Friday, April 29, 2016

These are some graphic novels I read recently:

All-New Captain America Vol. 1: Hydra Ascendant (Marvel Entertainment)

Not to be confused with All-New Captain America: Fear Him, which collects a four-issue miniseries by that name, this collects all six issues of the "ongoing" All-New Captain America series, which was abruptly canceled (like the rest of Marvel's line) last spring as part of the publisher's Secret Wars. So it ended up just being a mini-series, really. This was somewhat unfortunate, as it ended with a really rather dramatic revelation, which it seemed would be the focus of writer Rick Remender's second story arc on the book. Except there was no second story arc, as there were no more issues of All-New Captain America. The character did reappear in his own book after the conclusion of Secret Wars, but that book was entitled Captain America: Sam Wilson, and wasn't written by Rick Remender, but instead by Nick Spencer.

Marvel's always-frustrating publishing gymnastics aside, how is this book? It's pretty good. Stuart Immonen handles the artwork, so of course it's pretty good. Immonen is an interesting artist these days, because he has always been pretty good, but his work today is so much cleaner, crisper and kinetic than it was at the start of his now fairly lengthy career. I'd say he's currently at the top of his game, but then, I would have said that five years ago too, and his art only gets stronger and stronger.

As for the story, it seems to pick up where Remender left off in a previous Captain America title, the 25-issue 2013-2014 Captain America which introduced Steve Rogers' son, the new Nomad and apparently ended with Rogers becoming a very old man (with great abs, at least as Old Man Rogers was drawn in some of the Avengers books of the era) and passing his shield and codename on to his long-time ally Sam Wilson, The Falcon.

I say "seems" because this is very much in media res, and those all seem to be things it's assumed a reader will know (and I did know most of it, simply from what I had absorbed from other Marvel books; the new Nomad was a complete surprise to me, though).

I like Wilson as Captain America. His hybridized costume is pretty great, and probably the best of the many costumes he's worn over the years (I think the wings being completely withdrawn when he's not flying helps a lot). With some artists, the combination of the wings and the shield can look pretty awkward, but Immonen makes them work perfectly together, particularly in the action sequence of the opening issue.

The plot seems at least semi-inspired by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, as it involves a very wide-reaching Hydra plot involving sleeper agents, one on each superhero team, according to one agent. The high command is made up of all of Captain America's rogues gallery, or at least the current incarnations of them, including Batroc The Leaper, Baron Zemo, Red Skull, Crossbones, Taskmaster and Baron Blood, who is ideally suited to fighting the new, winged Cap.

The bad guys' plan is to release bombs at certain cities all over the world that will sterilize everyone who isn't Hydra, reducing the world's population to a more sustainable size (Ra's al Ghul style), and it's up to the All-New Cap, the All-New Nomad, Redwing and some ad hoc allies--particularly Misty Knight, Agent of SHIELD--to shut down the bombs and save the world. Spoiler alert: They do.

The super-villain team-up makes this a nice introduction to the world of Captain America, and I'm not sure to what extent Remender and Immonen are responsible for some of their current looks and portrayals, but while some look just like they did the last time I saw them, others have cool, new looks (like Batroc) and personalities (Batroc, again, who is presented as anti-American in an elitist, dismissive way, rather than as a comic book Nazi kind of way).

There's a panel in which Knight flips mercenary Taskmaster by simply promising to pay him more than Hydra is that seemed like more of a swipe than a borrow of a similar scene in the Grant Morrison-written "Rock of Ages" JLA story (where Batman pays mercenary Mirror Master than Lex Luthor promised to, fitting in with Morrison's Batman-lead League vs. Luthor-lead Injustice Gang as corporate warfare element of that epic clash). It's possible someone did it before Morrison too, of course, but if so I didn't read that story.

The best part of the entire book, however, may be when vampire villain Baron Blood "kills" Redwing, and, a few pages later, Redwing is alive again, and Cap says something to the effect of "But what's with those red eyes? Well, I guess we'll deal with that later!" Yes, that's kind of weird that Redwing was bitten by a vampire, died and then was up and moving around, but with glowing red eyes--what could that mean?

