Sunday, July 28, 2013

Ultimate Daredevil & Elektra Vol. 1

Title: Ultimate Daredevil & Elektra Vol. 1

ISBN: 0785110763
Price: $11.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2003
Artist: Salvador Larroca, Joe Quesada
Writer: Greg Rucka, David Mack
Collects: Ultimate Daredevil & Elektra #1-4, Daredevil #9

Rating: 3/5

Elektra Natchios is 17 and arriving at Colombia University for her freshman year of college. Her father is a businessman who owns a small dry cleaning chain in Queens; her mother died of breast cancer when she was young. Elektra's a normal girl in all but one respect: she's been extensively trained in martial arts, and she can defend herself quite well if need be--which is a good thing, considering the events of the year to come.

There's good and there's bad: good, she hits it off with Phoebe, her roommate, and a fellow student, Melissa. Bad, Melissa has attracted the negative attention of Calvin Langstrom the Third, known around campus as "Trey." Good, Elektra's set her sights on Matt Murdock, an attractive pre-law student whose physical abilities rival her own, and who also happens to be blind. Bad... Trey rapes Melissa. Even more bad: the police won't take action, due to Trey's family's status. Elektra might have to take matters into her own hands--except that Matt, who has a secret or two of his own, might not let her get away with it.

I really like the conceit behind Ultimate Marvel--younger, more contemporary reimagining’s of Marvel heroes and heroines. This is my first acquaintance with the line, and I'm definitely curious now to try more--I like that the line reworks characters and storylines from the originals and doesn't try to confuse new readers with the complex history of the original imprint. I know just enough of the original Daredevil and Elektra characters to make sense of what's been changed here: Elektra's family is more middle-class, rather than rich; Elektra's mother's death was pinned down to a specific cause rather than left negligible; Matt and Elektra meet in college, instead of when they're older. I liked this idea of Matt and Elektra as college students: reading about kids my age, in an environment like the one I live in now, made this story easy to relate to, current, and compelling.

The art was really excellent; I think this is the most impressed I've been with any of the Marvel comics I've read so far. Sometimes Marvel women--even women like Aunt May!--look too much like supermodels for me to take them seriously, but Elektra, Phoebe, and Mel looked like normal girls, the type of girls I would see around my campus. Elektra's outfit was made into something more practical, the type of thing that a teenage girl--yes, even a teenage girl taking up secret vigilante work--would wear. Same with Matt's costume, although like many reviewers, yes, I did find it hard to believe that all Matt needed was a strip of cloth over his eyes and the top of his head to keep Elektra and others from realizing it was him.

Matt and Elektra's romance is intertwined with the vigilante subplot, and although it moves a bit too fast, I blame that on the arc only being four issues. The story skips ahead months at a time, at least in the beginning. It basically ends up being love after a few dates, which I'm never too fond of in fiction. But I liked their dynamic nonetheless. Matt tries desperately to keep Elektra from heading down the dark path of revenge and even murder. Elektra gets the feeling she doesn't know quite as much about him as she thought she did. Despite all the deceit and desperation, Matt and Elektra are still, when it comes down to it, a teenage couple--they get physical at some slightly inappropriate times, Elektra dishes with Phoebe once the date ends, and so on. The romance was fairly light compared to the darker themes of sexual crimes and dirty politics, and provided a nice contrast. I do think that the story could have been expanded and fleshed out--we don't get to see much of Matt outside his scenes with Elektra, and his backstory is left out entirely--but nonetheless, I enjoyed it. I'm looking forward to checking out the sequel, Ultimate Elektra: Devil's Due.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 2

Title: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 2

Rating: PG-13
MSRP: $19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-Ray
Production Company/Year: Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation, 2013
Director: Jay Oliva
Writer: Bob Goodman (Screenplay), Bob Kane (Characters), Frank Miller (Comic Book)

Rating: 4/5

The Dark Knight along with new sidekick Robin have finally reclaimed Gotham City and allowed a ray of hope to penetrate the reign of terror that The Mutants had cast upon his city. With Batman back in the spotlight the extended media coverage has awoken a far worse evil at Arkham Asylum the Joker! Forever destined to be mortal enemies The Joker has a diabolical scheme that may pull Batman down to the darkest levels of insanity. While on the horizon a global catastrophe races towards Gotham and with it comes a familiar face The Man of Steel though this time he has Batman in his sights. Witness as the aging Dark Knight wages a tireless war against crime while proving that courage and will are indeed timeless.

