Monday, December 31, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 12/19 & 12/26

Aquaman #15/Justice League #15
Story: Geoff Johns
Art (Aquaman): Paul Pelletier
Art (Justice League): Ivan Reis/ Gary Frank

Geoff Johns has been writing both Aquaman and Justice League since the dawn of the New 52, and it feels like we've finally hit the big story he's been building to. "Throne of Atlantis" is a five part crossover between the two titles that flows seamlessly between the two titles. A missile has struck Atlantis, launched by a US sub, and war has been declared. But the missile launch was caused by parties unknown who are attempting to foment a war between the countries, and as conflict escalates, Aquaman is caught in the middle. Atlantis, using a war plan designed by Aquaman during his time living in the undersea nation, has flooded much of the eastern seaboard and are planning to sink a city as a show of strength. And the Justice League is attempting to prevent this. And all of that in two issues. I know Geoff Johns has been accused of decompressed storytelling, but there's a lot packed into these issues.The interaction between Aquaman and Batman, two character featured heavily here, is excellent,. both of them treated as master strategists and leaders, butting heads about how to deal with the invasion. I also was happy to see Superman and Wonder Woman out on a date, and acting like a couple. I've felt human interaction has been lacking from Superman's characterization since the reboot, and it's nice to see him really acting human again. It was also great to see another chapter of the "Shazam" backup in Justice League. The back-ups have been my favorite part of the book, with this new version of Billy Batson proving an interesting character, not a bad kid but one who has been through a lot, and this issue begins addressing one of the classic questions about the Shazam mythos: If you could become a superhero, why would you turn back? Next issue looks to be the first big smackdown between Shazam and one of his archfoes, and I'm looking forward to seeing Gary Frank draw some major action scenes again.

Indestructible Hulk #2
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Lenil Yu

Mark Waid's Daredevil has been my favorite Marvel book since it started, and I was very curious to see him take over the Hulk, a character I really like but who I often find to be mishandled. Waid launched the book with a great high concept, one best summed up by my Dewey's coworker, John: Hulk smash to make better future for the children. Bruce Banner is working for S.H.I.E.L.D. to better serve humanity when he's Banner, and to have them point the Hulk at the right targets when he's angry. While only two issues in, I think this is a great direction. This issue sees a team up between Banner and Iron Man, and one where the usually reserved Banner is finally able to say exactly what he thinks of Stark. These are two of the Marvel Universe's great minds, and two of its greatest egos as well. The two don't get along from the beginning of the issue, masking it behind friendly barbs back and forth, but inn the end, Stark proves he thinks he's smarter than Banner, and that brings out the Hulk. It's a great issue that has no villain, but does an excellent job of building character and setting up the Hulk's new status quo.

Locke & Key: Omega #2
Story: Joe Hill
Art: Grabriel Rodriguez

The end gets closer, and the threads begin to pull tighter, showing just how brilliantly plotted Locke & Key has been from the beginning. This issue we see Rufus Whedon come back into the picture, the mentally handicapped boy who can see ghosts, and who learns some of the details of the demonic Dodge's plan. But trying to stop him just gets Rufus committed to an asylum, and makes it even harder for him to stop Dodge. Meanwhile, Kinsey and her friends prepare to go to the prom, a blissful calm before the storm that Dodge has planned. This is another  perfect example of how well balanced this series is. The action scenes, which are elaborate fantasies in Rufus's mind, featuring Nazi dinosaurs and robots, stand with his tragic memories of his brutal treatment at the hands of his grandmother and his mother's abuse at the hands of Dodge, and all of it stands with the brief scenes of fun at Keyhouse to make a comic that evokes many emotions. With only five issues left, the pace i only going to get faster, and this definitely feels like the calm before the storm.

I'd like to wish a speedy recovery to one of my favorite writers, Peter David, who recently suffered a stroke. I've been reading comics by Peter David for many years, from his seminal run of The Incredible Hulk, to his great Young Justice, to his continuing run on X-Factor. May you write many more brilliant and groanworthy puns soon, Mr. David.

So, that's it for today, folks. Have a safe and happy New Year's Eve tonight. I plan on a post about what I'm looking forward to in the New Year later this week, and I'm hoping to, at some point in the not too distant future, start updating regularly three times a week. But until next time, faithful reader, Happy New Year to one and all.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Recommended Reading for 12/28: Chew

Welcome back to the Matt Signal, one and all! I hope everyone had a great Christmas/Yule/insert winter holiday here, and that you're ready for a new comic recommendation. This week's pick is tied into one of my favorite parts of the Christmas holiday: food. I love all the wonderful Christmas foods. and I love stuffing my face with them. And when I think about food and comics, the title that immediately pops into my head is Chew, published by Image Comics and created by John Layman and Rob Guillory.

Tony Chu has a special ability: he's a cibopath. This means that when he eats something, he can see its entire history (except, for reasons unknown, beets). Tony uses his ability quietly to help in his career in the Philadelphia PD until he's discovered and winds up getting fired, and then hired into the big leagues. No, not the FBI or CIA; it's the FDA, the Food and Drug Administration. You see, in the world of Chew, the bird flu got out of control and was a major epidemic. Poultry was outlawed, and the FDA became a major branch of law enforcement.

Chew embraces the absurdity of it's particularly odd world, a world of food superpowers, Chogs (genetically created frog/chicken hybrids), and where buying chicken and buying heroin earn you similar penalties. For all the darkness, and trust me, there's plenty of darkness, it is a singularly funny comic. At times the humor runs into the macabre, and you might be a little uncomfortable laughing at it, but you're still going to be laughing pretty hard. Tony's large family, his partner and coworkers, and many of the criminals he encounters are strange and quirky, and these personalities lead to all sort of comedy, but never to the point that is makes them unrealistic

The cast of Chew

Tony is one of those unfortunate hardluck heroes who things never seem to work out for. Every time things seem to be going his way, they turn out wrong. Oh, great, he's got a job at the FDA! Oh, his new boss hates him and gives him the worst duty he can. He and his new partner are working well together! Oops, he turned out to be a murderer and he bit off Tony's ear. He gets fired from the FDA, and becomes a meter maid, but everyone at the parking authority likes him! Argh, a group of meatheads beat him with baseball bats, kidnap him, and start feeding him dead baseball players so that they can write tell-all books about the players' sex lives! It's not an easy life, being Tony Chu.

While there are issues of Chew that are traditional crime stories, even if they do often involve crime involving illicit poultry, there is a complex mythology at work. At the end of an early issue, we see a planet in distant space explode. There's no real context at the time, but as the series progresses, something is happening on Earth that might tie in. Strange alien writing appears in the sky, just like on the destroyed planet. Bizarre otherworldly poultry tasting plants begin to pop up. And there are more and more people with a variety of food related powers. Coupled with the still mysterious bird flu outbreak, something that some firmly believe was not natural, you never know what is going to happen in any issue of Chew, and never know what is going to be an important part of the overarcing plotline.

Tony is not the only cibopath in the series. His first partner at the FDA, Mason Savoy, is one as well. Mason is cultured, intelligent, and not everything he seems. He has been investigating the bird flu, and he is one of the chief voices that say it was more than just a chicken related illness. As Mason has no problem working outside the law and killing to get answers, he becomes something of an antihero after his investigations are discovered and he leaves the FDA. Mason is ruthless, yes, but he seems to feel the ends justify the means, and that he is working towards a greater truth. There is also The Vampire, a mysterious Eastern European cibopath who has filed his canine teeth to points and puts on the air of a traditional, Draculaesque vampire while using his powers. He is the series most recurring villain, and the exact endgame of his plans remain unknown, although it has something to do with eating and taking in the powers of others. And then there's Tony's daughter, Olive, who might be the most powerful of them all, but we're still learning exactly what she's capable of.

And what a variety of food powers pop up over the course of the series! The sheer ingenuity displayed by Layman in coming up with different food based powers is another of the series's charms. There's saboscrivner Amelia Mintz, Tony's love interest, who can write about food so well that you feel like you're eating it. There's Toni Chu, Tony's twin sister, who is cibovoyant, able to see the future of any living thing she bites.There's a voresoph, who is the smartest man in the world, as long as he is eating. And my favorite, Hershel Brown the xocoscalpere, who can carve chocolate, and only chocolate, so well that he produces perfect, functioning replicas. And there are more. I wish that other comics and comic companies put so much thought into the abilities of their new characters.

