Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Strike File Strike File

I had started on Stryfe’s Strike File as an entry for the Advent Calendar, but after nearly doubling the 250-word limit I had set for myself on Advent entries, I realized it required further study, and additional jokes.

The X-books were obsessed with G.I. Joe-esque character profiles for a while in the early ’90s. They filled the back pages of issues of X-Factor and X-Force, and finally got a full book of their own at the end of the "X-Cutioner’s Song" crossover, written by the man in the spiky metal costume himself (through his servants Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza) and full of melodramatic screeds and portents of plotlines yet to be abandoned.

At 13, I pored over this book ceaselessly, looking for clues to the future. At 34, I read passages like “So do I love you or hate you? Do I nurse at your breast or do I tear at your throat? Do I look for you, if I survive the final curse of my mad song?” and chuckle while shaking my head.

Among the events and new characters the one-shot foretold:

-Colossus’ defection to the Acolytes

-Illyana’s death from the Legacy virus

-Graydon Creed, though it’s pretty much spelled out that his dad is Sabertooth.

-Threnody, who would appear months later in X-Men #27 as a pawn of Mr. Sinister.

-Sienna Blaze, who would later get shunted into the Malibu universe.

-A sketch by Larry Stroman that hinted at the coming of Revanche, aka The Other Psylocke, a confusing storyline that served as my introduction to the X-Men comics.

Other things worth noting:

-“Collectable” is misspelled on the cover

-It miscounts the number of Upstarts: Under a listing for Graydon Creed, they are called a quartet. In fact, not including their referee, the Gamesmaster, the Upstarts included Fabian Cortez, Graydon Creed, Trevor Fitzroy, Shinobi Shaw, Sienna Blaze and the Fenris twins.

-Gideon is referred to as the “Ziggy Stardust of the corporate boardroom,” which may be my favorite phrase in the whole book.

-Cannonball is foretold to be a major leader of mutantkind, which, as I wrote about during the Advent Calendar, hasn’t quite panned out 20 years later.

-It introduces Holocaust, but an exoskeleton-less version of the character, who would not actually appear in the comics for two years, and then in the Age of Apocalypse reality, though he would eventually cross over. Stryfe’s file on the character is all questions and vagaries, as if the writers themselves were like, “Yeah, somebody did a sketch of this guy, and we’ll probably use him, but we don’t actually know anything about him yet.”

The writing itself is exceedingly melodramatic. Of course, Stryfe had just spent the entire "X-Cutioner’s Song" ranting and raving and giving verbose speeches, so it’s not like it was out of character. But it made me yearn for the Stryfe of the Askani’Son limited series from 1995, when Scott Lobdell and Jeph Loeb wrote the Chaos Bringer as more of a young Joker.

The framing device for the issue is that Xavier finds a computer disk with the files on it at Stryfe’s base on the moon. Xavier looks through all the files, decides information about the near future would make Scott and Jean’s fragile hearts explode, and erases the disk. It wouldn’t be long before he ended up doing the same thing to Magneto …

… which is ironic, because of all the 1993 plotlines he foretold, Stryfe completely misses the climactic event of the biggest X-story of the year to come. Because Stryfe actually believes he killed Xavier during the "X-Cutioner’s Song" and that Magneto died on Asteroid M back in 1991. What a dummy.

Earlier “strike files” in X-Factor and X-Force featured the private files of Apocalypse and Cable, respectively.

Apocalypse’s “Manifesto” files ran in X-Factor #65 and #66 and featured portentous ramblings on the five members of the team, which were then the original five X-Men. Though X-Factor was written by Chris Claremont and Whilce Portacio at the time, Nicieza wrote the Apocalypse files, and you can see the same love and care went into writing these as did the Stryfe files, when he calls Archangel “The birth spawn of my soul, if not my loins.” Great, now I have to picture Apocalypse’s Apoca-loins!

Cyclops’ file reminds readers he is one of The Twelve, “the archetype beings that will one day save or damn mutantkind.” This refers to a comment made by the Master Mold waaaaay back in the series’ early days. The Twelve subplot would lie largely dormant for nearly an entire decade before coming to the fore in a year-2000 X-Men crossover about Apocalypse attempting to siphon the mutants’ powers to achieve omnipotence. The rest of The Twelve were Xavier, Magneto, Jean Grey, Iceman, Polaris, Sunfire, Storm, Cable, Bishop and, fresh from obscurity, Mikhail Rasputin and the Living Monolith. Nate Grey was additionally revealed as The Thirteenth, intended to provide Apoc with a new body.

There was one neat moment of most-likely-unplanned foresight in Apocalypse’s files. Of Beast, he writes, “If not for the rape of will performed by Xavier, Hank could have been a son of my own heart, my own pain, my own fears.” This perfectly vaguely describes the so-called Dark Beast of the Age of Apocalypse, who would not meet the page for almost four years.

Cable’s files, which appeared in X-Force #1, featured then-new characters Deadpool, Feral, Shatterstar and G.W. Bridge, and, according to Comic Book Legends Revealed, were apparently a cheap way to cram Deadpool into the issue without actually including him in the story.

Of the walking cat with Bride of Frankenstein hair known as Feral, Cable writes: “Feral will sit on your lap, purring for attention one second, and just as easily kill a passing bird and drop it at your feet for approval the next.” Also, she hates Mondays and there is video of her playing a keyboard on the Internet.

Another one-shot character guide was published during the Age of Apocalypse, in which En Sabah Nur separated the alternate reality’s major players into categories of Chosen and Forgotten. Despite being a proponent of survival of the fittest, there were more Chosen than Forgotten. This one doesn’t work as a vague prognosticator of the future, however, as this version of Earth was meant to go away with the storyline in just a couple months’ time. But hey, it’s nice to know there’s a world where characters like Wild Child, Abyss, Mikhail Rasputin and Aurora are elevated to stations of importance.

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.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 24: Atomic Robo Free Comic Book Day Special 2009

Atomic Robo Free Comic Book Day Special 2009, May 2009

One of the best parts of Free Comic Book Day is discovering new comics. And in 2009, I was reading through the stack of free comics, and one stood out head and shoulders above the rest.

I had seen Atomic Robo on the racks, and it looked neat, but we had sold out of issue one, and so I figured I'd get the trade. And I am as guilty as anyone; trade waiting becomes hoping you remember to get the trade when it eventually does come out to forgetting. And so I forgot. But when you have that ideal free price, it reminds you about your curiosity.

Atomic Robo is everything I love in comics. It's smart, it's clever, it neither takes itself too seriously, nor does it treat everything like it's a big joke. It perfectly blends humor and action. Robo is an amazing protagonist, and this first issue spotlighted his brains and sense of humor. Not to mention the sense of wonder that infuses everything in Robo's world, how amazing things are around every corner. And it also introduced Dr. Dinosaur. The only affection in my life that has lasted longer than my loves of comics is my love of dinosaurs, so a mad scientist raptor was too good a concept for me to articulate.

I saved this one for last specifically because my first real, full post on this very blog was a recommended reading for Atomic Robo. It was to comics what I wanted this blog to be for comic book blogs: full of the joy of comics.

With that, ladies and gents, it is Christmas Eve, and so I am off to spend the rest of this week with family and friends. Have a merry Christmas to those of you who celebrate it, and I hope you're back next year for more of The Matt Signal. I have some exciting plans for 2015, and I hope you'll be here for them.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 23: X-Factor #87

X-Factor #87, February 1993

The X-Men had the heavy hitters, your Wolverines and Storms and Rogues. X-Force were the hip new extreme strike force led by a white-haired commando from the future who carried big guns and wore even bigger metal shoulder pads.

