Monday, July 30, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/25

All Star Western #11
Story: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Art: Moritat & Scott Kolins

I was a big fan of Jonah Hex, the previous incarnation of this series, and was a little worried that it was being transformed from a series of mostly done-in-one stories to a more arc based series when it changed titles with the New 52. I'm happy to say my worries were unfounded. Gray and Palmiotti still tell some of the grittiest westerns in comics. This issue continues the war between the followers of the Crime Bible and the Court of Owls in 1880s Gotham City. The story features the return of Tallulah Black, Hex's on-again/off-again... I don't know how to describe them, exactly. Love interest is too strong, but lover seems to remove some of the emotional depth of their relationship. Tallulah narrates much of the issue, which is a change from Hex or Amadeus Arkham, who usually narrate the stories. Tallulah is tough as nails, but she is a distinct personality from Hex, and her voice is suitably different. Moritat continues to draw a gorgeous vision of Gotham in the 19th century, and his work has a realism that makes the grit of the city seem more real. His version of the Talon, the Court of Owls' assassin, is one of the best, acrobatic and graceful, but still with power. This issue also began a new back up story, featuring an 19th century version of Dr. Thirteen, the Ghostbreaker, a character who debunks supernatural occurrences. The story, dealing with him hunting for a "spectral" highwayman whose weapons shoot fire, is a fun one, with Thirteen being a condescending jerk towards those who live in superstition, which is pretty funny to read, actually. Scott Kolins art style is different from that of Moritat, but works well for this story. I hope that he proves an ancestor to a Dr. Thirteen who will pop up in the present DCU as well.

Axe Cop: President of the World #1
Story: Malachi Nicolle (Age 8)
Art: Ethan Nicolle (Age 31)

Axe Cop is something that defies any description of characterization. It started out as a webcomic, where artist Ethan Nicolle basically adapted playtime stories he and his younger brother, Malachi, came up with. The webcomic has grown in popularity, and the world of Axe Cop, a police officer with a magic axe who beheads criminals, has grown in complexity. The webcomic is a delight to read, so completely insane that only a kid could have come up with it. The comic has grown so popular that Dark Horse has released two collections of the webcomics, and last year published an original miniseries, Bad Guy Earth. This new mini, President of the World is a follow up to that series, but as is the way with playtime with young relatives, you can just kind of jump in with no previous knowledge. I don't want to talk too much about the issue, because to reveal that actual logistics of it would ruin its charm and the hilarity, but I will say there is the new character Goo Cop (who was changed into goo by aliens), a talking gorilla with robot hands and a magic tail, Ralph Wrinkles (Axe Cop's talking dog with magic healing laser eyes who happens to be his chief of staff), and killer robot penguins. The thing I love about Axe Cop is that it is the unbridled imagination of a child translated to the page, and giving young Malachi the longer form to play with only makes the stories trippier. I can't wait to see what curveballs wait in the next two issues.

The Flash #11
Story: Francis Manapul & Brian Buccellato
Art: Marcus To

Some titles that came out of the New 52 were simply continuations of existing continuity and character, and some were changes to teams or formats, but keeping a lot of the essential. Some books were true reimaginings, though; taking a core concept and building a fresh world around them. While some, like Wonder Woman, which I talked about last week, have been successful, others have not. The Flash is one one of the best examples of these reimaginings. I am a Wally West fan, by the way; he was Flash when I started reading comics, and became a favorite superhero of mine. But writers Francis Manapul and Brian Buccellato have done a very good job of fleshing out Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash returned from the dead, in a way that has made me really like him. We continue to get a view of Barry's new life, as he has faked his death to protect the people he cares about and to free up time to be the Flash. Barry's struggles give him a humanity and a depth that I have felt that many writers have missed in writing the usually very square and upright Barry. Barry has also moved to Keystone City, the sister city to his usual running grounds of Central City, and the creators do a good job of giving it a different look and feel than the prettier Central. This issue also features the return of another of Flash's classic enemies, Heat Wave, reimagined. Like the other Rogues (yes, capital R. That's the team name of Flash's enemies), Heat Wave's power and look have been tinkered with, and now he seems to have his flame casting weapon as part of his body. He gets into a fight with Captain Cold, the leader of the Rogues, and Flash intercedes and saves the day. What makes the issue interesting is that the two are fighting for personal reasons that still remain unclear. This isn't two guys fighting over a score; there's something really between them. We also get glimpses of the rest of The Flash supporting cast, but this issue really is about Barry and the Rogues, and the world that they now live in.

Superman Family Adventures #3
Story & Art: Art Baltazar & Franco Aureliani

While I don't know if anything can fill the Tiny Titans shaped hole in my heart, Art and Franco's new Superman Family Adventures does a great job of giving me something new and different to enjoy. The series is a little more action based, with some real super hero fights happening, but never in a way that would make you think twice about handing it to a kid. This issue features Jimmy Olsen trying to use his signal watch to call Superman to stop an alien invasion and getting the Super-Pets instead, and Clark trying to convince Lois he isn't Superman using a Superman Robot, and this going comically wrong. The book is very fun, and hearkens back to classic Silver Age Superman stories. But Art and Franco continue to use their all ages book to make sly commentary on the current DCU, just like in Tiny Titans, with a sequence that explains why Superman no longer wears red shorts on his costume, and it's a hilarious explanation. If you're one of those people who miss the red shorts, you should check the issue out just for that.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Recommended Reading for 7/27: The Monolith

I apologize of this week's recommended reading is a little shorter and more vague than usual, but a month in I'm still digging out of the move, so access to the full compliment of my collection isn't quite there, and I'm doing this from memory. I just really wanted to talk about Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray's The Monolith, and I figured I could do it some degree of justice even if I'm just using what I remember.

As someone of Jewish descent who has always been fascinated by myth and folklore, one of the stories that spoke to me was the story of Rabbi Loew and the Golem of Prague, the mythic defender of the Jewish people. In 2004, when I saw that new series was starting from DC that was going to feature a golem as the hero, I was fascinated, and decided to give the series, The Monolith, a shot. It turned out be a great series, but as often happens with great series featuring new characters, it didn't last too long.

The Monolith is was a strong character driven series. Besides the Monolith, the story features two young women, Alice and Tilt, who have become responsible for the Monolith. Alice's grandmother was the first guardian of the Monolith, and it with her death that the responsibility passes to Alice. One of the interesting things about the series is that Alice and Tilt start out without any heroic aspirations. Alice and Tilt, are both drug addicts and prostitutes, living on the fringe of society, and they want little to do with their new stony friend. But over the course of the twelve issues, they both grow to understand how important what they now have to do is, and they kick their habits and work to become part of the community as a whole. They are both tough, well rounded characters, and having the two real leads of the series be women is something that isn't seen a lot in superhero comics, another indication of how unusual this title was. This character growth is one of the great parts of new superhero comics: the characters can change more than the more established heroes.

The stories that ran through the twelve issues were very street level, which fits well with the original myth of the golem as protector of the Prague ghetto. Here, though, the Monolith protects Brooklyn, and he seems connected with the borough, knowing when a crime has taken place and feeling compelled to make it right. While he does cross paths with one supercriminal along the way, he mostly fights drug dealers, mobsters, and the like, which is interesting when dealing with a hero who isn't a "normal" human. But making these threats non-superhuman gives Alice and Tilt more involvement in the stories. Brooklyn is a very specific neighborhood, with a lot of character, and the series fits well with that, and the art is referenced well to look like Brooklyn, versus a generic city.

While most of the action does take place in the present, there are a series of flashbacks to Brooklyn in the 1930s, that feature Alice's grandmother, also named Alice, and the creation and adventures of the Monolith. These stories are also great, with another cast of well realized characters. Alice lives in a boarding house with Rabbi Rava and Han, who help her in creating the Monolith to stop the mobsters who killed the man she loved. I love a good period piece, and Palmiotti and Grey do a good job of setting a similar tone for these flashbacks, but keeping the characters distinct. There's a mirror to what is happening in the present, and the stories do tie together, but it's not like you're just reading the same story two times with slightly different casts.

