Thursday, May 31, 2007

Pizza Man #3

Pizza Man #3, Shanamation Publishing
writers: Damien Shanahan & Aaron Shanahan
artists: Damien Shanahan, Chris Wahl, Paul Newell

I’m in Hollywood tonight, in a Borders on Sunset and Vine to be specific, the second bookstore I’ve been to in as many hours, since the original intention of my trip to Tinsel Town was to meet comedian Don Rickles at Book Soup, where he was signing his new book, appropriately titled Rickles’ Book. Alas, I was just two people shy of acquiring a necessary ticket, so, waiting for traffic on the 101 freeway to subside, I’ve taken to wandering the strip, visiting the world famous Amoeba record store and Meltdown Comics, both of which were visually overwhelming experiences. See, I’ve lived in Southern California for ten years this August, and I’ve been to Hollywood dozens of times, but a large part of me still feels like a tourist, amazed by the history and virtual celebrity exuding from the very architecture here. I mean, in just a few hours, I saw Don Rickles (yes, I did get to see him), an eighty-one-year-old performer as old as this town itself, and I saw a young beauty clutching a stack of headshots walking eagerly into a small theater house undoubtedly looking for some big break. Few cities can make or break people’s hopes and dreams.

So, though disappointed by my solo mission to Hollywood but content in my thoughts and personal sojourn, what comic book did I read to parallel these poignant thoughts? What issue will ironically reflect the themes of celebrity and aspirations, I wonder? Pizza Man #3. Yeah. A real slice of life, that.

Actually, Pizza Man #3 surprisingly delivers, featuring a character akin to the Tick (complete with a miniscule sidekick) working at a pizza parlor, where his arch nemeses can easily find and attack him. Dimwitted, the “man of cheese” always seems to initially believe that these villains are simply placing orders for pies, though they’re really calling for his death, which, despite these rogues’ impressive feats, is inevitably postponed by Pizza Man’s sheer strength, his second most prevalent trait. Interestingly, creator Damien Shanahan uses the pizza motif to spoof archetypal characters like Wolverine and Spider-man, and though these characters’ dialogue is shallow and ultimately unfunny, I was particularly amused by the Spidey-clone’s first impression – Spaghetti Man, clinging to a “web” of noodle strands. Unfortunately, that visual is about as far as the food/superhero synthesis can go (sans a Hulk with a meatball head – that’s mine, Shanahan!), but approach is valiant and different, and the shortcomings of the story are softened by the competence of the visuals. Shanahan, Chris Wahl, and Paul Newell contribute expressive, dynamic illustrations to this issue’s stories, and the much hyped four page color insert, featuring an intergalactic squad of alien Elvis impersonators, was odd enough to deserve the understandably more expensive to produce format. These creators had fun producing this cheesy issue, therefore I had fun reading it, plain and simple.

One point of contempt: that four page insert was poorly placed between the main story’s only two page spread, which actually may have been intentional considering the smirk-worthy impact of seeing Pizza Man’s expression on the second half of the big splash (a horde of villains are charging him, incidentally), but nevertheless the abrupt flow pulled me out of the adventure for a bit, a phenomenon I’m discovering that I don’t like. We’ve been spoiled by the companies that make an effort to cram all of its ads in the back of any given issue nowadays, so much so that even a legitimate contribution to the comic is a brief distraction. You know when a pizza looks like it’s cut through but the slice needs a good tug before breaking loose, inevitably pulling off the cheese of the pieces around it? It’s kind of like that.

So, as I said, I’m on Sunset and Vine, two of the most recognizable street names on Earth, and I can’t find an open wireless Internet provider. Granted, by typing machine here is a little temperamental, but if my Orange County suburb can be wireless in its downtown, I don’t see why the entertainment capital of the world can’t do the same. So, I’m hoping I get home in time to cut and paste this review from Word – a crude method indicative of some of the behind the scenes struggles I’ve experienced trying to keep this blog current daily. Indeed, tomorrow is the first day of the last month of A Comic A Day, which means I’ve been reading a new-to-me comic every day for a solid eleven months. Not a terribly impressive feat, but an ambitious one considering my hectic day-to-day. I mean, if I had been a few minutes earlier, I could’ve met Don Rickles. If I had a more time before midnight, I might’ve found some Wi-Fi here in Tinsel Town. If I hadn’t limited the A Comic A Day challenge to a mere year, I might experience even more unique offerings from this wonderful medium . . .

But twelve months are good enough for me, for now. A Comic A Day has a bright future, but with a different direction, I reckon. I just hope that, like Pizza Man, I can really deliver.

Ha! I knew there was a connection here somewhere!

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Marvel Premiere #56

Marvel Premiere #56, October 1980, Marvel Comics
writers: Len Wein, Howard Chaykin, David Micheline
layouts: Howard Chaykin
finishing artist: Terry Austin
letterer: Joe Rosen
colorist: G. Wein
editor: Jim Salicrup
EIC: Jim Shooter

When I opened this issue of Marvel Premiere this morning, I was excited to see a veritable who’s who of creative talent in its credits. Wein, Chaykin, Micheline (who I remember fondly from his pre-clone run on Amazing Spider-man), Austin, even letterer Rosen are all respected names in the industry today, and if they collaborated on a contemporary title, the series would undoubtedly warrant attention from Comic Shop News or Comic Book Resources. I purchased this comic on a whim from the same back issue bin that produced Chesty Sanchez, so go figure. What would’ve driven this issue to inevitable burial in light of its headline talent?

Perhaps its obscure hero, the adventurer Dominic Fortune, had something to do with it. Not that I didn’t enjoy his adventure, and in fact thanks to the combined talent of all involved both Fortune’s story and visuals were smooth and easy to digest. This issue takes place on a casino cruise, where Dum Dum Dugan (who I thought was an agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.) loses his traveling circus to the house on a bet gone wrong. When Fortune’s fling and cruise ship owner Sabbath nearly sells the circus but ultimately denies it to corporate kingpin Spencer Keene, old Spence privately reveals that his motives were to force the circus’ mentalist to open an inherited, booby trapped safe . . . oh, and that he has a metal hand, an injury he acquired trying to open another mysterious safe. When Keene kidnaps the mentalist on his own terms and Fortune comes to the perilous rescue, Spencer plays that hand against our hero, whose ingenuity wins out in the end. Again, this was a fun adventure, though a bit too shallow for the likes of Chaykin, which may explain why Fortune hasn’t achieved the acclaim of follow-up projects like American Flagg. Sometimes having fun just isn’t fun enough.

Further, Dominic Fortune, a determined, gun-slinging adventurer, really isn’t that unique as a character. Thanks in part to James Bond and Mission: Impossible, film and comics both sought to establish the heroic Everyman, a superhero sans superpowers, armed only with his wits, a wanton ignorance (or recklessness) toward danger, and maybe some buzzsaw cufflinks, if he’s lucky. In Fortune’s case, he busts out a pair of wrist grapples, and although they look like the removable claws that came with the old Secret Wars Wolverine action figure, they prove effective against Spencer Keene’s Doctor Doom gauntlet rip-off. To be clear, the Fortune-like adventurer archetype is not the same as the Cobb-like tough guy I analyzed a few months ago; primarily missing from the former in contrast to the latter is that a certain sense of self-loathing, a definitively pulp quality that, when missing, tends to play more as camp. The likes of James Bond, or Christopher Chance, or Dominic Fortune court danger, like one of the many women they’ve slept with. While we pity the tough guy, we want to be the adventurer. Though essentially irrelevant, adventurers are extremely entertaining, and when handled well, have a certain staying power.

Unfortunately, as far as I know, Dominic Fortune wasn’t a mainstay in the Marvel Universe. (Unless someone can tell me which side he chose in the Marvel heroes’ Civil War . . .?) Still, I took a gamble on this Fortune and won, thanks to the discovery and exposure to these early Modern Age masters. They’re the ones with the staying power; their respective careers have only raised the stakes for comic book entertainment, and that’s a wager we all win.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Chesty Sanchez #1

Chesty Sanchez #1, November 1995, Antarctic Press
writer: Steve Ross
artists: Scott Michard & Jay
editor: I. C. Ross

Superman initiated the Golden Age. Flash kicked off the Silver Age. And Chesty Sanchez ushered in the Cleav-Age.

Yes, my first impression of Chesty Sanchez was its catchy title, which I thought reflected a shallow, plot-free comic, but to my surprise, this issue offered a rather substantial story, truly milking the concept for all it's worth. Boy, do I feel like a boob.

