Friday, June 29, 2012

Recommended Reading for 6/29: Sleeper



This week, the first collection of Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's excellent supernatural noir Fatale was released. But I'm not here to talk about Fatale today. Brubaker and Phillips have gotten a lot of attention the past few years for their work on Criminal and Incognito, creator owned books they did under Marvel's ICON line. But I'm not here to talk about those either. No, this post is about Sleeper, a series the two did together for Wildstorm in the early 2000s. It's their first major work together, and is still my favorite of their collaborations.

Sleeper is the story of Holden Carver, a spy who works for International Operations, IO for short, the Wildstorm Universe's answer to SHIELD or Checkmate. Carver is sent undercover, to infiltrate the terrorist organization created by the superhuman called Tao. Then Carver's handler, John Lynch, the only person who knows the treason Carver was accused of to get into Tao's graces was part of a plan, is shot and left in a coma, leaving Carver out in the cold. The series is a labyrinth of twists, turns, and uncertain loyalties. What exactly does Tao know about Holden's past? Can Holden trust anyone? Is Holden still a good guy, or has he "gone native"? Is Holden even sure where his loyalties lie anymore?

In my post about great Star Wars characters, I talked about Quinlan Vos, a character with a similar undercover mission and arc. If you know that character, take his situation and turn it up to 11. The world of Sleeper is one of the darkest I've ever read in a comic that starts out ostensibly tied to a superhero universe. This book is, at its heart, a spy thriller, and it hits every note of that genre perfectly. Cross and double cross, secret missions, the femme fatale, the old flame, all the tropes you'd expect are here, but none of them feel stale. Brubaker has infused them with his own ideas, and Phillips has brought them to life in his usual gritty style.

The capes and tights brigades that Jim Lee created, and even the more flawed ones created by Warren Ellis during his tenure, don't even really factor in, and if they do, they bend to fit the dark world of Sleeper, not the other way around. Tao was created by Alan Moore during his run on WildCATS, and both Lynch, the former mentor to Gen 13, and Grifter, current DC headliner and member of WildCATS, appear prevalently in the series, but for all the reader needs to know, they could be new characters. I had no experience with the Wildstorm Universe going into this series, and I didn't miss anything.

Sleeper is really the whole package, plot, art, setting, and character. I don't want to talk about plot too much, since that will spoil the numerous surprises, and I'll get to art, but what I really want to focus on in this recommendation is character, because that is what I feel really drives this story, and to talk about Sleeper's characters, open has to start with its lead, Holden Carver.

Holden is one of those wonderfully three dimensional characters that Brubaker has made his career around: conflicted, broken, and in a place where they have no way out. Throughout the course of Sleeper, we see Holden go from hero to villain to maybe hero again if he was ever really a villain. Just like the series, Holden exists in shades of grey, never as white or black. He has to make choices throughout the series, choices about taking lives or committing other evil acts, and he has to live with the result of every one of them. His relationships with everyone, his superiors, his love interests, his friends, informs these choices and his character. Much of the series is told from Holden's point of view, and that gives the reader to the agonies he goes through. Interestingly, Holden has a power of his own; he has limited feeling in his body, and feels absolutely no pain, and any pain he receives is passed on to the next person he touches. He has no control over this power, and it causes him as many problems as it is a benefit. His inability to really feel is a metaphor for the distance he has to maintain between himself and all others around him.

The elaborate plot of the series is orchestrated as a kind of chess game between two players: Tao and John Lynch. Tao is a sort of genetic experiment, his name an acronym for Tactically Augmented Organism, created to be an ideal being by scientists for IO; he is unmatched in intellect and . He wants nothing more than to tear down the world, and especially hurt the person he holds responsible for his creation: spymaster John Lynch. At every turn, Tao and Lynch manipulate Holden to benefit their plans. They each want him to be their pawn in the game, and each make promises. Whether they can keep them, well, only they know for sure.


Lynch, Tao, and Holden

Tao's organization, the Syndicate, was created from whole cloth by Brubaker as far as I know, and each of the criminals is interesting in their powers and personalities. Genocide Jones is Holden's friend and partner at the beginning, a stereotypical strongman with a tragic history. Peter Grimm is Tao's right hand man, who thinks Holden is up to something, and whose touch makes a person replay their worst fears over and over until they go mad and die. Triple-X Ray has x-ray vision and is another of Holden's crew. Pit Bull is a feral killer with an urge to please his masters.

Most interesting of Tao's organization, though, is Miss Misery. Miss Misery only is healthy when she is performing immoral acts, and the more evil a deed, the more strength and vitality it gives her. If she starts feeling positive emotions, she starts to get sick; if she falls in love, say, she gets violently ill. This need to act completely against not just the social norm, but her own happiness makes her a character in constant emotional pain, if not physical. Miss Misery works with Holden, and their relationship, both working for Tao and as lovers, is one of the important plotlines throughout Sleeper.


Miss Misery and Holden


While the side of the angels, and I use the term loosely, doesn't get as much time in Sleeper, their are a few "good guys" too.  As mentioned above, Grifter joins the cast of the book, but as a superspy/commando, and doesn't bring any of his superhero baggage with him. At the midpoint of Sleeper, Holden's ex-fiancee, Veronica St. James appears, leading the manhunt for Holden. Veronica's return to Holden's life adds a new wrinkle to his relationship with Miss Misery, and the twisted love triangle between the three pushes the series towards its blood soaked finale.

The thing that separates Sleeper from a lot of the rest of the Brubaker/Phillips work is how funny it is at times. The world the book inhabits is bleak, and the characters who inhabit it know it. They look at it with a certain gallows humor. Triple-X Ray and Pit Bull, along with a couple other minor villains, are comic relief. One of my favorite little recurring bits is, "The Origin Game," where a villain tells their origins in the third person, as if recounting something they were told. Some of these, like that of Genocide Jones, are jaw droppingly sad, but there are others that are hilarious. It's a great way to do a big information dump and not have it feel like massive, out of character exposition.

In the end, Sleeper is the story of one man trying to navigate a dark world where he has no control. It's a world that we're seeing more of in pop culture now, in TV shows like The Shield, Dexter, and Breaking Bad, a world where the lines between hero and villain have grown so faded that it might as well not be there. The agents of IO are in most cases no better than the crooks of the Syndicate, just as venal and cruel, or at least as manipulative. The series isn't for the weak of heart (or stomach), or for those who like their heroes in white hats and their villains in black. But if you want to take a walk on the darker side of things, I can't think of a better book.

All of Sleeper is collected in two trades, Sleeper: Season One, and Sleeper: Season Two. There is also a trade of Point Blank, the prequel mini-series that is the story of Grifter hunting for Holden; fun but not essential. According to Bleeding Cool, there will be an Omnibus collection of all three series, plus a couple of smaller tie-ins, coming thing fall, so if you like giant hardcovers, that might by the way for you to go.



As a personal note to my loyal readers, I'm moving this weekend, so there is the distinct possibility that I won't have time for my usual Monday reviews. But have no fear! I will be back next Friday with more recommended reading, and back on track the following Monday.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Top Ten Star Wars Characters Created In Comics

I've always loved Star Wars. While I don't remember it, apparently the first movie my parents brought me to when I was little was Return of the Jedi. I keep up with the Galaxy Far, Far Away through pretty much any media I can: movies, TV, books, video games, and of course comics. And frankly, I feel the comics are probably the most consistent in quality of any media of Star Wars, telling some excellent stories. One of my friends and customers at Dewey's, who is also a reader here mentioned that he'd like to see a top ten Star Wars comic characters post, and let it never be said I don't aim to please my audience. So here they are, my ten favorite characters created for Star Wars Expanded Universe (EU) comics. One important caveat: while I have read pretty much all the Dark Horse Star Wars comics, I haven't read a lot of the classic Marvel ones. I have them now, and plan to start reading from the beginning at some point, so there might be an update to this post when I have, or a "Top Ten Marvel Star Wars Characters" post then.


