Black Jack vol. 13

January 31, 2011

It’s inevitable that after thirteen volumes detailing the exploits of Osamu Tezuka’s maverick medical maestro you’d get the feeling that you’ve seen everything this series has to offer.  After all, virtually each story features the doctor addressing some unusual medical condition which turns into a morality or cautionary tale in the execution.  The reason I’ve kept with this series in spite of its formulaic nature is the boundless imagination that Tezuka displays in coming up with these stories.  They don’t show a whole lot of variety in their structure, but you can’t accuse the man of telling the same story over and over again.

This volume alone features a high school gymnast who loses his hand, but gains a talking prosthetic, surgery being performed on a mummy to save three archaeologists from its curse, aliens who suck at counterfeiting, a “Timid Cyrano” who gets a 1000-yen surgery, and an accident survivor who assumes the identity of one of his superiors.  Black Jack and his assistant/live-in annoyance Pinoko also get some interesting stories to themselves as the former finds out about the limits of medicine when he tries to cure a disease that disgraced his mentor while the latter encounters a cystoma who wants to live just like her.  I’m also impressed that Tezuka keeps findings interesting things to do with Kiriko, Black Jack’s euthanasia-focused nemesis, as he indirectly winds up teaching a suicidal teenager about the value of life.

These are all good stories, and it’s another worthy entry in this series.  I know I don’t need to recommend this series to Tezuka fans, but for those of you who aren’t that familiar with his works are still encouraged to pick up a volume -- either this one, or one of the previous twelve.  This isn’t “X-Men,” they’re actually that reader-friendly.  Any of these volumes are a good introduction to the “God of Manga’s” later-period style and contain many fine examples of just how crazy his stories can get.

The Goon vol. 10: Death’s Greedy Comeuppance

January 28, 2011

After writer/artist Eric Powell took his signature series to the next level, successfully balancing his dramatic instincts with his deranged sense of humor, in the “Return of Labrazio” arc that spanned vols. 7-9 we finally get the next collection. While I thoroughly enjoyed the storyline, I was a little put out by the fact that it felt like the introductory act to a much larger story. I was certainly looking forward to this volume in the hopes that it would show the way forward, but I was ultimately let down in the end.

We start off with an issue that marks the tenth anniversary of the series. Fittingly, it focuses on Frankie and the gang’s efforts to throw the Goon a birthday party with disastrous results. Their loss is our gain as this issue also features cake, slatternly maidens, hobo gods, The Rape Gorilla, and none other than Frank Darabont (director of “The Shawshank Redemption,” and showrunner on “The Walking Dead”) explaining to Powell why people in animal costumes being raped by actual animals is never funny. It’s a fun epilogue to the previous volumes and a welcome change of pace in the sense that the title character comes out ahead in the end.

The second issue is a “silent” tale about a black-clad assassin on the trail of a thieving woman who has just wound up in the Goon’s neck of the woods. I’ve never had any doubt about Powell’s artistic or storytelling skills, so the fact that he’s able to pull off such an issue doesn’t surprise me. There are a lot of fun moments here, usually involving the characters’ visual thought balloons, but nothing that will really surprise or startle you with laughter as the best issues of this series do.

Then we get to the three-issue “Buzzard” mini-series. While I like the character and his tragic arc, this story is far too serious for its own good. I’m cool with how the series doesn’t take place in a clearly defined time or place as it gives Powell license to draw all sorts of strange creatures and twisted landscapes without having to rein himself in to a particular time and place as he does in the main series. Truly, the art is the best part of this story.

The problem is that in addition to the aforementioned seriousness is that it doesn’t go anywhere. Buzzard begins the story looking for a way to die, and that’s exactly how he ends it (only now he has a zombie horse). In between, he travels the land with a boy in tow on a mission to kill a god on behalf of the scared inhabitants of a local village. This is done to the accompaniment of some of the hardest-boiled, overwritten and overwrought dialogue I’ve ever read. I don’t doubt that this is intentional on Powell’s part, but the end result is a story that’s more dull than anything else.

