Monday, April 30, 2012

Comic Review -- Teen Titans #8: A Dark Omen! / Scott Lobdell, Ig Guara, and J.P. Mayer

I'm not familiar with the Ravagers, or why they're being reborn here, but I will admit that this is a pretty cool looking cover.  I'm already missing Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund on the art here, but they deliver a nice assembly shot of the team, and the Tron motif here looks pretty good.  Again, not to familiar with the Ravagers, but everything looks pretty stunning here.

The Titans have been captured by N.O.W.H.E.R.E. and its leader, Harvest.  He has each of them subjected to Omen, a corrupted teen who seems to do some kind of psionic strip-mining of their minds while she manipulates reality around them in a water-filled chamber she calls her "womb."  The Titans begin to lose heart, arguing with one another, as they each become victims of Omen's whims.  Subjected to mental illusions and scenarios that keep them from understanding what is real and what isn't, the Titans are eventually led away by another of Harvest's people, Leash, who tethers them to himself and heads for a place called The Colony.  Harvest also refers to the Titans as his "New Ravagers," implying that they will serves him soon, if they do not already.

Okay, Scott Lobdell.

I'm seriously about an issue from dropping this title.  What started off as a somewhat slow-paced, but fun an promising assembly story has dragged on and on, without any real resolution, into a plodding, we-have-you-now tale that is failing to elicit any real emotion from me, and I suspect plenty of other readers at this point.  Now it's about to divert into a storyline called The Culling, and at this point I couldn't care any less about it.  What happened to the fun and action from the previous issues?

If you're going to drag a story arc on for this long, you have got to keep it interesting and compelling for your readers, and we have proof that this can happen.  Scott Snyder's run on Batman has accomplished that.  This story, not so much.  Oh, the Titans are being held helpless as they wait to be "psionically molested" by Omen?  I just don't care anymore.

This is one of those classic cases of how it's better to show than to tell in comics, and in good writing in general.  It might be more interesting if we got a little more exposition on Omen and what exactly her powers do, or if we actually saw some of these horrible secrets the Titans are having forcibly divulged from their minds.  Instead, we get this uppity girl simply saying, "Ooh, I've shown you all your fears and discovered all your secrets," over and over again.  Yawn.

This arc of the story is not helped by the art, where Brett Booth and Norm Rapmund's absence is immediately noticed.  It's not bad overall, and does a serviceable enough job of maintaining the look established by that team, but in some places things and characters look noticeably stretched and unflattering.  Bunker in particular looks a bit too "off" in this issue, like he's been sculpted from dough.  I'll give it another issue or so to settle into the new look, but so far I'm not terribly impressed with it.

Overall, I can't really recommend this issue for comics readers.  It could be my overall ignorance of DC and Teen Titans characters and lore, but it doesn't seem to really give me much reason to care about Harvest, Omen, N.O.W.H.E.R.E., the Ravagers, or even the Titans' fate at this point.  Add in middling-to-not-memorable artwork, and you've got an issue that really leaves you wanting.  Not recommended.

Fix this, Scott Lobdell.  Or I will take my money to another title.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

GN Review -- Daytripper / Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá

I can only imagine how confusing the individual chapters of Daytripper were to its readers when they were being released in single-issue format by Vertigo, but it would be impossible to make the argument that twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá's metaphysical musing on life and death wasn't interesting enough that it kept you coming back for more.  Thankfully, the ten issues are collected in one trade paperback, and make the whole reading experience a compelling and fulfilling, though at times no less confusing adventure.

Daytripper follows the life of Brás de Oliva Domingos, an obituary writer who is also the son of a famous Brazilian writer.  Considered a miracle birth by his mother, Brás's musings on life, death, friendship, loss, love, inspiration, and destiny often leave him with the unsettling feeling that he is missing something in his own life, and he constantly seeks to find that missing thing.  We see him at various phases of his life, each of which ends the issue with his death at a particular age, and we almost never see things chronologically.  In the first issue we see him at age 32, shot to death by a desperate young man, and in the next issue we see him at age 21, mysteriously drowning in a ceremony while pursuing a romantic interest.  The body of the work shows him at significant points in his life: when he received his first kiss, the time his first love left him, the birth of his son, his search for a lost friend, and so on.  In the final story, we are given a life-affirming look at Brás's life and how he's found meaning in it, through the final days of his old age and a lost letter from his father, bringing his life full circle.

The most intriguing narrative device in this work is the many deaths of Brás, each of which is depicted at the end of each issue--except, significantly, in the last one.  They seem to serve as touch-points to the significant moments in Brás's life and courses his path could have or nearly did take, as well as subtle reminders of the constant uncertainty we should always respect but not necessarily fear in our lives.  Death, even though depicted, is always avoided as the narrative continues, usually intimating that the choices Brás made were unchanged.  For example at the end of one story, he dies after being hit by a car while on his way back to the store to tell a woman he was in love with her; in the next story, they are together and building a life.

The theme of fathers and sons plays subtly into Daytripper as well.  Brás is heavily influenced by his father: he smokes the same brand of cigarettes his father preferred; he has taken a career as a writer, at first only tangentially, but eventually following in his father's footsteps to become a novelist; and feels the touches of his father's influence, realizing that his life and his influence on his own son, while not identical, in many ways paralleled his father's.  It is a poignant reminder that we can't choose our family, and that they leave an imprint on our lives, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Artistically, this story is a success as well.  The brothers' drawing style is stark and realistic, with plenty of room for the divine and unknowable to permeate their expressions.  Brás and the significant people in his life are depicted consistently and identifiably across a range of ages and circumstances.  Setting vary considerably, from crowded cities to hospitals, to abandoned beachfronts, and they all convey a sense of immediacy to the narrative.  You always feel like you're really there.

Overall, this comic conveyed a similar feeling to me that the film American Beauty did when it was released.  It seemed to say, "Live life to the fullest.  Do what makes you happy.  And know that your life will impact others."  It's a powerful message, and one that is masterfully conveyed in Daytripper.  A delight to read.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

GN Review -- Legends of Zita the Spacegirl / Ben Hatke

Anyone who thinks there are no good children's comics out there clearly hasn't read this blog.  My latest entry in support of the case for such comics is a sequel, Ben Hatke's forthcoming graphic novel Legends of Zita the Spacegirl.  He proves that the success of his first outing, Zita the Spacegirl, was no fluke, and continues the story of his intrepid young heroine with the same aplomb displayed in the first book.

A little bit of time has passed since Zita's adventure on the planet Scriptorius, long enough for her to become famous for the event and hailed as a hero wherever she goes.  All the attention and adoration begins to wear on her, making it easy for her to agree to switch places with a robot that has taken on her appearance.  When the robot decides it wants to replace her, Zita is suddenly thrust into a sudden case of identity theft on a cosmic scale, becoming a criminal and needing the help of a mysterious woman named Madrigal, who has a connection to her traveling companion, Piper.

I don't know what it is Hatke does, but he's never failed to elicit a significant emotional response from me when I read these stories.  It's very easy to connect with his characters and root for them, to the point that you're laughing at some of the humorous situations they're in even as you're fighting the urge to tear up as they endure their current travails and hardships.  He does a great job of making his characters not only likable, but believable.  Zita, for all her bravery and charm, is at her simplest, a girl struggling to get home, trapped in a situation that is consistently unfamiliar and frightening.

Artistically, Hatke proves as adept at visually depicting his characters as he is at writing them.  Employing a simple, clean cartoon style, he depicts a wide range of characters, imbuing them with emotion and depth, no matter if they're human, robot, alien, or over-large animal.  His settings and scenery also vary in scale, from wide-ranging planetscapes to the relatively cramped quarters of a spaceship.  It's all believable and it's all good, making an ideal backdrop for the characters to play in.

Overall, this is an excellent work, for children and adults alike.  The characters are likable, the artwork is simple yet visually appealing, and the story is a well-told tale of separation from and return to your extended family.  It leaves the door wide open for more books, and I for one already can't wait for them. Highly recommended.

This review of Legends of Zita the Spacegirl is written from an advance reader copy (ARC).  It is scheduled to be released on September 4, 2012.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Comic Review -- Justice League #8: Team-Up: Green Arrow / Geoff Johns, Carlos D'Anda, Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, and Gary Frank

Another beautiful Jim Lee cover, and unfortunately the only presence of his during this issue.  Still, it's a winner in my book.  The depiction of an over-matched, harried-looking Green Arrow against the backdrop of an X'd out Justice League, spotlight suddenly on him, looks stunning.  It also fits with the tone, in a comical sort of way: the picture might suggest Arrow as the one who spray-painted the X over the Justice League, but in the story, he's trying--very hard--to get them to let him on the team.

