Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Greetings from Battleworld: Secret Wars Week 12

A small week from Battleworld, as Dan Grote takes us to a new series, featuring the ramifications of Secret Wars #4 and introduces one of Doom's hitters, who might be familiar to all you X-Fans...

Star-Lord and Kitty Pryde #1
Story: Sam Humphries
Art: Alti Firmansyah and Jessica Kholinne

When last we saw Star-Lord – the real, 616 Star-Lord – Sheriff Strange had cast him and the rest of the raft survivors to the four winds in Secret Wars #4 to avoid the wrath of God Emperor Doom.

Since then, he has gone into hiding, changed his name to Steve Rogers and taken a job singing Disney songs in a nightclub run by a pompadoured Drax in the domain of Manhattan.

Oh, and his backing band is Polaris, Wolfsbane and Strong Guy from X-Factor, because in addition to looking like Steve Rogers, Peter Quill also looks like Alex Summers, Danny Rand, Clint Barton and every other blond white guy in the Marvel Universe.

Do I have your attention yet?

To be sure, Star-Lord is looking for his Disney princess. But the Kitty Pryde of this story is not the Kitty of Earth 616. This Kitty works for Valeria Von Doom’s Foundation tracking down pre-Battleworld anomalies. She comes to Peter/Steve’s club on the night in question to pick up foreign hair samples from Gambit the Collector in exchange for knives made from the bones of Longshot.

Seriously, there are so many great little touches in this book, it’s putting a lot of the other Secret Wars X-books to shame. (Except X-Men ’92. You’re perfect. Never change.)

To pile on the theme, Alti Firmansyah’s art takes on the look of old Disney 2-D animation, including things like a snooty-looking French maĆ®tre-d and Gambit’s red irises practically turning into hearts when he sees the object of his desire.

Anyway, as happens, Kitty and Gambit’s trade goes sour, working out in favor of the guy who now has luck-powered bone knives. Fortunately, a stray blood sample leaves Kitty with a new, Quill-shaped anomaly to bring home to Doomgard. In handcuffs.

On a separate note: Wuddup with Kitty only dating dudes named Peter? You guys know this is her fourth one, after Rasputin, Wisdom and (in the Ultimate Universe) Parker, right? How long before she starts dating the Trapster, formerly known as Paste Pot Pete?

Monday, July 27, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/22

Batman '66 #25
Story: Jeff Parker (Night of the Harlequin) and Gabe Soria (Bad Men)
Art: Lukas Ketner & Kelly Fitzpatrick (Night of the Harlequin) and Ty Templeton & Tony Avina (Bad Men)

There are very few comics on the racks that are as fun as Batman '66. I've been enjoying how the book has been varying its content, from some issues with full length stories and others with two shorter pieces, and might even be enjoying the letter more; that compactness of story seems to work with these zany Batman stories. This was one of those issues, and featured another modern Batman villain making their classic TV debut. If the cover above didn't give it away, this is the issue introducing Harley Quinn '66, or just Harlequin as she goes by here, in full costume. We'd gotten hints of Harley already, as she appeared as the Joker's shrink who was driven insane by crazy science in an earlier issue, but this is where she escapes from the Arkham Institute, dons a costume and roller skates, and becomes a supervillain. It's a fun story, as Harlequin proves even more unpredictable than Joker, and Batman and Robin have to get creative to bring her to justice. We also get a great panel where Batman says Harley might be a greater threat than Joker within ear shot of Joker, and he clearly has his feelings hurt, which segues nicely into the second story of the issue, "Bad Men," which was the highlight of the issue. Barbara Gordon is working as a temp at an ad agency when Penguin, Riddler, Joker, and Catwoman (The Eartha Kitt version) take the who ad agency hostage so they can find a way to rebrand the villains and get them the attention of Gotham again. Since Barbara can't change into Batgirl, she instead has to use her wits to outsmart the villains. It's a fun story, and again does something I like in these stories, showing the heroes out-thinking their foes instead of just beating them physically. Barbara's victory is perfect, and plays on the vanity of these characters, which is a defining characteristic of each of them in pretty much all their versions; this is why Batman's foes have never banded together like Flash's Rogues for the long term: every one of them thinks they should be in charge. "Bad Men" also features art from Ty Templeton, who has done plenty of these '66 set stories, and whose art has become the style i most associate with the comics. His work is charming and gorgeous, working so well with the 60s. 

Five Ghosts #17
Story: Frank J. Barbiere
Art: Chris Mooneyham & Lauren Affe

I saw a lot of Twitter debate last week about how comics are often credited to just the writer, when the artist or artists often plays as important a roll in creating the book. I've been guilty of not crediting complete artistic teams, something I've been trying to remedy for some time, even before I saw that thread. This is a long way of saying that the new issue of Five Ghosts is a triumph not just of story and words but of art. Frank J. Barbiere does his usual excellent job of giving Fabian Gray, the protagonist of the title who is able to channel the powers of five literary "ghosts" through the dreamstone within him, the words of a dashing adventurer, and devise an exciting conclusion to the current horror arc. But this issue, which is mostly Fabian and Van Helsing fighting a mutated version of Fabian's best friend and brother-in-law Sebastian Windsor and then the man behind the mutation, Dr. Moreau, fives artist Chris Mooneyham time to shine. The battle is stunning, exciting, and flows from panel-to-panel perfectly. There's a particular series of panels where Fabian determines he can use a chandelier to trap the transformed Sebastian that sticks out in my mind as one of the best choreographed sequences I've seen in comics recently. I love the way Mooneyham shows the ghosts as Fabian channels their abilities, and the hideous transformed forms of Sebastian and Moreau will send shivers down your spine. This issue wraps up the third arc of Five Ghosts, and the epilogue sets Fabian on a collision course with The Cabal, the villains who have haunted him since the beginning of the series. I don't know if this is the final arc of the series, but if it is, it's been a heck of a ride, and if the last arc can be half as exciting as this issue was, it's going to be a spectacular conclusion.