Not only are there superpowered people in the Chew world, but the technology available means there are also a couple cyborgs. John Colby, Tony's Philadelphia PD partner, gets cybernetic replacement parts and works with Tony again after Savoy flees the FDA. But the other cyborg, the series's breakout star, is... POYO! Poyo is the world's deadliest rooster, champion cockfighter, and all around badass. You don't &^%# with Poyo. After sustaining injuries, the USDA rebuilt Poyo (who had spent his time in the afterlife beating up the devil), and made him their top animal agent, eventually partnering with Colby, making them a team of asskicking cyborgs. Poyo got a spinoff one shot, and any time he appears, you know you're in for some brutal action.

I've talked about a lot of characters, and frankly, I've barely scratched the surface. All of these characters fit together in the same way all the instruments of an orchestra do; they look like a random collection, but when put together just right, it's a symphony. The rest of Tony's family are a collection of bizarre and angry people, most notably Tony's bitter brother Chow, a famous poultry chef who is out of work thanks to the chicken ban, and who Tony has told in no uncertain terms that he will be locked up if Tony catches him breaking the law again. Caesar Valenzano, another FDA agent, has some secrets form Tony that tie him to other members of the cast and reminds me of a character in a favorite movie of mine curious about what a quarter pounder in France might be called. And Mike Applebee, Ton'y FDA boss, is the kind of boss that you look at and are grateful that you have any other boss in the world.

One of the things that I find interesting about Chew is that, despite all the humor, it can be a very serious comic that rarely takes violence lightly; the only time it ever seems to is some of the over the top sequences with Poyo, which take on an almost cartoonish feeling since we're dealing with a superdeadly chicken. Tony suffers a lot of abuse, and he pays for it. He spends issues in a coma, and others recovering from the abuse he takes. Characters who get hurt stay hurt, with scars and the results of the violence clear, and blood is used liberally but realistically. This gives the book a sense of real danger, where characters can suffer and die and you know it's not going to be pretty when they do.

Artist Rob Guillory has a very distinctive style, and one that perfectly suits Chew. His art isn't completely realistic, with characters body's and expressions being a little beyond what you would see in most work from, say, mainstream superhero comics, but he never moves into the realm of the surreal. He presents excellent facial expressions and character scenes are great under his pen. His action scenes are equally excellent, with great continuity from panel to panel, making the scenes easy to follow, even when massive chaos is ensuing (I'm looking at you, Poyo).

A couple additional fun Chew facts. Most character names have some pun or tie to food and eating; Tony Chu, Amelia Mintz, Olive Chu. They do get more esoteric than that, so its fun to pick up the references. Also, if you're a cat person, you might find it fun that the letters pages at the back of each issue (yes, letters pages! I love that Image still has letters pages in so many of their books) have pictures readers have sent in with their cats and issues of Chew. I've been meaning to get a picture of my cat with my trades. I might have to put that up here one way or the other.

Chew is a comic that really defies category. It's has something for everyone, and can leave you scratching your head, doubled over with laughter, or with a tear in your eye. It's a mystery with science fiction elements, or maybe a science fiction story with humor. Or maybe it's the ultimate culinary mystery. But what it is, at its most basic, is great comics, and well worth checking out.

There are six Chew trades available, collecting up through issue #30, the halfway point of the series. Issue #31 is due out in late January.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Recommended Reading for 12/21: The Batman Adventures Holiday Special

Today's recommending reading had originally been something apocalyptic and required a lot more reading and research than I have time for at this festive time of year, so I switched to a holiday theme, and am writing about what might be my favorite holiday comic ever.

At the height of it's popularity, the only thing that was almost as good as a new episode of Batman: The Animated Series was a new issue of The Batman Adventures, the tie-in comic. With most issues written by Kelly Puckett, and with art by the much lamented Mike Parobeck, the series perfectly captured the feel of the animated series. But along with the series there came two specials from the creators of the series: one was the Eisner winning Mad Love, and the other was The Batman Adventures Holiday Special, a collection of four vignettes set around the holidays.

The first of the four stories was "Jolly Ol' St. Nicolas" from Paul Dini and Bruce Timm, the creators who are most associated with masterminding the animated series. As Barbara Gordon goes Christmas shopping, she finds Harvey Bullock and Renee Montoya undercover as a mall Santa and his elf, looking to determine who is behind a massive rash of shoplifting. The shoplifter winds up being Clayface, in a clever use of his shapeshifting powers, and the story ends with a fight between Barbara in her Batgirl identity, and the villain. The high point of the story for me is a little moment with Bullock, who as you might imagine is the world's worst Santa, and a little girl who asks him for her daddy back for Christmas. It turns out her daddy is a guy Bullock sent up the river. The usually gruff Bullock gives the girl his donut money to go and buy her daddy a present. It's little moments like this that not only show the spirit of the season, but also uses a little moment to give depth to a character who can easily be portrayed as a one note tough cop.

"The Harley and the Ivy" featuring, not surprisingly Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy, and by Paul Dini and Ronnie Del Carmen, sees the demented duo deciding to shop away their holiday blues by kidnapping Bruce Wayne, using Ivy's powers to take control of him, and max out every credit card he has. Well, Bruce eventually breaks free of Ivy's control, changes into his Batman costume, and sends the girls to have Christmas in Arkham. This story is the funniest of the shorts, with the shopping spree sequence being especially hilarious. That and Bruce's increasingly frustrated face as he fights off Ivy's control as he carries all the packages and buys all the presents.

And what would the holidays be without that one person who always shows up even when you don't want them to? And naturally, for Batman, that person is the Joker. In Paul Dini, Bruce Timm, Kevin Altieri and Butch Lukic's, "...What are you doing New Year's Eve?" Joker threatens a countdown of victims, leading Batman to confront Joker in Gotham Square as the New Year's Ball is about to drop, in a Square full of revelers in Joker masks. Batman defeats Joker's plan, sends the clown prince back up the river, and the story ends with Batman meeting Jim Gordon at a diner to have a hot cup of coffee and toast the coming new year. I've talked about this aspect of the character before, but I feel like this is the aspect of Batman that gets drowned out in and the sturm and batarangs that come out of creators reacting to The Dark Knight Returns, and that the animated series gets so right: Batman has friends. Jim Gordon isn't just some guy who shines the Bat Signal in the sky; he's someone Batman gets a coffee with every New Year's morning at two a.m. I love the interaction between them, and this scene makes me smile every time I see it.

Some of you out there who haven't read this comic are thinking, "Wait, I know these stories!" And yes, you quite probably do, as they were adapted into the episode "Holiday Knights" of The New Batman Adventures, the new look continuation of the animated series. The adaptations are very faithful, with only a few minor tinkers, mostly in using the new character designs and the inclusion of the Tim Drake Robin in the final story. But that's just three stories, and I said at the beginning there are four. And if you looked at the cover at the top of the post, you saw Mr. Freeze on there pretty prominently, despite no mention above. That's because the fourth story, the best of the lot, wasn't adapted.

"White Christmas," by Paul Dini and Glen Murakami, sees Mr. Freeze break out of Arkham on Christmas Eve and causes a major blizzard to blanket Gotham. Batman, who had been hoping for a quiet Christmas, hunts down Freeze and finds him in the same cemetery that Waynes are buried in, as well as where the marker for Freeze's beloved wife Nora is. The fight commences, and as Bruce is knocked into his parent's headstone, he rebounds and attacks Freeze with ferocity. He winds up with Freeze at his feet, and in the end, staring down at him says, "It's Christmas, so I'll give you one chance to end this quietly.Why'd you do it, Freeze? Tonight of all nights." Thanks to the wonder of the internet, I found the last few panels of the story, the ones where Freeze responds, and while I try not to post much in the way of comic internals here, I couldn't do this justice in words alone.

I admit freely to being a sucker for this, and for always getting a little choked up at those lines. I can hear in my own head the lines as if they were being spoken by Michael Ansara, the actor who voiced Freeze on the animated series. I can hear the loneliness that was there every time Freeze spoke of Nora, of losing the one person he cared about more than his own life. And in the end, Batman chose to not finish pummeling his foe, but puts his hand on his shoulder and guides him away, offering something that might be slightly cold comfort (pun thoroughly intended, despite the fact the cold puns and Mr. Freeze conjure images of Schwarzenegger), but is Batman reaching out and trying to give comfort to someone else who knows what the pain of true loss is.

Sadly, The Batman Adventures Holiday Special has never been collected. You can see "Holiday Knight" on the fourth box set of Batman: The Animated Series.

