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.

Thor, God of Thunder #9

Thor, God of Thunder #9, by Jason Aaron & Esad Ribic, Marvel, August 2013

Thor, God of Thunder #9 If you’re not reading Thor, God of Thunder then you’re not reading the best title Marvel’s currently publishing (with apologies to Mark Waid and his excellent Daredevil series). To be sure, Thor sucked me in immediately because it takes place in three different time periods, but it’s got more going for it than that.

The premise is that an alien, Gorr, has decided to kill all the gods in all of the universe, earning the title “The God Butcher”. In the 10th century, Thor encounters him on Earth and manages to fight him off after being tortured by him. In the 21st century, Thor learns of him again and tries to hunt him down by researching other gods throughout the cosmos. And in the far future, Thor is the last survivor – and king – of Asgard, besieged by the God Butcher’s forces.

This issue is the middle of the series’ second 5-issue arc, “Godbomb”, in which Gorr in the future is building a bomb which will kill all gods. Through various machinations, the Thors of the past and present have ended up in the future, and the three Thors launch an assault on Gorr to stop his plan. This issue is essentially a big fight between Gorr and the Thors, and it’s quite well done. As it’s not the conclusion of the story, you can probably guess at the end of the issue, but it’s a good ride.

Jason Aaron (who wrote the great series Scalped for Vertigo) has been writing for Marvel for a while, but I haven’t read any of his titles. He knocks it out of the park in this series, raising questions about what purpose gods serve, the nature of an entity who can kill all gods, and where both sides fall on the moral spectrum. He also does a good (though not terribly nuanced) job of distinguishing between the brash young Thor, the professional modern Thor, and the world-weary future Thor. Artist Esad Ribic does a great job with the figures, but is light on the backgrounds (conveniently, most of this issue takes place in space). No artist that skimps on backgrounds ever achieves top-tier status in my book, but Ribic is good overall.

Thor consistently ends up on top of my to-read stack each week, and will as long as Aaron can maintain this level of storytelling.

Astro City #1

Astro City #1, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson & Alex Ross, DC/Vertigo, August 2013

Astro City #1 It’s been two-and-a-half years since the last issue of Astro City (the Silver Agent two-parter), but it’s back with a new ongoing series. While one always wonders if they’ll rattle off another 12 or 14 issues and then go on hiatus for a couple more years, I’m willing to give them plenty of leeway since Astro City is to my mind the best superhero comic of the last 20 years (and it’s not even close).

This first issue of this new series feels like it’s trying to be a new phase in the comic’s history. Not only has the biggest mystery of past issues been solved (what happened to the Silver Agent?), but it kicks off with a mysterious character named the Broken man, a conspiracy theorist with purple skin and white hair, who spends the issue talking directly to the reader (or so it seems). He takes on a brief tour of the city, focusing on a giant door which materializes over the river. He also suggests that a shadow entity he calls the Oubor is behind, well, something going on in the city. The Broken Man is clearly a few guppies short of an aquarium, and who he is, what he’s doing, and how much of the truth he’s telling (if even he knows) is clearly going to be a component of this new series.

One of the neat things about Astro City has been that the “present day” tracks along in real time, so the earliest issues of the series occurred in the mid-to-late 90s, and this issue takes place in 2013. This means that some heroes have dropped off the grid, some have gotten older, and a few – like the Samaritan and Winged Victory – don’t seem to have aged at all. But we’re also reintroduced with Ben Pulliam, who was the main character in an earlier issue of the series, having just moved to the city with his two daughters. He’s older now, and his daughters are adults, and his mid-life crisis is a component of the story.

I’ve always characterized Astro City as basically being about what people living in a world with superheroes think about that, and how they react to it. And “people” in this case includes the heroes and villains. I suspect Busiek feels he’s writing about people living their lives in this world, but at its best I think the book is about how their lives are different from ours because of these changes. Sometimes they’re extraordinarily different, and sometimes they’re not (one could argue that The Samaritan is just an exotic sort of workaholic, for example). Astro City has a quixotic history (in my opinion) with mixing the cosmic and the mundane; the characters’ thoughts and reactions get lost amidst their actions – this was a problem I had with The Dark Age (which I reviewed in depth here). This issue takes a fairly cosmic turn towards the end, so I have a little trepidation regarding where the story is going. But overall Astro City (and Busiek as a writer generally) has such a strong track record that I’m willing to give it a lot of leeway.

