28 December 2004

ménage à trois: 12/22/04

[One Marvel, one DC, both published the previous Wednesday, plus a random indie from whenever I feel like it, each reviewed quickie-style: 1 Minute=bad, 10 Minutes=good. Connections, if any at all, may be forced purely for the experience.]

Not counting their Vertigo and Wildstorm imprints - for whom The Losers and Sleeper ably represented - it was DC's turn last week to come up empty on my interest radar, allowing Bloodfire Studios' Kindergoth #1 to join Black Widow #4 and Arcana Studios' 100 Girls #1, making this week's round of comic book carnality an all-girl affair.

The Black Widow has always been a character for whom I've had little interest, pretty but shallow, and Greg Land's sex kitten covers on her latest run would normally be enough to keep me away. While looks aren't everything, Bill Sienkiewicz has been one of my favorite artists ever since his Moon Knight days - and on through his experimental phase - so I couldn't resist checking out the first issue and have been hooked ever since, despite his shifting from primary artist to finishing Goran Parlov's layouts. The difference is subtle and the art remains strong and distinctive, nicely complementing Richard K. Morgan's sharp, back-door origin story that sheds light on the KGB program that created the Black Widow while moving the main story forward of who's trying to kill a purportedly retired Natasha Romanov. Morgan writes a believable Romanov, tough as nails but deeply human, and in this issue, teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown when, following a lead to Moscow, she's confronted with memories of her past and, more disturbingly, some unexpected truths about that past. Another novelist successfully makes the jump into comics, and of course, there's Sienkiewicz: 9.5 Minutes

Thanks to Ezra, I decided to give another Arcana Studios book a try and judging from its first issue, 100 Girls is another winner. Sylvia Mark is a troubled thirteen-year old girl, plagued by nightmares and adoptive parents who question her mental stability. She's also being tracked by a mysterious organization to whom she's known as Subject 97, the last of "them" to show "signs of manifesting." Adam Gallardo writes a pitch-perfect first issue, laying a solid foundation for his interesting premise, giving just enough detail to whet the appetite while leaving so much more up in the air. Todd Demong's artwork works perfectly here, the sign of an artist committed to and challenged by a project, as opposed to collecting a work-for-hire paycheck. His teenagers look like teenagers, his bad guys - assuming they are, in fact, the bad guys - look like regular people doing their jobs, and his layouts are energetic and fluid. Some comics leave you thinking you could do better, while others, like this one, simply leave you excited about the next issue: 10 Minutes

In this era of gritty realism, very few comic books go the "comic" route anymore, so Kindergoth was a pleasant surprise with it's laugh-out-loud funny debut issue. That it's in black-and-white is another surprise, one that manages to work for it not against it, though, as Jeff Zugale's cherubic goth kids boldly jump off the background-light pages in their black leather jackets and t-shirts. The lead kid, Alise, is a short-fused, ass-kicking half-pint of pent-up rage who doesn't suffer fools lightly, and writer/creator Lee Kohse gives her some of the best lines in the book. His first issue introduces her and her friends, members of the Dead Bonsai Society, along with miniature grim reapers, crop circles and an alien invasion! It's like a joyful blast from the 90s black-and-white glutted past, but without any of the suckiness. "Nobody moves, and nobody gets probed!" 8 Minutes

23 December 2004

Review: Secret Skull #1-4

Steve Niles' Secret Skull mini-series starts off strong, jumping from a quick dream sequence featuring a cemetery zombie attack in broad daylight to a Batman-like vigilante in a skull mask tracking a gang of thugs through the night, one of whom it somehow knows will kill an innocent girl the next day. Except he won't get the chance as the Secret Skull executes a violent pre-emptive strike, leaving the thug's head on a pike in an alley along with the sliced-and-diced corpses of his cohorts.

For the past two and a half years, the Secret Skull has been at work, targeting only scumbags and most cops don't seem to mind its work. Except for the grizzled, by-the-book, old-timer, Captain William Brooks: "When we allow a crazed murderer to become a hero, it is truly a sad day for the world."

At the end of the issue, when a group of zombies descends on the Brooks home "looking for the one who escaped the hand of death," the assumption - incorrect, of course - is that they're talking about the Captain.

Secret Skull is the first title under Niles' Meeednight Pulp imprint at IDW and his opening chapter, along with Chuck BB's crunchy artwork, admiraby apes the hard-boiled pulp genre while seamlessly working in the horror angle he's so well-known for. As the story moves on, and the truth about the Secret Skull becomes clearer, things shift a bit as the pulp takes a step into background and we get a glimpse of a larger world where the undead gather in the city's sewers to decide what to do about one of their own who is seemingly unaware that they've passed on and is jeopardizing the very existence of them all.

When confronted with the truth, and the possible solution to its dilemma, the Secret Skull leaps into action and the story's climax comes quickly, predictably even, though satisfying nevertheless.

Briskly-paced and solidly plotted (though padded a bit in the third issue with a virtually wordless, seven-page fight scene!?!) and, in typical IDW fashion, beautifully-packaged over its pricey four-issue run, Niles has crafted an engaging character and story that ultimately does justice to both the pulp and horror genres. Secret Skull manages to stand on its own while hinting at a larger story thanks to a couple of major plot threads left dangling - European ghouls? the biter? why was the Secret Skull a threat to the undead's future existence? - and the classic horror genre staple on the last page that absolutely screams sequel.

