Monday, October 30, 2006

This Is Not a Graphic Novel: The Adventuress

The Adventuress (Harry N. Abrams), by Audrey Niffenegger

The greatest challenge facing comics as a medium today is not the dwindling readership, the explosion of variant covers or the fact that Iron Man’s been acting like such a dick lately. It’s linguistic. Even as comic books are being talked about more than ever—and in more different venues than ever before—we collectively have a hard time of even agreeing on what to call the damn things.

Up above, for example, I just said “comic books.” Should I have said “graphic novels” instead? No, probably not; the two are different words describing different types of publications, although it’s worth noting that some works are written as graphic novels but published as comic books (and then later republished as graphic novels), and some individual comic books are written as graphic novellas or short stories.

The best term is the one Scott McCloud arrived at in his seminal, must-be-read-by-everyone-who-plans-to-ever-open-their-mouth-in-public-about-comics tome Understanding Comics: “Sequential art.” But the term, accurate as it is, can sound so…awkward and self-serious in casual usage. Unless I’m writing a scholarly work or having a discussion about the definitions of the medium with an art professor, I prefer to just say “comic books.”

I got to thinking about the challenges of talking about comic books/graphic novels/sequential art the other day, when I picked up Audrey Niffenegger’s latest from the library, but the problems of talking about the medium were underscored in Wired News’s Tony Long’s fuddy duddy blog entry Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese being nominated for a National Book Award, which predictably lead to push back from more enlightened individuals (Dirk Deppey’s October 30th Journalista blog has the best coverage and link assortment I’ve seen; go there to get up to speed).

Long’s opinion can be pretty much dismissed from the point where he says, “I have not read this particular ‘novel’…”, but his main criteria seems to be that comic books are not novels, although he expresses this opinion pretty ridiculously, “This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges.

“If you've ever tried writing a real novel, you'll know where I'm coming from. To do it, and especially to do it well enough to be nominated for this award…is exceedingly difficult.”

I have written a real novel (a terrible, unpublished one) and it was difficult, but nowhere near as difficult as writing, illustrating and lettering a graphic novel (which I’ve also tried and, coincidentally, ended up with terrible, unpublished results). To do the former, you need to be a master of one skill set; to do the latter solo, as Yang did with American Born Chinese, you need to be a master of at least two, maybe four (Yang’s book is in color, another step in the comic book-making process, and it looks hand-lettered, but even computer-lettering is a skill great novelists don’t need to master).

Of the response’s to Long’s opinion, Neil Gaiman (who won a short story prize for a single-issue of his comic book Sandman…a graphic short story? A chapter of a graphic novel?…fifteen years ago) had the most humorous, “[I]t seems a rather silly and antiquated argument, like hearing someone complain that women have the vote or that be-bop music and crooners are turning up in the pop charts.”

It was in reading the others though that the problem of defining the medium comes up. The Slave Labor Graphics live journal makes some good points, but what threw me was this: “Is it bound and does it use sequential art to tell a story? Then it's a graphic novel.” What does this say about comic books that aren’t bound? Did Sandman only become a graphic novel once it was collected into a trade? Can online comics never be considered “graphic novels?”

This is all a really, really long introduction to a new feature here at EDILW, where we’ll be looking at books that aren’t graphic novels or comic books or McCloud-ian sequential art, but are nevertheless pretty damn close.

First up is the Niffenegger book I mentioned earlier. She’s best known as the author of The Time Traveler’s Wife, wonderful, clever and pretty damn heart-breaking prose novel I’d recommend to anyone who likes reading books without panels, which I occasionally do when I can’t find a graphic novel. The titular character of the book is an artist who works in the medium of paper. You may not be surprised to learn, Niffenegger is herself.

In 2005 she released The Three Incestuous Sisters, “an illustrated novel” (no really; it was a story book), in which she drew full-size, colored pictures and inserted brief lines of text. It wasn’t really an illustrated novel at all. It wasn’t a novel of any kind, but a story book or picture book, of the sort you’d find in the children’s section of your library, but it wasn’t for kids. It was beautifully drawn and designed, and it flowed with a sort of dream logic; a touch of magical realism, a touch of matter-of-fact fairy tale.

Her latest is The Adventuress, a book whose title and image of a masked woman sliding out of a window may stir the hearts of superhero fans. This one, the sticker on the cover of my local library’s copy tells me, is “A novel in pictures.”
This is a perplexing thing to call a book of any kind, but particularly this book. “An illustrated novel” is a term that makes sense; it’s a novel that’s been illustrated, like Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books; hell, the version of Pride and Prejudice I read was illustrated. But what’s a “novel in pictures?" Isn’t that just another way of saying a “graphic novel?” Speaking strictly linguistically, I’d say yes.

But despite being told in both pictures and words, despite the fact that it fits loosely into the McCloud-ian (how many times do I have to write that word before it becomes a real one, I wonder?) definition of “sequential art,” and despite the fact that it’s bound, I don’t think The Adventuress truly qualifies as a graphic novel, nor a novel in pictures.

It’s definitely graphic and has pictures, but the “novel” bit seems to be overselling it. Much like Niffenegger’s Sisters book, it uses sparse sentences to describe the scenes drawn in the pictures, but here the prose element is even more sparse, with single words and colons serving as title cards of sorts for the action in the pictures. I doubt there are any more than 500 words to the whole story, and it lacks many of the elements we usually associate with the modern novel; it reads instead like “a poem in pictures.”

The narrative is rather random, and contains another magical realism plot line. If there was a point to it—that is, if the book was about something—I failed to notice it.

That’s not to say it isn’t a great book, of course, it’s just that it’s ambitions and form don’t seem to overlap with that of a novel of any kind, let alone a “graphic novel” or “novel in pictures” at all.

Our heroine is a woman with short black hair, a long skirt, long glove and no shirt covering her bare breasts. She was created by an alchemist, carried off and married to a baron, burns down his house, goes to prison, makes a cocoon, turns into a moth, gets captured by Napolean, falls in love with him, gives birth to a cat, and so on.

Niffenegger’s sense of character design has a primitive feel to it, one that’s covered up by her command of color and framing of each scene. She also exploits the medium of drawing to great effect, creating images of her heroine’s spirit by simply not coloring in the drawing of her, for example, or giving the illusion of movement or change by drawing multiple arms coming from the same elbow.

It’s a really remarkable-looking book, and one I’d highly recommend readers look for at their local libraries (or read for free at a nearby big box book retailer), if you can’t afford the $27.95 for a five-to-ten minute read. Yes, it’s a remarkable book. It’s a gorgeous picture book, it’s a well-designed story book. It’ s a poem in pictures, a narrative image collection, a bound gallery show.

But it is not a graphic novel.

Nothing says evil like a goatee

Artist Keith Giffen’s breakdowns for 52 #24—the issue that featured the debut of the new, short-lived Jusstice League line-up and the check-ins with Martian Manhunter and Green Arrow—are currently available for perusal at

As the amount of attention I lavish on it each week here at EDILW indicates, I’ve really been digging the series, but I haven’t paid too much attention to Giffen’s breakdowns, a habit I may soon have to change, based on how much fun this breakdown-only re-read of #24 was, and how many possible clues about where this whole thing is going are buried in Giffen’s sketches.

The highlight is definitely the image above, Giffen’s version of the appearance of Evil Skeets, sporting a goatee (perhaps this is the Skeets of a different dimension then?). It sure explains the shocked expression on Firestorm II’s face in his sketch of the panel.

Note the margin, where Giffen inserts a “just kidding about the goatee note.” I guess with a schedule as tight as the one facing the 52 artists, there’s the possibility that someone would accidentally draw, ink and color that goatee, huh?

Also of particular interest is page seven, which shows the Martian Manhunter-made sculpture. It’s drastically different than the one penciller Phil Jimenez ultimately drew (and thank God for that—that panel of Jimenez’s was perfection). In Giffen’s sketch, the only one’s pictured are Booster, Beetle, Ice, Vibe, Red Tornado and Sue, which makes one wonder what order he sculpted them in, and why he skipped so many of his other allies. Also included is a sculpture of Blue Jay, who not only never died, but is more alive and well than he’s been in quite some time (see Action Comics #841-#843 for proof of this).

On page thirteen, the reveal of all those crazy Everyman characters like Dynamole and Poledancer, Giffen draws some weird-ass looking characters, including what looks like a grasshopper man of some sort, and an egg-shaped hero in the upper righthand corner. In the slaughter to follow, Ambush Bug dons weenie roast clothes and props, a joke Jimenez and company apparently decided to pass on, thinking it was a little dark to have a Leaguer running around with an apron and hotdog on a stick amidst burning corpses.

Finally, Giffen’s been drawing Osiris in a costume that resembles Black Adam’s exactly, or the costumes favored by the “White” Marvel Family, while in the finished products, Osiris’ costume is unique among the Marvels, and sans cape.

Now, if you’re looking for clues as to what happens next, it might be important to note that on the last page, where Atom-Smasher is looking at headshots of villains to recruit into his Suicide Squad, the only one Giffen draws out and names is Count Vertigo, who therefore seems like a shoo-in to make the team.

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Actually Essential Storylines: Nightwing

This week’s issue of 52 featured the origin of Nightwing, the superhero persona Dick Grayson took on after he had outgrown that of Robin and decided to strike out on his own, rather than serving as Batman’s sidekick any longer.

His origin and history is among the more complicated in all of the DCU, seeing as he’s one of the company’s oldest characters, and one who’s been in continuous publication since he was first introduced as Robin.

I don’t envy writer Mark Waid the task of boiling down decades of comics into a seven-panel origin story, eve if his collaborator is George Perez, an artist who can make each panel feel like a page. Waid went an odd route, essentially just retelling Grayson’s Robin origin, before spending one panel on the fact that Robin eventually flew the nest and became Nightwing. The last panel is devoted to Nightwing’s presents rather than his past; a rather odd choice that keeps the story from feeling timeless. If DC collects all of these back-ups into a Secret Origins or Who’s Who trade in a year or so, this one will be already dated.

