DMZ vol. 9: M.I.A.

February 28, 2011

Or, part one of the redemption of Matty Roth. It’s not called that because I imagine writer Brian Wood finds such sentimentality anathema to his style. The volume’s title comes from the dead soldiers Matty finds in a crashed helicopter while hiding out from pretty much everyone after the tragic events of the previous volume. Having grown a “shame beard” in the meantime, he feels that returning their dogtags to the U.S. Army is something he has to do in order to atone in part for his actions. The rest, he’ll leave up to the Army themselves.

Most of the “M.I.A.” arc is given over to Matty’s struggle to make it to the Army’s checkpoint while having to contend with an assorted mix of street crazies, bombing runs, and the inquisition from Parco Delgado’s sister. As longtime readers can imagine, she’s VERY curious to find out what went on during her brother’s administration. This is all handled capably by Wood and regular artist Riccardo Burchielli. Though there isn’t a whole lot that’s surprising about the journey or Matty’s self-analysis during the trip, there’s still a lot of drama inherent in the trip itself.

What makes this arc special is in the concluding issue where Matty has it out with his dad and receives an offer that allows him to return to being a journalist in the titular area. Now, while Matty is certainly a capable journalist and possessed of a certain amount of guts, he has never struck me as the smartest or most perceptive of individuals. Which is why his attempt to be a player in the Delgado administration turned out as badly as it did. However, he requests a certain condition be applied to this offer that raises my estimation of him immensely. Not only is it the only way he would be able to retain some kind of credibility as a journalist, but it also shows that he knows he has to account for his actions during the war.

This volume also collects the 50th issue of the series, which consists of a series of short stories and pin-ups written by Wood and illustrated by a host of the industry’s best artists. Rebekah Isaaks gives us a tale of an oblivious NGO who seeks to “enlighten” the city by setting up a Wi-Fi network, Fabio Moon tells a wordless tale of a kid who finds a new toy on the street, Ryan Kelly shows us the efforts of one man to presever the priceless works of art that were stranded in the city when the conflict started, and John Paul Leon depicts the latest dinner between Matty and Wilson. All of these stories are great, but the standout comes from the black and white short from Burchielli. Not only does his work look great without color, Wood’s story surprised me by giving us a look at the future of the series. Matty gets a chance to meet with the leader of the Free States and finds himself liking the man quite a bit, even as he lays out his plans for taking the city.

It’s this last part that makes me eager... well, more eager than usual, to see how this series plays out in the coming volumes. As it’s set up to end with issue #72, it looks increasingly likely that it’s going to go out with a bang. Or at least several, considering the size of the conflict that looms on the horizon.

Kodansha Invests in Vertical!

February 27, 2011

A few months back, I was really bitchy somewhat critical of the titles Kodansha announced after they assumed control of Del Rey’s line.  It’s not that any of those titles sounded bad, just that there didn’t seem to be any targeted to me to a more mature readership.  Flash forward to earlier this week and it turns out that there was a reason for that.  Instead of trying to do it themselves, the people at Kodansha (and Dai Nippon) have done something far more straightforward:  Buy someone who already does.

Marketing director Ed Chavez lays out the specifics with Brigid Alverson at “Robot 6” and I’m very encouraged by what he has to say.  Kodansha won’t be dictating terms to the staff at Vertical, though the connections and capital they’ve acquired from the two companies will not only make it easier for them to acquire new titles, but to ease the strains of publishing and day-to-day operations as well.  To me, the setup sounds like Kodansha has acquired their equivalent of Viz’s “Signature” imprint and is going to let them continue to cater to their established audience.  The end result is a bigger, badder Vertical and I’m looking forward to seeing them flex their muscle as the year goes on.

Comic Picks #75: Summit of the Gods

February 23, 2011

It's a grand showcase for one of the manliest of pursuits -- mountain climbing!  With a special appearance by Sebastian from NPFOM!