In Chesty Sanchez #1, a disgraced female Mexican wrestler and a gassy chauffeur are recruited by capitalist corporation Frijoles del Oro to promote their product by fighting crime, and their first case is a mysterious epidemic of food poisoning and the subsequent abduction of its victims throughout Mexico. Like I said, this issue is surprisingly packed with interesting concepts and dynamic characters, all of whom represent their respective paradigms well. While I intended to review this issue around Cinco de Mayo (until Free Comic Book Day consumed over a week's worth of posts!), Chesty Sanchez would've been a worthy entry for my Women's History Month series, as well. Despite her awkward (but accurate) moniker, Chesty's strongest asset is her passion and determination, and her undying commitment to her family. She knows how to pick her battles wisely, yet she doesn't compromise her principles, either. I was grateful that this issue was more than a one-line gimmick.

Unfortunately, I did have a problem with the page layout of this issue. The creators' credits are vague regarding lettering responsibilities, but the characters' blocking makes for some inhospitable space for the writer's ambitious script. On many pages, the speech balloons appear out of sequence to the natural flow of the eye because the letterer had to squeeze in the dialogue outside of the panel -- the artist didn't allow enough room for the words, or there was little collaboration or foresight between the inking and lettering stage. Yes, the problem was significant enough for me to explain, and for an issue that already suffers the stigma of appearing shallow, this complex story needs to be read smoothly, lest less patient readers simply give up and move on. Though I doubt I'll encounter a future issue of Chesty Sanchez, if I do, I'll be sure to check if this problem has been resolved.

Because I would really like to know what happens next. Seriously, I hadn't heard of Chesty Sanchez before discovering this comic in a five-for-a-buck back issue bin last month, and I'm grateful for the find, because I like to remain abreast of exciting independent characters.

Monday, May 28, 2007

The Boy Commandos #1

The Boy Commandos #1, September-October 1973, National Periodical Publications (DC Comics)
by Joe Simon & Jack Kirby

Admittedly knowing very little about my Kirby history, when I picked up The Boy Commandos #1 for a dollar at a hobby shop a month or so ago, I was excited to discover a first issue by the King. Not that I seek out such hallmark issues for their potential collectors' value; on the contrary, since the A Comic A Day project is designed to broaden my horizons as a comic book reader and aficionado, such issues instantly develop a sentimental value with me, a sense that my reading it is much more valuable than my bagging, boarding, and filing it -- though I eventually do that, too, if only to secure a safe future reading experience. See, I will instantly confess an unfortunate ignorance in regards to the Golden and Silver Ages of comics, something I'd like to proactively remedy, simply to appreciate the inspirations of my favorite contemporary writers and artists. Looking at the rich canon of titles from the past, it's a daunting task, and since this challenge only requires one comic a day, it's a task I plan to tackle after June 30, when this whole thing is over.

But I digress. Despite the fact that this issue of The Boy Commandos is merely a reproduction of their first appearance in Detective Comics #66 and their first first issue in the winter of 1942, it is an excellent tribute to both the veterans of the comic book industry (with a special emphasis on Joe Simon, since I briefly honored Kirby yesterday, and incidentally Will Eisner on Saturday) and the real life veterans intended for acknowledgment this Memorial Day. Like many Golden Age comics, The Boy Commandos is a World War II story, and though it adequately captures the international chaos and subsequent heroism of that era, it hardly addresses the elephant in the room, that its stars are children in battle! Yes, the Boy Commandos are essentially a troop of sidekicks to the Alpha Male militarism of Rip Carter, and while each of the lads' personalities and dialects are effectively established in these introductory issues, Carter is the true hero of these adventures, commanding the boys with respect, astuteness, and apparently no regard for their safety. Not that the kids needed help; in fact, they prove themselves quite formidable even without their mentor's help, but the fact is, they're kids at war, a concept that would spark an endless controversy if even humorously presented.

I am in no way insinuating that Simon and Kirby supported a draft for "tweens." I completely understand that they were attempting to create a wartime story that would attract younger readers, to establish characters to whom children could relate. Alas, the concept of the sidekick is simply unfortunately an outdated one, and though the Boy Commandos pre-date the Teen Titans as a capable adolescent super-team, the idea of intentionally marching children into battle, whether in a world war or in a crime-ridden urban setting, just isn't as timeless as either of their adventures. I wonder if pro-war enthusiasts would assert that opening military enrollment to tweens would toughen their otherwise "slacker" generation. If the Boy Commandos are any indication of what children could really accomplish in battle, it's worth a thought!

I'm kidding, of course.

What isn't a laughing matter, but certainly an entertaining one, is the sheer mastery Kirby and Simon demonstrate artistically, despite their formative careers at the time of these stories' original release. While their script is a bit choppy, and each child's unique dialect a tad too ambitious, their illustrations are definitively Golden Age: dense, action-packed, and detail-oriented in spite of their simplistic, almost cartoony nature. Every panel was a visual treat, especially for a self-confessed ignoramus to the early days of comics like me. I'm grateful I had a chance to read this issue today, to remember both the humble beginnings of this medium I love and the heroic efforts that have made this country so proud. For all of our efforts to look into the future, especially via science fiction fantasy, it's always profitable to remember the past, if only to challenge ourselves with our predecessors' greatness. Yes, Simon and Kirby may have grown into icons, but at one point in their careers, they were just the up-and-coming kids, boy commandos in their own right.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Bombast #1

Bombast #1, April 2003, Topps Comics
writers: Roy Thomas & Gary Friedrich
artists: Dick Ayers & John Severin
letterer: Jean Simek
editors: Dwight Jon Zimmerman & Jim Salicrup
based on concepts by: Jack Kirby

As I mentioned yesterday, this weekend being that of Memorial Day, I wanted to honor the veterans of the comic book industry by reviewing some of their work, and when I flipped through the stack of "yet-to-reads" before embarking on my road trip to visit friends and family in Arizona, I was fortunate enough to find Kitchen Sink Press' The Spirit #40 and Topps Comics' Bombast #1. While both of these comics feature the respective works of Will Eisner and Jack Kirby, perhaps the most notable of anyone considered "comics veterans," the companies in question take this material a step further, each intentionally packaging these titles with a retrospective respect, and each doing so in a contrasting but equally effective way. They are memorial comics, without this holiday's context of militant battle, sure, but just as durable against the bitter enemy of time, which is often the industry's greatest nemesis anyway.

Though I succinctly addressed The Spirit #40 yesterday, I need to embellish one more point, if only to prove my assertion about Eisner's timelessness: I've been wondering how to address my thoughts about Rosie O'Donnell's departure from The View, since on my LiveJournal I have confessed an appreciation for her (pardon the pun) bombastic presence on that show. See, my impression of the Rosie/Elizabeth feud is simple: it was inevitable, not because of their differing political views, but because they are women, who are by nature emotional and competitive creatures, which may seem like a sexist statement (albeit proven in gentler tones in most gender study self-help books) if not for the second story in this Spirit reproduction, called "A Slow Ship to Shang-Hai." Therein, the Spirit is captured in her sophomore appearance by villainess Thorne Strand, who is in turn hijacked by Captain Long Jane Silver and her all-woman crew. While contemplating his escape, the Spirit is secretly approached by two different women, who, when they discover their mutual treachery, fight one another and offer the Spirit an adequate cover for flight. In his admitted spoof on the concept of Amazonian dominance, Eisner essentially suggests that a group of women cannot be without its emotional competitors . . . which is how I feel about last week's scrap on The View. Thank you, Mr. Eisner, for retaining enough contemporary relevance to prove my point for me!

Bombast #1 is a little less transparent in its sociopolitical parallels, but the concept of a hero out of time represents the very use of this concept in the first place. See, in the early '90s, Topps Comics utilized some unused concepts by Jack Kirby (one of which, Satan's Six, I've already reviewed), to create a "Kirbyverse" imprint, a timely move since "the King" passed away less than a year later. Such is the contrast between this issue and Kitchen Sink's approach; where Kitchen Sink merely reprinted Eisner's stories with academic commentary by editor Dave Schreiner, Topps embellished Kirby's work, which, despite its pre-production/early development status, could've been published "as is" to provide insight to the artist's creative process. Both strategies are legitimate and marketable, and though I personally prefer the former, the latter has its moments of proactive entertainment and significance. For example, when Bombast is roused from his 15,000 year slumber, his obvious language barrier is an ironic commentary, since, even if the hibernating hero spoke English, he would by no means understand the "jive talk" of his makeshift guide, a "dark lad" running from his drug dealers. Further, when Bombast encounters local law enforcement, including Kirby fan Erik Larsen's Savage Dragon, a connection can be made between the Silver Age's wanton treatment of vigilante justice versus the contemporary conundrum of "real world" consequences in comics. In other words, Kirby's heroes rarely thought twice about donning a costume and fighting crime, whereas today's heroes usually fight the police or the government while battling evil-doers. Bombast is a hero out of his own time in more ways than one, and it makes for a fun but challenging journey for all parties involved.

