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

29 October 2010

All-Star Superman, v. 1

Collects: All-Star Superman #1-6 (2006-7)

Released: April 2007 (DC)

Format: 160 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9781401209148

What is this?: Morrison and Quitely respin Silver Age Superman madness into a modern tale of morality and mortality.

The culprits: Writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely

I almost decided not to review All Star Superman, v. 1 because I didn’t feel I could be properly reverential to a story that has gained nearly universal acclaim since it came out. After thinking about it, though, I decided to give it a shot.

I don’t think I’m spoiling anything when I say writer Grant Morrison and artist Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman is the most acclaimed work on Superman in at least a decade and probably a lot longer than that. I never really understood why before I read v. 1. Really, I still don’t.

All-Star Superman, v. 1 coverDon’t get me wrong. I can see that Morrison is telling a story that, if not unique in the Superman mythos, is darn close to it. He uses Silver Age trappings to tell an out-of-continuity story — one which could not be contained by continuity, one might say — in which Superman confronts mortality and performs a mythological set of tasks, on par with Heracles’s Twelve Labors. Morrison and Quitely know the mythos and know the characters; everything feels natural yet modern. The stories feel like Superman stories, with larger than life antagonists and consequences.

There are some parts I enjoyed — the issue with Clark Kent and Lex Luthor escaping from a prison riot started by the Parasite, Superman’s scenes with his father, the integration of modern Superman elements like Doomsday into the narrative. The funeral and Clark’s eulogy near the end of the volume are moving. I cannot deny Morrison’s craft is excellent, and that he has put together a narrative of high technical quality.

And yet — and yet, and yet, and yet … I didn’t enjoy this book. Perhaps because I don’t enjoy Superman all that much. I don’t have anything against the Big Blue Boy Scout, but neither he nor his supporting cast have ever interested me. Many reasons have been bruited about on the Internet for why readers might be disinterested in Superman; I suppose I don’t buy that Superman can ever be put in peril, and I don’t care about Clark Kent.

Morrison tries to get across the idea that Superman can be harmed, but I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the idea that the scientists will allow Superman to die. It is an out-of-continuity story — whatever that means for DC — so there is the possibility that Superman will be seriously hurt or end the story dead. However, when you’re dealing with a story that has such a strong whiff of the Silver Age, it’s hard to believe anything negative is going to happen.

I really dislike DC’s Silver Age stories. They are goofy, but generally speaking, not a in a good way; they are goofy in a halfwitted manner that makes me chuckle once or twice, then stop because I should not be laughing at such awful things. People worked hard at those stories, and by and large, they’re not worth re-reading. Morrison tries to capitalize upon the energy and lack of rules those stories enjoyed, but it mainly reminds me that the original stories were stupid, and no amount technobabble can disguise that — especially when the word “hyperpoon” is used. I mean, honestly.

Most of the characters in this book aren’t all that interesting; perhaps it’s because of the Silver Age-ishness. Other than this is his story, I don’t see a reason to get worked up about Superman: he’s not witty or fun or interesting. He’s stolid and heroic, which is not nothing, but it’s hardly unique. Superman might have gotten there first with those characteristics and with the most, but Nathaniel Bedford Forrest’s maxim aside, that’s not enough. He’s also a superscientist, but the story shows for the most part he’s cast that identity aside to be Clark Kent and Superman. Clark is an idealist, which, when he’s out of costume, is more annoying than not; his bleating that Superman and Luthor could have been friends if Luthor had just given up that gosh-darn evil is a low point for the book. Lois is … Lois is a “great” reporter who can’t believe the evidence of her eyes; Jimmy Olsen is wacky and obviously prone to abusing any power he gets.

