Friday, October 31, 2014

A Halloween Visit to the Darker Corners of the Marvel Universe

Happy Halloween, everybody! Instead of a normal recommended reading, or a post of the kind you normally see, I thought I'd do something different. After thinking about Doctor Strange, I realized that while most corners of the Marvel Universe have been reawakened and retooled in recent years, the supernatural corner remains dormant. So, Dan and I sat down and came up with some ideas for ways for Marvel to do some new supernatural titles! It's a fun little trip into our brains, so don't get too scared!


Doctor Strange

As I stated when I talked about Doctor Strange earlier this week, Strange has had any number of reboots and new series, so coming at him from a new angle was tricky. But I got to thinking about the Ancient One, Strange's master, and the numerous apprentices Strange has taken over the years. So, what happened if Strange learned that, through some magical confluence, thirteen children were born, each with a different magical gift, and the balance of all magic would rest on whether or not they chose light or dark magic? With the kids now teenagers, Strange must race across the globe, gathering these kids and then training them, all the while competing with someone else, let's say Baron Mordo, to keep them on the side of the light. It's got a similar vibe to classic X-Men stories, only told from Xavier's point of view instead of the students, or Harry Potter from Dumbledore's perspective, clearly with Strange in the Xavier or Dumbledore role. It would introduce a group of new magical characters, characters who could be from any country, of any race, religion, or sexual orientation, meaning it works with so much of what Marvel has been doing to diversify their line. And Strange can team up with various other magical characters, like Doctor Voodoo, to help teach the kids different disciplines. Extra points for a convenient crossover with Uncanny X-Men, when one of Strange's team turns out to not only be magically gifted but a mutant, and Strange must work with his ex-apprentice, Magik, and team his kids up with the kids from the New Xavier School.



MI-13

OK, I know, I know. I'm a sucker for Pete Wisdom, and I would probably try to pitch a new book featuring Wisdom to Marvel in any way I could. But bear with me. Nearly all stories of MI-13 and Wisdom have had some magical angle, so we give the British spooky intel agency a new specific mission. With S.H.I.E.L.D. overwhelmed with all the supercriminals and terrorists, international magical items trafficking has skyrocketed, and Maria Hill goes to the experts: Pete Wisdom and MI-13. Now MI-13's goal is to shut down an international cartel that is selling, and in some cases handing out, magical items of incredible dark power. What exactly is their angle? And exactly who is the mastermind behind it? With a core team of Pete Wisdom, Spitfire, Black Knight, Union Jack, and Excalibur, there could be any number of supernatural heroes who could guest star. Blade's a little busy over in Mighty Avengers, but he could come back, as could Captain Britain and Megann, but I think Elsa Bloodstone, who is free since the end of Fearless Defenders, would make a good replacement for Blade as monster hunter extraordinaire. I'd also like to keep Alistair Stuart around, and reintroduce the original version of Romany Wisdom, the hippy magic user version, as she is both Pete's sister and Union Jack's ex, as the support team for the unit.



Dracula and the Legion of Monsters

When Mark Waid brought the Legion of Monsters back in Daredevil, he gave them a mission: track down and contain the dispersed pages of the Darkhold, the most evil books of magic in existence; picture the Marvel Universe version of the Necronomicon and you get the idea. So, when team leader Jack Russell, the Werewolf by Night, discovers a page of the book that allows the possessor to control vampires, Jack and team hunt down the vampire of vampires, Dracula. And this is the Dracula of Tomb of Dracula, Doctor Strange, classic X-Men, and Captain Britiain and MI-13, the one designed by Gene Colan. He's no longer wearing red armor and wearing his hair all long and white; nope this Dracula has style. Russell uses the page, and Drac is now under his control. Well, sort of. Dracula can't turn on Russell and his team, but whatever they ask him to do, he can do in whatever way he sees fit, so it's a classic monkey's paw situation: use Dracula to track down more pages, but say one false word and he'll massacre everyone between him and the page. And Dracula is always scheming to come up with a way to get the page from Russell so he can be free and exact his revenge, giving a constant sense of tension to every issue.




Midnight Sons of Anarchy (working title only) 

Marvel relaunched Ghost Rider earlier this year with a new host for the Spirit of Vengeance, Robbie Reyes, who drives a black muscle car instead of a motorcycle. Frankly, I see a missed opportunity here. Because you know what’s cooler than one Ghost Rider? A gang of them. A Spirits of Vengeance series ran from 1992 to 1994, teaming up original-recipe Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze with Crystal Pepsi Ghost Rider Danny Ketch. I say revisit the series, uniting Blaze, Ketch, Reyes and the Alejandra and Vengeance characters, along with some new recruits, as a team of demon-possessed hotheads riding together, righting wrongs and whipping people with hellfire-covered chains. Yes, it would be a blatant rip-off of the popular FX series Sons of Anarchy, but that fruit’s hanging low for a reason.



Resurrect Gail Simone’s Night Nurse MAX series 

Years ago, Simone and artist Jill Thompson were developing a mature-readers series featuring the Night Nurse, a superhero health care worker and the sometimes girlfriend of Dr. Strange. The series was shelved in early 2002, and Simone went on to write Deadpool/Agent X. Brian Michael Bendis made the Night Nurse one of his pet quasi-Avengers in the 2000s, patching up anti-registration heroes in the pages of New Avengers as well as Matt Fraction and Ed Brubaker’s Immortal Iron Fist. If nothing else, should a new Dr. Strange book comes out in time for the movie in 2016, I’d love for the Nurse to be a part of it.



House of Z 

Pretty sure this one hasn’t been leaked along with the kajillion other crossover redux teasers for next summer’s Secret Wars. Zombie Wanda Maximoff grunts “No more zombies” to avoid having her brains eaten by her brother, Zombie Pietro, and magically undoes the zombie virus for all but 198 of them. A restored humanity led by some of the company’s best supporting characters – Thunderbolt Ross, Pepper Potts, J. Jonah Jameson, Dum Dum Dugan, Foggy Nelson, etc. – must figure out how to live in a world destroyed by zombies. In so doing, humans become the hunters, and the zombies are chased across the country onto an island in the San Francisco Bay that the humans nuke without a second thought, because, as Ross tells Nelson, “Can’t destroy a world that’s already been destroyed.” In promotional materials, Marvel will act like they’re finally getting rid of all the zombies, as a red herring to distract those who’ve said Marvel’s done too many zombie stories. But the blast actually radiates the zombie virus and makes it airborne, creating a whole new batch. This sets up House of Z 2, in which the remaining humans scour the globe searching for Zombie Wanda, whom they failed to round up the first time around. 