At the end of Bombast #1, the one-shot leads into Topps' "Secret City Saga," their Kirbyverse crossover, so, although the character is lost in an ensemble cast, his brief singular impression is a lasting one. Like the Spirit, Bombast acts on behalf of his creator and operates outside of the confines of time, retaining a relevance even beyond the confines of their respective stories. Though the industry and fans alike strive to remember the talent that established the comic book medium as the viable art form that it is today, thanks to their seemingly endless pool of ambitious ideas, the likes of Eisner and Kirby have made it too easy.

ITEM! An interesting dialogue has begun on an Image Comics message board about my post re: "swipes" and plagiarism in comic book art. Even Erik Larsen has posted a brief comment! I'm going to post a reply myself sometime soon, but check it out and contribute!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

The Spirit #40

The Spirit #40, February 1988, Kitchen Sink Press
by Will Eisner

In this issue that features three reprinted Spirit adventures from 1949, Will Eisner demonstrates his mastery over dynamic storytelling and character development by featuring tales starring strong-willed women, innovative action-packed sequential art, and detective monkeys, which establish a trinity of sure fire entertainment if I've ever read one. Unfortunately, since it's Memorial Day weekend and my girlfriend and I are visiting friends and family in Arizona, I don't have time to analyze this issue as it should be. Just like the Micky Mouse title I read a few months ago, I'm short changing another important character in comicdom, but I will revisit this issue later on, as my intention is to memorialize some of the medium's greatest veterans.

The true testament to Eisner's impact is when I took out this issue to review, and an old friend, a novice to comics, recognized The Spirit and commented, "Oh, he's supposed to be one of the classics." His spirit lives on, in more ways than one.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Global Frequency #1

Global Frequency #1, December 2002, Wildstorm Productions
writer: Warren Ellis
artist: Garry Leach
colorist: David Baron
letterer: Michael Heisler
editor: Scott Dunbier

When it comes to good comic book series, I'm like the guy that shows up five minutes after the coolest thing at the party happens. You know, when you show up fashionably late and a friend blurt, "Aw, man, you just missed it! Chris totally lit a firecracker in the living room and burnt a wicked hole in the carpet, and then . . ." What I'm saying is, I usually discover how great a series is too late to experience it on a monthly basis; for example, I only discovered Preacher when Vertigo released its first issue as a commemorative reprint, just when the last issue of the series was hitting the stands. When Ex Machina debuted, I held the first issue in my hand and wondered if I'd be on ground floor of an interesting series, but I passed it up only until recently, when I found the first graphic novel discounted on Free Comic Book Day, and now I'm hooked, and actually a little torn -- I know many readers like to wait for a series' graphic novel so they can get a more comprehensive experience of any given story arc, and I'm wondering if that's what I should do with the Vaughn/Harris vehicle. To me, this is the equivalent of preferring your friend's recap over actually watching that firecracker go off. You get the same exciting impression, just not when it first happened.

Warren Ellis understands this phenomenon. This week's release of the first Fell graphic novel, reprinting issues #1-#7, does not contain all of those issues in their entirety; in each issue of Fell, Ellis includes a "back matter" in which he divulges story inspirations or pre-production notes, and actually introduces something called a "letter's column" in which readers can write missives to the creative team for potential publication. Hmm, interesting concept. (Sarcasm intended!) With an affordable $1.99 cover price per issue, I don't know why anyone wouldn't pick up Fell on a monthly basis, and the conscious decision to exclude this material in even that first collection is an intended incentive to that end. Ellis wants us to get to the party on time. While I don't think these subversive, creator-driven decisions will alter the overwhelming boom of graphic novels in the marketplace, I think some readers, particularly those spoiled by most collections' supplemental sketch book sections or script notes or excerpts from Brian Michael Bendis' grade school diary, will realize there's a movement underfoot.

Assuming Ellis has many years of comic book writing left in him (a thought he might dissuade based on recent messages from his Bad Signal e-mailer), I did get to his party late, but I'm slowly making up for lost time. I think I picked up the last story arc of Transmetropolitan and ended up finding the last half of the series in back issues. Earlier last year, I splurged for many of his series published by Avatar (Diamond's "Warren Ellis Month" certainly helped), and, as I've reviewed here, I recently picked up Nextwave: Agents of Hate and NewUniversal from issue #1. Still, I'm coming in slowly, if only to recreate the joy I would've experienced had I been waiting for these titles monthly; for example, I just picked up Global Frequency #1, which, after Transmet, is the most hyped of Ellis' past, spandex-free titles, at least from what I've read. I think it was even optioned for a television or film project. Reading this issue, I can understand the attention. Frequency is an interesting concept that, in our culture of ever-developing technology, I'm surprised wasn't penned before 2002. It's another party we've barely crashed.

Basically, the Global Frequency is a communications network of 1,000 secret special ops agents dedicated to combat worldwide threats and terrorism. In this first issue, we meet five of these thousand as they attempt to diffuse a wormhole threatening to transport a nuclear missile into the heart of San Francisco. The trick is, this wormhole is generating from an old Russian undercover agent, whose abilities to move small objects with his mind were augmented by a microchip in his brain, which, after thirty years of dormancy, has started to malfunction. By placing the perpetrator in a helpless and sympathetic position, the GF agents aren't fighting a man so much as a force of nature, implying that the greatest dangers are oftentimes less tangible (and more morally ambivalent) than we realize. Also, aside from their ultra-cool telephones, which actually look a lot like my DirecTV remote control, these agents aren't buzzsaw cufflink James Bond types. They're secret agents with special skills, and, like most of Ellis' characters, a penchant for being really sensitive under their tough guy behavior and bitterly clever dialogue.

For instance, Agent Zero explains her 1,000 agent co-op like this: "These are the things I formed the Global Frequency to deal with. The litter of the way we live. The unexploded bombs." I rest my case.

I should also note that I found myself enjoying Leach and Baron's visuals a lot more than I thought I would. This issue's cover reminded me of Templesmith's Fell covers, with that filtered urban look, but Leach's interiors reminded me of Brent Andrews' Astro City or even Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. In all three cases, the artists tackle their writers' lofty concepts with a very streamlined approach, foregoing fancy stylistic options for a very detailed, almost textbook take on their characters. They're the kind of issues you could learn to draw by, from anatomy to backgrounds to page layout and blocking, while reserving a sense of cinematic drama one could never really emulate without inherent talent. So, yes, I liked the pretty pictures, as well.

If you pay attention to the time at which I write these posts, you'll notice I'm about fifteen hours earlier than usual. Well, I read Global Frequency after midnight this morning, after some co-workers and I saw the eight o'clock premiere of Pirates of the Caribbean 3: At World's End. While I was jaded by the, uhm, critical review posted by Geek in the City scribe Aaron, that was one party I wanted to get to early, and, as I'll probably explain in my LiveJournal, I wish I hadn't. Still, I've been missing so many of my intended deadlines on A Comic A Day that I'm glad I took in a summer blockbuster so early; when I dug Global Frequency #1 out of a quarter bin a few months ago, I intended to read it on Earth Day until I realized that the Alternative Press Expo was that weekend. It's one thing to show up to a party late; it's another thing to show up on the wrong date entirely.

Tonight, I'm on the road to Arizona for Memorial Day weekend. With temperatures there already reaching the hundreds, if I remember anything it'll probably be why I don't live there anymore.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Yikes #5

Yikes #5, 1996, All-Star Pictures
by Steven K. Weissman

My girlfriend had a tooth pulled today, and to pass the time in the dental surgeon's waiting room and celebrate the harrowing event, I read Yikes #5, an issue I purchased for a dollar from a retailer at the Alternative Press Expo last month. I was drawn to this issue's in-your-face cover (literally), and when I flipped through its content, its strategically placed single-shade coloring popped off of each page with a Warhol-like vitality, making artist Steven Weissman's peculiar little characters even more quirky and eye-catching. I didn't suspect that his storytelling would be just as peculiar, similar to the unique script of yesterday's Megaton comic by holding onto its sequentialism while dancing on the edge of surrealism. Yikes is Peanuts by way of Tim Burton's Oyster Boy universe, with its oddball cast of scamps, and I think that's the only time I've actually used the word "scamps," which couldn't be a bad thing, right?

