Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

27 August 2010

X-Men: Powerless

Collects: Uncanny X-Men #379-80, X-Men #99, Wolverine #149, X-Force #101, and Cable #78 (2000)

Released: July 2010 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785146773

What is this?: The High Evolutionary, laboring under bad advice, takes away all mutants’ powers.

The culprits: Written by Alan Davis, Joe Pruett, Joseph Harris, and Erik Larsen and drawn by half a dozen artists

X-Men: Powerless exists in an odd cul-de-sac of X-Men history, although no one knew and few guessed that when these issues came out.

Immediately before these issues came out, the X-Men fought their long-prophesied battle with Apocalypse, one that finally resolved the “Twelve” dangler and Cable’s raison d’etre. (That large storyline was collected in X-Men: The Shattering, X-Men vs. Apocalypse, v. 1: The Twelve, and X-Men vs. Apocalypse, v. 2: Ages of Apocalypse.) This was the last hurrah for issues that dwelled on Chris Claremont-era continuity, which was counterintuitive because Claremont himself returned for about a year — an uninspiring, frequently disappointing year. And then we got Grant Morrison’s New X-Men (and Joe Casey’s Uncanny X-Men), which led into the House of M Bend-over,24 and the X-books haven’t been the same since.

X-Men: Powerless coverThese issues don’t feel momentous, however. There is little of the gravity one might expect for a jumping off point, the end of an era. Only Cable seems to have an inkling, with supporting villain / block of stone Ozymandias saying, “A new era approaches — one full of possibilities and potential. No longer are the days yet to come written in stone.” Of course, Cable was often filled with pretentious blather about the future, so this may come under the heading of “blind pig finding an acorn.”

Instead we get a time-killing story of the X-Men and other mutants losing their powers because of the interference of the High Evolutionary, a plot device / easily misled superscientist who wants to save millions of lives by eliminating the possibility of a race war between humans and mutants. He’s being misled by Mr. Sinister, but that’s to be expected. In any event, the crossover shows X-Force and Wolverine dealing with being powerless, while writer Joe Pruett wraps up the consequences from the Apocalypse storyline for Cable. (Cable #79 might have been a better choice for this volume, since Cable doesn’t feel the effects of the plot until the last page of his issue in this collection.) X-Men and Uncanny X-Men introduce and wrap up the storyline in three issues — hardly worth a crossover, really.

The thing is, this idea should be important. The X-Men lose their powers; how do they deal with it? Rogue’s life is completely different, as is Marrow’s and Nightcrawler’s. Colossus and Shadowcat have other lives they can explore, but what is Storm if she doesn’t have her powers or a superpowered team to lead? Is Gambit still charming? These issues are brought up and explained in a few sentences, which is nothing compared to the importance these issues should have. Losing their powers is worse for the X-Men than it is for other superteams; for mutants, their powers are their identity, something they gained when they began to figure themselves out in adolescence. All writers Alan Davis and Terry Kavanagh give us using this life-altering premise is three issues to fill the schedule until Claremont’s return: the setup, the brief exploration of the idea, and the perfunctory fight. Worse yet, we get the first appearance of the Neo, one of the worst parts of Claremont’s second run.

Only Wolverine and X-Force look at what it’s like to be without powers for a mutant. Wolverine doesn’t change what he’s doing, but he’s lost his enhanced senses and healing factor; writer Erik Larsen says Wolverine’s suffering from “adamantium poisoning” to slow him down further, but that doesn’t change Wolverine’s actions. X-Force does a better job, with Joe Harris writing a story in which Tabitha has to deal with the feeling of helplessness coming from being unable to help her former (?) boyfriend when his powers cut off hundreds of feet above the ocean and also counsel a young mutant who has lost his ability to fly and is in denial about what it (and his powers) mean. It’s the only issue in the book that’s really affecting, despite the potential of the idea.

