Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Power Man #40

Power Man #40, February 1977, Marvel Comics
writer: Marv Wolfman
penciller: Lee Elias
inker: Frank Giacoia
letterer: Denise Wohl
colorist: Janice Cohen

While the ad at the end of yesterday’s Strange Tales confirmed that I should close Black History Month with a review of Luke Cage, Power Man, this issue’s cover confirmed it: tied to a train, attacked by the villainous Big Brother, Cage valiantly proclaims, “Luke Cage fights to his last breath!” An appropriate siren song for this series of posts, I say. Well done, Power Man.

Power Man #40 doesn’t boast any of the enigmatic themes I’ve derived from the other issues specifically spotlighted for Black History Month, but carrying around that mighty Marvel chip on his shoulder and a healthy dose of seemingly bad luck, Cage is an excellent example of his peers’ raw determination. Even in the face of the stereotypically jive-talking Cheshire Cat, Power Man retains his cool . . . and his integrity.

Just look at the way he hails a cab. A student of the great Rosa Parks, this guy is. ‘Nuff said, eh?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Strange Tales #172

Strange Tales #172, February 1974, Marvel Comics
writer: Len Wein
penciller: Gene Colan
inker: Dick Giordano
colorist: Glynis Wein
letterer: L.P. Gregory
editor: Roy Thomas

Considering some of the supernaturally inclined comic books I’ve read for A Comic A Day thus far, this issue of Strange Tales is tame in comparison. However, such a veritably classic roster of acclaimed talent in its credits (Wein! Colan! Giordano!) could make even the most mundane tale a thrilling one, and this Brother Voodoo adventure is no exception. Perhaps I’m too jaded, but every perfectly rendered panel in this issue struck me as a prime example of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way, exuding a sense of suspense in spite of its title character’s cool composure in the face of overwhelming and, yes, strange adversity. I guess when the paranormal comes naturally to you, there’s nothing super about it.

When Brother Voodoo saves a helpless young woman from the roaring waters of the mighty Mississippi River, she identifies herself as Loralee Tate, a New Orleans Police Chief’s daughter, and recounts how she nearly drowned. Apparently, earlier that day, Loralee received a black rooster in the mail, and was pursued by a band of hooded mystery men shortly afterward. Although she eluded, a strange fog surrounded her vehicle, took the shape of a haunting face, and plunged her car into the river. Brother Voodoo calls Loralee’s father, but the hooded men find them first; Brother Voodoo initially defends himself well but is eventually overcome, and when Chief Tate awakens him, Loralee and the men are gone. Despite the Chief’s warnings, Brother Voodoo disappears to pursue the case. The last image we readers digest is the cult’s lair, as they prepare to sacrifice Loralee on the pyre of their dark lord. I’d be interested in the conclusion of this issue if only know more about Brother Voodoo’s macabre adversaries, but perhaps what makes them most strange is their lack of motive. Pleasing a demonic deity is simple enough, eh?

This issue of Strange Tales was very similar to yesterday’s Jungle Attack, particularly regarding its caption-ridden storytelling style. As I cited in yesterday’s post, the captions in Jungle Attack were a bit more poetic, and I dare say relevant in retrospect; as an experiment in graphic literature, I skipped many of the captions during my first read of Strange Tales #172, then revisited the material to see if any of the monologue offered a deeper understanding of the plot. For naught. While the third person perspective certainly peppered a few of the scenes and provided some back-story for the eccentric Brother Voodoo, some of the moments may have been even more perilous sans lofty explanation. I understand that this style is indicative of its era, and thus classic and respectable by our standards – in fact, throughout this analytical experience, I’ve discovered that, for the most part, the older the book, the longer the read. Have modern comics lost some of their meat in the ascension of the artist as celebrity? An evaluation for another time, I reckon.

In the meantime, Brother Voodoo is another fine example of a black superhero, boasting an expertise in the supernatural, a sense of selflessness toward the oppressed, and courage in the face of danger. Interestingly, an ad in the back of this issue for Luke Cage’s book brags that Cage is “The First and Still the Greatest Black Superhero of All,” so although I’ve been very eager to read the Archie Bunker adventure I’ve been saving for months (see yesterday’s review for details), I might have to dust off this Power Man issue I’ve also kept in waiting to conclude Black History Month with a bang. Just as Brother Voodoo is man who was given a chance to live again, he has inadvertently breathed new life into this series of reviews for one last run. A tale stranger than fiction . . .

Monday, February 26, 2007

Jungle Action featuring Black Panther #19

Jungle Action featuring Black Panther #19, January 1976, Marvel Comics
writer: Don McGregor
penciller: Billy Graham
inker: Bob McLeod
letterer: D. Wohl
colorist: P. Goldberg
editor: Marv Wolfman

A few housekeeping notes before today’s review. Firstly, I feel compelled to mention a potential violation of the A Comic A Day rules and regulations: last week, I reviewed The Brave and the Bold #1 by Mark Waid and George Perez (a post that can also be found with additional commentary at Geek in the City), an issue I excitedly purchased for its crisis-free superhero flare. A few days later, when the afterglow dimmed, I realized that I had read The Brave and the Bold #124, a classic issue featuring legendary artist Jim Aparo on the cover, a mere ten days into the A Comic A Day challenge. Remember, my first rule is, “I can only read one issue from any given series throughout the ACAD year. Therefore, if I read Action Comics #1, I cannot attribute any other issue of Action Comics to the challenge. (However, in this instance, other titles featuring Superman would still be in play, if only for one issue each.)” Now, here’s the loophole: if different series starring Superman are each in play, why not different series of the same title? The modern The Brave and the Bold is a much different work than its predecessor from the Bronze Age – in fact, the name is really the star, isn’t it? If it starts at number one, it’s a different series, that’s what I say! What? Stop looking at me like that . . .

Secondly, I purchased many of the comics I’ve intended for my Black History Month series at the San Diego Comic Con – yes, in some cases, I’ve planned that far ahead – but with the other issues I’ve acquired since then and reviewed in the last few weeks, I find myself with one more Marvel issue than I can read. Remember, my third rule is, “A maximum of four out of my seven weekly reads can come from one of the ‘big two’ publishers, DC and Marvel Comics. This limit guarantees exposure to several other, potentially independent publishers at least three times a week.” Since the ACAD week begins on Saturday, when I read a DC book, I only have three “big two” issues left through Friday, but four Marvel issues remaining that I intended for February. So, sorry, Luke Cage, but I’ll get to you in March. Black Panter, Brother Voodoo, and Archie Bunker are too pressing in this month’s context to ignore. (Yes, Archie Bunker. Keeping things interesting.)

Now, if I recall (since the Comic Con was several months ago, though it seems just like yesterday), today’s and tomorrow’s issues actually inspired my holiday-themed reviews in the first place. Comic books called Jungle Action featuring Black Panther and Strange Tales featuring Brother Voodoo beg for some attention during these racially sensitive times. Or, I wonder, is my sensitivity to the outdated and potentially offensive nuanses of these titles what makes these posts so offensive in the first place? When I find an issue of Amazing Adventures featuring Captain Cracker out there, I’ll feel a bit better, I bet.

To make matters worse, in Jungle Action #19, Black Panther fights the Klan. Yes, that Klan. He’s not even in the jungle – well, the urban jungle, perhaps, but I don’t think that was the originally idea for the self-proclaimed House of Ideas. Anyway, the Klan, and a more open-minded splinter group dubbed the Dragon’s Circle that has apparently welcomed a few black members, are attacking the Lynne family, first killing their eldest daughter then attacking her sister in the graveyard. Fortunately, Monica Lynne is a friend of Black Panther’s, who is desperately trying to solve the mystery of this cult, despite the Lynne families’ mournful, tight lips. He battles them several times in this thirty-one page issue, including ads, springing with the raw energy of righteous rage. Artists Billy Graham and Bob McLeod maintain an adventurous flow throughout this book that pops vibrantly in the mighty Marvel manner despite the captions of endless narrative that clutter each page . . . which is, I guess, in the mighty Marvel manner, too.

Yes, writer Don McGregor spares no expense setting up each scene, then detailing each scene lingually as it transpires visually, then wrapping up each scene to make sure we get a shorter second time around. I’ll admit, I was initially put off by the sheer volume of words on each page, a practice today’s writers actually try to avoid under some twenty-seven-words-per-panel principle, or something like that. Indeed, I dragged my eyes across every alliterative phrase until I came across this single panel’s worth of captions on page fifteen:

“The moon seems unnaturally huge; a prisoner in ahumid cage that can never escape. The buildings appear empty – as if they have not had residents in ages. Faded posters add to the impression. Yet with the morning, the door speak of the incredible dry spell. It seems the heat will be with them forever. They are as much prisoners of it as the moon.”

While this text paints such a distinct picture, one of three panels on the page, its cyclical imagery struck as a stroke of literary mastery, an element most often found in classical prose. Not what I’d suspect from a comic book called Jungle Action.