In this issue, an old scholar, Rip Van Helsing recounts the tale of a time traveling murderer that stretches back to Biblical times, posing that Cain and Abel were really two rapscallions (another word I've never had to use) from modern times, and when Cain beheaded Abel, the good brother's noggin actually remained sentient while that li'l black sheep became a vampire and kept on killing well into the Roman rule . . . where Van Helsing discovered his devilry. Yes, this is as twisted a tale of chronological mayhem as it sounds, with little explanation to its science fiction or fantastical roots, but that's what makes the story so engaging. Back story isn't essential when you're talking about murderous time traveling scamps. Other tales of twisted tykes like Kid Medusa round out an already visually and linguistically entertaining package.

My coworkers and I are catching the eight o'clock Pirates of the Caribbean 3 premiere, so I don't have a lot of time to divulge further, so I'll let Weissman's characters speak for themselves:

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Megaton Man #6

Megaton Man #6, October 1985, Kitchen Sink Press
author: Donald Simpson
colorists: Ray Fehrenbach, Bill Poplaski, Pete Poplaski
editor: Dave Schreiner
publisher: Denis Kitchen

Like many readers my age, I assume, I first met Megaton Man in The Savage Dragon vs. Megaton Man #1, the strangely entertaining issue that bridged the anticipation-ridden gap between Erik Larsen's The Savage Dragon mini- and ongoing series. That issue, which, according to its authors, spent most of its time in the mail between Larsen's and Simpson's homes during pre-production, was a peculiar crossover of two characters' universes, but more poignantly was the collision and culmination of past and (then) present creator-driven comics. At the time, as a wide-eyed thirteen-year-old fanboy, I thought that the Image-conscious Larsen was giving Simpson some ink, and though that may have been true sales-wise, I now see that the Dragon was truly capitalizing from Megaton's clout as an independent comics icon, just as Cerebus offered Spawn in the early days of McFarlane's series. That issue was a proverbial cap on those secondary, black and white titles of the '80s, like the Eclipse, COMICO, and Pacific Comics types, to usher in a new era of glossy Baxter papered, multi-cover holo-foiled funnybooks, with nothing really funny about them. For a rather silly book, The Savage Dragon vs. Megaton Man #1 meant something deadly serious was happening in the comic book industry.

Fortunately, the foundation was firmly laid by Simpson and his peers from the ambitious Reagan years, and among the many independent comics I've read from the '80s, Megaton Man #6 was one of the most compelling and entertaining. See, though Megaton Man impresses as a Superman spoof by way of the Tick, his antics and adventures predate both concepts; Simpson was telling legitimate comic book stories with a Mad Magazine sensibility, and though his concepts have a tongue-in-cheek, satirical element to them, his delivery is enthusiastically sincere, mired in the dynamics any action-packed comic uses to engage its audience. In this issue, Megaton Man explores his origins (and though I purchased this issue randomly, it was a perfect jump-on point), which include innuendos from both Superman's and Captain America's beginnings. Rocketed to Earth, raised by a kindly farm couple, then affiliated and facilitated by a secret branch in the Pentagon to maintain his secret identity, Megaton Man battles a slew of macabre bad guys (one of them dubbed "Bad Guy") but most importantly himself, as the negative press fabricated by the government to conceal his heroic deeds warp his self-image. "Who am I?" MM muses at the end of this issue. "I don't know," I'd reply, "but I'd love to find out."

My favorite part of this issue is when a potato sack dummy decoy of Megaton Man is mistaken for his secret identity, then presumed dead when impaled by a missile. When the dummy's coffin is misplaced in transit, ends up in a swamp, and is affected by a coveted foliage formula, it becomes alive, though zombie-like, akin to any Bizarro or evil clone storyline ever penned. I'm genuinely interested in the fate of that dummified doppelganger -- Simpson's script is that engaging, his characters that compelling!

Don Simpson should also be commended for his art, which is certainly unique. His synthesis of Kirby and Crumb was an odd blend of self-styled satire, asserting genuine energy with a cartoon-like sense of consequence. Megaton Man is so top heavy that his invulnerability is a given, though it's also treated like the Wiley Coyote's, exhibited in situations that would never withstand the real world yearnings of mainstream superhero comics. Still, rest assured, Megaton Man isn't as macabre or surreal as the Tick; Simpson's writing creates a true sense of wonder and intrigue, while the Tick was really nothing more than a glorified Sunday morning comic strip. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

Based on this issue, Megaton Man is definitely a series I'd revisit, if only to inspect the foundation of many of the comics I've admired since Simpson's initial run. I know Megaton Man has resurfaced since the '80s, notably as a back-up feature in the Savage Dragon's ongoing series, but nothing could recreate this inaugural experience, when readers simply couldn't anticipate what they were getting into with every installment. Truly, when guys like Simpson put pen to paper, just like the cover of this issue implies, their ideas were as large as their heroes. I can see why Megaton Man was published by Kitchen Sink; Simpson threw in everything but.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Virgin Comics Free Comic Book Day Issue #1: FCBD Exposed! Epilogue

Virgin Comics Free Comic Book Day Issue #1, April 2007, Virgin Comics
various contributors

Sometimes you don't have to ask to receive. During my nine-part review of Free Comic Book Day and its wares, I casually mentioned that I failed to find Virgin Comics' offering, despite my efforts to visit the local Virgin Megastore, where the salesperson that helped me seemed oblivious to his company's printed participation in the event. I regretted the loss of this issue, since my limited experience with Virgin Comics presented a definitively cultural reading experience, something to which my Western capes-'n-tights sensibilities aren't often privy. Well, I guess my disappointment was palpable, because Virgin Comics' Marketing Director Stephanie Brown soon e-mailed me and offered to send a sample of their flagship titles, including the FCBD issue, and, boy, did she deliver! A whopping twelve issues arrived in the mail yesterday, which is, as avid A Comic A Day readers will understand, eleven more than I need for this post! However, as an addendum to my FCBD series (generously co-published by Geek in the City), Virgin has offered a unique opportunity to review not just a single issue, or even a single series, but an entire rookie company! Who am I to turn that down?

No, sometimes you don't have to ask to receive, but, ironically, that's usually when you find yourself in over your head . . .

So, what are my impressions of Virgin Comics, aside from its generous marketing department? (Incidentally, these are the first free comics I've received from this company; I was handed Virgin Comics #0, which, like their first FCBD special, also featured excerpts from Devi and Ramayan 3392 A.D., at the San Diego Comic Con last July.) Well, from a visual standpoint, all of Virgin's comics are absolutely beautifully colored. While their interiors vary and styles and skill, every issue that I've perused (no, I haven't read all twelve issues yet, but I've flipped through them all) is richly layered in bold hues that emphasize the respective mood and atmospheres of their characters and stories. The latest series from this bunch, Gamekeeper, is an excellent example; when a band of terrorists attack Brock's home, a man that feels more at home in the wilderness than with his fellow man, the forest is blanketed in shadowy blue tones, which makes the stark, thin stream of crimson all the more shocking when our hero slices an enemy's neck. While all of these books are lush, these little moments are tint-based storytelling are a dynamic way of incorporating all of the medium's production elements toward one end.

Speaking of means and ends, another connection between all of Virgin's titles is an overwhelming sense of duty and honor among its characters. One need look no further than the four excerpts offered in their Free Comic Book Day issue. I criticized many of the FCBD issues that offered mere excerpts of their series, as oftentimes I felt that these snippets were too brief for their own good. In an attempt to present quantity, few publishers actually also offered quality -- not that those series aren't good on their own, but that we'd never know based just four pages. Virgin's FCBD issue suffers the same phenomenon, except for the undeniable thematic parallel amongst their titles, further specified in either a political and/or spiritual context. For such a young company (albeit the subsidiary of a much larger entertainment empire), a tight camaraderie throughout their titles, sans the usual bout of continuity-ridden crossovers, is only a good thing.

So, what are these comics about, eh? Since I specified either a political or a spiritual context, I'll separate my impressions according. Devi, Virgin's flagship title, is about a woman infused with the power of the gods to fight the conqueror Bala. When I first met Devi back in San Diego, I remember a woman surprised at the prospect of becoming a mythological superhero; in these six pages, I behold a woman comfortable in her role and brazenly attacking her treacherous, demonic enemy's stronghold. Though this is a villain-centric excerpt, these pages only emphasize Devi's boldness and strength in tackling his empire. Similarly, Ramayan 3392 A.D. is a reinterpreted incarnation of a classic Indian myth about warring lands and the consequences of prejudice. In this excerpt, statesmen debate whether they should unite with bordering bestial races to assure a strategic victory, an argument countered with reservations and bigotry. Though this is a tale of old, the wartime parable parallels today's global climate, even inadvertently, layering "India's answer to Lord of the Rings" with an undeniable relevance, whether one likes the fantasy genre or not. With a personality like Deepak Chopra at the helm, what else would you expect?

