Friday, May 31, 2013

Recommended Reading for 5/31: Excalibur by Warren Ellis


Nostalgia is a big part of pretty much any fandom, and I think many comic fans are very guilty of it, me included. Things we once loved, we look at with ruby quartz colored glasses. I've gone back and reread some runs that I loved when I was in high school and even college and wondered what I was thinking. But some of those runs really do hold up. I am glad to say Warren Ellis's run on Excalibur is one of the runs that holds up pretty darn well.

When Excalibur first came out, it was a very tangential X-Men comic, about a team of European mutants and superheroes working together in Great Britain. Sure, Nightcrawler and Shadowcat, two mainstays of the X-titles, and Phoenix, a newer addition but with quite a heavy link to the franchise, were in the comic, but it was removed from the main events of the Marvel Universe and the X-Men titles by oceans, and never took part in the annual X-events. It was also a light and somewhat goofy title, with all sorts of crazy villains and reality hopping exploits. Writer Scott Lobdell, writer of Uncanny X-Men and a sort of pinch hitter for the X-line in the 90s, came in and started tying it more into the main books with a tie-in to the "Fatal Attractions"crossover in issue #71 and wrote a few more issues before a relative newcomer to American comics took over with issue #83: Warren Ellis.

This is really written by a proto-Ellis. The character accents are a bit thick, and the British slang is heavily used; I don't think six pages go by without someone being called a git, or toerag, or scab. It's the most traditional superhero book that exists among his canon, tying into events going on in the X-Men universe and tying up and continuing a lot of plot threads left dangling by previous creators. But there's glimpses of the "real" Ellis in here: his snarky, clever wit, his crazy ideas, and above all, the Ellis anti-hero. In this case, that character is one of my favorites in all the Marvel Universe, and one of Ellis's great creations, the mutant spy Pete Wisdom.

I talked a lot about Wisdom in my recommendation for Captain Britain and MI13, but I'm going to talk about him some more here. Wisdom is the prototypical Ellis anti-hero: hard smoking, hard drinking, with a caustic sense of humor, and a past that haunts him. He's not necessarily a hero, and he has done some bad things, but underneath it all, he is a good man. His mantra is, "It needs doing," a way to justify to himself and his own cynicism the good he does for others. There are bits of Spider Jerusalem, Jenny Sparks, Elijah Snow, and all the other trenchcoat wearing Ellis protagonists in Wisdom, who is their forebear (it can be argued as well that they all draw from John Constantine, especially is you look at Ellis's own Planetary #7, but Ellis wrote Wisdom before he got to write Constantine, so I see him as Ellis's first attempt to properly hit that character type).

What makes Wisdom different from so many late 80s and early 90s anti-heroes is his genuine reluctance to kill any longer. When readers first meet Wisdom, he is in a field of dead terrorists, all of whom he has massacred. And Wisdom has collapsed in tears. He truly wants to find a better way, and he finds it by joining Excalibur. He isn't an unrepentant killer like Punisher, and the things he did in his shady past he can't chalk up to mind control like Wolverine. He did everything he did as an agent of British intelligence for queen and country, and he wants to put that behind him now. I think that is part of what drew me to him; I'm a sucker for a character in search of redemption.

Wisdom found his redemption in Kitty Pryde, the X-Woman known as Shadowcat. Kitty was the junior X-Man when she was in the States, joining the team at thirteen, and being everyone's little sister. But she had come into her own somewhat over the course of Excalibur, and Ellis took this to the next step. He played Kitty as smart, confident, with a nasty temper she did her best to keep in check, and with a sense of humor to match Pete Wisdom's brittle one. And he had the two of them fall in love. It wasn't always an easy relationship, with the two starting out adversarially and even after they got together, Wisdom being at times reserved in how he let his feelings show, but they worked brilliantly as a couple. They were the heart and soul of Excalibur, and worked so well, they got their own spinoff mini-series, but more on that later.


Being that this is an X-title, Ellis clearly had more characters to write than just Pryde and Wisdom. Excalibur founding members Nightcrawler, Megann, and Captain Britain were still there, but each had changed since the founding of the book. Nightcrawler had become the team leader, and Ellis showed him to really trying to do his best to lead the team in the right direction. Over the course of the run, he, along with Carlos Pacheco, one of numerous artist's along the way, gave Nightcrawler the first major makeover the character had in his nearly fifteen year history. Captain Britain, Brian Braddock, had recently returned from being lost in the timestream, and had taken the new name Britannic. Brian seemed to be following a similar path of change as Wisdom, as he wanted out of the superhero game, and was trying to get back to being a scientist. This, of course, doesn't work exactly as he planned, but it shows a different side to a character who had often been played as headstrong and cocky before. Megann was often a cipher who was there as a supporting character for her boyfriend, then fiancee, Captain Britain. But Ellis expanded her power set, focusing on her elemental abilities, making her one of the most powerful members of the team, and spending time talking about how the previously illiterate Megann was learning to read. It's a small subplot, and is never used as a club, but Ellis does use it to show Megann's joy in learning and generally about the importance of the written word.

Along with these characters, Ellis inherited a couple of recent additions to the team. Excalibur had come to operate off of Muir Island, a fictional island that housed the research facility of Moira MacTaggert, geneticist and ally to the X-Men. At the time of the series, Moira was hunting for the cure to the Legacy Virus, a disease that had been designed to kill mutants and had recently been contracted by its first human victim: Moira herself. Moira had often been a character who was shown as haunted, having lost her mutant son to his own powers, and made some questionable decisions, but now she was in a fight for her life. Moira was shown as strong, and fierce, but still sad in her way. Along with Moira came Dr. Rory Campbell, a psychologist who had been working with Moira on some of the problem mutants in the island, and who was being haunted by a vision of the future where he became the mutant hating villain Ahab. Rory is working with a mutant called Spoor, a villain who affects emotions, and things do not go in Rory's favor. Watching Rory agonize over the possible dark fate is one of the best subplots, and one that never was paid off after Ellis's deaprture other than a few vague references. There was also Douglock, a techno-organic being with a past so convoluted it had to be from an X-Men comic, and who was now a Pinocchio type figure, the little metal boy who wanted to be real. And finally, Daytripper, Nightcrawler's girlfriend and sorceress.

And if that wasn't enough, two more characters were added to the mix during Ellis's run. Wolfsbane had been a member of other X-teams X-Factor and the New Mutants, but came back to Muir Island when she learned her guardian, Moira, was ill. She became an innocent amongst the team, often set against Wisdom's cynicism, but she also had a very sweet relationship with Douglock, whose physical appearance was based on Doug Ramsey, a dead mutant she had been friends with. And another classic X-Man joined some of his fellows: Colossus. Having recently abandoned the X-Men to join Magneto's Acolytes, Colossus came to Muir to rekindle his relationship with Shadowcat, only to find her with Wisdom. A fight ensued, and neither exactly came out better for it. But over the course of the next year's worth of issues, Ellis worked to redeem Colossus, having him work through some of the issues that lead to his defection, and to his erratic behavior over the past few years worth of stories.


One of the best parts of this run is the amount of time spent character building. There are a few issues where very little "action" takes place, or where there are no supervillains, and the conflict is character based. The highlight of these issues is #91. After the action packed "Dream Nails Trilogy," Pete Wisdom and Kitty Pryde, now just becoming a couple, want to go out to a pub. The entire team winds up going with them, and the issue is really a story about these people getting to know each other. We see just how much the Legacy Virus research is haunting Moira. We see Rahne, who was raised by a frightening reverend before being taken in by Moira, get her first visit to a pub and learn its not all about drunken debauchery. The demonic looking Nightcrawler is surprised and pleased to be accepted by the locals, showing that not everyone judges books by their covers. And we see Kitty and Pete reveal to the team that they are a couple, and see when Nightcrawler and Captain Britain corner Wisdom and give him a talking to about what will happen if he hurts her. The issue introduces the Chalk and Cheese, a pub that will become Excalibur's answer to Harry's Hideaway, the bar the X-Men hang out in, and it's proprietors, Jack Crossan and his daughter, Annie, old friends of the MacTaggert family. It's a sweet, smart issue, with some very funny bits and great dialogue.

