Friday, July 11, 2008

Hellboy II & Comics

Hellboy II
Guillermo del Toro delivers in this sequel. Where the character and the comic stories tend to be plot heavy, del Toro continues along the vein from the first movie in giving the characters heart that can be identified despite their bizarre appearances. The story builds on the romance between Liz Sherman and Hellboy as well as getting more into Abe Sapien's skin. The end result is a story that is at times a little more introspective and fairy tale than just a plain action/adventure.

There's plenty of action, though. Because, Hellboy is hardly the intellectual type, his solution to a problem, punch it or shoot it. And, what is a Hellboy story if there aren't plenty of bizarre creatures and giant monsters to fight? Del Toro manages to balance physical conflict with a more personal and cerebral. Hellboy cannot confront his personal problems with Liz by punching them. And, he chafes at being kept on a short lease as the government wants to deny his existence to the world and he desires to be part of it, to be recognized for the job that does. And, the government brings in a new handler to control him, one who is both tough and cerebral, the ghost in a containment suit similar to an old diving suit, Johann Krauss.

It's not just Hellboy as the secondary characters Abe Sapien and Liz also have their stories to work through, as Abe discovers his own human side and Liz must decide her own future and whether Hellboy should continue to be in it. Ironically, the most human of the three, she seems to be more honest with who she is. Abe and Hellboy both deal with their freakish appearances in different ways. Abe denies his human side and Hellboy wishes to deny that which sets him apart. Liz may look human but she has come to terms with the freak within her, and understands better than the rest risk humanity poses.

Del Toro and Mike Mignola prove to be a great blending of the visual talents of the two. Even when the story is more, well, story than action, it is a sumptuous visual feast from creature designs to massive sets such as the walk through the BPRD, the Troll market or even the library and Hellboy's quarters. If anyone should direct a John Carter of Mars or a movie based on R. A. Salvatore's dark elf fantasy novels, it should be someone with del Tormo's sense of vision, who can make a fantasy look both strange and familiar and blend seamlessly with the everyday.

He also balances a sense of humor with the horror, the fantastic and sentimental. A scene near the middle between Abe and Hellboy manages to be both funny and moving. It's an achievement on the parts of the director as well as actors. It helps that Ron Perlman and Doug Jones are both used to making sure their acting is carried through layers of make-up and special effects. Perlman from seasons as the Beast, the romantic hero of the tv series BEAUTY AND THE BEAST and Doug Jones who has been the body actor of several creatures in PAN'S LABYRINTH, Silver Surfer in last year's FANTASTIC FOUR, and the body but not the voice of Abe Sapien in the first Hellboy movie. Unless a viewer is closely paying attention, the replacement of David Hyde Piece with Jones as the voice this time out is not noticed. Both make the characters seem totally human and sympathetic despite their appearances and in Abe Sapien's case, very limited facial emoting range.

The story also sets up the elf prince Prince Nuada as a sympathetic character, more antagonist than villain. His actions are one that honestly sees the events he sets in motion as the sole way to save the race and the world itself before humanity destroys it. While he is willing to do bad things to achieve his ends, he doesn't really come across as necessarily being wrong. If the story falls anywhere, it skirts over this a bit in the middle. It's too quick in setting up humans fearing and turning on Hellboy and the rest and doing the turn towards "fighting for a humanity that fears and hates them" and dealing with the allure of Prince Nuada's cause and the Fairy people where they can fit in. The issue is gone almost as soon as it is raised. Likewise, we don't really see how the rest of Fairy feel about being drawn into a new war with humankind.

Jeffrey Tambor's character also gets short shrift, played up a little too much as being the straight man for Hellboy and the rest as well as being the one person that's wrong so everyone else is right. The humor is used to diffuse the fact that the character really does have a thankless job made impossible by Hellboy's antics and he devolves further into just a brainless bureaucrat and suck-up.

Another issue that this and the last movie basically ignores but cannot help wondering about, why normal people only armed with guns serve the bureau? They serve as nothing more than cannon fodder and considering what they have to face, it would seem a job that's only suitable for the suicidal, that no one normal is going to make it to retirement age. If a situation calls for someone like Hellboy, normal agents without special weaponry, abilities or at the least, body armor are all but DOA. Why would they be sent in and why would they go along with it?

But, minor quibbles to a gorgeously told comic book movie with more story and layers than your average action flick much less one based on a fairly shallow comic book character.

Avengers/Invaders #3: Missed this one when I went to the store last week. It's easy to miss a title when you're gone for 3 weeks. I also came close to missing a few other comics this week as some titles I just picked up and read last week so I wasn't really looking for a new issue this soon of the Captain Britain and Guardians of the Galaxy titles.

The coloring of this issue has the same problem as issue #2. The reds are too magenta, the blues of Bucky and Captain America close to being purple. The cover is beautiful, being more Romantic than the photo-realism of Ross' painted style had previously allowed. Maybe he learned a little painting over another artist's pencils (Doug Braithwaite in JUSTICE). One can feel the warmth of the sunny blue skies reflecting off the Sub-mariners over the ocean. Likewise, Steve Sadowski's pencils are very strong.

The story likewise delivers on setting up the conflict between the Namor of the 1940s and of the present day. It's faithful to the more headstrong persona the character was not only originally but when he was dusted back off in the 60s, the character who always seemed to be spoiling for a fight and leading with his fists while the present-day Namor is one who has learned hard life lessons and the power of diplomacy. If only Krueger showed such faithfulness to characterization and history when writing SUPERPOWERS.

Captain America and Bucky... it's still playing up Bucky as the bad-ass commando, even though this is still the youthful Bucky. To the point, that Captain America seems almost a fraud, willing to let Bucky take charge and take point.

