Sunday, October 25, 2020

Geroge A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead: Act Two

Title: Geroge A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead: Act Two

ISBN: 9780785185192
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2015
Artist: Dalibor Talajić
Writer: Geroge A. Romero
Collects: Geroge A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead: Act Two  # 1-5

Rating: 2.5/5

Empire of the Dead is set in a New York beset by far more problems than anyone realities. Like in any city in Geroge A. Romero’s USA, the zombies are on the streets for anyone to see, but within protected areas life goes on. Mayor Chandrake, up for re-election, sees to that, but only the chosen are aware he and his inner cabal are actually vampires. Even those are unaware that New York is a target for other forces.

An immediate difference from Act One is the change of artist from Alex Maleev to Dalibor Talajić. He’s better than Maleev when emotional drama is called for, and draws some superbly slimy men in suits, but lacks Maleev’s ability to convey the dirt and grime of a zombie infested world. Under Talajić’s watch everything looks too clean, and that’s not appropriate. Additionally, under Talajić the slimy Mayor Chandrake bears too great a resemblance to Tony Stark.

Make no mistake, this isn’t Romero using plots not good enough for his zombie movies, this is Romero delivering a plot he could never afford to make for cinema. Act One was the slow burn introduction of the cast, and Act Two ups the ante, smoldering and nudging in preparation for the bloodbath we’re expecting in Act Three. The political machinations and slow romance are largely formulaic, with the interest prompted by some zombies able to control their raging blood lust to a degree and possessing a rudimentary intelligence. Romero also investigates vampire lore, and this is less satisfactory as he changes the fundamentals considerably to suit his purposes, so no fear of garlic or a crucifix, no transformations into bats, sunlight is okay and mirror reflections are as normal. Removing some of the random sillier aspects of the traditional vampire makes narrative sense, but there’s a feeling of cheating about it. The threat to the vampires therefore comes not from the usual methods, but from a new character, a diligent and thorough police detective. A balding Columbo if you will.

The key to whether or not Romero’s movie fans will like Empire of the Dead very much depends on whether or not it’s considered acceptable that there’s actually been very little zombie action so far. Romero certainly supplies plenty of good drama via a cast it’s easy to believe in, but the zombies are very much the background, not the focus. By the conclusion of Act Two Romero has cranked up the pressure considerably, and supplied a surprising ending to lead us into Act Three. Alternatively, all three acts are combined as George A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead.

Sunday, October 18, 2020

Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 - No Power in the ‘Verse

Title: Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 - No Power in the ‘Verse

ISBN: 9781506701820
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2017
Artist: Georges Jeanty
Writer: Chris Roberson
Collects: Serenity: Firefly Class 03-K64 # 1-6

Rating: 3.5/5

I don’t know if I’ll ever get sick of Firefly. Every time I see them appear in comic form, it gives me that warm fuzzy nostalgia feeling that every media company seems to be trying to tap into these days. Although the previous comic series have been hit or miss, I have enjoyed them enough to look forward to any new series Darkhorse puts out. This issue leans heavy on the nostalgia, spending a lot of the time checking in on the rag-tag crew, but this issue does plant a few seeds for conflicts that could have a dramatic impact on the franchise.

Whenever a new series comes out there is always a little bit of an adjustment period on my part. Each artist always takes each character design in a new direction and Georges Jeanty is no exception. But while some of the designs tend to take the characters in new directions, there are other instances where the pencils just seem a little off. Maybe a wandering eye appears in one panel, or a lack of details in a close up panel. Most of the time these small issues won’t have an effect on the panel, but when they happen to your main character, it’s the equivalent of a lead actor in a movie looking directly into the camera when giving their lines, it’s jarring and takes you out of the story. Fortunately, this doesn’t happen often and as for the rest of the issue the art is solid. The creative team has done a good job here. Serenity feels like home.

The story doesn’t offer a whole lot of new ideas, but it does lay some groundwork for what could be interesting conflicts. After a job doesn’t pay as much as they hope, the crew is requested to look into a missing person’s case. A former ally with ties to a new terrorist organization has gone missing and Mal and crew are brought in to find here. It isn’t the most original plot hook, but it will do. I was really more interested in the side plots that are taking place between characters on the ship. Zoe is portrayed as being a new single Mom on a ship that is not suited for a baby. Jean, in addition to his usual friction with the captain, also seems to be feeling a bit alienated on the ship and given his history that could spiral off into a few different directions. Meanwhile, Kaylee and Simon also show hints of trouble. It’s good to see Mal and Inara as the ships’ stable relationship. It feels like the characters are maturing in a way that feels natural and the writer, Chris Roberson, is just letting those conflicts play out on the page.

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Cerebus: High Society

Title: Cerebus: High Society

ISBN: 0919359078
Price: $25.00
Publisher/Year: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1995
Artist: Dave Sim
Writer: Dave Sim
Collects: Cerebus # 26-50

Rating: 3.5/5

Cerebus began as a Conan parody, but this was something far more ambitious – an honest to goodness graphic novel. With this approach in mind, Sim largely eschewed the normal episodic pacing of comics in favor of a narrative that would make more sense when read in its entirety. Realizing this, many Cerebus readers stopped buying the comic and just waited for the collections. This became known as ‘the Cerebus effect’, and the ramifications of it are still felt in the industry today.

By this stage in his career Sim was a confident and accomplished artist whose style had developed organically from a Barry Windsor-Smith wannabe. He retained much of Windsor-Smith’s love of the ornate, but his art had become very much its own thing. His writing had progressed even further, and High Society is a complex, mature work with important things to say about the nature of power, while often being very, very funny into the bargain.

The plot is labyrinthine and resists precis, but when Cerebus turns up at the Regency Hotel in the city-state of Iest he’s warmly welcomed by everyone because of his past associations with Lord Julius of Palnu, another city-state to which Iest owes a great deal of money. Cerebus was his Lord Julius’s Kitchen Staff Supervisor – Julius likes to keep everyone on their toes by making sure no one has the faintest idea of who does what. Before long, Cerebus is embroiled in Julius’s complicated political machinations, running for Prime Minister against Lord Julius’s goat and trying to wage wars on neighboring countries.

Much of the book’s plot is driven by the attempts of various characters to control and manipulate Cerebus. The main culprit is Lord Julius, who often seems to be working against himself, but also includes Astoria, Cerebus’s political advisor (and Julius’s ‘niece’) and assorted political and religious factions. However, Cerebus (who only ever refers to himself in the third person) proves himself to be not only cunning – something we had seen glimpses of previously, even in the early Conan pastiches – but also surprisingly knowledgeable in the ways of both magicians and politicians.

This book is a great starting point for anyone wanting to sample one of the most important comics in the history of the medium, self-published or otherwise. The first book, though relatively unpolished, is also worth a read, introducing many of the characters that would appear in this and later volumes over the course of 25 years, but any later books would be nigh impossible to follow without being aware of what has gone before.

Sunday, October 4, 2020


Title: Cerebus

ISBN: 0919359086
Price: $25.00
Publisher/Year: Aardvark-Vanaheim, 1995
Artist: Dave Sim
Writer: Dave Sim
Collects: Cerebus # 1-25

Rating: 3.5/5

Cerebus is something of a legend in comics. Begun in December of 1977 by Dave Sim, it was one of the first entirely independent, self-published comics in a field dominated by the large work-for-hire companies like Marvel and DC. It ran for 300 issues and nearly 27 years and became one of the most influential independent comic books of all time, in part due to Sim's outspoken views in favor of creator rights and his regular use of the editorial pages in Cerebus issues to air those views. This collection (the first "phonebook") collects issues 1 through 25, with one of the amazing wrap-around covers that makes all of the phonebooks so beautiful (possibly partly by later Cerebus collaborator Gerhard, although if so it's uncredited so far as I can tell). Cerebus reliably has some of the best black-and-white art you will ever see in comics.

There is some debate over where to start with Cerebus, and a faction that, for good reasons, argues for starting with the second phonebook (High Society). While these first twenty-five issues do introduce the reader to a bunch of important characters (Elrod, Lord Julius, Jaka, Artemis Roach, and Suenteus Po, for example), all those characters are later reintroduced and nothing that happens here is hugely vital for the overall story. It's also quite rough, starting as Conan parody with almost no depth. The first half or so of this collection features lots of short stories with little or no broader significance, and the early ones are about little other than Cerebus's skills and fighting abilities.

That said, when reading the series, I like to start at the beginning. It is nice to follow the characters from their moment of first introduction, and it's delightful to watch Sim's ability grow (surprisingly quickly) through the first few issues. Cerebus #1 is bad: crude, simplistic artwork, almost nothing in the way of a story, and lots of purple narration. But flipping forward even to Cerebus #6 (the first appearance of Jaka), one sees a remarkable difference. By Cerebus #7, Cerebus looks like himself, the plot is getting more complex, and Sim is clearly hitting his stride. And, by the end of this collection, the art has moved from crude past competent and into truly beautiful in places. It's one of the few black-and-white comics where I never miss color. The detailed line work is more enjoyable than I think any coloring could be.