The principal artist on the series was Phil Winslade, one of comics most underrated artists. Winslade's style is distinct, with his characters and panels having a sense of motion that a lot of others don't capture. I love artists whose characters are very expressive in body language and especially face, and Winslade is one of these. The look he gives Alice and Tilt, both in their clothing and their faces, helps build them a very real characters. Other artists do step in over the course of the series, Peter Snejbjerg of Starman fame and Tomm Coker, and both do good work, it's Winslade's version of these characters that will resonate with you.

After The Monolith series ended, Palmitotti and Gray used him in a couple other series they were working on, Hawkman and The Battle for Bludhaven, but after that he faded away into obscurity. But since it has lapsed out of print, it seems the original deal allowed the rights for the characters most of the issues to revert back to its creators (this is something I've seen happen with Vertigo titles before, but can only think of one other book that was published by DC proper, Peter David's Fallen Angel, and that was really removed from the DC Universe, even if it was part of the main publishing imprint). What this means, is that all of you who didn't get a chance to read The Monolith the first time have a new chance!

This past Wednesday, a hardcover volume was released by Image collecting the first four issues of The Monolith. A second volume collecting issues collecting the rest of the series that can be reprinted is forthcoming. I would suggest picking these up to support the new incarnation of the series, however, the fact that Batman appears in issues 6-8 means that a full reprint is not in the cards. It would be worth it for you to track down those middle issues at a convention, just so you can get the full picture of this great series. And hopefully, if the interest is there as it should be, we might get some new Monolith stories from Image in the near future. I can hope, anyway.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Comics For Everyone: The Magic of All Ages Comics

There are a lot of different types of comics out there, no matter what the public perception is. I'm sure if you've found your way here, you have a good idea of that, but it still needs to be reiterated every now and then. Superheroes make up the bulk of what the mainstream media sees, but there is so much else out there, and that's a wonderful thing. Since I started writing this blog a couple months back, I've written about more than my share of superheroes, but I've also touched on horror, sci-fi, and crime. But there's another genre I've spent a good amount of time talking: all ages comics. And today, I'd like to spend a little time talking about why I find all ages comics so fascinating, and some of the best ones I've ever read.

Back in the 80s,  pretty much every comic historian, scholar, and fan can agree that comics really went out of their way to become something that was more than just funny books for kids, and did so by forcing a lot of the light and fun out of comics. We reached a point where it was hard to find anything on the racks that you could give to a young kid. I won't say there weren't exceptions; the comics based off of the DC animated series of the 90s were great fun for everyone, but they proved the exception.

I feel like somewhere around the late 90s or early 00s, a movement began that rejected that, and started crafting all ages comics. Please note I did not say kids comics. I think there was still an undercurrent of fear that writing comics geared for small kids exclusively might undercut the progress of the industry, so what people began doing was creating comics everyone can enjoy on multiple levels. And I think this is something that, while not exclusively within the comics industry, is something we can pride ourself on that others sort of hide from.

Other entertainment industries don't seem to run with the idea of all ages. Cartoons are either for adults or for kids. Sure, grown ups watched Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs, and Phineas & Ferb, but those cartoons are marketed almost exclusively at kids, no matter what the demo that was actually watching was. I will say that, in recent years, Pixar has tried to close this gap, and The Muppets was marketed in this vain, but that's still a far cry from there being truly all ages marketed movies. When the Harry Potter phenomenon was in full swing at the bookstores, the books were still looked at as kids books that adults could read, not as just plain books. There is no "all ages" section at Barnes & Noble; there's children's and adults. I think a lot of authors write with the intent that parents should be able to read and enjoy these books with their kids, but they aren't marketed that way.

But with comics, there is a sense that people who write comics that kids can enjoy really want the experience to be something that is shared, and something that people of any age or demographic group can enjoy. I'm not a dad yet, but I am an uncle, and I am happy to say there are plenty of comics I can happily now read with my nieces, who are four and eight. They are stories that I can enjoy on some level and they can on another. And on top of that, these tend to be stories that are not just enjoyable, but are fun. So much of modern fiction, both written, performed, or produced, is so gloomy, so dark, or so mean. All ages comics are a breath of fresh air in that world. They are something that you can get a thrill out of, but something you can usually walk away from feeling happy or affirmed. Not always, serious stories need to exist for children as well as adults, but stories for all ages books tend to be told in a way that leaves you understanding that we fight through the dark and persevere, not wallow in it.

One of the great things about all ages comics is that they encompass all the genres of the rest of the comic book industry. If you like Harry Potter, well there are plenty of fantasy comics for your kids to read. If they've read Goosebumps, I can find a spooky all ages comic. And hey, guess what, I can find superhero comics that you'd feel safe letting your kids read, and that you'd get a lick out of. I've talked about some of these in reviews and recommended readings before, so I won't go into them again, but remember that Atomic Robo, Tiny Titans, The Muppet Show Comic Book, Snarked, and Reed Gunther are all out there for you to enjoy. There are plenty of others that I'd like to touch on today.

I think the comic that started the trend of modern all ages comics was Bone by cartoonist Jeff Smith. Bone is a mix of high and low fantasy, with a touch of fairy tale, starring the three Bone Cousins, Fone, Phoney, and Smiley, who, after being run out of Boneville, arrive in the Valley. In their new home, they meet Thorn, Gran'ma Ben, and the rest of the cast of the series as, through a comic mishap, they are drawn into the war with the Rat Creatures and their mysterious master, The Hooded One. Bone is tremendous fun, and does a great job of mixing the high stakes action of a fantasy epic with the comedy of Phoney Bone's moneymaking schemes and monstrous Rat Creatures talking about quiche. You can read one story with an army of Rat Creatures attacking the Valley, and in another Phoney is trying to fix a cow race. At its heart, though, Bone goes back to the classic fairytale trope of the underdog facing down the big monster, and finding courage. You can get all of the series in one giant omnibus in the original black and white, or pick up the individual nine volumes colorized from Scholastic Books.

The all ages comic that made me stand up and begin to really think about how great they are, though, was Patrick The Wolf Boy. I stumbled across Patrick when the first one shot featuring him came into Dewey's, and as I have mentioned before, I have a thing for werewolves. But Patrick isn't a scary monster werewolf. He's a first grader who just happens to chase squirrels and turn into a hairy wolf boy during the full moon. Created by Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani, now better known for their work on Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures, Patrick plays in the same ballpark of a comic that can be read with your very little ones, but has enough of a sense oh humor that you grown ups would appreciate it. The best metaphor I've ever been able to come up with for this book was a comic where Calvin happens to turn into Hobbes on the full moon. Wrap your head around that. Patrick is sadly pretty much out of print as far as I can tell, but Art and Franco have a bunch of Patricks I've seen with them at cons, so go, check them out there.

Since I'm talking about monsters, let's talk about Scary Godmother. Jill Thompson, possibly best known for her work with Neil Gaiman on Sandman, wrote and drew a series of charming picture books about the Scary Godmother, who lives on the Frightside and is sort of a patron witch of Halloween. With the help of Hannah Marie, a little girl who stumbles into her, and a cast of monsters, Scary Godmother helps keep Halloween going. These aren't scary books, but are perfect for Halloween reading, with giving maybe a little chill or jump but nothing that will keep the kids (or you) up late. The four picture books have been collected in one volume and all the comics in a separate one by Dark Horse.

I just want to drop in a quick mention of Amelia Rules! here, as it's probably my favorite all ages comics that is currently being published. There's a new volume due in the next month or so, so expect a recommended reading when I know the exact release date. Without spending too much time, Amelia McBride was created by cartoonist Jimmy Gownley, and is smart, sassy, and always getting into trouble for being herself. She has a group of friends who are oddballs, teachers who don't get her, parents who are trying to get her, and the coolest aunt in the world. The book has more heart in one chapter than most books or comics have in whole volumes.

Now, in any duscussion of all ages comics, I think a writer would be remiss to not talk about Archie Comics. Some of the longest running comics out there, the kids from Riverdale are still going strong. While I know some people have been upset by how socially progressive Archie books have been over the past few years, I like the idea that Riverdale is an idealized version of the world where everyone is accepted. Still aside from the more progressive stories, there is the same hijinks from when I was a kid, with Arachie trying to choose between Betty and Veronica, Jughead eating everything in sight, and Reggie being a jerk. There are also the occasional high concept story, like the spy themed "The Man From RIVERDALE" above, that's a cool spy pastiche. I also picked that cover because that issue was drawn by artist Fernando Ruiz, who happens to be one of of regular customers at Dewey's, and appears with us every Free Comic Book Day. He's an awesome guy, teaches at the Kubert School, and is currently the artist on Life With Archie, the magazine featuring tales of grown up Archie, which also happens to be an great book.

