Saturday, September 30, 2006

Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man #1

Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man #1, November 2006, Marvel Comics
writers: Stan Lee, Joss Whedon, Fred Hembeck
artists: Olivier Coipel, Mark Morales, Michael Gaydos, Fred Hembeck, John Romita, Sr., & Jim Mooney
colorists: Jose Villarrubia, Pete Pantazis, Bill Crabtree
letterers: Dave Lanphear, Sam Rosen

Today, the last day of September, commemorates the one-fourth marks of the yearlong A Comics A Day challenge. I don’t want to waste valuable review space reflecting on the last three months – I intend to write a quarterly report in the next few days or so – but the anniversary is worth mentioning because today’s issue celebrates a comic book benchmark, as well: Stan Lee’s sixty-five years at Marvel. The first in a series of one-shots starring “the Man” himself, Stan Lee Meets Spider-man is a hilarious read, honoring one of the founding fathers of the modern superhero genre, featuring three original short stories and a reprint of Amazing Spider-man #87. Since each story retains an identity all its own, I’ll review each yarn separately, complete with respective plot synopses and reflections on their impact to the medium. In this case, the medium is Stan Lee.

The first yarn, written by Stan himself, is the issue’s title story, in which Spider-man swings by Stan’s pad with an usual case of the woe-is-me’s. Stan, who prior to Spidey’s unexpected arrival makes a verbal effort to announce that he has the house to himself for the evening, throws a batch of his patented superhero cookies in the oven and escorts ol’ Web-head to the den, where the Wallcrawler unwinds about the dastardly dangers of his determined do-goodery. I’ll confess, when Spidey turns to his cunningly cantankerous creator for a word of advice, I expected the comics veteran to spew forth a string of campy, old world wisdom, rife with allusions to the importance of being a role model and how, you guessed it, with great power comes great responsibility. A nice tidy tale with a friendly neighborhood moral about the importance of nobility and the relevance of comic books, right?

Say it ain’t so, true believers! We, and Spidey, hear nothing of the sort! Stan wags an accusing finger and proclaims, “If you quit, think of the people you’ll put out of business! The T-shirt manufacturers! The animation companies! The movie studios! The action figure makers! The comic book publishers! The video game designers! The poster artists! You’re not just a superhero, you’re a whole bunch’a industries! Single-handedly, you’re keeping our economy afloat!” Seemingly convicted, Spidey surprisingly accepts the call of duty again, and just when I think that Stan, as the writer, has lost his marbles, the final sequence of this silly tale reveals Spider-man rendezvousing with a second-stringer, Mosquito Man, on a nearby rooftop. “Stan talked me out of it,” ol’ Webhead says. “Damn! I thought I’d finally have a chance to take your place!” Mosquito Man laments. Are we to assume that Spidey and Stan staged their tête-à-tête to help ease the wounded ego of a C-list superhero?

Even if Stan’s franchise-centric soliloquy wasn’t sincere, I can attest to its truthfulness, not only as a fan that scours the toy shelves for the latest action figure offerings, but also as a resident of Southern California that often finds himself in the seediest swap meets around Los Angeles. In fact, just before I read this issue, my galpal and I browsed L.A.’s popular fashion district, which is as rife with fake designer clothing as it is homemade Spider-man toys, school supplies, and peculiar paraphernalia, from baby mittens to steering wheel covers. Those white slits followed me around every corner I turned today! So, as usual, Stan couldn’t have said it better himself. Hilariously, by patting Spidey on the back, Stan is actually stroking his own ego, proclaiming his (rightful) place as the padre of the pop culture marketplace. Hey, if you want the title, Stan, you can have it!

Now, I don’t know who Steve Ennitz is, but Joss Whedon does, and in the second story, not one, not two, but four incarnations of this Ennitz character appear, meeting one another at an interdimensional comicon to discuss the industry from their respective worlds. The Steve from our world is surprised to discover a lack of superheroics in the other dimensions, as the chuckle-worthy covers of The Normal Four, and Amazing Reality reveal. When their conversation becomes a frenzied debate, our Steve cites “the Man” as the topmost source for super-powered prose, to the blank stares of his other-selves. Apparently, our dimension is the only tier of reality with its own Stan Lee! A frustrated Steve-1 eventually finds Stan on the convention floor, who proudly claims, “Well, there’s a lot of amazing comic creators in the multiverse, kid . . . But there’s only one Stan Lee.” Then, another Stan Lee swaggers up from behind and says, “I’m a Stan Lee. I sell meats.” Nice.

Whedon’s wry humor is downright delicious in this diatribe. Further, the casual close encounter with Stan is reminiscent of his cameo in Kevin Smith’s Mallrats, which is always a favorable reference. But I understand what Whedon was trying to say. Without Stan, characters like the Fantastic Four and Spider-man still could have been inspired by superhero boom spun off from National Publications’ popular Justice League concept. They could still exist. Alas, they wouldn’t have been as colorful, entertaining, or successful. Creators like Whedon, or collectors like this Steve Ennitz fellow, may not have been as passionate about the medium if not for Lee’s enthusiastic persona. They’d still be fans, but not with as much vigor. Stan Lee didn’t just change the industry from behind the typewriter; he changed the way readers read comics.

I don’t know who Fred Hembeck is, either, but in is offering to this issue, he recreates himself as a cartoon character alongside some lesser known Marvel properties, like the Beetle and Percival Pinkerton from Nick Fury’s Howling Commandos, just to stand in line for a chance to meet their marvelous maker. The two-page strip is a funny Bullpen style in-joke comic for diehard fans of Marvel Comics. Unfortunately, I am not one of them. Can’t wait ‘em all.

Finally, this issue wraps with a Stan Lee original, a classic ASM tale called “Unmasked At Last!” In this Romita-rific yarn, poor Peter Parker is inexplicably losing his powers, and apparently more tragically, he has no one to confide in without exposing his secret identity. To make matters worse, his fragility prevents him from arriving at Gwen’s birthday party on time, and when he finally stumbles through the door, he desperately reveals that he is Spider-man! When his weakness persists, Spidey rushes himself to the hospital where, in the most anticlimactic twist in Marvel history, I’m sure, Spider-man is diagnosed with . . . the flu! More uncannily, the knowledge of his ailment is evidently its own cure, as ol’ Webhead springs to his feet and successfully devises a plain to clear his name with his friends. I must admit, if this tale was a new release in today’s critical market, readers would eat this issue alive. Although Spider-man’s worst enemy is ironically himself, the plot is so full of holes that it redefines the Bronze Age’s concept of cheese! At the same time, I wouldn’t be surprised if Stan was the first to coin a concept like this, in which with great power comes great fatigue. We’ve seen every iconic superhero hang up the mask before, but in this case, Spidey nearly sacrificed the sanctity of every aspect of his life. In the end, he came out on top. Stan may have put all of his characters, especially Spider-man, through the ringer, but, as this story bears witness, he never completely abandoned them.

This entire issue is proof of that, despite his scarcity in the spotlight lately, despite the failed projects and desperate comicon appearances, Stan Lee is still the king of comicdom. His contributions have shaped the industry single-handed. Are there any other modern media that can attribute so much of its success to one man? Personally, I remember watching the Stan Lee interview conducted by Kevin Smith that was included in the special Spider-man DVD package. To ask Stan where many of his creations came from, to ask him to recall the muse that visited him in those early days, is to watch an old man’s eyes squint in strained remembrance, is to watch a clever writer come up with an answer to appease his faithful audience. Not “my editor told me to come up with some colorful characters or else,” or “I’m an old man, how am I supposed to remember?” Further proof that Stan Lee is the master of his own fate. If he wants to meet his own characters, maybe again for the first time, who are we to say otherwise?

With its diverse short stories, Stan Lee Meets Spider-Man is a solid synopsis of my three-month passage into this project – I connected with one, was confused by another, and completely alienated by another. The classic Spider-man tale was a pleasant reminder of the innocent way things used to be, of the times when a reader took the fantastic elements of a story at face value. I can only hope that the inevitable commemoration of the A Comic A Day challenge can be so perfectly packaged. Stay tuned for my quarterly report. Ninety-two comics down. Two hundred and seventy-three to go.

Friday, September 29, 2006

El Cazador #2

El Cazador #2, November 2003, CrossGen Comics
writer: Chuck Dixon
artist: Steve Epting
colorist: Frank Darmata
letterer: Dave Lanphear

Pirates are in. Thanks to the success of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, this Halloween will undoubtedly see a rise in pirate costume sails . . . I mean sales. It's shame Chuck Dixon was a year or two behind the times with El Cazador. This pirate adventure would've met the market with potentially profitable results.

I didn't intend to review two Dixon books this week, but the contrast of El Cazador with Rush City is an excellent example of his versatility as a writer. His books are never too meaty, but they offer just enough character and action to leave the reader with a satisfying comic book experience every time. Of course, I'm sure there are others who would be quick to disagree, but Dixon's 100-issue run on Robin (not counting mini-series and annuals) reveals his commitment to his craft, how every issue he produces is a precursor for the next ambitious project.

And yes, El Cazador strikes me as an ambitious project. Could you sell a comic about pirates pre-Depp, especially when the word "pirates" doesn't even appear in the title? El Cazador is the pirate ship in this series, which has come under the recent leadership of a female captain. As you can imagine, many of the mates don't take this transition lightly, and in this installment, they attempt a mutiny. Fortunately, Lady Sin (that's her pirate name) has been trained in the ways of the sword, and she has retained the faithfulness of enough of her crew to maintain her position. Now, this is but an aspect of the story, which has something to do with, what else, the search for a forbidden land, but as a stand-alone chapter, this issue stands up. I could've done without the Spanish one-liners, though. You're not impressing me with your Spanish textbook glossary, okay, Chuck?

Visually? I loved it. Can't think of a better way for this book to have been illustrated. Anything more stylized than Epting's capable pencils would've turned the issue into a farce. The characters were expressive and distinctive, the backgrounds were finely detailed without overwhelming any given panel, and thanks to the coloring as well, the mood was well established and maintained. I hope this creative team was onboard for the breadth of the series.

