Sunday, December 27, 2020

Batman: Bride of the Demon

Title: Batman: Bride of the Demon

ISBN: 093028979X

Price: $19.95

Publisher/Year: DC, 1990

Artist:  Tom Brindberg

Writer: Mike W. Barr

Rating: 3/5

Bride of the Demon feels like a leftover story from the seventies. The environmental issue was prominent in titles written by Denny O’Neil (creator of Ra’s Al Ghul) and the art feels a lot like a blend of Jim Aparo and Neal Adams (latter being the other creator of R’s Al Ghul). I believe all of this was intentional. But there are some clues that let us know this is the nineties. One being the presence of Tim Drake (although poorly characterized), the other one is the explanation of the climate crisis. It is definitively more polished than in the seventies. The way modern readers are already familiarized with the problem.

But the plot suffers. It is hard to find a theme here. At first I thought it was about leaving a better world to our children, even if it costs us our lives, but there seems to be maybe too many plots, concepts and characters. The idea of a better future for our children can be seen on both, Ra’s and Dr. Carmody. They are doing this mostly for their kids. Although, in the case of Ra’s… he needs to create an heir first.

But this leaves some characters without a purpose. Batman in particular. And what about Dr. Weltmann, why is she doing all these things?

Another sin in this story is Batman claiming he knows he is in the southern hemisphere because the water spun the other way. Come on Batman, you should know this is not exactly true!

To me, the biggest problem here is that… we always knew Ra’s was an advocate of staring over with humanity. But the way the environmental crisis is dealt here doesn’t really go anywhere. Once the story is over, there is no aftermath. No dread of the consequences. And if you are writing a story about climate change, you kind of need to put those there, otherwise it doesn’t seem like there is a consequence. To make things worse, Ra’s Al Ghul says at some point that “we don’t have years”, implying that the end is nigh. Well, I know that all the measures taken around this period of time actually helped save the ozone (we would be in a worse situation right now), but it wasn’t enough. So, while Mike W. Barr seemed informed about some things, he didn’t really go to the library on the rest of the matters he wrote about.

And now we have two heirs, Damian and Evelyn’s son. Wonder if that story will be revived at some point?

Sunday, December 20, 2020

The Walking Dead: Here's Negan!

Title: The Walking Dead: Here's Negan!

ISBN: 9781534303270
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2017
Artist:  Charles Adlard
Writer: Robert Kirkman
Collects: Image+ #1-16

Rating: 3.5/5

Here's Negan is a stand-alone hardcover collected edition of the "Here's Negan!" comic from Robert Kirkman's The Walking Dead comic book series. Here's Negan explores the backstory of the iconic The Walking Dead antagonist Negan during the early days of the zombie apocalypse. It was originally published and serialized monthly in IMAGE magazine in chapters consisting of four pages starting from April 2016. The hardback edition was published by Image Comics on 4 October 2017. It is 72 pages long and was written by Robert Kirkman with art by Charles Adlard, Cliff Rathburn and Dave Stewart.

Negan is such a well-written character and antagonist. In the comic, he is a loud, crass man, who has a juvenile sense of humor and isn't afraid to bully, harass and embarrass people by making offensive comments and using profane language. He is also a natural leader who is able to use his sharp wits, charming personality, sense of humor and logical mind to control and manipulate others.

In Here's Negan we see what Negan was like before the dead rose and how he reacted when the apocalypse unfolded around him. This was a great little book. It dives deep into Negan's past and explores is psyche and what makes this complicated, flawed man tick. I loved the revelation that his weapon of choice, a baseball bat covered in barbed wire called "Lucille" is named after his dead wife, who died at the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. Negan was devoted to his wife and struggled to cope with her death. Unable to deal with his grief, he hides his emotions under a cold exterior and adapts to the apocalypse by unleashing a violent and savage nature that had always been lurking inside him.

What makes Negan such an interesting character is that he has a set of ethics. He has no problem with bashing in people's head with Lucille if he thinks it is for the greater good but draws the line at rape. He also believes that the strong should defend the weak. He is a great example of a character that has shades of grey to him. He does a lot of reprehensible things, but is still strangely likable, and is a joy to read about.

