Sunday, June 28, 2015

52: Volume 1

Title: 52: Volume 1

ISBN: 9781401213534
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2007
Artist: Keith Giffen, Eddy Barrows, Chris Batista, Joe Bennett, Ken Lashley, Shawn Moll, Todd Nauck
Writer: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid
Collects: 52 #1-13

Rating: 2.5/5

The first collection of 52 works especially well as a trade paperback. In part because the weekly book offered only twenty pages instead of the standard twenty-two, the writers pack each chapter full of short scenes with plenty of information--sometimes, multiple plotlines are forwarded in separate panels on the same page. This makes an already sizable trade paperback feel even longer.

Though the authors knew they had fifty-two weeks with which to tell their story, there's no sense of decompression here, nor does any issue seem rushed. The pacing of the book only becomes uncomfortable, actually, in the rare points when it seems the authors tried to write against the book's type--an extended fight scene between Steel and his niece, for instance. Even here, however, the change in pacing functions to give the scene emotional resonance.

In using chracters with similar emotional conflicts, the writers give the disparate plotlines a cohesive feel. Renee Montoya has turned self destructive in the aftermath of her partner's death and her failure to take revenge, and the story opens with Ralph Dibney suicidal over the death of his wife, while Black Adam turns his anger over his family's death outward against the nations of the world. Steel struggles to be a true hero in a more dangerous world, while Booster practices heroics for his own personal gain. Booster's materialism, however, may hide true altruism, while Lex Luthor's professed altruism is certainly a cover for something darker. At the end of the book, Montoya leaves for Kahndaq, undoubtedly to meet Black Adam; I imagine the emotional similarities will generate interesting dynamics when all the characters, Seven Soldiers style, finally meet.

52 offers a very representative slice of what life is like on DC's post-Infinite Crisis "New Earth." The final issue offers a team-up of Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Metamorpho, and Zauriel, coming together to help out Elongated Man; earlier in the story, Steel joins Dr. Mid-Nite at a hospital set up specifically for meta-humans, and Alan Scott makes a military-like courtesy call to the wife of the missing Animal Man. I'm not sure we would have seen such camaraderie among the heroes just a few years ago.

These kinds of touches reinforce the tone of the DCU post-Identity and Infinite Crisis, where the heroes live in a rich community of other heroes, and face danger not unlike policemen and fire fighters. Though the tone, overall, may be unrealistically cooperative and optimistic, it's a welcome change from the "grim and gritty" years. In removing Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, 52 also shows the rich tapestry of the new DCU Universe, from the inclusion of lessed-used characters like Zauriel, Whisper a'Daire, and Intergang, to the apparent Xavier/Magneto friendship between the Metal Men's Dr. Will Magnus and the villain T. O. Morrow.

In lieu of the "History of the DC Universe" and other back-up features that originally ran with 52 the trade instead offers two page "Behind the Scenes" looks at each 52 chapter, usually commentary by one of the writers followed by a piece of script or an art breakdown. I enjoyed these very much and wouldn't mind seeing them in all trade paperbacks, though the stories here are richer because of 52's frenetic publishing pace.

What was especially interesting were the mistakes that the authors point out (Batwoman's unintended debut, the wrong Gotham Central officer drawn in), and that--in this day and age of trade paperback revisionism, as writers and artists use trade paperback to correct their mistakes--have been left in the trade (along with others that the writers don't mention, like Ralph Dibney's amazing disappearing, reappearing beard). Not only does this allow the trade reader to experience some of the pitfalls of a weekly series just as the weekly readers did, but it gives the whole thing the feel of watching a live episode of your favorite TV show.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Justice League Dark Vol. 2: Books of Magic

Title: Justice League Dark Vol. 2: Books of Magic

ISBN: 9781401240240
Price: $16.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2013
Artist: Mikel Janin
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Collects: Justice League Dark #7-13 & 0, Justice League Dark Annual #1

Rating: 3/5

Second acts are tough, especially in the DC Comics New 52. Neither the second volumes of Green Arrow nor Red Lanterns improved over their first. Superman Vol. 2's creative team left with the end of that collection. So it is with great pleasure, though not much surprise, that I found Jeff Lemire's Justice League Dark Vol. 2: Books of Magic is a significant improvement over Peter Milligan's first trade, and one that clearly demonstrates how Justice League Dark can continue successfully into the future.

Lemire delivers a consistently excellent product on the horror comic Animal Man, so it's no shock that his supernatural-themed Justice League Dark should also be good. But what Lemire does early on that helps the book immeasurably is to pull it somewhat out of that "magic" realm. Whereas Milligan's book opened with the Justice League outclassed against a magical force, Lemire takes the supernatural Dark team and depicts them in a rather "regular" superhero mission, matching wits with long-time Justice League villain Felix Faust.

