Monday, September 29, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 9/24

Harley Quinn: Futures End
Story: Amanda Conner & Jimmy Palmiotti
Art: Chad Hardin

A year into it's publication, I realized I haven't talked about the new series starring Harley Quinn. From her first appearance in the New 52, I had a lot of problems with the new Harley, from her awful costume to her completely violently psychotic attitude. But with this ongoing being written by Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti, I gave it a shot. And it is, far and away, the most fun comic coming out from DC. It's DC's answer to Deadpool: wacky, over the top cartoony violence, quirky protagonist. The series began by moving Harley to Brooklyn, giving her a new supporting cast, and removed it pretty much from the mainstream of the New 52, and it works beautifully. The Futures End issue is similarly removed from the downright dark and brooding event, and its a story of Harley flying on vacation to Barbados only to crash on an island that her Mr. J, The Joker, is using to hide out, and where he is worshiped as a god king by the natives. It's a great introduction to Conner and Palmiotti's take on Harley, since she spends a lot of time on her own, thinking (and talking to Bernie, the taxidermy beaver that is sort of Jiminey Cricket for her throughout the series). There are plenty of sight gags, especially once you realize what the Joker has been doing to the natives. And the writers get the way Joker and Harley are supposed to interact, with Harley growing a spine around him, only to have him say one thing that gets her to melt, and him simply having fun manipulating her (I feel the way Joker deals with his subjects is just how he feels about Harley written large, and the end would be what we wish Harley could do to the Joker. Read the issue and you'll see what I mean). The issue is drawn by regular series artist Chad Hardin, so you get the full Harley Quinn experience, and he draws the issue with the same manic verve that he does every issue. If you're looking for a comic that has that Itchy & Scratchy vibe, while still capturing the voice of both Joker and Harley, this is the comic for you to try.

Lumberjanes #6
Story: Grace Ellis & Noelle Stevenson
Artist: Brooke Allen

Ah, capture the flag. Nothing says camp like capture the flag (I think. I never went to to camp, but it's one of those things that I see every time there's story about camp, so I feel like that). Of course, since this is Lumberjanes, things have a slightly more supernatural bent. This issue we get a bit more with Diane, the somewhat standoffish camper who has been around a couple issues, and we see most of what her deal is, a lot of which has to do with Jo, the most grounded Lumberjane. After the bear woman made reference to Jo being supernatural, the other girls aren't sure what to make of it, but this issue we get answers to that and exactly what Diane is and is up to. Frankly, Diane's identity makes perfect sense, and it makes me want to go back and reread her previous appearances to see if there were clues there that I missed. But while there is mystery and the supernatural, the thing that still gives Lumberjanes it's charm and it's warmth is the relationships between the leads. Before you know exactly what's going on , the first two pages make it seem like there's dire trouble at hand, and the way the girls stick together, the way they care for the wounded Molly, the way they depend on Jo's planning, is all wonderful. I also get a kick out of a scene later, when Mal is coming up with her crazy plan to save the captured Jo and Ripley, only for them to have escaped and see Mal's disappointment that she yet again didn't get to enact one of her plans. It all reminds us that, as much as the series is about the Supernatural, it's more about these five characters, their friendship, and what a unique group of characters they are. A couple of final notes, I like how the events of earlier issues are staring to pay off in these issues. While Lumberjanes is now an ongoing, it was originally planned for an eight issue run, so I'm curious to see if everything gets answered at issue eight with a new set of mysteries appearing after that or if the creators had enough advance notice of the extension to build subplots forward. I also love the continued development of Jen, the councilor. She could have been the strict authoritarian character who was the girls' nemesis in camp, but she has grown, wondering what she brings to a camp that battle monsters and trying to help keep her girls safe by going off on their adventures. I connect a lot with Jen's mindset, being a rule follower and the kind of person who doesn't chase monsters, so I like seeing that growth in her.

Saga #23
Story: Brian K. Vaughan
Art: Fiona Staples

The end of last issue of Saga was heartbreaking, and this issue is the fallout from Alana and Marko's confrontation (SPOILERS if you're reading the series in trades). With our lead couple now on the outs, Alana goes into the treehouse while Marko makes what might be the dumbest move ever and goes to Ginny's. We see exactly what each of them are feeling, and frankly a month later I'm still torn up about whose side to take. Marko's throwing something in a fit of rage at Alana is unforgivable, but I will say that Alana being under the influence while being with Hazel is something that is utterly wrong as well. Vaughan has done a great job of fashioning a situation where everyone is as right as they are wrong. Still, as we see the two of them deal with where they are now, Alana has the breakdown that has been coming since the beginning of this arc, and Marko does something that affirms his commitment to his family. Izabel, the ghost girl babysitter, also gets some more character development. Vaughan uses her to speak about the pointlessness of war in a way that is far more effective to me than our leads usual wistful discussions of love being stronger than war, more in line with Oswald Heist's story of his son and less with the stories he wrote in flowery prose. And I absolutely love Klara, Marko's mom, once again proving she is far and away the toughest member of the cast; this is a grandma you don't want to mess with. It does seem that Alana's time with the Open Circuit is over, and the events have me unsure of how I feel about Yuma. I mean, I don't think there's been much redeeming the drug dealing costumer to begin with, and seeing her interactions with Dengo makes her seem even more despicable. But she seems to have a moment of realization, even if it seems to be one of those deathbed conversions that will only mean anything if she does survive. Vaughan ends the issue with his trademark cliffhanger, with the meeting of two characters who haven't crossed paths yet who have been in each other's orbit since the series began. There's one more issue in this arc before the next hiatus, and as ever, I don't know where this is going, but I'm along for the ride.

The Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror #20
Art: Various
Story: Various

In previous years, the annual Simpsons' Treehouse of Horror comic has brought in creators from all around comic to tell various comedy/horror themed stories set in Springfield. This year, the stories are from Bongo Comics stable of regular creators, but are all themed towards today's leading horror trend: zombies. The lead is a mashup of two of the biggest pop culture events with "Zombinado." Yes, it's a tornado full of zombies, and only Homer Simpson's capacious gullet can save Springfield. "The Walking Ned" casts Homer as the Governor-esque leader of a post-apocalyptic Springfield and Ned Flanders as the man who must stop him from getting everyone killed . And the special ends with a parody of zombie classic "Dawn of the Dead" and Bart and Homer unleashing nuclear zombies during a bring-your-kids-to-work day. These are all entertaining stories, perfect if you're looking for a little Halloween laugh.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Recommended Reading for 9/26: Leaving Megalopolis

The deconstruction of superheroes and the genre tropes entailed therein goes back to at least Watchmen, although I've heard it argued (and can agree) that Mark Gruenwald's Squadron Supreme is the first deconstructionist superhero story. Since then, plenty of creators have torn down the genre, and some have rebuilt it afterwards. It would be easy to look at Leaving Megalopolis as another such book, but I don't feel it is. The new graphic novel from Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore (best known together for their work on Secret Six) does not deconstruct the genre. They play completely true to all the tropes, even if they take it beyond the point that most traditional superhero stories do. It's a dark book that instead shows what the common person has to do when their super protectors go mad, and how people draw together in the worst of all worlds.

Leaving Megalopolis shares more in common with The Walking Dead than it does with any of the output from DC or Marvel, and I say that as a high compliment; it's a story about regular people, not the great forces around them. Gail Simone has always been a writer whose characters shine through, able to make them three dimensional in less time than it takes many writers to just introduce one dimension. The graphic novel follows a small band of survivors trying to, well, leave Megalopolis, a city once protected by costumed champions before a battle with a creature from the depths of the Earth drove them all into a homicidal frenzy. Now, death can appear from any corner at any moment. The only hope is to slip out of the city, avoiding the attention of these super powered lunatics.

The book opens on the devastation in Megalopolis and closes in on Mina, our principal character for this volume. She's wearing a police uniform, carrying a shotgun, and is about as friendly as the shotgun when we meet her. Simone isn't playing any of the cliches here; Mina isn't the hardbitten cop who has seen too much of this, nor is she the warm and fuzzy, to serve and protect officer. She's a person, with hopes, dreams, and a past that has prepared her to close herself off and survive in this broken city.

