Sunday, September 14, 2014

Star Wars: Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith

Title: Star Wars: Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith

ISBN: 9781593073091
Price: $12.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005
Artist: Doug Wheatley
Writer: Miles Lane
Collects: Star Wars: Episode III - The Revenge of the Sith #1-4

Rating: 2.5/5

When reviewing these comic book adaptations, I'm trying to review the adaptation but, inevitably, how well it works will also depend a lot on the source material. That is, I think this is one of the better comic adaptations...but a lot of people would argue the Revenge of the Sith was one of the better movies (at least of the prequel trilogy), so the comics folks are working with more compelling material. The prequel trilogy had the fatal flaw that it didn't really have a compelling "hero" -- the story more focused on anti-hero Anakin's transformation into villain Darth Vader (which, itself, wasn't especially intriguingly teased out). But neither Anakin...nor Obi-Wan, nor most of the characters, were really that compelling. But the third movie, by focusing on the machinations, and the culmination of plans, at least works more effectively as a plot-driven story. And, with that being said, does generate some emotional moments of suspense, and tragedy.

I also tend to try to review these comics from the point of view of how well they tell the story regardless of whether you've seen the movie -- something that, admittedly, is hard to do (since I have seen the movies). But in this case, though I had seen Revenge of the Sith, I hadn't seen it for a while before reading this, and I found the comic reasonably coherent and comprehensible. (And for a second reading it had literally been years since I saw the movie). There were a few scenes here and there that might be a bit confusingly staged, but in general, I think writer and artist capture the flow of the narrative well.

The art style keeps evolving from adaptation to adaptation of these prequel films, from the effective but Spartan-lined style of the Phantom Menace, to the more detailed and shadowed look of the Attack of the Clones, to this, which goes for a more stylish, painted look, as though colorist Chuckry is coloring over Wheatley's original pencils. It gives the book the most lush and ambitious visual look of any of the comic adaptations. Granted, the art can seem a bit stiff at times, but in general it works more than it doesn't. The likeness of the actors are captured well (including Natalie Portman, who in an earlier book I commented seemed to be tricky to evoke), and though there is some bland composition, at other times, Wheatley does capture some effective mood through his visual choices, his close up and angles. As with all the comics, there's actually probably a bit more visual mood in the comics than the movies generated.

Like with Dark Horse's other Star Wars movie adaptations, this sticks pretty faithfully to the source, making this, perhaps, more a translation to comics than an adaptation. Scenes and dialogue adhere pretty close to the source, with one or two minor changes -- such as having Count Dooku lose only one hand in the opening battle (which, I think works better, as does his more emotive expression).

Ultimately, as I say, reviewing these is a bit tricky as there are different factors to be considered: is it enjoyable on its own? Does it capture the source material? If so, are you really reviewing the comic...or the movie? Etc.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

Title: Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones

ISBN: 1569716099
Price: $17.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2002
Artist: Jan Duursema
Writer: Henry Gilroy
Collects: Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Clones #1-4

Rating: 2.5/5

It's a fairly straight forward, faithful translation of the movie to comics, with not too much left out for space reasons...but, there's nothing much added, either. Obviously, when you read an adaptation of a movie, you want it to stay true to the movie, but sometimes it can be nice to get an "expanded" version, either by including extra scenes, or using richer, more textured text captions to add nuances, or introspection.

Funnily, when I first reviewed this, I commented that action scenes were truncated -- which I suppose is true compared to how action-heavy the movie was. But re-reading this recently (and immediately on the heels of re-reading the Phantom Menace adaptation, in which the talky scenes were most definitely emphasized over the action) I'd almost make the opposite complaint: the action scenes and fights go on too long, consuming series of pages. And though they might be exciting in a live action movie, in a comic (where the action is often a bit hard to follow) they can just feel over-long and unexciting.

The notion of text captions have largely fallen out of favor with modern comics practitioners, preferring a straight cinematic style of comic storytelling to one with a toe still in a literary stream. But here, writer Gilroy does in fact employ captions... quite a bit. But it's generally there just to clarify a scene or an action ("Landing on the Reek's back, Anakin takes control of the beast.") Although that's welcome when the scene is otherwise muddled, it also means the captions tend to be rather flatly written, as if Gilroy includes them as a necessary evil, rather than because he was putting any effort into crafting them. Indeed, it can often feel like heavy handed captions to a children's picture book, as opposed to passages told with literary flourish, meant to give us insight into a scene and the emotions.

