I've noticed for a while now that Marvel has been steadily raising the prices on their trade paperbacks. Where a collection of a 5-issues used to run you around $13-14, it'll now run you anywhere from $15-20 these days, depending on how well the series sold in single issue form. While I'd say that the best way to get them to lower their prices would be to stop buying these trades, that's just not an option. Instead, I just look for better deals. So instead of shopping at my local comic shop, more and more of my business these days has been going to Amazon.com. And for those titles that are too expensive even with Amazon's generous discount? There's my "List of books to find for 50% off at Comic-Con this year." Shop smarter, not harder fellow readers.
That being said, I only paid full price for one of the following books. See if you can guess which one it was:
B.P.R.D. vol. 10: The Warning
This is billed as part one of the "Scorched Earth" trilogy on the back, but it's still a satisfying story in its own right. While Abe Sapien searches for Capt. Daimio (or what's left of him...) Kate, Liz, Johann and the living mummy Panya try to figure out the mystery of the "Fu-Manchu Guy" that's been haunting Liz's dreams for the past several volumes. While they do get answers, as is the case for stories like these, they're not the ones they wanted at all. After the middling detour that was "B.P.R.D. 1946," we get back into the main story with a vengeance with some epic monster-movie action scenes, courtesy of artist Guy Davis, and a story that lays out the stakes for the next two installments of the trilogy quite well. Writers John Arcudi and Mike Mignola also set the stage for some interesting character developments, particularly with the ectoplasmic spirit medium Johan as his agenda looks to be diverging from that of the B.P.R.D.'s. There's also a priceless bit involving agent Devon and a phone booth that made me laugh out loud after it recalled his exploits in "The Eternal Machine." Another strong volume from this creative team, as expected.
Punisher War Zone: The Resurrection of Ma Gnucci
Garth Ennis' run on the character reaches its punchline and Steve Dillon comes back to illustrate it. For some (like me), that's all they need to hear before they'll shell out the cash for the hardcover (for now) collection of this series. For everyone else, know that this involves the return of key characters from Ennis' first Punisher storyline "Welcome Back Frank" as the quadruple-amputee mob boss Ma Gnucci makes a surprising return from the dead to unite New York's remaining mafia families against the title character. Things are not what they seem as down on his luck goon Charlie Schitti, the son of the uber-elitist vigilante Elite, and detective Molly Van Richtoffen also figure into the plot as well. It goes without saying that if you like Ennis' brand of humor, you'll get a kick out of this (one scene involves a monkey ripping out a guy's testicles and then flinging them across a zoo) and the series is further proof that his humor works better and his action scenes hit harder when they're being drawn by Dillon. Those of you who thought Ennis "Punisher MAX" stories were the be-all, end-all for the character will probably be a little put out by this return to the goofy humor and action of his original stories. I'm of the opinion that bringing his run on the character full-circle like this makes the fact that we'll probably never see him write Frank Castle again easier to accept. (And yes, having read "Welcome Back Frank" will add greatly to your enjoyment of the series. Normally that'd be a minus, but if you haven't read it, you should.)
Claymore vol. 14
Girls with giant swords and demonically enhanced strength fight demons known as Youma at the behest of the mysterious "Organization." That's the gist of this series, or at least it was until the main character and several of her comrades faked their deaths after the Organization considered them expendable. This series has always felt like "Berserk Lite" to me, but it's still been a fairly entertaining of fantasy action comfort food. You know what you're getting, and it's always nice to see the formula done well. Volume 14 involves novice Claymore Clarice and her immensely powerful but childlike partner Miata continuing their search for the former Claymore Galatea. They find her with little effort, but they also find an immensely powerful Awakened One (a Claymore who lost control of her powers and turned into a Youma) hiding in the city. The ensuing fight goes through the standard shounen action cliches, and doesn't really become interesting until its final page when Claire and her group of rogue Claymores show up. While the two extra stories that follow are interesting (they tell the story of how Awakened One Isley met Claire's nemesis Priscilla, and how Claire survived her final test to become a Claymore) I'd have rather had more chapters devoted to showing how the fight played out. Especially when the next volume won't be out until "Fall 2009." I'd be more upset at the wait if the series was truly exceptional, but in the end it's just "comfort food."
