Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
As we finally get AICN’s rudder under control and steer the ship back out to open waters where we can actually sail the damn thing, it looks like the @$$Holes are itchin’ to get back on schedule, too. I’ve dragged serious ass over the holidays, and I feel bad about it. It’s just selfish of me to keep this columns to myself after they’ve been submitted. So here I am, sharing...
We got a good one this week, comic fans. Cormorant here, and this column sees Buzz Maverik putting his previously unimpeachable record on the line with kind words for Chuck Austen’s AVENGERS; Ambush Bug pointing readers to the quirky horror book that I think has the best title yet of ‘04, LOVE ME TENDERLOIN; Buzz again, this time wondering if there’s any future for the superhero coffee shop book, COMMON GROUNDS; Bug breaking out with the hyperbole (or is he?) for SUPREME POWER; and myself juggling more reviews than I should as I recommend CrossGen’s new spy book, KISS KISS BANG BANG, re-discover my love for JSA, and tell all the doubters that manga ain’t so scary after all with no less than three manga reviews in the latest installment of BIG EYES FOR THE CAPE GUY. Manga is becoming almost ridiculously prevalent in the States these days, much of it terrible, but with as strong a percentage of successes as American comics, and I challenge you cape fiends to give it a try. C’mon, don’t be big ol’ wussbags.
Note #1: TalkBack guy who likes when we include release dates for books, I’m afraid you’re S.O.L. this week (except for Bug’s reviews – he came through). I’ll try and include ‘em in the future but it was just too hectic this time. Excepting the manga reviews, though, nearly everything we cover this week came out on 1-07-04.
Note #2: TalkBack guy who requested a NEW X-MEN review? No luck there, either. I decided that covering some lesser-known manga was more important than reviewing another issue of a series everyone’s already made up their minds on. I did give it a Cheap Shot capsule review, though.
KISS KISS BANG BANG #1
Writer: Tony Bedard
Artist: Mike Perkins
Publisher: CrossGen Comics
Reviewed by Cormorant
Don’t count ‘em out yet.
CrossGen’s recent financial woes are common knowledge at the internet water cooler, but even as the company pares down its meat-and-potato “Sigil-bearer” titles, I find the line becoming more interesting creatively. The shift is away from the shared-universe high concept (which always seemed like a vestige of the ‘90s to me), and toward more idiosyncratic, self-contained titles - books like WAY OF THE RAT, EL CAZADOR, ROUTE 666, and our topic of the day: KISS KISS BANG BANG.
At a glance, KISS KISS looks like just another James Bond pastiche - suave British agent, mod ‘60s setting, sexy lady spy, big explosions, lots of double entendres – sounds by-the-numbers, right? Except the lead – one Charles Basildon - is all but the bad guy in this book. He may be a studly Brit agent working for MI6, but he takes the appealingly roguish qualities of Bond – the ladies’ man charm, the love of adventure, the anti-authority streak – and taints them with misogyny, an almost gleeful disregard for human life, and the smarmy egotism you might actually get if one single agent were so indispensable to his country.
But indispensable he is. Bedard’s high concept for the book is that the identity “Charles Basildon” is actually a fictional creation of MI6, a name passed on to only one top agent at a time to give the bad guys the impression of an un-killable superspy. Our lead just happens to be the current holder of the identity, like a Bondian equivalent of the “Dread Pirate Roberts” in THE PRINCESS BRIDE (though “Keyser SÃ¶ze” of THE USUAL SUSPECTS is a better fit for Basildon’s temperament). He’s legitimately creepy this guy, as seen in the Bond-style opening where he takes out a criminal mastermind by shooting him through the beautiful woman he’s holding hostage. Basildon snarls to the dead man, “Idiot. Why would I spare the girl if I’d already had her?”
Whoa! Is this stuff allowed at CrossGen? Aren’t they supposed to be the guys who play it safe with the genre conventions? Of course, Bedard is making a bit of a name for himself on the darker books at CrossGen, including NEGATION and ROUTE 666. I read one of his ROUTE 666 stories that veered almost into Garth Ennis territory with a story about a man forced to drink copious amounts of gasoline as part of a wager to save his son from some demons (and yes, this poor bastard went “boom” by issue’s end). If books like ROUTE 666 and KISS KISS represent a genuine initiative on CrossGen’s part to let their writers push the edges, to veer into more unusual directions, I heartily approve.
And there are still some twists to come in KISS KISS’s premise. It seems Basildon’s excesses have ticked off no less than the Queen Mum (he copped a feel on her daughter’s bum while “protecting” her), and she wants him replaced. He’s too vital to be dismissed, but MI6 does set about giving him a new partner as a means of reining him in. This new partner - she’s a girl, she’s a Yank, and if her presence sounds like the start of a flimsy romantic adventure, think again. Unlike the Sherlock Holmes analog of CrossGen’s RUSE, Basildon’s not just cold...he’s an out and out bastard who could give John Constantine a run for his money. I was actually a bit uncomfortable with how much he gets away with in toying with her...but that’s probably a good thing. If a series so rooted in spy movie cliches is to work, it needs a forceful twist to stand out.
On the art front – wow. I’m reviewing a black-and-white copy here, so I can’t assess the coloring (dollars to doughnuts its typical CrossGen amazing), but the pencils reveal yet another artist of the stunning caliber of Butch Guice and Steve Epting. Mike Perkins’ realism sells the hell out of the book, so much so that I almost wished he was drawing a straight up spy book and not an offbeat pastiche. I’ve grown a bit weary of pastiches in comic books over the years – I think all the Justice League and Superman analogs finally broke me – but this one is subversive enough that I’m going to give it its shot. ‘Sides, I hear the artist was actually the guy who cooked up the book’s concept, and that’s cool. His creative investment suggests he’s really gonna be on his game, and (hopefully) devoted to the book for a long time to come.
