Sunday, October 25, 2020

Geroge A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead: Act Two

Title: Geroge A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead: Act Two

ISBN: 9780785185192
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2015
Artist: Dalibor Talajić
Writer: Geroge A. Romero
Collects: Geroge A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead: Act Two  # 1-5

Rating: 2.5/5

Empire of the Dead is set in a New York beset by far more problems than anyone realities. Like in any city in Geroge A. Romero’s USA, the zombies are on the streets for anyone to see, but within protected areas life goes on. Mayor Chandrake, up for re-election, sees to that, but only the chosen are aware he and his inner cabal are actually vampires. Even those are unaware that New York is a target for other forces.

An immediate difference from Act One is the change of artist from Alex Maleev to Dalibor Talajić. He’s better than Maleev when emotional drama is called for, and draws some superbly slimy men in suits, but lacks Maleev’s ability to convey the dirt and grime of a zombie infested world. Under Talajić’s watch everything looks too clean, and that’s not appropriate. Additionally, under Talajić the slimy Mayor Chandrake bears too great a resemblance to Tony Stark.

Make no mistake, this isn’t Romero using plots not good enough for his zombie movies, this is Romero delivering a plot he could never afford to make for cinema. Act One was the slow burn introduction of the cast, and Act Two ups the ante, smoldering and nudging in preparation for the bloodbath we’re expecting in Act Three. The political machinations and slow romance are largely formulaic, with the interest prompted by some zombies able to control their raging blood lust to a degree and possessing a rudimentary intelligence. Romero also investigates vampire lore, and this is less satisfactory as he changes the fundamentals considerably to suit his purposes, so no fear of garlic or a crucifix, no transformations into bats, sunlight is okay and mirror reflections are as normal. Removing some of the random sillier aspects of the traditional vampire makes narrative sense, but there’s a feeling of cheating about it. The threat to the vampires therefore comes not from the usual methods, but from a new character, a diligent and thorough police detective. A balding Columbo if you will.

The key to whether or not Romero’s movie fans will like Empire of the Dead very much depends on whether or not it’s considered acceptable that there’s actually been very little zombie action so far. Romero certainly supplies plenty of good drama via a cast it’s easy to believe in, but the zombies are very much the background, not the focus. By the conclusion of Act Two Romero has cranked up the pressure considerably, and supplied a surprising ending to lead us into Act Three. Alternatively, all three acts are combined as George A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 - No Power in the ‘Verse

Title: Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 - No Power in the ‘Verse

ISBN: 9781506701820
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2017
Artist: Georges Jeanty
Writer: Chris Roberson
Collects: Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 # 1-6

Rating: 3.5/5

I don’t know if I’ll ever get sick of Firefly. Every time I see them appear in comic form, it gives me that warm fuzzy nostalgia feeling that every media company seems to be trying to tap into these days. Although the previous comic series have been hit or miss, I have enjoyed them enough to look forward to any new series Darkhorse puts out. This issue leans heavy on the nostalgia, spending a lot of the time checking in on the rag-tag crew, but this issue does plant a few seeds for conflicts that could have a dramatic impact on the franchise.

Whenever a new series comes out there is always a little bit of an adjustment period on my part. Each artist always takes each character design in a new direction and Georges Jeanty is no exception. But while some of the designs tend to take the characters in new directions, there are other instances where the pencils just seem a little off. Maybe a wandering eye appears in one panel, or a lack of details in a close up panel. Most of the time these small issues won’t have an effect on the panel, but when they happen to your main character, it’s the equivalent of a lead actor in a movie looking directly into the camera when giving their lines, it’s jarring and takes you out of the story. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often and as for the rest of the issue the art is solid. The creative team has done a good job here. Serenity feels like home.

