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.

Sunday, April 5, 2020

100 Bullets: Six Feet Under the Gun

Title: 100 Bullets: Six Feet Under the Gun

ISBN: 1563899965
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2003
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #37-42

Rating: 4/5

This is very much a transitional volume. Each of the six chapters takes a look at someone we’ve met before, and by the end of the book pretty well all the cards are on the table. In parsing out his information Brian Azzarello constructs six wonderful crime stories, but the bigger picture will elude anyone who’s not been reading the series to this point. Why should they care about Dizzy heading back home to her Chicago neighborhood, or Cole Burns visiting the girlfriend he deserted a year previously?

We also drop in on Wylie Times, Auguste Medici and Lono, the latter somewhat the mysterious presence to date with only one side to his character displayed. He’s like the cartoon Tasmanian Devil with the ultra-violence button permanently on; the man who’ll throw the grenade into the room and sort out the mess later. We also learn more about Shepherd. He’s been around since the beginning of the series, his capabilities never in doubt (and laid out here), but his motives and allegiances never completely clear. A lot more is revealed, as it is about Graves. The Trust fear him, but can also dangle something over his head, so this book is very much the calm before the storm.

In between all the plotting and counter-plotting, we look in on what are specifically referred to as “the little people”. In a particularly fine chapter a couple see an accident outside their house, and the mood switches from seedy to shock, ecstasy and woe. It’s like an extended version of the mini-masterpiece morality plays Will Eisner produced for The Spirit.

Azzarello’s dialogue is continually impressive, and the manner in which he uses captions to reflect the deeper levels of his story is awe-inspiring. The chapter spotlighting Auguste Medici, an increasingly important character, opens with him in Florida feeding the alligators, yet the implication generated refers to his leading position within the Trust.

How many times can one comment on the sheer excellence of Eduardo Risso? On the one hand there’s a minimalism to his art, yet the depth he provides the cast is astounding. You can hear the faulty beer taps dripping in the bars he creates, and those old cars pop. Perhaps it’s also time to remind regarding the wonderful contribution of colorist Patricia Mulvihill. She didn’t set the tone from the start, but has taken on the difficult task of creating color moods from an artist who slathers on the black ink. Her task is subtlety, exceptionally well carried out.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

100 Bullets: The Counterfifth Detective

Title: 100 Bullets: The Counterfifth Detective

ISBN: 9781563899485
Price: $12.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2003
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #31-36

Rating: 4/5

One Milo Garrett has been hospitalized following an unrevealed set of circumstances, and was seen in A Foregone Tomorrow receiving the now familiar attaché case from Agent Graves, a scene re-run in greater detail here. He returns to Los Angeles with his face completely bandaged, and to his trade as detective. It’s a career he really enjoys. In fact he wraps himself in the myths and clichés from the hard-boiled narrative to the hard drinking and the constant hard fighting. One might almost consider he’s trying a little too hard to be the man he is.

By now we have a greater familiarity with the characters important to 100 Bullets, and so are one step ahead of Garrett to start with, but then he’s dragged from pillar to post in order to locate a stolen painting. In his wake he leaves corpses, and his path is scattered with beatings. The painting is pivotal, and when Garrett eventually sees it for the first time it awakens something in him.

The Counterfifth Detective is no linear path. Brian Azzarello’s plot is the literary equivalent of those electrical cords behind your computer. It takes some consideration to discern the assorted relationships and contacts, and such is the deliberate level of deceit and manipulation, and the muddied nature of the series, that you could still be wrong. Still, with 100 Bullets the journey is what counts, and there are enough sparkling stopping points here, particularly the well-juxtaposed dialogue.

Eduardo Risso’s on his usual stunning form as well. He’s excellent at filling backgrounds as outlines, creating the impression of supplying more than is delivered, and of populating the pages with the most careworn citizens the city in focus has to offer.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

100 Bullets: A Foregone Tomorrow

Title: 100 Bullets: A Foregone Tomorrow

ISBN: 9781563898273
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2002
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #20-30

Rating: 4/5

For much of the series to date Brian Azzarello has inserted hints about the bigger picture, a couple of characters discussing matters, a few dropped terms, some reference to the past, but it’s not added up to anything. A Foregone Tomorrow spills everything as the Trust meet in Atlantic City to discuss the future. We’ve seen some of them before, and others we’ll not be seeing again, but in the course of their discussions and a particularly cruel plot, pretty well everything is spelled out. One thing becomes very clear. No-one likes the idea of Graves hanging around, or having to deal with him.