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Suicide Squad vol. 1: Trial By Fire

February 22, 2011

If you’ve been hanging around comics news sites on the internet as long as I have, then you’ve probably heard a lot about this series.  Specifically, how good it is, how it influenced a lot of other series, and how it has yet to be collected. Over a year ago I picked up the miniseries from original writer John Ostrander and found it to be pretty entertaining.  I also remarked that I’d like to read the original series run at some point and DC has kindly obliged me of this request.  Though this series may be dated in some ways, its core appeal hasn’t been diminished.

“Suicide Squad” is the unofficial nickname of Task Force X, a secret government organization that utilizes the least desirable individuals in carrying out the most impossible operations.  Originally conceived during World War II it now serves as kind of a work-release program for imprisoned supervillains.  Successfully complete a mission and your sentence is reduced.  If you fail... that’s because you’ve already died on the mission.

Make no mistake, people do die on these missions.  Though they may be new characters or fourth-stringers you don’t care about, the series doesn’t play this card often enough in these first eight issues for it to wear out its welcome.  It’s not even the main selling point of the series.  That would be the fun of seeing a group of misanthropes, crazies, and outright psychopaths try to work together for the good of our nation.  Putting the self-destructive Deadshot, the self-interested Captain Boomerang, and the unstable Enchantress on the same team would be a recipe for disaster in the best of times.  Trying to hold it all together in the field is Col. Rick Flag, an honorable man who has issues of his own to deal with.  These issues include the orders of his superior Amanda Waller, the head of Task Force X and an individual who is willing to take whatever steps are needed to ensure a mission’s success.

What makes this series work is in seeing how each of these personalities react once a mission begins.  Some will follow the mission to the letter.  Others might run off to the side and hide.  One or two might raise moral objections regarding what they have to do.  Then you have the few who will turn traitor and turn on the team or try to cut a deal with the opposition.  You get to see a lot of these things in the first two issues including a great twist where the traitor attacks one of their team members in front of the group’s target.  The problem is that said team member had been working undercover, so the target thinks that she has actually come to kill him.  This trend continues in the later issues when the team is sent to Russia in order to rescue a writer imprisoned for her anti-communist views.  It sounds simple enough, but things get complicated when they find out that she wants to remain in prison and thus be a martyr for her cause.

That last storyline highlights the datedness of the material as it trades in a lot of the “Evil Commie” schtick that was so prevalent in the decade.  The same goes for a lot of Ostrander’s dialogue.  While that’s never been the man’s strong suit, he’s always been a better plotter, a lot of it is just functional and clunky.  I’d also add needlessly expositional to the list, but that’s true of EVERY superhero comic from the 80’s.  Some may also find artist Luke McDonnel’s art to be a bit simplistic, but I liked the Kirby-esque energy he brings to the proceedings.

So if you can look past the 80’s-ness of the material, you’ll find a series that has aged a lot better than its contemporaries from the same era.  I wouldn’t put it on the same pedastal that other people have, but I’m certainly looking forward to checking out vol. 2 when it arrives.  I hear Batman makes an appearance in those issues!

Ghost Talker’s Daydream vol. 5

February 21, 2011

This volume represents the longest story the series has told to date.  In fact, it’s so long that I didn’t realize at first that it actually started in the previous volume.  Go figure.  Anyway, Misaki is still on vacation at a hot springs resort in Hakone, trying her best to escape from the pressures and responsibilities that surrounded her back in the real world.  Much as she’d like it to continue, outside forces intervene and force her to don her S&M gear and get back to ghost talking.  Said outside forces include her associate Soichiro who has roped budding medium Ai and Misaki’s stalker Mitsuru into joining him on his quest, the asshole detective who tried to use Ai’s powers for his own benefit in the last volume, and a suicide circle also visiting the area.

