Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Why Norman Osborn Is Peter Parker's Greatest Love

If this article seems hastily written, my apologies.  I'm perpetually short on time, and on deadline.

I recently read a pair of articles on ComicVine that make arguments for why Mary Jane Watson and Gwen Stacy are each the best romantic interest for Peter Parker (aka Spider-Man).  The MJ article really pissed me off, as I could list off a multitude of reasons why I think she was a lousy match for Peter.  Needless to say, I'm none too pleased at the direction the comics are currently taking with them, as they seem to be angling to put them together post-One More Day travesty.  The Gwen Stacy article, while I have fewer issues with it, still seems a little too mired in the sentimentality of the past.

Still, the comments section of any article is either a source of great humor or angst, and in reading the replies to both articles, I was inspired by one of the commenters to respond with one of the more hilarious takes on this topic.  Namely, why Norman Osborn is Peter Parker's greatest love.

Don't believe me?  Step up to the stage, skeptic! :-P

Norman Osborn, in case any of you don't know, is the Green Goblin, one of Spider-Man's most iconic and long-standing foes.  It's easy to say that he's obsessed with Spider-Man, in much the same way the Joker is obsessed with Batman (and vice versa).  So like MJ and Gwen, he's been in Peter's life for a very long time.  And unlike one of these potential true loves, Norman's come back for the dead for him!

He's the father of Peter's best friend, Harry Osborn, and has on multiple occasions lamented how much better a son Peter would have made for him than the unmotivated, underachieving Harry.  On more than one occasion, Norman has indicated an obsession with making Peter his surrogate son in Harry's stead, an offer which Peter always refuses.  So in that sense at least, you have Peter playing hard to get, and Norman always pursuing him.

Even when he knew Peter's secret identity as Spider-Man (or vice versa), he's never actually spilled the beans to the public, something Peter did himself in the Civil War.  Sure, he may have manipulated, threatened, and driven him crazy, but at least he never killed Aunt May or put her in any kind of terminal condition--which Peter essentially did do. So in a warped sense of irony, he knows Peter better than Peter knows himself, and treats Peter better than Peter often treats himself.

Then there's the storyline Sins Past, where we find out that way, way back in the past, Norman Osborn actually slept with Gwen Stacy and fathered children with her.  Now clearly, Norman had no real feelings for Gwen--he certainly didn't think twice about killing her--and was much more interested in furthering his obsession with creating a worthy heir, but by this point in their history, he had to realize he wasn't going to get anywhere with his other obsession, Peter Parker.  But given Peter's closeness with Gwen, what better way to feel close to the object of your affection (short of killing his girl, which he succeeded at doing) than nailing his love and getting her pregnant with twins?

If he wasn't able to have Peter, he could at least make himself a permanent fixture in his life.

Finally, there's the letter.

You know what I'm talking about.  From the story arc The Last Stand.  Spidey has just defeated the Goblin after being put through a specially taxing series of gauntlets, managed to rescue his Aunt May, and finally earned himself some rest.  And what do we see going in the mail as this happens?  A letter, from Norman Osborn to Peter Parker, thanking him for providing challenge, structure, and purpose for his otherwise boring and humdrum life.  He wishes him all the best, and hopes for a speedy recovery so they can eventually meet again.

If that's not obsession...

Peter may not love Norman Osborn, but he has in his way obsessed over him just as much as Norman has obsessed over Peter.  You can't dispute that he's an enormously important figure in Peter's life, and as time and writing have shown, he'll never leave him the way Gwen did--never mind the technicalities of him killing her, which I would argue is yet another result of his obsession with Spidey.  They give each other meaning and purpose, and definitely strive to be at their best when they get together.

I'm not saying it's a perfect love, and I'm not saying it isn't more than a little twisted, but it is for the reasons above that I believe Norman Osborn, more than Gwen and MJ, is the number one love of Peter Parker's life.

This article is, in case anyone freaks out, intended as a joke.  I don't really think Norman is Peter's greatest love, though this did arise from a sense of discontent from the ComicVine articles.  Comparing Gwen an MJ is really not fair, so I figured another unfair comparison was, ironically, fair game.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Gifts for and from Comic Geeks

So what do you get for a comics geek on special occasions?  More importantly, what does a comics geek get for his friends on holidays, birthdays, etc.?

I'm pretty easy to shop for, as are quite a few of my friends.  Get me comics memorabilia, artwork, comic books and graphic novels I talk about, or anything with Spider-Man on it, and I'm gonna love it.  I have friends who love back issues of Spider-Man, Avengers toy masks, or Walking Dead action figures and board games.

Maybe this is just me being a little too into my hobby as an enthusiast for comic books and graphic novels, and possibly from my readers advisory instincts as a librarian, but my tendency for getting gifts for my friends usually involves getting them comic books.  Me being me, I tend to talk about comics a lot, especially superhero stories, and if any of my friends exhibit enthusiasm for a storyline, graphic novel, or type of comic or art, I'll oftentimes go out and grab that item for them, come the gift-giving occasions.

Some of the more memorable gifts I've gotten for friends and loved ones include back issues of The Amazing Spider-Man; a Walking Dead zombie action figure; volumes of The Runaways; a couple of signed copies of Strangers In Paradise; and the hardback copy of Batman: The Court of Owls.  Some of the more memorable comics gifts I have received include a t-shirt of Black Lantern Batman from the Blackest Night storyline; a Green Lantern wristband; an awesome Spider-Man t-shirt that looks like the top part of his costume, a personal favorite; and a Spider-Man piggy bank, hand-painted by one of my friends.

Of course, not everyone likes comics, and it's not like every one of my friends and loved ones wants a copy of Fables, or a Batman action figure.  While I may take a comics-related tack with my gift-giving when I can, it's certainly not the sum total of the gifts I give.  Always take the time and put in the effort to make sure what you're getting is something they will enjoy and appreciate, even if it isn't something you're expert in.  Even with friends who I think will appreciate comics, I exercise a degree of discrimination about their preferences.  While I have friends who enjoy the Hulk, I'll grab them a copy of Sin City if they express an interest.

Gift giving is one of the great joys of life, especially when done right.  With the popularization of comics in the movies and as a medium of literature, I would argue that it's a particular renaissance for comic geeks.  I know that my collections and those of my friends support this, and I'll bet a lot of others would as well.

Monday, June 25, 2012

I Return!

For the last 10 days or so, I've taken a short hiatus from my daily writings in this blog.  This is mostly due to a number of factors in my life, from having a whole bunch of things going on in my personal life to burnout from writing every day to even having some confidence issues with regard to where this endeavor currently stands.  While I'm glad to be back, I think it's important that I touch on at least a few of these issues.

Those of you who have stuck with me these last few months know how proud I am of how much I've written in the Comics Cove.  From my first post, I made it clear that I was afraid this could be one of those efforts that get started and never get off the ground, that this might turn out to be a blog that gets started and then soon abandoned just because I can't think of anything to write about, or I can't keep the motivation going to write.  Clearly, that has not happened, and I couldn't be more pleased with how much I've written about comics in the time since late 2011.

The last few weeks, however, have been especially taxing for me.  Balancing the time to work, write, relax, and still meet the multitude of responsibilities I have in my personal life has really become difficult with the onset of the summer season.  With everything going on, writing ahead became impossible--I was writing up against a daily wall for much longer than I'll ever admit--and even keeping a daily essay up proved too taxing to maintain.  I am a little disappointed that I won't have written for a full year everyday, but I think if I hadn't taken a break, I simply would have burned out in some vital area of my life, and I wasn't willing to sacrifice any of that, most especially my desire to write.

Things haven't gotten much easier in the adjoining time off, and I'm pretty sure I won't be starting any more grand writing streaks any time soon here.  But I have kept reading comics, and having opinions about the storylines I uncover, so you can safely expect some more reviews and musings in the near future.