Before that Azzarello takes a change of tack. In the past we’ve seen Graves hand a case over to someone and explain the contents, but when we meet the dissolute Jack he already has the case. It’s the first story not to hit the 100% mark. There’s little sympathy generated by Jack, who at one point seems to have had it all, and a scene with a former girlfriend falls rather flat as does a meeting with his mother. Had it been the series opener, it would have seemed brilliant, but we’ve been served better from the start and a shock ending doesn’t compensate. What does, though, is the usual superb art from Eduardo Risso and that this tale is surrounded by top notch material.

We have a dip into the past skirting with all sorts of opprobrium as it concerns a great baseball player whose film star wife has just died when he’s approached by Graves. This was back in the day, and they have another meeting in the present as Graves drops off another case in a hospital to someone who’ll be playing their part in the next volume, The Counterfifth Detective. Whether down to Azzarello or Risso, the background material is very funny.

Elements of a trip down to Mexico are also very funny, set up in the fashion of a slapstick buddy movie, but the progression is into deadly territory. It’s the standout story here, revisiting several previously seen folk, and one new character of seeming importance.

Risso is again outstanding. Within this book he supplies just under thirty major characters (defined as having more than a couple of lines of dialogue and appearing on more than one page) and you could stand them adjacently along a wall and have no trouble distinguishing each of them. How many comic artists meet that target? His work on the title for the material here won him a second consecutive Harvey Award as Best Artist or Penciller.

As one of the issues reprinted here was originally the 25th of the series, a number of guest artists supply pin-up pages. Despite the quality behind the names involved, they’re a surprisingly mundane bunch of illustrations. The honorable exceptions are the work of Jordi Bernet, Mark Chiarello, Dave Gibbons and Jim Lee.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

100 Bullets: Hang Up on the Hang Low

Title: 100 Bullets: Hang Up on the Hang Low

ISBN: 9781563898556
Price: $9.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2001
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #15-19

Rating: 4/5

In volume one we were introduced to minor league loud-mouthed gangsters L’il Moe and his father Big Moe, and they’re back here, but as corpses and examples of the attention to detail required to follow Brian Azzarello’s complex and brilliant crime series.

Hang Up on the Hang Low features several archetypes familiar to readers of crime fiction. There’s the guy in well over his head, two here actually, although one remains blissfully unaware. There’s the down at heel loser who thinks he’s escaped, the woman on her last chance, and the predatory gangster, seemingly beyond vengeance and certainly beyond redemption. One of them eventually makes a mistake leading to inevitable and fatal consequences. It’s a heady cocktail, shaken, then stirred.

The man with the swizzle stick is Agent Graves, revealing himself here as both the complete bastard we suspected, and also a man who sets events in motion without any certainty of the outcome. Handing out a gun with untraceable bullets along with evidence that the recipient has been wronged turns out to have random consequences, and Graves adapts accordingly.

At the heart of this superb, Eisner Award-winning story is Loop Hughes. He’s in his early twenties, abandoned by this father during childhood, although whether or not a father figure would have given direction to his drifting lifestyle is open to question. Beyond a lack of motivation, Loop is fundamentally decent. He’ll take a crooked opportunity that slaps him around the face, but has a basic caring nature, and much of his perceived character is front. He’s extremely well delineated by both Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso, the latter managing to convey Loop’s eventual inner strength. Loop meets Graves early and is taken on quite the journey.

Risso is once again superb. The effort taken on panels merely required to set scenes puts other artists to shame. A bar is prominently featured, over several chapters, and it’s consistent throughout down to the taps. When two characters meet at a different bar they’re initially seen in the background as in the foreground Risso has drawn a trio of regular patrons, each designed so well that their character is conveyed in a single panel. With the effort expended, they could be supporting characters, but they’re just local color.

Azzarello concludes his tragic story not so much with a twist of the plot, but a twist of the knife to the gut. At five chapters it’s both the longest and the best story in 100 Bullets to date, infused with seedy urban desperation and an overwhelming air of impending tragedy. The fantastic element is that there is far more to come, equally or almost as good, and the next does of goodness is A Foregone Tomorrow.

It should also be noted that with this volume Patricia Mulvihill begins coloring the series to great effect. Whereas the previous books had utilised the distressingly familiar Vertigo palette of shades of brown, Mulvihill endows Risso’s work with a greater power through far more imaginative application of color.

Sunday, March 8, 2020

100 Bullets: Split Second Chance

Title: 100 Bullets: Split Second Chance

ISBN: 1563897113
Price: 14.95
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2001
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #6-14

Rating: 4/5

Somewhere along the way your life has been ruined.  All those hopes and dreams smashed to pieces by the cruelest fate.  Now you're a shadow of your former self and wallow in self-pity.  Along comes Agent Graves with an offer you can't refuse.  He gives you a briefcase containing an untraceable gun, one hundred untraceable bullets, evidence proving the person who ruined your life is guilty, and the sure fact you'll never be convicted.

