What I’ve Been Reading 3/31/10

March 31, 2010

What I originally started writing here has snowballed into something larger that I’ll want to get off my chest at some point. For now, reviews:

The Bronx Kill: The latest from DC’s Vertigo Crime imprint. I said in a podcast not too long ago that I didn’t think this line was long for the world, and this book doesn’t really do anything to change that impression. It’s a lot better than “The Chill,” but not as good as “Dark Entries” or “Filthy Rich,” or some of writer Peter Milligan’s other work. The story focuses on writer Martin Keane who hails from a family of cops and wants nothing to do with that legacy. He finds himself embroiled in that legacy nonetheless after his wife disappears and later turns up dead with him becoming the prime suspect in the process. While the story has a good ending that ties together much of what has come before, it doesn’t quite make up for the way the narrative feels like a series of loosely connected scenes. James Romberger’s art does a good job of capturing the emotions of the characters and the New York setting, but his use of grays gives makes many of his images look like they’re all bleeding together. Not bad, but not great either.

Dark Avengers: Ares: Collecting the original five-issue miniseries by Michael Avon Oeming and Travel Foreman, and the more recent three-issue one from Kieron Gillen and Manuel Garcia. I’d heard good things about Oeming and Foreman’s original mini-series, and while it had a fantastic first issue, the rest of it didn’t really live up to that promise. It was great seeing Ares, the actual Greek god of war, trying to live a normal life and be a father as he turned his back on his fellow gods. Most of that gets lost in the subsequent issues as Ares gets dragged into the fight between the Greek and Japanese gods. Gillen and Garcia’s mini-series fares much better as it takes the idea of Ares as the drill sergeant from hell and has a lot of fun with it. For instance: After recovering from the explosion caused by the belt of live grenades one of his grunts threw at him, Ares congratulates the man, saying that “Some commanders need blowing up.” Great fun, but not worth the price of admission by itself.

Irredeemable vol. 2: I honestly can’t remember the last time I reached the end of the issues collected in a trade paperback and went, “That’s it!” I did that here partly because I was so engrossed in writer Mark Waid’s continuing tale of a Superman-esque hero, and partly because there were a lot of extra pages of stuff that made me think there was going to be at least one more issue collected here. It’s particularly disappointing since the cover price of $17 is pretty steep for just four issues of content. Yes, there’s also a preview of one of Waid’s other titles from Boom!, “Potter’s Field,” but I’d have rather had another issue to read. That said, the issues collected here are good as we learn about the specific incident that caused the Plutonian to turn evil and find out that one of the ragtag group of superheroes out to stop him might actually have the power to do so. I was highly entertained by the events in this volume, and I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what happens next, and thankful for the discount Amazon offers on this title.

The Boys vol. 6: The Self-Preservation Society: Writer Garth Ennis, with artists Carlos Ezquerra and John McCrea, turns the title squad loose on an “Avengers” analogue team known as “Payback” and the results are as predictably gruesome and entertaining as you’d expect. After that mayhem is over, artist Darick Robertson returns for a series of issues detailing the backstories of Mother’s Milk, Frenchie, and “The Female.” They range from a serious character study, to a ludicrous character study, and then end up somewhere in between (with lots of references to “Aliens”), in that order. The series continues to crawl its way back across the divide between “funny” and “offensive” after vol. 4’s reprehensible misstep. I enjoyed it, but it’s not at the level where I’d be willing to recommend it to people who aren’t already fans of Ennis.

Ignition City vol. 1: It says vol. 1 on the spine of the book, but I have yet to hear whether or not we’ll be getting any more of this series from writer Warren Ellis and artist Gianluca Pagliarani. That said, it’s not something that really bothers me one way or the other after reading this. It’s a story set in a 1950’s retro-future setting where space pilot Mary Raven heads out to the title city to find out who killed her father. There are some nice touches here with the setting, and the idea that humanity has decided to pretty much give up on exploring space after all of the close encounters they’ve had, but it never really gells into becoming a fully-realized world. Rather than flesh things out by showing us, Ellis and Pagliarani just give us lots of pages of people talking to each other. While Ellis’ dialogue does have an inherent entertainment value to it, the story still feels like a single idea he had stretched out to fill five issues. Maybe we’ll get more of a sense of this world if another mini-series comes out, but this is one more for the Ellis completists than anyone else.

