What I’ve Been Reading 8/26/09: Return of the Lightning Round

August 27, 2009

It’s been over a month since Comic-Con and I still haven’t finished reading all of the stuff that I bought there. I blame work, games, and the steady stream of new comics that are coming out each week for this. Anyway, more rapid-fire reviews after the break.

Sandman Mystery Theatre vols. 6-7: More pulpish noir stories set in the late 30’s starring the Golden Age Sandman Wesley Dodds and his girlfriend Dian Belmont. The appeal of this series lies in how it takes familiar genre setups from the time period and tells them with modern sensibilities. Yes, that usually means more blood, violence, sex and gore, but you also see racial and sexual subtexts brought to the surface. My main complaint with this series is that while nearly every story has been setup as a “whodunit” the resolution and unmasking of the villain tends to fall a little flat, and that’s no exception with these volumes. Still, you’ve got sharp writing from Matt Wagner and Steven Seagle with Guy Davis vividly realizing each story (with Warren Pleece turning in some fine work on his arc) which makes these volumes worth a look.

Phonogram: Rue Britannia: I’d heard lots of good things about Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie’s miniseries about a phonomancer (a kind of magician who draws his power from pop music) and after reading it, I can say that they’re mostly right. Granted, there was a stretch in the middle that I had trouble wrapping my head around, but everything comes together in the end as Gillen makes his point about the power and influence of pop music in a truly impressive fashion. Also, while I’ve never really had an interest in most of the music mentioned here, this volume did a great job in actually getting me interested. Maybe I’ll track some of it down one of these days…

MySpace Dark Horse Presents vol. 1: Almost worth it for Joss Whedon and Fabio Moon’s “Sugarshock,” but the “Umbrella Academy,” “Gear School,” “Empowered,” and “Goon” stories range from the “quite good” to “excellent” range as well. Everything else ranges from “not bad” to “meh” which is actually pretty good for any kind of anthology.

Anna Mercury vol. 1: The Cutter: I have a friend who hates the fact that Warren Ellis seems to be tossing off miniseries about whatever idea comes into his head on a given day rather than sitting down and focusing on making one really great series. I generally don’t agree with him on this, but anyone would be hard pressed to not see his point after reading this. Lots of flash with precious little substance, I’m glad I got it for half price rather than paying the $20 it normally goes for.

Batman Black and White vol. 3: The final collection of B&W Batman stories from the defunct “Gotham Knights” series. As with any anthology, there’s a wide range in quality but there’s a greater distance between the hills and valleys here than in the aforementioned “MySpace Dark Horse Presents.” There’s enough good stuff here to warrant a purchase if you’ve already got the first two volumes, but if you want to see why there are three volumes of this, go pick up the first volume instead.

Thor vol. 1 and Thor: Vikings: I now own three times as many Thor books as I did before I came to the con. “Vol. 1” collects the first six issues of J. Michael Straczynski’s run on the book, and it’s not bad. It didn’t really compel me enough to pick up the second volume (now out in paperback), but maybe next year… “Vikings,” is its polar opposite in terms of style and execution as it’s a collection of a Garth Ennis-written miniseries that has Thor fighting zombie Vikings in modern day New York. While I liked it, the collection still treads pretty familiar territory for Ennis – except for the fact that I was impressed how he managed to display a modicum of respect for Thor by the end of the story. You don’t see THAT very often in his superhero stories.

Wolverine: Logan: This collects Brian K. Vaughan’s miniseries with art by Eduardo Risso. While I can understand the desire to put a work by these two esteemed creators in a hardcover collection, charging $20 for three issues of content is ludicrous. (Which is why I’m glad I got it for $10.) That said, while Vaughan states in his proposal for the series that he wanted to create a “timeless” story that would stand alongside Claremont and Miller’s original miniseries. I’m just going to say that he falls short here and that Jason Aaron and Ron Garney’s “Get Mystique” would be a better value for your money.

Punisher: Goin’ Out West and Hunter/Hunted: More of Matt Fraction’s run on the title. Ennis is in no danger of losing his title as “Greatest Punisher Writer Ever” in my mind after I finished reading these two volumes, but they have their appeal. They’re entertaining in a straightforward “Frank Castle goes out and kills bad guys in brutally amusing ways” kind of way that won’t cause you to think any deep thoughts or cause them to stick in your head any longer than necessary.

Hawaiian Dick vol. 1: Byrd of Paradise: Here’s a detective story that’s set in the 50’s and captures the atmosphere of the Big Island like nothing I’ve seen before. While the story and characters are quite familiar, writer B. Clay Moore and artist Steven Griffin utilize the setting well enough to make things seem fresh(er). I’m even impressed that the supernatural twist the story takes doesn’t seem entirely forced.

