Tuesday, September 30, 2008

(A long, meandering) Review: Prince of Persia

I would tell you that most comic books based on videogames are complete trash, but it would be more conjecture than informed opinion, as I don’t read very many comics that are based on video games, due to the fact that they look like complete trash.

Sure I was kinda curious about the old Daredevil team of Brian Michael Bendis and Alex Maleev doing Halo comics for Marvel, or Walt Simonson writing World of Warcraft for DC/WildStorm because they seem like weird endeavors for such name talents, but having no knowledge or interest of those games I never checked them out. I tried a Castlevania comic a while back and it was awful; I saw a new trade based on the property in shops last week, but didn’t even flip through it. I could never even get past the covers of the old Tomb Raider comics.

The only based-on-a-game comics I’ve actually stuck with for a while were the Darkstalkers comics (first from Viz and later from Devil’s Due), which were pretty terrible*, but I had some affection for the game and the character designs, and the Tokyopop Kingdom Hearts manga, because I thought the game looked really cool, and figured reading a comic based on it would be the next best thing to playing it. It wasn’t that great either, but it was still kinda fun to see all the Disney characters interact in an adventure story.

As to why comics based on videogames tend to not be very good (and/or look like they aren’t very good), I don’t know if it has something to do with the essential differences between the interactivity of the original medium vs. the passivity of comics (similarly, movies based on videogames tend to be terrible**), or if it’s because publishers who gain licenses of popular games tend to assume the license alone will sell the book so why bother making it good, or if maybe it’s mostly in my head and comes from my own antipathy towards videogames, having never made the jump from sidescrolling games to the 3-D looking immersive games with all the buttons on the pads (I think the Super Nintendo was as far as I followed videogames on their evolution…?).

If we were to ignore all comics other than those based on videogames, however, to pretend that when we said “comics” we just meant “comics based on videogames,” then First Second’s Prince of Persia is Watchmen. Combined with Maus.

Prince of Persia is yet another videogame that I knew next to nothing about, beyond the fact that it must have been pretty popular since it had at least one sequel and was going to have a movie based on it. That, and that it sufficiently distracted one of my old roommates that he played it for what seemed like four or five days straight.

The cover of the First Second graphic novel sure seemed to set it apart from most video game comics; there’s the titular prince, running like the star of an old-fashioned sidescroller, above a triptych of images: A strange-looking bird, an exotic princess in a come hither pose, and an army of guys on horses waving scimitars.

The title is in shiny gold, upraised letters, sprinkled with little star-shaped holograms. It’s kinda cheesy, but a neat kind of cheesy; tilt it under the light, and the logo gets all magical on you. I was amused to see beneath the words “Prince of Persia” the words “The Graphic Novel,” I guess so that readers won’t become confused and think they were playing a handheld videogame with archaic graphics while reading…?

In smaller font, across the top are the somewhat portentous words “From the creator of the legendary games—the legend itself.”

But it’s the imagery and format that is most striking: This isn’t your traditional American licensed comic book, released as a four-to-six-issue story arc to be collected and re-sold in a trade later—it’s an original graphic novel. The art isn’t poor man’s superhero art, but an honest-to-goodness art comics cartooning style. A glance at the cover is all you need to know that First Second is taking this book seriously.

The credits are a little on the murky side, at least at the top. Original game creator and designer Jordan Mechner gets a “created by” credit, although he doesn’t seem to have done any of the writing of this particular story (Based on his extensive afterword, I got the sense that he played a sort of producer-like role with the graphic novel, but I’m not sure).

It’s written by Iranian born A.B. Sina, and drawn by the art team of LeUyen Pham and Alex Puvilland (the former a children’s book illustrator, the latter having worked for Dreamworks animation), and their work is beautifully colored by Hilary Sycamore.

The story they tell is a surprisingly, refreshingly complex one, with none of the markings of an origin in a game of any kind—while there’s plenty of action (When a lion lunges at one of the titular princes, dude cuts him in half from face to tail with a sword!), it’s all dramatic in nature; there’s no running and jumping about for the sake of running and jumping, no levels to clear or bosses to fight. Scott Pilgrim operates on arcade logic to a far greater extent than this book with actual arcade origins***.

Sina seems to circumvent the source material, or at least the most recent reflections of that source material, instead reaching back to the types of stories that originally inspired Mechner in creating the franchise: Legends from his own culture, 1,001 Arabian Nights fairy tales, Hollywood orientalism exotica. And it’s this inspiration that he weaves into a story that is very much about story, and the way stories from one generation can powerfully affect others.

Prince of Persia is set during two different centuries, the ninth and the thirteenth. In the ninth century three great friends Layth, Guiv and Guilan were inseparable, and were all considered the prince of their city Marv. As they grew older, Layth married Guilan, and he became the ruler of Marv, while Guiv, Guilan’s brother and the true heir to the throne, was cast out of the city—in part for perceived betrayal, and in part to avoid bloodshed from an outside army that wanted Layth on the throne. Guiv lived among the ruins with a monstrous magical talking bird and strange visions and later an army of lions (And did I mention he totally cut a lion in half? Or that he swordfights an army of skeletons that look all Harryhausen-y? Because he does.)

In the thirteenth century, a teenage girl named Shirin cuts her hair, escapes from her corrupt government official father’s palace, and poses as a boy until she falls down a well and meets Ferdos, a mysterious boy who lives in the same ruins Guiv once dead (and looks an awful lot like a Bruce Timm drawing of Paul Pope).

Ferdos makes drawings that tell the stories of the ninth century trio, and he and Shirin see the actualization of a prophecy made in Layth and company’s time. That prophecy informs the actions in their century, and Sina and company weave in and out of the two narratives throughout the entire book, so that the two stories climax at the same time. It’s an amazingly well constructed story, one that manages to withhold bits of important information until the precise moment where their revelation will have the greatest impact.

I can’t say enough good things about the artwork. It’s a highly illustrative, very comic-book-y looking graphic novel—the images are flat, obviously hand-made and hand-drawn, something I take greater and greater pleasure in these days when so many comics seek pseudo-photorealism through excessive photo reference and reliance on highly-gradiated computer coloring.

Sycamore’s coloring is smartly done, giving the panels the look of immaculate old-school 2D animation. There are delicate tones and observant decisions on what to color what when and why, but these are all in service to the lines of ink laid down, and do nothing to obscure or overpower them.

There are some showy techniques, like the soft lines of the magical bird that separates him from the world he walks through, and Pham and Puvilland’s switch to era-appropirate style when depicting events seen in Ferdos’ scrolls, or the juxtapositon of the two epilogues in vertical stacks of panels separated by flowing water, but it’s the panel-to-panel story telling and fine character acting that make the art so damn impressive more than any of these other more idiosyncratic strategies.

I implied that this was probably the best based-on-a-videogame comic I’d ever read, but that’s probably pretty feint praise, huh? So forget videogame comics then; this may not be the greatest comic comic period, but it is a pretty great one.

Or, to put it as simply as possible, Prince of Persia rules.

Mecher provides an eleven-page afterword focusing on the life of the “Prince” character, who was older and starred in far more games than I realized: Mechner conceived him in 1985 and he was in a game by 1989, and then a whole series of games, for the Nintendo, the Sega Genesis and the current generation of platforms I don’t understand. It’s a pretty fascinating piece of text, not just because it educated me on something that I was ignorant of or because it framed this graphic novel as a distillation of a story that had wound through centuries old fairy tales into Hollywood movies into Mecher’s childhood ambitions of being a comic creator into his career into videogames before reaching this point, but because it frames the story you just got done reading in a new and interesting way.

Mecher reminds us that there is no real prince of Persia, the characters in the games and the comic, in the old movies and old stories are all just iterations of some one, true prince lost to time; splintered aspects of some sort of Ur-Prince, shadows on a cave wall caused by the unseen prince walking before a fire.

In the graphic novel, there’s no definitive prince, but about five princes who are all the prince of Persia, and it’s there that I think this graphic novel bears the most in common with video games. They allow players—millions of them, over the course of almost a whole generation now, in the case of Prince of Persia—to at least temporarily become the protagonist, in a more immersive way then even the best fiction can.

You can read a comic or story or watch a movie about a prince and get swept up in the adventure, but it’s hard if not impossible to ever completely break the walls between character and reader and step inside them and become that character. But in a videogame, it’s as easy as pushing a button.

This graphic novel lets us follow the prince(s) without ever becoming them, of course, but it acknowledges that it’s a role open to many, rather than just one.

Just out of curiosity: Do any of you have any good based-on-a-videogame comics to recommend? If so, please do so in the comments section. I think I mentioned every one I’ve ever read, and I know there are plenty more that I never have, and probably aren’t even aware of.

RELATED: Hey, good timing! Michael C. Lorah interviewed most of the creative team for Newsarama.com, and asked Mechner about some of the things I wondered about while reading. You can check out the interview here.