With that said, I will probably be taking a more casual approach to this blog, at least in terms of my frequency.  This is for several reasons, including the aforementioned danger of burnout.  Some of the others, however, are more personal.

As I've mentioned before, I'm very happy with my work on the Cove.  It is far and away the longest and most well-maintained blog I've ever undertaken.  And my enjoyment of comics in all forms has led me to keep it going for so much longer than any of my other efforts.  It seems as long as I had a good topic, that I was interested and passionate about, then I would have no shortage of things to post.  And it has been so liberating to discover that firsthand.

But something has changed.

I'm a decent writer, I think.  And I've wanted to be a writer since I was little.  But my first love has always been in fiction, and creating worlds, plots, and characters for people to read about and fall in love with.  And I have done very little fiction writing since I started the Cove.

Don't get me wrong; my output before the Cove wasn't exactly stellar, either.  But with the Cove, I've at least established that consistent writing is an attainable possibility for me.  I know I can do it, but lately it feels like I've been hiding behind the shield of all this creative nonfiction because it's easy for me to choose a topic and go.  I need to stretch my creative muscles more, and take that consistent writing of which I'm capable and try to make it work for the writing of which I'm presumably supposed to be doing more.

What this will all entail isn't exactly clear to me at present.  It may well mean fewer posts in the Cove, but I can't promise it will translate into more posts on my fiction blog, A Glimpse Through the Door.  I'll probably be a lot more miserly with showing off my fiction, as I'm less confident in my ability to write it than I am about my output on the Cove.  Scripts, too.  We'll see.

I do think this is the right direction to go, though.  In listening to Neil Gaiman's recent commencement address, I've come to realize that I have to take the steps that feel like progress towards my goal of being a writer.  I have to walk toward the mountain, as it were.  And this feels like a step in the right direction.  I will walk that path for a while, and hopefully I can share with you how it goes.  In the mean time, wish me luck, keep your readers tuned to this blog, and I promise you'll hear more from me here in the near future.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

GN Review -- Batman: Venom / Dennis O'Neil, Trevor von Eeden, Russell Braun, and José Luis García-López

I'll say this: if there's anything more visually disturbing than seeing Batman with a drug-induced, Joker-esque rictus playing across his crazed visage, I'm hard-pressed to come up with it right now.  The Dark Knight has come to epitomize--often to an obsession-induced fault--the essence of self-control and discipline, so seeing him lose it to the throes of a drug habit is more than a little jarring.  Given the relevance of Batman: Venom to the pivotal future storyline, Knightfall--which is one of the more memorable and traumatic stories from when I started reading comics--I was very eager to finally get my hands on this precursor.

Batman's failure to save a young girl from death leads him to despair his lack of superhuman abilities.  Her father, it turns out, is developing a designer drug that does just that, and offers Batman an initial dose.  In light of his recent failure, he considers it, but initially turns it down.  When he's beaten up by a couple of thugs, he changes his mind.  The drug, which comes to be known as Venom, enhances Batman's strength, reflexes, and agility to levels beyond even his own natural abilities, but it also wreaks havoc on his sense of right and wrong.  He starts going out without the Batsuit.  He becomes irritable and arrogant.  He even considers killing Jim Gordon to get a continued supply of the drug from Doctor Porter.

Finally realizing how badly the Venom is compromising his identity, Batman names Porter and General Slaycroft, his conspirator, to Gordon, who immediately investigates the two men.  He then has Alfred seal him in the Batcave for a month so he can go cold turkey from the drug and wait out the withdrawal symptoms.  Porter and Slaycroft escape to a foreign country island, where Batman eventually follows and confronts them.  They pit him against several Venom-enhanced goons, including the General's own son, before capturing him and putting him in a room that is slowly filling with water.  He has three days to break out, and is offered the Venom, which would make the job easier, if not possible at all.

Batman breaks out, confronts the two men, and manages to overcome them with the unwitting help of the General's son.  Porter takes the Venom, and manages to put up a struggle against the authorities, but can't manage to escape.  He dies several days later from the withdrawal symptoms.  Batman, instead of considering this a victory, remembers the young girl he failed to save, and the general's son, and silently grieves for them.

This is considered one of the touchstone stories in modern Batman lore.  While the basic plot doesn't factor heavily into future stories, the emergence of the super-steroid Venom would later serve as the catalyst and enhancement agent of one of the most dangerous foes in Batman's history, Bane.  Bane has no qualms with Venom's side effects, and revels in the destructive capabilities the drug grants him.  It becomes one of the major reasons he's able to defeat, overpower, and break the back of Batman, and this is the story where it first appears.

Kids, this is your Batman, on drugs.  Any questions?
And it's pretty good.  We see Batman lose himself in his desire to keep his Venom supply going.  He's willing to make a number of moral compromises, and we see him lose sight of the lines he normally never crosses.  When he finally comes to, when faced with the decision of whether or not to kill the closest person he has to a friend, you wonder if he'll actually do it, and you're genuinely relieved when he chooses correctly.  The self-exile and recovery is only touched on--Bruce is off panel for most of it--but you see that he's been put through the wringer by the withdrawal symptoms when he emerges.  It's powerful stuff, and makes the revenge chase and confrontation all the more satisfying to watch.

It isn't without its problems, though.  While this is an overall excellent story concept, I had a couple of problems with the actual execution.  The way Batman and Bruce Wayne talk in this story just rubs me the wrong way.  Seeing and "hearing" Bruce say things like, "the names I got from the body shop" and "Make 'em afraid," just doesn't jibe with my recollection of his diction and speech patterns.  He sounds more like a private detective from an old film noir story--understandable in theory, I guess--but I've never heard the ultra-refined Bruce Wayne sound like that in any of the cartoons except when he was undercover or impersonating someone's accent.  It sticks out here, and not in a good way.

I also have major problems with the ease of Batman's descent into drug abuse.  He seems to find nothing strange about Randolph Porter's glib handling of his daughter's death, doesn't see any potential legal issues stemming from the drugs he's designing, and trusts him way too much initially for my taste.  I know he's feeling guilty about Sissy's death at this point, but this still struck me as too weak a reason for giving himself over to drugs, even if it ostensibly helps him out physically.

And don't even get me started on Bruce taking Alfred with him to take on the villains, and the identity compromising issues that raises.

Artistically, I enjoy Braun's work well enough on this story.  His visual depictions of Batman, Alfred, and the other characters are familiar, iconic, and convey plenty of emotion and expression.  His Randolph Porter was particularly smarmy; I really wanted to punch his lights out just about every time I saw his smug, arrogant mug.  The action scenes are serviceable, though I felt they could have been a little more dynamic in places.  Put bluntly, I wasn't wowed by them, but I knew when struggles were taking places.

Overall, I enjoyed this story quite a bit.  I like the concept--the loss of Batman to drugs and his redemption is a cool idea--but have a few issues with how it's actually carried off in the plotting and dialog.  Setting those aside, there are some genuinely interesting situations and scenarios we see in the narrative.  The art is enjoyable, if nothing particularly special.  Batman fans should definitely read this, especially for the continuity points.  Recommended.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

GN Review -- X-Men: The Dark Phoenix Saga / Chris Claremont and John Byrne

In a lot of ways, this read was a long time coming.  I've read about the Dark Phoenix Saga for years, and I knew all about it: the seduction of Jean Grey, the Hellfire Club's involvement in her corruption, Phoenix's fall to malice and power and destruction, and Jean's final sacrifice so that her friends, her universe would live.  I've even read small segments of it: Jean holding in Scott's optic blasts so she could see his face, establishment of their psychic rapport, even a few shots of Dark Phoenix's debut and assault on her former teammates.

