Sunday, December 30, 2012


Title: Fray

ISBN: 9781569717516
Price: $19.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2003
Artist: Karl Moline
Writer: Joss Whedon
Collects: Fray #1-8

Rating: 3.5/5

Hollywood script writer, Joss Whedon, has made a big splash with cult TV series like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003). Anyone who's seen it and appreciates its themes and concepts knows Whedon clearly has comicbook geek in his blood -- and background -- so it's not surprising that, despite the smaller pay checks, Whedon has shifted over into comics from time to time. His recent writing of the comic Astonishing X-Men has garnered mainly great reviews, but a year or two before that, his first foray into comics was the eight issue mini-series for Dark Horse comics, Fray, collected in its entirety in a TPB volume.

Fray was a logical project for Whedon to test his comics scripting skills, because it's actually a spin-off of his most recognizable property -- Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It's written in such a way that Buffy fans will recognize certain references and themes even as it's sufficiently self-contained that you don't really have to be aware there ever was such a thing called Buffy the Vampire Slayer in order to follow it.

In the Buffy TV series, it was established that there have been many slayers over the eons, with Buffy only the most recent one. In Fray, we jump ahead a few hundred years into a dystopic, cyberpunkish future where we meet Melaka Fray, a street thief who not only is unaware of her calling as a Slayer...but doesn't even know what a vampire is! The Watcher's Council, which oversaw the Slayers for generations, has long since fallen into disrepair, so that it falls to a horned demon, Urkonn, to advise Fray of her place in the cosmic scheme of things, as a new plan hatched by vampires threatens demons and humanity alike.

In a world of occasional mutations, where Fray's mob boss employer is a fish man, the demon Urkonn makes less of a stir than you might expect, as Fray just assumes he's another mutated human. This is a world where the supernatural has long since become forgotten and no one has clued into the fact that the Lurks -- supposedly sewer dwelling junkies -- are really vampires. Fray, like Buffyy before her, is a reluctant convert to the cause, particularly as she mysteriously seems to have none of the Slayer's gifts other than super strength -- no prophetic dreams, no intuitive senses. She's also dealing with her own problems: she's a thief, her sister's a cop, and her brother was killed a few years before by Lurks. She's also acting as a kind of surrogate big sister to the disfigured ragamuffin Loo -- and in little Loo, Whedon pours all hhis impressive skills for mixing tones. She's funny, touching, grotesque, sweet, and heartbreaking -- sometimes all at once.

Though this was Whedon's first comic, he tackles it deftly enough. Maybe that should come as little surprise, as comics and film are similar mediums. His sense of pacing is good, not making the mistake of dragging out a scene too long. To fans of Whedon's TV work -- and Buffy in particular -- Fray is well worth seeking out. There's no dumbing down, or dilution of Whedon's talents. The quips are witty, the characters complex and multi-dimensional -- even without actors to say the lines, the characters live and breathe. Fray really does seem like what it is...a wholly legitimate off shoot of the Vampire Slayer mythos Whedon created.

It's a spin-off that Whedon couldn't have hoped to film before a camera -- not without a hundred million dollar budget. Chock full of flying cars, death defying leaps kilometres above the streets, epic battles, and a really big monster, Fray is Whedon's imagination untethered by mundane questions of budgetary considerations.

At the same time, despite having clever turns and surprise twists, for an eight issue series coming in at close to two hundred pages, there maybe aren't as many twists, or plot threads, as you might expect. The story stays pretty focused on Fray and its chief plot. The result is something that feels as though it could probably have been a movie with very little trimming or editing. Which isn't a bad thing at all, but for a multi-issue comics saga, one might have expected the plotting to be a little more Byzantine.

It's Whedon, himself, who has raised the bar so high on what fans might expect from him. Fray ultimately is a good read, with the obligatory mix of action and nuanced characterization, of horror and witty quips, of joy and pathos, with a few clever twists and turns, all building to a genuinely grand climax -- but the result might leave some Whedon fans saying: "yeah, impress me". There are the trademark wry quips -- but though the lines that are funny, they're not always as laugh-out-loud funny as Whedon managed, say, in his Astonishing X-Men stories. And the very familiarity of Fray and her battles with demons, building to an apocalyptic showdown, means that, despite all the good bits, all the clever bits, it doesn't necessarily surprise. We've seen it before in various Buffy story lines (though fans might note that the axe Mel wields pre-dates its introduction into the TV series' mythos). Even the future Whedon envisions is pretty stock -- though the fish man is neat and, as is mentioned in one of the collection's introductions, you really can't go wrong with flying cars.

So does it need to surprise? Not entirely. Fray is entertaining, and keeps you turning the pages. And for fans -- even TV watchers who might not normally consider picking up a comic -- this is just as legitimate an extension of the Buffy universe as, say, the TV series Angel.

Artist Karl Moline was, apparently, not that well known when he was tagged to draw this, but he emerges as an accomplished talent right off the bat. There is a slight cartooniness to aspects of his work, but there is an energy and inventiveness to his pictures that blends well with Whedon's script, and he nicely captures the sense of this far future dystopia, with its towering skyscrapers and flying cars and its squalid, ground level ghettos, where the story demands a seamless mix of the real, the sci-fi and the supernatural. In all this he's aided by inker Andy Owen, and by colourists Dave Stewart and Michelle Madsen who go for a lot of effective earth tones of greens and browns as opposed to the more obvious metallic sheens you might expect for a future adventure. Granted, in some of the fight scenes, with the beheadings of vamps, Moline maybe could've toned down the graphics a bit. Instead, it's nudged slightly into mature readers territory.