The art is all over the place, with pencils from Tom Raney, Juan Santacruz, Brett Booth, Michael Ryan, Steve Harris, and Graham Nolan. Only Raney does more than one issue, penciling Uncanny X-Men #379-80. Although his work never really resonated with me, Raney is a good artist, one worthy of what was a top-tier title at the time. As for the others … well, if comic art circa 2000 is your cup of meat, you’ll probably find something from the other five artists that is to your tastes. None of them appealed to me, although I have to admit Graham Nolan’s work did seem to fit Wolverine particularly well.

Nothing in this collection is particularly bad, but it is extremely forgettable, so I am still a little confused about why these issues were collected. There’s nothing that really recommends X-Men: Powerless, other than being a relic of a different time — a mutant fly caught in the amber, so to speak. That’s not enough of a recommendation, however. My theory is that someone in Marvel’s reprint department wants to start filling in the issues between X-Men vs. Apocalypse, v. 1 and 2, and the crossover that ended Claremont’s second run, X-Men: Dream's End. Uncanny X-Men #387 and X-Men #107 are already scheduled to be reprinted in Avengers / X-Men: Maximum Security, which is due out November 3. Mark my words: you should start looking for reprints of the rest of Claremont’s frustrating and disappointing run (Uncanny X-Men #381-6 and X-Men #100-6) in 2011.

Rating: Marvel symbolMarvel symbol (2 of 5)

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20 August 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (movie review)

Last weekend, three movies catering to three separate demographics came out: The Expendables was sold to manly men and those who want to be seen as such; Eat Pray *snore* was marketed to women and those who don’t mind being seen as in touch with their emotions (as long as it happens in nearly complete darkness); and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, which had some overlap with The Expendables audience, was mainly for males who remember what it was like to play Nintendo games in the ‘80s (and very slightly less to males who have played video games since then).

Scott Pilgrim came in not third but fifth, behind the second week of The Other Guys and the fifth week of Inception. It pulled in about $10 million, which thankfully did put it $3 million above the second week of Step It Up 3D

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World posterOh, God, that’s depressing. Because you should see Scott Pilgrim and see it now, especially if you fit in the movie’s demographic.

Scott Pilgrim (Michael Cera) is a slacker who has just graduated high school, and he’s recovering a devastating breakup (a year in the past) by dating Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), a high-school girl, in a relationship that hasn’t yet progressed to handholding. His friends, sister, and bandmates mock and scorn him for it, but they think even less of him when he becomes obsessed with hipster delivery girl Ramona V. Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) after she skates into his dreams and his life. Soon, he has to get the courage to dump Knives for Ramona … and fight Ramona’s seven evil exes in order to keep dating her.

In the comics by Bryan Lee O’Malley, the fights are heavily inspired by video games, with defeated villains shattering into coins and producing power ups. Director Edgar Wright has adapted O’Malley’s video-game version of real life onto the real screen while simultaneously translating the print version of Scott Pilgrim onto the big screen — at many times, the movie seemed almost like a cinematic comic book, complete with larger-than-life action and comic-book sound effects and layouts. Wright mixes all this together to make a movie that is visually distinct; one of the best arguments to see this movie in the theater is that no other movie looks like this one, and the action scenes deserve to be seen on a large screen.

Wright made the decision to stick with the main plot of the comics, and it turned out well; in the second half, the action deviates from the source material, but given that they didn’t know what the ending was going to be (the final volume of O’Malley’s Pilgrim was released after the movie was filmed), it turned out well, as with an eye-catching fight scene between Scott and the second evil ex, an actor who sends his stunt doubles after Scott.

The movie manages to be funny, exciting, and occasionally touching at different times. The soundtrack is electric, loud, and gets the blood pumping; at times it fills central roles in the movie’s plot. Cera does his usual shy, mopy young boy-man act, and it fits Pilgrim well. In addition, audiences get the bizarre image of Cera as an ass-kicking action hero, which is just as incongruous as when Scott fights on the comics page.

