Thursday, September 27, 2012

Recommended Reading for 9/28: Hell Yeah

One of the great pleasures of the superhero genre is its ability to surprise. Every time I'm sure there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to superheroes, I stumble across something that is new and different; a different way to tell the tale of people in capes and tights, or a new take on the world of heroes and villains. One such book that has given a breath of fresh air to the genre is Image Comics' Hell Yeah, created by Joe Keatinge and Andre Szymanowicz.

Ben Day is a superpowered guy twenty years after the first superhero appeared. His dad was the soldier who was the first man to encounter the heroes. And he's, well, kind of an ass. He gets in fights, he keeps getting in trouble at his university, and he wants nothing to do with superheroes. He's not a great dude. But when a group of superpowered women pop up and tell him someone is murdering Bens across the multiverse, well, he has to get serious, or he might not make it.

One of the pleasures of Hell Yeah is the fact that, over the course of he first arc, Ben doesn't really come around and become a young hero. The angry, slacker Ben we meet getting into a fist fight at the beginning of the first issue is the same guy we see at the end. I'm sure that will change, but one of the tropes of the classic superhero comic is that when the hero gets his call to action, he steps up. But that's not how things work in life. I like that we'll have to watch Ben grow into something better.

In a couple of previous of my recommended readings, I've commented on creators and world building. I think the creation of a fully fleshed out world around a character and his/her supporting cast makes a comic, or any form of fiction, all the better. This isn't just visual; it's a sense you get form reading that there's a world orbiting the sun, not orbiting that main character. And while Ben is clearly the main character, there's also a lot going on that gives the world depth. Mysteries abound about where the heroes came from, why alternate Bens are dying, and who is really behind it all.

Writing about Hell Yeah is proving tricky for me because of those mysteries. Writer Joe Keatinge is playing a lot close to the vest here, and the comic is a hydra of mysteries: for every one that is answered, two more pop up in its place. When we find out who has been killing the alternate Bens, the question of why pops up. When a team of the few remaining alternate Bens arrive, we don't know why they want to kill "our" Ben. We don't know what the mysterious Kingdom Act is, and why it is a major violation of it to cross between dimensions.And the last pages of issue five, the end of the first arc, leaps forward five years, and that's a whole other set of questions. But that's not a bad thing. So much of what I read and see gets spoon fed to the reader. This slow build, unraveling each layer of the proverbial onion, is really cool, and keeps me coming back.

Aside from Ben himself, the cast of Hell Yeah mostly includes a group of other young superpowered people. His best friend, Sara, is the smartest person in the world, and her thoughtful intellect is a direct counterpoint to Ben's, "Punch first and don't ask questions," attitude. Three women from an alternate Earth arrived on the main Earth in issue one to warn Ben of the death of the alternate Bens, and have stuck around.  Val, their leader, was dating her world's Ben, and is seeking the person who killed him. And she turns into a T-Rex, which is pretty awesome. There's also Benoite, the female alter-Ben who wants our Ben dead, and Ben's parents, who have their own secrets, which have something to do with the mysterious appearance of superhumans on Earth. Most interesting is the mystery man who seems to police superhumans on Earth. He looks like an older scientist, but he's strong enough to punch someone's head off. I look forward to seeing more of him, and learning what his deal is.

Artist Andre Szymanowicz has done a great job giving Hell Yeah a distinct look. All the characters have unique and eye grabbing costumes, and while they don't seem to fall under any of the standard superhero templates, they're still clearly being superhero costumes. Another of Szymanowicz's strengths is how clearly he presents his action sequences. This is an unabashed superhero comic, and I feel a lot of time's modern superhero comics lose the rhythm of a fight by creating splash pages and cool images that aren't necessary. Szymanowicz keeps the sequences flowing and the action moving.

The first trade paperback of  Hell Yeah, Last Days on Earth, will be released on Wednesday. New issues of the series will hopefully be starting shortly thereafter, since I can't wait to find out what happens next.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Animated Discussions- Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1

DC Comics' next direct to DVD feature was released today, in this case an adaptation of the first half of Frank Miller's classic The Dark Knight Returns; the second half will be released in the Winter of 2013. I have a complicated relationship with the story itself; while I appreciate it for what it is, it isn't my favorite Frank Miller work. It's not even my favorite Frank Miller Batman story; that honor belongs to Year One. But this is an excellent adaptation, and it reminds me of how really great the story was when I first read it, and makes me want to go and read it again.

I'm not going to spend much time talking about the story, since the majority of you out there have read it, and if you haven't, well, you probably should. The basic premise is a Bruce Wayne who has been retired from being Batman for ten years must come out of retirement to face a Gotham that has gotten worse since Batman disappeared. The Mutant Gang terrorizes the streets and the people have lost hope. While the piece was written in the 80s, and there are bits that somewhat date the book, those have been glossed over to make the story feel more timeless.

What I want to spend time talking about the animation and the cast. The actual adaptation is faithful to the source material. This isn't an embellished adaptation; the creators of the movie really want to stick to the original story. There are attempts to translate the television broadcasts that make up much of the narration of the original, and it works well. While it's not word for word, losing much of Miller's internal monologue, dividing it into two parts allows for the story to breathe and the pacing to feel right.

The animation is gorgeous and fluid, playing with light and dark in the same way Miller does. Batman slips in and out of shadow that seems to wrap around him. There's a touch of modern, anime influenced animation to the movie, but the influence isn't as heavy as it was in the previous piece, Superman Vs. The Elite; just don't come in expecting Batman: The Animated Series. Gotham is a city in decline in the dark future of the movie, and the city which always feels dark now feels like it's dying.

The moments that really are stunning are the moments when Bruce is alone, talking to himself or reliving moments from his past. Movies, both real life and animated, tend to either avoid this kind of internal narrative or overdo them with heavy voice-over narration. There's not of that here. The scenes are taught, and gorgeous to look at, especially the moment, after Bruce has been beaten by the Mutant Leader, when he talks to the bat in the cave. There's something in the mix of animation and the performance in that scene that really struck me.

Speaking of the performances, they are excellent. I often have trouble with anyone but Kevin Conroy voicing Batman, but Peter Weller's voice suits the persona of the elder Batman. The voice is gravelly and carries the right tone if resignation at the beginning of the movie and righteous anger and Batman-ness by the end. Ariel Winter voices Carrie Kelly, the female Robin, and has so much energy and spunk that she almost seems ready to jump right off the screen. Filling out the principal cast, David Selby's Jim Gordon is pitch perfect, sounding like a man who has fought many battles, but still has some fight left in him. Among the supporting cast, voice actor Michael Jackson is an excellent Alfred, Gary Anthony Williams puts on a perfectly scene chewing performance as the Mutant Leader, and Michael McKean's unctuous pop psychologist Dr.Wolper makes your skin crawl in just the right way. From her brief appearance, I look forward to more screen time for new police commissioner Yindel in part two, voiced by Maria Canals, best known as Hawkgirl on Justice League/Justice League Unlimited, and the trailer for Part 2 gives a good peek at Michael Emerson's Joker, who has only one line in Part 1, and from what little I heard, it's the best Joker I've heard since the seminal work of Mark Hamill.