Hopefully Spencer picks up on the Vampire Redwing plotline in his Captain America: Sam Wilson book. While the cliffhanger at the end of the volume, and the idea that each Marvel super-team has a Hydra infiltrator on it, are fairly compelling plots, what I really want to know more about is how Sam will cope with having his animal sidekick transformed into a vampire...

ApocalyptiGirl: An Aria for the End Times (Dark Horse Books)

Andrew MacLean's original graphic novel about Aria and her sharp-faced white cat Jelly Beans as they navigate a mysterious, post-apocalyptic world on a somewhat mysterious mission. That mystery will eventually come into focus and be clarified, but a large part of what makes MacLean's story so satisfying is the gradual, casual pace at which it unfolds. His remarkably upbeat protagonist seems to just go about her business cheerfully, occasionally narrating and occasionally getting involved with a spectacular action scene, and her setting is one that is at once fresh and fantastic, while still feeling lived-in and well-worn.

On foot or on motorcycle, she travels from her  home in an abandoned subway train to the plant-encrusted mech leaning against an ancient gas station, searching for a signal, searching for apples and sometimes having to pull a sword on members of the two warring tribes in the area, both of whom speak only in intelligible alien languages, when they speak at all.

The book reminded me a bit of the work of Matt Howarth, a bit of the work of Brandon Graham, and a bit of the work of James Stokoe–three of my all-around favorite cartoonists, all of whom have produced highly imaginative and oragnic-feeling sci-fi and fantasy work–but his art doesn't really look like that of any of those three.

Many of the elements of this comic will seem extremely familiar, but it never feels derivative of anything in particular. Quite the opposite, in fact. I'd highly recommend it.

G.I. Joe Vs. The Transformers Vol. 3 (IDW Productions) The current license-holder of both G.I. Joe and the Transformers, IDW, has repackaged all of the previous crossovers into a series of three trade paperbacks, starting with the original 1986 Marvel crossover and concluding with Devil's Due Publishing's 2007 The Black Horizon story, one of the two in this volume.

These two comics arcs are, to put it bluntly and gracelessly, garbage. If one were to make a diagram of the quality of all of the crossovers contained in these three volumes, it would look like a hill; the Marvel ones weren't very good, the first Devil's Due of the early 00s which featured Transformers disguised as various Cobra vehicles the best, and these two just sort of sputtered out with unambitious stories and awful artwork.

Both are by writer Tim Seeley, and the script end of things is markedly better than the art end, which gets increasingly amateurish to the point that it's kind of surprising that some of these pages even saw print as is.

The first story, originally published by Devil's Due in 2006 as G.I. Joe vs. The Transformers Vol. III: The Art of War, introduces Serpentor into the peculiar mixed continuity of the series of miniseries, in which a handful of Joes have large robot-fighting mech suits of armor derived from Cybertronian technology.

This Serpentor is created by scientists in the U.S. government at the Area 52 facility, a few floors beneath the G.I. Joe/Autobot collaborations. He's a powerful android programmed with the tactics and leadership abilities of history's greatest strategists...including Megatron, whose giant severed head is also in the facility. They wanted to use him as U.S. super-soldier, but you could guess how well that worked for them.

After Cobra attacks, the arisen Serpentor heads to Cybertron where General Hawk and a handful of Joes (Snake-Eyes, Scarlet, Road Block) go to lend a tiny, tiny fleshy hand. Once there Serpentor, Son of Megatron rallies the various warring Decepticon factions and leads them against The Autobots, along the way discovering that he lacks a soul/spark like all the human and Transformer characters, and seeks to remedy it by acquiring The Matrix of Leadership from Optimus Prime.

Interestingly, it ends up in the hands of Hawk, who becomes one with it...sorta (It would have been funny to seem him try to shove the giant Matrix into his tiny little body, but that never happens).

Seeley and the too-many artists–pencillers Joe Ng, James Raiz and Alex Milne, inkers Rob Ross, Alan Tam and "M3th"–do a pretty poor job in terms of getting characters in (Cobra Commander, The Baronnes, Zarana and Zartan are the only Cobra chracters with speaking lines; in addition to those mentioned above, the only Joes with lines are Mainframe, Firewall, Lady Jaye and Flint). There are relatively few Autobots and Decepticons, too. It's a very small crossover, considering the massive casts Seeley had to pull from (the casts are similar to the small-sized ones live-action movies, which never seem capable of juggling even a half-dozen characters from each faction).