I was looking forward to KISS KISS BANG BANG, expecting a fun if perhaps unexceptional spy comic, but I’m actually a good deal happier with the twisted book I got instead. I see it going over well both with Bond fans and those who’re sick of Bond and wouldn’t mind seeing his cliches get a kick to the face. Bedard’s real challenge will be to avoid the more general cliches (hardboiled bastard softens to become likeable partner), and I have a feeling he’ll be up to them. Strange as it seems to say, there’s a sly meanness to the book that’s refreshing.
THE AVENGERS #77
Written by Chuck Austen
Art by Olivier Coipel & Andy Lanning
Published by Marvel
Cost: Fifty freakin' cents
Cheap@$$: Buzz Maverik
Every now and then, one of my fellow @$$holes will sound the call: "Let's review the 10-cent TERROR INC. they're putting out!" or "We'd better work up a group review for the two-bit LONGSHOT solo issue from Marvel Knights."
And I'll scream back, "We're not doing one of those goddam things every time somebody puts out a cheap comic book!"
But I am a hypocrite! A big one! Because last Wednesday at La Casa De Funnies, AVENGERS # 77, featuring the debut of the new creative team, was one of the few things that caught my stingy little eye. The fifty cent price tag wasn't the last reason I picked up the book.
What I got was a pleasant surprise. Chuck Austen wrote a superhero story with a strong human element and was able to blend the two with extreme grace. AVENGERS #77 is a good example of this kind of writing. The SILVER SURFER series, to name one, is a bad example: who the hell cares about some chick named Denise Waters and her stupid daughter, which is all you read about even in the ads for this dog? If I'm reading SILVER SURFER, I'd better see the Power Cosmic. I'd better see the Heralds of Galactus! I'd better see the Elders of the Universe. I'd better see the Kree and the Skrull and the Badoon and the Shi'ar and ...
Excuse me. SILVER SURFER bad. AVENGERS good. We meet a nice British kid who idolizes Captain America and we meet the kid's nice but disfigured Mom. We learn a little about them, we know they're important but after a couple of pages that don't beat us over the head, we get to the guys whose name is on the cover: The Avengers. Cap and Hawkeye, in civvies, on stake-out in the very British town where the nice kid and his scarred Mom live.
The Avengers are after the Wrecking Crew. Do you like the Wrecking Crew? I love the Wrecking Crew! First time I saw them was in an early DEFENDERS issue when I was a kid. There was a bomb in the city. Luke Cage, Power Man to you honkies, was on the team and Hulk decked Dr. Strange and Cage told the team to stick it in the last panel and my mind was blown for good! Next time I saw the Crew was in a late issue of IRON FIST when the Kun Lun Kid and Captain America lured them into the Avengers’ Danger Room (I wrote a letter to Claremont and Byrne telling them that the Avengers wouldn't call their training room the Danger Room just because the X-men did, but it didn't make the letters page). Since then, the Crew has become overused but I can understand why. They are visual villains, powerful and not complex. You have the Crew commit some crime or act of destruction for hire and the heroes pulverize them. It gives the creative team a chance to do other things with the title characters while still telling a dynamic, action story.
I like the way Austen writes Hawkeye and Cap. After all these years, Hawkeye is still needling Cap, but in a modern way. It's not the fine-for-its-time Roy Thomas "I should be runnin' this show not you, winghead." Oh, no. Our favorite archer this side of Green Arrow is giving Cap the business about relationships with women. Who is Hawkeye to talk? Turned into a supervillain by the Black Widow. Rejected by the Scarlet Witch in favor of a red, mechanical, intangible guy. Married to Mockingbird and dragged through a series of ridiculous storylines before she was killed off. But Cap is too cool to bring this up.
The book features a cool surprise with the Wasp. A surprise to me, anyway. I don't read AVENGERS issues very often, so I've never seen the Wasp do some of the things she does in this issue. It is an excellent, visual portrayal by Olivier Coipel, which leaves Hawkeye open to utter the issue's best line of dialogue.
Coipel is good at portraying power and motion. The only complaint I have about his art and about the book, in general, is that he draws the nice British kid's nice but scar-faced mother so that she is identical to an unmasked Hawkeye, except that Hawkeye doesn't have a scar. Since it seems that the Mom might be a love interest for Cap, I might wonder if this was a subtle way of telling us that Cap is hot for Hawkeye. But this isn't a Millar or Morrison story so I'll chalk it up to Coipel and Lanning needing to define the facial features of their characters better.
LOVE ME TENDERLOIN: A CAL MCDONALD MYSTERY (ONE SHOT)
Writer: Steve Niles
Artist: Ben Templesmith
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
On the shelves: 1/7/04
Reviewer: Ambush Bug
LOVE ME TENDERLOIN opens with hard knocks, supernatural detective Cal McDonald beaten up and passed out on a toilet. He wakes up, checks his new set of cuts and bruises in the mirror and walks out into his office where he is startled by Mo’Lok, Cal’s sometime partner and all-the-time ghoul. After screaming like a schoolgirl, Cal whips out his revolver, blasts a hole in Mo’Lok’s chest, screams “That’s for scaring me,” comments on the fact that he’s got a lot of mail piled up, and asks what day it is. Welcome to the offbeat world of Cal McDonald, a brilliant creation by the new modern master of comic book macabre, Steve Niles.
A while back, I reviewed the first few issues of CRIMINAL MACABRE: A CAL MCDONALD MYSTERY. I found that miniseries to be refreshing in that it actually brought back horror to comics in a very real way for me. Not only was this my first experience with punch drunk paranormal PI, Cal McDonald, but the art, the writing, and the subject matter actually sent chills down my spine as I read it. This is not something that often happens. I love horror films. Horror novels. Just about anything that gives you a scare, but I came to the conclusion in my last review
A lot of it has to do with the art. Ben Templesmith’s art is not the cleanest, but that’s the point. You have to study the entire panel to get the full effect. People and details are contorted and often completely obscured by shadow. Since the panels themselves can’t move, Templesmith forces the reader to move his eyes around the panel like a panning camera, searching through dark unknowns and fearing what he’ll find. Is that something lurking in the corner panel? Could be. Templesmith’s art helps shed just enough light to make you concerned about being in Cal’s world.