The story ends with a reasonably satisfying conclusion...even as Whedon leaves things open for future adventures. Whether those adventures will ever materialize is the question. Melaka Fray made a brief appearance in the Dark Horse graphic novel, Tales of the Slayers (which featured short pieces about slayers through the ages), and guest starred in the Buffy Season Eight storyline, Time of Your Life -- but I don't think she's had any further, full length, solo adventures. If Fray should ever return for a solo mini-series, fine, but if she doesn't, that shouldn't really take away from what's here.

'Cause what's here is pretty good.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Star Wars: Darth Maul

Title: Star Wars: Darth Maul

ISBN: 1569715424
Price: $12.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2001
Artist: Jan Duursema
Writer: Ron Marz
Collects: Star Wars: Darth Maul #1-4

Rating: 3/5

Darth Maul blows into Star Wars: The Phantom Menace in one piece and leaves in two. Otherwise, very little is known about this demonic-looking Sith who helped launch the rise of the Empire.

Ron Marz fills in the gaps with this graphic novel, dynamically illustrated by Jan Duursema. Taking place before the events of Menace, obviously, the story demonstrates just how tough a character Maul was, how brutally efficient he could be and how devoted to his evil master's cause he remained.

The primary focus of Maul's attention here is the Black Sun, a widespread criminal syndicate that Darth Sidious (the future Emperor Palpatine) fears could prove a thorn in his side during the coming conflict. Maul's mission is to cripple the syndicate enough to diminish the threat without destroying it beyond the hope of being useful later.

He carries out his mission single-mindedly and ruthlessly. Anyone who enjoys the Star Wars brand of action will love it, because once he gets going, Maul is a juggernaut. And Duursema's pencils carry the action brilliantly and colorfully forward so that Marz's story splashes right from the page.

I am not a diehard Maul fan, in part because the character was so underdeveloped in the movie. This book makes me appreciate the character a whole lot more.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Happy Holdays!

I just wanted to wish all my loyal readers Happy Holidays and a joyous New Year!

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Mike Mignola signing @ TFAW

This was my first experience to attend a signing at Things From Another World. I'll admit that I wasn't an early fan of Mignola until the first Hellboy movie came out. I like his writing and art, and I'm always happy to get a chance to meet anyone in the comic book industry.

A picture of what TFAW had to offer, being fully stocked on all things Mignola. It must be nice to be so close to and have a good working relationship with Dark Horse.

The man of the hour... or rather 3+ hours. Nice guy. I always enjoy the comic pro's that are willing to chat with you at events.

I did have to ask him what it would take to bring him to Salem to sign for charity at my LCS, but unfortunately he's both a) trying to get out of making appearances -and- b) booked out for the next year and a half. His wife is his scheduling coordinator.

Here's what I got signed. A FCBD book, an Emerald City Comic Con exclusive from 2011, a poster I picked-up from the above mentioned ECCC and both covers for Hellboy in Hell #1. Funny story about Hellboy in Hell:

The morning of the signing, I wanted to make sure that I had copies of Hellboy in Hell #1 for Mr. Mignola to sign for me. I went to the TFAW website, placed my order and chose to have them delivered to the store for pick-up.

After my order was completed, I found the "small print" that stated "Please allow 1-3 business days for processing." Oops! I took my receipt with me and spoke with the manager of the store. Unfortunately, I couldn't swap-out the books I hard ordered because their sales are separate, but he said he would have the order held for me until I could make it back up to Portland... as I explained that I rarely have the opportunity to make it that far north.

I was very impressed with how everything was handled by the staff. They were all very helpful and infomative. I'm keeping my eyes open for future signings that I can attend there.

On a side note, my only problem was with the parking. Their parking lot is very small and I drive a minivan. If it wasn't for the assistance of a fellow customer who I was parking next to, I would have had a more difficult time actually parking there. I didn't get his name, but if you happen to read this, THANK YOU again. Next time, I will take full advantage of the Fred Meyer parking lot that is only about a block away. :)

Ghost Stories

Title: Ghost Stories

ISBN: 1569710570
Price: $8.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 1995
Artist: Adam Hughes, Matt Haley
Writer: Jerry Prosser, Eric Luke, Steven Grant
Collects: Comics’ Arcadia Week 3: Ghost, Ghost Special, X #8

Rating: 3/5

She's a ghost who doesn't know who she was. She doesn't remember how she died, or why. But she is compelled to learn who is responsible and take vengeance.

Ghost Stories collects the early stories that introduced the character to Dark Horse readers in 1993. She rode initially on the coattails of the publisher's existing setting of Arcadia and the masked vigilante called X. Soon enough, she was ready to stand on her own.

The insubstantial protagonist is difficult to see by those in her presence; when she does appear, she appears in a ghostly white leather with scooped cleavage -- as if seeing a ghost wasn't distracting enough! -- with a hood and mantle. She teasingly notes that only her constant concentration keeps her clothes from phasing through her and falling to the ground.

Those who see her, if they can tear their eyes away from her corset, will also notice a pair of big handguns -- the bullets that fire from their transparent barrels are all too real.

Her name, she learns, was Elisa Cameron, and she was a news reporter who poked into things she should have left alone. The details are sketchy, however; even finding her childhood home and seeing her parents and sister fail to ignite even a hint of memory. Her quest for knowledge and revenge is at times bloody, but her ghostly spirit lacks a conscience over such matters. She certainly has a bone to pick with men in general.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Batman: The Widening Gyre

Title: Batman: The Widening Gyre

ISBN: 9781401228750
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2010
Artist: Walter Flanagan
Writer: Kevin Smith
Collects: Batman: The Widening Gyre #1-6

Rating: 4/5

The Widening Gyre ends with a cliffhanger -- and one of the most shocking final-page spreads you're likely to see in comics.