*Although the Devil’s Due comics did feature some pretty cool gag back-up stories.

**You know what was completely genius though? Putting Dennis Hopper in bright blonde cornrows and a business suit to play the King Bowser character in 1993’s Super Mario Bros, where he held his his hands held like a T-Rex and kept referring to the heroes as mammals because he was a super-evolved dinosaur. That was awesome. The movie sucked, but I somewhat shamefully admit to having watched repeatedly due to my crush on Samantha Mathis.

***Okay, it was a home platform game not an arcade game, shut up I’m a Luddite I don’t care you know-it-all jerks!

Monday, September 29, 2008

John McCain secures his own daughter’s endorsement

There are a lot of really dumb, poorly illustrated and poorly written children’s books in the world and, fortunately, I haven’t read them all. So there’s no way I can say with complete certainty athat My Dad, John McCain is the absolute worst children’s picture books ever published, but, after reading it a couple of times, it sure is tempting to say so.

This is due in large part to just how incredibly pointless the book is.

Nobody young enough to be addressed by first-time author and 23-year-old professional campaign blogger Meghan McCain’s simple, declarative sentences is old or mature enough to be told John McCain’s life story which, even in this scrubbed up and sanitized version, prompts questions about one of America’s most horrible wars, and the horrors that occurred during it.

Nobody old enough to hear any kind of story about Veitnam deserves to be told such a scrubbed up and sanitized version of McCain’s life story, which omits everything unflattering about the man. This is, in a sense, an inappropriate campaign speech delivered by Meghan McCain, to people who can’t vote. (The storyline is roughly that of the biographical film that introduced nominee McCain at this years Republican National Convention, covering, as it did, McCain’s Navy experience and current run for the presidency, ignoring almost everything in the thrity-some years between).

And oddest of all, the book’s shelf life is only two months. It was released in early September, and covers McCain’s life right up until the RNC (which actually hadn’t yet occurred when it was published), ending with a cliffhanger: “It takes a great man to be president of the United States, and I know that nobody will work harder than my dad to convince people that he’s the right person for the job,” the last page begins, beneath a picture of McCain being showered with red, white and blue confetting and balloons.

But on November 4, this book will be completely out of date. McCain will either have achieved his life’s ambition and become president of the United States, necessitating a pretty major update to his biography, or he will be righteously crushed in a Barack Obama landslide, becoming a sad footnote in American history—the one-time war hero and longtime member of congress who lost an extremely bitter primary fight against George W. Bush, swallowed his pride and spent eight long years kissing his one-time foeman’s ass in the hopes of getting a second chance, and then lost again having incorrectly judge the mood of the American people over those eight years.

Not that the contents aren’t disagreeable on their own; it’s just rare to see a major book with such an existential crisis attached. In every presidential election, there are whole cottage industry’s of one-election-cycle-only cash-in book’s, but they tend to spend a bit longer trying to cash in, and, in many cases, have a potential longer shelf-life. Whether Obama becomes the next president or is merely a U.S. Senator, The Obama Nation will still be relevant (or as relevant to its intended audience as it ever was, I guess), but Meghan McCain’s “I hope my dad becomes president next month” book?

The “Why does this book even exist?” is particularly noteworthy, I think, because it’s not just by a small, fringe publishing house. It’s from a Simon and Schuster imprint.

The book is 28 pages long, and McCain’s prose is accompanied by graphite-on-bristol illustrations by Dan Andreasen, who has a rather long resume, including illustrations for some American Girl books and classic works of literature. The pencils are colored digitally, but have the effect of looking like colored pencils, giving the book a somewhat amateurish, air-brushed quality, a filter of unreality over realistic art.

This is no doubt underscored by the fact that the McCain we see is a younger, fitter, idealized version of McCain. The bulk of the book is set before his hair goes white, but even in the seven or so illustrations of his life set after the 1980s, McCain looks pretty un-McCain-like.

I don’t want to bash Andreasen’s work too badly here. It’s not very good, but, at the same time, it’s got to be hard to draw a McCain bio in this penciled-version-of-photorealism style. You don’t want the guy looking like the dessicated corpse of a gnome in a suit and tie that he looks like in HDTV and press photos, but you can only cover up so many wrinkles and bulges before the 2008 McCain ends up looking too much like the 1988 McCain.

The art consists mostly of wide, double-paged spreads, and the scenes shift from those of desk tops littered with photos and medals and props relevant to the time period to dramatizations of scenes from McCain’s life: There he is playing football (Holy shit, before faceguards were invented?!), there he is swimming away from a crashed plane, there he is sitting in a brown prison cell in Vietnam, there he is outside the capitol building, his head cocked like that off a puppy, for some reason.

As for Meghan McCain’s writing, it’s hard to evaluate beyond stating the obvious: I have no idea who this is supposed to be directed at, since it’s not fit for children or adults.

“There are a few things you need to know about my dad, and one of them is that he would make a great president,” she begins the book, “But to know what makes him great, you have to hear his story first.”

Then we hear that his father and grandfather were Navy admirals, and that McCains have fought in every American war since the revolutionary war. We hear about how did poorly in school, and of some dramatic events of his military career: One time, his engine gave out and he crashed in a bay and had to swim away. An accident on his aircraft carrier resulted in an all-day inferno that it was a miracle he even survived (Meghan McCain doesn’t say it was perhaps because he had a greater destiny to fulfill, as his RNC film stated).

Which finally brings us to the climax of the McCain biography: “One October day he had to fly a very complicated mission. He had flown a lot of dangerous missions before, so he was sure he’d be okay on this one too. But he wasn’t. He’d just dropped his bombs on the target when a missile blew the right wing off of his plane.”

This might be the point where a kid, excited by all the talk of planes and bombs, might raise his hand and ask about the where McCain was, what the target he just dropped a bomb on was, and who exactly he was fighting and why.

These details get left out. A few pages earlier, we’re told, “He still had his heart set on flying missions in the Vietnam War. He wanted to fight for his country, just like his father and grandfather. He wanted to do great things, just like them.”

I don’t want to cast aspersions on anyone who fought in a war that had ended before I was even born, especially since so many of them had no desire to do it in the first place, but it’s kind of disappointing to think of the war being used like this in a bed-time story of a presidential candidate’s bio—an excuse to restate the fact that our hero never gives up.

I understand Meghan McCain and Andreasen are trying to tell a story to kids here, but if McCain’s life story involves dropping bombs on people in Vietnam during the war, is it one we should be telling kids? He wasn’t exactly fighting to save Britain and France from Hitler or fighting against King George to create a new nation or anything.

Even McCain’s torture is glossed over in an odd way: “My dad and the other prisoners were treated badly. He didn’t get the right kind of medical care for his broken bones, and the food was really bad.” Put like that, five and a half years doesn’t sound all that bad. Oliver Twist had it rougher.

From there, we race through his life.

“After we got home, my dad met and married my mom, Cindy. They had met in 1984, and then came my brothers, Jack and Jimmy. Finally, my mom and dad adopted my sister, Bridget, when she was a baby.” No mention of McCain’s first wife, or his other three kids…is divorce really something to be treated like collateral damage and torture?

Because he never gives up, he won the first election he ran in, and while he was in congress ever since Meghan was a kid, he always wanted to do more to help his country.

“I was a freshman in high school when my dad asked my brothers and sister and me if we thought he should run for president in 2000. After a family meeting, we all decided that it would be a good idea!”

Despite campaigning hard and meeting a lot of people, he didn’t get enough votes to win the nomination, because of push-polling in South Carolina suggesting he had fathered a black baby. Just kidding! That’s not in there. He just didn’t get enough votes. No mention of who it was who beat him, but perhaps Bush, Karl Rove and especially Dick Cheney are just a little too scary for little kids to be introduced to at such a young age.

It hardly mattered, because McCain “was proud of how hard he’d worked. And,” Meghan McCain writes, “We were really proud of him too!”

Eight years later he tried again, and even though things looked bad and he was out of money and no one said he could do it, he didn’t give up, the people in New Hampshire liked him, and in “September 2008, the Republican Party had a big meeting” and he was officially chosen to be the guy to lose to the Barack Obama. Huzzah!

And that’s the whole book.

Short of the picture of McCain hugging Drew Barrymore in E.T. on the cover, and a drawing of a photo of McCain and Meghan at one of her graduations, there’s little interaction between the two, or insights into what kind of father he is. Which is pretty weird, given the book’s title and the fact that it was written by his daughter, one of the few people who know of McCain as a real person and not just a biographical sketch with some campaign slogans thrown in. This is a biography that anyone on the McCain campaign could have written, and is therefore even less interesting than it might appear to be from its title and cover.

One percent of the net proceeds go to charity Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, so I suppose some good may come of it in the remaining month during which it will be relevant, but at $16.99, you’re better off just donating the money right to the fund, as there’s nothing within the covers you haven’t heard elsewhere before.

