Monday, April 29, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 4/24

All Star Western #19
Story: Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Art: Moritat/ Staz Johnson

Jonah Hex has run into time travellers before, and has himself been time displaced, so this issue isn't something completely foreign to everybody's favorite scarred bounty hunter. Booster Gold being tossed into a gritty western, though, is something new, and it's fun to see the interaction. Since Jonah ditched Amadeus Arkham in Gotham at the end of the last issue of All Star Western, Booster serves as Jonah's new foil. Booster acts like a superhero in a setting where superhero's don't really fit; gunslingers look funny at guys in bright blue and gold, and of course Hex is no different. Hex is of course on a case, and while Booster, having arrived unexpectedly in the 19th century, and having become the sheriff of a small town, is running into Jonah, the Hootkins gang, who Hex is pursuing, wander into said town and go about robbing the bank and burning much of it to the ground. When Hex and Booster arrive back, we get a flashback explaining how Booster arrived, and after a night of drinking, Hex and Booster head out to hunt down the Hootkins. When on his own, Booster is still a competent hero, but when with Jonah, he is comic relief, which is fine, and shows the difference between the characters well. There's no answer to whether this is Booster after he disappeared at the end of Justice League International Annual #1, or whether this is earlier in his continuity, and for now that doesn't matter. For now, the odd buddy cop dynamic of Hex and Booster is enough to keep me coming back without any heavy continuity. The back up introduces a character who is, as far as I know, new to the DC Weird Western world, The Master Gunfighter. While his name is a bit generic, I like that he is the self appointed border cop between the day world and night world, and he gets to fight werewolves. You know me, I'm a sucker for werewolves. I think this might be the final gathering of the team part of the Stormwatch of the 19th Century, and so next issue we'll see what Adam One is gathering the team for. I have enjoyed these introductory chapters a lot, but I'm looking forward to the story kicking into high gear.

Dark Horse Presents #23
Story: Various
Art: Various

Every issue of Dark Horse Presents is filled with interesting and different stories; everyone should be able to find something that interests them, but this issue had a couple of real highlights for me. The cover feature sees the return of Travis Clevenger, the bounty hunter who hunts superpowered crooks, known as "Bloodhound." I was one of the few people who followed his original series, published by DC Comics in the early 00s, and it was one of the vastly underrated series of its time, up there with Manhunter. While the status quo is somewhat different, the story feels natural to the world original series (and returning) creators Dan Jolley and Leonard Kirk created, a good mix of crime and superhuman action. Also debuting in this issue is "Brain Boy," by Fred Van Lente and Freddie Williams III, about a psychic who is working for the Secret Service. This first chapter sets up the world, the peril the character is in, and does it with Van Lente's trademark tongue planted firmly in cheek. We also get the next chapter of the time and space tripping "Journeymen," The first part of a fantasy serial called "King's Road" from Peter Hogan and Phil Winslade (two excellent and underrated creators, and Mike Baron and Steve Rude doing another story with their classic character, Nexus, this time with cameos from Sherlock Holmes and Jack the Ripper. Oh, and there's a one off called "Gabe and the Sandpiper" with some gorgeous Sean Phillips art. 80+ pages with no ads for $7.99. Best bang or your buck in comics my friends. Go get it while the getting is good.

Kill Shakespeare: The Tide of Blood #3
Story: Conor McCreery & Anthony Del Col
Art: Andy Belanger

Due to various bits of ill luck, the first two issues of this sequel to one of my favorite series of the past five years fell on week's that I missed doing reviews, and for that I beg your pardon, regular Matt Signal reader, and you, creators of this excellent book. Kill Shakespeare: The Tide of Blood picked up shortly after the original series ended, and brings many of the surviving characters to the island of Prospero, and deftly weaves the world of The Tempest into the web already drawing so many of the Bard's great characters in it. This issue opens with answering one of the principal questions of the series thus far: Where did Shakespeare go after the end of Kill Shakespeare? The choice to have him sit and talk with Feste, one of his most world weary and clever fools is a delightful one, as Feste is one of the Bard's best spoken and thoughtful characters, and one who would be perfect to joust wits with his creator. On the island, we finally get to see Prospero, who has changed considerably since his confrontation with his brother and the events of his play. The magic of the island may be poisoning him, or he may be poisoning the island, something I'm unsure of, and it might be that I'm dense and need to reread, or it might be intentionally mysterious, but whatever way it is, Prospero is a force to be reckoned with, as he awaits the arrival of Shakespeare. Lady Macbeth continues to scheme, and we learn more of her connection with the island. But the biggest pleasure of the series is Romeo. Introduced late in the game of Kill Shakespeare, Romeo has been the central figure of this mini-series, and I have come to really like him. Haunted by what he feels is his betrayal by Shakespeare and the loss of Juliet to Hamlet, Romeo is ill-prepared for what the island has in store for him, and yet is still fighting his way through it and trying to do whatb is right. The issue ends with Romeo in a position to be lead astray, and I look forward to seeing how he finds his way out of this metaphorical wilderness. I'm glad to be back in the world of Kill Shakespeare, and can't wait to see where the events of this series take the greatest heroes and villaisn of all time.

