Friday, January 30, 2015

Recommended Reading for 1/30: Wednesday Comics

One of the great things about comics is that you can play with format, both within an issue, a full graphic novel, or across a series. I love to see creators experiment with the idea of comics. Whether it's some of the page layout tricks Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons did in Watchmen, J.H. Williams III's love of two page spreads, or the occasional; experiment with comics produced in landscape, not portrait, it's interesting to see what people can do. Back in 2009, DC Comics did a very cool, very unusual experiment with Wednesday Comics.

Inspired by the classic, full page Sunday color strips of the heyday of newspaper comics, DC did a twelve issue weekly series from A-list creators. They then let the creators work using pages that are far larger than a standard comic (if you're familiar with IDW's artist editions, we're talking roughly that size). The comic folded out four ways, creating a page that allowed the creators to really use the fullness of their artistic talent. It's not the only time this format has been used, the annual Thought Bubble anthology does it each year, but this is probably the most ambitious use of it.

Each creative team would do a serialized story, telling one story over twelve weeks, one page each week. DC editor Mark Chiarello gathered an amazing selection of creators to work on the anthology, and each set of creators brought something different and interesting to the table. With fifteen different stories, there was something for everyone's taste, be it a war story, a straight superhero tale, a crime comic, or a horror story. While the synthesis of art writing is important, as it is in all comics, the large format makes for an artistic tour-de-force for some of the very talented artists here, so I'll probably be talking about art a little more than I usually do. The choice of characters is interesting as well. While all the usual suspects are included (what would a DC Comics anthology be without Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, and many other members of the JLA?), some creators chose to go into DC rich history and pick out some more obscure characters to feature, making the anthology well rounded and letting the creators work with characters they really have an affection for.

Instead of trying to do a generalized talk, I'm going to break out each story and give a short review/discussion of each one,

Batman: Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso weren't strangers to Batman when they worked on Wednesday Comics, having done the six issue "Broken City" story that followed up the famous (or infamous, depending on who you talk to) "Hush" story in the regular Batman ongoing. Best known together for the conspiracy and noir series 100 Bullets from Vertigo, they are a natural fit for the grimy city streets of Gotham. "Broken City" and the later Flashpoint: Batman both featured these creators working with many of Batman's classic and colorful rogues, but the story here is a classic noir. The story features Batman as a detective, really pulling out all the stops in it's depiction of crime in the city; it could have worked as a Sam Spade or Slam Bradley story as well as a Batman one. Batman investigates the murder of Franklin Glass, a wealthy Gothamite, and it leads down a path of betrayal and murder, featuring a classic femme fatale; Risso has a very distinct style for his female characters, and Luna, Glass's much younger wife, is the prototypical Risso woman.

Kamandi: One of the stories most beholden to its forebears in the classic newspaper strips, Kamandi from Dave Gibbons and Ryan Sook follows the format of classic Prince Valiant strips. There are no word balloons, just extended caption boxes. This allows Sook to use the full panel, not worrying about the balloons covering parts of the art, and he uses it to the best effect. His backgrounds are beautiful, and the animal men that populate the dystopic future of Kamandi, the Last Boy on Earth, are impressive to view. The story, of Kamandi entering the territory of the ape men to aid his friends of the Tiger tribe, only to find, and lose, a beautiful human girl, has the grand sweep of the Arthurian epics that Hal Foster's Prince Valiant are known for, and it's clear that Dave Gibbons has a deep appreciation of those classic Foster strips

Superman: John Arcudi and Lee Bermejo tell a story of Superman doubting his place in the human world. While the end of the story reveals it all to be part of an alien plot, the hook of Superman wondering if he belongs among humans allows the creators to travel all over Superman's world, spending time with Lois, with Batman, and mostly with Ma and Pa Kent in Smallville. We get visions of Krypton, and we get a final battle between Superman and the aliens that shows exactly how Superman would fight in the confines of the small town he grew up in to protect the lives of the people there, and the story truly asserts exactly how human a character Superman really is. While Risso in the Batman strip moves away from drawing Batman's rogues and most of his supporting cast, Bermejo shows off his abilities to draw Superman's varied cast, many of them popping up for just a panel or two as Superman thinks about them. If you're a fan of Bermejo's art, this is a great opportunity to watch him spread his wings and draw some big super hero fight scenes, things that he wasn't able to do as much in his other Superman works.

Deadman: Artist and co-plotter Dave Bullock works with scripter Vinton Heuck to conjure a story of Deadman on a journey to a Hell world to save the soul of a girl whose murder he witnessed. In this world, Deadman is corporeal again, so we get the pathos of Boston Brand having a body (a classic plot for Deadman), while getting a view of a dark dimension where Bullcok can go wild drawing monstrous demons and bleak locations. It's a story tinged in horror while still maintaining an edge of the super heroic, and it's end is more on line with the tragic stories of Deadman than the more super heroic ones.

Green Lantern: There are a couple kinds of Green Lantern stories that really work for me. I prefer my Green Lantern cosmic, but I do understand the people who see him as an Earthbound hero. This story, written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Joe Quinones, actually falls closer to the second kind of story, as Hal Jordan must deal with an alien presence menacing Earth, and it sells me pretty well on the Earthbound Lantern. Hal Jordan must stop an old friend of his who just returned from space who was infected by an alien fungus, and prevent an alien invasion. The story setting is very much set in the 1950s/1960s, and that is a time period that I think Hal Jordan works in better than any other. That was the era of the test pilot as modern cowboy, the space race was in full swing, and a swaggering character like Jordan, with his cocky attitude and bomber jacket, fits right in. The plot, with a man turned into an alien monster by space fungus, also seems like something out of a 50s B horror movie, adding to that retro feel. I'm always amazed Busiek hasn't written more Green Lantern, as it seems a character who would be right up his alley, and I'm glad he got the chance to write him here.

Metamorpho: I'll read anything Neil Gaiman writes, and I admit I was surprised to hear he would be writing Metamorpho for this project. One of the most obscure characters of the lot, Gaiman has a sideways connection to him, as Element Girl, a supporting character from classic Metamorpho stories, featured in the classic Sandman #20, "Facades." And Gaiman has a ton of fun with the story, writing a wacky story of treasure hunting and monsters,tossing in game boards and related mini-strips, while playing on the comedic attributes of Metamopho's supporting cast. But it's Mike Allred, king of the madcap comic, who takes what Gaiman gives him and runs with it. Allred draws the character with customary style, completely off the wall, but this feature has one of the best uses of the oversized format. There is a two page spread (spread out over two weeks, but beautifully presented together in the collection) that has Metamorpho and Element Girl making there way through a periodic table, the dialogue with each box fitting the element abbreviation into it. It would take a pair of mad geniuses to pull that off, and fortunately Gaiman and Allred are exactly that.

Teen Titans: One of the most traditionally super heroic stories in the book, Editor Eddie Berganza and artist Sean "Cheeks" Galloway turn in  a Titans story featuring a best of the team line-up, mixing classic Titans like Nightwing with newer members like Miss Martian, Galloway's energetic, anime influenced style carries the story, making for some of the most kinetic pages in the series.

Strange Adventures: If you're a fan of cult favorite cartoonist Paul Pope, his take on Adam Strange, the Earthman who becomes hero of the alien world Rann, is going to blow you away, and if you're not, this is a story that will make you one of his devotees. It's a story populated by alien warrior baboons, magic, and warrior princesses. His take on Adam's adopted home of Rann owes a debt to Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter of Mars books, with Alanna, Adam's alien beloved, bearing a resemblance to Carter's alien princess Dejah Thoris, and Rann having a very Barsoom (that's what the Burroughs books call Mars) vibe. Pope's hyper detailed art is on display throughout the series and is served very well by the gigantic pages.  Pope adds some interesting other wrinkle to the Strange mythos, giving him a different, older body on Earth, which is a nice touch, and he even tosses in a cameo for Doctor Fate, whose design looks gorgeous under Pope's pen. This is a story deeply influenced by the pulps, and has that big crazy pulp vibe throughout.

