Friday, November 30, 2012

Recommended Reading for 11/30: Captain Britain and MI13

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Monday, November 26, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 11/21

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

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

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

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

Comeback #1
Story: Ed Brisson
Art: Michael Walsh

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

Daredevil #20
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee

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

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

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

Friday, November 23, 2012

Recommended Reading for 11/22: Dark Horse Presents

I'm sitting, attempting to write after a thoroughly huge Thanksgiving dinner, and have a trip out to visit my in-laws tomorrow, so I am lacking in both time and energy, but how can I leave my loyal readers without a little something to read over the long weekend? This is going to be a short recommended reading, but it's something different and impressive.

Anthologies aren't big in mainstream comics anymore. We might get one or two a year, but that's about it. But a year and a half ago, Dark Horse returned to publishing its venerable Dark Horse Presents anthology, the book that gave us Concrete, Sin City, and a lot of early Hellboy in its original incarnation in the 90s and early 00s. The new anthology is an eight dollar comic with at least eighty pages of comics per issue, and sometimes over one hundred, and no adds, so you're not going to find a better deal for your money. But what makes it even better is the sheer variety of stories. Even if you don't like every story in a given issue, you're bound to find something you like.

Among the offerings over the course of the first eighteen issues of the new Dark Horse Presents, there have been a good number of stories from established properties. The first issue alone featured a Concrete story, hearkening back to the first issue of the first volume, as well as a Star Wars story, and a preview of the upcoming prequel to Frank Miller's 300, Xerxes. Since then, we have gotten stories from various corners of the Hellboy Universe, including tales of Lobster Johnson and the funeral for Hellboy, a continuing feature from Carla Speed McNeil's wonderful Finder, a Criminal Macabre short, and an Alien piece by John Layman and Sam Keith. Dark Horse also has begun relaunching its old superhero line with Ghost, which is currently running as a miniseries but got its start as a short in Dark Horse Presents.

But one of the real pleasures of an anthology like this, though, is discovering new characters and concepts, and there have been a couple that have really jumped out at me. Nate Cosby's Buddy Cops is the story of two partners, one of whom is a by the book robot and the other who is a superpowered alien who has been banished to Earth for being too... overzealous (meaning overly violent). It's a crazy fun series of short stories that play on both sci-fi tropes and cop movie tropes. Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray are working on a sci-fi mystery series called "The Deep Sea," where, after 50 years, a lost deep sea sub returns with its crew completely unaged.

The highlight of new concepts for me has been The Black Beetle. Francesco Francavilla, whose work on Detective Comics and Black Panther: The Man Without Fear made him one of my favorite artists in comics and each work since has moved him higher in my estimation, writes and draws this excellent pulp influenced story. The Black Beetle is a pulp mystery man who fights a group of Nazis trying to steal an artifact from a museum. Its a standard set up, but Francavilla tells the story with such visual energy that you can't help be drawn in, and sets up mysteries about what the Nazis are up to and about the Beetle himself that I am excited to see answered in the upcoming Black Beetle mini-series.

I've just touched on a handful of stories from these first eighteen issues of Dark Horse Presents, and that isn't even scratching the surface. Do you like horror? Check out Richard Corben's Poe adaptations. Want some humor? Evan Dorkin has done new Milk & Cheese. In the mood for crime? Dark Horse is resurrecting the classic series Crime Does Not Pay. And this most recent issue saw the return of classic 40s comic hero Captain Midnight. Go out and pick up and issue of Dark Horse Presents and I challenge you to say there wasn't one story in there you enjoyed.

Dark Horse Presents is released monthly from Dark Horse comics, and the serials are often collected into one shot issue 0s of  upcoming mini-series. The Black Beetle: Night Shift #0, collecting the full serial will be released in December, with The Black Beetle: No Way Out #1 debuting in January.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Lost Legends: The Joker: Devil's Advocate

Welcome to a new feature here on The Matt Signal. Lost Legends is similar to my weekly recommended readings, but for one fact: these are stories that are uncollected or out of print. I really try to select accessible books for recommended reading, things that you, my loyal reader, should be able to go to your local comic shop or bookstore and easily find, but that leaves a lot of things that I don't recommend because they just aren't easy to come by. And as I've been buying, and reading, a lot of back issues lately, I wanted somewhere to talk about them.

This first Lost Legends focuses on what is one of my favorite original graphic novels of all time, by one of my favorite Batman creative teams of all time. Chuck Dixon and Graham Nolan had a long run on Detective Comics, and are best known for creating such legendary villains as Gearhead (oh, right and some guy called Bane, but who's heard of him). But they also did a couple of really solid Joker stories, and the original graphic novel, The Joker: Devil's Advocate, is the best of those stories.

The high concept for Devil's Advocate is beautifully simple: The Joker is sent to death row for a crime he didn't commit, and Batman has to find the real culprit to save Joker. As you might imagine, certain of Batman's allies, specifically the Gordons, don't really take too kindly to this idea. The moral question of whether it's right or wrong to let the Joker finally pay for the all the horror he has wreaked on people, even if he's not being punished for his own actual mayhem is part of the book, but it never gets bogged down in that. The moral question seems easy for Batman to answer: The Joker dying for a crime he didn't commit isn't justice. But it's not so easy for others, and there's a nice moment where Bruce and Tim Drake, the Robin of the time, have a discussion about this. Chuck Dixon has a long history with Tim as well as Bruce, having written all three Robin mini-series and the first hundred issues of Tim's ongoing series, and he comfortably navigates both characters and their relationship.

Rereading this story, it reminded me how much the Joker has changed in recent years. I think The Dark Knight and Grant Morrison's take on the character has created as seismic a shift as Denny O'Neil & Neil Adams's "The Joker's Five Way Revenge" did from Cesar Romero. The Joker as we see him now, very clearly in the "Death of the Family" storyline currently running through the Batman titles, is a force of chaos and anarchy. Crime doesn't matter to him as much; it seems "Death of the Family" is more about vendetta than crime, and he didn't really commit any monetary crime in Morrison's run. In The Dark Knight he chooses to burn large stacks of money. Crime is a vehicle, rather than an end in its own right.