Princeless Vol.2 #2
Story: Jeremt Whitley
Art: Emily Martin

The cover the new issue of Princeless just makes me smile; it sums up so much of what creator Jeremy Whitely is trying to say in the series about a princess who is doing it for herself. Adrienne does indeed reach the tower of her first sister, Angelica, with a result that is somewhat shocking. She and Bedelia and their new companion, the poet, have a great little dynamic, and a discussion about exactly what makes a poet. We also see Bedelia has one of the less attractive aspects of her dwarvish heritage in a funny scene. The opening of the issue, a flashback narrated by the Black Knight, and turnign out to be a dream of Adrienne's, seems to show a tie between the Black Knight and our heroine, and when tied in with the tale a knight tells King Ash about his wife's carriage, begins to paint a picture of the identity of the mysterious Black Knight, and explains why he never speaks. We also get to see the king in action as he tracks through the forest and fights some wolves; fantasy kings are often doddering old men of maniacal tyrants with legions of goons, so it's nice to see the king is still a man of action when he needs to be. Although I did miss Sparky the Dragon, I have nothing to complain about this continually enjoyable fantasy series. I wish other comics could be so consistently fun.

Superman Family Adventures #12
Story & Art: Art Baltazar & Franco Aureliani

*Sniff, sniff* Excuse me for a minute, I'm getting a little teary here. When Tiny Titans ended, I knew that Art and Franco would at least be keeping their toes in their corner of the DC Universe with Superman Family Adventures. Alas, this seems to be their swan song for their all ages corner of DC Comics, and I feel the racks are less bright for it. But what a way to go! Darkseid, out of his lunchlady togs from Tiny Titans, takes on the Justice League, the Superman Family, and all comers, in a comic that is full of action while still being something you can share with kids of all ages. The issue is hilarious, with Darkseid referencing his job at Sidekick Elementary while still fighting his way through superheroes, and we even get to see some Titans in there. In the end, Clark gets to kiss Lois (as it always should be. I still have a piece rattling around in my head about why Lois and Clark are comic's best couple), and the series ends with a smile. I am going to miss my monthly dose of Art and Franco, but I hope their Aw, Yeah Comics! gets a wide release after a successful Kickstarter, and this weekend's announcement of Itty Bitty Hellboy gets a nice long run.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 4/10

Batman #19
Story: Scott Snyder/ James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo/ Alex Maleev

Since the first issue, the new Batman series has been an epic title, with the two major arcs being long, twisty, and grand. "The Court of Owls" and "Death of the Family" were both great stories, and the two one offs featuring Harper Row were excellent character pieces as well, but this issue was a great change of pace; it's a small Batman story. This isn't a status quo changing arc, it's a great Batman story that is focusing on Batman trying to figure out a mystery. The opening pages show Bruce Wayne robbing a bank and after his escape flashes back to Batman finding out about the apparent suicide of an acquaintance of his, and going to investigate it. Batman is still clearly haunted by the death of Damian, and despite Harper Row's plea to take care of himself last issue, he isn't doing too good a job of it. Batman quickly determines exactly what was behind the death of his friend and the man's seemingly strange criminal behavior. It's just an appealing story of Batman working a case; Snyder captures Batman's voice perfectly, and I like seeing him just working out a case that isn't tearing his world apart. I won't spoil the identity of the perpetrator, despite it being spoiled on the cover of the next issue and the solicitation for some upcoming Batman family titles, but it continues the evolution of a classic Bat villain we have seen popping up sporadically throughout the New 52 era. The back-up is a Batman and Superman team-up written, which is something we haven't seen much of in the New 52 except in Justice League. It's been established they're friends, and so seeing them play off each other is interesting. While the relationship is clearly more pre-Flashpoint than pre-Crisis, Batman isn't acting like Miller's Batman wanting nothing to do with Superman, so I like that; I've always found I prefer the relationship between Batman and Superman to be friendly. It has definitely whet my appetite for the upcoming Batman/Superman series.

Batman and Red Robin #19
Story: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason

OK, there's a lot in this issue, and I'm still of mixed feelings about some of it. The good is so good, though, that I want to talk about that. First the stuff I'm of two minds about. I liked seeing Frankenstein appear, but I would have thought there are more practical resurrection schemes than duplicating Dr. Frankenstein's work; this would have worked more for me if we had seen Batman exploring other plans first. Also, I feel like Red Robin, who is in the title, is underused in the issue; we have barely seen Tim and Bruce interact in the New 52, and I was hoping that this issue might remedy that. On the other hand, the introduction of Carrie Kelly was done beautifully. While she clearly has a different life than the version of her we meet in Dark Knight Returns, Carrie still has the spunk that allows her to stand up to the looming presence of an angry Bruce Wayne. The details of her relationship with Damian are still mysterious, and I'm expecting that to play out over the course of the next few issues. It's interesting to see both Snyder and Tomasi now having young female foils to Batman, and just how different Harper Row and Carrie Kelly are. Carrie seems to be a much lighter, less haunted character, but we'll see. I also have to say, her roommate looks an awful lot like Stephanie Brown. It would be nice to see Steph back. While I felt like Red Robin was underused, I did like how he was handled, and the painful choice he had to make. To top it all off, Patrick Gleason continues to be one of the most impressive artists in the comics right now; his Frankenstein was amazing. With next issue teaming Batman with Red Hood, I'm curious if Jason proves more integral to the plot, and how Carrie Kelly will factor in to the continuing arc of the series.

