Friday, August 31, 2012

Recommended Reading for 8/31: Amelia Rules!

So. I am going to start this post with a shocking confession: I am not now, nor have I ever been, a little girl. I know, I know, many of you are shocked. What this means is there are all sorts of experiences that I don't have any frame of reference for. So, I have to admit that it's surprising to say that one of the best views into the mind and life of a pre-teen girl I've ever read comes from a comic written by an adult man.

Amelia Rules!, created by cartoonist Jimmy Gownley,  is the story of Amelia Louise McBride, a not-so-typical nine year old who, after her parents divorce, moves out to the suburbs with her mom to live Tanner, Amelia's aunt. Started as a comic, the series is now published as a series of original graphic novels. Amelia is completely cast out of the life she has known as a girl growing up in New York City, and is now out in a much smaller, much quieter world. But it turns out that the suburbs may not be as bad as Amelia thinks, as she meets new friends, new enemies, and has adventures that she would never have imagined back in New York.

Amelia is one big ball of energy and sass. Probably a little too smart mouthed for her age at times, and probably a lot smarter than people give her credit for, Amelia has to learn a lot about herself and about how she fits into the world. While these are slice of life stories, they are both hilarious and touching in how they are told. The cast surrounding Amelia are oddballs, but they are all very real; each character has a wonderful inner life, even if we don't see it as clearly as Amelia's, since she is our protagonist.

Amelia as a character and the stories themselves have a tremendous amount of heart. The stories, ones that are very much slightly wackier versions of the days we all had as kids, are told with a sense of humor and a warmth that makes them impossible to put down. Amelia goes through her life, observing the behavior of the people and trying to figure them out, before realizing just how much she still has to learn. The beauty of Amelia Rules! is that most of the lessons are universal. Even if we weren't tweenage girls, the experiences Amelia has are things that we've all experienced. Maybe you personally haven't lived through all of them, but everyone can find something in the stories that they've been through. Whether it's your parents splitting up, moving, your first crush, falling out with friends, or becoming a social pariah for speaking your mind, Amelia will speak to you, both off the page, as she breaks the fourth wall as narrator, and through her story.

Amelia's friends and family make up a wide and wonderful support structure for our heroine. Afetr moving out to Pennsylvania, Amelia meets the members of G.A.S.P. (Gathering of Awesome Super Pals), three kids who form the core of Amelia's friends. Reggie, their leader, reminds me a lot of Calvin of Calvin and Hobbes fame, with his wild imagination and always scheming mind. Pajamaman, Reggie's ever silent partner in crime, finds a way to hang out with the constantly on the outs Reggie, while still being loved by pretty much everyone. And Rhonda, the final member of the team, resents Amelia for stepping on her turf, and possibly stepping in the way of her destined romance with Reggie (or so she believes), but over the course of the series, she and Amelia come to an accord, and become, if not the best of friends, at least two people who aren't constantly at each others throats. But with heroes around, there have to be villains, and G.A.S.P. has the Park View Terrace Ninjas. Ninja Kyle, their leader, is your typical Big Man on Campus jerk, but has a soft spot for Amelia and at times seems to really be a better guy than he usually portrays himself as. Ninja Joan starts out with the enemy, but quickly becomes one of Amelia's closest friends.

Amelia's world is not the world of Peanuts, where adults are just a pair of silent legs. Amelia's teachers and principal definitely don't get her, and Amelia has a tough time at school, not because she's not smart enough, but because people don't get her. Amelia's mother, Mary, tries to get her, but is living the life of a single parent, and Amelia's father loves her unconditionally, but lives in New York still at the beginning of the series, so its not easy for him to be there for Amelia. Amelia's closest confidant, and the one person who seems to really understand Amelia, is her aunt, Tanner. Tanner was an indy rock/folk star who dropped out of the public spotlight and returned to her hometown. Now Tanner serves as the person who Amelia can talk t anything about. Tanner is the relative everyone wants to have: someone who will pass no judgement, but will listen to whatever you have to say and pass on sage advice. And when Tanner, later in the series, starts a comeback tour, her absence is felt keenly by Amelia.

Amelia is presented with a lot of hard choices over the course of the series, and the reader watches her make them and to grow. Particularly touching is when Amelia and Rhonda both try out for cheerleading. Amelia makes it, but after seeing that it matters to Rhonda much more than it means to her, Amelia turns down the spot so Rhonda can get it. Amelia's sort-of-kind-of romance with Kyle, as much of a romance as ten year olds can have, is also one of those painfully awkward things that many of us remember having, and we watch Amelia go through a bit of heartbreak to come out of it wiser.

As a series that is geared for younger readers, many writers would attempt to sugar coat parts of life, to avoid a lot of the harder topics, or to cast them is a sort of generic way that removes a lot of the harder aspects of things. But Gownley has Amelia confront the harder parts of life. The first couple volumes of Amelia are mostly comedy with a touch or two of typical kid drama about Amelia's parents and her new town, but as the series extends, the series deepens. Amelia befriends a girl named Tricia, who turns out to have a debilitating, and possibly fatal, condition, and who moves away without Amelia learning if she makes it (she does, as we learn in a flash forward). Joan's father is deployed oversees for a year in Iraq, and we see how a parent being away, and in a place as dangerous as a war zone, can affect a child. All of this is done with  a soft enough touch that it isn't being beaten over the head with the Message Stick (you know the one, where a writer just walks up behind you as you read or watch their work and start clocking you with the MESSAGE since it's more important than the story), but still makes the reader confront the reality of the situation, and that the world isn't an easy place, no matter your age.

After discussing how serious Amelia Rules! can be, I wanted to circle around at the end of this peice to just say how much fun it is. There are sequences in an Amelia story that will leave you in hysterics. Any time G.A.S.P. gets involved in one of Reggie's insane plans, you know hijinks are going to ensue. Mary-Violet, an odd little girl who looks like something out of Charles Addams or Edward Gorey, is a source of infinite amusement, especially when she dons her costume and joins gasp as the hysterically angry Ultra-Violet. Amelia's observations about life have the wonderful mixture of sagacity and the world view of a ten year old that just brings a smile to the face of anyone who remembers what it was like to think that they had all the answers, and then realized how few they really have. Amelia and Rhonda's frenemyship is very funny,w ith the two of them sniping back and forth and then making up in some way that usually feels like neither really mean it.

Gownley's art is expressive, and perfect for these light tales of childhood. It is reminiscent of the great comic strips, things like Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts, without cloning Watterson or Schultz. He has that sense of scale that works well in strips about kids, where the world can occasionally take on a larger than life appearance. But the character interactions that are central to the series is never lost in any scale; Amelia and everyone around her, when they need to have those moments that are life changing or simply deeply affecting, are all in the same, very real, world.

Amelia Rules! is available as a series of eight graphic novels, the first four collecting the original comics, and the latter four being original to the format. All are available at your local comic shop or bookstore. The final volume in the series, Her Permanent Record, was released this past week. If you want to read a story that will make you laugh, and maybe remember your childhood as something that was just a little bit magical, and maybe even share it with your own kids, I can't think of anything better to recommend than Amelia Rules!