Supergirl: This is another of my favorite stories in the anthology. Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Conner give us a story of Supergirl and the Super Pets, Krypto the Superdog and Streaky the Supercat. The Super Pets are acting up, and so Supergirl must chase them all over, encountering Aquaman and Doctor Mid-Nite along the way. The resolution is a fun little twist, and this is the funniest of the stories collected, a completely all ages adventure. Conner is at the height of her artistic power, not just showing off her talent for drawing expressive faces, but her delightful talent with animals. Krypto and Streaky are absolutely adorable throughout. This is a perfect story to share with your kids, and the big pages and colorful art are great for little eyes.

Metal Men: DC head honcho Dan DiDio and legendary artist Jose Garcia-Lopez contribute with a story of the Metal Men, robots with personalities who fight crime and other robots. Lopez has a classic, clean, Silver Age style that works perfectly with characters like the Metal Men, whose concept is so very Silver Age. They foil a bank robbery and fight their arch-foe, the chemical behemoth Chemo. It's another simple, fun retro-Silver Age story.

Wonder Woman: Ben Caldwell goes full cartoonist on this Wonder Woman story, and provides on the most technically stunning pieces in the entire anthology. Taking full advantage of the expanded page size, Caldwell uses panels like no one else. There are pages that have dozens of tiny panels, and ones that have one massive panel taking up the entire right side of the page. The story, a dream sequence (or maybe not), fits well with the trippy art, pulling you down deep into the experience in the way a dream can. This is admittedly the most divisive piece in the anthology, with many hating it, and some saying it missed the point of the format. I think it would only have worked in this format. It is an interesting exercise, and I appreciate nit from a technical standpoint at the least.

Sgt. Rock and Easy Co.: It's interesting to place this story right after the Wonder Woman one, as the two could not be more diametrically opposed. Written by Adam Kubert and drawn by his father, the late great Joe Kubert, this story of the Kubert co-created World War II hero Frank Rock escaping capture by Nazis. What makes it so different from the previous story is how direct it is. It's told using the traditional comic book nine panel grid, and is straight to the point. It's a testament to Joe Kubert's talent that in his eighties his art was as impressive as it ever was, full of grit and perfectly paced. No one drew war comics like Joe Kubert, and adding that genre to the anthology spotlighted the variety of DC Comics catalog of characters and the history of different genres from the company.

The Flash: The Flash strip was quite possibly my favorite in the anthology. Starting out as two related strips, a Flash strip and an Iris West one, the two stories head towards an inevitable collision. Again, this is a story that would not have worked in any other format, as it is intentionally drawing from the history of newspaper strips and that format. There are also Gorilla Grodd strips mixed in over the course of the series, and the story ends with merged, full pages that are a glory to behold. From current Gotham Academy creative team Karl Kerschel and Brenden Fletcher, it's a story of heartbreak, as Barry Allen nearly loses his wife, and triumph as he goes to save her and win her back. One page features panels inspired by other classic strips, like Peanuts and Calvin and Hobbes; the whole thing is a love letter to comic strips. Filled with heart, humor, and action, for me this is the crown jewel of Wednesday Comics.

The Demon and Catwoman: Walt Simonson and Brian Stelfreeze join together to tell a story of two characters I don't think had ever really teamed up before: Jack Kirby's Demon Etrigan and one of comics greatest villainesses/anti-heroines, Catwoman. Trying to steal from Jason Blood, Etrigan's human host, Selina gets caught up in the rivalry between Blood/Etrigan and Morgan le Fey. Along the way, Catwoman gets turned into a literal cat-woman, and the two titular character team up to defeat Morgan. Stelfreeze is an artist who draws great monsters, so this story is perfectly catered to his skills, as he draws a mean transformed Catwoman and Etrigan.

Hawkman: Another creator not known for his work on traditional super hero comics, Kyle Baker rounds out the anthology with a story of Hawkman versus terrorists, aliens, and dinosaurs. Drawing from that same obscure corner of the DC Universe that Kamandi and Metamorpho exist in, part of this story is set on Dinosaur Island, DC's answer to Marvel's more famous Savage Land. It's an action packed story, as Baker said in an interview, "Hawkman carries a mace, and it's important for a writer to create dilemmas which can be resolved with a mace." The art blends Baker's usual style with some more computer generated elements, it has one of the best T-Rex's in comics this side of Jack Kirby.

On top of all that, if you go out and buy the collection, which collects each story in continuous pages, so you get all twelve pages of each book back to back, you get some sketch work from each of the creators and two additional one page stories. Keith Giffen writes and Eric Canete draws a story of The Creeper that is, well, creepy, and Evan Dorkin and Stephen Destefano provide a comical tale of Plastic Man and Woozy Winks day at the museum. It's a gorgeous collection, as befits such an ambitious project.

Wednesday Comics is in print in an oversized hardcover.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

5 Reasons You Should Care About... The Purple Man

Earlier this week, it was reported that David Tennant, the 10th Doctor himself, has been cast as Zebediah Killgrave, aka the Purple Man, in A.K.A. Jessica Jones, Marvel’s second Netflix series, after Daredevil.
The Purple Man is the perfect villain for a series starring Jessica Jones, to be played by Krysten Ritter (Breaking Bad, Veronica Mars). In Brian Michael Bendis’ Alias series (not to be confused with the 2001-06 ABC series), Killgrave tortured Jessica and used his mind-control powers to force her to live with him and do his bidding. This led to her being ordered to kill Daredevil and getting beaten up by the Avengers before they realized she was brainwashed.

Before the series is made available for streaming later this year, here’s a quick study in Purple:

1. He’s an OG Daredevil villain: The Purple Man was created by Stan Lee and Joe Orlando and first appeared in Daredevil #4, way back in 1964. And just like the Man Without Fear, Killgrave’s powers and purpleness were the result of a chemical accident.

2. He’s got beef with the whole Jones family: At the end of Bendis’ New Avengers #2, amid the breakout at the Raft supervillain prison, Killgrave tries to take control of Jones’ boyfriend/father of her child, Luke Cage (“Do me a favor. Kill all these other ‘hero’ friends of yours, and then kill yourself”). However, Purple’s caretakers put drugs in his food that negated his mind-control powers. So instead, Cage starts punching the crap out of him, stopping only because Captain America ordered him to.

3. He once helped Dr. Doom enslave the world: In the graphic novel Emporer Doom by David Michelinie and Bob Hall, Doom hooks Killgrave up to a machine that allows him to control every mind on Earth. The plan is thwarted by Wonder Man, who snaps out of it due to time spent in a sensory deprivation tank.

4. He was in one of the last episodes of the ’90s X-Men cartoon: In the Season 5 episode “No Man Is an Island,” Cyclops takes a sabbatical from the team and returns to the orphanage where he grew up, only to find it being funded by Killgrave, who hides his purpleness under the same makeup used by shows filmed in HD. Killgrave later appeared on Disney XD’s Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes, voiced by Brent Spiner (Star Trek: The Next Generation).

5. His kids are every bit as messed up:  The latest volume of Daredevil reveals Killgrave has a number of Purple Children, born of different women he’d mind-controlled over the years but with the same skin color and power set. The children united against their father and used their powers to make him walk in front of a moving train, and went on to wreak havoc in DD’s new home of San Francisco, stealing a police car and taking over an arcade. They’re not all bad though: Killgrave’s daughter Kara was a member of Alpha Flight who went by the codename Persuasion.