The strength of Cerebus as an ongoing character slowly emerges from behind the parody. What I like the most about Cerebus is that he's neither a predestined victor (apart from the early issues that follow the Conan model most closely) nor a pure loner who stands apart from the world. He gets embroiled in political affairs, but almost always for his own reasons (primarily wealth). He has his own moral code, but it's fluid and situational; it's the realistic muddle of impulse and vague principle that most of us fall back on in our everyday life, which is remarkably unlike the typical moral code in comics (or even fiction in general). And while he is in one sense better and more powerful than anyone else in the story, that doesn't mean Cerebus gets what he wants. Most stories here end up going rather poorly for him, forcing daring escapes or frustrating cutting of losses. Sim quickly finds a voice for Cerebus that's irascible, wise, practical, and a bit world-weary, as well as remarkably unflappable. He's one of the best protagonists in comics, and that's already clear by the end of this collection.

Parody is the focus of these first issues, which is a mixed bag. The early issues are fairly weak sword-and-sorcery parody (particularly Red Sonja, primarily a vehicle for some tired sexist jokes) and worth reading only for the development in Sim's art style and the growth of Cerebus as a unique voice. Sim gets away from straight parody for the middle of the collection, but then makes an unfortunate return for the final few issues, featuring parodies of Man-Thing and X-Men that I thought were more forced than funny. You have to have some tolerance for this, and (similar to early Pratchett) a lot of it isn't as funny as the author seems to think it is.

That said, three of Sim's most brilliant ongoing characters are parodies, just ones that are mixed and inserted into the "wrong" genres in ways that bring them alive. Elrod of Melvinbone, a parody of Moorcock's Elric of Melnibone who speaks exactly like Foghorn Leghorn, should not work and yet does. He's the source of the funniest moments in this collection. His persistent treatment of Cerebus as a kid in a bunny suit shouldn't be as funny as it is, but it reliably makes me laugh each time I re-read this collection. Lord Julius is a straight insertion of Groucho Marx who really comes into his own in the next collection, High Society, but some of the hilarious High Society moments are foreshadowed here. And Artemis Roach, who starts as a parody of Batman and will later parody a huge variety of comic book characters, provides several delightful moments with Cerebus as straight man.

I'm not much of a fan of parody, but I still think Cerebus is genuinely funny. High Society is definitely better, but I think one would miss some great bits by skipping over the first collection. Much of what makes it work is the character of Cerebus, who is in turn a wonderful straight man for Sim's wilder characters and an endless source of sharp one-liners. It's easy to really care about and root for Cerebus, even when he's being manipulative and amoral, because he's so straightforward and forthright about it. The world Sim puts him into is full of chaos, ridiculousness, and unfairness, and Cerebus is the sort of character to put his head down, make a few sarcastic comments, and then get on with it. It's fun to watch.

One final note: I've always thought the "phonebook" collections were one of Sim's best ideas. Unlike nearly all comic book collections, a Cerebus phonebook provides enough material to be satisfying and has always felt like a good value for the money. I wish more comic book publishers would learn from Sim's example and produce larger collections that aren't hardcover deluxe editions (although Sim has an admitted advantage from not having to reproduce color).

Sunday, September 27, 2020

Captain Marvel Vol. 2: Stay Fly

 Title: Captain Marvel Vol. 2: Stay Fly 

ISBN: 9780785190141
Price: $15.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2015
Artist: Marcio Takara, David Lopez, Laura Braga
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnic
Collects: Captain Marvel (2014) # 7-11

Rating: 3.5/5

After a long opening arc, Carol Danvers spends Captain Marvel Vol. 2: Stay Fly rocketing around on a variety of adventures. Joining her is Tic, the mysterious alien girl who put the previous arc into motion, and I suppose I should start off mentioning how much I dislike her continued appearance in this title. The Higher, Further, Faster, More trade introduced a cast of interesting aliens and the most annoying of them ended up traveling with Carol Danvers past that story. It’s a rare misfire for Kelly Sue DeConnick, who previously used the little girl Kit as an adorable side character. Tic (which I noticed is “Kit” backwards phonetically) is Space Jubilee when Carol needed Space Shadowcat instead.

Tic is thankfully unable to drag the comic down too far, as the first story here brings back a better previous guest character: Rocket Raccoon. He had previously mentioned that Carol’s cat, Chewie, was an alien called a “Flerken” after it tried to attack him. It’s revealed that this wasn’t a joke and that Chewie is a portal-generating alien who has just laid a clutch of eggs. Because Flerkens are so rare and valuable, a living ship arrives to capture Chewie and her “Fler-Kittens” to exterminate the species forever. The ship is sadly not given more explanation despite an excellent depiction under the pen of guest artist Marcio Takara. This is only an unconfirmed theory, but shortly after this arc was published, the Guardians of the Galaxy encountered the home planet of the Symbiotes, and the ship is reminiscent of Venom and others of his ilk.

Having a guest star like Rocket is obviously a draw for readers of Guardians of the Galaxy to pick up Captain Marvel, but he’s used extremely well in this. He had a rivalry with Chewie already established and the two go through an arc of their own, possibly ending up in love by the end. DeConnick also uses a countdown theme in each of the issues, making the two parts mirror each other without feeling like a retread. Another guest star invigorates the following issue as Lila Cheney gets mixed up in Carol and Tic’s voyage home. Lila is from the original New Mutants era and has the unusual ability of “long-range teleportation” -- unlike Nightcrawler’s short-range jumps, she can only teleport over lightyears of distance, often unwillingly.

This ability has landed Lila in a number of sticky situations over the years, and one trip made long ago led to her getting unwittingly engaged. She ends up on Carol’s ship while trying to escape the marriage; Carol and Tic return with her to work the situation out, leading to the issue’s dialogue conceit. Everyone on the planet Aladna speaks in rhyme and the visitors have to play along. DeConnick doesn’t have them stick to a certain rhythm, which simplifies the matter; they just have to rhyme everything they say. The issue plays up the silliness; the prince wears Ziggy Stardust-style eye make-up while his father is clearly Fat Elvis. The end annoyed me as it appeared Tic was going to leave the book for the second time in two issues, only for it to be undone yet again.

Issue #10, which is Carol Danvers’s 100th solo issue (under various names), is an annual-sized tale told through letters from home. The story revisits Grace Valentine, a villainous scientist obsessed with being more famous than Captain Marvel, after her original story in the first volume of the title. Valentine's unhinged plan ends up with her taking control of New York City’s rats and sending them against Carol’s friends. Kit, Spider-Woman, and Jim Rhodes tell the story in three chunks, with Spider-Woman’s chapter having a hilarious flashback to the time she tried to have Carol incinerate a rat in their apartment. This issue reconfirms the romantic pairing of Carol and Rhodey that the first issue set up. It’s a shame that Rhodey didn’t go off to space with Carol and Venom to join the Guardians; his Iron Patriot career went as well as his Iron Man 2.0 tenure.

Carol convinces Lila to take her back to New York for one night to check in on Tracy, her crotchety mentor who has fallen into a deep illness. This leads to Carol fighting both Valentine and June Covington, a mad scientist she had previously encountered in Avengers Assemble: The Forgeries of Jealousy. David Lopez illustrates a fantastic page of Covington’s glasses multiplying sinisterly while Carol is knocked out by her germs. Carol hasn’t had the best rogues gallery, so these two fearsome foes are a welcome addition to the cast. She’s able to defeat them with what might be the strangest team-up I’ve read in ages; it makes sense in retrospect but it’s still baffling. If I spoiled it here, you wouldn’t believe me.

There’s a sense that, much like the previous volume of Captain Marvel, DeConnick’s plans for Captain Marvel Vol. 2: Stay Fly were modified due to scheduling issues. Carol had to be in space for her tenure in Guardians of the Galaxy, so after she comes home for one issue, she returns to them ... only to go home four issues later at the end of the next arc. But many of these issues can be overlooked as Carol makes for such a great protagonist. She has deep personality flaws, like her hotheadedness, but she has a rich history to explain why she’s all screwed up. The new Captain Marvel and the Carol Corps seems to be the book DeConnick has wanted to write since Carol upgraded her rank, so Stay Fly is just a step on the road towards that end.

Sunday, September 20, 2020

Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 1

 Title: Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 1

ISBN: 978302901271

Price: $29.99

Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2016

Artist: Dexter Soy, Filipe Andrade, Emma Rios

Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnic, Christopher Sebela

Collects: Captain Marvel (2012) # 1-12

Rating: 3.5/5

The book’s second half is exciting and well-written overall. Captain Marvel is a relatable and charismatic hero whose adventures are fun to watch. The narrative is very interesting. The artwork looks great in most places.