Monday, August 27, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 8/22

Lobster Johnson: The Prayer of Neferu
Story: Mike Mignola & John Arcudi
Art: Wilfredo Torres

The world of Hellboy has always been tinged with the spirit of classic pulps, and never moreso than in the adventures of Lobster Johnson, the 30s & 40s era man of mystery and crimebuster. Johnson's adventures are usually high action, with bullets flying and mobster and monsters dying, and this new one shot does not disappoint in the action department. The Lobster is tracking down a stolen mummy when he stumbles onto a ceremony featuring recurring Hellboy series cult, the Heliopic Brotherhood of Ra. But the Brotherhood's priestess, calling herself Neferu, after the priestess of Anubis, has been stealing the mummy's for a more sinister purpose than entertaining the rich members of the Brotherhood. Johnson must battle his way through a hulking henchman and resurrected Egyptian mummies. This isn't heavy comics with lots to make you think, it's just a fun, pulpy action piece, something that the team of Mignola and Arcudi have been doing really well with their Lobster Johnson stories. Artist Wilfredo Torres is new to the Hellboy universe, but his work fits very well here, giving the book a pulpy look. This is one of those great one-shots that will serve as an excellent introduction to a character and a world, so if you've never tried out any of the adventures of The Lobster's Claw, this would be a great place to start.

Rocketeer: Cargo of Doom #1
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee

From one heavily pulp influenced series to another. I'm a fan of the original Dave Stevens Rocketeer comics, and I was a little worried when IDW began publishing it's Rocketeer Adventures mini-series, featuring other creators telling short Rocketeer stories, but was pleased to see all of them fit very well in Stevens' world, and even if they didn't look like Stevens, they felt like him. But an actual, full on mini-series with one story featuring the character? That was another proposition. Fortunately, I was wrong to worry. Current Daredevil creative team Mark Waid and Chris Samnee pull off a great Rocketeer story here. Every character rings true, with Cliff "The Rocketeer" Secord still a hot head, his long suffering partner/mentor Peevy still gives Cliff good advice and an earful when he needs it, and Cliff's gal, Betty, won't cut him any slack. We also get to meet a new character, Sally, Peevys's niece and a mechanic in her own right, with her eyes on Cliff, who still only has eyes for Betty. The issue has some great action scenes of the Rocketeer in flight, but it's mostly a character piece, setting up the action without feeling like a set-up issue heavy with exposition. We also see a ship with the series villains arrive, meeting The Master, their mysterious boss, who clearly has some backstory with the Rocketeer, although I think that is stuff created for this series, and not anything that exists in the previous canon. There's also a reference to something from Skull Island, and if you're at all familiar with classic cinema, you know that name, and I hope it means a certain eighth wonder of the world might be the titular cargo of doom. If you known the Rocketeer from the classic comics, from the under-rated 90s film, or just think that his costume looks awesome (which is does), this is a great comic, and well worth picking up.

Super Dinosaur #13
Story: Robert Kirkman
Art: Jason Howard

While Robert Kirkman and Jason Howard's all ages action comics, Super Dinosaur, might not be as pulpy as The Rocketeer or Lobster Johnson, you can still see some of the same influences here: lost civilizations, world's at the center of the Earth, and a scrappy band of kids were all staples of the classic pulps. Only one of these scrappy kids happens to be a young T-Rex in battle armor. Never saw anything like that in Doc Savage. Super Dinosaur is the story of a boy and his T-Rex, who fight crime and monsters. As the "Escape from Inner Earth" storyline continues, young super genius Derek Dynamo gets to see more of the Reptiloid Empire, and we see that the villainous Exile might not be quite as villainous as originally thought. Meanwhile, Super Dinosaur, Derek's best friend who happens to be an intelligent Tyrannosaurus Rex, travels with a group of Derek's friends into the hidden world of Inner Earth, full of dinosaurs and other perils, trying to rescue Derek. Super Dinosaur is a book full of action and wonder, a comic that really works for all ages. This issue deepens some of the series mysteries, but also begins to give us answers about the Reptiloids that have been part of the book since the first appearance of the Exile. And hey, there are lots of Triceratops. And any comic with a herd of Triceratops gets my recommendation.

And here are a couple notes:

- The announcement of the new, Geoff Johns/David Finch Justice League of America has me pretty excited. Glad to see Stargirl back in a New 52 title, and thrilled to see Martian Manhunter on a Justice League again!

- Tomorrow is Read Comics in Public Day, so everyone should go out and read a comic in public. Since tomorrow would have been the 95th birthday of Jack "The King" Kirby, I think it's time to start reading Fourth World Omnibus Volume 1, so I will sit out at one of the local parks and dig into some Kirby goodness. And if you happen to be of the womanly persuasion, head over to DC Women Kicking Ass to read about Women Read Comics in Public, Again!

Friday, August 24, 2012

Recommended Reading for 8/20: Star Wars: Legacy

This weekend is Star Wars Celebration VI, the big semi-annual (I think it's every two or three years, but don't quote me on that) official Star Wars convention, and so I thought for this week I'd spend some time talking about my favorite Star Wars series of all time.

Star Wars is probably by second greatest geek love, behind Batman, and I've pretty much read all of Dark Horse Comics's Star Wars comics over the years. I've found that, when it comes to Star Wars comics, most readers are Star Wars fans who pick up Star Wars comics and not much else, versus comic readers who happen to enjoy Star Wars comics. This is a shame, since Dark Horse has produced some amazing comics with some excellent creators over the years.

In the timeline of Star Wars stories, Dark Horse has published plenty set in the familiar eras, stuff set between the classic trilogy, and stuff set right before, during and after the prequel trilogy. But some of the best stories they've told are the ones set furthest afield from those eras, ones that give their creators the toolbox of Star Wars tropes to play with, but then throw out most of the rules. For instance, the Tales of the Jedi and Knights of the Old Republic series take place three thousand plus years before the classic trilogy, and are a galaxy very different from what the movies present. But Legacy is set about 130 years after the destruction of the first Death Star, and the galaxy is still a different, and dangerous place.

The galaxy in Legacy bears many similarities to the galaxy at the beginning of A New Hope. There's a tyrannical Sith emperor, Rebels on the run, and a Skywaler at the center of everything. These similarities allow readers unfamiliar with the Star Wars Expanded Universe (the term for all the books, comics, video games, etc. that take place outside the movies and TV shows, from here on out abbreviated as EU), slip easily into this setting. There's everything familiar in Star Wars, but things are different and possibly even darker than a galaxy ruled by Emperor Palpatine.

The Skywalker at the center of Legacy is Cade Skywalker, a not too distant descendant of Luke, who is the character standing at the center of the trio in the image at the top of this entry. But Cade does not share many traits with his legendary ancestor, aside from his name and an affinity with the Force. Cade starts out the series as a bounty hunter. Writer John Ostrander said in an interview he wanted his protagonist to be, "Han Solo with a lightsaber," and Cade is exactly that at the series outset. With the Jedi on the run and hunted by the ruling Sith class, Cade has given up his name and using the Force, and has taken to a life on the fringes of society, travelling in his ship, The Mynock, with his crew, and keeping his head just above water. He's addicted to death sticks, drugs that keep the Force Visions and the pain of losing nearly everyone he loved at the hands of a Sith massacre at bay. Cade is in a bad place, and is not a very good guy.

