Wildcats Version 3.0: Year Two

March 31, 2011

A while back I talked about how my favorite superteam wasn’t the Justice Leage, or even the X-Men. No, that honor belongs to the 3.0 incarnation of Wildcats, masterminded by writer Joe Casey. Sure, those other teams may put on some good fights, dazzle us with surprising plot twists, and serve as metaphors for all kinds of societal ills, but did they give us the battery that doesn’t die? Did they follow up that with the car that doesn’t need gas? And are they trying to change the system from the inside by setting a moral example of how corporations should act? They didn’t, and they don’t.

I’ll admit that the whole endeavor comes off as a kind of wish fulfillment for those of us who wish corporations actively pursued the best interests of the people, but it’s also something I’ve never seen done before or since in comics. We’ve seen superteams take a proactive role in stamping out global threats, or even taking over a country (see “The Authority” under Ellis, Millar, and Brubaker). But to see them actually work within the system to effect lasting change... that’s usually saved for the realms of alternate universes, “Elseworlds,” or the last act of a story (see the last issue of “Planetary”). Even if it wasn’t carried out to Casey’s intended finish, it’s still thrilling to see his plan unfold in the pages of this volume.

That being said, this volume isn’t all about changing the world to make it a better place. Along with the plans of the Halo Corporation’s CEO, an android who used to specialize in combat and who now trades in commerce, we get to see how his former teammates handle this new world they’ve been thrust into. His friend, the mercenary Grifter, was crippled and is now resorting to... somewhat unusual means to get his former mobility back. You’ve also got Thomas Dolby, a former lawyer now a high-level Halo executive, who is still learning to cope with this strange world he has been thrust into and info broker C.C. Rendozzo who, after having her son rescued, is now finding out that her new home life isn’t what she imagined at all.

Then you’ve got Zealot, a Kheran warror (and Grifter’s ex) now dedicated to wiping out the Coda sisterhood of assassins she founded during her long stay on this planet. It’s the complications that arise during this quest that form the main thread and climax of the book’s second half as Grifter leads a very motley crew in an effort to save the former love of his life from certain death at the hands of her proteges. It’s very well-executed carnage, but it also takes the focus away from Jack’s efforts and that’s a shame. Casey does have a quirky streak and a desire to avoid convention at nearly any cost, as seen in the disturbing relationship Agent Wax cultivates with his superior’s wife, and it always keeps the book consistently entertaining when he’s veering from the perils of marketing a car that doesn’t need gas to an all-out assault on the Coda’s stronghold in Greece.

Five different artists worked on the twelve issues contained in this collection. The first is Dustin Nguyen, who illustrates the first third, and it looks fantastic. He can make just about any scene appear effortlessly stylish, which is a must when you’ve got as many talking heads as this series has. Francisco Ruiz Velasco and Pasqual Ferry handle one-and-a-half and one issue, respectively, and they do a decent job of maintaining stylistic consistency with Nguyen though the end results aren’t quite as pleasing to the eye. The last third is handled by Duncan Rouleau whose slighly exaggerated style gives the series a look more in line with your average superhero comic (which I’m sure sat real well with Casey, given how much effort he invested in dragging these characters away from that paradigm). However, considering the action-oriented nature of the issues he illustrates it ultimately works out pretty well in the end. Finally, Sean Phillps illustrates a flashback to the days of the “2.0” incarnation of the series. The man never does bad work, and that’s still true here.

The thing that always gets me when I think about how this series was cancelled before it ran its course is that the mini-series it was replaced with eventually wound up selling EVEN WORSE than the final issues of this one. It’s the very definition of adding insult to injury. Still, it’s a compelling story that’s being told here even with the action-movie detour in the second half. I’d still like to see this idea of having superheroes working within the system, bringing fantastic technology to the masses, tackled again someday. Either by Casey or some other writer looking to do something different with the superhero genre. I won’t hold my breath, but at least I have “Wildcats Version 3.0” to fall back on.

Northwest Passage vol. 1

March 30, 2011

The year is 1755.  The setting is Rupert’s Land in Canada.  The place is Fort Newcastle, the home of legendary explorer Charles Lord, his son, and the many men who work under them and seek to tame the wilds in the interest of the King.  Lord is set to go back to England soon, but he finds himself yearning for the old days when he and his companions explored the countryside and sought the fabled “Northwest Passage” to India.  Naturally, he gets his wish in the most painful way possible for him, but in a way that makes for a thrilling, manly adventure for the rest of us.  Writer/artist Scott Chantler serves up an adventure that may seem familiar in its characters and direction, but is executed with such confidence and style that it winds up feeling fresh again.