Read this: Alias #1-28 by Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Gaydos

Watch that: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes Season 2, Episode 19: “Emperor Stark”

Monday, January 26, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 1/21

Batman and Robin #38
Story: Peter J. Tomasi
Art: Patrick Gleason

It's a bird! It's a plane! It's... Damian Wayne? Yes indeed, Damian is back from the dead, and he has superpowers. Now that Damian is back from the dead after the events of Robin Rises, it's time to establish the new status quo. Pete Tomasi and Patrick Gleason, one of the longest running teams on any book since the New 52 reboot, start to look at Damian and how he reacts to the new powers he received after his resurrection. And it starts out rough. Damian was always impetuous at best, and flat out aggressive at worst, and the new powers he demonstrates aren't helping. Flight, invulnerability, and super strength are a suite of powers that can be easily abused, and Batman clearly is concerned that Damian, who has a history of homicide, might just abuse them. We see a patrol, and Damian flings himself into danger with no concern. In all fairness, if I knew I was bulletproof, it would be hard for me to not just go for it. But Damian has once again proven he has a hard time taking orders, and so once again, Batman scolds him. But as the issue progresses, we see Damian's death and return have left more scars than he lets on. It's nice to see that Damian is suffering nightmares about the circumstances of his death; death has to be traumatic, especially at the hands of someone you loved. The trauma of death and resurrection is something rarely touched on in super hero comics. And after Damian's nightmare, he once again disobeys Batman and flies off. Tomasi then once again uses Alfred as the voice of reason to Batman, telling to have a little faith in Damian. I think Alfred might have some experience dealing with an angry, traumatized young man of exceptional abilities. Tomasi and Scott Snyder on Batman have both done tremendous work with the relationship between Batman and Alfred, really making Alfred the sage adviser who Batman listens to and is almost always right. This is not the Alfred of Gotham, this sort of gruff, angry badass uncle. I like an Alfred with a real paternal streak, something that really works when he serves as a father figure to all these young men. The issue ends with Damian going to Atlantis to tie up a thread from the "Hunt for Robin" story, and it's a scene that really shows the growth that Damian has gone through since his introduction as a spoiled brat. Seeing how Damian reacts to the deformed clones of himself is touching, witnessing that Damian has really learned to care about others. I'm hoping that Tomasi and Gleason continue their run for quite a while after Convergence to further explore the changes to a character that I've come to really love.

Lumberjanes #10
Story: Noelle Stevenson & Shannon Watters
Art: Carolyn Nowak

Somehow, I'm not surprised that the day at Lumberjanes camp where everyone can just kick back and do their own thing is not as relaxing as it sounds. The second arc of Lumberjanes begins with Mal and Molly going off to have a picnic while April, Ripley, and Jo decide to try to get some of the more mundane badges that monster hunting time preclude (they promised to not do anything exciting til Mal and Molly get back). While the trio provide the comic relief throughout the issue, with April frustrated about getting the boring badges, the issue's heart is Mal and Molly on a date in the woods before the action starts. I've rarely seen those early sparks of infatuation and love played out as well in comics as I have here. As Mal talks about her friends at home and all the fun she would have had if she hadn't been shipped off to camp, artist Carolyn Nowak paints Molly's face showing all the doubt that someone can feel when they think that the person they have feelings for doesn't have the same depth of feeling for them. After ten issues, it's really impressive how well rounded these characters are, and how much the reader has come to care about them. Of course, this is Lumberjanes, so pretty soon the craziness starts, as Mal and Molly see the Bear Woman, and follow her through the woods and fall through a time portal behind her. There's another charmingly awkward moment as the girls land in the past in one of the classic romantic adventure poses and there is some adorable blushing. And not only are there time portals, but pretty soon there are dinosaurs! And you know anything with dinosaurs gets a thumbs up from me. Lumberjanes is one of my favorite comics coming out right now, and it looks like it will be moving into even surer footing now that it's into its new life as an ongoing. Also, the issue title of "Absence Makes the Heart Grow Fondant," is one of those puns that is so groanworthy that I have to laugh; I love those puns.

The Valiant #2
Story: Jeff Lemire & Matt Kindt
Art: Paolo Rivera and Jeff Lemire

The Valiant finds a way to move from its excellent first issue into an even better second issue. After the stakes and characters were established last issue, this one brings the Eternal Enemy front and center, hunting down neophyte Geomancer Kay McHenry in the form of Mr. Flay, a boogieman from a childhood story Kay loved. Co-writer Jeff Lemire draws the storybook sequences, which works perfectly. Lemire's style is slightly off the norm, not the same realistic lines as series artist Paolo Rivera, and that art works because of the fairy tale aspect of the story and because it seems of another world. Speaking of Rivera, his work on Mr. Flay/Eternal Enemy is really impressive. It's an incredibly creepy design, both in it's hideous monster form as the Enemy and as it's evil gentleman form as Flay; that sort of elderly gentleman thing hearkens back to classic vampires and The Gentlemen from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and is great horror trope. Aside from Kay and the Eternal Enemy, with see Eternal Warrior and Ninjak retrieve someone who will be of use in this battle, and an end of issue appearance from Bloodshot painting him as a white knight, a role he will be unaccustomed to, I am sure. There's also a last page that is so classically superhero that it made me smile. I've realized that The Valiant takes a lot of classic tropes, not just the monster, but some superhero tropes, the hero's journey for Kay, the man haunted by his past failures for Eternal Warrior, and shines them up and fits them together as if they were meant to be together all along. It's a perfect introduction to the Valiant universe, while still rewarding long time readers. Seriously, if you like superhero stories, The Valiant is a book not to be missed.

And Dan Grote bids a fond farewell to a Matt Signal favorite...

All-New X-Factor #20
Words by Peter David
Art by Carmine Di Giandomenico, Will Sliney and Lee Loughridge

Cue up the sad Boyz II Men song. Either “End of the Road” or “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday.” Your choice. We’ll wait.

We here at the Matt Signal have made no secret of our love for Peter David and his band of misfit mutants, so without belaboring the point, we’re sad to see another incarnation of X-Factor go after only about a year in service.

But David and artist Carmine Di Giandomenico go out the only way they possibly could: with robot sex and a cliffhanger ending that would make Alf jealous.

If the upcoming Secret Wars is intended to be a greatest-hits tour of the Marvel Universe before it ends, All-New X-Factor #20 is the Peter David version of that. In addition to the book’s main cast, we get a visit from Miguel O’Hara, aka Spider-Man 2099, who offers a glimpse into the rewritten future. Without spoilers, it’s a future David fans have seen before.

The good news is, it looks like David wants to pack up his pets and move them to his other book. X-Factor’s final pages reveal Serval CEO Harrison Snow’s true intentions for the team, which tie in closely with the world of future Spidey. Also tying things together neatly is Spider-Man 2099 artist Will Sliney, who drew the O’Hara scenes.

Oh, and I think this bears repeating: This book has robot sex in it. Suffice it to say Cypher and Warlock are now eskimo brothers.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

5 Reasons You Should Care about... Vixen

The CW recently announced it was developing an animated series about the DC superhero Vixen for its Web-content hub, CW Seed. The series would be in the same continuity as its live-action Arrow and Flash series. In related news, the CW is considering adding a third live-action DC show, possibly starring Brandon Routh (Superman Returns, Zack & Miri Make a Porno) as the Atom. Which means my hopes for an Ambush Bug show remain a dream deferred.

Anyway, in the pantheon of DC’s super friends, Vixen isn’t exactly Big 7. So here’s a few fun facts and some recommended media consumption.

She’s kinda like Shazam for animals: When Billy Batson yells Shazam, he inherits the powers of the ancient gods. When Mari Jiwe McCabe touches the Tantu totem around her neck, she channels the powers of any number of animals, from the mass of an elephant to the speed of a cheetah to the regenerative abilities of lizards and worms.