Batman: Li'l Gotham #1
Story & Art: Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs

DC's Johnny DC line,the all ages comics published by DC, seemingly folding all its superhero titles, it's nice to see Li'l Gotham appearing. An all ages Batman title, themed around holidays, Dustin Nguyen and Derek Fridolfs, who have been writing Justice League Beyond for some time and have history as artists on various Bat family titles, have created a fun and accessible Batman comic. The stories star Batman and Robin, a Robin who is Damian Wayne, and play off of Damian's strange upbringing and how unfamiliar he is with these holidays. Bruce attempting to explain Halloween to Damian leads to reminiscence about killing Lazarus Pit generated zombies with his mother and grandfather and Damian to some aggressive trick-or-treating. And on Thanksgiving, Penguin leads an army of turkeys to take the day of turkey slaughter back. The continuity is light, and while it takes place in a universe closer to the pre-Flashpoint one (Barbara Gordon seems to be in her wheelchair, and Cassandra Cain appears at the Bat family Thanksgiving), no knowledge of that is necessary. These are fun stories in the vein of Batman Adventures, all ages without being kiddy comics. If you know a kid who loves Batman and are worried a Joker who cuts off his own face is too much for him or her, this is the perfect gateway book for that young Batman fan.

Princeless Vol.2 #1
Story: Jerome Whitley
Artist Emily Martin

Oh, it's always a joy when an indy series you love pops back up on the radar, and so it is to see the beginning of Jerome Whitley's fairytale for girls who kick butt, Princeless. Picking up shortly after the first series left off, Princess Adrienne and her friend, Bedelia the blacksmith, are off to rescue the first of Adrienne's sisters, Angelica from her tower. Of course, things never go that easily. They can't quite find the tower, and are still having some issues with landings on Sparky, their trusty dragon. But that doesn't stop two such plucky heroines. Adrienne's determination is a great character trait, and as I said in my recommendation of the book, she is a character you want your younger female friends and relatives to look up to. Meanwhile, the King, Adrienne's father, still believes her dead and killed by a mystery knight (who is, in fact, Adrienne), and so he calls six of the kingdom's great bounty hunters and heroes to find the knight and dispatch him. Not surprisingly, these six guys all fit fantasy tropes and subvert them, none being particularly heroic, especially when discussing the possibility of taking one of the king's daughters to wife. New artist Emily Martin gives designs for these bounty hunters that take their trope and pushes it to the extreme; they're so one dimensional it's perfect. There is also a mystery around the behavior of Adrienne's mother, who knows the truth about her daughter and seems complacent about it; I wager that Adrienne gets some of her steel from her mother, and we'll see exactly what the queen is up to soon. Adrienne and Bedelia end the issue with a lead to Angelica's tower and possibly a new traveling companion; I enjoyed the slapsticky humor of the sequence where we meet the young poet who seems to appeal to Sparky more as dinner than as a new friend. Princeless is an all ages treat, smart and funny, and if you enjoy any fairy tale flavored comic, you are doing yourself a disservice not trying this book out.

Saga #12
Story: Brian K. Vaughan
Art: Fiona Staples

Oh, Prince Robot IV... Brian K. Vaughan has done incredible work over the course of Saga to make every one his characters, both protagonist and antagonist, three dimensional, and this issue, featuring the prince of the Robot world, does a great job of adding new layers to him. Starting with a flashback to Robot IV receiving the injury that has been referenced a few times throughout the series, Vaughan demonstrates his power as a writer by introducing a medic and killing him a couple pages later and making the reader care. In the present Robot IV makes his way to meet D. Oswald Heist, the author of the book that Alana loved and helped draw her to Marko. The issue is mostly a conversation between Robot IV and Heist, about what the book means, and about Heist's son, who fought in the war and eventually took his own life. We learn just how haunted by his own war experience Robot IV is, and see just how much of a deathwish he has; knowing this makes the reader look at many of his actions, especially his murder of The Stalk, in a very different light. The tension of the conversation ratchets up by degree over the course of the issue, with the almost inevitable explosion of violence not dismissing it but leading to even more tensions. The last page reveal marks the end of this arc and the beginning of another hiatus for the title. I've always felt Vaughan was the king of the cliffhanger ending, and if this one doesn't prove me right, I don't know what will.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Recommended Reading for 4/12: The Rocketeer

I have a deep affection for the pulps. Comics would not exist as they do without their antecedents in the pulps; and let's be frank, of all superheroes, Batman could be easily picked up and dropped into the same pages as The Shadow, The Spider, and Doc Savage and fit in perfectly. But of all comics that have ever aspired to work in the style of the classic pulps (and possibly even more in the style of classic movie serials of the same era), none have been more successful than Dave Stevens's The Rocketeer. Two fisted tales with girls, guns, and Nazis, The Rocketeer is a modern classic of comics. And if your only experience with The Rocketeer is from the 1991 movie, trust me you've only scratched the surface.