In the end, I enjoyed this book, and while the story is “to be continued,” Black Panther kicks enough Klan butt to satisfy my curiosity about the saga just fine. As royalty, Panther represents the best of Black History Month – retaining a legitimate position of political power (albeit tribal) while still pursuing a vigilant quest for social justice. Sure, donning a mask breaks the traditional rules of law enforcement – a phenomenon the Panther briefly tackles with a local sherrif in this issue – but, hey, I’m all for a little rule-bending, you know what I mean? Bending isn’t breaking. It’s creative flexibility with the bounds of preestablishment. You dig?

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool #1

Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool #1, January 2001, DC Comics/Milestone Media
writer/editor: Dwayne McDuffie
artist: John Paul Leon
colorist: Melissa Edwards
letterer: John Workman

Static Shock: Rebirth of the Cool is essentially Static Returns in regards to his comic book roots, but when this issue was originally released, the character had received more prestige as a Saturday morning cartoon star than as a founding character of the then-defunct Milestone Universe. So, ironically, while this miniseries sought to exploit Static’s return to popularity, it also attempts to re-launch an imprint of dormant characters, a lofty goal for a mere four issues . . .

Leave it to Dwayne McDuffie to accomplish it in one. In this first issue, a retired Static (if a fourteen-year-old can retire from anything) seems to reunite with the gamut of Milestone’s heroes, as each of them, dubbed Boom Babies thanks to the explosive phenomenon that instilled them with powers, are inexplicably disappearing. While the not-yet-captured heroes try to persuade Virgil to don his Static costume and responsibilities once again, the kid seems determined to resume a normal life, presumably discouraged by a tragedy experienced at the end of his last adventure. Of course, when one of his peers uses him as bait to track the enemies snatching their friends, Static must come to her rescue – and his return seems unexpected enough to momentarily dissuade them. It’s a triumphant moment that we’ve seen many times before – the seemingly beaten hero taking on the weight of the world once again for one more go – but Static’s isn’t without its due excitement and entertainment value. This issue is a good start to a potentially action-packed miniseries.

The characters of Dwayne McDuffie’s Milestone Universe are obviously close to his heart, yet unfortunately, their mass appeal may be dated by the hysteria surrounded the emergence of superheroes in the early ‘90s. With Image unleashing legion of characters on an unsuspecting fandom (a “dark age” I’ve analyzed before), McDuffie took advantage of the climate, but, based on the impression I received reading and reviewing Icon last week, his attempts were more focused, more imbued with intent. He wasn’t just telling superhero stories for comics’ sake, but his imprint impressed as a carefully woven web of morality plays emphasizing the racial issues rampant in American pop culture. In fact, this characteristic may explain Static’s commercial success as a cartoon series; Static may have become more general audience friendly, but he didn’t compromise his integrity as a young black superhero. While Rebirth of the Cool isn’t necessarily as affected by ethnic overtones, by then, Static and perhaps Milestone itself had their legs to stand on. They didn’t have to wear their essence on their sleeve to still embody it, and although this miniseries may not have incited a Milestone renaissance, it may offer an ironic sense of closure fans needed.

Also, my friend Aaron from Geek in the City has suggested in my review of Icon that the Milestone Universe may have met an untimely end during one of DC’s crises. An unfortunate loss, I insist, if it’s true.

John Paul Leon is an incredible artist, and while his work may be a tad too dark for a book intended to attract a Saturday cartoon crowd to Virgil’s native medium, his realistic portrayal of the human form is so visually engaging that I almost forgot Static’s pop culture origins in animated form. I remember the issues of Marvel’s Earth X I read, and that Anarky arc in Shadow of the Bat Leon illustrated, and I’ve always wondered what kind of material would best suit his skills. If Static wasn’t as action-packed, he would be the perfect character for Leon, with a diverse cast, and detailed urban backdrop, and enough character development for Leon to utilize his ability to capture the breadth of these figures’ emotions as only he can. Static’s world isn’t just black and white anymore, and Leon’s heavy inks and expressive storytelling tell the tale almost as well as McDuffie’s script.

I hope we haven’t seen the last of Static Shock. McDuffie managed to squeeze Virgil into Justice League Unlimited in its last season, a smooth transition for the character considering his previous crossovers with Batman and Green Lantern, but Static deserves his own spotlight, as well. Many of the black superheroes in comicdom are too established in their respective universes to appeal to younger audiences nowadays; Black Lightning and Storm, for example, have been around since the ‘70s, and other characters like Steel are too dependant on parent franchises to maintain a solo career. Static Shock is the golden boy of his Milestone roots, the one that stood out and appealed to everybody for a little while. With Rebirth of the Cool, McDuffie proves that for any character lightning can strike twice. I say, let’s hold up a rod a try yet again.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Bloodlines: A Tale from the Heart of Africa #1

Bloodlines: A Tale from the Heart of Africa #1, 1992, Epic Comics
writers: Cindy Goff & Rafael Nieves
artist: Seitu Hayden
letterer: Bill Oakley
colorist: Brad Vancata
editor: Marc McLaurin

While yesterday’s subject, Numb, was interestingly introspective, Bloodlines is provocatively global in its context; further, since the end of February is near, I figure I better get a move on with the comics I’ve intended to review during Black History Month. Bloodlines is beautifully packaged with an eye-catching Brian Stelfreeze front cover and an impressionist image of Africa on the back, but unfortunately, the issue’s contents aren’t as easy to digest.

This “tale from the heart of Africa” works on a few different levels, and depending on the reader, leaves a powerfully convicting impression. Bloodlines essentially recounts the recent political of the African country Ngaragba, a French “colony” with poorly established borders that inadvertently yet dangerously ignored centuries’ worth of tribal boundaries. Enemy was pitted against enemy and families were divided, a tension that resulted in a military coup under the leadership of Colonel Jean-Bedel Bokassa. First named president, then self-proclaimed emperor, Bokassa was so fueled by an admiration for European royalty and Napoleon Bonaparte that the expectations of his rule became impossible for his impoverished populace to fulfill. When students couldn’t afford the expense school uniforms Bokassa decreed they wear, he swept up 200 of them and brutally murdered them himself. While this massacre revealed the horror of his reign, it also encouraged his French supporters to aid in his deposition. Bloodlines is a comic book about this terrible episode in history, and although such a clannish account rings of an epic from the Middle Ages, it happened between 1966 and 1979 – if not in your lifetime, then your parents’. And I presume that, like me, you had no idea.

African history, which is presumably equivocal to black history for most, is an enigma to the average American. Heck, unless Brad Pitt is adopting another, we’re too consumed with the melodramatics of our own political arena, if a celebrity’s personal woes aren’t dominating the headlines first. This ignorance is the vantage point from which writers Goff and Nieves decide to tell this tale, as doctor-in-training Sylvestri Adamba, the fictional former physician to Bokassa, shares his account as first an aid to, then a prisoner of, the dictator. Adamba was witness to the slaughter of those 200 children, a nightmare he’s managed to suppress in favor of a happy life with an American Peace Corps volunteer. Unfortunately, his girlfriend’s pal Cathy can’t let the past go, and she prods him to recount the story to completion. Basically, sans emotional solemnity, this issue is an illustrated history lesson evoked by nagging American guilt, a dimension that would damage to reduce the context’s impact if it wasn’t steeped in reality. In the beginning of the story, we see Cathy make fun of her mother for watching a special on Ngaragba’s history, but the plot commences five years later, when Cathy is actually in the needy nation with the Peace Corps, she wonders why she feels such an impassioned connection to the country. While we readers are dumbfounded by her seemingly short memory, we’re equally disappointed when her realization of the memory is as anticlimactic as an afterthought. With so much to digest in a relatively brief amount of comic book space, these character dynamics were unnecessary. The history is compelling in itself.

Further, when Cathy discovers a comic book adaptation about the atrocities in her dorm (a Hamlet-esque move, I presume), she muses, “Who wants to read a comic book about superheroes?” The commentary is lost on me, as it comes too deep in the issue to make a significant satiric impact. I’m already invested, genuinely interested. Why question it, or even make light of it? By the early nineties, the modern “indie comix” movement was in full swing. Bloodlines is a unique title in its historical relevancy, but not its overall presentation.

Still, of all of the comic books I’ve read these past few weeks, and the few I have yet to review, Bloodlines: A Tale from the Heart of Africa, represents the true scope of Black History Month. While we Americans celebrate the lives of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks, black and white folks alike should occasionally pull back the lens to get a global perspective, if only to understand the breadth of the human condition. Political atrocity isn’t a racial phenomenon . . . nor is history, when you think about it. We share this planet, its land. We should all know what it’s been through, what lines have been drawn in its sand, and how we can cross them to unite.

Friday, February 23, 2007


by Joshua Kemble

Numb packs a wallop despite its tiny packaging, telling the story of a wanna-be writer who calls upon memories of his exgirlfriend for inspiration. In fact, I don't know why Kemble didn't call his comic Muse, as he uses the word enough, but such a criticism is minor compared to his winning the Xeric Award, a grant led by Kevin Eastman to assure that indie creators have change to fund their projects. I can see why Numb won. It's visually engrossing and frankly tells a tale most artists understand. Broken heart = writing. It could be a catatonic state, to be sure.

