Comic Picks #45: Ed Brubaker

December 31, 2009

And to finish off the year, here are my thoughts on one of the best writers working on American comics today.

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What I’ve Been Reading: 12/23/09

December 24, 2009

This has been old news for a few weeks now, but I wanted to say a few things about DC’s new “Earth One” graphic novel initiative. A lot has been made already about how this is going to be an ongoing series of graphic novels featuring continuity-free reboots of Batman and Superman and the differences between publishing these as original hardcover graphic novels versus serializing them as single issues. If you’ve been following my podcast and these posts for any length of time, you’ll know that I vastly prefer my comics in trade paperback or OGN form than single issues, so I like this development. That said, all of the concerns about price, format, release schedule, creative teams (Geoff Johns writing and Gary Frank drawing “Batman,” and J. Michael Straczynski writing and Shane Davis drawing “Superman”) all become irrelevant in the face of one thing:

Will they be any good?

God knows that most people thought that Marvel’s “Ultimate” line of comics was a bad idea when it was launched. How would re-starting the continuity of the X-Men and Spider-Man make the characters more relevant and interesting to a modern audience? To the surprise of pretty much everyone, the comics turned out to be quite entertaining and while the line has lost a lot of its luster in the wake of Jeph Loeb’s mangling of “The Ultimates” and the “Ultimatum” event, it still brought us a lot of entertaining comics over the years. Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch’s “Ultimates,” the “Ultimate X-Men” runs by Millar, Brian Michael Bendis’, and Brian K. Vaughan, Warren Ellis’ “Ultimate Galactus” and “Ultimate Fantastic Four: N-Zone,” and chief amongst them – Bendis’ “Ultimate Spider-Man,” with art by Mark Bagley (over one hundred issues!) and Stuart Immonen, and is the one Spider-Man title that I’d recommend to anyone who wants to see why the character is such an enduring icon.

Now “Earth One” seems like DC’s attempt to finally do an “Ultimate”-style re-imagining of the iconic characters from their universe. Their previous attempt, the “All-Star” line, was pretty much justified by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s “All-Star Superman,” but the walking punchline that is Frank Miller and Jim Lee’s “All-Star Batman” and their utter failure to get another title out of the line obviously necessitated the need to start things over from scratch. The other problem here is that alternate-universe re-imaginings of its characters is something that DC has been doing for years in its retired “Elseworlds” line and various out-of-continuity mini-series that pop up for certain characters over the years. They’re going to need to clearly define what makes this particular re-imagining different in order to make it stand out from all the others. (This includes Johns’ and Frank’s re-telling of Superman’s origin in the “Secret Origin” mini-series which is currently being serialized, and might even wind up being collected in hardcover in time to hit stands with the “Earth One” Superman OGN.)

Of course, all this will cease to be an issue if the stories turn out to catch the same lightning in a bottle that the “Ultimate” line did, and we’ll see them selling like hotcakes and introducing a whole new audience or even generation of readers to the awesomeness of Batman and Superman. We won’t know if that’ll happen for a while as I’ve only heard “sometime in 2010” tossed around as a launch date for these OGNs. As for me, I’m going to do what I always do in these situations and wait for them to come out and read the reviews online to see if they’re worth ordering through Amazon. I’m not going to buy them on sight because while I’ve liked some of Straczynski’s and Johns’ other works, neither have put out consistently excellent comics work the way other writers like Bendis, Garth Ennis, and Grant Morrison have that make me buy pretty much everything they do on sight. Still, it’d be nice if this podcast became famous enough for DC to send me complimentary copies to review… but I’d give better odds on “Earth One” capturing that “lightning in a bottle” before that happens.

I’ll keep trying, though! In the meantime, so that the title of this post doesn’t become a complete misnomer here are some reviews:

Yotsuba&! vol. 7: If you haven’t noticed that the world is now a better place since Yen Press started releasing new volumes of Kiyohiko Azuma’s brilliantly funny and cute series, then that’s probably because you aren’t reading it. Yes, its cuteness may call to mind the “moe” stereotype that’s infesting a lot of anime and manga today, but it’s such a well-thought-out work of comic genius that it transcends those initial impressions and becomes something that everyone can enjoy. This may sound like overblown praise for a series that chronicles the (mis-)adventures of a five-year-old girl who, in this volume, learns about pastry making, respect for the elderly day, catches a fever, and goes to a ranch (where she punches a sheep!), but Azuma’s perfect comic timing and knack for creating honest (but absurd) character scenarios will most likely make anyone a believer if they give the series a chance.

Detroit Metal City vol. 3: Meanwhile, at the other end of the comedic manga spectrum, Kiminori Wakasugi’s Metal epic continues to successfully mine fresh laughs out of its one-joke premise. Showing how beyond-wimpy protagonist Soichiro Negishi balances his real life and his job as Death Metal God Krauser II should’ve degenerated into sitcom-rote situations by now, but Wakasugi keeps finding new situations to exploit. These include showing how bandmember Jagi just doesn’t have the same charisma as Negishi does when he’s Krauser and how Negishi tries to help him compensate, and the band’s exploits at the heavy metal festival that begin the series’ longest arc to date. Great stuff, and it comes with a special recommendation to people who are Metal or want to find out what being Metal means.