The biggest impediment to these supernatural team titles is that in depicting magic they tend toward the flowery, and instead Lemire makes the title immediately more accessible and familiar. There's even an unusual aspect of espionage action to this supernatural book; ARGUS's Steve Trevor recruits John Constantine to head a kind of "black ops" group of mystics, and a key sequence in the book takes place wholly within one of ARGUS's secret bases.

Second, not to be overlooked, Lemire benefits Dark by making it "cool." We saw a ragtag team in Justice League Dark Vol. 1, essentially lead by Madame Xanadu and with less well-known characters like Shade, the Changing Man and Mindwarp. Lemire wisely puts Constantine in the lead (after all, who's cooler than John Constantine?) and benches Xanadu for most of the issue, spotlighting instead more recognizable characters like Zatanna and Deadman. New member Black Orchid also isn't as well known, but Lemire and artist Mikel Janin fit her naturally with the team on a number of levels -- Orchid is visually interesting and more traditionally superheroic-looking than Shade, for instance; she stands in for the reader as the "skeptic," someone not as versed in magic as the rest of the team; but additionally, as we learn by the end of the book, magic is not so foreign to Black Orchid as she may pretend.

All of this serves to sweep the reader from a fight with Faust to the team's new headquarters, the House of Mystery, and then to a magic-fueled battle inside ARGUS's Black Room. Books like Dark, Shadowpact, Primal Force, the "Sentinels of Magic" stories and others have suffered in my opinion from being too esoteric and fantasy-driven in their magic superheroes; what Lemire presents here is a book that a fan of Justice League or Justice League of America could pick up, as well as fans of these magic characters, and and not be put off by too many pages spent on flowery incantations.

I also appreciated that even as Lemire's story is a break from Milligan's that came before, Lemire preserves what happened in the last volume and moreover, it matters. Constantine and company gained Steve Trevor's attention because of their earlier fight against Enchantress; moreover, Xanadu is still having the same apocalyptic visions that she had in Milligan's story, and Lemire further co-opts these as the doings of the story's villain. One can pick up this second volume without having to read the first, but I appreciated that the first still counts and that Lemire keeps the characters basically the same as they were before (something less true between the Dan Jurgens and Ann Nocenti Green Arrow books, for instance). It helps immeasurably that DC kept Janin on this title; I'm glad they didn't sweep the entire original team out, but kept Janin, whose pseudo-realistic style is just right for this title.

I worried in reading the first volume of Dark that John Constantine, newly released back to the DC Universe, came off toothless; he cracked wise and smoked a bunch of cigarettes, but wasn't in all the legendary bastard I'd been lead to expect. Lemire solves this too, whether it's Constantine telling Zatanna a pretty compelling lie in the beginning to gain her help, or Constantine snapping young Timothy Hunter's neck in the end (a ruse but entirely believable). I only paused a bit at Lemire's suggestion that Constantine truly (rather than just another of his cons) has feelings for Zatanna; obviously this doesn't keep him from using her to his own ends, but I felt it was perhaps a bit out of character for Constantine to "love" someone, and especially so early in this series.

Justice League Dark Vol. 2: Books of Magic ends on a cliffhanger, and just as one of my favorites, Frankenstein, joins the team, too. No question Jeff Lemire has won me back for a third volume, and it's this volume, more than Justice League, that has me excited for Trinity War, too. I don't know how this title will change when J. M. Dematteis comes on, but I'm eager for what Lemire does in the meantime.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Updates to comic con schedule for 2015

It seems as though people have figured-out that Oregon is a big draw for comic related events. This year, we saw the addition of 2 new events:
First announced was the Eugene Comic Con (EUCON). I was interested in going, but this week they announced that Larry Hama would be attending and this was the motivation to ensure that I was going to go. I know he's going to be at Rose City Comic Con in September, but this is a rare opportunity and I want to be able to take advantage of it. Also, I'm planning on getting Hama to sign a couple of the G.I. Joe covers from Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer.
This one came out of nowhere and was just announced this week. Emerald Valley Geek Fest will run October 3-4. There hasn't been much information posted yet, but I'll welcome any chance I can get to attend another comic event.

I'm hoping that I can acquire a media pass for these events and look forward to writing a review for each.

Along those lines, I have some additional news related to Rose City Comic Con. I'm still waiting to hear back if I'll be receiving media passes. This year, I'll be bringing a photographer with me to finally get some great photos to go along with my write-up. I'm keeping my fingers crossed. I also want to do an interview or two while there. Once I find out anything, I'll be posting here, through my Twitter and on Facebook.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Justice League Dark Vol. 1: In the Dark

Title: Justice League Dark Vol. 1: In the Dark

ISBN: 9781401237042
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2012
Artist: Mikel Janin
Writer: Peter Milligan
Collects: Justice League Dark #1-6

Rating: 3/5

In DC Comics's announcement of the New 52 initiative, Justice League Dark emerged as one of the most compelling reasons for the reboot -- a title that would spearhead the reintegration of many of DC's classic supernatural characters from the Vertigo imprint into the DC Universe proper. No less, the book would be written by Peter Milligan, a long-time Vertigo writer with celebrated runs on Shade, the Changing Man and John Constantine's Hellblazer, both characters Milligan would write again in Dark.

