Friday, December 19, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 19: Star Wars: Mara Jade- By the Emperor's Hand #1

Star Wars: Mara Jade- By the Emperor's Hand #1, October 1998

I wasn't always a big Star Wars fan. I loved the movies and the toys as a kid, but as with most people of my generation, there was a period in the late 80s until sometime in the 90s when I fell out of touch with the Galaxy Far, Far Away. And when I rediscovered Star Wars, it was through the novels, not the comics. A high school friend of mine (and if you read this, Mark, thanks) convinced me to try the Thrawn Trilogy, and I was immediately hooked. I tracked down everything I could, and within the next year and change, I had completely caught up with all the novels.

But frankly, I didn't give the comics much thought. Licensed comics are a tricky beast, not because they "don't matter," or "aren't real comics," but because often the creators involved are either up and comers or older creators that get thrown a bone. I had loved The X-Files comics from Topps Comics, the ones from Stephan Petrucha and a pre-Walking Dead Charles Adlard, but most of the other licensed comics I had tried had fallen flat.

But when it was announced Timothy Zahn, my favorite Star Wars novelist and creator of many of my favorite Expanded Universe characters, would be teaming up Michael A. Stackpole, my second favorite Star Wars novelist and creator of most of my other favorite EU characters, to write a mini-series about Mara Jade, former Emperor's Hand (the personal agent of the Emperor himself) and all around kick ass Force user, a character Zahn had created and who I loved, I had to check it out. The series followed Mara from shortly before the death of Emperor Palpatine through some her first adventures as a solo operative. It was full of twists and turns, featured appearances by various EU characters I knew, was a great action story, and was first and foremost a great comic.

And from there on out, I was sold. I finished Mara Jade and started tracking down back issues and trades. I caught up on Rogue Squardon, which tied into novels I loved. I read Dark Empire, which filled in a missing year within the novels. And as we moved towards Episode I, I began picking up the new series, many of which were more engaging than the movies and novels they were connected to. I stuck with Star Wars comics at Dark Horse until they lost the license this past year, but I'll still go back and fondly re-read these early adventures, which stand the test of time as some of the best Star Wars comics ever published.

Today, it was announced Dark Horse will be ceasing publication of their Star Wars back catalog. I had this scheduled for release as today's entry already, which I chalk up to my amazing powers of precognition. Still, it's sad. I've written a lot about Star Wars comics on this blog, and while I plan to read and look at the Marvel books as well, it's a shame those great Dark Horse books are going to be unavailable. But they'll still exist in comic shops and at conventions, so you can still track them down. And you should go and check out Brandon Borzelli's guest column from the summer to see some highlights of the Dark Horse era.

Animated Discussions: A Very Animated DC Christmas

The past couple of years, the Friday before Christmas has been a holiday recommendation, both of them from writer Paul Dini. Aside from a single Christmas themed issue of Simpsons Comics, and an issue of Detective Comics featuring Joker driving around with a tied up Tim Drake, I couldn't find anything else Christmasy from Dini (although you really should check out those two books). I was getting ready to shift last week's Krampus! piece to this week, when it occurred to me I had one more holiday piece that would feature some Paul Dini: a look at DC Comics animated Christmas episodes!

The earliest example of a holiday episode in the modern animated DC Universe (I'll be passing on the 60s Batman cartoon that did have a Mr. Freeze Christmas episode, just due to time for watching and time fro writing) is the classic "Christmas with the Joker." While aired about two months into the airing of Batman: The Animated Series, it was actually the second episode produced, so it has certain markings of those early episodes, very specifically it was one of three episodes where Clive Revill voiced Alfred, before Efrem Zimbalist Jr. took over and held the role for many a year.

Since we're still so early in the series, "Christmas with the Joker" isn't a very experimental episode. It's fun, clever, and well executed, but it's a pretty darn traditional episode. Joker breaks out of Arkham, Joker has a crazy scheme, Batman and Robin stop said crazy scheme. But the details are great. Joker has hijacked the airwaves and is airing an old time Christmas special starring, well, him. He's kidnapped Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, and Summer Gleeson (a reporter character who I think the producers hoped would catch on, but never really did), and has them tied up as his very own Christmas family. The interaction between Joker and Gordon when Joker removes his gag, which is a candy cane wedged in his mouth, briefly is pretty darn funny. But the stakes are high. Joker plans on blowing up a bridge and crashing a train, which Summer's mother is on; this isn't a whimsical thing with Joker. It's deadly serious.