It may sound like there’s a lot going on here, but the biggest problem with this volume is that it feels like a regular story that’s been stretched out far beyond its length.  When a series that usually tells two or three stories in a particular volume, you’d naturally expect one that takes more than a volume to tell to be a really big deal.  Regrettably, this is not the case.  Though the narrative does pick up some momentum towards the end, and we do get some hints as to Yuo -- the mysterious antagonist’s -- motives, I didn’t feel as though we were witnessing a pivotal chapter in this saga.

Though this volume was disappointing, it wasn’t a complete loss.  After disappearing for most of the previous volume, it felt good to see Misaki back in action again and her presence does give the proceedings more energy than they would’ve had otherwise.  There are also plenty of effectively creepy scenes throughout the volume, most of them focusing on the ghost of Mitsuru’s former lover, and the flashbacks which illustrate some of the character’s own personal hells.  Unfortunately, when the series isn’t focusing on the creepy it’s usually because we’re seeing Soichiro act like a total goofball as he’s used in the most ham-fisted way to move the plot forward.  Seeing him drag Ai and Mitsuru into the middle of a lake on a boat because he “felt” that Misaki would be there is both not funny and dumb.  The creators seem to be laboring under the idea that having Soichiro act like a total goofball is absolutely HILARIOUS and he should be given several scenes in each volume to reinforce this fact.  After five volumes, I’ve yet to find any of his antics amusing.

Still, despite my misgivings about this volume, I’ll be picking up the next one when it comes out in May.  With Misaki back to work, I’m hoping we’ll get more stories that channel the best creepy and sexy parts from the second and third volumes while keeping the goofiness to a minimum.  This series has done better before, and we’ll see if it can do better again.

The Invincible Iron Man vol. 5: Stark Resilient (Book I)

February 18, 2011

It’s a new Heroic Age in the Marvel Universe and Tony Stark enters into it flat broke and missing his memory of nearly everything that’s happened since he was upgraded with Extremis.  So what’s a former billionaire playboy to do now?  Apparently the answer is to take the technology that the Iron Man is built on, de-weaponize it and license it out as an energy source to power just about everything in the free world.  Sounds like a great start, right?  Well, that’s all this volume is.

Now there were a lot of little things that I liked about this volume as I was reading it.  There’s Tony’s monologue about the bender he went on after being named Playboy’s Man of the Year, his encounters in hiring the staff of his new company, Resilient, and Pepper Potts and Maria Hill’s encounters with Tony after they remember sleeping with him during “World’s Most Wanted” and he doesn’t.  They make for great bits of humor, character development and dramatic tension.  I also liked how they kept Extremis and even tied the new suit into that system.  Some people think that whole setup makes Tony into an actual superhuman, as opposed to a smart man in a machine suit, but I’ve always been inclined to agree with its creator -- Warren Ellis -- who thinks that Iron Man should represent the future.  In that regard, it doesn’t get more futuristic than what you see here.

The problem is that all of this is setup.  It doesn’t feel like the story or its point has properly cohered yet.  Yes, I know that Justine and Sasha Hammer are making their own Iron Man-esque warmech with Detroit Steel but there doesn’t seem to be any depth to their ambitions beyond being really evil and embarrassing Tony Stark.  Four issues in and I’m still waiting for this arc to pick up some real momentum.  I was also left with the distinct feeling that nearly all of the essential plot points in this volume could’ve been boiled down into one, maybe two issues.  In that regard, this collection is a good argument against decompression.

However, if writer Matt Fraction had done that, we would’ve missed out on all the bits I mentioned above along with Tony’s great encounter with Thor early on.  That scene alone shows you how great Fraction’s understanding of the character is and why he’s such a great fit for this book.  Ditto for artist Salvador Larrocca who does his usual stellar job rendering the machines and the people involved with them in this book.  In the end, this volume is only worth picking up depending on how much goodwill or patience Fraction’s run has earned with you, the reader.  He has earned enough with me, but I certainly hope the next volume makes all this setup worthwhile.