CrossGen should get this series into trade paperbacks as soon as possible, if they haven't already, lest they miss the wave of pirate popularity presently plundering our pop culture. I'm sure Dixon, Epting, and company could rake in plenty of retro-booty. Isn't that the best kind?

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Lone Wolf 2100 #2

Lone Wolf 2100 #2, June 2002, Dark Horse Comics
writer: Mike Kennedy
artist: Francisco Ruiz Velasco
additional coloring: Edgar Delgado
letterer: Chris Horn
assistant editor: Jeremy Barlow
editor: Randy Stradley
Inspired by the classic manga series Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koine and Goseki Kojima.

When I began planning the A Comic A Day challenge back in June, I told myself, “A year is a long time. You’re going to review a different comic book you’ve never read before every day? Even on your birthday? On Christmas? What if somebody dies? Will you review a comic book that day, too?” Unfortunately, the latter came first. I eulogized my old friend on my LiveJournal, but I will reiterate here that he was a tech guy, a freelance computer technician. Interestingly, today’s read is about futuristic rogue technology. The parallel hasn’t escaped me.

Lone Wolf 2100 is, of course, inspired by Lone Wolf and Cub, the fan favorite manga series. (I’ve recently read that even Frank Miller, who has contributed covers to the series, is a diehard fan himself.) I’ve never read the original, and in fact I thought that this issue was a part of that earlier series, so I’m disappointed that I essentially unwittingly purchased a spin-off, and further, that I don’t have a point of reference to compare it to its hallowed predecessor.

Then again, maybe that’s a good thing, because I rather enjoyed this issue. “Lone Wolf” is the renegade Itto, an android emulation construct (Emcon) apparently built for battle, and “Cub” is his former master’s infant daughter. Together, they are on the run, when this installment begins, the two have taken refuge in a tormented but isolated village. Before he hits the road again, Itto swiftly defeats the village’s oppressors by severing several of their extremities with a mere swipe of his hand. The band’s leader catches up with Itto and although the warrior bests many of the desert thugs, he is still vulnerable to a bullet in the back. The tyrants take the baby and Itto ends up back at the village, where despite the simpletons’ skepticism of his nobility, the android gets back on-line and back on his feet to vow that he will rescue the wayward cub. In the meantime, a fellow Emcon aligns with the government to find Itto and the child. To be continued.

Despite his rigidity, Itto is a likeable character and a believable hero. He has masterful combat skills but is obviously not invincible. He has an allegiance to his liege in spite of his programming, and he apparently inspires opposition from the wicked and faithfulness from the pure of heart. Kennedy paces this story well, with the interludes finely woven into the main feature’s momentum. This may be the second chapter in a four-part tale, but it stands alone as a compelling adventure with dynamic characters in its own right. Velasco has a manga style to his adaptation, but the characters’ blocking is definitely Western, combing the best of both worlds. These pages look like scanned pencils, and although I may be wrong, this rough element coupled with some moody, pastel coloring make for a genuine engrossing experience. The lack of backgrounds on several pages is an afterthought. The concept’s depth is good enough.

So will combat-ready androids conquer the world in a mere one hundred years, roaming the countryside with some warped samurai code? In this incarnation, Lone Wolf is Ronin-meets-Terminator, an interesting combination, and one that suspends belief. Comic books are always good for that. In the face of loss, of reality, a little escapism never hurt anybody.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

A Man Called Kev #1

A Man Called Kev #1, September 2006, Wildstorm Productions
writer: Garth Ennis
artist: Carlos Ezquerra
colorist: David Baron
letterer: Phil Balsman
assists: Kristy Quinn
editor: Ben Abernathy

When I first read Garth Ennis’ opus Preacher, I lived and breathed by its satiric, macabre doctrine. As a comic book series, I was overwhelmingly impressed by Ennis’ ability to establish outrageous but sympathetic characters – predictable archetypes with vulnerable twists that made them charming and compelling. As a piece of literature, I was intrigued by the book’s spiritual perspectives, from deistic creatures like the Saint of Killers wandering our countryside to the concept of a tuck-and-run God that flees at the first sign of trouble. Preacher was a modern myth laced rife with religion, politics, pop culture, and most importantly, inspiration. Ennis obviously compiled his adoration of various genres of fiction with his pressing thoughts on existence, and I was completely swept away. After I devoured the nine volume series, I sought other Ennis material . . .

. . . and I have been consistently disappointed. Just A Pilgrim and The Adventures in the Rifle Brigade were too tongue-in-cheek for my tastes. The characters didn’t elicit my compassion like Custer, Tulip, and company did. The stories weren’t as insightful, as meaningful. His Punisher stuff I’ve read has been entertaining, but again, I didn’t sense the enthusiasm with Frank’s pursuits that Ennis exuded in his Vertigo hit. I’ve wondered if Ennis blew his wad on Preacher.

I know Garth has a more expansive library than what I’ve read, with more projects on the horizon, which is why I picked up A Man Called Kev. With such a flippant title, I expected Ennis’ usual sophomoric violence, sexual deviancy, and crude language, the elements that have driven a wedge between his entire career and my teetering devotion. Opening the issue, I thought, “Is Ennis really the one-trick pony I’ve assumed, or will he convict me with another series?” My answer?

I don’t know. I didn’t realize that A Man Called Kev has strong ties to Ennis’ The Authority arc, that the series is essentially a spin-off starring, what I assume was, a secondary character. In this first issue, Kevin, a mercenary of sorts, I reckon, is blackmailed by her Majesty’s government to leave the country, lest his political crimes catch up to him. Kev’s friend Bob, a writer that shares an interlude about his getting drunk at a party and mimicking a monkey and while swinging nude on a chandelier “accidentally” stuck his you-know-what in some debutante’s agape mouth, suggests a refuge with their old tiger-taming friend in San Francisco. Bob is later killed by a mysterious band of hitmen inexplicably on Kev’s trial, which explains why four of this issue’s pages were dedicated to his strange confession – we were supposed to feel for his loss, I suppose. Maybe this is why I feel so disconnected with Ennis’ work – Preacher was a 66 issue series with several supporting minis, which is plenty of space to play with the depths of an ensemble cast of diverse characters. Now, Ennis works in four issues here, five issues there. He tries to accomplish in a matter of pages what once built for succession of stories. Maybe Ennis needs to practice what he preached.

I’ve never been taken by Ezquerra’s artwork, but I enjoyed it in A Man Called Kev. His characters are expressive and dramatic, with a natural posture that reflects the tale’s strange sense of humor and that powder keg of paranoia soon to explode in future issues. Although Ennis tends to wax poetic but obviously respects his artist by offering a variety of scenes, but a bloody shootout to a hoity-toity publishers’ party rife with colorful, visually amusing players. I’m sure as an artist, a script from Ennis is an adventure to illustrate in and of itself.

A Man Called Kev may be the first series I pursue as a result of the A Comics A Day challenge. I want to see where Ennis takes this one. Will we plunge into a character study of a man at a crossroads, with a new life awaiting him, or will we wander aimlessly through another sex-and-guns romp, a popcorn comic bloated with its own entertaining shock value? One is called a comic worth reading. The other I don’t bother to call at all.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Rush City #1

Rush City #1, September 2006, DC Comics
writer: Chuck Dixon
artist: Timothy Green II
colorist: Jose Villarrubia
letterer: Travis Lanham
editors: Ron Perazza & Bill Rosemann

Fall is upon us, and the television networks are throwing new series are us, the vulnerable viewing audience, to which will stick for more than a season. From what I've observed, we have some shows about shows, offering an exclusive behind-the-scenes perspective of the personal dramas that must unfold to make decent television in the first place, and I must not forget about the compelling hour-long dramas, as well, like Vanished or Smith, which draw us into the seedy but attractive underbelly of organized crime. Rush City reads like one of these premieres, pitching us a high-end idea that, depending on us, could become the next big hit . . . or a flop.

Dixon's Rush City has some potential. "Rush" is a bounty hunter of sorts, tracking down folks that others simply don't want to find. In the first issue, he's on the trail of a missing little girl with diabetes that was lost in the thick of pedestrian traffic on the subway, and who the police won't investigate until she's missing for the token twenty-four hours. Raising to get the girl her next insulin shot, Rush digs through the underground to a body parts peddler, who gives her up because "Nobody'll buy parts from a sick kid." Sick. Dixon almost goes too far in revealing the city's darkest depths, and the length Rush will go to rescue her from it. Rush must have some criminal past, as well, because his mission is frequently interrupted by a band of rogue policemen. Interesting. Since he finds the girl, that must be our draw into the next issue. If this subplot doesn't play into the lead character's origins or overall pursuit for the missing, it's an unnecessary element that takes valuable page space from the series' real intrigue. This is why the series has some potential, but it may become its worst enemy.

I didn't even think about it until the end, when I read the "next issue" blurb, but a Black Canary appearance teaser reveals that Rush City has ties with the rest of the DCU. As interesting as it is to think that a world where people can see through walls and run around the globe in an eyeblink needs a man like Rush, Dixon has given me another reason to shy away from the series. I love 'em, but it doesn't always have to be about superheroes, man. A fast paced urban drama is good enough.

I was pleasantly surprised by Timothy Green's visuals. His attention to detail made for an intriguing "Where's Waldo?" of depravity, especially on page three, the splash where Rush pulls up to meet his distraught client. On the sidewalk, plain as day, we see a gun, a knife, and a crossbow arrow, as if such litter is as common as the Starbucks cup and cigarette butts that are also obvious. I did experience a disconnect with his characters' expressions, especially the moment where the lost girl's mother comments that her daughter must be in fear. The mother is smiling. I don't know if Green was suggesting that the mother was reflecting upon her daughter's resourcefulness with a subtle fondness, but it made the entire concept of the story fairly unbelievable. I was wondering if I missed something. Did the mother set Rush up? For an over-thinking reader like me, the simple panel added a level to the issue that wasn't even there. Again, Green's art was good, but perhaps its own detractor in those fine details.

Will I pick up the next issue? The bottom line is, I liked this one more than I didn't, and I'm interested in seeing where Dixon can take us next. So, yes, I will read it, and I'd better hop to it, as it's already on the stands. Let's see what a second impression has in store. After all, I wouldn't want to rush to judgment.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Gene-Fusion A.D. 2310 #3

Gene-Fusion A.D. 2310 #3 (vol. 2), May 2003, Beckett Comics
writer: Ivan Brandon
penciller: Neil Vokes
inker: Jay Geldhof
letterer: Ken Bruzenak
color art director: Matt Hollingsworth
colorist: Giulia Brusco

Gene-Fusion A.D. 2310. I don’t get it.