Batman: Heart of Hush: I really enjoyed writer Paul Dini and artist Dustin Nguyen’s last collection of Batman stories, “The Private Casebook,” but this collection of a single story wasn’t really up to that level. While I don’t have the hate for Hush that a lot of other people do, Dini’s exploration of his origin and subsequent plan to steal Bruce Wayne’s life doesn’t really do anything to elevate the villain. Spending years under the thumb of a vindictive mother tends to make a character less threatening than more. More disappointing is that Batman’s escape from Hush’s plan comes from a plot contrivance rather than his own ingenuity. The book is not without its merits as Dini writes the character of Batman very well and he has a great handle on his relationship with Catwoman. Is that enough for me to recommend this particular “Batman” story when there are better ones out there? Nope.

Greek Street vol. 1: Blood Calls for Blood: In addition to his Vertigo Crime book, the first volume of Peter Milligan’s new series for Vertigo proper came out recently too. I can’t quite say that this is better than “The Bronx Kill,” but it only costs half as much. The high concept here is that we’re seeing the old Greek tragedies being played out on the mean streets of London in the present day. Sadly, the mythological elements of the story are working against it in this first volume as it feels that there’s a good crime story in here struggling to get out. Maybe it’s just that my knowledge of Greek mythology is pretty rusty right now, but all of the references came off as either forced or very heavy-handed. Still, I’m willing to keep reading it to see if the references wind up strangling the series in its bed, or if the good crime story it wants to tell emerges triumphant.

Comic Picks #51: Planetary

March 24, 2010

Prepare yourself for twenty minutes of me gushing over how great this series is... because it's true.

00:0000:00

What I’ve Been Reading 3/17/10

March 18, 2010

So the big news of last week was the announcement of Fantagraphics’ new manga line, edited by Matt Thorn. While Fantagraphics is most well known for publishing some of the most innovative and challenging graphic novels of the past few decades, Thorn’s presence means that the line is in good hands. Not only is he a professor at Kyoto Seika University, he was a manga editor and translator at Viz, where he worked on “Nausicaa of the Valley of Wind,” and spearheaded the drive to bring classic shoujo manga to our shores in the form of the “Four Shoujo Stories” and Moto Hagio’s “A, Aʹ.” That the line will be starting off with a “sampler” of other Hagio stories titled “A Drunken Dream and Other Stories,” is telling of his involvement and a very good thing for manga fans. Thorn was instrumental in getting an interview with Hagio for The Comics’ Journal’s “Shoujos Manga Issue” and based on what I’ve read of her work, I find it easy to believe that she’s second only to Osamu Tezuka in terms of significant manga creators in Japan. That we’re getting more of her is only a good thing.

The other manga that was announced, Takako Shimura’s “Wandering Son,” doesn’t really grab me in the same way. Aside from the fact that it’s about youths with gender identity issues (and that it’ll be getting an anime adaptation later this year) the most significant thing about it is that Fantagraphics is choosing it as one of the initial titles for its manga line. I don’t think it’ll be bad, but I’ll be waiting for the word-of-mouth reaction before I think about picking it up. Speaking of specialty manga lines from other publishers…

Bokurano: Ours vol. 1: This is the second title from Viz’s IKKI line to receive a trade paperback collection, and while it’s much better than Daisuke Igarashi’s “Children of the Sea,” I find myself in a funny place when it comes to reviewing it. The premise is simple enough: A group of children on summer vacation find a strange man in a cave who gets them to sign up for a new “game” that puts them in charge of a giant robot that lets them live out their mecha fantasies with fatal consequences. Showing the dark sides of childhood fantasies seems to be a specialty of mangaka Mohiro Kitoh (he’s also responsible for the “Shadow Star” manga) and he does a good job setting up the characters, the mystery surrounding everything, and the sense of dread that slowly starts to envelop the proceedings. My problem is that a lot of the awe and surprise of this volume is lost on me as I’ve seen the anime, so I’m left marking time until we get to the point where it surpasses the anime (which should be fascinating to see, as the anime’s director infamously declared that he hated the manga and started telling his own story with Kitoh’s permission). That said, this comes highly recommended for everyone else, especially if you like seeing horrible things happen to kids who both do and don’t deserve it.

