Tuesday, January 31, 2012

GN Review -- Gabby & Gator / James Burks

James Burks puts forth a heartwarming story in Gabby & Gator, about two very different outsiders who come to be friends and must work together to help each other overcome their problems.  Along the way, lessons of loneliness and unconditional acceptance lend a strong moral to an otherwise cute and entertaining read.

We see an early glimpse into Gator’s life, where he is purchased by an impulsive boy whose mother makes him get rid of his new pet.  Ten years later, Gator spends the rest of his days in a sewer, feeding on small animals (including pets!) when he gets hungry.  He doesn’t like who he is or what he does, but with his day to day survival at stake, he has no choice but to live with himself.

Gabby, on the other hand, is an environmentally aware, shy girl who barely speaks.  She likes alternative energy, vegetarianism, and keeping out of direct sunlight.  This of course makes her a tempting target for the other kids, including an oafish bully, who continually taunts her.  When Gator sees him tormenting her, he intercedes, starting a friendship that will change them both by giving them what they crave: someone who accepts them for who they are.

This story is an extremely quick read--you’ll burn through the 192 pages in half an hour, tops--but its charm is undeniable, making for a memorable read for the young audience for which it’s intended.  Gabby is a character many readers will readily relate to, with her shy, bonnet-wearing exterior masking an intelligent, surprisingly well-spoken young lady.  Gator is no different, at least in the fact that he doesn’t understand or approve of some of his own natural urges.  They are in many ways very different people, but their ability to see each other as simply needing a friend sets up some amusing adventures for the unlikely duo.

Burks also keeps the pace going quickly, even as he explores the friendship between his two characters, making amusing quirks, situations, and dialog that will keep young readers interested in seeing what happens next.  There’s a sand castle contest, a daring rescue, an exploration of Gator’s fears about water and the toilet, and a memorable comeuppance as Gabby finally finds her voice at a critical moment.  It’s all done in a fun vein, and the action will endear the reader as much as the characters’ charming personalities.

Art-wise, Burks employs an appropriately simple style that is meant to grab the reader’s attention and reinforce that this is a story intended for children.  He uses vibrant colors, big poses and gestures, and expressive faces to accent the liveliness of his characters and their escapades.  It works well for the story he’s telling, and ensures a satisfied audience.

Overall, I’d say this is a fun, quick read for kids of all ages.  The story is simple for readers of traditional comic book, but there’s no arguing its simple appeal and strong theme of friendship.  Highly recommended.

Monday, January 30, 2012

A Word About Children's Comics

I write this post in front of a review I'll be posting tomorrow, done for a title that is clearly a children's comic.  This may come as a bit of a surprise to those of you who read this blog, as up to now I've done material that has been arguably targeted at a teen audience at the youngest.  I figured I'd therefore preface the upcoming review with a defense of my actions, on the off chance that I somehow offend my readers who may be expecting a particular kind of fare.

I've been a huge fan of comics and comic books in particular for well over half my life.  I consider my first readings of the X-Men and Spider-Man titles as an initiation into a world that has come to have a very important place in my life.  But if I dig further back, I know my fascination with sequential art and comics goes back to my childhood.  I remember reading comics in the newspapers that made me laugh out loud, and even got me interested in the lives of the characters involved.

It varied from comic to comic.  Garfield, for instance was hilarious, simply and enticingly drawn, and made me want to read the Garfield paperback collections that pervade library and bookstore shelves.  Calvin and Hobbes, in addition, was episodic, and helped along my appreciation for serialized narrative.  Not that there was a requirement for knowing the back-story, but Bill Watterson's strip was among the first to make me realize that many of the boy and his tiger's stories were told in unified story arcs over several strips.  These and other titles helped get me reading, drawing, and thinking about writing, story structure, and characterization, however minimally at my very young age.

And it is for reasons like those that I read, review, and enjoy children's comics.  There are many more sources of sequential art for young readers these days, and I couldn't be happier about it.  They are, in many ways, direct precursors to the more popular comics made for adults both young and old, but they are also a wonderful outlet for encouraging reading, literacy, and believe it or not, critical thought in children.  Like the materials you and I like to read routinely, well-written and illustrated children's comics can inspire creativity, teach them about life and the world, and at the very least, entertain and amuse.

Kids deserve all of that and more, and are arguably a harder audience to keep the attention of than teens and adults.  So while these comics may seem outwardly silly and crudely drawn on the surface, remember that it might not be a bad idea to give them a chance anyway.  A crazy pair of fighting birds who act like silly enemies may have a few profound things to say about the nature of friendship.  A tree that gives completely of itself to help the boy it loves may influence a child's perception of giving and taking in unforeseen ways.

And again, at the very least, it might just be silly and amusing entertainment that you can read through in an hour.  And really, what's so bad about that?

Check for my first such review tomorrow. ;-)

Sunday, January 29, 2012

GN Review -- Fables: The Great Fables Crossover / Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges, & Mark Buckingham

What happens when all of reality is threatened by a bored immortal with the power to re-imagine all of existence?  According to the story in Fables: the Great Fables Crossover, you send Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf after him.

The story begins with a call from Jack of the Tales, a shady, roguish character, who tells Snow White about the existence of Kevin Thorne, a Literal who has become bored and disillusioned with the universe as it is and desires to rewrite all of reality.  Skeptical of Jack's word, but unable to ignore a potential threat this big, Snow and her husband Bigby (the Big Bad Wolf) leave the Fables' farm and head out into the real world to hear Jack's claim and track down and stop Thorne.  Jack, becoming bored with the Fables and enraged by the thanks they're showing him, heads back to the Farm to visit his old girlfriend, Snow's sister, Rose Red.

The quest to find and fight Thorne is of course harder than expected, as Thorne gets wind of their intentions and begins subverting reality to stop them.  Unable to currently write properly because of a persistent case of writer's block, he calls on help from the various story Genres and muses to provide inspiration and to hold off Snow, Bigby and Revise.  Jack, meanwhile, returns to the Farm, where he wreaks a minor amount of havoc, immediately bedding Rose Red, setting himself up as the reincarnation of Boy Blue for the Farm animals to worship, and teaching Snow and Bigby's kids how to gamble.

While I like the overall concept of this story, the execution leaves a few elements to be desired.  I understand the very idea of the Literals in this story will automatically make room for a certain amount of self reference in the narrative, but at times it felt a little too gimmicky and just distracted from the narrative.  I also felt Thorne's powers as a Literal were inconsistent, particularly the point at which he toys with Bigby.  He could change Bigby's shape at will, but couldn't write a sentence that drops a car on him to kill him?  There's some glossover explanation about Bigby and the other Fables having power of their own, but it seems too easy and weak an answer to someone who can literally rewrite reality, even if he has writer's block.

Art-wise, I was moderately impressed, but still left feeling there could have been more here.  I suppose the line work and coloring just felt flat throughout the story, even if it was drawn well enough.  With a story that encompasses so many characters in so many forms on such a paramount quest, it felt like their should be more depth and grandeur to the artwork.  I realize this was just another story in a long run of the series for the creators, but the crossover nature of it raises the idea that this could have been more special.

Overall, I consider this particular title to be okay.  It's not particularly impressive to me personally, though it's made me curious enough about some of the characters to give some of the earlier stories a look at some point.  Those with an interest in fairy tale reinterpretations and metaphysical quandaries in the writing or creation of mythologies might enjoy this story.  Recommended, with some reservations.

