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Talkback League of @$$holes goes off on TEEN TITANS, ELFQUEST, DEATH, H-E-R-O!

Hey monkey brains, Harry here... I was actually at a very cool Comic event last night myself. At the Alamo Drafthouse IMAGE COMICS and the creators of their upcoming comic... SWORD OF DRACULA were holding a DRACULA NIGHT to celebrate the master of the hickey. We watched the Frank Langella DRACULA, the ol 1985 MR VAMPIRE 2 and the lesbian vampire film... DAUGHTERS OF DARKNESS - which just ruled the fucking Earth on the big screen. Ok, now none of those films have anything to do with comics, but the event was caused by a comic, and the trailer for SWORD OF DRACULA was pretty darn cool. IMAGE has another comic that's coming as a 'sister' release in October called FRANKENSTEIN MOBSTER, which I fucking love. Ok, maybe I'm just a tad on the Famous Monster Addiction scale, but I love Horror comics. From E.C.'s to Creepy's and Eerie's to the pre-trend TALES TO ASTONISH and TALES OF SUSPENSE and JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY to those wonderful issues of TOMB OF DRACULA, Wrightson's FRANKENSTEINs and WEREWOLF BY NIGHT.... oh... and HOUSE OF SECRETS... god I love HOUSE OF SECRETS! I suppose its part of the reason I love HELLBOY so much... it's just an excuse for a wonderful Horror comic disguised as a superhero comic. Now... on to the other @$$holes...

Hey, folks. Ambush Bug here from the Talkback League of @$$holes. This week we have another offering of reviews of your favorite (and not so favorite) comics. Lizzybeth takes a look at Kurt Busiek’s new series ARROWSMITH and Jill Thompson’s DEATH: AT DEATH’S DOOR. Buzz chimes in about a new online horror comic. Cormorant dares to read a Marvel Tsunami comic (that brave soul) and looks at the new ELFQUEST book. Finally, I babble a bit about two DC titles that hold a lot of promise. So sit back, scroll down, and enjoy the reviews. Then blab about them at the bottom in the TalkBacks. It’s the @$$hole way.


TEEN TITANS #1

Writer: Geoff Johns

Pencils: Mike McKone

Inks: Marlo Alquiza

Publisher: DC Comics

Reviewer: Ambush Bug

As far as first issues go, TEEN TITANS #1 was pretty good. Superboy, Wonder Girl, Robin, and Impulse have been running rampant in the pages of YOUNG JUSTICE for years. Peter David did a decent job of telling the ongoing adventures of the youngest team of superheroes, but in the end failed to treat any of the characters with real depth. The stories were too light and fluffy, and ultimately nothing of real consequence ever happened. YOUNG JUSTICE is more of a direct representation of the TEEN TITANS cartoon premiering this past weekend on the Cartoon Network. I just saw the first episode, and while I admire the attempt to cash in on the Pokemon style, I have to say that this isn’t the TEEN TITANS I grew up reading. The TEEN TITANS I remember grouped together a bunch of young heroes and threw them into dire situations. Real world issues like drug abuse, domestic violence, and murder were handled. It was a book charged with emotion. The classic team of Marv Wolfman and George Perez gave the readers a taste of what it would be like growing up in the shadows of larger-than-life superhero mentors and dealing with the problems of the real world. After reading this first issue, it seems that Geoff Johns is going for those old emotionally-charged days of Wolfman and Perez for this new team of young heroes. And that’s a good sign.

This was your typical recruitment first issue. No real action takes place. Robin knocks out Tweedle Dum. Wonder Girl smashes a desk. Superboy flies above a wheat field. The issue is about bringing together all of the right players in order to get the ball rolling. We’ve seen it a million times: One guy has an idea for a team. He goes around recruiting new members. Some are excited, others join reluctantly, still others bow out only to be caught up in the action later. We even seen it twice before within the last few months. Once in the superb first issue of FORMERLY KNOWN AS THE JUSTICE LEAGUE and again in the less superior, but decent intro issue of THE OUTSIDERS. I don’t really have an issue with Johns’ decision to open the book slowly, but just once I’d love to see a team book kick ass in the first issue to hook us all in and THEN explain how they all came together in subsequent issues.