As a fifteen-year fan and student of the comic book as a medium of entertainment and sequential art, I feel like I’ve made a connection with every issue I’ve ever read. Even the most terribly written, most poorly illustrated issue has offered something to my general study of “the comic,” if only to demonstrate how the implementation of the craft is least effective. Or, if an issue is well written and beautifully drawn, but its content or genre isn’t my personal cup of tea, I can usually find an image or a scrap of dialogue that made the read worthwhile. Consider The Nevermen. I made the mistake of reading the mini’s last issue, which was too rife with backstory to stand alone, but even in the thick of plot’s momentum, I discovered a line or two of dialogue that intrigued me – that drew me in, if only for a moment. This is art – overcoming the preconceptions of style, time, and context to connect with the participant. The unique interactive nature of the comic book, from turning the page to following the visual panel-to-panel sequence, simply speaks to me.

Gene-Fusion A.D. 2310 barely whispered in my ear. I couldn’t find that moment, which was, as you can imagine, incredibly frustrating. This issue began with the Gene Fusion team (?) defeating a fusimal, some sort of bull, zebra, lion hybrid. Then, they seek respite in an old style saloon, where the miniscule Ethan is selected to fight in a caged fusion battle – whatever that means. The heroes’ dialogue strikes me as an eager writer’s attempt to purge these characters’ concepts from his mind, and the interplay between two sets of characters is too back-and-forth for me to invest in either one of them. The artwork volleys between a poor Bruce Timm imitation and a rushed attempt to mimic mainstream American manga, and neither really works. The coloring is too unnecessarily vibrant to offer a variant in mood throughout the topsy-turvy story, holding the reader at arm’s length. I just didn’t get what this title was trying to accomplish. The only part I really understood was the penultimate twist, pitting the helpless Ethan in a ring with one of those inexplicable, ferocious fusimals for sport.

That’s it! Despite the violent results, the evil ringleaders of Ethan’s fusimal match are simply cheap entertainment peddlers, like Tina Turner in Beyond Thunderdome, and in an odd stretch of the imagination, my quest to connect with comic books is similar to their futuristic rodeo. I’m on the hunt for amusement! The quest for entertainment! For me, since an early age, comic books have been my art of choice. Maybe in three hundred and four years, bull/zebra/lion grappling will float my great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandson’s boat. Art may not come in forms we understand, and Lord knows there are plenty of folks that don’t understand comics, but its purpose is still the same.

And you read that realization in real time, folks. When I began this review, I really had no idea where it was going to go. I usually do. I made that connection in retrospect, through analysis, which is what the A Comic A Day challenge is about. You saw it happen here. An association. A fusion.

Sunday, September 24, 2006

On the Far Side With Dead Folks #3

On the Far Side With Dead Folks #3, June 2003, Avatar Press
writer: Joe R. Lansdale (based on his story On the Far Side of the Cadillac Desert With Dead Folks)
artist: Timothy Truman
editor in chief: William Christensen
creative director: Mark Seifert

I swear, Halloween is taunting me. I can't go to the store without buying some creepy little trinket, and I can't read two comics without coming across some witch, ghost, or goblin. The Darkness was possessed. The Naoki Urasawa sampler was haunted. Even the lead tale from Wednesday's Looney Tunes issue featured a mad scientist and the lovable big red monster Gossamer. Today's offering, On the Far Side With Dead Folks, is strictly a zombie story. I wonder if I'll find a graphic novel or two featuring turkeys come Thanksgiving.

I assume Dead Folks #3 is the last of a three issue mini, because its ending is quite Shakespearean, if you know what I mean. If you don't, (spoiler alert) everybody dies, and by everybody, I mean the three characters we follow for a harrowing sixteen page escape from the clutches of a bloodthirsty pack of zombies holed up in some amusement park in the middle of an otherwise vast, vacant desert. (No, it's not Magic Mountain, but that's a good guess.) Interestingly, these wayward heroes don't destroy the undead denizens, other than the ones diligently pursuing them. They don't kill the head zombie which in turn destroys all the zombies, as many stories like this go. Unless I completely missed something, the humans simply flee with their lives, which seems good enough for them . . .

. . . except for when the girl turns out not to be a human, and after one of the men mercifully kills her, he guns down the other, a lowlife by the name of Calhoun, in a good old-fashioned shoot out. A scrap of narrative reveals that Calhoun has a bounty on his head, but apparently the reward doesn't matter in the end, because the bounty hunter offs himself, as well. The title of this series, which is the best part of the book if you ask me, should be Nothing BUT Dead Folks, 'cause that's what we're left with, when all's said and done. I don't get it, but I suppose that's what the the two issues before this episode are for. Sometimes we readers take the whole "here's what happened last time" shtick for granted.

Timothy Truman is a fine artist, but his work in this issue doesn't pack the horrific punch that a zombie chase would normally entail. The issue's stunning lack of color or even grayscale is a definite detractor; with such a beautifully rendered cover, I expected more illustrative depth from the interior. Understandably, Truman's focus may have been on the suspense and momentum of the heroes' fast-paced pursuit, wherein the macabre nature of the zombie army falls somewhat by the wayside. With an airplane crash and a car chase with a big rig in the mix, he definitely has plenty else to work with. They can't all be Thriller, I suppose.

I'll confess a curiosity about the short story from which this series was based, but it's a mild one. I can't imagine how this installment would've read sans pictures, since the whole zombies-on-our-tails thing is a very visual concept. Plus, without the context of the whole story, I really don't know where this "far side" is. I'd like to know. With Halloween popping up everywhere else in my life of late, the "far side" is the last place I need to end up.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Mr. T #1

Mr. T #1, May 2005, AP Comics
writer: Chris Bunting
penciller: Neil Edwards
inker: Randy Emberlin
colorist: Don MacKinnon
letterer: Richard Emms
editor: Rick Bumston

Avid readers of my blogs (Hi, Mom!) know that I have been faithfully watching The A-Team on the Sleuth Network for the past few months. Two episodes air daily, at 1 a.m. and 3 a.m. PST, and again throughout the day while I’m at work, so I usually record them – I’m still operating pre-TiVo – and watch them when I come home. George Peppard is my new hero, but I admire the entire cast, especially the tireless Mr. T. Somewhere in my bedroom closet at my mom’s house I have a Mr. T action figure, and sometimes when I burp I can still taste the famous Mr. T cereal from my childhood. So, you can imagine my excitement when I found a Mr. T comic book at the shop earlier this afternoon. At $3.75, just a quarter above its original cover price, this issue was the most expensive book I’ve purchased in awhile, but by far the most priceless in the sentimental department.

All that said, I wish the issue actually delivered more Mr. T. In this story, our urban hero is in seclusion after doing some time for a crime he didn’t commit, and he’s apparently given up on pitying the fools. An old friend, a doctor torn between the threats of a drug-dealing mob and its young, ailing victims, solicits the T to come out of retirement to expose and defeat the peddlers; this convicting conversation is the whole of issue #1. I understand that the writer, no doubt a diehard fan of Mr. T as well, is trying to build anticipation for the big T’s premiere action-packed appearance, but when I turned to the last page – a splash of Mr. T out of the shadows for the first time in twenty-two pages, his fist cocked back, ready to throw down – I was disappointed that I’d have to pick up the next ish for a true taste of some exciting fist-T-cuffs. In any given episode of The A-Team, you’re guaranteed a token toss-a-crook-over-a-car scene before the end of the first act!

An interlude of thought: I wonder if the writer intended to pick up where Mr. T’s campy cartoon series left off. Where else would Mr. T have a reputation as an urban do-gooder, unless future issues feature flashbacks aplenty of a heretofore unseen continuity? Do I smell a Mr. T: Year One on the horizon?

Visually, this issue was lacking the solidity that a well-known character like Mr. T is due. The problem may have been in the inking. Randy Emberlin, who I fondly remember from his critically acclaimed work over Larsen’s and Bagley’s pencils on The Amazing Spider-man, turns in a sub-par effort, with lines so thick that details look muddied, and with characters so heavily inked that some pages look like work I’ve seen in promotional comics of products, department stores, or nonprofit public service causes (i.e. “Wal-Mart Presents Spider-man Defeats Mysterio with Twinkies and Reminds the Kids to Say No to Drugs!”). Since Mr. T dwells in the shadows for most of the issue, undoubtedly so his appearance on the final splash page would pack more of a punch (pardon the pun), the inconsistent illustration didn’t affect his caricature too much – another disappointing reason why I’d have to pursue another issue. More than what the story entails, I want to see Mr. T in action!

Interlude #2: Is Mr. T the comic book based on, or inspired by, Mr. T the real, gold-wearing person? I originally typed “based on,” but since I’ve never heard a news story about the T beating up drug-dealing punks in the streets, I assume he is more of an inspiration, based on the positive messages he’s promoted. Just like I think 8 Mile is more “inspired by” than “based on” Eminem’s rise to power in rapdom. A needless thought, perhaps, but one that has struck me in the context of a comic involving such a well-known celebrity. This is caricature, as I said before, rather than biography.

Speaking of caricature, I’m reminded of the celebrity-as-fiction phenomenon that I briefly discussed in my review of Superman’s Pal Jimmy Olsen #141, featuring Don Rickles. Now, Don Rickles was a hero in concept only – hilarious insults don’t count as a superpower. In this case, I’m thinking of the larger than life celebrities that have actually boasted an image akin to a comic book hero, like Mr. T, Sgt. Slaughter, or one of my current favorites, Dog the Bounty Hunter (who deserves his own comic book, too, if you ask me). In their prime, these celebrities pitched feel good, kid-friendly morals, positioning them for cross-medium opportunities, like Mr. T’s cartoons, comics, and cereals, or Sgt. Slaughter’s involvement with the G.I. Joe crew. The problem is, celebrities like this must maintain a high standard of morality in order to assure the stability of their success. Consider the recent controversial arrest of Dog and his bounty hunting pack. Or what if Mr. T ever really did time for a crime he didn’t commit? These comics would be worthless in the face of his tarnished reputation. Don’t believe me? Do you think TV Land will air an episode of Berretta any time soon? Blake was found innocent in criminal court . . .