Brent Anderson is one of the most underrated artists in comics, able to bring life to Busiek’s world, as well as character and setting designs by Busiek, Alex Ross, and himself. Occasionally his characters are not the most expressive (he does stern and sad expressions better than, say, joy or surprise), but that’s a nitpick.

Overall I’m just delighted that the series is back, and that they have almost a year’s worth of issues in the can. It should be fun.

Deathmatch #6

Deathmatch #6, by Paul Jenkins & Carlos Magno, Boom! Studios, May 2013

Deathmatch #6 I’ve been wanting to get back to writing weekly entries on comics again. This time around I’m going to focus on one comic per week. To start it off I’ll touch on a great comic that came out each of the last two weeks, and luckily for me there were two great comics for me to write about.

There are a couple of behind-the-scenes stories surrounding Deathmatch. First is writer Paul Jenkins’ statement on why he left writing for DC and Marvel – he’s now exclusively at Boom. Second is that Boom, like IDW, seems to be making a play to become one of the larger publishers, though in its case it seems to be angling to become more like Image (superheroes and science fiction), while IDW is taking the Dark Horse avenue (licensed titles and adventure books). One wonders whether what attracted Jenkins to Boom will stay in place as (and if) the company gets bigger and more prominent.

In the foreground, however, we have Deathmatch, which is Jenkins creating a superhero universe out of whole cloth, but then putting all the main characters in a mysterious arena where they’re forced to fight to the death in a single-elimination tournament. It’s Marvel Super-Heroes Secret Wars taken to the next level, without the preconceptions about who should win a particular bout.

It’s a hell of a hook, which is what made me buy the book in the first place, but the story is the characters trying to figure out who’s capturing them and why they’re being forced to fight (never mind how they’re able to mess with their heads to make even the purest heroes in the arena). With a large cast not every character shines, but many do, especially the unpowered Sable, Mink and Rat, who have been leading the investigation into who’s holding them and why.

This particular issue occurs just after the character had a chance to look behind the curtain as the complex’s power supply temporarily went down. Some scores were settled, and something awful was glimpsed in battle with Meridian, the book’s Superman equivalent. But the Manchurian realized the danger and reactivated the facility and the games went on. This leads to Dragonfly (a young man who’s retired but has been roped in nonetheless – that’s him on the cover) confronting Meridian, learning another piece of the puzzle in the issue’s cliffhanger.

The comics industry in my lifetime is littered with superhero universes created all at once which never panned out. Jenkins has wisely created a whole bunch of characters with sufficient backstories to make them characters, but doesn’t dive into flashbacks or a lot of detailed history. Rather, how the characters interact now is the focus. It’s made it to the top of my to-read pile each week it’s come out, and I’m eager to see where it goes. (And, assuming anyone’s left alive at the end of it, whether Jenkins gives us some insight into what the heroes’ world is like once they get back to it.)

Carlos Magno’s art is terrific. I recall his work as some of the better art in Countdown to Final Crisis (damning with faint praise, since hardly anyone else in that terrible series looked much good at all) He has a Dave Gibbons-like layout style (figures always drawn in freeze frame, with no motion lines) with an inking/rendering style a bit like George Pérez. He draws fully-realized backgrounds, too!

I’m not sure how long Deathmatch is slated to run, but 2 more issues or 6 I’m planning to enjoy it entirely.

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth TPB, by Peter Hogan & Steve Parkhouse, Dark Horse, 2013

Resident Alien: Welcome to Earth If you’re looking for a clever little graphic novel that mashes up science fiction and mystery, then check out Resident Alien. I read the first chapter when it was serialized in the anthology Dark Horse Presents a couple of years ago, but somehow I missed the mini-series that finished out the story. So I was happy to find this collection.

I’m mainly familiar with writer Peter Hogan from scripting Alan Moore’s Terra Obscura series from a decade or so ago, and I’m not really sure how much of that was Moore and how much was Hogan. Artist Steve Parkhouse has been around for quite a while and I’ve seen his work here and there dating as far back as Warrior; his art style resembles that of Dave Gibbons, but I think it’s a little more organic.