Short Con, Long Odds - Chucky and Pony are two childhood friends who grow up on the wrong side of the tracks.  Chucky ends up being an expert gambler with a knack for dice, but he does a long stint in prison ruining his chance to make a lot of money.  Pony spends that time building a rep and getting paid. Now Chucky is out and trying to make a name for himself, but things aren't going so well.  Agent Graves shows up to reveal who is responsible for Chucky's imprisonment and make an offer he can't refuse.  Things get ugly.

Day, Hour, Minute...Man - Agent Graves meets up with an old friend and we learn a few details about his past.  He's not a man you want to cross.

The Right Ear, Left in the Cold - Cole Burns sells ice cream in the neighborhoods.  He also sells stolen cigarettes and is connected to the local mobster, Goldy Petrovic.  Another ice cream seller is trying to horn in on his territory, but Cole is too busy making time with his girlfriend.  Agent Graves shows up with a briefcase and evidence showing the person responsible for burning the old folks home his grandmother lived in.  Guess who?

Heartbreak, Sunny Side Up - A woman works in a diner and mourns for her lost little girl - she ran away to the city and never came back.  Agent Graves shows up with a briefcase and evidence revealing why her little girl ran away.  The truth hits close to home.

Parlez Kung Vous - Dizzy Cordova gets sent to Paris by Shepard to meet up with a man named Branch.  Seems like Branch got the same offer from Agent Graves that Dizzy acted upon (in the first volume).  We learn about a longstanding secret organization called The Trust and about the Minutemen. Dizzy meets Cole Burns.

Risso does a great job of artful storytelling, Azzarello's writing and dialogue are good, grander mystery of The Trust and Minutemen is revealed, covers by Johnson are interesting

Briefcase deal is a high-concept one-trick pony, many short stories, some implausible situations, no explanation on how Dizzy knows all sorts of martial arts, seems implausible Agent Graves would have carte blanche to perform his little tests - even if he has major connections

Azzarello and Risso gel as a team in these pages and deliver some good storytelling.  I was genuinely interested in what happened next in the story arcs.  You must read the first volume to get a full understanding of the events in this volume.   If you liked the first volume then you'll enjoy the second (especially if you buy into the conspiracy backdrop).  I'll check out the third volume to see where this all goes and knowing the series ends at one hundred issues reassures me an answer will eventually be given.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call

Title: 100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call

ISBN: 9781563896453
Price: 19.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2000
Artist: Eduardo Risso
Writer: Brian Azzarello
Collects: 100 Bullets #1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

You are alone, sat at a bar or on a bus, when a dark suited man comes up to you and sits opposite. He tells you that he knows of the injustice in your life – and that you are right to feel vengeful and aggrieved. He then takes out a photograph and hands it you – some names and addresses are scrawled on its back – it is a photograph of those who have done you wrong. Finally, he opens an attaché case that contains a gun, a Smith and Wesson automatic, and 100 untraceable bullets. They are enough to right any wrong, enough to get revenge. As the man leaves you, he leaves the attaché case behind. It’s up to you now: vengeance is yours if you want it. What would you do?

This is the intriguing premise behind the 100 Bullets series of graphic novels by writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso. In 100 Bullets: First Shot, Last Call, the first volume of the series, we get the opening five issues of the original comic, which makes for two complete stories.

“100 Bullets” is the story that begins the series. Dizzy is a Hispanic woman newly released from prison. While she was inside, her husband and son were gunned down in a drive-by and she blames herself for their killing. The aforementioned guy in the dark suit (his name is Agent Graves, but he doesn’t tell her that) approaches her with the identities of the two killers. Both are cops, but the true culprit – the finger man, the intelligence behind the hit – is someone closer to home.

In “Shot, Water Back” we get a bartender who was once a successful businessman, with a family in the suburbs. Until, that is, the day when child porn was found on the hard drive of his computer and he lost it all. At the trial, he claimed his innocence; he had no idea how the porn had got there. Unlike most, his claim was true. Agent Graves gives him the name of the person who hacked into his computer and destroyed his life.

In this second story we also learn a little more about Agent Graves himself, his past and his possible motivation. It seems that he’s a predator, a hit man who uses others as his proxies. Still, much mystery remains. Who is this dysfunctional Dick Tracy? How does he select his victims? Why has he assumed the twin role of ministering angel and devilish tempter?