Fortunately, Mr. T is the type of static celebrity that has stood the test of time and maintained an image of integrity, even if it is only a character he has stuck with for nearly three whole decades. In fact, speaking of TV Land, Mr. T has apparently scored his own reality show, in which he actually pities fools. No joke. Frankly, I’m looking forward to seeing the T on TV again. I haven’t caught all five seasons’ worth of A-Team reruns yet, but that is a finite goal. (And I am still on the prowl for an A-Team comic book, if anyone can help.) I can rest assured that Mr. T isn’t finished with us yet. You can pity us when he finally decides to throw in the towel. Yes, pity us then.

Friday, September 22, 2006

The Darkness #1

The Darkness #1 (vol. 2), May 2006, Image Comics
writer: Paul Jenkins
penciller: Dale Keown
colorist: Matt Milla
letterers: Dream Design's Robin Spehar & Dennis Heisler

Halloween is over a month away, but I've already seen more ghosts and goblins to last a lifetime. See, I'm an avid department store shopper, from Big Lots to Wal-Mart to Target. I visit each of those stores at least once a week, and since the end of August, the Halloween paraphernalia has flooded the marketplace like the steam from a witch's bubbling cauldron. It's everywhere.

I suppose that's why I didn't mind the abhorrent imagery of The Darkness. I don't mean the issue was illustrated poorly. In fact, this is my first close encounter of the Keown kind since PITT, and I must say, I didn't think the guy could get any better, but he did. He's abandoned the trappings of that mid-'90s fanfare, like the superfluous muscle veins or crosshatched under brow. The Darkness is has a fluidity to it, from the form of its characters to the layout of the page, and since the credits don't include an inker, I can only assume what we see is a high resolution scan of Keown's original pencils. Very impressive.

No, the abhorrent imagery is in the writing. This first issue is actually of the title's second volume, so Jenkins spends a considerable amount of page space catching us up on past events. Since I've never read The Darkness before, I was grateful for the recap, but I dare say that Jenkins wasted too much space with unnecessary narrative, especially considering his flagrant use of the hero's first person dialect. More dialogue would've offered more insight from more characters, like the mob stooges that plague the plot with their tireless cliches of hubris and vengeance. Not that the lead character is any less shallow, but at least he's honest. Yes, The Darkness is about a man's inner demons, but inasmuch as they literally take form, some can only conquered from the inside.

The Darkness strikes me as an excellent Halloween read, and when October actually arrives, I hope to unearth more macabre comic book tales, especially some Charlton titles from the '50s and '60s. Anything pre-Comics Code would be a treat, as well. In the meantime, titles like this will have to do. And they do. I'm glad I read The Darkness with the lights on.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

JLA: Classified #26

JLA: Classified #26, October 2006, DC Comics
writer: Howard Chaykin
artists: Kilian Plunkett & Tom Nguyen
letterer: Ken Lopez
colorist: I.L.L.
editors: Palmer & Carlin

In my humble opinion, the Justice League titles should be the best mainstream superhero comic books on the market today. Where else can new readers find the most popular, iconic heroes of the our generation in a single adventure, and where else should veteran readers turn when they long to behold old characters tackling new and greater challenges on a regular basis? The diversity of the heroes' powers, personalities, and predicaments should make for the best action, adventure, and melodrama available in the medium, bar none. I'm not just talking about the "big seven," either -- the canon of characters popularized as a group in Grant Morrison's JLA relaunch. His run may have cemented my dedication to the team, but I've always admired DC's eclectic roster, and I think the "rotating chair" concept is one that benefits the League on a functional and fictional level, as a crime-fighting task force and a driving force in graphic literature. Bottom line, the Justice League isn't just one particular incarnation or collection of superheroes. It's DC Comics' chance to really show off their chops.

Unfortunately, DC doesn't know how to corral the horses in their stable. Like a painter cursed with perfectionism forever touching up his masterpiece, DC's canon has been revamped, repackaged, and relaunched so many times that the characters' cumulative effort, the League itself, often suffers from comic book crib death. The last ongoing JLA title, for example, lasted a mere 125 issues before the latest crisis pressed the proverbial restart button on the DCU. Before the end, the League went through three different Green Lanterns, if you count Hal Jordan's return in the eleventh hour. In retrospect, until the '80s, readers could pick up any issue of any DC title with little concern about cosmic continuity. Sure, some issues didn't make sense in the context of previous story arcs, including the existence of Earths ad infinitum, but the entertainment factor often overshadowed any potential confusion. Our heroes' adventures were fun. The Justice League was fun. Now, with a new line-up on the horizon, I don't trust the title. The series that I most looked forward to makes me cringe at the thought of how long (or, how short) it will last this time.

Enter JLA: Classified. A series dedicated to JL adventures from the past, these tales by rotating creative teams are free of all that baggage. Further, since the stories are essentially stand-alone mini-series, readers can come and go from the book depending on their tastes. I picked up the Ellis/Guise arc and took a break for a bit; now, I'm back for "Sacred Trust," a six-issue commitment that, if following installments live up to the first one, I can live with. Written by Chaykin, no stranger to a superhero tale with political intrigue, "Sacred Trust" begins with the League essentially disobeying the UN's warning to ignore two warring Middle Eastern countries, each building a metahuman army. More so than the snapshots of action, the driving force behind this yarn is the relationship between the heroes; as a diplomat himself, Aquaman insists that the League honor the UN's position, but Batman refuses as his fight for justice is accountable to no single government. Even Superman insists, "As a visitor to this planet, my loyalties are to its people, not its governing bodies." The League does shed their spandex to go undercover as civilians, so the next chapter should offer an interesting take on how their secret identities can be used for or against their favor. Looks the League likes to take leave of its baggage, too, from time to time.

Of course, the ideas presented in this arc are not new. In JLA, we saw the League fight as their civilian selves in the Mark Waid story that physically separated the heroes from their secret identities. And in "Golden Perfect," the League controversially tackled the troubles of a sovereign nation. Still, this is the group at its finest, slightly at odds with one another, which makes them human, but nevertheless divided for justice, which makes them heroes. No matter what else may happen to these characters, at least that will never change.

(Don't remind me about Parallax, okay?)

You know, without the Justice League, Marvel Comics as we know it may never have sprung forth from the mind of Stan Lee. The League's success inspired Lee's editor to prod Stan into creating their very own super-team, and the Fantastic Four was born. I'm sure you can find a more accurate history lesson somewhere on-line, but those are the essential facts. DC has always set the stage for the medium's concept of superhero fiction: from Batman: Year One came Spider-man: Chapter One. From Crisis on Infinite Earths came The Infinity Gaunlet. And this is just on the DC versus Marvel scale; other publishers have demonstrated similar trends. Believe me. Their characters just didn't have the history to stand up to the burden of such epic storytelling. Again, DC proves that their roster simply has the chops. Like everything else, the Justice League has overcome it. Even if it's classified.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Looney Tunes #141

Looney Tunes #141, October 2006, DC Comics
various contributors

When I hastily burst into Borders just a few hours ago to find today’s comic book, I was already determined to avoid the superhero material. I know from experience that most mainstream bookstores have little to offer in the newsstand edition variety; you’re lucky to find anything more than superheroes, Star Wars, and cartoon-based books, like The Simpsons issue I reviewed earlier this week. I flipped through a few Dark Horse offerings but opted for the latest Looney Tunes. I figure I would’ve resorted to it sooner or later anyway. I guess I’m glad it was sooner, because after tonight’s review it will be behind me.

When I was a kid, I studied the classic Disney and Warner Bros. cartoons. I can draw, but I don’t have the talent or the patience to complete a comic book, so I was intrigued by the slow and steady cell-by-cell process of animation. Someone else paints the backgrounds while I just draw the characters over and over again? Sign me up! Kids draw the same cartoon characters all the time, usually in a subconscious attempt to hone their reproduction of the character to the point of perfection. This was me. I reckon I sketched model sheets for Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny more than their actual animators did. I mean, I was no Chuck Jones, but in retrospect, I could’ve been onto something. Now, I’m stuck exclusively sketching caricatures of myself. Maybe I’ll get around to finishing a flipbook of myself drawing myself.

It would be better than Looney Tunes #141. Featuring four short stories starring your favorite Warner Bro. characters, each by a different creative team, Looney Tunes #141 struck me as a rush job, an obligatory title that DC Comics is contracted to publish as a subsidiary of the WB. I didn’t expect an opus or anything; I just imagined that a comic book starring characters as old as the medium itself would exude more artistic integrity. Warner Bros. cartoons relied on more than sight gags and pratfalls. In the context of their heyday, the ‘50s and ‘60s, Bugs and company were the Simpsons of cinema, boasting a subtle social commentary that attracted adults as much as they enraptured their younger audience. Maybe humor was simpler then, sans the satiric complexities we’ve constructed to maintain our ever-waning attention spans. Nevertheless, the next time Boomerang airs a Foghorn Leghorn marathon, watch it. Really watch it. I dare you not to utter an astonished “huh” when you realize how sophisticated those old ‘toons really are.

But I digress. Looney Tunes #141. Four short stories. In the first, Porky Pig brings an ailing Sylvester the Cat to a dentist that turns out to be a mad scientist on the hunt for brains. Sylvester disguises himself as the Tooth Fairy, and while the scientist and his aid, the big red lovable monster Gossamer, rush to their teeth collection to cash in, Porky and Sylvester split for ice cream. The second story stars Honey Bunny (I think that’s her name – Bugs’ girlfriend from Space Jam) as “Beauty” to the Tasmanian Devil’s beast. In this incarnation, Taz can’t eat any of the enchanted food in his castle, so Honey suggests he leave the fortress for a bite to eat in town. The transformed help don’t appreciate her advice, however, and in the end, it looks like she’s for dinner. Ha.

