Friday, August 22, 2014

Star Wars at Dark Horse: A Retrospective

This month marks the final Star Wars comics published by Dark Horse. I have a couple thoughts on things to write this month into next month about the passing of an era and some favorites, but for this week, I have a guest column from Bradon Borzelli, friend of The Matt Signal and Star Wars fan, giving a really good rundown of some of his favorites.

Dark Horse Comics has published Star Wars comics for over two decades and to celebrate their final month (August of 2014) of publishing floppies it seemed like a good idea to call attention to some of the best issues to seek out, read and enjoy over and over again. This is not a ‘best of’ list nor is it only single issues, but rather these are some comic books that can be found fairly easily (either as back issues or in various collections) that could be classified as timeless.

Secondarily, with so many Star Wars comics out there, the whole “where do I begin?!?” statement can be brought down to a manageable list.

I’ve broken this out by what I believe to be a classic read list and then a list of stuff I happen to really enjoy that may not hit with every fan or prospective fan.

As a bonus I’ve added the three series I believe to be entire runs that are worth seeking out and read in whatever form they are available.

The classics:

1)      Darth Vader: Purge - While this is not a ‘best of’ list, this is my absolutely favorite Star Wars comic book. This issue came out just as the Star Wars: Republic series ended. Its Vader seeking out a nest of Jedi and slaughtering them, all while looking for Obi-Wan. The back issue price is high but it has been collected several times in hard cover and trade. Just look for the severed hand on the cover with Vader walking away and you know you’ve found it.
2)      Star Legacy #16 – Unintentionally going in order, this is my second favorite Star Wars comic book. Did you ever wonder what Obi-Wan did to protect young Luke all those years on Tatooine? This issue gives the reader a glimpse of what Obi-Wan was capable of and it’s fantastic. An added treat is that this issue also contains a Jedi from the Star Wars Republic series that helps round out the character. This is a pricey back issue but is collected in the “Claws of the Dragon” trade.
3)      Star Wars Republic #50 – This is the perfect one shot that deals with the clone wars. It’s an oversized issue that contains three battles within the Defense of Kamino battle. It’s set pretty much immediately after Episode II but the plot fits in well and makes a lot of sense. This is a dense and classic read and easily found. Incidentally this is the third issue in a row on this list that has John Ostrander’s hand in it.
4)      Star Wars: Darth Vader - Ghost Prison #3 – The entire mini-series is fantastic, but in this issue Darth Vader visits the Jedi temple to learn more about the prison where the Jedi kept their war criminals. Vader visits the temple with an imperial officer and doesn’t let on that the holos of Anakin are really him. This is a classic issue that ties the clone wars and dark times together from an Anakin to Vader transition point. This issue is easily found but I urge reading the entire story.
5)      Star Wars Republic #63 – This is part of a long running arc but the climax is a battle between two Jedi – Vos and K’Kruhk. It’s a fantastic fight that brings the dark side to a boil in a Jedi that dances the fine line too much throughout the series. This issue is easily found and is collected several times.
6)      Star Wars Republic #54 – This is one of my favorite Star Wars comics. It’s got Anakin and Obi-Wan and a Master-less padawan. The comic captures a lot of the war-time events that Anakin witnesses that could help him along towards the dark side down the road. This issue also deals with the concept that Anakin believes if he were more powerful he could save everyone. This is a classic one-shot.
7)      Star Wars Dark Times #10 – This issue wraps up the Parallels arc with K’Kruhk defending the group of padawans from some pirates. He absolutely cuts loose which brings his character close to the dark side, but it also shows that the old ways are over and if the Jedi are to survive they must forget the old and reinvent for the future. This entire run is worth getting but this issue stands out.
8)      Star Wars – Dark Empire – The classic six issue mini-series that brings the Emperor back as a clone. Luke falls to the dark side, but believes he has things under control. This comic still holds up after twenty years and has plot threads that still make sense despite all of the material that has come after this. Plus the stunning artwork is somewhat of a perfect fit for this dark comic series. The series feels too compressed in today’s world and probably could have been expanded to twelve issues very easily. There is just so much to explore when it comes to Palpatine.
9)      Star Wars Crimson Empire – This is the first comic book (or series) to really explore an obscure character. One of the Emperor’s royal guards is the focus and the series is an absolute classic even all these years later. The two follow-up series have diminished returns but the original one makes you think anything really can become a story in the Star Wars universe. The first issue is all you need to get hooked.
10)  Star Wars Legacy #27 – Sith versus Sith. This issue brings to light an awful lot of Sith mindset and background. This comic is easy to track down and really punctuates what makes this series so great.

Additional Reading:

1)      Mara Jade: Emperor’s Hand – this mini-series helps to expand the character of Mara Jade and takes place during and immediately after Return of the Jedi. There is no single issue that stands out above all others but the entire series really builds this character out after losing the Emperor. I’m not sure how it would read if you haven’t had exposure to the characters from the novels but it is a great story that holds up some sixteen years later.
2)      Star Wars Vector – While this is a twelve issue crossover, the best of the series are actually within Dark Times #11 and #12. It features an Old Republic Jedi against Darth Vader and it is a great read.
3)      Star Wars Jedi: Aayla Secura – This one-shot is really part of a larger arc, but it is an oversized read that really gives insight into a terrific character as she mulls over her master’s apparent fall to the dark side. She also battles a fantastic villain in this book.
4)      Heir To The Empire – This is a tricky one because the novel is so much better than the comic series. However, the comic series is a great guide into the novel universe so it is worth picking up.
5)      Chewbacca – Four issues featuring small stories within each that focuses on the life of Chewie as told by the people that love him. Chewie dies in the novels and this is the spillover effect into the comics world. They are great reads on their own.
6)      Star Wars Legacy – Broken – It’s impossible to break up this first arc to a single favorite issue. Pick this up and you won’t regret it. There is another Skywalker….even 120 years after Return of the Jedi.
7)      Star Wars Legacy – Claws of the Dragon – In some ways this is really the climax of the entire series but more importantly it reveals the identity and origin of the primary villain and it is fantastic.
8)      X-Wing Rogue Squadron – Battleground Tatooine – While the entire Rogue Squadron comics are unique and entertaining reads I find this one to be particularly special. Perhaps because it has ties to Jabba The Hutt. I’m not advocating that this is the best of the series, but I find it to be a personal favorite.
9)      Star Wars Dark Times – A Spark Remains – The final mini-series is a personal favorite and not just because it contains Vader. This mini-series is full of surprises that I won’t spoil here.
10)  Shadows of the Empire – This doesn’t quite hold up today but it has a special place in my heart as it really opened my eyes to the possibility that mining the years between the films still had plenty of stories to be told. It also has a terrific villain.
11)  Star Wars: Jedi – Not enough books or comics about Qui-Gon Jinn so this mini-series is essential reading if you want to read about him.