Ironically, even with these purely serviceable captions, some of the action scenes still remain confusingly staged if you haven't seen the movie for a while (as I hadn't when I read this). How much that lies with the script, the artist's composition, or just the trickiness of trying to recreate cinematic action in still panels, I'm not sure. I suspect each contributes its own flaws.

The art by Jan Duursema (no stranger to Star Wars as I think she even drew some comics back when Marvel published the comics) is solid enough, and with Ray Kryssing's inks, and the brooding colors, tends to try for a bit more sombre mood than did the movie. Of course, doing a visual adaptation of a movie/TV show can be tricky, as there tends to be a lot of talking heads and people just standing around stiffly. But though the art is decent, it can also be a bit undynamic. She does a decent enough job evoking the actors...with the exception maybe being Natalie Portman (perhaps a reflection of the fact that Portman's features tend to be, I dunno, unblemished for lack of a better word -- an artist can't exactly emphasize distinctive lines or creases because she doesn't really have any).

Interestingly, although the art is in many respects more detailed than the art employed in The Phantom Menace, I think I found the simpler style in that earlier adaptation more appealing.

But, ultimately, I'm not quite sure how to review this -- it was faithful to the material and competently drawn. But, I'll admit, it didn't fully hold my interest. That may be a problem with the adaptation but, I suspect, it's also a problem with the source material. I tend to be a Star Wars fan...who tends to like the idea of the Star Wars movies more than I do some of the movies themselves. In fact, the story in the comic picks up during the sequence when Obi Wan is investigating and goes to the clone planet...precisely where I recall finding the movie becoming more intriguing, as a "plot" began to emerge. But in both versions, it's a fairly brief interlude.

Despite this "mystery", and the potential for emotional drama in the blossoming romance, I recollect this as the weakest of the three prequel movies...perhaps explaining why this is the least compelling of the three comic book adaptations.

Bottom line: a competent, but perhaps uninspired translation of the movie.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others

Title: Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others

ISBN: 9781593070918
Price: $17.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2003
Artist: Mike Mignola
Writer: Mike Mignola
Collects: Hellboy: The Corpse and the Iron Shoes, Hellboy: The Wolves of Saint August, Hellboy: Christmas Special, Hellboy: Almost Colossus #1, Dark Horse Presents 100 #2

Rating: 4/5

There's something weirdly undiscrimnatory about the Hellboy trades I've read. That is, if I were to read five Batman trades, or Spider-Man, I'd expect some good ones, and some not-so-good ones. Yet with Hellboy, I'll admit -- I tend to like them all. I liked them after a first reading, and enjoyed them even more after a second (more forgiving of any flaws).

With that being said, if you were looking for a good sampler/starter trade of Hellboy, The Chained Coffin and Others is probably a good nominee. Many of the Hellboy trades collect single, long form stories, originally published as mini-series. Whereas The Chained Coffin is one of a few that collect a variety of stories between a single cover, which is why it makes a nice sampler. And the variety allows for different tones and feels.

The longest piece was first published as a two issue mini-series, "Almost Colossus", and stands out as a particularly strong tale. Though it follows on the heels of a sub-plot in the previous trade -- Wake the Devil -- it still is reasonably self-contained. Hellboy's colleague, Liz Sherman, is in a semi-coma after essentially having her life force stolen to reanimate a homunculus, and Hellboy and Kate Corrigian scour the Romanian countryside trying to capture the creature -- unaware another, more sinister presence also seeks the wayward homunculus. I'd commented before that both the strength, and the short coming, of Mignola's writing/art is a certain deadpan style, eschewing the more obvious emotion of the motion picture. Yet here he seems to have mastered that low-key style, so that there's actually some powerful, deep emotional undercurrents, even as it's handled in a quiet, unobtrusive way. Scenes of Abe Sapian standing vigil by Liz's hospital room are quite touching. And the homunculus is given more depth and sympathy than as simply the monster of the week.