The third tale is a Porky/Daffy buddy piece, in which Daffy represents a failed ACME drain cleanser, and I should start a new paragraph here to say that, at this point in the issue, the quality of the work from both a writing and illustrative perspective unravels. Porky is inconsistently drawn, and he isn’t too hard to draw, while Daffy’s goofy dialogue is downright annoying. I wish I jotted down a few of the incomprehensible lines, but trust me. Daffy’s usual bravado gave way to sheer stupidity. Finally, in the last tale, Bugs and Daffy, who in this yarn is written with his lisp intact, visit Yosemite Sam’s short staffed roadside restaurant, where in typical fashion Bugs dons a waitress uniform, mixes up the orders, and a chaotic food fight ensues. The writer doesn’t bother to actually end the story. Instead, Bugs inexplicably pulls out a black and white camera and snaps a shot for young readers to color. In my opinion, a comic book truly intended for kids shouldn’t be so text intensive, but space permitting, the text should be something a parent could read to their child without sounding like an idiot. The Roadrunner’s “beep beep” is more amusing than this trite.

Obviously, my disappointment in Looney Tunes #141 comes from my fond childhood memories of original cartoons. Even the C-list characters, like the Bookworm or that kangaroo with the boxing gloves that Sylvester often mistook as a big mouse, had a touch of class, like one big rat pack (pardon the pun) of classic animation. This clout isn’t respected anymore. These characters have been too franchised for their own good, repackaged in ridiculous molds of modern interpretation to really matter as the founding fathers they actually are. Case in point: the Loonatics. Check out this upcoming Saturday morning’s Kids’ WB! season premieres if you don’t know what I’m talking about. Have we forsaken our childhood tendencies to achieve perfection? Yes, if drawing comics tries my patience, it’s no wonder I can barely watch the cartoons in which I once took refuge. When I behold today’s excuses for Bugs, Daffy, and Porky, sometimes I wonder, “Is this really all, folks?”

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Astro City: Local Heroes #2

Astro City: Local Heroes #2 (excerpt from Astro City: Local Heroes trade paperback), Homage Comics
writer: Kurt Busiek
artist: Brent Anderson
letterer: J.G. Roshell
colorist: Alex Sinclair

When I went to the library this morning to pick a selection for today’s review, my eyes were drawn to the Astro City: Local Heroes hardcover collection, in part because I hadn’t noticed it before, but mostly because of its dominating presence on the shelf. Similar in size to the Invincible collection that I perused last month, Local Heroes has an attractive dust jacket by Alex Ross, and its interior design is an eclectic montage of Astro City memorabilia, from newspaper clippings to restaurant advertisement to lapel pins. Above all else, Astro City is a book that radiates ambiance; Busiek, Anderson, and company literally invite the reader into their world, where superheroes and common folk dwell together, and where the city itself is perhaps the most compelling character of all.

Confronted with this monstrosity of a trade, I didn’t know where to begin. I didn’t want to dive into the entire collection, but I didn’t want to open the book blindly and select a random issue, either, in fear that my confusion with the samplings continuity would sour my impression altogether, which is what happened in my experience with The Nevermen. Fortunately, the inside front cover led me to issue #2, “Shining Armor,” dubbed as a Harvey Award nominee, presumably for best single story. “We’ll see about that,” I thought defiantly, flipping to the chapter excitedly. From page one, I sensed a warmth about the story, a quiet tragedy that demanded sympathy for the characters and the integrity of the author. “Damn,” I mused, humbly satisfied, and read on.

“Shining Armor” is about Irene, a young woman seeking to establish a professional identity for herself in the otherwise cook-the-dinner-raise-the-kids era of the 1950s. Volunteering for a successful local political campaign, Irene makes a name for herself, and as a mayoral aide, finds herself in a vulnerable position when supervillains take over City Hall. Fortunately, the new mysterious hero Atomicus comes to her rescue, and Irene shamelessly asks him to see her again. Their relationship is one part crime-fighting partnership, one part romance, and when Atomicus shares his fears about taking it to the next level, Irene interprets his reservations as a challenge. In fact, when the timid Adam begins working in her office, Irene is determined to reveal that he is truly Atomicus, daring her to show off her chops by exposing her identity. In the end, yes, Adam is Atomicus, but the hero reveals that his secret identity was an attempt to better understand humanity, so he could be a better mate. Alas, Irene’s persistence shuns Atomicus from Earth, and although Irene rises above the public outcry against her “driving away a hero,” she weds, bears a daughter, and tells her (and consequently, us) this bittersweet story.

Obviously, Busiek uses this romantic tragedy to explore the real world consequence of Lois Lane’s campy obsession in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Initially, I was frustrated with Busiek’s seemingly bipolar characterization of Irene; on one hand, she is capable of conquering America’s domestic stereotypes to become a successful career-oriented woman, but on the other, she’s a short-sighted blunderer whose exploits threaten the safety of everyone around her. (In one instance, she dons a radiation-absorbing glove in the hopes that a weakened Adam would expose himself as Atomicus, and if harming the love of her life in this way wasn’t bad enough, the glove also absorbs brainwaves and paralyzes her coworkers, too!) However, in retrospect, Busiek’s deconstruction is spot on. Irene and Lois Lane were stereotype-breaking women, and in their worlds, they are depicted as the most assertive figures in their respective spheres of influence. Enter a man whose sheer good will is stronger than theirs, and of course they overcompensate, fueled by their love, to prove themselves the better. In this case, Atomicus wasn’t as patient as Superman. Atomicus split. Irene may have had a stronger will, but in the end, she was simply left alone with it.

Interestingly, Busiek injects another element into this story, one that has left me wondering, as well. “Shining Armor” begins with Irene telling this cautionary tale to her grand daughter, a confessed and comfortable lesbian, in the hopes that she will learn from past mistakes and find a Mr. Right with whom to start a family. At the end of the story, when Irene falls asleep, her grand daughter confesses an admiration for Irene, but laments at the old woman’s inability to understand that Atomicus left her, that she didn’t really drive him away if he wasn’t so apt to leave. Did Busiek establish that the grand daughter, later revealed to be a superhero herself, is a lesbian so that this worldview would make more sense? Or, so that her lesbianism would be easier to understand? Maybe I’m reading too much into it. Still, with a creative so detail-oriented, I venture I’m getting close to Busiek’s commentary on feminism in this story.

Comic books that examine other comic books are often too derivative to exist as stories by themselves. They’re usually just satire. However, in the tapestry of Astro City, “Shining Armor” is an experience in itself. In fact, with its dramatic perspective of an admittedly old concept, “Shining Armor” infuses those old Lois Lane stories with a new dimension, a “what if” reality that could’ve come to pass had Superman ever awoken on the wrong side of the bed, or come into contact with the wrong colored Kryptonite. With so much history behind those iconic characters, a bold move like that simply wouldn’t be possible without destroying the dynamic of a modern mythology. Thank goodness, that’s what Astro City is for. Like its hardcover edition, Astro City is becoming a presence in comicdom, so much so that it’s changing the way we look at the heroes we thought we always knew.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Viz Edition Sampler

Naoki Urasawa’s Monster Viz Edition Sampler
story and art by Naoki Urasawa

I’m getting really desperate now. Seriously. I need to go to the comic book store. Or the bookstore. Even a 7-11 magazine rack would do. I can’t imagine that I’ll find too many more uncovered crannies in my box of Comic Con goodness. Today’s read was a stretch. Still, the Monster Viz Edition Sampler told a story with sequential art between two covers, so it counts as a comic. Of course, as a sampler, this excerpt is but a small part of a larger epic – a chapter, if you will, based on the distinction I established on Saturday. Further, and more importantly to the grand scheme of the A Comic A Day challenge, this comic is a sample of a genre as a whole. Monster is my second official foray into the mysterious world of manga.

Unlike Oriental Heroes, the other manga I’ve read thus far, this sampling reads from right to left, as is its eastern tradition. Further, while Oriental Heroes was essentially a sixty-page fight sequence, this excerpt from Monster is a twenty-six story-intensive diatribe on the downfall of a young talented surgeon. Ironically, Dr. Tenma is the kind of hero that preserves life, unfortunately in this case at the detriment of his own blossoming career. Despite reports that the Mayor is injured and en route to the hospital, Tenma hastily decides to tend to the critically wounded boy that arrives first. He saves the kid, but without his help, Tenma’s team loses the Mayor, to the devastation to the hospital’s reputation. What follows is the very collapse of a man, as Tenma loses the respect of his peers, his prestigious position, and his fiancée, who forsakes him as thoughtlessly as a pair of used surgical gloves. This tale brings to mind the old adage, “Physician, heal thyself.” Yet, we can only assume that the worst is yet to come.

I enjoyed these twenty-six pages. Honestly, I was surprised to count that this sample was so many pages, because it read so quickly. Despite the lack of action, Urasawa is obviously a master of suspense, propelling his medical drama with political intrigue and smatterings of the supernatural. His artwork is crisp, with diverse, expressive characters that utilize the best of manga’s form without abandoning the melodrama of its function. This is the ingredient that was missing from Oriental Heroes; in just a few short pages, I sympathized with Dr. Tenma and was curious about his plight. It’s called character, on both the writing’s and the writer’s part. Something tells me Urasawa has penned a story with some significance, and I may actually track it down someday to figure out how it ends.

Is this why so many manga epics are so long? Because they’re actually unraveling character?

Could it be that I’ve found a fondness for this stuff after all? Maybe Urasawa really did create a monster. Forget 7-11. Manga bookshop, here I come.

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Simpsons Comics #121

Simpsons Comics #121, Bongo Entertainment
writer: Ian Boothby
penciller: Phil Ortiz
inker: Mike DeCarlo
colorist: Art Villanuzia
letterer: Karen Bates
editor: Bill Morrison

When I was perusing the comic book rack at Borders earlier today, I was inspired to read the available issue of Simpsons Comics, in part to celebrate last week’s season premiere. Over the past few years, new seasons of The Simpsons have begun with their highly anticipated Halloween episode, and in recent memory, said special has aired on the Sunday following the harrowing holiday. This year, Fox not only beat the deadline, but they’re gaining a little momentum until then, which should be commended. Unfortunately, since I’m but one man with a few humble blogs in the door of pop culture, a comic book review is all I can offer. I think that’s more than enough.