The Series:

1)      Star Wars: Legacy – Now that the entire run is collected in three hardcover volumes it makes tracking this series down much easier. This is the pinnacle of Star Wars comics at Dark Horse. If you think 120+ years after Return of the Jedi is too far to see familiar characters and themes then you will be pleasantly surprised.
2)      Star Wars: Dark Times – Generally speaking this series tracks one particular Jedi after the events of Order 66 and it’s no one that is from the films. However, each arc packs an emotional punch and provides a new definition of climax.
3)      Star Wars: Republic – The comics published from issue 49 and later are all classics. Never before has a comic series tied so closely to the events of a future Star Wars film as these 30+ issues were. Plenty of villains, plenty of Jedi and plenty of interesting twists and turns. The run isn’t limited to just the Republic comics as there are Jedi one-shots, a General Grievous mini-series and a Ventress centric mini-series called Obsession. These are all reprinted within three soft cover volumes and are well worth the price tag.

Does this cover it? Not by a long shot but I guarantee something in here is the “comic you are looking for.”

Brandon Borzelli first saw Star Wars in the 1979 re-release at a drive in theater with his family. A year later he saw Empire Strikes Back and after a sleepless night he was hooked and has been ever since. Brandon writes comic reviews over at and holds his Star Wars comics as the pride of his collection. He looks to pass on what he has learned.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Animated Discussions: The Venture Bros.

I was the right age for Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming when it started in 2001. Sophomoric tomfoolery like Aqua Teen Hunger Force and Robot Chicken was perfect programming for drunk twentysomethings. But only one show from the programming block remains one of my all-time favorites. It comes about once every other year, like the Olympics, and it stars a bunch of middle-aged has-beens and never-wuzzes.

The Venture Bros. started in 2004 and is about to enter its sixth season. The core of the show revolves around Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture, a Johnny Quest-type boy adventurer who has slacked into middle age with little to show for it; Hank and Dean Venture, his two inept sons who have a nasty habit of dying; Brock, their blond-mulleted bodyguard; and their archnemesis, a butterfly-themed villain named the Monarch.

More than that, though, the show is about failure. Failed super-scientists, failed super-villains, failed spy agencies, failed sorcerers, failed dictators of small kingdoms outside Michigan, failed marriages, failed tech start-ups, etc.

If the show were just a send-up of Johnny Quest, it would be good, but co-creators Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick have gradually expanded their world to send up the Fantastic Four, Dr. Strange, Dr. Doom, Ant-Man, Blade, G.I. Joe, David Bowie, Hunter S. Thompson, Dr. Henry Kissinger, Sean Connery, the Walt Disney Co., the Hardy Boys, Chinatown, The Manchurian Candidate, the Batman-Robin dynamic and many other characters and concepts I probably don’t even realize.

A piece in The Atlantic from last year compares the world of the Venture Brothers to Springfield, and rightly so. The Simpsons is another animated show in which its ancillary characters have, over time, come to be as fully realized as the main players, often generating memorable episodes that barely incorporate the main cast.
Keeping in that vein, here are five of the better characters from The Venture Bros.:

Dr. Orpheus: What if Stephen Strange were a middle-aged divorcee raising a teenage daughter and riddled with insecurity despite having the power to communicate with the dead? Enter Byron Orpheus, the Ventures’ tenant who is occasionally called on to watch Hank and Dean, though one time it resulted in their deaths (It’s OK; they have tons of clones). Orpheus is regularly humbled by his mentor, The Master, a shape-shifter who is voiced to caustic perfection by H. Jon Benjamin (Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Home Movies). In Season 2, he forms his own team of magic-themed heroes called the Order of the Triad, whose other two members are the Alchemist, seeker of truth and aging, gay Jimmy Buffett fan, and Jefferson Twilight, Blacula hunter (think Blade, if Blade looked like Richard Roundtree).

Phantom Limb: Next to the Monarch, Limb is the best villain on the show. In fact, if he’s anybody’s archnemesis, it’s Monarch, as Limb steals his girlfriend, lands him in prison and comes far closer than him to killing the Ventures. He also used to be the Monarch’s boss and a professor at the university Dr. Venture attended in the 1980s. Toward the end of Season 2, Limb tries to take down both the Monarch and his boss in the villains union, the Guild of Calamitious Intent, unsuccessfully of course. The defeats drive him mad and lead him to team briefly with inanimate objects, including a toaster, a mug and a woman’s shoe. Eventually, he regroups – literally – forming a team called the Revenge Society with Baron Underbheit, a deposed Dr. Doom-type tyrant, and Professor Impossible, a Mr. Fantastic type super-scientist/stretchy guy who sinks into a deep shame spiral after his wife leaves him for Dr. Venture’s brother, who spent the first four decades of his life as a parasitic growth inside the doctor.