I was a little surprised to see that Waid chose not to mention the Teen Titans at all, seeing as how they were such a huge part of Dick Grayson’s development, particularly as he grew from a sidekick into a hero, and became one of the world’s best team leaders. Also ignored was the Kryptonian origin of the name Nightwing, and the entire time Grayson spent in Bludhaven (i.e. the first 100 and change issues of his solo series). Reading the origin, it’s almost as if Grayson went right from being Robin to being Nightwing in Nightwing #125.

Of course, I suppose that’s why there’s the “Essential Storylines” listed at the bottom of the origin. DC does a stronger job than usual here, but we can always dissect it and add to it.

Here’s what DC suggested:

Detective Comics #38: This is the first appearance of Robin, and the issue features an oft homaged and parodied cover, featuring Robin bursting through a paper hoop held aloft by Batman. I suppose this is an “essential” story, but good luck hunting down the single issue (one’s currently going for over $2,000 on eBay). You’re better off seeking it out in an archive collection, or in the much more affordable Batman in the Forties trade. Of course, the same story has been told and re-told by DC, including in their very next suggested storyline.

Robin: Year One: This trade collection is currently out of print, so may be a tad hard to find. But it’s well worth the hunt. Written by Chuck Dixon (who’s written some of the best Nightwing stories ever) and Scott Beatty (a talented Bat-scribe who doesn’t get enough work) and penciled by Javier Pulido, it tweaks Robin’s post-Crisis origin story, and is presented in the clean, elegant art style that looks consistent with Batman: Year One.

Nightwing: Year One: If you want to get a handle on Nightwing as quickly as possible, this is the one story you need to read. Dixon and Beatty again handle the writing, while longtime Nightwing penciller Scott McDaniel handles art chores (with Andy Owens). The story picks up as the Batman/Robin alliance is crumbling, then follows Dick as he quits, visits Superman for guidance, hangs out with Batgirl and Jason and fights Two-Face (sort of). Dixon and Beatty answer every question you’ve ever had about Nightwing in this story, including why his first suit looked so much like Deadman’s, what’s up with the yellow in it and why he picked that particular name.

Teen Titans: The Judas Contract: These days, it’s hard to believe that Teen Titans was once X-Men popular, but it’s the truth. Or at least, that’s what all the older fans say. And this is one of the most powerful stories of that era, one that Brad Meltzer wrote an essay about in Give Our Regards To The Atom-Smashers! and Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans ‘toon re-imagined. It’s also the first historical appearance of Grayson as Nightwing.

Now, here’s what they missed:

Batman: Year Three: I was a little surprised that DC even bothered with the above-mentioned Robin: Year One, seeing how the exact same story was already told in the Batman monthly previously, way back in 1989. Marv Wolfman wrote the story, which featured Grayson returning to Gotham to face an obsessed Dark Knight, while his origin is retold. The art is courtesy of Pat Broderick and John Beatty, with George Perez handling the covers (Covers which Perez looked to for guidance in his Nightwing origin in 52, by the way). The four-part story was never collected as far as I can tell, but ran from Batman #436-#439. The story of how Grayson became Robin, and why Batman even wanted a Robin, is also told in Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s epic mystery Batman: Dark Victory, a sequel to their Batman: The Long Halloween. As is often the case, Loeb is very, very loose with continuity (the story barely resembles that told in either of the other Robin origins we’ve mentioned so far), but there are some incredibly fun moments, particularly near the end. I actually laughed aloud when Batman first notices Dick’s superhero costume.

Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying: Wolfman followed his “Year Three” story with “A Lonely Place of Dying,” which crossed over with The New Titans and featured art by George Perez and others. As far as Bat-history goes, this one is a must-read. Batman has been acting more and more unhinged ever since Jason Todd died, and Alfred and Commissioner Gordon are beginning to think he’s not only lost it, but is going to kill himself if he keeps going like he is. A young boy by the name of Time Drake thinks he knows how to save Batman: He needs Robin back, as his lightness provided a counterpoint to Batman’s darkness. So Drake approaches Grayson and tries to convince him to take up the Robin mantle again. How does he know who that Grayson used to be Robin? He figured it out, just like he figured out Batman was really Bruce Wayne.

It’s one of the most emotional Batman stories of the era, and a pivotal moment, as it signals the end of his estrangement with Nightwing and sets Tim Drake on the path to becoming the next Robin. DC has allowed the trade to go out of print for some crazy ass reason; but you can hunt it down in Batman #440-#442 and The New Titans #60 and #61. Art and covers by Perez, who’s joined by Jim Aparo and Tom Grummet on the interiors.

Batman: Prodigal: After Batman was crippled during the Knightfall crossover and his then-girlfriend kidnapped by her mad brother, he and Alfred take off to rescue her, leaving Gotham in the capable hands of Robin and Jean-Paul Valley, a.k.a. Azrael, who had a little experience filling in for Batman, and was in the process of being trained by Robin. Unfortunately, Azrael proves to be a sucky Batman, and, by the time Batman regains the use of his legs and returns to Gotham, AzBats has gone completely around the bend. Nightwing joins forces with Robin, Catwoman, Shiva an Wayne to take Valley down, but Batman doesn’t reclaim the mantle of the Bat right away. Instead, he claims to need some “me” time, and he takes a mysterious vacation of some sort (it’s never been revealed where Batman went off too). So who was to take care of Gotham while Batman was gone? The new Batman, Dick Grayson. This cross-over ran through all three of the Bat-books at the time, and was eventually collected into trade. It wasn’t a terribly good story, but it was somewhat interesting to see Grayson trying to fill in his mentor’s boots for a while.

The dark Nightwing returns: Post-Prodigal, Nightwing would become something of the third-wheel for the Dynamic Duo, helping Batman and Robin out whenever they needed him. While Batman team-up stories became common place after the mid-‘90s, perhaps the most important was Batman: Gotham Knights #20 and #21, during which Bruce Wayne finally, officially adopted Grayson, so that he was no longer his “ward” but his actual, honest-to-goodness son.

Apparently to keep him out from underfoot, Batman sent Nightwing to an even rougher, tougher city right next door to Gotham City which for some reason no one ever mentioned before—Bludhaven. At this point, ‘Wing earned his own title by Dixon and McDaniel, who proceeded to give him his own rogues gallery (much of their run, and Dixon and Greg Land’s run, has been collected into six trades).

Grayson was also on-hand for most of the Bat-crossovers, most notably the back half of the excellent “No Man’s Land,” “Officer Down,” “The Hunt For Oracle” (a Nightwing/Birds of Prey crossover), “Bruce Wayne: Murderer” and “Bruce Wayne: Fugitive,” in which Nightwing and Batman come to blows. ‘Wing played a major role in DC’s last line-wide crossover before Infinite Crisis, the hit-or-miss “Joker’s Last Laugh,” and, I suppose, he was also prominently featured in Batman: War Games, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend reading that.

The Teen/New/Adjective-less Titans: Between the time he quit being Robin and the time he earned his own title, the various Titans books were the best place for Nightwing stories, and they are understandably legion. Other than the aforementioned Judas Contract, the only other collection DC offered post-Nightwing was New Teen Titans: The Terror of Trigon (also out of print).

Nighwing left the Titans in Arsenal’s hands around the time of “Zero Hour,” but he was often coming and going. During Dan Jurgens’ relaunched Teen Titans, Nightwing, Arsenal, Tempest and the Flash confronted Jurgens’ original Titans (Prism, Joto, Argent and Risk) in “Then and Now.” Nightwing would join and lead the next incarnation of the team, in the post-JLA dream team incarnation of the team, now simply called The Titans. It featured a Titan from each era of the team, and was lead by the five original Titans. It got off to a great start, thanks to writer Devin Grayson, but after she left it went through a string of worse and worse writers and new directions, until it was eventually, mercifully cancelled leading into Titans/Young Justice: Graduation Day, a terrible miniseries which lead into the even more terrible Outsiders title, focusing on a team of interchangeable heroes led by Nightwing. I’d recommend an issue or storyline from it, but I can’t honestly think of a single Outsiders story that I don’t wish I could un-read myself.

The major Leagues: Nighwing was called in to help out some former Justice Leaguers in the first three issues of the Justice League Task Force; he helped Gypsy, Flash, Aquaman and Martian Manhunter on a mission to infiltrate a foreign country and shut down a doomsday device, though he grated on the Justice Leaguers’ nerves. In JLA/Titans, Devin Grayson and Phil Jimenez give us an epic, constantly escalating battle that eventually involved every former Titan and potential Titan vs. every Leaguer and League reservist and ally. When the two teams square off, with mentor battling student, Batman and Nightwing do battle—only with words instead of fists. In addition to being one of the most fun Titans or JLA stories, this story provides an eloquent distillation of the differences between Nightwing and Batman.

When Batman and the rest of the JLA disappear into the past and are presumed dead in JLA arc “The Obsidian Age,” Batman’s contingency plan for what happens when the entire League is killed at once kicks in, and a new League is recruited. The ragtag lineup consists of The Atom, Firestorm, Faith, Hawkgirl, Green Arrow, Major Disaster and Jason Blood, lead by none other than Nightwing. He does a fine job of it too, until Batman and the League return to the present, where Dick greets him with a hug. Confidential to DC: This line-up would make for a great story arc in JLA: Classified.

Other universes: While Dick Grayson-as-Robin appears rather commonly in DC’s Elseworlds and other alternate universe stories, Dick Grayson-as-Nighwing is far rarer. In the Ross-iverse’s Kingdom Come, Grayson’s Nightwing-hood is acknowledged, though he takes on a new name—Red Robin. He has a daughter with fellow New Titan Starfire though, and she names herself after both parents—Nightstar.