If this story proves anything, it's that knowing about a story and reading it are two entirely different things.

Collecting Uncanny X-Men #129-137, this arc does way more than I realized it did before finally cracking open the source material to read.  Sure, Jean Grey is manipulated, falls from grace, becomes a force for evil, and sacrifices herself during her final period of clarity; we all know that.  But a lot of other classic events occur during this story arc.

Kitty Pryde and Dazzler are introduced and foreshadowed as potential teammates.  Emma Frost is introduced as the White Queen, who will plague the X-Men in future storylines and eventually become one of their most prominent members.  And Wolverine finally throws down on the Hellfire Club by himself in a classic moment that has become the basis for his establishment as Marvel's badass-in-residence.

One other noteworthy feature about this story is the sheer density of the material.  It took me much longer to read this volume than it takes me to read most modern comics.  Chris Claremont packs every single panel with paragraphs of narration, exposition, and literary exploration as he weaves his epic tale of tragedy.  By comparison, most of today's comics seem to be written for an audience with a much lower attention span.  While I admit it could be a little exhausting to get through at times, I came through with a much deeper understanding and enjoyment of the story than I have with many.

The denouement of the story is what makes it particularly tragic, as the X-Men are kidnapped by the Shi'ar Empire for Dark Phoenix's crimes, and it is revealed that, though Professor X was successful in shutting down the Dark Phoenix, the possibility of her recurrence was all too real.  Jean, who was in control of herself at the time, knew maintaining that control for the rest of her life would be impossible, and engineered her own demise in the duel to the death between the X-Men and the Imperial Guard, regardless of the outcome and despite Cyclops's own plea with her to find another way.  Her explanation of how difficult it would be to keep the Dark Phoenix at bay is particularly moving and revealing, as we see that her absolute power would not only corrupt her absolutely, but also plague her for the rest of her life.

Artistically, I have to give props to John Byrne's work, and the many faces he so adeptly gave Jean as she switched from pure to decadent, from helpless to all-powerful, from angelic to demonic.  His depictions of the characters is widely considered classic, and while it looks less hyper-realistic than some of the art styles widely seen in comics today, it is nevertheless an excellent rendering that allows for a wide range of expressions and dynamics.  Emotion, action, and drama are all convincingly conveyed, enhancing the narrative immeasurably.

Overall, this classic storyline is a must-read for any serious comic book or X-Men fan.  It not only contains one of the X-Men's most heart-rending trials, but is well-told and well-drawn.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Posters from Comicpalooza

Tonight's post will be a short one due to unforeseen circumstances.

Here are some quick photos of the art I picked up at Comicpalooza last month.  I will be putting them up when I make a space for my video reviews space.

Artist Miguel Zamora did this poster, along
with the Nightwing and Batgirl to the left.

This Tentacle Kitty poster is a gift for my
... but I had to get one for myself, too.

Very nice Wolverine done by Houston comic
creator Mark Nasso.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Comic Review -- Batman Annual #1: First Snow / Scott Snyder, James Tynion IV, and Jason Fabok

WARNING: FAIRLY BIG SPOILER IN THIS REVIEW!  I usually do spoilers in my reviews, but since this is a pretty big one, I'm taking extra pains to make sure people know.  Please consider yourself warned.

I really like this cover!  It's an iconic depiction of Mr. Freeze, and an appropriate one, given both his involvement in Night of the Owls and this first real exploration of his character since the New 52 began.  The glaring red goggles and the snow owls are also a clever touch.  The whiteness of his ghostly image across the background also points up his obsession with the cold.  Excellent work here.

Slightly after midnight of the Night of the Owls incident, Freeze, recently captured and detained at Arkham, abruptly breaks out again and makes his way to Wayne Enterprises, intent on killing Bruce Wayne and leaving Gotham behind forever.  He makes a stop at the Iceberg Casino, to get his ice guns from his "friend" Oswald Cobblepot, aka the Penguin, and arrives at Wayne Enterprises to find Nightwing and Robin waiting for him.  They know about his involvement with the Court, and have no intention of letting him escape punishment for it.

After dispatching them, Freeze goes to the penthouse suite to find Batman waiting for him, with Nora's cryo-tube on display for his benefit.  Freeze tells Batman that he will not be kept from the woman he loves, and Batman responds that Nora is not his wife, and that Freeze's love for her is nothing more than an extension of his obsession with the cold.  Freeze acknowledges this, and they struggle briefly.  Batman subdues him by overloading his suit with the same formula Freeze made for the Court of Owls's Talons.  Freeze is unable to move, and Batman and Nightwing take him back to Arkham.

Bookending the story is a haunting tale involving a young Victor Fries and his mother, when both would go to a snowman building contest.  In the first story, we see how his mother falls into a lake during his youth.  Fries is older in the second story, and his mother is considerably more frail.  In a troubling sign of his impending sociopathy, Fries wheels his mother into the water that nearly killed her years ago, saying it is time for her to finally rest.

The reveal of the issue.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: Scott Snyder knows how to tell a good story.  I'm not sure where his contributions end and James Tynion IV's begin, but this particular narrative is powerful in several ways, and for several reasons.  It re-establishes Freeze as one of Batman's rogues gallery in a definitive way since the New 52, with the new twist that there is no Nora Fries, just a Nora that Victor Fries was obsessing about due to her condition.  It makes for a subtle but spectacular reinterpretation of the character, and while I can't say it's a change I would have necessarily agreed with , it nevertheless makes Freeze an even more interesting--and insane--character.

Another touch that I'm really liking with the New 52 Bat-titles is how, when applicable, things look very much like they've come directly out of the undeniably awesome video game, Batman: Arkham City.  From the look Penguin's Iceberg Casino, to Freeze's overall physical presentation (though I will admit there are some notable differences), it's neat to see these things from such a well-received game making their mark on the source materials of the comics.

Freeze's origins are also reintroduced, first through the framing story of Victor's obsession with the cold and his mother's injury in the frozen lake, and then through the occasional flashback as Freeze makes headway on his quest to kill Bruce Wayne, who he blames for taking Nora from him.  Bruce Wayne is seen as the heartless businessman who has kept Fries from his research to save Nora, even as he gives perfectly sound business and scientific reasons for making the decisions he does.  It's well-handled material, that gives a critical insight into Freeze's character between the action of him trying to "take back" Nora and kill Wayne.

My one nitpick that I have with this story is the unbelievably quick time frame in which it takes place.  Freeze is not incarcerated for more than a couple of hours at most before breaking out again?  Really?  I mean, I have no doubt that he was quickly returned to Arkham after the Red Hood and company beat him around, but to be able to plan and execute an escape from a new cell in such a short window of time?  It probably would have been better if this had been a follow-up to Night of the Owls, with this story set a few weeks after everything else took place.  Just my opinion.

Artistically, I have to say I'm very impressed with Jason Fabok's work on this issue.  He employs a clear, realistic style that still manages to flow well in the action scenes and allow for a wide range of expression in the characters.  I do like Freeze's look, though I'm still wondering about the fact that his suit has no sleeves.  Still, I'll accept it for now in the way I accept Snyder's new twist on the character: reluctantly and cautiously, but with hope that it'll make for something cool in the future.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable issue.  I generally don't go for annuals, but I'm glad I picked this one up. Even if you're not into Night of the Owls, you'll want to read this story to see the new take on Mr. Freeze.  The artwork is excellent, and the writing is great.  Highly recommended.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Comic Review -- Red Hood and the Outlaws #9: Who Are You?-- --Hoo? Hoo? / Scott Lobdell and Kenneth Rocafort

There's a lot of red going on in this cover, and it's just confusing enough to distract me from what's going on.  After a couple of seconds, I can find Red Hood and his Talon dance partner for this installment, locked in mid-air combat as they fall.  The Talon looks good, but something about Jason just doesn't look very dynamic.  I know the mask probably doesn't allow for expression, but I also don't think the pose is very good.  The detail around the buildings is beautiful, but overall, I'm not that impressed with this cover.