The premise is that an alien crash-lands on Earth, scuttles his ship, and uses his mental powers to make everyone on Earth see him as a retired doctor, Harry Vanderspeigle, and he moves to a rural town to wait for someone to come rescue him. But when the town’s doctor is killed, he’s recruited by the sheriff to both play coroner and fill in for a while. Harry both gets intrigued by the mystery, and by the opportunity to become part of a community. Of course, he’s risking both his life and his cover, especially if he happens to run into a one-in-a-million person who his mental powers won’t work on.

It’s a simple story, but thoroughly enjoyable. Hogan doesn’t get bogged down in the details of how Harry’s powers work, and keeps his powers well-defined (he doesn’t seem able to pretend to be a shapeshifter, for instance, and though he is unusually perceptive in reading human behavior, he’s not actually telepathic). And the mystery is pretty good, too.

If this is the only volume of Harry’s story we get, then it’s a good one. But I hope there’ll be more.

The Dark Knight Rises

Critics gushed over The Dark Knight, I think not entirely justifiably. While Heath Ledger’s performance was a revelation, the script was a little weak, full of gimmicks and with a disappointing climax. On reflection, I think it fundamentally suffers because its theme – the one imparted by its antagonist, the Joker – is one of nihilism. While nihilism can be used effectively as a contrast to the protagonist, The Dark Knight left me feeling a bit like the Joker had won. Contrast this with Batman Begins, which is all about the protagonist finding the meaning in his life, and which has an entirely satisfying conclusion.

The Dark Knight Rises concludes the trilogy, but its opening sequences seem to push The Dark Knight even more to the side: Rather than Batman (Christian Bale) continuing to work against crime from outside the system, he’s retired, and Bruce Wayne has become a recluse. Harvey Dent’s death and Batman’s sacrifice (taking the rap for Dent’s death) lead to a golden age in Gotham City, as the Dent Act puts criminals away for years, at only the cost of Commissioner Gordon’s soul (Gary Oldman), maintaining the lie. Truly, it seems the Joker beat Batman (because why would the Joker care of a bunch of criminals get put away?).

Eight years after the events of the previous film, cat burglar Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) breaks into the private wing of Wayne Manor, setting in motion events which turn Gotham upside-down. The mysterious criminal Bane (Tom Hardy) has his sights set on the city, bringing Batman out of retirement for a showdown.

While also a long film, I felt that Rises moves right along with few slow periods (few times that I was willing to go to the bathroom, for instance). It’s got secrets (who is Bane? Why is he gunning for Gotham?), humor (especially in Batman getting back in the saddle), some tense fights, and characters set low and then fighting to their catharsis. It’s properly a sequel to the first film, with the second just being set-up, and the story is, ultimately, better than either of its predecessors. It ought to hold up on re-watching, too.

More after the cut, but here there being spoilers:

Continue reading “The Dark Knight Rises”

Daytripper

I made the mistake of staying up late last night to read Daytripper, the graphic novel by twin brothers Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá. I only say “mistake” because Daytripper is a poignant, at times heart-wrenching story of a man’s life, so I was pretty wrung out by the time I finished it.

The man in question is Brás de Oliva Domingos, who is introduced to us as a 32-year-old obituary writer. This first chapter is very much the midpoint of Brás’ life: He has a girlfriend he loves very much, a best friend he hangs out with at and after work, and he’s the apple of his mother’s eye, but he also lives in the shadow of his father – a famous writer, and an emotionally distant man – and he’s struggling to find purpose in his own life. Each of the ten chapters of the book takes us into the past or the future from this point, to show us significant events in Brás’ life.

The structural conceit of the book is that each chapter ends with Brás’ death, and a brief obituary written about him. I found this to be the weakest part of the book, as it seemed to cheapen the emotions of what had gone before in the chapter, making it seem a little too sentimental, making each chapter feel needlessly tragic. Moreover, reading into the book I often wondered how Brás’ life as he lived it to the final chapter diverged from some of the situations where he died. Sometimes he dies through mere circumstance, but other times he or someone else makes decisions which must have gone differently for him to live to other chapters. Most significantly, what happens to his best friend Jorge, which chapter has a powerful conclusion, but which I doubt Brás could have left alone in the world where he survived, but he seems to have dropped it. Filling in the alternatives to those events would have at least given the gimmick more meaning.