Now, go out and enjoy Halloween!

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

’Borg, ’borg, ’borg: Comics’ Best Cyborgs



Today marks the debut of a new go-round of Deathlok by writer Nathan Edmondson and artist Mike Perkins, starring a new version of the character spinning out of the events of Marvel’s Original Sin.

Comics are a great medium for tales of half-men, half-robots. Especially ones that carry guns, have blades for fingers, skulls for faces and look like total badasses. With that in mind, let’s pay tribute to those characters who blur the line between human and machine.



Deathlok: There have been many Deathloks. Many, many, many Deathloks, to crib from Commandant Lessard. The original Deathlok, Luther Manning, was introduced in Astonishing Tales 25 in 1974, about a year after the government rebuilt Col. Steve Austin faster, better, stronger, to create the Six Million Dollar Man for television. Future Deathloks would include John Kelly, Michael Collins, Jack Truman, Larry Young, Rebecca Ryker (who went by Death Locket) and the latest, Henry Hayes. Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD TV show created yet another Deathlok, Mike Peterson, played by J. August Richards. Hordes of half-superhero Deathloks ran amok in the second arc of Rick Remender’s Uncanny X-Force. The point is, anybody can be Deathlok. You just have to believe, and be a cybernetically enchanced corpse.



Cyborg: Boo-yah! It’s the guy who kicked Martian Manhunter out of the Justice League. Some 
people know Victor Stone from the old George Perez New Teen Titans comics. Some know him as one of the founding members of the New 52-era Justice League. I know him best as one-half of the comedy tag team of Cyborg and Beast Boy on Cartoon Network’s Teen Titans Go!



The Reavers: Australia used to be lousy with half-robot thugs who had a mad-on for Wolverine just because he sliced many of them to ribbons in their pre-cyborg lives. The most famous of the Reavers may be Lady Deathstrike, who frequently seeks vengeance on Wolverine for the theft of her father’s adamantium-bonding formula, despite the fact that he had nothing to do with it. But my personal favorite has to be Bonebreaker, not just because he rolls around on tank treads, but because he has a Mohawk that looks like a fluffy bunny tail, sunglasses with thin slits for lenses and wears a bondage vest. If that’s not 1980s cyberpunk/Mad Max fashion at its finest, I don’t know what is. For more on the Reavers, consult your local library. Or read this.



Metallo: While Wolverine seems to attract the most cyborg enemies for Marvel, Superman appears to fill that role at DC. Some version of Metallo has existed since 1959, back when cyborgs were still powered by steam (and lest you were worried, there are whole Etsy shops dedicated to fulfilling your steampunk cyborg needs). Metallo’s backstory has been tweaked as many times as there’s been Crisis crossovers, but the general gist is that he’s a cyborg, he hates Superman, he’s got the hots for Lois Lane and he’s powered by a Kryptonite heart. Serious question: If kryptonite can be used to power killer half-bots, could it also be used to power, say, people’s homes? And if so, does that mean Lex Luthor could theoretically build, say, a kryptonite-powered Lexcorp employee Levittown that Superman would have to avoid, giving him an inconspicuous base from which to plot evil? Also, has somebody already written that story? 



Cable: Nathan Christopher Dayspring Askani’Son Pryor-Grey-Summers has the honor of being the only cyborg baby on this list. Apocalypse infected baby Nate with a techno-organic virus in a 1991 Chris Claremont-Whilce Portacio X-Factor storyline, and poppa Cyclops tried to save him by giving him away to a complete stranger claiming to be from the future. Cable’s telepathy keeps the virus in check, but he still is generally drawn with a metal arm and cybernetic eye.



Silvermane: Crime boss Silvio Manfredi (What if the Kingpin’s real name were Kingsley Pinman?) was so obsessed with reversing the aging process and finding immortality, he had his head grafted onto a robot body. His noggin was later used as a living MacGuffin in Nick Spencer and Steve Lieber’s Superior Foes of Spider-Man, one of my favorite titles of the Marvel NOW! era.



Hank Henshaw: Henshaw was one of the faux Supermen to rise up in the wake of the real deal’s death. He became a half-metal man after he, his wife and two others suffered a horrible accident in space. So essentially he’s a composite rip-off artist.



Cameron Hodge: Hodge started out as Warren Worthington’s friend from college whom he hired to act as the P.R. guy for the pre-Peter David version of X-Factor. Hodge worked behind the scenes to destroy the team, leading an anti-mutant group called The Right that hunted down mutants in egg-shaped smiley-face suits and making a pact with the demon N’Astirh for power. After being decapitated by Archangel, Hodge shows up on Genosha, leading anti-mutant efforts there in a robot body that artists increasingly drew like a creepy cybernetic spider. Defeated yet again, Hodge becomes part of the Phalanx, the techno-organic alien race that was cool for like a split second in 1994. He was also one of the mutant haters resurrected by Bastion around the time of "Messiah Complex."



Lucia Von Bardas: The Latverian prime minister cyborg-ed up to get revenge on Nick Fury and his superhero covert cops team during Marvel’s 2004-05 Secret War miniseries, turning scores of Marvel’s tech-based villains into a giant bomb.



Robocop: That’s right, kids, you actually used to be able to buy that for a dollar! Peter Weller’s cybernetic cop of the future has had series at Marvel, Dark Horse, Avatar, Dynamite and Boom.



Darth Vader: Emporer Palpatine turns Anakin Skywalker into the Sith Million Dollar Man at the end of Episode III. Sadly, I tried to Google what the buttons on Vader’s chest plate do, and all I came up with were a bunch of message boards asking the same question. For more on Star Wars’ legacy in comics, click here.