The secondary characters are mostly un-introduced. Like, I know who the Predacons are because I played with them as a little kid, but there were a few characters that never made it into the G1 cartoons that I didn't recognize at all. Presumably, who they are isn't all that important, but given the most recent franshice smash-up that IDW has been publishing–Tom Scioli and John Barber's superior Transformers Vs. G.I. Joe, both the small casts and complete lack of introductions seem even worse. Scioli has pages, hell, even panels with more characters than all of those that appear in all six of these issues, and the "filecard" intros, complete with two-to-six word intros, at least suggest a characterization. Here, many of the characters might as well be named Deception #2, G.I. Joe #7, and so on.

The settings are similarly ill-defined, with Cybertron not looking any different or more alien than what little we see of Earth (the insides of a couple of high-tech headquarters).

With Black Horizon, originally published as two over-sized issues, Seeley has a more interesting semi-high concept, pairing the villains of both 1986's The Transformers: The Movie (still the best Transformers film) and 1987's G.I. Joe: The Movie (ditto), Unicron and Cobra-La, in an alliance of sort. The metal-adverse Cobra-La, whose technology is all organic and bug-like, once held the Galactus-like planet-sized Transformer Unicron at bay, promising to summon him in a few millennia to cleanse the Earth of humanity.

That time has come in Black Horizon. The Matrix-eyed Hawk no leads a clandestine alliance of Autobots and former Joes (Firewall, Cosmos, Prowl and a few more Autobots I didn't recognize) in trying to rid the world of Cybertronian technology, like that which his former government used to build Serpentor. They stumble upon Cobra-La's plan, and with the help of Flint and Optimus try to advert the apocalypse.

In one of the neater twists in Seeley's story, he includes the original G.I. Joe characters, the Barbie-sized ones, with Joe Colton, the character G.I. Joe is named for, having been taken prisoner by Cobra-La decades ago. He too is integral in saving the day. (I'm fairly certain they even snuck some Battle Beasts in there, but I can't be sure, since Andrew Wildman's artwork was so poor; it was hard to be sure of much of anything, really.)

Seeley also adds some Yeti (?) into the Cobra-La society, which, um, kind of clashes with their overall arthropod aesthetic, and gives them a Pretender Transformer or six to play with. These are among the weirder Transformers, ones that even as a little kid I thought were super-dumb. The toys were regular Transformers encased in plastic, two-piece shells of huge, humanoid monsters. That didn't seem to fit the whole "robots in disguise" formulation of the toy line. Like, if you were a giant robot from space, disguising yourself as a giant undead samurai isn't exactly as good a camouflage as, say, being able to turn into a helicopter or truck. In fact, I'm fairly certain a giant undead samurai is more conspicuous and alarming than a simple giant robot.

Like the previous story, this one is very small in its cast–which is especially unfortunate that one would think every single Joe would be rallied to fight off a astronomically large robot intent on eating the planet Earth–and is even worse in its drawing. The settings should be even more fantastic, but there are no real establishing shots, and we see little of the fascinatingly weird culture of Cobra-La, which here consists of little more than three name characters (Golobulus, Pythona and Nemesis Enforcer), some poorly-drawn, off-model Cobra-La soldiers and random humanoids.

Last week, I thought Scioli and Barber's Transformers vs. G.I. Joe comic was one of the best genre comics I had ever read, and certainly the based based-on-a-licensed property comic I'ever ever read. After reading how poorly produced previous crossovers between those two particular properties, I like it even more.

Star Wars Adventures: Chewbacca and the Slavers of the Shadowlands (Dark Horse Books)

While contemplating Marvel's recent Chewbacca miniseries, I became curious about the inherent difficulties in a solo story starring a character who communicates only in funny howls and growls, and how other comics writers might have addressed the Wookie language barrier in previous Chewbacca comics.

I didn't find many in existence, perhaps because of that very issue, but this Chris Cerasi-written, Jennifer L. Meyer-drawn original graphic novel was one. Cerasi's approach? To simply translate Wookie-ese into English/"Basic", so that Chewie and the other Wookies in this story simply talk to one another in the same manner that, say, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo do in other comics.