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Pretty Deadly Vol. 2: The Bear

Title: Pretty Deadly Vol. 2: The Bear

ISBN: 9781632156945
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2016
Artist: Emma Rios
Writer: Kelly Sue DeConnick
Collects: Pretty Deadly #6-10

Rating: 3.5/5

The second volume of the Pretty Deadly series, The Bear doesn't follow on directly after The Shrike, but instead picks up several decades after the events of the previous book, deep in the heart of the horrors of World War I. DeConnick's writing is still terse and pointed, Rios' artwork is still beautiful and hypnotic, and the story is still epic in scale and intensely personal in nature. In short, this is an excellent follow-up to an excellent opening act that serves to deepen the background and carry forward the overall narrative.

The most crucial difference between this volume and the previous one is that of tone. The Bear takes the mythic and at times ethereal nature of Pretty Deadly and grounds it quite firmly in our world. While The Shrike took place in a time no more distinct than "sometime when revolvers where the height of firearm technology, and in a location no more specific than "the Old West", The Bear quite explicitly takes place during World War I, and many of the events of the book are quite clearly located in France, in the trenches of the Western Front. This grounding givens the entire volume a different feel than the previous volume: Grittier, more visceral, and more tragic. By carrying the fairy-tale like atmosphere forward from the first volume, and weaving it together with the all too real horrors of the Great War, DeConnick and Rios have revealed the true terror behind the magical and almost airily surreal supernatural elements of the story. This contrast drives the book forward, and gives the book weight and strength that could not be achieved without this mixture.

Despite the years between the previous volume and this one, almost all of the characters from The Shrike return in The Bear, which isn't really all that surprising given that most of them are nigh-immortal servants of Death itself. Both the Bunny and the Butterfly are present in this volume, serving their roles as a framing device to help narrate the story. Deathface Ginny and Fox are back, as are Big Alice and Johnny Coyote. Sissy, the current incarnation of Death, and an elderly Sarah Fields, at the very end of her life both return in this volume as well. Sarah's impending death provides the impetus for the story, as Fox comes to reap her into Death's domain, while Sarah's daughter Verine demands a reprieve so that her brother Cyrus can return home to bid their mother farewell. This is complicated by the fact that Cyrus is away in France, fighting on the Western Front and making friends with Frenchmen and cavalry horses.

To a certain extent, the plot of The Bear is not the point of the story. Instead, the real meat of the book is in how it develops the mythology that underpins the world that DeConnick and Rios have created. In this volume, the nature of the reapers is made more clear - especially where they come from and why. In these pages, we not only see a clash between two reapers over the course of the First World War, we also see the birth of a new reaper born in the shadow of that conflict. Since this is Pretty Deadly, this birth is accompanied by death, as nothing can happen in this series that is not paired with death. One interesting element is that the line between life and death in Pretty Deadly is so indistinct: Characters slip from life into death without even knowing it, and without the reader even noticing until later, when the fact that these characters are no longer living is brought to one's attention. In a very real sense, death sneaks up on both the characters and the reader, wrapped up in pretty riddles and parables that cloak its real nature until it is too late.

The mythology of the book also revolves around the symbolic stories that it uses, and in this volume the most notable such story revolves around the characters of Johnny Coyote and Molly, the Reapers of Luck. Which reaper represents good luck and which is bad luck is not clear, and as Johnny Coyote points out, that's more or less the point. Their story is told using a folksy tale involving a Chinese farmer, a runaway horse, the farmer's son, and the Emperor's soldiers, with the repeated refrain "Good luck, bad luck, who knows?" This piece of folklore is reflected in the path followed by Cyrus and his fellow soldiers, as they come across things that both hearten and dismay them, as they believe their fortunes have turned for the better, or turned for ill. The problem is that neither they, nor the reapers who circle around them invisibly, can know the ultimate meaning of these happenstances until they reach the end of their journey. In a related tale (which serves as the basis for the title of the volume), the bunny and the butterfly tell a story about a bear and a hive of bees, in which the hungry bear tries to get into the hive to eat the honey and larvae found within, but is driven off by the stings of the bees. The butterfly asserts that this is wonderful, which the bunny agrees with, provided one is a bee. Once again, the story highlights how whether something is good or bad depends entirely upon one's perspective - as the bunny says, "the needs of the bear are not the same as the needs of the bee". One might even say, what is good for death is not good for the living, and the needs of the reapers are not the same as the needs of their quarry.