The thing is, LOVE ME TENDERLOIN is not the scariest CAL MCDONALD MYSTERY I have read so far. Cal is quirkier in this one. He’s got more one-liners. The monster du jour (a possessed slab of meat) is more offbeat than scary. This one-shot is more likely to make you laugh than shiver. That’s not to say that there aren’t moments of sheer tension. But this issue seems to focus more on the more kookier aspects of Cal and his cases than the creepier ones. And that’s what makes this issue so much fun. I shouldn’t have to change my drawers every time I read a Cal McDonald Mystery.
One of Steve Niles’ greatest strengths is most writer’s greatest weakness. Sure anyone can come up with a kooky or spooky premise and title, but the follow through and the ending are what’s important. I have yet to read a Niles book that doesn’t end with a kick to the balls or a full spine quiver. The term “solid writing throughout” applies to this issue, and every comic I have read so far from this guy. Because this issue is less serious than most, the end of LOVE ME TENDERLOIN is not as heavy, but it provides a smile and then ends with a panel that gives you a nice little chill. I keep on going back to the chills because I don’t scare easily. I really don’t. Niles simply writes characters that I truly care about and puts them into situations that are both dire and entertaining. Templesmith fills panels with ink that causes nightmares. These guys are the Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan of the modern age of comics.
As much as I want to see more of Cal McDonald and his world of the weird, I hope Dark Horse keeps this as a series of miniseries and one-shots. The pressure of a regular series often dilutes what makes these individual cases special. That said, I hope to read many more adventures of Cal and Mo’Lok and Lieutenant Breuger and all of those monsters that beat the hell out of our star. LOVE ME TENDERLOIN didn’t scare me as much as other stories from this writer, but it was entertaining throughout; providing enough chills and giggles for me to recommend it to anyone missing that twinge of horror in comics.
COMMON GROUNDS # 1
Written by Troy Hickman
Art by Dan Jurgens, Michael Avon Oeming, Al Vey
Published by Image / Top Cow
Reviewed by Buzz Maverik
Aside from it being a first issue, I was attracted to COMMON GROUNDS # 1 by its amusing concept. In this superhero universe, writer Troy Hickman postulates that certain places would exist where heroes and villains would not be allowed to fight. Safehouses, of a sort. Watched over by undepicted but allegedly fearsome bouncers, one such place is a coffee shop called Common Grounds.
In Common Grounds, Flash-style superguy Speeding Bullet can give an interview to a newspaper reporter and reveal how lonely and unfulfilling the super-life can be. While we've seen those super-metabolism-requiring-massive-amounts-of-food gags in THE FLASH years ago, this story contains some insightful speculations on life at super-speed. Also, Speeding Bullet tells of how he was completely helpless when it came to saving a girl trapped in a collapsing well. This was good for character, but too reminiscent of an incident in Paul Chadwick's CONCRETE from several years ago. I'm sure this similarity was either unintentional or unconscious, but when you've read waaay too many comic books, you notice this sort of thing.
The second story features hero Mental Midget and villain Man Witch, enemies but not arch-enemies (as we learn in one of the book's best gags) bonding in Common Grounds' crapper. As well-written as the dialogue is, as fine as Oeming's art is, as funny as it all is ... I couldn't get past the fact that straight men (at least non-metrosexuals) don't talk to each other in bathrooms. I used to work in an office for about five years before I got fired and the dude in the next cubicle was my best buddy, but we never once said a word to each other if we happened to end up in the can at the same time. Hell, I don't even talk to any of my own brothers if we have to pee at the same time after a movie or something. The most conversation I've ever heard two guys exchange in the pot is one guy at a urinal saying, "Man, that water's cold." And the other guy saying, "And deep, too!"
I liked the book. Good writing and art. Good humor and character.
...I'm getting a little tired of these kind of series, usually from Image or CrossGen. Even when they're good, all of this behind-the-scenes superhero stuff is too much like all the other behind-the-scenes superhero stuff. We've seen the heroes as a nighttime '80s soap (NOBLE CAUSES) or the heroes as a suburban family (THE CROSSOVERS) or hanging out in a bar, etc.
Where can they really go with this stuff? It's fine as a one-shot or a limited series, but I can't see COMMON GROUNDS #80 ever happening. I can't buy this as anything more than a gag. Do you really think there'd ever be a coffee shop where the Joker and Batman wouldn't try to destroy each other? We'd never see Captain America and Baron Zemo sitting side by side at the counter over a cup of joe and a cup of tea ('cause Zemo's European) without Cap screaming: "You killed Bucky Barnes, you Nazi fuck!" And Zemo screaming : "Your verdammt shield broke open that container of X-Glue and stuck this bag to my face!" At which point, they'd go for each others' throats. "Hiya, Daredevil! Haven't seen ya since ya paralyzed me. Pass the paper. Sorry I keep killin' all yer women." "Grr! I'm keeping the sports section and the comics. Heard the Kingpin has replaced you as his new top gun." Doesn't work.
Hickman is a good writer. I'd love to see him bring some of his talent with character and humor to a more mainstream superhero comic. And of course Jurgens and Oeming are fine artists. So you could do worse right now. But in the long haul, there won't be a long haul, I'm afraid.
SUPREME POWER #6
Writer: J. Michael Straczynski
Artist: Gary Frank
Publisher: MARVEL MAX
On the shelves: 1/07/04
Reviewer: Ambush Bug
The other day, I was talking to my pal Sleazy G at Schlepy’s House of Pig Innards beside the Burning Knuckle Nudie Bar, just off of Highway 99, which is a hop, skip, and yodel from @$$Hole HQ. It is an establishment that not only has become the local hangout of the @$$holes, but it’s where we first found our very own Village Idiot working his way to a better life through tips. But that’s a story for another day. The conversation jumped from women, to liquor, to comics and back again as our conversations often do. When the topic of recent comics came up, I asked Sleazy if he had been reading J. Michael Straczynski’s SUPREME POWER. Sleazy said that he hadn’t. After beating him about the head and shoulders with a fork full of pig innards, I asked him why. Sleazy said that he had bought every issue, but missed issue three and was concerned that he would get lost or miss something important. I agreed that he was probably right and started telling a story that I now am sure that I had told before, but didn’t remember having done so at the time because I was drunk.
