Monday, May 30, 2016

Review: Doctor Strange Vol. 1: The Way of the Weird

I'm not sure if writer Jason Aaron has gained a reputation for reinvigorating often difficult superhero characters and giving them exciting new directions, almost like a Marvel answer to Geoff Johns' pre-Flashopint character rehabilitation programs at the Distinguished Competition. I mean, that's the way I see Aaron, after his work on Ghost Rider, a series of different Wolverine titles, his work on the previous, Odinson version of Thor and, most especially, his run on Wolverine and The X-Men, which was by far the best X-Men run since Grant Morrison and company's millennial run, and the introduction and continuing adventures of the new, female Thor in the pages of Thor/Mighty Thor. I'm not sure if everyone else sees him that way too, though.

But given the fact that not only has just about everything I've read of his been good*, he's also found ways to make even the most tired characters and concepts exciting, fun and even funny, I was pretty pleased to hear that Marvel had tapped him to write the first new Doctor Strange ongoing book in...well, since I've been reading Marvel comics, I think? The character has always been around, getting a few miniseries and playing roles big and small in most of the post-Civil War event series. Brian Michael Bendis used him regularly in his Avengers-centric stories, as a member of "The Illuminati," and he always showed up when a magic guy is needed in any book. The post-Secret Wars book would be his first attempt at a star turn in pretty much forever though.

And one imagines that the book had to be a good one, as Marvel Studios has a Doctor Strange film up next on their slate, and are going to want as many Doctor Strange-related collections on shelves as possible the last quarter of this year.

So they paired Aaron with Chris Bachalo, and the results are about as I expected: Fresh, exciting, fun and funny.

One of the problems, or at least the perceived problems, with the Doctor Strange character is just how damn powerful he is. If your superpower is "magic," then writing simple fight comics gets a lot harder than it is for someone whose power is, say, "webs and the proportional strength of a spider" or "sharp claws" and so on. Aaron and Bachalo address Strange's comics creator-frigthenng powers of omnipotence head on in a couple of ways. First and most obviously, there's the matter of escalating the threats, so that if the hero seems omnipotent, then for an external, physical conflict you need to imagine antagonists that are even more powerful (the route in recent years has been to impose limits on Strange instead, essentially de-powering him to fight lower-level, Jonathan Hickman's New Avengers/Avengers/Secret Wars epic excluded, of course).

Secondly, they show that just because Strange has the power to take on various magical threats doesn't mean his life is easy, in the same way that a medical doctor may be able to prevent or cure most diseases, but they're still over-worked, stressed out and engaged in a never-ending battle.

And thirdly, and most imaginatively, they depict the cost of Strange's magical powers. Taking the "doctor" of the character's name (and origin) as literally as possible, Aaron and Bachalo's Doctor Strange treats the Earth and its people as his patient, and various magical threats as infections that need repelled or subdued (either by spells or magical weapons like that big-ass battle axe seen on the cover). Along the way, of course, Strange picks ups all sorts of mystical maladies himself, and the toll its left on his body is most graphically displayed during a scene late in the volume where we see Wong preparing a meal for him, which new point of view character Zelma refers to as "culinary afterbirth."

"Exposure to magical energy changes a mortal body over time," Wong explains to her in dialogue bubbles over a panel of Strange forcing a pink, viscous soup with eyeballs, snails and tentacles into his mouth using chopsticks. "After years of casting spells to save the world...this is literally the only food that the Doctor's stomach can accept... ....Food that would kill a normal man. And someday, will kill him as well."

It's played for laughs ("Ugh," Strange says, "Tastes like leprosy"), but demonstrates the danger of magic swiftly in the space of a few panels, and, incidentally, helps further remove Wong from his stereotypical, 1960s, Asian manservant roots. Yeah, the Asian guy may be Strange's cook, but did you see the stuff he has to cook for Strange? You have to be a kung fu expert with great magical knowledge and incomparable courage for that; only a superhero could run run this Doctor Strange's kitchen (not that all Wong does is cook and occasionally karate chop here, of course. Aaron also has a big, high-concept idea regarding the magic's deleterious effect on Strange's mortal body that Wong is involved in that is only partially explained by volume's end).

We meet Aaron and Bachalo's version of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko's Doctor Strange in a bravura 12-page sequence that includes a pithy, one-page recap of his origin (delivered via Strange's own narration over a mosaic-like background of old panels of comics featuring the character), a sprawling battle scene against bizarre magical foes of Bachalo's wildest imagination, and then the reveal that the character was making a house call, floating next to the bed of a sleeping little boy while his astral projection was fighting his foes on "the ectoplasmic ...within the boy's very soulscape.

From there, his cape unwinds from his shoulders and forms a stairway he strolls casually down, from the boy's second-floor bedroom window to the streets, where it ties itself into a rather ordinary-looking scarf, and we see Strange in "street clothes" rather than his regular work clothes/costume.

There's a few pages of him strolling around New York, in one of several instances in which Bachalo, who colors his own art in this book, shows us the world through Strange's eyes...or at least a big third eye in his forehead. The streets of modern day New York are rendered in black and white, while all sorts of strange creatures flit through in full-color, some attached to passersby that don't even notice them, and most of these ignored by Strange himself, sine they're just a part of daily life (as he sees it), not threats.

He visits a bar where Marvel's other mystical characters occasionally convene, and when he returns home, there is a young woman there seeking his help with a scalp infection of sorts: She's grown mouths atop her head. Meanwhile, in a different dimension, some strange force called The Empirikul (get it?!) are hunting and exterminating the Sorcerers Supreme in various different dimensions. That last bit is drawn by Kevin Nowlan. It's a five-page sequence which accounts for the only bit of the book not drawn by Bachalo himself.

How did the artist handle penciling and coloring five consecutive issues himself? The seven inkers probably helped.

You can extrapolate much of what follows there that first issue. Zelda, a librarian, tales a part-time position helping organizing Strange's library, since the ability to not find the right book at the right time could be a matter of life and death. There are more visits to the magicians' bar (Look! Son of Satan! Man, I hate what Bachalo did with his hair), more attacks on alternate Sorcerer's Supreme, more of Strange's weird-ass life and, ultimately, the arrival of the Empirikul on Earth, providing a point from a cliffhanger ending to the volume.

There are plenty of familiar elements, even familiar scenes–a visitor lost in Strange's house, for example, seems like something I've read a handful of times in the past few years–but to my casual Doctor Strange reader's eye, it certainly seemed like Aaron and Bachalo did a fine job of refreshing without reinventing the character. Nothing terribly important seems to have been reinvented, no dramatic change to the status quo was delivered. Rather, this seems to pretty simply follow the formula of the Mark Waid and company relaunch of Daredevil a few line-wide relaunches ago: Good Writer + Good Artist + Interesting Character = Good Super-Comics.

Regarding that art, there's little difference between what Bachalo is providing here and what he was doing with Brian MIchael Bendis in Uncanny X-Men. He even mostly sticks with the borderless panels set in a white field (forming implied panel borders) he used throughout his last X-Men run, and in a few instances drops photos into the backgrounds for the backgrounds, for some dumb reason.

Rather, this subject matter just allows him to cut even looser and go even wilder with designs. I've mentioned the coloring tricks (Bachalo seems particularly enamored of a Tim Burton-esque, horizontal striped pattern for the supernatural). His mild re-designs of Doctor Strange is cool too. Whether he gets dressed magically or simply casts a spell to change his appearance, I liked the way he blends in within this book.

Bachalo also did a rather fine job of redesigning Strange, with a less-is-more approach that one might not even notice at first. He still wears his classic tunic and cape (clasped with the Eye of Agamotto), but he's ditched the yellow gloves with the spots, so now his shirt doesn't puff up on the sleeves above them, looking blouse-like. The cape's bizarre collar that looked so cool in Ditko's drawings but rarely if ever works when a modern artist, more intent on rendering their figures in three-dimensional, realistic portrayals, attempts to draw it (the fact that we see the cape used as a scarf and ramp in here indicates that it is magic enough to change shape and appearance to, so purists can rest easy that Bachalo didn't change the cape, but simply changed whether or not Strange decides to rock a crazy collar with it or not).

His pants are no longer so tight, and just look like a regular pair of nice pants, and he has boots with treads on them, furthering the idea that his superhero costume amounts to his work clothes. He wears a dagger on his belt, like a Dungeons & Dragons magic-user now, and summons magical medieval weaponry to cut and bash tentacles as necessary.

