Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Review: Iron Man 2.0 Vol. 2: Asymmetry

"It didn't have to be like this."

That's the thought that kept running through my head as I made my way through Iron Man 2.0: Asymmetry, the trade paperback collection of the last five issues of the short-lived 2011 series Iron Man 2.0 (plus the oddly-numbered, special "jumping-on point" issue #7.1 grafted on to the beginning of the story arc).

While the title obscures the fact, as does the logo and, to a certain extent, the cover of this trade collection, the book didn't star Iron Man Tony Stark (although he appears prominently in this particular chunk of it), but James "Rhodey" Rhodes, whose superhero codename is War Marchine (and who was played in the the Iron Man films by first Terrence Howard and then Don Cheadle). Launched in the spring of that year, it followed the cancellation of the twelve-issue War Machine by just a few months. Apparently Marvel thought the problem with the book was simply that "War Machine" lacked the q-rating of "Iron Man," and by putting Iron Man's name on the marquee, more fans might show up, a little like re-titling Nightwing as Batman 2.0, with the fact that the iron guys' super-powers being derived from technology kinda sorta justifying the "2.0".

I agree with whoever at Marvel thought to green-light a Rhodey book, whatever they decided to call it, so soon after the last one was canceled (in Marvel Universe terms, the character had a book that was cancelled with a "Dark Reign" tie-in, sat out Siege, but was back in time for Fear Itself). The character suffers the same fate as a lot of the lieutenant versions of the established characters, be they female, or in Rhodey's case, black. Like Steel or The Falcon, War Machine is almost always in Iron Man's shadow, and it's difficult to find the proper proportion of original hero to put in the spin-off title.

Iron Man, like Superman or Captain America, inevitably suck up all the oxygen in their lieutenants' stories, and when they are present, they inevitably become the star; even when writers take great pains not to portray the spin-off heroes as subordinate, if not done deftly, it can come off as patronizing and artificial. (Batman and Wolverine seem immune to this phenomenon; I don't think I've ever seen too much Batman or Wolverine in a Robin or Nightwing or Batgirl or X-22 or Daken or solo X-person title).

That certainly happens here. Although Iron Man becomes something of an antagonist at the end of the book when he becomes possessed by the agency of the true villain, and he is the end-level boss that Rhodey must fight and ultimately best, he still seems like the star, perhaps because his armor's shinier or that it's his name on Rhodey's book. But James Rhodes is a guest-star in his own book, much less interesting than Stark, the various smart-mouthed non-super supporting characters or the evil genius whose plan is the most inspired part of the story.

It's a little surprising that a character with as much transmedia exposure as War Machine isn't popular enough to support his own monthly Marvel comic (and by "popular enough" I simply mean able to), especially when one considers his traditional portrayal as the tougher, meaner, more hardcore version of Iron Man. Marvel's had pretty great success with "black-ops" versions of their popular teams (Secret Avengers, Uncanny X-Force), so one might expect the black-ops Iron Man to do okay.

I suppose the fact that the comic book is pretty terrible-looking, but, before we discuss the specific contents of the book, let's examine a few obvious factors as to why Iron Man 2.0 only lasted 13 issues (Or 12.1...or 13.1...I'm fuzzy on how we're supposed to treat ".1" issues when it comes to adding up issue numbers).

Hot up-and-coming writer Nick Spencer was the only mainstay on the creative team, although he received help from co-writer Joshua Fialkov on one issue in this book, and help from co-writer Will Pfeifer on two more issues. There was no artist associated with the book long enough to give it a unique look. The first three issues had three different pencilers: Kano, Barry Kitson and Carmine Di Giandomenico. Ariel Olivetti, whose work looks nothing like that of those guys (who don't have all that much in common when it comes to their respective styles, either), came on with #4, which he drew solo, and he drew the next two issues with Di Giandomenico (those three issues, by the way, were a Fear Itself tie-in; about one-third of this book's run was a tie-in to the not-well-liked event series), and then, after sitting out #7.1, during which Kano returned, he drew #8-#11, and part of the four-artist final issue.

The fact that the first issue of this clearly thrown-together endeavor cost $4 probably didn't help any either; the price dropped down to $2.99 for the second issue, but if you weren't interested enough to buy the first, would you even pay attention to the cover price of the second? And this was being published during a time that Marvel was suffering from brand over-extension, so maybe so blatantly signaling that this book was not only a second Iron Man one, but the un-important one wasn't the smartest idea in the world.

Readers of this particular trade collection, marked with a "Vol. 2" on the spine and title-page fine print, if not the title itself, will join a story already in-progress. An extremely gifted young scientist named Palmer Addley was once kidnapped by the U.S. government and forced to spend his life inventing dangerous weapons for them. Then one day, he kills himself. Shortly thereafter, a great deal of his terrifyingly destructive technology begins activating itself all over the world, and it's up to War Machine and a small group of witty supporting characters to figure out how exactly Addley pulled this off and put the kibosh on what becomes an increasingly apocalyptic scenario; by the book's climax, Addley has managed to turn most of the world's population into a violent, mindless mob bent on destroying everything in their path, with Iron Man being among the infected and War Machine being among the un-infencted.

Spencer and company write nice, snappy dialogue, and the do a fine job of coming up with a fairly suspenseful, occasionally even thrilling, ever-escalating conflict, a well-conceived unbeatable threat that the superhero must then beat. I giggled at the audacity of that plot, and the way it was occasionally spoken of, and was impressed with the way Spencer managed to write a Marvel Universe story but focus only on the corners of the Marvel Universe relevant to the Iron Man/War Machine corner (That is, there are scores of ways a "villain" could bedevil the hero after dying, but the way Spencer goes is an Iron Man-flavored way).

Weirdly, Rhodey doesn't really save the day. Stark does, at first, and, when Stark succumbs to kill-Rhodey programming, it's Rhodey's friend and The Fantastic Four's Mr. Fantastic who save the day, while Rhodey mainly just stalls the temporarily Evil Iron Man. He lacks agency, which wouldn't be so bad in an ensemble book, but his is already a book in which he's essentially an off-brand Iron Man, and another superhero has his name on the book.

The artwork is, naturally, a mess. Olivetti draws most of it, and, to put it mildly, I'm not a fan of his current style, which looks like computer coloring-applied to sketchy pencils, giving most of his figures the look of rubber, human-shaped balloons decorated to look like human being with air-brushed paint, and then inflated and left to float on photos of sets. I've seen his work a lot in the past at Marvel, and sometimes it works fairly well, but I don't think it does here. The dramatic, out-of-armor stuff looks soft and slightly blurry, like a Vaseline-lens drama, and when War Machine is in his War Machine costume, he barely looks mechanical; there's no sharp edges or heavy lines, no weight to the metal. It looks to be made of the same soft, fuzzy stuff that everything else Olivetti draws is made out of.

The book opens with the Kano-illustrated .1 issue, in which the artist engages in copious photo-referencing, but it's a tolerable sort of photo-referencing, as it nevertheless looks as if it was drawn, the photos being referenced rather than stolen, consumed and integrated.

For the book's final issues, Olivetti becomes increasingly scarce, so that the climax of the book is drawn by another artist entirely. I actually prefer the style of the guy who does most of the book to that of Olivetti's, but it's still weird, akin to recasting the star of a movie to shoot the footage that will make up the last 20 minutes of a blockbuster.

After reading this, it's not hard to see why the book didn't last longer than 12 or 13 issues. In fact, it's harder to see why it wasn't canceled even sooner.

Meanwhile, four years ago...

My God, has it really been four whole years since I drew this silly thing? Have I really been blogging that long now? Yeesh.

Anyway, this is "relevant" for the first time in four years, so, for the benefit of any of you who are reading now who weren't reading back then, here's a little comic I drew back when I was an even worse artist than I am now (such a thing is possible), about Green Lantern John Stewart trying to find a teammate to watch the Olympics with.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

(links)


********************

Yikes. (Via Spurgeon)

********************

Seconded.

*********************

Kiel Phegley talked to Chuck Dixon about Bane, and the fact that Dixon and his Bane co-creators are, in fact, seeing money off of the giant blockbuster built, in part, on a character that they created for DC Comics. It's nice to read a story about a comics creator making the money he earned off of a transmedia exploitation of his work the same summer we've heard so much (but not enough!) about how Kirby's heirs and the various creators and co-creators of all the Marvel IP in the Avengers got bupkiss (save Stan Lee, who got his regular cameo, although I've already forgotten what it was, and his exectuive producer credit and, I imagine, some money to go with both).

Let's return to Tom Spurgeon, to state what's important about this:
Note also that by choosing this policy over one whereby they grind out the absolute last penny that could be theirs if they went after it with enough energy, DC kneecaps the argument that corporations are somehow inherently bound by their core nature to always pursue the most exploitative behavior imaginable in every single instance.
So apparently there is enough money to go around with these things. I do hope DC continues to make arrangements like the ones they made with Dixon in the present, otherwise the chances of seeing more Banes, or new characters of any kind, in their comics are going to be increasingly rare.

***********************

Speaking of Bane, how did the movie version of Bane eat or drink? They made a big deal abut how without his mask, he was in excrutiating pain—even when Movie Batman punched a tiny little piece of it out of whack, he floored Movie Bane. So how does he eat? Does he take the mask off and just suffer in excrutiating pain while eating, or...what? Because he was a pretty healthy-looking guy. Based on his physique, he didn't exactly seem to live off of IVs and Ensure sipped through straws.

**********************

So the initials of the five X-Men characters possessed by the Phoenix Force in Avengers Vs. X-Men spell out P-E-N-I-S...? That's...that's kinda weird, isn't it?
Not that Thor vs. Emma fight weird, but pretty weird.

********************

Hey, here are some Catwoman costumes through the ages.

I think that green one is probably the worst, because it's green. A green cat...? What kind of sense does that make...? Also, it sometimes looks scaly, making her look more reptillian than feline.

I kinda like the red and blue one with the big mask, even though those aren't really cat colors either (the blue could be comic book-black, like Superman and Wonder Woman's blue-black hair), in large part because it's so rare. I think I've only read two comic book stories in which she wore it.

*********************

Writing for comic book industry newspaper USA Today, Brian Truitt compiles a list of ten people who totally aren't going to be replacing Grant Morrison when he stops writing Action Comics in the near future. Brian K. Vaughan? Brian Michael Bendis? Joss Whedon? Come on now, why not add the Ghost of James Joyce, Jerry Seinfeld and Earth-Prime Clark Kent to the wish list to, Truitt?

I guess it would make the most sense to have Action Comics back-up writer Sholly Fisch move up to the front of the book, or to try to convince Mark Waid or Tom Peyer (two guys who once pitched a Superman revamp alongside Morrison, and two of the only Big Two super-comics writers who have followed Morrison on books or concepts and produced excellent comics), or, in a long shot, Mark Millar (the other guy to pitch with those three, and another guy who had previously done a good job of following Morrison). That last one seems pretty unlikely, but given the fact that Millar said he's not interested in abandoning Hollywood pitch comics based on Big Two concepts to write the actual Big Two characters he riffs on in his pleas for movie deals, maybe that means he's gagging to write Superman (I haven't figured out the math, exactly, but it seems like somewhere between 35-and-75% of what Millar says is completely untrue, so, statistically, if he says he doesn't wanna write DC and Marvel capes, there's a good chance that means he does).