In the Adventures-iverse, Nightwing fights alongside Batman, Batgirl and Robin, in the Gotham Adventures monthly, which was set after Dick Grayson left Gotham and relinquished the Robin mantle on the Bruce Timm-produced animated series. There was even a Nighwing-centric miniseries, Batman Adventures: The Lost Years, which shows how Grayson went about training to become long-haired hero Nightwing.

Other media: Dick Grayson is one of the most popular DC heroes to adapt into other media—only Superman and Batman have been adapted more often into non-comic book media—but as Robin, rather than Nightwing. ‘Wing does appear in later episodes of Timm-produced Batman cartoons, 1997’s The New Batman Adventures (the series in which all of the characters got re-designs).

Nightwing also pops up in the Teen Titans ‘toon, in an episode where Starfire gets zapped into the future and meets the grown-up Robin, who now goes by the name Nightwing.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Satan's Son, Then and Now

Last week was a good week for fans of Marvel's Son of Satan comics. First, Hellstorm: Son of Satan #1 debuted, presenting novelist Alexander Irvine's new take on the character. Also seeing release was Essential Marvel Horror Vol. 1, collecting Daimon Hellstrom's original adventures from the 1970s (as well as those of his sister Satana). All that was mising was a trade paperback collection of Warren Ellis' brief run with the character. Maybe next Halloween. In the meantime, the Son of Satan is the subject of this week's comics column in Las Vegas Weekly, which you can read by clicking here.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Weekly Haul: October 25th

52 #25 (DC Comics) This issue of DC’s weekly series, like last week’s, is exactly what you would expect a book about the DC Universe as a whole to be like, and, as a fan of that fictional shared setting, it’s everything I could ask for from such a series. This week’s issue checks in on all sorts of corners of the DCU. Old Superman bad guys Intergang have been completely reinvented, evolving from a mob who received alien technology from the evil “New Gods” to a sort of evil religious movement that seemingly worships the evil New Gods (The language is coy, but in describing his Road of Damascus moment, Intergang’s crime pope Boss Bruno Mannheim speaks of “a dark angel made of living granite” that whispered to him, “the sickening secrets of the Dark Side,” the name co-writer Grant Morrison assigned to Kirby’s Darkseid in his Mister Miracle mini). It’s an elegantly handled three pages, even if the writers spontaneously change P.O.V. and add narration again. Next stop, a Halloween celebration with the Marvel Family and the Black Marvel Family, as they save the day from an ass-kicking new version of “SABBAC! King of devils!” (Osiris to the rescued trick-or-treaters: “Happy Halloween, Judeo-Christians!”) But wait, there’s more! The Helmet of Fate takes Ralph Dibny to “Elsewhere” (read: Hell) to visit the soul of Felix Faust, the new Infinity Inc. takes on the Icicle and Tigress, Alan Scott and Michael Holt discuss whether or not he should start a spy organization to go along with his new Nick Fury look and, finally, we check back in with Morrow, Magnus and the gang on Oolong Island, where the man, er, thing behind the operation is finally revealed (It’s exactly who you suspect). Back-up origin is Nightwing by George Perez; nicely drawn, but missing a lot of info, and way too focused on ‘wing’s crazy present rather than his past or future. Confidential to DC: I think I’ve found the creative team to follow Brad Meltzer and Ed Benes on Justice League of America. Let’s let Morrison, Mark Waid and Geoff Johns tackle the League as a team, and let Phil Jimenez draw it, huh?

Action Comics # 844 (DC) At long last, the other Kubert drops. The new creative team on Action finally makes it’s debut, with Adam Kubert on art chores and the writing team of Geoff Johns and Richard Donner handling the story. It’s unfortunate that such a high-profile team is coming on at the end of October instead of, say, in the spring or early summer, when mainstream interest in Superman (and the film work of Donner) was at it’s crest instead of it’s nadir. But, for our purposes, as readers who were going to be all over a Kubert-drawn Superman title no matter who was writing it, I suppose it doesn’t matter much when they started, just that they did. The story is cinematic, which is perhaps to be expected, and, surprisingly enough, explores similar territory to Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns. It’s a nice start to what could be a strong story; between the promise of this run, and Kurt Busiek’s work on Superman and Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman, DC’s flagship franchise is in the best shape of it’s long, long life. Nitpick #1: So Perry smokes cigars now, too, huh? Does everybody in the DCU smoke post-Infinite Crisis? (Looks like; there’s Sarge Steel lighting up). Okay, but why’s Perry smoking at work? He runs a newspaper, not a bar, and even bars in some big, metropolitan cities are smoke-free. Nitpick #2: “Kryptonese?” I thought Kryptonians spoke Kryptonian? Ah, Superboy-Prime, is there any mistake your fists can’t be used to explain away?

Black Panther #21 (Marvel) Let me get this out of the way first, because it was honestly the only thing I didn’t like about this issue: Manuel Garcia’s pencil art wasn’t that great. Oh, it wasn’t terrible or anything, but his Namor really lacked personality, and some of the peculiararities that make Namor Namor, from the shape of his head to his widow’s peak to his ears to his eyebrows. Garcia also has trouble with Storm’s head, which changes shape from panel to panel. The storytelling was decent, but the art lacked style and snap, and this was a great little story that deserved visuals to match it. T’Challa and Storm visit Atlantis (via Panther Sub, naturally) to discuss politics with Namor. For the first time in this arc, diplomacy doesn’t involve a brawl, perhaps because the Panther vs. Namor moment comes in a story Namor tells, about the Invaders’ coming across T’Challa’s granddad (whose WWII-era Panther Plane design was the highlight of Garcia’s work here. God that looked cool!). Hudlin writes Namor even better than he does T’Challa (I’d want to see more before I officially start wishing for a Hudlin-written Namor ongoing though), and he throws a nice jab at the president into one four-panel scene on page one. Tony Stark better rush his Clors into mass-production stat; it looks like he’s gonna need someone on his side, since his numbers continue to dwindle and Cap keeps picking up uber-powerful allies.

The Boys #4 (WildStorm/DC) Okay, the Starlight recruitment scene in the last issue made me feel pretty awkward, hell, even a little sick, but it was momentary. But this issue? Well, congratulations are in order, Garth Ennis, because this time I felt a lot sick, and on more than one occasion (thanks, in large part, to how realistically Darick Robertson renders things like blood-flecked semen and the look of pain, sadness and existential horror on the faces of prostitutes and, on occasion, Starlight).

Civil War: Choosing Sides (Marvel Comics) I know it’s not a popular opinion to be glad that Marvel’s red hot Civil War event, which pretty much their entire line is tied into, has been delayed, but if it got us this one-shot, created as a sort of stop-gap to pick up some of the sales slack that a late-shipping Civil War #5 would create, well, let’s just say that there’s a silver lining to the delay, shall we? Okay, so everyone knows what side Iron Man and Cap are on, but what about Venom, Iron Fist, U.S. Agent, the new Ant-Man and, most importantly, Howard the Duck? This is the one-shot that lets us know what side these minor characters choose. So, let’s see: Pro-Reg, Anti-Reg, Pro-Reg, Neutral (but enjoying the show) and Neutral/Exempt (on account of being beneath the government’s notice). This book is actually a smart move on Marvel’s part, acting as a preview of two books that spin directly out of Civil War (The new version of Thunderbolts and Omega Flight) and previewing two new books starring minor characters (the excellent Irredeemable Ant-Man and the upcoming Immortal Iron Fist), plus giving us a Howard the Duck story to make fun of the whole shebang. This book was full of fun moments, particularly Marc Guggenheim’s Venom script (Sorry Marc, your bother’s Miracle did kinda suck) and the Ant-Man and Howard stories. Still, with a book like this, there are always a few nits to pick. Like the whole mass-murderers-as-policemen concept behind Thunderbolts, which Guggenheim actually accentuates by having Venom kill six SHIELD agents while in the process of agreeing to work for SHIELD. Nitpick #2 is directed at Ty Templeton, who wrote the Howard story, which is set partially in a Cleveland, Ohio Department of Motor Vehicles. Just one small problem. Ohio doesn’t have a Department of Motor Vehicles! It’s the Bureau of Motor Vehicles!!! No-Prize Wanna-winners, start your theorizing on why an Ohio BMV employee refers to her place of employment as the DMV instead, and send your letters to Tom Brevoort.

Conan and the Songs of the Dead #4 (Dark Horse Comics) Writer Joe R. Lansdale and artist Timothy Truman’s take on everybody’s favorite barbarian just gets better and better with each issue, and it started out pretty damn strong to begin with. This issue is the funniest and most fun to date, but my favorite part came not in the story itself, but the letter page. The part where editor Scott Allie mentions that they’re already talking about when Lansdale and Truman can team back up for another spin through the world of Robert E. Howard.

Jack The Lantern: Ghosts #1 (Castle Rain Entertainment) I’m not exactly sure why, but I just really like the idea of characters with pumpkins for heads, and I really like names that are riffs on jack o’ lanterns. It’s just an instinctual, aesthetic thing with no explanation that I can think of (Not that I’ve thought too long and hard on the subject, mind you). Given all that, the pumpkin-headed supernatural hero Jack The Lantern seems like one I’d be predisposed to be into, but this is the first time I’ve actually brought a comic book starring him home. There’s something about the character design—that ‘80s horror movie rubber Halloween mask look, the asymmetrical eyes—that always had me putting the book back on the shelf after an in-store flip-through. Well, this is the first issue featuring the character that I actually brought all the way home to read, helped along in my decision-making process by the exceptionally low cover price—Only $1.25! I’d like to say it was worth every penny, but, well, I still feel like I overpaid. Granted, this wasn’t the best jumping on point, as I missed the entire backstory summarized on the title page—demons from beyond, evil book, blah blah blah—but I felt pretty lost throughout, and never found my footing. The black and white pencil art, by Jerry Beck and Tim Vigil, was fine, but I feel this is probably a character that needs to be in color, so you can really appreciate the orange-ness of his head and the greenish color of the will o' the wisp-like flames that pour out the top. There was a nice Green Goblin-esque design of a villain near the end, and the last page had one or two solid bad guy designs, but I never shook the feeling that I’d walked into a bd movie way too late.