The story doesn’t offer a whole lot of new ideas, but it does lay some groundwork for what could be interesting conflicts. After a job doesn’t pay as much as they hope, the crew is requested to look into a missing person’s case. A former ally with ties to a new terrorist organization has gone missing and Mal and crew are brought in to find here. It isn’t the most original plot hook, but it will do. I was really more interested in the side plots that are taking place between characters on the ship. Zoe is portrayed as being a new single Mom on a ship that is not suited for a baby. Jean, in addition to his usual friction with the captain, also seems to be feeling a bit alienated on the ship and given his history that could spiral off into a few different directions. Meanwhile, Kaylee and Simon also show hints of trouble. It’s good to see Mal and Inara as the ships’ stable relationship. It feels like the characters are maturing in a way that feels natural and the writer, Chris Roberson, is just letting those conflicts play out on the page.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Cerebus: High Society

Title: Cerebus: High Society

ISBN: 0919359078
Price: $25.00
Publisher/Year: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1995
Artist: Dave Sim
Writer: Dave Sim
Collects: Cerebus # 26-50

Rating: 3.5/5

Cerebus began as a Conan parody, but this was something far more ambitious – an honest to goodness graphic novel. With this approach in mind, Sim largely eschewed the normal episodic pacing of comics in favor of a narrative that would make more sense when read in its entirety. Realizing this, many Cerebus readers stopped buying the comic and just waited for the collections. This became known as ‘the Cerebus effect’, and the ramifications of it are still felt in the industry today.

By this stage in his career Sim was a confident and accomplished artist whose style had developed organically from a Barry Windsor-Smith wannabe. He retained much of Windsor-Smith’s love of the ornate, but his art had become very much its own thing. His writing had progressed even further, and High Society is a complex, mature work with important things to say about the nature of power, while often being very, very funny into the bargain.

The plot is labyrinthine and resists precis, but when Cerebus turns up at the Regency Hotel in the city-state of Iest he’s warmly welcomed by everyone because of his past associations with Lord Julius of Palnu, another city-state to which Iest owes a great deal of money. Cerebus was his Lord Julius’s Kitchen Staff Supervisor – Julius likes to keep everyone on their toes by making sure no one has the faintest idea of who does what. Before long, Cerebus is embroiled in Julius’s complicated political machinations, running for Prime Minister against Lord Julius’s goat and trying to wage wars on neighboring countries.

Much of the book’s plot is driven by the attempts of various characters to control and manipulate Cerebus. The main culprit is Lord Julius, who often seems to be working against himself, but also includes Astoria, Cerebus’s political advisor (and Julius’s ‘niece’) and assorted political and religious factions. However, Cerebus (who only ever refers to himself in the third person) proves himself to be not only cunning – something we had seen glimpses of previously, even in the early Conan pastiches – but also surprisingly knowledgeable in the ways of both magicians and politicians.

This book is a great starting point for anyone wanting to sample one of the most important comics in the history of the medium, self-published or otherwise. The first book, though relatively unpolished, is also worth a read, introducing many of the characters that would appear in this and later volumes over the course of 25 years, but any later books would be nigh impossible to follow without being aware of what has gone before.

Sunday, October 4, 2020


Title: Cerebus

ISBN: 0919359086
Price: $25.00
Publisher/Year: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1995
Artist: Dave Sim
Writer: Dave Sim
Collects: Cerebus # 1-25

Rating: 3.5/5

Cerebus is something of a legend in comics. Begun in December of 1977 by Dave Sim, it was one of the first entirely independent, self-published comics in a field dominated by the large work-for-hire companies like Marvel and DC. It ran for 300 issues and nearly 27 years and became one of the most influential independent comic books of all time, in part due to Sim's outspoken views in favor of creator rights and his regular use of the editorial pages in Cerebus issues to air those views. This collection (the first "phonebook") collects issues 1 through 25, with one of the amazing wrap-around covers that makes all of the phonebooks so beautiful (possibly partly by later Cerebus collaborator Gerhard, although if so it's uncredited so far as I can tell). Cerebus reliably has some of the best black-and-white art you will ever see in comics.