Post-Extremis Tony Stark: Iron Man may have started out as a dude in a metal suit, but Warren Ellis’ 2005-06 Extremis story bonded man and Iron Man on a molecular level. The Extremis formula allows the armor to become a part of Tony, part of it living just under his skin. It also apparently turns him into a gigantic tool in the upcoming Superior Iron Man book.

 Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Strange Days Indeed: Who is Doctor Strange?


Yesterday, Marvel Studios announced that Benedict Cumberbatch, best know for playing Sherlock Holmes in the BBC's Sherlock, had been cast as Doctor Strange, Master of the Mystic Arts, Sorcerer Supreme. While this is a big announcement for some of us, Doctor Strange isn't exactly the biggest name in comics, probably better known than the Guardians of the Galaxy, less so than Iron Man. So, as a public service, here's some background on the good doctor, and a few stories you might want to check out.

My personal history with Doctor Strange begins, aside from an appearance in an episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, where a lot of my history with Marvel characters does: with The Infinity Gauntlet. Strange was a principal character in the battle to stop Thanos and his god-like power, not just in the main mini-series but with crossovers into his own title. Strange would continue to have a large part in the sequel, The Infinity War, and a smaller roll in the final part of the trilogy, The Infinity Crusade.

Doctor Strange is a character with a long history, having first appeared in 1963 in Strange Tales #110 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. But unlike the other major Lee/Ditko creation, Spider-Man, Strange has had a hard time holding down a series. He has had no fewer than three ongoing series that have ended, plus runs in Marvel Premiere and numerous mini-series. This isn't to say he's a failure as a character; he is still mainstream comics best known magician and has been active even when not in his own title, as a supporting character or a member of the Defenders or the Avengers.

As origins go, Stephen Strange was one of the world's best surgeons, or if you asked him, the best. Arrogant and callous, Strange cared for no one but himself. But after a car accident cost him the use of his hands (in most versions of his origins, an accident caused by his own carelessness or drunkenness), Strange went on a quest to find a way to repair them. This finally led him into the Himalayas, where he met the Ancient One, a mystic who agreed to tutor Strange. Here he learned magic and selflessness, taking up the mantle of Master of the Mystic Arts, and eventually Sorcerer Supreme. It is Doctor Strange's duty to keep this dimension safe from incursions for Hell, The Dark Dimension, and any other plane of existence.

As power sets go, Strange's magic makes that kind of hard to classify. The rules of magic are a little hard to describe, as they are flexible to fit the story, so Strange can do pretty much anything. Usually there are lots of raybolts of energy, binding spells, and the like. He does fly using the Cloak of Levitation, and wields the Eye of Agamotto, the amulet at the neck of the cape, that allows for visions and truthseeing. Many of these powers he draws from the Vishanti, a triumvirate of extra dimensional beings, named Agamotto, Osthur, and Hoggoth,the last of which gives us Doctor Strange's signature comic book catchphrase, "By the Hoary Hosts of Hoggoth!" It might not be, "It's Clobberin' Time!" but I still think it beats, "Oh, my stars and garters!"

That's really all you need to know up front. One of the good things (and/or problems) about so many cancellations and new beginnings is that Doctor Strange is often returning with a mostly clean slate. The baggage is often discarded to provide a clean new start that will be the one that's a hit. That hasn't happened in recent years, but with a movie coming I'm sure we'll see it tried again. Strange does have certain key supporting characters and nemeses, though, and here's who they are,


Wong was introduced in the same issue as Doctor Strange, and has been Strange's manservant since that first appearance. Initially, he was simply the inscrutable Asian stereotype you couldn't get away with now, who had served the Ancient One as well as Strange, silent and always with a fortune cookie of wisdom. But over the years he has developed, and his backstory in some versions now involves him being a former student of the Ancient One as well, and besdies being a master martial artist, he is now more Strange's partner, friend, and aide rather than simply his servant.


The Ancient One is the master sorcerer who trained Strange. Sometimes portrayed as a smiling, Yoda like mentor, he is usually instead a hardass who will smack down Strange any time he gets too big for his britches, even returning from the other side to do it. He is not to be trifled with.


Clea is Doctor Strange's on again/off again love interest (they are currently off again). His wife at one point, she is the daughter of Umar and niece of Dormammu (both of whom we'll get to in a  minute), and is often fighting for the freedom of the people in her native Dark Dimension. She is a powerful sorceress herself, and has been Strange's apprentice.



Rintrah was another of Strange's apprentices and... oh, who am I kidding? We're never going to see Rintrah again. I just think the fact that he's a greenish minotaur is one of those great things that flies pretty much only in comics.


Baron Mordo is Doctor Strange's oldest foe. A fellow apprentice of the Ancient One, Mordo was corrupted by Dormammu, and tried to kill the Ancient One and steal his power. Strange interfered, and began a rivalry that lasts until today. He is Strange's opposite number.


The Dread Dormammu is an extradimensional demon who has designs to conquer Earth. He is constantly attempting to break the barriers between dimensions and bring an army of evil, or just his own form, onto our plane of existence, often using puppets like Mordo. This constantly draws him into conflict with Strange, and depending on who you ask, he might be Strange's arch-foe even more than Mordo.


Umar is the sister of Dormammu and the ruler of The Dark Dimension. A despot, she usually comes into conflict with Strange at the behest of Clea, her daughter, who tries to liberate the people from her rule.

If all those crazy characters and magic have drawn your interest and you want to learn more about Doctor Strange, here are some places to start.



Essential Doctor Strange Vol.1-4: Marvel's late and lamented line of big, black and white collections of classic comics has four volumes for Strange. The not only collect all the stories by Lee & Ditko, which include all sorts of great crazy art by Ditko, but stories from Steve Englehart, Roger Stern, and Jim Starlin. I only have one to three personally, and am on  my own quest to find a volume four.


Doctor Strange Vs. Dracula: The Montesi Formula: I've written about my love of Tomb of Dracula before, and this trade not only collects the crossover between Tomb and Doctor Strange, it also contains a later story where Doctor Strange is in a race against time to find the  Montesi Formula, the spell that will wipe out all vampires, before Dracula takes over the world. It's an exciting story, and a worthy successor to the original Tomb of Dracula series.



