Friday, February 22, 2008

Some Comic Book Reviews

Gotten a little behind. News of impending layoff, a car accident and subsequent health dealings and a few days off to spend Valentine’s Day with the one I love can do that to a person. Well, the Hallmark holiday has come and gone, I’m mostly recovered, got a new car and still face an uncertain future on the job front in a couple of months. Hey, here’s a thought. Instead of worrying about immigrant labor taking menial and blue collar jobs while still putting some money back into our economy (they still gotta live and eat while here), how about doing something about all of those jobs being sent overseas to third world countries. Far more Americans are actually losing jobs to outsourcing than laborers being brought in to clean Wal-mart in the pre-dawn hours.

THE SPIRIT #14. A new creative team comes aboard, Aragones, Evanier, Ploog and Farmer. The results… it’s an OK book. It’s actually more akin to the type of book I would expect when someone announces they are bringing back a character like Will Eisner’s Spirit. Stylistically, it’s more akin to Eisner’s work which unfortunately means it’s devoid of any real life because the story is really about capturing the spirit of the creator and not the spirit of the character, the Spirit himself. Darwyn Cooke had taken the character and combined the retro charm and some stylistic flourishes of Eisner and merged them with his own style and storytelling creating a piece of Fusion Jazz in comicbook fun. Whereas this is more of a college band doing a cover tune and just succeeding with it mostly.

ZORRO #1. Like Dynamite’s SUPERPOWERS, there’s a painted look to the comic that I feel sadly undercuts the artwork. It’s a pretty book, but the artist, Francesco Francavilla is capable of such lush linework it seems a shame to lose it.

Like THE SPIRIT, the end result of the book is one of being merely OK. While it’s giving us the origin and background of the character, it does so through flashback and narrative so we still see the title character in action (which they didn’t do with the Lone Ranger book which is why I didn’t get it, I’m sick of monthlies that are written solely for the Trade Collection in mind).

However, I hope that they paid some serious royalties to Isabella Allende as it makes heavy use of her over-hyped novel. Maybe not “over-hyped” since that implies that it was heavily hyped. It just seemed that those that read it loved it whereas I thought it was good but nothing really special. She romanticized the Indians too much in contrasting them with the evils of civilized men. Plus, making Zorro being truly part-Indian weakens the character a bit. His empathy now stems not from just a sense of justice and right & wrong, but partially because he's one of them. He has a vested reason to care. It’s subtle, but I think it’s also very significant as it changes the character’s basic motivation.

I’m not really sure why there needs to be a big focus on the origin story anyways. The concept of Zorro is fairly simple to understand and thanks to movies and such, people already understand the basic nature of the character. A little bit to establish the context and status quo and take us directly into the actual stories. And give him back his mustache! It’s better than no Zorro comic, but if you haven’t read them, I’d recommend going to the store and through the back issues for Topps’ version done by Don McGregor (which he continued as a gorgeous daily newspaper strip that also has been collected).

BRAVE AND THE BOLD #10: This comic keeps getting better and better. Although why they are replacing Perez on the book in what’s the final issue to the current story arc makes no sense, even as much as I love the work of incoming artist Jerry Ordway. At least it’s an artist of a comparable style and skill.

Here it’s still Perez and continuing the story of the classic Challengers of the Unknown reading the Book of Destiny serving as framing stories of various team-ups. We have Superman traveling to the past and teaming up with the Silent Knight and a slightly more recent past as Aquaman teams up with the newly formed Teen Titans on the day of his wedding to Mera. The book deftly shows why Perez is a natural for this title as he is able to draw superheroes, knights, a dragon, kid sidekicks in an underwater environment and make it all work wonderfully. Waid gets credit for actually making me laugh with a comment by Green Arrow about why Speedy wasn’t present.

Waid also makes me groan though with the Silent Knight giving his last name as “Kent”. It’s just too cutesy. Not to mention, wasn’t the Silent Knight one of the Hawk God avatars and thus according to Geoff Johns’ cosmology, a reincarnated Carter Hall? It’s one of the big problems with DCU right now, their continuity is totally screwed up, this time just rebooting and changing things arbitrarily such as the Doom Patrol, the past Justice League membership (again), the various books with different versions of Teen Titans. B&B seems to embrace that convoluted continuity as we have the original Challengers of the Unknown (though Red was wiped out of all existence a reboot or two ago), the current Doom Patrol makeup, but the old Metal Men who have also been recently rebooted if I got the gist of Will Magnus’ involvement in the mega-crossover last year and the current mini-series. So, ignore all the stupid retcons and such and just read this title. It’s more fun anyway, better written and drawn than about anything else put out by DC right now.