Taking up right where the last release left off, this one picks up in the wake of Batman’s defeat of the Mutant gang which terrorized Gotham citizens. Many of the youngsters have now taken to preying on criminals, often in a harsh and fatal manner, and calling themselves “The Sons of Batman.” The movie opens with Galaxy Communications President Lana Lang debating the virtues of Batman’s return on a live talk show, which is being viewed at Arkham Asylum by The Joker, who’s found a reason to smile after several years in a catatonic coma. Joker laments to his psychiatrist Dr. Wolper (Michael McKean) about not really having a chance to tell his side of the story regarding Batman, so the Doc decides to book Joker on the David Endocrine show.

Right about the same time, a ceremony takes place where Jim Gordon (David Selby) officially retires as police commissioner and passes the position to Ellen Yindel (Maria Canals-Barrera), who makes her first act to issue an arrest warrant for Batman on criminal charges. Meanwhile, in Washington DC, The President speaks to Superman (AKA Agent Kent) about bringing in Batman since all superhero activity is now banned in the U.S. Superman (Mark Valley) says he’ll do his best.

Eventually, Clark Kent meets up with Bruce Wayne to discuss Batman’s retirement, how and how someone will likely order Superman to finally take down Batman once and for all. Bruce simply says when that happens, “May the best man win.” Clark flies off as he’s called to help American forces fight Soviets invading the South American island called Corto Maltese.

A lot of things are set up here. If you’re a fan of the original graphic novel, you’ll likely enjoy this movie despite some of the changes. The Joker’s escape is handled in a rather shocking and creepy manner. TV host David Endocrine was originally done up as an obvious parody of David Letterman, but here he’s drawn more like Conan O’brien, who voices the role here. Michael Emerson (Person of Interest) does The Joker with a subtle nastiness. I know many of you will be likely comparing him to Mark Hamill’s performance over the years. Emerson sounds like a subdued killer clown (compared to Hamill’s rendition) who’s been wanting a reason to feel alive again and you see this in full during his battle with Batman. Peter Weller meanwhile, plays off him and everyone else well as Batman, who comes off nastier than ever even as Bruce Wayne. The only time his voice doesn’t quite perform well is during an address to The Sons of Batman at one point, but he’s still pretty good.

Another performance that’s fun to hear is Jim Meskimen as The U.S. President. If you read the comic, it’s rather obvious he’s drawn up to be a parody of President Reagan, and Meskimen plays this aspect up perfectly. It’s weird not to see this performance listed on, but he’s definitely a highlight here. Actually, everyone does pretty well here thanks to voice director Andrea Romano, but these voices were the ones who stood out most.

There’s also the overall direction here. I felt the pacing for Part Two (covering issues 3 & 4 of the comic series) wasn’t quite as good as for Part one, but the big events that are iconic to this story do play out with style. The eventual battle between Batman and Superman is truly epic. Director Jay Oliva takes advantage of the fact he’s got the two biggest heroes in comic history going  at it and he makes the most of this opportunity, making the action an all-out slugfest, more devastating than the comic could depict. In this and other action scenes, Oliva delivers handily.

