Saturday, December 20, 2008

Grant Morrison - "In every style and fashion" part 3


Yet, it was Morrison's stint on "J.L.A." that made him so interesting to Marvel's new editorial. Proving his worth to the company on 2000's "Marvel boy" and "Fantastic Four: 1234" mini-series, he was paired with Frank Quitely, and given wide-berth to reinvent the company's second biggest franchise, "the X-Men" (retitled "New X-Men" to mark the occasion). Once again, Morrison devoted his energies to telling a complete story in the span of several years, with perhaps the biggest amount of creative freedom he enjoyed until that time on a major superhero title.

The fans immediately took notice, and Morrison was bold enough to try and pitch a "Nick Fury" ongoing series in 2002. The attempt got so far as to have the short story prologue in an anthology title, but was shot down quickly before his plans gestated into a finished new first issue. Once again reminded of the corporate-organized mindset that makes even the most daring publishers fall in the overprotective state when it comes to their decades old superhero licenses, Morrison re-tooled his submissions and published his story in Vertigo, as "the Filth", penciled by Chris Weston. To this day, this maxi-series remains one of Morrison's most ambitious works, and while it doesn't rely on the readers' outside knowledge the way "the Invisibles" did, it's still full of mad ideas fired at a rapid succession in midst of chaotic plots and the whole that is anything but easy to understand.

Thus it was that restricted to only writing one ongoing series at Marvel, Grant Morrison focused all his attention on "the New X-Men", doing his own take on the characters' most famous story-arcs, while turning the book into a real SF comic with evolution as it's main theme. The stories were well-received by a large auditorium, prompting Marvel to experiment with a bi-weekly schedule during most of his run on the title, in the process losing Frank Quitely as the main artist. Editorial decision led to cases of uneven art produced by some of the freelancers working extremely short deadlines.

Still, Morrison was determined to further develop some of his ideas back at Vertigo, such as "We3", a concept originating in one of his "New X-Men" arcs.

Grant Morrison - "In every style and fashion" part 2


By the time Morrison's run on "Doom patrol" ended in 1993, it was clear that Morrison was not only a fan of superheroes in all their multiple incarnations, but a deep thinker with a penchant for writing experimental works, that challenge their readers and serve as the examples of the medium at it's very best. It was logical then that he was made part of DC's new mature readers oriented "Vertigo" imprint. Morrison started out with "Sebastian O", a steampunk mini-series that used Oscar Wilde's writings as a starting point, instead of the usual Conan Doyle/HG Wells motifs. It was another collaboration with "Zenith"'s Steve Yeowell, and although fun and very witty, it is definitely the 1994's "Mystery play" graphic novel that shows us the most of Morrison's versatility at the time.

Writing a slow-building drama with deep religious undertones, with "Mystery play" Morrison presented us with a detective story that takes a simple idea and makes the most of it, in the stark contrast to his usual kaleidoscopic storytelling. The work shined under John J Muth's painted approach, in a way not seen since "Arkham asylum".

It is at the same time then, that Morrison attempted his most-ambitious creator owned work, the much-debated "Invisibles". At all times both heavily referential to Morrison's inspirations, and deeply personal, Morrison's three volume magnum opus stands to this day as a series that is extremely hard to understand. The ever changing staple of artists did nothing to help the book settle into a specific atmosphere, except for the period when it was penciled by Phil Jimenez. And yet, the basic plots, while often very complex, could be understood as easily as a new James Bond adventure. Prepared to present his readers with his own take on conspiracies, magic and religion, Morrison was always careful to keep the characters front and center, layering his meanings beneath the bed of psychedelic spy thrillers. And yet, while most of the series is notoriously hard to understand for someone uninitiated in Morrison's reading background, it also spotlights perhaps the first notable example of the writing style that is currently leaving his readers so perplexed.

"The Invisibles" v1 #12, "the Best man fall" is a single issue story focusing on the bit player henchman dispatched in "the Invisibles" v1 #1. What is interesting about this tale, beyond the gimmick that could have made it a mere fill-in issue in a lesser title, is that Morrison makes himself work in a very odd format, presenting every scene as it flashes before the dying man's eyes. This makes for a very haphazard storytelling, that is at the same time engrossing on its own, as the readers are witnessing the scattered memories of one whole life. Steve Parkhouse's artwork is at the same time very realistic but still distorted just enough that Morrison's bitter-sweet dialogue comes through in a way that the complete experience is that of a success, largely because of the focus on the main character whose fears and relationships we visit in such a novel way.

The remaining years of Morrison's first staying at DC, since 1997 and until the completion of "the Invisibles" were spent concurrently writing "J.L.A.", DC's flagship superhero title, with Howard Porter's passable but unremarkable art. And yet, for all the fame that assignment brought him, along with his collaboration with Mark Millar on "the Flash" (they were asked to do a short run while Mark Waid takes a break from the regular scripting duties), the more technically innovative Morrison could be read in the reprints of another early Vertigo oneshot.

"Kill your boyfriend" debuted at roughly the same time as "the Invisibles", but brings to the fore a wholly different side to Morrison's writing at the time. A fierce tongue-in-cheek farce, "Kill your boyfriend" is another very British offering, mixing together the teenage side of the rebellion to the society's norms Morrison so often writes about, with the Bonny and Clyde satire satire right out of Terrence Mallick's "Badlands". Rarely has Philip Bond illustrated a script so in tune to his own quirky sensibilities, and the creators collectively brought to fore a story so innovative that it brings to mind "the Clockwork orange".

Grant Morrison - "In every style and fashion" part 1

Grant Morrison has always been an inventive storyteller, with something of a heady and ambiguous note to his scripts. This made his already ambitious comics something of a hard thing to get for a large portion of the audience. Yet, it seems that as his profile has been increased, that the complaints have gotten louder, to the point that now, when he writes DC's flagship titles in a very stylized way, even some of his old-time fans are protesting. So how did Morrison end up with his current narrative tics that cause such controversy?

the Early years

The most acclaimed and popular of Morrison's British works, and what eventually brought him to attention of DC comics, was "Zenith". Starting in 1987, "Zenith" was serialized in four "phases", story lines that ran in the US weekly anthology "2000 AD". It consisted of Morrison and artist Steve Yeowell turning the genre conventions upside down, while presenting the readers with a superhero acting like a rockstar. "Zenith" was a complex tale, consisting of monsters straight from the stories of P.H. Lovecraft invading the bodies of superheroes, along the way tying together everything from Captain America homages to rock stars and magic. In its third phase, "Zenith" spotlighted a "Crisis"-like event, gathering homages to most of UK's comic book heroes, which is seemingly what made the American superhero publisher seek him out.

Benefiting from the attention Alan Moore had gained to the UK writers, Morrison was asked to pitch a reinvention of one of DC's superheroes. He opted for "Animal man", producing a 1988 mini-series that remade the character as an animal activist. DC chose to continue with the series, but Morrison had much more ambitious plans. Plotting a course for the next two years on the title, the writer went in for a very ambitious post-modern take, taking the previously light-hearted meta fictional elements of Silver Age to the extreme. The stories were penciled mainly by Chas Truog, starting the trend of fast and sketchy artists illustrating Morrison's stories.

Still, despite not opting to pair him with an A-list penciler, DC liked Morrison's approach so much, they made him a writer of another concurrent ongoing title, "the Doom patrol". Starting in 1989, Morrison, aided by Richard Cased on the art, did his take on one of the weirdest superhero teams, digging in whole-heartedly at the characters' core as freaks and outsiders, all the while employing even more elaborate literary techniques. Still, despite all of the philosophical themes that he exposed his readers to, exploring the comparisons between reality and fiction, Morrison still stuck to the genre conventions, building all of his narrative structures atop the traditional superhero storytelling conventions.

Taking these multi-year epic stories into account, it's interesting how a simple tale, serialized in Trident (a British anthology title at the time), can shed a lot of light on Morrison's creative process. "St. Swithin's day is a short semi-autobiographical story, illustrated by Paul Grist in an alternate style that brings to mind Hernandez brothers and other independent comics at the time. A very moody and sincere piece, "St. Swithin's day" reads like a stream of conscience piece, dealing front and center with a position of a young man in Thatcher's Britain. Thus, it stands in stark contrast to Morrison's superhero deconstructions and the heavily detailed and layered approach that has characterized so much of his work before and since.

"Arkham asylum", a Batman graphic novel Morrison wrote and Dave McKean gorgeously painted is perhaps the best example of the state his writing style at the time. The story is rich with details and allusions, common to all of Morrison's work that just bursts with creativity, and yet a lot of ideas are shown briefly in passing, as he maintains the basic plot, that of Batman trying to find his way out of the lunatic asylum his enemies have barricaded themselves into.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Criminal "Bad night"

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' "Criminal" has just concluded it's latest storyline, and considering that the book's going on hiatus while the authors develop the "Incognito" project, I thought it was a good time to look back on the storyline as a whole.