Least noticeable of all, unless you look super-close at those Ditko panels upcycled into an origin recap on page one, Strange no longer has any gray or white in his hair, but looks very young...even younger than the guy who will be playing hi in the upcoming movie, actually. It is perhaps a little weird that Strange, one of the most visibly middle-aged superheroes, no longer looks quite so middle-aged at a time when the readers of Marvel comics books are far, far older than they were in the 1960s, but I suppose the idea is to have him remain a contemporary of Tony Stark and that generation of heroes, and those guys are never getting any older, are they?

That, or maybe Strange just cast some sort of spell of de-graying. I mean, if I were a Sorcerer Supreme, I'd probably cast a spell to re-grow hair on my bald head.

Now that I've discussed the book at length, here's a short review: Aaron and Bachalo's Doctor Strange book is very good, and there's a good chance that you will enjoy reading it, so you should probably check it out. It will definitely go on any list of books I recommend to any friends who want to know a good place to start with Doctor Strange comics as the movie approaches (Right up there with Brian K. Vaughan and Marcos Martin's 2006's The Oath, which introduces the Night Nurse costume I wish Rosario Dawson would don in a Netflix series eventually).

Now here's hoping after Aaron and Bachalo finish their run on this series, they follow it up with a new Defenders series, because my favorite Doctor Strange is a Doctor Strange who bickers with Namor, The Hulk and Silver Surfer...

*Abhay Khosla's "The Case Against Dan DiDio" is still pretty fresh in my head, so as I was thinking about Jason Aaron and all the great comics he's written for Marvel in the past decade or so, I couldn't help but remember where Aaron came from. Before going on to write Ghost Rider, Thor, Wolverine, The X-Men, Star Wars, Original Sin, and parts of Avengers Vs. X-Men, Aaron wrote Scalped for DC Comics' Vertigo imprint. And...that's about it. Looking at Wikipedia, because I honestly can't remember ever reading any Aaron-written DC comics other than Scalped, it appears that he has a few more Vertigo credits to his name, but the only DC Universe title he wrote was the Penguin issue of Joker's Asylum. I don't know that Aaron writing all of these great comics, many of which were also big commercial hits, for Marvel, and not writing for DC Comics instead, despite obviously having contacts at DC is necessarily Dan DiDio's fault, but it certainly fits the pattern that Khosla suggests (and, really, anyone who follows mainstream comics will have noticed–I mean, even Scott Snyder took his Wytches to Image instead of having Vertigo publish it) that DC under DiDio has had a problem keeping top-tier talent. Aaron was writing Scalped for Vertigo at the same time he was writing some of his Marvel superhero comic work, but the number of different titles he wrote for Marvel vs. DC in the last ten years is pretty damn striking.

Saturday, May 28, 2016

Yoda, Lucas' friends in the '70s on the dearth of women in the original Star Wars trilogy.

I was not a fan of Droids, the 1985-86 Saturday morning cartoon that followed the adventures of C-3PO and R2-D2, and that my now 30-year-old low opinion of that particular show made me reluctant to watch Lego Star Wars: Droid Tales. I recently gave it a chance–all of these Lego DVDs make fairly excellent dinner companions for bachelors, I've found–and was pleasantly surprised. It essentially re-tells the entire Star Wars saga in chronological order from Threepio's perspective–including the TV shows Clone Wars and Rebels–and while a lot of the humor falls a little flat, there were some genuinely funny moments ("'Danger' is not your middle name," the Anthony Daniels-voiced Lego Threepio yells at Artoo after the droid bleeps something in response to Threepio warning him of danger, "Your middle name is 'hyphen'" Ah ha!).

It was also surprisingly sharp, even savage in its critique of the films, especially the second, prequel trilogy, although the original trilogy receives plenty of parodic attention as well.

I found to be this exchange between Lego Yoda and Lego Luke, during the re-telling of the events of Return of The Jedi, particularly surprising, given its acknowledgment of what many have long seen as a key weakness of the franchise. The filmmakers couch it in a joke, of course, but that just provides rhetorical sugar for the medicine.

Here are some terrible cellphone photos of my laptop:

While that may seem like a pretty 21st Century reaction to the original trilogy, and while the same people who fumed online for months about the fact that Force Awakens starred a lady and that women and black guys were now allowed to be Stormtroopers, it's worth noting that as far back as the mid-seventies George Lucas was being made aware of an over-abundance of Y chromosomes.

Coincidentally, I've been reading (i.e. listening to the audiobook in my car on long trips) Chris Taylor's 2014 How Star Wars Conquered the Universe, and it's been a great read (i.e. listen) so far (I'm only up to the point in Taylor's history of George Lucas, his franchise and its cultural impact where Empire is being produced).

In the chapter "My Little Space Thing," Taylor walks readers (and listeners) through the drafting process and its many, many, many revisions (while reading this, I thought back to that graphic novel Dark Horse produced based on an early draft of Lucas' The Star Wars, and realized they could have done, like a whole line of those, given how much the drafts changed over the years).

Check it out:
The concept paintings [by Ralph McQuarrie] helped clear up some of the confusion over Lucas's vision, but there was one more complicating factor: Lucas's second draft was embarrassingly croded with men. He'd already gotten a lot of heat over the fact that [American] Graffiti ended with on-screen text catching us up with the next ten years in the lives of the male characters, and nothing about the women. With the feminist movement growing more powerful with eaching passing month, Star Wars seemed on track for similar criticism, In March, 1975, Lucas decided to fix that at a stroke: Luke Starkiller became an eighteen-year-old woman. After all, hed's been reading an awful lot of fairy tales as research into the mechanics of storytelling, and it's rather hard to ignore the convention that the protagonist of fairy tales is almost always female.


This gender reversal lasted for a couple of months, long enough for the female Luke to show up in a McQuarrie painting of the main characters. By May 1975, when Lucas wrote a crucial six-page synopsis for Fox executives–a synopsis not of the second draft, but of an entirely new story–Luke was back to being a boy. But Princess Leia had returned from the purgatory of the first draft, and in a much more prominent role. Now she was a leader of the rebellion from the outset, replacing Deak Starkiller in the opening scene and in the prison on Alderaan.
Wow. This is, of course, one of the thousands of different things that could have happened during the creations of those three films, had Lucas or others not made a particular choice at a particular time, but try to imagine for a moment if rather than Luke Skywalker as the child of destiny and Jedi knight of the original trilogy, we had gotten a Leia Skywalker.

Later in the book, in a passage explaining how Lucas was planning contingency plans so that his universe wouldn't be beholden to any particular actor should he lose them for any reason, Taylor says that at one point the plan was to reveal that Luke had a twin sister–who was training to be a Jedi on the other side of the universe. If Mark Hamil ever wanted out, or was forced out by circumstance (like, if he had died in that terrible car accident, or if he ever had another terrible car accident), Lucas and company would be able to introduce a new, female Skywalker in future Star Wars films.

Rey as the hero of Episode VII doesn't sound that radical now, does it, Internet People Who Thought Having A Lady In The Luke/Anakin Role Of The Third Trilogy Was Cuckoo Banana Bonkers...?

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Comic Shop Comics: May 25th

Afterlife With Archie #9 (Archie Comics) Oh yeah, Archie Comics publishes a mature readers horror comic by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francesco Francavilla about a zombie apocalypse breaking out in Riverdale...and it's an ongoing series! I completely forgot, given that the previous issue was...let's see...May 6, 2015?! Huh.

I really appreciated the recap page in this issue, because I needed it.

Earlier in the day, before I had a chance to go to the shop, I noticed that Mike Sterling had tweeted "Every issue of AFTERLIFE WITH ARCHIE gives me something I thought I'd never see in an Archie comic, and this new issue is no exception." He's right. Even once you get past the undead feasting on the living aspect and the necessary violence and gore, this series has remained an incredibly surprising one, when it comes to horror, emotional content or, as in the thing Sterling was referring to here (page 8, panel 5...but you would have recognized it when you saw it yourself), simple, everyday things that one might expect to find in a realistic comic book about teenagers but, you know, this is an Archie comic.

Even nine issues (and God knows how many years) in, there are still genuinely shocking things like that...and something else, I kinda want to return to in a moment, as it's a spoiler of sorts.

This issue, entitled "The Trouble With Reggie," is narrated by and focused on Reggie Mantle. In it, we learn that Riverdale's resident jerk isn't just a jerk, but a genuine, honest-to-God sociopath, and we learn a secret about how he inadvertently kicked off the events of the book. Not only did he do something cruel and callous, but he apparently did it on purpose in an act of genuine evil...and while Aguirre-Sacasa sets Reggie up to try and do something truly noble in order to atone for that sin, it doesn't look like we've seen the last of Reggie.

