The Boys vol. 7: The Innocents

November 29, 2010

All superheroes are bastards has been the running theme of this series since its inception.  However, writer Garth Ennis stated that the title arc of this volume would take a look at the superheroes who weren’t complete asshats.  The kind of heroes who genuinely want to help out other people and make the world a better place.  Unfortunately these heroes have more in common with how superheroes have been portrayed in Ennis’ mainstream work at Marvel and DC:  as morons whose efforts are more laughable than anything else.

“The Innocents” starts off with a prologue issue that catches us up on what the main cast are currently up to, and has team leader Butcher spotting Hughie and his girlfriend Annie in a tender moment on the street.  Recognizing her immediately as Starlight of The Seven, Butcher immediately sets a plan into motion to find out where his teammate’s true loyalties lie.  This plan involves sending Hughie to stake out Superduper with the excuse that he’s supposed to find out why grade-A bastard supe Malchemical has been sent to take over as team leader.

Superduper is basically Ennis’ worst satiric impulses when it comes to superheroes made flesh.  They’re a team who patrol their local neighborhood rescuing stray kittens, and have superpowers that range from the marginally useful (Kid Camo’s camoflauge abilities) to the useless (Klanker turns into various objects made of iron while Billy Badoing is just a fat kid who bounces around) and that’s assuming that they have powers at all.  Stool Shadow ostensibly has the power to phase through objects, but all we ever see her do is walk into walls.  Character traits such as Klanker’s Tourette’s Syndrome and Badoing’s inability to find his “wee-wee stick” further show Ennis at his sophomoric worst.

What saves this arc is the behind-the-scenes maneuvers of Butcher and Mother’s Milk.  Hughie’s interactions with Superduper don’t really tell us anything new about him, though his emergency tracheotomy skills are quite impressive, but it’s more interesting to observe Butcher’s reactions to his partner’s actions as he hopes that he won’t have to kill the man he considers a little brother.  More interesting still is how MM goes behind his leader’s back to find out the real reason that Hughie was sent out on his little excursion.  Their blow-up argument at the end of the arc feels truly genuine coming after what they’ve both gone through, and the fact that they don’t completely reconcile also feels true to how the characters have been developed in the series so far.

The second arc in the volume, “Believe,” gives you the impression that it might be about how superheroes and religion mix in this world.  It’s not, but that isn’t a bad thing.  This arc serves to advance a lot of long-standing subplots with Hughie and Annie’s relationship being chief amongst them.  She comes “out of the closet” to him about being a superhero first, and that idea along with having to come clean about his role in The Boys sends him fleeing back to his apartment.

Things get interesting when Butcher finally comes to the realization that using Hughie’s relationship with Annie isn’t going to help his campaign against The Seven, but it could help him give his partner the “kick up the arse” that he’s needed for quite some time.  From there, Hughie comes clean about his relationship to Butcher and the man responds by taking the rookie further into his confidence.  Though Butcher is as big a bastard as they come, his scenes with Hughie in this arc have a real vulnerability to them as the man genuinely seems to believe that he’s doing this for the benefit of his partner.  I think he’d be doing things differently if he knew the full story behind Annie’s superhero career, but dramatic irony is funny like that.

This isn’t the only thing going on in the arc as we see more fractures between The Homelander and Vought-American, the company behind all the superheroes.  These fractures come from the revelation that The Homelander isn’t very mentally stable at all, which makes his aims to have the superhero community back Vought’s “weaponized superheroes” plan come off as very creepy and unsettling.  We also get a few more hints about who former “Boys” member Greg Mallory was, find out who has been bugging The Seven’s hideout, and see Frenchie find new and interesting ways to occupy The Female’s time.  Fans of those two are mostly out of luck in this volume as their antics take a backseat to the rest of the cast’s.  I wouldn’t say that their relationship isn’t handled well, but it’s very one-note and it’s probably for the best that it’s not focused on too much.

Vol. 7 also marks a change in the art duties as original artist and co-creator Darick Robertson steps down after “The Innocents” to let Russ Braun take over with “Believe.”  Braun is a very capable artist and looking at his style one makes the connection that he was brought on to help maintain artistic consistency with Robertson.  That’s a bad thing for Braun as he’s a little lacking compared to his predecessor when it comes to facial expressions or overall detail.  Fortunately he’s only a “little lacking” and there’s room for him to improve as well.  If he can maintain a monthly pace through the end of the book’s run, then I’ll be happy.

