Comic Picks By The Glick
The Complete Bad Company (part two)

The Complete Bad Company (part two)

April 13, 2011

While Peter Milligan is perfectly capable of working within the constraints of mainstream comics (read:  ones featuring Marvel and DC superheroes), they usually don’t allow him to go into the full-bore weirdness and surrealism that became a hallmark of his Vertigo work.  I mention this because that’s the kind of weirdness you get with “Kano,” which spotlights the Frankenstein-esque leader from “Bad Company.”  After the success of that series and his DC work, you can see that he had more freedom to write this series as it deviates quite a bit from the “future war” premise and setting of the original series.  In fact, the story comes off as a deliberate attempt to subvert every expectation you’d have for a follow-up featuring this character.

With Danny Franks written out after the conclusion of “The Krool Heart,” we find Kano having taken up residence on a rural planet after putting the war behind him.  We also find out that not only is he married with a child, but also a somewhat respected member of the community.  It’s entirely obvious that this isn’t going to last, and things go downhill from the start of the story with the murder of a young girl, rumors of strange things in the woods, and the reappearance of formerly deceased members of Bad Company.  Then things get weird.

We find out that every day at mid-day, time runs backwards for an hour.  The planet conjures up ghosts of its inhabitants loved ones.  Then Kano starts thinking that he has become a ghost himself at one point.  It’s all very strange, but except for the “time running backwards” bit, it actually does make sense in the end.  Still, it feels like a very subdued craziness compared to the full-on rush of the original stories.  The most obvious change is with Kano himself, who comes off like a wounded veteran than the battle-crazed leader he was before.

This is a logical transition, yet I can’t help but think it came off like a slap in the face to fans of the original series.  Here’s one of its original characters, characterized by his insanity and brutality turned into one of the walking wounded who tries to talk his way out of situations rather than fight them out.  Add that to the psychological approach this story takes, and you’ve got one of those sequels whose best hope is to “look better in retrospect.”

While I don’t have that problem, I’d like to imagine that’s what fans of the original stories would think after reading this one here.  The deliberateness with which Milligan tries to subvert expectations here is fairly obvious, but it does make for an interesting story of a former killer trying to put his life back together again.  Then you’ve got the aforementioned weirdness which also works because it does have a purpose which ties in to the larger story (except for the time-traveling-backwards bit).  Granted, the story’s reception is all speculation on my part, but the point is that this is a sequel that is determined to not tread the same path as its predecessor.  While the end result may look a bit strange and misshapen, it’s all the more interesting for being its own beast.

The last two stories in the book, “Down Among the Dead” (a one-shot) and “Bad Company 2002,” do represent a return to the “future war” shenanigans of the original stories.  They’re even in black and white after “Kano’s” excursion in full-color.  The story itself even has Kano going back to the Krool Heart with a group of mercenaries that would fit right in with Bad Company to undo what was done to Danny Franks.

If it seems odd that Milligan is deliberately re-treading old ground here, don’t be worried.  The “2002” story is characterized by a self-awareness on the opening pages which lets you know that the author is very much aware of the perils of re-visiting your older work.  It’s that self-awareness which gives this story an edge, as some might be happy just to have the “old” Kano back, more discerning readers will be trying to pick up on the way Milligan treats the whole story as an exercise in dissecting such re-visitation.  The final page drives this home as we see Kano, suspended in time, in a way that doesn’t just sum up how he has spent most of this series, but also what Milligan expects his audience wanted to see him be all this time.

This collection ends on an interesting note, with the original “B.A.D. Company” proto-story from “Judge Dredd” co-creators John Wagner and Carlos Ezquerra.  It’s not a bad story, but if you’re familiar with their work from “Dredd” you won’t be surprised by what you see here.  If nothing else, it’ll make you appreciate the approach that Milligan took to the concept here.  What could’ve been just another future war story wound up being something much more bizzare, unconventional and ultimately memorable.  Fans of Milligan should find picking this up to be a real no-brainer.  For everyone else, it may be more difficult to digest, but it’s a great survey of the evolution of his style and certainly something that you won’t be able to easily forget.

