Friday, December 20, 2013

Recommended Reading for 12/20: Jingle Belle

I think the holiday recommendation spot belongs to Paul Dini. Last year, it was dedicated to the Batman: The Animated Series Holiday Special, probably my favorite Christmas comic of all time, and this year, we'll be talking about Jingle Belle, his Christmas themed series about Santa's daughter. I beg your pardon if this is a bit short and lacking in my usual detail, but between the holiday and much of my collection remaining buried in boxes beneath boxes beneath yet more boxes since the move, I wasn't able to do a reread, so this is coming all from memory.

Jingle Belle (Jing to her friends) is Santa Claus's daughter. And while Santa is still the jolly old elf that he's portrayed at, Jing isn't like any member of Santa's clan you might have seen on a Christmas special. You see, Jing is a teenager (or about 220, which when you're an immortal is part of your extended adolescence), and that makes her a bit... difficult. And by difficult, I mean a nightmare. Jingle is spoiled (who wouldn't be if your dad was freakin' Santa Claus), entitled, and always up to something. And when you have access to Santa's various cool magical things, that something she is up to is usually a little more than breaking curfew.

Jingle's escapades often involve her trying to get out of working at Santa's workshop or just getting away to be a normal teenager; after all, it's hard to get away with anything when your dad's whole shtick is knowing whether you're naughty or nice. The best Jingle Belle stories work like a lot of the best Simpsons stories (There was even a crossover between the two in Simpsons Winter Wingding #1) with Jing working in the Bart roll: Jing does something naughty, gets caught, and learns a lesson. Of course the lessons don't really stick, and she gets into trouble again sooner or later, usually sooner.  Bit what also makes the series and character work is that under the bratiness, Jing really has a good heart, and will choose to do the right thing and help those in need.

Humor comics generally have a set-up/punchline thing that is consistent, which is true with most humor/comedy series; I mean, how many times could Elmer Fudd really go after Bugs Bunny and not expect to wind up getting shot in the head with his rifle that didn't seem to ever fire anything lethal? The trick is keeping that motif feeling fresh. Dini gives Jing all sorts of odd escapades that don't feel like the same thing over and over again. One time she could be trying to have a Christmas special made about herself, another time she could be trying to build a Vegas-based Christmas-themed resort , or tried to set up a reality TV show with her and her dad (all real plots).

The stories can also have a more action based tone at times, with Jingle falling afoul of some of Santa's wintery nemeses like The Blizzard Wizard, or she can befriend the Frankenstein Monster. But Dini never loses sight of the fact that at heart, Jingle Belle is a humor comic, and is always funny. There's even a story featuring my favorite piece of Christmas apocrypha, the Krampus, who is Jing's weird "uncle." Trust me, if you don't know who the Krampus is, go and find out. He's just wonderfully bizarre.

One of Paul Dini's great talents is world building and character creation. Looking at his Batman work, he created a bunch of excellent characters aside from Harley Quinn, including The Carpenter, Mr. Zzz, and he added levels of pathos to Hush, making him a far more interesting character than he was in his earlier appearances. So it's not surprising that he has populated Jing's world with an assortment of interesting and amusing characters. There are elves, like Jing's pal Gretchen, hipster elf Eddie, or brown nosing Cousin Rusty. There are Jing's girl friends, Polly Green, the Halloween witch, Ida Red, a superpowered cowgirl sheriff, and frenemy Tashi, a part girl-part snowleopard (sorta like a Thundercat, if that helps with visualization). And of course there's Santa and Mrs. Claus. It's a large cast, and each character is wrought well.

The publication history for Jingle Belle is a bit involved. Initially published by Oni Press back in its early years, and spawned two trades and a graphic novel, the series moved to Dark Horse for a bit, where there were some one shots and a four issue mini-seires that was traded, and then to Top Cow, where most of the stories were released as one shots, although there was one collection. The stories are mostly out of print, but I know they can be found, especially if your comic shop breaks out Christmas comics around this time of year like mine does. You can also find at least some of them on Comixology.

So if you're looking for something funny and not exactly what you'd expect from a Christmas comic, you should check out Jingle Belle. Your belly will shake like a bowl full of jelly, trust me. And with that, a merry Christmas to all. I hope to get some reviews up on Monday, but if not I wish you all a happy holiday.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 12/11

Batman #26
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Greg Capullo

"Zero Year" continues in this issue, with Batman dealing with Doctor Death and the GCPD. The deeper into this new version of Batman's origin we get, the more I like it. While it does borrow bis from earlier stories, it's not a greatest hits version, trying to strip mine elements from all the different Batman origins. Scott Snyder  is creating a new story that still stays true to Batman's history, and that adds some new elements. The big change this issue is the revelation of exactly what Bruce's problem with Jim Gordon is. After the fakeout with Lucius Fox from the end of the previous issue, and knowing Gordon and Batman's relationship is what it is in the present, I'm sure Snyder has something up his sleeve, especially especially since John Layman's Detective Comics "Zero Year" crossover focused on Gordon's incorruptibility. It's interesting to add this wrinkle into Batman's past, giving him a reason to distrust Gordon instead of Gordon distrusting Batman as in Year One. Meanwhile, the Doctor Death storyline is a great little Batman versus a mad scientist story, and using Doctor Death, the first "name" villain in Batman's history, is a nice nod; I also have to say the new visual for him is creepy, and something not seen in Batman comics in the past. The flashbacks to Bruce's journey to become Batman and the sensory deprivation ritual takes touches of Grant Morrison's run and adds them in; frankly, Morrison's work is usually so quickly retconned out of continuity or ignored, it's nice to see an element hearkening to it. I hope we get some resolution with Death in the next issue, so we can move back to the Riddler, but Snyder is playing with a large canvas, and that scope is part of what makes "Zero Year" an interesting Batman story.

Batman: Li'l Gotham #9
Story & Art: Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs

Batman: Li'l Gotham is proving itself to be more than just a way to read stories that feel like they could have taken place in the pre-Flashpoint DCU; it feels like a spiritual successor of Batman: The Animated Series. This struck me this issue not only because it featured a cameo by Simon Trent, the Grey Ghost, a character from one of the best episodes of B:TAS, "Beware the Grey Ghost," but also because it took that element and worked it seamlessly into the world that creators Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs have created. That sort of synthesis is what made B:TAS great; it took the best elements of Batman and mixed them together to create something uniquely its own. The first story in this issue has Batman and Robin chasing Clayface into Gotham Comic Con. There's a lot of con and fandom humor, but none that is mean spirited towards the fans. Damian's plan to draw Clayface out at the end of the issue is a hilarious moment, and perfectly suited to Damian's personality. Nguyen gives Batman a speech at the end to Damian when Robin is upset about changes made to his favorite comic character that perfectly reflects the best attitude one can have about continuity, one I share. The second story, a Labor Day story for The Carpenter, contractor to the supervillain set, is a cameofest, with appearances by most of Batman's rogues, plus some others from around the DCU. Paul Dini created The Carpenter during his run on Detective Comics and Batman: Streets of Gotham, and being a Dini creation, she fits perfectly into a world that is heavily influenced by his animated series work. This title is starting to wind down, with only three issues left, and I am going to miss this breath of fresh air every month.

Lazarus #5
Story: Greg Rucka
Art: Michael Lark

The second arc of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark's dystopian future series, Lazarus, kicks off with the fallout from the first arc still being felt. Forever Carlyle is still regretting the death of an innocent man, something a Lazarus, a family enforcer, probably shouldn't, and her evil brother (More evil? More overtly evil?) is on the run. When Forever arrives at a border with another family's property where he might have fled, she is confronted by a group of serfs serving the other family as guards. They immediately begin to be verbally abusive, and Rucka makes a quick and very matter of fact comment about rape culture and rape threats; he doesn't dwell on it, but makes his point and moves on. As the scene ends, Forever is shot from behind by one of the men, and instead of massacring them herself, she uses her words, wits, and the fear of her powerful family to get the others to execute the man themselves. This level of intellect is part of what makes Forever such and interesting character. There are new characters introduced, and we get the first look at what it's like to be a person in this world who has no connection to the ruling elite, and its not a pretty picture. The other scene in the issue that left a strong impact was seeing a very young Forever sparring with a teacher, and the callousness with which her "father," the head of the Carlyle family, treats her. The world of Lazarus is being built brilliantly, and each issue gets us closer to a turning point for Forever. There are plenty of dystopian stories out there, but Lazarus is top of the heap, with a grounding in reality and characters who are well rounded.