The Rocketeer is a hero in the classic pulp vein: he has no real powers, but he's a guy with a sense of right and wrong who gets in over his head and fights his way out of it. Cliff Secord is a stunt pilot who stumbles across a stolen prototype rocket pack, and decides to wear it because, hey, if you could fly, why wouldn't you, especially of you're already a pilot who loves the air? But of course there are people who want it back, including the fifth columnists who stole it and the associates of the man who built it. So Cliff, dubbed the Rocketeer, is quickly up to his neck in trouble.

Stevens crafted Cliff as a very human hero. This isn't a square-jawed and noble Superman, or a dark and haunted Batman. Cliff is a guy who loves his adventures and simply gets involved with helping people because it's the right thing to do. But Cliff has character flaws that balance his better nature. He is impetuous, leaping before looking, which is pretty clear from the beginning when he decides to, oh I don't know, strap an experimental rocket he found to his back and try to fly with it. He is also almost pathologically jealous of every man who crosses paths with his girlfriend, Betty. And I mean, jealous to the point of starting fights with pretty much any guy who looks at her. Sometimes he's right, but often he's not, and this gets Cliff into plenty of trouble too.

Betty is the most important supporting character in The Rocketeer, and is the only to be featured in all of the Stevens stories. While Peevey, Cliff's mechanic and pseudo-father figure, helps him establish the Rocketeer gear, and Goose, his old friend, becomes Cliff's guide when he visits New York, it is Betty who drives so much of the action. Betty is also a character clearly loved by Stevens. Stevens was a talented artist, and one who drew amazing women. Not 90s-era illogically proportioned ones, but women who resembled the pin-ups of the 20s and 30s, the era he so loved. And Betty is a  direct homage to the most legendary and notorious of all those pin-up girls, Betty Page. Aside from being strikingly beautiful, Betty's tough and sassy, and doesn't take crap from Cliff, whose jealousy gets on her bad side, and proves she can take care of herself when push comes to shove. But it seems like they always wind up back together, because this is heroic fiction after all, and boy always gets girl in the end.

And on the subject of Betty and Stevens love of the 30s, his art is what elevates The Rocketeer from just another pulp homage into something superior. Stevens art is luscious, soft, and a feast for the eyes. His detail work was impressive, made even moreso by the thorough research he must have done to get the planes to look as spot on as they do and to make the world  breathe the 30s. Whether its California airfields or the streets of New York, there's a feeling of authenticity that you could fall into. Unfortunately, you can also see that Stevens often had to use other artists to work over his layouts at times, since he worked at a pace that made modern creators like Bryan Hitch look like Jack Kirby in his prime. There were years in between issues of the series due to Stevens pace, and I think that might actually help add to the mystique of The Rocketeer.

There are actually only two Rocketeer stories that Dave Stevens completed before his premature passing from cancer. The first is the story that the film is based on, an origin story with Nazis and G-Men. It's got the feel of the classic movie serials, with chases and a daring aerial rescue from the title hero. The second story, called "Cliff's New York Adventure" is more akin to the darker pulps or Dick Tracy, where we learn more about Cliff's past and encounter a serial killer murdering circus performers. They are two very distinct stories, tonally, but both fit into this pulp world that Stevens crafted. It is a testament to Stevens ability that so little material has inspired so much love from both fans and other creators.

Stevens also demonstrated his love of the pulps by working classic pulp figures into his Rocketeer stories, although their names are never said; these are inside jokes for fans, and it also helps to avoid rights issues. The creator of the rocketpack is hinted at throughout the series, and stands revealed at the end of the first arc as Doc Savage. The Shadow figures heavily into the New York story, and I think adds to the air of darkness and mystery that pervades that story. The post-Stevens Rocketeer, which I'll talk about in a bit but isn't the focus of this piece, also feature these kinds of cameos, with appearances of Skull Island of King Kong fame, John Sunlight (Doc Savage's archfoe), and Nick and Nora Charles with their dog Asta.

I think that those of you who haven't ever read The Rocketeer still might be familiar with the character through the film adaptation done by Disney in 1991. While the film does not hit every note of Stevens  (one major difference is replacing Doc Savage with Howard Hughes for rights reasons), I think it beautifully captures the feeling of the comics. Billy Campbell plays Cliff perfectly, and a young Jennifer Connelly is wonderful as Jenny (renamed, I think, to again avoid any issues with Betty Page licensing). Alan Arkin play Peevey, and pretty much steals every scene he's in, and Timothy Dalton is a delight as unctuous Nazi agent and actor Neville Sinclair. The production design practically lifts right out of the comic, and the flight effects still stand up pretty well today. A 20th anniversary blu-ray was released a couple years ago, so if you might be a person who has read the comic and not scene the movie, or has scene neither, it's well worth checking out.

And now a random bit of Rocketeer trivia. The Rocketeer began as a back-up story in Mike Grell's Starslayer, which seemed to be a launching point for iconic late 80s-early 90s series, as it's back-up features also featured John Ostrander's legendary and criminally uncollected Grimjack.

