Sunday, August 25, 2013

Fables: Cubs in Toyland

Title: Fables: Cubs in Toyland

ISBN: 978140123761
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2013
Artist: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Gene Ha, Andrew Pepoy, Dan Green
Writer: Bill Willingham
Collects: Fables #114-123

Rating: 4/5

For those not familiar with Fables, the basic premise is that characters from fairy tales, fiction, nursery rhymes and the like really exist, originally in their own world, called the Homelands.  Eventually, due to the machinations of the Adversary, they were driven out of their native lands and settled in our world.

Things are not completely as we know them to be, as Willingham has manipulated things (fairly excellently) to incorporate separate tales into one big, intertwined, twisted, beautiful, creepy, funny story.  If it sounds like I’m gushing, it’s because I am.  Here’s a “for example”.  Snow White and the Big Bad Wolf (who can transform to human form and goes by Bigby) are married.  Bigby is the same wolf that appeared in both The Three Little Pigs and alongside Little Red Riding Hood.  So, yes, he can blow a mean gale-force wind.  Well, that’s because he’s the son of the North Wind, duh!  And, don’t worry that you’re going crazy, Snow White and Prince Charming were married, just like Disney told you.  But don’t forget that Charming also was with both Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella — that all holds true — he’s a philanderer and has been married (and subsequently divorced) to them all.

It doesn’t just stop there, though; the layers upon layers are just fantastic to watch be built.  If you’ve got a favorite character, chances are he/she/it has been in here.   And not just as a cameo — Willingham has an uncanny ability to give these characters are voice, even when they’re around for just a bit, you want to know more.  It’s not even just the characters.  Concepts — Arthurian legend, Super-heroics, The Fisher King — are sneakily attached to characters and story arcs.  In the Fables spin-off, Jack of Fables (centered around Jack, who is the same guy in all “Jack” stories, — Jack Horner, Jack and the Beanstalk, Jack Frost), we get the Literals, who are the embodiments of actual writing techniques — the Pathetic Fallacy, Deux ex Machina, the Genres — and somehow it all makes sense.  Fables is one of the consistent great books out there and if auteur theory is true, then Willingham fits the bill.

If you’ve been reading this and think, “Well, that sounds somewhat like that show Once Upon a Time!”, you’re not too far off.  Fables did at one point have a television pilot ordered, for which a script was written, at ABC.  Yup, that same studio that does Once Upon a Time.  Although Willingham has denied that there was any maliciousness, it’s hard to not see the inspiration.

This trade, collecting issues #114-123, encompasses two story arcs.  The titular story takes up the majority of the trade (#114-121) and is a bit of a character focused story, as compared with the big world evolving tales that happen every second to third arc.  These stories are probably more accessible and don’t require as much knowledge of the previous 100+ issues, but despite past successes, I always expect less excitement in these type of stories.  Add to that, this character arc deals with Snow and Bigby’s children who, despite some recent developments, have been more annoying than interesting.

The first part of the prophecy came true in the previous trade, as the eldest child, Winter, became the new North Wind.  This arc results in two more of the aforementioned prophecies occurring — I won’t spoil which ones (though there may be some debate as to which came true) — and they happen in a really touching way.  Therese, the shyest and most introverted of the cubs, starts out our journey after being given a boat as a gift at Christmas.  When she discovers that the boat can talk to her, they go off together on a trip to the far-away Toyland.

There, she encounters a broken-down world populated with broken-down toys, all proclaiming her as their new queen.  It’s slow moving, but for a purpose — Willingham is setting the mood for what starts off as a creepy, are-they-bad, type of story and changes into a redemption story.  It’s really well paced and, though the story takes place mostly in a place never seen before these issues, Willingham spends ample time developing the location and these new characters.

Okay, now a moment about Mark Buckingham’s art.  Just look at the one single page above.  He captures disgust and boredom in Therese’s face, details in the landscape, and horrific realism in these beat up, broken, discarded toys.  His work is also spectacular and complements the tone of this book.  Yes, it’s a story ultimately about fictional characters, people, animals, and otherwise, but his art is just the perfect amount of realism mixed with fantasy that this is all believable.  Buckingham also has been illustrating the side gutters since the start of the title, a little bonus in terms of the visuals, but it works to contain the setting and mood of the story.