By now, it's apparent that "Criminal" is a critical darling, even though it's selling modestly, making it's readers always consider the threat of the book's cancellation. Fearing this, the authors have gone on and re-branded the book in the new volume, starting off with three inter-connected issues, that examined some of the previously seen minor players. Starting with #4, and continuing until the just released #7, the authors have once again dug their teeth into a more traditional neo-noir story, similar in execution to the two tales featured in the first volume of the series.

Once again, "Bad night" spotlights one of the bit players involved with the previous protagonist's shady dealings, which is a bit of a risky move. Having a creator-owned book in American superhero-dominated comics publishing is a very brave move, but the lack of editorial concern seems to have pushed Brubaker and Phillips to really try their luck, going against all the commercial considerations, with starting a new volume that does not immediately continue with either Leo Patterson or Tracy Lawless.

In fact, all of the "Criminal" arcs so far, expertly paced as they are, take as much time to read, as one needs to watch a movie. Continuing with this line of thinking, what the creators have given us three stories that can stand on their own, but are also meant to be continued at the later date. Craftily put, and soaking in just the right atmosphere, "Criminal" does manage to hide this quirk very well, but the "stop and start" manner with which Brubaker has told his story so far has certainly made it's mark on the book.

Getting to "Bad night" specifically, the first cover almost tells the story itself. The ones that follow are nice to look at, but the first one continues in the tradition of iconic covers that the preceding three issues started, although they were painted pieces to boot. Right on the first page one is treated with the heavy narration that serves to set up the story's feel, much alike to "the Watchmen"'s opening monologue. It's eventually revealed that it's no accident Brubaker started his story at that exact moment, but going from panel to panel, the reader can't escape getting back into the creators' capable hands, as the faces of Sean Phillips' scratchy and evocative figures serve as a great reminder of the strength of Marvel's lone realistic series.

Continuing on, we are eased into the captions, as they are our only way in getting to understand the main character Jacob's introvertive mind a little bit better. A former counterfeit, he has since changed his ways, and has become a reclusive writer/artist of the newspaper strip seen from the start of the first volume. We are taken on Jacob's daily routine, and can't help but sympathize with the self-pitying intellect forced into an insomniac's recluse. Staying true to the noir conventions, a femme fatale and hints of violence soon threat to break his exile, making us think that the story will proceed with the "will he or won't he" get back to his murky past.

And, that's where the book starts to show itself for the deeply-layered and heavily thought out piece of fiction that it is. We are treated with more and more information about Jacob's past, his wife and the tragedy that left him crippled, but even though he soon gets finds himself in midst of some very turbulent events, the twists just keep on coming. Thus, we are forced to deal with both constantly revaluating Jacob's complex character, all the while fearing for his life as the complex scheme in which he has run into keeps getting more and more familiar, as it starts relating more and more to the events that made him the man who he is today.

And that's the kind of book "Criminal" is. In "Bad night", Brubaker and Phillips keep with the more realistic take seen in the preceding three issues, making what's left of the violence past the numerous threats horrible and wrapped tight with foreboding consequences. The characters remain human throughout, struggling with neuroses and sexual impulses, as they long for another second chance, before making yet another mistake that makes it slip away again. The book retains the surface stylings of the genre, but just like men that hound them at every turn, the women are anything but perfect, as the objectification is skipped for a realistic take most signified by the strip-bar and the sad hookers that make their money there.

For all of the narration, Brubaker chooses his words expertly, and "Bad night" is never boring or cumbersome. Just the opposite, in fact, as the writer's so skilled at the way he tells his stories, that he repeatedly keeps the reader going with him until he pulls a twist on us, seemingly from nowhere, yet perfectly fitting the story he's telling. Sean Phillips, pressed as he is to deliver his story in small panels, makes the most of it, giving us all the claustrophobia and grime he is able to conjure with his pencils.

The pace is unrelenting up to the final panel, slowing down only for the moments of gradual realization as both the parts us readers and Jacob, try to get to the bottom of the mystery forced upon him. It's a very painful experience for the protagonist, though, as he is made victim to a series of events, seemingly interconnected with him. As they keep on piling, Jacob himself is urged to snap from the shell he's retreated in, as the links to his past are made more and more apparent. It's impossible to imagine this story being told through any other protagonist, but Brubaker and Phillips are more than capable of turning him inside out, along with the femme fatale Iris that he concentrates on saving, oblivious to the hurt directed towards him, for his past misdeeds.

Thus, "Bad night" ends up an expert character study, that starts protagonist viewing himself as a victim, and goes a long way towards making him responsible for the mistakes in his life, along with a healthy dose of irony heaped his way.

It's unfortunate that the book is forced to take a hiatus, as Brubaker and Phillips proceed to develop the "Incognito" mini-series, but we as readers have every hope that afterwards they will pick up on this excellent story and continue along the book's seminal "Lawless" arc.

"Criminal" continues to be one of the rare cases of solid storytelling all around, making for the book that stands shoulder to shoulder with Vertigo's "Scalped" as one of the best comics currently published in American market.

Friday, December 5, 2008

the Mortal Iron Fist

The just concluded "Mortal Iron Fist" story-arc numbers #17-20 of Marvel's Immortal Iron Fist comic, an action book working closely to it's original martian-arts films inspiration. It's also the first storyline of the new creative team, Duane Swierczynski and Travel Foreman. The duo had a difficult task, seeing as how the preceding run by Brubaker, Faction and Aja made such a big impression on fans and critics, in the process rehabilitating Marvel's long-time 2nd tier character. In his departing oneshot, Matt Fraction left Swierczynski with a great foundation to build on, ending on a cliffhanger that the new writer immediately picks up on. Avoiding huge changes to the already working set-up, Marvel has ended up with a book that proceeds smoothly from what went on before, not forgetting a single plot tread left in the air.

Nevertheless, the story is framed around the event that supposedly takes place 10 years in the future, that serves as little more than the window-dressing to try and achieve a bit of the tension right from the start. Knowing how the comic book business is run, it's clear that the succeeding writers won't have much respect for such restricting story-telling conventions, rendering the whole exercise superflous. Thankfully, very little space is taken with this exercise, as the story moves back to present-day, rendered in Foreman's style concentrating on bold, stylized, that brings to mind Leinil Francis Yu. From then on, save for the one page devoted to it in the last issue, the story stays in the now, undercut only by a few standard flashbacks depicting the troubles of Orson Randall, as well as the extended recollections of the final days of Kwai Jun-Fan, a 19th century Iron Fist.

The book flashes back to these short 4-page sequences every issue, all depicted by Russ Heath. Contrary to the previous creative team's used of this convention, Swierczynski uses it to tell a story that not only parallels Danny Rand's tribulations, but brings also depicts the new villain's history in a very organic way. Indeed, this whole segment of the book functions much better than what was established before, it does not suffer from the slow pace and the sense of false importance that the previous team's flashbacks carried. Kwai Jun-Fan's final fate is depicted in a manner that grabs the reader's attention from the start, without making us wish the creators should just get on with the present story already.

Danny Rand's front and center of the creators' attention, with a supporting cast made up mostly of a small circle of his superhero friends, along with a few employees of the Rand corp. Celebrating his thirty third birthday (which roughly corresponds with the number of years since the character was created, hinting that the plot originated with the first issue of the current series), he's shocked to discover that none of the champions that preceded him have managed to live past that point in life. In typical superhero fashion, he does not waste too much time on pondering the mid-life crisis, as the villain of the piece shows up to help Danny externalize and confront his fears.

Everything we are introduced to in "the Mortal Iron Fist"'s beginning pays off until the end of the arc, be it the true alliances of Danny's two new employees, or the state of his on again, off again relationship with Misty Knight. Of course, the book doesn't fail to entertain with the obligatory fighting sequences, but they are usually spaced in complicated double-page layouts, that lack energy and the kung-fu action movie flair that David Aja depicted so well.

The only major problem lies with the villain of the piece, who remains a bit bland despite all of the threat he poses and is defeated in a way that feels to easy. The critical part of the story-arc somehow drops the ball on Danny actually being in grave danger, largely due to the supporting cast, that takes gets dragged too much in Danny's fights, stacking the odds in his favor a bit too much. Still, the creators promise that the villain will be back, hopefully in a manner that is memorable in a way that is not only visual.

The overall feel of the book is very entertaining, and the new creative team goes out of their way to include as much of previously established characters as settings as possible. In the process, the seeds are sown for not only the return of the villain and the Danny's blossoming relationship with Misty, but also for his compatriots' other Immortal weapons search for the Eight mystical city, that all seem very promising. These plots points, and indeed, the whole manner of storytelling at hand is very fast-paced, and jumps around a lot, but is always kept very clear, as Swierczynski goes out of his way to assure the readers that the book they like remains in capable hands. In fact, at one point he overdoes this, as the book could have done without the sequence featuring Orson Randall's confidante Ernst.

