Monday, June 30, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 6/25

Adventures of Superman #14
Story: Max Landis/ Fabian Nicieza
Art: Jock/ Phil Hester

I've had a problem with Superman since the New 52 (more on that later), so I've been interested in Adventures of Superman, the out of continuity, digital first series that mostly features stories of the pre-Flashpoint, red trunks wearing Superman. And an issue with that cover? Well, I'm going to pick it up. The first of two stories in the issue, the story by Chronicle writer Max Landis is a new take on the first meeting between Superman and Joker. I went back and forth on the story as I was reading it. Landis's Joker is closer to the Dark Knight Joker, one who has planted bombs all over Metropolis for no other reason than he can and he wants to meet Superman. I was trying to decide of Landis was putting a personal opinion about Joker in Superman's mouth, that he is a character with no real personality, who is simply who the actor playing him/creator writing him wants him to be. I was also uncomfortable for a time about how brutal Superman was, hinting to Joker he was willing to kill the clown, and how dark he got when he was facing down Batman for letting Joker get into Metropolis to test Superman. But the last moment, where Superman flies into space and chuckles at one of Joker's jokes (one that was pretty funny, actually) paints a human Superman with a sense of humor, something I like. The thing about this story that really sticks out, though, is Jock's art. I've loved Jock's art since The Losers, and his sort of distorted, convulsive Joker is brilliant. He also does a page that I think of Joker through the ages. As Joker is talking about what he might become (this is an early Joker, after all) each panel is a different version of Joker; eight panels with eight distinct and classic images from comics and film: Jerry Robinson, Neal Adams, Brian Bolland, Greg Capullo, Batman: The Animated Series, Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, and Heath Ledger. That page alone is worth the price of admission. The issue's second story is a fun, light tale of Clark Kent having to babysit 1950s DC Comics characters Sugar and Spike. It's a cute little story, where Superman has to take the kids on an adventure to stop Atomic Skull, and the mischievous kids wind up helping Superman. Makes me also think that Phil Hester is the premiere artist for re-envisioning fun 50s DC characters in a modern setting, between this and his work on Kevin Smith's Green Arrow with Stanley and his Monster, but that's a discussion for another time.

Batman #32
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Greg Capullo

One issue to go before the end of "Zero Year" and the stakes for a young Batman have never been higher. Batman has prepared for his final confrontation with the Riddler, as he moves in with all his allies lined up: Lucius Fox is remotely prepared to shut down Riddler's signal, while Jim Gordon and a group of Navy SEALs sneak in from another entrance. It's a tense scene that has been done in a million movies, but Capullo draws it beautifully, amping up the tension. But since we're dealing with Riddler, it's never as easy as it seems, and Batman realizes pretty quickly that this is all too easy, and Riddler's robots, all set with monitors with his own gloating face displayed on them, shows just how right Batman in. What was a;ready a tense situation becomes a race against time to save Gotham City. One of the nice touches of this issue is it requires Batman to use his brain and his detective skills without any of the trappings that he has in the stories set in the present; there's no Alfred to run things through the Bat Computer, no crazy gadgets. It's just Batman facing down a foe who is as smart as he is. Scott Snyder gives Batman a great speech as he heads off to what might be, as far as he knows, his final fight with the Riddler and his own death, where he leaves a message for Alfred about how Batman is really about failing and then rising up to meet the challenge again. It's a great moment, and gives a human side to a character who is often portrayed as more single minded and inhuman than the aliens he teams up with, and makes Batman an aspirational and inspirational figure, instead of just a brooding shadow. I've enjoyed the heck out of "Zero Year," and while I'm glad to be returning to the present again in a couple months, it's been quite a ride.

Outcast by Kirkman and Azaceta #1
Story: Robert Kirkman
Art: Paul Azaceta

Before I get into the content of the comic, I want to point out that the title with the creators listed are exactly how the book has been marketed. It's interesting that we've reached a point where Robert Kirkman is enough of a name that he gets top billing and his name above the title, so to speak. But that's just academic geekery; now on to the comic. Kyle Barnes is a loner. He lives alone in a rundown house, and his foster sister is the only one who will come to talk to him. Plus he seems to have visions of some hideous aspects of his past. Pretty quickly into the first issue, we see exactly what all of that is about: the women in Kyle's life seem to get possessed by demons; first his mother, and then his wife. And there's something in Kyle that attracts them and that he can also use to drive them off. That's the set up to the new series that Krikman himself describes as a scary comic. He never viewed The Walking Dead as a horror comic, but this one he does, and it is delightfully creepy. We see the local pastor coming to Kyle to get help with a possessed young man, we see exactly how Kyle's brother-in-law feels about him (hint: he doesn't like him), and we see just how lonely Kyle is. The issue is a pretty solid self contained story, as we get a beginning, middle, and end to that possession, but it also does a great job of setting up everything in Kyle's world, including the mystery of exactly what he is. Artist Paul Azaceta does an excellent job complementing Kirkman's script with dark, creepy pencils. The darkness is thick, but you don't lose track of what is going on and who the characters are. All of that, and it's a double sized, no ads comic for $2.99. That's a great deal at twice the price, so if you've ever tried Kirkman in any form, be it comic, TV, or video game, get in on the ground floor of his new series.

Superman #32
Story: Geoff Johns
Art: John Romita Jr.

OK, now more on what I said in the earlier review about having problems with New 52 Superman. I read Grant Morrison's run on Action Comics and the first year of numerous creators on Superman and I was unimpressed. Superman was at best aloof and at worst kind of a jerk. His supporting cast felt wooden, and more like characters for him to stand opposite to than be with. So I gave up on Superman. But when Geoff Johns was announced as the new writer, I felt I had to give it a shot. Johns's run on Action before the New 52 was great Superman comics, and I figured he might have a way to make this new Superman feel more like the character I remember. And I have to say, his first issue shows a lot of promise. Almost immediately, Perry White calls Clark Kent on exactly how I've felt about this version of the character: he stands apart from everyone and doesn't want to connect with the people in his life. This sends Clark home soul searching, and hopefully he'll realize that he needs to be more human. There's also a cold open with interesting parallels to Superman's story, a mystery villain, a character from another dimension, and drama revolving around Jimmy Olsen's millionaire parents. It's the beginning of one of those series that Johns does well, with what I think is some long term planning already starting and some nice character beats. And the icing on the cake is the art from John Romita Jr., making his DC Comics debut (unless you count Punisher/Batman from the 90s). I've always loved JRJR's action sequences and he does a great job in this issue, both in Superman's fight with Titano, DC's answer to King Kong, and the final fight with the extra dimensional alien. I like the design of our new hero, Ulysses, and am curious to see Superman have someone like him to talk to, and how this will affect his interactions with the rest of the world. Welcome back to Metropolis, Geoff. We've missed you.

Friday, June 27, 2014

Missing Your Favorite TV Show? Try These Comics!

It's summer time again, meaning hot weather, cookouts, and more reality TV than you can shake a stick at. Yes, most TV shows are on summer break now, so what are you to do to occupy those entertainment hours? Why binge read comics, naturally. And I'm here to help! Here are some comics that I feel would appeal to fans of some of TV's more popular shows. Some I've talked about before, some are new, but I think there's something here for everyone. I'm steering clear of traditional super hero comics for this one to give some more exposure to books from outside the big two mainstream (although there will be a Vertigo book), and I'm not touching on The Walking Dead. If you haven't tried the comic already, nothing I say will change that.