This will sound like I'm kidding or being hyperbolic, kinda like any time I try to explain that Tom Scioli's Tranformers Vs. G.I. Joe is the best comic book being produced today, but this was one of the best comic book stories I've read so far this year.

Not only is it an engrossing portrait of one of comic book history's greatest villains–who is here actually a villain, rather than just a rival or foil to our hero–but is full of surprising twists and turns.

And that's just the script! Francavilla's art and colors are as masterful as ever, and those last six-pages are a damn tour-de-force of unexpected, fantastic horror imagery. Hopefully we don't have to wait another 54 weeks or so for #10, as it promises Josie and The Pussycats!

Okay, now let's return to the second "I never thought I'd see that in an Archie comic" scene in the book. So if you haven't read it, just scroll down until you hit the next comic book cover.


They gone? Okay, so page 11, and the first three panels of page 12. Midge calls Reggie to Pop's and says its an emergency, and they have a really intense conversation and, well, is she asking Reggie to help her pay for an abortion? They never use the word "abortion" or even any sort of euphemism, but that's what I assumed they were talking around. I even asked my friend to read the scene, without sharing my reading, and asked her what she thought they were talking about.

Am I crazy? Midge is totally asking Reggie to lend her $500 to get an abortion, right?

In a way, that seems even crazier than the panel on page eight. Part of me wonders why Aguirre-Sacasa wasn't explicit with the subject of this scene, and why Archie didn't publicize it in some way, as that's a pretty hot-button topic and its presence in an Archie comic, even this Archie comic, seems like it would generate mainstream media attention.

On the other hand, Archie Comics probably doesn't want the attention. I know they say there's no such thing as bad publicity, but I bet some of those in positions of power at Archie would disagree.

Batgirl #52 (DC Comics) It's the much-sooner-than-I-would-have-liked conclusion of Cameron Stewart, Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr's 18-issue run on Batgirl, and only co-writer Fletcher stuck around to the bitter end (Stewart and Tarr bailed after #50, although Tarr does provide the cover for this issue). Fletcher is joined by artists Eleonora Carlini and Minkyu Jung for "Turning The Page," the second half of a two-part story in which Batgirl teams up with the new Birds of Prey (who are actually only the new Birds of Prey in this book; they won't be in the upcoming, Fletcher-less Batgirl and The Birds of Prey comic) to take on Gladius in the library of Gotham Academy.

As I said of the previous issue, this allows Fletcher to tie up every single last loose end, so that Batgirl has now teamed with pretty much all of her allies to take on pretty much every villain she's faced over the last 18 months, and, after the requisite fighting, there's a surprisingly touching scene where Barbara attends a going away party and bids a temporary farewell to all of the friends she's made during this too-short, 18-issue run.

In a scene that parallels the one from the first issue of the run, in which Barbara's photographic memory is used to retrace the events of a party in her new apartment, spread out over a two-page splash, here she visits briefly with each of her friends, while recalling dramatic moments from her relationship with them.

It's a pretty great send off. I'm really sorry to see this team leaving the character and the book (you can catch the creative team reuniting at Image Comics soon, though), as if Stewart, Fletcher and Tarr had to leave Batgirl, I would only want them to do so in order to launch a new Birds of Prey featuring Barbara, Black Canary, "Operator", Bluebird, Spoiler and Vixen, but, well, that aint' happening.

DC Comics Bombshells #13 (DC) After the last two issues of Marguerite Bennett's surprisingly good comic book series based on a stylish but silly line of collectible statuettes featured most of the cast in a gigantic battle in Europe, we get a one-issue return trip to the home front to check in on The Batgirls.

These characters, you may recall, are a team of Batwoman-inspired teenager girls (and two boys) who fight crime in Gotham City with baseball bats. Many of them have the names of past DC Comics Batgirls or Batgirl supporting characters or allies.

In this issue, drawn by Mika Andolfo and Pasquale Qualano, they find themselves targeted by Gotham City Mayor Harvey Dent, who has teamed with The Penguin, Killer Frost and Hugo Strange for a...well, their exact plan doesn't make too much sense to me, and I spent most of my time trying to figure out why Bennett used Strange instead of Dr. Psycho, whose M.O. seems to fit Strange's goals here better than Strange does. Anyway, the Batgirls have plenty of allies of their own, including Maggie Sawyer and some new/familiar faces on the Gotham City Police Department, and Lois Lane.

You can see Lois on the cover. Given the Bombshell Lois Lane statue's particular design, which is more paperboygirl than reporter, I was wondering how Bennett might use her in a story, and it turns out that she does so by making her 17 and intent on becoming a reporter.

There's a lot of fun stuff simmering in this comic book, like the idea that The Batgirls are a modern day answer to the boy gangs who used to star in comic books of the Golden Age, or that Lois Lane and her allies' decision to make their own damn newspaper to circumvent the mainstream media gives a Golden Age superhero comic book echo of the 1990s riot grrl movement/scene and their zines.

Technically, it could be much better made, as there's still some disconnect between what the words sometimes say and what the pictures show, and the particular motivations of some of the bad guys are pretty damn nebulous. Regardless, Bombshells is still a very fun book.


Although I do wish the 'girls would get a team uniform. Right now, each character has their own uniform, each with their own colors, that makes them look like they all play for different teams, and kind of defeats the purpose of their baseball team motif. I think there are plenty of ways to distinguish the individual characters' looks while at least having them wear the same color scheme.

DC Universe: Rebirth #1 (DC) I decided to write about this comic in a standalone post that I published last night, if you want to read my thoughts on the depressing, semi-controversial book. It's technically as well-produced as what one might expect, it begins to fix most of the worst problems of the post-Flashpoint New 52-iverse (or at least demonstrate those fixes, in the case of the character designs) and it is mostly just depressing in its strategy of restoring the previous universe by adding another layer of changes rather than un-doing any changes and extremely gross in its incorporation of some characters and motifs from a certain 30-year-old comic book series that, for some reason, writer Geoff Johns and DC Comics as a whole just can't. Let. Go.

I was chagrined to note that just about any big change that was made in the 2011 New 52-boot is changed back here. I didn't note this in that long-ass piece of mine, but it dawned on me later that the "Rebirth" era is completely free of any and all WildStorm characters, which was one of the things Flashpoint explicitly changed, smooshing the DCU together with the WildStorm Universe and a Vertigo Universe (the only Vertigo characters to be seen are, of course, John Constantine and Swamp Thing, who Johns himself had re-introduced into the DCU before he re-re-introduced them into the DCU in Flashpoint).

If you did read my piece last night, and still want to hear more of people talking about Rebirth, might I suggest this roundtable at Comics Alliance...? It's terrifying–but accurate!–headline? "Everyone Is Hawkman." Yikes!

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

On DC Universe: Rebirth #1

So here we are again. DC Universe: Rebirth is a 65-page comic book scripted by Geoff Johns, drawn by a handful of the more talented artists to have collaborated with Johns in the past and priced to sell at just $2.99–a dollar cheaper than any 20-page comic that rival Marvel Entertainment has on the stands today. It's mostly narrated by a point-of-view character that guides readers through a tour of upcoming storylines that will play out throughout the publisher's imminent slate of new books.

If that sounds familiar, then congratulations and/or my condolences, as that likely means you read 2005's Countdown To Infinite Crisis #1. That particular over-sized, Johns-scripted, multiple artist-drawn, bargain-priced comic book that similarly enlisted a point-of-view character to lay out the DCU's status quo and tease big changes in DC's superhero line is now eleven years old, and both its age and the story it was countdown-ing to are emblematic of the inherent problems with this comic. Or, that is, the inherent problems with Rebirth other than the big, obvious one, which I'd like to set aside for a a bit if I may (You know the big, obvious thing that's wrong with this book already though, right? It was leaked online over the weekend and Johns gave an interview to USA Today about it; I think Abhay Khosla best characterized that big, obvious problem when he recently referred to it as "objectively fucking stupid" in this must-read essay on Co-Publisher Dan DiDio and DC Comics under his leadership).

In emulating the format of Countdown, Rebirth reveals just how backward-looking it is, although it looks back far further than 11 years, as it is, according to Johns in the above-mentioned interview, essentially written in response to a 30-year-old comic book (I suppose that too is reminiscent of Countdown to Infinite Crisis, as 2006's Infinite Crisis was itself a direct sequel to the then 30-year-old Crisis On Infinite Earths).