But who are we kidding? It's totally going to be Dan Jurgens and/or Keith Giffen...at least for a few issues. I would have also guessed Rob Liefeld, but he's apparently leaving DC to pursue his own movie pitches for a while as well.

********************

It's pretty weird to hear Morrison's tiring of writing corporate superheroes though, given the premise of his recent prose book, which was that superheroes were the highest form of human expression, and Superman in particular is the best thing that ever happened to the human race, although fuck those two dudes who created him (I'm paraphrasing. But less than you might think).

*********************

Actually, you know who might be a decent bet for the new Action Comics writer? (And/or Superman writer, given the weird musical chairs associated with the creative team behind it, and the fact that current writer Scott Lobdell can't possibly be long for it).

Marc Guggenheim. I was thinking about this while reading the trade collection of the end of his JSoA run the other night (Were you not reading EDILW this weekend, due to life-having? Well, I reviewed JSoA: Monument Point and JLoA: Dark Things Friday and Saturday night).

I may be misremembering, but didn't DC make a big announcement that Guggenheim would be writing a Superman story...this was sometime around the climax of the James Robinson-directed era of the books, in which Superman wasn't really in any of 'em and Lois Lane's dad was at war with New Krypton...but then shortly afterwards they announced that while Guggenheim's plans were awesome, they didn't really fit in with their plans for the future of Superman at the moment?

The future of Superman being, of course, J. Michael Straczynski starting the worst Superman story arc ever written, then quitting writing it, and having poor Chris Roberson try to salvage it, in the pages of Superman, while Lex Luthor took over Action Comics in a pretty swell story arc, and then rebooting the whole DC Universe to make Superman an asshole in an armored version of his old costume that no one at all anywhere on Earth likes even the slightest bit.

Well maybe Guggenheim will come back and get to do his Superman story. Or maybe he's mad at DC for jerking him around so much and making his not-that-good JSoA story even worse. Or maybe none of the above happened, and I dreamt it all. I don't know, and I'm not going to Google any of it.

********************

This is a nice little essay that Ivan Brandon has written about comic book movies, and how much smaller they are then the comic books they are based on. He talks a lot about Batman, The Avengers and Jack Kirby.

Speaking of Batmen on the screen, look at the image he (or his editors) chose to illustrate the top of his piece:
In the center, you've got a wonderful Kelley Jones image, to the right you've got a Mike Mignola image, and to the left you've got...well, I don't know who. But they all show a very cape-y Batman, emphasizing the bat parts.

I have no idea what Warner Brothers plans to do next with Batman, although the film sets up an easy avenue to a sequel franchise (which I assume won't be followed, but who knows?), and it's not hard to imagine a series of films starring Anne Hathaway's Catwoman, and maybe a pre-quel starring Tom Hardy's Bane (I know I would watch it, just to hear Hardy's Bane-voice...Oh God, I hope the DVD of Dark Knight Rises features Christian Bale and Hardy providing running commentary, in character. That would be awesome).

I sincerely hope it's not a straight Batman Begins Again reboot, with an origin story (parents shot, dresses like a bat, got it) and a first encounter with The Joker again. I would much rather see some sort of en medias res reboot, with a fully-functioning and already established Batman that can be easily franchised off into spin-off movies. So fans (and Warner Bros) can get another Batman trilogy, but also a Catwoman movie, a Batgirl movie, a Robin movie, et cetera. Batman is one of the few superhero comics properties that can easily support its own Marvel Studios style slate of films, and the studio need not worry about getting a Justice League going to respond to Marvel's aggressive Avengers franchise if they just get a good Batman with spin-off potential built-in from the get-go going.

Anyway, that Batman in the images at the top of Brandon's post? I haven't seen that Batman in a movie yet. A Batman who is cape, cowl and gloves, with everything else cast in shadow pretty much all the time. Id' like to see that Batman, one with gray or black tights, rather than bulky, rubbery body armor. A Batman who is athletic and spooky, with white triangle eyes. A design and conception that doesn't translate the "knight" part of "The Dark Knight" as meaning he needs to wear a bunch of armor.

Also, I'd kinda like to see a shit-ton of villains. I'd like Batman: The Long Halloween, only rewritten into something that makes some sense, maybe...? Or something like it, only totally different...?

I don't know. I don't really feel any strong desire to see Batman fight The Joker again. And while I wouldn't mind seeing different versions of The Penguin or The Riddler, there are sooo many villains yet to make it into the movies, and as Christopher Nolan proved, even a relatively minor one like Bane, a character who lacks the name recognition of most of Bats' rogues gallery (Hell, even in the Batman cartoons, he's a pretty minor player compared to, say, The Mad Hatter or Mr. Freeze or Man-Bat, isn't he?), can be a pretty fantastic film villain.

Anyway, if the Warner Brothers are reading my blog and looking for ideas for their next Batman film franchise, um, I'd like a Batman different from the last few Bat-men. One spin-off ready, with lots of sidekicks and villains. Okay? Thanks.

*********************

I didn't read this article yet, because my life is already so full of comics and librarians that I sometimes have a hard time convincing myself to spend a few more minutes reading about more of 'em, but I really liked the picture accompanying it. That "BAM!" barrette or whatever it is is pretty awesome. I hope that lady spent all day turning around suddenly and saying "BAM!" to whoever was standing behind her at the moment.

***********************

Okay, I just read that article I linked to in the previous tidbit, because I felt like maybe I sounded like a jerk saying I didn't wanna read it. It's an okay article. I honestly can't stress enough how important I think libraries are to comics, which are, especially these days, an incredibly expensive past time, and no longer an impulse buy.

In fact, with comic books no longer racked the way the were in previous generations, I'm not even sure how kids could even find out about comics without a library. I know that just about every graphic novel I review on EDILW now is one I've borrowed from a library. And if your local library has a bad selection, you can always ask them to order particular items for you, either to add to their collection, or via inter-library loan.

Okay, that's all.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Pre-New 52 review: Justice League of America: Dark Things

Although the trade collection unambiguously declares this a Justice League story, it actually ran in both Justice League of America (#44-48) and Justice Society of America (#41 and #42, preceding the story covered in last night's post by about eight issues), and is very much a JLA/JSA team-up in the tradition of the old, annual convergences of the Satellite Era league and Earth-Two's Justice Society. Although it may not be immediately recognizable as such, given the fact that this version of the Justice League was then fairly new, and made up of characters one wouldn't normally associate with that team: Batman Dick Grayson, Donna Troy, Congorilla and Starman II Mikaal Tomas (with Supergirl, Jesse Quick and Jade joining by the end of this particular story arc, giving this Justice League lieutenant, and mostly female, versions of Batman, Wonder Woman, Superman, The Flash and Green Lantern).

Despite spanning seven consecutive issues of two simultaneously published titles, the whole shebang is by the same creative team of writer James Robinson and pencil artist Mark Bagley, seemingly the only pencil artist left in superhero comics capable of drawing at least 22-pages a month. Reading this right after something like JSoA: Monument Point, it seems like a remarkable feat that a monthly (or more) comic book story could have consistent art by the very same artist, and makes the story seem so much better by comparison to...just about every similar trade available.

Just as Blackest Night took its title from Green Lantern Hal Jordan's oath ("In brightest day, in blackest night/No evil shall escape my sight"), the title of this particular story comes from Golden Age Green Lantern Alan Scott's shorter, less elegant oath ("And I shall shed my light over dark evil, for the dark things cannot stand the light— The Light of the Green Lantern!"). It's a complicated (almost extremely so) affair, in terms of plotting, although, on the most basic level, it's also superhero universe toy box comics at their most fundamental—writers and artists picking whatever toys they want to team up and make fight until all the fights are fought and then the story can end.

There are a lot of characters involved. Beyond the four-to-seven Justice Leaguers, there's the huge roster of the Justice Society (which, when this was published in 2010, still occupied two books); there's villain Felix Faust's hero son Faust, who shows up to play the magic guy role on the team; there's the Shiloh Norman, Seven Soldiers version of Mister Miracle ("I'll be that seventh soldier who'll get you in there," he cheesily tells the six heroes attempting to storm the bad guy stronghold); there's Miss Martian, who is playing the generic psychic role that J'onn J'onnz would normally play, but maybe Robinson wasn't allowed to use the recently resurrected Martian Manhunter yet; and then there's Green Lantern Kyle Rayner, who shows up mainly because he had a relationship with two of the super-ladies involved and...well, that's the only reason I can think of why he's there (Well, actually, he's there on Green Lantern Corps business, since the villain of the piece is linked to Green Lantern history, but he comes solo, sans any partners, which seems off).

The nature of the plot also allows Robinson and Bagley to play with a bunch of other characters, many of whom appear only in one-panel cameos or in short fight sequences, like Etrigan the Demon, The Shade and Klarion the Witch Boy. Reading, I was curious how much of the plotting was actually driven by Robinson simply asking Bagley who he wanted to draw, as he they go pretty damn deep into the DC character catalog, and a Danger Room training sequence at the beginning serves no purpose other than to put a bunch of villains on a page. After the year-long Trinity with Kurt Busiek, this story arc and his short-ish run on JLoA, I'm pretty sure that if Bagley didn't get to draw every single DC character, he at least got to draw his favorite 200 or so.

So, the plot.

Recently resurrected (See Blackest Night) Jade crash-lands on earth, encased in a big green crystal she tells us is actually the Starheart, the source of her father Alan Scott's Green Lantern powers (which DC readers will know, and exposition will remind us, is all of the wild or chaotic "magic" in the DC Universe given form by the order and science-obsessed Guardians of the Universe; a chunk of it was used to make Alan Scott's lantern and ring). The four-man JLA and Etrigan, The Demon converge on the meteorite and fight.

Meanwhile, Alan Scott and his son Obsidian's comatose bodies are drawn to the site, the JSA in pursuit, while Faust arrives to dump info: The Starheart's presence on earth is driving all of the world's magic users and elemental-based super-types crazy, possessing them and causing them to wreck shit ("elemental" is here a broad term, which provides Robinson and Bagley and excuse to pick whoever they want to fight, like the solar-powered Power Girl vs. the solar-powerd Supergirl, for example).

The Starheart ultimately possesses Alan Scott, who then goes to the moon, builds a big citadel out of his Green Lantern energy, which is patrolled by an army of energy constructs, and the score or so of heroes must figure out where he is, storm his castle, subdue his constructs, and figure out how to get the Starheart out of him without killing him. While also fighting seemingly random characters chosen from Who's Who in the DC Universe, like Naiad, Hougan, Blue Devil and so on.