JSA: Classified #18 (DC) In the concluding issue of their two-part Hourmen vs. Bane story, Tony Bedard and Scott McDaniel redeem the man who broke the Bat (Aha! So he wasn’t actually the putz the first issue made him out to be!), and Bedard tones down the overly affected Spanish lingo in the big guy’s dialogue. After this arc and his work on the covers of the brilliant but cancelled Tom Peyer/Rags Morales Hourman monthly, I think it’s safe to declare McDaniel the definitive Miralco pill artist (for whatever that’s worth).

Justice #8 (DC) Alex Ross and company’s occasional JLA book keeps getting better and better, and this issue is devoted almost entirely to nice little character-building moments between the various Leaguers. Page one gives us the World’s Finest team talking about their relationship for the one millionth time (Ross and Jim Krueger find a new angle though, making it sound fresh), page 16 a nice bit between Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman, and page 13 a tense conversation between the Elongated Man and Plastic Man (“Oh, man, this isn’t going to be another one of those talks, is it?” Plas starts off, “I’m sorry you’re not the only stretchy guy in the League.”) By finding and exploring the little differences between such similar characters Krueger and Ross show that so much of the conventional wisdom about the Justice League and it’s make up (Captain Marvel and Superman are too similar, you can have Elongated Man or Plas but not both, Martian Manhunter and Aquaman are boring, etc.) is actually conventional foolishness. Confidential to whoever it was at DC that greenlighted Trials of Shazam and Martian Manhunter: See, there was nothing wrong with these characters; they just needed creators who get them to give them a whirl. Confidential to whomever at DC will be editing JLofA after Meltzer splits: If the 52 team isn’t available to take the reigns, why not give them to Krueger, Ross and Braithwaite?

New Avengers #24 (Marvel) I’d say something flippant, perhaps like, “I had to double check the cover to make sure this was an issue of Avengers and not a Sentry solo title after I started reading,” but who am I kidding? At this point, there’s nothing at all surprising about the fact that writer Brian Michael Bendis’ Avengers-less Avengers title hardly has anything to do with anyone on the team at all. This is a Sentry story—just as the last one was a Spider-Woman story, and the one before that a Luke Cage story, and the one before that a Captain America and Falcon story—rather than an Avengers story, and it feels even more divorced from the team than any of the previous issues of this arc, given the fact that the Sentry has never really been part of the team at all (He showed up to help them fight the Collective in the previous story arc and, um, that’s it so far). I think Bendis and Marvel are really missing an opportunity with this arc—if any title should tie directly into the Civil War story, which is essentially about the breakdown in Iron Man and Captain America’s relationship, shouldn’t it be the one title that’s always featured Iron Man and Captain America’s relationship? But, like I said, at this point, it’s pointless to complain. As a Sentry story, it’s not a bad one, as Bendis lets us in on the most powerful superhero in the Marvel Universe’s thoughts, and we watch him retreat from Earth to find peace and quiet on the moon. What he finds instead are the Inhumans and, finally, Iron Man, who recruits him (Looks like he’s going to need him, as virtually the entire Marvel Universe is opposed to Iron Man). The art by Pasqual Ferry is simply astonishing, and he brings the unreality—the inhumanity, I guess—of the Inhumans to tangible life. He and Bendis work quite well together on a storytelling level, and the scene where we watch the Sentry’s face reflect in Iron Man’s mask and zoom in on the reflection in the reflection is a wonderful little moment. But, as always, it’s the little things that make this book so exasperating, like Bendis’ (or is it Sentry’s?) loose grip on what Civil War is about exactly (from this issue, you’d think it spun directly out of Secret War and House of M rather than the Stamford disaster), and the simple yet frustrating fact that Sentry’s hair is so different on the cover than it is in the story itself.

Secret Six #5 (DC) Gail Simone give us the most fun issue yet of her six-part miniseries pitting bad guys versus much, much worse bad guys. The first third of the book features most of the cast fighting and arguing while completely naked (except for Hatter’s hat, of course), and we finally get the Mad Hatter vs. Dr. Psycho fight I’ve been waiting for since the first issue. Best line? Courtesy of the Hatter: “Dr. Psycho, is it? Why not pick on someone your own size?” I love a lot of these characters, and I love the way Simone writes them even more. I hope at least the boys on this team—Catman, Deadshot, Hatter and the Ragdoll—survive, and that sales are strong enough to give us a Simone-written ongoing. Brad Walker’s art gets stronger each issue, and I wouldn’t mind him sticking with Simone and the characters in the future, though inker Jimmy Palmiotti doesn’t mesh with Walker’s pencils as well as Troy Nixey did in the otherwise mostly forgettable “War Games” crossover in the Bat-titles.

Stan Lee Meets The Thing #1 (Marvel) The Lee-written lead-in featuring art by Lee Weeks is only so-so (though I admit I’ve always like Lee’s Ben Grimm dialogue) as is the Roy Thomas/Scott Kollins back-up, in which WWII-era Sgt. Stan Lee calls in the Invaders and gets some also-rans (The Destroyer, Father Time and Jack Frost). The biggest surprise was seeing a short story by Angry Youth Comix Johnny Ryan. It’s fun to see Ryan’s familiar style drawing The Watcher, the Blob and Stan Lee himself, by the story’s not really as funny as the fact that Johnny Ryan drew a story for Marvel at all. Obviously, it’s nowhere near as aggressively tasteless as his Fantagraphics work, but then, Marvel probably wouldn’t even publish a Johnny Ryan unchained story in a Max book, let alone an all-ages Marvel book.

Superman/Batman Annual #1 (DC) I wasn’t too terribly excited about this book going in, despite the exciting creative team involved. Titans villain-turned-ubiquitous threat Deathstroke the Terminator has gotten so overexposed since Identity Crisis that I cringe at the very sight of him on a cover these days, and there he was, pointing a gun at a slightly different version of himself. Well, my excitement would build with each and every page, as this whole oversized book was on heaping helping of zany, courtesy of Joe Kelly and a top-flight art team led off by Ed McGuinness. The continuity conscious might have some difficulties, but I stopped worrying and learned to love it fairly quickly, and I’m as anal as they come when it comes to DC continuity (It helped that the book is labeled “A Re-Imaginary Story” and that there’s a pixie present in a key scene). Set during year one or so, when the title characters are still trying to determine each others identities and seem to have quite a rivalry going on, Deathstroke has been hired to kill Bruce Wayne on a cruise to the Bermuda Triangle, a cruise also attended by Clark Kent and Lois Lane. In the triangle, they cross over into Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s Earth-2, where their evil doppelgangers Ultraman, Owlman and Superwoman join the fray, as does Deathstroke’s heroic antimatter counterpart, who bears more than a striking to resemblance to a certain Marvel character (Every time he tries to say his name, however, he suffers a painful deathblow that would kill someone without his healing factor). This book was so much fun, that I really wish Kelly would have taken over the Superman/Batman monthly (along with an artist who can meet deadlines). He really manages to play the relationship between Superman and Batman as a true friendship, complete with unfriendly competition and a need to constantly bust on one another, rather than some sort of tense alliance of necessity or staid partnership forged in respect. Now, I do hope DC realizes they have to do one again next year, or else it’s not really an “Annual” per se…

Ultimate Spider-Man #101 (Marvel) See, this is exactly why Bendis’ New Avengers frustrates the hell out of me. It’s not that it’s ever terrible or even pretty bad, although it rarely feels like Marvel’s flagship title or what a book about the universe’s premiere superteam should feel like, but because Bendis demonstrates month in and month out just how capable he is of creating a kick ass superhero book. If Ultimate Spider-Man weren’t so goddam good, you wouldn’t expect the rest of Bendis’ work to always be awesome. Shock follows shock as the “Clone Saga” only escalates, with Fury and Peter Parker taking off their gloves and going at each other full-bore, the Fantastic Four wading in to the middle of it, and Mary Jane—well, let’s just say I didn’t see that coming. God, I can’t wait to read #102!

Vampirella Halloween Special 2006 #1 (Harris Comics) Okay Amanda Conner, props on a novel use for jack o’ lanterns on the cover. The story inside, written by Phil Hester, is a fine little horror comic tale, even if the titular heroine makes for a weird lead in such a tale.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Oh come on now, even Justice League Unlimited should have some limits...

You may not be afraid of Superman, Lex Luthor, but you do not want to fuck with Gruffi Gummi—What's more frightening than a pissed-off bear all hopped up on bear drugs? has even more comic book crossovers that Satan will be reading on Wednesdays in Hell once it's frozen over. Check 'em out here.

Now if I were a betting man and had to pick a winner in these match-ups, I'd say Godzilla, Batman, the X-Men (just wait'll Logan sees what you did to Jeanie, Bub!), the Flash, the Justice League, Hellboy, Optimus, Spider-Man, Wonder Woman and Superma—hey, waitaminute, that one's real!

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Actually Essential Storylines: Booster Gold

This week’s issue of 52 feature the origin of the late, great Booster Gold, whose origin we really don’t need to know anymore, seeing as how he’s dead, and has been dead for week’s. That is, of course, unless he’s not really dead.

Aside from the poor timing of the origin feature, an issue writer Mark Waid apparently sought to address by adding a disclaimer saying that this story is “an exceprt from the Justice League Archives.” Really? Then where are all the other origin stories from, I wonder?

Waid nails Booster Gold’s original origin story, and again DC has found the perfect penciller to draw it, tapping Booster’s creator Dan Jurgens to do the honors. Oddly though, little of import is really covered. There are only seven panels, six of which deal with Booster’s time in the 25th Century, and the seventh deals with where he was at the start of 52, with no mention of his years on the Jutstice League or the role he played in Infinite Crisis.

As always, there was a list of “Essential Storylines,” which similarly ignored most Booster Gold’s time as a player in the DCU.