Doctor Strange and Doctor Doom: Triumph and Torment: One of Marvel's original graphic novels, this volume not only is written by Roger Stern, one of the definitive Doctor Strange writers (I know some people go with Lee or Englehart but for my money, Stern is the best), but it features early art by Mike Mignola. After a sorcerer's duel to determine the world's best mage, the Doctors, Strange and Doom (best known as the Fantastic Four's archenemy, but a pretty good sorcerer in his own right), must make a trip to Hell to retrieve the soul of Doom's mother. Strange gets some really cool moments, but I have to say that Doom steals the show in his dealings with Mephisto.


Doctor Strange: The Oath: While not the most recent attempt to restart a Strange franchise, this is one that I feel like had the most potential. Written by Brian K. Vaughan (Saga, Y:The Last Man) and drawn stylishly by Marcos Martin, this is a story that draws comparisons between Strange's oath as a doctor and as a sorcerer. It does great things with the relationship between Strange and Wong, and gave Strange a new love interest, Night Nurse, the doctor to the superheroes.


Doctor Strange: Season One: A couple years back, Marvel created a line of graphic novel's called Season One, where their principal heroes got modern retellings of their origins. The volume for Doctor Strange, from creators Grek Pak and Emma Rios, was one of the highlights of that line. The story does a great job of fleshing out Strange's journey from selfish tool to superhero, builds a solid relationship between Strange and Wong, and adds mythologist Sofia Do Cosima (created by Pak for his Incredible Hulks) run on to Strange's cast. It's a globe trotting, action story with strong characters, and is a great place to start if you want to get a good sense of Doctor Strange.

Strange is also a regular member of the cast of New Avengers, so if you need your monthly dose, that's where you can head. I'm sure we'll be getting a new series for Strange before long, too, and I have some ideas of cool places that could go. Maybe there's a post in that soon... But until then, may the Vishanti protect you.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 10/22

It's Halloween week, folks, and so for this week I'm going to review some comics with tales of horror and the supernatural this week. Plenty of other great books hit this week, including a double dose of Greg Rucka in Lazarus and Stumptown, a  new She-Hulk from Charles Soule, a delightfully funny issue of The Delinquents, and the debut of an interesting new direction for Catwoman, but for this week? Horror reigns in the Matt Signal reviews.


Colder: The Bad Seed #1
Story: Paul Tobin
Art: Juan Ferreyra

I did a recommendation for the original Colder mini-series on Friday, and so I'm happy to say I can review and recommend the first issue of the second series, The Bad Seed, today. Since the defeat of Nimble Jack, Declan and Reece have been living happily together. Reece is working again, and Declan is using his powers to help the insane recover; she even brings him to work to meet her coworkers and to let him help some of the patients. This bit of idyllic life isn't going to last. There is a hint that Reece is still effected by the events of the first series, as she asks him if, with Jack dead, they are safe from the Hungry World, the world of the insane, and Declan assures her they are safe, although there is a hint he is unsure. And he is quickly proven right. A new monster appears, one who has a hunger for fingers, and who is using them for some macabre planting, walking around with a clay pot and planning for something to grow. He also shows a fascination with Declan, whose fingers he "feeds." Whatever this monster has in mind, it's not going to end well for our protagonists. The plot of the issue is simple, and sets up the new series, but since it's been quite a while since the last series, I can see why. It also establishes the powers and creep factor of our new monster, which is high. He doesn't seem to have the same macabre madness as Jack, but is more focused on his planting and harvesting, which is somehow more disturbing; planting is associated with growth and nature, so to see something using it in an evil way seems wrong on so many levels. Juan Ferreyra's monster designs continue to impress, as we see the madness of the people Declan is looking in on embodied by horrors surrounding them, and of course our new lead monster is, as you can see from the cover, made out of fingers. Again, there is something particularly unnatural about that, something off kilter that just made my skin crawl. It's good to be back in the world of Colder, but beware, as its a world where something dark waits around every corner.



Five Ghosts #13
Story: Frank J. Barbiere
Art: Chris Mooneyham

Five Ghosts is back, and just in time for Halloween. While the first arc of the series, about treasure hunter Fabian Grey, who has five ghosts of great literary figures/archetypes in him, was an Indiana Jones-style pulp adventure, and the next was a pirates/shipwrecked adventure, this third arc is cemented deeply in the horror genre. Set in Romania, the story opens with Fabian saving a young boy from what seem to be vampires, and finds out the boy is bringing medicine to the nearest village, where a plague has set in. Arriving in a village, we find that Fabian is following a clue to his the whereabouts of his best friend, kidnapped at the end of the last issue. When the village elder sees the symbol that is the clue, we hear a tale of the rich family who once lived in a nearby manor, a story that is gothic and horrible, with sickness, death, and elder gods. Fabian has dreams where he must confront one of his ghosts, the Vampire, who is being brought out by being in its native, for want of a better word, genre, and though Fabian wins, the Vampire has always been the most insistent of the ghosts and I wonder if Fabian will be able to hold him back forever. Finally, we see a man in a wagon dressed as a plague doctor, you know, with the creepy bird mask, and we learn that he is not curing the plague, but spreading it, and is creating more of the vampire/zombies from the beginning of the issue. Five Ghosts is a comic that has the best kind of pulp vibe, taking all the tropes of classic adventure genres and mixing them together. It's take on horror is atmospheric, both from writer Frank Barbiere's script, full of portent and mystery, and artist Chris Mooneyham's moody, dark art working to add to the sense of gloom. The vampire/zombie monsters are threatening and wreak of evil, and there's something I've always found unsettling about plague doctors, and Mooneyham makes this one all the more unsettling. With mystery, monsters, and heroics, the new arc of Five Ghosts looks to be another exciting adventure of Fabian Grey.