I'm looking forward to Secret Skull: Season 2.

Secret Skull #1-4 (IDW, $3.99/ea); Story by Steve Niles, Art by Chuck BB.

21 December 2004

PSA: Comic Book Legal Defense Fund

[Support a worthy cause this holiday season. Plus, do it by Christmas Eve and get your $25 donation matched!]

The Comic Book Legal Defense Fund was officially incorporated as a non-profit charitable organization in January of 1990 from the money left over from donations raised to defend Friendly Frank's arrest for selling "obscene comics" in Lansing, IL in 1986. Since then, the CBLDF has helped over a dozen comic book retailers and professionals fend off the censors, some successfully, some not.

The CBLDF exists to fight censorship and defend the first amendment rights of comic book professionals throughout the United States. In the past five years, the CBLDF has raised over $200,000 to pay expenses related to defending freedom of speech and expression, and the battle continues. As new waves of conservatism flood the publishing industry and the country, the CBLDF continues to raise the money and awareness needed to fight the censors every step of the way.

In recent years, police and prosecutors around the country have decided to crack down on comics. For cartoonists and their readers, it's a dire threat. The work accused of being allegedly "harmful to adults" includes comics by the best cartoonists of our time: Robert Crumb, Frank Thorne, Jaime & Gilbert Hernandez, Reed Waller, and many others.

Is there really a need for the CBLDF? The answer, unfortunately, is yes. 1996 and 1997 were busy years at the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. The Planet Comics Case in Oklahoma City saw many tribulations between the bust in September of 1995 and the unfortunate end as the defendants accepted a plea to end their ordeal. Michael Diana lost his appeal to have his conviction as an "distribution of obscenity" overturned. Joe Lansdale, Tim Truman and Sam Glanzman found themselves having to defend against a suit by the Winter brothers for defamation and invasion of privacy .

The CBLDF's guiding principle is that comics should be accorded the same constitutional rights as literature, film, or any other form of expression.

Authorities around the country are increasingly taking the opposite view. The censors and the "politically correct" tend to pick on the comic industry because they regard comics as products for kids and thus view adult/mature comics as inappropriate, or even illegal.

The CBLDF intends to fight these attacks and we hope you will help. We ask everyone who cares about comics and free speech to support us.

19 December 2004

ménage à trois: 12/15/04

[One Marvel, one DC, both published the previous Wednesday, plus a random indie from whenever I feel like it, each reviewed quickie-style: 1 Minute=bad, 10 Minutes=good. Connections, if any at all, may be forced purely for the experience.]

"The best laid plans..." sometimes go awry, and in this case, it's Marvel's fault as I wasn't interested in anything they published this week. As such, it's a double dose of the Distinguished Competition, with Identity Crisis #7 and Batman: Gotham Knights #60 hooking up with Devil's Due's Mu #1 for an immensely satisying group session.

First up, arguably the most anticipated comic book of the year concludes DC's mega-hit mini-series Identity Crisis not with a bang, but more of a satisfying tease that promises much more to come. Those looking for the revelation of the killer to be a jaw-dropping, toe-curling moment were not only very likely disappointed, but also weren't paying close enough attention to the story Brad Meltzer was telling. One of the biggest hints was in DC's choice of artists for such a high-profile project - not the fanboy-approved stylings of a Jim Lee or Michael Turner (though they cheated a bit having Turner do the covers, wonderful though they were) but instead going with the blue collar, emotive work of Rags Morales. The tragedy of Identity Crisis goes way beyond the death of Sue Dibny which, just like in real life, is ultimately a terrible symptom of a larger ill - in this case, the dark side of being a superhero, a side DC rarely explores, especially with its major icons. Similar to M. Night Shyamalan's underappreciated Unbreakable - semantics aside, second only to The Incredibles for best superhero movie ever - Identity Crisis is about the journey its characters take and its effects on them, effects which will reveal themselves over time, in other stories. Meltzer has laid the foundation the DCU will build on over the next few years, and it's a strong one that bodes well for the future: 9 Minutes

Last year's Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee run on Batman was one of the more over-hyped, overblown events I've fallen for and I'm still a little bitter about it. Lee's stellar artwork carried Loeb's unnecessarily convoluted and unsatisfying "who-is-it?" thriller and, in the end, the best thing I took from it was accidentally buying the pencil sketch version of Batman #612 that Comics Buyers Guide claims is now worth $20. Actually, the best thing was being introduced to the writing of A.J. Lieberman who picked up the Hush storyline in Gotham Knights and made it his own in a far-superior six issue run before the War Games mega-crossover interrupted things. In GK #60, Lieberman picks up where he left off, Hush returning for another round of cat-and-mouse with Batman, kidnapping Alfred, hinting at a sinister plan, and revealing he's not who Batman thinks he is. Well-written with complementary artwork from Javi Pina and Francis Portella, this is the kind of Batman story I love: 8 Minutes