In many cases with these DC animated features, the strength of the source is not reflected in the strength of the film, do to constraints of time and I would assume budget. Fortunately, those problems aren't present in Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 1. This is an outstanding film, and worth a place in any Batman fan's library

Monday, September 24, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 9/19

Nightwing #0
Story: Tom DeFalco & Kyle Higgins
Art: Eddy Barrows

Dick Grayson's origin in one of the most iconic in comics. It's almost as well known as the origins of Batman, Superman, or Spider-Man. So there's really only so much you can do with it in a retelling or revamp without getting fans up in arms or losing the purity of the origin. Fortunately, it seems the creative team on Nightwing #0 understood this when they started the issue. All the familiar elements are here: the circus, his parents' fall from the trapeze, Dick learning at Batman's side. And some little details are changed into things that are more organic to a modern retelling. But the center of the story is here. More important than any of this is the choice to have Dick narrate the story himself. We see just how clever Dick is when he deduces Batman's identity. But more important, we see just how different Dick is from Bruce. In a scene with Alfred, Dick talks about how he's not as angry as he once was, and how he's not remembering the night of his parents' death as clearly as he's remembering their life, and Alfred points out that this is a healthy progression. And this is where there difference between Bruce and Dick really lies: Bruce's most vivid memory of his parents will always be in that alley, and this issue does a really good job of showing how Dick can never become that. The end, featuring the first appearance of the New 52 Lady Shiva, ties nicely into the next arc on the series without being forced, and I'm glad to see a favorite character of mine pop back up. Nightwing #0 is a great introduction to the character, and feels like one of the best of the Zero Month issues. If you only know Dick Grayson from other media, this is an excellent time to check out his comic adventures.

Roger Langridge's Snarked! #12
Story & Art: Roger Langridge

And another great series comes to its end. I feel like I've been writing a lot of reviews for the final issues of series I really enjoy lately. Snarked wraps up this issue very nicely, tying the whole series together beautifully. Wilberforce J. Walrus, our protagonist, has gone on a wild journey, across land and sea, and with this issue, he acts bravely, something the self-described coward would not have done at the beginning of the series. His time playing guide and guardian to the royal children Scarlett and Rusty, along with his carpenter pal McDunk, has changed the Walrus in ways he would never have expected. Scarlett as well proves her valor and her intellect, making it clear she is the right girl for the job of ruling. The ending to a series can be a bittersweet thing, but the sweet far outweighs the bitter here, with the Walrus, for all his self examination and change, still being the rogue he was at the beginning, even is his heart is a little bigger for it. Langridge shows his master's hand at finding the perfect balance of humor and sentimentality in the conclusion of the story, and I can only hope the Walrus and the Carpenter make their ways onto the page again sometime.

The Unwritten #41
Story: Mike Carey
Art: Peter Gross

In between each arc of The Unwritten, Mike Carey gives a little breather and gives readers a one off issue that fleshes out minor characters, or fills in a gap in the narrative. This issue, told by Richie Savoy, main character Tom Taylor's vampire partner in crime, tells exactly what happened after Tom's climactic battle with Pullman, gives us some insight into Richie's current state of mind and a little more information on the predicament the world is in. In the Villa Diodati, Richie brings the wounded Tom to only find the ghosts of the people who have died along Tom's road to his battle with the Cabal, and Richie tries to nurse Tom back to health. He begins to experience more of his vampirism, and by the end of the issue comes to a starling realization about his own fate and about the world surrounding Tom Taylor. This issue does a great job in answering some of the questions readers have had since the end of the first act of The Unwritten, explaining why Richie sought out Madame Rausch in the last arc, and setting up exactly what Tom is going to have to do to put the world right again by the end of the series. Richie is the character who usually provides comic relief in the series, and who has spent much of the series getting turned into a vampire and getting smacked around, but has become something of a badass as he's become more confident in his vampire abilities. This issue has Richie come into his own and his power, and leaves the reader's with questions about just how close Richie might be to Count Ambrosio, the vampire who turned him and the archnemesis of Tommy Taylor (the book within a book character). The Unwritten has done a great job of getting its wheels back under it after the end of what would seem to have been the driving force of the series, and I can only wonder what else Carey has in store for us.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Recommended Reading for 9/21: B.P.R.D.

Everybody loves Hellboy. Hellboy comics are fun, action packed adventures, with a brilliant mix of folklore and pulp action, and art by creator Mike Mignola, as well as luminaries like Richard Corben and Duncan Fegredo. But I'm not here to talk about Hellboy today. Just gotta mention hi, since he is the origin of what I am going to talk about: B.P.R.D., the series of mini-series featuring the Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense, who started out as Hellboy supporting cast members, and have since developed lives of their own, and added many characters to the cast since Hellboy left.

The Bureau of Paranormal Research and Defense is a covert government organization that started after World War II, and whose purview is everything that goes bump in the night. Founded by Professor Trevor Bruttenholm, The B.P.R.D. has fought vampire, werewolves, things from beyond space, frog monsters, and every other form of nasty. While Hellboy is its most famous agent, the B.P.R.D. has had many other special agents: the merman Abe Sapien, the pyrokinetic Liz Sherman, Roger the Homunculus, ghost-in-the-machine-suit Johann Krauss, tough as nails and possibly undead Sergeant Ben Daimio, and scholar at large Kate Corrigan. The B.P.R.D. cast are all fascinating characters, fitting into, and interacting with, the strange world they live in uniquely.

Mike Mignola has said that part of what he likes about creating his own characters and writing in his own universe is that they can ge in real time and he can change the world. And Mignola is doing things in B.P.R.D. that have created a very different world. The worlds of so much fiction and comics really try to be similar to the real world without upsetting the status quo. Mignola, with co-writer John Arcudi, have tossed the world on its ear in this series, especially in the past couple of years since the title entered its new phase: Hell on Earth. Countries are destroyed, monsters are loose, and the B.P.R.D. is playing catch up. And more than once, a beloved character hasn't made it out of a story alive. The fact that these changes are creator driven and controlled gives them more weight, and make them more emotionally effecting since character death usually means the character is gone, and a change to the world or a character tends to be something that will resonate and not be reverted a month later.

The ability for the world, and the characters, to change is one of the things that not only drives B.P.R.D., but keeps my interest and keeps me coming back month in a month out. The series is a true ensemble, with mini-series switching focus from Abe to Kate to Johann and back, or the occasional one-shot or smaller mini featuring a background character like the somewhat insane professor J.H. O'Donnell or agent Ashley Strode.

Most of the other series I've written about in recommended readings have been either complete, or are a series of self contained stories. as B.P.R.D.: Hell on Earth is still going strong, it's harder to discuss theme, as theme often becomes most clear when something is complete. The plots of the series I can discuss some, and will, especially with the series still running, attempt to avoid spoilers.

The B.P.R.D. series started out as the Bureau in a war with frog men, beings who had been created in an earlier Hellboy story. With Hellboy gone, the series took on a more serious tone than the early Hellboy stories. While always a horror comic, Hellboy himself brought a light touch to those stories, with his dry humor and his ability to charge into a situation without heed for his safety. B.P.R.D. rewarded long time readers with not just answers to longstanding questions like the origin of Abe Sapien, but laying new mysteries that were parsed out over issues and years. Liz Sherman has mysterious visions, Daimio struggles with the results of his mysterious resurrection, and the death of Roger the Homunculus are all things that impact the series long term.

The ending of the war of frogs is what really changes the ballgame. The world has been cracked open, volcanoes have erupted, giant monsters tear through the American southwest, and the B.P.R.D. now has a United Nations charter. Missions take place across the globe. And the Revelation that Abe Sapien is the first of what should be a species of men that would usher in a new era, no matter if he wants to be or not, cause friction within the B.P.R.D. And the evil Zinco Corporation is up to their usual brand of no good. The death of Hellboy, and the resultant catastrophe in England, is something else of the Bureau's plate. So all things considered, everyone has their hands full.

One of the most interesting things about the cast of B.P.R.D. is that Mignola and Arcudi are never afraid to pull their punches on how flawed their protagonists are. Each struggles with their own demons. Johann Krauss is bitter at his lack of a body, and when he briefly had one again, glutted himself on sensation, and since its loss has been obsessed with vengeance. Abe Sapien is often haunted by self doubt and questions about his past. Andrew Devon, a more recent addition to the team, holds certain prejudices against some of the more unusual members of the team, and has done some things that aren't exactly on the up and up. Panya, the ancient mummy who has returned to life with psychic powers, always seems to have her own agenda. These flaws make for interesting storytelling, because you're never sure if a character is going to do the right thing, or the right thing for them.