The opening story arc has a few problems. Some of the art isn’t that great.

The first volume in a new take on Carol Danvers proves to be a rousing success. The storyline is interesting, the action is exciting, and Captain Marvel ends up being a fantastic main character. The volume stumbles a bit at first, but even these introductory chapters are fun in their own way. Anyone looking for a good introduction to the new Captain Marvel should definitely take a look at this book.

Captain Marvel Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 1, by Kelly Sue DeConnick, starts out average but ramps up the quality as the story progresses. The opening story arc deals with time travel in a way that brings in some cool history but causes the message to become a bit mixed. However, from here, things get better as the rest of the book is a fun ride filled with great characters and thrilling action. Readers have a chance to see Captain Marvel beat up bad guys while dealing out humorous quips. They also have a chance to become invested in her personal story, as DeConnick makes Carol Danvers a character that is incredibly easy to relate to. Overall, this is a wonderful read and an optimistic start to this series.

The book starts out with an arc that centers around time travel. It uses this setting to highlight the Women Airforce Service Pilots, a real group that goes unappreciated in most forms of media. This perfectly fits the feminist tone inherent to Captain Marvel’s character and gives the arc legitimacy by grounding it in real history.

However, the opening arc’s use of time-travel is a bit confusing at times and jumps around too much, preventing it from significantly contributing to the overall story. In addition, the message found in the arc’s conclusion seems different than the one it started with. In the first chapter, Carol’s reluctance to take on the Captain Marvel name is the focus, while in the final chapter her reluctance to be a hero at all is the focus. These problems prevent the opening story from being as entertaining as it could be.

Luckily, the narrative improves drastically from this point onward. Captain Marvel begins tackling smaller, but more straightforward, problems in the present. This allows for some great moments of action that showcase Captain Marvel as a hero. These moments are exciting and fun in an uncomplicated and celebratory way. All of this also allows Carol’s personality to shine, as she brings a bit of humor to each altercation.

Each of these stories also humanize Carol as a character and make her more relatable. This is a hero with insane levels of power who also lives in an apartment building and owns a cat, emphasizing the fact that, underneath her superhero façade, she is still a normal person. So when her schedule gets overbooked and she struggles to maintain the commitments she has made, it relates to similar situations in the lives of readers. All of this makes you care about Captain Marvel as a person and become more invested in her story.

This deep level of connection also helps make one of the volume’s larger narrative threads, Carol’s health issues, more meaningful. Having a superhuman character struck down by a relatively human problem is an incredibly interesting concept and furthers Carol’s status as a normal person. Giving her a problem she can’t punch her way out of also works in adding a level of diversity to the storytelling. Though the action and charm sold me on the individual chapters, this is the point that sold me on this series as a whole.

The majority of Captain Marvel Vol. 1 features Dexter Soy’s gorgeous pencils and inks. These chapters look incredible and are packed with awesome levels of detail. This detail makes both characters and backgrounds look realistic and helps bring the entire story to life. Plus, Soy’s work really helps highlight some of the action scenes, making them even more exciting.

However, there are also a few chapters here, from other artists, that don’t look nearly as good. Filipe Andrade’s heavily stylized approach looks nice in its own way but does not match the theme or tone of this comic. These chapters are also a huge departure from the art style seen in the rest of this volume, introducing a bit of a disconnect into the book.

Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 1 starts a new Captain Marvel series. Carol Danvers previously starred in the Ms. Marvel series, which ended with Ms. Marvel Vol. 9: Best You Can Be.

The story here continues in Captain Marvel: Earth’s Mightiest Hero Vol. 2.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Ruse: The Victorian Guide to Murder

Title: Ruse: The Victorian Guide to Murder

ISBN: 9780785155867

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2011

Artist: Marco Pierfederici, Minck Oosteveer

Writer: Mark Waid

Collects: Ruse # 1-4

Rating: 3/5

Having created nigh infallible and insufferable Victorian era detective Simon Archard in Enter the Detective, Mark Waid left the series midway through the following volume The Silent Partner. Eight years later he returned to his creation, now published by Marvel.

If there are any concerns of the can’t go home again adage applying to this witty period drama, just read the sample page, which is the opener. With a single well selected word Archard is cemented as arrogant, observant and infuriating. It’s the satisfying manner in which he continues. Having based Archard on Sherlock Holmes, Waid has an instantly identifiable lead character, but with Archard’s partner Emma Bishop there’s work to be done, and it’s done well. She’s extremely competent, adaptable and endearing, and in equal measure admiring of Archard’s deductive abilities and infuriated at his lack of social skills and concern for her well being. One element from the previous graphic novels is omitted. In this incarnation Emma has no ties to other eras, and the series is better for it.

Artist Marco Pierfederici is not quite the finished article. There’s a lot of effort on display, both with the period detail and the well staged layouts, but they’re accompanied by some shaky work on figures and faces. For those who’ve read the previous Ruse volumes he also falls shy of the lush pages supplied by Butch Guice. Minck Oosteveer illustrates the third chapter, and while his people look better there are some very odd faces. It also raises the question of why it’s the case with only four issues comprising the original serialisation that it couldn’t have been arranged for a single artist to draw it all.

The plot concerns someone turning the screws on the inveterate gamblers of Partington, concentrating on the wealthy and influential, consolidating their debts for purposes unknown. Waid’s classic mismatched and bantering partnership sustains the plot until the major revelations of the third chapter, and his fine dialogue consistently raises a smile. Waid deliberately overplays some aspects of the plot to misdirect from others, but this isn’t the type of tale where anyone other than Archard’s going to figure anything out, so going with the flow is all for the best, particularly during the opening of chapter two.

Sunday, September 6, 2020

Star Wars Vol. 3: Rebel Jail

Title: Star Wars Vol. 3: Rebel Jail

ISBN: 9780785199830
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2016
Artist: Angel Unzueta, Leinil Francis Yu, Mike Mayhew
Writer: Kieron Gillen, Jason Aaron
Collects: Star Wars (2015) # 15-19 and Annual #1

Rating: 4/5

Star Wars Vol. 3: Rebel Jail, by Jason Aaron, continues the fun adventures from the first few volumes but also has a few problems that cause it to be the worst of the three. On the positive side, the main storyline is incredibly tense and exciting, and the secondary storyline offers a few laughs. However, on the negative side, the secondary storyline isn’t all that interesting, and the entire volume contains a number of contradictions. This is still a good quality volume overall, it simply isn’t quite as entertaining as previous volumes were.

Rebel Jail starts out with what appears to be a completely independent story about a Rebel spy who chances upon an opportunity to kill the Emperor. He ultimately fails because the entire situation turns out to be a trap set by the Emperor himself. The trap kills every spy on Coruscant and a number of senators as well. The entire story is short but thrilling and serves as a great reminder of how cruel the Emperor can be.

From here the story returns to the main cast, as Leia and Sana escort Doctor Aphra to a secret Rebel prison. Immediately after arriving, a mysterious figure takes over the prison and begins killing off large swaths of prisoners. Leia and Sana are forced to team up with Aphra to survive before the mysterious figure is revealed to be the spy from the opening story. It is a very well constructed twist, one that gives hints about the reveal without completely giving away the answer. Ultimately, the heroes triumph but their victory comes at a cost, making it a realistic but satisfying victory.

Enhancing this overall narrative is how tense the entire situation is. Aaron drops readers off on a prison revolving close to a sun, where everything is controlled by the person in charge of the prison. This instills a sense of claustrophobia and apprehension on every page, since the heroes could be jettisoned out an airlock at any moment.

However, the story’s contradictions negatively affect what would otherwise be a great story. The entire premise here is based around Leia’s reluctance to execute or kill unarmed prisoners. Yet this same character is the one who gave the order for the Emperor’s assassination, who the Rebels assumed would be unarmed. It also just feels out of place that Leia would let Aphra go, especially when she knows that Aphra is directly associated with Vader himself. Leia’s inconsistencies here do not hold up well and caused a number of small problems in my enjoyment of the volume.

In addition, the volume’s background story also hurts the collection as a whole. This story follows Luke and Han as they make a smuggling run in order to pay for debts they have incurred. Though the story is fun and has a few cute moments, nothing about it feels relevant or interesting. It is another negative that knocks Rebel Jail from great to just above average.

Finally, the volume ends with a completely unconnected flashback to Obi-Wan’s time on Tatooine. This story is not quite as suspenseful or pulse-pounding, but it still ends up reading wonderfully. It helps to fill in the gaps in Luke’s childhood and also gives Obi-Wan a bit more character development. Any fan of the Star Wars movies is sure to appreciate this short break in the otherwise modern narrative.

Leinil Francis Yu provides the artwork for the vast majority of Rebel Jail. Though his work here is not quite as cinematic as the visuals previous seen, it is probably one of the most aesthetically pleasing art styles in this series thus far. Characters and locations are all drawn well but are also given a stylistic flair that suits the rather dark nature of this particular story. Yu also does incredibly well with depicting emotion on characters’ faces, which is important in a story with characters like these. Overall, this is a good looking volume that the majority of fans are sure to like.

