Normal service will resume tomorrow…

May 31, 2011

In case anyone was wondering, I left for Fanime Con on Friday and returned late today.  Hands-down my favorite con to visit, it was still slightly disappointing compared to previous cons.  That's what happens when three of the regular Guests of Honor I enjoy seeing (Carl Horn, Reuben Landon and Ryan Gavigan) don't show up, physical copies of the schedule were limited to the info desks, and the subtitles were either not present or had the timing wrong in two of the live-action films I saw.  However, Ric Meyers was back with his Kung-Fu Superhero Extravaganza (and assorted panels), the "Create That Hentai" panel was still hilarious, my AMV experience was better than in years past, the Masquerade featured an awesome "Portal" skit (amongst others), and Tsui Hark's "Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame" was very cool.

Overall, it still added up to an experience that felt like I arrived on Friday, blinked, and then found myself getting ready to leave today.  Time goes that fast when you're having fun at Fanime.  I also picked up some manga and read through a few other comics that arrived last week.  Expect to see reviews of those over the next few days.

Incorruptible vol. 1

May 27, 2011

The flip side and sister title to “Irredeemable,” as we’re introduced to Max Damage -- a supervillain who decides to go straight once the Plutonian goes bad.  It’s a logical development for this world and writer Mark Waid was right to spin it off into its own title.  Trying to do this as a subplot in “Irredeemable” would’ve just cluttered things up and distracted from the good stuff already happening there.  Though the overall concept isn’t new, and the volume’s main story -- about Max tracking down a supervillain with a possible way off Earth -- isn’t anything to write home about, it’s the details that make me interested in seeing where this goes.

Just because Max Damage has decided to go straight doesn’t mean that everyone else has forgotten about his past.  The cops don’t trust him and he has to kidnap a police lieutenant to get some inside help in that regard.  It’s also interesting to observe Max’s single-mindedness about his reform, as not only does he wind up burning all of the blood money he has acquired in his criminal pursuits, but he won’t even use stolen cars or hideouts anymore.  Waid is clearly having fun subverting genre cliches here and artist Jean Diaz doesn’t do a half-bad job on the art.  It’s not at the level “Irredeemable” is right now, but it certainly has potential.

Batman: Streets of Gotham vol. 1 — Hush Money

May 26, 2011

And now on to something that I waited to pick up in softcover.

While I was ultimately disappointed with writer Paul Dini's "Heart of Hush," there's no denying that the man knows how to tell a good Batman story.  That's why I was looking forward to this collection -- after it came out in softcover -- to see if he could get back on track.  "Hush Money" isn't quite a full return to form, but it shows the writer to be perfectly capable of adapting to the new Dick/Damian status quo, and finding an interesting role for the villain Hush in this new era.

The end of "Heart of Hush" left the titular character flat broke after his fortune was stolen by Catwoman and nothing to his name except his new face.  That of Bruce Wayne's.  Hush soon figures out that he doesn't need to think big when there are Wayne enterprises all over the world to be looted.  Though this eventually leads him back into the hands of Catwoman, and then a private cell atop of Wayne Tower.  Naturally, this doesn't hold him for long and after the city is thrown into chaos through the actions of the Firefly, Hush makes his boldest move yet -- to assume the public persona of Bruce Wayne and destroy his financial resources.  All through the nefarious means of philanthropy!

While Hush has always struck me as a forced attempt to create an A-list "Evil Batman" character, I like what Dini has done with him.  Giving Bruce an evil doppleganger, hellbent on destroying his life, is a nice setup for a recurring Bat-villain.  The way he's dealt with in this volume is also clever as our heroes turn his "hide in plain sight" strategy against him.

Dini also shows himself to have a good handle on writing Dick as Batman and particularly Damian as Robin.  The latter's arrogance and sense of superiority come off more amusing than annoying here.  He also shows that this setup allows for telling good, straightforward "Batman" stories as this dynamic duo matches wits with not only Hush and the Firefly, but the combined forces of Black Mask and Zsasz as well.

