Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
We’re back on schedule with the guys, and damn glad to have ‘em. They made up for last week’s logjam on our end by writing an extra-large column for today, and in particular, Lizzybeth has done a tremendous job covering a title I’ve been very, very curious about. Great read this week, gang.
Woohoo! Cormorant here with a crazy-big column! In fact, it's so big that I spent all my time editing it and don't have any creativity left to write a witty intro, or even a stupid intro. You'll just have to settle for a brief intro.
So let's cut to the chase and open with Lizzybeth's testimonial to SANDMAN: ENDLESS NIGHTS, a testimonial comic book publishers would do well to read as they seek to expand their audience beyond die-hard superhero fandom…
SANDMAN – ENDLESS NIGHTS (HC)
Neil Gaiman, many awesome people
reviewed by: Lizzybeth
I would not be reading comics today if it wasn’t for THE SANDMAN.
I started out with superhero comics, believe it or not. For awhile there, when I was young, I read X-MEN comics pretty much exclusively, trading and discussing them eagerly with my brother and the neighborhood kids. We debated which powers were cooler and who could beat who in a fight, and speculated about who was who’s nephew from the future or alternate-dimension twin and all of that. We tried to guess how the latest crossover was going to resolve itself, and we read our neighbor’s copies of the old books we couldn’t find in the stores with the nervous owner breathing over our necks and watching our faces as we discovered how so-and-so first met, and the secret origins of the team’s worst enemy who by then was a superhero himself. Yeah, it was pretty cool. But then a funny thing happened – every single one of those kids quit reading comics, left and never came back. Anyone who remembers what comics were like in the 90’s will need no explanation, but for the rest of you, let me jog your memory:
SUPER-RARE DIE-CUT GATEFOLD COVER #1 ISSUE, SPECIAL EDITION!!!!
So it was 1993, and we were losing interest, it was 1994, and we were leaving, and by 1996 my comic book store had closed and you had to drive almost an hour to find a shop that hadn’t gone under. Sooner or later, if it’s blatant enough, kids can figure out they’re being suckered. After all, there wasn’t much real value being offered to us anymore, just hype-driven inflation exploited by Marvel comics and their imitators to keep collectors handing over their money. Before long we were too busy hunting down UNITY ISSUE 0 or the first appearance of Cable or the variant cover of SHI to actually read the comics we were buying, and it was just as well when what was between the pages of an $86 collector’s item was almost identical to what was within the comics stuffed into the fifty-cent bin. We negotiated for those bad-girl comics, those first overdrawn Image titles, the spider-clones and the Azraels, we took them home in their mylar bags and carefully boxed them in a dust-free environment and only took them out to compare them to the photo in WIZARD and to decide when to sell. And so when the speculator’s market collapsed, there was no reason to stick around. We had been carefully taught to buy, and value, holographic wrap-around covers and not the pages in between, not the creators who made those books, and certainly not a good story.
I stayed with comics after everyone I knew had quit because I discovered THE SANDMAN. I knew from the first time I picked up a SANDMAN comic that I had found something special, something that brought together just about everything I was interested in at the time and made sense of it. I was young enough then that I had to talk my shop owner into selling it to me. When I took a SANDMAN copy home for the first time and curled up somewhere with it, it felt like I was discovering the secrets of the world. Here was my inspiration, the foundation myth for my generation, not the literature of decades before like we read at school, but of my own time. And after chasing comics for years, finally one of them was speaking back. It seemed like it was tailor-made for me. In truth, in retrospect, it was tailor-made for the time. In the shallow collector’s market, here was a work of depth and complexity, a book that in that disposable industry demanded to be read, and to be read over and over. With many readers it immediately hit a nerve in the way it personified the forces of the universe, at a time when the world was changing at bewildering speeds. And it examined, as WATCHMEN had done in the 80’s, just what these stories mean for us, in a time when those stories were seeming to lose meaning.
THE SANDMAN was not revolutionary. It did not make Vertigo Comics (Alan Moore was there first), and it wasn’t the first comic of such an esoteric and academic nature (Alan Moore went there first as well, among others). It was not the first non-superhero comic to break through to an audience since the code, and not the first long-running non-mainstream title. But THE SANDMAN was a special case in a number of ways. The industry had already been revolutionized by THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS and WATCHMEN, but those were shorter works, what has by now become the graphic novel. SANDMAN went on for 75 issues, and nearly ten years, an unprecedented streak of brilliance. Very few series before or since have been able to maintain that level of quality. Neil Gaiman also had an advantage that creators like the Hernandez brothers and Will Eisner never got: unswerving support and promotion from a monolith like DC Comics, the kind of exposure that made THE SANDMAN a phenomenon both within and without the comics industry. You were as likely to read about SANDMAN in ROLLING STONE as WIZARD, and one of TV’s top shows featured an Endless poster on Darlene Connor’s wall. It was a pop-culture phenomenon that comics have yet to repeat, reaching readers in goth culture (Death fans all) and in academia, as well as famous followers like Stephen King and Tori Amos. The fan base that SANDMAN picked up by its conclusion was most astonishing considering the subject matter. SANDMAN was the place where history, mythology, philosophy, and religion met and had drinks, where Shakespeare, the Furies, the King of Pain, Lucifer, Odin, Caesar Augustus, and obscure DC comics characters could occupy the same space with no cognitive dissonance. Neil Gaiman built up such a degree of reverence that he eventually became one of the few comics giants to successfully cross over into another medium, winning the prestigious Hugo award for his most recent novel AMERICAN GODS. The brilliance of the writing was well supported by Gaiman’s collaborator Dave McKean, the genius graphic designer whose covers for the entire SANDMAN run merited their own hardcover collection, and a gathering of the most talented illustrators of the time, from Sam Kieth to P. Craig Russell to Marc Hempel and Michael Zulli. It was a remarkable piece of work, groundbreaking as an achievement in comics storytelling, its very existence a small miracle at time when comics had comparatively little to brag about. Now, after six years, Neal Gaiman has returned to THE SANDMAN with a beautiful 150-page hardcover, featuring a diverse collection of artists illustrating seven tales of the Endless in a splendid presentation by DC comics. To their credit, they give one of their most talented creators the red carpet treatment with this volume, from the lovely gold-leaf cover to the fawning dust jacket quotes.