The creative team -- filmmaker Kevin Smith and pal Walt Flanagan -- drew some criticism for their previous Batman tale, Cacophony. And, while I think some of the critics were unduly harsh, I have to admit that the story in Cacophony is serviceable without being spectacular.

But with The Widening Gyre, they hit it out of the park.

One of the strangest perks for this tale is, get this, a happy Batman. You don't get to see that very often. But Smith has given Batman alter-ego Bruce Wayne a very good life, complete with exciting romance, and it works far better than one might expect. I mean, Batman has to be grim, right? Not so. This works.

So, the romantic-minded of Batman's readers -- at least, those who don't prefer him single -- seem to want things to work out with Selina "Catwoman" Kyle. Most other relationships in Batman's storied career seem flat, unoriginal, uninteresting. But Smith pulls Silver St. Cloud out of his sleeve, a character I've never seen as anything more than two-dimensional arm candy, and makes her sing. And let me tell you, it's a genuine pleasure to see this buried side of Wayne's personality come out to play.

Some critics complain that there are too many pages devoted to Batman's personal life. Me, I'm happy to see it for a change. It's a nice reminder that there's a man behind the mask, and maybe he deserves a good day once in a while.

Of course, this is Batman, so you know something bad is going to happen. And that's all I'll say about that ... except to note that The Widening Gyre ends on a cliffhanger, so don't expect everything to tie up neatly by the last page. To be continued, as they say.

Meanwhile, there's also a new hero working the streets of Gotham, the mysterious Baphomet, and I'll let you meet him on your own terms. Suffice it to say, he has a lot to do with Batman's recent good spirits.

Smith also writes good supporting characters here, primarily the former Robin, Dick Grayson, and the current sidekick, Tim Drake. Selina, too, makes a few heart-wrenching appearances.

Also stepping up his game is Flanagan, who was soundly criticized by many readers for his mediocre work in Cacophony. Nothing mediocre here, folks. The dude's been practicing.

The bad news is, the second book in the series isn't on the shelves just yet. I'll be waiting.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

On being an inker

I know this is a little off what I normally post on here, but I was inspired when I started writing a piece for my other blog, RPG4EVR, which is centered around my years as a role player. I wrote about my experiences trying to get into the comic book industry as a writer and how I used role playing games to help with that. It's entitled Comics & RPG's: A Mingling of Interests, I invite you to take a read.

I don't remember the actual year, but the first comic book show I went to in my hometown of Salem, Oregon was a pivotal moment for me. I had faced the rejection as a writer and didn't know where to turn my attention next. That's when I met Randy Emberlin.

Some of you may have heard of Randy. He's been around for several years. My first introduction (unknowingly at first) to Randy's work was in Amazing Spider-Man. When I looked through my collection to find books for him to sign, I found that he was the inker for the original storyline of the character Carnage. I love both Carnage and Venom, so I brought my copy of the Carnage trade for him to sign. When I realized that he wasn't the primary force for the art but rather the subtle background man, I thought that I could perhaps also do that.

When I was a child in elementary and middle school, I had traced my fair share of pictures out of various "How to Draw" books available from the school library. I never had the talent to draw my own characters, but I was able to stay in the lines and add definition to original penciled work.

In 2000, I joined a group known as Purple Comics Studios. The originator of this studio was based out of the United Kingdom, even though the bulk of the artists and writers were from the United States. I did some inking and designed the website for Purple Comics until they folded after about a year. Here's some of my work from them:

I don't remember the title for the fantasy series, but the title for the series that looks more modern was "Bad Girls, Inc." I had no say on the title and I couldn't tell you what the story was, I was just glad to be a part of a group that was working towards publication.

As you can probably assume, none of these titles were published.
Not my best work, but I did what I could from what I was given. After this, I started looking else where for things I could work on. I came across an online community where people shared their comic artwork. There were many there that created unfinished, penciled art for people like myself to print and use to practice their inking skills. This community was called Comix Matrix. This was before I learned about places like deviantArt. I picked-up the following pieces from Comix Matrix and worked on them:

This is one of my favorites. She has a Tomb Raider look to her.

I also decided to use some of the hundreds of fonts I have collected to design my signatures. Might as well get some use out of them. Maybe I'll try my hand at lettering next.



My next step, and what I've been working on lately, is to work off of hi-res scans of professional sequential pages and covers. Here are a couple that I have scanned that I am most proud of:

This one is the cover for Ripclaw #2 from Image. I loved working on this so much, I actually purchased the actual comic for comparison. I'm happy with my work.
This is from X-Force #100 from Marvel. One of these days, I'll probably find and buy this issue for comparison.

Sorry for all the unused negative space. It didn't want to format friendly.

Sunday, December 2, 2012


Title: Ultimatum

ISBN: 9780785133001
Price: $24.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2009
Artist: David Finch
Writer: Jeph Loeb
Collects: Ultimatum #1-5

Rating: 1/5

Billed as a miniseries in which big things happen, Marvel is hyping the final installment as a "series finale that will shock fans for years to come!" True enough of the first four issues. But, is shock, minus any significant characterization, worth the hefty price tag?

The afore-mentioned shock is partially due to an evil mutant (The Blob) cannibalizing a member of the Avengers (The Wasp), with her death being "avenged" by her husband (Yellow Jacket) when he bites the Blob's head off… Literally. And, though fans may justifiably expect to see Sabretooth (another evil mutant) rip a wing off of Angel (an X-Man) with his teeth, or Magneto snap the neck of X-Men founder Charles Xavier, what was the point of Dr. Strange being squeezed until his head exploded? This is not just shock, but schlock.