Star Wars Vol. 3: Rebel Jail continues the story from Star Wars: Vader Down. Both stories take place between the movies Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope and Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Star Wars Vol. 2: Showdown on the Smuggler’s Moon

Title: Star Wars Vol. 2: Showdown on the Smuggler’s Moon

ISBN: 9780785192145
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2016
Artist: Simone Bianchi, Stuart Immonen
Writer: Jason Aaron
Collects: Star Wars (2015) # 7-12

Rating: 4/5

There are a lot of comic series out there which start out great and do a lot of set up for a second volume, which then only proceeds to fall apart. Star Wars Vol. 2: Showdown on the Smuggler’s Moon, is the perfect example of when this does not happen. It takes the interesting premise from the first volume and runs with it. This allows it be an improvement on the series as a whole and a good book on its own. If you read Star Wars Vol. 1: Skywalker Strikes and wanted to know if it was worth continuing, the answer is a resounding “yes.”

This volume start out with a flashback that fits into the current arc but also stands as an independent story. It features Obi-Wan living on Tatooine as “Old Ben” in the years before A New Hope. What is most unique about this story is how little it involves the usually theatrics and fighting of the main Star Wars series. Instead, Jason Aaron chooses to focus on Obi-Wan’s intense inner turmoil. Since Obi-Wan is posing as an old hermit, he cannot intervene in the lives of the oppressed people of Tatooine, and instead must watch them be beaten and robbed by Jabba the Hutt’s thugs. It is an interesting dynamic to watch play out and a unique part of the Star Wars story which has never really been explored before.

After this, the main story starts with Luke on his way to try and learn more about the Jedi by looking into their history. Before being able to do this, he is captured by a Hutt who wants to see him battle in a gladiator style deathmatch, billing him as the “Last Jedi.” This portion of the story is entertaining and somewhat enlightening at the same time. For one, seeing Luke go head to head with the villains here provides the action this story needs, while the Jedi history and training from the prison warden provide some explanation as to Luke’s proficiency with his lightsaber later on in the series.

However, the real gem of the story is the comedy/action that is Chewbacca and C-3PO’s misadventures. On their way to find Luke, Chewy and C-3PO have to deal with droid muggers, unhelpful bartenders, and even a bounty hunter. Yet they deal with them all in scenes which are, quite possibly, the funniest C-3PO has ever been. My favorite of these misadventures involved C-3PO commending Chewbacca on “letting the bartender go” because he thought it was a nice thing to do; when in reality, Chewbacca “let him go” off of the roof of the building they were on. In addition, this story also sees C-3PO do one of the most courageous things he has ever done when he sacrifices himself (temporarily) in order to save Chewbacca. These two have a great dynamic and I am glad to see Jason Aaron make full use of it.

The story is not all positives though, as the plotline involving Han and Leia ranged from average to below average. This story saw Han and Leia ambushed by Han’s “wife” who then proceeds to save them. It is a story which tries to establish some sort of relationship growth between the two but barely manages to do that. It isn’t awful to read, but this arc could have done just as good without it.

The only other flaw with this book is the random logical errors which pop up every now and again. For example, Han and Leia manage to avoid a plethora of blaster fire, and even return fire, without any cover whatsoever. Later, an EMP shorts out all of the blasters in the battle arena, however R2-D2 and all of the lights are still functioning perfectly. Finally, at the story’s end, Han, Leia, and Chewbacca all proceed to take down a bunch of imperial soldiers with lightsabers, despite having absolutely no familiarity with the weapons before then. On their own, each of these flaws does not matter much, but when put together, they start to make the story a little less believable and seem a little more flawed.

For the first issue in this collection, Simone Bianchi does the artwork. This works out incredibly well because it is a very different issue and thus deserves a different art style to match. Bianchi’s artwork is gritty and void of fun, which works very well in demonstrating the hopelessness and pain that Obi-Wan is feeling in this issue.

The rest of the collection is done by Stuart Immonen. Immonen’s work is very similar to John Cassaday’s work in the first volume. This is nice because it helps give a little more consistency to the series as a whole. However, Immonen’s artwork does not look quite as nice as Cassaday’s and is definitely not as detailed. For the most part, this is not that noticeable, as close-ups on characters look great. However, it is when characters are in the background where they do not look nearly as nice.

This book takes place between the movies Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope and Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back. While you could theoretically read this without watching the movies, it is highly recommended to watch them first, as much of the story builds off of them.

This story flows directly out of the events of Star Wars Vol. 1: Skywalker Strikes. The story will be continued in Star Wars Vol. 3: Rebel Jail.

Sunday, August 23, 2020

Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol 3: The Shu-Torun War

Title: Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol 3: The Shu-Torun War

ISBN: 978078519979
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2016
Artist: Salvador Larroca
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Collects: Star Wars: Darth Vader # 16-19 and Annual #1 

Rating: 4/5

The volume begins by establishing the situation on Shu-Torun. Vader is betrayed by the planet’s rulers and, thus, has them all killed. The only member of the royal family he spares is the young Princess Trios, who he appoints as the new Queen. This opening chapter is a quick reminder of the Empire’s brutality and a testament to the ends they will go to in order to obtain what they want.

From here, Vader and Trios team up in order to secure her newly acquired power by stopping the rebellion taking place throughout the planet. Though the straightforward planning and direct attacks seen here differ from the more subtle maneuverings see in previous volumes, they are by no means less entertaining. In fact, seeing Vader go all out and hold nothing back is a bit of a refreshing change of pace, as he is no longer restricted by a random officer hanging around. While previous volumes could be seen as a testament to Vader’s intelligence, this volume works well as a testament to Vader’s strength.

Alongside showing off Vader, Gillen also manages to do a great job in building up the minor characters throughout this volume. This includes a betrayal from one of “the twins”, the death of the other “twin”, and some unexpected treachery from Cylo. However, the best case of character development is Queen Trios herself, who goes from a scared girl to a harsh and exacting ruler. It isn’t exactly wholesome character development but it is still a great progression, especially considering how short a time it happens over.

The Shu-Torun War‘s only major negative comes from Vader’s two maniacally comedic droids. In our review of Volume One, we talked about how these droids push the boundaries on comedy, especially when compared to the otherwise serious nature of this comic. Now, in this volume, it is more noticeable than ever. With Aphra missing, her moderation of the droid’s action is gone and they end up playing a much larger role than ever before. If you were someone who loved them from the get-go, then it is possible this negative may actually be a positive. However, I found them to be a bit too silly and distracting in an otherwise great book.

Once again, Salvador Larroca is able to deliver another beautiful looking volume of the Darth Vader series. Characters, locations, and vehicles all have a great level of detail and realism to them. The only real downside here is that the book’s plot mostly takes place underground, which does not lend itself well to overly imaginative backgrounds. However, Larroca still manages to make this work and shows a good level of creativity when drawing the various ornate palaces or complex machinery one would find in this underground world. Overall, The Shu-Torun War is another visual success for the Darth Vader series.

Darth Vader Vol. 3: The Shu-Torun War continues the story from Star War: Vader Down. Both stories take place between the movies Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope and Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back.

Sunday, August 16, 2020

Star Wars: Vader Down

Title: Star Wars: Vader Down

ISBN: 9780785197898
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2016
Artist: Salvador Larroca, Mike Deodato
Writer: Kieron Gillen, Jason Aaron
Collects: Star Wars: Vader Down, Star Wars (2015) # 13-14, Star Wars: Darth Vader # 13-15 

Rating: 4/5

The first crossover in this new Star Wars comic continuity reads with the excitement and thrills one would expect from such an event. Vader Down is filled with great fight scenes, unexpected twists, and plenty of awesome moments from Vader himself. However, outside simply being a crossover, the collection doesn’t offer much that feels unique. In fact, this volume seems to fall victim to overused tropes more often than the regular series does. All in all, this ends up being an entertaining crossover, not one that stands out as incredible or revolutionary, but entertaining nonetheless.

The crossover kicks off when Darth Vader is shot down by Rebel forces while on his hunt to find Luke Skywalker. Right off the bat, this premise is enough to grab reader’s attention. It takes Vader, a man we all know to be one of the most deadly human beings in the galaxy, and finally makes him vulnerable. He is still the unstoppable powerhouse that he always is but seeing him knocked down a peg proves to be pretty satisfying.

From here, a large portion of the story follows Vader’s reaction to this crisis. He is immediately set upon by hordes of Rebel soldiers, who he takes out with little trouble. He even goes so far as to state “All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men.” when Rebel forces have completely encircled him, a moment that legitimately gave me chills when I read it. He destroys the Rebel forces in a creatively terrifying manner, and then goes on to take down Karbin, the man who engineered this crisis. Each battle he fights is awesome and makes Vader’s very presence one of the biggest highlights of this collection.