So we come to the end of waiting for this mythos-changing series to be adapted. As with any other production, there are some changes but the story is still effective and worth purchasing. The DVD & Blu ray will contains some cool extras like a look at Batman and Superman’s relationship, and a decent selection of episodes from the Batman animated series. Very hapy to see this includes “Legends of The Dark Knight” which shows the first animated version of The Dark Knight Returns. There’s also a preview of Superman: Unbound which adapts a Geoff Johns / Gary Frank comic about Superman and Supergirl’s first encounter with Braniac.

To anyone who reads this wanting to see a complete ending to Batman’s career, you could read the comic or buy this movie (and the first part of course). Either way, you’re in for a pretty good time.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1

Title: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1

Rating: PG-13
MSRP: $19.98 DVD, $24.98 Blu-Ray
Production Company/Year: Warner Premiere, DC Entertainment, Warner Bros. Animation, 2012
Director: Jay Oliva
Writer: Bob Goodman (Screenplay), Bob Kane (Characters), Frank Miller (Comic Book)

Rating: 4/5

For my regular readers, you know that I don't generally offer reviews of movies. When I watched this, I couldn't help but express an opinion.

For a few decades, the character of Batman create by Bob Kane was seen as a gallant, crime fighting avenger and brilliant detective, ready to take down criminals across Gotham and keep citizens safe from the violence which claimed his parents’ lives. Along the way, the billionaire-turned-superhero became also seen as a big brother / father figure to young men such as Dick Grayson and Jason Todd, who also lost parents to violence and subsequently became Robin: The Boy Wonder who would help Batman and sometimes save him if need be.

In 1986, DC Comics released the 4 issue limited edition mini-series Batman: The Dark Knight Returns in a special prestige format. It wasn’t one you could pick up at the comic shops initially but instead available through mail order. After rocking the world of Marvel’s superhero Daredevil, writer-artist Frank Miller teamed with inker Klaus Janson and colorist Lynn Varley to tell the story of a burned out retired vigilante who lives in his large empty manor as a shell of a man who fears what the world has become and can’t get past the fact his first assistant no longer speaks to him, as he obsesses over the fate of his second. This depiction of Batman’s psyche at the end of his career gave fans and media a brand new darker perspective into what Bruce Wayne’s life would be like in a realistic world, deconstructing his status as a super hero much like Alan Moore would later write about similar characters in Watchmen.

The reaction from media and comic fans would prompt future writers to adapt the darker elements of the Batman mythos into their works, trending away from the somewhat optimistic view depicted in cartoons like The Super Friends or early 80s comics. Filmmakers Tim Burton and Christopher Nolan showed the influence of The Dark Knight Returns in their films as did animation producer Bruce Timm in Batman: The Animated Series. For over two decades, fans of this mini-series (later collected as graphic novel) would speculate could it ever be adapted fully as a movie (live or animated) and who could portray Batman faithfully.

This question has finally been answered with the release of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns – Part 1. This animated movie adapts materials from the first two issues of the min-series and starts with Bruce being somewhat suicidal, driving in a formula-1 race and nearly being killed in the process. He’s 55 years old, having been retired for ten years from being Batman, whom most kids don’t believe ever existed. Though it’s never stated exactly why, the retirement appears connected to the death of Jason Todd.
Meanwhile, Commissioner Jim Gordon is a few weeks from retirement and has to death with a particularly murderous street gang called The Mutants, led by the mysterious psychopath known simply as The Mutant Leader. Various news interviews move the story along as we see one of Batman’s most dangerous foes, Two-Face, finally getting surgery to repair his half-scarred face after years of treatment and ready to return to society as Harvey Dent.

Harvey’s near immediate disappearance following his first public press conference as a reformed man triggers a return to the cape and cowl that Bruce has been fighting off mentally for some time. He can’t hold back what’s been building within him, which in some ways mirrors Harvey’s struggle with his personal demon. A brutal thunderstorm sets the perfect atmosphere that night as folks begin to see crimes foiled by ‘a huge man dressed like Dracula’. Batman emerges to face this new world but even with his manhunter instincts, incredible arsenal and a new Robin (a young girl named Carrie Kelly) who joins him along the way, there is one enemy that may ultimately thwart his comeback… namely, time.