Kate Corrigan is a favorite character, and one who has experienced a great deal of change over the course of the series. When she was first introduced, she was a paranormal investigator and close friend of Hellboy. She would accompany him on missions, providing a thoughtful balance to Hellboy's more gung ho attitude. Over the course of B.P.R.D., Kate has witnessed the death of many of her friends. She has also become one of the heads of the Bureau. She has liaised with Russia, and has gained, and lost, a love. Seeing a character who was introduced to really support a main character grow into her own, and become a character who can headline a story, is one of the great joys of long form storytelling that appears in so few other media.

I usually spend some time at the end of each of these pieces talking a little about art, which is all I feel qualified to do, since I tend to follow comics for story, and not as much for art. But the Hellboy universe titles have always had incredible art, starting with the inimitable Mike Mignola. B.P.R.D. has ad art from such great artists as Ryan Sook, John Severin, Cameron Stewart, and Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba. The current Hell on Earth run is principally drawn by Tyler Crook, who is doing a bang up job, really capturing a world in ruins. But the principal artist on the earlier run was Guy Davis, who is one of my favorite comic book artists of all time. His style is unique. His characters are far from photo realistic, with a fluid look that is just a tad off kilter, perfectly working with his horror background. And no one draws monsters like Davis. his creatures are masses of fangs and tentacles, things that look like they sprang from his nightmares.

B.P.R.D. is a great comic because it tosses all sorts of genres into a blender and comes out with something uniquely its own. Part spy action comic, part horror comic, part character drama, you never know what you're going to get when you enter a new arc, or even a new issue. That level of mystery, combined with the general high  quality of the stories and art, make B.P.R.D. a comic I look forward to every month.

The initial run of B.P.R.D. is available in fifteen trades or four very nice hardcover omnibuses, all easily numbered, so you can start from the beginning and follow right along. Hell on Earth is three trades out, with a fourth due in December.The next issue comes out this coming Wednesday, the second issue in the Return of the Master arc. The October issue will be the 100th issue of B.P.R.D., and will buck the current trend by changing its numbering on the cover to reflect that milestone, and each issue after will be numbered from 100 onward. Personally, I look forward to buying a comic with a triple digit number again...

Monday, September 17, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 9/12

Batman #0
Story: Scott Snyder/ James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo/ Andy Clarke

While last week's Detective Comics #0 told a tale of Bruce's travels before returning to Gotham, Batman #0 is set firmly in Gotham City, and set in the time between Bruce's return and when he takes up the mantle of the Bat. A tale of a younger, more inexperienced hero still trying to get his feet under him, we see a Bruce Wayne who is fallible, who makes a major mistake when getting involved in trying to stop the Red Hood Gang. Anyone who knows the least about Batman mythology knows the Red Hood was the Joker, so this serves not just as a tale of proto-Batman, but of proto-Joker as well. It's exciting to see the two great enemies confronting each other at these early stages. Now, it's never explicitly said that the leader of the Red Hood Gang is Joker, and Snyder could be tossing us a curve ball in the end, but so far it's looking that way. There are some changes to the established mythos here, with Bruce living in a building near Crime Alley, which I'm fine with. I feel this works for the character, and seems to be leading to a confrontation with Red Hood. There's also an excellent scene in the issue between Bruce and Jim Gordon. Scott Snyder writes the best Gordon on the shelves now, and one of the best of all time, so to see the young Gordon suspicious of Bruce, thinking he has ties to the vigilante who has been popping up in Crime Alley, cements the impression of Gordon's intellect and skill. The end of the main story leaves us with something of a cliffhanger that the teaser text says will be followed up on in 2013, and I assume will have some part in the "Death of the Family" event that will see the return of the Joker, starting next month. The back-up is a story about the partners of Batman, seeing where the first three Robins and Batgirl were when Gordon first lit the Bat Signal. It's interesting to see just how different each of their lives were, and the looks on each face as they first see it. I have to say I particularly loved the Time Drake pages, and would be first in line for a James Tynion written Red Robin mini or monthly.

Batman and Robin #0
Story: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Pat Gleason

Batman and Robin #0 is a very enjoyable comic for many reasons. While we've gotten glimpses of Damian's training under his mother, Talia al Ghul, and the League of Assassins in other stories, this issue really cements the hard life he had growing up. All the training to make him like his father without telling him that his father is Batman, and the use of his father's identity as a carrot to get him to excel, remind the reader that as much as Talia might actually love him, she is the daughter of Ra's al Ghul, and the cycle of abuse that we saw started by Ra's in Batman Incorporated #2 came out in Talia's parenting in this issue. Tomasi and Gleason have done an excellent job further developing Damian over the course of this series; he's come a long way from the brat we first met, and see again in the latter pages if this issue. But the thing that really made this comic for me is possibly the cutest panel I've ever seen in any comic. Check this out and try not to smile.

Pretty great, huh?

Resurrection Man #0
Story: Andy Lanning & Dan Abnett
Art: Ramon Bachs & Jesus Saiz

Mitch Shelly, The Resurrection Man, confronts his ultimate nemesis in this, the final issue of his series, and that enemy is... Mitch Shelly? I've been a fan of Resurrection Man since his first ongoing back in the late 90s, and I was glad to see him back, and while I'm sad to see him go again, at least the series went out with a bang. This issue does a great job of using the Zero Month theme, the origin stories, and tying it into the ongoing continuity of the book, resolving who Mitch is, where he came from, and dealing with the plot of the forces of heaven and hell competing over his soul. Even though the early pages make it pretty clear where the story is going, it has a couple twists and turns that keep the book interesting. Andy Lanning and Dan Abnett, who created Mitch and wrote both of his ongoings, clearly have more stories to tell, and they left the series open for them or others to use Mitch in the future. Ramon Bachs comes in for most of this last issue, and while he has never drawn it before, his work fits nicely with the other artists who have worked on it. I'm hoping that the Justice League Dark or maybe Stormwatch could use a team member with such an odd and interesting power set, and Mitch gets one more chance at resurrection.

The Shade #12
Story: James Robinson
Art: Gene Ha

I've been reading, and thoroughly enjoying, each issue of James Robinson's return to one of my favorite comic book characters, the Shade, but this is the issue I've been waiting for. This is the issue of The Shade that finally sheds some light on his mysterious origin. Beautifully drawn by Gene Ha, the issue takes place in 1838, where the Shade is still Richard "Dickie" Swift, a well to do importer/exporter. We watch young Swift with his beautiful wife and children, with his friend Charles Dickens, and watch him make the acquaintance of Simon Culp, the dwarf who, if you've read Starman, know will bring about his transformation. As someone who loves to see literary references in his comics, I loved seeing Dickens as a character. But it's really Swift's journey, falling for Culp's game and finding himself at Culp's mercy, that is interesting. Robinson doesn't lay all his cards on the table, as there are still a few mysteries left behind for him to follow up on when and if he gets a chance to tell more tales of the Shade. As a long time fan of the character, I was deeply satisfied with this story, and if you happen to have just jumped on The Shade bandwagon with this series, or even issue, I think you would not feel lost or confused by this riveting issue.

Stumptown Vol.2 #1
Story: Greg Rucka
Art: Matthew Southworth

Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth's Stumptown returns with a second mini-series, and it's off to a great start. PI's aren't quite in fashion in current media, with most crime stories being more along the lines of police procedurals, so it's nice to see a classic PI story. Dex Parios, our protagonist, is in a little better shape financially and emotionally when we see her at the beginning of this story than the last, but as with all good PIs, trouble follows Dex. What seems like a fairly straightforward case, finding the missing guitar, the titular "Baby in the Velvet Case," quickly turns into something that looks to place Dex right back in over her head. Dex is one of Rucka's trademark heroines: tough, smart, and a little broken. Rucka's dialogue crackles as usual, giving us great views into his characters. There's a solid mystery here, and who stole the guitar seems to be far less important than why it was stolen and exactly what Mim Bracca, rockstar and character from another Rucka work, his novel A Fistful of Rain, is caught up in. Matthew Southworth's art is well suited for the gritty PI world of Dex's, but behind the grit is great clarity. His lines are as sharp as Rucka's dialogue, and the two compliment each other. This is a great jumping on point for people who didn't check out Stumptown the first time around, and if you dig it, it would be well worth checking out the first Stumptown collection.-

Saturday, September 15, 2012

It's Gonna Be Epic! Epics Anthology Launches Today!

