Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 8/21

Batman and Nightwing #23
Story: Peter J Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason

The Batman team-up title wraps up its initial post-Damian arcand its exploration of the five stages of grief with, "Acceptance." I've enjoyed the use of Carrie Kelly in this title since Damian's death, but I think writer Peter Tomasi made the right call in not having anyone or any plotlines in this issue other than Batman and argueably his two most important supporting cast members: Nightwing, the grown-up original Robin, Dick Grayson, and Alfred Pennyworth. Batman's mental state has been fragile since he lost his son, and this issue we see Bruce using Internet 3.0, one of Grant Morrison's concepts from his Batman Incorporated series to run simulations of his actions during Damian's final minutes, trying to prove to himself he could have saved his son. This kind of self-flagellation is not uncommon in Batman's character, or in anyone who is grieving; the question of what you could have done differently is the most haunting one a person can entertain. Eventually he succeeds, but only when Dick joins him in the simulation, reinforcing the concept of family and that some burdens need to be shared. Dick also gets a great speech about how Bruce needs to use Damian's death in the same way he used his parents', as something to drive him forward, not something to wallow in. But its the very end of the issue, where Alfred uses the machine to see what he might have done to keep Damian from ever leaving the Batcave that night, when the full emotional weight of the issue strikes. After Alfred does indeed stop Damian from leaving, thus saving him, he comes out of the simulation to find Bruce waiting. Bruce realizes that he isn't, "the only one who lost a son that night" and he and Alfred embrace. Bruce has not just finally accepted the loss of Damian, but come to see the pain in others, which is pretty big step for someone so tightly insular. Now I want to see this level of empathy and acceptance reflected in the other Bat titles, hopefully moving Batman forward as a character.

B.P.R.D.: Hell On Earth #110
Story: Mike Mignola and John Arcudi
Art: Tyler Crook

B.P.R.D. is one of those comics that is so consistently good that it's hard to pick out one issue that is exemplary; it's just a remarkably solid comic. But the new issue, beginning a five part arc, "Lake of Fire," jumps out at me for two important returns. Firstly, artist Tyler Crook returns. Since Guy Davis left, Crook has drawn the most issues of B.P.R.D., and his art this issue is outstanding. Not only are his monsters in top form, but the moments featuring this issue's other return are just as well done. The other return sees Liz Sherman return to the pages of this comic. Since Liz started the current Hell on Earth by using her power to wipe out a threat but also triggering devastation she has only appeared briefly in a story that was pretty much a Liz story. This issue feels more like Liz returning to the world. While she hasn't encountered any of the rest of the cast yet, I feel like we're moving in that direction, especially as the hospital where Liz is currently laid up in has a new doctor, one we have seen has certain sinister leanings, ones that will surely put Liza back in a situation where she will have to take action. Fenix, the psychic who has caused her share of trouble, has now arrived at the Salton Sea, where the last arc of the Abe Sapien series took place, and has encountered the same group of monster worshippers Abe did, something that I can't imagine is going to go over well with the volatile Fenix. After the past few short arcs, this longer one seems to be a story that is going to have some major ramifications, and I'm excited to see where it's going.

Chew Vol. 7: Bad Apples
Story: John Layman
Art: Rob Guillory

The seventh volume of John Layman and Rob Guillory's Chew begins the second half of the series, and events are really picking up speed. While series protagonist Tony Chu has been through a lot, and gone on a lot of assignments, he has often been a passive character, with events and people acting on him, and him not acting on them. All that has changed. After the end of the last volume and the death of someone close to Tony, he is done with that. Tony is using his powers in new ways and becoming something of a badass. He's storming compounds, using baseballs as deadly weapons, and calling The Vampire out. It's also a sure sign of Tony's evolution to see him finally stand up for himself with his tyrannical boss, Mike Applebee, finally giving him a piece of his mind. This sends a teary Applebee right into the arms of his sometimes love interest, Tony's partner, John Colby, who also shines in this volume. Colby does have a realization about Cesar and Savoy's relationship, which does show just how clever he can be, but at the same time winds up in a real pickle with his personal life, involving both Applebee and USDA director Penya, which leads to some of the funniest pages of the entire series. I won't say anymore, as not to spoil a brilliant page or two. But for all its humor, there is some serious plot momentum and darkness in this volume too. The Vampire continues his collecting of food powers, and is bracing for war with Tony, and the mystery surrounding the Church of the Immaculate Ova only deepens, as it seems they are playing a similar game. The volume ends with something that could lead to answers, or to even bigger questions. Oh, and there's a big two page spread of Poyo versus Pengthulu. Because what would a volume of Chew be without Poyo?

Friday, August 23, 2013

My Batman Isn't Your Batman, and That's OK, Even If My Batman is Ben Affleck.

Pardon me, as we interrupt this week's regularly scheduled recommended reading with an op/ed piece.

Comic book movie casting is incredibly divisive in fandom. If you've ever spent anytime in a comic book shop, or on the comic book internet, you've seen it. And when I signed on to check Twitter yesterday evening, I admit to being completely shocked by two things. First, by the casting of Ben Affleck as Batman. I mean, I'd been thinking about all sorts of actors, and Affleck wasn't even on the long list, let alone the short one. But what really shocked me was the sheer level of vitriol being spewed by nearly everyone.

Now, as I said, comic geeks on the internet spewing venom is par for the course, but this was pros, both creators and journalists, rending their garments and declaring undying hatred for Affleck, DC, Warner Brothers, and Hollywood in general. And as I read down, and saw the occasional positive comment, all it did was make me shake my head in wonderment. There's something to be said for the emotion that the casting of a fictional character can bring about, and what it means to people. And Batman means a heck of a lot to me, as much if not more than to a lot of the irritated masses. But I wasn't that angry. And I'm going to give you two reasons.