Kieran Culkin, who plays Scott’s gay roommate Wallace Wells, is the standout in the cast, getting most of the good one-liners and ending up as Scott’s personal guru, motivating him to shape up so that he can grow up / get the girl. Alison Pill does an excellent job as Scott’s acerbic bandmate Kim Pine; you can almost feel her contempt for Scott (and everyone else) radiating from the screen. Anna Kendrick doesn’t have much screen time as Scott’s sister, Stacy, but she shines in her brief moments. The evil ex-boyfriends are excellent, especially Chris Evans as action star Lucas Lee and Brandon Routh as superpowered vegan Todd Ingram. Kaita Saitou and Shota Saito look the part of the Katayanagi twins, but they don’t have many (any?) lines. Jason Schwartzman, as main villain Gideon Gordon Graves, plays the smug bastard character to the hilt, although he suffers a little during the action sequences — a bit of a problem given that his fight with Scott is the climactic scene.

The fourth evil ex — Roxy Richter (Mae Whitman), the only non-boyfriend — is a bit of a problem, however. Her lines are leaden at best; bi-furious? Really? Someone liked that? Her fight with Scott is easily the weakest of the contests, from its setup to staging to anticlimactic (no pun intended) resolution. The movie isn’t going to get any GLAAD awards either, falling into easy stereotypes — Wallace’s promiscuity, Roxy’s relative weakness as an opponent despite her combativeness / masculinity (a combination of negative gender and sexual orientation stereotypes), Ramona’s “experimentation” — that are unusual for a movie so gay inclusive. All this is in the comics, however, and it thankfully avoids the final volume’s surprise revelation of a male character’s homosexuality — and by “surprise,” I mean “random,” and by “random,” I mean “intensely stupid.”

And what of the woman they’re all fighting over? Ah, Ramona. Well, Ramona never is developed much, remaining the same throughout the movie. To be fair, I never really saw much development of the character in the source material either, but given how many plotlines were jettisoned — in particular that of Envy Adams (Brie Larson), Scott’s ex, whose role was pared down to almost nothing — the movie had to do something with Ramona. It didn’t, and Ramona is a quest object. This isn’t a big problem, and certainly not “misogynistic,” a word that gets thrown around far too often. Many movies have female characters that the male protagonists fight for; in this case, Ramona’s character may keep the movie from being a classic, but it’s not the worst flaw for a movie.

However, Scott and Ramona’s “romance” is. I never understood what Ramona saw in Scott, either in the books or movie, other than his overall simplicity and a willingness to fight for her. Scott’s attraction to a pretty girl he literally can’t get out of his head makes more sense, but given the beatings he takes for her, it would make more sense if he started questioning his feelings earlier. Winstead tries to play it cool, sexy, and slightly emotionally damaged, but she’s not quite Zooey Deschanel, the winsome, distant hipster chick that men in movies seem to kill for. Even Scott seems confused whether he should be attracted to her by the end.

These flaws are not quibbles; they’re real problems. Still, they don’t keep this from being an enjoyable movie — a very enjoyable movie. It helps to have the right mindset when you come through the door: this is a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously, that sees the world through a Nintendo prism. It manages not only to be an excellent comic book movie but one of the best video game movies. It has a rocking soundtrack. It looks completely different from everything else in the multiplex and everything on DVD. It is, at times, hilarious. It isn’t a mindbender like Inception (nor is it as good), but it is a very enjoyable way to spend two hours.

Rating: Scott Pilgrim Scott Pilgrim Scott Pilgrim Scott Pilgrim (4 of 5)

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11 August 2010

The Quarter Bin: Proof #1

Trade paperbacks and — God forbid — hardbacks are a big risk; dropping $14.99 to $34.99 on material you’re not sure about can lead to buyer’s remorse and bitter, bitter recriminations. Why didn’t someone warn you Captain America and the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas was so bad? A sample would have warned you, but you had to order the whole thing.

Well, I’m not made of money either. So I’m trying out that sampling approach in The Quarter Bin. Recent comics that have lower promotional prices, are Free Comic Book Day giveaways, or I have found in that holy of holies, the Quarter Bin, get a quick review and a recommendation on whether it might be worthwhile to pick up the trade. So, without further ado, we have …

The Issue: Proof #1 (October 2007, Image)

The Culprits: Written by Alexander Grecian, art by Riley Rossmo

The Hook: A government agency, whose agents include a sasquatch, investigates and contains beasts that have been “sighted” but are not proven to exist.