This story is essentially about Green Arrow, who keeps showing up wherever the Justice League happens to be doing their super-group thing.  He consistently gets in a couple of helpful shots, and then gets shot down by the League when he asks them to give him a chance at a spot on their roster.  Aquaman in particular seems to have issues with Green Arrow, hinting at a shared past between the two of them.  When Steven Trevor shows up at Ollie's to tell him there's no place for him on the Justice League, he tells him there is another team he might work better on, to which Ollie responds enthusiastically.  Finally, as the Justice League members discuss their reasons for not allowing others to join them, we are shown a flashback of the entire team fighting against someone they had once allegedly let into their ranks, one Martian Manhunter.  From a far away location, J'onn seems to be able to hear their thoughts, and enigmatically remarks that "They are not ready."

In the Shazam story, Billy Batson is introduced to his new home, along with his adopted siblings.  He's obviously put off at the prospect of having to share house space with other teens and children, and ends up making the young girl, Darla, cry with his callousness.  Mary, the oldest of them, throws him into his room, explaining that Darla's original family just didn't want her, and that he was extremely rude.  When he expresses no remorse, she walks away, astounded at his self-absorption.  He admits he didn't mean to make Darla cry, and notices a face in the clouds as he's looking out his window.  It disappears quickly, leaving him to wonder at what he just saw.

I will say this about the New 52: it's giving me a good opportunity to get acquainted with heroes an characters I simply wouldn't have wanted to bother with in DC's normal continuity.  It isn't that I couldn't do it, but the process of figuring out the good stories to read, finding a decent entry point, and then keeping up with yet another title is just too daunting, both economically and in terms of time management.  Green Arrow and Shazam are both characters I've know of but never really read much of, so I'm liking that they're getting some exposure in this title.

I actually really enjoyed the Green Arrow story.  It's amusing, and Ollie is both charming and at least partially able to hold his own among the god-like entities on the Justice League.  I particularly like that, despite several swats away from them, including some veiled threats from Aquaman and some amusing put-downs from Green Lantern, Ollie's resolve is unchanged.  Wonder Woman being at least mildly impressed with his efforts was also enjoyable, as well as the fact that it widened the apparently simmering issue of whether or not to expand their membership.  And, of course, I'm eager to know more about J'onn's past involvement with the League and how that all went down.

Billy's story was okay.  It doesn't really do much new at this point: we see that he's still a little jerk, though maybe not as intentionally as he comes off.  We see him getting introduced to his new family, which he doesn't take well, and we see him reacting to a face in the clouds that suddenly goes away.  We're getting a setup for more action, which is fine, but I just felt like this installment could have been a little more compelling than it came off.  Hopefully they'll get past all the expositioning soon enough.

Much as I want Jim Lee back on the pencils here, I think the artwork in both stories was great.  D'Anda, Reis and Prado do a good job of creating a look that closely adheres to the visual experience that Lee set up in the first story arc.  It's all realistic yet dynamically stylized, and is great fun to behold.  The Shazam artwork is very crisp and full, with gorgeously rendered detail.  The art styles are very different, yet both work well.

Overall, while I'm a little confused as to the apparent abandonment of The Villain's Journey arc that was started last issue, this was nevertheless a good distraction for this month.  The Green Arrow story is funny, the Shazam story is passable, and the artwork in both is very good.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

What's the Best Superpower? part III: And the Winner Is...

Alright, it's time for me to finally answer the question that all comic book geeks will inevitably ask of themselves and each other: what is the best superpower?

I started writing about this question a few days ago, and have since followed it up with another post as I realized how complex and nuanced this question actually is.  Now that I've set up the terms and conditions, it's time to finally pick a winner.  So, let's get down to it!

So, I've established a few things up to this point:

  1. It's not all about the powers.  It's also about environment, your tactical cognition, and some other external factors, like luck.  No one ability can trump another all the time, in every possible situation.
  2. You will be placed in a comic book or other fictitious world or setting, where there are other super-powered individuals to work with or against.
  3. You will be given a power set as opposed to a single superpower.  For instance, super-strength could have a direct relation to enhanced durability.  It doesn't mean you automatically get multiple powers; you would have to develop or discover all but the first, which would emerge spontaneously.
With all this in mind, here are a few favorites I've considered, and why:

This one is a favorite of many Jedi aspirants and Jean Grey devotees, and it certainly does have its appeal.  The ability to move things with your mind would give you a potentially huge advantage over just about anyone in a fight.  Hulk too strong for you?  Levitate him and toss him back a few blocks.  Need to fly somewhere?  It might take a lot of training and concentration, but you could probably use this ability to develop flight as a power stunt.

Plus, consider the possibilities here.  You can move things with your mind, not just objects.  This could be a possible gateway to other power stunts, such as elemental manipulation (earth would be easiest, but fire?  That would take talent), energy manipulation, and so on, depending on how advanced you go with it.  With enough imagination and training, this psionic ability could allow you access to a multitude of other powers.

Drawbacks?  At least one big one comes to mind.  First off, you need to be able to concentrate and focus when you use these abilities.  I would imagine that the more advanced your tricks are, the more you'd need to concentrate.  If an enemy uses abilities or circumstances that disrupt your ability to do this, you'll become pretty useless in a fight.  Storm has very slyly used this tactic on Jean Grey during at least one Danger Room session, to astonishing effect.

Another favorite among aficionados of this debate, this potentially devastating power set could allow you to defeat your opponent without even lifting a finger.  Forget being able to read their thoughts to anticipate their moves--already a very cool thing.  Imagine telling your opponent to simply stop attacking you and to restrain themselves--and they do.

Aside from the ability to read and send thoughts, there's a lot of room here to develop power stunts that will expand this awareness and exert external control over the minds of others.  Astral projection, anyone?  Or, instead of just being able to make opponents follow your mental orders, you simply take control of their minds, and through that, their bodies?  I've even seen instances where telepaths develop a kind of mental blast, basically frying their opponents' brains through telepathy in combat.  Personally I think that's a bit of a stretch, but I can't argue that this precedent hasn't been set.

Drawbacks?  Like with telekinesis, and really any ability that involves fine external manipulation, you need to be able to concentrate.  Also, telepaths are often targets of the first wave of any attack, as a savvy strategist knows how they can often take out multiple opponents at once.  Defenses are often developed specifically against them--think Magneto's helmet, for instance--which would render them otherwise powerless against an opponent.

Gravity Manipulation
I think what appeals to me about this set is the number of practical uses you could put it to.  Need to move a heavy piece of furniture?  Reduce the gravity around it, and suddenly you can move it yourself!  Want to piss off your little sister?  Subtly increase her personal gravity so she mysteriously gains weight when she steps on the scale!

Obviously there are a multitude of powers you could develop from this set.  Flight, by manipulating, deleting, and directing gravitons.  Stuns, by increasing someone's personal gravity by a lot and essentially rooting them to the ground.  Mimicking of super-strength by reducing the gravity of objects and other people.  And I'm sure there are plenty of imaginative types out there who can think of even more uses for this set.

Concentration is a major drawback of this power set, just like with telekinesis and telepathy.  Another glaring weakness is that you need... well... gravity to use this superpower.  Essentially, this set is useless in outer space.  Stay out of the spaceways if you have this power set and want to use it effectively.

Energy Blasts
Come on, who hasn't thought of this one?  Having the ability to call forth a destructive burst of energy is one of the simplest, yet most viscerally appealing ideas in comics.  Something in your way?  Just blast it into a million pieces. Don't like close-quarters fighting?  Get back and pick people off from far away.  It's a simple, but effective power set.

The big weakness of the energy blast is that it doesn't really allow for much in the way of development.  If you're lucky, over time you can learn to control and manipulate the type of energy to blast, but history generally relegates energy wielders to being blasters.  There's also the issue of your reputation for destruction, which, while it may not directly affect a fight, may have huge ramifications about the circumstances of any conflict.  Finally, energy wielders usually have some big limitation on their destructive ability, be it the inability to control it or the need to store it up for a long time before building up enough energy to release effectively.

While all these powers are great, and I considered them strongly, there can be only one set that's a winner.  And the winner is...

Power Mimicry
Call me a glutton for punishment, but I think this power is the most versatile and potentially useful of all other power sets out there, particularly if you can figure out a way to extend and develop it.  It calls for an extremely high level of tactical cognition to use effectively, and effectively gives you a taste of virtually every superpower out there.   