The first is the simple one: We haven't seen the movie. We haven't seen anything about how they're portraying Batman. Affleck might not be your cup of tea. He's not an actor who I go to a movie to see, but I will say he's shown a lot of growth as an actor since Daredevil and Phantoms (although he was the bomb in Phantoms. Hands up if you recognize THAT obscure reference). I've said this before about the way comic fans react to announcements of new creators on comics or a change of direction; there is a preconception about liking a creator/plotline, and there's this immediate, flying off the handle response. If you have seen something and hate it, then you can rant and rave til your heart's content. Until then, maybe you should give it a try. You might actually like it; it worked with green eggs and ham. If Dr. Seuss told us something, it's probably right.

But more than that, the thing that made me look at it, shrug, and think that this isn't that big a deal is that, frankly, this Batman too shall pass. Batman is a character who is just shy of seventy-five years old. Do you know how many actors what played Batman on screen? Seven, and that's if you're not counting voice actors. You factor that in, both TV, movie, and video game, and the number hits the upper teens if not the twenties. And I don't think any one of them has ruined the character. And it doesn't make the old movies you may or may not have liked disappear.

I have a very specific vision of who and what Batman is. I've written about that before. But a new interpretation doesn't nullify those other versions. This was a big discussion when DC's New 52 initiative started, and a lot of fans were angry that the stories they had read, "didn't matter," anymore. And I'm sure if the internet existed at the time, we would have a similar reaction when Crisis On Infinite Earths happened. But DC staff said is true: that stories you love matter to you, and that's where it really counts. DC didn't come to my house and burn all my post-Crisis/pre-Flashpoint comics, and I can still revisit those versions of the character whenever I want.

When it comes to Batman on screen for me, I have a personal favorite vision. And it's not either Chrsitopher Nolan or Tim Burton. If you want the ideal Batman movie, you have to go no further then the oft-forgotten gem that is Batman: Mask of the Phantasm. It's the big screen movie from the creators of Batman: The Animated Series, and it is brilliant. It has a solid, coherent plot that doesn't crumble in the third act, some of the slickest animation you could imagine, and voice acting from Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill as Batman and Joker. It is moody,smart, and I'd wager half of you reading this haven't heard of it, and maybe half of you who have haven't seen it (it is available on DVD, and if you haven't seen it you should check it out). But I don't think I've ever seen a Batman more true to my vision than that one. But that didn't stop me from loving Christopher Nolan's vision of Gotham too.

And speaking of Batman: The Animated Series (B:TAS for short from here on out), let's briefly talk about Batman in animation. The last time I heard nerd rage nearly to this level was each time a new animated incarnation of Batman has been introduced since the run of B:TAS wrapped. I wasn't a huge fan of The Batman, although I warmed to it in its last couple of seasons. But I remember a major huff when the idea of Batman: The Brave and the Bold was introduced. A light, kid friendly Batman? "NOOO!" cried fandom, "Not Adam West again!" But after a couple episodes, I know I was completely sold, and I think a lot of other fans were too. It was a different take on the character, but Batman wasn't the joke in the series, and while he wasn't the dark avenger of B:TAS, he was a hero and played the straight man in a ridiculous, sci-fi world, and there was charm in that. And because fanboys never learn their lesson, when Beware the Batman was announced, there was a similar outcry. The computer animation, the special ops Alfred, the use of Katana; all seemed to stir up a lot of wrath. I'm still not completely sold on the animation, I prefer traditional to computer animation in most cases, or the actual design of Alfred, but I've enjoyed the series thus far, and plan an Animated Discussions on it shortly. It's a solid show, and the choice of villains have been really interesting.

I understand the casting of an actor and the complete reboot of a comic book universe or new animated series aren't a perfect analogy. There are additional elements at work in the movie casting, including the belief that the actor can't carry the role, or that it's stunt casting or favoritism. There's an intense feeling of possessiveness that comes with being a fan. And if you do choose to skip the new Superman/Batman movie because you feel that strongly about Ben Affleck, go for it. Stay home and rewatch Batman or The Dark Knight and once again experience those interpretations. But me? I'm willing to give it a shot. I might be surprised. Or I might hate it. But I'm gonna give someone else's Batman a shot for a bit and see what they have to show me.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 8/14

Batman #23
Story: Scott Snyder/ James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo/ Rafael Albuquerque

Zero Year continues on in the breakneck pace, with this issue paying off not only much of the set up from the previous two issues, but much of what was given us in Batman #0 from a year ago. The issue opens with the Red Hood gang invading Bruce's penthouse and basically beating the hell out of him and burning the penthouse, juxtaposed with Bruce falling into the caves below Wayne Manor. Bruce escapes into below Gotham, and makes his way through the subterranean caverns to Wayne Manor, where he is met by Alfred. The symmetry of the two events is presented beautifully, and Capullo is in top form. It's also wonderful to see Bruce find his way to the Manor and have Alfred waiting, affirming the strong relationship between them that Snyder has been writing since his first issue on the series. Snyder continues to tease the identity of the Red Hood Leader; based on classic continuity, it should be the Joker, and the beating with the crowbar he gives Bruce is a nod to Joker's beating of Jason Todd, and the dialogue sounds very Joker like, but I feel like Snyder might have an ace (or a Joker) up his sleeve when the big reveal comes. Also interesting are Phillip Kane's words to Riddler as he leaves his employ. I'm curious to see exactly what changes Snyder has made to the Riddler's background, and whether we'll see them in next month's Villain's Month Riddler issue.And the issue ends with one of the most iconic scenes from the Batman canon: the bat on the bust and the realization of what Bruce must be. Snyder adds his own twist on it, while maintaining touches from Batman: Year One, including Bruce talking to his father and the bell on the table, and it is still a powerful scene every time I've seen it done. This issue's backup, "The Pit," is about Bruce's physical training, and ties into the main piece by showing how Bruce can take such a savage beating, but also ties nicely into the eventual driving force behind what Bruce does: fear. While he won't kill, the driving, obsessive need to keep going inspires as much fear as the fear of death. And now, next issue, it's time for him to don the cowl for the first time. I can't wait.