And that's it for this week. There will be no reviews on Monday, since I will be travelling that day, but I should have a new recommended reading next Friday, and reviews from this and next week the following Monday. Happy holidays to one and all!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 12/12

Batgirl #15
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Daniel Sampere

With one issue now left in her run, Gail Simone continues to tell the story of Batgirl's confrontation with the Joker. Having abducted her mother, Joker has asked Batgirl for her hand in marriage, something Barbara Gordon is forced to accept to save her mother's life. More than any of the other members of the Bat family so far (and I say so far since Red Hood hasn't really dealt with Joker in the crossover yet), Batgirl is dealing with thoughts about killing the Joker. As she fights her way through his thugs and then gets into a brutal fight with him, Barbara's inner monologue points out that she is more than willing to take the Joker's life. Whether that would happen if push comes to shove is taken out of her hands by circumstances, but it's interesting to read. A real inner struggle about taking a life is a complexity we don't get in a lot of superheroes. Either they have no problem killing, or they never will. To hear Barbara ruminate on it, and to come to the conclusion that she will, even though that is the opposite of her usual stand, was something worth reading. Simone also keeps developing the subplot around Barbara's serial killer brother, James Jr., and her roommate, Alysia, pulling it into the main story by having James feel he has to help Barbara for the simple reason that his mother and sister are his to deal with, not Joker's. I'm worried that, judging by the solicited cover for the issue that will now be the first post-Simone issue, the James Jr. plot won't be resolved before Simone's exit. Another real shame, as she has a great handle on this creepy character. But I will enjoy this great run while it lasts, and can only hope whoever has to pick up these plot threads is as capable as Simone.

Batman #15
Story: Scott Snyder/ Scott Snyder &James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo/ Jock

Every month, when I sit down with my stack, I think, "OK, this book can't keep impressing me as much as it has been." And every month so far, I have been wrong. Batman #15 is another pitch perfect move in the game between Batman and the Joker. Greg Capullo's splash page of the Joker at the beginning of the issue is chilling, a look into the eyes of a madman, accompanied by Batman's narration that gives you an insight into Batman's relationship with his archfoe; the Joker is so far beyond what is sane, so far beyond what is normal. Batman has to remind himself that the Joker is just human; this is not even a given. Joker seems to have everything planned out perfectly, easily escaping from Batman when the GCPD shows up and interferes at their confrontation at the dam. What follows is a tense scene between Batman and his family, with tempers flaring over his keeping the kidnapping of Alfred and the details of one of his earliest confrontations with the Joker to himself, details that might mean that the Joker does indeed know the identities of Batman and his family. By the end, it's clear that Batman is doing this because he is honestly afraid for the safety of the people he loves. I am glad to see a Batman who is this human; this is not a Batman who is removed from humanity. After some great detective work, Batman heads toward the place where the Joker is waiting to throw his party for Batman: Arkham Asylum. In the backup, we see inside the Asylum, where the party preparations are being made, and get the first New 52 Riddler story. Snyder pits Joker against Riddler, and Riddler proves to be clever enough to get out of the Joker's trap. Joker continues to relate to everyone he meets simply by discussing how they relate to Batman; in this case that Riddler is the smartest of Batman's foes, and that he is the "weaponsmaster" honing Batman's greatest weapon, his intellect. I wish I could remember who said this (might have been Paul Dini or Bruce Timm), but a Batman creator at one point said that Riddler is the hardest Bat villain to write, since his plan needs to be complex enough to almost stump Batman, but still fall together perfectly when the story is experienced again. Snyder is presenting Riddler as an intellect on par with Batman, and I want to see the Riddler story he has lined up for after "Death of the Family" even more now that I know how well he can handle the villain. He has the chops to really present a great Riddler story.

Batman and Robin #15
Story: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason

Damian is a character who has grown a lot since his early appearances, and has grown a lot since his last confrontation with the Joker. That doesn't mean the Joker doesn't remember the fact that Robin beat him with a crowbar, and is not one to forgive. Damian, directly disobeying Batman's order to stay in the Batcave, goes out to try to find and save Alfred. This in itself is growth, as Damian understands that Bruce needs someone to help save Alfred, and even cares about the butler, even if he would probably be hardpressed to admit it. But Damian falls into a well laid trap by the Joker, leaving him in the hands of the madman. What follows is an issue where the Joker talks. He tells Damian exactly the problems with Robin, and all the Bat family, and why Batman needs to be rid of them. It's great dialogue, and the issue is well written, but a lot of credit goes to artist Patrick Gleason. The issue is filled with a dark, gloomy air that takes the words to the next level. The Joker's little nest for Robin, full of grubs and insects, is disgusting, and the kind of thing that perfectly fits the Joker's fractured psyche. And Gleason's Joker is incredible. Greg Capullo has defined this new incarnation of the Joker, and Gleason takes that and runs with it, drawing a Joker who is all gangling limbs. His face is as horrifying as it is in Batman, and the flies that are circling him add an extra level of revulsion. In the end of the issue, Damian is left to confront "Batman" (I doubt that really is Bruce Wayne), and I am very curious to see where this battle with even an impostor father figure leaves our Robin.

Cable and X-Force #1
Story: Dennis Hopeless
Art: Salvador Larroca

I personally think Cable gets a bad rap as a character. He is a product of the 90s, no doubt, but then again so am I, and he's evolved a lot over the years, becoming a much more complex figure. I was glad to see that he was coming back in Marvel Now!, and coming back with the team where it all started. The first issue of the new Cable and X-Force starts out with Cable and his team coming into conflict with the Uncanny Avengers, and then flashes back to show how the team came together. Much of the issue's focus is on Hope Summers, Cable's daughter, who is searching for her father. The relationship between the two of them is established well by not only how they interact, but how Domino, probably Cable's oldest friend, interacts with Hope. There's is a loving parental relationship, but one where Hope has been trained well enough to stand up to her father. I hope we get to spend more time with father and daughter throughout the upcoming issues. When I first saw the cover to this issue, I wasn't too enamoured with Dr. Nemesis's new costume, preferring his old mask and fedora look, which is how he appears in the internals for this issue. Hopeless hits all the beats with the character so right that I'm sure we'll get a good reason for this change in wardrobe, and one I hope the good doctor has something to say about; if you've been wearing the same gear while hunting Nazis for going on sixty years, there's probably a good reason for the change. I thought Hopeless made a good decision in starting the issue with a solid action scene, forgoing some of the talking heads problems we get in many modern first issues. All in all, I thought this was a great first issue, and one that makes me curious to see exactly what Cable's new X-Force is going to be up to.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Recommended Reading for 12/14: Secret Six

Theoretically, Secret Six was a losing proposition. It was a book starring villains, something that rarely, if ever, succeeds. And they were B, C, & D list villains at that. And the team leader was a gay female character. But somehow, it succeeded, and became one of the best comics DC Comics has put out in the past decade.

The first book featuring the team known as the Secret Six (which is actually a much older name, from spy comics published in the 60s) was Villains United, part of the countdown to Infinite Crisis. There, the team fought against the Secret Society of Supervillains under the auspices of Lex Luthor. This was followed by a Secret Six mini-series and a couple appearances in Birds of Prey. All of these stories were written by Gail Simone, one of my favorite writers in comics. Her handle on this oddball assortment of broken and insane characters endeared them to me, and I was excited when the monthly was announced, with two new members to fill holes left by the deaths of  members over the course of the earlier stories.

The principal cast of Secret Six are the characters appearing in the picture at the top of this post. Scandal Savage was the daughter of immortal caveman Vandal Savage, and was a master of bladed weapons. Deadshot, former Suicide Squad member and Batman rogue, was a master marksman with a deathwish. Catman, a D-list Batman villain who had become something of a joke, was revitalized by Simone to be a master hunter, heartthrob, and badass. Ragdoll was the son of the original villain of that name, an old Flash and Starman foe, who had surgery to make him triples jointed like his dad, and is as twisted in mind as his body could become. The two members added for this incarnation were Bane, who I've written about at length in the lead up to a certain movie from this summer and Jeannette, an immortal banshee.

The principal theme of Secret Six was redemption. Each of the Six were there for seemingly different reason, some for companionship, some for family, some just because they didn't have anything better to do. But each of them had done very bad things in the past, and most of them saw an opportunity with the Six to make right with themselves and maybe even the universe. Throughout the series, the Six flirt with both sides of the hero/villain coin, and try their best often to follow their consciences. This often leads to infighting, and not in the cute, "Wolverine and Cyclops are bickering again," way. There are often blows and blood shed among the members. But, like the twisted family they had become, they always seemed to wind up back together, following their path with the good intentions of redeeming themselves. But you know that they say what good intentions pave the road to...

Now, here's where I usually talk about plot, and I will get there, but I want to spend some time really focusing on the characters, simply because these are a collection of really interesting one. For a bunch of hardcore killers, Simone (and a guest writer who I'll be talking about in a minute) made them some of the most three dimensional characters I've ever seen an a superhero comic. Each of the characters exists in a web of relationships with others, their teammates as well as other supporting character, with some in particular pairings which bring out the best and worst in each other. Simone truly captures the way we are all defined in our journeys by the people who we surround ourselves with, something that I often find missing in superhero fiction.