In the short term, it essentially puts you on (somewhat) equal footing with any other super-powered opponent you come  up against, with the one big caveat that they're likely to have used their own superpower a lot longer than you have.  Sure, you might be able to mimic Superman's strength and ability to fly, but he's been using them for decades, and likely knows how to use them more effectively than you will.  

In the long term, it could make you one of the smartest and most effective fighters in your world--assuming you survive enough battles and take enough lumps.  Think about it.  You'll have learned to change tactics quickly, play to your strengths by adjusting and improvising quickly, and know how to use a wide range of abilities wielded by other super-powered individuals.

If you want to go all Peter Petrelli with this, the possibilities become limitless.  Imagine being able to summon any power you've mimicked in the past, at will.  Imagine being able to work with and develop any of them.  It'd take a lot of training and a lot of time, but potentially, this power could rule them all.

In the interim, though, you'd have to be a clever fighter.  And I'm a fan of any ability that makes you have to constantly push your own boundaries to be effectively used.

Power mimicry, for the win!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Comic Review -- Batman #8: Attack on Wayne Manor; and, The Call / Scott Snyder, Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion

This series has done a tremendous job with its covers and this one is no exception.  Bruce, out of costume, alone, taking on a horde of the Court of Owls' Talons by himself.  It's pulse-pounding, terrifying, and makes you desperate to know what's going on.  Best of all: this scene is actually in the story!  Love it!

Bruce is back at home, contemplating how little he knows about Gotham, the city he's supposed to know better than anyone else.  While he and Alfred talk, a noise alerts Bruce that someone is trying to enter Wayne Manor.  He orders Alfred to get to the Batcave, and soon ends up in a confrontation with several Talons, who seem to have swarmed upon the Mansion.  Bruce fights them off long enough to get to Alfred in the cave, where they are faced with another swarm of Talons, all of whom taunt and threaten Bruce and Alfred.

Managing to secure themselves in the Batcave's armory, Bruce hands Alfred a chip from one of the Talons's gauntlet.  He then puts on a heavily armored Batsuit and marches out among the Talons, telling them to get the hell out of his house.  That's where the second story, "The Call," picks up.  As Bruce begins to face off with the Talons, Alfred discovers they're all moving on a long list of targets throughout Gotham, mostly high-ranking politicians in the city.  Many of them are being assassinated even as Bruce and Alfred confront theirs.  He then sends out a call to all allies of Batman that the assassins of the Court of Owls are moving against Gotham tonight.  The Talons continue to taunt Alfred as well, as he wonders how they can possibly survive this assault.

Oh.  My.  God.

I knew this issue was going to be big.  It can't be small when you've got an army of Talons jumping off into the city to due the Court's bidding at the end of the previous issue.  I've been impressed with Scott Snyder's writing throughout this run, and knew the last issue was the build-up to a big explosion of action in this issue.  And I was still unprepared for how gripping and awesome this issue was as the Talons descended upon Wayne Manor, intending to kill Bruce Wayne and anyone with him.

There are more than enough moments that just yank you forward through this issue.  Bruce jumping out onto the roof of the mansion to confront a small platoon of Talons.  Bruce losing communication with Alfred, who it turns out isn't as alone and safe in the Batcave as you might think.  And the Talons, finally realizing that Bruce Wayne is Batman, and taunting that they're going to kill him anyway as he and Alfred try to get their bearings while locked away in the armory.  It all makes for a multitude of reasons to zip through the issue, and for my part, I couldn't turn the pages fast enough.

And then, "The Call."  Once the scope of the Court's horrifying plan becomes plainly apparent--I can't claim I was too surprised by it--it's hard to keep your jaw from dropping, especially as  you see parts of it being carried out at that moment.  But even that moment is topped by a moment of pure awesome as Batman simply tells Alfred to "Put the call out to the Family.  Now."  We're then treated to Alfred sending a dispatch to all of Batman's nearby allies: Red Robin, Nightwing, Batgirl, Batwing, Robin, and several others.  When he uploads the list to all of them, telling them their help is needed in protecting Gotham from the Court's assault, you're plainly hit with the notion that this is how the Night of the Owls event is starting.  And to be honest, it's off to one hell of a start.

Fans: CHECK THAT LIST.  Some of the names on it are jaw-droppers themselves.

Desperation and awesome, masterfully conveyed.
Artistically, there's little for me to say about Capullo's pencils that I haven't already said.  He does an excellent job of building up a swarm of Talons for Bruce and Alfred to deal with, and effectively conveys the sense of scale that says they just won't stop coming--which of course, is expanded in "The Call."  The change-up in art style from Rafael Albuquerque in that story dovetails nicely with Capullo's still conveying a sense of urgency and dread with bolder, heavier line work and a more gritty look that underlies the idea that things are going to get real ugly, real soon.  Excellent work.

Overall, I can't say enough good things about this issue.  I was hooked from the get-go by the artwork, the action, and the sense of urgency that virtually jumps off the page at the reader.  If you're a Batman fan, you had better be reading this series.  Scott Snyder and company know what they're doing here.  By the time I put this issue down, I was seriously shivering with excitement.  Very highly recommended!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

GN Review -- Avatar: the Last Airbender: The Promise, part I / Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru

If you thought the adventure was over at the end of Avatar: the Last Airbender for Aang and his friends, you'll be happy to know that's no longer the case.  Nickelodeon has gotten the story to continue in graphic novel format, directly continuing the exploits of the characters from the animated series.

In the immediate aftermath of the animated series finale, Aang has defeated Firelord Ozai, and Prince Zuko has ascended to the throne of the Fire Nation.  He and Aang pledge to bring peace to the world, and agree to do so by evacuating the Fire Nation-controlled colonies of the Earth Kingdom--an initiative dubbed "The Harmony Restoration Movement" by Sokka.  In a moment of somber introspection, Zuko asks Aang to keep him in check by "ending" him if Aang sees Zuko turning into the kind of man his father was.  Ironically, it is Zuko's father who has the knowledge of ruling a kingdom and the pressures that come with it, who might be able to guide him through this period, though Zuko refuses to acknowledge it at the time.

The Harmony Restoration Movement is met with much enthusiasm at first, but as we fast-forward a year into the future, we see that things have changed.  The pressures of the throne are getting to Zuko, who hasn't slept soundly for some time, and who barely thwarts an assassination attempt on his life.  When he discovers the assassin is the daughter of one of the governors of an Fire Nation colony in the Earth Kingdom.  He travels to this colony, called Yu Dao, to personally enforce the colony's removal and relocation to the Fire Nation, but then mysteriously reverses his position, summoning Aang and his friends to figure out his true motives.

After a brief spat of violence, the friends calm down and Zuko explains that Yu Dao has deep ties to the Earth Kingdom.  Relocating them to the Fire Nation would break up families, community and business ties that go back much further than either of them had at first realized.  Zuko can't bring himself to allow this.  Aang understands, but also knows that there is enormous pressure for the Harmony Restoration Movement to be successful, so something has to happen.  Agreeing to be present at a summit involving Aang and the Earth King, Zuko returns to the Fire Nation.  In a cliffhanger, he asks his imprisoned father for advice, at which point Ozai smirks confidently.

How I only learned of this book's existence in the last few days is a mystery to me.  I'm a huge fan of the animated series, and was one of the fans howling about the unanswered questions and loose ends left hanging at the series finale.  Where was Zuko's mother?  What would become of the airbenders over the years?  What would become of Ozai?  Also, Gene Yang is a comic book creator whose writing I very much admire.  So, it's a bit of a shock that this volume made it to the public eye without my knowing.

This story feels exactly like the genuine continuation of narrative of Avatar: the Last Airbender that it is.  There are plenty of amusing developments and character moments that remind you how charming, silly, and downright involving this series was, even as it confronts complex issues such as colonial relocation and the pressures of royal power.  Katara and Aang call each other sweetie as they watch each other's backs, much to Sokka's delightfully squeamish disgust.  Toph, who has started a metalbending school, calls her student lily livers and treats them with much of the same hardheadedness she showed towards Aang when he was learning earthbending from her.  It all carries a wonderful recollection of how the animated series felt, and progresses it forward convincingly.

One question that bears asking: where's Azula?  I know she's effectively out of commission, but there were so many guest reappearances that I'm surprised she didn't even rate a mention.  Hopefully we'll see her in part II of this story.

Artistically, I very much enjoyed this story as well.  It was done in much the same style as the series, and almost felt like one could have been taking stills from an animated episode and using them as panels for the comic. I know it's not the case, and perhaps the art isn't quite up to the animation's standards, but it's still good enough to really feel like you're almost watching an episode.  Almost.

