Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Greetings from Battleworld: Secret Wars Week 8

X-Men ’92 #1
Story: Chris Sims and Chad Bowers
Art: Scott Koblish and Matt Milla

I’ve liked a lot of the titles connected to Secret Wars so far: the main book, Thors, MODOK: Assassin, Deadpool’s Secret Secret Wars, to name a few.

I LOVE this series.

Granted, as someone who came of age in the 1990s, I’m the target market for this book, which is based on the Fox Saturday morning cartoon that ran from 1992-97.

Everything about X-Men ’92 captures the show’s essence perfectly: The lack of color gradients, Cyclops’ abject refusal to have fun, Wolverine’s action-hero one-liners, Gambit’s creepy Cajun come-ons, Rogue’s Southern charm, Storm’s need to enter into histrionics every time she uses her powers, Beast’s insistence on quoting Shakespeare, the way telepaths use their powers and then scream and pass out, Jubilee’s front-and-center status, the use of lesser X-characters as background decoration, the never-evolving Sentinels, the meddling of Basic Standards and Practices, etc. There’s also laser tag.

It helps that the book is written by a guy who spent months cataloging the show’s every eccentricity for an online audience. It helps even more that the book is drawn by an artist known for illustrating flashback issues of Deadpool in Marvel’s past house styles.

Fitting, given all that, that the book’s antagonist is perhaps the most decidedly un-’90s X-villain: Cassandra Nova, created by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely at the dawn of the following decade. Nova’s cartoon-verse origin is not the same as Morrison’s, but equally as convoluted: She’s a clone of Charles Xavier created by Apocalypse that ends up serving as a vessel for the Shadow King. And she wants to force peace through mind-control. “The era of the extreme is over,” she says, in dialogue that could not be veiled more thinly. “The world that’s coming deserves a better class of mutant, one that isn’t burdened by all those pouches filled with aggression and inner turmoil.”

How does all this tie in to Secret Wars? Westchester is its own domain of Battleworld, ruled by Baron Kelly, aka Sen. Robert Kelly (aaka President Kelly in the cartoon), who wears a cloak over his suit and flies around on a chariot pulled by Warwolves from the early issues of Excalibur. That’s about it, really.

Easter egg: Look for cameos by Rachel Edidin and Miles Stokes, the hosts of the excellent and authoritative Rachel & Miles X-plain the X-Men podcast. Sims is a friend of and past guest on the show, and I could hear his pleased-with-himself fanboy giggle in my head as I read this book.

In fact, for more ’90s X-Men fun, check out the second most recent episode of X-plain the X-Men, in which the hosts play a tabletop game based on the cartoon, voices and all.

 MODOK: Assassin #2
Story: Christopher Yost
Art: Amilcar Pinna, Terry Pallott, Ed Tadeo and Rachelle Rosenberg

MODOK is the best at what he does, until he finds a woman who can give his swelled head a [redacted for poor joke quality].

The second issue of the Mental Organism Designed Only for Killing’s adventures in Killville is a protracted misunderstanding/fight scene, as the Angela-Thor that fell into his domain at the end of the first issue comes to and the first thing she sees is one of Jack Kirby’s most famous grotesqueries.

And that grotesquery is in love. So much so that he can barely focus to counter Angela’s thrusts and parries with his arsenal of guns, bombs and chainsaws. It’s adorable really, especially when the creative team plays up the fact that his little T-Rex hands can’t reach his nose to wipe the blood off it or help him get up under his own power, like a homicidal turtle stuck on its back.

Meantime, the three leaders of the Assassins Guild – Wilson Fisk, Viper and the Shroud – are investigating Bullseye’s murder, and all the evidence points to ol’ bighead.

As the book closes, there are new mysteries to be solved. What has made Angela-Thor unworthy of wielding her hammer? And how will she and MODOK fare against the murderer’s row of, well, murderers the Assassins Guild is about to send their way? Stay tuned.

Infinity Gauntlet #2
Story: Dustin Weaver & Gerry Duggan
Art: Dustin Weaver

Even on a world overrun by giant bugs, family is important. After last issue's harrowing escape from Annihilation bugs, series narrator Anwen has been reunited with her mother, Eve, and they have found the rest of their family. Not having time to mourn her grandfather, who gave his life to save her, Anwen is immediately given a Nova uniform and pressed into service by her mother, along with the rest of her family. I like that, despite being overjoyed that they're together again, Menzin, Anwen's dad, doesn't immediately think this is a good idea, giving his daughters suits of alien armor and preparing to fight the bugs. Of course, with how dangerous the world is, it winds up having to be that way, and Fayne, Anwen's little sister, and their dog Zigzag, also get Nova uniforms and are ready as the bugs attack. Things seem to be going badly until Eve finds out her daughter has found the Mind Stone (something I still have a hard time typing. They're the Infinity Gems to me and always will be), which she uses to wipe out the bugs that are attacking. It's clear that the war has had an impact on Eve, and that the stones are what she came back to Earth for. She's glad to have the one stone, but isn't as happy to find the Nova base has been destroyed and the Stone they already had is gone from the Nova Gauntlet. Here's one of those things that has become sort of canon in recent years and I want to address. There's a good explanation as to why a Nova Gauntlet needed to be created to harness the gems for a normal mortal, but I find it odd that many recent writers make the Infinity Gauntlet an artifact of its own, when it was originally just the glove Thanos was wearing as he gathered the gems. Back to the actual issue, with the main story of the family over for the issue, we get to see the other players in this cosmic drama. We see who stole the Stone, and it's not Thanos. It's Star-Lord and Gamora, both of whom are considerably more mercenary than we are used to seeing them. And after a jump into the future where we see Thanos fighting Anwen, we return to the present with the future Thanos to see him meet his present self, and Thanos learns the last person you should trust is Thanos, even if that's you. Infinity Gauntlet continues to be a well rendered character piece, sort of a cosmic Walking Dead, with gorgeous art from Dustin Weaver. This issue starts moving the plot out of just a family drama into something more cosmic, and I hope that the character driven aspect doesn't get lost as the cosmic amps up.

Where Monsters Dwell #2
Story: Garth Ennis
Art: Russel Braun

You know that story where two very different people come together in hardship and find some common ground to succeed? The modern version of which comes from the novel/movie The African Queen and is a plot device done a million times in mainstream comics? Yeah, this doesn't seem to be shaping up to be that. Stuck together in a land that time forgot, Where Monsters Dwell protagonists airman Karl Kaufmann (The Phantom Eagle) and lady who I'm pretty sure is a spy or secret agent of some kind Clementine Franklin-Cox hate each other. HATE. And for good reason. Kaufmann is a sleaze. Not a Han Solo charming rogue, but an honest to God crappy person. He flat out says he came back from war expecting people to worship him, but women who didn't drop to their knees to do that him make sick. And when he propositions Clementine and she spurns him, he says that if things got complicated, she could always get an abortion. Garth Ennis tends to write characters in moral shades of grey to pitch black, with little to no white, and boy howdy if he wants us to hope the dinosaurs eat Kaufmann, he's succeeding. I can't say Ennis is failing at characterization, because we see Kaufmann as exactly what he is. I do want to know more Clementine, as I'm still not exactly sure what her game is. Last issue, I thought she planned to go to this dinosaur land, but it's now clear she didn't, so I'm not sure what her deal is. I do have to say, though, that Russel Braun is the star of this show. Between his drawings of natives, of the jungles, of crocodiles, and of dinosaurs (particularly a gorgeous T-Rex devouring said natives), you are completely drawn into this world. And as with the previous issue, there is no indication whatsoever that this takes place on Battleworld or has anything to do with Secret Wars, so if you're feeling a little Battleworld fatigue, this might be a place to stop by and rest before re-entering a world of Doom.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 6/24

The Fade Out #7
Story: Ed Brubaker
Art: Sean Phillips

As readers get deeper into Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips's filmland noir, The Fade Out, they see that every player in the series is haunted by something. Most of the issue is actually taken up by the romantic and sexual romp of the series protagonist, screenwriter Charlie Parrish, and Maya Silver, the starlet who replaced the murdered Valeria Sommers. But even as the two of them dance and have sex at a beach house away from all the pressures of Hollywood, that world doesn't release them. A particular physical trait of Maya's causes Charlie to ask a question that once again brings to mind Val and the suspicions he has about the hedonism of the head of the studio he's working for and exactly how much that might play into Val's murder. And when they're called back to the city early, Charlie gets himself immediately sloshed and into a fist fight with another writer who attacks him for naming names and getting his old partner, Gil, blacklisted. Charlie is haunted by Val's death and his own writer's block, by the corruption of the world around him. And when he goes to clean up after getting beaten down, he finally has a conversation with the man he remembers seeing the night of Val's death, who identifies himself as Drake Miller from the studio, who clearly knows that Charlie is a front for Gil's writing. Charlie knows the threat for what it is, that being outed as a front is suicide in Hollywood at this time, and still does nothing. This paralysis of action is Charlie's defining character trait and flaw, and clearly is connected with his wartime experiences in Germany. The issue also has us drop in on PR girl Dottie and Tyler Graves, the closeted gay James Dean analogue, forwarding their plots, but it's really Charlie and Maya's issue. We do get a little more about Maya and exactly what she went through to get her job on this movie. Brubaker doesn't forward the plot of the series as much as the character, although the final scene with Miller and the note he slips to Charlie are clearly important, something he's done with various issues of his earlier series as well. Phillips balances both the lovely beach scenes with the deeper darks of the bedroom scenes, which are not graphic but sexual. The Fade Out, more than any of Brubaker and Phillips previous series, is a slow burn, piecing out its information slowly while bathing us in atmosphere. I'm wondering if there were clues in this issue that will come back around to be more important later. Oh, and if you've been enjoying Devin Feraci's essays on Hollywood of days gone by that accompany each issue, you should check out You Must Remember This, an excellent podcast about the history of Hollywood in the 20th century.