Deadshot, Floyd Lawton, was a Bat villain who had appeared no more than half a dozen times in his history before being taken by John Ostrander and made into one of the stars of his classic Suicide Squad series. Deadshot had lived a life of luxury, but a twisted one, where he and his brother had been manipulated by their parents, leading to Floyd accidentally killing his beloved brother. From then on, Floyd held a death wish, not actively suicidal, but willing to take chances that others would consider insane. Ostrander redefined a minor villain into a brilliantly well rounded figure, and the Deadshot mini-series he wrote was voted the greatest story he had ever written on Comic Book Resources. After Suicide Squad ended, Deadshot more or less went back to gun for hire status until Simone picked him up. She gave him relationships, a bromance with Catman and a romance with Jeannette, but neither of them changed who he was deep inside. He was still a man who still doubted his own worth, and who still had a hard time relating to people. It was a great evolution of the character. On a side note, one of the few issues of Secret Six not written by Simone was a Deadshot one off written by none other than John Ostrander, which was as good as any Deadshot story written before or since.

The last time Catman, Thomas Blake, appeared before Simone took him up, he was a joke; an overweight third stringer in witness protection. The first time we see him in Villains United, he's in the best fighting trim of his life, and living in Africa with a pride of lions. When the pride is killed, Catman joined the Six. He was one of the members most seeking his redemption. He wanted to do right, and tried to steer the Six towards missions that would do some good. He even thinks about assuming the mantle of the Bat after Bruce Wayne's apparent death. But the wild cat in Catman does come out, and when his pride is threatened, he is as deadly, if not moreso, than any of the Six. When his son is kidnapped, Blake goes on a spree that would make Liam Neeson's character from Taken faint. But like the others, Blake doesn't exist in a void, and aside from being part of the new Abbot and Costello pairing that is Catman and Deadshot, Catman had a tempestuous relationship with the Huntress, a cast member of another Simone series, Birds of Prey. These two relationships show exactly where Catman was: one foot in the mercenary world of Deadshot, who might care more than he lets on but is still a killer, and one foot in the heroic world of Huntress, a character who understands the urge to kill but has done her best to not.

Scandal was a mystery character when she first appeared in Villains United. In retrospect, the connection between her and her mystery father is obvious; the rhyme between Scandal and Vandal should have jumped right out at me (I had thought she was possibly Nyssa Raatko, the other daughter of Ra's al Ghul until the reveal). Scandal has the fast healing and nigh immortality of her father, Vandal Savage, and is deadly with any blade, especially the ones on her gauntlets, the ancient Laminas Pesar. Scandal as she first appears in Secret Six is mourning the loss of her love, the former Female Fury, Knockout. She pulls herself out of her depression and gets the team their first mission, and is their leader. Scandal, like Catman, tries to find the moral right in what the Six are doing, and tries her best to do right by the others, as hard as they make it for her. Bane takes a strangely paternal interest in Scandal, protecting her and coddling her in a way that makes her uncomfortable on more than one occasion. She also begins a new romance with Liana, a stripper she met in a somewhat awkward attempt by Catman and Deadshot to cheer her up after the death of Knockout. The courtship and burgeoning relationship is very sweet and real, with Scandal having to work through her feelings for Knockout, which never truly go away.

Bane is, of course, best known as the man who broke the Bat. As I said above, I wrote a long feature on Bane back in July, but suffice it to say, I love the way the character was handled in Secret Six. Other writers have forgotten that Bane truly believes he is among the righteous, but Simone never did. She wrote Bane as a character who feels like he is a paladin, even though underneath that there is a small doubt that he is possibly not as good as he portrays. His relationship with Scandal is at times sweet, and at times kind of creepy; Bane wants to be her protector and father, but doesn't seem to understand what that means. Simone plays with Bane's limited life experience when she sends him off on his first real date, which is a delightfully funny scene.

Jeannette was the new member of the team, introduced in the third issue of the ongoing series. She remained something of the outsider, seeing the team's foibles and acting as an audience proxy, or as much as one can associate with an immortal banshee. Having lived for over four hundred years, and seen many monsters and monstrous deeds, Jeannette is not shocked by the evil deeds the Six take part in. Her attraction to Deadshot is initially sparked by the fact that he is steeped in death, something that appeals to the Banshee in her. She is cultured, clever, and friends with Scandal, which is what initially brings her into the Six. By the end, though, she is as much a part of the family as the others.

And then there's Ragdoll. Oh, Ragdoll. I don't know if I have the right words to sum up Ragdoll. He's covered in scars. He's completely insane. But under all that, there is a tremendous well of pain, caused by the brutality of his father, the cult leader and original Ragdoll, who ignored him because he wasn't born with powers, hence the scars from all the surgery he had to replicate them. I actually think I'll let Ragdoll speak for himself.

That is possibly one of my favorite pages of anything ever.

Other members joined the Six over the course of the run. Members from before the series began included Cheshire, Parademon, Knockout, Mad Hatter, and Harley Quinn. Black Alice, the young mystic with the power to duplicate the magical powers of others, joined the team to make money to help treat her father's cancer. She was an odd fit, which she was meant to be, with her seemingly cold to the actions of the Six, but still being young and unable to quite grasp what she was getting into. King Shark, the bipedal shark man, though, fit in just fine as a walking death machine, and that's pretty much what he did and was for his time in the book, which was perfect.

Other than the cold road to redemption, the core members of the Six also share an important issue: they all are lacking or have issues with family. Deadshot's upbringing was a nightmare that ended with him killing his brother, and he lost his own son to a child killer. Catman's father was abusive, and led young Thomas Blake to becoming a patricide. Scandal's father is an immortal world conqueror who trained her from her youngest days to be a killer. Ragdoll's father was a creep, a killer, and probably worse judging by his other kid. Bane was born in jail to a broken mother who died and left him, a young boy in the hardest prison in the world. And Jeannette was given by her poor family to serve as a handmaiden to Countess Elizabeth Bathory, one of history's greatest serial killers. These people had no family, so they found a way to make one of their own, as twisted and dysfunctional as it was, and for them it worked.

The stories that Simone tells in Secret Six would have worked in few other superhero comics. They are twisted and dark, perfectly fitting the book's protagonists. The first story sees them breaking the Tarantula out of jail to use her to retrieve and item for the mysterious crimeboss, Junior. The mcguffin of the story is a card, forged by the demon Neron, that is a "Get Out of Hell Free Card." But think about it: with a group of characters unsure of their own fates, their own righteousness, that card means the world, and the card will come into play later. Over the series, the team fights slavers, the government, undead Suicide Squad members, other villains, heroes, and dinosaurs.

The penultimate arc of the series sees the Six travel to Hell with the card. Ragdoll stole the card from Scandal to resurrect his dead friend, the Parademon, while Scandal wants to use it to free Knockout. In the end, though, the six are told by Blaze, the queen of Hell, that they can do what they wish, that they are all damned and will be back soon enough. The road to redemption has ended without any redemption, and the broken Six are left to determine their future. The final arc sees Bane take charge and lead the Six on one final grand attempt to take out Batman. If he is damned, Bane has decided to embrace his villainy. In the end, the Six makes a final stand against the gathered heroes of the DC Universe. Despite all the betrayal and backstabbing, the Six make their final Butch and Sundance stand together.

Simone had two excellent artistic compatriots on Secret Six. Nicola Scott, who had worked with Simone previously on Birds of Prey, brought a smooth style to the series; her Jeannette being stunningly beautiful and her Catman more handsome than he had ever been portrayed before. She could draw monsters just as well, with the twisted Junior (whose identity is one of the big twists at the end of the first arc. I don't want to spoil it for you) sending shivers down my spine. J. Calafiore took over after Scott left, and didn't miss a beat. I've loved Calafiore's work since his run on Aquaman with Peter David, and he drew an awesome Six. One day, I'll get around to sharing some of the sketches I've gotten in my sketchbook, and my Calafiore Deadshot is a favorite.

There's so much more to say about Secret Six, but I'd rather let you discover them for yourselves. Any comic that mixes pathos, action, horror, and humor so perfectly needs to be read to be believed. Sadly, this past week Gail Simone was removed from her last book at DC. I'm sad to see her go, but can only imagine what wonder she has waiting for us. Gail, let me know, and I'll be first in line.

