End of 2011 Part 1 – Favorite Comics I Read

This was a big year in comics, particularly for DC which relaunched its entire line of books, meaning they cancelled everything and started over from issue one. As a result, I ended up becoming distant towards the company that used to dominate my list for favorite comics, and moving over to more Marvel fare.

Detective Comics #878 – 881 (Creators: Scott Snyder, Francesco Francavilla, Jock)

One of the few DC books I enjoyed was this final arc in the first volume of Detective Comics. Snyder really brought a sense of horror to the title and the sort of horror that truly hit home. While Gotham goes about its typical chaos, Jim Gordon Jr., the son of the Commissioner is hiding a dark secret. His cousin, Barbara (the former Batgirl, now Oracle) fails to convince Gordon about the sociopathic side of his son until its too late. Truly one of the best Batman stories of the decade.

Batwoman (Creators: J.H. Williams III, W. Haden Blackman)

The only title from the DC Comics relaunch that has really clicked with me, probably because these stories were written pre-re-launch. The series follows Kate Kane, the Batwoman, an heiress who fights crime in Gotham and isn’t just a “girl partner” to Batman. The series is made great thanks to Williams’ layouts which are unlike anything else coming from DC right now.

Avengers Academy (Creators: Christos Gage, Mike McKone)

I was probably least excited about this title during the big Avengers re-launch two years ago but it has grown to be my favorite of all the titles. I think it reminds me a lot of the old New Teen Titans issues I got my hands on in the 1990s. Its a simple fun series about some interesting characters. It also features some older heroes acting as teachers so you can have classic Marvel elements included from time to time (Quicksilver is an instructor, so his pop Magneto shows up one ish. My favorite part of this year was the weight they put on killing. One student, Mettle, has to kill an enemy during battle and its a plot line that carries on for the majority of the year as he struggles to deal with his actions.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man (Creators: Brian Michael Bendis, Sara Pichelli)

While the media tried to turn this into a surface level “Spider-man Iz a Blacks Spanish Person!!! OMGZ” story, they ignored the fact that it was also a classic origin story. This was the perfect move to make the alt-verse Ultimate Spider-Man his own character and not have to simply be a parallel to the standard universe. The art and story here is perfect and feels fresh. This is the story you could hand to a kid and immediately have him hooked the way kids got hooked on Spidey back in the early 60s.

Wolverine & The X-Men (Creators: Jason Aaron, Chris Bachalo)

Speaking of fun, Jason Aaron, who I associated with darker work, has produced the most fun X-Men comic I have read in ages. Wolverine has split the X-Men proper and left their San Francisco island to re-start the Westchester School. Following him are Beast, Kitty Pryde, and Iceman as headmasters to a cast of adolescent mutants. The series is chock full of crazy ideas and it makes you groan when you come to the end of an issue, wanting to desperately get the next one in your hands.

Locke and Key (Creators: Joe Hill, Gabriel Rodriguez)

After Lost ended was despondent about what the next television series would be that evoked that same sense of mystery and questioning. Little did I know it would come in the form of a comic book series. Locke and Key is the story of a family’s dark secrets and house where a cache of keys each possess a magical effect. Looming over the family is a dark figure from the past who knows all the keys and how to manipulate them to achieve its ends, and is happy to kill whom ever gets in his way. One of the most exciting and intriguing comics published today.

Uncanny X-Force (Creators: Rick Remender, Jerome Opena, Robbi Rodriguez)

I never thought an X-title, much less an X-Force comic would top my favorites of the year list. Rick Remender, the mad bastard who came up with a Frankenstein-ed version of The Punisher last year,  managed to take decades of convoluted and difficult continuity and turn it into an epic saga that even a novice comic reader could read and enjoy. The culmination of Remender’s story focused on the tragic Archangel was the first comic I have read in years that made me emotional. He gives a perfect  superhero death scene that doesn’t go for crass shock and focuses on poignancy instead.