Red Hood, Starfire, and Roy Harper all seem to in Gotham on unrelated business when Alfred's call to arms goes out regarding the Court of Owls' assault on the city's power brokers.  They happen to be nearest to Mr. Freeze, one of the Court's targets, and go to the Chinatown section of Gotham to protect him.  Several problems abound, however: Freeze has no wish to be protected, and has taken to fighting off the Talons by converting Chinatown into his own personal frozen bunker.  Furthermore, Freeze has been implicated in the current madness, having perfected a method for reanimating cryogenically preserved bodies--which the Court has used to resurrect their legion of Talons tonight.

After breaking up Freeze's fight against his Talon, Jason pursues the escaping Talon while Roy and Starfire attempt to protect and contain Freeze.  Freeze, however, is not having any of it, and takes direct aim at Starfire, whose physiology protects her, and who only gets angrier at Freeze's hostility.  Jason's Talon leads him to an empty lot where the circus used to be, and Jason deduces that he was an acrobat in that circus prior to being a Talon.  The Talon reveals himself as Xiao Loong, a former acrobat, and asks Jason to help him end his life on his terms instead of the Court's.  Roy hits Freeze with an electric arrow while he's fighting Starfire, and Jason brings Freeze's unconscious form to Batgirl at the Bat signal, telling her let Bruce know that he helped out against the Talons tonight.

I tend to be something of a completionist when it comes to certain story arc events.  Night of the Owls is definitely one such storyline, and while I may not review every single issue I read, I can assure you that I'm reading all of this event.  The tie-in from Red Hood and the Outlaws was one I was initially going to skip reviewing, but its relevance to Mr. Freeze's part in the whole Court of Owls drama has led me to include it, along with Batman Annual #1, in this week's reviews.

Since this issue is the first hint we get of Freeze's involvement with the Court, it's like a light bulb goes on in your head when it's revealed.  Freeze, working with the Court.  The Court of Owls, employing assassins from decades and centuries past, who are vulnerable to the cold.  Cold, with which Freeze is obsessed and in which he has a personal expertise.  Doubtless, Freeze has had a hand in enabling the Court to resurrect their preserved assassins!

While not too much is touched on about it here, it's amusing in the mean time to just see Freeze on display.  His arrogance and obsession with being left alone are fun to behold, to the point where he takes a shot at Starfire for offering to protect him, pissing her off immensely.  I don't even know much about Starfire, but I wouldn't even want to consider doing anything that would put me in her crosshairs.  So, either Victor Fries is that stupid--highly unbelievable--that arrogant--believable, but even he must realize his low chances against a super-powered extraterrestrial--or just that desperate to be done with all this nonsense.

This is my first taste of this title since the New 52 began, and while I can appreciate the idea of these people not actually being a team, it's a little odd to see Starfire and another guy fighting more or less alongside Jason, who's always been a loner since his "rebirth."  They know too much about one another and stick together too much to be as loosely affiliated as the premise of this title suggests.  They even take orders from Jason, making him their unofficial leader.  It's really not in step with what I expected.

The Xiao Loong side story also didn't work very well for me.  This Talon and Jason go from being combatants to confidantes in the space of a single page, for no plausible reason that I can see.  The only thing I seem to be able to connect is that Jason reminds Xiao of the Haly's circus he was part of in his former life, and that alone seems to bring the Talon out of his devotion to the Court.  It seems a pretty weak ploy, and not something that would have plausibly worked on an agent the Court spent so much time, money, and resources on conditioning for obedience.

I was not impressed.  Which is sad, because I think with a little more development, I think this plot point could have worked.  Instead it just seems very throwaway.

Artistically, I think this is a fairly solid issue.  Rocafort knows how to draw a variety of action scenes, facial and body types, and environments convincingly.  Freeze looks menacing, Starfire looks unbelievably hot in her ridiculously skimpy costume, and Jason looks convincing in his costume and action shots.  His few shots of Batgirl are actually pretty stunning, and his depiction of an unmasked Xiao Loong, while not enough to make me forget the drivel that plot point was, was still striking and sympathy-inducing.  Pretty good work on that front!

Overall, I'd have to say this title, along with what's currently happening in Teen Titans, really helps make the justification that Scott Lobdell should consider toning down his workload.  He has good ideas, but doesn't do the legwork to develop them properly, and it shows in the lazy, lackluster writing.  The artwork is good, and Freeze's involvement in all this make it a component to the larger story, but not a necessary one.  I did enjoy it, but couldn't help the feeling that it could have easily been better.  Recommended.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Film Review -- Iron Man / Jon Favreau, Robert Downey, Jr., Gwyneth Paltrow, Terrence Howard

There are many movie reviews that are long overdue on this blog, and Iron Man is perhaps the most such entry for me.  Released in 2008, this fun, high-flying superhero masterpiece by Jon Favreau will go down as the movie that kickstarted the Marvel Cinematic Universe that links several of their recent films, and which recently featured the overwhelming success of The Avengers.  While I don't have as high an opinion of its direct sequel, this movie currently holds the record for repeat viewings in the theater for me, at 6.

Who knows how many times I've re-watched the DVD.

Iron Man has never been one of my all-time favorite superheroes, and at the time the film was released, Tony Stark was not one of my favorite characters due to his role in the Marvel Comics Civil War story arc.  I also didn't have the highest opinion of Robert Downey, Jr. at the time, but I will admit that I found the combination of this actor with this hero was highly intriguing.  Tony Stark was, after all, a highly successful individual whose struggle with substance abuse had damaged his standing before, which is exactly the same thing you could say about Robert Downey, Jr.  The premise was also interesting, and they cleverly used the Black Sabbath song in marketing the film, so I knew I'd end up at least giving it a shot.

It ended up being one of the most enjoyable experiences I'd ever had in a movie experience.  Robert Downey, Jr. was an ideal Tony Stark, making him both a likeable character and an arrogant bastard with effortless ease. The plot and action were highly dynamic and enjoyable; I don't ever recall being bored or restless during any part of the movie, including the origin story exposition.  I particularly enjoyed the idea of Tony Stark as a hero who has actively chosen to embrace his destiny as a hero, which is not a common telling of the hero's story.  After seeing how he realizes his unique position in the world to make a difference, his decision to pursue a hero's life of selflessly defending the weak is both easy to believe and get behind.

Not being very familiar with Iron Man's world, I also enjoyed how very accessible the film made the characters, settings, and actions in Tony Stark's life.  I knew very quickly that Pepper Potts was an important person in Tony Stark's life, as was Rhodey.  Obadiah Stane, I later learned, was a previous villain from Iron Man's rogues gallery, given a little bit of a creative facelift for the film, and he came off as fully realized and believable.  Stark Enterprises and Tony Stark's station as the premiere weapons development were also immediately and believably communicated.  For having read so relatively little about Iron Man in the past, I felt like I really hit the ground running with this film.

The blend of action and comedy made this movie supremely entertaining, and added to its rewatchability.  After seeing it myself and enjoying the hell out of it, I started taking any friends who hadn't yet watched it to see it.  Everyone enjoyed it, and I enjoyed it even more with each subsequent viewing.  Few of my friends were as stunned and excited about the famous post-credits scene as I was, in which Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury mentions The Avengers Initiative to Tony Stark, but everyone was pretty wowed by the actor's very brief appearance in the film.  I knew from the second I saw that scene that more movies would follow, including The Avengers.