There is some debate over where to start with Cerebus, and a faction that, for good reasons, argues for starting with the second phonebook (High Society). While these first twenty-five issues do introduce the reader to a bunch of important characters (Elrod, Lord Julius, Jaka, Artemis Roach, and Suenteus Po, for example), all those characters are later reintroduced and nothing that happens here is hugely vital for the overall story. It's also quite rough, starting as Conan parody with almost no depth. The first half or so of this collection features lots of short stories with little or no broader significance, and the early ones are about little other than Cerebus's skills and fighting abilities.

That said, when reading the series, I like to start at the beginning. It is nice to follow the characters from their moment of first introduction, and it's delightful to watch Sim's ability grow (surprisingly quickly) through the first few issues. Cerebus #1 is bad: crude, simplistic artwork, almost nothing in the way of a story, and lots of purple narration. But flipping forward even to Cerebus #6 (the first appearance of Jaka), one sees a remarkable difference. By Cerebus #7, Cerebus looks like himself, the plot is getting more complex, and Sim is clearly hitting his stride. And, by the end of this collection, the art has moved from crude past competent and into truly beautiful in places. It's one of the few black-and-white comics where I never miss color. The detailed line work is more enjoyable than I think any coloring could be.

The strength of Cerebus as an ongoing character slowly emerges from behind the parody. What I like the most about Cerebus is that he's neither a predestined victor (apart from the early issues that follow the Conan model most closely) nor a pure loner who stands apart from the world. He gets embroiled in political affairs, but almost always for his own reasons (primarily wealth). He has his own moral code, but it's fluid and situational; it's the realistic muddle of impulse and vague principle that most of us fall back on in our everyday life, which is remarkably unlike the typical moral code in comics (or even fiction in general). And while he is in one sense better and more powerful than anyone else in the story, that doesn't mean Cerebus gets what he wants. Most stories here end up going rather poorly for him, forcing daring escapes or frustrating cutting of losses. Sim quickly finds a voice for Cerebus that's irascible, wise, practical, and a bit world-weary, as well as remarkably unflappable. He's one of the best protagonists in comics, and that's already clear by the end of this collection.

Parody is the focus of these first issues, which is a mixed bag. The early issues are fairly weak sword-and-sorcery parody (particularly Red Sonja, primarily a vehicle for some tired sexist jokes) and worth reading only for the development in Sim's art style and the growth of Cerebus as a unique voice. Sim gets away from straight parody for the middle of the collection, but then makes an unfortunate return for the final few issues, featuring parodies of Man-Thing and X-Men that I thought were more forced than funny. You have to have some tolerance for this, and (similar to early Pratchett) a lot of it isn't as funny as the author seems to think it is.

That said, three of Sim's most brilliant ongoing characters are parodies, just ones that are mixed and inserted into the "wrong" genres in ways that bring them alive. Elrod of Melvinbone, a parody of Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone who speaks exactly like Foghorn Leghorn, should not work and yet does. He's the source of the funniest moments in this collection. His persistent treatment of Cerebus as a kid in a bunny suit shouldn't be as funny as it is, but it reliably makes me laugh each time I re-read this collection. Lord Julius is a straight insertion of Groucho Marx who really comes into his own in the next collection, High Society, but some of the hilarious High Society moments are foreshadowed here. And Artemis Roach, who starts as a parody of Batman and will later parody a huge variety of comic book characters, provides several delightful moments with Cerebus as straight man.

I'm not much of a fan of parody, but I still think Cerebus is genuinely funny. High Society is definitely better, but I think one would miss some great bits by skipping over the first collection. Much of what makes it work is the character of Cerebus, who is in turn a wonderful straight man for Sim's wilder characters and an endless source of sharp one-liners. It's easy to really care about and root for Cerebus, even when he's being manipulative and amoral, because he's so straightforward and forthright about it. The world Sim puts him into is full of chaos, ridiculousness, and unfairness, and Cerebus is the sort of character to put his head down, make a few sarcastic comments, and then get on with it. It's fun to watch.