Richard Stark's Parker: Slayground
Story: Donald Westlake as Richard Stark; adapted by Darwyn Cooke
Art: Darwyn Cooke

I think I said about as much as I could about the excellence of Parker and these adaptations as I could in my recommended reading on Parker but a new volume is something to be looked forward to, and Slayground lives up to, and exceeds, it's predecessors. In an interview, I believe Cooke said that Slayground was one of his favorite of the Parker novels, if not his favorite, and from nearly the first page, I could see why. Not only does this put Parker in the place where he works best, behind the eightball with only limited resources, but it is a visually impressive story. Parker is trapped inside a closed amusement park with men hunting him, and so the set pieces that the story is set against work perfectly with a medium with a strong visual component. The mostly silent sequences where Parker slowly sets up traps for the mobsters and crooked cops that are going to come after him are some of the best Cooke has ever done, and it makes the payoff as Parker springs these traps all the more satisfying. It's a tour de force from both Westlake and Cooke, and it's probably my favorite graphic novel of the year. Also, this book contains the short story, "The Seventh," originally available only in the beautiful oversized hardcover collection Parker: The Martini Edition. You should still check out The Martini Edition for its gallery of extras, but its nice that if you don't have $75 to drop, you can get to read this gem too.

Sherlock Holmes: Moriarty Lives #1
Story: David Liss
Art:Daniel Indro

Dynamite Entertainment's newest Sherlock Holmes related series is one focusing on Holmes's archenemy, Professor James Moriarty. For a character who appeared in only one story, and who was mentioned in only one other, by his creator, Professor Moriarty has taken on a life of his own. He's appeared in countless movies, short stories, novels, and comics. I've read more than a few stories of Moriarty surviving his battle with Holmes on the Reichenbach Falls, but I was curious to see what writer David Liss would do with it. Liss impressed me with his Marvel work on Mystery Men and Black Panther, with a great noir sensibility, and while this isn't a noir, it is a well rounded portrait of Moriarty. Moriarty is brilliant, conceited, and the perfect match for Holmes. Told through his internal monologue, we see exactly to what degree of contempt and respect Moriarty holds his great nemesis; Holmes hangs over the action, despite not appearing. The story picks up directly as Moriarty pulls himself from the river after being swept away from Holmes, and he immediately sets out to return to power. He demonstrates his own skills of deduction, and his cruel calculating nature. But Moriarty seems to have a soft spot for a pretty face, and when he falls afoul of locals in protecting a pretty barmaid, Moriarty makes a pledge to protect her prized possession when she is felled by the local Baron, an alchemist. While the world of Sherlock Holmes is one of pure rationality, it is often mixed with the supernatural in pastiches, and so Moriarty versus an alchemist is not jarring. With the issue's end, Moriarty is on the run, and has a very different prize with him than he expected. The people pursuing the Professor should know that the prey with nothing left to lose is the most dangerous, and I have a feeling Moriarty will be far more than they can handle.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Recommended Reading for 12/13: Fairest In All the Land & Tommy Taylor and the Ship that Sank Twice

Today's recommended reading is a little different than usual, as it is featuring two books that are not connected by story, but by publisher. In the past couple years, it seems like DC's venerable Vertgo imprint, the mature readers imprint that gave us such seminal works as Sandman, Preacher, Transmetropolitan, and 100 Bullets, has been slipping away. There have been a few hits, but mostly the new series have come and gone in short order. The end of Vertigo's longest running series, Hellblazer, and the fact that many of its major creators are now doing their creator owned work through Image, seemed like a clear death knell. But there have been some signs of life recently, with a couple new hits, and this fall, two of the better received series of the past five years each released special hardcover original graphic novels: The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice and Fairest: In All the Land. I sat down and read them both this past weekend, and was very pleased. There will be some mild spoilers in this piece, but I'll do my best to not give away too much.

Fairest: In All the Land is this year's Fables special project. Since writer/creator Bill Willingham began his work on Fables, he has tried to do nearly annual special issues or tie-ins, whether it was an extra large anniversary issue, a special (The Last Castle), an original graphic novel (1,001 Nights of Snowfall and Werewolves of the Heartland) or even a prose novel (Peter and Max). This new book ties in with the ongoing Fables spinoff, Fairest, which focuses on the large number of strong female fairy tale characters that populate Willingham's world.

The book is tied neatly into the ongoing continuity of Fables and Fairest, so as a warning to people who are reading Fables in trade, DO NOT read this before you read Fables Vol. 19: Snow White, which comes out this Wednesday, and it might not hurt to read volume three of Fairest first, which is scheduled for a June release, but the spoiler there is nowhere near as big as the one for Fables. This book, more than either of the previous graphic novels, feels like it is hugely important for the upcoming arcs of Fables, and I believe is gong to be a major part of the lead in to Willingham's grand finale in a next year. Still, if you have no background in Fables, Willingham does a good job of using the framing sequence to explain everything you need to enjoy the book with no history with the parent series.

I was expecting another anthology of shorts tied together by a framing sequence, like 1001 Nights of Snowfall, but was actually surprised and pleased to see that this is actually one continuous story with various artists drawing each chapter. There is a framing sequence, narrated by the Magic Mirror; you know the one, the one that the wicked queen from Snow White had, that has been trapped in the pocket dimension when the business office of Fabeltown, the block in Alphabet City in New York where the fairy tale characters in exile reside, was lost. He is investigating a mystery, and also putting on a show for his fellow prisoners, a group of tiny women and some severed heads that still have quite a bit of life in them.

The story that he is showing is itself a mystery, connected to the goings on in the business office, but this mystery is  one of a more bloody sort. Cinderella, Fabletown's number one spy, is pulled into a situation where she must solve a murder mystery. As she points out, detective work and spycraft are two distinct skill sets, and she feels somewhat out of her depth. But Cinderella, as created by Willingham and expanded by Chris Roberson in the two mini-series that she starred in, is nothing if not resourceful, and so she goes out to solve the case, with a little help from Reynard the Fox and Little Bo Peep. Soon, the bodies begin to pile higher, and some of Fabletown's luminaries are among them.

The mystery doesn't seem to hard to figure out, especially if you've been reading Fables for any amount of time, but there are some great twists involved, and whodunnit proves to be less important than why and how. Other than giving readers more time with Cinderella, one of the best characters in Fables, we get to spend a little more time with Ozma, the good witch, a character who has been getting fleshed out a bit in the past couple years and who I find a lot of fun. A couple old favorites pop up, including Bellflower, better known as Frau Totenkinder the Black Forest Witch, and the Page Sisters from Jack of Fables. There is also some very interetsing stuff done with one of Fables male characters, Stinky the Badger, who is usually played for laughs. I wouldn't say his speech was poignant, but he makes a point that ties heavily into the theme of the book.

Dancing around the specifics of the mystery makes writing a piece like this tricky, as so much of what happens hinges on the mystery, but Willigham plays with a lot of interesting themes within a story that focuses on the most beautiful women in all of Fables. In a society obsessed with beauty like ours, is it really the most beautiful that get all the best? Exactly what kind of punishment is deserved by those who would enslave or use another? And what exactly does it take to rise up in a society? And aside from the interesting thematic pieces, the book ends with some Fables characters irrevocably dead, which is hard to do when your characters lives are fueled by belief. There are a couple surprising deaths, ones that may have some serious effects on the series as a whole.