Gotham By Midnight #6
Story: Ray Fawkes
Art: Juan Ferreyra

After the two month Convergence hiatus, Gotham By Midnight returns with its strongest issue to date, thanks in no small part to new series artist Juan Ferreyra. Ben Templesmith did a good job on the first arc, but I'm a huge fan of Ferreyra's from his work on Colder and Kiss Me, Satan and his talent for drawing the supernatural and the disquieting is well suited to Gotham City in general, and the macabre cases of the Midnight Shift in particular. The ghost haunting Powers Corp R&D is grotesque and shiver-inducing, exactly what I'd expect out of Ferreyra. The issue's story picks up shirtly after the conclusion of the previous arc, with the Midnight Shift attending the funeral of Sister Justine, who fell to help stop the Spectre from wiping out Gotham, and still under investigation by Sgt. Rook of Internal Affairs. After a tense argument about the powers of both Jim Corrigan as The Spectre and his partner, Lisa, Drake, who is part banshee, the two are sent to investigate the aforementioned haunting at Powers Corp. The story there is a tale we've heard before, of corporate greed run rampant, caring more for the bottom line than the human lives of those who work for it, but Fawkes infuses it with character, and makes you really want to slap around the unctuous Mark Jenner, whose corporate think and ultimatums led to the death of George Wooley, who haunts Jenner and Powers to get his justice, something the Spectre can understand. Meanwhile, Lt. Weaver spends time with Dr. Tarr, the Midnight Shift's resident scientist, who has taken Sister Justine's death the hardest, and who continues to investigate the black flowers from Slaughter Swamp, which take on an eerie turn. If that wasn't enough, the final page reintroduces one of my favorite DC characters, one who hasn't been seen since the universe reshuffling that was Flahspoint: Kate Spencer! Yes, the last character to bear the name Manhunter, the tough as nails superhero/attorney is back. Methinks this might mean a recommended reading for Manhunter is coming soon from this very blog, but for now I just want to thanks Ray Fawkes for bringing Kate back, and adding her to the cast of this comic.

The Shadow #100
Story & Art: Various listed below

I don't know exactly what math was used to determine that Dynamite was at issue one hundred of the comic featuring pulpdom's original masked vigilante, but however they got to the number, the celebrated it with an impressive prestige format anthology collecting six stories of The Shadow.

Story 1: "The Laughing Corpse," written and illustrated by Francesco Francavilla, is the story of the Shadow following leads as prominent scientists are dying with their bodies contorted and  with grotesque smiles on their faces. No, it's not a crossover with another famous masked avenger (that's for later), but a story of revenge with Francavilla's usual style and grace, with gorgeous layouts an tons of atmosphere.

Story 2: Writer Victor Gischler and artist Stephen B. Scott's story deals with members of the card club frequented by the Shadow's alter ego of Lamont Cranston being robbed and killed. It's the most detective oriented story in the collection, although the reader is on on what's going on from the beginning.

Story 3: "Black and White and Red All Over" by writer/artist Howard Chaykin, who has quite a history with the Shadow, deals with The Shadow dealing with an old friend of his from World War I who is now a published of this new fad, comic books. We get a tale right out of the early days of comics, with gangsters and unscrupulous businessmen. And the final page shows an incensed Margo Lane, the Shadow's female companion, irked that the same crooks who bought out Shadow's old friend are no publishing a Shadow comic, something the Shadow takes in stride. Less so in...

Story 4: Michael Uslan, best known for being the producer of the Burton Batman films but who has written some comics featuring both the caped crusader and The Shadow in the past, and artist Giovanni Timpano, tell a story with so much 30s charm and in jokes that I couldn't help but smile. After The Shadow saves a couple and their young son from being mugged (if it wasn't clear who they are to readers at the outset, there's a bit with pearls that seal the deal), the Shadow slips off to tell off the guy who's voicing a radio version of his, something the Shadow does not approve of. If you know anything about the classic Shadow radio show, you know who this is, and Timpano captures the actor's look perfectly, and the final page mentions of Hearst and Rosebud  again make it clear what famous actor the Shadow has set on a course to make his masterpiece

Story 5: Left out of the credits at the beginning of the comic, the back cover told me this story, of a criminal watching as the Shadow takes apart the underworld, comes from Chris Roberson and artist Ivan Rodriguez. This story feels like it follows in the footsteps of some of the best Will Eisner Spirit stories, where the Spirit, or in this case The Shadow, serves as more a plot device, letting us get into the head of a denizen of the city, in this case a crook with a sense of honor who the Shadow seeks to add to his collection of agents.

Story 6: The collection is rounded out by " The Curse of Blackbeard's Skull" a prose story with accompanying illustrations by Matt Wagner. The format, similar to that of the pulps where the Shadow comes from, makes it an excellent choice to end the anthology, and Wagner knows the Shadow. A story of rich men dying after possessing the cursed skull turns into a story of greed and avarice.

If you've never read a story of The Shadow before, or only know him vaguely, this is a great place to first read him, as it will give you a good feel for the character and his world.

We Are Robin #1
Story: Lee Bermejo
Art: Jorge Corona & Rob Haynes

The final major issue one of this month from DC is We Are Robin, where the idea of Robin, of a teenager doing something to protect Gotham from the crime that infests it, has reached a point where it has become a movement. But we only get hints of that this issue. The main focus of this issue is Duke Thomas, who will be the series point of view character. For those of you who haven't read Duke's earlier appearances, he has popped up a couple times in Scott Snyder's run on Batman, most recently in "Endgame," where the Joker used Duke and his parents as bait for Batman. This issue opens with Duke in foster care, as his parents are among the missing after the Joker's rampage. His case worker is long time Batman supporting cast member Leslie Thompkins, who has popped up intermittently and inconsistently since the reboot, and writer Lee Bermejo captures her in a way that makes me hope she is a regular supporting cast member in the book. As for Duke, one issue in and I love him. He's likable, clever, with a bit of an attitude, but he's not written to be a stereotypical street kid in any way. He's already well rounded by Bermejo just by drawing on his few appearances in Batman and what Bermejo does in this one issue. Looking for his missing parents, Duke goes into Gotham Underground and comes across a plan to blow up Gotham City proper. And when he's in trouble, that's when the Robins show up. Someone has been directing them to Duke, and we don't exactly know who that is or what their agenda is, but the final pages indicate someone with some resources is backing up the Robins.Jorge Corona, drawing off breakdowns by Rob Haynes, provides art removed from the DC house style, but with a lot of energy, appropriate for a book that is going to be populated by young, acrobatic characters. With mainstream superhero comics' recent push for greater diversity, a book featuring a young African-American lead and a group that looks to cross every possible societal group is a smart choice for the less than diverse recent DC Universe, but Duke is presented as a character first here, and that's the key to a solid character and title, something this first issue of We Are Robin sets up well.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Random Link Friday

I had a couple plans for this week's recommended reading, but I haven't had time to do my standard research, and I think the timing isn't right now, so instead I'm just tossing out a few links that I think you might all might enjoy.

- I think I've brought it up before here as well as on Facebook, but in case I haven't, I've also been writing reviews for Graphic Novel Reporter. I've gotten three up so far, Bone Vol.1: Tribute Edition, Twisted Dark Vol.1, and Exquisite Corpse. Check them out, and keep your eye out, because there will be two more of my reviews popping up in a short while, Louise Brooks: Detective and The League of Regrettable Superheroes. And once you've read my reviews, poke around on the site and read some others. These are smart, great people writing.