Ooku vol. 2: Now that I finally have this volume in my hands, let me say that it does live up to the promise that the first volume displayed. It does take the long way around in doing so, as rather than picking up with where we left off with Shogun Yoshimune in the last volume, we’re introduced to a new cast of characters and setting. Picking up not long after the redface pox has noticeably decimated Japan’s supply of men, mangaka Fumi Yoshinaga goes about the business of showing how the transition of power from the men to the women was handled after the outbreak by showing us the tragic fate of a Buddhist monk, Arikoto, and two of his disciples. After circumstances conspire to bring Arikoto and one of his disciples to the Ooku, we get to see that it was still a very treacherous place even in these early days, and the truth behind many of the conventions and rules of the place that were established in the first volume. Some parts are decidedly unsettling, but more for the actions of the characters than cheap shock value, which only underlines the strength of Yoshinaga’s storytelling skills and illustrate why this is a series that everyone should be reading.

Children of the Sea vol. 2: This, on the other hand, is not. Right now this series falls squarely in my “I’m buying it so that Viz will release other titles that aren’t mainstream friendly,” camp. It’s the story of a young girl named Ruka who meets two strange boys named Umi and Sora one summer and bonds with them. These boys are strange because they’ve spent most of their life in the sea and are currently being studied by researchers in order to find out just how different they are from us. The problem is that there’s too much focus on the central mystery of what Umi and Sora actually are and what they portend for the world, and not enough on the characters or the plot itself. This is the kind of book where we’re constantly told that something mysterious is going on, but are never really given any answers or clues to figure out what it is or to even try to guess at it. There’s no question that mangaka Daisuke Igarashi is a hell of an artist, and he makes the scenery and characters really come to life on the page, but he doesn’t seem to have the same skill at telling a story or creating characters that are interesting enough for us to follow through it. People who can appreciate a story just for its art alone will definitely get more out of this than I did, but there are better mature/alternative/different manga out there that deserve your money more.

Comic Picks #44: Fumi Yoshinaga

December 16, 2009

Last time it was a man, this time I talk about one of the most exciting female talents working in manga today.

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What I’ve Been Reading: 12/9/09

December 10, 2009

It’s been a while since I’ve done one of these, and the list of titles to review just keeps getting bigger. Let’s see what I can get through tonight…

New Avengers vol. 11: Search for the Sorcerer Supreme – In which we find out that Stephen Strange has relinquished his title as “Sorcerer Supreme” of the Marvel Universe, paving the way for someone else (who everyone hopes is not Dr. Doom) to take the role. Chaos then proceeds to ensue as The Hood, whose body is being taken over by the demon that lives in the cloak that gives him his power, joins the search as well. A noticeable improvement over the last volume as stuff actually happens here, and Bendis’ dialogue produces some entertaining exchanges between the cast. Be it “Ultimate” or regular Marvel Universe, the man knows how to write Spider-Man like no one else.

X-Men: Legacy – Salvage: (Technically vol. 4 for those of you keeping track at home.) While my usual caveat to non-X-Men fans holds true here, those of you who have been following the series so far will find a (mostly) satisfying resolution to Professor X’s story here. After meeting up with his stepbrother Cain Marko (a.k.a. The Juggernaut), Xavier teams up with Gambit to find Rogue out in the Australian outback so he can see about fulfilling his long-ago promise to help her control her powers. Rogue isn’t alone out there either as Danger (the now-sentient incarnation of the X-Men’s “danger room” from Joss Whedon’s “Astonishing X-Men”) is looking to use her to enact vengeance on Xavier, and some Shi’Ar salvagers have found Danger’s signal and are looking to salvage her. What follows is a fairly continuity-dense story about the difficulties of taking stock of your past and trying to move on from it, but it doesn’t let the continuity strangle the telling, and the Shi’Ar salvagers provide welcome comic relief at the right times. The volume “concludes” by having Xavier return to where the story began, at Exodus’ compound, so he can destroy the mutant’s mission with words rather than brute force. I say “concludes” because the final panel involves Norman Osborne showing up to recruit Xavier for his X-Men team. As I said in my review of “Utopia,” we never find out how things went from there to Xavier in a cell, and that’s a shame since I’m sure that would’ve made a more interesting story than most of the filler that made up that volume.

The Winter Men: Now this is a series that I never thought I’d see completed. While other series that have had long delays in their publication (see Kevin Smith’s “Spider-Man/Black Cat” miniseries, Damon Lindelof’s “Ultimate Hulk/Wolverine” and Warren Ellis’ “Planetary”) eventually finished their run because of their high-profile nature and large fanbase, this is a series that had neither. After reading it, I’m glad it did. In the world of this story, Russia once had a genuine “superman” and mechanized infantry to wage war against the forces of capitalism, but all that eventually faded away with the country’s subsequent collapse. Kris Kalenov was once a soldier in one of these units known as “The Winter Men” and now he’s just a policeman in Moscow trying to make it through the day. That is, until he winds up in charge of a case involving an infant girl that’s tied to Russia’s old superhuman program and his investigation starts to unravel the life he and everyone around him have built for themselves. This book is a very dense read that requires you pay close attention to everything on the page, but the payoff is that you get a fully realized mirror image of Russia with characters and a story that will stay with you long after you’ve stopped reading. Courtesy of writer Brett Lewis and artist John Paul Leon.

