Sunday, May 1, 2016

Powers Vol 2: Roleplay

Title: Powers Vol 2: Roleplay

ISBN: 9780785192756
Price: $15.99
Publisher/Year: Icon, 2014
Artist: Michael Avon Oeming
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Collects: Powers Vol 1 #8-11

Rating: 3/5

The cover of Bendis and Oeming’s POWERS VOL 2: ROLEPLAY is a little misleading to me. It’s the costume of Detective Walker’s alter ego Diamond nailed to a brick wall. So obviously, I was hoping we’d get to dive into more of his backstory with some sort of threat to his former secret identity. That isn’t quite what happened, and I’m not sure how to feel.

One of the cool things about reading through the back catalog of one of my favorite writers is that I get to watch him build up to the writer he is now. The downside is that I feel like I know his tricks. I’ve been following Bendis since ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN Volume 3: DOUBLE TROUBLE (2001); he was the first writer I ever needed to follow, and I always pay attention when he takes on a project. So as I read POWERS VOL 2 and reflected on last week’s POWERS VOL 1 review, I began to think about what I’ve learned about Bendis. Through the years, I’ve watched him kill and re-imagine beloved characters like Spider-Man and make devastating reveals in SECRET INVASION; I’ve seen him build characters that I didn’t even know existed, like Luke Cage, into leading men and women. I’ve seen him turn a classic stoic hero like Cyclops into one of the most controversial characters in the Marvel Universe, but, when I got to the end of WHO KILLED RETRO GIRL? as well as ROLEPLAY, even though I didn’t predict the ending, it wasn’t quite as shocking as it would have been to me in 2001.

ROLEPLAY begins with Walker and Pilgrim as they begin investigating what appears to be a copycat killer (imitating the murderer of Retro Girl from the first volume). They quickly learn that it isn’t a copycat killer, and the victims are not superheroes, just college students roleplaying as them. What began as a roleplaying game between friends quickly turns into a hunt when one of the deadliest super villains in the world gets involved, and Walker fights for his life.

The ending didn’t do it for me because I’ve seen Bendis do similar things in his smaller scale Marvel books, so it wasn’t entirely fresh to me. However, I really enjoyed the rest of the story. I was genuinely interested in the villain of ROLEPLAY, The Pulp, and I wanted to know more about him. I understand the nature of the story is to beat the bad guy, and in the detective’s life or death situation, he isn’t concentrating on hearing the villain’s life story, but a monologue would’ve been nice.

Deena Pilgrim is becoming a bit better than she was in the first volume, but I still don’t find her completely likable. Her character development suffers a bit due to her suspension from the force halfway through the story, but I think she’ll be more present in VOL 3. She does stick to her guns, though, I’ve got to admit that. Christian Walker’s character is roughly the same as in VOL 1. This is not to say that he’s emotionless, but we do see a bit more from him here. He’s got an anger streak that is justifiable, but it leads to activity that feels questionable. There’s also an awkward moment toward the end where he feels a bit depressed by finding out Deena has a boyfriend, so it seems he’s lonely too?

The art is obviously similar to the first volume, but somehow I feel like it’s a little looser. The noir aspects of the book are really emphasized in this volume because it has a dark subject matter. This leads to heavy shading, though, which often obscures features and distorts faces. This heavy shading does help to emphasize the emotions of the characters, but I feel like the character figures suffer because of it. The panel where Deena says “But it was an accident…” is an example of how her face seems misshapen, but the reader can tell that she feels alienated, and Oeming is possibly trying to symbolically have her appear as the villain in the situation because of the full faced nature of the shading.

While the art succeeds exceedingly in its effort to be cinematic, the panel structure of some of the pages is so crammed full of activity that it’s hard to tell what’s happening and what order it should be happening in. For example, in the pages above, Walker is interviewing a witness to the murder, and while these panels succeed in getting the plot to move, the panels that surround are not as clear. It’s hard to tell what Pilgrim is doing, and the heavy shadows on the art don’t aid the panel situation either.