Pretty Deadly, Vol. 2: The Bear is a maturation of the beautiful and affecting story begun in The Shrike. Taking the fable-driven story introduced in the first volume and melding it with the harsh reality of one of the most vicious and destructive events in real world history results in a final product that is both hauntingly stunning and horrifyingly brutal. This combination of the mundane and the supernatural makes the mythic elements seem more fairy-tale-like, but also roots them in a reality that grounds them at the same time, while it takes the bitter harshness of war and elevates it to the status of fable. With this volume, DeConnick and Rios have taken the strong story they launched with the first installment and raised it up to even greater heights of excellence.

Sunday, December 6, 2020

The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 4: Rising Action

Title: The Wicked + The Divine Vol. 4: Rising Action

ISBN: 9781632159137
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Image, 2016
Artist: Clayton Cowles, Jamie Mckelvie, Matthew Wilson
Writer: Kieron Gillen
Collects: The Wicked + The Divine #1-22

Rating: 3/5

Volume 4 of The Wicked + The Divine continues the high standards of Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s pop-rock fantasy series. McKelvie returns from his sabbatical while he concentrated on the final volume of Phonogram, and between them they work on the most action-packed volume of the series so far, a volume which they themselves admit has strong echoes of their past work on Young Avengers. A character thought dead turns out not to be dead after all, and we find out why they’re not dead. The motivations of Ananke are revealed. Hints are dropped concerning what actually lies behind the Recurrence, hints which will undoubtedly be explored in future volumes. It all ends in what is, basically, a good, old-fashioned superhero fight, as different gods line up against each other. McKelvie clearly has great fun drawing this.

After four volumes, it’s hard to find much new to say about The Wicked + The Divine – superlatives are starting to expire. Gillen and McKelvie maintain a high standard, and it’s fair to say that McKelvie’s return lifts Gillen back up to the level of the first two volumes, after the slight coasting of Commercial Suicide. Gillen’s writing zings off the page; McKelvie’s art continues to look splendid. As ever, Matthew Wilson on colors and Clayton Cowles on letters enhance the experience considerably. If this isn’t quite as good as the very best of volumes 1 and 2, it’s only because the straightforward action-based nature of the story doesn’t leave as much room as previously for subtleties. And it’s necessary to remember how very high the standards set previously are. If you like The Wicked + The Divine, then you’ll love this, and in any case, it is an essential purchase, since the story remains a continuous one.

This collection is rounded out by various alternative covers, some of which are particularly memorable (David Aja’s stands out), and some script pages and early stages of the creation of the artwork that give an extremely useful input into Gillen and McKelvie’s creative process.

Sunday, November 29, 2020

Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others

Title: Hellboy: The Chained Coffin and Others

ISBN: 1569713499
Price: $17.95
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 1998
Artist: Mike Mignola
Writer: Mike Mignola
Collects: Helloboy: The Wolves of St. August, Hellboy: Almost Colossus #1-#2, Dark Horse Presents #88-91 & 100-102, Hellboy Christmas Special, Hellboy: The Corpse and The Iron Shoes

Rating: 4/5

The third volume of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy features short stories compiled from a variety of sources, ranging from Dark Horse Presents to issues of the Diamond Comics catalog. Mignola gives the stories dates to indicate where they fall in the years before and after the events of Seed Of Destruction and Wake The Devil.

‘The Corpse’ (Ireland, 1959) is in many ways the definitive Hellboy short story. It has him performing an unusual task–a kind of hostage exchange–for the Little People to secure the return of a kidnapped child. A minor detail in this story will recur in a very big way a few books later. In Ireland two years later we have ‘The Iron Shoes’, Hellboy pitted against a goblin wearing the huge iron shoes of the title.