The Joker in Devil's Advocate is caught while committing an actual crime. Now, in all fairness he's not the Penguin, who wants material wealth above all else, but he's also not out there committing massacres for nothing other than the joy of killing. The Joker here is a showman, who is committing crimes as an artist, really impressed with his own ingenuity. The Joker's also pretty funny, making a few jokes that can draw a chuckle. Modern Joker is more monstrous, a Punch figure rather than a comedian.

One of the main character traits of Joker looked at in this story is his ego. The Joker starts out enraged that a series of commemorative postage stamps featuring the great comedians didn't include him. When it's pointed out that he can't get commemorative stamp since he's not dead, the Joker more or less writes that off trivia. Once he's taken down by Batman, he is put on trial for murder one when it turns out someone has coated the back of some of the stamps with Joker Venom and spread them around the city.  The Joker is tried and convicted, and while initially furious, he finds that the fame and publicity of a trial is something he enjoys. He arranges for his execution to be moved up so that the story stays fresh, all the while taunting Batman, who occasionally comes to try to get information out of him.

The Joker is sent to Blackgate Prison, Gotham's maximum security prison for the non-insane offender, and that goes pretty much as well as you might imagine. The Joker isn't exactly a model prisoner, shoving the harmonica of one of his fellow prisoners down his throat, and beating Tommy Mangles, a Gotham mobster who recurred throughout the Bat books at the time, to death with his shoes. My favorite page, though, is a reaction of the priest who has been asked to listen to Joker's confession. Yeah, not the best idea for anyone involved.

Even with all the Joker hi jinks and Batman brooding, Dixon winds up working a solid mystery into the story. The question of who is the actual postage stamp killer plays out pretty much as play fair, since upon rereading you can see the clues laid out. Is it an old member of the Joker's crew, who's working a blackmail scheme on the city, threatening more deaths by stamp, or is he just monopolizing on the chaos? Will the families of the postage stamp killer's victims get the justice they want?

While Joker: Devil's Advocate might not have the same fame as stories like The Killing Joke, "Joker's Five Way Revenge," and "The Laughing Fish," I think it presents a great view into the way the Joker was portrayed during a certain period. It's an enjoyable story, and one that I've gone back and reread over the years and still enjoy. And I don't want to give it away, but the final pages, a final conversation between Batman and Joker after Joker has been sent back to Arkham, puts a nice bow on the story. While this might not be the Joker you're reading about now, it's definitely a Joker worth checking out.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 11/14

Batman #14
Story: Scott Snyder/Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo/ Jock

After last issue, I thought Snyder's Joker couldn't get any creepier. And then I read this issue. The Joker works best when he's unpredictable, and when he works as a sort of deranged chess master, making moves that make no sense to anyone as he does them, but fall perfectly into place when looked at in retrospect, and here the Joker fits that mold perfectly. No one seems to be safe from his macabre plan. The splash page of Jim Gordon collapsing into Batman's arms, bleeding form everywhere, is horrifying. One would think the image of the Joker with his face strapped to his head would get less disturbing the more you see it, but that's not true; it actually gets worse. The Joker's speech, saying he is the court jester to Batman's king, and that the Batfamily is weakening him, and that all this is being done for Batman's benefit, is actually chillingly logical. I mean, as logical as anything that the Joker says, and that makes the plan all the more interesting. The lack of Alfred was keenly felt this issue. Alfred has been a major part of Snyder's run on Batman, and as Batman's own inner monologue says, the possibility of the loss of Alfred is something Bruce can hardly fathom. this is a remarkably personal story, and even though it is writ large with action and gore, it really is a confrontation between these two great opponents. One thing that I want to really draw attention to in this issue is the distinct lettering of the Joker's dialogue. Letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt have done a great job of creating that style that is being used across all the "Death of the Family" tie-ins, and it's so perfectly warped. The back-up again focuses on the Joker interacting with another member of Batman's rogues, this time the Penguin. The Joker's plan seems to involve even using other villains to make Batman better, which is a nice wrinkle; not everything Joker is doing is directly in front of Batman. I especially liked Jock's Penguin, whose body language and appearance was even more birdlike than he is usually drawn without being freakishly Batman Returns. Batman continues to be the flagship title of the Batline, and each issue just makes me more excited for the next.

The Boys #72
Story: Garth Ennis
Art: Darick Robertson

Even under all the blood and swearing, I think Garth Ennis is a sentimentalist. While the main plot of The Boys wrapped up last issue, this final issue puts a nice little bow on the series. Wee Hughie, one of the few truly decent people in the series, does get his happy ending, but not before putting the hurt on The Man From Vought, Stillwell. It's not a physical thing, and it's not one of those grand good triumphs over evil sort of endings. Ennis isn't that soft. Stillwell points out that you can't really beat a company, and that they'll always find a way to make their profit, but what Hughie does do is give Stillwell pause, and in the end he might not be as confident in the plans that he has for the supers. Former CIA Director Rayner also gets some righteous payback at the hands of her former underling, Monkey, with a hand from Hughie in a scene that is mean and funny at the same time, something that's pure Ennis. But it's in the quiet scenes with Hughie, where he makes a small gesture of tribute to his fallen friends and where he makes his reconciliation with Annie January that this final issue sings. It's been a long, hard ride for Hughie, and while power does corrupt, maybe sometimes the good guy gets a victory, even if it's just a small, personal one.

Locke & Key: Omega #1
Story: Joe Hill
Art: Gabriel Rodriguez

As Dodge, the demon freed from beyond the black door, now is residense in the body of Bode Locke, begins its endgame to open the door again and let its brethern in, the other Locke kids face demons far more personal. One of the true strengths of Locke & Key has been its ability to juxtapose the everyday lives of the Locke family against the supernatural horrors of Keyhouse. The pages of Dodge using the keys and the crown of shadows to move past the things keeping him from the door are gorgeous. Gabriel Rodriguez does great work with the shadows that the crown brings to life, animating them in horrible ways. The other plot deals with Scot Kavanaugh, one of Kinsey's friends with whom she had a falling out, making a video of the graduating seniors from Lovecraft Academy, and asking what people would say to their younger selves. Ty Locke talks about the fight he had with his father, right before he lost him, and both Scot and Ty's uncle Duncan try to remind Ty that he isn't responsible for everyone, something Ty has struggled with over the course of the series. We also see Ty learning to smelt and pour iron, something that is clearly a set up for the climax of the series. Kinsey jumps into Scot's path, and has her own cathartic moment after reclaiming her fear and tears, and with that, and a grand gesture from Scot as well, Kinsey, Scot, and their two other broken friends, Jamal and Jackie, and reunited and reconciled. It's a touching scene, but one made bittersweet as, on the final page, Dodge arrives at the black door, presaging great horrors for the end of the series.