10. Demagol

If there's one thing I found that Star Wars is lacking is mad scientists. Sure, we've met the people who built the Death Star, but they're pretty minor figures, and there were a few Yuzzhan Vong Shapers during the New Jedi Order, but none of them really grabbed me. But Demagol, the Mandalorian scientist from the Knights of the Old Republic comics was a really creepy character. Obsessed with the biological source of the Force, Demagol experimented on Jedi. A character who appeared early in the series and seemed to not appear again turned out to be a major player when it was revealed he had been hiding in plain sight all along with the series heroes. I recommend Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: Demon



9. Kir Kanos

Kir Kanos, the star of the Crimson Empire trilogy, was the last of Palpatine's Imperial Guards. You kno the ones; the guys in the red armor walking around with the Emperor, who look badass and never do anything in the movies. Well, Kir Kanos doesn't just look badass: he is. Kanos proves himself a deadly fighter, and an honorable warrior. He's the first of three characters on this list who fall under one of my favorite EU character types: The Noble Imperial. These are men and women who fight for the Empire not because they're deranged Sith or petty despots, but because they think the Empire is the right way to govern the galaxy. Kanos fought with the last measure of devotion to preserve what he thought was right, and in the end walks away into an uncertain galaxy with his honor still intact. I recommend the upcoming Star Wars: The Crimson Empire Saga.


8. Vilmarh Grahrk

One of my favorite parts of the Star Wars universe is that not every character is a soldier, Jedi, or Sith. Some of the best characters are on the fringe, characters like Han Solo, who are just trying to keep their heads down and make a buck. Vilmarh Grahrk, or Villie for short, is that kind of character, only missing most of Han's redeeming characteristics. He's a sleazy mercenary who will do anything for a buck, and is always playing every side against the middle for his own benefit. There's no cause that will make Villie into a "good guy" but he does prove in the end to be a decent friend. Villie is also a very funny character, and never more so than in the story the above cover is drawn from, "The Devaronian Version", where we hear about the adventures Villie has had with Jedi Quinlan Vos from Villie's point of view. I recommend "The Deavronian Version"collected in Star Wars Omibus: Quinlan Vos: Jedi in Darkness.




7. Janek "Tank" Sunber

This one is a little bit of a cheat, since the character is mentioned once in the movies. Janek Sunber is the second Imperial character showing up on this list. He first appears in a story where he shows uncommon valor and is rewarded for it with pretty much nothing. The next time we see him, he bumps into Luke Skywalker, and it turns out he is the "Tank" Luke mentions as one of his friends who went off to the Imperial Academy. When Sunber finds out Luke is the Rebel who destroyed the Death Star and is public enemy number one, he begins to suffer a crisis of conscience. He has a hard time reconciling why a good man like Luke would be part of the Rebellion. The fact that he is someone who really believes in the good of the Empire, and struggles with what is right or wrong, is what makes him such a fascinating, multi-faceted character. I recommend "To the Last Man" collected in Star Wars: Empire: The Imperial Perspective.



6. Zayne Carrick

Most Jedi in any era are portrayed as powerful and, if not infallible, at least wise. Padawan Zayne Carrick, the lead in the Knights of the Old Republic series, isn't really either. Zayne spends most of the series on the run, travelling with a group of rogues, and desperately trying to not screw things up worse. But at his heart, Zayne is a good guy, and someone who is always looking out for the downtrodden. That is what makes Zayne such a great character: he never loses his humanity to his higher Jedi aspirations. I try to keep things here spolier light, since I'm hoping to encourage people to read the comics, so I won't say much more about Zayne, since part of the thrill of his series is watching mysteries around him unspool. But needless to say, it's a fun ride. I recommend Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: Commencement.




5. K'Kruhk

K'Kruhk was a long lived Jedi, first appearing during the Clone Wars era as a disaffected Jedi with doubts, and surviving all the way to being Council Master in Legacy. He is a mighty warrior, a Jedi who commits himself fully to the Jedi cause when he makes his peace. He also is one of the few comic Jedi to make it into other media, having appeared in the awesome Clone Wars animated micro series. K'Kruhk also has an excellent visual, with his hulking frame and tusks belying the caring spirit inside. And check out that hat! He had that hat for a couple hundred years. He deserves a spot on this list just for finding a fashion statement that works and sticking with it. I recommend Star Wars: Dark Times: Parallels




4. Cade Skywalker

Cade Skywalker is the descendant of Luke Skywalker, and the main character of what is probably my favorite Star Wars comic series ever, Legacy, set over a century after the classic trilogy. As opposed to his famous ancestor, who ran head first towards his destiny, Cade did his best to hide from his. Writer John Ostrander made a comment that he wanted to create a character who was, basically, Han Solo with a lightsaber, and that's what Cade is. He's a bounty hunter who wants nothing to do with being a Jedi in a galaxy where Jedi are once again hunted. But the Force keeps calling him, and watching Cade evolve over the course of Legacy's run is to watch a young man finally choose his own path, his own destiny, and in the end live up to the name Skywalker. I recommend Star Wars: Legacy: Broken.


3. Baron Soontir Fel

Starfighters are cool, and the men and women who pilot them are some of the coolest out there. Baron Fel was introduced as the opposite number of Wedge Antilles: the best pilot the Empire had who couldn't use the Force. But after his 181st TIE Fighter Wing went up against Antilles's Rogue Squadron, Fel made the shocking decision to defect. Fel had grown tired of the Empire, and had seen it's wrongs, especially after the death of Palpatine, and he was willing to help the Republic under the condition they helped him find his wife, the holostar Wynssa Starflare, who was in actuality Syal Antilles, Wedge's sister! Fel became a Rogue, and maintained his sense of dignity and his expert flying until he disappeared at the end of the Rogue Squadron series. Fel would eventually reappear in the novels, and become the ancestor of the new line of Emperor's in Legacy. But Fel was above all else a pilot, and few have ever flown who were better than him. "The Making of Baron Fel" collected in Star Wars Omnibus: X-Wing Rogue Squadron Vol.3



2. Quinlan Vos

Quinlan Vos's visual was based off of a background character in The Phantom Menace, but he became the main character in John Ostrander's extended run of the Star Wars ongoing that became Star Wars: Republic. Vos is an odd case, a Grey Jedi for want of a better term, always hanging right on the edge of the light side, slipping ever closer to the dark. Vos's arc involves him spending much of the Clone Wars undercover as one of Count Dooku's agents, and his loyalties are called into question by both his fellow Jedi and the reader often. That existence right on the edge of things makes Quin's journey an interesting one to follow. He also has a distinct look and an ability that sets him apart from other Jedi: he is a psychometric, who can tell the history of an object at a touch; these little distinctions help him stand out during an era with many Jedi. Quin was brought to "life" in a third season episode of the Clone Wars animated series. I recommend Star Wars Omibus: Quinlan Vos: Jedi in Darkness.