Overall, I think fans of the series will be very happy to see continuations of that era's stories.  I'm personally overjoyed to see Gene Yang writing the script, and feel he's brought a great story to life in The Promise.  I'm eager to see more, and I know Avatar: the Last Airbender fans are as well.  Highly recommended.

Monday, April 23, 2012

What's the Best Superpower? part II: Environmental Considerations

When I wrote about having the best superpower, I established that, first and foremost, the superpower alone isn't going to determine victory in a fight.  It's going to depend on how you use it versus how your opponent uses his or her own abilities, what kind of environment you're fighting in, and oftentimes just how lucky you are. With so many variables in play, there really is no one perfect superpower suited to all situations.

I'd like to set some rules about the macro-environment in which you would answer this question.  G-Man establishes that you would be put in a comic book world and allowed one superpower--only one.  Fair enough on first glance, but before we go on, I'd like to set up a couple of other scenarios by changing around some of the terms of his premise.  For instance, consider:

  • The World: what if you were given superpowers in "this" world, or real life?  There are, of course, no other people in this world known to have the kinds of superpowers you find in comic books (at least, not conclusively proven).  This would change the entire way you thought about this question, as there are no other metahumans you may potentially have to fight, work with, or otherwise compete against.  You'd be the only person in this world with, say, flight, or invisibility or super-strength.  It doesn't mean you wouldn't have to have a high level of tactical cognition, however.  If you became a threat because of your powers, the government or some other entity would try to find people, ways, and methods to take away your power or use it against you.  You'd also have to deal with the possibility that the world would fear and hate you due to your remarkable difference from the rest of the world.  Sound familiar?
  • Superpower: what if we thought of powers a little more liberally--say, power sets as opposed to a single superpower?  I think this question bears consideration, as it seems a little constricting to say, "You can only have super-strength and nothing else.  You can punch through steel and lift cars and nothing else.  At. All."  Usually powers tend to come in a set.  For example, super-strength is usually far more than just that.  Where the strength comes from and how it manifests could have potentially far-reaching ramifications for a new young hero.  Take a look at the Hulk.  Yeah, he's super-strong, but is that all?  Absolutely not!  He's also nigh invulnerable, also from the gamma bomb incident!  I think it's generally fair to assume that invulnerability--a separate power for this and most other such purposes--is a possible ability that either comes with or can be developed within a super-strength power set.  Games such as City of Heroes and X-Men Legends/Marvel Ultimate Alliance often make allowances for developing such related-yet-different power groupings.
For the purpose of my answer to this question, I'm going to change up the terms slightly.  I agree with G-Man in that this question is most fairly answered by placing yourself in a comic book or fantasy world with other superpowered heroes and villains (though I do think the scenario I proposed is worth thinking about).  I do think, however, that my own inclination towards power sets will take precedence when I answer.

Next time around I'll explore several top contenders for ideal power sets before naming off the one I think would work best for me.  Until then, enjoy!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Comic Review -- Scarlet Spider #4: Whoever Finds Me... Will Kill Me! / Christopher Yost, Ryan Stegman, Mike Babinski, Cam Smith, and Edgar Delgado

Heheh.  Backed up against a wall, costume ripped in places, barely dodging a barrage of bullets, arrows, Chinese stars, and so on.  Kaine's dealing with a lot of action here, and that's exactly the situation inside the story, at least metaphorically.  Another fine cover.

Things start off with a flashback in Kaine's life, when he's in Detroit.  He's contacted by Belladonna and the Assassins Guild, informing him that he's been taking kills in their jurisdiction.  Belladonna gives him one chance to join the Guild and work off the tithe she says he owes her.  Kaine, in typical vulgar fashion, tells her and the Guild to screw off.

Jump back to the present, and Kaine is fighting hard against four assassins from the Guild.  They've sent killers after him less than 24 hours after his encounter with the first assassin.  While he manages to get the drop on them, he knows this won't end with them, even if he kills them.  So he calls Belladonna on one of the thugs' phone, with a counter-offer: she calls off her assassins on both him and Dr. Meland, and he will do one assassination job for her.  She picks the time, the place, and the target.  After that, she forgets who he is and leaves him alone.  Otherwise, he'll kill every member of the Assassins Guild, starting with her.  Belladonna accepts, and every assassin in Houston seems to disappear as soon as she says it.  Kaine, however, has issues with his most recent choice, and begins to see the faces of everyone he's killed in the past, and when he arrives home, heads straight for the bathroom to throw up.

Meland, in the meantime, has gone with Wally to Terrence Mitchell's house.  Mitchell is the one who put the hit out on Meland's life last issue, blaming the doctor for his wife and daughter's death in a car accident several weeks previous.  When they get to his house, they are ambushed by more assassins and Mitchell, who is still bitter and resentful at Meland over his loss.  Meland seems to convince Mitchell to drop the hit, as the assassin with him disappears--more likely due to the timing and agreement between Belladonna and Kaine.  Annabelle and Aracely go to the Galleria, looking for clothes and supplies for Aracely, who starts to exhibit several strange abilities.  She is apparently able to speak several languages now, and seems to have a kind of psychic link to Kaine.  When she mentions in front of Annabelle that Kaine is the Scarlet Spider, Annabelle is shocked.

I think what impresses me most about this issue is how much action and development is packed into it.  We see Kaine take on four--four!--assassins from the Guild and come out on top, Meland and Wally meeting Mitchell to get the hit on his life dropped, Aracely exhibiting strange abilities, and Kaine negotiating a gruesome deal with Belladonna and having to deal with the implications of it, all in one issue.  And poor Annabelle, who just seems to be along for the ride and clueless up to this point, gets hit with the knowledge that Kaine is the Scarlet Spider.

Even more impressively, it all feels fluid and fast-paced.  With this much going on, it would be easy for the pacing to get bogged down, or for things to feel glossed over and barely touched upon.  Neither is the case here, and the entire story keeps you turning the page.  I really am impressed with Yost's writing here, and not just because this title is set in Houston.  He really has a good handle on pacing and narrative flow.

I'm also glad that we see Kaine make a bad decision in this issue, and have to deal with what it means to him, particularly with the new direction his life is taking.  He actually feels remorse and guilt for making a deal with Belladonna to kill one mark for her, which means he won't be taking this lightly.  In terms of making you care for the character, this is a big issue, and leaves me wonder what of so many possible things could happen because of this accord.  Needless to say, I'm interested to find out.

Artistically, Stegman continues to impress on this issue.  I particularly liked the zombie Hand ninja, Kaine's cloaking device--it's finally explicitly named--and the way Aracely looks, particularly in the last couple panels of the issue.  She looks cute, quirky, and wide-eyed at everything going on, even if she doesn't seem particularly scared of it yet.  Ah, the innocence of youth...  In any case, by all means, keep it coming.

Overall, I'm really enjoying this series.  The artwork is good, the pacing and characterization is great, and the action is just what you'd expect from a title like this.  If you haven't given this series a go yet, I'd suggest reading this issue.  The pacing and action alone make it worth a look, and everything else is worth reading up on.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Comic Review -- Scarlet Spider #3: Scarlet Fury! / Christopher Yost, Ryan Stegman, Mike Babinski, Marte Gracia, and Wade von Grawbadger

I have to say, I'm really liking the covers for this series so far.  It's like a parade of poster shots for Kaine's new persona, and they all look pretty bad-ass so far.  This one is particularly menacing, with the angry Scarlet Spider glaring at you with the full moon directly behind him.  Excellent posing, excellent composition, and wonderful execution.  This one's a win.

Kaine starts off foiling a mugging of one of Houston's citizens, scaring the hell out of the mugger and telling him to leave town before continuing his quest to take care of Aracely, the young woman he saved last issue.  He asks a local bartender, Annabelle Adams, for help watching over her, which she reluctantly provides after Aracely at first attacks her.  With a little help from Donald Meland, the doctor he spoke to who was treating Aracely, Kaine sneaks into the ruins of the hospital where he fought the Salamander to get medical supplies.

When an assassin tries to kill Meland, Kaine defends him and ambushes the killer.  In the ensuing fight, Kaine is gassed by the assassin, forcing him to remove his mask.  The assassin, who reveals himself to be a member of the Assassins Guild, recognizes Kaine, and escapes before Kaine can recover, leaving Kaine certain that the Guild will be coming for him, in force, very soon.  Apparently, our boy has really ticked off its leader, Belladonna.