The series that emphasize a spiritual journey are thankfully less heady in their delivery, though just as analytical in their concept. In The Sadhu, an expert but skeptic professor conveniently establishes the concept of the Sadhu as superhuman, time traveling philosophers, and when a student sticks around to probe further, the prof nearly dismisses him, until the guy levitates and thus introduces himself as one of the Sadhu. It's an expected ending to this excerpt but intriguing nevertheless. Walk In is by far the most colloquial of all of these issues, and thus the one that compels me the most. Featuring a vagabond that frequently attempts to establish himself yet often blacks out to awake in a new part of the world, our nomadic anti-hero frequents strip clubs to center himself, not to mention for the free peanuts. Walk In #4 and #5 were included in my package and will be the first I read after this review. Both of these stories assert a sense of duty to oneself, a need to achieve a level of self-awareness for both survival and closure. However, something tells me that these heroes' journeys are just beginning.

Since issues of Snake Woman and Gatekeeper were included in my package but were not sampled in the Virgin FCBD issue, I thought I'd read them to develop a broader sense of the company's vision. Gatekeeper is by far the biggest leap of these titles' subject matter, taking place in contemporary times yet removing itself from civilized trappings by setting itself in the forest, establishing Brock (actually not unlike the character by the same name in Cartoon Network/Adult Swim's Venture Bros.) as a silent tough guy akin to the laws of nature, and though he is unable to save his mysterious benefactor from a band of conspiratorial trespassers, he will obviously be able to avenge him. I liked this issue, developed from a concept by film maker Guy Richie, particularly its inspired cinematic scope and character dynamics. Snake Woman was a bit more developed, however, with a back story too complicated to explain here, but interesting enough to arouse my recommendation. Essentially, twentysomething Jess is a reincarnated snake god with serpentine tendencies for justice, illustrated by Vivek Skinde with a Ben Templesmith meets Dean Motter sensibility. Again, the thematic consistency of duty and honor pervades these titles, and although I understand Virgin's commitment to its flagship books, I wonder if these series' inclusion in the Free Comic Book Day issue would've made a more laymen impression with casual readers potentially intimidated by the onslaught of Eastern lore.

My bottom line recommendation for Virgin Comics, for what it's worth if they're still reading, is to offer one full length issue from a series, preferably Devi or Ramayan to wholly establish the breadth of their mythology, while reserving spots in the anthology offering for series with more colloquial or contemporary roots. Regarding Free Comic Book Day as a universal marketing opportunity, a true evaluation can only surface in a few months, when companies like Virgin can calculate a potential rise in their sales based on the samplings they offered. Essentially, each of the Free Comic Book Day issues we've read are subtle inquiries from their publishers to their budding audience: "Will you give our comics a chance?" Whether or not we answer, time will tell, and in my case, Virgin has given me a complimentary cheat sheet, for which I am grateful. Sometimes, you don't have to ask to receive, but, sometimes, you do.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Captain Atom #85

Captain Atom #85, 1978, Modern Comics (originally published in 1966 by Charlton Comics)
by Dave Kaler, Steve Ditko, Rocke Mastroserio, Gary Friedrich

Recent events like the Alternative Press Expo and Free Comic Book Day have mired A Comic A Day in relatively recent comic book material, so, to fulfill this project's objective to experience a diverse selection of graphic art, I intentionally selected Captain Atom #85 for today's post, an issue I eagerly purchased at a hobby shop in Glendale, Arizona last month. Featuring Captain Atom and the Blue Beetle before they were purchased by, and subsequently tethered to the continuity of, DC Comics, this issue, albeit reprinted by the shameless Unisystems, Inc. under the moniker of Modern Comics, excited me with the chance to read these beloved characters under their native Charlton banner. The good Captain and Blue Beetle were only resurrected after Alan Moore sought to revitalize them as his Watchmen, and although DC opted to integrate them into their mainstream universe, such clout implies that these characters have something to contribute to the grand scheme of superhero comics. So, since I've often read about where they've come from but never experienced it firsthand, I snatched Captain Atom #85 for a meager dollar, anticipating a priceless example of Silver Age groundwork.

I wasn't disappointed. First of all, both Captain Atom's feature story and Blue Beetle's back-up tale are illustrated by Steve Ditko, who, in 1966, was fresh from his run on The Amazing Spider-man and, with the help of inker Rocke Mastroserio, was producing his most solid, crisp lines ever. His diminutive, poignant character work (which placed him in favor over Kirby for the inaugural artistic reigns on Spidey) drives Dale Kaler's script, a surprisingly villain-centric story about the origins of the vile Punch and Jewelee, two puppeteers that become evil when they discover mysterious artifacts that bestow them with mind-controlling abilities. In this issue, Punch and Jewelee are kidnapping the world's greatest minds and culminating their knowledge for the highest bidder, and when Captain Atom, drained of his powers after a seemingly superfluous and extremely poorly timed powers test, is added to their list, our hero must depend on his new, mysterious sidekick Nightshade for help. Together, they "biff" and "pow" the "puppeterrorists" (I'm trademarking that), not without a few loose ends that promise excitement for the next issue, like, what are Nightshade's secret origins? What will happen when they learn their friend is actually their greatest nemesis the Ghost, and vice versa? Will Punch and Jewelee ever team up with Burt and Ernie? I'm genuinely interested!

Kidding aside, such dangling threads (which became the basis for those famous cliffhanger inquiries in the Batman television series) are indicative of the charm of these Silver Age stories. While Kaler is careful to lace this adventure with a few ongoing subplots, these secondary elements are by no means so important that they deter from the main adventure, nor are they persistent enough to coax casual readers toward back issue archaeology expeditions. While today's superhero comics are so multi-layered with subplots that the once anticipated slugfests are now dire distractions to so-and-so's love affair or Captain What's-His-Name's commitment to the government, or some such emotional rollercoaster. Some titles will take years to wrap up these subplots, presumably to maintain a consistent readership, and while Silver Age titles like Captain Atom did the same, retrospectively these interludes are more historical frivolity than narrative necessity. Can a casual reader fresh from renting X-Men 3 pick up any given X-title from the '80s or '90s and expect such a baggage-free experience? While those editorial footnotes referencing past issues or story arcs are often daunted, Captain Atom #85 actually writes itself out of a corner by projecting a story; when Nightshade regretfully uses a super power, a footnote humorously boasts, "To be explained in a later issue." You have to admire that transparent marketing ploy and/or wanton writing scapegoat. If only today's comics were as honest with its audience; sometimes I wonder if such threads will ever get tied up.

The Blue Beetle story in this issue referenced original Blue Beetle Dan Garret, which was an interesting point of hindsight continuity between fan favorite Ted Kord and whoever DC has in the Blue Beetle costume after its latest crisis. Indeed, as Kord thwarts a gunman hijacking an airplane (also indicative of that different era) and tries to take down his waiting submarine, the Blue Beetle consumes much of the screen time, asserting a never-say-die heroism fueled by his nobility and convenient technology. Although I'm a fan of the Giffen/DeMatteis Justice League International (I have the Maguire "Class of '87" poster hanging in my office!), I wonder if their "bwa-ha-ha" take on some of these Charlton characters (a departure from Moore's original intentions, to be sure) set them up as B-list fodder for fatal crossovers like "Our Worlds at War" or Infinite Crisis. If Blue Beetle had become a Watchman, would his role have been too important in the comics medium to warrant collateral damage status? In his original incarnation, Blue Beetle was a self-styled James Bond, with cool gadgets and adventurous know-how, and I wonder if anyone likened his insect namesake with a cockroach-like sticktoittiveness in those tough terrorist situations. Ultimately, the reference to Dan Garret implies that Golden Age readers in the Silver Age era might have felt the same way about their favorite heroes' identity changes as contemporary readers do when Wally West bows the mantle to Bart Allen, and so on. As much as these things change, they obviously and apparently stay the same.