Rick and Morty #4
Story: Zac Gorman
Art: CJ Cannon & Ryan Hill and Marc Ellerby

With season two having debuted last night (or this morning, since it was midnight and some people love their semantics) on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim, I think I have Rick and Morty on the brain. If you don't know the show, Rick and Morty was created by Dan (Community) Harmon and Justin Roiland, and is about a mad and amoral scientist (Rick Sanchez) who comes to live with his daughter and her family and takes his grandson (Morty) world/universe/multiverse spanning adventures, mostly for his own amusement and profit. The comic book tie-in are original adventures, and this one-shot story will give you a good idea if you will like the comic and animated series. Rick wakes Morty up in the middle of the night and drags him to an alien world where Rick is basically a carpetbagger, running a plantation on a world that was decimated by a civil war, and he needs Morty to spy on the workers who Rick believes are planning a revolt. Morty quickly comes to empathize with the workers, especially when he learns Rick is the one who started the war in the first place, which shouldn't surprise anyone who has seen the show. I'll be honest, if you want a protagonist who you can like and respect more than ten percent of the time, you should probably move along. Rick is at his best amoral, and often puts others in danger for no other reason than it's the easiest way to do it. Morty is an ok kid, but he's a hormonal teenager, and does, as Rick points out, often have "wienerbrain." But this issue ends with a scene that's kind of touching and shows that small fraction of the time where you see a decent guy in Rick. Or you think so until it all goes downhill again. The comic does a perfect job of capturing the joke a minute pace of the source cartoon, as well as its warped sense of humor. This issue's backup story spotlights Jerry, Morty's dad and Rick's son-in-law, and a normal day in his life, and how Rick just sort of... well, you'll see if you read it. It's a nice insight into the character who is usually played for nothing but laughs. So if you like the cartoon, or other similar ones like The Venture Bros., you should give the comic a shot.

And Dan Grote continues our love affair with the new Archie Comics with this crossover that makes Archie Vs. Predator (which ended this week in bizarre and hilarious fashion as well) look plain normal...

Archie vs. Sharknado
Story: Anthony C. Ferrante
Pencils: Dan Parent

Veronica’s dad gets his arms bit off by sharks, followed by the rest of him. Sabrina the Teenage Witch’s limbs are also bitten off, as she tries to cast a spell. A beloved teacher is eaten.

Yes, even in Riverdale, when a Sharknado comes to town, there is a death toll.

The name of this comic is Archie vs. Sharknado, but the real heroes of this double-sized one-shot, the Ian Ziering and Tara Reid, if you will, are Betty and Veronica, who first encounter the titular shark storm on a trip to Washington, D.C., ostensibly the same one from last week’s Syfy original movie Sharknado 3: Oh Hell No. The two quickly find themselves improvising new ways to kill sharks, use their clothing to survive falls from great heights and steal a motorcycle and a helicopter, in that order.

If the comic hews closely to the conventions of the Sharknado trilogy, that’s largely because it’s written by Anthony Ferrante, the director of the movies, the latest of which bowed the day of Archie vs. Sharknado’s release. Meanwhile, classic Archie penciler Dan Parent gives it that pre-reboot Riverdale look.

Ridiculous moments abound. Archie and Cheryl Blossom climb onto a boat using a staircase made of unconscious sharks. Jughead bites a shark that in turn steals his trademark hat. Veronica shoots flaming arrows with a crossbow. Josie and the Pussycats sing the Sharknado theme song. Svenson the janitor reveals a shed full of chainsaws (and a tractor equipped with a nitro-boost button) that he keeps “because the trees are taking over Riverdale.” Principal Weatherby has a war flashback. Archie chainsaws Cheryl out of a shark, just like Ziering did in the first movie. And perhaps most incredulously, A TEACHER LETS HIS STUDENTS BUILD A BOMB IN POST-COLUMBINE AMERICA!

All the while, sharks slaughter mercilessly and are slaughtered mercilessly in their turn. Shark innards rain from the sky and pile up on the ground, and teenagers run around soaked in blood and wielding chainsaws, blades and whatever else they can get their hands on. If Archie is an all-ages-friendly company, they sure do like messing with readers’ heads when the opportunity arises.