The Rocketeer is not a dead property, despite the passing of its creators. IDW Publishing has picked up the license and has done a series of mini-series that take the characters Stevens created in new directions. After two Rocketeer Adventures anthologies featuring many of today's best creators, Mark Waid and Chris Samnee, the current creative team on Marvel's excellent Daredevil, did Cargo of Doom, where the Rocketeer got to fight dinosaurs over the skies of LA, and currently Roger Langridge and J. Bone and are creating Hollywood Horror, where Cliff encounters a cult leader who worships Lovecraftian Great Old Ones. And coming this summer is a project I'm very excited about, a crossover between the Rocketeer and another great comic/pulp hybrid, Will Eisner's The Spirit, again from Mark Waid and with art by Paul Smith, a great who we don't see much work from these days. None of these stories will be Dave Stevens, but they are clearly attempting to keep the spirit of the series true, with the great big plots and big pulp ideas that made The Rocketeer great.

IDW released The Rocketeer: The Complete Adventures a couple years, fully colored for the first time by Laura Martin, who Stevens selected to do the work before his passing. If you want your Rocketeer in black and white, IDW also released an artists edition, published on art board sized paper and shot from Stevens original pencils. This book sold out immediately on its first printing, and the second, which was released two weeks ago, is on its way to as well, so grab them while they're hot.

Monday, April 8, 2013

That First Special Comic; or How to Get Your Niece in Trouble and Feel Good About It.

You can probably tell from the title that you won't be getting normal weekly reviews today. I was away this weekend and barely had time to start the stack. But I had something wonderful said to me over the weekend, and it's a little anecdote I wanted to share, since it really says something about why I write what I write, and why I love comic so much.

This past weekend, my wife and I went out to visit her family, specifically her mother and stepfather, and her brother, his wife, and their two daughters. The eldest of my nieces is eight now, and is smart as a whip. She's a great kid, very sweet, loves stories, but she hadn't ever really gotten into comics. I'd given her some Scooby Doo and some Tiny Titans, and while she looked at them, they'd never been able to capture her interest.

Well, this past Christmas I decided to make one last ditch effort to get her to enjoy graphic literature. I poured over the shelves at the comic shop, and I came out with two books. The first was Magic Trixie by Jill Thompson, the story of a little girl witch and her baby sister. Being the big sister of a rambunctious little sister, I thought this might speak to my niece. The other book was the first volume of Jeff Smith's Bone, Out From Boneville. I adore Bone, and I think it's one of the best books to introduce comics to young readers, because as an adult you can share in the experience, and appreciate just how great the story is yourself.

On Christmas Eve, my wife and I gave the girls their presents, and while my three year old younger niece banged around with whatever toy she could get her hands on, as is her way, it seemed like my niece was pretty interested in the books I had given her. She asked me to read one to her, so I sat down, and opened the Bone volume, and I read her the first two issues collected therein. My niece loves when I make up stories for her, usually involve preposterously amusing anthropomorphic animals of my own creation, like Ally Kazzam the magic bunny or Felix the secret agent cat. Bone was the first story I'd read her that drew her in the same way. I gave all the characters voices and did the whole deal. After I finished those two issues she wanted to hear more, but we had to go to dinner and that was that. When we saw the family again in February, neither of the books were mentioned, and while I had hoped she would come begging me to get her the next volume, I wasn't heartbroken that it hadn't happened.

But this weekend, while tromping through the land my brother-in-law is clearing out to turn into gardens and a greenhouse with him, my niece, and my wife, she told me that she had read Magic Trixie three times, and that she loved Bone sooooo much. She loved it so much, her dad said to me, that he had to take away her comic for a bit last week so she would stop reading it and do her homework. My wife and I smiled at each other, since we had both had the same thing done to us when we were kids, and I personally remember reading my share of books and comics under the covers at night with a flashlight after bedtime.

I'll never be one to encourage the dereliction of proper homework duties, but hearing this warmed my heart. If my niece never loved a comic, I wouldn't have cared, but this was something I could share with her. I can get her more Bone trades; we can share the adventure together. And I had opened her eyes to this whole new way of seeing stories. This is why I write this blog every week, so I can share that love with more than just one little girl who was so excited to tell her favorite uncle how much she loved the book he gave her. I hope that you all pick up a comic every now and then, and love it so much that you get in some trouble for putting off work to read it; you see, those are the comics that I want to read too.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Recommended Reading for 4/5: The Infinity Gauntlet

The power of a god is something that many comic book villains have attempted to attain, but usually the heroes stop them just in time to keep them from attaining this goal. But what happens when the villain does become a god? That's the basic premise for The Infinity Gauntlet, a six issue event mini-series written by Jim Starlin and with art from George Perez and Ron Lim from the early 90s. It is definitely my favorite Marvel Comics event story, and is still possibly my favorite Marvel story of all time.

When Jim Starlin, legendary already for his runs on Captain Marvel and Warlock in the 70s, returned to Marvel, he started writing Silver Surfer and immediately returned his greatest creation, Thanos of Titan, to life. Thanos was a mutant alien from Saturn's moon, Titan, and was obsessed with Death. Not death, the end of an existence, but Death, specifically Mistress Death, the Marvel Universe personification of death, and wanted to win her heart. To do so, during those Silver Surfer issues and in a mini-series called Thanos Quest, Thanos obtained the six Infinity Gems, which when combined grant the bearer supreme power over the galaxy. So by the time The Infinity Gauntlet begins, the heroes of the Marvel Universe are already painted into a corner and they don't know it.

