Friday, February 27, 2015

Up Against the Wall: Who is Amanda Waller?


Every comic fan has a few characters they love that aren't the marquee names. Sure, Batman's my favorite, always has been and will be. But I have a special place in my heart for the likes of Pete Wisdom, The Shade, Lucifer Morningstar, and Graimjack. And Amanda Waller. I have been waiting for the confirmation on her casting in the upcoming Suicide Squad movie before I did this post, about the history of one of the greatest characters introduced in the past 30 years, and now that Viola Davis has been confirmed, I thought this was a great time to talk about what makes The Wall so great.

Amanda Waller was introduced in Legends #1, written by Len Wein and John Ostrander, the first major DC Comics crossover after the universe restructuring Crisis on Infinite Earths. She was presented as the person organizing the new Suicide Squad, in this case a team of supervillains who had been offered reduced sentences if they took part in risky, probably lethal, missions.

Waller became one of the central figures in the Suicide Squad monthly that spun out of Legends, a book that many fans consider one of the great mainstream comics of the 80s. And for me, one of the main reasons for that is Amanda Waller. Waller was a completely new character, and one who wasn't like anyone else is comics. She was a short, stocky, dark skinned African American woman. And she clearly was tough as nails. And she only got tougher the more you got to know her. John Ostrander, who with his wife Kim Yale wrote the entire series, had created a character who just grabbed your attention. She had no powers, but was willing to stand up to the lunatics who were working for her, to gods, and most impressively, to Batman. If there's one image that sums up Waller to me, it's the cover to Suicide Squad #10.


Super heroes and villains of height and muscle are cowed by one look from Batman. And this woman who stands a head and change shorter than him is standing up to him and telling him off! How awesome is that?!?

But Waller was a much deeper character than just a shouting, grumbling harridan. She was deeply loyal to family and those few who she considered friends. She came from Chicago (native city of creator Ostrander), having gone from living in the Cabrini-Green Projects to serving as a congressional aide before finding out about the Squad and reforming it. Under Waller, the Squad sent missions into the Middle East and the Soviet Union, as well as other political hotspots. She never had a problem watching the members of the team die in the process, although the slipping sanity and eventual death of team leader Rick Flag Jr., not a convict but a volunteer, weighed on her. She was even willing to serve prison time for her convictions, when she used the squad for an unsanctioned mission to eradicate a drug cartel in New Orleans.

After leaving prison, Waller took the Squad freelance, working closer with them as they served as mercenaries. Suicide Squad ended with Waller retiring, but she remained a supporting character, popping up occasionally in the DCU in books like Eclipso (where she led a group of heroes against the God of Vengeance Eclipso), and in various crossovers. She even served as Secretary of Metahuman Affairs under Lex Luthor during his presidency.

After the Luthor Administration folded, Waller once again organized the Suicide Squad under the US government, and then graduated to being the White Queen of the UN sanctioned superhuman response organization, Checkmate (as an aside, I think Waller might be the only White Queen who could show Emma Frost a thing or two about being in charge). This was during the excellent Greg Rucka run on the Checkmate series, the first time Waller felt right as a character since Ostrander stopped writing her. This was a Waller again who was ruthless and cunning, running her own missions behind the back of the rest of Checkmate. She is eventually dethroned when her secrets are revealed, but she goes on to run the Suicide Squad again, and to secretly manipulate the Secret Six, a team featuring former Suicde Squad mainstay Deadshot.


But like most characters in the DC Universe, the New 52 deeply effected Waller. The new Waller is still the head of the Suicide Squad and is still a force to be reckoned with. But the new Waller is both model thin and has a lighter complexion. I don't want to talk about the specific connotations of this too much, partly because I don't feel qualified and partly because, when the casting rumors started, Jospeh Phillip Illidge did a better job of it than I ever could in his piece on Comic Book Resources, but I miss the original Waller. She was a character was diverse, and not just on race but on something ever rarer in superhero comics: body type. She had a very distinct visual, something that made her stand out. And again, look that that cover! I'm sure current Waller could fight Granny Goodness too, but the classic just looks totally badass doing it!

I also think the new Waller loses a little something in her changed background. Instead of being a political manipulator and operative, this Waller is a soldier, having been a member of Team 7 and working her way up through the ranks. She's still a schemer, and still as tough as before, but again, I have a preference for the Waller who was willing to fight gods without the formal training. Still, new Waller has been the head of the Squad, head of A.R.G.U.S. (the New 52's US government metahuman liaison organization) and former her own Justice League to counterbalance the classic League in case they went rogue. That's not a bad list of credentials.



Viola Davis is an incredible casting choice, one I think is excellent, but she's far from the first Waller on screen. For a character who is less than thirty tears old, she has appeared in more TV and movies than you would expect, and I think with Davis, she is now the second most portrayed female DC character, second only to Catwoman. Yes, there have been more Amanda Waller's on screen than Wonder Womans. That's a testament to how great the character is. Pam Grier played her on Smallville, where she was a queen of Checkmate. Angela Bassett's performance was one of the better aspects of the lackluster Green Lantern movie, despite the odd choice of making her a government scientist instead of a government agent. And Cynthia Addai-Robinson plays Waller as a recurring character on Arrow; she much more resembles to current Waller, but does retain the hardness that makes Waller such an impressive character.

But my favorite Waller outside of comics is, probably not shockingly, an animated version, the one from Justice League Unlimited. When I was dream casting in my head back in the day, the actress who I pictured playing Waller was CCH Pounder, late of The Shield and Warehouse 13. And wouldn't you know it, but CCH Pounder voiced this version of Waller, as well as other animated DC projects, and she's perfect. Her voice immediately commands respect. And the portrayal was spot on. From Batman appearing in her bathroom while she showered and her not even blinking when she finds him in the bathroom, demanding a towel, to her touching scenes with Batman Beyond Terry McGinnis in the brilliant episode, "Epilogue" this was exactly how I pictured Waller. And since she was on JLU, I got an Amanda Waller action figure, which might have just ended my need for any other action figure ever.