Henchman 21: Gary is Henchman 21 in the Monarch’s hierarchy of butterfly-themed goons. His best friend, Henchman 24 (the one who sounds like Ray Romano), is killed at the end of Season 3, which leads 21 on a between-seasons quest to become a better henchman. By the beginning of Season 4, he’s jacked and has a HENCH4LIFE tattoo on his stomach. Like many other villains, he comes closer than the Monarch to destroying the Ventures, but over the course of the season, and with the help of the ghost of Henchman 24 – and that old, dancing guy from Arrested Development who’s not actually dead – he realizes how much of a jackass both the Monarch and his wife are, and he defects to the upstart spy group Sphinx. At the end of Season 5, he returns to the Monarch’s fold.

Sgt. Hatred/Vatred: Sgt. Hatred is a child-molester whose wife enjoys being bound, gagged and kidnapped, and he becomes Hank and Dean’s bodyguard after Brock leaves to rejoin the super-spy game. He is the epitome of how dark this show could be if it weren’t so funny. Also he was Dr. Venture’s Guild-assigned archenemy for a time, whom he treated more like a friend to spite the Monarch. After top-secret government experiments seek to control his urges (and give him man-breasts), Hatred removes his army togs, puts on a powder-blue speed suit and has the red H tattooed on his face changed to a blue V (the letters ATRED are still tattooed on his chest). Hatred has a mental breakdown at the end of Season 3, in “The Family that Slays Together, Slays Together,” locking himself in the Ventures’ bathroom and demanding someone bring him a “beautiful brown boy.”

David Bowie: Music and music references are a big part of the Ventures’ jokebook, so much so that the Guild of Calamitous Intent is ruled by a being that takes the form of David Bowie, who appears to his subordinates as an Oz-style floating head known as The Sovereign. Bowie’s name is first mentioned in Season 1, Episode 4, in which the mercenary Molotov Cocktease claims to be running a mission for him. He first appears physically in the “Showdown at Cremation Creek” two-parter at the end of Season 2, when he attends the wedding of the Monarch and it is revealed that he is the Sovereign. The Bowie-being’s influence may extend far back in the Ventures’ universe, as in the Season 3 MacGuffin-quest episode called “ORB,” a “League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”-style flashback shows a group of old-timey heroes in a dogfight with Nikola Tesla, whom Bowie portrayed in the 2006 Christopher Nolan film “The Prestige.”

Watch a panel discussion on the show from this year’s Comic-Con International here, as part of a con diary recorded by James Urbaniak, who voices Dr. Venture. Don’t worry, there aren’t any spoilers, as Publick and Hammer barely spend any time talking about the show.

Dan Grote has been a Matt Signal contributor since 2014 and friends with Matt since there were four Supermen and two Psylockes. His two novels, My Evil Twin and I and Of Robots, God and Government, are available on Amazon.

Friday, August 15, 2014

What's Making Me Happy This Week: The Matt Signal Edition

It's been a week of a lot of bad news out there, and I've been very busy, so I haven't really had any time to prep a normal recommendation for this week. So, I'm taking a page from one of my favorite podcasts, NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, and just ending the week with what's making me happy. It's just going to be a few snapshots of comic related stuff that I ran into this week that made me smile.

- I finally got to pick up my copy of the Atomic Robo Roleplaying Game this week. The game comes from Evil Hat Productions, which also designed the excellent Dresden Files RPG, and while I haven't gotten a chance to play yet, the design and their FATE System is elegant. The wide, crazy world of Atomic Robo is perfect for an RPG, as there are so many options of what to do and where & when to play, and it's a one book RPG; no big piles of books required, all you need is this one and you're set. I checked out the stats for the existing characters, and while seeing stats for Robo, Dr. Dinosaur, and Jenkins are exciting, what I really loved was stat blocks for Nicola Tesla, Thomas Edison, Stephen Hawking, and Carl Sagan! I think I need to create an adventure in the 70s or 80s just so I can use Carl Sagan.

- This past Sunday saw the beginning of new episodes of Beware the Batman on Cartoon Network. The past couple weeks have had unaired episodes, but those were available on the season 1 part 1 DVD, which ended the first half of the season on a cliffhanger. This was a strong episode, picking up where the last episode left off, with Ra's al Ghul having acquired a device that allows him to control the power supply to Gotham and blacking out the city. The episode has a lot of great character work, further developing the relationship between Batman and Jim Gordon, Gordon and his daughter Barbara, and dealing with the fallout of Ra's' revelation to Katana about the fate of her father and Alfred's part in it. There are twelve more new episodes of the series left, and they will continue to air at... 2:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. So, yeah, set your DVRs, folks, if you want to see how this series ends. I have a feeling like it will be remembered better than it has been treated by Cartoon Network.

- When the first wave of the new Batman family titles were announced, I wrote about how excited I was for Gotham Academy and Arkham Manor. This week saw the announcement of a third, slightly off the beaten trail Batman family title. Gotham By Midnight is a supernatural procedural, so it's kind of a combination of Gotham Central and The Spectre. Speaking of Spectre, it looks like Jim Corrigan is going to be the lead, spinning out of his involvement in Batman: Eternal, along with a cast of new characters. I have seen very little of the Spectre since the New 52, since he has mostly appeared in books I don't read, so it's been nice to see him in Eternal and to know he'll be taking a bigger role in Gotham. While DC has had a good number of supernatural books since the New 52 (one of the initial groups, The Dark, was all horror themed), the procedural hasn't been used yet, and with my soft spot for the Spectre, so I'll happily give this one a shot.

So that's it for this week. Next week I'm away at a conference for work, but I have a couple of posts scheduled, one from regular contributor Dan Grote, and one from guest writer Brandon Borzelli, and if I have the time between now and when I leave Sunday, I'll try to schedule some reviews for Monday. But anyway, have a good week.

Oh! And if you're in the New Jersey area and would like to have some fun next Saturday (that's August 23rd, folks), Garden State Comic Fest is happening in Morristown. Dewey's will be having a table, and I'll be one of the guys working it. Come by and say hi!

