What I’ve Been Reading: 7/29/09 — The Lightning Round

July 30, 2009

This is the first of what will likely be a few posts detailing all the stuff I picked up at Comic-Con. As I said before, I’ll probably be doing several podcasts related to the stuff I picked up (the latest volume of “Blade of the Immortal,” the three “Fantastic Four” hardcovers collecting the Waid/Wieringo run, something about “Star Wars” comics), but it would take forever to write up everything I got at the usual length. So while I might be selecting a few books to talk about at length, here’s me writing fast about many books. “The Lightning Round” begins after the break.

Secret Invasion: Surprisingly, not as bad as I had heard. Bendis turns in a sharp script, and Yu gives us some fantastic visuals. It’s biggest problem is that while it works as a diverting super-hero slugfest, it doesn’t have the depth to justify its $30 asking price. Recommended if you can find it for $20 (or less like I did).

Batman: Mad Love and Other Stories HC: This collects all of the “Batman: The Animated Series” related comic work by series creators Paul Dini and Bruce Timm. All the stories are good, but the standout is the title story which relates the funny and tragic origin of Harley Quinn. If that’s not enough, know that Batman calls Joker “Puddin’” at one point. This is a must-buy for anyone with a Batman-loving bone in their body.

The Adventures of Dr. McNinja vol. 3: Operation Dracula! From Outer Space: Twice as big as the previous volumes, but sadly not twice as funny. There’s really no way that a comic that has a ninja doctor fighting off hordes of ninja undead (that he originally killed in the last volume) with the help of Benjamin Franklin’s clone could not be funny, but it doesn’t really hit the ingenious comedic heights of the first two volumes.

Halo: Uprising HC: Bendis again, this time with his frequent artistic collaborator Alex Maleev on board for the art. Maleev kills on pretty much every page, bringing all of the trademarks of the “Halo” franchise to gritty life. Bendis… does his usual schtick and delivers a script that allows Maleev to show off and keeps the story moving. The problem is that the twist in the story is flawed as a) it’s kinda obvious and b) makes the Covenant look like fools. For what it is, it’s not bad, but probably not as interesting as the story of why this four issue series took over two years to come out would be.

House of Mystery vol. 1: Room and Boredom: One of the newer series to emerge from DC’s Vertigo imprint, and to come from the “Vertigoverse” that all the company-owned characters from the imprint inhabit. Fig is an architect who wanders into the titular house after being chased by some mysterious beings, and then finds herself unable to leave. While the overarching story looks to be about Fig and her mysterious connection to the house, the most memorable parts of the book are the short stories featured in each chapter. From stories about a woman who married a fly to a process server for mythical and magical beings, these are the ones that will stick in your head. A good enough start, and enough to make me want to pick up the next volume.

Batman: The Private Casebook HC: Paul Dini again, this time with artist Dustin Nguyen (and writer Peter Milligan pitch-hitting on one story). An interesting study in contrasts between this and “Mad Love” as this has Dini telling Batman stories in the DC Universe proper, and doing a pretty good job of it. As you’d expect, he’s got a great handle on Batman, but he also proves equally skilled at writing the DCU iterations of Ra’s Al Ghul, Zatanna, the Riddler, and introducing a new Scarface/Ventriloquist pairing. Nguyen also handles the artistic side of things with style, resulting in another Batman book I’d recommend to fans (if not in hardcover, then definitely in softcover… when it comes out).

The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck: I’d heard good things about this collection, which tells the story of the world’s richest duck from childhood to being the aged miser he’s known best as. It’s a fun, all-ages story that appeals to the part of me that remembers watching “Ducktales” as a kid. I’m not sure how much I’d have enjoyed it if I hadn’t watched the series all those years ago, but if you’re looking to start your kids on comics, you could do worse than to hand them this.

Hulk: The End HC: Collecting two stories written by Peter David: “Future Imperfect” illustrated by George Perez, and “The End” illustrated by Dale Keown. The former is the stronger of the two, as we get to see Hulk flung into the future to fight against his future self, the tyrant leader of the known world who calls himself “The Maestro.” “The End” is an interesting take on how Hulk/Bruce Banner would react to being the last being(s) left on Earth, even though I couldn’t quite figure out how Bruce managed to escape his fate at the end. Putting these two stories together in one collection results in one of the better “Hulk” collections you’ll read if you get the chance.