Wolverine Legends vol. 2: Meltdown: There’s an 80’s-style seriousness that permeates this due to the subject matter, which revolves around Chernobyl and an evil mutant trying to use nuclear power for his own ends, and the art, from Jon J. Muth and Kent Williams, that appeals to me. To a certain degree, that is. All the style this book has can’t really compensate for its cookie-cutter plot involving the aforementioned evil mutant’s plans to utilize Wolverine and Havok in his plans for world domination. I’ve read better Wolverine stories, and I’ve read better Havok stories – speaking of which…

X-Men: Emperor Vulcan: Continuing the story of Vulcan, a.k.a. Gabriel Summers (Cyclops’ and Havok’s other brother), from Ed Brubaker’s “The Rise and Fall of the Shi’ar Empire.” While this miniseries was written by Chris Yost with art by Paco Diaze Luque (doing a not that impressive approximation of “Shi’ar” artist Billy Tan’s style) it furthers the story by having the Havok-led Starjammers team up with Vulcan’s Shi’ar to fight an even nastier alien menace that likes to fling suns at planets. It’s a familiar setup and Yost really doesn’t do a whole lot to enliven the proceedings, except at the end. The ending was actually a fairly satisfying “good guys lose” ending that raised my overall enjoyment of the series. Not enough to wholeheartedly recommend it, but still.

Batman: False Faces: This collects the various Batman stories that Brian Vaughan wrote before he became the superstar writer he is today. As he notes in his introduction, the fact that he didn’t get a regular gig writing Batman after his “audition” arc allowed him to focus his efforts on his series about a boy and his monkey. After reading this, I doubt that anyone will lament the fact that we got “Y: The Last Man” instead of a couple years of Batman stories out of Vaughan. Still, these aren’t bad Batman stories, but they do have a “going through the motions” feel to them. Recommended for Batman and Vaughan completists.

Silent Dragon: This was written by an Englishman (Andy Diggle) and illustrated by a Filipino (Lenil Yu) but it captures the spirit of a great Japanese sci-fi action movie in gloriously over-the-top fashion. Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the faithful retainer of a yakuza is framed for betrayal, but is resurrected as an android with enough combat skill and firepower to take his revenge. Naturally, the people who resurrected him have other plans for their pawn. Even with a setup as familiar as this, Diggle and Yu rip through the proceedings with enough energy and invention that it ceases to be a problem as you let yourself be taken along for the ride. Hell, I’m even impressed that the ending manages to be satisfying even as it begs/sets up a sequel.

Comic Picks #37: Starman

August 20, 2009

It's not perfect, but it does feature one of the best-written superheroes ever in comics.

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What I’ve Been Reading: Star Wars — Vector

August 12, 2009

I wasn’t planning on picking up either of these volumes of “Star Wars: Vector.” As Dark Horse editor and co-founder Randy Stradley states in his introduction, this crossover was done so that the company could bring a little of the sales sizzle that Marvel and DC get for their events to the “Star Wars” comic line. Fine, whatever. Have your editorially mandated crossover and then let me get back to the business of reading “Legacy.” That would’ve been the end of the story if DH hadn’t also had the canny idea to make the crossover chapters for each title the next “volume” for each of these series. So while “Vector” is only two volumes, it’s also the fifth volume of “Knights of the Old Republic,” the second of “Dark Times,” the fourth for “Rebellion,” and the sixth for “Legacy.” It may sound confusing, but the end result is actually much more readable and enjoyable than I was expecting.

Now for someone like me who only reads one out of the four titles involved in the crossover, my biggest concern was accessibility. While my knowledge of the “Star Wars” universe is considerable, I’m still coming into several series that have their own ongoing stories that I know little to nothing about. A lot of this is nicely sidestepped due to the focus on the heroine of the series: a Jedi hunter named Celeste Morne. As the series starts out in “KOTOR,” written by John Jackson Miller, she’s been sent to the undercity of Taris to track down a powerful Sith artifact known as the Muur Talisman. This leads to her crossing paths with the main characters from the series, fugitive padawan Zayne Carrick and his money-grubbing buddy Gryph. Making matters more interesting is that Morne has been sent to track down the talisman under orders from the Covenant, a secret order of Jedis who framed Carrick for murder after it was predicted that he would bring disaster upon the Jedi.

That’s the main story thread, and over the four issues collected here, it’s pretty easy to follow. There are references to what I’m assuming are other plotlines and past events in the series (most of them dealing with the Mandalorian invasion), but prior knowledge of them isn’t required to enjoy the goings-on here. Granted, none of the storytelling in either of these volumes will win any awards, but there are pleasures to be had in seeing the storyline progress and in observing Morne’s interactions with other characters. Her relationship with Carrick in the “KOTOR” chapters is particularly interesting because while it’s easy to see why she’d be annoyed by him at first, it turns out to be just as easy to believe that she could grow to respect him after journeying and fighting alongside him in battle. Of course for her efforts she winds up in possession (or is it “being possessed by…”) the Muur Talisman and sealed into a Sith sarcophagus for four thousand years, which takes us to the time of Darth Vader in the “Dark Times” and “Rebellion” issues, written by Mick Harrison and Rob Williams, respectively.