The Complete Bad Company (part one)

The Complete Bad Company (part one)

April 12, 2011

If I told you that this book was very “Milligan-esque” would that make you any more likely to pick it up? Or, would you have any idea who I was referring to? Writer Peter Milligan came onto the American comic book scene around the same time as Grant Morrison and Garth Ennis and in much the same way -- headhunted across the pond from the wilds of “2000 A.D.” He has never earned the same acclaim or following as his contemporaries, mainly because for every series he does that succeeds (“Shade the Changing Man,” “X-Force/X-Statix”) there are two that either don’t quite click (his run on “X-Men,” “Greek Street”) or just outright bomb (“The Programme,” “Infinity Inc.”). “Bad Company,” however, shows him at the beginning of his writing career and the early stories collected here are good examples (well, two-thirds of them, anyway) of why DC Comics saw fit to put him to work writing for them.

The setting for “Bad Company” isn’t too different from what you’ll usually find in “2000 A.D.” It’s the future. Humanity is at war against an evil alien race. They’re known as the Krool, and they’re as mean as they are ugly. We’re losing, but there’s this group of morally-ambiguous (super)soldiers here to help us turn the tide. The title group has only eight core members when they’re introduced, but it’s clear that we’re meant to think of them as the “dirtiest dozen.” It’s into this group that Danny Franks, an ordinary soldier who likes to keep a diary, is press-ganged into and so he serves as our point-of-view character through most of the original stories.

In the interests of full disclosure, I stopped reading this collection for a while during the time I burned through most of the stuff I read and reviewed here over the last two weeks (including the generally very good first volume of Carla Speed McNeil’s “Finder Library”). That’s because the first arc is very action-oriented and feels very heavy-handed in terms of execution. It’s very much the work of a writer trying to find his voice, but ultimately succumbing to the “house style.” This is also what happened to Milligan on “X-men.”

However, like his run on that series, there are plenty of moments that make the endeavor at least readable. From weirdness like the “Golgotha Plains” where the teams worst fears are laid out before them, Flytrap’s arm that takes after his name, literal “war zombies,” and the revelation behind what’s in team leader Kano’s black box. You’ve also got Danny’s evolution from fresh-faced grunt to battle-hardened veteran over the course of this arc that’s slow and gradual enough to feel believable and ultimately adds weight to what Milligan talked about in his introduction. For all the violence and weirdness, the series is ultimately about how the basic emotions and situations in war remain the same and Danny’s journey is a good example of that.

It’s a nice sentiment, but the series doesn’t get really good until the second arc, “The Bewilderness.” Here, Milligan starts to come into his own as the quirkiness, surrealism, and non-sequiter-filled dialogue steps up to the forefront. There’s still plenty of action, but it’s gleefully upstaged by the new supporting cast which includes a devious shapeshifter, an elite into body-modification, a pain-crazed psychopath, and a woman who can make things explode at will. This is in addition to the survivors from the previous arc, including Danny who is now given to bizzaro monologues about dirt, how messiahs never return, and what it means to be a leader.

The whole endeavor here feels more accomplished in every regard and that carries over to the final arc of the original series, “The Krool Heart.” Our heroes set out for the title place in the hopes of ending the war against the Krool menace, only to find that their secrets might destroy them from within first. It sounds bad for them, but the end result is surprising and disturbing in a way that makes you go “Cool” instead of, say, never wanting to read the book again.

While I feel this series is more representative of the evolution of Milligan than anything else, it’s also a great showcase for artist Brett Ewins. Most of this collection is in black and white, and it really shows off the detail that he brings to the page. While his style handles ostensibly “normal” humans like Danny just fine, there’s also some exaggeration inherent in it which makes Kano, the Krool, and the various psychedelic experiences the team has look invitingly surreal. Steve Dillon is also listed as an artist, but his involvement here is limited to inking one of the shorts. Don’t expect to see his pencils on display -- this is Ewins’ show and it’s a great one.

“The Krool Heart” was the last “Bad Company” story for several years, save for an annual that’s also collected here. The story ended in a pretty definite conclusion, so you’d be forgiven for wondering how or even why Milligan would want to come back to this story and these characters. He did it by focusing on one person in particular, and the end result is actually better than what I was expecting. Come back tomorrow for my thoughts on the book’s second half.

Morning Glories vol. 1:  For a Better Future

Morning Glories vol. 1: For a Better Future

April 11, 2011

It has been remarked elsewhere that this new hit series from Image, by writer Nick Spencer and artist Joe Eisma, owes a storytelling debt to “Lost.”  While that series focused on a group of castaways stranded on an island, and this one introduces us to a group of new students at the Morning Glory Academy the selling point for both is how the mysteries at their core are unraveled.  Admittedly, “Morning Glories” requires more suspension of disbelief  than the former because its protagonists have to contend with their parents not remembering who they are, an intangible killer roaming the halls, a mysterious spinning cylindrical device on campus, and the attempts by the teachers and staff to bring them in line -- usually involving life-threatening situations.