The story went like this: When I was a little chap, I came across this cool series in the back issue bins called THE WATCHMEN. I had heard about this revolutionary series and, as I grew sick of the crap that was popular at the time - the Liefelds and the Lees, the foil covers and the poly-bags - I decided it was high time to read up on the classics. THE WATCHMEN was where I was to begin. The thing is, my comic store only had issues 1-8 and 10-12. But being the impulsive kid that I was, I bought all eleven issues, thinking I was brainy enough to be able to piece the story together without issue nine. So I read issues one through eight and loved them. When I skipped to issue ten, I realized the error of my ways. I realized that every issue of THE WATCHMEN is packed with so much important information, each issue reading like gigantic pieces of an intricately cut puzzle, that to miss one issue was like missing a year’s worth of story. I stopped reading issue ten and went on a quest to find the missing issue. When I did, I finished reading the series and felt satisfied that I had read one of the greatest comic book stories ever put to page. It was at that point in the story that I gazed out the fly-swatter splatter-stained window of Schlepy’s, past the neon glow of the Burning Knuckle, past the barb-wire fence surrounding @$$hole HQ, into my own dream world where all comics were of this caliber. The smack of a pig innard across my face brought me back to reality. Sleazy wanted me to get to the point.
SUPREME POWER, like THE WATCHMEN before it, is simply filled to the gills with the stuff that great comics are made of. If the story above didn’t lose you, comparing SUPREME POWER to THE WATCHMEN might, but the fact is, it’s valid. SUPREME POWER may not be as profound or groundbreaking as THE WATCHMEN, but when you look at the sheer density of the storytelling (the enormous amount of character development, integral and intricate plot points and utter coolness that happens from cover to cover in each issue), you have to admit there are similarities. Needless to say, I suggested Sleazy either start hunting for his missing issue or wait till the trade, because to miss one issue of SUPREME POWER is to miss a lot.
Take issue #6, for example. After six issues, hints of a Squadron are finally beginning to surface. For the last few issues, we’ve seen multiple stories featuring four characters as they developed their powers. Each issue slowly mapped out these characters, making them distinct and damn near real. Motivations were carefully laid out. Triumphs and tragedies occurred. Each issue pulled these supreme characters together slowly and this is the issue where their paths cross.
Problem is, I’ve complained about this type of storytelling before. Basing a miniseries on the Squadron Supreme and not having a Squadron until six or seven issues into the fucker would usually be infuriating for me, but for the fact that the quality of the storytelling cannot be beat. Straczynski is on top of his game here. Any meanderings seen in his run on AMAZING SPIDER-MAN are non-existent. This type of storytelling works because Straczynski is introducing us all to these three-dimensional characters. The Squadron will come together one of these issues, but until then Straczynski is filling every issue with character and cool. So much happens and so much is revealed in every issue that each character has evolved exponentially from one issue to the next.
In issue #6, the very Superman-like Hyperion meets with the very Flash-like Blur (that’s right, The Blur, because who in their right mind would want to be called The Whizzer?). They talk about power and responsibility. They talk about being alone and the comfort they find with others with power like theirs. This is an intelligent conversation. There are no slugfests or villains of the month. It is just two people with dynamic powers conversing in a very undynamic way. The thing that makes it so great is the power in the words they speak. These are credos and themes we’ve heard time and time again, but Straczynski has the writing chops to phrase it in a way that you can’t get enough of it. Straczynski is writing a modern classic, one that defines what a superhero is, and the decisions and challenges one must face when supreme power is at one’s fingertips.
We also get a very World’s Finest-like meeting of Hyperion and the very Batman-like Nighthawk highlighting the differences between these two characters. Adding a racial difference to this relationship is the work of sheer genius on JMS’ part. There is a scene in this issue where Hyperion speaks to Nighthawk about his methods of heroing. Through Nighthawk’s eyes Hyperion changes from dumb hick to clansman to alien. The dialog reflects the words Hyperion is saying, but as each personification changes, the meanings behind the words change as well. This brilliant use of image and text show that JMS is a master at this medium, his medium.
On a weekly basis, we @$$holes criticize Marvel for their slow pacing and their high concept plot lines. The thing is, this form of storytelling CAN work. It’s working right here in SUPREME POWER. It just shouldn’t be the norm. Every comic doesn’t have to paced as if it were a screenplay for a big budget movie. Just because it works here doesn’t mean it’ll work for every comic. This is an epic, big budget storytelling experience. JMS has the writing power to make every issue count without slowing it down. Every issue is epic. Every issue features an evolution; a singular story that builds on what has come before and fits perfectly when put together with previous and subsequent issues. JMS has the talent to do this. Not every writer does.
Simply put, there isn’t a better artist in comics today than Gary Frank. We @$$holes rarely give special attention to art. We’re story guys. I’ve read through many a great story with poor art, but I’ve rarely bought a book for art alone. Gary Frank is the exception. Since his run on THE INCREDIBLE HULK, this artist has proven to be versatile, delicate, and able to show a rainbow of emotion or just about anything else with perfection and ease. I could write a complete other review dissecting how good his art is on this series, but this review has gone on long enough.
When I heard about this series, re-imagining the SQUADRON SUPREME, I was fully prepared to cry blasphemy. How dare Marvel retool the near perfect story of Mark Gruenwald’s original SQUADRON SUPREME miniseries? I loved that series. I remember running to the comic story and looking for the newest issue each month for a solid year. It’s a good thing that Marvel had the sense to bring in JMS for the job. SQUADRON SUPREME, like THE WATCHMEN, will always have a special place in my heart, but what JMS is doing is equally memorable, equally admirable, and full of the makings of a soon-to-be-classic. So pick up every back issue of SUPREME POWER or wait for the trade, but don’t miss an issue or you’ll be missing out on a the best of the best of today’s comics. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a plate of pig innards with my name on it to attend to.
Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Don Kramer
Publisher: DC Comics
Reviewed by Cormorant
I almost didn’t write this review. Our group has given JSA plenty of coverage in the past, much of it effusive, so what else is there to say? It’s common knowledge that JSA’s pretty much the superhero ensemble book for a classic blend of soap operatics and adventure - what more can I add?
Maybe nothing earth-shattering, but I will say this: I’d let this book fall by the wayside many months ago – wasn’t even really feeling its loss – but between the last two issues and the current one, I’ve been seduced back. That’s significant. I like superheroes, but I’m not one to wade through the rough spots on a title hoping to glean the occasional gold nugget - I just bail if things start to get ugly. For me to come back to the book suggests that I’m probably onboard for the long haul, at least as long as Geoff Johns is on as writer.
So what won me back?
First we had the two recent “holiday” issues – a Thanksgiving special for November, a Christmas special for December. Loved ‘em. Heart-warming and witty, they reminded me that the modern JSA, more than any other current superhero team, is the group it’d be most fun to hang out with. They capture a family vibe that’s, yes, just a little corny, but endearing all the same – right down to the “drunk uncle” of the group, Wildcat.
But none of the nice guy JSA’ers are in this latest issue.
Instead we get a starring role for anti-hero (and former outright villain), Black Adam. This guy’s a real badass who first won me over in the anti-hero role in a memorable issue of John Ostrander’s SUICIDE SQUAD in the late ‘80s. I suspect that Geoff Johns might have taken his cue for Adam’s characterization from that issue, but newcomers need only know that Black Adam is Captain Marvel’s “bad guy” counterpart, and that his character’s been fleshed out during his time with the JSA. The fleshing out is both good and bad. On one hand, I’m tired of bad guys getting tragic pasts to make ‘em sympathetic – evil for its own sake becoming a forgotten art as a result – but Johns did good work in the issues where we saw Adam’s tragic past in ancient Egypt, and it’s damn hard to argue with good writing.
What Adam’s done in JSA #56 is create his own superhero team, an “Authority-esque” counterpart to the JSA that includes some characters I know (the new Eclipso and former JSA’er Atom Smasher) and some I don’t (KINGDOM COME-style Hawkman, Northwind, genetically engineered assassin girl, Nemesis, and nutso telepath Brainwave). Granted, Authority-style teams and subversions thereof are becoming painfully trendy, de rigeur, even played-out these days, but with Black Adam, it just fits. This is a guy who has his own code of justice and a classic villainous charisma, but who’s found himself increasingly stifled by the JSA’s “fair play” policies. Of course he’s eventually going to give the squares the finger and strike out on his own. As he reflects on the rise of the original JSA in the opening narration – “Men become gods overnight” – he naturally adds his own spin: “It is time they started acting like it.”
And so his team does, as they violently overthrow the corrupt regime of a city in DC’s fictional Middle Eastern country of Kahndaq. I dig these fictional cities of DC’s. They allow for heroes to play around a bit in the international arena without changing the face of the world we the readers know – because let’s face it, if the Avengers overthrew Afghanistan, North Korea, or any real country currently making world politics insane, there’d be a certain disconnect (“Nope, I was just watching the CNN – they’re still makin’ trouble). With fictional analogs it’s simply easier to suspend disbelief (“Kahndaq toppled by Black Adam? Good, those Kahndaq troublemakers have been askin’ for it since they bombed the Justice League’s headquarters!”). They also allow writers to exaggerate, with Johns making it clear in this issue (almost to the point of going over the top) that the leaders of Kahndaq are villains of the highest order, and hey, maybe they needed to get a little slaughtered by some superheroes.
Johns is setting up a classic moral dilemma for superhero books: why don’t these guys reshape the entire world for the better instead of just whuppin’ up on supervillains? Now I am not a big fan of this theme. It strains my own suspension of disbelief, because I’ve long recognized that the real reason superheroes don’t shut down all the dictators and end world hunger is because if they did...suddenly we the readers would have no connection with their world. For sci-fi novels and self-contained stories like WATCHMEN, sure, you can shape the world all you like, but for persistent analogs to our own world as you get with Marvel and DC, you just can’t shake up the status quo too much. And if a writer puts the spotlight on non-interventionist heroes, and in doing so forces them to come up with lame, contrived excuses for not doing good on a larger scale, well, he’s just undermined the very nature of these fictional heroes!
Can Geoff Johns write his way out of that trap? I don’t know. Fear of a bungled moral resolution is my biggest sticking point with the story, but it didn’t derail my enjoyment of the issue much at all. There’s just too much fun to be had watching the charismatic Black Adam and crew just laying waste to all these bad, bad dudes. Is there some element of xenophobia in enjoying watching foreigners crushed by violent superheroes? Screw that noise. I know this is purest power fantasy adventure, and make no apologies for loving the scene where a giant-sized Atom Smasher absolutely crosses the hero/villain line by smearing an evil dictator under his tank-sized foot. It’s meant to be troubling, but I suspect it’s also meant to be good, old-fashioned “you just fucked with the wrong guy” fun.
One potential downside to the story is that it’s going to be crossing over into Johns’ other book, HAWKMAN, which hasn’t even come close to JSA’s heights, but I’ll give it its shot. With JSA stories, at least, I’m willing to look past his stumbles knowing that the next cool moment is probably just around the corner.