While the story here is a lot of fun and well done, the art in this book is something that grabs you by the shirt and demands to be noticed. There are over a dozen different artists who worked on this book, and all of them are impressive on their own, but when put together, it's a murder's row of top talent. Chrissie Zullo, the cover artist for the two Cinderella minis, provided wonderful spot illustrations for Willingham's prose framing sequence. Single chapters are produced by luminaries like Adam Hughes, Chris Sprouse, Gene Ha, and regular Fables artist Mark Buckingham. Russ Braun, former artist from the Jack of Fables spinoff, contributes a couple chapters, as does Shawn McManus, who pencilled the Cinderella minis and is pencilling the current Cinderella arc in the regular Fairest monthly. And that's just a few of the names. Even if you've never read Fables or Fairest, if you're a fan of great comic art, this book is worth picking up.

The Unwritten is currently in between volumes, with the original series ending with issue 54 and the final year, subtitled Apocalypse, not beginning until next month. This has been one of my favorite comics since it began, and I intentionally saved the first Unwritten original graphic novel to help me get over the hump in between volumes. After the previous arc, "The Unwritten Fables" which was a crossover between the two properties (huh, see, I found a way to tie the two books together after all), it's good to be back firmly grounded in the world of The Unwritten.

The concepts behind The Unrwitten is a bit more complex than Fables, "fairy tale characters living in the modern world," one, so bear with me as I explain a bit. The Unwritten is the story of Tom Taylor, a young man whose father wrote a mammothly popular series of books about a bespectacled, young, orphaned wizard named Tommy Taylor (and yes, I know that description is familiar to pretty much everyone, but it's not like J.K. came up with the concept from whole cloth either, and all similarities are not purely coincidental here). Tom has spent his whole life dogged by his literary alter ego, but at the beginning of the series, things start happening to Tom, things that seem to connect him more to Tommy than he imagined, and he finds himself thrust into battle with a cabal that wants to control the world through stories and the collective unconscious.

Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice is the first book in the Tommy Taylor series, and this graphic novel serves as a full adaptation of that fictional book. Throughout the series, readers have been treated to bits and pieces from the Tommy Taylor series, but never more than a page or two. All the things we've seen in the series come together here: Tommy, his friends Peter Price and Sue Sparrow, his pet/familiar Mingus the flying cat, his nemesis the vampire Count Ambrosio, and the wand Glitterspar. And the world of the books, the ones that readers have heard so much about, makes a lot more sense and has a life that it lacked before.

In a recent episode of NPR's excellent podcast Pop Culture Happy Hour, host Linda Holmes commented on how hard it is for a fictional work to live up to its hype. If you hear about a band or a book or a movie in a TV show that exists exclusively in that world, when the consumer of that media actually gets a chance to sample that much ballyhooed bit of culture, it rarely is anything near what you've been led to expect. I was a little worried about that as an idea before I heard the podcast, and after I did it crystallized my fears about reading this book: what if the Tommy Taylor story was dull, or just really read as warmed over Harry Potter? Would that throw me out of the world the series of books inhabits? Fortunately, I don't have to find out.

I won't say Tommy Taylor and the Ship That Sank Twice is the greatest piece of fantasy I've ever read. Writer Mike Carey actually addresses that in the reviews we see of the book in the sequences in the graphic novel that take place in the "real" world. He acknowledges the failings of Wilson Taylor, Tom's father and the author of the Tommy series, as a writer, and that gives him a safe little out. But what we get is a very fun fantasy story.

Tommy's world isn't like that of Harry Potter. Magic is commonplace, and the world is controlled by mages. Tommy is rescued from the same watery grave as his parents in the ship Demeter by Leviathan, the great whale (an important figure in The Unwritten), and he is deposited at a school for magic, where he is raised in the kitchens. He has no magic himself, and so seems to be relegated to the life of a second class citizen. But Tommy is clever, and he makes friends, and when the Demeter is raised from the sea, it is his intelligence and grit that saves the day as much as the magic he discovers in himself. He proves himself a hero, and makes a difficult choice that makes him a savior, and sets him a messianic path.

That description could pretty well describe Harry Potter, and that's clearly intentional. It's the differences that make this book interesting. The more magical world and the fact that Tommy combines Harry Potter's grit and Hermione Granger's brain, gives the book a different flavor. Frankly, it feels closer to Garth Nix than J.K. Rowling, and there are healthy doses of Bram Stoker mixed in as well, with even a touch of Lovecraft for good measure. Carey knows his source material, and wears that on his sleeve, but in a book that is about humanity absorbing stories, and how stories effect the human mind and world, there are worse ways to be.

While the main part of the book is the story of Tommy, it is interspersed with scenes of the events surrounding the writing of the book and the birth and first year of life of Tom Taylor. These sequences are narrated through the journals of Wilson Taylor, so the view of events is somewhat skewed, but the reader gets a better understanding of what Wilson was doing. This does not make him any more sympathetic a character. In the regular comics, we've seen glimpses of Wilson's journals before, and they portrayed him as a cold, manipulative s.o.b., and this doesn't help. His treatment of Tom's mother, and the way he uses Tom, is nothing short of repugnant. But you get to see him as a pragmatist, doing this for "the greater good," and not a sadist, hurting people for no other reason than he can. The thorough process that Wilson uses to make Tom and Tommy one thing, despite them being inherently two (a little boy and a fictional character) is finally laid out, and it's brilliant in its Machiavellian design. Every step is laid out, from the moment of conception of both the book and child to Tommy's first birthday party, and every step he takes in between.

As with Fairest In All the Land, you don't really need to have read The Unwritten to enjoy this book. The sequences with Wilson won't have the same resonance, and you might really hate him if you don't know exactly what it is he's creating Tom to fight, but it's not like we don't live in a time where anti-heroes outnumber heroes in a lot of popular media. It also uses various artists, mainly Peter Gross, the main artist for The Unwritten, but includes works by other who have worked with Carey before. If you're someone who has enjoyed Tom Taylor's battles in the monthly comic, or someone who just enjoys a well told fantasy story, this is a great volume.

Both of these volumes are available now at both comic shops and book stores, and would make for excellent holiday presents.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 12/4

Ok, and here I am back from what will hopefully the last of these extended absences. House is squared away mostly, should be moving in this weekend, and then construction of the comic house will begin. But for now, reviews!

Adventure Time Vol.2: Pixel Princesses TPB
Story: Danielle Corsetto
Art: Zack Sterling

One of the best parts of Adventure Time, both the animated series and its comic book adaptations, is the large and quirky cast. There are characters who appear only in the background, but you can just tell that an animator put a lot of work into making that character and has a whole crazy backstory for her or him. Pixel Princesses, the second original Adventure Time graphic novel, does not feature a single appearance by either of the series leads, Finn the Human or Jake the Dog. It doesn't even have their closest associates and enemies, like Princess Bubblegum, Marceline the Vampire Queen, or the Ice King in more than a couple of panels. No, this is a story featuring the "C-List" characters (hey, even Finn calls them that in an episode), headlined by the always amusing Lumpy Space Princess (LSP) in all her snotty glory. LSP wants to throw herself a surprise party with all the other princesses of the Land of Ooo as guests, but when only a handful show up, LSP throws her usual fit, and when BMO, the artificially intelligent video game system, spies on them and wishes he had what it took to be a princess inside him, the wandering mischief maker known as The Magic Man casts a spell to pull the princesses into BMO's game world. From there, it's a classic "people must fight there way to the end of the video game to escape" plot, but featuring the princesses. We get a good look into the personalities of Breakfast Princess, Skeleton Princess, Embryo Princess, Muscle Princess, and Turtle Princess, character who have only appeared in a handful of episodes, and usually with little to no dialogue. There's even a lesson at the end about being who you are and that everyone is a princess in their own right, but you're not reading this for the lesson, you're reading it for the sheer kooky madness of Adventure Time. Where else are you going to find a skeleton destroying cute baby animals with pointy teeth with a sword, monsters distracted by pancakes, and a gender neutral video game system deciding to be a mommy or a pretty princess? This is the kind of thing that is par for the course in Adventure Time, and creators Danielle Corsetto and Zack Sterling capture all of it perfectly. And if that isn't enough, you get a back-up story featuring Gunter, the Ice King's pet penguin, throwing a party for the other penguins. If you're not familiar with Adventure Time, there's no real previous knowledge needed here, and it reads very well as a standalone story, so give it a try as your first journey into Ooo.