Final note: As sharks rain down from the sky, there’s a running discussion between Riverdale’s biggest nerd, Dilton, and his girlfriend about classic disaster-movie tropes and whether Dilton himself is too important to die or just disposable enough to be offed in a way that would enrich the plot. It very much reminded me of the discussion Henchmen 21 and 24 had during Season 3 of The Venture Brothers in which 21 declares “We’re, like, main characters” … and then 24 dies in an explosion at the end of the season. I’m not saying that’s what happens to Dilton, but I’m also not not saying it.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Recommended Reading for 7/24: Star Wars: Dark Disciple

I've written a lot about Star Wars on here since the blog's inception, and I've mostly stuck to the comics, with the occasional diversion into animation. But today is the first time I'm writing up a novel for a recommended reading. This is partially because it's now in my favorite of all time (and as I've read every Star Wars novel written for adults, there's a lot of competition for those top spots), and partially because one of the two main characters is Quinlan Vos, Vos is a character I've mentioned on here before, a creation of the inimitable John Ostrander, and is my favorite Star Wars character created for the comics. And so, with those high expectations in mind, I picked up Star Wars: Dark Disciple, and I was absolutely floored.

For those of you who might be familiar with Quin, let me start out by saying this isn't the same Quin from the comics. The new continuity that is being crafted by Lucasfilm has replaced the Ostrander stories, for good and ill. Ill because they are some of the best Star Wars comics ever written, a story of a man struggling with both the Light and Dark Sides of the Force, and his choice to be and remain a Jedi. The good is that we are offered this novel, with a Quin who lines up more with his one appearance on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, the animated series, where instead of a haunted and introspective man he's a brash and foolhardy Jedi. leaping before he looks.

Our other main character is Asajj Ventress, the Sith assassin turned Nightsister turned bounty hunter, one of the central figures to all versions of The Clone Wars. This novel, written by Christie Golden, is based on unproduced scripts of the animated series written by Katie Lucas, and so the book picks up some time after the events of the final episodes produced. We see Ventress as the capable bounty hunter, having moved beyond her time as Count Dooku's assassin. But Quin appears, sent by the Jedi Council to recruit her in an attempt to assassinate the count, and the sparks start to fly immediately.

I've seen some complaints about building a romance between these two characters, but I don't see the problem. While this might be a different Quin, one with a different background, he's still enough of the same character to violate the Council's rules of attachment. The original Quin planned to abandon the Order for Khaleen, his lover, and their child, Korto. As for Ventress, well, if you look at her history, Ventress is a character who was always looking to fit somewhere. For her, given into slavery as a child, her Jedi Master lost, she was easy pickings for Count Dooku, and when she left him, she immediately sought out Mother Talzin and the Nightsisters. Ventress wanted to be somewhere where she was part of something bigger, and when she meets someone who treats her as an equal, and she feels the same way about, it makes sense to me that they would fall for each other.

The romance is built subtly and mostly off panel, and it never interferes with the action of the story. The first half of the book follows Ventress and Vos as they meet and prepare to defeat Dooku. We get some exciting bounty hunting adventures, and the Dark Side training sequence on Dathomir is excellent. I'm a sucker for different Force disciplines, and so seeing Ventress train Quin not as a Sith, but with the different style and abilities of a Nightsister made for an interesting scene. We also watch Quin's descent into the Dark Side slowly. It's not just one decision that leads him down the dark path, and I can think of few other examples as good as this for how the road to the Dark Side is paved with good intentions.

After their initial confrontation with Dooku, we get a series of events that might be familiar to those of you familiar with Quin's arc in the comic. Captured by Dooku, it's unclear whether or not Quin has fallen to the Dark Side. Is he working for Dooku? Is he infiltrating Dooku's organization for the Jedi? Is he infiltrating the Jedi for Dooku? Is it some combination of all of them. It's not the same arc as in the comic, and the circumstances are different, but it's clear that Lucas and/or Golden knew those original stories and put their own spin on Vos's dance with the Dark Side.

One of the things that weighs heavily for me when reading a Star Wars story is also the use of the existing universe and what it adds to it. The settings of this book include established worlds like Pantora and Christophsis, and the latter crystal world for the Clone Wars animated series is used to good effect. The book also introduced a new race, the Mahran, a canine race with a particularly interesting coup de grace they could use in a battle to the death. Finding a way to introduce something new and interesting to a universe so packed with alien species is something I can applaud. I also really enjoyed how Obi-Wan and Yoda were written; as the two greatest Jedi in the current canon, it's nice to see them both written with wisdom and humor.

I don't know if Dark Disciple is for everyone. I know some people won't be able to get past the changes to Quinlan Vos. And I know some people will be bothered by the ending; I don't want to spoil the end here, but if you want to talk about it, please shoot me an e-mail as mattsignalblog@gmail.com, as I'd love to hear your thoughts. But if you haven't read the Star Wars comics, or can think of this as a different version of a beloved character, you'll get a whirlwind of action and romance that does it's Star Wars roots proud.

Oh, and on a somewhat unrelated note if you are a fan of John Ostrander's Quinlan Vos, you should head over to Kickstarter and back his new graphic novel, Kros: Hallowed Ground. There's less than a week left, and it looks like it's going to be right down to the wire on whether or not it will be backed. I think if you like Ostrander's work, it will be worth your time and money.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Greetings from Battleworld: Secret Wars Week 11

Welcome back to another exciting week on Batteworld. Two number ones this week. First from Dan Grote...

Captain Britain and the Mighty Defenders #1
 Story: Al Ewing
Art: Alan Davis, Mark Farmer and Wil Quintana

Finally, someone outside the main Secret Wars book remembers life before the incursions. Not just someone, a whole domain of someones!