We're also introduced to a character who feels like an idea that Dini has been waiting to use since the end of "The Animated Series," in The Broker.  If you've ever wondered how the criminals in Gotham find just the right place to use as a base of operations, it's because this guy found it first and sold it to them.  Admittedly, he's more of an interesting concept than a proper character as I can't really see what else can be done with his character beyond the "questioning of his actions" done here, but it's still a nice addition to the mythos.

Art is from Dustin Nguyen, and while the man deserves better than working on a B-list Bat-title like this, seeing his name means that I don't have to worry about whether or not the book is going to look good.  And yes, this really is just a B-list Bat-title, as for all the skill that's displayed in rendering these stories, there's nothing here that stands out as truly memorable.  Morrison's shadow looms large over this collection, to be frank.  So do I regret not buying this in hardcover?  Not at all.  Am I happy with buying this in softcover?  Pretty much.

Batman & Robin vol. 3: Batman & Robin Must Die!

May 25, 2011

And while we’re on the subject of collections worthy of their hardcover editions...

“Batman & Robin Must Die” functions as both an ending and beginning in Grant Morrison’s run with the character(s).  As the business with Dr. Hurt and the Black Glove is wrapped up, the stage is set for the worldwide franchising of the character in “Batman, Inc.”  Though Morrison’s run has been fractured and probably a bit too weird for its own good at times, this is still an immensely satisfying volume as threads from his run come together in ways that both conform to and defy expectation.

The prospect of new Batman Dick Grayson and new Robin Damian Wayne taking on the Joker was something that was fully set up with the previous volume’s reveal that the Clown Prince of Crime had been masquerading as Oberon Sexton.  However, that conflict doesn’t take the form that one would expect as the Joker is out to get the Black Glove and wants to team up with the new Batman and Robin to do it.  Damian has his own ideas about such an endeavor (and they involve a crowbar), but as Dick and Commissioner Gordon plan their attack, Dr. Hurt’s plan unfolds as chaos grips the streets of Gotham once Professor Pyg’s chemicals are unleashed on the populace.

Morrison unleashes this assault in forms both high-concept (Pyg’s viral addictions that you can catch) and inspired.  The inspiration coming from Damian’s crowbar negotiations with the Joker (after all, that’s how he did in Jason Todd), the latter’s use of a banana peel to defeat the villain, and Bruce Wayne’s return at exactly the point you’d expect him to.  That part may be entirely predictable, but it’s set up and placed so well that you wouldn’t want him to return anywhere else.

Though I’m impressed that everything comes together as well as it does here, the disjointed nature of Morrison’s run means that there are some things that don’t come together as well as they should.  Dr. Hurt’s masquerade as Thomas Wayne feels particularly underdeveloped.  We never even find out what his plan to “save” Gotham was.  Still, Morrison shows us that he did have a plan for this throughout his run and for all of his poetic excess that makes it all worthwhile.

While the majority of this volume’s art comes from the always excellent Frazer Irving, giving Gotham’s dark shadows a fresh sheen to them, the fourth issue features a mash-up between Irving, Cameron Stewart and newcomer Chris Burnham.  A veteran of this title, Stewart’s pages look great, mixing the cartoonish and the utterly serious with ease.  I didn’t know what to expect from Burnham, but after seeing him in action, I want more.  His style is comparable to Stewawarts, but he also has a hint of Frank Quitely’s edge when it comes to detail.  I’ve heard that he has done a few issues of “Batman, Inc.” so I’ll be looking forward to seeing them in the forthcoming hardcover.

The final issue features art from David Finch, and while I like his heavily detailed style just fine it doesn’t carry emotion as well as the styles of the other artists featured here do.  It works well enough for his story, as Bruce sets up the status quo for the “Batman, Inc.” era and we’re introduced to the next big Bat-threat:  Leviathan.  This issue is all setup, but does leave me looking forward to more.

