February 15, 2016
The reason I’m combining these two volumes into one review is that there’s not much more to say about them beyond the fact that they continue the title’s great mix of action, comedy, and strangeness. Yet they still have some memorable parts to them as well. Vol. 7’s involves Class E’s most elaborate plan yet to take out Koro-sensei on their island resort vacation to Okinawa. It’s a multi-tiered plan that is almost Rube Goldberg-ian in its complexity and full of welcome surprises that shows how far the schoolkids have come from being the bottom-of-the-barrel rejects they were in the first volume. Even though the nature of the story (along with the ten volumes in Japan that have yet to make their way over here) indicates that their efforts are doomed to failure, it’s still a really entertaining sequence to read.
However, dirty tricks are afoot and the majority of Class E is infected with a lethal virus by a shadowy villain (who perceptive readers should be able to recognize from his silhouette). This leads them to infiltrate his stronghold -- a hotel that caters to the highest tiers of organized crime. As you’d expect, the infiltration is as goofy as it is action-filled and features plenty of moments for the kids -- Karma in particular -- to show off what they’ve learned under Koro-sensei’s tutelage. I can’t say that anything here is particularly exceptional by the title’s standards, though I wouldn’t mind seeing The Man With the Delicious Gun brought back at some point in the future. He comes off as just too weird to be left as a henchman for this particular arc.
What makes vol. 8 memorable is its cliffhanger. Not for the bad guy’s villainous act that seemingly dooms the infected kids to death, but for Nagisa’s reaction to it. He’s always been one of the most level-headed members of the cast, even if it’s been hinted that a master assassin lurks beneath his outwardly normal exterior. The cliffhanger shows us Nagisa at his most unhinged to date, something that is sure to have ramifications for the character after he comes back from it. Which he will. This isn’t “Deadpool,” this is still a Jump title after all. One that looks like it won’t be overstaying its welcome.
February 14, 2016
As I said in the podcast, it was really hard not to enjoy the first volume of “Star Wars” from writer Jason Aaron, with art for those issues provided by John Cassaday. The problem was that after throwing in the big guns -- A showdown with Darth Vader! Boba Fett vs. Luke Skywalker on Tatooine! -- it was kind of hard to see what could be done to top these things. Much to my surprise, Aaron has found a way to deliver another satisfying volume by emphasizing different character dynamics rather than pure spectacle. After he gets over the Obi-Wan Kenobi-shaped speed bump at the start.
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February 13, 2016
Vol. 3? Yes, the original two volumes of “War Stories” were originally released through Vertigo as a series of eight one-shots well over a decade ago. This was when I was going through a phase of picking up single issues and they’re all in my collection in that form. Those one-shots represent the first “pure” war stories written by Garth Ennis for the American comics market. By this I mean that he had previously slipped some stories about fighting in wars into his runs on “Hellblazer” and “Preacher,” these were the first comics he delivered without having to deal with shoehorning the subject matter into some other title. They also represent some of his strongest comics work, particularly in the latter half, showcasing many different perspectives from the second world war, fully realized characters, and a willingness to keep his sophomoric tendencies well in check to avoid distracting from the stories’ themes.
This third volume isn’t in the same league. If what I said in the paragraph above didn’t clue you in, then let me make it clear that I’m onboard for any war story Ennis has to tell. He has told a lot of great ones over the years. The ones collected in this volume? While they make for a decent read, there’s only one here that stands as a really worthwhile addition to his canon.
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February 12, 2016
There are two complementary story threads here, both dealing with the titular organization. Over sea and ice, Baltimore and his group of followers travel to St. Petersburg to find a coven of witches with ties to the Red King. What they find is a city enslaved by fear and magic that has already managed to sink its tendrils into one of Baltimore’s oldest friends. Meanwhile, a continent away in Rome, writer Simon Hodge and his companions are pursuing their own leads into the history of the Cult of the Red King. This leads them to Carthage, a city haunted by vile wraiths at night, and thoroughly infested by the cult. What follows is a decent helping of supernatural action and weirdness as both groups pursue their quests for answers through blood, fire, and, of course, tragedy. The best thing about this volume is that new artist Peter Bergting is jelling much better with writers Mike Mignola and Christopher Golden. His work feels more atmospheric here and it’s clear that the writers trust him more, to the point where they feel less compelled to have characters describe the setting through dialogue. I still miss original artist Ben Stenbeck, but Bergting’s work indicates that the changeover will work out alright in the end.
That said, while Mignola and Golden’s dialogue may be less expository here, they still manage several ham-fisted moments of foreshadowing regarding Baltimore’s driven mindset and his relationship with his old friend Thomas. The bits with Thomas come off as particularly obvious on a re-read, and it makes you wonder why these experienced writers wouldn’t think we’d pick up on that. Then again, at least Thomas gets a bit of development here as most of the cast is simply left to hover around Baltimore or follow through the clockwork machinations of the plot. I get that the Red King is a big enough threat that the title character is going to need some help in bringing him down. Yet at this point the expanded cast mostly feels like a distraction from showing us Baltimore at his badass best. Mignola and Golden either need to start fleshing out this entourage, or continue killing them off so the series can start focusing on its tormented yet unstoppable main character yet again.