I’ve been a Simpsons fan since their debut on The Tracy Ullman Show. I was seven years old, and like many others in my generation, I vaguely remember watching their poorly animated shorts on the obscure sketch comedy show, never suspecting that we were on the ground floor of a worldwide phenomenon. Just a few years later, “eat my shorts” became our country’s unofficial motto, and perhaps our unspoken communal mentality, as well. As much as I can reference and quote those first few magical seasons’ worth of hilarious episodes, when the series reached its teens, I became disconnected with its juggernaut mythology. Many episodes were simply sheer parody of themselves, which in my opinion is a convenient scapegoat for franchises that don’t need new ideas to maintain stability (over validity) in the spotlight of global entertainment. Here’s my personal gauge for Simpsons’ success: the higher Homer’s voice gets, the less thought went into their adventure. His buffoonish whining was a rare treat in those first few seasons, whereas his oafish self-confidence was the real comedic cause of his family’s peculiar predicaments. Remember one of my favorite episodes, in which Homer decides to ditch church every Sunday morning? “Everybody’s stupid but me,” he mused, then he fell asleep and an ash from his cigar lit the stack of porno by the couch, and consequently the entire house, on fire. That’s hilarious. Now, watching the Simpson propel themselves thoughtlessly through a secured primetime slot year after year, I wonder if Homer’s right.

That said, this issue of Simpsons Comics pleasantly surprised me. As a Simpsons story, it fit the formula: Homer has a problem, rallies the town behind him, and gets his way, which results in a near cataclysmic social breakdown, until Lisa devises a way to save the day. In this case, Homer tries to abolish daylight savings time. In an attempt to please the mob, Mayor Quimby foolishly declares that Springfield residents can set their clocks as they please; Lisa hopes that the townsfolk overlook the oversight, but before she can even complete the thought, Bart posts the opportunity on his blog, and everybody reads Bart’s blog. Soon, Barney is resetting his watch trapping Moe in a perpetual Happy Hour, the Flanders all but chain Reverend Lovejoy to the pulpit for perpetual church, and the class hamster looks like it’s ready to burst as students continually reset the clock so they have a turn during feeding time. When threatened by Big Solar, Big Tobacco’s old college chum, to repeal the law, Quimby reveals that he has used all of his annual repeals, until Lisa proposes that Quimby reset his clock to the hour before passing the haphazard law, so he can never pass it in the first place. Like every good Simpsons adventure, despite the calamity, in the end, every thing goes back to the way it was. The stage is set for next week, er, month’s chaos.

I’ve rarely laughed out loud when reading a comic book, so I declare that Simpsons Comics is a rare read, because I laughed aloud several times, which in a Borders, is undoubtedly disturbing to behold. Nevertheless, the writers and artists of Simpsons Comics, and its Bongo spin-offs, must have a gag-per-panel policy; if I wasn’t laughing at something I was reading, I was laughing at something I was seeing, thanks to the artists’ ability to sprinkle visual gags during those dry plot propelling moments. For instance, when Homer is lamenting about daylight savings time at work, radioactive ooze drips onto the doughnuts behind him. While the Comic Book Guy reads Bart’s blog, a poster behind his counter depicts Radioactive Man punching out Santa Claus, with the bold title, “Infinite Christmas Crisis!” Just the sight of Barney at the bar with a laptop is chuckle worthy. The creators are well aware of Springfield’s quirks, and they exploit them with hilarious results.

Some punchlines of note. When Bart recommends that Homer lash out to solve his problems:

HOMER: Lash out, eh? Marge, where do we keep the crossbow?
MARGE: I threw it out after the last time you took Bart’s advice!

When Jimbo sets his watch forward so he’s old enough to buy beer at the Quickie Mart:

APU: No! I may be many things, but never let it be said that Apu would allow such poison to be sold to an under-aged child. Your body is a temple! May I interest you instead in some giant sugar filled pixie sticks?

When newsman Kent Brockman chastises the newspaper boy on his “extra extra” delivery, the boy retorts, “Do I tell you how to do your job, Uncle Kent?” Hilarious. These are just a few examples of how this issue secures a smile from its readers before Lisa predictably saves the day. Is it obvious that I liked this issue?

Simpsons Comics presents an opportunity to analyze the phenomenon of TV show inspired titles, but honestly, I’d like to reserve that review for when I (hopefully) get my hands on an old issue of Marvel’s The A-Team. An old Monkees or Get Smart issue would rock, as well. Stay tuned.

Back to the Simpsons. Don’t get me wrong, now. I watched last week’s season premiere, and in preparation of this review, I watched tonight’s episode about Bart’s uncanny drum playing ability. Both episodes were funny, and I wasn’t disappointed in my half hour investments, but I can sense a desperation on the storytellers’ behalf: “Give us a break. There’s only so much we can do!” Many recent episodes depend on the legacy and popularity of past episodes for assured laughs, if only from a comfortably familiar mentality. Tonight, for instance, the Simpsons’ adventure began with the death of Homer’s “Vegas wife” from his and Flanders’ wild night in Sin City some seasons ago, a beloved tale to many Simpsons fans. Also, the White Stripes’ cameo was worth a smirk but ultimately unnecessary from even a comedic standpoint; yet, without these consistent celebrity cameos, I wonder if the Simpsons would be pop-culturally relevant anymore. At least diehard fans have a place of refuge when they long for their first family’s simpler times. It’s no surprise that it’s Simpson Comics. After all, Matt Groening began his career with the crude comic strip From Hell. Well, Simpsons Comics definitely are not.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

Canvas #2

Canvas #2, February 2001, Black Velvet Studios
contributors: Axel Ortiz, Geoff Ong, Jojo Aguilar, Tim Divar, Gerald Ong, Mikey Macasero

I didn’t want to review Canvas #2, because when I picked up Canvas #1 at the Alternative Press Expo back in April, I was disappointed that the short installments seemed less like chapters in larger stories and more like ashcan previews of potential series. Here’s the difference. Although a chapter is but one part of a whole, a good chapter still has a definitive beginning, middle, and an end, just like a patch in a quilt. The patch is useless by itself, but still retains an identity as a swash of fabric. An ashcan is usually just an excerpt from a potentially hit comic, oftentimes the most action-packed sequence, to give readers a taste of what the series has to offer. Yes, Canvas #1 read like an ashcan compilation. Canvas #2 was a bit better.

Incidentally, I picked up Canvas #2 from the freebie table at the Comic Con. Indeed, I’m still scraping from the bottom of my swag barrel. I haven’t had time to go to the comic book store, okay? Fortunately, I underestimated my butterfingers. I swiped more Con goodies than I thought.

Moving on. Canvas #2 features four shorts. Ironically, the stories that have potential are the most poorly illustrated, whereas the best drawn installments are easily the hardest to read. Ortiz and Ong’s Backspace is the tale of a Marvin the Martian-like character’s currier-travels through space. Beautifully illustrated, its narrative is too . . . fluffy is the word that comes to mind. The gimmick in this episode, an interstellar plant that devours its targets, unwittingly delivered by our Marvin-esque middleman, would have been best delivered without dialogue, so the reader could decipher the concept as a purely visual surprise. The goofy guffaws take the shocking out of the twist. Still, Backspace (which I realize is another example of irony, as it’s in the front) is quite easy on the eye.

The following two stories, Abrams and Hell on Earth, are decently illustrated but irrevocably cluttered by too many unnecessary words. Abrams is about a firepower-heavy armor-wearing hero that defeats a city-stomping dragon; this simple idea is rife with medieval narration, likening the tired concept (unfairly) to a fairy tale. Hell on Earth suffers from the ashcan syndrome, so much so that I can’t really tell you what the story is about. In fact, the last caption proudly proclaims, “Next Time: Not Just a Teaser.” Well, don’t go nuts there, guy. Cranking out four pages a month is surely all it takes to break into the business.

The final tale, Planet Fighter, holds the most promise. The illustration is good, if a bit stiff, and the story reads like a manga (in my limited experience) without the trapping of poor pacing or distracting visuals. The concept is, a soldier beholds his commander’s assassination and is forced to pilot the city’s skyscraping robot hero all by himself. Yes, it’s a one man Power Rangers, with genuine potential for character development. We often see these “zords” in modern sci-fi/action adventure literature, but I’ve never thought about the traumas their drivers might endure during battle. Here’s a chapter that makes me want to read the rest of the book.

I guess this is why the creators decided to call the compilation series Canvas in the first place. Like most artists, they’re slapping paint on the canvas and hoping it takes on a life of its own, a shape with long term potential that others can appreciate. With comics like these, however, an artist must remember, the smaller the painting, the larger the details, lest we miss the creator’s intent. The bottom line is, these chapters are too brief to hook me. Actually, they have a decent hook, but they won’t reel me in. If you can do without seeing the big picture, I say the canvas is better off blank.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Tragg and the Sky Gods #7

Tragg and the Sky Gods #7, November 1976, Western Publishing Company
writer: Don Glut
artist: Dan Spiegle

I’ve read many comics that spotlight a doom-and-gloom vision of the future, but Tragg and the Sky Gods is the first I’ve read based on Earth’s catastrophic past. Tragg and his tribe are dinosaur-riding cavemen combating a race of jetpack-wearing aliens, and in this chapter, Tragg and half of his people are taking the fight to the Sky Gods’ lair, the volcanic Fire Mountain. The rest of his tribe faces a surprise attack from the aliens’ aerial forces, but both halves conquer the odds and unite to drive the Sky Gods away from Fire Mountain once and for all.

Unlike The Mighty Samson, the other sci-fi/fantasy title I’ve read from Western Publishing with the Gold Key cover logo, Tragg is fast-paced, focusing less on the circumstances of their circumstances and more on the momentum of their building conflict. Despite their savage culture, Tragg and his people demonstrate sophistication with their battle strategies, even in the face of a laser, or as they call it, “a fire gun.” I don’t know if I was to believe that the alien conquerors were wicked because of their otherworldly nature, or because of their advanced technologies, but I got the message. I’m tossing my cell phone tonight and reverting to a smoke signal system, just in case.

Cutting this one short. Birthday party. If someone drinks too much tonight, I have a feeling this comic might come to mind. Despite his heroic stature, Tragg’s name sounds like something I’d do after one too many, you know what I mean?