Too ugly and serious for little kids, the only child I can imagine giving this book to would be young Sasha Obama, just to annoy her parents.


—A couple of pages of art can be seen here, at the book’s official site.

This is why I’m hesitant to say anything terrible about Dan Andreasen; regardless of how this book looks, the man can really draw, and like a good professional illustrator, he can do it in a variety of styles.

—And here’s an interesting write-up about Meghan McCain’s media persona from Slate.com. Megan McCain in 2028!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Review: Achewood: The Great Outdoor Fight

The undisputed champ of webcomics finally gets a hard copy version in this slick hardcover collecting the entirety of the 2006 arc about the titular battle royale, described thusly: “Three days! Three acres! Three thousand men! Only one will win.”

From a pure publishing perspective, it’s a really nice project. The book is more square than rectangular, a more individualized size than the standard graphic novel format, and its cover is austere, almost stately. There are a couple shades of brown emblazoned with the words “Great Outdoor Fight” and two silhouettes of men—not anthropomorphic cats or bears—apparently fighting before a crowd. Looking at this thing in the shelf, you’d probably have no idea what the hell it actually was.

The insides are the original strips, moved around a bit here and there so that the entire thing reads like a graphic novel, rather than a collection of comics strips. This is a great (and pretty obvious, although I never really considered it until now) advantage of web comics over their newspaper brethren: When they’re ultimately collected into a book, the format need not be so severe as a collection of newspaper strips.

Generally when I read strip collections—be they the gag panel kind or the sequential adventure kind—the books are necessarily assembled so that one moves one’s eye across the page like the roll on the back of a typewriter: Mechanically across the row of three to four panels in a set rhythm till you reach the end, and then your eyes travel back all the way to the left to start the process all over again. Maybe every two pages or so there would be a full-page Sunday strip to break the monotony.

Here each panel flows right into the next without the fact that this is a collection of strips ever even becoming apparent. This is in large part because Chris Onstad can make his daily strips as long or as short as he wants, rather than confining himself to the same number of panels in the same small space six days a week, with a larger, more square format on Sundays, as he would if Achewood were a newspaper strip.

As nice as this collection from Dark Horse is though, and as glad as I am to finally get a book version I can loan to friends to evangelize Achewood with, I still found it somewhat frustrating. Mostly in the way that Achewood remains Achewood, even on paper.

Firstly, I’m not so sure this is the best place to start getting to know the strip. Having read through the archives over the course of a few weeks online, the Great Outdoor Fight definitely seems to be one of the biggest and most action-packed stories, but a lot of the humor comes from just how uncharacteristic it is for our heroes Ray and Roast Beef to be involved in such a manly event, let alone excel at it. Hell, it’s hard to imagine either of them even getting in a fistfight, let alone ever succeeding in beating down 2,998 other dudes. I’m not sure either the drama—a kind of inside out ironic melodrama that is actually dramatic despite itself—nor the humor work as well if this is your first exposure to the two cats.

And there’s no real attempt made to introduce them either. I was somewhat bemused to see that among all of the add-ons Onstad makes to the book, including a history of the Great Outdoor Fight, profiles of past champions, and recipes, nothing is done to ease new readers into the world of Achewood; all of these things just makes that world more full, more realized and more hilariously deadpan.

There’s no key to the characters, no “Previously in Achewood” synopsis at the beginning, no afterword or foreword, not introductions or postscripts from Onstad or another cartoonist or celebrity endorser explaining just what the hell Achewood is.

Think of the first page of every Marvel comic book, for example, or the character charts that appear in some multi-volume manga series. That’s the sort of handholding I assumed would factor into an Achewood book like this.

Wait, I said this frustrated me, didn’t I? Maybe frustrated isn’t quite the right word; perhaps I should say it chagrined me—the connotations on that word are closer to what I mean.

See, here I was looking forward to a book that would perhaps make it easier to try and spread love for Achewood beyond emailing links to certain strips to friends, and when the book finally arrived, the spirit of the online version was completely intact: It’s something you can’t really have explained to you, but something that you have to just dig into until you reach the point where you decide, “Wow, this is not for me,” or you’re laughing your ass off and no longer care why it’s so popular despite the poor drawing, or why Ray is wearing a thong, or how come there are so many objects scaled to cat size.

And that’s actually pretty admirable on Onstad and Dark Horse’s part—even in a new format, they let Achewood be Achewood.

I’m extremely interested in how this ends up doing as a book, for a couple of reasons.

There’s the traditional “Will people pay money to own something they can look at on the Internet for free any time they want?” question, which I imagine the answer to will end up being yes. (In my experience, it seems that as long as the comics are good, I don’t think people mind buying them after they’ve read them online; it’s only shitty comics that creators and publishers have to worry about people never buying after they’ve read them).

There’s also the question of whether people who shop in book stores and borrow graphic novels from the libraries will embrace Achewood, or if there’s just something about it that makes it a strip enjoyed primarily by people who relate to it online, as a site and a community and an experience as much as a comic strip to be read.

And, of course, there’s the question of whether it does well enough to lead to more, similar books. If it were up to me, I’d like to see a Complete Achewood sort of program, but a story arc-focused publishing plan like this, in which the various big continuing stories each get the trade treatment, wouldn’t be so bad, either.

I think you get to know the characters best in a lot of the little standalone strips in which they talk about what they look at on the Internet or blog about their days or whatever, but because Achewood is a web strip, you can always hang out with and get to know the characters at achewood.com, so maybe the main point of Achewood books would simply be to relive the big moments, like Great Outdoor Fights, road trips, weddings, kidnappings and run-ins with magical realism cameras made in Mexico.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Behold!—The Bat-Unicyle

Kelley Jones often cooks up some pretty zany looking crime-fighting equipment for his Batman to use, from his pipe organ-looking Bat-computer to a zippy little go-cart of a Batmobile to a serpentine giant robot with Popeye-like arms. But I think this week's Batman: Gotham After Midnight #5 featured what may be Batman's most Seussical bit of gear so far—the Bat-Unicycle.

Check this thing out:
And here I thought the Bat-pod in Dark Knight was an odd-looking vehicle. This is just a cockpit on top of a single, gigantic monster truck wheel. Of justice.

And what's it take to power such a strange cycle?

Apparently some sort of rocket engine.

Man, that is one serious unicycle.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Oh God I hope the word under the black bar

in this panel of All-Star Batman is "bullshitting"...

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Links, and commentary about them

I spent a really long time looking at this site (and so should you): You probably recognize that silhouette above as that of a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle, but do you know who drew it? Believe it or not, that’s an Eric Talbot drawing.

I used to love the Mirage-published black and white TMNT comics; in fact, they were among the comics that really got me into the reading comics regularly in the first place (along with DC/TSR’s Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and Alan Grant and Norm Breyfogle’s Batman comics).

And Talbot was one of my favorite artists working on them.

He was a frequent collaborator with Kevin Eastman, and handled inks and tones on a lot of TMNT stuff, bringing a dark, scratchy line that covered the art in a palpable layer of grit. Without consulting a long box, I remember Talbot worked on #17 and #20 of the original series, and I believe he worked on the Casey Jones story in Plastron Café, but my memory is hazy), and pin-ups and ads for things he drew were sprinkled throughout a lot of Mirage publications.

For some reason, I was pretty surprised by Talbot’s style as seen on his sketch blog. I don’t know if, in the back of my brain, I had always assumed something that was actually Eastman/Talbot was what Talbot/Talbot looked like, or if his artwork has evolved a bit in the last, oh, almost 20 years or so, or both, but it’s really great stuff, and I particularly love his big, white-eyed turtles and, especially, his pointy-nosed Splinter.

Here’s a taste:

In addition to a lot of ninja turtles and characters from their comics, you’ll also find sketches of Batman, Two-Face, Hellboy, Usagi Yojimbo, Mr. Miracle, Wolverine and a whole lot of tentacles, stitches, skeletal faces and pages and pages of silhouette sketches like this:

So go look around for a while. I’ll still be here when you get back.

The worst thing about DC’s fantasy presidential election comic DC Universe: Decisions?: Too few people read it.

I was looking forward to an Internet-wide, Ultimates 3-style drubbing of it by critics. But I suppose that was silly of me. People actually liked and looked forward to Ultimates and Ultimates 2, and were thus really looking forward to seeing what would happen when a new creative team—including known crazy person Jeph Loeb and that guy who perfected the art of missing deadlines—took over the franchise for a third volume.

But who cares which fake-ass, made-up candidate Green Arrow is endorsing in the cloud cuckoo land of the DCU (Probably some liberal guy, because as Denny O’Neil has shown us in decades past, bowhunters are the Democrats’ most reliable base), or if Lois Lane is supposed to be Republican or Libertarian based on the political beliefs she states in the story (despite the statistical unlikelihood of a big city investigative reporter being either).

Yes, who really cares about any of that nonsense, particularly since the real-world election is getting so completely insane that no writer could even make this stuff up*.