John Ostrander, legendary comic book writer and former Dewey's customer, has been one of my favorite comic book writers for years, and it's interesting to see how Cade fits into his pantheon of main characters. From his earliest comic works, Ostrander has had a fascination with anti-heroes. His opus, Grimjack, stars a character who, at his best may be heroic, but is a similarly flawed protagonist. Ostrander made his name writing some of DC's more disreputable characters on Suicide Squad, and while he has written many true heroes, his work tends to feel most natural when treading the thin line between good and evil. His earlier Star Wars work, in the series originally just called Star Wars and later retitled Star Wars: Republic, starred Quinlan Vos, another Jedi who struggled with the Dark Side of the Force. I'm going to leave a discussion of Ostrander's body of work here, since I plan on November to feature John Ostrander week here on The Matt Signal, with time spent discussing these works, and most of his other principal works.

Clearly, a series featuring Cade just bumming around the galaxy, avoiding trouble and picking up the occasional bounty might be fun, but would not be much of a Star Wars story. So pretty quickly, Cade draws the attention of both the ruling Sith and the remnants of the Jedi Order. Both want him: the Sith to serve their master, Darth Krayt, and the Jedi to serve as a rallying point for their members and allies. And Cade wants nothing to do with either. This is where Cade differs from Luke Skywalker, and many Star Wars protagonists, the most: when presented with his destiny, Luke embraced it with open arms, and ran towards it. Cade, on the other hand, runs from it, trying to hide or simply outpace it.

While Cade might not be walking in the glow of the Light Side of the Force, he's by no means the bad guy. That title goes to Darth Krayt, the leader of the One Sith. Everyone who's seen the prequels know that there are supposed to be only two Sith, a master and an apprenticce. Krayt has created a new sect, on that believes there is only one Sith, the order itself and it's leader, that all must serve, and he is, of course, their leader. Krayt was the number one character in my list of ten favorite Star Wars comics characters, and I have a lot of reasons. Krayt makes an interesting counterpoint to Darth Vader. Krayt started out life as A'Sharad Hett, a Jedi who was a Tusken Raider on Tatooine, so he and Vader share a home planet. Krayt is also a broken being, only he has had his parts replaced by biotechnology instead of mechanics. Krayt's appearance also has shades of Vader, only instead of black metal, Krayt is clad is grey, rocky armor from head to toe.

But the differences between Krayt and Vader makes the comparison more interesting. Vader fell to the Dark Side through manipulation and ignorance. Palpatine played on all of Anakin Skywalker's insecurities, and the Jedi Council at the time simply ignored all the problems with Anakin, so blinded by the Clone Wars and their own traditions. Krayt fell willingly and knowingly. His fall was a slow one, taken in steps brought on by years of pain and anger. His biological enhancements were also not a blessing, as they were lsowly killing him. It was for this reason he sought Cade Skywalker, who had an unusual gift: he could heal any wound using the Force, or even prevent death, but only by drawing deeply on he Dark Side. Krayt sought to use this ability to save himself, setting a collision course for Cade, whether the young ex-Jedi liked it or not.

The galaxy can't just be populated by two characters, and Ostrander builds a whole cast surrounding Cade and Krayt. Cade has two loyal crewmembers on the Mynock: Deliah Blue, the engineer and his love interest, who is an earthy, fun character, nothing like Leia and her regal bearing, and Jaraiah Syn, the closest thing to a Han Solo type rogue in the series, always with a quip and a cocky grin. Krayt has his seemingly loyal major domo Darth Wyyrlok, his two hands (personal agent and assassins, pictured above with Krayt from left to right) Darth Talon and Darth Nihil, and his mistress of torture, Darth Maladi. All of these characters get time over the course of the series to show who they are and what they can do.

Even more than these characters directly related to the two principal antagonists, Ostrander spends much of Legacy world building. Issues in between arcs tended to be one or two issue stories featuring other characters throughout the galaxy. The remaining Jedi, headed by K'Kruhk, a character Ostrander wrote often in his Republic run come in and out of Cade's life. The emperor betrayed and deposed by Darth Krayt, Roan Fel, and his Imperial Knights, have their plotlines, attempting to reclaim what they believe is rightly theirs. The remnants of the Galactic Alliance fleet, headed by Admiral Gar Stazi, nip at the Sith Empire, and serve as the analogue for the scrappy Rebels from the classic trilogy. The Council of Moffs, Krayt's non-force using advisers, scheme to claim power, and include the mysterious Nyna Calixte, who has some secrets of her own that deeply affect the series as a whole. And beyond these grand and mighty figures, there are little people too, like Hondo Karr, who appears as a soldier for various factions over the course of the series. All of this does a great job of creating a galaxy around the main characters, and showing just how much goes on that doesn't directly involve them.

Thematically, Legacy has two chief motifs that play through it: choices and, well, legacy. While Cade is presented with a series of choices, of whether to move further down a dark path, or to try to claw his way back to the light, the central conflict of his character, each of the others are presented with choices that will impact their lives. Most of these come at critical juncture points in the plot of the series, so I don't want to talk about them here, but the smallest personal choices can have great impact on events far beyond them. The Skywalker legacy is something that Cade must face down from the moment he is discovered. Can he really live up to the name that has brought destruction and redemption on the galaxy? Cade struggles with that for the entire series, and the fact that the Force spirits of various famous ancestors have a habit of popping up to lecture him doesn't help. Who we are and how that relates to the people who have come before us is a universal theme, and seeing it writ large on a sci-fi canvas makes for great reading.

While Ostrander worked with various artists over the course of the series, the principal artist was Jan Duursema, one of his regular collaborators, who also was his principal artist on Republic, and who has worked on many other Star Wars projects, including a Darth Maul mini-series and the adaptation of Episode II. Duursema does excellent work, really stunning stuff. She is just as comfortable in giant space battles as in a dive bar full of aliens or during a Sith/Jedi lightsaber battle. Her versions of familiar movie characters are easily recognizable but have touches of her style; she doesn't lose the fact that this is art and not photoshopping in actor's faces on drawn bodies. The characters she created for the series all have unique looks that are stunning and iconic, very much in the Star Wars tradition; Sith assassin Darth Talon, the red skinned Twi'lek, has become a fan favorite. Her art is very detailed, with fully fleshed out backgrounds. She and Ostrander work wonderfully together, and any collaboration between them is something that is worth checking out.