The episode has great set pieces. Not just the exploding bridge and train sequence, but there's a battle at an observatory and a factory with killer nutcrackers. There's also some wonderful character beats involving batman. When asked to watch It's a Wonderful Life, he replies that he could, "never get past the title," but it's clear the episode's writer, Eddie Gorodetsky, gets Batman when Robin tells him that it's the story of how much one man can matter to a city, to which Bruce has not much to say. More telling is how hard it is for Batman to let go and believe that Christmas Eve will be quiet. This is actually a theme from a classic Batman Christmas story, Mike Friedrich and Neal Adams's, "the Silent Night of the Batman."

When Batman returned to animation with the New Batman Adventures, the first episode was an adaptation of the Batman Adventures Holiday Special, the episode entitled "Holiday Knights." Instead of writing at length about it, you can go and check out the recommendation I did for the comic a couple years ago. It remains one of my favorite Christmas comics ever.

In 2008, a very different animated Batman came to the airwaves. Batman: The Brave and the Bold was a much lighter Batman show, with crazy plots, huge set pieces right out of the 50s comics, and every episode teamed Batman with another hero. Early on, the series did its Christmas episode, "Invasion of the Secret Santas!" which featured Red Tornado as the guest hero. In the episode, Red Torndao, a robot, tried to understand the Christmas spirit, while he and Batman fight Fun Haus, a villain who is clearly a Toyman riff, since Toyman wouldn't have been available to the show since he is a Superman villain, and Superman and his cast were unavailable to Brave and the Bold at the time.

The episode itself involved robot Santas running amok, an evil toy, and some holiday hilarity as Red Tornado tries to Carol and Batman winds up saving kids from a runaway sled. It's a good episode of Brave and the Bold, as it highlights so much of what makes the show different and fun from Batman: The Animated Series. The comedy is much bigger, the villain is more over the top, but Batman himself remains this solid straight man in the middle of the wackiness. Batman says crime doesn't take a holiday, so neither does he.

The thing that stands out in "Invasion of the Secret Santas" to me are a series of black-and-white flashbacks to a young Bruce Wayne on Christmas Eve. Bruce receives a Christmas present from his father, a nutcracker, which is not what the young Bruce wanted, and so he throws it away and runs off in a pout. It's notable for a few reasons. One, it's the first time in this series we see an unmasked Batman, even if he's only eight, and the first time we see Alfred. The series usually kept Batman in the field, so both Bruce Wayne and Alfred appear very rarely, The Nutcracker is almost directly lifted from "To Kill a Legend," a story from Detective Comics #500, only there it's a toy train, not a Nutcracker. I like the fact that Bruce wasn't always this perfect kid, and it's a nice touch. My only problem with the flashbacks is that it ends with his parents taking him to see a movie to try to cheer him up from not getting the Swashbuckler action figure. The movie is a swashbuckling movie, and I doubt anyone who knows Batman would be surprised it's The Mark of Zorro. The flashbacks end with Bruce still being mad as they walk down the alley, and well, the are two flashes of light. I'm generally not in love with the idea that Bruce had any part, even inadvertent, in his parents' death. Still the episode ends with Batman finding a very special Christmas present from Alfred in the Batmobile, something that brings the episode full circle, and is a nice Christmas touch.

Before I discuss my favorite DC Comics animated episode, I wanted to touch on one that's only tangentially related to the topic. Freakazoid! was a cartoon that aired on the WB network alongside Superman: The Animated Series, and was created by the same guys who created the Batman and Superman cartoons. It was a crazy cartoon with a hero who would make the Creeper say, "I think he's a bit much." But good lord was it funny!The first season episode, "In Arm's Way," features Freakazoid Christmas chopping on Christmas Eve, while arch criminal Arms Akimbo (a former model whose arms are stuck, well, akimbo) sells Oops Insurance (protection) to local business owners. If you've never see Freakazoid!, well, this is a fun episode, but they all are really.