- I'm a big fan of Adventure Time, the fantasy/sci-fi/coming-of-age/everything-including the kitchen sink animated series from Cartoon Network. And I'm a big fan of podcasts. Last week, a new podcast dedicated to Adventure Time started on the Infinite Guest network, called Conversation Parade. Hosted by John Moe, comedian and host of the comedy/music variety show Wits (look it up, seriously. Neil Gaiman has been a repeat guest, and they did a phenomenal crossover with The Thrilling Adventure Hour), and Open Mike Eagle, rapper and Wits regular guest, there are only two episodes up, so you don't have a lot of catching up to do. The first episode has the hosts discussing the fraternal relationship between Finn and Jake, and an interview with the voice of Jake, John DiMaggio (who has also voiced Bender on Futurama, The Joker in Batman: Under the Red Hood, and more other parts than I can name readily). The second discusses the Enchiridion and the Ice King's crown as well as the Earl of Lemongrab, and has an interview with co-executive producer Adam Muto. It's a wonderful, thoughtful look at what might be the deepest and most insane cartoon on television right now.

- Atomic Robo is back! Well, sort of. New material is now popping up on AtomicRobo.com. It's just, none of it features Robo yet. We're building towards Robo's big return after the events of his time travel adventure in Knights of the Golden Circle. Here's the link to the beginning of the new material, so check it out and keep reading for regular doses of new Robo, which is a highlight for any day.

- I've been playing a lot of RPGs with my bi-weekly gaming group lately. I'm currently running a Dresden Files RPG campaign that I can't say too much about, since some of my players read this and I don't want to spoil my Machiavellian plans by giving away too much. And the Kickstarter for an RPG based on the excellent weird Western comic The Sixth Gun closed yesterday, and I'm pretty sure I'll be playing that one once my copies arrive. I love RPGs, as they allow you to immerse yourself in a character and world in an interactive manner. I've run games and played as well, and it's all just a ton of fun.

- And don't forget, The Matt Signal's own Dan Grote is currently writing The Press of Atlantic City's pop culture blog, Wednesday Morning Quarterback. Always worth a check Wednesday morning.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Does a Mall Babe Eat Chili Fries? 10 Best Episodes/Stories of the 1990s X-Men Cartoon

This week marks the print debut of X-Men ’92, a digital-first Secret Wars series by writers Chris Sims and Chad Bowers and artist Scott Koblish based on the Fox Saturday morning cartoon that ran from 1992-97. I’ve written about the glory that is that cartoon before, as has Sims, but as I’ll never pass up an opportunity to talk about one of the seminal shows of my teen years, here’s a look at some of its best work:

A caveat before we begin: I have a soft spot in my heart for the kitchen sink episodes that feature multiple guest stars. And time travel. And Apocalypse. Also I’m going to cheat and write up multiparters as one episode each.

“Night of the Sentinels” (two-parter, Season 1, episodes 1-2): Seriously, does a mall babe eat chili fries? When X-fans of a Certain Age remember Jubilee, this is the Jubilee they remember, the one with the yellow trench coat and the past-its-prime Valley Girl speak, getting chased down by Sentinels. The two-parter that opens the series is also notable for introducing a brand-new X-man, Morph, just to kill him off immediately (he gets better), imprisoning Beast for an entire season, Cyclops making a “not” joke and a scene in which the president of the United States power-walks on a treadmill in the Oval Office while dressing down Henry Peter Gyrich.

“Slave Island” (Season 1, episode 7): “Who are you?” “The Wild Man of Borneo.” The time-traveling, gun-toting, shoulder pad-embiggening Cable introduces himself on the island of Genosha by making a reference I was too young to get at 12. Not to mention, if Cable’s from the far future, should HE even get that reference?

“The Cure” (Season 1, episode 9): This episode introduces several major X-villains, including Apocalypse, Mystique, Pyro and Avalanche. The latter two, who will return along with Blob as Mystique’s Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, get a lot of play as a pair of violent but somewhat bumbling henchmen, and their comedic timing is made evident from jump.

“Days of Future Past” (two-parter, Season 1, episodes 11-12): This two-piece kills two birds with one stone, adapting a Chris Claremont/John Byrne classic (not the first time they’ll go to that refreshing well) and introducing the best mullet in time travel, Bishop, who comes complete with his own harmonica music. In this version, Bish comes back in time to stop the assassination of Sen. Robert Kelly by the traitor Gambit (attempted assassin not actually Gambit).

“Time Fugitives” (2-parter, Season 2, episodes 7 and 8): What’s better than one overly muscled time traveler with a ridiculous laser gun? TWO overly muscled time travelers with ridiculous laser guns! Bishop and Cable come to the present from two different points in the future to wrestle over Apocalypse and a virus that wracks mankind. Craziest thing that happens: A change in the timestream creates lightning tornadoes in Cable’s future and makes his son, Tyler, disappear.

“Mojovision” (Season 2, episode 11): No X-Men series would be complete without a visit to the Mojoverse. Because a morbidly obese, spineless extradimensional being obsessed with television is the perfect baddie for a Saturday morning cartoon.

“The Phoenix Saga” (5-parter, Season 3, episodes 3-7): Most of the Season 3 is dedicated to revisiting the Golden Age of the Claremont run, which means lots and lots of Phoenix stuff. These five episodes re-create classic moments with the Phoenix Force, the Shi’ar, Erik the Red, Juggernaut and Black Tom Cassidy, Banshee, the Starjammers and, best of all, Super Doctor Astronaut Peter Corbeau.

“The Dark Phoenix Saga” (4-parter, Season 3, episodes 11 to 14): The show peaked with this mostly faithful retelling of the classic 1980 Claremont/Byrne story, hitting all the major points, from the Hellfire Club to Jason Wyngarde’s mental manipulations of Jean Grey to the first appearances of Dazzler and Kitty Pryde. While the arc concludes in a way that is more network BS&P-friendly than the original (Jean is saved by sharing the “life forces” of the other X-Men as opposed to, you know, dying), it still laid the groundwork for future adaptations of X-stories outside the comics (and was better than X-Men: The Last Stand).

“One Man’s Worth” (2-parter, Season 4, episodes 1-2): That’s right, kids, more time travel! In a story that could have only been told in the ’90s and after Back to the Future II, Trevor Fitzroy travels back to 1959 to kill Professor Xavier, creating an alternate dystopian timeline in which Magneto leads the X-Men and Wolverine and Storm are married. Bishop, his sister Shard, Storm and Wolverine then go to the future to convince Forge to let them use his time machine so they can go back and stop Fitzroy in the past. Then Marty goes to the Old West to rescue Doc Brown, only to find out he doesn’t want to be saved because he’s fallen in love with Mary Steenburgen. And another Tannen falls for the old manure trap.

“Beyond Good and Evil” (4-parter, Season 4, episodes 8-11): Because this cartoon made Apocalypse my favorite X-Men villain, I might have been more excited about this arc than I was about the Dark Phoenix retelling, despite my earlier statement about the show having peaked in Season 3. Apoc kidnaps a number of psychics, including Professor X, Jean Grey and Psylocke, as part of his latest quest for global domination. His actions are undone by the X-Men and Cable, as well as Bishop, who finds himself stuck in a place called the Axis of Time with a quirky janitor who turns out to be the Avengers villain Immortus. “Beyond Good and Evil” was originally supposed to be the end of the series, until Fox ordered more episodes. And so after this, the animation style changes and we got wrong-sounding Gambit.

In addition to writing for The Matt Signal, Dan Grote is now the official comics blogger for The Press of Atlantic City. New posts appear Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com/Life. His new novel, Magic Pier, is available however you get your books online. He and Matt have been friends since the days when Onslaught was just a glimmer in Charles Xavier's eye. Follow @danielpgrote on Twitter.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Greetings from Battleworld: Secret Wars Week 7

Thors #1
Story: Jason Aaron
Art: Chris Sprouse, Karl Story and Marte Gracia

In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate but equally important groups: the Thors who investigate crime, and the Sheriff of Agamotto who prosecutes the offenders. These are their stories.


Who would’ve thought a bunch of blond guys flying around with hammers and battle armor would make for a great police procedural?

Thors has all the elements of a great cop show: Partner protagonists whom the other cops find unorthodox, a murder of the week, fellow officers who stand around making snarky comments and bragging about their records, a drunk racist cop, a rookie who barfs at the scene of his first homicide, an angry captain who wants results, dammit, a forensics (Thorensics?) nerd, primetime network TV levels of swearing, etc.

It’s also got random Ghost Rider attacks and a Groot-Thor that says only “I am Thor” and has a cape made of leaves, in perhaps my favorite bit of stunt-casting in this book. And while all the characters speak in Marvel’s Official Thor Font, their dialogue could have come right out of any episode of “Law & Order” or “NYPD Blue.”

The central Thors in this book are Thorlief Golmen, the Thor of the Ultimate Universe, whom the other Thors have derisively nicknamed “The Ultimate Thor” for his ability to get stuck with cases none of the other Thors wants, and Beta Ray Thor, the one with the horse face. True to form, the two get stuck with the latest “Allthing” – a bizarre case that must be solved immediately to avoid the wrath of God Emperor Doom. Describing the Allthing would give too much away, but suffice it to say it’s a case that could only exist on a planet in which multiple realities and times exist simultaneously.