Saga #7
Story: Brian K Vaughan
Art: Fiona Staples

Oh, Saga, how I have missed you on your two month hiatus. Picking up right where the last issue left off (well, after a brief flashback to Marko's youth), Marko's parents make quite a splash. Marko runs off to retrieve Izabel, baby Hazel's ghost babysitter who his parents banished, with his mother following behind, while Alana and Marko's father have a heart-to-heart. Well, the closest one can have to a heart-to-heart when one of you is being held immobile in the air by the spaceship you're traveling in. Vaughan has always done a great job of mixing humor into his series, and Alana and Marko's father's conversation is both revealing and amusing, as is the talk Marko and his mother have while hunting for Izabel. Fiona Staples cotinues to do an excellent job drawing not just the central characters, but creating interesting sci-fi and fantasy backgrounds and some really hideous looking monsters. While we stop in briefly with our heroic couples pursuers, The Will and Prince Robot, this issue is really about the family. I like the mechanic that Vaughan has created for magic in his world, the fact that it is fueled by secrets, and the final secret revealed by Marko's father is quite a doozy. Vaughan is one of comics' kings of the cliffhanger, and the end of this issue is a great example of that. I don't know how anyone could read this and not come back to find out what happens next.

Where is Jake Ellis? #1
Story: Nathan Edmonson
Art: Tonci Zonjic

I really enjoyed the sci-fi/spy comic Who is Jake Ellis? and I was excited to see that image was releasing a sequel. The series opens with Jake Ellis, the titular CIA operative with the ability to astrally project into the mind of others, in a hospital with the scientists and spies interrogating him. Jake had spent the past few years comatose and only able to interact with another agent, Jon Moore, who though Jake was his subconscious, and at the end of the last series, the two had learned differently. Jon is still out there, on the run from the people behind the performed the experiments on Jake. The issue is an exciting thriller, with Jon and Jake escaping their pursuers. It's a fun action comic; nothing too deep happens this issue, but we get a great feel for our two leads and set them on their course to meet up again. I'm looking forward to see what happens to them next.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Geek Culture For Everyone; or, I am Spartacus!

I spent a good long time this week considering whether I was going to discuss some of this week's controversial geek culture events, and how I was going to. It's hard to stay positive sometimes, and since the whole point of this blog is to remain positive, well... But I decided I wanted to put my two cents into the conversation. I don't know if I'm going to be saying anything that hasn't already been said, and possibly more eloquently than I am going to, but here goes. This isn't about comics in particular, so if you're looking for my usual discussion of a good comic, come back Monday for reviews. But if you want to read something I think might be thoughtful and personal, keep going.

This past week, there were a few people involved in the comics industry that posted things on-line that were misogynist stupidity. I'm not going to name names simply because I don't see the point; who they are isn't as important to what I have to say as that they said these things. Misogyny and fandom isn't new, tragically, and I'm sad to say at least one of the people involved is a creator whose work I have enjoyed. I'm not going to burn all his work I own, but I will not support his future projects, which were things I was looking forward to.  But it's not just misogyny that's a problem in fandom.

I am a self admitted geek. I know labels aren't required, not even necessary, but you know what, I'm proud of what I am. I'm proud I can tell you pretty much anything about Batman and his rogue's gallery, that I've read all the novels in the Star Wars expanded universe, and that I have nearly a whole bookcase dedicated to the works of Neil Gaiman.

What I think many lose sight of is that, in my opinion, geek culture is the culture of inclusion. I won't speak for anyone else, but I was a lonely little kid. I was bullied, and I didn't make friends easily. Finding friends who also read comics, or watched Star Wars over and over, or liked Star Trek: The Next Generation, that made all the difference. And even if they thought Kirk was better than Picard, or that the Hulk was stronger than Superman, that didn't give me or anyone the right to say they weren't part of that culture. We all need each other, and that buy in to the culture is what matters, not exactly what you think or like. There are so many things in the world that divide us, that make us "other." Why do we try to look for reasons to make those we do have something in common with less than what they are? These questions are rhetorical, obviously, because any reasonable person might be able to come up with some reason why someone else might, but not experience true understanding of it. I hope I never understand either.

What that boils down to is that no one has the right to say whether or not someone else is a geek. If you choose to call yourself a geek (or nerd, or fanboy/girl, or an Atlantean for all I care) then that is what you are. And we all should stand by each other for that. Some say geek culture is more mainstream now, but so what? Isn't that what we all wanted, for the things we love to be appreciated by a wider audience? And now that it is, some people whine that, "I was a fan when..."

But the fan who has just watched Batman: The Animated Series or just watched the Nolan Batman movies has as much of a right to call themselves a Batman fan as I do, someone who has dedicated his life to Batmanology. Battlestar Galactica fans are as entitled to their fandom as Stargate fans. Maybe you're a gamer, and that can mean tablestop, PC, or console. More power to you. And maybe you like to spend your time making costumes to wear at cons. Good for you, cosplayers!

One of the rants this week that "tore the internet in half" had to do with female cosplayers who aren't comic book readers but just dress in the costumes. I'm not a cosplayer, and I do have my issues with cosplayers, but that more has to do with big anime weapons strapped to their backs that hit you in the face and leave you scrambling around on the floor of the Javitz Center looking for your glasses like Velma Dinkley from Scooby Doo (no, I'm not speaking from experience, not at all). But if it was just the coolness of the design that inspired someone to dress up, isn't that a great compliment?  Someone just saw the costume and liked it so much that they decided to spend all that time to make the costume. I would be tremendously complimented. Just because they don't know Kitty Pryde first appeared in Uncanny X-Men #129 doesn't mean they can't love the design and find something to love in the character. In my younger days, I got into a discussion with someone on a fantasy lit forum who had Death of the Endless as her avatar. I was shocked to find out she had no idea who the character was; she just saw the image on-line somewhere and thought it looked cool. So we got to talking about Death, Dream, and the whole lot, and pretty soon she had devoured all of Sandman. Does it really matter how she came to it?