The only character I felt empathy for was Luthor, which isn’t surprising. If Superman and his supporting cast are based off a Silver-Age template, then Luthor is himself based on an even older pattern: a Miltonian Satan. Better to rule in Hell, as Luthor does in prison, than to serve in Superman’s heaven. He’s interesting, and he’s fun in a supervillain sort of way. He’s the one person who can say the negative things the readers might be thinking, although he will always go too far. He’s obviously the antagonist, though, so while we can enjoy Luthor’s rants, we’re not supposed to root for him.

The art in v. 1, like Morrison’s writing, is something I don’t appreciate despite its widespread claim; I suppose I’ll just have to live with having an unpopular opinion. Quitely’s art did not bother me as much as usual with this issue. Since I’m not as familiar with the faces of Superman characters, his interpretations of their faces didn’t strike me as being wrong, as it might with Marvel characters. Quitely does a good job making Clark Kent and Superman look different; I wouldn’t believe they were the same character if I didn’t know better. (Which could be a problem, if other Superman books hadn’t given us super-disguise skills.)

The craftsmanship of this story is undeniable; I can see why other readers might enjoy it. But I can’t get into the story. It seems to accept as given some things that I can’t believe — that Superman is intrinsically interesting, that his stories have dramatic tension, that DC’s Silver Age plots and ideas are worthy of resuscitation. It’s not unlike reading a great author’s Dan Brown pastiche: well done, but what’s the point?

As for the rating, I went back and forth on this. Like I said, I recognize the quality of this book — it’s at least a 4 of 5. But my enjoyment, at most, is at a 2. So I averaged them together to get …

Rating: Superman symbol Superman symbol Superman symbol (3 of 5)

Labels: , , , , , , ,

26 October 2010

Book Talk

Busy week for me as my co-author / wife and I have received the first round of edits on our book, Comic Book Collections for Libraries. We’ll be reviewing the changes, making some of our own, and trying to make sure the book doesn’t do something stupid like calling Grant Morrison English or Irish or Chinese or something. By November 1, this round of edits will be done and sent back to through the aether to the project manager. This is our last chance to make substantive changes to the text; we’ll get a second go round at the end of November, but then only minor changes will be allowed, as the book will be almost ready to go to press.

Still planning to have a review on Friday, though. This week it will be All-Star Superman, v. 1. Exciting!

Labels: , ,

22 October 2010

Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day, v. 3

Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #559-563 (2008)

Released: February 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 120 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9780785132424

What is this?: Mary Jane crosses paths with Spider-Man again as Peter deals with the life of the paparazzi; Spider-Man learns about the Bookie.

The culprits: Writers Dan Slott and Bob Gale and pencilers Marcos Martin and Mike McKone

It’s been a year since I’ve read anything from the Spider-reboot, Brand New Day. I hadn’t forgotten about it, but I had put it on the back burner. But I was looking for something to review, and the local university library had Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day, v. 3, so here we are.

I enjoyed v. 1, but I felt it was using the reboot to tell stories that wouldn’t have needed such a drastic reboot if the Spider-books hadn’t gone off the rails so badly. I felt v. 2 was a bit of a misstep, focusing on an uninteresting villain and a mystical adventure outside Spider-Man’s bailiwick. Fortunately, v. 3 only makes one of those mistakes.

Amazing Spider-Man: Brand New Day, v. 3 coverThe first arc is written by primary Spider-scribe Dan Slott, and Slott manages to make the best of a story, like One Moment in Time, that had to be told regardless of who wanted to read it. Although the “return” of Mary Jane is ostensibly the big draw in Amazing Spider-Man #559-61, Slott does a good job of making Mary Jane only a peripheral part of the story. There’s not enough room here to do justice to the big emotional payoff we’d expect from the meeting, so Slott is satisfied with letting us know Mary Jane’s status quo. On the other hand, I’m not sure getting across her status quo requires the amount of presence she has in this story. It’s a tricky balance, and although Slott pulls it off as well as I could have expected, I’m not satisfied with MJ’s presence either.