Saturday, January 28, 2012

GN Review -- Batman: Battle for the Cowl / Tony S. Daniel

When I first heard about Batman: Battle for the Cowl, I was impressed about a number of things, most importantly that DC had the gonads to kill off one of their most popular characters of all-time (I know these things never last, but still).  The promotional art for it suggested that virtually every vigilante character in the Bat-Family would be involved, which eventually turned out not to be the case.  But what we do end up getting is essentially a battle between Dick Grayson and Jason Todd that ends up also being a fight for the soul of the Dark Knight's legacy.

In the wake of Bruce Wayne's demise, Nightwing and a network of Gotham-based heroes and vigilantes have tried hard to keep the city from spiraling into a war zone, to almost no avail.  Knowing that Batman is no longer protecting the streets of Gotham City, Penguin and Two-Face viciously escalate their gangland battle for territory and supremacy on the streets, exhausting the GCPD and Nightwing's assembly of heroes.  Things get further complicated when Black Mask shows up, springs a bunch of Arkham Asylum inmates from their transports, and lets them loose to do his bidding and topple the other two gangs.

Nightwing has tried--hard--to deny himself the necessity of succeeding Bruce's mantle and assuming the guise of Batman, but when a ruthless, cold-blooded psychopath begins taking out street scum and calling himself Batman, he has little choice but to hunt the man down.  What ensues is much more than a battle for the right to become the next Batman.  It becomes a very personal, very brutal conflict between the heroes who seek to preserve Bruce Wayne's legacy as Batman, and the madman who feels not only the need to succeed Batman, but to surpass him--and he'll use any brutal method to subvert the meaning of Batman.

This is my first exposure to Tony S. Daniel's work, and I have to say I'm impressed that he handled both the writing and penciling duties for this story.  The central topic of the story--stepping up and preserving your predecessor's legacy, embodied by Dick Grayson/Nightwing--is handled extremely well, as is the conflicting subject of subverting your predecessor's legacy to what you think it should be, embodied of course by the bitter and psychotic, yet still needy Jason Todd.  I like that we get to see at least a little bit of extra help from the other heroes, most notably the Birds of Prey and Knight and Squire, who are all worked smoothly into the plot without overwhelming it with their presences.

There are a few decisions in the writing that left me asking questions that detracted from the overall narrative.  What exactly was Catwoman's final fate by the end of the story?  Why did Jason wear another mask under his Bat-cowl?  And if that wasn't the real Black Mask we saw for the final time in the story, who was it?  These were relatively minor questions that didn't really affect the overall story, but they did distract from it, and I felt they should have been addressed or resolved in some way.

I did enjoy Daniel's artwork in this story, particularly the good job he did in making Tim, Jason, and Dick all look similar (as they always have, to me at least) yet distinct.  The covers with the split images of the three each in their respective previous garbs and their Batman costumes were also nice touches.  The linework is smooth, the action shots are involving, and the heroes look as heroic as the villains look villainous.

Overall, this was a good Batman story, even without the traditional Batman character.  It suffers slightly from false advertising, as the story I found was much smaller in scope than I expected, but it was well written and nicely drawn.  A good read for Batman fans, as well as proponents of the Nightwing-Jason Todd-Tim Drake conflicts that inevitably arise.  Highly recommended.

Friday, January 27, 2012

GN Review -- Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? / Neil Gaiman & Andy Kubert

What would Batman's funeral be like, in the event that he actually did die?  Who would attend?  What would they say about him?  Would the stories match up, or would they all be accounts of a different man, a different person?  Neil Gaiman and Andy Kubert take a crack at a possible answer in their tribute to the Dark Knight, Batman: Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?

The story begins with the funeral-goers gathering for the deceased Batman's service.  Their ranks include friend and foe alike: Dick Grayson, Catwoman, Joker, Alfred, Harley, Commissioner Gordon, the Penguin, Poison Ivy, and so on.  As they gather to pay their respects, they tell stories of how he died, and it seems none of them is talking about the same Batman.  No one mentions the contradictions, though, and simply continue the service in respectful somberness.  Adding to the confusion is the disembodied presence of Bruce Wayne, watching the people from his various lives gather to tell these stories, wondering if he's actually, really dead and if this isn't another clever ploy by an enemy.  The stories told are different in scope, tone, and plot, but they all have one thing in common that makes Bruce realize instinctively that no one is lying: the Batman in all of their stories never gives up, never compromises himself or his brand of justice, never gives in, no matter what the situation.

Neil Gaiman is one writer you can always trust to have a unique perspective on a popular, well-loved mythology, and from the start of this story, you can tell that Batman has had a profound influence on him creatively.  In choosing to shed the specifics surrounding Batman's "one, true" off-panel death, he's using the setting of Batman's funeral as a stage to pay his respects to the various interpretations of Batman over his 70-year publication history.  It's a clever ploy, and one that is both entrancing and haunting in its exploration of the character's soul, as we see the various lives he's touched at various points, and how they, regardless of whether they liked him or not, were profoundly impacted by his existence.

If there's a criticism with this story, it's that it's lacking in particulars.  Batman's various stories and the deaths in them are of course conflicting accounts in terms of character, time, and place.  Things are therefore left with a very metaphysical, surrealistic feel that may come off as disappointing to anyone wanting a more concrete story.  This was all undoubtedly intentional, and I can understand Gaiman's desire to keep mum on the specifics in order to pay homage to all of the various interpretations of Batman over the years.  I can just also understand if other readers are more than a little turned off by it as well.

Art-wise, you generally don't get much better than Andy Kubert.  He had to not only draw a plethora of characters in Batman's extended family, but he also had to do varying interpretations of them in different eras.  He does a good job of this, and conveys emotion, clarity, and purpose to what could have otherwise been a rather muddled and perplexing story.

Overall, I'd say this was a decent story, and very typical of Neil Gaiman in its atypical-ness.  Anyone who enjoys his works will at least want to give Whatever Happened a read, as will Batman fans.  I'm not guaranteeing either will like it, particularly if you expect more traditional modes of storytelling, but for those with the patience for a more surreal experience, I think will find a loving and well written take on the Dark Knight mythos.  Recommended.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

GN Review -- Mush! Sled Dogs With Issues / Glenn Eichler & Joe Infurnari

Ever wonder about the private conversations that might occur amongst sled dogs, where confidence issues, rivalries, and philosophical musings abound and cause about as much strife and hilarity as they do among bored office workers in the human world?  It’s what the creators of Mush! Sled Dogs With Issues were clearly wondering, and they try to answer with this episodic story.

Against the backdrop of the Alaskan wilderness and the isolated homestead where they rest, a team of six sled dogs relate to one another--and, occasionally, their human overlords--in a manner very familiar to human co-workers.  There are the good friends, the scheming backbiters, the unrequited crushes, political alliances, philosophical ramblings, and zany personalities that keep things interesting.  As their pack leader Dolly confronts and overcomes a waning interest and confidence in her position, the other dogs work out a smattering of their own issues with varying degrees of success.

While it’s not an altogether original concept, this anthropomorphized dogs-as-bored-coworkers scenario is well-executed.  Each of the characters have their own distinct personalities and presentations, from Buddy’s over-eager friendliness to Venus’s sarcasm and occasional anger and Guy’s cleverly diabolical manipulations.  There’s enough going on in the various scenarios presented in each chapter that it feels cohesive and keeps things going at a decent clip so that we can see how things play out among the dogs.  Eichler employs a healthy dose of snark and just enough drama to draw the reader in at the right times.