While it's kind of disconcerting to hear Chewie say, for example, "What is it, Ralrra? I'm kind of busy here," instead of a more typical "HHHRRRHHH," what really makes the dialogue in this comic weird is that the story is a story-within-the-story, told by Chewbacca himself.

So in the framing sequence, Han, Leia and Chewie have just jumped to light speed and Chewie is scolding Han for being careless ("GRAAAARRRRHH!"), and when Leia, who can't understand a fucking thing the Wookie says, asks Han why he's so upset, Han explains that his hirsute friend once had a run-in with some slavers that cost him.

Leia puts a hand on Chewie's shoulder and says, "Tell me, Chewbacca. Please?"

This is two panels after Leia asked Han what Chewie was saying. The Wookie stares off into space, and an off-panel dialogue bubble belonging to Han starts the story. And then we cut to Wookie world, "185 years before The Battle of Yavin" (Wookie's live long, BTW).

I suppose that we're meant to ignore Leia's direct plea to Chewbacca to tell her, and assume Han tells the story. But I like to imagine Chewbacca sitting there and HHHHRRRR-ing to Leia for a half hour, while she does her best to look engaged and concerned, despite having know idea what he's yowling.

In that story, Chewbacca was a reckless, rebellious teen Wookie, and seems to be prickly about the fact that an older friend of his named Tarful just passed some warrior rite of passage. To prove himself, he goes off into "The Shadowlands," with Tarful, a female friend named Ralrra and two very young, Ewok-sized Wookies in tow.

There they encounter the titular slavers, a human woman, a big fuzzy alien I recognize from the cantina scene in A New Hope but can't name and a white humanoid weasel/rat. They fight, Chewie and Tarful eventually win through a combination of home turf advantage and timely intervention by the grown-up Wookies but one of the little ones dies.

It's a pretty simple story, with some pretty heavy subject matter, given its apparently all-ages address (You can tell by the word "Adventures" in the title; why does "Adventures" mean "targeted towards kids"...? I'll never know, but it holds true throughout comics from at least the last 25 years).

Meyer's art is pretty unusual for a Star Wars comic. Only five pages of it is set in "the present," and she does a fine job of filtering the characters through her own style, which has a slightly washed-out look that appears to be somewhere between air-brushed and watercolors. She doesn't mess around with trying to draw likenesses either; she's drawing Princess Leia and Han Solo, after all, not Carrie Fischer and Harrison Ford.

On Kashyyyk, things look less Star Wars still. The forest world is full of hazily, dreamily rendered foliage and mist, and the Wookies have big, expressive eyes and readable facial expressions that give them a cute, almost manga look, and seems far, far removed from the silver screen Chewbacca (all of the current Marvel Star Wars comics, no matter the artist, seems to feature art that strives to replicate the look of the films as much as possible, sometimes to their detriment).

I've definitely never read a Star Wars comic that looks like this one, which, in and of itself, kind of recommends it.

Star Wars: Vader Down (Marvel )

The first real crossover of the new, Marvel era of Star Wars-licensed comics, this collection includes a special one-shot by regular Star Wars writer Jason Aaron and artist Mike Deodato and a handful of issues of both Aaron's Star Wars ongoing (also drawn by Deodato) and a couple of issues of writer Kieron Gillen and artist Salvador Larocca's Darth Vader. The story is a lot of fun, although if one wanted to read it cynically, there's a whole lot of silly, "And then this guy shows up, and then this guy shows up, and then..." with some outright comical, cartoon-esque sequences. If one was already on board, however, then that stuff is a blast.

The basic story is pretty simple. Vader recently learned that the pilot who blew up the Death Star is named Luke Skywalker, and he is therefore scouring the galaxy to find his son. He's doing so on the sly, with the help of Doctor Aphra and her evil droid allies, Triple-Zero (a sadistic, evil opposite of C-3PO) and BT-1 (a ridiculously heavily-armed, square-headed version of R2-D2).

Vader finds Skywalker doing drills with a couple dozen rebel fighter pilots, and engages them in one of the many scenes demonstrating Vader's superhuman, superheroic levels of Force powers, but he's ultimately brought down by Luke straight-up ramming Vader's tie fighter (the first of several attempts by the Skywalker twins to take Vader out in suicide missions).