At its core, “Batman & Robin Must Die!” is still a pretty conventional Bat-story with our heroes facing unbeatable odds, but overcoming them through superior planning.  Morrison and his artistic partners sell it through their attention to detail (as odd as these details might seem) and some careful planning of their own.  The first volume of “Batman & Robin” recently came out in softcover, and served as a reminder that if I had waited a year, I could’ve had that story for ten dollars less.  While that’s a valid point, it also meant that I wouldn’t have been able to read this volume now.  Wait or buy it now, this is a story that belongs in the library of any Bat-fan.

A Bride’s Story vol. 1

May 24, 2011

There are comics that start reading with the expectation that they’ll be good.  There are also comics that I go into with the expectation that they’ll be bad.  There are also a very few that I go into with the expectation that, “This is going to be one of the best damn titles of the year!”  I came into “Emma” mangaka Kaoru Mori’s latest with those expectations.  Did it live up to them?  No.  Was it because of my own inflated expectations?  Yes.

“A Bride’s Story” takes place along the Silk Road, near the Caspian Sea in the 19th century.  It’s not a very common setting for any comic, and the premise itself is also something you don’t see in much mainstream fiction either.  This unique setup, combined with Mori’s reputation coming off of “Emma” have made this a hugely anticipated title not just with me, but with most of the manga reviewers/critics on the net.

We’re introduced to Karluk Eihon, a twelve-year-old who has just been wed to his bride Amir Halgal.  The thing is that she’s eight years his senior.  Rather than use it as a springboard for wacky age-difference hijinks, Mori instead uses their relationship as a springboard to explore a world that most of us have little familiarity with.  We’re introduced to Karluk’s family in short order and soon find out that his wife is no shrinking violet.  Amir is a skilled hunter with her bow, taking down rabbits and foxes for food and furs, and while she exudes a welcome confidence in nearly all of her actions, her seeming perfection belies a tendency to get bent out of shape when confronted with things beyond her control.

The couple’s world is explored in subsequent chapters as the family’s youngest member becomes friends with a local woodcarver and through him, we learn about the carver’s trade.  We’re also treated to a taste of what nomadic life was like back then when Karluk and Amir go to visit the latter’s uncle and his tribe.  In “Emma,” you could sense that Mori had a real passion for England’s Victorian Era, and the same holds true here.  It’s evident in the detail of her art, and the detail she gives to her character’s world.  While this is one of her artistic strengths, she’s also immensely talented in the areas of facial expressions and body language.  The characters in Mori’s books are some of the most expressive I’ve seen in comics, period, and it’s always a joy to see them in action.

My main issue with this first volume, and the one that keeps me from waving the “One of the year’s best!” flag (yet, anyway) is the slow start the series gets off to.  While the “slice of rustic 19th century life” approach is nice, there’s no real indication of what the central conflict or plot of “A Bride’s Story” will be.  Though Amir’s people want her back for political reasons, and an envoy is encountered in the fourth chapter, it winds up being temporarily resolved here.  I could see things developing along those lines, but things seem a bit directionless for now.  Still, “Emma” had a similarly slow start and I find that series to be brilliant when taken as a whole.  So yeah, I’m optimistic.

I’d also like to talk about how Yen Press is packaging this series.  In a trend that I hope will continue for subsequent volumes, this first one is presented in hardcover.  I’m betting that the publishers thought that such an approach would help it stand out and mark it as a sophisticated, high-end product.  Based on what I’ve seen here, I think that approach works with this product.  You want to give the hardcover treatment to the works that deserve the prestige and this volume certainly does.  (As opposed to just about every goddamn title in Marvel’s “Premiere Edition” HC line.)

In the end, this is a series whose second volume I will definitely be looking forward to.  I was expecting to “froth rabidly at the mouth for,” but you can’t have everything.