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Back Issue Bin: Bone



Bone (1991 – 2004, 55 issues)
Written and Illustrated by Jeff Smith

It might not look like it, but Jeff Smith’s magnum opus, Bone is a contemporary Lord of the Rings in comic book form. For years, I saw the images from the series: The funny looking cartoonish protagonist, the menacing rat creatures, the great red dragon. It wasn’t until 2005 that the complete collection was released that I purchased it and began the series. And its taken me five years to finish the series, with many starts and stops along the way. The complete collected edition is designed perfectly for that with about ten “books” within it, and the story grows denser and more history rich as you progress. The end result is a work of high fantasy that is one of the best of the late 20th century/early 21st.

The story centers around three beings from the unseen town of Boneville: The scheming Phoney Bone, the happy go lucky Smiley Bone, and the hero of the story Fone Bone. The series opens on them journeying out of Boneville as a result of one of Phoney’s schemes. To avoid being lynched they have gone into a mysterious forest, in which they encounter the rat creatures, a talking flea, and the Great Red Dragon. Eventually they emerge in the town of Barrelhaven where the story really kicks into gear. Fone meets and develops a crush on farm girl Rose, and Phoney draws the ire of Rose’s guardian, Gran’ma Ben. The early parts are much lighter and mix elements of fantasy and silly cartoon plots. By the the time you reach the second third of the story the fantasy has been amped up and the true plot has been revealed.

Bone draws a lot of its style from the Carl Barks Disney comics of the 1940s and 50s. These were serialized adventure stories that feature cartoon beings. While the slapstick style jokes were there, the emphasis was much more on the mystery and action surrounding the plots of pirate treasure and haunted castles. Here the high fantasy novels of the 1970s and 80s are merged with the “funny book” characters to produce a very original work. Smith is a comic creator who truly has an independent mindset, the entire premise behind Bone is one that could never really sell at one of the big companies. For a short time, Bone was published as part of Image Comics, but Smith pulled the title and brought it back to his own publishing house, Cartoon Books.

I could easily see people passing the series over who would actually really enjoy it if they gave it a chance. The universe created by Jeff Smith is very rich and immersive. By the end of the story you truly feel like you’ve made this epic journey across the land, from a small town in the forest to the great city-fortress to the south. There’s an intricate history that mirrors the story of Aragorn and the broken lineage of royalty in the land. Fone Bone ends up playing a major role in the restoration of this royal line. The artwork in the book is amazingly intricate as well. The series experienced numerous delays, but when you sit down with the whole story before you it is worth it. Not a single issue’s art if below par, and it still stands as one of the most beautiful looking comics I’ve ever read.

In Theaters Now: Scott Pilgrim vs The World



Scott Pilgrim vs The World (2010, dir. Edgar Wright)
Starring Michael Cera, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Kieran Culkin, Mark Webber, Alison Pill, Johnny Simmons, Anna Kendrick, Jason Schwartzmann, Brandon Routh, Aubrey Plaza, Chris Evans, Mae Whitman

EPIC!

This is the official film of the Nintendo Generation, from the opening Universal logo to the final battle, the film is painted with pixelated brush strokes of late 80s video game fandom. Its also the closest I’ve seen director Edgar Wright come to recreating the style of humor found in his wonderful British series Spaced. These are the same kinds of people that populated that television show, just born a couple decades later. They have the same idiosyncratic obsessions and quirks just colored in an 8-bit aesthetic. This also marks a major departure for Michael Cera who has made a career on playing the lovable loser. The Scott Pilgrim character is a real asshole, especially to the girls in his life, and Cera does a good job of shifting his style of acting to fit Pilgrim. Simply put, this is the best date movie/action flick of the year.

The story takes us to the snowy streets of Toronto where Scott plays bass in Sex Bob-Omb and has upset fellow bandmates by dating the 17 year old Knives Chow. His dalliance with Chow is usurped when the mysterious Ramona Flowers crosses his path. Once they start a relationship its quickly revealed that Ramona’s seven exs have formed a villainous league who are intent on destroying anyone who dares to date her next. In this world you don’t need to be a black belt to fight like a character out of Mortal Kombat, and no one questions when Scott drops his bass and flies into the air to clash with ex after ex. This is a world where the line between game console and reality are blurred.