 

1. Darth Krayt

Darth Krayt is the Sith Lord who ruled the galaxy at the beginning of the Legacy series, and is a fascinating example of what a writer with longterm vision can do with a character. Krayt was introduced as A'Shard Hett, a padawan before the Clone Wars. Writer John Ostrander (yes, that name again) took over writing him during the Clone Wars, and there, the audience saw Hett as an honorable young man. He stood with the Jedi throughout the war, and had a memorable meeting with Anakin Skywalker. In that meeting, the first seeds of Darth Krayt are planted, a few years before Legacy was released. After survivng Order 66,he disappeared, and that seemed to be the end of A'Sharad Hett. Enter Darth Krayt in the first issue of Legacy. Krayt was a powerful Sith, and one who seemed to have a plan. He was not a cackling villain like Palpatine, but a colder, slower evil. Throughout the early part of the series, reader's theorized who Krayt was, and when it was revealed that he was Hett, Ostrander went on to tell the tale of Hett's fall. It's not like it's the only story of a Jedi who falls to the Dark Side in the canon, but it is a fascinating one. Hett suffers, and from his suffering is forged Darth Krayt. He is a master gamesman, on par with the late, lamented Palpatine, and his order of Sith are excellent villains. Add in the stunning visual of his armor, and you have my favorite character from the Star Wars EU comics. I recommend Star Wars: Legacy: Claws of the Dragon.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 6/20


Daredevil #14
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee

Daredevil has quietly become the best comic that Marvel publishes. I had decided to drop the title at the end of Shadowland, since there are only so many times you can watch Matt Murdock's life be destroyed. But when Waid's new number one came out, I decided to give it a shot, and was shocked at the sheer joy that radiated off every page. The current story involves Matt being imprisoned in Latveria, home country of Dr. Doom, as a criminal for having gotten in the middle of a scheme to use Latveria to launder money for all the megacrime families. Waid puts Matt through his paces, being chased through the country by Doom's guards while his senses are failing him. Waid and his various artistic collaborators have created a very interesting visual for Matt's radar sense and his powers, and Chris Samnee, the newest addition to the rotating cast of artists, has picked up the ball and run with it, and having to play with it while Matt's senses are fading made it an even more interesting artistic experiment. Waid not only writes a Matt Murdock who seems better adjusted than he has since probably before Frank Miller's turn on the book, but he writes a great Foggy Nelson, and seeing the brief interlude with Foggy sets things up for when (if?) Matt returns to America.  The cliffhanger is beautifully done, a great synthesis of art and words, and I can't wait to see what happens next, which is exactly how a good comic cliffhanger should work.




Red Hood and the Outlaws #10
Story: Scott Lobdell
Art: Kenneth Rocafort

Red Hood and the Outlaws was one of the books that raised a lot of eyebrows when it launched out of the New 52, and not in the best way, particularly in the characterization of Starfire. But over the course of the series, Starfire's personality has reverted to something much more similar to what it was when she was first introduced by Marv Wolfman: a warrior woman with a sensitive streak. In this issue, we see Starfire at her best, summoned back to Tamaran and commanding her ship, the Starfire, which I assume to be the namesake of her Earth identity and not her naming the ship after herself. This is Kori at her best: tough, compassionate, and take charge. She isn't the vapid bimbo that people were assuming Lobdell was making her out to be at the beginning of the series. And hey, she's wearing head-to-toe armor! I also enjoyed Jason Todd, Red Hood, out on a date and attempting to not let on that he's actually an international man of mystery. That goes about as well as you might expect. The New 52 Jason has grown on me, being far less insane than his previous incarnation, but still a broken individual. This is one of the New 52 titles that has improved greatly from its first issue, and I'm hoping to see it continue to be the solid action comic that it has become.



Reed Gunther #10
Story: Shane Houghton
Art: Chris Houghton

Reed Gunther is cowboy. A cowboy who rides a bear named Sterling and hangs out with Starla, the toughest cowgirl you ever met. If that setup doesn't pique, I don't know what will. Reed Gunther is one of the recent additions to the Image stable that I have enjoyed tremendously because it's fun. Plain, crazy fun in the same way Atomic Robo is: a comic for all ages that doesn't talk down to any of its readers. Reed, Sterling, and Starla meet and fight monsters of different sorts each issue, getting into all sorts of trouble, often brought on by Reed's habit of not thinking before he acts or speaks. This is, sadly, the final issue of Reed Gunther for the near future, and wraps up many fo the plot threads that have run through the ten issues. It's an action packed issue, with Reed's friends trying to again save him from a bad decision, but in this case one brought on be Reed trying to save a friend. The bond of friendship that this issue tests between Reed and Sterling, and now Starla, is the central theme of the series, and Reed and Sterling are the best combo in comics this side of Booster Gold and Blue Beetle. It's got high stakes without being bloody or morose, and has great character beats without beating the reader over the head with them. And what other comic ends its villain with a tickle fight? Brothers Shane and Chris Houghton have created a great book with Reed Gunther, and I can only hope we get more of it soon.



Star Wars: Dawn of the Jedi - Force Storm #5
Story: John Ostrander
Art: Jan Duursema

This issue marks the final part of the inaugural arc of Dawn of the Jedi, the story of the early days of the Jedi order by Star Wars super-team John Ostrander and Jan Duursema, and it works beautifully to set up what is to come for the series. Ostrander has introduced a large cast, but done it with a master's hand, giving each distinct personalities and motivations, and Duursema has given each looks that reflect their personas. Her art shines in this issue, during both the Force Storm and battle between the Jedi Journeymen and Masters against the monstrous Saarl, and during the aftermath of the battle in a much quieter way. Ostrander is an expert world builder (I will not hide my feeling that Ostrander is one of the great writers of the past thirty years of comics, and don't be surprised if you see a series of posts featuring his work on here in the not too distant future), and I love the various ideas that he has created for this series: The Jee'dai Order that has not become what we're used to seeing, an order attempting to maintain balance between light and dark instead of just embracing the light. Everyone knows how this story is going to end, with the birth of the Jedi and Sith Orders from the Jee'dai, but the fun is going to be seeing how, and the last, ominous page here seems to set those events in motion. But only time will tell.



Uncanny X-Men #14
Story: Kieron Gillen
Art: Dustin Weaver

Kieron Gillen's run on Uncanny X-Men has been the best in years, mixing superhero action with crazy science in a way similar to, but distinct from, the way Jonathan Hickman has done in Fantastic Four. This issue is an interlude in the middle of his Avengers Vs. X-Men tie-in arc, focusing entirely on Mr. Sinister, my personal favorite X-Villain of all time. When last we saw Sinister, he had created a race of perfect clones of himself, giving birth to a new race. This issue we find out where Sinister took his race when he disappeared, and what exactly he has been up to. It's a unique concept, the supervillain as a meme and system, literally a thought that crafts a race, and this issue follows one of the Sinister clones who believes that the leader, the current Alpha Sinister for want of a better term, needs to be eliminate him. I don't want to give anything more away in that, as the book features all sorts of twists and turns, and an ending that is both perfectly comic book and utterly creepy. Dustin Weaver is an artist whose work I first encountered during his run on Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, and his art has grown leaps and bounds over time. His art here is lush and detailed, beautifully displaying the faux-Victorian look of Sinister's new homebase, and working in excellent touches to all of the similarly period costumes. As I think about it, I would love to see him draw a Victorian-Off between Sinister and The Shade. I know it will never happen, but a guy can dream, can't he?

Friday, June 22, 2012

Recommended Reading for 6/22: Kill Shakespeare




I love the theatre. I graduated college with degrees in English Lit and Theatre Arts, focusing both in dramatic literature. My day job, so to speak, has been in the theatre since I graduated. I see plays as often as I can, which frankly isn't often enough. As you might imagine, my passions for theatre, specifically the works of William Shakespeare, and comics don't cross paths very often. Until a few years ago, it was really limited to Neil Gaiman's Sandman issues featuring Shakespeare. But then a new series was announced through IDW, and I took notice.

Kill Shakespeare is a series that takes many of the Bard's famous and infamous characters and tosses them together into a stew. If you ever wanted to see Hamlet throw down with Richard III or pal around with Falstaff, then this is the comic for you. And for someone who loves Shakespeare, it is a joy to read.

The central character of the series is Hamlet, Prince of Denmark; appropriate as he is believed by many to be the greatest character in all the canon. In Act four of Hamlet, Hamlet's uncle sends him off to England, and he disappears for a bit of the play. He eventually returns and tells a story of adventure on the high sea involving pirates. It's an odd little jump that many scholars have looked at askance. But it's this particular moment that writers Anthony Del Col and Conor McCreery use as the point that starts their story. After the pirates sink the ship Hamlet was on, he drifts on wreckage, arrives at England and is met by Richard III, king of England, and one of Shakespeare's greatest villains.