It's not bad super-comics, really, particularly if you already know and care about a lot of these characters and their histories and relationships, although it's not hard to imagine readers who don't know or care about them finding it impenetrable. There's a Crisis worth of characters in here, and while Robinson manages to utilize most of the Leaguers and the main JSA characters, giving them each something to do specific to their power- or skill-sets, there are a lot of characters who appear for pretty artificial reasons (like Mister Miracle, who is there because of traps, which the omnipotent Starheart set for some reason), and plenty of other characters appear as little more than background noise, with no dialogue, introduction or reason to be there (Basically, all of the JSA All-Stars).

Additionally, Robinson was working in the Meltzer-established mode for this book, in which every character constantly narrates, which means large passages of it read like a Chris Claremont X-Men comic, only instead of thought bubbles, which are of course passe, everyone gets their own narration box, which is "dressed" like them.

Most of the information conveyed is there only to provide color that could just as easily be accomplished through dialogue or implied through action, or is completely useless.

Take, for example, Donna's and Starman's thoughts on fighting Power Girl:
Would putting "Have T--" and "So Fast, C--" in a thought bubble or dialogue balloon really have hurt? Or leaving them out entirely, what would that have lost, exactly? What is gained, by having them there, aside from adding a layer of unnecessary information to a panel?

While that's a cherry-picked example of how useless some of the information Robinson chooses to convey in this manner are, check out these examples, which border on self-parody:
Other than that, though, it's all pretty decent, provided prior familiarity. The story moves along at a fast, occasionally break-neck speed, and the panel lay-outs help keep that pace going; Robinson and Bagley use splash pages right, to emphasize big moments in the story, and find fairly inventive ways to spread images across spreads without wasting all of that space. There are times when the narrative moves left to right across the spread of two pages, instead of staying on a single page before moving to the next.

Bagley's style is about as different from George Perez's as you can get, but, like Perez, he excels at drawing crowds of heroes either standing around or doing heroic things, and he does a pretty fine job at distinguishing characters from one another, no easy feat given the abstraction of his character design (compared to Perez's). A lesser artist, or an artist who simply didn't possess Bagley's particular virtues, could easily have been broken by the story, but he not only survives it, he sells it on every page.

So, where did everybody go from here a few months later, when "The New 52" hit...?

Well, let's see...

JLoA lasted another few story arcs, "Omgea" drawn by Bagley and then artist Brett Booth joined Robinson to finish the book's run with a shitty "Return of Doomsday" tie-in and a "Rise of Eclipso" arc (which I haven't read yet, although it looks like Bagley didn't actually finish drawing it, based on the cover credits). It was relaunched with a new "Year One" type story by Chief Creative Officer Geoff Johns and Co-Publisher Jim Lee, to massive sales (and thudding critical reception; I read the first four issues, and they were some awful, awful comics).

JSoA lasted two more trades' worth of story arcs, Super Town (which I haven't read yet) and Monument Point (again, discussed last night). It and all of its characters, save Mister Terrific, were wiped out of the DCU, and are just now starting to be reintroduced in the book Earth 2, which sets them in an alternate universe parallel to the DCU, a la the Silver Age/Bronze Age conception of the team.

Robinson was MIA for a bit in the New 52, with DC releasing a Shade series he wrote that seems to be set in...both the pre-reboot DCU and the New 52iverse...? I don't know. Then his Earth 2 debuted, and he also penned the first issue of a Masters of the Universe miniseries for some reason, that DC is publishing for some reason.

Bagley left DC to return to Marvel, where he re-joined Brian Michael Bendis for some boring-looking movie-pitch comic that doesn't seem to play to his strengths, and Avengers Assemble, which probably does, but who knows...$4 for 20-to-22 pages of Bendis and Bagley and a bunch of ads for Spider-Man candy, fishing rods and bedding? No thanks.

Let's end on a positive note though, shall we...?

I like the way Bagley draws Wildcat costume, with droopy ears and whiskers:
Looks a little like he was caught in the rain. Also, it looks hairy, which would probably make for a pretty scary encounter. Like, guy in a cape dressed like a giant bat swooping out of the shadows on you? Yeah, that's scary.

Unshaven guy in a hairy cat suit running out of an alley or jumping off a motorcycle throwing punches at you? That's give-up-a-life-of-crime-immediately terrifying.

At one point in the story, siblings Jade and Obsidian become one being, an unspoken, creepy desire of Obsidian's that tended to radiate off the pages in a lot of their old comics appearances. They look kinda cool like that, though:
Particularly when in action:

Friday, July 27, 2012

Pre-New 52 review: Justice Society of America: Monument Point

This trade paperback collects the final five issues of the relatively short-lived Justice Society of America monthly, which relaunched as such in 2007, replacing the canceled JSA (which lasted 87 issues, from 1999 to 2006).

It was a Geoff Johns/Alex Ross joint, but once they left the book, it rather rapidly fell apart. Perhaps because DC was spreading the franchise too thin, splitting the cast between two JSA books, JSoA and JSA All-Stars, when the JSA aren’t really an X-Men or Avengers-like franchise. Perhaps it was because Johns and Ross are more popular than the JSA. Perhaps it was because once Ross and Jerry Ordway left, the book lacked a consistent, strong, appealing visual identity. Or perhaps because by that point, it was, like most of the DC’s line, dead in the water, a lame duck book awaiting cancellation and relaunch as part of the “New 52” initiative.

At any rate, these five issues are complete fucking mess; confused, inchoate and unpleasant to spend any sustained amount of time around. It’s kind of a shame; I feel bad for writer Marc Guggenheim, who must have inherited something of a mess, and clearly had a unique direction he wanted to go in...and never got the chance to go in (Several sub-plots are simply abandoned in the last issue, when he clearly had to wrap up his run, and all of post-COIE continuity, and a character rather randomly killed off, because, who cares, DC Comics was, at that point, over anyway).

And there are some talented folks involved. Darwyn Cooke delivers a few fine covers, covers which add to the visual cacophony, given how they look nothing at all like any of the art around them.
George Perez and Jerry Ordway provide some fine art, but it clashes horribly with the style of Tom Derenick, who draws a big chunk of the comics in this trade.

And while I generally liked Derenick’s pencils in the past, his art is downright repulsive here; seemingly inked and colored via airbrush. I found it pretty nauseauting, and for the life of me I can’t imagine why series editor Joey Cavalieri thought it would work on different chapters of a story that Ordway was drawing the rest of…unless he too succumbed to the “Aw, fuck it” attitude that clearly infected everyone working for or with the publisher as the “New 52” appeared on the horizon.
(Above: Derenick and Ordway draw JSA members)

I missed the first two-thirds or so of Guggenheim’s run, so I was a little lost at the beginning of things, trying to make sense of the fairly changed status quo.

The cast is still pretty large, and includes Kingdom Come import Lightning, whip-wielding Mr. America, the Kate Spencer version of Manhunter, Bule Devil (?) and completely new-to-me characters The Red Beetle (a woman wearing a red version of Blue Beetle II’s costume); buxom, white-clad healer Ri and Darknight, who looks like Batman without little bat-ears on his cowl.

They’re now based in a fictional city of Monument Point, where The Flash Jay Garrick is the mayor (and usually wearing a suit and tie with a lightning bolt pin on his lapel, without which he would be completely unrecognizable, because hair color and costumes are all any artists do to distinguish super-characters from one another).

And Green Lantern Alan Scott is now wearing a fairly crazy new get-up, which makes him actually resemble a big green lantern.
It took me a bit, but I think I actually kind of love it now.

The book’s fiftieth issue was an oversized anniversary celebration type of issue, divided into different “episodes” for some reason (that seem extra out of place in a trade collection like this, as one of the chapters is further divided into sub-chapters, while the others aren’t), each by a different artist.
The opening one is by Perez, and is a nice distillation of the post-Crisis conception of the Justice Society as the first generation of superheroes, the ones who ultimately inspired the “real” heroes of the DC Universe, the Silver-to-Bronze Age versions of Superman, Batman and their various Justice League peers.

It’s only ten pages long, but it feels longer with Perez’s panel-packed pages, and opens with bits of Superman, Batman and The Flash Barry Allen’s origins, and how they looked to various Society members for an understanding of what a superhero is, exactly, and more and more legacy heroes are introduced throughout the course of the super-short story, from a few pages of a young Hal Jordan fretting over becoming a member of the GLC until he joins Alan Scott on an adventures, to Aquaman climbing out of the ocean for the first time, to a panel of Ronnie Raymond and Courtney Whitmore.
I can see why the existence of a World War II era generation of superheroes preexisting in a fictional world before Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman could be perceived as problematic by some of the higher-ups at DC—it does seem somewhat artificial to give primacy to the also-rans; if Superman is the first superhero in the real world, why can’t he also be the first superhero in the DC Universe?—but it’s impossible to have the Big Three and the more “iconic” (i.e. the ones from Superfriends) versions of Flash and Green Lantern be eternally young and modern and pre-date their Golden Age counterparts without doing something as silly as having multiple versions of the characters on multiple Earths.

But if the choice is between Superman coming along a generation or two after Green Lantern Alan Scott and Starman or being a 90-year-old himself or banishing a bunch of the DCU’s best characters to a sub-universe, I think the pre-“New 52” way of having generations of superheroes works best. It gives the fictional DCU a longer, deeper, more detailed and exciting fictional history to go along with its fictional locales, and it allows for more characters for writers and artists to play with.

With the “New 52,” the decision seems to have been to wipe out all of the legacy characters (except the Robins, for some reason) and the existence of pretty much any character that might have existed prior to 2007 (Exceptions are seemingly limited to Etrigan The Demon and whoever’s in Demon Knights, and Jonah Hex and a few of the cowboy heroes). The result is DC lost not only a lot of history, but a lot of characters, with most of the JSA ones being recreated as “Ultimate” versions of themselves in an alternate universe (In this book alone, it looks like we’ve lost Cyclone, Courtney “Stargirl” Whitmore, Mr. Terrific II, Dr. Mid-Nite III, Jade, Obsidian, Silver Scarab, Red Beetle, Ri, Darknight, Lightning, Mr. America, Jesse Quick, Manhunter, Atomsmasher, Judomaster II and Citizen Steel. That’s an awful lot of characters, and while many of the original JSA members will likely be recreated in Earth 2—your Spectres and Wildcats and Dr. Fates so on—that seems like an awful lot of characters to lose just so Superman can claim “First!” on the cape and tights look in your fictional universe. I find that aspect of the "New 52" reboot pretty perplexing, as DC and Marvel seem to be transitioning into an IP farm business model, so de-creating a bunch of IPs seems...like something the publisher would seek to avoid, rather than leap into).

(Jeez, where was I…? Oh!)

“Episode 2” of issue #50 is drawn by by Freddie Williams II and follows time-traveling villain Per Degaton as he encounters a bigger, badder future version of himself, who repeatedly re-absorbs him from various points in his past adventures, allowing us to see brief appearances by Infnity Inc, the original version of The Crime Syndicate, the villains PD teamed up with in the early bits of All-Star Squadron and so on. That’s followed by a segment drawn by Howard Chaykin, recounting the time the House Un-American Activities Commission called the JSA in during the 1950s to bust their chops, and pretty much force them into early retirement. And for the fourth and final “episode,” Derenick and his new style arrive to bring us up to speed on the new, weird status quo of the JSoA.