If you like Games of Thrones, you'd enjoy East of West

Game of Thrones is known for its massive cast, sweeping storylines, and mix of fantasy with a real world grit. Jonathan Hickman and Nick Dragotta's East of West has a similar flair with a sci-fi twist. Set in an alternate world where the Civil War caused America to splinter into The Seven Nations, the future is a world flavored with both advanced science, mysticism, and the feel of the wild west. As the series begins, a pale rider appears with his two Native American allies, and he begins hunting those responsible for his death. For this is Death himself, returned to the flesh to kill those who took his wife from him. But the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse have come in the flesh again, and they are manipulating a cabal of officials within all the governments of the American nations to bring about the Apocalypse. It's a wild, well developed world of crazy sci-fi, fantasy, and horror tropes all existing together. You can go from an issue dealing with the inner politics of the nation of African descent, to an issue about a sheriff who decided justice wasn't found in the law anymore and is hunting the cabal, and the next seeing Death confronting an oracle to learn how to find his newest target. The cast is sprawling, each of the plotlines having its own and they only seem to glance off each other, and the machinations would make Littlefinger's head spin. Oh, and there's at least one scene of GoT style sexposition. If you've ever enjoyed any comic by Jonathan Hickman, or any TV show or movie of high stakes political drama or futuristic dytopia, try East of West.

If you like Brooklyn Nine-Nine, you'd enjoy Quantum and Woody

Brooklyn Nine-Nine is the hilarious cop show comedy starring Andy Samberg that debuted this season, and it does a great job of balancing the comedy with actual police procedural, while being a sitcom at its core. There are plenty of comics that mix humor with superheroics, but I can't think of any comic that is really a sit com with superhero trappings on the wracks now that works better than Valiant's Quantum and Woody written by James Asmus. Erik and Woody Henderson are adopted brothers who haven't seen each other in years until their father's death. Now, Woody is back in Eric's life, and bringing the chaos he always does, including accidentally getting them super powers while investigating their father's death that mean they have to touch the wristbands they now are forced to wear once a day or they both just dissipate. It's classic odd couple comedy, with Eric (whose superhero codeman is Quantum) as the straight man, responsible and straight laced, who wants to use his powers for good, while Woody wants to make money and get laid; and by the end of the first arc hes's brought a sexy clone of their first evil mastermind and a superpowered goat home with him to Eric's apartment. The comic lives and dies by the relationship between the characters and the fact that, as much of a screw up as Woody is, he's a likable screw up, while Eric is stiff, but is a likable stiff. And they have a pet goat that could go hoof-to-talon with Chew's Poyo (now, that's a crossover I want to see), so what's not to love?

If you like Orphan Black, you'd like Lazarus

Orphan Black is BBC America's sci-fi series about cloning, genetic engineering, corporations, and family, starring Tatiana Maslany in what is probably the strongest performance in mainstream media right now, playing not one but eight different rolls, five of them appearing regularly. And if you're looking for a comic with a high sci-fi concept, questions that deal with modern society and science, and a kick ass female lead, you need go no further than Greg Rucka and Michael Lark's Lazarus. In the not too distant future, corporations run the world, and each corporation is run by a family, and each family has a defender/enforcer called a Lazarus. The Carlyle family is one of the most powerful of these families, and their Lazarus is Forever Carlyle, daughter of the family patriarch. Forever (or Eve) has been engineered to be nigh-indestructible, faster and stronger than normal humans, and indoctrinated to be undyingly loyal to the family. But things are not as they seem, as squabbles between her siblings (all normal humans) created fractures in the family, and Eve begins receiving messages saying that her whole life is a lie. Eve is not just strong, but she's clever, and more than a little bit broken, the hallmarks of a Greg Rucka heroine. There are secrets, plots within plots, and a cast of characters that you can never be sure you can trust. It's sci-fi drama with the same tense character drama as Orphan Black, but with a scope that can't be done on a basic cable budget. And I now can't help but think of Tatiana Maslany as the only actress to possibly play Eve in a film adaptation. But that's just me.

If you like The Blacklist, you'd like Thief of Thieves

I can think of very few performances on TV as engaging as James Spader's one as criminal mastermind turned FBI informant Raymond "Red" Reddington on The Blacklist; Spader plays the part with equal parts grace, humor, and coldblooded ruthlessness. He's really just a supervillain. And I don't know if anyone could pull that off. But if you like elaborate capers with a criminal as your protagonist, you should check out Thief of Thieves. Masterminded by Robert Kirkman, with various writers working on different arcs, and all drawn by Shawn Martinbrough, Thief of Thieves is the story of Redmond, the world's greatest thief, who decides to give up the business and try to settle down under his real name of Conrad Paulson and try to make amends with his estranged wife and adult son. But the life isn't willing to let him escape. A dedicated FBI agent who knows Paulson is Redmond continues to hound him. His son tries to live up to his father's rep and gets deeper and deeper into trouble. And his cohorts know he had one more big score planned before he dropped out. So now, Redmond is back in the game, and has to outsmart everyone by playing all sides against the middle. It's a caper book that starts out slow and picks up steam quickly as our protagonist finds himself in worse trouble, stuck with enemies from the Mafia, Mexican drug cartels, and law enforcement, and in the end, as the tag line for the series said, "There's nothing he can't steal... except the life he left behind."

If you like Breaking Bad or Justified, you'd like Scalped

TV has developed a love affair with the anti-hero. You can have a main character who isn't the lantern jawed hero anymore, and few characters better typify this shift than Breaking Bad's Walter White and Justified's Raylan Givens. Scalped is a modern noir where every character exists in shades of grey, created by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera. Dash Bad Horse has come back to the Prairie Rose Reservation where he grew up down on his luck. It looks like Dash needs to start over, and so gets in with Lincoln Red Crow, the chief of the tribal and the local gang lord. But quickly, it is revealed that Dash is undercover FBI, sent by an old nemesis of Red Crow's in the bureau to bring him down. But after his mother is murdered, Dash begins to spiral downwards, and the waters around him get murkier. Friends might be enemies, and enemies might be the best allies Dash could have. I wrote a full recommended reading for Scalped a while back, right after the final trade came out, and you can read that right here. Scalped is also in development for a TV series, so get in at the ground floor now.