And I know how it feels. I'm beat. One of the busiest days at work ever. I'm out.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Brave and the Bold #1

The Brave and the Bold #1, April 2007, DC Comics
writer: Mark Waid
inker: George Perez
inker: Bob Wiacek
colorist: Tom Smith
letterer: Rob Leigh
editor: Joey Cavalieri

In the aftermath of DC Comics' latest Crisis, we readers are once again faced with the bittersweet inevitability of our favorite heroes' mortality, with the fact that these seemingly timeless characters are still vulnerable to any given generations' worth of writers' whims or editorial assessment. Some of these characters are icons that have endured for over half of a century, but for some reason, relatively recent trend in the grand scheme of this beloved medium dictate that death suddenly begets good storytelling. Yet, the bravery that would entail keeping these heroes in the ground recedes in light of the attention (and profit) inspired by said heroes' resurrections. Consider DC's "big seven;" to my knowledge, all but Batman have met the reaper (and not the Reaper from Year Two, either, you geeks, you) in some significant way -- significant implying a resultant "world without" arc -- unless a spine-shattering injury counts. Alas, these heroes return, sometimes sans judgement in the costume or haircut department, but eventually, things go back to normal. I, for one, usually bypass all that melodrama in the middle; if I abandon a series when the character perishes but return to it when they do, it's like the character never left. Yes, I deny myself the splendor of their return.

But, every now and then, crossovers like Infinite Crisis open a window not for a hero's resurrection, but for a title's, one of those Silver Age gems assumed lost to the high-priced collectors' market. Titles like The Brave and the Bold . . .

Honestly, despite my fanboy bitterness, I admit that the time is right for this old team-up book to return. Beloved characters like Hal Jordan, Ollie Queen, and Carter Hall (or however else he's spelling it these days) have returned, and while Brad Meltzer subjects them to head-shot soap operas about their feelings (What is he, a writer or something? Come on, except for the "big reveal" at the end, what happened in his last issue of Justice League of America?), they desperately need a forum to let their powers loose -- to stretch their super-legs now that they aren't six feet deep, or otherwise lost in some ethereal plane. Enter Mark Waid and George Perez, no strangers to DC's iconic stable. I don't know how this new incarnation of The Brave and the Bold came about, but I can imagine someone somewhere in the creative process proclaimed, "Why don't we team-up our favorite superheroes with the baggage of other titles' subplots or continuities? Why don't we make a title in which a couple of capes can get together and save the world and it's no big deal again?" With so many other titles not doing that, the time is right, I say.

In fact, Hal Jordan and John Stewart think so, too, as in the opening act of this issue they return from space swapping "best team-up" stories. (Spoiler warning: This paragraph summarizes the breadth of this issue, so skip it if you want to be surprised by the details.) Of course, Hal wins and saves himself from deep-sector patrol but on his way back to Earth discovers a fresh dead body floating in orbit. When Green Lantern contacts Batman (Who else would you call?), they each discover that they and dozens of other heroes have encountered the same phenomenon -- nay, the same man dead practically on their doorstep. Following a fight in the Batcave with a yellow monster, to which Hal's ring is no longer helpless, the heroes take their investigation to Las Vegas, where underworld hopeful Roulette reveals her possession of the Book of Destiny. She doesn't like having it, evident by her vain efforts to burn it. This adventure hits the fan when Bats and GL are attacked by aliens that are aware of their skills, even if their knowledge is a tad outdated (i.e. the yellow monster), who reveal that the murder victim was another alien whose ability to duplicate himself made him a good thief. They hired him to swipe the book for them, but the truth of the book convicted him to deny their offer -- hence, his death. So, the aliens swipe the book and Batman and Green Lantern must pursue them to the planet Ventura. To be continued.

Nothing but action and cosmic peril throughout this issue, as one should expect from a series called The Brave and the Bold. After all, if the odds weren't challenging, what's to be so brave about?

Truly, Mark Waid and George Perez are masters at the superhero adventure, but specifically, at these characters' cores. Hal Jordan is a fearless as ever, Bruce Wayne is as complex as ever, but their quirks aren't so assaulting as to dissuade readers that aren't familiar with the intricacies of DC's stable. In fact, what better way to get to know these guys, even outside of their own books, than by having them simply talk to each other, even while they're working -- if throwing big pennies at a ten-story monster is work. Waid's dialogue is rife with little truths about each character, things that only they would respectively say, responses to circumstances that are true to their canon. Interestingly, I wonder if Waid means to explore the longevity of these heroes; for instance, when Green Lantern offers Batman a will-powered lock pick, Bruce answers, "You could if this were 1967, but we deal in biometric security these days." Nice. Hal may know a thing or two about interstellar combat, but Batman has his feet firmly planted on the ground. Further, Perez's visuals are so perfect they seem almost stenciled from his resume of influential works. If I could criticise anything, I'd suggest a varied inking style, something that adds a different dynamic to Perez's classic standards. Maybe a guest inking spot by Bill Sienkiewicz, just to mix things up. But I may be too bold in saying so.

Bottom line, if you like superheroes and their endless melodramatics, you'll dig The Brave and the Bold. Just the title alone boasts that bravado we geeks love; it's not "The Brave and Bold," but The Brave and the Bold, valiance worthy of its own article, darn it! Further, you don't have to know what else is going on in the DC Universe to enjoy it. For creators to offer such an alternative . . . I don't know what's more brave, in this crossover epic market, I'll tell you what.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Ed the Happy Clown #8

Ed the Happy Clown #8, July 2006, Drawn and Quarterly Publications
by Chester Brown

When I was thumbing through the five-for-a-dollar boxes at Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles a month or so ago, Ed the Happy Clown caught my attention despite and because of its diminutive size. I added the issue to my buy pile immediately, and it’s been in wait for today’s review since then. Had I actually opened the issue and perused the material, I wonder if I would’ve been so wonton in my purchase. Chester Brown is an excellent cartoonist, and his minimalist, slice-to-life-meets-the-arcane style set the stage for post-modern artists like Jeffrey Brown, but Ed the Happy Clown appears neither happy or a clown, and . . . he has a talking penis. With a little face and everything.

Because of the many young people in my life (see my infrequently updated blog Damn Noisy Kids!), and my desire to remain a somewhat positive influence in their lives, I have avoided controversial material in this forum in fear that one of them may use their surprising technical know how to track me down on-line. I’d hate for one of them to comment, “So, I read that review about the talking penis last night,” not so much for the inappropriateness, but the awkwardness of having to explain why I read such a comic in the first place. Alas, when you read a different comic book every day for a year, you’re bound to stumble across the talking penis sometime, I suppose. I made it this far. I’m grateful for that, at least.

So, here we go. Ed the Happy Clown #8 is actually a reprint from Chester Brown’s original serial that appeared as Yummy Fur, circa 1988-1989 in this issue’s case. Whatever this story’s context, the content of this installment isn’t too difficult to fathom, once one overlooks the perverse obscurities of Brown’s chosen subject matter. When Ed is nearly cornered by Chet, a custodian that accuses the “clown” of stealing his hand, Josie, intercepts him, has sex with him, then kills him to fulfill her vampire blood thirst. (That’s two vampire books in as many days . . . Is it Halloween again so soon?) When Ed heeds the call of his – gulp – talking penis, the two decide to return the chatty phallus to his other-dimensional roots. With Ed missing in action, Josie goes home to find her mother having sex with a young man initially intended for her – a set-up gone right for mom, I guess – and carefully draws the blinds in her room to retire for the night. When Josie falls asleep, Chet’s severed hand raises the blinds, leaving us readers to assume the morning’s rays could fry the slumbering vampire. To be continued.

A story like this begs a few questions for an analytical reader like me, namely, what is the author trying to prove? Is Brown trying to make a statement with this material, or is he simply offering escapist, absurdist fiction for the comic reader interested in obscurity? The characters seem to share a sense of inadequacy, which isn’t unexpected from a story starring a talking penis, but without the context of the other issues in this series, I can’t get a grip on the whole package (pardon the pun). I will confess that I was engrossed, aside from being a bit grossed out, by Ed the Happy Clown; Brown’s illustrations are concise and easy to follow, presenting a sequential roadmap to a plot that might be anything but linear.

The most entertaining aspect of this issue was Brown’s addendum, a compilation of notes (in some instances, page by page commentary) about the production of the series and/or Brown’s experiences as an independent comic book artist. He credits Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles for their singular success in the black and white indie market, a phenomenon that briefly flooded the medium with similarly formatted books with peculiar titles but unfortunately less than stellar success, a point I also made in my review of Space Beaver. (A talking penis/Space Beaver crossover is sure to be in the works after this review.) He also pays homage to Marvel Comics and drops a few names to credit his inspirations, most not surprisingly horror writers. While Ed is not scary, trace elements of horror are evident – but when Brown reveals “the man behind the curtain” to be a thoughtful artist with some insight into and appreciation for the industry, even the idea of a talking penis is easier to swallow . . . wait, I mean, er –

There’s no easy way to end this review. The bottom line is, while Brown may not have a deep literary thematic message behind his Ed the Happy Clown, reading this issue is irregardless a challenging experience. If you’re going to write about a talking penis, you obviously need a set of balls to match.