Devil's Due is still on my "coal in their stocking" list after fumbling the Micronauts' re-relaunch and blowing G.I. Joe Reloaded's potential suggested in the Cobra: Reborn one-shot, but I decided to give them another shot when I came across Mu this week. I've become a big fan of fantasy since I started playing D&D again last year and have been hungry for something other than Conan - and now Ezra - for a regular fix. The setting is pretty straightforward: a long dormant evil stirs while humanity has grown "fat and weak" during a thousand-year long period of peace. An obsessed scholar pores through the Sekronomicon, a book of ancient prophecies that reveals a great evil is about be unleashed upon Mu. Like the biblical Noah, no one believes him; and, also like Noah, he's right. Manson Khan and Andrew Dabb get off to good start, treading familiar ground but adding their own appealing spin to it all. Mark Lee and Zack Suh do a good job depicting Mu and its inhabitants, with Suh's stunning background work especially standing out. Devil's Due has my attention again: 7.5 Minutes

16 December 2004

Review: Worldwatch #3

With Marvel not publishing a single thing of interest to me this week, I decided to throw an extra $3 towards an indie comic I'd never read before and let me preface its review with this offer: the first person I don't know personally to leave a comment here, I'll mail it to you, bagged and boarded, postage-paid, completely free of charge. Someone involved in its creation would be ideal, actually!

I told someone recently that when it came to indie comics, if I didn't have something nice to say about a particular title, I simply wouldn't review it. The publishing industry is tough enough for the big boys, even moreso when it comes to comic books, and as much as I enjoy a good rip job, I don't see the need to kick someone when they're already down.

That said, there's just no way in the world I could not review the atrociously bad Worldwatch, aka The Authority, as published by Larry Flynt!

The issue opens mid-battle with fallen heroes aplenty and a moderately interesting setup as the government-funded superteam is unsuccessfully taking on what appears to be their primary nemesis, a hulking brute called Atomika, one of the better names among a rather unoriginal cast that includes such notables as Fastball, Horseman and War Woman. It all starts to fall apart by page 4, though, as its true nature is revealed in lines like:

"You want your little secret out, Marvin? About how you finger the girls when they're unconcious?"
Or dialogue like:

"Don't even THINK about it you bastard!"

"Well, I was originally planning to hold hands chastely, but momma did always say: 'When a woman dresses like a slut--'"

The latter takes place mid-battle, a la old school Spider-Man, as Atomika disrobes the scantily-clad War Woman with two quick flicks of his finger, leaving her naked and completely vulnerable to the attempted rape that follows.

Oh, yeah, did I mention Worldwatch has two warnings on its cover: "MATURE READERS" and "18 and UP"?

Not surprisingly, there's nothing even remotely mature about this juvenile Spice TV spin on the Avengers - complete with embarrassingly lame scripting and "plumber nails lonely housewife" plotting. The majority of the issue is a combination of sex, voyeurism, and standard porno tropes, with a flimsy wrapper of a story about super-heroes as rock stars attempting to rationalize it all. There's even the requisite "RAM YOUR BIG, BLACK COCK INTO ME!" moment, uttered of course by what appears to be the young, blonde ingenue of the team. Honestly, I'm not sure since it's her only scene and no context is offered for it.

I'm not even going to get into the nine pages in the back that include fake soft-core magazine covers of Rolling Stain, Super Scoopers, Fan Boy and Fan Girl, or the Penthouse Forum-style interview with someone named Plinks.

Worldwatch's tagline - People who wear masks, usually have something to hide - might lead some to mistake it for satire, as I did on first glance at the store, and if that is in fact its creators' intent, it's just another example of how difficult good satire really is.

Saddest of all, it isn't just some random, low-budget fanboy production, but the calculated work of industry veteran, and controversial lightning rod, Chuck Austen, much-maligned writer of such mainstream books as the Avengers, Uncanny X-Men and Action Comics! While I'm more familiar with his reputation than any of his actual work, I was intrigued by the full-page introduction to this issue explaining how, due to fan outcry, Austen had been fired, effective this issue, and replaced by an "extremely talented newcomer," Sam Clemens. It wasn't until a day later, when I found out that the publisher, Wild and Wooly Press, is in fact Austen's company that I got the joke.

Sam Clemens.

Mark Twain's real name.

Sadly, it's the only clever thing about this issue.

Oddly, due to Austen's breaking an arm, issues 5-7 of this mini-series have been mercifully canceled. I wonder if the business side of him simply realized his writer side had dropped a turd, as I have trouble believing he couldn't have just hunt-and-pecked his way to completing this piece of trash with one hand.

Or hired a monkey to do it for him.

Worldwatch #3 (Wild and Wooly Press, $2.95); Written by Chuck Austen, Pencils by Tom Derenick, Inks by Norm Rapmund.

13 December 2004

ménage à trois: 12/8/04

[One Marvel, one DC, both published the previous Wednesday, plus a random indie from whenever I feel like it, each reviewed quickie-style: 1 Minute=bad, 10 Minutes=good. Connections, if any at all, may be forced purely for the experience.]

Since it's our first time, I'll kick this format off comfortably with two regulars and a newcomer I'm already fond of: Gotham Central #26, Spectacular Spider-Man #22 and The Lurkers #1. Much like the real thing, it's a bit of an awkward mix that ultimately makes for a pleasurable, if highly subjective, experience across the board.