Oishinbo vol. 2: Sake
It'd be easy to just say "see my previous" review to sum up this volume, but fortunately that's not the case here. While all of the stories do follow the "Yamaoka shows someone how their opinion about something is wrong" formula that's this series' stock in trade, there are a few key differences here that set it apart from the first volume. First off is the running theme about the sorry state of Japan's sake industry that writer Tetsu Kariya touches upon through most of the stories here. While I like sake well enough, it's interesting to read the opinion of someone who lives in the country where it originated and he provides a multitude of facts to back up his opinions. The multitude does make it feel like I'm reading an illustrated essay at times, but it was interesting enough that I didn't mind too much. There's also a lengthy six-part story involving Yamaoka and co.'s efforts to save a small sake brewery from being bought out which showcases much of writer Kariya's opinions on the industry and it's interesting to note that when he feels something warrants a longer installment than just one or two parts, he really digs into it. Bonus points are awarded for the use of Yamaoka's father Kaibara in this arc as he comes off as less of an unlikeable, arrogant bastard here than he has been shown to be in previous stories. Here his arguments have some merit and his antagonism provides a nice indirect motivation for his son to deliver proof that there is hope for Japan's sake industry yet. This series isn't a the same "must-read" level as the rest of Viz's Signature line, but if you liked the first volume, and especially if you like sake, you'll like this too.
(However, you can simply "cut-and-paste" everything I said about the art in my previous review and apply it here.)
And we're back! This week I'm talking about X-Men and the build-up and follow-through of "Messiah Complex."
Due to unavoidable family problems, no podcast for this week. While I've been able to get around to John's on a pretty regular basis to record these, this weekend threw us a curveball. That said, I'm betting that John wishes things didn't turn out like this more than I did. So instead of a podcast I'm giving you lots of text this week. Text about zombies!
What kind of zombies?
"Marvel Zombies 3" came out in hardcover today. While I've talked about the first volume on the podcast before, the short version is that it's an inventively disgusting series that effectively trades on the feeling of "I can't believe they just did that with Marvel characters!" Cleverly written by Robert Kirkman and illustrated with style by Sean Phillips, it was the biggest surprise hit the comics industry had seen in years. While most series go through a slow or sudden decline from month to month, "Marvel Zombies" kept racking up reorders for months after the series ended.
This being a Marvel comic, a sequel was produced around a year or so later. This is in spite of the fact that the first mini-series ended in a way that didn't really lend itself to sequelization. *spoiler* I mean, how do you top having Zombie Spider-Man, Hulk, Wolverine, Iron Man and Luke Cage eat Galactus, gain his powers and then go off into the universe to eat the rest of the cosmos? *end spoiler* Kirkman's answer to that problem was to have the zombies come back to Earth and find a way to use Reed Richards' technology to open up a portal to another universe to eat. (It bears mentioning now that the original "Marvel Zombies" mini-series was spun off from an arc of "Ultimate Fantastic Four." While it wasn't a bad series, it was easily the least consistent Ultimate title in terms of quality, and will most likely be best remembered for spawning "Marvel Zombies" more than anything else.) This brings them into conflict with Zombie Black Panther and Wasp, who have learned to control their hunger but face increasing resistance from some of the more power-hungry humans in their settlement. Long story short: The zombies fight and are eventually banished to some other dimension, never to bother this one again (in theory). I was impressed that Kirkman was able to wrangle as much story as he did from where he left off with the original mini-series, but even though Phillips was clearly having a blast drawing everything here the shock-value thrills of the first series weren't as effective here and "Marvel Zombies 2" couldn't escape the law of diminishing returns.
While its ending more directly teased the third series, I can't say that I (and the comics-reading population) were thrilled about its prospects. Toss in the fact that Kirkman and Phillips were replaced with writer Fred Van Lente and artist Kev Walker, and you have a recipe for disaster.