Rounding out the cast are Odin as the lawspeaker (angry captain), Frog Thor (Throg) as the forensics guy, and Groot, Storm and the Destroyer, among others, as fellow officers. And, of course, keep your eyes peeled for cameos.

Serious kudos to writer Jason Aaron, who since 2012 has continued to find new ways to play with the god of thunder, from telling a story across time to giving the hammer to Jane Foster to turning the Worthy into a multiversal peacekeeping force. And to artist Chris Sprouse for making sure each Thor is distinguishable from the next.

Also, whether intended or not, this book makes me want to rewatch one of my favorite episodes of Community, season 3’s “Advanced Lupine Urology.”


Deadpool’s Secret Secret Wars #2
Story: Cullen Bunn
Art: Matteo Lolli and Ruth Redmond

Wade Wilson’s heretofore untold adventures in the original Secret Wars continue with an explanation of why our sometimes-hero looks like the protagonist of a Hal Needham movie, a series of flashbacks told to the Lizard and the introduction of a love story.

A major part of the plot of this issue is the lenticular shields that were packaged with the action figures that were essentially the driving force of Jim Shooter and Mike Zeck’s original series. Deadpool finds a whole mess of them amid a fight with Spider-Man and takes one for himself, then brags about his cool new weapon to the other heroes until Reed Richards dismantles it to save them after the Molecule Man traps them in a mountain.

I’m enjoying the nonlinear nature of the book, as the constant flashing forward and back keeps the plot – most of which was pre-existing – from being completely predictable. It helps that this is a four-issue miniseries as opposed to the original 12, which forces tighter writing and limits the original’s major plot points to a highlight reel. It’s also always fun to revisit classic superhero fashions, such as Storm’s Mohawk or Cyclops’ plain blue spandex togs.

Speaking of which, art for next issue teases Deadpool in Spider-Man’s black costume. Maybe it’s a feint, maybe it’s not. Either way, I’m 99.9 percent certain hijinks will ensue. See ya there!

Ms. Marvel #16
Story: G. Willow Wilson
Art: Adrian Alphona

While the various Secret Wars tie-ins take place on the hodgepodge planet of Battleworld, the "Last Days" tie-ins follow heroes and villains as the last two Earths prepare to crash into each other. Kamala Khan, Ms. Marvel, starts the story out still mourning the fact that her crush, fellow Pakistani Inhuman Kamran, turned out to be a villain to a hot dog vendor. But as she sees people charging out of New York City into her own native Jersey City, Kamala heads to NYC where she sees the other Earth coming. I hadn't realized that you could only see the point of incursion from New York before, and I might have missed it, but it's a nice touch. But just because things are only visible from New York, doesn't mean there isn't chaos across the river. So, Kamala starts out by getting people to head to her school, which has been reinforced to deal with robot attacks and is protected by "hipster viking magic," which credit where credit is due, is pretty cool. I love that new-Loki is being called a hipster Viking, by the way; it makes me smile. But when Kamala heads home to get her family, she finds Kamran there and her brother gone, paying off the hint from last issue that another Khan might be an Inhuman. We've seen Kamala with her friends in danger before, sure, but this is different. This is family. This is classic Marvel hero tropes, like Spider-Man having to fight the Green Goblin, who knows he's Peter Parker. It's a test, and Kamala does what she knows is right, which is make sure everything is settled and safe at the school before doing what she has to for her family. It's a testament to her strength that she doesn't give in and abandon her responsibility. The final page of the issue sets up the meeting that readers have been waiting for since issue one. Even if the world is ending it's an exciting time for Ms. Marvel fans.

Runaways #1
Story: Noelle Stevenson
Art: Sanford Greene

Only on Battleworld could you find a school more prone to get you killed than Xavier's, the Victor Von Doom Institute for Gifted Youths. Runaways is the story of The Breakfast Club of Battleworld, a bunch of kids who are part of a program to find the best and brightest who are all rebellious. It's an interesting combination of characters, from various eras of young heroes from the 90s to the past few years. I was most excited to see Amadeus Cho and the Delphyne Gorgon from The Incredible Hercules pop up, but it's also nice to see Molly Hayes from the original Runaways there as well. Readers are treated to a lot of teen bickering and fighting mixed in with the kind of things you'd expect to see at a school dedicated to Doom: end of years finals the end in expulsion if you and a team don't win at some sort of elaborate test. It's a fun comic, with these different characters playing off each other. I like that Skaar, son of Hulk, becomes Amadeus Cho's bodyguard and buddy, fitting well with Cho's usual m.o. of palling around with someone physically bigger than him. The identity and power inverted version of Cloak & Dagger are also a nice touch. And introducing a new character in the middle of it, Sanna Strand, Frostbite, makes me wonder if she's going to be a new important character after Secret Wars ends, or if she's cannon fodder. And I love that tough Jubilee has a girl gang right out of a 90s movie, the include the Gorgon and Jubilee's best friend/ex Pixie. All these characters, in detention after a fight between Frostbite and Jubilee, wind up on a team for the final exam. Noelle Stevenson is so good at inverting tropes in Lumberjanes, I'm sure there is more than the typical teen movie set up of a bunch of different people must work together and learn that they're not all that different, especially as we see the headmistress of the school and her right hand hall monitor, Bucky Barnes the Winter Soldier, have it out for the Runaways (a title never used in the comic). I don't think Molly Ringwald ever faced someone trying to kill her in a John Hughes movie, so I can only expect more action and excitement as the kids try to make it out; I hope they curvive the experience. 

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 6/17

Black Canary #1
Story: Brenden Fletcher
Art: Annie Wu

Brenden Fletcher flies solo this week with the debut of his new Black Canary series (yes, I went there with that pun). Black Canary has left Gotham and her regular super-heroing behind to tour with the band called, well Black Canary. Now know as the lead singer, DD (that's Dinah Drake), is doing her best to get her life back together, but her penchant for heroism and kicking butt is getting in the way; when you keep wrecking the club you're playing, you're not making a ton of money. We get to meet each of the members of the band: Lord Byron on drums, who seems the member working hardest to keep the band together; Paloma Terrific, who maintains an animosity to Dinah that isn't even veiled; and the mysteriously silent Ditto on guitar, a child prodigy who never speaks. After another disastrous outing, Dinah promises to not start a brawl, but when black oily demon things attack, that goes out the window. But the hook is this: they're not after Dinah, but another member of the band. It's a great set-up, and one issue in I already like the band, and there are interesting mysteries to solve. I also love connectivity in my superhero universes without it feeling like you need to read every book, and this book does a great job of tying in with Fletcher's other two books. Obviously, Black Canary and her band spin out of the first arc of the new Batgirl title, but I was pleasantly to see that the band's manager is Heathcliff from Gotham Academy. I've been impressed with how well Fletcher matches his books with the artists he's working with, and it feels like Annie Wu was made to draw this book. Her kinetic style works well with Dinah's martial arts and fighting, and the whole style feels like it fits with CD and poster art from the kind of band that plays the clubs that we're seeing. It's a great package and another win for DC in trying to do books that don't feel like they're all the same. Black Canary is vibrant, different, and exciting, with a good blend of super heroes and the life of a band on the road.

Ghostbusters: Get Real #1
Story: Erik Burnham
Art: Dan Schoening

Dan Grote wrote a piece a couple weeks ago about accepting change in our favorite properties. And I think outside comics, one of the examples or this is the upcoming female led reboot of Ghostbusters. Let's give it a shot, people! But before any of that starts up, we still have IDW releasing comics featuring the original Ghostbusters, and this time they're teaming up with the other greatest team of ghost fighters ever: The Real Ghostbusters! Yes, it's like a classic JLA/JSA crossover, where the Flashes and Green Lanterns of two worlds must meet, only better because it's the Egons of two worlds! The Greek god Proteus has decided he wants to get rid of the Real Ghostbusters before they can trap him (no comment on how the arrogant god isn't even on their radar; he's just that full of himself), but the help of a friendly witch's spell interacts with Proteus's and sends the Real team into the regular Ghostbusters world. And after interacting with the Slimer of that world, they realize something is very wrong just as the Ghostbusters show up. Firmly established as in the same continuity as the previous series and TMNT/Ghostbusters team-up mini, the Ghostbusters are familiar with alternate dimensions, and so it looks like things will work out fine, but a job comes up and Proteus is still out there, so I'm sure the boys have much more to deal with on the horizon. I've written plenty about the creative team of Erik Burnham and Dan Schoening, who have been the principle creators on two Ghostbusters ongoing, plus various minis and specials.so it goes without saying they know these characters inside and out. It's Schoening who blew me away this issue, with his ability to not only ape the style of the classic Real Ghostbusters cartoon, but to blend it seamlessly with his own style; it gives me flashbacks to Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, with two worlds that shouldn't interact working perfectly side by side. Oh, and kudos to Burnham for the callback of Janine mistaking Real Egon for her ex-boyfriend Roger, who's hair and looks were based on Real Egon; it's a little nod that rewards people who have been reading all this. Real Ghostbusters is one of the best cartoons of the 80s when it comes to plot and story, and so it makes sense it would work this well when interacting in a modern setting, and teaming these versions of the characters up with their movie versions works like a charm.

