Sunday, May 29, 2016

Star Wars: Lando

Title: Star Wars: Lando
ISBN: 9780785193197
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2016
Artist: Alex Maleev
Writer: Charles Soule
Collects: Star Wars: Lando #1-5

Rating: 4/5

Wait, Lando isn’t in it? Seriously?!

That was my reaction when I first heard the news that the beloved scoundrel of Cloud City would not be appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Lando Calrissian, a silver-tongued scoundrel with a heart of gold, was a great character, and I was disappointed to learn that we wouldn’t get to find out what kind of life he had built for himself after the events of Return of the Jedi. Fortunately, though, Disney made the wise decision to team up with Marvel and bring the character to back to life in the five-issue comic miniseries Star Wars: Lando. And while it may not be quite the same as seeing Billy Dee Williams back on the big screen, Lando is a rock solid addition to the ever-expanding universe of Star Wars.

Written by Charles Soule, illustrated by Alex Maleev, and colored by Paul Mounts, Lando takes readers back to a time before the events of Empire Strikes Back, a time when the character got by exclusively on his wits and charm. In this series, he sets out to settle an old debt by stealing something far more valuable than he had imagined when he took the job. Unsurprisingly, things don’t quite go according to plan, leaving Lando and Lobot — you know, the silent dude with the cybernetic implants — in a real bad spot.

On the surface, the series’ central plot sounds predictable and ordinary. And that’s because it is. But while the planned heist may be the biggest thing going on in Lando, it’s not the most important, or even the most satisfying. Lando is really about the evolution of the character himself. The heist is nothing more than a vehicle for the kind of development that he never received in the original cinematic trilogy. In this series, we get to see just what kind of man he was before becoming a valued member of the Rebel Alliance, providing valuable context to the emerging dichotomy between Lando the scoundrel and Lando the hero. We’re also treated to a firsthand look at the relationship between Lando and Lobot, the latter of whom is far more talkative than you might have guessed. It’s always a treat to see secondary characters get a second chance to shine, and Soule certainly makes the most of the opportunity, expanding upon and adding to the deep emotional bond between the two men.

If there are any flaws with the writing, they can be found in the dialogue. For the most part, Lando’s personality is accurately reflected in the tone and tenor of his speech. However, Soule does try a little too hard at certain points in the story, inserting lines of dialogue that just feel a little too cheesy and forced. It’s not a persistent problem by any means, but it happens frequently enough to catch your attention. Other than that, the writing is as good as any Star Wars comic series you’ve ever read.

The quality of Soule’s dialogue and characterization is given a run for its money by Maleev and Mounts’ artistry, which is some of the best — and, more importantly, some of the most unique — I’ve come across in Marvel’s various Star Wars miniseries. Mounts’ color work gives the story a bit of a noir feel, especially in the early stages of the story. That’s not something I’m used to experiencing in a Star Wars comic, but it meshes perfectly with the overall mood of the story. Maleev’s illustrations are equally impressive, as his depictions of the characters couldn’t possibly be more lifelike. Perhaps the most striking feature of the artwork in Lando, though, is the masterful use of shadows and lighting to keep the readers’ eyes focused on the most important visual elements within each individual panel. Whether it’s a subtle grin flashing across Lando’s face or a blinking red light on a ship’s control panel, Maleev and Mounts make certain that the first thing you see in each new panel is what they want you to notice first.

In conclusion, Marvel’s Lando is clearly one of the best Star Wars spin-off series, if not the best spin-off series, that we’ve seen so far. Soule’s decision to focus more on character development and relationship building than shootouts and space battles is wonderfully refreshing, and Maleev and Mounts’ artistry is as good as it gets. I’d put this particular book in the “can’t miss” category.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

Title: Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

ISBN: 9780785197768
Price: $34.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2015
Artist: Val Mayerik, Tom Palmer, Dick Giordano, Dave Cokrum, Frank Brunner, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Alan Weiss, Ed Hannigan, Tom Palmer, Al Milgrom, Mike Nasser
Writer: Mary Skrenes, Steve Gerber, Frank Brunner
Collects: Fear 19, Man-Thing (1974) 1, Howard the Duck (1976) 1-16, Howard the Duck Annual 1, Marvel Treasury Edition 12, material from Giant-Size Man-Thing 4-5

Rating: 3/5

Trapped in a world of 1970s social satire, Steve Gerber’s iconic, and occasionally infamous, creation Howard the Duck still remains as prescient as ever. Finally back in print in an affordable format, today’s comic book-reading audience can enjoy the acerbic wit and zeal of a curmudgeon duck and his gal pal Bev Switzer. In this first collection, Howard meets the Man-Thing, gets transported to Cleveland, runs for president, and much more.

Gerber is joined by some of the finest artists that the mid 1970s Marvel Bullpen could offer, from co-creator Val Mayerik’s invention of the iconic character to the brilliant dynamism of Gene Colan.