And just to make sure I don't go a post without mentioning my usual manias, there are some great all ages superhero and Star Wars comics out there. Dark Horse regularly releases volumes under the Star Wars Adventures and Clone Wars Adventures banners that are great one off stories featuring stories that are geared for everyone. These can be a little scarier, or more intense, then a lot of the others I've talked about, so you might really want to read these with your kids. DC has, since the advent of Batman: The Animated Series, had some form of all ages Batman title running, and while quality has varied, some of these have been outstanding. Mike Parobeck's run as artist of the original Batman Adventures series is outstanding, and Dan Slott's run on the second series of that title is vastly under-rated, and ended before its time. Also, if you want a truly surreal treat, DC just released one of their DC Comics Presents reprint volumes featuring Mark Millar's run on the all ages Superman Adventures. Yes, folks, Mark Millar, writing shockingly good all ages Superman. Check it out and be awed.

So, those are some of my suggestions. We comic readers are a dying breed, ladies and gentlemen. So why don't you pick up something, and give it to your kids, your nieces and nephews, or the neighbor kid. You might be creating a new life long comic fan.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/18

Bad Medicine #3
Story: Nunzio DeFilippis & Christina Weir
Art: Christopher Mitten

Bad Medicine, Oni Press's new title that debuted with a free #1 back on Free Comic Book Day this year and features a sci-fi/horror/medical/procedural mash up, kicks off its second arc this month, and it's a really solid beginning. I'm a sucker for any kind of werewolf story, so when the issue opens with a cop shooting a werewolf, I knew I was going to be into this one. As the group of CDC investigators arrive at the site to look into another strange disease, we continue to get a feel for each of these characters; DeFilippis and Weir have always been writers who do tremendous character work, and this title is no exception. Dr. Randal Horne, the principal character of the ensemble, is a fascinating character, a man who has the early Doctor Strange/Doctor House lack of a bedside manner who is trying to learn it, and who might be haunted by the ghost of a patient he didn't save, or might just have a screw loose, while Detective Joley Huffman is a tough, no-nonsense NYPD detctive who has been sucked into this world of paranormal disease. And rounding out the team are doctors Alexander Teague and Ian Hogarth, who are opposite poles; Teague is the Scully of the team, always searching for the rational explanation, while Hogarth is the wacky, geeky, almost comic relief figure. The group balances well, and as the book gets its feet under itself, they grow into more vivid life. The idea of lycanthropy as pathogen is especially interesting, since I've seen similar takes on vampirism and Zombie outbreaks, but not really with werewolves, and I look forward to seeing how it develops. Bad Medicine is a book that reminds me of the best year's of The X-Files: science and the paranormal tossed together into a creepy stew, with interesting characters trying to find the truth.

Star Trek: The Next Generation/Doctor Who: Assimilation2 #3
Story: Scott and David Tipton & Tony Lee
Art: J.K. Woodward & The Sharp Brothers

While I may not be as big a Doctor Who or Star Trek fan as I am, say, a Batman or Star Wars fan, I couldn't resist picking up a crossover between the two longest running sci-fi franchises in the western world, especially when it was going to be the Next Generation crew in the spotlight, since that was the first series of the franchise I was exposed to. I have to say, it's been a ton of fun. While the first two issues were spent introducing the casts of the two series, and establishing the threat of a Borg/Cybermen alliance, this issue really starts seeing the plot move forward, and features a fun flashback of the original Enterprise meeting the Fourth Doctor. All of the characters, be it the Enterprise crew or the Eleventh Doctor and his companions, Amy and Rory, are written to sound exactly like they would in an episode of their respective shows, and while the stakes are duly high, the fate of the Federation and all known space to start with, the series never loses the sense of fun and adventure that is the cornerstone of both shows. As the mystery of the Doctor's memories deepen, and the Borg/Cybermen alliance looms, I am honestly just excited to see where the story goes. And that sense of wide-eyed excitement is something that makes me remember why the frontiers of space and time are always so fun to explore on the Enterprise and the TARDIS.

Star Wars: Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison #3
Story: W. Haden Blackman
Art: Agustin Alessio

The second issue of this series nearly made it into last month's reviews, but was just barely bumped out by Dawn of the Jedi, and as this issue is as good as the last, it had to make it this month. The series, set shortly after the events of Revenge of the Sith, follows Darth Vader, Moff Trachta (a character from earlier Star Wars comic stories), and our narrator, a recently graduated Imperial Lieutenant named Laurita Tohm, on a desperate fight from Coruscant with a wounded Emperor Palpatine to escape a coup attempt. The story has all the hallmarks of a great Star Wars story: character, a sense of what has come before, and action. The story does a good job of getting into the heads of each of its three protagonists. There are interesting parallels between the three men, all of whom have been scarred and lost limbs; they are all broken men, and we see them all dealing with how broken they are, both physically and mentally. We see one scene of Vader in a fit of rage at the Jedi he once served with, and you can see Vader justifying the acts he perpetrated against them in his rage. Trachta gets revenge on the being who scarred him, and Tohm reveals the origin of the damage to his body. I don't want to reveal what the Ghost Prison of the title is, because it's a great moment and something I could discuss in a future review, but it continues to explore how the Jedi were compromised during the end of the era of the Republic, and how far they had strayed from their ideals. Darth Vader and the Ghost Prison is a great series for both the die hard and casual Star Wars fan to read, not being heavily beholden to continuity but still rewarding those of us who are long time readers.

The Unwritten #39
Story: Mike Carey
Art: Peter Gross

It's hard to review a single issue of one of these continuing Vertigo series, especially when they are forty issues into an epic that, while it has beginnings and endings to arcs, is pretty much one continuous story. The Unwritten has been one of my favorite Vertgo series since it launched, and the last arc ended act one of the series, and this issue continues "The Wound," the first arc of the second act. This arc has barely featured the regular cast of the series, with only Richie Savoy, lead character Tom Taylor's vampire friend, appearing for more than isolated panels. But the characters for this arc are still interesting. Australian detective Didge and Danny, former employee of the Cabal,  catch up to Lucas Filby, leader of the Church of Tommy, and find that he is more tied to the events of the series then suspected. The issue also features the origin of fan favorite character Pauly Bruckner, better known as the fowl mouthed anthropomorphic rabbit, Mr. Bun. And being that this is The Unwritten, there has to be that sense of magical realism that has existed in so few comics since the heyday of The Sandman, where the world of thugs, cults, and hitmen are set against appearances by magical prosthetic hands and prophecy spouting unicorns. Next issue looks to be the return of Tom Taylor to the book, and further revelations on the damage to the Leviathan, and a resolution to the events in Australia. I'm curious to see where Tom's journey goes from here, and what he will do when he learns about the damage his war with the Cabal caused. But for now, I just have to deal with a comic that ends with people charging off to stop the villain on unicornback. There are worse things.

Wonder Woman #11
Story: Brian Azzarello
Art: Cliff Chiang

Wonder Woman is the title that came out of the New 52 as probably the most changed title. Brian Azzarello was not a writer anyone expected to see on the title, and that has breathed a new life into the adventures of Diana. There have been controversies along the way, no doubt, but I have found the book to be an interesting combination of mythology and superheroics. This issue seems to be moving the plot that has driven the series until this point, the fight over the thrown of the dead Zeus and the fate of his illegitimate child with the mortal Zola, into its endgame. The gods are assembled, and Wonder Woman is facing them down. Azzarello has given Diana a strong voice, and understands her as a character; she is both a fierce warrior and a font of compassion. One of the things that has been spectacular about the post-New 52 Wonder Woman has also been the re-envisioning of the Greek gods by artist Cliff Chiang. This issue, both Demter and Artemis make their initial appearances, looking as stunning as the rest of the gods, with a plant based Earth mother in Demeter, and a silvery, moon like luminescence in the moon goddess Artemis. With Diana finally facing down Hera, who has plagued her since the beginning of the series, and Apollo, whose machinations are behind much of the chaos she has encountered, its time to see what the Amazon Princess and her friend's fates will be.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Recommended Viewing: The Dark Knight Rises

Like there was anything else I'd write about today.