Moments not following the Dark Lord of the Sith mostly follow Luke, Han, Aphra, and the droids. While not as brutal or exciting as the scenes featuring Vader, these character’s adventures still manage to be entertaining. In particular, watching Han and Aphra play on each other’s overconfidence and seeing the evil droids interact with the heroes ends up being very fun. There  are also a number of places where the relationships between the characters are elaborated upon, creating some wholesome and even heartwarming vibes.

Unfortunately, a lot of what happens here also ends up feeling uninspired and predictable. Members of the rival factions meet their “counterparts” in battles that ultimately don’t produce any significant results. Some battles even stretch suspension of disbelief in order to maintain the status quo; for example, BT-1 has no problem killing a group of Stormtroopers but is somehow unable to cause any damage to R2-D2. Seeing these characters interact is still entertaining but it feels a bit cheap in how it is executed.

Another small problem with most of Vader Down is that the artwork here does not look quite as nice as it has looked in previous Star Wars titles. Instead, a more stylized style is presented by Mike Deodato. This style sees harsher lines and deeper shadows, with a lack of detail that can look strange in a few places. Deodato’s artwork is still alright, especially when it comes to drawing larger scenes where detail is viewed from a distance, but it still feels like a small step down in overall quality.

There are also three issues here drawn by Darth Vader artist Salvador Larroca. His work here looks just as good as it did in Darth Vader Vol. 2: Shadows and Secrets (Review). However, it comes into a small amount of conflict with the rest of the collection’s art, which hurts the feeling of consistency through the event.

Star Wars: Vader Down takes place immediately after the events of both Darth Vader Vol. 2: Shadows and Secrets and Star Wars Vol. 2: Showdown on the Smuggler’s Moon. However, despite this being a crossover between two series, the events of the Darth Vader series are far more relevant here. Readers could understand everything happening here without reading a single volume of the Star Wars comic series.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 2: Shadows and Secrets

Title: Star Wars: Darth Vader Vol. 2: Shadows and Secrets

ISBN: 9780785192565
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2016
Artist: Salvador Larroca
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Collects: Star Wars: Darth Vader #7-12

Rating: 4/5

The plot this collection follows picks up right where the previous one left off. It sees Darth Vader attempting to search for Luke Skywalker while constantly under the threat of being exposed for his crimes against the Empire. This puts him and his allies in a number of intense situations; ranging from interrogating sources in the middle of a battle to blowing up an asteroid to secretly attack a spaceship. The book easily covers its bases when it comes to action.

However, these action-packed moments pale in comparison to the general tension created by the suspicions raised against Vader. At the start of the book, Vader’s team robs the Empire. From here, Vader is placed on the very team responsible for investigating this robbery. Watching him cover his tracks or purposely impede the investigation, all without raising suspicion against himself, makes for some nerve-racking entertainment. At times, the fear that Vader will be caught is so intense that the book feels like a genuine thriller.

When it comes right down to it though, the biggest highlight here, and number one reason to read this book, is Vader himself. Gillen writes Vader with a stoic sense of purpose that is absolutely terrifying. One scene sees a group of Rebels attempt to ambush him, only to later reveal that he lured them all in so he could slaughter them and use the resulting carnage to cover his tracks. In this comic, Vader is every bit the tactical and physical powerhouse that fans would expect him to be.

Though Vader effectively steals the show, this volume still does a good job in making the minor characters compelling as well. Shadows and Secrets elaborates on Aphra’s background, giving her a bit of tragedy to justify the bleak outlook she has toward the world. It also showcases her intelligence more thoroughly and makes her a bit more rounded of a character in general. In addition, Triple Zero and BT-1 are proving to be more entertaining and humorous as the series goes on. All in all, the minor characters here are quite nearly as well written as some main characters are in other comic series.

Salvador Larroca continues his work on the Darth Vader series by providing the artwork throughout this collection. Like the previous volume, his work here looks great and brings forward a cinematic quality that makes the scenes here look like they were taking straight from a movie. Many pages also feature a wonderful level of detail that adds even more life to the characters and locations. The only problem is that there are a few smaller panels where this detail is not present and characters look downright strange. However, these problems are rare and will likely go unnoticed by most readers.

Darth Vader Vol. 2: Shadows and Secrets continues the story started in Darth Vader Vol. 1: Vader (Review). Both stories take place between the movies Star Wars: Episode IV- A New Hope and Star Wars: Episode V- The Empire Strikes Back.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

Superman: Last Son

Title: Superman: Last Son

ISBN: 9781401213435
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2008
Artist: Adam Kubert
Writer: Geoff Johns, Richard Donner
Collects: Action Comics #844-846 & 851, Action Comics Annual #11

Rating: 3.5/5

Though Up, Up, and Away is technically the first appearance of the "New Earth" Superman, I think we can all agree that Superman: Last Son, the first solo Superman outing of current series writer Geoff Johns, bears some note. DC Comics apparently thinks so, too -- though the book didn't warrant the blind front stamping that Grant Morrison's Batman and Son got, it does have an uncharacteristic matte jacket finish and printed endsheets. With 3-D glasses included, Last Son is a pretty sharp package -- but after the long delay (see Funnybook Babylon's Last Son chronology) was it worth the wait?

About halfway through Last Son, I got to thinking that the story was somewhat uncharacteristic for a first Geoff Johns storyline. As compared to his initial arcs on Flash or Green Lantern, where was the strong sense of setting, or the interweaving of character and plot?

It wasn't until the end that I got it, that in Superman's desperate fight to save Chris Kent, son of Zod, that Superman actually saw what his own life might have been like had he not been raised by the Kents. It's this personal tie that makes Last Son more than just an action story, and I look forward to how Johns continues to explore the Man of Steel.

Further, I realized after finishing Last Son that this is a Superman story I really feel confident I could give to the most basic Superman fan and they'd understand it, while it still works within mainstream Superman continuity. Whereas Johns has sometimes revamped a character's supporting cast to bring them more in line with his new take, he instead pares down the Superman cast to their basic elements: Lois, Jimmy, Perry, and Ma and Pa, and all of them are immediately recognizable by any Superman movie or TV fan. This volume includes a brief introduction by Marc McClure (Superman: The Movie's Jimmy Olsen), though Adam Kubert's Clark Kent far more resembles Brandon Routh than Christopher Reeve.

Where Geoff Johns really applies the "Johnsian effect" is to Superman's villains. General Zod has been both revamped and resurrected (the John Byrne take on the character officially retconned from existence), as now a semi-tragic figure who tried to help Jor-El save Krypton, but whom Jor-El repudiated because of Zod's violent ways. I'm not sure I necessarily needed to sympathize with Zod (nor Booster Gold, nor Black Hand), but it does offer an interesting new spin on the destruction of Krypton.

As with the new heroes that Johns briefly and effectively introduced in Justice Society: Thy Kingdom Come, Johns makes quick work of the updates to other members of Superman's rogues gallery. Metallo, without much undue explanation, now harnesses the power of a couple different shades of Kryptonite; similarly the Parasite has returned to life, and Bizarro has taken on a more feral nature. Johns also name-checks both Brainiac and Doomsday, suggesting new, yet-unrevealed Kryptonian ties for each.

So, to return to the question posed at the beginning, was Last Son worth the almost three-year wait? Well, maybe. It's certainly a good Superman story, nothing to be embarrassed about, and the accessibility of the story is a big plus.

At the same time ... former Super-titles editor Eddie Berganza once said that he could tell a Superman story was good when he could hear the John Williams Superman theme in his head while he was reading it. For a story that's supposedly co-written by Superman director Richard Donner (though Donner's immediate absence from subsequent projects makes one wonder if his role here was for marketing only), there's something of a dearth of iconic Superman moments. Indeed, even as I applaud the writers' restraint, I think this story could have handled at least one "kneel before Zod" reference -- there's nary a "nudge, nudge" or a "wink, wink" to be found here. My guess is that Last Son may hold up better in another reading; until then, I'm certainly enthused enough about Geoff Johns's Superman tenure to keep reading.

Sunday, June 7, 2020

Superman: Camelot Falls Vol. 2

Title:  Superman: Camelot Falls Vol. 2

ISBN: 9781401215668
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2008
Artist: Carlos Pacheco
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Collects: Superman #662-664 & 667, Superman Annual #13

Rating: 2.5/5

Though, again, DC Comics intended Up, Up, and Away to be the debut of the "New Earth" Superman, fans pretty quickly caught on that the real meat of the Superman relaunches was Last Son by Geoff Johns, Richard Donner, and Adam Kubert, and Camelot Falls by Kurt Busiek and Carlos Pacheco. Mostly due to delays on the Last Son side, both stories had an erratic schedule in comic form, with Superman (carrying "Camelot Falls") having to step in where Action Comics ("Last Son") fell behind.