Some people rejoice to see writers like Neil Gaiman moving towards more mainstream projects, taking a crack at their own favorite characters. I on the other hand rejoice to see them returning to their own characters, their own projects, on their own terms. So while my copy of 1602 is currently on the top of my giveaway box on the front stoop, ENDLESS NIGHTS is something of an event for me. I admit that sequels have been an iffy prospect in the last few years, whether you’re looking at the STAR WARS franchise or THE DARK KNIGHT STRIKES AGAIN, but my only real concern about ENDLESS NIGHTS was that it might be, like AMERICAN GODS, something of a retread of Gaiman’s favorite good ideas. But even if the new collection didn’t live up to the series, it couldn’t damage what Gaiman had already accomplished. This was my attitude. And now here I am happily surprised, for ENDLESS NIGHTS holds up as a further chapter in the series rather than a pleasant addendum; it is wonderful, it is artfully done and beautifully written in a way that a half-decade’s hiatus could not have predicted. I am so pleased to report that ENDLESS NIGHTS breaks new ground for the series, and shows that the Sandman universe has continued to grow and develop in Gaiman’s mind even though he hasn’t been sharing it with us the past few years. Delirium in particular has altered since the “The Wake”, in a way that isn’t so surprising when you consider what has happened in the world since we saw her last. We also see for the first time how certain of the Endless were quite different in the years long past, which casts an interesting light on the versions of them we have come to know. The best of these stories are thought-provoking and shiver-inducing and bring me back to that feeling of wonder that those old original issues brought me years ago. And then there’s the artwork, which again holds to the high expectations of the series (and in many cases far exceeds the workmanship standards of Vertigo):
"Death and Venice" – Featuring favorite Gaiman collaborator P. Craig Russell (“Ramadan”, MURDER MYSTERIES). I love his rendition of Death, the 18th century alchemist who has found a way to elude her, and the 21st century soldier who loves her.
"What I’ve Tasted of Desire" – Featuring beloved Italian illustrator Milo Manara, this tale follows a village girl with the blessing, or the curse, of Desire’s favor. Manara is particularly well-suited to his material, and it has me wishing to see his rendition of other Gaiman characters, particularly the inhabitants of Faerie.
"The Heart of a Star" (Dream) – This surprising tale is illustrated by Miguelanxo Prado, and shows why it became forbidden for the Endless to love mortals. This is the earliest SANDMAN story yet, and it features some characters that I had never expected to see directly. My favorite of the collection, with truly wonderful art (who IS this guy?) and many interesting revelations.
"Fifteen Portraits of Despair" – Created by Dave McKean and Barron Storrey, this is the most visually experimental of the group (naturally), and is the only story to really exploit Gaiman’s gift for horror.
"Going Inside" (Delirium) – Featuring the marvelous Bill Sienkiewicz, this chapter sends us straight into Delirium’s realm on a rescue mission. Visually stunning, and I love the idea of recruiting mental patients to look for a lost Delirium.
"On the Peninsula" (Destruction) – Featuring Glenn Fabry, this is a clever tale of an archeologist who unearths a cache of artifacts from the future. Proves that Destruction and Delirium don’t necessarily mix well.
"Endless Nights" (Destiny) – Painted by Frank Quitely, this final chapter is an all-too-brief walk with Destiny through his garden. A magnificent conclusion to a stunning collection.
As it turns out, the only needlessly repetitive element of ENDLESS NIGHTS is that cover blurb from Stephen King that finds its way onto every piece of work that Gaiman does, but somehow I can’t see fit to do without it: “Neil Gaiman is a treasure house of story, and we are lucky to have him in any medium.” It’s the most succinct summary statement you could find on the man, and it could probably replace my whole review when you come down to it. But then we wouldn’t have a column, and I wouldn’t get to rave about the medium I love and the author who made me love it. So let me just finish by saying: welcome back, Neil. We are lucky to have you.
CAPTAIN AMERICA #17
Dave Gibbons – Writer
Lee Weeks – Penciller
Tom Palmer – Inker
Published by DC Comics
Reviewed by Village Idiot
With issue #17, writer Dave Gibbons has taken a brand new direction in storytelling for CAPTAIN AMERICA comics. Rather than follow the classic mode of Cap introspectively and wrenchingly exploring the moral culpability of the American soul, Gibbons has boldly redefined the Captain America story as one about a hero who represents the best in America and who fights bad guys. There's no telling what the future may hold for this strikingly new style Cap, but this truly unique and innovative approach may be the breath of fresh air this title needs.
Okay, I was being a bit facetious there. The fact is that a straightforward version of Cap where the examination of the American moral psyche is not at the forefront of the action is so rare these days, it actually feels like an entirely new approach.
And so, here we are with CAPTAIN AMERICA #17, with Cap taking on the bad guys yet again, and saving the earnest ruminations for later. Unfortunately, it took a “What If.…”-type story to get us there.
But what a “What If...” story! Cap is awakened from the ice flow to find himself in a world run by Nazis! (And I’m not talking about a world with John Ashcroft, you knuckleheads!) Apparently, while Cap was dozing, the Nazis won World War II, even securing dominance over the USA. Cap soon finds himself in Nazi Headquarters in New York, and given an ultimatum by Hitler’s heir apparent, the Red Skull: Join the Nazis and become a propaganda tool, or resist and be dissected for the sake of a new race of Aryan supermen. How does Cap get out of this one? Read the blasted book to find out!
Meanwhile, Lee Weeks art is pretty sharp, pretty alive, reminding me a bit of Bryan Hitch. Wonderful stuff. And who would have thought this sucker would be written by WATCHMEN illustrator Dave Gibbons. Nice work all around.