Overall, this volume is worth picking up for the characterization and developments in the ongoing series than the stories that the arcs within it purport to tell.  This series has reached the point where you’re not going to be able to jump on with this volume, but if you’ve stuck with it so far then your loyalty will be rewarded.

Gravel vol. 3: The Last King of England

November 27, 2010

The first volume, “Bloody Liars,” was a lot of fun.  It was about Combat Magician William Gravel killing some very, very bad magicians in imaginative and gruesome ways.  That’s not the highest aim in the world, but it was done with such style and efficiency, and a few clever twists that it didn’t matter.  The second volume, “The Major Seven,” was more of the same, only without the same sense of focus or purpose.  Ultimately it seemed to be about getting Gravel into position as king of England’s magicians for future stories.  Now that we have these stories in volume three, I think that co-writers Warren Ellis and Mike Wolfer should’ve quit while they were ahead with the first volume.

Now I liked the first half, which focuses on Gravel recruiting more street-level magicians to be a part of his “Minor Seven.”  We also get some nice threats of the veiled, in the form of government emissary John Bull’s conversations with the magician, and overt, with Bible John’s antics, kinds.  Based on this solid foundation, you’d think that we’d be set for a fairly entertaining supernatural action series.  Imagine “Hellblazer” if John Constantine started packing heat and gave serious thought to training the people who come to ask him about magic instead of scaring them off or getting them killed.

That’s not what happens here as this setup utterly demolished by the end of the volume.  In all honesty, I can see the logic in the series of events that gives us this ending as Gravel has never been about creating things:  He’s a man who destroys pretty much everything he comes in contact with.  His previous adventures have shown ample evidence of this.  Unfortunately, that has the end result of making me go, “Well what was the goddamn point of it all?” with this volume’s conclusion.

Effectively, these three volumes of “Gravel” have accomplished nothing with their chronicle of its main character’s rise King of Britain’s Magicians and subsequent fall.  As a man who lives only to destroy, it would’ve been far more interesting to see him try to create something instead.  That’s why the first half of this volume actually worked.  If Ellis and Wolfer were aiming for a sense of tragedy in Gravel’s failure to transcend his destructive nature, then they needed to build him up more.  By cutting him down just as he was getting started, it’s hard to care about anything that he has lost.

While the end does leave the (small) possibility for more “Gravel” stories open, I really don’t see where else they can go without rehashing what has been done before.  They had an interesting character with Gravel, but now his potential has been ground into dust.  If you haven’t read any of his stories, then I’d recommend you just pick up “Bloody Liars.”  The ending does lead into the second volume a bit, but you’re better off just imagining what those stories would be like than actually reading them yourself.

Real vol. 9

November 26, 2010

As “Slam Dunk” finally starts living up to its hype, the Takehiko Inoue basketball title that I’ve always liked delivers one of its best installments yet. This is in spite of the fact that with this volume, I’ve finally given up hope that Inoue will ever find the right balance in showcasing the struggles of the series’ three main characters. Wheelchair basketball star Togawa gets the short shrift in this volume as the volume’s focus alternates between perennial screw-up Nomiya’s efforts to get back in shape in the hopes of playing professional basketball and the changes in Takahashi’s world.

While I’ve said before that Takahashi’s struggle to cope with his paralysis and ongoing rehabilitation is the strongest thread in “Real,” another dimension to his struggle is added here. “Scorpion” Shiratori, a former pro wrestler who was recently paralyzed in an accident, winds up at the same facility and in the same room as the former high school basketball star. The man is big, burly, and as about as refined as you’d expect from a pro wrestler but he also challenges Takahashi’s own worldview. As someone who has been going through rehab for several months now, Shiratori looks up to the young man for guidance on what to do. The warm feeling of superiorty Takahashi gets from this is subsequently crushed when he finds out that the wrestler might actually walk again.

It’s these constant challenges that Inoue throws at Takahashi that makes his struggles all the more involving. While there’s a lot of focus on the technical aspects of his rehabilitation, we’re spared no detail on seeing how this affects mind as well. Adding Shiratori to the mix also creates a nice three-way-dynamic between him, Takahashi, and Hanasaki the otaku who is farthest along in his rehab and better at it than his two companions. In all honesty, Inoue could’ve just focused on telling this story from the very start and it would’ve been worthwhile all on its own.