Sorry, kids.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

The Binder #1

The Binder #1, 2004, Dig Comics
writer: Miguel Cima
artist: Ron Chan
letterer: J. Powell
production: Dirk Van Fleet

Although the Binder sounds like a hero that stands up against messy backpacks and lockers, in The Binder #1 he is the student of a witch and the trustee of a monster-fighting weapons master that, in this issue specifically, fights bloodthirsty vampires preying upon disease ridden African missions. Big difference. Independently published, The Binder wasn't a terrible read, and while I wasn't completely enthralled, I sensed a potential brewing beneath its surface, a Hellboy-meets-Agent Scully appeal that I'd appreciate more if the author honed his craft, or narrowed his focus. Writer Miguel Cima is obviously proud of his creation, boasting so in his supplemental essay page and even promoting the Binder short film he wrote/directed/produced. Alas, his dialogue strikes me a tad too unnatural, wavering from hipster colloquialisms (the vampires warrant a "British accent. Figures," from our wayward hero) to loft mythological verse, nothing too heady, but enough to mark a distinct contrast with other scraps of verse from the issue. The Binder has an arsenal of cool, supernatural weapons at his disposal, but surrounded by the paranormal, he exudes a subtle need for normalcy -- as if he strives for a disbelief his senses can never attain, with what he's seen. I wish Cima wandered in that direction a bit more; otherwise, he's offering comics another vampire hunter, another bogeyman chaser. We got plenty of those already. The Binder was an entertaining enough read, with an interestingly thought-provoking ending when one of the vamps supposes that their blood lust actually relieves the ailing AIDS patients -- but ultimately, it needs some tidying.

Monday, February 19, 2007

Icon #1

Icon #1, May 1993, DC Comics/Milestone Media
Writer: Dwayne McDuffie
Penciller: M.D. Bright
Inker: Mike Gustovich
Letterer: Steve Dutro
Colorists: Racelle Menashe, James Sherman, Noelle Giddings

During Black History Month, I’ve read a quite a few comic books that star icons of African-American culture: Mr. T, Black Lightning, O.J. Simpson (for better and for worse, eh?) – but I’ve have yet to read of a character that so boasted the title as, well, Icon. One part Superman, one part Cliff Huxtable, Icon is an earthbound alien refugee that has adopted the persona of a black man since 1839, and although one would assume that he might sympathize with the civil rights plight, he has earned an upper class lifestyle and believes that “those who suffer under [impoverished] conditions must have brought them upon themselves.” Despite, his invulnerability and ability to fly, as Augutus Freeman IV he has resigned himself to a rather terrestrial lifestyle . . .

Until a gang of black youth break into his home. Big screen television in hand, when the youth bump into Augustus, they assume that he’s the butler and call upon their “brotherhood” for a pass. “Ain’t no white man’s stuff worth you getting killed over,” one of the thugs asserts, but they underestimate Augustus in more ways than one. When Freeman reveals that the gang is in his home, the thug shoots him, and although Augustus drops, he surprisingly springs back up and spends the following four pages in an aerial ballet of heroism, capturing the kids and wantonly displaying his abilities in a scene that reveals how a super-powered person would really act if they didn’t have a secret identity to worry about. This sequence is rather fantastic and the only real action-oriented scene in the entire issue, but by far not the least believable . . .

Considering that, one of the kids, aspiring writer Toni Morrison, pursues Freeman at his law office and beseeches him to become a superhero, and of course she’d be his sidekick. Asserting that folks don’t need a heroic example to live by, Toni blurts, “It’s a lot easier to pull yourself up by your bootstraps, Mr. Man, if you already know how to fly!” (It’s a scrap of dialogue that must’ve impressed Icon’s creators, because they repeat it in the issue’s marketing materials, as well.) Inspired, Augustus uses Toni’s drawings and creates superhero outfits for them – a move that comes too fast considering that Freeman has been set in his earthen ways for one hundred and fifty years, but again, the creators seem eager to launch Icon’s controversial mission as a black superhero. When Icon spots a disturbance at City Hall, Toni surprisingly supposes, “You think the cops are sitting around waiting for a flying nigger to drop out of the sky and do their job for them?” Her question proves its validity when Icon does just that – drops in to lend a hand – and finds their guns turned toward him. To be continued.

While this issue was rapidly paced (an “Ultimate Icon” series would’ve dragged these twenty-seven pages into five issues worth of material, as writer Dwayne McDuffie creates enough subtext for an entire arc’s worth of narrative), some moments truly capture the spirit of the creative team’s intent to use the superhero genre to explore racial contexts. For example, in one scene, Toni quotes W.E.B. DuBois, while Augustus retorts with a preference for Booker T. Washington. The scene in Freeman’s home, contrasting high society with the lower class, reminded me of the issues presented in Eclipse’s Strike!, a parallel made more apparent when Toni dropped the “n” word. I presume that McDuffie means to present the breadth of the black experience, blending such slang with the likes of DuBois, but the dialogue seems too forced to make the impression completely effective. As a reader, the writer’s motives were more apparent to me than the characters’ dynamics – that may be what the term “preachy” means. Still, the inherent arguments didn’t overpower the iconic adventure, and in the end, we’re treated to the beginnings of a meaningful superhero epic. McDuffie always does that well.

The last few pages of this issue preview Static, Static Shock’s first ongoing series. Later this month, I intend to review an issue of Static Shock from his DC Comics relaunch, following the success of his animated series, I think. Indeed, Static is another of those black characters that has resonated with everyone, that has experienced universal success. Perhaps, in the future, when “black history” is so naturally integrated into America’s mainstream that every month is as much Black History Month as it is everyone’s, characters like Icon will get another chance, too.

One can only hope.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Nextwave: Agents of Hate #12

Nextwave: Agents of Hate #12, March 2007, Marvel Comics
writer: Warren Ellis
penciller: Stuart Immonen
inker: Wade von Grawbadger
colorist: Dave McCaig
letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna
assistant editor: Sean Ryan
editor: Nick Lowe
EIC: Joe Quesada

When A Comic A Day began, I frequently lamented my draw to “number ones,” although these first issues were usually ascribed to defunct series that were inarguably more accessible than titles that had achieved triple-digit status and decades’ worth of continuity. Fortunately, long-running series don’t have to last hundred of issues, evidenced by yesterday’s review of The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #3 – and today’s review of Nextwave #12, the last issue in Marvel’s year-long team book of B-listers. By today’s standards, a year is a long time for any creative team to remain dedicated to a series, let alone produce consistently entertaining results.

Indeed, from its first raucous issue, the Ellis/Immonen/von Grawbadger collaboration via Nextwave has been the superhero id unleashed, exploiting the obscurities of the Marvel Universe and twisting them into a modern romp of energy-dispersing, robot vs. monster secret-agent adventure. Recruiting a quintet of obscure characters from the various Marvel teams, Nextwave was a special ops outfit funded by the Highest Ant-Terrorism Effort, until they discovered that H.A.T.E. and its parent organization the Beyond Corp were ironically funded by a mysterious terrorist outfit. Until this final arc, I assumed that Ellis used this concept as a means to tell these seemingly stream of consciousness stories, as the Nextwave group leapfrogged from bouts with “Broccoli Men” to alien spores and back again, but for this last issue, he reveals some method to his madness and still saves room for a few Marvel oddities – all just to prove he actually knew what he was doing. Turns out, the Beyond Corporation was facilitated by a baby M.O.D.O.K., who was in turn a henchman for the original Devil Dinosaur. Yes. Dust off your Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe for that one.

In short, Warren Ellis is a master of the obscure one-liner, and of the unnecessarily melodramatic, and while his loyal fanbase will thoroughly enjoy the gems riddled throughout this issue, I insist that Immonen and von Grawbadger’s art have maintained the integrity of this series from beginning to end. They’ve managed to ground all of Ellis’s crazy ideas into a standard sequential format while still retaining that distinctiveness that sets this series apart from the rest. With its pseudo-sciences of cosmic proportions, and its idiosyncratic team dynamic, Nextwave best resembles Grant Morrison’s JLA on acid, but the artists kept the material terrestrial, easy on the eyes to behold and understand. Although I’ll miss the strange subject material, I’ll miss looking at it a bit more.

I always admired The Dick Van Dyke Show for its move to end before its rating faltered, capitalizing on that old entertainment adage to “leave them wanting more.” While many comic books outstay their welcome on the stands, some series remember this strategy; most of the Vertigo books I’ve loved, like Preacher and Ellis’s Transmetropolitan, wrapped at under 100 issues, and the critically acclaimed Y: The Last Man is set to do the same. Nextwave barely waded into double-digit status, but a solid year’s worth of entertainment is commendable, especially with a finale that adds a touch of closure like this one. Nextwave has been a consistently unique, entertaining product that is appropriately ending before its quirkiness becomes cliché. After all, this series couldn’t be a next wave is it became old, right?