I think I'm really going to need more time to really sit back and process everything that happened in The Dark Knight Rises. The film is nearly three hours long, and is a dense movie, with tons of stuff happening, plus lots of symbolism and weight. I can say that I loved it, that I thought it was an excellent film in general, and an incredible superhero film in specific.

In my commentary on Starman, I mentioned that I feel, with the continuing nature of superhero comics, characters rarely change, and endings are at best artificial. Christopher Nolan, knowing that he was building a trilogy, actually created a final chapter for his Batman. While I'm sure another writer/director could pick up the character and run with this version of it, I think that would be a disservice. Nolan, over the course of his trilogy, has crafted a complete tale: the beginnings of a hero is Batman Begins, the hero at the height of his legend in The Dark Knight, and the hero giving the last full measure of devotion in The Dark Knight Rises. When all three films are watched together, as I did at one of the marathons last night, you can see a very clear arc for Nolan's Batman, one that I will get into in a little bit.

Nolan has done something throughout his trilogy that previous Batman films have not: he has taken inspirations from specific comic book stories and played with them to best fit his view and themes.The three that leap immediately to mind for this film are not three you would expect to be mentioned in the same breath: the quintessential Dark Knight Returns, and the mega-Bat-family crossovers Knightfall and  No Man's Land. Nolan takes aspects from each, an aged Batman who has retired and a city under siege by villains, and puts them together in a way that works.

This film is a bigger movie than it's previous two installments. It's longer, of course, but more than that, it has more of a superhero plot, with massive armies of criminals, super science, and as many settings as Batman Begins. The more fantastic aspects might seem to counter to what Nolan had done before, especially in the supremely gritty and "real" world of The Dark Knight, but one of the themes established in the first film is one of escalation; that great acts of heroism only inspire greater acts of villainy. And so a plot that seems a bit more outlandish than the previous two films (one of which ended with a train chase and a microwave emitter, so you know we're really into sci-fi land here) feels acceptable.

Beyond the theme of escalation, Nolan continues to touch on the two othemes that have run through his trilogy. The first is that of terrorism. Nolan's villains are never addressed as criminals, or supervillains; they are terrorists. Bane is even more of one than Ra's al Ghul or the Joker. He uses peoples' fears against them to turn society on its ear. We watch Gotham deal with a world where right and wrong have been overturned by the rule of fear and madness, and how people deal with that. More than terrorism, though, the theme of belief in something comes through. Whether it's Bane's belief in the decadence of the world and his right to change it, or John Blake's belief in the Batman, what we believe in, and how far we are willing to go for it, is a string part of the film.

But the theme I feel is most central to what Nolan is doing in his films is that of the definition of a hero. Bruce Wayne begins the film as a shell of his former self. He must rebuild his life and his heroic persona. He must choose what is right and what is heroic. He is given numerous opportunities to quit, or to leave, but he chooses not to. In the end, he gives his all to Gotham. The other characters on the right side of things are also shown struggling with doing what is right, specifically Jim Gordon, who begins the film still struggling with his choice from eight years prior to let Batman take the fall for Two-Face's crimes. Gordon has been as central to Nolan's films as Batman has, and so it's important to follow his journey to its conclusion as well. And the introduction of new character John Blake, a young idealist, stands as something that the others can look to as a reminder of what they were before the world tarnished them.

Nolan has made excellent casting choices in his films, and this one is no different. While I'm sure we'll hear the same complaints about actor Christian Bale's Batman voice, I think he did a tremendous job in this film. He does spend a good amount of time out of the mask, allowing to see his face and to see him work. He has a journey to make through this film, from broken man to ascendant hero, and he pulls it off. The rest of the returning cast, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, and Michael Caine, are all legends for a reason, and none of them do anything but play their characters pitch perfectly.

As for the new cast, Tom Hardy spends the entire film under mask as Bane, but does a good job of using his eyes and his body language to make his character. The Bane voice is clearly computer altered, but not to a degree that loses Hardy's personality as Bane. Joseph Gordon-Levitt plays John Blake with an earnestness that is lacking in so many of the other characters. He is a young man, noble, with aspirations to make the world a better place, and Gordon-Levitt plays his in a way that does not make his lines seem, "Gosh golly," naive, but a person who is a true believer in something. Marion Cottilard's  Miranda Tate is one character I would have like to spent a bit more time with, to make her motivations a little more clear, but Cottilard plays her as a woman who believes that she can make the world a better place, and has the steel in her spine to do it.

The final new character in the film is Selina Kyle, Catwoman, and she is ably played by Anne Hathaway. Catwoman has been played by many different actresses over the years, more than any other of Batman's rogues, and Hathaway has become may favorite. She's tough, she's sassy, she's sexy, she's everything I would want in a Catwoman. More than that, though, she has a heart, and that "will they/won't they" thing that is the cornerstone of her relationship with Batman. She had excellent chemistry with Bale, and the scenes between the Bat and the Cat popped off the screen for me.

As with all of Nolan's films, the look of the movie was stunning. Nolan does a great job of using effects not as a crutch but as something to heighten a scene. The scenes in Bane's former home of the prison were stunning, the world there so distinct from Gotham. And watching Gotham change under the actions of Bane, and seeing the way the people there reacted to it, added a layer to the film.

The Dark Knight Rises isn't a perfect movie, but really there are very few films that even approach perfection. What it is, is a film that does what it intended. It raises questions, it makes you think, think about heroism and terrorism, something that most summer blockbusters would never try. And it gives a glorious send off to an excellent interpretation of one of the most interpreted characters in modern culture. Kudos, Mr. Nolan, kudos.

On a more serious note, my heart and thoughts go out to the people hurt and killed in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/11

Atomic Robo: Real Science Adventures #4
Story: Brian Clevinger
Art: Josh Broglia & Various

I admit that I read the core Atomic Robo mini-series on trade, but when this monthly anthology was announced, I jumped right on board. It's been a lot of fun so far, and since I missed reviewing issue 3 in the week I was moving, I had to do this issue. There are two continuing serials in the book. One is a Robo-less tale of the Sparrow infiltrating a Nazi fortress. The other, which tends to be the story I look forward to most in each issue, is Robo training with Bruce Lee. It's interesting to see Robo in a situation where he's trying to learn instead of teach and inform, and Bruce Lee serves as an interesting mentor figure, one who is less of a father figure than Tesla, who treats Robo as a child rather than a pupil. There are three one-off shorts, and one of them really drew my interest. In it, Robo wanders into a comic shop in 1994 and is exposed to comics as they were in the mid-90s (and how they still are to an increasing degree today). Clevinger does a good job on condemning the violence and mass consumerism of the industry in a story that is not preachy, but is a melancholy testament to someone who remembers when the industry was something else. He does a better job in four pages than most commentators can do in dozens of posts.

Batgirl #11
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Adrian Syaf

Batgirl was one of the New 52 titles I was most excited for, and while I have enjoyed it, I felt like it took a little while to find its feet. The current arc, dealing with a new vigilante named Knightfall and her cadres of cronies, though, has been very strong. This isn't the first time that the Bat titles have dealt with the idea of vigilantism and what are the lines you do not cross (the name of the villain is possibly an intentional nod to the Knightfall/Knightquest/Knightsend trilogy that is probably the most famous example in the Bat family), but this time there is an additional aspect, made more clear in this issue: the terrors of Gotham can sometimes change the innocent into the horrors that they are believed to be, and who's truly responsible then? Since the New 52, the idea of Gotham as a presence that affects its citizens has become more clear, and now this title is adding to it. Readers also get a better idea of Detective McKenna, Batgirl's GCPD nemesis, and she and Barbara reach a sort of accord. One other subplot that gets some attention is Barbara's roommate Alysia and her new beau, who just happens to be Barbara's brother James Jr., who just happens to be a serial killer. Alysia clearly doesn't know this yet, and I'm curious to see what James's plan is.