The Twelve #2. A good second issue. I only had a few quibbles. Such as why does Captain Wonder's chin look so humongous when he's not wearing the mask but more square jawed generic when he is wearing it? It's just plain distracting. We really don't see anything about Fiery Mask, Laughing Mask, Witness, or Mr. E. That's a pretty large chunk of the cast. Reading a bit about Mr. E's golden-age stories, he strikes me as being far more interesting a character than he's been played as here. He had a vampire as an arch villain! Bringing Electro into the compound makes zero sense in context of the story other than JMS needs him to be there.

Have to wonder about the timing of the narration as well. We know that it's the Phantom Reporter looking back to the early days out, but it implies that he's still ignorant of Vietnam and television especially if he's aware that the Rockman's people had never been discovered. JMS seems to not be able to keep PR's narration sound logically as if it's being done in the present, after the fact that he and the others have returned to active duty and not revealing too much when talking about the events happening in the recent past, so depending on the scene PR sounds as if he's narrating just as it happens. Instead of his narration being fully in the present after the end of the story, it reads as if it’s only in the present of whatever scene is being presented. That’s bad writing. Also, with PR’s job and background, it's a bit hard to bite that he's still out of the loop and having that hard of a time adjusting. The fact that there are still newspapers and such, he'd easily find a job regardless of the loss of "sources". Technology has changed, but a reporter’s job wouldn’t be that different.

My biggest quibble is the main plotline isn't delved into at all, despite it being the final climactic page of the first issue and the first page of this one. Will probably read fine in trade format, but a little frustrating in the monthly. It’s coitus interruptus of comic book storytelling.

However, JMS totally delivers on the heroes out of time bit and looking into different characters. The Captain Wonder scene was completely natural and organic and very powerful. It defines for us the type of man that he is and is heartbreaking in its pathos. I liked in seeing the hints of the Black Widow's dark background. And we feel a bit for Rockman. I hope his origin stays in place though (I don’t really care for mentally ill superheroes). Sure, in today’s context it is a bit fanciful, but this is the Marvel Universe after all. We know there are undersea and underground kingdoms and such. One more isn’t really a stretch.

FANTASTIC COMICS: Erik Larsen had this to say about his book:

And yeah, you may have seen "The Twelve" and maybe even "Superpowers," but this is another animal entirely.

This isn’t a depressing “everything has turned to crap and look how old, tired and silly looking these characters are” story -- we’ve seen those tepid tales time and time again ever since Alan Moore trotted out Marvel Man. This isn’t some pale imitation of an Alan Moore story -- it's an upbeat, energetic “look how cool these characters are and can be” type of thing.

Unfortunately, he’s wrong and this really didn’t live up to its potential. Overall, it was more pastiche than anything else, full of cutesy and slightly mocking elements in its attempts to be lighthearted. A big indicator of where it went wrong is the fact that it chose to mimic the bad paper and printing of 25-60 years ago with rough paper and out of register printing. See, right there it’s not about the story-telling and the characters, it’s about Artifact creation. It’s not about embracing cool characters and looking at what the creators did right in those days and telling stories that live up to that but looking at what was limiting and wrong, the parts you make fun of now that things have advanced past that. And, it’s trying to recreate an experience not through the story itself but through the physicality of the product. This prevents the art and writing to really deliver the story because the product itself is part of the story and as such the whole point is to be aware of the fact that it’s not real but a fake.

The individual stories are a hodge podge themselves. Larsen’s Samson tale illustrates the weaknesses of Larsen as a writer as it’s mostly just fluff mocking the idea of kid sidekicks. I’ve not read SAVAGE DRAGON in some time, but here his artwork looks rushed despite the powerful cover. Captain Kidd and the Golden Knight are the two of the most obscure heroes here, but their stories are also the best of the lot with only a few cutesy groaners. Yank Wilson starts off well, but denigrates into being more cutesy over-the-top parody than an action story. Stardust is an essay disguised as a story in that it’s more or less “about” something than a story in and of itself. Flip Falcon is interesting but it also is an exercise in completely re-inventing the character into something drastically different. Space Smith reads as a chapter in an ongoing story that’s completely pastiche and low on substance. Sub Saunders is appropriately 90% in German in that it makes the text of the story as indecipherable as the hideous artwork.