Lumberjanes #15
Story: Noelle Stevenson & Shannon Watters
Art: Brooke Allen

There's a lot going on in this issue of Lumberjanes, with wolf monsters, traps, and teases of mysterious secrets and the past of camp director Rosie.  But for me, the star of the issue is Jen, the cabin councilor for our usual cast. I want to talk about our Lumberjanes and their adventures before I deep dive into what's happening with Jen. The ladies of Roanoke Cabin are loyally travelling through the woods with Barnes, their friend from the boy's camp, searching for Jen, despite encountering the mysterious blizzard and the woods' usual array of monsters. Again, I can't stress enough how important the theme of friendship is in Lumberjanes, and how these girls would sacrifice anything for each other, and that includes the often flustered and frustrated Jen. But Jo is getting jealous of Barnes and how he's getting in the middle of her friendship with April. This isn't uncommon when a new person comes into a group dynamic, but Jo is freezing out Barnes as best she can. More than that, she is beginning to wonder exactly what is going on in Lumberjanes camp, that they are neither learning survival skills nor what is going on in the woods. But while Jo is a little bothered by this, it's the crux of what's going on with Jen at the cabin of the mysterious Abigail. I might be one of few people who would say this, but Jen is probably my favorite character in the book. She's responsible, she's flustered by all the weirdness, she does her best to keep to the rules; so basically how I would act in these situations. But she's also loyal to her campers and willing to do what it takes to protect them, which makes her all the more impressive. But after being told she was abandoned, and seeing the comforts, of and the library in, Abigail's cabin, it would be easy for her to decide to not go back. But she's still loyal. They're still "her girls" and she still needs to do what she feels she needs to. And I love that. More, though, when Rosie arrives and we see the confrontation between her and Abigail, we see exactly what has been going on with Jen. She's fed up with the secrets, with Rosie not telling the Lumberjanes what is really going in. The scene where Jen and Rosie are in Abigail's trap and Jen lets loose all these feelings is one of the best character scenes in any issue of Lumberjanes. But with Lumberjanes, there's not just the personal stakes but the supernatural stakes, and it looks like whatever Abigail is up to is going to lead to some major action next issue, and as ever the book finds its balance perfectly.

Secret Six #3
Story: Gail Simone
Art: Dale Eaglesham

Oh, what a difference an artist can make. The first couple issues of the new Secret Six, as enjoyable as the story was, were marred by multiple artists that muddied the waters. But this issue sees new regular artist, and artist on the mini-series Villains United that introduced Gail Simone's original version of the six, Dale Eaglesham, and it lets me feel like I know the characters. He already has a great feel for each of these oddballs. I've been a fan of Eaglesham since he worked on chapters of "No Man's Land" back in 1999, and his art still grabs me to this day. This issue juxtaposes the complete cast of lunatics with the suburban normalcy of Big Shot's house and neighborhood, and it's a thing of beauty. These characters are all severely broken, and they just stick out like sore thumbs. I like that Catman still has this sense of honor, as shown by defending a dog, something he hates, from a human who beats it, something he hates more. It's also nice to see him being kind to Strix, showing he isn't quite the sociopath as, say, Ventriloquist, who remains this volume's Ragdoll, the character you never know what they'll say. But the moments that really got me this issue were the ones with Big Shot and Black Alice. We see a tenderness that Big Shot has for the girl, something that made me perplexed how he wound up grouped with the rest of the lunatics that comprise the Six. And as we see more of Alice's background in the new world, she grows in sympathy too. I was happy to see this, and the fact that the group binds as a team for the balance of the issue. But it's the last page that knocked me over. Because we find out Big Shot's real name, and it's a name I've been waiting for since the advent of the New 52. What he says to Black Alice earlier about the wife he lost, makes so much sense now, and tears my heart a little. But I wonder if she's gone, or if her not being there has something to do with Mockingbird, whose identity is also revealed. It's another shocking reveal, but one that makes a lot of sense, especially in relation to that characters current disposition in the DCU. I don't want to spoil the twists, but they're satisfying and going to keep me guessing until next issue.

Stumptown #6
Story: Greg Rucka
Art: Justin Greenwood

Stumptown's back! The best dang P.I. comic I've ever read returns with a new case, and a different one than we're used to seeing Dex Parios involved in. Instead of searching for missing girls or guitars, or investigating who beat her friend, this time Dex has a simple job: pick up three pounds of coffee. The fact that it's designer Kopi Lawak coffee, unique in the world, designed by a brewmaster named Patrick Weekes, and worth twenty-five large, well that's icing on the cake. Almost immediately, things take a turn for the Hammett & Chandler when Mr. Dove, a creepy guy in white, shows up with a cell phone and ten gold coins, and his boos tells Dex over the phone that he will pay her twenty thousand dollars for a sample of the coffee, half of it in these coins now, and the other half when she delivers. And even more guys trail her when she picks it up! This is some desirable coffee, and Dex still has it by issue's end. But in Stumptown, the mystery is only half the story, as Dex is a character with a rich life outside of her casework.  Still on the outs with Grey, her neighbor, Dex picks up her brother Ansel from work only to find her seemingly wayward, and previously unknown, sister, Fuji, waiting at her apartment, let in by Grey. It's clear that the two sisters have certain problems, as Fuji seems more free-spirited, and Dex is annoyed by her popping up unannounced. Greg Rucka has done an excellent job fleshing out the world around Dex, letting you understand the personal stakes as well as the professional ones, and so each new character adds another layer. While I liked Justin Greenwood's art on the last arc, this issue seems even stronger, looking really clean and crisp, with some great character work on Dex as she's confronted with these new mysteries and hurdles. I'm sure things won't go as smoothly for Dex next issue as they did in this one because things never stay quiet for her for long, and it wouldn't be interesting if they did.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Animated Discussions: Tom & Jerry: Spy Quest

Comics and animation fans love odd mash-ups; Dark Horse's current mash-up of Archie Vs. Predator attests to that. So when I got a preview copy of a direct-to-DVD feature from Warner Home Video called Tom and Jerry: Spy Quest, that teams animation's original cat and mouse duo, Tom and Jerry, with Jonny Quest and his family, I was both curious and a bit dubious, as these crossovers can go horribly wrong. Fortunately, this one works pretty well.

What starts out as a normal Tom and Jerry cartoon with Tom and Jerry on the beach quickly turns into something more as Tom's hijinks makes the pair bump into Jonny Quest, his best friend Hadji, and his dog Bandit. Robots attack, and Jonny takes in Tom and Jerry. Quickly it's revealed that the robots are actually cats in armor working for Dr. Zin, arch foe of the Quest family, and when Zin's cats are able to infiltrate the Quest's home (thanks to Tom turning off the security systems to get a snack) and kidnap Dr. Quest, Jonny's father, and their bodyguard Race Bannon, along with Quest's new invention, the Q-Sphere, it's up to Jonny, Hadji, Tom, Jerry, and Bandit to save the day.

The movie does a good job of balancing the tropes of both of its characters. While many scenes are high action, with Jonny and Hadji in real peril, or Race fighting actual robots, and an elaborate evil plan by Dr. Zin, this is balanced by typical Tom and Jerry antics. One particular bit of shtick has Tom completely panic and freak out at the sound of any dog barking, usually to some catastrophic consequence that coincidentally interferes with Dr. Zin's machinations. This leads to a sort of classic spy comedy trope, that the cowardly Tom is thought of as a deadly threat by the villains, despite never intentionally doing anything.

The movie does embrace fully the Jonny Quest world of mysterious spies and foreign countries, so there are a couple of moments that seem out of another era. The country of Moldovistan, where Dr. Zin has his base, has snake charmers, evil spies in fezzes, belly dancers, and bazaars, seeming like something out of the less enlightened moments of the old cartoon. It does avoid most of the worst of this though, meaning that the principal characters of color aren't straight up stereotypes. While Hadji usually was presented as well rounded, even in the older episodes, the classic Dr. Zin was a typical Yellow Peril character. Here, his posture and manner is not stereotypical, and legendary character actor James Hong provides my favorite performance in the movie. A very funny exchange between Zin and Dr. Quest is steps away from being one between The Venture Bros. Dr. Venture and his nemesis, The Monarch, and while Zin's origin as he tells it melds that of Dr. Doom and Lex Luthor (a great bit for the in the know comic geek), his monologuing and back story spouting more resembles Dr. Doofenschmirts of Phineas & Ferb.