Far from being meaningful, the deaths of characters with such history behind them seem much smaller than they should be the fact that it took place in Marvel's much younger Ultimate universe, notwithstanding.

There are more deaths, caused by world-wide disasters engineered by Magneto, but it all feels forced.

The only good thing about the series is the incredibly detailed art of David Finch. His work crackling with energy and emotion, Finch could one day become a master of comic book art ... IF he can learn to be a bit faster, and tone down the super-model quotient among his female characters.

Ultimatum is only recommended for the most hardcore Marvel-head, and only if you may suffer heart, kidney or nerve damage if you DON'T get it. It's the cheapest form of prevention.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Walking Dead Volume 14: No Way Out

Title: The Walking Dead Volume 14: No Way Out

ISBN: 9781607063926
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2011
Artist: Charlie Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: The Walking Dead #79-84

Rating: 4/5

The safety of the community comes under the worst kind of threat when shots are fired which attract a herd of zombies up against wall that suddenly don’t seem as sturdy as everyone thought. When a section of wall collapses the outside world makes its presence known in the way that only a herd of zombies possibly can. Something has to be done, and someone must take charge, but how can this happen when stepping outside your front door means certain death? Rick must step up to the plate but when the bullets start flying again will he have what it takes...?

If things felt a little flat in Volume 12, and Volume Thirteen was all about setting things up for the main event, ‘No Way Out’ balances everything in some style. Kirkman promised us something big and he delivers on a scale like you won’t have seen since the big showdown in the prison.

The buildup is evenly paced and balanced nicely so that the payoff hits just the right note of adrenalin and fear. No-one is safe and this is a lesson you find yourself learning along with the rest of the cast. Things are fast paced and frantic as always and you can’t help but get caught up in what could be the death of one man’s dream. Death by zombie appears to be a fate reserved for the lower key members of both Rick’s group, and the community at large, and you could argue that Kirkman is afraid to go that extra mile here (despite the fact that he’s done it before) and really stick the knife into a character that you’ve grown to care about. I can see why you’d think that, I was thinking the same kind of thing myself in the earlier stages of the book. And then...

Robert Kirkman has had several volumes now to get us all used to the idea that he is the man to come to when you’re after really getting to know a character and then seeing them eaten alive in front of your eyes. He takes a slightly different tack here; there’s still plenty of bloodshed to contend with but this time he takes you right inside Rick’s head and gives you a ringside seat while he proceeds to really mess things up.

Rick has a really hard choice to make and only a matter of seconds to make it in. You’ve got to feel for the guy but the bottom line is that you know it’s a decision that Rick will make in a heartbeat. What happens just after that though...? I can’t give it away as you really have to see this one for yourself and experience not only your feelings but what Rick goes through in the aftermath. I sat there and just stared at the pages for what seemed like hours; I literally couldn’t look away and all credit to Kirkman and Adlard for delivering one scene that makes the entire book. In my last review I wondered if Adlard was growing complacent with this gig; I totally take that back now.

Lessons are learned but you can’t help but wonder if these have been learned too late on a number of levels. That uncertainty is only part of what will have me back for Volume 15 and beyond. What Kirkman and Adlard do in ‘No Way Out’ isn’t far off masterful, words fail me at what this book did to me while I was reading it.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

G.I. Joe: Future Noir

Title: G.I. Joe: Future Noir

ISBN: 9781600108655
Price: $12.99
Publisher/Year: IDW, 2011
Artist: Giacomo Bevilacqua
Writer: Andy Schmidt
Collects: G.I. Joe: Future Noir  #1-2

Rating: 2.5/5

If you follow comics or even just G.I. Joe, you’re likely aware that IDW Publishing has been holding the comic license for Hasbro's long-standing toy-line for a few years now. In that time, they have not only published several new Joe titles of their own, but they also continued where the Marvel's fan-favorite series left off. Future Noir is represents the former as it is Hasbro and IDW’s effort to introduce the highly trained special mission force into the realm of manga.

The Joe team for this tale has Duke leading Roadblock, Scarlett, Sci-Fi, and Helix while General Hawk is hanging out at headquarters. The silent ninja, Snake Eyes, is not a member of this Joe team. However, he does leave his mark in several panels. He is accompanied by the Hard Master and the rest of the Arashikage Clan.

Some of the more interesting changes deal with Sci-Fi. His natural legs are gone, although he does possess a set of legs to attach to his lower torso. At one point, he attaches to wheel to move around on. He also seems to possess some sort of visual transformation that allows him to examine a specimen he finds. The details of this are not explained, so the reader is left to believe that he was a victim of Cobra’s malevolent plan.

The story takes place in Japan as our small unit of Joes takes on the Cobra organization headed by King Cobra. Cobra had been killing then abducting people and sacrificing them to serpent gods. The plot sort of drags as the team investigates Cobra’s evil plans. Fans will recognize a small subplot as Serpentor shows up later and takes over as leader. However, this takes place much too late in the book to have any effect and appears to only tease readers for another story that won’t be happening.

If you are looking for some of that Joe vs. Cobra action we’ve all loved over the years, you won’t find it here. After the initial shoot-out with “insurgents” as they were called, most of the action from there involves the team battling some of Cobra’s monstrous creations. One of those fights has them engaging a giant snake in the middle of the city.

King Cobra, or Cobra Commander if you choose, is not without his followers as he has a loyal legion of Vipers. They all have a uniform look (as they should) consisting of bald heads and long jackets. The evil entity isn’t short on star power either with Baroness and Dr. Mindbender getting in on the action. Nemesis Enforcer, who made his debut in the 1987 Joe movie, makes a surprising appearance here.