While “The Goon” has become increasingly serious over the years, it’s a shift that has worked through some very careful planning on the part of its creator. Though the series started out as silly as it was ridiculous, there was “Chinatown” in the background -- a piece of backstory so pregnant with drama that it threatened to derail the comedy when it was brought up. However, Powell kept changing the tone and infusing more drama with each volume that by the time the actual “Chinatown” story was told it came off as a logical step in the evolution of the series and a great story in its own right. Here, there’s none of that buildup and the story itself isn’t strong enough to make me care.

The end result is a volume that kills a lot of the momentum the series had after the end of vol. 9. Regrettably, the two issues featuring the title character don’t advance the story in any meaningful fashion, and there’s no indication as to when Powell will get around to telling it. I wanted a lot from this volume and it didn’t deliver. Hopefully the next volume will.

Comic Picks #73: Claymore

January 27, 2011

It is "Berserk Lite," but that doesn't mean that it's not good on its own terms.

00:0000:00

Rat Catcher

January 26, 2011

There were a lot of little things I liked about this latest Vertigo Crime graphic novel from writer Andy Diggle and artist Victor Ibanez. As the writer of “The Losers,” Diggle knows how to write an effective action comic, and you can see his skill in the way that the book opens, the amusing details such as the cattle shipping/dope-running operation, and the witty one-liners that the characters toss out every so often. This time out, he’s paired up with a very capable artist in Ibanez. The man’s art probably won’t win any awards, but it’s clear and expressive in just the way I like and expect art from a Vertigo title to be. I’m also impressed that the art doesn’t suffer for the fact that it’s clearly designed to be in color. You’ll notice that bit right off the bat; but afterwards, the man’s work just draws you in.

Unfortunately the book is fairly predictable in its twists. Most readers will realize that something is up from the first few pages, and will subsequently fail to be surprised when the big reveal comes. There’s also an odd problem in terms of the story’s scope. The title character is supposedly a legendary assassin who kills mob informants... who turns out to be in the employ of a regional Texas mob. With what we’re told about him and the way he has infiltrated the FBI, I kept expecting a bigger story than what was ultimately delivered. This is certainly not the worst Vertigo Crime book that I’ve read; however, like most in the line, it’s just “okay.”

Irredeemable vol. 5

January 24, 2011

One thing I didn’t mention in my review of vol. 3 was that vols. 3-5 were a late Christmas gift from some good friends of mine.  I’d been planning on picking them up at some point in the future because while I’ve liked the series, the price for “four issues and a preview of Mark Waid’s other work for BOOM!” has always been a little steep for my tastes.  After vol. 5, that’s no longer going to be the case because the series has finally hit its stride.

The fight against the Plutonian takes some surprising twists in this volume as Tony is faced with the possibility of undoing the event that turned him into a villain.  On the other side, Qubit makes the case for why he spared the man’s life previously.  I do like the fact that Waid dives headfirst into this problem in the second issue here as Qubit’s deflecting of the bullet struck me as more of a way to prolong the series than an act of mercy.  His reasons, as they’re laid out here, do make sense and reinforce the man’s character as the kind of person who always finds a way to solve problems without killing.

Even more surprisingly is how he ties the idea of finding a way not to kill the Plutonian into the story of how the Hornet, the street-level hero killed in the very first issue, found that very way.  While his efforts to infiltrate the lead ship in an alien invasion lead you to believe that he’s going to find some cool, Batman-esque way of defeating them, the end result is far from what you’d expect.  The story plays against your expectations nicely and is quite disturbing without spilling a drop of blood.

As for the parts that involve the Plutonian himself?  They provide the most twisted fun yet in the series.  Particularly in his rationalization of his relationship with his archvillain, Modeus, who is currently inhabiting the mind of the superhero’s mostly-dead sidekick.  The psycho-sexual undertones he describes are all the more creepy because they’re so plausible.  Then there’s the incredible look of glee the Plutonian has when he fries off the face of Sam/Modeus and then eats a Snickers bar.  It’s delightfully wicked and you can really imagine Waid cackling to himself as he wrote that scene.