Two issues later, Ellis spent time doing an issue that dealt with the tried and true theme of all X-Men related comics: racial intolerance. Wolfsbane, Megann, and Shadowcat spot a fire from Muir Island and upon reaching the mainland, find that it's being caused by a young girl with pyrokinetic abilities. They learn quickly that the girl was discovered to be a mutant and is being shunned by the people of her town, something that strikes a chord with Wolfsbane, who was chased from her village by people with pitchforks and torches, lead by her guardian the Reverend Craig, calling her the spawn of Satan. Rahne learns that this girl was also found out and exposed by Craig, and goes to confront the reverend. A powerful scene follows, where Rahne enters the church and stands up to the man who has haunted her for her entire life, and reveals something she has learned: Craig is her biological father, having hidden his indiscretion with her mother. Rahne is able to walk away from Craig with her head held high, and the hypocritical man of God broken. It's a beautifully crafted scene, and takes the usual mutant/human confrontation to a more deeply personal level than it usually is.

While these single issues are excellent, Ellis also built a big plot that stretched from his first issue all the way into issue 100. The hints were there at the beginning, and were revealed bit by bit. It involved Black Air, the British agency that investigated the paranormal (Pete Wisdom's employer when we first met him), the London Hellfire Club, and the sorceress Margali Szardos, Nightcrawler's adoptive mother. Issue #94 was a flashforward to 2013 (yup, this very year, ladies and gents), provided by Captain Britain's returning memories of his time lost in the timestream, and it began the endgame. Issues 96-100 were a big five issue story that tied up all these threads, connecting them into a story of demons and chaos. There's plenty of Ellis touches, with mythic hidden demons below London, an entirely new Hellfire Club, conspiracies, and certain revelations about Kitty's pet Dragon Lockheed. I don't want to give any of it away, but if you're an Ellis fan, you won't be disappointed.


The story that most reads like something fans would recognize as a Warren Ellis story was his three issue spin off mini-series, Pryde and Wisdom. A call from Mr. Jardine, a friend of Pete's in criminal intelligence, has Pete and Kitty arriving in London to try to find a mutant serial killer before Jardine's daughter, a journalist, gets herself killed hunting him. Ellis uses Jardine, a character introduced in Excalibur, as well as introduces a host of unusual supporting characters for Wisdom, including his paranoid ex-policeman father and hippy-sorceress sister and Department F.66, Scotland Yard's Department of Unusual Death. F.66 is populated by wackos and washouts to investigate murders that have a paranormal leaning, and they all make Fox Mulder look like the model of sanity and restraint. The murders wind up having a strange religious significance, and the plot eventually introduces an alchemist who could have been England's Charles Xavier is she wished, or so she claims. the conglomeration of weird and wild ideas, many just touched on to move the screwball plot forward is Ellis in his purest form. Toss in the crackling dialogue between the series two leads, and their undeniable Nick and Nora Charles chemistry, and this is one of the great under appreciated gems of the mid-90s.

The art over the course of this run is somewhat more problematic to discuss. Over the course of twenty one issues (not counting Pryde and Wisdom) , there are no fewer than twelve artists, with some issue shaving as many as four pencilers. This wasn't a case of chapter one by one artist, chapter two by another; scenes would sometimes be split between artists, with a fight scene starting out with the classic superhero stylings of early Ken Lashley and finished in the highly stylized work of Larry Stroman (as a side note, I find it funny that something that nowadays gets huge commentary on-line wasn't really blinked at in the pre-widespread comics internet days of the early 90s). Still, there are some very notable artists involved. Ken Lashley, who still does work for DC today, was the regular penciler at the beginning of Ellis's run. Terry Dodson did a few pages here and there, and was one of the principal artists on Pryde and Wisdom. Carlos Pacheco was regular artists from issue #95 until 103, Ellis's final issue, but only worked on about half of those issues; still, his work was stunning. The artist who did the most pages throughout the run was Casey Jones, who did outstanding work. His Pete Wisdom is the one I always picture when I think about the character, and while I think it was Pacheco who designed the London Hellfire Club members, Jones drew the hell out of them. He has since left comics to do design work for Disney, and I miss his work.

Excalibur was a different book than most of its contemporaries during the mid-90s. It didn't get bogged down and lost in its continuity and crossovers, but served as a character spotlight for writer Warren Ellis and an eclectic group of mutants and their allies. It mixed action with drama and comedy to create an enjoyable and memorable series. While Ellis has gone one to work on bigger projects, most of which I have loved, Excalibur holds a special place in my heart.

The majority of Ellis's Excalibur run has been collected in three volumes of Excalibur Visionsaries: Warren Ellis. These trades not only have all 21 issues written by Ellis, but Pryde and Wisdom and Starjammers, a mini-series featuring the X-Men's space pirate allies tied into Excalibur by a common antagonist, an alien race created by Ellis called The Uncreated.These trades are out of print, but can still be found at many comic shops. Uncollected in these trades was X-Calibre, the "Age of Apocalypse" title that replaced Excalibur for the four months all X-titles were shifted into an alternate universe. If interested, those issues would be collected amongst the four volumes of Marvel's Complete Age of Apocalypse trade series.

Monday, May 27, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 5/22


Aquaman #20
Story: John Ostrander
Art: Manuel Garcia

John Ostrander's return to DC Comics is this fun issue of Aquaman, focusing on The Others, the team of new heroes series regular writer Geoff Johns introduced in his second arc. We spent some time with The Others in that arc, but since Aquaman was present for so much of that story, they were playing second banana to him, which makes sense, because it's his comic. But this issue he has just a cameo, so we get to see new sides of The Others. The Operative, super spy extraordinaire, has some serious issues with his family. We learn more about the secret loves of Ya'wara, the warrior woman. And while we don't learn more about the Prisoner-of-War, we get to see him in action again, with his ghost soldiers fighting an army of skinwalkers. The team also gains a new member, taking up one of the Atlantean artifacts left by the two members who dies in the previous arc, Sky Alchesay, a Native American with the ability to talk to the spirit world. The plot itself is a simple one, with The Others sent to retrieve an Atlantean weapon, and Sky lead to them by the spirit of her mother, but it does a good job of letting new readers understand who The Others are. It feels like Ostrander is setting up future plotlines for them, including who will replace the other lost member of the team and take up the Helmet, the last artifact. I hope that Ostrander is given the chance, maybe with a mini-series to spend more time with these interesting new characters.



Batman: Li'l Gotham #2
Story & Art: Dustin Nguyen & Derek Fridolfs

With so few all ages books left in the DC line since the cancellation of Superman Family Adventures and Young Justice, I'm glad to have this family friendly Batman comic. The second holiday themed issue features Christmas and New Year's stories. The Christmas story is a Batman and Nightwing adventure, as they rescue children kidnapped by Mr. Freeze. But like most good Mr. Freeze stories using the classic Paul Dini origin, there's more to the kidnapping, and the end of the story is heartwarming. The New Year's story is a tale of the Gotham City Sirens, as Catwoman, Poison Ivy, and Harley Quinn spend the night after New Year's midnight on a New Year's Revolution. Catwoman tries to turn over a new leaf, but after saving animals from experimentation, stealing toys for orphans, and stealing snacks for the love of it, that resolution goes the same way my annual one to spend less on comics does, and goes right out the window. The stories are pure fun, with the usual gorgeous art from Nguyen and Fridolfs. Yes, it's nearly summer, but what better way to stay cool than to read about winter in Gotham?



Green Lantern #20
Story: Geoff Johns
Art: Doug Mahnke, et al.

That's how you end an era. After nearly ten years, Geoff Johns signs off on the book that made him a superstar. I've only been following the core Green Lantern title since the reboot, and have been pleased that I don't feel lost in any of the events that have happened. This issue takes events from as far back as the Green Lantern: Rebirth mini-series and ties it all together in one giant sized issue that establishes Hal Jordan as the core Green Lantern once again. The issue rewards having been with Johns for his run, with nods to all the Lantern Corps and the Blackest Night, and appearances by all the characters that Johns has introduced in his mammoth run. While the story is ambitious, it never loses the human angel that has been part and parcel with Johns's take on Hal Jordan. The story also spends a good amount of time with Sinestro, really getting into the heart of the relationship between Jordan and his arch enemy and sometimes friend. While not everyone gets a happy ending, everyone gets a satisfying one, and there are a few surprising happy endings that I didn't see coming. Johns is joined by nearly every artist he has worked with over the course of these past nine years, all doing a few pages in tribute to their contribution to making Green Lantern one of the cornerstones of the DC Universe again. Next month, Robert Venditti takes over chronicling Hal Jordan's adventures, and Geoff Johns is off on new adventures; I'll be following along wherever he goes.