Secret Six has been collected in six trade paperbacks, listed in chronological order for your ease, since I am unsure if they are numbered on the spines: Unhinged, Depths, Danse Macabre, Cat's in the Cradle, The Reptile Brain, The Darkest House. But to get the full story, you should start with the trade of Villains United, followed by the first Secret Six mini-series Six Degrees of Devastation, and the Birds of Prey arc featuring the Six, Dead of Winter.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 12/5

Creator-Owned Heroes #7
Story: Various
Art: Various

I reviewed the first issue of this anthology/comics magazine when it came out, and have thoroughly enjoyed each subsequent issue, but as things go, never got around to featuring another issue here. Tragically, the most recent issue was released the day the cancellation of the series was announced. And this issue was hands down the best issue so far. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray continue with their serial, "Killswitch," my favorite of the various serials that have appeared over the seven issues. The hitman called Killswitch is trapped in the middle of an open contract on himself and all hitmen. Artist Jerry Lando does a great job with this action packed story, and the writers are developing a great, multi-faceted character, with some really unusual mental quirks, who I hope has a future beyond this serial. Steve Niles and Scott Morse start "Meatbag," the story of a PI who seems to have gotten involved in a case with something supernatural. Niles does a great gumshoe, and Morse's art is beautiful, a style all his own with gorgeous splash pages. There are some fun interviews with Witch Doctor's Brandon Seifert and the always entertaining Evan Dorkin (C'mon Dorkin, I'm dying for that Eltingville collection you talk about). Aside from the main comic features, there are a couple short horror pieces very much in the style of classic EC Comics, with nice twists at the end. "Blood + Brains" by Jerry Burandt with art by Dean Haspiel is a zombie story with a nice little narrative twist. But the highlight of the book for me, not shocking to anyone who knows my love of certain creators, was "The Deadly Book," a five page horror/crime story by Darwyn Cooke. A thief steals a book that supposedly kills whoever reads it. Between Cooke's masterful art as the thief flees the site of the theft and the history of the book, and his clever narration, this is a perfect short story. And there's a bunch of other stuff in the issue I don't even have room to talk about! I'm going to miss this series after it ends next month.

Detective Comics #15
Story: John Layman
Art: Jason Fabok & Andy Clarke

The "Emperor Penguin" storyline meets the Batfamily crossover "Death of the Family" in another outstanding issue of Detective Comics. Batman spends much of his time on page fighting Clayface, and then using those all important detective skills to figure out exactly what Poison Ivy has done to Clayface. I really am loving how Layman is spotlighting Batman's nature as the world's greatest detective. The tie-in to the crossover was fairly minor, picking up some threads from the back-up in Batman #14, but Layman's use of the Joker is excellent. His presence just looming in the background of Penguin's office, half in shadow, made me initially wonder if he was really there, or just metaphorically. He doesn't say anything, but those mad eyes and wide smile standing out against the darkness, so well drawn by Jay Fabok, sent a chill up my spine. The best part of the issue for me, though, was seeing Penguin's seemingly loyal right hand man, Ignatius Ogilvy, come into his own and decide it's time to start running the show himself. Layman has spent a couple issues developing Ogilvy, so to see the end of the issue, and his decision, was a great moment. His conversation with Poison Ivy, and the logic he showed in working out how to deal with her, was excellent, proving Ogilvy to be possibly on par with Penguin, whose return after he's done with Joker is going to be not as good for him as he hoped. The back-up story shows Clayface's "courtship" by Poison Ivy, and gives a sympathetic look at the big ball of walking clay. Between what Layman is doing here and Snyder is doing in Batman, I feel we have most of the Batvillains back in fine fighting shape in the New 52.

Doctor Who #3
Story: Brandon Seifert
Art: Philip Bond

I'm not as big into the tie-in material with Doctor Who as I am with, say, Star Wars, and I've only been reading the IDW comics occasionally. However, this newest series, using some pretty A-list creators, was something I had to check out. The first two issues, by Andy Diggle and Mark Buckingham, were a fun story that sets up the arc of the series. This issue feels like the beginning of a fun one off episode of the series. Amy Pond is sick of "her boys," The Doctor and her husband Rory, sniping at each other, so she orders them to go to a pub without her and spend some time together. Of course, the pub happens to be in 1814, because this is Doctor Who and why not? Well, since neither of them want to do it, the Doctor tries to jump the TARDIS a few hours into the future and... well, you know that isn't going to work, and the usual hijinks ensue. Writer Brandon Seifert has the dynamics between each of these characters down pat. Rory is one of my favorite of the Doctor's companions (probably second only to the inimitable Donna Noble as played by Catherine Tate), and it is nice to see him and the Doctor on an adventure where it's just the two of them and Amy is not in peril (well, ok, maybe by the end she is, but its not the whole thrust of the thing). Amy is also perfectly written, jumping into something with her usual confidence. Philip Bond is an artist I feel like we should see more of in general, and I like his work here. The characters are clearly in his more cartoony style, but they are all clearly them. The issue ends with the London Beer Flood, which is a real historical event. I can't wait to see how Amy gets out of this one...

Hellboy in Hell #1
Story & Art: Mike Mignola

Mike Mignola back on Hellboy with story and art. Do I really need to say anymore? I probably don't need to, but I will anyway. I'll get the heaping of massive praise out of the way first: Duncan Fegredo and Richard Corben have been excellent hands at it, but Mignola was born to draw Hellboy, and it shows. The look of the issue is tremendous, using color, light and shadow, and all the tricks in an artist's bag to make a visual symphony. Special shout out to a scene where Hellboy witnesses a marionette performance of the scene from A Christmas Carol where Jacob Marley comes to Scrooge to warn him that he can save himself. Hellboy also fights an armored adversary last seen back in The Wild Hunt, sees all sorts of tentacled monstrosities, and is aided by a mysterious cloaked and masked man. Monsters, magic, and a protagonist with a surly sense of humor: this is Hellboy as it is meant to be.

Legends of the Dark Knight #3
Story: Steve Niles
Art: Trever Hairsine

When people talk about inspirational superheroes, there's usually a lot of talk about Superman, and even some of Spider-Man, but Batman doesn't usually make the list. This issue, "Letters to Batman," touches on how Batman effects the lives of the people he encounters. After the Joker escapes from custody again, Bruce begins to wonder exactly what it is he's doing, and if he's just part of a revolving door. But when Jim Gordon gives him sacks of mail that have built up at GCPD headquarters mailed to Batman, Bruce reads them and begins to see things is a new light. Back in the 90s, there was an annual issue of Superman under Dan Jurgens where Superman read letters sent to him over the course of the year and tried to help the people who really needed it. This isn't the same grandiose formula, but it has the feel of a hero trying to do more than just pummel a bad guy. All the letters wind up tying into each other in the end, and Batman helps the people in a very simple, day to day sort of way. I like to see the humanity of Batman, see that he still considers the people that he interacts with; that is what makes him different from the Punisher. I also want to give a shout out to artist Trevor Hairsine, who draws a creepy Joker with his face still attached. I'm glad to see the anthology Legends of the Dark Knight working, and hope that it keeps going for a while; Batman is one of the most malleable characters out there, and I like seeing these different interpretations.

Stumptown Vol.2 #4
Story: Greg Rucka
Art: Matthew Southworth

As the second volume of Stumptown races to its conclusion (you'll pardon my pun if you have or plan to read the issue). Dex has found Baby, the guitar belonging to rockstar Mim, but it's currently in the hands of a pair of skinheads, and so the chase is one, in this case a car chase that would make the Duke Boys pass out. Rucka gets off some great zingers throughout the issue, but this issue os artist Matthew Southworth's star turn. As the story moves, the issue transitions from a normal portrait design to landscape, making you flip the comic on its side. Whenever Dex is in her car chasing the skinheads, the comic is landscape, and when she gets out it flips back to portrait. It's a great effect that takes advantage of the different layouts to draw some really dynamic action scenes. I love that Rucka can write both intelligent, fun characters, engaging mysteries, and then these great action issues, and I hope that he and Southworth enjoyed working on this issue as much as I enjoyed reading it. With one issue left, I'm curious to see exactly what's going on. I have to say I don't know exactly what's going on, and I look forward to getting the answers.

A couple notes:

I was sent this excellent novel about what I like to call myth of the fake geek girl over on cracked. Great reading.

I also am sad to see Gail Simone off of Batgirl, and so I plan this Friday to be a recommended reading of some of my favorite Gail Simone work. Gail, I hope to see some new books from you soon!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Recommended Reading for 12/7: Case Closed (Detective Conan)

I've never really gotten into the manga/anime culture. Not anything against it, I've just tended to gravitate to my more familiar American and European comics. Not to say I haven't seen the classics like Akira, but I haven't sought out much manga to read. But there is one series that I pick up as each new volume is released, and that is what is called here in the States Case Closed. Fun fact, the Japanese title is Detective Conan, but execs were concerned with possible confusion with Conan the Barbarian, so they chose the new title. Conan is many things, but I don't think detective is one of them. However, can't you see him starring in CSI: Cimmeria: "By Crom! The blood splatter patterns indicate the shot came from below the victim. Now I must go and tell his wife and daughters, and hear the lamentations of his women."