WOLVERINE: THE END #2: Greg Rucka's take on Logan in his own series is not my cup of tea. Like the HAWKEYE series, I'm just not interested in seeing my heroes wandering across America righting wrongs Renegade-style. Wolverine is a failed samurai. He's a lost soul tormented by the spirit of an animal and searching for control and a bit of peace. This series highlights that aspect of Logan and I am liking it. The miniseries is set in the future and billed as the last Wolverine tale. Paul Jenkins does a good job of doling out the conspiracy and action. Does the Weapon X program still exist or is Logan simply losing his mind to paranoia? For those of you who like to see your heroes suffer, this is the mini for you. It takes a lot for me to be interested in a character as overexposed as Wolverine, but this series is doing it. The art is damn good too, even though Claudio Castellini draws Logan way too tall. Give this one a try. It's better than it lets on. - Ambush Bug
NEW X-MEN #151: I’d have killed – KILLED! – for Frank Quitely to return to NEW X-MEN in time for Grant Morrison’s last arc. It’s Morrison’s own homage to the classic “Days of Future Past” two-parter from Claremont and Byrne, and Quitely’s detailed brilliance would’ve been ideal, but instead we get popular but not-really-very-good Top Cow alumnus, Marc Silvestri. Ugh. Nevertheless, Morrison’s ideas are firing on all cylinders, with some cool or wild or Typically Morrisonian Weird moment on nearly every page. I’m especially fond of the protective “generation one” Sentinel, its only vocabulary “DESTROY”; the Beast as white-furred, gene-splicing, megalomaniacal dictator; and one scene set in modern times where Emma Frost has the most hilariously bitchy line of Morrison’s entire run. C’mon, you already know whether you’re gonna buy this story or not – you don’t need my approval – but approve I do. Morrison’s got any number of mysteries yet to unfold in the next few issues, and I’m jonesing for them more than just about any book on the market. – Cormorant
BIG EYES FOR THE CAPE GUY!
Cormorant here with round two of my new, semi-recurring feature devoted exclusively to the strange, fascinating, big-eyed world of manga, specifically those books I think might catch the eye of Western readers like m’self. In the first installment we looked at PLANETES (a great space adventure grounded in NASA-style realism), BERSERK (lackluster dark fantasy, though ultra-violence devotees will like it), and SHAOLIN SOCCER (hilariously bad in a good way). This week sees a similarly diverse mix of genres, starting with...
.Hack Vols. 1 and 2 (TPB)
Writer: Tatsuya Hamazaki
Artist: Rei Izumi
Reviewed by Cormorant
Note: While it might not be obvious, the title of this series, .hack, is pronounced “dot hack.” With that submitted for your reading ease, on to the review:
If you watch Cartoon Network’s “Adult Swim,” you might already be familiar with the multimedia blitz of .hack – it’s a cartoon, it’s a manga, it’s a video game! What the hell, let’s make it a laxative, too! I’m kidding, but only barely. The Japanese have perfected the art of inundating audiences with every conceivable iteration of a story with a skill not seen since the G.I. JOE franchise turned children into buying machines in the ‘80s. So how do things pan out on a creative level? According to a cover blurb on the first volume of .hack, it’s “the #1 manga in America” – quite possible since Tokyopop currently dominates the American manga market – but does that make it good?
Well, no - of course not. But it is surprisingly addictive, as is so often the case with manga, though I’m predisposed to have an interest. Y’see, the story is set slightly in the future and revolves around a brother and sister in their early teens who’re involved in an online roleplaying game on the order of EVERQUEST or DARK AGE OF CAMELOT (but featuring full-on virtual reality immersion and cutesy FINAL FANTASY graphics). Having wasted the better part of a year on EVERQUEST once upon a time – terrific fun, many a drawback – it’s pretty much “up my alley.”
The more precise premise is that the sister, Rena, has won a contest that allows her and one other person (she picks her non-gaming brother) to play in “The World” (that’s the name of the game) using the avatars of two famous adventurers who’re the only two to complete the game’s greatest quest. The fate of these legends is shrouded in mystery. No one knows who the players behind the avatars were, and even the nature of the quest is unknown years after the fact. So...Rena and her brother Shugo find themselves playing the role of these famous heroes, mixing it up with all the strange types who play these games (and the book nails ‘em, from item-seekers to cheaters to melodramatic roleplayers) even as they begin to wonder if there’s some real element of fate/destiny/manipulation to their newfound roles. The story takes place almost entirely in “The World”, so we rarely see the players outside of their roles in the game, but writer Tatsuya Hamazaki has fun defining them through out-of-character gabbing and transcripts of their e-mails to each other. Anyone who’s played these games will recognize the strange melodrama they actually add to your life, and it’s clear that the writer’s “done his time” actually playing ‘em. We also see e-mails between the programmers of the game, the corporation that runs it, and the Gestapo like “Cobalt Knight Brigade” who handles cheating and hacking. It all adds up to a “meta” level of the story that does indeed suggest a shadowy conspiracy to manipulate Shugo and Rena for unknown purposes.
This is a pretty insubstantial manga – even the girly, slightly decorative art is spare on backgrounds – but I can see its appeal to gamers. Though “The World” is meant to be a very advanced version of our modern online RPG’s, folks who play those games will immediately identify with the authenticity .hack’s portrayal of familiar concepts, and the conspiracy element is the real lure. Characterizations are obvious, but dynamic, with most of the early drama coming from non-gamer Shugo as his cynicism gives way to more admirable qualities as he falls into the hero’s role. And meanwhile the heroes fight monsters, so that’s always fun.
Ultimately .hack is about as insubstantial as the games that inspired it, but it shares their addictive quality. Despite the cutesy art, strange humor, and sometimes ridiculous melodrama, I think I’ll look in on it from time to time. It just better not have one of those bullshit anime endings where everything’s a dream or there are a hundred and one interpretations. If I’m gonna read something vacuous and shiny, I want payoff, dammit.
BUDDHA Vol. 1 (Hardcover)
Writer/Artist: Osamu Tezuka
Publisher: Vertical, Inc.
Reviewed by Cormorant
One of the earliest mangas I reviewed for the TalkBack League was Osamu Tezuka’s PHOENIX: A TALE OF THE FUTURE. Truly a bizarre experience, that book, and an amazing one. Tezuka, best known as the creator of Astro Boy, was also among the first manga creators to invoke serious themes in his work – religious, existential, even sexual. Most curious, though, was the fact that even in his most serious works, there was always an element of his earlier light-hearted works like ASTRO BOY. PHOENIX, for instance, was a grim futuristic tale of the perseverance of humanity in the twilight years of the earth, but the idiom of the story was almost Disney-esque. Philip K. Dick, meet Mickey Mouse.