If he had, then we wouldn’t have Nomiya’s struggles to act as an effective counterpoint. The man may not have any physical handicaps, but his inability to work well with others and overall lack of direction show that his mental ones are screwing his life up fine. He’s been making some progress with getting his act together and now sees his chance to go pro by trying out for the Tokyo Lightnings in the spring. Before that happens, he has to get back in physical shape and find out what it takes to be a good point guard.

He gets some help with that through the minor contrivance of hearing the Lightning’s coach discuss exactly what he’s looking for at a bar. I’m willing to forgive that because it causes Nomiya to re-think his approach and realize what he was doing wrong when he was on the same team as Takahashi in high school. Even though his rival was never a team player, Nomiya also realizes that he never made the effort to work with him and that was his failure as well.

Things come to a head when he visits Takahashi at the hospital to let him know about his plans and his failings as a player in high school. It’s a powerful scene in the way that he’s able to communicate with his former teammate in a way that he wasn’t able to do before. This also strikes me as being a potential turning point for Takahashi as well, in that the one person he always felt superior to (even with his disability) is going to try and make something of himself. So if he doesn’t do the same, what’s left for him?

Regrettably, this will be the last volume of “Real” that we’ll see for a while as we’re now caught up to the Japanese releases. With “Vagabond” coming to a close, my biggest hope is that Inoue devotes himself to working on this series full-time. If he can keep up the quality seen here, then I’d be willing to bet that Inoue will ultimately be remembered for this series than anything else he’s done.

Captain America: Two Americas

November 24, 2010

(Or, vol. 12 in Ed Brubaker’s run for those of you still keeping track at home.)

Now that Steve Rogers is back in the present, the next item on this series’ agenda is settling who gets to be Captain America in the “Who Will Wield the Shield” one-shot that kicks off this volume.  Surprise:  it’s Bucky, not Steve.  While I can’t say that the reasons for doing so were particularly imaginative, I’m willing to overlook that since I’ve enjoyed Bucky’s exploits as Cap so far.  Plus:  we get to see Obama pardon Steve because he felt the Superhuman Registration Act was un-American, and that’s just cool.

With that out of the way, we can get back to telling Captain America stories and the one here is a great example of the kinds of stories I’d like to see in this series.  After a while off the radar, the insane Captain America from the 1950’s shows up leading an underground militia movement in the hopes of getting “his” America back.  This involves Bucky and the Falcon going undercover to infiltrate the group and culminates in a fight on top of the Hoover Dam as Crazy Cap plans to blow it up.

It’s a bit over-the-top, to be sure, but it’s also the kind of story I like to see in my superhero comics.  Brubaker also gives it the right amount of seriousness in the details.  Things like how the genuine frustration Crazy Cap’s recruits feel towards the state of things in America makes them easy marks to go along with his plans and keep the story from going off the rails.  Add in some great art by Luke Ross and Buch Guice, and you’ve got another solid entry in Brubaker’s run that bodes well for Bucky’s continued exploits as Cap.

Saturn Apartments vol. 2

November 22, 2010

Looking back at my review of the first volume of this series, I’m surprised at how negative I sound.  The surprise mainly comes from the fact that I genuinely enjoyed this volume.  No, it’s not the second coming of “Planetes,” but it’s evolving into its own character-driven sci-fi animal.  That’s because the character interaction feels more genuine and realistic here, with their assorted quirks coming off as more endearing than gimmicky.

This is most clearly seen in the opening story where young upper-atmosphere-window-washer Mitsu strikes up a friendship with a thirty-year-old woman who is a shut-in by virtue of her overbearing mother.  The friendship progresses gradually, with the girl sending messages to Mitsu as he washes their window, but things take a more interesting turn when the mother falls ill and the girl starts going to the office in her place.  Mom is a different beast and while she doesn’t like Mitsu at first, he quickly endears himself to her by way of his reactions to her attempts to provoke him while he’s on the job.