As part of my extensive research for this review, I checked Diamond’s market share rankings for August, and found that CAPTAIN AMERICA #16 ranked 30th for the month. That’s one slot ahead of DC’s BIRTHRIGHT, which I am led to believe is a success. So despite my snarky comments at the beginning of this review, the tortured-exploration-of-the-American-soul-Cap seems to be working for a significant part of the audience. Even so, I can’t help thinking that CAPTAIN AMERICA #17 should come as a welcome respite to more traditional Cap fans, and an interesting interlude to the newer ones.
STREET FIGHTER #1
Writer: Ken Siu-Chong
Artists: Alvin Lee, Arnold Tsang, Andrew Hou, Rey and Joe Madureira
Publisher: Image Comics
MEGA MAN #1
Writer: Brian Augustyn
Artist: Mic Fong
Publisher: Dreamwave Productions
Reviewed by Cormorant
I grew up in the 80's, so that means I'm an old-school video game player (let's hear a big shout out for Tempest, Joust, and all my homies who ran with the Commodore 64's!). But at some point I slipped away from home videogames and arcades for a few years, and inexplicably missed out on the STREETFIGHTER and MEGA MAN franchises. I played some of their descendents – gimme TEKKEN any day – but these O.G.'s of gaming eluded me. So given my lack of familiarity with these games and the fact that most nostalgia-based comics depress me, it's with great surprise that I come here before you today to tell you that STREET FIGHTER #1 and MEGA MAN #1 are in fact…pretty fun comics!
MEGA MAN, it turns out, must have taken some inspiration from Osamu Tezuka's classic creation, Astro Boy, and I likes me some Astro Boy. Long story short, we're looking at a 50's-style, hi-tech future, where flying cars have fins, the robots all look cute, and a kindly, white-haired scientist named Dr. Light has created a robot that looks like a human boy. But where Astro Boy has guns that pop out of his butt, Mega Man – important distinction here! – is a little more dignified with an arm that turns into a gun. Very different. No lawsuits, please.
And like all Pinocchio derivatives, Mega Man is trying to learn to be more human, so a good chunk of the comic shows his wacky troubles during his first day at school. Ah, but when trouble arrives, he drops the human pretense, gears up for battle, and goes after the bad guys. In his own wryly self-aware words: "Oh well, time for teen angst later."
I was very taken with the relative innocence of the menace Mega Man faces: robotic saboteurs who have been attacking the hovering, automated traffic lights invented by Dr. Light! Oh, the municipal horror! Actually, everything about the series is good-natured, making this a really fun comics for kids and adults who appreciate that kind of stuff. It's hokey, it's cheesy, and it won't be winning any industry awards, but as revealed through the witty writing of writer Brian Augustyn (CRIMSON, GOTHAM BY GASLIGHT), MEGA MAN's a hoot that I just might keep an eye on. Check out the snazzy artwork here. Love the cityscapes!
Where STREET FIGHTER impressed me was in delivering an approachable, action-packed first issue that worked for someone unfamiliar with the franchise. I've played enough fighting games to know that the background stories created for the characters become ridiculously convoluted over time, but I found none of that in this first issue. Clean-cut martial artist, Ryu, has come to San Francisco to seek out fellow clean-cut martial artist, Ken, and inform him that their sensei has been…murdered! Cool. Stock plot device that I can deal with, and I got a good deal of amusement from the fact that these guys seemingly walk around everywhere in their distinctive karate uniforms. Meanwhile, an Interpol agent named Guile who sports a ridiculously volcanic high-top haircut is on the trail of a criminal organization called Shadaloo. New intel connects them to Ryu, and in short order, all three major good guys end up crossing paths at a restaurant in Chinatown. Simple, straightforward, and best of all, we get a fantastic fight sequence when a pack of Shadaloo goons tries to bust up the restaurant and gets their asses handed to them by Guile. He's my fave so far (you're required by law to pick favorites when dealing with fighting game characters), boldly sporting military fatigues, an American flag tattoo, and the ability to execute one of those cool chop-socky backflips where you kick your opponent in flight. His Nuclear Vanilla Ice haircut is forgiven.
The art, as with MEGA MAN, is an exceptionally nice example of bringing the look of animation cels to comics. Lookee here.
Okay, these are lowbrow books – you know it, I know it. But they do their jobs pretty damn well in drawing me to the colorful vibrancy of their characters. Of the two titles, I find MEGA MAN to have the slightly sharper writing – STREET FIGHTER gets a little bogged down in typical macho dialogue – but both tell their tales with an infectious sense of fun that belies their humble video game origins. And where other nostalgia-based titles dubiously re-tool themselves to suit adult readers, I like that STREET FIGHTER and MEGA MAN seem content to remain true to their all-ages origins.
Hmm, but are these really "nostalgia" titles? Both video game franchises have remained fairly active since the 80's, so kids will actually recognize these characters (consider the success of the SONIC comic among kids). It occurs to me that these comics, were they to make their way to video game stores, might be powerful tools for drawing the much-discussed-but-ever-neglected youth market back to comics. Videogames are such a ubiquitous part of most kids' lives that I tend to think that's where kids find most of their fictional heroes these days. That makes these video game heroes relevant to their world in a way that Superman, Batman and Spider-Man – heroes who only occasionally make the video game rounds – are not. Could video game comics work as modern day "gateway" titles to bring kids into comics, the way G.I. JOE did for so many in the 80's (myself included)?
It's an interesting possibility. Of course it relies on getting the comics into the video game stores or other places kids shop, the one piece of the puzzle that suicidal comic companies can never seem to grasp. Here's hoping these titles become the exception…
THE INCREDIBLE HULK #60
Writer: Bruce Jones
Artist: Mike Deodato Jr.
THE CREW #5
Pencils: Joe Bennett
Inks: Crime Lab Studios
Reviewed by Ambush Bug
We here at @-hole HQ have been accused of having a beef with Marvel. And yes, I have been pretty hard on the company in some of my reviews. For the most part, I dislike what the company has been doing for the last few years. I hate the Nu Marvel pacing that only (if ever) makes sense when reading story arcs in trade paperback form. I hate the fact that the creators on the titles dislike their jobs so much that they choose to toss out all of the things that have been superhero staples since the beginning (you know, like costumes and fights and things like that), in favor of ham-fisted attempts to deconstruct every fricking nuance of the character. Most of today’s Marvel comics follow this mandate. The thing is, only writers with talent in the comic book medium can pull it off correctly.