Set in Russia years before Wake The Devil ‘The Baba Yaga’ is an abandoned story rewritten especially for this collection, providing an explanation as to why the Baba Yaga hates Hellboy. It’s another incident that will prove to have consequences for him down the line. ‘A Christmas Underground’ is an adventure beneath a haunted English manor on Christmas Eve 1989, and ‘The Chained Coffin’, is also set in England immediately after Seed Of Destruction. In the ruined church where he appeared in this world, Hellboy learns something about who his parents were.

The Balkans in 1994 is the setting for ‘The Wolves Of Saint August’, as Hellboy investigates who murdered his friend, Father Kelly in a town beset by werewolves. It also features Dr Kate Corrigan.

The origin of Roger the Homunculus and how he uses Liz Sherman’s lifeforce which is currently animating him is a coda to Wake The Devil. ‘Almost Colossus’ is set in Romania immediately after that story.

An interesting side-effect of compiling these stories is seeing how Mignola’s drawing style evolves, as he begins to use less of the detailed linework and rendering expected in conventional comics. The design of his panels and page becomes more about shapes and edges, contrasting with black and areas of strong color. It’s still very much in the dynamic, Jack Kirby-esque tradition of superhero action, but more modern and lot more sophisticated. There’s plenty more innovation to come.

There’s an introduction to this volume by P. Craig Russell, and a gallery at the end featuring art by Kevin Nowlan, Duncan Fegredo and others.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Doctor Who: Agent Provocateur

Title: Doctor Who: Agent Provocateur

ISBN: 9781600101960
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: IDW, 2008
Artist: Rebekah Jose Maria Beroy, Mirco Pierfederici, Nick Roche, Stefano Martino
Writer: Gary Russell
Collects: Doctor Who # 1-6

Rating: 2.5/5

Agent Provocateur was a landmark when published as comics, being the first Doctor Who material commissioned for the US market. Rather than employ an American writer, IDW went for the safe hands of Gary Russell, once editor of Doctor Who Magazine, and with many Doctor Who novels under his belt. Bets were hedged via a concise single page synopsis starting the story explaining who the Doctor is, and the background of Gallifrey and the Time Lords, just in case someone unfamiliar with the Doctor and his world picks this up.

There’s a professional tidiness to Russell’s plots, as he provides single chapter adventures during which the bigger threat gradually manifests. It’s clever. In the opening story the threat is an alien gathering the last surviving member of different species, but with no real indication that what happened to their races becomes the overall plot. As the Doctor investigates people turned into sand we see the entire population of planets disappearing, and a trip to a world of humanized cats ties in also.

Detail and busy movement characterizes Nick Roche’s cartooning, but what first catches is the eye is the manic, gunning expressions he so frequently gives the Doctor and Martha Jones. Comedy moments have been integral to Doctor Who over the years, and David Tennant’s interpretation thrived on a sardonic responses to threats, but Roche tips the cast into pantomime and was the wrong choice. Jose Maria Beroy and Sefano Martino (sample art left) continue the style while toning down the exaggeration for a more acceptable balance, with Martino’s final chapter spreads hitting the spot. Mirco Pierfederici (sample art right) is very much the contrast by opting for a form of naturalism instead. A few odd faces betray a talented artist at the start of his career, but his is the style that works best on what are essentially serious science fiction adventure plots with a few jokes rather than comedy with a few thrills.

Russell’s good at leading us into believing one thing (along with the Doctor) when something else is actually the case, good at presenting the Doctor and Martha as per their TV personalities, and good at those moments where the Doctor reveals he’s actually completely on top of things. At the halfway point Russell shifts gears to focus on the primary plot, which escalates matters to saving the entire universe, with a nice complication thrown in.