Now, my favorite DC Comics animated episode doesn't even feature Batman. The episode is "Comfort and Joy," from the second season of Justice League, and it's written, not shockingly, by Paul Dini. After saving an alien world from being destroyed, we follow five members of the Justice League on their holiday adventures. I admit, the episode is filled with Christmas messages about the joys of family and friends, about giving to others, and about different manners of celebrating. It's a Christmas special in the way of holiday episodes of the 80s, and I love that. I am a complete sucker for these kind of things, and the fact that it's done so well makes it all the better.

One of the stories follows Green Lantern and Hawkgirl as the two explore their burgeoning romance by seeing how each of their cultures celebrate. Lantern shows Hawkgirl all the great snow traditions he has, like sledding, building snowmen, making snow angels, and snowball fights. After a particularly rousing super powered snowball fight Hawkgirl brings Lantern to a world that looks like the Mos Eisley Cantina's nasty brother and shows him how she celebrates, which is starting a bar fight and wailing on everyone in sight. It's cute, and does a great job of showing the relationship between the two characters, ending with a very sweet moment.

The Flash story has Wally visiting  an orphanage in Central City and promising to get the kids the present they want, a DJ Rubba Ducky, a rapping animated duck. We get some crass consumerism, as Wally can't find one, and when he finally does, he runs afoul of the Ultra-Humanite, who is destroying the Central City Museum because he feels the art isn't up to his high standards. When the Rubba Ducky is destroyed in the fight, Humanite agrees to repair it and he and Flash present the to to the kids, improved to tell the story of The Nutcracker as opposed to making hip-hop farty noises. And when Flash brings Humanite to jail, he leaves him a small Christmas tree. It's a sweet story of two foes coming together in the Christmas spirit and about how everyone deserves a holiday that is full of peace.

The third story is by far my favorite, the story of Superman taking Martian Manhunter to Smallville for Christmas. It's a very simple, quiet story. There's no action in the superhero sense. Superman is hilarious with ma and Pa Kent, acting like a great big kid; they wrap his presents in lead foil to keep him from peeking. They give J'onn a sweater as a present that he bulks up to wear. And he goes out at night and sees the Christmas joy that the people of Smallville feel. J'onn became a favorite character of mine thanks to the John Ostrander monthly from the early 00s and his portrayal on Justice League, and this episode does a marvelous job of portraying the stranger in a strange land aspect of the character. There's also a cute nod to his love of Oreos from the Justice League International era. The episode ends with J'onn sitting in a window in his native Martian form, singing a beautiful sing in Martian, while petting Streaky, Supergirl's cat. It's a lovely moment, one that expresses the universality of having a place to be in times of celebration.

This is a good time to settle in with a cup of cocoa and enjoy a very super Christmas season, and each of these episodes are available on DVD, and many can be found on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 18: Ms. Marvel #1

Ms. Marvel #1, April 2014

I married a wonderful woman who, for most of our 12 years together, did not share my affinity for four-color funny books. But if you get dragged by your husband to enough Marvel movies and your son is obsessed with Batman, eventually you end up sipping at least a little Kool-Aid.

That cool, refreshing sip ended up being G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel, which is currently the only series anyone in my house is collecting in single issues.

What I love about the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is that her story doesn’t feel rushed. As groundbreaking as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original Spider-Man stories are, it’s weird to me that a teenager went from getting spider-powers to fighting Dr. Doom in just a few issues. Wilson and Alphona take their time developing Kamala’s powers-life balance, concentrating first on making her family and friends feel fleshed-out, and letting Kamala test her powers before a single supervillain enters the picture.

Basing her origin on the Inhuman terrigenesis bomb could have made for a messy book full of messy Inhuman history. But the creators smartly kept Kamala off Attilan’s radar for roughly eight issues, then, finally, gave her Lockjaw as a giant, adorable, slobbering pet/guardian.