It has been a while since I remembered how bad THE INCREDIBLE HULK really was. Bruce Jones was touted as the next big thing at Marvel, a moniker that allowed him to receive the Best New Writer Award at this year's CHICAGO WIZARDWORLD. I seriously don’t understand why he's been allowed to write this garbage for so long. The Hulk is the name on the cover. JUST PUT HIM IN THE FUCKING BOOK!!! Is it too much to ask? I’m not a betting man, but if I were to bet that I could hold out on showering and shaving until the next appearance of the Hulk in the pages of his own title, I’d be a smelly, stinky man right about now.
Since it worked *so well* in X-FILES, Jones has buried Bruce Banner hip deep in conspiracy and espionage. “Trust no one” seems to be the tag line of this book, but I have to add on a few more words: “Trust no one, even the writer, to make this book interesting.” This theme barely worked in X-FILES and fizzled out when the twists and turns became so convoluted that no one knew what to believe. Without the tiniest shred of hope, people are going to do one of two things: get frustrated or become completely numb. Audiences chose the latter and the series faded away into TV purgatory. THE INCREDIBLE HULK did that five issues into Bruce Jones run AND THAT WAS TWO YEARS AGO!!!
The writer obviously doesn’t know how to write in a comic book format. I’ve heard he has received raves about his writing from New York Times, but comics are a different medium than books. I’d call this snail's pacing, but it would be a disservice to snails. This is the slow, microscopic shit that rides on the back of a snail and says “Weeee!” type pacing. In issue #60, we once again see a bunch of government types chasing a bunch of other government types. Doc Samson is thrown in, wearing an eye patch and the lightning bolt shirt that was discarded years ago. Some lady shows up at another lady’s house. And the star of the book, Bruce Banner, sits in a chair, walks down a street and kicks a guy at the end of the book. Notice anything missing from this book? I’ll give you a hint, it’s green and big and mean. No, not a viagra-filled Kermit the Frog. It’s the Hulk. He ain’t here. And I doubt he’ll show up any time soon. It seems as if Jones just doesn’t like to have Bruce Banner Hulk-out. If Jones doesn’t like to write the Hulk, why in the hell is he writing the Hulk?
Mike Deodato Jr.’s art is so out of place in this title. He deserves to be on a much better book. I’m sure that he draws a bitchin’ Hulk, but that seems to be against the rules in this book lately. Not since Pamela Anderson started dating Kid Rock has a more appealing image been paired up with such utter crap. Old Grampy Ambush Bug the First used to have a saying - “You can’t polish a turd.” - and THE INCREDIBLE HULK is a turd of the highest turditude. No matter how amazing Deodato’s art is, the book still reeks.
What pisses me off more than the lack of the Hulk in his own title and the pacing fit for extras in a Romero flick, is the news that Priest’s THE CREW is set to be canceled in two issues. It could be said that Priest is doing the same thing with the pacing of this book. It frustrates me to no end that it is issue five of the NEW MUTANTS and they are still gathering the cast. Priest is doing the same thing in this book, except he is making these introductions extremely worthwhile and intriguing. I would buy a book featuring any member of THE CREW if Priest was writing it. Every single character is worthy of his own series now that Priest has fleshed them out so well. Priest’s plots may get convoluted at times, but there is passion, heart, and a true love for comics in his writing. Issues #1-4 each featured one member of The Crew. It slowly brought together the lives of these truly interesting characters. Issue #5 is no exception. Priest deserves elephant-sized kudos for taking the turd of a mini-series, THE TRUTH, weaving in the history mapped out in that book into his own title, and making it a fun story to read. I guess you can sometimes polish a turd and sometimes uncover a nugget of goodness. Priest condensed that god awful mini-series and made it worthy to be a part of the Marvel Universe.
The Nu Marvel mandate is still alive and kicking in THE CREW, but unlike Jones’ HULK, Priest doesn’t save the goodies for the next to last page of the issue of the arc. Issue #5 is filled with action, mystery, spectacular characterization, and a story that grips you from beginning to end. If you want to read the earth-shattering story of the first Captain America, skip THE TRUTH and read THE CREW #5. It makes up for all of the time I lost and wanted back after reading that mini-series. The difference between THE HULK and THE CREW is that one writer (Priest) realizes that it is a comic book he is writing; a comic book that comes out monthly, and that in order for people to stick with the arc until the end, you have to provide the reader with some thrills along the way. Priest uses subplots and do-si-does characters throughout the story to keep things interesting. Jones tells one tale from start to finish in THE HULK and doesn’t care what it reads like from month to month. This difference reveals that it actually takes skill to write in the comic book medium; that not everyone (not even those talented in another medium) have the talent to write comics. Reading Priest and Jones’ books highlights who is the real comic book writer and who is the poser collecting a fat paycheck.
In issue #5, Priest tells a heartfelt tale of a new character with loads of potential. Josiah X is the son of the first Captain America (the black one from THE TRUTH). He has hidden from the government and lived the life of an orphan, a soldier, a revolutionary, and a man of religion. Now events force him to accept his true self and follow in the footsteps of his father. Issue #5 is an origin story, but it is more than that. Priest has created a character with roots in Marvel’s history. This has been done before, but the kicker is that this is an African American character that lacks any of the horrid stereotypes that we have seen in comics. This is no street talkin’ hustla. Josiah X is a character young black children could look at and emulate, much like I emulated larger-than-life, positive white heroes like Captain America and Superman when I was a kid. And THE CREW is filled with characters like these. This book puts the spotlight on a team of strong non-white characters, ripe with potential that shatters stereotypical characterizations that have haunted non-white characters in comics since non-white characters have been in comics.