Overall, I would rank this as one of my favorite comic book movies of all-time.  It's not only enjoyable, action-packed, and funny, but it establishes itself as the first part of a larger universe, which ties in with the lead-in films to The Avengers.  It's fun to notice and connect those links in subsequent films, and it lends itself nicely to repeat screenings, something I don't often say about a lot of movies.  Highly recommended.

Friday, June 8, 2012

List-y List #1: My Favorite Writers, aka, The Writing Gods

Starting off my series of lists, I thought I'd do the one that was most thematically relevant to me on a personal level.  Wanting to be a writer, I've studied and observed a number of them, from a variety of mediums, with a particular focus on comics.  I'd like to think that they would be happy to know that their works and efforts have helped inspire me not only to write, but to start and maintain this blog, which I've so far managed to do at a daily clip.  They are, in short... my writing gods.

These kinds of lists tend to be a matter of personal taste, and are in no way meant to disparage anyone else's favorites.  They are simply my favorites, my gods of writing, and there are plenty of other excellent writers who didn't make this iteration--Chris Claremont, Alan Moore, and Ed Brubaker come immediately to mind, as will doubtless others.  

The writers who have had the biggest effect on my reading experience, and who hopefully influence my writing the most, are:

1. Neil Gaiman - Sandman.  Neverwhere.  The Graveyard Book.  Coraline.  Marvel 1602.  American Gods.  An episode of Doctor Who.  If there's a medium for which Neil Gaiman can't write, I have yet to experience it.  Truly one of the most imaginative and culturally aware writers of this day and age, his ability to take the fantastic and marry it to the mundane with such effortless aplomb never fails to amaze and surprise me, even when I'm expecting it.  He's resurrected comic book characters, and reinterpreted mythological and historical figures with a deft touch that makes you wonder from where his insightful characterizations come. It's no wonder his work translates well to comics, television, film and prose works.  I can only hope to come anywhere near matching the depths of his fertile imagination.

2. Joss Whedon - Another master of many mediums, Joss Whedon had actually made a big impression on me long before I knew who he was, and impressed me less when I started to realize who he was.  Some of his episodes of Roseanne are among my favorites of the show's run, long before I cared who was scripting individual episodes.  My first "knowing" exposure to his name and work was the fifth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which at the time, didn't impress me.  Then along came Firefly, and I emerged a Whedonite converted.  Film, comics, television... especially television.  There's nothing the man can't do well.  Whedon's witty dialog, strong women characters, and clever subversions of storytelling tropes are things I admire about his writing, and hope inform my own.  I particularly adore the Firefly and Serenity comics he's worked on, and the Buffy continuations as well.  All this before any mention of The Avengers, to boot!

3. Steve Moffat - The first non-comics writer on my list, Steve Moffat rates highly for his amazing work in television.  I first got acquainted with his writing on Coupling, a clever British comedy series about sex and the  thirtysomething characters trying to get it.  I loved its clever humor, occasionally imaginative plot structures, and the evenness generally portrayed when the sexes battled it out.  When I started watching Doctor Who, appropriately during the Matt Smith episodes, I didn't even realize at first that this was the same guy writing and running it!  It was a delightful treat.  Now this guy has gone and put a fantastic series together called Sherlock... perhaps you've heard of it?  He's a magnificent bastard of a writer, whose talent for suspense, adventure, and comedy are that rare blend that make for amazing television.  If you haven't seen any of the TV shows I've mentioned here, do yourself a favor and check them out.

4. J. Michael Straczynski - Most of JMS's writing work is stuff I've only been tangentially familiar with: the occasional episode of Babylon 5, a glimpse of an issue of Thor he worked on--and did you know he also wrote for the He-Man and the Masters of the Universe cartoon in the 1980s?!  But the two works that have stood out most starkly for me have been his run on Amazing Spider-Man--in which he took bold, imaginative risks in interpreting Spidey's powers and his relationships with those closest to him--and Superman: Earth One, a dynamic and insightful retelling of Superman's origin story and debut as the Man of Steel.  I don't often go in for Superman, but then again, I don't often go in for Thor or Babylon 5, either.  Yet I've never been anything but awed by the stories this man tells.  An excellent writer, of whose works I need to read more.

5. Scott McCloud - Though I've only ever read his most famous work, the graphic book Understanding Comics, I still hold Scott McCloud in immeasurably high regard for his insightful, playful, and easy-to-understand handling of the material.  In a clever sequential art style that matches the content and subject of the book, McCloud explains with simple thoroughness and plenty of visual aides how comics are made, and how writing and pictures are used to create this most wonderful of mediums.  That level of dedication alone is worthy of admiration; that he does it so eloquently and passionately is what makes him great, in my opinion.  It was after reading Understanding Comics that I was inspired to start writing my own comic scripts and even drawing some of my own pages occasionally.  And while I'll probably never draw as well as I'd like, I'll credit my own start as a writer of comic scripts to him.

6. H.P. Lovecraft - Though occasionally verbose and a little archaic in his diction, Lovecraft is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in modern horror, serving as the inspiration for such modern masters as Stephen King, Anne Rice, Clive Barker, and John Carpenter--not to mention the aformentioned Neil Gaiman.  His stories about otherworldly cosmic horrors, ghoulish cults and creatures have had an undeniable effect on the collective psyche of horror writers and readers--not to mention my own sensibilities.  I think what intrigues me the most is the inescapable dread that infuses his stories, which seem to generally hinge on the idea of man's general cosmic insignificance, and that there is knowledge out there that we simply can't handle.  It doesn't make for the most uplifting of storytelling endeavors, but it does make for interesting and challenging storytelling.

7. Brian K. Vaughan - Having only read Y: the Last Man of his works, I can say that there are plenty of other titles out there that Brian K. Vaughan has worked on that have either been highly recommended to me by friends and family (Runaways), or that I just can't wait to read, based on that title alone (Pride of Baghdad, Saga, Ex Machina).  He clearly has a talent for taking supremely unenviable situations, thinking them through, and creating great opportunities for character development and exploration from them.  My little sister has started reading his run on Runaways, and given me the best feedback you can get about a writer's title, namely, "Buy me more of these, please!"  I'm aching to read his current series, Saga, but am currently waiting to get my hands on issues 1 and 2 before I can start.  It's a bit of a torturous undertaking, but some things are worth waiting for.

8. Terry Moore - A Houston institution, Terry Moore's strong depiction of women characters has set him apart as a writer who understands that beauty goes far beyond physical perfection.  Both a skilled writer and a good artist, his Strangers In Paradise strikes emotional chords in both the touching love story it tells as well as the expressiveness of the characters that populate it.  Moore can take a simple situation, such as a break-up, put a humorous spin on it with just the slightest clever twist, and make it unforgettable, just as he can shatter your expectations with a single, well-drawn look of pain on his heroines' faces.  His women, who tend to be his main characters, have a range of imperfections and flaws, from self-loathing to body image issues, but his ability to imbue them with humanity and depth make him an unforgettable writer and an amazing storyteller.

9. Scott Snyder - If there's been a best side to reading the New 52, it's that it's enabled me to discover Scott Snyder.  His deft guidance of Batman through the mystery of the Court of Owls saga and the subsequent (and current) Night of the Owls storyline have left me with my jaw hanging open more times than I can honestly remember.  Whether he's doing creepy nightmare illusions, mind-bending labyrinths, or unbelievably taxing physical trials, Snyder shows that he's not afraid to put heroes through the ringer, physically, mentally, or emotionally--and it makes for amazing storytelling.  I've yet to read any of his other titles, but I know he's got several projects going, and I intend to sit down and check them out as soon as time allows.  For now, the Court of Owls and Night of the Owls storylines alone have made Snyder one of my fastest-rising writing gods.