The joy of a comic that includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Cyborg, and then also Constantine, Shade, Zatanna, and Deadman, among others, remains. And Justice League Dark: In the Dark's final cliffhanger and the fact that DC superstar writer Jeff Lemire comes on as writer in the next volume both warrant checking out this series' second collection. But Milligan's first arc on Dark is overlong and fails to effectively use the Dark characters, ending up more like "just another" team book than the site of Vertigo horror in the DC Universe.

In terms of where to find "the Vertigo" in Justice League Dark, Milligan brings it forth most clearly in the characters of Deadman and Shade. The each have a troubling relationship with the women in their lives, as Deadman tries to entice girlfriend Dove to have sex with a random man while Deadman possesses his body, and Shade has created his companion from the ether without telling her she's not "real." That the only way the book can show a character to be disturbed is to have them victimize a woman is problematic, but the result is that Milligan gives more depth to Deadman and Shade than the other characters in the book.

That Milligan even addresses Deadman's sexuality falls squarely on the Vertigo side of things. Milligan's conclusion that Deadman must essentially violate a person in order to be intimate is only logical, most likely the reason no other writer has approached it until now; to Milligan's credit, what he's done is to take an obvious but unseemly aspect of Deadman and bring it to light, thereby building on the character in a faithful way.

Later, Milligan mitigates it all by suggesting the Enchantress's dark magic spurred Deadman to sleaziness, though the character might be all the more interesting if left his own flaws. Either way, Deadman is a good example of how Milligan tries to present the darker side of DC Comics's dark characters here.

The rest of the characters receive far less spotlight. Milligan would seem to bank on John Constantine's reputation to make his impression in the book, since fabled louse Constantine does nothing untoward nor really terribly controversial in these pages. It becomes almost a running joke that the Justice League-level sorceress Zatanna's spells fail in this story, rendering her nearly useless. And Milligan brings back new character Mindwarp from Flashpoint: Secret Seven, though Mindwarp's role in the book is fairly minor.

Indeed, In the Dark's greatest problem is that the first five-issue arc consists almost entirely of the characters moving from place to place, maybe bantering, maybe fighting something, before they move again and repeat. The story's antagonist is apparent almost from the beginning, and so there's little suspense as the various characters are introduced and argue with one another, until enough issues go by that Milligan brings it all to a close.

That close, even, peters out -- for all the running around and worrying that the Dark characters do, ultimately Constantine speaks one spell by himself that ends the Enchantress's mad rampage. Similarly in the sixth issue epilogue, Deadman possesses Shade and suddenly Shade's wild golem disappears. That Milligan's focus is more on the characters than on the action isn't a detraction, but neither side has quite enough heft here.

Part of In the Dark's rooting around might be attributable to the fact that the final issue leads in to a four-part crossover with Joshua Fialkov's I, Vampire in the next volume. If Justice League Dark did have to mark time so Vampire could get in place alongside it, Dark was the worse for it. The main plot of In the Dark could certainly have been two or three issues instead, and then perhaps that extra space might have been used to convince the reader how the DC Universe's new Constantine and new Zatanna stand up to their old iterations.

Again, however, there's a simple joy in reading about a team that includes Constantine and Zatanna and Shade, and the fact that Jeff Lemire -- who wrote perhaps the best DC New 52 debut so far with Animal Man -- is taking over only portends good things for the book. Artist Mikel Janin does fine work throughout with a detailed, almost photo-realistic approach to the book's various decaying ghouls, and it's good news he's sticking around, too. Justice League Dark: In the Dark is not a strong debut for this much anticipated series, but there's evidence better things may be in store the next time around.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Deadpool Vol. 5: The Wedding of Deadpool

Title: Deadpool Vol. 5: The Wedding of Deadpool

ISBN: 9780785189336
Price: $15.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2014
Artist: Mike Hawthorne, Scott Koblish, Evan "Doc" Shaner, John McCrea, Paco Medina, Niko Henrichon, John Timms, Dexter Soy, Alvin Lee, Shawn Crystal,Bong Dazo, Carlo Barberi
Writer: Gerry Dugan, Brian Posehn, Ben Acker, Ben Blacker, Fabian Nicieza, Mark Waid, Joe Kelly, Christopher Priest, Jimmy Palmiotti, Frank Tieri, Gail Simone, Victor Gischler, Daniel Way
Collects: Deadpool (2012) #26-28, Deadpool Annual (2013) #1

Rating: 2.5/5

This is a weird trade -- not because of what’s in Deadpool Vol. 5: The Wedding of Deadpool, but rather in how it’s assembled. It collects issues the first Annual along with issues #26-28 ... but the Annual is also included in a later trade, this particular book starts with #27 and ends with #26, and the Annual came out before any of the issues published here. Since they’re in the book out of order, I’ll talk about them out of order.