As in their previous outing, Johnny Double, the collaboration works well. Brian Azzarello’s story is top-notch and is written with a street dialogue that even Elmore Leonard might envy. Eduardo Risso’s artwork is evocative and vivid. He can paint a bleak cityscape of housing projects and basketball courts, move from the milieu of a barfly to a yuppie beau monde with ease, or mainline you with a collage of images to convey dream and memory. Following his artwork here is rather like watching a stylish movie in slow motion: you have the time to contemplate and appreciate each frame (or panel) in turn, and at your own pace.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

A Huge Dissapointment - PGX

This is a follow-up from my experiences with PGX from 2016, which can be found here.

Sometime in 2019, CBCS Comics offered a discount on their grading services, and I decided to send a couple comics from my collection to get encapsulated for preservation. As my loyal readers can probably attest to, I don't typically send comics to get graded to sell... or at all. There was a cover that I had created by artist Robert "Floydman" Sumner, and signed by "Weird Al" Yankovic. I felt that having this preserved would be a great idea.

I also felt that I wanted to have both the Stan Lee and Larry Hama signatures authenticated on the G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero #50 that I had sent to PGX years ago. For whatever reason, even after I have asked to have Hamma's signature authenticated when I sent it to PGX, they failed to do so. This always bothered me... so, away to CBCS.

As you can read in my previous post about my original experiences with PGX, I paid good money to have this issue, that has so much sentimental value to me, signed by Stan Lee and encapsulated. I had this issue signed by Larry Hama at Rose City Comic Con in 2015.

I have had the pleasure of working with CBCS Comics before, and have never been disappointed. The entire experience was excellent, and I feel that their customer service was excellent and their service was on time.

When I got the books back, I was both happy and upset. Here's why I was happy:

This is the reason I was upset:

Here are the notes from CBCS on this book:
Verified Sig: LARRY HAMA.
"Stan Lee" signature unverifiable by BAS.
spine stress breaks color
light edge & corner wear
many crinkle bends to front & back cover
When I reached-out to Beckett Authentication Services for further comment, this is unfortunately all they would comment:

Because we deemed the autograph inconclusive, we can no longer give information regarding the signature.
Sorry for any inconvenience.
Thank you,
I was devestated when I got this book back. I don't have issue with CBCS, of course. My outrage is directed at PGX for apparently grading this too high in the first place, and possibly sell me an unauthentic Stan Lee signature.

I have sent PGX an email to comment on this issue, and have given them 5 business days to respond. If they don't respond by next weekend, I will provide an update here.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Vol 4: The Then and the Now

Title: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Vol 4: The Then and the Now

ISBN: 9781782767428
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Titan, 2016
Artist: Simon Fraser, Warren Pleece
Writer: Si Spurrier, Rob Williams
Collects: Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor Year Two #1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

The fallout of the Last Great Time War is perhaps more interesting than the Last Great Time War itself. There, I’ve said it.

That’s not to say that the concept and narrative thrust that the War has given post-2005 episodes of Doctor Who is not brilliant – it most certainly is – but sometimes it’s better to look at characters in the dust once it’s settled, rather than when it’s blowing upwards and outwards; it can lead to brilliant character development.

That’s partly why The Then and The Now is such a wonderful volume of Eleventh Doctor comic strips, it deals with a crime that the Doctor may or may not have committed during his War incarnation. One that he can’t remember and vehemently denies, as best as he can with his memories from the era somewhat hazy.

Cue a TARDIS chase across the Universe with a very different kind of bounty hunter on the crew’s tales and no, that’s not Abslom Daak: he’s already aboard the TARDIS and ready to kill just about anything in sight. The eponymous villain of the piece, The Then and The Now, is quite a terrifying creation. A being that is not a being. Something that does exists and doesn’t at the same time. It can’t be stopped or reasoned with or even outrun, it would seem. Which gives the Doctor one choice, to prove his innocence.

This takes us to the Time War, or to be more precise, the fallout from it, and it’s handled extremely well. There’s a lot for continuity for fans to sink their teeth into here. Fleeting glimpses of the War Doctor, sneaky cameos from other familiar faces, new Sontaran threats and, at one point, a truly wonderful visual realization of the Time Lock bestowed upon the Great War.

But fear not, those who worry when it comes to the handling of continuity in Doctor Who, these nods and asides to the past are handled pitch perfectly and serve the story well. There’s no overbearing here; all mentions of the past are used gracefully and for a reason.

And reason there is. The Then and the Now is a mystery thriller making use of all of Doctor Who’s best qualities when it comes to storytelling. The intrigue held by the Doctor’s still mysterious as a blood ridden soldier is superb. The mystery regarding the Squire, a companion he cannot remember travelling with, is tantalizing. The redemption of Abslom Daak and the effect the Time War had on him helps to create a more three dimensional version of the character than ever encountered. And the locations… just you wait until you read it!