X-Factor had Cyclops‘s brother, Magneto’s son, and guys named Strong Guy and Multiple Man.

But that’s the magic of Peter David, who has spent the better part of 23 years collecting misfit mutants under the X-Factor banner and making people care about them. And perhaps the best early example of this is X-Factor #87, the “X-aminations” issue in which the team is checked out by Doc Samson, personal gamma-powered, green-ponytailed shrink to the Incredible Hulk, who was also written by David at the time.

It is in this issue we learn that Wolfsbane yearns for a kindly authority figure, Quicksilver sees everyone as slow and aggravating due to his super-speed, Polaris has body-image issues, Strong Guy is in constant pain due to his mutant power but doesn’t want anyone to see it, Jamie Madrox can’t stand to be alone, and Havok is constantly afraid he won’t measure up as a team leader, especially to his brother. Also, Val Cooper, their government handler, is completely oblivious to all of it.

Also, dig that crazy opening splash page, in which Wolfsbane and X-Force’s Feral are drawn as then-Nickelodeon sensations Ren and Stimpy. The penciler of this issue was some kid named Joe Quesada, whom I’m sure was never heard from again.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 22: The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes

Aside from Sandman: Overture, I haven't written much about Sandman on this blog. Frankly, if you haven't read Sandman and you're reading a comics blog, the odds are you don't need me evangelizing. You either just haven't gotten to it, or it's not your thing. But if I'm writing about the specific comics that have affected me, this one ranks in the top three.

The summer before going away to college, I had a job that paid me well enough that I was able to indulge my comic habit a bit more liberally. One light week, I bought Watchmen, and I finally understood what all the hub-bub was about. And around the same time, Grant Morrison wrote a two part story in JLA featuring Daniel, the new incarnation of Dream of the Endless. So having touched on Sandman in my regular comics, and having read my first really mature comic, I decided it was time to try Sandman. I had read all about it, how smart it was, how it featured mythology and literature (two things I love); my main concern was it wouldn't live up to the hype. So the last Wednesday in July of 1998 was a fifth week, so my stack was light, and I added the first volume to my stack. I got home, and decided to break my normal reading order and start Preludes and Nocturnes. And I was done for from that moment.

Sandman was everything I had heard and more. That one trade stretches the gamut of genre from horror to fantasy to action to a melancholy philosophy. I met Dream, Death, Lucien, Cain & Abel, Lucifer Morningstar, and John Constantine (who guest starred from over in his own book, Hellblazer). "24 Hours" gave me the same chills Stephen King's novels do. "The Sound of Her Wings" made me think about mortality, yet not in a fearful way. And "Hope in Hell" was a story of demons that was my first taste of Gaiman's unique brand of mythology. I had a new favorite author pretty much from the get go. Since then, I've met Gaiman a handful of times. I met my wife because we were both fans of Gaiman. And I had my eyes fully opened to exactly what comics and graphic novels could be. Season of Mists is my favorite Sandman story, but Preludes and Nocturnes is the one that started it all.

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 12/17

Batman #37
Story: Scott Snyder/James Tynion IV
Art: Greg Capullo/John McCrea

Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo's Joker story, "Endgame," takes a decidedly creepy turn this issue. Not to say that the work these creators have done with Batman's greatest foe has been pure comedy at any point, but this issue was that ratcheted up the tension and added a very horror movie feel to this clash. The opening splash page, of a frozen Bruce Wayne staring out of the page at the reader begins the issue with a sense of distinct unease. Once Bruce comes out of the paralysis from Joker's drug, we begin to see just how dire the situation is, with a new strain of aerosolized Joker toxin turning Gotham into a city of madness. And none of Batman's old cures are working. Batman has over one hundred cures devised for Joker toxin. If you think about the New 52 timeline, that's over ten cures a year, meaning either Joker gets out of Arkham even more than you'd think, or Batman spends a lot of time coming up with possible cures; maybe Joker isn't the only one a little obsessed with his rival. With no cure, Batman must head to Gotham Presbyterian Hospital to find the first infected person. The journey is the issue's action peace, as Batman fights his way through a hospital filled with people corrupted by Joker. And when he finds patient zero, well, if there was any doubt about whether Joker knows Batman's secret identity, it's gone now. Snyder brings Duke Thomas, the kid who has been popping up in his run (and was Robin in the possible future from Batman & Robin: Futures End) , as Joker gives Batman a chance to relive his worst memory. And while that's great material, the scenes with Jim Gordon make this issue into one of Snyder's best. As Gordon researches Gotham Presbyterian to try to figure out why Joker started his assault there, Gordon finds photos from over the past century. Photos that all have the Joker in them. And then Gordon hears a sound in his apartment. The following scenes, with Gordon and Joker in the apartment, are straight up horror movie scenes, and Capullo's Joker is so much creepier with a face than without. The pale skin and the black suit make him seems like an undertaker, a clown, and death itself mixed together. The issue cliffhanger sent a shiver up my spine. The back up ties into the Joker's seeming claim of immortality, or a connection to the dark heart of Gotham, with John McCrea adding his manic style to a tale of madness and clowns. And even if it's set a hundred years ago, you know clowns and Gotham don't mix. Batman #37 shows everything that Snyder and Capullo have been doing right for three years now, and moves "Endgame" on to an historic confrontation between comics' greatest rivals,

Lumberjanes #9
Story: Noelle Stevenson & Shannon Walters
Art: Brittney Williams & many more

I love scary stories, and I love telling them. I think I said in a previous review of an issue of Lumberjanes that I never went to camp, so I never told them around a campfire, but I've been at a Halloween party or two where people have shared a tale of the supernatural or two. This issue, the cast of Lumberjanes each get to tell a story around the campfire, each drawn by a different artist. "Tailypo" is a classic campfire tale, one I remember reading in one of the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark volumes in my younger days; Felicity Choo does an admirable job of making the long tailed monster scary. The Aimee Fleck drawn, "Wrong Number" is a variation on another classic theme of the campfire tale, but since it's told by Jen, Roanoke Cabin's councilor, it has an ending that is a little less harrowing than it's usually presented as. "Bad Candy," drawn by Becca Tobino, is a whirling, trippy vision, perfectly in tune with the personality of the energetic Ripley, and the message at the end of the story reinforces to themes of friendship that underlies all of Lumberjanes. I'm a fan of Faith Erin Hicks, so her tale, "Ghost Girl," told by Jo, is the one that struck me the most visually. Mal's story, "Lonely Road," is one I'm not familiar as a campfire story, although it starts out like one we all know, and winds up with a twist that is a much more real life terror; Mal is a planner, someone who thinks things out, and I like that her tale of terror remains grounded in something that can be combated (for which she gets a bit of teasing from Molly). "Old Betty," with art by T. Zysk, is gorgeously drawn and atmospheric, giving off something of an EC Comics vibe. All of this is framed by art from Brittney Williams. Each of these stories is no more than a few pages, but no story seems rushed. It's a great one off that will give a new reader a great jumping on point for one of the best all ages comics on the racks now.

