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The Wicked + The Divine #1

The Wicked + The Divine #1, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie, Image Comics, June 2014

The Wicked + The Divine #1 Like most of the comics-reading world, I discovered Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie through their two Phonogram mini-series. I quite enjoyed the first one, although McKelvie’s art was still very raw (plus it was in black-and-white, and I prefer color). But I couldn’t get into the second one, The Singles Club, which was a set of short stories with thin characterization and minimal plot. McKelvie’s art had reached A-list quality by that time, so I’ve kept an eye on each of their work. That wasn’t hard to do, since the comics blogosphere loves them. Also, I’ve been quite enjoying Gillen’s run on Iron Man (though I bailed on his Avatar comic Über after about five issues).

Their new collaboration, The Wicked + The Divine came out a couple of weeks ago to rave reviews. I enjoyed it, but I think it’s far too early to get tremendously enthusiastic about it. Well, except for the art – the art is fantastic.

The premise is that there are a set of gods (at least 4, perhaps 12) who manifest in human form – apparently by taking over the bodies of actual humans – every 90 years, stick around for 2 years, and then die. We see their last incarnations’ final moments in the 1920s in the prologue, and then we jump forward to the present day where a girl named Laura is at a dance trying to become the host for the goddess Amaterasu. She’s not chosen, but afterwards she meets Luci, one of the other gods (bet you can’t guess which one). After an assassination attempt on the gods during an interview, Luci is put on trial, and everything goes to hell.

The story has its ups and downs. The big issue I had with Phonogram is that I can’t relate to Gillen’s perspective on pop culture, especially in music, so the scene where Laura goes to Amaterasu’s concert was, for me – just short of literally – sound and fury, signifying nothing. But what happens afterwards is quite interesting: Luci’s interest in Laura, and her friction with her fellow gods, and her seemingly erratic nature. Which characters are in play, and what games they’re playing. That’s the stuff I’m interested in, and what the gods plan to do with their brief time on Earth. (What would make someone apparently give up their life to be a host to a god is another interesting question, though after this issue it’s far less interesting than what led to the issue’s cliffhanger.)

Oh, and the art is fantastic, as I said. McKelvie still sports the clean line that’s characterized his art all along, but the 1920s sequence also shows a sense of form and shading reminiscent of John Cassaday – which isn’t necessarily better than McKelvie’s usual style, but shows a lot of flexibility.

So color me cautiously optimistic. So there’s a lot of promise here. But if the series ends up being built around Gillen & McKelvie’s musical interests, or being clever in its pop culture references, then I expect it will lose my interest. It’s the gods and the game they’re playing that I’m here for.

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers, by Evan Dorkin & Jill Thompson, Dark Horse Comics, March 2014

Beasts of Burden: Hunters & Gatherers Reviewers often talk about “the best comic you’re not reading”, but I would bet that the very best comic you’re not reading is Evan Dorkin and Jill Thompson’s Beasts of Burden.

The reason you’re not reading it is that it’s published sporadically. The original mini-series has been collected in a handsome hardcover, but otherwise the team has appeared in three issues of Dark Horse Presents, and now this one-shot. Despite the relatively high-profile creators – Dorkin having come to prominence with Milk and Cheese, Thompson probably best known for her Scary Godmother books – this series has been flying under the radar.

The other reason you might not have been reading it is that it’s about a squad of animals who fight supernatural menaces, and you might not be interested in reading a comic about animals. But that’s underselling the premise, because what it’s really about is the culture of dogs and cats that Dorkin and Thompson have crafted, with a mix of characters from wise, almost shamanistic older dogs, to upstart, tough-talking younger pups, and the cat, Orphan, who hangs out with them. These animals live in suburban Burden Hill, and while we see several of them going him to their owners, and other pets who are domesticated and don’t get out much, the humans are part of the setting, not part of the story.

The story in this one-shot involves the pack of dogs luring out an invisible monster, which is par for the series, although there’s been some character development along the way, too. The story does a great job of portraying the characters, some of who are deeply scared by their mission, while others are, well, not quite fearless, but certainly bolder. The best parts of the book is the end, though, where the pack makes the rounds of their neighborhood after finishing their adventure, which really shows the attitudes of some of the different animals in contrast to each other. The last page is a little ominous, and may or may not be setting up a longer-term story.