Hellboy in Hell #5
Story & Art: Mike Mignola

It's been a few months, but Hellboy in Hell is back, and Mike Mignola hasn't missed a beat. Not exactly surprising, since anytime Mignola step up to the plate for a new Hellboy story, he hits it out of the park. After the first four issues of this new series, all of which were heavily entrenched in the mythology of the series, " The Three Gold Whips," is a one off that feels like those classic Hellboy stories where Hellboy stumbles onto someone in trouble and winds up quickly over his head. Inspired by the Grimm Fairy Tale, "The Devil and His Grandmother," Hellboy finds a soldier wandering the streets of Hell who has one last chance to save his soul by answering the riddle of the demon who he bargained with. Hellboy and the man go to where the man was directed, to the grave of the demon's grandmother where she agrees to hide them so they can hear the answer that will save the man. There are hints to the bigger plot of the series, with another reference to Hellboy's bloody knife hand, but the story mostly stands on its own. As with any work by Mignola, the story is as much a visual masterwork as anything else, with Mignola's design for the devil and his grandmother, and the trippy bits of a shrunken Hellboy and his companion dropped into a skull to hide them standing out in my mind. This story was a nice Christmas gift to all Hellboy fans; there might not be any Santa, but the other guy in red does his best to lift all our spirits.

Herobear and the Kid: The Inheritance #5
Story & Art: Mike Kunkel

For a series that's ten years old, I was pleasantly surprised to not see the twist coming at the end of this, the reprint of the original Herobear and the Kid series. You'd think somewhere I would have stumbled across it, but nope, and the new stories that have appeared over the past year seem to have almost intentionally avoided that big reveal for people like me, who didn't read the series the first time through. So, in deference to that, I'm not going to reveal it either. The story itself wraps up the threads from the previous issues in a way that leaves it well open for a new set of stories featuring Tyler and his teddy bear/best friend/superhero bear, but its a perfect story on its own. The final issue is about belief, and the kind of belief that all of us who have grown up have a hard time wrapping our heads around, the pure innocent belief of a child. Herobear and the Kid  have a final battle with the robot of Von Klon, the archenemy they don't realize they have, and Tyler gets the final piece of his inheritance from his grandfather, something that made my heart grow three sizes when I read it. Herobear and the Kid, more than any other comic book I can think of, perfectly captures the wonderment of being a child, when anything is possible. Tyler is so likable, but at the same time perfectly human, not some idealized perfect kid. I hope that, with this material back in print, Kunkel doesn't make us wait another decade for more of these wonderful characters.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 11/6

All-Crime Comics #2
Story: Erik Warfield and Paul Grimshaw
Art: Steve Gordon and Gibson Quarter

I was late to the game when Art of Fiction released the first issue of All Crime Comics, so I made sure to jump right on the second issue when it was released. From a practical standpoint, you get more bang for your buck with All Crime than any other book on the market. It's at least 40 pages of color material, square bound and silver age size, and it's still only $3.99. In a market with shrinking page counts for more money, that kind of package needs to be given a mention. Under a cover by the always excellent Bruce Timm, we get the next story of Dodger, the master thief we met in the first issue of the series. There are plenty of master thieves in comics (I'll be talking about another one further down, actually), and we're only two issues into knowing Dodger, but the comic does a great job of letting us get to know him, particularly by having the middle chapter of each issue being a flashback to Dodger's past. And while this issue picks up where the previous one left off, and ends on something of a cliffhanger, it's a perfectly self-contained caper involving crooked feds, a private jet, and the World Cup. All Crime hearkens back to the best of pre-Code crime comics, and so if you're a fan of modern comics like Thief of Thieves or Parker, this is definitely worth checking out.

Amazing X-Men #1
Story: Jason Aaron
Art: Ed McGuinness

More than Jean Grey or Professor X, the character whose death I feel has caused the biggest gap in the X-Men titles has been Nightcrawler. Nightcrawler was the heart, soul, and conscience of the X-Men, and no other character has been able to take up this role without coming off as preachy or hypocritical. And so while I'm not a huge fan of the revolving door of death and life in comics, I was glad to see Nightcrawler was returning in the new Amazing X-Men title. I also have to admit a degree of trepidation when I saw the story would involve Azazel, Nightcrawler's father from the almost universally reviled storyline, "The Draco." But Jason Aaron has done a great job in Wolverine & the X-Men of tying continuity together with his stories, and frankly, Nightcrawler fighting pirate demons in heaven is awesome. Aaron has Nightcrawler's voice down pat, with his sense of humor and adventure, as well as the heart that makes him such an amazing character. Meanwhile, on Earth, we see Firestar join the teaching staff of the Jean Grey School. The past couple arcs of Wolverine and the X-Men have not been as centered around the school, so it was nice to see all the teachers interacting there; I'd forgotten how much I like Warbird. Readers finally get something of an answer about the Bamfs that have infested the grounds since the first issue, and we see the X-Men pulled into a war in heaven. Aaron uses Firestar as a point of view character, so if you've never read a comic set at the Jean Grey School, you get a good introduction to everything. All this mixes with Ed McGuinness's bold, dynamic, and just a bit cartoony style, especially great when demonstrating Nightcrawler's acrobatic fighting style, to make for the best X-Men related first issue I've read in a long time. Welcome back, Nightcrawler, I hope you survive the experience.

Doctor Who: Prisoners of Time #10
Story: Scott and David Tipton
Art: Elena Casagrande

Prisoners of Time has been a whirlwind tour of the history of Doctor Who, which each issue focusing on one of the different versions of the wandering Time Lord, The Doctor. Issue #10 is the story for the Tenth Doctor, portrayed by David Tennant, who was my first Doctor, the first one I watched regularly at least, and I have a very soft spot for this Doctor. The issue finds The Doctor bringing Martha Jones, his human companion at the time, to 1950s LA to use the Griffith Observatory to get a good view of his homeworld. But quickly, things go a little sideways, as they are wont to do when The Doctor is around, as The Doctor and Martha wind up on a movie set of a sci-fi film where members of the cast and crew are disappearing. Pretty soon, a classic Doctor Who villain, one originating with the Second Doctor, are revealed in all their wonderfully goofy, classic Who splendor. Scott and David Tipton have done a great job of capturing the distinct voice of each Doctor, and he gives The Doctor a moment when he first confronts his foes in this issue that was so very David Tennant, I could hear his voice and picture exactly how he would move between panels. The mystery of the uber-plot of the series was solved last issue, but now we're building to the grand conclusion, and we tie into a scene from an earlier issue, bringing things full circle. It's a fun issue, similar to the best one off episodes of the series, and worth it for fans of new or classic Doctor Who.

Ghosted #5
Story: Joshua Williamson
Art: Goran Sudzuka

The initial arc of Image's supernatural caper series, Ghosted, ends with more than one explosion. Night has fallen, the ghosts of the Trask Mansion are on the warpath, and Jackson Winters, master thief, and the rest of the team seem to be thoroughly screwed. But Winters is damned clever (pun entirely intended), and he has an ace up his sleeve. The origins of the curse of the Trask Mansion comes to light, and once you know what it is, it makes perfect sense. All the pieces set up over the first four issues work together to make this issue a satisfying conclusion. Rusak, the psychic whose loyalties have been in question since the end of the first issue shows her true colors, and turns out to be far more the mercenary than I had imagined. Winters's secret is revealed, exactly what has been haunting him from that last caper before he went to jail, and I like that it's not simply survivors guilt; that would have been too pat an answer for a character who is as complex as Winters has been portrayed. And Markus Schrecken, the millionaire who funded the expedition to steal the ghost from the mansion, well he gets exactly what he has coming to him. The issue ends with a great set-up for the second arc of the series, once that it seems will tie in to that last, botched casino robbery. Image has launched a lot of great new series over the past year or so, each of them with a very distinct feel. Ghosted impresses me as one of the most genuinely scary comics I've read in a while, and pulls off a very capable caper while sending chills up your spine. The trade of this first arc will be out shortly, and if you haven't tried it before and like either horror or crime comics, you should check it out.