Star Wars: Legacy regular series ran fifty issues, and was followed up by a six issue mini-series, Star Wars: Legacy- War, that wrapped up the main plot of the series. The series and mini-series have been collected over eleven trades, all of which should be available at your local comic shop. There's a lot more to say about this series, but it's a great ride with a lot of twists, and I don't want to ruin any of them for you. Go, check it out, and may the Force be with you.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 8/15

Daredevil #17
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Mike Allred

Mark Waid has done a great job of keeping Daredevil to relatively short arcs, two to three issues, but with plot lines that connect the whole series. But this issue is a done-in-one, a great flashback to a time not long after Matt Murdock took up the identity of Daredevil, and it's spectacular. I'm a sucker for done-in-ones to begin with, and Waid does a great job of not only telling a fun superhero story here, but really getting to the heart of Matt and what makes him tick. What starts out as Matt and Foggy Nelson, his law partner and best friend, having an argument over Foggy not pulling his weight quickly shifts into a battle as Stilt-Man breaks into the offices of Murdock and Nelson. Yes, you heard me, Stilt-Man, Q-list villain with the costume with the really long legs. As one might expect, Daredevil makes quick work of Stilt-Man, and returns to save Foggy from a hitman, and finds out what Foggy has been up to. It touches on the core of what drives Matt, what makes him tick, and shows exactly how well Foggy knows him, acting as a counterpoint to last issue, where Foggy kicked Matt out of the office. Waid is a writer who knows how to play to an artists strength, and he does a great job of letting Mike Allred run wild in his guest issue. Allred gets lots of panels of Matt swinging his way through the city, showing off his superhero chops, and still pulls off the touching scene between Matt and Foggy beautifully. Daredevil is my favorite book coming out from Marvel right now, and as long as each issue is as fun as this one, it will be for a long time coming.

Nightwing #12
Story: Kyle Higgins
Art: Andres Guinaldo

There are some comics that are very good month in and month out. They might not jump out at you and scream, "This is AMAZING!" but you know you're going to be in for a good ride every time you pick up an issue. Nightwing has been a book that has been quietly moving along, telling solid stories, since the New 52. There were a couple of OH WOW issues early in the run, leading into "Night of Owls" and even after the event, things have been interesting. I like the way writer Kyle Higgins portrays Dick, not denying all the growth he went through in the old DC Universe and his time as Batman, but telling stories about Dick continuing to grow. Nightwing confronts Paragon this issue, who framed him for murder, and has been trying to destroy the "false idols" of vigilantes in Gotham. But more interesting was Dick talking to Sofia Branch, the daughter of Tony Zucco, the man who killed his parents. Sofia was introduced during "The Black Mirror," Scott Snyder's arc on Detective Comics, and returns here, still as the head of a Gotham bank Dick is trying to do business with. The issue ends with it looking like the two of them are going to be working together, and unsure of where they stand in terms of each other. With Dick's mostly catastrophic relationship history, and just how well it's been going for him since the reboot, I can only imagine how this this is going to work out, and none of those imaginings are good.

Revival #2
Story: Tim Seeley
Art: Mike Norton

I didn't grab the first issue of Revival until two weeks back, since I had a light week and wanted to try out something new. I was pleasantly surprised at the first issue, and snagged the second. One day in rural Wasau, Wisconsin, all the recently deceased just sat up and went back to living their lives. They aren't shambling zombies, but just people. There's definitely a mystery of how they came back, and whether it's a mystical or biological cause, but this isn't a zombie comic. It's a supernatural comic, no doubt, but it's main character is Officer Dana Cypress, so there's a crime element to it as well. And more than crime or horror, the comic is about people. Dana's family are deeply a part of the story, her father the sheriff and her sister, Martha, who is one of the "revived." This issue sees the introduction of a new cast member as well, an "exorcist" who is a con man and playing on the fears in the town after Revival Day. I've seen the book described as farmland noir, and it has a creepy feel you don't get in normal noirs. Noir is a city genre, and moving it out into the country sends an extra shiver, making it more gothic. Seeley and Norton do an excellent job of building their cast and their setting, and I look forward to seeing what payoffs, and what other mysteries, are coming down the pike.

Saga #6
Story: Brian K. Vaughan
Art: Fiona Staples

Saga hits what seems to be a natural act break this issue, but it's not leaving its characters with any time to breathe. Brian K. Vaughan has been a favorite writer of mine for years, and I was hugely excited to see him returning to comics, and this series, a mixture of space opera, high fantasy, and the on-the-run road story is just excellent fun. Alana and Marko, our starcrossed lovers and protagonists, have found the rocketship forest and escape with Hazel, their daughter, but their pursuers aren't done yet. Prince Robot IV, pursuing Alana and Marko, has a conversation with freelance bounty hunter The Will, and it seems like things aren't going to end well for Robot. Vaughan's strengths as a writer are many, but it's his talent for dialogue that really pops in this book, with characters who are witty without sounding unnatural. The breakout character for me throughout this arc has been The Will, whose moral ambiguity sits him among a lot of the great sci-fi heroes and villains. There's a tow month gap in between issues now, but in November, Saga will be back with a trade of the fist six issues and a new one. Don't be surprised if you see a recommended reading on this book in time for that trade, but if you can't wait, hunt down the six issues. Trust me, it's worth it.

Saucer Country #6
Story: Paul Cornell
Art: Jimmy Broxton

Saucer Country wrapped up it's first full arc last month, and this issue is a one off that bridges the gap in between two arcs with, "A Field Guide to Flying Saucers." This is really a talking heads issue, with most of principle cast gathered round and hearing a history of UFO sightings and abduction lore, tied in with ancient myth that is strangely similar and connected to that more modern myth. This is the kind of thing that some writers would present and would come off as tremendously dull and didactic, but Paul Cornell handles it with a light touch and makes it interesting. It's interesting to look at this book in conjunction with Cornell's other title, last week's reviewed Demon Knights. Demon Knights is an action fantasy, with crazy fight scenes and over the top characters, while Saucer Country is much more thoughtful. While there's not a ton of forward plot of character development, it's an interesting detour, and I wouldn't be surprised if some of the lore rears its head in future issues of the series.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Recommended Reading for 8/17: Warlock

The first major crossover I read was, strangely enough if you know me, not a DC event, but a Marvel one: The Infinity Gauntlet, the story of the mad Titan, Thanos, acquiring the power of a god. After devouring all the issues of the regular series, and all of the crossovers, I was dying to read anything else I could about Thanos, and his nemesis, Adam Warlock, but since both of them had been dead for quite a while before the series, it wasn't easy. But what I was able to find was a reprint of the story that is today's recommendation: Infinity Gauntlet mastermind writer/artist Jim Starlin's original Warlock tales from the 70s.

Starlin began writing Warlock when his title had disappeared from the stands. Warlock had run for eight issues before facing the one enemy no comic hero can fight: low sales.The dangling plot threads had been picked up and tied up in issues of The Incredible Hulk, and then had not been seen for six months. As a character, Warlock had been a not too subtle messianic allegory, going as far as to die and be reborn to save Counter Earth, an alternate Earth. But Starlin had a different vision for the character.

Taking a brief aside here, Warlock is a fascinating example of a question that is currently en vogue with both comic book fandom and the industry at large: what constitutes the creator of a character in a shared universe? Is it the person who first introduced them, or the one who took that character and remolded them into something completely new? When introduced by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in The Fantastic Four, Him (as Warlock was called then) was the result of a mad science experiment to create the perfect human being, who realized his creators were evil and abandoned them. In his first series, Roy Thomas wrote him as the earnest messiah, seeking the redemption of Counter Earth, giving him the name of Adam Warlock. Starlin jettisoned neatly all the previous characterization, creating a haunted and flawed character, a space Hamlet, a philosopher who contemplated action and inaction, the nature of good and evil, and above all else, mortality.