Thank God for Nina Stone of The Factual Opinion then: She at least was brave enough to take on DC Universe: Decisions #1. Go give it a read, and then join me in a prayer that she and/or Tucker Stone and/or a civilian they rope into reading comics and reporting back to them will read the next three issues as well.

And speaking of…: After twelve seconds of research—i.e. asking my local comic shop-keep if they received copies of DC Universe: Decisions along with the now-infamous All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder and the OMG Superman drinking beer maybe! issue of Action Comics—I’ve developed a theory as to why it wasn’t shipped as originally scheduled.

My shopkeep said they received issues of the swearing comic and the drinking comic, but not the “political” comic. Decisions just didn’t show up at all that week.

Perhaps then it wasn’t recalled and pulped like ASB&RtBW and Action, but was instead simply delayed a week? It was scheduled to come out on Wednesday, September 10, which, if I’m doing my math right, is only one day before September 11. Since terror attacks on presidential candidates are central to the plot, maybe DC wanted to avoid risking someone being offended if they published a comic book about that during that particular week.

If this was the case, I think they overreacted. Simply avoiding real-world politics, they’ve ensured that no one would even notice the book outside the direct market-audience for Judd Winick and Bill Willingham books, and nothing offends those readers anyway.

Too bad it’s not Chuck BB illustrating the lyrics of Chuck D: I don’t normally publish press release type info here, since so many other places on the Internet do a much better job of it, but I’ll make an exception based on how cool this particular project looks.

Boom Studios will be publishing a new version of H.P. Lovecraft’s prose poem Nyarlahotep.

Now, the only thing more boring than prose or poetry is prose poeery, but this $15, 32-page book has something going for it that most prose poetry (and prose and poetry) lacks: Full-color illustrations by Black Metal’s Chuck BB.

They look like this:

I’m not sure when the in-store date for this is exactly, but if you follow the link above, you can get the Diamond order code and bug your comic shop about ordering you a copy (and see a few more illustrations).

What is wrong with Marc Guggenheim?: A lot, apparently. On Tuesday Dorian Wright noted a particularly insane-sounding couple of paragraphs in an interview with Guggenheim that coupled the issue of gay marriage to the Spider-Man continuity reboot for…some reason.

The original interview, written up by longtime writer-about-comics Jennifer M. Contino, is a pretty basic sort of Creator Talks About His Projects type of interview, common throughout much of the comics press.

He talks about his work on the Amazing Spider-Man almost-weekly, his TV show and a superhero movie script he’s apparently working on.

And, in discussing the fact that a lot of people don’t like the new Spider-Man direction on the basis that it is really stupid, he says this:

"Here's my attitude, if anyone is upset about the marriage going away, then they must all be pro gay marriage," he continued. Because if you're pro gay marriage, you understand the distinction between a marriage and a civil union -- that a civil union is not equal to a marriage. We downgraded Mary Jane and Peter to a civil union. If that bothers you, then you're pro gay marriage."

I’m kind of disappointed that Contino didn’t take the opportunity to say, “I don’t understand what you mean. Could you explain that?” Perhaps she didn’t notice how insane it was until she sat down to transcribe the interview…?

Wright mentions some of the obvious problems with that quote that I won’t repeat here (Go read Wright’s). But there are a lot of problems with it. (Feel free to skip down to the next item if you don’t want to read about Spider-Man continuity and comic book writer dumb-assery for a few hundred words).

It’s been interesting to watch just how defensive some of the writers involved with the new Spider-Man direction have been regarding how they got there. One of the main problems with the J. Michael Straczynski/Joe Quesada “One More Day” storyline, in addition to it being poorly written, poorly drawn, over-priced and behind schedule, was that it didn’t make a lick of sense.

Repeatedly in interviews creators like Quesada and now Guggenheim have stated that nothing changed in Spider-Man’s timeline (what we mean by “continuity”) beyond the fact that Peter Parker and Mary Jane Watson weren’t married for the decades during which they were married. Something happened on their wedding day that prevented the consumption of their engagement, but, otherwise, everything else remained the exact same, Quesada had maintained.

This isn’t true. At all. In addition to their not ever having been married, Spidey and MA weren’t dating as of the beginning of the “Brand New Day” storyline. Aunt May was no longer on her deathbed in the hospital dying of an assassination attempt on her nephew, but was perfectly well again. Her house, which was destroyed, was now un-destroyed. The knowledge of Peter Parker’s secret identity, which was known to Aunt May and everyone else in the world, was suddenly forgotten by May and everyone else in the world. Harry Osborn was no longer dead; he was just in Europe.

Those are some pretty big changes right there, beyond the “they just weren’t married.” It gets even harder if you follow the Marvel Universe in general, not just the Spider-Man title, because Spider-Man and his family lived in Avengers Tower, all of the Avengers knew his secret identity and his family, his secret identity reveal was a pivotal part of Civil War, a storyline that defined the entire state of the Marvel Universe. Changing just the unmasking and the marriage changes all of that. And, for the hundreth time, continuity between consecutive events is the entire point of serial storytelling like that of Spider-Man comics.

So no, Guggenheim. False. That is not the only thing that changed.

By reducing the changes to a single change, Guggenheim can then go on to state that if you don’t like the post OMD/BND direction of Spider-Man, you must not like the marital statue reboot. But you could also dislike all the other reboots, or the idea of any kind of reboot at all, or the weekly format, or you could think the writing is awful, or you could hate the art. There are a lot of reasons to dislike particular comics (I’ve only read two story arcs, so I’m not endorsing any of those opinions; I loved Marcos Martin and John Romita Jr.’s art, and Dan Slott’s writing was pretty decent in those arcs).

Then Guggenheim jumps to the, if you object to the reboot of the marriage, you must be pro-gay marriage bi, “Because if you're pro gay marriage, you understand the distinction between a marriage and a civil union -- that a civil union is not equal to a marriage. We downgraded Mary Jane and Peter to a civil union. If that bothers you, then you're pro gay marriage."

Wright and a few others see this as Guggenheim gay baiting; if you don’t like my comics, that makes you a fag.

I’ll give Guggenheim the benefit of the doubt and assume that’s not what he meant (although he’s a huge ass for comparing his Spider-Man comics to the gay marriage debate at all, and thus getting himself into the position where he could be accused of gay-baiting).

I’m pro gay marriage personally and understand there is a distinction between the two. This personal belief has nothing to do with Spider-Man’s love life. I’m also pro civil union. (Here in Ohio, we don’t even have civil unions. In fact, most of the country doesn’t. That seems to be step one here. Until the latter is actually commonplace, advocating the former over the latter seems a little silly in places like Ohio. Is marriage better than a civil union? Yes. Is a civil union better than nothing? Yes.)

Spider-Man and Mary Jane not being married but living together and sharing a bed doesn’t mean they suddenly have a civil union. It means they’re dating; cohabitating; “living in sin.” A civil union is something between that state of affairs and an actual marriage; did they go to the trouble of trying to get a civil union? (I don’t know the state of civil unions in New York state; is it even possible at the moment?) If so, why the fuck did they do that? Why didn’t they just get married? They’re straight people; there’s no law against them getting married! A civil union is the consolation prize for people who can’t get married. It’s the next best thing.

Finally, let’s look at that last bit one more time: “We downgraded Mary Jane and Peter to a civil union. If that bothers you, then you're pro gay marriage."

Like I said, I haven’t been reading a whole lot of ASM, but I’m pretty sure Marvel didn’t actually downgrade them to a civil union. Quesada said they just didn’t get married on their wedding day for some reason, and I don’t remember seeing any covers marked “Collector’s Item: The Civil Union Special!”

I should point out that there are many thousands of people in the U.S. who are bothered by civil unions, but definitely aren’t pro-gay marriage. They’re bothered by civil unions because they hate gay people, or are grossed out by them, or think they should always be treated as second-class citizens, or are afraid gay couples are trying to gain special rights to game the system and use tax dollars to fund gayness initiatives, or because they’re crazy coo-coo banana birds, or because they’re super-ignorant. A lot of the people who are bothered by civil unions are even more bothered by gay marriage.

So brilliant bit of anti-marketing, Mark Guggenheim! Now when I see a new comic book with the name Guggenheim on the cover, I won’t be able to think, “Oh, it’s the guy who wrote that great Blade series that was unfortunately cancelled,” but “Oh, it’s that defensive dumb-ass who said some pretty ignorant shit about civil unions and gay marriage when trying to convince people to read fucking Spider-Man comics.”

Art contests are fun: If you’re reading this, that means you read comics blogs on the Internet, and that means you probably also read Chris Sim’s The Invinicble Super-Blog which, while perhaps technically not invincible (that is, vincible), is in fact super.

If not, that means you’re probably a friend of mine who only reads this because you know me, or you’re someone who got here by accident after googling “Justice League Ice Cream” or something. Either way, you should probably be reading Chris Sim’s Invincible Super-Blog.

