Captain America: The First Avenger

July 30, 2011

I thought it was great fun.  While it was “yet another superhero origin movie” at its core, its rendering of the title character’s was handled very well.  Unlike the other “Avengers” we’ve seen so far, Steve Rogers has to become a superhero from the ground up.  Yes, the super-soldier formula gives him greater abilities than any other soldier, but it doesn’t automatically turn him into a leader or a hero.  That’s something he has to earn in ways both debasing (travelling the country in a singing routine to sell war bonds) and thrilling (staging a one-man raid on a HYDRA camp to free Bucky and a couple hundred soldiers).  The film kind of goes on autopilot once Steve comes into his own, and though things blow up quite well the latter half lacks the sense of fun and discovery the first had.

However, what I liked most from the film is something that’s (ironically) hard to find in the actual Marvel Universe these days:  the thrill of seeing how connected everything is.  Continuity in the MU has become increasingly loose over the years and while that has allowed a lot of creators to pursue their storylines in the way they intended, you get the sense that most titles are operating in a vacuum -- sealed off from other titles that aren’t being written by the same guy.  Here, it was a blast to see things like the Red Skull talking about Norse mythology that comes straight from “Thor,” or having Tony Stark’s dad in the employ of the U.S. Military, seeing the Cosmic Cube in action and the activation of the Bifrost near the end of the movie.  It’s truly fantastic to see all of these films on the same page and you’ll leave the film REALLY wanting to see “The Avengers” next summer (though the teaser trailer at the end will tide you over for a while).

Comic Picks #86: The Catch-Up Edition

July 27, 2011

Everything I didn't review before the Con: "Battlefields vol. 2," "Bullet to the Head," "Cowboys," "Incognito: Bad Influences," "Casanova: Gula," and "Ooku vol. 6."

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Comic-Con: … and the rest!

July 27, 2011

Friday was spent in kind of a dazed stupor as I got up very, VERY early to meet with a friend to get in line for pre-registration for next year’s Con.  Long story short, we were successful, but I felt like I spent the next few days catching up on my sleep from this endeavor.  Still, what I did on that day was recounted in my earlier “Manga!” post, aside from the shopping and (sushi) dinner with friends that evening.

Then Saturday came around, along with some stuff that I was REALLY looking forward to!

The “Quick Draw” panel is a Comic-Con staple, hosted by Mark Evarnier (co-writer of “Groo,” writer of the “Garfield” animated series and too many other credits to count) and always featuring “MAD!” magazine regular and artist extraordinaire Sergio Aragones.  In the event, Sergio and two other artists (usually Scott Shaw and another talented creator) draw whatever Mark asks them to, be it Captain America after the debt ceiling isn’t raised, or a pen-and-paper charades to get the guest to guess what word the pictures represent.  The end results are always funny, but the other artists usually wind up being schooled by Sergio’s fast-paced and seemingly effortless creativity.  This year’s panel was no exception, and it ended on a high note with the artists being asked to depict the death of Homer Simpson.

I went over to the “DC Comic:  The Dark and The Edge” panel spotlighting two sections of the New DCU 52 initiative, and it was worth it just to hear writer Paul Cornell’s take on Apollo and The Midnighter’s relationship in “Stormwatch:”  “Yes, they’re still gay!  I wish I could get a T-shirt that says that.”  The whole reason I camped out there was because the panel after that was the spotlight on Garth Ennis.  While I mentioned yesterday that they re-showed his “Stitched” short film, the rest of the panel was taken up with Q&A about his work and career.  It was great hearing him talk and to listen to his take on the industry.  If you were there, I was the person who asked the last question about whether or not he had been offered any characters or titles that he had turned down during his tenure at Marvel and DC.  In retrospect, I wish I had more time to ask him about why he’d never write Captain America.  His treatment of “Soldier Boy” in “The Boys” notwithstanding, the character is part of the military and an embodiment of the American spirit -- two themes that Ennis has dwelt on a great deal.  I’m not saying he should go out and write the character right now, but I’d be interested in hearing his reasoning.

After that was more shopping and camping out in Scott Shaw’s “Oddball Comics” panel, which certainly lived up to its name.  Why camp out there?  Because after that was the “U.K. Invasion” panel, which I had been looking forward to ever since I found out that it would feature not only Ennis, but Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, John Higgins, David Lloyd, and Alan Davis talking about their transition from working in that country to ours.  It was as entertaining as I’d hoped, with Ennis and Morrison providing the most interesting tidbits about the era -- notably the fact that working in the U.S. was seen as the “holy grail” amongst most U.K. creators due to the generally awful working conditions and contracts being offered in their homeland.  Something that’s still the case according to the panelists.