The Unwritten: Apocalypse #10
Story: Mike Carey
Art: Peter Gross

The final arc of The Unwritten, "Annals of Comparative Literature," begins with Tom Taylor, the man whose father sewed his life into the life of his fictional character, and his band of allies preparing to make one final attempt to stop the evil Pullman from wiping out existence. Meanwhile, Pullman and his allies are attempting to, well, wipe out existence. But it works for neither of them. The Unwritten is a story about stories and their power, so everyone quickly realizes that tools of power from a story have no power out of that context, so a race is on, as the story ends with Tommy coming face-to-wand with his fictional counterpart, boy wizard Tommy Taylor. The action of this issue is a lot of talking and planing, so it gives the characters time to have some great moments, especially Pauly Bruckner. When Bruckner was originally introduced, he was a comedic figure, a hitman trapped in a Winnie-the-Pooh type story where he was in the body of an  anthropomorphic rabbit. But as the series has continued, a character I thought was a one off gag has grown in depth, filled with anger at his fate, and now a more pathetic figure, just wanting to get back to the story. Having betrayed Tom to Pullman, he now abandons Pullman to warn Tom. That evolution of Pauly is one of the things that makes The Unwritten great, taking something so minor and making it so deep. There's also a wonderful moment between Tom and Lizzy, his romantic interest. I've been rooting for these kids to get and stay together for years, so seeing that they are now really a couple is nice. In the world of Tommy Taylor, Pullman's messenger encounters Count Ambrosio, Tommy's arch nemesis, who has appeared in our world a few times, possessing people, but to see him in his full vampiric power (see, vampires, bringing it back around to horror) makes him seem a more daunting foe. And of course, in the background, the literal puppet master, Madam Rausch, plays the two sides against each other. I'm wondering if the story with Pullman will be wrapped up next issue, leaving Tom to deal with Rausch in the very end, or if the final battler will have three sides. One way or the other, this issue starts what should be a grand climax to The Unwritten.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Recommended Reading for 10/24: Colder



It's October, and I usually spend my favorite month doing recommended readings for one of my favorite genres: horror comics. I've fallen behind on that this month, but I'm hoping to remedy that today.

"We're all mad here. I'm mad. You're mad," wrote Lewis Carroll in Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. This quote could be attributed as accurately to Colder, the horror series written by Paul Tobin and drawn by Juan Ferreyra. It's a tale of madness, compassion, love, hunger, and cold.

When I first read solicitation copy for Colder, I was surprised. I really like Paul Tobin as a writer, but I was familiar with his writing almost exclusively as all ages work, including the Eisner nominated Bandette, the charming Banana Sunday, both with Colleen Coover, and Marvel's late and lamented all ages "Marvel Adventures" line. But if Mark Millar's best work can be on Superman Adventures, than a writer known for all ages comics can write horror. And mixing in the lavish and horrific art from Juan Ferreyra, it seemed a no brainer to sample it, and it was well worth it.

One of the thing that immediately grabbed my attention about Colder was the fact that it's a horror comic that isn't depending on any of the classic monster tropes. I don't have anything against classic monsters; far from it. I love The Walking Dead, Tomb of Dracula, and any number of other monster themed comics. But I'm impressed when someone thinks outside the box. The monster that Paul Tobin creates for this series is Nimble Jack, who is an invisible psychic vampire of sorts. He feeds off of, and inspires, insanity. So not only do we have a monster who can move hidden through the world and views people as just food, but one who can do one of the things that any thinking person dreads; he can push you to lose your mind. There's something terrifying about being lost in your own mind, and Tobin played with that fear in a way that made my skin crawl.

A great villain/monster isn't the heart of a horror comic, though. If you don't have leads that you care about, then the comic is nothing more than an exercise in how much gore or terror you can squeeze between the pages (there is also the Tales from the Crypt model, where you often are looking for the lead to get their comeuppance, but those work best in short pieces, I find). The people who are the heart of the story are Declan and Reece. The first issue opens in an asylum in 1941, some seventy years earlier than the rest of the story, and we see Declan infected with... something by Jack as the asylum burns around them. Flash forward to the present, where Reece is a nurse who is taking care of mysterious patient, Declan, who has been in a waking coma for as long as anyone can remember. After the care facility he was in closed, Reece actually took Declan in, a Declan who does not seem to have aged a day since the 40s, and one whose body temperature is preternaturally cold.


Reece is tough, resourceful, and has her feet planted firmly in a rational world. All that changes when Jack returns, speaks briefly to Declan and leaves. Declan then speaks to Reece for the first time, which is understandably shocking to Reece. Declan takes her out, and tries to explain everything that has happened to him that he can remember, but is disturbed by Jack, who he knows he must avoid. because Jack has been basically aging Declan like a fine wine for eighty years, waiting for the feats of all feasts. To escape, Declan takes Reece into another world, or gives her a new perspective on this world, the one shared by those who aren't in touch with reality as we all understand it. One way or the other, it's a dark world full of monsters and weirdness, and Reece does not take well to it. Now both Reece and Declan smell of insanity, a smell that attracts Jack, and it's a race against time to save Reece before Declan's body temperature drops even lower and kills him.

The coldness that the title refers to is Declan's, but it's more than just a way to preserve Declan. Declan's memory of his time before Jack infected him is limited, and he doesn't want to remember, because he's fairly sure that he did horrible things. He also has a gift, sort of the mirror image of Jack's. While Jack feeds on madness, driving people insane and eventually to suicide, Declan can reverse madness as well as increase it, but only at the cost of precious degrees of body temperature. Every time he steps into the realm of madness or helps someone,it moves him closer to death or to being Jack's frozen prey. It's a great set up, since there's now a ticking clock on top of the supernatural predator hunting our heroes and Reece's own increasing separation from reality.

Tobin ratchets the tension up throughout the series using all these elements, building to a battle between Declan and Jack for Reece. And it's a deeply personal battle for Declan, as it's fairly clear that he has fallen in love with Reece during his time with her. He's been aware of everything that happened to him, and he sees what a good person Reece is. The addition of the love story might seem like a bit too much, but it folds so nicely into everything else going on. The fact that Reece is completely unsure of what to make of Declan and isn't sure what she feels about him adds a dimension to the relationship, making it not a simple girl-meets-boy-with-a-supernatural-affliction and falls in love with him story, which let's be fair, is a genre trope that has been done a lot in recent years as well.

The series has an air of mystery to it that adds to the sense of unease. Exactly what Jack is and how he feeds is parsed out gradually, and I haven't revealed all the details of that. And Declan's mysterious past, exactly why he was in the asylum, what the doctors there were doing to him and the other patients, and what exactly his capabilities are, is teased out, keeping the reader on their toes and just a bit off balance, not letting him or her get comfortable enough to settle in. That's what the best horror stories do, keep you looking over your shoulder, metaphorically and, let's be frank, sometimes literally.