And bizarre as the combo may seem, it was utterly enthralling. Mind-blowing, even. It’s not the most comfortable of blends, but the end result was nevertheless one of the most memorable comics I’ve ever read. And the ultra-prolific Tezuka worked such magic on scores of weighty tales during his decades-spanning career, including his re-telling of the life of Buddha.
Yes, that Buddha, the first “enlightened one” of ancient India and founder of one of the world’s great religions. Not Sam Buddha, that guy who still owes you five bucks.
The first chapter of this eight-volume story is a 400-page ensemble piece that sets the stage for the birth of the Buddha. Our lead character is a young teen named Chapra born of the slave caste. His life takes a major turn when a seven-year-old named Tatta, born of the lowest caste, the pariahs, steals some goods he was delivering for his master. In one of the book’s most surreal scenes, Chapra tracks Tatta down, determined to get his master’s goods back lest his mother be sold off as punishment. Drawn in a style reminiscent of early Disney, Tatta and his fellow pariahs – all naked as per the time period and their station – proceed to defiantly urinate on Chapra from the raised walls of the city.
Bizarre, yes, but emblematic of Tezuka’s twin devotions to realism and what it seems he saw as the essential cartoonishness of the medium of comics.
Tatta ends up taking pity on Chapra, eventually helping him rescue his mother from bondage by using his mystical ability to control animals (he possesses a tiger to chew up the guards). Other fictional players invented by Tezuka include a warrior captain who eventually takes Chapra under his wing, unaware he was born of the slave caste; a monk who thinks that Tatta might be the prophesied one; and the king and queen destined to give birth to Siddhartha, the true Buddha. The birth itself occurs toward the end of the book and is truly an amazing series of pages, graphically astonishing and downright transcendental. Along the way, the fictional cast act as the reader’s entry point to the harshness and beauty of 6th century B.C. India. As a historical text, it’s surely lacking, but then again, it’s not presented as such.
As with Tezuka’s other quasi-historical epics in the PHOENIX series, BUDDHA depicts a vast tapestry of war, sacrifice, power lust, and redemption. Among the most memorable scenes: a famous Buddhist legend of a rabbit hurling itself into a fire to sustain a dying old man; a visually jaw-dropping locust swarm that disrupts an execution; Chapra’s fierce, SPARTACUS-style training with sword, shield, and bow; Tatta’s possession of a succession of animals as he attempts to reach the weeks-away Himalayas in a single day; and last but not least, dozens of images of India’s sweeping vistas rendered in a near-photographic style that stands in sharp contrast to the characters’ cartooniness.
Alas, I find that the author’s strange sense of humor does undercut the suspension of disbelief somewhat. Tezuka can render a field with such stunning realism it’ll take your breath away, then follow with a page where a character is so startled that he literally bounces off the panels of the page like some escapee from Tex Avery’s drawing board. No way around it: it’s jarring. So, too, are the modern day colloquial speech patterns, which include the use of words like “dude” and “yo,” and feature a merchant describing a bustling trade city to a newcomer as, “Like New York or Paris if you know what I mean.” Tezuka even includes a trademark cameo by himself – a Hitchcockian tradition in all his stories. It’s more than a little frustrating, as though he’s compelled to make some gag every dozen pages lest he be saddled with the burden of taking himself too seriously. Comic creator Evan Dorkin, himself quite the Tezuka fan, recently likened Tezuka to Kirby in that both are such visual geniuses, but hampered by corny and ham-fisted storytelling techniques. Personally I think Tezuka’s work shows a far greater sophistication than Kirby’s, but the criticism is valid. Mixing genius with juvenile is its own brand of frustrating.
If you can get past these idiosyncrasies, however – and I absolutely believe it’s worth it - BUDDHA is essential reading both for manga fans and anyone interested in seeing the supposed limitations of comics challenged. Tezuka’s style is highly approachable, especially given what would otherwise be a very intimidating subject, and he paints a vital image of life and spirituality in an era most Westerners are wholly unfamiliar with. It’s not just a story but an experience. Little wonder that the series has won praise from sources as diverse as TIME MAGAZINE, Scott McCloud, and Will Eisner.
And as Fat Albert might say: “If you’re not careful, you might just learn something.”
CLASSIC STAR WAR TRILOGY
Adapted by: Hisao Tamaki, Toshiki Kudo, and Shin-Ichi Hiromoto
Published by Dark Horse Comics
Reviewed by Cormorant
These are the best Star Wars comics you've never heard of.
Released in the late ‘90s, these twelve volumes adapt the original Star Wars trilogy with a fidelity and creativity that shames Marvel's hokey efforts of the past. You remember the Marvel versions, right? It's an understatement to call 'em liberal adaptations, and while the mighty Al Williamson turned out some nice photo-referenced art for two of them, there was no spark, no energy, no swashbuckling giddiness. Chalk it up to the "shorthand" style of American superhero comics, so perfect for books developed through it, so ill-suited for cinematic style adventure.
Meanwhile, to the East, the Japanese have been developing and refining cinematic style comics at least as far back as the '60s. And so we finally get a faithful adaptation of the three films that set the high-water adventure mark for a generation. Where the Marvel adaptations ranged from three to six issues in adapting each film, these manga give over four volumes to each of movie, and each volume has as much material as three comics. That's over twelve issues worth of space to work with, and they use it well. Let's look at each adaptation in turn...
STAR WARS: Featuring catchy covers by Adam Warren (as does the entire series), the STAR WARS adaptation has the most conventional style of manga art - pretty close to Warren's covers, actually. That means massive eyes, a somewhat cute cartoonishness to all the characters, and paradoxically, ships and technology drawn with insane realism. Adapter Hisao Tamaki really amps up the drama with cinematic style decompression, much of it given over to amping up the action. The opening battle between Leia's blockade runner and the Imperial Star Destroyer gets a full sixteen pages, for instance, and the first splash of the Star Destroyer in pursuit just leaps off the page. As is typical for manga, there's a lot of toning to the artwork, which looks especially nice on the gleaming tech stuff. Overall, the art's a tad bland and a little cluttered during the big space battles, but I can all but guarantee that the seeming cutesiness to it falls by the wayside as the reader is drawn into its exciting, faithful retelling of Lucas' first and best movie in the series.