If you like Guardians of the Galaxy or Serenity, you'd like Defiance

OK, so this last one is an inversion; it's a summer TV show that appeals to the same sensibilities as some of my favorite comics. One of the great pleasures of Guardians of the Galaxy and both the Serenity comics and their TV ancestor, Firefly, is the down on their luck heroes in the big sci-fi world. Defiance, which began it's second season last week on SyFy, is set in an Earth after the aliens have arrived; specifically various races who go by the collective title of Votans. After the war, all technology has been thrown back to a pre-computer age, and humans and Votans must work together to survive on Earth. Set in what was once St. Louis, now the city of Defiance, the series focuses on Joshua Nolan, who arrives in town and winds up becoming the sheriff, his adopted alien daughter, Irissa, and various locals, including the mayor, Amada Rosewater, the local magnate, Rafe McCawley, and local alien mobster Datak Tarr as well as their respective families. It has that same grungy, used world feeling that Firefly perfectly captured, and our heroes are always out of their depths, yet pull off a win most of the time. Other than compelling plots and well rounded characters, the thing that grabs me about Defiance is the world building. The seven alien races all have distinct looks, languages, and cultures that are distinct from one another. It's such a well thought out world it grabs you and pulls you right in. The first season is streaming on Amazon Instant Video (free if you have Prime) and is out on DVD, so you can get caught up and catch the new episodes as they air.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Better Know a Henchman, Part 2: Will Hench for Food

When I submitted my last listicle on the disposable underlings of your favorite X-Villains, Matt had just one question for me: “Hey, what about the Nasty Boys, and the Upstarts, and …” It was one very long question.
Clearly, a part 2 was in order, because if I don’t talk about the Nasty Boys, who will? Well, I guess Janet Jackson, but besides her?

Brotherhood of Evil Mutants (Toad’s team)
First appearance: X-Force (Vol. 1) #5, 1991

Created by: Rob Lielfeld/Fabian Nicieza

Boss: Toad, formerly Magneto’s original whipping boy

Roster: Pyro, Blob, Phantazia, Sauron

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “But … but … in order for Sauron to emerge, someone’s life essence has to be drained into me!” – Karl Lykos, to Toad, about himself, because he’s Sauron, X-Force #5. And, a few pages later: “Karl Lykos is no more, you pedantic, misshapen pustule. … I have returned. … Do you hear me, you soft, pink bags of rice paper flesh? SAURON IS BACK!” That’s some dialogue right there, y’all.

Is there a strong guy? Just an immovable fat guy.

Most original powers? Phantazia was able to disrupt electronic systems as well as her opponents’ powers.

The Externals
First appearance: X-Force (Vol. 1) #10, 1992

Created by: Rob Liefeld, Fabian Nicieza, Mark Pacella

Boss: No boss, per se, just a random assortment of immortal mutants ripping off the Highlander franchise.

Roster: Apocalypse, Saul, Gideon, Crule, Candra, Selene, Absolom, Nicodemus, Burke, Cannonball (or maybe not)

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “I finish a few more transactions, then put away the fa├žade of Gideon, the business tycoon, allowing the reality to filter through me with the rush of the crisp mountain air.” – Gideon, to and about himself, X-Force #10

Most ’90s powers: Gideon, not so much for his powers as for his ability to be completely bald except for his long, flowing ponytail.

MVP: Apocalypse, because he’s just better at being an immortal mutant.

The Genoshan Press Gang
First appearance: Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #235, 1988

Created by: Chris Claremont

Boss: The Genoshan government

Roster: Hawkshaw, Punchout, Pipeline, Wipeout

Is there a strong guy? Punchout

Most original powers? Pipeline teleports himself and others by “downloading” them and transmitting them as bits of information. Not bad for a character created before the Internet was a common thing.

The Hellions
First appearance: New Mutants (Vol. 1) #16, 1984

Created by: Chris Claremont/Sal Buscema

Boss: Emma Frost

Roster: Catseye, Empath, Jetstream, Roulette, Tarot, Thunderbird

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “I hope I do well – Manuel’s counting on Firestar, he told me – and I so want to make him and especially Miss Frost proud of me.” – Firestar (in her first appearance in the comics, fresh off her creation as a cartoon character on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends), Uncanny X-Men #193

Most original powers: Tarot has the ability to psionically manifest the images on her tarot cards as physical constructs.

Powers most locally relevant to me: Roulette is originally from Atlantic City and has the power to affect probabilities based on the kinds of discs she throws at her enemies.

MVP: Thunderbird, who eventually reformed, changed his code name to Warpath and joined Cable’s first X-Force squad alongside Cannonball, Boom-Boom, Shatterstar and Feral.

The Nasty Boys
First appearance: X-Factor (Vol. 1) #75

Created by: Peter David

Boss: Mr. Sinister

Roster: Gorgeous George, Hairbag, Ramrod, Ruckus, Slab

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “I got your ‘no comment’ right here, Strong Guy. Ol’ Slab messed you up real good, didn’t he? Didn’t he?” – Slab, to a TV, X-Factor #75. “Slab, dear chap, you know how worried I get when you start talking in the third person.” – Gorgeous George, next panel, commenting on what Slab just said.

Is there a strong guy? Hairbag and Slab

Most original powers? Ruckus is able to absorb ambient sounds, amplify them and scream them back.

Question: Seriously, though, how did these guys make the ’90s X-Men cartoon and not the Marauders?

Fun-ish fact: Slab is the brother of Mutant Liberation Front member Thumbelina.

The Reavers
First appearance: Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #229, 1988

Created by: Chris Claremont/Marc Silvestri

Boss: Donald Pierce

Roster: Bonebreaker, Skullbuster, Pretty Boy, Cole, Macon, Reese, Lady Deathstryke

Most original powers? Pretty Boy has cybernetic tendrils that allow for mind control, because if Chris Claremont loves any kind of power-as-plot-device, it’s mind control. That and power dampening. Otherwise, they’re all cyborgs, so they all kinda do cyborg-y things.

MVP: Lady Deathstryke, who also wins the award for Most Hungry for Revenge on Wolverine for Whatever Reason.

The Savage Land Mutates

First appearance: X-Men (Vol. 1) #62, 1969

Created by: Roy Thomas, Neal Adams, Tom Palmer

Boss: Zaladane (originally Magneto, because ’60s Magneto was cah-razy)

Roster: Amphibius, Barbarous, Brainchild, Equilibrius, Gaza, Leash, Lorelei, Lupo, Lupa, Piper, Sauron, Vertigo, Whiteout, Worm

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “Amphibius has the mindwitch!” – Amphibius, about Psylocke. Uncanny X-Men #249. And then later, ON THE SAME PAGE, “Friends can’t help you, pretty. You’re all alone … for Amphibius to play with!”

MVP: Brainchild somehow was deemed important enough to make it into the opening credits of the ’90s X-Men cartoon.

The Upstarts
First appearance: Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #281, 1991

Created by: Jim Lee/Whilce Portacio

Boss: The Gamesmaster

Roster: Fabian Cortez, Shinobi Shaw, Trevor Fitzroy, Sienna Blaze, Graydon Creed, the Fenris twins

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “But, as you can see from these transmissions from ‘Down Under’ … Trevor Fitzroy has Sentinels of his own!” – Trevor Fitzroy, to Shinobi Shaw, Uncanny X-Men #281

Is there a strong guy? No, but there’s a great scene in Uncanny X-Men #301 in which Gamesmaster puts all the Upstarts on a psilink conference call and Creed is in the middle of lifting weights, presumably to impress Veronica Corningstone when he summons her to his office at the Friends of Humanity.

Is there a psi? Gamesmaster, whose mind is constantly linked to every other on the planet. He formed the Upstarts and refereed their murder-for-points game as a way to focus himself a bit. Everyone needs a hobby, even if it’s directing people to kill former members of the Hellfire Club.