At this point, I’m willing to suspend my disbelief because Spencer does a good job of making this world intentionally surreal which leads me to believe that he does have a plan to sort out all this craziness.  He also does a good job making the teenage protagonists likeable and interesting as they each have distinct connections to the mystery at the Academy.  The man also knows not to take things too seriously as there are some genuinely funny moments in the book that poke fun at the setup and the conventions of the genre.

Eisma also does a “good enough” job with the characters and surroundings.  The main problem with his art is that character expression and body language is a big part of the visual experience here, and his characters have an occasionally stiff appearances and odd facial expressions.  He does get better at these things as the volume goes on so I’m optimistic that subsequent volumes will be a more effective showcase for his work.

Ultimately, the first volume of a series like this succeeds or fails on the basis of whether or not you give a damn about the mystery -- and start to theorize about it.  “Morning Glories” succeeds in both respects as I am curious about the Academy’s ultimate purpose and am convinced that time travel has to be a part of it.  I’m willing to bet that this volume’s subtitle is directly relevant to the series’ ultimate goals, and it would also explain the “ends justify the means” approach to teaching on display here.  The teacher are just trying to toughen the kids up to make the hard choices required of them in the future.  Hopefully it won’t fall into the trap “Lost” did where it put its characters above its mysteries instead of developing them hand in hand.  It’s a good start, and I look forward to seeing how it unfolds.

Skullkickers vol. 1:  1000 Opas and a Dead Body

Skullkickers vol. 1: 1000 Opas and a Dead Body

April 8, 2011

Image has been having a run of sleeper hits over the past year or so with titles like this, “Morning Glories,” “Carbon Gray,” “Nonplayer,” and more getting big buzz and selling out upon their release.  “Skullkickers” arrived at the start of this trend and you have to appreciate the idea behind it.  Imagine a buddy comedy set in a fantasy “Dungeons and Dragons” style world with the tone of “Army of Darkness.”  In this volume, our two nameless heroes -- identified only as the “dwarf” and “big guy” at the back of the book -- strike a deal to rescue the corpse of a nobleman from a necromancer and his henchmen.  Violence ensues as the duo track the thieves across the land, and (naturally) wind up unleashing a much bigger and nastier magical threat upon the countryside.

It’s hard not to like a comic that opens with the lines, “Yeeesh!  Who ever heard of a fat werewolf?”  But I felt a little disappointed in the end that I only “liked” this collection.  Writer Jim Zub has a flair for the absurd, and that results in some great moments such as how the protagonists torture information out of a thug by basting him, the clever sound effects like “imminent violence,” and the subtitles for the face-smashed necromancer.  The problem is that the dwarf and the big guy have about as much depth and character as their names imply.  Their single-mindedness can be amusing for a while, but they’re ultimately just a pair of ciphers.

The story itself isn’t that interesting either, but I can accept the fact that it’s just a device that allows Zub to deliver on the absurdity.  However, the art from Edwin Huang (with Chris Stevens on the bonus stories) is very flashy, with an appealing animation-esque look to it, and it’s a perfect fit for the over-the-top tone of the book.  I did like this book, but I feel that it has the potential for greater heights of ridiculousness and comedy.  I’ll be looking forward to the next volume to see if Zub and Huang can deliver on that.

Comic Picks #78:  “Batman:  Time and the Batman”

Comic Picks #78: “Batman: Time and the Batman”

April 6, 2011

Of continuity patching, anniversaries, ambition and fill-ins.

Neon Genesis Evangelion:  Campus Apocalypse vol. 3

Neon Genesis Evangelion: Campus Apocalypse vol. 3

April 6, 2011

Well, this third volume doesn’t make me want to stop reading the series entirely, but it doesn’t give me much hope for its conclusion either. We find out more about the Angels’ plans to spread their influence throughout the NERV Academy by way of a sinister computer game, but the overall plot never really becomes interesting or picks up any momentum. Personally, I wish they had gone with an “Angel of the Week” monster-hunting premise and built up an arc around that. It may not be the most original of premises (not that originality wants anything to do with this series), but it would’ve given the proceedings more pep.