I'm the uncle of two wonderful nieces, and have friends with daughters. And you know what, I'd be proud if they decided to embrace  fan culture. A close friend of mine's young daughter was about the cutest little Dalek I've ever seen for Halloween this year, and my 4 year old niece can't get enough Spider-Man cartoons. I introduced my eight year old niece to Bone for birthday, and granted she might be waiting to finish reading that first volume with me when I go to visit next because I do all the great voices, but she loved it. And if that's as far as any of them go into fan culture, great. If they decide they want to dive in more, want to read more comics with Uncle Matt, start buying them on their own, I'll support that too. But I want to think a bunch of Neanderthals won't come down on them for not knowing some obscure bit of trivia. That's unfair though. I'm sure Neanderthals had better things to do, like surviving and hunting mammoth, than to pick on each other. Modern man has too damn much time on his or her hands.

So, before I kind of sum up, I wanted to just shout out to some of the women who make fandom awesome. To Gail Simone, writer of awesome comics, and queen of taking the lemons that people throw around and making sweet, sweet lemonade. To Jill Pantozzi, whose tweets were the thing that made me sit up and take notice here, and who is probably the best comics journalist out there. And to all the comic fans, Star Wars fanatics, and gamer women who have been in my life as friends, significant others, and anything else, especially my wife, Amber, a geek girl in her own right, who supports me in this little endeavor.

I think I've wandered a bit far afield in what I've been writing here, but I think the real point is that geek culture, fan culture, whatever you want to call it started out as a collection of outcasts. People who needed to find something in common, something to believe in, whether it was a guy in red and blue tights, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, or space being the final frontier. Even if you weren't like me, a lonely kid who loved comics, there has to be a time in your life where you didn't feel like you fit in, and I'd wager knowing there were other people out there who liked the things you liked made you feel better? Why would you want to make someone else feel the way you felt? Why don't you want to share your love of all these wonderful things with someone else? When someone says they're a geek, even if you don't share the same geeky interest, why not stand up, and instead of scoffing, say that you are one too? Maybe you'll find something cool that way, and understand a little better the common humanity we all share in our love of all things fantastic.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Recommended Reading and Viewing for 11/16: The Middleman

I had been prepared to do a post about Captain Britain and MI13 today, to celebrate the return of Pete Wisdom's band of British heroes, but various things that have gone on in the world of comic book fandom this week made me think, and while I plan a post about that this weekend, I wanted to touch on a series that resonates with me in a different way.

Most of you probably haven't heard of The Middleman, and if you have, it's probably because you've heard me sing its praises. Both as a comic and as a TV show, The Middleman burned bright and short, but what there is out there is some of the most enjoyable, hilarious, and savvy comics you will ever find. Seriously, if you like pretty much anything I have ever recommended, and you like a good laugh, run to find some Middleman.

Created by writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, and with art by Les McClaine, The Middleman started life as a TV pilot, but eventually found its home at Viper Comics as, well a comic. It was published as two mini-series and a graphic novel, and was eventually picked up by ABC Family and lasted for one glorious, twelve episode season, which is where I discovered it. For those fleeting summer weeks, it was Amber and my favorite thing on television, and we've since rewatched the whole series more than once. The two mini-series were faithfully adapted into episodes of the TV show. The graphic novel, which was a sort of last Middleman story was not, but the final episode of the show, which went unproduced, was eventually adapted as a comic, meaning you have two options of how you want the story to end. As the two works are so tightly linked, I won't be necessarily talking about them separately, except when it comes to art and acting.

The Middleman is the story of Wendy Watson, a young, aspiring artist who, after something really weird goes down at a temp job she's taking during the day, gets recruited by a secret organization to serve as the apprentice to the Middleman, a sort of superhero/problem solver in an Eisenhower jacket. The Middleman solves all problems "para-, extra-, and juxta-terrestrial," and so Wendy is now up to her neck in luchadore martial artists, sorority ghosts, and aliens with a jones for plastic surgery.

The characters in The Middleman are complete joys to see. Wendy is smart, funny, sassy, and more than a bit geeky, but no label does her justice, as she is a person, not a caricature. The Middleman himself comes off as a gosh-and-golly-gee good guy, with a soft heart and a tough arm, but there are layers that make him more than that. The dialogue is so quick and loaded with pop culture references that it would make Joss Whedon go cross-eyed, and while it doesn't sound any more like the way people really talk than the dialogue of Aaron Sorkin, the emotional underpinnings are so real it doesn't matter.

Aside from Wendy and the Middleman, the series has a whole cast of colorful characters. Wendy's roommate, Lacey Thornfield, is just as smart and tough as Wendy, and is a confrontational performance artist, so Lacey has a bad habit of getting into trouble that Wendy has to help get her out of. Noser lives down the hall from them, and sits in the hall, plays his guitar, and is a sort of hipster sage. And Ida, the Middleman's receptionist, happens to be your typical caustic middle aged secretary, except for the fact that she happens to be a robot as well. It's a strange little group, but they all play off each other so well.

The plots of The Middleman are a treasure trove of pop culture wackiness, as are the episode titles. The stakes are always high, and there is real peril and action, but the show keeps its tongue firmly planted in its cheek, accepting the tropes of the genres it lovingly homages; its never parody, because it takes things seriously, but it knows that we the viewer know where they;'e getting their source material. What other series could you learn, in the episode "The Vampiric Puppet Lamentation," that Vlad Tepes, Dracula, had two loves, sucking the blood of his enemies and puppetry? Or in the second miniseries, adapted as the episode, "The Sino-Mexican Revelation," would you learn about the Order of the Pointy Stick? Not to mention gangster gorillas in the pilot. Gangster gorillas! That's really appealing to every bit of my fanishness.