Batman: Li'l Gotham #5
Story & Art: Dustin Nguyen & Derek Fridolfs

And on the other end of the Batman spectrum is Li'l Gotham. This is not just an incredibly fun book, but the perfect comic for those who miss the pre-Flashpoint Batman continuity. This is a delightfully all ages comic; it never talks down to its readers, and has great action, but is well suited for younger readers as well as those of us who like a superhero romp that isn't steeped in angst. The first of this month's two stories is a Mr. Freeze tale, about Freeze being released from Arkham and after having a good day, he decides to freeze the city in that state of perfection so when Nora awakes, she will find the perfect city. This is the tragic Freeze created by Paul Dini, not the more disturbed New 52 version, and I have a very soft spot for this incarnation of the character. Probably second only to Claremont's Magneto, this Freeze is a villain who you can empathize with, although he is clearly not exactly right in the head. The second story is a Cinco de Mayo tale (since this is a digital first comic, the holidays each story touches on are usually a couple months behind) of Red Robin, Robin, Katana, and Abuse (a Gotham vigilante who Damian befriended, a kid who was experimented on with Venom so he could grow to adult size, sort of a very angry Captain Marvel) trying to infiltrate Bane's gang. It's a light tale, and is cut with scenes of Batman, Huntress, Zatanna, and Red Hood playing Scrabble and Nightwing and Oracle out on a date. While I have embraced the New 52 and all its changes, these are the incarnations of these characters I grew up with, and to get a chance to see them again makes me smile. I love how Nguyen and Fridolfs find a way to write Damian as both bratty and endearing, and I like this incarnation of Katana, although part of me feels like she is taking the place of Cassandra Cain who is verboten by some strange DC fiat. If you want so fun Batman action without any continuity that you can share with anyone, I can't think of a better book.

Herobear and the Kid: The Inheritance #1
Story & Art: Mike Kunkel

Herobear and the Kid is one of those all ages books I missed the first time around, and have heard nothing but amazing things about. Now that BOOM! is publishing new material, I was hoping they would do exactly what they're doing, which is reprinting the original mini-series. The Inheritance is the original Herobear and the Kid story, initially selfpublished by creator Mike Kunkel. Tyler is ten, and he and his family have just moved into the house that belonged to his grandfather before he passed away. For a kids comic, it starts very frankly, at Tyler's grandfather's funeral, and is narrated beautifully by Tyler as he remembers his grandfather. When Tyler receives his inheritance, he is surprised to find it is just a stuffed bear and a broken pocketwatch. When Tyler goes to school, we see a lot of the typical schoolyard tropes: the geeky kid, the bully, the pretty girl. Kunkel handles all these characters well, but it's only after Tyler is soundly thrashed by the local bullies that he smacks the stuffed bear on the nose, and it spins around on its own and changes into a polar bear in a cape. That's the end of issue #1, so we haven't really gotten to meet Herobear yet, but Tyler is a likable protagonist, and this comic feels to me to be about the wonder of childhood and so a teddy bear superhero is a perfect vehicle for all that is special about childhood.

Saga #13
Story: Brian K. Vaughan
Art: Fiona Staples

Saga is back! It seems the time between new arcs on Brian K Vaughan and Fiona Staples space/fantasy/war/romance comic gets longer each time. This issue picks up a bit before the end of the last issue, setting up exactly how Marko, Alana, Hazel, and their extended family wound up on the planet Quietus in the home of D. Oswald Heist. The family dynamic with the addition of Marko's mother, Klara, is fun, as she clearly is not a fan of Alana, but after the death of her husband, she wants to stay with her family. There's some great action once the family arrive on Quietus, with living bones attacking them, and as Hazel points out in her narration, the first impression give by Heist is not the best, adding some humor to a tense scene. Meanwhile, The Will has crashed his ship and is stranded with Gwendolyn and Slave Girl. There's a Tracy and Hepburn banter going to between The Will and Gwendolyn that is clear to everyone but them, especially to the spirit of The Stalk, that seems to appear to The Will and tells him what she really wants for him. For an issue where there is very little action, a lot happens here, especially when The Will makes a statement at the end regarding Slave Girl. I think I've stated before that I think Vaughan is the master of the cliffhanger in comics, and while this issue's end isn't a jawdropper of WTF!!! proportion, it is the beginning of what I think is serious character evolution for The Will. The thrill of Saga has been how well wrought all the characters are, so this cliffhanger is actually more meaningful to me than a ship crashing into a blackhole.