Blade of the Immortal vol. 23: Scarlet Swords

February 17, 2011

Yes, it’s still incredibly awesome.  I’m not going to bore you with the details since you’re all well aware that I drank the Kool-Aid for this series quite some time ago.  Instead, some observations:

If you told be back when I was reading, say, vol. 3 that twenty volumes later that the Itto-Ryu’s ambitions would suffer a major setback and I’d be rooting for Anotsu, Magatsu and co. to escape the government’s wrath -- I’d have called you a liar.

If you told me after I’d read vol. 21 that two volumes later I’d be sympathetic towards the plight of Habaki Kagimura and come to a greater understanding of his situation and motivations -- I’d have called you a liar and tried to smack you with something.

If you told me after I’d read the last volume that the transition from longtime translator Dana Lewis to Kumar Sivasubramanian would be utterly seamless -- I’d have welcomed your reassurance.

Noises are also made by Anotsu in this volume about the Itto-Ryu gearing up for a final reckoning.  Given how you can divide the “acts” of the series in Dark Horse’s serialization into seven-volume chunks, I’m expecting the series to wrap up around vol. 28.  If it doesn’t, I’ll re-evaluate my stance then.

I’d like to see more Manji and Rin in the next volume.  Also more hints as to what Shira’s been up to.

Finally, I’d like to see another volume before the end of the year.  Would that be too much to ask, Dark Horse?  Would it really?

So it wasn’t (entirely) Warren Ellis’ fault that the “Iron Man” anime was blah.

February 16, 2011

Brendon Connelly had a chance to speak to Warren Ellis in connection with the upcoming DVD release of "Red" over at Bleeding Cool.  It's a short interview, but interesting to read for Ellis' perspective on the movie and its potential sequel.  More interesting to me was what he said about his involvement with Marvel's anime projects.  Apparently he was just responsible for writing up rough outlines for the series, which would then be rewritten by a Japanese writer.

On one hand I'm glad to know that he wasn't directly responsible for the decidedly underwhelming "Iron Man" anime I saw at last year's Comic-Con.  On the other, it was his involvement that actually made me want to watch these things in the first place.  Knowing this, I think I can safely skip the forthcoming "Wolverine," "X-Men," and "Blade" anime series.  Yeah, I know that it's unfair to judge a series after just seeing one episode, but I'm very doubtful that we'll see anything with these that I can't already get by reading the comics.  Sure, studio Madhouse does good work, but I doubt they're going to put their best foot forward for what is essentially a "work for hire" gig.  I'd normally try to end speculative articles like this on a note of optimism... but really, does anyone think this is going to work out well?

Daytripper

February 15, 2011

Twin brothers Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon are phenomenal artists.  Anyone who has seen their work in “The Umbrella Academy,” “Sugarshock,” “Casanova,” and “B.P.R.D. 1947” should know that they excel in realizing the strangest of worlds while giving the characters that grounds them, and the reader, in the work.  Before this, I had never read anything they’d written as well as illustrated.  After I’d finished, I can say that their writing is almost as good as their art.

“Daytripper” is the story of several days in the life of Bras de Oliva Domingos, the son of a very famous and successful Brazilian writer and an aspiring writer himself -- when he’s not at his day job writing obituaries.  These days in his life aren’t covered in any particular sequence.  We first see him as an adult at 32 struggling under the weight of having a famous father and the dawning realization that he’ll never realize his own dreams.  Then the story goes back to show him at 21 on an eventful trip with his best friend Jorge.  The next stop showcases a spectacularly bad breakup at 28, followed by his discovery of the love of his life.  They continue on like that while sharing one thing in common -- Bras dies at the end of each day.

Don’t take this to mean that he’s some kind of superhero, or that the book is secretly a supernatural thriller.  It’s just a device that the brothers use to underscore the unpredictability of life.  A freak accident may cause you die at a young age, your promise snuffed out forever.  Or you could wind up at the wrong place at the wrong time on the downside of your life and get shot in the head.  Or, just as you find your voice... well, you get the picture.  It may seem like gimmickry, but Ba and Moon use it to great effect throughout the story, creating some great, tragic episodes of dramatic irony when you know how that issue’s story is going to end, but don’t want to see it happen.  Your expectations are further tweaked in the later issues, and that’s just another example of how well they use this device.