But wait!  Did I say “incredible look of glee” in describing a series whose art I’ve regularly criticized?  Yes.  Yes I did and I’m pleasantly surprised to report that the three issues that regular artist Peter Krause took off before returning with these four did him nothing but good.  The man’s no Stuart Immonen or Bryan Hitch, but all of the awkwardness that plagued vol. 3 is gone here, replaced by some truly memorable emotional moments.  The five descending panels illustrating Tony’s revelation at the end of the second issue are things of beauty in how they build up to it.  Same goes for the reveal on the last page which shows that the menace of the Plutonian has been contained -- for now.

It may have taken four volumes to get to this point, but you can believe that I won’t wait for my friends to buy me the next volume of this series.  I know it’s not meant to run indefinitely, but that’s a good thing as I can’t wait to see what kind of ending Waid has in store for the characters and world that he has created here.

New Avengers (vol. 13): Siege

January 23, 2011

After I finished reading through this, I came to realize that I was probably being more than a little foolish in hoping that this volume would flesh out the events of “Siege” in a satisfying manner. There’s really only one thing that’s touched upon here that wasn’t really explained in the crossover, and that’s the business with Loki and the Norn Stones. Knowing the background of that bit as explained in the issues here really doesn’t add anything to the event. Fortunately, the other issues collected here do have entertaining stories to tell.

Things start off with a two-part story from “Dark Reign: The List” and “New Avengers Annual #3” which pick up on former Hawkeye/current Ronin Clint Barton’s ongoing deliberation to kill Norman Osborne. To make a long story short, he goes off on his own, gets captured, and then has his ass bailed out by Ms. Marvel, Spider-Woman, his girlfriend Mockingbird and Jessica Jones suiting up for this special occasion. Overall, it’s an okay story with the debating in the first part enlivened by Spider-Man and company making some good points about why killing Osborne is a bad idea. Writer Brian Michael Bendis also gets points by bringing up the “If you could go back in time, would you kill Hitler” arguement by pointing out that current Captain America Bucky Barnes actually did kill Hitler.

The problem here is that despite the skill in Bendis’ writing, it’s still a two-parter with a foregone conclusion and lots of pointless fighting as a result. However, these issues are enlivened by some nice art from Marko Djurdjevic and some astonishingly good art from Mike Mayhew. I’m familiar with Djurdjevic’s work through his covers and the issues of “Thor” he did with J. Michael Straczynski, and while his work there had a roughness and grit to it that suited the Asgardians well, “The List” is squeaky clean. His work here is more reminiscent of Lenil Yu’s in “Secret Invasion” and like that artist, he proves to have no problem with drawing an emotional scene of heroes arguing or having them throw down in a fight. Mayhew’s work, on the other hand, seems impossibly well-airbrushed and photo-referenced, but unlike the work of Greg Land, his characters have consistently natural expressions and poses. The characters and their body language actually look believable, and the end result is a comic with all the detail of one of his covers on ever single page.

After this comes the tie-in issues and they’re split up into two parts. The first has The Hood using the power of the Norn Stones to augment the members of his gang, who then go out to pick fights with the current and former Captain Americas, and Spider-Man & Spider-Woman on the other side of town. As the first part features art from Stuart Immonen and Daniel Acuna, I can’t complain too loudly that it’s just a series of fight scenes with virtually no relevance to the crossover and only marginally more to the New Avenger’s ongoing feud with The Hood. The second has art entirely from Mike McKone who gets props for drawing as many heroes and villains fighting as he does in the thick of the fighing in the crossover proper. Regrettably, there’s a flatness to his art that appears to be brought on more by the coloring than his pencils. The only scenes of note here are the flashbacks to Luke Cage and Jessica Jones, Ronin and Mockingbird, Norman Osborne and The Hood, and the latter with his gang prior to the fighting. They’re nice character moments, but you could’ve replaced them with more fighting and not missed a thing.