Her first appearance was shelved for three years: Vixen, created by Gerry Conway and Bob Oskner, was to be DC’s first major black female superhero and was to start off in her own series in 1978. Her title and many others fell victim to a wave of cancellations known as the DC Implosion, and that series never saw the rusty metal of a spinner rack. So her first appearance became 1981’s Action Comics #521.

She’s been a member of the Justice League: Vixen joined the league in the mid-1980s, when the team featured an obscure lineup that included Aquaman, Martian Manhunter, Zatanna, the Elongated Man, Gypsy, Vibe and Steel. Conway, Vixen’s creator, was responsible for this era. She also featured in a post-Infinite Crisis league that included Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern (Hal Jordan), Black Canary, Red Arrow, Red Tornado, Hawkgirl and Black Lightning. Vixen would at one point lead the team. In the New 52, Vixen was a starter member of the since-canceled Justice League International.

She’s been a member of the Suicide Squad: Thanks to the upcoming movie no longer starring Tom Hardy, the Suicide Squad is like Hansel – so hot right now. Vixen joined the team of mostly villains during the original John Ostrander run after some of her modeling colleagues were killed by drug smugglers. She briefly dated one of the squad’s members, Bronze Tiger.

She’s dated Green Lantern: In Justice League Unlimited, Mari was involved with Green Lantern John Stewart. One of the show’s running subplots was a love triangle among Vixen, Stewart and Hawkgirl, Stewart’s previous girlfriend. That triangle became a square when Hawkman arrived on the scene.

Read this: Vixen: Return of the Lion, a five-issue 2008 miniseries written by G. Willow Wilson (Ms. Marvel).

Watch that: Justice League Unlimited. Vixen appeared in five episodes of the 2004-06 series, voiced by Gina Torres (Firefly). Episodes include “Grudge Match,” in which female superheroes including Vixen, Hawkgirl, Huntress, Black Canary and Wonder Woman are mind-controlled into doing battle for the delight of supervillains; and “Ancient History,” in which the Shadow Thief reveals Hawkman and Hawkgirl to have been lovers in a past life, only for past-Hawkgirl to have had an affair with past-Stewart.

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.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 1/14

Star Trek #40
Story: Mike Johnson
Art: Tony Shasteen

"The Q Gambit" wraps up, ending the most exciting Star Trek story I've read since Peter David wrapped his New Frontier series. Mashing up the new versions of the Trek crew with the cast of Deep Space Nine (my favorite Trek series) was a stroke of genius; DS9 had a darker feeling than the earlier series, one more akin to the hanging dread of war that permeates Abrams universe. This issue pulls Q himself front and center. Q has been popping up, making cryptic statements and wry observations throughout most of the series, but now he has to act. He has to work with the crew of the Enterprise and the Defiant to stop the Pah Wraiths, another race of godlike energy beings, from winning the day. Writer Mike Johnson does a very cool thing, which is tie the different cosmic races of the Star Trek universe together. If there are so many races that have these incredible powers (The Q Continuum, The Pah Wraith, The Prophets), why don't they ever interact? Well, Johnson ties that together nicely. And while Kirk gets off a good speech about there never being a no win situation as long as he has his crew, it's Spock who saves the day, using his Vulcan logic to come up with what is a simple solution to how Q can defeat the Pah Wraiths. The story has captured the personalities of both casts perfectly, and I love how Johnson has portrayed Gul Dukat, DS9's chief villain with his powers. We got a glimpse of that in the TV series, but to see Dukat in his full glory, wielding his power like the worst kind of monster but doing it with a smug self satisfaction, in this series was a treat. The series ends with the status quo reset, and very few remembering what has occurred, but still leaving open the potential for Q to return. Tony Shasteen has done a great job on the art for this arc, and he pulls out all the stops this issue, especially in the brief combat between energy beings, as Q battles the Pah Wraiths; it's a great visual, especially as Q gives Dukat what he so rightly deserves. The last page is a sting, a perfect moment between Q and an old friend that encapsulates their relationship and just makes anyone who knows these characters smile. With the story complete, I can wholeheartedly recommend this story to fans of Star Trek in any of it's incarnations.

Star Wars #1
Story: Jason Aaron
Art: John Cassaday

I went into this debut issue of the new Marvel era of Star Wars comics looking at it in a couple of different ways. I looked at it as a comic that would be either the first Star Wars comic some people might read or the first they read in a long time. I looked at it as a longtime, hardcore Star Wars fan. In one respect I was very impressed. In the other I wasn't as impressed, but still enjoyed it. As an introductory comic to the new era, and to welcome people into this new era, I thought it was an unequivocal success. It has everything someone who just knows Star Wars from the movies would want: the entire classic cast, action, a touch of humor. Jason Aaron gets the voices of the classic characters spot on, and John Cassaday's art is gorgeous, capturing the looks of the characters and the feeling of the world. It's not weighed down by any heavy continuity, and is just an all around good comic. If you are brand new to Star Wars, this is great. As someone who has read every Star Wars comic ever published, this is a perfectly fine comic. It does all the things I said above, which makes it good., But it also doesn't break any new ground. I've read so many stories like this over the years I wasn't wowed by any innovations. I know, as someone who loves superhero comics, that's a funny thing to say, since they are built on not really innovating, and I also wasn't expecting any innovations, which is why I can still say I liked this comic. One moment that Aaron did work in that jumped out at me was having Luke liberate a group of slaves. Slavery was mentioned in the classic trilogy, but was never really drawn out. It became a more important element in the prequel trilogy, with Anakin being a former slave, and has featured in episodes of both The Clone Wars and Rebels. It being a major plot point here makes me wonder if the slave trade will be a part of the upcoming films as well. Nonetheless, this is a good comic and a solid introduction to the world of Star Wars, so if you're looking to dip your toe into the new Star Wars continuity, this is a great place to start. On an semi-related note, if you haven't tried Star Wars: Rebels yet, this is the week to do it. Last night's new episode "Idiot's Array,"had the crew of the Ghost, our heroes, meet a gambler and entrepreneur named Lando Calrissian, voiced by Billy Dee Williams, and it was everything you could hope for.

And from Dan Grote...

S.H.I.E.L.D. #2
Story by Mark Waid
Art by Humberto Ramos, Victor Olazaba and Edgar Delgado

So far, in the short time I’ve been doing reviews for The Matt Signal, this is the first No. 2 I’ve picked up and liked enough to write about. Mark Waid’s character work is great, and the done-in-one stories mean readers can pick it up whenever they darn well please.

This go-round, Agent Phil Coulson shares the spotlight with Agent Gemma Simmons, who we learn has a strained relationship with her father, a Roxxon bigwig, because the classified nature of her work requires her to lie to him about what she actually does for a living.

Simmons goes undercover as substitute teacher Ms. Steranko (GET IT?!) at Coles Academic High School in Jersey City, the stomping grounds of one Kamala Khan, aka Ms. Marvel, to stop a supervillain-tech smuggling ring.

I haven’t read much of Kamala’s interactions with the wider Marvel Universe outside her own book, but I loved her back-and-forth with Coulson and the way Waid pits the guy who keeps a journal of superhero fight scenarios against the girl who writes Avengers fanfic.

Warning: This issue is not for emetophobes. Artist Humberto Ramos (Amazing Spider-Man) draws multiple panels of teenagers throwing up pizza accidentally cooked using the blob of organic material that is Doughboy, a creation of Arnim Zola’s that dates to Jack Kirby’s run on Captain America in the ’70s. Hey, didn’t I just write about that? Now, if they could just bring that back walking pair of ears with the big eyeballs.