Thompson’s art is brilliant, drawing realistic-looking animals who have expressions understandable by her human readers, without making them look cartoonish. The colors look like watercolors (see the cover to the left for a good example) and give the art additional depth and texture without overwhelming the layouts.

This one-shot may not be the best jumping-on point for the series, but it’s worth a look if you can’t find the earlier collection. It might not quite be all-ages fare, but it’s pretty close. Certainly it’d be great if sales could get a boost so Dorkin & Thompson could afford to produce more issues more regularly.

Five Weapons #7

Five Weapons #7, by Jimmie Robinson, Image Comics, February 2014

Five Weapons #7 Five Weapons is the latest project by writer/artist Jimmie Robinson, who’s best known for the superhero satire Bomb Queen (which wasn’t my thing), and earlier for his science fiction adventure Amanda and Gunn (which I love and highly recommend). Five Weapons falls somewhere between those two series in tone, being a cleverly-plotted cliffhanger-driven drama, but with a quirky setting and regular doses of humor (some of which deliberately clashes with the more serious material). There’s not much quite like it on the market today.

Five Weapons began life as a 5-issue limited series (collected), which I’ll now summarize – though since it ends with a plot twist, I’ll talk around that as best I can: Tyler Shainline is admitted to a private academy for aspiring assassins, on the strength of being the son of a famous assassin. The school focuses on skills with five different weapons, and the students are grouped into clubs around the weapons; Tyler is pressured into choosing to join a club. You’d expect that the series would show Tyler gaining mastery of all five weapons, but in fact he is a pacifist and refuses to fight with any weapon. The series’ formula is one of showdowns with the five club leaders, each issue ending on a cliffhanger where one wonders how Tyler is going to win this fight without actually fighting. Tyler is in fact at the school on a mission, which he completes at the end of the series, earning the respect of some of the other students. But, since he doesn’t actually plan to become an assassin, he leaves the school.

The ongoing series starts with issue #6, where our hero returns to the school, this time as a medic training under the school’s doctor. However, one of the other students has a grudge against him and sets out to destroy his reputation and get him expelled. The two issues since still end on a “how’s he going to get out of this one cliffhanger”, but we no longer have confidence that he’s going to overcome his enemy, who’s about as clever as he is. This issue has him working out of one fix, learning some surprising things about a few of the adults, and then getting into another jam on the last page.

While written in a straightforward, grounded manner, the setting of Five Weapons is bizarre, sometimes even surreal. There are several characters whom one might characterize as stereotypes, for example the teacher who heads the archery club, who is an American Indian (“Ms. Featherwind”). But for me, the weird thing – as you can see from the cover I’ve reproduced here, is that she has an arrow through her head, and a big target covering the left side of her head. It’s like something from a Batman or Avengers episode from the 60s, an affectation that doesn’t make much sense but sure looks weird. Characters in the series are full of this kind of thing, some of which are explained (the doctor is missing her nose and wears a bandage around her head to cover where it would be), some not.

Additionally, for a school for assassins there isn’t a whole lot of assassinating going on, and there are a lot of students attending. The story alludes to missions that some of the adults have run, but there’s a general feel of “don’t look too closely at how this place fits into the world at large”. You’d think it would take a special kind of sociopath (or psychopath) to become an aspiring assassin as a teenager, but these kids don’t really show it.

Indeed, I find the book enjoyable because the main character and his closer friends are all pretty easy to relate to. And because the cliffhangers in the story are enjoyable brain-teasers. Robinson’s artwork is also quite strong, especially in his characters’ distinctive faces and expressions; it’s a long way from superhero comics. Yet the colors are bright and cheerful, also cutting against what would seem to be grim subject matter.