But, like I said, Johns immediately dives into the emotion in this issue. The Young Justice team broke up suddenly. Two heroes died in the GRADUATION DAY miniseries which teamed up the Titans and Young Justice. Two teams were shattered. For the younger batch of heroes, the deaths were taken hard. Most of them hadn’t experienced that much loss. They teamed up because they had fun together and suddenly, with the death of two heroes, the fun came to an end. Things were left unresolved. So far, this is a series about how a tragic event can tear friends apart and the steps that must be taken to mend those friendships.

Johns makes each core member interesting again (something that the writers of SUPERBOY and IMPULSE failed to do, hence the cancellation of their own series). Superboy is bored with his life in Smallville. He thinks the tedious day to day responsibility of school and chores is beneath him. Wonder Girl is being expelled from school because her public identity draws a super villain to the school grounds every other week. Impulse is trying to gain the respect of Flash, a “mentor” who has never really been present in the impetuous kid’s life. Robin, as always, is level-headed, but simply misses his friends. Johns brings this team together, but they make these steps reluctantly. It will be a few issues before this team comes together, but Johns is making it an interesting mending process to read about.

Meanwhile, older members Cyborg, Starfire, and Changeling (AKA Beast Boy) are along for the ride. It’s good to see the old crew together again. As in Johns’ other team book, JSA, this book is all about legacy. There’s a nice scene where the team meets at the base of a statue of the five founders of the original Teen Titans. It helps remind the kids why they come together and what they are fighting for. The concept behind the book (a team of super kids that come together on the weekends) isn’t the most groundbreaking of ideas, but it gives Johns an excuse to gather these characters together. One thing I like about this book is the lack of a “creator made” new character in the Titans roster. I am sick and tired of a relaunched book starring all of the old crew AND some new character who you just know will get lost in the shuffle as soon as the writer leaves the book. I’m glad to see Johns is not following this horrible trend.

Mike McKone has improved a lot since I first saw him in the pages of JLI all those years ago. Back then it looked as if he were tracing photographs in his panels. In this book, each character is unique. Different body types are depicted. Superboy is big and buff. Robin is slender and wiry. Beast Boy is more cartoony while Starfire is statuesque. Each character is drawn classically, hinting at those old ultra-detailed panels of the master, George Perez. It’ll be great to see McKone throw the kid gloves off and draw some action in future issues.

If you’re looking for a balls-to-the-wall action issue, look elsewhere. This issue deals with emotions and re-introductions. And we have more to come. We only saw Cyborg’s eye in this issue and Raven was nowhere to be found. I can’t wait to see how that sexy blue hooded sorceress is going to be re-introduced. It’s a good set up issue, tying up the loose ends from the god-awful GRADUATION DAY miniseries. Johns seems to be treating this group seriously and pushing their characters in new directions. TEEN TITANS holds promise in its spot-on characterization and respect for what has come before. I just can’t wait for the intros to be over with so that the real fun and action can begin.


ELFQUEST 25th ANNIVERSARY SPECIAL

Story: Richard and Wendy Pini

Art and Script: Wendy Pini

Published by DC Comics

Reviewed by Cormorant

"The sportos, the motorheads, the geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, dickheads -- they all adore him."

--Grace, Principal's Secretary, FERRIS BUELLER'S DAY OFF

When I was in sixth grade, the first volume of ELFQUEST stories was passed around from student to student until literally every single kid in that class had read it. Pretty amazing. From geeks to sluts to wastoids, we loved the hell out of that thing, and looking back on the series through this 25th Anniversary reprint of the first issue, it's not hard to see why.

Let's begin with the obvious: ELFQUEST was (and still is) sexy.