In the end, Simmons and Kamala bond over that classic do-gooder trope of having to keep your double life a secret from those you love, and how much it can hurt. But then Gemma gives Ms. M her business card, and it’s back to squee’ing for our newest favorite teen hero.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Lost Legends: The Maze Agency

Mysteries are hard to write. Well at least whodunnits are; stories that play fair, that allow the reader to follow along with the detective and figure out the perpetrator are a challenge, especially since a second reading can easily espose all the holes. And good mysteries in comics are even harder to find. But in the late 80s and early 90s, there was one series that made its mark by being a legitimate mystery series: Mike W. Barr's The Maze Agency.

I've written about Barr before, specifically his run on Detective Comics. If all you've read by him is that, you can tell he loves detectives, not just because he writes a solid detective Batman, but from the wonderful issue #572, which teams many of DC Comics' greatest detectives with the granddaddy of them all, Sherlock Holmes. Barr is a vastly under-rated writer, and the height of his work for me is Maze Agency. A series that would be an anomaly today, every issue is a done in one murder mystery, a play fair story that you play along with the leads, P.I. Jennifer Mays and her boyfriend, true crime writer Gabriel Webb.

The charm of the series is really captured in the relationship between Jen and Gabe. Jen is a tough, savvy, former CIA agent who has opened up her own detective agency after leaving the Company, the titular Maze Agency. Gabe is an always-right-at-the-edge-of-being-broke writer who refuses to work for Jen, because he believes you shouldn't mix business and personal matters, and thus won't take any money for his consulting. He lives in a dingy apartment with Ralph, his cat, and continues writing true crime stories that his publisher insists on him making more lurid despite him wanting to write higher quality stories. Gabe is also a deductive savant, someone whose mind works in that Sherlock Holmes way that just slides clues into place as he investigates

That's the status quo of the characters we meet them at the beginning of the series. Their relationship deepens greatly over the course of the initial Maze Agency run, to the point that they are living together and engaged before the series unceremonious ending. There is a distinct lack of will they/won't they Moonlighting-type shenanigans, which allows Barr to really explore the depth of the characters and their feelings for each other. They have a wonderful dynamic, mixing in the banter of Nick and Nora Charles; they banter and toss non-malicious barbs, but there are more serious moments that really give depth to characters who could easily be cardboard cutouts used to forward the mysteries that Barr is writing.

Barr does a good job of fleshing out Jen and Gabe as characters who had lives before they met. We get bits about Jen's past with the CIA that have little bearing on cases and an ill-fated love affair with a married man. We find out the Gabe was a divinity student before turning to writing and that he has a very difficult relationship with his parents. These are great details because, while they might lay the ground for future stories, or allow our intrepid detectives to have some esoteric bit of knowledge, it more feels like it makes them realer, fuller characters.

Barr builds a cast of minor characters around his leads that are as well realized as Jen and Gabe. Roberta Bliss is the homicide lieutenant that works regularly with the Maze Agency. She is a hard as nails, classic cop, constantly popping bubble gum, who likes Jen and Gabe, despite the fact that they tend to make a simple case into something far more complex; if you know your classic detective radio and pulp fiction, the cop who gruffly works with the P.I. is a classic trope, but Bliss gets a lot of backstory than you get about her radio forebears like Inspector Farraday of Boston Blackie, Lieutenant Riley of Let George Do It, Lieutenant Levinson of Richard Diamond, or Lieutenant Kling of Box Thirteen ( I know I didn't have to list all those radio cops, but it's rare I get to talk about classic detective radio, so indulge me). Bliss works with Sergeant Simons, a Harvey Bullock-esque slob cop, another classic detective trope. There are a few more minor recurring characters who work with or for Jen, like her secretary Sandy, her old mentor turned employee Max Harmon, or her friend Lacey, who each have an issue where they are central to the mystery and thus we get to learn more about them.

As for recurring nemeses, well since each issue is a done in one murder mystery that ends with the bad guy being carted off by Bliss or a similar agent of the law, it is hard to have someone keep coming back. However, Ashley Swift, head of the Swift Detective Agency, where Jen worked in between her time with the CIA and opening her own agency, might be Jen's chief rival. She is sort of Jen's opposite number: richer, more successful, but not quite as talented in deduction as Jen. This doesn't stop her from driving Jen crazy by flaunting her success in her face or flirting with Gabe. If there was an actual arch-nemesis, it would be Dr. Antony Rune, a self-help guru who claimed supernatural talents that were simply training and trickery. Rune was introduced in issue nine, where his wife was killed and Gabe, Jen, and Ellery Queen (guest starring in celebration of the legendary pulp detective's diamond anniversary) are on his case. Despite not escaping then, he proves to be a formidable foe, eventually escaping prison. The series ended before Rune could make good his attempts on Jen, but it felt like he was being developed to be the Moriarty to Jen and Gabe's Holmes and... well other Holmes.

When it comes to plot, Maze Agency fits nicely into classic detective short fiction tropes. Jen is called in as a P.I. to investigate a case/ Gabe is looking into a crime for a story/ Jen and Gabe are out on a date and some crime happens. They investigate it, and find the killer through some deduction. It's not a unique formula, but it wasn't when Conan Doyle did it with Sherlock Holmes, Rex Stout did it with Nero Wolfe, or Dannay and Lee did it with Ellery Queen. It's a classic, and when you have people who investigate crime, you can avoid some of what I call Jessica Fletcher syndrome, where the detective stumbles randomly onto dead bodies (although that does happen a couple times). All the Maze stories are great, and I can't really talk about details without giving away whodunnit, but if you like what you're hearing about, here are some issues I would check out:

Issue 4: "The Return of Jack the Ripper?"- murder stalks Ripperologists, people who research Jack the Ripper, including Gabe

Issue 9: "The English Channeler Mystery"- where we first meet Dr. Rune.

Issue 13: "The Adventure of the Bleeding Venus" - where we learn about Justice Girl, Jen's favorite superhero

Issue 15: "Too Much Bliss" -we learn more about Lieutenant Bliss as she is suspected of killing her ex-husband

Issue 19: The "Adventure of the Mystery League"- Jen, Gabe, and Ashley Swift are each hired by different members of the detective's society, the Mystery League, to find out who killed a member, with the prize being membership into the illustrious society. This is probably my favorite issue of the series.

Annual 1 features a story that is an homage to Will Eisner's classic detective hero The Spirit

Special 1 features a few stories, one of which is "The Mile High Corpse" a reprint of a Maze Agency short that was written to sell the series, the only story drawn by co-creator Alan Davis, who Barr worked with on Batman and the Outsiders.

Alan Davis might have been the original artist intended to draw Maze Agency, but other commitments kept him from drawing the series. If you look at the artists who did, though, you will see early work from names that went on to become superstars in the industry. The first artist, who did quite a few issues, was Adam Hughes, who added his trademark sultry lines to Jen. Darick Robertson, best known for Transmetropolitan with Warren Ellis, worked on a couple issues. And the covers are even more impressive. Not only are there plenty by Hughes, but creators like Mike Ploog, Brian Bolland, Norm Breyfogle, and Tom Mandrake all contributed over the course of the series.

The publication history of Maze Agency is as convoluted as one of the cases in the comic. Initially published by Comico, the series ended there with issue 7 when the company folded. Innovation picked up the series, and published issues 8-23, not renumbering, as well as the annual and the special. Although there was a next issue mentioned at the end of 23, no such issue appeared. A few years later in the late 90s, Caliber published a three issue mini-series (which are the only issues I'm still trying to track down. Any help would be appreciated). In 2005, IDW announced they would reprint the original issues as well as publish new ones. A three issue mini-series was released, as was a trade of the original issues 1-6, but that seemed to be the end of IDW's time with the series.