It is sad that so soon after BLACK PANTHER’s cancellation, we see the cancellation of THE CREW. I really wanted to learn more about these characters and see them work with one another. What pisses me off the most is that Priest wasn’t allowed to finish his original and unique tale while Bruce Jones is allowed to continue to tell “the slo-mo stories of everyone but the Hulk.” It’s really unfair. If you want to see great art, buy THE HULK. But if you want to see a great comic book, pick up the last few issues of THE CREW. This book deserves a chance. There’s nothing really like it out there (especially at Nu Marvel) and it was put to pasture way too soon.
WILDGUARD: CASTING CALL #1 (of 6)
Writer/Artist: Todd Nauck
Publisher: Image Comics
Reviewed by Cormorant
Ever draw pictures of superheroes as a kid? Hey, I don't care if they looked any good – I'm just curious. I know I loved drawing 'em, and I think plenty of superhero fans at least tried their hand at it at one time or another. There's a certain primal joy to cooking up the costumes and the powers and the superhero teams and origin stories, and with tongue planted firmly in cheek, Todd (YOUNG JUSTICE) Nauck's tapped into some of that gee-whiz fun with his new miniseries, WILDGUARD.
The premise is pure novelty: superhero reality show. It's an idea that's been kicked around in a few other superhero titles before, but Nauck's clever spin is to base this first miniseries around the try-out session for the show and actually allow readers to vote on their favorites through his online site: www.wildguard.com
Go take a peek. It's lightweight, easily navigable, and has images and goofy one-line bios for the forty+ superheroes Nauck's created for readers to vote on. And you can tell Nauck had some childlike fun in creating these characters, from water-based superheroine, Aqua Chica, to Romancer, the He/Man/Fabio lookalike, to Sticker Burr, a former park ranger now covered with spikey green quills. Yes, we're almost but not quite in THE TICK territory. The laughs aren't quite up to Ben Edlund's famous creation, but the whole affair is propelled forward by Nauck's goofy love of the genre, making this a hard effort to resist. For a artist turned first-time writer, Nauck's not too shabby.
In terms of plot, there's not much to this first issue, and it very much comes across as an extended version of the LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES try-out sessions (which I always enjoyed). We've got a REGIS AND KATHIE LEE type show to frame the event and provide giddy exposition, but the real fun is just seeing Nauck's dozens of heroes interacting with each other, going through interviews, and being tested by the celebrity judges. Among my favorites is The Lifter, who explains his in-depth backstory to the judges as follows:
"I like to lift things. I lift twenty to thirty things a day. If I don't lift…I die, man.
Fun stuff, and typical of the book's tone. Nauck gives a few characters extra screen time to actually flesh them out beyond their humor value, and the results are mixed. NaÃ¯ve firestarter, Ignacia, is fairly endearing as a confused Peter Parker type, but I didn't much care for elastic hero, Snapback, and his overbearingly supportive girlfriend. A small complaint, though, and not one to dwell on when a few panels later we get to see Segmented Man! Segmented Man throws his own head to the judge, explaining that his power involves splitting his body into pieces, and adding, "…the distance I can control each segment is yet to be determined."
"You don't say," the judge responds mildly.
I love it. This might not be a laugh-out-loud comic, but it's definitely a stupid-grin-on-your-face kind of comic, absolutely worth it for the longtime superhero fan. Another fun idea: the flagship superhero team "Ultra Mega Super Five," a publicly-beloved but not-so-squeaky clean group who leaves their messes behind for low-level superheroes to clean up. Leader Crash Comet throws a cornball grin to the fawning crowd as he flies off, explaining, "When anyone performs a service for another, they help maintain the Ultra Mega Spirit!"
Nauck's art style reminds of the art of DANGER GIRL's J. Scott Campbell, and a bit of the style of one of Campbell's influences, Art Adams. It's cartoony, fairly detailed, and except for some overly spartan backgrounds, seems just about right for a project like this. The only thing that struck me as odd was that I remember Nauck's art on YOUNG JUSTICE looking more polished than this, his creator-owned effort. Maybe just a difference in inkers? Or maybe Nauck just had less time to devote to WILDGUARD than to more commercial and lucrative projects like YOUNG JUSTICE. Whatever the case, I'm hoping subsequent issues will tighten up the art a bit.
The final verdict on WILDGUARD is that the reality stuff isn't as sharp as in ASTRO CITY, the humor not as sharp as in THE TICK, but as a package, especially with the gimmick of allowing readers to vote on members, WILDGUARD is maybe the year's funnest project. I like the idea that the final, reader-chosen team, which won't be fully revealed until the sixth issue of the mini, might end up just ridiculously incompatible. The weirder the better, I say.
TEEN TITANS #3
Written by Geoff Johns
Pencilled by Mike McKone
Inked by Marlo Alquiza
Published by DC Comics
Reviewed by Village Idiot
By the time we’ve gotten to TEEN TITANS #3, the crazed mercenary/supervillain Deathstroke has already taken a shotgun to Impulse’s knee. In response, Titans Superboy and Wonder Girl resolve to go kick a little Deathstroke ass, but their de facto guardian Starfire lays down the law, telling them they can’t go. Tempers flare, but before things can come to a full blown conflict, Robin concedes that the best thing to do is hang back and not rush into anything. Once away from Starfire, Robin goes to work on sneaking out of Titan headquarters.
“Wait a second,” says Wonder Girl. “You just lied to Starfire."
Robin removes a section from the pane of glass he has just cut, and turns with a smirk. “I lie to Batman.”
Now my first impulse on reading that was to think, “You little punk!”
But as I thought about it, I began to wonder whether this reaction was simply a sad reflection of my getting older. Surely I can remember my own experience of adolescent lying, and perhaps being cocky about it, right? Would a 15-year-old Village Idiot respond so knee jerk disapprovingly? Perhaps there’s no surer sign that you’re an adult than when you look at the Batman/Robin relationship from a purely Batman POV.
And then I come to my senses, realizing that if I was ever entrusted with a job like Robin’s, I’d be smart enough to know that it’s more important to be trusted than it is to be a liar, let alone gloat about it. And that if I was either Superboy or Wonder Girl, I wouldn’t be marveling at his audacity as much as I’d be thinking “Hmm. Robin. Big fat liar. Check.”
Bottom line: Don’t Trust Robin.