Batman #11
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Greg Capullo & Rafael Albuquerque

"The Court of Owls" story wraps up this issue, and it ends with a bang, both figuratively and literally. Batman's confrontation with the new Owlman, his possible brother, Lincoln March aka Thomas Wayne Jr., is interesting not just because it is a beautifully constructed fight scene, which it is, but because we get a real insight into exactly what the Court of Owls has spent years doing to Lincoln's mind. The loud, brutal fight scene is nicely set off by the end of the main story, where Dick Grayson comes to Wayne Manor to talk with Bruce. The last time the two met in Batman, Bruce sucker punched Dick, and there's a nice call back to that, but more, this is two men discussing their friendship and the world around them. Bruce admits that it is Dick, his friendship and trust, that keeps him sane, and the story ends with the two of them looking out at the Gotham skyline with a renewed promise to protect their home. It's a great ending to one of my favorite Batman stories of the past few years. The backup story, the final part of "The Fall of the House of Wayne" does an interesting job of mirroring the ending of the main story, this time with Bruce and Alfred talking about the way the Court has effected their lives. Snyder has done a great job of making this story not just a superhero slugfest, but a personal challenge for his heroes, and I am very much looking forward to his next arc on he book, and the return of the Joker.

Chew: Special Agent Poyo
Story: John Layman
Art: Rob Guillory

I think I might have made this observation before, but I'll make it again here: Comic books as an art form seem to have a great ability to take the absurd, play it straight, and somehow come out with something that is not laughable but actually really fun and awesome. Chew is a book that does this really well, and that is never more clear than when the uber-rooster Poyo appears. Poyo is a cybernetic, feral, kung fu, luchadore rooster who is the deadliest fighter in the world. This sounds ridiculous, but writer John Layman makes Poyo actually a great character, and artist Rob Guillory finds a way to make you know what's going on in Poyo's head without him speaking. Granted that is mostly Poyo wanting to kill anything in his path, but still... In this spotlight one-shot, Poyo goes to England to defeat a mad scientist who has developed a device that makes it rain farm animals. It's a chaotic comic of body parts flying and chickens kicking ass. Oh, and Poyo briefly winds up in hell and beats the hell out of the Devil. To quote one of the issue's characters (with judicious censoring, since this is a family blog), "That's Poyo, mother%*#@(!"

The Walking Dead #100
Story: Robert Kirkman
Art: Charlie Adlard

Anniversary issues are a tough thing: you want to create something that rewards long time readers, but also is accessible to new readers who might jump on board for the big issue. The Walking Dead #100 does a good job of doing this. I tend to find it hard to view an issue of Walking Dead on its own; it is a continuous narrative from issue one, so everything builds on everything before. However, this issue really does establish everything you need to know, who the characters are and what they are doing, and introduces a villain who looks to be the biggest threat the survivors have faced since The Governor. We've seen Rick, our lead character, poking a metaphoric bear for the past few issues, and while things have gotten tough, this issue really makes it clear that he's in for a world of hurt. The assumptions Rick has been working under have proven wrong, and someone has paid. I've seen this issue described as the most brutal in the history of a series that never pulls its punches. While I still feel that the issue long torture scenes between Michonne and the Governor still is the most brutal, this issue does send a shiver down my spine. It looks like the next hundred issues are going to be no easier for our heroes.

Wolverine and the X-Men #13
Story: Jason Aaron
Art: Nick Bradshaw

While I have mixed feelings about the core Avengers Vs. X-Men mini-series and event, I have to admit the crossovers in both Uncanny X-Men and Wolverine and the X-Men have been very good. I am, for want of a better pop culture reference, Team Cyclops, but I think Wolverine and the X-Men is probably the best X-Book on the market right now. Jason Aaron does a great job of balancing action, humor, and character moments in each issue. This issue serves as a spotlight for Warbird, the bodyguard of student Kid Gladiator, son of Gladiator and heir to the throne of the intergalactic Shi'ar Empire. It's disturbing to see how alien the Shi'ar mindset is, which is cool, as alien races are often portrayed as just human society with some superficial changes grafted on. Warbird's story is tragic, and the idea that she has been trained to have all compassion crushed out of her, and the result of what we could call abuse and what the Shi'ar would call teaching is something that leaves a mark. This is balanced with a savage battle between Gladiator and the Phoenix Five, which ends with an undisputed victory by one. We walk out of this issue with a better understanding of Warbird, and a clear idea that the Phoenix Five are going to be ever harder to stop than they have seemed so far. Let's see where the series goes, and if the Jean Grey School will be anything but rubble by the end.

Oh, and a couple of random notes here at the end.

I thought most of the announcements made at this year's San Diego Comic Con were fairly run of the mill, well except for the one about NEW SANDMAN BY NEIL GAIMAN!!!!!! Excuse me as I go into a brief coma of sheer rapture...

Ok, ok, I'm back. If you have ever read and enjoyed work by Greg Pak, writer of such comics as Incredible Hulk, Incredible Hercules, Magneto: Testament, and Doctor Strange: Season One, he was the mystery guest on this week's episode of Ask Me Another on NPR. You can listen to the whole episode on the link, and hear him talk about what's great about comics, and get into a trivia contest with artist Dean Haspiel about animals in the Marvel Universe.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Primer: Bane

With The Dark Knight Rises less than a week away, I thought I would spend some time talking about that film's most misunderstood character: Bane. Bane has popped up in comics and other media since he was first introduced back in 1993. He has become, in the comics at least, a layered character with a complex web of emotions and motivations. In other media, Bane's motivations and background tend to be simplified, so I am very curious to see how he is handled in The Dark Knight Rises. But before the movie, let's talk about the character as he has come to be in the comics.

Bane was created by Chuck Dixon, Doug Moench, and Graham Nolan for the one-shot Batman: The Vengeance of Bane in 1993. In the issue, readers meet the child who will grow into Bane. Bane was born on the island of Santa Prisca, a Caribbean hellhole that is home to terrorists and criminals, with little to no law. Bane's father was part of an attempted revolt against the reigning government, and since he escaped, his pregnant lover was locked up in his stead. When the baby was born a boy, the father's sentence was passed on to him: life in prison in Pena Duro, the hardest prison in the world.  We watch Bane grow from a young boy into a man who is the pinnacle of human achievement, and pushed beyond that by the super steroid Venom, a drug that vastly increased his size and strength. Bane is one of a group of characters introduced over the years to serve as Batman's equal and opposite number; not the Joker, who serves as Batman's opposite, but as a cracked mirror version of the Dark Knight. Specifically, though, Bane was introduced to be the centerpiece villain of Knightfall, the upcoming Batman family event.

One of the key factors that has made Bane an interesting comic book character has been one that has been ignored in most of his other media appearances: Bane is smart. Bane is really smart. Bane is a character who found his way out of prison, who took over Gotham's mobs, who deduced Batman's identity, and is almost entirely self taught. He trained his body to be as good as it could be even before the Venom started coursing through his system. That is what makes Bane a good nemesis for Batman: that he meets Batman on not just the physical plain, but the mental one as well.

After finally escaping Pena Duro, Bane went to Gotham because he had heard of Batman, and wanted to defeat him. As a child, his dreams had been haunted by one nightmare: a monstrous man-sized Bat creature (I don't know why he didn't go after the more accurate target of Man-Bat, but hey, supervillain logic isn't people logic). Bane believed he would be the king of men when he finally defeated his fear, symbolized now in his mind as Batman. Ater observing his target for some time, Bane decided on his moves, and he set his pan into action.

Knightfall was the event that ran through the Bat titles throughout summer and fall of 1993. In it, Bane broke open Arkham Asylum, and let Batman, already on the brink of complete exhaustian, run a gauntlet of his greatest foes, exhausting himself further. And when he was finally completely done in, Bane was waiting for him at Wayne Manor, where Bane took him... and broke him. Bane broke Batman's spine over his knee and left him for dead on the Gotham streets.

With Batman defeated, Bane set himself up as the new king of Gotham. But here's where Bane's plans fall apart: Venom eventually begins to effect the mind of the person taking it. Bane grew more impulsive, and his anger began to overwhelm him, leading to his confrontation with, and savage beating by, Jean-Paul Valley, aka Azrael, twho took Bruce Wayne's place as Batman while Wayne recovered. And this is where most people's knowledge of Bane ends. He was the villain of one of the seminal Batman stories of the past twenty years, but his porfile has been lower since, not taking part in most major stories. But that doesn't mean the stories he has taken part in haven't been interesting, and he hasn't grown as a character.