It’s hard to tell whether Robinson has a long-term plan for the series, as the initial arc – presumably intended to stand on its own – felt complete in itself. Some notional 50-issue storyline would also seem out of place for this series, but we’ll see. Its internal artistic conflicts are part of what appeals to me about it; it’s got such a strong identity, yet that identity seems almost self-consciously fragile. Probably I’m overanalyzing it, as the overall feel is one of narrow escapes from danger in the most fun, adventuresque ways.

Rat Queens #4

Rat Queens #4, by Kurtis J. Wiebe & Roc Upchurch, Image Comics, January 2014

Rat Queens #4 Rat Queens is one of a smattering of (seemingly) Dungeons & Dragons inspired comics I’ve read recently. It bears some similarity to Guilded Age in that both of them focus on what happens when a band of adventurers who make their living off of fighting and plundering tries to integrate into civilized society.

In this story, the four women who make up the Rat Queens are one of several groups who draw the ire of the town’s leaders due to their drinking, carousing, and property damage. After being thrown in jail the groups are assigned “community service” in the form of being sent to clear out some nasty folks in the vicinity. But the groups find they’ve been set up to fail (and die); some groups don’t make it, but the Queens do and set out to find out who’s behind it.

The story’s told with a modern sensibility, including modern language and cursing, and a lot of it is also told with tongue firmly in cheek. But it’s still a lot of fun, and often laugh-out-loud funny, so it hooked me from the start. This issue features Betty the Hobbit thief (did I mention it’s D&D inspired?) finding out who set them up, leading to a showdown, and then another showdown as the ramifications of their adventures come home to roost. It’s a lot of fighting, much of it pretty bloody, but if you can deal with that stuff it’s also entertaining and humorous.

Writer Kurtis J. Wiebe is probably best known for Peter Panzerfaust, a World War II era tale that takes its cues from Peter Pan, but so far I think Rat Queens is the better book of the two, with more humor, better-defined characters, and more structure to its story. I also prefer the art of Roc Upchurch here to that of Tyler Jenkins on Panzerfaust; Upchurch’s style reminds me a lot of that of Fiona Staples (currently getting rave reviews for Saga), but I like Upchurch’s art better than hers, too, although both of them suffer from a paucity of backgrounds. I think Upchurch also does the colors, and I think his lines would be better served by brighter colors.

So the series has gotten off to a strong start, but I’m hoping Wiebe and Upchurch have plans to develop it beyond the humor and fighting. For example, we don’t have a strong sense of the main characters beyond Betty, and a series of escapades is going to get repetitive quickly. There’s a lot of potential in the characters and the set-up here, and I hope they’ll develop it, because that will be the difference between being an enduring series and being just an amusing diversion.

The Sandman: Overture #1

The Sandman: Overture #1 of 6, by Neil Gaiman & J.H. Williams III, DC Comics, December 2013

The Sandman: Overture #1 There’s surely no comic less in need of my recommendation than this new installment (“Back After Fifteen Years!”) of Neil Gaiman’s keynote fantasy series. But The Sandman: Overture #1 was the standout comic this week.

I was generally a big fan of the original series (I only say “generally” because I actually dropped it about six issues in, after the death-in-the-diner issue, and picked it up again with “Dream of a Thousand Cats”; also, I felt that “The Kindly Ones” was hecka padded. But it had many truly excellent stories, and worked superbly as a grand arc), so I was a bit skeptical of Overture being a prequel to the series, explaining what led to Dream being captured in the first issue of the original series. Indeed, we see many elements in this first issue which were revealed only over time in the original series (and, thus, Overture is a poor starting point for people who haven’t read the original), some of which are portents of plot threads which would be resolved in the original (a lengthy sequence with The Corinthian, for example).

But there’s also an undercurrent of mystery, as Dream senses something wrong in the universe, and then in the final scene Gaiman throws a curve, showing that Overture isn’t just going to walk through territory we’ve been through before, but that there are new things to discover – big things – back here in The Sandman‘s past. It was exactly where this story needed to go, as trying to extend a “complete unto itself” magnum opus is a tough feat. (And recall that the few Sandman stories published since the series’ conclusion have been asides, pieces filling out the universe as it were, and not ones that tackled the main character’s story head-on.)