Today, Dewey's Comic City hosted the launch party for a new comic anthology, Epics, an action packed anthology from some local New Jersey creators who all have taught at the Kubert School, and funded through Kickstarter. Anthologies are few and far between these days, with the only notable examples I can think of coming out on a regular basis from Dark Horse, so I was curious to check the book out. In all fairness to the somewhat ambiguous ethics of blogging, I am also personally acquainted with a couple of the creators involved, so I look forward to seeing what they've been working on. And I have to say, the book is a triumph all around.

Each issue of Epics will feature four stories, six pages each, set to a certain theme, and this issue's is 1959. All four stories are set in that year, but each is totally different from the others in genre and tone. There's an action story, a science fiction tale, a counter culture youth racing story with a twist, and a hard boiled detective. Each stays true to the roots of the genre, but there are some great twists that you wouldn't see in a story originally published when in the late 50s, or when these different genres were at their height.

The first story is Katyusha, a high flying mystery man story, created by Anthony Marques. A Soviet squad is attacking American cities with planes and a blimp, and only Katyusha, who flies with his jetpack, can stop them. This is the story with the least dialogue to it, but that doesn't mean there isn't a great story here. It's very widescreen, with beautiful cityscapes and a cool dogfight.

The second story, The Iron Ghost, is my favorite of the lot. Created by The Matt Signal favorite Fernando Ruiz, this is the story of scientist Carter Craig, who invents a robot that can be controlled by thought. Craig is not the 50s scientist as mad popular in films like This Island Earth, who wants to benefit mankind. He is an abrasive ass, who cares for no one but himself and has a bunch of habits that get him in deep with the mob. This story has the same feel as classics like the origin of Spider-Man from Amazing Fantasy #15, where you get everything you need to know about the character in six short pages. Ruiz;'s clean style has the influence of his years at Archie Comics, but is still his own, and his dialogue sharp and fun, with touches of classic fifties movie talk. There's a dark undercurrent in the story, and it's bloody conclusion is a shocker.

A Racy Story is an interesting story, with a title that is a punning title that is as clever as the story. The influence of the legendary Ed "Big Daddy" Roth and the equally legendary Joe Kubert loom large in creator Bob C. Hardin's style, and the main character, "Rat Rod Daddy's Daughter" makes a clear homage to Roth's Ratfink. The story, which could have been a simple, "hot girl in her underwear street races a man with a tomato head," story is made more interesting by the narration, done mostly through the memories of main character Holley Rhora. The ending has a great twist in the nature of classic fifties horror comics and The Twilight Zone (which happened to debut in theme year 1959).

The final story, Drake, is a classic piece of detective noir. Fabio Redivo tells the tale of a classic down on his luck private dick with all the ingredients of 50s p.i. story: a femme fatale, a mcguffin, a mysterious organization. As a big fan of crime fiction, I enjoyed the way this played with all the tropes but never felt hackneyed.

Overall, this was an excellent first issue, and I look forward to the second. Both Iron Ghost and Katyusha are looking to be spun off into their own comics, and I'm in for both. If you're not one of the lucky people who were at Dewey's today, you can pick up a copy at New York Comic Con in October, get one on Amazon, and keep up with new press and announcements from the Epics crew on their site.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Recommended Reading for 9/14: The Manhattan Projects

One of the great failings of a lot of today's media is that they retread the same ideas over and over. They might polish them up, add a little shine (or gloom), but in the end, nothing is different from countless other stories, and nothing changes. This extends to not just comics, but movies, TV, and the stage. But sometimes, something comes along that is just bursting to the seams with new ideas; big ideas, little ideas, and everything in between. The Manhattan Projects, the recent series from Image Comics written by Jonathan Hickman and drawn by Nick Pittara, is a series that not only is full of ideas, but is about ideas.
The high concept on the title is simple enough: what if the Manhattan Project as we know it was just a front? That while nuclear research was part of the project, behind that were many other projects, all of them wilder and stranger than the last. And what if all the men involved in the projects were insane, evil, or just a bit off? Within each issue, there are a series of other concepts, little bits of science and philosophy, that mix to create a broad tapestry of ideas like none I've seen in recent memory.

In recent years, there actually have been a few writers in comics who really seem to love science fiction, and tend to jam their books full of ideas. It feels similar to the boom in crime comics in the early 00s; a few writers (in that case Brian Azzarello, Brian Bendis, Ed Brubaker, and Greg Rucka) seem to feel something coming and start telling stories in a genre that hasn't been featured in comics for some time.  Matt Fraction, Nick Spencer, and Kieron Gillen all have written interesting science fiction comics, some within traditional superhero universes, and some on their own. But for me, Jonathan Hickman is the preeminent voice of the new science fiction comics. While I haven't read his early works yet, I can say that I was impressed with his time travel series Red Wing, and his run on Fantastic Four/FF has been the best since Mark Waid and Mike Wieringo, a run that mixes both the family dynamic of the team with his brand of super science.

But for sheer science fiction, nothing he's done touches The Manhattan Projects. One of the things that I find really impressive is that The Manhattan Projects is legitimate science fiction. When Oppenheimer, Einstein, or Feynman are talking about the science behind their madness, there is (or at least seems to be to my relatively untrained eye) a legitimate basis in fact. It's easy in comics to talk about unstable molecules and ultimate nullifiers, but instead to talk about teleportation and dimensional travel and have a reader think that there might be something to that is a completely different thing.

The issues are each structured as done in ones that build off each other. This is great, since it allows readers to pick up any one issue and not feel cheated. But reading each issue allows the reader to understand more of what's going on. You don't need to know that J. Robert Oppenheimer isn't just a multiple personality, but happens to be his twin brother Joseph, who killed and replaced his brother, but it helps. The device seen invented in one issue can come to rear its head in the next.

Now here there be real spoilers. While I've talked about this as a book based around ideas, ideas are only as interesting as the characters who speak or embody them. And, hoo boy, these are some characters. The series is an ensemble book, with each of the scientists who were really a part of the Manhattan Project recast in a broken light. Richard Feynman is the closest the book has to a central figure, since each issue is framed with quotes from his autobiography, but different characters narrate each issue, giving the reader a view into the particularly twisted mindset of that character. I already mentioned Oppenheimer is actually a brilliant, if insane, multiple personality twin of the real scientist, but I didn't mention that he also has the ability to eat the brain of someone else and absorb their knowledge and personality. Albert Einstein is not this universe's Einstein, but actually Albrecht Einstein, an alternate universe reality version of the great physicist who replaced his double when Einstein bridged the gap between dimensions. And hey, if you don't like your scientists as evil doubles, you have the narcissistic Feynman, or the A.I. based on the mind of FDR.

The somewhat malign or selfish intentions of all these characters are important because there's more than just science here. There's a look at the philosophy of power and responsibility that I feel is part of all science and science fiction. Stepping momentarily onto a soap box, I don't think people are any more vile or violent than they ever were noawadays. I just think we have the capability to do so much more evil with modern technology, and can see so much more of it because of that. Social advancement has not caught up to technological advancement. And I feel like that is reflected in these stories. Every amoral or immoral character doesn't stop to think if they should do what they're doing. They just want to see if they can, not for anyone's benefit except their own, and for their own glory.