Kill Shakespeare Vol. 1

Those of you with a background in either history or theatre might be a little confused by this meeting. After all, the historical Richard III lived in the fifteenth century, while any possible historical Hamlet would have existed centuries before. But that's something you just have to shrug your shoulders at and go with it. As other characters pop up, there is a mish mash of characters from different eras and locations, and characters who are clearly dead at the end of their plays show up alive and, if not well, at least intact. But that's fun! This is the equivalent of the classic comic book debates, "Who's stronger, Superman or the Hulk?" only with characters on doublets.

I should also say here that if you have no background with Shakespeare, you should not be scared off of the series. What little background you need from the source materials, the plays, is presented in context of the series. And more than that, the great strength of Shakespeare's plays are in the richness of the characters, and the characters, while in different places and times, are all the characters from those plays presented in these new situations. The cast is diverse and enjoyable, with noble heroes, vile villains, and a fool or two who will surprise you. These are all characters you know from a million stories, but Shakespeare did them first, and arguably best.

The main plot of the story involves Hamlet, who many believe is Shadow King, travelling England in the company of different factions, all with an interest in the prophecy that says the Shadow King is the one who can find Shakespeare. Shakespeare is believed by some to be wizard of great power, and by others a god, who has a mystical quill that can alter reality. It seems like a pretty standard comic book/fantasy plot, with the young hero searching for the mentor and the mystical item, but the real pleasure of the story is in how it is told.

The tragic flaw of Hamlet as a character in the play is that he is indecisive; he can never make up his mind about what to do with his treacherous uncle. Only after his return from England in the play does he become a proactive force. Part of Kill Shakespeare is watching Hamlet grow as a character, moving from the character that makes every excuse not to act into someone who makes a choice that seals the fate of nations, and moves out of the shadow of the father who plagues his thoughts and whose ghost plagues him for the early issues of the series.


Hamlet


Among the other characters that form the principle cast are Juliet, of Romeo and Juliet fame, who has survived her suicide attempt and now is the leader of the Prodigal Rebellion, the force that stands against the tyrannical rule of Richard III. Juliet is a strong female character, fighting for her cause, and travels with a group of rogues and rebels. She actually reminds me of another rebel princess, when you get down to it... Juliet's two trusted advisors are other classics of Shakespeare; Othello, Moor of Venice, who seeks redemption for the crime of passion he performed at the end of his play, and Sir John Falstaff, a character of brilliant comedy who some dub Shakespeare's greatest creation, who serves as Hamlet's friend and guide in England and tries to win him to the Prodigal cause, to find Shakespeare and use his mystic quill to set the world right.

And what would the plays of Shakespeare be without villains? Shakespeare did a brilliant job of crafting villains who were sympathetic, or at least multidimensional, and two of the greatest are the central antagonists of the story here. I've already talked about Richard III, the hunchbacked king of England who hopes Hamlet will provide him with the quill to cement his rule. Working with Richard is Lady Macbeth, ruler of Scotland, who has her own nefarious plans for the quill and the land. Throughout the series, it's great fun to watch the two villains scheming both together and against each other, playing shadow games of cross and double cross.


Lady Macbeth

The third major villain of the piece is my favorite character in the entire Shakespearean canon: Iago, former ensign to Othello, who with nothing more than a glance, a handkerchief, and the words, "I like not that'" destroyed Othello's life. Iago is the consummate villain, whispering in Hamlet's ear as the demon to Falstaff's angel, setting up Hamlet to do what Iago (or maybe a figure Iago is working for) wants. Throughout the series, Iago is responsible for many twists and turns, and his seemingly constantly shifting allegiance keeps the reader guessing until the climax.

There are a ton of easter eggs for fans of Shakespeare as well. Characters that appear in cameos are from other plays in the canon, from A Midsummer Night's Dream to Much Ado About Nothing. If you know the plays, you will be pleasantly surprised. If you don't, then hopefully you'll go check out a good production of some of the bard's work and when certain characters pop up, you'll smile knowing they fought alongside Hamlet and Juliet against Richard.

Now comes the hardest part of a discussion of anything that uses the characters of Shakespeare: the language. Aside from his use of character, the use of language is the thing that makes a play by Shakespeare a play by Shakespeare. The writers do a great job of making the language natural; they don't try to make it sound "Shakespearean," with a lot of archaic conjugation, but keep the language in a different tone for characters of different class, and don't fall into using modern colloquialism or speech patterns. I have actually gotten into discussions over the years about people in different media attempting to ape Shakespeare, and frankly, I feel like if you're not the Bard, don't try it, so I was happy to see language that fits the world but doesn't seem like it's trying too hard to make the world the world of Shakespeare; the brilliant characters do that.

The principal artist on the series is Andy Belanger, and his artwork is astounding. His characters are distinct and well rendered, and his continuity and pacing are excellent. But the richness of his designs are what makes the series. The forests, towns, and other locales pop off the page, and his creatures, spirits, and sprites are wonderfully rendered. Like the best stage sets, the world around the characters transcends what is actually there and becomes real, aiding the writers' words in creating an engrossing tale.

At this past year's NYCC, I stopped by the Kill Shakespeare booth and picked up what has become one of my favorite t-shirts ever: Shakespeare in mortal combat with The Bear from The Winter's Tale. I would be remiss in any discussion of Shakespeare to not mention that at the theatre where I spend my days, The McCarter Theatre, will be producing The Winter's Tale from April 2-21 2013, directed by the brilliant Rebecca Taichman. If you're in the New Jersey area, or might be visiting, this is a must see production. A few seasons ago, Ms. Taichman directed a production of Twelfth Night at McCarter, and it was the best production of one of the great comedies I have ever seen. I can't wait to see what she'll do with this play. Tickets go on sale on July 30th. And now ends the digression.


Your humble host in the T-shirt

Kill Shakespeare is an excellent series that not just takes literary characters and recasts them, but casts new light on them. The series is charming, and has enough action, drama, and comedy to keep everyone entranced, even if you've never walked into a theatre in your life.

Kill Shakespeare ran twelve issues, and has been reprinted in two trades, which are available from any good comic shop. You can learn more about the series at KillShakespeare.com

Kill Shakespeare Vol. 2

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer Listening: GraphicAudio

So, now that summer is officially here, I was thinking about car trips. Pardon the digression from your regularly scheduled comic talk, by the way; it comes around by the end. A few years back, my wife and I were driving out ot visit my in-laws. This is a four and a half hour car ride, so there are various pit stops along the way. One of our regular stops is a Pilot station. For those of you who have never had the pleasure to visit a Pilot, they are convenience stores that double as truck stops, so they cater to long haul truckers, wth gadgets for the discerning trucker, plus wide varieties of meda, like DVDs, CDs, and the like.

While in the Pilot, I was browsing their selection of books on CD. I do a good deal of driving, so the book on CD is my friend. And I was looking at a shelf of sets from a company I had never heard of: GraphicAudio. And as I'm scanning, I stop. And I look closely. One of their selections is a Justice League story. So I picked it up off the shelf, read the description, and had to buy it.



GraphicAudio's tag line is, "A Movie In Your Mind." This isn't just a guy sitting and reading a book to you; it's a full cast audio adaptations of a book. And not just words, but music, sound effects, the whole thing. Think closer to classic radio plays from the 30s, 40s, and 50s than audio books. As someone with a collection of those classic radio plays, and who thinks that the radio play is a lost art, the idea of something similar with the Justice League was too good to pass up.

It turned out the book was Exterminators by Christopher Golden, the last in a series. Each one was by a different author and focused on a different JLA member, and this one was the final one, focusing on the whole League. Fortunately, they were each unrelated stories, just under one banner, so I was able to jump immediately into the story. And I have to say, I was incredibly pleased.