What made me think about The Middleman this week, is that Wendy is a geek. She knows the difference between Wally West and Barry Allen, she reads Powers, she plays video games, and she loves zombie movies. But that's not the whole of her. Wendy is more than the sum of her parts. More than just a geek girl, or an artist, or a superheroine. She's all these things rolled into one. The Middleman is a hugely inclusive work, featuring characters of different genders and races, and they interact in ways that have nothing to do with that. They're just people. In reviews of The Middleman, I heard my first reference to the Bechdel Test, which it passes with flying colors (if you don't know what that is, look it up. It's really interesting). I think if more comics (and TV shows for that matter) were written like this, then we'd all be better off. Now, granted, they might also only last twelve episodes, but hey, at least we have twelve great episodes.

The art on The Middleman comic is by Les McClaine, who does a great job haveing a style that is cartoonish without being cartoony; by that I mean his style is larger than life, and completely embracing all the craziness, without taking away from any of the characterization. The art is crisp, clean, and fits the fun feeling of the stories that he is provided. McClaine is an artist I would love to see more work from at any time.

The cast for the TV series does something similar with their performances to what McClaine does with his art: they take the completely off kilter plots and dialogue, and play them with such heart and gravity that it makes the show work. The Middleman could have easily come off as awkward or snarky without the amazing cast. Character actor Matt Keesler is brilliant as the titular Middleman mixes his wholesome, all American good looks and gung ho attitude with a the right amount of world weariness when he needs it. Natalie Morales (The Newsroom) is equally wonderful as Wendy, who is never without a quip for her boss, but so clearly cares for him and pretty much everyone around her, that you just love her. Brit Morgan (True Blood) plays Lacey, and matches Wendy line for line with her own quick comebacks. Ida, as played by Mary Pat Gleason, who is one of the great, "Oh, I know her from ______" actresses, is curmudgeonly and hilarious in her sheer disdain for, well, pretty much everyone. Jake Smollett's Noser is the perfect low key and too hip to be real slacker. There are some wonderful guest stars as well, including Brendan Hines (Lie to Me) as Tyler Ford, the man of Wendy's dreams, Kevin Sorbo (Hercules: The Legendary Journeys) as the Middleman of the 60s, and geek god Mark A. Sheppard (Firefly, Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural, Doctor Who, Leverage, you name the franchise) as mysterious Steve Jobs-esque billionaire, Manservant Neville.

I think the thing about The Middleman that makes it so appealing to me is that it is clearly a labor of love. The writers love these genres, and they do their best to translate that love right into the screen. The thing that I've talked about here that I can compare it to most is Atomic Robo; there's the same sense of guileless joy and action throughout. In another week that seemed steeped in fandom attacking itself, this is the kind of comic and show that reaffirms my love of the genre; fun, inclusive, and smart, its got something for everyone. And hey, you're everyone, so go check it out.

All three Middleman comic stories are available in once great trade, The Collected Series Indispensability, from Viper Comics. All twelve episodes of the TV series are available in a complete series collection from Shout! Factory. And the lost final episode is available as a graphic novel called The Doomsday Armageddon Apocalypse, also from Viper.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 10/31 & 11/7

Angel & Faith #15
Story: Christos Gage
Art: Lee Garbett/ David Lapham

"The Hero of His Own Story," is actually two stories, but each takes one of the series villains and gives us something from their point of view. The worlds of Joss Whedon are known for their fully formed characters, and writer Christos Gage does a great job of giving his villains a lot less hand wringing evil and more, for want of a better word, humanity. The first half of the issue, drawn be Lee Garbett, gives us a meeting in a diner between Angel and Whistler, his once guide through the world, now enemy. We get more details of Whistler's past, and see that he's doing what he believes will save the world from the destruction of magic. It's a very, "the ends justify the means," plan, and one Angel can't get behind. So the die is cast, so to speak, for there will be no peace between these friends. The second half of the issue, drawn by David Lapham, is the origin of Pearl and Nash, the half-demon twins. While understanding where they come from might give the reader a bit of sympathy for them, Gage doesn't go as far as to make them like Whistler, a character who is looking to save the world and is just going about it in a way that isn't right. Pearl and Nash are still monsters, scary and more than a little evil. But maybe evil isn't all bad. In the end, these two stories leave the reader questioning exactly what they would do when put in the situation of the villains, and remembering that, after all, the villain is the hero of his own story.

Aquaman #13
Story: Geoff Johns
Art: Ivan Reis

The second arc on the new Aquaman series, "The Others," comes to an end, and Aquaman makes some important choices about his life. Over the course of this arc, while hunting Black Manta, Aquaman has been dedicated to finally getting the revenge he wants by killing Manta. This issue sees Aquaman really come to understand exactly what revenge does to a person. It's an interesting step forward, as Geoff Johns has portrayed Aquaman as a warrior throughout the course of the run, and to see him try to make peace, and to hold back is an interesting development. We also got a good view of some Atlanteans this issue, setting up Aquaman's eventual return home, and introducing Aquaman's other archnemesis, his brother Orm, the Ocean Master. Johns gives some good material to Mera as well, keeping her as Aquaman's anchor (pardon the pun) that keeps him from going too far. I'm hoping that rest of The Others don't just fade away, as they are an interesting group of new characters who would make an excellent supporting cast. The new purpose given to the Prisoner-Of-War, going to the families of the ghost soldiers he sees and relaying messages,  is somewhat sentimental, but there's potential there for stories other than just a lot of hugs and tears. The idea of him as avenger as well as counselor could make for good stories. Two arcs in, Johns has done what he wanted, elevating Aquaman to the A-list of the DC Universe, and I think it's where he deserves to be.

The CBLDF Presents: Libert Annual 2012
Story & Art: Various

Every year, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF) releases an anthology comic, benefiting the Fund's first amendment cause, and I always pick it up, not just because it's always a high quality book but because I like to support the CBLDF. This year's anthology is no exception, with some stories specifically about the CBLDF's mission of freedom of speech, and others that are just fun. On the freedom of speech front, there is "Barren Ground," by Andy Diggle & Ben Templesmith, shows exactly the power a demon has in a society where freedom reigns and shame has no place, and "Just as Real as Yours," by Jim McCann & Janet Lee is a sweet vignette of people leading very different lives meeting in a laundromat.Other highlights include an amusing Sasquatch one page strip with script by Chris Roberson and art by Matt Signal favorite Roger Langridge and a slice of a conversation from comic conventions from Chris Giarrusso. James Robinson and J. Bone present "Hunters," a preview of their new creator owned book, "Saviors," and Chynna Clugston Flores and Joe Keatinge tell a beautiful slice of life tale about a mother and daughter in, "Lumiere." The marquee story is a new tale of The Governor from The Walking Dead, from series creators Robert Kirkman and Charles Adlard. It's a great anthology, with something for everyone, and it's for a good cause. What are you waiting for?