The remainder of the book is devoted to the story arc “The Secret History of Monument Point,” in which Mayor Garrick learns there is a big, weird door deep beneath the city, which leads to a big, weird ancient city, which the Society and the Challengers of the Unknown team up to explore, and accidentally unleash a Kirby-esque giant monster god that seems a little too close to Gog, the Kirby-esque giant monster god that Johns and Ross and company pitted the team against in the opening arc of this volume of the title.

Meanwhile, some other villain has made Mr. Terrific dumb, a plotline Mr. T spends a significant amount of time dealing with, until it is simply resolved off-panel in the last issue, because the book was apparently canceled a lot faster than Guggenheim expected (Also going nowhere is a potential romantic arc between Dr. Fate and Lightning, which came on the heels of his rescuing of her from a weird Dr. Fate dimension in the 50th issue).

Derenick draws the first half of “Secret History,” while Jerry Ordway draws the second. Their styles couldn’t be less compatible; I vastly preferred Ordways', which was cleaner, crisper, flatter and more “comic book-y,” and thus vastly more appropriate for the old school heroes of the JSA (Even the newer characters like Stargirl and Terrific have some fairly old-school looking costumes compared to, say, anything Jim Lee has ever designed).
The monster god guy is ultimately only defeated when one of the Society’s most powerful members (Spoiler! It’s Alan!) sacrafices his life to destroy it. That would probably have been a big, dramatic deal…if DC didn’t reboot their universe the following month. Looking at the characters who are in attendance at Alan’s funeral, it appears that Terrific is the only one that still exists at all in the DC Universe—although Jay Garrick and the late Alan Scott have been recreated in a parallel universe within the New 52-iverse’s multiverse.

As for what became of these particular creators, Perez was heavily involved in the New 52, although not used very well—he wrote and provided lay-outs for the rebooted Superman, which didn’t work out so well, and he inked a few issues of the rebooted Green Arrow. He’s now drawing parts of World’s Finest.

Guggenheim and Derenick both seem to be MIA. And Ordway was responsible for helping Dan DiDio introduce a new version of the Challengers of the Unknown in the pages of the new DC Universe Presents title.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Two #11s from Geoff Johns

Aquaman #11 (DC Comics) This month's issue of the Geoff Johns-written, Ivan Reis-penciled Aquaman has almost as many inkers credited as you average issue of Green Lantern. That's perhaps because so much time was spent drawing shadows and details on splash pages of an ancient Atlantean throne room, which Johns inserts at least two of into his script.

His usage of splash pages on 20-page books—down, remember, from 22-page books in order to save on the cost of production—has long been frustrating, but here it is downright perplexing. There are three full-page splashes, and one two-page splash, which accounts for 1/4 of the page count devoted to just four-panels.

The panels chosen for the splash treatment aren't even significant to the story, necessarily; one could see the logic of choosing them were the things they revealed new or original to the story, but that is not the case. The first splash is the first page, showing Aquaman and The Others entering the aforementioned throneroom. The double-page is another image of the same room, only a bigger image of it, showing Black Manta and his men standing around in it, searaching for something. And the climactic splash page is a third image of the throne room, or, actually, maybe a second throne room connected to the first; it looks the exact same, and there's no indication that the characters have moved from one room to the next, but the figures in the statuary have changed.

The remaining splash page is used for the "first appearance" of one of The Others, the members of the retconned, pre-Justice League super-team Aquaman was a part of, but it's just his first appearance in this particular issue—we've seen him on covers and flashback scenes in previous issues—and he's not doing anything particular unusual or demanding of an entire page to get across or emphasize. He's just showing up. It would be like if they were doing doing a comic book about your life, and you got a splash page depicting your entrance into work.


Green Lantern #11 (DC) And speaking of Green Lantern and it's many inkers, this particular issue has five—count 'em!—five different guys inking Mahnke's pencils, including Mahnke himself and four other dudes, which works out to four pages per inker. To their credit (and Mahnke's, and colorists Tony Avina and Alex Sinclair), it's not readily apparent from the art itself that there's any problem with the production.

This particular issue isn't terribly eventful, as it mainly follows Green Lantern Hal Jordan and his frenemy Sinestro talking about what happened in the previous story arc, and the newly re-Black Lantern-ized Black Hand using his dead-raising powers to eat Chinese food with the reanimated corpses of his dead family.

Near the climax, there's a moment where our heroes see a jumble of images, granted to them by contact with a book of prophecy, and readers get a series of "previews" of upcoming Green Lantern events, as Johns has been doing in many of his books for several years now (Red Lantern Kyle Rayner! Atrocitus leading The Manhunters! Guy Gardner in jail, and sad! Black, Arabic-tattooed, gun-wielding ski mask Green Lantern! Et cetera!).

What most interested me about the issue is the reference in passing to Jordan, Sinestro and Indigo's plan to save the Green Lantern Corps and the universe. If I understood the explanation correctly, they are apparently going to forge purple "Indigo Tribe" rings for the Guardians of the Universe, and then forcibly stick 'em on the little blue tyrants' fingers, which would kinda sorta force 'em to feel "compassion," but it would in actuality brainwash them into being mindless, compliant guys in tribal body paint who say "Nok" in every sentence.

This is...strange. Because the just-concluded story arc was all about Jordan's struggling to free his archenemy from the influence of the Indigo brainwash ring. So Hal's plan is to inflict his bosses—who, to be fair, are a bunch of assholes who have inadvertently caused about 95% of the conflicts Geoff Johns has written about since he took over the GL franchise in 2005—with a fate he thinks is too cruel for his worst enemy, Space Hitler.

That is kinda strange, isn't it...? It's not just me...?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Review: Spider-Man/Fantastic Four

This four-issue, 2010 miniseries looks at Spidey’s relationship with Marvel’s First Family as it has evolved through the years, with each issue checking in at various points in the two franchise’s history and where they intersected, hanging untold stories in between told stories and forming an overall narrative goosed along by a time-traveling villain’s plot.

It bears a great deal of similarity to the 2005 series Spider-Man/Human Torch, which has the exact same remit, albeit that series focuses in on Spidey’s relationship with the Torch, with the rest of the FF merely playing supporting roles. The comic it bears the most resemblance to, however, is 2009’s X-Men/Spider-Man, by the same creative team of Christos Gage and Mario Alberti. The FF-focused sequel even used the same cover design as the X-Men mini when published serially.
The book opens “Years Ago,” less than a month after Dr. Doom fought Daredevil and the FF in their headquarters, which probably puts it in context to those who know FF history very, very well (a glance at the first page's worth of FF covers on comics.org seems to indicate it must be a reference to this 1965 issue). Doom is secretly visiting the campus of Empire State University to help negotiate peace treaties among his neighboring European countries, and he has insisted the FF provide security for him.

Why? It’s all a ruse to that he can switch bodies with the Human Torch. This being ESU though, Spidey shows up and, randomly but welcomely, Namor and the Atlantean army arrive to avenge themselves upon Dr. Doom.

On the last page, a mysterious villain in a green hood and cape who appears to be Doom (Spoiler: It isn’t!) arrives on the scene, to plot out loud. This villain then appears breifly in each of the following issues doing…stuff, until he reveals himself and his plot in the fourth issue, set in modern times, for a climactic battle.

In the next issue, it’s already the 1980s, and Spidey turns to Reed for help with his living black costume, which possesses Sue and Reed before ultimately being defeated. And then it’s the 90s, maybe, when there was a She-Thing and Spidey, Wolverine, The Hulk and Ghost Rider were the Fantastic Four for a little bit, and a Skrull gets fought, and Mole Man and the First Issue Monster hanging around too.

And then we get to the big villain reveal and it’s…easy enough to understand, even though I’ve never heard of the guy. He makes sense in the context of the overall story, which is the idea of the Fantastic Four as a family (hardly novel, I know) and whether or not Spider-Man fits into it, and how important family is to keep super-powered loners from becoming supervillains.

Gage’s writing is sharp and funny, and it no doubt helps that he’s dealing with some of the best-defined characters with the most unique voices in superhero comics—you have to try awfully hard to get, say, The Thing or Doctor Doom or Namor wrong, to have them say things that don’t sound like the characters themselves are writing their own dialogue (It can be done though! I’ve seen Brian Michael Bendis do it, for one!).

His invention of stories between other stories seems to work just fine, too . I haven’t read, let’s see, any of the stories these ones are built on top of, but they definitely felt as if they were part of a bigger narrative, without alienating me or punishing me for not having read all of the comics Gage has read.

I enjoyed Alberti’s artwork much less. He’s a strong artist, and one with a very individual, very present art style, but not one that necessarily fits with his subject matter. He’s certainly not an artist who does a Silver Age Marvel pastiche well, for example, and makes no attempts to do anything cute light calibrate his style to match the look of the various decades being depicted (Oddly enough, none of the characters seem to age at all either, but then perhaps that is due to the fact that Marvel’s timeline is constantly compressed).

He draws a pretty cool Venom-possessed Mr. Fantastic, all elongated and bendy, and he does fine work on a huge, strong and sexy She-Hulk and the finely detailed armor of Doom and…the other guy, but the guys with their name on the marquee? They don’t quite look like themselves, and perhaps it’s simply that he didn’t draw the series like I would have liked to have seen him draw the series, but it would have been nice if the art reflected the constantly changing settings in time and relative history in the same way that Gage’s writing did.

It’s certainly not a bad book by any stretch of the imagination, of course, but it’s not the first or second one I’d recommend to anyone who wants to read a trade paperback featuring Spider-Man teaming up with the FF.

Because it would simply be monstrous for Marvel to charge $15 for an 88-page comic, this trade also includes two issues worth of a "classic" Spidey/FF team-up from 1980 written by Bill Mantlo, with Mike Zeck and Jim Mooney drawing the half that was published in Peter Parker, The Spectacular Spider-Man and the half that ran in FF by John Byrne and Joe Sinnott. These mainly serve to demonstrate how off-model Alberti's versions of the characters are (not that Marvel or DC even attempt to have artists stay on-model anymore when it comes to character design), and how badly comic book coloring has devolved; the back-matter is so bright you can read it in the dark, while the 2010 storyline that fills the bulk of the book is so dark I got seasonal affective disorder while reading it.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What I (and pretty much everyone else who contributes to ComicsAlliance) thought of Dark Knight Rises:

Here.

(links)

This is maybe a little weird of me, but I couldn't wait to see the new Batman movie not because I was all that interested in the movie itself (I didn't like the first one, thought the second one was a bit of a wash, the bad Batman stuff essentially canceling out the good Joker stuff), at least not any more interested than I am in seeing any other movie in which Anne Hathaway appears, but because I really, really, really wanted to start reading reviews of the movie, but I figured I would end up writing one somewhere (and I did; I'll link to it tomorrow), and therefore I couldn't read any other reviews until I wrote my own, and I couldn't write my own until I saw the damn thing (I don't like to read reviews of things I'm gonna review, as I'm afraid of well-expressed and articulated opinions I agree with polluting my own reviews, and leading to some sort of inadvertent plagiarism).