The opening pages of The Infinity Gauntlet should be comic book event opening 101. Even if you don't know the players, you know exactly what is going on. Purple guy (Thanos) is clearly some sort of major cosmic badass, as a guy who looks like the Devil (Mephisto) is sucking up to him, having created one word out of stone in 50 foot tall letters to impress him: GOD. Thanos brushes this off and smashes all of Mephisto's hard work, already establishing the dynamic between the two characters. Coupled with a quick recap of the events from Silver Surfer as recounted by the title's main character as he crashes into Doctor Strange's sanctum right after those initial Thanos pages, you're off to the metaphorical races.

One of the great things about The Infinity Gauntlet, especially in relation to so many event comics today, is how much happens in a single issue. This was long before the idea of decompression became the central tenet of major comic book storytelling, so every issue was chock full of stuff. By the end of the first issue the Earth has been alerted to Thanos's coming, mysterious souls have taken over the bodies of some dead humans, various heroes have been seen unawares, and Thanos has talked to Mephisto and Mistress Death. Oh, and Thanos has wiped out half the universe's population with nothing more than a snap of his fingers.

The Infinity Gauntlet had a very precise structure: The first issue established the premise and gave us the inciting incident. Issues two and three dealt with the ramifications and gathered the heroes. Issues four and five were the battle with Thanos. And issue six was the denouement, the resolution of the story. Starlin paced the story perfectly so it didn't feel like there was a wasted page.

Starlin used this series to also bring another of his major characters back from the dead: Adam Warlock. Starlin evolved Warlock from his previous incarnation as the cosmic answer to Hamlet, and made him both a leader and a manipulator. Warlock plans the entire battle against Thanos with a cold reasoning and has no problem sacrificing his allies to triumph. It's an interesting change to the character, and continues his evolution from everything Starlin did before and sets him on the road to where Starlin planned to go with him.

Starlin uses a ragtag selection of heroes who survived Thanos's wiping out of the galactic population as the squad that Warlock, Silver Surfer, and Doctor Strange gather to confront Thanos. I think Starlin had a lot of fun in selecting whatever heroes he really wanted to write. There's an excellent scene where the Hulk and Wolverine, old enemies, sit on a roof and have a conversation. Doctor Doom, the only villain who joins in, is perfectly played as the character with an agenda of his own, hoping to claim the power of the Gauntlet for himself.

The central character of the piece is clearly Thanos. Thanos could easily be presented (and has often been by lesser writers) as a two dimensional maniac, loving death and blood and pain. But Starlin has a fuller view of the character, one that does not paint him in a light that is heroic, but gives him dimension. Thanos so desperately seeks the approval of Mistress Death that he does any- and everything to garner that favor. Throughout the series, while he has the power of a god, he doesn't use it for anything other than trying to get Death to look upon him. There is the clear analogy of a man with a deathwish, someone who seeks the end to his suffering, courting death, and Thanos takes that to the extreme. He also only exacts perverse suffering upon Eros, his brother, and Nebula, the woman who purports to be his granddaughter. He hates life and his own family is the greatest reminder of that.

By the end of the series, Starlin breaks down Thanos. Having lost the Gauntlet, he is confronted by Warlock, and the two have an intense discussion about Thanos's tragic flaw: subconsciously, he doesn't feel like he really deserves all this power. This is the third time in his history Thanos has gained nigh-omnipotence, and each time it has slipped out of his hands. Thanos denies Warlock initially, but he comes around. Looking back on the whole series, the point is perfectly illustrated. Starlin sets up numerous instances where Thanos could have simply squashed his enemies, but instead plays with them in a way that could easily allow him to be defeated. Not banishing Mephisto from his presence, a being who is surely planning against him, is another perfect example.

While the early issues are brilliant set-up, with great character pieces, issues four and five are truly some of the greatest action comics ever written. It's basically a two issue battle between Thanos and first Earth's heroes, and second the avatars of the cosmic forces. The initial battle is not something you got in comics as much at the time: a complete defeat of the heroes, where Thanos takes them apart. Thanos must have become the god of ironic punishments, as he quickly defeats the heroes in ways that fit their powers or demeanor: Wolverine's skeleton is turned to rubber; Quasar has his hands blown off right after recovering from a similar injury, the Hulk is shrunk down to a few inches tall, Thor is transformed to clash and smashed. But Thanos's arrogance is countered in what might be one of the great Captain America scenes of all time. Compared to the heavy hitters, Cap doesn't stand a chance against Thanos. But when confronted, Cap stands his ground, telling Thanos he can't win. Of course, Thanos kills him, but in the end Cap is proven right.

The issues that were crossovers to the main series, while not integral to the story, integrated well with the changed universe. Getting a better idea of all that was going on with Silver Surfer, who had been dealing with Thanos for some time, in his own title, for instance. Or the issue of The Incredible Hulk, where the shrunken Hulk rests on the shoulder of his nemesis, the Abomination, talking in his ear and using his diminutive stature to be the "voice of God" and get the Abomination to do the right thing and wrap up threads in that title's ongoing stories.

In the end, nothing really changes in the Marvel Universe because of The Infinity Gauntlet. Thanos and Warlock are back, along with supporting characters Gamora and Pip the Troll, and the Infinity Gems were now central to the Marvel cosmos, but aside from that, all the deaths are undone, and the universe returns to the status quo. I don't think that this was a story meant to change the Marvel Universe. I feel like most event books today promise to change the Universe forever, but wind up being decompressed or muddled stories that wind up having minimal effect as it is.  The Infinty Gauntlet is simply a great story, one of immense scope, that wouldn't fit in any one comic.