Bane's next full appearance is in Batman: The Vengeance of Bane II: The Redemption, and it's here where Bane's journey starts taking turns that are different and makes him more than just another Batman villain. After awakening from the coma Azrael put him in, Bane retrained his body to perfection and kicked the Venom habit, knowing it weakened his mind. Bane then declared himself, "Innocente," innocent of all his crimes, feeling they were a result of his ruthless upbringing and the Venom. After escaping Blackgate and stopping a group of street crooks who have been selling Venom on the streets, Bane confronts Batman, declares his innocence, and leaves Gotham, in search of the father who left him to suffer for what he had done.

Bane disappeared from comics for a year, and when he reappeared, he was in unusual company. Bane had become the new heir to Ra's al Ghul. Ra's al Ghul, the immortal international ecoterrorist, had spent years trying to convince Batman to marry his daughter, Talia, and become his heir, but Batman had refused and thwarted many of al Ghul's plans to cut the human population by 99% and create and Eden on Earth. It seems Bane had no such compunctions. This is another example where Bane and Batman were placed in the same situation and took very differing positions. Bane might not have found his father, but found a father figure; however, as one might imagine judging by Bane's luck with fathers, al Ghul simply viewed him as a means to an end, and when Bane failed in his mission, al Ghul didn't even look for him. Bane was once again out on his own.

Over the next six years, Bane only appeared in four different stories in the DC Universe. Three were minor; a one shot that was timed to be released with the unfortunate film Batman and Robin, where Bane appeared as a character unrecognizable to his comic counterpart, an arc in Azrael, where he confronted the man who once defeated him; and an issue where he exacts revenge of Ra's al Ghul by destroying his Lazarus Pits. The other appearance, more substantive, was working for Lex Luthor. Luthor sent Bane into an earthquake ravaged Gotham, to destroy documents and to pave the way for Luthor's expansion into Gotham. The price Bane was given was information, and once Bane received it, he left Gotham, not even confronting Batman in the end.

Bane's next major confrontation with Batman, in the pages of Batman: Gotham Knights,  was more one of a deeply personal nature. Some of the information that Bane had received from Luthor allowed him to track down information on four men who might be his father. And one of those men was Thomas Wayne. Bane arrived back in Gotham to confront his 'brother." Batman of course has a test done, and discovers Bane is not his brother, but Bane has begun to attempt to make himself a better person, a hero of sorts. Bane leaves Gotham to hunt down the other men who might be his father, and tried to do some good along the way

Finally, in a Himalayan cave, he finds the man: Sir Edmund Dorrance, the international criminal and Batman rogue known as the King Snake. Dorrance and Bane fight, Batman arrives, and while Dorrance falls to his death, and Bane, nearly dead, in healed by one of the very Lazarus Pits of Ra's al Ghul. Bane walked out of the pit a changed man, swearing that he was now going out to be something better. The story of Bane's quest for his father was not a popular one among fans (or at least among fans who post on the internet). People said it was out of character, and that the revelation of Dorrance as King Snake's father was just not right, as writer Jo Duffy had hinted that Bane's father was El Jefe del Pais, the current dictator of Santa Prisca. A few years ago, I met Scott Beatty, the writer of that arc and regular collaborator with Bane co-creator Chuck Dixon, and he told me that Dixon had always intended for King Snake to be Bane's father.

Bane's next appearance is one of those odd cases that can only occur in a shared universe. Bane next appeared in an issue of the DC crossover Infinite Crisis, where he is seen as part of the Secret Society, a coalition of supervillains, where he kills the hero Judomaster. This might have been an attempt to return Bane to his villainous roots, but it seems to discard all the character growth that had occured over the past decade. When the collection of that story was released, they gave Bane new dialogue, a statement saying, "I finally know who I am. I am Bane. I break people." This seems to cement the idea that someone in the Powers That Be wanted Bane to be a villain again, but it seems many of the writers who would follow this up decided that Bane needed to continue to grow.

Bane's next few appearances dealt with him trying to bring some justice to Santa Prisca, his home. He overthrew the cartels that controlled it and set up democratic elections. Of course, even when at his most altruistic, Bane still works in a way that is violent and not exactly what one would call heroic. When he found the elections had been rigged, he declared martial law. He was next taken on as part of the US government's Suicide Squad, an organization that granted supervillains in jail a chance at reduced sentences in exchange for working covert ops that most would consider suicide. Bane seemed to have been hired to help run herd on the Squad, but when the government decided to exile all supercriminals to an alien world, Bane was betrayed and left on the planet, but returns with the others.

After his return, Bane joined the Secret Six, a team of semi-reformed supervillains, who had taken up lives as mercenaries. Secret Six was a quirky comic, at times hilarious, at times violent, and always driven by character. Bane served as the voice of reason on the team, which was made up of some of two other former Bat villains, Catman and Deadshot, Scandal Savage, mistress of blades, Ragdoll, the lunatic and contortionist, and Jeanette, a Banshee. Bane was often seen attepmting to temper the more unusual tastes and whims of his compatriots.

Bane developed a strange relationship with Scandal Savage. Bane had spent years searching for his father and trying to settle that particular relationship, and now that he seemingly had, he had developed paternal feelings for Scandal, someone who had a contentious relationship with her own father, the immortal villain Vandal Savage. Bane went out of his way to attempt to protect Scandal, even during the darkest of the Six's missions. Gail Simone, the writer of the series, also addressed Bane's addiction to Venom head on, with Bane always one moment of temptation away from taking the Venom again, always having the drug and the equipment he'd need to take it with him, always tempting himself.

At the end of their series, the Six went to hell to retrieve the soul of a fallen ally. While there, the demon Blaze, one of the most powerful evil forces in DC hell, told them that they were all damned, no matter what they would do. Having returned, and his chance at redemption taken away, Bane decided it was not worth it anymore. He made another run at batman, this time trying to break him psychologically. The attempt failed, and Bane was imprisoned again. This time, his return to villainy seemed permanent, and more developed. Bane's most recent appearance, after the massive changes caused by Flashpoint and the New 52, Bane was returned to his massive, Venom-using mastermind that he was in his beginnings, although his look is more like the one he had in the Batman: Arkham Asylum/City video games.

When Bane has appeared in other media, his personality and motivation have varied wildly. His appearances on Batman: The Animated Series and in Batman: Arkham Asylum/City was similar to his appearance in Knightfall. Unfortunately, the film Batman and Robin presented him as a mindless oaf, the thrall of Poison Ivy, and while the other recent cartoon versions of Batman, The Batman and Batman: The Brave and the Bold, have not made Bane as much of a simpleton, they have not quite gotten his cunning right either.

So, that's the story of Bane. How do I think he will be treated in The Dark Knight Rises? Well, I think we will get a Bane that is very much like the Bane from his earliest appearances, strong and smart, but probably without the more outlandish element of the Venom. I look forward to finding out in five days time.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Recommended Reading for 7/13: Richard Stark's Parker

If I have one favorite creator currently working in comics, it would be Darwyn Cooke. Attaching his name to any project is a sure fire way to get me to buy it; a comic company could put out Darwyn Cooke's The Phone Book, and I would snag it first day (on an unrelated note, what will we as a culture do when we don't have the phone book to reference as the object of boredom?). Cooke is a double threat as one of comics' premiere writer artists. His pacing in both aspects of his career is impeccable; his plots know when to take their time and expand on a plot point and when to barrel forward at top speed. His art style is clean and detailed, with dynamite action and prefect flow from panel to panel. Some of his best works (especially DC: The New Frontier) harken back to a nostalgic 1950s and 1960s, with an art deco design that feels so real you could walk into it.

Donald Westlake was one of the great writers of noir and hard-boiled fiction; his name is mentioned in the same breath with Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, and Dashiell Hammett. He wrote in an era where men were hardcases and women were dames, and the world was a place of shades of grey. For a genre that often has cardboard cut outs for characters, Westlake knew how to create a fully formed character who was still a noir protagonist. Westlake and Cooke's styles line up perfectly in that they both know exactly how to pace a story, and one of Cooke's first original graphic novels, Selina's Big Score, has the feel of one of Westlake's great capers. So it's only fitting that Cooke's current tour de force and opus is a series of adaptations of some of Westlake's best known books; under the pseudonym Richard Stark, Westlake wrote over 20 novels starring the criminal Parker, and Cooke has set out to adapt four of the best.