Here’s what DC suggested:

Booster Gold #1: Can one issue really be considered a “storyline?” I don’t know, but you should be able to find the first issue of Booster’s solo book, where he made his first appearance, as well as the rest of the run in a good quarter bin. None of it has ever been collected into trade.

Formerly Known As the Justice League: After the classic JLI team of Keith Giffen, J.M. DeMatteis and Kevin Maguire tested the waters in a JLA 80-Page Giant (see below), they initiated a full-blown, reunion special type story in this miniseries that gathered up many of their old JLI characters and re-christened them “The Superbuddies.” It’s interesting that this series is listed as “Essential,” since it’s very first page totally contradicts a major element that follows (whether Max Lord is a cyborg or a normal human being with a breakable bone neck).

Countdown to Infinite Crisis: This special, over-sized one-shot was a Blue Beetle story first and foremost, but Booster Gold played a major role in it, at one point seeming to sacrifice his life because his knowledge of the future told him that the Brother I satellite was about to send a death beam toward Beetle’s home computer. Booster survived, and they never mentioned why Booster took his seat when he did again. It’s worth mentioning that Booster and Beetle, and maybe Barbara Gordon, are about the only characters in this story that seem even remotely in character.

The OMAC Project: This miniseries followed up the Countdown one-shot (which it would ultimately be collected with), and featured the Trinity trying to follow-up on the Max Lord/Checkmate conspiracy that killed Beetle. Booster has words with Batman and Wonder Woman, before ultimately gathering his own teammates—Guy Gardner, Fire, Rocket Red, Mary Marvel—to try and avenge Beetle. This is where Rocket Red buys it. At the end of the series, Booster says he’s going back to the future, a line which complicates everything involving Booster that follows, since we don’t know which Booster it is that shows up in Infinite Crisis and 52. Skeets’ presence in the latter is particularly confounding, seeing as how it’s said he was dismantled in Countdown.

52: Well, obviously.

Here’s what they missed…

JLA/JLI/Extreme Justice: Booster Gold joined the recently re-formed Justice League of America after he made his superhero debut, being recruited by Max Lord and foisted onto the team (this is one of the few League stories from the Giffen/DeMatteis era that’s actually been collected into a trade, Justice League of America: A New Beginning).

He quickly became accepted however, and became one of the team’s mainstays, being regularly featured in the re-named title Justice League International (later re-re-named Justice League America), and it’s sundry spin-offs and specials, including annuals, a quarterly, Justice League Europe, Mister Miracle and so on.

After “Breakdowns” closed out the Giffen/DeMatteis era, the stories got much, much worse (despite some valiant efforts by the likes of Dan Jurgens to fill some un-fillable shoes). Booster served on the Superman-led JLA, along side Beetle, Guy, Fire, Ice, Maxima and, um, Bloodwynd. He was around to get his ass kicked (along with the rest of the League) by Doomsday, on his way to beating Superman into a death-like coma. His super-suit trashed and Beetle in a coma of his own, Booster would go into one of his many stretches of semi-retirement in the aftermath of the Death of Superman.

Booster Gold would play a fairly major role in Justice League crossover story in six-part story “Judgement Day,” which ran in all three Justice League titles in 1994. Tricked-out in a bulky, ‘90s-looking armor that resembled a football uniform, Booster lead the League’s response against the apocalyptic threat of the Overmaster. In a story that 52 would loudly echo, Booster was relying on his knowledge of the present as his past (being from the future and all) and, according to his records, he was supposed to be the big hero of the day. Instead, he loses his arm and almost dies. It turns out his knowledge of the present gained from the future isn't as accurate as he thought it was. Sound familiar?

Around about this time, Booster followed Maxima and Beetle into Captain Atom’s faction of the Justice League, and thus starred in the most unfortunately-named Justice League comic of all time (including Superfriends and Total Justice), mid-‘90s embarrassment Extreme Justice, which was drawn in a awful Rob Liefeld clone style (shudder!). The title would actually get much, much better as time wore on, and the team added Amazing Man II and Firestorm to its roster, and it eventually even brought the Wonder Twins and the Legion of Doom (sweet swamp base and all!) into the DCU proper.

That was the last League-related team Booster served on until he re-joined Blue Beetle and the others in the Superbuddies. That team also appeared in an arc of JLA: Classified, “I Can’t Believe It’s Not the Justice League.”

Crossovers, cameos and crowd scenes: Once Grant Morrison, Howard Porter and John Dell relaunched the JLA, Booster would have less and less to do with the team, generally only appearing in stories that called in the entire reserves, like the Mark Millar-written Amazo story, the Devin Grayson/Phil Jimenez JLA/Titans miniseries and Morrison and Porter’s Viking funeral for their run, “World War III.”

In the big, line-wide crossovers, Booster played a fairly large role during the years he was on the League, particularly in Millenium and Armageddon 2001. He would usually earn at least a cameo in major intercompany crossovers even after he was no longer on the League, as in Our Worlds at War and Identity Crisis.

In The Kingdom, the Mark Waid-masterminded, in-continuity follow-up to Kingdom Come, Booster was given a new (and short-lived) status quo as a business man. In one of his few get-rich plans that didn’t horribly backfire on him, he opened a superhero theme restaurant called Planet Krypton, as detailed in the Waid/Barry Kitson collaboration, The Kingdom: Planet Krypton #1. When his restaurant becomes “haunted” by strange phantoms, Booster calls in the World’s Greatest Detective to solve the crime, and Batman finds himself face to face with visual memories of the Earths that were seemingly destroyed in Crisis on Infinite Earths.

Blue and Gold, revisited: Hardcore fans of either Blue Beetle or Booster Gold sometimes argue that their association with one another, and their quick evolution into something of a comedy duo, hurt both of the characters as individuals. There may be an argument to be made there, but I have a hard time seeing it. Honestly, both heroes are at their very best when in one another’s company.

DC’s writers seem to agree, as the late ‘90s and early aughts saw several revisitations of the Blue and Gold team. Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire told a story starring the pair set during the early part of their run—when Guy Gardner had konked his head and become a sissy—in JLA 80 Page Giant #1. In the pages of Martian Manthunter #24, writer John Ostrander pulled off a great Giffen/DeMatteis impression with a story of one of Blue and Gold’s practical jokes going awry. To mess with J’onn J’onnz, they removed every single pack of “Chocos” cookies from JLA HQ (and the surrounding area), and the results were not pretty, as it is revealed that his Martian physiology caused him to become physically addicted to the chocalate sandwich cookies formerly known as “Oreos.” J’onn turned into a Hulk-like monster (Doug Mahnke draws, while Tom Mandrake draws a wonderful cover).

Booster and Beetle were the stars of the JLI’s issue of the still criminally uncollected JLA: Incarnations, in which Ostrander (again!) and Val Smeiks send the pair undercover to infiltrate a supervillain resort, and Batman and J’onn are needed to bail them out. And while whether it counts as in-continuity or not can be questioned (there’s nothing in it that contradicts DCU continuity), Booster and Beetle were featured in an issue of the brilliant but cancelled Adventures in the DCU.

Other universes: Booster doesn’t show up in many of DC’s Elseworlds or other out-of-continuity stories. In the 1997 prestige format one-shot Justice Riders, he forms part of an Old West JLA alongside Diana Prince, Hawk shaman Katar Johnson, manhunter John Jones, Kid Flash and the Beetle (Booster is cast as a Bat Lash-like gambler; the story's well worth looking for if you can find it, thanks to it's beautiful JH WIlliams III and Mick Gray art). He also rather frequently appear in the Justice League Unlimited comic, a tie-in to the cartoon, however (Yes, it is a comic book based on a cartoon based on a comic book. What of it?).

Other media: Booster Gold was one of the many DC heroes on the gigantic Justice League line-up featured on Justice League Unlimited. While he appeared in a lot of crowd scenes, he only had one real spotlight episode, but it was a doozy. In “The Greatest Story Never Told,” Booster and Skeets are assigned to crowd control while the rest of the League take on a massive threat. He eventually wanders off and has his own adventure, saving the universe. Which he’d be only too happy to tell you about given half a chance.

Aquaman doesn't talk to fishes, he commands them

I'm straight-up stealing this link from the Ferret Press blog, maintained by Columbus small press collective Panel, because it leads to a story whose awesomeocity (It is too a real world! Look it up!*) demands that it be read by as many people as possible.

Over at McSweeney's, Glen Weldon transcribes a statement from Aquaman, King of Earth. The title pretty much says it all: "Aquaman, King of the Seven Seas, Has Fucking Had It With You, Man."

*No it isn't

There's no "K" in Ohio. Usually.

Cartoonist Keith Knight, responsible for the brilliant strip The K Chronicles available at and elsewhere, was in Columbus a few weeks back to give a talk at the Cartoon Research Library at Ohio State University, the venerable, often overlooked institution that is but one of the many reasons that Columbus, Ohio is a surprisingly cool comic book town. Knight recounts his trip in this installment of his strip (You may have to watch a brief ad before you get to the strip, because that's the way Salon rolls).

I'm sad to report that Knight's observations about Columbus are 100% accurate. Shouting "O-H!" is all you need to do to illicit a repsponse from just about any random Columbus crowd. Not sure about Knight's spelling of the response as "Hi-Oh!!" though. The response is "I-O!" (We're spelling the name of the state, naturally). I assume Knight spelled it as he did because that's the way that crowd prounced the "I" in their call back, but who knows.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Batman vs. Wolverine: The Movie

Well, not exactly, but The Prestige is pretty damn close, seeing as it casts Christian Bale and Hugh Jackman as rival magicians embroiled in an escalating magic war. Michael Cain, who played Alfred to Bale's Bruce Wayne in Batman Begins, co-stars, playing the older helpmate of Jackman's character (Traitor!). Who's the director responsible for casting so many actors from comic book films? Why, it's none other than Batman Begins director Christian Bale.