The main focus is an obsessed fan Spidey dubs “Paper Doll,” a two-dimensional stalker who can make her victims two dimensional as well, causing suffocation because of their newly tiny, tiny lungs. There’s not much to Paper Doll except for an set of powers that is underused in comic books, but for a one-off villain, there’s not much more needed. She remains true to her motivation and doesn’t clutter up the plot (she probably should have gone after Peter Parker at some point, though). If there’s use for her in the future, her character can be developed better then. I do call foul on her real name, so subtly revealed I picked it up only on a third read-through: Piper Dali.

What Slott does best is update the mass-media world that employs Peter Parker. It isn’t as a radical (or unlikely) a shift as the Peter-as-Bugle-Webmaster Brian Michael Bendis gave us in Ultimate Spider-Man, but it’s much easier to take. Dexter Bennett, the new publisher of the Bugle, assigns Peter to the celebrity beat, something his Spider-abilities make him supremely suitable for. Of course, best friend Harry Osborne — reasonably a long-term target of paparazzi — isn’t wild about the switch in career, and Aunt May isn’t exactly proud either. Neither is Peter, for that matter, but the paychecks are good.

Spider-Man also fights a Web-savvy villain, Screwball, who translates her villainy into fame via the Internet. Maybe she makes money at it; I dunno. But it makes sense there would be someone like her in Spider-Man’s New York. The writer of the next arc, Bob Gale, also uses the Internet / villainy connection in a way that feels natural.

The second story is a two-parter in which Gale tells the story of the Bookie, the gambler at the Bar with No Name that sets odds for superfights. He’s appeared a couple of times in the Brand New Day setup, and I can’t say that I’ve ever wondered what his story was. Nevertheless, here we have it, and of course it involves bad luck, bad odds, and fixed games.

It’s a shame that Gale’s decided to focus on the Bookie when there’s not much interesting about the character. Gale seems to have a good handle on the villains at the Bar with No Name — the whole scene with Spidey in the Bar is well done, both by Gale and by penciler Mike McKone — and I have a great deal of respect for someone who decides to use the Enforcers out of Spider-Man’s entire rogue’s gallery. (I’m not sure about Ox’s characterization, but I’m not sure he’s been given a personality in almost 50 years of appearances, so I’ll let it slide.) His Spider-dialogue — like Slott’s — is spot-on. But I don’t care about the Bookie or his father or any of his hare-brained schemes, not even when it’s suggested the Bookie could have the answers to clear Spider-Man from the most recent charges of murder that have been leveled against him. Spider-Man is always cleared, more or less, so there’s not much excitement there, and I didn’t get the feeling that whoever is framing Spider-Man is that important. (From things I’ve read online since this came out, I know that might be wrong. But Brand New Day hasn’t convinced me of the culprit’s importance.)

Whatever I think about the plots, the art remains a strength for Brand New Day. The artists in this book have some of the highest quality-to-amount-I-like-their-work ratios other than Frank Quitely. Marcos Martin pencils the first arc, and although I don’t like the way he draws faces and human bodies49, I can’t deny he knows how to make a scene visually interesting. Whether it’s Spider-Man debating with himself over whether to take celebrity pictures or Paper Doll alone with her collection of newspaper clippings, there’s rarely a dull page. I also enjoyed the fight scene in an art gallery, where Martin got to use his art studies to integrate Andy Warhol’s and Roy Lichtenstein’s work into the Marvel Universe — and into a fight scene. I enjoyed McKone’s work more, although I wasn’t quite as impressed with it. Still, the scenes inside the Bar with No Name were fun, as was the rescue on Coney Island.

There’s nothing wrong with the stories in v. 3 — they’re fun, lightweight, refreshingly free from grit or heavy gloom. That’s part of their charm, and that’s a large measure of their problem; there’s no real substance here. No matter how strong the art, no matter how encouraging the new direction, the stories themselves feel like a sweet, frothy dessert with little to sink one’s teeth into. Like the rest of Brand New Day, it’s a strong reboot. The individual appeal of the stories, however, is much less, despite strong writing and penciling.