The book is actually three intertwined narratives. The first is the present, with Mina and the other survivors making their way through the wreck of the city, encountering supers as well as other survivors, some good and some even more frightening than the supers. We also see Mina's history from childhood to present, and see how that life informs her decisions. And we also get cutaways to a Senate hearing about the incident in Megalopolis, giving us a fuller view of what happened and how the world is reacting to it. It's a great bit of world building, and it never feels like we're thrown out of the main story for a random aside.

Mina quickly encounters the rest of the cast including Harold, a middle aged guy in a suit; Michael, a male nurse; Meredith, who waits at the hole the monster came from, reacting to her trauma by hoping for her dog to climb out; and Lisa, who appears having been attacked and traumatized, but if by supers or people it isn't made clear. Others make it in and out of the group as they encounter various supers along the way, but this is the core group who make it the story's climax. Each of them reacts differently to the new world of Megalopolis, Michael is the compassionate voice to Mina's cynicism, while Harold is, according to Simone's endnotes, "the representation of free will." Meredith comes out of her stupor to be a stronger person than it seemed. And Lisa seems to be broken by her experiences, but looks can be deceiving. The great thing about these characters is that they are more than I can sum up in a paragraph. Each jumps off the page with their own voice.

Thematically, Simone touches on some powerful issues. The central theme is that of heroism and community. These are different people, people who didn't know each other before the disaster, and now have to work together to survive. More than that, Mina has to step up and move beyond her past to become the hero that the people around her expected her to be. We also get to see the opposite of that acceptance, in a group of survivors who are doing nothing more than appeasing their new psychotic super-powered masters, and how easy it is to give in. It's also very interesting when we hear the heroes talk exactly what is going on in their heads. They aren't the walking dead, killing because they must. There is a very specific methodology and..., psychosis, maybe, behind what is going on here, but the more you learn, the more there is a philosophy to this madness. I also fell in love with a brief scene where the survivors find a bobcat loose in the city, and there's a discussion about how nature overtakes civilization, and whether it means the "time of man is done" or that life finds a way, and we will too.

In building a world of new superheroes, you need an artist who can come up with all sorts of great designs. Simone says in her notes that she didn't want, "homage" characters, characters that are clearly Batman in purple or Superman in black and gold, but characters who capture an era or a particular archetype. Jim Calafiore does this with ease. Each character design is original, but is clearly in a tradition. Overlord (in green and grey above) is your typical godlike hero, with super strength, flight, etc., and you get the impression just from looking at the costume what tradition he is in. Fleet (bottom left) is a speedster, and it's easy to tell just from looking at him that he's the fast guy. The Red Flame (not pictured) is a fire based hero, and his design doesn't look like Human Torch or Firestorm, but still has the essence of flame. And Calafiore's personal character, the one he designed for the short he wrote and drew at the back of the book, Southern Belle (below Overlord), is a great mix of the patriotic hero with a more genteel ideal that fits with her name. And kudos for having to design two versions of each costume, one before the monster fight for flashbacks and one after, and have them all work perfectly, the evil versions looking logically connected to the original, but the evil version being a creepy twist.

Leaving Megalopolis is marked as volume one, and there's a doozy of an ending that makes me excited to see more. But in itself, it is a self-contained story of heroism and loss, set in a world of superhumans. If you like superheroes, the work of Gail Simone, or stories of survival against all odds, this is a book you should try.

Leaving Megalopolis was funded initially through Kickstarter, but a mass released edition came out from Dark Horse Comics last week (the cover of which is below). If you happen to be in the New Jersey area this weekend, artist Jim Calafiore will be doing a signing of the book at Dewey's Comic City, my comic shop, on Saturday from noon to two, along with our Fall Back Issue Clearance Sale. Stop by, pick up a copy, get it signed, and say hi.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Agents of GOTHAM: Matt on Gotham and Dan on Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

I went into the series premiere of Gotham with both anticipation and trepidation. There are two kinds of comic book fans: the kind who get a hopeful swell every time a new translation or series for their favorite character appears, and the kind who wants to tear it down because it's not their version of the character. I am, I'd like to think quite obviously, the former. And a new Batman TV series? How could I not look forward to that? But it's not really Batman, or it is in the same way Smallville was Superman; a prequel where we won't actually see the hero that drives the action. So I was wondering if Jim Gordon could carry a pilot, let alone a series. And while the jury is till out on the series, the pilot was highly enjoyable.

I was surprised to see that the first character viewers see is neither Bruce Wayne or Jim Gordon, but a young Selina Kyle. I took this as something of a good sign, since I felt it meant we would be dealing with the wider world of Gotham, as the title indicates, and not just these dual narratives of Bruce and Jim. This is, of course, quickly followed by the iconic murder of Thomas and Martha Wayne in front of Bruce, and the pilot deals mostly with Jim Gordon and his partner, Harvey Bullock, investigating the Wayne murders and running afoul of the mob. We get to see how these two police play off each other, with the more by the books Gordon and the more corrupt Bullock, and we get some great moments between them, some serious and some actually pretty funny. The hierarchy of the Gotham mob is established, with appearances by classic characters like Oswald "Penguin" Cobblepot and Carmine "The Roman" Falcone, and new mobsters like Fish Mooney and most of her crew. There are plenty of other Batman universe cameos, but you don't need any real knowledge of the character history to watch the episode.

Ben McKenzie's got some big shoes to fill as Jim Gordon, and I think he did a solid job of it in this episode. He's driven, honest, but doesn't come off as a boy scout. He has an edge to him that I feel works for the modern portrayal of Gordon. If you had asked me any actor in Hollywood to play Harvey Bullock, I would have said Donal Logue, and I was right; he was born to play Bullock. He has the right mix of humor and violence. I was also impressed with Robin Lord Taylor's Oswald Cobblepot, as it is clearly two roles, the one he plays as an obsequious toady to his mob boss, and the other when he's making deals with the GCPD. But the biggest surprise and relief was David Mazouz as Bruce Wayne. I was worried about how Bruce Would be portrayed, either as a lost sniveling kid or as Batman already, but the writers, and Mazouz, found a nice balance. There are moments where Bruce does indeed seem lost, but at least one other between him and Alfred, played in the Michael Caine "old soldier" model by Sean Pertwee, where we see the kind of steel he has in him.

The look of the series is nothing unfamiliar to anyone who has watched any of the modern live action interpretations of Batman. Gotham is a dark, rundown city. It does feel more in line with the Nolan films, which clearly influenced the production, than the more surreal Burton ones, but the influence of all of them are felt. I liked the way the episode was shot as well (with the exception of a couple of odd shots of McKenzie's face as he chases the man he thinks killed the Waynes, done with what felt like a handheld camcorder). There were some very nice shots, especially of Selina scaling roofs and of Gordon approaching Wayne Manor that stick out in my mind.

If you are a continuity nut who is bothered by changes to the existing canon in adaptation, well... I'd probably steer clear. There are lots of tweaks that will drive you nuts. Oh, one thing I noted that pleased me in this regard: I did my best to go as unspoiled as possible by casting announcements, so I didn't realize that Renee Montoya and Crispus Allen would be characters in the show as GCPD officers (by comic continuity, Montoya wouldn't have been born yet, or be in diapers, and Allen would still be in Metropolis). So we have two principal police characters, both of color, and Montoya is clearly still a lesbian. After the discussions about the straight-washing of John Constantine for his new series, it's good to see Gotham not only keeping Montoya's orientation, but making it a plot point without making it something that is going to define her character.

OK, folks, SPOILER HATS ON: I've been general so far, but I really want to discuss the one aspect of the pilot that has me... not nervous, since this is a different vision of Batman, but a bit disappointed. Anyone who has read a mystery novel or watched a cop show could tell that the death of the Waynes was a hit, not a mugging, pretty much straight away, and this is borne out by the episodes end. I have never liked this version of Batman's origin. I feel the randomness of the crime makes it much more poignant; it's not about taking out the mob (that's the Punisher's schtick), it's about stopping crime from hurting anyone else. I just feel like something that is elemental to Batman is lost when it's not a random crime. I can see why they chose to do it, as it gives Gordon something to investigate and something he can get close to solving, so he doesn't look like a major loser since he can't take out any of the major villains they'll be introducing, but I wish there was a way that didn't invalidate something I find important to what Batman is. SPOILER HATS OFF

So, in the end, what do we get? We get a  stylish crime drama pilot, with a bit of the procedural and a bit of the noir tossed in. A lot happens in the episode, more than we get in two or three episodes of some shows, so that's a point in it's favor for me, who likes a densely packed show. There are solid performances. And there's the beginning of a new interpretation of the Batman mythos. While I'm not one hundred percent sold, I think there's a lot of potential here, and I'll be back next week.