Oeming and Bendis have added another small universe characterization moment in ROLEPLAY as well. In WHO KILLED RETRO GIRL? a pair of clashing foes crash into a building while Walker and Pilgrim are discussing their case in front of their car; the detectives don’t skip a beat and they continue talking about their case. This time, Walker and Pilgrim are in the same situation, but a dimensional traveler shows up.

Pilgrim reacts by throwing up, and Walker is obviously panicked, but in the following panel, Pilgrim shouts “Fuckin’ dimension-jumpin’ pieces of crap!”. This is a small but important moment because it shows that stuff like this happens often enough that it’s only moderately surprising.

While ROLEPLAY isn’t the story I expected or necessarily wanted, I know I have at least 14 more volumes of POWERS to get through, and it is a good follow-up to the story from the first volume. It adds some rules to the universe and we get to see the ugly side of police bureaucracy in a superhero universe. Sadly, the delicate balance between the superhero and noir genres that the art rides in “WHO KILLED RETRO GIRL?” is breached this time, and the clarity of the story suffers for it.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

The Walking Dead Volume 24: Life and Death

Title: The Walking Dead Volume 24: Life and Death

ISBN: 9781632154026
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2015
Artist: Charlie Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: The Walking Dead #139-144

Rating: 3/5

“Life and Death” did start out a bit slow, with the three communities still planning for the big fair. The one part that confused me a bit was the fact that Michonne is now apparently part of a fishing crew; that, combined with her sudden backstory reveal, didn’t sit very well with me – it felt like awkward, forced storytelling, though I suppose it was nice to find out why she ran off and was avoiding Ezekiel and her relationship with him. The only thing that balanced out the bad in this particular scene was seeing so much interaction between Rick and Michonne, including being reminded that they’re basically “best friends”. Things are still messy in the world of TWD – and Michonne is one of the messiest people of all in terms of relationships – but her and Rick, and Rick and Andrea, are some of the positive things I look forward to in every new installment of this comic.

Meanwhile, Negan is still locked up in a basement…sort of. The fact that his cell door popped open and he remained where he was and didn’t wreak any havoc is interesting, but at the same time I kind of just wish he would go away. I won’t pretend that I don’t swear from time to time (okay, maybe too much), but reading his language gets old really quick. That, and the whole Negan story was already drawn out long enough. Just stop already.

Things aren’t exactly perfect at the Hilltop, either. In my Volume 23 review I mentioned that Gregory’s assassination attempt was so bad as to be almost funny, but I was still surprised to see him pleading that he hadn’t done anything at all. Honestly, I think that this whole Hilltop arc between him and Maggie was weak. With every appearance, Gregory seemed more and more like a joke, and while I’m not totally on board with Rick’s rules about not killing people anymore, Maggie deciding to hang Gregory seemed forced and out of character, regardless of the reasoning. That said, perhaps they’ll use this situation to make Maggie into a harsher, less forgiving character, so I’m going to avoid too much judgment until I see how she handles the new threat of the Whisperers.

Speaking of the Whisperers, I kind of have to repeat myself here and say oh, Carl. Carl, Carl, Carl.

He was really starting to grow on me in recent volumes, but Kirkman clearly wanted to perpetuate the idea that all teenage boys lose their minds along with their virginity. And he also can’t let Rick catch a break – even after Rick allowing Carl to move to the Hilltop, Carl still has plenty to hold against his dad – and everyone else who isn’t Lydia, apparently. Of course it seemed too good to be true that Alpha would just allow Lydia to leave the Whisperers, especially when she has a zombie horde to play army for her – but is that just me being jaded from having read this series for too long?

Granted, Alpha had the “last word”, if you will, by killing many prominent (and not-so-recognizable) members of the three communities – including Olivia, Ezekiel…and Rosita. Who’d just announced that she was pregnant. But if there’s anything The Walking Dead has taught me, it’s that there’s usually something just as bad – or worse – lurking around the next bend in the road. Needless to say, I’m already impatient to read Volume 25! (Though not impatient enough to start reading the issues one by one. I like my larger dose of TWD, thank you.)