Gotham Central, one of my Top 5 Comics of 2004, is the proven stud of the group, consistently producing high-quality output throughout its 2+ year run. Unfortunately, it happens to everyone at some point, it's not its usual pretty self this time out as regular series artist Michael Lark has left the Distinguished Competition for an exclusive contract with Marvel, and his stand-in, Jason Alexander, doesn't measure up, delivering a blotchy, muddied product that would shrivel most other comic books. But as distinctive as Lark's artwork always was, Gotham Central's strength lies in the writing of Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker, and in the beginning of a new post-War Games two-issue arc, Brubaker comes through with another solid effort as Detective Josie Mac, she of the knack for "knowing" where things come from, steps into the spotlight. As always, strong character development rules the day as Mac and her suspicious partner, Driver, investigate the murder of a prominent televangelist where all of the clues point to Catwoman, leading to a tense confrontation in a snowy cemetery. Because reputation can sometimes compensate for a misstep: 7.5 Minutes

Meanwhile, in Gotham City's real-world counterpart, the erratic Spectacular Spider-Man joins the party with a strong one-shot from writer Paul Jenkins and guest art duo Talent Caldwell and Norman Lee. Jenkins writes a complex Peter Parker, capturing the angst and humanity of the character in a way even the movies haven't quite matched, and this issue is told purely through internal narration as he's confronted with the consequences of his tendency to punch his way to a solution when he meets a former super-villain living on the streets as a homeless man. It's not all talking heads and maudlin navel-gazing, though, as Jenkins gives Caldwell enough action to keep things moving, from rain-soaked streets and mental horrors to an amazing Mary Jane, ensuring a powerful climax that reminds you why, in the right hands, there's few super-heroes that measure up to Spider-Man: 8 Minutes

Steve Niles, then, is the earnest newcomer who's eager to please. With The Lurkers, a police procedural with a zombie twist, Niles comes fast and hard, stretching roughly 13 pages of text over 22 pages of comic, but making it work thanks an assist from Hector Casanova's pitch-perfect, creepy-as-hell artwork. Lieutenant Dietz is a hard-working schlub in the LAPD, forced to bail on a playdate with his son in order to investigate a grisly cemetery crime scene where someone has dug up a body for a little corpse buffet. Examination of a tissue sample reveals that this might be the start of something good: 6.5 Minutes

08 December 2004

Review: Ezra #3

At first glance, Ezra appears to embody many of the things I dislike about comic books these days: multiple variant covers, scantily-clad women for no apparent reason, too little story and a late shipping schedule. And yet, despite all of that, when I saw it on the stands today, I was happy to finally see it after what felt like months of waiting.

You see, Ezra, Sean O'Reilly's highly-appealing, blue-tinted, medieval mercenary, has what I refer to as the Drew Barrymore Appeal. Against all odds, no matter what she does, no matter how ridiculous - ie: marrying Tom Green - she somehow manages to come off smelling like roses. I believe the old-school term is pluck. Ezra has pluck to spare, an impetuous badass prone to getting herself into and out of trouble, as quick with her wit as she is with her sword.

The first two issues jumped right into her story, offering just enough background sprinkled throughout to clue readers in on the basics. A thief since she was 12 years old, her parents and older brother dead, she's just trying to not get hassled, not get hustled, keepin' her head above water, making a wave when she can. Good times!

And make a wave she does in this issue as she confronts Nephilia, a purported goddess with an army of cat people at her command, attempting to complete a job for Barak, the head of her thieves guild, that would ease her money issues "for quite some time," he says. As was the case in the first two issues, Ezra realizes the job isn't a cakewalk, finding herself in yet another life-threatening situation, and, in fact, finds out she wasn't expected to survive it!

One of the best things about Ezra is that O'Reilly is obviously having fun with it. There's no overt parables to current events here, no high-minded philosophy on the blurred lines between good and evil, no forced attempts at expressing female empowerment. Ezra is a good old-fashioned action romp, Peter Parker's hot great-great...grandmother from the days of Conan. While he takes a minimalist approach to the narration and dialogue, allowing for frequent consecutive panels of uncluttered action, it never feels padded in that written for the trade paperback way that's become so common. Like Geoff Johns' work on Teen Titans, every issue offers a bit of a payoff while always driving the larger story forward.

Which brings me to the other best thing about Ezra: Alfonso Ruiz's energetic artwork. Slightly cartoony, but with a graffiti-like edge that works for the setting, Ruiz not only delivers on the main character but gives each of her supporting cast a distinctive feel as well. Even Nephilia, with an outift that would make Michael Turner blush, comes off right in the world Ruiz depicts. The addition this issue of Gabo on inks is a seamless one, doing nothing to hinder Ruiz's pencils and O'Reilly gives him plenty of room to play with. The high-quality paper stock also means the coloring, credited to Benny Fuentes the last two issues, really pops off the page...an important thing when your main protagonist is blue!

This issue ends with a cliffhanger and a disturbing "conclusion next issue..." teaser. I really hope that's referring to this particular story arc as Ezra is a book I hope to keep seeing on a regular basis.

Ezra #3 (Arcana Studios, $2.95); Written/Created by Sean O'Reilly, Pencils by Alfonso Ruiz, Inks by Gabo, Colors by Benny Fuentes.

04 December 2004

Review: New Avengers #1 / The Ultimates 2 #1

To say I was skeptical about Marvel go-to-guy Brian Michael Bendis' New Avengers seemingly self-serving reload would be quite the understatement. Based on the ill-conceived complete disaster that was Avengers Disassembled, and it's half-assed epilogue/retrospective in Avengers Finale, I was fully prepared to hate it on sight.

Boy was I wrong!