Rating: Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol Spider-Man symbol (3 of 5)

Labels: , , , , , , , , ,

16 October 2010

A Heretical Excuse

I missed putting up a review today. You, the loyal reader, deserve a better excuse than “my personal life was crazy” or “I was crushed by the amount of work I had to do this week.” Frankly, you can get those kind of excuses anywhere, and we all know they’re lies, just excuses for being too lazy to put in the kind of quality work an unpaid “labor of love” deserves. So you get a better excuse. Like this one:


We interrupt this entertainment (?) for the following …

Have you ever felt lazy? Ineffective? Does it seem like the whole world is burning down around you and there’s nothing you want to do about it?

And, worse yet, do you feel bad about it? If you’re like millions of Americans, the answers to these questions is “Yes.” But you don’t have to feel bad about it any longer!

Just convert to the new religion of Buchananism. Founded by James Buchanan, fifteenth president of the United States, Buchananism preaches a message of forgiveness and sloth. You don’t have to worry about two wars, a elephantine deficit, the BP oil spill, or the gradual lardassing of an entire nation — Buchananism tells us that if it’s really a problem, then someone else with more fervor and a much clearer moral compass will come along and clean it all up. [DISCLAIMER: May result in hundreds of thousands of your countrymen’s death and as many more maimed and wounded — but it won’t be your fault!]

Buchananism expects nothing tangible of you — just as you should expect nothing tangible from Buchananism. There is no tithing and no early morning worship services. You will never be asked to support causes that you don’t believe in. There are no controversies and no creepy, criminal, or immoral clergy — because there is no clergy! You will never see a conspicuous monument to Buchananism and wonder if the money used to build it would have been better spent on another cause because there will be no monuments, and Buchananism doesn’t believe in causes. There are no metaphysical dilemmas with Buchananism either — that’s something no other major religion can claim! Just sit back and keep an eye on your own stuff. That’s all that Buchananism asks! (Although if you send $39.99 to the address below, we can send you a Blu-Ray of Kansas bleeding, so you can experience the sacrament of fundament testing the way Buchananism founder James Buchanan intended.)

And if that isn’t enough, we personally guarantee that Buchananism is the only major world religion with a functional religio-bot avatar here on Earth. [DISCLAIMER: RoboZoroaster does not count because it hasn’t learned — or more likely doesn’t care — about the distinction between good and evil. All it does is drive around in that tricked out Mazda and perform stupid magic tricks …] The Robot James Buchanan, when not stalking Jimmy Carter or planning to ineffectually harass Mormons, is available to counsel you on how to either do nothing or do something so horribly badly that no one will ever ask you to do it again. [WARNING: Do not ask Robot James Buchanan to attend, entertain, or look at a child’s birthday party or a bar — ]


Whoa. Where did that come from? …

So I guess what I’m trying to say is, always be careful of new religions, even if you think they are everything you believe in.

Labels: , ,

09 October 2010

Hellboy, v. 8: Darkness Calls

Collects: Hellboy: Darkness Calls #1-6 (2007)

Released: May 2008 (Dark Horse)

Format: 200 pages / color / $19.95 / ISBN: 978-1593078966

What is this?: England’s witches want Hellboy to be their king, but Baba Yaga wants revenge on the demoniform hero.

The culprits: Writer Mike Mignola and artist Duncan Fegredo

The second Hellboy title of the fortnight is Hellboy, v. 8: Darkness Calls — a change for the Hellboy graphic novel series, in that this is the first book in which series creator Mike Mignola provides little of the artwork.

That was what defined Darkness Calls in my mind before I started reading the book, overshadowing anything else it could offer. The first few chapters I was consumed with the question of whether losing Mignola’s artwork in favor of Duncan Fegredo’s made the series lose an essential something that made Hellboy Hellboy. It didn’t matter that Mignola remained the writer; everything about Hellboy, series and character, is laconic, and so much rides on the ability and style of the art.