Reading Ms. Marvel led my wife to seek out other female superheroes, and to purchase Essential trades of the original Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman and She-Hulk from the late ’70s and early ’80s. So now we can have conversations about how cheesy those books were, and how much more smartly written they are today. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 17: Uncanny X-Men #336

Uncanny X-Men #336, September 1996

File this one under crossover issues that stand out more for what they represent than for the stories themselves (See also Spider-Man Unlimited #1, Civil War #1).

Uncanny 336 was a chapter of “Onslaught,” a Marvel mega-event that included the X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four and plenty of side books. The hype for Onslaught began building in spring 1995, almost immediately after the end of the previous X-event, the “Age of Apocalypse.”

In fact, according to Brian Cronin’s Comic Book Legends Revealed, what started as a half-formed idea by Scott Lobdell to have someone or something beat up the Juggernaut turned into an edict across the books to allude to Onslaught before anyone knew what it was.

But I don’t remember Onslaught for being a confusing mess that featured a teenage Tony Stark, a younger, long-haired version of Magneto or Hawkeye wearing A Very ’90s Headsock.

What I remember is one panel, about a ninth of the page, showing the left half of Cyclops’ face, fangs bared, saying two words: “Take him.”  Behind him, in shadow, Thor and Storm are airborne, ready to attack the being holding Charles Xavier prisoner and threatening to torture him slowly. Quite frankly, it’s my favorite thing Joe Madureira ever drew.

Here, Cyclops isn’t just leading the X-Men. The Avengers and the FF are following him into battle as well. The X-Man who had spent 30 years suffering from crippling insecurity was now barking orders at almost every major hero in the Marvel Universe. And that’s why I was a teenage Cyclops fan.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 16: Starman #34

Starman #34, September 1997

When you grow up reading superhero comics, you come to expect certain things. Bright costumes, big action scenes, and the illusion of change, to name a few. What you don't expect is film criticism in the mind of a supervillain.

 By the time Starman #34 had come out, I had read plenty about the comic in (lord I feel ashamed saying this) Wizard. It was supposed to be this hip, new, different superhero comic. I had read one issue, a crossover with the Underworld Unleashed event, and while it wasn't bad, it wasn't anything special. But issue thirty-three guest starred Batman, and so I picked it up, and that seemed more in line with what I read. Batman was guesting is thirty-four as well, so I picked it up, and this blew me away.

Jack Knight (the current Starman), Batman, Sentinel (the then-current superhero alias of original Green Lantern Alan Scott), and the Floronic Man (Jason Woodrue, a villain with plant powers), eat psychedelic tubers to enter the mind of plant monster-man Solomon Grundy, who had reformed and was a friend of Jack, to try to help him recover from a coma. OK, trippy tubers was something new to me to begin with. But as they journey, they start discussing heroism, and favorite heroes, and it turns into a discussion of favorite Woody Allen movies.

That scene had me rolling on the floor laughing, as Batman is a total downer, acting like this whole thing is business as usual, while Jack talks about Broadway Danny Rose, Sentinel remembers Everybody Says I Love You, and Woodrue waxes about the comedy of Interiors (if you've ever seen it, you'll know why that's funny). This opened my eyes to the fact that you could break the formula of super-heroes and come up with something new and different, and was a segue into thinking about trying out other kinds of comics. Starman proved a good gateway into Vertigo, which I was finally old enough to read, indies, and other different comics, which I'll always be grateful for. Oh, by the way, in the next issue, Batman does tell Jack what his favorite Woody Allen movie is. Not surprisingly, it's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 15: Civil War #1

Civil War #1, July 2006

I took a couple years off from superhero comics in the mid-2000s. I walked away from the X-books when Grant Morrison did, and for a while the only thing I was reading was Brian K. Vaughn’s Ex Machina.

Marvel’s Civil War event got me curious, though. The House of Ideas hadn't really pushed its crossovers in the mainstream, non-comics media prior to this, so I picked up the first few issues.

But I’m not writing about Civil War because I think Marvel’s most hyped event of the past decade is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The reason this book sticks out to me, personally, is the Steve McNiven splash page in which Captain America is shown surfing on a jet.