But my harsh judgmentalism of that little punk Robin aside, I enjoyed TEEN TITANS #3, reinforcing my opinion of the series as a spiffy little adventure comic, and one that I can reliably count on to entertain. Mike McKone’s art is nice and purty, with colorful realism I always like, and Geoff Johns manages to cook up situations that are compelling enough to overcome any misgivings I have about reading a title written about, and perhaps even consciously tailored for, teens. Yes, that’s right, I’m a grown man who reads comic books, and yet I have qualms about reading ones that are devoted to the teenage experience. A guy’s got to draw the line somewhere.
But whatever line is there, Johns helped me pass it, mostly because the story and characterization he’s offering have managed to hold my interest. Not only do we have all the Deathstroke shenanigans, we also have the shocking possibility that Superboy is a hybrid genetic clone of Superman AND Luthor (!). Johns has also brought over some nice legacy themes from his JSA work. Honestly, I’m a sucker for all the legacy stuff, and when Starfire took Superboy, Wonder Girl and Robin (the little punk!) into the Hall of Fallen Titans, with life-sized statues of Titans lost in the line of duty, I briefly swooned. That was cool.
Plus, Johns seems to be dealing with all the complex relationships these characters have brought with them from their former titles and the tragic events of GRADUATION DAY. So far, Johns has economically and subtly mixed feelings of guilt, blame, resentment, uncertainty and, yes, friendship, among these characters in a way that’s got me curious; a curiosity that Winnick’s OUTSIDERS, TEEN TITANS’ honorary sister title, just couldn’t produce.
Last month, in his review of TEEN TITANS #2, my colleague Vroom Socko challenged this same characterization I’m now complementing. Vroom was a big YOUNG JUSTICE fan, and he felt that Johns wasn't doing justice to Peter David’s work at all, and what’s more, even mischaracterizing Deathstroke (a classic Titan’s villain). I myself haven’t read too much YOUNG JUSTICE, so I can only judge Johns’ use of the characters sui generis. It certainly feels like he’s using characters with a rich history, and I’m surprised to hear that a writer like Johns, known for his ability to integrate the history of his characters into new material, would violate the backstory of any of these characters. In any case, whatever he’s doing works for me right now. And as far as Deathstroke acting out of character, Vroom was absolutely right, and an explanation why is offered at the very end of the issue.
And like I said before, McKone and Alquiza’s art hits the spot, no complaints. It’s even nicely colored. The only part of this month’s issue that wasn’t working so hot was the action scene, where the characters were battling on the streets of San Francisco in the middle of traffic, carrying on a conversation. Nobody seemed to find it necessary to raise their voice.
Word has it that the past few TEEN TITANS issues have been selling out at DC, but DC has gone back to printing, so if you want to get in on this series from the ground floor, you still can. TEEN TITANS is one of the more enjoyable reads of the month, and by my reckoning, well deserving of the acclaim and sales. I like it.
And I think I’ll like it even better if that little lying punk Robin gets what’s coming to him.
ELFQUEST VOL.1: WOLFRIDER (TPB)
Publisher: DC Comics
Reviewed by Cormorant
A few months back, I sang the praises of comicdom's most famous fantasy saga, ELFQUEST. This was based on a beautifully re-colored reprint of the series' first issue, a sampler offered by DC as prelude to their upcoming hardcover reprints of the original epic. But reproducing the core material by creators Richard and Wendy Pini is only part of DC's reprint plan. In a move that may risk confusing readers unfamiliar with the series, DC is concurrently launching a series of black-and-white, manga-sized trades that'll reprint ELFQUEST material produced after the original saga had concluded. In the simplest terms, this material is the equivalent of the STAR WARS "Expanded Universe" stories. You know, the stuff in the novels and comics and alien guidebooks where we find out that Uncle Owen sold bootleg space whisky as a teen, that Ewok culture is in fact very refined, and that after RETURN OF THE JEDI, Luke and Leia decided to break age-old galactic taboos and crank out a host of inbred Jedi rugrats.
So, yeah. I don't really go for expanded universe concepts. Most are poorly executed, fail to capture the ever-elusive "feel" of whatever franchise they've spun off from, and even run the risk of diluting that core material. I guess that's why, much as I loved the original ELFQUEST material by Richard and Wendy Pini, I never worked up the interest to read any of the follow-up material produced in the 80's and 90's. On reading WOLFRIDER VOL.1, I've decided that I might've been a bit hasty. It's got its flaws, most notably the mediocre black-and-white printing, but there are some damn good stories mixed among several "eh" ones. I think the key to why these stories work, where other expanded universe concepts fail, is that the series creators remained heavily involved even when they started letting other kids play in their sandbox.
What's covered here is a span of several hundred years (elves are long-lived), set prior to the events of the original saga. We see the earliest adventures of Bearclaw, eventually to become father to ELFQUEST's lead, Cutter, including his first meetings with the trolls, and perhaps most interestingly, some fairly cruel warring with the prehistoric human tribesman that live on the outskirts of the elves' forest. It's the harshness of these stories that most interested me. The Pinis have always portrayed the elves of their stories as good-hearted adventurers who only occasionally succumbed to their baser instincts, but WOLFRIDER reveals a less thoughtful period in their history. There's still adventuring, still a sense that the elves' forest sanctuary operates like a sort of idealized hippie commune of beautiful people…but there's war, too. Even as the humans' incursion into the elves' forest is revealed to have been a guileless attempt to escape encroaching glaciers to the north, the elves are revealed to have been the initial provocateurs in what eventually becomes a violent conflict. It's refreshing and surprising, and the tales of love, loss, and escalating stakes in WOLFRIDER carry the relevance of any well-told war story.