Half Past Danger #1
Story & Art: Stephen Mooney

Dinosaurs, Nazis, and beautiful spies. Sounds like something out of the pulps, right? Well, Half Past Danger is one of those comics that reads like a classic pulp. As Sgt. Tommy Flynn leads his men on a recon mission against a Nazi outpost on a mysterious island, only to be the only survivor of an attack by dinosaurs. Two months later, Flynn is drunk in a New York bar when a beautiful British Intelligence agent, a strapping US Army captain, and a ninja show up to ask him questions about that mysterious mission. The comic is a fun, wild adventure, with the same feel as something like The Rocketeer, a period comic that is fun for fun's sake. Creator Stephen Mooney's art is stunning. The dinosaurs are astounding, and Agent Huntington-Moss is gorgeous World War II dame with a sense of style. If you've enjoyed The Rocketeer, Black Beetle, or any comic set in the 40s, this is a book well worth your time.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Lost Legends: The Uncollected John Ostrander

This week's issue of Aquaman sees the return of John Ostrander to DC Comics. I've talked about Ostrander before, mostly in reference to his brilliant runs on many Star Wars titles, but he's a writer with a tremendous body of work. He's one of the great comic book writers, and one of my all time favorites. But sadly, the majority of his seminal works are not readily available in printed form (they may be digitally, but digital ain't my bag). I am planning some serious dissection of a lot of these works, in a John Ostrander week here on the Matt Signal, but since I didn't get through the reread on this week's recommended reading, I thought I'd do a dry run on the Ostrander pieces, giving a sneak preview of some of the titles I'll be talking about in much more depth there. This is by no means a full rundown of all of Ostrander's catalog, as I'll be mostly discussing his 80s and 90s DC works, with his creator owned opus thrown into the mix as well. So, without further ado...


Suicide Squad

Pretty much everyone who reads comics knows the concept behind Suicide Squad, but in case you don't, it's this: Supervillains go on covert missions for the government to earn time off their sentences, but there's a good chance they won't make it back. It's a great concept, and it's been rebooted twice since (three times if you count Warren Ellis's run on Marvel's Thunderbolts), but it's never worked as well as it did under John Ostrander. Why do you ask? Well, for one the plots were smart, intricate, and had a feeling of authenticity; some took place in real world locales that were politically troubled, something Ostrander has jokingly said he stopped doing when real political trouble flared up in those places when the issues were released. The series not only dealt with supervillains fighting terrorists or worse supervillains, but is one of the first comics to really delve into the darker side of the governement, the political backbiting and blackmail; this is a post-Watergate America, where government uses its power not necessarily to help the people. But what really made this series was the characters. Ostrander took a bunch of B-,C-, and D-list characters, and made them into major players. Before this series, Deadshot was just a marksman who shot at Batman; after this he was a layered, complex, haunted character. Captain Boomerang became a nasty, vindictive, petty little man with all sorts of issues, instead of just another Flash Rogue. Ostrander, with his wife and writing partner Kim Yale, also introduced Barbara Gordon as Oracle, dealing with the fallout from The Killing Joke and building Barbara up in a way that lasted over twenty years (on a side not, if you like this, you should check out Ostrander & Yale's story from Batman Chronicles #5, "Oracle- Year One: Born of Hope" a wonderful story that directly bridges the gap between Killing Joke and Suicide Squad). And of course, Ostrander also introduced the inimitable Amanda Waller, a character still used regularly to this day, and who is unique in comics: no super powers, no secret spy training, just a tough woman who knows her duty, does what she must, and who can stand toe-to-toe with Batman and tell him off. The Wall is one of Ostrander's great creations, and one of my favorite characters in comics. Without this series, I feel like a lot of villain-centric comics we've seen since, including Secret Six, Thunderbolts, and Geoff Johns's run on Flash, would have been very different, or not existed at all, and we owe a debt of gratitude to the Squad for that alone.



Deadshot

When Comic Book Resources did their list of the greatest John Ostrander stories ever, this mini-series was number one, and it was my vote for number one as well, so I think it's richly deserved. While it ties into Suicide Squad, it's so good I wanted to give it a little room of its own so I could really discuss it some. This mini-series gives the details of Deadshot's past. Not his origin story, necessarily, not the story of how he became a supervillain, but the why of it. After you've read the series, you can't help feeling a bit sorry for Deadshot. This is a guy whose family are nightmarish, parents who use their children as chess pieces in a war against each other, and who have no qualms about it. The series begins with the kidnapping of Deadshot's son, and leads down into a well of darkness so deep that it's hard to believe there's any light again. I am shocked that this series wasn't published with a suggested for mature readers on it. It is a very mature story, never flinching at the darkest sides of human nature and going places that most writers would never take their characters. It is never graphic though, which makes it all the more chilling. As a warning, if you are not someone who likes a story that is bleak, and that ends without a happy note, or who is uncomfortable with children in real peril, this is not the series for you. If you can get past those things though, it's worth reading to see Ostrander craft Deadshot into a character who has real dimension and depth, who might be a villain, but has humanity underneath all his snark, cigarette smoke, and violence.



Firestorm

When Ostrander took over Firestorm, the title was a fun book about two unlikely people, a college professor and a student, who merged together to form a superhero. It was as if Spider-Man and Professor X had to become one guy to use their powers. Ostrander took the book and went somewhere very different with it. His first two issues alone, tying into the Legends crossover event he was co-writing, feature Ronnie Raymond forcing the Firestorm merge on Professor Stein, and Stein reacting in a way that is a thinly veiled (and eventually not even veiled) analogy to rape, a subject rarely dealt with in mainstream comics at the time, and never dealt with anywhere near this tastefully. When Stein found out he was dying of cancer, his final wish became to force the USA and USSR to disarm their nuclear weapons, a story that is very much of its time, but works well in a world where tin pot dictators and religious zealots now control nuclear weapons. With Stein removed from the equation, Raymond found a new partner, a Soviet, and Ostrander spent time letting readers get to know him, playing a card about how we are all really people, no matter our government. And the last couple years of the series dealt with Firestorm discovering he was Earth's fire elemental, and a lot of stories involving environmentalism. While it sounds like a lot of topical tales, they were all told using superhero tropes, with lots of cool villains and combat, and the series never got preachy. Ronnie grows up, trying to really find his way in an adult world he has a hard time understanding. Ostrander did a great job of gradually altering the Firestorm formula, making something different than the traditional superhero title it was, without losing readers by respecting the past and having his own strong vision for what the book could be.



Detective Comics #622-624

This isn't a long form, sprawling epic like most of the other things on this list, but I had to toss in on here. First, a shout out to Brandon, a friend of mine and regular reader here, who mentioned this story as one of his favorite Batman stories when I did my list of favorites, and it reminded me just how great it is. In the duel narrative, Batman hunts a serial killer murdering people in his name in the "real" Gotham, while an unauthorized comic is being released in Gotham telling the origins of Batman, only this Batman is a demonically powered killer. Half of each issue is the comic within a comic, with different art. It's a great detective story, with some gorgeous art from Mike McKone on the real world pages, and Flint Henry on the macabre comic within a comic pages.If you're a Batman fan and have never read out this story, it's a self-contained, three issue arc with a lot going for it.