Now I can see how some people might be turned off by Chantler’s style, which has a very cartoonish look to it.  However, if you’ve seen Steve Rolston’s work on “Queen and Country” (and if you haven’t, you should) then you know that this kind of approach can perfectly communicate drama without losing any of its intensity.  Plus it makes the story feel like Michael Mann’s “The Last of the Mohicans” by way of Jeff Smith, and that’s a good thing.

If I have any complaints, it’s that while this is the “first volume” there’s no indication when or if we’ll ever see any more of this series.  The three volumes that are collected here hail from 2005-2006 and while this edition was published last year, I have yet to hear if there will ever be more.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as the story here is very self contained, but it ends in a way that clearly indicates that Chantler has more of this story to tell.  Based on what we have here, I hope we get to see it someday.

Boogeyman

March 29, 2011

“Groo” by artist Sergio Aragones and writer Mark Evanier is probably one of the greatest one-note premises of all time. In my opinion, of course. While it’s a “Conan” parody on the surface, with its dumber-than-dumb barbarian protagonist causing untold destruction wherever he goes, the concept has also allowed its creators to slip in clever moral lessons or tackle the ills of society. These are always done with a laugh, and that usually mitigates the preachiness of their message -- though it hasn’t been as effective of late.

With “Boogeyman” they take a step away from their usual joke-oriented approach, and the shift isn’t entirely successful. We’re told tales of a ruthless dictator, an uncaring logger, an unsuccessful magician, a boy scout and more and shown how they react to their worst fears. The problem is that these stories aren’t very scary or funny. They’re also fairly predictable as each has a twist that you’ll be able to spot before they’re over. Aragones can do serious stories (check out his issue of “Solo” from DC Comics for proof, and to see how he killed Marty Feldman), but it’s not clear what the intended tone was for this series. The most interesting part of this collection is Evanier’s afterword where he talks about how “Boogeyman” came together through a misconception and the tightest of deadlines. It’s a case where reading about the making of a comic is more interesting than the finished product.

I Am Legion

March 27, 2011

The Nazis’ fascination with the occult is a storytelling well that will never run dry.  Here, we have them working with the source of an ancient power which was the basis for the Dracula mythos in order to gain the edge they need in WWII.  Writer Fabien Nury crafts an intricate tale of espionage that rewards close reading and re-reading as British Intelligence agents and resistance fighters try to figure out and stop the threat before it’s too late.  Though the overall story is good, its main flaws lie in the fact that the characters themselves come off as mere ciphers rather than real people (sadly, this seems to be a common trend in most graphic novels from Europe).  It’s further exacerbated by the dialogue which is best described as “functional”-- either Nury isn’t that good of a wordsmith, or whatever skill he had didn’t survive the translation.

However, these flaws are mitigated by some truly fantastic art from John Cassaday.  His artistic skills are as complete a package as they come.  It’s at once absorbing to just take in the detail he gives to his characters and their environments, but he also has a superb command of body language and gives the characters a measure of emotional depth that the writing failed to convey.  The man can make just about any scene of talking heads look interesting... which is what he has to do for a lot of this volume.  Though there are a few cool scenes of action (supernatural and otherwise), there’s nothing here quite as fantastic as his work in “Planetary” and “Astonishing X-Men.”  He still manages to elevate the material, and that’s an achievement in itself.

Gantz vol. 16

March 26, 2011

Now here’s a new volume that I’ve been anticipating! After the previous installment reminded me how good this series can be (when I don’t know what’s going to happen next), the waiting for this one actually started to bother me. Which is something that hadn’t happened yet during Dark Horse’s rollout of the series. Can it keep its momentum going? Good question...

Vol. 16 gets right back into the action with the group having fractured in two based on those who want to kill Kurono’s girlfriend Tae, based on Gantz’s orders, and those who want to look for another way. The resolution of the fight takes up the first half of the book and it’s an incredibly tense, thrilling experience. While the odds are clearly against Kei and his friends, he proves to be incredibly resourceful under pressure and gives as good as he gets. Seeing the tide of the battle shift back and forth in this fashion makes for great drama as it’s never clear who is going to win until the very end. And that’s how it should be.

Afterwards, we’re witness to something that borders on a “retcon” of the established rules of the series. We’ve known for a while that getting to 100 points in the game is supposed to earn you freedom, but Izumi reveals that there’s actually a menu of options once you get to that level. You can choose to leave and have your memory of the events wiped, get access to better weapons, or have a person in Gantz’s memory resurrected. Guess which option Kei will be going for?