Welcome to Yinsen City, the most peaceful domain in all of Battleworld, born from a reality in which Tony Stark sacrificed himself all those years ago in the cave to save the life of fellow captive Ho Yinsen, who it turns out did a better job of being Iron Man – or Rescue, rather – than Stark ever could.

Like any other domain, everyone is obsessed with Doom’s laws about heresy and not crossing borders, but everyone in Yinsen City gets along so well that when the local Thor – She-Hulk – gets wind of it, she all but brushes it off.

Perhaps that’s because she, Yinsen, and others are starting to remember: Remember the incursions, remember the time before Doom was god, remember their true origins before becoming barons and Thors and Spider Heros.

And then they get a sword-wielding visitor from beyond the city limits who remembers even more: Dr. Faiza Hussain, who goes by Captain Britain even though on Battleworld there is no such place as Britain. The defenders of Yinsen City take her in, because they’re good people, which immediately triggers the wrath of Doom. Rather than throw them all over the Shield to the zombies and Ultrons, Doom knocks down the wall between Yinsen City and neighboring Mondo City, a fascist domain where everyone dresses like Avalanche from the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants and their tanks have many, many guns. Yinsen is killed, Faiza is kidnapped and what becomes of the others is unclear.

What I like about this book is that it pulls elements from lesser-known but no-less loved series: Paul Cornell’s Captain Britain & MI:13, Ewing’s own Mighty Avengers, and creates a diverse team (all people of color with the exception of She-Hulk). It also has a great “What If?” element in the Yinsen baronage. Most importantly though, it addresses, head-on, many of the questions I asked around the time I started reading A-Force, about how many people remember what came before and how certain characters can still have codenames that hinge on the existence of lands that do not appear on Battleworld. Many of the other books are fun, great reads, but they do little to address the greater mechanics of Secret Wars, which is probably to their credit. This book, like the reader, isn’t afraid to ask “What the hell is actually going on here?”

Also, it should be noted that She-Hulk-Thor’s hammer is a tiny courtroom gavel. Why? “Because I’ve got my hammers right here” (puts up fists). Jen Walters, I love you. Never change.

And then from me...

Guardians of Knowhere #1
Story: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Mike Deodata & Laura Martin

Dan talks above about how people in Yinsen City are starting to remember incursions and the past. Well, it seems like that isn't the only place where Doom's little fiction is fraying. Guardians of Knowhere opens with an explaination of how Doom killed the Celestial to leave the head that serves as Knowhere floating around Earth like Unicron's head circling Cybertron in late Transformers stories. Well, Angela comes up to Knowhere to find Gamora and exact the will of Doom, to instead find a drunken Drax the Destroyer. We don't get an answer as to why Drax seems so at ends and lacking in his usual drive at first, but the issue gives us some hints towards the end. Drax starts a fight with Angela and Gamora arrives, still cosmically powered as she was at the end of "The Black Vortex" storyline. Rocket shows up, helps get the Guardians away from Angela, and then our team talks. Angela is looking for Gamora because she's breaking the cardinal rule of Battleworld: Gamora is moving between domains. And when Gamora brings up Thanos, neither Rocket or Drax know who he is (and since Drax was created to kill and counter Thanos, I figure that's why he's drinking himself to death). I don't know if it's the cosmic awareness Gamora has now, or just the beginning of the end of Doom's reign, but it's clear Gamora is getting suspicious. It's an interesting first issue that is one of the more direct follow ups to an existing Marvel title into Secret Wars. As Bendis was writing Guardians of the Galaxy before the event began, he's carrying those characterizations over, and I wonder if, because of the Guardians alien nature, if they might be the actual 616 Guardians, not alternate versions. Mike Deodata is an artist who draws a mean fight scene, and the battle between the Guardians and Angela through Knowhere is top notch. More tied in with Secret Wars than many of the crossovers I've been reading, if you enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy in recent years, this book will nicely scratch that itch until All New All Different Marvel starts up.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/15

Black Canary #2
Story: Brenden Fletcher
Art: Annie Wu & Lee Loughridge

After a strong debut, there is no sophomore slump in Black Canary. With the threat of weird monsters after youngest band member Ditto, Dinah Drake (the titular superheroine, if you don't know) decides it's time to show her bandmates how to defend themselves. The flashbacks to their hand-to-hand combat training is exactly what you'd expect, but it's the gun training we see, and immediately it's clear Paloma Terrific, keyboardist and the person least likely to support anything Dinah says, has an aptitude. Paloma is getting less and less inclined to hold back her criticism of Dinah's role in the band, and a confrontation is growing inevitable. The problems in the band are made even worse when Maeve, the original singer when the current quartet was a trio, shows up out of nowhere and starts poking at things. I have a bad feeling about Maeve, and I have a feeling there's more to her than meets the eye. The charm of this comic, like all the ones Brenden Fletrcher has been writing since he burst onto the Bat-scene with Batgirl, is the characters and their interactions. Dinah just wants to get her life back, and while this started as a means to an end, now that Ditto is in trouble, Dinah's instincts are almost maternal towards her, trying to get some hint of her past out. The band are all well formed characters two issues in, and while I think Paloma is being hard on Dinah, I can understand her point of view; some singer shows up and suddenly she's starting fights and monsters are attacking your shows? I'd be pissed too. To makes this the most rock n' roll comic ever, there's also a two page spread in the middle of the issue that is an article about the band by a music mag called Burnside Tofu, another connection between this book, and Batgirl, that feels like the best of old school Rolling Stone actual fun music journalism, and it's a nice treat before the chaos ensues again. It seems like the black slime monsters aren't the only thing tracking Black Canary, as the issue ends with Dinah fighting a stealth suited opponent in a music store at the issue's end. Annie Wu's fight choreography still leaves me breathless; there are few artists I've seen that can capture the kinetic action of a good fight as well. And I like Dinah's clever use of flutes as escrima sticks too. A very nice touch. But when her opponent is defeated and unmasked, the reveal is that (SPOILER WARNING) it's Dinah's husband, Kurt Lance. And I admit to an eye roll. Kurt, from his appearances in Team 7 and the end of Birds of Prey, was a character I just couldn't care about, partially because of what Dinah turned every time he was a plot device. She would be willing to do anything to save him, and was moody, irrational, and not the Dinah I was used to. I am hoping that Fletcher can do something to flesh him out and make him more interesting, make him seem like a guy that the amazing character that is his Dinah would love. If he can do what he's done in two issues with everyone else, I think he can finally put this romance to rest, or make it one for the ages.