Ultimate Comics Doomsday

May 22, 2011

Okay, so "Write up this review and then go play more ‘L.A. Noire," last night turned into "Hang out, have dinner with friends, then try out the multiplayer modes on ‘Black Ops.'" With that out of the way, let me say that despite its occasionally wonky pacing and lack of focus this was a very entertaining "event" story. Reading it makes me think that Marvel should have run this as their big "NOTHING WILL BE THE SAME!" Ultimate Universe shebang in place of Jeph Loeb's reputedly awful "Ultimatum."

This story takes place several weeks after that event and starts off by having Spider-Woman's plans to investigate a local Roxxon building interrupted when it's consumed by some strange biomass. Things get worse from there as Reed Richards and his family are incinerated in a mysterious energy blast, Nick Fury is attacked by an alien monstrosity, and another biomass threatens to engulf the Baxter Building -- with Sue Storm inside it. This leads to a massive team-up of most of the heroes of the Ultimate Universe as they try to find out who is targeting them and why.

Though I've generally enjoyed the "event" stories that Bendis has written for Marvel over the years ("Secret Invasion" being his best), he has always had a better handle on writing more street-level, crime-focused series and characters. This is true here, especially in the quiet moments between Ben Grimm and Sue as their relationship goes somewhere you'd never see in the regular Marvel Universe, and the interplay between Spiders-Man-and-Woman. However, as interesting as Spider-Woman's subplot about uncovering the evils of Roxxon is, it feels more suited to the pages of "Ultimate Spider-Man" than it does here. Though it provides an unforgettable moment when the two have to make a split-second decision about the fate of Dr. Octopus, their ultimate connection to the story at large is largely replaceable.

Furthermore, while I like Bendis' dialogue, there are certain points when you start to wish he had a better editor. There are certain scenes where the characters stand around talking when they should be dealing with the action at hand, or talking during the action in ways that don't feel believable. Then you have the issue of pacing as the series' momentum grinds to a halt when everyone stands around to talk about what has just happened. I also didn't like how most of the final conflict took up the majority of the last issue, leaving very few pages to explore the fallout of these events. There will be ramifications, and I wish that Bendis had taken the time to set them up in a more satisfying manner.

Despite all this, I did like this series and would recommend it to anyone who has liked the writer's "Ultimate" work in the past. "Ultimate Spider-Man" readers will also want to pick it up not just to see how plot threads started in that series reach there fruition here. In addition to Spider-Woman, you get to see what happened to Ultimate Rick Jones as well. Doing a mostly-unqualified great job on the art here is Rafa Sandoval, who has an energy and style to his work that compares very favorably to that of Stuart Immonen. Regrettably, anyone who has read "Ultimate Spider-Man" will also see that Sandoval and the colorist could've paid more attention to how the characters looked there as certain details (their hair) don't line up with how we've seen them before.

It has issues, but "Ultimate Doomsday" is still a satisfying read. While Bendis may not have Mark Millar's talent for over-the-top action and carnage, I'd still take a flawed event story like this over anything the latter has written recently. Maybe if they pooled their talents and let Millar do the plotting and Bendis do the scripting we'd have the Ultimate "Ultimate" spectacle. Until that happens, this is good enough.

Ultimate Comics Spider-Man vol. 2: Chameleons

May 20, 2011

I could go on, and on, and on about the things that I liked in this volume.  From its unveiling of the “Ultimate” versions of professional Marvel sidekick Rick Jones and B-list spider-villain the Chameleon, to the welcome addition of “amazing friends” Iceman and the Human Torch to the cast, and the simple fact that writer Brian Michael Bendis shows that he knows how to write the character better than anyone else in the business.  However, it’s the scenes that Peter Parker shares with J. Jonah Jameson that provide not only the best parts of the volume, but a potentially game-changing moment in the series.

Through the machinations of the Chameleons, Peter and JJJ find themselves tied to chairs in an abandoned warehouse.  Those of you expecting the two to have a nice heart-to-heart that brings them closer together, and gets Peter a job at the new online edition of the Bugle, are in for a shock.  At least, that’s how I felt after JJJ does something that the supporting cast of this series has done with an astonishing, but usually quite funny, regularity.  It’s very spoiler-centric, but it’s not just the event that fascinates.