It's obvious reading Camelot Falls that this is the more "monthly" of the two Superman titles. Whereas Last Son keeps a single focus with nary a subplot that doesn't relate to the main story, Camelot Falls is obviously a collection of issues, loosely tied under the auspices of Superman's battle with Arion. In one, Superman wrangles the Fourth World "Young Gods" run amok; in another, he fights the military Squadron K, set up to stop him if he's ever mind-controlled. I don't mind the randomness of this book, necessarily; the one thing I don't want to lose in this trade-era is the monthly, rather than even-driven, feel of comics.

The difficulty with Camelot Falls is that, in acting as a monthly storyline, the book repeats its premise over and over ad nauseum. This is, again, mostly the fault of other titles, as to accommodate everything from Last Son to Countdown, "Camelot Falls" had at least a couple (likely unexpected) breaks between its chapters, with the final chapter relegated to a Superman Annual. Still, a good volume of pages at the beginning of each chapter of Camelot Falls are taken up with Superman thinking and re-thinking over his moral dilemma, until it seems that most of the book involves Superman thinking only.

And the moral dilemma that Superman faces in this book ... just isn't that interesting. Essentially, the Atlantean sorcerer Arion (who, though supposedly a younger version of the DC hero, shares few ties with the other) claims that by protecting humanity, Superman staves off a coming crisis that will only be worse when it finally arrives. Of course, Superman immediately takes this very seriously and begins to fret about his place in the world -- except the reader knows Superman's not about to pack it in, so his resolution is obvious from the beginning. What follows are pages (and pages) of Superman alone, worrying, a throwback to the "crying" Superman pre-Infinite Crisis; in contract, Geoff Johns's Superman in Last Son is equally as intelligent, but more proactive and assured.

One area where Kurt Busiek does complicate Arion's challenge is when Superman faces off against the alien Subjekt-17. The alien, whose origin closely resembles Superman's own, claims he knows where to find the missing Arion, but will only reveal the information if Superman attacks him; Subjekt-17 had previously been tortured by humans, and would only agree to help humanity by force. In a story that constantly reminds Superman that he's not human, Subjekt-17 forces Superman to side with humanity through one of their worst traits -- violence. The ending here is still fairly telegraphed -- does anyone expect Superman not to defend humanity? -- but Busiek and Pacheco do a nice job showing Superman's horror as he must beat Subjekt-17 senseless.

The first volume of Camelot Falls moved fairly swiftly, as it went from Superman's encounter with Subjekt-17 to Arion's appearance and a glimpse into a potential future. The second volume, however, dispenses with the build-up in favor of tackling the more cerebral aspects of the problem, and I'm just not sure it translates as well. Last Son, on the other hand, is a far more accessible Superman story that uses a familiar cast of Superman's friends and villains; Busiek and Pacheco do an admirable, artful job with Camelot Falls in a story that represents Superman well, but never quite achieves an epic feel.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Superman: Camelot Falls Vol. 1

Title:  Superman: Camelot Falls Vol. 1

ISBN: 1401212042
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2007
Artist: Carlos Pacheco
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Collects: Superman #654-658

Rating: 2.5/5

Kurt Busiek continues to do a yeoman's job on Superman. His Superman is less like the early 2000's Jeph Loeb's incarnation than an offshoot of Roger Stern's, giving Clark a more every-man persona, and Carlos Pacheco's art offers greater realism than Ed McGuinness--I'm a fan of that previous Superman era, but many were not, and it's interesting to note the direction that DC ultimately took. Busiek offers some great Superman bits--the return of Bruno Mannheim had this long-time Super-fan all a-twitter, and Clark's "Super-reading" on the plane was ingenious; so far, Busiek's portraying Superman's super-intelligence very well. And again Busiek gets points for writing a Lois Lane who's both supportive and independent without seeming a shrew (even if she's the one character Pacheco draws as completely unrecognizable).

Camelot Falls falls, however, in that it's the first volume in a two-volume work, and the climax of part one really isn't much to speak of. In essence, Camelot Falls probably shouldn't have been published until volume two was ready, or else volume one probably shouldn't have come out in hardcover--it just doesn't feel like it can support the format. As a collection of monthly Superman issues, what's found in Camelot Falls is great. But the jump from Superman fighting the Bizarro-esque Subjekt-13 to Arion's interruption is quite jarring, and the final two issues of the hardcover have Superman simply listening to Arion's story--there's action here, but the conclusion just feels flat. I'm also fairly concerned about Busiek setting Superman up with a challenge where Superman's solution is to "do nothing" or worry about his influence on humanity--these are some of the same kinds of "wishy-washy" storylines Superman faced pre-Infinite Crisis, and I'd be more concerned if it weren't for Busiek's great track record so far.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Batman: Life After Death

Title: Batman: Life After Death

ISBN: 9781401229757
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2010
Artist: Tony S. Daniel, Guillem March
Writer: Tony S. Daniel
Collects: Batman #692-699

Rating: 3/5

Skeptical as I had once been about Dick Grayson's role as Batman, Grant Morrison and Judd Winick went a long way toward convincing me that the idea could work, and Tony Daniel cements it. Daniel's Grayson-Batman has not the edge of the Wayne-Batman; he falls into a number of different traps and doesn't seem necessarily surprised with himself for having done so. A young boy who helps Grayson gets killed, and Grayson's reaction is neither too emotionless nor too vengeful, as Bruce Wayne might have been; instead, in a small moment, one senses that Grayson mourns the child both for how the child reflects himself and how the child reflects his fallen mentor.

Grayson's battle against Black Mask in this story is a team effort, involving Alfred and Robin, but also to a large extent Huntress, Oracle, Catwoman, and Commissioner Gordon. The Bat-family shows a level of teamwork that we haven't seen previously -- a variety of heroes came to Bruce Wayne's aid during Batman RIP, but it was nothing to the extent of Catwoman as Grayson's informant or Huntress watching his back to foil a thief. Though it's not stated explicitly, I think Daniel even wants us to intuit that Gordon knows this isn't the original Batman and assists him accordingly. Dick Grayson is the Batman prince, essentially, being assisted by his forebear's couriers to accept rule of the kingdom. Helped immensely by Daniel's art -- which looks enough like Jim Lee's to give this entire whodunit airs of Hush -- Life After Death is swift and fresh and makes Bruce Wayne as Batman, frankly, feel a little stodgy.

I'll admit Tony Daniel had me guessing right up until the end as to the identity of Black Mask. (See how a bunch of nice Collected Editions readers discussed essential "Batman: Reborn" with me while tiptoeing around said spoiler.) Black Masks's identity in retrospect is fairly obvious (Brad Meltzer's theory of "who benefits" wins again), but I stuck for a long time with the answer being Arnold Wesker, the deceased Ventriloquist (despite that we just saw his corpse in Blackest Night) with a few quick detours into thinking it was Two-Face. Daniel writes a cogent Batman mystery, complete with viable clues and red herrings; at times it seems the Batman series has to be either a superhero title or a mystery one (Morrison's Batman and Robin being more the former, Paul Dini's wonderful run on Detective Comics being more the latter), so Daniel's good combination of both is a breath of fresh air. Here again, it's hard not to find good parallels between Life After Death and Hush, especially if you liked Hush as I did.

To that end, it's perhaps no coincidence that Daniel pays homage to Hush writer Jeph Loeb's Batman: The Long Halloween early in Life After Death, bringing that series firmly into continuity at least for the time being. Daniel returns the gangster Mario Falcone, balancing out Batman's often predictable rogues. Not only does Daniel leave unclear whose side Falcone is on, it also looks like he'll revisit the question of Catwoman's true parentage as presented in Loeb's Dark Victory. In fact, Daniel's story is full of these kinds of touches, from the villain Fright last seen in Winick's Batman: Under the Hood, to the Reaper from one 1971 Dennis O'Neil Batman issue (#237, also an unofficial DC/Marvel crossover). I did not expect this level of detail from the writer of Battle for the Cowl -- was shocked by it, frankly; Life After Death went a long way in building for me a new respect for Tony Daniel's work.

Daniel's final two chapters of Life After Death focus on the Riddler with art by Guillem March, reminiscent of Francis Manapul. The story is rather confusing; aside from a suggestion that the Riddler remembers that Batman is Bruce Wayne and senses the current Batman isn't Bruce, I couldn't exactly say what else we're supposed to take from it all. I trust, however, that the Riddler is someone Daniel intends to come back to; the Reaper doesn't have a truly important role in Life After Death either, but I'll spot Daniel some extra characters as he builds what's starting out as an impressive Batman run.