Book of Death #1
Story: Robert Venditti
Art: Robert Gill, Doug Braithwaite, David Baron, & Brian Reber

The Valiant, Valiant's last stand alone event mini-series, was a tremendous success for the publisher, both critically and financially. So Book of Death has some pretty big steps to follow in. And if the first issue is any indication, it will succeed. Written by Robert Venditti, who is the writer of Valiant's flagship title, X-O Manowar, picks up one of the major threads from the end of The Valiant, the death of Geomancer Kay McHenry and the appearance of a new Geomancer from the future. The issue opens with a boy named David, sitting on his lawn as vermin and snakes crawl all over him as he smiles and says they're talking to him. From that chilling image, the book doesn't get any less creepy as we cut to soldiers finding a small town murdered by trees, which have sprung to life and murdered everyone. It seems that Gilad Anni-Pada, the Eternal Warrior and guardian of the Geomancer, is on the run with Tama, the girl who appeared as the only hope to stop a great dark age, along with the Book of the Geomancer, which foretells what is to come. Neville Alcott and Jamie Capshaw, the UK and US representatives to the superhero team Unity respectively, are butting head about what to do about Gilad, but the decision is made to send X-O Manowar, who is probably the closest thing Gilad has to a friend, to try to talk him down and get him to turn over the girl, who they believe is responsible for this horror and series of others. X-O tries his best, but Gilad is, well, bullheaded to begin with and used to playing a long game. Not to mention he knows the girl is innocent. When X-O flies off, Tama reads to Gilad from the pages of the book, pages only she can read and telling him about what is to come. This flashforward/story sequence is drawn by Doug Braithwaite, an artist who I've liked since a run on Green Arrow with Chuck Dixon in the 90s, and his art is outstanding here, detailed and full of the pathos as we see all the heroes of Valiant's universe fall. This is not to take away from Robert Gill, the artist on the main story, whose work is also stellar, really adding to the creepy air of the horror sequences while still drawing the quieter ones with subtlety. As with The Valiant, this book is standing on its own and doing a good job of explaining anything you'd need to know if you are new to the Valiant universe. We are given hints of the big bad who is hunting Gilad and Tama, and I have a strong suspicion a major player in the classic Valiant Universe is about to re-enter the stage in a big way, one that will reward older fans, and next issue should give s a fight scene between Gilad and the rest of Unity, which I can only imagine won't end well for one side (and my money is on Gilad to win this one). Valiant has proven that they can pull these standalone event mini-series off in the past, and this one looks to be a winner as well, so it's a good way to enter the Valiant Universe. Oh, and if you're a variant hunter, Level Up Entertainment, home store to contributor Dan Grote, in Mays Landing, New Jersey has an exclusive variant for this book available only at their store from a local artists that's really sweet (I scanned it and completely forgot to put the file on my flashdrive, but take my word for it, it's awesome), and it's a full on Variant, so you might want to head down or get in touch so you can complete your variant collection.

Secret Six #4
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Tom Derenick, Ken Lashley, & Jason Wright

Originally solicited as issue three, this issue of Secret Six now fills in some of the gaps between the end of the second issue and where we popped up last month. As with any issue of Secret Six, there's a lot to love. The team dynamic deepens each issue, and I am developing a deep affection for each of these characters. Gail Simone has done a phenomenal job with them all, but it's Strix who drew my attention this issue. I love how childlike she can be, taking a lawn gnome affectionately with her into the house or waiting to enter the fight until she was done eating a cookie. I also think Simone has done something interesting with the gender fluid Porcelian, adding a new layer of diversity to the book. I was also momentarily worried when Big Shot, who we know from last issue as Ralph Dibny, seemed to have a transphobic moment, only to instead have a moment of class and charm by offering Porcelain a hat. I love how Simone writes Ralph, love it, and it makes me happy that, if I had to wait this long for the character to pop up, it's by a writer who clearly loves him. Speaking of characters who I've been waiting to see pop up again, Mockingbird sends three agents along to return the Six to his prison, and it's quickly apparent that they are Scandal, Jeanette, and Ragdoll, members of the original Simone written Secret Six! I was thrilled to see them back, and happy that Gail Simone found a way to work them back into the title. The fight between the three of them and the Six was fun and exciting. I liked how they were clearly fighting for form's sake, with the three bringing cookies and first asking if the Six would just come with them, or where Jeanette let's Big Shot call a time out in their fight so he could stop a vase made for him by his wife from breaking and putting it somewhere safe before resuming. Secret Six finds a way to both be dark and disturbing and hilarious, in ways that many of the best horror movies are, and it's a joy to see it back in that top form.