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Walking Dead Volume 23: Whispers into Screams

Title: The Walking Dead Volume 23: Whispers into Screams

ISBN: 9781632152589
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2015
Artist: Charlie Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: The Walking Dead #133-138

Rating: 3.5/5

Not much time has passed between the end of Volume 22 and the beginning of 23, but there is some serious lack of transition, especially involving some of the new characters who arrived in Alexandria in “A New Beginning”. One moment they were mistrustful of Rick & Co. and trying to undermine them, but now they’re suddenly hanging out with Andrea, picking veggies, and being curious about Eugene’s apparent depression? On top of that, other than those brief scenes, the rest of “Whispers into Screams” focused on the Hilltop – and above all, Carl.

And oh, Carl. Carl, Carl, Carl.

I’ve been getting used to him, really, and in this volume I generally liked him…but that doesn’t mean that I care for the way the writers are handling his storyline. “Whispers into Screams” jumped right into his story with some panels where Carl is getting dressed, trying to find a bathroom to use, and then sitting down and reading a letter from a girl he left back in Alexandria. At first I thought this seemed sweet…until, as the volume wore on, there were also hints that Carl might end up being more than friends with Sophia.

Which was then topped by Carl losing his virginity to a complete stranger.

Listen, I get it, it’s a post-apocalyptic world and Carl is a teenager who’s lived through so much that him having sex is, at this point, really no big deal. My question is, was it really necessary for his first time to be with a girl he’d just met? A girl who was weird enough to stick her tongue in his missing eye hole? A girl who thinks it’s totally normal to dress up in the skins of dead people and wander around with groups of walkers? In my opinion that’s a bit much, even for this comic.

The more maddening story line, though, was the one involving the Hilltop kids who keep trying to randomly beat people up. In “A New Beginning” Sophia saved a friend of hers from being attacked by these hoodlums, and in “Whispers into Screams” Carl has to save Sophia from these same kids. And as much as I understand that the new rule is to live in peace, man did those kids get what was coming to them – though I agree that Maggie handled things well by first locking Carl up for a while and refusing to just let the fact that he almost killed those kids go.

Unfortunately for Maggie (and to just add a bit of frustration for us readers), the parents of those hoodlums refused to believe that their kids did anything wrong. The fact that this led to Gregory trying to poison her, though, was more than a little over the top – though perhaps the main problem there was that it all just happened too fast. It was very much “Oh we’re upset with Maggie – oh she sucks at being our leader – wait we never chose her anyway, she just started bossing people around – yup let’s kill her!” Put simply, a plot like that would have worked better had it been built up over a longer period of time. And as much as I don’t want Maggie to die, the fact that Gregory failed so miserably in his attempt was too sad to even be amusing.

I will say that I was interested to find out more about these “Whisperers” that were teased so much in Volume 22, and in that respect I wasn’t disappointed at all. As previously mentioned, I’m definitely glad that the network of the Hilltop, Alexandria, and the Kingdom didn’t just jump right into war with this new “threat” – which didn’t seem to be a threat at all once it was understood that the Whisperers simply want strangers to stay away from “their” land. Of course I’m still creeped out about a lot of what they’ve got going on – the fact that they wear the skins of the dead, for one, but Lydia’s confession that she basically has to have sex with whoever whenever whether she wants to or not is in my opinion far worse. Still, Carl is probably biting off more than he can chew, going after her, and I don’t see how his doing so can end well. I suppose we’ll find out in Volume 24!

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Jack of Fables: The (Nearly) Great Escape

Title: Jack of Fables: The (Nearly) Great Escape

ISBN: 9781401212223
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2007
Artist: Tony Akins
Writer: Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges
Collects: Jack of Fables #1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

Jack the Giant Killer AKA Jack-Be-Nimble AKA Jack of Tales has made a name for himself with Nimble Pictures, a movie production company that has a whole stable of films starring everyone’s favorite Fable. But when Fabletown finds out about Jack’s money and dealings, his billions and title are stripped from him and he’s sent on a road trip across the world of the Mundanes (normal people). When he gets abducted by a group of “librarians” who want to put him in a retirement community for Fables, it’s up to Jack to break out the imprisoned storybook characters from the clutches of the evil Mr. Revise.