With Vader down and all alone on a mostly abandoned planet (along with a similarly downed Luke), Leia launches an all-out assault to take out Vader once and for all. Given that these comics all take place before the next two Star Wars movies, and we know exactly when and how Vader dies, there's not really much suspense as to how this all turns out, of course.

That lack of suspense doesn't make it any less interesting. The two main aspects of that interest are watching Vader tear apart whole Rebel legions (I've noted before that Comic Book Vader, in both the Dark Horse comics and now the Marvel comics, is depicted several hundred times stronger in the Force than he ever is in the original trilogy of films; if this Vader showed up on Hoth at the beginning of Empire, the series should have ended right then and there with the Empire triumphant), and Aaron and Gillen pairing the film's heroes with their comic book opposites here.

Han Solo vs. Dr. Aphra! C-3PO vs. Triple-Zero! R2-D2 vs. BT-1! Chewbacca vs. Black Krrsantan! And Leia's desire to avenge Alderann vs. her desire to not have her new friends all killed horribly!

Those last two character vs. character battles are probably the best bits, as the two little trashcan droids cuss each other out* before pulling their weapons, and R2 is severely out-gunned. As for Chewie vs. um, Blacky, our hero is on the ropes, still suffering the effects of a neurotoxin injected by Triple-Zero (who notes that the rebels have all seemed to develop a particular enmity against protocol droids for some reason). R2 administers an antidote, and things turn around instantly. It's practically a Popeye fight, with the syringe a sort of chemical space spinach.

The resolution is basically of the everyone returns to their respective corners sort that defined the original run of Marvel Star Wars comics (and all Star Wars comics starring the characters from the movies that are set between films), but there are developments in the Darth Vader book's plotline, as Vader faces against one of his major rivals (who looks like Admiral Ackbar's head on General Greivous' body).

I'm no fan of either Larocca or Deodato, the latter of whom has increasingly relied on photo reference and appropriation in his comics-making, and his images often feature an uncomfortably obvious use of dropped-in, repeated images when illustrating large numbers (dulling the impact of that first splash page, for example), and swipes of character poses and expressions straight from the films that are more than a little distracting (I found myself wondering which frame of which film a particular Han Solo face is from, for example, rather than concentrating on that particular scene of the comic).

Their styles are similar enough that there's no severe aesthetic whiplash in this collection when they hand the baton off to one another, although Deodato's Vader often looks more noticeably like a Marvel superhero than Larrocca's, and Deodato's Aphra's anatomy shifts unpredictably, depending on his photo reference, I guess.

Suicide Squad Vol. 3: Rogues (DC Comics)

With this latest 280-page collection of the John Ostrander-helmed Suicide Squad run, I realized one of the reasons that DC has had such a hard time with their recent revival attempts. A new Suicide Squad book was one of the 52 new books launched as part of The New 52. It was one of a handful of books that the market seemingly kept rejecting, but DC kept insisting on publishing anyway**, simply changing creative teams at a particularly high frequency and, at one point, cancelling it and relaunching it almost immediately (DC did the same with Teen Titans and Deathstroke).

Now, there are a couple of reasons why the book has had such a hard time taking off, including rejection of fans by some of the New 52 redesigns--like skinny, sexy Amanda Waller, or mustache-less Deadshot--and the fact that it has thus far featured either bad writing, bad art or both (2011's Suicide Squad #1 was among the worst of the 52 #1s, consisting of almost 20-pages of the protagonists being tortured and, um, that's it).

But while reading Rogues it hit me that a conceptual problem was the fact that the New 52 version of the DC Universe wasn't old enough to support the Squad. While the original one launched shortly after Crisis On Infinite Earth's hard reboot of DC history, COIE didn't hit the re-set button on everything all at once, and it affected some characters more than others; the DCU still had a history, and most of its characters were understood to have been around for a while (about ten years or so).

So when Amanda Waller's Task Force X starts recruiting the likes of Captain Boomerang, Deadshot Bronze Tiger, Nightshade and The Enchantress, these are all characters that were at least semi-familiar to readers as Flash and Batman villains, as supporting characters from older, canceled titles and curios of DC continuity. Black Orchid, Shade, The Changing Man, Vixen, The Penguin, Dr. Light--whether their roles were big or small, they were characters with history in the DC Universe and a presence in the back issue bins. If you wanted to learn more about them, you could read their old comics, because there were old comics featuring these versions of the characters.