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 8/6

Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files: War Cry #3
Story: Jim Butcher & Mark Powers
Art: Carlos Gomez

The Dresden Files has always been a mix of action, character, and comedy. This issue is very much an action piece, as Harry Dresden's small band of wizards, stranded in a small house in the woods, meet the vampires of the Red Court head on. It's by far the best action sequence in any of the Dresden Files comics so far. Writer Mark Powers, working from a plot by Dresden creator Jim Butcher, does a great job delineating the powers of each of the wizards. It would be easy to have the three junior Wardens (magic police, for those of you not in the Dresden know) fighting the same way as Harry, but each has their own style, focusing on a different kind of magic. Artist Carlos Gomez draws some horrifying vampires, and there is an air of menace to them as they charge the drastically outnumbered Wardens. It's a smart choice to have the Duke Bravosa, leader of the vampires, remain in his human form, as it feels like it's building to the big reveal of what exactly he will look like when he finally changes his shape. One of the things that has struck me about reading the Dresden Files comics versus the novels is the shift in perspective. All the prose Dresden stories are written from first person point of view, usually Harry, but occasionally some of his supporting cast. While there is still Harry's first person narrative in the comics, the events can shift away from Harry, showing the history of the mysterious force that the Wardens are trying to keep out of the Red Court's hands, the invasion of the house it rests in by the Court's human servitor and the desperate fight by the Venatori Umborum, the human scholars, to keep him from taking it, and the cloaked mystery man fighting his way through the woods. While I had seen the cover of issue four already and had a pretty good idea who that character was going to be, his last page reveal was one of those moments that makes me smile, not just because it means the good guys have a chance, but because this bold pronouncement is well within character for a major Dresden Files player making his first appearance in the comics.

She-Hulk #7
Story: Charles Soule
Art: Javier Pulido

After a couple issues investigating the mysterious Blue File, series artist Javier Pulido returns to She-Hulk for a delightful one-off that I can't help but think of as, "Honey, I Shrunk the She-Hulk."  An inventor whose partner has disappeared comes to She-Hulk for help in finding him and settling their dispute. The only problem? This isn't a normal legal dispute; their invention is shrink technology, and the partner has shrunk himself and is hiding somewhere in his own backyard. So She-Hulk goes to Hank Pym, Marvel's expert on shrinking, and She-Hulk, Pym, and Hellcat, who serves as investigator for She-Hulk's law firm, shrink down and go searching. As writer Charles Soule has done before, he tosses the usual tropes of this kind of story on its head. He has Pym make it clear just how dangerous being that small is; everything can now kill you. And when Hank is stolen away by a bird, She-Hulk and Hellcat are on their own. We've seen from the beginning of their relationship in this book how their personalities can clash, but the argument here works well to flesh out these characters; She-Hulk is kind of a control freak, and Hellcat feels like she needs more freedom and trust. The argument ends with She-Hulk proving how much she does trust Hellcat, and everything works out. Soule built in the limitations of the new shrink tech, and the end of the issue uses those limitations cleverly. I had figured out the big reveal as to who the buyer was the two inventors were arguing over selling to was, but the scene where they have to sit down together and She-Hulk does her lawyer thing was put together by Pulido perfectly; The body language on that page alone should be taught to young artists on how to get across character without words. The final page of the issue sets up the next story, one I'm excited to see. Soule continues to balance superhero action with legal drama in a way I haven't seen done in a long time, and each issue just gets better.

Swamp Thing #34
Story: Charles Soule
Art: Javier Pina

Charles Soule writes another of this week's highlights, wrapping up many of the plot threads that he has been building throughout his run on Swamp Thing. I feel bad, realizing I haven't talked about this book since Soule took over from Scott Snyder, as it has been consistently entertaining. Soule has really changed the status quo, removing many of the elements of the traditional Swamp Thing mythos and introducing his own characters. And so, of course, I'm reviewing the issue where he drastically changes his own status quo by removing most of those characters. This issue finds Swamp Thing finally facing down his former allies, The Wolf and The Lady Weeds, former Avatars of the Green that he returned to human form. They have been trying to find a way to return to their previous forms pretty much since they were made human again, and this issue the Lady Weeds, never the most well balanced entity in any form, takes her stab at it. Soule does a good job balancing the two aspects of Swamp Thing, the super hero and the horror hero, in this issue, by having Swamp Thing fight a big, hideous monster (very much in the mold of the horror hero), but still valuing the life of the innocent and the guilty (something in the superhero mold). Javier Pina's design for the monster is hideous, and perfectly suited to this horror tinged comic. But as with She-Hulk, Soule never lets the character work fall by the wayside. The final disposition of The Wolf is not something I saw coming, which is something I find happens all too rarely in superhero comics for me. And the fate of the Lady Weeds, well, let's just say wronging Capucine, Swamp Thing's warrior woman ally, is something you do at your peril. Capucine is an excellent addition to Swamp Thing's cast, and is a character with so many levels. It would be easy to play her as the typical badass warrior, but Soule has built a character with heart as well as muscles. And the transition of Brother Jonah, the third of the former Avatars to a new life, is not what I expected. I'm glad the character, who has been a wise adviser to Swamp Thiing since his introduction, will still be a presence in the comic. I am looking forward to seeing where Soule goes with the story with so much of the deck cleared, although the cliffhanger for this issue indicates things aren't getting any easier for our mossy hero, with the introduction of a new character who looks to be an avatar of a new parliament. Building onto an existing mythology is a challenge, sometimes falling very flat, but I'm happy to say Soule has done a great job so far, and I hope he keeps doing it for quite some time.