This issue, even more than the last one, is establishing Kaine's supporting cast and major players.  Doctor Meland is given both a name and a basic personality; Wally Layton, his husband, is similarly established; Annabelle Adams is introduced; and, of course, there's Aracely, who's been Kaine's focus since things started. More interestingly, we get a glimpse of who his main nemeses are: the Assassins Guild.

Yeah.  The New Orleans-based, take-no-prisoners group of baddies that's given Wolverine, the X-Men, and even the Hand a run for their money.  Those guys.

Even though there are two action scenes in this issue, it still feels more like a breather for Kaine and company while the bigger pieces of the arc are maneuvered into place.  And that's fine by me; cover-to-cover action gets pretty exhausting pretty quickly, and good storytelling develops other areas as well.  One rather serendipitous moment from this issue that confused me was why the hell Kaine asked Annabelle for help.  What was his reason for picking some random, red-headed bartender hottie to ask for help?  All I can think is that, as Peter Parker's genetic clone, maybe he has a predisposition for redheads?  I dunno, it just seemed really random, as he didn't really know her and had no good reason to trust her.

I'm personally very curious to know just what Kaine did to piss off Belladonna to the point that he now knows the Assassins Guild will be coming after him instead of Meland.  I'm sure it'll be mentioned next issue, but I can only imagine it was something both vicious and vulgar, and perhaps a touch hilarious.  In any case, I'll be sticking around to see what it is.

Artistically, this series continues to delight.  Stegman has been really good at including at least one poster-worthy pose for Kaine when he's in costume, and he does both action and dramatic scenes very well.  I'm a little confused about how Kaine looks in a couple of panels, where it looks like his costume is... I dunno... cloaking and un-cloaking?  Is there some tech in that thing that makes him look like that?  Or is the heat in Houston just making the air sweat and swelter that much around him?

Overall, I like this issue and this story arc.  I'm sure it'll get intense as the Guild brings more assassins to town looking for him, and I'm eager to see how he handles it.  If we know one thing by now about Kaine, it's this: he won't handle it anything like Spider-Man would.  Highly recommended.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Comic Review -- Scarlet Spider #2: After Life / Christopher Yost, Ryan Stegman, Mike Babinski, and Marte Gracia

It took me forever to get a copy of Scarlet Spider #2--I hadn't started a pull list by that point.  While I've since corrected that mistake, I still had to wait over a month for a second printing.  Once I got it, I finally allowed myself to read the issues in sequence.  Now, I can finally start reviewing them for you.

There doesn't seem to be as much detail in the second printing variant cover--and explosion seems to have been replaced with simple orange space--but it's still a decent picture.  Kaine is still obviously escaping from a crumbling pile of something, and looking pretty cool doing it.  I'd prefer the full picture for a poster or t-shirt, but this one's not bad for denoting a second printing.

Kaine has done his one good deed, saved a young immigrant girl from a horrible fate, and is ready to leave her in the hospital, washing his hands clean of any further involvement.  He's denied the need to help others, and this isn't his problem.  But when he sees an explosion coming from the direction of the building in which he left her, he flies right back into action, finally donning the Scarlet Spider costume--which looks cool as hell, I might add--and gets into a fight with someone called Salamander, who's hunting the girl down.  Kaine wins the fight, showing during the fight that he's not Spider-Man, pulling a gun and webbing up Salamander after beating him viciously.

When he goes to check on the girl, Aracely, he is asked by her doctor and a local cop to stay in Houston, where a superhero is needed.  They tell him that everyone saw what he did today, and that he'd be a welcome guardian for Houston.  Kaine initially refuses, but then decides otherwise, using some of the money he's come across to take Aracely and keep her in his luxury hotel suite, where he can keep an eye on her.  He finds himself unable to leave Houston yet, seeing a second chance at life and the opportunity to do some good and make amends for his violent past.

It was nice to see Kaine finally put on the costume and throw down with a supervillain.  We can see that, while he's not Peter Parker, he's definitely cut from the same cloth, deep down: he can't abide the suffering of innocent people, no matter what he says.  Despite a much more brutal fighting style and brusque manner, he still has a need to be the good guy, to do the right thing.  It's been his habit to do the opposite up until recently, but he's showing a gradual migration to the side of angels.  We'll have to see how far he gets.

We can also start to see the formation of a supporting cast of characters for Kaine as he starts putting down roots.  People are getting names--Aracely, for instance--and characters like her doctor are getting more exposure than they normally would if they were simply throw-away background characters.  Sure, it feels a bit formulaic, but it does make a certain amount of sense.  Kaine, for all his curtness, is not the Punisher, and will need the help of others, both for superheroing and to help him find and explore his humanity.  I'll be interested to see how this turns out.

Artistically, I very much enjoyed this issue.  The action sequences were intense and fluid, and I just loved the full-page shot of Kaine in the Scarlet Spider costume.  The black and red really works.  Salamander's flames, explosions, and super-heated air made for a visually interesting fight.  Stegman's people look realistic, distinct, and expressive, and his backgrounds nicely complement the main action.

Overall, I'm impressed.  I like the fact that my city, Houston, now has its own "superhero," even if Kaine despises the term.  I'll be interested to see how things progress, and whether the narrative will be able to maintain a compelling story in this new locale.  I like the look and feel of things so far.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

What's the Best Superpower? part I: It's Not Just About the Powers

Thanks to this article on Comicvine, I've spent the last couple of days thinking of my own consistent answer to the question all comic book geeks ask, debate, and fight over.  Put succinctly, which comic book power is the best?

Of course, with the question phrased in such an open-ended manner, it's very easy to argue endlessly about which power is better than that power, and why it would trump or be trumped by that power over there.  It's one of the things that make superhero comics such a joy to read and discuss with others, since the possibilities are virtually endless.  Some powers work better under particular conditions than others, and various settings and environments can make a huge difference.

"I'm kind of useless on a hot, dry day!"
Let's use Bobby Drake, the Iceman, as an example.  He has the mutant ability to pull moisture from the surrounding air, convert it to frozen solid water (you know, ice), and utilize ice in various ways: armor, projectiles, ice slides, and so on.  It's a pretty cool power--pun intended--but what happens in less than ideal conditions?

I'm sure Bobby will be fine for battle on a cold day or a during the regular span of temperatures, but what happens when things get abnormally hot?  What if he has to do battle in Hell, or the Stygian abyss of Mephisto's realm (arguably the same as Hell) or Houston, Texas in August (also arguably the same as Hell).  I don't know if it's purely psychological, or if there is a temperature threshold at which Bobby's ice powers simply start to impair, but it's an issue that's caused him more than one moment of doubt as an X-Man over the years.

So, we know ice powers aren't flawless.  Technically, no power is.  It's all in how you use them, and how smart you are about it.

Avatar: the Last Airbender supported this theory by showing that no bending element was superior to another.  It all depended on the bender's particular mastery of their element, how smart they were about fighting with it, and the skill of the opposing bender.

"Power in firebending comes from the breath,
not the muscle!"
Prince Zuko, who turned out to be an excellent firebender by the series' end, is a prime example of this.  He was not a smart fighter when we see him at the beginning of season one: he wastes energy on over-large movements, doesn't focus on his breath control, and expends energy by depending on his temper.  Eventually he becomes a more efficient fighter, learning the value of hitting an opponent's weak points with a relatively little energy.  By the time he takes on Aang as a firebending pupil, he's learned a good deal of control, both internal and external, over his abilities, and truly is one of the better firebenders out there.

I make these points to illustrate that, oftentimes, powers alone aren't going to decide the outcome of a battle.  It's simply not going to be the only factor, nor even necessarily the most important one.  Environment, opponent awareness and your own resourcefulness are going to have huge, and often decisive effects on any super-powered brawl.

Which is why I must respectfully disagree with G-Man's answer in the article linked above.  Super-intellect, which is his choice for best power, does not necessarily cover sound tactical and strategic thinking.  It covers science smarts, amassed knowledge, and ability to apply those things in a practical way to aid in a fight.  Is it useful?  Very definitely, but it certainly does not guarantee that whoever has it will always be a smart fighter.  I would posit that what G-Man actually means to be a power is actually a learnable skill, one that many people with lower IQs than Reed Richards or Hank Pym have learned and used against them in combat.

Captain America has this skill.  Emma Frost has this skill.  Hell, we've recently seen Spider-Man take this skill and use it in conjunction with his own high intellect to whip up armor, tech, and gadgets to combat the Sinister Six, but he also regularly applies it in combat as well.