The story was a very solid one, as anyone familiar with Christopher Golden (best known for various licensed projects and for his work with Mike Mignola on his novel Baltimore) would know. But I'm not here to talk about the story. I'm here to talk about the production. And it was great! The voice actors got the characters, and were familiar without sounding like they were aping the more familiar voice actors who have made these characters famous in animation. The sound effects and music were suitable and well placed without being distracting.


I was a little worried at first, I admit, when the narrators voice was so presentational. It really felt like he was reading a script, and not in the world. But as the different actors came in, I found myself lost in the story. And the narrator turned out to also do a bunch of character voices, all very distinct, so I accepted that his narrator voice needed to be something that didn't blend with the characters.
 
A little looking on-line when I got home, and I realized that there were more than just those five books: Graphic Audio had a whole line of DC adaptations. They had adapted quite a few DC novels, both originals and adpatations of comic stories, and they were releasing a few a year.


An interesting aspect of the GraphicAudio CDs as I continue is that, from book to book, they have done their best to keep the voice actors the same. So, for instance, Richard Rohan, who directs the series, and is the narrator for all of them, is also the voices of Batman, Joker, as well as other characters, or James Konicek is Superman and Jim Gordon each time they appear. It creates a nice little universe; kind of like this is Earth-GA.

One of the things I love about comics is that they have a way of telling stories that no other medium can. You read a comic and it engages your imagintation. You have still frames and have to move the character from point A to point B with your own mind. The classic radio drama is a similar experience, one that honestly engages your mind, makes you picture the characters and use the sound effects to set the world. The similarities in craft make the combination of the two under GraphicAudio works beautifully. You can hear a story of the Justice League and just see the heroes, and since there's no art, hey, this could be a story drawn by Jim Lee, if that's your preference, or Howard Porter from his run with Grant Morrison if you'd rather; hey, you could picture the animated JLU versions of the characters if that's your bag. The only limit is what you can imagine.

So this became part of my routine when I headed to my in-laws: I would stop and pick up a new GraphicAudio DC. I've heard about a dozen of them now, and each one has been a treat. Aside from the Justice League series, there is also a couple of standalone Batman ones, a Green Lantern trilogy called Sleepers, which I haven't started yet since I haven't seen volume one at my stomping grounds, and Greg Cox's novels adapting the big event cycle from the mid-to-late 2000s, from Infinite Crisis to Final Crisis.

I haven't gotten to listen to all the Cox adaptations yet, but I did pick up Final Crisis, and it was one of the most impressive of these that I've heard. First, Cox's novel does a really good job of streamlining a lot of Grant Morrison's more out there storytelling tricks, and while there is some material cut I would have liked to see kept in (mostly sequences from the trippy but awesome Superman Beyond two parter), it does a good job of keeping the core of the story. Since it presents the events of the last issue in a linear fashion, it's a heck of a lot easier to follow. The thing that impressed me about the audio version was that there were no cut corners. Final Crisis has a HUGE cast of characters, and everyone was there and every one sounded different. The pacing of the audio adaptation was excellent, really keeping you on the edge of your seat, and it added something to the story.

Judging by the list of new titles for this year, GraphicAudio might have completed all the DC Comics novels they have the rights to, with the last one coming out the end of 2011, but boy did they go out on a high note. The final adaptation was of Greg Rucka's novelization of 1999's epic Batman story No Man's Land. This was a two part adaptation, extending over two graphic audio sets and totaling about ten hours of listening time.



For those of you not familiar with No Man's Land, it was a year long story where Gotham was cut off from the rest of the country, and quickly degenerated into this almost medieval society ruled by petty lords. And most of the people ruling over Gotham are, as you might imagine, the worst of the worst from Batman's rogues gallery. It's a harrowing story, full of some great twists, but at its heart is really about Batman's relationship with Gotham, its people, and specifically with Jim Gordon. Greg Rucka was one of the key writers of the original comics, some of his earliest Batman work, so he knows the story inside and out, and so makes the change of media from comic to novel seamless; Graphic Audio does a similar trick moving it from novel to radio drama.

I've already commented on the voice work in the series, but No Man's Land took it to another level. James Konicek's performance as Jim Gordon is excellent, following Gordon's journey, and really showing him at his best and worst. Richard Rohan's Batman has the gravelly tone that most voice actor's give Batman, but since there are no visuals, he really has to work to give the Dark Knight levels in his voice to properly convey his emotions, and he succeeds admirably. The narration is split between the omniscient narrator and Oracle, Barbara Gordon, who is writing a journal of her time in the No Man's Land. I can't find the credit for who voices Oracle, but she does an excellent job, bringing a heart to the predicament of the people trapped in the city. The standout performance to me, though, was Barbara Pinolini as Rene Montoya. While Montoya had appeared for year's before No Man's Land, but the arc that carried her from her original identity as loyal police officer to the new Question really started during the No Man's Land (it also happens to be when Greg Rucka started writing her). Montoya has a lot to do during No Man's Land, working as one of the few remaining cops in Gotham, as one of Gordon's inner circle, and as the go between for Gordon and a particularly unsavory ally. Her journey is as important to the story as that of Batman, Gordon, or Oracle, and Pinolini hits a homerun. Her performance has moved the adaptation of 52 to the top of my list of Graphic Audio's to pick up next, so I can hear what she does with Rene's transition to The Question.

I'm planning on snagging a couple more GraphicAudio DC adaptations for my summer driving this year, probably 52 or Batman: Dead White. If you have a long car ride by yourself, or with friends who are into comics, or a spouse/significant other who might enjoy it or tolerate it (love you, honey!), you could do a lot worse than picking one up too. As a warning, they aren't overly kid friendly, being based on novels written for adults, so they fall into a PG-13 rating, if such a thing existed for radio drama. You can find them on Amazon, or go check out GraphicAudio's website. There are a lot of other series there: sci-fi, fantasy, western, and adventure, so you might find something that speaks to you that isn't necessarily comic related. And after that awful pun, I think I should wrap things up. Happy listening.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 6/13



Amercian Vampire: Lord of Nightmares #1
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Dustin Nguyen

American Vampire has been a slow but sure exercise in world building for writer Scott Snyder and his artistic collaborators. Since issue one, Snyder has been creating a whole new vampire mythos, with different breads and an order of humans who are fighting them. This, the second spin-off miniseries from the core Vertigo title, follows up on the end of the previous spinoff, Survival of the Fittest. Felicia Book, the half American-Vampire is back, along with her now foster son, Gus, who has a vampiric lineage of his own. They seem to be living a normal life in Paris before Agent Hobbes, the face of the vampire hunting Vassals of the Morning Star, pops up again. What he reveals at the end of the issue shouldn't be too much of a shock; this is a vampire story, and the twist is something that usually goes hand in hand with those, but it is well handled. The opening sequence of the issue, with Agent Hobbes sitting down with the enemy for a talk, and the chaos that ensues at the end of it, are beautifully rendered by Dustin Nguyen, making his American Vampire debut. This is a promising start to the mini-series, with a central plot that I'm excited to follow and the return of Felicia Book, a favorite character from earlier arcs. If the rest of the series can keep up with this premiere issues, it will be a worthy addition to the American Vampire mythos.



Batman #10
Story: Scott Snyder & James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo & Rafael Albuquerque

Scott Snyder continues to wow this week, with the penultimate issue of this "Court of Owls" story in Batman. Just in case you've been avoiding them from the numerous places they have been on-line the past week, SPOILERS AHEAD. While the revelation that Lincoln March is the mastermind behind the Court of Owls plot was one I saw coming, the revelation that he is, in fact, Thomas Wayne Jr. was a pleasant surprise. I was going to lay out the history of this lost scion of the Wayne family, but Chris Sims over at Comics Alliance beat me to it. Still, Bruce's slow realization of the answers to the mystery, his discovery of the remains of much of the Court, and his discussion with the man claiming to be his brother were excellent character beats. The back up, by Snyder and James Tynion IV, continues to flesh out the rivalry between the Court and the Wayne family, and giving a voice to Jarvis Pennyworth, Alfred's father, who has never really been anything other than a character mentioned by Alfred before. This has been the stand out book of the New 52 for me, and I'm looking forward to see how Snyder wraps up his epic next issue.