Joining Gaiman is artist J.H. Williams III, who is certainly one of the best renderers in comics today. Where his work often falls down, for me, is in layouts and storytelling, which I often find hard to follow. (His Batwoman had this problem in spades.) While I’m a fan of innovative layouts, they should never compromise telling a coherent story. Fortunately, he adopts a much more straightforward approach here (possibly prompted by Gaiman’s script, I don’t know), and consequently we can happily enjoy the pretty pictures. Williams also supplies the lovely primary cover (an alternate cover is by original series regular cover artist Dave McKean, whose work I’ve never warmed to).

Overall it’s a winning combination, and looks to be an excellent series. So if you had some of the same reservations about it that I did, I would say that you should put them aside and check it out.

Velvet #1

Velvet #6, by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting, Image Comics, October 2013

Velvet @1

I can’t remember the last comic book I’ve been looking forward to as much as the first issue of Velvet.

Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting worked together on the terrific Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the source material for next year’s Cap movie), where they successfully resurrected the long-untouchable dead character Bucky Barnes. Brubaker writes a lot of nourish comics, but Cap was more in the style of espionage thrillers, much like my hitherto-favorite work of his, Sleeper. Epting, meanwhile, has grown from an artist doing work that felt a little out-of-place following George Perez’ run on The Avengers to an outstanding artist who mixed in with Butch Guice and Michael Lark on Cap.

So the creative team is great, and I was completely sold on the premise of Velvet as soon as a read a preview: Velvet Templeton is the secretary to the director of ARC-7, a top-secret British intelligence agency. But it’s not giving much away to say that she’s much more than what she appears, since we learn in the first page of the issue that she’s romanced several of the agency’s top agents without any of them knowing she was playing the field. When one of their agents is killed, she ends up in the middle of the investigation, and we see that she’s really not what she appears to be.

It’s a wonderful set-up issue. It takes place in 1973, perhaps coincidentally the year that Roger Moore took over as James Bond in the film series, and a few years after The Prisoner. But I suspect Brubaker is mainly going for the period atmosphere and is working from a wider assortment of source material. (The afterword by Jess Nevins cover the history of spy fiction, almost none of which I’ve read, so I can happily enjoy the series without worrying about most hidden references that have been dropped in.) The time period is also one in which there were very few woman agents (the ones from The Avengers and…?), which could lead to some exploration of gender issues, if Brubaker decides to play it that way.

I’m more interested in how Velvet managed to end up in her position given her obvious qualifications for other lines of work, and presumably that will be at least the subject of the first arc, if not of the whole series. But this being a Brubaker series, there are surely plenty of other characters who have interesting dirty laundry to be aired.

It looks great. I can’t wait.

Nowhere Men #6

Nowhere Men #6, by Eric Stephenson & Nate Bellegarde, Image Comics, October 2013

Nowhere Men #6 Nowhere Men is an interesting science fiction title from Image. It seems both the writer and artist have both been working for Image for a while (I’ve probably seen Bellegarde’s work in some of the Invincible titles, but I don’t remember it clearly), but Nowhere Men is different from anything they’ve worked on before.

The core of the book is a quartet of scientists who formed a global corporation, World Corp, back in the 60s. The scenes from that era evokes imagery of the Beatles (the book’s title presumably comes from John Lennon’s similarly-named song), without there being an explicit match of the scientists to the original Fab Four. But most of the book takes place in the present day, where there’s an ongoing theme of the optimism and wonder of the founding of World Corp having rotted through: Emerson Strange, once a dashing man with long hair, is now old, bald, and seems crushed by the weight of running World Corp. Dade Ellis has spent years in a coma. Simon Grimshaw seems not to have aged, and has split from the other two with plenty of hard feelings. And Thomas Walker apparently succumbed to drug addiction and dropped out of society, not having been seen for years.

Worse, experiments on a space station which Strange was overseeing have gone badly wrong, and the crew of the station barely managed to escape, while all being mutated in various ways (some of them grotesque).