The best tale in the dozen or so chapters in WOLFRIDER comes, unsurprisingly, from the Pinis themselves. It involves two young human hunters out to prove their merit to their tribe, and an elven couple, one of whom is pregnant with the child who'll eventually grow up to be my favorite ELFQUEST character, Skywise. It's a heart-wrencher of a tale, replete with a fall that breaks a back, a tragic birthing, and a rare moment of honor in the elf/human conflict. Unfortunately, it's also one of the least appealing stories visually. Y'see, it originally appeared in vibrant color on glossy paper, and while Wendy Pini is an undeniably terrific artist, I was very dissatisfied with how that color translated to gray tones on the thin paper of this trade. The effect is just too muddy. I appreciate that the manga format is probably a smart way to lure younger readers. I certainly like the reasonable ten dollar price point for nearly two hundred pages of story. I don't quite think it was worth the loss of clarity, though, and it's a loss that occurs throughout the book to varying degrees. At no point did I think the mediocre printing was a major detriment to the storytelling, but ELFQUEST has always been a visually lush series, so it's absolutely a disappointment to look at the art and not be impressed.
Also disappointing is the fact that interstitial sequences had to be added to the volume to make stories produced by different creators fit together chronologically for the first time. It's an interesting concept, but I think it weakens the creative integrity of a story to suddenly wrangle in a "hidden tale" in the middle of it. Brings back bad memories of the new scenes added to old X-MEN stories in CLASSIC X-MEN reprints, meant to increase their connectivity to stories written many years later. It's more artfully done here, but still not what I would have preferred.
Ultimately, though, I think I'll be sticking with these reprint trades. The few stories that are notably sub-par (and there are a few, mostly toward the end) are mostly fluff stories – easily forgotten – but the rest are surprisingly good. From tales of war to the joys of fermented berries to make-up sex while covered in bear blood (no kiddin'), it seems there were indeed some legitimate tales to be told after the original ELFQUEST saga concluded. I wish the format weren't so damn meat-and-potatoes, but I'll take what I can get, and suggest that old-school fans at least give this volume a try. New readers are another story, though. Newbies are absolutely advised to take in the original saga first when DC begins reprinting it in early November. WOLFRIDER won't mean much without it.
NEW X-MEN #146
Grant Morrison: Writer
Phil Jimenez: Artist
Marvel Comics: Publisher
Vroom Socko: Done with this shit
(WARNING: RAGING SPOILER ALERT!!! SURE THIS ISSUE'S TWO WEEKS OLD, BUT YA BETTER STOP HERE IF YOU HAVEN'T READ IT, 'CAUSE WE'RE GONNA BLAB BIG THINGS)
You know what? I hate the X-Men. Hate them with a fury normally reserved for partisan politics, pop-up ads and people who bring crying infants to movies. It didn’t use to be this way. I once loved the X-Men. There was a time when I bought every X-Book there is. But then Morrison came along and gave us Xorn.
I never liked Xorn. His whole persona as this formerly enslaved Zen mutant with a healing light for a head was a blatant theft of the character Stark from TV’s Farscape. He, along with the rest of the “New” X-Men Morrison gave us were all too freakish, too abnormal. I know that’s the point of the X-Men, but in the past mutants have been shown to be either less than or more than human. These characters Morrison gave us were so clearly NOT human, I just couldn’t relate to them.
But with this issue, we learn that Xorn doesn’t really exist. Xorn is really Eric Lensherr, the Master of Magnetism - Xorn is Magneto in disguise. For a good long while, I just couldn’t come up with the words to describe this little development. Fortunately, Cormorant sent out an inter-@$$hole memo that sums it up just fine:
I have two beefs with Morrison's revelation. First: CHRIST ON A FOOKIN' CRUTCH, HOW MANY TIMES IS XAVIER GONNA GET UN-CRIPPLED AND RE-CRIPPLED?! It's like a joke, man. In fact, I specifically remember TWISTED TOYFARE THEATER doing a gag about it, and that was before this latest incident! Okay, that's actually just the sidebar criticism. The real criticism is that Morrison, for all his new-agey trappings, has actually done little during his run but re-hash hokey old plots. On one hand, I can cynically appreciate the irony that he's hailed as a genius by the hipsters for ideas as hoary as evil twins, modified sentinels, and mutant experimentation. On the other hand, they really *are* hoary old ideas, and I'm thinking maybe his new agey trappings aren't enough to make them seem fresh after all. Second beef: Morrison sure as hell shouldn't be allowed to have Magneto mock Xavier for buying into Xorn's ridiculous "head with a star inside it" mutation. The only reason - THE ONLY GODDAMN REASON - that readers didn't piss all over that lame idea in the first place...is because they let it slide as yet another one of Morrison's acid-induced "high concepts!" "Oh, he's the great Morrison! Best writer out there! Makes Claremont's old 70's stuff look like shit! He can do no wrong. He's a visionary whose stories about evil twins are *light years* ahead of any of that moldy Silver Age stuff, and BY GOD, if he says Xorn has a star for a head, we think it's the coolest fucking thing ever!!!" And you know what? Now those same fans are going to be telling us what a brilliant twist he pulled off. "A star for a head? It's so ridiculous that OF COURSE Morrison was setting us all up! He had this twist planned from the get-go, and I bet all the other stupid mutant powers he designed will turn out to be cool plot twists too! PURE UNMITIGATED GENIUS!!!"
I’d make a third point as well. This plot of Magneto’s involves a certain level of guile and subterfuge that just isn’t in his character. Magneto is all about ego and pride. He doesn’t do disguises. Of course, I shouldn’t be surprised by this character ignorance from Morrison. After all, he’s the one who took Wolverine’s past and twisted it into something so convoluted and insane it made my eyes bleed, not to mention turning Cyclops into the world’s biggest pussy.
You know how George Lucas raped your childhood? Well Grant Morrison raped my adolescence. Raped it with an axe handle with nails sticking out of it. I’m done with the X-Men. Done. Maybe if Uncanny was worth reading I’d still have an interest, but you’ve seen the clusterfuck that is Chuck Austen’s writing, right? The X-Men suck. These two have made them suck. I will never read about these characters again. Neil Gaiman and Kurt Busiek could be the co-plotters, with Brian Michael Bendis on dialogue, and I still wouldn’t read the fucker.
I just don’t care anymore. The whole “New” X-Men run has forced me to not care about these characters. It has guaranteed that any title that Grant Morrison writes for DC will be dropped like a hot potato as soon as possible.
Fuck New X-Men.