As with all Lost Legends pieces, The Maze Agency is currently out of print in both singles and trades. However, with a little industrious digging at cons and shops, it isn't hard to put together a complete run (except those Caliber issues). And it's worth the time, believe me. If you're a fan of classic detective stories, or more recent TV shows like Castle, Maze Agency is a series that you'll find engaging, amusing, and a brainteaser that is hard to beat.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

TV Review: Dan Grote on Marvel's Agent Carter

Two of the unlikeliest success stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe have been SHIELD Agent (now Director) Phil Coulson and pre-SHIELD Agent Peggy Carter, two people with absolutely no superpowers but, at their best, tons of personality.

Both got their own One-Shot short films – Coulson got two, actually. And now, both have their own TV shows and comics series.

Agent Carter, a seven-part miniseries, premiered last week on ABC. Meanwhile, at your local comics shop, Marvel dropped the first issue of Operation S.I.N., a five-issue series by Kathryn Immomen and Rich Ellis starring Carter and O.G. genius sass-mouth Howard Stark. The mini serves as both a stinger to last year’s Original Sin crossover and cross-platform marketing for Carter, a character created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966.

Carter the TV series picks up in 1946 with Peggy (Hayley Atwell) in pretty much the exact same spot she was in at the beginning of the Agent Carter One-Shot: Working at the SSR, relegated to secretarial work by a second-rate Mad Men cast of chauvinists who came home from World War II and took all the jobs they felt themselves entitled to as conquering heroes. To help refresh people’s memories as to why this show exists, the opening of the pilot splices in the scene from Captain America: The First Avenger in which Chris Evans crashes the Red Skull’s plane into the Northern Atlantic. Boom, instant pathos.

Then Howard Stark (Dominic Cooper) comes calling a with problem only a Stark could have: Someone is selling Howard’s “bad babies” – a creepy-uncle term for some of his deadlier inventions – on the black market, he’s being persecuted by the government for it, and he needs Carter to go on a secret MacGuffin Quest to set things right. The first weapon is a chemical explosive (more of an implosive, really) called nitramene packaged in containment units that look like perfume bottles.

Aiding Carter in her quest is Jarvis – the human being, not the O.S. voiced by Paul Bettany. James D’Arcy’s Edwin Jarvis, not at all trained in the ways of espionage, helps Carter track down strange weapons while fretting about his domestic duties and the hell he’ll catch from his as-yet-unseen wife. There’s definitely shades of Niles and Maris from Frasier here (kids, ask your parents about Frasier). So far, Jarvis is the show’s breakout character, so I look forward to the 7-part miniseries next winter in which Jarvis raises a young Tony Stark and Mr. Belvedere-style antics ensue.

Oh, and Stark and Jarvis have some kind of hidden agenda in employing Carter, but that was probably obvious.

The main villain of the series is either a person or an organization called Leviathan. Which immediately begs the question: Are World War II-era evil organizations only allowed to be named after mythical sea beasts? Either way, Leviathan likes to employ people whose larynxes have been removed, which makes for some fun conversation scenes. Also, this person/thing communicates with his larynx-less henchmen via a self-typing typewriter, which makes me want to play Ouija and watch shows produced by Stephen J. Cannell at the same time (kids, ask your grandparents who Stephen J. Cannell is).

The men of the SSR are written to give the folks at Sterling Draper Cooper Pryce a run for their money, but of course those guys are on AMC and able to get away with far more. Shea Whigham is the chief who constantly looks like he smelled a fart, Chad Michael Murray is the alpha douche, Kyle Bornheimer is the fat slob, and Enver Gjokaj is the sympathetic one, on account of his bum leg. The one-dimensionality of their characters can best be summed up by a scene in which they use a literal carrot and stick in an interrogation scene that ends in a brutal beating administered by Murray.

Meanwhile, Carter gets to dress up in costumes and use fake accents as she goes about her business, which I suppose harkens to the Jennifer Garner Alias series, but for some reason I’m reminded more of Jim Varney dressing up as his own mother in the Ernest movies. Don’t get me wrong, Atwell’s a knockout, fun to watch, and even funny at times. It just may be because I watched Ernest Saves Christmas only a few weeks ago.

The second hour works in a Captain America radio play that Carter justifiably finds anathema. The program – which regularly pops up at inopportune times – features Cap, the Red Skull, and Army Nurse Betty Carver, Cap’s frail love interest who regularly gets herself kidnapped by the Skull. In other words, the anti-Peggy.

The first two hours feature some fun casting choices for bit players, including James Urbaniak (Dr. Thaddeus “Rusty” Venture himself) as a Roxxon scientist, Kevin Heffernan from the Broken Lizard troupe (Super Troopers, Beer Fest) as a rude diner patron, Ray Wise (Twin Peaks) as the head of the Roxxon oil company, and Lynsy Fonseca (Kick-Ass, Hot Tub Time Machine) as a waitress who finds Peggy a place to stay after her previous roommate a) contracts tuberculosis and b) is killed by one of the no-larynx guys.

The pilot also features an appearance by a young Dr. Anton Vanko, father of Mickey Rourke’s Whiplash from Iron Man 2. A teaser for future episodes includes shots of the Howling Commandos, which I’m definitely looking forward to as a fan of Neal McDonough’s Dum Dum Dugan.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. set the bar low for how an MCU TV show should start, but Agent Carter has a lot going for it. It’s built off established characters, it’s only seven episodes so there’s no time for wheel-spinning, and it doesn’t have to tie itself to whatever’s coming to the theaters. So what you get is a fun, pulpy, kinda soapy period piece with a heroine who has the honor of being Marvel Studios’ first female lead and isn’t entirely out of place on a network with shows like Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder.

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, January 12, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 1/7

Detective Comics #38
Story & Art: Brian Buccellato & Francis Manapul

Detective Comics continues to be the most gorgeous comic coming out on a month-to-month basis. Not in a sexy way, but in an exciting, dynamic way. Whether it was the traditionally exciting Batman stopping the explosion from the end of last issue scene or the bank robbery at the end, or the quieter moments on Matches Malone talking to a snitch or Batman shaking down Mad Hatter, every moment brims with energy. I have a particular affection for Batman's other secret identity, his undercover in the mob identity Matches Malone, so any time Matches pops up I'm pleased, and to see how Batman can use Matches for more than just getting dirt, but to test the crooks he gave another chance to, gives that identity a bit of nuance. The A-plot of the issue continues the return of Anarky story. I like the way the creators are playing Anarky. Many stories with Anarky over the years made him out to be a homicidal whacko at one moment and this petulant child in the next. In the world of Anonymous, I feel like the character has a renewed purpose and message, a character who really works, especially because the idea of someone with the know how erasing all of our digital background and giving us all a clean slate is something not out of the realm of real possibility. The new design for Anarky is closer to his look from Batman: Arkham Origins than to his original costume, which is more grounded in reality, as Anarky's original costume is a bit goofy with the long neck and robes, and might be telling about his secret identity. I feel like we're being presented with two suspects for Anarky, and I'm completely unsure which it might be. Is it Sam Young, Gotham City councilman who had some dirty dealings with the Wayne Enterprises exec Anarky killed last issue and seems to be using Anarky's attack as a platform to run for mayor, or is it Lonnie Machin, the original Anarky from the pre-New 52? If it's the former, it wouldn't be unprecedented; a similar fake out happened in Nightwing Annual #1 with the identity of the new Firefly. And the end of the issue certainly seems to indicate Machin isn't a suspect. But I think Buccellato and Manapul might have something up their sleeves. I'm also curious how the Mad Hatter plot is going to fit in; it might be an unrelated subplot, but I think it might have more to do than it seems now. Buccellato and Manapul have breathed new life into Detective Comics since coming on the book, and this story is their strongest yet.