The X-Files: Season 10 #3
Story: Joe Harris
Art:Michael Walsh

When it aired, I was a huge fan of The X-Files. I'm talking huge; watched every episode multiple times, owned all the novels, comics, episode guides, poured over it's arcane mythology. I stuck with it to the bitter end, and am one of probably eight people who saw the second feature film on the big screen (on the second weekend it was out (it opened opposite The Dark Knight. There was no competition there). And despite the lackluster last couple seasons, I had to admit a new season presented in comic form like Buffy and Angel, with show creator Chris Carter "executive producing" it, the same way Whedon does his comics, made me very curious. Three issues later, I'm actually pretty pleased. Writer Joe Harris has the character's voices pretty much dead on, and artist Michael Walsh, whose work on Comeback I loved, has their likenesses down while still putting it in his own style. The creators have quite a ways to go, since the series finale prophesied an alien invasion that never happened, and the mythology grew so complex by the end it took a map to find your way out of it, but Harris jumped in headfirst, with a mystery involving Mulder and Scully's son, William, long since given up for adoption, alien/human hybrids, and cults pursuing Scully. This issue brings back one of The X-Files most notorious characters, Cancer Man, the mysterious smoking man who seems to have all the answers. He and Mulder have a confrontation in a diner, and the dialogue given to the mystery man is so perfect I could hear Wiliam B. Davis's voice in my head. The last page gives a reveal that sends a shiver up my spine as it hearkens back to some of the best of the mythology episodes of the series, with Mulder unwrapping a gift from Cancer Man, who for once flat out makes a pronouncement about his relationship to Mulder. There's more going on with ol' CM than it seems, as he has now been killed twice and yet seems mostly fine, although there is a hint that he might not be as healthy as he seems. Scully, meanwhile, is running through the countryside with an alien to protect her from other aliens, and... yeah, it's good to be back in X-Files territory. Let's just hope that the truth is really out there this time, and not a whole lot of unanswerable mysteries.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Recommended Reading for 8/16: Stephen King's The Dark Tower

The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed.

Thus begins Stephen King's magnum opus, The Dark Tower, a seven book cycle that ties together the worlds of all the books that King has written. For, you see, The Dark Tower is the nexus of all reality, the thing that all worlds spin around. And dark forces are trying to bring it down, and only Roland Deschain, the last Gunslinger, can stop them by reaching the Tower first.

Now, the majority of what I'm going to be talking about today is the adaptation/expansion of the Dark Tower mythos that Marvel has done over the past few years. But I do want to talk about the series as a whole, because as with The Dresden Files, which I've written about in this space before, I come to The Dark Tower first as a fan of Stephen King and the novels themselves before reading the comics. And while I adore Harry Dresden and his world of Chicago, Roland and his ka-tet (that's a band drawn together by Ka, which is the word for fate, for those who don't speak the High Speech of All-World) have been a part of my life since I was fifteen, and I have a very special place in my heart for them.

All-World, the world where the land of Gilead resided before "the world moved on," as Roland often says, is a world that mixes various genres. There are Gunslingers who seem to be right out of the American old west, with big revolvers, jeans, and cowboy boots. But they quest and have manners resembling chivalrous knights of old far more than cowboys. And the world itself has remnants of technology, like gas pumps, robots, and lands blasted by radioactive fallout. And aside from these science and science fiction aspects, there are sorcerers, demons, and beast-men, tossing some fantasy into the mix.

Somehow all of these disparate elements come together to create a strange and seamless world. King's books take place mostly in a present where a middle aged Roland begins chasing a mysterious man in black who he is sure will give him the final clues he needs to find his way to the Dark Tower and answer about things from his past. But there are considerable flashbacks, especially in the first and fourth books of the series (most of the fourth book is one extended flashback), to Roland's youth, before the land of Gilead, his homeland, fell to the armies of a rebel named John Farson, called The Good Man. The comics adapt these flashbacks and expand them, filling in the gaps between the end of the flashback from Wizard and Glass, the fourth novel, and when we first met Roland in The Gunslinger, the first novel, which is fully adapted by the end of the comics.

The Dark Tower comic was divided into a series of mini-series, divided again by those just called The Dark Tower, telling the story of young Roland and the fall of Gilead, and Dark Tower- The Gunslinger, with an adult Roland. Roland is an anti-hero, a character who is at times very difficult to like. He is bullheaded, hard, and not entirely bright, although he has quite a bit of native cunning. What Roland does have that none of his friends do are the quickest hands and deadliest eye of any Gunslinger of his generation. Roland is a stone killer, and someone who, when he puts his mind to a task, nothing gets in his way.

The first mini-series, The Gunslinger Born, tells the story of Roland passing his test of manhood, and being sent on a mission with his two friends, Cuthbert Allgood and Alain Johns, to investigate the possibility of Farson establishing a foothold in one of the outer baronies and the town of Hambry. This story is the one of the closest to a traditional western, with the young men coming to a country town and finding a group of other gunslingers (not Gunslingers, mind, not the official knights of the land, but mercenaries who wield guns), serving the local mayor, but who are really Farson's agents. Roland also meets Susan Delgado, his first and greatest love. Their love is doomed from the beginning, and while Roland and his allies stop Farson's plan to use oil from the fields near Hambry to start up weapons and vehicles from the Old Ones (things like tanks), Susan is lost, killed by the townsfolk, and Roland is lost inside Maerlyn's Grapefruit, a pink seeing stone that grants the holder visions.

Cuthbert and Alain are Roland's constant companions throughout his youth, and are characters very different from Roland. Cuthbert has a sense of humor, something Roland is distinctly lacking, and is always trying to keep Roland from taking himself or any situation too seriously, but has a fiery temper that is set off at a moment's notice. Alain is cool headed and kind hearted, shorter and stocky, and fair haired to Cuthbert's tall, thin, and dark haired. Alain also possesses The Sight, a kind of combination of telepathy and prescience, something that Roland has a touch of but not as much as Alain. They are the two extremes that Roland rests in the middle of, and the three form a great friendship, although a strained one after the events in Hambry.