So 2006's Infinite Crisis offered something of a soft reboot to DC's continuity/history, altering the specific continuities of several characters while reshaping the nature of the DC Multiverse more dramatically than any comic since Crisis On Infinite Earths (although the pay-off wouldn't come until the conclusion of 52 in 2007, wherein those changes were solidified).

There was further tinkering to the timeline, the Multiverse and various characters in stories like Countdown To Final Crisis (2007-2008) an Final Crisis (2008-2009), and Blackest Night (2009-2010) and Brightest Day (2010-2011) and then, in 2011, Johns was tapped to do the unthinkable in the conclusion of his Flashpoint event series: Completely reboot DC Comics continuity in a way no one dared since Crisis On Infinite Earths, which lead to The New 52. Every comic would be relaunched with new #1s, even Action Comics and Detective Comics, every character would get a new costume design, the Vertigo characters were re-integrated into this new DC Universe (although Johns had just finished re-introducing them at the conclusion of Brightest Day) and the WildStorm characters would be as well.

The brand-new continuity would be a secret one, as after the Johns-written first story arc of Justice League, we would jump ahead to a "Year Five" of the New 52-iverse, and no one really seemed to know what might have happened during those five years...except for the fact that The Joker definitely shot and sexually assaulted Batgirl Barbara Gordon. Dramatically, DC's four generations of superheroes were reduced to one, so that there was no Golden Age, no former sidekicks and no real legacy characters (aside from the Robins).

The in-story explanation for this particular change of events was never made explicit. At the end of Flashpoint, in which The Flash Barry Allen and a Reverse Flash messed with the timestream and inadvertently created a dystopia where Batman had a mustache, Superman was skinny and Aquaman and Wonder Woman were genocidal maniacs, there was a cryptic scene where a mysterious woman in a hood (later revealed to be Pandora) smooshed two other universes (the Vertigo Universe and the WildStorm Universe) into the DC Universe that The Flash was trying to fix, in order to make the universe stronger to stave off some future...something.

That was about five years ago, and despite Pandora playing a part in a couple of big event story arcs spearheaded or written by Johns ("Trinity War" and Forever Evil), despite Pandora getting her own (quickly cancelled) series and then joining a couple of other mysterious characters of cosmic significance in a second series (that was even more quickly cancelled), just what the hell was going on was never explained.

Is this, the events of Rebirth, that long overdue explanation? Not really. This is a new, retroactive explanation, and one that seems to have been made up at the last minute along the same lines as the decision to use Flashpoint as an excuse to reboot the DCU line was. But we'll get to that in a moment. Where are we now, after five years of a near constant continuity fiddling, followed by five years of The New 52? Well, in terms of quality comics that connected with DC fans and/or new readers, The New 52 started out bad and got worse. The only book that has seen any real lasting improvement has been the Scott Snyder-written, Greg Capullo-drawn Batman, which, like the Johns-written Green Lantern book, mostly avoided the changes wrought by Flashpoint and The New 52; acknowledging them when necessary, but not dwelling on them. Nothing else DC has tried during the last five years has really stuck, with most of the books that weren't cancelled burning through creative teams at an incredible rate, and characters being re-designed and re-oriented almost constantly, as if it were the early 1990s again (Bruce Wayne even stopped being Batman for a while, and was replaced by a guy wearing a suit of armor).

Had The New 52 run its course? Apparently, and Rebirth here is the fix. And that fix is, of course, another reboot of sorts. If DC had metaphorically dug itself into a metaphorical hole with its reboots, then its metaphorical strategy to get out of that metaphorical hole is to metaphorically dig some more.

I would like to say that DC Universe: Rebirth undoes the changes of The New 52, but it is much more complicated than that. Rather, it changes an awful lot of the things back to the way they were before, so that the continuity stream-lining, more simplified version of the universe that DC tried selling for five years is more complicated than it was before. Put another way, we're mostly back to where we were in the summer of 2011, although there are two rounds of complicated, continuity re-jiggerings that get us back there.

Let's talk specifics of the book though, shall we?

There are four chapters and the objectively fucking stupid epilogue, drawn by Gary Frank (who worked with Johns on Superman, Batman: Earth One and the "Shazam" feature in Justice League), Ethan Van Sciver (Green Lantern: Rebirth, Flash: Rebirth), Ivan Reis (Blackest Night, Brightest Day, Aquaman) and Phil Jimenez (Infinite Crisis). Our narrator is the former Kid Flash and the former Flash III Wally West, wearing his yellow and red Kid Flash costume, and apparently ten years younger than he was the last time we saw him. After a first page that is broken into a nine-panel grid featuring his narration over a watch and the gears within, we learn that Wally's currently "lost outside of reality" and unable to break back in, having lost his grounding lighting rod (his wife Linda Park). West, being part of the third generation of heroes, the sidekicks of the second-generation characters introduced in the Silver Age, was one of the many that was excised from the DC Universe for The New 52. Although, like most fan-favorite characters, he was eventually reintroduced into The New 52...only in his particular case it was as a black teenager. This is the original (and white) Wally West, though.

Due to the events in "The Darkseid War" (a pretty terrible story that's been running through Johns' Justice League forever now, and just concluded today), Wally is able to at least try and enter The New 52-iverse, and warn the heroes that reality has been altered by someone who stole ten years from the universe in order to soften it up for attack.

This gives us an excuse to "check in" on everyone, as Wally appears in a bolt of lighting, pleas with someone to remember him and then gets sucked back into The Speed Force when they fail to recognize him.

He appears to Batman, who is faced with the mystery of The Joker's true identity, as revealed in this week's Justice League–there are actually three different Jokers*. He appears to a 90-something old man, who is actually Johnny Thunder, who does remember The Justice Society of America and was at one time in possession of a magical genie. He peeks in on a woman with a Legion flight ring who says she's from the future and knows Superman. And on Ivy Town University professor/supehero Ray "The Atom" Palmer and his teaching assistant Ryan Choi. And on Blue Beetle Jaimie Reyes and Ted Kord, who has just built The Bug and wants to form a crime-fighting duo with Jaime. And on Robin Damian Wayne, who has just turned 13, and celebrated by blowing out the candles on a cake in a dark room, all alone (Batman, Alfred, Dick Grayson? All a bunch of jerks, apparently). And on former Power Ring Jessica Cruz, who is now a Green Lantern (Justice League #50 again). And on Jackson Hyde, the new Aqualad that Johns created in Brightest Day (a character who is now gay, apparently).
To signal the end of The New 52, the character who symbolized it is exploded to death. Subtle!
Meanwhile, Pandora is killed in a blue explosion of energy. Who killed her? We'll find out in the epilogue, I bet! Unless you read Johns' interview, or saw the leaks online already.

Wally keeps floating around the DC Universe, like Scrooge in A Christmas Carol. There's Grail and Baby Darkseid, talking about Wonder Woman's long lost secret twin brother (Justice League #50), there are a bunch of characters milling around where Superman died in Superman #52 (If you missed it, don't worry; it was pretty dumb). Green Arrow and Black Canary make eyes at one another there, and the other Superman gets a visit from a mysterious stranger calling himself Mr. Oz who tells him "You and your family are not what you believe you are... And neither was the fallen Superman." And Aquaman proposes to Mera.

And then the story starts to resume a story shape, after a rather weird, almost clip-show like format (Status quos for several other characters, including John Constantine and Swamp Thing and new character Gotham are teased). Wally meets New 52 Linda, who doesn't remember him, sees the other Wally West, who, it turns out, is the original Wally's distant cousin and, finally, he meets The Flash Barry Allen, who only remembers him at the last second...and is able to pull him back into reality.
"It was Alan Moore."
The pair have a portentous discussion about the threat that's coming, about the fact that someone deliberately stole years from them in order to weaken them for a future attack. Who is it? The last page sees Batman holding aloft The Comedian's blood-stained smiley face pin from Watchmen, while Wally's dialogue box reads "...we're being watched."
Yes. That happened. That actually fucking happened.

The epilogue is a five-page sequence, in which the lay-out moves from a splash page to a four-panel page to a Watchmen-esque nine-panel page and then to a four-panel page and another splash. The "camera" moves from Earth to Mars, where we see a broken watch being lifted into the air by an unseen force, taken apart, cleaned and put back together. Narration boxes capture dialogue between Ozymandius and Dr. Manhattan.

The last page, showing a yellow clock face with a blood splatter on it over a black field, includes a big huge yellow, black and white blurb "The Clock Is Ticking Across The DC Universe!"