The second arc of the trade, printed in issues #122 and 123, is titled The Destiny Game.  Right off the bat, the most striking difference is that the art is not by series regular Buckingham, but rather by Gene Ha of Top Ten fame.  It gives this story a completely different look, a bit darker (which is strange, given that The Destiny Game is not nearly as morbid as the Toyland story).  It’s a story told in the future, narrated by another one of the cubs, telling a bit more history about Bigby.  Not as interesting as the first part of the trade, but it works to add depth to the Fables framework.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Wolverine: The Origin

Title: Wolverine: The Origin

ISBN: 078510965X
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2002
Artist: Andy Kubert
Writer: Bill Jemas, Joe Quesada, Paul Jenkins
Collects: Wolverine: The Origin #1-6

Rating: 3.5/5

Wolverine was created by Len Wein in the pages of the Incredible Hulk; when Wein helped overhaul the X-Men in the late 1970s, he made the Canadian Wolverine one of the founding members of the new, multi-national team. Nowadays the X-Men franchise (with various spin-off titles) is the backbone of Marvel comics, and Wolverine has his own title, was heavily featured in the X-Men movie, and is arguably the company's most popular character not created by Stan Lee in the 1960s. All this, without having an origin story.

Calling on my scattered memory of Wolverine stories, one of his superpowers is that he ages slowly, meaning his true age is unknown. He also has no memory of his early years, his recollections beginning when he was a wild man living in the wilds of Canada, being befriended by James Hudson, founder of Alpha Flight. I think that's the basics, though some of that may have been changed over the years. Heck, in Wolverine's first solo mini-series, he refers to knowing who his father was...but that's no longer supposed to be true. Wolverine has learned various things about his past, but never his very beginnings.

Now Marvel tries to answer that. However, this isn't just meant to be a super hero adventure, but literature in a sequential art form. Even the minimalist title -- Origin -- is grandiose, as if there can only be one character in all comicdom that it's about (although inside the full title is Wolverine: Origin). In some of the accompanying commentaries, it's claimed Marvel decided to tackle the story -- and risk ruining the character's mystique -- because it was a risk, to send a message that the old Marvel, after years of seeming too staid, was back. Another motive was that with the X-Men movie franchise in full swing, they wanted to provide an official origin before Hollywood beat them to it. That latter explanation, though more mercenary, sounds a tad more plausible than the first.

The result is quite promising at first, ambitious and audacious, but not an unqualified success.

Instead of four-color fisticuffs, Origin begins as if it's a superhero origin as written by, say, one of the Bronte sisters. It begins on a wealthy estate in the 19th Century, as young Rose comes to join the household staff. In true gothic style, there are brooding undercurrents and family secrets. An unlikely three-way friendship is formed between Rose, the sickly son of the master of the estate, and the rough and tumble son of the gardener. There's little action in the first part, but plenty to keep one's interest in the various characters, and a certain complexity applied to many of them. Particularly the gardener's son who, abused by his father, is a tragic figure, both hero and villain. Eventually things come to a head, and Rose and the boy- who-will-be-Wolverine flee, finding work in a remote mining camp and the literary inspiration seems to shift from Bronte to Jack London.

Up to this point, it's pretty effective, even if it seems too self- conscious of its reach for greatness. And it delivers a particularly nice mid- story twist. Adam Kubert's art is unusually evocative of his father, Joe Kubert -- and that's a compliment. The senior Kubert being precisely the sort of artist who would suit this non-superhero superhero story. Blended with the pseudo-painted coloring, the story is visually atmospheric, evoking equal parts gothic melodrama and Tom Sawyer, with the children protagonists particularly well rendered, and lots of scenes of constricted beams of light stabbing into dark rooms, as if trying, and failing, to illuminate the secrets.

Like a lot of American depictions of Canada, it's unclear how familiar Jenkins and company are with their northern neighbor. I can't claim to be an expert on late 19th Century Canada, but the early part of the story is so clearly modelled after a British milieu in dialect and class conflict, that it's a surprise when, later, the reader learns it was Alberta all along (I could maybe easier believe it as 19th Century Ontario). It's a pleasant surprise, though. Given that Wolverine is one of the most famous "Canadian" characters in pop culture, it's nice Marvel decided to keep him that way (as opposed to having him be English or American by birth).

Unfortunately, when the story hits the mining camp, it loses some of its impetus. The characterization isn't as complex, or unexpected -- Wolverine incites the ire of a local bully whose motivation is that, well, he's the local bully. And the plot loses much drive -- it's not entirely clear what we're waiting for. The problem with telling Wolverine's "origin" is: what constitutes his origin? Being born with latent powers, we're not waiting to see how he becomes Wolverine. And though we're waiting to see how he ends up a wild man in the woods, it's not really that gripping a question. Wolverine already demonstrates feral leanings, running with a wolf pack. So, although something does sever his ties with civilization, there's a sense it would've happened regardless.