This story is the tale of the death of innocence, of Roland losing everything he held dear. The test of manhood is set off when he learns that his mother is being unfaithful to his father, and with his chief advisor, the wizard Marten Broadcloak. And even after he has attained manhood, and found someone to love, that youthful love that could have grown into something more, is snatched from his hands by the witch Rhea, who was the custodian of the Grapefruit, who manipulated the townsfolk into killing Susan as revenge for Roland taking the orb. Roland, born a child of privilege to a father who is the ruler of one of the greatest lands in In-World, is now stripped of everything, including possibly his own sanity.

The Long Road Home continues directly from the end of the previous series, and tells the story of Cuthebert and Alain bringing Roland's now insensate body back to Gilead, whose mind is still lost in dreams inside the Grapefruit. This story is the most surreal of any of the comics, as while half of it takes place on the physical long road, much of it takes place in the dreamlike End-World, a horrible blasted landscape. There Roland confronts Marten, who reveals himself to be far more than a traitor to Gilead, but a traitor to all life, serving an ancient evil called The Crimson King, a spiderlike demonic force whose only goal is the complete destruction of the Dark Tower and the casting of all reality into chaos. Artist Jae Lee does a tremendous job crafting the monstrous world of the dream, and the horror of the half human/half spider Crimson King, who Roland must also face. He is aided by Sheemie Ruiz, a young man, born retarded, who he met in Hambry, who was granted amazing psychic powers by a device of the Old Ones. Sheemie is one of the most important characters in the entire mythos, and this mini-series is the time where the origin of his powers, never explained in the books, is revealed.

I've mentioned Marten a couple times, and I think before I continue, I'll talk a little more about him. Marten, the Dark Man, the Man of Many Names, is one of my favorite characters in all of King's work, and possibly in all of literature. He is the fly in the ointment in many of King's work, known variously as Walter O'Dim, Flagg, and Randall Flagg, the chief villain in King's greatest single novel, The Stand. An ancient, immortal shapeshifter, Marten sows discord wherever he goes for the sheer pleasure of it. He serves the Crimson King, but only so far as it serves his own purposes. A mysterious figure who only pops up for a few pages here and there to create more chaos and to push various pawns, especially John Farson who believes himself to be in charge of the rebellion, but instead is a pawn of Marten, the one shot The Sorcerer is Marten's story, revealing bits of his origin and his motives. The story does nothing to try to expiate Marten's sins, or to explain his tortured past; Marten is a villain through and through, and not entirely human. This one shot is drawn by Richard Isanove, who inks every issue in all the series that he does not draw himself, giving the various artists a consistent feel, and he does a tremendous job when given the solo reins, with a style similar to Jae Lee without aping his work, and giving it a dark style suited to Marten's black heart.

The final three miniseries of the first half of The Dark Tower comics. Treachery, The Fall of Gilead, and The Battle of Jericho Hill, are a continuous narrative of the destruction of Gilead and the loss of all of Roland's friends. These stories are stories of loss and obsession, two of the central themes of The Dark Tower, as Roland becomes the last man standing. Treachery introduces the last of the truly important characters to these stories, Aileen Ritter, niece and ward of Cort, the man who trains young Gunslingers, and who wishes to be a Gunslinger herself, even though it is forbidden for women to do so. Aileen is a study in unrequited desire, as not only is the life she wants out of reach, but the man she has always harboured feelings for now completely out of reach, as Roland, her secret love, is now in total mourning for Susan. Aileen is tough, smart, and a counterpoint to Roland's mother, Gabrielle, who is sad and broken, made into nothing more than a pawn for Marten's cruel games against Roland and Roland's father, Steven.

Throughout Treachery and The Fall of Gilead, all of the established guardians of Gilead and The White, the force of good, are systematically slaughtered by Farson and his agents. Cort and Vannay, Roland's teachers are murdered using poison and treachery. The fathers of all Roland's friends are killed in a series of ambushes, and despite escaping, Steven Deschain is killed by a traitor in his own keep. All of this as Roland wrestles with having accidentally killed his own mother after a vision from the Grapefruit tricked him into seeing her as Rhea, the swamp witch. Now a matricide, Roland still must lead his friends out of the wreck of Gilead and lead them on the quest, the one he has decided to take up after his visions, the quest to climb the Dark Tower and see what waits at its top.

The Battle of Jericho Hill is an event that was hinted at in the books, and a small fraction of it shown, but the mini-series that bears its name gives the complete lead up and the actual battle. Set nine years after the fall of Gilead, Roland and his ka-tet have been wandering, searching for the Dark Tower and fighting Farson's forces whenever they can. But in a story that parallels the betrayal of Steven Deschain by people within his own camp, one of Roland's followers sells him out to Marten, who sets up the battle, with Roland's drastically outnumbered Gunslingers at the top of the hill, and an army of Farson's men beneath. Alain is killed the night before, accidentally shot by Roland and Cuthbert as he came to tell them of what awaited, and Cuthbert is killed by Marten, having taken a new form and name, Rudin Filaro, but dies with a laugh on his lips. As the series ends, Roland pulls himself from a charnel pit, where he has been tossed with the rest of his friends, alone and ready to take up the quest for the tower on his own.