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #3

The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #3, January 1995, Dark Horse Comics
by Dave Stevens

I’ve been waiting a week to read and review The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #3. Last weekend, my girlfriend and I swung by a local hobby store that carries a variety of older, potentially obscure back issues, a compilation that has fueled A Comic A Day on occasion, and to my fortunate, these books were on sale during my visit. I immediately sought his thin Rocketeer section; I’ve always been a fan of the character by way of the Disney film, but the rarity and infrequency of his comic book appearances have prevented me from experiencing him any other way. I eagerly snatched every issue in the Rocketeer section, which seems to be all but the first three installments of the Rocketeer’s saga. I read all but today’s issue that night, and had this week not been reserved for the issues I had planned for Valentine’s Day, I would’ve read it as early as last Monday. So, how does that saying go about what comes to those who wait?

No one understands that old cliché better than Rocketeer fans. Five years passed between The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #2 and #3, which is a jaw-dropping four more than between #1 and #2 – not that one year isn’t a long time between issues, but compared to half a decade? Indeed, the five Rocketeer comics I scored last weekend essentially tell a single story yet were released sparsely between twelve years and four publishers. If Stevens’ stories weren’t so excellently told, if each panel didn’t betray his attention to detail and unduly effort to entertain, I imagine that the character wouldn’t have lasted as long, let alone warranted a feature film adaptation. Further, had Dark Horse not been as established by ’95, I wonder if it would’ve published this issue, since the Rocketeer saw both Pacific Comics, Eclipse Comics, and Comico go under. Fortunately, it did, so old fans could finally achieve the closure they deserved, and by then new fans could see the Rocketeer in his native medium – a treat by both accounts, I insist.

As a side note, here is a list of the other issues I acquired last weekend, listed with their publication date and original cover price (I got ‘em each for $1! Again, good things come . . .) for the sake of comparison. Remember, these issues each faithfully feature the “next” chapter of the Rocketeer’s story, in order, despite the gaps of time between them

Pacific Presents #2, April 1983, Pacific Comics, $1.00
The Rocketeer Special Edition #1, Eclipse Comics, November 1984, $1.50
The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #1, July 1988, Comico, $2.00
The Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #2, July 1989, Comico, $2.75

By Rocketeer Adventure Magazine #3, originally $2.95, fans experienced a nearly 200% increase in cover price, yet, remarkably, the quality of Stevens’ work hardly changes, which is high compliment as each issue is incredibly entertaining, well-paced and beautifully illustrated with a pulp fervor that fits the raw industrial era of the Rocketeer’s adventures. In this issue, Cliff Secord has pursued his model girlfriend to New York, only to leave her to her high culture lifestyle, and is now in pursuit of a former fellow circus performer, who is systematically killing the members of their old troop. The brute, the inspiration for (and dead ringer likeness to) the towering thug on Secord’s trail in the film, is seeking retribution for the female midget performer that died filling in for Cliff in a circus stunt, a broad bittersweet stroke from his cinematic incarnation but that unfortunately meets a similarly fatal fate. Interestingly, throughout this New York adventure, a mysterious benefactor helps the Rocketeer achieve success – an eccentric that can only be the Shadow. Worlds apart, these characters still have this era of American history and a certain mysterious intrigue in common, and the collision is brilliant marketing and awesome storytelling. While the Rocketeer movie is a bit more tidy in its resolutions (which scriptwriters had to invent for the character, as the resolution to Secord’s original comic book epic wasn’t even over yet), the readers can rest assured that the hero saves the day and gets the girl – after a few days’ worth of adventure told in over twelve years’ time!

Yes, I have to keep mentioning the timeframe! You thought All-Star Batman and Robin was running late . . .!

Anyone that loves the Rocketeer will tell you, it’s all about that helmet. Dave Stevens has a solid art style that can best be described as shades of Alan Davis and Art Adams – who apparently helped with some of this issue’s pencils, implying that even five years wasn’t enough for Stevens to finish this issue on his own! His characters are fluid, natural, and expressive, matching his non-stop storytelling fittingly. Based on this work, I’d be interested in seeing what else Stevens has published. A quick visit to his website reveals his obsession with illustrating beautiful women, foreshadowed by the knockout pin-up poses of Betty almost every time she appeared on the page, who is incidentally an absolute look-alike of Betty Page. Pardon my ignorance of her career, but is Stevens implying that Secord dated Page (just as real life icon Howard Hughes makes a critical appearance), or is he just paying homage? Either way, the guy is obviously a student of any subject he pursues, evidenced by the essays on aviation that supplement early issues. The Rocketeer was always heady material – like I said, it’s all about that awesome helmet.

One final note: Aside from Eclipse’s special, this is the only issue from the batch that exclusively stars the Rocketeer; the other issues featured back-up stories by the likes of Steve Ditko and Mike Kaluta, each highly respected artists, as well. The Rocketeer’s first appearances were apparently as back-ups in other Pacific comics, including a series by Kaluta, so my search for the character’s comic appearances isn’t complete yet. I can live with that, if it means that someday I’ll get to discover the work anew. For a character that flues high, the Rocketeer is one that has remained under the radar for far too long.

In fact, referencing yesterday’s Judge Dredd review, I insist that the Rocketeer is worthy of an action figure in Marvel Toys’ upcoming line of toys inspired by indie heroes. In fact, I plan on pursuing the point further . . .

After all, if anything can be learned from the Rocketeer experience, from Stevens’ dedication to the character to Secord’s tenacity in his adventures to finding said adventures in the first place, it’s that perseverance pays off.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Judge Dredd #8

Judge Dredd #8 (vol.2), July 1987, Quality Comics
writer: John Wagner
artists: Ian Gibson & Cam Kennedy
letterer: Tom Frame
art assistant: Vanessa Morgan
editor: Peter Hogan

Before Judge Judy, or Judge Joe Brown, the judges of Mega-City One stood up for justice against even the most minuscule of offenses, and rightfully so, to preserve the safety of the 800 million citizens dwelling in his futuristic uber-metropolis. ("Futuristic?" Didn't I say before Judge Judy? How old is she?) Leading the charge is Judge Dredd, the by-the-book tough guy whose first and only love is the law, as he makes abundantly clear in this issue, appropriately dedicated to tale of romance (however begotten) -- a fitting end to my short run of romantically inclined comics corresponding with Valentine's Day. Yes, days later, love is still in the air, but in Mega-City One, it's much more than a mere social trespass.

It's a criminal one. Particularly in the first issue, when a rescued damsel pursues Dredd, consequently "wasting his time," which is an arrestable offense. "I'm putting you away, creep!" Dredd bellows, as if he were barking at some dumbstruck gangster. No, Bella Bagley was only lovestruck, demonstrating an obsession akin to Harley Quinn's, if I don't have the latest issue of Batman still rattling around in my brain to explain the comparison. (The text-intensive issue, masterfully penned by Grant Morrison, is another interesting tribute to St. Valentine, and I recommend you swipe it off the new release shelf today lest you settle for its inevitable second printing!) This first story is a short one, but it draws a Dredd-novice like me in for more. I enjoyed Ian Gibson's art as much as I dug Wagner's quirky character study, but on the last page, the ink work becomes inexplicably muddy. The colors bleed . . . unlike Dredd's heart for the hopeless romantic that merely desires his affection. But I don't think the creators intended such a parallel.

The second story is the real show stopper, starring a rogue judge that has fallen in love with a citizen and who is willing to cover his tracks -- thus preserving his job in law enforcement -- at any cost. This tale begins with a simple mugging, but amidst their spoils the thugs find a cassette, evidence of the jaded judge's indiscretions. Turns out, the victim is our lady love's jealous ex-husband who has bugged his betrothed's apartment. When the thugs try to blackmail the rogue judge, he attempts to pop them off, until Dredd saves the ringleader and gets the whole story. "The Price of Love" balances serious criminal noir with light-hearted satire, to wit, the judge's corny pre-smooth pick-up line: "You're in serious trouble citizen . . . The charge is theft. Item: one heart. Mine." Wagner's script seems more focused than this issue's initial offering, and Cam Kennedy's art is more solid, more fluid and expressionist. Frankly, I'm surprised by how taken I am by this issue, overall. It's true, what they say: love will find a way.

I don't know if Judge Dredd is still around today as prominently as he was in the late '80s. His cinematic treatment at the hands of Sly Stallone might be a contributing factor to the character's hiatus, unless I'm completely missing him on the stands. Still, with Marvel Toys producing a Dredd action figure this year, in their line of notable indie comic book heroes, perhaps our future has naught to fear. Judge Judy may be a tough lady, but the law is just her day job. If Valentine's Day has taught us anything, it's that love cannot be confined by time. Romance is a lifestyle, if you do it right.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Midnight Sun #3

Midnight Sun #3, February 2007, SLG Publishing
by Ben Towle

This week is an eventful one for comics. Ghost Rider blazes into theaters, Grant Morrison returns to Batman, Spider-man is "back in black" (an obvious ploy to prepare general audiences for the upcoming Venom vehicle Spider-man 3), and as usual, Civil War and 52 staggers toward their inevitable conclusions. Further, for fans looking a little deeper than the mainstream superhero titles, Marvel's B-list team book NextWave concludes with its twelfth issue this week, which was, according to writer Warren Ellis, "the only comic released by Marvel in the last year that is in fact inside the Marvel Universe's official continuity" (a comment made in his e-newsletter Bad Signal, which I would recommend to anyone interested in witnessing the daily peculiarities of an author at work). Still, despite these notable hallmarks, my inner fanboy is drawn to Slave Labor Graphics' Midnight Sun. Its cover is striking enough to catch anyone's attention, whether they've vowed to read a different comic book every day -- three of which must not be published by DC or Marvel to assure a variety of material -- or not.