Travel Foreman's art remains strong and steady, a relief after the art jam that made reading the previous story-arc so difficult. The sparse backgrounds are hidden from the readers' eyes by the palette of colors that is both energetic and aggressive, ie. perfectly suitable for the book involving kung-fu superheroes. There are some panels where Foreman's angular style works better than in the others, as some of the exaggerations don't come off as looking too sleek, but overall the book is in good hands, and we can only hope that Marvel finds a way to prevent the delays that characterized the first couple of years of it's existance.

Throughout, the story retains it's particular feel, one that is wholeheartedly in synch with the Iron Fist mythos, proceeding briskly with twists and turns. A lot of exposition is told in a really accessible way, all the while Swierczynski prepares the foundation for future stories. Let's hope that both creators continue their hard work on the book, as the Ed Brubaker's, Matt Fraction and David Aja's re-imagination of Iron Fist continues in a really solid way.

Judging by the recent Orson Randall Special, the readers have nothing to fear, as both Swierczynski and Marvel seem very clear on the fun, pulpy tone that is making this book stay one of the best and most innovative titles among the superhero comics.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Aetheric mechanics

"Aetheric mecahnics" is the latest graphic novel from Avatar, published as part of their "Apparat" imprint, devoted solely to leaving the industry's premiere SF writer, Warren Ellis, to spotlight his own creations, based on the familiar genre archetypes. This time around, it's steampunk's turn, but Ellis, aided by the artist Gianluca Pagliarani brings a lot more to the table than that.

The story starts out as a fully-functional steampunk piece, brining familiar Victorian-era fiction together with the SF tropes developed much later. Once the atmosphere is fully established, the tale shifts it's center around being a Sherlock Holmes pastiche, though not without some cumbersome exposition. It proceeds along, carefully building the mystery, all the while taking the characters out of their iconic status quo and actually developing them in a way that is both spontaneous and logical. Upon reaching the climax, Ellis shifts gears again, ambitiously bringing the science angle to the fore, before wrapping the whole plot by bringing in the metafictional elements! The story ends, revealed in it's post-modern bent, and leaving the reader satisfied, yet sad to see the fully developed setting and it's implications come to a halt.

In presenting the story full of lengthy conversation, Warren Ellis has wisely chosen an artist capable of depicting a wide-range of facial expressions. Despite a rushed look of the crime-scene segment of the book, Pagliarani does not disappoint, brining to life both the distinctive character designs, as well as richly detailed backgrounds. The story suffers only from the lack of space, which has robbed a piece so devoted to the pulp late 19th century fiction of at least one more action sequence, inadequately substituted by a single page flashback.

It's amazing how much ground Ellis has managed to cover, starting out with a tale that feels familiar to his Planetary homages. Judging by his recent work, Ellis is very aware that he is living in the present. His "Doctor Sleepless" ongoing clearly shows nothing of the Hunter Thompson influence that characterized the science-fictional setting of his "Transmetropolitan". Writing "Aetheric mechanics", he has actually put the subject of inspiration to the forefront, ending his story by concentrating on the effect the genre classics have had on today's writers.

"Aetheric mechanics" has ended up being a short, but deeply multi layered work, by a continually improving author not afraid to discuss his influences on the very pages of the comic book. By doing so, Ellis actually touches upon the same ground Alan Moore did in the seminal League of Extraordinary Gentlemen's latest outing, the controversial "Black dossier", yet in a way that still keeps it's feet firmly in the place of it's adventure-fiction origins, providing the readers with the compelling characters and drama on which the deeper metafictional themes hang upon.

It is an effort that surpasses "Apparat"'s previous "Frank Ironwine" one-shot, an inventive comics on it's own, promising even greater creative challenges in the imprint's future.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Casey Blue: Beyond tomorrow

This recently concluded mini-series flew under the radar of both fans and the critics, much like most of Wildstorm's titles. Not counting their troubled superhero line, most of what the imprint publishes can be boiled down to "Watchmen"-inspired comics ("Red Menace", "Wintermen", "Programme"), or semi-manga titles like "Casey Blue".

"Casey Blue" is the brainchild of writer B.Clay Moore (Hawaiian dick, War hymns, Leading man), and as such works in a similar well-paced, high on action vein. Artist Carlo Barberi (Gen13) is thus given a lot of room to showcase his love of the female form, and dynamic storytelling.

The story's soaked in a trippy horror/SF vibe that's boiling under the surface of the seemingly normal teenage girl's ordinary life. Of course, that's just the start of the creators' sprawling vision, which quickly grows beyond the format of a six-issue mini-series. Thus, what at first glance appears to be a movie pitch in the sequential form, ends up becoming a pilot episode of a TV-series, so to speak.

In fact, the authors are so fixated on Casey, and her eventual destiny, that most of the cast in the mini unintentionally end up serving as stereotypes, mere parts of the suburban backdrop that the reader is familiar with, before the plot launches in a Terminator meets Matrix combination.

At first glance, it's hard to find anything really unique about the project that captured the editor's attention, yet like most of B. Clay Moore's comics, it works so well, and reads so fluid that one can't help but sit and enjoy. Much like Top Cow's "Necromaner", WildStorm has seen fit to publish a sleek genre story starring a female lead that doesn't so much evoke "Buffy the vampire slayer", but works as it's own thing.

The comic is volent and bloody, but, perhaps because of the age and naivete of it's protagonist, works fine without crossing the border into dark and mature storytelling. Even though it's mostly an action-oriented affair, and functioning fine within those perimeters, "Casey Blue" does offer some character development.

Considering the detachment the main character feels towards her surroundings, the internal narration we, the readers are treated to is very much needed and pulled of in a manner that is both sympathetic and informative, without being boring and overwhelming. The character designs are very distinctive even before the book introduces the skinsuits and body-armor. Nevertheless Barberi's eye remains focused towards the idealized human form, which remains part and parcel considering the genre.

The mini ends up on a conclusion that is clearly meant only to designate a chapter-break, working to separate Casey from her school-friends and the new life as an action heroine that awaits her. It's clear that she is meant to directly follow up and meet with several characters in a similar predicament, with the only major loose-end being our not getting any real pay-off from her encounter with the FBI agent that has some clues to the alien threat that looms above her. It would be a shame not to see him reunited with Casey, potentially as a love-interest that was missing from this, the first mini-series.

And yet, it's uncertain if WildStorm will continue with the idea, and have Casey and her new friends run away from someone close to her that has been "seeded", towards her future in the all-out war. There is potential to be gained from seeing Casey Blue's adventures continue on in an ongoing series, even, but that will likely not be the case.

The lack of a strong "hook", or any other really distinctive elements, coupled with the relatively low profile of her creators, have all about doomed our chances of seeing the heroine's story continue in the sequential form. The lack of strong sales and general reader apathy to this, the character's first outing seem dead-set to repeat the failure of Robert Kirkman's "Cloudfall", but there's always hope that the series will find new life and a wider audience, when published in the trade paperback format.

Friday, September 26, 2008


"The Resurrection" is an ambitious project produced by Marc Guggenheim in partnership with Oni Press. Guggenheim is a Hollywood screenwriter, that has produced some mainstream superhero comics work, and is the co-creator of ABC's "Eli Stone" TV series. Oni is a small publishing house dedicated towards aiming beyond the traditional comics audience, perhaps most famous for being the home of "Queen & country" and "Scott Pilgrim". Together, they developed "the Resurrection" as a very HBO-friendly comic book, which has since being optioned as a film by Universal, despite having made little buzz among comic fans. And yet, with the proliferation of independent titles featuring post-apocalyptic settings, it works very well as a comic-book, and I'll try to review it as such, instead of grouping it with TV's "Lost" and "Jericho" it still has a lot in common with.

Looking at it in terms of an ongoing series, "Resurrection" is much more akin to the survival drama "Walking dead", than the more heady "Y the Last Man". In fact, thanks to the enthusiasm of multiple independent creative teams, it has debuted in a marketplace that is already publishing several similar series, chief of which are "Wasteland" and "Drafted". Speaking of "Drafted", it's interesting to note how the American comic book scene has been very open recently to the alien invasion scenarios, no doubt for their unique ability to both serve as escapist entertainment, as well as discuss the world's current political issues from a very specific standpoint (which is something that even Marvel has figured out, re-focusing all of their superhero titles to feature the threat of alien Skrulls).

"The Resurrection" offers a very distinctive standpoint, though, it's high concept concentrating on the world that has just repelled an alien invasion. That way, the basic sci-fi idea is tweaked just enough to form a unique hook, but still squarely falling into the domain of post-apocalyptic fiction, which by now has become such a durable sub-genre that most of the readers know whether they like to read that particular brand of fiction.

Guggenheim dresses the series in a very fluid and distinctive format, never letting up the pace, keeping reader on his toes with well-chosen flashbacks and a never-ending series of sharp turns. Through all of the cliff-hangers, his dialogue remains very dynamic and life-like, eschewing the highly stylized fantasy speak for the realistic approach, that is in keeping with the way the series always keeps it's foot on the ground. Still, from the start the series was troubled with long delays between the issues, which are all too frequent with independent publishing. It's clear that a lot of thought and ambition went into the project, and perhaps we have Hollywood to thank that both Oni and Guggenheim have not given up on the series and are still pushing to have it published and remain on the shelves until the end of the story.