With so much regard given to the original comic, it was hard to imagine anyone doing an adaptation worthy of the material. Fortunately, Bruce Timm’s production team gave the reins to director Jay Oliva and the results are very good. He’d worked as storyboard artist on several of the WB’s DC Universe movies and directed Doctor Strange as well as one of the segments of (the underrated) Green Lantern: Emerald Knights, so he had some good experience heading into this. It seems though he took his overall animation and art style from the Spawn animated series from HBO in the 90s. Many scenes here (especially ones taking place in dark or nighttime settings) have similar movements to that show.

One element that was difficult to picture in animation was the comic art style of Miller and Janson, which had a lot of heavy details and sketch lines. For this piece though, character designer Jay Suzuki cleaned up the designs well, while retaining the unique look of Batman (who looks rather blocky and bigger than in most works) for this movie. Between Suzuki and Oliva’s efforts, the iconic imagery and mood of the comic is translated very well in this presentation. The 80’s style music by Christopher Drake combining electronic synthesizer pieces with hard rock backgrounds came handy as well, especially during the action scenes.

There are other considerations to discuss however, most notably the screenplay by Bob Goodman. In watching this movie, it occurred to me there was one element I’d taken for granted while reading the Dark knight Returns comics. Throughout much of the story, there are many internal monologues that provide entertaining insight to Batman’s methods. (Fans of the TV series Burn Notice may relate here when thinking of Michael Weston’s voiceovers.) Those monologues are not present here but are used for exposition to help describe events half the time; the other times they’re simply omitted and are missed initially. Likewise, the appearances of the U.S. President (who in the comic is drawn and written almost exactly like President Reagan) are also missed.

These absences were hardly noticed the second time I watched this movie though. The story still held up well and had a couple minor improvements such as extended confrontations between Batman and The Mutants as well as a tense scene with a despondent army general. Other cool bits include seeing Robin awkwardly try to help Batman at one point as well as seeing Bats trying to climb a rope after years of little practice. Also, it was good to see the action start off straightaway with no opening sequence. You know why you’re there; the movie knows why you’re there. No need for delay here. Compared to the very faithful but somewhat lifeless animated adaptation of Batman: Year One (based on yet another influential comic by Frank Miller), the screenplay makes very good changes necessary for a film.

Now we come to the voice acting. In an era when Kevin Conroy has (deservedly) become the most recognized and admired Batman voice actor for animation (and some live action) fans, and Bruce Greenwood is carving a niche for himself in portraying him in Under The Red Hood and Young Justice, how would screen actor Peter Weller fare behind the microphone? When the project was first announced, many were hoping Conroy would return or that perhaps actor Michael Ironside would reprise the role as he did when a segment of The Dark Knight Returns was adapted in an episode of the Batman Animated Series entitled ‘Legends of the Dark Knight.’

It might be best to compare Weller’s performance to Ironside since both did the most similar takes on Batman. Ironside was grizzled and no nonsense. Weller though is grizzled, cold and… creepy. He’s a bit monotone for Bruce but when Batman comes out he is truly frightening to listen to at times, because you know this old man is going to kick your butt and there’s probably very little you can do about it. This quality honestly makes him more perfect to portray Batman at this stage of his life, and as usual voice director Andrea Romano manages to bring these aural nuances out to impeccable quality. There’s also one amusing part where he calls out from the Batmobile through an electronic speaker and you’ll likely get a Robocop flashback, something I’m certain was not lost on this production team.