As a final note, another reason to be glad for the casting of Viola Davis is the fact that she's an impressive actress who can hold her own. So much of what we're hearing about the new Suicide Squad movie makes me worried that it's going to be "Joker and Harley and their wacky friends." The Joker is a force of nature as a presence on screen, and I feel like the person standing up against him needs to rise to the occasion. I think Davis is an actress strong enough to make the Joker step back and cringe, to hit all the right notes to be the best Amanda Waller we've had on screen yet.

With Amanda Waller's profile only raising with the upcoming Suicide Squad film, there will be plenty of new material and hopefully collections of classic material. Right now there are trades available of all the New 52 Suicide Squad. The classic Squad run had one trade, which may or may not still be in print, and sadly the Checkmate material is out of print. But Gail Simone's Secret Six is coming back in print in new volumes, and Waller's turn there is another great appearance. And there's always new episodes of Arrow and classic Justice League Unlimited if you want to get to know the first lady of comic book espionage better.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

27 Reasons You Should Care About... Agent 355



As Black History Month transitions into Women's History Month, I can't think of a better character to write about than all-time badass Agent 255 from Brian K. Vaughan's most-excellent Y the Last Man. Three-Fifty served as Yorick Brown's protector and traveling companion on his journey across the globe in search of his girlfriend and a way to reverse the near-extinction of the Y chromosome. Along the way, she dropped a lot of fools. A lot. In honor of that, rather than list just five reasons why 355 is awesome, here's all of the reasons.

Issue 1: Has no problem capping mofos from the get-go, killing Jordanian terrorists in the very first issue.

Issue 3: Hijacks a trash truck, gate-crashes the White House, and defuses a gunfight between legislators holed up at the White House and the widows of Republican congressmen who demand to succeed their husbands (Vaughn's eye for sorting out the logistics of a world dominated by women is astounding).

Issue 4: Saves Yorick's life for the first time, vs the Daughters of the Amazon.

Issue 6: Beats up two boxcar butches trying to extort Yorick, 355, and Dr. Alison Mann aboard a train bound for California. Throws Mann and herself from the train after the extortionists throw Yorick.

Issue 7: Gives Mann a gun, tells Mann to leave her bleeding in a field to find Yorick.

Issue 11: Fights a Russian agent atop a moving train.



Issue 13: Shoots an Israeli solider in the head, runs through gunfire and tackles another, shoots that one point black with the soldier's own gun.

Issue 14: Arranges a deal with Alter, the Israeli military leader, for Yorick in exchange for two astronauts headed back to Earth from the International Space Station. Threatens Natalya, the Russian agent they have befriended, to make it look convincing. Claims to be in love with Yorick (Or is she really?) to sweeten her case. Never has any intentions of making the trade.

Issue 18: The issue opens in media res with 355, Yorick, and Dr. Mann riding ATVs away from shooting cowgirls. At one point, 355 threatens to rip off Yorick's penis with a claw hammer.

Issue 22: Infiltrates the Sons of Arizona militia camp to rescue Dr. Mann, sneaks up on Dr. Mann's interrogator/torturer, knocks her out with a hypodermic needle, takes out another militawoman's eye with her baton.

Issue 23: Shoots another militiawoman up the jaw, and their leader right in the forehead.

Issue 27: Lets Yorick disguise himself as a mascot and heckle a basketball game as a birthday present. Sets up two members of the Setauket Ring to get hit by a San Francisco trolley.

Issue 28: Setauket Ring leader Anna Strong, arranging a MacGuffin swap: "You know where Candlestick Park is, yes?" 355: "Yeah, it's at the croner of f*** you and go to hell."

Issue 29: Finds out the Setauket Ring killed her friend, charges them as they fire at her, positions herself so one Setauket gets shot in the face by the other’s gun, then shoots the second Setauket in the face with the dead one’s gun. Then cracks their leader’s neck with her bare hands.

Issue 31: Gets in a gun, baton and sword fight with Toyota, the ninja assassin hired by Dr. Mann’s father to steal Ampersand the monkey, on the Golden Gate Bridge. Survives getting cut by Toyota’s sword.

Issue 32: Slaps the gun out of a ship crew-woman’s hand with a crowbar, kicks her in the stomach. Also, 355 and Dr. Mann … um … exchange insurance info.




Issue 34: Picks a brig lock with knitting needles. Uses the same needle to knife the ship captain in the shoulder, then cracks her across the skull with her own rifle.

Issue 37: Beats up a bunch of Australian junkies, knocks one into a glass display case.
Issue 38: In a flashback to one of her first missions with the Culper Ring, shoots up a band of Eritrean soldiers. Plunges off the balcony of an Australian high-rise with a tabloid journalist who took photos of a naked Yorick.

Issue 39: Grabs a balcony railing on a lower floor and pulls herself and said journalist to safety. Later socks her in the jaw, grabs her by the throat and knees her in the stomach.



Issue 41: In a flashback to her adolescence as an orphan, takes a baseball bat to two white teen boys who call her a bunch of racial slurs. Later, as a young Culper Ring agent, rips out the throat of her former mentor with her bare teeth to thwart an assassination attempt on President Clinton.

Issue 43: 355: “I’ll never understand your obsession with Presley. Heartbreak Hotel? That s--- is unlistenable.” Y: “It’s not his songs, it’s his life. I just think he’s interesting.” 355: “No, the Mata Hari is interesting. Elvis is nothing but pills and co-opting black music.”

Issue 45: With an ex-Japanese cop named You, pulls a The Raid-style assault on the hotel stronghold of a former Canadian pop star turned Yakuza lord in search of Ampersand. Gets caught after her gun runs out of bullets, just as she was about to shoot an armed girl.

Issue 50: Steals an ambulance to get Dr. Mann, who is sick and bleeding, to her mother.