Friday, July 17, 2015

A Survey of Everything Fables

I've been thinking about how I'm going to tackle today's post since I saw the tentative release schedule for this coming Wednesday's books, and the pressure has mounted as the day to write it got closer. You see, this coming Wednesday, the final issue/trade of the long running Vertigo series Fables is released. Counting as both issue 150 and volume 22 in trade, this is a square bound, 150 page issue. That's a lot of comic. I probably should have broken this up over a few weeks, doing a series about Fables, because there's a ton of material to cover. Not only are there 149 previous issues, but various spin-offs, including other ongoing series, some mini-series, original graphic novels, specials, a novel, and a video game. So I've decided, instead of a deep dive, to do a survey of each part of the Fables story, and after the final issue has come out, after I've had some time to digest, probably in the winter begin a great Fables re-read. But that's for later. For now, here's a glance at the various aspects of the Fables universe.


We'll start with the beginning and end (well, mostly end, but more on that later). Created by writer Bill Willingham, Fables is the story of a community of fairy tale characters who are living in the mundane (or "mundy") world to escape the Adversary, a conqueror who took over their Homelands. Fabletown in a block in alphabet city in New York City where the human and shapechanging Fables live, and the Farm is a farm in upstate New York where the Fables who can't pass for human live, at least at the beginning of the series.

The cast of the series is a massive one, but the three principles, all met in the opening arc, are Snow White, the deputy mayor of Fabletown, her sister, the irresponsible Rose Red, and Bigby Wolf, the reformed and lycanthropic Big Bad Wolf, who serves as Fabletown's sheriff. While other characters are important, including the philandering Prince Charming, the steadfast Boy Blue, the tragic Flycatcher, and the witch Frau Totenkinder, to name but a few, it's the relationship between Snow and Rose and their family that drives much of the emotional action of the series. The joy of creator controlled comics is that the characters are dynamic. Rose especially changes over the course of the series, but both Snow and Bigby grow and change, and there are some changes that occur to the world around them that are joyful, some that are heartbreaking, but they all have lasting ramifications.

The plots on volumes of Fables vary wildly. Willingham writes stories that are murder mysteries, that are political thrillers, that are capers, that are war stories, and that are horror stories. You never know what to expect next, and that's exciting. And the war with the Adversary, expected to be the overall thrust of the series, ends halfway through, leaving a completely different comic in its wake. I won't reveal the identity of the Adversary here, but it's a clever reveal that when you read it makes such perfect sense. And the villains after the Adversary are different and chilling.

The principal artist on Fables is Mark Buckingham, who debuted with the second arc of the series, and drew well over half the series. Even if he didn't create the looks for some of the characters, he defined them, creating a lush tapestry of interesting characters. Other famous artists have come along to draw stories, including Gene Ha, Linda Medley, Bryan Talbot, and Lan Medina.

The Last Castle

The first spin-off of Fables was the prestige format one-shot, "The Last Castle". The first major story set in the Homelands, it's the story of the last stand against the Adversary's forces before the last gate to the mundane world was shut. Narrated by Boy Blue, who was there at the battle, it is a stirring story of valor and battle, and cleverly lays seeds for stories to come months and years later. Penciled by Craig Hamilton and inked by P. Craig Russel, it's one of my favorite Fables stories, and gorgeous to look at.

Jack of Fables

The first ongoing spin-off of Fables, Jack of Fables was co-written by Willingham and Matthew Sturges and focuses on Jack Horner, the Jack of all tales. Jack is another character who appeared in the first issue of Fables, but when his own conniving leads to his exile from Fabletown, Jack goes off on a series of adventures, getting into trouble mostly due to his con man's instincts and his over-arching libido. Along the way, Jack encounters the Literals, personifications of literary tropes, who will become important later, as well as many lost Fables, and his own illegitimate son, Jack Frost. Generally of a lighter tone, it includes the introduction of a miniaturized Babe the Blue Ox, Paul Bunyan's sidekick, whose completely out of touch with reality insanity made her a fan favorite. I admit that Jack himself is somewhat odious, and he can be hard to take, so at times it's a book to read for the characters surrounding Jack.

1,001 Nights of Snowfall

An original graphic novel, 1,001 Nights of Snowfall is an anthology, drawn by a different artist for each short story, framed by the text story of Snow White in the Scheherazade role as she must appease a Fable sultan who is holding her hostage by telling stories. The stories vary in tone, from the comedic like "The Christmas Pies," a tale of the trickster Reynard the Fox, to the absolutely heartbreaking, the Eisner winner for Best Short Story "A Frog's Eye View," the backstory of Flycatcher, the Frog Prince. We also get the details of how the various series leads made their way to the Mundy world. Like the series proper in miniature, the artists included are among comics' best, including Charles Vess, Brian Bolland, John Bolton, Mark Buckingham, and internals from series cover artist James Jean. Along wit the best short story Eisner, the book also won Best Anthology for its year.