The Annual was the first work for Marvel by Ben Acker and Ben Blacker of Thrilling Adventure Hour fame, and it simultaneously brings back a character while explaining away a format change. The previous volume of Deadpool by Daniel Way featured a second set of captions to go along with the traditional yellow boxes. The white boxes weren’t as funny, took up too much room on the page and often interrupted the story’s flow. Acker and Blacker reveal that this is because during an adventure, Deadpool and fellow immortal vigilante Madcap died and fused together; the white boxes were Madcap’s thoughts. This actually makes re-reading Way’s Deadpool a lot more worthwhile; it’s also reminiscent of Deadpool bodily merging with Cable in the Cable and Deadpool book.

Marvel built up Deadpool’s wedding as a big second-quarter event, introducing his new wife-to-be in the online-first Deadpool: Dracula’s Gauntlet. The opening of issue #27 provides the basics for the reader: her name is Shiklah and she’s a demon queen who can turn into a gorgeous human form. Wade saved her from becoming Dracula’s new wife. She’s not the most captivating of characters, but she has a strong identity and purpose apart from her husband and has an excuse to be elsewhere when Deadpool is on adventures. They even have similar problems with being pursued by enemies; she’s dodging vampires while Deadpool’s fending off attacks from ULTIMATUM. After an action-packed first part, the story transitions into some wedding hijinks as Deadpool forgot to get a minister.

Despite considering getting the Purifiers to run his wedding, Deadpool ends up being approached by Nightcrawler in one of his first appearances in another title since his resurrection. This allows Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn to bring back the North Korean X-Men subplot and set up a meeting between Kurt and his Korean counterpart. In issue #28, this becomes the main plot of Deadpool and Shiklah’s honeymoon trip to Asia. The writers’ ability to weave their subplots together is really impressive; they’re not afraid to make callbacks to issues published years before. While the record-breaking cover doesn’t quite represent the wedding in the book, it’s still attended by the Avengers, the X-Men, and other major heroes. It’s a sign that they do appreciate Deadpool no matter how much he annoys them. There are some great cameos too, with the aforementioned Madcap, Big Bertha of the Great Lakes Avengers, and Bob, Agent of HYDRA all showing up. Blind Al is also seen ... although she doesn’t quite make it to the wedding. Weasel may be in one of the crowd scenes but I can’t be certain.

This is just the beginning of the nostalgia rush, as the rest of issue #27 is made up of ten stories by every writer of a Deadpool solo book. Duggan’s story bookends the conceit behind the stories: they’re all the other times Deadpool has had a wedding. All of them are false or exaggerated but they’re still fun. Posehn teams up with Scott Koblish to do an inventory short with Deadpool marrying Carol Danvers in Vegas in the '80s. Fabian Nicieza gets two stories, with one how Wade learned to love chimichangas and the other as part of the Cable and Deadpool run. (Rob Liefeld’s influence on Deadpool goes unacknowledged apart from the credits and it doesn’t affect the book at all.)

Mark Waid, who wrote the very first Deadpool mini-series, regales us with a fourth-wall-breaking tale which might also explain Wade’s comics awareness. Joe Kelly’s story is the best of the lot with a great use of captions and a heartbreaking ending. Christopher Priest teams with Niko Henrichon of Pride of Baghdad to tell another beautifully-drawn downer. Jimmy Palmiotti’s story is hectic like the rest of his run while Frank Tieri concentrates more on Deadpool’s time as part of Weapon X.

Gail Simone returns to the Agent X era to regale us with Wade’s wedding to Outlaw as well as the resolution of the shrunken Rhino plotline from that book. The last two, by Victor Gischler and Daniel Way, illustrate the weaknesses of their run: Gischler’s Savage Land story is overly salacious and Way’s is just goofy and awkward. Three of the stories involve Copycat, Deadpool’s first love interest, who it appears has returned to life and will hopefully return to the main book. The Wedding of Deadpool also includes a guide to identify the 236(!) individual characters on the cover.

Between the honeymoon and the Annual is issue #26, the best inventory issue. It sends Deadpool back to the '60s to save Nick Fury from a time-travelling Hitler. Cable gets involved and things don’t end well for the dictator. This is actually a prequel to issue #20 but ends up being much better. Cable is rarely used in the current run, so whenever Duggan, Posehn, and Koblish bring him out, hilarity always ensues.