Multiversity: Thunderworld
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Cameron Stewart

Wow. After what was the most complicated and intricate issue of Multiversity in "Pax Anericana" we get this gem. Not to say "Pax" was bad, far from it, but this issue is so brimming with the joy of Captain Marvel and everything that he embodies. The basic premise is that Dr. Sivana has gotten in touch with Sivana's from across the multiverse to gather suspendium, the mineral that he discovered that can effect time, to steal enough time to make a new day, Sivanaday, where he can triumph. It's a big, crazy plot, one perfect to a world of Golden Age simplicity and joy. He also has built an artificial Rock of Eternity so he can use science to create and empower his own Sivana Family. Pretty soon, the Sivana's are fighting the Marvels, and not just Captain, Mary, and Junior, but appearance from the likes of Uncle Marvel and Fat Marvel, the Monster Society of Evil appears, and in the end, Captain marvel must fight Black Sivana, a Sivana/Black Adam mash-up, to save himself and the Multiverse. In the end, good triumphs conclusively over evil for the first time in Multiversity, the wonder of magic triumphs over analytic science, and Sivana is bested as much by his own duplicity as it is by Captain Marvel. But as fun as the story is, the scene is completely stolen this issue by artist Cameron Stewart. I've rarely seen the Marvel's world look so wholesome and gorgeous; the only other story that comes to mind is Jeff Smith's Shazam!: The Monster Society of Evil! That kind of wonder filled, childlike art was perfect for a story that at its heart is about joy and simplicity defeating cold, calculating analysis. Special call outs to the page with the first appearance of the technological Rock of Eternity, the first appearance of Captain Marvel, the splash page of the Monster Society of Evil (including 52 era butterfly Mr. Mind), the designs on all the multiversal Sivanas, especially snake Sivana and Hannibal Lector mask wearing Sivana, and the beautiful, sunshine filled last page. I feel like each issue of Multiversity has worn its influence in its sleeve, and maybe it says something about me as a reader that this is my favorite so far, a simple tale of good versus evil.

Sandman: Overture #4
Story: Neil Gaiman
Art: J.H. Williams III

Every issue of Sandman: Overture is a masterpiece. I guess you'd hope that, since it's at least four months between issues, but if that's what it takes to get a comic of this quality, I'll take it. This issue slides between Dream having a conversation with his father, the embodiment of time, and entering the city of stars to confront the being who is about to bring about the end of everything. It's nice to see that Dream's relationship with his father is no better than his relationship with any other member of his family. This issue explains exactly why the sequence with Daniel from issue two had to happen when it did, and Gaiman does a very good job of making what could be awkward timey-wimey stuff make perfect sense. Williams's shifting page and panels structure as Dream wanders, speaking to his father, and his father's shifting age, makes it clear that time to eternal beings is something that mortals cannot comprehend. The star city bits feature call backs to the Dream story from Sandman: Endless Nights, as Dream talks to the anthropomorphized stars, and once again meets Sto-Oa, the star who took the heart of Dream's first beloved. More interesting is Dream confronting the mad star, and learning exactly how that star relates to Dream. The flashback in this issue, the story of Dream and that star, is one of, if not the, earliest story of the Endless that we have seen; the personalities of Dream and Death in it are a clear indication of that. We have seen stories of Death early in her, for want of a better word, life, and the Death here is the cold, matter of fact being there, not the Death who has come to understand the value of life. But we have rarely if ever seen Dream so... soft-hearted. Dream has always been the character who has no problem taking a life to defend his realm, no compassion when he responsibility is invoked. And maybe now we know why. We see more of the little girl Dream picked up last issue, and her name, Hope, invokes the classic duel from Sandman #4, "Hope in Hell," so I wonder how integral she will be to this final battle, for good or ill (ill, probably, if the Wyrd Sisters are to believed in issue three, but they see things differently than most). The art is stunning, too stunning for someone with my limited vocabulary when it comes to art to even define, but this is Williams at the height of his powers. Sandman: Overture is a comic that, when I open the book, I hold my breath, and it stays held until the very last moment, it is such an immersive experience; maybe once every quarter is all I can take, but I'm waiting for that next one with that same held breath.

Sensation Comics Featuring Wonder Woman #5
Story: Corinna Bechko & Gabriel Hardman
Art: Gabriel Hardman

I wasn't sure how much Wonder Woman I'd be reading after the Azzarello/Chiang run ended. And while I'm not sold on the direction of the ongoing, Sensation Comics, the anthology series in the style of Legends of the Dark Knight and Adventures of Superman has given me my monthly dose of Diana. This issue is a full issue story from Star Wars: Legacy Vol.2 creative team Corinna Bechko and Gabriel Hardman, with pre-Flashpoint Diana infiltrating Apokolips to save two of her Amazon sisters who had been sent to spy on Darkseid. I think it was George Perez who conceived of the antagonism between Themyscira and Apokolips, and I have always thought the two mythic realms make great foils. Diana fights the Female Furies, Darkseid's elite squad of women warriors, and faces down the despot of Apokolips himself. She finds out exactly what the Amazons on Apokolips are up to, and in the end she does the right thing, saving the planet despite all the evil it contains because she knows that not every life on the dread world is evil. And she inspires. She inspires the people of Apokolips with her strength and compassion. The issue's final line is a perfect ending to an issue where we see Diana at her most inspirational. I like that aspect of Wonder Woman a lot, one that was used in my favorite run on the character, Greg Rucka's, that Diana is a person whose mere presence and attitude makes people want to be better. Bechko and Hardman get that, and that makes for a great Wonder Woman story. I really enjoyed Hardman's take on Apokolips; he's an artist with a gritty style, and that perfectly suits the world of evil, it's master, and his servants. This is a good done in one story for anyone who has missed traditional Wonder Woman stories in recent years, and well worth picking up.

Terrible Lizard #2
Story: Cullen Bunn
Art: Drew Moss

A girl and her dinosaur fight a giant ape. Do I really need to say much more than that? Ok, here's a bit more. Jess, the daughter of a leading scientist, and Wrex, the temporally displaced T-Rex she bonded with in the previous issue spend much of this issue throwing down with a giant ape who has a crab arm. It's a gorgeously drawn battle from Drew Moss, full of all the action you'd expect from that simple, yet awesome, set up. But after the fight, the issue finds its heart. Jess and Wrex spend the day after the fight doing everything you'd do with a favorite pet, just to a scale where your pet is gigantic, another brilliant series of pages by Moss. But there are storm clouds on the horizon, as the mystery of how the ape was pulled into the present, the army's distrust of Wrex, and Jess's father's experiments all hang overhead. Cullen Bunn does a good job establishing Jess and Wrex's bond. For a writer whose work I think of as action and horror, he's doing a bang up job crafting an all ages book.

And, from the desk of Dan Grote...

Ms. Marvel #10
Story: G. Willow Wilson
Art: Adrian Alphona and Ian Herring

During the past year, Kamala Khan has experienced a lot of firsts: Getting powers, finding out she has them, using them, using them for good, wearing a costume, fighting an archenemy, teaming up with Wolverine and getting a pet.

(Yes, Lockjaw is not technically a dog, but I still want to scratch him behind his giant ears and kiss his wrinkly forehead.)

In issue 10, Kamala gives her first superheroic speech, inspiring a group of teens to rise up against their captor, a cockatiel/scientist named the Inventor, who has been harvesting their bodies as a form of alternative energy to, among other things, power his giant robots.

Let that last sentence sink in a minute. Drink in every ounce of its Silver Age flavor. Mmm, satisfying.

Kamala’s speech is meant to motivate not just the captive teens but millennials in general, countering stereotypes of a generation of shiftless smartphone junkies. The teens initially don’t want to be rescued because the Inventor has convinced them they are worth more as energy than as human beings.

There’s also a concern about overpopulation that was also stated in another Marvel book I bought last week, but I’m not sure if that’s coincidence or part of some editorial fiat.