The G.I. Joe franchise has maintained its large fan-base over the years due to several reasons, one of which is the extensive roster the team has built. But, as many readers would likely prefer, a smaller group of characters prevents a story from becoming too packed and unfocused. With a smaller group, you can explore their personalities better than with a larger squad. However, you really won’t get that too much here. But we do get a glimpse at several connections between members of the team.

This edition of Future Noir collects the two volumes, previously published individually, into one book. Andy Schmidt handled the writing duties and Giacomo Bevilacqua took care of the art. Robbie Robbins and Dave Sharpe lettered this Joe tale. Upon handling the book, you’ll notice it doesn't read as manga typically do. It reads in the more Eastern fashion of left to right. My guess would be the creators decided against the standard presentation to entice Joe fans to read manga, but maintained the visual style in hope that manga fans would try an American property. The latter group will be right at home as Bevilacqua’s style matches that which manga fans have appreciated.

I picked this up because I have been a longtime G.I. Joe fan and was curious about it receiving the manga touch. I wasn’t feeling the story at all and would not recommend this book. I am quite sure my love for the franchise is what carried me through this story.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

X-Force/Cable: Messiah War

Title: X-Force/Cable: Messiah War

ISBN: 9780785131571
Price: $39.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2009
Artist: Mike Choi, Sonia Oback, Ariel Olivetti, Clayton Crain
Writer: Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, Duane Swierczynski
Collects: The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop #1-3, X-Force/Cable: Messiah War one-shot, Cable #13-15, X-Force #14-16, X-Men: Future History - The Messiah War Sourcebook

Rating: 3.5/5

The first question is always “what happens?” Maybe this is where Messiah War is lacking, because it can be summed up too easily. Bishop teams up with Stryfe to kill Cable and Hope. That’s kind of it. Of course, Bishop doesn’t tell Stryfe about Hope or how important she is—good or evil. To gain Stryfe’s allegiance, Bishop tracks down a weakened Apocalypse and helps Stryfe kill his father…or maker. Meanwhile, Cyclops is freaking out and has Beast make time machines for X-Force so that they can go the future, retrieve Cable, and bury Bishop six feet under. When X-Force arrive in the future, they find themselves trapped in a time net…thing. There seems to be a lot going on for a seven issue story, but the one criticism I do have on the series is that it’s about one issue too long. There’s a bit of padding early in the story, especially dealing with Deadpool.

Which brings us to the writers. This goes for all three—their writing in the second half of the crossover is much stronger than the first. The consistency that was so strong in Messiah Complex got off to a rough start in War (yet there will still be a worse example) as Swierczysnki didn’t seem to understand Kyle and Yost’s style, and vice versa. By the fourth chapter, however, they begin to move as one, and for the rest of the story, that unity of storytelling is much stronger. We also get into the heads of the characters a lot more than we did in Complex or we will in Second Coming. Our three scribes move between Cable, Bishop, Stryfe, Archangel, and finally Apocalypse (though only Kyle and Yost write from his point of view, sadly) in a way that doesn’t feel unnatural. What hurts the writing most, early on, was the need to recap the events of Messiah Complex and Cable for the reader. And Kyle and Yost, who wrote the first chapter, actually take a while to do this—again, stretching time. It makes sense that they would, considering that a lot of the readers coming on would be new ones wanting the sequel to Complex, but it was a bit much.

On art, we have three of my personal favorites. Choi and Oback give us the first chapter.  There are literally a dozen examples of how great their art is, but for me, the spot that does it most is after Laura, X23, meets Hope and takes off her mask. Hope, at this point, is about 9 or 10 years old and seeing these people running around in grey and black, with masks that have red eyes. Yet when Laura takes off her mask, Hope—and the reader—see just how young Laura is. Choi and Oback capture this in such a magnificent way. X23 is really just a child who was never allowed youth or innocence. As much as Cable protects her and provides for her, is Hope that much different? By the age of ten, she had already had to survive one apocalypse (the roach people…one of the more bizarre stories to have come out of Cable),  she has about the same odds of turning into a normal teenage girl as Laura had—maybe slightly better since Laura did have all that mind control stuff. But it’s a marginal line. And yes, all of this brought on from one panel. Crain (X-Force) and Olivetti (Cable) provide art for the rest of the series. Their two very different styles can sometimes clash, but the uniqueness of each actually help. Being a shorter crossover, there is more room for variation in art than in a 13 or 14 issue crossover that hinges on being able to connect each chapter. Both artists have some amazing work in this series, especially when it comes to Apocalypse. They draw the character in much different styles, but both provide the most menacing interpretations of the character (when he gets his strength back. The downside is that Crain was certainly rushed to finish, and some of his art in the last issue and a half show it. Yet when it counts, he brings it well. In the last chapter, the full page of Apocalypse and Archangel is without a doubt one of the most breathtaking images in the entire series.

So, back to the story. Messiah War can easily be compared to The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. In the grand scheme of things, was the story of Saruman and the Uruk-Hai actually needed to tell the story of Frodo and the Ring? Sauron was already an extremely powerful foe, why throw in Rohan and Ents and all of that? Meat. Sweet, succulent story meat. That’s a lot of what Messiah War is—meat to the trilogy. But besides meat, there are actually more subtle—but important—aspects to this story, especially for how it works in the trilogy. Get ready for a lot of symbolism and literary criticism, folks, because that’s what Messiah War is truly asking for.