That's not been the case with the New 52's Suicide Squads, one of which appears in a book called New Suicide Squad. Yes, the characters all have familiar names, but unfamiliar histories, especially at the outset. The first issue of 2011's Suicide Squad was the very first introduction to the new versions of Deadshot, Harley Quinn, King Shark and company, and while they shared the universe with all the other characters, that universe was brand-new across the board.

One of the most interesting aspects of Ostrander's Squad book, that it featured ever-changing, Dirty Dozen-like congregations of characters that really had no business sharing the same story space, wasn't something that could be replicated in the New 52 DCU. It can now of course; when New Suicide Squad added the likes of Reverse Flash, Black Manta and The Joker's Daughter, these were, at least, characters with story arcs in other books, and a modicum of history, and writers were able to flesh out backstories for the more regular characters like Deadshot and Harley, but even then, their universe was younger and smaller than that of the original, Ostrander-written Squad.

I don't think that element was the chief virtue of the original series, but it was certainly one of them, and one that can't be easily manufactured (So it should be interesting to see the upcoming film, which features a cast of characters who have never appeared in any films before, excepting a Joker; it's going to come down to characterization, concept and craftsmanship, and can't coast on fights with The Doom Patrol or Justice League or trips to settings like Shade's weird-ass homeworld or Apokolips).

This particular volume collects #17-25, and 1988's Suicide Squad Annual #1. Ostrander continues to do the bulk of the writing, sometimes in conjunction with Kim Yale, and Luke McDonnell handles the lion's share of the pencil art.

There's a lot going on in these stories in terms of plot, just like there's always a lot going on in the old Suicide Squad, including the team's cover being blown and being forced to go public, an "Invasion" tie-in, Rick Flag going rogue after committing what turned out to be an exceptionally unnecessary murder and, perhaps of the greatest historical importance, the very first appearances of Oracle–here as just a voice coming out of a computer and offering her/its help to the Squad.

McDonnell and company's artwork is serviceable but unspectacular, and can read strangely today. We're so used to seeing highly-stylized art, often with style taking the driver's seat and shoving story-telling fundamentals into the backseat, that it can bee downright unusual to see such perfectly readable, but also un-showy, artwork. Especially applied to DC characters.

I am increasingly struck by the fact that no matter how dark the subject matter gets in this series, the characters almost never get any kind of costume redesigns–the exception that proves the rule here is Nighshade, who had a transformative experience in the comics collected in volume 2. There's just some kind of special energy that emanates from the friction caused by the garish, colorful supervillain costumes grinding against the deadpan serious stories of international intrigue and violent geo-politics.

*"My, what language," Triple-Zero says of their BLEEP PBEEP WUURUU BIDDA DEEBA smack-talk. "He certainly s a foul-mouthed little astromech. I wonder if he's capable of backing up such talk?"

**Which might have had something to do with a big-budget, Will Smith-starring Suicide Squad movie having been in development, and set for release this summer.


Michael Hoskin said...

>It's possible someone did it before Morrison too, of course, but if so I didn't read that story.

As a matter of fact, a future Suicide Squad trade you have to look forward to plays out the same trope when William Heller hires Deadshot to kill Amanda Waller, but Waller buys Deadshot for the same price +1% - then hires him to shoot Heller. Deadshot agrees, as he never liked Heller anyway.

Unknown said...

If I remember the rather flimsy rationalization the Transformers comics had was that the Decepticon Pretenders were disguised as members of other alien races, so that the Decepticons could launch false flag operations against the Autobots. They could attack the Autobots during a cease-fire and blame some totally different aliens.

I guess a lot of aliens in the Transformers universe are the same approximate height as the Transformers. And really scary looking by human standards.

Then the Autobots got a hold of the technology and made Autobots that looked like humans, but they were still 20 feet tall. I'm not sure what their endgame there was.

Robt Seda-Schreiber said...

James Stokoe & Brandom Graham are one thang, but throw in the incredibly-under-appreciated & oh-so-talented Matt Howarth & that makes this "ApocalyptiGirl" to which you refer a must read for this boy!
Thanks for turnin' me on to a new comical book & I hope it lives up to the hype (altho' Flav always warned me never to believe it...)!