Anyway, I saw it last night, and spent some time reading reviews today. I like this one the best, because Mr. Sean T. Collins spends so much time discussing the very best thing about the entire movie. I kinda wanna crack open a long box and sit around re-reading the "Knightfall" and other Bane stories, imagining all of his dialogue spoken in Tom Hardy's Bane voice.

********************

You know what's kind of weird? In a franchise where minor, one-off villains created to move a particular plot along, like Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle's Mr. Zsasz, become the focus of dozens of stories so other creators can avoid creating their own characters to gift to DC's IP crops, isn't it kinda strange that Bane's henchmen Trog, Zombie and Bird disappeared after "Knightfall"...? I don't even remember if they were killed somehow, perhaps by Bane himself, or The Joker; I just remember they played prominent roles in "Knightfall" and then I don't remember ever hearing form them again.

********************

Hey, here's a neat panel from Wolverine & The Black Cat: Claws II that I scanned but didn't end up using in my review earlier in the week:
I like that panel, and how the main characters replicate a common occurrence in so many Scooby-Doo episodes. (Well the two on the left anyway; I don't recall the redhead on Scooby-Doo using a blade all that often).

**********************

Let's talk about some naked ladies, shall we...?

*******************
Robot 6 recently interviewed photographer Scott Cole about a photography project he's been engaged in, recreating Tank Girl covers and poses using models. The results are predictably fun. And hot.

*********************
So during the week of San Diego Comic-Con International, naked lady website Suicide Girls posted a free NSFW gallery of model Radeo Suicide dressed as Batgirl.

Aside from the gallery's obvious virtues—a hot girl with cool tattos doing a strip-tease that ends with her naked—it's also useful in the way it demonstrates the way a human female looks when she's wearing a spandex superhero costume. Because there is probably not something quite right with me, I found myself staring at her the way her butt and girl-place and breasts looked in the costume, and thinking about the way superhero artists usually draw their superheroines' erogenous zones in superheroe costumes.

Based on this example, artists usually get the butt and girl-place right, but not the breasts. The bat-suit seems to squish them down, rather than wrap around them like some kind of super-support paint. I don't think I've seen anyone draw Batgirl's breasts the way Radeo's breasts look in this suit.

Also: The gallery reinforces just how terrifying a vigilante in a homemade Bat-costume looks compared to someone in a Hollywood movie costume. Like, someone wearing Alicia Silverstone's Batgirl costume, or any of the Batman movie costumes running out of an alley to jump on you? Not that scary.

But imagine someone running out of an alley wearing this costume and starting to pummel you in the face with her fists. That would be terrifying. Look at this maniac in the homemade Bat-costume! This beautiful, beautiful maniac! With the crazy eyes in the homemade mask! Aaaa!

Also also: Whoever added the Marvel-ous phrase in the mildly amusing sting ending of the feature, I don't think you're allowed to use a Marvel phrase in something featuring a DC heroine like this. It's considered gauche. That last panel though, the look on her face? Like I said; kinda funny.

*********************

I wonder if the next Batgirl artist will study the earlier images of this gallery, the ones where she's still wearing her costume, as a way to draw a better, more realistic Batgirl in...Oh, it's Ed Benes? Nevermind, then. I suppose he'll just draw the same naked, nipple-less Benes girl, with bat-ears and a cape, and the colorist can paint a Bagirl costume on her.

Wonder how long before DC cancels Batgirl now, or if DC's audience has warmed to the Simone/Benes team since the troubled last volume of the "Brightest Day" volume of Birds of Prey...?

*********************

The headline at The Onion's AV Club reads "Writer Darwyn Cooke talks Before Watchmen and creating strong heroines," which sounds like it might be a joke in and of itself, but this is AV Club section of the the parody newspaper; that is, the part that doesn't have purposefully funny fake headlines.

I suppose the headline is mean to refer to the fact that Cook is writing the Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre miniseries, although the Silk Spectre is a character he rather famously did not create (I don't know if you've heard anything about this or not, but it turns out the character was actually created by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and the former is somewhat displeased that he doesn't own this creation of his, and that people like Cooke are making comics featuring her).

After reading that headline and chuckling to myself, I stopped and though for a minute. Then another. Then one more, just to be sure, and gave up. Has Darwyn Cooke reated any female characters, strong or otherwise?

He did a decent Wonder Woman in New Frontier (although that was mainly a matter of character design; his characterization of her was of the pragmatic ultimate-warrior type that so annoys me), but she was created by William Moulton Marson. He wrote and drew some Selina Kyle/Catwoman comics, and redesigned her costume, but, again, that was the creation of Bill Finger and Bob Kane. I guess he wrote some of Will Eisner's Spirit girls during his run on DC's first 21st century The Spirit revival and...that's it, right? I honestly can't think of Cooke making any comics featuring original characters of any kind, let alone strong, female ones.

(To be fair, I guess that headlien could have been using "creating" to refer to writing dialogue and/or drawing pictures of pre-existing characters, but that's not really what it says, and there are better ways to write it to reflect that.

In a link to this article by The Comics Journal's Tim Hodler, Hodler writes,
[Cooke] also maintains that participating in the project isn't as bad as forcing children to starve. Which is true, but maybe setting the bar a little low?

Here's the entirety of the exchange in the context of the interview:

AVC: How did you brace yourself for the controversy that would come with the Before Watchmen announcement?

DC: I didn’t, really. I knew there would be a certain amount of it. In all honesty, I didn’t expect, “Poor Alan Moore.” I just didn’t expect that. So that sort of took me by surprise. I certainly expected people to have an opinion about whether this beloved material should be explored any further, and I believe that that’s a question, but it’s also a challenge that I’m happy to meet. All the stuff with Alan, I didn’t count on that or really give it much thought. It’s now an incredibly large issue. So, it is what it is. I guess the most important thing for me, and it’s funny because I have some friends in the business who I have an incredible amount of respect for, and they completely disagree with me on this thing. However, we all realize that we’re disagreeing about a comic book. Not about whether or not children should be allowed to eat. Not about whether we should be blocking the sun, so that Muslims don’t get any sun. We’re not burning the Koran. We’re producing a comic book here, and let’s keep it all in perspective.

Interviewer Oliver Sava then just goes on to ask his next question, rather than following up with, "You weren't expecting it? Are you an idiot? Do you not pay any attention at all to the industry you work in?"

Or even a, "Well, now that you're aware of it, can you see Alan Moore's point-of view regarding the project?"

**********************

San Diego Comic-Con International link! Popular Batman writer Scott Snyder will be following up on Tony Daniel's shock ending to last September's Detective Comics #1, in which the Joker had his fucking face cut off, in an upcoming story arc entitled "Death of the Family."

Here's David Uzumeri summarizing Snyder's take on The Joker:
Since the court jester's role in a king's court was to deliver the worst news to make the king stronger, this is how Joker sees himself, and he feels that Batman's forgotten the Joker's necessity and wants to "punish" him for it. He will "rape and kill and mutilate" to bring terror to the doors of Batman's friends.
That's right, he'll rape! Don't worry fans of "dark superhero comics", with "dark superhero comics" here referring to "as much like the average comic book consumer imagines a superhero snuff film might be like," the "New 52" isn't so new that they've excised all the raping.

You know, the two least Joker-y moments in the Joker's 70-some years of transmedia existence are probably that scene in All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder in which the yakuza tattooed Joker strangles a lady after having just had sex with her, and that scene in Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo's Joker graphic novel where The Joker and his men gang-rape the point-of-view-character's significant other just to show him whose boss.

So, uh, this news not only grosses me the fuck out, it also makes me wonder how badly Snyder's take on the character is going to suck.

This is the best part of the con panel report though, and perhaps my favorite bit of comics hype ever:
Regarding Detective Comics, the #0 issue is written by Dark Knight writer Gregg Hurwitz, and will deal with why Batman has problems with emotional intimacy.
Fuck yeah, it's the secret origin of Batman's problems with emotional intimacy! Don't like stories of The Joker raping people? Why not try Batman's sister book, wherein we'll be exploring Batman's issues with emotional intimacy.

I...

You know, sometimes I think I might no longer be in DC's target audience anymore. The times when I hear them announce things and parts of my brain explode.

You know, I wasn't planning on getting TEC #0, in part because I've already read it, in part because I'm pretty confident I'm familiar with Batman's origin at this point and in part because it's drawn by Tony Daniel, whose art I can't stand, but damn, the special "emotional intimacy" issue might be worth picking up after all.

Oh, and for what it's worth, DC didn't use the words "emotional intimacy" in their solicitation for the issue, but rather went with, "Discover how young Bruce Wayne learned to wield the martial arts, and how a major villain was introduced into his life."

*********************

Is this still uncollected? I would imagine DC would want all of it's Bane/Ra's al Ghul comics collected and ready for purchase by today.

**********************

This is the weirdest thing I've ever heard. (At least since I heard about Detective Comics #0, which would reveal the untold origin of Batman's problems with emotional intimacy).

They decided to make Barbara Gordon Nightwing in their goofy Smallville Season 11 comic book instead of the previously-announced-to-mainstream-media Stephanie Brown, because Barbara Gordon is the more "iconic" version of the character (Batgirl; Dick Grayson is, of course, the iconic—and only—version of Nightwing, except for Silver Age Superman in a handful of stories, and well, you get the idea).

This is in a comic book spin-off of the television show Smallville, the
show that went ten years without Superman wearing his Superman costume, or being called Superman; the show that introduced Supergirl and Superboy before it introduced Superman; the show in which Clark Kent doesn't wear glasses, The Flash is Bart Allen, Jaime Reyes is Blue Beetle and Batman is Green fucking Arrow?!

I wasn't aware that what was "iconic" had anything at all to do with Smallville and, for evidence, I suppose we could pick out, oh, say, any DC Comics character, from Lana Lang and Pete Ross to Martian Manhunter and Mr. Mxyzptlk, and 19 times out of 20, the producers of Smallville will have went with a version of the character that is about as far as is possible from the most "iconic" version.

The weirdest thing, though, is that DC announced the change after already making a kind of big deal out of the fact that Stephanie Brown was going to be Nightwing in Smallville. It just seems like...erratic behavior, really, and Exhibit #7,349 of DC flying by the seat of their pants, making shit up as they go, and never planning further ahead then, say, next week.

*********************

But don't listen to me, listen to Tom Bondurant. He writes about the issue more calmly, more elegantly and more persuasive than I ever could.

********************

Oh hey, here's Collins again, this time reviewing Batman: Earth One. I like the way he used the term "fancasting," which I've either never heard used before, or have and not noticed, and I'm glad he pointed out the "message about the redemptive power of torture and extrajudicial killing," of which there is far, far too much of in Geoff Johns' body of superhero comics work.

I don't even think he necessarily believes any of that, and I'm sure he'd laugh off comparisons to, say, the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib and having Green Lantern mow down villains or Batman torture out a confession, but given the existence of the former, I see no reason to continue to celebrate or glamorize the latter, arguing for their efficacy. Perhaps the latter doesn't lead to the former, but even still, it's tacky, and it would be nice if we had writers writing superheroes who were smarter than their opponents, rather than simply bigger, tougher, meaner or in possession of more firepower.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

EVERYTHING ELSE:

DVDs

Black Zoo (1963): Michael Conrad, played by a still quite young and virile Michael Gough, is a fairly well respected and charismatic owner of a private zoo, which he runs with his wife, a veteran of a circus chimpanzee act she still performs at the zoo, and his mute, adopted son.