I don't want to talk details about how the series ends, but I do want to say just how perfectly in tone the ending is. The best kind of horror stories, ones like The Exorcist and The Stand, end with at least a touch of ambiguity. It might be a black and white world, with monsters in it, but even when white wins, black is still out there and it's fingers are still creeping into the world. The release of a sequel tells you at least one of the protagonists survives, but the condition either of them might be in? Well read the book and find out.

The series would have been a good read with any artist, but artist Juan Ferreyra takes the work up to an entirely different level. I love an artist who can draw very expressive and distinctive faces, and Ferreyra hits that one out of the park. The various looks of madness and hunger in Jack, the confusion in Reece, and the lost looks of Declan are perfect. And the way he draws Jack's body, contorting in unnatural ways adds to the wrongness of everything about him.

Those skills are important for any artist, but for an artist on a horror comic, there's a skill that is just as important: monsters. And Ferreyra shines there even brighter. The time spent in the world of the insane is a time filled with monsters. Flayed giants, hellhounds, things made of bones, and the deformed perceptions of the mad as to what they look like themselves ooze all over the page. The world itself is a rundown, haunted looking city that feels like menace waits around every corner, and it does.

I've heard it said about colorists that if you notice their work, they're doing something wrong, which is a statement I couldn't disagree with more, and I want to draw special attention to Ferreyra and Eduardo Ferreyra and Laura Binaghi, who are credited with color assist on the series. The difference in colors between the real world and the world of the insane is part of what makes that world so disturbing. And the slow shift in Declan's color, as he gets colder, is a great visual cue to his state; without it, the pressure of Declan's situation would not be as palpable.

Horror is a genre that is well suited to comics. It combines the visceral, of the still panel and the image, with the imagination, as you craft the flow of the action. A well done horror comic will draw you in and leave you unsettled. Colder is one such comic, one that leaves you wondering just how tenuous our hold on the world is, and what exactly might be waiting in the dark corners of our own minds. It's a great read, but if I might make one suggestion before you pick it up: Make sure you have a warm blanket to curl up under once you start. You'll need it.

Oh, and in case you needed any other incentive, in one panel, Jack turns into a werewolf, and Declan punches him out.


Pretty sweet, huh?

Colder is available in a trade paperback from Dark Horse Comics at comic shops and on-line. The first issue of the sequel, Colder: the Bad Seed, was released this past Wednesday. The two are also currently collaborating on Prometheus: Fire & Stone, part of the Prometheus/Aliens/Predator crossover, also from Dark Horse.


Thursday, October 23, 2014

TV’s Flash: The Hero We Need and Deserve



“Flash > Gotham. Discuss. Show your work.”

I posted that thought to Facebook last week, not sure whether I was being crazy or not, but, thankfully, my friends, a League of Extraordinary Gentlenerds to be sure, backed me up. In fact, amid our discussion, Matt gave me the title for this column.

A couple weeks back, we wrote about
the premieres of Gotham and Agents of SHIELD, but we skipped the debut of The Flash two weeks later.

Then last week, I found myself watching the fourth episode of Gotham and being self-conscious of how much I was frowning. Something was bothering me, but I wasn't quite ready to articulate it.

Then I watched the second episode of The Flash the following night, and I figured it out:

I'm enjoying The Flash A) much more than I thought I would, and B) more than Gotham.

I did not see that coming.

In fact, were it up to me, I wouldn't have watched Flash at all. My wife (@HillaryGrote) threw it on the DVR on a whim. I had no interest, as I'm not a DC guy and I already wasn't watching Arrow, though it’s on my list of things to eventually get around to on Netflix.

But I'm not here to tear down Gotham. That's not what this blog is for. That's what comment sections are for!

Instead, let's talk about what The Flash is doing right. (Warning: I am NOT a Flash expert, so I’m writing solely within the context of the TV show.)

-They have fun with his powers. Having super speed allows Barry to heal quickly. In the second episode, Flash has fainting problems, not because some unseen enemy is sapping his powers, but because he needs more food to sustain his rapid metabolism. In the third episode, a suited-up Flash confronts the Mist at Iron Heights Prison and blurs his face so his dad can’t see him.

-The show isn't afraid to do cheesy villains, like a live-action Batman: The Brave and the Bold. Flash is known for his rogues’ gallery, a colorful assortment of villains with less than fear-inducing names. Just in the first episode, we got the Weather Wizard, Reverse Flash and a hint that Gorilla Grodd may feature in a future episode. Episode four introduces Captain Cold, played by Prison Break’s Wentworth Miller. It’s nice to see some new comic book villains get the live-action treatment, because honestly, how many more live-action Catwomen or Green Goblins do we need?

-The relationship between Barry and Detective West gives me the warm fuzzies, and yeah, that’s probably partly because my dad was a police officer for 27 years. There really isn’t a father figure-son relationship this healthy in any of the movie/TV superhero joints I’ve seen this side of Uncle Ben. It helps that Jesse L. Martin is no stranger to playing a cop, having spent about a decade on Law & Order.

-The low-hanging-but-still-brilliant casting fruit that is John Wesley Shipp as Barry's dad, Henry Allen. Shipp played the Flash on CBS for 22 episodes from 1990-91, and he played Dawson's dad on the late-’90s teen drama Dawson’s Creek, back when the CW was still the WB and its mascot was a singing frog.

-Tom Cavanaugh (Ed, the Mike and Tom Eat Snacks podcast) makes a great big bad as Harrison Wells, the scientist who mentors the Flash but manipulates events behind the scenes to fulfill Barry’s destiny and fakes being in a wheelchair like a true goldbricker (seriously, where’s Walter Sobchak when you need him?). There's a long-game here that's more than just “eventually Batman will show up.” Setting up STAR Labs as a metahuman prison in the third episode is a nice escalation of Wells’ arc, creating a Central City Arkham that will clearly suffer a breakout at some point, probably around the end of the season. That said, did anybody else think the hallway leading to the particle accelerator beneath STAR Labs looked a little too much like the hallway leading to Cerebro in the X-movies?