Case Closed is the story of Jimmy Kudo (and I apologize to all purists for using the anglicized character names, but it's how I am familiar with them), teen detective, who goes after a pair of mysterious men in black and is poisoned. Only the poison doesn't kill him. It instead de-ages him to about 8 years old. So he has the mind of a seventeen year old in an eight year old's body, and must find the men in black to hopefully find a cure while solving mysteries along the way. The series has been running for over fifteen years in Japan, and the volumes here in the States are only caught up about halfway, so I'm a bit behind.

Jimmy is a likeable protagonist, if a bit headstrong, which gets him into trouble like being poisoned by mysterious organizations. He is a deductive genius, more capable than nearly any other detective, but also is an excellent soccer player, and he uses those skills to sometimes aid in stopping criminals. The only person who knows his secret at the beginning of the series is Doc Agasa, am absent minded scientist who lives next door to Jimmy and who gives him various gadgets, including a pair of sneakers that strengthens his kicks to what they would be if he was his normal self, a pair of glasses that allow him to follow specially designed trackers, a bowtie that changes his voice to sound like anyone, and a watch that shoots darts that temporarily knock out people.

Jimmy takes the name Conan Edogawa, after Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, and Edogawa Rampo, one of Japan's greatest mystery novelists, and begins living with Rachel Moore, his best friend and the girl that he was almost/sorta/kinda dating before his transformation, and her father Richard, a down on his luck drunken PI. Rachel is sweet, kind, and often worried about Jimmy, and while she occasionally is threatened by the criminals that are involved in the cases her father and Jimmy get into, she is a karate and judo expert, so she can handle herself. Richard is a drunk and a bit of a lecher, although he carries a torch for his wife, Eva, from whom he is separated, and while he isn't terribly bright, there are moments where the reader sees he's more clever than he usually seems. Conan accompanies Richard on cases and knocks him out with a dart from his watch and uses the bowtie to sound like Richard and solves the cases for him, earning Richard a reputation as a great detective with the moniker "Sleeping Moore," since he appears asleep when solving crimes.

Most cases over the course of series are either cases that Conan goes on with Richard, or ones he gets involved in with the Junior Detective League, a group of grade schoolers he goes to class with now that he's forced back into grammar school. At the beginning of the series, the the League includes George, the large not too bright member, bookish Mitch, and sweet Amy. Eventually, a new member is added, Anita, who is a former member of the Black Oranization who was de-aged in the same way Jimmy was, figured out Conan's true identity, and is also seeking a cure. Doc Agasa took in Anita, and he often serves as chaperon for the adventures the League gets into.

A cast shot from the anime, with Jimmy, Conan, Richard and Rachel in the center
I understand that the description I just gave makes things sound a bit contrived, with goofy scientist neighbors and drunken detectives just happening to be around when our protagonist conveniently needs them and doing things that are clearly outlandish. But once you get beyond the somewhat out of the normal setup, the series runs as a great collection of mystery stories. The majority of the crimes investigated are murders, although the cases with the Detective League can be a bit lighter on the gore. Evidence is laid out throughout each chapter, and the reader can play along, although I'll be honest, I'm more often than not stumped before Conan reveals how the criminal did it. It's also aware of its genre, with moments like Inspector Meguire, the main police officer, a Lestrade to Jimmy/Conan's Holmes, drawing attention to the fact that Richard and Conan seem to always be stumbling upon corpses, playing with the trope of Jessica Fletcher Syndrome (for those not familiar with the term, which finds its origins in the TV series Murder, She Wrote, it's when people tend to be murdered around a person on a regular basis).

One of the other joys I find in Case Closed is finding out the motives behind the various murders. While its understandable that the cases Conan winds up investigating are perpetrated in complex ways, since you don't need a super sleuth to solve a mugging gone bad, the motives are also usually as twisted as the method. No one gets wronged by a former employer or lover and just kills them the next week in Case Closed. A couple of my favorite examples are the man who blaims a doctor for not saving his young son's life, so he spends years sending the doctor his son's favorite toys so the doctor can give them to his son and then plans to kill the doctor's son when he's the same age as the dead boy, or the guy who blames a police officer for his mother's death during a chase when he was a boy, and so finds the officer's daughter when they're both adults, woos her, gets engaged, and then poisons her on the wedding day.

The mythology of Case Closed is complex, but it doesn't take over the series. The stories involving the Black Organization don't pop up too often, and the exact nature of their plans are revealed slowly; and there are various government agencies in Japan and the US who are hunting them, building a web of intrigue that Conan is in the middle of.  But that mythology, while important, isn't what brings a reader back. The mysteries and the fun characters. The cast does grow beyond the initial characters, with new police officers and allies added, and they're all memorable, from Harley Hartwell, another teen detective who starts out as a rival to Jimmy but after deducing Jimmy's identity as Conan becomes a stalwart ally, to Miss Jodie, one of Rachel's teachers who has a mysterious past.

While much of the subject matter is dire, with corpses popping up and Conan constantly in fear of the Black Organization finding out he is still alive and killing him and all he loves, there is a healthy dose of comedy. Richard is bumbling, and his usually outlandish theories and arrogant demeanor are a source of a lot of comedy. Conan occasionally gets into situations where his more adult mind is even more at odds with his body, usually when he is with Rachel, who doesn't know he's Jimmy. And the Junior Detective League stories often have a lighter touch, with childish hijinks; the interactions between the kids is well written, and is especially amusing when seen through the eyes of Conan, who has to act like a little kid even though he is anything but.

Forty four volumes of Case Closed are available here in the US currently, translated into English from Viz Media, with new volumes coming out quarterly. Also, at least five seasons of the anime and a few of the animated features are also available, dubbed, here in the US from Funimation.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 11/18

Batman Beyond Unlimited #10
Story: Derek Fridolfs & Dustin Nguyen/ Adam Beechen/ JT Krul
Art: Dustin Nguyen & Derek Fridolfs/ Norm Breyfogle/ Howard Porter

DCs anthology of stories from the world of Batman Beyond continues with the conclusion of the first arc of Justice League Beyond. Writer/artist team of Derek Fridolfs and Dustin Nguyen have a great feel for all the characters on their team, and while there are some nice character beats in this issue, with Superman saying goodbye to an old friend, Bruce having a brief moment with a surprise old flame, and the reunion between Big Barda and Mister Miracle, the story was more an amazing and gorgeous action piece. While half the team fights the Kobra cultists, Superman and The Demon Etrigan face down the giant serpent they have summoned. Nguyen draws an excellent Demon, and watching him cut loose on the giant serpent is awe-inspiring. In the Superman Beyond segment, Superman is settling into the new identity he has taken up as firefighter Kal Kent, but a mysterious alien pops up that seems to have not so good intentions for the man of steel. The Batman Beyond segment continues the "10,000 Clowns" story. The Batman family is all back, with Dick Grayson helping the future Batman, Terry McGuinness, and Catwoman Beyond on the street, while Tim Drake runs the Bat computer. Taking story elements from the first Batman Beyond comic mini-series and from Batman Beyond: Return of the Joker, the story is full of action and character. While the heroes fight off a legion of suicide bombing Jokerz, the Joker King gives his frightening world view, and heads to the hospital to have a final talk with his family, including his sister, Terry's girlfriend, Dana. But Bruce Wayne, dying of liver failure, happens to be with the Tan's, and the issue ends with Bruce smiling as he plans to fight one final Joker. Aside from the breakneck pace and great story, the Batman Beyond segments are drawn by Norm Breyfogle, one of my favorite Batman artists of all time, whose work is always something to look forward to. There are few comics that cram as much good stuff between their covers than Batman Beyond Unlimited, so if you're looking for more bang for your comic buying buck, this is great place to start.