Friday, November 8, 2013

The Birth of the Comic House and the Rebirth of The Middleman!

So, while I'm really trying to get back on the old schedule of weekly updates, today there will only be this brief post. You see, today I am closing on my house. Why am I telling readers of my comic blog about boring things like real estate, instead of superheroes and monsters? Well, because part of this whole home buying process has been finding a way to store my whole collection in one place to have better access and be able to write more and better posts. So stay tuned for some posts about renovation and the changing of a freestanding garage into a comic house, where all my comics, graphic novels, trade paperbacks, and lots of collectibles will be stored. Oh, and there will be plenty of pictures, before and after. I'm excited, anyway.

And one more note! Just about a year ago, I write a recommended reading for The Middleman, a love letter in comic book form of sorts to pretty much everything I love. It's smart, funny, and has heart. If you haven't read that piece, go and do it and then come back here. Once you've read it, check this out. Sunday marks the end of a crowd funding campaign, aptly titled The Crowd-Funded Franchise Resurrection, to not only get all the previous Middleman graphic novels back in print, but to create a new one that ties the comics and TV continuities together! I've made my contribution, and usually wouldn't hock stuff on here, but I really love this book and believe it should be back in print. The goal has been reached, so it's gonna happen, but the more they make, the closer they are to making even more Middleman. And for $20, you get the new story, "The Pan-Universal Parental Reconciliation" with a book plate signed by the creators. It's a sweet deal, and if you haven't read the comics and only know the characters through TV, here's a chance to make them all available again so you can get more Middleman and Wendy Watson. So, here's the link again, read what Javi has to say, and see what you can give: Sands of Zanzibar, Dubby, the Middleman is back!

And be back here Monday for your regularly scheduled reviews.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 10/30

Five Ghosts #6
Story: Frank J Barbiere
Art: Garry Brown

After a few months off after the initial arc, Five Ghosts is back with a tidy and fun little one off. Fabian Gray travels to Japan to answer a summons from an old flame of his, to aid her in stopping a clan that is moving in on her family's lands, and to retrieve a mythic sword, the sword of Masamune, which she tells him is made from the same Dreamstone material that gave Fabian his own unique powers. It's a story of samurai action, with beautifully choreographed fight scenes, betrayal, and Fabian using his powers in some cool ways. It's cool to see more about Fabian's backstory; at one point he gets out of a trap that was crafted to stop him from summoning the ghosts that grant him his abilities, and he points out that he was the world's greatest thief before any of that happened. Little bits like that add to Fabian as a character and make him more well rounded than just being a vehicle for the stuff that happens when he calls one fo the ghosts. Artists garry Brown fills in for regular artist Chris Mooneyham, and does an admirable job of it. His style is different than Mooneyham's, but still creates a great pulp atmosphere. If you haven't tried Five Ghosts yet, this is a perfect issue to try out, and if you're a fan of the pulp atmosphere, you'd be doing yourself a favor.

Guardians of the Galaxy #8
Story: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: Francesco Francavilla

Guardians of the Galaxy has been a pleasant surprise since its reboot. I was a very big fan of the last incarnation of the book, the one written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, and featuring a sprawling cast that included most of the current members, plus a bunch of others, including Adam Warlock, my favorite Marvel character of all time, and Cosmo, a telepathic Russian dog. So the streamlined team was a worry, since I felt one of the things that I enjoyed about the last series was all the different relationships; although the new series did still include Peter Quill, Starlord, a character Abnett and Lanning spent a lot of time fleshing out, cosmic mainstays Drax and Gamora, and fan favorites Rocket Raccoon and Groot. The stories so far have been fun, and the characters read like themselves, if slightly Bendis-ized versions. This issue begins Guardians' crossover with Marvel's big Summer/Fall event, Infinity. The main Infinity series has been ok, if a bit lacking in focus in my opinionso it's nice to see a crossover that has a nice tight focus. The Guardians have been contacted by Abagail Brand, the head of SWORD, the Earth organization in charge of dealing with extraterrestrial incursion, asking for them to free her from Thanos's forces on The Peak, the Sword space station headquarters. There's some great action scenes, as Starlord and Rocket infiltrate the Peak, free Brand, and go to try to retake the station. But the highlight of the issue is some great character work at the beginning. With Thanos making trouble again, Gamora, who was raised by Thanos, confronts Starlord and Drax about exactly how Thanos and Starlord escaped being trapped in a collapsed dimensions together, and how Drax is alive again. She gets little answer, and Gamora's anger at Starlord, and her own decision to go storming off to confront the father figure who has haunted her for her entire adult life, not to mention killed her on at least once occasion, does a lot to further develop her character and the reactions of the others helps flesh them out. Add the usual incredible art by the busiest man in comics, Francesco Francavilla, who draws a particularly great Rocket Raccoon, and you have a book that is living up to it's concept and its pedigree.

Itty Bitty Hellboy #3
Story & Art: Art Baltazar and Franco Aureliani

If only every comic could get Itty Bitty, I think we'd have much happier fans. After Tiny Titans and Superman Family Adventures, I didn't expect Art and Franco would next move to the macabre world of Mike Mignola's Hellboy, but not terribly surprising, it's still a joyful and amusing romp. Every issue is packed with humor and fun little character beats. This month's issue of Itty Bitty Hellboy opens with Hellboy preparing his favorite dish, pancakes (or "pamcakes" as he calls them, which readers of regular Hellboy comics know saved him from becoming evil), with the help of Liz Sherman's fire powers. Hellboy gets Baba Yaga to make one of his pancakes gigantic using her magic, and before you know it, everyone is asking Baba to make something huge. She banishes Hellboy and his friends to Hades, and the demons rally around Hellboy, only to have him use his pamcake making skills to keep them from destroying Earth. Lobster Johnson and Lobster Smith, his pet Lobster, dig their way out to try to help the world. And Roger the Homunculus finds a little love with Baba Yaga and Hecate. I can't really do the issue justice, since so much of it is about the punchline to the wonderful set-ups Art and Franco come up with, and the adorable visuals. I've said something like this with eveything I've ever reviewed by Art and Franco, but if you're looking for a change of pace from the usually grim and grity comics of today, you couldn't do better than trying out Itty Bitty Hellboy.

The Sandman: Overture #1
Story: Neil Gaiman
Art: JH Williams III

I wish I could type an approximation of a squeal of delight, because that would be the only thing that could do this wonderful comic justice. Neil Gaiman's The Sandman is one of the touchstone comics of the modern age and possibly of all time, and it is my favorite piece of longform graphic storytelling.  New work from Neil Gaiman is something I always look forward to, and this past year has been an embarrassment of riches, between The Ocean at the End of the Lane, his first novel for adults in years, two new childrens' books, Chu's Day and Fortunately the Milk, and now a return to the world of the Endless, with a story set before the first issue of The Sandman. Dream, or Morpheus if you'd rather, the protagonist of The Sandman, appears in this issue as he did in the many flashbacks that took place before his imprisonment in the first issue of the series; he is imperious, cold, and callous, something made clear in his tone when addressing Lucien, the librarian of dreams, a character who is a loyal retainer who Dream dismisses with barely an acknowledgment. The tone of Dream is chilling, as he prepares for war, something we saw a couple times over the course of The Sandman, and any reader familiar with it knows this can only mean trouble. Gaiman has lost none of his feeling for the characters that we know and love from The Sandman. It's interesting to see the Corinthian, the nightmare serial killer with mouths for eyes, again, and to see exactly what made him slip out of the Dreaming and into the waking world in the time of Dream's imprisonment. We also meet some new characters, including George Portcullis, a dreamer who manages Dream's London office, and Gaiman uses him to demonstrate the malleability of identity in dreams; identity was one of the themes often played with in Sandman. The final pages reveal something about the Endless and Dream that will hopefully be as surprising to the reader as it is to Dream himself.