Because of its length, Almost Colossus acts as the center piece of the collection, and harkens to the long form stories fans are accustomed to from the longer Hellboy mini-series.

Yet almost as long is the moody, spooky one-shot, "Wolves of St. August", and there are some other "feature length" (ie: comic book length) tales, such as "The Corpse" and "Christmas Underground", as well as some tasty little short pieces, including the title story, "The Chained Coffin" which, given its length (10 pgs.) might seem an odd choice for the title...but is significant as it shines some light on Hellboy's murky origin.

Part of the appeal of Mignola's writing is that he doesn't just write a quirky horror series inspired by the latest cinematic scare fest. Rather, Mignola is clearly a student of traditional folklore and legends, steeping Hellboy in a tone and style that is actually quite different from the average 20th/21st Century pop horror series. And that becomes even more explicit here than in the earlier tradess, as in his various commentaries introducing the stories, Mignola frequently alludes to the actual folk tales that inspired the stories, how some stories he had wanted to adapt for years (presumably before he'd even created Hellboy) while with others he set out to write a Hellboy story, and searched around for a folk tale to provide inspiration.

As such, there is often a dreamlike sense to the Hellboy stories, where logic can be rather tenuous. Yet instead of just seeming like a narratively confused mess, it adds to the richness, the sense of ineffability. Partly because it does seem so evocative of the logic and narrative rhythm of folk tales. Yet with all that being said, the stories do generally hold together -- I don't want to leave the impression they don't. It's more in the little asides that there is a certain surrealism...the way skeletons will offer warnings, unbidden, or animals will start speaking, as though in a dream.

Of course, much of the success of the series is that it's all about the mood, which is why the dreamlike narrative flow suits the stories. You open a Hellboy story and it's like your slipping into a vivid dream, rich in mood and atmosphere. And an enormous part of that is Mignola's art, which is almost breathtaking in his ability to evoke a sense of place, of gothic castles and lonely, midnight draped open fields, all with some deceptively simple line work. And it's all wrapped in deep shadows, adding to the sense of spookiness...yet also adding a comforting warmth, strangely enough. In all this he's aided by the colors, which with a penchant toward sombre hues and earth tones captures the sense of darkness, without going overboard and making it just visually dull and murky. And by contrast, we have the bright read Hellboy at the center of it, fairly glowing like a stained glass portrait.

It's all a little creepy and scary, sure, but it's also fun and inviting.

After all, in addition to the scary stuff, the creeping mood, the portentous utterings of otherworldly beings -- there is a nice contrast with Hellboy's deadpan wisecracks, and his gruff but good-hearted phlegmaticness dealing with things he's seen before. In The Wolves of St. August, when asked if he's seen anything like it before...he casually rattles off a series of previous incidents. And part of the humor of Hellboy is precisely that his comebacks and wisecracks can be lame, making them funnier in the context, calling monsters, "you horrible thing!" It's funny precisely because he doesn't always have the perfect retort waiting on his tongue.

Hellboy is long lived, and the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, though a US organization, seems to operate globally, so in a collection like this Mignola can play up that, as the stories take place in various locales, and various times (from 1961 to 1994) -- not that it's necessary to the narratives, but adds to the sense of filling in the holes in Hellboy's exploits.

In addition to Almost Colossus, probably the best of the tales here is The Corpse, in which Hellboy must find a final burial place for an animated corpse, yet being turned away at every likely spot. Inspired by a real Irish folk tale, it's a story where the very minimalism of the premise adds to the elegance of the narrative, mixing a spooky darkness, with the humor of Hellboy's nonchalance. And even a kind of melancholy ambivalence, as the story involves Hellboy bargaining to rescue a human baby from fairies, but once this is accomplished, a fairy tells him the age of the fairies is almost gone, leaving the reader with a certain melancholy, as the "monsters" become more sympathetic.

Wolves of St. August is also memorable. Though, admittedly, a lot of the climaxes to the stories can be just big fight scenes, rather than anything that clever -- Hellboy just tougher than his opponents.