Now there's a long tradition of chainmail bikini babes in schlock fantasy (what else would high school airbrush artists paint?), but legitimate fantasy works - epics like LORD OF THE RINGS – can be almost painfully chaste; certainly too chaste for sixth-graders first hitting those pesky hormonal spikes. Enter ELFQUEST, with its earthy, long-eared cast of sexually uninhibited elves. They had the large, expressive eyes one might find in the pop-fantasy art of Brian Froud (THE DARK CRYSTAL), but curves and proportions that more closely matched our own, and beautifully-drawn faces. So, yes, there was a prurient interest! What made it okay - what set the series apart from the exploitational WITCHBLADES and LADY DEATHS yet to come - is that it was a very healthy sort of sexuality, even idealized. What else would you expect from a book written by a husband and wife team? The characters in the Wolfrider tribe of elves were fierce fighters, but just as defined by their fierce love of their mates and the familial bondings of the tribe. It was an attractive combination then, and frankly, it's an attractive combination now.

And of course, hand in hand with the sensuality of the series goes Wendy Pini's detailed artwork. Her characters are very individualized, almost like animation models, with simple but very memorable tribal costumes. Of course, Wendy Pini's a terrific craftsmen in all other aspects of the art as well – rich backgrounds, effective storytelling, confident inking, etc. – but you can't help but come back to the characters in ELFQUEST. They look cool. They exude personality and individuality, and pretty much everyone I know who's read the series has found themselves drawn to a particular favorite.

Mine? Skywise, the sly-witted best friend of the tribe's leader and perpetual dreamer of the lot.

Now let's cut past the youthful, fannish appreciation and look at the story. For you mouth-breathers out there thinking to yourself, "Dude, I ain't gonna read no gay elf comic!", you should know that the series doesn't skimp on conflict and violence. In fact, it opens with one of the elves having been captured and tortured, just about to be burned alive by his captors – primitive, tribal humans. See, unlike most fantasy series that take place in generic versions of medieval Europe, ELFQUEST adopts a more innovative setting – the prehistoric world that really existed, dotted with tribes of cavemen, giant sloths, and other denizens of the Ice Age. In this world, in a secluded glade, live the night-hunting Wolfriders, Elves with a mystical bond to the wolves they've domesticated. They don't even know of the world beyond the borders of their forest, and keep an uneasy peace with the nearby humans and an underground troll enclave. With swords flashing, these elves stage a daring raid on the human encampment, rescuing their fellow elf, but humiliating the humans enough to provoke the unthinkable – the humans burn down the forest, the only home the elves have ever known and the source of the game that sustained both elves and humans.

Within the first few pages, this destruction effectively ends the elves' way of life. The Wolfriders are forced to begin searching for a new homeland and ultimately, other tribes of elves (hence the series' title). Now you'll never catch the heavy-handed tones of allegory in ELFQUEST – it's much too spry and charismatic for that kind of seriousness – but it doesn't take much looking to find relevance in the elves' quest for a homeland, in their search for their origin, and in the many culture clashes they'll eventually deal with. The first such clash comes when they take refuge in the caves of the trolls, a duplicitous lot for whom they've hunted game in exchange for steel weapons. The end result of their appeal to the trolls for shelter is a brutal lesson that pretty much kickstarts the entire saga. And even though I know the outcome, I can't help but get a thrill experiencing that first step again.

Now keep in mind, as I lavish ELFQUEST with praise, that it's a very broadly played series. There's surprising depth to be found, especially as the story progresses, but the situations are straightforward and the characters a touch archetypal. There's wit and imagination a'plenty, but those looking for the post-modernist edge of a Grant Morrison or the irony of Warren Ellis will be disappointed. Elfquest is an unpretentious, heartfelt adventure, and in that capacity, it just happens to be one of the best stories ever told in the comics medium.

For this reprinting, which acts as a sort of "sampler" before DC begins reprinting the full saga in a hardcover format, Wendy Pini has returned to completely recolor and re-letter the book, and even jostles the placement of some word balloons and captions for better effect. No George Lucas screw-ups to be had, though – the story and art remain wholly intact, just polished to a superior sheen. I compared the look of the new book to my old Starblaze editions – nicely colored to begin with – and indeed, the new coloring is superior, if a little oversaturated in a handful of panels. Yep, it looks like I'll be picking up the series for a second time in its new format, not grudgingly, but as a happy return to old friends. You newcomers might want to meet them.