Cormorant back again with an addendum. First off, I want to apologize for using the trendy word, fookin'. True, it was in an internal @$$hole e-mail, but there's no excuse for the annoying accent and I apologize to anyone I offended.
On the other hand, my embittered sentiments were ALL TOO REAL! But as I told Vroom in a follow-up e-mail, I wasn't quite as ready to swear off NEW X-MEN as he was. I've done that several times, and every time I've come back like a gimp. NEW X-MEN's been the mother of all roller coaster rides for me, annoying me with Morrison's high concepts and lack of fealty to the characters, but winning me back time and again with Morrison's skewed love of the superhero genre. Check out my "for every pro, there's a con" review of the first NEW X-MEN hardcover for more details on how this book has left me feeling like a battered wife who won't testify to the cops.
Meanwhile, take some amusement in the fact I think I'm back onboard the book, assuming Morrison provides a kick-ass "parlor scene" wherein the details of Magneto's ridiculously convoluted plot are revealed. Online comic critic Paul O'Brien posted an enlightening, well-researched retrospective of all of Xorn's previous appearances that at least convinced me that this was no random revelation on Morrison's part - that the big reveal had been planned from the beginning. Based on this, I'm willing to see where Morrison's going. On the other hand…I'm still not sure I can call this big twist "good writing." It's so self-aware, so seemingly rooted in Morrison's knowledge that readers would accept all the plot contrivances that made it possible, simply because he writes in such an eccentric style. It almost breaks my suspension of disbelief to dwell on it, and that's not a good thing.
EL CAZADOR #1
Writer: Chuck Dixon
Artist: Steve Epting
Publisher: CrossGen Comics
Reviewed by Cormorant
Ahoy, ya scurvy-ridden dogs! 'Tis the bilious comic reviewer o' the seas here, the scalawag known as Cormorant! Perhaps ye know already that September 19th were the holiday known as "Talk Like a Pirate Day!", an' if ye don't, then may Davy Jones Locker claim yer non-pop-culturally-senstive soul! Alas, the holiday were fearfully underrepresented this year, but I hear bankers took the day off like the slimy sons of eel-whores that they are. Come next year, ye can be sure them bilge rats, The Hallmark Stores, will get in on the action, but for one brief moment in time…'tis hip to be into piracy of yer own accord!
Alright, alright, screw this novelty pirate talkin'. I was gonna write this whole review like that, but you'd probably have wanted to keelhaul my ass by the end, so back to normal:
The first thing you'll notice about the new pirate comic, EL CAZADOR, is that it's the most gorgeous comic CrossGen's put out to date. Given that the company's brought out the best from such luminaries as Butch Guice, Greg Land, and George Perez, that's saying a helluva lot. Artist Steve Epting reveals the sea-dogs of the 17th century with an illustrator's eye, packing his drawings with enough detail to make lesser artists weep. Not since the last few issues of Mark Schultz's XENOZOIC TALES have I seen this level of artistry. Check out some images at this link and try and tell me you can't smell the salt water and sweat in the air.
Ahhhh, that's the stuff!
So the art is brilliant, the best realistic art to grace a comic this year – but how's the story? Well Chuck Dixon's the man at the helm, and as ever, he sails a steady, professional course – at least a strong as his work on WAY OF THE RAT. Unfortunately, he gets off to a slightly faltering start. The year is 1687, and we open with two pirate ships laying siege to two Spanish galleons. My gripe is the same I had with the opening of Dixon's BRATH: overuse of narrative captions kill the sense of momentum in action scenes! Here we have Epting drawing these wonderfully menacing and grisly battles, but instead of hearing the clang of swords, the howls of the attackers, or the screams of the besieged, we get narrative captions telling us what's going on. Dixon's prose is nice enough – the man's clearly done his research and his descriptions have an air of authenticity – but there's no energy to the opening. Thankfully, where this approach took up most of the #0 issue of BRATH, it only lasts for a few pages in EL CAZADOR. And once the characters actually start talking, the proceedings become much livelier. In fact I'll even go out of my way to compliment Dixon's dialogue, packed as it was with roguish turns of phrase that made me want to read the book aloud.
Once the pirates have sent one galleon to the briny deep and commandeered the other for themselves, we meet our lead character, a beautiful Spanish Donessa. She's managed to elude discovery even as the main pirate vessel made off with her family for ransom. When she's final found, she's the last civilian left onboard a ship of the scurviest dogs of the sea. It's a total "oh shit" situation, and I have to say, her solution is a damn cool bit of payback. It plays out when all the pirates on the deck – drunk from a night of celebration – awaken to find her standing on the top deck with two cannons pointing directly at them:
"One barrel I have loaded with chain to sweep the deck clean," she tells them. "The other is doubleshotted to put a hole 'neath the waterline."
Kick ass. She might be about ten degrees too beautiful to get so tough so fast, but for that scene alone, I'm willing to make allowances. I'm hoping that Dixon has some backstory to reveal about the character that'll shore up my suspension of disbelief, and I'm also allowing some slack because, hey, who doesn't want to look at a beautiful pirate lass over some scab-ridden guy pirate? Still, I suspect that scene and what follows will be a sticking point for some. The book's tone is surprisingly realistic, so the supermodel heroine requires a little more explanation than it would in, say, SOJOURN. Speaking of realism, I was happy to note that EL CAZADOR is not set on one of CrossGen's fantasy world analogs to Earth, but is meant to take place in the real East Indies and Caribbean of the 17th century. I've been waiting for CrossGen to take such a step, and it gives me hope that we might one day see the authentic Western comic that Dixon's long talked of writing.
I know a lot of you mugs out there have been loathe to try CrossGen, and honestly, WAY OF THE RAT and DEMONWARS have been the only two books from their line I've found myself rallying behind, but I recommend giving EL CAZADOR a gander. Not only does it have the benefit of showcasing a neglected and highly cool genre, not only does it make you want to read it aloud, but I say again, the art will knock you on your silly ass. If for that I have to accept a white-hot Spanish Donessa as the Captain of a band of cutthroats, that's a sacrifice I'm willing to make.