Slam Dunk vol. 12

October 31, 2010

The last time I talked about this series, I said that it hadn’t become the great Shonen Jump title that everyone else said it was.  Since then, it has made some great strides in that direction.  Thug turned basketball man  Sakuragi Hanamichi will never stop being an idiot, but his self-proclaimed genius as an athlete is slowly becoming evident.  It’s the skill with which mangaka Takehiko Inoue depicts Sakuragi’s drive to overcome his weaknesses and his team’s desire to overcome their opponents and make it to the nationals that make this title well worth reading now.

It’s in this volume that we see them up against their greatest challenge so far:  Kainan.  This high school has made it to the nationals 16 years in a row and everyone expects them to do the same this year.  However, team captain Akagi is determined to end their streak here and we get to see that his ambition is not without credibility.  The on-the-court action is rendered as skillfully as ever by Inoue, and he also manages the neat trick of humbling Sakuragi in an interesting way (he may be able to step up his game against better players, but not so much when he’s faced with players who are slightly worse than he is).  It took a while for this series to really get going, but now I can see what everyone was talking about -- this really is Shonen Jump at its best.

20th Century Boys vol. 11

October 30, 2010

In case anyone was wondering whether or not my favorite comic from last year has lost a step, let me assure you that it hasn’t.  Mangaka Naoki Urasawa (with Takahashi Nagasaki in tow) continues to spin an absolutely riveting tale as he slowly parcels out information about the conspiracy at its heart.  Things kick off in high gear as Kanna is still reeling from the shock of finding out that her father is actually the Friend while Koizumi and Sadakiyo find that The Friends have already made their move and encircled the retirement home they’re currently at.  From there, we get some more shocking revelations about Sadakiyo’s past, see how it ties into the fate of one of Kenji’s friends, and then watch as his tale winds up with about as happy an ending as it could’ve received (read:  not very).  Then Urasawa dials things down a notch as we see Kanna pursuing a lead about the fate of her late mother and things are set up for the next arc involving another old classmate of Kenji’s.  I won’t lie you -- I wish I was reading the next volume instead of writing this review.

The only dark cloud to hover over my opinion is the lingering feeling that all of the efforts of Kanna and her friends are playing right into the Friend’s plans.  Stories like that drive me nuts since it represents the laziest kind of storytelling to me.  I’m sure that Urasawa is smarter than that, but I want to find out now rather than later.  Still, he does give us a few scenes with the lead dream navigator (turns out her name is Takasu) and public face of the Friends, Manjome Inshu, that humanizes them to some extent.  Up until now they’ve been nothing but soulless ciphers designed only to drive the plot, but the scenes here show that they have more depth than that.  I’d like to see their characters explored in greater detail now, and that’s just one more reason that I can’t stop reading this series.

Hellboy: Masks and Monsters

October 28, 2010

Just when you think they’ve run out of “Hellboy” comics to collect, a new volume shows up featuring stuff you either forgot about or didn’t know existed.  This isn’t a proper volume of the series, but a collection of the two crossover mini-series featuring Batman and Jack “Starman” Knight in one and Ghost in the other.  The “Batman/Starman/Hellboy” is an interesting beast in the way that it’s probably the only time since the initial Hellboy mini-series that creator Mike Mignola has turned the writing duties over to another creator -- “Starman’s” James Robinson in this case.  It also handles the team-up in an interesting fashion as the first issue has Hellboy teaming up with Batman to foil some Nazi terrorists who capture Ted Knight.  Business in Gotham prevents Bats from pursuing them to the Amazon, and that’s when Jack shows up to accompany Hellboy, save his dad and stop a resurrected elder god.  This isn’t essential reading for fans of the characters, but Robinson captures their voices quite well and fashions a plot that all three characters feel right for.  Nice art, as always, from Mignola as well.