Still, even as the creator of the series, Guggenheim can only do so much, as he has to rely on Oni for the promotion and, most importantly the art department. The publisher has tapped David Dumeer, the artist of John Layman's "Armageddon & son" to depict the post-invasion Earth in a style that is both down to Earth and gritty. Dumeer's work is very effective when it comes to clear layouts and his characters are all distinctive when it comes to age and body type. Still, some of his work is very uneven, and even at it's best, his pages look a rushed, with characters sporting an almost caricatural look, that clashes with the book's tone. Perhaps it would've been better if Oni had invested more in the project, at least by giving Dumeer an inker that would help his work stand out a bit more, thus complimenting the project itself and rounding out "the Resurrection" as a really formidable independent title. It goes without saying that the addition of color would've also benefited the book immensely, and at least Oni has promised their readers that much, when the series soon returns for volume 2, as even the washed-out look of the covers helps give the book more energy and excitement.

Action's certainly not something the book lacks, as most of it's characters are forced to constantly prove their mettle in the new landscape. The creators start off with a small cast, that has been chosen very carefully, giving us a look at many different and essential character types, spotlighting both the major and minor players in a natural way. Even though the book frequently employs flashbacks to depict the events that happened both during and right after the invasion, most of the times we're it's very clear what's happening and the events depicted have direct repercussions on the characters and new situations they found themselves in. Adding to the fact that it's not uncommon for the story to suddenly jump a few weeks in the future, it's goes to the creator's credit that the book remains cryptic in the right way, even when referring to the people and events that have happened during the invasion the reader knows very little about.

The authors also take great pains to avoid falling into the irony some of post-apocalyptic sci-fi chooses to employ by not depicting the actual cause of world-wide catastrophe. Even though the story is about the human spirit dealing with the ultimate challenge, "the Resurrection" is always clear that the human race faced alien invaders, usually through the enigma the alien technology still poses to the American survivors.

The story does not shy away from using hard language and some grizzly depictions of violence. It goes without saying that it's all a part of the way the heroes of post-apocalyptic Earth would have to behave, in order to rise out from the wilderness and make their place in the new world. Coupled with the fact that most of the depictions of the alien threat, both during and after the invasion, have been very low-key and symbolic, it still makes one wish to see it all depicted as a pilot to an R-rated mid-level budgeted TV-series.

And yet those concerns are moot, knowing that Universal has bought out the film version, and that "the Resurrection" is a very decent and interesting comic in itself. Despite the success of some of the creator-owned comic-book movie adaptation, American comic-book industry is still heavily focused on superheroes, even though most of those readers would do well to give this series a chance. Ironically, it could very well happen that they end up discovering Guggenheim's creation through the movie version and in a roundabout way come to give their much needed support to an original series published by a small but ambitious publisher that needs it.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Hellboy the Crooked man

"Hellboy the Crooked man" is the name of Dark Horse's recently concluded three-issue mini-series. It was published as a spiritual follow-up to Hellboy's creator Mike Mignola and his artistic collaborator Richard Corben's "Hellboy Makoma "mini-series from some years back. Considering that Dark Horse is benefitting from the major attention the Hellboy movie sequel is getting them, the creators must have thought the franchise strong enough to support another spin-off.

Corben is a veteran horror/fantasy artist, and it makes sense that Mignola would've jumped at the chance to work with him again, especially if it meant dabbling with yet another culture's take on folklore and superstition, which has influenced so much of his writing for the last decade or so. Dealing with themes of witchcraft actually enables Hellboy's creator to show us another side of the subject, which has figured in such a major way in the main title.

It's clear that the creators like this kind of tale, and Dark Horse has never shied away from it's pulpy influences.What Mignola and Corben serve up is a grizzle short story, no doubt inspired by the horror magazines they liked in their youth, filtered through the world of Hellboy. Unlike "Makoma", with its focus on African tribal tradition, "the Crooked man" shows us the wild province of American countryside and all of the otherwordly dealings the common folk turn to in fear and desparation.

The tale starts off slow, throwing the young Hellboy into a strange, exposition-heavy setting, but later on more than makes up for it, delivering on every cruelty and injustice hinted at by the eclectic cast. Hellboy is brought on to investigate the case and we are treated to several glimpses of his futre fate, but, odd as it sounds, he remains mostly in the background, as someone who is new to the local history of evil, much like the reader is.

Corben's visceral pen does a lot to color the foreboding atmosphere, but he is second to none when it comes to applying caricature in order to depict the twisted faces of country folk, their sinful features exaggerated for effect. Story-wise, drifting through all the grim and despair can be a little confusing, and for all the detail Mignola puts in the proceedings, he does not make us care a whole lot for the characters. When you're heaped with the long list of atrocities all of these individuals have damned their lives with, it's hard to care whether any of them will find a way to Heaven. And that's the point of the story, one which the creators only aspire to, but do not reach, no matter how urgent the whole ordeal purports to be.

For better of worse, "the Crooked man" keeps trying to hit the same not of hysteria, and it succeeds on the level of a comic book horror story. It gets it's point across, even if we don't get too interested in the heroes' fate. The mini's got two of the most influential horror/fantasy comic book creators behind it and it shows, no matter the personal preference.

And yet, it fails as a Hellboy story. Sure, Mignola's signature creation's in it, but he gets treated more like an ornament than a character, his very existing clashing with the pseudo-realism the creators try so hard to convey. Hellboy ends up looking too superheroic and out of place in his own book, which is telling of the greatest problem with "the Crooked man".

In agreeing to publish this story as a Hellboy tale, much like "Abe Sapien: the Drowning", Dark Horse is asking the reader to expect something different than the usual fun romp through the highly stylized horror and mythology backdrop. This time around, there is no doubt that this story would've worked better devoid od the strenuous Hellboy connection, yet that would guarantee Dark Horse a lot of problems with how to market it, ensuring it would never sell on the level of the Hellboy spin-offs. That all goes to further establish how Hellboy is rapidly becoming a franchise capable of supporting a whole line of titles, being developed by different creative teams. Time will tell whether Hellboy as a brand can withstand the kind of stretching that allows titles like "the Crooked man" to exist, without shedding readers in the process.

Corben himsels seems in a hyperactive phase, producing work for Conan and Haunt of horror Lovecraft, back to back with his work on "the Crooked man". To his credit, the art does not suffer, no matter what motivated him to seek extra work from his old editors all of a sudden.

Taking all that into account, we are left with a short story that does most of what it sets out to do, being a pet project of the authors. And perhaps it's best that they rod the wave of attention Hellboy the Golden Army has brought Dark Horse, packaging it as an adjacent mini-series, if that meant allowing this tale to exist, and entertain us.

Sunday, September 21, 2008


David Lloyd is an artist most famous for "V for vendetta", his collaboration with Alan Moore. And yet, much like Dave Gibbons and Eddie Campbell, Moore's other contributors, he did not subsequently rise to fame. The general impression seems to be that all of those artists are still around, but dabbling into experiments and alternative projects not really worthy of anyone's time. I guess that's what happens when your style is so associated with a particular Moore collaboration that most of your audience don't actually want to see you doing anything new.

And yet, if Lloyd's latest offering, the Kickback graphic novel, is cracked open, it reveals that the artist has matured into a very capable write/artist. Or perhaps he always was, and we didn't really get to see it before.

Make no mistake, "Kickback" is a genre piece, a neo-noir story in the same vein as "Romeo is bleeding". And if it indeed doesn't break the confines of sub-genre for the case of high-brow experimentation with comics' form, it's still a very good read. Once again, it's the specific nature of American comic books that leaves us with impression that doing superhero stories in that form is the norm, and that the creators should have found a way to employ their noir ideas in Hollywood. And I guess that's why David Lloyd's "Kickback" was first published in France.

In any event, Lloyd treats the sequential from as a real veteran. Utilizing his unique position as both the writer and the artist of the book, he tells the story in a way that is both very seamless and pleasant to look at.

The story starts a bit on the fast side, but eventually finds its pace, framed around the main character's enigmatic dreams. Yet, Lloyd manages not only to heap trouble upon his main character, showing us if police detective Joe Canelli can find his way out the toughest time in his life, when all his decisions come to haunt him, but also succeeds in presenting a character that actually has a social life to help him round it all out. Choosing to leave the setting of the story, largely ambiguous, Lloyd serves us up with Franklin city, a depressive and bleak town, that gives us right from the start an idea of the type of story we're about to read.

Much like David Lapham's "Silverfish", it's not really hard to envision the story as a movie, but that holds true to many of the crime novels too. Lloyd's handsome male-lead only helps further that assumption, but helpfully the supporting characters show up to deliver the realism with their all too common and true physical personas. Unfortunately Lloyd doesn't escape the most common of artist's traps, depicting regular women as super models, but that doesn't detract so much of the work, as does some of the more simplified characterizations, a few of the key players sport.