Most original powers? Sienna Blaze’s electromagnetic blasts have the power to cause localized ecological disasters. In her first meeting with the X-Men, in X-Men Unlimited #1, she almost took out Professor X, Cyclops and Storm. And then never did anything important again.

MVP: Creed, who turned out to be the son of Sabretooth and Mystique and went on to run for president only to be killed by his own mother. Also he was a big part of the second season of X-Men: The Animated Series.

Batman 25 Years Later: An Appreciation

The past few days have been kind of hectic, so pardon the lack of my normal reviews, especially since it was a strong week. You should check out the first issue of the final Fables arc, the first issue of the new Kill Shakespeare series, Mask of Night, the new issue of Batman: Eternal with some great art that is nothing like the DC house style, a BPRD story featuring Kate Corrigan and flashbacks with a young Hellboy, and new issues of both Manhattan Projects and Fatale from Image.

But now we're here to discuss something completely different. We're here to talk about this movie:

Yes, yesterday was the 25th anniversary of the release of the 1989 Batman movie. I want to talk about this movie because it was, for nine year old Matt, a transformative film. Before this movie came out, I read the occasional comic. I liked Super Friends cartoons, Super Powers action figures, and syndicated episodes of the classic West/Ward Batman TV series. But this movie? This thing blew me away.

While it's not as popular to badmouth this movie as it is to badmouth say Batman and Robin or the 60s Batman show, there is a growing fanbase on the internet (which means it could just be three people with lots of accounts) who look at it and just see faults, mostly in relation to the recent Nolan Batman films. It's cheesy at times, Batman is seriously messed up in the head, and it feels often like a Tim Burton film more than a Batman film, although not as much of a Tim Burton film as its sequel, Batman Returns. But let's strip it down to its nuts and bolts and look at it for what it was: the beginning of a new cultural phenomenon.

While the classic Superman film with Christopher Reeve spawned three sequels, that was pretty much all it did. We didn't see a massive stream of superhero movies after that. And while X-Men was still eleven years down the line, and Spider-Man thirteen. Blade was nine years away, and is in many ways the cultural descendant of Batman: dark, brooding, with an anti-hero and a dark sense of humor. And both Dick Tracy and Rocketeer, both under appreciated in my opinion, are garish, big period comic book based pieces that would not have gotten as far as they did if Batman hadn't been then hit it was. And it was a hit, ushering in a new wave of Batmania. That summer, everywhere you went, you saw Batman. It was glorious.

My boss at the comic store has often said that movies and TV shows don't really effect comic sales, with a couple of exceptions. The Walking Dead is one of them, and so was this movie. I feel like a lot of the speculator boom of the 90s comes from exposure caused by this movie; that or this movie hit a rising wave just at the right moment to crest it. But as I said, this movie got me reading comics. I got all the toys, all the trading cards, all the books. It was the first PG-13 rated movie I got my parents to let me see. And I got the VHS tape for Christmas. And a few weeks after I got that tape, I went into a comic shop for the first time, and bought Batman #445, the first comic I ever bought for myself. Now? It's twenty five years later and I haven't missed an issue since.

So that's a lot of reminiscing, but what about the movie itself. Not even knowing about this particular upcoming anniversary, I stumbled upon Batman playing on BBC America a couple weekends back, and happily found out I could still pretty much recite every line of dialogue, even though I hadn't watched it in a couple of years. Shows you how many times I watched that fabled VHS tape.

The plot of the movie is a combined origin for Batman and his arch foe, the Joker. It does more to tie their origins together, something that is completely removed from the comic, but for building a new cinematic world, it works fine (something similar has been done by Brian Michael Bendis by tying Spider-Man's origin to Oscorp in Ultimate Spider-Man). The movie's Batman isn't precisely that Batman of the comics. He walks the razor's edge of sanity a little closer than Batman does. His sort of mad reaction when he confronts Joker in Vicki Vale's apartment, and his sleeping hanging upside down like a Bat are both things Batman wouldn't do. And it can be argued that his reaction to Joker in Vale's apartment is all a ploy, but I feel there's a character beat in there as well.

But despite these issues, Michael Keaton nails Bruce Wayne in the initial party scene. When he confronts reporters Alexander Knox and Vicki Vale, and sort of quips his way through the encounter, it's a great piece of acting. The private Bruce is somewhere in between that face and the Batman, which is an indication that this Batman's persona is either still forming or is more fragmented than the persona in the comic. There's a vein of psychology I feel writers Sam Hamm and Warren Skaaren are mining in this movie.

And that is where, for all its failings, this movie succeeds: it presents Batman in multiple dimensions. This isn't either the golly shucks gee Bruce Wayne in a cape on Batman '66 or the psychotically driven Dark Knight of Dark Knight Returns. It's actually closer to Steve Englehart's Batman from his brief run on Detective Comics, with Vicki Vale taking on the roll of Silver St. Cloud. It's a Batman who on some level wants some normalcy in his life and just can't find it. That's a theme that Christopher Nolan used in his Dark Knight trilogy as well, with Rachel Dawes as the object of Bruce's affection.

The other major performance of the film is that of Jack Nicholson as the Joker; Nicholson actually received top billing, and the film is as much about his Joker as it is about Batman, something many Batman films would do afterwards. Nicholson's performance is not as frighteningly deranged as Heath Ledger's Joker, but it is actually very funny at times. This is a Joker who is as unpredictable as he is megalomaniacal, someone who states, "I want my face on the one dollar bill," and seems to really believe he can pull that off. The chilling moment when he first sees his face as the Joker is still one of my favorite cinematic scenes.

While people may argue about story and acting choices, the part of this movie that is next to impossible to deny is its gorgeous vision of Gotham City. The stylized, part forties-part now costumes and cars gives the movie a sense of timelessness, and is something taken even further, and perfected, by Batman: The Animated Series. But it's Anton Furst's gothic architecture that really was something else. Gotham was never the same after that, and the look was officially adapted into the comics in a three issue arc called "Destroyer" that ran through the three Batman titles at the time (remember when there were only three Batman titles? Those were the days). It gave the city a life of its own that has set the precedent for all superhero movie deigns sense.

So, now at the end, I sit back and remember nine year old Matt, playing with his Batman action figures and recreating scenes from the movie, and creating his own stories. I don't think he ever would have imagined, twenty five years later, he would still love Batman, be writing about him, and would still look forward to a fresh Batman comic every week. But maybe he did. One way or the other, I owe a lifelong passion to a movie from twenty five years ago, and I just felt like I needed to stop and reflect before I started off on the next twenty five years. Good times still to come, one and all. Hope you'll stick around for them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Better Know a Henchman: Mutant Henchmen Through the Ages

In my recent Apocalypse for beginners column, I pulled myself back from a tangent on the henchmen of the major X-villains. Not being one to let things go, I ventured further down the rabbit hole, a deep pit full of Marauders, Dark Riders and Aco’d Lytes, and came up with this listicle of quality cronies.

First appearance: X-Men (Vol. 2) #1, 1991

Created by: Jim Lee/Chris Claremont

Boss: Magneto

Original roster: Fabian Cortez, Annmarie Cortez, Delgado, Chrome and a SHIELD agent named Nance Winters. Only Fabian Cortez survives the team’s first outing, and he returns not long after with a new team consisting of Frenzy, Javitz, Katu, the Kleinstock brothers, Seamus Mellencamp, Milan, Neophyte, Scanner, Senyaka, Spoor, Carmela Unuscione and Amelia Voght.