For “Hellboy/Ghost,” Mignola wrote the script and turned art duties over to Scott Benefiel (pencils) and Jasen Rodriguez (inks), who turn out to be pretty capable artists in their own right.  Now I didn’t know a thing about Ghost before I read this, but everything you need to know about the character for this story is contained within.  After Hellboy comes to Arcadia City to recruit her for the B.P.R.D., he finds himself caught up in the schemes of a masked man who manipulates Ghost into attacking the paranormal investigator.  It’s your standard “heroes fight, then team up” story, but things are enlivened by all the occultish weirdness that Mignola throws in.

If I have one complaint about this volume, it’s that there’s no commentary from Mignola on either of these stories.  In every volume of “Hellboy” he’ll usually talk about the genesis of a particular story and what changes it went through prior to publication.  I’d like to think that Hellboy’s team-ups with these company-owned characters had a more interesting genesis than “They’d probably sell really well,” but I guess we’ll never know.

Oh My Goddess! vol. 36

October 27, 2010

This series has been coasting on goodwill from me for quite some time.  With this volume, said goodwill has finally run out.  I mean, how am I supposed to get excited or interested in a story that involves one of the hoariest of plot devices -- amnesia -- and runs through it in exactly the way you’d expect.

The hook here is that Skuld’s latest invention, a gun to erase selected memories, goes haywire and wipes the minds of Keiichi, his sister Megumi, and the Goddesses.  Now this would seem like an ideal time for creator Kosuke Fujishima to go hogwild and have some fun with the characters, mix up some relationships, have them draw erroneous conclusions about themselves from the stuff they own.  The last thing you’d want to do in this situation is have everyone act the exact same way that they do when they had their memories.  Otherwise, what’s the point of the whole thing?

BUT THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT HE DOES!  The characters go through the same motions that they’ve been doing for quite some time:  Keiichi spazzing out when he gets close to Belldandy, Skuld acting protective of her big sister, Urd ordering people around, the usual.  There’s a moment when it looks like Fujishima is going to have some fun with things when Velsper shows up and starts telling everyone how they’re related, but it doesn’t really amount to anything.  We don’t even get any new insights into the characters beyond what we’ve known for ages, except for Megumi’s admission that she hasn’t been able to get in a serious relationship because none of her boyfriends can measure up to Keiichi.  Gee, that’s original, and a way to pander to all the readers with a little sister complex.

Thinking back now, the last time I remember being excited about this series was back when it switched to the “unflipped” format and Urd’s mom showed up.  That was great, clever fun and we’re a long, long way from anything resembling that now.  I should’ve stopped buying this a while back, but... you know... there’s goodwill, and the hope that it’ll eventually get better again.  It hasn’t and I’m not going to bother sticking around to see if it does.

I went and saw “RED” the other day…

October 26, 2010

... and my assessment that it looked like “Grumpy Old Retired Ex-Government Killers” turned out to be pretty spot-on. Outside of the basic premise of having a former CIA “problem solver” be hunted down by the Agency, the filmmakers took nothing from Warren Ellis’ and Cully Hamner’s comic. I’m glad that they both got a nice chunk of change for the film rights (I know that Ellis used his to buy his daughter a pony), but I hope that the next adaptation of one of the man’s works for the screen actually bothers to “adapt” the material rather than using it as a springboard for their own story.

As for the movie itself, it was okay. The action was loud and dumb in the way that millions of bullets were fired, but no one ever seemed to get shot. One scene stood out as being particularly brain-dead as the team of killers who have come to take out Bruce Willis unload into his house with sustained automatic weapons fire. On an occupied street. In suburbia. And they fail to kill him. There are some better scenes later on, though the highlight is a knock-down, drag-out fight between Willis and Karl Urban in the latter’s office. Still, this isn’t a movie you’ll want to see for its action.

If there’s anything that makes this movie watchable, it’s the cast. Consummate professionals all (including two Academy Award winners), any enjoyment I got out of the film was in watching them have fun with their roles. While Willis, Morgan Freeman and John Malkovich are stuck in roles that we’ve seen them do many times before, there’s an ease and effortless fun to the way they inhabit them here (plus Malkovich knows how to mesh his eccentricities in mainstream fare to great effect). Mary-Louise Parker has fun with the role of ordinary girl thrust into the world of covert ops, and Karl Urban wrings as much sympathy as he can from a thankless role.