Hellboy, v. 8: Darkness Calls coverHappily, Fegredo fits right in. His art for Darkness Calls is similar to Mignola’s, although scratchier and not quite as shadowy or blocky. The loss of shadows works against Fegredo, but that’s a quibble. His Hellboy is slightly different as well, less massive and square — although a quick glance might not be enough for readers to be able to detect the differences. Fegredo’s fight scenes are well choreographed, and readers will have little trouble following the action. All in all, if readers can’t have Mignola’s art, then Fegredo will serve excellently.

The continuity of Hellboy is steadily getting more difficult; soon it will a bachelor’s degree in Hellboyology to be able to follow the plots. Although Mignola makes reference to past stories, you won’t be able to get all of the tangled references between Baba Yaga, Hecate, Igor Bromhead, Rasputin, Giurescu, and Ilsa Haupstein unless you have a decent recall of volumes 2, 3, and 4 (Wake the Devil, The Chained Coffin and Others, and The Right Hand of Doom). Pretty impressive for a comic about a big red guy punching and shooting monsters; on the other hand, I found the feeling I was missing out on some of the story disconcerting. Is this how others feel when the continuity of a superhero universe piles up on them? Hmm. Perhaps.

In the main story, the Russian witch Baba Yaga seeks revenge on Hellboy for putting out her eye decades in the past; she works through proxies, not daring to face Hellboy directly. Her main weapon is Koshchei the Deathless, a warrior who is immortal because he hid his soul inside an egg inside a duck inside a rabbit inside a goat. Predictably, such silly precautions have rebounded upon him, and Baba Yaga controls the goat, while all Koschchei wants is death. This, of course, is a set up for more than three issues of a running fight between Koshchei and Hellboy.

That’s not to say that there isn’t a wide variety of creatures from mythology and folklore; there are. Mignola is never afraid to drop a minor spirit or a great god into a story just as a background character, and that’s the case here as he plunks house spirits and witchfinders and the leader of the Russian pagan gods … Yes, most of the cast is from Russian and Gaelic fairy stories, but even within a specific mythos, these background characters help flesh out the world and make it seem living, like there’s enough of a supernatural population for characters to bump into each other.

Hellboy walks through some secondary plots as well. The witches of Britain are looking for a new king, and they think Hellboy fits the bill even if he’d rather fight on the side of a witchfinder; the faerie Gruagach looks to resurrect a powerful creature to lead the creatures of darkness into prominence; and warlock Igor Bromhead steals the power of Hecate. The last has little to do with anything, it feels like, except allow Hecate a chance to give a final, foreboding speech. Which is a bit of a gyp — stealing the power of Hecate should have had more of an effect on the story. (As should the deicide in the story.) The witches of Britain end up serving as a bookend to the story, the plot that Baba Yaga’s quest for vengeance hijacks Hellboy from. Only Gruagach seems to be an interesting subplot, setting up a more powerful future adversary for Hellboy.

Still, it’s good to have a full-length Hellboy tale after two straight collections of shorter material. It gives Mignola (and Fegredo) to stretch out their legs, so to speak, and tell a story that has room for more than just the main narrative. Even if I didn’t think all of the storylines were exploited to their full potential and even if I found some of the narrative confusing, I enjoyed having a multitude of plot points to chew on as the story went on. And it’s good to see the Hellboy mythos advanced in a more organized manner.

I’m actually looking forward to the next volume, something I wasn’t after v. 7.

Rating: BPRD symbol BPRD symbol BPRD symbol Half a BPRD symbol (3.5 of 5)

Labels: , , , , , ,

01 October 2010

Hellboy, v. 7: The Troll Witch and Others

Collects: Hellboy stories from various Hellboy and Dark Horse series (2003-6)

Released: October 2007 (Dark Horse)

Format: 144 pages / color / $17.95 / ISBN: 9781593078607

What is this?: Odds and ends from Hellboy’s (and Mike Mignola’s) career

The culprits: Mike Mignola, with P. Craig Russell and Richard Corben illustrating one story each

For the first of my two consecutive Hellboy reviews, we have Hellboy, v. 7: The Troll Witch and Other Stories. Troll Witch is a set of miscellaneous short pieces grouped together into one volume; the longest, “Makoma,” was a two-issue mini, but the rest were collected in anthologies or produced specifically for this volume. As with most collections of short pieces, the stories in Troll Witch are uneven.