Gravel vol. 1: Bloody Liars: Warren Ellis and Mike Wolfer provide the story and script, Raulo Caceres and Oscar Jimenez provide the art for this first collection of the ongoing series detailing the escapades of combat magician William Gravel. If you haven’t read any of Ellis/Wolfer’s “Strange Kiss” series from Avatar, all you need to know is that he’s a magician who’s as skilled with a .45 as he is with spells (John Constantine with SAS training, if you will). In this volume, he kills several magicians who want him dead in ways both violent and creative. Not groundbreaking by any means, but if any of what I’ve described to you sounds interesting, you’ll like this.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: The Shinji Ikari Raising Project vol. 1: This is me mortgaging my self-respect on the good word of Carl Horn, editor and adapter extraordinarie at Dark Horse. If you’ve seen the series, then this manga takes the high-school comedy scenes in the last episode as it’s jumping off point, and wacky hijinks ensue between less tortured versions of Shinji, Asuka and Rei. I certainly can’t fault this series for failing to deliver what it promises, but I have a feeling that by the time I get to vol. 4, I’ll pick it up and go, “Why am I still reading this?” We’ll see if I’m proven wrong.

Deathblow: And Then You Live! Writer Brian Azzarello teams up with artists Carlos D’Anda and Henry Flint to tell a story of Wildstorm’s manly soldier fighting the war on terror with advice from a talking dog. Fortunately it’s clear that the ridiculousness is intentional on Azzarello’s part, but the end result left me feeling cold and uninterested. I didn’t know much about Deathblow at all before this series, and if Azzarello was counting on some familiarity with the character to draw readers into his tale, he miscalculated badly. While I doubt the current marketplace would’ve supported this story without the use of an established character in the lead, the story here might have been better served if it had been told without any connection to the Wildstorm universe.

The Incredible Hercules: Against the World & Secret Invasion: I’d heard good things about this series online, and these two volumes didn’t disappoint. Hercules, with smart-aleck genius Amadeus Chow in tow, smashes his way out of the carnage of “World War Hulk” and into battles with Ares, the god of war, and the gods of the Skrull pantheon. Both volumes tell their stories with lots of energy and style, while the “Secret Invasion” tie-in story is particularly clever in the way it manages to have its cake and eat it too as it not only serves as a notable tie-in to the crossover, but manages to advance the series main story as well. Neat trick, that.

Black Panther: Secret Invasion: This is the first “Black Panther” comic I’ve ever bought, and you can attribute that to the presence of writer Jason Aaron (and my desire to spite Marvel for charging $13 for a collection of three issues, by buying it at half price) for that. As for the story itself: Skrulls invade the Panther’s homeland of Wakanda, and wind up getting their asses handed to them thanks to the combination of the Panther’s smarts and his wife Storm’s weather-manipulation powers. It’s a clever, fun comic with a lot of fighting, but not clever enough to be worth the price on the cover.

Wonder Man: My Fair Superhero: Peter David again, with Andrew Currie on art and… well… if you don’t like what you see on the cover, then let me warn you that the art doesn’t get any better on the inside. If you can look past that, though, you’ll find a perfectly enjoyable story about Simon “Wonder Man” Williams trying to reform an unrepentant killer, who calls herself “Ladykiller,” with the help of Carol “Ms. Marvel” Danvers and Henry “Beast” McCoy. David’s wit is on fine form and full display here, as is his knack for finding substance in the most conventional (and in some cases, editorially mandated) of setups. That’s the case here as the question of whether or not Simon’s rehabilitation of Ladykiller isn’t a form of brainwashing in itself is made the center of the last few issues. In short: A good story with art that will not be to everyone’s taste.

Star Wars: Legacy vol. 5 – The Hidden Temple: John Ostrander writes as always, and Jan Duursema is back on art for this volume, which means that the story shifts back to focusing on the exploits of Luke’s reckless grandson Cade Skywalker. This time out, Cade and his friends meet up with some family, and what’s left of the Jedi Council. Cade being Cade, wants the Council to agree to his plans to assassinate Darth Krayt, but of course they think that his plan leads to the Dark Side. It’s another solid entry in the series, even if what goes on here is mostly setup for the events that go down in “Vector.” Speaking of which…

Star Wars: Vector vols. 1 & 2: These actually merit a longer discussion on my part since they represent one of the better executed crossovers I’ve seen. All I’ll say for now is that they are required reading if you follow “Legacy” since the events here represent a major turning point for that series.