Some of the stories are maybe little more than fillers. But as a collection, a sample of Hellboy, with some long, well plotted pieces, with shorter, mood-heavy vignettes, it's a nice tome to have. And though making some references to other Hellboy adventures, overall it is among the most cleanly self-contained of the trades.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Hellboy: Wake the Devil

Title: Hellboy: Wake the Devil

ISBN: 9781593070953
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2003
Artist: Mike Mignola
Writer: Mike Mignola
Collects: Hellboy: Wake the Devil #1-5

Rating: 4/5

Wake the Devil collects the second major Hellboy story -- a five issue mini-series. And is the second trade in the Hellboy collection. Though that's rather problematic, as in between the first mini-series, Seed of Destruction, and this, were a couple of short stories and one shots, which this story makes passing reference to...but for page count reasons don't get reprinted until the third Hellboy trade volume!

The wholly original aspect of the story is that Hellboy and the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense investigate a murder at a curio shop that seems to involve the stealing of the corpse of one Vladimir Giurescu -- a man whose legend dates back to the Napoleonic wars and was rumored to be a vampire. Possibly even the inspiration for Dracula. So Hellboy and friends head off to Romania to investigate and, if necessary, prevent Giurescu's resurrection, the group splitting up to seek out different likely spots, with Hellboy alone coming upon the dead nobleman's castle.

How this ties into the previous tales is that the theft of Giurescu's body was performed by the same cabal of ex-Nazis whose occult ambitions first resulted in Hellboy coming to earth -- a cabal led by the resurrected Rasputin, still determined to use Hellboy to bring about the apocalypse. As such, there are characters running about, and cryptic references, that will have greater resonance if you've read the previous tales.

At the same time, a lot is explained as you go...and still more, part of the mood of Hellboy is its very obliqueness. The series' appeal is that Mignola isn't just some guy who developed his love of horror and dark fantasy from Stephen King novels and Hammer horror films, but a guy clearly well versed in the real thing -- ancient legends, myths and fairytales. And Hellboy is steeped in that sense of folklore and fairy tale, of interventionist god-like beings, all combining for a certain dreamlike ambiance, where not everything has a rational explanation. Yet it holds together well enough that it doesn't just feel like lazy storytelling by a guy unable to put his imagery into a coherent pattern. Indeed, when you reach the end of the tale, Hellboy even remarks he's not sure what happened, that he "was right in the middle of things, and I think I only saw the tip of the iceberg". Yet the reader actually has a better grasp of what transpired, because we were privy to scenes and conversations Hellboy wasn't.

At the same time, there is a sense the story kind of wandered away with itself -- or was dragged in a different direction (Mignola acknowledges as much in an afterward). Giurescu, which is what/who the story seemed to be about, kind of gets sidelined into being a secondary plot as Rasputin and his plans for the apocalypse retake center stage. Mignola remarks this was his most ambitious project (at least, at that point) and if all the threads and characters don't fully coalesce into a natural whole, that very complexity adds to the enjoyment while reading, justifying the five issues and keeping you turning the pages, cutting from one agenda to another, one set of characters to another.

And, of course, a huge appeal of the Hellboy stories is Mignola's art -- craggy and deceptively simplistic in a way, yet astonishing in the mood and environments he can evoke with just a few lines, a few brush strokes. Artfully rendered with thick, spooky shadows, and often deadpan characters (kind of evoking the low-key tone of TV's The X-Files). Hellboy's adventures take place against deliberately traditional, gothic environments, such as here, much of the action taking place in a deserted European castle -- or in the seemingly cathedralesque caverns beneath the castle (a recurring trick in Hellboy stories is floors caving in depositing the characters in subterranean caverns). And he captures an almost cinematic language by cutting away to close-ups of statuary or fresco's, that add to the sense of mood, and place -- and slow building tension, as if even the inanimate is sentient.

Mignola's writing isn't maybe terribly heavy on the angst or emotion (unlike the motion picture) yet nonetheless does nicely capture personalities and a sense of camaraderie and relationships, with even the villains having some nuance, different agendas and personalities. His writing is good -- not always realistic, deliberately so, by evoking a folkloric feel as otherworldly creatures utter cryptic pronouncements. Some of the exchanges between Rasputin and his followers are deliberately evocative of Biblical conversations between Jesus and his disciples -- sacrilegious? Maybe, but not really. It just further adds to a sense of resonance, and of apocalyptic grandeur, Rasputin the dark priest of his own religion.