Issue 51: Picks herself out of handcuffs, charges Toyota through a high-rise window. The two then engage in a naginta duel on a rooftop. 355 jams the busted-off end of a naginta into the side of Toyota’s neck, killing her, but not before taking the blade end in the stomach. It doesn’t kill her, but it severs her fallopian tubes, meaning she can’t bear children if the effects of the plague are ever reversed.

Issue 55: Beats up some Russian guards assigned to Lenin’s body, which is being moved by train, after the guards search 355 and Yorick and find Yorick’s “F--- Communism” lighter.

Issue 58: Gets shot through the head by an Israeli sniper right after confessing to Yorick her real name. Live badass, die badass. 




Dan Grote’s new novel, Magic Pier, is available however you get your books online. He has been writing for The Matt Signal since 2014. He and Matt have been friends since the days when making it to issue 25 guaranteed you a foil cover.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Gotham Episode 17: Red Hood (Or, My Thoughts on the Importance of the Joker's Mask)


I had thought, at the beginning of the season, that I might regularly write about Gotham and many of the other comic book based TV shows this season. But time gets away from one, and even more than time, the incredibly uneven season of Gotham hasn't helped it (not to mention the best comic based show of the season Agent Carter, didn't start til mid season. Expect something looking at the season next week). Every time I think Gotham is finding its footing, an episode would happen that would make me shake my head and put down my virtual pen. But last night's episode, "Red Hood" while still uneven, finally hit some of the points about Gotham City that I feel like they've needed to, not to mention having some strong performances and a plot that actually followed in most places.

One of Gotham's principal sins has been that it is incredibly busy. There are countless plots in each episode, to the point that many of the case of the week plots suffer at the hands of writers needing to stuff in a dozen other characters. And while there were still plenty of plots, I actually found the case this episode actually worked, and Jim Gordon and Harvey Bullock did some actual police work, not just roughing guys up, going to mob connections, and stumbling blindly into the solution of a case. While I understand Gotham has only the thinnest veneer of a procedural, it was nice to see that Gotham's good cops aren't completely dependent on luck and fists. And kudos to Lee Wong as Chiang, the witness. That guy was just a delight to watch. Any episode that doesn't have a great scene chewing sequence from Zsasz should totally have that guy.

That case of the week is the titular Red Hood Gang. While last episode set up one possible suspect for the future Joker, that episode was exceedingly uneven, and I have certain giant problems with the presentation of a commodity known to Gordon being the Joker (more on that later). The episode starts out with a sequence clearly meant to inspire memories of the brilliant heist scene from the beginning of The Dark Knight but in an early form; this isn't a Joker who's ready for prime time. But more than that, it's clear he's not the Joker when one of his gang kills him and takes the Hood. Pretty soon we're getting scenes of gangland betrayal as the Hood passes from one hand to another through murder.

My first instinct was to think of the Hood as a cursed object, like the Scarface dummy, carved from the gallows wood from Blackgate Penitentiary (my wife, Amber's response to that when I mentioned it was, "God, no wonder s#$%& like this happens in Gotham when they let people do stuff like that." And I can't say she's wrong). But I got to thinking and I don't think it's the Hood itself, it's the city. This is the first true talisman of the madness that bubbles beneath Gotham. The idea of the city as a character is a big part of Gotham, and I feel like the showrunners have been trying to capture that in this series with fairly limited success. The madness has been so contained, so random, and the all so easily explained. Gotham isn't a bad, crazy city. It's just a corrupt, lazily run city. Get rid of guys like the mayor, Commissioner Loeb, and the Wayne Board, and the city itself is redeemable.

But Gotham isn't that. Writers over the years, as recently as Grant Morrison and Scott Snyder, have played with the idea that Gotham itself is just wrong, founded on blood, madness, and death, and it needs something like Batman to try to set it right. But as many proto-Scarecrows and Black Masks we see, none of them have been anchored in the city. The Red Hood has a power, not the one to avoid bullets that the initial owner thinks it has, but the power to inspire madness, to dredge up everything that is below the surface of Gotham and give it form. And that's a part of Gotham, and part of the Joker. More than just a grinning, unrepentant matricide, the Joker is anarchy and madness incarnate. So the idea that he is the logical (or illogical, I suppose), extension of what the Red Hood is doing to Gotham feels much better to me.


See, while I prefer Batman to have found his parents' killer and moved beyond that, I much prefer my Joker as the unknown. Accepting Alan Moore's, "pat little poor pathetic failed man who broke" theory feels no better than accepting Tim Burton's, "preening criminal who just went off the deep end," theory. Who the Joker is doesn't matter, and shouldn't. Knowing his origins takes something away from the character. Christopher Nolan got that, with Joker's speeches about his scars, and Paul Dini got it in "Mad Love" when it turns out the story he told Harley Quinn to win her over is just one of many versions of his past. The past to the Joker is just a shadow, something to cast where he needs it to serve his purpose. Who he was before he put on that hood and stepped into Ace Chemicals doesn't matter. That was a human being. The Joker is no longer anything human (Metaphorically. The verdicts's still out on what he really is until the end of Scott Snyder's "Endgame"), and to give him a past humanizes him, something that does him a disservice.

As to the rest of the episode, and the other plot lines, I'm happy to see further development from Bruce. I was fairly impressed early on with the show's handling of Bruce Wayne, but felt it meandered a bit. The past three episodes, we're starting to see a bit of Batman showing up. Not much, not enough to be frustrating, but the rage that fuels him is there, and the beginnings o the skill. But he's still a kid. And while the more militant Alfred is still not my ideal, I am really starting to adore the rapport between Sean Pertwee's Alfred and David Mazouz's Bruce. the entrance of the third party into their house, this time tied to Alfred, allows for Alfred to be fleshed out, and to provide some wonderful character moments between David O'Hara and Pertwee. And while I saw the episode ending twist coming a mile away, the moment of the betrayal was no less impactful for it.