And yet, the story is all about the main character, who is, despite his solid looks and a beautiful caring woman beside him, a man troubled inside and out. By concentrating on really developing the main character's past, the rest of the story boils down to pitfalls necessary for him to "come of age", becoming a more complete person in the process.

As the book goes on, some of the more surreal symbolic elements are helpfully explained by the characters, and are dealt with a bit more directly than it would appear to be at the beginning of the story. Make no mistake, it's still a genre story, about a policeman facing the corruption in himself and his own department, but it goes about it in an interesting way, and most importantly, shows us how David Lloyd would develop such a scenario.

In any event, "Kickback" is a breath of fresh air, and goes to show how much the current market misses such well thought-out and artistically achieved books. David Lloyd has not only gave us a great thriller to read, he has left his fans eagerly awaiting the next project he chooses to develop, in whatever genre he decides to approach it.

Sunday, September 7, 2008


Devil's Due is an interesting publisher. Most of their line consists of licensed or licensable properties that work in the similar vein, that of updating the Saturday Morning cartoons for an audience that is more mature. Thus, the titles feel fresh and happy to channel the video-game violence in hope of ending up adapted as a Hollywood action flick.

And that's pretty much the deal with Spooks, yet another Devil's Due publishing title that has pretty much flew under the radar of most of the fans and critics. It has apparently sold enough copies to warrant an ongoing series, and that's what's finally got me to check out the mini-series the concept originally debuted in.

Now, Spooks' autorship is a very complicated thing. It's apparently an idea of Ryan Schifrin and Daniel Alter, who thought it would be cool to envision the movie that mixes Larry Hamma's GI Joes fighting RA Salvatore's RPG monsters. And yet, the creators decided it's best to hold on to embelisshing the movie script and just send the concept over to Hamma and Salvatore to develop as a comic. Hamma accepted the job of co-scripting the book with Schifrin, no doubt in order to have it presented to the Hollywood producers as soon as possible, and Salvatore (with his brother, Geno Salvatore, even!) ended up briefly summing up the way he saw some of the monsters could be used for good effect. Add Adam Archer, a quick, up-and-coming aritst to the mix, and you've got a Devil's Due series, fast and furious, as it tries to capture everyone's attention.

Getting into the story is easy, as the principal players are quickly introduced, and everything is set up for the action sequences, that are at the heart of the story. The characters are easy to distinguish, their personalities as simple and quick to grasp as their code names. There is even a hint of romance with the introduction of a female soldier, but make no mistake, she's mostly there to tease the audience and smooth up the breaks between the showdowns with monsters. As for the villains, they are even less distinctive, and except for some contrived ties to the heroes' pasts, defined solely by their bestial nature.

The story takes some twists and turns, as the soldiers of yet another S.H.I.E.L.D. knockoff agency (complete with a witty and quickly-forgettable acronym), sporting familiar blue jumpsuits reveal themselves as ready for anything, battle-scarred anti-heroes. After numerous takes on this post-Aliens and Starship Troopers idea, the whole thing seems very campy and tired.

The rushed and not quite ready for the prime time artwork certainly doesn't help endear the series to new readers, but it's at least clear in depicting numerous complicated battlefield scenarios. Some of the variant covers are very nice to look at, though, and it's a real shame that DDP didn't pare up Schifrin and Hamma with an artist who would depict these characters and their world in a slicker way in this, its introduction to the audience.

On the other hand, the writers take the whole thing seriously, and manage to help tie the project into a coherent tale. "Spooks" does not aspire to experimentation with the form and structure of sequential art, it's a concept that's by chance premiered in the comics form, as it tries to communicate its take on monster hunting to the readers. It's not novel in any way, and certainly doesn't distinguish itself enough to fulfill its goals in the first mini-series, but the writers help make it into a real story, one that's readable and entertaining.

The most glaring problem is that it simply does not have a lot going for it. From the beginning to the end you get GI Joe fighting the undead, and little else that is new or unique. The book tries to divert the readers' attention by introducing us to the secret government organization and characters from its Alpha and Beta teams that already have some history with each other, even setting up the black-ops Omega division, that has since become the star of the ongoing series. Yet, all that aside, it reamins the sum of its parts, ie. the story about army grunts trying to stop a zombie apocalypse, brought on by a sorcerer a mad-on for humans.

Arguably, the book works best when dealing with little details, such as the arms and equipment used to fight supernatural, and some of the action sequences do come off as fun and unusual. The focus on the main characters doesn't succeed as much, though, and they remain little more than cyphers, occasionally trying for melodrama, but mostly resorting to sprouting one-liners in the middle of the fight. Perhaps using the standard 6-issue story arc would have helped the book utilize more space for developing its ideas.

To sum it up, I'm not sure that the set up like this fits for an action movie it so desperately wants to be. I see a lot of a generic video-game in it, what with it's heavy focus on short bursts of formulaic story spliced between all the gory fights. Despite the cliches and overall blandness of the whole thing, the irony is that it could work as an ongoing series. DDP did not make a mistake by going forwards with the ongoing series, because some of its concepts could benefit with a lot of space for re-tinkering and development that a monthly provides.

Dan Slott's Thing

Here's an old review I once wrote for Newsarama's readers review section. It discusses the Thing's last series, canceled just days after I wrote why I think the sales are winding down.

(Pull my) Thing #1-6 review
the Character

The Thing is a classic superhero supporting character of Silver age whose book Fantastic Four works so well that Marvel has always kept it close to the Lee-Kirby original. He has meant a lot to superhero universes, as the ideal sidekick. He has indebted the genre by visual and powers first, springing forth many follow ups the most famous of which being the Hulk and broadened the team superhero dynamic by establishing a rule of the big lug powerhouse all teams must have. In terms of personality he was also exceptional for his time with his working man blue collar ethic later much imitated in everything from Doom Patrol's Robotman to Mike Mignola's Hellboy. Adding the two gave us a perfect Marvel creation - Stan Lee's humanity and Jack Kirby's epic vision together in one character that works wonderful as a quick fan-favorite. He had a team up series in the 70-ies when he was still widely popular while She-Hulk has previously been in and out of spotlight without much successes, even replacing the Thing as a member while he was having solo adventures in yet another forgotten chapter of his latter part of publishing history. Coupled with a gimmick related to roaming the post event world of Secret war crossover Thing proved unsuccessful in the 80-ies and was canceled 3 years into the book's history considering the books sold better then. Since, Thing has proven incapable of carrying his own series partly because he lacks individuality and works best when justapoxed against others and partly, because he's an afterthought - all (the only kind there is - old) readers know everything there is to know about him and get enough of a reminder in his parent book. Times have changed and nowadays many creators cite Reed Richards as a favorite Fantastic Four character with Thing staying in the background providing old favorite sound bytes, unable to alter his appearance, grow beyond his horseplay with Johny Storm or get back at Yancy streeters. New characters don't sell, icons appear not to sell steady except when driven through life changing crossover events - even hot creative teams don't make much change when not dealing with the lesser known characters.

the New series

Thus writer Dan Slott has successfully rebuilt She-Hulk with a bold new and thought-out concept, his creativity has since showed up in the GLA mini-series. Thing on the other hand was too much of a no-brainer and no creative challenge - Marvel liked Spiderman/Human Torch Slott's old, continuity inspired fun with a lot of heart in it very much. The problem was that it was written for the movie crowd mini ala Wolverine/Punisher and Spiderman/Daredevil oneshot which went a long way past it's original intent. Marvel coupled Slott with a hot penciler Andrea Divito and a proven icon with the potential for tongue in cheek superhero adventure which is where it fails. Thing is a well-rounded character that will work as a lucrative licensed property as long as the freelancers keep updating it to modern fans with minimal changes - exactly where Slott and the editorial tripped. Dan Slott seemingly follows John Byrne's career, tackling with properties Byrne played around on the side in the 80-ies (GLA, Thing and She-Hulk) while producing much bigger successes on Superman and Fantastic Four, providing there literally second most important versions to some of the most popular American comic books. The irony is that the Thing and She-Hulk's co-creator Stan Lee had a much more prophetic take - limiting the first to a sidekick role in Fantastic Four and providing the second with an ongoing series. Strangely, Slott became instrumental in showing that to readers releasing much of She-Hulk's potential by recreating the simpler character while being in the dark with what to do with previously fully developed Thing. Green Arrow-like Thing has no arch villains of his own leaving the anti-hero supporting character to be his own biggest enemy, also the feel of Thing's adventures is that of a Fantastic Four episode where he is a main character providing a break from the more adventurous SF tales. Ironically, Slott avoided this by divorcing She-Hulk from the Avengers and showing her character and up to date momentum all in the first issue while spending three ones to do the same with the Thing, dropping the ball afterwards when it came to revisioning the book and making it's own originality. The book is the perfect sum of its parts but no more than that, in truth it's too retro and unambitious for it's own good. Marvel launched the book on previously established strengths with the only new element of the story premise being that all of a sudden Ben is a billionaire and it fails which is a strange scenario already dealt with everywhere from the Flintstones to Carl Barks' duck books. It's a silly setup considering his parent book always treated him and his teammates like superstar celebrities living in SF technology heaven of a Doc Savage-inspired headquarters which even if ignored can be expected to go away as abrupt as it showed up as a status-quo restoring trick. Slott is spreading himself too thin writing similar books at the same time, we have seen him showing us obscure characters before and here they don't do much to build a convincing new status quo - Even Lockjaw, the most permanent addition to supporting cast does show up until issue 4. The solicitations promise more of the same which is, in itself, not a bad thing considering it will borne out even more solid old-fashioned done-in-one comics which is strangely a rarity on today's market, itself built on that very definition. Just like with She-Hulk a year ago, Slott is fighting to keep the book alive but the situation is different - the same comic that does not manage to convince us that it has a reason for existence beyond that, especially compared to Fantastic Four and She-Hulk covering the same ground, it is moving small numbers, the penciler has been shifted to Annihilation which is a huge crossover that popularly reinvents a corner of a Marvel universe, much like She-Hulk once did. It remains to be seen what change will the new penciler Kieron Dwyer bring, along with the announced trade paperback. Perhaps previously introduced characters Constrictor, Carlotta la Rosa and Sheckie will reshape the book when (or if) they show up again, - until then it's back to the Thing trying to work out a relationship with Alicia Masters.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Ultimate Iron Man II #5