Starlin's run on Warlock began in issues of one of Marvel's try out book, Strange Tales, before heading into a resurrected Warlock series. The majority of the run dealt with Warlock's confrontation with the Universal Church of Truth (UCoT) and their god, The Magus. The distrust of organized religion is one of he central themes of Starlin's entire body of work, and this was the first major piece to deal with it. The UCoT converted everyone in their path, whether they wanted to be or not, and imprisoned and executed those if found criminal or degenerate. Their good intentions were a road to a bloody hell, and The Magus was a mad god that Warlock had a personal stake with: he was Warlock, an insane and evil future version sent back in time, who had cut a bloody swath through much of the galaxy.

Evil twins and dystopic futures are nothing new, and weren't even when Starlin was writing these stories. What was new, and has rarely been done since, was Starlin's take on the trope.Usually, the hero stops the double or clone, or averts the event that would create the dark future, and everything ends happily. But Starlin made it clear that The Magus was an inevitability; even if he avoided it for a moment, the circumstances would come around again. Cosmic forces sought the creation of The Magus, and Warlock was presented with only one option: suicide. He would have to travel into the future, to the moment before The Magus's birth, and take the life of his future self.

Most heroes I had read about wouldn't kill anyone, let alone themselves. More than that, Starlin had found other ways to make readers reconsider the title character. When imprisoned by the UCoT, Warlock was submitted to psychological torture. The only way to defeat it was to accept another point of view, which Warlock did, but it was an insane point of view. Warlock had accepted the madness that was the core of The Magus. Even though he had escaped, he was now at least partially insane, and had taken the first step down the path of The Magus willingly.

So we have a hero driven mad and suicidal. Could Warlock have the deck stacked further against him? Of course he could! While he was hero of Counter Earth, Warlock was given the Soul Gem, which augmented and added to his powers. At the beginning of the run, Starlin revealed that the gem was sentient... and hungry. The gem desired to absorb the souls of living beings, and had begun to fight Warlock for control of his mind and body. Worse, it had siphoned off a large portion of Warlock's life energy, meaning removing the gem was impossible. So besides all the other madness, Warlock had a voice in his head not his own telling him to kill.

With two Warlock's running around the title, you might think there wouldn't be room for other characters, but Starlin quickly began introducing the supporting cast that would be with Warlock for the next twenty five years. Pip the Troll was a cigar smoking, hard drinking degenerate who Warlock encountered in the dungeons of the UCoT. Gamora, the deadliest woman in the universe, was an assassin with a personal grudge against the church sent to aid Warlock by an unlikely ally.

That unlikely ally was Thanos of Titan. In a classic, "The enemy of my enemy is my friend,"situation, Warlock allied with Thanos, who sought to stop The Magus. Readers knew Thanos as the nemesis of Captain Marvel, but here he was working with the good guys, even for his own reasons, which was strange. And it was Thanos who provided Warlock with the knowledge and means to travel to the moment he needed to, and there to use the Soul Gem to take his own soul and stop the birth of The Magus.

Now, I know that constitutes a pretty huge spoiler. However, loyal reader, I want you to consider two points. First, these are thirty plus year old comics, so seriously, I think we're past the spoiler warning time. More, though, you see how Warlock experiences the latter part of this story. He knows exactly how he is going to die, but not the exact time of the event. Every moment he's watching for the signs of his now absolute end. Pretty freaky, huh?

With the Magus saga wrapped, Starlin wrote a few shorter tales. There was the tale of the origins of Pip the Troll, strangely comic after the previous arc, but a good pallet cleanser before the next darker tale. Warlock confronted the Star Thief, a massively powerful psychic who sought to revenge himself upon Earth by destroying all stars. In the final issue of his series, Warlock fought a psychic battle against the Soul Gem, and learned a secret; the gem was one of six powerful gems. But after that revelation, the series was once again cancelled*, leaving the tale of Warlock's eventual demise unfinished.

Fortunately, Starlin was given the chance to tell this tale. In Avengers Annual #7 and Marvel Two-In-One Annual #2 Warlock and all his cast were together one more time, this time with the Avengers, Spider-Man, and The Thing at their sides in final battle with Thanos. Thanos had gathered the five other Soul Gems (which would eventually be called the Infinity Gems) for the first time, as well as having siphoned energy from Warlock's during the Magus battles, and was using the power to wipe out stars, dedicating the act and deaths to Mistress Death, the cosmic embodiment of Death whom Thanos loved. Over the course of the two issues, Pip and Gamora were both gravely injured by Thanos, to the point that Warlock had to take them into the Soul Gem. And after being defeated by Thanos, Warlock, badly beaten, looked up to find himself waiting to send him to join them. I won't spoil the final battle with Thanos, or what was waiting in the Soul Gem, but it was an ending that was perfect to what had gone on,

The thing that makes Warlock revolutionary for its time was the philosophy. This was a comic that dealt with weighty issues and didn't shy away from the darker side of life. Comics would eventually come to do this often, but even then, the level of thought and discussion is often left to Vertigo titles and indies. Warlock was the perfect mix of super heroics and thought, captivating readers.

Marvel will be releasing the entire run of Warlock this week in The Essential Warlock. This mammoth black and white volume will reprint the entire Starlin run, along with the earlier Counter Earth stories. Essentials are a great bargain, and this one is something everyone should try out,

*There was apparently a sixteenth issue of Warlock planned, but the art was lost. Check out issue 46 of TwoMorrows Publishing's excellent magazine, Back Issue, to find out more about that.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Where Everybody Knows Your Name: What's So Great About the Comic Shop?

This week, we'll be celebrating our twentieth anniversary at Dewey's Comic City, the comic shop I have worked at for the better part of twelve years (and, as my boss Dan points out, we're doing it not at the beginning of the twentieth year, but at the last moment, right before our twenty-first anniversary. It's the Dewey's way). And with such a momentous occasion at hand, I'd like to take some time to talk about the comic shop, as a place and as an institution, and why I think digital will never fully replace the comic shop.

The general public has a very specific view of what comic shops are. It's a view that people who are not regular comic shop patrons still seem to have on occasion when they come into the shop for the first time. When you ask people on the street, a lot of them picture the Android's Dungeon from The Simpsons, with it's surly proprietor, or the films of Kevin Smith, with the refrain of. "Tell 'em, Steve Dave!" ringing through them. But those of us who spend time in a comic shop know that those stereotypes have changed. That the comic shop, or at least some of them, have come out of those dark ages.

Our customers at Dewey's are, for the most part, normal folks who happen to share a hobby and a passion for comics. They like to hang around and discuss the comic news, the books they read, or their theories on whatever big event is going on right now. And that's what makes a comic shop different from most of the establishments we all frequent on a regular basis: the comic shop is a place where you're part of a community.

I know that part of that is the fact that comic shops depend largely on our reserves, our regulars. And that's true, but there are plenty of regulars who aren't reserves. People come into the comic shop because there aren't a lot of places where you can go where you'll find people to talk or argue comics. We are the sports bar of the geek crowd. I've met a lot of good people throughout the years, and made some excellent friends. Where else are you going to go to see what people think of "Night of Owls," or Avengers Vs. X-Men? Wednesdays are a holy day of sorts, Geek Sabbath, and we all love going to the place where we know there will be someone to share the experience of buying our comics.