DEATH: AT DEATH’S DOOR

by Jill Thompson

DC/Vertigo Comics

reviewed by: Lizzybeth

As Spinal Tap has taught us, there’s a fine line between genius and stupidity. AT DEATH’S DOOR just blurs the heck out of it. I mean, holy shit – goth manga? Mining the two renewable resources of comics in the 21st century at once, while referencing one of the most respected series ever? It’s some kind of nefarious, wicked brilliance at work. Sure, Jill Thompson has drawn big-eyed Endless before, most recently in her LIL’ ENDLESS one-shot, but this is a lengthy volume that is in size, style, and tone a perfect mimic of the Oni Guide to Popular Consciousness, the Americanized manga approach, only with extra cuteness. Death and her siblings are so relentlessly adorable throughout that it’s practically a guerrilla attack, just smacking you in the head with the blunt instrument of cuteness until you have to give in and go along with it. That is, unless you are me, the picky old-school fan who just whimpers when she sees a panel of Delirium, Death and Despair shouting “BY THE POWER OF THE ANKH!” like a She-ra cheerleader brigade, not to mention the trite girl-power page where Death, backed by her sisters, says “Girls can be anything they want to be - even the anthropomorphic personifications of aspects of the universe!” I just have to shake my head. I was so ready to love this - I’ve got total and undiminished respect for Jill Thompson - but this just doesn’t work for me.

First the good. Jill Thompson uses this volume to reinterpret Neil Gaiman’s “Season of Mists” storyline from the venerable SANDMAN series, the arc where Lucifer abandons hell and turns the key over to Dream, and her direct visualizations of Gaiman’s story have some great moments. Seeing Jill Thompson’s renditions of characters like Matthew the Raven, Loki, and the various Endless is a real treat, even if Dream does come off as a bratty teenager for much of the book. What Thompson adds to the “Season of Mists” story is to fill in Death’s activities during this time period, as she copes with the newly-released denizens of hell as they flood back onto the Earth (and into her own abode, being naturally drawn back to the being who escorted them to hell in the first place). Delirium and Despair show up to observe the chaos, and in their own ways, assist. Delirium’s big idea is to throw a party for the dead, because “everyone was probably NOT having a good time in ‘aich ee double hockey sticks’”. As probably the definitive artist for the character of Delirium, Thompson does a splendid job of drawing and characterizing her here (it only makes me wish harder for that long-promised DELIRIUM miniseries!). There are some genuinely humorous parts in the new stuff, especially (to my surprise) surrounding Despair. Apparently she likes Nirvana. That figures. Plus, there's an entertaining sequence of semi-flirting between Despair and a certain raven-obsessed poet recently freed from hell, although it doesn’t end up going anywhere. I can see it having appeal for fans of the current crop of goth comics like GLOOM COOKIE as well as American fans of Shouji manga who aren’t already familiar with the SANDMAN mythos. The volume is very new-reader friendly, as it includes just about all of the relevant information to understand the “Season of Mists” tale without having to trawl through the proper SANDMAN volumes. But is that a good thing?…

The problem is that the most, and almost only, enjoyable parts of AT DEATH’S DOOR are Thompson’s renditions of “Season of Mists”. These scenes are word-for-word, and very nearly image-for-image, retreads of the SANDMAN tale, ostensibly to frame the story for Death, Delirium, and Despair’s little adventure behind the scenes. The contrast between the Gaiman-written scenes and Thompson’s additions really pull the book down – every page from the popular SANDMAN arc outshines Thompson’s additions in both imagination and wit. And the directly Gaiman-written sections are pretty extensive, including everything from scenes from the original story arc to character descriptions (for each sibling of the Endless) to dialogue integrated into the new sections (Green Mouse and Telephone Ice Cream reappears here). As they are word-for-word recreations, it doesn’t feel enough like an homage to dispel the sense that there was simply nothing new to add to the story. The Charles/Edwin boys’ school story is recreated here as well – why? It was an intriguing grace note to the original SANDMAN story arc, but completely unnecessary in a volume that is in itself an elaboration.