So apparently it was Dr. Manhattan that stole years from the DCU and made, inadvertently or on purpose, The New 52. And the DCU is going to gradually "remember," perhaps even recover, parts of its old continuity. A confrontation with the characters from Watchmen seems to be all but promised, but there's no indication of where it might occur. Johns is apparently leaving DC Comics for a while to focus on un-fucking-up Warner Bros movies based on DC Comics, and the near future for all of the titles seem pretty set at the moment (Justice League, which would have been the obvious best guess for the story to continue, is being taken over by novice writer Bryan Hitch).
I swiped this image from Comics Alliance, as my scanner wasn't big enough to accommodate it. For help identifying the above characters, you should visit the CA post I stole it from.
That's followed by a two-page spread showing the state of the DC Universe's heroes, including Wally West in a new (and pretty nice) costume. There are a lot of new costumes on this page, and they are mostly great improvements. Raven, Supergirl, The Demon and Red Robin all have returned to their original costumes or ones closer to their originals. Donna Troy has a new look that actually doesn't look so bad. Rick Flag is there, as is Ted Kord riding in the Bug, the new Huntress, Superwoman Lois Lane and the new Superboy and the new, Chinese Super-Man that Gene Luen Yang will be writing. I was surprised to see the entire Marvel Shazam Family too, as I wasn't sure how DC would proceed with those characters if the word "Marvel" is off limits (What do you call Captain Marvel Jr. and Mary Marvel if Captain Marvel is now named Shazam? Shazam Jr. and Mary Shazam...? And what about the other three "lieutenant Marvels" from Johns and Frank's Shazam strip...?) Conspicuous in his absence is Kyle Rayner.

That splash is followed by eleven pages of house ads for upcoming series.

If you've been reading DC Comics during The New 52 period, than you'll notice that the laundry list of changes that occur in Rebirth synch up with the exact things that DiDio, Co-Publisher Jim Lee, Chief Creative Officer (and second most popular DC writer) Johns all apparently decided needed changing in order to fix the DCU and come up with something better, The New 52.

They un-married Superman and Lois and Aquaman and Mera, for example, and now we have a married Superman and Lois and an engaged Aquaman and Mera. They removed the JSA and the original Teen Titans from continuity, and now they are returning them to continuity. Aqualad II, Ted Kord and Ryan Choi were all jettisoned...and are back now. All of the terrible, Lee-designed costumes are being exchanged for new, less terrible ones that lack all the seams, armor plating and high collars.

There's this bizarre argument that DiDio has been making for years now that goes something like this: 1.) There's something wrong with DC Comics, these comics that I and my staff and all our freelance talent have been making aren't as good as they should be, so 2.) We need a drastic change in order to improve things and point them in the right direction and 3.) The best people to make those changes are me and my staff and the same group of freelance talent who were making the comics that I didn't think were as good as they could be. And this has happened over and over and over, from Countdown To Infinite Crisis/Infinite Crisis/52 to "One Year Later" to
"Brave New World" to Countdown to Final Crisis/Final Crisis to Brightest Day to The New 52 to "DCYou" to "Rebirth."

Geoff Johns keeps being called in to fix things in a crisis comic of some sort, be it at the franchise level (Green Latnern: Rebirth, Flash: Rebirth, Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds, the ensemble cast of Brightest Day) or on a line-wide scope, and he does it..and then DC asks him to change everything for them all over again.

Looking at the state of the DCU as "Rebirth" presents it, it is, as I say, a lot more complicated than simply un-doing the New 52 and restoring the pre-Flashpoint DCU, but taking stock of all these changes, what is really different? Did DC really just want to make Barbara Gordon Batgirl again and give Superman a new pair of boots? Because they could probably have done that without Flashpoint and five years of The New 52, you know?

As for the Watchmen business, I don't even know what to say about it at this point. It's just gross and weird. I mean, doing Before Watchmen was bad–and I fear I used up all my rage about DC Comics having sexual intercourse with that particular dead horse upon the announcement of Before Watchmen–and now they are going even further, rather bizarrely taking characters out of Watchmen to use as action figures in a goofy fight comic, where maybe we'll get to see Batman beat up Rorschach or something? What's the point of that?

If you ask Geoff Johns, it's...well, his answer will be bullshit. There's a point in Johns' Rebirth script where he has Wally West talks about the fallen DC Universe as represented by The New 52, the one Johns created, and he says this:
A darkness from somewhere has infected us. It has for a long time now, I think. Even before the Flashpoint.
Yeah, no shit. I can't even really wrap my head around Johns' meta-textual argument with Watchmen without my head threatening to explode. I don't know if "infect" is quite the right word, as DC, during much of Johns' writing career with the company and during the time Johns was creative director, has been strip-mining Watchmen, and the works of Alan Moore.

When it comes to making DC a darker, more cynical, less hopeful place, Johns is perhaps the guiltiest party, as one of the two jokes about Johns' stories involve someone getting their arm chopped off and someone being impaled through the chest from behind. And for a guy using his surrogate characters in this comic to cluck about the point-of-view that a young Alan Moore might have shown in a 30-year-old comic book, Johns has always rather readily exploited the works of Moore. I don't think I have enough fingers to count the number of comics Johns has extrapolated from Moore's body of work, from the JSA quoting Watchmen, to the Black Mercy from Moore's "For The Man Who Has Everything" showing up early in his Green Lantern run to his plundering of Moore's few Green Lantern comics (how much fucking mileage did Johns and his followers get out of fucking Mogo?) to his usage of Moore's co-creation Constantine and a version of Swamp Thing that leaned so heavily upon Moore's run on the character...

As for Rebirth, Johns accomplishes his main goals here, I think, and he's on much surer footing now that he's allowed to reference DC continuity once again. His great strength has always been his ability to use complicated continuity and synthesize something exciting out of it, which might go a long way towards explaining why none of his New 52 work has been all that good, and certainly not nearly as good as any of his pre-Flashpoint writing for the publisher. He even gets a big "Oh shit!" moment at the end, of the sort that gets everyone talking...even if, in the case of someone like me, that talking mostly consists of wondering aloud what on Earth is wrong with Johns as, like, a human being.

The art is as strong as you're likely to find among DC's stable of house-style artists–these guys are head and shoulders above a Jason Fabok or David Finch or Ed Benes or whoever, even if they're not the best artists DC has drawing comics for them (There isn't a single image in these 65 pages that features as much style, excitement or life as, say, Babs Tarr's cover for this week's issue of Batgirl, despite how good at drawing watch cogs these guys are).

On a purely craft level, Rebirth features pretty strong work for comics of this sort. As for the context, the the point that Johns seems to be trying to articulate in order to make this something more than a much-needed clean up of the last mess that he and his fellow executives have made? It hurts my soul almost as much as it boggles my mind. Can a publisher really premise its entire line of comics for the forseeable future on a rebuke of the 30-year-old Watchmen? And how convincing is it for DC, DiDio, Johns and company to try to argue with Watchmen? The simple fact that they are even engaged in a one-sided argument against the book and its creators makes Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons the winners here, doesn't it?

But whatever. The New 52 is all Alan Moore's fault. At least it's all over now, and DC seems poised to publish some comics in the near future that are much less terrible than many of the comics they've been publishing. Hooray...?

*I'm interested to see how this plays out, and I'm glad that this turned out to be the big reveal about The Joker's origin that Batman learned from Metron's omniscient Mobius Chair in "Darkseid War," as I was afraid it would simply be revealing the true name of The Joker, who would apparently be someone Batman knew. While I'm withholding judgement on this Joker business, I should say that I really like Grant Morrison's conception of the character as one who reinvents himself constantly. Scott Snyder wrote two big Joker story arcs in his New 52 Batman run (three, if you count the pre-Joker Red Hood that appeared in "Zero Year"), and the Jokers in both "Death of the Family" and "Endgame" were as different from one another as they were from any previous Joker. Additionally, Snyder added an element to each of his Joker appearances wherein the character's schemes involved some kind of "joke" to them. For example, whether or not he knew Batman's secret identity (and the identities of all of his allies) or whether or not he was an immortal, urban legend-like supernatural figure who had been haunting Gotham for generations.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

These are some graphic novels that I read recently:

Astonishing Ant-Man Vol. 1: Everybody Loves Team-Ups (Marvel Entertainment)

This is the second collection of Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas Ant-Man series, which Marvel has helpfully given a new title and then went ahead and printed a "1" on the spine. Consider this Exhibit K that Marvel is much more interested in whatever little short-term advantage there is to re-naming and re-numbering titles as often as possible, presumably in order to retain their direct market advantage over traditional rivals DC Comics, as opposed to making it easy to get copies of their comics and trades into the hands of casual readers.