Then we get to the question of digital comics. In theory, between the news sites, the message boards, and Comixology, you can duplicate the comic shop experience on-line. But theory and practice are two very different things. Where digitally can you have someone who you've known for ages make custom recommendations, not based on an algorithm but on experience? Discussions at comic shop can get heated, sure, but there's no anonymous flame wars. And you make friends not just with the clerks but with the other customers. People meet up to go out and see movies, or just grab a bite at the local diner after picking up their books, people who met because they share the same comic shop.

So, I say thank you to all our customers who are reading this, for helping make twenty years at Dewey's. And to say thank you to all of you who have your own shop to keep comic shops going. I'll see you on Wednesday.

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 8/8

Archer & Armstrong #1
Story: Fred Van Lente
Art: Clayton Henry

I was a little young back in the heyday of Valiant Comics to really get into titles that didn't have big, flashy, familiar super heroes in them, but since then, the classic Valiant universe has been on my radar, and I've picked up some of the back issues. I hadn't tried out any of the reborn Valiant titles, but this week, I saw two creators who I like on a title that I have read some issues of, so I thought I'd give it a try. Archer and Armstrong is a kooky buddy cop/odd couple title, mixing a young, naive martial artist (Archer) with an immortal, tough as nails, drunkard (Armstrong). The concept is the same as it was in the original run, with the two of them tossed together and at war with a covert organization called The Sect, but it has a modern twist, with more social commentary in Archer's background, his parents being high powered Tea Party like politicians. The book is helped by Van Lente's strong character work. Archer comes off as naive but good natured, but still can say things that would make your average east coast liberal (like yours truly) shake his head in wonderment, and Armstrong, while clearly a drunken lout, quotes Carl Sandburg while breaking up a fight. This is a fun first issue, and a good introduction to the characters, that leaves you wanting to see what happens to them next.

Batman #12
Story: Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV
Art: Becky Cloonan & Andy Clarke

Reading the new issue of Batman evoked some very clear thoughts for me, thoughts I've had about Batman recently. Firstly, the issue harkened back to a post I made a little bit ago about classic episodes of Batman: The Animated Series that feature Batman as a way to tell the stories of those he encounters. This issue is a story like that, fully introducing Harper Row, a character that we've seen pop up in cameos throughout Scott Snyder's run. A tough kid from the wrong part of Gotham, Harper works for Gotham Power doing electrical work and takes care of her high school aged brother, who is probably not more than a couple years younger than her. She's smart, she's brave, and she has the attitude of someone raised in hard times, who rolls her eyes at the idea that rich guys like Bruce Wayne really can help or understand the poor of Gotham. And one night, the girl who is used to taking care of her own problems is cornered by a gang of toughs, who were looking to once again beat up her brother for nothing more than him being gay. And out of nowhere, here comes Batman. He swoops in, takes out the thugs, and swoops back out. And what Harper decides to do next is what makes her special: she decides to help Batman. She uses her smarts to find him and does her best to aid him. And when he tells her to stop, she decides to redouble her efforts. This story has some thematic ties to The Dark Knight Rises, in that it looks at how people can be inspired by Batman. Superman is usually the hero in the DCU that people look on as the noble figure that holds a beacon of hope for the world, but sometimes, Batman, for all his darkness, can inspire the right person at the right time. The art on the main story is by Becky Cloonan, and is absolutely stunning. She was an excellent choice for it, as she has a style that fits Harper, a rough and realistic style, but one that showcases people, their emotions, in body language and facial features. I hope to see more of her art in future issues. And that goes double for Harper Row, an excellent new addition to the Batman cast.

Batman and Robin #12
Story: Pete Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason

The end of first year of Batman and Robin isn't exactly what you'd expect. The issue;s Batman plot is really just Batman and the villain Terminus slugging it out in giant battle armor, which is cool, and then Batman flying a missile out over Gotham Bay to keep it from destroying the city (I know that sounds familiar, but I think it has more to do with coincidence than an intentional tie in to a certain film). The part of the story that really grabbed my interest when the three previous Robins all pop in to help Damian fight off Terminus's goons. Each of the Robins is shown fighting in their won distinct styles, and Gleason does a great job of showcasing that each of these characters are distinct physically. With their battle done, writer Pete Tomasi gives the Robins a moment of mutual concern for their mutual father figure, illustrated in a panel of gorgeous poster quality art for Patrick Gleason, followed by a panel showing real worry from the usually so stoic Damian. And when the danger has passed, the Robins go their separate ways. Instead of going with any kind of hackneyed, "And now they see they're all so much alike," moment, Tim Drake and Jason Todd still don't want to be around Damian, who has spent the past couple of issues demeaning them. And Dick Grayson, the maturest of them all, reminds Damian that he has nothing to prove to the world, that he has to make peace only with his own feelings about being Robin.

Demon Knights #12
Story: Paul Cornell
Art: Diogenes Neves

Demon Knights was one of the truly original concepts to come out of the New 52: a team of different magical heroes, some classic, some new, fighting during the Dark Ages. It's been a fun title, with lots of action and a feel unlike any other title out there right now. It is far more fantasy comic than it is super hero one, with the characters thrown together not by any desire to do real good, but by the whims of fate, and there is much in the way of scheming going on behind the scenes. These aren't really heroes, or most of them aren't; just people (or demons or immortals) in difficult circumstances. This issue is the end of the Knights battle with Morgaine Le Fey, as she attempts to transfer her essence into the currently deceased body of Merlin. While this gives us a great action scene as Etrigan the Demon breaks the bonds Morgaine has imprisoned him in, and there is a tender scene where Shining Knight is given a second knighthood by King Arthur, the scene is stolen, as ever, by Vandal Savage. Savage, portrayed in the modern DCU as a cunning killer, and in the pre-New 52 universe as a world conqueror, here revels more in his nature as a Neanderthal in the "modern" world, where he loves wine, women, and song, and is given choice lines. Cornell uses him to say things that are both apt and funny. This issue's best line, in regards to Morgaine's plans to use the Demon Knights' essences to further strengthen Merlin's body, is "I will not die so a woman with no face can gain different genitalia!" The issues does end on a massive cliffhanger, and as the next issue blurb points out, it won't be dealt with until after next month's Zero Month in DC, so I'm even more on edge to see where this motley crew winds up.

Mouse Guard: The Black Axe #5
Story & Art: David Petersen

Mouse Guard is like a rare treat: it doesn't happen often, but when it does it's always something special. Set in a medieval world of animals, the story focuses on the mice, and their loyal Guard. While the creatures are anthropomorphized, it is not to the extreme that they act truly human: they are still mice, and react to situations as such. This issue finds our hero, Celanawe, on the island with the weasels, burying his clanmate, Em, and then heading off with Captain Conrad to return to the mouselands. It is an issue that tugs at the heartstrings, as Celanawe must start to come to terms with how lonely his life will be, now that he has accepted the Black Axe, the mythic weapon, into his life. The story is wonderful, each bit adding a little more to the world that creator David Petersen has been building since his first issue. The art is simply gorgeous, detailed and luscious, and the lettering is very distinct, unique in style to the title. Everything about each issue is particular to Mouse Guard, and while it would be great to have new issues every month, if this is the product the wait gets us, it is worth it.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Recommended Reading for 8/10: Get Jiro!