This collection also offers an interesting historical insight into urban life in the 1970s, examining everything from hippies and lobbyists to Canadians and white supremacists. Gerber also took the time to criticize and examine the popular genres of American comics of the time, such as kung fu, horror and, of course, Marvel’s bread and butter, super heroes.

While some readers may have a preconceived notion of who and what Howard is, this comic offers instead a surreal, comedic and revolutionary series of stories that will satisfy any reader who dares.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel

Title: Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel

ISBN: 9781484737842
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2016
Artist: Matteo Piana, Igor Chimisso
Writer: Alessandro Ferrari

Rating: 4/5

Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel is the newest comic adaptation from Disney Lucasfilm Press; it is the latest evidence that Disney gets it. The work is proof-positive that Disney cares about the Star Wars brand by continually reinvigorating our beloved mythology in new and refreshing ways. The art is crisp, and has a style that features a manga-hybrid quality, but contains a spirit evoking the classic original Marvel adaptions. It is aimed at ages 8-12, but is suitable for all ages, and, as promised on the back cover, allows the reader to experience the saga in a way you never have before.

It appears that nine different artists contributed to the book, and while this is noticeable on occasion, it is not particularly distracting.For instance, the familiar mask of Vader is on the cover, and while it seems more alien than the film version, it still creates the appropriate amount of menace in context with the other characters. His helmet is more distorted, but fits in well with the iconic McQuarrie model recognizable by fans of the Original Trilogy. It’s a different method of expression, but it works. It maintains the essence of the Sith Lord, and so many of the other character designs create this atmosphere as well.

For instance, Lando Calrissian looks like a smooth-talking shyster, which is exactly as it should be. Herein lies the fun of this graphic novel. Whether you are an artist or not, the designs give you something to talk about. Nothing is done haphazardly, and is painstakingly created. The attention to detail in the work enhances the storytelling greatly, even down to the dialogue boxes. When Darth Vader speaks, it’s in black, which helps to capture the tone of James Earl Jones’ booming voice. This provides an excellent method of expression that is welcome, and adds greatly to the narrative.

The layout does this too; of particular note are the presentations of some of the more iconic action sequences. When Vader faces Luke Skywalker on Cloud City, or in the Emperor’s throne room in Return of the Jedi, it is easy to follow, and manages to escape some of the frenetic tropes that have become all too familiar in modern comic book storytelling. It would be easy to throw something like this together for a cash grab, but happily, this is not the case here.

The true test, however, is the dialogue. The book credits Disney Lucasfilm Press, with a manuscript adaptation attributed to Alessandro Ferrari, and does an admirable job of providing much of the dialogue , which we are as familiar with as our address and phone number. While it is true that not every line from the films is present (that would not work well in a graphic novel anyway), it is permissible in this medium, as dialogue and art combine to tell the story. The spirit of Star Wars is alive and well in Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel, and I was pleasantly surprised.

All in all, it’s a nice compilation of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, and will leave you engaged and satisfied. The end of the book reveals, “Coming soon in the same series, all the other episodes of the epic saga!”, and after enjoying Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel, I am more excited about this than I would have originally guessed.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

House of Mystery: Room and Boredom

Title: House of Mystery: Room and Boredom

ISBN: 9781401212223
Price: $9.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2008
Artist: Luca Rossi
Writer: Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges
Collects: House of Mystery #1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

Meet the inhabitants of the House of Mystery: the bartender, the poet, the pirate, the drama queen, and the latest arrival, Fig the architect. Trapped in a giant, sprawling Victorian mansion, a sort of supernatural Big Brother house without books, newspapers or television, the five prisoners each try to forget their own terrible pasts and work out why they are here. In the meantime they work in a bar frequented by patrons from all across time and space who pay for their drinks with stories.

The main character of this volume, Fig, is a young blonde woman who flees the ruins of her own mysteriously destroyed home from two strange figures known collectively as The Conception. She runs into a bar filled with an anachronistic mixture of people and creatures from all across time and space. Unfortunately, when she tries to leave Fig finds herself trapped in the house, along with four others. She learns that the only way to leave the house is when escorted by a mysterious coachman who shows up on rare occasions to take one of them away. No-one knows where those who leave are taken or what happens to them.

Fig recognizes the house as the building of her dreams which she has drawn pictures of ever since she was a child. It is what inspired her to become an architect. The house speaks to her in a voice that only she can hear. When Fig talks back to it the house doesn't like what it hears, which puts all five of its inhabitants in mortal danger.

Like the Sandman series, the plot of House of Mystery is convoluted and the length of the story, at eight volumes collecting 42 issues, makes it a bit intimidating to start with, like beginning a really fat novel. It is a bit hard to get into, but the stories told by the staff and customers of the bar stand alone so you can enjoy them even if you're not sure what's going on over all. There are stories about gangsters, witches, creatures of the deep, you name it! The creators make good use of the art and the story you get from the pictures is often quite different from the one you might glean from the teller's words alone.

House of Mystery: Room and Boredom is an intriguing start to the series. I will be picking up the next volume to see what happens next. I recommend it for fans of Vertigo comics and anyone looking for something a bit spooky to read in the lead up to Halloween.

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!