Anyway, like any good villain, the Inventor teaches Kamala that heroics often endanger those close to the heroes, and so he kidnaps Lockjaw.

The last page ends with the words “To be concluded,” meaning this crockpot meal of a first arc is finally about to ding. I've very much enjoyed how Wilson and Alphona have taken their time developing Kamala this past year, but I’m also ready to see how Ms. Marvel’s second act plays out.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 21: X-Force #44

X-Force #44, July 1995 

One of the most homaged comics covers is X-Men #138, the issue in which Cyclops leaves the team after the events of the Dark Phoenix Saga. Cyclops stands in the foreground, bindlestick in hand, while the rest of the team sits in the background, looking sad. Adam Pollina re-created the cover in X-Force #44, an issue that saw Cannonball get promoted to the X-Men.

Issue 44 marked a new direction for X-Force. The Age of Apocalypse had just ended, and a new creative team took over the book in Pollina and writer Jeph Loeb. The team moved back into the X-mansion after their last base – a former hideout for Arcade – self-destructed, and most of the team got new purple-and-yellow uniforms, cementing themselves as an extension of the X-Men brand.

Cannonball’s invitation to the majors was a first at the time. None of the New Mutants – X-Force’s forebears – had ever joined the varsity X-squad, despite expressly being recruited as the next generation of X-Men. Less than a year before, Jubilee, the youngest X-man, was technically demoted, shipped off to Emma Frost’s Massachusetts Academy with the rest of Generation X.

Sadly, one team’s Cyclops is another team’s Maggot. Save for a pretty sweet fight with Gladiator of the Shi’ar Imperial Guard, Cannonball got lost among the X-Men, a team that was already plenty big, and eventually left to rejoin his former playmates. He has since bounced back to the X-Men, to a reformed New Mutants team and now is an Avenger, arguably an even bigger team to get lost in.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 20: Uncanny X-Men #303

Uncanny X-Men 303, August 1993

We’ve seen plenty of superheroes die over the years, from Superman to Batman to Spider-Man to Captain America. Most die heroically, in battle, sacrificing themselves to save their teammates, the whole world or just a loved one.

Illyana Rasputin died like a person: In a medical bed, of an illness, with people who cared about her at her side.

Uncanny X-Men #303 was a powerful issue because it was quiet. There was no supervillain, no deus ex machina, no miracle cure. Most of the X-Men weren’t even in it, a rare feat for a team that size.

Colossus’ sister, who at that point had reverted back to a child, was dying of the Legacy Virus. Charles Xavier and Moira MacTaggert had tried to stabilize her and find a cure, but short of putting her in a vegetative state, there was nothing they could do but accept the inevitable.

Jubilee earns her stripes as a point-of-view character here. It is through her – a character about the same age as the intended audience – that we see the mansion that day, watch the grown-ups try futilely to save Illyana and, ultimately, grieve.

To Jubilee, Illyana, despite being physically younger than her, is a relic of a previous era, and her interactions – her jealousy toward Kitty Pryde and her awkward attempts to play with the Bamf doll patterned after Nightcrawler – spell that out perfectly. A new reader has to be made to care about what’s happening, and so does Jubilee. When she finally comes around – well, I probably got more choked up re-reading it now than I did 20 years ago. 

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 19: Star Wars: Mara Jade- By the Emperor's Hand #1

Star Wars: Mara Jade- By the Emperor's Hand #1, October 1998

I wasn't always a big Star Wars fan. I loved the movies and the toys as a kid, but as with most people of my generation, there was a period in the late 80s until sometime in the 90s when I fell out of touch with the Galaxy Far, Far Away. And when I rediscovered Star Wars, it was through the novels, not the comics. A high school friend of mine (and if you read this, Mark, thanks) convinced me to try the Thrawn Trilogy, and I was immediately hooked. I tracked down everything I could, and within the next year and change, I had completely caught up with all the novels.

But frankly, I didn't give the comics much thought. Licensed comics are a tricky beast, not because they "don't matter," or "aren't real comics," but because often the creators involved are either up and comers or older creators that get thrown a bone. I had loved The X-Files comics from Topps Comics, the ones from Stephan Petrucha and a pre-Walking Dead Charles Adlard, but most of the other licensed comics I had tried had fallen flat.

But when it was announced Timothy Zahn, my favorite Star Wars novelist and creator of many of my favorite Expanded Universe characters, would be teaming up Michael A. Stackpole, my second favorite Star Wars novelist and creator of most of my other favorite EU characters, to write a mini-series about Mara Jade, former Emperor's Hand (the personal agent of the Emperor himself) and all around kick ass Force user, a character Zahn had created and who I loved, I had to check it out. The series followed Mara from shortly before the death of Emperor Palpatine through some her first adventures as a solo operative. It was full of twists and turns, featured appearances by various EU characters I knew, was a great action story, and was first and foremost a great comic.

And from there on out, I was sold. I finished Mara Jade and started tracking down back issues and trades. I caught up on Rogue Squardon, which tied into novels I loved. I read Dark Empire, which filled in a missing year within the novels. And as we moved towards Episode I, I began picking up the new series, many of which were more engaging than the movies and novels they were connected to. I stuck with Star Wars comics at Dark Horse until they lost the license this past year, but I'll still go back and fondly re-read these early adventures, which stand the test of time as some of the best Star Wars comics ever published.

Today, it was announced Dark Horse will be ceasing publication of their Star Wars back catalog. I had this scheduled for release as today's entry already, which I chalk up to my amazing powers of precognition. Still, it's sad. I've written a lot about Star Wars comics on this blog, and while I plan to read and look at the Marvel books as well, it's a shame those great Dark Horse books are going to be unavailable. But they'll still exist in comic shops and at conventions, so you can still track them down. And you should go and check out Brandon Borzelli's guest column from the summer to see some highlights of the Dark Horse era.

Animated Discussions: A Very Animated DC Christmas

The past couple of years, the Friday before Christmas has been a holiday recommendation, both of them from writer Paul Dini. Aside from a single Christmas themed issue of Simpsons Comics, and an issue of Detective Comics featuring Joker driving around with a tied up Tim Drake, I couldn't find anything else Christmasy from Dini (although you really should check out those two books). I was getting ready to shift last week's Krampus! piece to this week, when it occurred to me I had one more holiday piece that would feature some Paul Dini: a look at DC Comics animated Christmas episodes!

The earliest example of a holiday episode in the modern animated DC Universe (I'll be passing on the 60s Batman cartoon that did have a Mr. Freeze Christmas episode, just due to time for watching and time fro writing) is the classic "Christmas with the Joker." While aired about two months into the airing of Batman: The Animated Series, it was actually the second episode produced, so it has certain markings of those early episodes, very specifically it was one of three episodes where Clive Revill voiced Alfred, before Efrem Zimbalist Jr. took over and held the role for many a year.

Since we're still so early in the series, "Christmas with the Joker" isn't a very experimental episode. It's fun, clever, and well executed, but it's a pretty darn traditional episode. Joker breaks out of Arkham, Joker has a crazy scheme, Batman and Robin stop said crazy scheme. But the details are great. Joker has hijacked the airwaves and is airing an old time Christmas special starring, well, him. He's kidnapped Jim Gordon, Harvey Bullock, and Summer Gleeson (a reporter character who I think the producers hoped would catch on, but never really did), and has them tied up as his very own Christmas family. The interaction between Joker and Gordon when Joker removes his gag, which is a candy cane wedged in his mouth, briefly is pretty darn funny. But the stakes are high. Joker plans on blowing up a bridge and crashing a train, which Summer's mother is on; this isn't a whimsical thing with Joker. It's deadly serious.