Unfortunately, in the mainstream marketplace, eye catching, emotion-evoking art is not as exciting as a leather-clad flaming skeleton riding a motorcycle . . .

Nor is it especially action-packed. Midnight Sun is best explained by this blurb from Slave Labor's website: "The year is 1928 and an Italian airship expedition to the North Pole has mysteriously disappeared. Excitement changes to uncertainty when the Italia and her international crew reach the pole, issue a celebratory radio communiqué, and are never heard from again. As a worldwide search effort gears up, a down on his luck American newspaper reporter is dispatched to the top of the Earth to cover the event." This issue tells two sides of this potentially perilous tale: at the North Pole, where the Italia's crew is stranded, a faction of the crew has decided to venture off on their own, in fear that their ice floe is drifting away from solid land, despite the protests of their hopeful and seemingly naive commanding officer. Meanwhile, our bookish reporter has apparently fallen for one of the other reporters on board, who is coincidentally betrothed to one of the stranded crewmen. When the two sides of this story collide, the captain of the rescue vessel decides to find the ice-barren group first, leaving the men on land to watch their only hope for recovery drift away. "Poor saps," our hapless reporter mutters in a remarkable unsympathetic gesture. It's a simple issue, and while not as adventurous as an expedition to the North Pole might imply, it makes up the difference in character dynamics.

Surely, Towle's Eisner Award nomination is attributed to his ability to capture and elaborate upon the base emotions of man, and, in this case, applying them to a unique series of circumstances. While the lead character isn't the most likable, we can understand his motives, first to secure a solid news story and thus his job, then to nab the girl, if he's so lucky. Leaving the men adrift is a means to both ends -- and if we've learned anything from the recent Anna Nicole Smith coverage, it's that the media are merely glorified vultures in wait for tragedies like this to glamorize -- and eventually pulverize into mindless airtime fodder. But I digress. In the '20s, print was the primary media, so a newspaper man's aspirations for stardom, by hitching a ride on a naval rescue vessel for who know how long, is an interesting contrast to today's 24 hour news cycle. The climax of this issue is Zappi's dream of an eloquent banquet -- Zappi is one of the lost crew and presumably the female reporter's fiancee -- which is both chuckle-worthy in its complexity yet thought-provoking in consideration of its simplicity. The guy just wants something to eat. How many of us have been in such a desperate position, that we're dreaming of food? Therein, the cover of this issue is doubly effective as a minimalist eye-catcher and an instigation for introspection. So, arguably, Midnight Sun is about two men striving to survive, in totally different but equally important ways.

Funny how reviewing a comic book can completely alter one's initial impression. Here I was, thinking Towle had at best produced a meagerly drawn talking heads book. I didn't suspect to take a look at my very soul. Aren't we all adrift on an iceberg, when you think about it?

Heh. Not really. On Wednesday, fans clamored into their local comic book stores to pick up their favorite titles, most likely some of the issues I mentioned earlier. Tonight, geeks aplenty will huddle in line together just to see Nicolage Cage turn into a skeleton on fire. Oh, and riding a motorcycle. These are indeed exciting times for the comic book collector, foreshadowing an even more eventful summer, but we shouldn't forget that even the not-so-eventful times usually offer underrated gems like these. The sun is still shining at midnight, even if we aren't looking at it.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Spider-man Loves Mary Jane #1

Spider-man Loves Mary Jane #1 (from Target’s Spider-man Loves Mary Jane: Super Crush), 2006, Marvel Comics
writer: Sean McKeever
artist: Takeshi Miyazawa
colorist: Christina Strain
letterer: Dave Sharpe
assistant editor: Nate Cosby
editors: MacKenzie Cadenhead with Mark Paniccia

The comic book has had surprisingly few enduring romances. Superman and Lois Lane. Reed Richards and Sue Storm. Archie and Betty . . . and Veronica. Okay, bad example. My point is, for a medium that often and rightfully boasts the staying power of its characters, its heroes just can’t seem to commit. I mean, Batman nearly has as many lost loves as rogues, if the chick isn’t the daughter of one of his enemies in the first place. Then again, those heroes that can succumb to love get all weird about it; look at behold the Man of Steel’s possessive spying in Superman Returns, or Wolverine’s whimpering at the mere sight of Cyclops and Jean Grey grabbing a sandwich together, or something. Truly, love is the Kryptonite of any color.

In a romantic context, Peter Parker is truly a conundrum. While his relationship and subsequent marriage to Mary Jane Watson is among those few long-standing love affairs in comics, its success contradicts the original nature of Parker’s “puny” character. In fact, while Stan Lee went to great lengths to establish Parker as an unpopular, awkward nerd in his civilian identity, Spidey was never without an ironically reciprocal love interest, from Betty Brant to Gwen Stacy to the Black Cat . . . you’d think Parker’s ex-girlfriends would team up to form “The Sexy Six,” if some of them weren’t dead or on the lam. Indeed, for all of the emphasis placed on Mary Jane in recent years, thanks in part her dominant role in Spider-man’s successful film franchise, it’s Gwen Stacy that first captured Peter’s heart completely. In re-launches like Ultimate Spider-man or Spider-man Loves Mary Jane, Gwen is usually injected into continuity after Peter and MJ’s initial spark, as a shock-value monkey wrench if nothing else, but I dare say that her death is the best thing to ever happen to Spidey’s romantic affairs. His devotion to Mary Jane following such a tragedy proves that his heart is as strong as his superpowers, that, although she knows how he felt about Gwen, MJ can love Peter enough to overlook his heartbreak and give him the support and dedication he needs. Sure, Parker is a geek and therefore seemingly unworthy of a supermodel’s affections, but above all else Stan Lee simply sought to make him human, relatable to young readers, so such a realistic vulnerability to love only makes perfect sense.

Spider-man Loves Mary Jane spins their classic relationship on its ear, taking them back to high school in a contemporary context, not unlike Ultimate Spider-man, except this story is told through MJ’s perspective, in essence establishing this series as Ultimate Mary Jane, if Marvel were so bold. Unfortunately, while Stan Lee’s Mary Jane was a hip party chick that set the trends as much as she lived by them, this incarnation keeps her nose in the books, either via algebra tutoring with a certain spider bit bookworm or the upcoming school play’s script – not that the vibrancy of the character is lost, but rather replaced with an obsessive compulsion to date Spider-man. A far cry from the “Tiger, you just hit the jackpot” confidence that exuded from Mary Jane proper, and in fact more true to Lois Lane’s investigative paradigm. Still, it makes for a good, all ages read with a tinge of humor, as in this first issue MJ vows to track down the Webhead just to ask him out. She triangulates his sightings, figures he’s commuting from Queens (where Aunt May lives!), and actually finds him on a few occasions. Yet, as we know, with Peter’s crush on the future actress in full swing, his masked persona vows to remain hands-off . . . for now. Yes, I read this issue in its Target Super Crush packaging (probably still on sale at a Target near you), so I was able to peek at upcoming issues. I never thought I’d use this word to describe a comic book but . . . it was cute. In a good way. Ugh.

Takeshi Miyazawa’s art is perfect for this title’s overall packaging, as a romantic book intended for not only for all ages, but both genders. His style is borderline manga but retains a western sensibility, which appeals to today’s younger readers, all of whom seem to have a volume of Naruto in their backpacks – girls included. While enough Spidey action remains in this first issue to keep a boy’s attention, the girls would undoubtedly dig Mary Jane and Liz’s gift for gab. Yeah, they’re like a couple of Gilmore Girls, those two. It’s an easy, almost cartoony flow, and while this reproduction appeared to blow up the pages for a larger format so much so that the ink work seemed distorted, it’s otherwise clean and visually attractive. Just like the stars of this show. Very fitting.

Generally, while superheroes have had a hard time retaining relationships, all of them have experienced love at some point in their careers. Even the Thing’s tough hide isn’t invulnerable to Cupid’s arrow. I wonder if this phenomenon speaks to these heroes’ fans, as well. Are we geeks really just romantics at heart? It takes some semblance of commitment to buy comics every month, that’s for sure. So, while the comic book may not have featured many enduring affairs, in a significant, it’s always been one. Happy Valentine’s Day.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Question #26

The Question #26, March 1989, DC Comics
writer: Dennis O'Neil
penciller: Bill Wray
inker: Malcolm Jones III
letterer: Willie Schubert
colorist: Tatjana Wood
editor: Mike Gold

When it comes to Cupid's arrow, no one is safe. Even Superman suffers from a case of the smittens, what with his undying devotion to Lois Lane . . . so the Riddler is by no means an exception to this puzzling rule, even if Mr. Nigma is a self-styled master of the mysterious. Still, the cover of The Question #26 is peculiar, if not blatantly chuckle-worthy, as the sight of a lovestruck supervillain isn't common fodder for such iconic imagery.