Now, with Thanos's profile increased by his cameo at the end of The Avengers, he is popping up regularly. After being the main villain of the initial arc of Avengers Assemble, he is now featuring in his own origin mini-series, Thanos Rising. The Infinity Gems were also featured prominently in the first arc of the new volume of New Avengers. Thanos one Marvel's great villains, and this is a story that really presents him in all his glory.

The first three issues, and the first few pages of issue four, are drawn by legendary artist George Perez, who brings his usual hyper-detailed style to the art. He craws the crowd scenes brilliantly, and his Thanos is perfectly creepy. The remainder of the series is drawn by Ron Lim, the artist now most associated with the Marvel cosmic line in the 90s. Lim's style is clean, with a dynamism that makes the massive fight scenes easy to follow. I have a great fondness for Lim, especially when he's working on these characters.

The Infinity Gauntlet is available in trade, as well as its two sequels, Infinity War and Infinity Crusade. Many of the Silver Surfer issues that led into the series are available as the trade: Silver Surfer: the Rebirth of Thanos, and many classic Thanos appearances were recently collected as Avengers Vs. Thanos.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Comics on the Boardwalk: This Past Weekend's Asbury Park Comic Con

The comic convention is as much a part of comic culture as the comic shop. I go to a couple cons a year, but they're usually the bigger ones, NYCC or Philly Con for instance. But this past weekend I went to a smaller con, Asbury Park Comic Con, for the first time in a few years. And it was a great experience.

While there were some problems with getting into the con, mostly I think due to this being the first year the con was in the Asbury Park Convention Center and not in a bowling alley, once I got in, it was a wonderful experience, well organized and laid out over two floors. This is the kind of con you can go to and actually spend time chatting with the guests for more than two seconds, and while busy you weren't surrounded by a stream of humanity so great you felt like you were going to get swept up in it. Real credit has to be given to con organizers Cliff Galbraith and Robert Bruce for making a con that feels friendly and excited about comics without all the Hollywood trappings you get in so many cons nowadays.

The con had a few dealers tables, and I was able to fish out some decent trades and a couple random back issues, and I feel like if this con takes root, there will be more in the future. But what it had in spades were comics creators, some legendary, some modern celebs, and some up and comers. One of the cool things were that the indy creators were mixed in with the bigger name guests. In a lot of big cons, these self publishers and new creators get ghettoized and people who might find their work never get the chance to. Here you could find Marvel creators next to guys who were pushing the first collection of their webcomic, and it got me to look at some stuff I wouldn't have noticed otherwise.

My favorite part of any convention experience is getting new sketches for my sketchbook. It probably surprises no one that my sketchbook is Batman themed. I like to ask artists to pick whatever Batman related character they'd like to draw; this has gotten me some interesting character/artist combos I never would have expected. I was able to get two sketches this time. One was from Marvel inker Mark Morales, who gave me a beautiful Batman: The Animated Series-style Mr. Freeze. The other was from an artist named Bill Hewitt, who gave me my first Riddler.

Hewitt is the artist on a self published comic called Tiki P.I., about a supernatural private investigator in Hawaii who has a tiki statue for a head. Written by Erik Carlson, I picked up the first issue of Tiki P.I. along with a single Tiki P.I. short story booklet called "Stone Head, Stone Dead." I haven't gotten to read the short story yet, but the first issue of the comic was a ton of fun. The story is pretty simple: someone is murdering showdogs and their owners, and since the police are baffled, they call in Tiki P.I. to solve the case. Now I love a good supernatural crime story, and when it turns out the killer is a werewolf, well you're pretty much throwing one right over the plate for me. There was a definite Chew sort of vibe in both story and art, with everything askew and odd, but that's the world of the book. I got to chat with Carlson and Hewitt while my sketch was being done, and they were just great, friendly guys who clearly love what they do. Tiki P.I. is charming and witty, I am going to keep my eye on the Tiki P.I. website to see when I can get my hands on the next issue.

I got to spend a little time talking to some of the other guests as well, something you never get to really do at something like NYCC. I got to talk to Frank J. Barbiere, who wrote Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray, which I reviewed a couple weeks ago, and told him how much I enjoyed his comic. I chatted with Jamal Igle, former Supergirl artist and previous guest at my own shop, Dewey's, about his upcoming all ages adventure series, Molly Danger, which is going to debut on Free Comic Book Day, and I'm even more excited for it now. I also got to talk Batman with Michael Uslan, writer and producer of all the modern Batman movies; I like chatting about Batman with someone else who loves the character as much as I do.