The Kurosagi Corpse Delivery Service vol. 10: Few series these days are as reliably entertaining as this. None have a better English adaptation. This volume has three main stories which see the KCDS crew becoming involved with corpses that mysteriously get up and start walking around again, the delivery of a drug detecting dog to a seemingly peaceful coastal town, and working on a TV show trying to unearth the secrets of a twenty-year-old mystery. While these aren’t the best stories the series has produced, they’re still cleverly plotted and chock-full of all sorts of things you probably didn’t know about Japan today (such as how automated external defibrillator units are being placed for public use over metropolitan areas). Most interesting, though, is the insight we get into Numata’s character and his skills at dowsing. For most of the series he’s been fairly reliable comic relief; but, we finally get to see that he does have more than one dimension as we learn how his skills at dowsing for dead bodies were developed as a response to solving the mystery of the disappearance of his family years ago. Good stuff, and sure to please any fan of the series.

Detroit Metal City vol. 4: While I’ve praised the series in the past for its ingenuity in mining the one-joke nature of its premise, I have a feeling that we’ve finally reached the point where diminishing returns will be setting in. That fact becomes even more disappointing when you take into account that this volume features the conclusion of the series’ unquestionable high point, the “Satanic Emperor” arc. DMC’s battles with Deathism and Swedish black metal band Helvete are hilariously disgusting looks at how bands (and the people in them) are definied by their images, and how easily these images can be manipulated. The problem after creating such an epic arc is that once the series returns to its usual brand of one-shot stories, it feels like mangaka Kiminori Wakasugi is just repeating himself and falling back on old tropes. Is he only resting up to take “DMC” to greater heights, or is the series fated to go the way of all shock metal acts and fade away into mundanity? For now, I’ll stay tuned to find out.

Thor: Ages of Thunder: I picked up this hardcover collection of writer Matt Fraction’s four “Thor” one-shots on sale a little while back. Having read it, I can say that I probably would’ve felt a little disappointed had I paid full price for it. While the first three stories tell a loosely-connected story, the last one is more of a tribute to legendary “Thor” writer Walt Simonson. The best part about the first three one-shots is the genuinely epic mythological feel that Fraction and his artists (including “Cable and Deadpool” artist Patrick Zircher, who knocks it out of the park in his sections – I honestly didn’t expect this level of quality from him, and this should certainly lead to bigger and better things for him in the future) achieve with these stories of Thor and the other Asgardian gods clashing with fearsome beasts and each other. Unfortunately, things kind of peter out at the end as we’re served something that feels vaguely conclusive rather than serving as a decisive finish for what has come before. The final story is nice in and of itself, but I’d have rather seen another one-shot tying up the events of the first three.

X-Men and Spider-Man: This hardcover was also picked up in the same sale as the aforementioned “Thor” collection, and while it’s far less ambitious, it at least hits the marks it was aiming for. While I wouldn’t call the story being told in this mini-series essential by any means, those of you who have any affection for either of these franchises (in their incarnations from the 60’s, 80’s, 90’s, and present day) will find it to be a fun nostalgia trip. The story involves a long-reaching plan by Mr. Sinister and his plans to use the genetic material of familiar rogues from Spider-Man’s and the X-Men’s rogues galleries to create the ultimate mutant hunter. Said plan leads to much fighting between superheroes and supervillains, with lots of witty banter and exposition before, after and during the fighting. It’s nothing special, but artist Mario Alberti shows that his years of drawing comics for the European market have made him into an artist who can do both fantastic detail and intense action without having things get too cluttered or chaotic. Writer Christos Gage also shows off his ability to write consistently engaging superhero tales also extends to Spider-Man and the X-Men, and while the tale itself is of little consequence, the interaction between the characters is consistently enjoyable. Plus he even tells a good story involving Ben Reilly, the spectacular spider-clone – truly an achievement in and of itself.