After the requisite - and, thanks to its brevity, sad in that wow, that really was lame kind of way - first page recap of the Disassembled disaster, Bendis starts things off with a shadowy meeting between a silhouetted figure and a thug who turns out to be Electro.

"Costume or no costume?"
"That is completely up to you."
As simple as that bit of dialogue seems, David Finch, Danny Miki and Frank D'Armata team up on the visuals to give it a real sense of foreboding and manage to make Electro look more threatening than he ever has.

The scene shifts to The Raft, the oddly spelled Ryker's Island's "Maximum-Maximum Security Installation" and a plain-clothed quartet exiting a helicopter: Matthew Murdock, Jessica Drew, Luke Cage and Foggy Nelson. Bendis' people. Foggy is understandably nervous as The Raft is Marvel's equivalent of Arkham Asylum, or better yet, Superman's Gulag in Kingdom Come. Eight levels of super-villians incarcerated in one place.

Of course, the inevitable happens...the lights go out and all hell breaks loose.

When he's on his game, Bendis paces his comics like he's editing a movie, steady, confident, taking his time to develop both plot and character, sometimes at the expense of any overt action, but making every moment add up in the end. Here, it all flows in a very organic way, and nothing rings false. Unlike Disassembled, which felt like a forced march through the Highly Improbable Zone, Bendis is obviously playing in his own sandbox now and fully in control of the story.

Interestingly, Captain America appears in only two panels; Iron Man and Wolverine, not at all. And the mysterious Sentry? Suffice to say Bendis sets the stage for him very nicely.

Despite the fact that I still see this team as more of a Defenders-style super group - loosely affiliated, coming together to take on the big threats and dispersing afterwards - I understand the Avengers name has a much higher profile and Bendis is as high-profile as you get these days. Nevertheless, I think he still has a lot of making up to do to the old-school fanboys who are still bristling over Disassembled. I'm not one of them, though, and as such, will definitely be back for the next issue and am enthusiastically adding it to my monthly pull list!

Meanwhile, in the alternate universe of Marvel's Ultimate line, Mark Millar, Robin to Bendis' Batman, lays a runny egg with the beginning of his second arc of The Ultimates. Not having read the first arc at all, my only exposure to this gritty, more realistic version of the Avengers was through Bendis' lackluster Ultimate Six mini-series last year that left me feeling ambivalent at best. But Ultimate Fantastic Four is one of my favorite monthlies right now, and the New Avengers ended up being good, so I figured what the hell.

What's the big deal, was more like it.

Millar kicks things off James Bond style with the most badass Captain America I've ever seen parachuting into northern Iraq and single-handedly stomping some insurgent ass while rescuing nine aid workers being held hostage. It's classic Stallone/Schwarzenegger action, completely lacking any nuance or subtlety, and Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Laura Martin deliver the visual goods.

Unfortunately, Millar doesn't hold up his end of the bargain.
"Listen up, scumbags: You know who I am and you know what I do. Surrender those weapons and you might -- just might -- live to tell your grandchildren about this little episode. But touch those triggers and I swear your own mothers won't even recognize you."
Says Captain America to at least 12 insurgents who have him surrounded with automatic rifles. It's downhill from there as Millar's dialogue takes center stage and so much of it rings false, especially his heavy-handed parallels to current events. And I don't mean that from a purist, that's not the Tony Stark I know kind of way. Though Stark does come off as a complete jackass during a Larry King interview.

Mind you, this issue isn't terrible, it's just not all that good. Which might be acceptable for something with less hype surrounding it - like Alpha Flight, maybe? - but for The Ultimates, it's a major disappointment, and it's back to an in-store skim for me, at best.

03 December 2004

Comment: A Fanboy's Rant #1

1. One of the sequences in Comic Book Superheros Unmasked (2003) dealt with the crash of the comic industry during the early 90s. I'd like to bring up one point made by Marvel's Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada during the interview, where he basically states that the variant cover phenomenon during that time played a big part in the industry's crash. Back then, the hottest books were selling in the several hundreds of thousands. Nowadays, a publisher would kill for 150,000! Well, more than a decade removed and it looks like the industry is back at it. This time though, rather than flooding the market with foil covers and hermetically-sealed bags, we're getting limited 1st printings of issues. DC recently announced that Green Lantern: Rebirth #2 was in its second printing with a variant sketch cover. The thing that gets me though, is that DC made the announcement 12 days before shipping the 1st printing!, all the while advertising that it will ship with a variant cover. Marvel's done the same, but has gone a step further. They will make stores purchase a minimum number of issues of a certain title, using a formula reminiscent of my Economics 400 class, to determine if they will recieve one copy of the special variant cover of that month's hot issue. As a result, stores feel obligated to meet those numbers and the demands of customers who expect to see the coveted variant on the shelf. I just hope that Mr. Quesada and the rest of the industry know what they're getting into this time around.

2. Speaking of GL: Rebirth, I've got to say I like what I'm reading. So far the first two issues have me hooked. I've said before I'm a sucker for relaunches, and this one has the beginnings of a quality relaunch. For the most part, the whole Ultimate line at Marvel was gimmicky, but fun nonetheless. GL: Rebirth, on the other hand, seems to be unfolding into a book that could end up as a regular on my pull list. On another note, the ending of Spectacular Spider-Man with issue 27 is horrible news. Jenkins and Ramos are a great team and have provided a spectacular run with Spider-Man. Thankfully MK Spider-Man can fill the void after Spectaular's departure.