The episode has great set pieces. Not just the exploding bridge and train sequence, but there's a battle at an observatory and a factory with killer nutcrackers. There's also some wonderful character beats involving batman. When asked to watch It's a Wonderful Life, he replies that he could, "never get past the title," but it's clear the episode's writer, Eddie Gorodetsky, gets Batman when Robin tells him that it's the story of how much one man can matter to a city, to which Bruce has not much to say. More telling is how hard it is for Batman to let go and believe that Christmas Eve will be quiet. This is actually a theme from a classic Batman Christmas story, Mike Friedrich and Neal Adams's, "the Silent Night of the Batman."

When Batman returned to animation with the New Batman Adventures, the first episode was an adaptation of the Batman Adventures Holiday Special, the episode entitled "Holiday Knights." Instead of writing at length about it, you can go and check out the recommendation I did for the comic a couple years ago. It remains one of my favorite Christmas comics ever.

In 2008, a very different animated Batman came to the airwaves. Batman: The Brave and the Bold was a much lighter Batman show, with crazy plots, huge set pieces right out of the 50s comics, and every episode teamed Batman with another hero. Early on, the series did its Christmas episode, "Invasion of the Secret Santas!" which featured Red Tornado as the guest hero. In the episode, Red Torndao, a robot, tried to understand the Christmas spirit, while he and Batman fight Fun Haus, a villain who is clearly a Toyman riff, since Toyman wouldn't have been available to the show since he is a Superman villain, and Superman and his cast were unavailable to Brave and the Bold at the time.

The episode itself involved robot Santas running amok, an evil toy, and some holiday hilarity as Red Tornado tries to Carol and Batman winds up saving kids from a runaway sled. It's a good episode of Brave and the Bold, as it highlights so much of what makes the show different and fun from Batman: The Animated Series. The comedy is much bigger, the villain is more over the top, but Batman himself remains this solid straight man in the middle of the wackiness. Batman says crime doesn't take a holiday, so neither does he.

The thing that stands out in "Invasion of the Secret Santas" to me are a series of black-and-white flashbacks to a young Bruce Wayne on Christmas Eve. Bruce receives a Christmas present from his father, a nutcracker, which is not what the young Bruce wanted, and so he throws it away and runs off in a pout. It's notable for a few reasons. One, it's the first time in this series we see an unmasked Batman, even if he's only eight, and the first time we see Alfred. The series usually kept Batman in the field, so both Bruce Wayne and Alfred appear very rarely, The Nutcracker is almost directly lifted from "To Kill a Legend," a story from Detective Comics #500, only there it's a toy train, not a Nutcracker. I like the fact that Bruce wasn't always this perfect kid, and it's a nice touch. My only problem with the flashbacks is that it ends with his parents taking him to see a movie to try to cheer him up from not getting the Swashbuckler action figure. The movie is a swashbuckling movie, and I doubt anyone who knows Batman would be surprised it's The Mark of Zorro. The flashbacks end with Bruce still being mad as they walk down the alley, and well, the are two flashes of light. I'm generally not in love with the idea that Bruce had any part, even inadvertent, in his parents' death. Still the episode ends with Batman finding a very special Christmas present from Alfred in the Batmobile, something that brings the episode full circle, and is a nice Christmas touch.

Before I discuss my favorite DC Comics animated episode, I wanted to touch on one that's only tangentially related to the topic. Freakazoid! was a cartoon that aired on the WB network alongside Superman: The Animated Series, and was created by the same guys who created the Batman and Superman cartoons. It was a crazy cartoon with a hero who would make the Creeper say, "I think he's a bit much." But good lord was it funny!The first season episode, "In Arm's Way," features Freakazoid Christmas chopping on Christmas Eve, while arch criminal Arms Akimbo (a former model whose arms are stuck, well, akimbo) sells Oops Insurance (protection) to local business owners. If you've never see Freakazoid!, well, this is a fun episode, but they all are really.

Now, my favorite DC Comics animated episode doesn't even feature Batman. The episode is "Comfort and Joy," from the second season of Justice League, and it's written, not shockingly, by Paul Dini. After saving an alien world from being destroyed, we follow five members of the Justice League on their holiday adventures. I admit, the episode is filled with Christmas messages about the joys of family and friends, about giving to others, and about different manners of celebrating. It's a Christmas special in the way of holiday episodes of the 80s, and I love that. I am a complete sucker for these kind of things, and the fact that it's done so well makes it all the better.

One of the stories follows Green Lantern and Hawkgirl as the two explore their burgeoning romance by seeing how each of their cultures celebrate. Lantern shows Hawkgirl all the great snow traditions he has, like sledding, building snowmen, making snow angels, and snowball fights. After a particularly rousing super powered snowball fight Hawkgirl brings Lantern to a world that looks like the Mos Eisley Cantina's nasty brother and shows him how she celebrates, which is starting a bar fight and wailing on everyone in sight. It's cute, and does a great job of showing the relationship between the two characters, ending with a very sweet moment.

The Flash story has Wally visiting  an orphanage in Central City and promising to get the kids the present they want, a DJ Rubba Ducky, a rapping animated duck. We get some crass consumerism, as Wally can't find one, and when he finally does, he runs afoul of the Ultra-Humanite, who is destroying the Central City Museum because he feels the art isn't up to his high standards. When the Rubba Ducky is destroyed in the fight, Humanite agrees to repair it and he and Flash present the to to the kids, improved to tell the story of The Nutcracker as opposed to making hip-hop farty noises. And when Flash brings Humanite to jail, he leaves him a small Christmas tree. It's a sweet story of two foes coming together in the Christmas spirit and about how everyone deserves a holiday that is full of peace.

The third story is by far my favorite, the story of Superman taking Martian Manhunter to Smallville for Christmas. It's a very simple, quiet story. There's no action in the superhero sense. Superman is hilarious with Ma and Pa Kent, acting like a great big kid; they wrap his presents in lead foil to keep him from peeking. They give J'onn a sweater as a present that he bulks up to wear. And he goes out at night and sees the Christmas joy that the people of Smallville feel. J'onn became a favorite character of mine thanks to the John Ostrander monthly from the early 00s and his portrayal on Justice League, and this episode does a marvelous job of portraying the stranger in a strange land aspect of the character. There's also a cute nod to his love of Oreos from the Justice League International era. The episode ends with J'onn sitting in a window in his native Martian form, singing a beautiful sing in Martian, while petting Streaky, Supergirl's cat. It's a lovely moment, one that expresses the universality of having a place to be in times of celebration.

This is a good time to settle in with a cup of cocoa and enjoy a very super Christmas season, and each of these episodes are available on DVD, and many can be found on Netflix and Amazon Prime.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 18: Ms. Marvel #1

Ms. Marvel #1, April 2014

I married a wonderful woman who, for most of our 12 years together, did not share my affinity for four-color funny books. But if you get dragged by your husband to enough Marvel movies and your son is obsessed with Batman, eventually you end up sipping at least a little Kool-Aid.

That cool, refreshing sip ended up being G. Willow Wilson and Adrian Alphona’s Ms. Marvel, which is currently the only series anyone in my house is collecting in single issues.

What I love about the current Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan, is that her story doesn’t feel rushed. As groundbreaking as Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s original Spider-Man stories are, it’s weird to me that a teenager went from getting spider-powers to fighting Dr. Doom in just a few issues. Wilson and Alphona take their time developing Kamala’s powers-life balance, concentrating first on making her family and friends feel fleshed-out, and letting Kamala test her powers before a single supervillain enters the picture.