Collected in: Proof, v. 1: Goatsucker

Proof #1 coverStrengths: Although the idea of a government group investigating the weird has been done before, it’s been a few years since The X-Files went off the air, so there’s some room for the idea. Proof alters the concept, with one of the investigating agents being an actual sasquatch. The first issue plays well with the idea, introducing the sasquatch during a training exercise that makes it look like he’s being hunted by the government and also playing up his new partner’s reaction to a sasquatch walking into a conference room. The “cryptoid” factoids provided to explain background to the reader are amusing.

Weaknesses: We don’t really get a feel for the characters in this issue. FBI agent Ginger Brown’s determination to find out what happened in a jewelry store robbery foiled by a golem gets her into the government’s cryptid-hunting operation; other than her having a boyfriend, her lukewarm determination is all we know about her. But that’s enough for the government to let her into their secret organization, evidently. John “Proof” Prufrock, a sasquatch, works with the government’s cryptid-hunting organization. He wears a suit and is probably smarter than his colleagues. The villain for the first arc, a chupacabra, acts less like a chupacabra and more like Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs.

Mitigation: A villain that was just a beast, like chupacabras are generally described, wouldn’t be all that interesting, so giving the beast a familiar name while amping its threat level is probably smart. Not giving much character info in the first issue leaves a great deal of room for it in later issues. Having one character who is not human will cut the chances the series will be bogged down with weird romantic tensions, like The X-Files was. The “cryptoid” factoids will get old quickly, I fear.

Judgment: The makings of something very interesting are here, but the characters and plot didn’t excite me. This could be an entertaining series; this could also degenerate into a pile of crap. This first issue isn’t a definitive statement either way. Having no experience with Grecian or Rossmo, I don’t know if they’ll be able to turn the hook of a sasquatch agent into enjoyable stories; my feeling is that the story would be better if it concentrated on characters, which it didn’t in #1.

Hardcover, TPB, or Nothing?: The idea is good enough and the execution competent enough for me to recommend trying the TPB, although this might be a good one to get through your local library.

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07 August 2010

Essential Tomb of Dracula, v. 4

Collects: Stories from Tomb of Dracula Magazine #2-6 and Dracula Lives! #1-13 and Frankenstein’s Monster #7-9 (1973-5, 1979-80)

Released: March 2005 (Marvel)

Format: 576 pages / black and white / $16.99 / ISBN: 9780785117094

What is this?: A chronological retelling of Dracula’s life, from Marvel’s pre-1980 stories (except Tomb of Dracula)

The culprits: Too many to list; includes Marv Wolfman, Mike Friedrich, John Buscema, Gene Colan, and Gerry Conway

The release of Essential Tomb of Dracula, v. 4, was a bit of a surprise, given that the previous three volumes had completely collected the comic book series. But Marvel still had some vampire material lying around — mostly from black and white magazines it published in the ‘70s — so they bundled those stories together into another, presumably final, volume.

One aspect of v. 4 that sets it apart from other Essentials is that rather than reprinting the stories in the order they were published, Marvel ordered them by when they occurred in the life of Dracula, the central character. After reading through the stories, this is not only the better way to organize the stories but really the only way; Dracula Lives, for instance, published stories of Dracula’s past as one feature and a continuing serial of his present as another in the same issue. To publish those in periodical order would have split the present-day stories, ruining the flow.

Essential Tomb of Dracula, v. 4, coverOrdering the stories this way works best if there is a narrative flow to them. Other than that present day feature, however, there is none. Worse yet, there seems to be no real plan behind Dracula’s reign of Euroterror. Dracula attacks and attacks and attacks; occasionally, he is attacked. Despite his claims to nobility and character, Dracula is constantly at the mercy of his animal nature. However, Dracula never seems to own up to this, and there is really no one to call him on it. Worse, there seems to be no consequence to the stories. New vampires are created and disappear before the next story. Dracula is staked and returns to unlife for the next tale.