I hadn’t really read much Cap before then, save for occasional minor appearances in X-Men. So I was surprised to watch this red-white-and-blue badass beat up a couple dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, hijack a jet, lecture the pilot about his language and, as a Cabinet secretary later describes, land the plane on a football field and take the pilot out for a burger and fries. Mark Millar – who crafted an alternate-Earth version of the character in The Ultimates – wrote Cap as the perfect combination of Boy Scout and action star. As team leaders go, Cyclops was never this cool.

Before long, I started reading Ed Brubaker’s run on Cap’s solo title and had collected every trade from the first hardcover omnibus right up until Fear Itself. Having completed that, I expanded outward, reading the new stuff by Rick Remender and Jack Kirby’s stories from the bicentennial.

So thanks, Civil War, for giving me a new favorite character. 

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 12/10

Afterlife with Archie #7
Story: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa 
Art: Francecso Francavilla

I never thought I'd say Archie and horror in the same breath. I read and enjoyed Archie's Weird Mysteries in the 90s and 00s, but those weren't horror comics; they were supernatural adventure books that wouldn't scare anybody over the age of four. But Afterlife with Archie, the story of a zombie apocalypse that started in Riverdale, is definitely a horror comics, and it's a great one, full of genuine scares and tremendous character work. This issue picks up with the survivors of Archie and the gang having fled Riverdale, with a ravening horde of zombies led by Jughead following them (even in death and zombification, Jughead is still always hungry). Betty is trying to recreate her lost diaries, so we see flashbacks to Betty's time in Riverdale, the problems in her family wither her sister, her meeting Archie, and the turbulent relationship between her and Veronica. Meanwhile, we see more about just how warped the Blossom household in this reality is, with some flashbacks to Cheryl Blossom's family Thanksgivings. Taking Riverdale and mixing in some Peyton Place and some Flowers in the Attic could easily turn into something that feels exploitative and tacky, but Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa clearly has long plans for these characters, and isn't just throwing in shocks for shock value. He is developing these characters down unexplored territory, while still having them feel like the characters that Archie readers know. The atmosphere is only heightened by the dark, moody art from Francesco Francavilla, who draws not only some seriously creepy zombies, but such realistic facial expressions that you can read the full spectrum of emotions that run  through each character. If you're all caught up on The Walking Dead and are looking for something else to satisfy your zombie/horror fix, Afterlife with Archie is one of the best horror comics on the market. Also worth noting, each issue has a back up from the classic Archie published horror comics on the silver age, which are creepy in the EC Comics vein; I'd love to see some collections of those in the future as well.

Copperhead #4
Story: Jay Faerber
Art: Scott Godlewski

Copperhead, Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski's sci-fi western, continues it's first arc, as Sheriff Clara Bronson and her deputy, Budroxifinicus (Boo for short and from here on out), close in on the killer of the Sewell family. Bronson goes on the hint for Ishmael, the artificial being ("artie") that saved her son and he saw with a stolen object from the Sewell house, only after getting into an argument with the local mine owner and land baron. It's through his inquiries that we learn exactly why Bronson is now out in the galactic backwater of Copperhead. She immediately jumps to the conclusion that Ishmael is guilty, reinforcing the knowledge that she dislikes arties, and we begin to get more details about the war that was fought, now knowing that the arties were designed to fight Boo's people. With Bronson away, Boo gets the spotlight as he heads to investigate a break in at the local doctors office (the doctor is a drunk, a classic western trope). While Boo pursues the being who broke in, we see a flashback to his time in the war, and get the idea of exactly how tough Boo is and was. Four issues isn't a lot of time, but Faerber has done a good job of letting us know who each of these characters are; still there's a lot to learn. We also see the first real clash between Clara and her son, Zeke, who absolutely believes that Ishmael is not the killer since Ishmael saved his live. Zeke's a good kid, but like all kids, they think they know better than their parents sometimes. I'm curious to see which is right. Scott Godlewski, artist on the series, impresses me by giving non-human faces very clear emotions. The Sewells and Boo are only slightly near human, and many artists would have a hard time conveying mood and emotion, but Godlewski does  a great job of helping us get right into Boo's head.