Thanos: The Infinity Revelation OGN
Story & Art: Jim Starlin

Jim Starlin, the creator of Thanos and so many of the major cosmic Marvel characters, returns to Marvel for an original graphic novel featuring his greatest creation, Thanos, and the character he redefined, Adam Warlock. It is... well, a story I'm still trying to process. Starlin writes stories about big themes, cosmic themes that somehow turn into these deeply personal journeys for these characters. The story opens with Thanos going on a quest to determine why everything has felt off since his most recent resurrection. Upon visiting Drax the Destroyer, to see if he feels the same way, we see Drax shift from modern Drax to classic Drax from one panel to the next. While I thought this was something in Thanos's head, showing how fragmented his view is, it is actually a clue to exactly what is going on in the book. Pretty soon, Warlock is back from the dead too and he and Thanos are investigating why the universe seems off. We get to see Thanos fight a bunch of Badoon, throw down with the team of cosmic superpowers, the Annihilators (and maybe see why they don't hang out too much anymore; Thanos and Warlock make pretty quick work of them), and then have a conversation with another version of himself. There's even a stoned alien comic relief, which feels like the gravedigger from Hamlet or the porter from Macbeth, the common man in a world of great beings who is just there for a chuckle. By the end, Thanos has his answers and Warlock is a different man.

One of the elements that struck me in the book was the use of the embodiments of the forces of the galaxy, Eternity, Infinity, Death, and the Living Tribunal. These characters are the things that divide Starlin's cosmic Marvel Universe from the one of Abnett, Lanning, and Bendis. Starlin likes to use these characters to investigate these grand themes and write great, Shakespearean tragedies. By moving away from those concepts and using characters who are more gritty and planetbound, like Rocket and Groot, the current Marvel cosmic world is more relateable in some ways.

Trying to talk about this book without spoiling anything is challenging, since so much of it works so much better on a second read when you know exactly what Starlin is up to throughout. Still, Thanos written by Starlin is not like Thanos written by anyone else. Not only is he cunning and regal, but other writers tend to forget that Thanos has a sense of humor; a biting and dark one, but a sense of humor nonetheless. He isn't all serious and dark pronouncements. And no one does introspective and haunted like Adam Warlock.  There is also a segment where we literally see the world as created by Warlock or Thanos, and neither is particularly appealing.

But I will say this: keep an eye on Warlock's gloves. Trust me, they're there for a reason

This is a book that is well worth the read, especially if you are a fan of the classic Marvel cosmic stories. Expect to have your mind screwed with, though, and if that ins't your thing, well, this isn't a book for you. I hope that Starlin and Marvel have reached the accord it seems they have, as Starlin has created a springboard for all sorts of interesting new Warlock stories that I hope he gets a chance to tell.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Recommended Reading for 8/8: Guardians of the Galaxy: Rocket Raccoon & Groot- Steal the Galaxy

Ok, so this is the wrap up to our celebration of Guardians of the Galaxy. I still can't get over the fact that these obscure characters are the stars of the biggest blockbuster of the summer. Not a complaint, just... wow. So, today's recommendation is not a comic, but the most recent in Marvel's series of self published novels. While the earlier books in the series were adaptations of comic series (Civil War, X-Men: Gifted, and New Avengers: Breakout to name a few), this novel is an original story, and to top it off, it's written by Dan Abnett, half of the writing team that brought the Guardians back to prominence. When it was announced, I knew I had to give it a shot, and I was pleased that I did.

This novel is a wacky caper story, where a Rigellian Recorder robot falls into the hands of Rocky and Groot, and quickly it turns out that the robot is being pursued by the Badoon, The Kree, Timely Inc. (a megacorp that Rocket once worked in the mail room for), and a few other factions. It isn't clear at the beginning what the Recorder might have recorded, but whatever it is, it's got many factions hunting it, and only a raccoon and a tree to protect it. The novel a tour of the Marvel cosmos, with intergalactic empires, space cops, Spaceknights, and hired killers all hunting for our hapless heroes and their new robotic friend.

It's not surprising that Abnett tells an action packed story with more than a touch of humor. Rocket and Groot are inherently funny characters, a classic odd couple, and tossing in the Recorder to be a straight man against the two of them works beautifully. The voices that both Rocket and Groot have (well, it's a bit more limited with Groot, but the impressions you get form him) today are directly from Abnett's run, so I can think of no writer who better captures them. Different chapters of the novel are narrated differently, but the majority of them are form the perspective of the Recorder, who is a very likable narrator, a robot in the mold of C-3PO without much of the screeching, and so you get his often very literal interpretations of events, and his commentary about the odd characters around him, including a recurring line about Rocket's, "disturbingly human hands" which starts out funny, and then it does that thing where it gets less funny only to become even funnier as the line keeps popping up.

Before I move off the topic of humor, I just want to touch on Timely, Inc. When they appeared in the comic back-ups starring Rocket and Groot in the Annihilators mini-series, you knew they were this very officious mega-corporation. Digging deeper into their workings, you see that it's even worse than you imagined. The scenes with Timely are like a Dilbert comic strip in space, where the company is actively attempting galactic domination and with all of the different aliens on the Special Projects board speaking in these terrible buzzwords that clearly have no real meaning, just adding ridiculous suffixes onto existing words. It's a funny little trope. The great thing about that board, too, is that variety of aliens represented there. It includes not just a Kree , but a Skrull (the shape-shifting enemies of the Kree), a Z'Nox (an obscure alien race from early X-Men stories), a Shi'ar (a much less obscure race from more modern X-Men stories), and a Kaliklakian (the insect-like species that former Guardian Bug was a member of who have a -tik- distinctive speech pattern).

That variety of aliens is a hallmark of the book, which takes you all over the Marvel universe. As someone who is deeply familiar with these concepts and characters, it's hard to judge ease of accessibility, but it struck me that Abnett did a good job of explaining the core concepts. With the Recorder, whose whole job it is to accumulate data, as a narrator, there was an easy device to talk to the reader and explain who or what something is. By introducing original characters as members of the Nova Corps and Shi'ar Imperial Guard, you got to know these characters and through them their organizations, instead of trying to use an established character.

Thematically, the book treads on similar topics as the movie, a story about friendship and loyalty. I don't think  this is necessarily intentional, as the friendship between Rocket and Groot, and their loyalty to one another, has been key to a lot of the the stories that they have been featured in. What the book does is bring in other characters. We see how Rocket and Groot have to make decisions about the Recorder, and whether to stay loyal to him despite his vast worth to various factions. Gamora appears, hired to retrieve the Recorder, and she must decide if her contract is worth more than the friendship she has with our heroes. And a fallen Galadoran Space Knight, called Roamer, who has forsworn his oaths to protect the innocent, must decide if he really is a mercenary or still has a hero within him, loyal to the ideals who once believed in.