Result being, the new generation of manga and goth enthusiasts will probably thrill to the tale of the key to Hell and its various pursuers (Lord Kilderkin, Shivering Jemmy, Azazel, the angels Duma and Remiel) without realizing that all the best parts came out ten years ago. Oh man, I can just get out the rocking chair now… I sound like exactly the sort of grump I can’t stand to listen to. But that’s not my only point – the contrast in tones is nearly insufferable. Gaiman’s dry and morose humor (minus the intellectualizations, Desire is evil, Delight is crazy, and Death is fun) just doesn’t mesh with the kind of manga that Thompson is trying to squeeze it into. Delirium’s silly slapstick was fine in small doses, to offset the gloom, but fitting Death and Despair into it is trickier than it looks. Death as a character has always struck me as too sensible for the kind of manga cutey-pie she turns up as here. While I’m at it, why in hell (sorry, no pun intended) is Death cowering before some lowly demon, when by all previous indications she’s the most powerful being in the universe? Finally, the whole new sequence is pure froth which adds nothing to the Season of Mists story – if we are to think of these as “cut scenes” from the original book, really they were better left out. Covering Death’s side of the story is a good idea for a series - but what did we learn here? Death is shown running around like a madwoman trying to manage all the extra workload, something which Gaiman already demonstrated in a few panels of SANDMAN. The expansion brings a few chuckles, but no memorable innovations. Including the Gaiman sections is a miscalculation that calls attention to just how extraneous these additions are, and it only makes me long for another real collaboration between Gaiman and Thompson.

I’ve really got to stop getting suckered into buying all of these SANDMAN cash-ins. It was my hope that Jill Thompson, being a previous SANDMAN collaborator who had the definitive interpretation of Delirium, would produce a worthy side-project, but neither AT DEATH’S DOOR nor THE LIL ENDLESS STORYBOOK has satisfied that craving. Thompson’s artwork here is delightful as usual, but, speaking for myself, I’m not necessarily looking to this material for delight. There has been a void left behind by SANDMAN’s demise, whether we care to admit it or not. No series since has been so extensively, exhaustively planned and beautifully executed, no serious and literary mainstream project remains save perhaps Alan Moore’s PROMETHEA. Until such a thing comes along, I guess I’m back to waiting for ENDLESS NIGHTS (coming this fall).


H-E-R-O #6

Writer: Will Pfeifer

Artist: Kano

Publisher: DC Comics

Reviewed: Ambush Bug

I believe it was an issue of DC COMICS PRESENTS that first introduced me to the world of Dial H For Hero. I remember a story of a boy and a girl, each with magical dials that, when the buttons were pressed in the proper sequence, granted them superhuman powers. Throughout the story, the kids changed over and over into one brightly colored character after another. The hook: these characters were created by the fans. When I was a kid, I loved to make up my own comic book characters. I would draw them out, give them cool names and powers, and imagine that someday I would be able to read about them in the comics. The Dial H For Hero concept played into the imagination that all of us had, bringing our dreams of becoming comic creators to life. It was kind of like becoming a hero yourself. Month after month, readers saw their creations battle it out or team up with DC heroes like Superman. The characters were never that original and the stories were pretty flimsy, but there was a certain charm in the knowledge that these heroes came from people like you or me.

H-E-R-O is a re-imagination of the Dial H For Hero concept. The series' central character is a small golden dial, and the book focuses each month on a new individual who finds the dial and uses its power. This title had the potential to get very old, very fast, but due to the smart writing by Will Pfeifer, the tale of a little dial has become one of the more interesting deconstructionist superhero series in recent months.