One final note: I've always thought the "phonebook" collections were one of Sim's best ideas. Unlike nearly all comic book collections, a Cerebus phonebook provides enough material to be satisfying and has always felt like a good value for the money. I wish more comic book publishers would learn from Sim's example and produce larger collections that aren't hardcover deluxe editions (although Sim has an admitted advantage from not having to reproduce color).

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Captain Marvel Vol. 2: Stay Fly

 Title: Captain Marvel Vol. 2: Stay Fly 

ISBN: 9780785190141
Price: $15.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2015
Artist: Marcio Takara, David Lopez, Laura Braga
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnic
Collects: Captain Marvel (2014) # 7-11

Rating: 3.5/5

After a long opening arc, Carol Danvers spends Captain Marvel Vol. 2: Stay Fly rocketing around on a variety of adventures. Joining her is Tic, the mysterious alien girl who put the previous arc into motion, and I suppose I should start off mentioning how much I dislike her continued appearance in this title. The Higher, Further, Faster, More trade introduced a cast of interesting aliens and the most annoying of them ended up traveling with Carol Danvers past that story. It’s a rare misfire for Kelly Sue DeConnick, who previously used the little girl Kit as an adorable side character. Tic (which I noticed is “Kit” backwards phonetically) is Space Jubilee when Carol needed Space Shadowcat instead.

Tic is thankfully unable to drag the comic down too far, as the first story here brings back a better previous guest character: Rocket Raccoon. He had previously mentioned that Carol’s cat, Chewie, was an alien called a “Flerken” after it tried to attack him. It’s revealed that this wasn’t a joke and that Chewie is a portal-generating alien who has just laid a clutch of eggs. Because Flerkens are so rare and valuable, a living ship arrives to capture Chewie and her “Fler-Kittens” to exterminate the species forever. The ship is sadly not given more explanation despite an excellent depiction under the pen of guest artist Marcio Takara. This is only an unconfirmed theory, but shortly after this arc was published, the Guardians of the Galaxy encountered the home planet of the Symbiotes, and the ship is reminiscent of Venom and others of his ilk.

Having a guest star like Rocket is obviously a draw for readers of Guardians of the Galaxy to pick up Captain Marvel, but he’s used extremely well in this. He had a rivalry with Chewie already established and the two go through an arc of their own, possibly ending up in love by the end. DeConnick also uses a countdown theme in each of the issues, making the two parts mirror each other without feeling like a retread. Another guest star invigorates the following issue as Lila Cheney gets mixed up in Carol and Tic’s voyage home. Lila is from the original New Mutants era and has the unusual ability of “long-range teleportation” -- unlike Nightcrawler’s short-range jumps, she can only teleport over lightyears of distance, often unwillingly.

This ability has landed Lila in a number of sticky situations over the years, and one trip made long ago led to her getting unwittingly engaged. She ends up on Carol’s ship while trying to escape the marriage; Carol and Tic return with her to work the situation out, leading to the issue’s dialogue conceit. Everyone on the planet Aladna speaks in rhyme and the visitors have to play along. DeConnick doesn’t have them stick to a certain rhythm, which simplifies the matter; they just have to rhyme everything they say. The issue plays up the silliness; the prince wears Ziggy Stardust-style eye make-up while his father is clearly Fat Elvis. The end annoyed me as it appeared Tic was going to leave the book for the second time in two issues, only for it to be undone yet again.