Batman and Robin #10
Story: Pete Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason

Since it's New 52 #1, Batman and Robin has really been a book about Damian and Bruce Wayne, and how they act towards each other as father and son. It's interesting to watch Bruce, who has always acted as something less than a father but more than a friend to his previous Robins, really try to act like a father to Damian, and fail as often as he succeeds. This issue introduces a new villain, Terminus, and a new group of henchmen made up of those criminals injured by Batman in his crusade. And that's an interesting concept, but isn't the focus or the heart of the issue. No, the center of this issue is sibling rivalry. One of the things that I have felt most missing from the Bat titles since the New 52 has been the presence of Tim Drake, the hero called Red Robin. Tim is probably my second favorite character in comics, right behind Batman himself, and while I understand he's busy in Teen Titans, I miss him interacting with his family. This issue is probably not Tim's shining hour. After bickering with Damian, the young Robin declares that he will best all the previous Robins at something they are good at, and prove himself. And he beats Tim. He out thinks Tim, which is Tim's strongsuit: he was always the smartest Robin. Now, Tim has had a weak spot when it comes to Damian since Damian entered the Batcave, mostly since their earliest interactions mostly involved Damian trying to kill Tim, so I have no problem with Tim's characterization here. He lets Damian push his buttons. I just love the ways the characters interact, which has been Tomasi's strong suit on this book. I can't wait to see Damian take on the other former Robins in the next couple issues.


The Sixth Gun #23
Story: Cullen Bunn
Art: Tyler Crook

The Sixth Gun is a great weird western that debuted two years ago on free comic book day, and the action hasn't slowed down since. After a very cool silent issue in #21, and the wrap up of the current storyline, "A Town Called Penance" last issue, this one serves as an epilogue of sorts to that story, with the return of dashing, and treacherous, gunslinger Kirby Hale. I enjoy the one offs that writer Cullen Bunn has worked into the ongoing narrative of The Sixth Gun, fleshing out side characters and giving us a breath between the major arcs. Artist Tyler Crook, best known for his work on B.P.R.D. does an admirable job, making the issue his own, while bending just enough to fit with the overall style of the book. By issue's end, it looks like Kirby Hale is on a crash course with our heroes, and I don't think everyone is going to make it out alive. But what's a western without a little bloodshed?

Friday, June 15, 2012

Recommended Reading for 6/15: Starman



Superhero stories (at least those published by DC and Marvel) are designed to be open ended. Sure an issue or an arc might end with Batman putting the Joker away, but you know Joker is going to break out of jail again. You know Kang the Conqueror will always find his way back from the future to menace the Avengers. You know Silver Age Lois Lane will always be trying to figure out who Superman really is. Beyond that, characters are mostly static; character growth can happen, but in very small increments. Batman is Batman is Batman, pretty much no matter when you read him, even if the trappings change.

So James Robinson's Starman is a wonderful aberration: a superhero comic published by DC Comics with a beginning, middle, and end. A superhero story where the protagonist is a completely different man at the end of the 80+ issue run than he was at the beginning. It's a well crafted story arc, where you clearly see everything that happens to him, and how they affect his life.

Starman follows Jack Knight, the son of the original Starman, Ted Knight, a golden age scientist/adventurer. Jack starts the series as the model for the reluctant hero. He would prefer to run his  nostalgia and collectibles shop than go out and fight villains. But when his brother, David, the current Starman, is assassinated (two pages into the first issue!), Jack is forced to take up the Cosmic Staff, the device his father invented that allowed him to fly and manipulate cosmic energy in various forms, to avenge his brother.

Jack does avenge David at the end of the first arc, but his story is far from over. Starman seems to work like a Vertigo series, in that it has a central theme that the writer wants to explore, only here the lens of the superhero story is used. Starman is a coming-of-age story, where the young man must take up his responsibility and come out an adult. It is also very much about family; the family we have, the family we make, and the relationships between fathers and sons, and brothers. At the start of the series, Jack is estranged from his father. By the end of the series, well, Jack has come to terms with the issues he had with his father and his brother, and is set to make a better life. And in the end, Jack drives off, leaving behind his time as a superhero, having passed on the Cosmic Rod to a worthy successor, to be with his own family. He makes the choice as an adult, with all the options before him, and chooses to be a husband and father. He gets the ending that most superheroes never do.

I found Starman at an interesting point in my life: I was in my early 20s, maybe a little younger than Jack would have been during the run of the series, and was given the first trade by one of my coworkers at the comic shop. I read it, actually probably devoured it was more accurate, tracked down the other trades, then all the uncollected issues and was able to start reading it monthly as it reached its climax. But I think I found something of a kindred spirit in Jack Knight. I think anyone in their early 20s can feel sort of adrift, and anyone who has grown into their late 20s or early 30s can see a little of their own time growing up. When I read Starman a second time, I had a very different experience, shaking my head and thinking, "Was I like that too?" And the answer was probably yes.

Starman also set up the theme that was central to the DC Universe for the twenty years or so leading up to the New 52 reboot: legacy. Starman was firmly rooted in the Golden Age of comics. Not only was Ted Knight, the golden age Starman, a regular cast member, but his arch rival, the Mist appeared repeatedly, as did the golden age Flash nemesis, The Shade (much more on him later), and classic Green Lantern villain Solomon Grundy. The Justice Society appear in numerous flashbacks, and the golden age Sandman, Wesley Dodds, appeared in a memorable arc. And Jack's story is at least partially about taking up the mantle that his father left behind. Robinson, of course, went on to cowrite the opening arc of the revitalized Justice Society title, JSA, where Jack was a founding member, although he only appeared in the series briefly.

More than just legacy, Starman never shied away from touching on parts of DC Comics history. During Jack's sojourn in space, not only does he travel in time and meet Jor-El, father of Superman, got to hang out on the planet Rann with interplanetary superhero Adam Strange, and arrive on the blue planet from Alan Moore's run on Swamp Thing, but he meets one of my favorite oddball sixties DC characters: Space Cabbie. You heard me right: Space Cabbie. Throughout the series, Starman featured a series of stories called, "Times Past". These were one shots issues that usually fit in between arcs and featured one of the previous Starmen, or some of the history of Opal City, the home of the Knight family and the setting for most of the series. Robinson and his co-creator of the series, artist Tony Harris, took Opal and between the stories of Times Past, Jack's own feelings, the reminiscence of the immortal Shade, and Harris's impeccable design sense, made Opal a major player in the story, a character in its own right. We see Opal from its early days under the guardianship of a classic DC Western hero, Scalphunter, through the present, with all the heroes who have wandered through it.


                                                                      Opal City


There were six other heroes before Jack Knight who called themselves Starman, and all of them factor into the series. Some, like Ted Knight and the alien Mikaal Tomas, became major parts of the book. Both Prince Gavyn, the alien ruler, and Will Payton, the cosmic powered hero of the 80s, have smaller but still integral roles in the story. Even the mysterious Starman of 1951 is important. That costume was created as an alternate identity for Batman in 1957, but Robinson jettisons that backstory to create something different and wonderful.


                                                                        Starmen


The supporting cast of Starman included more than just the previous heroes bearing that name. The principal cast also included the O'Dare family, five siblings (Clarence, Barry,Matt, Hope, and Mason) who were each members of the Opal City Police force, and each became friends with Jack and operated with (and in one case against) him. The psychic Charity provides Jack with guidance. Bobo Bennetti, a former gangster who has retired, meets Jack and begins aiding him in protecting Opal, all the time wearing his 50s clothes and talking like a member of the Rat Pack. Jack's girlfriend, Sadie, is very important to the grand scheme of things for more than just her relationship to Jack for reasons that I don't want to spoil here. Many other heroes also pop up for guest stints in the book, bust one of the most notable, and my favorite, is an extended stay in Opal by the Elongated Man, Ralph Dibny, and his wife Sue. This was my first real exposure to those characters, and I fell instantly in love with the Ductile Detective. Still want him to show up in the New 52.