This issue features a confrontation among the station crew, Strange, Ellis and Grimshaw, in which all hell breaks loose. The World Corp founders clearly aren’t used to being challenged by people they regard as inferiors (both Strange and Grimshaw have huge egos, though Strange at least has some basic empathy), and whatever plans they’ve had in motion are clearly falling apart in the face of developing events. (There is at least one, perhaps two, loose cannons around, as well.) And what exactly happened to Thomas Walker is an ongoing question.

Nowhere Men contains several text pages in each issue, providing background on World Corp and their accomplishments over the years, often in the form of magazine articles and interviews. It’s surprisingly effective; I recommend reading the one-page piece at the start of this issue from start to finish, as it has a nifty kicker in the final paragraph.

The book sometimes feels a little distant, like the founding members of World Corp are gods (the presumed irony is that Thomas Walker is perceived as having disconnected from the world but that he’s probably closer to it than the other three), and the hapless mutates from the space station are normal(ish) people caught in a situation beyond their control. That the story is largely concerned with the ongoing machinations of the principals, as opposed to smaller escapades of individuals, reinforces that feeling. Overall it works, but it is something of a sprawling epic which keeps barreling forward, rather than a careful character-driven narrative. It feels like the series is about half-done now, but the premise is so far-reaching I could imagine them doing more with it after this story is over.

It helps a lot that Bellegarde’s art is outstanding, capable of both drawing ordinary people (with a diversity of faces and ethnicities!) and fantastic entities and effects. His clean linework and the effective colors by Jordie Bellaire make this one of the sharpest-looking books on the market.

This particular issue isn’t easily read on its own, given the backstory, but the first six issues will soon be collected, with the appropriate title “Fates Worth Than Death”. I recommend it when it comes out.

(Coincidentally, the blog Second Printing also just reported on this issue.)

Rocket Girl #1

Rocket Girl #1, by Brandon Montclare & Amy Reeder, Image Comics, October 2013

Rocket Girl #1 I’ve been doing a poor job on my plan to review a comic book per week, but I’ll try to make up for it, starting with the fun comic book Rocket Girl.

Rocket Girl was the subject of a successful Kickstarter over the summer, and is illustrated by Amy Reeder, perhaps best known for the Vertigo series Madame Xanadu, of which I enjoyed the art but felt it was let down by the story. (You can read a few of my comments on that series here.) I’m not familiar with writer Brandon Montclare, however.

The premise of this ongoing series is that Dayoung Johansson (age 15) is a member of the New York Teen Police Department in the near future, and persuades her boss that Quintum Mechanics has managed to change the past so it becomes the dominant corporation. Dayoung – the title character – arrives just as Quintum is kicking off their first big experiment – and promptly passes out. Taken in by a few of the scientists, she has to maintain her equipment with ancient technology, and then responds to an emergency elsewhere in New York City where she captures a criminal, and then escapes the local cops.

The kicker is that Dayoung comes from the year 2013, and has travelled back to the year 1986. And you may have noticed that there’s no Quintum Mechanics, New York Teen Police Department or Rocket Girl in our 2013.

I like the premise, and the first issue is a lot of fun, driven mainly by Dayoung’s enthusiasm (and nifty costume). Reeder’s artwork is excellent – oh how I love when an artist can draw dynamic panels that have backgrounds!

The story is a little shaky; I immediately wondered how Dayoung could show up and threaten to arrest the Quintum scientists, pass out, and not have them do something nefarious to her – like turn her over to the cops – never mind that she actually ends up staying with one of them in her apartment. It looks like the series is setting up a “hero and her team of supporting scientists” scenario, which feels cliche – especially since none of the supporting characters have much personality at this point – but could work out. And to balance out the plotting issues, the dialogue is solid and often witty.

So it’s a bit of a mixed start, but I’m optimistic that the early bumps can be overcome, while still being a fun, energetic series.

Goodbye to the DC Universe

With this week’s publication of Earth 2 #16, I’m dropping the last three comic books I’ve been buying set in the DC Universe [1]. This despite the fact that it ends on a cliffhanger, but with writer James Robinson leaving, it feels like a good point to jump off.

[1] Earth 2, World’s Finest and Batgirl.