There are also tons of nods to both of the classic shows. Tom's dog nemesis, Spike, and his son pop up the opening scene. And when Jonny and Hadji need help in Moldovistan, they go to Jezebel Jade, Race's old flame, and a minor recurring character from the classic show, who happens to own a club right out of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.  Jade's right hand man... er dog id Droopy, the melancholy sounding Basset Hound from classic Hanna Barbera cartoons, who I've always had a soft spot for. It's things like this, along with a retro opening that adds Tom and Jerry into the classic Jonny Quest opening sequence, that stirs my geek heart.

But let's be honest, here: for all my analysis, this movie is geared towards kids, and that's who will enjoy it. There's tons of laughs and action. There are cool robots. For all of the thoughtful stuff, it's really just a fun action cartoon that you'll be able to sit and enjoy for 75 minutes with your kids. Tom and Jerry and The Adventures of Jonny Quest both have places in my childhood, and it's nice to know that this generation will have an in to enjoy them as well in Tom and Jerry: Spy Quest.

Oh, and as one final geek history p.s., the president of the United States is voiced by Tim Matheson, who says that Jonny reminds him of himself when he was that age. Matheson was the original Jonny Quest. I love that kind of stuff.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Recommended Reading for 6/19: American Born Chinese

It's funny how some of these pieces come together. I had originally planned to do a recommendation for The Shadow Hero, Gene Luen Yang and Sunny Liew's origin story for The Green Turtle, the first Asian American superhero, this week. I've wanted to write that book up for some time, but wanted to time it to coincide with the release of Gene Luen Yang's first issue of Superman (next Wednesday's issue 41). But last week, when I was researching Fun Home, I found out that while that book won Best Reality Based Work Eisner Award, it didn't win Best Graphic Album: New. I was curious to see what did win, and was surprised to see it was a Gene Luen Yang, American Born Chinese, which I had bought after reading The Shadow Hero and was on my shelf of "to be read soon" books. Well, with that in mind, I moved it to the head of the queue, and after reading it, decided it would be this week's piece. I'll get to Shadow Hero, don't get me wrong, but this was fresh in my mind.

American Born Chinese starts with three seemingly unrelated stories: Jin, a Chinese-American third grader, Danny, a Caucasian-American high school student, and The Monkey King, a character from a great Chinese Novel, Journey to the West. While at the beginning it seems the stories are just connected by their theme of identity, of wanting to be something that you were not before, as the book progresses, they begin to interconnect in plot as well, and by the end the fantastic world of Chinese gods and Monkey Kings meets the world of modern America head on.

Jin is a kid with not a lot of friends. He's one of very few Asian students in his school, and the white kids don't know, or care to know, the difference between, say Japanese and Chinese. But when Wei-Chen, a Taiwanese immigrant, arrives and joins his class, he and Jin become best friends. But still, Jin struggles over the next years. By seventh grade, he has a crush on Amelia, a cute little red haired girl in his class. He changes his hair, and does everything he can to ingratiate himself, but after their first date, Greg, a male friend of Amelia's, gives Jin, the nicest buzz off speech ever, saying Amelia needs to think about who she's friends with, more or less telling Jin that she shouldn't be seen with someone like him. He doesn't use any racial slurs, although many of the other kids in the class do, but there's the feeling that the more subtle racism might even be worse. But as things falls apart between Jin and Wei-Chen, the story ends with a touch of foreshadowed magic, a transformation beyond what a different hairstyle can do.

Danny's story is considerably broader and more stylized than the fairly realistic Jin story. It begins with a title card similar to that of a sitcom, and actually has a laugh and applause track running along the bottom of the panels.  Danny's story deals with a visit from his Chinese cousin, Chin-Kee. Yes, read that and/or say it out loud (in a room by yourself, not around people), and you'll see the direction this is going. Chin-Kee is every Asian stereotype rolled into one. He swaps "L" and "R" in his speech. He wears close out of a bad Boxer Rebellion History Channel special. His features are exaggerated. And when he goes to school with Danny, he embarrasses him at every turn. When I started reading the story, I imagined this was all in Danny's head, that we were seeing Chin-Kee as far worse than he actually is, that it was a statement on our own internal views of racism and the embarrassment we feel about the culture of others and ourselves. But there's an additional twist at the end, explaining how the very white Danny has the over-the-top Chinese cousin that is different than what I imagined when I started, and one that made me smile in how well plotted out the whole book is.

The final of the three stories, although it is technically the first you see in the book, is that of The Monkey King, and by it's nature is the most fantastic, unless some of you know talking, kung-fu master monkeys (and if you do, why haven't you introduced me to them?). The Monkey King wants to be taken seriously by the other gods after he is thrown out of a dinner party because he is a monkey. He learns to change his shape, and makes himself more human, but this is not enough, and the other gods laugh at him, so he beats them up. They petition Tze-Yo-Tzuh, the creator of the universe, who attempts to reason with the Monkey King, only for the King to be disrespectful again. He is trapped under a pile of rock for centuries then, and only when a monk comes to him and shows him humility and acceptance, does he revert to his normal form to escape.

Fitting in and identity are the core of this book. That's what makes it a wonderful book for teens and kids. Most every kid has been through a time where they feel left out, where they would do anything to be like everyone else. And many have faced some form of prejudice, whether it's because of race, religion, sexual identity, or simply because they look or act different. I know some people who would be uncomfortable having their kids read a book with ethnic slurs in it, but I think we need to face these kind of things head on. Words only have the power we give them, and discussing what they mean takes away that power.

The big reveals at the end of the book take everything that Yang built throughout the book and puts them in a different context. When it's revealed that Jin and Danny are one and the same, Jin somehow magically transformed into the average white kid he's wanted to be, we see that he is no different than the Monkey King at his worst, trying to be something he isn't. And when Chin-Kee turns out to be the Monkey King, there to act as Jin's conscience and make Jin realize that pretending to be someone he isn't won't make him happy. There's also one final reveal, about why the Monkey King noticed Jin, that I'm not going to talk about; I don't want to give everything away.

Yang's art is wonderful throughout the book, balancing nicely both the spectacular and the mundane. The vistas of heaven and the look of the Monkey King's home of Flower Fruit Mountain are wonderful, in the literal sense, full of wonderment. And I can think of very few artists who are working who can draw a better monkey, and I read anything I can that has monkeys. But it's in the faces Jin and his friends and family where the book moves to another level. There's an expressiveness and a truth in those looks that moved me. I am drawn to artists who draw faces that tell the story even without the words, and Yang is one of those artists. Also, when Danny and Chin-Kee have their climactic fight, it's one of the better fight sequences I've seen in recent memory; it maintains the continuity of the action while still being a humorous, cartoony fight scene.

Being yourself is one of the things that should be easiest in life, but in so many ways is one of the hardest. American Born Chinese finds a way to look at the questions of identity and culture in a way that is not only fresh, but accessible. It's charming and lovingly rendered. And in the end, what more can you ask from a book than a strong message, well wrought characters, and a monkey?

American Born Chinese, as well as Gene Luen Yang's other graphic novels including Boxers, Saints, The Shadow Hero (with artist Sunny Liew), and Dark Horse Comics continuing series of follow-ups to the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (with artist Gurihiru), are all available in comic shops and book stores. The first issue of his new project as writer of DC's regular Superman ongoing with art by John Romita Jr. comes out this Wednesday, June 24th.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

A Guide to Recognizing Your Thors

One of Battleworld’s more interesting aspects is that it is policed by a squadron of Thors, hammer-wielding Worthy-types whose weapons were forged in dying stars created – as far as they know – by God Emperor Doom. This toe-headed team of tough guys has its own Secret Wars series as of today, by Jason Aaron and Chris Sprouse. In honor of the new book, here’s a look at the few, the proud, the ones who’ve been able to lift mighty Mjolnir or one of its similarly crafted cousin-hammers.

The Odinson: The original Mjolnir-swinging, Goldilocksing, Loki-fighting, god-of-thundering Avenger. First appearance: Journey Into Mystery #83, August 1962.

Jane Foster: Not necessarily the current Thor, because the current Thor is many Thors, but the Thor pre- and post-Secret Wars (she was among the small crew that made it off Earth 616 in Reed Richards’ Raft). When the Odinson is rendered un-Worthy by original-recipe Nick Fury during last year’s Original Sin crossover, his cancer-stricken ex gives Mjolnir a whirl. First appearance: Journey Into Mystery #84, September 1962. First appearance as Thor: Thor #1, October 2014.

Beta Ray Bill: aka Bojack Norseman (joke credit: Al Kennedy of the House to Astonish podcast). A horse-faced alien seeking to protect his stable – er, race – does battle with the Odinson and finds himself Worthy. He has his own hammer, Stormbreaker. He also has a spaceship called Skuttlebutt. First appearance: The Mighty Thor #337, November 1983.