The show that wasn’t very interesting for most of its first season then got much, much better for five episodes is BACK! And I’m happy to report that even without Bill Paxton stealing every scene, Agents of SHIELD has retained the quality it finally unlocked earlier this year.

When we last left Joss Whedon’s band of misfit spies, Agent Coulson had been given directorship of a new, post-Hydra SHIELD, complete with a new base and a new clone of Agent Koenig (yay for more Patton Oswalt!).

As the new director – Nick Fury went underground at the end of Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Coulson has distanced himself from his agents, with the possible exceptions of May and Koenig, as he tries to recruit new ones who won’t whisper “Hail Hydra” in Gary Shandling’s ear when no one’s looking. In the meantime, he’s padding out the ranks with old contacts and mercs, among them Isabelle Hartley, played by Lucy Lawless, returning to sci-fi/action/adventure after playing Ron Swanson’s love interest on Parks and Recreation.

The show opens strong, in 1945, with a couple of Hydra leftovers debating their next move and revealing the MCU’s latest macguffin – a tiny version of a mall art installation that just happens to have the same Kree gibberish inscribed on it that we saw last season – when in walks Peggy Carter and Howling Commandos Dum Dum Dugan and Jim Morita to round up the stragglers and ponder the German word for nuts.

Said macguffin, referred to as “the obelisk,” wound up in SHIELD hands and later on the black market amid the insurrection. Coulson’s crew are attempting to track it down when they are forced to confront a new baddie from the Marvel pantheon, Carl “Crusher” Creel, the Absorbing Man, who is able to take on the properties of any material he touches and is often depicted as a shirtless, bald weirdo wielding an old-timey prison ball-and-chain. Suffice it to say, the TV version looks much cooler – so much so that it feels like the show maybe got a bump in its effects budget.

So what else have the agents been up to since last we left them? Well, they’re keeping turncoat Ward locked up in their new base, sending Skye to visit him whenever Coulson thinks he can provide useful information. Ward apparently has been using his time behind laser-bars to grow a beard, try to kill himself and work on his Hannibal Lecter impression. At least it’s made him more interesting.

Meanwhile, Ward’s replacement, Agent Triplett, is still around, thankfully. The grandson of Howler Gabe Jones was a welcome addition to the show last season and a far more watchable good guy than his predecessor.

Back in the lab, Fitz, the male of the two Hogwarts post-grad students who heretofore made up the team’s science unit, is having problems remembering words and otherwise doing the things for which he was hired after nearly drowning last season. He’s also hallucinating conversations with his former partner, Simmons, who it’s later revealed is no longer on the team, so he’s essentially their brain-damaged ward, having A Beautiful Mind conversations with himself. This gives Koenig more room to act as Coulson’s Q-style consigliere.

Also back is Adrian Pasdar as Brig. Gen. Glenn Talbot, the military hardass who decided that after the Hydra insurrection, all SHIELD personnel, good or bad, needed to be rounded up. Amid the quest for the macguffin and fighting the Absorbing Man, Coulson has his people steal a Quinjet from Talbot, so they have a transport unit with a cloaking device.

On the whole, the first episode back made me want to restore the show to my DVR. Between the quest stars, watching Lucy Lawless demand her arm be cut off, the increasing importance of Patton Oswalt, and the Absorbing Man's no-at-all-cheesy transformations, SHIELD's overseers are clearly trying to improve upon their rough start, and deserve a second chance.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

I Read Banned Comics, and You Should Too

Ideas are probably the most powerful thing out there, and that's why people are so afraid of them. This week is Banned Book Week, a week to celebrate the books that scare people, and to remind us that there's still this mindset that says we should hide, destroy, or burn ideas that we don't agree with. And there are more than a few comics, some of which I have written about before, that now fall on the list of Banned Books.

Any discussion of comics and banned comics should start off with a mention of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. For those of you unfamiliar, the CBLDF is a charity that defends the right to sell, buy, and read any and all comics. It has helped with the legal bills of creators and retailers who have gotten into legal trouble. I do my best to contribute when I can, because I feel very strongly about censorship, and you might want to go to their site and do some reading about it before coming back and reading my much lighter little piece. There is a history of comic book censorship, case studies, and this piece on twenty-two banned and challenged comics.

This is a short piece, not the most in depth, but the more I write, the more frustrated I get by the whole thing. I don't think I've ever written or rewritten anything so many times. I originally had a couple paragraphs here going through some of the banned comics and pointing out how ridiculous I felt the reasons for banning them were. But that was a lot of negativity. So, I'm just going to say this: look at some of the books that are banned or censored: The Sandman, Bone, Maus, Persepolis, Pride of Baghdad, Fun Home, Blankets, and Watchmen. All of these are works of real literary merit. And part of the truly insidious thing about comic censorship is that we still live in a culture where some people assume that comics means kids, and so we often get bannings for "not suitable for age group." That drives me crazy. I've met twelve year olds who could handle more mature material than thirty-two year olds. There is no "age group" when it comes to literature. It's an individual thing. Sorry, sorry, stepping off my soapbox now.

I was raised to respect ideas. I don't like every book out there. There are some I disdain because of their views, and there are some I think are just plain crappy. But that doesn't mean I can force that opinion on others. So, all I'm asking is that this week, think about what it means to live in a country where you can read what you want, and do something to help insure that others can too, even if it's just reading a banned comic yourself. In those pages are ideas that might just change a little of your world.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 9/17

All-New X-Factor #14
Story: Peter David
Art: Pop Mahn

All-New X-Factor, like it's predecessor X-Factor, is at its best when it's about the characters. Peter David writes great superheroic action, and crazy mystic plots, but what he really does best is dig down into these people and let us get insight into them. Stories like the legendary "X-Aminations" issues and the issues with John Maddox, the dupe of Jamie who became a man of God are some of his best. This issue isn't quite as heavy and internal as those; it's a simple tale of team members Danger and Polaris, along with Polaris's sister, the Avenger Scarlet Witch, going to a Renaissance Faire for a girl's day out. Lorna (Polaris) is doing her best to not be alone with Wanda (Scarlet Witch), who Lorna still is holding against Wanda that whole depowering well over 99% of the mutant population thing that most humans and mutants have forgotten. Danger, who is an artificial intelligence, is beginning to experiment more with feelings and her "humanity" for want of a better word, mostly by asking Lorna if she wants to have sex and Lorna completely freaking out in an amusing way (meanwhile, when she asks Wanda, Wanda just says no thanks, which makes sense since Wanda was married to The Vision, who was also an A.I., for some years, so robot sex isn't something unheard of for her). David does wind up cramming in some action, as one of the women who works at the Renn Faire is being stalked, and her crazy stalker does attempt to kill her, and the women of X-Factor and the Avengers step in. We get the Peter David beat where he makes us a little worried about Lorna's sanity and/or morals, but it all works out. That particular touch, the stalking, is apt for this issue, as Lorna finds out her ex, Alex Summers, aka Havok, has been spying on her, and I feel like things are about to go very bad for Alex, but we'll probably have to wait until the crossover issues with Marvel's next mega-event, Axis, before we see what happens there. But before this big action piece, I was pleased to get this one issue of peace, quiet, and a drunk Scarlet Witch.