Yet there's also some nice, human exchanges, and witty -- if very deadpan -- quips and dry observations.

And, of course, with all the mood, the creeping horror, this is still a comic book about a red skinned demon paranormal investigator, so there are also comic book-style action scenes, and smashing through walls!

Wake the Devil is a thoroughly effective installment in the Hellboy saga (even the title has multiple meanings), but though readable on its own, ideally isn't the best volume to start with, evolving as it does from Seed of Destruction. Indeed, though both sagas tell their own story, they also form a combined epic (a sense further emphasized because the 2003 movie essentially combined scenes and ideas from both mini-series into a single story). And since Rasputin and the Nazis don't really recur for a while, there's a greater sense of temporary closure to the themes as well (even if there are a few -- minor -- dangling bits, like a sequence involving a homunculus!)

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction

Title: Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction

ISBN: 9781593070946
Price: $17.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2003
Artist: Mike Mignola
Writer: John Byrne, Mike Mignola
Collects: Hellboy: The Seed of Destruction #1-4, San Diego Comic-Con Comics #2, Comics Buyers Guide

Rating: 4/5

Hellboy is, of course, a red skinned, cloven hooved demon...who was raised by humans, and so, as an illustration of nurture over nature, appearance and super strength aside, is actually just a regular joe who investigates the paranormal as an agent of the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense.

Seed of Destruction collects the first Hellboy story arc (as well as a couple of even earlier short pieces that were published as promos for the new property). In it we learn of Hellboy's genesis in the waning days of World War II, then cut to modern times as the now adult Hellboy investigates the murder of his mentor, which leads him to the cursed Cavendish family on a forlorn peninsula of the American coast, and a showdown with an evil that ties into his origins.

Creator Mike Mignola was already receiving good notice for his art, but with Hellboy he arguably cranks it up a whole other notch, and it was his first major project as storyteller, not just a drawer of someone else's story. Mignola was presumably a bit insecure about that, because for this first arc, he brought veteran John Byrne on board to actually write the dialogue (Mignola would subsequently fly solo). What's interesting is that you can't necessarily detect Byrne's influence. I don't mean that as either good, or bad. I just mean you don't read this and detect much sense of Byrne's style, or much difference from this and the later Hellboy stories Mignola wrote on his own. Well, except there may be fewer of the trademark dry quips the series would later employ. But that may simply be because, as the first story, they wanted to establish a serious tone. After all, a red skinned demon investigating monsters could so easily slide into self parody that it was probably important to establish the serious tone before letting its hair down -- in much the same way that TV's The X-Files worked hard to establish a serious tone at first.

And the X-Files was, no doubt, very much in Mignola's thoughts doing Hellboy, being as both are about paranormal investigations, with a lot of deadpan talking heads and expository scenes as if ghosts and demons are no stranger than a burglary.

Visually, the story is richly rendered with lots of dark, brooding shadows, and landscapes that manage to be both minimalist and yet hauntingly evocative. The panels reek of atmosphere, so that you can fairly hear wind whistling spookily in the distance. Mignola's style is at once craggy and even cartoony...yet oddly realistic, suiting a story that tries to make the unbelievable seem almost commonplace, where as veteran investigators, Hellboy and his comrades, Liz Sherman and Abe Sapien, have seen it all before, occasionally dropping cryptic references to past investigations. The colors beautifully complement the drawings, being both sombre and brooding -- yet not oppressively so. While Hellboy himself stands out on the page, a blazing red beacon of hope.

Yet for all the genuine mood and unsettledness, this is generally a clean, fun horror. People die, and dark things are afoot, but this isn't some nihilistic, grisly horror comic that can leave a bad taste in your mouth ala Hellblazer.

The story is paced out well, managing to mix a slow building, creeping spookiness with some bombastic action scenes as Hellboy proves that when it comes to battling monsters, he can give as good as he gets. The story manages to tease us along, not playing all its cards at once, so there can be bizarre happenings, and cryptic comments, that only make sense in a later context. Because this is the opening story in what is, after all, a series (albeit an irregular series, told not in an on going comic, but in various mini-series and one-shots), it ends with some threads left dangling, including a final epilogue meant to hint at things to come. Yet with that being said, it does tell a story with a beginning, middle and end, and one that ties back into Hellboy's origin, making it satisfying as a story to be read for itself.