The Prestige is based on a novel by the same name, which is written by a Chistopher Priest. But don't get too excited; that's one comic book connection the movie doesn't have. This Christopher Priest isn't the same one who's respsonsible for respectable runs on Black Panther, Steel, The Ray and Justice League Task Force. You can read my review of The Prestige by clicking over to

Thursday, October 19, 2006

From Iran to Japan

This week's column features a review of Marjane Satrapi's new (and best?) work, Chicken With Plums, plus reviews of two new Del Rey manga series, the highly recommended Kurogane and the reluctantly recommended Q-Ko-Chan.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Weekly Haul: October 18th

7 Brothers #1 (Virgin Comics) Have I mentioned that Garth Ennis and John McCrea’s Hitman is my favorite ongoing comic book series of all time? Well, it is. It featured a hitman named Ringo, who, despite being named after another Hong Kong director, looked and acted an awful lot like the Chow Yun Fat characters in John Woo’s movies. Ennis is a huge Woo fan, and I would have plunked down my $2.99 just to help Ennis realize what must be a professional dream of his. This new series is “created” by Woo, and written by Ennis, allowing the two to work together. Like all of Virgin’s books, it’s a bit of a slow start, but a much quicker one than the other three I’ve read. Seven men from around the world are summoned by a mysterious woman and offerened 100K for a mysterious mission. She knows a lot about these men, including the fact that at least six of them have what we’d call superpowers, powers exhibited by the seven heroes of an old Chinese legend. Artist Jeevan Kang kicks all sorts of ass, particularly on the opening scenes describing a story of 15th century China, and the cover by Yoshitaka Amano is killer, though I have no idea what it’s of or what it has to do with the book.

52 #24 (DC Comics) This is probably the best issue of the series since the first one, because it truly lives up to the promise of the beginning of the series—this isn’t simply the stories of a few characters, but the story of an entire fictional universe. In this issue, the “regulars” we follow include Black Adam, Isis and Ralph Dibny, but we also check in with the new JLA, Green Arrow, Martian Manhunter, Atom Smasher and Amanda Waller, and, counting headshots and statues, we see a vast array of DC characters referenced in this issue. It’s by far the best-looking of the series, thanks to Phil Jimenez and Andy Lanning on art chores, and one of the funniest, thanks to Ambush Bug and Firestorm II’s interaction with the rest of their League (Okay, so they’re disbanded—I say give us an issue or arc of JLA:Classified featuring ‘em anyway). The back-up origin of Booster Gold, written by Waid and drawn by Dan Jurgens, looks nice but is horribly confused—in addition to not telling any of his story past the point he landed in the “present’ some 20 years ago (our time), it also makes it sound like he’s still alive. What gives?

The Authority #1 (DC/WildStorm) I worry that Grant Morrison, one of the very best comics writers working today, may be spreading himself a tad too thin, and suffering the fate that befell Brian Michael Bendis when that bald-headed, popular writer went from writing two books a month to two million—the books just aren't as strong as you’d expect. The Authority, once the biggest, brashest, most action-packed widescreen book on the shelves (a designation since assumed by The Ultimates, which is written by a former Authority scribe and drawn by a former Authority artist), crawls out of the gate. Together with Gene Ha, who seems to be working a new style here (check it out—no borders on the panels, either), Morrison presents us with a real world story that seems to have absolutely nothing to do with the Authority, at least until the second-and-third-to-last pages, when we see what exactly it is that’s going on. I don’t think I’ve ever said this about a Morrison book before, but I’m going to now: If you haven’t picked up this issue yet, don’t—wait for the trade. The cover, also by Ha and in a more familiar style, is pretty awful-looking, but that may simply be because it’s only one section of a larger picture that the covers will connect to reveal. At least, I hope that’s what it is.

Birds of Prey #99 (DC) The Birds reach a turning point, the biggest in their entire history (going back to when they were simply starring in one-shots and mini-series) as, Black Canary resigns to spend more time mothering her new adoptee Sin. I’m not exactly sure how the title will continue from here, as the Barbara Gordon/Black Canary relationship has been the heart of the book for so long, and even the addition of the Huntress has yet to gel completely (Let alone the even more recent addition of Lady Blackhawk and Gypsy who, wait, is she even on the team anymore, or has she just been invisible the last few issues?) It’s a monumental moment for the title, but Simone plays it as something of an afterthought, and steams ahead with a few other plots, including Babs’ dealing with her superpowered would-be successor and Huntress’ confrontation with a Turkish gunrunner. No idea how this jibes with Justice League of America, where Canary will apparently be joining a new team, or the Cassandra Cain developments, as Babs references her repeatedly, but in a pretty confused manner. Confidential to DC: Please never let Jerry Ordway draw Barbara Gordon again, even if it is just a cover.

Blade #2 (Marvel) I applaud writer marc Guggenheim for trying to jam so damn much story into each issue, but I got totally lost at the beginning. From page four on, though, I was good to go, and follow Blade from his battle with vampire clowns (the bit with the rubber nose is priceless) to a confrontation with Victor Von Doom in Latervia to the past, where he must save Dr. Doom’s mother from vampires. Chaykin’s art is nicely done, though he gets a bit lazy in a few panels of Doom sitting (Um, where’d that left leg go, exactly?), and as neat as that integration of black lace into the art was the first ten times I saw it, I think he can go ahead and stop using it now.

Conan #33 (Dark Horse) The chaos that accompanied Kurt Busiek’s departure from the title as it’s main writer—fill-in writers, fill-in artists, a hop-scotching timeline—is finally over, as new writer Timothy Truman (also the very best Conan artist!) officially takes the reigns, joining regular artist Cary Nord for a special over-sized issue. When things get too hot in Zamora, Conan and Jiara head for the hills literally, where the Cimmerian must deal with a pack of wild dogs, a pack of wild hill-people, a pack of bandits and the downside of traveling with a woman (Was that a sexist remark? Sorry, there’s just something about a hero as manly as Conan that breeds sexism). Truman calls on much of the history that Busiek (and, obviously, Howard) have built in the title thus far here, as we check in with a lot of players. Nord is as sharp as ever, and you gotta love Tony Harris’ cover, featuring a man who looks very surprised to have just been cut in half. And Conan did it over his shoulder, no less? Very impressive.

Hellstorm: Son of Satan #1 (Marvel/Max) Nice to see Marvel trying something else on their Max mature-readers imprint, but how come DC’s mature readers imprint means maturely-written stories for mature readers, while Marvel’s means more violence? They don’t even capitalize on the ability to have the characters swear like sailors or show nudity, as a well-placed hand covers the nipple on the only bare breast within. For a mature book, it’s not as sophisticated as any of Vertigo’s offerings, or as exploitive of Max’s only real successes to date, The Punisher and, to a lesser extent, the since-cancelled Alias. Ah well, beggars can’t be choosers. Fiction writer Alexander Irvine writes a story about S.O.S. traveling to post-Katrina New Orleans, where the story of Isis, Set and Osiris seems to be being re-enacted. What does that have to do with Satan, let alone his son? No idea yet. This is a five-issue miniseries, after all. The pencils, by Russ Braun, are fine, but Hellstorm isn’t much of a presence or a unique-looking character. Arthur Suydam’s cover image of Daimon isn’t any improvement either; he simply looks like Conan auditioning for a Creed video. All in all, I think I prefer the crazy-ass original design for the character.

The Last Christmas #4 (Image Comics) Well it’s about time! Santa finally gets his shit together, packs his sleigh full of elves wielding red-and-white striped weapons, plus our narrator Gary the Snowman, and flies south to kick marauders and zombies. Dig the Santa suit-up scene, and the death by gingerbread man one.

The Lone Ranger #2 (Dynamite Entertainment) A few months back, if someone told me that a comic book about That Masked Man with the friend named Tonto and the horse named Silver would be one of the my favorite new comics, I would have laughed in his or her face. But man, Dynamite’s Lone Ranger relaunch has been just incredible. The art, inside and out (by John Cassaday and Sergio Cariello) is stellar, and Brett Matthews’ story is incredibly compelling. Dark, gritty and violent in that post-Unforgiven way, this “Year One”-style origin has the feel of an epic destiny being fulfilled, one step at a time. I guess that’s only naturally, given how over-told this character’s fictional career has been, and how under-told his origin story has been.

Omega Men #1 (DC) I know little of the Omega Men, just what I gleaned from the excellent Adam Strange: Planet Heist and the Rann-Thanagar War series. But I thought I’d give their first issue a try anyway, in part because Henry Flint’s very, very British art gives the book the imprimatur of a 2000 A.D.-style sci-fi adventure, and in part because Tigorr is such a goofy character, made goofier still by the size of that cigar on the cover. Wow. Inside, I was admittedly pretty lost—The Darkstars are a religious group rather than a police force now? That’s a Tamaranean, like Starfire and Blackfire? The Spider Guild’s still around? What’s that Guardian talking about now?—but it seems like the Omega Men have been set up for some sort of crime which has L.E.G.I.O.N. and some interesting new recruits ready to hand them their asses. There’s also some kind of Infinity Gem nonsense going on. I don’t know, but I think I’ll give it one more issue—I do want to see Flint draw the big fight that should kick off next issue.

Runaways #21 (Marvel) Best. Runaways. Cover. Ever. Confidential to Mike Norton: That shirt the old man is wearing as a young man in the photo of he and his late wife taking decades ago? I don’t think they were selling those off the rack back when he had black hair and good posture.

Union Jack #2 (Marvel) Fight, fight, fight! Then more fighting! Then another fight! Followed by fighting! Plus, fighting! All this fighting, plus pumpkin bombs and flying cars—what else do you want from a comic book?