Ultimatum: Spider-Man – Requiem issues #1&2: Reading these by themselves, it becomes even more apparent that they should have been included in the last volume of “Ultimate Spider-Man.” Not only for the reasons that I outlined in my review, but because they still feel pretty slight when read like this. The main thrust of these two issues is J. Jonah Jameson and what’s left of the Daily Bugle crew coming back to the ruins of the office in the aftermath of “Ultimatum.” JJJ, still reeling from the personal effects of the destruction and his realization that he was wrong about Spider-Man, finds himself in the even tougher position of having to write the superhero’s obituary. While JJJ’s internal monologue still packs as much punch as it did in “USM,” the stories he’s choosing to cite, heretofore unmentioned tales of conflicts with Hydra and the Hulk, don’t really add much to the series or offer up any sense of closure. Writer Brian Michael Bendis’ knack for clever dialogue that also illustrates character is in fine form here, which means that these issues are still engaging, and it’s nice to see artists Mark Bagley and Stuart Immonen tackle the cast one last time. Still, when you do find out Spider-Man’s final fate, the moment is so rushed and under-developed that it’s hard to feel anything at all. The fanboy in me was hoping for something more substantial, such as JJJ finding out Spider-Man’s secret identity and wrestling with that revelation. What we get in these issues is well-meaning fluff, and if you decide to skip reading them then all you need to know is that Spider-Man is OK and he’ll live to star in “Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.” But the cat came out of that bag long ago…

Comic Picks #50: Human Target

March 11, 2010

I celebrate 50 podcasts by embracing sobriety and talking about another great comic adapted into an okay TV show.

00:0000:00

What I’ve Been Reading 3/3/10

March 4, 2010

Marvel revealed their solicitations for May a few weeks ago and there was one bit of news there that I found particularly interesting. I doubt that it would surprise most people that they’re going to start adapting the rest of Stephen King’s “Dark Tower” novels, and while Robin Furth (plot) and Peter David (script) will be back writing it, Sean Phillips will be stepping in to replace Jae Lee on art. While I’ve really enjoyed Lee’s art on the series, Phillips has always been a personal favorite of mine since he has this uncanny knack for illustrating comics that I want to read and his run on “Hellblazer” showed that he can handle fantastic horror as well as superheroes and noir. The downside of this is that this will likely mean that he’ll be drawing less of “Incognito” and “Criminal” while he’s working on this, and that’s a shame. At least I have the collected edition of “Criminal: The Sinners” to look forward to in the near future. And on that note…

Stephen King’s The Dark Tower (vol. 4): Fall of Gilead: As editor Ralph Macchio remarks in the introduction, with a title like that you know you’re not going to be in for a happy tale. Fortunately the story of Gilead’s fall at the hands of John Farson and co. turns out to be quite compelling despite all of the bad tidings for the older members of this series. That’s due in no small part to the resourcefulness that Roland and his cadre of (barely) gunslingers display in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. Series colorist Richard Isanove takes over for this volume and while his style lacks the eeriness and attention to detail that makes Jae Lee such a perfect fit for the series, he proves to be a capable artist with a style that’s consistent enough to make this volume still pleasing to the eye. This volume also collects the “Sorcerer” one-shot which acts as a showcase for the wizard Marten and fills in some continuity gaps from earlier in the series. While scripter Peter David has done his best to channel King’s voice in the series, there’s been more than one instance where his own style peeks out and says “Hi!” After reading the one-shot, written entirely by Robin Furth in a style best described as “functional,” I’m glad that he has been onboard with this series since the beginning.

Fables vol. 13: The Great Fables Crossover: More of an elaborate joke on the reader than an actual volume of “Fables,” but it’s a funny joke, well-executed. Kevin Thorne, the most powerful of “The Literals” (the living embodiments of literary concepts from spin-off series “Jack of Fables”), has decided to rewrite reality to his liking and it’s up to Snow White and Bigby to stop him. With help from Gary the Pathetic Fallacy and Mr. Revise. Why not Jack? Smartly, writers Bill Willingham and Matthew Sturges realized that he couldn’t be bothered to save reality if there wasn’t a reward more tangible than his continued existence. So he heads off to the Farm, and winds up becoming the center of a new cult that has sprung up around Boy Blue’s death and (hopefully) eventual return. Those of you looking for a continuation of the exploits of Mr. Dark from the last volume will be disappointed, but there’s enough comedy here to make this volume an entertaining bit of fluff. The best bits involve Kevin getting help from the different “genres” for ideas on how to end the world and his own, very literal, writer’s block. In the end, it’s more of an installment of “Jack of Fables” with the “Fables” cast, but it’s still entertaining enough to pick up if you’re a fan of either series.