The remaining three plotlines (yes, those of you who aren't watching Gotham, you thought I was joking about the number of plotlines in a episode. I wasn't), well, the less said about Barbara and her drunkenness and her growing weirder relationship with Selina and Ivy, the urchins she let stay in her apartment when she found them squatting there, the better. The only thing that I have to wonder is if there's a way that this show can make Barbara less likable. She doesn't listen to anyone, she's useless, and now with that scene that felt like something out of Law & Order: SVU between her and Selina, she's graduated from useless to plain creepy.

The Gotham mob plots were a bit more interesting. Fish Mooney's meeting with the guy running the clinic/human organ harvesting place she is imprisoned went about as expected. It's always great to see Jeffrey Combs on anything, although it took me a second to recognize him without Star Trek alien prosthetics, but that voice is so distinct it captured me immediately. And Jada Pinkett Smith once again proves that Fish chews that scenery better than anyone, and that nobody can outcrazy her. I still wonder why they don't just shoot her and be done with it, but maybe we'll get that when the Dollmaker makes his appearance. And can I say how odd it is that the Dollmaker, a fairly recent and obscure membor of Batman's rogues gallery will now have appeared on tv live action TV series (a version was on Arrow last season), while we have yet to see a live Killer Croc in any medium. And I think the duo of Penguin and Butch is going to work just fine. They have been two of the highlights of the season, and they play off each other really well.

I don't know if Gotham is out of the woods just yet. There's still five episodes left in this season, and a lot can happen in five episodes for good or ill. But "Red Hood" might have been the series' strongest outing to date, and shows the potential of what the series could be with a little more clarity of vision.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 2/18


Secret Identities #1
Story: Brian Joines & Jay Faerber 
Art: Ilias Kyriazis

We all have our secrets, and if you're a superhero, you probably have more than most. The debut issue of Brian Joines and Jay Faerber's Secret Identities is heavy on the secrets. Starring a team of heroes called The Front Line, the issue starts off looking like a by the numbers super hero team book. But pretty soon, we see that it's anything but. The private lives of the heroes are laid out before us, and we see the secrets they keep. Recluse has a secret prison beneath his mansion where he keeps prisoners for what seems to be a horrible purpose. Punchline is a failing comedian. Vesuvius seems to want to keep some aspect of his history a secret. Each of the seven members of Front Line have something they want to hide, and their new recruit, Crosswind, might have the biggest secret of all: he's a mole, sent in to learn the identities and secrets of his teammates to bring them down. And we learn that right out of the gate. This isn't a book about uncovering these secrets for the reader. Sure, there are details we don't know and twists that I'm sure will come, but this isn't about the secrets, but how we keep them and what they do to our lives. The Front Line, and the world they live in, jumps fully formed onto the page, with great designs for each of the characters by Ilias Kyriazis. It feels like a team that we know already, that lives in a world that has existed for some time. Jay Faerber is no stranger to the superhero soap opera, having written a book that falls more in line with that latter in Noble Causes, and while I'm less familiar with Brian Joines, I did enjoy the heck out of his Christmas action series, Krampus!, so the book is in good hands. This was a very strong start to a new series, one that established the stakes and the world, and gave us characters we could grow to like or despise. Let's hope for a nice long run, and answers to all the secrets and lies this first issue laid out for us.



She-Hulk #12
Story: Charles Soule
Art: Javier Pulido

*Sigh* Thus ends the current volume of She-Hulk. Charles Soule has written a book that focused more often on law then on super heroics, gave a full picture of who Jen Walters, She-Hulk, is, slowly built the mystery of The Blue File, and developed a great supporting cast for Jen Walters. This issue wraps up most of those plot threads. The issue starts out with exactly what happened to create the Blue File, the mystery case that Jen and various other super folk have been named as defendants in, and we see a seemingly new character, Nighteater. But with the revelation from the end of last issue about the culpability of Nightwatch in the case, things start to fall into place. This is one of the most action-centric issues of She-Hulk, but the intelligence and wit that have been the title's hallmark for this volume were not lost. While fighting Nighthawk, we get to learn exactly why he did what he did, why he remade himself as a hero. We get to see everything he's been up to, and we get a moment of, if not redemption, at least a moment where one of the villains we met earlier does the right thing. Hellcat and Angie Huang, Jen's employees, friends, and chief supporting cast, play a big role in the story as well. We never find out exactly what Angie's deal is, which is fine by me; I like the mystery of that, and what she is doesn't matter as much as what she is to Jen, her friend. The nature of heroism is a topic much discussed as She-Hulk fights Nightwatch, and in the end, Jen proves herself to be a true hero. But even with all these superheroics, the final few pages bring the series back around to what it's been about all along: Jen at her office, preparing for a new case. For the too short duration of its run, She-Hulk has been my favorite comic coming out from Marvel, a strong, character driven series that plays with the tropes of the Marvel Universe and builds on that history. I can only hope this isn't the last we'll see of Charles Soule writing this character.



Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars #1
Story: Ben Acker and Ben Blacker
Art: J. Bone

It's time to shine your astro spurs and don your robot fists, as we begin today's thrilling review of Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars #1! I've written before about how much I love The Thrilling Adventure Hour, live theatre and internet home to Sparks Nevada, Croach the Tracker, and a host of other characters. And their transition to monthly comics has gone off without a hitch. Written by TAH creators Ben Acker and Ben Blacker, this story takes place before the earliest Sparks Nevada story on the podcast, and so no prior knowledge of the characters is required. After a flashback to Sparks at the Academy (because all sci-fi worlds have an academy) with his parents, the story starts in earnest with Sparks escorting a stage coach across the crimson plains of Mars. The coach contains the Johnsons (one of whom we know from the shows and the issue title as the Widow Johnson, so it doesn't bode well for Mr. Johnson) and panicky local yokel Felton, who proves to be a chatty passenger to an increasingly irritated Sparks. As they travel across the plains, they run into Martians, who seek nothing more than to be out from under Onus (picture Wookiee life debt, only less for all your life and with way more complaining by those indebted) to Sparks, rogue robots, and aliens. The issue has the trademark Sparks mix of action and humor, with a healthy dose of the latter. The dynamic between Sparks and Croach, the martian who must perform the duty of helping Sparks and who will become his friend and companion, is already coming into focus this early, and their rapport and repartee (or lack thereof) is one of main sources of comedy. Artist J. Bone gets to stretch his artistic legs in his designs for the different robot rogues, as well as the group of aliens that appear at story's end. Accompanying the first issue is also a print version of the digital first Sparks Nevada #0, the story of how Sparks and Croach first met. so if you prefer your comics in print form, here's your chance to get this for the first time. Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars is a clever mixture of western and sci-fi tropes. one that should delight fans of either genre.




The Valiant #3
Story: Jeff Lemire & Matt Kindt
Art: Paolo Rivera

The Valiant #3 is really two great comics in one issue. Last issue left the series main characters divided, with Kay McHenry and Bloodshot on the run from the Immortal Enemy, while Eternal Warriro, Ninjak, and the rest of the Valiant heroes are ready to stand and fight. This issue, the two stories each develop on their own. The battle between the heroes and the Immortal Enemy is stunning. Paolo Rivera goes completely to town on drawing not just the combat, but the horrors when the Immortal Enemy gets into the heads of the heroes and shows them their worst fears. It's like a Scarecrow fear toxin attack on steroids. Rivera gets to draw all the Valiant heroes, from Archer & Armstrong to Quantum & Woody to Punk Mambo. It's the kind of thing that other companies would spread out over the course of three issues, but this series does it all in half an issue, and it doesn't feel rushed, and the art makes it so clear and crisp that you follow each stroke of sword and laser blast. The other end of the spectrum is Bloodshot and Kay. Bloodshot has been tasked with protecting Kay, so he brings her into a shopping mall. Lemire, who wrote this section of the issue, takes you through the pages in this issue's backmatter, and it's so cool to see these two people, thrust into lives of extreme weirdness, walking past home wares and all the things that they will never have. It's a very thoughtful scene, wonderfully written, as Kay keeps asking Bloodshot personal questions, and he keeps deflecting by doing his super soldier, preparing for the enemy thing. The dynamic between the two of them is wonderful, and I hope to see more of it in the future. The issue ends with Kay trying to help Bloodshot, but leaving them in a vulnerable position as the Immortal Enemy approaches. It's a great cliffhanger for a series that does everything you want from a crossover and does it without all the bloating from other companies. It's tightly paced and plotted, and never forgets character for action. There's still time to catch up before next month's finale, so if you haven't tried out The Valiant, what are you waiting for?



And Dan Grote brings us back to Jersey City, where Ms. Marvel goes to a dance and meets a certain god of Mischief...


Ms. Marvel #12
Story: G. Willow Wilson
Art: Elmo Bondoc and Ian Herring

After 11 issues of establishing Kamala Khan and her world, a standalone issue is a breath of fresh air.

It’s also time for another Marvel team-up, this time with the de-aged Loki currently starring in his own series by Al Ewing and Lee Garbett. Loki is sent to Coles Academic High by his mother, Freyja, for whatever expositionary reason is necessary to get Loki to willingly visit Jersey City. Much of the humor of this issue lies in the residents of J.C. mocking the Agent of Asgard as a “Hipster Viking from Brooklyn.” Loki certainly doesn’t give anyone reason to doubt that label, literally prancing about and writing love letters with the purplest of prose. One of the benefits of Loki looking the way he does now, though, is that he’s not instantly recognizable as the god of mischief, so it takes a while for Kamala to realize she’s locking horn-helmets with a classic villain. It also lets Loki do cliche Loki things like create duplicate illusions of himself and laugh while Kamala punches the wrong ones.

There’s a few other great beats in this issue. First, Bruno, the only human who knows Kamala’s secret, lectures his degenerate friend about why being “friend-zoned” isn’t a negative thing, because “friendship is something real and good and anybody who doesn’t understand that needs a dictionary.” Granted, he says this because Kamala has no interest in him romantically, but it takes a mature attitude to understand there are other types of love besides romantic.

Later, Loki spikes the punch at a Coles Valentine’s dance with truth elixir. Suddenly, a room full of teenagers stops being polite and starts getting real.

Finally, after Loki’s finished having his sport, he agrees to cast a spell of protection on the school, which is still half a mess from an attack by one of the Inventor’s robots.

For another great standalone featuring Ms. Marvel, check out last month’s SHIELD #2, in which Agent Simmons goes undercover at Coles High and teams up with Kamala against some loose supervillain tech.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

5 Reasons You Should Care About … Mr. Terrific



One of the shows I’ve enjoyed watching with my Batman-obsessed son is Justice League Unlimited, the DC animated series in which the league opens its ranks to seemingly every hero in the universe. The show introduced me to a number of characters I’d never heard of, being a fairly staunch Marvel reader. Chief among those new characters was Mr. Terrific, who stood out to me both because of his sweet black, white and red leather jacket and the fact that he was doing Martian Manhunter’s job. This being Black History Month, Matt and I wanted to make an effort to spotlight African-American characters and creators, so I thought I’d focus on someone I wanted to know more about personally.

Michael Holt, the second Mr. Terrific, was created by John Ostrander and Tom Mandrake and first appeared in 1997’s Spectre Vol. 3, #54.