There can be a tad superficiality at times, the scenes maybe trying too hard to evoke a kind of deadpan cool. The catalyst for the investigation is the murder of Hellboy's mentor, Trevor Bruttenholm (pronounced "Broom"), yet Hellboy never quite gets that worked up over the death of a man he regarded as a father figure. And his relationship with Liz Sherman is strictly platonic.

Which brings us to reflecting on the comparison to the original motion picture. This trade was subsequently marketed as having inspired the motion picture. I was a bit skeptical of that when I saw the movie (having forgotten this plot), but re-reading it, I can see that the movie both followed it...and diverged from it (indeed, the movie, where it stays faithful to the comics, actually borrows from both this, and the next mini-series, Wake the Devil -- as well as lifting scenes from other Hellboy stories).

Both this and the movie detail a similar WW II origin for Hellboy, and both have the main plot climaxing with a modern day attempt to summon an apocalypse by the instigator of that war time incident. Yet in the details it's interesting how both versions are better -- and lesser -- than each other. The movie cranks up the emotion/human factor, giving arguably more character to Hellboy, establishing a romantic tension between him and Liz, and giving more weight to his relationship with Bruttenholm. Arguably rendering the movie more sophisticated, more adult, than the comic. At the same time, the movie Hellboy was an embittered outsider, his very existence kept secret from the outside world. Yet there's something almost more intriguing, and endearing, about the comic book Hellboy...whose a much more level-headed, easy going guy -- and one whose existence isn't a secret. There's something wonderfully weird -- both comic booky yet eminently human-- about the cigar smoking, trenchcoat wearing Hellboy casually interrogating witnesses as if there's nothing odd about a seven foot tall red demon dropping by for tea.

And in concept, in style, the comics are arguably more ambitious, or at least, more literary. The movie was very much a Hollywood movie, chock full of bombastic action scenes, chases through city streets, big budget fights on subways, where the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is a hi-tech, James Bond-y style organization -- much of it taking place in New York city. But Mignola's influences are clearly more literary and traditional than that, the Hellboy comics rooted in a gothic milieu of cursed family trees, deserted castles, and ancestral homes crumbling, generation by generation, into the sea. In fact, I'm not sure a Hellboy story comes to mind that ever took place in a big city! Mignola is drawing upon a literary provenance of Edgar Allan Poe, Lovecraftian lore and ancient fairy tales (some later Hellboy stories were, literally, reinterpretations of old folk legends). He also captures the essence of such tales with a story where we're not sure if we'll ever understand all that occurred -- while explaining enough that it doesn't feel like he was just too lazy to come up with a logical plot. At one point, a ghostly figure intercedes in the events, and Hellboy remarks they might never know why the apparition acted as it did...but that doesn't stop them from at least positing an explanation (unlike some comics that come to mind where the writer will toss in a convenient solution, then simply have the characters shrug it off with no explanation whatsoever).

Of course, the down side to traditionalism is there can be elements of cliche, such as the chief villain being the resurrection of the real life Russian monk, Rasputin -- a guy who has been conjured up as the villain in a zillion supernatural tinged stories over the years. (And, honestly, given all the real life monsters and creeps and serial killers throughout history, how did Rasputin get typecast as the ultimate evil?)

The movie was a big -- and yes, enjoyable -- Hollywood summer action flick. But Seed of Destruction is, arguably, a more stylistically ambitious tale, going as much for a low-key eeriness as often as it is super hero hijinx -- and there is a super hero flavor, of course, with Hellboy a decidedly more formidable protagonist than Mulder and Scully ever were, as if The Fantastic Four's Ben Grimm moonlighted as a ghost buster (Mignola's style even slightly evocative of Jack Kirby). But the comics have a spookiness the movie didn't.