Agent Provocateur is an ambitious plot that plays out well, with both the scope and the small moments expected, although it does require a lot of expository final chapter dialogue to keep everyone up to speed and it still ends very abruptly. Was an additional chapter really that far beyond the bounds of possibility? Still, a fun read overall, but the art doesn’t always do the story justice.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Angel & Faith: Volume 2 - Daddy Issues

Title: Angel & Faith: Volume 2 - Daddy Issues

ISBN: 9781595829603
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2012
Artist: Rebekah Isaacs, Chris Samnee
Writer: Christos Gage
Collects: Angel & Faith # 6-10

Rating: 3.5/5

After getting out of a bit of a funk, Angel has his life on track.  He's got a purpose.  He wants to bring Giles back from the natural death that he caused.  He broke the Watcher's neck at the end of Buffy Season 8 and now he wants to make it right.  The second arc of Angel & Faith gets into some of the details of how he's planning to do that.  Angel is collecting pieces of Giles' soul through an Ancient Egyptian trinket that's currently piercing his nipple. 

While on the prowl for these soul pieces, the duo comes across Mother Superior, a vampire that's making waves in London.  She's not killing anyone, nor is she siring new bloodsuckers.  Instead she's treating people for their mental illness.  It doesn't always work though.  Some people are going crazy and killing others.  Angel & Faith decide to put a stop to it only to find out that Mother Superior is actually Drucilla.  She's my second least favorite character in the Buffyverse, (The first is Harmony.), so I wasn't too happy to see Drucilla pop up.  Fortunately, author Christos Gage makes her interesting.  She's sane.  With the help of a Lorophage Demon, her madness has been cured.  Now she's doing the same for others...with mixed results.

This element brings such an interesting piece to the story of both Angel and Faith.  Both are haunted by their past and the guilt over the horrible things that they've done.  Faith once killed an innocent man and despite doing time for it, she still carries that weight on her shoulders.  Angel has a ton of skeletons in his closest from before he had a soul.  If given the chance to release that burden, would they take it?  Or is living with this guilt part of what makes them the people they are today? 

To add to all of this, we're also introduced to Faith's dad.  When this was announced at NYCC in 2011, there was an audible "ooooo" and rightfully so.  Faith's father is someone that was very influential in creating her personality, but not necessarily in a good way.  She fell for the Mayor's ruse back in Season 3 due to her need of a father figure.  The introduction of this character puts things in perspective for Faith and makes her realize that she's moved on a bit.  There is a moment where she seems thankful for him to be around which seemed entirely out of character.  This was quickly swept away when she realizes that he's still the same asshole he always was.

Rebekah Isaacs drew Daddy Issues and did a fantastic job.  She has a real talent for capturing the likenesses of these characters.  They all look like the actors that portrayed them, but each has grown and matured a bit.  The Lorophage Demon is the real stand out piece in the artwork for the book though.  This thing is so friggin' creepy.  It stands in a trench coat, scarf, and hat, hiding in the shadows.  Then, when it's revealed, it pulls out a long beak-like nose and sharp, taloned fingers that pierce the brain of its victims, feeding off of their trauma. 

In addition to the four-issue Daddy Issues storyline, we're introduced to Giles' great aunts Lavinia and Sophronia in Women of a Certain Age.  They've been using their mystical powers and making deals for ages to keep themselves young but now that the seed of magic has been destroyed, demons and ghouls from all over are looking to collect.  They seek refuge in Faith's home in the hope that she and Angel will defend them.  What follows is a pretty fun montage of the pair battling a bunch of different monsters in increasingly bizarre ways.  We get a little more backstory for Giles, learning about the first time he showed a talent for magic and the last time he was truly a child.

Chris Samnee illustrated Women of a Certain Age.  He has a great design for the two aunts, making them look like classic debutantes.  There are a ton of different creatures that pop up in the book and Samnee keeps them looking fresh.  No two look alike.  They're scary but still fun.  The shot of the giant snake with Angel literally halfway down its throat is awesome.