The other stories, which mainly focus on how Mitsu interacts with his crew, are similarly strong.  I liked seeing how Kageyama, with his goofball personality, interacts with the gruff Jin, and how Sachi the observer cottons to Mitsu.  Some interesting plot threads also start to emerge here, with Makoto’s gradual acceptance of the young window-washer being the most interesting in light of his creepy veiled threats to the kid in the previous volume.  While on the job, no less.  I hope that the other ideas in this volume, such as the mystery of what happened to Mitsu’s dad and what the survey teams are really doing on the Earth’s surface, receive similar development in subsequent volumes.

My biggest complaint about this series is still Mitsu himself.  While the world around him is quite interesting, he is not.  I’m willing to forgive his blandness since he serves as our entry point to this charming world, but I hope to see more traits beyond “basically competent” and “wants to be like his dad” emerge.  Until then, I'll just have to content myself with everything else that this series has to offer.

B.P.R.D. vol. 14: King of Fear

November 20, 2010

Normal service has finally been resumed.

After a volume of short stories and a side story about the organization’s past, we finally get the next “proper” volume in the “B.P.R.D.” saga. Regrettably, it’s a little underwhelming. Picking up after the events of “The Black Goddess,” Abe, Liz, and co. decide to take the fight to the frog monsters by going back to where they first encountered their new partners, the subterranean race featured in the very first “B.P.R.D.” story “Hollow Earth.” Meanwhile, Kate and her German boyfriend take the Lobster Johnson-possessed Johann back to the place of his death to get their psychic back and recovering-living-mummy Panya makes ominous statements about Liz’s future with the organization.

It sounds like a great setup but then this volume succumbs to “James Bond Villain” syndrome halfway through the book. M.I.A. villain The Black Flame makes his reappearance and promptly sets about explaining how the world will end, Abe’s role in it, and how the group is powerless to stop things. That last part, coupled with Liz’s latest encounter with the now-dead Memnan Saa, made me realize that all this talk about the end of the world and our heroes’ inability to prevent it has become incredibly boring.

Then, in his afterword, co-writer Mike Mignola explains that we’re only through the “first” cycle of “B.P.R.D.” stories. How many more cycles are we going to have to go through before these people finally achieve some kind of meaningful victory in this war? There are still plenty of moments of great deadpan absurdity in this volume and Guy Davis’ art looks as good as ever. Mignola states that he and Arcudi know where they’re going from here on out, so I’m hoping that this volume is a momentary lapse and not a sign of decline in this great series. They’ve earned some credit with me for their past efforts, so I’ll be seeing if the “Hell on Earth” cycle re-energizes the series.

Comic Picks #68: Tsutomu Nihei

November 18, 2010

My take on a phenomenally talented artist whose writing... well, at least it's getting better.

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Batman & Robin vol. 2: Batman vs. Robin

November 16, 2010

I wouldn’t say that the stories Grant Morrison has been writing on “Batman & Robin” have been genre-redefining masterpieces. Really, the biggest thing he has accomplished with this series is getting me to take Dick Grayson seriously as Batman’s replacement and likewise for Damien Wayne as the new Robin. That said, the stories contained in this volume are great examples of what I expect from “Batman” comics in terms of quality and execution.

“Blackest Night” is the better of the two stories as it serves as a thematic tie-in to the “Blackest Night” crossover in that we see Dick’s efforts to resurrect Bruce Wayne via the last Lazarus Pit on earth. This involves teaming up with Batman and Robin’s English counterparts Knight and Squire, taking on some themed upper and lower-class villains, and a surprise encounter with Batwoman. The team-up here is particularly gratifying as it shows that Morrison actually read Greg Rucka’s work with the character and he winds up integrating a lot of that well in this arc. Artist Cameron Stewart’s cartoonish style is used to good effect here as his characters are quite expressive with their masks and he effortlessly handles the speedy action scenes with the characters.

If there’s anything that’s going to trip a reader up here, it’s that the big reveal about Batman’s corpse hinges on the reader having read “Final Crisis.” For someone who reads all of Morrison’s DC Universe work, that’s not a problem but if you haven’t then you’re going to be wondering who Darkseid and that other guy is during the big reveal. I do like how the resurrected “Batman” is handled as his broken speech patterns and the reactions of the characters around him manage to give this monster a sense of pathos... notunlikeFrankensteinsmonster. (Damn it! Couldn’t resist the comparison.) It’s a fun adventure that also sets up the next arc rather well.