The Delinquents #2
Story: James Asmus & Fred Van Lente
Art: Kano

There are times where too much funny can make the end product seem overstuffed and not as funny as the component parts. That is NOT the case for The Delinquents, this fall's best comic book crossover, between Valiant's two mismatched duos, immortal drunkard Armstrong & naive assassin Archer and uptight hero Quantum & his con artist brother Woody. The first issue set up where the series would go, with the two duos on a collision course to find the treasure of the Hobos (a concept which I laughed at while typing), Armstrong to honor an old debt and Q&W because they were hired by the Monodsanto Corporation, known for their genetically modified foods, which is possibly the least subtle political joke ever, making it all the funnier. This issue plays with the classic superhero trope of the two heroes (or two twosomes in this case) coming together and fighting because of a misunderstanding, at a house that is a combination of Falling Waters and the House on the Rock. The initial combat is funny, with the unkillable Archer throwing down with the force field wielding Quantum, while Woody does his best to fight Archer, who can channel any physical skill, and winds up talking his way out of the problem, even directly addressing the trope in a very meta way. Woody then gets Archer drunk on absinthe before Quantum and a disappointed Armstrong (he wanted to get Archer drunk the first time) arrive from a fall out of the house. They find out more about the Hobo Code and the Hobo Treasure. We get reference to Big Rock Candy Mountain and the funniest Old MacDonald joke I've ever read. which I admit are more than you'd think. And then the issue ends with them being menaced by tigers. James Asmus and Fred Van Lente, writer of Quantum & Woody and Archer & Armstrong respectively, know their characters, and blend them seamlessly into one big crazy tapestry of anarchy. Kano's art is perfect, realistic but with this touch of kookiness that suits the subject matter. I especially like a panel where Armstrong sticks his head out of a moving boxcar, forgetting trains move a lot faster than they did when he was a hobo in the Depression, and his face goes all flat; it's got a Looney Tunes vibe while still fitting into the non-cartoon world. Oh, and it looks like Mondosanto has cow/human hybrid monsters. As The Simpsons pointed out, "If a cow ever had the chance, he'd eat you and everyone you care about!" So it looks like our heroes are in for some big trouble next issue.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Recommended Reading for 9/19: Incredible Hulks

I try to write recommended readings that are topical. I pick series that are getting new volumes, new trades, or from creators who are about to release new work. I was having a hard time picking something for this week, before I saw the new issue of Hulk on Wednesday, where Gerry Duggan is dealing with the new, supersmart Hulk (excuse me, Doc Green) going out to depower all the worlds other gamma powered monster-men and -women. I had, by sheer coincidence, just finished reading Greg Pak's run of Incredible Hulk/Incredible Hulks, and so I decided to touch on the series that redefined the Hulk's family.

Pak's run on the various Hulk titles was five years long, and I'm starting a bit into that run. I'm not going to talk about the "Planet Hulk" story or the World War Hulk crossover, but am going to start with Pak's return to the ongoing Hulk adventures when Incredible Hulk was working in tandem with Jeph Loeb's Red Hulk centric Hulk series. Just to touch on what has gone before, Hulk was blasted off Earth, became king of an alien world, knocked up his queen, there was a big explosion where she and most of his citizens died, he came back to Earth, beat the snot out of the heroes who shot him into space before being defeated, fought a new Red Hulk, and then was depowered. These are some really good stories, and are well worth tracking down, especially "Planet Hulk," starring barbarian/warlord Hulk.

In case you didn't notice, a good chunk of this run has a plural; it is Hulks. The Hulk has had a consistent supporting cast from pretty much his inception (except for a few years in the nineties/early 00s, where most of them were dead or hanging out with Captain Marvel), so as much as Hulk often screams, "All Hulk wants is to be left alone," he hasn't really ever been. But Pak takes it to the next level during his run by giving the Hulk a full on, flat out family of fellow gamma mutants, many of whom are blood related to him. The series explores how the Hulk and Bruce Banner interact with others, how he/they try to love and form these bonds, and how it can all come crumbling down.

While Pak did interesting and fun things with She-Hulk, A-Bomb (Rick Jones's gamma monster form), Korg, and Amadeus Cho (who isn't a Hulk, but a steadfast Hulk ally), and how they relate to Banner, I want to spend most of the time focusing on two relationships specifically, as they seem to be the two central ones: The Red She-Hulk and Skaar, Son of Hulk. I'll also want to talk about the relationship between Banner and Hulk, because I feel that how a writer defines that relationship is the key to their run on Hulk, and a successful or interesting relationship between these aspects makes for a good run on Hulk.

When the Hulk left the planet Sakaar at the end of "Planet Hulk," he didn't realize that the combination of his gamma powers and the Old Power of his alien queen Caiera the Oldstrong had allowed their child to survive its mother's death. On Sakaar, the child aged rapidly and was filled with rage for the father who abandoned it. Finally arriving on Earth through a portal, the child, dubbed Skaar, sought out Hulk and nearly triggered a fault line fighting him. Skaar was a reflection of the pure rage that Hulk was often gripped by, but had a native cunning forged by having to survive the ravages of an alien world. And after that one confrontation, Banner lost the ability to change into Hulk, and he took on Skaar to train him to fight Hulk when and if he ever resurfaced, or so he claimed. And this is when things got really interesting.

These early stories in the run, of Banner leading Skaar into run-ins with some of Hulk's deadliest foes, including Juggernaut, Wolverine, and Tyrannus, are a ton of fun to begin with. Skaar is basically Hulk meets Conan, a giant gamma monster with a sword, and that in itself is a brilliant concept. But Banner is clearly up to something, and his plans are to manipulate Skaar into helping him save the life of Betty Banner, Banner's wife, who has been resurrected. While this succeeds, sort of, Banner now has a well trained fighting machine for a son who wants him dead. This act of Pak's run ends with the re-emergence of the Hulk persona that was married to Skaar's mother, and the battle between the two. This ends with a reconciliation, as Skaar realizes Hulk isn't the monster he thought he was, and Hulk/Banner have an epiphany about the cycle of abuse and violence.

Pak mentions in the essay at the end of the last volume that he was inspired by Bill Mantlo's story of Banner and his abusive father, Brian Banner (which is collected along with these issues). Peter David, in what I still feel is the definitive Hulk run, spent quite some time with this relationship as well, adding some harrowing moments, revealing both the exact nature of Brian's murder of Bruce's mother, and of Bruce and Brian's final confrontation. But it's Pak who deals with the final results, of Bruce having a son of his own, and whether Bruce will just repeat the cycle. The final pages of Incredible Hulk #611, where Hulk stands above a transformed Skaar, a Skaar back in his form as a small child, and seeing himself as the same beast Brian Banner was, is a powerful sequence, and made moreso with Banner transforming back to Banner and embracing the child, showing love in a way that Brian Banner would have been incapable of. It's a transformational moment for Banner, and feels to me like the real beginning of him building his family.

The Red She-Hulk was introduced in Hulk, the Jeph Loeb series, and there her origins and identity were revealed. She is Betty Ross-Banner, wife of Bruce Banner, his greatest love. Throughout Pak's run we see most of Banner/Hulk's loves, including Caiera, Jarella, Monica Rappaccini, Kate Wayneboro, and even introduces a flirtation with a new character, Sofia di Cosimo (you know, for a mousey guy, Banner gets around), and how the complement and contrast with Hulk. But throughout the run, it's Betty who Banner keeps coming back to. Betty who was loved by both the Hulk and Banner. And it's Betty who suffered years and years of rage from Banner and Hulk, from her father, Thunderbolt Ross, and who has been unwillingly turned into a Red She-Hulk. And all those years of keeping it bottled up has released something horrible in the Red She-Hulk.

After everything Bruce does during the Fall of the Hulks/World War Hulks stories to reclaim Betty, Banner finds a Betty who doesn't want to take him back. A Betty who is happy to be in her half-insane, powerful new form, a Hulk who has minimal self control and who loves to smash as much as the Hulk. Every time the two come close to reconciling, one or the other of them breaks into a rage or leaps away. It's a tragic love story. But in the end, the two reach an understanding, an accord. While they are together at the end, their future was far from certain, and the nature of serialized storytelling doesn't lend to happily ever afters. But still, Bruce and Betty are entangled in each others lives, and maybe the Hulk gets a little bit of that happy ending, something he has earned through the trials he went through during this series.

I love what Pak does with Betty. Peter David did great things with the character, but killed her off at the very end of his run for various reasons and while there had been attempts to resurrect her earlier, it didn't work. Making Betty a Hulk gave a new dimension to their relationship, allowed her to confront the Hulk on a level she never had before. But Pak didn't lose Betty's voice when she was Betty, and gave an interesting new take on her as Red She-Hulk. "The Spy Who Smashed Me" was a story where Banner and Betty, and their alter egos, wind up working at cross purposes with each other, and we get to see them all interact in their different iterations.