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Vol 1: A Matter of Life and Death

Title: Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor Vol 1: A Matter of Life and Death

ISBN: 9781782767534
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Titan, 2016
Artist: Emma Vieceli
Writer: George Mann
Collects: Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor #1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

The Eighth Doctor will be, for all but devoted Whovians, a blank slate, because he was initially featured in just one film, a failed attempt to relaunch the Doctor Who series in the 1990s.  Devoted fans may have heard the many audio dramas featuring Eighth Doctor Paul Gann, or read some of the novels, but most American fans will not.  Thus, his personality and quirks are not already built into the consciousness of American comics readers.

The problem is handled fairly well in this collection, a miniseries revolving around a mystery.  The Doctor returns to an old home and finds an artist living there, one whose paintings mysteriously come to life.  Over the course of several stories, not only is the mystery solved, but several apparent digressions finally come together into a single story.

Some fans won't be as interested in this unfamiliar incarnation of The Doctor, but the ones who stick around will be in for a good adventure.  The artwork of Emma Vieceli is very good, showing itself best when portraying the nearly real and the nearly human on the various worlds of the story.

The complexity of the tale aims this story at teens and adults, but it is good enough to be attractive to Doctor Who fans willing to try something different.  It would be a poor jumping-on point for readers unfamiliar with the show or the comics.

Sunday, February 9, 2020

Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor Vol. 2: Fractures

Title: Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor Vol. 2: Fractures

ISBN: 9781782783017
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Titan, 2015
Artist: Brian Williamson, Mariano Laclaustra
Writer: Robbie Morrison
Collects: Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor #6-10

Rating: 3.5/5

After their adventures in India, the Doctor and Clara return to her present – but danger is slipping through the cracks between universes, and London (and UNIT!) have no defence against the Fractures! Will the Doctor risk all of reality to reunite a family – or sacrifice a good man to keep the multiverse spinning? Then, the Doctor gambles with his life in 1960s Las Vegas, as he and Clara must team up with gangsters in order to defeat an intergalactic crime syndicate – but is this one too many spins on the Doctor’s roulette wheel?

The second trade collection which badges up Doctor Who: The Twelfth Doctor comic run issues 6-10, following on from the previous ‘Terrorformer’, the second volume ‘Fractures’ collects three distinct stories of The Doctor and Clara Oswald, set roughly during the eighth season of Doctor Who when Peter Capaldi’s Time Lord took to the galactic stage, and on the whole the collection is a delightful mix of some very different, and very modern Whovian tales.

‘The Fractures’, covering issues 6-8 of the comic and from which this trade collection takes its name, is the longest central story from writer Robbie Morrison and artist Brian Williamson, which sees the Doctor and Clara in modern day London (modern day as in 2014), investigating a case very close to Coal Hill School, where of course Clara teaches. Morrison’s tale feels in the vein of S8’s ‘The Caretaker’, with the Doctor as the eccentric school employee who Clara hangs around with and drags schoolgirl Lisa Foster, one of Clara’s students, into battling the titular Fractures; creatures who exist within the void between the so-called ‘multiverse’, acting when the fabric between universes is breached.

Morrison’s reason for such a breach is a very human family story, in the best traditions of Who, and he manages to balance a great depiction of the more severe, alien Doctor played by Capaldi and his dynamic with Clara alongside some genuinely interesting monsters (though they’re variants on what nuWho has done before), throwing Kate Stewart and UNIT into the mix (as Steven Moffat tends to do in most present day stories) and even manages to get callbacks to the Battle of Canary Wharf in nuWho S2 in there. All in all, it’s a really fun, well written and often gorgeously drawn three issue tale which captures the essence not only of modern Who, but also S8 and Capaldi’s first season as the Doctor.

The second story in the collection is ‘Gangland’, again written by Morrison and drawn by Williamson alongside Mariano Laclaustra, covering issues 9-10 of the comic run, which turns out to be a fun and frothy romp through the 60’s. You know what this one reminded me of? Star Trek fans will appreciate this – the Deep Space Nine episode ‘Our Man Bashir’, with its fusion of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. style kitsch and an added dose of alien invasion in the mix. The Doctor and Clara arrive in Las Vegas to see Frankie Seneca & the Wolf Pack play (there must have been a contractual reason why the Rat Pack couldn’t have featured here, as Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin & Sammy Davis Jr. absolutely show up, just with different names), only to get caught up with Mafia mobsters, disgraced boxers and the octopus-like Cybok Imperium who have a very powerful Time Lord weapon and a stranglehold on the 60’s American underworld.