The fifth issue of the series was particularly chilling, as mankind contacts other species. The US government has had contact with aliens for some time, but when a new race appears to meet with them, things go bad, and Oppenheimer realizes, through eating an alien brain, that the aliens they have dealt with before have been conquered. So, a group of scientists go to meet these new aliens and, unbeknownst to him, use poor, irradiated Harry Daghlian to wipe them out. Power and fear are the driving force here, not thought and hope. This is not a story of man reaching out to the stars. This is the story of man shutting his borders and killing anything that tries to climb the fence, including his fellow man. And the final two pages, with Oppenheimer looking at the door to anywhere, and paraphrasing the most famous thing the real Oppenheimer is purported to have said, sent a shiver up my spine.

Artist Nick Pitarra is an able accomplice to Hickman's brilliant science fiction madness. His art is super detailed, with gorgeous backgrounds and settings. His characters are distinct, and while I'm not familiar with how all these people looked in real life, the ones I do know look similar to what Pitarra puts on the page, with some choices stylizing them (Werner Von Braun's super robotic arm, or Fermi's non-human features come to mind). The designs of the different alien species are fascinating and different from the more traditional aliens you see in many other places.

The Manhattan Projects is not a comic to read if you're looking to turn your brain off and sit back. This is a series to read if you want to think, if you want to be challenged. Moral questions, super science, alternate history; this is a stew of concepts. You might learn something, or some away with a new view on life. Or you might just get a kick out of mad science. Either way, it's a wild ride.

The first collection of The Manhattan Projects, Science Bad, is available now, collecting the first five issues. Issue six was released this Wednesday. Both should be at any good comic book store.

Monday, September 10, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 9/5

Detective Comics #0
Story: Greeg Hurwitz/James Tynion IV
Art: Tony Daniel & Pere Perez/ Henrik Jonsson

The first of the DC Zero Month Batman titles was a pleasant surprise. Bruce Wayne's time away, training to be Batman, is a period that has actually had very little exposure in comics. Batman Begins spends a good amount of time with it, and one of the best episodes of Batman: The Animated Series, "Night of the Ninja," also features Bruce learning martial arts skills. But in the comics, more time has been spent with Henri Ducard and Harvey Harris, the men who taught Bruce the manhunting and detective skills, than with his martial arts history. The issue is about Bruce taking his final step, with his final master, the cold and unrelenting Shihan Matsuda. Much of the story works like any martial arts training montage you've ever seen, with Matsuda training Bruce and insulting him when he fails, with Matsuda's wife soothing Bruce's aches and offering comfort where Matsuda offers scorn. But part of Matsuda's training is the denial of emotion and connection, and we see part of where Bruce's inability to connect with others comes from. The ending of the story shows Bruce that betrayal is always around the corner, and that trust can get you killed, lessons that I think he struggles with to this day. While I enjoyed the main story, the back-up, featuring Alfred during Bruce's years away, was the real gem. Having established Bruce's mother, Martha, as part of the Kane family, who are still alive since Batwoman is probably related to them as well, this story explains why young Bruce never went to live with his relatives. But more important than a continuity fix, the story showcases Alfred's love and dedication to the Wayne family, and to Bruce. Alfred is a constant presence in Bruce's life, and I enjoy a story that really puts the focus on him, reminding us that he is more than just Bruce's gentleman's gentleman, but his friend and family. The two stories work well off each other, with the Matsuda's as Bruce's surrogate family filled with pain, and Alfred, who shows nothing but unconditional love. I hope that the remaining issues exploring the revised origin of Batman in the New 52 are of a similar quality; it will lay a nice groundwork for new readers to understand Batman.

Fairest #7
Story: Matthews Sturges
Art: Shawn McManus

The first arc of the Fables spin-off Fairest was a fun little yarn that put some pieces that had been off the table back into play, and introduced a couple fun new characters. This issue, on the other hand, take a couple of the existing pieces and shines a completely new light on them. Set in the 40s, Beast is out of Fabletown, home in exile of fairy tale characters, on a quest to track down and capture the Lamia, an ancient Greek snakewoman who is killing men, while trying to stay one step ahead of St. George, the legendary dragon slayer, who wants to kill the monster. Told as a letter from Beast to his wife, Beauty, we see Beast working the case, following clues in a classic gumshoe tale, to a bloody confrontation between all the characters. Beast is a character who has been part of Fables since issue one, but has never really had much of a spotlight, and it's odd to see that spotlight in a book geared towards the female Fables cast. There's a scene at the end of the issue between Beast and Bigby Wolf, the lycanthropic Big Bad Wolf who serves as Fabletown's sheriff, that begins to explain some of the animosity that regular readers of the Fables universe have seen in the past. The ending is a major twist, one that readers could figure out if they read the issue carefully, and one that completely shakes up the status quo for some of the regular characters in the series. I'm hoping to see the revelation played out in the course of upcoming stories in this title or the main book, but the final page switches genres beautifully, not working as a noir, but as the perfect cap to a thriller, with Beast again faced with the choices he has made before, and wondering what he will have to do if things come to a head again. It's a great ending, full of possibilities for stories, and since stories rest at the center of Fables, there is no better ending.

The Muppets #3
Story & Art: Roger Langridge

This is the penultimate issue of The Muppets by Roger Langridge, and his deft handling of these classic characters is going to be sorely missed when it's done. There are few comics that are so full of charm and whimsy as a Langridge Muppets. This issue, the Fall issue of "The Four Seasons," focuses on Pops, the Muppet Theatre's doorman. It seems Pops has reached the age where the stage doorman's union makes one retire, and so Pops must train his replacement, his nephew. While there's a hilarious scene as Pops's nephew tries to gently but firmly tell a comedian who is seeking and audition that he isn't welcome, the majority of the issue's comedy is based around the rest of the gang trying to find a way to get Pops to stay on, without letting Kermit, the straight shooter, know. Gonzo comes up with an elaborate scam, that involves finding a birth certificate, but it seems to only member of the crew who has one is Miss :Piggy, who has lost it. Scooter is also taking a collection to get a special plaque made for Pops, and when it comes, it doesn't exactly say what Scooter has intended. As with all issues of a Langridge comic, there's a lot that's going on here, if you couldn't tell be my little synopsis, but it never feels rushed or cramped. As I've said before about any Langridge Muppets story, what Langridge really captures is the heart of these characters, created by the late, great Jim Henson with such love. This crazy band of misfits really care about each other, and Langridge builds his stories around that family relationship, and that's what has always made a great Muppets story.

Near Death #11
Story: Jay Faerber
Art: Simone Guglielmini

Another of my favorite Image series goes away. After the end of Reed Gunther broke my heart, the "season finale" of Near Death stomps the pieces to dust. Markham, the hitman who has found a conscience of sorts after his near death experience, must protect Novak, his former boss, from Robert Knox, the FBI agent who has hunted Novak and who suffered a brain injury removing his conscience. Now Know will kill anyone who gets in his way to get to Novak. Markham continues to struggle with his pledge to not take a life, but this time the life he wants to take is that of the person he's protecting, and Novak continues to goad him about coming back to work for him. The issue is a perfect ending for the story that Jay Faerber has been telling about Markham, and if this is the last we ever see of him, I'll be satisfied, if not happy. Markham cotinues to make choices, and in the end he does the right thing despite what it might mean for him. Markham, who at the beginning of the series had little to no sense of the value of others, now makes a purely selfless choice. The people who Markham has protected over the course of the series come in to help him in the end, and show that the "good guys" have at least a grudging respect for this bad guy trying to turn good. The final back-up, "Struck," from Ed Brisson's Murder Room series is a wonderful short noir, like the rest, fitting tonally well with the book's lead story. I do hope to see more of Markham before too long, but at least I'll have Faerber's new noir mini, Point of Impact, starting next month. Check it out with me, huh?