I'm grateful for this blast from the past, because, in the context of the latest onslaught of recent, diverse comic book material, Captain Atom #85 put the A Comic A Day experience in perspective. Many of the Free Comic Book Day issues I read earlier this month were extremely dense because of their boundless marketing potential, a phenomenon made even more apparent by how quickly I read through my monthly mainstream titles this week. (If not for that sequence with the Justice League, Miller/Lee's All-Star Batman and Robin would have been a visual flash in the pan, for example.) This issue is a twenty-four page romp rife with dialogue and multi-panel pages, a far cry from the splash ridden issues available today. This isn't criticism, just contrast, though I appreciate getting as much bang out of my buck as possible. I presume that's a pastime for comic book fans of all ages . . . in all ages.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Law Dog #1

Law Dog #1, May 1993, Epic Comics
writer: Chuck Dixon
artist: Flint Henry
colorist: Tom Vincent
letterer: Jim Novak
assistant editor: John Lewie
editor: Nel Yomtov

I've been thinking lately, if I were to formulate a real life Justice League, or a vigilante band of socially driven crime fighters, the following candidates from law enforcement and pop culture would be prime candidates:

(1.) Chris Hansen. His Dateline: To Catch a Predator series demonstrates a proactive approach to cutting edge crime fighting, specifically by baiting, interrogating, and capturing Internet child predators before they have a chance to molest a real victim. Plus, his bravery in confronting each of these sleazeballs is admirable and worthy of roll call status. Imagine if Batman could experience similar preemptive success with the Joker's plans: "What do you mean, you didn't intend to poison the Gotham Reservoir? I have the transcripts right here . . ."

(2.) Joey Greco. As the host of the syndicated reality show Cheaters, Greco models an impassioned vigilance for social righteousness, and his ability to both confront cheaters and adulterers yet also calm them down to a conversational tone would be invaluable in hostage negotiations or peace treaties with alien despots.

(3.) Sherrif Joe Arpio. Phoenix's Sherrif Arpio has become a national representative for radical law enforcement, particularly through the facilitation of his controversial "tent city," an outdoor prison for Arizona's worst offenders -- and when Arizona summers reach the plus 110s, even Prison Break's Wentworth Miller would start to melt. Also, among other degrading measures, Arpio requires his inmates to wear his patented pink boxer shorts, an emasculating deterrent to anyone thinking twice about committing a felony in the Valley of the Sun. Imagine Arkham Asylum under Arpio's reign!

(4.) John Walsh. Though I'm a critic of Walsh's showboat antics (his recent attempts to mimic Hansen's Predator success has put Miss America is a precarious situation -- ah, Google it), with over 930 criminals captured as a result of his vigilant hosting duties on Fox's America's Most Wanted, Walsh is an honorary law enforcement officer that both cops and citizens would easily support, the perfect spokesman for my makeshift League.

(5.) Matt Drudge. Whether or not you agree with his politics, his website is the premiere source of relevant social and political breaking news, effectively dubbed Drudge the "Oracle" of this League. I'd assign him permanent monitor duty.

(6.) Nancy Grace. Really, I just wanted to add a woman's touch. With all of these middle-aged white men on my roster, I need a touch of intense diversity, and Grace would bring that to the table. Besides, who can deliver that "sperm bank" line from last week's All-Star Batman and Robin #5 in real life other than Nancy Grace.

(7.) Finally, my League would be led by one of the best law "enforcetainment" (I'm trademarking that one!) phenomena since Robocop -- Dog, the Bounty Hunter! Duane "the Dog" Chapman is a force of primal nature, tempered by devout spiritual beliefs, and tethered to his commitment to bettering himself by holding wanton fugitives accountable for their recklessness. Watching his adventures on his A&E reality show inspired me to mull over this list in the first place, since his mission epitomizes what a "real" superhero would be like, in my opinion. His recent legal woes with the Mexican goverment is akin to Batman's conflict with the GPD in Year One, and although Dog can't leave Hawaii as a result of that battle, he could easily chair a nationwide League via video chat. "In brightest day, in darkest night, no evil shall escape Dog's sight! Heh, heh, heh, heh!"

So, what does this list have to do with Law Dog from Epic Comics? Well, nothing really, other than its title reminded me Chapman, and from Flint Henry's tough guy cover illustration, I expected some narrative-based similarities to my favorite bounty hunter, as well. Needless to say, Law Dog's interdimensional turf seems more treacherous than the islands of Hawaii. In fact in this first installment, as the highway patrolman of an ever-changing stretch of mystic road, Law Dog and some psycho chick tag-along find themselves in a demonic realm, and Law Dog's persistent sidekick quickly finds herself captive of the devil worshipping police, who in turn are quick to sacrifice her to some worm-like lord of the underworld. Yeah, I think I'd prefer bail jumping crackheads, too, though not by much.

Chuck Dixon's script is a little rough in this issue, as opposed to the smooth Richard Dragon issues I read earlier last week. Of course, I wonder if the sheer familiarity of Dixon's mainstream subject matter makes that work easier to digest; in other words, his handle on well known characters like Batman, Green Arrow, and Dragon is much more fluid than a constructing-from-scratch project like Law Dog. His succinct use of monologue captions is as bold as ever, but in fact his usual dose of character development pales in comparison to establishing the Law Dog's interdimensional highway beat. Dixon's integration of religious overtones was territory I've never seen him mine, and I would like to read more, not necessarily because of a commitment to the story more so than my always widening interest in the writer. From his dabbling with the martial arts in The Way of the Rat to superhero shtick in Nightwing, to this, Dixon is one of the most eclectic writers in comics, hands down. Henry's visuals are via John McCrea and completely appropriately for this issue, providing a well rounded inaugural issue to a potentially interesting series, balancing explosive action with dimensional introspection.

Though my little exercise in real life fan fiction parallels the theme of unconventional law enforcement in Law Dog, I hope that diatribe isn't telling of my inability to generate original material about the comics I've been reading lately. Alas, in fact, as A Comic A Day winds down, I find myself less prone to pulling those universal points about the industry out of each installment. I've covered a lot of ground over the past year, not that there aren't more ideals to explore, but, sometimes, it would be a crime not to enjoy any given issue simply for what it is. Yes, sometimes, we have to police ourselves, eh?

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Chicanos #5

Chicanos #5, March 2006, IDW Publishing
writer: Carlos Trillo
artist: Eduardo Risso
translator: Zelijko Medic
letterer: Tom B. Long
editor: Kris Oprisko

Before I realized that Free Comic Book Day was on May 5th this year, I picked up Chicanos #5 to read on that day, otherwise known as Cinco de Mayo, for obvious reasons. Two weeks later, I'm finally reading this beautifully illustrated issue (which is a given with Eduardo Risso's name on the cover), yet from the standpoint of its story, Chicanos is not what I expected. To utilize a saying that could easily connection this review to its intended ethnic connections, I judged this book by its cover, depicting an . . . angry gentleman swinging a baseball bat with off-panel bloody repercussions. So, I thought this book was about the Mexican mafia or something, a Spanish Sopranos, perhaps. Just like when I picked up this issue, and found myself reading ten days' worth of FCBD material in its stead, boy, was I misdirected!

This issue of Chicanos is about a mousy detective that recollects her investigative origins as a young neighborhood snoop, and though her intentions were innocent enough, her gossipy mother used the information she acquired against the community, resulting in some pretty violent consequences. That baseball bat beating on the cover, for example, was the result of two neighbors mutually discovering that they were each sleeping with the others' wife. In another instance, a father shoots his daughter's boyfriend before they ran away to elope, as our makeshift Encyclopedia Brown (whose name is Alejandrina, by the way) overheard them planning. In the last circumstance, she follows her very father to a whorehouse, after which his wife smashes his legs so he could never leave the house again. While this first half of the issue spotlights a Hispanic community, the social plague of gossip is a universal phenomenon by no means tethered to any given culture, and though the violent aftermath is strangely comical, our heroine's reflections are less Cinco de Mayo and more Personal History Month -- which May is, for those keeping track.

Interestingly, after Alejandrina's recollections, another story effectively begins, unless writer Carlos Trillo simply decided to abandon one train of thought with this character hastily to pursue another. The result is less choppy than one might suspect, and in the second half, Alejandrina's friend Marita tries to shake her out of a self-depreciating funk by encouraging the mousy detective to adopt a stronger image. Such an opportunity presents itself when Alejandrina suffers from a purse-snatching, but surprisingly she chases down the mugger and slugs him -- a bold move, but not entirely effective, as he pulls a knife and is shot by a passer-by cop just in time. Unfortunately, despite her status as a private eye, Alejandrina's is arrested for the pistol in her purse, diminishing that fleeting moment of self-confidence. Oh, her stint in custody is brief thanks to Marita's producing her gun permit, but her affinity toward the female cop that arrested our weak-kneed gumshoe is indicative of Alejandrina's shaky luck. Really, everyone around her seems to hit gold except her, and that's how this issue ends. I hope Trillo revisits this character if only to give her a happy ending! By offering her humble origins and a look into the challenges of her young adult life, Trillo manages to invest his readers rather quickly, and these characters are commonplace enough to remain believable, if not completely sympathetic. Well done.