Gaiman has often said he writes for his artists when he is working on a comics projects, playing to their strengths, and this issue is a perfect example of that. I've loved JH Williams III's work since Chase in the 90s, and his work has grown exponentially over the years, and this issue is a masterpiece. His use of nearly entirely two page spreads, his frightful Corinthian, the alien world at the beginning of he issue and it's population of sentient flowers, are all drawn in exquisite detail. Williams draws a Death who is especially beautiful, and the soft look he gives her stands in sharp contrast to the harsher lines he uses to draw her darker brother, Dream. The issue is a feast for the eyes, and I hope that the eventual collection is in landscape format to allow the art to be appreciated in its entirety by those who want to read the story in that format. When a creator returns to a legendary work there's always the concern they will have lost whatever it was that made that work something special. I am glad to say none of the magic that made Sandman has been lost over the intervening years; go, read it, and plesant dreams.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Trick-or-Treating in Gotham- Batman: Haunted Knight

We hear at The Matt Signal (and by we, I mean, well, me) love October, and especially Halloween; candy, monsters, and something spooky around every corner. I imagine this is surprising to anyone who has never read this blog before and has no idea about my love of Batman and horror comics, but we're all old friends here, so let's gather round the fire and I'm going to tell you about some of my favorite Halloween themed Batman comics.

When most readers think about Batman related Halloween comics, the stories that spring to mind are Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale's two maxi-series, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. And can I blame them? Heck, no. Frankly, The Long Halloween is one of, if not my all time, favorite Batman stories, even if the ending isn't perfect. I remember reading the series as it came out, issue by issue, piecing together the mystery of who is Holiday. But Loeb and Sale had a history with Batman before that.

For three Halloweens before those series, Loeb and Sale created prestige format Halloween specials, under the banner of Legends of the Dark Knight, the title that was being released at the time that was a creator showcase for Batman stories that were out of continuity or tales set in the past. Over the course of the three specials, they touched on many of the great Batman villains, as well as his allies, and fleshed out the early years of Batman. These stories were collected in the trade, Haunted Knight, and I think they don't get as much credit as they're due. So here's a little discussion of each of them.

Choices (or alternately Fears) is a story featuring the perfect Batman villain for Halloween, the Scarecrow, the master of fear. On one of his early rampages, Batman is pursuing the Scarecrow, while Bruce Wayne has a new love interest. While Batman duels with Scarecrow, the slowly revealed revelation of the black widow planning to take everything from Bruce makes for a great parallel. There are some amazing visuals in this story, especially as Batman attempts to find his way through a maze of thorny hedges poisoned with Scarecrow's fear toxin. Fear is central in all Scarecrow stories, but this one really uses the idea that as terrifying as Scarecrow is, it's Batman who is the truly frightening one, and that Scarecrow has something to fear when he confronts Batman. Jillian Maxwell, the black widow killer, has her own fears, and the final page is a great moment showing exactly how far the fear of the Dark Knight can reach.

The second special, Madness, is my favorite of the three stories. A story of not only Batman, but of Jim and Barbara Gordon, this is set firmly in the post-Crisis on Infinite Earths continuity where Barbara was Jim's adopted daughter, the biological daughter of Jim's brother. Shortly after Barbara is adopted it's Halloween in Gotham, and the two fight over whether Barbara can go out on her own, and the teenage Barbara storms out, only to be abducted by the Mad Hatter, making her his most recent Alice. Batman pursues the Hatter, as does Jim, and the two rescue Barbara. I love how spunky and tough young Barbara is, foreshadowing her time as Batgirl. I also have to give Loeb credit for writing a creepy Mad Hatter story. The Hatter is often portrayed as just another villain with a weird fetish (I mean that in the obsession sense, not in the sexual one, although Gail Simone portrayed it as such to wonderfully disturbing effect in Secret Six) for hats. This is one of the first stories that really plays up the Alice in Wonderland themes and the creepy child abduction angle. It has a happy ending, naturally, but it probably the most spine-chilling of the stories here.

Ghosts, the final of the three Halloween specials, takes the classic A Christmas Carol and sets it instead at Halloween, with Batman in the Scrooge roll. It's a natural fit, and isn't the only Batman/A Christmas Carol mash up in the history of the character, but is my favorite. Thomas Wayne takes the roll of Jacob Marley, and Poisons Ivy, the Joker, and a skeletal Bruce in a Bat costume are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet to Come, respectively. I like the little redemptive moment at the end of the issue, where Bruce learns his lesson, like Scrooge, that one cannot be separate from people and cannot be just Batman, because that way lies despair and loneliness.

Loeb's stories are solid here, and are early work in his career, and while they're good reads, the star is often Tim Sale's art. His versions of Batman and his enemies are distinct and not realistic in a traditional sense, with his Mad Hatter and Penguin being oddly dwarfish, his Joker snaggle toothed with a strangely distended jaw, and his Scarecrow seeming to be more his namesake than a human being in a costume. Sale is one of my favorite artists in all of comics, and his Batman work is the best of that.

Haunted Knight is in print as a trade, with new cover dress a few years ago to make it fit with the current printings of The Long Halloween and Dark Victory. If you have read and enjoyed either of those stories, or just enjoy a good Batman story, this is a trade well worth picking up, and perfect for those long nights when the wind makes the eves creak and you might just be hearing the sound of a madman laugh somewhere out there...

Monday, October 28, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 10/23

Daredevil #32
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Chris Samnee

Now that it's been confirmed that Mark Waid's excellent run on Daredevil is wrapping up, every issue is a treasure. And this issue features appearances by the Legion of Monsters! Now the appearance is small, and at the end of the issue, setting up next issue, but I still love these characters, especially Werewolf by Night, also known as Jack Russell (yeah, for those unfamiliar with him, you heard that right). But that's just something that speaks to my inner fanboy, which would be enough to get me to write the issue up, but there's so much more great about the issue. The opening scene, where the villain, The Jester, has left a dummy of a hanged Foggy Nelson, is one of the cleverest examples of Waid's use of Daredevil's powers and the lack of understanding others have of it. The Jester's surety that the horrible site of Foggy hung up before him would cause a reaction from Daredevil, but draws none, is clever and Jester's reaction was amusing, and this is inverted when Matt assumes that a mob in the small southern town he heads to at the end of the issue is preparing a race based lynching, when instead they are hunting monsters, something he couldn't tell with no site. Waid has done a tremendous job of writing scenes that remind the reader that Daredevil is blind and that radar sense is not the same as sight. It's also nice to see Daredevil and Foggy working together to help find an answer to the problem with the Sons of the Serpent; Foggy's cancer hasn't removed him from the book, but it's nice to see him doing something other than sitting in a bed. Four issues left, and the wild ride of Waid and Samnee's Daredevil doesn't look like it's slowing down.

Kiss Me, Satan! #2
Story: Victor Gischler
Art: Juan Ferreyra

I know I just wrote about the first issue of this Dark Horse horror comic last week, but when a good second issue comes around, I might as well keep writing. Barnabus Black continues to protect the witches from a line of bounty hunters. Writer Victor Gischler uses this to continue to expand the world he has created, introducing vampires, necromancers, and ninja zombies. I feel like Gischler has a whole world in his head, with all sorts of supernatural craziness, and he's slowly rolling it out. We also get to see more of our villain, Cassian Steele, werewolf chieftain, and I have to say, this is one bad guy. Sure, kill another werewolf in cold blood to maintain your power base, that's pack infighting; tell your pregnant wife you're going to kill the baby and you can always try again until you get a werewolf baby? OK, he's an A-1 bastard. The story is great, but what pushes the comic over the top is the art from Juan Ferreyra. The main action piece of the issue, a battle between Barnabus and animated ninja corpses, that starts out on cars and moves to a graveyard, is a sight to behold. Ferreyra mixes action with great body language and facial expressions. October is the spookiest time of the year, and this is the perfect comic for a chilly October night.