Let’s get the obvious thing out of the way. Hope, that baby from Messiah Complex hiding out in the future with Cable, is heavily tied to biblical themes. As Deadpool says, she’s the “little annoying Messiah Child.” When you’re throwing around phrases like “Messiah” and “Second Coming,” it’s a necessity to dig more into that connection. Because of this, the inclusion of Apocalypse, one of the most Christian mythology inspired characters, is essential to the story of Hope, the Messiah. Hope is literally growing up in the end times, but to actually face the embodiment of Apocalypse is quite another thing. Yet, she is ten years old, after all, and she doesn’t actually fight the big bad (though, now that Hope is an adult and Apocalypse is the main villain in Uncanny X-Force, a Hope vs Apocalypse story is a possibility and would certainly be a badass moment in X-Men history if done right).  In fact, Apocalypse is somewhat a good guy in this story…which says something about Bishop. When the most evil mutant to have ever existed is less evil than you, Bishop, you’ve lost your mind. Hell, even Stryfe was shocked by Bishop’s craziness. Anyway, back to Hope and A-Poc. What does it say that in the end, neither Cable nor X-Force could save Hope, but Apocalypse and his horseman of death had to instead?

Loss of innocence.  In the fourth chapter of Messiah War, Swierczynski shows Hope’s innocence right before it’s crushed. Hope is trapped in a force field by Stryfe and looking up at the guy who just beat the crap out of Cable and X-Force. Bishop uses the opportunity to finally kill her, and releases a nanite cloud to distract Stryfe. When the force field breaks and Stryfe keels over, the first thing Hope does is reach out to him and ask if he’s okay. This is last time we will see an innocent Hope.  Messiah War is the story where Hope loses that belief that Cable will always be there for her, that there is clear good and clear evil, and that the X-Men are some angelic force watching over her. Her first meeting with the X-Men should have been a joyous occasion, or she would have probably believed.  Instead she is greeted by all six of Wolverine’s claws. Instead of seeing her father relieved to see X-Force, he’s troubled and a little more than pissed off.  Even worse, with an entire team there to “protect” her, she still gets captured by Stryfe, watches as Warpath is tortured, and witnesses Stryfe completely kick X-Force’s collective ass three times. Suddenly that notion of “these people will keep me safe” isn’t ringing as true anymore. There’s also the inclusion of Stryfe himself, a clone of Cable. Stryfe tries to use Hope as a host body, and as noted before, tortures Warpath with a lot of joy in from of the little girl. When Hope finally sees Stryfe’s face, she is rightfully confused. She’s thinks it’s her father coming to save her and pretending to be the bad guy. Of course, it isn’t long until she figures out that Stryfe is most definitely not Cable, but the psychological damage has been done. She has now seen an evil version of her father, and much of Cable after this series shows Hope at odds with Cable. Teenage rebellion is bad enough, but having to look at the same face as the guy who was going to kill and possess you? Well, it might add a bit of fuel to that fire.

Yet, while her meeting with the X-Men—even though X23 tells her they are not X-Men—wasn’t the best she could have hoped for, it still made them real people and not stories Cable would tell her to keep her spirits up. This was her reference point to the X-Men. Now she knows that yes, there are a lot of people who want to keep her safe and are willing to die for her. She might be nine years old, but she understands that now. This will be even more important in Second Coming, when quite a few people die for her. It also showed her that there is another time, another place, where they could go where they don’t have to eat fried rats or boil their water to drink it. And it’s a place where she could have friends (sure, she finds her first love in the next Cable arc, but she’s still in hiding and can only talk to him) like Laura and Elixir, the two youngest X-Force members whom, along with James, she calls out for right before pushing away from Cable mid time-jump (that was unwise). The meeting with X-Force created a fantasy world for her of what the present day would be like, another important aspect that comes up in Second Coming.

And then there’s the ending. Cable and Hope become separated in time, and the X-Force are left having to complete the mission that Cyclops literally ripped them from. In the beginning of the crossover, when they arrive in the future, X23 marks a big X on a scrap piece of metal, marking where they landed. At the end, the entire team—exposed to the future for too long (Beast and the X-club had to make these time machines in a short amount of time, and they were imperfect, giving X-Force only 20-something hours to complete their mission…they go over this limit by a lot) are dying. It ends with X23 crawling to that mark, to return to the present at exactly the right spot to complete the mission. Endangered Species ended with the burial of a mutant-kind; Messiah Complex ended with the death of a dream; Messiah War ends with the fact that the X-Men must continue to struggle, but more importantly, to fight on. This is the closest thing to hope that they’re going to get for now.

A few more notes before I wrap up. First is the set itself. The hardcover is 39.99…and the crossover is only 7 issues. Granted, it also includes The Times and Life of Lucas Bishop as well as Wasteland Blues, the two issues of Cable that took place before Messiah War. Those two issues are worth having. It’s a good story and this is a great place for it. It’s the first time we actually get into Hope’s head, as Cable is passed out from dehydration. Times and Life…sure, this might justify the price, but it’s nothing but a three issue mini to recap Bishop’s life and, worst of all, it’s some of the most appalling art I have ever seen in comics. Ever. Every character looks more like an amorphous blob and it’s not the first time I’ve used that criticism for this artist. He did the same thing in Peter David’s X-Factor for a couple of issues. I don’t even want to name him, it’s so bad.

And despite that I like Swiercynski’s work (he seems to be a writer people appreciate in retrospect), I think he missed a big opportunity. The last we see of Apocalypse and Styfe is Apocalypse turning his “mistake,” as he calls Stryfe, into his new host body. The only place we could have followed up on this is in Cable, being that it was in this specific timeline. Yet two years into the future, there is no mention of Apocalypse at all. He could have been a new major villain in Cable, besides Bishop. Apocalypse did tell Cable that he would one day return for Hope. If only we actually got that story.