To be honest, these issues probably benefit the most from being collected since anyone reading them in monthly form probably would’ve viewed them as decent, but inconsequential detours to their respective titles. Taken as part of the overall “Vector” storyline, they advance the story well and give Vader some nice moments as he locks horns with Morne and plots to use her to his advantage. This happens directly in the “Dark Times” issues where he gets his hands on the sarcophagus and finds out that he may have bitten off more than he can chew in trying to utilize Morne’s power to overthrow the emperor. Then in the time of “Rebellion,” he remembers his encounter with the Jedi and plots to use her to take out that pesky band of rebels that blew up the Death Star.

To say that Luke, Leia and Han survive their encounter with Morne should surprise no one, and that’s the biggest problem with this batch of tie-in issues. Though it is somewhat entertaining to see her interact with the most well known “Star Wars” characters, the storytelling is hamstrung by the fact that we know that this encounter can’t really affect the characters in any significant way. Sure, Morne hints cryptically about Luke’s future, but it’s obvious this isn’t going to be a life-changing encounter for him. Fortunately seeing Morne’s reaction to waking to a universe that bears no resemblance to the one she left, and her subsequent struggle to adapt to being locked into a power struggle between the spirit of Karnass Muur (the Sith Lord who made the talisman) and finding herself in control of the rakghouls and the plague that causes them is handled pretty well. That said, it’s clear to see that the main point of these issues was to bring her back into play, and set her up for her encounter with Cade Skywalker and the rest of the cast of “Legacy” written as always by John Ostrander.

It’s probably because I’ve been reading “Legacy,” but I found these to be the most satisfying issues of the crossover. Dutiful readers will remember that I said volume five of “Legacy” that Cade was planning on assassinating Darth Krayt, but had his plan shot down by what was left of the Jedi Council. Taking matters into his own hands, Cade sets off to do it his way with his friends, and some Imperial Knights along for the ride. Now taking down the most powerful Sith in the galaxy would probably have been difficult enough for Cade’s grandfather, but when he encounters Morne in self-imposed exile along with her rakghouls on an abandoned Star Destroyer, he thinks he has found just the weapon he needs.

Back in the dark days of the 90’s and early 00’s, the biggest criticism of pretty much any crossover was that it failed to enact any real change in the universe it took place in. While you can still say that about most DC crossovers, pretty much every crossover since “House of M” at Marvel has existed to ONLY change the status quo (though I’m sure they’ve got a big one planned for much later on that restores the status quo of the universe to the one we’re most familiar with). That’s a criticism that can’t be labeled against “Vector,” if only because the conclusion turns out to be a real game-changer for “Legacy.” It’ll definitely be interesting to see how the fallout from the events of “Vector” plays out in the subsequent volumes of the series. While change is good, as is the case for pretty much everything in the crossover, the heart of these issues lies in seeing how Morne interacts with the rest of the cast. Not only has Morne’s disposition become darker and more Sith-like during her exile, but her quite literal struggle between the dark and light sides of the Force makes for an interesting contrast with Cade, someone who has utilized both sides without being beholden to either.

One thing I’ve neglected to mention in this review is the art for each arc of the crossover, which maintains a relatively consistent style and tone for three-quarters of it. The odd man out in this case is Scott Hepburn’s art in “KOTOR,” which falls into the category of “too cartoonish.” While his storytelling is sound, and I can see the appeal in his basic style, Hepburn seems to have problems with faces and facial expressions. A lot of the time, the “look” of the characters’ faces just seems “off” or they have some exaggerated cartoonish look to them that would be more at home in a Saturday morning cartoon.

Faring much better are Doug Wheatley and Dave Ross on “Dark Times,” and Dustin Weaver on “Rebellion.” All of these artists have more “realistic” styles that are more appropriate to the “Star Wars” world, especially when it comes to depicting its iconic characters. Wheatley and Ross’ art also has a darker, more sinister look to it, which complements the time period; conversely, Weaver’s work on “Rebellion” has a much brighter look to it, and he has a good handle on getting the likenesses right for Luke, Leia and Han. As for Jan Duursema on “Legacy,” she does good work as always. My only complaint is something that’s become commonplace in observing her art, and that’s when the characters look overly photo-referenced. The problem with that is you’ll wind up with characters in poses and making expressions that don’t match up with the tone of dialogue or the scene. Thankfully she seems to use it more sparingly than Greg Land, which is why I continue to appreciate her work on this series.

In the end, “Vector” succeeded as a crossover because it had a compelling lead character in Celeste Morne. By focusing the crossover issues on her exploits and how they affected the characters of those series (however marginally in some cases), it managed to make the overall story accessible to those of us who don’t read most of DH’s ongoing “Star Wars” titles. Granted, I don’t think this storyline would have a lot of appeal to anyone who isn’t a “Star Wars” fan; but if you are, and you do read one or more of these titles, then don’t worry about picking up these two volumes. They’ll be worth your time.

(BTW, in case anyone is wondering if the scene depicted on the back cover of “Vector” vol. 2 actually happens in the comic, the answer is, “Yes.”)

Comic Picks #36: 100 Bullets

August 6, 2009

My not-so-long-awaited thoughts on Azzarello and Risso's signature series.

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