Is there a strong guy? Frenzy, who previously served Apocalypse as a member of the Alliance of Evil.

Is there a psi? Scanner is able to psychically detect mutants as well as project an astral form of herself.

Most original powers: Spoor secretes pheromones that amplify violent urges in others. Warren Ellis uses this power to great effect in Excalibur during an arc in which Spoor is a prisoner of the team on Muir Island.

Most ’90s powers: Senyaka dresses like a ninja and uses energy coils as weapons. Magneto turned Senyaka’s own coils against him during the Fatal Attractions storyline as a demonstration of his power/crazy.

MVP: Fabian Cortez, because that turncoat ratfink came back again and again as a thorn in the side both of the X-Men and his supposed idol Magneto.

Brotherhood of Evil Mutants
First appearance: X-Men (Vol. 1) #4, 1964

Created by: Stan Lee/Jack Kirby

Boss: Magneto

Original roster: Toad, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch, Mastermind

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “Hah! You are spunky, my little witch! I like that in a female! Someday, I may even decide that you would be a worthy mate for Mastermind!” – Mastermind, to Scarlet Witch, X-Men #4

Is there a psi? Mastermind can cast illusions that fool the mind. Close enough.

Most original powers: Toad can leap high and spit acid, though originally he was just a leaper, but without Batroc’s mastery of Savate.

Most racist powers: The Scarlet Witch has “hex powers” and was raised by gypsies.

MVP: Tie between Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who went on to become prominent Avengers with the occasional heel turn in which one of them would wipe out all the mutants or become a Terrigen Mist drug pusher.

Dark Riders
First appearance: X-Factor (Vol. 1) #65, 1991

Created by: Chris Claremont/Jim Lee/Whilce Portacio

Boss: Apocalypse

Original roster: Gauntlet, Barrage, Tusk, Foxbat, Psynapse, Harddrive (Note: The original Dark Riders were Inhumans, not mutants)

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “Sneaky little psi-witch … precious good your insights’ll do you tee hee … once Harddrive shuts you down … as permanently as I do your traitor ship!” – Harddrive, to Jean Grey, X-Factor #66

Is there a psi: Psynapse, whose attack on Jean Grey manages to jumpstart her dormant telepathy.

Most original powers: Tusk was a hulking brute of a monster capable of creating tiny, totes-adorbs versions of himself for maximum mayhem.

Most ’90s powers: Barrage has guns for hands. Nuff said.

MVP: See also Tusk, the only Dark Rider badass enough to be named after a Fleetwood Mac song.

Freedom Force
First appearance: Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #199, 1985

Created by: Chris Claremont/John Romita Jr.

Boss: Mystique, answering in turn to Dr. Valerie Cooper

Original roster: Pyro, Avalanche, Blob, Destiny

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “Don’t need the new gal for that, boss. Let Pyro do it! His magnetic powers are of no use against my living flame!” Pyro, to Mystique, about Magneto, Uncanny X-Men #199

Is there a strong guy? No, but there’s an immovable morbidly obese person. That’s a kind of strength.

Most original powers: Destiny’s powers of precognition have helped drive plots forward for 30 years. And an entire X-series (Chris Claremont’s X-Treme X-Men) was conceived on the idea of having a bunch of mutants chase down her journals.

MVP: Tie between Pyro and Blob, if only for their inclusion in the 1992 X-Men arcade game, which made use of their infamous catchphrases that they always said: “Pyro will turn you into toast” and “Nothing moves the Blob.” The game also gave the Blob a mace for some reason.

Hellfire Club

First appearance: X-Men (Vol. 1) #129, 1980

Created by: Chris Claremont/John Byrne

Boss: Sebastian Shaw

Original roster: Emma Frost, Donald Pierce, Harry Leland, Jason Wyngarde (aka Mastermind), Black
Queen (aka Jean Grey)

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “Worry not, Jason. Had the Black Queen struck to kill, there would be nothing left of the lad but ashes.” Black Queen, to Wyngarde, X-Men #132

Is there a strong guy? Not so much an unstoppable force as an immovable object. Specifically Leland, who was able to alter the mass of an object or person, one of those fellas who can’t be moved if he doesn’t want to be moved, a la the Blob.

MVP: Emma Frost, who would spend only one decade as a villainess before getting her own junior X-team and later becoming a leader of the X-Men.

Horsemen of Apocalypse
First appearance: X-Factor (Vol. 1) #15, 1987

Created by: Louise and Walt Simonson

Boss: Apocalypse

Original roster: War (Abraham Kieros), Famine (Autumn Rolfson), Pestilence (the Morlock Plague), Death (Archangel)

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “Here, sonny, let ole granny stroke your cheek! Pestilence’s touch’ll quiet ya down – forever!” Pestilence, to Beast, X-Factor #19

Most original powers: The new-and-improved Archangel had metal wings that could fire blades capable of stabbing, poisoning and brain-frying their targets.

First appearance: Uncanny X-Men (Vol. 1) #210, 1986

Created by: Chris Claremont/John Romita Jr.

Boss: Mr. Sinister

Original roster: Arclight, Blockbuster, Harpoon, Malice, Prism, Riptide, Sabretooth, Scalphunter, Scrambler, Vertigo

First to refer to themselves in the third person: “You are fast, Beastman, but not fast enough to best Harpoon!” – Harpoon, to Beast, X-Factor #10

Is there a psi? Kindasorta. Malice is a being of psychic energy who gets her jollies by possessing other mutants, such as Dazzler and Polaris.

Most original powers: Riptide spins like a tornado and hurls shurikens made up of a resin secreted by his own body. Pretty gross/badass.

Most racist powers: Harpoon is an Inuit mutant who chucks energy-charged “slayspears” at his victims.

MVP: Sabretooth, who made his debut as an X-villain alongside the Marauders after originally fighting Iron Fist.

Mutant Liberation Front
First appearance: New Mutants (Vol. 1) #87

Created by: Rob Liefeld/Louise Simonson

Boss: Stryfe

Original roster: Rusty Collins, Dragoness, Forearm, Kamikaze, Reaper, Skids, Strobe, Sumo, Tempo, Thumbelina, Wildside, Zero

Most original powers: Tempo is able to control the flow of time around her.

Most ’90s powers: Forearm is a bare-chested, four-armed brawler, much like Goro from Mortal Kombat.

MVP: After Marvel took over Malibu comics, Reaper appeared in a hybrid Marvel/Malibu team book called Exiles, a name later given to a book starring a team of reality-hopping mutants.