This one is a little more galling than other books, too, because much of this particular 145-page collection consists of specials published under the pre-Secret Wars title Ant-Man, rather than the post-Secret Wars title of Astonishing Ant-Man. There's Ant-Man Annual #1, Ant-Man Last Days: #1 and then the first four issues of the relaunched, retitled Astonishing Ant-Man. Despite that numeral 1 on the spines, this picks up right where Ant-Man Vol. 1: Second Chance Man left off.

In the annual, current Ant-Man Scott Lang teams up with original Ant-Man Hank Pym (going by Giant-Man at that point, I think) to take on Egghead in a flashback of sorts, while in the present Lang learns of Pym's ambiguous fate from Rage of Ultron (I think?), where Pym is apparently presumed dead...ish. The Wasp appears, and a new Giant-Man gets introduced.

The Last Days special, like all of those Marvel comics branded with that title, focuses on how the title character spends the eve of the (temporary) apocalypse of Secret Wars; for Lang, that means making a surprising discovery about the financial backer of Ant-Man Security Solutions and the many senior citizens of her very special retirement home.

And when the title becomes Astonishing, about half-way through this collection, several familiar guest-stars and villains start appearing. Current Captain America Sam Wilson (formerly The Falcon) recruits Ant-Man's help in a fun little team-up that allows the two to riff on the difficulties of legacy (with Wilson having much bigger boots to fill that Lang), the new Beetle from Spencer's sadly canceled Superior Foes of Spider-Man shows up to hook up with Lang (repeatedly, and to her own embarrassment) and Ant-Man Security Solutions gets hired to provide security for Lang's ex-girlfriend (and ex-Fantastic Four teammate) Darla Deering, aka "Miss Thing").

Aside from all the inter-personal conflict, some of which is of the yell-at-the-character-for-making-such-obviously-poor-decisions variety, Spencer finds an over-arching conflict in the form of "Hench," a sort of Uber for supervillains, which allows crimeboss types to hire villains like Whirlwind to attack superheroes for them.

It's a fittingly fun threat for Ant-Man, and for Spencer and Rosanas' Ant-Man/Astonishing Ant-Man, which makes use of the deep catalog of Marvel characters for straight-faced, often deadpan comedy. While Spencer's gags, all effectively told and sold by Rosanas and their other artistic collaborators, achieve a pleasant base-line of an entertaining read, they occasionally spike even higher. Like, for example, when one villain pays off another with a briefcase full of cash and notes, "And you can keep the briefcase! Nobody ever mentions that."

Or, as in maybe my favorite panel, when new legacy villain The Magician throws weaponized playing cards at Ant-Man and Darla, and our hero exclaims, "Gah! HE's a Gambit knockoff!"

"It's a playing card!" The Magician replies, "He didn't invent those things, you know!"

Astonishing Ant-Man Vol. 1 is just as solid a superhero comic book as Ant-Man Vol. 1 was; good luck finding and following the story!

Cage of Eden Vol. 20 (Kodansha Comics)

The latest volume of Cage of Eden, Yoshinobu Yamada's fan-service filled drama about a plane full of Japanese high school students who crash-land on a mysterious island populated by long-extinct prehistoric beasts, is dominated by the kids' investigation of the mystery behind the island. Having something of a respite from life-and-death battles against the local wild-life and any more sinister, adult crash survivors, and having found a fourth large, man-made structure on the island, our hero Akira Sengoku and a team of nine others investigate what appears to have been some sort of headquarters or living quarters for the people who made the island and grew re-created the animals.

That means scores of pages of the cast walking around ruined hallways, finding clues and theorizing out loud about what they all might mean. Another character seemingly loses their life in particularly dramatic fashion, and the clues the group uncovers are pointing in a rather unexpected direction. I don't know if it's really going in the direction the new clues all seem to indicate, particularly during the frustratingly melodramatic conclusion (complete with a cliffhanger in which Sengoku freaks out at the site of a photo that the reader can't see), or if this is simply an example of Yamada manipulating readers into thinking he's heading in that direction but, well, I got a sinking feeling that maybe some amount of time-travel was involved after all, and it's not of the sort that a reader might have expected in the earlier volumes.

This 200-page chunk of Yamada's epic is sadly devoid of beasts, save for a sketch of a Paraceratherium, "The largest terrestrial mammal in history...", which will almost certainly be arriving in the near future, but it seems like it may be drawing near a conclusion or, at the very last, an explanation. If so, that should provide something of a relief, as these sorts of super long-form mysteries always run the danger of going on too long, and then not being able to deliver a satisfying resolution given the amount of time invested in seeking that resolution.

If I understand the Wikipedia entry correctly, then I believe this may be the penultimate volume, which, if that is the case, may prove to be a blessing–provided Yamada can resolve the mystery and wrap up so many sub-plots in just another 200 pages or so...

Captain America & The Falcon by Christoper Priest: The Complete Collection (Marvel)

I'd like to believe that the existence of this 330-page collection of the entire 14-issue, 2004-2005 Captain America & The Falcon series owes its existence to a sudden resurgence of interest in the excellent (and awfully underrated) writer Christopher Preist, or perhaps in response to high sales and high praise of the Black Panther by Christopher Priest collections. I'd like to believe that, but I suspect it might have more to do with the recent release of the third Captain America movie, which rather prominently features The Falcon character.

As for the series' relatively short life, I would attribute it in large part to the timing of its release. It launched during a time of transition for Captain America, The Avengers and Marvel. Captain America & The Falcon launched as the 32-issue Marvel Knights Captain America was coming to an end, and was shipping its last issues as the influential Ed Brubaker-written run was starting up. Meanwhile, Brian Michael Bendis was changing the direction of the Avengers franchise with his "Avengers Disassembled" story arc and the first issues of his New Avengers (In fact, the second of this title's four story arcs is called "Avengers Disassembled" and is a kinda sorta tie-in to the events of the Avengers book).

The fairly terrible, occasionally unintelligible artwork surely didn't help at all, either.

Admirably, Priest's 14 issues are devoted to telling one big story, with few deviations–the "Disassembled" business makes little sense in the context of this book, and the ending feels off, as if Priest didn't get much warning that the book was cancelled, and had to wrap everything up in too few pages. The subject matter and tone of the scripting seems very much in line with that of Brubaker's and even the Marvel Knights books, the focus pretty squarely on a symbolic superhero trying to navigate post-9/11 realpolitik while engaged in espionage missions and trying mightily not to ever compromise his own rigid moral code. Reading it today, it felt very much a product of the era of the Bush Administration.

The first story arc, entitled "Two Americas," features a pretty complicated plot set in Miami and Cuba, involving The Falcon, a Daily Bugle investigative reporter of his acquaintance, a bio-weapon, a drug cartel, SHIELD (still run by Nick Fury back then), Naval intelligence, Captain America and another, second Captain America created by a Navy admiral who would become the main antagonist for the book.

Bart Sears, sometimes inked by Rob Hunter and sometimes inking himself, draws this story arc, and as much as I liked Sears art back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it felt extremely wrong for this story. His Captains America (or is the plural "Captain Americas"...?) and Falcon are all mountains of muscles, his few women are Barbie dolls, and everyone else seems like an after thought.

Sears has a weird visual art tick in this arc in which just about every single page features a huge figure, or maybe just part of a figure, that is not part of the grid of panels, but stands off to the side or over it. You sometimes see this in manga, when a character is being introduced for the first time especially, but here it's on like every single page, and it makes the already occasionally messy art harder still to read.

He and colorist Mike Atiyeh cheat with the reveal of the second Cap, as for much of the first issue we're meant to believe that the Cap in action is "our" Cap, while it's not revealed until later there's a second one in the mix. But Sears draws them identically, and Atiyeh colors them the same, right up until the point where we learn there are two, after which the other Cap, who is repeatedly referred to as "The Anti-Cap", sees a random coloring change, wherein the blue of his costume is suddenly black.

Back in the United States, life gets pretty hard for our heroes. They've captured Anti-Cap, but don't want to return him to the Navy, as that would be a death sentence for the character, who was created to fight terrorists in the same way that the original was created to fight Nazis (he first decides to enlist after the Oklahoma City bombing, and becomes active after 9/11). So Cap is holding a prisoner illegally, SHIELD and the Navy want the prisoner back and, since you can't very well arrest Captain America for anything, they go after The Falcon because, well, for the obvious reasons.