That was the last major panel I attended as the rest of the con was split between hanging out with friends and even more shopping.  Overall, it was a great experience, best measured by how time seemed to fly by while I was there.  It may not be solely focused on comics these days, but there’s still plenty of stuff on hand to satisfy those of us who have an interest in the medium featured in the con’s title.

Comic-Con: Thursday Miscellany

July 26, 2011

"Guys who look like they can't move are awesome!" That quote comes courtesy of Robert Kirkman, from his endorsement of Rob Liefeld’s art.  Anyone who is familiar with the man’s work will get it, but if you’re not:  think big, over-muscled men with giant shoulderpads and enough pouches for a survivalist’s wet dream.  His art is an acquired taste... to put it mildly, though the enthusiasm Kirkman gave to the description of their project “The Infinite,” a time-travel adventure about a man from a dystopian future who goes back in time to team up with himself to stop it from happening.  I can’t believe I’m saying this, but their enthusiasm was infectious and  actually made it sound appealing.  Maybe I will get the first trade to see how it works out, assuming it even gets that far, considering Liefeld’s other artistic commitment to the new “Hawk and Dove” series at DC.

The rest of the series Kirkman described at his “Skybound” panel on Thursday sounded legitimately entertaining.  “Thief of Thieves,” about a world-class thief who decides to steal only from other thieves, is his attempt to bring the “writer’s room” approach he enjoys on “The Walking Dead” TV series to comics.  He has a great creative team to start out with, Nick Spencer co-writing and Shawn Martinbrough providing the art, so I’m definitely looking forward to that.  I didn’t realize “Witch Doctor” was a “Skybound” joint, but I was already interested in it after hearing it described as “‘House M.D.’ of the supernatural.”

Kirkman is also going to be working with his “Walking Dead” artist Charlie Adlard on a series of concepts under the banner of “Album.”  In the tradition of European comics, which come out in 40-50 page installments when the creators are ready, these projects will be one-shots tackling a variety of subjects and genres.  The first one sounds like a sci-fi actioner where the crew of a space transport has to survive when their ship’s onboard computer decides that they’re surplus to requirements.  Not very original, but Kirkman has proved that he’s very good at subverting genre conventions.

I also went to the Kodansha comics panel just to see if they had anything interesting to offer.  Unfortunately, they just reiterated the announcements that were made earlier this year.  A lot of people asked about some of the titles “lost” in the Del Rey/Kodansha transition, but poor Dallas Middaugh was stuck saying that while they’d like to continue these titles, the market wouldn’t likely support them.  Personally, I’d like to see more of “Moyasimon,” but I think that it’d be a better fit at Vertical, considering their cash infusion earlier this year from Kodansha.  I did have a question occur to me after I left the panel, as it would’ve been nice to find out if Yukito Kishiro of “Battle Angel Alita” fame is now at Kodansha after his spat with Shueisha last year.  Hopefully the answer to that will turn up somewhere before their panel next year.

That evening also held one of the most anticipated events of the con for me:  the premiere of Garth Ennis’ short film “Stitched.”  If you’ve been reading and listening to me for long enough, then you should know that I’ll buy just about anything with his name attached so checking out the “world premiere” of his directorial debut was a no brainer.  The finished product... wasn’t bad for a first effort.  It’s a horror film about some military types encountering an ancient evil in the Afghanistan badlands, and while his penchant for over-the-top gore and violence make the transition well, he’s let down by some of the actors.  It’s hard to be scared, or even suspend disbelief, when you’re wondering how the two female characters made it through whatever training the U.N. offers to helicopter personnel.  Still, hearing the S.A.S. commando say to the bad guy, “Don’t be a cunt,” before blowing his brains out was pure Ennis and it gives me hope that future projects will be a better showcase for his strengths.

Still, I could’ve skipped the screening because they re-showed it at his spotlight panel on Saturday.  If I had known they were going to do that, I would’ve sat through the rest of the always-entertaining “Manga:  Lost in Translation” panel and caught the beginning of Ric Meyers’ “Superhero Kung Fu Extravaganza.”  This year, Ric premiered his long-in-the-works film “Films of Fury:  The Kung Fu Movie Movie,” which is essentially his thesis on the origins, major players, styles, and paths of martial arts movies.  I saw enough of the second half to make me wish that I had been able to see the whole thing.  The rest of the panel was filled out with his traditional showcase of the latest and greatest martial arts fight scenes, and while there was some overlap with the ones he showed off at Fanime, you can’t go wrong with seeing Donnie Yen emulate Bruce Lee, or the Muay Thai craziness of a film called “Bangkok Knockout.”