Detective Comics #14
Story: John Layman
Art: Jason Fabok/Andy Clarke

John Layman's second issue of Detective Comics is as strong as his first. There's less of the Penguin in this issue, and more Batman, and I again am pleased to see that Layman writes a clever Batman, one who is at home in a Detective themed book. He also writes an excellent, and interesting, Poison Ivy. Ivy is a character who has, over her history, lived two distinct lives. Early on, she was just a criminal with powers to control men and had a thing for Batman, but thanks mostly to her excellent portrayal in Batman: The Animated Series, Ivy has been portrayed as an ecoterrorist more in recent years. Layman works to find a balance between the two portrayals, and follows up on her time in Birds of Prey, with an Ivy who is concerned with ecology but really seems to enjoy playing with men on her puppet strings, as seen in not just the main story but the Ivy-centric back up. We also get another classic Bat villain making a status quo changing appearance, but I don't want to spoil the twist the end of the issue. "Emperor Penguin," has gotten off to a great start, and with the Joker popping in next issue, things are only going to get better from here.

Ghosts #1
Story & Art: Various

The second anthology I'll be talking about today, Ghosts is the newest anthology from Vertigo, and is a nice balance between the dark and horrific and the amusing. While all the stories are excellent, here are my favorites. "The Night I Took the Data Entry Job I Was Visited By My Own Ghost," by Al Ewing & Rufus Dayglo is a funny story about a man who, as the title tells you, is harassed by the ghost of his rocking self when he sells out and takes a day job. "A Bowl of Red," by Neil Kleid & John McCrea, is a creepy tale in the EC school, about a group of chili snobs who go to find the ultimate bowl of chili and the horror that follows. "Ghost for Hire" marks the first Vertigo work of Geoff Johns, and has art by Jeff Lemire. It's another lighter story, about a man and his brother the ghost, who run a service where they scare people out of houses for a living. It's fun, and if there was a non-Vertigo anthology of these kind of stories, it would have worked nicely there, as it isn't necessarily a mature readers story. The story that really makes this anthology a must buy, though, is "The Old Man and the Boy." The final work penciled by Joe Kubert, it is presented just as Kubert left it, in sketchy pencils with lettering in place. It's a good horror story set in Mesoamerica, and to see the last work of one of comics' true legends takes the story to a whole new level.

Masters of the Universe: The Origins of Skeletor
Story: Joshua Hale Fialkov
Art: Frazier Irving

From my love of Star Wars comics, it's pretty clear I don't hold any snobbery about liscensed properties. And while yes, I was the perfect age to love He-Man when he debuted in the 80s, it is a property that has not aged well; the original cartoon is really just a half hour toy ad, and the 2002 reboot was excellent but suffered from poor ratings. DC's new reboot has also had its problems, with creator shifts and delays. This issue, though, is a great comics. The story takes elements of the various origins of Skeletor, and creates a cohesive origin, which is all well and good, and writer Joshua Hale Fialov does a good job presenting Keldor's point of view. But the star of this issue is Frazier Irving. His art, rife with shadows, adds an air of horror to what could have been nothing more than an origin story; Keldor's slowly melting face, going from scarred to completely mangled, and finally into Skeletor makes your skin crawl. The look on Keldor's face as a young man, as he realizes exactly how his life is destined to go is heart breaking, and makes you understand why he became the archvillain.

X-Factor #246
Story: Peter David
Art: Paul Davidson

OK, I admit that I'm the perfect audience for an issue of X-Factor centered around Pip the Troll. I've written about my love of Warlock, and Peter David handles the degenerate Pip with a deft hand. The story opens with Pip breaking up a faked mugging so he can pick up the victim, all the while saying he's Peter Dinklage. Pip is kind of sleazy in a Barney Stinson sort of way, which is perfectly in character and worth a chuckle or two. But the whole issue is from Pip's first person point of view, so as the story progresses, we begin to see that Pip really does love his job at X-Factor Investigations, and see the team as his family. Not exactly redeeming himself for being a lech, but at least you see that he has layers. I've written before that I think Peter David is one of the best character writers in comics, and this issue is a great single issue character piece. Peter David's usual comedy flair is shown through Pip's defense of X-Factor against the Friends of Humanity by using some alien tech to suck them into wormholes and quipping all the time. The end of the issue was a shock, and the perfect tonal switch, leaving the future of Pip, and by extension the family he has defended, in question. It's never easy for X-Factor.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Recommended Reading for 11/9: The Boys

Yes, ladies and gentlemen, we're back. Apologies for missing Monday, but I was a bit under the weather, and while I'm sure it would have been hilarious to read my ramblings on cold medication, I don't think it would have been very productive. So, without further ado...

Garth Ennis hates superheroes. Anyone familiar with his work in either the DC or Marvel Universes can tell that. Whether he's using Wolverine as Wile E Coyote in his Marvel Knights Punisher, or having Hitman's Tommy Monaghan toss his cookies all over Batman's boots, Ennis clearly thinks that superheroes are nothing more than adolescent power fantasies (which isn't to say he can't write them well. He won an Eisner for his excellent Hitman #34, one of the best Superman stories of the past 20 years). And his most recent opus, The Boys, takes this distaste to its logical, or at sometime twisted and illogical, ends.

There are really two ways to read Garth Ennis's work. You can read the surface, and get comics full of ultra violence, sex, and bizarre humor. But Ennis writes most of his long form work with subtext and theme. Preacher is really a love story, Hitman is about friendship, Punisher MAX is about the cost of violence; it's been a long time since I read his run on Hellblazer, and it was my first Ennis, so I didn't know what to look for then, but I might have to go back and see what he was talking about there. The Boys is about power, its use and abuse. And mostly the latter.