The second half of the comic cycle, The Dark Tower- The Gunlsinger, is nearly entirely adaptation of the first Dark Tower novel as well as the novella, "The Little Sisters of Eluria." The first arc, The Journey Begins, is an original story. It tells of how Roland began chasing Marten, the Man in Black, and of the death of Aileen, the only other survivor of the Battle of Jericho Hill. Roland also meets a woman who bears a striking resemblance to Susan Delgado, who he saves from a group of Not Men, beings who can turn invisible, and while he has a chance to stay with her, he again leaves and heads after Marten.

Following the aforementioned adaptation of "The Little Sisters of Eluria," the final three mini-series are an adaptation of the non-flashback sequences from The Gunslinger. The Battle of Tull, The Way Station, and The Man In Black tell the tale of Roland's final crossing of the great desert and his confrontation with the Man in Black. Along the way he massacres the entire town of Tull, which has been taken under the Man in Black's thrall, meets a young boy named Jake Chambers who has come from one of the other worlds that circles the Tower, and then sacrifices the boy to finally confront the Man in Black, and have the palaver that gives Roland all the information that he needs to begin his final march to the Dark Tower. Again, we see Roland as an implacable force, and if given the choice between saving someone who depends on him, and making it to the Tower, for Roland there is no choice.

These final stories take the Roland who was a young man with some foolish aspirations, and shows the final result of all the loss he has experienced. Roland is now something that has lost nearly all his human feeling. He has no love left, and next to no compassion. All that is left is the quest for the Dark Tower. It's a tragedy, with a sad ending. It's interesting if you encounter these stories after you have read the novels, which is the story, among other things, of redemption and of Roland reattaining everything he loses over the course of his youth. These stories end with Roland at one of his darkest points, at his least heroic.

If you are also a fan of the novels, you will notice some differences between the events as recounted in the original novels and in the comics; the continuities of Roland's past don't exactly line up, and even events right out of the books don't always seem exactly the same. There is a reason for this, once you would understand if you had read through the books, and so I recommend if you start the comics and really enjoy them to start reading the novels from the beginning, not to skip the first novel because you've read the adaptation already.

Aside from Jae Lee and Richard Isanove, who drew many of the stories, various other A List artists came in to draw the later arcs. Sean Phillips and Michael Lark draw the gritty tales in The Journey Begins and The Battle of Tull respectively, and their styles work well with the wasted Western landscapes of the Mid-World Roland travels through. Alex Maleev draws The Man in Black, and his dark, angular style is suited for Roland's mystical journey with Walter/Marten/what have you. And while Stephen King provided the source material and advice, the admirable and daunting task of the actual adaptations came from Robin Furth, King's assistant, who provided the plots as well as backmatter available in the single issues, and Peter David, who scripted the majority of the stories, although Furth plotted and scripted many of the side one-shots.

The Dark Tower is a story about fate and choice, about redemption and damnation, and about good versus evil. It is long, sprawling, and influenced by many of the great works of fiction, from Robert Browning's epic poem, "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came" (where King drew his title and a skeleton of the idea of where the books ended), The Lord of the Rings, and Marvel Comics, as well as drawing in characters and places from many of King's works, and the author himself in a very meta sequence. It's something to be read, reread, and savored. And if you've never read it, if you've never read any King, this might be a good place to get a start. Long Days and Pleasant Nights to you, one and all.

The entire run of the main Dark Tower stories is available in hardcover and in print. All but the final volume, The Man in Black, are also available in paperback, with The Man in Black coming this October. A final volume collecting the associated one shots will be released around the same time as a collection called Last Shots. The final of these shorter pieces, So Fell Lord Perth, was released last week, and if you are a fan or want the full experience, it's worth tracking down the singles to get Robin Furth's notes and stories of the mythology of the Dark Tower world in the back of each issue.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Reviews of Comics From Wednesday 8/7

All-New X-Men #15
Story: Brian Michael Bendis
Art: David Lafuente

I admit freely, I was a major skeptic when Brian Michael Bendis's young original X-Men time travel All-New X-Men was announced. What didn't occur to me was that the best thing Bendis has ever written that wasn't crime comics was Ultimate Spider-Man, a book that wonderfully portrayed teenage heroes and teenage life in general. So now that the young original X-Men have settled in, its time for an issue that is really just about the kids being teenagers. While Scott and Bobby go out for an afternoon at the local street fair, Jean spends some time with the Beasts, both young and old. The scenes with Scott and Bobby are cute, with the two of them having a little time travel anxiety and then young Scott dealing with the fame of his older self, as well as meeting girls who don't think mutants are a bad thing. Bobby is light and glib, Scott is awkward and brooding. Bendis has the voices of these characters down pat. But more interesting and even better written are the scenes with Jean. Jean has been discovering her expanded powers, and her lack of control of her telepathy reveals something about Hank McCoy the elder, remembering the crush he had on Jean when he was her age. So Jean goes to young Hank, and the two of them share a moment. But that moment isn't exactly what it seems, as Jean returns to her room to look at an element of her future. Jean's time with Hank seems to be as much about denying the darkness of the future they see as anything else, a future made all too clear by her running into Rachel Grey. David Lafuente does a great job with all of this issue, but the scenes with Rachel and Jean are pure gold, drawn with a bit of wit and some sadness as they both deal with something they never thought they would. With the "Battle of the Atom" crossover set to begin next month, this is a calm before the storm for the young X-Men, let's hope they all survive the experience.