Matt here, saying to come back for a second installment where we get to know some even more obscure mutant villain groups. You thought they didn't get more obscure than the Mutant Liberation Front? Oh, just wait until you meet.. The Nasty Boys. What? Yes, that's a real thing. You'll just have to come back to find out.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 6/11

Archer & Armstrong #21
Story: Fred Van Lente
Art: Pere Perez

Every time I think Archer & Armstrong can't get any more clever and weird, Fred Van Lente finds a new way to make it even weirder, and that's what makes the book an absolute joy. After last issue's story, where it tuns our Jim Morrison is still alive, has a cult, and is keeping Archer's mother prisoner, I thought we had reached the apotheosis of bizarre. But this issue spends some time with our heroes, drunken immortal Armstrong and young naive-assassin-turned-naiver-cult-leader Archer in a room with every dead celebrity ever. We get a a better idea of what the Wheel of Aten does, as well as a flashback of sorts to Archer's foster-sister Mary Maria traveling in time to find the Wheel and see exactly what it has wrought. There's a wonderful scene where Armstrong nearly collapses in gales of laughter after figuring out exactly what is happening and how he is inadvertently responsible for it. Armstrong has been alive since the dawn of civilization, a devout atheist, and the revelation about faith and celebrity is clever on the writer's part, and a perfect fit to the world. There are also fights with the Lees (Bruce and Brandon), and meeting with a certain first lady in a pink suit, and the potential for a meeting with the King. It's the final page, though, that left me with my jaw on the floor, as Archer meets his biological mother. If you do the math, you also can figure out who his father would be too, and... well, I definitely didn't see that coming. I expect a completely new dynamic starting next issue, and boy howdy is it going to be awkward in the best possible way.

Lumberjanes #3
Story: Noelle Stevenson & Grace Ellis
Art: Brooke Allen

Lumberjanes is quickly becoming the best all ages comic on the rack. It has everything that a comic should have: engaging characters, fun plots, action, friendship, and the occasional monster or animated statue. This issue finds out heroes, the Lumberjanes, a groupe of girls away for the summer at Lumberjane camp, having fallen down a hole and having to wander their way out of a series of crazy traps and pitfalls. If you have ever played Dungeons and Dragons or any other similar roleplaying game, you've probably been through a dungeon crawl like this, but instead of attempting to outdo everyone else there (and let's be fair, that's pretty much what happens in these situations 99% of the time) the Lumberjanes work together. And what the creators do is use each trap to show a strength of one of the characters. Between Mal throwing Ripley in a Fastball Special at a moving statue with a magic gem on its chest, April arm wrestling another walking statue, Jo using her smarts and the Fibonacci sequence to beat an Indiana Jones-esque step trap, or Molly using wordplay to beat the final trap, each character gets a spotlight. But it's the camaraderie that gives this wonderful book its charm. It also fills my heart with joy to read a comic that isn't part of some all encompassing universe or based on a movie or tv show; I know Image does a ton of that, but you're not getting all ages work out of Image. An all ages comic that can encourage kids to create their own characters and stories is something that just makes me happy. Oh, and there's the Holy Kitten. Anything with the Holy Kitten gets a thumbs up for me. I'm reading this book in singles, and I can't wait to get my soon-to-be ten year old niece the first trade (her six year old sister has a bad habit of wrecking anything and everything, so floppies are asking for a torn up comic and tears. Otherwise I'd be buying multiple copies and mailing them away. it's THAT good, people). It's recently been announced that Lumberjanes has transformer form and eight issue mini into an ongoing series, and that fills me with glee.

Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland #7
Story: Joe Hill
Art: Charles Paul Wilson III

The final issue of Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland is a very different comic; it might not even qualify as a comic in the classic sense. It's actually a short story, with multiple illustrations each page. Hill is an accomplished short story writer, with a collection of great stories called 20th Century Ghosts, and this issue is an excellent short story with all the hallmarks of the best kind: in twenty pages you meet a character, get to know him and his world, and everything is wrapped up perfectly. The issue calls back to the first issue of the series, the issue that told the origin of the series main character and villain, Charles Talent Manx, but you don't find out the exact connection until about half way through the story. What you get is a story told in the the second person, which is uncommon, about a young man who grows up with his grifter uncle, becoming a con man himself, meeting a girl, and the two of them starting a life. But his life as a grifter leads to tragedies of different kinds. The story starts at the turn of the 20th century, and we see our protagonist working all sorts of classic cons. It seems that Manx, and the con that connects the two, might be a footnote until the life of our grifter begins to unravel, and in the end, he is another victim of Manx and his Wraith. It's a sad story, and you see and can sympathize with someone raised hard on the road, and what he might do to make a life for himself and his family. And despite being the lesser evil in the story, there is a visceral, EC Comics-esque reaction to seeing him get his comeuppance in the end. It's an excellent issue, and the perfect coda to Joe Hill's most recent comic book series.

Friday, June 13, 2014

Recommended Reading for 7/13: NOS4A2 and Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland

After finishing a years long opus of deep emotional resonance and terror, many a writer would take a break from comics. Especially if that writer also is a best selling novelist. But not everyone. Joe Hill, best known in comics circle for his horror/coming of age story Locke & Key (follow the link to a previous recommended reading on that book), had just finished the heart wrenching finale of that series when he announced his next project, a comic prequel to his most recent novel, NOS4A2. The comic, Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland, wrapped up its seven issue run on Wednesday, so I thought this would be a good time to give a recommendation to both the comic and the novel.

Charles Talent Manx has a special car, a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith, and with it he can do special things. The Wraith and Charlie are inextricably linked, the one the extension of the other, and the car's vanity plate, the eponymous NOS4A2, gives you a hint of the kind of creature Charlie is, even if he doesn't feed on blood. Charlie Manx is one of those people with a special psychic gift he channels through the Wraith, and with the help of a series of accomplices, he uses his car to abduct children and bring them to Christmasland, a magical theme park he has created, and there they become something less than human and Charlie siphons off their innocence to fuel his powers and his immortality.

Manx is a terrifying villainous creation. Hill has crafted a couple of great villains in the past, such as Dodge from Locke & Key and Craddock McDermott from his debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box, but Manx is something else entirely. Those who prey on children are especially despicable, and while Manx would never physically or sexually abuse any of his "charges" (he says there's a special place in hell for "kiddy fiddlers"), what he does is equally terrible. It is partially this strange dichotomy that makes him terrifying; Manx sees what he is doing as saving these children from abusive, cruel, or absentee parents. And while some might be, many are just in the right place at the right time to draw Manx's attention. It's this honest belief that he is doing the right thing that is part of what makes Manx so horrific; he is a cackling, mad villain, but one who truly believes he is in the right, and those are often the scariest kind of villains. And exactly what the children turn into is equally terrifying: soulless, sharp toothed monsters who revel in cruelty to any poor grown up that wanders into Christmasland who is not Manx.

Of course, a great villain can only get you so far. While we might love a good villain, the hero must be equally good to make you stay invested. The heroine of NOS4A2 is Victoria McQueen, who goes by Vic. Vic has her own special psychic gift: when Vic rides the Raleigh Tough Burner bicycle her beloved father bought her she seems to conjure from thin air and FIND things. Lost things like her mother's jewelry or a neighbor's lost dog; distance doesn't matter, the other end of the Shorter Way Bridge (once a real bridge, but now just part of Vic's psychic landscape which appears when Vic rides the bike) always brings her where she needs to go. She even finds a mentor of sorts in Maggie, a precognitive librarian who uses a bag of Scrabble tiles to see distances and the future. But there's a consequence to using these abilities, like blinding headaches and bouts of depression. And as she grows older, Vic does her best to forget what she thinks of now as childish fantasies, but as her family crumbles, a teenaged Vic does what Maggie told her not to do: Use her finding ability to track down the Wraith, a man who preys on children, who is, of course, Manx.