“Batman vs. Robin” does actually involve the two characters fighting each other at one point, but it serves as more of a tie-in/companion piece to Morrison’s other Bat-title “The Return of Bruce Wayne.” It also nearly buckles under the weight of also having to advance the ongoing subplots regarding the Black Glove society and masked British sleuth Oberon Sexton. That it doesn’t buckle is thanks to the arc’s other focus on the conflict between Damien and his mother Talia. This is the real heart of the arc as she wants her son to inherit the world as the heir to the Al’Ghul legacy while he wants to uphold the ideals of his father -- in his own way. It’s a classic tale of a son trying to escape the legacy of his family, made more relevant and fun in this story by the fact that the mother has a high-tech control mechanism built into her son’s spine which allows her to manipulate his every move.

While this conflict infuses every aspect of the arc, there’s still enough stuff going on that I wish we had another issue to showcase it all. From the demon thugs prowling around Gotham, to Dr. Hurt making his return to Gotham, to the mystery surrounding Oberon Sexton and the architectural madness in Wayne Manor itself, I was impressed this storyline managed to function at all. As for artist Andy Clarke, though he isn’t the best artist this book has seen he’s still able to keep up with the mad ideas and demands of the writer. By the end, Morrison has somehow managed to weave it all into a successful transition for the book’s climax in the next volume. I imagine that his success is due in no small part to revealing Sexton’s true identity -- which leads to a confrontation that I’m sure everyone has been anticipating since Dick and Damien took over their new roles.

I do think “Batman & Robin vol. 2” is worth your time and money. If you’ve been following Morrison’s work with the character then this won’t disappoint and if you haven’t, it serves as another reason to jump onboard. Whether or not it’s worth buying in hardcover, that’ll just depend on whether or not you can wait a year for this to arrive in softcover. It’s a hard, but certainly not impossible proposition.

Twin Spica vol. 4

November 13, 2010

Vol. 4 of this series that’s ostensibly about kids training to be astronauts begins with a scene of something that’s been in woefully short supply.  We get to see Asumi, Kei and Marika actually training to be astronauts!  The scene of them trying to move in a giant pool of water in their space suits feels believable and showcases some of the ugly truths about what it takes to wear the suit (in Kei’s case -- you know that’s someone’s fetish).  Later on, we get to see them take a ride in the “vomit comet” and experience weightlessness (and airsickness) for the very first time.  It’s a refreshing change from having the characters talk and angst about their lives and I wish that we’d get more of this in the series.

However, it’s become clear that this will never be the series I want it to be.  Mangaka Kou Yaginuma doesn’t really have an interest in detailing what it takes for kids to become astronauts from a scientific perspective.  This is solidly a character drama that merely has a science fiction-y setting as a backdrop.  Had I realized this earlier, I would’ve saved myself a lot of grief.  As for whether or not I’ll keep reading this, I figure I’ll see it through to the end.  Even though I’ve had my issues with the “magical realism” bits involving Mr. Lion, there’s no denying that his encounter with his dad on the river Sanzu is truly moving.  I’m also curious to see where this business with Makita and her dad is going as well.  Still, this is a series more for kids, as opposed to “kids of all ages.”

Superman: Earth One (vol. 1)

November 12, 2010

In case you hadn’t already heard, this volume has been such a success that writer J. Michael Straczynski will be stepping down as scripter for “Superman” and “Wonder Woman” to focus on getting the second volume out ASAP.  For a title that was shrouded in so much secrecy and murk prior to its release, that’s quite an indication of how important it has become.  I think it’s a good thing that we’ll be getting a second volume sooner rather than later because it’s hard to tell whether or not this whole venture is worthwhile based on what we have here.

“Superman:  Earth One,” is essentially “Ultimate Superman.”  I’m sure such a description would irk the staff at DC, but the idea behind this is essentially the same as Marvel’s most successful imprint.  This is the story of young Clark Kent, last son of the planet Krypton, raised in Smallville by Jonathan and Martha Kent, who travels to Metropolis and gets a job working at the Daily Planet newspaper alongside editor Perry White, reporter Lois Lane and photographer Jimmy Olsen.  It doesn’t present a radically different origin for the Man of Steel, but Straczynski’s efforts to add a more human dimension to it wind up backfiring in ways that an experienced writer like him should’ve been able to avoid.