Especially posts like this, which featured the results of the ISB unconventional nunchuk contest (inspired by a drawing of Batman with nunchuks made out of sharks, which was in turn inspired by Sims’ own post involving Lego Batman’s sharkchuks, the only weapon capable of defeating evil wizard Shaquille O--look, I can’t explain this stuff. Just follow the link).

I pretty much laughed through the entire Batchuk results post; it’s one awesome design after another. It’s pretty remarkable how Sims-spefic so many of the designs are, using as raw materials things Sims loves, loathes or talks about all the time. The only thing missing was, as he pointed out himself, OMAChuks and, perhaps, nunchuks made out of Lucy and Lois Lane or out of John Workman-lettered KRAKK-A-DOOM! sound effects.

Meanwhile, in Canada, our enemy to the north, Rachelle Goguen (who, oddly enough, made a guest-appearance in one of the most random Batchuk contest entries), had a sketch contest of her own, involving entries combining two of her favorite things: superheroes and hockey.

The winner was frequent EDILW poster Sally, whose entry unsurprisingly involved both Green Lanterns and their butts.

Speaking of both Sims and Batman: Today the former has an examination of the one time the latter almost murdered The KGBeast.

I never read that story, but I remember it being referred to in the Batman: Year Three/ “A Lonely Place of Dying” era that immediately preceded the introduction of Tim Drake as a Robin-in-waiting, cited as evidence that Batman was totally losing it in the late ‘80s without a kid in a cape around to keep him from killing dudes.

KGBeast was never put to very good use again after that story though, was he? I know he showed up a lot in 90’s Batman stories, but he was always just kind of a big guy with a stump for an arm who talked funny, and I believe he’s dead now (at least the bad guys in Nightwing were recently robbing his grave of the big one-handed corpse in it…that’s usually a sure sign of a character being dead, even in super-comics). The end of the Cold War wasn’t very kind to the soviet assassin…too bad he didn’t live to see the dawn of our new Cold War, Cold War II: The En-coldening

This man liked Identity Crisis: Devan MacPherson has a pretty good review of Identity Crisis up here. And by “pretty good” I mean both the way it was written as well as the overall assessment of one of my least favorite comics of the last 2,000 years.

MacPherson notes that he’s not a member of the read-new-superhero-comics-every-Wednesday crowd, so he wasn’t too tied up in knots about any of the continuity issues (unlike some people I know), and he seems to have read it in the final, collected trade rather than in the monthly installments.

I wonder if it’s easier to like/harder to hate if originally experienced all at once rather than read chapter by chapter over the better part of a year. I know those of us who read it in seven sittings had a lot longer to puzzle over the murder mystery aspects, and thus had more time to notice holes in the story (Why did the killer bring a flamethrower with her if she didn’t mean to kill the victim? Why was she in disguise if she was going to be invisible to her victim anyway? And so on).

And, of course, if you don’t plan on seeing Green Arrow, Hawkman and Black Canary next Wednesday, do you really care how far they went to protect a friend’s loved one, or how far they went to keep a secret? If you weren’t planning on seeing Dr. Light fighting scantily clad teenage girls in the near future, would you think his being retconned into a rapist was such an inappropriate thing?

I don’t know, but I like reading well-articulated opinions that are completely different than mine, as it helps remind me that not everyone who disagrees with me is a dodo bird.

Don’t read this one if you don’t live in Columbus: Death Note II: The Last Name, the second live-action Death Note movie, will be playing in town on October 15 and 16 only. The AMC theaters at Lennox and Easton will be hosting showings, as will three other area theaters I’ve never been to and wouldn’t be able to find without a compass and Google Maps. Event info here. Make sure you read the manga first though, as it is the greatest thing ever.

Minx no more?!: Wow, I was surprised to hear that DC’s pulling the plug on their Minx line so fast. here’s a Blog@ post that includes a round-up of reactions. As usual, Tom Spurgeon and Dirk Deppey have some of the best analysis. (UPDATE: Not to mention Kevin Church).

My reaction, if anyone honestly wants it, was intense surprise followed immediabley by disappointment. I liked just about every Minx book I read (I only skipped three) on some level, and some of them quite a lot. There was a lot of criticism right out of the gate about the way Minx’s editors were talking about it (“comics for YA readers” would have sounded a lot less patronizing than “comics for girls”) and the relative lack of female voices involved, and I realized a few of the books that appealed to 31-year-old male Caleb might not appeal equally to teen girls (Josh Howard and Ross Campbell’s sexy girl art in Clubbing and Water Baby, for example) , but by and large the books were positioned to appeal to all comers: Art comics fans, YA readers, manga readers.

Was DC expecting an overnight success here? From my view, the line received an incredible amount of press coverage, overwhelmingly positive criticism (Some did receive mixed reactions, but some were pretty much universally praised) and a lot of library penetration (at least in central Ohio), but I don’t know how they were selling, how much of the (fairly incredible) amount spent on marketing them was being recouped, and how much the creators were being paid.

Obviously the people who do know all this did the math and concluded that it wasn’t worth it, but, like I said, I’m surprised. I assumed this was more of a five-year investment than a two-year investment.

So does this mean copies of Minx books are going to skyrocket in the back-issue market now?

Well, it’s about time: Marvel Comics decided to finally take advantage of the fact that a Very Famous Celebrity Who Likes Plugging Things That Have To Do With Him, the one with a half-hour show on cable television four days a week, is running for president in the Marvel Universe.

The initial press release states that Kevin Maguire will provide a variant cover (I state that he should be doing interior art too; who better to capture Colbert’s raised eyebrows?). I hope it’s a costs-the-same-as-the-standard-cover type of variant and not a costs-several-dollars-more-than-the-standard-cover type of variant…

And don’t forget, if you don’t pre-order this comic, that means you support gay marriage.

It happens to all comic book characters eventually: Has Mickey Mouse ever died and come back to life? What about Donald Duck?

*Although, to be fair, Judd Winick is no writer. Zing!

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Weekly Haul: Not even the looming hobopocalypse can stop me from wasting money on super-comics

Oh my God you guys, what in the world is going on?!

The Republican president of the United States is willingly nationalizing and socializing the U.S. economy, asking for $700 billion dollars from taxpayers to bail out Wall Street!

One of the guys who wants to replace him, dude who played a pivotal role in the whole savings and loans crisis that keeps getting bandied around as the last time the U.S. economy seemed so fucked, spent a day or two talking about reforming his way out of the crisis, and then today just, like, decided to forfeit the election (or something?) over the crisis!

And I still went ahead and spent $31 on 11 super-comics featuring slight variations on the same goddam stories I’ve been reading for 15 years now! What did I get for my money, which was probably better spent on dry goods and/or buckshot for my rifle to defend my pitiful store of dry goods from hordes of investment bankers-turned-starving hobos and packs hungry coyotes?!

Here’s what I’ll probably be burning for warmth this winter…

All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder #10 (DC Comics) A few week’s late due to the completely insane strategy of swearing-editing, the latest installment of DC’s now-undisputed best book (All-Star Superman having concluded) finally arrives. And, like the last nine, it is awesome.

In discussing Batman: Lovers & Madmen the other day, I mentioned writer Michael Green’s purple prose as a negative. He opened and closed his story with Batman narration focusing on the difference between silence and quiet—basically a bunch of comic book tough guy quasi-poetic bullshit. Green’s heart was in the right place though, he just didn’t take it far enough.

Not taking it far enough is something no one will ever accuse Frank Miller of when it comes to All-Star Batman. Everyone narrates—and talks—like they were getting their lines from some rejected overdone mystery novel by a frustrated writer who can’t seem to stay out of editors’ wastebaskets. Miller is either writing a hilarious parody of hard-boiled detective fiction, or he’s writing really shitty hard-boiled detective fiction that is hilariously bad.

I’m inclined to think the former, given that each of his protagonists have different, individual ways of delivering their dumb-ass lines about how the city is a screaming prostitute full of evil and Satanic rats.

The Goddam Batman’s all, “A FOG settles, made for lonely walks and stolen kisses. Gotham floats, a cloud city, her million plaintive cries muffled…”

And the Fucking Batgirl’s all, “It took about TWO WEEKS for the DEALERS to move in on all the POSERS from the BURBS…hooking them on CRANK and showing them how to PAY for it with the parts of their BODIES that still work.”

And Commissioner Gordon’s all, “The SMOKE burns my LUNGS. The last thing I need is to suck any more of its gas INTO me. So I suck it deep, just for the HURT of it.”

And Black Canary’s all…holy shit, I can’t even make sense of her crazy dialogue, as she seems to be Irish and Catholic. (Or Australian, maybe? I don’t know). I think she says she’s sending some bad guys to be “ass-up and at the devil’s own sweet mercy.”