I think this particular skill--we'll call it tactical cognition--is something that is learnable by all super-powered individuals, usually through direct combat experience.  Furthermore, it is something that is virtually indispensable to a hero's continued survival.  This is a skill that is needed by all superheroes no matter what other powers and abilities they have, though to what degree they would need it would often depend on their role in a given situation.  I definitely don't consider it the same as super-intellect.

Hmm.  I've started out asking one question, and seem to have veered into a multi-part answer.  Next time I address this, I'll set some ground rules for selecting a power.  For now, just keep in mind that the powers themselves aren't the only part of the equation, and not even necessarily the most important factor.  Smarts, environment, resourcefulness, and probably a lot of other factors I've failed to mention can influence or even decide a battle.  

It isn't just about what powers you're packin', True Believers.  That point, to me, is probably the most important part of the answer to this question.

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

GN Review -- Ultimate X-Men, v. 1: The Tomorrow People / Mark Millar and Adam Kubert

I've read and enjoyed various incarnations of the Marvel Ultimate Universe, most notably Ultimate Spider-Man and the Ultimates.  The X-Men from this universe, however, have until recently not made it to my hands for a thorough reading.  Sure, I've read about them, and know a lot about their adventures as far as they occur around Spider-Man, but their books have avoided me for a long time.

Wow.  What a read.

I don't know what I'm surprised about, to be honest.  I knew this was the Ultimate Marvel universe, where things were going to be ramped up and amped up to appeal to modern readers without the weight of continuity pressing down on the mythology.  I knew Mark Millar was writing it, and am well aware of how he can present a radical re-imagining of a superhero team in this reality that is both compelling and familiar.  But I was still pretty blown away by what I saw in this volume's pages.

Things start off with a recruitment drive as Jean Grey visits several troubled young mutants and pulls them to Xavier's school.  Their first mission--rescuing the young mutant Bobby Drake from Sentinels--reveals their existence to Magneto, leader of the Brotherhood of Mutants, who quickly decides to raise the stakes for Xavier and his charges.  He sends one of his assassins, the man known as Wolverine (!) to infiltrate and take out Xavier, then kidnaps the President's daughter, demanding an immediate end to the Sentinel program that has been laying waste to mutants throughout the story.

The X-Men go to Croatia to rescue the President's daughter from the Brotherhood, who of course put up a fight and eventually gain the edge when Magneto arrives on the scene.  Magneto, who is visibly upset with the X-Men for foiling his plan, nevertheless has his people help them free their injured, possibly dead comrade Beast, and tells them to "just go."  Cyclops, upset with how badly the mission went, temporarily leaves the X-Men and joins the Brotherhood, while Wolverine, who's seduced Jean, confesses to her his motives for joining--and staying--with the X-Men.  While successful in negotiating a suspension of the Sentinel program, Xavier is nevertheless horrified to see that the President will send them on one more mission: an assault on the Savage Land, Magneto's base of operations.

Magneto's response is both swift and forceful: he reprograms the Sentinels to attack any non-mutants, and sends them back to Washington, D.C.  He goes along with them to execute the President.  Xavier and the X-Men do everything they can to protect the populace, and Cyclops convinces Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch to come with him to stop their father.  In a final face-off, Xavier and Magneto clash, with Xavier surviving only because of the timely intervention of both Wolverine, who's switched sides and joined the X-Men; and Quicksilver, who steals Magneto's helmet and renders him vulnerable to Xavier's telepathy.  Magneto is vanquished in grand fashion, the Sentinel program is put on ice, and the Brotherhood has an opportunity to join the X-Men if they wish--with Xavier promising things will only get more interesting...

There's definitely a familiar feel to this X-Men story: the characters are all there, there's the wooing of prospective mutants, a tug-of-war rivalry between the Brotherhood, and the ever-familiar anti-mutant hysteria among the general populace.  But when the differences come up, they really rise up and smack you across the face.  Wolverine working for the Brotherhood?!  Magneto having eaten human flesh?!  Beast nursing an unrequited crush on Storm?!  Storm as a newbie who barely has any control over her powers?!  Magneto and Xavier so blatantly and forcefully trying to kill one another, despite their past frienship?!

Needless to say, this is a darker, more vicious incarnation of the X-Men and their world, and I'm eager to see what other changes to other characters and plotlines lay in store for future volumes.

Artistically, this was a very well done story.  Adam Kubert, along with brother Andy, deliver X-Men that look remarkably like their prime universe counterparts, with just enough difference thrown in to show that these are not *quite* the same X-Men.  All of the elements sport this motif, from the main characters, to Magneto and the Brotherhood, to the Sentinels.  The locales are all drawn extremely well, and the action scenes are epic, fluid, and memorable.  In short, exactly what is called for in an X-Men comic.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable read, definitely one that X-Men fans should be aware of.  It's definitely on the darker side of the spectrum, with a more visceral Magneto and a downright vicious Wolverine, but it's also a compelling read, with good art and a worthwhile initial story arc.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

GN Review -- Morning Glories, v. 1: For a Better Future / Nick Spencer, Joe Eisma, and Rodin Esquejo

I'd heard good things about Morning Glories before I picked up volume 1--basically comparisons to Lost and George Owell's works--but they still didn't prepare me for how thoroughly the story gripped me and simply wouldn't let go.  This suspenseful and character-driven story proved an enjoyable read, and the fact that it's an ongoing from Image means I may have to play catch-up before delving into the current issues.

The story centers around six new students at Morning Glory Academy, a rigorous prep school for gifted students.  They fit a variety of personality types, but the real standout among them is Casey Blevins, who's super-gifted, beautiful, and comes from a loving and supportive family.  When she starts to suspect the faculty of Morning Glory are using their students for more sinister purposes than academic preparation, she gets swift and unmistakable backlash from the school's administrators--in the form of her parents having been killed.  When one of her peers, Jade, is imprisoned, she hatches a plan involving the other students to get her back so they can all escape from the school.

The plan does not go off flawlessly, but Casey impresses one of the faculty with her smarts, resourcefulness, and execution.  After the point is intimidatingly driven home that she must be more obedient at Morning Glory, Casey beats up Ike, one of her co-conspirators who betrayed her, and makes it known that he is to stay away from the rest of them.  In a subsequent, presumably future storyline, we see an administrator at Morning Glory trying to hire a scientist over to their facility.  When she finally agrees to work for them, we see that the administrator is Jade.

I have to say, this was a fun read, and not just for all the pseudo-supernatural, pseudo-Lovecraftian cloak and dagger going on throughout the narrative, though that is pretty involving as well.  The characters themselves are all well detailed and compelling, even as they conform to a wide range of stereotypical labels.  The plot does a lot to pull the reader along without revealing too much, and ensures virtually anyone who reads it will have plenty of questions requiring further exploration of the series.

The interpersonal dynamics in this book are fascinating, though mostly seen through Casey's eyes.  The fireworks between Casey and Miss Daramount, the faculty liaison, are particularly interesting as they engage in a fierce battle of wills over Jade, as well as Casey's level of cooperation with their questioning.  Casey's cautious relationship to Ike, the rich kid who has a knack for getting into and out of trouble, is fraught with both uncertainty and a touch of disgust, as she clearly wants nothing to do with him--he wants to sleep with her--but concedes she needs his expertise on dealing with the faculty at Morning Glory.

Artistically, this book delivers.  The characters, in addition to being well defined in the writing, each have their own unique look and visual personality.  They're all beautiful, young teens with attitudes and great hair, well rendered by Eisma's pencils.  The action scenes are great, and the suspense and supernatural scenes are done in a way that will keep you turning the page to see what happens next.

Overall, this is an extremely good start to what seems to be a very well regarded series.  I'm eager to see more, and think teens especially will get a kick out of reading this series.  It's suspenseful, features plenty of action and defiance of authority figures, and is basically kids against the larger entity of the school.  Highly recommended.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Game Review -- X-Men Legends / Activision

Back in 2004, when the Playstation 2 and the X-Box were slugging it out for dominance in the console gaming market, Activision put out one of the most epic comic book games of its time.  It was an action-RPG, featuring Marvel's X-Men characters, who were enjoying a massive upswing in popularity due to the success of two feature films. It ended up being a milestone, not just for the acclaim brought about by its own performance, but also because it was the start of a legacy, becoming the template for 3 sequel games.

I am, of course, referring to X-Men Legends.

Admittedly, it ended up being a few months before I got around to playing X-Men Legends.  The basic plot centers around the emergence of teenager Alison Crestmere as a mutant, one with the power to control and manipulate molten earth.  Fittingly, she eventually takes the codename Magma, but before she does, she become the target of an attempted kidnapping by Mystique and the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants.  The X-Men arrive on the scene and manage to stop them from taking her, and bring her back to the mansion to offer her a place at Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters.  As the X-Men try to figure out what Magneto wants with her, they engage in a series of adventures against a multitude of some of their most dangerous adversaries.