                                                                       The O'Dares


But my favorite member of the Starman cast was The Shade. The Shade was villain of the Golden Age Flash, a man who had a cane that allowed him to channel shadow matter. Robinson took pretty much everything but the name and the power set, and chucked them. The new take on the Shade was that he was immortal given shadow powers during his life in Victorian England. He is amoral, following his whims on whether or not to do right or wrong at any particular moment. He is a connoisseur of fine absinthe and art, who loves nothing in the world more than Opal City, his home. He also fits into the theme of growth that Jack typifies, as you watch him change from a man with no connection to anyone at the beginning of the series into someone who now chooses to defend Opal and someone who has friends. And his costume, that of a Victorian gentleman all in black, is freakin' awesome. If I ever decided to do the cosplay thing at a convention (don't hold your breath), I would totally dress as The Shade.


                                                                 The Shade

As I said before, Jack owns a collectible and antique shop. The reverence for that past, and the love of collecting and collectibles fill Starman, and it warms the heart of this collector to see nostalgia and the urge to collect to be so positively portrayed. Pop culture as a motif pops up throughout the series, and often in strange ways. Scenes that should be ominous or surreal are balanced by people talking about movies and plays. While a Frankie Soul, a criminal with a vendetta against Mikaal, delivers a savage beating in him, he discusses different actors who have played Philip Marlowe. While a group of drug dealers cut their cocaine, they discuss the relative merits of Into the Woods  versus Sweeney Todd. And in my favorite, while wandering through the psychic landscape of the villain Solomon Grundy, Jack Knight, Alan Scott, and the Floronic Man discuss their favorite Woody Allen movies. Batman is there as well, and while not amused at the time, when they reenter the real world, he admits that Crimes and Misdemeanors is his favorite. What other comic can tell you what Batman's favorite Woody Allen movie is?

I've saved what might be my favorite recurring feature of Starman for last: Talking With David. Like I said, David Knight, Jack's estranged brother, was Starman before him, and was shot and killed after being a hero for a very short time. In the fifth issue, Jack meets David, as a ghost, and the two get into a fight. They come to a certain peace after that encounter, but David continues to pop up once a year to talk with Jack. The issues are all told in black and white, which is a stunning story telling choice, but always end with a full color splash page. These issues are some of my favorite, and tie most of the themes of Starman together.




Over the course of the run, Starman had two principal artists, Tony Harris and Peter Snejbjerg. They have very different styles, but both work very well for the series. Harris's work is hyper-detailed and beautifully designed. He created the stunning look of Opal City, and helped define Jack's reluctant attitude towards heroism with in Jack's non-costume: jeans, t-shirt, and a leather jacket. Snejbjerg draws wonderful characters, with very expressive faces, that allowed for so much of the emotional nuance that was present in the series. Each "Times Past" issue was drawn by a different artists, and the talent there was incredible. Teddy Kristiansen drew a tale of The Shade and Oscar Wilde in 1882, Matt Smith penciled a chilling tale of the aging JSA fighting the cult of the villain Ragdoll, Russ Heath recounts the final days of Scalphunter in Opal, and many more. An artistic highlight is also the four issue The Shade mini-series, featuring work from Gene Ha, JH Williams III, Bret Blevins, and Michael Zulli, taking place over the whole span of the Shades nearly two hundred years of life, giving some really amazing artistic opportunities.

While I tried to hit a lot of the high points of the series in this discussion, I know there's stuff I didn't really get to discuss at length. Jack's rogues gallery was awesome, with some tremendous new villains and reimaginings of old ones. The intricacy of the plot was also impressive, with little aspects introduced early in the series coming to major payoff at the end. The way some of the stories were told, like the "Sins of the Child" arc, where each issue take place during the same day from the perspective of a different character. The pages from "The Shade's Journal" telling another story of the Shade's past serialized over the course of the series in text pages. There's a reason why this is one of my all-time favorite completed series, and it comes with my highest possible recommendation.



DC recently finished reprinting all of Starman, along with The Shade mini, various one-shots, and the awesome two issue Batman/Hellboy/Starman mini with art by Mike Mignola, in a series of six omnibuses, the first of which was recently released in paperback. While Jack has retired and not really appeared since the series ended, the Shade continues to appear, currently headlining a twelve issue mini-series, issue nine of which was released on Wednesday.



Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Animation Review: Superman Vs. The Elite



Action Comics #775, "What's So Funny About Truth, Justice, and the American Way?" is definitely one of the best Superman stories of the past fifteen years, and might be one of the most important stories about what it means to be a hero in comics. This was a story that came out right on the heals of the popularity of The Authority and other "take no prisoners" heroes, and made a point about heroism. I have always been a person who stands behind the Superman (and Batman to a degree) perspective that human life is scared and we are not above the law. Today an animated version of the story was released, Superman Vs. The Elite. The question is, can this story be translated into a different format, and does it's point still resonate. The answer, I am happy to say, is yes.

For those of you who haven't read the original story, in the comic (the cover of which is below this paragraph) Superman confronts a new team of heroes who call themselves the Elite: Manchester Black, their telepathic and telekinetic leader; The Hat, a hedonistic demon sorcerer;  Menagerie, the mistress of a collective of alien monsters; and Coldcast, a powerful energy manipulator. They are not so subtly veiled versions of the Authority, and they take the Authority model of heroism to the extreme, killing anyone who crosses their path. Superman's values are shaken as he sees people rooting for the Elite, and he wonders if he is no longer relevant. In the end, he fights the Elite and chooses to not sink to their level, and defeats them, but only after showing the world what a Superman acting like the Elite could do, and seeing the horror of a Superman without restraint reenforces how important it is for heroes to choose the higher, better ground.


The animated film was written by Joe Kelly, the writer of the comic, so it does a very good job sticking to the original plot. As opposed to many of the DC Animated projects, that attempt to squeeze a large number of comics into one hour and fifteen minute movie, this one has just the one comic to work with, and so it actually has some room to grow. Little bits are added, dealing with the origin of Manchester Black and his sister Vera, battles with the Superman villain Atomic Skull, and a subplot about a young man and his father that flesh out the plot. But beyond the tweaks, the philosophical debate that made this a great comment remain intact. This is really a story about the price of violence, and whether the idea that people are inherently good is an outmoded one. The comics industry has found a way to get even darker since the original story was published, and so I feel like the story resonates even stronger now. I heard a comment that the Authority no longer was popular because all super heroes had turned into the Authority. While I don't think that's true, I see the levels of violence and anguish in so many of today's comics and I think we need a reminder there is a better way to be.

One department that DC animated projects rarely have a problem with is the voice cast, and this one is no exception. George Newbern reprises his role as Superman from Justice League and he hasn't lost a step, filling the cape well. Pauley Perrette, best known for playing Abby on NCIS gives Lois that wonderful energy and attitude that all good Lois Lane's have, and the way she interacted with Clark made me realize just how much I miss a married (or at least together) Lois and Clark. Robin Atkin Downes voices Manchester Black, and does an excellent job giving the antagonist of the piece levels; an actor could have made him just sarcastic and villainous, but he has moments of real emotion that make him more approachable as a character.

The animation on this project was a different style from any of the other DC animated projects.It has a style somewhere in between traditional American animation and a more Anime style. It's reminiscent of the Jeff Matsuda designs from The Jackie Chan Adventures, with angular faces and hair that defies gravity. I admit it took me a little while to get used to this particular style, but I realize that each of the original DC Animated projects have a different style, and this one suited the action filled nature of the story. The monsters of Menagerie and the wounded Superman at the end are a couple of the best moments in the film, but the all of the battle sequences are stunning.