Batman Incorporated #5
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Chris Burnham

This issue of Batman Incorporated sees a return to the future from Batman #666, and if you thought things couldn't get worse from their, you were wrong. Framed around Bruce telling Damian he must return to his mother to avoid the dark future, and seeing Damian's heartbreak, we see the vision of the future Bruce had while travelling through time on The Return of Bruce Wayne, the one he has been trying to prevent all along. With a Joker plague on the loose, the only sane people in Gotham are left stranded in Arkahm Asylum, surrounded by armies of the mad. Damian finds a baby that he thinks might hold the key to curing the plague, and brings it to Jackanapes, one of the villains who cameoed in the previous future story, who seems to be a superintelligent molecular biologist gorilla. The story ends with the twist of a metaphoric knife, where the scheme of Leviathan comes to fruition, with the destruction of Gotham. This series seems to be taking the loosest view of New 52 continuity, with appearances by the Outsiders, and with the appearance of Dr. Hurt, a character who is inextricably linked to Darkseid, a character whose interactions with the heroes of the DC Universe seem to have changed greatly. But I take this as an example of one of those cases where continuity doesn't matter as much as the story were being told. Morrison is telling a story of Batman and Talia playing an intricate chess game  with Gotham as the board and Damian as a piece, and I'm curious to see who is put into check next.

Before Watchmen: Silk Spectre #4
Story: Darwyn Cooke
Art: Amanda Conner

The first Before Watchmen to reach its conclusion, the final issue of Silk Spectre does a good job of wrapping up all the threads that the series has built. While Laurie Jupiter, the young Silk Spectre, deals with her boyfriend disappearing from her life, Hollis Mason, the original Nite-Owl comes to talk to her and bring her home. Meanwhile The Chairman moves to get rid of all the evidence of his scheme and anyone who might know anything about it. The whole action part of the series, with the manipulation of the flower children, has struck me as secondary to the more personal story of Laurie trying to start a new life away from her hovering mother, and that has been the parts of the story that have interested me the most. Cooke does a great job of portraying Sally Jupiter as a woman who cares about her daughter, but is completely unable to show it, and more who just doesn't understand how to not say the wrong thing. It doesn't make the reader forgive Sally's needlessly cruel and confrontational attitude, and maybe not even understand it, but you don't see her as a monster either. The series ends with the first meeting of the Crimebusters, a scene directly from Watchmen, and a scene that has been featured in nearly all the series so far. It's interesting to see the scene told from the point of view of each of the characters involved, and I wonder if that was something that each writer was asked to do. The art on this series by the always excellent Amanda Conner was outstanding. I can think of few artists who draw better and more expressive faces, and so the scenes that are talking scenes are visually interesting. This has been one of my favorite of the Before Watchmen mini-series, and one I recommend highly.

Gambit #6
Story: James Asmus
Art: Diogenes Neves & Al Barrionuevo

The new Gambit ongoing (his third, if you can believe it) has proven to be a fun superhero-meets-crime comic. James Asmus has a good feel for crime, as evidenced by his cowriting the current arc of Thief of Thieves with Robert Kirkman, and this issue sees Gambit involved in what might be the biggest heist of his life. As I mentioned in this past Friday's recommended reading, MI13 is appearing in this arc, so its not too surprising that Gambit, who has fallen afoul of international criminal mastermind Borya Cich and is currently strapped to a bomb, has to go steal Excalibur, still in the possession of MI13 agent Dr. Faisa Hussain. This doesn't go well, and leaves Gambit to the not too tender mercies of Pete Wisdom, who wants to know exaclty what Gambit was up to. But with international criminals, things aren't always what they seem, and pretty soon Gambit and MI13 are in the middle of a firefight with Cich's henchmen, and the real object of their raid becomes clear. Asmus is writing a Gambit who is the perfect rogue (no pun intended), with a devil may care Han Soloesque grin and just enough scruples to know that working for Cich is something he needs to get out of not just because it's someone controlling him, but because Cich is a really bad guy. He also handles Wisdom well, having the protective Wisdom particularly miffed that Gambit went after Faisa, once of Wisdom's people. Things end with Gambit in a bad place and Wisdom on his heels. I kind of now want a series with Wisdom and Gambit doing The Odd Couple thing, only with more trenchcoats and accents.

Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi - The Prisoner of Bogan #1
Story: John Ostrander
Art: Jan Duursema

John Ostrander has been doing some great work on Agent of the Empire, but he's never more on fire than when he's working with one of his regular artistic collaborators, so seeing him and Jan Duursema together again for  the second Dawn of the Jedi mini-series is a treat. Picking up shortly after the previous series ended, most of this issue is spent with Xesh, the Force Hound who crashed on the Jee'dai (the name of the order that will someday become the Jedi) homeworld of Tython last arc. Xesh has been banished to the moon of Bogan, where he encounters Daegon Lok, a former Jee'dai who the order banished when he had a force vision and seemingly went mad. It seems Lok's vision was correct, presaging the arrival of The Rakatan Infinite Empire, but that doesn't mean he hasn't fallen to the Dark Side. Xesh is an Ostrander protagonist, pulled in multiple directions and unsure of what is right and where he should be going. Xesh and Lok are off on a Butch and Sundance mission to assemble a Force Saber, the weapon of the Force Hounds, but its clear that before this is done, the two will come to blows. Aside from these two characters, we stop in to see the three Jee'dai journeymen who confronted Xesh in the previous arc, and the Rakata and another Force Hound who are preparing to hunt down Xesh and his masters. Ostrander and Duursema are setting up a lot of action for this arc, and moving the pieces of what will most assuradely be war between the Jee'dai and the Rakatans into place. I just hope that, with the probable changes on the horizon for Lucasfilm Licensing and comics due to Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm, we get to see the payoff.

Friday, November 30, 2012

Recommended Reading for 11/30: Captain Britain and MI13

I love Pete Wisdom. Now, I'd think about two-thirds if you out there are asking who the hell Pete Wisdom is. And the other third are saying, "Of course you do! How could you not love Pete Wisdom?" For the unenlightened, Pete Wisdom was a British mutant and secret agent introduced by Warren Ellis during his run on Excalibur. He was the prototypical Ellis protagonist: snarky, hard drinking, hard smoking, trenchcoat wearing, and haunted by his past and all the friends and family he has lost(so, in all fairness, he's pretty much the mutant John Constantine).

While I know the series I'm talking about today, Captain Britain and MI13, isn't called Pete Wisdom and MI13, it always will be in my heart. It's the first major work from Paul Cornell, who has since made his name with runs on Action Comics and Demon Knights, as well as Saucer Country out of Vertigo, and will be writing the Marvel Now! Wolverine ongoing. His principal artist was Leonard Kirk, one of comics' great utility pencilers, and who's best known for his collaborations with Peter David, including a long run on Supergirl and X-Factor.

If the title isn't a giveaway, the series is about a team of superheroes who work for British Intelligence solving problems that normal law enforcement can't, problems dealing mostly with the vast occult population of the British Isles, but they have no problem dealing with alien invasions or mutant issues too. MI13 is the British occult services division, in the same way MI5 deals with problems domestic and MI6 deals with problems foreign. The series was tragically short-lived, only fifteen issues and an annual, but they were great issues, full of action, humor, and great characters.

Aside from Brian Braddock, the titular Captain Britain, England's leading superhero, and Pete Wisdom, the team was made up of a group of mostly British heroes. MI13 includes Spitfire, the World War II era British heroine who has been made young again and has certain vampiric traits, The Black Knight, former Avenger, and Blade, the vampire hunter. The series also introduces Dr. Faisa Hussain, a kind and intrepid physician,w ho becomes the bearer, and takes up the heroic alias, of Excalibur. Hussain is of Muslim faith, and Cornell does and excellent job of making that an important part of her character without making it all of her character.

Pete Wisdom, trying to draw the sword from the stone
The series began spinning out of Marvel's Secret Invasion crossover, about an invasion from the shape-changing alien Skrulls. Specifically, the Skrulls have come to England because t serves as the font of all magic This is something new to the history of the Marvel Universe as far as I know, but makes for a logical reason why the Skrulls are targeting England. Series beginning during events can be problematic, as sometimes the event seems tacked on, but this specific crossover worked very well.

Cornell also used the crossover to clearly define his two chief protagonists. Captain Britain fights valiantly, but is killed early on by the Skrulls. He is eventually resurrected by Merlin, and made into the true embodiment of England. Captain Britain as a character had always been haunted by doubts, but with this resurrection he became the symbol of a united England, and moved forward as a stronger character. Pete Wisdom, on the other hand, remains a man torn by his past and who must make the hard choices. With the Skrulls having taken English magic, Wisdom is told by a mysterious voice that he must break open a gate to the Dark Dimensions, the prison for demons and the like, to free the being who can save England. Wisdom does it, freeing a trapped Merlin, but also unleashes hordes of the worst demons and monsters of the Marvel Universe. This is the act of a man who is not a hero in the classic sense, not a noble knight, but a man who does what he needs to; a man whose motto is, "Job needs doing."