Written by Bill Willingham and published by Vertigo, Jack of Fables takes one of Fables greatest characters and gives him a very deserved spin-off series. The humor and style of Fables is still present, but Jack of Fables is more of an action story right off the bat. Jack’s violent and hilarious tales always keep the pages turning and the panels popping, and the constant inclusion of storybook characters who might not have appeared in the Fables universe otherwise is a great opportunity to explore more of the world that they live in.

Jack’s character is the over-the-top action hero, but with his own smarmy charm added to it. The great thing about having a main character like Jack is that he could do anything at anytime, based on any reasoning he sees fit. He loves being selfish, but he always has these moments where he genuinely wants to help people. It’s this sort of trait and flaw that makes him such a fun character to follow. His dialogue is snappy, his presence is larger than life, and the fact that he’s hard to kill due to his immortality makes it fun to watch him mess up and bite it, hard.

Sunday, March 27, 2016

East of West Vol 3

Title: East of West Vol 3

ISBN: 9781632151148
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2014
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Collects: East of West #11-15

Rating: 4/5

It’s tempting to babble senselessly about how good this comic is, urge you to go out and buy all available issues right away, but I wouldn’t be much of a reviewer if I didn’t explain my fascination. I’ll start with a little back story.

Loosely based on the ‘Book Of Revelations’, ‘East Of West’ tells the story of impending apocalypse. It’s clear from the very first issue that the world has been destroyed and revived before in what might be an endless cycle. What’s not clear is the role to be taken by the very recognizable symbols of a biblical apocalypse. The Four Horsemen are missing one of their number, Death. The Seven Seals have been replaced by seven nations. The Beast is…difficult to explain without spoiling some of the surprises of the story. Then there is the Message, which is presented as a constraint upon the actions of all. A dictate on how the world will end. Mixed into this over-arching story are the lives of the people within each nation. The leaders and their friends and foes.

The cover of Volume 3 features Xiaolian. The title, ‘There Is No Us’, again perfectly encompasses the events of the collected issues as well as Xiaolian’s philosophy. After rallying her people, she departs for a meeting with the other nations where she plans to call for an end to the illusion of peace. We visit with each leader as they make their preparations and depart for the Wall, the neutral zone that will host the meeting. These glimpses of each nation serve as a quick reminder of who the players are and what they are up to. After waiting months for the next collected volume, I found it easy to slip back into the story and was surprised by how well I remembered each character’s quirks and faults. To me, that is a mark of great story-telling.

The second chapter begins with politicking. The dialogue is clever and again serves to establish the intention of each nation. The Endless Nation, which is the most obscure player thus far in that we haven’t seen a lot of them on the page, is called to project an outcome to the war Xiaolian wants. Predictably, they outline the terrible cost of any match of opponents and call for peace. Violence interrupts the meeting and the chain of events that follows ensures that war is the only outcome. The panels depicting the breakdown of negotiations are brutal and gory, which only serves to highlight the shocking nature of each incident.

From there, we move to the dead lands and the shootout between Death and the Ranger. While they duke it out, Wolf and Raven attempt to bind the power loosed by the death of wolf’s father. They…succeed in doing something. Trouble is averted for now. When Death reveals why he was dealing with a chosen, the Ranger stands down. Post-brawl negotiations are interrupted by a rumble overhead: the ships of The Endless Nation heading to war.

Next, we check in with the three Horsemen and Ezra. More panels of delightfully depicted gore here. The Horsemen want Ezra’s help in killing the Beast. As this is counter to the Message, Ezra goes a little nuts.