The Spectre

I don't know if it was Ostrander who decided the Spectre was more than just a vengeful ghost, but instead was the embodiment of the wrath of God bonded to a mortal, but if it wasn't him, he sure took the idea and ran with it. The Spectre becomes a series about justice, vengeance, and redemption. While there is plenty of magic and monsters, heroes and villains, the main struggle of the series is one internal to the Spectre, of Jim Corrigan, the hard boiled 40s cop who serves as the Spectre's host, in conflict with both himself and the Spectre itself. Reverend Richard Craemer, a supporting character who served as a chaplain and confidant to some of the Squad, came with Ostrander to this title, serving as a sounding board, and at times a conscience, for Corrigan. The Spectre quests to save a woman he has scene prophesied to die, to find the heart of America, to determine exactly what kind of man Corrigan himself was, and eventually to find God himself. The series watches Corrigan eventually find his grace, his own forgiveness for a life lead in anger, and when Ostrander left the book, Corrigan left the plain of the living, a major change to a classic character that DC stuck to until the New 52; it's a testament to Ostrander's strength as a writer and the strength of this run that DC left this change in. Two particular issues of note: Issue #54 featured the first appearance of the current Mister Terrific, Michael Holt, who still exists in the current DC regime. Issue #51 is a great issue featuring Batman and the Joker, where the Joker briefly has possession of the Spectre's power. The series is drawn nearly entirely by Tom Mandrake, one of Ostrander's constant collaborators (along with Jan Dursema, Flint Henry, and Tim Truman), who by the end of this list will have worked on more than half of the titles.



Martian Manhunter

While he had a couple of mini-series, J'onn J'onzz never had an ongoing series until the late 90s when Ostrander and Mandrake, fresh off The Spectre, took the Manhunter from Mars and ran with him. By far the most traditionally superheroic of the series I'm talking about today, it's still a fascinating character study. Martian Manhunter had spent much of his existence as the rock the Justice League rested on, but very little time had been spent revealing what he did when he wasn't with the League. So, Ostrander took the fact that J'onn was a shapeshifter, and decided that Martian Manhunter had different identities all over the world. He would switch race, gender, and species to live among humans and learn more about humanity. A good amount of time was spent investigating J'onn's past. Not only was his life on Mars more fleshed out, along with the introduction of his evil brother, Malefick, and conflicts with Darkseid and his minions while a Manhunter on Mars, but his time on Earth was expanded. Since J'onn was brought to Earth in the 50s, why couldn't he have met Clark Kent in Smallville, had an adventure with the Spectre earlier in his career, or was a part of the 70s superhero team, the Justice Experience, under another identity? That last one brought the DEO, and their most famous agent, Cameron Chase, into the mix, as Chase's father was another member of the Justice Experience, and had some resolution for Chase, whose series had been tragically cut short, when J'onn had to face down Doctor Trap, the villain who killed her father. All-in-all, it was an excellent superhero series, with great character beats, and had an issue where Martian Manhunter went nuts from Oreo (or Chocko, I assume due to rights issues) withdrawal and smacked around Booster Gold and Blue Beetle. It was pretty awesome.



Grimjack

If there is one magnum opus in Ostrander's work, something that you could hand to anyone to give them a great sample of what he can do as a writer, Grimjack would be it. Grimjack was created by John Ostrander and Tim Truman in the late 80s as a back-up in Starslayer before spinning off into his own title. The title character is John Gaunt, called Grimjack or the Grinner, an aging mercenary living in the city of Cynosure. Cynosure is the nexus of all realities, where different blocks phase in and out of reality; you can be on a block that is high tech, wander into a neighborhood that is all magic, and never find your way back to the science block. Gaunt owns Munden's Bar, a pub where people come to him to hire him to solve their problems, problems that usually wind up with him killing someone. Ostrander built a vibrant supporting cast around Gaunt, including his old running buddy Blackjackmac and Mac's paramour Goddess (who is actually a goddess), his old partner in the Transdemensional Police, Roscoe Schumacher, Gordon Munden the bartender, Bob the watchlizard, and various villains, including The Dancer, a former arena combatant turned revolutionary, and Major Lash, and immortal with a series hatred for Gaunt. The world and the characters are Ostrander's to play with, and he uses that freedom to tell stories you couldn't do with most superheroes. Gaunt is a pure anti-hero, often doing the right thing for the wrong reason, or the wrong thing for all the right reasons, and you can see shades of Grimjack in many of Ostrander's other leads, characters like Jim Corrigan, Quinlan Vos, and Cade Skywalker. What is especially cool, is about two-thirds of the way through the series, it is revealed that Gaunt has been cursed, that he will never know peace until Cynosure is destroyed, and that he will be reincarnated over and over until then. The last third of the series takes place long after John Gaunt is dead, and focuses on Jim Twilley, the new incarnation of Grimjack. Ostrander builds a whole new cast and ends the series, with the promise of an original graphic novel called Grimjack in Hell and then further incarnations. These projects didn't occur, but Ostrander and Truman returned to tell a couple tales of Gaunt before the series began. The art throughout the series is also outstanding, starting with Truman, followed by Tom Mandrake, and then Flint Henry, with some fill ins along the way. IDW, who published the two new Grimjack stories, Killer Instinct and The Manx Cat, also reprinted much of the early Grimjack, but stopped before the Twilley arc, and never finished it.

Since this is a Lost Legends piece, all of this work is uncollected or out of print in its whole form. While there was one volume each of Suicide Squad and The Spectre, and the first 54 issues of Grimjack were collected, none of it is currently in print. I have over time, been able to collect all these runs in the totality in single issue at conventions and comic shops, and they were all well worth it. This is also by no means the entirety of Ostrander's work. From DC there's also Hawkworld, JLA: Incarnations, the late 80s-early 90s Manhunter, and The Kents (a great Western focusing on the ancestors of Superman's adopted family). From Marvel there's Heroes for Hire, three mini-series starring the time displaced X-Man Bishop one in the present, and two set in the future he came from, two Westerns featuring Marvel's stable of Western heroes, Blaze of Glory and Apache Skies, and a run on Punisher (of which I am still trying to find issue 10). And that's just what I'm coming up with off the top of my head. Ostrander is one of the great writers currently working in comics, and going out and checking out some of his classic work as you wait for the next arc of Dawn of the Jedi or Agent of the Empire is really worth your time.

Monday, May 20, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 5/15


Batgirl #20
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Daniel Sampere & Carlos Rodriguez

For someone who is so sweet, Gail Simone creates some seriously creepy characters. The new issue of Batgirl introduces a new incarnation of the Ventriloquist, a character who belongs up there with Secret Six's Junior in the annals of creepy villains. An amoral sociopath, we see a flashback of the Ventriloquist's as a little girl poison an entire birthday party and kill the party clown to get his dummy. And she gets crazier from there! Simone has added an excellent new villain, one that fits well into Gotham's air of madness. Meanwhile, Barbara is not doing well in dealing with the "death" of her own psychotic family member, her brother James, who she thought she killed last issue. The issue is framed with Barbara bursting into her shrink's office and we see how the death of James has affected her, and how it has affected her time as Batgirl. Simone put Barbara through the ringer, and her sadness radiates off each page, making your heart break, and even moreso if you've read the new issue of Suicide Squad and know she's beating herself up for a death that didn't occur. Simone keeps her subplots simmering as well, with Jim Gordon raging against Batgirl for killing his son, Knightfall and her cronies up to their usual no good, and Ricky, the street kid who Barbara sort of has a date with, prepares for his night out. Simone does her usual tremendous job of balancing action with these character bits, and this remains one of the jewels of the Bat Family and the New 52 as a whole.



Fables #129
Story: Bill Willingham
Art: Mark Buckingham

Over ten years into Fables, and Bill Willingham is still pulling the rugs out from under his readers. The end of the Snow White arc has snow confronting Prince Brandish in a duel for her freedom. It's a great duel, with Snow showing her prowess, and while the end is what you'd expect, the ramifications of it will be felt for years to come. I don't want to spoil it for anyone who hasn't read the issue, or is trade waiting, but a major player in the series from the first issue is out of play for the time being, if not forever. Still, the star of the issue is Snow, who shows all her strengths, her physical, mental and emotional ones, once more proving she is quite possibly the strongest person in all of Fabletown. The subplot with Beast and the Lady of the Lake dancing around the "betrothal" between the Blue Fairy and Gepetto continues, and is made more interesting from the standpoint of the narration by Ambrose, the son of Snow and Bigby Wolf. As the series is now narrated by Ambrose's histories, written many years in the future, there are tantalizing hints of things to come, but they are all just out of reach, making this reader want more, yet grounded in Ambrose's emotional investment as well, keeping them from being nothing more than vague prophecy. The issue ends with this arc catching up the very end of "Cubs in Toyland," the previous arc which ended in something of a flashforward. The future remains a thing with many mysteries for the Fables cast, and those mysteries are what keep us coming back month after month.