The humor here is so wonderful, its geeky and silly and the film never takes it self too seriously. Its the kind of thing you expect from Edgar Wright. Characters talk in a hyper real way, popping in and out frame when ever they are needed. The standout in the cast for me was Kieran Culkin as Scott’s gay roommate Wallace. Wallace is devoid of stereotype and is simply a perfect compliment to Scott’s often immature relations with the female of the species. The rest of the cast hits every note they needed to. None of the characters are all that fleshed out, by the conceit of the film is that they don’t need to be. This is a live action video game so characters are more types rather than three dimensional. Despite that lack of character dimensionality, the film does an excellent job of world building. While the far edges are kept blurred, the world of this fictional Toronto feels like it is bursting with life with so many characters passing through the frame.

It’s a shame the film didn’t have a bigger opening and appears to be quickly fading from theaters. It is Wright’s highest opening film though, almost twice as much as Hot Fuzz. The thing about Scott Pilgrim is that it is not ever going to appeal to a mass audience. This is a film made squarely for people who were kids when the Nintendo was released and were obsessed with it. It doesn’t have the mass guy appeal of The Expendables or the mass gal appeal of Eat Pray Love. Though, I’m willing to bet it is much much better than either of those films.

Comics Review: Doom Patrol v5 #1-13





Doom Patrol v5 #1-13
Written by Keith Giffen
Art by Andy Clarke

Almost simultaneously Marvel and DC introduced bizarre misfits teams in 1963. Marvel brought the world the X-Men, led by the wheelchair bound Professor X. DC Comics presented Doom Patrol, led by the wheelchair bound Chief. As you well know, only one of these two concepts skyrocketed into great success. That’s not to say Doom Patrol hasn’t been a perennial favorite in the decades that followed. Since the late 1980s, there have been four separate shots at resurrecting the Doom Patrol idea. The most successful was spearheaded by Grant Morrison who took over the second series and brought into the mature readers imprint Vertigo. He injected bits of dadaism and surreality into the series and created a critically acclaimed run. But it didn’t last for much longer after he left. Now Keith Giffen and Andy Clarke are tackling the characters with yet another new angle.

The premise of the Doom Patrol revolves around Niles Caulder aka The Chief. Caulder was a reclusive scientist who had bitterness towards the world. In the interest of his own scientific interests, with a side interest in helping the world, he gathered together three individuals transformed by freak accidents. Pilot Larry Trainor was blasted with strange radiation, forced to wear specially treated bandages to contain his radiation, and could projects hard light version of himself from his body. Rita Farr was a movie actress on the set of her latest picture when she accidentally bathed in mysterious waters and found she could shrink and grow at will. Finally, Cliff Steele was a race car driver fatally injured in an accident. Caulder witnessed it and helped transfer Cliff’s brain is a massive robot body. This trio were often the reluctant aides of Niles Caulder.

In the current series, the Doom Patrol have relocated to Oolong Island, a locale in the DC Universe most recently used as a haven for various mad scientist supervillains. The Island has been “legitimized” and Caulder brings his team in and uses the newly founded nation as his staging ground for illegal experimentation and missions. The trio of members underneath him are completely mistrustful of him and Rita is especially angered when she learns Caulder has brought her ex husband, Steve Dayton along. Dayton is a telepath who originally used his powers to convince Rita to marry him, they even adopted the Teen Titans’ Beast Boy as their son. Once Dayton’s ruse was revealed the marriage fell apart. Now Caulder uses Dayton to attempt to control Rita.

The plots have been pulled into joining the Blackest Night story running through the books as well as delving into dense Doom Patrol continuity. I can’t see someone who hasn’t read the last twenty years of Doom Patrol stories being able to understand this series. There’s a villain reveal in one of the more recently issues that will fall with a thud for anyone who didn’t read the Morrison run. Though Giffen attempts to provide recaps for new readers: there’s a single issue spotlight on Larry Trainor and another on Rita Farr, 32 pages is simply not enough to create an understanding of these vastly difficulty histories. Despite my love of the strangeness of these characters, I have a feeling we will being seeing the cancellation of the series soon. Its odd because DC attempted a complete reboot in 2004 and it failed miserably as well. I will defend the concept of these characters, and I believe they can work. I just have no idea what it would take for them to lead a successful ongoing series.