Crossovercast #1: Joker

July 26, 2009

In honor of the one year anniversary of this podcast, the No Podcast for Old Men crew come over and discuss Azzarello and Bermejo's "Joker."

Yeah, not only is this late, but it's not the "100 Bullets" podcast I promised.  That's been done and will be up in due time.  In the meantime, I picked up a metric assload of comics from Comic-Con and am in the process of reading through them all.  I'll see if I can post the full list at some point, but I'm likely to get several podcasts out of the stuff I picked up over the last five days.

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What I’ve Been Reading: Swallowing the Earth

July 16, 2009

If there was any justice in the world today, then you’d be reading my thoughts about “Blade of the Immortal vol. 21: Demon Lair II.” But not only did my comic shop not have it, the volume wasn’t even mentioned on Diamond’s shipping lists this week. This is in spite of the fact that Dark Horse’s website lists the book as coming out today, as does Amazon (which is currently sold out of the volume). So it looks like I’ll be picking it up (along with “Berserk vol. 30,” “Parker: The Hunter,” and a ton of other stuff) at Comic-Con next week. In the meantime, here’s a look at one book I wasn’t expecting to find at Anime Expo a few weeks back, but was glad that I did.

Thank goodness for Frederick Schodt. Not only has the man given us some stellar collaborative translations of works from Osamu Tezuka and Masamune Shirow, but written renowned books on manga such as “Manga! Manga!” and “Dreamland Japan.” If that wasn’t enough, he has now contributed a forward to the newest Tezuka manga to hit our shores that perfectly calibrates one’s expectations for it. It’s not that I don’t think I wouldn’t have liked “Swallowing the Earth” if I hadn’t, it’s just that it would’ve taken some getting used to before I appreciated what it had to offer.

The key thing to take away from Schodt’s introduction is that this was a transitional work for Tezuka. “Swallowing the Earth” is effectively the bridge between the old kid-friendly and kiddie-oriented Tezuka works like “Astro Boy” and “Kimba the White Lion” to the more ambitious and mature works like “Black Jack,” “Phoenix” and “Ode to Kirihito.” As is the case with most works that show an author deliberately trying to stretch and reach to the next level, it’s not entirely successful at everything it tries and it bears the signs that even the author didn’t have any idea where this was going and was making things up as he went along. Fortunately Tezuka is a skilled enough creator to make a story as chaotic as this work, even if it’s not up to the caliber of the other “bricks” of his that I discussed on the podcast.

“Swallowing the Earth” starts out with a mysterious prologue about several shadowy women swearing to fulfill their mother’s wishes of vengeance against men before shifting to showing two Japanese soldiers on Guadalcanal in WWII hearing about a beauty of mythic proportions named Zephyrus from their American prisoners. Flash forward two decades and one of the soldiers, Adachigahara, has become a successful businessman, while the other, Seki, has become a bum. Naturally, Adachigahara comes calling on Seki because he needs a favor: He’s heard that Zephyrus is in Japan and he wants Seki’s son Gohonmatsu to spy on her and learn her secrets. Now Gohonmatsu is a friendly, easygoing guy whose strength is matched only by his passion for drinking. He’s also got no interest in sexy women, so he’s not too keen on meeting up with this Zephyrus, who in turn is frustrated by this drunkard who seems to be immune to her legendary charms.

From here, the story follows Gohonmatsu as he winds up being dragged across the globe as various parties want to enlist his help to use Zephyrus for their own means. While Zephyrus herself can’t seem to get this alluring drunkard out of her head, he’s not going to stop her from bringing chaos to the world of men by marketing an artificial skin that allows a person to be someone else to the masses and flooding the world with free gold. Duels to the death, LSD induced couplings with sexdolls, a military coup in Japan, and global catastrophe are just some of the other things that occur along the way in this story.