The other major shift I feel that Pak brought to the Hulk as a character is that he made Bruce Banner a force to be reckoned with. While Peter David had made the merged Hulk a powerful threat, part of David's run was showing how that version of Banner/Hulk gave in to his physical prowess far more than strict Banner would have. Pak's Banner was a man of science, who came up with shield tech, teleport tech, tasers; all sorts of cool gadgets. He was also a coldly manipulative character, moving his friends around like chess pieces in his battle with the Leader and his allies, the Intelligentsia, to retrieve Betty. I liked this new aspect of Banner, and it's something writers since then, like Jason Aaron and Mark Waid, have played up: the fact that Banner might be a bigger threat to the world than Hulk is.

And now we get to the relationship between Banner and Hulk. This has been a central theme in Hulk stories from the beginning. The early stories are fairly simple, with Hulk being the childlike embodiment of Banner's rage, and Banner trying to suppress it. It was Peter David who dealt with the Hulk as Multiple Personalities, and there started a relationship that would flourish. While some writers have tried to go back to the simple model, other writers have embraced it, like Paul Jenkins deepened it, creating legions of Hulks in Banner's mind. Pak, though, seemed to create a... detente of sorts between Banner and the Hulk. During "Planet Hulk" Banner and the Hulk actually communicated in Banner's head, and after that, their relationship became a bit more cordial. And at times it felt like it blurred. This is partially because Banner was being written as a deadlier character, but partially because I think the Hulk now wanted what Banner always said he wanted, which was love and acceptance. There was also a current of thought that Banner and Hulk weren't that different, that they are really the same mind. This comes up very strongly in the final story, where both Banner and Hulk choose to sacrifice themselves to save this family they have created.

I also want to give props to Pak for using some interesting old villains in his run. Hulk doesn't exactly have a wide rogues gallery, and while Pak does use the old standbys (Leader and Abomination), he also brings back some of the others. He has the first use of Armageddon, warlord of the alien Troyjan, since Peter David left the title, and it's interesting to see Hulk fight someone who blames him for the death of his son, with Hulk now having a son of his own. Tyrannus, the immortal lord of Subterranea, is a character I only really know form one Peter David annual and an arc in Warlock & the Infinity Watch. Pak writes him brilliantly, making him this sleazy, smirking world conquering lech who makes a play for Red She-Hulk. And by introducing the world Sakaar and it's inhabitants, a legion of new supporting characters and enemies were introduced, notably Miek the Unhived, the Hulk's ally and eventual betrayer, a character who shows Hulk the extreme extent of his own rage.

The artists who worked with Pak throughout his run are a group of some of comics strongest artists, guys whose career I have followed for years. Paul Pelletier, who does a more issues than any other artist, has a history with Hulk, and his Hulk is one of comics most expressive. Ariel Olivetti has a history with Conan, so his drawings of Skaar and the giant monsters of the Mole Man are second to none. And Tom Grummet draws the heck out of the story with Hulk and Red-She-Hulk, giving them a playful and brutal physicality, depending on the moment, to perfectly suit the story.

While the Hulk isn't a character whose comic I read every month, he is a character I have a lot of affection for. The work that Greg Pak did on the series helped build up the world of the Hulk, and created a new web of characters and relationships. It was an exciting time for the character, and is well worth checking out, as the ramifications are still being felt.

The complete run of Greg Pak's Incredible Hulk/Hulks are collected over various trades: Son of Banner, Fall of the Hulks, World War Hulks, Dark Son, Chaos War, Planet Savage, and Heart of the Monster, not to mention the Planet Skaar collection and Planet Hulk and World War Hulk, Incredible Hulk: World War Hulk. These are mostly out of print, but are available at most comic shops and on-line.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The X-Men’s Wacky Neighbor: Told Tales of Spider-Man Team-Ups

Marvel last week announced a replacement title for Wolverine & the X-Men – on account of Wolverine’s dead – called Spider-Man & the X-Men, to be written by Elliott Kalan and drawn by Marco Failla. As usual, there was the normal Internet contingent of “This is unnecessary and/or different and must be destroyed so my butt stops hurting!”

But it’s not like Spider-Man hasn’t been teaming up with the X-Men for years. He may not be a mutant, but his powers are born of the same Nuclear Age, with-great-radioactivity-comes-great-powers-comes-great-responsibility schtick as anything else Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko created in the early 1960s.

With that in mind, here are some of the other times Spidey teamed up with the X-Men, in varying media and to varying degrees of success.

Marvel Team-Up featuring Spider-Man and Captain Britain (1978): This one’s a bit of a slant rhyme as X-characters go, but it counts as a Spidey-X-Men team-up for a few reasons: 1) Captain Britain spent a decade with Excalibur during the book’s original run, hanging with X-Men such as Nightcrawler, Kitty Pryde and Rachel Grey; 2) The story was written by Chris Claremont and drawn by John Byrne during their golden-age period on X-Men; 3) The main villain in this two-parter is Arcade, a Claremont/Byrne creation who tormented the X-Men on the regular (see further down this list).

Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends: From 1981 to 1983 on Saturday mornings, Peter Parker and his Aunt May took in a trio of strays: Bobby Drake, the X-Men’s Iceman, who spent 1975 to 1985 bouncing around lower-tier teams like the Champions and the Defenders; Angelica Jones, a fire-powered character created for the series but who was later written into the comics as a member of Emma Frost’s Hellions; and a dog.

Spider-Man vs. Wolverine (1987): In this one-shot by Jim Owsley and Mark Bright, Peter Parker and Logan end up in a still-divided Germany on different assignments and end up exchanging blows. The one-shot is notable for spelling the death of Ned Leeds, who may or may not have been the Hobgoblin depending on who was writing the title. It also features Spider-Man wearing a knock-off Halloween costume with the words “Die Spinne” on the back.

Spider-Man and X-Force in “Sabotage”: It’s 1991. “Beverly Hills 90210” is on the air. Vanilla Ice’s film “Cool as Ice” exists. Kelly Kapowski has left Zack Morris for her boss at The Max, Jeff. On Friday nights we hang out with our friends Urkel, Balki and Uncle Joey. These were cheesy times. Then Black Tom Cassidy blew up the World Trade Center, which hadn’t happened in real life yet so it probably didn’t make readers uncomfortable. With Todd MacFarlane and Rob Liefeld handling the art (incidentally, it was MacFarlane’s last issue on Spider-Man), the result is a big, dumb early ’90s action movie. The books were even laid out horizontally (though the ads were not) for an allegedly more cinematic experience. All that was missing was Cable yelling “Yipeekiyay, Mr. Falcon.” On a side note, these issues go a long way to showing how much comics culture has changed in the past two decades, considering how many times the Juggernaut calls Warpath some variety of “Injun” and accuses Shatterstar of being a “pretty boy” and a “pansy.”

Spider-Man and the X-Men in Arcade’s Revenge: This LJN game was released in 1992 for Nintendo’s Super NES and Game Boy and Sega’s Genesis and Game Gear. Playable characters included Spider-Man, Wolverine (in his yellow-and-burgundy ’80s outfit), Cyclops (in his blue-and-white ’80s X-Factor togs), Storm (in her then-modern ’90s uniform) and Gambit (in his classic trenchcoat and headsock). Arcade – not exactly a marquis Marvel villain, but OK – kidnaps the X-Men and runs them through his trademark murder mazes, with Spidey in hot pursuit. I remember never beating this game, rage-quitting it a few times and failing to sell it at a garage sale. Bosses included typical villains such as Rhino, Shocker, Carnage, Apocalypse and Juggernaut, and head-scratchers such as the demon N’Astirh (from the "Inferno" storyline) and Obnoxio the Clown.

“The Mutant Agenda”/”Mutants’ Revenge” (1995): Fox had a good thing going on Saturday mornings in the mid-90s between the X-Men and Spider-Man cartoons. So it made sense the two would cross paths at some point, which they did in Spider-Man’s show. In the second season in 1995, old Peter Parker’s spider-borne mutations were out of control, so he sought help from the gang on Graymalkin Lane. In the process, the Beast gets kidnapped, the Hobgoblin (who sounded suspiciously like the Joker) makes trouble, and good guys fight each other over the kinds of manufactured misunderstandings that only happen in comics.