So imagine my surprise when I started reading the reviews for this series and found the general sentiment of them to say something along the lines of "This is a series that is better than it has any right to be." After having read "Marvel Zombies 3," I can see what they're talking about.
The big draw for this series was that it was goin to have the zombies invading the regular Marvel Universe, starting in Florida with Zombie Deadpool leading the charge. The attack is contained, but the incident draws the attention of the Alternate Reality Monitoring and Operational Responce agency (a.k.a. A.R.M.O.R. and the only thing more ridiculous than its acronym is that it actually makes sense when you consider the purview of similarly named organizations S.W.O.R.D. and S.H.I.E.L.D. in the Marvel U) and while they've been working on a vaccine for the zombie virus, they need untainted human blood from the Zombie U in order to make it work. Now if you can get past that setup, then you're going to enjoy the rest of the book. If you can't, then I doubt anything I say after this will change your mind.
That is, unless you're a fan of Aaron "Machine Man" Stack. I'm not talking about the character as he was portrayed for years after being created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, I'm talking about his Warren Ellis "My robot brain needs beer!" revamp from the pages of "Nextwave." If the idea of a machine fueled by beer and notions of robot pride and "Death to the fleshy ones!" set against a legion of ravenous flesh-eating zombies along with his robot ex-girlfriend Jocasta sounds like a good time to you, then this is the comic for you!
It takes Van Lente and Walker a little while to get up to speed, as most of the first issue is spent setting everything up. While this is all necessary for the carnage and hilarity that ensues later, it's a little on the dry side, and Walker doesn't really get a whole lot of interesting stuff to draw. I was fearful for a bit when Aaron was being taken to task by Jocasta for forsaking the hero spirit he used to have in favor of a "look out for number one" worldview held by most fleshy ones. Usually when this is done in most comics, it's a sign that the character is about to revert to the way he was characterized in the past, negating whatever changes have been made to his characterization over the years.
Once the zombie slaughtering begins, however, things pick up immensely. While I've never ready anything by Van Lente before, I've heard lots of good things about the series he has written and he acquits himself very well here. He captures the spirit of Ellis' take on Aaron Stack very well and knows how to craft imaginatively gory fight scenes. Seeing Stack slaughter his way through a zombie feast, while performing a brutally fake out on Zombie Stilt-Man along the way, and then escape on Zombie Ghost Rider's motorcycle is a blast. While Kev Walker is no Sean Phillips, he still manages to draw the hell out of everything that Van Lente cooks up. Things get even better once the zombie outbreak reaches the A.R.M.O.R. base as we get to see a living Zombie Vampire, Stack re-phrasing "I'm here to kick bubblegum and kick ass..." then playing fetch with Zombie Lockjaw and an exploding brain and Zombie Captain Mexica, hero of Earth 1519. Yes, this is the comic book equivalent of junk food, but it satisfies on the same level.
While it would've been nice to say that this ends the "Marvel Zombies" series on a high note, that's not the case. The final pages of the series set up "Marvel Zombies 4" (the first issue of which came out today as well) with Morbius the Living Vampire set to lead the reassembled "Midnight Sons" on a trip through alternate dimensions to find the one zombie that got away. Though Van Lente and Walker impressed me with this series, I can't say I'm that interested in reading about what happens to Morbius and co. in the next one as I don't hold the same feelings for him as I do Ellis' take on Machine Man, and the blatant "WE ARE EXTENDING THE FRANCHISE" scene that takes the place of an ending is a real turn-off for me. Even if the story doesn't have a true ending here, I think this is a good place to draw a line under the series.
Unless the first issue of the new series has Stack going "You must be joking, right?" and then proceeding to beat the crap out of Morbius and the Midnight Sons and take off with Jocasta through the multiverse. That'd be worth paying $20 for right there.