Characterization also is uneven, as often seems to be the case with modern comics that think they're sophisticated, but put the trappings of sophistication before the substance. The story is narrated by Rose in her diary, but Wolverine is often depicted in a hands off way, without Jenkins putting us into his head with words, and the relationship between the two is not totally developed. Early on we assume Wolverine will fall for Rose -- her red hair foreshadowing his later infatuation with fellow X-Man, Jean Grey. But as the story progresses, nothing is really developed beyond the platonic, so that when Wolverine belatedly announces he always figured they'd end up, frankly, comes out of nowhere. If love, requited and/or unrequited, was going to be part of the story, Jenkins needed to give it more focus.

Another curious thing is how oblique the first few chapters are. Although one can infer relationships and attribute significance to certain things, and guess Wolverine’s biological father isn't who he thinks he is, it's never stated out right. One expects everything to be articulated by the end...but it isn't. On one hand, that can make the story seem sophisticated, making the reader work for the answers. On the other, one can't help wonder how many readers might finish the book, never putting two and two together.

Ultimately, there's a feeling the writers put most of their effort into the first half, with its unexpected character developments and, as noted, a clever twist. But the last half just trundles ahead in an unsurprising way that, frankly, could've been told in half the number of pages.

A frustrating aside is that one of the commentaries refers to "extras" in the collection, including descriptions of alternate story proposals. But that isn't here -- I assume that was only in the hardcover version. I can't decide if Marvel left them out of this softcover collection as a bonus for people who bought the expensive hardcover...or to thumb their nose at people on a budget who buy the softcover. Either way, it's disappointing.

In the end, Origin does smack, at times, of an audacious undertaking, a risky attempt to tell Wolverine's origin, not as an action-adventure piece, but as something akin to literature. It's moody and involved...but loses its drive before the end, becoming prosaic and conventional. Ultimately, the "greatest story never told" (as the tag line for the book goes) becomes decent rather than great. It will be curious to see how this impacts on later Wolverine stories since the reader now knows his beginnings, but he remains ignorant. Enough characters connected to him remain around at the end, that it wouldn't be hard for someone to work this in to later stories, or have Wolverine encounter the grandchild of someone here.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Walking Dead Volume 17: Something to Fear

Title: The Walking Dead Volume 17: Something to Fear

ISBN: 9781607066156
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2012
Artist: Charlie Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: The Walking Dead #97-102

Rating: 4/5

In return for goods from the Hilltop, Rick and his group agree to protect them from an unseen gang or tyrants led by a man named Negan. Given all that he’s seen and been through, Rick isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. But he’s dreadfully ignorant of what Negan and his crew are capable of, or who/what a confrontation will cost them.

Almost everything notable about this book happens in The Walking Dead #100, which is at about the halfway point. It’s there that we meet Negan, who’s drawn his share of comparisons to the Governor, based on their obvious similarities, and the fact that they’ve both served as the series’ main living antagonists. It’s not an unjustified comparison, but Negan is very much his own character. While the Governor was deceptive and manipulative at times, Negan is very much up front about his intentions: “Give me your shit or I will kill you. You work for me now.” The Governor was a manipulator, but Negan is a bully, plain and simple. He’s the Walking Dead equivalent of a schoolyard kid who’s bigger than everybody else, and will take your lunch money just because he can. He strikes a very familiar chord from childhood that makes him instantly unlikeable.

As his first act of villainy, Negan kills Glenn by smashing in his skull with a baseball bat covered in barbed wire. As Glenn’s been with us almost since the beginning, that was a tough kill for long time fans to endure. Was there a pressing need to kill Glenn off? No. But the audience was expecting someone to go in issue #100, and Glenn was expendable. Plus, his death can potentially provide some interesting new depth to the Maggie character, and further disturb young Sophia’s already unstable psyche (though we have yet to see either of these in the monthly series). I also enjoyed the way Kirkman cracked the fourth wall, so to speak. Through Negan’s dialogue, he seemed to give us a glimpse into his thought process about who to kill off. It added another dimension to the scene, while at the same time continuing to make Negan look like a terrible bastard.

This issue also did fans a favor by killing off the Abraham character. For my money, he was always just a poor stand in for Tyreese. Kirkman tried to give him some intrigue by placing him at the center of a love triangle, but that never really did anything for me. Even the way he died was annoying. He takes an arrow through the back of his head, and the damn thing is sticking out of his eye. But then for some reason he keeps talking. He says another five sentences with that arrow sticking through his eye as if nothing happened. I’m not sure if that has any basis in medical science or not, and it was obviously done for horror effect. But it took me out of the story regardless.