1. He’s the perfect man, literally: Michael Holt describes himself as the third smartest person in the world (after Bruce Wayne and Lex Luthor) and says he has a “natural aptitude for having natural aptitudes.” He is a hero in the Batman mold, in that he has no powers and has to rely on his mental prowess – he was a child genius and has 14 Ph.D.’s – and natural athleticism – he’s an Olympic decathlete – to foil fiendish fools. Terrific uses tech called T-spheres that can help him fly, operate as cameras, shoot lasers and do a bunch of other cool stuff. His T-shaped mask makes him invisible to technology, except – for some reason – Red Tornado. Holt once owned a tech company but sold it to Wayne.



2. He’s one of the DCU’s premier atheists: Holt’s wife and unborn child were killed in a car accident that occurred after he and his wife had gotten into an argument about the value of religion – she believed in God, he didn’t. Their deaths drove him to thoughts of suicide. Ironically, it was the spirit of God’s vengeance – the Spectre – that convinced him to become a superhero. In the "Thy Kingdom Come" story in JSA, it is revealed that the Michael Holt of pre-Crisis Earth-2 is a priest.

3. He’s the second Mr. Terrific: The Spectre inspired Holt to take up the Terrific mantle from the Golden Age Mr. Terrific, Terry Sloane, who first appeared in 1942’s Sensation Comics #1 and was created by Charles Reizenstein and Everett E. Hibbard. Like Holt, Sloane was an Olympic-level athlete and black belt, a business leader, and a genius from a young age with a photographic memory. The “Fair Play” on Holt’s jacket is inspired by Sloane’s costume, though that’s about the only similarity between the two men’s wardrobes. In fact, Sloane’s duds more closely resemble that of Thor villain the Wrecker. Holt has twice traveled back in time to fight alongside Sloane.

4. He chaired the JSA: Like his predecessor, Holt came up through the Justice Society of America. He ends up becoming its chairman after a power struggle between Hawkman and Sand. He remained chairman until the team broke up after Infinite Crisis. He also served as the White King of the Hellfire Club, er, the U.N. intelligence agency Checkmate.

5. He can fill in for Martian Manhunter in a pinch: In the final season of Justice League Unlimited, Mr. Terrific replaced J’onn J’onzz as the team’s coordinator, the one responsible for choosing which heroes face which crisis. And he did it without getting cookie crumbs all over the Watchtower’s computer consoles.



Read this: Mr. Terrific #1-8, one of the first New 52 series to be canceled, by Eric Wallace and Roger Robinson.
Watch that: Justice League Unlimited, particularly the last season.


Dan Grote’s new novel, Magic Pier, is available however you get your books online. He has been writing for The Matt Signal since 2014. He and Matt have been friends since the days when making it to issue 25 guaranteed you a foil cover.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 2/11


Atomic Robo Vol.9: The Knights of the Golden Circle TPB
Story: Brian Clevinger
Art: Scott Wegener

There's something great when you get a fish out of water. And putting an atomic robot in the Wild West is about as fish out of water as you can get. After the events of the previous volume, Atomic Robo has found himself trapped in the late 1800s, and has done his best to not get involved, so as to not upset the timeline. But desperadoes and a town in danger get Robo back in action. Robo, mistaken for an armor wearing old west gunslinger called Ironhide, winds up on a vengeance ride of sorts with Doc Holliday and Deputy US Marshall Boss Reeves, to save the townsfolk of . I didn't know Reeves before this; he, like Holliday, is a real person, and as per usual when real people are used in Robo stories he is very interesting, and the story has now made me curious to track down more about him. Before the story is done, we get cyborgs, zeppelins, a train chase, and everything you might expect in an Atomic Robo story. I have written more times than I can count about how much I love Robo, how much fun the stories are, and how there can still be character and heart in the middle of all the crazy science fiction. This volume mixes many classic Western tropes with the usual science fiction of Robo in a perfect mix. Brian Clevinger subtly builds tension throughout the story as it is clear Robo is "dying;" his power cells failing. There's no big speech explaining it, since the people Robo is with wouldn't understand it, and I like the fact that the needless exposition isn't there. Also appearing for the first time in a bit is Robo's arch nemesis (well, other arch nemesis after Dr. Dinosaur), Baron Heinrich Von Helsingard. The question of how Helsingard is alive so long before his and Robo's first meeting during World War II remains unanswered, a story for another day, I hope. So, what more can I say other than go buy some Robo, because it's the best dang science action comic on the stands? How about go read some Robo for free! Yes, this is the last print first volume of Atomic Robo, Recently, the guys at Robo, in conjunction with Hiveworks, started putting all of Robo's adventures on-line. They're rolling out all the past stories, and leading up to new material this summer. There will be trade collections of the new work, but you can read it first on-line. So you now have no excuse! Go and read some Robo now!



Divinity #1
Story: Matt Kindt
Art: Trevor Hairsine

Since Valiant's return a couple years ago, the company has reinvigorated most of it's old properties. This week saw the debut of it's first completely original property under the new regime. Divinity is the story of Abram Adams, a young man who was sent off into space by the Soviet Union, and has now returned, decades later, with godlike powers. Much of this issue takes place before that mission, and is the story of Abram's life. A black orphan left on the doorstep of a Soviet embassy, he was raised by the state, and trained to become this cosmonaut. We see a boy who strives to the ideals that are laid before him, who is loyal, but who still disobeys quietly at times. It would be a perfect and beautiful short story, of one boy's life, and the reader learns to care for Abram over these short pages. But then we see his return, as his ship crashes in Australia. There we meet our second principle character, David Camp, who, out for a morning climb, first encounters Abram. He falls, and wanders, wounded, through the outback, with visions and pain from the fall. At issue's end, we see Abram track David down once more, and as the military arrives, Abram uses his powers for the first time to a devastating effect. This is a four issue mini-series, so I understand writer Matt Kindt can't spare the pages to make this a done in one story the way I like most first issues to be, but he does an excellent job of doing everything he should in a first issue while still leaving it on a cliffhanger: there's character, plot, and just a bit of action to make the reader want more. Trevor Hairsine's is gorgeous, with excellent face work, especially on Abram. His settings, both the Soviet Union of old and the Australia of now, draw the reader in. I also really like the design for Abram's space suit; it's a logical mix of what we expect from space suits and super hero costumes. Valiant has been on a roll with its recent first issues, and Divinity is another excellent example. Hopefully, this is a new character who will catch on and be a longstanding part of the new Valiant Universe.




Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files: Down Town #1
Story: Jim Butcher & Mark Powers
Art: Carlos Gomez

After War Cry, the last original Dresden Files comic mini-series, I was very excited for this new one. We're now set deeply in the series, and so we're getting to see characters who have never appeared in comics before, and we're seeing a Harry Dresden at the height of his powers. Down Town takes place in between the novels White Night and Small Favor, and features Harry being brought into investigate the murder of a pawn broker at the hands of something monstrous. Well, hands might not be the right turn of phrase. It looks more like the fangs, claws, and horrible goo of something monstrous. Still, it's a case right up Dresden's alley. This is a great jumping on point for new readers who want to get a feel for Harry's day to day world. War Cry was a very self contained story, removed from Harry's stomping ground of Chicago, and not featuring many of Harry's long time associates. This issue introduces you not just to Dresden, but to his police contact/sometimes love interest Karrin Murphy and her partner, Rawlins, Harry's half-brother, Thomas, Harry's apprentice, Molly Carpenter, and Harry's big shaggy dog, Mouse. And other than the mysterious figure at the beginning of the issue, the man responsible for the attack on the pawnbroker, readers also meet one of Harry's most recurring nemeses, Chicago mob boss Gentleman John Marcone, along with his supernatural adviser Ms. Gard and his bodyguard Hendricks. Mark Powers clearly knows and loves his Dresden Files, because the characters are spot on, their voices perfectly on pith from creator Jim Butcher's world. With a mystery, the mob, and all the best aspects of a Dresden Files story, Down Town looks to be the best of the original Harry Dresden comic adventures yet.



Princeless: The Pirate Princess #1
Story: Jeremy Whitley
Art: Rosy Higgins

After some time away, Princeless returns with the third full mini-series, The Pirate Princess. The titular princess is Raven, who our heroines, Adrienne and Bedelia rescue at the beginning of the issue. The story opens with Raven being told the story of her great-grandmother, the dreaded pirate Mong Two-Tails, by her father, and then recounts the events of the zero issue, a Free Comic Book Day issue from 2013, from Raven's point of view instead of Adrienne's. These events include Adrienne and Bedelia rescuing Raven from a tower her brothers have left her in, as well as imprisoning the pompous knight who has been pursuing Adrienne. It's a great way to refresh readers who read that story over a year and a half ago without having to reprint it, and to flesh out Raven as a character. With their new friend saved, our heroes go out to get some food. If you're familiar with Princeless, pretty much any time Adrienne goes out into public, something chaotic happens, and in this case that something is Raven, who picks a fight with a couple members of her brother's crew who happen by, to have them deliver the message that she is back. The issue ends with Raven agreeing to join Adrienne and Bedelia on their quest to save Adrienne's sisters, but she has some of her own plans involving her brothers and Sparky, Adrienne's dragon. Princeless remains one of, if not the, best all ages comic on the market, with it's wonderful mix of character, action, and fairy tale trope breaking. It also happily passes the Bechdel test, and has a very diverse cast. What more could you ask for, really?


And this week, Dan Grote takes a trip into the DCU



Harley Quinn Valentine’s Day Special
Story:  Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti
Art:  John Timms, Ben Caldwell, Aaron Campbell, Paul Mounts and Hi-Fi

The comics power couple of Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti have worked hard to turn the Joker’s gal pal into DC’s version of Deadpool: a fourth-wall breaking psychopath with a secret good-guy streak who still loves killing people and makes for damn-funny comics. In this holiday-themed one-shot, Batman sits up and takes notice.

Harley’s long gone from Gotham these days, managing an apartment building in Brooklyn Heights and riding the Staten Island Ferry for days on end just because it’s free. So she and B-man haven’t crossed paths in a while. But when Bruce Wayne is put up for a win-a-date auction to benefit an animal rescue, Harley steals $1,000,100 from a Bernie Madoff-ripoff to get herself into the bidding pool. Harley and Bruce end up running afoul of a purposely lame villain named The Carp who believes dogs and cats get too much publicity and the money should go toward saving fish. The Carp has a sidekick named Sea Robin, because that’s just the kind of book this is.

In fact, in case the reader has any doubts about the tone of the book, Harley’s talking stuffed rodent spells it out for you while she sleeps, simultaneously introducing a dream sequence, explaining the role of guest artists and mocking crossovers.

A good chunk of the book is dedicated to dream sequences: One Harley’s, one Bruce’s, each drawn by a different artist. In Harley’s, drawn by Ben Caldwell very much in the style of Ren & Stimpy creator John Kricfalusi, she and the millionaire playboy fall madly in love, until Bruce reveals he effectively wants Harley to become a baby factory. Harley protests, saying having kids will ruin her figure, which I guess is more of a concern now that she’s ditched the red-and-black spandex bodysuit to dress like a Suicide Girl. Cartoon violence ensues. In Bruce’s, drawn in much darker tones by Aaron Campbell, he wakes up in bed next to Harley brandishing a list of his ex-lovers. She becomes the new Robin/Mrs. Batman, fires Alfred and henpecks him about cleaning up the Batcave (and getting rid of the giant Joker playing card) and the Batmobile, which is covered in bat poop. Dream Harley makes a valid point: How does the Batmobile stay so shiny parked in a cave full of bats and their guano?

Harley rescues Bruce from the Carp – though in true Batman fashion, he didn’t need saving at all – and honors Harley’s winning bid for a date. Impressed by her current escapades, Bruce lets her kiss him goodnight, then returns as Batman and threatens her in such a way that he’s actually praising her for her behavior, robbing a corrupt millionaire included. Then they kiss again.