Thorlief Golmen, aka Ultimate Thor: Is he a peacenik whackadoo, or is he a god? Either way, let’s make him a government-sanctioned superhero. First appearance: The Ultimates #4, June 2002.

Eric “Thunderstrike” Masterson: In a move that can only be described as pandering to a vocal minority of 1990s lumberjacks, Marvel for a time gave the hammer to a common Midgard mortal, who also briefly had his own series that was essentially “What if we gave Thor an Image makeover?” Thunderstrike is the name of his mace, and probably also his penis. First appearance: The Mighty Thor #391, May 1988.

Throg: Walt Simonson, perhaps Thor’s most prolific and best-loved writer, transformed the Odinson into a frog for a time in the 1980s. He got better, but eventually another character, a former college football star named Simon Walterson (homage much?) became the Frog of Thunder, wielding a hammer that was actually a sliver of the original Mjolnir. First appearance: The Mighty Thor #364: February 1986.

Ragnarok: aka that Thor clone from Civil War that killed Bill Foster. Not really a Thor. Not really Mjolnir. Still deadly. First appearance: Civil War #3, July 2006.

Odin: Thor’s father, naturally, was also able to lift the hammer. However, once his son lost that ability last year, so, too, did Odin, which, as you can imagine, he found incredibly emasculating. First appearance: Journey Into Mystery #85, October 1962.

Steve Rogers: Because OF COURSE Captain America is Worthy. First picked up a hammer: The Mighty Thor #390, April 1988.

Storm: In a 1980s X-Men story, Loki presents Storm, then depowered and rocking that badass Mohawk and leather vest, with an imitation hammer called Stormcaster. First picked up a hammer: Uncanny X-Men Annual #9, 1985.

Deadpool: “There is a man … with a typewriter.” Christopher Priest, who wrote Deadpool after Joe Kelly, is primarily responsible for Wade Wilson’s awareness of being a comic book character, as a direct result of a storyline in which Loki gives DP an imitation hammer to annoy his brother. During this storyline, Deadpool also briefly believes Loki to be his father. First picked up a hammer: Deadpool #37, February 2000.

Superman: Proving that being Worthy knows no multiversal bounds, Superman picked up both Thor’s hammer and Captain America’s shield – in the same panel, no less – to battle the villain Krona in the 2003-04 intercompany crossover JLA/Avengers by Kurt Busiek and George Perez.

Also there were all those hammers that got meted out during Fear Itself, but … meh.

In addition to writing for The Matt Signal, Dan Grote is now the official comics blogger for The Press of Atlantic City. New posts appear Wednesday mornings at PressofAC.com/Life. His new novel, Magic Pier, is available however you get your books online. He and Matt have been friends since the days when Onslaught was just a glimmer in Charles Xavier's eye. Follow @danielpgrote on Twitter.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Greetings from Battleworld: Secret Wars Week 6

Mrs. Deadpool and the Howling Commandos #1
Story: Gerry Duggan
Art:  Salva Espin and Val Staples

Much like Generalissimo Francisco Franco, Deadpool is still dead. In this domain of Battleworld, Wade Wilson challenged Dracula for the love of the demon succubus Shiklah and lost. His head. And his corpse was put in an acid-filled coffin and thrown in the ocean.

Fear not though, dear reader, for the not-actually-Mrs. DP’s adventures on Battleworld are narrated by Ghost Deadpool ... when his attention span allows for it.

But yes, the star of this book is Shiklah, in a story that is basically “What If … Deadpool lost Dracula’s Gauntlet?” With DP out of the way, Shiklah remains forced to marry Dracula to fulfill the vampire king’s plans for conquest of the underworld. First though, Shiklah makes up some excuse to go on a time-buying quest to properly put her slain brothers to rest. Not content to let his bride-to-be skip out the door dressed like Lara Croft, he makes his most trusted enforcers, the Howling Commandos – Werewolf by Night, the Living Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, the Man-Thing and Marcus the Minotaur with a Symbiote – go with her.

We’ve talked a bit about Shiklah before, how because she’s so powerful in her own right, she never had any reason to fear Wade and therefore made the perfect, most stable partner he’s ever had. It’s those same qualities that allow her to carry her own book. Dracula may be trying to force her into marriage, but this ain’t no damsel. When you can turn into a giant purple monster, you don’t fit neatly in a fridge. Shiklah pwns the Howlers from jump, using the severed head of Medusa to turn them to stone in a bit that owes more to Bugs Bunny than Clash of the Titans.

So yes, Ghost Deadpool, you’re right, “Why isn’t this called Mrs. Deadpool VERSUS the Howling Commandos?” Give it time.

P.S., Matt, I’m with you. I much prefer the old Gene Colan-style Dracula to the Armored Poseur that has crept up in Marvel books and cartoons of the past few years.

P.P.S.: In case you were worried that a Deadpool-adjacent book starring the Man-Thing wouldn’t include multiple jokes about that character’s unfortunate name, there are multiple Man-Thing jokes.

Secret Wars 2099 #2
Story: Peter David
Art: Will Sliney

While Peter David's Future Imperfect feels like it's plopped down right in the thick of Secret Wars, with mentions of Doom and the Battleworld status quo, Secret Wars 2099 feels a bit more removed. This is one of the Secret Wars tie-ins that (so far) just feels like a way to give fans of a certain era something to latch on to. Which is not to say it's a bad comic. Not in the least. After the first issue introduced us to the Avengers of 2099, controlled by Alchemax and its executive Miguel Stone (yup, in this altered reality, Spider-Man 2099 is a corporate cog, and takes after his dad, the evil Tyler Stone, in sheer manipulative amorality), this issue spends time fleshing out some of those new characters. We see the new Captain America, who seems to be a personality hiding in the head of an Alchemax employee named Roberta Mendez, whose husband is spying on here ala Orphan Black. She is attacked by The Specialist, who is the Kenny of the 2099 universe; he gets resurrected by Doom magic just to die immediately again. We see that Hawkeye and Black Widow both have a dark side. We get to see Hercules training by smacking around Junkpile from X-Men 2099, one of those great cameos that Peter David is master of. And after the prophetic end of the previous issue, we get to meet the Defenders of 2099. I don't recall if Peter David ever wrote Hulk 2099 in the past, but as master of Hulks, it felt right. It was a good choice, in my opinion, to step back and let the reader and characters breathe before the stuff hits the fan, especially since the entire team are new characters, with the exception of Hercules, who is a delightful character and one I'm glad to see Peter David writing; after Van Lente and Pak mined so much of Peter David's Hulk run in parts of their wonderful Incredible Hercules, it's nice to see David take Herc out for a spin. Next issue looks like Avengers/Defenders War 2099, which should be fun, but I want to get back to the Vision introduced in the previous issue, since that character had the feeling of Delphi of the Pantheon, and the only person in the world who likes a retro Peter David reference more than Peter David himself is me.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Reviews of Comics from Wednesday 6/10

(All Star) Section 8 #1
Story: Garth Ennis
Art: John McCrea

Garth Ennis hates superheroes. If you've ever read his Marvel Knight Punisher, Hitman, and especially The Boys, this shouldn't surprise you. So it was surprising to see DC give him a shot to resurrect his team, Section 8, from the pages of Hitman. These are superheroes so bad and creepy they make the Inferior Five and the Great Lakes Avengers look like the JLA or the Avengers. And it's not a comic for everyone. If last week's Bizarro and Bat-Mite were all ages, comic, this one is the opposite. It's dark, biting, and it's sense of humor runs to, well, the kind of humor Garth Ennis comic usually have, with bodily fluids flying. But if you like Garth Ennis deconstructing super heroes, this is right in line with what you expect. We see what happened to Six Pack, the drunkest hero ever, after the end of Hitman (Ennis seems to be ignoring any and all reboots so that the events of Hitman still occurred). And after an accident returns his memories, he goes about reassembling his team, despite six of the remaining seven members being dead. The new Section 8 might even be weirder than the previous, with new members like Guts, who seems to be just guts, and Powertool, as well as a new version of Dogwelder (his name says it all), and Bueno Excellente, the less said about on a family friendly blog the better. With seven members in place, Six Pack needs to find an eighth, and so when the Batmobile stops outside, he decides to recruit Batman. And as you might imagine, Batman isn't even noticing. What does happen, in a montage featuring art homages from Batman through the ages, is Batman gets a parking ticket, and winds up saying something that makes him look like a pretty big racist. Whether this is a specific shot at Batman as the ultimate example of the white man as superhero, or just something Ennis thought would be funny, I'm not sure, but it works. All Star Section 8 isn't going to be for everyone, but it's definitely right in line with the wackier issues of Hitman, with Garth Ennis writing at his broadest, and is enjoyable for that if nothing else.