I did have some difficulty keeping the identities of the dogs separate, but I imagine this comes more from my unfamiliarity with dog breeds and confusing the names than any fault of the writing.  And they do become more distinct as the narrative progresses, so maybe you just need to give the story a little time.  It’s quite amusing and worth it once you’ve got everyone sorted out.

I did enjoy Infurnari’s artwork in this story, even if the linework and character shapings made things look a bit sketchy and unfinished in places.  Once I got familiar with the characters, it was easy to observe consistency in their looks and personalities, from Winston’s pure-bred snobbery to Dolly’s everygal ponderings and Fiddler’s detached-yet-humorous philosophical insanity.  The art certainly does a good job of supporting the overall story, and is just strange enough in places to make you do a double-take.

Overall, I came away from this book with a chuckle or two at the wry humor.  I think anyone who enjoys comically humanized animals--and let’s face it, who doesn’t, at least from time to time?--will get a kick out of this rather clever story.  Dog lovers will appreciate the attention given to illustrating the different breeds, and anyone who enjoys stories about the Alaskan wilderness may want to give it a look.  It also works as a well-paced, character-driven graphic novel for anyone who just wants to read more in this particular format.  Highly recommended.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

GN Review -- American Born Chinese / Gene Luen Yang

Haven't we all, at some point, wished we were someone or something other than what we are?  To fit in with the "in crowd", to be popular, to have super powers or be super athletic and/or smart?  It can be difficult to deal with the fact that we're often unable to change the hand we're dealt, genetically or otherwise, and that frustration is explored as a major theme in Gene Luen Yang's graphic novel, American Born Chinese.

In American Born Chinese, we get a collection of three different stories, told more or less simultaneously, that have distinctly different plots.  First there is the tale of the monkey king who wants more than anything to rise above his standing as a monkey and be considered an equal among the other deities.  The second thread involves a young boy named Jin Wang, whose desire for acceptance among his white classmates is complicated by his obvious Chinese heritage and his friendship with Wei-Chen Chun, another Chinese boy who has not yet assimilated into American culture.

Finally, there is the story of Danny and Chin-Kee.  Danny is a normal American teenager by all appearances, but every year he is beset by a visit from his very Chinese, very abrasive cousin, Chin-Kee, whose rudeness, speech, and social uncouth-ness are depicted in an over-the-top stereotypical racist caricature of Chinese people.  Chin-Kee never fails to embarrass Danny every year in front of his friends, but this year, Chin-Kee is staying to attend school with Danny, a situation that horrifies the young man.

Each of these tales is distinct from one another, but as the narrative progresses, we see that they are connected in profound and inextricable ways.

I greatly enjoyed the writing in this book.  Without giving too much away, I will say that the overarching plot of the story is well paced, connected in profound and interesting ways, and packs an emotional wallop that will resonate with readers long after they put it down.  Yang's depictions of his three protagonists and how their ultimate desires to simply fit in and transcend their current statuses is ultimately a self-defeating proposition drives home some very weighty points about where to draw the line between bettering oneself and accepting ourselves for who we are, as we are.  The stories will make you laugh out loud, cry in silence, and get you involved in the lives of the characters in a way that is rare in storytelling these days.

The art style is very cartoony, but definitely works well for the purposes of the storytelling here.  Given that we're traversing realistic fiction and mythology, and three different time periods, one of which is presumably the far distant past, it gives them a common aspect that will keep readers engaged until the climax of the book, when all is revealed and we see that they have been connected in other ways as well.

Overall, I can't recommend this book enough.  This was an enchanting story that handles the themes of fitting in and acceptance of self in an amusing, intriguing, and ultimately mature fashion.  Anyone who's grappled with these issues will enjoy this graphic novel, as will fans of fantasy, folklore, teen dramedies, and simple good storytelling.  Very highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

GN Review -- Gotham City Sirens: Union / Paul Dini & Guillen March

Can three of Batman's most diabolically devious former foes group up and go straight?  Will their various past issues with each other, coupled with their tendency to attract the wrong kinds of attention, complicate their intent to shed their bad girl images and play on the side of angels for a change?  They're willing to at least give it a try, and by doing so, we're graced with the chronicle of their initial efforts in Gotham City Sirens: Union.

Things have gotten considerably wilder in Gotham.  Bruce Wayne is no longer around to fill the mantle of Batman, and it seems lowlifes are coming out of the woodwork trying to make fast reputations for themselves.  After teaming up to take down one such punk, Catwoman proposes an alliance between herself, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn, complete with a nice new apartment.  It isn't long before they're embroiled in several adventures, not of their own making, including a near-deadly encounter with Hush (posing as Bruce Wayne), a far more vicious battle with an apparently hyper-murderous Joker, and even an internal squabble amongst themselves as Harley and Ivy demand Selina share with them the one piece of knowledge she's sworn to protect at any cost.

Writing-wise, I was actually pleasantly surprised at how much thought was put into some of the stories, or at least some aspects of them.  Dini's explanation of how Selina was able to lie about Batman's identity was well handled, though it makes me wonder if that lie won't come back to bite her in the... future.  The use of one of the Joker's throwaway sidekicks as a bitter has-been wanting Harley's demise was actually rather clever.  I was also amused by a marginally involved story of the Riddler, helping the girls out, as he starts solving crimes as a consulting detective a la Sherlock Holmes, much to the chagrin of Dick Grayson's Batman. It's actually pretty funny to watch them squaring off, and I hope to read more of that at some point.

I would imagine more than a few people would have a problem with this kind of book, one that features a whole lot of cheesecake.  It would be easy to make the argument that a title like Gotham City Sirens, while superficially preaching Girl Power, still makes the case that the only strong women worth reading about are the ones that can rock a tight leather or spandex outfit.  I can appreciate the direction this line of thinking takes, but I do not have a problem with this book or this series.  I view this book simply as a fun piece of escapist fiction, like so many comic books.

As my girlfriend recently said, who doesn't want to imagine themselves as a total hottie once in while? ;-)

I will admit to taking a look at this one for the cover and the art contained within.  I am a guy, Guillen March does cheesecake very well, and his heroines are quite a delight to behold.  With that said, he also does a good job of drawing action sequences and large, dramatic shots.  There's a particularly nice visual of Poison Ivy using a giant plant to hold off an attack by a big clown blimp that's both impressive and amusing to look at.  I also enjoyed his interpretations of the Riddler and Batman for the brief scenes when they get involved in the story.

Overall, I enjoyed Union quite a bit.  It's a guilty pleasure in the visuals department, but the story, while a bit simple in places, is paced well, and Harley, Selina, and Ivy each have distinct personalities and voices that help move the narrative along as much as the plot.  Super-hero fans will enjoy this work, particularly anyone who likes stories about women heroes trying to live their lives on their own terms.  At the very least it's a fun and amusing story that's pleasantly drawn and features attractive women characters.  Highly recommended.

Monday, January 23, 2012

DC Entertainment Puts Its Money Where Its Mouth Is

In a move that has been lauded by comics enthusiasts the Internet over, DC Entertainment has announced its We Can Be Heroes campaign to combat hunger in the Horn of Africa.  Featuring the current lineup of the Justice League as its spokes-characters, the campaign benefits three Africa-based humanitarian organizations: Save the Children, International Rescue Committee, and Mercy Corps.

Its website offers more information on the campaign, and features two significant ways for interested Internet superheroes to contribute.  There is, of course, directly donating to the cause, of which DC has pledged to match 100%.  The other option is to purchase We Can Be Heroes branded merchandise (which, I have to say, looks pretty spiffy), the proceeds of which 50% will be matched by DC.