WildCats #1 (DC/WildStorm) And here’s that other book that had me worrying for the state of Grant Morrison. When the hottest writer in comics teams up with the hottest artist in comics (Jim Lee, returning to characters he created), the industry rightly sits up and takes notice. But what exactly are we looking at here? I was more than a little lost and underwhelmed at various portions of this issue. It may be my limited exposure to the ‘Cats (who are no longer C.A.T.s?), having only experienced them in the Morrison-written JLA crossover, during the Alan Moore run on the title and in sundry crossovers and spin-offs. But then, that’s the point of a relaunch and a brand-new nuber one isn’t it? To provide easy entry for the new readers you’ll be undoubtedly picking up? The scenes with the Grifter were fine, and the big picture look at a world gone crazy with superpeople made sense, but the smaller picture eluded and confused me (And why was that sex scene in infrared, exactly? Was their a voyeur with heat vision goggles in the closet?). Lee’s draftsmanship is fine here, but the designs are all off-putting. Maybe I’ve grown use to see him working on classic characters like Batman, Superman and their families and villains, but there were some really, really repulsive costumes and character designs in this book.

X-Factor #12 (Marvel) The Tryps are finally all explained, and it’s a pretty novel explanation, but if only there was a way to deal with the character and Singularity Investigations’ raison d etre that didn’t involve time-travel. Time travel and X comics never really work out all that well, do they? Layla Miller continues to have the best superpower in the Marvel Universe.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Actually Essential Storylines: Wildcat

This week’s issue of 52 featured the origin of Wildcat, the former heavyweight champ who’s origin, as writer Mark Waid tells it, essentially amounts to Ted Grant dressing up like a cat to beat up some crooks causing him problems and deciding that he enjoyed it so much that he would continue dressing like a cat to beat up other crooks.

The art is provided by Jerry Ordway, who does a hell of a Wildcat, giving him the unnerving cat eyes, complete with vertical pupils, that make his mask look pretty scary, as well as the taped fists and, floppy ears and stubble that make him look a bit like a lunatic (Obviously, he’s a guy dressed like a cat man, not an actual cat man—which is even scarier. What kind of maniac shows up to scrap dressed like a giant house cat? The kind you don’t want to fight with).

While the art portion of the origin is dead on, the “Essential Storyline” suggestions are much weaker than usual. They don’t even mention any JSA stories, which seems odd, considering that, post-Crisis, the story of the JSA is essentially the story of Wildcat; rarely will there be a JSA story or appearance that doesn’t prominently feature him. At any rate, let’s get on with our overly complete look at Wildcat storylines.

Here’s what DC suggested:

Sensation Comics #1: This is the book that Wildcat made his first appearance in, way back in. Good luck finding it. Hell, even a reprint might be tough, as, if it’s made it into an archive collection, it certainly isn’t under this title.

JSA: Classified #8-#9: This is a two-part story written by Peter J. Tomasi and drawn by JSA artists Don Kramer and Keith Champagne, in which the Dragon King somehow gets his hands on the Spear of Destiny (Wow, the Shadowpact could have really used that during Day of Vengeance!) to take control of Wildcat and Flash I. It’s a nice little ‘cat story, with Tomasi doing solid character work on both his stars, but it’s not exactly an important, let alone an essential, one.

Batman/Wildcat #1-#3: Hit your local comic shop’s quarter bins for this 1990s classic (that’s where I found it), in which Batman and Wildcat find themselves involved in an underground fighting ring thing. It’s a pretty manly story, but not as important in ‘Cat history as some of the books below. Not sure what makes this particular mini any more “Essential” than Catwoman/Wildcat.

Here’s what they missed…

JSA: I can’t imagine why the last volume of JSA wasn’t included on that list, as it and its many spin-offs have been the place to see Ted Grant since it was launched a few years back. Wildcat joined the first Green Lantern and Flash in putting together a rather ragtag team of legacy heroes—Sand, Jack “Starman” Knight, Black Canary, the Star-Spangled Kid, the android Hourman III, the new Hawkgirl II and the re-christened Atom-Smasher—to take on the Dark Lord Mordru, and the team stuck together. It proved a bestseller too, and pretty much the entire run is available in trade paperbacks today.

Wildcat has been something of a bit-player on the team overall, with the main sub-plot involving him being one that seems to imply that he was developing a problem with alcohol, although it never really went anywhere once the universe entered it’s chaotic Identity Crisis to Infinite Crisis period.

If you approach the title simply looking for Wildcat stories, though, you can’t miss #10, the only real spotlight issue he gets. Injured and fresh from a soak in the tub, Ted Grant is minding HQ solo while the rest of the team is off on an adventure. Who should pop in for a visit but the entire Injustice Society, leaving Grant to tackle Johnny Sorrow, Count Vertigo, Icicle, Golden Wasp, the new Tigress, Blackbriar Thorn and Geomancer all by his lonesome. The Society doesn’t stand a chance. Grant also gets some attention in #52-#53, in which the new Crimson Avenger starts whittling down his nine lives (see below) to avenge a murder that Wildcat had committed and covered up (sorta) back in the day.

The Justice Society Returns!: This 1999 series heralded the upcoming JSA relaunch. Masterminded by writers James Robinson and David Goyer, it was a period piece pitting the entire JSA—and pretty much every Golden Age hero—against a giant being called The Stalker. ‘Cat appeared in the bookends, and teamed up with Hawkman to star in tie-in book Thrilling Comics #1, which featured a story by apparent Wildcat fan Chuck Dixon and art by Russ Heath. The whole shebang is available in trade.

“Crisis Times Five”: DC tested the waters of a JSA revival with this four-part arc in Grant Morrison, Howard Porter and John Dell’s run on JLA. As Johnny Thunder’s Thunderbolt gets passed on to a new bearer—Jakeem Thunder, here still going by “J.J.”—the JLA teams up with both Captain Marvel and some JSAers (Wildcat, Sentinel Alan Scott and the original Flash, plus the hostless Spectre Force)—for perhaps their most insane battle of all time. Without spoiling things, it involves a war in the Fifth Dimension, thunderbolt versus thunderbolt, Triumph and the remnants of the Justice League Task Force and the most unlikely villain of all time. The story proved important to JSA history on several fronts, but is most remarkable—in my book—for tying the “words equal power” motifs of the Thunderbolts and the Fifth Dimensional imps together. Geoff Johns would later re-write and un-write some of Morrison’s innovations here (some for the better, like Jakeem’s name, some for the worse, like the reconfiguration of the T-Bolt), but for our purposes here, we’re most concerned with Wildcat’s role.

He and the Huntress fought living mailboxes and a rampaging genie in Central City while the rest of the heroes got the really tough jobs. In the end, he inspires J.J. to get in the hero game and, it’s revealed, he has nine lives, something he has been trying to keep secret thus far (and succeeded, since this is the very first mention of ‘em). “Since when do you have nine lives?” an incredulous Alan Scott asks, to which Grant responds “Since 1945….Come on, Alan! Do I look seventy? You think this is diet and exercise?” It ran through JLA #s 28-31, and it’s available in trade form as part of JLA Vol. 5: Justice For All, a collection that also contains the Mark Millar-scribed fill-in story that pits Amazo vs. the League’s entire reserves roster.

Wildcat, Trainer Extraordinaire: As the origin back-up in 52 mentions, Wildcat trained Batman (Well, I think he was just Bruce Wayne back then), Catwoman and Black Canary. Many of Wildcat’s post-Crisis, non-JSA appearances have revolved around his abilities as a trainer and/or his association with his former students, particularly Selina “Catwoman” Kyle. All-Star Comics 80-Page Giant #1, for example, features a story written by Robinson and Goyer in which Jack Knight and Ted Grant go a few rounds in the ring. It’s a nice little story, and probably the highlight of the issue (the Mark Waid-written story about the Golden Age Atom, in which Wildcat and Dr. Mid-Nite guest, is a close second). Selina calls on Ted Grant to train her protégée Holly (who’s currently running around in the cat-suit) in Catwoman #20, a nice little story by Ed Brubaker, drawn by Cameron Stewart. By day, Grant puts Holly through her paces, while at night he and Selina dress up like cats and run around rooftops fighting crime together. Grant’s appearance is just a cameo in Identity Crisis but it’s in the same context, with the two Green Arrows training at his gym. More recently, Grant was recruited by Black Canary to watch her back on a risky undercover mission in Singapore, as part of the Gail Simone-written story “The Battle Within,” which ran through Birds of Prey #81-#85.

Other universes: Like the rest of the Golden Age heroes, Wildcat appeared in James Robinson’s dark, deconstructionist graphic novel The Golden Age, about the superheroes of the WWII era falling before a government conspiracy to do away with superheroes, although his role amounted to little more than a cameo. In Darwyn Cooke’s New Frontier-iverse, the secret identities of many of the Silver Age heroes all convene in Vegas to watch a Ted Grant match, though Captain Cold and the Flash end up spoiling the fun.

Other media: Like most of the JSAers, Wildcat hasn’t been seen much outside of comics. He sort of appeared in the Justice League cartoon, when Green Lantern and some Leaguers found themselves on the show’s version of Earth-2, although the motorcycle-riding, cat-themed hero went by the name “Cat Man.” The actual Wildcat appeared in the follow-up series, Justice League Unlimited, in the episode “The Cat and the Canary,” in which a Dennis Farina-voiced Wildcat is busting villain and hero head alike in Roulette’s arena do to his addiction to fighting.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Now tell us how you really feel about the President...

Clike here to read this week's comics column in Las Vegas Weekly. Three books are reviewed, including Army of Darkness Vs. Darkman #1 (which is covered below in "Weekly Haul," and which will get a full review from me on early next week) and Premillenial Maakies (also reviewed below in "Weekly Haul"), and Blatant Comics' recent digest-sized dissection of the failings of President George W. Bush, soberly entitled Impeach Bush!. I should have an interveiw with the creators to post in the near future.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

Weekly Haul: October 11th

52 #23 (DC Comics) This week’s issue dealt with my favorite and my least favorite story strands from the 52 tapestry. It opened with Dr. Magnus meeting once again with Dr. Morrow, on a tropical island that’s been turned into a sort of resort for mad scientists—we still don’t know who arranged for their abduction and why they’re financing them, however. And then it’s back to Kahndaq, where Montoya, the Question, Black Adam and Isis break up an Intergang religious ceremony. The Question doesn’t act very heroic—essentially shrugging off the thought of risking his life to save a boy being tortured by monsters because it wasn’t worth dying over—but it all works out okay in the end (And, thankfully, they’ve stopped including Montoya’s out-of-place, first-person narration, the only narration in the book, which screwed up the narrative perspective. Now if they just remember to edit it out of the trade collections…). In a completely out-of-left field moment, the back-up origin goes to Wildcat, who’s not only not in this issue, but not even in this series at all yet. The art on it, by Jerry Ordway, is sensational, however. (Well, the panel with Batman boxing in full costume looks a little stupid). What excited me most, however, was the next issue tease panel—it looks like Phil Jimenez, drawing J’onn J’onnz standing in front of a garden of statues dedicated to deceased Justice Leaguers. Maybe we’ll finally learn what drove him nuts, and why he, Aquaman and Plastic Man are MIA when the Justice League starts up again after the missing year ends.