However, the real stars of the show are Helen Mirren and Brian Cox. The latter is clearly enjoying herself here and shows that Adrien Brody (in “Predators”) wasn’t the only Oscar winner to prove that they had serious action-movie chops this year. Brian Cox, on the other hand, shows that he’s as smooth an operator as they come. As a “still connected” Russian intelligence agent, he provides a to the “good old days” of the Cold War era when everyone knew the rules and how to play by them. His conversation with Willis over vodka in a basement is a highlight of the film.

These people can only elevate tired material so far. In the sense that without them, the film wouldn’t have merited a theatrical release. As it is, you’d be better off either renting it or catching it on cable, or just buy the comic. It may be more expensive, but it’s a more entertaining experience.

Conan vol. 9: Free Companions

October 24, 2010

This volume wasn’t as entertaining as the previous ones for the simple reason that it spends too much time hammering home the idea that Conan “isn’t ready for prime time” as a leader of men.  After the previous volume saw the man ingratiate himself into the court (and bedchamber) of Princess Yasmela of Khoraja, this one sees him falling swiftly out of her favor.  After the arrival of a prince from a neighboring nation, who happens to be a childhood friend of Yasmela’s, Conan decides to fast-track the rescue of her brother, the true ruler of the kingdom, to have some fun of his own.  After the rescue is nearly botched, he and his company of mercenaries find themselves turned out of the kingdom and into the titular “Free Companions.”

I don’t need to tell you that things get worse from there because writer/artist Tim Truman makes the interesting choice of telling this story entirely in flashback from Conan wandering half-dead in a marsh.  It has the desired effect of keeping one’s interest by playing up the “How did he wind up like this?” angle, and he eventually manages a kind of triumph at the end.  Still, the overriding message of the tale here is that “You will be king, Conan, but not yet,” and that’s not the most thrilling of tales to tell.

It still looks great, as regular artist Tomas Giorello shows that he has the chops from drawing anything from velociraptor fights in a swamp, to scheming nobles in palaces.  Truman also draws the flashback scenes from the first half of this arc himself, and while his art isn’t quite as rich or detailed as his previous “Conan” work, he handles the characters and storytelling very well and makes the action look good.  We also get to see legendary artist Joe Kubert tackle the framing sequence from the first story in this volume, and there’s a rawness and grit in his work that suits the barbarian and his world very well here.

So yeah, it’s a slightly disappointing volume but still worth picking up if you’ve been following the series so far.  Even if the story keeps hitting the same note over and over, it still looks great and there’s still plenty of the swarthy action that has made the series so enjoyable so far.  The next volume will be the last we see of Truman and Giorello’s take on the character at this point in his life (they’ll be doing a “King Conan” mini-series sometime next year), and I’ll be looking forward to seeing how they decide to wrap it all up.

A Sickness in the Family

October 23, 2010

The latest Vertigo Crime graphic novel comes from a writer who is no stranger to Vertigo or crime.  Denise Mina writes crime fiction based in her native Scotland, but she’s best known to me for her thirteen-issue run on “Hellblazer.”  It was a good run, most notable for how John Constantine wound up saving the world through the power of schadenfreude.  With that in mind, I was looking forward to this particular entry.  The end result, like most Vertigo Crime books, is a mixed bag.

“A Sickness in the Family” follows a particularly eventful time in the life of the Usher family.  Though it’s Christmas, the family unit is slowly coming apart due to things like father Ted’s decision to sell his cabinet making company, leaving his daughter Amy without a career, son William’s expulsion from college and drug habit, wife Biddy’s affair, and adopted son Sam’s anxiety over his place in the family.  There’s also grandma Martha, but no one thinks she’s aware of what’s going on most of the time.  I’d include the couple in the floor below the house, but it’s their death under mysterious circumstances that gets this story going.