In contrast, I’m very interested to learn more about the Jesus character and what his story is. He’s got a martial arts/parkour thing going on that makes him very memorable, as opposed to some of the other characters introduced after the group left the prison.

In my review of Vol. 16, I talked about the inevitability of tragedy. Coming into this book, it was pretty clear something terrible was going to happen. Mostly likely a massive attack of some kind that kills a handful of people in Rick’s crew. Kirkman planted a bunch of red herrings in this book to make us believe that was just what would happen, and that Andrea would be the one to die. But he pulled a great swerve on us, giving us a smaller tragedy that ultimately had the same amount of impact (if not more) than a big massacre would have. Ergo, we come away with a lessons learned: In the world of The Walking Dead, always expect the unexpected.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland

Title: Fables: Werewolves of the Heartland

ISBN: 9781401224790
Price: $22.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2012
Artist: Craig Hamilton, Jim Fern
Writer: Bill Willingham

Rating: 4/5

Bigby Wolf embarks on a quest through the American Heartland to find a new location for Fabletown, a secret society of exiled fairy tale characters living among the "mundys." In his wanderings, Bigby stumbles across Story City, a small town that seems to be occupied solely by werewolves. Oddly enough, they seem to already know and revere Bigby, but at the same time they've captured and caged him.

FABLES: WEREWOLVES OF THE HEARTLAND tells an epic tale that began well before Bigby Wolf set foot in the bucolic plains of the Midwest. It began long ago when he served in World War II and became mired in a Nazi experiment that would change nations. It's soon evident that murder in Story City is the least of their sins, and unraveling the town's many mysteries may cost Bigby, the seventh son of the North Wind, much more than his own life.

First a warning - this is a violent, gore fest more often than not.  Bigby isn't a subtle man to begin with and these folks pissed him off something bad and he lets loose on them.  Also there is a lot of nudity running around these pages.  Male and female.  I wouldn't call it explicit persay--girls are obviously girls, guys are obviously guys, but it’s pretty clinical overall.

FABLES remains one of my favorite comics and barring something slipshod editor deciding to butcher it, that's not likely to change.  I've looked forward to this book for a long time mainly because Bigby is my favorite character, bar none (save Snow White and Cinderella), and it promised to give us a bit of back story on the man behind the wolf.  In that it didn't disappoint.  Bigby has spoken of his time in WWII, when he helped out the Allies (unofficially) to stop the encroachment of the Nazis, but in this he reveals just what he did exactly.

The art isn't anything to write home about, its not up to the usual standards of the comic and part of that may be because most of the story arcs had one artistic team (inkers, layout, pencils) throughout.  WEREWOLVES has numerous inkers and in a comic book that can really fudge up the artwork.  From a reader's perspective, it made folk hard to tell apart (I kept mixing up Diana and Oda, or Alwin and Carl for instance, which in turn confused me as all four had separate agendas more or less).  The werewolves, whether intentionally or not, were all colored basically the same so even though Bigby was going through them wholesale at one point, I had no idea who was dead and who was not.

Story wise this was an interesting conundrum for Bigby.  He kind of helped create the mess and was at a loss as to how to finish it.  Technically no one in that town is a true Fabletown resident.  None of them came from the Homelands, or were born from parents who fled the Homelands (such as Snow and Bigby's children), and thus the charter didn't cover them.  On the other hand they weren't exactly Mundys (humans).  He basically let it play out, hoping for a graceful outcome, but knowing the outcome would be far worse then anything he wanted to find.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Rose City Comic Con 2013

SEPTEMBER 21-22, 2013
Oregon Convention Center
777 NE Martin Luther King Jr Blvd.
Portland, OR 97232

Here are some booths that I highly recommend checking out while you're there:
  • #302 - Tony's Kingdom of Comics: My LCS will be representing at RCCC, so stop by and check them out!
  • #1006 - Warrior Innkeeper Comics: A great local independent publisher of titles such as "The Black Suit of Death", "The Less Than Historical Adventures of Li’l Lincoln", "The Magnanimous Inventions of Ben & Mike" and "One-Man". 
  • J-06 - Sardonic Productions: If you need props made locally, this is the guy to turn to.
Don't miss this event! Tickets are already on sale. I'll be there the entire weekend, and I look forward to seeing you there as well. I can't wait!