3. Does anyone remember this cast of characters? Captain Carrot and His Amazing Zoo Crew was one of the first comic books I read. It was a team-based comic book by DC in the early 80s. By the looks of it they were the kid version of JLA.

4. The wifey and I decided to exchange X-mas gifts early this year. She got roller blades, and I got the Spider-Man 2 DVD gift set. We saw the movie again a few days back, and with a second viewing you get to appreciate the little things. The way they CGI'd Spider-Man is amazing. The subtle movements of Spidey and Doc Ock during the action sequences are very cool. The extras are jam-packed, too. If you thought the movie was good, it's a no brainer, go out and buy the DVD. If you you thought the movie sucked, but are a Spidey fan, buy it anyway. The special features alone are worth the $20.

26 November 2004

Review: New X-Men:Academy X #1-6

When the New Mutants re-appeared on the stands 20 months ago, I was just returning to comics after a 15-year hiatus and welcomed the sight of a familiar face to ease me back into the monthly habit. Joshua Middleton's beautiful cover art featuring some of the women from the original lineup drew me in, and Nunzio DeFilippis and Christina Weir's patient, nuanced introduction of the first mutant of the new generation, and their reintroduction and use of a tortured Danielle Moonstar as the story's anchor, kept me glued through to the last page.

The closing dialogue sealed the deal for me:

Sofia: What's Xavier's like?
Danielle: Like no place else in the world. You'll see.
While I didn't love Keron Grant's interior art, nor his uneven trio of inkers, there was something in its intent that worked for the tone of the story. For the next 11 issues, despite working with four different artists, DeFilippis and Weir made good on Danielle's promise, consistently delivering the goods by capturing that tricky combination of teenage angst and super-heroism that Marvel Comics seemingly trademarked ever since Stan Lee came up with the idea of a nerdy science buff bitten by a radioactive spider, but that so few mainstream comics are able to pull off today. They also organically weaved appearances by a couple of other old-school New Mutants into the storyline, giving Xavier's school a sense of realism that it's rarely had over the years.

But then, with issue #13, something bad happened.

Marvel's X-Men Reloaded marketing stunt ripped through almost every X-book being published and the New Mutants became collateral damage in their fanatical worship of the bottom line. Issue #13 inexplicably fast-forwarded the story, side-stepping the new generation in favor of an out-of-left-field, ill-conceived reunion of the original New Mutants, setting the stage for the reloaded and awkwardly-titled New X-Men: Academy X.

While the primary X-team got reloaded into the high-profile Astonishing X-Men, DeFilippis and Weir had to trade in their title for a previously-used model, New X-Men, forced to take a crowbar to their storyline and cram in plot elements that completely threw off the dynamic they'd lovingly established over the previous 12 months. And in the first six issues of their reload, they got three more artists to work with, not to mention five of the most trite, uninspired covers on the stands any given month. (Issue #3's cover was decent.)

The opening story arc to the reload, Choosing Sides, begins by explaining everything that's changed at the Xavier Institute for Higher Learning, with Cyclops and the apparently reformed Emma Frost [I don't follow the other X-books so this was news to me.] serving as the new headmasters of the school; a cursory reintroduction of the New Mutants that reduces each of them to standard team book stereotypes; and, presents their first adventure as a team in the Danger Room. Standard stuff for a first issue, but even accepting that as a necessary evil, there's something missing from the overall package.

That spark of sincerity that made DeFilippis and Weir's short-lived New Mutants run work so well is clearly dulled, as if the corporate-mandated reload as a "team book" sucked the joy from it for them and they're now going through the motions. In issue #2, you get a sense that they're determined to work in some of the more interesting themes that were hinted at before the reload, but in the structured confines of an official "team book," they come off feeling forced and insincere. ie: The prerequisite hothead, and hottie, Noriko, is given an Afghanistanian roommate, Sooraya, complete with burqua and traditional beliefs, and they clash for a couple of panels of simplistic rhetoric. You get the impression that there was something left on the cutting room floor; that pre-reload, this two-page encounter would have been a primary sub-plot that would weave it's way through the series as they explored the ever-present subtext of mutants as minorities. Instead, it goes no further, Sooraya ends up being on the rival squad mentored by Emma Frost, code-named the Hellions, and it all smacks of a cookie-cutter editorial plan being handed down from on high.

By the arc's drawn-out conclusion in issue #6, Danielle Moonstar is rudely shoved to the background, the Hellions and the New Mutants go head-to-head, a couple of team members switch sides, and the whole thing starts to feel like Saved By The Bell: The Superhero Years.

The New Mutants, and DeFilippis and Weir, deserve better than this.

22 November 2004

COMMENT: On Reloads and Relaunches

Answer: Everyone that bought a copy of Astonishing X-Men #1. [See the end for the Question.]

As someone who stopped buying comic books back in the early 90s - missing the worst of the speculator-driven boom and bust - and started again last year, I can see both sides of the "Relaunch/Reload" debate that seems to be flaring up on several fan sites.

As Comics Buyer's Guide pointed out in a great article a couple of months ago, the comic book industry doesn't really know very much about its audience. Other than the accepted stereotypes - predominantly young, male, into superheroes and Barbie-doll proportions - there's no strong demographic, or more importantly, psychographic - data available. Even actual sales figures are privileged information, guarded closely by publishers seemingly nervous about what the truth about the post-90s boom/bust might reveal. The clues are there, though, easy to read for anyone paying attention: expanded story arcs, trade paperbacks, multiple variations of the most well-known characters with little attention paid to the B-listers...unless Hollywood comes calling.