As the opening arc in the Hellboy saga, Seed of Destruction is effectively sure footed -- even if those feet have hooves!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls

Title: Batman Vol. 1: The Court of Owls

ISBN: 9781401235420
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2012
Artist: Greg Capullo
Writer: Scott Snyder
Collects: Batman #1-7

Rating: 4/5

Batman: The Court of Owls is a deconstruction of Batman and Bruce Wayne’s vision of Gotham City. The DC Relaunch provided a landscape in which writers and artists had a way to completely recreate characters and the DC Universe as a whole into their vision. Scott Snyder doesn’t exactly do this. The Court of Owls works as both a perfect starting place for new readers to comics as well as experienced readers who have kept up through the Grant Morrison saga and Snyder’s work on Detective Comics. Characters created and explored during that time period are even featured in the opening pages of this book, so it’s not a title that completely ignores its past, which, whether on purpose or not, parallels the concept of this book. And this book is quite simply a masterpiece.

In Court of Owls, Scott Snyder tells a story of how the past of Gotham City, a past unbeknownst to The Batman, has come to haunt The Dark Knight in a way that no one, other than Snyder, could have ever imagined.

Batman has come back to the cape and cowl after being thrown through the time stream in Return of Bruce Wayne and recent excursions across the globe with Batman Incorporated, and has made his triumphant return to Gotham City. With the brighter, more positive attitude that accompanied recent events, Bruce Wayne and Batman look to the future as a way of turning away from the shroud of darkness that has been covering his city for so long, a future that expands and grows the city to new levels. Unfortunately for The Batman, things aren’t as easy as he would have hoped when he discovers that the oft-whispered name of The Owls comes to be more of a reality than an urban legend, and they are after Bruce Wayne.

Scott Snyder is one of the handful of writers who truly knows Batman. He’s in love with the character, and you can completely tell that this is a story that he’s wanted to write for quite some time. While the theme of Gotham being darker and haunted by something that Bruce is unaware of, I can’t recall a storyline in which it’s explored that Batman ultimately has no control over the fate of Gotham City, and while I’m sure that, ultimately, Batman will save the day and come out on top, that’s definitely not how it feels in this comic. In this comic, Batman is taken to the depths of the city and is shown the power of The Court of Owls. Bruce Wayne is led to believe that those in his inner circle have betrayed him, which drives Wayne to the point of questioning every single motive of those to whom he is close. Snyder does an excellent job of building Batman up to a state that we haven’t seen lately as a quiet and reserved, yet powerful character to a point where he cracks and is placed in a weakened, vulnerable state. And that’s where the key to Snyder’s story is – character work.

As I said earlier, Snyder knows Batman. Snyder has the voice of both Wayne and Batman down to a science. In Court of Owls, he manages to nail the recent, lighter characterization in Batman Incorporated while also incorporating the Batman of Hush, No Man’s Land, and Batman Year One. The detective aspect of Batman is also here because Snyder writes an incredible mystery. Pages are constantly turned when Batman discovers the DNA of a killer who has struck Gotham, which is revealed at the end of the first issue, but that’s only the start of it. Clues start popping up as to the whys, hows, and whos of The Owls that have controlled Gotham City for so long, and it’s on par with any great mystery comic out there. As a single volume story, though, it doesn’t work for me.

That’s not to say that this volume doesn’t work at all, however, because it absolutely does. Batman starts off strong as a character, is faced with a terrible situation, adjusts his mentality and drive, and ultimately comes out the victor, which is how a comic book story arc should play out. It’s just impossible to look at this volume as anything more than a segment of the grand plan which plays out through issues 8-11, so if you’re reading this book, you’re probably going to feel a little cheated that it’s not the whole thing. The comic ends with an incredibly dramatic moment which leads to a huge question mark in regards to one of Batman’s closest allies and a cliffhanger plagues the final pages of the volume, which is something I can’t stand with a collected edition. Because, when you’re buying a book like this, typically you expect some finality to the story that won’t make you want to wait until DC decides to collect the final part. You aren’t getting the entirety of the story, which is unfortunate, because in my opinion, you need the second half to truly appreciate the first.