Hellboy, v. 7: The Troll Witch and Other Stories coverThe title story is the best of the lot. It’s a simple tale that Mignola borrows from a Scandanavian folktale, only to have one of the characters in the story specifically point out the folk tale ends too neatly. The story ends with a nice character moment for Hellboy as well, with the witch seeing a bit too deeply into Hellboy’s psyche for his comfort. “Dr. Carp’s Experiment” is a nice little story as well, involving mad Victorian science, time travel, and demon apes. Unfortunately, it’s a little reminiscent of Inger von Klemt and his Kriegaffe in Hellboy, v. 5: Conqueror Worm.

The other short tales are not quite as impressive, although each generally has some interesting visual. “The Penanggalan” has the penanggalan, a south Asian monster in which the head and all the internal organs separate from the body. On the other hand, there’s not much else to the story, besides Hellboy making fun of the creature’s origin. In “The Hydra and the Lion,” Hellboy gets to fight a hydra and tie its heads into knots, but the explanation for an unexpected ally is a bit too … I want to say “stupid” but I’ll go with “psychological for me to fit into a physical world.” The vampire in “The Vampire of Prague” gets to kick its own disembodied head around for a while, but the story’s resolution involves playing cards and puppets in a way I don’t really think came together. And I didn’t care for the poetry-spouting monster in “The Ghoul” at all, despite a puppet performance of Hamlet in the background.

“Makoma” is the final story in Troll Witch. It tells the story of an African folk hero who defeats giants and dragons and demons and communes with the spirits of the land, as folk heroes are wont to do. Mignola ties the story into Hellboy continuity by telling the story with Hellboy in the role of Makoma and having one of his adversaries tempt him with his demonic destiny. The story itself is interesting — for nothing else, the setting and culture is novel — but the tie-in to Hellboy is less than convincing.

Mignola provides the art for most of these stories. It’s the same Mignola art that readers have become used to, blocky and shadowy and synonymous with the Hellboy Universe. In the introduction, Walt Simonson calls Mignola’s dialogue “sparse” to the point of requiring reader interpolation, but sometimes I find his visual storytelling in “Troll Witch” equally spare, requiring a second (or third) read to figure out why the climax actually makes sense.

Two stories are illustrated by others: P. Craig Russell draws “The Vampire of Prague” and Richard Corben contributes to “Makoma.” Both are excellent artists, but it’s jarring to see Hellboy and his world drawn by someone other than Mignola. (I’ll have to get used to it, as the next three volumes are drawn by Duncan Fegredo and others.) I was excited to see what Russell would do with his story, but it doesn’t fit with the rest of the book: it’s clean, bright, smooth. In another book, I would be all over it, but here, it just seems off. Corben’s work fits better — no doubt helped by “Makoma”’s framing sequence, drawn by Mignola. It’s obviously not Mignola, but the colors are more muted and there are just enough rough edges to remind us that the life of a monster hunter isn’t all pretty people and sparkly vampires.

If you’re a fan of Hellboy, there’s no reason you shouldn’t pick this up, as the book shows some of the monsters Hellboy has encountered in his career. On the other hand, if you’re more interested in Hellboy’s development as a character … this doesn’t move it forward much. There’s a glimpse of Hellboy’s internal conflict in “Makoma” and “The Troll Witch,” but only a glimpse. And if you haven’t read Hellboy before, start somewhere else.

Rating: BPRD symbol BPRD symbol (2 of 5)

Labels: , , , , , ,