All in all, a good day was had by all at Asbury Park Comic Con, and I'm looking forward to going back next year to watch it grow.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 3/27

East of West #1
Story: Jonathan Hickman
Art: Nick Dragotta

While I've enjoyed Jonathan Hickman's Marvel work, it's the work he does through Image, his creator owned work, that blows me off my feet. Manhattan Projects is one of the best books on the stands month in and month out, so the announcement of a new Hickman ongoing through Image was something that got me curious and excited. East of West lives up to its predecessors. No two of Hickman's books are the same, each with a fascinating high concept that creates a unique world. East of West is a post apocalyptic weird western, set in a world where a Civil War wound up not only creating two nations, but the Seven Nations of America in 2064. After the backstory is established, the reader is given a series of seemingly unrelated scenes that by the end of the issue coalesce into a whole that is eerie. The appearance of three figures of seemingly dark power seems separate from a pale cowboy and his two Native American companions hunting for men who once tried (or maybe succeeded) in killing the pale rider. Leaving a trail of bodies behind him, the pale rider finds his way to the man responsible for his death, the President of the United States, and before he kills the president, he makes his victim say his true name: Death. The three figures are the other Horsemen, and now all four of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse are riding through a world seemingly on the edge of tipping towards them. The clear Western influences are mixed with high tech to make a world that is both familiar and strange. Credit has to go to artist Nick Dragotta as well for crafting such a stark visual, especially with Death and his two companions, whose paleness stands out in a world that is so dark. I hope this book is as much of a hit as Hickman's other work, and we get a good long run up to the Apocalypse.

Fatale #13
Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips

This seemed to be the week of the weird western, with not just East of West, but a new Sixth Gun: Sons of the Gun, All-Star Western, and this gem, a one off issue of Fatale set in the old West. For a genre that was non-existent a few years ago on the racks, its nice to see it making a comeback.This issue tells the tale of Black Bonnie, another of the mysterious femme fatales who are the focus of the series, culminating in our chief protagonist, Josephine. Bonnie has been living as an outlaw, and is a wanted woman. At the beginning of the issue her gang is killed by Milkfed, a Native American hunter, and she is brought to a travelling medicine wagon, where she meets the wagon's owner, a professor who seems to know more about Bonnie's background then she does. But as with all the previous fatales, Bonnie is being pursued by the strange creatires that want her for their own sinister purposes. The issue is clearly influenced by Leone and the spaghetti westerns, with the same brutal gunplay you'd see in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Sean Phillips style blends well with the bloody and brutal world of the Old West. There are the usual Fatale twists and turns, and Brubaker provides a story that stands well on its own for readers who have never tried Fatale before. It will be nice to get back to the 20th century and Josephine, but these one shots of other fatales flesh out the world that Brubaker has in mind, and adds depth to it; I'm glad he expended the series to allow it time to breathe.

Superman Family Adventures #11
Story and Art: Art Baltazar & Franco

Only one more issue to go before the end, but Superman Family Adventures isn't taking it easy across the finish line. While Superman is at the Fortress of Solitude fighting Brainiac alongside Zod, Ma Kent takes Superboy and Supergirl in their civilian identities (glasses and all) on a field trip to Metropolis. Art and Franco have a lot of fun with this plotline. A clearly in the know Lois Lane talks to Ma, mixing up Superman and Clark, making it clear she knows the link between Superman and Clark. Perry White continues to seem obsessed with his coffee, and even offers Ma a cup. But the highlight if the issue is the arrival of Doomsday. When Superboy, Supergirl, and the Superpets can do nothing to stop the rampaging monster, it's up to Ma Kent to use her abilities as a mom to put an end to Doomsday's reign of terror. The sequence is a delight, and everything you expect from this creative team. No one does better all ages comics than these guys, and I'm going to miss this comic. What's great is that, while each issue does a pretty good job of standing on its own, the series has actually built an uber plot, drawing from various sources of classic and modern Superman comics, and have formed an easy to understand epic of sorts. And its made Ma Kent the toughest mother in the universe, as she faces down even more villains. The end of the issue has a great nod to the long lamented Tiny Titans that sets up next issue's grand finale.

The Unwritten #47
Story: Mike Carey
Art: Peter Gross

The new issue of The Unwritten picks up shortly after the last time we saw Tom Taylor in the Underworld, with no memory of who he is and faced with the new king of the Underworld: Pauly Bruckner, the hitman who was turned into an anthropomorphic rabbit. Pauly enjoys having the son of the man who turned him into a rabbit at his disposal, and tells him his version of how he became king of the Underworld. It's of course a very skewed version of events, which is perfectly in character with everything we've seen Pauly say and do over the course of the series; Pauly is a self aggrandizing and always paints himself in the best light, despite his treacherous nature. While Tom is ushered off to his quarters by Pauly's mysterious masked servants, Tom's companions, Cosi and Leon, children who died in the crossfire between Tom and his enemies, watch Pauly and see what the mad rabbit-dictator is up to. But its Tom whose journey speeds to plot forward. We see that all who have died in the conflict between Tom and his enemies are in this Underworld, and as the masked servants disobey Pauly and bring Tom to a cell deep in the castle, Tom seems to remain lost to himself. However Tom's lack of memory might be changing, and he is not sure if he wants to remember who he is, seeing the way those in the cells react to him. Identity is one of the central themes of The Unwritten, especially when it comes to Tom and his relation to his literary alter ego, young wizard Tommy Taylor. Tom has become a different man from who he was at the series beginning, probably a better one, but his trip down memory lane here will not be an easy one. The last page reveal of the identity of Pauly's special prisoner is perfectly logical, and Tom's confrontation with the person in the cell is something that will possibly shake the series to its foundations come next issue.