Helheim #3
Story: Cullen Bunn
Art: Joelle Jones

The first two issues of Cullen Bunn's Weird Viking series Helhiem were solid stories, setting up the world the series inhabits and introducing the players. Issue three, this week's new issue, is the issue that feels to me like the one that gets the series main action started. Rikard, noble Viking hero turned into shambling Frankenstein's Monster-esque creature, has confronted the witch he was created  to destroy, and now knows the truth: Bera, the witch who he loved, is no less a monster than any of the other things in the dark. Rikard faces down the demons sent by Groa, the demon witch, and we see the exact limits of his undead might, which are pretty darn extreme. In a scene directly reminiscent of a scene from the classic 1930s Frankenstein film, we are introduced to another player in the series, Kadlin, whose entire village was slaughtered in the war between the witches. By issue's end, Rikard has an even more monstrous appearance and a new goal in his unlife. And while Bunn's story is excellent as ever, it's Joelle Jones's art that steals the show this issue. The fight between Rikard and the demons and beautiful, or as beautiful as bloody combat can be, and the character deigns continue to impress. What really impresses me is how Rikard can look so monstrous, yet still have such humanity in his face; you can see the pain and betrayal that he has experienced, and you feel for him. With Sixth Gun coming to an end, I'm glad that this title has come along to give me my monthly dose of Cullen Bunn weird history.



Make Good Art
Words: Neil Gaiman
Design: Chip Kidd

Last year, Neil Gaiman gave the commencement speech at Philadelphia's University of the Arts. I saw a recording of the speech then, and it was tremendously moving. Gaiman talks about what he ahd learned over his years as a writer, what he would have done differently, and gives some very sage advice. When I saw it was being published, I thought that this was going to rank up there with Dr. Seuss's Oh, The Places You'll Go as a graduation gift, especially for anyone who is hoping to make a career in the arts, something I know a little about. And when I got my hands on a copy of the book this week, I was even more pleased. While not a comic or graphic novel, Chip Kidd, graphic designer extraordinaire, has taken Gaiman's speech and done amazing visual things with the words. The little volume is beautiful, with words zigging and zagging, color changing for emphasis, all to accentuate Gaiman's words. If you're ever feeling down about what you're trying to do in life, or if you're trying to start a new endeavor, this is the perfect little book to read to give you that push to go out and, well, Make Good Art.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Recommended Reading for 5/17: Super Dinosaur



Robert Kirkman is probably one of the best known writers in comics right now, and his best known works skew in an adult vein. The Walking Dead is a horror comic of epic and intimate proportions at the same time, doused in large quantities if gore. Invincible is a superhero book that has its own share of gore, and its discussions of many topics are frank enough to make some people sensitive about letting kids anywhere near it. But Kirkman writes another monthly, one I've reviewed one or two times, but I'd like to spotlight today, since it is a great, fun, all-ages comic with the best name of any comic on the racks: Super Dinosaur.

Derek Dynamo pretty much has the life that every ten year old dreams of. He's a genius inventor himself, and the son of world famous genius inventor Dr. Dexter Dynamo. He doesn't go to school, but is tutored and spends most of his days inventing and saving the world. He's got a bit of a chip on his shoulder, but at heart he's a really good kid who's trying to do the right thing. And best of all, his best friend is a dinosaur. A genetically altered, armor wearing, Tyrannosaurus Rex named Super Dinosaur who can talk, play video games, and help you kick the butt of any villain out there. What more could you ask for?

Hailing from a Inner Earth, a secret lost world deep within the Earth's core, discovered by Dr. Dexter Dynamo and his former colleague turned rival Max Maximus, Super Dinosaur (SD for short) was an experiment by Maximus to create and intelligent dinosaur, which succeeded, but as it turned out, SD wanted nothing to do with Maximus's mad plans, and sided with the Dynamos when Maximus's plan to use DynOre (or Maxinite, as Maximus calls it), a powerful ore only found in Inner Earth, to take over the world. Now, Derek and SD fight Maximus and his Dino-Men, as well as all manner of creatures the traditional military aren't equipped to deal with. It's an adventure a day if you're Derek Dynamo.

Super Dinosaur does a tremendous job of crafting an action adventure comic with heart that can be read by anyone. Sure there's action, and Derek and SD fight some real villains. There is a sense of high stakes throughout the series. But never does it cross the line into being something dark or too scary (frankly, I think as you become an adult, you do forget just how resilient kids are when it comes to what's scary, but that's another discussion). All of Kirkman's trademark characterization and worldbuilding is on display. In early interviews, Kirkman compared what he wanted to do with this book as being like, "a Pixar movie on paper," and he has succeeded. It has the same blend of elements that makes Pixar the success it is; smart writing that never talks down to its audience and plots that pull you right in.

The core of the series really is the friendship between Derek and SD. There are plenty of other characters, but the interaction between the two leads is one of the best friendships in comics. Neither Derek nor SD are normal, and they share a world that few other kids would understand. They understand each other, and have that simple shorthand that all best friends share. The relationship is easy and perfectly natural. There are problems, of course, especially when new people are tossed into the mix, but in the end, Derek and SD always have each others' backs. And that kind of friendship is perfect for a comic for all ages, it's something any kid who has a best friend can relate to, and can see themselves in.



Derek's relationship with his father, Dexter, is also central to the action of the series. When the series began, it seemed Dexter's mind was slipping away. He couldn't finish any projects, and was seemingly getting distracted by small things, requiring Derek to secretly finish the work so the world and the military, who provide all of the Dynamo's funding, wouldn't know what was going on. Derek so clearly loves his father, and was doing his best to help him. As the series progresses, and Dexter realizes what Derek has been doing for him, the scenes between father and son are touching. Recent issues have further shown the strength of their father/son bond with a plot involving the fate of Derek's mother, and the fact that Dexter will do anything to get his family back together. Dexter doesn't fall into the sci-fi cliche of the scientist who has no time for his family and is dedicated to his mistress, science. He loves his son and wants to have a life with him, and with his foster son, SD as well.

The opening arc of the series introduced new characters into the Dynamo Dome, the home of the Dynamos and SD that serves as both living space and lab, and these new characters caused a lot of the non-superhero conflict in the book for the first two arcs. The Kingstons are a pair of engineers who were hired to help out Dr. Dynamo, and came to live at the Dome with their two daughters, Erin and Erica. While Erin took to the new living situation well, and quickly befriended Derek, Erica wanted to go back home to where her friends and old life were. This caused problems in the Kingston family, as well as some more fantastic issues as Erica inadvertently led the Dynamo family's archnemesis, Max Maximus, to the Dynamo Dome, but also caused friction between SD and Derek, as SD thought that Derek was replacing him as his best friend with Erin. Again, these are all very human reaction, especially among kids, and Kirkman uses them well. Even in a world with intelligent dinosaurs and hidden civilizations, feelings can still get hurt.

Aside from our heroes and their supporting cast, Kirkman has created a great tapestry of villains to menace them. Max Maximus serves as the major villain, the Dr. Doom to Dexter Dynamo's Reed Richards, an archetypal mad scientist prone to monologuing and a superiority complex. Maximus has created many Dino-Men, some who remain loyal to him, and some who have their own plan, including a female three horned dinosaur with an axe named Tricerachops, possibly the greatest name in the history of comics. Squidious is a squid man who controls an undersea army. The Exile seemed to be an alien invader, or possibly another of Maximus's experiments before being revealed to be from a race of lizard men who live hidden in Inner Earth, hiding from the dinosaurs.

The art for the series is provided by Jason Howard, who worked with Kirkman before on the criminally under-rated Astounding Wolf-Man (werewolf superhero? That's got Matt written all over it). Howard's art is kinetic, with an amazing sense of motion. He draws the heck out of the crazy, big screen fight scenes that fill the book. I have never seen anyone draw such a great variety of armored dinosaur, and he draws excellent backgrounds and crazy tech.