With the near completion of the post-move unpacking, I have been able to settle in and actually start catching up on my trade and graphic novel stack, which has been accumulating for most of the past two months. And one of the books I finally got to read this week was an OGN (original graphic novel) from Vertigo, Get Jiro! A standalone piece, it's a mix of science fiction and culinary criticism like nothing I've read before.

The first thing that drew me to Get Jiro! was the name of one of its co-authors, Anthony Bourdain. I'm not sure if the average comic book reader would be familiar with Bourdain, but in some circles, he's a huge name. Bourdain  is the rock star of the culinary world: a legendary chef who now travels the world trying new foods. He has had two tv series about his travels, and has written numerous bestselling books about food and his time in the culinary world, most famously Kitchen Confidential. He's a wickedly funny man, with a frank and profane sense of humor. I was curious to see what his attempt to enter the world of the graphic novel would be like, and I admit this wasn't precisely what I would have expected, but it pure Bourdain in it's sensibility.

Jiro, our title character and hero, is a sushi chef in Los Angeles, in a future that is probably not too distant. Food is the  commodity that rules the world, and chefs are the great power players. There is no culture but food culture. Jiro is an amazing chef, who still works in the outer ring of the city, doing his best to keep his head down. But he has come to the attention of the two chief chefs of the city, who are more like mob bosses than chefs as we think of them. Bob heads Global Affiliates, and he believes in getting the best ingredients from wherever they come from. Rose is the chief of a loose coalition of growers and chefs who believe in working only with local ingredients.

Throughout the graphic novel, Jiro is drawn deeper into the conflict between the two groups, and eventually begins to manipulate them into destroying each other. Jiro speaks very little throughout the book, appearing as a classic samurai or the gunslinger in a spaghetti western, so he never explains why he does what he does in words. It seems Bourdain, and his cowriter Joel Rose, hold both the positions of Bob and Rose, or the extremes that they are taken to, in contempt, and Jiro is an artist who does what he does for the love of the art, of the food, and does not want to be part of the games that are being played.

The comparison to a gunslinger or samurai is particularly apt as you get to see how Jiro deals with many of his problems. Conflict in the world of the future between chefs is not handled in Kitchen Stadium with a benevolent Chairman looking on (if that doesn't make sense to you, go watch some Iron Chef); it's handled in the streets. There's a lot of fighting throughout the book, and it's violent and explicit. If you want to watch a good fight, this is a book for you. The fights are illustrated really well, with seamless panel to panel pacing, and a good amount of blood spray and severed limbs.

The book is not a cook book, but there are plenty of little bits about the way food is prepared and properly consumed. I admit to learning a few things about how to eat and order sushi, and about the proper plating and presentation in classic french cuisine. I don't see things like that in any other comic I've read. Little bits of authenticity like that add to the atmosphere in Get Jiro! I like that this books stretches across genres and reminds us that comics can present all sorts of information in an interesting way. How many other culinary books can have one page discussing meal preperation followed by brutal gangland-type slayings? Not many.

The book has some stunning art from Langdon Foss. While I try not to compliment and artist by saying they remind me of another artist, I am going to break that rule. Foss seems the successor to the late, great Seth Fischer. His art has the same roundness to it, a lack of sharp edges to his characters, and his backgrounds are hyper-detailed. There are a ton of interesting little details on every page, and his art rewards a second reading of the book.

Get Jiro! is available now at any comic shop or book store. It's a great ride and worth the read. And if it taught me nothing else, it's this: Don't order the California Roll. Trust me.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 8/1

The Boys #69
Story: Garth Ennis
Art: Russ Braun

When Garth Ennis is wrapping up a series or a run, you know it, because the body count just gets higher and higher. The new issue of The Boys moves us closer and closer to the inescapable conclusion of the series. I know I believed that the series was heading towards the final confrontation between Billy Butcher and the Homelander for most of the series. But when that confrontation happened at the end of the penultimate arc, I knew Ennis had something else up his sleeve. And then I realized something, something this issue makes more clear: The Boys has never been Butcher's story. It's been Wee Hughie's. And so the coming storm, the confrontation between Hughie and Butcher, is really the trajectory we've been on all along. Hughie proves this issue that he's probably more clever than many have given him credit for, but is he any braver? Aside from Hughie, we spend some time with The Frenchman and The Female. While Frenchie is a character steeped in absurdism, there have been plenty of moments in the series that flesh him out as a character, and many of those are in his tender, almost paternal, relationship with The Female. This issue gives us plenty of those, with an introspective Frenchie wondering if what he has done has really benefited The Female. Russ Braun does a fabulous job of giving us The Female's thoughts on this, since she is as silent as ever. Three issues to go until the end of the series, now. Let's see what Ennis has in store for us.

Daredevil #16
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee
With his time in Latveria having left Daredevil in complete sensory deprivation, this issue sees some of the rest of the superhero community attempting to restore him. While Iron Man and Dr. Strange are involved, the main hero involved is Giant Man, Hank Pym. Pym is a problematic character, to say the least; he could save the world a hundred times over, but he would always be remembered as the guy who hit his wife. This issue does something interesting, as it draws parallels between Pym's own battles with sanity and stability and those of Daredevil. Samnee continues blowing me away with the visuals on the book, especially during Pym's battle with nanites in the journey to the center of Matt Murdock's brain. The issue's ending, with the falling out between Matt and his best friend and partner, Foggy Nelson, is a major event for the series. Whether Matt has really been suffering further mental complications, or if he's being set up, will he and Foggy be able to reconcile? Foggy has always been there for Matt, and when he hasn't been around, things tend to go poorly for Matt. Waid's run on Daredevil has been his best work in years, and I can't wait to see what new twist he has in store.

The Muppets: The Four Seasons #2
Story and Art: Roger Langridge

The second issue of Langridge's final Muppets story, "The Four Seasons," is primarily a Fozzie Bear story. When I was a little kid, Fozzie was my favorite Muppet. I found him hilarious. I don't think I realized that he was supposed to be not that funny, and thus I loved him, and I still do. Fozzie gets invited to spend the summer with another theatre troupe, one that could be his big break, and he heads off to take his chance. Meanwhile, the rest of the Muppet crew is doing a summer show at the beach. Of course, being this is the Muppet Theatre, things go horribly awry, with a freak summer snowstorm more or less devastating their plans. Fozzie, meanwhile, sees this other troupe and talks to their resident comic, who has gotten his big break and is leaving, and realizes something important about himself. No reader would have expected the issue to end any way than it did, with Fozzie back with the Muppets, but the ending says somethint beautiful about friendship, something that has always been at the core of the Muppets, and about being who you are and doing what you love because you love it, and not because you think it's the way to something better.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Recommended Reading for 8/3: Grendel

A dark figure sneaks through the night, a figure of fear to all who perceive him. He arrives home, and assumes the identity of a fantastically wealthy man with a young ward. It might sound like I'm talking about Batman, which I do a lot. But I'm not. I'm talking about Hunter Rose, the first Grendel in Matt Wagner's generational saga. And believe me, while the two characters share a lot of similarities, Hunter Rose is definitely no Batman knock off.