And for those of us who are familiar with the Marvel cosmic universe, there are a few great cameos and appearances. I've already mentioned Gamora has a role in the novel. Roamer, a member of the Spaceknights, is, well, never really given much background, but with that name and background I think Roamer might be someone we know. The master of the Negative Zone, Annihilus, pops up as one of the beings hunting the Recorder. The very end of the book tosses one last faction into the novel that I won't spoil, but is familiar to anyone who truthfully knows their Marvel cosmic history (there's a hnt there). And the cameo that got me most excited was an appearance by Pip the Troll. The one member of the 90s Infinity Watch (the team that protected the Infinity Gems, also featuring Adam Warlock, Gamora, Drax, Moondragon, and Thanos) that never appeared in the Guardians of the Galaxy comic series (he was a member of X-Factor for much of that time, a mismatch that worked really well), Rocket and Groot get to meet up with a retired Pip who now runs a junk shop. It's a really fun scene, and a treat for those of us who know these characters.

I know a novel is a lot more of a time commitment than a comic is, and so many have to be more frugal about what they choose to start. Rocket Raccoon and Groot- Steal the Galaxy is a quick, fun read, perfect for summer vacation. If you're a long term fan of Guardians of the Galaxy, or someone who just discovered them through the movie, it's a great read.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Rocket Raccoon and Groot- Steal the Galaxy is available at any book or comic book shop.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Matt and Dan Go to the Movies- Guardians of the Galaxy

Matt Lazorwitz: So, while we didn't go together, both Dan and I saw Guardians of the Galaxy over this inaugural weekend, and so now it's time for our second tag team review! Let's start off with Dan.

Dan Grote: Guardians of the Galaxy is great for two different kinds of people: Those who love the cosmic Marvel characters and enjoy hunting for Easter Eggs, and people for whom none of these characters existed prior to this movie.

As much as Guardians is a brand-new concept for most moviegoers, the film doesn't feel like there’s homework required, nor does it hold your hand through excess exposition for the most part. Personally, I haven’t been into the cosmic characters since Matt and I scripted Infinity Watch 2099 fan-fic (try and guess around what time that was!), [Editor's Note: Hey, it was the early 90s, we were in our early teens, and this is how we thought you got into comics, send a pile of reference heavy fanfic to a comic company, and they would love us. If only that were true] and even then the only characters from this movie that I knew were Gamora, Drax and Thanos.

ML: Coming from it at the other end of the spectrum, as a guy who spent time writing a piece that was a run down of these cosmic heroes before going to see the movie because they are my favorite characters in the Marvel Universe, I was really impressed. Not only did they get the tone of each character spot on, but those Easter Eggs weren't club you over the head, wink at the camera Easter Eggs. They were part of this big, crazy, gorgeous world that director James Gunn and his team built.

DG: Avengers notwithstanding, the films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe have largely been confined to their little corners. The Asgard corner, the World War II corner, the S.H.I.E.L.D. corner, the Stark Industries corner, etc. Space is not a corner, and director James Gunn understands that. To quote Saturday Night Live’s Stefon, this club has everything: Kree, Sakaarans, mad Titans, tree monsters, raccoons with weapons fetishes, space hillbillies, an Earthling, blue people, purple people, green people, white people, Stan Lee, Lloyd Kaufman, etc.

ML: So many of these wacky and bizarre concepts come together in one of my favorite settings in the Marvel Universe, Knowhere, the floating, severed head of a Celestial that has been turned into a space station, a concept I never thought I'd see on screen. Not only was it done on screen, but it was done in a really impressive way. It strikes me as a sci-fi version of one of my favorite scenes from another comic book movie, the Troll Market sequence from Hellboy: The Golden Army. While all the scenes in Knowhere are littered with Easter Eggs (none more than the Collector's menagerie), it's more than just Easter Eggs. It's this fully formed and rendered world where everyone seems as strange and out of place as the Guardians. Standing against the clean, white spaces of Xandar, it makes the universe seem a wilder, more expansive place.

DG: I’m very much enjoying the trajectory of Chris Pratt’s career. I remember when he was the popular jock on Strangers with Candy. He was one of the ancillary characters who helped improve the fourth and final season of The O.C. He’s the idiot heart-and-soul of Parks and Recreation, and because I have a 3-year-old, I’ve seen The Lego Movie about a bajillion times. His Star-Lord is the perfect rake-as-hero (think Gambit without the Cajun accent and the rape-y vibe), and I look forward to seeing him in more things.

Lee Pace makes a great Ronan the Accuser, who turned out to be a much more imposing villain than I had expected. The movie does give us a little more Thanos, but he’s still not a fully realized threat. Ronan, on the other hand, is deadly, spouting threats, taking on the entire Nova Corps and throwing even the hulking Drax across the room as the Infinity Stone drives him to new levels of zealotry. The people casting and designing Apocalypse in the next X-Men movie should take notes.

ML: And while he was only really on screen for a moment, there was a great sense of grandeur and menace from Josh Brolin's Thanos. I've been waiting to get a real look at the most cosmic of Marvel bad guys, and I was not disappointed.

DG: Also a surprise was the depth Bradley Cooper brought to Rocket. When he was first cast, I thought I would have rather seen a professional voice guy like Jon Benjamin (Archer, Bob’s Burgers, Venture Bros.) or John DiMaggio (Futurama, Adventure Time, Batman: The Brave and the Bold) handle the character, but Rocket wasn't just there for comic relief. He’s an equal member of the team with his own reasons to be empathized with, and the Oscar-nominated actor performs admirably.