You see, while they’re tied up one of the Chameleons is running through the city in Spider-Man’s costume on a crime spree of epic proportions.  All of that goodwill the web-slinger earned during the events of “Ultimatum”-- gone in the space of an evening.  I’d be upset about his fortunes changing on a dime like that, except that there’s an out.  After the events of this evening the one person who can save the wall-crawler’s good name is... J. Jonah Jameson.

It’s a setup that would never have worked like this in the regular Marvel Universe and I can’t wait to see what Bendis does with it here... is what I’d like to say.  You see, we only have one more volume to go before the “Death of Spider-Man” arc “does something that we’ve never seen before in a mainstream comic” (Bendis’ words, not mine).  Such hype annoys me more than anything else since I’ve been on board with his take since the first volume.  While I can understand the need to boost sales through an event like this and its subsequent new status quo, I’m not very hopeful about its need to shake things up because I thought the current approach was working just fine.

However, like a lot of other series, this one has accumulated a lot of goodwill from me and I’ll be sticking around to see how it turns out.  It can’t go too far off the rails with Bendis’ involvement, right?  At least he can pull off big, event-driven storytelling in this universe well enough.  Come back tomorrow to see my thoughts on that...

Comic Picks #81: Future Diary

May 18, 2011

My friend Steve joins me as we tackle a series that didn't turn out to be what you'd call "good," but was certainly memorable.

00:0000:00

So I did wind up seeing “Thor” this weekend…

May 17, 2011

… and it was quite good.  Not the unqualified blast of fun that the first “Iron Man” was, but more enjoyable than its unfocused sequel.  Director Kenneth Branagh (unsurprisingly) gets good performances out of the entire cast and (surprisingly) shows that he has a good hand on big-budget effects-driven film-making.  We get several great shots of Asgard itself that effectively show off its majesty and splendor while the action scenes remain perfectly comprehensible and satisfyingly kinetic.  This all helps to offset the dullness of the core plot -- it’s an origin story that we already know the ending to and most of the beats in between -- as do the genuinely funny parts, usually involving Thor getting acquainted with our world.  It was also interesting to note that while the scenes on Earth felt like they were directly inspired by J. Michael Straczynski’s run, the whole “Asgardians are really aliens with technology indistinguishable from magic” bit is taken from Warren Ellis’ “Worldengine” arc.  So if any of you were wondering how they were going to fit these characters derived from Norse mythology into a sci-fi world, well, now you know.

Of course, this film isn’t just about bringing the comic book character to life on the silver screen.  It’s also another prong in the build-up to the launch of “The Avengers” next year.  Based on what I saw here, I’m more optimistic about its prospects.  S.H.I.E.L.D. was integrated into the plot in a perfectly logical and less “deus-ex-machinaey” way than in “Iron Man 2.”  We also got some okay fanservice in the form of a cameo from one of the other Avengers who shows up, but doesn’t really do anything.  The best part is the post-credits sequence which doesn’t lead into “Captain America,” but gives us a look at what will likely be the key MacGuffin of “The Avengers.”  It’s going to center around a device that should be quite familiar to anyone with a decent running knowledge of the Marvel Universe and building a film around it is certainly plausible at the very least.  Overall, “Thor” is another win for Marvel Studios and a good indication that they’ll be able to survive the upcoming onslaught of superhero films.

An adaptation in name only.

May 15, 2011

While Tokyopop the manga publisher will cease to exist in North America at the end of the month, Tokyopop the media company still lives on.  In fact, its first major film release opened on Friday.  “Priest” is set in the far future and focuses on a soldier in the war against humans and vampires called back into duty to face a dire threat.  Though the ads state that it’s an adaptation of the manhwa (Korean comic) by Min-Woo Hyung, anyone who has read the series can immediately see that it bears little resemblance to its source material.