Batman #41
Story: Scott Snyder
Art: Greg Capullo

The new era of Batman begins, and if this issue is any indication, it will be a good era for as long as it lasts (anyone really think Bruce won't be back?). I'm going to be be pretty open about the new Batman's identity, since it's been common knowledge since Free Comic Book Day. Jim Gordon makes his debut as Batman this issue (well, this issue or this week's issue of Detective Comics or Batman/Superman, depending on which order you read them, though I'd suggest reading this one first), and the issue moves back and forth through time, watching Gordon both in action as Batman and seeing how he came to the decision to become the new Batman. We see both Geri Powers, CEO of Powers Industries (an ominous name if you're at all familiar with Batman Beyond), working to convince Gordon, while Harvey Bullock tries to talk him out of it. Snyder has a great feel for Gordon, and has since "The Black Mirror," his run on Detective Comics, and so if anyone is going to really hit it out of the park with Gordon as Batman, it's going to be Snyder. The issue serves to really set the status quo, about how Batman now relates to the GCPD, and exactly what Gordon's support structure is. We meet his two tech and tactical helpers, Daryl Gutierrez on tech and Julia "Perry" on tactical, If you read Batman: Eternal or "Endgame," you know that last name is a pseudonym, and it's smart that the old Bat allies now have an inside woman. The actual case involves a giant energy being wreaking havoc on Gotham's Little Cuba. It not only allows Gordon to show off the power of his new robo suit, but it also allows him to use his cop brain to figure out exactly what's going on. It was a good choice of case, allowing the reader to really see everything that Jim can do. Aside from all that, there are a couple nice fan moments in the issue. A demonstration of the Bat armor's ability to shift color is a great moment for anyone who knows his Batman history, seeing different eras represented in those color schemes. There is an acknowledgement of how bunny-like the armor looks, and I wonder if that was written when the armor was created, or since there was so much time, if ti was inserted to point out to fans that they are heard. I also rather liked Gordon's under armor costume; it looks like one of the better action figure Batman variants we get in all sorts of toy lines. The first and last page each give hints at upcoming stories in the book, the first discussing new elements discovered that exist under Gotham for only moments, and the last that may feature the return of a character thought dead. Snyder knows how to structure a story, and so I'm counting on these hints paying out over the next few issues in exciting ways. Batman might be dead for now, but this new Batman is worth watching.

Gotham Academy #7
Story: Becky Cloonan & Brenden Fletcher
Art: Mingjue Helen Chen

On the other end of the Bat title spectrum form the much changed Batman is Gotham Academy, which picks up right where it left off and doesn't miss a beat. This issue is a fun one-off, narrated by the super excited Maps Mizoguchi. Maps has been the sidekick/best friend of series lead Olive Silverlock, but Olive is away this issue, so it's Maps's time to shine, hanging out with new student Damian Wayne. But this is Gotham Academy, so it's not like it's going to be a simple event. No, Maps finds out the quill pen she took from the headmaster's office in issue five has magical properties (I love how such a little moment comes back around to pay off). And of course, by writing her name next to Damian's in her journal, she has bound them together. Literally. Maps and Damian spend most of the issue holding hands and unable to let go. It's adorable, especially when you contrast the hyper-bubbly Maps with the hyper-grumpy Damian. It's a great odd couple dynamic, and I wish we could have gotten more of it. It's unsurprising, since Damian's new title has him travelling the world, that he wasn't going to be sticking around, but I wish we could have seen more. The plot of the issue revolves around Damian and Maps attempting to get the quill back from a raven that stole it to undo the curse, all the while being attacked by Maps's friends who seem to be possessed. Along the way they encounter Professor MacPherson, the friendly history teacher, who recounts a story of Batman in Scotland that I thought was a summary of Alan Grant and Frank Quitely's one-shot The Scottish Connection, although I wasn't able to dig up my copy to confirm, and is in fact World's Finest #225, which I now have to track down (thanks to Brendan Fletcher for the correction). I love Cloonan and Fletcher's handle on Batman history, using things like that one shot and cameos from different eras to make this book feel like a natural fit to the universe. Another of those cameo characters, Bookworm, pops up again as the English teacher, and he clearly knows more about what's going on than a normal teacher would. I also absolutely love how Maps swoons over every gadget Damian happens to have, from his grappling gun to a Batarang; she has quickly become my favorite character in the book. In the end., Damian leaves, but only after doing something noble to help Maps, which is in character for the evolved Damian. Oh, and on a sidenote, how has there never been a Batman villain themed around The Raven?  It seems such a natural fit. Food for thought, creators.

Harrow County #2
Story: Cullen Bunn
Art: Tyler Crook

Harow County #1 came out on one of those weeks I wasn't able to get reviews up, which is a shame, since it was a great first issue, but I'm looking to remedy that omission with this review of issue two. A downhome horror comic, Harrow County stars Emmy, a young girl who just turned eighteen, and lives out on a farm with her father. But there are spooky things in the woods around her house, as evidenced in this issue by Emmy walking out of the woods with a human skin with no body. She realizes that it's a "haint" an object that is possessed by a spirit, one that might have lived, might be alive, or never lived in any way we understand. Emmy is curious about the haint, so folds it and hides it in her bedroom. The haint is possibly the thing that saves her as it awakens her as the locals, including her father, gather at the withered hanging tree near her house to discuss things in the dead of night, and Emmy gets a vision of what was in the tree, and knows to flee before the townsfolk come for her. As she runs into the woods, she encounters her friend Bernice, who had come to try to save Emmy, and they wind up wandering into an ancient potter's field, where things only get worse. This is far from Cullen Bunn's first touch of horror, as his weird Western, The Sixth Gun, and his viking monster comic, Helheim, both are more than tinged with horror and monsters. But this is deep dive into atmosphere, which is the thing that makes for really good horror in my opinion. The dialogue and narration is ominous, and contrasts nicely with how innocent and sheltered Emmy is. And this atmosphere could not be better fostered by Tyler Crook, who has officially ascended into the elite list of artists I will follow wherever they go. From the high concept, bigger than life horror of B.P.R.D. to this more domestic horror, Crook knows how to lay out of panel and page that ratchets up the tension in a horror comic. Add in a couple text pages about a ghost story Bunn's father told him as a kid and a one page story of another horror in Harrow County, and you have my favorite horror ongoing of the year hands down. I try not to compliment a comic be referencing another, but if you're missing Scott Snyder and Jock's Wytches while it's on hiatus, Harrow County is the perfect comic to keep you up at night.

Starfire #1
Story: Amanda Conner & Jimmy Palmiotti
Art: Emanuela Lupacchino

Starfire is a hard character to write, I think. Otherwise, we wouldn't get so many wildly divergent versions of the character. This new ongoing takes Starfire and drops her in a new setting with a new cast, and writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti set about using the same whimsical style they used on Harley Quinn in her title to give us a different Starfire than the one in the early New 52 books, and it's one I have already fallen in love with. It's actually similar to the Teen Titans animated version, this naive alien princess on a strange world, with a bit of a temper and a big heart. Deciding to live in Key West, Kori is shown around by local sheriff Stella Gomez, who serves as a reader proxy in getting to know her. We get commentary on Kori's... unique fashion sense, we see that she doesn't exactly get human language, in the sense that nuance and sarcasm are lost on her. We also see just how much Kori empathizes with others, as she cries when Stella mentions her beloved grandmother who had died. I'm sure this Starfire has the same warrior's heart she always has, but it's nice that she also has such warmth within. The issue also introduces Stella's brother, Sol, in mourning for the love of his life who he lost in a storm two years prior, Boone, the handyman of the trailer park where Kori is renting a trailer as temporary lodging, Boone's grandmother, who runs the trailer park, and Burtie, grandma's pet parakeet. One of the standout aspects of Harley Quinn is it's unusual and well developed supporting cast, and it's nice to see a similar cast, if not one as actively bizarre, being built here. Another charming aspect of the issue is the thought bubbles that Kori has. They're little images that pop up, usually demonstrating a literal interpretation of human slang; three big ones is three elephant, horny as an alley cat is a literal horned cat. It reminds me of early issues of Impulse from the 90s, where a similar trope was used, and it still works today. Other than breaking up a bar fight that broke out between two jerks who were both coming on to her, there's no violence or action in the issue, which is a good choice, allowing the story to stay character focused. I was also very happy to see that, while Conner and Palmiotti are up front about Kori's nature as a physical being who enjoys touching and being touched, they do it without making her either overly-promiscuous or slut-shaming her, which isn't unexpected if you've read Harley's title (the new issue of which, by the way, came out this week as well and was also excellent). Add in stunning art from Emanuela Lupacchino that finds a way to make Kori look gorgeous but not oversexed, and you have a fun book that is great for fans of Starfire and the Teen Titans in any of their incarnations.