ML: The major surprise for me was Dave Bautista in the role of Drax. I'm not a professional wrestling person at all, so I had no exposure to Bautista as an actor before this (yeah, I said it), but I have found that a lot of times, pro wrestlers have a hard time getting out of the character they play there when acting in other parts. Dwayne Johnson is a notable exception, and Andre the Giant's turn in The Princess Bride is legendary for a reason,  but there's a reason that Hulk Hogan played pretty much himself in Rocky III and there was no Oscar talk for his roll in 3 Ninjas: High Noon at Mega Mountain. Bautista brings layers to Drax. The writing gave him a really solid arc to work through, and Bautista played rage, to understanding, to empathy. Drax can be a one note character in the comics, so I was glad to see that Bautista was given this to work with, and that he rose to the challenge.

The core cast is rounded out by Zoe Saldana, whose Gamora wasn't given a ton to work with. A lot of what she had to say and do was designed to move the plot along, but the always sterling Saldana did a good job with her character moments. And while Vin Diesel only said five words (many of them repeatedly) throughout the entire movie, he does a great job with the nuance of them, and warms your heart at just the right moment. If you walked out liking Groot, and wanting to see more of him, it wouldn't hurt to check out The Iron Giant, the animated film by The Incredibles director Brad Bird, which starred Diesel as the titular robot.

DG: There are a few characters I would have liked to have seen more of, as is the way with any front-loaded flick. The Nova Corps, staffed by high-quality actors such as Glenn Close, John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz, essentially act as machines to advance the plot. Same, too, goes for the Collector, though Benicio del Toro gets to both advance the plot and play Easter bunny, as most of the movie’s eggs – including the post-credit scene – are in his basket.

ML: My favorite of those Easter Eggs was the appearance of another character I never would have anticipated in a movie: Cosmo, the psychic Russian space dog. I mean, that is a concept that could only be created for a comic book, and despite only getting a couple cute cameos, he was still there! Now for a bigger roll in Guardians 2...

Also a shout out to the way the film dealt with Yondu's power. Yondu as a character was one of the most changed from his comic book persona, but I loved how they kept his sonic controlled arrows as part of the character, and how it looked. It was yet another neat touch.

DG: Without spoiling, the post-credits scene is most notable for not setting up a future Marvel movie. Not Avengers 2, not Ant-Man, not Doctor Strange, nothing. Just one last surprise, everyone-in-the-theater-gasps-then-claps joke.

ML: My final note is just how much I loved the soundtrack. I'm a sucker for music of the 60s and 70s, and have spent most of the weekend humming either Hooked on a Feeling by Blue Swede or O-O-H Child by the Five Stairsteps. That funky juxtaposition just seemed to work for me.

Friday, August 1, 2014

I AM GROOT! And You Are?: A Guardians of the Galaxy Primer

Today, Guardians of the Galaxy opens in theaters. Two years ago, pretty much no one outside a small group of fans knew who the Guardians were. I'm lucky to be someone who has followed the exploits of this incarnation of the team since its inception. I'm not saying this out of a sense of hipster, "I was a fan before it was cool." No, I'm saying it because I feel that, having followed these exploits for a number of years, it gives me a good perspective to give a rundown of the team's recent history to those of you less familiar with them, either to get you ready to see the movie, or to give you some more background if you were one people who went to see it last night (I'm going after work, so there will be something posted in the way of a review either this weekend or Monday).

The original Guardians of the Galaxy were a team of freedom fighters introduced in 1969, whose adventures took place in the distant future. There, a group of aliens fought against the evil Badoon, who had conquered our solar system. That team came back in the 90s for a successful run, originally drawn by Image founder Jim Valentino, but when that series ended, the Guardians fell into limbo, only making an occassional appearance.

Marvel's outer space characters were all pretty much moribund in the late 90s into the early 00s. Since the end of Infinity Trilogy (Infinity Gauntlet, War, and Crusade) and the cancellation of Silver Surfer and Warlock and the Infinity Watch, attempts had been made, with new series featuring such characters as Silver Surfer, Adam Warlock, and Thanos, but none had really caught on. But in 2006, writer Keith Giffen took that little corner of the Marvel Universe and exploded it. After doing six issues of a Thanos series, and then a four issue Drax the Destroyer mini-series, he wrote Annihilation, a six issue event mini-series with various tie-in mini-series, featuring an attack from the Negative Zone (an alternate universe) by the forces of Annihilus, a classic Fantastic Four villain, and his army, called the Annihilation Wave. This series returned the original Nova, Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, and various others to the forefront of the Marvel Universe.

The following year, Marvel followed the series up with Annihilation: Conquest, written by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning, who would shepherd the team for the next few years. This was the story of when the empire of the Kree, a race of warlike aliens, was conquered by The Phalanx, a race of techno-organic beings (basically, shapeshifting robots things that possess people), under the control of the Avengers villains, Ultron, who you might have heard of connected to another upcoming Marvel film. Not only was the cast of the original Annihilation back, but added were Adam Warlock, Rocket Raccoon, and Groot.

With Ultron defeated, things might have settled down. But Warlock, who I've written about before, knew that the cosmos was threatened. These wars had weakened the walls of the universe, and someone needed to, well, guard the galaxy, hopefully stopping another war that might bring further damage. So Warlock went to Peter Quill, the hero known as Star-Lord, and Quill gathered the various beings who had fought with him during the Phalanx war, creating the new Guardians of the Galaxy.

It was a big team, not just featuring the five members of the current/movie team (all of whom I'll get into detail about shortly) and Warlock, but various other unusual characters. These included Mantis (the celestial madonna and psychic), Quasar (Phyla-Vell who was the daughter of legendary cosmic hero Captain Marvel), Bug (an insectoid alien warrior), Moondragon (daughter of Drax and lover of Quasar), Major Victory (one of the original future Guardians who was displaced in time and gave the team it's name), and Jack Flag (a human hero fleeing trouble on Earth).

The Guardians might not have been the lovable losers the TV commercials make their movie counterparts out to be, but they certainly were a ragtag group. The cosmic heroes of the Marvel Universe had always been A-List powerhouses who could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Thor without blinking. But most of these Guardians were low on the power scale, and were saving the universe with little more than wit, gumption, and a whole lot of luck.