The Fade Out #4
Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips

As the first arc ends, I have to say that I think The Fade Out is the best Brubaker/Phillips collaboration since Sleeper. And that's not to put down any of the intervening work; Criminal, Incognito, and Fatale are all brilliant. I just have a real love for Sleeper, something in it struck me, and this is a book that hits a similar cord, but in a very different way. The Fade Out is like the best historical fiction, dancing in and out of the real world in ways that make you ask exactly what they're creating and what actually happened. If you know anything about the Golden Age of Hollywood, you know that all that gold did not glitter, and this is a series about murder, loyalty, and what it takes to get ahead. This issue sees Charlie Parrish, the series principal protagonist, going to a Hollywood event to show off the new starlet of the movie he wrote, the one who replaced the woman who was murdered in the first issue, the murder Charlie knows more about than he can remember. He interacts with most of the series principals along the way, lecherous leading man Earl Rath, his old writing partner Gil Mason (who is on the Communist blacklist now), Dottie Quinn, PR girl, and Maya Silver, the starlet. What initially seems a scene that is just there to show off exactly what a scumbag Rath is and to maybe give Charlie a further hint at what he doesn't remember about the night of the murder through his drunken haze turns out to be something much darker by issue's end. And the web connecting the characters draws tighter, as what wasn't a date with Dottie might have been more. Along the way, we also get an appearance by Clark Gable, mentions of Ava Gardner, and a photo of then Screen Actors Guild president Ronald Reagan. These appearances give the issue a sense of veracity. The issue's end deepens the mystery at the center of the series, adding a new element that might just make Charlie's ties to it all the more dangerous to him. A murder mystery/conspiracy story with compelling characters and a setting that allows Phillips to show off his artistic talent makes The Fade Out a must read.

Nailbiter #9
Story: Joshua Williamson
Art: Mike Henderson

Every time I think Nailbiter can't get any creepier, if finds a way, and that's the finest compliment I can give a horror comic. This issue has a lot going on in it, the least of which is the payoff to the end of last issue and a new Buckaroo Butcher with his bees. Poor Finch, former NSA intel agent on the outs, winds up once again looking like he's not quite right, although he has discovered more of the tunnels that seem to honeycomb below the town of Buckaroo. There are clues to the conspiracy that seems to lie behind some of what is going on in Buckaroo, but no answers yet. The centerpiece of the issue is the introduction of Mr. Crowe, the school bus driver who we see at the beginning of the issue has driven more than his share of the Buckaroo Butchers, the serial killer Buckaroo seems to create as its chief export. What happens to Mr. Crowe, as he drives children to school who are fascinated by the Bucthers is something dark. It begs the question where the Butchers stop and people who are broken by living in a town with such a dark history and reputation begin. I want to see where the story with Mr. Crowe goes next issue to see how far down the path of madness we've seen so much of in Buckaroo he has gone. But if you're looking for a scene that packs all the best, most violent cut punch a horror and suspense comic can pack, you go no further than the scene where Sheriff Crane comes home. Finding Reverend Fairgold in her house, she has an exchange with the preacher before sending him off, and then lies down in her bed, where... Now why would I spoil the surprise? It's a punch right out of the best urban legends and horror stories, and Mike Henderson is at the top of his game in how he presents the sequence, making it all the creepier. As the clues mount and the horror factor amps up, Nailbiter goes beyond all expectations to present human horror; if you're suffering withdrawal from Hannibal, Nailbiter is the book for you.

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #1
Story: Ryan North
Art: Erica Henderson & Maris Wicks

I admit freely, I never thought I'd pick this book up. My exposure to Squirrel Girl is limited to her appearances with the Great Lakes Avengers, and I have no particular feeling for the character. But the advance buzz was so good, and having just finished the fourth volume of Ryan North's work on Adventure Time, a book rife with the humor and sadness that permeate the best episodes of the cartoon on which the comic is based, I figured why not give this book a try. And it is outstanding. Doreen Green, the titular Squirrel Girl, is a charming lead; she's a little spacey without being ditzy, loves what she does as a super hero, and is excited to start college, Marvel's catch all school Empire State University. The issue has its share of action, starting with Squirrel Girl defeating some muggers to the tune of the Squirrel Girl theme song (you know the one that sounds suspiciously like the classic Spider-Man one), and has a throw down with Kraven the Hunter, who she defeats not with her fists but with a clever gambit. We also meet Tippy-Toe, Doreen's pet/sidekick; I don't know if previous appearances have had Tippy-Toe's speech appear as words only Doreen understands or just as symbols, but I'm glad North chose to have the squirrel speak, as it gives the reader someone Doreen to talk to and give exposition to. And upon arriving at ESU, readers are introduced to characters who I assume will be the principals of our supporting cast: Tomas, who offers to help Doreen move her boxes and is tossed for a loop by her quirky demeanor, and Nancy Whitehead, Doreen's prickly but good at heart roommate. Erica Henderson has a delightful, light style that works perfectly with Squirrel Girl's world, and Maris Wicks adds to it by drawing the illustrations for the trading cards Squirrel Girl uses to determine who the villains are, cards narrated by Deadpool in his inimitable voice. This is the most all-ages comic that exists from Marvel, more so than Ms. Marvel or Rocket Raccoon, finding a perfect balance of character, action, and humor; and yes, it is a very funny comic, both in character and in situation. I would love to know why the "T" rating was decided on for the book, but regardless of that, this is a book that can be shared with anyone. Oh, and if you do pick the issue up, be sure to check out the text along the bottom gutter of the page; North got his start doing a webcomic, Dinosaur Comics, and as webcomics usually have hidden scrollover gag text, he places similar jokes down there both in Adventure Time and here, and it's worth reading.

Before we move on to Dan's review of the week, I just wanted to call out some of the announcements from last week's Image Expo. I love how Image uses the expo to announce projects and build buzz around their existing books; it feels like they're really excited about comics, something that's missing from some other publishers.

- The creative team of the incredible first arc on Marvel's recent Moon Knight series, Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire, reunite for a sci-fi series very much in the Ellis mold called Injection.

- A.D.: After Death is an original graphic novel from Scott Snyder and Jeff Lemire about a world after the cure for death has been found.

- From Jeff Lemire (as writer this time), with art by Emi Lenox, is Plutona, where a group of kids find  the body of the world's most famous super hero. It made me immediately think of Stand by Me, which Lemire states as an influence.

Sons of the Devil is a thriller from Detective Comics writer Brian Buccellato with art by Toni Ifante With how impressive Detective has been, I want to see Buccallato work his own suspense series.

- I'm always willing to try out new James Robinson, and Heaven, with art by Philip Tan, is the story of mankind going to war with God and his angels, and I'm on board since if Supernatural has taught us nothing else, it's that angels are dicks.

- I Hate Fairyland is from Skottie Young, known for his darling Marvel babies variants and work on books like the Oz adaptations. This book seems like the reaction to years of having to be so nice, as he has a protagonist who murders her way through a children's book world.

- Not one but two new projects from Matt Signal favorite Brian K. Vaughan! Paper Girls, with a excellent Cliff Chiang on art, is about four paper girls making deliveries the day after Halloween, when something weird happens, and We Stand Guard, with art by Steve Skroce, where,100 years from now, Canada must fend off an invasion from mechs from the USA.

- Last but most assuredly not least is a new mini-series from the always incredible Darwyn Cooke. Revengeance is a three part murder mystery set in Toronto, which is Cooke's first long form story that is not licensed or adapted from another work. He says he wants to play with form and storytelling, which for anyone who has seen what he's done with style his Parker series knows means it's going to be quite a ride.