Vic finds Manx in his Colorado home with a victim in hand, and is able to escape his clutches, and with the help of a local youth named Lou Carmody who finds her, she is able to get locals to believe her and to stop Manx long enough for him to be arrested. Vic's life is changed; she has been attacked by Manx, and her own coping mechanism is to believe he kidnapped her. Vic leaves her home in New England and moves to Colorado, where she and Lou develop a relationship and they have a son, Wayne. Vic tries to keep her mind together, loving Lou and Wayne as best she can, and creating a series of popular children's books. But she is getting calls at random times, calls from children in Christmasland who torment her, and after some years, she finds herself alone after a stay in a mental hospital, Lou having taken Wayne at Vic's behest, worried she might hurt the boy. But things start to look up, and she begins to once again build a relationship with her son, even as her ability reawakens. But this is not to be.

During this whole time, Manx is in prison, and grows infirm and older. But the book begins to show someone who had bought the Wraith at auction and begins to repair it. As he removes the engine, Manx dies, but with a new engine installed, Manx revives and calls the Wraith to him, and his final accomplice, the mentally challenged Bing Partridge, a violent killer and rapist, goes to retrieve his mentor. The two are together again, and prepare to take revenge on Vic. And so, when the time is right, the two take Wayne, leaving Vic broken. The novel builds to a crescendo as Vic tries to convince the FBI or what has happened, and must make a last ditch effort with the help of Lou and her estranged father to save her son and to stop Manx once and for all. And so a final confrontation is due, one set against the pristine white and the large grinning moon of Christmasland.

While Hill is a brilliant horror novelist, building atmosphere and suspense with the best of them, he has picked up another gift as a writer. He builds wonderful characters, and builds their relationships in ways that make you really care about them. The Locke family were all beautifully distinct characters who you loved equally. Vic, Wayne, and Lou are equally well crafted. Vic is a broken person, tormented by a past she can't reconcile with reality, but trying her best to make a go of it. She is frightened but determined, and when the chips are down, she does her best for those she loves. Lou is a giant teddy bear of a geek, an overweight, awkward fanboy, who loves his son and the woman he wishes would marry him. And while Wayne is young, he shows some of his mother's steel when he is abducted by Manx.

Underneath all the killer children and magic cars, though, this is a book about parents and children. Vic's relationship with her parents, whether it's the mother who she feels is smothering or the father who abandoned her, Vic's own rocky relationship with Wayne, and Manx's own twisted relationship with his children, not to mention the horror of Bing Partridge and his relationship with his mother (this is a guy who actually makes Norman Bates look well adjusted when it comes to mommy issues), are all about what it means to be a parent, the lengths a parent will go to protect their child, and the responsibilities of family. These are themes that are familiar if you've read Locke & Key as well, where a deceased parent is a major part of the story. But here, Hill deals with an adult coming to terms with her family, and not children coming of age, and so it tells the story from a completely different angle.

The other central theme I feel in the novel is the power of the mind imagination to shape reality. Vic's Shorter Way Bridge, Manx's Christmasland, even the bag of Scrabble Tiles that Maggie uses, all are ways they channel their psychic gifts. And the psychic landscapes are a deep part of them, so deep that cutting herself off from it is part of what causes Vic's mental problems. Even her painting and her children's books aren't enough. Of course, there is a price to pay for using these gifts, as their is for anything, but it's the choice of the artist to pay the price to truly craft something special.

It's also fun to see Hill take a page from the books of his father, Stephen King, in starting to build a cohesive universe all his work takes place in. Manx talks about Craddock McDermott, the antagonist in Hearth-Shaped Box, and both the Treehouse of the Mind from the novel Horns and Keyhouse from Locke & Key appear on a map of mindscapes that appears at one point. I also have a theory that Eric's cape from Hill's short story, The Cape, is a channel; in the same way the bike and the Wraith are, but that's mere theory for another time. There are even a few references to Stephen King's work, with Manx talking about the Doors to Mid-World from The Dark Tower, and from It Pennywise's Carnival in Derry, Maine appears on the same Map as the other locales, but Hill has said those were just for fun and not to mean that his world and King's are the same. However, Manx is mentioned, along with his horrible car, in King's recent novel, Doctor Sleep, so there might be more to this than meets the eye.

Oh and a couple last notes about the novel before I move on to the comic. The book features illustrations by Hill's Locke & Key collaborator, Gabriel Rodriguez. They're pieces that appear at the beginning and end of each chapter, and a couple of illustrations of Christmasland appearing on the inside front and back covers, and if you like Rodriguez's art (and who doesn't), they're icing on an already delicious cake. And finally, make sure you read to the very end of the book, including the acknowledgements and the note about the typeface. Trust me.

The comic, Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland, takes place before the events of the novel, when Manx was still out and about, practicing his particularly evil craft. The first issue is a standalone story. It's a seven issue series, but the core of the story is issue's 2-5, with the first and last issues being standalone stories. Issue one is the full origin of Charlie Manx, his awful childhood, his troubled marriage, and exactly how he brought his first two children, his own daughters, to Christmasland. You can see exactly what formed Manx, what made him into the monster he is, but Hill does a good job of never making you want to root for him; just because you understand a monster doesn't make him less of a monster.

The main story starts out with a prisoner transport with guards are driving three criminals to prison. The criminals are Dewey Hansom, a sleezy Hollywood agent, King Geek, a carnival geek with a sadistic streak, and Chess Llewellyn, a man who seems out of place with the other two. But King Geek has no intention of going to jail, and after finding a way to overpower the guards, he leads the others away. Dewey Hansom then gets the bright idea to call an old friend of his, a friend he helped abduct children for. You guessed it, Hansom was one of Manx's accomplices, and he calls Manx to pick him and his fellow escapees up and bring them somewhere safe. And Manx does indeed bring them somewhere the law can't touch them. He brings them to Christmasland. And that's where the horror really begins.

Our cast is quickly separated as they realize the Christmasland isn't the home of some cult, as Hansom has always supposed it was, but something much darker. King Geek wants to take the power that Manx has, Hansom is led off by one of the children he helped Manx take, and Chess Llewellyn helps Agnes Claiborne, the guard still left alive after the initial introduction to the terrors of Manx's park, and the two attempt to find a way out. We gradually learn Chess's story, that he is in jail for assaulting a doctor who refused to treat Chess's dying son because of a technicality, and that he is a good man, not like the murderous Geek or the rapist Hansom. This ties directly into the themes of the novel, with parents and children, and there is a magical balloon that we see as another of the vehicles to the inner worlds of the mind.

Art based on a novel that you have read and loved is always challenging. Sometimes it stands out, but often it falls flat. The comics based on The Dresden Files are hit or miss, and the art for the Game of Thrones adaptation has left me cold. But the art on Wraith is perfect. I had a very clear picture of Manx, Christmasland, and his monster children in my head, and Charles Paul Wilson III actually crafted images that were even creepier than what I had in my head. His art on Stuff of Legends has a whimsical air, which works in a world of anthropomorphic toys, even ones in serious situations. But his art on Wraith is straight up horror comic. Evil children are a horror trope that makes me break out in goosebumps, and Manx's children are some of the creepiest I can recall. While all the chaos and monsters are gorgeously rendered, Wilson does an equally excellent job on the quieter moments. The scenes with Chess and Agnes trapped on the Ferris Wheel in Christmasland, just talking about their lives and being human are perfect, with facial expressions that paint a picture as well as any words.