Now if you’re wondering where Tezuka’s going to go with these plot threads and how he’s going to tie them all up, the answers are, “Lots of strange places,” and “By taking lots of digressions.” While it’s evident that there’s some method to the madness here at first, it’s clear that Tezuka finds some of his plot threads more interesting than others. Otherwise he wouldn’t spend a few engaging, if not quite plot-critical, chapters exploring the possibilities and moral consequences that the artificial skin and sudden discovery of gold bring to a few select parties. Still, it’s not hard to look at the last third of the book, where the coup and catastrophe set in, and think that Tezuka was over-reaching here. These events come at a breakneck pace without a lot of buildup and would’ve had me rolling my eyes at such contrivances if I had been expected to take all of it seriously.

That’s probably the biggest saving grace for a lot of “Swallowing the Earth,” as Gohonmatsu proves himself to be an endearingly goofy, slapstick-prone protagonist from the beginning to (almost) the end of the work. His goofball exterior masks a fierce square-jawed heroism that will go to any length (and through any bottle of sake) to set right. There’s also the fact that since Tezuka was coming off of his “kiddie” period, there’s a lot more of his trademarked exaggerated slapstick humor to be found in here too, which reinforces the fact that you’re not supposed to take a lot of this very seriously at all.

It’s a testament to Tezuka’s skills that even with the goofiness, he still knows when the right time to shift gears is (usually after a chapter break) and change to a more serious mood and not yank the reader out of the work with the sudden shift in tone. These serious parts also seem to coincide with Tezuka stretching himself as an artist, as he does some interesting things with panel layout and focus at several points in the book. Though the story is all over the place to be sure, Tezuka still keeps things spinning along even when things are at their most chaotic and out of control.

So while it’s not his best work, if you’re a fan of the “God of Manga,” “Swallowing the Earth” is still worth a read, if only because it shows him making the transition from the creator he was to the creator he would go on to be. Now if you’re not already a convert, then I’d probably recommend you pick up a copy of “Ode to Kirihito” to see what the man is really capable of, and why he got the nickname he did. By the time you’ve read everything else, this will make a good chaser to those works.

(So John, if you’re reading this, whatever you think of the book, know that he’s done better.)

Comic Picks #35: Vagabond

July 8, 2009

The life of Japan's greatest swordsman gets reimagined as a Shonen Jump manga restaged as art.  Wait, it's actually good!

When this was originally recorded, I had no idea what I'd be doing for the next podcast.  Then I spent the last week re-reading all of Azzarello and Risso's "100 Bullets" in preparation for the release of the final volume this week.  Just thought I'd let you all know what's coming next...

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What I’ve Been Reading: 7/5/09

July 6, 2009

Anime Expo was... well, it was an anime con all right.  I can't say that I regretted going for Friday and Saturday, but this wasn't as good as last year's.  Maybe I'd have better things to say about it if it hadn't felt like GOD HIMSELF was conspiring against our efforts to enjoy the Masquerade, but there you go.  Anyways...

This week I’ve actually been reading a book without pictures (“Starfish” by Peter Watts) and am preparing to re-read all of “100 Bullets” before the final volume comes out next week. As for stuff from the comic shop… “The Goon” vol. 8 didn’t arrive and “The Boys” vol. 4 sold out. “Emma” vol. 9 did arrive, but as much as I like the series, it’s not enough to make a trip down there just for that (a new volume of “Blade of the Immortal” on the other hand, would). So I’m looking back to last week, when I did get a decent amount of books.

Captain Britain and MI13 vol. 2: Hell Comes to Birmingham

This is another in a long line of critically-adored, poor-selling Marvel titles that will be getting the axe with the forthcoming issue #15. While it’s not in the league of similar titles like “Nextwave,” it’s still a fun, well-executed superhero book that will appeal more to superhero fans than the public at large. This volume has the Captain and the rest of MI13 heading out to Birmingham after they get a lead on some of the supernatural creatures that MI13 head Pete Wisdom set free in the first volume. Naturally things turn out to be more complicated than the team initially thought as they find themselves up against a Duke of Hell granting the inhabitants of the town their hearts desires and a traitor in their midst. Blade also joins the team and makes a good first impression on everyone by promptly staking their one vampire member. (Which Wisdom should’ve seen coming, to be honest…) Granted, this kind of story has been done before, but writer Paul Cornell puts it together well. More importantly, he has a great handle on getting you to care about the entire cast by making sure each of their stories are interesting, and giving them plenty of witty (and very British) dialogue over the course of the story. Which is good, because when you’re dealing with such familiar story elements, it’s the quality of the character details that make it worth reading.