At night, he lets the big cats out of their cages, plays organ music for them and talks to them like they are family members. He also occasionally visits a strange and unnamed cult that worships animals.

When pushed by, say, an arrogant developer who wants to buy his land, Conrad will sic one of his big cats or, on one occasion, a gorilla on the pusher, neatly solving his problem.

The movie poster somewhat over-sells the “kill lust” and the sexiness of the victims, but it’s a pretty clever concept for an old-school horror movie, and one I’m frankly baffled hasn’t been remade into a gory, R-rated thriller yet.

Gough’s performance is a dynamite one, and there are several very effective, very eerie scenes in which the big cats enter a room one by one, or, in another scene, make up a funeral procession through a lonely, foggy wood (you can unfortunately see where the edits were made in these scenes, as shots were glued together to give the impression of a procession, but it still works).

I like to imagine that before he became Batman’s butler, as a young man Alfred was apparently a maniacal zookeeper and animal-worshiping murderer.


Dinosaurs: Giants of Patagonia (2007): Donald Sutherland narrates this computer-animated documentary about a handful of dinosaurs and related species, united by their geographical origins and their enormous size. These are the sea-going liopleurodon, the flying Quetzalcoatlus, the giant sauropod the Argentinosaur and the carnivorous Giganotosaur (which Sutherland pronounces “Jig-o-no-to-saur”; I assumed it was “Jy-gant-o-saur,” because I am dumb).

It’s mostly Dinosaur 101 stuff, in the format of a modern animal documentary where various “characters” are given names and story arcs we follow them upon, with the most attention devoted to the Argentinosaurs and the Giganotosaurs that attempt to prey upon them.

There’s a pretty good “fight” scene, in which we’re shown how packs of the G-Rexes may have gone about trying to take down such giant herbivores, by nipping at them until they either bled to death or died of infection, while trying to avoid their crushing limbs and tails.


Double Dynamite (1951): Groucho Marx once joked that this comedy’s title was a reference to his co-star Jane Russel’s physique (The poster seems to bear out that theory). I’ve no idea where the title actually came from; the plot doesn’t seem to support it, whereas the title it was produced under—It’s Only Money—made a bit more sense, as the plot involves money, and Marx and Frank Sinatra share a song at one point entitled “It’s Only Money.”

Sinatra and Russel play bank clerks, neighbors and would-be spouses…if only they had enough money to get married on. Sinatra’s character lucks in to a small fortune in a bizarre chain of events that begins with him rescuing a gangster from a rival’s enforcers and ends with him being forced to bet on fixed horse races over and over again.

Coincidentally, his bank discovers someone has apparently been embezzling, and begins investigating all of their employees for anyone exhibiting sudden signs of new wealth, so Sinatra must hide his honestly ill-gotten gains, entrusting them to the couple’s friend, a waiter who works a the diner they visit daily, played by Marx.

Despite a lifelong affection, occasionally to the point of obsession, with the work of the Marx Brothers, I had never set out to track down any of their solo work, with this being my first experience with Groucho sans his brothers.

It’s rather strange seeing him play a more-or-less straight character. He’s sarcastic, wise-cracking and fearlessly insulting, but he seems somewhat out-of-place, lacking his regular foils and any opportunity to let his schtick run wild for longer than a sentence or two here and there. He also seems oddly out-of-place as the younger Sinatra’s confidant and best friend, more like a chummy uncle than a pal.

Oddly enough, the tone of the plot is barely serious, with a police dispatcher putting out an APB on Sinatra and Russell’s characters at one point, referring to the former as resembling Frank Sinatra and the latter’s weight being well-distributed. It’s just not as silly, or silly in the same ways, as your typical Marx Bros. fare (Groucho does seem more Groucho-esque here than he does in Room Service, though).


The Gorilla (1939): This was my first exposure to the Ritz Brothers, a minor comedy team, although it was neither them nor their co-star Bela Lugosi—playing a creepy butler—that attracted me to the film as much as the title character. I have, you may have noticed over the last few installments of this feature, been checking out a lot of gorilla movies lately.

In this one, a very wealthy man played by Lionel Atwill is being threatened by a mysterious killer known only as “The Gorilla.”

One dark and stormy night, his sole heir, Anita Louise, and her fiancĂ©e, visit. He’s hired private eyes played by The Ritz Brothers to protect him. Also on hand Lugosi, a sassy maid played by the lovely Patsy Kelly, and a few other suspicious characters, including a real gorilla, which looks every bit as real as the fake gorilla.

Hijinks—including the lights going out, secret passages, characters disappearing, mysterious cominques coming via letter and radio—ensue. There’s an admirable complexity to the proceedings, and Louise and Lugosi are both welcome film presences, but it’s nothing to go out of one’s way for. The Ritz Brothers all have the same on-screen persona—dumb, cowardly—and one is distinguished from the others mainly by being meaner to them than they are to him or to one another.


Grimm’s Snow White (2012): It’s been a pet peeve of mine since as far back as I was 15 and first saw Francis Ford Coppola’s 1992 film Bram Stoker’s Dracula when studios entitle literary adaptations with a possessive version of the author’s name…and then deviate in any significant way from the author’s original work.

In the case of Dracula, it might have been closer to Bram Stoker’s Dracula than Tod Browning’s classic 1931 Dracula, but there were some pretty dramatic additions to the story original to Coppola’s film, enough that calling it Bram Stoker’s seemed like false advertising.

This quick, cheap, direct-to-DVD release likewise uses the _______’s title convention while departing from the source material and, in this case, what a departure!

A prologue informs us that long ago an asteroid—a common concern in the European folk tales the Brothers Grimm collected in the 19th century—fell to Earth, containing a source of magical power and giving birth to both dragons and elves. The former guard the magical flame, while the latter wear cheap glass crystal jewelry through which they can somehow channel the power of the flame.

Not surprisingly, Grimm’s Snow White is from Asylum, the movie studio whose business plan apparently involves making movies based on trailers for popular, big studio movies, in the hopes of confusing gullible folks into accidentally renting or borrowing the DVDs, thinking they’re the real deal. This one, for example, seems to have been based on the trailer for Snow White and The Huntsman (Which we'll discuss in the next installment of this column).

They’ve made some pretty interesting creative choices here, beyond the involvement of asteroids and dragons.

Their Snow White, played by poor 20-year-old Eliza Bennett, is a blond, thus forfeiting one of the three defining characteristics of the character (skin as white as snow, lips as red as blood, hair as black as ebony). This snow white is also garbed in blue and white, which, with her hair, makes her more closely resemble another Disney heroine entirely.

This is also the first visual Snow White adaptation I’ve ever seen where the wicked queen is so clearly so much more fair than Snow White.
Bennett isn’t unattractive, but she’s somewhat bland in appearance, and looks like a girl you might have gone to high school with, or might pass at the mall without turning your head. The 38-yea-old Jane March, however, is stop-and-stare beautiful, and has a charisma one can feel through a screen. She plays the wicked queen, here named Queen Gwendolyn, and I kept wondering if perhaps they should have switched roles, given the fact that the plot is entirely driven by the fact that Snow White is supposed to be so much more beautiful than the Queen.

The Seven Dwarves are out, here replaced by four or five elves, apparently because plastic elf ears are cheaper than fake beards, and the human-sized elves are easier to film than making regular-sized dudes appear to be fantasy-style dwarves.

The plot is roughly similar to the one you’re familiar with from either the original or its many adaptations, except for the fact that there are “dragons” that look like long-necked komodo dragons—the same shot of one of them rearing up to attack being recycled more often than the background of Hanna-Barbera cartoon—who live in the woods, and there’s a big, epic battle at the end of the film, which involves a vast army of about 36 of the queen’s soldiers fighting Snow White and eight elves.

The whole experience made me very, very sad; it’s not often I see a bad movie and feel sorry for it and everyone in it and everyone associated with it, but this was such a film.


Melancholia (2011): The first eight minutes of director Lars von Trier’s apocalyptic film—in which beautiful, mysterious, fantastic and slow motion imagery involving colliding planets and an especially ethereal Kirsten Dunst play out while Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde plays on—are among the best eight minutes of film I’ve ever seen. I don’t think it can be stated strongly enough that no matter what the rest of the movie contains, von Trier’s Melancholia was already at that point a superlative, must-see work, as beautiful as film-making gets.

The rest of the film, while often hard to watch—it’s a hard movie to recommend, because while I loved it, the taste, patience and mood of any potential viewers will likely dictate to what degree they enjoy it—is a great one, even if it never quite regains the heights of that phantasmagorical visual overture.

Divided neatly into two sections, the film chronicles in exhausting, exasperating detail the elaborate wedding of Dunst’s Justine to poor, badly facial-haired Alexander Skarsgard, which is being thrown by her well-to-do sister and even-better-to-do brother-in-law, played by Charlotte Gainsbourg and Kiefer Sutherland.

It quickly becomes apparent that something is terribly, terriblly wrong with Justine—well, with everybody, just as it is in real life, but the thing wrong with Justine is harder to hide than the things wrong with most of the other characters—and we watch her as she tries to struggle through depression to make everyone else happy for one very long day and very long night, and ultimately fails.

During the second part, the now very-sick Justine movies in with her sister’s family, in the same house the wedding was in, and we watch as Gainsbourg tries to nurse her back to health. It’s as realistic a portrayal of depression—with all it’s most terrifying aspects—put to film as I’ve ever seen, or would want to see.

Meanwhile, a newly discovered runaway planet with the unlikely name of "Melancholia" is barreling toward Earth, the scientific community (and Sutherland) confident it will pass harmlessly by, while others (and Gainsbourg) think it’s going to collide and end the world.

Von Trier and Dunst explore the juxtaposition between a complete void, a cessation of life that comes from deep within oneself, with that which comes from the heavens, as strong a contrast between the interior and the exterior as you can imagine. Likewise, the feeling of the end of the world is played off of the actual end of the world.

I’m not prepared at this moment to definitively state this is the best movie I’ve ever seen or anything, but I must confess that I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen one this good.

In fact, it was so good that I made it all the way through without ever once letting the runaway planet bit remind me of the premise of Thundarr The Barbarian, the 1980 cartoon set 2,000 years into a future after “a runaway planet hurtling between the Earth and the moon, unleash[-ed] cosmic destruction,” giving rise to “a new world of savagery, super-science and sorcery.” Why, not until this moment did I dare fantasize about Melancholia 2: Justine the Barbarian, in which Kirsten Dunst dons a fur tunic with a neckline plunging to her belly, pitting her strength, her courage and her fabulous sun sword against the forces of evil.


Pray For Morning (2006): A group of high school students, including EDILW crush object and 90210 star Jessica Stroup, plan to spend the night after a party in a local abandoned hotel, condemned and rumored to be haunted after five high school kids were brutally murdered in the mid-eighties, a crime that was never solved.