The Boys is about a team of black ops agents whose job it is to police "supes," the world's super powered population. While Ennis has crafted a world of his own here, the supes are mostly analogues for the superheroes that most comic readers know. The series mostly follows Hugh Campbell, or Wee Hughie, the Boys newest recruit, as he enters a world that he never knew existed, one of superpowered debauchery. Hughie is the character who we watch learn and change as the series progresses. Hughie, a quirky little native Scot who comes to New York to join the Boys, is a likable, often naive figure, and serves as the audience surrogate, as the rest of the Boys are not quite as easy to understand.

Wee Hughie

The leader of the Boys is Billy Butcher. A former member of the Royal Marines, Billy is a large, intimidating figure who has a deep and abiding hatred of all supes, and will do anything to put them in their place and to get his revenge. Mother's Milk is the calmest, most normal member of the Boys aside from Hughie, who serves as operational support and intel gatherer, although he can crush some heads when the time comes. The Frenchman is, well, the Frenchman, a wiry, off balance lunatic who has a soft spot for the underdog. Finally, the Female of the Species, is a seemingly mute Asian woman who small size belies her capability for extreme violence.

From my descriptions, I hope I made it clear that the Boys have no problem wreaking lots of physical havoc on their powered opponents. One of the most interesting things about Hughie's journey is watching how he deals with violence. Hughie is not a violent man by nature, and Butcher spends much of the series seemingly trying to toughen him up. Hughie is put in situations time and again that force him to have to work his way out of them not through discourse or by running away, but by having to simply clobber his opponent, something he is ill suited to do. The reader watches Hughie have to learn to choose how he is going to deal with this new world.

While we see various teams of supes, including Payback (The Avengers) and the G-Men (The X-Men), the principal supes are The Seven. The Seven are all analogues of the principal seven members of the JLA, and they serve as the main overt antagonists for the Boys. The Homelander is the Superman analogue, and has all of the Man of Steel's powers and absolutely none of his morals. Homelander is a smug, superior person who cares nothing for those he is supposed to protect. These are fairly common traits amongst the supers, and that is where Ennis sees the problem.

Billy Butcher

While Ennis is using superheroes as his vehicle to make his point, he is really talking about anyone with power. Ennis is talking about the way those in power will simply use their power for their own benefit, and not really care about those "below" them. All the members of the Seven (save one at least) are hedonistic at best, and take part on vile sexual acts and extreme violence for its own sake. Queen Maeve (Wonder Woman) keeps a parade of submissive men following in her wake, providing her with liquor whenever she wishes. Black Noir (Batman) sexually assaults Hughie for no reason other than he can. The inciting incident of Hughie's entry into the Boys is when A-Train (The Flash) accidentally kills Hughie's girlfriend while in combat with an enemy and doesn't even acknowledge the act. These are small examples of the kind of chaos the supes reek throughout the series, and each act is shown with them caring less.

The Homelander is a particularly frightening character, as the reader watches his slow descent into madness over the course of the series. Suffering blackouts, he finds after the fact that he has done things that he even views as horrible. And as these episodes grow worse, even in his normal waking hours he begins to consider showing that power is the only thing that matters, and that maybe the country would be better with him in charge. This of course puts him on a collision course with the Boys, and Billy Butcher in particular, who bleames the Homelander for the death of his wife. You see, the Homelander raped Butcher's wife, and left her pregnant with a baby that a normal human body just couldn't deal with. And the only thing that kept Butcher from going off the deep end for years was his wife. That's why Butcher joined the Boys, and this is what he's been looking for all along.

The exception to the Seven's callous attitude is Annie January, the heroine Starlight. Annie is the newest recruit, chosen after the death of one of the other members. Annie is sweet and innocent, a woman of faith, truly wants to help people. Unfortunately for her, the rest of the Seven do not. She is immediately shown how terrible the others are, and begins to suffer a crisis of faith that leads her to become jaded. But before she can begin to change into someone as bad as her teammates, she meets someone; a sweet young Scot named Hughie. You know from the minute they meet that this is going to end poorly, but you can't help root for them. The final fate of Hughie and Annie is one of the questions that will be answered at the end of the series.

Mother's Milk
Behind the scenes, Ennis does deal with a threat far greater than rogue supes, and one that is far more tangible to the real world: the military industrial complex. Supes are not a naturally occurring phenomenon, you see, and the entity responsible for creating them is a corporation, Vought-American. Vought is a monolithic corporation that share the same amoral stance as many of the supes. The members of Vought, represented often by James Stillwell, who spends most of the series simply called 'The Man from Vought", have various plans to further insert themselves into the governing structure of the US by having the Vice President in their pocket and preparing to replace conventional armaments with their own superpowered soldiers. Throughout the series, the history of Vought and the supes is pieced out gradually, giving a world portrait that is disconcerting. It's a world where the people in power just don't care.
While Vought and the Seven are the "bad guys" of the series, it doesn't put the Boys above reproach. The same kind of abuses of power the supes and Vought use, Butcher is more than willing to use for his own agendas. Butcher has no problem with blackmailing government officials for his funding, for degrading people he feels are beneath him. I feel like Ennis gave us a character in Butcher who we want to sympathize with, and often do. Butcher seems to really care about the Boys, and loves his dog, Terror. One of the three spin off mini-series to The Boys was Butcher, Bake, Candlestickmaker, which detailed Butcher's life, and you see he loves his family, and his wife Becky was someone he cared about more than life itself. But that doesn't stop him from being highly, frighteningly, violent. He stands in stark contrast to many of the supes, who have no morality. Billy Butcher knows what he's doing is wrong many times, but for Butcher the ends justify the means, which might make him all the more frightening.
The Frenchman
For all of the darkness of the series, and there is a lot of it, Ennis is known for his sense of humor, and there are some issues of the series that are absolutely hilarious. A personal favorite is issue #37. Hughie is trying to learn the histories of the Boys, and when he asks the Frenchman about his origins, Hughie and the reader are treated to a bizarre story involving baguette jousting and deadly stale croissants. The story is probably completely fictious, a delusion of the somewhat off balance Frenchie, but who cares? There need to be spots of light in even the darkest tales.
The Female
The art for The Boys is a good compliment to Ennis's scripts; it is rarely cartoony, keeping the horrors that Ennis is writing about grounded in a frightening reality. Co-creator Darick Robertson drew most of the series, as well as one of the spin-offs, and his art is a blood drenched horror when it needs to be, but he draws the very human scenes just as well, giving us a Hughie who is so completely lovable you can't help but want him to make it out of this. Russ Braun stepped in for the last few arcs, and while not aping Robertson's style, he fit his work to keep the feel of the series right on with the standard Robertson set. Regular Ennis collaborator John McCrea stepped in for a couple of issues here and there and the two other spinoffs, Herogasm and Highland Laddie, both of which fit his more exaggerated style.
I know that I write often about all ages comics on here, but just in case I haven't made it clear, The Boys is not one of them. As a matter of fact, I can safely say it is not for everyone. The violence and sex is graphic, and the sheer level of profanity would make David Mamet blink. And the treatment of clearly veiled analogues of superheroic icons as monstrous perverts and psychopaths will put some readers off. The thing that keeps The Boys from sinking to the level of what it is lampooning, or becoming something without any redemption, is that it is never heartless or needlessly cruel. There are good people as well as bad people, and some of the worst people have moments of clarity, although not many. Ennis is writing satire, satirizing a genre and making a point about society and human nature as a whole.
The final ongoing issue of The Boys will be released this Wednesday, serving as an epilogue to the main narrative, and tying up loose ends, giving a nice coda to Hughie's story. The entire series will soon be available in twelve trade paperbacks, which include the spin-offs, and are all in print and available at your local comic shop.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Recommended Reading for 11/2: The Stuff of Legend