If nothing else, these four issues maintain the through-line of conflict between the New Avengers and The Hood’s gang that has been the crux of the series for a while now. I mention this because that conflict serves as the thrust for the final story in the collection “New Avengers: Finale.” Serving as the close for this chapter in the team’s history (before a new one started up two months later), the story is actually brought full circle in an interesting way. Longtime readers will remember that it was a breakout from the superhuman prison known as The Raft that brought the New Avengers together in the first place, and as The Hood and Madame Masque flee from the team and the authorities, they run straight to one of the escapees: Masque’s father Count Nefaria. Lots of punches and energy blasts ensue.

An epic finale requires an epic artist, and the issue gets one in Bryan Hitch. When he’s on his game, there’s no better superhero artist in the industry. Unfortunately, the man is fairly infamous for the time it takes to deliver the level of quality he’s known for and it’s clear he didn’t have all the time he needed here. While some of the pages here look fantastic, the two-page spreads showing the aftermath of “Siege” and Ms. Marvel going toe-to-toe with Nefaria spring immediately to mind, more than a few look like he barely had time to work on them. Stuart Immonen is also credited with art on the issue and if scenes like the one where Jessica Jones calls Luke Cage are his work, then my disappointment is somewhat mitigated by the impressiveness of how the artist is able to tweak his style to resemble Hitch’s.

Despite my issues with the art, the “Finale” still does a pretty good job of bringing closure to the series (for now). The heroes bask in the glory of having defeated Osborne and relish the fact that they can now show their faces in public and actually be legitimate Avengers again. Bendis also recruits previous artists who have rendered the team’s exploits for a series of two-page spreads highlighting their more memorable battles, and it’s a fun (and pretty) trip down memory lane. So really, despite all of the issues I’ve mentioned through this review, if you’ve been reading this series since the beginning and you’re looking for some kind of closure (or a good jumping off point) then this volume is worth picking up since it provides just that. As for everyone else, it’s far too mired in current Marvel continuity to be an accessible and entertaining read; but, you probably already realized this after reading this far.

Highschool of the Dead vol. 1

January 21, 2011

The anime series that was adapted from this manga was trash of the highest caliber.  A violent and gory romp about highschool kids trying to survive against the hordes of the living dead, it featured lots of fanservice in the form of well-rendered guns and gunplay, scenes of its female cast jiggling away in various states of undress, and the cast driving around in an EMP-hardened humvee.  You have to admire the laser-guided precision to which the tastes of male otaku are targeted.  What made it “of the highest caliber” is the fact that it zipped through the usual zombie movie benchmarks with surprising efficiency and speed (seeing your friend turn into a zombie and then killing him -- that and more were done in the first episode), had a remarkable self-awareness regarding certain genre standards (the female lead advocates leaving the creepy teacher, that we know is going to cause trouble later, to die), and features the novelty of being the only zombie story I can think of that shows the apocalypse through the eyes of teenagers (seriously, I can’t think of another one).

This is all true of the first volume of the “Highschool of the Dead” manga by writer Daisuke Sato and artist Shouji Sato.  If you’re like me and have already seen the anime, then there won’t be anything here that surprises you.  They pretty much followed it panel-for-panel; and, at the rate they’re going here, it probably won’t be until vol. 5 that we see any of the story beyond what we saw in the anime.  For those of you who haven’t seen it, if my description of things in the paragraph above sounds like your idea of a good time -- then order a copy now.

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Campus Apocalypse vol. 2

January 20, 2011

I didn’t review the first volume of this series because I was planning on saving it for a potential podcast about taking established characters and transplanting them into all-new settings. (See also: DC’s Elseworlds comics.) That hasn’t happened yet, but I might get around to it later this year. Anyway, the first volume of “Campus Apocalypse” turned out to be a satisfyingly guilty pleasure along the lines of Dark Horse’s other “Evangelion” title, “The Shinji Ikari Raising Project.” Putting Shinji, Rei, Asuka and Kaworu into what is essentially a stock shonen “supernatural action” plot (think “Bleach” or another Jump title that has kids going around fighting supernatural entities) is certainly an approach that won’t win any awards, but their established personalities enlivened the material while the action was executed with zest and it featured some appealing character-centric art from mangaka Mingming. It’s also a substantially different approach from the “Raising Project” that even though the two are both set in high school, neither is really cutting in on the other’s style.