Issue #10, which is Carol Danvers’s 100th solo issue (under various names), is an annual-sized tale told through letters from home. The story revisits Grace Valentine, a villainous scientist obsessed with being more famous than Captain Marvel, after her original story in the first volume of the title. Valentine's unhinged plan ends up with her taking control of New York City’s rats and sending them against Carol’s friends. Kit, Spider-Woman, and Jim Rhodes tell the story in three chunks, with Spider-Woman’s chapter having a hilarious flashback to the time she tried to have Carol incinerate a rat in their apartment. This issue reconfirms the romantic pairing of Carol and Rhodey that the first issue set up. It’s a shame that Rhodey didn’t go off to space with Carol and Venom to join the Guardians; his Iron Patriot career went as well as his Iron Man 2.0 tenure.

Carol convinces Lila to take her back to New York for one night to check in on Tracy, her crotchety mentor who has fallen into a deep illness. This leads to Carol fighting both Valentine and June Covington, a mad scientist she had previously encountered in Avengers Assemble: The Forgeries of Jealousy. David Lopez illustrates a fantastic page of Covington’s glasses multiplying sinisterly while Carol is knocked out by her germs. Carol hasn’t had the best rogues gallery, so these two fearsome foes are a welcome addition to the cast. She’s able to defeat them with what might be the strangest team-up I’ve read in ages; it makes sense in retrospect but it’s still baffling. If I spoiled it here, you wouldn’t believe me.

There’s a sense that, much like the previous volume of Captain Marvel, DeConnick’s plans for Captain Marvel Vol. 2: Stay Fly were modified due to scheduling issues. Carol had to be in space for her tenure in Guardians of the Galaxy, so after she comes home for one issue, she returns to them ... only to go home four issues later at the end of the next arc. But many of these issues can be overlooked as Carol makes for such a great protagonist. She has deep personality flaws, like her hotheadedness, but she has a rich history to explain why she’s all screwed up. The new Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps seems to be the book DeConnick has wanted to write since Carol upgraded her rank, so Stay Fly is just a step on the road towards that end.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 1

 Title: Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 1

ISBN: 978302901271

Price: $29.99

Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2016

Artist: Dexter Soy, Filipe Andrade, Emma Rios

Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnic, Christopher Sebela

Collects: Captain Marvel (2012) # 1-12

Rating: 3.5/5

The book’s second half is exciting and well-written overall. Captain Marvel is a relatable and charismatic hero whose adventures are fun to watch. The narrative is very interesting. The artwork looks great in most places.

The opening story arc has a few problems. Some of the art isn’t that great.

The first volume in a new take on Carol Danvers proves to be a rousing success. The storyline is interesting, the action is exciting, and Captain Marvel ends up being a fantastic main character. The volume stumbles a bit at first, but even these introductory chapters are fun in their own way. Anyone looking for a good introduction to the new Captain Marvel should definitely take a look at this book.

Captain Marvel Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, starts out average but ramps up the quality as the story progresses. The opening story arc deals with time travel in a way that brings in some cool history but causes the message to become a bit mixed. However, from here, things get better as the rest of the book is a fun ride filled with great characters and thrilling action. Readers have a chance to see Captain Marvel beat up bad guys while dealing out humorous quips. They also have a chance to become invested in her personal story, as DeConnick makes Carol Danvers a character that is incredibly easy to relate to. Overall, this is a wonderful read and an optimistic start to this series.

The book starts out with an arc that centers around time travel. It uses this setting to highlight the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a real group that goes unappreciated in most forms of media. This perfectly fits the feminist tone inherent to Captain Marvel’s character and gives the arc legitimacy by grounding it in real history.

However, the opening arc’s use of time-travel is a bit confusing at times and jumps around too much, preventing it from significantly contributing to the overall story. In addition, the message found in the arc’s conclusion seems different than the one it started with. In the first chapter, Carol’s reluctance to take on the Captain Marvel name is the focus, while in the final chapter her reluctance to be a hero at all is the focus. These problems prevent the opening story from being as entertaining as it could be.