But that’s just a small complaint. Messiah War, though not as good as Messiah Complex, is still a great crossover  for all of its character and crisis development. And next week is the end of the trilogy, Second Coming. Will it live up to Messiah Complex, simply be on par with Messiah War, or will it crash and burn? We’ll find out soon!

Sunday, November 4, 2012

The Walking Dead Volume 13: Too Far Gone

Title: The Walking Dead Volume 13: Too Far Gone

ISBN: 9781607063292
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2010
Artist: Charlie Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: The Walking Dead #73-78

Rating: 4/5

Rick and his band of survivors have settled into community life but some things still don’t feel quite right, whether it’s the fear of going back outside the walls (there’s work to do out there) or the fact that certain residents either have dark secrets or are helping others to keep theirs.

Rick sees the community as perhaps the best chance anyone has to live a halfway normal life in this new world; the question is what he is prepared to do in order to maintain things... Rick used to keep the law as a police officer, now it looks like he might be taking it into his own hands, will anyone stand against him?

Yet again, Kirkman had me thinking in one direction only to turn things round and really hit me with stuff straight out of left field. Rick has been slowly going off the rails for a little while now (and who could blame him really?) , and I thought this was going to culminate in his becoming the one man who has caused him the most pain up to now. Who knows, this could still happen but not just yet. Kirkman’s ‘man on the edge’ is still clinging on despite a growing tendency to lose it in the most violent ways and it’s going to be very interesting to see if he still keeps trying to do the right thing as the series progresses further. It could still go either way but what we have in the meantime is a well fleshed out character whose decisions cannot help but reverberate in the community around him.

It’s not just Rick either, it’s very interesting to see how the others react to life in relative safety and Kirkman cleverly swaps things around so that there’s a fresh slant on people that you think you know well by now. You really get the impression that people had to dig deep and be people other than who they really were during their time in the wilderness and this becomes a fresh way of looking at established characters. People whom you thought would be cool with stepping outside those gates would suddenly much rather be safe behind closed doors...

If this wasn’t enough, we finally get to find out what’s been going on behind some of the closed doors in the community. The big confrontation was perhaps signposted a little too clearly, in Volume 12, to be a surprise but you can’t deny the power that goes with it. Kirkman does moments like these only too well and he’s on form again here with a couple of moments that made me gasp at what was happening. Special mention has to go to Charlie Adlard for showcasing the sheer intensity of physical confrontation with using any color in the artwork at all. That lack of color seems to push the aggression to the surface even more.

While Rick is finding his place in the community, events are happening outside that  will not only solidify his position but also hint at something huge happening in Volume 14. It’s going to be just like the prison all over again but this time with an entire city full of zombies...Kirkman knows when to leave people hanging and now I cannot wait to crack on with the story; this could be the moment when Rick falls one way or the other.

I deliberately haven’t said a lot about Charlie Adlard’s art because; well... what can I say that hasn’t been said already. Adlard has made art duties, for ‘The Walking Dead’, completely his own and you just can’t see that changing. That could be why some of the larger panels are missing a little detail, complacency or is that just common practice? I don’t know...

‘Too Far Gone’ bumps things back onto track nicely just when I was wondering what would come next and has whetted my appetite nicely for Volume 14. The long wait begins again but at least it begins on a better note than last time round...

Thursday, November 1, 2012

3rd year!

Another year has gone by, and I have yet to run out of reviews. In 2012, I found a cache of old trades that I had stored in my parent's attic, changed-up the look and feel of the site, and we now have a dedicated domain; ZANZIBER.COM. Oh, and let's not forget that I've finally joined Twitter this year. You can follow me at @ZanziberPOV.

As I've posted before, there is a simple way to support this blog. I have an affiliate membership through Lone Star Comics. If you click on the link (located below) and make a purchase, I will receive a % of your purchase as store credit. This is the closest thing I have to a sponsor right now. A special shout-out to my LCS, Tony's Kingdom of Comics, Tony is the best "comic book guy" in the local area.

I recently became aware of a list of banned comics. I think that this year I will make it a priority to read and review as many from this list as I can. Oddly enough, I have already read and reviewed some on the list. I invite you to do the same.

I appreciate those of you who follow my reviews and those who have helped by making purchases through my affiliate link. I hope that the coming year provides as much fruit as the past years offered.

Here's to another year of reviews. Enjoy and thank you for your continued support.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Title: Crisis on Infinite Earths

ISBN: 1563897504
Price: $29.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2000
Artist: George Perez
Writer: Marv Wolfman
Collects: Crisis on Infinite Earths #1-12

Rating: 3/5

Most fans have at least heard of DC Comics' Crisis on Infinite Earths, the maxi-series that reinvented the "reality" of the oldest consistently publishing comic book company. At long last (well, at the tail end of 2000) DC released the epic in a trade paperback for those who missed it either in its original serialized format, or in its pricey hardcover version.

I had never read the series. In 1985 comics were getting pricey (I had no idea just how pricey they'd become, of course) and the great reads seemed few and farther between. When DC announced it was overhauling its line with Crisis, I decided it was time for me to go, too. Eventually I fell back into reading comics and inevitably my curiosity led me to reading Crisis on Infinite Earths. I mention all this just to put my opinion in perspective -- I read it 16 years after the fact.

The story has a mysterious villain destroying whole universes, whittling away at DC's multiverse -- wherein earths existed in parallel dimensions, each with its own superheroes. An enigmatic, omnipotent being, Monitor, is determined to preserve as many of the universes as possible and gathers together heroes from various universes to help. Eventually the heroes triumph, but the end result is that reality has been remade as a single universe where all the characters either co-exist...or no longer exist.