The transition from novelist to comic book writer isn't always the easiest. I've seen great novelists fall flat in comics, and the same for great comic writer writing novels. Now with two series under his belt, it's clear that Joe Hill has the chops to write in either medium. While Wraith: Welcome to Christmasland is not the sweeping epic that Locke & Key was, it's a great horror story with the heart and mind that readers of  Hill's precious works have come to expect. And the novel NOS4A2 is one of, if not the scariest novel I have read in the past couple of years, but still tells a story about people who are engaging and interesting. With Wraith wrapped, I can only hope that Hill is working on his next big novel or comic, and that it will send just as many chills down my spine as these have.

NOS4A2 is available in both hardcover and a quality paperback edition at all major book outlets. Wraith, having just wrapped two days ago, is only available in single issues, but I'm sure a collection is just over the horizon, despite not having been solicited yet.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Apocalypse Wow: The Life and Times of En Sabah Nur

I don't know why, but something has me thinking about Apocalypse. It's like a little voice in my head chanting "EN SABAH NUR! EN SABAH NUR!" So weird.

In all spoiler-free fairness, it's already been reported that the next X-Men sequel has been subtitled "Apocalypse." Bryan Singer announced it earlier this year in a tweet that launched a thousand nerd boners.

I loved Apocalypse as a young reader. A big, blue, robot-looking dude who espoused survival of the fittest and turned Angel into a badass? What's not to love?

If you're not familiar with the immortal mutant, here's some homework for you.

1. First appearance: X-Factor #5, (June 1985): Apocalypse is revealed as the string-puller behind the Alliance of Evil, a cadre of mostly forgettable villains (one member of the alliance, Frenzy, went on to become one of Magneto’s Acolytes in the ’90s and later became a player in X-Men: Legacy) that plagues the original five X-Men in their first outings as X-Factor. Oddly enough, as Brian Cronin writes in Comic Book Legends Revealed, said string-puller was not originally intended to be a new character but the Owl. The change was made to accommodate incoming writer Louise Simonson. Available in Essential X-Factor Vol. 1.

2. Turns Angel into Archangel: X-Factor 17-23, (1987): Under Simonson, Apocalypse becomes a regular thorn in X-Factor’s side and develops facets of his personality such as his survival of the fittest mantra and his penchant for turning mutants into horsemen. Chief among his first batch of Horsemen was Warren Worthington III, who was injured during the Mutant Massacre, lost his wings and his fortune due to the meddling of his ersatz friend, Cameron Hodge, and was driven suicidal. Apocalypse took the blonde, blue-eyed sad sack and turned him into an angel of Death, later to be called Archangel. Available in Essential X-Factor Vol. 2.

3. The taking of Baby Nathan: X-Factor 68, (July 1991): This arc includes the first appearance of the Dark Riders, whom I always liked better than the Horsemen, as henches go, although the Horsemen certainly have satisfied a narrative trope of turning X-Men eeeeeeeeevil for a brief period. Chris Claremont, Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio created the riders – Inhumans, not mutants, it should be noted – during a time when it seemed every major X-villian had to have his own running crew. Magneto had the Acolytes, Stryfe had the Mutant Liberation Front, and Mr. Sinister had the Nasty Boys, which of course made no sense because Sinister had a perfectly good batch of henches in the Marauders, but that’s a head-scratcher for another time. In this storyline, Apoc infects Baby Nathan with the techno-organic virus that makes the grown up Cable look so early ’90s-tastic. Cyclops and Jean give the baby over willingly to a woman they just met claiming to be from the future, then go on to their next adventure, helping the X-Men fight the Shadow King on Muir Isle, leading to a reshuffling of the X-teams. Available in Essential X-Factor Vol. 5.

4. X-Cutioner's Song: Uncanny X-Men 294-296, X-Men 14-16, X-Force 16-18 and X-Factor 84-86, (fall 1992): A weakened Apocalypse, still smarting from his last encounter with Cyclops & Co., teams up with the X-Men to save Xavier, who was mortally wounded by Stryfe, posing as Cable. Like the Summers clan, Apoc is on Stryfe’s hitlist for slights against him, though said slights would not be performed for centuries. Stryfe assaults Apocalypse and even steals the Dark Riders from him, down to the last tiny Tusk. Things get so bad for him that he asks Archangel for a mercy killing, which Warren refuses.

5. X-Men the Animated Series (1992-97): My first exposure to the character. In his first two-part appearance, he transforms Warren into Archangel and fights the X-Men at Stonehenge and says cool things like "I am as far beyond mutant as they are beyond you." Later on in the series, he gets a four-part arc in which he kidnaps all the psis in a bid to increase his power but is stopped by Bishop and his friend Immortus the Cosmic Janitor.

6. Adventures of Cyclops and Phoenix (1994): The one in which Apocalypse dies in the future. Scott and Jean get pulled through time on their honeymoon to raise Baby Nathan and help a ragtag group of Askani defeat the villain, only for his cause to be taken up by a young Stryfe. Damn that Stryfe. He's so hot right now 20 years ago!

7. Age of Apocalypse (All X-books, winter 1995): America's favorite alternate timeline (besides that one from the last season of Lost) was borne of Legion going back in time and accidentally killing his father. As a result, Apocalypse takes over North America, Cyclops loses an eye, Mr. Sinister gains a goatee, Wolverine loses a hand and the 616 gains a Sugar Man.

8. Rise of Apocalypse (1996): Writer Terry Kavanagh and Penciller Adam Pollina reveal the origins of Apocalypse at last. Finally we get to see En Sabah Nur as a weird-looking baby and the first goth teenager, survival of the fittest-ing in the sands of ancient Egypt, enslaving Ozymandias, and mucking about with Kang the Conqueror in his Rama-Tut identity.

9. Blood of Apocalypse: X-Men 182-187, (2006): In Peter Milligan’s storyline, Apoc returns from the dead – again – in the wake of House of M to discover there are a heck of a lot fewer mutants than their used to be. He offers himself as savior of mutantkind, demanding humanity Decimation itself in the process. It is during this period that Apocalypse counts the greatest number of X-Men among his Horsemen, including Gambit, Polaris and Sunfire. Also, the Celestials come calling for repayment for letting him play with their toys all these years.

10. The Apocalypse Solution: Uncanny X-Force 1-4, (2011): Wolverine’s band of X-killers tries to get the jump on a newly reborn Apocalypse only to find him as a young boy. Writer Rick Remender begins a great run with the age-old question of “Would you kill Hitler as a baby?” and spends much of this series and his next, Uncanny Avengers, revealing its consequences, both in the 616 and the Age of Apocalypse.

Happy reading! One day, maybe Matt and I will share with you the fanfic trilogy we wrote in which Apocalypse and his posse wiped out most of the X-Men. It was pretty flippin' sweet. At least we thought it was 15 years ago. In truth it probably had more Pete Wisdom and Deadpool than was necessary.