February 10, 2016
Its critics said the Ultimate Universe would never last, and fifteen years later they were proven right. Took a while, though. That’s because for the majority of its run, the Ultimate Universe stood as an inventive reinvention of the Marvel Universe that kept throwing out new twists with each arc of its ongoing titles and miniseries. It also offered up the most consistently good take on Spider-Man that I’d recommend to anyone looking to check in on the wall-crawler’s adventures. Yet the imprint couldn’t maintain its popularity forever and things started going downhill once Marvel started relying on “Let’s Blow Everything Up!” events like “Ultimatum” (its reputation has kept me from reading it) every so often to rejuvenate fan interest. Putting B-list talent on most of the titles in its later years didn’t help matters either. Now it comes down to Brian Michael Bendis and Mark Bagley, the definitive team on “Ultimate Spider-Man,” to wrap up the saga of the imprint in a five-issue miniseries. If you think that sounds like an impossible task, then you’d be right. The best thing that can be said for “Ultimate End” is that it is not entirely without its charms.
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February 8, 2016
First off, let me extend my gratitude to Vertical for supplying me with another fix of Inio Asano. It’s been almost two years since “Nijigahara Holograph” came out and I was starting to get antsy. Kudos to Viz as well, with their forthcoming two-in-one releases of “Goodnight, Punpun” starting next month. But what about this actual manga? It’s good, but winds up being on the low end of Asano titles that have been translated into English so far. The series is about the tortured relationship that develops between two junior high kids, Sato and Isobe, after they decide to have sex one day. Isobe wants a deeper relationship, Sato isn’t sure, and things get more complicated from there. While the characters are developed with skill and a hint of irreverence (customary with Asano), Isobe is the only one who truly resonates here. Mainly due to the fact that he has a more clearly developed backstory involving the suicide of his bullied brother. The way we see him deal with his grief is heartbreaking and even shocking at points. Sato doesn’t have the same drama to deal with -- a childhood friend who wants to be closer, a local playboy who’s also a creep -- and winds up being less interesting as a result. Even if she does wind up getting a happy ending of sorts.
That last bit is key because reading “A Girl on the Shore” is sure to bum you out after a while. Pretty much every scene is a reminder about how awkward and painful adolescence can be -- both figuratively and literally. It’s not aggressively miserable, mainly depressing in a low key. I was honestly surprised to see that things kinda worked out well at the end. Though that’s debatable. Even if this does sound like your kind of read, be aware that Asano does not shy away from the sex scenes between Sato and Isobe as they are quite frequent and cover a wide variety of kinks as well. (Including one that’s a definite “no go” for me when it comes to hentai manga.) This is definitely not a manga that is safe for work or for those squeamish about such things. Thinking about it some more, I realize this is probably most safe for Asano’s existing fanbase out here. Those of you who are not converted yet should go check out “Solanin” instead.
February 7, 2016
So how did Lando Calrissian go from being a charming rogue to a respectable city administrator? According to writer Charles Soule, all it took was one last job… that goes bad in a way that he couldn’t have anticipated. Deeply in debt to a local crimelord, Lando is offered a chance to have it squared away by stealing a ship from the Imperial shipyards. Recruiting the humanoid/panther fighting team of Aleksin and Pavol for muscle, the ungaanaut scholar Korin for intelligence, along with his buddy Lobot for strategy/logistics, Lando feels he has the right team to pull off this heist without a hitch. In what shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone: They do! However, once it’s revealed who the ship belongs to, it’s clear to the reader that these thieves are in way over their head. Lando’s charm and charisma may be good enough to sweep an Imperial Moff off of her feet, but they are nothing compared to the Dark Side of the Force.
As you can see, the arc of this story is fairly predictable. What saves it from being forgettable are the characters. It’s easy to see how Lando ropes the people on his crew into this heist, as he’s capable of making something potentially dangerous sound incredibly fun as well. When it turns out that this is more than he can handle, our protagonist shows that he’s not above getting his own hands dirty as well. We also get to see a more human side of his sidekick, Lobot, and Soule managed to wring a surprising amount of sympathy out of me towards the character through his plight in this story. It was also nice to see that there was more to bounty hunter Chanath Cha than simply being a Boba Fett wannabe. Alex Maleev handles the art and, even though it’s a bit more dark and shadowy than it needs to be, it still captures the “Star Wars” look and Lando’s swagger quite well. All in all, “Lando” isn’t an exceptional miniseries. It’s still a fun one and if this is going to be the kind of baseline quality we can expect from Marvel’s “Star Wars” miniseries, then I’ll keep buying them for the forseeable future.