Today was one of the rare Wednesdays where NOTHING I wanted was scheduled to ship, and the comic shop didn't get in anything I asked them to order for me... Of course, that really won't make a difference here since I generally don't comment on the comics I've just bought for this column. I have to read them first to do that. Anyway, here are some noteworthy titles that came out in the last few weeks:
Daredevil: Lady Bullseye
Or for those of you keeping track at home, vol. 6 of the Ed Brubaker/Michael Lark run. While most of Brubaker's run on "Daredevil" has been very good, most of his stories have a tendency towards making Matt Murdock/Daredevil's life off-puttingly depressing. Which is to say that while Daredevil does a lot of beating down thugs in his comics, his storylines ultimately end with someone issuing a mental or physical beatdown to the man himself. The last volume, "Cruel and Unusual" was a welcome, if slight, change of pace where Matt Murdock finally got to score a solid victory against the bad guys. "Lady Bullseye," on the other hand, gave me the impression for a good portion of its length that the pendulum had swung back in the other direction and we were going to get another story about the bad guys screwing over Murdock once again. Fortunately, that's not entirely the case, as Lady Bullseye herself is more than just a female version of one of Dardevil's greatest foes (Bullseye himself only features tangentially in her origin), she's also one of the Hand's deadliest ninja assassins, and therefore Brubaker's gateway to doing his "Daredevil vs. Ninja" story. The results are generally quite good, with Lark (and company) proving adept at ever at bringing action and life to any kind of scene, and Brubaker offering up an interesting rationalization for why Lady Bullseye is trying to destroy Murdock's life (it's only to offer him a better one, honest). Bonus points are awarded for the introduction of Master Izo, the mentor of Daredevil's mentor, and a character who has all the skills and know-how you'd expect from a wizened, blind, Asian martial-arts master, but none of the decorum. He's also one step ahead of the bad guys here, and that helps make him my new favorite character in the comic.
Berserk vol. 28
If you're thinking that I'll be reviewing every volume of "Berserk" that comes out for this column... then you're probably right. We'll see how it goes from here. If anything, I might have to stop talking about it if the quality continues to be this consistent (yes, it's still very, very good). While this volume is pretty much focused on setting things up for the rest of the arc, that setup happens to be pretty good. For starters, we're treated to the introduction of a mysterious little boy who might be Caska and Guts' "missing" child. (I say "missing" because it was implied that the kid was used as the catalyst for Griffith's reincarnation; but, if it is him then it means Griffith has more problems than the King of Kushan breathing down his neck, and makes things much more interesting as a result). The psychic girl who was introduced as part of Griffith's entourage is reintroduced here, and becomes fast friends with Schierke (a friendship that will no doubt end in tears once they find out about the company each other keeps). Most importantly for future volumes is that the restoration of Caska's mind is also teased... but as with so much in the series, what seems like a good thing may be anything but. Though some fans might be dismayed that there's not as much action in this volume as there has been in the previous ones, there's still an epic oceanside fight between Guts' crew and lots of nasty sea monsters. Overall, this volume leaves me with the same feeling that all the others do: wanting to buy the next one right now if I could.
Nana vol. 15
I often wonder why I keep reading this series because there is no real plot "hook" or "high concept" behind the series. It's just a character-driven story about two women with the same name, both friends, and one who becomes a rock star with her band, while the other winds up marrying one. Fortunately mangaka Ai Yazawa is good at creating interesting characters that you don't mind following around as they go about their lives (it also helps that she's a pretty good artist). So how was this volume? Well... *stops and pulls out the "If you haven't been reading the series, this isn't a good place to start, but fans will still like it" sign* Now that that's over with, this volume's shining moment is the high-stakes negotiating game Takumi plays with the publishers of a tabloid in order to keep them from publishing scandalous pictures of Reira and Ren. Even though the man is cold, calculating, and downright devious about having Trapnest (his band) succeed, he's not evil or about to ruin anyone's life over it, and that sets him apart from a lot of other music industry types we see in fiction. I'm also hoping that the time jump hinted at in the last few pages turns out to be true, because that will blow the door wide open for potential story ideas. So I'm still on board, and I'd recommend that anyone who likes good character-driven stories start reading this from the beginning. Even though this is shojo manga (actually it's closer to josei, but that's another discussion), it's not girly enough to make it unappealing to guys, or else I would've stopped reading it long ago.