These panels rarely disappoint.  That’s why I keep coming back each year.

Comic-Con: Manga!

July 23, 2011

In the podcast where I vented my frothing fanboy rage over the "hiatus" that Hiroki Endo's excellent "Eden: It's An Endless World!" was put on, I put the onus of my hate on Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson. I figured that being the publisher meant it was his call as to whether or not the series would continue. As it turns out, I was partly wrong. At the Dark Horse Presents panel today, I got the chance to ask Richardson about the series' future past the forthcoming vol. 13. Specifically, were there concrete plans to publish the final five volumes, or would their appearance be contingent on strong sales for this volume?

While the latter part of that sentence turned out to be true, Richardson was quick to add that the series was a favorite of his and its hiatus was just that. The plan was to bring it back after it had recouped it's printing costs, much in the same way that Fanfare operates on the margins with it's titles. While my cynical side doesn't want to take that at face value, it's hard to doubt his word after I've sat through a panel where he has discussed his passion for the medium, and the people on the panel (Eric Powell, Carla Speed-McNeil, Dave Gibbons, and Jim Steranko) have extolled his commitment to creator rights. So I threatened the crowd to buy a copy of vol. 13 or else I'd come find them next year. We'll see how that works out.

I also attended the annual "Year's Best & Worst Manga" panel featuring critics like Chris Butcher, David Brothers, Carlo Santos, and Deb Aoki gabbing about what they liked and disliked regarding manga released over the past year. Even without the presence of regular panelist Jason Thompson, they were still an entertaining bunch to listen to, and the panel still felt too short by an hour. One thing -- Brothers picked "High School of the Dead" as his choice for worst of the year. Interestingly, the few reasons he gave were also some of the ones for why I think it's glorious trash. Different strokes, people...

Comic-Con: The madness so far.

July 21, 2011

Getting my badge and running the gauntlet of sales at Preview Night was the easy part. That said, if you're at the con you should make the effort to stop by Fanfare/Ponet-Mon's booth (2102) and buy something from Stephen there. He's a great guy and full of passion for what he does. I thoroughly recommend the first two volumes of "Summit of the Gods" if you don't have them yet.

However, this con has already produced one disappointment as the pre-reg situatio for next year is even more limited than I first thought. Only 2400 badges were put on sale today and they were gone before my friends and I got there a little before 8:30am. Hundreds of people were still lined up after the sellout. So if you want to get your pass for 2012 you might need to prepare yourself for a long, cold night by the marina. Who knows, maybe I'll be doing that myself after Ric Meyers' Superhero Kung-Fu Extravaganza tonight.

American Vampire vol. 2

July 20, 2011

Picking up the first volume of this series in hardcover was a no-brainer for me.  As a big fan of Stephen King, there’s no way I wouldn’t want his first major comic book storyline immortalized in that format.  Now that he’s gone, I’ll admit that it did give me pause about picking up this second volume right now.  Ultimately, the appeal of Scott Snyder’s writing and his growing acclaim elsewhere, combined with the fact that I’d have to wait at least a year to see this in softcover convinced me to buy it now.  I’m glad I did, as this volume does a great job not only in broadening the series’ world, but also in giving it a clear direction.

The lead story, “Devil in the Sand,” picks up a decade after Pearl’s adventures in Hollywood and introduces us to Cashel McCogan, Chief of Police for the Las Vegas Police Department.  Business and crime are both booming with the construction of the nearby Boulder Dam and the two collide when a member of the consortium funding the operation is found murdered in his bed.  Drained of every last drop of blood too.  Not only does Cash’s investigation take him to some of the nastier parts of the town that will be called “Sin City,” but it’ll also have him cross paths with the Vassals of the Morning Star -- an organization dedicated to wiping out the vampire menace -- and the chief suspect in the death of his father.  A brothel owner by the name of Jim Smoke who knows a thing or two about vampires himself.

“Devil in the Sand” is a gripping read thanks to the mysteries that Snyder sets up and the plot twists he throws up along the way.  Seeing how the story reveals the context behind its opening scenes is one such example, but you’ve also got the mystery of how Cash’s dad died along with the return of a few familiar faces to provide a steady stream of surprises.  However, the best part about this arc is how it shows you where the series can go and what Snyder’s ultimate plan for the series is.  After showing us the American Vampire and his role in Hollywood’s Golden Age, we now see how Skinner Sweet’s legacy shapes another crucial part of America’s history -- Vegas.  Re-casting our country’s history as a vampire power struggle is a novel idea and I’m interested in seeing where the decades take our antihero.