While I've always been a Marvel boy in terms of my overall enthusiasm for comic book publishers and their various stories and characters, I have to really give DC the thumbs-up for their philanthropic efforts here.  I'm no expert, of course, but this is the first major humanitarian effort I can recall from a comic book company on this scale (though I'm willing to learn if there have been others--just let me know about them!).  In using their brand, resources and other abilities to aid a portion of the world that seriously needs help, DC is in a sense working to live out the types of stories they tell in their comics.

It's putting its money where its mouth is, basically.

I'm sure there will be plenty of discussion about the impact this effort will ultimately have.  Will it be enough?  Should DC even be worrying about another part of the world? Just how altruistic are DC's motives behind this campaign?  Will it affect comic book prices or quality?

My thoughts on the matter are fairly simple: whether it's a publicity stunt or not doesn't matter.  This is an opportunity for comics fans of all stripes to unite in an effort to show the world that we are a generous, socially aware cross-section of the world's people.  We shouldn't worry about whether or not this will ultimately save the innocents it aims to help, or whether or not we should be involved.  As with so many things in life, the outcome matters far less than the effort.  

We should donate, or at least buy some of the cool merchandise and support the cause.  We should, in short, put our money where our mouths are.

And, perhaps, I'll give more DC titles a discerning look when I'm at the comic shops.  Teen Titans has looked promising so far...

And, of course, Justice League.

GN Review -- Lewis & Clark / Nick Bertozzi

Just before launching into the narrative of Lewis & Clark, author Nick Bertozzi informs the reader that this tome is intended to convey the flavor of their journey, not necessarily all the particular details.  I myself am not privy to the specifics laid out in scholarly works about their expedition to the Northwest, but I will admit to feeling that Bertozzi did a good job of living up to his word.  I felt like I got a good sampling of the struggles and the overall tone of their journey.

The story starts out shortly before Meriweather Lewis is granted the go-ahead by President Jefferson to find a passage to the Pacific Ocean for the United States.  It highlights the formation of his partnership with William Clark as they gather up men and supplies for the journey, the various obstacles they come up against on the expedition, and the eventual success of their exploration and some of the aftermath that occurs in the years following its conclusion.  The reader is shown that the journey was a difficult one, compounded by supply shortages, personality conflicts, and a difficulty in understanding and interacting with the Native American tribes in the Northwest regions.

I’m guessing Bertozzi used a lot of anecdotes from the journey in his writing, as we see quite a bit of interplay between rank and file members of the expedition as well as the leaders and any Native American tribes they encounter.  It makes for memorable moments, if not straight-up laugh-out-loud ones.  One particular scene that comes to mind plays out between two men hunting for meat.  One keeps getting flustered at the other’s inability to shut up, and derides him as a lousy hunter.  When he’s saved from a bear by a shot from the same man he yelled at, he’s essentially never allowed to live it down.  Moments like this show both the hardships and the humor that arose from being essentially cut off from the trappings of civilization.

There are more than a couple of forays into darker territory also included in this work, particularly Lewis’s occasionally foul and violent temperament.  His temper gets the better of him at a critical time, signalling a likely breaking point for the character, who succumbed to madness and an apparent suicide, years after the expedition.  

Art-wise, I was pretty impressed.  Bertozzi employs a good deal of linework and shading in his sketches, which gives quite a bit of depth to his characters’ ability to express emotions and thoughts.  I found his panel layouts to be confusing at times, as he alternated between one- and two-page layouts, but once you figured it out it was pretty simple to follow.  He draws sprawling landscapes and intimate one-room scenes with equal detail, and keeps things looking appropriate to their time and place within the narrative.

Not being a particular enthusiast when it comes to history, I will say that this was an interesting and well written enough story to keep me reading at a pretty good clip.  I’m guessing that history buffs will enjoy it, as will fans of graphic biographies.  Anyone looking for a decent story in comic book form will undoubtedly find better fare elsewhere, but wouldn’t do badly to read this, either.  Recommended.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

GN Review -- Atomic Robo and Other Strangeness / Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener

Apparently, a week in the life of Atomic Robo is chock-full of insanity, contradictions, and science fiction hilarity.  By the time readers finish this fourth volume of his exploits, extradimensional vampires, ghosts, super-mega robot guns and a giant mega crab have all been dealt with.  Oh, and Dr. Dinosaur.

Atomic Rob and Other Strangeness starts off in 1999 with a job interview that becomes unhinged by the chaos of one of Tesladyne's labs breaking into another dimension and unleashing vampires throughout the complex.  Once that situation's dealt with, Robo goes to Japan to ask a favor from one of their super-scientists--but not before assisting their Power Rangers knockoff team in taking down an super-angry giant crab monster.  Then, Dr. Dinosaur appears in French Polynesia, and he and Robo debate whether or not Dino is a.) smart, and b.) a time traveler while they simultaneously try to kill one another.  Finally, we come back to Tesladyne while Robo and his people try to solve the mystery of why a ghost-like image keeps appearing all over the complex.  It's right about then that we find out that all of the events in this volume have happened in a single week.

The overall aim of these comics is clearly entertainment, and for my part, Atomic Robo delivers.  While there are some stories I enjoyed more than others in this volume, they were all good, and they all demonstrate the creators' adeptness at packing a whole lot of sci-fi slapstick and just a smattering of science babble into their wacky tales.  Atomic Robo combines an enjoyable blend of sarcasm, action, and flat-out over-the-top humor to make for a highly readable and amusing experience.

There are quite a few memorable moments in this volume, from Jenkins throwing down on some vampires with ridiculously brutal efficiency, to Robo's verbal sparring with Dr. Dino about his "origin story" and intellect as they try to kill each other, to his knock-down, drag-out verbal assault on Tesladyne's ghostly guest once he finds out who it is.  There's also a pretty amusing shout-out to Japanese anime and sci-fi cartoons and programs in the Science Team Super Five, with a ridiculously perfect team of brilliant scientist soldiers, mecha-robos, and a giant, biomega-powered crab monster with a grudge to avenge.  Brian Clevinger clearly has as much fun writing across all these various tropes and settings as Scott Wegener seems to enjoy drawing it.

Speaking of the art, Wegener continues to draw entertaining book illustrations in his trademark style while demonstrating versatility in handling different subjects and locations during the course of Robo's week.  His vampires look gruesome and threatening, his Dr. Dinosaur looks lizardy and his skeleton ghost looks sinister and unsettling.  It's a definite fit for the writing, and accounts visually for the entertainment value conveyed in the stories' writing.

Overall, I'm enjoying this comic.  The writing isn't particularly deep, but it makes no pretensions about being so, and revels in the amount of slapstick entertainment it delivers. I still need to get my hands on the first two volumes, and can't wait to do so.  If you're looking for good escapist fare that will make you laugh out loud, get yourself a copy of Atomic Robo.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

GN Review -- Americus / M.K. Reed and Jonathan Hill

Imagine coming to your library to find out that someone is trying to ban your favorite series of books, because they think those books are corrupting, sinful, and inappropriate for young people to read.  What would you do?  Would you get angry?  Would you try to stop them?  If you're as much of a bookworm as Neil Barton is in Americus, chances are you'd want to defend your right to read what you want.

Neil Barton, a shy bookworm, is not excited about the prospect of beginning high school.  He'd much rather be left alone by everyone in the fictitious town of Americus, Oklahoma, so he could just read.  Instead, he and his friend Danny are frequently the targets of bullies.  When Danny's mother catches her son reading Apathea Ravenchilde, a fantasy series involving witches and dragons, she storms into the public library where he got it and tears it up in front of the librarian, denouncing it as filth and vowing to get it banned from the library's shelves.  For arguing with her, Danny is sent to military school, and suddenly Neil is left without his best friend.