The second arc adds Blade to the mix, which seems an odd choice until you remember that, from his original appearances in Tomb of Dracula, Blade is English. It also creates an interesting dynamic between Blade and Spitfire. Blade is the legendary vampire hunter, after all, and Spitfire has been feeling the influence of a vampire curse she long thought broken returning. Blade's initial reaction is to stake Spitfire, but the two form a bond over the arc, as they are both half-vampire. We also begin to see more of Faisa, who accidentally received powers during the Skrull invasion and picked up Excalibur at the end of that story. She somewhat serves as the audience proxy, since she is new and asks the questions a reader might, but she's also a noble soul, which puts her in company with only Captain Britain on this team. Each of the others (Wisdom, Spitfire, Blade, and Black Knight) all are tarnished, by their curses or their past deeds, so her innocence adds to what makes her distinct.
The main story of this second arc deals with the first of the demons that were freed by Pete in the previous arc. Plokta feeds on the dreams of those he has captures. Because of this, we get to see a good view inside the heads of our heroes, and what each of them wants and needs. It's a great way to give the audience that kind of infodump without it being an infodump. We also get some really cool scenes inside Plokta's dream corridor, fiery hallways, and a creepy monster on Plokta himself.

Tragically, the final arc was hands down my favorite, and really saw the series hit its stride. "Vampire State" sees the return of the classic Marvel Dracula, who my regular readers read about in my Tomb of Dracula recommended reading. Cornell writes Dracula brilliantly, keeping him perfectly in line with how he's been represented in the past, with his cool, cold grace and style. Dracula has decided to take over England and turn it into a Vampire Nation, and along the way makes accords with Lilith, another of the demons freed at the beginning of the series, and with Dr. Doom.

What I especially love about this story is that it is an intricate chess game between two masters of manipulation: Dracula and Pete Wisdom. Dracula is of course based on Vlades Tepes, a great military leader in his native lands, and so Cornell presents Dracula as a brilliant military mind, building a complex strategy and campaign against his foes. Meanwhile Wisdom is a master spy, who is used to manipulating situations to his won benefit, and his skills are shown off amply here. Cornell does wonderful things with the history of Dracula and his nemesis Quincy Harker as well, although that's a twist I don't want to give away.

Other than spotlighting my favorite underutilized mutant hero, the thing I love about Captain Britain and MI13 is that, while its a serious superhero comic, it keeps an air of fun and adventure about it. The seriousness is there, but it doesn't drown out the fact that these are characters in tights (well, maybe not all of them; Pete Wisdom wouldn't be caught dead in tights), who are having big adventures. It's got witty dialogue, great art, and intricate plots. Plus Pete Wisdom. What more do you want?
Captain Britain and MI13 is available in three trade paperbacks: Secret Invasion, Hell Comes to Birmingham, and Vampire State. If you enjoy them, you might also want to check out Wisdom, the Pete Wisdom mini-series from writer Paul Cornell under Marvel's MAX line. You can also see more MI13 action in this week's new issue of Gambit.


Monday, November 26, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 11/21

Baltimore: The Play
Story: Mike Mignola & Christopher Golden
Art: Ben Steinbeck

I haven't followed the adventures of Lord Baltimore, Hellboy creator Mike Mignola's one-legged vampire slayer, in comics before; I only know his adventures from his first appearance, the novel Baltimore; or the Steadfast Tin Soldier. This one shot, seemingly centered around a theatre troupe of vampires piqued my interest, and so I figured I'd give it a shot. I was pleased to see the usual charm and horror of the works of Mignola and his Baltimore co-creator Christopher Golden. The story really isn't about Baltimore himself; he only appears in the framing sequence. The story is about the troupe, sponsored by Baltimore's nemesis, the vampire Haigus, to spread the plague of vampirism, and the backstage chaos of a troupe of vampires. The starlet of the troupe seems to beloved both by the troupe leader and by Haigus himself, something that confuses the vampire lord. The director, leader, and playwright of the troupe has a secret: he isn't the real author, but instead has Edgar Allan Poe's reanimated head in a jar. Other than a few good Futurama jokes in my head, I love the works of Poe, and to see the death-obsessed author trapped in this sort of strange netherworld was oddly suiting. The play itself is an adaptation of Poe's "Masque of the Red Death" and artists Ben Steinbeck does a wonderful job making the play itself evoke Poe's dark tale. This is a well crafted horror one-shot, and I think I'm going to have to hunt down the previous Baltimore comic stories. Fun fact: In a connection between main character and guest star, Poe made his home in the American city, you guessed it, Baltimore.

Batwoman #14
Story: J.H. Williams III & W. Haden Blackman
Art: J.H. Williams III

Batwoman is the most visually stunning comic on the racks. J.H. Williams III has been an artist whose work has evolved and improved from his early, already excellent, work on Chase, through Promethea, and now on to this title. As we near the confrontation between Batwoman and Medusa, the ancient Greek mother of monsters and her brood, Wonder Woman has come to her aid. The two heroines meet Pegasus, one of Medusa's children who refused to join her quest and finds her all the worse for wear because of it. Williams and co-writer W. Haden Blackman, craft a sad tale around Pegasus, and leave the heroes with no choice but to take his life to spare him agony and learn that Medusa has been right where everything started: Gotham. Williams has been telling this arc in nearly entirely double page spreads, and the art flows from page to page in an organic way. Williams balances his truly beautiful characters with some really hideous monsters. The transformation of Killer Croc, already horribly mutated, into a giant hydra is a stunning image. With the return to Gotham, I look forward to seeing Batwoman and her supporting cast in combat with these monsters in the rest of this arc.

Comeback #1
Story: Ed Brisson
Art: Michael Walsh

Somewhere in the past five years or so, Image Comics has become home to some of the best sci-fi, fantasy, and horror comics on the stands, and it becomes harder to pass up any new series they start, because you could be passing up the next Walking Dead or Saga. Comeback is a new series I'm glad I snapped up. In the near future, time travel is functional and commercial, you can hire someone to go back in time and save a loved one from death. The first issue sets up the premise with one of these retrievals going wrong, and you meet two of the agents who are responsible for it. One of them has become weary of this line of work, and says that this is his last job. Anyone familiar with the concept of retirony (where something horrible happens to anyone who says that he or she is about to retire) knows that this means that he's going to be dragged into something more than just one final normal job. There's more going on in the story, as there seems to be mysterious crime that will certainly tie into the main plot. Comeback is an excellent first issue, and I'm curious to see where the rest of the series goes. If you happen to enjoy the time travel twists of films like this year's excellent Looper, check out Comeback.

Daredevil #20
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee

Oh, Matt Murdock... Not even having your head removed can keep you down. With the revelation that all of the things that have popped up to prove matt Murdock insane were crafted by the newly badass Spot, now calling himself the Coyote, Matt goes on the offensive, even though Coyote has used his new technology to carry around Daredevil's head like it's a football. Mark Waid and Chris Samnee continue to explore exactly how Daredevil's powers work in some fascinating ways: who needs a head when you're used to working without sight? As I saw more of exactly what the Coyote is up to, my skin crawled. This is really an evil villain, not just some guy looking to score a quick buck like The Spot has usually been show to be in the past. It wasn't a surprise at the end when it was revealed there's a lot more going on with Coyote and The Spot than has met the eye. And Daredevil's rash decision to smash Coyote's head separating machine comes back to bite him in the end. This issue is setting up a lot of payoff on storylines that have been running through this book from the beginning of Waid's run, and I'm excited to see the payoff. Chris Samnee has proven to be an able partner for Waid, who has had a murderer's row of excellent artists in this series. I hope they stick around for quite a while, and occasionally do other projects like...

The Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom #4
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee

With Waid and Samnee, the hits just keep on coming. A comic that features the Rocketeer toting a ray gun and fighting dinosaurs plowing through downtown L.A. is pretty much a no brains sale to me. While Samnee isn't quite the master of cheesecake that Rocketeer creator Dave Stevens was, he does really beautiful period illustration, with the setting looking perfectly forties and Betty still a complete knockout. But the thing that really knocks me out are his dinosaurs and the flight sequences. The Rocketeer in a aerial dogfight with a Pterodactyl and trying to stop a T-Rex are both sights to behold. There's also a good understanding of the pulp roots of the Rocketeer, making it clear the villain, known as the Master, is John Sunlight, archnemesis to Doc Savage, who anyone familiar with Rocketeer comics knows has a link to the title hero. In the end, with the threat resolved, we get some nice character pieces with Cliff (the Rocketeer) and Betty, a resolution to the story involving Peevy's niece, Sally, and a little tease for a future Rocketeer mini-series. Whether its for the next series, due out next year from Roger Langridge and J. Bone, or for a project from Waid and Samnee I'm not sure. I just hope to see them back in the 40s for another tale of our erstwhile hero and his loyal supporting cast soon.