The Boys vol. 5: Herogasm – This is more of the outrageously over-the-top superhero sex and violence that the series has made its stock-in-trade; fortunately, this time it doesn’t manage to cross the line into offensively off-putting as the last volume did. In the world of “The Boys,” the yearly superhero “crossover event” is merely an excuse for every superpowered being in the world to meet up at a small tropical island resort to indulge in every perversion imaginable. Naturally, the title characters use this as an opportunity to take care of some business of their own as not only will Vought-American’s superhero liaison be there, but so will everyone’s favorite vice-president Vic “the Veep” – a man so stupid, he makes Sarah Palin look like Einstein. While I’m sure the main draw of this volume will be all of the superhero sexcapades (which really aren’t all that interesting), writer Garth Ennis (teamed up here with frequent, and frequently excellent, artistic collaborator John McCrea) weaves in lots of interesting details and plot threads that deepen the story and cast in interesting ways. My only real complaint about this volume is Hughie’s frequently ineffective and whiny nature. I know he’s meant to be our sympathetic point-of-view character, but I’m finding myself more interested in Butcher’s “bastard with a plan” characterization. As with “X-Men: Legacy,” if you’ve stuck with the story this far, you’ll be entertained by what you find here.

Grandville: Writer/artist Bryan Talbot’s latest graphic novel is an alternate-reality/history/steampunk tale of a world populated by anthropomorphic animals, and a Britain that only recently gained its independence from France. Grounding this story in something relatable is Inspector LeBrock, a badger who is also an inspector from Scotland Yard and effectively this universe’s Sherlock Holmes and Arnold Schwarzenegger (more on that in a bit). This might seem like a lot to take in, but Talbot’s confidence in his storytelling abilities and the detail he brings to his world through that and his art will draw in anyone who is willing to give it a shot. Where it starts to fall apart is in the endgame when LeBrock engages in some serious “Army of One” action straight out of an 80’s Schwarzenegger flick. While Talbot handles the action quite well, it’s pretty far removed from how the rest of the book has played out until things start blowing up. It’s still good overall, but I hope that if Talbot ever decides to return to this world, he keeps things on a more even keel next time.

The Immortal Iron Fist vol. 5: Escape From the Eighth City -- This is the final volume of the series and writer Duane Swierczynski brings it out on a high note. While the last volume left off with Iron Fist Danny Rand and the rest of the Immortal Weapons finding the gate to the lost “Eighth City of Heaven,” this volume picks up with the cast already inside and fighting for their lives. As it turns out, this city was where all of the undesirable elements of K’un-Lun were cast out to and they include everything from political dissidents to malevolent demons. Though Danny and co. have come there on a mission of mercy to save the wrongly imprisoned from the city, he quickly finds out that they might have bitten off more than they can chew. It’s a fast-paced action story full of the clever twists and witty dialogue that have been the hallmarks of the series. Also included are few one-off stories that offer closure to the series and two unusual tales of other Iron Fists. One of these is a pacifist (which is quite good) and the other is from the far, far future (not as good, but still entertaining). While I still have the “Immortal Weapons” mini-series to look forward to, I’ll miss this series and hope that Marvel re-launches it (with Swierczynski, or another equally capable writer) in the near future so it can get the audience it deserves.

Berserk vol. 32: Only one more volume on Dark Horse’s schedule before we start having to wait. *sigh* This volume wraps up the conflict between our heroes and the Kushan Emperor, with Guts and Zodd having to enter into an uneasy truce so that they can put the fiend’s astral form in its place. Later, Griffith shows up with his army in tow and puts the Emperor in his place and then goes on to begin his consolidation of political, military and religious power across Midland. Easily another solid entry in the series, though I wonder how the story is going to feel now that we’ll be getting it in six-month (at best) installments as opposed to bi-monthly. I also like the final chapter which looks to begin an interesting “catch your breath” arc as the protagonists head to Elfheim and Farnesse begins her magic lessons in earnest.

Bleach vol. 29: Ichigo, Uruyu, and Chad all fight their own Espadas with help from some of the Arrancars that they met in the previous volume. None of this is really “bad,” but it does little to shake my plans to stop reading this the moment it goes south or reaches a convenient “stopping point.” That said, I’m a 30-year-old reading a series intended for boys less than half my age, so take my opinion with as many grains of salt as you’d like.

Comic Picks #43: Naoki Urasawa

December 8, 2009

WE LIVE AGAIN!!!  And to celebrate -- here's a podcast about one of the most exciting talents in manga today.

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