Despite the protestations of elitist fanboys, rebooting a title can actually be a good thing for both the industry and the readers, especially for one that's been lagging in sales and/or in need of a creative spark. Comics publishers make little to no money from print advertising and, with best-seller status ranging in the 100-125,000 copy range these days - ordered, not necessarily sold - the bulk of their revenue comes from trade paperback sales and licensing. And that's Marvel and DC, the juggernauts of the industry.

Anything not related to the X-Men or Spider-Man, Batman or Superman, is basically lucky to be published at all.

While I would be (and have been) annoyed to see books I follow regularly get the reboot, simply from a cataloging/collecting perspective, if the reboot is as good or better than what came before, then I couldn't care less what volume or issue number appears on the cover. It's when a rebooted title takes a step backwards - ie: New Mutants, good; New X-Men: Academy X, bad - that I have a problem with it. But that can happen within the confines of a long-running series, too - ie: Batman, Loeb/Lee vs Azzarello/Risso vs. Winnick/Ngyuen - with the difference being that a 6-12 month hiccup in Batman isn't going to completely tank the book.

Short of a Bill Sienkiewicz or Greg Rucka jumping onboard, reboots are generally the only way I'll check out a book I'm not familiar with, or characters I've never particularly cared for or had lost interest in. I love Sleeper's "Season" concept, and felt comfortable jumping into that series because of it; and the reboots of Spectacular Spider-man, Teen Titans, and, while not exactly the same category, Ultimate Fantastic Four - all have ended up on my monthly pull list. As a matter of fact, its reboot is the only reason I picked up the new Iron Man, and I'm planning to check out the new Legion series, a title I've never had much interest in before but its reboot has me curious.

One reboot I definitely won't be picking up, though, is the New Avengers, because the Disassembled storyline that ended the original run (and completely tore apart the iconic team) was sloppy and lacking in credibility, and the new lineup simply doesn't interest me at all. [EDIT: I caved.] In fact, it strikes me as a blantantly marketing-driven concept. The ubiquitous Wolverine in yet another title? Where does he find the time?!?

In the end, it shouldn't surprise anyone that Marvel and DC's decisions reflect an unflinching eye on the bottom line. They're corporations first and foremost and, as lacking in common sense as it generally is, their investors rank far ahead of their fans in influencing their decisions.

That said, it's a relatively small industry and the majority of the creative types that move it forward are not mindless corporate drones. Any given book's fan base holds an inordinate amount of power, if wielded properly. Taking a stance that amounts to an elitist closing of the ranks with cries of "the good old days," and contradicts the financial realities of both the industry and the average reader, isn't the proper way to do it, though. While Joe Quesada may be peeking in on a message board here and there for shits and giggles, it's highly unlikely that anything he reads there is going to influence his decisions about whether a new Moon Knight series makes sense or not. (Joe, if you're reading this, it does!)

Question: Who bears the blame for all of the rebooted titles that fanboys across the internet are up in arms about?

20 November 2004

Comment: Comic Book Superheros Unmasked (2003)

Comic Book Superheros Unmasked (CBSU) is a History Channel documentary that has aired numerous times over the last few months. Released in 2003, the film was directed by Steve Kroopnick and he takes us on a tour of the comic book industry from its Depression Era-beginnings through its modern-day multi-million dollar enterprises. Our guides are some of the industries greatest legends, and current innovators, names like Stan Lee, Frank Miller, Joe Quesada, Neil Gaiman, and Will Eisner.

I've seen CBSU three times, and I'd watch it a fourth time if it were playing right now.

What struck me the most is the consistent relevance of comic books over the decades. Many of the greatest stories in comics meant something, had a soul to them. Comics in many ways have served as modern-day parables. Look at what's on the stands today. Captain America fighting terrorism at home and overseas. Superman contemplating his role in an alien world. Countless other books are juxtaposing real-life conflict into the fictitious world of comics.

Some of the most memorable story lines from the past were no different. I'm paraphrasing, but Stan Lee said, "We [Marvel] were fighting Hitler, way before the U.S. got involved in the war." Another story that comes to mind is one in which Harry Osborne, Peter Parker's best friend, overdoses on drugs. If I'm not mistaken that story was written during the height of 60s drug craze. Countless social phenomena have been explored in comics over the years, from the media's influence on society to civil rights.

The stories we still talk about today all have something in common. The authors of those stories created something more than a 20-page propaganda pamphlet. They created a story that resonated within us. They made us look at a situation in our current world through different eyes. And by doing so, they may have made things a little clearer for us to see.

19 November 2004

Review: Iron Man #1

Issues with Marvel's questionable relaunches aside, I admit to being...intrigued. I wasn't going to buy it at all but, seeing how Marvel didn't release a single title of interest to me this week, I figured I'd take a gamble.

It's no secret that Warren Ellis is a good writer, and I've thoroughly enjoyed his run on Ultimate Fantastic Four so far, so I was curious to see what he'd do with another Marvel icon that I'd never been partial to.