Rocket Raccoon #6
Story: Skottie Young
Art: Jake Parker

Rocket Raccoon continues to be one of Marvels' most charming comics. Rocket is now working to pay off the debt to the numerous princesses he has wronged in his life, but this issue he has to step away from that task to help out another old friend. Cosmo, the psychic Russian space dog who is the head of security at Knowhere, gets in touch with Rocket to help a robot, whose name is only given in binary, to help locate some of his friends, who all live on a colony of warbots who have forsaken violence to live a peaceful life. So Rocket and the robot go on a crazy adventure where Rocket actually has to act as the cool head, trying to keep the robot from blasting everyone; if your friends were taken by slavers, you'd be a little prickly too. From a weapons dealer to a weapons auction, Rocket and his robot sidekick leave a swath of carnage. Groot isn't around this issue, so the robot takes the place of Rocket's usual sidekick, but since not only is the robot's name in binary, but that's all he can speak, it's not like his vocabulary is much wider than Groot's. I wanted to talk about this issue for two very simple reasons. First, it's just fun. While yes, robot slavery is an important topic that should be discussed, this is a comic in the old model, a perfect done in one story with some good jokes, some good action, and a lovable cast. Second, it has Cosmo. I love Cosmo, but since the return of the cosmic Marvel Universe in the past three years or so, he hasn't really appeared much, so an issue with a lot of Cosmo is something I wanted to call out. Artist Jake Parker's style is reminiscent of Skottie Young's own while not being a direct clone, so it keeps with the tone of the first arc, and he draws absolutely adorable animals, so he's made for this book. If Rocket Raccoon can continue to tell fun stories like this, it will be the jewel in Marvel's cosmic crown.

The Valiant #1
Story: Jeff Lemire & Matt Kindt
Art: Paolo Rivera

When it comes to consistency, Valiant really can't be beat. Since they started publishing two years and change ago, they've done a good job of keeping up a consistent high quality. And while they have done a couple of crossovers, Harbinger Wars and Armor Hunters, each of those connected small corners of the Valiant Universe. This week saw the debut of The Valiant, a four issue mini-series that looks to tie the whole universe together. The issue opens with a history of Gilad Anni-Padda, the Eternal Warrior, and his battle with a creature called the Eternal Enemy. Three times before, the Eternal Enemy has come, and three times it has slain the Geomancer, the person who speaks for the Earth. And each time, Gilad has gotten a scar on his face; the origin of the scars has been hotly debated since Gilad first appeared in the new Valiant, and it's a cool history to them, adding something to make Gilad's arch-foe a much bigger threat. From there, we see the current Geomancer, Kay McHenry, having a discussion with Armstrong, Gilad's also immortal brother about what she should be doing. I haven't read anything with Kay since her first appearance in Archer & Armstrong, so it was nice to get a refresher on who she is, as she is going to be important to this series. The issue also features an action sequence with Bloodshot, the nanite infused hero, fighting his former masters at Project: Rising Spirit on the behest of MI6. This sequence not only gives a nice action centerpiece to the issue, but catches readers up on Bloodhot's current status quo. The issue ends with Kay trying her hand at being a more active Geomancer, Gilad talking to X-O Manowar about the coming of a threat, and the rise of the Eternal Enemy. Writers Jeff Lemire and Matt Kindt do a very solid job of making it clear exactly who all these characters are even if you haven't read anything with them before, while keeping the story moving and it never feeling like an info dump. Paolo Rivera is an outstanding artist, and his work is as amazing as ever. His action sequences, especially Bloodshot versus a pair of mechs, flow perfectly, giving a sense of motion and action, and his design for the monstrous Eternal Enemy is the stuff of nightmares. If you've ever thought about trying out a Valiant comic and have been hesitant or if you're an old school Valiant fan who wants to try the new books, this is a book that is the perfect place to jump on. And if you've been reading Valiant regularly, this is a great showing that will feature the characters you're reading already, so go out and pick up The Valiant.