As a succinct look into Alejandrina's life, Chicanos #5 is a very satisfying self-contained yarn that entertains visually and emotionally, just as a good comic book should. I didn't need to read the previous issues to dig it, though I would certainly read them now. I particularly enjoy this series' title logo, with a magnifying glass lens as the "o" in "chicano," a notably original element for a cover that just reprints an interior panel. Nevertheless, as a self-proclaimed lesson in a different culture, like most lessons in different cultures, the real thematic drives here offer insight into the whole of humanity. Sometimes, the greatest mystery is simply trying to discover who we are!

Friday, May 18, 2007

CVO: Covert Vampiric Operations - Rogue State #1

CVO: Covert Vampiric Operations - Rogue State #1, November 2004, IDW Publishing
writer: Jeff Mariotte
artist: Antonio Vazquez
colorist: Fran Gamboa
letterer: Tom B. Long
editor: Kris Oprisko

More zombies and vampires. Is this what it takes to keep the comic book industry alive . . . tales of the undead?

Actually, CVO is CSI meets Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which is a welcome variation on the whole violent thirst for human blood shtick. Not that CVO doesn't offer its fair share of gore, but when it's forensic, it's somehow less sensational and somewhat more significant. That's what I'll keep telling myself, anyway.

Despite this issue's #1, Rogue State is but one in a series of miniseries, picking up where the previous title left off and dangling a few plot threads accordingly, which makes me wonder why the series pressed "restart" in the first place. Really, this issue so depended on whatever had happened in the last miniseries that I wonder if #1 status has just become a marketing ploy, a transparent attempt to attract new readership to fledgling or hopeful title. I would've preferred a new case for the CVO, and with my leaning toward its concept already, it might've won me over. As it is, I'm still in the dark . . . which is where vampires feel most comfortable anyway.

In this issue, one of the CVO agents, a former supermodel, discovers that a stalker's infatuation with her may have led to the torture and death of a file clerk in their office, a grunt worker that was still privy to confidential information that could compromise their organization. Apparently, the sanctity of their secret ops are already in jeopardy, thanks to a rogue agent of some sort. A nice blend of espionage and James Bond-like technology (i.e. an uber-tracker that was once owned by Odysseus!) rounds out a well constructed issue, though I contest that the most visually appealed character, a demon dubbed Nikodemus, was relegated to a one-page appearance, and, for a comic book about vampires, everyone else looked too straight edge to drive home that supernatural element. If you work with a guy that looks like the devil, you invite him to every party, that's what I always say. Starting now, at least.

Speaking of this issue's visuals, artist Antonio Vazquez asserts a very Tim Sale-like style, who in turn is inspired by many European artists, so I've heard -- in fact, I thought this issue's cover was a Tim Sale special, the styles look so similar! In my opinion, Vazquez barely retains his own voice throughout this issue, as even the colors by Fran Gamboa, a digital watercolor wash, look like the kind of flair found over Sale's work on The Long Halloween Batman series or his Marvel "spectrum" minis. Thankfully, if an artist is going to emulate anyone, Sale is a good choice thanks to his unique skills, so this book still retained an illustrative identity all its own, and if that's really a monster in the closet on the last splash, a little Sale/Mignola jam couldn't hurt, either.

I don't intend to slam Vazquez for any unoriginality, but I confess a difficulty in avoiding the accusation with any zombie or vampire title nowadays. I think I've used this analogy before, but the more comics depend on this genre, the more it will lurch forward with the same undead vigor, arms outstretched, seeking humanity's blood, but tapping very little into its soul. How many angles can one approach an open grave? And what happens when vampires overtake the industry completely, rivaling only superheroes for the top title championship?

They'll do what vampires do best. They'll suck.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Street Angel #5

Street Angel #5, 2005, SLG Publishing
by Jim Rudd and Brian Marcuda

Street Angel #5 is the second best comic book I've ever read about a homesless, skateboarding, kung-fuing, pre-teen vigilantress I've ever read.

I liked Street Angel #4 just a little better.

Yesterday I eluded to the joy of remembering when or how one first experiences a favorite comic book. I remember picking up Street Angel #3 when I first frequented Jay and Silent Bob's Secret Stash in Westwood a few years ago. I was intrigued by its ethereal cover,


and was admittedly still relatively new to the indie comics scene. I've developed a practice of purchasing something every time I visit a comic book shop (as opposed to when I was a kid and treating the comics shop like a library), and Street Angel #3 struck me as the kind of issue I wouldn't really find anywhere else.

I enjoyed the comic and filed it, but since then Street Angel had been nagging in the back of my brain. I wanted more, and since this issue was the third with the promise of a fourth, I knew three others existed out there. Actually, there were four, and I found them all for a dollar (that's a quarter each) in the Cold Cut Distributors' back issue bins at the Alternative Press Expo last month. Needless to say, I devoured these issues quickly -- all but #5, which I've been saving for today's review. So, if you really cared, that's how I discovered Street Angel.

(So many reviewers are so stuck on that "the story this, the art that" formula that I like to provide some personal anecdotal information from time to time, since comics are still experiential art, and since one's impression of an issue may depend on how they approached it. Fortunately, in this case, I was looking for something, fun, compelling, and unique, and I got really lucky.)

Street Angel #5 is the last in the series and pits our favorite homeless, skateboarding, kung-fu pre-teen vigilantress alongside the retired Afrodisiac, a '70s blaxploitation superhero akin to Powerman (but on acid . . . okay, more acid), now old and seemingly helpless, up against dozens of vengeful cowboys. The peculiarity of this conflict is common fodder for Street Angel; in past issues, she's fought and defeated a mad scientist, a demon, an Incan god, and hunger. Life on the street is tougher than I thought, but, apparently, a skateboard is the universal weapon of choice to best domestic and diestic adversaries alike. Yes, in each case (but in no gorier an instance than in #5), Street Angel takes 'em all down. She's the most competent underdog in comics; for all the bad guys she can beat, her biggest struggle is simply finding something to eat.

Creators Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca manage to facilitate Street Angel on just this side of surreal, grounding enthusiastically diverse narratives, which mine a variety of fictional genres, in the seriousness of homelessness. Yet, since Jesse "Street Angel" Sanchez is such a competent butt-kicker, we readers struggle with feeling sorry for her. No, her real vulnerability is her age, indicative in this issue; when the cowboys reveal their disdain for Afrodisiac because he had "carnal knowledge of his mama," Angel asks Afro angrily, "Why'd you eat that guy's mom?" (She was confused with cannibalism, sickos. Get your minds out of the gutter.) This naivetee in the wiry body of a martial artist could be more dangerous than those hands or feet, you know? Thank goodness she asked the former hero before following through with her inclination to cut his head off.

Simply put, Street Angel is the perfect blend of compassionate characterization, well paced humor, high octane action, and beautifully rendered black and white visuals, layering a definitively urban environment with a veil of peculiar cosmic conflict, the kind only a kid could combat without really questioning her sanity. Like I said, these issues threaten to boast a certain tendency toward the surreal, like another of my indie favorites Pop Gun War (which also has a pre-teen hero), but manages to retain enough self-depreciating satire to keep its audience's familiarity and subsequent need for more. Honestly, I'm sorry to see this series was a meager five issues long. Man, am I are going to pick up the graphic novel for the past FCBD stories and that additional original material that I've missed?

Of course. Since all five original issues cost me less than five bucks, I'll make the financial commitment . . . if I can find it, of course. Sometimes, like the cover of Street Angel #3, you just have to wait for divine intervention.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Richard Dragon #8

Richard Dragon #8, February 2005, DC Comics
writer: Chuck Dixon
penciller: Scott McDaniel
inker: Andy Owens
colorist: Tony Avina
letterer: Phil Balsman
editor: Michael Wright

Before I dive into today's review, I'd like to make a few shout-outs, all of which are related to my recent emphases on the Alternative Press Expo and Free Comic Book Day, respectively. First, Von Allan, who promoted his upcoming The Road to God Knows . . . at APE, and whose ashcan I reviewed just a week or so afterward, has drafted an incredible four part analysis of the comics convention circuit on his LiveJournal, and I encourage anyone even casually interested in small press publishing or comic book marketing to check it out. Indeed, A Comic A Day has enabled me to make some connections in this beloved industry, however brief, like the nice comment made by writer Shannon Wheeler for my review of the FCBD Gumby issue, or the recent e-mail I received from Virgin Comics marketing coordinator Stephanie Brown, who kindly offered to send me the Virgin FCBD issues I missed. Thank you for the positive feedback, and I hope you hang on 'til the end, which is just over a month away.