All in all, the movie is really good. I had trepidation going into this even with Warner Animation’s track record for delivering high quality comic-based releases. I do wish the extras were more substantial like they have been on other releases. The only ones worth mentioning here are the two-part episode of the Batman Animated series showing Two-Face’s origin and a brief set of clips and storyboards from The Dark Knight Returns Part 2. The rest of the extras are average at best. Still, the movie is the main point of this review and it was very enjoyable and worthy of recommendation to any Batman (or just plain action) fan.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Fairest: Wide Awake

Title: Fairest: Wide Awake

ISBN: 9781401235505
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2012
Artist: Phil Jimenez, Andy Lanning, Steve Sadowski, Mark Farmer, Andrew Pepoy, Shawn McManus
Writer: Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges
Collects: Fairest #1-7

Rating: 4/5

The whole Fablesverse is one that I truly do adore and love reading through and the opening issue to this series definitely captured my attention, especially since it didn’t even really have any of what you’d called the fairest in it for more than a panel or two. Thankfully, between the slick writing of Bill Willingham and the gorgeous art from Phil Jimenez, Fairest is able to pull it all off beautifully and give us a first volume that’s filled with stories, action, beauties and some great twists and turns that helps to build the larger lore, even as it comes off of quite a lot of existing material.

Fairest is actually in a bit of a difficult spot at first as it deals with some of the fallout from the end of the great war that ran through the Fables series. In this, we’re introduced to Ali Baba as he continues to do what he now does best in that thieving is his main focus. Fortunately or unfortunately for him, he’s thought that he found what he needs to score big in finding a magic lamp/bottle, but it turns out to just be a bottle imp inside named Jonah. And Jonah’s not the type to do wishes since that’s beyond his power. But what he does have is a lot of information gathering and knowledge skills, something that was highly useful during the war, but now he’s ended up stuck in Ali Baba’s service since he’s claimed the bottle. It’s an awkward relationship to be sure, especially since Jonah is all about stories and has a lot of modern American slang about him due to that being his field of study during the war.

But he’s also a conniving little imp that’s looking out for himself, something that you can say of anyone, but definitely more so of those that are magically restricted to being in service to others once freed. Jonah’s story may not seem like the main driver of the book, but it really is as he’s setting things in motion that will serve him the best. The first being that he sets Ali Baba up to acquire some real wealth in the midst of a goblin camp, which turns out to have two beautiful women that are magically asleep. True Love’s kiss and all is what’s needed to wake them and he’s more than game to do it, though they’re not quite the treasure he expected or really wanted. There’s a neat trick to this early stage that sets up a lot of things, but the main thrust is that he awakens not only Briar Rose, who served in a big way during the war against the enemy of Fabletown, but also the Snow Queen that had fallen with her during Rose’s particular attack. Suffice to say, there is no love lost between the two and their sleep time likely hasn’t changed that.

Which makes their post-revival period quite awkward, since the Snow Queen intends vengeance on her, has little care for Ali Baba and is only staved off by the quick work of Jonah as he gets all of them captured by the Snow Queen for several weeks. The structure is a little odd at times when it comes to the passage of time, but it allows for a leisurely experience in a way as Jonah begins to regal the Snow Queen with stories, something that we know from her past is what she truly lives for most of the time, before her being drawn into service of Gepetto in the war. Though some little nuggets are brought out here and there, the main story that we see told to her is that of Briar Rose herself, showing what happened to her as a newborn baby that caused so many of her problems in the years going on from there, which in turn offers us some of her history in a fresh and new light. I’ve always liked Rose from the main series and what we knew of her, but this tweaks the angle just slightly and really expand son it in a great way.

Her past is also what’s pretty important in the present, though the Snow Queen has little real interest in it. Revealing how the various Fairy Godmothers imbued her with so many special abilities, we also see the truth about how the slighted fairy, Hadeon the Destroyer, forced her into the situation and placed the real curse on Rose when she was but a babe. This expands on it all well and is a common refrain in the story that Jonah tells. And as we know from a lot of powerful magics in this universe, the more you name someone, the more they become aware of it. And Hadeon has not gotten nicer over the centuries, nor does she have anything positive to say about the Snow Queen with how she gave herself over to Gepetto’s service. It’s like seeing two very powerful and key people finally meet in full and go at it with all they have. It’s not played out fully on the page, but the moments are strong and it sets the tone well as we see just what Hadeon is capable of.