There’s a ton of this kind of narration in this issue, all presented in that Brad Meltzer-y way with multiple narrators talking in color-coded boxes that usually drives me crazy when he does it (here though, it’s always clear who’s doing the narrating), and there’s also an awful lot of dialogue. An incredible amount of stuff seems to happen here, compared to some previous issues, and yet it’s one third splash pages. Jim Lee gives us three one-page splashes, and two two-page splash spreads, with the rest consisting mostly of manga-like two-to-four panels per page lay outs. But the amount of verbiage slows things down to the point where Miller and Lee don’t seem to be using the splashes to kill time or space (it helps, too, that Lee packs many of these with details; one two-page spread features almost a dozen ghost images trailing behind Robin, letting the readers’ eye follow his acrobatics all over the page, despite there being only one big panel.

I hope that when All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder finally wraps up (after maybe 150 issues or so), that it gets adapted into an audiobook version, and maybe a traveling stage show where various actors read it aloud, similar to live version of an old time radio show. Because the only thing cooler than reading Miller’s dialogue would be hearing other people read it out loud.

Ambush Bug: Year None #3 (DC) The DC comic with probably the narrowest intended audience reaches it’s third issue, featuring an Amanda Conner drawn cover of Ambush Bug waking up in bed next to former Inferior Five member Dumb Bunny. On the final version of the cover, there’s a dialogue bubble coming from Ambush Bug having him say “Not a dream, not a hoaxIt’s NOT an imaginary story!

Which got me thinking.

That familiar string of assertions is quite common to anyone who’s been reading DC comics for very long, and while I can think of plenty of examples of stories that turned out to be just dreams or that were marked “imaginary stories,” both of which allowed Superman writers to tell stories about a married Superman and Lois Lane in the future or whatever, were there ever any “hoax” stories?

Was that a big problem back in the day? Comics covers and story plots that were actual “hoaxes”?

At any rate, Ambush Bug does indeed wake up next to Dumb Bunny in this issue, having apparently married her the night before in Vegas. He spends the rest of the issue just kind of wandering around thinking of how to get out of his marriage (Dude: Call Mephisto), and thus in and out of parodies of recent DC shenanigans. There’s a bit near the end with one-time Supergirl love interest Jerro the Mer-Boy and this “Go Go Chex” villain who is horribly unfunny (worse still? His Japanese henchwoman “Saki Toome”), but the front half of the book has some pretty funny bits, mostly directed at Infinite Crisis. In the most inspired bit, Super-Turtle plays the part of Superboy-Prime because of, you know, the legal stuff.

I said “pretty funny” and “inspired,” but I suppose I should qualify that a bit—these gags are only funny and inspired if you’re familiar with things like the final fate of Pantha, what happened to Earth-2 Superman and company between Crisis On Infinite Earths and Infinite Crisis .

Avengers: The Initiative #17 (Marvel Comics) This title should really just be called The Initiative, as it doesn’t really ever have much of anything to do with the Avengers—at most, Avengers alumni like Yellowjacket, Triathalon or Tigra will appear for a few panels each issue—but then, The Initiative probably wouldn’t sell as well without the Avengers branding. Since Secret Invasion started however, and the two monthly Avengers title stopped being about the Avengers and became the repositories for the deleted scenes of Brian Michael Bendis’ Secret Invasion miniseries, The Initiative is suddenly the most Avengers-y of all the Avengers titles. Sure, Yellowjacket and Spider-Woman turned out to not even really be Yellowjacket and Spider-Woman, but look, there’s Triathalon! He used to be an Avenger, and that’s more than you can say for the Skrulls and clones of the Fantastic Four starring in New Avengers, right?

So this issue continues The Initiative’s Secret Invasion tie-in story arc, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s a lot more interesting and exciting than Secret Invasion, since here it seems like the Skrulls are up to something more than conquering New York City (they’ve got their sites on the whole U.S. here), and the characters we see battling them are all strictly minor league, meaning any of them can buy the farm at any minute.

Writers Dan Slott and Christos N. Gage shift the focus from the new Skrull Kill Krew, who are currently traveling the country killing the Skrulls in each of the 50 Initiative teams (Show Ohio! The suspense is killing me!) to focus on what’s going on back at Camp Hammond, where the lead Skrulls are setting up shop (apparently, this takes place before Secret Invasion #6). The only heroes left to face them are the cowardly Ant-Man III, who’s in hiding, and the Shadow Initiative, the secret ops type team consisting of former villains Bengal and Constrictor, camp psychologist Trauma, and the mysterious Mutant X, who’s secret identity is still being teased. But here we get some clues! Whoever she is, she’s a) a mutant, b) she’s white, c) she’s a red head and d) she fears her dark side. Oh my God it’s Jean Grey! Okay, probably not, because it would be weird if she came back to life this time in a book that’s not even an X-book, but that’s the only redheaded mutant woman I know of, and I think it would be kind of cool if she showed up somewhere totally random like this.

Batman: Gotham After Midnight #5 (DC) The “Fearsome 5th Issue” of this year-long Steve Niles/Kelley Jones series finds the pair drifting from completely over-the-top expressionist to the point of visual cartoon opera into “Wait, what the hell is even going on?” territory.

I’m a huge fan of Jones’ art—the stylized-to-the-point-of-zaniness postures and gestures, the crazy contraptions he invents for Batman, all of it—but I could not for the life of me figure out exactly what happened at the climax of Midnight and Batman’s fight.

I do know that the bit with the red blood gradually eclipsing the bat-symbol in the Bat-signal was wrong. Midnight impales a heart in the middle of the signal’s metal bat shape, the one that blocks the yellow light of the spotlight and thus projects the shape into the sky; the blood seeping out of the heart would appear black in the sky though, as it too would block the light…the color wouldn’t be transmitted.

But page 19, I can’t make heads or tails of that…what’s going on there, guys?

On the plus side, Jones had a neat sequence of Batman working on a Man-Bat antidote, which finishes with him jumping onto the most insane motorcycle conceivable…it appears to be one giant, monster truck-type wheel, with a metal anteater head shaped front, and a huge rocket engine on the back. What the hell is that thing?

And Jones also gives us a few panels worth of The Joker. I didn’t much care for Jones’ Joker back during his run on Batman with Dough Moench and John Beatty; here his Joker seems vastly improved. The sequence is sort of lame though; Niles seems to have cribbed the basics form Killing Joke, in which the exact same thing occurred (only the type of real estate and the method of murder varied).

Fantastic Four: True Stories #3 (Marvel) Nightmare drops enough exposition to his hench-characters that the logistics of the story are no completely complete in this penultimate chapter, and the entire FF is killed on the last page. This one has less to enjoy in it than the first two chapters, but I did like the map of Nightmare’s army’s march through the world of fiction, conquering the country of postmodern novels and then moving through ones marked Serial Killer Fiction and Woody Allen Movies. Guest-starring the cast of The Wind in the Willows.

Marvel Adventures Superheroes #3 (Marvel) Moreso than the other Marvel Adventures books I read—Avengers in singles, Hulk and Spider-Man in digests—Paul Tobin and Alvin Lee’s Superheroes is funny not so much because of the character comedy or parodic elements, but because the stories themselves are just so patently absurd, with no pretension of being taken seriously at all.

For example, here Iron Man, Spider-Man and The Hulk don’t hang out as Avengers, they just hang out because they’re all friends or roommates or something. Hulk is always Hulked out, whether he’s mad or not, Iron Man and Spidey are always in costume, and they all call each other by their superhero names.

It’s like a superhero sitcom, in a world with no secret identities or continuity. The conceit alone is amusing.

And then there are the stories. For example, in this one Kang the Conquerer has created Deja Chew brand potato chips, “incredibly sophisticated nano-based time machines linked to a temporal loop” which he uses to enslave the entire world of the future.

Runaways #2 (Marvel) This is only the second issue of the third iteration of Marvel’s team of post-superhero super-teens, and so far it seems like new creative team Terry Moore, Humberto Ramos and Dave Meikis’ direction is the weakest of the previous two. Perhaps its unfair to judge them too harshly this early, but with coming econopocalypse, I’m hesitant to invest three more bucks on a third chance to wow me.

Moore has kept some of the kids rule, grown-ups drool feel of the previous volumes, but his Runaways lack the peculiar, precious Whedon-esque slang that creator and original writer Brian K. Vaughan had given them, and the current conflict—involving hostile aliens taking the destruction of their planet out on one of the team-members—seems pretty standard for a superhero comic. I find myself much more interested in how seven teenagers and their pet dinosaur are going to eke out a living on their own while hiding out from adult authorities than whether or not they can outfight or outthink generic alien super-enemies

I do dig Ramos’ extremely cartoony versions of all the characters though, and I’m enjoying seeing what he does with them in each panel, although I suppose the charms of his pencils will start to wear off if the scripts don’t become more engaging soon.