Of course, it’s not all about Skinner as Pearl and Henry also show up to contribute an important plot point to the story, and feature in the two-part “The Way Out.”  I still think that her progenitor is the more interesting character, but Pearl and her boyfriend make an interesting counterpoint to his depraved adventures.  They’re clearly in love and determined to make the best of it, despite her natural urges and the fact that she’ll never grow old.  We also find out that a part of her past isn’t quite as dead as she thought, and it’ll be bloody when it finally catches up.

Rafael Albuquerque continues to do a stellar job on the art.  I can’t overstate how appealing his clean approach, combined with Dave McCaig’s colors, is to giving this series a well-lit look that nicely goes against the grain of what you’d expect from a vampire story.  Mateus Santolouco provides art for a couple flashback scenes in “Devil in the Sand” and does the entirety of “The Way Out.”  I’ve never heard of him before this, but I’d certainly like to see him come back for a return engagement in the future.

Really, this is a fantastic volume that delivers on the promise in the first one.  It also made me go back and re-read vol. one so I could see how the things that were set up there pay off here.  One thing’s for sure, I won’t hesitate to pick up the next volume when it arrives in hardcover.

High School of the Dead vol. 3

July 18, 2011

I’m still patiently waiting for the series to get past the point where the anime ended, but the real attraction in this volume is the art.  While artist Shouji Sato’s strengths clearly lie in emphasizing fanservice -- be it human-on-zombie violence, or finding new angles to show us the panties of the female cast -- he also shows how stylistic exaggeration can energize pages and pages of talking heads.  As the cast arrives at the mansion where Saya’s family lives, we find out that they have been quite proactive in making sure the people closest to them are safe and that her father is the head of Japan’s ultra-right-wing political group.  Instead of facing off against zombies, writer Daisuke Sato dials up the angst as Saya agonizes about why her parents didn’t come for her, Takashi grapples with his position as group leader, Kouta faces the possibility that his guns might be taken away, and some of the civilians argue for trying to find a cure for these people that have been afflicted with “murder syndrome.”

This could’ve been agonizingly boring, but Shouji Sato treats these conflicts as seriously and with the same energy as his zombie attacks.  Pages are crammed with panels set up like an action scene, the characters emote as if every line was their Oscar moment, and we get fanservice out the wazoo.  Two of the anime’s most infamous moments -- Takashi firing Rei’s sniper rifle between her breasts and Shizuka’s liberal application of “medicine” afterwards -- are not only featured here, but are also featured in full-color at the beginning of the book.  He also gives Saya’s dad a great look as the man is drawn larger-than-life with an all-black officer’s uniform and a perpetual squint that gives you the impression that he has no pupils.  The man’s politics are said to “out-Mishima Yukio Mishima” (Google him if you don’t know the name), but you can’t help but be glad that he’s a force for good here.

Really, the main reason this approach works here is because the subject matter is so trashy and (of course) smutty.  Realism and nuance would’ve killed the fun here, but going at it with such an over-the-top approach is exactly what the material needed.  Does this series have any socially redeemable value?  Not really.  Is it a ton of fun anyway?  Absolutely.

Northlanders vol. 5: Metal

July 17, 2011

Writer Brian Wood returns to one of the series’ recurring themes, the impact of Christianity on the title characters, with the title story.  Though its description on the back cover cites “modern day ‘Viking’ black metal” as an influence, the end result reads like the writer let this influence get the better of his grounded sensibilities.  “Metal” is a tale that is both straightforward and familiar as a hulking and none-too-bright blacksmith in a small Icelandic town wages a one-man war against the incursion of Christianity into his homeland.  Aiding him in the fight is a young albino girl he rescues from some nuns and the goddess of the land, Hulda.  You’d think that last bit would be a bit of mushroom-induced madness, but the supernatural is quite real in this story.

It also proves to be the tale’s undoing in the end.  While the supernatural elements are at first presented to the reader in a way that suggests this is all happening in Erik the blacksmith’s mind, things happen in the last two issues to assure us that no, they are quite real.  It’s a jarring tonal shift in a series that has been thoroughly grounded in the real world up until now, and the story isn’t the better for having them.

That said, I’m not sure what the story would have without them as it’s presented in such a one-dimensional “good pagans vs. evil Christians” manner that it’s hard to care about either side.  Writer Brian Wood’s depiction of the missionaries doesn’t strike me as completely unrealistic, but their vices are presented in such a manner as to make them cartoonish villains.  However, there is one standout character in this arc:  Black Karl, a pagan mercenary hired by the Christians to track down Erik and his girlfriend.  Though he’s willing to take their money, he doesn’t put any stock in their beliefs and the scene where he spells it out to one of the nuns is the best part of the story.  Ultimately, I’m left with the feeling that if Wood had told the story through his eyes instead of zombifying him later one, “Metal” might’ve been one of the better arcs in the series.