New Crusaders: Rise of the Heroes #1
Story: Ian Flynn
Art: Ben Bates

I have a real soft spot for the Red Circle heroes, the super heroes created in the 30s and 40s by the company that would one day become Archie Comics. I first discovered them when DC had the rights to the characters in the 90s for their !mpact line (yes, it was the 90s and punctuation could be a letter), and enjoyed them in their appearances in Archie's Weird Mysteries. I wasn't as big a fan of DC's other attempt with the license a couple years back, but it produced a few good comics too, so I can't say too much against it. This first issue introduces us to the town of Red Circle, where it seems most of the original Crusaders have retired to. The retired heroes are having an annual picnic, with their families and proteges, when one of their old enemies attacks, and one hero, the Shield, grabs the kids while the heroes fight. By the end of the issue, it seems the parents have been defeated and killed, leaving only the Shield and the kids to stop the returned villain. The set-up has been done before, with the young inexperienced legacy heroes trained by the one grizzled veteran (it was the foundation for much of Geoff Johns's JSA work, and for Marvel's Secret Warriors), but this issue is very much an all ages story. There's action and pathos, but a distinct lack of the gore that we see in a lot of modern super hero comics. There's not a ton of exposition, so if you don't know the Red Circle characters well, you might not get a lot of what the parents are up to, but the New Crusaders, the kids, are the focus of the series, and this getting to know them as characters is what is really important. With a team of seven, and six of them new completely new, you know you will only get this in broad strokes, but there's still a good amount that happens; I don't feel a lot of decompression here. I'm looking forward to seeing more time spent with the kids as they learn about their parents' histories, and the powers that they'll all be receiving, judging by the cover anyway. If you feel like reading a superhero comic that hearkens back to a simpler time, but still keeps some of the sensibilities of more modern comics, this is a book worth reading.

Smallville Season 11 #5
Story: Bryan Q. Miller
Art: Chris Cross

Smallville was a guilty pleasure TV show of mine for the last few seasons, when they decided that their real audience was fanboys like me, who wanted to see DC heroes on screen, and who didn't care about the will/they won't they relationship between Clark Kent and Lana Lang. I didn't think I'd be particularly interested in getting a comic following up the series, but then they decided to bring in Batman, and, well, you know me... The issue is quite good. Bryan Q. Miller, the writer of the series, actually worked on Smallville on TV, but is best known in comics circles as working on the late, lamented Stephanie Brown Batgirl series, and his mix of action and comedy is evident here. His Nightwing, who is Barbara Gordon, was originally rumored (confirmed?) to be Stephanie before decisions from the powers that be changed it, and she has the same strong, sassy attitude that his Stephanie did. He has a good handle on Batman, and how he thinks; his scene with Lex Luthor could have been in any mainstream DC title and worked just as well. It's interesting to see two early Batman stories from very different universes in one week, and how they contrast: while the Batman in this issue is not a lightweight, he seems lighter than the version in Detective, probably due to the influence of Nightwing. This is a Superman comic, and I should probably talk about Superman a little. I like Miller's Superman, who is closer to the pre-New 52 Superman, very earnest, very boy scouty, missing the anger I see in his current incarnation. But the thing about the Superman parts of the story I liked most were the interactions between Clark and Lois Lane. In this universe, Lois and Clark are a couple, and seeing this, plus rereading some pre-Flashpoint stories, has really made me miss Lois and Clark as a couple. I really only knew them in the comics as a couple, and seeing them again here, they had such a wonderful rapport, one that humanizes Superman. I understand Silver Age fans who never got behind the relationship, but for me, it's a part of the character I miss even more than the red shorts.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Recommended Reading for 9/7: Smoke and Mirrors

In recent years, a genre that has really come into the forefront of genre fiction, and one I have come to really enjoy, is urban fantasy. Horror has always existed on the fringe of the everyday; part of what makes something frightening is that it could happen to you. Science fiction might take place in the distant future, but by its actual definition, it has to have some grounding in science, and thus a touch of reality (as opposed to science fantasy, like Star Wars, which can play more fast and loose with things like physics). But for a lot of years, nearly all fantasy was either Tolkien-influenced high fantasy, with proud wizards and noble elves, or Howard-influenced low fantasy, with barbarians and savages. But urban fantasy is setting a fantastic element against the mundane, like, say, a wizard who operates out of a storefront in Chicago in a world that doesn't really believe in things that go bump in the night, even if they really do.

What Smoke and Mirrors, a recently concluded mini-series from IDW, does differently is it inverts the basic trope of urban fantasy: it sets the mundane against a fantastic background. The world the series is set in where magic drives everything. It's not a world that looks that different from our own, but what we would see as technology is powered by magic. House lights and heat are turned on by an incantation. The equivalent of tablets and smart phones are run by magic provided by the Trade Circle, which is pretty much Apple if the guy running it was part Steve Jobs and part Tom Riddle. It's just close enough to the real modern world for the reader to not feel like he or she is being tossed into the deep end of a different universe, but dissimilar enough to make the reader want to get to know it better.

And into this world drops Terry Ward. Terry is a native of "our" world, the world of iPhones and internal combustion engines. One day, he wakes up and he's in a different world. This is a classic fish out of water story. Terry has no ability to access the magic of this new world, but he has a particular advantage that helps him survive; Terry is an illusionist, a stage magician of not unreasonable skill. So, with those abilities, Terry is making a living of sorts performing on the streets, and then going home alone to a house with no power.

Terry's lonely world is broken when he meets Ethan Vernon. Ethan is a teenager who is going through a lot of teen angst and rebellion. He's living with a single mother who is going blind, and Ethan seems mad at the world. Ethan's mother is trying to deal with her handicap, and with her rebellious son, and their relationship is strained, despite clearly loving each other. Ethan's got a lot of talent with magic that is going to waste since he isn't applying himself, or so it seems. After running off from a school trip, he sees Terry performing on the street and is fascinated that he can't figure out the magic that is powering Terry's performance. The two reach an accord of sorts, and Terry takes Ethan on as an apprentice.

Its a set-up we've seen before, but one that's played very well here. Ethan is looking for a father figure, and Terry is looking for something to bring him more fully into the world. The two spend the series learning more about each other as Terry passes on his tricks and illusions. Mike Costa, the series writer, does an admirable job of building fully realized characters over the course of the series, really making the reader feel the distance these two outsiders feel from their world, and seeing them become not just master and apprentice, but friends. We see Ethan grow into his cleverness, and the possibility of more power than he imagines he had, and Terry finds the strength he needs to take the next step on his own journey.

But the series is more than just a tale of two people. In the first issue, the series starts out with a presentation on magic given by the head of the Trade Circle, Steven J. Carroll. Carroll is pretty clearly a Steve Jobs analogue, with his presentation looking like one of Jobs's classics, and has the same panache at Jobs at his best. But Carroll has another agenda. Carroll is working on experiments with new magics, magics that will elevate him even higher in the world. As he prepares for the roll out of Gesture, his secret project, he learns of Terry's seeming abilities to do magic with just a wave of his hand, and Carroll sets out to learn everything he can about how Terry has mastered this skill. Carroll isn't as three dimensional as Terry of Ethan, being a bit more of a typical Machiavellian villain, but he's a good one, and his selfishness stands counter to Terry's willingness to share with Ethan.

One element that really adds to this series, setting it above a lot of stories about illusionists is the involvement of Jon Armstrong, a professional illusionist. Armstrong clearly worked closely with Costa and artist Ryan Browne, as all of Terry's tricks have the ring of truth in how they're presented by him. The series makes the illusion an important facet of the story, and the idea that what we all look at as a trick, even a clever one, could be looked at in a world of real magic as the height of sorcery is one of the new, cool ideas that the series employs to great effect. Illusion, slight of hand, and misdirection all come into play in the climax of the story, so establishing the basis of illusion throughout the series is important. The back of the single issues also come with a little illusion for the reader to learn. I admit I've always been fascinated by stage magic, and I have one trick in my own repertoire, and although I haven't had a chance to try any of Armstrong's illusions, I look forward to giving them a whirl.