Civil War: Front Line #7 (Marvel Comics) Writer Paul Jenkins is still crafting some of the best “Civil War” stories in this anthology title, but the greater story that the many ongoing stories within each issue are telling is starting to get a little messy, the more they all converge and share plot points. “Embedded” looks at Speedball’s shooting from a different angle, and reveals a traitor to the (Pro-Reg?) heroes cutting a deal with Norman “The Green Goblin” Osborn. “The Accused” doesn’t move very far forward very far, but recaps his origin and what’s happened since Stamford—nice panel of Speedball’s POV during the explosion, though. “Sleeper Cell” has Wonder Man and a bunch of Atlanteans getting creamed by the Green Goblin, who even SHIELD doesn’t seem to know about, and, finally, in the offensive parallel between real world tragedy and superhero crossover series portion of the book, Jenkins and Eduardo Barreto juxtapose the Battle of Somme in World War I, in which 950,000 soldiers died, with the battle between Green Goblin and a handful of Atlanteans, even using a quote from A. E. Housman to make it just a wee bit more tasteless.

Darkman Vs. Army of Darkness #1 (Dynamite Entertainment) Give Dynamite points for scoring the rights to another Sam Raimi-directed film property, and having the bright idea to use the two Raimi-created heroes in the same comic book (In this instance, the Army of Darkness title even sounds more appropriate than Evil Dead, which seems like a better name for the company’s Ash vs. Deadite comics). Kurt Busiek, Roger Stern and James Fry do such a fine job with Darkman, a hero who seems more than capable of carrying a book of his own, in the early parts of the book that by the time Ash is summoned by the Necronomicon to fight evil dead for the umpteenth time, I was almost disappointed to see him. The character of Ash is never as interesting as Bruce Campbell playing Ash, and I’ve grown rather tired of seeing Dynamite sending him through the same old paces, telling the same old jokes, over and over. At least pairing him with Darkman seems like an interesting twist. Although I thought the same thing when I picked up the first issue of Army of Darkness Vs. Re-Animator, which was one more Dynamite AoD series I started but never finished.

The Escapists #4 (Dark Horse) After some moody, silent art by Jason Shawn Alexander, who provides the art that character Case Weaver is supposed to be drawing, Brian K. Vaughan gives an awesome four page meditation on the giant “Free” rubber stamp sculpture in downtown Cleveland. He and artist Steve Rolston play coy with the reveal of the word on it, and Vaughan finds great meaning in it to apply to his chosen media of sequential art—“For me, it’s a reminder of how even great art can be elevated by the well-written word.” His Ex Machina has been called a love letter to New York City, something I never quite saw. This book, on the other hand, is clearly one to Cleveland, which he manages to look like an incredibly cool place with each passing issue.

Gen 13 #1 (DC/WildStorm) Wow, I had expected much better from the imprints relaunch of this title and these characters, particularly since Gail Simone has been kicking so much ass on so many different superhero titles of late. At the very least, I expected something mildly interesting, particularly in seeing how a female writer would tackle characters like Freefall, Rainmaker and Fairchild, the latter of whom made such a habit of having her clothes strategically torn off to show as much flesh as possible without showing the bits that would earn a “Mature Readers” label. Clearly, this was a franchise that played to a male demographic like no other. I was not expecting something this bland, however. Not only was this first issue far weaker than Adam Warren’s damn near brilliant run and the better Bootleg arcs and crossovers, but it doesn’t even hold up to the early Choi/Lee/Campbell run. Simone may have been given an impossible task here—with a character named “Grunge” on the line-up, it’s abundantly clear that this is a dated set of characters that can only be pushed so far past their expiration date—but even if she was destined to fail, I expected it to at least prove better than the ill-fated Chris Claremont/Ale Garza relaunch. No such luck. The art, by Talent Caldwell, is similarly disappointing. Few franchises have had more hot artists on them than Gen 13, of course, but Caldwell’s among the worst of the many artists to draw the team (they looked better in the crossover with The Maxx). I doesn’t help that every single character seems to be the same age.

JLA: Classified #28 (DC) Okay, Howard Chaykin completely burned out my Murky Continuity Outrage circuit. I have no idea when the hell this is taking place. Rayner’s on the team, so it must be pre-“Obsidian Age,” but Faith is referred to as the newest member, and she didn’t join until during “Obsidian Age.” Aquaman’s wearing his post-“Obsidian Age” costume, but he also refers to himself as the “reigning monarch” of Atlantis, even though he was stripped of his title and exiled from the ocean during the time he wore that costume. And, come to think of it, that was when J’onn J’onnz had left the League to work with Scorch on his weakness to fire, and shouldn’t Lex Luthor still be president at this point, and not this guy… Aaaa! Doesn’t anyone edit for character continuity anymore? Can’t they at least stamp a damn “Elseworlds” tag on the cover, if for no other reason than to not drive people like me crazy? At any rate, Kilian Plunkett and Tom Nguyen’s art is incredible—I particularly like their Bruce Wayne, Wally West and Green Lantern—and Chaykin does nice work with all of the characters, even if it’s impossible to fit this story into recent Justice League history. Wait, three last nitpicks and then I swear I’m done complaining. Why does Aquaman refer to himself as “Aquaman” and not “Orin” or “King Orin” when talking to the President of the United States? Why is Holland called “Holland” and not “The Netherlands,” exactly? And shouldn’t international billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne maybe wear a mask or disguise of some sort—heck, a pair sunglasses and a ball cap even—when scaling around rooftops in broad daylight?

Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories Vol. 1 (Tokyopop) Okay, so I’m not the target audience for this adaption of the videogame of the same name, itself a sort-of meta-adaptation of a dozen or so Disney films and cartoon stars, mashed-up against your typical Final Fantasy characters. I can’t help myself. I love so many of these Disney character designs—particularly Maleficent from Sleeping Beauty and Donald Duck in his sailor suit—and am intrigued by the idea of the various Disney film stars all interacting like this, but I lack the patience to actually play the games. This second series of Kingdom Hearts manga collections is even more full of exposition and Final Fantasy bullshit than the first, and three-fourths of the volume flew by before our heroes re-entered the world of Aladdin, but it was well worth the slog through. I’ll be back for volume two.

Pirates of Coney Island #1 (Image Comics) Interesting premise, some nice moments, and some really knock out art, but otherwise, not much to go on just yet. The titular pirates don’t even appear in this issue. Perhaps I should have waited for the trade on this one, but I just can’t resist a title like that (they had me at “Pirates”), nor could I pass up a cover that cool looking.

Sam Noir: Samurai Detective #2 (Image Comics) “The thing about arrows is: They’re pretty fast. And they’re really pointy on one end,” Noir narrates during the first of many fight scenes here, offering some pretty valuable advice. “But there’s a trick to fighting archers that they don’t teach ya in school: Don’t get shot with an arrow. Everything else just kind of sorts itself out.” Those few sentences were almost worth the price of admission alone, but there's also Noir’s underhanded way of dealing with Henchman Number Two, his running commentary on a “pretty impressive cliché of thugs,” some funny chess metaphors and, lest I forget, the luminescent black and white art. Lame title, awesome comic.

Sokora Refugees Vol. 2 (Tokyopop) I’ve made my negative feelings about American-made manga known on this site before, but this series is another welcome exception to the rule. Silly, funny, sexy, melodramatic, and chock-full of cool designs, with the occasional action scene, Sokora Refugees is everything I want in a fantasy series, with the added advantage of an incredibly fast pace and large, likable cast that few other manga series dabbling in the genre can match.

Stan Lee Meets Doctor Strange #1 (Marvel) “Disappointing” seems to be the word of the week. I was downright shocked about how much I enjoyed Stan Lee Meets the Amazing Spider-Man two weeks back; it was probably the book of the week from either DC or Marvel. So I was expecting big things from the next Stan Lee Meets… book, which must be where I went wrong. The higher your expectations, the easier it is to be disappointed. The cover, by Alan Davis, is a fine image of the Sorcerer Supreme doing battle with his foes, but Stan Lee’s appearance on it seems an after thought, when it should have been the focus. Inside, Lee’s story, penciled by Alan Davis and inked by Mark Farmer (an art team I can never see enough work from) is pleasant enough and has a few zingers, but lacks the punch that his Spidey story had. There’s no lack of punch in Brian Michael Bendis’ story, which amounts to a self-parody of his own handiwork and much of the changes that have been wrought to the Marvel Universe over the last few years, as the Impossible Man appears looking for someone to mess with, but is unable to find anyone to play with. This is probably Bendis’ funniest story since his Oni work—I particularly liked the jab at his boss’ work on Daredevil: Father, JMS’ Gwen Stacy retcon and the fact that he actually typed the world Mxyzptlk in a Marvel comic. Where was this ballsy sense of humor during Wha...Huh? a few years back? Rounding out the issue, and certainly justifying the cover price, is a two page Chris Giarrusso Mini Marvel story featuring Lee having an awkward conversation with Spidey, and a reprint of a Lee scenario-ed, Barry Smith-drawn Dr. Strange story (What, no Ditko?).