Super Dinosaur is a comic that seems like the product of a child's joyful and wild imagination. Dinosaurs, super science, and a childhood friendship combine into a wonderful story about what it means to have a family and friends, and about kicking the butts of evil dinosaurs. It's great for any kid, or the kid inside us all.

There are currently three trades of Super Dinosaur, all of which are in print and available at your local comic shop. New issues come out from Image Comics.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 5/8





Archer & Armstrong #0
Story: Fred Van Lente
Art: Clayton Henry

Archer & Armstrong has been one of the most consistently enjoyable titles out there since its debut, and after two very solid arcs, including the return of my favorite Valiant character, the Eternal Warrior, we take a step back and get to see a story of the Anni-Padda brothers in ancient Ur. Armstrong is telling Archer the epic of Gilgamesh, only this is the real version, where Gilgamesh and Enkidu are the Anni-Paddas. We get a really good feeling about who each of these men were, and how they interacted as brothers. It's especially important to really spend time with Ivar, the eldest brother, and the one who we've seen the least of. It's a fun, action story, with hints of the Valiant universe, including a cameo from Spider Aliens, and more about the origin of The Boo, the mystical artifact that was the maguffin on the first arc, but nothing that detracts from this as a perfect one off. Van Lente has done an excellent job of making the first issue of each arc a perfect jumping on point, and this issue works just as well, with a framing sequence featuring our title characters, as well as the main story. Clayton Henry returns to the series with this issue, and while I enjoyed Emanuela Lupacchino's work, it's great to see him back. His Armstrong especially has such vitality, radiates such joy (and melancholy), that it seems to jump right off the page. If you've never tried a Valiant Comic before, this is a great place for you to start.



Batman #20
Story: Scott Snyder/ James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo/ Alex Maleev

The two part reinvention of Clayface for the New 52 wraps up in this second part of this Batman story, and it's as exciting as the first. It feels perfectly like an episode of Batman: The Animated Series, with a great action piece to it, as well as a simple, smart solution to the problem at hand. The new version of Clayface is interesting, with his slightly modified powers, and adds a little pathos to the character without taking away anything from him (a problem I've had with a few of the new 52 reinventions). There's a wonderful nod to the  DC Animated Universe, with the appearance of prototype armor that won't be financially feasible for twenty years, a time when a young man named Terry McGinnis might become a Batman beyond what Bruce has been able to do. It was interesting to see Bruce and Lucius Fox tossed into a deadly situation together, and see Lucius look like he has no idea of Bruce's other identity. I believe Lucius (like Jim Gordon) knows Batman's identity, and just keeps it to himself on principle that if Bruce wants to tell him, he will. It seems Lucius here really doesn't know; whether that is a New 52 continuity tweak or just Lucius being very coy it up to the reader. The final scene, of Bruce and Alfred viewing recordings of Damian together, is touching and heartbreaking; there is no way this Batman is the cold and unfeeling man that so many writers portray him as. In the back up, Batman and Superman fight a magic creature, and Bruce talks to a spirit about how he fells about Superman, and I really like the fact that the current writers do view the two as real friends, not Miller-esque adversaries with a common cause. The final panels are especially fun, as Superman gets a little taste of what Jim Gordon is used to getting.



Batman and Red Hood #20
Story: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason & Cliff Richards

Batman continues his quest through the five stage of grief, and who better to accompany him through rage than the Batman family with the most anger issues of his own, Red Hood. What starts out as Bruce inviting Jason along on a raid of a camp of assassins turns into a much darker fight as Bruce bring Jason back to the site of his death to try to determine the secrets of his resurrection to use it to revive Damian. What begins as the two of them bonding and talking about trust turns into a fist fight, as they both let vent the anger they hold inside on each other. In Gotham, we also get to see a little bit more of Carrie Kelly, who again shows her pluck by standing up to the taciturn Bruce. Both Alfred and Titus, Damian's dog, take a liking to her, and it looks like Carrie is here to stay, which is a good thing, as she is one of the best additions to the Batman cast in many years (or re-addition, I suppose, if you count her appearances in Dark Knight Returns). Patrick Gleason does his usual excellent job on art, with a little pinch hit from Cliff Richards. I've been a fan of Richards since his long run on Dark Horse's original Buffy: The Vampire Slayer title, and I like seeing his work on more high profile titles. I want to team of Tomasi and Gleason on this book as long as possible, but if they need any more fill in work, I hope Richards is at the top of the speed dial.



Suicide Squad #20
Story: Ales Kot
Art: Patrick Zircher

Wow. The Suicide Squad series from the 80s is one of my favorite series ever, with the brilliant John Ostrander, Kim Yale, and a series of amazing artists crafting some of the best, most human stories I've ever read. Since it's return in the New 52, it has been a series I have wanted to like far more than one I actually have. But the difference one issue can make! New writer Ales Kot comes in and spends the issue reintroducing readers to the cast, getting into their heads. Amanda Waller sits with a mysterious figure who is analyzing each of the current members of the Squad, giving her the keys to their psychologies. Some of the things hinted at in the early parts of the run are finally paid off. While I'm not in love with the idea that Waller can resurrect members of the Squad at will (I feel it takes away the feeling of danger and the unexpected that was central to the original run), I like how Kot handles it here. And the big reveal of who Waller's new Squad member is? Well, I was worried this character was going to be overused, especially after how heavily he was used in another title for some time, but this new life he's been given is perfect. I don't want to spoil the end, but needless to say, I'm intrigued. Patrick Zircher's art is the best on this title so far, and I hope he sticks around for a while; inconsistent art has been another thing that has seriously hurt Suicide Squad since its return. This is a great jumping on point for new readers, and I would suggest everyone who's been tempted before to give it a shot.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Recommended Reading for 5/10: Wayne of Gotham


Novels based on popular comic book properties vary in quality as widely as the comics themselves. Many of them are fairly simple stories, not really trying to reinvent the wheel, and just trying to capture the feel of the comics; these can be well written, but aren't doing anything special. What I feel these writers miss is the simple fact that the novel is a different format, and thus plays by different rules. Without the visual component, a novel has to be more introspective, allowing the reader more inside the character. Also, with the novels taking place outside continuity, writers have more latitude to make changes and take characters down different paths. There have been some very successful comic book novels; Peter David's Incredible Hulk: What Savage Beast comes to mind, exploring plots I felt he had wanted to work into his comic run but would have changed the Hulk too greatly. Author Tracy Hickman's Wayne of Gotham is another interesting comic book character novel, and one I feel succeeds in the main.

Wayne of Gotham is set in the present, but casts Batman's origins firmly in a specific time, with the death of his parents happening in 1971, thus establishing this Batman as the aging crusader. This isn't the always young crusader, but an aging man who is hanging onto his quest. The novel was released early last year, shortly before The Dark Knight Rises, and I wonder how much that movie influenced the decision to publish a novel that is another last Bruce Wayne story, although it ends in a very different manner than the film. There are distinct similarities between the two: Bruce is a recluse in both pieces, having hidden from Gotham. But in Hickman's world, this is to dedicate more time to his crusade as Batman, versus Nolan's where he seems to have given up.

Hickman's Bruce Wayne is a man who has decided that the world doesn't need Bruce Wayne. He spends all his time refining his crime fighting equipment and hasn't been seen outside the Manor in years. His relationship with Alfred has grown strained as well, with Bruce feeling like the loyal retainer is more judgemental than he has right to be, and as the novel progresses this strain grows as Bruce feels that Alfred is hiding something from him. I feel like Batman's one, inviolate relationship is the one he has with Alfred, that he is Bruce's father figure, and that their trust is something that cannot break. But I realize this isn't the DC Universe, and that showing the splintering is a good indicator of how far Bruce has gone, and how much he has changed.