The Unwritten #54
Story: Mike Carey & Bill Willingham
Art: Peter Gross, Mark Buckingham, & Dean Ormston

The first volume of The Unwritten wraps up with the conclusion of "The Unwritten Fables," the big crossover between The Unwritten and Fables. The final battle between Tom Taylor and Mr. Dark plays out with a lot of very interesting twists, involving Tom's connection to The Leviathan, the font of all stories. But while much of the story is thoughtful, with Frau Totenkinder trying to explain to Tom exactly what he is and how he fits into the grand scheme of things, the rest of the Fables cast fights with the revanant Boy Blue and Bigby Wolf faces down his wife and children. It's a blood soaked issue, with many favorite characters meeting a final fate. Artists Peter Gross, Mark Buckingham, and Dean Ormston each draw pages suited to their styles, with Gross focusing on Tom, Buckingham on the Fables, and Ormston on the final pages, with scenes of horror as Fran Totenkinder morphs into a monster to hold Mr. Dark off as Tom performs the endgame. It;s a very clever ending, having been set up many issues ago, playing off both the classic poem The Song of Roland and what the readers know about the Tommy Taylor books, the in universe series of children's books. The issues wraps with Tom seemingly ready to find his way back home in time for the final twelve issues of the series, the maxi-series "Apocalypse." It feels like so many of the series I really love are coming to their end. But I can hope the ending will live up to the high quality of the series so far.

Velvet #1
Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Steve Epting

New work from Ed Brubaker is always something to look forward to, and when he's partnered with one of those artists he has a rapport with, guys like Michael Lark, Sean Phillips, or in this case Steve Epting, you know you're in for a great comic. Velvet is a spy comic in the classic mold; it has touches of James Bond, touches of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy, and a whole lot of the action you expect when you have Brubaker and Epting together. Velvet Templeton, our lead, seems to be the secretary to one of the director's of Arc-7, a super secret black ops spy organization. But Velvet isn't Miss Moneypenny; Velvet clearly has a background that features plenty of spy training of her own. After an agent Velvet was fond of is killed, she begins investigating his death, and is quickly pulled into a case that features death and deception, and puts Velvet's life in danger. Brubaker wrote the best spy comic on the racks when he was writing Captain America, and he's bringing that same feel for the genre here. Velvet is a complex character, and after one issue you can already tell that she has a complex history. Like all spies, there are things that haunt her. The rest of the cats is sketched out, including Velvet's boss and some of  the other agents, and I'm sure we'll get to know them better, but this issue was the perfect introduction to our protagonist. Epting is an artist whose work has grown tremendously over the years, and this is easily the best work he has ever done. The shadow, the expressions, the action, all are second to none, and perfectly fit the grit of the 70s spy movie. Between Fatale and now Velvet, it's a good time to be a fan of Ed Brubaker.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 10/16

With apologies for the month plus without an update, this week will feature a few books that I picked up this past week from previous weeks, but can't really go back all the way to when I last updated. Sorry for that, folks, but I'm in the middle of buying a house, and that has been taking up a lot of my spare time. But that's enough about me. On to the comics.

Bloodhound: Crowbar Medicine #1
Story: Dan Jolley
Art: Leonard Kirk

I was one of the people who read Bloodhound when it was being published by DC (admittedly, I first picked up issue 8, since it had a D-List Batman villain, Zeiss, in it, but I then picked up the first six and was along for the ride for the last two), so when I saw that new Bloodhound stories were coming out from Dark Horse, I was excited. And that excitement paid off with the serial in Dark Horse Presents, and now in the first issue of this mini-series. If you didn't read either the DC adventures of the serial featuring Travis Clevenger, our title character, and his partner/handler Saffron Bell, that's ok. Everything you need to know is made perfectly clear early on: Clev (as he's called) is a guy who hunts people with special powers for the FBI on a sort of work release; it's kind of like the concept of the TV show White Collar, if Matt Bomer was nearly seven feet tall and indestructible, and they were hunting rogue metahumans, not crooked bankers. The first issue let's you meet Clev, see the kind of guy he is, and then see him go on a hunt. The guy who Clev is hunting turns out to not be a bad guy, just a desperate one, and the polive pursuing him seem to be far worse than he is, which gives a nice layer to the world and to the ending of the issue. The last couple pages set up the thrust of the story, when a mystery doctor named Bradley Morgenstern hijacks all TV channels and offers to give people superpowers to protect them from the menace of rogue powered people. It's an argument made for assault rifles in the hands of everyone, and it's a great example of using superpowers as a metaphor for the concerns of the modern world. The chemistry between Clev and Saffron is great, and helps push the book beyond a simple plot driven think piece and into something that readers can get invested in. There's a nice letter page at the back, where writer Dan Jolley talks about getting the entire original creative team back together to do this book, and asks for those of us digging the book to share it, and I am more than happy to oblige. Glad to see you back, Clev.

Fables #134
Story: Bill Willingham
Art: Mark Buckingham

Some of the best issues of Fables are the interlude issues that give the reader a little breather mid-arc before things invariably go completely off the rails. Bigby Wolf is dead and has found his way into an afterlife that is the apotheosis of all forests, where he hunts creatures and lives as the great beast he once was. The sound of a hunting horn calls Bigby to find Boy Blue, who is there to explain some of the ways the afterlife works before he moves on from the borderlands where Bigby's forest is to his personal reward. The two of them have a long conversation about life, death, and the choices that we make in life. Bigby comes to some realizations about his life and his fate, and Blue explains that he has no intention of ever returning to life. There are some fun labs at Stinky, the badger who started the religion around Boy Blue, and it will be interesting to see how he reacts when Bigby returns and tells him exactly what Blue said to him. It's a lovely send off to Boy Blue, and a wonderful final conversation between two of my favorite Fables characters. The final two pages are touching, so touching that they brought a tear to my eye, and brings a resolution to the quest that Bigby was on before his death. 

Kiss Me, Satan #1
Story: Victor Gischler
Art: Juan Ferreyra

I'm a sucker for horror comics, and have a strong preference for werewolves over either vampires or zombies, and when I saw the cover copy, "New Orleans is a Werewolf Town," I had to give this book a try. My only experience with writer Victor Gischler was the Spike mini-series he wrote and a couple short stories, and no familiarity with artist Juan Ferreyra, so I came in fresh. Barnabus is a fallen angel who is trying to earn his way back into the good graces of the almighty, so he's doing freelance work for heaven, all the while ducking squads of demons that want to bring him back to Hell to pay for making a runner. It's a solid core concept, but where are the werewolves? Well, it seems the packleader of the local werewolf clan, Cassian Steele, has a pregnant wife, and the witch who was summoned to test the fetus tells Steele the baby isn't a werewolf. This means that Steele will lose his standing within the pack. Steele kills the only werewolf who knew, and then sends his wolves after the witch and her apprentices. And this is where Barnabus crosses paths with the werewolves, as heaven has sent him to protect the witches. The whole series is set up to move from here, a quick, action based supernatural thriller. Gischler does a great job fleshing out the characters quickly, and Ferreyra's art is astounding. he has a dynamic style, and his werewolves are beautiful, or as beautiful as monsters can be. A perfect comic for this spooky time of year, the second issue hits this week, so grab both for a double dose of horror action on Wednesday.

Superior Spider-Man #17-19
Story: Dan Slott
Art: Ryan Stegman

Yes, these are the first Spider-Man comics I have reviewed on here. I don't have anything against Spidey, but I've never been a big fan either, and haven't had any real interest in the Superior incarnation. However, when Spider-Man 2099, a character I do love, came back for this arc, I couldn't resist it. I read all the Peter David issues of Miguel O'Hara's adventures from the 90s, and I was worried that he wouldn't ring true after all these years, but credit to Dan Slott for getting him exactly right. The story is a classic time travel yarn, with O'Hara going back in time to keep himself from being erased from the timeline by protecting his grandfather, Tiberius Stone, a sleazy scientist who has gotten on the bad side of Spidey, or Doctor Octopus in Spider-Man's body. Having not read a single issue of Superior Spider-Man, or any of Slott's Amazing Spider-Man for that matter, I was worried I would be lost, but Slott does a great job of giving the reader a good feeling of the status quo. The issues are action packed, with plenty of Spider-Man on Spider-Man action, and very cool tie-in to the history of the 2099 universe. This was a great self contained story that does have some payoff to what seem to be long running plotlines and set-ups for the future. And by stories end, there might just be two Spider-Men running around the Marvel Universe. If you remember the 2099 comics with any fondness, this is definitely an arc you'll enjoy.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Super Hero Marriage and Maturity: The Short Sighted Path

I had a hard time coming up with a title that didn't make this sound like I was in support of the Defense of Marriage Act, so I removed defense from the title to begin with, as this post has nothing to do with gay marriage. Well, a little, since the Batwoman issue is what cued it, but that's only the most recent symptom of a problem I have seen expanding over mainstream comics the past few years. I want to admit up front, since this is an op/ed piece, there is more focus on a problem in the industry then something to celebrate, but I will be talking about some really great comics along the way, with probably a little section at the end about some of my favorite married superhero stories, and this is something I feel pretty strongly about.