It's made very clear on the cover and the first page that this is the first part of a six-issue arc, and Ellis sets an expectedly slow but steady pace that fortunately doesn't skimp on content. Overall, it's a solid read, with just enough updated background - nicely framed as a 'nothing is as black-and-white as it seems' interview with a Michael Moore-like documentarian looking to expose Tony Stark - to justify a relaunch without ultimizing it with a complete retelling, or overhaul, of the origin story. Unlike many fanatics, I have no problem with bringing iconic characters' origins forward in time to better fit into our current reality, especially when the writer makes a point of firmly establishing the setting in something close to the real world. Ellis does exactly that, and he does it quite well.

While the tone of the issue is a rather somber one, as Stark reflects on the consequences of his genius and his place in the world, Ellis isn't above a little humor, such as taking a poke at earlier stories the first time the Iron Man suit is shown: "Hard to believe I used to be able to fit this into a briefcase."

Adi Granov's art is a bit of a mixed bag, however, with muted colors that perfectly match Ellis' somber tone, and uncluttered panels that skimp on detail in favor of a small screen intimacy. His Tony Stark suspiciously resembles a goateed Tom Cruise, and the Iron Man suit looks...off, somehow. I can't put my finger on it but it's a little too sleek for my tastes. Granov also doesn't employ a very wide range of facial expressions, especially not for the significant amount of talking head shots throughout the issue, choosing to vary perspective instead, not always to the best effect.

All in all, while I'm not greatly anticipating the next issue I'll at least give it an in-store read, and I don't feel like I wasted my $3.50 on this issue, either. Like I said, I'm intrigued, which for an Iron Man comic is saying a lot.

12 November 2004

Review: Superman/Batman #8-13

I reserved judgement on this until it was complete, hoping there'd be a little more to it than than fanboy pandering, but alas, it is what it is.

Credit Jeph Loeb for giving the people what they want, I guess.

From his lazy, summer-blockbuster plotting and scripting, to Michael Turner's incredibly overrated artwork, this story arc bored me senseless. Another Supergirl. Whoopee! I imagine there's bigger plans for her in the near future but this overblown introduction certainly doesn't have me anticipating them.

Never has Superman been more annoying, or Batman so predictable, and their navel-gazing narration was frequently trite and simple-minded, making me wonder why Loeb apparently has such a low opinion of his audience.

(DISCLAIMER: I blame Loeb, rightfully or not, for the ill-conceived Pamela Anderson body double for Kristin Kreuk's shower scene on Smallville earlier this season.)

And the Source Wall?!?! * groan * Can you say cop out, boys and girls?

As for Turner, while his ubiquitous covers are generally pleasing to the eye, his interior work is sloppy and repetitive. All of his women look the same - busty and button-nosed, differentiated only by their costumes - and his page layouts strike me as someone more interested in impressing himself than in telling a coherent story.

Thumbs down!

11 November 2004

Guy's Top 5 Comics of 2004

(ongoing series only)

1. Gotham Central - I'm a big fan of strong characterization and tight plotting, and this Batman-themed take on the classic police procedural, a la Hill Street Blues and Homicide: Life on the Street, features some of the strongest writing in comics. Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka are terrific, and Michael Lark's gritty artwork matches them note for note. He'll be sorely missed but I'm hopeful that DC will tap a replacement with similar sensibilities.

2. Teen Titans - I fully expected this series to take an immediate downhill turn for the worse after the thrill-ride of its first 11 issues, but Johns has continued to up the ante every month, even making the seemingly throwaway Beast Boy story (#14-15) work with his intricate juggling of multiple subplots that makes every issue count. The "Titans of Tomorrow" arc promises to establish an excellent foundation to build on as everything that happens afterwards will carry the subtext of "is this what sends them in the wrong direction?"

3. Conan - One of the hardest things to do in comics is taking on a well-known character loaded with history and making him seem fresh and exciting without "updating" or "ultimizing" him. Even moreso when the character isn't at least somewhat based in the world we live in. Kudos to Busiek for pulling it off masterfully. Plus, Cary Nord was born to draw Conan and Dave Stewart's coloring complements him perfectly, making this one of the best looking comics around, too.

4. Ex Machina - Though only 5 issues old, Brian K. Vaughn has crafted a parallel New York City that feels absolutely real and populated it with 3-dimensional human beings that go far beyond comic book stereotypes - a legitimate spiritual descendant of Alan Moore's Watchmen. At this point, summarizing the plot would be selling it short, because there are multiple layers at work - superheroing, politics, the human condition - and Vaughn's barely scratched the surface. If there was ever a comic book that could seamlessly transition to traditional fiction, this is it. Unfortunately, that would mean missing out on Tony Harris' eye-popping artwork. As a native-New Yorker, I look forward every month to visiting this much more interesting version.

5. The Losers - This is "Hollywood Blockbuster" done right. The A-Team with a Three Kings edge, Andy Diggle writes intelligent action entertainment better than anyone, and his cynical take on world affairs gives this book a realistic, sharp edge that's missing from most other stories in this genre. The characters may be a bit generic, but like a B-movie with A-list actors, Diggle's scripting lifts each of them above their stereoypical cores. And Jock? His jagged, bombastic artwork evokes the hyperactivity of a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. This is my high-octane, not-feeling-the-least-bit-guilty pleasure every month.

Honorable Mentions: Powers, Ultimate Fantastic Four, Spectacular Spider-Man, Batgirl, Amazing Fantasy.