The highlight of the novel for me was the fact that it is as much the story of Thomas Wayne as it is of his son. The novel flashes between the present, as Batman investigates strange crimes that seem connected to his father's past, and to 1958, when a young Thomas Wayne returns to Gotham from medical school and his own crusades, as well as his relationship with Martha Kane, the girl who lives in the next mansion over. The Waynes have rarely been given much of a personality; they serve instead as an ideal in the mind of their son. The relationship between fathers and their children, and how we look at the generation before us, is one of the central themes of the novel: Bruce learning about the humanity of his father; Thomas's tenuous relationship with his father, Patrick; Lew Moxon, the young man who wants out of "the family business" and his father, Gotham mobster Julius Moxon, Alfred and his father Jarvis, and one final relationship that only becomes clear at the end of the novel.

The actual case Batman in investigating is a very interesting mystery. Hickman understands that Batman is the world's greatest detective, and provides a trail of clues and false leads for Batman to follow throughout. Respected Gotham citizens are suddenly committing crimes; the supercriminals of Gotham are acting out of character; and someone seems to know that Bruce Wayne is Batman. A mysterious woman appears on the grounds of Wayne Manor, seeming to know something about Thomas Wayne's past. It's a dizzying maze of a case that happily plays out in a logical manner.

Hickman's knowledge of the Batman universe is vast. He's either a fan on par with someone like, well, me, or did a tremendous amount of research. He uses villains as obscure as Spellbinder and Ventriloquist right next to classic foes like The Joker and Scarecrow. When he uses the Moxon's, it includes appearances by Mallory Moxon, the daughter of silver age villain Lew, who was created by Ed Brubaker in the early 00s. There are even references to Thomas Wayne's two sons, which references the apocryphal Boomerang Killer story that evolved into the twist at the end of Scott Snyder's Court of Owls storyline. The universe is an interesting combination of both comic and movie, as it does feature a Joker far more resembling Heath Ledger's take on the character, with makeup and long hair, as well as his personality as the avatar of chaos. While these are different takes on the universe, Hickman merges them into a coherent world of his own craft.

Part of the novel that gave me pause was the idea that there was more to the death of Thomas and Martha Wayne than simply a mugging gone wrong. This is an idea that has worked its way into many different incarnations of the Batman mythos, and the use of Lew Moxon, the man who hired Joe Chill to kill Thomas Wayne in pre-Crisis DC continuity immediately tosses up red flags that we're in for this sort of revision. In the "real" DC Comics universe, I prefer the killings to be just random murders; it gives Batman's quest that quixotic drive, that crime itself is what he is fighting, not one man. But here, it works and makes sense with the history that Hickman has built.

The book isn't without its flaws. Part of Hickman's interpretation of Batman is as the "gadget god" as he was described under Grant Morrison. While Batman has his gadgets, and they're an integral part of who he is and what he does, this Batman seems to rely on them as a crutch at times. The long descriptions of how his night vision, reactive armor bat suit, and sonar devices feel a bit superfluous, but that is my biggest complaint, so that's a minor quibble in a good book.

In the end, Wayne of Gotham is about Batman, his father, and his city. It's about what we leave behind, and how we must atone for what we have done in the past. It's a story that has rsonance for anyone who has ever had to learn a harsh truth about a family member you thought you knew. It's smart, well written, and embraces everything Batman.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 5/1

 
Fairest #15
Story: Sean E. Williams
Art: Stephen Sadowski

One of the best parts of Bill Willingham's Fables world is the variety of stories and settings available for writers and artists willing to take the leap. This new arc of Fairest, the spinoff spotlighting the strong female cast of Fables, "The Return of the Maharaja," takes readers into a new land, Indu, the source of myth and legend of India, and introduces a new beauty, Nalayani, string, confident, and a demon with a bow. When her village is attacked by monsters, she goes to meet the new maharaja and ask his help. Along the way she befriends and loses a jackal, fights hyenas and thugs, and more than proves her mettle.The identity of the new mahraja is not hard to determine for any long time Fables reader, especially since he's slapped right on the cover, but it's still a great last page reveal. I'm expecting a romantic comedy-esque journey across Indu, with Prince Charming attempting to add another beautiful bride to his resume, and I won't be disappointed if that's what I get, but Fables and it's attendant books do a good job of twisting expectations, so I'm expecting a twist or two. I am also excited that Stephen Sadowski is doing art for this arc; he's an artist I haven't seen a lot, but everything I've ever seen his do has been gorgeous. He draws beautiful princesses with the same skill as he draws wild dogs, so I'm curious to see what writer Sean E. Williams throws at him over the course of the arc.



The Movement #1
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Freddie Williams II

The advertisements for DC's new title, The Movement, made it seem to be about an Occupy protest with superpowers. There is a touch of that, but the book is about a lot more than that, something far more global. It's about the little guy standing up to corruption. Coral City is a new addition to DC's vaunted pantheon of fictional cities, and it's clearly a city more akin to gritty Gotham than shiny Metropolis. The comic opens with a pair of dirty cops attempting to extort a couple of teenagers, and do a lot worse to the female one, before a group of masked individuals stop them. We meet a captain at their precinct who is the typical, "good cop in a dirty town," and the police are called to a body, the most recent victim of the "Cornea Killer," a murderer who removes the eyes of his victims. Meanwhile, a young man enters a church and seems to become possessed by a demon. Finally all these plots come together as we meet the Movement, a group of metas who protect the Tweens, the blocks of Coral City the police ignore. They are entirely new characters, which is exciting in the landscape of mostly reimagined characters that is the New 52, and I got a good vibe of who each of them are, from team leader and psychic Virtue, to the poor possessed young man, Burden. As opposed to so many issue ones in recent years that are so setup heavy that nothing happens, and it won't be until issue six before anything really does, this felt like a full comic that fully establishes its premise. Gail Simone is one of comics' best character driven writers, and that is clearly on display in this introductory issue. With interesting designs from Freddie Williams II and a whole new city for Simone to make her own, I see a lot of potential in this series.



Suicide Risk #1
Story: Mike Carey
Art: Elena Casagrande

There's an old adage that the tale is in the telling. To me, that has always meant that the story itself is only as good as the teller, and that an old story can be reawakened by a new twist and a new writer. I think Mike Carey's new book from BOOM! Studios, Suicide Risk, is a good example of this. The world overrun by superhumans with no conscience isn't exactly the newest concept out there, but Carey gives it a good spin. He  makes his point of view character a cop sick of seeing his friends killed by rogue superhumans, and after his partner is maimed in a supervillain attack, he decides to do something about it. He goes and tries to get himself powers. This seems to go horribly wrong, but since this is more than a one shot, I have to imagine he's going to get better. Leo Winters, series protagonist, is a good guy in a world gone mad, and I'm curious to see exactly how much this series becomes about how power corrupts, as the first issue has hinted that even the superhumans who started out as heroes have gone bad after time. There's a nice mystery as well about how people receive powers and what the whole origin of the powers, adding a layer of depth to the series. Artist Elena Casagrande has a nice style, and does a good job of designing a whole world of superhumans in one issue, along with building Leo, his family, and his friends. A solid first issue, I'm always a fan of Mike Carey, and it looks like this is another success.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Free Comic Book Day 2013: Where You Should Go and What You Should Read


So, yes indeed, it's the most wonderful time of the year again! No, not Christmas; it's Geek Christmas, better known as Free Comic Book Day! Just in case you've been living under a rock, or are new to this whole comic book thing, once a year, this year being tomorrow, May 4th, the various comic company's provide special comics to retailers at a drastically reduced price to give out to the reading public for free. Most put their best foot forward and give out some very cool new product. An international promotion, just about every good comic book retailer takes part in the event. It's usually a really festive day, with all sorts of promotions, costumes, and just a sense of the community that I've talked about before and is the hallmark of a good comic shop.

I will, as I am most years, be spending my Free Comic Book Day at my comic shop, Dewey's Comic City, in Madison, NJ, where we'll not only be giving out tons of free comics, but having a bunch of great events, including an artist's alley with free sketches, additional giveaways, and an appearance by the 501st Legion, the Star Wars costume guild (because remember, it's also international Star Wars day, May the Fourth be with you!). I'd love to see everyone there, so go to THIS LINK to get some details about what we're doing.