Even the central gimmick of seeing the “Evangelion” cast in new situations has worn thin with this volume. Either they’ve fallen back into familiar roles, as is the case with the core cast, or are just on hand to serve as window dressing. Then there’s the unfortunate case of Asuka who has her assertiveness and arrogance turned up to “Queen Bitch of the Frozen Waste” levels here. It’s so bad that when we get to the point where she’s meant to thaw after Shinji saves her, it just doesn’t seem believable at all. After what I’ve read here, I’m glad that this series is ending with the next volume. I doubt it’ll be good enough to redeem the whole affair, but at least it’ll fit better on my shelves.

Slam Dunk vol. 15

Slam Dunk vol. 15

April 5, 2011

Yes, it’s still awesome. But...

(spoilers after the break)

Most Shonen Jump titles have always struck me as very calculated affairs. That’s “calculated” in the sense that you get the feeling that every plot twist, every shocking character moment, every last minute reversal occurs in a fashion to elicit the most emotional response possible from the reader. As the “Shonen Jump” line of manga are the most popular comics in the world, it’s proof that when this approach works, it’s the stuff of legend. As this title has consistently shows. When it doesn’t... Well, there’s a reason I’m no longer reading “Bleach.”

What prompted this line of thought was the resolution of the Shohoku/Kainan match in this volume. Now you’d expect that while Shohoku would certainly struggle to defeat their opponents in the tournament, they were going to win every match on their way to the inevitable rematch with Uozumi. That doesn’t happen as after a brutal, brutal struggle to tie the match, their fate is decided when with seven seconds on the clock Sakuragi accidentally passes the ball to a member of the opposing team.

It’s a crushing blow to the budding genius, but that move and Shohoku’s loss as a whole strike me as mangaka Takehiko Inoue finding a way to add even more tension and drama to the subsequent matches. By having the team lose in the ONLY match they could, he has shown that they’re not invincible and now have something to haunt/motivate them in future matches. I’m sure Inoue will be playing it both ways. There’s also the implication that they could lose one of their upcoming matches, but I sincerely doubt that this became one of the biggest-selling Jump titles of all time because Sakuragi and co. DIDN’T win the championship.

In any event, the fact that all this calculation works to the series’ advantage is a testament to Inoue’s skill as a storyteller. While he doesn’t skimp on the detail, he still manages to wring every bit of drama possible from the characters on display. As we start off this volume, their exhaustion is palpable on both sides as seen through the copious amounts of sweat being produced, and each individual’s body language. Such attention to detail draws you in, and makes their sudden bursts of strength and energy all the more exciting (see, there’s that calculation again).

So while this isn’t capital “A” art, “Slam Dunk” is a consistent showcase of how to tell a decidedly mainstream story in a thrilling manner. Even if you can’t get into it yourself, you’ll still be able to see why it has sold over a 100 million over the course of its publication.

The Unwritten vol. 3:  Dead Man’s Knock

The Unwritten vol. 3: Dead Man’s Knock

April 2, 2011

Three volumes in and this series keeps getting better.  While vol. 3 provides more answers and clarification to Tom Taylor’s quest to find the truth about his father and himself that’s not even my favorite part about it.  What is, is how writer Mike Carey shows that this battle is going to be a struggle on both sides.  Though the cabal that seeks to control all stories may have history, a disturbingly all-encompassing information network, and the relentless killer known as Pullman on their side, the ingenuity that Tom and his father display in disrupting their plans is downright ingenious.  It’s a series that demands a lot from its reader to make sense of everything, but the satisfaction it offers is worth it.

Case in point being the “Choose Your Own Adventure” story detailing the secret origin of Lizzie Hexam collected here.  I’d heard that Carey had asked for the issue to be double-sized to properly tell the tale, but since that obviously fell through he came up with an ingenious solution:  present the issue in a horizontal “widescreen” format and put two story pages on each page instead of one.  The format problem is solved, and the gimmick actually made me more involved in its telling.  However, while Carey does a good job of capturing the feel and progression of the source material, it’s only a proper “Choose Your Own Adventure” for the first half.  Once Tom and Savoy show up, you’re just following the story pages out of sequence.  It’s still a good story, and credit must be given to regular series artist Peter Gross (with his “Lucifer” partner Ryan Kelly on finishes) for maintaining the book’s high artistic standards in such an unorthodox project.

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