Art is from Wood’s “DMZ” collaborator Riccardo Burchielli.  I’m conflicted on his work here because while I like his work on “DMZ” a great deal, here he seems to struggle with making the characters look misshapen and ugly in a way that has the reader thinking that it represents “stylistic exaggeration” than a miscast artist.  Sadly, the latter feels more true here.

The other stories collected here are a miixed bag as well.  “The Sea Road” is founded on an interesting idea, with some very nice art from Fiona Staples, as a trader seeks out new route for resources on the open sea.  It’s a personal fight against stagnation that ends tragically, and to my mind pointlessly as well.  We’re given a speech by the captain at the end that feels more like a ham-fisted way to add a deeper meaning to the story that simply isn’t there.

The final tale, “The Girl in the Ice” is the strongest one in this volume.  An old man on the fringes of society stumbles upon a girl frozen in an ice lake.  After freeing the young lady from her icy grave, he tries his best to find out how she died, but the local authorities come calling first.  It starts off feeling like an episode of “CSI:  700 A.D.” but the twist the story takes in its second half and the truth behind the girl’s fate do wind up presenting a more interesting take on the bonds of a community in this era.  In short, it winds up achieving the added depth that the previous stories lack.

Ultimately this volume is skippable for fans of this series.  The one good story here doesn’t make up for the two that are not.

Scarlet vol. 1

July 15, 2011

It’s been a LONG time since writer Brian Michael Bendis has sat down to write something that doesn’t involve superheroes.  While I’ve (mostly) liked his work with Marvel’s superheroes over the years, “Ultimate Spider-Man” being his crowning achievement, his early creator-owned work has always been more memorable in my opinion.  Re-reading “Jinx,” “Torso,” and “Fortune and Glory,” recently, I was amazed at how well they still hold up, even with “F&G” being mired to a specific time and place.  Sure, “Powers” is great, but the series has fallen off a scheduling cliff in the past year as Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming continue to be busy with their other projects.  The return to his old-school roots, with artist Alex Maleev, is a welcome one that sets up a potentially fascinating story.

We’re introduced to the title character as she’s killing who she claims to be is a corrupt cop.  Strangling him and then taking his cash.  Then she starts speaking directly to the reader as she goes into her life’s story and the sordid tale of how she wound up here, because the world as we know it is rotten.  What’s her goal?  Nothing less than a second American revolution to get us back on the right track.

If you’ve been reading “Ultimate Spider-Man” for as long as I have, then you’ll know that every so often, Peter Parker vents a very specific frustration about why people in the world can’t be good.  Why they choose to hurt other people through inaction or outright malice.  “Scarlet” is that particular thread blown up into its own series and put into an environment where Bendis can do whatever he wants with it.  While Scarlet’s quest may seem laughably small-scale and unattainable at first, events come together by the end of the book to make it seem scarily plausible.  That’s what makes the series’ direction so compelling to me.

Everything up to that point is some very well-executed setup on the part of Bendis and Maleev.  While the style and cadence of the former’s dialogue is as familiar here as it is elsewhere, there’s a freshness to it in the way that you have ordinary people talking to each other about ordinary things.  This also goes for the not-so-ordinary things like hearing city officials talk about how to properly police a flash mob or a federal investigator describing his complicated feelings towards this case to his potential partner.  Even when it’s not advancing the plot, it’s still fun to read his dialogue.

As for Alex Maleev’s art, it’s some of the best I’ve ever seen from him.  The man would get props for simply showing everyone else how to use photo referencing properly -- Scarlet’s model is listed in the credits -- by giving us characters who have natural facial expressions and realistic body language.  However, he’s also up for whatever stylistic experiments Bendis wants to throw his way.  The nine-panel, multi-page snapshots of the lives of certain characters being the standout in this area.

If I have any reservations with this first volume, it’s that even though it ends quite strong, you wish they could’ve done a bit more with the space that they were given.  As much as a I like the dialogue and art, there were more than a few scenes where things go on for much longer than they should’ve.  I also fear for the series’ schedule.  While these five issues were delivered in a reasonably timely manner, Bendis and Maleev are now at work on the new “Moon Knight” series, so I imagine it’ll be a while before we see vol. 2.  I’ll admit that it was smart of them to make this first volume self-contained, but still -- “Moon Knight!”  I’m sure they had their reasons, but just as we had to deal with Sean Phillips taking a break from “Criminal” and “Incognito” to do “The Dark Tower,” you can’t help but wish they’d gone and done more “Scarlet” instead.