The special features on the DC Animated blu-rays are always worth a watch, and this one is no different. Joe Kelly narrates a feature about how he developed the Elite and their evolution as characters. There is also a documentary about Superman and morality, that evolves into a discussion of morality in warfare in a post 9/11 world. Heady stuff, but interesting. I haven't listened to the commentary yet, but it is Joe Kelly and Eddie Berganza, editor of Action #775, so I plan to get around to that soon. And the preview for the next DC Animated, the first of a two part adaptation of The Dark Knight Returns, has me very excited for that one.

I don't know if Superman Vs. The Elite is going to be for everyone. The animation might put some people off, and others might not see the point of the moral. But if you go in with an open mind to just enjoy the film, I think you'll have a great time.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 6/6

Before Watchen: Minutemen #1
Story & Art: Darwyn Cooke

So, here it is: the first issue of Before Watchmen. I went in with some trepidation, I admit. As much as I love Darwyn Cooke's work, and I LOVE Darwyn Cooke's work, this project has raised more dander than pretty much anything that I've seen among comic fans, and all the vitriol is a major reason why I wanted to create this snark free zone. And now having read the first issue, I have to say... I'm glad I did. There is something of a case of what I like to call "first-issue-itis" here. There's a lot of information, a lot of set-up, and not a ton happens to forward what I assume will be the plot of the rest of the mini. But it was done so darn well, and the art was so beautiful, that I barely noticed.  Basically, this issue felt like a really well done handbook, giving you profiles and background on who each of the Minutemen are. If you haven't read Watchmen in a few years, which I hadn't, it was a nice way to remind you who each of these characters are, especially since none of them are from the main cast of the original. Being that it's set in the 30s and 40s, it speaks to Cooke's artistic sensibilities. I'm sure Cooke can do stuff set in the present and the future, he was after all a designer on Batman Beyond, but between DC: The New Frontier and his Parker work, Cooke's style makes me think of a bygone era. I am looking forward to the rest of this series, and to the other Before Watchmen minis. I hope they can all live up to this opening.

Creator-Owned Heroes #1
Story: Steve Niles / Jimmy Palmiotti & Justin Gray
Art: Kevin Mellon / Phil Noto

The same week that Before Watchmen, which has caused one of the most polarizing debates one creators rights in comics history, came out, we also get the first issue of this, Creator-Owned Heroes, which is, like it says, a book that spotlights work that is, well, creator owned. I picked this up partially because I like to support creator owned books no matter what, partially because I found it appropriate to buy it because of when it was released, and partially because I happen to really like the work of Palmiotti & Gray. Toss in a story by Steve Niles, master of modern horror comics, and an interview with Neil Gaiman, and I was sold. The book lives up to the sum of its parts; a comics anthology that also features interviews and articles, all of which are interesting and fun. We get the first chapters of two serials, both of which have me curious.  American Muscle, the Niles story, with art by Kevin Mellon, is a group of people wandering a ruined and dystophic future story. Nothing new there, but Niles has always been good with character, which shines through, and there seems to be a twist coming in what caused this particular collapse of society that is hinted at here. Trigger Girl 6, by Palmiotti and Gray, is a spy/action/thriller. Again, this is just a short chapter, but it sets up an interesting premise, and makes me want to know the origin of the Trigger Girls. Phil Noto's art is dynamic and the aerial battle scene, that I don't want to talk about too much so as not to spoil it, it really a thing of beauty. Aside from the interview with Gaiman, there are also various articles about the origin of this project, an interview with cosplayers who have crafted a real world Trigger Girl costume, and some convention photos. This is a great package, where you get a lot of bang for your $3.99, and is well worth picking up.


Earth 2 #2
Story: James Robinson
Art: Nicola Scott

This issue marks the real beginning of the new Earth 2. Last issues was a solid comic, but it was really the last stand of the Trinity and didn't do a lot to introduce us to the main cast of the book. This issue, though, is a vast improvement. I really like the new Jay Garrick. I know a lot of people were making slacker speedster jokes after the last issue, but it looks like he's less a slacker and more just a twenty-something who isn't sure what he's going to do with his life. I do miss the old costumer with the Mercury helmet, but seeing this costume drawn by Nicola Scott on the internals made me like it a bit more. And the idea of a speedster who uses his speed in conjunction with parkour (the French art of roof running) is a very cool idea and a striking visual. Seeing Michael Holt, Mr. Terrific of Earth 1 arrive and be confronted by his Earth 2 counterpart was cool, and the seeming villainy of Terry Sloane, the original Mr. Terrific, leaves a lot of questions to be answered in a good way. No point in revealing everything right off the bat. And now for the elephant in the room: Alan Scott. This seems to be the week of books that raised a hoopla somewhere, even though most comic people really didn't react too much to the whole, "Alan Scott is gay," thing. Frankly, I really liked his portrayal. He and his significant other are together for most of their pages, and nowhere does anyone say any word meaning homosexual or acknowledge that they are anything other than a couple. The dialogue was natural, and I found the scenes between them charming. I hope Robinson can keep that up in future issues.


Swamp Thing #10
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Francesco Francavilla

Swamp Thing has been a title with a slow build since it's return as part of the New 52. It took nearly six full issues before Swamp Thing showed his mossy hide. This isn't a complaint, as a lot happened in those six issues, but just a statement of fact. This issue, though, even with Swamp Thing back, is not even narrated by him. This issue is narrated by Swamp Thing's arch nemesis, Anton Arcane. There are some fairly major tweaks to Arcane's backstory here, but he's still pretty much the same creepy demon guy he was in his previous incarnations. The story begins with Arcane talking to an unseen person, and as the story continues, it winds up looping around to reveal who that is, in a great little storytelling twist. What makes this issue really pop is the artwork from Francesco Francavilla, an artists whose work on Black Panther and especially his run with Swamp Thing writer Scott Snyder on Detective Comics made him one of the breakout talents of 2011. His art has a wonderfully creepy feel in this issue, and the opening pages of Arcane talking sent a shiver up my spine. The fact that Francavilla colors his own work is impressive, and is clearly part of his overall style, which works to great affect throughout this issue. I hope that he does some more work on this title, or one maybe one of the Bat titles soon. As we get closer to the big Animal Man/Swamp Thing crossover, the stakes in both the books get higher, and this issue does a great job of ratcheting up the tension.


X-Factor #237
Story: Peter David
Art: Neil Edwards

X-Factor is one of the oddest super hero comics on the market, and possibly has been since it came back a few years back under Peter David's pen. It feels at times like the home for mutants and characters that no one else knows what to do with. It has an expansive cast, a continuing story that has last nearly one hundred issues, and that strange sense of humor that Peter David does so well. I've been with the book since the beginning of Peter David's first, early 90s, run on X-Factor, and so am very fond of a lot of these characters. This issue is one of those issues that Peter David is known for: a small character piece that tackles "issues" without turning into a very special episode of Blossom. Over the course of this series and her time away in X-Force, Wolfsbane has been put through the ringer in a way few comic book characters have; she has killed people, been brainwashed, killed and eaten her own father, impregnated by an Asgardian wolf god, given birth to his feral child, and then rejected it. And this issue she's forced to confront that. It's harrowing to read, seeing all that raw emotion dragged to the surface. The issue even plays a similar trick as the one in Swamp Thing, with a scene from the end of the story inserted at the beginning to really sock you in the gut and get you immediately into the story. Another plus for long time X-Factor readers is the return of Rev. John Maddox, the wayward Madrox dupe who has become a minister. Maddox has often been used by Peter David to discuss thorny issues, usually theological, but often personal and psychological, and is a favorite supporting character of mine. And not to have an issue go by that's all doom, gloom, and theology, David still gets to work in the funniest Thelma and Louise gag I've ever seen during the road trip to Rev. Maddox. All this happens, plus a set up for a future arc. More happens in one issue of X-Factor than most arcs of other comics, and I don't think I (or other fans) would have it any other way