As I re-read the first six issues of H-E-R-O, I started thinking about the overall themes of the series and how they compare to the original Dial H For Hero concept. Both have everyday people using a magical dial to turn into heroes, but that’s where these similarities end. The original series was about fulfilling your dreams, being able to fly through the air, and lift mountains. It played off the imagination of the reader, allowing him to go places where he thought he never could go. H-E-R-O takes this a step further. This series deals with the rush of the power and the fun that comes with it, but reminds us all that there are consequences to every action and if those actions are not well thought out the results could be dire indeed.

Looking at it one way, Pfeifer has taken the original “Dial” concept and evolved it into something more sophisticated; something that comments on the concept of being a hero. It teaches the reader that being a hero is not all wine and roses. It shows how the rush of power can be intoxicating, but fleeting and self-destructive. It is a moral tale; one of responsibility. One the other hand, it kind of squelches the appeal one might see in becoming a hero. Every story has ended with the main character either losing the dial due to bad judgment or the tossing the dial away because it was becoming too much of a detriment to their lives. Upon seeing this trend, it makes me wonder what the message is that Pfiefer is trying to tell us in this series. Does Pfiefer mean to say that you shouldn’t be a hero? Is Pfeifer saying that it doesn’t pay to do what’s right with what you’ve got? Kind of the exact opposite theme of the old Dial H concept, huh? The old concept prompted you to dream, while the new one shatters these dreams. You tell me which one sounds more fun.

Although the themes of this book may be debatable, the quality of the stories is not.

There was a moment in issue #3 of the H-E-R-O series that I knew I wasn’t just reading another bland examination of the role of the superhero. Jerry, a down-on-his-luck fast food worker who stumbles upon the magical dial, is trying to muster up enough confidence to call a girl and ask her out on a date. It’s something almost every guy has done. There’s anxiety. There’s fear. There’s anticipation. After a few clumsy practice speeches, Jerry uses the dial to change into an armored super hero and calls her up. This classic moment perfectly illustrates realistic problems dealt with in super-realistic ways, a major theme of the series. If I had the dial as a teenager, I probably would’ve done the same thing. This scene put a smile on my face and reassured me that Pfeifer was a writer who was right up my alley.

In this month’s issue of H-E-R-O, the dial ends up in the hands of a teenage girl. Andrea Allen is the new girl in school. She’s looking for friends and a place to fit in. Andrea shares the secret of the dial with two classmates to win their affection, but soon the dial becomes more of a curse than a blessing. Andrea’s friends fight over the dial and use its power recklessly. Soon, Andrea wishes she never found the dial in the first place. It’s a nice little story, featuring some inspired twists and enjoyable moments. Pfeifer is having a lot of fun passing the dial from one extreme personality to another from month to month. As a stand alone story, this one is pretty entertaining; maintaining the series' themes of power, and the responsibility one must have with such power.

Artist Kano (I don’t think it’s the same guy from the Mortal Kombat game, but I could be wrong) has a unique style that reminds me of Mike Allred’s art. The deep lines of his characters faces are damn good. One of my few beefs with this title is the “genericity” of the costumes of these heroes. But I guess if you had to draw an original hero that would only show up for a single panel twelve times per issue, you’d want to save the cool looking costumes for characters who would stick around longer. Kano’s panels are vibrant, depicting the action and inaction of the scenes with precision and style. I also have to give credit to the colors of this series. I don’t usually comment on color, but J.D. Mettler paints the entire series with washes of oranges and grays. These are ambiguous shadings for a truly unique and ambiguous book.

Whatever Pfeifer is trying to say with this book has yet to be determined. I haven’t grown bored with seeing how the dial affects each new owner, although I could see this concept getting old if some type of consistent connecting device is not introduced. Personally, I’d love to see readers write in with character ideas and have them pop up throughout the story. Sure it's a hurky-jerky fanboy hook, but it was one that inspired me as a kid and it might introduce the innocence and fun back into this classic concept. As it is, H-E-R-O is doing a great job of telling solid stories and forcing us to ask ourselves what it takes to be a hero.

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