Smoke and Mirrors is a series that does a great job building its world, and is full of ideas that are new, which is something I don't see a lot of, as a seasoned and grizzled veteran of both the comic book and fantasy literature worlds. But the series truly lives and dies by the characterization of its two lead characters. Terry and Ethan are both likable, and they both go through changes by the end of the story. Its a satisfying ending, but one that leaves plenty of bits to be tied up in future stories featuring these characters. I look forward to seeing more of Terry's journey to find a way home, and Ethan growing into his power. I'm hoping that, someday, while I'm looking at the right hand, the left hand will sneak up and hand me another mini-series that's this good.

All five issues of Smoke and Mirrors are out and available at your local comic shop, and the trade should be out at the beginning of October.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

In Defense of Cyclops

Cyclops, Scott Summers, has always been my favorite member of the X-Men. There was a time in the 90s when everyone was all about Wolverine, Gambit, and Bishop; and me? Cyclops.While in recent years he has gotten a higher profile and a better rep, thanks to top writers like Grant Morrison and Joss Whedon really liking the character and putting him out as not just field leader of the X-Men but as the leader of a mutant nation, he is still a character that I find people often misunderstand. Especially with Avengers Vs. X-Men, and the latter half painting him very much with the villain brush, I wanted to go back, talk about the good aspects of the character, and highlight a few of my favorite Cyclops stories.

Most characters who are the leaders of their respective teams have certain traits that make them stand out from the crowd and the team, aside from their leadership. Mr. Fantastic is the world's smartest man. Captain America is the noble, selfless hero who stands for America. Nightwing is looking to get out from under Batman's shadow. But Cyclops's defining characteristic is that he is the leader of the X-Men, both from a literary standpoint and in the way the character is written to think about himself. What this does is make the majority of Cyclops stories depend on the X-Men being there for him to lead, or struggle against. While there can be solo Cyclops stories, and they can be good stories (and I'll discuss a few of them later), when a character is known as the leader of a team, it kind of hamstrings him as a solo character. I think this has been part of the problem with readers views of Cyclops over the years, as readers see him as dull and predictable. He needs to be dependable, since that's what he's been built to do.

This is not to say that being the leader of the team as the defining character is a bad thing. It makes for a very interesting dynamic when with the X-Men. Cyclops has a specific relationship with his teammates because what he does is lead the team. The classic adversarial relationship with Wolverine would not be as powerful if Cyclops didn't believe holding the X-Men, and in recent years the entire mutant race, together was what he had to do. In recent years, Cyclops has sacrificed close friendships because of this drive, and that adds a depth to the character that is more than just him being a stiff, totalitarian ass.

Now, I've also seen comments that other than being stiff and dull as a character, Cyclops is so flawed that he is unlikable. I can see two major character flaws in him, and I think those actually make for a very interesting character. The first is his almost crippling self doubt. Over the years, Cyclops has been portrayed as never feeling he was good enough, or living up to Xavier's dream. That struggle is truly part of the character, and would require a major shift in the character. This actually happened after "Messiah Complex" and a lot of the voices that were against a wishy washy Cyclops now pointed out that he was too driven and focused, to the point of obsession and insanity, or at least fascism. In X-Men: Legacy #260, Mike Carey (who wrote a great Cyclops, and who I wish wrote him more) wrote a scene where Rogue talks to Cyclops about leaving Utopia for Westchester. She points out that, to push the self doubt down, he had to sort of choose a stance that all his decisions were right, and to not doubt himself at all. While not a good character trait, it's something different, which there's not many X characters who have gone through that kind of change.

Cyclops's other major fault is, well, that he has a really bad track record with women. There's no real defense here. There's something in the way he's been written over the years that doesn't allow him to be single, and has him hopping from one woman to another, desperate for love. Most stories away from the X-Men have Scott teamed with his long time love, Jean Grey, but with Jean's fairly casual relationship with life, and her recurring visits with death, there's been plenty of room for Scott to play the field. And boy has he ever. Every time he thinks Jean Grey is dead, or she actually is, he immediately hooks up with someone else. When he thought she died in the Savage Land, he got together with Colleen Wing fast. After she died in The Dark Phoenix Saga, he was hanging out with Lee Forrester almost immediately. And after her, he was single for less than two years real time before he met Madelyne Pryor. And the least said about marrying the clone of your dead ex-girlfriend the better. Then there's the return of Jean, the marriage, and the whole Emma Frost thing. This strikes me almost a tragic flaw territory, this need to be loved, and can easily be linked psychologically to the fact that he was raised in an orphanage run by an insane, immortal mad scientist, and thus having abandonment issues. Ah, yes, Comics, Everybody! (There's no comic strip for Cyclops in this collection of weird character histories, but there probably should be)

Now, I want to actually talk very specifically about the Utopia-era Cyclops, and the current Avengers Vs. X-Men series. These are the stories, and the responses that have made me want to write something defending Cyclops's actions. When Scott took over the X-Men, moved them out to an island, and kind of declared himself ruler of said island, it raised some eyebrows. And his more militaristic stance is uncomfortable at times. I do see Wolverine's point, that kids should be allowed to be kids. But Cyclops also has a valid point, that these kids need to be able to defend themselves, since so many of their friends are, well, dead. And I feel the comparisons to Magneto are invalid. Cyclops never once declared himself and mutants above humanity. He never tried to cut Utopia off from the mainland. He was trying to create a refuge, but not a prison (well except for the prisoners, but they were pretty much all mutant criminals). He also sent teams out into San Francisco to try to help the city. Magneto sat around at a Brotherhood meeting and said, "OK, Toad and Blob, it's your turn to go out and watch over Mount Wundagore's human population." Cyclops was doing things far more hardnosed than many superheroes do, no arguement, but he never was a supervillain. I will add, though, to acknowledge a fault, that calling your squad of heavy hotters the Extinction Team is probably a little more threatening than you need.

Now, on to Avengers Vs. X-Men. I haven't written much about the series since, frankly, I haven't been enjoying it all that much, although some of the titles crossing over into it have been great. But I want to point out some things. The general response on-line I have seen recently is that Cyclops started it, he should have just listened to Captain America to begin with, and now that he's all Phoenix powered, he's been a Dark Phoenix in waiting all along.

Firstly, I don't see how Cyclops started this whole mess. He might have fired the first literal shot, but Captain America showed up with a Helicarrier full of every Avenger under the sun. He pretty much went in there not willing to really talk about anything. He had been told by Wolverine that Cyclops wouldn't hand over the person he believes was the savior of all mutant kind, and who also happens to be his granddaughter, just because Cap says the Phoenix is coming. I think no one has really addressed Cyclops's emotional ties to Hope, which I find odd. This girl was raised by his son, who had to make a similar choice that he himself did. His son died to save her. Maybe part of what's going on here is him not wanting to believe everything Cable died for was in vain, which is why he's been so protective of her from the beginning. And sure, Cable came back right before this, and was a little crazy, but the Avengers were pretty hard on everyone there too. And it's not like the Avengers have a great history protecting mutants. Scarlet Witch went bad on their watch, and remember how that ended? No More Mutants. And the Avengers work for the US government, who never tried to create an army of giant robots with the sole purpose of destroying mutants. Oh, wait, yes they did. I don't know if I'd trust them either.

Now, yes, I can't argue that by the last issue of Avengers Vs. X-Men, the Phoenix force hasn't started to corrupt Cyclops. But before that, what had he done? He saved the world. There's a sort of conceit that is accepted as part of superhero comics, that when you have characters with such powers, they can't just fix things, because then there's not much of a story. You'd have a Marvel universe with everyone wearing unstable molecule clothes and driving around in repulsor cars. But when a character is presented with these kind of powers, and does something good with them, like feed the hungry, clothe the poor, and the like, there's nothing inherently evil there. The only dictum Cyclops seemed to lay down to the UN and the world was, "Don't build any more weapons." Frankly, does anyone think the world would be a worse place if everyone had to lay down their guns? His decision to send the X-Men after the Avengers, not to kill them, but to take them off the board until things were right with the world, is harsh, and does have the same problems that Cap showing up ready to fight does. But they continued to come in and try to take Hope. Eventually, she did want to go, and he wouldn't let her, and that is the slippery slope of Phoenix-powered crazy that has been part of the last third of Avengers Vs. X-Men, but you could easily argue he was provoked by the Avengers continually not wanting to talk and just coming in guns blazing over and over.