-A superhero in a red costume making jokes, enjoying his powers and fighting colorful villains? If I close my eyes tight enough, it's like Spider-Man got a TV series. Grant Gustin certainly looks like an American Andrew Garfield. He’s even got the notorious Parker Luck: The woman he loves (Iris West, with whom he grew up after his mom was murdered, so OK, maybe that’s kinda creepy) loves someone else, he’s chronically late to crime scenes despite his super speed, and for all his power he can’t bust his dad out of prison. Yet despite all that, the show never feels like it exists in the same dark universe as David S. Goyer. This is the DC
I want my son to see when he's ready for the live-action stuff.


-Superhero team-ups. The premiere gave us a scene with Green Arrow (Stephen Amell), tying Flash into that other CW DC hero. The third episode introduced, via flashbacks, Robbie Amell (yes, relation) as Ronnie Raymond, the original Firestorm, who apparently was “killed” in the same STAR Labs accident that gave Barry his powers. Looking forward to the network digging up another Amell to play Red Tornado in a future episode.

For more on the Flash in general, read Matt’s write-up on
Mark Waid’s defining run
on the book during the Wally West years. Waid is currently doing gangbusters on another red-suited hero, Daredevil. 

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 10/15 and Special Digital Comics Review... From Earth


Daredevil #9
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee

The Purple Man, Zebediah Killgrave, is a creepy character. A man who can bend minds of others to his will, Brian Michael Bendis made him a particularly nasty guy in his run on Alias. So what can be done to make him even more creepy? Why make five Purple Children, of course! Yes, if horror movies have taught us nothing, there's nothing creepier than evil kids, and Mark Waid and Chris Samnee are playing on that fear in the new issue of Daredevil, as the children of Killgrave make their mark. While the Purple Children were introduced last issue, we see exactly what they can do this issue when they confront Daredevil. But that's the end of the issue. At the beginning, we get to see Matt Murdock, Daredevil, spending time with Kirsten McDuffie, his law partner and girlfriend, and a disguised Foggy Nelson, his best friend who faked his own death and is in disguise in the world's least convincing fat suit, which is the butt of several jokes from the others and gives the issue a touch of humor before things go sideways. Matt is talking with them about the proposition of writing his autobiography, something Kirsten's publisher father asked about last issue. Foggy makes a couple of valid points against it, most notably that Matt a) hates to write and b) Matt has lived a hard, nasty life, and maybe revisiting the darker moments isn't the best for Matt's sanity. But Matt shakes that argument off, confident that he is happy and can deal with it. Meanwhile, the Purple Children are stretching their metaphorical muscles by testing their powers and stealing a police car. It's a good bit of character that the kids act like kids. They don't start trying to take over the city or developing a cult, they just use their powers to get what they feel like getting. And when Daredevil stops their joyride and confronts them, Waid again does something very clever with Daredevil's particular skill set and limitations: despite knowing Killgrave is on the loose, he has no idea the kids are connected to him until someone else mentions their purple skin tone because Daredevil is blind. I've been reading Daredevil for a long time, and while every writer regularly mentions Daredevil is blind, and often play up the advantages of his heightened senses, Waid has been the best about playing on the way the blindness can hamper his abilities too. The battle with the Purple Children ends with them forcing Matt to face the darkness in his past that he's not faced since Waid took over the book, because the Purple Children don't just convince you of something, they make you believe it, a fine distinction, but one that makes them all the more powerful than their father. The issue ends with Matt in the darkest place he's been in years, proving Foggy might have been more on the nose about where Matt's head is, and with an enemy who might be an ally in this situation looming over him. It's a disquieting splash page, and the art uses shadow to add to the ominous tone. It's been nearly five years since Mark Waid took over Daredevil, and he still finds new things to do with the character month in and month out.



Justice League #35
Story; Geoff Johns
Art: Ivan Reis & Doug Mahnke

The prologue to the new arc on Justice League is an issue low on action, but high on character. It begins with a press conference announcing the partnership between Wayne Enterprises and Lexcorp that was established last issue. The scene does a great job of showing exactly how much the team trusts Lex Luthor, their newest member. The hero/villain team up is a trope in comics almost as old as the medium itself, but the twist here, that the heroes have to work with Lex in the light of day because the world now views Lex as a hero, is a nice twist. And it's not just like in the President Luthor years, where they could just avoid him. Nope, Lex is a full fledged Justice Leaguer. The whole team is on hand, ready to bust in and arrest Lex the minute Batman finds any evidence of Luthor doing anything illegal, which seems to be the razor's edge the team is going to be walking on for sometime. The press conference is a great showcase for how manipulative Lex can be, playing to the crowd, and just how much more clever Bruce Wayne is, invoking the death of his parents to slip in and undercut Lex in front of the media. During that press conference, we get to see what each of the Justice League members in the crowd are doing, and Geoff Johns uses the time to build the characters and relationships. We continue seeing Cyborg and Shazam as good friends, with Cyborg as the mature older brother figure to the more immature Shazam, who acts a bit more like a kid than he has in previous incarnations, where Billy Batson's teenage attitude doesn't creep through as much. Meanwhile Flash spends his time with Power Ring, who has at least for now mastered the evil ring that gives her the name, and I'm curious to see where the relationship between her and Flash goes. Batman then gets a guided tour of Lex Luthor's inner sanctum, one that again shows that the confrontation between Lex and the League is going to be a battle of wits between these two more than anything physical. Knowing what we do about Lex, it's clear he's sanitized the labs, since I can;t imagine he's not up to something even if it's not showing. We do get some insight into Lex's character with the appearance of his sister, Lena, before Neutron, the nuclear powered supervillain, bursts in to assassinate Lex, with a mysterious voice whispering in his ear, promising him his humanity back if he performs. We get a quick battle, where Aquaman jumps in and Johns once again proves that when written right, Aquaman can be a badass, and the issue ends with one of Lex's dirty little secrets being revealed, one that will set off the action of the arc, the titular Amazo Virus. Johns is firing on all cylinders on  this title, which continues to be the best it's been since the relaunch, nicely balancing character and plot, and giving just enough action to remind us what it's like when gods clash.