While Parker stories have been adapted for other media before, Westlake never let the filmmakers who made those films call the protagonist Parker. One aspect of these adaptations that is especially cool is that, Cooke so impressed the author, he was given the blessing to use the Parker name, and Cooke has not let Westlake down in his faithfulness. Cooke does not use any word that was not from the original novels. He does not put in all the narration, since the art does so much of that storytelling, but Cooke does not stray from Westlake's original blueprints. And why would he need to? When you have a perfect gem, there's no reason to cut it.

Parker is a career criminal, and completely unrepentant about it. He does whatever he needs to to make a buck, and doesn't particularly care who might get hurt along the way. Not the least bit a hero, Parker doesn't even really qualify as an anti-hero, except for the fact that he's usually knocking over guys who are even worse than him. He has few friends, and as for the women he is with, well he might care about them, but they don't exactly have a great life expectancy. Parker is the prototypical noir protagonist; a loner who just looks out for number one . Despite this (or at some times maybe becasue of it), you can't help but root for Parker, wanting to see him get even or get what he deserves, and to see him put paid to the other bad guys.

So far, Cooke has released three full length Parker adaptations, all published by IDW publishing: The Hunter, The Outift, and The Score. The first chapter of The Outfit was a highlight from another Parker, The Man With the Getaway Face. He also released a short adaption from another Parker novel, The Seventh. Any of the three graphic novels are readable on their own, so feel free to start at any point, but I would recommend starting with The Hunter, which is the first Parker novel, and gives you access to Parker's version of 1962.

The first two Parker adaptations are stories of Parker getting even. The Hunter sees Parker, having escaped a betrayal by his wife and his partner, seeking them to exact his revenge, while The Outfit has Parker escape a mob hit just to rip the mob off and exact his revenge. Parker is usually cast in the roll of the underdog at the beginning of the stories, but always comes out on top by outthinking and outshooting his targets. The Parker novels are all elaborate capers. A pleasure of them is how elaborate the capers are, but without being so elaborate as to be confusing to the reader. Parker plays every side of every situation against the others, and does it with a cold precision.

Cooke draws Parker looking like none of the numerous actors who have played him; he is Westlake's Parker come to metaphoric life. He is a handsome man with a glint of malice in his eyes. Cooke does a great job of making the reader see those gears turning in Parker's mind. Even after Parker gets plastic surgery to help him escape his old life, he is still the same Parker, and there's things in his facial expressions and in the gestures and poses that Cooke gives him that make it clear that this is the same man. All his characters have a great look about them, and he does a great job of capturing Westlake's characters.

Cooke is an artist's artist, and he does some great things with style throughout the series. He has thoroughly researched the era, and everything, from the architecture, to the cars, to the clothes are authentic from the early 60s. Especially noticeable is the sequence in the middle of The Outfit where we see Parker pulling off a series of daring heists against the mob. Each of the capers is drawn in a different style; one is a magazine article from a Time-like magazine, one is a cartoon, etc. It's a testament that while each of these short pieces are very different, they are all clearly from the same artist; they're all so different from Cooke's distinct style, but all fit within the world that the story's are set in, and all are part of one man's vision.

One of the hardest aspects I have found for many comic book artists to really get right is a good fight. Not a battle between titans, but the chase between two guys before they start punching and kicking the hell out of each other, and the aftermath. And while Cooke can draws gorgeous cityscapes and beautiful women reclining seductively with the best of them, he is also one of the best fight artists I have ever seen. Parker is a tough guy, and he often settles things with his fists and gun, and when Parker is having a throwdown with someone, Cooke's knowledge of continuity on panel shines through. You can absolutely follow the fight from punch to punch, and it's brutal. The fights aren't gory, but they are real, and you can feel your face ache when Parker lands a good punch.

Another aspect of Cooke's art that really stands out in the Parker adaptations is the coloring. Coloring is usually for me one of those arts in comics that I don't notice unless it's shockingly terrible or amazing. The Parker adaptations are two color, and not just black and white. The coloring has a yellow to it that makes me think of old newspapers and magazines, which does a great job of adding to the nostalgic feel of the books. The page quality is also a lovely weight and feel. These are BOOKS, something to be looked at, held, and enjoyed. No glossy stock or quick binding that will fall apart. These are volumes to put on your shelf and go back to look at later to appreciate the work IDW put into producing them.

This week saw the release of the third of the Parker adaptations, The Score, with the final one, Slayground, announced for next year. The Hunter, The Outfit, and The Score should all be available at any comic book shop, and if they're not right there, ask your local retailer to order them. And if you fall in love with Parker like I have, see if you can track down the Parker Martini Edition, reprinting the first two volumes in an oversized, slipcase format, with the original short from The Seventh, and a gallery of all the actors who have played Parker as drawn by Cooke. It's worth the look, trust me.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/4

Animal Man #11
Story: Jeff Lemiere
Art: Steve Pugh

Animal Man has been one of the very pleasant surprises of the New 52 for me. I enjoyed Grant Morrison's run on the character back in the day, and his appearances in 52, but Animal Man has never been a character high on my radar. But this new series has been an excellent blend of horror and superhero tropes, in the same way its sister title, Swamp Thing, has been. As we approach the crossover between the two titles, Buddy Baker returns from the world of The Red (the world of animal spirits where de draws his power), with some altered powers and a serious grudge against the creatures of The Rot. Buddy is one of only a couple heroes who are married in the New 52, and his family ties have always been an important aspect of the character. Him demanding to come back to life to save his family from the thing that had possessed his abandoned body is perfectly in character, and shows the depth of Buddy's love. The scene where he returns, where he morphs his body slowly from the most primitive life form to the most complex is well written, and Steve Pugh does a beautiful job in using each of the higher creatures with a humanity in its eyes that shows that Buddy is there looking to get out. As the issue ends, we get one final push for Buddy's meeting with Swamp Thing. Can't wait to see what happens when the two horror heroes meet next month.

The Boys #68
Story: Garth Ennis
Art: Russel Braun

Garth Ennis is probably known best as the writer of comics with twists and turns, a slightly sophomoric sense of humor, and over the top violence. But having read the majority of Ennis's major works, there's a lot more below the surface of his writing. He actually has a sentimental heart that comes through in a lot of his characters, and each of his major works has a strong central theme. As we reach the end of The Boys, that theme is coming to the fore: the responsibility of power, and how one is supposed to use it. There's not a lot I can say without spoiling this issue, ir without spoiling aspects of the series if you haven't read it yet and want to, but I can say this: the opening scene of the issue is pure Ennis. Four of the Boys sit around and discuss what to do with their possibly/definitely wayward leader. There's comedy (oh, the Frenchman...), a serious look at what has come before and what to do when one of your own goes to far, and a moment that is shocking and sweet when they all make the choice to do what must be done. The ending is trademark Ennis as well: a violent confrontation between two former friends where only one walks away. The roller coaster ride of The Boys is nearly over, but that doesn't mean Ennis doesn't have a few more drops and loops left.

The Muppets: The Four Seasons #1
Story & Art: Roger Langridge

After talking about the previous Langridge Muppet stories on Friday, I was excited to sit down and read the first of his last four issues, and he did not disappoint. This issue is the Spring story, and is all about love. The guest host for the Muppet Show is an attractive ape who Animal falls in love with, and the two have a whirlwind romance, to the despair of her admirer. It's a sweet little story, with all the Muppet touches, including a particularly hilarious "Pigs in Space" where the crew must turn themselves into vegetables as their ship, the SS Swine Trek, crashes to avoid being eaten by the local carnivores. And if you can think of any other comic where you could read that sentence with a straight face, I'll be shocked and have to track it down.