Where DC and I have parted ways is that they clearly are interested in pushing their characters, whereas for me it hasn’t been about the characters for years, it’s been about the creators. I follow the creators I’m interested in, and I want to find people with interesting voices and novel stories to tell, and stories that are going to develop their characters and go somewhere.

But it seems like DC treats their creators as fungible, and the stories in the New 52 mostly have a mediocre sameness to them. None of them have truly excited me – the closest is Gail Simone’s Batgirl, clearly the standout voice of the New 52, but the weight of crossovers and events has dampened my enthusiasm for any Batman title. So I’ve gradually dropped them, until September’s “Villains Month” event presented a good opportunity to make a clean break. (I like to say that “a good jumping-on point for new readers is a good jumping-off point for old readers.”)

(Another is “creators, not characters”, though “creators, not properties” would be more accurate.)

I don’t really know what’s going on in DC editorial, but stories like the creators of Batwoman leaving the book after not being able to have their heroine marry her girlfriend reinforces my perception of it being all about the marketable properties for them. Setting them up for movies and TV shows, I guess (that being where the big money is). And, well, I don’t care about that. The recent Batman films were good because of Christopher Nolan, not because they starred Batman.

So this is goodbye. Not necessarily forever – I’m still buying several Vertigo books and creator-owned titles that DC publishes such as Astro City. But the New 52 is clearly the culmination of plans that DC editorial has been brewing for years, and it’s just not resulting in the kinds of comics that I want to read.

Brain Boy #1

Brain Boy #1, by Fred Van Lente, R. B. Silva & Rob Lean, Dark Horse, September 2013

Brain Boy #1 I have three different introductions to this post:

First, it’s been a while since I finished reading the first issue of a comic book and said out loud, “That was fun.” Brain Boy #1 met that exacting standard.

Second, Brain Boy was actually an early-60s comic published by Dell, which Dark Horse has reimagined. Wikipedia has a little info about the title.

And third, Brain Boy got a preview in Dark Horse Presents, Dark Horse’s fine monthly anthology series, and it impressed me. That story will be collected in a future issue, I understand, but it was on the strength of that story that I picked up this first issue. Anthology comics are good for something!

The title character is Matt Price, the world’s most powerful telepath (also a telekinetic). What do you do if you’re the world’s most powerful telepath? Raised by his parents’ employer after their deaths (hmmm), he now is “on loan” (?) to the Secret Service, where he works as part of the security detail on the most sensitive assignments. Oh, and he hates being called “Brain Boy”.

How do you write a story about a man who can know what everyone around him is thinking? Perhaps taking a cue from Alfred Bester’s classic SF novel The Demolished Man (which is also about telepaths), figuring that out seems to be part of the challenge. Price is approached by a man who claims to be able to deliver information about his parents, but he doesn’t actually have it; he “knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy”, and while Price could track that guy down, it would take time and resources. Or, he can do a job he’s being asked to do, even though it goes against his orders, guarding a dictator who’s visiting the United Nations. Before the first issue is out, there’s a turn, followed by a last-page twist, in this first of a three-part story.

Writer Fred Van Lente is perhaps best known for Incredible Hercules and Archer and Armstrong, both of which I would describe as “fun but light”. Brain Boy feels like it has the potential to be more substantive, especially if Price develops as a character (neither Hercules nor Archer are characters with a lot of development potential, albeit a lot of humor potential). Van Lente has a droll sense of humor, though it tends to result in a whimsical atmosphere rather than a lot of direct laughs. But he mixes in some hefty material here, as the story gets more serious throughout the issue, which is what the story will need to work.

R.B. Silva’s art has a very modern look, and the layouts and finishes are both strong (abetted by a complex coloring job by “Ego”). Some of his figures are a little hard to read (especially the ones with any facial hair), so there’s room for improvement there.

Overall it’s a very strong first issue. It takes place in the same universe as Dark Horse’s Captain Midnight revival (which is itself pretty good), but you don’t need to read that book to enjoy this one (and hopefully it will stay that way, as I’m pretty much done with crossovers at this point). While I could imagine the challenge of trying to keep coming up with clever ways to challenge Brain Boy might eventually wear thin, hopefully Van Lente can get at least a year’s worth of neat stories out of it.