Amidst lots of Vegas glitz Williamson & Laclaustra clearly have a whale of a time drawing (including the Doctor in a Mad Men-style hat), Morrison himself enjoys throwing in lots of references to the 60’s, easy listening, sports and playing on the Doctor’s enjoyment of gambling & trickery, playing games he’s pretty certain he can win. It lacks the emotional depth or scare factor ‘The Fractures’ had, but that’s fine – ‘Gangland’ is one of those nice, throwaway, fun Who episodes you can sit back and soak up, and when it’s as well written & drawn as this, you’ll almost wish they could have actually made it into an episode of the show.

This trade collection is completed by ‘The Body Electric’, written by George Mann, drawn again by Laclaustra and printed in the Free Comic Book Day 2015 compendium rather than being an issue in the ongoing series. It still features the Twelfth Doctor and Clara, but it’s a much much more smaller ‘minisode comic’, if you like, which begins with Clara questioning – what sort of companion is she? It’s a nice little opening query which Clara answers neatly by the end of this short but sweet piece about a Quartz planet, unscrupulous miners, and sentient beings which may unwittingly be the victims of electricity. Laclaustra has fun depicting a planet made out of Quartz while Mann manages to deliver a told story, replete with villain, all in just a few pages – no mean feat. It caps off ‘Fractures’ as a collection quite nicely.

Altogether encapsulating two really strong outings for the Twelfth Doctor and Clara, set roughly during the eighth season of Doctor Who, ‘Fractures’ is a trade collection well worth your time if you want a memorable, and genuinely really well characterized dose, of the Doctor and Clara, especially now their partnership is no more (SPOILERS!). If you haven’t been picking up the Twelfth Doctor’s comic adventures weekly, do yourself a favor and grab this trade – you can jump in and enjoy them as you would most standalone Who episodes.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

Red Sonja: Unchained

Title: Red Sonja: Unchained

ISBN: 9781606904534
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Dynamite, 2014
Artist: Walter Geovani, Jack Jadson
Writer: Peter V. Brett
Collects: Red Sonja: Blue, Red Sonja: Unchained #1-4

Rating: 3.5/5

Red Sonja: Unchained collects the Blue one-shot and the four-issue Red Sonja: Unchained series from last year. Blue sets up the Unchained storyline, so it’s great to have all of these issues in one spot.The Red Sonja: Unchained

Red Sonja rescues a tavern owner’s son from a demon sacrifice, but falls into trouble when – in true Sonja fashion – she makes an outfit for herself out of the demon’s pelt. To be fair, he did break her chain mail bikini, but clothing oneself in demon pelt is probably never a good idea, especially when there’s a lot of blood flying around oneself as a rule. Sonja’s on the run and has to figure out how to break the curse before it’s too late and she ends up donating her own body to Bhamothes, the demon whose fur she wears.

I came in on the tail end of this storyline when I started reading Red Sonja last year, so I was very happy to get the full story here. Peter V. Brett, writer of the Demon Cycle, is great here, giving us a solid supernatural bent that puts the “sorcery” in “sword and sorcery”. He also knows his stuff – there’s a great smack at Conan – because Red Sonja wouldn’t have it any other way – that made me snicker with appreciation. Walter Geovani’s on art duty here, and he knows how to create atmosphere, whether it’s in a mead-soaked tavern or a creepy dungeon. I love his work on Red Sonja.

In addition to the 5 issues, there’s a cover gallery featuring all the covers from Geovani and Mel Rubi, who creates some amazing Red Sonja art. The book is a great companion for Red Sonja fans, and fans of sword and sorcery fantasy.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

Sin City Volume 5: Family Values

Title: Sin City Volume 5: Family Values

ISBN: 9781593072971
Price: $12.00
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005
Artist: Frank Miller
Writer: Frank Miller

Rating: 3.5/5

Family Values, the third Sin City tale with Dwight as its protagonist, is at heart a very simple story, yet Frank Miller deftly wraps it in questions. When last seen in The Big Fat Kill Dwight was attempting to prevent a gang war in the Old Town that would have devastating consequences for the prostitutes working there, several of whom he considered friends. He’s now helping them out once more, except while that’s revealed early, the reasons it’s required are only clarified at the conclusion.

It pits Dwight against the upper echelons of the crime syndicates overseeing their territories, yet in an inventive fashion, overturning the theme of the series to date, as he’s always portrayed in control. This incorporates a very clever sequence reversing the usual tension. Dwight has been abducted by a group of threatening thugs who consider themselves to have the upper hand, yet are puzzled by his confidence. This is because it’s already been established that pint-sized assassin Miho is observing from the rooftops.

Miho has similarities to Elektra, as introduced in Miller’s Daredevil, but Miller’s now a far better artist, and there’s a balletic quality to the way in which she swoops and slices with her swords, aided by the visual effect of using roller-blades. That she’s depicted almost entirely in white against a strong black background supplies an almost ethereal quality. This is fantasy material, diverted into other areas of fantasy by gratuitous partial nudity. In a snowstorm.