Grendel is a series of stories that take place over the course of hundreds of years, tracing the history of the mask and mantle of Grendel, something that goes from the identity of one man into a force that conquers the world. The scope of the various Grendel stories and series is something truly impressive; stories run the gamut from superhero-tinged crime to supernatural thriller to psychological drama to dystopian future, and all are tinged with a dark social commentary.

I will discuss various aspects of the Grendel mythos in this piece, and touch on various Grendels, but I intend to focus on my favorite of these characters, the one I mentioned at the beginning: Hunter Rose. Hunter made is first appearance in Comico Primer #2, and his exploits continued in a three issue series that ended when the publisher, Comico, went under. Wagner returned to Grendel as a back-up feature in his other opus, Mage, only this time as a text with spot illustration format. This is the piece that would form the foundation of all things Grendel, Devil by the Deed, telling the entire story of Hunter Rose.

Hunter Rose is another character in the tradition of Batman or Doc Savage, a man who has worked to make himself the pinnacle of what a human can be, with a touch of Arsene Lupin and Professor Moriarty tossed in. Born with the name Eddie, Hunter was a genius, an exceptional person; his mind was turned to the idea that he was superior, and so he decided to prove it, changing his name to something that would reflect his uniqueness. He created the mask of Grendel (or did he? The exact nature of Grendel is a central question in the entire mythos), took up the fork, his trademark weapon, and began his career as an assassin in New York City. Eventually, Hunter conquered the underworld, as he also conquered high society as a best selling novelist. He dueled with New York's defender, Argent the Wolf, a sort of wolfman who was a vigilante, and adopted Stacy Polumbo, the young niece of one of his victims and a friend of Argent. In the end, it is Stacy, discovering Hunter Rose is Grendel, the man who killed her father, that orchestrates the final confrontation between Hunter and Argent.

Hunter Rose strides across the page of a comic and draws all attention to himself. He is charming, brilliant, and, at his core, completely amoral. Crime isn't something he does for the money, although it doesn't hurt, but because it is something that lesser men won't. Hunter believes that he is above the laws of men, and flaunts them because he feels like obeying them would be conforming. Crime also gives Hunter one thing that he never had as a youth: a challenge. Hunter was so brilliant, everything came easy to him. Only when he met Jocasta Rose, a beautiful woman twice his age, did he feel challenged and loved; but Jocasta died, and Hunter Rose was born. Wagner has described Grendel as, "the demon of society's mediocrity," and this is true of Hunter: in a society that cherishes conformity and mediocrity, what is left for the exceptional but to throw off society and create something new for themselves.

While Hunter is the star and central figure of Devil by the Deed and the few other stories that feature him, he has an interesting supporting cast. Argent is Hunter's opposite. Where Hunter is subtle, Argent is direct. Where Hunter is suave, Argent is savage. Grendel's one close associate is Larry Stohler, an underworld information broker, who walks in criminal and high society circles, and provides Hunter with intelligence. While Hunter looks down on Larry with the same contempt he looks at others, Larry is a little more clever than Hunter thinks, and is interesting to watch how he moves about on Grendel's game board. Stacy is Hunter's true daughter, even if they share no blood. She is as brilliantly manipulative as he is, and when she realizes how much she has been hurt by Hunter, she arranges his death with no remorse. She might be the next Grendel, despite never wearing the mask herself. Argent and Stacy both have their own spotlight miniseries, Stacy in Devil Child and Argent in Silverback.

With the death of such a strong principal character, many would think that was the end of Grendel, but Wagner decided to pass on the mantle. The second Grendel was Christine Spar, the Stacy's daughter, whose stories are set in the not too distant future, and who took up the mantle to find her son, who had been kidnapped by a troupe of travelling vampires, and avenge his death when she could not save his life. This story, Devil's Legacy, not only has a different tone than the Hunter Rose story, much less about crime and the underworld, and more a classic revenge tale, but it presents a Grendel in Christine who is not supremely confident, who is not simply a female Hunter Rose. And after Stacy, her lover Brian Li Sung became another Grendel, haunted and at war with the voice in his head that was Grendel, in The Devil Inside. Whether or not that was the voice of a possessing demonic force or simply Brian's break with reality, is left for the reader to interpret.

Grendel changes drastically after Brian's tenure as the titular character. After a few interim issues, the series jumps about five hundred years into the future, into a desolate dystopia where the Catholic Church has conquered the world society is decadent and media driven. This story, God and the Devil, leads the the ascension of Orion Assante in Devil's Reign, a man who overthrows the theocracy and conquers the world himself, taking up the mantle of Grendel, with his soldiers being called Grendels. Now being a Grendel is a point of honor and pride, with the Grendel entity possessing many and ruling the world. Wagner had taken his crime/superhero comic, and fully transformed it into something different. Rarely does a creator in any genre decide to take a formula that works, throw it out, and insert the core conceit into something that is nothing like the initial setting. And even more rarely did it work as well as it did with Grendel.

The final Grendel epic story that Wagner has written so far followed on the heels of this. War Child followed Jupiter Assante, son of Orion, who, after his father's death, is spirited away by a mysterious warrior called Grendel Prime. The series follows the cyborg Grendel Prime as he protects and trains Jupiter to reclaim his throne from his stepmother, who has corrupted Orion's intentions. This is a major sci-fi action epic, with great set pieces and incredible action, and inspirations that range from spaghetti westerns to Lone Wolf and Cub. It also presents a Grendel who, while brutal, is truly a noble warrior. Grendel Prime might be partially robotic, but he does his duty, and when it is done, he heads off into the sunset to wait until he is needed again.

There are many other Grendel stories out there as well. Wagner has written other Hunter Rose stories, including two anthologies and a mini-series, Behold the Devil. He also allowed other writers and artists to play around with his toys in a series of miniseries called Grendel Tales, which included Four Devils, One Hell by James Robinson and Teddy Kristiansen and Devils and Deaths by Darko Macan and the late, great Edvard Biukovic. There have even been two crossovers with Batman, one where the Dark Knight confronted Hunter Rose, another where he fought a time travelling Grendel Prime.

The art on Grendel has some very cool touches. For the anthology mini-series Wagner wrote, with art from many of comics' best artists, he decided to use a limited color pallet of Black, White, and Red, which gave the series its title, as well as the second series, Red, White, and Black. Since then, the reprint of Devil by the Deed and the new series Behold the Devil have used this color scheme too. Aside from Wagner's own excellent artwork, many great comic artists have worked on the core Grendel stories, including Bernie Mierault, Pat McEown, John K Snyder III, the Pander Bros., and early work from Tim Sale. The diversity of art suited the various types of Grendel stories.

Wagner still publishes the occasional Grendel short, most recently in last year's CBLDF Liberty Comics benefit book. He has said that he has another Grendel Prime story in mind as well. I look forward to any new stories set in this strange and complex world. Anyone who is interested should come and have a look. The devil awaits.

While much of Grendel is currently out of print, this coming Wednesday marks the release of the first of four of Dark Horse's omnibus editions, reprinting all of the Grendel that is available in the order the stories take place. This volume, Hunter Rose, includes Devil by the Deed, Behold the Devil, and all the shorts from the Black, White, and Red miniseries. The second volume, Legacy, will be released in December.