10. Dan Slott - I'm primarily familiar with Dan Slott through the recent and current issues of Amazing Spider-Man, but I'm very impressed with what I've seen so far.  He's taken different approaches to telling Spidey's story--some humorous, some dramatic, and some that are off the scales epic--and made them all very successful.  He obviously knows the characters, and I've been particularly amused at his banter and thorny relationship between Spidey and Mayor J. Jonah Jameson, as well as his writing of the supremely bright and quirky individuals at Horizon Labs, who serve as Peter Parker's colleagues and oftentimes as Spider-Man's allies.  With the current Ends of the Earth arc, we're seeing Spidey at his most serious, as well as his most resourceful, as he effectively takes on the Sinister Six with the entire world turned against him.  If that's not gutsy storytelling, then I don't know what is.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Comic Review -- Uncanny X-Men #12 / Kieron Gillen, Greg Land, Jay Leisten, and Guru eFX

There are points in the Avengers vs. X-Men event--particularly in the main series--that I've all but given up hope for a decent, well-told epic that involves so many characters and locales.  Then we get little parallel stories like the one in Uncanny X-Men #12, that may as well be part of the main narrative, that are well written segments of the arc that really pop.  It makes me more certain than ever that this kind of story can work, as long as it's handled properly by the right people throughout the creative process.

What I really like about this cover is that it is, essentially, re-hashing the Thing vs. Namor fight that occurred in AvX Vs. #1, pitting them against each other in a grudge match that both relish.  It's very dynamic and well rendered, and you can clearly see that these two are never going to hold back against one another in a fight.  Very entertaining artwork here.

The X-Men have narrowed Hope Summers's location to five points across the globe, and Cyclops sends strike teams out to those locations in the hopes of finding and retrieving her.  After assigning Namor, Hepzibah, and Sunspot to the Tabula Rasa, we are taken to that location, where a strike team of Avengers--She-Hulk, Luke Cage, and Thing--have also arrived, intent on finding Hope as well.  When it becomes apparent that Hope isn't there, the Avengers are ambushed by the X-Men, and a grudge match begins.

It soon comes down to Namor and Thing, each content to slug it out with the other due to their mutual enmity.  As they beat each other senseless, one of the natives of Tabula Rasa, who had been observing the fight from afar, comes within arms reach of the two combatants, who tell him to leave.  He agrees to watch from afar, but asks to watch the rest of the event, asking if the two of them are about to copulate.  As Namor and Thing look on in stunned discomfort, Magik appears and grabs Namor, saying that Hope's true location has been found, and that he's needed.  Namor goes with Magik, where Cyclops names Hope's location: the moon, where the X-Men have fought the Phoenix before.

While this issue focuses on a small part of the overall global effort to locate Hope, it is nevertheless perfectly focused.  We see more than just a simple fight between the two squads, and a hell of a lot less than the glut of information that is essentially glossed over in the main narrative.  The personalities of both teams are on display here, from Namor and Hepzibah's sexual banter to Cage's exasperated approach to squad leadership, to even She-Hulk's admiration and apprehension about the environmental beauty at Tabula Rasa.  It's moments like these that differentiate these ostensibly "less necessary" parts from the larger, sweeping story and actually set up the argument that they are just as necessary, if not more so in some ways, than the main title.

Ben's expression here: priceless.
I'm also quite a fan of Kieron Gillen's use of sex jokes in this issue.  Hepzibah and Namor are shameless in how they talk about it, even drawing Namor's "friend" the Queen into a discussion of his prowess.  The protector of Tabula Rasa's interest in the fight set up a hilarious punchline at the end, where he observes the violence and passion of Thing and Namor's fight and assumes that they will be getting it on when they've finished beating each other up.  Even Namor's own certainty of his reputation with the ladies is funny, when he senses he is being talked about, and muses, "This is only correct."

One issue I did have with this story involved Namor's dialog with Luke Cage during their fight.  It relies too much on actions that occurred off-panel, with Namor wanting to avenge himself upon Cage for "surprising" him in their previous fight.  I still have yet to see a significant fight between Cage and Namor in this storyline, aside from the initial one that was so glossed over that it might as well have never occurred.  Clearly, someone in the editorial department needs to do a better job so that the dialog makes more sense here.

Artistically, I really enjoyed this issue.  Greg Land's work is new to me, but he does detailed facial expressions and gestures very well, and draws attractive women in much the same style as Terry Dodson, whose work I also love.  The action and fight scenes are also fun to look at, and he draws a myriad of poses, creature types, and environments with equal skill.  I especially like the gradual close-up of Namor and Thing as they get ready to throw down for a second time.

Overall, this was a highly enjoyable issue, and really makes the case for me that this AvX tie-ins are at least as important as the main story, which has had some highs and many lows in overall quality.  The action and characterization are entertaining, the artwork is great, and it leads into one of the presumably compelling points of the main story.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

GN Review -- Marvel 1602 / Neil Gaiman, Andy Kubert, and Richard Isanove

I've been meaning to read Marvel 1602 for years, but only just recently hit that magical convalescence of having the time, energy, inclination, and proximity to put my hands on a copy and read it.  It's an imaginative take on my favorite superhero universe, by one of my favorite writers, and has an epic span that weaves history and fiction so seamlessly that you're almost convinced it could have been a part of the 1600s.

In other words, I can't believe it's taken me so long to read it.

In the year 1602, it is obvious that the world is in deep turmoil.  In addition to all of the provincial strangeness of the era--from the politics between England and its rival countries to countless assassination attempts on the life of Queen Elizabeth--there are other troubles brewing.  The witchbreed, humans born with freakish abilities that set them apart from everyone else, are hunted and persecuted by the Spanish Inquisition and others alike; strange individuals with fantastic powers and abilities are starting to emerge; and most disturbingly, a large, unusually powerful storm from afar is causing instability throughout the entire world, causing rulers and commoners alike to fear for their lives and very existence.

Warning: spoilers abound in this review.  I typically do spoilers, but if you haven't read this, do yourself a favor and stop.  Read the book first.  Enjoy the story as it unfolds.  You have been warned.

Stephen Strange, court physician
to the Queen.
When the queen's court physician, Dr. Stephen Strange, tells her top spymaster, Sir Nicholas Fury, that a powerful and mysterious weapon must be brought to the court from Jerusalem so that Strange can protect it, Fury employs his top freelance agent, the blind troubadour Matthew Murdoch, to retrieve it.  Strange, meanwhile, seeks answers about the far-off storm, while Fury travels to consult with his friend Carlos Javier about the witchbreed and their relationship to the Spanish Inquisition, headed by a Jew named Enrique.  A ship from the colonies, containing Virginia Dare, the first-born American, and her Indian protector Rojhaz, docks in England, marking the first sign that the strangeness affecting Europe is not necessarily confined to it.

As each of these threads twist, turn, and interact with one another, assassins leap from shadows and betrayals are set into motion as we are introduced to a number of other remarkable individuals and plots.  Queen Elizabeth is assassinated by Count Otto von Doom, allowing James VI of Scotland to assume the throne and enact his anti-witchbreed agenda, which Fury reluctantly executes himself.  Doom, a handsome man in this reality, has kept four Fantastick individuals captive, exploiting their abilities for various purposes; Fury takes the captive witchbreed to help him free his friend.  And Strange, who has been given knowledge of current event from Uatu the Watcher, is beheaded as a traitor by James.  Bound to keep the Watcher's secrets while he lived, he communicates from the dead with Clea's help that Virginia Dare and Rojhaz must be taken back to the New World, to the anomaly that is the source of the disturbances, to make the storms stop and preserve existence.