That detail aside, the book’s strength is in fleshing out Brás’ life chapter by chapter, starting with his age 32, backing up to show what sort of a man he was to get to that point, and then stumbling forward into how he matures (with a brief aside to his childhood). While Daytripper has some overtones of magical realism, the story overall is more grounded, and the brothers do a wonderful job of painting a picture of the characters and their emotions. In particular we see Brás going from a wide-eyed innocent to a world-weary, almost defeated young man, to a more mature man shaping his own life. But we see all the frustration and joy he experiences along the way, and that’s where the book’s magic really comes from.

(His friend Jorge has a story arc which plays off of Brás’ own story, and which is nearly as powerful, considering he has much less screen time.)

But as with any story which follows a person’s life all the way through, the ending is melancholy (and punctuated with a moment of similar sadness at the end of each chapter). Though it’s to the creators’ credit that they build a character that we’re invested enough in for it to have so much of an impact. Especially when staying up late at night.

I’ve seen Moon and Bá’s art from time to time (notably on Matt Fraction’s Casanova, and Gerard Way’s Umbrella Academy), but their work here is far better than I’ve seen before: The art is more detailed, the faces more individual, and the expressions more nuanced than I’ve seen from them before. (Their art styles are so similar I can’t tell who draws which story, and they’re only credited jointly.) Maybe they’ve just become better artists since that earlier work, or maybe they just put their all into this project of theirs.

While Daytripper left me feeling melancholy, and I thought it did have some storytelling flaws, it’s still a terrific graphic novel, and well worth your time and money.

Before Watchmen

Before Watchmen, the upcoming project from DC Comics, has been the talk of the comics world for a little while now. Here’s my two cents on the project.

First, I do get a little tired of Alan Moore saying that he wishes comics companies would stop exploiting properties he created that he doesn’t own, or that he co-owns. On the other hand, he has his wishes, and the media keeps asking him what he thinks of the latest project based on his work, so what do they expect him to say? “Oh gee, you’ve worn me down, so I’ve decided that it’s great they’re doing this.” So I think people who complain about Alan Moore complaining doth protest too much. As long as people keep doing new projects based on his work we’re going to keep hearing him complain about them, so we just have to accept that and move on.

On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine a less-necessary set of books than prequels to Watchmen. It was a gorgeous and influential book which was complete unto itself, and which is tightly tied to the creators who made it (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons). Moreover, it pretty much plumbed the depths of all the major characters, and what was left unsaid was left so deliberately. Any prequels I think would only be interesting to the extent that they inform a new reading of the original book, but since Moore and Gibbons aren’t doing the prequels, I expect they’ll feel superfluous.

It’s strange to me that DC would do prequels to the series, rather than a sequel, since building something new on top of the original might genuinely move the book forward. But doing prequels just seems like a cynical effort to squeeze some more money out of the property – cynical because it indicates that DC is too timid to do anything daring.

Which is ironic because, as Moore has said, the whole point of Watchmen was to do new things with the medium (graphic novels) and the genre (superheroes). You can argue to what extent they succeeded in being truly innovative, but the book clearly greatly influenced comic books for years after it was published. Going back and further rooting around in the backstory of its milieu seems contrary to the spirit of the book itself – and thus all the more cynical.

But in pop culture all old fads end up coming back and being revisited or reworked eventually. Sometimes they’re good, sometimes they’re bad, sometimes they’re fresh, and sometimes they’re stale. The only way this project is different from DC relaunching the Doom Patrol/the Teen Titans/the Suicide Squad one more time is that it has Alan Moore complaining about it.

Just remember: The great thing about literature (graphic or otherwise) is this: Regardless of whether or not Before Watchmen ends up being a cheap knock-off of the original, we can always go back and enjoy the original. Considering how many superhero comics have devolved into a serpent swallowing its own tail, that’s an important fact to remember.