While the writing is certainly enough to get someone to absolutely love this comic, I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the comic’s other half composed by penciler Greg Capullo, inker Jonathan Glapion, and colorist FCO. First and foremost, whenever is group works together, they bring the best out of each other, which is evidenced in books like Haunt, but more so within the pages of Batman. They have a chemistry that makes the entire comic feel like something special just by looking at it, which it is. Capullo has a kinetic energy to his pencils that makes the still images jump off the pages with movement that is as exciting as it is clean and beautiful, while the colors of FCO enhance the comic’s beauty. Where Glapion’s talent comes in, however, is with his heavy inks that set the dark tone and mood that Snyder is crafting with The Owls. And the way these two work together sums up the pace and story of The Court of Owls, it’s an action/adventure thrill ride that also lends itself to deeper thought with a looming darkness that constantly feels like it is about to strike.

Although I would prefer an oversized edition that collects the entirety of this team’s run, all of the creators truly work together to create a magic book that is absolutely worthy to be the first chapter of Batman in the new DC universe. I think it’s deserving of a future Absolute Edition, don’t you?

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Trekker Omnibus

Title: Trekker Omnibus

ISBN: 9781616552114
Price: $24.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2013
Artist: Ron Randall
Writer: Ron Randall
Collects: Dark Horse Presents Vol. 1  #4-6, #20-22 and #39-41, Trekker #1-6, Trekker Color Special, A Decade of Dark Horse #2, Trekker #1 from Image Comics

Rating: 4/5

Ron Randall's Trekker returns in an omnibus edition, and it's a good thing to have as like many creator owned comics originating in the 80s the series bounced around a bit from being a feature in another series or changing publisher as was the case with other series like Grimjack, Usagi Yojimbo, or Groo. This volume pulls the Trekker stories from Dark Horse Presents Vol. 1  4-6, 20-22, and 39-41, Trekker 1-6, Trekker Color Special, and A Decade of Dark Horse #2, from Dark Horse as well as Trekker #1 from Image Comics. In addition to that is over 60 pages of new color material featuring both new story material and chapter/story break illustrations. Other goodies include a profile on Trekker creator Ron Randall, a sketchbook section displaying various pencil pages, designs, promotional pages and the like, as well as a foreword by Gail Simone (writer of Batgirl , Birds of Prey, and Secret Six). All of that together allows this omnibus edition to clock in at some 300 plus pages.

But what is Trekker you ask? One answer is in the world of Trekker, a trekker is a bounty hunter sanctioned by the government to supplement the underfunded police. Another is the adventures of Mercy St. Clair, the title character of the series. While yet another answer is sci-fi noir. Sci-fi noir? Sure, detectives, bounty hunters, hit-men, mobsters, smugglers, crooked politicians, and spaceships! Imagine Grimjack without the fantasy elements or Judge Dredd with out the dark humor/satire and you kind of get the feel. Or possibly think of something like Firefly.

On to the adventures of Mercy St. Clair. Noir and sci-fi action fans will have plenty to enjoy as Mercy goes through a series of adventures pitting her against adversaries ranging from mobsters to hit-men to corrupt politicians to outlaw killers to smugglers to terrorists as well as against the police and even other trekkers. Many with the requisite henchmen of course. That's not to say it's all action, action, and more action. Randall includes many character and drama driven scenes with Mercy interacting with characters such as her closest friend, boyfriend, mentor Angus, and Uncle Alex (who as a police lieutenant provides an even more interesting dynamic at times as a result)in addition to scenes with her pet Scuf which allow for reminisces about Mercy's past. And speaking of past, yes, we do get an origin story as tragedy in Mercy's past is hinted at along with the road to her becoming a Trekker which is revealed later on in the volume.

Those various adventures take Mercy to a variety of locales. What would noir stories be without seedy bars or the docks? Or even shadier alleyways? Abandoned tunnels, swamps, deserts, spaceports, as well as any other locales her hometown of New Gelaph can throw at her.

Some of the stories collected in the omnibus are in color while others are in black and white. This is simply how they were produced as some were black and white comics while others were color. While some might prefer all one or the other, I honestly think the color stories look best as they are while the black and white stories have the proper tone to them to look how they should as is.

If you want to try a series with a strong female lead, give Trekker a shot. If you want to try some sci-fi comics, give Trekker a shot. Or if you just want to read some comics with good art and a good story (which is all a comic needs),  give Trekker a shot. Just be careful that Mercy doesn't shoot back! I agree with Gail Simone's P.S.: "More Trekker, please."