With vol. 2, my optimism for this series wanes a bit. Things pick up a bit towards the end when the subplot about the killer MMO finally starts gaining traction, but most of it is just a slow plod through a morass of foreshadowing and backstory to get to that point. Now this is just my opinion, but the advantage to using familiar characters in a story like this is that you’ve already got their personalities and character traits. That way you can just cut to the action and not have to waste time on pointless scenes that merely re-establish what we already know about these people. Guess which approach Mingming takes here.

It’s not that any of these scenes are awful, and I’m sure there’s a substantial contingent of “Eva” fans that are going to LOVE seeing Kaworu spend the night at Shinji’s again. However, outside of the opening chapter’s nativity play shenanigans and Rei’s affection for her horse’s head costume there’s very little zest to them. Regrettably, the overriding plot thread throughout the majority of the volume is that of Shinji coming to grips with this new world that he has been thrust into and then deciding whether or not he wants to be a part of it. (Non-spoiler warning: He does.) Carl Horn does what he can to enliven the proceedings with his adaptation, but even though he does have some winning moments, such as what the angel Gabriel would text the Virgin Mary, you get the feeling he has less room to work with than he does on the “Raising Project” and the end results are therefore not quite as entertaining.

I wouldn’t say that this volume is a dealbreaker in terms of stopping me from following the series. The recent solicitations from Dark Horse have indicated that this is only going to be four volumes in total, so I’m hoping that things will pick up in the next volume. At least, I’m hoping that they do. The last thing that I’d want to read this year is a third volume so bad that it causes me to skip the concluding one entirely.

The Dark Tower: The Gunslinger — The Journey Begins

January 18, 2011

When I talked about it on the podcast a while back, I made no bones about how I was disappointed with “The Battle of Jericho Hill.” Ostensibly a conclusion to Marvel’s series of “Dark Tower” mini-series, it failed to make the title conflict feel like the major event that it was referenced as in Stephen King’s original novels. Instead, we received a middling tale where its abridged, “illustrated pictures with words” approach didn’t do justice to the tale or compare favorably to the other volumes in the series. Now we have this new volume which is supposedly the start of a new arc which will supposedly bridge the events of the previous series to the first novel. I’ll say right off that while I thought that this collection is better than the previous one, that’s only because the bar has been lowered.

The first issue in the collection picks up a few years after the above-mentioned battle as Roland, the last Gunslinger of Gilead, continues his pursuit of Marten, the man in black, across a desolate landscape. After stopping to rest at the home of a man dwelling in the wastes, Roland tells him the story of his travels from Jericho Hill. We hear of how he delivered fellow Gunslinger Aileen’s body back to Gilead for a proper burial, then a tale of his childhood and how he found the castle cook to be a traitor, and then of his encounter with the Not-Men in Kingstown and the woman who resembles Susan Delgado, the lost love of his life.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with the telling of these stories -- they’re competent tales of survival, tragedy, horror and triumph as delivered by the series’ resident writing team of plotter Robin Furth and scripter Peter David. They’ve been remarkably consistent in their style and delivery throughout the majority of these comics and they deserve to be commended for that if nothing else. It’s even got to the point where I’ve found the parts where the characters’ dialogue breaks from its usual Mid-World speech to allow David to slip in some of his trademark witticisms more endearing then distracting. (If you’ve read his work for any length of time, then you’ll know the parts I’m talking about.)

The problem is that very, very little of this volume feels relevant to Roland’s quest for The Dark Tower. Outside of a brief encounter with Marten that sets him after the wizard, I found myself wondering what was the point of everything that happened here. Yes, it’s nice to see Roland foiling the bad guys’ plans after losing his friends and comrades but this series needed more than that. It needed a sense of purpose and direction that would give us readers a reason to keep reading these comics for another thirty issues. “The Gunslinger -- The Journey Begins” does not have such a reason.