Watching the Ushers slowly disintegrate as a family is perversely entertaining for most of the book.   None of the characters, save Sam, are particularly likable so it’s fun to see their lives slowly disintegrate as they scramble to serve their own self-interests.  It also helps that Mina keeps their actions grounded in reality, and therefore plausible, so that it doesn’t become an outright black comedy.  She also sets up an air of mystery about the whole endeavor in the way that it’s suggested that the family’s demise might have supernatural origins.

However, she has one thing working against her from the very first page:  the lettering.  In comics, the best kind of lettering is the kind that you don’t notice, and the font they used for this book sticks out like a sore thumb.  I’ve never had an issue with letterer Clem Robins’ work before, but his work here gives Mina’s prose a stilted, flat feel to it.

It’s distracting, to be sure, but it’s not as big an issue as the ending.  Taken on its face, it feels like a rote exercise in Tragedy 101 by putting the screws to Sam in a way that doesn’t feel earned.  I finished reading this the other day and felt like I’d been kicked in the nuts after I was done.  Thinking about it, I suppose that it could be interpreted another way, as it’s entirely possible that the narrator could have skewed the telling of the tale in his favor.  Though it’s possible, it doesn’t really work since that possibility is only left to our imagination instead of being realized in the story itself.

As for the art, Antonio Fuso does a decent here.  His sharp, angular style reminds me of Sean Phillips (always a good thing) and his storytelling is generally clear, though there were a few parts where it was hard to tell exactly what was going on from panel to panel.  Fuso also does a good enough job with the characters themselves and the emotions they’re called on to show, but there’s nothing in this regard that really sticks with you -- leaving me to think that there was room for improvement in this area.

Overall, it’s an alright entry in the Vertigo Crime canon.  Not as good as “Dark Entries” or “Fogtown” and not as abysmal as “The Chill.”  If you’re like me and you’re buying all of these to see how the imprint has developed over time, then you won’t be too disappointed.  As for everyone else, I’d recommend Mina’s “Hellblazer” work over this.

Comic Picks #66: X-Men — Second Coming

October 20, 2010

X-men + crossover + collected editions = podcast!

00:0000:00

Ultimate Comics Avengers vol. 1: Next Generation

October 20, 2010

Now this is more like it.

God knows I haven’t liked much of what I’ve read from Mark Millar this year.  “Kick-Ass” the movie has the (dubious?) honor of being the first feature film comic book adaptation of this generation to be markedly better than its source material.  While “Old Man Logan” had all the energy of 13-year-old’s fanfiction about the Marvel Universe, it was executed with about the same level of skill.  Now we have his return to the franchise he helped create, and while it may be called “Ultimate Comics Avengers,” it has a lot of what made his work on “The Ultimates” click.

That would include lots of showstopping action sequences, such as Captain America and Hawkeye’s fight across two airborne helicopters against the Red Skull and his A.I.M. cronies that opens the book.  Millar also shows that he still knows how to add a clever twist to the “Ultimate” versions of established Marvel characters, as the Red Skull is quickly revealed to be Captain America’s son.  This sets the plot of the collection in motion as Cap goes rogue to find out the truth about his “son” while Nick Fury is brought back into the fold to start up his own black ops team to capture the man and stop the Skull.

While Millar’s worst tics as a writer, his tin ear for dialogue and the “cooler than thou” attitude of his characters, are still present they’re not as obtrusive as before.  Part of that’s because in “creating” most of this book’s cast he established their baseline personalities -- so it’s not unsurprising to see them talk and act like this.  Another reason is that the story doesn’t demand that we take any of this seriously at all, and the over-the-top nature of the Ultimate Universe makes it all the easier to accept.