I've always assumed that Denny O'Neil would be one of my favorite writers if I actually pursued his work more; instead, as a Batman fan with a casual collector's compulsion in comparison to the volumes of material available about the Dark Knight, I've only encountered O'Neil's work a handful of times, most notably in reprints featuring the few appearance of Ra's Al Ghul, and the villain's beautifully painted (bu Norm Breyfogle), long overdue origin story Birth of the Demon. I fondly remember Denny's editorial diatribes at the end of the lettercols in Batman's monthly books during the '90s; his briefs snippets of wisdom varied from whimsical to weighty, but always significant. Translate such stoicism into a comic book, and you're reading something special. Enter The Question #26.

Obviously starring the Riddler, who longs for Batman to confront him in another exaggerated, perilous adventure (shades of Hush, perhaps?), Nigma is released from police custody on a technicality, but, in a scene that I'm surprised hasn't appeared more frequently in the modern "real world" take of the superhero, Commissioner Gordon first befriends the "minor-leaguer with a gimmick" and beseeches him to give up crime. The sequence is one of many underrated moments that boasts the complexities of Jim Gordon's character; for all intents and purposes, this scene is a supervillain intervention, a demonstration of tough love from a crimefighter that has every reason to hate the Riddler, sans the fact that the guy really is just some desperate, puny fellow human being, whose mind happens to rival that of the World's Greatest Detective, if only in the beginnings of each caper. This first act sets up the dynamics for the rest of the issue and, in my opinion, is must see for any Batman fan, albeit its place now buried in the back issues of another series.

So, the Riddler actually seems to consider the Commish's advice and hops a train out of town -- the same train the Question and his mentor take on their way out of town for a weekend of respite -- where he meets Sphinx Scromulski, a machine gun carrying psycho chick that drags Eddie into a hostage situation not unlike Speed. The "master plan": Eddie asks a passenger a riddle, and if he doesn't get it right, Sphinx blows him away. It's a simple plan made unexpectedly complex when the Question ironically asks the Sphinx (whose name is purely, metaphorically intentional, a transparent literary element almost indicative of O'Neil's canon) a bombastic bombardment of potentially unanswerable inquiries:

What a fitting climax, and frankly, a long overdue confrontation.

As a superhero fan, I thoroughly enjoyed this issue. I've never read The Question before, and am only familiar with the character via his pedestrian roles in other stories, but if Mr. Sage is as deep as Denny makes him out to be, I'd be interested in more. For a guy without a face, the Question is obscenely detail-oriented, specifically in his quest to find the sheer order of the universe. Who would've thought that a confrontation with an arguably B-list baddie (I rank the Riddler a bit higher in Batman's rogues hierarchy) on the verge of reform would've offered such cosmic insight? The Question #26 is the reason why I love comics in the first place. It's like a little Valentine . . . to me.

Alternate last line: It's like, for Valentine's Day, comics actually took me aside for a few memorable moments to pop The Question. I never expected it.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Sonic Disruptors #3

Sonic Disruptors #3, February 1988, DC Comics
writer: Mike Baron
penciller: Barry Crain
inker: John Nyberg
letterer: Steve Haynie
colorist: Lovern Kindzierski
editor: Mike Gold

I've been saving Sonic Disruptors #3 for today, Lincoln's birthday, for obvious reasons:

However, at the time of purchase, I didn't think that the guitar in Lincoln's lap would be just as appropriate as the very President's presence, if not more so, but with last night's Grammy Awards, the stars have aligned. For the next few days, the music industry will be on the lips of anyone enthralled with pop culture , and, ironically, Sonic Disruptors is about the suppression of all things music, reducing the otherwise dominating medium to an underground commodity at best. (Yes, I said dominating medium; all broadcast media, from radio to television to movies, depends on music for its success, and even communications technology like cellular phones and e-mail have incorporated the persuasive effects of music into their mass marketing scheme. Music is everywhere, plain and simple. But I digress.) Thus, I like the concept behind this comic book, but I'm not to fond of its implementation. Here's why.

First of all, writing a comic book about the music industry is akin to Howard Stern describing the hot model joining him in his studio -- as much as he compliments her bust size, his subject matter is in direct contrast to his chosen medium. Look at the page four of this issue. The artists can draw large amps and vein-popping rock stars all they want, the letterer can up the size of his SFX until they nearly obscure the page, but we readers can still only comprehend the material on a figurative level at best. This phenomenon handicaps "the comic book" as much as it compliments it; sure, we can't hear the music, but we know what we should be hearing, thanks to the use of some universally recognizable imagery and linguistic trickery. While I wonder why a writer would utilize the comic book medium to tell a story about the music industry, I can completely understand why an eager artist -- eager to tests his bounds -- would embrace it.

As for the story itself, as I read this issue I searched every scrap of dialogue to find some semblance of continuity to grasp, some clear idea of the circumstances in this bold future that resulted in the ban of rock 'n roll music as we know it. I know that guitars are contraband, that the Secretary of Defense has lost this daughter to the underground movement, and that deejays and musicians alike seek refuge at an undisclosed location called "the Republic of Rock." While I was trying to get a grasp on this future, suddenly one of the key characters transports us to his past with an origin flashback. The plot was interesting enough, but I encountered some layer of resistance that simply didn't completely invest me. Perhaps if I picked up issue #1 instead of #3 . . .

Lincoln didn't have the luxury of starting at the beginning, either. We often mistake old Abe as one of our nation's founding fathers, what with his likeness on our currency and his birthday so close to Washington's, but if we remember the context of his famous Gettysburg Address, Lincoln himself implies his burden of our country's short but challenging history: "Four score and seven years ago . . ." He was only the sixteenth President, but already he was cleaning up the mess his predecessors left behind. If Sonic Disruptors is in any way accurate, our nation is destined to encounter such blunder every hundred years or so. Fortunately, guys like Lincoln often pop up to save the day. These heroes march to the beat of a different drummer . . . even if music isn't allowed.

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Shotgun Wedding #1

Shotgun Wedding #1, September 2005, Speakeasy Comics
writer: Marc Bryant
illustrator: Jason King

Valentine's Day is just a few days away, this year appropriately landing on a "Hump Day," and while women across America are eagerly anticipating what their sweethearts have planned, their men are fervently procrastinating said planning, undoubtedly relying on our country's tireless department stores to aid their quest to satiate their significant others' impossibly high romantic standards for at least another year. That Valentine's Day so quickly follows Superbowl Sunday is no coincidence; while men have managed to secure an entire day during which their coveted "watching the game" is not only appropriate but a pop culture necessity, women made sure Valentine's Day crept up speedily afterward to remind them who's still boss. It's a conspiracy that may date back to Julius Caesar's first draft of the modern calendar, though I haven't done my research. Yet.

Speakeasy Comics' Shotgun Wedding tackles a different angle of the Mars/Venus rivalry entirely. Enter Cameron Benante and Julia Carbone, the great-grandchildren of former associates-turned-rival mob bosses, who families proclaim a truce in the face of a mutual enemy by arranging their marriage, lest their respective allowances suddenly cease. Of course, Cameron and Julia aren't crazy about the idea, and they're even less nuts about each other, evidenced by a Mr. and Mrs. Smith-like brawl in their honeymoon suite that dominates most of this issue. In the end, they resolve to work together in an attempt to make their families regret the arrangement, a resolution that I assume dominates the series and results in an inevitable romance that ironically secures their union, despite their families' remorse. Hopefully, this series isn't so predictable, but if the characters actually achieve their goal, the title is over, right? Could Shotgun Wedding write itself into a corner and inadvertently shoot itself in the foot?

While Bryant's writing is engaging enough to drive this high concept (the Speakeasy comics I've read seem to embrace this lofty material, offering a nice alternative to the potentially intimidating Vertigo fare out there), Jason King's art is worth analysing, if only for its uncanny ability to pop off the page. Initially, his use of color reminds me of a conservative take on the Supermarket style we experienced last week, with less neon and more realistic tones, but while Kristian's line work was notably hand drawn, I wonder if King's pages were exclusively computer-produced. His lines are too perfect in their varying thickness, and in some cases, the linework is completely washed out by color; while the style has a pop appeal, in many ways it strikes me as too rigid to express any necessary fluidity, especially when the characters are in action. The fight scene entertained me, but also consistently reminded me that I was reading a comic book, not engaging in the plight of two people to whom I should have been able to relate. The mechanics of the page were simply too noticeable. Is this the direction of Shatter, the computer-generated book of the '80s? Call me a purist, but I prefer the hand drawn stuff. Comics to me have always been the marriage of words and pictures, but when everything is generated on the computer, from script to finished page, it seems . . . too arranged.