To make matters worse, Danny's mother follows through on her threat to try to ban the Apathea Ravenchilde books.  She forms a vocal group of concerned citizens intent on keeping "inappropriate" materials out of the library so they won't "corrupt" the town's youth readers.  Enduring this in addition to the normal trials of high school--bullies, surly classmates and unsympathetic teachers--Neil must do the unthinkable and try to take a stand against the detractors of his favorite series.

I found this to be a thoroughly entertaining story.  While the central conflict revolves around the issue of censorship in libraries, there is plenty of other material in the narrative that informs the characters involved.  Neil is not just shy--he's nearly misanthropic in places, talking back to his mother and professing his hatred for the town he lives in as much as the bullies he has to put up with.  There are scenes excerpted from the Apathea Ravenchilde series that serves as thematic analogs to the rest of the story.  There are teens all over the place, talking and giggling and breaking up and going out and generally lending a realistic vibe to the high school scenes depicted in the story.

I thought the characterization of the main character was well handled.  I feel like Neil was me, back when I was a teen: shy, not quite sure how to interact with others, sometimes resorting to petulance or hostility when nothing else came to mind.  It's both entertaining and humbling to meet a character you identify with so completely, flattering or otherwise, and I think MK Reed deserves props for the work she put into the protagonist here.  While I might have some slight reservations about how the detractors are portrayed (somewhat two-dimensionally), I do think she nailed the teen characters, particularly Neil, very well.

I enjoyed the art immensely in this story, and thought it was appropriate to its plot and themes.  It's simple and cartoony for the main portion of the narrative, which makes sense when you consider that the narrative is essentially an introduction to the issue of censorship.  Both the art and the writing make the issue more accessible, easy to understand, and interesting enough that you want to know more.  The excerpts of Apathea Ravenchilde are done in a slightly more detailed, highly stylized fantasy motif, and work well in separating that story from the rest of the narrative while keeping it linked to the larger story.  Kudos to Jonathan Hill for working so adeptly at the visuals in this book.

Overall, I'd say Americus is an engaging introduction to the issue of censorship as well as an entertaining story in its own right.  Teens interested in what they can and can't read in libraries--and the politics involved--will enjoy this exploration of what can sometimes be a highly charged issue.  People who love public libraries, escapist fantasy series (particularly Harry Potter), and political dramas will also enjoy Americus.  Highly recommended.

Friday, January 20, 2012

GN Review -- The Last Unicorn / Peter S. Beagle, Peter B. Gillis, Renae de Lis, and Ray Dillon

Considered a timeless classic by many, The Last Unicorn was originally a fantasy novel published in 1968 by Peter S. Beagle.  Decades later, publisher IDW has seen fit to give the story a graphic novel treatment, first as a six-issue comic book limited series, then as a collection of those issues in a hardbound cover edition, published in early 2011.

The Last Unicorn begins in the unicorn’s forest, where she comes to hear men speaking of unicorns, and how they apparently no longer exist.  She wonders if they are right, and sets off on a quest to find out if the other unicorns have disappeared or died out.  Along the way, she meets several characters who gradually help her advance toward her goal, including an inept wizard, the testy wife of a woodland fugitive, and a valiant prince who couldn’t be more different from his miserable, uncaring father, who ends up being one of the story’s main antagonists.

While I’m generally not a fan of unicorns or unicorn stories, it doesn’t mean I can’t admire the subject matter when it’s told with good writing, and while I can’t speak directly for Beagle and his novel, I will say that the graphic novel adaptation by Peter B. Gillis satisfies on this level.  The unicorn’s quest to find out if she is indeed the last of her kind makes for an interesting idea, with plenty of interesting characters, situations, and twists toward the end.  Mythological allusions are made here and there, giving the narrative a slightly mystical, otherworldly feel to it that effectively holds on to readers’ attention.

I really did enjoy the artwork in The Last Unicorn.  Renae de Liz draws beautifully and boldly, rendering amazing and immediately recognizable characters, beasts, and settings that dovetail nicely with the enchanting, sometimes darkly fantastic subject matter.  Ray Dillon’s colors are also very rich and lush, really bringing a shine to the line work.  Both work together to memorably lend a brilliant visual to support the fantasy narrative.

The Last Unicorn suffers from a less severe form of misdirected recognition than does another comic adaptation of a novel, The Alchemist.  That work hides the credits for all its creators (except for original author Paulo Coelho) until you open the cover and check the credits on the back flap and, if memory servers, the verso of the title page.  The Last Unicorn, at least, only omits their names from the front cover, where Beagle is solely credited.  You can read their names on the spine, back cover, and verso of the title page.  While I may have issues with this, I’ve clearly seen worse practices in this area.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this work, and think it will do especially well among fantasy readers, those who remember the novel fondly, and those who simply like a good adventure story.  It’s well paced, imaginatively paneled, and beautifully drawn and colored.  It’s a visual treatment of a prose work that won’t disappoint.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

DC Comics Gets a Lot of Coverage Today

DC Comics got a fair bit of both positive and negative news coverage today, as they unveiled yet another new logo, and got ripped into by Fox News for having too much sex and violence in their comics.  I'll go into each item, and add my take on them.

New Logo
Probably the more popular item of the two, DC has introduced another updated logo design, with some slight variations done to commemorate its various properties.  They'd updated before, in 2005, with a blue and white design that I thought was pretty slick and relevant, so this most recent one is a little mystifying to me.  Their justification is that it coincides with some of their more recent milestones, like last year's relaunch and same-day digital delivery of their titles.  They also say it's more digital-friendly.  Here's a few of their more well-known logos and the basic new one:

The new design.  Yay?
The old classic logo.
The 2005 redesign.  Sweet.

The new logo, as you can see, is basically a D, peeling away to reveal a C underneath.  I suppose it's pretty, in its way, but I feel pretty underwhelmed, particularly when you compare it to the bold, blue and white star design from 2005.  Despite the reasons they've given for the newest logo, I can't help wondering if they just got pissed at whoever designed the 2005 logo and just want to cut that person off from anymore royalties.  It feels pretty corporate and uninspired, even with the variations, and I have a hard time imagining how this particular change is going to benefit them at this time.

If I've given you the impression that I care passionately about this item, rest assured that I really don't. Overall, even if I don't care for the new logo, I'm pretty unaffected by this development.  I've never been the world's biggest DC fan except for a few titles, and their logo sure as hell isn't going to assure that I buy more comics from them.  It's their playground, and they can do what they want.  I just think this development's a little on the mystifying side.

Fox News DC Debacle
Bleeding Cool news broke this story, and followed up on it later in the day.  Basically, the Fox News syndicate in Washington, D.C. (heheh) seemed to have a problem with the amount of sex and violence in today's superhero comics from DC, accusing them of essentially using the New 52 relaunch to pack their wares with too much of both.  Here's the video that Bleeding Cool originally embedded on their site:

In response, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund published an article advising comic book retailers how to defend themselves against a hostile media attack.  That we need to keep these kinds of defenses in place is a pretty sad comment about the state of American journalism these days, but it's unfortunately not surprising.  News outlets often go for these kinds of unjustified "gotcha" pieces, unfairly portraying their subjects in a negative light using flawed logic and juvenile reasoning.