The action-RPG style of X-Men Legends combines the best of freestyle button-mashing, combos, and basic hack-and-slash fighting with the kind of layered, engaging character advancement you get from the best role-playing games.  At the heart of it all, you have a wide-ranging, dynamic story featuring an enormous cast of playable X-Men, their most memorable allies and enemies, and a plot that, while not the most complex in the world, leaves plenty of room for a sequel to follow--which, it totally did.  While you experience a lot of story through Magma's eyes and character, there is plenty of development that occurs among the main X-Men characters, including a few very nice flashback scenes that recall old comic book stories and show some of the retro looks the characters sported in earlier years.

There's also a high level of versatility incorporated into the game world and mechanics behind utilizing your characters.  Some puzzles can be solved in multiple ways, through use of force, thought, or clever use of mutant abilities.  A wide range of powers and abilities, both passive and active, are available to every character as they level up, and they're managed through a clever and intuitive scheme of button combinations that make good use of controller layout.  There are also combination moves that grant extra experience and damage, when you manage to combine one mutant ability with another against a foe in battle.

Leveling up your character is also an engaging process, with more than just their raw powers up for improvement.  With the utilization of gear and ability points, you can also upgrade their basic combat characteristics as well.  That means you can make them more resistant to damage with armor, increase their defense, attack, stamina, and HP stats with ability points, and upgrade their powers and abilities, often all in one go.  This is the game that came before you got the option of alternate costume skins for your character, so that element is missing, but gets addressed and taken care of in the sequel, Rise of Apocalypse.

In the area of play control, there's plenty to praise and a little to gripe about.  Overall, it's very intuitive, with directional, attack, and other mechanical necessities rendered smoothly.  I do have issues with how the camera will occasionally zip to a highly inconvenient angle, but this occurs fairly infrequently, and can usually be corrected with a quick moment on the directional stick.  By and large, the game handles extremely well.

The graphics are also awesome, with plenty of faithfully rendered cel shade animation for the characters, and believably destructible environments.  It's not the most advanced graphics work, but again, this was the first of its kind, and subsequent titles update based on the classic look of this game.  The voice work is stellar, with the most notable bit of casting going to Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, reprising his role from the hit movies.

Overall, this is a great game, and a wonderful beginning to the franchise that spawned X-Men Legends II: The Rise of Apocalypse, Marvel: Ultimate Alliance, and Marvel: Ultimate Alliance 2, all good-to-excellent games in and of themselves.  It combines an engaging story with good graphics, dynamic action, excellent voice work, and a feel to the X-Men universe that is very genuine and well done.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Comic Review -- Avengers vs. X-Men #0 / Brian Michael Bendis, Jason Aaron, Frank Cho, and Jason Keith

I'd been meaning to read this issue weeks ago, but only recently got around to it.  Since I've already started the AvX stories, I figured I should get this one read and reviewed.  So, here goes!

I like the cover, though the Scarlet Witch and Hope Summers don't really appear together in this issue.  Instead, they have separate stories that feature each of them.  Still, the image is very evocative, and does a good job of selling the notion that these two will play some kind of prominent role in the coming saga.  Hope's apparent role is already pretty obvious, but Wanda's is a little harder to divine.  Still, we only know what's been written up to this point, so anything goes.  Did anyone notice the barely visible greyscale Ms. Marvel and Iron Man also on the cover?

In the first story, the Scarlet Witch makes a reappearance on the superhero scene by foiling as assassination attempt by M.O.D.O.K. and A.I.M. on one of their former scientists who tried to leave them.  While she isn't able to hold them off on her own, she keeps them occupied long enough for Ms. Marvel and Spider-Woman to arrive and help her finish the job.  They are happy to see Wanda, and insist on bringing her back to Avengers Mansion, but she is highly reluctant to go.  When they get there, she is greeted by Vision, her husband, who coldly rejects her and tells her she has no home among the Avengers.  Ms. Marvel flies a crying Wanda off the scene, while Vision silently weeps for his loss.

Hope's story features her flying off Utopia with Cyclops's jetpack.  Apparently she's been taking it upon herself to play solo vigilante to blow off steam.  Cyclops confronts her about it, and she uses the opportunity to ask him about the Phoenix Force.  When he's less than forthcoming, she leaves the island and goes to break up a late-night bank burglary underway by the Serpent Society.  By the time Scott and Emma find her, she's taken down their members and is beating Cottonmouth to a pulp.  She tells Scott that she's not afraid of the Phoenix Force, and that she's ready for it and wants it to come.  Emma expresses that this is all too much pressure for Hope, and Scott replies that either way, for good or bad, Hope is special, and will find a way to handle it.

I really enjoyed the Scarlet Witch's story.  I'm not terribly familiar with Wanda as a character, but I know she has a long, deep history with the Avengers.  It's also not hard to imagine that she's something of a pariah, as she nearly obliterated the entire mutant race with the phrase, "No more mutants" a few years ago to spite her father Magneto.  She's very aware of all of this, and even though she's trying to do better by playing the hero again, she knows she can't go home again, at least not yet.  When Vision rejects her, you can see the fear realized in her face as she tearfully apologizes for her past actions.  Clearly there are a range of opinions about her return: Wolverine and Beast seemed less than thrilled to see her--probably in light of the mutant issue--but Thor and Iron Man, long-time comrades in arms of hers, seemed sympathetic, and even sad to see her go away at Vision's behest.  It makes me more interested in Wanda's backstory up to this point, and I will have to endeavor to read all the Avengers Disassembled, House of M, and Decimation stories where she features so prominently.

I was not so keen on Hope's story.  Again, I'm not terribly familiar with her character either, but all the depictions I've seen of her haven't painted a very good picture.  She comes off as an overpowered, petulant teenager whose sense of self-importance is a little too confident for her age.  She openly defies Scott, blows off his concerns and attempts to discipline her, and barely seems moved by the impending events concerning her.  While she's ostensibly resorting to her vigilante activities as a form of coping with it, I'm still not feeling any real sense of fear, or trepidation, or uncertainty from her.  That would go a long way towards making her portrayal more sympathetic.

The art in both stories is very good.  I like Frank Cho's pencils, and while I have some issues with how old Hope looks if she's supposed to be an actual teenager, I have nothing but praise for how his adult heroes look.  Wanda looks beautiful and almost lost in her apprehension.  Iron Man and Beast looked a little off during their brief appearances, but I'm perfectly willing to forgive that, since they were little more than talking heads with up-or-down thumbs in that story.  Very enjoyable to behold.

Overall, it's difficult at this juncture to see how relevant these stories are to the upcoming AvX arc.  Each is intriguing in its way, and I will be keeping an eye on these two characters throughout the story, but there's little that's conveyed that directly ties in to the main arc.  It informs it more than anything else.  Still, they're good reads--I obviously think the Scarlet Witch feature is better than Hope's--with good art, and worth a glimpse, at the very least.  Recommended.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Comic Review -- New Avengers #24 / Brian Michael Bendis, Mike Deodato, Will Conrad, Rain Beredo

Okay, the event is here, I get it.  Now please get rid of the banner.  Is this what I get to look forward to with all the AvX tie-ins?

I like the composition of this cover, with Wolverine in the middle of a fighting Cyclops and Captain America.  Where he's going to ultimately fall remains in question, and is of keen interest to many readers of this event.  Cyke's head seems a little over-large, even with the visor, but overall the illustration flows pretty nicely and keeps things intense and interesting.  Not bad.  My only complaint is that, given the story inside, Luke Cage and Jessica Jones should have been featured on it.

In the lead-up to the events portrayed in AvX #1, there are problems aplenty at Avengers Mansion.  Protesters outside seem to have issues with the heroes' very existence, while Luke Cage is panic-stricken and upset that Jessica Jones has taken their baby and disappeared in response to a threat Norman Osborne has made against their child.  Jessica re-emerges, much to Cage's relief, but tells him that she can't live such a dangerous lifestyle, and that their child doesn't belong at the Avengers Mansion.  Cage is torn between his desire to have a family and to be an Avenger, and when Captain America assembles the team to tell them about the impending approach of the Phoenix Force, he must make a decision.  Electing to stand with his Avengers teammates in the face of the current crisis, he kisses his daughter good-bye, and Jessica leaves the mansion.  As the Avengers jump from the Helicarrier to engage the X-Men in the present, the focus is on Cage, who has sacrificed his ability to be with his family to fight against this crisis.