The Black Coat: Been too long since an issue of this has come out. To make up for it, there's 2 stories in this special, one b/w and the other with a limited color scheme. Black Coat is taking the patriot superhero and setting him in the days of the American Revolution. As such, he not only fights the British but also more fantastic menaces such as a couple of monsters in these two adventures. Top shelf stuff.

Captain America: White #0: Shows how to re-tell an origin, remaining faithful to the source material while adding to it. The artwork by Tim Sale is a beauty to behold as well. These minis by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale are so true to a graphic novel concept and so beautiful and comepelling in their own right, they are the few works that I feel are really worth waiting for and getting in a collected format. They belong on a bookshelf as their own self-contained entities.

Captain Britain and MI13: There are several references to Alan Moore's Captain Britain series and Merlin's schizo history in the Marvel U, but none that are really germaine to the ongoing storyline, just a few bits of dialogue might leave you scratching your heads. The resurrection of Captain Britain is not a big spoiler, the book is named after him after all, but it does make one wonder why have him die to begin with. Other than it gave a neat cliffhanger and allowed the story to be dragged out for another 2 issues, it does seem like a lot of hoopla over nothing. Barring that, this is still a decent read with upstanding clear superhero artwork. It will be interesting to see where this goes when the storyline is not dictated by the Event.

The Last Defenders: Disappointing all the way around. One, apparently the artist or the writer doesn't know, Kyle Richmond wears a jetpack to fly, it's not a natural ability. But, like every issue so far, all he does is whine and fly around trying to avoid getting hit. If anything, the book makes it hard to care for the character at all, it plays him as such a putz. Two, the last issue blurb for this one mentioned the Son of Satan was in a "defenestrating" mood. It's an odd word choice and has nothing to do with this issue. Three, so much of this issue is not only so much gibberish, it's Casey basically crapping on the history of the Defenders by saying all the other writers got it wrong, that the Defenders should never have been about the Hulk, Namor and Dr. Strange. Even if you think that it is a bad line-up, Casey solidifies his position AND his choice of Defenders by having the story itself say that it was wrong. It's him using his power as writer to have the story STATE that his position is correct instead of using his ability as a writer to SHOW us why his team is so great. And, consider this is the whole point of his mini-series, to completely deconstruct the Defenders concept to put his own team in place as replacement, but we're not really getting a storyline that really showcases those members. Throw in Initiative machinations and a couple of villainous plots that really made no sense and got zero development, and this is a mini slated for the quarter boxes of the future.

Guardians of the Galaxy #3: Hopefully the narration device of the characters giving mission briefs from the futre while the mission is still unfolding for the reader won't be kept up. For one, it takes away any sense of jeopardy when you can see that the character survived the storyline as he's talking at some point in the future while in the present he's getting a grievous knife wound. Likewise, Mantis' ability as fortune teller doesn't do much to endear her. Right off the bat, a cosmic being that she cannot read is introduced. It's having Superman or the Flash on a team, stories have to be constructed so that her ability is not a factor.

Adam Warlock has real magic powers? Just one more instance of these characters having the same name as heroes in the Marvel U., but they don't really look or act much like it. Oh, we can apply that criticism to Starhawk as well as he also gets a kewl makeover so that he only generally looks like the old Guardian of the Galaxy. Let's see, even though they were saving the universe in the first issue, they still came into the space church with guns blasting and killed scores of the church members. While this church is pretty much scum and little regard for life, it still doesn't say much for our heroes either. That they cannot even see why the church would have a legitimate beef with them after they killed a whole bunch of their members... I had hopes for this. The Annihilation minis that lead into it seemed to receive generally good marks from comic fans so I thought I'd give it a shot.

Justice Society of America #17: Likewise, this is more of the same as members try to come to terms with Gog, both in costume and out. It's a bunch of nice character bits in a team that has too many characters, a situation that Hawkman at least seems to recognize. I didn't get the Hawkgirl series so I don't know how they resolved things between Hawkman and Hawkgirl, but we know in the pages of the JLA, she and Red Arrow are getting it on. Part of me just feels that isn't right, this Hawkgirl is in part the reincarnation of Hawkman's wife, it's her spirit. Then again, the mechanics of religion and souls and such have been a subtext to this book since the beginning with the ideas of people being good and moral beings but born without souls, people losing souls but still able to go on as good as ever (not being close-minded here, in the DCU, souls are proven to exist), and in the case of Kendra, she has the biological brain of one person but the soul of another, who is she really? Issues raised but never really resolved or made sense of. In the midst of it all, you then have Mr. Terrific who's an atheist. So, it's best to pretend that these questions don't exist and move on. Johns does manage to further the plot in the midst of all the character moments which is great. No one really seems to question Gog's basic healing and solving all of mankind's problems, think someone might raise the question if we have a god that meets all our needs, what is left for us to aspire to? And, then there are the reasons we haven't solved those issues that also isn't raised here (or in books like JUSTICE), the solutions to those problems have human obstacles. There are people that are in power that keep their people hungry, starving, etc. Where are the people that see the arrival of Gog and his goodworks being a threat to their powerbases and the status quos that keep them in power? And, even if you can cure the land of pollution, people of malnutrition, what do you do tomorrow when they still aren't getting food, when more pollution gets dumped into the air and streams. Likewise, Gog setting out to abolish war... how does he do that without taking away free will? It's one thing to feed the hungry and heal the sick, but how do you stop the very concept of war? The idea of Gog and the story being told raises a lot of issues and questions. It's good Johns spent an issue dealing with some of them and even better that he made sure to go ahead and advance the plot before much more time has to be spent examining those issues for which there may not be near enough space to come up with answers for, or at least honest examination.

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