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Howard the Duck #13

Howard the Duck #13, June 1977, Marvel Comics
writer/editor: Steve Gerber
penciller: Gene Colan
inker: Steve Leialoha
letterer: Jim Novak
colorist: Jan Cohen

I lied.

Rummaging through my box of Comic Con swag, I discovered Howard the Duck #13, an issue I purchased with the A Comic A Day challenge in mind. I could imagine willingly reading an issue of Howard the Duck without some inane incentive, and fulfilling my personal challenge is as good as any. Actually, due in part to my disappointment in yesterday’s post, I’m grateful for the opportunity to analyze a book with such cult classic clout. Howard has quite a reputation.

Best known for his campy big screen debut, Howard was a brainchild of the psychedelic ‘70s, when a cigar-chomping duck wasn’t a premise for some self-published comic book endeavor, but rather a best seller for the one of the biggest comics publishers, arguably in its heyday, to boot. Seriously, without Howard, I wonder if characters like Cerebus or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles would’ve been taken seriously . . . well, seriously enough to become franchises in their own right. The artistic phenomenon of personification, particularly involving animals, is a constantly developing beast (pardon the pun) that continues to set its own limits, from the animal-centric Sunday morning newspaper strips that eventually spawned the comic book format, to the wisecracking Mr. Ed, to the Bundys’ woe-is-me-monologue mutt. Every significant offering in this aspect of storytelling (if Married with Children can be dubbed significant) pushes the envelope for what the audience is willing to believe about the animal kingdom’s latent humanity. Howard the Duck not only pushed said envelope; he addressed it, mailed it, and asked for a receipt to assure that it reached its intended destination.

In this issue, Howard, believed to be a midget in a duck costume that just thinks he’s a duck, is in an asylum with his friend Wendy, whose visions of leather-clad, face make-up coated rock and rollers (that look an awful like, but are never identified as, KISS) materialize and persuade the hospital staff that she may be demon possessed. Look at that sentence again: in a single synopsis, I referenced a humanoid duck, midgets, KISS, and the delusions of a potential madwoman. No, this is not a pitch for the latest “celeb-reality” show on VH1. This is a concept that passed for a Marvel Comic, the House of Ideas. Join me in longing for the days before infinite crises and seemingly endless civil wars.

Apparently, this asylum’s staff took a page from the One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest instructional handbook, because after a well-qualified demonologist (one Daimon Hellstrom, who I believe is a bit-player in the Marvel Universe), the warden opts to torture the supposed spirits from Wendy’s brittle soul. Enter the token brainwashing cult subplot. I thought Denny O’Neil had that shtick copyrighted in the ‘70s, but Gerber uses it here to establish the first of an at least two-part story. I’ll admit, I’m curious to see what happens next, which is a sign of success from a series’ first impression issue. Although the forced dialects were difficult to read, Gerber’s choppy tale is laced together by a fluidity of purpose; Howard’s reflective journey to find his place in our world is something to which everyone can relate.

How often have you been accused of being something that you’re not? Or, how often have you failed to live up to the expectations erected around you, about you? This is Howard the Duck, who, despite his alien appearance on our world, is a rather intelligent creature from an admittedly middle-class upbringing. The way Howard’s written, I’d expect to find him dwelling in a coffee shop more so than a duck pond, musing aloud of the futilities of existence rather than begging for a crust of bread. He’s smart, and surprisingly vulnerable. I vaguely remember his film from my youth, and I recall a cigar-sucking smart aleck. What was that I said about harsh judgments?

On a random note, a few cool lines from this issue:

HELLSTROM: The devil . . . too often receives credit for the creative behavior of humans.

Nice. Another one:

HOWARD: Even as a kid, I wanted to be a derelict. I liked the hours.

Chuckle worthy, at least. I can see why Howard’s fans stuck around. Gerber imbued the series with a charm beyond the first impression of goofiness one gets from when their eyes first fall on Howard the Duck.

As I said before, Howard set the stage for some of the most successful characters in comics, those animal-human hybrids that we don’t even think of as peculiar anymore. Indeed, no one thinks twice about a turtle swinging a katana blade, or a dry-humored dog crushing on his master’s wife on shows like Family Guy. However, Howard also raised the bar for epics based on introspection, like a mutant, modern Camus allegory with a touch comic book action and romance for flavor and pop culture validity. Howard shows his readers, in the face of life’s most difficult questions, one should tackle them head-on. You can never duck.

I’m sorry. That was bad. I told you, I’m making up for yesterday!

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

City of Heroes #10

City of Heroes #10, March 2004, Cryptic Studios
writer: Rick Dakan
artist: Brandon McKinney
colorist: Austin McKinley
letterer: Neil Hendrick

I'm cheating.

If you haven't read my other blogs (and you really should, because I'm quite hilarious), you probably don't know that I work for a non-profit after school program with a tiny facility on an elementary school campus, and today was one of those mile-a-minute days that explain where the post-modern concept of multi-tasking comes from. In the morning, I helped set up for our annual celebrity golf tournament (and I use the term "celebrity" loosely), returned to our facility just in time for the kids' early release day, then attended the school's special Back to School Night. Later, a friend's band is performing downtown. I'm in the middle one of those days.

Top that off with the realization that I'm fresh out of comics. I have a few reserved for special occasions, and I really have my hopes up for reading them on their intended days. So, I dipped into a stash here at work. See, several months ago, we received dozens of City of Heroes comics, and although I flipped through them to confirm appropriate visual content, I didn't officially read them. Further, since the stash is here at work, and not at home in one of my long boxes, they aren't officially a part of my personal collection. Therefore, I haven't broken any of the pre-established A Comic A Day rules or regulations. Okay? Okay.

That said, City of Heroes, a comic book inspired by a role playing computer game, was a decent read with some rather energetic characters. The story is essentially a superhero prison break, with some supernatural help. The good guys go toe to toe with some vampires, with a cosmic symbiotic alien on deck. You got the Captain America rip-off, the Wolverine spoof (complete with claws -- those things aren't copyrighted?), the token slugfest for freedom. It was definitely a popcorn muncher. A light read for a heavy day.

Which is not over. Tomorrow, I need to go shopping for some comics.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

The Never Men #4

The Never Men #4 (excerpt from trade paperback), January 2001, Dark Horse Comics
writer: Phil Amara
artist: Guy Davis
colorist: Dave Stewart
letterer: Steve Haynie

Like yesterday, I read today’s dose of comic book goodness at the library, but unlike yesterday, I didn’t dive headlong into a multi-chapter trade paperback. I decided to read the last chapter in the trade as a single as it was originally intended, as if I had found The Never Men #4 alone in a back issue box. The result?

I regret it. As the final installment of a four-issue arc, this issue wrapped up a lot of loose ends, not only from a storytelling perspective, but through its dynamic characterizations, as well. I had to flip through the rest of the collection to get a grasp of the overall plot, and although I dig the story’s concept, I wasn’t too keen on writer Phil Amara’s technique. As near as I can tell, the Never Men is a team of lab-constructed do-gooders specifically designed to protect their technologically macabre, intensely gothic, unidentified city of the future. One of the Never Men goes renegade in a private investigation of his origin, while the others continue their fight against mutant (or alien) criminal masterminds.

Davis maintains a style dedicated to the combined genres in this story, a bit of detective noir here, a bit of tech-punk there, and I dare say his visuals are the true strength of the Never Men. I understand I read the last chapter of a series, which is like catching the last fifteen minutes of a movie, but I had a difficult time convincing myself that I should care about the ramifications of these final confrontations, culminating explosions, and closure-ridden dialogues. Well, one of the lines did grab me for a moment. In response to Diggs, the renegade, and the quest for his past, the Professor that spawned him comments, “You don’t understand. They were never men to begin with.” A nice way to wrap up his introspective odyssey, although undoubtedly not to the character’s satisfaction.

The Never Men is really about asking that tough question, “Where do we come from? Why are we here?” Okay, that’s two questions; the answer to one presumably leads to the satisfaction of the other. I could easily digress into an analysis of man’s origins, scientific versus spiritual theories and all that, but I ultimately find it amusing that the comic book medium best offers an insight to this debate through the adventures of trench coat wearing superhero clones. Truly, like an issue collected in a trade paperback, this is a medium that stands alone.

Monday, September 11, 2006

High Roads trade paperback

High Roads trade paperback, May 2003, DC Comics/Wildstorm Productions/Cliffhanger!
writer: Scott Lobdell
penciller: Leinil Francis Yu
inker: Gerry Alanguilan
letterer: ComiCraft, Sergio Garcia
editor: Alex Sinclair
TPB editor: Kristy Quinn

On a somber day that commemorates a tragic benchmark in America’s war on terrorism, I found myself reading High Roads, a six issue miniseries about another of our country’s conflicts, arguably our greatest, World War II. I can’t think of a better way to summarize the series’ plot than the description on the trade paperback’s back cover:

What do you get when you combine an American hayseed, a washed-up British thespian, a failed Kamikaze pilot and Hitler's former mistress? Well, throw in an ice castle at the top of the world and you've got High Roads, the latest in a long line of Cliffhanger action/adventure series!

Nic Highroad and his friends set out to steal Hitler's most prized possession - and end up trying to save the world. Of course, along the way they have to fight off a Nazi-ninja crops, jump from a moving train, and outsmart the Master Race . . . but in the end, Hitler's FINAL final solution comes to something of an unexpected conclusion.

I stumbled into High Roads while perusing the library shelves for today’s dose of comic book goodness, and although I was initially uninterested in the concept, Yu and Alanguilan drew me in with their intense, energetic artwork. During the opening sequence, Highroad scales the icy walls of a Nazi Arctic fortress, carrying a ticking time bomb in his teeth. He is futilely attacked by a sentry and a Nazi fighter plane until he plummets to the depths below, at which point the flashback to the real story begins. Yes, that introductory sequence was as visually thrilling as it sounds, thanks to the artists’ capable depictions and ample use of perspective and pace. Lobdell’s corn-fed dialogue throughout the tale sometimes clashes with Yu’s realistic illustrations, but in the end, I felt like I had read an exaggerated account of a true twist in history. The characters are likeable, the romance isn’t too sappy, and the action is compelling. Needless to say, I liked the read.