The first six issues of the book does a great job of telling the story that involves these characters, though as said, it feels more like Jonah’s story and a sendoff tale for Rose. But even as that goes on, everyone has strong stories throughout it and it’s very much an ensemble piece which helps. Bill Willingham continues to come across as someone who can write dialogue and scenes in this world with ease, providing it all with a great flow and engaging characters. And it’s all brought to more life in a fantastic way through Phil Jimenez’s artwork, which often feels like every panel should be a poster that deserves to be on a wall. The artwork in the Fables universe has always been great and varied, but Jimenez was the ideal person to kick off this series with and how he brings it all together. Be it men or women, everyone looks great and really has some striking moments while never feeling like it’s pure fan service or overt sexual poses.

Fairest had me intrigued with the first issue, but in reading the first story arc in full here it becomes apparent just how engaging and fascinating the storyline is. Rose may be the weaker of characters here overall in terms of story, but there’s a lot of exploration of her whole True Love’s angle that’s well done. Everyone has a storyline of importance here and they all blend together well into a narrative that compels you to move to the next page quickly, but with artwork that makes you linger over it as long as you can. With the conclusion of this arc, we also get a one shot story that’s fun, a Beauty and the Beast piece taking place in the 40′s, which shows that there should be some good standalone works in this series as well. There’s a lot to love here and even if future volumes pale in comparison, this is a must own piece right here.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Support Your LCS

Local Comic Shop (LCS)

In these times, many are turning to digital comics to read. Sure, these are often cheaper than what you could find in stores, but there are so many reasons now to turn entirely to digital:
  1. Buying from your LCS means supporting your community and small business owners. Yes, I know there are several bigger stores like Lone Star Comics (which, yes, I do support), Midtown Comics and Mile High Comics that have a brick and mortar store, but they also have a HUGE online presence. While I do not discourage going to these other less small business stores, I actively support the smaller businesses.
  2. Supporting you LCS also means helping out those who need it the most. There are some, like my LCS (Tony's Kingdom of Comics), that actively support local charities. I don't think that Comixology is holding FCBD events to help support your local food share or children's hospital.
  3. I don't think that digital comic retailers will have physical issues of comics for you to have your favorite writers or artists sign for your collection. This is another way to separate the readers from the collectors.
  4. At your LCS, you can have meaningful conversation when you go in to pick-up your comics. What do you get when you retrieve your digital comics? Download time.
  5. Customer service. I don't think I need to go into that.
  6. Diversity in selection of products. Yes, Comixology will have your latest issues available for purchase, but what if I want to find an issue you remember from your childhood that hasn't been brought to digital world? Also, perhaps you're also a collector of action figures, CCG cards, Heroclix or statues. Are you going to download those for your collection?
Don't get me wrong. I'm a big fan of computers and what they can do. I don't believe that you should put all your eggs (comics) in one basket (digital). Go find your LCS and buy some comics.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013


When I was first introduced to graphic novels and trades so many years ago, it was as a fortunate find in the local library. This started my hobby which turned into my obsession.

These days, there are not many graphic novels or trades on the shelves of the public library due to either lack of interest from those who hold the purse-strings, to the fact that they are a target item for people to steal. This means that there is a lack of these books available to those who are interested in reading, but may lack the necessary funds to purchase their own copies.

I was recently introduced to a new website that helped with this problem. Fangrabs

Much like the business model original developed by Netflix, Fangrabs allows you to rent and queue graphic novels and trades depending on how many you'd like to have out. And they have a very healthy inventory of titles to chose from.

While this service doesn't meet my personal needs (since I prefer to add to my collection), I feel that there are many people out there who could make some good use out of it.