Thief of Thieves #6
Story: Robert Kirkman & Nick Spencer
Art: Shawn Martinbrough

I picked up the first issue of Thief of Thieves, and I really wasn't feeling it.  I loved all the creators involved, but something here just didn't click with me. I tried the second issue, and that was it, I thought. But John, my partner in crime at Dewey's, told me I should try issue three, and so one day on lunch, I read it. And this was what I had been looking for! It felt like the first two issues were just exposition setting up the action beginning in issue three. Now, at issue six, the end of the first arc, some serious action is going down. It seems that master thief Redmond has sold out his crew to get his son out of jail, but there is much more than meets the eye. Maybe it's a triple-cross, with Redmond double crossing the FBI to get his crew loose and get what he wants. And who knows, maybe there's a quadruple-cross coming down the line. What I think I have come to realize about this book is it's less a crime book, like Criminal, where the actual mechanics of the crime are important, and more a character piece, investigating a man who is trying to make right after years of doing wrong. I do love a good caper, but here the caper doesn't really matter and its not given the page count of something that does. Now, the question is whether Redmond will survive having burned his fellow crooks and the feds. Frankly, things don't look good for him; but isn't that half the fun of it?

Friday, July 6, 2012

Recommended Reading for 7/6: The Muppet Show Comic Book

Like many of you reading, I grew up watching The Muppet Show. It was the craziest half hour on television, mixing old school vaudeville with variety TV show with puppeteering with sheer absurdism, and it all balanced perfectly. Kermit and the gang at the Muppet Theater put on a heck of a show, and then graduated to Hollywood and the movies, but quietly faded into something like obscurity for a good decade or so, doing some made for TV movies but really not in the public eye. Last year, the great comeback began with the release of The Muppets, the wonderful feature film that drew the public ete back to the Muppets. But for those of us in the world of comics, the Muppet comeback began two years before that.

When Boom! Studios acquired the rights to do comics based on Disney properties, one of the first books they released was The Muppet Show Comic Book by cartoonist Roger Langridge, who I talked about in my weekly review of his current excellent Lewis Carroll homage, Snarked; Langridge probably got the gig on the strength of his Fred the Clown and The Show Must Go On work, which also dealt with goings on in a theater, and the hijinks backstage, although in a less all ages format. This line had a lot of quality comics, and I'll probably come back and revisit some of the others in later weeks, but Langridge's Muppet comic was hands down the best of them.

Reading these comics, it seems like Langridge found a lost cache of Muppet Show scripts and adapted them for comics. This is a high, high compliment. All the various characters ring completely true to their "real world" counterparts. Kermit is friendly, reliable, and harried. Fozzie is goofy and good natured. Miss Piggy is haughty and lovestruck by Kermit. Scooter is a blur of motion, following the orders of Kermit, his "chief." And Gonzo is... well, Gonzo.

Langridge's art is always detailed, and his depiction of Muppet Theater's backstage is that and more. Langridge must have thoroughly researched the old sets, because his backgrounds look like they were lifted right from them. And all of the minor Muppets appear in the background and in their own scenes! Sweetums (the ogre), Uncle Deadly (the blue monster), and my favorite, Crazy Harry (the explosion happy Muppet) all pop up, along with the usual comedy stylings of Statler and Waldorf, the theater's resident hecklers.

I went into the first issue of the series with some trepidation. After all, could this live up to the long shadow cast by the original Muppet Show? Any doubt I had was put to rest quickly. The first issue of the series sees Kermit feeling a bit down. Antics ensue as the other Muppets attempt to cheer him up to no avail. When his nephew Robin discovers the reason for Kermit's melancholy is that Kermit misses the swamp. Robin convinces Kermit to sing a song at the end of the show, "The Pond Where I Was Born." Even without the music, you can hear the strum of Kermit's banjo, the tune, and the sound of Jim Henson's voice coming from Kermit. The song is sweet and heartwarming, in the tradition of "The Rainbow Connection." After that song, I was sold.

You might be wondering if some of the Muppet shtick would work on the printed page, as opposed to in a TV/movie medium, and I can assure you it does. All the classic Muppet sketches are represented: Pigs in Space, Veterinarian's Hospital, Wayne & Wanda, Kermit reporting from the planet Koozebane, they're all here and as funny as ever. There are even "guest hosts" in many of the stories, who are often thinly veiled parodies of celebrities. Langridge understands that there is a formula to The Muppet Show, even outside the sketches; the Muppets try to put on a show, things go wrong, catastrophe occurs, but in the end everything comes out for the best, and usually with a positive message. It's a tried and true formula.

The original mini-series was four issues, followed by a second four issue mini-series, and finally an ongoing that ran twelve issues. Even into the ongoing, the series was divided into four issue blocks, although each issue does a good job of standing on its own since in most cases the ties are thematic rather than story driven, so here's a quick rundown of each of the arcs.

Meet The Muppets

Meet The Muppets serves as an introduction to the Muppet characters if you're not familair with them, or giving a reminder to people familiar with the Muppets of how great they are. Each issue focuses on a different member of the principal cast: issue one is the Kermit story I talked about above, issue two has Fozzie Bear looking to freshen up his comedy act, issue three deals with the eternal question of what species exactly is Gonzo the Great, and issue four is a story where Miss Piggy has her fortune read and interprets it as meaning she will lose Kermit, so jealousy rears its ugly head and chaos ensues.

The Treasure of Peg Leg Wilson

When Scooter discovers that the Muppet Theater may be the final resting place of the treasure of pirate Peg Leg Wilson, various interested parties begin tearing the theater apart to try to find it. This is a more elaborate story than the first arc, working as an actual continuing four part narrative. Other than the treasure plot, there is a sub plot involving Animal wanting to act more civilized, which ends in the usual wreck.

On The Road

The end of the previous mini-series ended with The Muppet Theater in disarray, so for this arc, the Muppet crew go on the road while repairs are made. Fozzie goes out on the road on his own, and readers follow his misadventures separate from the Muppet tour. Statler and Waldorf also get a nice focus throughout. Langridge does a great job writing for the old cranks, and its never more apparent than here. The first issue collected in this trade was the 0 issue, a one shot that showed Fozzie and Rizzo pitching a "Pigs in Space" movie, which is littered with sci-fi references, and is one of the few issues not drawn by Langridge; art is handled admirably by Shelli Parlone.

Family Reunion

Family Reunion is interesting for Langridge's use of the full Muppet library of characters, including those introduced in later Muppet projects. While Langridge generally stuck to the classic Muppets, this arc features appearances by Piggy's nephews, Andy and Randy, from the attempted 90s TV revival, Muppets Tonight, and Skeeter, Scooter's twin sister from Muppet Babies. Skeeter is actually heavily featured, and her penchant for pranks and causing trouble leads to all sorts of problems. This arc is also only written by Langridge, with pencils provided by Amy Mebberson. Her style is different from Langridge's, a little more cartoony, but it works well with the Muppets.

Muppet Mash

As the cover and the title imply, each issue of this arc features the Muppets and a classic moster trope. Vampires, werewolves, mummies, and robot/Frankenstein monster hybrids. Specific nods to the classic Universal monster movies (like the possible werewolf guest host being Howlin' Jack Talbot, the last name shared with Larry Talbot, the lead character in the classic The Wolfman), are littered throughout, making for nice easter eggs for film buffs. This is my favorite arc, simply because it plays with my love of Muppets and monster movies.

Aside from The Muppet Show Comic Book, Boom! also released a series of minis that took classic stories and recast them with Muppets, in line with films like Muppet Christmas Carol and Muppet Treasure Island. These did not involve Langridge, and varied from series to series in how good they were, but I would definitely recommend Muppet Sherlock Holmes, especially if you are at all familiar with the classic Holmes stories.

The Muppet Show Comic Book is a fun ride, and one that appeals to my nostalgic inner child, my affection for all ages comics, and my love of great comics in general. Whether you're an old school Muppet fan, or someone who only recently found them, I can't think of a better place to get more Muppets. After all, even if it's only on paper, it's time to raise the curtain, it's time to light the lights, it's time to meet the Muppets on the Muppet Show tonight!

All the arcs of The Muppet Show Comic Book were collected in trade by Boom! Studios. These are sadly out of print, although many comic shops will still have them. When Disney comic rights recently went to Marvel, Marvel began reprints of these earlier arcs in magazine form. Meet the Muppets is available in this format, with the others hopefully to follow. This week, Marvel began printing, in normal comic format, The Four Seasons, Langridge's final unpublished Muppet arc. I'm looking forward to reading it and talking about it.