The earliest scenes have Clark wowing a football recruiter with his athletic skills, and a scientific think-tank with his intelligence.  There are a few more scenes to drive home the fact that he is both A) not human and B) can do anything he wants very well.  We’re meant to see him as someone who finally has the chance to show off his skills and achieve some semblance of a normal life after hiding who he is for years on the farm.

The problem with this is twofold.  First, we know that he won’t take up any of these jobs because he goes on to become Superman and work at the Daily Planet for the quick access it gives him to the immediate problems in the city.  Second, the incredible feats he pulls off in these scenes sends a message that there’s this incredible person out there capable of performing incredible feats of physical and mental acumen.  I don’t think that they’d likely forget about him that easily and would naturally beat a path to his door to recruit him for their purposes.  Maybe this will be addressed in the second volume, but these elements feel very awkward in their current place.

Straczynski does better work with updating the established cast of the “Superman” mythos, starting with his adopted parents.  The Kents come off as decent, very likable small-town folk who take this fantastic element that has entered their lives in stride.  I also like their matter-of-fact approach to their explanation of how they’re going to explain where this kid came from to the neighbors, and why there’s a big red “S” on Superman’s outfit.  Even better is the Daily Planet crew, as Perry White’s bluster and Lois Lane’s all-business demeanor come off as endearing rather than annoying.  Best of all is Jimmy Olsen whose drive to get the best picture reaches war-reporter levels of dedication.

After all of this, we’re then introduced to the antagonists of the volume:  A fleet of alien warships led by a being who calls himself Tyrell.  They’re here in pursuit of the last survivor of the planet Krypton’s destruction, and after twenty years they’ve finally tracked him to Earth.  As “Superman” villains go, they’re not too bad but they come off as more of a vehicle for Krypton, its destruction, and for Clark to finally “find his purpose.”  It also seems that there’s going to be an ongoing story here involving the beings behind the destruction of Krypton.  Unless it’s going to be wrapped up in the second volume, I like the idea of this being an overarching story throughout this series.  It also gives me hope that this will be a finite series that will allow Straczynski to tell his “Superman” story the way he wants and then exit gracefully.  Naturally paving the way for another set of creators to make “Superman:  Earth Two.”

While I’ve detailed my issues with Straczynski’s writing in the paragraphs above, I also can’t help but feel that they would’ve been mitigated if he had been paired with a more capable artist.  Shane Davis’ strengths trend more towards the kind that you’d expect a good superhero artist to have.  There’s a lot of detail to his images, he can pull off an epic scope when he needs to, and the man can capture the excitement of mass destruction and superpowered beings beating the crap out of each other.

What he can’t do consistently is give us characters with believable facial expressions or body language.  Part of me thinks that there was a lot of photo-referencing involved with this project, but if there was Davis is a lot better at adapting it to his work than someone like Greg Land.  However, there are way too many panels in this volume where characters, Clark in particular, have odd or unnatural facial expressions, or are posed in ways that don’t seem natural and disrupt the whole mood of the book as a result.

There are two moments in particular that really stood out for me.  One is on the third panel of the very first page as Clark sits in a train with dead eyes and mouth slightly open.  He looks more like a smoker of weed than a man of steel here.  The other is when he properly adopts his “Clark Kent” guise towards the end of the volume and his wide-eyed expression combined with his goofy overbite just serves to remind me how much better Frank Quitely handled the Clark/Superman visual dichotomy in “All-Star Superman.”

So is this worth your money?  It’s certainly an event right now, but this first volume really only engaged me on a critical level.  I was more involved in thinking about how Straczynski succeeded and failed to update “Superman” for the modern era, and in noting all the panels where Clark’s expressions made me go “That’s not right.”  If you’re a big fan of the character, or the creators who are involved then you probably own this already.  At this stage, everything here comes off as setup for future stories and because of that I don’t think I’ll have a good idea about whether or not this will be worthwhile until volume two comes out.  Still, I can say that I’ll be buying it to see how it goes for myself (plus -- call it a hunch I can’t explain -- but I think that Straczynski’s Lex Luthor will wind up being a very entertaining take on the character).