Most of the rest of the book is devoted to the two characters trying to navigate this terrain, which only gets more complicated once the nature of that bio-weapon is revealed. Falcon gets a new costume, courtesy of an off-panel Black Panther–Black Panther supporting character Omoro makes frequent appearances–and a gradual personality re-write, as he becomes more and more hardcore, apparently reverting to his old "Snap" persona for...reasons.

During the "Disassembled" arc that reason seems to be The Scarlet Witch inadvertently fucking with everyone around her–Cap has weird nightmares with residual, real-world effects, and even hallucinates a romantic entaglement with Wanda–but what was really going on in Avengers/House of M isn't explained here; had I not read those comics a decade ago, I would have had no idea what was going on here, and all that sits rather uncomfortably amid the ongoing plot.

Aside from which, Sam never really seems to recover, and, as I mentioned earlier, his story arc seems to go unresolved in this book, as he eventually teams up with Anti-Cap to help fight off the villains behind all of their troubles, and then switch allegiances from Cap to Anti-Cap before ditching his costume during the equivocal ending.

As a graphic novel, it's not entirely satisfying, but Priest's plotting is top-notch, his characterization is great and he really seems to have found hooks for his two lead characters that made them feel quite relevant for that particular time-period (I also enjoyed his two pages or so of Luke Cage; Scarlet Witch, The Hulk, Yellowjacket/Hank Pym, Iron Man and J. Jonah Jameson all appear at various points as well, plus a classic but surprise Marvel villain).

The artwork improves after Sears' issues, but it changes frequently, with the last two, Dan Jurgens-penciled issues probably being the best looking. Joe Bennet, Andrea Di Vito and Greg Tocchini also all contribute pencils, and there are at least as many inkers. That's a whole lot of artists for just 14 issues.

Motorcycle Samurai Vol. 1: A Fiery Demise (Top Shelf Productions)

I didn't really care for this. The work of cartoonist Chris Sheridan, Motorcycle Samurai is basically a Western that replaces horses with motorcycles, six-guns with swords and...well, that's about it, really. The milieu contains a pastiche of elements more strongly associated with other genres. There's a professional wrestling match, a jet pack, a laser gun and a hot air balloon. But "a Western with a few alterations" pretty much covers Sheridan's world-building.

The probably title character is The White Bolt, a sword-wielding, motorcycle-riding bounty hunter who is returning a mute Happy Parker to the small town of Trouble. She wears a motorcycle helmet mask decorated with a white skull that covers her entire head, and only tips it up high enough to get a bottle to her lips.

Once in Trouble, she meets a cast of colorful characters who all circle one another warily for the bulk of the book, before ultimately forming two sides that go to battle with one another in a city-shattering showdown. While there's a degree of closure to the conflict, it feels as if the book beings and ends in medias res.

Every single one of Sheridan's many characters speak in an irritatingly affected, portentous manner that I tired of pretty quickly. It's an across-the-board habit of the cast, which lead me to wonder if Sheridan was perhaps parodying certain filmic melodramas, but even if that is the case, it's an explanation for the punishing verbosity, not an excuse for it. There's an awful lot of action here, but it's eclipsed by all the talking.

I did like Sheridan's artwork quite a bit. His character designs all feature long limbs and necks, and their joints seem to have a certain amount of rubber in them, allowing them to move in particularly fluid and dramatic fashion. His male character's have big, distinct faces with a ton of character, many of them resembling a Cartoon Network adaptation of a Jeff Lemire character. The White Bolt is, appropriately, the most intersting design, her helmet apparently absorbing her head, and giving her a misshapen, almost jaunty quadrilateral head. Permanently cocked, all of her expressions comes from her big eyes, visible through the big eye-holes of her helmet mask, and her body language.

There's a lot to like about Sheridan's comic, particularly if you look close at particular aspects, but over all I personally found it pretty dull and derivative. Less than the sum of its parts, really, which I found terribly disappointing given how good it looked and the amount of praise heaped on it from other quarters.

The Oven (AdHouse Books)

Sophie Goldstein's relationship drama set in a fucked-up, dystopian future not too different from ours follows a young, idealistic couple who escape that world of the future–suggested in a handful of panels showing their commuter rocket ship leaving a bubble-enclosed city and dropping them off in a harsh and dusty, sun-lit world where they're picked up by a surly driver in a hover pick-up truck.

As is gradually revealed economically in classic, show-don't-tell fashion, they have decided to move into a sort of iconoclastic, live-off-the-land commune so that they can have a child; such things were tightly regulated in the city, and they weren't eligible to breed with one another.

In the future hippie commune, in which families live in trailers and make-shift homes built around bits of space ships and landing pods, they discover just how hard such a life is, with Eric having to help farm and Syd learning semi-lost domestic arts like sewing, cooking, preserving and child-rearing. The new lifestyle isn't what either one of them expected, and it quickly shoves a wedge in their relationship.

The book is labeled "science fiction/life," but despite a few trappings and references to technological advances and cultural shifts, it's not science fiction so much as just fiction; with just a few alterations, this same story could be told with Syd and Eric escaping the big city to try living an off-the-grid life of subsistence farming.

Goldstein tells her tale in deceptively simple artwork, the highly cartoony figures rendered down to fairly simply but devastatingly effective emotion-conveying designs. The limited black, white and orange palette gives the proceedings a distinct look that helps to divorce them further from the here and now. It's a very slight, very quick read, but that's in large part because there's nothing wasted: There's no page, no panel, no line of a drawing and no line of dialogue that doesn't absolutely have to be there to tell the story.

Read The Oven, and pay attention to Goldstein.

X-Men '92 Vol. 0: Warzones! (Marvel)

Co-writers Chad Bowers and Chris Sims take on 1990s comics using the most popular characters of the era as their vehicle: The Jim Lee-generated X-Men who starred in the shoddily-animated, all-around-poorly-made 1992-1997 animated TV show.* For a generation of fans at least, these are probably still the X-Men. They were certainly my first and most thorough introduction and indoctrination into the characters (the very first time I met the X-Men was on that one episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, although was just for like 20-minutes or so).

Bowers and Sims walk a very fine line between parodying and celebrating these iterations of the characters and their particular context, and if they occasionally wobble, they never put a foot down on either side of that line. The story arc, which ran through the four-issue X-Men '92 mini-series, is played pretty much straight. This could be a comic from the early 1990s, for the most part, albeit more competently-drawn and more self-aware than any X-comics of that era ever seemed to manage.

The TV team line-up–Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Beast, Gambit, Rogue, Storm and Jubilee–investigate a somewhat sketchy-seeming Clear Mountain Project, where Director Cassandra Nova is rehabilitating evil mutants to make them productive members of society.

Nova is, naturally, up to no good, as the X-Men discover too late–after they've been strapped into chairs that send them into Nova's "Mind Field," where she attacks them psychically, sorting them in order to form her own "New X-Men," complete with white, formal outfits with Frank Quitely-like Xs on their jackets.

If Quitely and Grant Morrison's millennial Cassandra Nova from the pages of their New X-Men seems like an odd choice of villain for a comic based on a cartoon from a decade previous, it's worth noting that Bowers and Sims '92-ize her, so that rather than Professor X's twin, she is no an Apocalypse-created clone of Xavier, fused with The Shadow King. And the contrast between the '90s team and the Morrison-lead break with them in the early '00s is quite intentional.

"The world that's coming deserves a better class of mutant," Nova tells the captured X-Men at the conclusion of the first issue. "One that isn't burdened by all those pouches filled with aggression and inner turmoil."

Their ultimate victory over Nova would seem to serve as a refutation of the millennial New X-Men, if one is inclined to read the story that way, but that doesn't really seem to be Bowers and Sims' intent; if they play with meta-context, it seems to be just that: Playing, rather than making some sort of bold statement about how X-Men comics should be. The real conflict that they seem to be looking at is the tension between the more "adult" X-Men of the comic books and the sanitized, kid-friendly versions that appeared in the cartoon for children. It's no coincidence that Nova works for the Bureau of Super-Powers, which shares the same acronym as Broadcasting Standards and Practices. Nova and her set-up are, in part, in-story representations of Fox Kids' efforts to de-claw Wolverine, de-sex Rogue and Gambit and generally keep the X-Men's adventures PG rather than PG-13.

Most of the gags come courtesy of artist Scott Koblish, and they are visual in nature, as when Wolverine does some shopping at the mall and visits a store called Rugged, which only sells the jackets, flannel shirts and pants that were his "street clothes" on the cartoon, or in the simple background image of one of Baron Kelly's robot dogs sitting like a human, or the outrageously gigantic guns that Cable and Bishop tote around.