Ultimate Iron Man II #5

This Wednesday brought a long-awaited conclusion to the second Ultimate Iron Man mini-series, and yet the fandom was strangely silent about the whole thing. Perhaps by now most of us are used to the delays that plague the comics these days, particularly the ones under Marvel’s Ultimate imprint. Or perhaps Marvel is hoping to gather the fans’ attention when they inevitably publish the upcoming trade paperback collection that collects the whole mini in its preferred format.

In any case, it’s impossible to discuss this issue without turning the attention towards the whole project it serves to conclude.

It shouldn’t be hard to understand the way the whole enterprise begun, more than three years ago. Marvel was happy with the way the Ultimate line was doing, carefully managing it in four ongoing titles – Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Spiderman, Ultimates and Ultimate Fantastic Four. Tapping high profile creators to reimagine their key books as accessible, new reader-friendly titles brought a lot of success to Marvel.

Still, they had a major problem with their flagship title, the Ultimates, and the heavy delays it suffered. Not content on leaving money on the table, Marvel decided to have their cake and eat it too, filling in the publishing schedule with Ultimates Annuals and minis. When it came to spotlighting Iron Man, the editorial came up with the idea of pairing the famed SF novelist Orson Scott Card with Andy Kubert, a surefire veteran of the line, who worked on both Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four.

Counting on the publicity brining in a respected author would get them, Marvel had no reason to think there would be any problems with such a foolproof strategy.

And yet, after the deals were made and the project green-lighted, nothing seemed to go the way it was supposed to. The first mini took a long time to be completed, and by then Andy Kubert was already gone to DC, forcing Marvel to hire Ultimate Spiderman’s Mark Bagley to finish the last issue. By then, it was clear that the story will stretch to another mini-series, and Marvel worked to find a replacement for Kubert, whose action-oriented approach always felt a bit miscast with Card’s slow burn story.

And what a story it was. Starting out with the events surrounding Tony’s birth, it was clear from the start that this version of Iron Man had little in common with his older self , as depicted in the Ultimates. Perhaps invited on by Marvel to do another take on the kid genius archetype he spotlighted in his “Ender’s game” series of novels, Card concentrated on telling a coming of age story of teen Tony, that bears more similarity to Harry Potter than Marvel’s infamous Shellhead.

For some reason, even the mainstream Marvel universe toyed with the adolescent depiction of the character, which brought out the controversial “the Crossing” storyline that even replaced Marvel’s icon with his younger counterpart. It’s unclear what exactly motivates Marvel to keep presenting the version of the character that isn’t a playboy or a heavy drinker, character traits most closely associated with Iron Man.

In any case, the first mini ended on a cliffhanger, with adolescent Tony making his first moves towards his superhero destiny. Marvel waited a long time to pick a new artist and started serializing the second mini, despite the fact that such measures undermine the project’s already erratic schedule.

At last, come 2007, with Pasqual Ferry on artistic duties, Marvel was finally able to continue publishing Card’s story. Ferry was a great choice, as his style was open and attractive. He came on the book following a departure from working on Mister Miracle and penciling Ultimate Fantastic Four.

Again the series ran into schedule problems, and was at the last minute resolicited with a bonus issue, designated to tie up the loose ends. By then, the lateness had long scrapped any possibility of tying in with the movie, and the whole idea of a Ultimate Iron Man mini-series was seemingly forgotten by the fans.

And now, after six months of waiting, the fifth issue finally materializes. Peeking through the covers, it turns out that Ferry’s art stops at the middle point, and the rest of the story’s illustrated by Hellblazer’s Leonardo Manco. Perhaps Ferry was brought back to DC comics before finishing the mini, making it a full circle since two years ago, when he abandoned the Mister Miracle mini mid-stream to work at Marvel. Whatever the case, shifting the art to Manco’s grittier style doesn’t do any service to the title.

And yet, that doesn’t number among the book’s biggest problems, considering that most readers will get to sample it in its designated form, that of a trade paperback collection. Concentrating on the project in this way, it makes an uneven picture, making it hard to understand why Marvel saw fit to package it as two separate mini-series.

The latest issue serves as the conclusion to nothing more than the second act of a three part story, one that’s left a lot of threads in the air. At the story’s current point, Tony Stark is still a superhuman with fantastic abilities not mentioned in the Ultimates title, a teenager who has a long way ahead of him to becoming that character.

Structure-wise, perhaps the biggest disadvantage to this approach is that it doesn’t fulfill its premise, that of Iron Man’s early days, repositioned so as to include his clash with Obadiah Stane. This should not be glossed over, considering that Stane is a defining villain for the regular Marvel universe version of the character, and the closest thing Iron Man has to a threat in his cinematic debut. Finishing the story in this way, Marvel cheats out their readers of a showdown they spent two mini-series building up to.

So, how does the editorial compensate for the supervillain presence in the finale of this tale?

Well, the book retraces its steps and brings back a supporting player from the beginning of the story to antagonize the character. This way of doing things actually does bring some closure and does not so much come from the left field as it seemed at the close of the previous issue. In many ways, the last couple of issues benefitted from the long and exposition-heavy set up at the beginning of the second mini, treating the reader to some suspenseful and action-filled sequences.

On the other hand, a couple of supporting characters end up wounded in the process, and another is rushed into an early grave. It all goes to show that this issue should’ve been no more than a chapter break before the concluding mini brings the characters to a logical ending point, some years later in the book’s internal chronology.

Choosing to end things like this, Marvel not only cheats us of a well-deserved throw down with Obadiah, but leaves us with Howard Stark that’s still not fulfilled his character arc, along with his under-utilized female assistant. Even Tony’s drinking problems feels mishandled. Bringing it up at this early point in his life and not going through with it ends up as fanservice, complicating the already cluttered story in the hope of adding more nuances to Tony’s character. With a set up like this, even the pre-superhero Ultimate universe framework feels as somewhat underutilized, in that it mostly consists of using Ultimate Fantastic Four’s Baxter building as a generic top secret lab. It all adds up to the feeling that what Card has shown us is a new version of Iron Man, pretty much divorced from both his Ultimate and Marvel universe counterparts.

Forced to take a microscopic look at the project as its author intended it, Ultimate Iron Man is a science fiction story inspired by the superhero icon. It fails to build up the license friendly take on the character, but serves up a smart, well thought out story that stands up to a closer inspection. The book does not cheat its audience of the elaborate details needed to really immerse in its setting, and presents us with smart and witty characters, seeking out new adolescent readers who would have trouble identifying with the more familiar, corporate version of the character. The book remains political enough to place a major terrorist ploy at its center, regardless of whether it finds its intended audience or not. The premise is carried over from the first mini, and this time around the authors see fit to tie it seamlessly with Iron Man’s debut as a new kind of superhero, bringing all subplots together in the main narrative.

The story still struggles as it brings in the government as an interested party, and keeps repeating the same story points, mostly evidenced by continued and unbelievable peril that threatens Howard Stark’s life while he’s imprisoned as part of the villain’s frame up. The female characters are forced to fight for space as part of the supporting cast that’s already packed too tight, and end up feeling as little more than token smart, racially diverse girls.

The whole mini goes to great lengths to set up the villain’s appearance in this issue, after treating us with the henchmen, such as the ultimate Whiplash and an unfamiliar midget fraud named Dolores. It doesn’t really pay off, primarly because it’s so obvious that the writer has an enormous affection for little Obadiah, who keeps stealing the show in every scene he’s in.