After going through Dracula’s first few centuries, it’s easy to feel there’s no point to his stories — it’s just rehashing the same plot points over and over. There are few horror-comic plot twists or really cruel endings for Dracula’s victims, as if the writers feared making Dracula too awful.

Then there are the slips on vampire lore. Chirping about continuity problems on most comics can be seen as nitpicking, but the weaknesses and restrictions on Dracula and other vampires are part of popular culture. Does Dracula need to be invited inside a home? Sometimes, but not always. How long does it take for a vampire to rise from the grave? Everyone, including Dracula, says three days, but frequently they arise the next night. How effective are crosses — can Dracula attack someone with a cross, or does he need to have a proxy attack? Sources vary. Running water poses no problems; occasionally, no thought is given to the coffin filled with earth Dracula needs to rest in. How much power does daylight have — does it destroy a vampire, like decapitation, or does it merely immobilize the vampire, like a stake? Dunno. And this is putting aside things like Dracula not using his hypnotism or turning into mist or other errors in tactics.

But I don’t want to dwell on the negative, because I’m a negative person and have truly impressive negative dwelling skills. “Bounty for a Vampire,” by Tony Isabella and Tony DeZuniga, is an effective and nuanced Weird Western from Dracula Lives #13, with a former marshal who has seen weird things hunting vampires in Transylvania. Peter Gillis and John Buscema’s story of a ballet dancer who loses her humanity and empathy (“Pavanne from an Undead Princess,” Tomb of Dracula Magazine #5) is the most moving story in the collection. “A Death in the Chapel” from Dracula Lives #6 features the final combat of Dracula and Father Montesi, the discoverer of the vampire-destroying Montesi Formula. The continuity and continuing stories in Frankenstein’s Monster #7-9 (by Mike Friedrich and Buscema) and the modern tales in Dracula Lives! was a welcome respite from the episodic stories that dominate the collection. And although the story in “The Pit of Death” by Doug Moench and DeZuniga (Dracula Lives #10-1) didn’t make much of an impression on me, the protagonist’s revenge on Dracula was nicely innovative.

Also, Marvel does include some supplementary material to the collection. There is a prose recap of Dracula’s history near the beginning of v. 4, and there is an extensive cover and promotional image gallery near the end. Gene Colan’s original pencils from unused pages of Tomb of Dracula #70-2, which were collapsed into #70 when the title was canceled, are included for those who wondered how the story might have ended up had Colan and Wolfman been allowed a little more space for the stories.

The art, overall, is uneven, but Dracula art from Colan is always welcome. Colan contributed seven stories that appear in the collection, most of them in the book’s second half, and they are uniformly highlights — shadowy, evocative, with a Dracula who is simultaneously bestial and suave. Buscema drew the three issues of Frankenstein’s Monster, and although those issues are not going to go down as his greatest, they are John Buscema drawing Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, and shapely gypsy women, and there’s nothing wrong with that; his pencils on other stories in the collection, such as “Death Vow” (inks by Klaus Janson) from Tomb of Dracula Magazine #4, are more impressive, evocative and as shadowy as Colan’s work. Other artists who manage to convey more than a modicum of horror or menace include DeZuniga and Vicente Alcazar in “Here Comes the Death Man” in Dracula Lives #7.

Still, those enjoyable parts can’t really save the book. There’s a lot of repetition and stories that just aren’t worth the time. Also, the reproduction on v. 4 is strangely murky, making it difficult to read. I would have thought that since the original material was originally from black-and-white magazines, that wouldn’t have been a problem, but I was wrong.

The question you have to ask yourself is: how much do you want Gene Colan and John Buscema stories? If the answer is a lot … well, you might want to buy the original magazines. But if that isn’t an option and you still want to see them and are willing to wade through a lot of forgettable Marvel vampire stories, buy this book. Otherwise … borrow it from a vampire fanatic and skim it.

Rating: Marvel symbol Half Marvel symbol (1.5 of 5)

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03 August 2010

Three Things about ... Superfolks

Not a review, exactly, but those of you interested in comics might find this article at my other site worth a bit of time: Three Things about ... Superfolks by Robert Mayer.

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