Luckily, the narrative improves drastically from this point onward. Captain Marvel begins tackling smaller, but more straightforward, problems in the present. This allows for some great moments of action that showcase Captain Marvel as a hero. These moments are exciting and fun in an uncomplicated and celebratory way. All of this also allows Carol’s personality to shine, as she brings a bit of humor to each altercation.

Each of these stories also humanize Carol as a character and make her more relatable. This is a hero with insane levels of power who also lives in an apartment building and owns a cat, emphasizing the fact that, underneath her superhero façade, she is still a normal person. So when her schedule gets overbooked and she struggles to maintain the commitments she has made, it relates to similar situations in the lives of readers. All of this makes you care about Captain Marvel as a person and become more invested in her story.

This deep level of connection also helps make one of the volume’s larger narrative threads, Carol’s health issues, more meaningful. Having a superhuman character struck down by a relatively human problem is an incredibly interesting concept and furthers Carol’s status as a normal person. Giving her a problem she can’t punch her way out of also works in adding a level of diversity to the storytelling. Though the action and charm sold me on the individual chapters, this is the point that sold me on this series as a whole.

The majority of Captain Marvel Vol. 1 features Dexter Soy’s gorgeous pencils and inks. These chapters look incredible and are packed with awesome levels of detail. This detail makes both characters and backgrounds look realistic and helps bring the entire story to life. Plus, Soy’s work really helps highlight some of the action scenes, making them even more exciting.

However, there are also a few chapters here, from other artists, that don’t look nearly as good. Filipe Andrade’s heavily stylized approach looks nice in its own way but does not match the theme or tone of this comic. These chapters are also a huge departure from the art style seen in the rest of this volume, introducing a bit of a disconnect into the book.

Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 1 starts a new Captain Marvel series. Carol Danvers previously starred in the Ms. Marvel series, which ended with Ms. Marvel Vol. 9: Best You Can Be.

The story here continues in Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 2.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Ruse: The Victorian Guide to Murder

Title: Ruse: The Victorian Guide to Murder

ISBN: 9780785155867

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2011

Artist: Marco Pierfederici, Minck Oosteveer

Writer: Mark Waid

Collects: Ruse # 1-4

Rating: 3/5

Having created nigh infallible and insufferable Victorian era detective Simon Archard in Enter the Detective, Mark Waid left the series midway through the following volume The Silent Partner. Eight years later he returned to his creation, now published by Marvel.

If there are any concerns of the can’t go home again adage applying to this witty period drama, just read the sample page, which is the opener. With a single well selected word Archard is cemented as arrogant, observant and infuriating. It’s the satisfying manner in which he continues. Having based Archard on Sherlock Holmes, Waid has an instantly identifiable lead character, but with Archard’s partner Emma Bishop there’s work to be done, and it’s done well. She’s extremely competent, adaptable and endearing, and in equal measure admiring of Archard’s deductive abilities and infuriated at his lack of social skills and concern for her well being. One element from the previous graphic novels is omitted. In this incarnation Emma has no ties to other eras, and the series is better for it.

Artist Marco Pierfederici is not quite the finished article. There’s a lot of effort on display, both with the period detail and the well staged layouts, but they’re accompanied by some shaky work on figures and faces. For those who’ve read the previous Ruse volumes he also falls shy of the lush pages supplied by Butch Guice. Minck Oosteveer illustrates the third chapter, and while his people look better there are some very odd faces. It also raises the question of why it’s the case with only four issues comprising the original serialisation that it couldn’t have been arranged for a single artist to draw it all.

The plot concerns someone turning the screws on the inveterate gamblers of Partington, concentrating on the wealthy and influential, consolidating their debts for purposes unknown. Waid’s classic mismatched and bantering partnership sustains the plot until the major revelations of the third chapter, and his fine dialogue consistently raises a smile. Waid deliberately overplays some aspects of the plot to misdirect from others, but this isn’t the type of tale where anyone other than Archard’s going to figure anything out, so going with the flow is all for the best, particularly during the opening of chapter two.