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Justice League Vol. 3: Throne of Atlantis

Title: Justice League Vol. 3: Throne of Atlantis

ISBN: 9781401242404
Price: $24.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2013
Artist: Ivan Reis, Paul Pelletier, Tony S. Daniel
Writer: Geoff Johns
Collects: Justice League #13-17, Aquaman #15-16

Rating: 3/5

Writer Geoff Johns pares down the cast such to focus on a few very specific characters and relationships, and it brings some welcome depth to the book (not to mention the story's aquatic antagonists). With the most recent Aquaman collection, that title has been on an upswing, and it buoys Justice League along with it in this crossover.

Throne of Atlantis's first two issues explore the relationship between Wonder Woman and Superman, and the over-protectiveness Diana feels toward the League and her friends, including Steve Trevor. Johns's kiss between Superman and Wonder Woman in Justice League Vol. 2: The Villains Journey was wholly unconvincing, as it was meant to be; in Throne, Johns has the characters back up and get to know one another better, and what emerges is a believable basis for their attraction. Superman finds someone who understands his responsibilities; Wonder Woman learns how to have a private life amidst her superheroics. Johns's Wonder Woman is a wholly different character from Brian Azzarello's portrayal in the main series; while I like Azzarello's portrayal, I'm curious here for the first time what a Johns-written Wonder Woman series might be like.

Toward the end of Villain's Journey (and even in part since Justice League Vol. 1: Origin), Johns has built up to a confrontation between Batman and Aquaman over leadership of the League. We've seen League leadership fights before (most notably in Justice League International) and I worried this would devolve into a fistfight or a schism within the League, a story told already too many times. While Batman and Aquaman do come to blows, surprisingly they later each admit their own errors and reconcile.

It's perhaps a shame that Batman and Aquaman each accepting fault should be so surprising -- in our fiction and in the real world, we more commonly see factions schism than compromise -- and Johns's less angsty, more reasonable solution is welcome. Also, Batman and Aquaman is not a team-up we often saw in the entirety of the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths DC Universe, and Johns succeeds in giving them a conflict where both have a natural role and would logically work side-by-side.

Finally, Johns gives Cyborg a wrenching decision in these pages that, as much as I'm curious about a Johns-penned Wonder Woman series, makes me wonder what Johns could do with Vic Stone, too. Coming out of Villain's Journey, Vic is increasingly concerned about losing his humanity -- he wonders even if his consciousness might simply be a computer program that believes itself to have been human. Vic's scientist father offers him an "upgrade" that would allow Vic to survive harsh climates, but at the cost of his one remaining lung. Vic opposes the change initially, but as soon as he needs the upgrades to rescue the League, Vic agrees -- even as the audience stands shocked at his sacrifice. Vic has been a cypher in the first two League volumes, but here we understand his capacity for heroism. If the Justice League title lacked heart before, it has it now.

Following from the excellent Aquaman Vol. 2: The Others, in which Johns resurrected and defined Aquaman nemesis Black Manta for the ages, he gives the same treatment to Ocean Master here. As is Johns's wont, Ocean Master is no cookie-cutter foe, but actually a passionate ruler of Atlantis who legitimately believes his city has been attacked. Even better, Ocean Master turns out not to be the story's true villain; rather, Johns plays on our pre-Flashpoint sympathies, reintroducing a beloved character and then having him turn out to be the mastermind behind the Atlantis war. This was clever on Johns's part and caught me by surprise, and it's a stark reminder that while some names remain the same, the New 52 characters are not the same as their predecessors.

Jim Lee departs art duties on Justice League before this volume, replaced by Ivan Reis (coming over from Aquaman); Paul Pelletier replaces Reis on the other title. I've come to associate Reis's work with Aquaman now, and his presence here on Justice League helped make the story feel less like a crossover and more like the next issue of a Aquaman/Justice League title. I have enjoyed Pelletier's work on such titles as Superboy and the Ravers, though I'll need a bit longer before I agree he's right for Aquaman; Pelletier's sunnier, smoother style doesn't convey the seriousness of the Justice LEague or Aquaman the way Reis and Lee did, and I'm not convinced the Aquaman title is the better for it.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

Flashpoint: World of Flashpoint Featuring Green Lantern

Title: Flashpoint: World of Flashpoint Featuring Green Lantern

ISBN: 9781401234065
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2012
Artist: Ben Oliver, Cliff Richards, Felipe Massafera, Robson Rocha, Joe Prado, Ibraim Roberson, Alex Massacci, Andy Smith, Keith Champagne, Ig Guara, Marco Castiello, Ruy Jose, Vincenzo Acunzo
Writer: Adam Schlagman, Jeff Lemire, Pornsak Pichetshote
Collects: Flashpoint: Abin Sur - The Green Lantern #1-4, Flashpoint: Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown #1-3, Flashpoint: Green Arrow Industries #1, Flashpoint: Hal Jordan #1-3

Rating: 3/5

World of Flashpoint Featuring Green Lantern offered some of the strongest Flashpoint tie-in miniseries so far, faltering only unexpectedly at the end. In addition to stories about Green Lantern characters Abin Sur and Hal Jordan, and Green Arrow, this World of Flashpoint volume also debuts writer Jeff Lemire on the Frankenstein character that he'll subsequently write in the DC New 52 (what ties all these stories together, perhaps, is that "it's not easy being green").

For the first few stories, for Lemire's Frankenstein, and for a brief nod to what the term "Flashpoint" might mean for the DC Universe going forward, Green Lantern ranks for me as the second-best Flashpoint tie-in collection, behind Batman but before Wonder Woman and Superman.

I thoroughly enjoyed Adam Schlagman's Abin Sur: The Green Lantern miniseries that started off this collection, perhaps because of all the Flashpoint tie-ins, it felt the most familiar -- like Abin Sur's back-story, instead of his alternate life. This is due largely because Schlagman mines the rich mythos Geoff Johns has created for the Green Lantern title of late; the Project Superman miniseries had nothing to do with ongoing events in the Superman titles, but Abin Sur is full of Atrocitus and White Lanterns and the untold romance between Sinestro and Abin Sur's sister, and on and on.

One gets the sense of things hinted at here later to be revealed in the Green Lantern title, rather than simply an "Elseworlds" tale that plays on Superman or Batman's tropes.

Not only is any story fun where the writer plays Sinestro as an anti-hero, but Schlagman also has Sinestro investigating "the prophecy of the Flashpoint." Other titles have addressed "the Flashpoint," mainly Legion of Super-Heroes, and popular wisdom has it that "Flashpoint" being a thing is a holdover from what the miniseries was meant to achieve prior to its use introducing the DC New 52.

Here, we learn a Flashpoint is "a moment in time that changes everything moving forward," which makes sense both in this context and that of the Legion's time travel. Possibly, DC could decide that all of their continuity-changing events so far have been "Flashpoints"; tied perhaps into the upcoming Pandora story will be some unification of Crisis on Infinite Earths, Zero Hour, Infinite Crisis and so on all as Flashpoints, a kind of unified continuity-changing theory similar to Hypertime; if so, this will make the Abin Sur miniseries very key indeed.

Abin Sur was good enough that it's surprising that Schlagman's Hal Jordan miniseries that ends this collection is so dull. Hal Jordan is a character with plenty of complexity, but Schlagman glosses over the fine details; Hal changes, seemingly (but not explicitly) because of Abin Sur's influence, but Hal's self-sacrifice in the end seems more about daredevil notoriety than an inspiration to save the world.

When Carol Ferris finds Hal's engagement ring in the end, I couldn't quite recognize it as a natural outgrowth of the character we'd been following for three issues. A lot of the miniseries is taken up with airplane battles; there's nothing wrong with that per se, but these were not so exciting, nor did the time in between reveal more about not-Green Lantern Hal Jordan's character than you would expect. Again, it's a disappointment mainly because of how well Schlagman brought Abin Sur to life in the beginning.

On the other hand, I would call Vertigo editor Pornsak Pichetshote's Green Arrow Industries one-shot one of the high points of the Flashpoint tie-ins. With a nice amount of humor, Pichetshote introduces a young Oliver Queen who's not an archer at all, but rather the CEO of a munitions corporation specializing in super-villain weaponry. I don't, as it is, object to a flashier take on Green Arrow that's more Justin Hartley than "old man with a goatee" (a look that has become even more improbable as time's gone on, even for comic books); adding to that the concept of a hero who takes weapons from super-villains is quite interesting to me.

Pichetshote goes a step further here, however, to take up the idea of corporations as entities, either for good or evil. Queen Industries, in the story, is doing kind of bad -- or at least poorly thought-out things -- but Pichetshote tries to differentiate between the institution and its actions; often a "big corporation" in comics turns out to be evil, but Pichetshote warns that's a stereotype, not a constant fact. The story never gets around to actually deciding what a "superheroic corporation" would consist of, but it's another reason I wouldn't mind reading more of Pichetshote's Green Arrow, to see how it all plays out.