It doesn’t take very long before it becomes clear that the rumors of it being haunted are more than just rumors, and it quickly becomes an attrition-style horror movie, with the various kids—a fairly standard group of stereotype characters—picked off by a mostly-unseen ghostly force whose modus operandi is to crush them, limb by limb.

Writer/director Cartney Wearn wrings some pretty effective scares through a few of these killings, relying almost entirely on bone-breaking sound effects to get across the action, and there are also some surprisingly affecting scenes of a stressful, nightmare variety, as when a character will, say, run down a flight of stares only to find themselves back where they started, behind their companions, in defiance of what should be happening.

There’s a somewhat complex backstory, involving the ghost of a murderous magician, and one of the teens being the reincarnation of someone who ran afoul of the magician in his past life, at which point what horror is to be had gives way to tedium.

Still, it’s not the worst horror movie featuring Jessica Stroup I’ve ever seen. Not by a long shot.


She (1935): Producer Merian C. Cooper’s follow-up to his King Kong doesn’t have quite the reputation as its more popular predecessor, which in part explains why I’m seeing it for the first time in my mid-thirties, instead of having seen it, oh, once or twice a year since I was in grade school.

Based on H. Rider Haggard’s novels (several of which were smooshed together to provide the plot for this movie), it does bear some similarity to King Kong and other adventure films and narratives of the pre-war period, only instead of finding a giant, dinosaur-fighting gorilla at the end of their quest, here our heroes stumble upon a mysterious immortal woman and the strange culture she rules over as a goddess.

Randolph Scott plays our rugged American hero, Leo Vincey, summoned to England where his dying uncle and his uncle’s scientist best friend Professor Holly (Nigel Bruce, the Watson to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock) tell him about their crackpot scientific theories regarding immortality.

Scott and Holly journey into Siberia (rather than Haggard’s Africa) with the help of and a mean, greedy old guy with dog sleds and stuff and the mean old guys’ super-hot niece, Helen Mack (who, oddly enough, also starred in The Son of Kong and had a small role in His Girl Friday, one of my all-time favorite movies and one of the films that helped convince young Caleb to become a journalist when he grew up…a career that lasted him, oh, about six years).

After the party is whittled down by an avalanche, The Hero, The Professor and The Girl find the lost civilization and meet the titular lady, who is supposed to be pretty pretty, but is completely eclipsed whenever she has to share a frame with Mack.

The sets are pretty astounding, and there’s at least one awesome action scene, where our hero rescues the girl from being sacrificed and they flee through a great hall full of people in exotic garb with exotic weaponry.

Transplanting the action from Africa to Siberia struck me as a strange decision, but having now seen the film, I appreciate the fact that doing so somewhat divorces it from the often uncomfortable racial subtext (and just plain text) that permeates such Victorian-inspired European Heroes Vs. The Dangers of Africa scenarios.

The somewhat primitive culture that the queen rules over in She doesn’t seem inherently African…or Native American or "native" at all. It just seems like a weird, lost culture. I suppose the black and white presentation helps, too, as it’s harder to see people by the color of their skin when everyone is merely a different shade of gray.


The Son of Kong (1933): Speaking of Cooper, Kong and Mack…

So having seen the original King Kong, who would you say is the star of the film? The rampaging title character, who dies at the end? Ann Darrow, the aspiring actress played by Fay Wray, who ultimately tames and dooms the beast? John Driscoll, Darrow’s suitor who risks life and limb to rescue her from Kong both in the monster-filled jungles of Skull Island and the heights of the Empire State Building?

Well, in this ill-starred, quickie sequel, the filmmakers chose to follow explorer, filmmaker and showman Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong), whose supporting role in the original film was mainly one of necessity, moving the action along so that hero, love interest and monster could all meet one another, and play out one of film history’s most bizarre love triangles.

The movie picks up about a month after the events of the original film (and, remarkably, it was in theaters just nine months after the original was!), and Denham is holed up in a boarding house, desperately trying to avoid all of the members of the media and the various servers who are leveling lawsuits at him in the wake of Kong’s New York rampage.

To escape, he teams up with the captain of the boat that took him to Skull Island in the original film, and starts a very unsuccessful shipping business. A series of coincidences send them back to Skull Island in search of a treasure said to be there, this time accompanied only by a Chinese cook, a bad guy with the bad guy name of Hellstrom (who was the man who originally sold them the map to Skull Island) and Helen Mack’s Hilda, who ran a monkey circus show with her father.

The film takes forever getting them all to Skull Island, which seems to be simply a stalling tactic, or a money-saving one—surely the filmmakers didn’t think the audience who lapped up King Kong wanted to spend time with the Denham character instead of seeing a gorilla getting into dinosaur fights, did they?

When the characters do finally make it to the island, their stay is relatively short and uneventful, and the film ends there—no attempts are made to bring Kong’s son home to civilization this time.

That son is named by “Little Kong” by Denham, and he’s much smaller, much sillier and much more friendly than his dad; his interest in the humans seems motivated more by friendliness than interspecies lust. He’s also lighter in color; the color cover of the DVD I watched gives him golden hair, while the black-and-white film makes him appear to be either white or very light gray.

Rather than save the humans by fighting a therapod as his dad did—and usually does in later adaptations and riffs—Little Kong fights a more size-appropriate cave bear. It’s a neat sequence, and a pretty fun fight, although it’s certainly more silly than scary, in keeping with the rest of the film.

The other monsters that appear, all created by the original film's Willis O’Brien, are a Styracosaurus, an Elasmosaurus and a Nothosaurus, only the last of which Kong has to fight.

The film climaxes with the sinking of Skull Island, which takes Little Kong with it, which would seemingly put the kibosh on any plans for a third Kong movie.

Before actually sitting down to watch this, I never understood why no one ever tried making any more Kong movies, with the original being remade twice, but Son never being remade at all. Now I see it’s not so hot a film, even among giant gorilla films (1949’s Mighty Joe Young is far superior, if you ask me, even if Mack is something to stare at, and the bear vs. gorilla brawl is pretty cool).

If Peter Jackson or someone were to make a sequel to the 2005 King Kong—during production, they released an April Fool’s Day announcement that they were going to make a sequel in which King Kong’s son would fight the Nazis which sounded awesome—I imagine they’d be better off starting from scratch rather than seeking to use this as source material.


BOOKS


Primeval: Shadow of the Jaguar by Steven Savile (Titan Books; 2008) Immediately after watching the final season of the TV show Primeval, I was feelign pretty bereft and, in my grief, was desperate to continue the Primeval watching experience anyway I could. I suppose I could have just rewatched the show from the very beginning, but What the hell, I thought, why not try out one of these novels based on the show?

The answer should be obvious—because they're not very good, self.

This was written and published several years ago, I think fitting somewhere between the end of the first season and the beginning of the second, based on the characters who are most prominently featured—the original cast of characters, essentially, although after the point where the ARC is established and Lucy Brown's character Claudia Brown had been transformed irrevocably into Jenny Lewis.

The medium allows us inside the heads of the characters in a way television does not, and yet Savile can't reveal too much, because anything major and relevant happening in their lives, exterior or interior, will have either happened in the show itself, or will happen in the show. The result then, is that we spend a lot of time in the various characters' heads—written from an omniscient point of view, each character and plenty of others take turns being the protagonist and point of view character in different scenes—but we only get to know them superficially.

The plot deviates rather extremely from that of the television show, however, as the characters are sent to investigate the very first anomaly to have occurred outside of the British Isles (in future episodes of the show, this would happen again for the first time, so this novel doesn't seem to be "canonical," at least within the Primeval show's writer's room), and a hard-to-swallow coincidence prods their investigation.

The anomaly occurs in a South American jungle, where the creatures—neither the jaguar of the title or the saber tooth cat on the cover image there—attack the sons of a British government official who pressures James Lester to try and recover them.

These creatures are several in number, and of two different species—one from the past, one from the future. There's an awful lot of espionage and fighting, conducted by the military men assigned to our science heros', and because the focus shifts so thoroughly to them at times, the novel seems to become an airport paperback, action movie-like experience.

Basically, it didn't really replicate the experience of watching the television show, even when you adjust your expectations to compensate for the differences in media, nor did it seem to be striving very hard to do so.

I might try the other novels at some point in the future though, as each is written by a different writer, so perhaps it was simply Savile's approach that didn't make this the Primeval methadone I was hoping for.


PICTURE BOOKS


Bugs Galore by Peter Stein and Bob Staake (Candlewick Press; 2012): Given that it’s illustrated by the great Bob Staake and its overall high quality, I’d save this to cover in my next “Children’s Books of Note” column, but the legalese in the back was so thorough as to scare me away from scanning anything at all from it, so I’m just going to briefly mention it here.

Check it out:
No part of this book may be reproduced, transmitted, or stored in an information retrieval system in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, taping, and recording, without prior written permission from the publisher.
There’s not even anything about an exception for review purposes!

So this is a book about bugs, with four rhyming lines describing bugs on each page, and each pair of pages being a big spread in which a pair of big roundheaded children interact with an astounding variety of mostly invented species of insects, worms, spiders and other creepy-crawly types.

The bugs are all beautifully designed, and quite numerous. Few seem to be drawn to resemble actual bugs, but rather the ideas of bugs, and so they will have, say, four legs, or no legs but two arms, or 20 legs, and be segmented in strange ways.

They are almost all cute, and quite designer-ly; I like the ones that are supposed to be centipede-esque, although none of their segments actually connect, with space between each of them. There are also quite a few bugs that look like refugees from Golden Age of animation cartoon designs, with canes, top-hats and five o’clock shadow.

Among the many Staake bugs are several bugs and flowers that are drawn in a completely different style, and look like they were made by children, a whole classroom’s worth of children, and then digitally shrunk and added into the overall piece, so that, say, one in every 12 bugs will look out of place, but they are so small and so small in number, you have to hunt for them.

And that’s the great pleasure of this book, hunting for all the bugs in it. Next time you’re in your local library, look for this book, and then look at it and in it.


Listen to My Trumpet by Moe Willems (Hyperion; 2012): In Willems’ latest Elephant & Piggie book, his starting-readers series featuring Gerald the elephant and Piggie the piggie, Piggie gets a new trumpet, and subjects Gerald to an impromptu concert.

This allows for Willems to spend half of the book drawing Gerald with increasingly nervous, embarrassed and anxious expressions, as Piggie doesn’t play the trumpet very well, and to fill the large white spaces on each page with bright, cleverly angled and executed dialogue bubbles emanating from the trumpet.

Like all 5,000 or so of the books that have preceded this one in the series, Listen to My Trumpet! is, of course, great.

I wanted to post an image from it though, as it’s such a representative image of how good an artist Willem is.

I’ve talked a great deal in the past about his mastery of facial expressions and how he does so much with so little. Well, check out this drawing of Gerald, lying flat on his back (after Piggie has thrown him from his stool with “the big finish,” which includes seven trumpet blasts, the biggest of which is “Blaz-zap-Blap-BLONK!):
Look at just how flat on his back Gerald is! Even without anything save a white void to draw on, Willems flattens and straightens his character out on the floor or ground, spreading him perfectly there...even though there is no there there, beside the one the artist implies.