Superman #680 (DC) If I had to be in a fight, and I was given the choice between fighting some six-foot-something dude or a dog, I would choose the dude every time (unless we’re talking a lap dog of some sort). Dogs have sharp teeth, and powerful jaws and animal, go-for-the-throat, kill-or-be-killed instincts.

Fighting a big dude, I could always just kick him in the boy parts and then bolt and, if that fails, go into a fetal position, cover my head, and hope someone pulls him off me before he beats me to death. But dogs usually have their boy parts surgically removed, and, even if the dog I was fighting didn’t, I’d still have to kick past his jaws to get at it. And if went into a fetal position, the dog would just eat me alive.

Which brings me to Krypto the Super-Dog. I imagine that if you’re a lawbreaker of any kind, from bank robber to alien conqueror, mob hitman to mad scientist brain trapped in an android body, you don’t want to have to face Superman, an indestructible policeman who moves at the speed of light, is stronger than anyone this side of God and shoots lasers out of his eyes.

But imagine if Superman was a dog!

In short, Krypto is the scariest motherfucking thing in the DC universe.

In this issue of writer James Robinson’s first story arc of his Superman run, Superman’s been getting pretty badly beaten on by old Kirby creation Atlas (find out why he’s losing so bad this issue!), and Krypto comes to the rescue and oh my God run Atlas that dog is going to kill you so dead!!!.

Superman was all just punching on Atlas, but Krypto is biting his throat, and scratching his bare nipples with his dog claws! Aaaaaa!!!

Robinson tells a great deal of this story from Krypto’s point of view, and writes some really cool dog narration. The fight with Atlas seemingly wraps up, Superman chats up a character who looks like he’ll be figuring in future story arcs (Zachary Zatara, the legacy hero Geoff Johns pulled out of his ass post-Infinite Crisis/52 rejiggering), and we get some more clues as to what’s going on behind the scenes.

The art on this book is just incredible. I honestly can’t say enough good things about the Renato Guedes and Wilson Magalhaes team. This is the best-looking Superman comic that doesn’t have Frank Quitely’s name on the cover in recent memory.

I’m still having some trouble getting used to the voice Robinson gives to Superman, which includes him waxing Frank Miller-ly about the sun and his dog, and, at the climax, yelling at the people of Metropolis to cheer for Krypto. Dude, chill out! Krypto totally saved the day; I’m sure everyone was likes him. Everyone who isn’t completely terrified of the thought of a flying, indestructible dog they just saw trying to rip a dude’s throat out.

Trinity #17 (DC) As this week’s DC Nation column by Mike Carlin points out, this issue of the company’s third consecutive weekly contains the one-third point of the 52-part series. There is a major, game-changing plot point herein, in which the evil trinity’s plan finally comes to fruition, and they seemingly remake the work in their image using the cosmic egg from the Kurt Busiek-written JLA/Avengers and the magical shenanigans they’ve been up to during the previous 16 issues. This issue is also structured a little differently than the previous ones; rather than a 12-page Busiek/Mark Bagley story in the front followed by a Busiek/Fabian Nicieza/Guest Artist story in the back, this is one features a shorter than usual lead story, a “back-up” in the middle, and a Bagley-drawn epilogue. It reads like one big, long, uninterrupted story. On its own, none of this is terribly original or engaging—the universe is being reset again, as it was after Infinite Crisis and before 52, and the Scott McDaniel penciled middle passage gives us some background on the Hulk-like alien Konvikt (I did like the apocalyptic imagery of giant burning footprints walking off into space, though).

Next issue, however, should be pretty interesting, if its devoted to exploring how the world has been changed. At the very least, Power Girl has a new costume…and Lois Lane smokes!

Confidential to Jim Lee: What on earth do you think you’re doing drawing cover for this book? Lots of people are available to draw covers to Trinity; but only you can draw All-Star Batman and Robin, the Boy Wonder.

Ultimate Spider-Man #126 (Marvel) Ever wish you could read a comic book featuring the Ultimates without having to read a Jeph Loeb script? Well you’re in luck! Guess who guest-stars in this issue, taking on the newly re-possessed-by-the-Venom-suit Spider-Man?

Wolverine First Class #7 (Marvel) When Kitty overhears crush object Colossus talking to a Russian lady on the phone, she’s inconsolable—at least until her mentor Wolverine gives her a shoulder to cry on and agrees to help her spy on Colossus. As it turns out, his lady friend is Russian mutant superheroine Darkstar, and she and her comrades Crimson Dynamo and Vanguard need Colossus for some…Russian stuff. This is the first issue in a multi-issue story arc, so the what’s not exactly clear yet, but whatever it is, Kitty seems to die in the process, and Wolverine gets pretty mad about that. Prior to his cliffhanger berserker rage, however, he teaches readers how to become totally invisible thermal vision while trying to clandestinely penetrate a high-security perimeter patrolled by guys with infrared goggles. This comic isn’t just fun, it’s educational!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Review: American Widow

Circumstance gave so-called “Terror Widow” Alissa Torres one of the more heart-rending stories of the September 11 attacks. At seven-and-a-half months pregnant, she and her husband were facing rather dire financial problems when their luck seemed to turn: Eddie Torres scored his dream job with a firm based in the World Trade Center. His first day on the job was September 10, 2001, followed immediately by his last day on this earth.

Torres, who has since turned to writing as both as a means of personal therapy and public expression, has scripted a graphic novel memoir of her experiences, illustrated in delicate, emotive black, white and sky blue art by Sungyoon Choi.

It’s a tough book to criticize, due to the subject matter, but the fact is it’s not really a very good graphic novel. The art is superb, and Torres’ perspective is certainly unique, full of insights into the nation’s reaction to the tragedy that most of us would otherwise never see (Friends envying the financial support Torres got, the massive bureaucracy of institutions trying to help her, the exploitive nature of some of those trying to do the helping, her reaction to cartoonist Ted Rall's depiction of her and her fellow widows, etc.)

The individual moments of the narrative are each interesting and worth reading, and some of them have great power, but they never all connect into anything novelistic, graphic or otherwise. Large portions of the story seem missing, including almost any information about her child, and one of the more dramatic elements—an argument with her husband that they never resolved before his death—goes unexplained.

The result is a book that feels oddly unfinished; like an early draft for a potentially great graphic novel that accidentally got illustrated and published while the story was still in the works. It's well worth reading for what Torres offers, but probably not worth recomending too emphatically. I expect great things from Choi in the future, though.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

I'm going to ask myself nine questions about Batman: Lovers & Madmen

1.) Why are you writing this in this lazy-looking Q-n-A format?

Well yesterday I wrote it in a more traditional, straightforward format, and it ended up being over 3,000 words long. That’s an awful lot of words to ask someone to read (or skim), particularly when they’re not very good words. I just kind of wandered around the points too much, and when it came time to reread it to check for spelling and grammar mistakes and suchlike, I wasn’t interested in doing so. That’s usually a good indication that I should just scrap--

2.) Wait. You wrote a first draft for a blog post that was over 3,000 words long on a weekend, and now you’re re-writing it? Do you even have a life?

Well, of course I do. I, um, hey, let’s try to stay on topic here! Ask me something about Batman: Lovers & Madmen!

3.) Okay, okay. So, what is this graphic novel, and who’s it by?

This is a slick, hardcover collection of the six-issue story arc “Lovers & Madmen” that ran in Batman Confidential #7-#12 toward the end of 2007. This book was released in April of this year, and includes an introduction by Brad Meltzer, which is kind of cool. My dislike of Meltzer’s comics writing is probably pretty evident, but I always like it when trades have introductions—I think they all should.

It’s written by Michael Green, who is currently writing Superman/Batman and whose prior writing work has been in television. He wrote for Heroes, Smallville and Sex in the City, none of which I’ve ever seen an entire episode of.

It’s penciled by Denys Cowan and inked by John Floyd.

4.) What’s it about?

Get this: A retelling of The Joker’s origin and his first conflict with Batman.

It’s hard to imagine a more audacious Batman/Joker story to attempt to tell in 2007 than one that seeks to cover the same ground as the Alan Moore/Brian Bolland classic Batman: The Killing Joke (pretty much the definitive Batman/Joker story, and the closest we’ve come—or probably should come—to explaining who the Joker is and how he came to be).

As for the first Joker/Batman conflict, that was also covered in the recently re-released Batman: The Man Who Laughs, written by Ed Brubaker, and quite a while ago in Legends of the Dark Knight #50, written by long-time Batman writer and editor Denny O’Neil.

And I say audacious not only because of the focus of the story, but because this story contradicts all of the above pretty heavily; it’s as if Green were saying, “No, no, no…this is how Killing Joke should have gone! This is the new Killing Joke!”

5.) Well, that would only be true if this were meant to be in continuity. Is it?

Who even knows anymore?

The company line seems to be that this is canonical rather than apocryphal. It lacks the usual indications that it’s not to be considered part of continuity: There’s no Elseworlds stamp, no “This is an imaginary story” note, no notation that this is taking place on Earth-51, not even an unreliable narrator along the lines of Killing Joke.