Atomic Robo: Real Science Adventures #9
Story: Brian Clevinger
Art: Ryan Cody & Leela Wagner

The second Real Science Adventures arc continues, introducing more of the legendary heroes of the late 19th century into the war with the Black Coats. This issue we meet the amusingly Mulder-esque Charles Fort, father of paranormal investigation, Secret Service Agent Winfield-Scott Lovecraft (yes, father of THAT Lovecraft), and master escapologist Ehrie Weiss, better known as Harry Houdini. The three of them are investigating Swamp Men, something Fort believes in entirely, but instead stumble across the Black Coats, the soldiers of the cabal Tesla and his allies have been fighting the past couple issues. Houdini and Lovecraft are men of action, and artists Cody and Wagner do a great job of drawing them ducking, avoiding, and fighting the Black Coats. Meanwhile, the bookish Fort stands opposed to them, hoping to find some non-action way out of their predicament, to no avail. In the end, with the information they have gleaned, Fort comes up with an... interesting theory as to what the Black Coats are up to, as Tesla enters the scene. While Atomic Robo himself doesn't appear in this arc, Brian Clevinger has kept all the action and fun that makes Robo one of the best books on the rack, while adding the additional fun of this alternate history.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 7/31

Detective Comics Annual #2
Story: John Layman & Joshua Williamson
Art: Scot Eaton, Szymon Kudranski, Derlis Santacruz

Some years ago, Dan Slott, best known for his work on Amazing/Superior Spider-Man as well as other Marvel books, wrote some great Batman stories, mostly in the animated series title, Batman Adventures. But he also wrote a really creepy mini-series called Arkham Asylum: Living Hell, which not only had some great uses of classic Bat villains, but introduced a bunch of new ones, most of whom have been underused or not at all used. This years Detective Comics Annual takes one of these villains and introduces her into the New 52: Jane Doe, who has no identity of her own and takes the identities, skins, and skills of her victims. Its a very Batman villain concept, and John Layman, regular Detective Comics writer, and co-writer Joshua Williamson, don't change the formula. Instead we get Batman playing detective, trying to find out who Jane has replaced while also dealing with the Wrath killings that are happening in the main story in the monthly series. What I really enjoyed was the annual was divided into interconnected stories. The first is the traditional Batman versus a villain story, which is a well orchestrated little piece. The others deal with the ramifications of what happened in that story. One story deals with Jane Doe in Arkham, and we get a little more a view of exactly what she in from her own point of view. The last story deals with Jane's surviving final victim, and how he or she deals with seeing what Jane did with his or her life. I don't want to say who it is, but it was a great reveal at the ending to the main story, and seeing exactly how one's life is affected by supervillains is something we usually don't see from more common person, so its a nice touch, especially in an issue that deals so much with identity.

Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray #5
Story: Frank J. Barbiere
Art: Chris Mooneyham

The first arc on the now ongoing Five Ghosts: The Haunting of Fabian Gray wraps up with our title hero making peace with his past and the ghosts that haunt him, both literally and metaphorically. While Fabian faces down the Vampire, who seems to have his sister, imprisoned, in the final test, Shangri-la is under siege, with Fabian's friend, Sebastian, at risk from the attacking sorcerer. The inner battle Fabian has with the Vampire is less important than the peace he makes with the loss of Sylvia, his sister. Not that Fabian has given up his quest to find her, far from it, but he now has a drive to do good beyond that. If this had been the end of the series, it would have been a great place to leave him, but knowing that more is coming makes it all the more exciting, especially with the hints of the mysterious cabal that has been hunting Fabian. Chris Mooneyham's art, which has been excellent so far, kicks up into a new and even more incredible gear. The scenes in the dreamscape, as Fabian fights the Vampire and sees his sister are ethereal and gorgeous, and his battle in the real world with the swordsman/sorcerer is one of the most dynamic fight scenes I've seen in comics in a long time. While I'm trying to keep my comic consumption at a stable level, I'm very excited that I can add this book to my list of ongoing titles; Five Ghosts is a definite keeper.

Indestructible Hulk #11
Story: Mark Waid
Art: Matteo Scalera

Indestructible Hulk has been a solid book since its inception, but has stood in the shadow of Mark Waid's excellent run on Daredevil for me. This new issue, the beginning of the "Agent of T.I.M.E." arc, feels like the start of the breakout arc. This book has been a mix of superheroics and sci-fi, so a Hulk heading into the timestream to help fix the mess that the Avengers made of the it in Age of Ultron fits with the book's mission statement.  Before the time travel and Hulking-out, we get some great scenes between Bruce Banner and Maria Hill; Hill and Banner butt heads pretty much constantly, and I really enjoy the adversarial relationship between them. The appearance of Arthur Zarrko, a C-List Marvel time travel villain also known as the Tomorrow Man sets up the plot, and explains some of the interesting things Waid has been doing with Hulk. I haven't read a lot of Hulk since Peter David left, with the exception of an arc or two here and there, so I don't know exactly what the relationship between Bruce and his ex-wife Betty is right now, other than the fact that she's a Red She-Hulk, but Waid puts her to an interesting use in the issue. And the idea of Banner's consciousness travelling in a robot with the Hulk, and the two having to interact, is a very cool one too. Mark Waid made good use of time travel in his legendary run on The Flash, so I'm excited to see more of what he does in this arc. Oh, the above cover is the variant, by the way, but as a Revolutionary War buff, I had to choose it. Can't you just picture the Hulk screaming, "NO, John Hancock! Hulk will sign first!"