Comics Review: S.H.I.E.L.D.



S.H.I.E.L.D. #1-3
Written by Jonathan Hickman
Art by Dustin Weaver

Remember reading in the history book about how Galileo fought back the invasion of Galactus on Earth? You probably don’t, as such stories have been hidden in the shadows by the cabal of S.H.I.E.L.D. This mysterious organization operates from the catacombs of Rome, in the city of Urbis Immortalis. They have discovered how the world will end and fight those forces that seek to bring it about too early. In addition they push humanity’s evolution forward by giving support to all the great minds through out history. In the opening of this series its 1953 and a young man named Leonid is recruited by Agents Nathaniel Richards and Howard Stark.  Leonid learns his father was a super being named the Night Machine who has been in battle with S.H.I.E.L.D. for years. Night Machine causes Leonid to question the true purposes of S.H.I.E.L.D. and the first issue ends with the young man meeting Leonard da Vinci, who has traveled through time to deliver a mysterious device.

S.H.I.E.L.D has all the trappings of a great Grant Morrison comic and these first few issues have already made me think of series like The Invisibles and Morrison’s Batman. These are comics where you have an avalanche of ideas in a single issue, that force you to re-read just to make sure you got each and every little concept. The original premise of S.H.I.E.L.D, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the group was created by  Nick Fury as a espionage version of the United Nations that worked in the shadows. Hickman’s series purports to do a little retroactive continuity work (retcon) by establishing that the organization was around long before Fury. It remains to be seen if this series in the greater continuity of the Marvel Universe, or its own little pocket, but it does seem to feature cameos by a lot of mainstays.

Why S.H.I.E.L.D stands out so strongly from the rest of the Marvel titles may be because it was originally a creator-owned idea. Hickman hadn’t tied to the MU until his work on Secret Warriors and Fantastic Four gained him acclaim at the company. He’s managed to create a little corner for himself at Marvel and for the incredibly nerdy-minded of us if you pay close enough attention you see references in one book to something going on in the other. Smartly, these are not details that hinge on you understanding the plot, but make you grin when you realize the connections. Its outstanding work from a writer who is still early in his career. Very excited to see what Hickman gets up to in the coming years.

Comic Quick Hits

Brightest Day #7 (of 26)

This is the “spine” of the DC Universe for the next year, following characters resurrected at the end of Blackest Night. And this particular issue has been hyped as the “every thing is revealed” moment. Former spectral hero Deadman aka Boston Brand comes in direct contact with the mysterious White Lantern, and when he does all the resurrected heroes and villains hear a voice telling them why they were brought back. Of course this voice is vague as hell, but the most interesting for me was Maxwell Lord seeing that his destiny is kill a character whose book is coincidentally on the ropes for cancellation. As a stand alone story, it wasn’t too great, but for the overall narrative it does set an interesting direction for things.

Superman:  The Last Family of Krypton #1 (of 3)

DC returns to its Elseworlds imprint, a focus on “What If?”, parallel reality type stories. The conceit here is that the entire El family (Jor, Lara, and little Kal) escape Krypton and arrive on Earth in the 1970s. Jor immediately uses his alien technology to make life better for humanity, while Lara pushes the philosophic belief of Rao-ology. Lara is the focus here and becomes concerned about Kal’s isolation in the world, so she begins interviewing Earth family’s to find one he can live with in disguise to learn what it is to be human. Guess who she picks. There’s some sub plot threads involving Jor and his Jorcorp, a company developing household devices using Krypton tech, and the child prodigy Jor hires (said prodigy is a very familiar figure in the Superman mythos). What I really enjoyed was a big divergence from the standard Superman story that centers around Lara and has me looking forward to the rest of the series.