These books make me wish I were eight-years-old again. Not simply because they are so fun and funny that they make me feel like a kid reading them, but because I wish I was exposed to such a great example of great illustration work when I was first starting to learn to draw.


Mr. Nervous by Roger Hargreaves (Price Stern Sloan; 1976): This entry into Hargreaves “Mr. Men” series features a pink-ish, pyramid shaped man whose very shape reflects shivering, whose eyes are two big, bland empty sockets of vacant shock, and whose mouth is always open in silent shock.

You’ve got to give it to Hargreaves: When he’s on, he’s on, and this design is perfect; the super-simple cartoon character he crafted to depict nervousness says “Nervous” just as eloquently as a pure visual as anything in the text does.

Mr. Nervous, we learn, “was frightened of everything and anything,” and this constant state of fear, which we would now diagnose as extremely pronounced case of generalized anxiety disorder, has severely, negatively impacted Mr. Nervous’ life.

He lives “as far away from anybody as he can…miles and miles from anywhere.” When a falling autumnal leaf gently brushes against the sleeping Mr. Nervous’ window, he awakes with a start and immediately jumps to the worst possible conclusion, thinking that his house must be falling down due to an earthquake and/or the end of the world (In psychobabble, he’s “catastrophizing”)

He wastes an hour of his day in bed, afraid to get out of it (This story is heartbreaking!). He has several similar experiences getting breakfast, going for a walk, and meeting a talking worm (Although, to be fair, a worm talking to you is a legitimate cause for concern.

Eventually, he’s walking through a meadow, when what should he discover but a giant hobo:
Hargreaves’ text refers to him as a “vagabond,” but we know better. Bindle = Hobo.

I was somewhat taken aback by the giant hobo’s size (giant hobos, by the way, are another legitimate thing to be nervous about; in fact, giants of any kind are generally worrying). This was my first “Mr. Men” book, so I didn’t know if maybe the Mr. Men, and their female counterparts the Little Misses, were tiny in size. But the next one I read (see below) featured another human character, and it as the same size as the Mr. Man in it.

So either Mr. Nervous is tiny, about the size of a mouse, or that vagabond is a giant, in which case I don’t blame Mr. Nervous for fainting when he encounters him.

Anyway, the hobo imparts some wisdom to Mr. Nervous:
“I used to be nervous like you,” said the vagabond, “but I learned how not to be! Would you like me to tell you the secret?”



“It’s very simple,” continued the vagabond. “All you have to do is count to ten, and you’ll find whatever is frightening you isn’t quite so frightening after all!"
Well, it should come as no surprise that this works for Mr. Nervous, and, after testing it out, he becomes “a changed man,” able to relax and smile and only very, very rarely hide under the bedclothes.

He’s still kind of lumpy by the end of the book, but he’s not quite as jiggly (the English name for this character and this book, by the way, was “Mr. Jelly”), and his “The Scream”-like, gaping moan of existential dread has become a broad smile.

What is surprising is that the hobo’s advice is actually very good advice in the real world, too! I’ve read several self-help books about dealing with anxiety (“bibliotherapy,” in psychobabble), and several recommend counting slowly to ten while taking deep breaths when one feels an anxiety attack coming on. In fact, one recommended the technique as the easiest one anybody could do, as by breathing deep and slow for ten breaths, you’ll slow your body down, which will immediately combat the physiological effects of anxiety, whether you are convinced/believe the technique will work or not.

Mr. Nervous: Great character design, great advice and also a giant hobo.


Mr. Worry by Roger Hargreaves (Price Stern Sloan; 1978): One might think that it would be redundant to have both a Mr. Nervous and Mr. Worry among the Mr. Men, but Hargreaves has created several such characters that seem to overlap in certain places. Looking at the back cover of this book, for example, I see there’s a Mr. Silly and a Mr. Nonsense, a Mr. Grumble and a Mr. Grumpy and a Mr. Cheerful and a Mr. Happy. The distinction between a character defined primarily by his worrying and another defined primarily by his nervousness might seem somewhat subtle, but worried and nervous are different states of being.

Worry’s design isn’t as strong as Nervous’, in my opinion. He has the orb-shaped body of many, perhaps most of the Mr. Men—Happy, Silly, Noisy, Funny, Impossible, Mischief, Wrong and so on—and is entirely colored blue, save for a bulbous red nose. He has a few strands of wavy, scraggly-looking hair pasted to the top of his orb, and his mouth is generally either invisible, or in the shape of a worried “O.”

His deal, of course, is that he worries. A lot. Too much.

“Poor Mr. Worry,” Hargreaves introduces him. “Whatever happened, he worried about it. If it rained, he worried that his roof was going to leak. If it didn’t rain, he worried that all the plants in his garden were going to die.”

Like Mr. Nervous, Worry’s quality of life seems to be severely hobbled by his condition, as his worries dominate his life. He can still function—he lives near other Mr. Men, each of whom he worries for in some way or another—but dwells on negative thoughts. I believe the people who write psychological self-help books would call these racing or repeating thoughts.

One day Mr. Worry meets a wizard (Which Hargreaves relates in this beautifully straightforward sentence: “He met a wizard.”)

The wizard, like the hobo in the previously discussed book, is also a human being, but he is the same size as Mr. Worry, which means that hobo was either a giant hobo or this is a tiny wizard.

The wizard instructs Mr. Worry to go home and write down every single thing that he's worried about, and that he will then “make sure none of these things ever happen.”

Worry does so, and ultimately presents the wizard with a list that Hargreaves draws in the same manner that artists generally draw Santa Claus’ list: One long, snaking, coiling scroll of a list.

From that day on, Mr. Worry only has one thing to worry about, but that’s the puchline of the book, so even though the book is older than I am, I probably shouldn’t spoil it. It’s worth noting that this list-making is also a good, real-life strategy for dealing with one’s anxieties—the first step in addressing any problem being naming that problem, after all—and while this story has more of a jokey ending than Mr. Nervous, it’s still a pleasant exercise in watching a cartoon of a character confront and partially excise a cripplingly negative mental problem.


Such a Silly Baby! by Steffanie & Richard Lorig and Amanda Shepherd (Chronicle Books; 2008) This is the story of the very worst mother in the whole world, who takes her baby to a different outing every day—the zoo, the circus, a farm—and on each occasion she accidentally leaves her baby there, taking an animal of some kind home instead, thinking it is her baby.

I could see maybe mistaking a small chimpanzee (which Shepherd draws as monkeys) for a baby, but a dancing bear? A buffalo?

The story is told in rhyming verse, and each mix-up ends with,
Well, I went back the very next day.
I found my baby right away.
My babe was pleased as he could be,
And this is what he said to me:
Followed by a series of animal noises, which grows with each encounter, followed by “I’m such a silly baby!”

Shepherd’s artwork is quite attractive (it’s what got me to pick up the book in the first place), and I’m sure young children will like having this book read to them, given all the opportunities to be loud and noisy that come with it, but me, I’m calling children’s services.


AUDIOBOOKS


The Black Banners: The Inside story of 9/11 and the War Against al-Qaeda by
Ali H. Soufan and Daniel Freedman:
This is one of those books that one sees more and more in these post-9/11 days then one saw before, wherein the book is apparently very thoroughly vetted by various intelligence agencies, and given an okay by them, and then the publisher goes ahead an puts the book together, laying out which words and which paragraphs appear on which pages, and then the agency comes back and changes its collective mind, and asks for loads of information to be redacted, but it's so late in the book-publishing process that the publisher has to just go ahead and publish it as it was laid-out, only with black bars over it.

Listing to the audiobook version, read by Neil Shah, the results are...somewhat surreal, as he will say either "blank" or "redacted" when he gets to something that has been redacted; generally the former when it's just a word here or there, and the latter when it's a whole section.

At certain points, particularly when we get to the point in Soufan's story where the U.S. agencies, preseumably either the CIA and/or a Department of Defense-affiliated intelligence agency, is participating in "enhanced interrogation"/torture—either by conducting it or by watching it occur in a country in which it is more legal—it can sound silly enough to be almost comical, as in "Blank turned to blank and blank and said blank."

It's a surreal experience, listening to the story and trying to figure out what the blanks are there for. One sentence, for example, refers to a "blank" in the corner, and in the next sentence the "blank" is referred to as a snake...so readers/listeners are allowed to know there was a snake in a facility where enhanced interrogation was going on, but not the species? So it must have been a species that someone who knows about snakes would be able to place geographically...?

In other scenes, it seems as if Soufan was made to take all of the personal pronouns out—the I's and me's—and replace them with "blank" over and over, because it is clear he is on the scene and witnessing things, but the person's identity is never revealed by a pronoun, so, if it wasn't him, it was the reader/listener, and the book avant garde-edly shifted into second-person narrative for some reason, or Soufan suddenly decided to stop using pronouns, and just use the person's name over and over again, as in "John Smith couldn't believe what he was seeing, 'Are you kidding John Smith?,' John Smith said."

Anyway, this is the story of America's initial battles with Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden, told by a former FBI interrogator, who was an Arab-American, a Muslim and who spoke Arabic and understood Middle Eastern culture. That he's not still with the FBI is a kind of tragedy in and of itself, as his is the sort of resume you'd think we'd want fighting terrorism.

Soufan was involved in the investigation of the U.S.S. Cole bombing and, later, interviewed suspects involved in the 9/11 plot. He worked with the late John O'Neil, who was one of the main "characters" in Lawrence Wright's must read The Looming Tower (which Soufan was apparently interviewed with), and it's actually kind of fascinating to see the overlap between the accounts of some of those events told here from a different but complementary perspective than they were in Looming Tower.

The interrogation sequences are bravura pieces of writing; it's downright shocking how intense and suspenseful these are, and telling that they aren't the sort of thing you could see in, say, a television show or movie, because they would take too long to play out. That fact is, I think, an important one, because, as Soufan forcefully argues and successfully demonstrates, interrogations take a very long time and involve a great deal of subtle mind games in order to produce results, and the stuff you see in the movies and television shows, the stuff involving good cop, bad cop and threats of violence or actual violence, don't work, yet everyone—including a depressingly high number of people involved in law enforcement and terrorism-fighting, if Soufan is to be believed—think the Hollywood approach works, because they've seen it work so many times. In movies and on TV.

There's a lot of sad and infuriating stuff in here, much of which you've probably heard elsewhere, some of which is new, and while the scope is smaller than Tower, it's also more focused, and the interrogation sequences are as thrilling as any make believe prose I've ever read.

Here's Soufan being interviewed about the book on The Colbert Report, an appearance he devoted to talking about torture vs. mind games in interrogation, which makes for a better overview of Soufan's career, accomplishments and point of view than I can in a few poorly-written paragraphs. I think it's important to keep in mind that Soufan isn't making any kind of political or moral argument against torture, he's attacking its efficacy: It just doesn't work.

You guys should read it. Or at least listen to it.