Jormungand vol. 2: Aaaaaaaaaand I’m done. It appears that mangaka Keitaro Takahashi is more interested in delivering nonstop action than digging into the minds of his characters or the morality of their actions. The majority of this volume is the story of two assassins with an affinity for music show up in Dubai to take out Koko the arms dealer. Much shooting occurs and the two assassins are eventually dealt with. In all honesty, I was kind of hoping that they’d succeed because I really don’t care for Koko or the rest of the cast. They’re nothing more than a collection of stock character types and if I have to choose between rooting for them and the people out to kill them, I’m going to root for the side that has a girl who goes around in a skirt without any panties (that’s the assassin’s side in case you were wondering). All in all, it has the feel of “Black Lagoon,” but none of the substance and only a fraction of the style. While the next volume of that series won’t be out until July, this is a poor substitute by any stretch of the imagination.

Biomega vol. 1: This, on the other hand, I wouldn’t consider calling a substitute for “Black Lagoon” because this sci-fi action series is off to a great start. Mangaka Tsutomu Nihei’s most well-known series “Blame!” was a mystery, wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in some really great art that ultimately came off as something done more for his own sake than to tell an interesting story. “Biomega,” however, appears to be a different beast entirely. Rather than tease readers with another mystery, Nihei sets out a dead-simple premise: Alien spores are turning the populace into bio-zombies and a masked rider has to save the girl who might prove to be the cure. There’s also a Russian bear who knows how to use a sniper rifle. Why? Why not. The simplicity of the storytelling works in the book’s favor since it allows Nihei to focus on delivering some truly spectacular action sequences that are as exciting as they are unbelievable. No, there really isn’t a lot of depth to be found here; but, it’s a textbook example of how to make “style over substance” storytelling work.

Star Wars: Legacy vol. 8 – Tatooine: It’s a planet that holds great significance in the “Star Wars” mythos, and the focus on another satisfying volume of this series. With the death of Darth Krayt, Cade Skywalker and the crew of the Mynock don’t have a purpose anymore, so they’ve gone back to their old pirating ways. This eventually gets everyone stranded on the title planet with the criminal organization known as Black Sun out to get them. Throw in Imperial agent Morrigan Corde and her daughter Gunner (Cade’s mother and half-sister, respectively) and things only get more complicated from there. Then Cade winds up at an abandoned moisture farm where the spirit of his grandfather confronts him on the lack of direction in his life. More than anything, this volume feels like it’s trying to force a crisis point in Cade’s stubbornness to not follow either the Light or Dark side of the Force and until he does, the ultimate importance of this story to the series has yet to be seen. Still, writer John Ostrander does great work with all the characters and it has turned out to be immensely entertaining to see him work in some of the more familiar elements of the “Star Wars” mythos through unorthodox means. He does this again in the final story, showing us the origins of badass soldier Hondo Karr and his emergence as “Legacy’s” equivalent to one of the mythos’ most popular characters. It’s “Star Wars” done right, and I’d recommend it to any fan.

Amulet vol. 2: The Stonekeeper’s Curse: This second volume of writer/artist Kazu Kibuishi’s all-ages adventure came out late last year and I only picked up recently. After reading this, I won’t be waiting that long to pick up volume three. I liked the first volume well enough, but this volume does a great job in expanding the scope of the characters’ world and the overall story. As Emily and Navin head to the city of Kanalis to find a cure for the poison that threatens the life of their mother, they find out that not only are they wanted by the evil Elf King, but that there’s also a resistance movement that has been told of Emily’s coming as the stonekeeper. It’s a familiar development, but Kibuishi is aware of it and knows when to tweak audience expectations as well as when to let things take their course. It also helps that his art and coloring are top-notch. It’s “all-ages fantasy” feel is highly reminiscent of Jeff Smith’s “Bone,” but make no mistake, this story is its own entity. Excellent stuff for kids, and their parents as well.