The dialogue? 99% verbatim from the flick, with no hokey superhero style rewrites mucking up Lucas's own hokey style. What I love is that even given the faithfulness of the scripting, there's a little creative flair to the proceedings that gives them a uniquely Japanese style. Obi-Wan, for instance, has the distinct air of a samurai to him, and when he squares off against Vader, there are several panels of the two circling, measuring each other, even adjusting their stances ala samurai. But it's the pacing, more than anything else that'll wow you. The last stand against the Death Star has all the X-Wing carnage you love, no edits, and the many pages adapting the destruction of Alderaan have a truly visceral impact. And here's the highest praise I can give this book: I actually got chills several times at how well it captured certain emotional swells from the movie: Obi-Wan's slight smile just before he dies, the Millennium Falcon's last-minute save in the Death Star Trench, and yes, even the heroes’ award ceremony at the end. Unlike every other STAR WARS adaptation I've ever read - compromised, the lot of 'em - you can feel the love that was poured into this one.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK: Oddly enough, the most mature film of the original trilogy makes for the weakest adaptation. Like the STAR WARS manga, there's an energy to these four volumes, but the spark of creativity isn't as strong - the emotional quality isn't quite there. What's more, the art isn't nearly as detailed, especially when it comes to the technology. And while I firmly believe it's the storytelling style and pacing that make these books distinctively "Star Wars", if I'm not being wowed by cool technology, there's just something missing. And lastly, while Darth Vader is sufficiently giant under this artist's pen, he actually looks like a broken man somehow - weakened, not commanding. On the plus side, Han Solo looks like a roguish bad ass, and fellow scoundrel Lando gets a similarly commanding treatment.
Generally weaknesses aside, there are still a few standout moments: Han and Leia's intimate moment in the Falcon is genuinely romantic, as is their "I love you/I know" exchange before Han becomes a Carbonite popsicle; Luke's final battle with Vader is solid, and the classic hand-chop is startling (the artist flavors his violent scenes with blood that wasn't in the movie); and Vader's "I AM your father" splash is excellent. Worth owning I'd say, but only just. Skip it if you're on a budget, and either go with the STAR WARS adaptation or...
RETURN OF THE JEDI: And continuing the irony, where EMPIRE made for the worst manga adaptation, JEDI blew me away by making for the best! Friends, I shit you not. It's faithful like the others, but just bursting with style and creativity. Artist Shin-Ichi Hiromoto is a tough cat to pin down, too, alternating between ultra-iconic, cartoony art for heroes like Luke and Leia; detailed, almost Robert Crumb grittiness on Jabba the Hut and his crew; and near photorealism on all the backgrounds and ships. Lots of mixed media, too, from computer toning to drybrush techniques to charcoal or pencil atmospheric effects. It's definitely jarring at first, but I've come to absolutely love it. Vader's first appearance will just make you shit yourself, he's so menacing, and the ghoulish look of pure horror on the Imperial officer's face when Vader tells him the Emperor is coming is not to be missed.
As for the whole sequence in Jabba's palace, I can't say enough good about it. Hiromoto's Jabba is drawn with thick, tactile lines, and changing gears, he renders the dancing slave girl with wild gestural lines and Leia gets some nice curves herself. Best moment is the "walk the plank" sequence over the Rancor pit. When Luke vaults up from the plank to catch the lightsaber R2's fired, Hiromoto renders the panel from a bird’s-eye-perspective (with fish-eye lens exaggeration), as though Luke's leapt a hundred feet into the air. With this amazing momentum built, we get an inset panel with a dozen or so little tiers portraying shocked looks on the bad guys' faces, then a worm's-eye view of Luke - a tiny dot against the flare of the Tatooine sun - and a final panel of a doomed guard's terrified face. Flip the page and - BAM! - one panel showing an abstract blood splash, one amazing panel of Luke just shearing that poour sumbitch guard in two, one panel of the guard's body flopping off the barge as Luke crouches, following through on his swordstroke, and one final panel of Luke filling the “camera” as he launches at the villains ready to kick some more ass. Simply put, it's one of the best action sequences I've ever read in a comic, period. You will feel the fucking explosions!
What's more, the JEDI adaptation captures all the emotional quality of the STAR WARS adaptation and then some. There's a true aura of menace to the Emperor, for instance, when he growls, "Everything is proceeding as I have foreseen," the words drifting over an image of an entire galaxy in a double-page spread, the Emperor's craggy face filling an entire page itself. Yoda's death scene, which opens with realistic art, then becomes increasingly sketchy and fractured to match the rising tide of grief, is another that gave me chills. And on a pure excitement level, Hiromoto may actually have outdone ol' Lucas when it comes to Lando's hairsbreadth escape from the Death Star. If you’ve never found a comic book action sequence as exciting as a film action sequence, you need to read this series.
I realize these volumes are a hard sell to Star Wars enthusiasts. Common wisdom has it that licensed properties need to be photo-realistically rendered to be "convincing" in comics, but I'm here to tell you that's *horseshit*. It's all in the storytelling, in capturing the ebb and flow of filmic pacing and in using the unique strengths of the comic book medium - exaggeration, mixed media, and varied panel sized - to capture the emotional quality that film creates through direction, music, and audience identification with live actors. These STAR WARS adaptations are the books that convinced me that any movie or TV show could be adapted or expanded upon in comics, but only in utilizing the techniques pioneered by manga creators. Star Wars fans with an open mind for a little exaggeration are sure to be similarly pleased.
Addendum: these twelve volumes may not be readily available in stores, so try ordering 'em from Dark Horse online if your local shop doesn't have 'em. Just type “Star Wars manga” in the search engine and you’ll be on your way.
Hey manga nuts:
You guys threw out some good suggestions in the last TalkBack for future reviews, including GTO, BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL, and even the girly manga LOVE HINA – all of which I hope to get around to - but don’t hesitate to throw out more suggestions or e-mail ‘em to me. I’m always looking for hidden gems, especially the stuff that’s a little off the beaten path.