Empowered vol. 5

Adam Warren’s sexy superhero satire manages to impress and grate at the same time in this new volume. While I know that sexual frankness has been a part of the series since its inception (it originally started out as a series of commissioned female superhero bondage drawings), having the Caged Demonlord narrate an interminably long segment about Empowered and her boyfriend Thugboy’s sexual cosplay (and her friend Ninjette’s arousal during the narration) winds up being more boring than anything else. What’s more is that Warren’s diction, which I’ll readily admit is an acquired taste, gets more and more annoying in regards to said Demonlord with each volume. That said, pretty much everything else in the book is great as the trend from short, loosely connected stories that dominated the first three volumes to telling an overarching story in one volume with number four continues here. While seeing Emp deal with the fallout from saving the entire superhero community in the previous volume is handled very well, with the problem coming in a way that would make Spider-Man sigh knowingly, the best parts come from finding out more about Mindf---. Introduced in the last volume as Sistah Spooky’s telepathic ex-girlfriend, she proves to be a welcome confidante to the title character, and a means of humanizing the aforementioned Spooky. That’s not to say that she’s not an interesting character in her own right, which makes the end of the volume that much more tragic. (And if there’s one thing Warren does well with this series, it’s the endings – he’s hit it out of the park with the last stories in all five volumes so far.) Though this title is about superheroes, its appeal isn’t just limited to their fans, but to anyone who has an awareness and even an appreciation of the conventions of the genre.

Black Jack vol. 5

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the latest volume of the adventures of Osamu Tezuka’s master surgeon as the quality has been pretty consistent across all the volumes released so far. As usual, you’ve got stories that double as morality plays (a wolf-faced girl is healed, but ordered to stay indoors), stories decrying Japanese hospitals (Black Jack helps one of his nearly blind mentors perform a risky surgery), and stories about Pinoko being stupid. The one thing that stands out about this volume is its use of Kiriko, the Dr. Kevorkian of Black Jack’s world. While his creation must’ve been a no-brainer for Tezuka, you can almost hear him going, “Well what else can I do with this character?” in this volume. Here, we have Black Jack intervening in Kiriko’s efforts to euthanize his father and in a later story, himself. After you’ve done those stories, it’s kind of hard to do anything else interesting with the character other than having him try to thwart Black Jack’s attempts at saving lives. So it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, Tezuka does with him in subsequent volumes. Which I’ll be picking up because as formulaic as the series can get, Tezuka knows how to work the formula for maximum entertainment.

Gantz vol. 5

I don’t know if this is a combination of having read much of this series scanlated before its official release and Dark Horse’s bi-monthly release of the volumes but god DAMN did this volume feel slow. One of the things I liked about having a lot of volumes scanlated before I started reading it was that in reading through them all at once the pacing is less of an issue and you’re able to appreciate the action and characterization skills of mangaka Hiroya Oku much better this way. (Though, as I re-read this, I’m reminded that you need to be an angsty high-school or college-age male in order to get the most out of this series.) Reading it now… I reached the end of this volume and went, “Is that it?” Not that there was anything bad about it (frankly, I liked Kei’s outburst to Kishimoto because pretty much all of it was justified), but I just wish we’d get more of this faster. I doubt that sounds like a ringing endorsement to anyone who hasn’t read the series, and while I stand by what I said about this on the podcast, I think anyone with an interest in this series would be best served by waiting until it got to volume eight, and picked up those volumes through the Right Stuf when they offer a Dark Horse manga sale.

Comic Picks #34: The Goon

July 1, 2009

Wanton violence against the undead, knives to the eyes, cannibalism and pie!  What more could you want from a comic?

And yes, this should've been up last week, but due to unforgivable personal circumstances it wasn't.  My bad.  Look for the "What I've Been Reading" post tomorrow or on Sunday, depending on whether or not I get a chance to upload it from AX.

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