Angel & Faith continues to be the story to watch in Buffy Season 9.  The characters are spot on, both in art and story.  Each of them has a purpose.  There's something motivating them to become better people and rise above their past indiscretions.  Angel is probably always going to be a brooding mess with a ton of mistakes made over the years, but this could be the one thing he does right

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Angel & Faith: Vol 1 - Live Through This

Title: Angel & Faith: Vol 1 - Live Through This

ISBN: 9781595828873
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2012
Artist: Rebekah Isaacs, Phil Noto
Writer: Christos Gage
Collects: Angel & Faith # 1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

After the events of season eight of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (available only in comic book form), it was time to expand.  Buffy got a season nine, but there was more story to tell, so Angel & Faith was started.  The vampire with a soul was left a gibbering mess after coming to grips with the heinous crimes he committed while under the influence of Twilight (not the sparkly vampires, but a world-ending power), including snapping the neck of Giles.  Faith inherited all of the former watcher's things, including a scenic townhouse in London and a library of books on the occult.  She's taken it upon herself to take care of Angel seeing as how they're both a little broken. 

During the Buffy TV show, I didn't really care much about Giles.  Yes, it sucked when his geeky lady friend got killed (coincidentally, also by Angel), but he was the dull adult in a series about kids killing supernatural creatures and other things that went bump in the night.  Author Christos Gage paints the character in an entirely new light, showcasing his past before he ever encountered Buffy and after the TV show ended.  Faith uncovers one of his old journals in which Giles bound a demon by sacrificing the memory of one of the best days of his life.  As long as he stayed alive, the demon was held back and the little girl it has possessed was safe.  Of course, that went to hell when Angel killed him.  This story is what snaps the vampire out of his funk.  It gives him purpose once more and he joins Faith on a trip to finish the job that the watcher started.

Angel sees this as a sign and takes up the personal mission to really atone for his sins by bringing Giles back to life.  This is a problem for several reasons.  First of all, magic is no more on Earth after the events of last season.  There are some artifacts that contain a little juice, but your basic spells don't work anymore.  The second and far scarier reason this is an issue is that Giles died a natural death.  He wasn't zapped into another dimension or cursed or some other magical thing.  His neck broke.  He stopped breathing.  He passed away.  Everything in the magic books says you can't bring someone back from that.  That's not going to stop Angel even though everyone that he meets says this is a horrible idea.

The first arc of the series, Live Through This, has the duo searching for the blood of a Mohra demon.  The Mohra appeared in the Angel TV series.  When Angel was exposed to the blood, he turned human so he figures that this might be useful for his quest to bring Giles back.  In many ways, this is a return to the Angel of old, where he's doing a bit of detective work.  Instead of working for a client, he's working for himself.  Faith is along for the ride to provide some much needed perspective.

Rebekah Isaacs illustrated this first arc and she does a fantastic job.  She nails the likenesses of the characters.  No one looks goofy and they all resemble who they're supposed to.  The various demons that pop up throughout the story are varied and pretty cool.  The aforementioned demon-possessed child is something out of nightmares.  Picture your average nine-year-old girl with about a dozen tentacles spewing from her mouth, whipping about while she levitates in the middle of the room. 

The last issue of the trade paperback is a standalone story featuring the Buffyverse character I hate the most: Harmony.  She's super popular now and the leader of a public vampire movement, but she's essentially a washed up celebrity.  She turns to Angel for help as she's being blackmailed.  There's a sex tape making the rounds where she sires the dashing young lad on camera.  This would be bad publicity because she advocates against the act.  Since I cannot stand Harmony, I read this chapter as quickly as possible.  It's not a bad story, but it lost a lot of the momentum that Angel & Faith had built up until that point.  The art from Phil Noto didn't help as the characters looked flat and lifeless, the complete opposite of Isaacs's work. 

Angel & Faith is a welcome addition to the Buffy storyline.  It's a spinoff that stands on its own.  You don't need to have seen the full TV series to be able to jump in, but reading the previous comics helps.  Author Christos Gage hadn't seen a single episode of either show before taking on the assignment, but he plowed through everything in a few days and manages to capture that signature Joss Whedon wit in his dialogue.  He brings a sense of humor to the story while also keeping it serious when it needs to be.   Live Through This is just the beginning of Angel's quest to bring Giles back to the land of the living.  There's a long road ahead of him and he has Faith watching his back and ready to put a stake in it should he go too far.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

11 Years Going & 2020


11 years ago, I started writing reviews on trades and graphic novels. Over the years, I have learned quite a lot and changed my style and incorporated more things to post about. For several years, I've been allowed to cover comic cons as a member of the media. It has been a fun ride, even though I have had to take a break every now and then.