In a prime example, the reporter acquires a bunch of these targeted comics--which have a "16 and up" label on them, for crying out loud--and takes them to a freaking middle school, showing them to the kids there and asking them for reactions.  Clearly, these kids are below the intended reading age--flaw number one--but that may not necessarily stop them from wanting to read or buy these kinds of comics.  This gives way to flaw number two: any comic shop worth its salt will have distinct sections for children and adult buyers.  Essentially, if they aren't peddling it as kiddie fare, and have other materials for younger readers, then why are you getting bent out of shape about this?

Personally, this kind of story makes my blood boil, at least at first.  I see a lot of unfair attacks in the news these days, particularly when it comes to the issue of censorship and freedom of expression.  In comics, as with most industries, the market dictates what is popular, and what will sustain the industry.  If there's too much sex and violence in comics for you, guess what--you don't have to read them.  Attacking comic shops for selling comic books to a particular market is like attacking the Harry Potter books for promoting witchcraft: the people doing the attacking probably haven't read them (and therefore don't have a proper context to judge them), and their fear, more often than not, makes them look like drooling idiots.  Most kids with a basic understanding of life can figure out what's fiction and what's not.  Sensationalizing something by attacking it is only going to make them aware of it, and likely more curious about it.

And it's that final thought that brings me back to my calm.  Societal disapproval of a particular event or form of media often leads to it becoming more popular because of the sensationalization poured into it by the disapprovers.  They're basically shooting themselves in the foot, particularly in this day and age.

So, if they want to make more comic book readers by trying to vilify comic books, stores, and publishers, go right ahead.  We'll be here.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

GN Review -- Atomic Robo and the Shadow From Beyond Time / Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener

This third volume of the Atomic Robo comics, published by Red 5 Comics, is actually my first experience with the title at all.  For the last several years I've been told by many friends, acquaintances and comics aficionados that I needed--nay, seriously wanted--to give it a try, but I simply didn't know it yet.  I would flex my brow, wonder what the heck they could have possibly meant by that statement, and then went about my business, thinking I'd get around to Atomic Robo when it happened.

Well, it finally happened.  And I finally get what they meant by their phrase.

Atomic Robo and the Shadow From Beyond Time sounds like a very Lovecraftian title for this story arc, and by golly does it deliver.  It takes place mostly in the past where readers see the title character, Robo, at earlier stages in his development, starting in the 1920s.  He is quickly visited by two gentlemen, one of whom is H.P. Lovecraft himself.  Lovecraft soon spawns into some cosmic, tentacled, well... Lovecraftian monstrosity that Robo must fight and defeat not only at this time, but at several other points in the future, including the 1950s, the 1970s, and the present-day (2009 at the time of publication).  Along the way he enlists the help of Charles Fort, Carl Sagan, and, well... himself (you'll have to read it to completely understand), in battling the thing across time.

This story had me almost from the get-go.  It's supremely entertaining to see a robot walking around and being comically human--there's a reason Bender is a fan favorite character on Futurama--but it's even funnier when you read the things he says.  "I'ma commit murders," he mutters as he goes to check on who the persistent and progressively louder knocker is.  It sounds surprisingly modern--I've seen kids talk that way online--but is not only plausible, it's also an extension of the creators' psyche that connects to the readers of the present.

One of the highlights of this particular story is the guest appearances from real-life figures of the twentieth century.  H.P. Lovecraft appears, and is delightfully insane and inane before he transforms into the enemy of the story, but Charles Fort is both his traveling companion and Robo's ally in defeating him.  Luminary of All Subjects, Carl Sagan also appears during the 1970s portion of the story, and is far and away the most entertaining of the bunch.  I think I was won over by what Sagan said to the thing they were fighting: "When you return to your unobservable but empirically determined dimension of origin--tell them Carl Sagan sent you."

I don't think I've really stopped laughing since then.  It's up there with Egon's line about being frightened beyond the capacity for rational thought.

The artwork is also pretty good.  The linework, while fairly flat and cartoony, still leaves plenty of room for expression and action.  Robo's surliness and excitability come through consistently, helped along by a vibrant color palette, while the monsters are alternately menacing and hilarious.  Scott Wegener also captures the guest stars pretty well, including a Lovecraft whose looniness is well rendered in his facial expressions, and a Carl Sagan whose zeal for serving humanity through science comes through in his gritty yet hilarious wit.

Overall, I have to say that Shadow From Beyond Time was highly enjoyable, and that my friends who recommended Atomic Robo in the past were right.  If the rest of his adventures are this zany, I can't wait to read the rest of the material.  Fans of sci-fi slapstick and the intellectual and sarcastic will very much enjoy this series.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

GN Review -- Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories / Joss Whedon, Brett Matthews, Will Conrad, Zack Whedon, Patton Oswalt, Chris Samnee, Jim Krueger, and Patric Reynolds

It is with a heavy heart and a hopeful longing that I review the final volume of Serenity comics that are currently in existence.  While I won't go into much detail about how very awesome is the show they were spun from, the all-too-brief Firefly, I will say that it was the show that made me love Joss Whedon's writing skills.  It's the show that made me give Buffy the Vampire Slayer (and, by extension, Angel) a second chance, and when I got through the show and the feature film it spawned, I was upset that there weren't more stories to tell.  The emergence of the comics from Dark Horse were like a god-send.

Better Days and Other Stories is chronologically the second volume of stories, after the magnificent Those Left Behind and before the surprisingly disappointing The Shepherd's Tale.  It includes several stories from various creative teams, including "Better Days," in which the crew happens upon an obscenely wealthy payoff and muses on what they plan to do with it before typical circumstance pulls it away from them; "The Other Half," a short piece where the crew wards off a pack of Reavers while River saves them from a fate they couldn't have known about; "Downtime," a character study of the crew that gives an idea of what they get up to when they're not actively thieving; and "Float Out," a post-movie story about several of Wash's old friends christening a ship in their deceased comrade's name.

The writing in all four stories is very well done.  It's always fun to see Serenity's captain and crew both in and out of action, and the dialog, pacing, and plotlines all work like short episodes of Firefly.  Whether they're pulling Mal out of yet another grim situation, bantering and bickering with one another, or guessing slyly at one another's secrets, the characters are true to the portrayals of their on-screen counterparts.  The storytelling might not stand on its own for the casual reader, but I think it's safe to say that these books are meant for the fans, and they are a treat for those Browncoats who wanted more stories from the show.

Art-wise, I think it's unfair to compare anyone else's illustration work to Will Conrad's uncannily spot-on renditions of the characters.  It's honestly like some photographer took still shots from some lost Firefly episode, filmed but never distributed, and gave them to Conrad to do the line work.  His portrayals of the characters look that close to their actors.  Patric Reynolds's work is pretty close to the mark as well, while Chris Samnee's efforts are the most cartoonish, though I will say that doesn't detract from the story in "Downtime."  It's merely a different form of expressiveness that satisfies in a different way.

Overall, I think this is a wonderful collection of stories, certainly the most varied in the Serenity volumes that have been released.  This is definitely fan material--while I'm sure the stories are good enough sci-fi/western/action fare on their own, there's definitely more of a payoff for those who have been devotees of the show, the movie, and anything else Firefly.  For my part, it's a complete and total treat, one that makes a worthy addition to my own collection.  Highly recommended.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Comics New Year's Resolutions for 2012

I'm always of two minds about New Year's resolutions.  On the one hand, they're a good way to try to improved and better yourself personally as a new year dawns.  On the other hand, they can serve as a stark reminder of how weak-willed we can be.  According to some studies, only 23 percent of New Year's resolutions are actually kept by resolution makers.  A whopping 35 percent of resolutions are broken by the end of January.