That’s not to say that the man doesn’t take a few wrong turns in this collection.  The most egregious being the final scenes with the Red Skull at the end of this volume.  Millar’s attempts to forcibly graft a second dimension onto a man who has been relentlessly characterized as a one-dimensional psychopath come off as wretchedly sentimental.  The new characters, including new versions of Ultimate Black Widow and Wasp, the introduction of War Machine and... “Nerd Hulk” really aren’t as interesting as their predecessors in “The Ultimates.”  I’m going to withold judgement on the introduction of Tony Stark’s “brother” since I have a feeling that not all is as it seems with him.  I’d be inclined to do the same for the “Spider-Man” featured in this volume if Millar hadn’t lifted his introductory scene wholesale from Tao’s debut in the pages of Alan Moore’s “Wild C.A.T.S.”

However, I’m far less conflicted when it comes to talking about the book’s artist, Carlos Pacheco.  The man turns in some truly spectacular art with his work in this volume.   He’s not at the level of (former “Ultimates” artist) Bryan Hitch, but the man really makes the action scenes here feel like the blockbuster action movie set-pieces that they strive to be.  The man also handles the quieter dialogue-driven scenes well, but it’s the action that you’ll remember.

So it’s a good return to form for the series, and while Jeph Loeb may have usurped the “Ultimates” title for his books (haven’t read them -- when comics as reputedly awful as I’ve heard his are, it tends to dissuade me from checking them out) this series is the real successor to that legacy.  I’m definitely onboard to see where Millar goes from here, though he has a ways to go before I’ll be willing to check out anything else he does in the future.

Grendel: Behold the Devil

October 18, 2010

Over the past year, I’ve had a friend of mine turn me on to the ongoing saga of Matt Wagner’s “Grendel” series.  I’ve been reading everything from its origins with criminal mastermind Hunter Rose to the exploits of his “granddaughter” Christine Spar and her boyfriend Brian Li Sung as well as the far-future exploits of Orion Assante and his compatriots.  It’s all been very entertaining even if they haven’t inspired the fanatic devotion that my friend has toward the series and Wagner’s work in general.  One of these days I’ll probably get around to podcasting it all, but for now I just want to say a few things about the latest story to feature Hunter Rose.

“Behold the Devil” is the story of a “lost” chapter from Hunter’s time as a crime lord.  While the man balances his duties of running his criminal empire with his public duties as a bestselling author he feels that he’s being watched by something.  This isn’t his only concern as he locks horns with his nemesis, the wolfish detective Argent, and an investigative reporter comes closer than he ever dreamed possible in discovering the identity of “Grendel.”

For the majority of this collection, the story is basically a huge serving of Hunter Rose fanservice.  We get to see him in his prime as the amoral genius strategist that held a city’s criminal underground in his iron fist, and as a badass martial artist and fighter as well.  If I had to define the man’s appeal in three words, they’d be “He’s Evil Batman.”  Mark Millar is currently trying the same approach for his current series “Nemesis,” but Wagner pulls it off with actual intelligence and style.

While I like fanservice as much as the next man, that also leaves much of the volume without a point.  Hunter’s feeling that he’s “being watched” provides a subtle hook at first, but Wagner’s true intentions become clear once the threat is revealed.  Without giving too much away, this turns out to be a way for the author to expose Hunter to his legacy -- to show him what the “Grendel” name winds up signifying in the years to come.  It’s interesting to see the man’s reaction because his disgust is actually pretty true to his character.  Hunter’s arrogance is a key part of his character and as the man prides himself on what he has accomplished it’s only natural that he’d be disgusted to find out that he wasn’t “unique.”

Part of me also wonders if it’s some kind of self-commentary by Wagner on the sprawl of the series over the years.  Thinking about it, I doubt it.  The commitment that the man has shown to developing “Grendel” beyond the story of one man and into a meditation on the necessity of some kind of evil in the world makes it unlikely that he’d devote an entire series to stating that it has grown beyond his control.  Still, it’s an interesting experience to have him hold up a mirror to the man and show him his legacy.  That aside, it’s still an entertaining adventure taken on its own terms and recommended to “Grendel” fans.  If you haven’t read any of the series yet, then I’d recommend you start with the first story “Devil by the Deed” before reading this.