THE PHANTOM #16. Another book that has been getting better and better lately. The artwork and storytelling has settled into a decent consistency. A couple of story arcs are being tied together, telling a moving opening chapter to the next arc. One thing I liked with the recent issues is they are finally bringing something to the Phantom that was solely needed: villains worthy of the character. When superheroes were starting out, there was a tendancy for the flashy heroes to have a bit more mundane foes. The more mundane the hero though, the flashier his villains were, as if there was only so much un-reality they could put on the page. Eventually, supervillains become more and more prevalent as the public became used to the idea of super-characters and wanted to see adversaries worthy of the heroes, not just situations requiring Superman to bust down a wall (thus, a shift towards the story being about conflict and jeopardy and not just a display of ability). Eventually, Holmes had a Moriarty.

For some reason, the Phantom never really caught up. While he’s been in print for decades in both strips and comic books, his foes seemed to get increasingly mundane. The only fanciful stuff about the Phantom seemed to be the Phantom himself. He needs stories and adversaries that are as colorful as he is. I’m not calling for superpowers, aliens, and true supernatural elements to be brought in, but I am saying I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing a little of the larger-than-life sense of those things to be injected alongside the stories of real concerns of Africa and the jungles.

Also, of interest in this book are two of the ads of upcoming comics by Moonstone. One, the return of Captain Action! As a big Gil Kane fan, there’s a lot this series is going to have to live up to, but I’m hoping for a fun book. And Chuck Dixon is returning to a classic character he helped re-introduce people to 20 years ago: Airboy! A little pet peeve as the ad is a bit misleading that if you aren’t aware of the fact you might assume that Chuck CREATED Airboy himself and not just updated the character for the 80’s.


Doctor Zen said...

I stayed away from TWELVE and FANTASTIC because I thot they'd be exactly what you describe. After your review of SUPERPOWERS I'll still get it, but mainly for the Ross covers.

I kind of disagree about the Phantom. It's kind of refreshing to have a hero who has put down every bad guy he's gone against, so that they never return. I guess maybe the Singh Brotherhood may count as a recurring "villain," or did he put them out of business too? I agree that the SF/supernatural element should be kept out, as the Phantom's use of superstition to build his legend makes no sense if such things are real. That's the one thing I didn't like about the Billy Zane movie.

cash_gorman said...

I didn't care for the Phantom's rings having powers or him talking to his ghost-father, but no real problem with the skulls being objects of power. And I thought Billy Zane made a very good Phantom. And Treat Williams is normally a very good actor. Heck, most of the cast I've seen in other stuff are proven as decent actors able to deliver far more than their hammish performances in this movie.

I don't want to see a parade of recurring villains in costumes but I do think we could look a bit to Tarzan, Doc Savage, G-8 and the Shadow for some inspiration on how to do some colorful adversaries and stories that are worthy of the character. Doc and the Shadow had hundreds of adventures but Doc had only one on-screen recurring character and the Shadow just a couple.

Falk went to some effort to give the Phantom a vast milieu and history to operate out of, not just Africa, poachers and fortune hunters. His opponents should likewise be a bit larger than life, out of the scope of people that can be handled by the cops and such.

I should say the Phantom is my favorite superhero, bar none.

Anonymous said...

Mine's a toss-up:
Flash Gordon
Doc Savage

Phantom, Buck Rogers, Green Lantern and Buffy are close runners up! and one off-track: ME's Jet Powers; allus wanted a superscientific secret HQ!

cash_gorman said...

If I tried to list more than one, it'd open the floodgates. I have a fondness for all the pulp heroes, (Doc Savage, G-8, Doctor Zero in particular), ERB's characters, Ditko's Captain Atom and Blue Beetle and so on.

And there's always Sherlock Holmes.

I have read only one or two Jet Powers. Bill Black reprinted an adventure in one of his books. I liked it, he struck me as pretty interesting character.