But then, 2020 happened. Covid-19 and so many other issues have seriously hindered our ability to hold events like Rose City Comic Con and Emerald City Comic Con.

This has also hindered by ability to get covers for my non-profit, Comic Book Covers 4 Cancer. I typically reach-out to a number of artists who attend Rose City Comic Con to donate to #CBC4C. This year has been so stressful for us all.

I am hopeful for the future, but it may be false hope... I admit. I don't want to get political, but I have my doubts depending on what happens with this years election. I pray that whoever is in charge beginning 2021 that they have the wisdom to help us recover from the past year.

The good news is that I have a large stack of trades and graphic novels still to read and review, plus a nice selection of those that I have read and haven't had a chance to write the reviews for. I won't be stopping any time soon.

But this reminds me... Didn't I say something about changing formats from a blog to a podcast? Yes, I did. Unfortunately, I find myself not liking anything that I have tried to record. As with all creatives, I am my own worst critic. I took classes in high school and college for public speaking, with a focus on radio commentary. I even took 3rd place in the state competition for radio commentary my senior year of high school. Unfortunately, that was back in 1992 and a lot has changed. I find myself not as confident in my words, and that has been reflected in my attempts to record.

Here's hoping that 2021 treats us better than 2020 has. Here comes the beginning of our 12th year!

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

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

ISBN: 9780785185208
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2015
Artist: Andrea Mutti
Writer: Geroge A. Romero
Collects: Geroge A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead: Act Three # 1-5

Rating: 2/5

Much has happened since Dr Penny Jones first approached zombie wrangler Paul Barnum to study zombies that appeared to retain some intelligence. As seen in Act Two, she’s on the way to being turned into a vampire by New York Mayor Chandrake, fighting what’s become a bitter re-election campaign, unaware that a police detective is close to discovering his secret. And then there’s the matter of forces from the South on their way to take over the city and the vampires who’re abducting children.

George A. Romero has set a lot of plot threads loose, and certainly connects them professionally in the final episode, for which we have another new artist. Andrea Mutti’s looseness is very welcome as he returns the necessary grime to a zombie infested world. Once again the locations look as if they lack regular cleansing services, and the zombies as if they haven’t had a shower before shambling on set.

After a really strong Act One, the fundamental problem with Empire of the Dead is one of expectation. As far as Romero is concerned, he’s most famous for zombies, it’s zombies we want, and zombies are featured heavily on the covers of all three acts, yet although essential to the finale here, they’re otherwise all-but incidental. Beyond that, Romero ties his plots together cleverly. However, avoiding almost all the conflict we’ve been led to think is building may be clever, but it’s also disappointing. All-encompassing greed is underlined as wrong, while compassion is the ticket to survival. A smaller qualm is that the inclusion of a Damon Runyanesque casino owner doesn’t really work, his eccentric speech patterns coming over not as the intended homage, but just strange.

Whether Romero’s just bored with zombies or whether he was determined to have the third act as five chapters no matter what, the final scenes are incredibly rushed, and don’t provide the spectacle we’ve been waiting for. There’s no real sense of release as one hurried anticlimax follows another and those who thoroughly deserve it get what’s coming to them, except, well, some of them don’t. That certainly happens in the real world, but fiction demands greater satisfaction and ultimately renders Empire of the Dead disappointing. All three acts are combined in the hardcover George A. Romero’s Empire of the Dead.

Saturday, October 31, 2020

Support your LCS - Take 2

Random act of kindness-

Call your #LCS and ask them if the have subscription boxes and gift certificates. If so, ask them if you can purchase a GC over the phone (or some other means) and have it placed in a random box.


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.