That's right.  Not even a month in, and well over a third of the millions of resolutions made putter into the oblivion.  Not very encouraging.

Most of the New Year's resolutions I've made in past years have dealt with specific issues: writing (I will commit to writing 500 words per day for the whole year, or 182,500 words for the year); exercise (I will develop an exercise routine for muscle tone, strength and endurance, and I will stick with it the whole year); and sleeping (I will get up earlier in the morning and make use of the extra time I have.  I will get by with less sleep than I currently do.).  I've failed at these resolutions in the past, and have basically given up on trying to whip myself into shape over them when the new year emerges.

I have found, however, that time and necessity often do for me what arbitrary resolutions have failed at.  When I was diagnosed with high cholesterol a few months ago, I changed my eating and exercise habits, because my long-term health was on the line.  When I realized I was nearing the limit precipice of my credit cards a few years ago, I committed to paying down all that debt as soon as I possibly could--and, I'm proud to say, I've hacked away the majority of that particular beast.  This blog, of which I'm particularly proud, was not part of any resolution I'd planned for the end of the year, but rather the realization that if I ever wanted to be a writer, then I'd better get off my ass and do some serious, consistent writing, each and every day.

None of those changes required, or even were part of, any New Year's resolution.  They were due to particular circumstances that had emerged in my life naturally, over time.  I am therefore convinced that any meaningful changes I want to make to my life will not be the result of any commitments I make arbitrarily at the end of a year.

So, in light of that realization, why bother with them?  Well, because if nothing else, I think I can use the New Year's resolution to commit to some of the less serious, more fun areas of my life.  Since I've had a few things in this category that I've never tried to work on, I figure it's about time to do so.  And here's the great part: both of the resolutions I've made for myself this year revolve around comic book related goals.  Without further ado, my two resolutions for 2012 are as follows:

  1. I will attend at least one comics convention that takes place outside of Houston.  I'm already planning to attend Comicpalooza this year, which is the fastest-growing and most awesome con that Houston has hosted since its inception some 5 years ago.  But it's easy to get to them if you're already living in the city where they're hosted.  I want to go to another town and meet comics fans who've come to somewhere other than my current city, even if it's just a few hours away.  At this point, likely candidates are Austin (Wizard World Austin) and Chicago, but things could change.  We'll see how time, budget, and energy affect where I'll end up this year...
  2. I will attempt to construct at least two different costumes for cosplay purposes.  I've already got two that I could use at a moment's notice, a Jedi and a Tenth Doctor getup, both I need to become a comic book character.  My two marks for this year are black-suit Spider-Man, and Nightwing.  Both are characters I've identified with in the past, and still enjoy reading about in the present.  You could also argue that I even look a bit like them.  Can I pull them off?  Probably, but again, I'll need to start looking for costume pieces and start putting them together while I've still got the time.
So, there you have it.  My resolutions for this year are more fun, more comic book-oriented, and nothing for me to feel horribly about if I don't accomplish them (though why I wouldn't want to is currently beyond me). If anyone has any advice or can help me reach either one this year, please don't hesitate to speak up.  In the mean time, I'll wish luck to anyone who's made New Year's resolutions and still stuck with them at this point.  I hope you have as much success with them as I have fun with these resolutions of mine.

See you (hopefully) on the convention scene!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

GN Review -- Spider-Man: Origin of the Species / Mark Waid and Paul Azaceta

What happens when a plethora of your enemies plans to steal your best friend's newborn son so that he can be experimented on?  How do you begin to keep that child safe, even with the best of intentions and spider-powers, when numbers, the media, and the police are all working against you?  Peter Parker sees just how far he can go to outstrip the infamous Parker Luck when a child's life is on the line in Spider-Man: Origin of the Species.

Peter, dealing with the typically tough trappings of his new life--money troubles, a hard-headed roommate, and a reputation both in and out of costume as a horrible human being--meets his friends for coffee, when the untimely arrival of Menace--aka Harry's ex, Lily Hollister--heralds a struggle with higher stakes than anyone is prepared for.  Before we know it, Spider-Man has grabbed the newborn child she's delivered, and is put through his paces to keep the boy out of the clutches of some of his deadliest foes--and the Looter--all of whom are working for Spidey's arch-nemesis, Doctor Octopus, who wants to use the newborn's unique biochemistry to cure his withered body.  It becomes both a physical and an emotional roller coaster ride as Spider-Man evades foes, loses the child, and becomes obsessed with both revenging himself upon anyone who had a hand in the baby's kidnapping and searching for and recovering Harry's son.

I have to say, this was a fun story.  I mean, I know the idea of Spidey swinging frenetically around the city with a newborn baby in his possession while he tries to avoid enemy after enemy who wants to either kidnap the kid or pound Spidey's flesh into the ground should be alarming on some level--I seriously doubt a newborn would survive that kind of ride without some form of injury, or even death--but you have to admit, if there's a better setup for a gauntlet, it's really hard to imagine what it is.  Plus, we get to see Spider-Man using his wits against the apparently brilliant Doc Ock, using him as bait for the Lizard near the end.

Also of paramount importance is the discovery that, near the end of the story, newborn Stanley Osborn is not the son of Harry's father, Norman.  This is significant not only because it means he won't be in any further danger due to his genome--Doc Ock thought he was the product of Norman Osborn and Lily Hollister, both of whom had unique genetic properties due to their ingesting various permutations of the Goblin Serum--but it also means that, despite all of Norman's efforts to take Lily from Harry, that Harry is after all looking after his son, and not his brother.  It's a heartening end to the Harry-Lily-Norman debacle, one that will hopefully herald better things for Harry and his family.

I didn't think I was going to like Paul Azaceta's artwork at the beginning of the story, as it seemed flat, simple, and with no real depth at first.  But as I read on, I found that it works pretty well with the story being told, with Spider-Man rushing into and out of trouble, desperate to find and rescue the baby, and all manner of volatile events happening in the blink of an eye.  With so much going on, the style actually works--the looks on the villains' faces as Spidey hunts them down in vengeance are particularly memorable--and the use of darkness and shading really works towards some of the end action scenes.  I think those who take their time to read and peruse the artwork may have issues with it, and I'm not sure how well it would be received in a slower-paced, more measured story arc, but I really do like it in this story.

Overall, I think this story will stand as a good example of how difficult life can be if you're Spider-Man.  Peter's attempts to keep baby Osborn alive, while somewhat comical, also take a turn for the dark, and his life out of costume is no picnic, either.  It kept me turning the pages, and the heart-warming resolution leaves the indelible conclusion that, while life is often hard for both Peter Parker and Spider-Man, it's always worth it for both of them to try their hardest to help others.  Highly recommended.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

GN Review -- My Boyfriend Is a Monster: Made for Each Other / Paul D. Storrie and Eldon Cowgur

Sometimes the old aphorism holds true: the perfect boyfriend is not born, but made. At least, that’s the premise of Made for Each Other.

The second book in the My Boyfriend Is a Monster series is another cutely drawn, style over substance story in the teen romance and adventure genre, with a touch of the supernatural added for extra appeal. It’s a fairly shrewd move, given the current market for paranormal literature, which is particularly dominant in Young Adult literature. But given the plot of this story, it’s easy to see the dangers of flooding the markets with too much of the same kind of product.

The story centers around Maria McBride, a sophomore at Seward High School, who is something of a shrinking violet, and her growing attraction to Tom Stone, a new student who turns out to a modern-day, teenage-looking Frankenstein’s monster. Despite this gruesome-sounding origin, Tom is a strapping, good-looking, articulate young man, who is polite and smart, and who seems rather taken with Maria. When it turns out his father is the original Frankenstein’s monster, who uses his funeral home business as a front to create others like them, complications of course ensue.