Uncanny X-Men 346 (1997): The issue is tagged as being part of "Operation: Zero Tolerance," the big X-crossover of 1997, but only one actual X-Man – Gambit – shows up for all of one page. At this point, half the X-Men had been lost in space for six months, helping the Shi’ar fight the Phalanx, while the other half had been kidnapped by Bastion and his Prime Sentinels. So 346 turns into a Spider-Man issue, complete with America’s favorite micromanaging, sensationalist newspaper publisher, J. Jonah Jameson. Spidey teams up with Morlocks Callisto and Marrow against a pair of Prime Sentinels tasked with running security for Henry Peter Gyrich, Marvel’s longtime government d-bag. In the process, Spidey lectures Marrow that with great power yada yada yada. Marrow later joins the X-men for all of about 8 seconds.

Bendis’ pet Avengers (2004-2012): Spidey and Wolverine have been teammates for about a decade now, courtesy of the Brian Michael Bendis age of Avengerdom that ran roughly from 2004 (Avengers: Disassembled) to 2012 (Avengers vs. X-Men). And since Bendis shifted after that from writing Avengers to writing X-Men, overseeing two of the franchise’s main books, it makes sense that that relationship is still in place. Also, a book called Spider-Man & the X-Men is going to sell far more copies than, say, Beast & the X-Men or Kitty Pryde & the X-Men or the New Broo Review.

X-Men and Spider-Man (2009): In this four-issue retcon-tastic miniseries by Christos Gage and Mario Alberti, Spider-Man is shown teaming up with the X-Men across their respective 50-year histories in an overarching plot that involves Mr. Sinister, Kraven the Hunter and Carnage. Issue one is set in the ’60s, with the original five X-Men. Issue two takes place just after the Mutant Massacre in the ’80s. Issue three takes place amid the Clone Saga in the ’90s. And issue four takes place in the wake of M-Day in the 2000s.

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.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 9/10

Batgirl: Futures End #1
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Javier Garron

The last time Gail Simone was leaving Batgirl, I wrote how much I was going to miss her. And while I feel that way this time too, it's nice to feel like this time she got a chance to not just wrap up her run in her last regular issue of the series, but to put a bow on it with this issue, the tie-in to DC Comics September event, Futures End, where all the series jump five years into the future. She brings in different aspects of her run, from Barbara's roommate Alysia to James Gordon Jr., but tells a story that shows the depths that Barbara could go to when pushed beyond the point of no return. Only it's not the point of no return. Even though Barbara has become Bete Noire, the black beast, even though Barbara has seemingly lost everything, she comes out of it stronger. Simone has proven that Barbara is one of the strongest characters in comics, and this story seals that, showing that, no matter the depths, Barbara will pull her way out of them. But beyond the Barbara story, which is a good one, readers are introduced to the League of Batgirls, or should I say reintroduced. While one is a new Batgirl, the character under the mask being Tiffany Fox, daughter of Batman's ally Lucius Fox, the other two are the pre-New 52 Batgirls Stephanie Brown and Cassandra Cain, characters fans have been dying to see again, and back in their Batgirl identities. Simone leaves the book on a high note for many fans, letting them revisit these characters, written wonderfully, with a tribute from Barbara to them and for them to show how much Barbara has effected their lives. And this issue is a tribute to everything Simone has done with Barbara for all the years she has written the character. Thank you, Gail, for everything you've done, and I can't wait for the new Secret Six.

Copperhead #1
Story: Jay Faerber
Art: Scott Godlewski

Jay Faerber has written some of my favorite Image series of all time, including the superhero soap opera Noble Causes and the crime comic Near Death (and i just recently picked up the full run of his series Dynamo 5. I see a recommended reading in the future). So I was excited to see the announcement of his new series, Copperhead, which is a sci-fi/western mash-up, described by him in the little essay at the back of the issue as, "Deadwood in space." Mixed genres are a favorite thing of mine, and while the space western isn't new (Faerber admits as such in the same essay), it is a genre combo that works, and one that I've enjoyed often (see Firefly and Defiance and the Thrilling Adventure Hour segment "Sparks Nevada, Marshall on Mars" for some good recent examples). Faerber starts the series out strong, with an introduction to our leads, a couple of crimes, and some world building. Clara Bronson and her son Zeke move to the frontier town of Copperhead, where Clara has been hired as the new sheriff. Upon arriving, she meets the deputy who was passed over for the job, an alien named Budroxifinicus, who Clara dubs Boo to his chagrin. Clara and Boo go off to deal with a domestic disturbance, and come back to find the local mine owner, big shot Benjamin Hickery waiting to introduce himself, along with his artificial human workers, who Clara clearly has an issue with, saying they should have been destroyed, "after the war." While no details about this war are clear, it is clearly a plot point to be revisited, and an important part of world building a new universe; we readers aren't going to know everything that is normal conversation on a removed world in the future, and explaining it thoroughly would be forced. The relationship between Clara and Boo is going to be central to the comic, and her insistence on being in charge immediately is not going to go over well with a deputy who feels he should have been given the job. The issue ends with Clara and Boo discovering a crime that is much bigger than what she's seen so far, and Zeke getting himself into trouble while helping a local girl look for her lost dog; it's a nice cliffhanger that makes you want to come back. Scott Godlewski does a great job with the looks of the different aliens, and the old west/used universe feeling of the setting. This is a very solid first issue of a series that I'm going to be keeping my eye on over the coming months.

Lazarus #11
Story: Greg Rucka
Art: Michael Lark

The third storyarc of Greg Rucka and Michael Lark's at times frighteningly realistic dystopian political sci-fi, Lazarus, begins with the arrival of the Bittner family Lazarus, Sonja, at the borders of the territory of the Carlyle family, our main characters. For those of you who haven't tried the series, a Lazarus is a family member of one of the sixteen families who rule the world, who has been transformed into a fighting machine to guard their family's interests, and as Forever, our main character and Lazarus of the Carlyle family, arrives, we again see that Forever is seemingly more human than the other Lazarus (I'm assuming the plural of Lazarus, by the way. Lazaruses just sounds wrong to my ear). As was set up in last issue's one off story, Bittner is serving as go between for the Hock family, Carlyle's bitter rivals, who have captured Jonah Carlyle, the rogue son who attempted to betray the family and failed. The issue has two important aspects. The first is a further view into the way the families who rule the world interact with each other. The politics and the wheels within wheels that we see Malcolm Carlyle, family patriarch, planning for when in comes to the conclave of families. More integral is Forever beginning to really dig into the mystery of the message she received at the end of the first arc, saying that she is not, in fact, actually a Carlyle. She says she believes that message is from Jonah, attempting to sow discord, but there seems to be more to her belief than that, and there's clearly more to this. Her sister, as well s the doctor in charge of her care, Bethany, laughs it off, but goes out of her way to tell Malcolm that Forever is asking these questions. We also see Johana, Jonah's twin sister and co-conspirator, who escaped without suspicion after the treason, egging Forever on, reminding her what a traitor and bastard Jonah is, clearly hoping Forever will eliminate him before he reveals her part in the plot; Johana is the character most to be watched, as she is clearly far more clever than most give her credit for. Forever also spends time with Marisol, the woman who trained her, and mentions the message and her doubts. It's always interesting to see how different Forever's interactions with her family is from most others, and how different her interactions with Marisol is from everyone else, how much more comfortable she is. Forever is a wonderfully nuanced chaarcter, and I am looking forward to seeing her interact with other Lazarus.  The conclave begins next issue, and I'm curious to see more of each of the sixteen families, and I have a bad feeling for Marisol, who now might know something she really shouldn't.

Ms. Marvel #8
Story: G. Willow Wolsin
Art: Adrian Alphona

Ah, there's nothing like the story of a girl and her dog. Unless it's the story of a girl and her gigantic, genetically altered, teleporting dog. In the new issue of Ms. Marvel, the Inhumans' dog, Lockjaw, finds his way to Kamala Khan, our heroine. Kamala continues her attempts to track down and defeat the Inventor, the villain who has been menacing Jersey City, but now she has a little extra help. Kamala fights her way through another of the Inventor's mechanical menaces, and discovers more about just how he's powering them, and the action scenes are well written and drawn in Alphona's wonderful style. We also get to see Kamala with Nakia, one of her best friends, specifically the one who doesn't know her secret, and we start to see some fraying at the edges of that friendship, and more time with Kamala and Bruno, her best friend who does now her superhero identity, and he continues to be a classic superhero tech guy/sidekick who also serves as a sounding board for Kamala. We also get an ending with quite a cliffhanger, and I'm unsure of what Wilson is doing with Kamala's powers in the best way; I like to be kept guessing. But the real treat of the issue is seeing Kamala interact with Lockjaw. It's sweet to see how excited she is to spend time with the big dog, and it's great to see him add to her superheroing and to be so affectionate. When written write, Lockjaw is presented as a dog who might be a little smarter than average, but is still a dog, and Wilson captures that. I love Lockjaw, who is just one of the great superhero pets, and Alphona draws a great Lockjaw, with a face that is expressive without ever looking like anything other than the face of a dog. He also gives Lockjaw real mass and weight, making him feel as gigantic as he is. I hope Lockjaw stays as a member of the cast for the foreseeable future.