Basing her origin on the Inhuman terrigenesis bomb could have made for a messy book full of messy Inhuman history. But the creators smartly kept Kamala off Attilan’s radar for roughly eight issues, then, finally, gave her Lockjaw as a giant, adorable, slobbering pet/guardian.

Reading Ms. Marvel led my wife to seek out other female superheroes, and to purchase Essential trades of the original Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman and She-Hulk from the late ’70s and early ’80s. So now we can have conversations about how cheesy those books were, and how much more smartly written they are today. 

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 17: Uncanny X-Men #336

Uncanny X-Men #336, September 1996

File this one under crossover issues that stand out more for what they represent than for the stories themselves (See also Spider-Man Unlimited #1, Civil War #1).

Uncanny 336 was a chapter of “Onslaught,” a Marvel mega-event that included the X-Men, Avengers, Fantastic Four and plenty of side books. The hype for Onslaught began building in spring 1995, almost immediately after the end of the previous X-event, the “Age of Apocalypse.”

In fact, according to Brian Cronin’s Comic Book Legends Revealed, what started as a half-formed idea by Scott Lobdell to have someone or something beat up the Juggernaut turned into an edict across the books to allude to Onslaught before anyone knew what it was.

But I don’t remember Onslaught for being a confusing mess that featured a teenage Tony Stark, a younger, long-haired version of Magneto or Hawkeye wearing A Very ’90s Headsock.

What I remember is one panel, about a ninth of the page, showing the left half of Cyclops’ face, fangs bared, saying two words: “Take him.”  Behind him, in shadow, Thor and Storm are airborne, ready to attack the being holding Charles Xavier prisoner and threatening to torture him slowly. Quite frankly, it’s my favorite thing Joe Madureira ever drew.

Here, Cyclops isn’t just leading the X-Men. The Avengers and the FF are following him into battle as well. The X-Man who had spent 30 years suffering from crippling insecurity was now barking orders at almost every major hero in the Marvel Universe. And that’s why I was a teenage Cyclops fan.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 16: Starman #34

Starman #34, September 1997

When you grow up reading superhero comics, you come to expect certain things. Bright costumes, big action scenes, and the illusion of change, to name a few. What you don't expect is film criticism in the mind of a supervillain.

 By the time Starman #34 had come out, I had read plenty about the comic in (lord I feel ashamed saying this) Wizard. It was supposed to be this hip, new, different superhero comic. I had read one issue, a crossover with the Underworld Unleashed event, and while it wasn't bad, it wasn't anything special. But issue thirty-three guest starred Batman, and so I picked it up, and that seemed more in line with what I read. Batman was guesting is thirty-four as well, so I picked it up, and this blew me away.

Jack Knight (the current Starman), Batman, Sentinel (the then-current superhero alias of original Green Lantern Alan Scott), and the Floronic Man (Jason Woodrue, a villain with plant powers), eat psychedelic tubers to enter the mind of plant monster-man Solomon Grundy, who had reformed and was a friend of Jack, to try to help him recover from a coma. OK, trippy tubers was something new to me to begin with. But as they journey, they start discussing heroism, and favorite heroes, and it turns into a discussion of favorite Woody Allen movies.

That scene had me rolling on the floor laughing, as Batman is a total downer, acting like this whole thing is business as usual, while Jack talks about Broadway Danny Rose, Sentinel remembers Everybody Says I Love You, and Woodrue waxes about the comedy of Interiors (if you've ever seen it, you'll know why that's funny). This opened my eyes to the fact that you could break the formula of super-heroes and come up with something new and different, and was a segue into thinking about trying out other kinds of comics. Starman proved a good gateway into Vertigo, which I was finally old enough to read, indies, and other different comics, which I'll always be grateful for. Oh, by the way, in the next issue, Batman does tell Jack what his favorite Woody Allen movie is. Not surprisingly, it's Crimes and Misdemeanors.

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 15: Civil War #1

Civil War #1, July 2006

I took a couple years off from superhero comics in the mid-2000s. I walked away from the X-books when Grant Morrison did, and for a while the only thing I was reading was Brian K. Vaughn’s Ex Machina.

Marvel’s Civil War event got me curious, though. The House of Ideas hadn't really pushed its crossovers in the mainstream, non-comics media prior to this, so I picked up the first few issues.

But I’m not writing about Civil War because I think Marvel’s most hyped event of the past decade is the greatest thing since sliced bread. The reason this book sticks out to me, personally, is the Steve McNiven splash page in which Captain America is shown surfing on a jet.

I hadn’t really read much Cap before then, save for occasional minor appearances in X-Men. So I was surprised to watch this red-white-and-blue badass beat up a couple dozen S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, hijack a jet, lecture the pilot about his language and, as a Cabinet secretary later describes, land the plane on a football field and take the pilot out for a burger and fries. Mark Millar – who crafted an alternate-Earth version of the character in The Ultimates – wrote Cap as the perfect combination of Boy Scout and action star. As team leaders go, Cyclops was never this cool.

Before long, I started reading Ed Brubaker’s run on Cap’s solo title and had collected every trade from the first hardcover omnibus right up until Fear Itself. Having completed that, I expanded outward, reading the new stuff by Rick Remender and Jack Kirby’s stories from the bicentennial.

So thanks, Civil War, for giving me a new favorite character. 

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 12/10

Afterlife with Archie #7
Story: Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa 
Art: Francecso Francavilla

I never thought I'd say Archie and horror in the same breath. I read and enjoyed Archie's Weird Mysteries in the 90s and 00s, but those weren't horror comics; they were supernatural adventure books that wouldn't scare anybody over the age of four. But Afterlife with Archie, the story of a zombie apocalypse that started in Riverdale, is definitely a horror comics, and it's a great one, full of genuine scares and tremendous character work. This issue picks up with the survivors of Archie and the gang having fled Riverdale, with a ravening horde of zombies led by Jughead following them (even in death and zombification, Jughead is still always hungry). Betty is trying to recreate her lost diaries, so we see flashbacks to Betty's time in Riverdale, the problems in her family wither her sister, her meeting Archie, and the turbulent relationship between her and Veronica. Meanwhile, we see more about just how warped the Blossom household in this reality is, with some flashbacks to Cheryl Blossom's family Thanksgivings. Taking Riverdale and mixing in some Peyton Place and some Flowers in the Attic could easily turn into something that feels exploitative and tacky, but Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa clearly has long plans for these characters, and isn't just throwing in shocks for shock value. He is developing these characters down unexplored territory, while still having them feel like the characters that Archie readers know. The atmosphere is only heightened by the dark, moody art from Francesco Francavilla, who draws not only some seriously creepy zombies, but such realistic facial expressions that you can read the full spectrum of emotions that run  through each character. If you're all caught up on The Walking Dead and are looking for something else to satisfy your zombie/horror fix, Afterlife with Archie is one of the best horror comics on the market. Also worth noting, each issue has a back up from the classic Archie published horror comics on the silver age, which are creepy in the EC Comics vein; I'd love to see some collections of those in the future as well.