Another controversial element is the use of racial insults by one of the thugs. Miller gets a free pass on this one. He’s established his stories as set in a form of recognizable reality even if the location is fictional and the action exaggerated. As distressing as it might be, there are people with those views unconcerned about expressing them. Substituting dialogue that might be perceived as more politically correct (as if that could ever apply to Sin City) would diminish the story. And let’s just say he won’t be talking like that again.

This is one of the shortest Sin City sequences, rendered an even more rapid read via several wordless action sequences, all very effective. Yet it’s also the best to date, the background questions providing the tension, the revelations scattered through the book, and an excellent final scene packing a hefty emotional punch.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye

Title: Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye

ISBN: 1593072937
Price: $17.00
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005
Artist: Frank Miller
Writer: Frank Miller
Collects: Dark Horse Presents #51-62, Dark Horse Presents Fifth Anniversary Special

Rating: 3.5/5

For people who love dark noire thrillers, anti-heroes, beautiful dames and fast paced brutal action set against the dystopian setting of a sinister city -that looks like the mutant offspring of Las Vegas and New York City.

Follow huge ex-convict Marv, who has a mental ‘condition’ that makes him hallucinate and paranoid, as he tries to avenge a beautiful woman murdered in his bed. His quest leads us from the dirty criminal underbelly of Sin City all the way into its highest levels…

Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller is another milestone in the world of graphic novels. Like his classic The Dark Knight Returns redefined Batman forever, Sin City changed the way we view graphic novels. Both in terms of art and story.

Marv is a mentally ill bruiser in Sin City. He works a local strip joint as bouncer and is generally a nice guy. That is until you get tough with him. Then you have a heavy goods train coming straight at you. Marv also carry’s numerous scars from his life of fighting and his violent nature is only kept at bay by his code of chivalry (he doesn’t hit women) and the medication he chew like M&M’s (he’s got a condition…ok).

The Hard Goodbye starts with a Marv spending the night with the beautiful Goldie. He’s an ugly guy. She’s a beautiful dame. Sounds too good to be true… but to Marv it doesn’t matter.

Things start going wrong when Marv wakes up and Goldie is lying next to him in bed, dead! Our hero quickly realizes that she was murdered while he was too drunk to notice or do anything about it. Then, before a moment is wasted the cops show up. This is starting to look like a frame-up job.

And this is where Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye shines. Marv decides he doesn’t want to go down before he figures out who killed Goldie. This means going through an attack squad of Sin City’s finest corrupt cops money can buy.

Frank Miller’s action sequences are breathtaking. No time and space is wasted on talking. No banter. No witty one lines. Just a human tank crushing through everything and anything in its way!

By now you might think that Marv isn’t a very bright man and prefers to solve problems through force. Nothing could be further from the truth. Marv won’t be getting the Nobel Price anytime soon, but he knows his limitations and is really good at asking questions.

So he figures that Goldie was scared. Scared enough to run into the dingiest part of the den of sin that calls itself Basin City (Sin City’s government name). Scared enough to look for the biggest toughest guy she could find and hope that he was enough. Enough to protect her.

Marv starts asking questions. He goes to guys who might know something, asks them and if they don’t give a satisfying answer –hits them over the head a few times. Two bumbling hit men come after them, one has a very fine coat. Marv asks them some questions and gets a fine coat as a gift for his troubles. Slowly he works his way up the ladder and discovers something (that will turn out to be even more) horrible.

Prostitutes have been going missing. Golide (surprise) was one of them working gals. Everything is pointing towards the Roark’s, Sin City’s founding ‘royal family’, who rule this town with an iron fist. No business (legal or illegal) is off limits, the Roark’s get paid from everything that goes on.

Can Marv take on the powers that be of Sin City and avenge a woman he only knew briefly? Is he even getting all this right, after all our hero is prone to paranoid delusions and hallucinations?

Why does someone who looks exactly like Goldie keep trying to kill him? What sinister secrets does an old farmhouse just out of town hide? Who really killed Goldie and why?

The answers to these questions will thrill, shock and engross you!

Frank Miller is the master of the dystopian anti-hero. He also contributed to elevating the American comic into the form of the graphic novel that we know and love today. Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye is a prime example of this.

Miller’s artwork stands out because it is black and white. No colors. Just light and dark. His use of positive and negative spaces is mind-blowing. Often you don’t see a character, building or action –you see an outline.

Miller makes light and shadows dance with each other. You’d think that this simplicity would take away from the visuals but it doesn’t. It lends Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye a very unique and stylized look. Sin City is a filthy, dangerous and menacing place. The artwork conveys this atmosphere and tension perfectly.