Thus, our attention is continually diverted from the strangely bland and uninspiring Tony Stark with his regenerative abilities and vaguely defined cloud of nano bots. Even War Machine feels not so much shoehorned in but cliched and uninteresting, failing to really catch on as Tony’s sidekick. Eventually in the last issue, James spends most of his time off-panel, in order to provide Tony for face-time with the adversary.

In fact, the whole finale feels rushed, and the villain’s psychotic antics seem familiar and fail to leave an impression. Considering the book feels a lot like a contemporary action movie (especially with the plane sequence in the earlier issues), the villain’s modus operandi unintentionally brings the whole endgame to an unfavorable comparison with the Dark Knight’s chilling Joker sequences.

Taking all this into consideration, Marvel’s years in the making techno thriller reads and feels very uneven. Judging by the recently concluded Ultimate Hulk/Iron Man mini, the editorial is actively avoiding the trouble they went through collaborating with Card and are much more keen to get back to the movie tie-in minis (like they did with Ultimate Daredevil and Ultimate Elektra), as Marvel prepares to reposition the Ultimate Universe and hopefully bring it back to the fans’ attention with the Ultimatum event.

Monday, August 18, 2008


David Lapham’s Silverfish

To start with, all I knew about this graphic novel is that it’s something that Vertigo’s been teasing for a while without a clear date, much like “Alcoholic”, “Sentences” or “Incognegro”. I knew that David Lapham has made himself a name writing and drawing "Stray bullets" but the only thing I read of him has been a story-arc on "the Darkness" that was very strange and surreal but also worked better than most of other stories in the second volume of the series. Now I see that the what he did there was break continuity and do his own thing which is why it was interesting and original. Anyway, what brought me to Silverfish was the back cover blurb that was very brief but also strange in a completely original way:

“With her dad and new stepmother, Suzanne, away for the weekend, Mia Fleming finds her stepmother’s secret possessions: an address book, a stash of money and a knife caked in blood. As Mia begins to unravel Suzanne’s twisted double life, she unleashes a Pandora’s box of horrors when she phones Daniel, a sadistic killer who believes he has a demonic fish living in his ear…“

The story is in black and white, much like most of David Lapham’s other work, it starts out slow but it builds on, having a proper length of 150+ pages and it never seems cluttered. A lot of (back) story is told, and usually in conversations at that but most of it very intersting, and even than the book picks up the pace in the frequent silent action scenes. The whole thing ends up a real page-turner even though the art can be a bit rough in some places. The supernatural elements perceived by a character are handled in a very reader-friendly way which in most books can get a bit heady and more mysterious than is good for them.

The characters are quickly established, most of them familiar movie archetypes that work well in the context of the story, with the only flaws being visually in the relative similar way the two best friends, Mia and Veronica look and narratively in the way of their buddies, a couple that plays a very small role in the plot after vanishing completely without any mention in the second part of the story.

The action movie set pieces are all there and there is nothing wrong with them – the fear of the past and it’s present implications is fueled by the physical isolation while the ending takes place in a memorable locale previously established that actually adds to the psychological effect of the supernatural on a character. One of the characters also has a disability that serves the story well to add to the tension in a way that is perhaps a bit of cliché too but handles itself well and proves useful by not drawing too much attention to itself, while very importantly pumping up the atmosphere.

The graphic novel is similar in a way to Dark Horse’s recently released “the Secret”, but while that mini-series’ plot starts with a series of prank calls that is also where two stories part ways, this one not turning out a take on a Scream-like horror story.

“Silverfish” is set in the late 80ies around New Year’s eve in the same way that films like “Donnie Darko” do – it looks like 80ies and feels like a product of that time but remains universal in all the ways that matter.

What should be clear by now is how much the whole thing works like the movie, everything about David Lapham’s story works like a very visual movie-pitch and a modestly budgeted one in the best sense of the term. The Vertigo imprint does not shy away from their tendency to produce sophisticated genre entertainment, so this should come as no surprise.

As for the merits which make this a mature readers story, they are on the level. The story is deeply disturbing and shows graphic violence at times while shying away from exploiting it along with it’s protagonists’ bodies. The sex is implying to have taken place and is part of the story but there is no nudity I can think of, which is very telling in it’s own right, considering none of the mostly female characters are objectivized, keeping to their realistic outfits and, most importantly, acting and behaving like real people.

Finally, at its heart this is the story of the way people trying to secure the best place in life for themselves and deserving that trust told from the point of view of ordinary teenagers and balanced by the use of a frequent contemporary paranoia trope - the serial killer. When all is said and done, the story lives up to what it’s set out to do, being a very entertaining and griping thriller, preciously rare in the American superhero dominated comic book industry.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

the North wind

Now, this bit of review actually got deleted from the publisher's massage board, so I guess it could even be considered controversial!:)

I remember being satisfied with this when I wrote it, and I hope it makes for a nice read.

1. Introduction

Let's try to imagine that North wind is the movie, which will make for a much easier start of the review. Now, North wind the movie is your slightly atypical post-apocalyptic block buster movie, and it just opened in theatres. The story is basically a coming of age tale, set in the backdrop that is much more fantasy than sci-fi.

As a framing device, we're being told the story from a particular point in the future, which makes a framing device whose importance is clear in the epilogue. North Wind the movie doesn't give its main character Pak much to work with, painting him as a classic destiny-obsessed figure, whose idealism does not waver or accept the harsher reality the rest of the characters live in.

That said, most of them are stock characters, playing the roles of strong and ambitious single mother, spiritual wise tutor who steps in for the boy as a father figure, a slightly fazed love-interest, and a ruthless villain whose single redeeming feature conveniently stops being an issue by the end of the second act, just in time for the final confrontation. The less said of the fun-loving drunkard who Pak relies on when he gets to the city of Lost Angeles, the better.

Having said that, the setting is very early established and except for a single characteristic very quickly fades into the background, becoming yet another dark post-apocalyptic city.

As for the rest, there are a few times when a plot point takes the viewer by surprise, especially the ending, but was no doubt agreed upon to differentiate it from many other movies of the same ilk. There's even a tournament Pak enters incognito after he gets in the city, vying to win the chance to play catch up with his long-lost childhood friend, now distressingly in the domain of the evil governor. In the eleventh hour, the writer decides to throw in the obligatory resistance movement, just to raise the stakes for the explosive endgame.

There's not much more that can be said about North Wind the movie, except that there's always a possibility for the sequel. You either like this kind of movie, or you don't, and there's enough of a distinction on the surface, that coupled with a few twists in the story and a healthy dose of special effects, that it can leave it's mark on the jaded audiences, weary from the latest extravaganza that failed to entertain them.

Which is all well and good, but North Wind is a comic-book mini-series, which depending on how you look at that, could change everything.

2. the Mini-series

North Wind was a publishing experiment for Boom! Studios, an independent comic-book company mostly devoted to work on the projects which could be easily adapted into feature films. It also had the distinction of being the first comic-book to be officially distributed for free on MySpace, simultaneously with its release in the more traditional pamphlet format.

It's already optioned as a movie, which might mean nothing in the long run. It's also receiving flattering reviews on the Internet, but most of them are subjective anyway, which are traditionally willing to turn a blind eye towards non-superhero material, in favor of someone actually acting up on the good word and checking out the low-selling stuff too.

This is where things take a turn for the worse. Now, North Wind is by no means a bad comic-book, the writing is crystal clear, approachable, nicely-paced and art is both fitting, serviceable to the story and atmospheric, mostly of the well above-average level. The main problem lies in the basic idea that this is not a comic-book story, but one told in comics because of the inherent pulp thematic connections. The authors don't aim to achieve any particular artistic or entertaining value connected in the comic-book playing field, they are merely just another people trying to find their way to Hollywood by publishing a glorified sales pitch.

Which is not bad for the industry, but still makes the whole thing kind of soulless and interchangeable, particularly today, when the book's competing with many similar projects on the market. And that's where the irony becomes apparent, because even at their worst, comics fare better than retreading the same cliches, sporting your average bland protagonist like the latest CG-fueled movie does. The medium has potential for so much better and more innovative stuff, which has been proved time and time again, both in the mainstream and small press publishing.

Comic creators usually pick a more interesting angle, and find space to tell the story sporting something new and quirky, even when it's clear that they're not dealing with a winner. They try, make the whole thing into an ongoing and change direction, struggle with it, and even after it's ended or cancelled, a lot of questions are still in the air, along with a wealth of story and ideas that can eventually being mined into a solid movie.

North Wind is a comic-book designed from the start not to stray from its point, and thus forced to go through the motions, just to catch it's audience and surprise them when it steers left, at the moment when we all thought it would go right. It's a big action movie, but you are left feeling nobody got to attached to the thing, it was just an exercise in branding something very familiar into the next big thing everyone kids will pay their money to enjoy, and later continue the experience with the obligatory video-game tie-ins.