Shadowland #2 (of 5)

Marvel’s urban NYC event continues. Daredevil, still inexplicably wearing this new costume, is confronted by old friends Iron Fist, Luke Cage, Misty Knight, Colleen Wing, and Spider-Man. Meanwhile, The Kingpin and Lady Bullseye summon a very familiar Marvel comics character to help in their fight. I’m most intrigued about Moon Knight’s involvement in the story. He gets himself captured by Daredevil’s forces and locked up in the Hand’s prison. Moon Knight has always been a great premise to me, like a completely insane Batman with multiple personalities. The mini-series  is keeping me hooked, which is quite an accomplishment, as it features characters I have never clicked with. Definitely much better than Marvel’s last big event book, Siege. I think it works in part because its keeping the scale small and local.

Page to Screen: Batman – Under the Red Hood

In Page to Screen I look at comic books adapted to film.



Batman – Under the Red Hood (2010, dir. Brandon Vietti)
Adapted from Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo, Batman: Under the Hood by Judd Winick and Doug Mahnke
Starring Bruce Greenwood, Jensen Ackles, Neil Patrick Harris, John Dimaggio

I’m never one to be against resurrecting comic book characters. It does happen way too often now for the impact of it to amount to much, but if done well it can make for some brilliantly interesting development for the characters affected by the return. In 1988, through a rather callous and cynical phone-in vote, the fans voted for the second Robin aka Jason Todd to be killed off in the current story arc of Batman. Todd was a polarizing character, who started out simply as a blank slate replacement for Dick Grayson. As time went on, Todd was revamped into a counter to Grayson, a rebellious teen who didn’t listen to the advice of Batman. It was a much more interesting take on the Robin character than Grayson had ever been, frankly. But the fans at the time seemed to balk at this brazen rebellion towards the Dark Knight and got young Jason beaten to death by The Joker. Fifteen years later, a new criminal figure appeared in Gotham, calling himself The Red Hood, a blatant reference to the costumed identity the man who would become The Joker wore on the night of his transformation. As Batman investigated further, he would learn The Red Hood was tied to what he saw as his greatest failure.

This latest from DC Comics high end animated film department takes the very end of the Death in the Family story and merges it with a “greatest hits” compilation from Winick’s run on Batman. I was surprised that some more esoteric elements were included, particularly, Batman and Nightwing’s battle with the super android Amazo. In the original comics, that story was tied to both The Red Hood and plot development for Infinite Crisis, the big event at the time. Winick, who handles scripting duties here as well, reworks the moment as a part of the more condensed plot of the film. He also takes his epically long struggle between Red Hood and Black Mask and turns into a much more satisfying and shorter story. Despite the film’s length of 75 minutes, it feels like we got at least a treatment for what could be a longer live action film story.

This is the first true solo Batman comic story since the animated series ended. In a lot of ways, it could be shoehorned into The Animated Series continuity; in TAS we eventually got Tim Drake as Robin and Grayson as Nightwing. It could be said this story takes place in between the Fox version of TAS and the WB follow up, a sort of untold tale of the lost Robin. The voice acting is very well done and Bruce Greenwood sounds so much like Kevin Conroy (Batman in TAS) I thought for a second it was him. Neil Patrick Harris does an excellent job providing comic relief in the first half as Nightwing, but it was disappointing that the character sort of vanishes from the story. John DiMaggio (Bender from Futurama) tackles The Joker and reminded me how strange it is to not hear Mark Hamill’s voice coming out of the animated villain. He’s good, its just a different style and laugh than I suspect myself and my peers are used to. Jensen Ackles rounds out the cast as Red Hood and does a decent job.

What I saw here was how two stories that are important to the canon, but have always felt poorly executed, can be retold in a way that shows its all about the craftsmen behind the scenes. I’ve been surprised by Judd Winick twice in the last week, first by the latest Justice League: Generation Lost issue and now this. I suspect when he is made to really collaborate with others we see the weaknesses in his storytelling diminish. Instead of these stories coming off a cynical and mean, which they do on paper, a lot of redemptive qualities are brought to the front in the animated film. Where Batman and the other characters are left at the end of the story is a very interesting place and serves as a reminder as to what separates Batman from the gun-toting vigilantes that followed in his footsteps. It’s also nice to see a Batman affected by mistakes, something we rarely get in any medium he shows up in. To see Batman as a vulnerable and human figure, a father wracked with guilt, provides an incredibly deeper picture of the character.