For those of you who don't follow the comics news sites with the religious fervor that I do, this past weekend it was announced the creative team of DC's Batwoman title were leaving due to editorial interference, much of which had to do with DC not wanting the character to get married to her partner, GCPD Captain Maggie Sawyer. Yes, Batwoman is gay. And the main hue and cry has been that DC is afraid of pissing off people by having a gay character get married, or are themselves homophobes. I'm not going to speak to either of those points, since I am not acquainted with the people involved and don't want to cast aspersions. But what I see here is something more systemic than Batwoman and Maggie (who are a great couple, by the way, and I was hoping they'd get married), but has more to do with the second half of that two part phrase; "marriage" is more of a dirty word in mainstream comics than "gay" right now, and that is symbolic of one of the industries real problems. And for the benefit of the uninitiated as well, I'll be talking about The Big Two in this essay, meaning Marvel and DC. They are pretty much the focus of what I'm saying, so no one give me a comment about change, marriage, and maturity with a list of indy books after this, since I know and read plenty of comics that embrace the solution to the problems I'm gonna be talking about in DC and Marvel.

In the late 80s and 90s, there were a rash of superhero marriages. Spider-Man married Mary Jane, Superman married Lois Lane, Flash (Wally West) married Linda Park, Cyclops married Phoenix (the real Jean Grey, not a clone or cosmic doppelganger), and quite a few others. These were usually pretty big deals, especially the Spider-Man and Superman ones. These were major changes to status quos; things that had been etched in stone for the majority of the character's existence had been rewritten. And there, my friends, is the real problem that we have here: CHANGE. Super hero comics embrace the illusion of change, but the real thing causes all sorts of stress amongst fans and professionals, and frankly most, if not all, professionals started out as fans.

So, as is the way with nearly all real changes, these were slowly phased out. Spider-Man sold his marriage to the devil to save his aunt from dying (because the people they were worrying about offending by a divorce would have no problem with deals with the devil). Phoenix died. And the New 52 meant pretty much all DC heroes were younger, and thus not married, or like poor Wally West didn't exist anymore. And the reason that was given for this was usually that the creators/editors/whoever wanted the characters to be more relateable, and they felt the demographic they were looking for couldn't relate to a married hero.

Now some could argue that there are still married heroes left. Let's look at the few married heroes. Mr. Fantastic of the Fantastic Four is not meant to be the character that is the reader proxy in that title. He's aloof at times, manipulative at others, and is the father of the family; readers are meant to associate with either Human Torch or The Thing. Animal Man's family has basically been hostages and targets since the inception of the New 52, which is fine from a story POV, and his daughter Maxine now has her animal powers, and so the book is as much about her growth into that power as Animal Man's own superheroic struggles. Frankly, as mature superhero books go, Animal Man is one of the best examples I can come up with, dealing with family, loss, fame, and heroism.

And in that last sentence there's the key word: maturity. Superhero comics started out as adolescent power fantasies. If you look at the majority of creators of the earliest superheroes, they were sickly, outcast, oddballs, and people seeking to find their power. So many Golden Age creators were Jews in a time where a shadow was being cast over their European families, no wonder they looked for a simple answer (Curious to learn more? Check out Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters, and the Birth of the Comic Book for a great history of the golden age). But that was seventy-five years ago. And while comics have come a long way, dealing with all sorts of issues that Siegel, Shuster, Kane, Simon, Kirby, and Eisner never would have, so much about mainstream superheroes haven't.

Change and maturity are two very different things, which is something the Big Two tend to confuse. Mature is not a comic that has boobs and violence; mature is a comic that deals with people as people and sees them grow and change into something more than what they are at the beginning of their story. DC's Vertigo imprint has published some very mature comics, and one or two of Marvel's MAX  titles have also been mature, but many are just labeled as "Mature readers" to allow for things that might possibly offend a parent who might stumble upon a comic their kid bought.

When you look at life, there are some very clear marks of maturity; graduations, marriages, and the births of children come to mind. The sliding time scale of the superhero comic allows aging to be avoided rather easily, but these kind of milestones are signs of changes in life, and when they happen the character is changed. I feel like the creators of Marvel and DC comics are doing their readers a disservice. I work in a comic shop, I see the audience, and the mainsteam superhero comic isn't being consumed by seven to twelve year olds. The Big Two wants to appeal to an older demographic, but they're doing it by appealing to the lowest common denominator, the people who associate boobs, blood, and barbarism with maturity.

The issue where Cyclops and Phoenix got married stands as one of my favorite X-Men comics of all time, and I know plenty of others who feel the same way. And while the Superman Wedding Album was clearly rushed due to DC's having to line it up with the wedding on the Lois & Clark TV show, there are still some golden moments in it. And the married Superman and Lois Lane worked brilliantly together. Their relationship was a partnership, and when written properly, she brought out the best in him and vice versa. They grew together, and became different and interesting characters. It's how I first really encountered them (the first Superman story I read was the one where Clark proposed to Lois), and I think there's a lot to be said about what really grounds Superman, and I think it's a lot of what is missing in his New 52 characterization. Exploring how life is different can make for interesting stories, more interesting than rehashing the old will they/won't they. I will give DC credit for not immediately dipping into that well again by pairing Superman with Wonder Woman, but as long as Lois is there, everyone will know who Superman is meant to be with.

So, where does reverting thee heroes really get us? The short sighted path. The idea that we now have the same swingin' single Spider-Man of the 60s and 70s is fun, but when another writer gets the idea to really hook Spidey up with someone who means something to him, are they going to do it, knowing that whatever happens Mephisto can pop up and it will be rewritten by an editor who doesn't like the idea. When Superman and Wonder Woman get too close, are they going to split to give him and Lois a chance to dance the dance they did for fifty years? I'm not naive enough to believe that most of the people involved in these characters lives' aren't in it purely for the money, but at the same time, the industry can only alienate existing readers so many times before they call it quits. Growth and continuity aren't the same thing. You don't need to have read thirty years of Superman to understand his relationship with Lois when it was written well. A married couple is a couple like any other, and by the way, anyone who says a married couple can't have adventures, on their own or separately, and that there's no conflict left once you've "settled down," is so utterly unfamiliar with what real relationships are like that I feel kind of sorry for them.

So, what can be done about this? I wish I could tell you. I won't say you should all drop Batwoman, since I think Marc Andreyko is one of the best and most underappreciated writers in comics, thanks to his work on Manhunter (and, for those of you who are interested, one of the few publicly gay writers in mainstream comics) and I think he's going to do some very smart and mature work with the character, married or not, and dropping a book before you give it a shot is anathema to my beliefs that trying a comic before badmouthing it is the way to go. But what you can really do is support books that reward character as much as action. Batwoman has done a great job of this, as has Wonder Woman, Batman & Robin, Hawkeye, and the late, lamented X-Factor.

Oh, and if you like stories featuring your superheroes married, you might want to check out some of the following: Adventures of Superman by Greg Rucka collected in three trades, Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix by Scott Lobdell and Gene Ha, Mark Waid or Geoff Johns's The Flash, and anything you can track down featuring Ralph and Sue Dibny, DC's Elongated Man and his wife, my favorite superhero couple. And if you want a story of a superhero growing up and maturing set within one of these universes, try James Robinson's brilliant Starman.