Stumptown Vol.3 #1
Story: Greg Rucka
Art: Justic Greenwood

Any writer with range is a slightly different writer when he or she is working in a different genre, and I'm a big fan of all the different writers Greg Rucka is, be it sci-fi Rucka, superhero Rucka, or steampunk Rucka. But the Rucka I love best is crime and spy Rucka, the guy who wrote Gotham Central, Queen & Country, and the Atticus Kodiak novels. And that Rucka is back is strong form with the debut of the new volume of his Portland set P.I. series, Stumptown. The issue is a character issue, getting you up to speed if you haven't read either of the previous stories. Stumptown follows Dex Parios, a private investigator in Portland, Oregon. The issue opens with Dex playing keeper for her local soccer team. When that game ends, she takes her brother Ansel, who is developmentally disabled, to a professional soccer game, where she meets Mercury, a friend of theirs, who gives them tickets to a signing with the team afterwards. At the match, she runs into CK, who scored the winning goal against her at the game at the beginning of the issue, and they spend some time chatting, and after the signing, Dex and Ansel stumble across the aftermath of a crime. And that's it. Not exactly the stuff of gumshoes and dames, huh? No, but what it does is expose you to exactly who Dex is, how protective she is of Ansel, how good she is to her friends. I'm also sure that, like the beginning of most good mysteries, it will be chock full of clues that will make a lot of sense as the mystery comes into focus. Rucka is a great writer when it comes to character, and this issue spotlights that. Justin Greenwood comes in as the new series artist, the first since co-creator Matthew Southworth. Greenwood's style isn't quite as gritty as Southworth's, but still fits the down and out P.I. tone of the series that was set by those earlier arcs. The end of the issue does set up a crime, one that strikes close to home for Dex, so it looks like things are going to speed up very fast from here.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

I’ve Got the Runs: Gail Simone’s Deadpool 65-69/Agent X 1-7 and 13-15

I previously wrote about my love for Joe Kelly’s run on Deadpool, how he, more than any other writer, shaped Wade Wilson’s personality, supporting cast and place in the Marvel Universe.

But it takes a special hand to write Deadpool without actually writing Deadpool. And that hand belongs to my all-time favorite person on Twitter, Ms. Gail Simone.

In all serious, if you’re not following Simone on Twitter, shame on you. She brings all the humor, warmth and twistedness of her comics to social media, and is followed by an inclusive community of fans only a troll could hate (#bonerses). It’s that same following that likely kept her on Batgirl (a book reviewed often and well on this blog) well beyond DC’s original planned expiration date.

Deadpool was Simone’s entry to the Big Two, after blogging for Comic Book Resources and writing Simpsons Comics for Bongo, among other projects. Simone was also supposed to pen a Night Nurse comic for Marvel’s MAX mature-reader line in 2002, but that project was shelved.

Simone’s Deadpool run is most notable for replacing Wade Wilson with Alex Hayden in a Psylocke-level series of convoluted events. The move on its face seemed like a shark jump (and someone must have known it: Agent X #13’s recap page featured a doodle of Alex performing a motocross jump over a shark in a kiddie pool), but when you break everything down, no matter the protagonist, Simone was still writing Deadpool.

The run starts with Wade being hired to kill one of four rival Japanese crime lords, The Four Winds, only to end up watching all four keel over in front of him. Six months later, his merc-for-hire schtick has become a semicorporate enterprise, complete with receptionist and homeless personal assistant, and his fellow mercs have proclaimed him a hero. But another assassin-for-hire, the Black Swan, kicks the crap out of him and rewires his brain – ruining his aim and giving him a limited aphasia that makes him refer to guns as doorknobs – for taking credit for his hit.

The thing to remember is at this point, Deadpool was still just a mouthy antihero. Joe Kelly’s run showed Wade how he could be a good guy, but it wasn’t until Fabian Nicieza teamed him up with Cable in a monthly series in 2004 that the more recent phenomenon of Deadpool saying, “Hey, look at me, X-Men, I’m one of you guys, right? Right?” came to light. That said, Simone does have Deadpool mete out some social justice, after he discovers his secretary, Sandi Brandenburg, is being abused by her boyfriend.

Different writers have brought their own supporting casts to the character over the years, and Simone is no different. Wade’s (and later Alex’s) backup during this stretch includes the aforementioned Sandi, a sexy-cowgirl themed mutant merc/love interest named Outlaw, and the Taskmaster, Wade’s sparring partner/begrudging ally from waaaaaay back in issue 2 of Kelly’s run. Udon, the studio that handled most of the art for Simone’s run, also drew a Taskmaster miniseries in 2002 that introduced Sandi, Tasky’s on-again, off-again gal.

Udon’s art gives the book a very Manga-esque look, right down to the Hello Kitty-style assassins who appear in issue 13. Quite frankly, everybody looks like they’re a character in Street Fighter, but what else would you expect from the art studio that drew the Street Fighter comics? Coincidentally, both Deadpool and Taskmaster were playable characters in Marvel Vs. Capcom 3, though neither in their Udon-era costumes.

My one true quibble with the art is that every so often the panels would switch from a vertical to a horizontal layout within the same two-page spread, with no actual unified theme between the two.
After issue 69, the book is rebooted and renamed Agent X, which centers on the Alex Hayden character, who was born of the explosion that supposedly killed Deadpool, Black Swan and Swan’s henchman, Nijo, at the end of 69. Incidentally, about the same time, Marvel relaunched Cable as Soldier X, which lasted 12 issues before it was canceled.

If Agent X were written in 2012 or later, it would have been called Superior Deadpool. In some ways, Alex Hayden was only superficially different from Wade Wilson. He didn’t wear a mask, his facial scars took on X patterns and he spoke in gray word balloons instead of the traditional yellow. All the humor was still there. But where Deadpool pined for X-Forcer Siryn and danced with Death, Agent X actually got the girl, forming a relationship with Outlaw, whose invulnerability is matched only by the skimpiness of her outfits. Seriously, for how much people complained about that Milo Manara Spider-Woman cover, at least she was fully clothed. He also slept with Sandi in a non-Simone-written issue.

The first arc of Agent X even has a happy ending, as Alex, Taskmaster and Outlaw take down an army of hitmen and superpowered goons (Rhino, the Constrictor and Crossfire among them) who invade Alex’s theme park, which he’d had outfitted by none other than Arcade for just such an occasion.

After that initial six-issue arc, issue 7 finds Alex caught in a battle between two omnifetishists – people who are turned on by everything – one of whom has squeezed herself into one of Emma Frost’s old outfits and has a gang of Village People at her command. So, again, all the Deadpool humor is still there, in mildly different packaging.

Simone is absent for issues 8 through 12 (fill-in writers include future Deadpool scribe Daniel Way and Milk & Cheese creator Evan Dorkin), then returns for the book’s final arc, “Deadpool Walkin,’” which brings Alex, Deadpool and the Black Swan back together, resets the status quo and puts a bow on Sandi, Taskmaster, Outlaw and the Four Winds.

It’s not goodbye, though. Agent X, Sandi and Outlaw show up in several issues of Cable & Deadpool. Outlaw even found herself keeping her mutant powers after M-Day and getting drawn into some panels through Civil War and “Second Coming.” And Taskmaster has remained a mildly major character in the Marvel Universe, acting as a trainer in The Initiative comics and appearing in Thunderbolts, though he has since reverted to his pre-Udon, Skeletor-meets Combo Man design.