Established early on that Cinderella was Fabletown's chief secret agent, writer Chris Roberson write two mini-series of spy action and adventure featuring Cinderella. "From Fabletown with Love" and "Fables are Forever" expand on Cinderella as a character, giving the reader a view of her as one of the fullest and most fun characters in the Fables mythos. A third mini-series was planned, but when Roberson parted ways with DC it was postponed and rolled into... well we'll get to that in a bit.

The Literals/ The Great Fables Crossover

The culmination of the first half of Jack of Fables, and a brief detour from the main Fables story, was the "Great Fables Crossover" which included a three issue mini-series entitled The Literals, for those beings who are personifications of creativity. Bigby and Snow rush to stop Kevin Thorn, the Literal representation of storytelling itself, from wiping them from existence. The Fables parts of the crossover are only tangentially related to the crossover, mostly putting Jack back with the Fables cast, and while a fun story the literals don't impact the overall Fables story all that much. But it's fun, and has Bigby turned into a monkey, so that's good.

Peter & Max

A long form prose novel by Willingham, Peter & Max takes two fables, Peter Piper and the Pied Piper of Hamlin, and creates a narrative about two brothers are war. Peter was given his family's magical flute, passing over his older brother, Max, who gets his own magical flute and a family conflict begins. Taking place in both the Homelands and the modern Mundy world, Willingham crafts the rivalry well, as well as the love story between Peter and Little Bo Peep. As Fables nears its conclusion, it's interesting to see this story of warring siblings as a precursor to the events of the last few volumes of the main series.

Werewolves of the Heartland

As Bigby Wolf goes in search of a new place for the Fables to live, he encounters a town of werewolves that have a connection to his past. Craig Hamilton returns to draw the story, and while it has not proven to be anything than a diversion until now, there are seeds that I hope bear fruit in the final issue. Plus, well, werewolves.


The second ongoing Fables spinoff, Fairest was a book focused on the various female characters of the Fables universe. An anthology series with different writers and artists for each arc, Bill Willingham wrote the opening arc, a gloriously illustrated tale of the Snow Queen and Sleeping Beauty drawn by Phil Jiminez, but further arcs included tales of Beauty, Rapunzel, the final Cinderella arc (now written by Marc Andreyko), and others. The final Fables original graphic novel, Fairest in all the Land, which I reviewed in detail when it first came out, is also a spinoff from this title.

The Unwritten Fables

Another crossover of sorts, this was the final arc of the first volume of Mike Carey and Peter Gross's story about the power of stories, The Unwritten. When that series' protagonist, Tom Taylor, is thrown into a world he has never been in before, he finds himself in a a dark version of the world of Fables. It's sort of like the episode of Star Trek set in the mirror universe, although nobody here has a hip goatee that usually doesn't. While not directly effecting the main plot of Fables, it's cool to see what might have been

The Wolf Among Us

Telltale Games has recently been releasing popular episodic video games with a storytelling/rpg bent, not typical open world rpgs or fighting games, but stories where your decisions absolutely effect the progress of the story, and one of these games is The Wolf Among Us. Set before the events of the first issue, this video game is considered part of Fables canon, and tells the story of Bigby, the player character, investigating the death of some Fable working girls. It features many popular Fables characters, and is a very enjoyable game. If you're not a video game person, though, there is a tie-in comic, which is being released as DC digital first, and now in print. Written by Matthew Sturges and Dave Justus, this series not only lays out the canonical sequence of events in the game, but also fills in some gaps with additional scenes and extended flashbacks to Bigby's time after first coming to the Mundane world.

Aside from all these fiction pieces, there are also two impressive Fables reference books. Fables Covers: The Art of James Jean contains all the covers by original series cover artist James Jean, along with sketches and information about his creative process. The Fables Encyclopedia contains entries on all the major and minor characters of Fables, both within the series and in their historical context, as well as liner notes by Willingham and Buckingham about the development of the characters.

Pretty much everything I've discussed here is readily available either in trade or hardcover. All 21 volumes of Fables are in print, as are all the volumes of Fairest, and the first volume of The Wolf Among Us. Jack of Fables might be a little trickier to track down, but by no means impossible. And if you like your hardcovers, deluxe editions collecting somewhere between one and two trades, as well as things like the original graphic novels, are currently being produced. It's a lot of material, true, but it's one of the most well developed long form graphic novels series out there, and will really be worth your time. Once you start, you'll be spellbound, and now it's all out there for the getting.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Greetings from Battleworld: Secret Wars Week 10

Welcome back to Battleworld. Today we start with Dan Grote looking at the new version of a favorite X-Men reality and at Ms. Deadpool's continuing adventures...

Age of Apocalypse #1
Story: Fabian Nicieza
Art: Gerardo Sandoval

This isn’t your father’s Age of Apocalypse.

I mean, it mostly is. A lot of the same elements are there. Strictly speaking, it’s not Earth-295, the reality in which the original 1995 story took place, later revisited in Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force and a short-run series by David Lapham. If it were, a lot of the characters in this book would be dead, not the least of which being Apocalypse himself.