Rojhaz, revealed to be Captain America from the future, does not wish to return to his present time, and is deceived by Fury into a false sense of security before knocking him out.  With Enrique's help, Thor is able to execute Reed's plan and activate the anomaly, sending Fury and Rojhaz through it, gone from their existence forever.  Uatu, both shamed and praised by the Watchers for his part in preserving existence, is given a gift: an alternate universe, the 1602 universe, which he looks at to see how the individuals in it continue their lives.  Now in the New World, the heroes resolve to make an existence and declare independence from England.

I've said before that Neil Gaiman is one of my favorite writers--hell, he's one of my writing gods, frankly--and this story is yet another reminder of why.  In taking the pantheon of Marvel heroes and moving their existence to the time of the colonies, he weaves history in with the established lore of Marvel, subverting both just enough to craft a tale that is both believable in its execution and touching in its devotion.  The small but pivotal story of how this alternate reality's existence ties in with the other realities also pays loving acknowledgment to both the prime reality and the character responsible for its existence.

It made me wonder if perhaps the 2009 Star Trek film got some inspiration from this story in terms of how it both handled and acknowledged the two separate realities.  Just consider: Captain America is Spock...

Matt Murdoch, Fury's blind
We see both the characters and the historical conventions as they existed, but not quite the same as they were.  Matt Murdoch, blind and superhuman, is not Daredevil in this universe, but nevertheless plays the part with aplomb as Sir Nicholas Fury's go-to man.  The Spanish Inquisition, while it never hunted the witchbreeds that populate these pages, is still executing its historical charge of maintaining the status quo of those in power.  It's a surreal and breathtaking experience seeing each subversion each time it occurs, and one that can make you laugh, cock your eyebrows in disbelief, or in some cases, even shed a tear.

Gaiman also does a fantastic job of taking a measured approach to the heroes in this tale.  There aren't too many, and some fairly familiar faces do not show up in this tale, Iron Man being one big example.  Even Spider-Man, arguably Marvel's most iconic character, is downplayed as Peter Parquagh, Fury's assistant, in this tale.  Up until the last few panels of the story, you're left to wonder if that particular hero will even exist in this reality.  Again, the execution is unforgettable.

Artistically, this is a breathtaking story.  Andy Kubert's pencils, which are already nothing if not fantastic, are taken by Richard Isanove and digitally enhanced to give the artwork a finished, painted look that adds a visual flair to the fantastic narrative.  It really helps hold to the sense of magic and surrealism inherent in the story, and keeps you turning the pages to see what's coming next.  Excellent work!

Overall, I again find myself in the position of raving about Neil Gaiman's writing.  This was a story that made me laugh, kept me intrigued, and very nearly made me tear up towards the end.  Anyone who likes Marvel, likes historical fictions, or just likes good storytelling should check out Marvel 1602.  Gaiman, Kubert, and Isanove collaborate beautifully to bring us an epic masterpiece.  Highly, highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

I'm Feeling List-y...

This is going to be a short post, but hopefully a helpful one!

Over the last week, I've done a much higher percentage of personal posts than reviews, and the response has been unmistakable.  More people read when I'm musing and talking about comics-related stuff than doing straight-up reviews.  I'm not sure this will change overall--I really like reviewing comics and graphic novels--but I do think it's a good idea to up my percentage of posts that are things other than reviews.

Trouble is, I sometimes have a difficult time coming up with topics for these posts.  Seriously.  I can get into a discussion with friends about whether or not Batman will die in the upcoming film, and then blog a post about that topic, but I often have a difficult time just dreaming up subjects in a vacuum.

So with that in mind, I went and did the (arguably not-so) brilliant thing: I created lists of things to talk about at near points down the road.  I've started with favorites:
  • characters
  • writers
  • artists
  • graphic novels
  • comic books
  • storylines
and so on.  I'm hoping that, by filling these out and talking about the subjects in them, I'll come up with more topics on my own.

But wait!  There's more!  I'm always looking for suggestions from my readers!  If there's anything you want to hear about, please leave a comment and let me know.  I know enough about giving an audience what they want to know that my readers will have excellent suggestions.  Please feel free to hit me up with topics and subjects.

This is, in many ways, as much your blog as it is mine.  Let's keep it interesting for all!

Monday, June 4, 2012

Shawarma, Anyone?

 For anyone who reads this blog and happens to still be living under a rock, there happens to be this wildly successful superhero movie called The Avengers, that has broken all kinds of box office records, raised the bar to an insane level for superhero movies, and took Joss Whedon from being a cult favorite to a household name.  The sustained level of praise for The Avengers is unprecedent for a film of its kind, and it's won over fans and critics alike with its winning combination of high-octane action, dynamic storytelling, and deft characterizations.  It is also, probably unsurprisingly, my favorite film of the year, so far.

Right now, I'd like to talk about a small, almost throwaway, part of the film, though, that has had a noticeable impact on sales for a particular food.  Namely: shawarma.

If you're anything like I was, you probably left The Avengers wondering what the heck shawarma was, even after watching the post-credits scene.  Google searches for the delectable Arab dish shot up shortly after the film hit the United States, and apparently sales have received a serious bump due to its fairly prominent mention.  I had never had it before, and was finally introduced to it this weekend by my girlfriend, who's eaten it many times and was happy to broaden my horizons.

I've since had it again, and have to say, that while the presentation and flavors may vary by individual restaurants, shawarma is so far proving to be very tasty in any iteration.  It's a delicious spiced meat preparation (the meats themselves can vary; the preparation of slow-grilling the large hunk of meat and cutting the shavings off the hanging meat are what distinguish it as shawarma), served in a pita with a number of vegetables and sauces.  I'm always glad to try something new in the foods realm, and this food is certain to become a staple of my regular dining repertoire.

Amusingly, if not unexpectedly, shawarma has been making other appearances on the Internet.  Quite a few of them are taken directly from the post-credits scene in The Avengers, while another amusing iteration has popped up in the Marvel: Avengers Alliance game I'm still obsessively playing.  While I can't stock up on it yet due to other considerations (trying to unlock Mockingbird and all the resources that entails), I grabbed a couple of them once they became available and have found them a very useful in-game power-up.   I'll be adding as much of it to my stash as soon as possible, once I've taken care of other in-game business.

For anyone who has yet to try this tasty dish, I would highly recommend it.  I know a lot of my friends out there will actively avoid trendy topics and things that are popular for the moment, but this is one indulgence you shouldn't avoid.  It's highly enjoyable, there's likely more than a few places that serve it nearby, and it's always good to try new foods, if only to be sure you don't like them.  I highly doubt that will be the case here.

Anyway, you've read this far.  Here's a small reward: me, eating shawarma, looking exhausted, in a lame impression of the heroes at the end of The Avengers.  Enjoy, and feel free to laugh at my expense.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Comic Review -- Nightwing #9: The Gray Son / Kyle Higgins, Eddie Barrows, and Andres Guinaldo

Great cover on this issue.  Nightwing and Cobb the Talon are locked in a vicious, intensely personal duel, and the intensity comes through nicely.  It really sets up the premise of the issue, and the artwork, colors, and setting really make it pop.  Very good work.

Nightwing, who is now bleeding like a stuck pig, instructs the mayor to hide himself in a panic room before starting a duel with another Talon, his great grandfather.  As their fight spills out into the streets of Gotham, we alternate between Cobb taunting his descendant and seeing glimpses of both Cobb's past life and the way he had primed the Grayson family line--the "Gray son"s of Gotham, as he'd called them--for service to the Court of Owls as Talons.  Hearing all of this, Nightwing, who has lured Cobb into the subway, bursts the lines containing liquid nitrogen, putting Cobb on ice and rendering him ineffective.  He takes Cobb into custody, stating that he doesn't believe destinies exist, signifying his right to make his own choices about his life.