Then again, if writing reviews entitles me to free comics (another big thanks to Love and Capes scribe Thomas Zahler for his complimentary issues, as well), maybe I should keep this thing going. Oh, my girlfriend would love that. If anyone has ever said that comics are a needy mistress, they're right.

Now, Richard Dragon #8. As I mentioned on Monday, I received a hearty stack of comics via donation at work this week and a few issues of Richard Dragon were among them. Though I'm a big fan of the Dixon/McDaniel collaborative efforts, namely on Nightwing, I avoided this series because I knew little about Dragon as a character. Though I assumed he was the DC equivalent to Marvel's Iron Fist, a quick perusal of his Wikipedia entry reveals that Dragon has held a much more enigmatic role in the DCU, originally penned by Denny O'Neil and later credited for training such heroes as the Question and the Huntress. While this is all pre-Crisis, despite Dixon's attempts to humanize the wayward hero (and add Bruce Wayne and Conner Hawke to his extensive list of students), this prestige is still canon, since it was recently referenced in 52. God knows, if it's been referenced in 52, it's law. But I digress . . .

So, yes, Dixon's recent take on Dragon, which lasted a meager twelve issues, was somewhat controversial, revamping his international origins in a much more urban, or even domestic context. By this ninth issue, Dragon has abandoned the violent call of his fickle lover Lady Shiva and has been wrongly accused of attacking his friend and master the Bronze Tiger. Now, at the beck and call of two police officers that are willing to trade Dragon's freedom for his penchant for trouble, and most importantly the subsequent fame from thwarting many a crime, Richard finds himself going undercover in a mob run by a former, embittered student, whose wounded pride sparked an assassination attempt against the martial arts master. Two things -- the student-turned-godfather still thinks Dragon is dead, and those two cops really have no intention of clearing Richard's record. Woo. Talk about hitting below the black belt.

Dixon knows how to write a story, that's for sure. Like many readers my age, I discovered Dixon at the helm of Robin's relaunch, and his now legendary character work with young Tim Drake. His one hundred issue run on Robin, not to mention his critical role in many successful Batman and Detective arcs is often underrated, but my favorite of his works is The Joker: Devil's Advocate. What makes Richard Dragon unique in this context is the intended concept of redemption. Many of DC's characters seek retribution for events they really couldn't control in the first place, i.e. Superman's sense of responsibility about the destruction of Krypton, and Batman's self-imposed blame for the death of his parents. In Dragon's case, he does have a past he should be ashamed of, and, ironically, it's catching up to him only now that he's trying to do some good with his life. I'm surprised his role as an vigilante agent of law enforcement didn't elicit more intrigue for the series; however, though Dixon is an incredible writer, his scripts are often too light for his concepts. If he relaunched Richard Dragon in the same way the Human Target was redrafted for the Vertigo imprint, utilizing ripped-from-the-headlines circumstances through mature audiences storytelling, the kung-fu fighter might have had more legs.

Yes, any time I get to reference Human Target two days in a row is a good time.

Further, Scott McDaniel has been one of my favorite artists for a long time, ever since I picked up that Batman/Two-Face graphic novel that hit the stands around the time of Batman Forever. (I bought the book before a road trip and read it in the car, so I remember my first McDaniel experience quite vividly. Don't you love it when that happens?) Like Norm Breyfogle, McDaniel has one of those styles one can hardly mimic, and his unfortunate run with Larry Hama on Batman by no means tested the bounds of his talent. (Re: Hama's Batman. Remember Orca? Anybody? Yeah, she was recently killed off. If only my memories of her inaugural arc shared the same fate. And does that little girl with the mutant crocodile still protect the Batcave? Wow. Real canon there, eh?) The only artist with a similar stroke that I know of is Scott Morse, and while Morse has the fine arts down pat, McDaniel is best in the sequential action-oriented storytelling department. A good choice for a fluid book like Richard Dragon.

Ultimately, when Dixon decided to try out his own origin for Richard Dragon, he lost a critical connection with readers and only managed a year's stint on what could have been a good series. I'm learning through A Comic A Day, making that connection is important. And, if you're like me and you play your cards right, the process is so natural it's almost accidental.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days, 2005, Wildstorm Productions
writer: Brian K. Vaughan
penciller: Tony Harris
inker: Tom Feister
colorist: JD Mettler
letterer: Jared K. Fletcher

In my opinion, the best "Elseworlds" stories produced by DC Comics were the yarns that tweaked a minute aspect of continuity to produce a plot just this side of parallel with the original sequence of events. Alan Davis' Justice League: The Nail is a perfect example, as its compelling entanglement of cosmic events all spun from what would happen if the Kents' truck suffered from a flat tire and they didn't usher a superman into the world. Ex Machina accomplishes this twist of fate on real, recent history, exploring how contemporary pop culture and politics would react if a flying man that could talk to machines burst onto the scene -- you know, a superhero.

While the usual controversies regarding vigilantism abound in The First Hundred Days graphic novel (collateral damage, anti-establishment influence on society, etc.), contrasting these issues with contemporary tragedies like, say, September 11th, creates a sense of relevance that overwhelms a plot twist like a satellite-turned-death ray pointed at Metropolis by Brainiac, for instance. The final splash of Ex Machina #1, which depicts a post-9/11 New York with one of the two destroyed Twin Towers still standing, thanks to "the Great Machine's" intervention, is an eye-opening revelation that the existence of superheroes would change reality, but still not prevent its bitter truths.

Incidentally, as a die hard fan of Vertigo's Human Target, I was grateful to see another mainstream title (Wildstorm and Vertigo are both DC imprints, thus "mainstream" in my book) utilize the aftermath of 9/11 to create relevant, reflective stories. Christopher Chance faced a post-9/11 challenge in Human Target #s 2-3, and with Presidential hopeful Rudy Giuliani touting that fateful morning as a significant event in recent history (and it is), it should remain in the forefront of some forums as an important catalyst for introspection and speculation. Since the fall of the Twin Towers is the closest we've come to a supervillain plot in modern times, comics seem like a natural place for such legitimate art. But I digress.

This reality twist is just one of the many aspects that made these five issues of Ex Machina so enjoyable. Writer Brian K. Vaughan subtly explores the phenomenon of celebrity through a political lens, charting the transformation of simple engineer into a headlines-grabbing superhero, then from a brooding superman to a popular mayor. Indeed, Mitchell Hundred's transition from the vigilante called the Great Machine to the Mayor of New York is an incredible journey, one in which we the readership inadvertently participate thanks to those well incorporated real events, and though the challenges of his mayorship seem like the kind of comedic fodder Michael J. Fox could've effortlessly tackled in Spin City, Vaughan injects that kind of dynamic characterization that makes political strife seem less ivory tower and more dark horse. One of the subplots throughout this arc is a civic-funded piece of controversial art (a painting of Lincoln upon which the "n-word" is transcribed) -- not the usual kind of conflict catalyst comics are known for, but when the Mayor is a former superhero, his anguish over such a minor issue is at least entertaining, at best culturally relevant, and somewhat satirical. Further, since is art is arguably on the opposite end of the man's creation spectrum from technology, it's the one thing a guy that talks to machines can't really understand. Nice, Vaughan.

Tony Harris and Tom Feister are at the top of their game here, balancing expressive characterization with detailed, technically oriented design. The Great Machine's uniform is a unique blend of post-modern armory and nostalgic flight wear, rung through the ringers of Howard Hughes and Lost in Space, and with a story seasoned by the potentially unpredictable behavior of machines, Harris maintains a dramatic sense of sequencing that makes each scene very easy to follow. For a yarn spun from both the hallowed halls of Gotham's mayoral offices and the 9/11 era terror of the New York skyline, artistic integrity and consistency is important. Of course, having cut his teeth on Starman, Harris knows a thing or two about having his head in the clouds. Fortunately, thanks in part to Vaughan's script, his feet are firmly planted and this inaugural arc gets Ex Machina up and running. It's a splendid blend of visual and narrative storytelling.

I mentioned Giuliani earlier, because, as our world is desperate for its heroes, many are desperate to appoint themselves to the role, particularly in the context of our contemporary tragedies. Though it isn't my place to categorize the former Mayor's place in history, and whether or not his influence warrants a rise to the White House, the contrast to Hundred's the Great Machine is apparent. Hundred was a definitive hero first, and his political career was a natural consequence, rather than the other way around. No matter how many monkey wrenches one tries to throw into the annals of recent times, some phenomena never change -- and truth that some traits beget others certainly is one of them.