Additionally, the other Joker origin stories and the other stories detailing Batman’s first encounter with The Joker all pre-date the latest Crisis On Infinite Earths-style reboot of Batman continuity, that which occurred in Infinite Crisis and the end of 52. Because what exactly has changed in those reboots wasn’t made explicit—the only Batman change that was explicit was that Batman did catch his parents’ killer—the only way to discover what’s changed is to see how stories told after the reboot differ from those that came before. Stories like “Lovers and Madmen.”

Finally, this appeared not in a standalone miniseries or original graphic novel, but in Batman Confidential, a relatively young title devoted to telling untold tales set in Batman’s past (There have only been four story arcs in it so far; the first two were set during Batman’s first year, the other two involved Barbara Gordon as Batgirl and a recently-minted Nightwing).

Ultimately, I don’t think it will matter, as what is and what isn’t continuity tends to depend almost as much on the quality and popularity of the stories as much as the intentions of the editors and writers at the time.

I can’t imagine it will ever replace Killing Joke, however, whether it was meant to or not.

6.) So is the story any good?

Well it’s…okay, I guess. It’s really kind of hard to get past the fact that Green significantly re-writes the Joker’s origin and his first encounter with Batman in ways that, taken on their own in a vaccum, might be okay, but don’t quite compute with the Batman we know from his other ten billion comic book appearances.

If this was a graphic novel adaptation of Green’s rejected script for The Dark Knight or some Batman vs. Joker movie, it would be fine, if full of clichés and some embarrassingly purple narration (no wonder Meltzer liked it).

Cowan and Floyd’s art isn’t very good—something that sort of surprised me, as I usually dig Cowan’s pencils in the smaller doses I usually see it.

The nervous energy of the artists’ shaky lines might fit the insanity of the characters well, but the costuming choices are incongruently cartoony, the character design is amorphous (Alfred’s face shifts from panel to panel), and some page layouts are shockingly difficult to read

Near the end, for example, there’s a two-page layout flows in a semicircle, from left to right, diagonally down from right to left, and then right to left all the way back. I spent minutes reading different panels, trying to puzzle it out. Perhaps it was an experimental attempt to make us feel “crazy” like The Joker, or shape the page layout as a crescent shaped moon (Green’s Joker keeps talking about the bunny on the moon, as he notices the Japanese version of the man on the moon on the night he’s reborn as The Joker).

Even if those were the intentions, I think it failed, as any experiments in form have to serve the story on some level.

I should point out that they draw excellent teeth, though.

7.) Okay, let’s talk about some of those changes. What was The Joker up to before he was The Joker?

The Joker’s real name is “Jack” something or other. His pre-Joker life wasn’t one of a frustrated, failing stand-up comedian with a pregnant wife he couldn’t support who got mixed up and bullied into a plot to rob a chemical plant he used to work at while decked out as the mob invention of “The Red Hood” as in Killing Joke’s maybe true, maybe not version of events.

Instead, he’s a mob hitman who is an absolutely perfect shot, a real killing machine. But he finds no challenge or job satisfaction in killing, and, in fact, is considering ending his own life, as it has no real meaning.

Things start to turn around when he meets a blonde waitress, working at a bar to help fund her way through medical school to someday become a psychologist. Her name? Harleen Quinzel. Yes, pre-Joker Joker had met pre-Harley Quinn Harley Quinn, and not only had she helped convince him to keep at killing, but he later anonymously pays all her tuition bills with loot he’s stolen.

(This isn’t the only unlikely retcon adding a pre-villain villain into the mix; Green also has Batman turn to psychologist Dr. Jonathan Crane for advice on dealing with the criminally insane. Crane is working to re-open Arkham Asylum, which he ultimately does with funds from Bruce Wayne; in Man Who Laughs, the Asylum is opening as Joker debuts, devoid of any involvement from pre-Scarecrow Crane, who, in his other origins, was always teaching at Gotham University when he decided to become the Scarecrow).

Then Jack encounters Batman, and finds new purpose in his life (Green does play with the Joker and Batman as dysfunctional lovers undertones that Moore, Grant Morrison and others had previously explored). He starts committing a string of seemingly insane and incredibly cruel crimes in order to attract Batman’s attention.

8.) And how does he go from being Jack to being The Joker?


Okay, get this: During one of Jack’s crimes, he attacks a museum fundraiser attended by Bruce Wayne’s love interest Lorna Shore, and he stabs her pretty badly, before running off, leaving Batman to decide between saving her life or catching him.

Batman decides to stay, but throws a razorsharp batarang at Jack, and it cuts deeply into one of his cheeks then, circles around the back of his head and, on its return to Batman’s hand, cuts deeply into Jack’s other cheek. How did The Joker get his smile? Batman carved it there with his batarang.

This is, of course, original to this story; generally The Joker emerges from his chemical bath with the smile. It may be more realistic to have a smile carved into a man’s face rather than being some sort of side-effect to a chemical that also bleaches flesh and turns one’s hair green, but is realism a virtue in a Batman/Joker story? I didn’t understand how exactly the gypsy surgeons of 1928’s The Man Who Laughs gave Gwynplaine his unceasing smile, but that didn’t exactly ruin my enjoyment of the movie, you know?

Naturally, putting his girlfriend on life support in the hospital pisses Batman right the hell off, and when he finally figures out where this “Jack” will be—there are only so many surgeons in the city who will give medial attention to a killer who has a large section of his face ripped off by a batarang—he stakes them out and pounces. You might think.

But no, Batman instead calls a group of gangsters whom he knows are pissed at Jack, and he tells them to kill Jack for him, and to “make it quick.”

This is the weirdest fucking thing I’ve ever read in a Batman comic (And let the record show: Batman comics have been pretty fucking weird over the course of the last 70 years).

Not the fact that Batman would want to kill the Joker because, hell, we’ve seen him angry enough to beat The Joker to death about 15,000 times since 1980; usually Nightwing or Robin or Superman pull him off at the last minute, or he comes to his senses. But Batman being ready to kill him…and sub-contracting to criminals? That doesn’t seem very Batman-like, does it?

Anyway, Batman told them to “make it quick,” but, being a-holes, they decide to make it slow, taking Jack to a chemical plant and working him over. Being a total super-killer though, Jack escapes and starts murdering the hell out of them all, until the last one standing fires at him, misses, and the errant bullet dumps a huge vat of green sludge labeled “anti-psychotic” on him. This washes Jack down a drain or something, and there Jack must decide one more time if he wants to let himself die or fight on. He decides to swim to safety and devote himself to Batman.

Obviously, this differs from all the other Joker origin stories. The fact that the chemical plant is here a factory devoted to making the neurological medicines that are so common now (and were all but unheard of in 1940) is actually rather inspired, and more meaningful then the Joker-to-be plunging into some random chemical sludge. But the rest of it changes a great deal about the Batman/Joker relationship.

There’s no Red Hood, which might be one of the reasons why this won’t be considered canon for long (if at all), as we know that The Red Hood exists in the current, official version of the Batman story, and that he was almost definitely the guy who became the Joker (see all those Jason Todd stories in which he adopts the name Red Hood).

And while Batman is still to blame for creating The Joker—both by attracting him with his own colorful persona and making sure he nearly drowns in the chemicals that disfigure him—here he doesn’t scare him into the vat or accidentally push or punch him into it, he hires criminals to kill him, and they decide to do it in a chemical plant. Batman can still be angsty about that, but why would The Joker blame him/credit him with creating him? (In this story, The Joker does glimpse Batman, who decides too late to stop the hit he put on Jack, as he plunges into the chemicals, but the causality wouldn’t be apparent to The Joker).

9.) So what was your favorite part, other than Cowan and Floyd’s drawings of teeth?

I found the Bruce Wayne romantic conflict pretty amusing. Lorna Shore is a woman who works at an art museum funded in part by Wayne, and they have a meet-cute reminiscent of the Bruce Wayne/Vicki Vale meet-cute in 1989’s Batman film; wherein she disses Wayne to his face without realizing who he is.

Throughout the story, Batman is conflicted over his feelings for her and his feeling of duty to his mission to eradicate crime, finding himself torn between the desire of a normal life that the Lorna represents and the life of Batmanning we know he’ll ultimately choose.

Off the top of my head, this is at least the fourth time Batman faced that exact same conflict during his first year on the job ( Jillian Maxwell in Batman Legends of the Dark Knight Halloween Special, Selina Kyle in Batman: The Long Halloween/Dark Victory, Julie Madison in Matt Wagner’s Batman and the Monster Men and Batman and the Mad Monk…and that’s just in the comics. Batman: Mask of the Phantasm had the exact same conflict).

Apparently those first couple months Batman was constantly falling in love and thinking about quitting; I bet Alfred was sick of hearing him moan about that by the time Year Two rolled around…