Another compelling part of the Night of the Owls saga, this story nonetheless had me asking about the sudden onset of snow, which I couldn't remember seeing in any of the other related issues.  Then I remembered that Victor Fries was attacked by the Talons in Red Hood and the Outlaws #9--also a Night of the Owls story--and that the mayor's office could be located relatively nearby, as Fries--or Mr. Freeze, as some may better know him--can be rather... well, cold when dealing with unwanted guests.  So, question raised and quickly answered there.

It was a little creepy to me that Cobb had seen Nightwing and Batman in the cave earlier, and then recounted the episode to Dick during their fight/discussion, but I suppose the Court of Owls in general has been a rather creepy idea.  Cobb's obsessive succession planning for the Talons was also a little unsettling, particularly when you consider that Dick likely would have become a Talon if not for the tragedy at the circus that took his family from him and eventually led him to become the first Robin, then Nightwing.  I also felt like Cobb was Darth Vader to Dick's Luke Skywalker, alternatively taunting him about what a disappointment he was and then trying to persuade him to join him as a Talon.

I did enjoy all of it though, from the creepiness of Cobb's obsession to their wide-ranging and vicious fight to Dick's resourcefulness and outsmarting of his dear ol' great granddaddy.  It all flowed very nicely, and even the flashbacks interspersed throughout the narrative didn't feel like too much of a disruption to the present-day action.  It was well-handled, with enough character development to give Cobb a personality, balanced with the action and dynamics of Nightwing's fight with him.

Artistically, I continue to enjoy Eddy Barrows's pencils.  He really likes to make Nightwing bleed, and the scenes of a bloody, struggling Nightwing are actually among some of the most beautiful illustrations in this issue.  I also have to give props to Barrows and Guinaldo on their action scenes and the detail on the faces of the people they draw.  It all strikes a fine balance between realistic and cartoony that really works for this story.  Excellent work.

Overall, this was an enjoyable installment of the Night of the Owls saga.  The story moves along nicely, the action and drama are taut, and the artwork is wonderful.  Definitely a must-read for Nightwing fans, and anyone wanting more Night of the Owls.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Our Obsession With Particular Actors for Particular Roles

One of the developments that I really liked after seeing The Avengers was how the character of Bruce Banner was so amazingly handled.  I truly enjoyed Mark Ruffalo's portrayal of the character, and think his rendition of Banner will be considered the definitive modern portrayal of the character.  He was charming, intelligent, and just a bit bumbling as the gamma-irradiated doctor who's learned to control the beast raging within him (to an extent, at least).  It was truly a joy to watch, and I have no problem saying his performance in The Avengers dwarfs Edward Norton's portrayal of him in The Incredible Hulk.

Of course, that's not to say I didn't like Norton's version of the character, either.  His Banner was also intelligent and charming, but had a little bit more of an obsessive edge and an action hero feel to him than Ruffalo's (who was mostly a nerdy guy out of his element among superheroes,  until he turned into "the other guy), which I can honestly see a need for in a movie where Banner has to be the main hero.  I'm glad his star power and recognition helped that film do what it needed to do to be successful, and I respect that it allowed the character to come to The Avengers and take a different direction.  It reinforced, in my view, the idea that different actors can play the same part when a project needs it, and each contribute to the overall success of the whole thing.

But some people just can't avoid picking a fight.

I can't tell you how many snide comments I'd heard--mostly before the movie was released--of people claiming that Edward Norton's absence was going to ruin the character and, somehow, the whole rest of the film.  It was like continuity itself had taken a hit, and would alter the entire trajectory of the movie, simply because Bruce Banner would be sporting a new face and frame.

While these naysayers have been for the most part roundly silenced by the success of The Avengers, it reminds me of the obsession so many moviegoers and television watchers have with associating one actor so exclusively with one single part.  I remember, on more than one occasion, fans of the Harry Potter films claiming that if Daniel Radcliffe, Emma Watson, or Rupert Grint ever left their roles, that they would stop watching the films because, as they put it, those actors were "the only ones" who could play those parts.  The audiovisual establishment of a character in a movie or a television show is, apparently, a sacrosanct thing that can not be violated for any reason for these people.

Umm, no.

In the Harry Potter films, Richard Harris plays the character of Albus Dumbledore for the first two films, and then is replaced by Michael Gambon for the rest of them due to Harris's death.  In the awesome 2009 Star Trek reboot film, the parts of the Enterprise crew members are portrayed by a number of new actors, for the simple reason that the surviving originators of those parts are too old to play their characters as young as the movie needed.  What do these situations have in common with Ruffalo's succession of Norton as Bruce Banner?  Simply, they collectively stamp the reality that parts change actors in the film industry with regularity, and for a number of legitimate reasons.  Contractual disputes and creative differences are just as valid reasons for shifting parts to another actor are as death and aging are, which is something I feel many fans need to remember and respect about their favorite films.

Was Ruffalo a better Bruce Banner than Edward Norton?  In many ways, I think so.  But even if I'd favored Norton's performance, I wouldn't be (and wasn't) upset that Ruffalo replaced him after The Incredible Hulk.  I loved Richard Harris's Dumbledore, but also thought Gambon did a wonderful job with the role, and that he contributed largely to the franchise's success.  And as for Star Trek... come on.  That was just a no-brainer.  If you're rebooting the franchise after several decades, you have to go with another cast.

As The Amazing Spider-Man approaches release, I'm seeing more iterations of this obsession, as people bemoan Tobey Maguire's absence and claim that Andrew Garfield just won't be anywhere near as good as Peter Parker.  It's difficult for me to sympathize with them, not because I didn't like Maguire--on the contrary, I thought he was great--but because I understand that these are films, with there own sets of rules and conditions that go into their production; and that these stories are separate from the films that preceded them.

Tobey Maguire, while a great Peter Parker and Spider-Man for the Sam Raimi films, was never the only Peter Parker to me.  He embodied a lot of the qualities of Peter Parker, but not all of them.  There were different looks and attitudes I'd seen of the character in the comics.  There was Peter Parker as drawn by Mark Bagley in the 1990s.  There was Ultimate Peter Parker, also drawn by Bagley.  There's also the post-One More Day iteration of Peter Parker, who's similar but not quite like the others.

What I'm liking so far about Garfield's Peter Parker is that he brings a bit more sass and edge to the role.  While I know some old-school purists will decry that aspect, I think he's channeling a lot of Ultimate Peter Parker in that respect, and I think for this day and age, it makes a lot of sense.  Even nerdy kids feel the need to lash out or quip back at a world that often seems out of their control, and I think a lot of the decisions I've seen Garfield make as an actor make for just as valid an interpretation of Parker as Maguire's.  He's bringing us a different Peter Parker who's just as much the real thing as the others.

I think we need to occasionally step back from our obsessions with this aspect of storytelling, and take pleasure in simply enjoying the stories.  It's perfectly fine to like one actor's interpretation of a role better than another's.  And it makes perfect sense to be upset or bummed when an actor leaves a particular part.  But making categorical statements like, "I won't go see these films anymore if Maguire's not Peter Parker!" or claiming that Norton, Harris, or Shatner's absences from the roles they originated will ruin all subsequent films or shows is simply absurd, and doesn't make for a good appearance to others.

If nothing else, remember that these are fictional characters.  Mythological figures, if you will.  They may seem real, but they're not.  The actors who play them are real people, with their own talents, lives, flaws, and motivations.  I think it's showing a measure of respect for them not too obsess too much over their portrayal of one particular character.  In the end, they're portraying this one character in addition to hundreds or thousands of others.  Enjoy those portrayals, but make sure it doesn't come at the expense of your enjoyment of the rest of the story.

You may find that, once you get into the overall experience of the story, one actor's departure from it may not be so bad.