Through this look, Miller also, once again, proves that he is a master of illustrating very complex characters and environments in detail without actually putting a lot of detail onto the page. He shows you just enough to get your imagination filling in the blanks, which leads to Sin City reading like a blockbuster action movie instead of a graphic novel.

Miller’s writing in Sin City Volume 1: The Hard Goodbye perfectly intertwines with his artwork to tell an action packed noire detective story without a detective.

Dialogue is used sparingly. It only purpose is moving the story forward or filling in information that can’t be communicated visually. This means that The Hard Goodbye is a very tightly integrated and flowing story.

You really get drawn into the story and connect with Marv. He’s a violent mentally ill bruiser but he has his own idiosyncratic system of values. He’s doing bad things to bad people.

That’s kind of a theme with Miller. That those who practice violence should be punished in kind. I love the little quirks that Miller weaves into the storyline, Marv’s obsession with fine coats for example.

The Hard Goodbye is an excellent read full of action and barely contained energy. If you like noire detective thrillers and modern action movies read this book!

If you just want to cleanse your palate after reading something more emotionally intense like Maus by Art Spiegelman or Daytripper by Moon & Bá –read this graphic novel! The Hard Goodbye is an American masterpiece that will stand out in any collection.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and Other Stories

Title: Conan: The Frost-Giant's Daughter and Other Stories 

ISBN: 9781593073015
Price: $15.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse, 2005
Artist: Cary Nord
Writer: Kurt Busiek
Collects: Conan #0-7

Rating: 3.5/5

Most readers of my generation first learned of Conan and Robert E. Howard from the popular 70s Marvel comic book Conan the Barbarian and its companion magazine The Savage Sword of Conan. Initially written by Roy Thomas with elaborate art by Barry Windsor-Smith (and later John Buscema), the series ran until the mid-90s, when Marvel dropped the property due to lagging sales.

With Del Rey's best-selling, definitive reprint volumes of Howard's works (the fourth is due this summer), persistent rumors of a new film, and the 2006 centenary celebration of Howard's birth, Dark Horse Comics smartly acquired the comic book rights to Conan. Dark Horse has previously enjoyed successful runs with former Marvel hit licensed properties Star Wars and Godzilla. In the late 80s they began their long string of lucrative franchised properties with Aliens followed by Predator, Planet of the Apes, Betty Page, Tarzan, and others. Conan and Dark Horse are a natural fit.

Conan: The Frost Giant's Daughter and Other Stories collects the first seven plus issues of the comic book (issues zero-six and part of seven). At first glance, "The Frost Giant's Daughter" is an unusual piece to adapt. While potentially visually exciting, the story is one of Howard's weaker (and earliest) Conan tales. Unlike most of Howard's other Conan stories, it is basically just a fight scene containing little substance or plot. By using elements found in Howard's essay on the world of Conan ("Nemedian Chronicles" aka "The Hyborian Age"), Kurt Busiek expands the scope of the original to place the events in the context of Conan's life. Busiek develops Howard's version to incorporate other elements of the Conan mythos.

Contrary to popular misinterpretation (thanks primarily to the Marvel comic books and two feature films), Conan, as presented by Howard, is much more than a fighter. He is a thinker, a tactician, a lover, and a loyal friend. Conan is a barbarian, a thief, a mercenary, and ultimately, a king. The tales are full of political intrigue, romance, swordplay, magic, mythology, and more. Like all of Howard's work, Conan was a vividly imaginative interpretation of a young man's West Texas world.

In the graphic novel, a young Conan has journeyed north in search of the legendary kingdom of Hyborea with its riches and immortals. While saving a young woman's life, he gets embroiled in a confrontation between the warring peoples Aesir and Vanir. Through a series of fights and political machinations, events eventually lead to the frost giant's daughter and eventually Hyborea.

Busiek's masterful manipulation of Howard's playground is supported and supplemented by the artistic talents of Gary Nord, Thomas Yeates, and Dave Stewart. Robert E. Howard was a master of action, who wrote some of the finest and most influential fight scenes ever produced. Reminiscent of Frank Frazetta, the art manages to translate the intensity and flow of the source material. Nord's interpretation of the frost giants is original and inspired.

Similar to DVDs, graphic novel compilations must have extras. The highlight of this section is Robert E. Howard scholar Mark Finn's enlightening and entertaining overview of Howard's life and work, illustrated with Nord's original concept sketches. (This certainly bodes well for Finn's forthcoming literary biography of the author.) Other bonus materials include Nord's audition pages and Joseph Michael Linser's chapter breaks.

Unlike most previous attempts, the handsome Dark Horse package is a welcome addition to the Conan mythos. With Busiek, Nord, Yeates, and Stewart at the helm, I'll be back for more.