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.