I think every child has a favorite toy. For some its an action figure, for some its a teddy bear or similar stuffed animal, and for some its a blanket (and anyone who says that a blanket isn't a toy has never seen a kid wearing one as a cape or flying on one like a magic carpet). There's a magic in those toys, and in the imagination of the child who loves them. They are best friend, companion, playmate, and in many cases protector. And it's that aspect, the fact that children look to their toys to protect them, that writers Mike Raicht & Brian Smith and artist Charles Paul Wilson III have made the centerpiece of their series The Stuff of Legend.

Set in the 1940s, at the height of World War II, a boy is taken by the Bogeyman into The Dark, his realm that exists in the shadows in closets. With their boy gone, a group of intrepid toys and one puppy head into The Dark to save the boy, where the encounter tribes of broken toys, malignant boardgame towns, the armies of the forgotten toys that serve the Bogeyman, and other amazing sights. And with each step, their fraternity grows more tenuous and their goal to find the boy seems further away.

Other than giving a background that is equally war torn as the land that the toys are about to enter, I think setting this story in the 40s allowed the creators to have very iconic toys. Today, toy fads come and go, and someone who saw a Furby or a Digipet might not have any idea what they are. But the toys in The Stuff of Legend are toys we all can recognize. Max is a teddy bear; Jester is a jack-in-the-box, Princess is an Indian princess miniature, The Colonel is a tin soldier, Percy is a piggy bank, Harmony is a dancing ballerina, and Quackers is a wooden duck on a string. But when they enter The Dark, each toy loses its aspect as a toy and becomes something closer to what they would be if they were "real."

The story is a journey, with fascinating and beautiful set pieces. Pieces is an apt turn of phrase when addressing Hopscotch, the boardgame town from the first volume, that is rigged for the town to always win, with the crooked Mayor running the game in service of the Boogeyman. This is a favorite sequence of mine, since I love the way our heroes play on the Mayor's own rules to escape, proving that brains, as well as brawn, are needed to finish their quest. In the second volume, we visit a jungle populated by animal toys who are now wild, and who have no love of human toys. We learn secrets in the Jungle that splinter the party, and set them off in different directions over the course of the next volumes. The third volume has some great adventures at sea, with The Jester meeting his long lost brother, The Laughing Ghost, who seeks the Boy for his own revenge.

As the series progresses, we get to see each of the toys grow in personality. Max, the brave and loyal teddy bear who becomes a real grizzly in The Dark, must step into the roll of leader when the Colonel dies early on, but the secret he hides is something that causes the group to shatter. Jester, who becomes an acrobatic clown and skilled fighter, is noble, but headstrong, with his impulsive behavior often causing trouble. Princess is also an able warrior but makes discoveries in The Dark that pulls her away from the group. Percy, though, is the most fascinating character to me. As a piggy bank, he fears the day that he will be broken, and initially makes a bargain with the Boogeyman to inform on the group to him. But over the course of the series he realizes what he is doing and attempts to find his own bravery.

More than just these main protagonists, all the characters in The Stuff of Legend have great heart. They are all fully fleshed out, even the minor ones. A knight in the service of the Boogeyman gets his backstory revealed in the second volume, and you understand why he serves his dark master. The Mayor of Hopscotch, while never sympathetic, is a delightful villain, always looking out for number one. And the Boy has become more of a character over the second and especially the third volume, as he has escaped the Boogeyman's captivity with a new friend, or so he thinks. Seeing his bravery makes the reader understand more why the toys are so loyal to the Boy.

I have this book tagged as all ages, and I think it is. While the series can be dark, and does not shy away from mortality or some scary images, I think kids are resilient, and would enjoy the series. As a reference, I think if a kid has read Bone, The Stuff of Legend is right in the same age group. For all the intensity, it's a fun book, with lots going on, lots of things that could lead to discussion between kids and their parents, something that might make them think, which is never a bad thing.

The art by Charles Paul Wilson III is nothing short of spectacular. I use that word in its literal meaning, as looking over his pages is a spectacle to behold. The intricate detail on each page leaves me in awe, with tremendous detail in the background of each page. In The Dark, even though all the toys have been transfigured into real animals or people, and the settings are realistic, there is still a sense that they are toys, or in a world that isn't quite normal. The art is some of the best in comics right now, and grows better with each volume.

The first three collections of The Stuff of Legends, titled "The Dark", "The Jungle", and "A Jester's Tale" are all currently available. There is also a beautiful hardcover omnibus collecting the first two trades. The fourth series, "The Toy Collector" will start next month.

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Due to Hurricane Sandy, I still haven't gotten my new comics for this week, so alas there will be no reviews on Monday. However, expect something new and different then! And hopefully everything will be back to normal by next Wednesday, and I'll return you to your regular scheduled blogging.