a destruction plan for the Sinestro Corp that would require one. Then there is how scared his own people are of him, in spite of his attempts to free them--clearly they blame him as much as the Sinestro Corps for their current misfortunes. Despite his pretensions to superiority over Hal, he’s still as capable of miscalculations and mistakes as the next person.

The artwork really shines here, as Mahnke gives us plenty of shots of Korugar, the Guardians, Hal and Sinestro in outer space, and various grotesque species that make up the Sinestro Corps. I particularly like the way Hal and Sinestro look when they’re facing each other and Sinestro is saying that he is better than Hal. In that moment, Sinestro looks like some kind of silly comedian grandstanding against a stage rival. Very entertaining.

Overall, I’m eager to see where this goes. We’re on Korugar now, and it looks like Hal’s just gotten pulled apart and killed. While I doubt this is the case, things are nevertheless looking pretty grim for our heroes. Highly recommended.

Green Lantern #4: Sinestro, Part Four
Nice cover this month. Sinestro shatters the yellow battery, his ring shining in front of the explosion. While I like the fact that he’s clearly the star here, it is a little weird that Hal has yet to even appear on a single cover by this point, especially given how prominently he’s been featured.

The plan to liberate Korugar falls apart swiftly, as both Hal and the lantern are ejected from the yellow battery with all due speed. Having captured Sinestro by sheer overwhelming numbers, the Sinestro Corps is torture and then imprison him while they try to figure out how to get the Green Lantern ring off of him. Hal, imprisoned next to Sinestro and his people, convinces him to create many rings to bestow on his people so they can fight back against the Sinestro Corps. But they are still so overcome with rage at his arrival, that they immediately turn their newfound strength back upon Sinestro.

What’s interesting about this issue is the relationships Sinestro has with the people he’s interacted with in his life. The Corps he created, while obviously relishing in his pain, are still trying, in their twisted way, to save their leader. His people, on the other hand, have taken their misfortunes seriously and have a long way to go before they’ll forgive him for causing them such pain. Even Hal, who has never liked Sinestro, seems sympathetic to his desire to make amends.

The art in this issue is good. It isn’t just that it’s mostly aliens and masked men Mahnke is drawing. His humans, Hal in particular, are looking better. He does sometimes seem inconsistent about how far down his face his nose should be, but its only occasionally noticeable. All in all, I’m enjoying the illustrations as they support the narrative.

Overall, I think I’m ready for this arc to wrap up. It’s been good, and I think it’ll end well in the next issue or so. It certainly looks like we’ve got all the elements in place for an endgame: Hal and Sinestro on Korugar, in an unenviable situation, with Sinestro’s own people wanting him dead. We’ll see how it all plays out. Highly recommended.

Green Lantern #5: Sinestro, Part Five
Alright, now this is a fun cover! Sinestro and Hal, rings ablaze, fight together while standing atop the bodies of the Sinestro Corps. While I’ve enjoyed Hal’s second string status for this arc, it is good to see him on the cover again.

When their attack on Sinestro fails, the Korugarians begrudgingly agree to turn their rings on the Sinestro Corps. While they distract them, Sinestro and Hal journey back to the Yellow Lantern battery and being siphoning its energy off into Sinestro’s green lantern, shutting down the Sinestro Corps’s rings. Despite his heroism, his people banish him from Korugar, and he sends Hal back to Earth with a powerless ring. Hal resolves to make things work with Carol, and the Guardians, seeing Sinestro return with the yellow battery in hand, decide the time to replace the Green Lantern Corps is finally upon them.

This feels like a good way to end the story arc. We see Sinestro briefly exercise his mastery of cold-blooded manipulation as he gives Arsona the will to wield the Green Lantern ring he created. Sinestro may have accomplished his goals, but redemption is far from at hand, as his people say they’ll never forget his misdeeds. His dismissal of Hal was amusing, serving to reinforce Hal’s hatred of Sinestro while he technically honors the letter of their bargain. Chances are that they’ll have plenty to hash out during their next go-round with one another.

Overall, I liked this story quite a bit. It shows its protagonist Sinestro taking an unenviable situation and using his wits and resourcefulness to make the best of it. While it’s a little disappointing to see Hal with no ring (effectively) at the end of this story, it’s not really surprising. Of course, we’re set up with the subplot of the Guardians, which will likely factor into both men’s lives soon. Highly recommended.