In fact, my main reason for picking up this volume was to see how artist Sean Phillips illustrates the world of The Dark Tower now that original artist Jae Lee has moved on. I’ve liked his work for quite some time as he has shown himself to have a natural aptitude for depicting creepy, supernatural and/or just plain dark worlds. (See his work on “Hellblazer,” “Marvel Zombies,” or any of his collaborations with Ed Brubaker for further proof of this.) His rendering of Mid-World will certainly please those looking for stylistic consistency after Lee’s departure and he gets several opportunities to show off his skill at showcasing action scenes when Roland has to throw down with the Not-Men or the Slow Mutants. Phillips also does a great job of capturing the feelings of the Gunslinger himself in his art. The world-weary wanderer we meet in the introduction, and the impulsive yet regretful youth who inhabits the majority of this volume both come off as utterly believable in the hands of the artist.

My only complaint about the art lies with longtime colorist Richard Isanove’s digital painting. It looks great in the opening scenes and is the reason for a lot of that stylistic consistency between Lee and Phillips’ work. Unfortunately, the texture and detail to his work seeps out over the subsequent issues and the coloring becomes flatter and more ordinary as a result. By the end of the volume, it almost looks like a different comic.

So unless you’re a fan of Mr. Phillips like I am, then you don’t need to bother with this volume. While “The Battle of Jericho Hill” was a weak climax for the series, it was still a climax and a good jumping-off point for anyone looking to stop reading the series. The next volume will be adapting a King-written novella called “The Little Sisters of Elluria” with art by Luke Ross. I remember reading that story years ago, and while it was okay, I can’t see the comic adaptation providing me with a reason to keep reading this series (short of finding a copy of the next volume for half-off in a bin at Comic-Con).

The Invincible Iron Man vol. 4: Stark Disassembled

January 17, 2011

With this, the story that was started in “World’s Most Wanted” and the character arc that really began in “Civil War,” draws to a close. Tony Stark is a vegetable, having successfully wiped his mind free of information that could’ve been seized by Norman Osborne, and now his friends and comrades have to decide if they’re going to use his technology to bring him back. (Non-spoiler warning: They do.) As Stark is flat on his back and at the mercy of his friends for protection, Madame Masque (undoubtedly still pissed at the man after her treatment in the previous arc -- no matter what she says here) takes matters into her own hands and hires the high-tech criminal known as “The Ghost” to dispose of the title character.

If you’ve been reading the series so far, then picking up this volume should be a no-brainer. In case you were worried that writer Matt Fraction and artist Salvador Larroca somehow lost the thread since the previous volume, then don’t be. The two make sure that this volume looks and reads just as good as the rest, despite some, shall we say, “overwrought” psychic imagery over the course of Stark’s mental quest. This is more than made up for with some truly exciting scenes. Chief among them being a sequence in the first issue featuring six pages, eight panels each, of Stark’s talking head giving his “state of the union” for himself and the Marvel Universe. It could’ve been really self-indulgent and boring, but Fraction’s dialogue is electric, and Larroca nails the man’s facial expressions.

More importantly, despite the fact that this volume represents the end of a story, it also sets up a lot of potentially interesting story threads for the future. While having Stark rebuild his company is one of the obvious ones, we also find out that because of the method he used to restore his mind, he has forgotten a lot of important events over the past few years. This might seem like a cheap way to not have him account to his friends for the past few years worth of stories, but the reason for his memory loss makes perfect sense, and the final page of this collection shows that his memory loss is going to be more of a rude awakening than anything else. Then there’s the fact that Pepper and Maria find out that they both slept with him during “World’s Most Wanted.”

… Yeah, I think after that, mending fences with the majority of the Marvel Universe is going to be the easy part of his recovery. After the success of this volume, I’m sure that said recovery will be very entertaining to see.