So essentially this special was made to inspire a wave of Batman/Harley slash-fic, to add to the pile of Harley/Ivy and Harley/Deadpool fantasies. Happy typing, slashers!

Friday, February 13, 2015

Recommended Reading for 2/13: Watson and Holmes


Sherlock Holmes is everywhere. Whether it's on TV in Sherlock or Elementary, the big screen with the upcoming Mr. Holmes starring Ian McKellen as an aging Sherlock, live on stage at Washington's Arena Stage or Princeton's McCarter Theatre in a new stage adaptation of Baskerville, or in countless books, including a short story in Neil Gaiman's new collection, Trigger Warning, you can always find new material featuring history's greatest detective (with all due deference to a certain pointy eared one). Every version of Holmes that is not directly adapting the original Conan Doyle stories brings something different to Holmes. In the past couple years, a new version in comics has added its own spin on the classic dynamic between Holmes and his partner: Watson and Holmes recasts the duo as African Americans in modern Harlem. And it works really well.

This is a major departure, and there's the usual hand-wringing from certain corners of the internet about political correctness and similar obnoxious buzzwords. But one of the great things about archetypal characters like Watson and Holmes is they work no matter where you drop them. Of course, using African American leads in modern New York leads to all sorts of additional text and subtext to do with race, and the way African Americans interact with the world. The creators make some social commentary, but never to the detriment of the story itself; the story always comes first. But as much a departure as their race is, it's also interesting to see the change in nationality. Both characters are American. Even TV's Elementary, whose Holmes is a much greater departure personality-wise than the one presented here, is British. It removes a sort of classic British stuffiness. Oh, he's still a superior, remote piece of work, but there's something to be said for not imagining him with that British accent that makes him seem all the more different.

But these differences aren't as important as the similarities. because while the changes allow for different kind of stories to be told, the primary things that make a Holmes story a Holmes story are still there. Holmes is still the smartest guy in the room. He still sees the world in a way no one else does. And Watson is still his loyal friend, ready with his trusty pistol to follow Holmes on whatever case he is involved in.

Watson gets top billing in the series, and rightly so. Watson is the narrator of the series, as he narrates the classic Holmes stories, but this isn't the detached narrative of the classic Watson. He is a man of deep passions, a love for his family, and who is haunted by what he can't do as a doctor and by what he has done. Jon Watson (the missing H from the name is not a typo; it is how the character's name is spelled) is an Afghanistan vet of the recent war, as the original Watson was of the Victorian one. Watson's narration does not have that sort of Victorian distance; we are in his head, and we see exactly what he thinks. He is also a big man, and serves as Holmes's muscle at times. There is no doddering Nigel Bruce, or even the more comedic if at times lethal version that Martin Freeman portrays. Jon Watson is an equal partner, and has earned the right to be billed where he is.



While only six issues have been published, we have also seen other classic characters of the Holmes canon appear. Holmes's perennial Scotland Yard contact, Inspector Lestrade, is now Lieutenant Leslie Strode, adding a woman to the usually male dominated world of Holmes, something more and more common in modern retellings. Strode is not the bumbling, dogged detective Lestrade was, but is more competent and confident, and presses Holmes far more than her antecedent did, which is a nice change. We've also seen Mycroft Holmes, Sherlock's older brother. Modern retellings of Holmes tend to change Mycroft quite a bit, making him a more physically active character, and I was happy to see that this one kept his girth and somewhat more distant nature.

Only six issues of the series have been released thus far, the first five collected in a trade. The first four make up "A Study in Black," the story that tells of the first meeting between the title characters. Written by Karl Bollers and with art from Rick Leonardi, the story is a well paced mystery involving drugs, conspiracy, and mercenaries. It showcases both the changes and the similarities between the original stories and this new take, with a more active Holmes, but one still wrapped in the world of the mind. There is deduction and detective work, so the story never slips into the territory where action supersedes the detective nature of the story.

While that first story was a fun mystery, with wild action, gun battles, and a high stakes case, issues five and six were what sold me on the series. Issue five, written by Bollers with art by Larry Stroman, which served as an epilogue to the initial story, swings back around and ties up a loose end from the first arc about an infant found in a dumpster. It's a tragedy that is very modern and very urban, something that works well in a modern city, the thing that the London of the original Holmes was just becoming. It's a twisty narrative that pays off with an answer I wouldn't have expected coming in to the issue but one that makes perfect sense with all the evidence laid out before you.

Issue six, written by Brandon Easton and drawn by N. Steven Harris, the final issue to be released as a single issue, was a watershed for the series. It won a ton of awards, including a sweep of many of the major Glyph awards for 2014. It's a story with a social conscience, dealing with sex trafficking and the plight of the transgendered and various social stigmas. When the wife of a city councilman and the likely winner of the New York district attorney race is found murdered, Watson and Holmes are once again dragged deep into a case involving the Russian mob and politics. The twists and turns are even more sharp here, and the issue does some of the best balancing of ever read between delicately addressing an important social issue with maintaining an entertaining story.

The end of last year saw a Kickstarter for a new trade of Watson and Holmes, which I contributed to, collecting issue six along with two other stories, one that will introduce this version's interpretation of Irene Adler. I'm very curious to see that, as Adler has proven possibly the most difficult character in the entire Holmes canon to modernize, and I can't think of one version that works completely for me; she's always either too villainous or too lovestruck by Holmes. I look forward to seeing if the proper balance can be struck here.

I've written about many different comics featuring Sherlock Holmes on this blog, and most run to the more traditional. But Holmes is as relevant in the 21st century as he was in the 19th. Watson and Holmes is a 21st century version of these characters that pays proper homage to what has come before, while still doing new and different things, and that's what makes it worth taking note of.

Watson and Holmes: A Study in Black is available at all good comic shops as well as on-line, both for order through your favorite book store and digitally. When volume two is released, expect to read about it here.