At first it seems Dr. Stone’s business and “family” are keeping Tom away from Maria at every possible opportunity. Then, some of the newly created family members start causing problems, for both the new couple and the community at large. Add to that some in-fighting between the family members, and soon situations develop requiring Maria to rescue Tom from his deranged clan, and vice versa at times.

While I’m not a particular fan of romances, I don’t really have anything against them either. This story, however, had a couple of problems with it. Whereas the first story in this series, I Love Him to Pieces, moved along at a fairly brisk clip, this one feels very slow and drags in quite a few places. The characters featured are too numerous for the relatively short length of the story, and do little at times other than clog the plot and take away from the story of the main characters. By the time we actually see the grand reveal of Dr. Franklin Stone / Frankenstein’s monster, you’re just hoping he’ll find a way to end the story quickly.

The artwork was okay, very similar in cartoony yet expressive style to I Love Him to Pieces. The use of black space in this story feels much more overwrought here, however, making the whole piece feel darker overall (pun only partially intended). It would work if the story were a little more interesting, but unfortunately seems to weight down the narrative even further.

It does a good enough job for what it is, but doesn’t have the same appeal as the first one did, for me. The characters are cute, the plot, while flawed, does involve the struggle to preserve the characters’ new romance. It should appeal to those looking to get a quick fix of paranormal teen romance, but will probably have limited appeal to most other readers. Recommended, with reservations.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Comic Review -- Scarlet Spider #1 / Christ Yost and Ryan Stegman

Okay, now I've gone and done it.  I went and shelled out $3.99 for a print comic book, mere days after it was released.  This doesn't happen with me very often these days, for several reasons:

  • $3.99 is damned expensive for a comic, and don't start on any talk of inflation.  The current prices for comics are way above the inflation rate for other goods and products.
  • I lost my first collection of comic books to time, circumstance, and distance, and don't really want to put a lot of investment in single issues for that reason.
  • There aren't a lot of stories that justify it, in my opinion.  I'd rather wait a bit, see them in collected editions, and read the whole story at once.
So why did I go and buy Scarlet Spider #1 today and read it for review?  A few reasons, none of which are particularly powerful by themselves, but together made a confluence of justification for me:
  • The action takes place in my town, Houston.
  • I find Kaine to be one of the more fascinating characters to come out of the whole Clone Saga mess.
  • I think Kaine's assumption of the Scarlet Spider mantle makes for an interesting story, considering that he's succeeding his former nemesis, Ben Reilly.
So, I went and picked it up.  Did I like it?  Oh, heck yes.

Kaine has recently proven himself capable of overcoming a stacked deck in terms of choosing between the dark and light paths.  He sacrificed himself to save Peter's life during The Grim Hunt, and ended up being a force for good in the Spider Island arc in spite of the intent behind his resurrection.  Now that he's on his own, and on the run, he's trying to figure out who he is, without the influence of external forces like Spider-Man or Miles Warren or the Queen.  At first trying to keep to himself and take care of only his own needs, he is repeatedly thrust into circumstances requiring him to make a choice between saving others and staying out of trouble.

While he's not above making a threat or physically intimidating someone who's inconveniencing him, in the larger context, Kaine still seems unable to keep himself from interceding when he sees people in danger.  When he says that things aren't his problem, transposed against the costume he apparently stole from Peter, we know it's a lie that won't hold up for too long.

I like the writing so far.  Yost keeps the pace flowing fairly well, and he demonstrates at least a rudimentary knowledge of the Houston area.  So far my favorite piece of dialog involves the heat there: "It's like my sweat is sweating."  We'll see how the rest of it holds up over time, but I got the occasional chuckle out of it.

Art-wise, I've got no complaints.  Stegman's Kaine is menacing, surly, and direct, both in looks and mannerisms, with or without the long hair and beard.  It's pleasant to look at, and definitely worthy of a Spider-family title (I imagine Kaine would take umbrage at my putting it that way).

Overall, a good read, and a worthy start to the reboot of this character.  I'm interested to see where things go, and may even continue buying these issues if the quality stays this high.  As it is, I'm pleased with this inaugural issue and can't wait to see where it goes.  Highly recommended.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

GN Review -- Spider-Man: Peter Parker / Bob Gale, Tom Peyer, Patrick Olliffe and Todd Nauck

As much as I love seeing Spider-Man throw down and trash some bad guys, I do find it a welcome respite from time to time, to see more of his day-to-day life as Peter Parker, which over the years has come to be every bit as colorful and interesting as his life in webs.  In Spider-Man: Peter Parker, there is still plenty of webslinging action, but we get a lot more focus on his civilian life and the people he interacts with.

J. Jonah Jameson has been elected mayor, and is chomping at the bit to get Spider-Man put away and boost his faltering image.  In fact, he's squandering taxpayers' money to install special cameras and fund an "anti-Spider squad" to catch him.  Throw in some odd appearances by a new villain called Spectrum, and Spider-Man has his hands full just trying to stay alive, to say nothing about protecting his own public image.

He gets some unexpected help from a group of high school girls, who decide to use his example as inspiration and form the Spider-Girls, a service group aiming to make the world a better place.  When their image becomes popular, a thinly-veiled Paris Hilton celebutante clone swoops in and steals their thunder.  A media tug-of-war ensues, and Spider-Man gets involved by talking to both sides, trying hard to guide them to settle things civilly, do the right thing, and keep the mayor's Anti-Spider Squad and the ever-present Spectrum contained.

The final chapter of this collection tacks on a completely unrelated story involving a mentally traumatized Spider-Man and the Thing, working together to find out who caused a mental blackout in him that made him temporarily take charge of a group of homeless people.  As they take out an AIM lab, one of the homeless woman he led finds out his real identity, and destroys all the records to protect him.

With the exception of the last story, which feels completely unrelated and tacked on just for the purpose of filling out volume, I really enjoyed this collection.  It's fun seeing Spider-Man deal with publicity issues, particularly when he gets a chance to stick it to Jonah.  He takes his responsibility as a role model to the Spider-Girls very seriously, going to bat for them on more than one occasion in both his civilian and his super-hero guises.  And the Parker Luck is in full swing here, as Spidey very often gets shown in a bad light whenever he's just trying to do what he sees as the right thing.

Gale's writing here is pretty memorable.  He plays with the theme of appearance vs. reality masterfully, using both the Spider-Girls and Teri Hillerman as extreme examples of good and bad.  He also adds deft touches of humor; I found it particularly amusing that Ms. Hillerman kept asking Spider-Man questions about his body and how he likes to "do it."  Puerile playfulness at its best.  I couldn't really get into Peyer's story, as it felt too compacted and rushed to be a one-issue story.  I'm sure he did the best with what he could, but I just couldn't shake the feeling that this was filler.

The artwork in both stories is good.  I can't recall having see Olliffe's work before, but demonstrates an appropriate knack for drawing people, be they in large groups or singular shots.  It's a little flat and cartoony, but nothing to complain about, as it certainly suits the superhero comics medium.  Nauck's linework has more depth, which complements the darker narrative in which he's working.

Overall, this volume is a lot of fun.  Spidey vs. Jonah, Spider-Girls vs. Paris Hilton knock-off, Spidey vs. bad publicity... there's potential for a lot here.  Spidey fans could probably get  along without reading it, but I'm not sure why they'd want to.  Highly recommended.