The final chapter has all four Horsemen arriving at the lair of the Beast. As always, this part of the story is creepy-cool. As always, I’m going to say very little regarding it, except that I was once again surprised by events.

Closing the back cover of the book, I saw a quote:

    "We would tell you to pray, but it wouldn’t do any good. You have earned what is coming to you."

These little quotes appear throughout Volume 3. They’re a reminder of how deep this story is and illustrate the attention to detail that makes this comic special. The art alone is spectacular. I rave about it every review and I’ll do so again here. The composition of each panel is stunning. No image is extraneous or wasted. The art tells as much of the story as the dialogue. But without the smart dialogue and strong characterization, the art would just be pretty. The collaboration between writer Jonathan Hickman and artist Nick Dragotta is what makes ‘East Of West’ such a delight to read.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

East of West Vol 2: We Are All One

Title: East of West Vol 2: We Are All One

ISBN: 9781607068556
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2014
Artist: Nick Dragotta
Writer: Jonathan Hickman
Collects: East of West #6-10

Rating: 4/5

Fate was always going to put ‘East Of West’ in my path. I devour post-apocalyptic stories with unholy glee and have done since I discovered the ‘Book Of Revelation’, which is probably why I enjoy ‘East Of West’ so much. There is history here, a lot of it. Creators Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta have pulled snippets of story from several well-known legends and have fused the pieces together with their own imagination. I really love their take on the end of the world. I love this comic series. Now I’m going to continue to enthuse while I talk a little bit about ‘Vol. 2: We Are All One’.

The title is very appropriate. Throughout this collection, issues 6-10 of the comic, the back story widens to include and link several of our main characters. Many of them were involved in the past, willingly or unwillingly. Wittingly or unwittingly! They’re all connected, throughout history and time. There is a sense they are as fated to be together as me and this series.

On to the story. Accused of being a traitor, Bel escapes the conclave and goes to find Justice. We get our first delicious slice of back story here and a promise from Justice to serve just that, saving Bel for last, of course. Meanwhile on, Death is looking for his son. Insert another glimpse of back story, this time for Ezra Orion, who was caught up in Bel’s escape and is now paying a terrible price. My heart wrenched and my gut clenched for this one. It’s the story and the art. This is a partnership that breathes hyper-realistic life into every frame.

Back at the white tower, the city is on fire. Presidency is not an easy task, particularly under the constraint of the Message and the Word. Here, the reader gains a sense of both the urgency and the futility the seven must feel while the world races toward the end. They have to keep it together for just that long and then give it up. Talk about anti-motivation. Then again, I’m not the disciple type.

Death confronts the Oracle and she extracts a terrible price for information about the whereabouts of his son. These panels are suitably grisly. On to John Freeman, who receives a lesson in history from his father. This is another chunk of back story that shows timeless connection between many of the characters. The lessons from his father help glue the story together while reinforcing the fact it is huge.

‘East Of West’ has always had the depth of a novel. That’s why I enjoy it so much. The issues don’t feel episodic in the traditional comic book sense, even if each serves a purpose. Rather, each issue is a chapter of a larger and ever-growing tale. I love the combination of back story, plot and hints of possible futures. For me, each issue is another building block, I suppose. Separately, they serve a need. Together, they are so much more.

The last chapter has Death meeting the man who can tell him where his son is. Unfortunately, for all involved, the Ranger has also caught up with his prey. Cue epic battle and denouement. Of course, the story doesn’t end here. In fact, there is much left to tell.

Before the end, we check in with the Beast. I’m not going to detail this scene much except to say it had my skin crawling. Really and truly.

So, to reiterate, this is a fantastic story done justice by volume two. The art continues to be amazing and the writing is top notch. There are no characters undeserved by the collaboration of Hickman and Dragotta. I don’t want to discourage those who like to read their comics issue by issue, but I really love the way multiple issues work together in this series, as if designed to hang between two covers as a single unit. Unlike some collected comics, these graphic novels work well. They have a beginning and an ending, which only leads me to praise, once again, the scope of the project, and the imagination of its creators