And now, from Dan Grote:

Ant Man #1
Story:  Nick Spencer
Art: Ramon Rosanas and Jordan Boyd

Last week, Marvel released a two-front Ant-Man assault: a teaser trailer for this summer’s movie starring Paul Rudd as Scott Lang and Michael Douglas as Hank Pym, and a new comic centered on Lang, the second Ant-Man, written by the mastermind behind the dearly departed Superior Foes of Spider-Man, one of the best series you didn’t read.

The print Ant-Man won, on account of it had all the heart and humor the trailer didn’t appear to have time for.

Like the nonheroes of Superior Foes, Lang is a loser. He’s out of work, divorced, separated from his daughter, can’t hang on a superhero team for very long and maybe lost a step after spending most of the past decade dead-ish. He wears his costume in public hoping people will recognize him, but more often than not he’s mistaken for Pym.

The first issue goes a bit heavy on history – new readers need the exposition, quite frankly – but it ups the page count to compensate. That said, I could have used a box or two explaining why Lang’s daughter, Cassie, is in middle school when just a few years ago she was in the Young Avengers. Was she de-aged when she was resurrected? Feel free to tweet @danielpgrote if you know.

The book also relies on a big-three cameo from post-Axis, Jerkface Iron Man, who pits Lang against some special guests from Marvel’s more critically celebrated titles for a security job at Stark Industries. Look for the gag early on referencing everyone’s least favorite Iron Man story.

There’s a twist at the end that sets up the true premise of the book, as well as its true setting, that keeps the whole thing from falling into the cliché of the ex-thief who becomes head of security because he can think like the bad guys. Here’s hoping Spencer can keep Ant-Man fever going till the movie premieres this summer.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

I’ve got the runs: Captain America by Jack Kirby: Captain America 193-214, annuals 3 and 4, Marvel’s Treasury Special: Captain America’s Bicentennial Battles.

I’m not giving anyone any new information by saying Jack Kirby was an amazing innovator. I could fill an entire sentence with hyperlinks to pages extolling his virtue.

But there’s a specific stretch of Kirby Krazy that I cherish above all others: his mid-1970s run on Captain America, just in time for our nation’s bicentennial.

Kirby returned to Cap – he co-created the character with Joe Simon in 1941 – after spending several years away from Marvel at DC, where he introduced the New Gods, the Demon Etrigan, OMAC the One Man Army Corps, and Kamandi the Last Boy on Earth. His ’70s Marvel creations included the Eternals, the Celestials, Devil Dinosaur, and Machine Man.

The King was pretty much given free rein on Cap. Under the credits he is listed as writer, penciller and editor. Marv Wolfman is listed as a consulting editor, and later Archie Goodwin is listed as just plain “Admirin’.”

The King’s greatest contribution to the Cap mythos in this two-year run was Arnim Zola, the mad Swiss biogeneticist whose face is in his stomach. Zola has remained one of Cap’s most prominent villains. Cap’s current writer, Rick Remender, used the character in his very first arc, establishing a dimension where Zola ruled supreme over a kingdom of mutated creatures and bore a human son and daughter. No disrespect to John Romita Jr., who drew those first issues with a clear and present nod to Kirby, but it’s a hard to compete with those early Zola monsters, among them a flying glob of organic matter named Doughboy, a walking pair of giant ears with eyes, and a robot with Hitler’s brain just waiting to have Steve Rogers’ face plastered onto it.

Kirby’s run, for the most part, can be broken down into three long arcs: The Madbomb conspiracy, The Night People, and The Swine/Zola. Each finds Steve Rogers confronting one threat only to be thrown headlong into the next, larger, more fantastic threat.

Here’s a short list of some of the things Kirby had Cap confront:

-An Eastern-mystic mishmash named Mister Buda who sends Cap on a journey through U.S. history to show him “the real America,” which it turns out is in the hearts of children, or something

-A bomb that drives people mad, powered by a simulated brain

-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who puts Cap and Falcon through an obstacle course to verify their identities and test their mettle before debriefing them on the Madbomb

-The Royalist Forces of America: A group that wants to destroy the Bill of Rights to return America to pre-Revolutionary times. Their leader, the descendant of a British loyalist, blames an ancestor of Steve Rogers for the death of his ancestor in a duel, in the ultimate example of, “My dad can beat up your dad.” Also they kept mutated freaks as slaves.

-Deadly skateboard derby (This was the ’70s, after all, and the original Rollerball had just come out the year before.)

-Vagrants from another dimension who come to ours to steal junk at midnight

-A Central American dictator who runs a labor camp and has a creepy relationship with his voluptuous, halter-top wearing cousin

-A perfection-obsessed hired killer named the Night Flyer who gets around via teched-out hang-glider

-A pair of symbiotic mutants named Mister One and Mister Two. Mister One was extremely tiny and lived inside a wristwatch. Mister Two was an ogre.

-Old-school crazy, nuance-less Magneto’s lesser Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, comprised of Peeper, Lifter, Burner, and Slither (Kirby didn’t really get mutants, and he created them)

All this happened during the period when the title of the book was Captain America and The Falcon. Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson’s bond is one of my favorite things about Captain America. Cap’s story and uniform make him this deified personification of American exceptionalism. Most of the Avengers have, at some point, been written as having been in awe of him. But Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson are legitimate friends. There’s no sidekick treatment, no scenes of Cap making the Falcon run obstacle courses or teaching him lessons about what it means to be a hero through pain and difficult choices. Instead, they go on double dates with their special gals and arm-wrestle between missions like they’d just watched Over the Top for the first time (although that movie would not exist for another 10 years).

Speaking of special gals, among the supporting cast were Wilson’s girlfriend, Leila, and then-ex-SHIELD Agent Sharon Carter, who just wanted Steve to settle down and make a life with her. Kirby wrote Sharon as a far wetter blanket than she’s depicted as in modern comics. Then again, she does hold the Red Skull at gunpoint for an entire issue, so she didn’t spend the entire run as a fainting damsel.

At the same time, there are few points during the run when Steve seems to forget he’s in a relationship. Both the Madbomb and Zola storylines find him paired with other women. The first one – a sickly woman connected to the Madbomb conspirators – he appears to develop feelings for, the second one – the Swine’s cousin Donna Maria – he stammers over a bit but ultimately declines.

Additionally, Kirby’s characters have a strange habit of magically realizing plot points that weren’t revealed to them. In issue 193, Cap sees a tiny gadget wedged in an alley during the chaos of the first Madbomb and “senses” it’s the source of all the commotion. In 198, Cap breaks into a scientist’s house on a recon mission and ends up in the room of the scientist’s bed-ridden daughter, who automatically rules out Cap being a burglar, solely because he’s dressed like a roadside firecracker. The next day, he approaches her on the beach in his civilian togs riding a horse he took from the local riding academy, and she assumes – flat-out knows – it’s the same guy.

Kirby’s run also introduces Army General Argyle Fist, which may be my favorite character name ever. Fist spends the Madbomb arc scouring the Western badlands looking for Cap and the Falcon using a drilling machine called Hound-dog. If only he know what Cap realized right away, that an entire underground civilization of faux-British loyalists was hidden under a few foam rubber boulders like a Hide-A-Key left out for a neighbor to bring in the mail.

My other favorite Kirby Cap character would have to be Texas Jack Muldoon, a cowboy hat-wearing, lasso-wielding stereotype who aids Cap and the Falcon during the Night People story. If the Rich Texan from The Simpsons lost weight, it’d be the exact same guy. Yee-haw!

Jack Kirby’s 1970s Captain America run is available as a hardcover, full-color omnibus, or, if that’s a bit price-prohibitive, you could buy the black-and-white Essential Captain America Vols. 5 and 6, which include the Kirby run plus a few issues immediately before and after.

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.