There are a few jokes regarding points where the comic is deemed inappropriate for children, and red lettering, notes and arrows or simple rejection stamps marked "BSP" appear over dialogue or implied gore. These fall a bit flat, given the change in media, though, and the particular (and unfortunate) context of the miniseries.

That is, this is a Secret Wars tie-in.

Set in the domain of Westchester, ruled by Baron Kelly, its references to the rules of Secret Wars' "Battleworld" setting are few and far between...but just enough to prove potentially alienating to someone on board for a comic based on the X-Men cartoon, but not necessarily interested in Secret Wars.

That is, I assume, something that will be rectified in future collections, which this was clearly created with a mind towards; at the end of this issue, the team's line-up is undergoing a minor shake-up (as Xavier and the X-Men adopt an aspect of Morrison's New X-Men run; namely, turning Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters into an actual school for young mutants, rather than simply a front for a mutant paramilitary organization), and we see villains waiting in the wings for future issues.

Sure, it's not perfect, but Bowers and Sims have ideas at play here, and that's more than can be said for a lot of the Secret Wars tie-ins. The faithful re-creations of elements of the cartoon show coupled with a critique of many of its elements make this the X-Men comic book I wished existed in 1992.

Better late than never.

*That theme song kicked ass, though. The Hollywood composers who have worked on the seven live-action released so far–I'm writing this before the eighth, X-Men: Apocalypse, sees release–have yet to come up with something so distinct, let alone catchy.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Marvel's August previews reviewed

This summer, there is no Marvel Comics–there is only Civil War II! That's the cover of the fifth issue of the series, while I believe every single thing Marvel has planned for release this August is a tie-in.

Okay, I exaggerate, but only by a little. To count the actual tie-ins, you can click here. To hang out with me for a little longer, well, just stay where you are.

• You've dreamed of it, you've asked for it, you've longed for it -- and now, you're going to GET it! No Avenger is safe from -- the fan fiction of Kamala Khan! Featuring a bevy of special guest creators!
40 PGS./Rated T+ ...$4.99

Hey, I did want this, but I didn't know Marvel knew I wanted it, or were prepared to give it to me! I'm a little surprised that it's showing up in an Avengers book, particularly Too Many Words Avengers book, instead of in a Ms. Marvel annual or special, but I'll take it wherever I can get it. Those are five very talented comics creators listed above; I look forward to finding out who the "& More" are...

• Who are The Americops?
• #givebacktheshield is trending.
32 PGS./Rated T ...$3.99

Who are The Americops? Well, based on that image, I'm going to guess that they are an elite squad of cosplayers doing some sort of hybrid Cobra Commander/police officer thing.


Say, The Cobra Command-cops sounds cooler than The Americops, now that I stop and think about it...

• Remember when Deadpool's inner monologues were at war?
• Now, one of those voices is out and about...revealed as MADCAP!
• And he's got a mad-on for REVENGE!
32 PGS./Parental Advisory ...$3.99

One of the first Marvel comics I ever read–this would have been back when I was a teenager and didn't have money to buy comics indiscriminately–was an issue of Ghost Rider featuring Madcap. I liked the character, his powers, his costume and, especially, his hat.
He looks...different here, but I think that's simply the difference between Aburquerque's portrayal of him for a comedy book and 1993 Bret Blevins' portrayal of the character for a "serious" superhero book, rather than any sort of dramatic redesign.

There aren't enough hats in the superhero genre in general, if you ask me.

40 PGS./Rated T+ ...$4.99

40 PGS./Rated T+ ...$4.99

These are always fun! These comics, presumably tied to Civil War II in some manner, are so classified, that Marvel can't even tell anyone who is making them! I bet it's super-fun to be a comic shop owner, look at that "CLASSIFIED", and then try to order the right number of non-returnable stock for your store...!

Hmm...I wonder if shop owners could try filing Freedom of Information Act requests with Marvel Entertainment and see how far that gets them...?

I like it any time Arthur Adams draws something. Like this cover for a Guardians of The Galaxy comic with a suspiciously low issue number, for example.

Jacob Chabot (W) • DAVID BALDEON (A)
In case you've been living under a rock, Tsum Tsums are HUGE! Well, not LITERALLY (they're actually pretty tiny) but these seemingly cute and cuddly creatures are sweeping the globe! So what happens when these pint-sized piles of fur find their way into the Marvel Universe? After a crate of them falls to Earth en route to THE COLLECTOR, one small group of Brooklyn teenagers will find out! Featuring all of your favorite Marvel heroes and villains, this is sure to be TSUM-thing you won't want to miss!
32 PGS./All Ages ...$3.99

Apparently, I've been living under a rock, as I had never heard of Tsum Tsums until it was announced Marvel would be doing some dumb variant cover thing with them. I guess they're doing more than just some dumb variant cover thing though, they're also doing an entire four-issue miniseries, that talented adults have to try and take seriously enough to get it made.

Props to writer Jacob Chabot for involving The Collector, which seems like the natural way to go if you're forced into a Marvel Universe comic featuring real world collectibles of any kinds.

I left the variants in the solicit just because I'm intrigued by "MARVEL TSUM TSUM 1 CLASSIFIED CONNECTING VARIANT A AVAILABLE." What could it be? Is that tied into Civil War II as well, and it will reveal which Tsum Tsum is accused of murdering which other Tsum Tsum? I guess we'll have to wait until August to find out!

• Out of time, money and options, Hedy Wolfe calls up the two people Patsy most hoped to leave behind -- her (literally) Evil Ex-Boyfriends.
• How will Hellcat and friends contend with this dynamic dude-o?
• See what I did there?! Come on, you loved it!!!
32 PGS./Rated T ...$3.99

I'm pretty sure I mentioned that it was my intention to wait for the trade on this book, but my friend loved it so much she literally forced me to read the first two issues (granted, she had to force me to read the second one a lot less hard, given how great the first one was). Based on the admittedly small sampling I've read while awaiting the trade collection, I think it's fantastic, and probably one of the better Marvel comics of the moment.

That said, while I'm really looking forward to seeing The Son of Satan, one of my favorite Marvel characters based pretty much entirely on his 1970s appearances, I do not care for his design as it appears on the cover. I think Nick Dragotta's nice suit version of S.O.S. from Vengeance (which, remember, was pretty much the best thing ever) is probably the best design the character's had.

• Jessica Drew is a hard-boiled private eye who's got a newborn baby, so she's trying to steer clear of this whole "CIVIL WAR" thing.
• But when a startling new case lands in her lap, keeping herself out of the conflict becomes impossible...
• ...and so does taking Carol's side of things.
32 PGS./Rated T+ ...$3.99

Trying to steer clear of this whole "Civil War" thing...? I know exactly what you're going through Jessica.

• The one thing that could tear the Ultimates apart forever is inside that briefcase...
• ...and someone just opened it.
• Meanwhile, Thanos is ready to strike. And he has an ally...
32 PGS./Rated T+ ...$3.99

What?! Tear the Ultimates apart...forever?! That...might be a bit more dramatic were they together longer than, um, ten months in August.

Written by RYAN NORTH
Proof that we're living in the best of all possible worlds: Marvel is publishing a Squirrel Girl graphic novel! It's a standalone adventure that's great for both old fans and new readers! It's a story so huge it demanded an original graphic novel! It's a story so nuts it incorporates both senses of that word (insanity and squirrel food)! And it's the best! Squirrel Girl kicks butts, eats nuts, talks to squirrels and also punches really well. She has defeated Thanos, Galactus and Doctor Doom (twice!). But now she'll encounter her most dangerous, most powerful, most unbeatable enemy yet: herself! Specifically, an evil duplicate made possible through mad science (both computer and regular) as well as some bad decisions. In other words, Squirrel Girl beats up the Marvel Universe! YES!
120 PGS./Rated T ...$24.99
ISBN: 978-1-302-90303-9
Trim size: standard

I am really excited about this, although $25 is an awfully high price point for just 120 pages of comics. Maybe I'll wait for the paperback...? If Patsy Walker isn't Marvel's best comic at the moment, then Squirrel Girl is. Like I said, I haven't read enough of Patsy Walker to know for sure, and it's hard to make that kind of judgement because Squirrel Girl started so much earlier that there's so much more of it, you know?

Michael Del Mundo, ladies and gentlemen. I don't always want to read the comics he draws covers for–although word on the Street is that this one, The Vision, is great–but I always want to see what that guy draws. Del Mundo, that is, not The Vision.