Copperhead #4
Story: Jay Faerber
Art: Scott Godlewski

Copperhead, Jay Faerber and Scott Godlewski's sci-fi western, continues it's first arc, as Sheriff Clara Bronson and her deputy, Budroxifinicus (Boo for short and from here on out), close in on the killer of the Sewell family. Bronson goes on the hint for Ishmael, the artificial being ("artie") that saved her son and he saw with a stolen object from the Sewell house, only after getting into an argument with the local mine owner and land baron. It's through his inquiries that we learn exactly why Bronson is now out in the galactic backwater of Copperhead. She immediately jumps to the conclusion that Ishmael is guilty, reinforcing the knowledge that she dislikes arties, and we begin to get more details about the war that was fought, now knowing that the arties were designed to fight Boo's people. With Bronson away, Boo gets the spotlight as he heads to investigate a break in at the local doctors office (the doctor is a drunk, a classic western trope). While Boo pursues the being who broke in, we see a flashback to his time in the war, and get the idea of exactly how tough Boo is and was. Four issues isn't a lot of time, but Faerber has done a good job of letting us know who each of these characters are; still there's a lot to learn. We also see the first real clash between Clara and her son, Zeke, who absolutely believes that Ishmael is not the killer since Ishmael saved his live. Zeke's a good kid, but like all kids, they think they know better than their parents sometimes. I'm curious to see which is right. Scott Godlewski, artist on the series, impresses me by giving non-human faces very clear emotions. The Sewells and Boo are only slightly near human, and many artists would have a hard time conveying mood and emotion, but Godlewski does  a great job of helping us get right into Boo's head.

Rocket Raccoon #6
Story: Skottie Young
Art: Jake Parker

Rocket Raccoon continues to be one of Marvels' most charming comics. Rocket is now working to pay off the debt to the numerous princesses he has wronged in his life, but this issue he has to step away from that task to help out another old friend. Cosmo, the psychic Russian space dog who is the head of security at Knowhere, gets in touch with Rocket to help a robot, whose name is only given in binary, to help locate some of his friends, who all live on a colony of warbots who have forsaken violence to live a peaceful life. So Rocket and the robot go on a crazy adventure where Rocket actually has to act as the cool head, trying to keep the robot from blasting everyone; if your friends were taken by slavers, you'd be a little prickly too. From a weapons dealer to a weapons auction, Rocket and his robot sidekick leave a swath of carnage. Groot isn't around this issue, so the robot takes the place of Rocket's usual sidekick, but since not only is the robot's name in binary, but that's all he can speak, it's not like his vocabulary is much wider than Groot's. I wanted to talk about this issue for two very simple reasons. First, it's just fun. While yes, robot slavery is an important topic that should be discussed, this is a comic in the old model, a perfect done in one story with some good jokes, some good action, and a lovable cast. Second, it has Cosmo. I love Cosmo, but since the return of the cosmic Marvel Universe in the past three years or so, he hasn't really appeared much, so an issue with a lot of Cosmo is something I wanted to call out. Artist Jake Parker's style is reminiscent of Skottie Young's own while not being a direct clone, so it keeps with the tone of the first arc, and he draws absolutely adorable animals, so he's made for this book. If Rocket Raccoon can continue to tell fun stories like this, it will be the jewel in Marvel's cosmic crown.

The Valiant #1
Story: Jeff Lemire & Matt Kindt
Art: Paolo Rivera

When it comes to consistency, Valiant really can't be beat. Since they started publishing two years and change ago, they've done a good job of keeping up a consistent high quality. And while they have done a couple of crossovers, Harbinger Wars and Armor Hunters, each of those connected small corners of the Valiant Universe. This week saw the debut of The Valiant, a four issue mini-series that looks to tie the whole universe together. The issue opens with a history of Gilad Anni-Padda, the Eternal Warrior, and his battle with a creature called the Eternal Enemy. Three times before, the Eternal Enemy has come, and three times it has slain the Geomancer, the person who speaks for the Earth. And each time, Gilad has gotten a scar on his face; the origin of the scars has been hotly debated since Gilad first appeared in the new Valiant, and it's a cool history to them, adding something to make Gilad's arch-foe a much bigger threat. From there, we see the current Geomancer, Kay McHenry, having a discussion with Armstrong, Gilad's also immortal brother about what she should be doing. I haven't read anything with Kay since her first appearance in Archer & Armstrong, so it was nice to get a refresher on who she is, as she is going to be important to this series. The issue also features an action sequence with Bloodshot, the nanite infused hero, fighting his former masters at Project: Rising Spirit on the behest of MI6. This sequence not only gives a nice action centerpiece to the issue, but catches readers up on Bloodhot's current status quo. The issue ends with Kay trying her hand at being a more active Geomancer, Gilad talking to X-O Manowar about the coming of a threat, and the rise of the Eternal Enemy. Writers Jeff Lemire and Matt Kindt do a very solid job of making it clear exactly who all these characters are even if you haven't read anything with them before, while keeping the story moving and it never feeling like an info dump. Paolo Rivera is an outstanding artist, and his work is as amazing as ever. His action sequences, especially Bloodshot versus a pair of mechs, flow perfectly, giving a sense of motion and action, and his design for the monstrous Eternal Enemy is the stuff of nightmares. If you've ever thought about trying out a Valiant comic and have been hesitant or if you're an old school Valiant fan who wants to try the new books, this is a book that is the perfect place to jump on. And if you've been reading Valiant regularly, this is a great showing that will feature the characters you're reading already, so go out and pick up The Valiant.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 14: Ex Machina #50

Ex Machina #50, September 2010

Y the Last Man introduced many readers – including me – to writer Brian K. Vaughn. His current ongoing, Saga, is a sweeping space opera with some of the most beautiful art his words have ever been paired with.

But Ex Machina, his post-9/11 story about a superpowered New York City mayor, is his most grounded tale and my personal favorite. It also has my favorite ending of any series I’ve read.

Don’t worry, if you haven’t read it, I won’t spoil it for you. Suffice it to say, in the beginning of the issue, protagonist Mitchell Hundred is sitting on a step, beer in hand, soliloquizing about how superhero comics never have the tragic conclusions that are the logical end of every other kind of storytelling, a powerful statement from a superhero about to see his own story wrapped up. “Happy endings are bulls---,” he says. “There are only happy pauses.” Which sums things up as vaguely as possible.

Through a series of flash forwards, we see how things pan out for Hundred, his deputy David Wylie, chief of security Bradbury, mentor Kremlin and the book’s other supporting players. As in any political race, there are winners and losers.
One of the things I love about Ex Machina is how it twists then-recent history to meet the rules of its world, from 9/11 to Iraq to a certain issue of Amazing Spider-Man. And the book’s final historical twist is every bit as powerful as its first one.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 13: JLA #3

JLA #3, March 1997

OK, I've written about this issue in my recommended reading for JLA, but if I'm doing a personal highlight reel, I can't pass it up. This issue has the scene that shows just what Batman can be, and why I love him so much.

So to give some context, a team of alien superheroes called the Hyperclan have arrived on Earth, and after doing various beneficial things have captured most of the Just League, gotten Martian Manhunter to betray his teammates, and blown up the Batplane, killing Batman. But Batman's not dead. He infiltrates the Hyperclan's base, and when A-Mortal, the Batman analogue is sent after him, he doesn't return. When three more are sent, they find A-Mortal, hanging tied up with a note pinned to his chest.

And when the three track down Batman, they find him marking a circle around him in liquid. They ask him for last words, and he gives them a few. He tells them he's figured out that they are Martians, and only them do they realize what he drew that circle in: gasoline. With a single match, Batman now is in a circle of fire, the thing that takes away Martian powers, and he just stares them down and gives one more line.