Another great thing about the book is the relatability of its main character, Bras.  I’ve never been to Brazil, and the only Brazilian I’ve really gotten to know is an aspiring skateboarder rather than a writer, but the events he experiences still struck a chord with me.  I could empathize with the way he felt at certain points in his life, even though he lives in another hemisphere and had a completely different upbringing than me.  Even for the parts that I had no personal understanding of, Ba and Moon really sell those moments with the expressiveness of their art to the point where I felt, “Yeah.  That’s what it has to be like.”

Your mileage will undoubtedly vary, but I really liked what the brothers did here.  I know most of the American comics I talk about here are of the superhero variety, but this was a very satisfying change of pace.  Some people might be turned off by its methodical, character-driven narrative, others might have trouble getting past the “dies at the end of each issue” hook.  However, if those things don’t bother you, or you can summon the willingness to accept or look past them, then this collection is something you’ll want to add to your library.

Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne

February 14, 2011

You knew this was coming. With an inevitability matched only by death and taxes, the next step of any major A-list superhero who “dies” is their return. Though Bruce Wayne’s apparent demise was meant to be one of the climactic parts of writer Grant Morrison’s “Final Crisis,” I doubt that any fanboy who read that scene didn’t think something along the lines of, “Okay, so when’s he coming back?” In hindsight, that moment now comes off as just another step in Morrison’s master plan for the character. It allowed him to set up Dick Grayson and Damien Wayne as Gotham’s new protectors, freeing up Bruce for his role in expanding the Batman franchise in “Batman Inc.” However, that still leaves the dirty business of bringing the man back from Darkseid’s Omega Sanction. In “The Return of Bruce Wayne,” Morrison and his artistic collaborators give us an ambitious, thoroughly weird and halfway-thrilling tale that succeeds and stumbles thanks to its writer’s strengths and quirks.

Ultimately, Darkseid’s greatest mistake in “Final Crisis” was thinking that he could be more clever than Batman. Rather than simply vaporizing the man with his Omega Beams, he used them instead to convince his comrades of the man’s death while sending him on a trip through time. The ultimate goal of this exercise was to turn Bruce Wayne into a living weapon to destroy the 21st century, but... you don’t need to have completed grade school to know how that plan is going to turn out.

Sending the title character on a trip through time, however, does make for a great set-up to this series. Each issue takes place in a distinct era, so that means we’re treated to Caveman Batman, Puritan Batman, Pirate Batman, Cowboy Batman, Detective Batman (I know that sounds redundant, but the alternative was Private Dick Batman... no I don’t think it’s an improvement), and Crazy-Morrison-Future Batman. Though he has lost his memory, Bruce still retains his keen intellect and detective instincts so it allows him to be “Batman” in each era while allowing for sufficient dramatic tension as he tries to figure out what’s going on. The best examples of this are when he deduces the true nature of a murder in a Puritan village, and figures his way through the various traps of the Bat-People’s cave.

The first three issues of this series are easily the strongest since they do a good job of setting up the uber-plot of Batman’s return and its inherent danger. They’re also decent stories in their own genres. You get the visceral thrill of seeing Bruce beat down ages-old DC villain Vandal Savage as a caveman, puzzle out the mystery of the devil’s work as a Puritan inquisitor, and turn the tables on the pirate Blackbeard after being press-ganged into searching for pirate treasure. You’ll be thoroughly entertained and impressed at how Morrison has taken such an “out-there” premise as “Batman vs. Time” and grounded it in relatable story concepts. Or maybe you won’t because he’s done this so often before.