Over the course of a series that ran two years, the Guardians faced many of Marvel's great cosmic threats. They fought the Universal Church of Truth, who sought to convert the entire galaxy to their religion. They were caught up in a war between two of the great alien empires, the Kree and the Shi'ar. They briefly disbanded when it was revealed that Star-Lord manipulated many of the more reticent members to join, only be to regathered by the unlikely Rocket Raccoon to save Star-Lord, who had been sent to the Negative Zone.

But their greatest foe came from within. To stop the universe from ripping itself apart, Adam Warlock was once more transformed into his darker self, The Magus. He manipulated many of the team to be his servants as he took over the Universal Church of Truth, and opened the Fault, a crack between universes, to allow a malignant universe entrance to his own. He died in the process, but the Guardians now had to face down a team of dark Avengers who were the champions of that universe. Allying with Nova, the Guardians traveled to the heart of the Cancerverse, the name given to this new dark universe, with the one being who could stop it: Thanos, worshiper of Death and cosmic warlord, the greatest threat our universe had ever faced. In the end, they succeeded, but at a great cost; to allow the others to escape, Nova and Star-Lord stayed behind, to keep the mad Thanos in the Cancerverse as it collapsed. And that was the end of the Guardians of the Galaxy...

... or so it seemed. The Guardians returned, with Star-Lord again in the lead and no explanation, in the pages of Avengers Assemble to do battle with a similarly mysteriously returned Thanos. The Guardians have gone on to headline their own series, where they do their best to protect the helpless, standing up to great cosmic empires like the Spartax, Shi'ar, and Badoon, being joined by the mysterious Angela, and Avengers like Iron Man, Captain Marvel, and Venom.

Since the team began to really form in Annihilation: Conquest, there have been five members who have been around pretty much consistently, and they form the backbone of the movie team. Here's a quick rundown on who each of them are.

Star Lord, Peter Jason Quill, has one of those convoluted comic book histories that make your head spin. His origin has been tinkered with many times over the years, which is better explained over on this column from Comic Book Resources, but what you really need to know is that he is the son of a human woman and a prince of the Spartax Empire, and has a bad habit of getting himself into trouble. When he first appeared in the modern comics, he was in prison. Freed to help fight the Annihilation Wave, he was again imprisoned when his attempt to network all security of the Kree Empire allowed the Phalanx to invade their system. Sent on a suicide mission to redeem himself, Quill met his fellow future Guardians, Rocket, Groot, Mantis, and Bug. Quill continued to seek personal redemption for his past crimes by leading the Guardians of the Galaxy and protecting the universe. Since returning from the Cancerverse, he has become more of a rogue, a sly trickster who enjoys the ladies and thumbing his nose at his father, J'Son of Spartax, who is now the king of the Spartax Empire, but is no less a champion of the little guy. A skilled marksman and tactician, Star-Lord often looks before he leaps. The upcoming story beginning in the August issue of Guardians of the Galaxy, will reveal how Star-Lord and Thanos escaped the Cancerverse, and the fate of Richard Rider, the Nova who was lost. He also headlines his own series, Legendary Star-Lord.

Gamora is known as the Deadliest Woman in the Universe, and that reputation has been earned. After her people were wiped out by the warlike Badoon, Gamora was taken in by Thanos, who trained her to be his own personal assassin. Gamora eventually betrayed Thanos to aid Adam Warlock, and she used her skills for the betterment of the universe. Meeting Star-Lord during the Annihilation War, Gamora was one of his first recruits for the new Guardians. Cold and deadly, Gamora is possibly the toughest member of the team, unmatched in the use of sword, blaster, and her hands. Her gruff exterior hides a good heart, though she does take time off from the Guardians to take on the occasional mercenary job.

Drax the Destroyer has a complex backstory, one intrinsically tied to Thanos. Drax was once human Arthur Douglas, who saw a space ship while driving along a desert road with his wife and daughter. The spaceship, not wanting any witnesses, fired on Douglas's car, killing him and his wife, and leaving their daughter to be taken in and raised by other aliens, to become the heroine Moondragon. When cosmic forces wanted a champion to stand against Thanos, whose ship had killed him, Douglas was resurrected in a powerful new body, that of Drax the Destroyer. Drax has died and returned many times, each time slightly different. Originally a cosmic juggernaut, then a childlike giant, now he is smaller but more clever (at least in the sense he's smaller than let's say the Hulk, but bigger than pretty much anyone else you'll meet), and deadlier than many beings with his knives and knowledge of hand to hand combat. Drax's return to life is almost always tied with the return of the being he was created to destroy, and while he aids the Guardians in their noble goals, Drax always has one eye open for Thanos.

Since they met during the war with the Phalanx, Rocket Raccoon and Groot have been inseparable. Both imprisoned by the Kree, Rocket and Groot were sent on a mission with Star-Lord. They have been a pair of the most earnest Guardians, doing their best to save the galaxy because it's the right thing to do and its fun. Rocket comes from Halfworld, a planet of anthropomorphic animals. He is not just a crack shot, but an expert tactician and star pilot. He has a thing for large firearms. Groot is from Planet X, and aside from his giant size and strength, he can regrow himself from the smallest of fragments. All he can say is, "I am Groot!" although those who understand him know that there is nuance in exactly what that means. Interesting fact, he is actually one of the oldest characters currently in use in Marvel comics, having been introduced in Tales to Astonish when it was a sci-fi comic in 1960, predating nearly all Marvel superheroes. Rocket Raccoon has his own ongoing series, with Groot as his buddy and supporting cast.

So, those are the Guardians of the Galaxy. Every indication is that the movie will be packed with appearances and cameos by a legion of cosmic Marvel characters, and I might write up a little something about those characters after I've seen the movie. If you want to check out more Guardians, there is the monthly comic series for the team, Rocket, and Star-Lord, and this past week saw the release of the first of two volumes collecting the entire 2008 series that introduced the team.