Crisis was, obviously, an awesome undertaking, a story that attempted to throw in almost every character in the DC catalogue. There probably isn't another artist who could have handled the task as well as George Perez -- certainly not who was working at the time. He crams each page with tiny panels and crams the panels with little details and finely drawn, impeccable figure work, all laid out with edgy panel composition. For pure quantity, you get your money's worth. Writer Marv Wolfman holds up his end by providing lots of dialogue. Sometimes the panels are so small and the dialogue so much that letterer John Constanza has to spill word balloons into neighboring panels. It's a 12 issue series that, in other hands, probably would've been 24 issues.

Is Crisis a good read? Well, yes.

It's a big spectacle that can be fun just for the sheer number of characters, featuring (literally) an earth-shattering menace, and buoyed by Perez's art, aided by inkers Dick Giordano, Mike DeCarlo, and, mainly, Jerry Ordway (an overwhelming inker, admittedly -- sometimes you can find yourself forgetting it's Perez's pencils underneath Ordway's inks). For older readers, the story evokes all those old Justice League/Justice Society team ups that were an annual event in the Justice League of America comics throughout the '60s, '70s and early '80s.

Is Crisis a great read? Well, no.

There are too many characters. Admittedly that's the point: to squeeze everyone in. Almost everyone gets a line, true, but very few get a lot of lines, or very good lines (even A-list heroes like Batman and Wonder Woman have just bit parts). The plot unfolds a little too linearly -- despite the fact that it leaps around from the far future to the distant past, jumping from reality to reality. Wolfman basically comes up with his premise...then sticks with it for 350 pages. There are some questions that keep us turning pages (who is Pariah? what is the Monitor's plan? etc.) but considering the saga's size, unexpected plot turns are few. There's repetition, particularly in the first half, with too few moments that gel into memorable scenes in and of themselves. The "action" tends to be a lot of scenes of mass fisticuffs.

The use of the god-like Monitor, and some subsequent characters, helps push the story along, but it reduces the familiar heroes too often to being kind of unthinking props who just go where they're told. Considering this was the swan song for some of the characters, it's disappointing. Wolfman also introduces brand new characters, spotlighting them sometimes at the expense of the established heroes. The irony is that most of the original characters introduced have long since faded into obscurity!

The saga is better in the last half than the first, and a couple of double-sized issues (#7 and the concluding #12) stand out, the greater pages allowing Wolfman and Perez to shape more well-rounded chapters.

There are technical lapses, as is probably unavoidable when dealing with the warping of time and space and reality -- spots where you find yourself going, "hey, that don't make sense", or where Wolfman glosses over plot points. And at one point Captain Marvel Jr. refers to Mary Marvel as his "sister" and the Golden Age Superman is more powerful than I remembered. And since this was a "crossover" epic -- one of the first -- there are a few annoying spots where characters wander off and we're advised that their adventure continues, not in the next issue of Crisis, but some other comic entirely.

In the annals of mass slaughter depicted in comics, the hundreds of billions cavalierly wiped out in Crisis is unmatched. To make matters worse, it was not done out of any artistic desire, or to tell a great story, but simply because DC Comics wanted to clean house. I don't want to get too metaphysical, but when the heroes rage against the villain it's hard to get swept up in their indignation. After all, he didn't kill billions...Marv Wolfman did. Likewise, in the series’ most notorious twists -- the deaths of the original Supergirl and the Silver Age Flash (not to mention Dove, Lori Lemaris, Aquagirl, the earth 2 Huntress, and so on) -- there's some of the same ambivalence. It's hard to be entirely moved because it was an editorial more than an artistic decision. Supergirl and the Flash evince an atypical ruthlessness in their last moments, too, which is curious.

Admittedly, all that's from the perspective of reading it years later, when all of this is ancient history. At the time, it might have been more powerful.

There's a little too much of the "Iconanism" that seems to have become prevalent in comics. Where the Marvel Age was all about emphasizing a superhero's humanity, the modern Iconic Age (as I think of it) is more about Wagnerian chest beating, defining superheroes by their being superheroes. Even when Wolfman tries to squeeze in character bits, it's mainly characters reflecting on superheroism. If I read one more character musing what a "true hero" another character was, I was liable to throw the comic across the room. When Supergirl dies, we're treated to a half page eulogy delivered by Batgirl at her funeral -- it's heavy handed, it's expository, it's...Iconic! Far more affecting is a later, understated scene where Brainiac 5 is embittered because of Supergirl's death.

With that being said, #7 (with Supergirl's death) and #8 (Flash's death) are among the better stand-alone issues -- not because of the deaths, but the stories are more focused. Wolfman also shows an unusual sensitivity for continuity by having the Golden Age Superman -- the hero that largely begat the DC Comics empire in 1938 -- take a pivotal role in the climax.

The series was intended to redefine and clarify the DC Universe -- it did neither. Even how the series ends (with the heroes remembering the pre-Crisis) was instantly contradicted by the regular comics (where even Supergirl went unremembered -- this despite Superman vowing to "miss her forever"). Once DC opened the door to "redefining" its universe, new editorial regimes have done so at least twice, so that even hardcore fans aren't really sure what is, or is not, continuity. There's also an uncomfortable tendency to brow beat. Knowing what they were doing was bound to be controversial, Wolfman has the only character who bemoans the changes be a raving lunatic in an asylum. A not-very-subtle way for Wolfman to get in a pre-emptive swipe at his critics.

Crisis is arguably more craftsmanship than it is art, though it may well be as good a version of the story as was possible given the parameters. Is it the classic it is heralded as? Not really. It's a bit draggy in spots and I can think of similar stories, both after and before, that were as good or better. But it's still an enjoyable epic that reminds you when DC Comics' reality was an interesting, diverse place to be.