“Priest” the manhwa is the story of Ivan Isaacs, a Catholic priest who is on a quest to stop the machinations of the fallen angel Termozarela after he was released from captivity by a secret order of priests who used Ivan to further their own ends.  In releasing the fallen angel, he also freed his captor -- a former priest of the Inquisition who turned himself into the demon Belial -- and now has to work with him and use his powers to stop this supernatural threat.  What makes this series unique for a comic published outside of the U.S. is that it takes place in the wild west of America in the mid 1800’s.  This, along with the nature of Ivan’s powers, and the way the story is told causes it to best be described as a mash-up of Kentaro Miura’s “Berserk” and “Preacher” by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon (the latter in both Jesse Custer’s quest, and more specifically the “Saint of Killers” mini-series).

Sixteen volumes were published by Tokyopop before Hyung stopped work on the series for unknown reasons.  Even though it took a while to get going -- things don’t really click until the fourth volume -- it was still a very entertaining mix of theological debate and bloody supernatural action.  While manhwa has been criticized for being too derivative of the style and conventions of manga, this series showed me that Korean creators are just as capable of producing works as compelling as their Japanese counterparts...  At least, it’s proved to be the exception to the rule.  Every other manhwa I’ve read hasn’t really come close to the high standards “Priest” has set.

Now in all honesty, if I wasn’t familiar with its source material I might have been willing to give the movie a shot.  Its mix of sci-fi kung-fu action may be executed well enough to serve as good shut-your-brain-off entertainment for a weekend afternoon. Some people who I respect were certainly excited about its prospects. Unfortunately I can’t help but  look at the ads and previews and come away a little depressed.  Not only do we live in an age where comic-book-movies are a major cultural force, but the majority of them are also delivered with a genuine enthusiasm for the source material.  While the films in the “X-men,” “Spider-Man,” and “Batman” (Christopher Nolan editions) franchises, as well as Marvel Studios’ own productions, don’t adapt specific stories, they still do an excellent job of cherry-picking the best elements from them to produce works that distill the essence of the characters in an entertaining fashion.  The same goes for the “Hellboy” movies, and other works like “300,” “Watchmen,” “The Losers” and “V for Vendetta” were, at the very least, faithful enough for you to see that the filmmakers appreciated and respected the original comics. Works like “RED” and “The Surrogates,” where the creators used the core idea of the comic as a starting point and then go off in a completely different direction are thankfully the exception these days.  “Priest” appears to be a particularly egregious example of this as its most direct link to the manhwa appears to be an animated introduction by Gennedy Tartakovsky done in the style of Hyung’s art.  Beyond that, only the barest trace of the comic’s plot and characters seem to have survived the transition to film.  Yes, I could go buy a ticket and see if the connections go deeper, but the reviews are currently at 21% “rotten” over at Rotten Tomatoes, and I’ve already made up my mind to spend my money on “Thor” this weekend.

It’s also depressing to see this as Tokyopop’s first major film effort.  Here’s a company that started the “manga revolution” by promoting its line as “100% Authentic” and offering unflipped editions of its series.  While I have no idea about the development process this film went through, you’d think that Stu Levy (who’s credited as an Executive Producer on the film) and the rest of the Tokyopop crew would’ve worked harder to see at least the basic concept of the series represented on film.  After all, there has to be SOMETHING from the manhwa that they thought would make a good movie.

Still, if the early Friday numbers are anything to go by, Tokyopop’s life as a media company may be one that is not long for the world.  While nothing has been said about their next project, I’ve heard rumors to the effect that the return of the rights to the global manga series (“Dramacon,” “East Coast Rising,” and the like) they’ve published to their respective creators is being held up by the possibility that Levy and co. are looking to turn them into films/TV series.  So if one of those properties is picked for future development, one can only hope that its adaptation is a more faithful and respectable effort.  Personally, I’m not optimistic about Tokyopop’s future at this point and if failure in their attempts to start a new media empire means the return of these properties to their respective creators, then I can only see that as a good thing.