Spider-Man 2099 #5
Story: Peter David
Art: Rick Leonardi

Don't let that cover text fool you! Despite it saying that this issue is drawn by series regular penciler Will Sliney, it's not. Sliney has been doing a great job on this book, but this issue is drawn by Spider-Man 2099 co-creator Rick Leonardi, which deserves a call out. Now, I don't read anything else even tangentially related to Spider-Man, so my knowledge of the new "Spider-Verse" event is limited. This issue opens on one of the infinite earths (am I allowed to say that in relation to a Marvel comic?) where that world's version of Spidey 2099 is teamed up with Captain America, Wolverine, and the Genis-Vell Captain Marvel, whose series is one of Peter David's defining runs. Morlun, the Spidey-villain who eats the essences of Spider-powered characters, makes pretty short work of those guys, kills that universe's Spidey 2099, and moves on. In the traditional universe, good ol' Marvel 616, Miguel O'Hara, our Spidey 2099, still trapped in the present, feels a bolt of pain in his head when his counterpart buys it. In another universe, another Miguel O'Hara, this time the one who was a member of the universe hopping Exiles during Tony Bedard's run, is using his leftover tech from his time with the Exiles to try to reach Earth-616, the one reality Morlun fears since it was the site of his defeat. There are more Miguel deaths, and just as the Exiles Miguel is about to step through his portal, which 616 Miguel is watching, Morlun arrives. While Exiles Miguel falls, 616 Miguel gets hints of what is to come and heads off to find the person who might have answers. Peter David does a great job of explaining what readers might need to know about what is going on in this event without drowning the readers in details, or making them feel lost. David has always been a writer who knows how to take an event and do his best to make it show the strengths of a title he's writing without it interfering too much. He finds ways to work in the continuing plot lines going through the book in little scenes in between the big event scenes. I talked about Rick Leonardi's return to Spider-Man 2099 earlier, but I want to discuss it in context of the issue. Leonardi does spectacular work drawing Miguel in combat, both the alter-Miguel's fighting Morlun and 616 Miguel chasing bank robbers who are escaping in a helicopter. He has a sense of the way a body moves and that acrobatic style that works perfectly with characters like any version Spider-Man or Nightwing (a book he had a good long run on). I hope that Leonardi will come back to the book every now and then for a check in, especially if we get Miguel back to his own time; Leonardi really defined the skyline of 2099 New York. But for now, I'm happy to see him drawing Miguel in any era.



The Thrilling Adventure Hour #0
Story: Ben Acker & Ben Blacker
Art: J. Bone/Phil Hester

It was announced not too long ago that Image Comics would be releasing series based on the two cornerstone segments of America's favorite new time podcast in the style of old time radio, The Thrilling Adventure Hour. I've written a recommendation for the previously released graphic novel, and made clear my love for the show in any medium, but knowing that we'd be getting even more comics from these worlds had me hugely excited. And last week, I discovered that there were on-line zero issues for both the series (so it's not really released on the 15th, but I'm putting it in here), and immediately bought them, which is rare for me as I'm a person who loves his comics in his hands, and will usually wait for print editions of digital first projects. But I'm glad I bought the digital release, because this is some great material. Each story is an origin story, about the meeting of the two series principle characters, stories we've heard referenced on the show but have never actually seen played out, at least as far as what has been put up in podcast form, so it's a real treat!

Sparks Nevada, Marshal on Mars, is the story of, well, Sparks Nevada, who is a marshal. On Mars. Although, as he will tell everyone who he talks to, "I'm... from Earth." The story in this issue is Sparks dealing with his robot deputies going rogue, a flood, and picking up a Martian sidekick, Croach the Tracker, who is under onus to Sparks for saving his village. It gives new readers all the things they need to know about the Sparks universe, like robot rogues, martians, Sparks's usual problems with the ladies, and his love of paperwork. There's plenty of humor mixed in, with Sparks usual deadpan delivery. Knowing the show, I can hear the lines delivered by the actors (which makes sense, as the comic is written by series creators Ben Acker and Ben Blacker), and it works perfectly in the different medium, with the cadence made clear by how the panels lay out the dialogue. J. Bone does a beautiful job rendering the red plains of Mars. His Sparks and Croach seem to have stepped right out of my imagination, and he does great design work on the rogue robot deputies. It's a charming story that will appeal to fans of space opera or Westerns.

Beyond Belief is the story of Frank and Sadie Doyle, toast of the upper crust, headliners on the society pages. And oh yes, they see ghosts. When we meet them in the show, Frank and Sadie are happily married, living in the Plaza Hotel and loving nothing more than liquor and each other, although they are regularly interrupted by supernatural things knocking on their door, often literally. But this story takes place when Frank is out hunting demons and Sadie is with her ne'er do-well boyfriend, Bobo Brubaker, running fake seances. But when they pull that scam in a real haunted house, Sadie's actual sensitivity to ghosts summons something nasty and Frank must sweep in to save everyone. It's love at first sight, and the bond between the soon-to-be-Doyles, one of the defining charms of the show, is apparent from the moment they see each other. Also apparent is their love of gin. So much gin. Bobo is not enamored with Frank, and so proves the heel he is, not surprising as Bobo has popped up as an antagonist of sorts on the show before (not that the Doyle's let much of anything actually antagonize them, just interrupt their drinks briefly), but Bobo is put in his place and the Doyle's are on their way to bliss by story's end. Frank and Sadie are my favorite part of Thrilling Adventure Hour, so seeing how they met was a real treat. It's paced well, and has all the hallmarks of a Beyond Belief, including an amusing twist at the end as to the origin of the supernatural nasty. Phil Hester does an excellent job crafting a truly creepy ghost and his hellhounds, not surprising if you're familiar with his horror work, but also does great likenesses of the Doyles, who more than any other character, feel like they look like the actors who portray them, comedian Paul F Tompkins and actress Paget Brewster.

If you're a fan of TAH you know you want to read these stories, and if you're someone who has heard me natter on about it endlessly since I discovered it, this is a great place to try it out. The two issues are available separately for $1.99 each, or together for $2.99, and you can purchase them right here. So check it out and be ready for the February releases of the new series!