Morrison also has the good fortune to be working with some very skilled artists in the first half. It should surprise no one that Frazer Irving and Yannick Paquette’s issues look great as they’ve both done good work with the man before. Irving gives the Puritan and Future eras a spooky aura that heightens their inherent creepiness while Paquette goes to town on the pirate motifs strewn throughout his issue. While this is Chris Sprouse’s first collaboration with the writer anyone who has seen his work before (especially his work with Alan Moore on “Tom Strong”) probably already knew that it was going to turn out great. Let me just affirm that it does, as he nails the brutality and ruggedness of the pre-history era, and I hope that the two team up again in the future.

Now this isn’t to say that the four artists who worked on the last three issues turned in bad work... but now that I’ve said that you can probably guess that there were some issues. Georges Jeanty handled the “Wild West” issue, and while the splash pages look great, a lot of the characters look stiff and seem to lack definition in many panels. However, this issue suffers more form the fact that it’s less of a story in its own right than an exercise in Morrison trying to tie it all into his “Bat-epic.” I’ll admit that it’s impressive in seeing him trace the Wayne family’s significance to the Batman mythos back this far, but it all feels too convoluted in its execution. Especially the parts with the “doctor,” as the implication is that he’s Doctor Hurt from “Batman R.I.P.” However, the problem is that the fact that he’s alive in this era is the LEAST confusing thing about his agenda. Even Batman doing his best “man with no name” and Jonah Hex as a guest star can’t really enliven these proceedings.

The next issue is a step up because not only does Morrison do a much better job of a) telling a proper story and b) tying it into his master plan for the character, it has art from Ryan Sook and Pere Perez. His previous collaboration with the writer aside, Sook was an inspired choice for this issue as his style has always had a strong “noir” influence. Naturally, it makes sense to have him illustrate a story where Bruce is dragged into investigating the circumstances behind his parents death. It doesn’t reinvent the genre, but it’s a good riff on the genre conventions and makes a couple plot points from “Batman R.I.P.” clearer in retrospect. While Sook doesn’t illustrate the whole issue, credit has to be given to Perez for maintaining artistic consistency with his style. The series’ serialization had gone off the rails at this point, so I’m honestly impressed that it looks as good as it does -- split between two artists.

Things come to a head when Bruce arrives at Vanishing Point -- the last outpost before the end of time -- in the final issue, illustrated by Lee Garbett and Perez again. Matching his style to others’ is apparently what got Perez this gig, and while he doesn’t have Garbett’s willingness/ability to draw as many panels as it takes to get Morrison’s concepts across, he does okay here. I won’t go into the specifics of the plot, except to say that Darkseid’s plan for Batman is revealed in full and the entire Justice Leage has to team up to save him. This is also the issue where Morrison’s strengths as a writer really butt heads with his weaknesses. Said weaknessess include his penchant for crazily poetic sci-fi jibber-jabber which is manifested in the scenes at the end of time, and when time starts breaking down towards the end of the issue. It isn’t easy to grasp everything that the writer is going for here, especially when it comes off as being there more for effect than for the purposes of the plot. However, I said earlier that the man knows how to ground these flights of fancy with relatable story concepts and he really nails this at the end. It’s a bold statement he’s making about the character on the next to the last page, something that on the surface seems to run contrary to how a lot of us like to picture the character, but after seeing everything that has come before it has the ring of truth to it.

So the story may be really, almost needlessly, weird in parts and have a story that tries too hard in parts to serve a greater agenda, but it serves up several compelling incarnations of the title character with enough style and intelligence that you’ll WANT to try and understand it all. Now the story itself may be a glorified exercise in moving a character in an established superhero universe from Point A to Point B, but if they were all done with this much ambition, I don’t think we’d mind so much. “Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne” may be just another piece of Morrison’s jigsaw-puzzle of a master plan for the character, but it showcases a greater understanding of how and why the character works than most Batman stories do. I certainly don’t recommend reading this in isolation from the rest of Morrison’s run, but it’s yet another reason why you should start reading it now.