While this revelation isn’t entirely implausible, it does have one major obstacle in its path. Namely, if your memory is wiped after gaining freedom, how does Izumi remember any of this? I like the motivation it gives Kei, but my enthusiasm is tempered by the nature of its reveal.

Same goes for the leadup to the next battle in the last two chapters of the book. I’m not complaining about how the little kid with the awful parents dies badly, is recruited by Gantz, and becomes attached to the big, burly, martial-arts enthusiast because he looks like a sentai hero. This is “Gantz” after all and it doesn’t get sentimental unless there’s some kind of violent death or dismemberment involved. There’s a particular scene between Kei and Tae that illustrates that in this volume -- but it’s VERY spoiler-filled.

No, what I’m worried about is how the schism that developed between Izumi and Kei’s groups in the previous battle isn’t addressed at all in these chapters. Even if it was Gantz that gave the objective, I don’t see these two ever being able to work together, or even be in the same room without a fight breaking out. However, that seems to be what’s happening here. So I’m hoping that’s addressed in the next volume as they take on the “Demon Alien.” His catchphrase is, “Hey baby.” It should be awesome.

I’m still anticipating vol. 17, but it’s the kind of anticipation that comes when you’re worried that a series might be about to “ jump the shark.” Mangaka Hiroya Oku has proved that he’s a crafty and smart storyteller, and the best case scenario is that my concerns will either be addressed or steamrollered over once the battle kicks into high gear. If they’re not... well, I don’t want to think about that yet. Time for some “Dragon Age II” instead.

Comic Picks #77: “Bokurano: Ours”

March 23, 2011

When bad things involving giant mecha happen to junior high kids who (mostly) don't deserve it.

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Green Lantern Corps: Recharge

March 22, 2011

So when I reviewed the first volume of “Green Lantern Corps” last week, it had slipped my mind that it wasn’t actually the “first volume.” Like a lot of ongoing series, it was preceded by a mini-series to see if there was an audience for it. “Recharge” does a good job of setting things up for the subsequent ongoing; though, as you might have guessed from the fact that I was able to read the first volume without feeling too lost, it’s hardly an essential read.

With the Guardians, the floating blue space midgets behind the Green Lanterns, now back in the DC Universe, the hard work of rebuilding the GLC has begun. Fortunately, they have a few experienced lanterns in the form of Kyle Rayner, Guy Gardner, and Kilowog to help lead the charge. Before you can say, “It’s a trap!” they and the rookies find themselves involved in a galaxy-wide plot by the nefarious Spider Guild to destroy the GLC before it has a chance to re-establish itself.

This series was written by both Geoff Johns and Dave Gibbons, two men who really know their way around mainstream superhero fare, and it reads like a big, flashy summer blockbuster as a result. We’re introduced to the various members of the cast, the threat is built up, then revealed, and all the heroes come together in a stunning display to save the galaxy. It’s not very original, but it hits all the right notes and comes off as a satisfying cosmic action story in the end.

Reading this story after the proper first volume of the series, I was pleased to find out a little more about the characters featured there. It’s established that Vath, the Rannian with a temper, was selected for Lantern duty in the middle of a war and tried to kill his attackers with the ring before he was whisked off. He also didn’t get along with his eventual partner Isamot who was plucked from death row by his ring. Turns out that the Thanagarian lizard man killed his commanding officer who wanted to surrender to the enemy. Then you’ve got Soranik Natu, “Ms. Pity Party” in the subsequent volume, who takes the most interesting route as a Lantern since after she’s selected by the ring in the middle of surgery (saving the patient’s life in the proces) she demands to leave. Turns out that Sinestro’s reign on her home planet when he was a Lantern has made the ring a symbol of fear and oppression. Whould’a thunk? The background stories offered here don’t really give me a reason to change my assessment of the characters being fairly one-dimensional, but the additional information gives me hope that they’ll get another dimension eventually.

Art is provided by Patrick Gleason here, and while his work isn’t as detailed or ornate as it was in “To Be A Lantern,” he still displays a great versatility in handling character expressions and the various weird aliens creatures and surroundings that populate this collection. In fact, he appears to be strongly influence by current “Green Lantern” artist Doug Mahnke here as a lot of the characters and aliens bear a more than passing resemblance to his style. I’m not complaining, as Mahnke is a great artist and his talent for drawing strange, over-the-top creations is one that more artists could stand to imitate.