That said, it IS a world (or a domain of Battleworld) ruled by En Sabah Nur in which Magneto and his X-Men are considered terrorists. AND it’s written by Fabian Nicieza, one of the architects of the original AoA. Not to mention artist Gerardo Sandoval is clearly channeling a darker shade of Joe Madureira, the artist on Uncanny X-Men during that era.

The POV character in this series is Doug Ramsey, aka Cypher, whose mutant power is to translate any language. Doug is apparently the chosen one of this story, or The Special, to steal a phrase from The Lego Movie. Because like that movie’s Emmett Brickowski, his abilities are so classically uninteresting as to be overlooked by almost everyone. But the X-Men want him on their side, and they sacrifice a number of their own in a failed attempt to save him, so there must be something to him.

Doug ends up in the hands of Mr. Sinister, who has his prelates, Scott and Alex Summers, take him to the human ghetto, where he learns by playing Alphabet Soup with the dialogue that the humans are planning to unleash a virus to kill all the mutants. Leading the humans are Carol Danvers and Super Doctor Astronaut Peter Corbeau.

Like Inferno and X-Men ’92 (still my favorite of all the Secret Wars books), this one trades in nostalgia for a time when the X-Men sat atop Marvel’s editorial heap. It’s weird that so many of these Secret Wars X-books exist solely to say “Don’t you miss us, guys?” as if it were the fans who had changed tone and direction so drastically over the past 15+ years and not the books themselves. That said, I am looking forward to this fall, when Jeff Lemire and Humberto Ramos’ Extraordinary X-Men hopefully restores the missing flagship in the X-line.

Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos
Story: Gerry Duggan
Art: Salva Espin and Val Staples

Last month, the big question about this book was “Why isn’t it Mrs. Deadpool VS. the Howling Commandos?” seeing as Dracula sent his monster minions to accompany Shiklah on her quest to spread her brothers’ ashes with the order to kill her.

Turns out the Howlers don’t like Drac either. How could they? He’s got that weird white hair and body armor and is not at all charming, flying in the face of everything that made Tomb of Dracula a great read. Oh, and they didn’t kill the Invisible Man; they just left him behind to spy on their master in their absence. So now we have a true Legion of Monsters team-up book.

As ever, the heart of Mrs. Deadpool remains its humor, inspired by those Looney Tunes shorts where Bugs Bunny messes with the big, furry, orange monster. Shiklah attempts to pull the Medusa trick a second time, only to find the titan’s head has been replaced with a watermelon and bananas and the real thing is hiding in the Living Mummy’s extra-roomy wrap. Marcus the Minotaur with a symbiote and manageable diabetes is an endless font of horse-related fight puns. Frankenstein’s monster smashes zombies with the joy of a psychopathic child, until his fear of fire gets him burned at the Man-Thing’s touch.

Ghost Deadpool sticks around as the book’s narrator and teller of Man-Thing jokes, and has a hard time watching his wife-in-another-reality kissing other dudes, even if it is just to hurt them and establish dominance over them. The arrival of Ghost DP’s guardian angel may be one of the book’s best moments.

At book’s end, a pair of funky and scaly (respectively) new Thors show up at Dracula’s castle with questions about “some crazy exorcist jive,” widening the book’s scope from standalone monster romp to Secret Wars-adjacent monster romp. Stay tuned.

And I'm looking at the third issue of one of the earliest Secret Wars tie-ins, Inferno...

Inferno #3
Story: Dennis Hopeless
Art: Javier Garron & Chris Sotomayor

While Age of Apocalypse is just getting its start, Inferno is ramping up to its conclusion. Colossus's attempts to free his sister, Illyana, from her evil other self, the Darkvchylde, have ended badly. Of his team, Nightcrawler is now a dragon monster in Darkchylde's thrall, Boom-Boom is missing, and he and Domino are working with the Goblin Queen, Madelyne Pryor, and her thrall/boyfriend, Havok. So things aren't good for our heroes. This issue is centered around a massive battle, as Illyana finally has a way past the magical dome that keeps her and her demons prisoner, namely Nightcrawler's teleportation abilities. What we get is a massive battle scene, including a breathtaking two page spread, that is just crammed with cameos of all sorts of X-Men character. Most any X-character you can imagine is in the background here, fighting demons. Javier Garron does an excellent job of making the pages crowded with demons and mutants, but never losing any clarity; you can still follow the scenes and the fights while checking out the backgrounds for cameos. Colossus and Domino are now trapped in the dome without Nightcrawler to get them out, and the two share a heart-to-heart about how Colossus needs to think and deal with Goblin Queen, as it's clear she's using him. Hopeless uses most of his Cable & X-Force team as the main characters in this mini-series, and continues to write them very well. I liked that team a lot, and it's nice to see them back. Frankly, I would love to see more of young Cable in this series. Cable makes a lot of sense as a ten year old, after all; all the padding and big guns are perfect for the mindset of a kid that age. If Old Man Logan can come back to the Marvel Universe after this event, why not young kid Cable? The issue ends with the appearance of a character who I think all X-fans have been expecting in this series, since he was central to the original "Inferno" storyline. Now past the halfway point, and with a fourth faction in place with the debut of Sinister (my favorite X-villain), Dennis Hopless has a lot of balls in the air to catch safely over the next two issues. Inferno is an exciting mini-series of high action, and I'm looking forward to the payoff.