But as cool as the artists, costumes, and other giveaways are, what this day really is about is the comics. And so I now provide you with the books I am most excited about in:

MATT'S GUIDE TO FREE COMICS 2013


Atomic Robo
The highlight of pretty much every FCBD for me since the inception of this series has been the new offering from Brian Clevenger and Scott Wegener's awesomely incredible Atomic Robo. Usually FCBD means a new confrontation between Robo and his archnemesis, the confused and firearms loving Dr. Dinosaur. But since this year's Robo mini is Dr. Dinosaur centric, we instead get Robo fighting a big robot. And if you know Robo, you know how well all that is going to go. If you've never read Robo before, this is a great one shot to give you the flavor of the series, so why not try out one of the best comics on the rack?


Molly Danger/Princeless

I've written a lot about Princeless, especially lately, since the second mini-series has begun, so you know I'm excited for a new short featuring Adrienne, Bedelia, and Sparky. But just as exciting is the debut of Molly Danger, a new comic with a similar flavor as Princeless, but this time about a young woman superhero. From Jamal Igle, a great talent and one of the nicest guys I've ever met in the comic book industry, the first Molly Danger graphic novel will be coming out in July, but this will give you a great feel for what kind of fun action Igle has planned for us.



Star Wars/Captain Midnight/Avatar

A Star Wars inclusion for FCBD has been an annual tradition since the first year, sometimes with new material, sometimes with reprint. This year, I'm happy to say we get an original short from Brian Wood, who has been doing great work on the monthly title, set right in the heart of the Classic Trilogy, featuring Boba Fett and Darth Vader. Also, get a short with classic pulp hero Captain Midnight, whose Dark Horse Presents serial was one of my favorite in recent issues and who will be getting his own series shortly. And on the flip side of the flip book, check out a new story from the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender. I have to admit to not being familiar with Avatar very well, so I might have to read this to get a little more in the know.



The Strangers

For the past few years, Oni Press has debuted a series on FCBD. The most successful of these is the excellent weird western, The Sixth Gun, and I was a big fan of last year's offering, Bad Medicine, as well. This year we get The Strangers, a conspiracy, spy book with a great sixties feel. Pitching new projects to the widest audience possible is one of the great benefits of FCBD, and I love how Oni embraces it, so I'll always try out their new issue ones.



Scratch 9

I wrote this book up as today's recommended reading, but I figured I'd just toss it on here too. It's a reprint of the first issue of a fun all ages series about a cat named Scratch who can some his other eight lives to help him. It's cute, action packed, and a lot of fun.



The Walking Dead

If you're a fan of either the phenomenon that is the TV show, or a fan of the comic, you should definitely check out this year's Walking Dead free comic. Featuring short stories that have rarely if ever been reprinted, there's a story about Michonne (originally published in Playboy and then in the Michonne Special), The Governor (from a CBLDF benefit book and then the Governor Special), Morgan (from an Image Comics holiday special and then only in the giant Walking Dead Omnibus Vol.1) and a brand new Tyrese story that writer Robert Kirkman says he has no plans to reprint. A great way to get a little backstory on some of The Walking Dead's best characters.



There are plenty of other comics, of course. Two each from Marvel and DC (One all ages, one regular), a couple from Valiant and Dynamite, and pretty much any other company you can imagine. I implore you to try something new and different, even if it's not one of the ones I talked about above.
 With a price point like this, there's no better time to see if a new and different comic is something you might love.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Recommended Reading for 5/3: Scratch 9


I think I might have made this apology once or twice before, but it bears repeating. When I do these recommended readings, if the comic isn't something I've just read, I do my best to reread it, or at least to do some serious internet research if at all possible. Well there isn't a ton on the net about this week's recommendation, and I was not able to dig out my copies due to, well, life getting in the way. But still, I wanted to make sure to get this recommendation in, with Free Comic Book Day upon us, so bear with what might be a bit vaguer in places than I'd like, but will talk about the heart of a fun all ages series.

I'm a cat person. This doesn't mean I don't like dogs (which some people assume), it's just that I like the independence and down right befuddling weirdness that is a good cat. So when I saw a supernatural/sci-fi all ages comic with a cat protagonist, I thought this might be something right up my alley. And boy was I right. Scratch 9, by Rob M. Worley and Jason T. Kruse, is a charming, exciting adventure about a nine cats fighting for good, only they all happen to be the same cat; after all cats have nine lives, and you can't expect them all to be the same.

The main protagonist of the series is Scratch, a modern day housecat. Scratch is pretty much like a normal cat, if "normal" can ever be applied to any cat. He hunts his owner, he likes to play, and he doesn't like baths. When Penelope, the girl who owns Scratch, tries to give him a batch, Scratch runs out, and is captured by a man gathering strays for a company called The Corporation for Research into the Ultimate Extension of Logevity. You know no company with the initials CRUEL is up to any good. Scratch is experimented on by Dr. Schrodinger (which is a clever little pun that gave me a chuckle), and is given the ability to summon any of his eight other lives to aid him when he needs them.


Over the course of the four issue mini-series, we meet all eight of the other cats Scratch has been (or will be), and both the designs and the concepts behind them are delightfully clever; each are introduced with a little text box explaining their background and special skills. There's Beeslebohm, a magician's cat who is a master of illusion. Ichirou is a master of martial arts. N3KO is a cyborg cat from the future. And that's just three (four if you count Scratch)! There are five other magical, science fictiony, or just plain cool cats who you'll meet over the course of the series. Each cat has a different personality, and interact with Scratch differently, but they all help him find his bravery to do what must be done.

The animals do talk, but to each other, not to people. We're in a world where the animals are only semi-anthropomorphized. We're not in a Mickey Mouse world, where the animals wear clothes and go to work. We're more in a Lady and the Tramp setting, where the animals may speak among themselves but don't get everything that makes the human world what it is. This of course, leads to some comedy, seeing Scratch and company trying to figure their way through human sized traps and trying to understand all the aspects of the world around them.

The core theme of Scratch 9 is friendship and loyalty. After being captured by CRUEL, Scratch meets some of the other prisoners, including another cat, a chicken, and a hyperactive squirrel, and befriends them. After the accident gives Scratch his powers, he is able to escape, but decides he has to go back and save his new friends. And when Penelope stumbles into Dr. Schrodinger's clutches while trying to find Scratch, Scratch has to go back and save her as well, deciding if he can be a housepet or if his chance to run free is more important. I'm a sucker for a story about a kid and his or her pet, and so the affection and love between Penelope and Sratch is the heart at the center of Scratch 9.

Aside from being action packed and heartwarming, Scratch 9 is also delightfully funny. There's plenty of little jokes that grown-ups can pick up on; like all the best all ages comics, Scratch 9 works on multiple levels. The Schrodinger's cat joke is just the start. Any time there is anything to be acronymed, it's best to check it out, because odds are the acronym is going to be something with some humor in it. And the supporting cast of other animals are a wacky bunch, who add some levity to the scenes after all the action of Scratch and his eight other selves fighting Dr. Schrodinger and his Grizzbots (yup, robo-bears. What doesn't this comic have?)


Jason T. Kruse's art has a charm that matches the writing. It's dynamic, full of action, and just cartoony enough to make the animals expressive. Trying to find the perfect middle ground between animals who are basically just people with slightly altered features and the more limited expressions you can get from the face of a real world animal can be tricky, but Kruse hits the mark. I also once again want to comment on how great the designs were on all of Scratch's other selves. They are each such unique designs, and they are a vibrant part of the world that he and Worley have created.

So, there's Scratch 9. You've got a magical cat, a heart warming story, and some good laughs. Is there really anything more that you could wish for? Oh right, how about Saturday, on Free Comic Book Day (that's May 4th, folks) you can get a copy of Scratch 9 #1 for free at your local comic shop! Yes indeed, new publisher of Scratch, Hermes Press, is making Scratch 9 #1 one of it's FCBD offerings. So if I've piqued your interest, check it out. It'll be more than worth the price of admission, trust me.

Scratch 9 was collected in a trade, called Pet Projects, by it's original publisher, APE, but has since lapsed out of print. I can only imagine Hermes will release a new edition shortly, sometime around the July debuting new Scratch miniseries, Cat Tails, a series that will feature one story each for all of Scratch's incarnations. The first issue is available for pre-order in this month's Previews.