I know that there's no real new action that really advances the AvX plot, but I actually really liked this facet of the story.  What we have is a relatively minor crisis--Luke and Jessica's domestic dilemma--juxtaposed against the bigger, more urgent crisis of the Phoenix Force coming to Earth.  It's a poignant reminder that there's always more to a story or conflict than simply the immediate, bigger crisis, and it lends depth to Cage as he chooses superheroism over family life.

It's obviously a painful sacrifice, and makes you wonder what other crises or situations are going on in everyone else's private lives, be they Avengers or X-Men, as they participate in this macro-crisis.  It also makes you wonder whether or not Cage's little speech about putting your own house in order before trying to solve the problems of the world applies to his current situation.  It was a good speech, and a very relevant outlook to the situation with the protesters, but it seemed to have to give way to larger concerns. The current situation would seem to demonstrate the opposite, that there are some macro-crises that simply must be addressed before the smaller ones can be fixed.

Artistically, everything looks excellent.  The intimate heart-to-heart scenes between Luke and Jessica convey a lot of emotion from each character, and the larger scenes with the other heroes look spot-on.  The resignation and pain on Cage's face as he kisses his daughter goodbye are plain, as is the steadfast resolve he wears as he hurtles down to Utopia to help take Cyclops and the X-Men down.  Wonderful work here.

Overall, this isn't a necessary part to the larger story, but I think it will reward those who read it, giving a little more depth to what could easily be described as a season-long cage-fest match-up between the teams.  I'm eager to see where more of the larger story goes, of course, but I think this is a good piece that still falls in the "round 1" part of the story.  Highly recommended.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Comic Review -- Amazing Spider-Man #676: Tomorrow, the World! / Dan Slott, Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba, Edgar Delgado

Since I'm in the thick of reviews about "The Ends of the Earth" storyline going on in Amazing Spider-Man, I thought it'd make sense to review a story that is a direct precursor to it.  Starring the Sinister Six, "Tomorrow, the World!" sets up how they acquire the headquarters they end up using during the later story arc.

I'm generally not a fan of covers with dialog on them, but I guess I'll forgive this one, as it's literally the only appearance Spidey has in the story.  And besides, it's a corny, amusing-enough Spidey line, so it's not like it's out of place.  Artistically, I like the action pose and the reflection of the Sinister Six in the glass behind Spider-Man.  It is, at the very least, upfront about the premise, as the Sinister Six do take over this issue.

It's made clear from the get-go that the Sinister Six are preparing for something big: Sandman and Rhino are training up on their powers, Electro is helping put the finishing touches on the final suit Doctor Octopus will be wearing when he dies.  After the Intelligencia, a team of smart super-villains, quickly (and remotely) dispatch a super-team known as the Winter Guard through the use of their doomsday weapon, the zero cannon, the Sinister Six move in on their secret geo-base headquarters in the North Pole and attack them.

What follows is your typical inter-team  fight, with various members from one side paired up against someone from the other side.  Eventually, the leaders of each team, Doctor Octopus and M.O.D.O.K., engage in a battle of wits, with Ock quickly gaining the advantage and forcing M.O.D.O.K. to admit that he's Ock's inferior.  The Intelligencia, defeated, are then kicked out of their headquarters, with a warning to stay out of the Sinister Six's way.  Sandman asks why they saved the world from the Intelligencia's doomsday weapon, and Ock simply responds that it was a means to an end: the Sinister Six would be taking over the world in 2012.

I have to admit, this was a fun issue.  It's always nice to see a focus on the hero's adversary squad, particularly this incarnation.  Ock's resignation to his impending mortality is not without ambition, and it was especially interesting to see Sandman talking to the Wizard in the middle of their battle, with their past friendship coming to light.  I like small nods like that to continuity, however distant, as it shows the writer actually reads and cares about the source material.

Mysterio's line about thinking of the Intelligencia like Big Bang Theory, only evil, was pretty amusing as well.

From a larger perspective, it's also interesting to see the Sinister Six engaged in something that isn't directly either world domination or killing Spider-Man.  Sure, I imagine this story was a stepping stone to it, but it's nice to see them laying the groundwork by doing their own little version of saving the world.  And I have to say, at this point, I've seen Chameleon get caught twice in the last few issues.  He's no Vulture; at least with him, you knew he could play his part.  Chameleon keeps screwing  up, and I want him to go away.

Artistically, I have to say that I like Humberto Ramos's pencil work in this issue.  It's not perfect, and feels a little sloppy in places (like the Winter Guard's brief scene), but when he concentrates on the main parts of the story, it looks great.  All of the characters look engaged, expressive, and the action is dynamic and fluid. Ock's look is both terrifying and pitiable, but he conveys such an overwhelming sense of viciousness that it's easy to forget that this is a dying man.  Very good work.

Overall, this is a good stand-alone story that nevertheless adds a little bit of stock to the current "Ends of the Earth" story arc going on in ASM.  The portrayal of the Sinister Six is both amusing and compelling in places, the artwork is very fitting, and it sets up the current arc nicely.  Anyone who likes "Ends of the Earth" so far will want to read this.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

What Are the Ideal Methods of Reading and Collecting Digital Comics?

As a potentially serious digital comics reader, I know there are a range of issues that will affect how I access, purchase, and enjoy any digital comics I read.  The approach I intend to take towards digital comics, therefore, should involve a good deal of consideration, research, and soul-searching before I just charge into the fray.  I'm going to lay out my current digital reading habits, a few of the issues I see ahead of me, my intended approach to collecting digital comics, and what currently appear to be the best options for me with that in mind.

My current digital reading habits mainly involve two pieces of hardware: my desktop computer and my smartphone, an Android-based HTC Vivid.  On the desktop, I mostly just read free samples from, on what I assume is their Digital Comics Unlimited interface.  From my Android phone, I have the following apps through which I read comics: Comixology, Marvel Comics, DC Comics, and Dark Horse.

Again, I mostly read free samples through these apps (having sampled Justice League, Hellboy, and several Spider-Man titles), though I did redeem my digital copy of Avengers vs. X-Men #1 through my phone and read that through the Marvel app, and found the reading experience to be decent.  So, while my overall experience with reading digital comics is at the shallow end of the pool, I'm finding Marvel's method of luring readers with a free digital copy to be both enjoyable and deepening in terms of exposure to the medium.

There are a wide range of issues that have thus far prevented me from investing in a dedicated hardware interface for digital comics.  By far the biggest annoyance is the ebook reader wars between the Amazon Kindle readers and the Barnes and Noble NOOK.  Basically, the Kindle has an exclusive deal with DC Comics, where DC graphic novels are only available on the Kindle.  The NOOK, conversely, has offered a similar deal with Marvel comics.  So, by and large, if you want access to both publishers' content, going with either of these options is not feasible.  Finding comic apps on the NOOK at least, is a terribly frustrating endeavor, so that's definitely not a possibility for me at this point.

I'd strongly considered investing in one of these two technologies up until I heard about this.  I would basically just use an e-reader to read comics.

So, versatility and variety are top factors in my approach to collecting and reading digital.  While I don't have a problem downloading individual issues, the option of downloading a trade collecting several issues at once is also desirable.  The problem is, I'm not sure there's a way to do that, with the DC & Kindle/Marvel & NOOK war going on.  Hopefully that'll be resolved in the near future, but I know better than to hold my breath for such things.

At this point, I'm reluctantly forced to conclude that perhaps the iPad is the best way to go, if I want to read on a bigger screen.  It has the most versatility, and from what I can see, the most likelihood of breaking the wall of the e-reader war in the future.  Not only can it act as an e-reader (among other things), but it doesn't seem to have the problems finding and downloading apps that I've seen on the NOOK and read plenty about with regard to the Kindle (even the Fire).  So, reading single issue comics shouldn't be a problem at all.  Whether it can grab trades is something I'm not sure about.  My guess would be no, given that Marvel and DC should currently be available exclusively to NOOK and Kindle, respectively.

I have to admit though, I do have high hopes Google/Android will make a comparable product to the iPad.  I love my Android phone, which I ditched the iPhone for, and it does provide an excellent current medium for digital comics.  It will likely be my preferred reading method, since it has all the capabilities I've seen on an iPad with regard to digital comics and AR functionality.

I would be curious to know how others get their comics digitally, what their favorite programs and apps are, and how they approach collecting in this arena.  Any new information or perspectives are welcome about this, as this is an area of comic books where my perspective is constantly evolving.