I'm still overjoyed that Frankenstein received a DC New 52 series, so I'm almost inclined not to gripe at all about Jeff Lemire's Frankenstein and the Creature Commandos here. Any screen-time for Frankenstein is good, and Lemire makes this Frankenstein an agent of SHADE just like the DC New 52 and Seven Soldiers of Victory incarnation, so it's not hard to ignore the fine details and enjoy this story as a continuation of what came before and a lead-in to what's next.

Lemire can hardly be faulted for not living up to the truly weird Seven Soldiers miniseries by Grant Morrison and Doug Mahnke -- that's setting the bar rather high -- but there's neither the "Frankenstein fights a possessed town" nor "Frankenstein does battle on Mars" aesthetic that really puts a Frankenstein story over the top. There's more focus here on the Commandos than on Frankenstein, but I'll give Lemire the benefit of "just warming up" and look forward to the real show in the DC New 52.

Sunday, May 3, 2020

Solomon Grundy

Title: Solomon Grundy

ISBN: 9781401225865
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2010
Artist: Scott Kolins
Writer: Scott Kolins, Geoff Johns
Collects: Faces of Evil: Solomon Grundy, Solomon Grundy #1-7

Rating: 3/5

If someone had told me I'd be reading a story where Solomon Grundy, the alabaster-skinned, zombie-esque simpleton, was fighting Bizarro, that most backwards foe of Superman, I'd have run, not walked, to the comic store to see it. And, truth be told, that particular encounter and the use of Bizarro in this book was pretty fun; a Legion of Doom reunion, if you will. In fact, the fighting (vs. Poison Ivy, Amazo, the Demon Etrigan, and more) and characterizations are spot-on and enjoyable.

The problem with this Solomon Grundy story is twofold:

  1. It largely concerns Cyrus Gold, the man who was killed in a swamp, then brought back to life as the title character. And you just can't get me to care about Cyrus Gold that much (though Grant Morrison did in his epic Seven Soldiers series of books, but Gold was very much on the periphery). Watching Gold, now resurrected and serving as a sort of Bruce Banner to the Grundy/Hulk, was just not that interesting.
  2. James Robinson wrote the best Solomon Grundy stories in Starman, and anything else concerning the character necessarily gets juxtaposed.

So, in a sense, Kolins was dealing with a deck loaded against him. But, like I said, the fights and characterizations and situations were fun and well done. It's just the connecting threads concerning Gold that left me cold.

There's actually a third story-centric problem that screams of editorial mandate, and that's the appearance of a Black Lantern ring at the end, heralding the beginning of DC's recently completed Blackest Night event. This is a case where that end note took me out of a story I wasn't that invested in to begin with.

On another less than positive side, the coloring seems off to me—garish and off-putting, with too much orange. Whether or not that's by design, it made the book a little harder to read.

With the negatives out of the way, let's get into what's good. First and foremost, I love Kolins' art, and this book is no exception. He ably skirts a line between gravity and goofiness in his figures; his storytelling is kinetic, well-paced, and top notch.

Again, while some of the story beats where a little meh, the dialogue and characterization, especially of familiar DC icons, is well done. I do like this book, especially for DC Comics fans; but I'm not so sure about its appeal to random readers.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Batman: Earth One Vol. 1

Title: Batman: Earth One Vol. 1

ISBN: 9781401232085
Price: $22.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2012
Artist: Gary Frank
Writer: Geoff Johns

Rating: 3.5/5

This retelling of the Batman mythos shows a universe where the Wayne family enters into the seedy world of Gotham politics, and when the opponent is Oswald Cobblepot, nothing is off limits, including murder, and that’s where this story gets really interesting.

Each version of the death of Bruce’s parents shows a child that is genuinely traumatized by the event, and this one is no different. Except in some portions of the story, he comes off as bratty, thinking he’s above everything, and that’s probably not the best thing to do when you’re rich and about to be robbed and/or your family is about to be murdered by a mugger.

The story shows Batgirl in her formative years, and I thought it was interesting how the writers portrayed her character. She’s definitely a free spirit, and it would have been nice to see her character progress beyond the two books. The character that probably intrigued me the most was the serial killer Birthday Boy. The character itself resembles probably one of the creepier elements that Gotham has to offer, and I was most fascinated by his appearance as he looked like a mashup of Bane and Scarecrow with a party hat with the modus operandi of Mad Hatter.

The story was an interesting retelling of the original Batman mythos. I was surprised how Alfred was depicted as a grizzled, ex British soldier. Aside from Sean Pertwee’s performance as Alfred in Gotham, the character has generally been depicted as more reserved and far from being physically imposing, so that was refreshing. The story was good, the artwork was impressive, and the flow was good as well. The only thing I did not like was how Harvey Bullock was depicted. Every depiction of Bullock was one of a cop that was down on his luck, and while this was no different, the writers could have done a better job of depicting a character who actually looks like he’s been around the block a few times. Bullock looked too much like how Hollywood would depict a police detective, and that turned me off to that particular character. He looked too much like an actor and less like a cop, which are not Harvey Bullock characteristics. Overall, a good story, and a must-have for any Batman fan.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

100 Bullets: The Hard Way

Title: 100 Bullets: The Hard Way

ISBN: 9781401204907
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2005
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #50-58

Rating: 4/5

To this point Wylie Times has been a pretty likable guy. There’s not much ambition to him, and he may drink a little too much, but he has a conscience and a sense of what’s wrong and what’s not. Despite Shepherd’s best efforts, though, Wylie is one former Minuteman who’s not yet fully thrown off his constructed life, and Dizzy, accompanying them since the excellent Mexico trip detailed in A Foregone Tomorrow, is finding it difficult to believe he was ever capable.

This is set in New Orelans, lovingly rendered by Eduardo Risso, even the sleazier parts of town, and much of the conversation occurs in a bar, lovingly rendered by Risso as he has every bar so far featured in the series.

The Hard Way opens by introducing a member of the Minutemen not previously seen, who delivers the origins of the Trust amid a heist gone seriously wrong. It’s slim, but more than balanced by the title story, the longest yet run in 100 Bullets. It’s an exceptional piece. Wylie and Dizzy are making some connection when they witness a gruesome murder across the bay, too far away to intervene. Wylie has friends in New Orleans, one of whom owes him in major fashion.

In the course of working out his present day problems, Wylie also considers his past. He loved a woman in New Orleans, and she died. This was in circumstances involving Shepherd, someone else stripped back a little here, and it’s still raw. This isn’t a linear narrative, even in the present day, so there may be some initial confusion, but that rapidly evaporates as Brian Azzarello delivers another crime noir masterpiece. There are several candidates to fill the role of the tragic victim, one excellent plot revelation, one even better bombshell, and the desperate tension is maintained from start to finish when a mantle is inherited. All in all it’s the finest story to date in an exceptional series, which continues with Strychnine Lives.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

100 Bullets: Samurai

Title: 100 Bullets: Samurai

ISBN: 9781401201890
Price: $12.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2004
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #43-49

Rating: 4/5

Samurai looks in on a couple of folk we’ve seen before. Hang Up on the Hang Low, was the best of 100 Bullets to that point, spotlighting Loop Hughes, the guy you’re pulling for who almost pulled it off. A Foregone Tomorrow was where we first met Jack Daw, a giant brute of a man with a seeming death wish who salves his sorrows with the needle.

The opening sequence is every episode of Oz that Brian Azzarello ever watched dropped into four gut-stabbing chapters of tension and brutality, with a very slight, but pivotal, element of The Shawshank Redemption thrown in. There’s no sentimentality here, though, and as with almost any 100 Bullets graphic novel, it’s magnificent. Loop’s now been imprisoned for a while, finding his place, his easy going character for the most part keeping him safe, but as Samurai opens he’s just back from solitary after putting someone extremely dangerous in the infirmary. The consensus is that Loop’s days are numbered.

A plot used more than once in The Punisher, is Frank Castle deliberately letting himself be caught into order to be jailed alongside plenty of his targets. He’ll then proceed to intimidate the intimidators and kill the killers. Azzarello works a variation on that plot here with someone presumed to be dead when last seen.

That was also the case for a component of the second story here, which further shares the thematic link of cages. Jack and friend turn up at a remote small zoo in New Jersey where there’s a lucrative sideline going on. Jack still can’t bring himself to use one of his hundred bullets on himself, but sure isn’t keen on seeing a drugged tiger becoming a status symbol for some minor league Philly gangsters. The sequence in which we first saw Jack was the only time the quality of 100 Bullets dipped slightly, but he makes a lot more sense here, and his final destination ensures we’ll be seeing him again.

Every successive volume has stunning artwork from Eduardo Risso, but in the jail sequences some of his characters cross the line from caricatured into not quite credible, particularly a postulating weapons dealer. This, though, is minor nitpicking in the face of near perfection in consistently creating credible environments for Azzarello’s compelling character studies. As good as the scripts are, Azzarello presumably thanked his lucky stars for Risso as there are plenty of artists with Vertigo pedigree who’d never have been able to interpret his cast as convincingly.