Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Reviews and Happenstance

ABE SAPIEN: THE DROWNING #5 (of 5): This murky tale comes to its conclusion. I still don't know what to think of it, maybe I should read all 5 at one time to immerse myself in the total experience. The art is gorgeous, with Mignola's layouts and pacing, but a very different rendering sensibility. And the color is spot on. Somewhere, it just doesn't quite come together. I can't help but think that it's because Mignola is a better artist than writer. Without him on the art chores and with Abe Sapian as a lead character, what one really gets is, this is no Hellboy. The story and art are too serious for how shallow of a tale it really is. Shallow tales work great with Hellboy because in many ways, he's a shallow character who survives through toughness and sheer audacity. Abe is more sedate, as is the artwork. The story reflects that as well, it doesn't have quite the off-the-wall creativity and imagery of the menaces and ideas that get thrown out there normally. Unfortunately, Mignola doesn't replace what is missing with anything to give the story more depth.

THE ALL NEW ATOM #24: Part of me says the reason why this title suffers and is about to be done away with is its title. Seriously, "All New" should have been dropped after issue 6. After 2 years, it seems like it's still trying to be taken seriously by distancing itself from all other Atom series. Still, it had a good run, beating out all the other launches.

As usual, the cover by Ladronn is gorgeous. Both iconic and indicative of the interiors of story in the book. I've always liked Chronos and his rather goofy costume. For some reason, on a woman, that costume actually looks a bit creepy and dangerous. I liked him better as a thief with a penchant for clocks and time than an actual time-traveler though.

We get a bit more direction as the story rockets to its conclusion. As time travel is involved, there's still some confusion as timelines overlap. Remender tries to keep the craziness up that Gail Simone brought into the series, where almost anything can happen yet keeping it well-grounded in characterizations and nice-guy hero Ryan Choi. The only thing missing is the personal feel that was brought to the story by all the quotes from scientists, famous within and without the DCU.

Pat Oliffe tries his best to ape Gil Kane in places, the microscopic serpents are out of Kane's Sword & Sorcery comic work and I see a sense of his anatomy and musculature in some of the superheroic renderings. And he shows off just how creative he can be when Ryan is brought to Lady Chronos' lair. Almost completely lost are in the background we see the Chronos costume from the wonderful 1998 Chronos series by John Francis Moore and a little robot whose job is to sweep up the broken glass from Ryan's arrival.

Can hardly wait to see how it all ties up next issue.

AVENGERS/INVADERS #2 (of 12): We get more Avengers this time out. We see Stark trying to control a situation that he cannot really. If for no other reason that not just the Invaders came through but also one of the soldiers. There's plenty of action.

Yes, you have to be aware of a lot of what's going on in the Marvel Universe outside of this title to understand quite a bit of the character conflicts and the other characters involved. The Bucky here is in full Brubaker mode as his first response when the Avengers attack is opening fire with a machine gun on them, luckily choosing a target that is bullet-proof. And when he's able to escape, it's because of just how much of an edgy trained commando he is. Hate to tell you Bucky but three out of four Robins would have been able to escape without scarring their arms up.

The coloring or the printing is off this issue, the magenta plate is way too strong. Thus the reds are dark and the blues are more lavender.

FX #4: Another great issue knocked out of the park. It follows the structural format of the previous ones in that the first act is a continuation of the second act from the previous issue. That story wrapped up, it introduces a new menace (as well as Wayne Osborne's homage to the FF). We also get a few other little mysteries hinted at, hopefully leading to more revelations about the origins of FX's powers and such. The comic manages to present what feels like a fully realized superhero universe without bogging us down with all the details. And more importantly, so far without tying all the characters and powers to a single origin source, thus sapping out the sense of wonder important to superhero comics. I only hope this will somehow continue as an ongoing, or at least as a series of mini-series.

JUSTICE LEAGUE of AMERICA #21: OK, this has been out for a little while, but just now getting around to getting it off my chest. Even Dwayne McDuffie, the writer of this series, knows it's been plagued by being nothing more than a tie-in book since he's come on board. Each issue has been to set up themes continued somewhere else. Next issue he promised in a press release is supposed to be tie-in free. Now, how bad does this mean this has actually become for what should be one of DC's flagship titles?

Overall, this isn't a bad issue. We see a super powered crook actually acting somewhat intelligently by using his powers to pull off bank jobs and NOT embroiling himself in some free-for-all with the heroes. Of course this means that he gets targeted by Libra to be part of a new Secret Society of Supervillains. The villain is such a two bit schmuck, it's hard to believe that he's being trotted out as the reason that the skrull formerly known as the Martian Manhunter is being offed, in another book. Pacheco does a wonderful job on the artwork. Probably too much to hope he stays.

What really bugs me though is the opening sequence where Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman have a private secret meeting. You'd think that for such a meeting, just a side-room in the new over-the-top sci-fi Hall of Justice would suffice. Or in the Batcave. Or the Fortress of Solitude. Or in the Invisible Jet while it's on cruise-control. No, this meeting is in some trans-dimensional secret room that John Henry Irons and John Stewart were able to come up with in their down time that would make Reed Richards envious. Then there's this whole "Trinity" matter of this over-long scene. Even Batman seems to recognize that the meeting and scene is all about setting themselves up as being special and elitist. It's not them being special by virtue of who they are and how genuinely good they are, but it's them deciding that they are indeed better than all of the other heroes. Cannot help but think of how the Question viewed a similar situation on the JLU, and there it was just another regular room and it was for the Seven original JLA'ers, not just three. It's dangerous uncomfortable ground, where one has to question the motives of the "heroes"... is it ensure that justice and fairness are done or is it about keeping control now that they are the ones in power? Where's the safeguards to make sure the world doesn't need protection then from what's decided by them in their little safe-room? Who told them they could have that kind of power? These are issues I'd almost expect to be raised in a pseudo-Justice League book, that it's part of the whole point of something like The Authority. But, when you're actually dealing with Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, this type of self-importance leaves a bad taste.