3. Should you read it?

Now, the only real question is, was the story worth your time and money. And, that depends on the reader – if you're looking to be entertained by a shallow, action-packed movie that hits the ground running and doesn't stop till the big finale, you're in for a fun ride, with some new thrills every once in a while. But, if you're a fan of the medium, and something that is both personal and authentic, you better give this a pass, just like the way you did the last blockbuster that you didn't want anything to do with.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Stray bullets - an analysis

I've always wanted to have a place to regularly write about the things I like, and have finally managed to sit down and just get on with it.

Continuing on in the same spirit, for the first post I'll use an essay on "Stray bullet" I wrote and published on various websites. This time, I hope it finds the proper audience, along with my other forthcoming reviews and commentaries.

David Lapham’s Stray bullets is characterized by realistically depicting the continuing impact violence has on shaping the lives of a group of characters in the 1980s. It is told in a non-linear way, with differing points of view. Each issue is self-contained, in spite of it’s overall place in the book’s story, exemplified by the numbering counting every page as if there are no breaks in the story, not paying the attention to the format it’s serialized in. Unfortunate delays in publishing coupled with issues’ usual 30-odd pages of story betray it’s beginnings, that of a black and white independent comic.

In the place of the book’s de-facto main character is Virginia Applejack, a coming-of-age runaway that grows with each scar life cuts her, changing towns and false names. To break away from the sometimes somber town of the book, the author segues into colorful zany adventures of Amy Racecar, tying into the story as Virginia’s fantasy life, mostly as a surreal parallel to her unpleasant surroundings and the particular trouble she is currently experiencing in the larger story.

The first issue is particularly misleading as it tells of Joey’s nervous breakdown, employing a much more visceral and disturbing tone than the rest of the series. It’s also notable in that it takes place considerably later than the rest of the series, perhaps showing us the story’s end point. Henceforth, Joey is seen in passing, as a damaged child, victimized by his mother’s ties to the local criminal element. The rest of the series’ first story-arc “Innocence of nihilism” consists of mostly thematically related short-stories, taking place in Baltimore, and spotlighting the upcoming recurring characters, though leaving them mostly in the background. Virginia is the exception, emerging spontaneously into more space as the story goes on. Taking an age-old cue, Lapham plays around showing the mob boss Harry’s face, instead spotlighting his cronies Spanish Scott and Monster, that are more in touch with the day-to-day life the author centers his attention on.

At the time unknown to the reader, one of those stories is central to the plot of the next story-arc, “Somewhere out west”, in which Lapham peaks as a creator. In a somewhat lighter touch, the author relocates the story to Seaside, whereupon he proceeds to bend together some of the previously introduced characters, albeit never having shown the exact central event that led to their current situation. Despite the character work and humorous aspects of the scenario, the drug-related darker elements are visible, and eventually bring on the payoff with the masterful finale which ties up most of the loose ends.

It’s difficult to judge “Other people”, Lapham’s next story-arc, considering that the spotlight moves to Los Angeles, where the familiar faces once again try to find a way to make a living, if only for a short while. This time around, the drama that takes place is much more subdued, relegated to the complicated issues of marriage and infidelity, mostly filtered through the new characters that form a local social scene. Indeed, perhaps it’s best that the author opted to continue on in the same setting in the next storyline, “Dark days” which really shakes back the lives of the two runways, force to play the role of a surrogate family when they are both centers of weird affection by men. The story’s ties to organized crime are acknowledged by the new role of one of the previously emotionless suitors, eventually forced to oppose a kidnapper, as the story explores child molestation. Due to his increased presence in mainstream comics, David Lapham has yet to pencil the last issue of the book’s fifth storyline by the name of ”Hijinks and Derring-do”.

Lapham’s stories are expertly paced, his art-style being realistic just that much so as to depict real people in a tragic and believable way, as well as easily being able to bend into comedy as the hysteria strikes the other way. In the title that is only pessimistic on the surface, the author keeps exploring the themes of women in peril and the insecure men they manipulate to help them through complicated situations. The characters are spared the one-dimensional characterizations, ensuring they remain real people ignorant of the stereotypical “the psychopaths versus the innocents” approach.

Lapham forgoes the stylized dialogue for the realistic take, with characters fond of exclaiming the retro phrase “Cool beans”. The author utilizes the popular culture references sparsely, usually to establish the atmosphere by recalling the original Star Wars movies. He doesn’t escape the frequent trap of mature-readers comics, and digs at the superhero industry that marginalizes his and other comics tailor-made for more of mainstream success. Thus, a shy rich kid is depicted as a Marvel comics fan, going so far to pencil his own work, in a much warmer and personal touch by the author.

The overall message is concise and strong, teaching that empowerment, maturation and a semblance of regular life are not to be sought through getting in touch with the criminal element.

Monday, August 11, 2008

the Perhapanauts: First Blood

Todd & Craig

I'll start of by saying that "the Perhapanauts" is a brainchild of writer Todd DeZago and artist Craig Rousseau. I've known DeZago from "Tellos", a fantasy comic he did with late Mike Wieringo, while Rousseau is an artist with a long list of titles he's worked on.

Their collaboration is noted on the covers by their first names only, and I must admit that it was seeing "Todd & Craig's" listed above the comic's title, coupled with the cute character designs, that drew me to check Perhapanauts out in the first place.


Now, the title's actually one of the things I have problems with. I know that it sounds like a strange thing to say, but consider that I'm not a native English speaker. Anyway, the word "Perhapanauts" strikes me as hard to pronounce, and I actually had trouble learning to spell it correctly.

Presumably, the creators wanted the name to carry part of the comic's odd charm, but I'm not sure that this was the way to go, especially if merchandising is taken into account.


Speaking of media crossover appeal, I find that "the Perhapanauts" has the same animted movie-like sensibility that I found in DeZago's "Tellos". The concept of an SF team consisting of several distinctive races working together also reminds me of RPG, and could even be adapted as such.

As for the elevator pitch, that of the monster hunters being monsters themselves, at first glance it seems like a fresh idea, compared to the mainstream sf/horror movies. On the other hand, it's been tried in comics already, and to the mixed results. Both DC's Creature Commandos and later on Marvel's Howling Commandos tried to make the same premise work, but have failed to catch on with the readers. Dark Horse's own B.P.R.D. arguably achieved the most success with the idea, but it must be taken into accound that its cult status largely stems from the Hellboy connection.

Now, what are "the Perhapanauts"'s chances of succeeding where the others failed? Well, it spotlights "B.E.D.L.A.M.", a supernatural investigation agency that is much more light hearted than the average group of mad scientists working for a corrupt government. The agency employs a strike team of particular operatives, designated by the marker "Blue", whose character designs look pleasant and familiar in all the right ways.

All in all, the book is perfectly set up for a nice mix of horror and SF adventures, injected with a healthy dose of humor. It's not the most original concept around, but it's soundly set up, and with a proper execution could still prove enticing enough to attract readers.

Blue team

The characters themselves are a well-thought out mix that works. They look interesting, and each possesses very specific character traits, that help further distinguish among them.

It hels that the mysterious aMG and psychic Arina, the two human characters, are wisely the foucs of the first mini-series. Molly the insecure ghost and two evolved monsters, scientist Big(foot) and a kid Chupacabra take supporting roles the first time around. That was more than enough to propel Choopie, an obvious creator favorite, to get in and steal the show.

The cast is set up in such a natural way that the reader accepts without thinking that there the team numbers two females (one a minority at that) , which would seem forced in almost any other comic.

In fact, the creative team manage to find a way to even give us a peak on the rest of B.E.D.L.A.M.'s facility. Thus, we the readers are also provided with a look at the characters who will become more important later on, setting them up right from the start as the Blue team's collegues and superiors.

First blood

"the Perhapanauts" open with an excellent first issue, featuring an action-packed encounter that serves to introduce the cast in the best possible way. The character's mission is framed around a sequence that is not only informative, but also manages to end the episode on a great cliffhanger.

By the second issue, the creative team shows us that they don't plan on letting up, and the previously established threat only grows in proportion and importance. Even after the monster's seemingly dealt with, in the third issue, the villian continues to indirectly shake up the team.

All the while, important character subplots pop up in the background, urging the reader to invest in perhapanauts' next adventure, however random it may turn out to be.

However, the creators decide not to end the first mini on an idea story point, which puzzlingly happens in the middle of the third issue. Instead they choose to use the rest of the pages to rush the new story's prologue.

On the surface, the fourth and final issue of the mini is expected to work as a one-shot adventure, but the overabundance of subplots that are carried over serves to steer the reader towards the bigger picture. Thus, my attention was drawn from the fight with a generic villain to the cliffhanger that serves as a prologue to the next mini, building directly upon the events of the previous issues.


And that brings me towards the first mini's major flaw - it's simply not meant to be read on its own. Otherwise, "First blood" is a fine example of the storytelling ideally suited for an ongoing title.

My final word is that "the Perhapanauts" is a much better developed comic then if appears to be at first glance. It has many strengths, and is definitely a fresh and much-needed addition to the American comic-book market.

Let's just hope that it lasts long enough to tell all the stories the creators can't wait to get around to.