Perhaps a comic book about two people that have to be together isn't very fitting for Valentine's Day, but this story is as much about obligation as it is about romance, and for the cynic, so is February 14th. Yes, if one if truly in love, every day should include at least a moment of romance and affection as a natural extension of one's lifestyle. Valentine's Day is an affront to this effort, requiring romance in the context of commercialism, almost implying that the effort need not be daily if someone can pull off this one day effectively. It's another forced arrangement with potentially disastrous consequences. It's no wonder we men put it off. No one likes being caught in the crosshairs, even if they're Cupid's.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

The Middle Man #3

The Middle Man #3, September 2005, Viper Comics
writer: Javier Grillo-Marxuach
illustrator: Les McClaine
cover colorist: Dean Trippe

The Middle Man is Men in Black meets Tom Strong, combining the ne’er-do-wrong innocence of Alan Moore’s global adventurer with the MIB’s paranormal intrigue, not to mention that certain aura of oddness that permeates any story that features talking monkeys.

The Middleman is indeed a paranormal investigator, heretofore solo in his mission until his recent recruitment of one Wendy Watson, an aimless twenty-something that provides the voice of the every man in contrast to their cases’ peculiar circumstances. In this issue, cleverly titled “The Experimental Simian Identity,” the Middleman is investigating the murders of the criminal underworld’s major players, and when his research leads him and Wendy to Simionics Animal Research Laboratories, the mafia movie-lovin’ talking chimp isn’t far behind, having escaped the facility and secured himself leadership of the city’s mob. Unfortunately, the monkey escapes into a local zoo, leaving the Middleman a next issue’s worth of work ahead of him.

The Middle Man (I’m not sure why the character is granted his moniker as a compound word, whereas the comic’s title separates the term to two words, but I attribute the distinction to the other typos in the inside cover’s “previous issue” blurb) was a fun read with a well-paced, beautifully illustrated story. Writer Grillo-Marxuach captures the essence of the paranormal genre enthusiastically, and while the Middleman/Wendy relationship risks the trappings of The X-Files’ Mulder and Scully, the focus is more on the craziness of the case than the quirkiness of the characters, sans the necessary origin-like explanation of the Middleman’s background in the Navy Seals. How else could a guy that refuses to swear (“Profanity cheapens the soul and weakens the mind,” he says!) kick so much butt? I was most impressed with the creators’ ability to integrate a few genuinely chuckle-worthy sight gags into the story, a tough to feat to pull off for quite a few reasons, but these guys fit the bill. A little too heavy on the zipatone in some cases, but a choice that can be forgiven in the context of the Middleman’s entertainment value.

Sure, The Middle Man piggybacks a few concepts previously established in sci-fi/adventure, but it also establishes a few ideas all its own, in a well-rounded, pleasing package that so delivers its content that it, ironically, cuts out the middle man.

Friday, February 09, 2007

GloomCookie #28

GloomCookie #28, October 2006, SLG Publishing
writer: Serena Valentino
artist: Vincent Batignole
letterer: Joshua Archer
editor: Jennifer de Guzman

Although I was initially discouraged by this issue's "Previously in GloomCookie" blurb, which seemed to entrenched in goth soap opera continuity to attract new readers like me, I was surprised by the ease with which I succumbed subsequent story. GloomCookie #28 is a fairly linear tale about a melodramatic, broken-hearted eccentric whose poetry attracts a vampire sect to recruit him, and who in turn unwittingly bites the psycho-chick stalking him, so they can "be together for eternity!" Obviously, a ghoulish consequence for an already devilish lifestyle, but such is love, I presume. Indeed, with Valentine's Day right around the corner, this issue presented an interesting introduction to my brief series reviewing romantic comics -- comics which are traditionally appealing to a generally feminine audience, but in this case, targets a niche crowd. Indeed, I was reminded of Serenity Rose, another "goth comic" that implemented heavy black and white contrast in its interior art, perhaps for effect as much as budgetary restrictions. Still, I enjoyed this issue a tad more, as its characters, while dark in nature, didn't take themselves so seriously as to alienate casual readers like me. In fact, the very combination of the words "gloom" and cookie" imply something dark, but contrastingly easy to swallow. The author's supplemental essay reveals that this is the last ongoing issue of the title, which explains is climactic sense of self-enclosure. Indeed, I had nothing to fear from the context of GloomCookie; all romances, after all, have their respective baggage. Has that ever stopped us from butting in before?

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears #1

Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears #1, April 2007, Marvel Comics
writer: Garth Ennis
artist: Clayton Crain
letterer: VC's Joe Caramagna
assistant editor: Daniel Ketchum
editors: Warren Simons & Axel Alonso

(Blogger's note: You can also check out this review at Geek in the City, complete with images!)

In my fifteen years of comic book collecting, I've never purchased an issue of Ghost Rider. My young peers may have bought the flaming skull shtick, but I dismissed the hype as a shallow (albeit cool) visual gimmick. What kind of depth can a comic book about a motorcycle-riding "spirit of vengeance" offer with so many other superhero books mining the deep complexities of superheroics? Ghost Rider . . . a cool idea for a tattoo turned into a comic book, that's what I thought. Still, as a fan of the medium as a whole, I'm grateful that ol' Skull-head is worthy of his own feature film, as the consequences could only entail greater exposure for the industry overall. So, in anticipation for next week's Ghost Rider release, I caved in and picked up this week's Ghost Rider: Trail of Tears #1.

Which is exactly what Marvel wanted me to do . . .

The Mighty Marvel Marketing Machine is not without method to its madness. Ever since Tim Burton's first Batman film in '89, the publishers have been coordinating the release of supplemental issues to profit from the characters' plunge into the mainstream, and in some cases, like the origin-clarifying Batman: The Killing Joke, obviously intended to secure the Joker's roots within the confines of the comic's continuity, the results are surprisingly worthwhile. (DC made similar efforts with the sequels' villains, as well, providing Scott McDaniel's first take on the Dark Knight and a Paul Dini Mr. Freeze origin akin to his beginnings in Batman: The Animated Series, but nothing beats Alan Moore/Brian Bolland's psychological thriller. Looking at the Joker's past offered bold moves for the future, including the crippling of Barbara Gordon . . . but I digress.) Trail of Tears definitely falls within this "worthwhile" category, at least based on its first issue. Garth Ennis, in his infinite wisdom, strives to discredit my adolescent assumptions that Ghost Rider is merely a glorified special effect, specifically by writing a first issue in which the flaming one doesn't appear, at least not in any traditional sense. I've avoided ol' Skull-head for over a decade, but after a mere twenty-two pages, I found myself asking, "Where the heck is Ghost Rider?!"

Trail of Tears begins at the height of the Civil War, on a bloody battlefield ruled by swords, muskets, and a desperate attempt to preserve the noble reputation of a young country suddenly divided by itself. When a soldier, Travis Parham, tries to save a wounded compatriot, he too is injured and, when the battle is long over, recovered by Caleb, a hard-working black man that bought his freedom years before the war began. Parham lives with Caleb and his family for two years, pontificating about the war, its origins, and the future of America -- with a foresight that can only be explained by a writer coining such a tale some one hundred and fifty years later. When Parham expresses a desire to travel west and pursue his "manifest destiny," Caleb warns, "You gonna go out west an' it gonna be just like the war. You gonna kill or be killed. Comes to the Injuns, you gonna do a mess o' killin' -- 'cause that how it been in this country since the beginnin'." I confess some ignorance to this critical period in our nation's history, but how would a former slave that probably hasn't seen too much of America's then-unexplored countryside know about the Native Americans' claim to the land? Either Ennis unwittingly stepped atop his soapbox here, or he's implying a bit of omniscience on Caleb's part . . . a result of the flaming skulls on the outskirts of his property, perhaps?

Oh, I didn't mention the flaming skulls? While Travis was tilling some land, he stumbled upon a makeshift shrine which incited a vision of everyone's favorite burning bones, sans motorcycle gear. Caleb explained away the specter as his father's watchful spirit, but hinted at something more -- something Ennis will undoubtedly explore next issue, especially with those white-hooded fellows spying on the farm from afar.

If Ennis' plot wasn't deep enough, Clayton Crain's stirring visuals add a texture of expressive storytelling unexpected from a title about "mere special effects." Since Alex Ross's impact on the medium, any comic book with painted interiors instantly boasts a tad more clout as a "legitimate" work of art -- Ross' pages have been sold at auction for various charities -- but Crain's work, and more specifically its historical context, carry a relevance that elevates Trial of Tears to near required reading, and not just because its star has his own film soon to sweep the box office. Crain manipulated each panel to appear like an old Civil War photograph, as if each scene weren't an image from a comic book but an old remembrance from a soldier's scrapbook, and although this effect is lost in the last act of the story, its impression remains long after the read is over. Could old Skull-head precede Cap as America's first wartime hero?

So, in short, Ennis and Crain use the Ghost Rider as a vehicle to tell a story about our country's humble beginnings, steeped in violence and racism, but also smoldering with the promise of nobility and heroism. Who knew? Of course, I'm not expecting such depth from the forthcoming Ghost Rider movie, as its previews promise a one-liner ridden action romp rife with, you guessed it, special effects. Still, I'm grateful that Marvel tricked me into experiencing another side of this often misunderstood hero. For a character in such a tireless pursuit for justice, he's been due some in his own right for awhile.