Alas, in the context of today’s historical significance, I can’t help but analyze High Roads on a deeper, somewhat more significant level. In many ways, on a simplistic level, World War II and our current “war on terror” are similar, in that both hinge around a tragedy that cost a nation innocent lives, and both feature a political terrorist that has become the proverbial mascot for their respective war. Of course, the ultimate tragedy of WWII was the Holocaust, which, in most historical fiction about that era, becomes a footnote at best in contrast to the satirically depicted evil of Hitler and his Reich. In High Roads, Hitler comes off as a sexually deviant blunderer, which is comical by today’s standards, but unfortunately insensitive on a grander scale. World War II was sixty years ago, but all things considered, that’s only sixty years, and some of folks that experienced this evil firsthand are actually still alive. I’m sure eighty-year-old Holocaust survivors aren’t reading Wildstorm comics, but their grandchildren might. How long before someone asks granddad, “Papa, did Hitler really let hookers dress him up like a baby and spank him?”

Will the literature of the future depict Bin Laden as a cave-dwelling nincompoop without referencing the circumstances of 9/11? Will the survivors of the Twin Towers tragedy understand that such plot devices, despite their roots in reality, are intended for entertainment purposes only? I’m not talking about political cartoons. High Roads is not Doonesbury. It’s an Indiana Jones-esque adventure. It’s fun. That’s not how I hear our troops describing their stint in Iraq, but then again, maybe I’m listening to the wrong talk radio shows.

I’m reminded of an inflatable slide I saw at a roadside carnival some time ago. Kids were sliding down the Titanic’s deck into a swimming pool, apparently having a great time. The Titanic disaster was one of the most perilous of its time, and we’re less than one hundred years removed from it before we turn it into a carnie attraction. Will we be seeing the Twin Towers human slingshot anytime soon? Definitely within the next ninety years, I reckon.

I understand that this review took a turn away from comics for a bit, but the power of any successful work of fiction is its uncanny ability to make the reader think about reality in a different way. Further, as I’ve said before, the A Comics A Day challenge is not only subject to the comics I manage to get into my mitts on any given day, but also to the very day itself. Today happens to be September 11. I don’t know what the future will hold for our current conflict or our commemoration of this tragic day, but looking at current historical and artistic trends . . . I hope we take the high road.

Sunday, September 10, 2006

Iron Man #11

Iron Man #11, October 2006, Marvel Comics
writers: Daniel & Charles Knauf
penciller: Patrick Zircher
inker: Scott Hanna
colorist: Studio F’s Antonio Fabela
letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna
assistant editors: Molly Lazer & Aubrey Sitterson
associate editor: Nicole Boose
editor: Tom Brevoort
EIC: Joe Quesada

Iron Man has been the black sheep of the Marvel family lately. In the headline-grabbing Civil War story arc, which I have been following very loosely on the newsstands, Iron Man’s disagreement with Captain America over the Superhero Registration Act has fractured Marvel’s supreme super-team, the Avengers, seemingly beyond repair. (I’m not avidly following the latest development of the Marvel Universe, but am I to assume that the result of this epic will be a refurbished Avengers West Coast? Cutting edge writers like Bendis seem to enjoy dusting off old, corny ideas and making them relevant and exciting again.)

In this own title, Iron Man has recently committed heinous crimes of a different nature, albeit through the control of a mysterious villain by way of a biomagnetic implant in Tony Stark’s brain, and the entire Marvel Universe, from the Avengers to the Fantastic Four to S.H.I.E.L.D., is after him. At the beginning of this issue, the fifth in a six-part arc, Marvel’s decades-late answer to Superman, the Sentry, is pummeling Iron Man on the streets of San Francisco. Even Iron Man’s boot-jets can’t repel the Golden Guardian! Stark outsmarts the Sentry by flooding his senses with broadcast reports of crimes and tragedies occurring simultaneously around the globe, ironically stilling the hero to determine where he should act first. Later, Stark remotely controls his armor to distract the heroes protecting the Director of the Muslim Peace Authority while he goes pedestrian to find the villain pulling his strings. Good thing he thought to reverse the signal of that chip embedded in his brain. Of course, since this is the penultimate chapter of this plot, the tale ends “to be continued,” but as an issue in itself, the story is enjoyable and implies that all will end well for old chrome dome. With a title like “The Invincible Iron Man,” I figured he might emerge unscathed.

Iron Man has always perplexed me, specifically as a visual concept. I dig the computerized body armor shtick, and Iron Man may be the flagship character for how we understand that concept today, but in my opinion, his appearance has always been too inconsistent with the times, from a technological context. Layman technology like cell phones and laptop computers are getting progressively smaller, so we can only assume that such applicable technology in the private sector is following similar trends, if not setting them outright. In the Marvel Universe, Tony Stark is a premiere inventor and machinist, and with his head less in the clouds than Reed Richards, he’s perhaps their closest equivalent to Bill Gates, so I would guess that his entrepreneurial interests would have these practical, commercial applications. (I would venture that Dr. Stephen Hawking is Mr. Fantastic’s real world equivalent, in case you were curious.) All that said, why the heck is the Iron Man armor so darn bulky? Why not go minimalist, like, say, iPods? Why hasn’t Iron Man become more reminiscent of what we saw in Batman Beyond: a sleek, skintight battle suit? Technology has taught us that less is more. Why is Iron Man still so visibly more?

I liked this issue. It read like a short film, featuring a hero on the lam desperately trying to clear his name. It didn’t read like a story starring an industrial billionaire piloting the most powerful armory in the world. Boot-jets? Hacking past firewalls? Child’s play, nowadays. Of course, I can’t offer any constructive criticism, as the kind of tale I would expect from an Iron Man comic book is beyond my general understanding in the first place. I’ve been spoiled by fictional technology, I suppose. Stark’s resolve in the face of adversity, however, is a true demonstration of iron grit. Perhaps, then, the name still fits.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Oriental Heroes #9

Oriental Heroes #9, April 1989, Jademan Comics

Do you know what they call Oriental Heroes in the Orient? Heroes.

I do not know if this issue is “manga” or not. The contemporary definition of manga usually infers an inexpensive, digest-sized comic, read right to left, and fairly dense. Oriental Heroes #9 is a standard sized issue, read left to right, and despite its fifty-nine pages of story, took mere minutes to read. I use that word “story” loosely; as you can imagine, much of the book depicted fast-paced martial arts combat, from the Raving Dragon In Dance kick to the Crackling Zen Bolt. You know, the usual stuff. Still, the art style looked like typical manga, with the exaggerated facial expressions, the suspended use of the human body’s capacity for pain and endurance, and the melodramatic circumstances surrounding the conflicts in the first place. To be honest, I have no idea why these characters were fighting, nor did this issue offer any window into their personalities that would have elicited sympathy from me. Hey, I’m just the reader. I guess the heroes do enough caring for both of us.

Kids are loving manga right now. In Southern California, I know of as many manga bookstores as I do regular comic book stores. The genre has become a market in and of itself, and I suspect that it always has been, just now with more exposure than ever before. Thanks, Cartoon Network. The network’s spotlight on anime has definitely opened the floodgates for manga in our typically close-minded western world. As I’ve read Warren Ellis comment, kids dig manga because it seems more relevant; its size implies that you can, and should, stick it in your pocket and go mobile with your reading. It’s that important. Plus, I can’t think of many media that actually fosters cultural awareness in youth. No, the occasional Spanish segment on Sesame Street doesn’t count. Kids seek out manga; it isn’t shoved down their throats. If kids didn’t want to watch Full Metal Alchemist, they could flip to Toon Disney or Boomerang. But they don’t. For that matter, kids could go to any bookstore and pick up a Superman or Spider-man book for fulfill their comic lust. But they don’t. They’re picking up Naruto. Trust me, I know.

Oriental Heroes set the stage for this pop-cultural shift. I’ll confess, it’s not for me. Maybe with so much manga around, I can find some that I like. I need an oriental hero. Until then, I’ll just try to keep the rest of the industry in business.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Love in Tights #5

Love in Tights #5, March 2000, SLG Publishing
contributors: B. Clay Moore, Kalman Andrasofszky, Josh Blaylock, J. Bone, Stephen Geigen-Miller, Mike White, Brian Clopper, Ted Tucker

Love in Tights is perhaps the most successful cross-genre effort, combining the corny quirks of the superhero set with the sappy melodrama of mid-‘50s romance comics. I dug the read, but more importantly, guys and gals could mutually enjoy it, despite their respective penchants for one of the other niche. Slave Labor Graphics truly raised the bar for gender inclusive marketing with this title.

Interestingly, two of the five tales in this issue spoof a certain Caped Crusader, transparently, I might add. The first story features a hero dubbed the Mid-Nite Hour, who, for a very telling page, retreats to his mansion and consults his butler Winchester on the trials and imbalance of vigilantism and romance. More so than the plot, the art made this story pop, with a simple superhero style befitting a mainstream ongoing title. I’m surprised I haven’t heard of Andrasofszky. With a name like that, I’d remember.

The other Batman satire is a bit more blatant, starring Fruit-bat and his sidekick Swallow, captured by their clownish enemy, the Choker. Rather than follow through with his plan to dip the Terrific Twosome in liquid gold (in effect, a golden shower), the Choker aborts the trap to lament about his torrid relationship with his boyfriend. Yes, the Choker comes out of the closet, much to Fruit-Bat’s chagrin. Swallow seems more accepting, but at the end asks his mentor, “Uhm . . . Can I change my name from Swallow to something else?” I don’t see why not. This yarn certainly was hard to swallow, you know what I mean?

The other three tales were interesting but not as artistically appealing, featuring a trio of super-powered penguins, two sidekicks excitedly preparing for a date with each other, and a super-heroine and her out-of-work arch-lackey boyfriend, thanks mostly to her do-gooding. Man, that would be a tough one. I know what it’s like to have a sugar momma, but a sugar momma that beats up your potential co-workers for a living? Home Depot parking lot, here I’d come.

All in all, this issue was fun, and a welcome end to a stressful workday. Superhero comics are usually a lesson in selflessness, but how else can one express such heroism in real life than in a romantic relationship? I’m still waiting for that Dr. Phil episode.