Scartch 9: Cat Tails #1
Story: Rob M. Worley
Art: Shannon Eric Dento, Justin Casteneda, Caanan Grall, Mike Roll, Jason T. Kruse

Scratch 9 returns with an anthology featuring a story for each of house cat Scratch's nine lives, each with a different artist. The original Scratch 9 series was a charming, action filled romp perfect for all ages, and the new incarnation is just as much fun, but the short story format allows writer Rob M. Worley to stretch his artistic legs and tell different kinds of stories. Each of this first issue's four tales have a completely different flavor, which makes sense as each cat is very different. The story of D'Argent, the black and white French cat who can spread both good and bad luck, is a sweet story of him helping a human friend find love. Ix, the cat from the far future with the hyper-evolved brain, breaks the fourth wall and shows the reader some fun interactive number/letter games and optical illusions. Gargogga, the smilodon (that's sabre-toothed tiger in layman's terms), wanders the cold winter of prehistoria, where the last of the smilodons shows just how big his heart is. And in my favorite tale of the issue, Bektah, the guardian cat of a young Pharaoh, must save his young master from his own ill chosen words when a demon takes him up on an offer made rashly. And all of that is framed by one page intros featuring Scratch's supporting cast in homage to all manner of classic TV hosts, from Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone to Masterpiece Theatre. I have an affinity for all ages comics, anyone who has read more than a couple posts on here knows that, and the original Scratch 9 really grabbed me, so I was glad to get my hands on this new issue. If you are a cat lover, or a lover of any fun animal story, this is a comic well worth trying.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Animated Discussion: Justice League- The Flashpoint Paradox

Flashpoint was the last crossover of the pre-New 52 DC Universe, the story that lead into the reboot of the DC Universe, so the idea of an animated adaptation of it struck me as something of an odd choice. Without all the continuity leading up to it and spinning out of it, exactly what would be the point of the story. I'm pleased to say that screenwriter James Krieg was able to take the best parts of Geoff Johns's story and streamline it into an action packed movie.

The Flashpoint Paradox, while bannered as a Justice League story, is really a Flash story. This is probably because of sales, since the sales on the DC Animated films not Batman, Superman, or Justice League have been less than stellar. Still, this story sees Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash, awaken in an altered reality, one much darker than the world he remembers. He travels the planet, meeting different versions of the heroes and villains he has known, and trying to find a way to get the timestream back on track, before either his memories of the real world fade away or the world is obliterated in the war between the Atlanteans and the Amazons.

One of the main problems with Flashpoint as a comic was that it never seemed to find its pace: it meandered often, giving little nods to its massive number of tie-ins, and at other times sped through scenes that would have been interesting and given the reader a better feeling for the characters who were central to the story. Putting it into animation with a limited amount of time really allowed a writer to look at what was important and tell a solid story about the Flash and Batman (or this world's Batman) teamed up and trying to save the world. It also removes some of the very complicated, hard continuity, making a story that doesn't revolve heavily around a detailed knowledge of the Flash, Reverse Flash, and their rivalry and power sets.

While other of the DC Animated films have shown violence that they couldn't get away with on broadcast television, cable or not, Flashpoint Paradox takes that to a new dimension. The battle scenes between the Amazons and the Resistance and the Atlanteans are intense, with plenty of blood and clear death. The final battle especially, a major throwdown between Wonder Woman, Shazam, and Aquaman, is shocking in how brutal it is, with the death of the participants being something you don't see in a lot of animation. The final fate of the Reverse Flash is one of the more graphic animated moments I've ever seen, and frankly I don't quite know how they pulled off a PG-13.

While I try not to talk too much about plot in these Animated Discussions features when I'm talking about an adaptation, I really have to spend a little time discussing the alternate Batman. The Batman of this world is not Bruce Wayne, you see. Bruce Wayne died in the alley that fateful night. Batman is now Thomas Wayne, Bruce's father, who is a much darker Batman. He has no problem with guns and with killing villains.But the beautiful thing is that, when the chance comes to change time to save his son, despite his own death, he doesn't blink. While the world of Flashpoint is a seriously dark one, there are hints of hope that weave through it, mostly thanks to Barry Allen's coming, and so it's nice to see that no matter how dark the world, a batman will always take the part of saving an innocent.

The animation style in this feature is by far the most anime influenced of any of the previous DC Animated films. I spent a while trying to picture exactly where I had scene this style before, and by the middle it hit me: it is very similar to the sci-fi noir anime called Big O. It feels like a mix of Batman: The Animated Series with more traditional anime, with very taut action and great movement, with character designs that have an anime design. I know that some people are turned off by the anime style, but it very much works with this film, and its strange, otherworldly version of the DC Universe.

I was also pleased with the voice acting in the film. With the DC Animated features that have mostly new casts, there is a concern that they won't hit the right notes when so many of the characters have established voices in other works. One of the pluses of the alternate world setting is allowing those changes to be part of the setting. Kevin McKidd does an amazing job as Thomas Wayne/Batman making the voice both recognizable as Batman, with that typical growl that everyone since Kevin Conroy (who does appear as the "real universe" Batman, by the way) has used, but giving it the wait of age that would come through with Thomas. Justin Chambers's Barry Allen fits in both of the worlds, filled with the hope he symbolizes in the Flashpoint-Earth and a part of the Justice League in the real one. And C. Thomas Howell's Professor Zoom, the Reverse Flash, is perfect, a complete madman whose voice drips with that insanity and with an arrogance that fits Zoom's character.

Flashpoint Paradox isn't a film for everyone. The violence and the hanging cloud of hopelessness are going to turn off some viewers. But if you make it through to the end, there is much to be said about hope in it. Even moreso than the actual ending of the comic, the chance for Barry to be reunited with his love, Iris, something that the altered comic universe didn't allow, is a heartwarming moment. And the final scene between Barry and Bruce Wayne, taken pretty much word for word from that final scene in the comic, shows that even the darkness can give a hint of light that no one ever expected.