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.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 9/3

The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage #1
Story: Jen Van Meter
Art: Roberto de la Torre

Valiant continues to move from strength to strength with the debut of The Death-Defying Doctor Mirage. While all of Valiant's books are superhero comics at their heart, they all exist within the trappings of other genres. X-O Manowar is really the most superhero of the lot, Bloodshot is an espionage comic, Archer & Armstrong is about conspiracies, Quantum & Woody is a buddy comedy, etc. Shadowman has been the occult comic, and with its end, it feels like this series is picking up that baton. From what I gather from a friend who reads all the Valiant books, Dr. Mirage made her first appearance in the pages of Shadowman. However, you don't need to know anything about that other appearance to get into this first issue; all I know is that it happened, nothing more, and I really enjoyed this issue. Dr. Shan Fong, also known as Dr. Mirage, is a medium and paranormal investigator who is the real deal. She can speak to the dead. The issue opens with her agent having ambushed her with a seance for a group of wealthy widows, and this sets off some issues for Shan; you see, her husband, Hwen, died and she has never been able to speak to him. Dr. Mirage is tough as nails, and she admits it freely. She isn't a warm, fuzzy character, not one of those John Edwards-esque mediums. She calls 'em as she sees 'em, and no one gets in her way. After the initial scene, that does a great job of establishing personality and the status quo, we get the thrust of where the series is going. A billionaire hires Mirage to help solve an occult problem, one that he is clearly not being entirely up front about, and unbeknownst to him, Mirage gets a hint from a creature that he is vonbed to of what might have become of her husband. And so the issue ends with the beginning of a classic Orphues in the Underworld journey. Jen Van Meter is one of those writers whose work I always really enjoy, as she has a great feel for character, and this issue does an excellent job of packing a lot of that in with all the required backstory and never feeling burdened by it. Roberto de la Torre's art is well suited to the story, with dark tones that are still realistic but with a bit of creepiness to them; I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do with the much more abstract canvas of the afterlife next issue. As someone who appreciates a supernatural hero, I was pleased to see Valiant resurrecting Dr. Mirage, and this first issue makes me hope that, if the series keeps up at this pace, we'll see this five issue mini spin off an ongoing in the not too distant future.

Grendel Vs. The Shadow
Story & Art: Matt Wagner

New Grendel written and drawn by Matt Wagner is something I look forward to a lot. When Wagner is just writing Grendel stories they're still great, but that mix of his story and art are a real treat. And when it was announced that not only would the new Grendel story feature my favorite Grendel, Hunter Rose, but it would also be a crossover with The Shadow, one of the prototypes for all masked men, and a character who Wagner has written before but not drawn except for covers, I was chomping at the bit. The story starts with Hunter Rose being displaced in time from the present (well, Hunter's present, which is the 80s) to the 30s. With Prohibition ending and one of the leaders of the Five Families dying, Hunter begins to take over the gangs of New York as Grendel while making himself the toast of New York literary set as Hunter. Meanwhile, the Shadow is also preparing for the coming gang wars and learning more of this new player, Grendel. The issue has dual narrators, with Hunter narrating his own parts in his inimitable style, and the Shadow's companion, Margo Lane, narrating others. It's interesting that Wagner chooses to not have The Shadow narrate his own parts of the stories, something that amplifies the mystery of the character (it is of note that in his The Shadow: Year One mini-series, Wagner also chose Lane as the narrator). This also gives the reader a different sort of insight into The Shadow, and lets the reader really understand Margo, who is a key character in the Shadow mythos. The plot is fine, a good gangster/30s/masked man story, but the issue is really outstanding for its atmosphere. Hunter slides into the 30s perfectly; he's a man about town and a bon vivant, so he fits perfectly in this era, The looks of the piece is outstanding, with Wagner really drawing the hell out of the vintage clothing, cars, and settings. And the action scenes are equally astounding, with Grendel's usual graceful slaughters and The Shadow's appearances and disappearances and his gun play. It's also of note that the story starts in the present with the typical Grendel color palate of black, white, and red, and when he moves back into The Shadow's time, the story shifts to full color, which is a great storytelling technique. This is a great jumping on point if you're a fan of one of these characters and not the other, or haven't read anything featuring either.

Justice League #33
Story: Geoff Johns
Art: Doug Mahnke

Justice League is a comic I've had very mixed feelings about, and I've said that before. I've been unsure of the gravity of it, of the darkness, of the fact that the League, which was before sort of a group of peers and friends, were bickering like the Avengers at their worst. But things feel a little different since Forever Evil. While we're still waiting to see if that crossover will have any real long term effects, the short term effects on this book have been to kick into a much higher gear. This issue wraps up the Justice League's first confrontation with the New 52 Doom Patrol. Johns takes the Grant Morrison idea that The Chief, mad scientist and the leader of the Doom Patrol, is comics biggest ass, and plays it to the hilt. When there is a guy on the page who is even more full of himself than Lex Luthor, you know this guy has some serious chips on his shoulder. The dialogue between the Chief and Luthor is crackling, with them feeding off each other's egos. I'm not a big fan of the Doom Patrol. I don't have anything against them, but with the exception of Morrison's run, I don't think I've read more than an issue here or there featuring them, although I did like their appearances on Teen Titans and Batman: The Brave and the Bold. I do like what Johns does here, which is give each of them a unique personality and reaction to their freakishness, from Elasti-Girl's mind numbing happiness to Negative Man's apathy. I'm not sure of these are logical extensions of previous characterization or something new, but I liked it. The other moment in this issue that spoke to me was when Batman has to talk down Jessica Cruz, the young woman possessed by the Power Ring from the alternate Crime Syndicate universe, where the green ring is sentient, evil, and powered by fear. There's a scene from the episode of Justice League Unlimited, "Epilogue," where Batman finds the immensely powerful psychic called Ace, who is dying, and sits with her and talks to her and agrees to stay with her until the end. Here, Batman, the master of using fear as a weapon, talks to a woman who is agoraphobic and traumatized about his own fears and how he was able to not give in to them, and get her to come around and throw off the ring, which is fueled by her fear. It's a wonderful scene, and one that shows that Johns can really get Batman. Batman isn't some aloof, ogre, but someone who is intrinsically and at times almost painfully human, who understands fear and pain, and really wants no one else to experience it. The issue ends with the completely expected induction of Lex Luthor into the Justice League, but the scene leading up to it, between the DC trinity, gives a new context to that, once that I think will make for some great plot in the future.

She-Hulk #8
Story: Charles Soule
Art: Javier Pulido

She-Hulk is beginning to feel like Batman, in that it's a comic I review every month. I freakin' love this comic. It's smart, it's well written, the cast is wonderful, the art by Javier Pulido is beautiful. This issue, where Jen starts representing Steve Rogers, better known as Captain America, in a wrongful death suit from the 40s, is a really solid story, and write Charles Soule writes Steve so well. But this month, I want to pull back a bit and focus in a particular aspect of the issue that made me unadulteratedly happy. With Jen Walters, the lawyer also known as She-Hulk, having to go out to represent Cap in California, she needs to find a firm that she can attach herself to, since she isn't licensed to practice in the state. And the firm she chooses is the firm headed up by the character find of 2014: Matt Rocks. If you don't know your Marvel comics well enough to get the joke there, and haven't read enough about X-Factor on this blog to pick it up either, what we're dealing with is a duplicate of Jaime Madrox, the Multiple Man, former leader of X-Factor who can create duplicates of himself. Jaime sent out legions of dupes years ago to learn skills so that when he reabsorbed them, he would pick those skills up himself. Turns out, one of those dupes became a leading Hollywood entertainment lawyer who has basically been paying Jaime off with half his income so Jaime wouldn't reabsorb him. It's a weird, crazy idea, and deeply steeped in the knowledge of a pretty obscure Marvel comic; X-Factor isn't the Avengers or Uncanny X-Men, it had a pretty niche audience. But Soule doesn't shy away from it. He dives right in, explains what you need to know about the character and creates something delightfully fun with it. I'm the guy that scene was written for, someone inundated in this comic book minutiae, someone who would have gotten the joke without the prompting, and I say thank you for it. Next month, the trial will begin, and an idea that I'm shocked no one has pulled before, two super-hero lawyers challenging each other in court, will kick off in earnest for a story that I'm sure will be full of fascinating twists and turns. But for this month, well, Matt Rocks is just going to make me smile.