In the end, the book is as entertaining as a good popcorn flick and almost as forgettable due to its predictability and lack of originality. If you’re like me and have jumped on the “Green Lantern” bandwagon with the Geoff Johns era, then you’ll be entertained by this too. Sure, there have been better spin-offs, but this one is pretty good for what it is.

Echo vol. 2: Atomic Dreams

March 21, 2011

Throughout this volume, I could hear the sound of the plot thickening.  Julie hides out, gets to know Dillon better, finds more out about her suit’s abilities, and comes face to face with the homeless guy who has part of it grafted onto his hand.  On the opposing side, Ivy successfully investigates Julie’s history and seems to genuinely want to bring the girl in via the safest way possible.  She also finds out that her employers haven’t been totally honest with her, and it should be interesting to see how that develops over subsequent volumes.

Overall, we get some good character development and hints about the story’s overall direction.  The worst thing that I can say about what I read here is that it didn’t take things to the next level.  I’m still interested in seeing what happens next, but as the subsequent volumes aren’t readily available on Amazon, I feel that I can wait until I encounter them on sale somewhere or at Comic-Con in July.  It’s recommended, but “Echo” isn’t something I’m truly passionate about.  Yet.

Freakangels vol. 5

March 20, 2011

The previous volume left off on a great cliffhanger with Freakangel Luke getting up and complaining to the group’s medical specialist about how his head was killing him. This was after he had been shot in the chest with a shotgun and then in his head to make sure that he was dead. If you’re new to this series, then don’t worry -- he deserved it. This volume kicks off with a bravura sequence of Luke explaining everything, with a giant hole in his head. It could’ve been expository overkill, but not only is it punctuated with some fascinating insights about the abilities of the title characters it’s also peppered with moments of hilarity which pre-emptively deflate any pretentiousness on the part of the writer, the ubiquitous Warren Ellis.

From there, the cast continues to puzzle out the mysteries and limits of the Freakangels package, while preparing themselves for... something. Mark, the exiled and now returned member of their group, was apparently seeding Whitechapel with pawns that he could control so he could take over the encampment because something big was coming for him. It’s an interesting development since it gives the series a new focus, even if it’s promptly put on hold while the kids find new ways to play with their mental toys.

The best part about this volume, though, was how Ellis turned the book’s direction around in a believable way. At the end of vol. 4, we were faced with the prospect of the group breaking up as everyone seemed to be pulling in their own direction as a result of the multiple threats and betrayals in their midst. Here, with the nature of the “upgrade” they’re faced with, Ellis finds something bigger for the clan to dedicate themselves to and subsequently rally around that.

If I have a complaint (aside from the fact that the big threat is announced then put on hold), it’s that we’ve seen so little of the world outside of Whitechapel over the course of these five volumes. I have no idea how far or how long Ellis is going to continue this story for, but with characters whose powers resonate on a global level, it feels like he’s not tapping into the book’s full potential yet. Still, this collection is another strong entry in the series. Artist Paul Duffield also deserves lots of credit for giving us such expressive characters and landscapes (ruined city, psychedelic, and otherwise) that make following their monologues a fun rather than a chore. So again, if you’re not reading this then you’re missing out on Ellis’ most substantial and satisfying post-“Transmetropolitan,” post-“Planetary” work and a good comic in general.

EDEN LIVES!

March 18, 2011

I was looking through the Dark Horse solicitations for June last night, and I saw something that I had pretty much given up hope of ever seeing.  According to the solicitations, vol. 13 of “Eden:  It’s an Endless World!” will be arriving in August.  Longtime listeners and readers will recall that I expressed some skepticism that we’d ever see this series brought back, and I am very glad that Dark Horse is making an effort to publish the series to completion.

Now, before my cynicism kicks in, I want to urge you all to go out and either pre-order this now or buy it when it comes out.  If you haven’t even read a volume:  START NOW!  This is hands-down one of the smartest, most engrossing, and action-packed science fiction manga ever published stateside and it will be a damn shame if we don’t get to see how it ends.  I would advise you to hurry since my cursory checks of Amazon, The Right Stuf and Things From Another World indicate that the series is starting to become scarce.  Hopefully this will be rectified in the coming months, because what’s the point in trying to relaunch a series if it isn’t all available?

With that prospect, some might say “Why bother?” since this is only one volume and Dark Horse hasn’t committed to publishing the remaining five.  Let me put it to you this way:  If we buy this volume, then there’s at least a chance that they’ll publish the rest.  If we don’t, then I can assure you that we’ll never see them.  Even if we don’t get more, I can at least stop being bitter about that until August.  For that at least, I’m grateful.