I'm never going to be Superman, Aquaman, Flash, you name it. And frankly, I'm never going to be Batman. I'm a middle aged IT guy and comics blogger. I can't ever live up to that physical prowess, and I'll never be that rich. But I can be smart. And that's what Morrison proves here, a point he makes in a lot of his Batman work: that Batman's biggest power is that he's always the smartest guy in the room, that when you strip away his tools, it's Batman's mind and guts that gets him through his trials. And that's something that appeals to me

The series also reintroduced me to Grant Morrison, who I had first encountered in the Legends of the Dark Knight arc, "Gothic," and who proved his versatility as a writer to me, there writing a supernatural murder mystery, here writing high superheroics at their best. While I don't read everything Morrison writes, I read most of it, and I appreciate his constant attempts to innovate and do something different. But nothing will ever quite resonate for me like this one moment where Batman proves he is the supreme badass.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Matt Signal Advent Calendar 2014 Day 12: X-Men (Vol.2) #1

X-Men (Vol. 2) #1, August 1991 

My first #1 may have been Spider-Man Unlimited #1, part of the Maximum Carnage crossover, which Matt touched on earlier in this calendar. I don’t remember what my first X-book #1 was. Considering I started collecting in earnest in 1993, it was probably Generation X #1, which came out the following year. So let’s say this was the first #1 I bought on the back-issue market. And if X-Force #1 tries to argue, I’ll make fun of its high-top ponytail.

X-Men #1 had everything: A bigger team than ever before, Magneto, Nick Fury, a brand-new X-Mansion, art by Jim Lee, collect-’em-all variant covers, verbose exposition by Chris Claremont (the last X-fans would see for a while), a cameo by President George H.W. Bush in which he uses the word “prudent” and a new band of henchmen in the Acolytes.

The Acolytes were the first of a number of new characters created during a new era for the X-Men, including Bishop, the Upstarts, Omega Red and Colossus’ long-lost brother Mikhail Rasputin. That first year also saw creators shuffling on the regular, with Claremont leaving X-Men after issue 3, Jim Lee and Whilce Portacio leaving the books to help found Image, John Byrne temporarily plotting stories and, finally, the ascension of Scott Lobdell and Fabian Nicieza, which is about where I came in.

The X-Men of fall 1991 – Prof. X, Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Beast, Jean Grey, Gambit, Rogue, Jubilee, et al – formed the backbone of the cartoon that debuted on Fox the following year. That cartoon was my formal introduction to the characters, which in turn led me to seek out the source material, which brought me to my first local comics shop – the Hobby Shack on Morris Avenue in Union – which is how I started collecting back issues, including the one I’m currently writing about. My point is, TIME IS A FLAT CIRCLE!

Recommended Reading for 12/12: Krampus!

It's Christmas time, so it's time to think about those favorite Christmas characters. Rudolph, the reindeer who saved Christmas. Frosty, the snowman who came to life. Santa Claus, the jolly giver of gifts. And of course, the Krampus. What's that? Some of you don't know the Krampus? Well, google him. Or better yet, read this article by Tick writer Benito Cereno, who likens him to Christmas's Batman. Or if you want something in the video way, check out the Venture Bros. episode, "A Very Venture Christmas." I'll wait.

OK, now you've been primed with a general idea of who the Krampus is. In all fairness, today's recommendation would have been all the introduction you'd need, but part of what makes it exciting is knowing exactly what you're in for. Krampus!, written by Brian Joines and with art by Dean Kotz,  was a five issue mini-series released through Image Comics last year, revolving around the holiday adventures of the Krampus, liberated from his imprisonment by a society of multinational Santas to serve as their black ops agent. If that concept doesn't sell you, I don't know what will, but I'll do my best to try.

The set up for the series is that the skeleton of the actual St. Nicholas has been stolen. The skeleton serves as the power source for the Secret Society of Santas Clauses, and without their powers, the Santas must find someone else to hunt the skeleton down. Enter Krampus, who has been imprisoned since the holiday became more about reward than punishment. They offer Krampus his freedom if he can track down the skeleton. They totally Suicide Squad him, attaching a bomb to him to blow him up if acts too naughty, so frankly the Santas are kind of dicks. But still, the Krampus is on the loose and ready to hunt down the wicked and punish them.

Krampus himself isn't a bad guy. He isn't a villain, or even a bad guy. He just has a function, which is to punish wicked children, and he wants to do what he was meant to do, and nothing more. He's not some Machiavellian mastermind. He demonstrates moments of empathy as well as his trademark punishment. He's a tough green demon looking guy with a sinister German accent who flies around on a huge wolf named Stutgaard; there aren't a lot of job opportunities if you fit that particular description. He is more human looking than the traditional depiction of Krampus, or at least less monstrous, lacking, for example, the freaky long tongue, which not only allows for his face to be more expressive, but makes for a more empathetic character; while it's easy enough to empathize with non-human aliens, full on monsters are harder, especially when they talk about punishment. A lot. Giving Krampus a more streamlined look allows his emotions to play out on his face, which is useful when he's the focus on the story.

The whole concept of a Krampus based series had me interested, but flipping through issue one and seeing all the different versions of Santa had me sold. The back cover has a group shot of all the Santas with their name and country of origin, and it's Santas from all over the world. Each of them have distinct personalities, and fortunately they don't fall into terrible stereotypes. It's easy when you have an international coalition to have everyone take on the worst aspects of their culture. Now, I won't say Beach Bum Santa from the Pacific Islands would have worked from, say France, but he doesn't say cowabunga at any point, so credit is given for that. The two principal Santas are the modern Father Christmas of England, the current leader of the society, and Sinterklaas, the Dutch Santa, who was the first Santa. There actually is a whole subplot involving the political divisions within the Society, which allows Joines to explore the personalities of the different Santas without relying on tons of random exposition.

The cast of the book also includes new takes on other classic winter themed characters. Old Man Winter, who controls cold and the season, lives in a giant ice castle, and his son, Jack Frost, is a hipster kid who is trying to escape his fate of taking on his father's role. But the character I enjoyed most, and who gives you the best impression of the odd sense of humor in Krampus!, was Doc Holliday. Yes, the Doc Holliday, the dentist who fought with the Earps at the OK Corral, who was given immortality by the Yuletide Spirit because she thought he was Doc Holiday, who is now a supernatural bounty hunter who has been hired to hunt the Krampus. He also has singing skeleton horse, Mari Lywd, who belts various pop hits. So, yeah, there's not much more to say about that weirdness other than... weird.

The action of the series follows Krampus as he hunts down the bones of St. Nicholas. It's an action movie/detective story motif, as Krampus follows hints and clues down blind alleys, all while being pursued by killer nutcrackers and violent sugar plum fairies. The mystery, like the bones, are a Mcguffin, since the villain is a character who doesn't get mentioned more than casually before he appears, and is revealed halfway through the series as it is. But the whole point of the mystery is to get Krampus out and about, meeting all these characters and fighting monsters. And it succeeds in that, making for a fun action series.

The villain, Mos Gerila, was a Communist era former Santa who was cast out of the Society after the fall of communism, when he predecessor, Mos Craciun, was freed. He has a whole insane plot about world domination and being the only Santa. Having a villain who is the holiday equivalent of James Bond's Blofeld makes for a good counterpoint to Krampus; sure he wants to take out his reeds and punish naughty children, but he's not talking about making the world bow to him for presents by putting it under a permanent deep freeze.

The series ends with most of the loose ends tied up, but with one final page sting that shows there's much more story to tell, something that Joines and Kotz say they'd like to get back to some day. So if you're looking for a holiday comic this year that's quirky, action-packed, and like no one you've read before, you should give Krampus! a shot.

The trade paperback of Krampus! arrives at comic shops this Wednesday.