February 6, 2016
This series may be about the Goddess of Thunder now, but it’s still the same great read that Aaron has been delivering since taking on the character. It all starts off with a bit of setup to illustrate the former Thor -- now being called the Odinson -- and his struggle to accept his current unworthiness and Malekith’s latest scheme. The two collide in bloody fashion (and reveal the origin of the Odinson’s metal arm from the “Time Runs Out” volumes) while we then get to see that a woman is now worthy of wielding the power of Thor after a mysterious female picks up Mjolnir from its resting spot on the moon. This is all in the first issue. The three that follow continue the frenetic pace as the frost giants of Jotunheim invade Midgard to recover the skull of their former King Laufey. Their belief that Thor has now been humbled turns out to be their undoing as this new female incarnation shows them that she is not to be trifled with because of her sex. Even if the frost giants turn out to be cannon fodder, this means she still has to deal with Dario Agger (CEO of Roxxon, occasional minotaur, and current holder of Laufey’s skull), Malekith himself, and a very angry Odinson.
It’s a great start to the career of this new Thor. (Yes, her identity has been spoiled for me but I’m going to continue to play along in case anyone reading this remains unaware of it.) Aaron sets up a suitably heroic threat for her to overcome, and she displays some real guts and ass-kicking skills -- along with some ingenuity in wielding Mjolnir -- that make her an easy character to root for. The artist of this arc, Russell Dauterman, also displays some impressive attention to detail with his character designs and environments while also making the action appear suitably epic. Though the opening story is clearly designed to give the new Thor a solid win, that apparently conflicts with Aaron’s long-term plans for this series. So even though she’s able to stop the threat of the frost giants, Agger and Malekith prove to be too crafty to suffer her wrath here, which is disappointing.
The final issue in this collection shows Thor interacting more with the Marvel Universe, by breaking the most-deserving jaw of the Absorbing Man, and how the Asgardians are reacting to her presence. Save for Freya, the answer is “not well” and it sets up the main conflict for the next volume. Jorge Molina provides the art for this issue and while I really like his new simplified art style, it’s something that works best with a really bright color palette. Not the low-light murk that the artist himself decided to present here. It’s still a solid issue overall, showing that further interaction with her fellow superheroes and villains is something to be looked forward to.
February 5, 2016
Charles Soule and Alberto Albuquerque’s sci-fi crazy train rambles on a bit more unsteadily than it did in the previous two volumes. That’s because of the two stories being told here, one of them is handled in a more entertainingly dumb fashion than the other. This would be the story that takes place on Earth, in the middle of WORLD WAR III! The conflict set up between President Blades and the U.S. along with Ex-president Carroll and his A.F.E. coalition has come to pass and the two sides are busy duking it out for the fate of the world, unaware that there’s a bigger threat on its way to them. What keeps this entertaining is how Soule manages the constant shifting of the momentum between Blades and Carroll. Both men are capable of consistently surprising the other, with some new twist showing up to tip the balance back in the other man’s favor just when you think that they’ve won. The surprises do get ridiculous after a while, and the war is depicted in just enough strokes to make it appear credible and nothing more. Toss in bits like the First Lady’s “Lady MacBeth” moments and the reveal of Carroll’s master plan and I hope it’s clear why I think the story being told here is kind of dumb. It is, however, great fun to see unfold.
Then you have the exploits of the crew of the Clarke spacecraft and I want to start throwing “dumb” around again -- this time in a pejorative sense. Having been taken in by aliens whose tech is demonstrably superior, you’d think that the crew would do anything to antagonize their hosts lest they be vaporized in the blink of an eye. Kidnapping and dissecting one of the smaller beings in the hope of using its tech to send a message to Earth is not a good idea regardless of the situation. Even if you do get the message out, I doubt that the aliens are going to look too kindly on the human race as a whole after your actions. Then you’ve got the ridiculous soap opera dramatics between some of the characters here that just makes me think, “And THESE were the best people for this job?” all over again. I would’ve preferred to see more of the aliens, or the sci-fi shenanigans involving Gomez’s transformation and Hayden’s kid than most of the interpersonal drama we got here.
Albuquerque’s art continues to fit the story well. He’s great with the scenes of global conflict on Earth and the sci-fi look of the alien tech. The man also manages a moment with Gomez that gets my vote for “Best Death Scene That Cable Hasn’t Had Yet,” and feel free to make of that what you will. Some might have issue with his characters and how he gives them an exaggerated look -- especially when they get almost bug-eyed with surprise -- that can take you right out of the story. I give him a pass on that aspect because, like most of this series, it’s the right kind of crazy in my book. At this point, “Letter 44” still isn’t what you would objectively call “good,” but it is entertaining.
February 4, 2016
What do "Nimona," "Terror Assaulter," "Black River," "Killing and Dying," and "Shaft" all have in common? I ordered them all together to see if they deserved a spot on my "Best of 2015" list.