I've spent most of this piece defending Cyclops against things I've read that say what a lousy character he is, or what a villain he is, but I haven't said what I really like about him. I think that a character who is dependable, who is capable and competent, is something to be looked well on. I think, despite the whole mess with Madelyne Pryor, Cyclops does love his family, no matter how time tossed or alternate universe related they might be. I think he's tough, and a good leader. Also, for all the mistakes he made pre-Utopia, he owned up to them and tried to make amends. These are all traits that make a good man, and an interesting character to read about.

As I close this out, I want to give a quick rundown of some of my favorite Cyclops stories, ones that might makes some naysayers look at him twice.

The Dark Phoenix Saga- This is one everyone has read, but look at the Cyclops aspect of the story. This is a guy who is willing to do anything to save the woman he loves.

Endgame- This was the original X-Factor's final battle with Apocalypse. In it, Scott leads the team to defeat their deadliest foe, and to save his son, Nathan, who has been kidnapped by the villain. In the end, although the good guys beat Apocalypse, they don't win. Scott is presented with a choice: send his son to the far future to save him from the techno-organic virus that he has been infected with, or keep him here and see him probably die. The choice is heartbreaking, and powerful one for Scott. Sadly, this has never been collected

The Wedding of Cyclops and Phoenix- This is just a great story, where you get to see Scott interact with his fellow X-Men, especially the other originals and Professor X, see him and Jean happy, and get one of those great superhero wedding stories. Marvel is going to be releasing a trade pretty soon of all the stories leading up to the issue and the wedding itself, and it's worth picking up.
Adventures of Cyclops & Phoenix/Further Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix- Two time travel stories, the first features Cyclops and Jean Grey in the distant future, raising a young Cable, the son Cyclops sent into the future. Again, this is a good family story, of Scott raising his son, and living for 14 years as a family in the future. The second story has Scott and Jean displaced to the past and witnessing the birth of Mister Sinister, the villain who has dogged his life since he was a young child. Cyclops actively chooses to try to redeem the nascent Sinister, to save Nathaniel Essex from becoming the monster he would, instead of just killing him. Trades for this story are out of print, but you can still find them, or the back issues at shops or cons.

Unstoppable- The final arc of Joss Whedon's run on Astonishing X-Men, this is the story that completes the evolution started in Grant Morrison's run (a good Cyclops run, but not one with any stand out issue. Still, you should read it). Cyclops, finally, if briefly, in control of his powers, leads the team to an alien world, and six X-Men, one agent of SWORD, and a few rebels, pretty much defeat the whole culture. While Colossus and Kitty get a good spotlight in here as well, I love Scott's leadership, and the interplay between him and current love interest Emma Frost. This is collected in it's own trade, plus in the Whedon omnibus.

Monday, September 3, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 8/29

American Vampire #30
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Rafael Albuquerque

The current arc of American Vampire continues, taking us deeper into the 50s and one of the title vampires Pearl's hunt for the coven of vampires who attacked and nearly killed her human husband.  Pearl continues working with her sire, the first American vampire, former wild west outlaw Skinner Sweet, who is now forced to work with the anti-vampire organization the Vassals of the Morning Star. The fight between Pearl, Skinner, and the vampires is a beautifully choreographed fight sequence, and artist Rafael Albuquerque does an amazing job with it. The fact that the vampires now know the one weakness of the American breed makes the battle all the deadlier, and makes Skinner's treachery all the worse. Scott Snyder does a great job of balancing the incredible action scenes with the more personal moments of Pearl's time at Henry's bedside, her flashback to when he proposed, and the choice she makes at the end. The cliffhanger is heartrending, not an action based one, but one that has deep resonance with the personal lives of all of the principal characters of the series. Snyder promised in interviews that this is the arc that will change everything in the world of the series, and it looks like he's not pulling any punches, and I can't wait to see where he goes with it.

Before Watchmen: Minutemen #3
Story & Art: Darwyn Cooke

 Darwyn Cooke is a master storyteller, and this, the third issue of his written and drawn Before Watchmen: Minutemen mini-series, showcases his talents as both writer and artist. The issue is told primarily in a classic nine panel grid, which is used so infrequently in modern comics, but was the way Dave Gibbons structured the original Watchmen, making this issue as much an homage as a prequel. The issue also uses an interesting narrative; part of it told by Hollis Mason, the original Nite Owl, through his recollections and memoir, while it is also told by a narrator who is not revealed until the end of the issue. Cooke plays with expectations on the second narrative, starting it off as seemingly a sexual encounter before using the story to reveal it's something else entirely. While Cooke is clearly using Nite Owl the most, being he is the narrator of much of the story, he has done an excellent job of fleshing out Silhouette, the female vigilante who was one of the minor characters from the original series. Her quest to protect children from those who would abuse them is noble, and she is dedicated to doing real good far more than most of her teammates. Knowing Silhouette's tragic end just makes the development of her character more tragic, and the story all the more engaging.

Locke & Key: Grindhouse
Story: Joe Hill
Art: Gabriel Rodriguez

Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez's Locke & Key is one of the best modern horror comics on the market, and the inspiration for the best un-picked up TV pilot I have ever seen (Thank you IDW and NYCC 2011 ), and one of the comics I look forward to most when it comes out. This is a book that is going to get a full recommended reading come November, when the final mini-series chronicling the current generation of the Locke family is released, but I had to do a review of this one shot. Locke & Key is a series that has always done an amazing job of balancing the truly frightening with the very human, a coming of age story with magic keys and things from beyond reality. But as the title suggests, this is not a story that is going to be full of tender moments. In the 1930s, a trio of criminals attempt to use Keyhouse, the home of the Locke family and the magical keys, as a point to escape the law, and when they take the family hostage, things go poorly. For the criminals. The comic has the feel of a classic, pre-code horror comic, with the criminals receiving their due comeuppance. Artist Gabriel Rodriguez's style, while clearly recognizable as his own, has an edge here that fits the grittier tale he's telling. The backmatter in the issue is a treat for any fan of the series: architectural layouts of the entirety of Keyhouse, with views of the interior and exterior, with annotations from series writer Joe Hill. If you like horror comics and have never tried Locke & Key, or have already visited Key House, this is an issue not to be missed.

The Sixth Gun #24
Story: Cullen Bunn
Art: Brian Hurtt

"Winter Wolves" the new arc of The Sixth Gun, begins with this issue, and it seems like the cast of this weird western are in for a hard road. The Sword of Abraham, the order of warrior priests attempting the stave  off the apocalypse, are given a prophecy of doom from the mouth of the corpse of General Hume, the undead villain who has sought the six magical guns. Gord Cantrell, separated from the rest of the cast, continues to try to find his allies, while something has found him. But it's our hero and heroine, ne'er do well Drake Sinclair and possessor of the titular Sixth Gun Becky Montcrief, who are in the worst way. Drake and Becky are being pursued through a suddenly (and mystically) winter environment by the namesake of the arc, frightening mystical wolves. Cullen Bunn and Brian Hurtt are one of those great writer/artist teams who work together seamlessly. The story moves at a breakneck pace without seeming rushed, and the art is clean and cool, mixing both realistic looking characters with a great ability to showcase magic and monsters. They produce a great comic that blends horror and western into a dish that leaves you wanting more. Comics have always done a great job of blending these genres (DC's Jonah Hex stories over the years have been key examples), but The Sixth Gun takes it to a new level, building a continuing narrative and mythology that deepens with each arc.