JUSTICE SOCIETY of AMERICA #16: The story takes a bit of a left turn as the big bad seems to be a genuinely good "Old God" of peace and who couldn't take sides in the war between good and evil. What we're missing from this issue is the actual conflict. There has to be something more here beyond a god who only wants people to be happy and will cure all our ills. Let's face it, if he can come and cure the sick and the broken, why wouldn't we let him? It's not like we're doing such a great job on our own. All we're getting in this issue is the pitch, we've not seen the cost or fine print yet.

Sadly, the story starts off re-iterating James Robinson's take on the golden-age Atom and Ditko's Stalker. It's not depicting the Atom as someone that struggled against adversity and could serve as an inspiration to people, but the Atom as a mindless thug (and the Stalker as a villain). Robinson set the Atom up that way in THE GOLDEN AGE so that he could then rescue the character at the end. But it's also a characterization that he pretty much kept in place in the All-Star mini. Here, the depiction is blunted a little bit by it being mentioned third-hand by Damage who seems a bit resentful to the guy, not really doing either character justice.

I will state it's that tendency of James Robinson that's keeping me from getting his upcoming Justice League series as well as his run on Superman. Apart from the JL series concept being totally re-tread of the Outsiders and Justice League Elite, it's him showing how cool classic characters are by changing them. His take on Kirby's Atlas is much like the Stalker as it is turning the character into a villain. He's great with his own creations, with other characters not so much because his idea of well-rounded characterizations are saddling heroes with great character flaws not small human traits, emotions and individual voice.

JSA CLASSIFIED #38: One Wildcat storyline finished up, another one begins. Like the last one, it's a good story overall, showing the strength of the character. Part of that is it's by veteran Batman writer Mike Barr. The artist this time around is Shawn Martinbrough, an artist I've not seen much of. I remember him also from Batman titles a while back, doing an excellent job. This time around, Wildcat has dropped the wrappings on his arms and looks the better for it.

A few questions pop out. One is plot related. Somehow, Wildcat picks up the hand print needed to get by a secure door. But, we don't see just how managed to lift a whole hand print. Just kinda glosses over that story point.

The other problems are outside the actual story. Does EVERY story about Wildcat have to center around fighting and sports? Sure, he's a boxer and a good fighter. But that'd be like having every Iron Man or Batman story centering around white-collar crime and high finance, all of Dare-Devil's be courtroom dramas, Superman would only fight space aliens, and Wonder Woman would be about Greco-Roman Mythology. It's part of who the character is but it shouldn't be used to limit the stories.

Another question is the nature of his identity, Ted Grant. Does the world know he's Wildcat? Because, Ted Grant, unlike the rest of the JSA-ers, is a celebrity outside of the costume. Possibly even more famous in certain circles if sports fans in the DCU are like the ones in the real world. Yet, no one reacts when they see Grant looking 40 years younger than he should. Another reason not to have stories playing up the fact that he's a known sports figure.

STAR TREK - ASSIGNMENT: EARTH 1&2: If you're paying attention, John Byrne has three comics coming out. This and a mini about Romulans are two of him playing in the world of Star Trek, the original series. This is an interesting series in that it's a spin-off from a specific episode that was supposed to be a pilot for a tv show that never happened. Sadly, I don't even remember much about the episode other than it had Terri Garr in it. So, there's a lot about Gary Seven I really don't know much about and this comic doesn't really help matters much. The comic has the feel of how Doctor Who might have been developed in America and they hired Steve McQueen to play the lead. The time frame is unabashedly the 60's, Byrne goes through quite a bit of effort in keeping the feel of the original series to the designs and such. I wish a little more effort was spent in developing the lead character some instead of keeping him a generic cypher.

The second issue is further maddening as it has a nice little conceit in that it's taking place during a specific episode, the second time the Enterprise came into the past and tells the story from a slightly different point of view (think DS9 doing "The Trouble with Tribbles" episode). However, great pains are taken not to use the likenesses of any of the original cast members, so bad photography tricks are used to cut off heads, catching them from their backs, etc. I assume this is so not to have to pay royalties, but it's so obvious as to what it's avoiding, it keeps the story from actually being a fun romp.

TWILIGHT GUARDIAN #1: An interesting experiment for a superhero comic. It has been unfavorably compared and contrasted to KICK ASS but to do so is to do both series a disservice.
Sure, both are looking at what would it be like if a comic fan really chose to dress up and go out as superheroes. However, this character is about someone who decides to patrol her neighborhood in suburbia, not actually seeking out people to fight. It's an introspective story of someone who has become a bit disassociated with real life and seeking to make her real life more like the fantasy one she reads about. It's Don Quixote without the parody, satire and wit. She patrols her neighborhood, commenting on life in suburbia from the point of view of someone who chooses to be an outside observer of life instead of living it.

The chief reason I picked this title up though was something about it struck me as being familiar. I've read a story extremely similar to this but I'll be danged if I know where. The concept strikes me as being worthy of a mini or even a novel, but I cannot imagine it as an ongoing comic.

THE WAR THAT TIME FORGOT #2 (of 12): Wonderful cover by Bolland. With the last issue cover by Neal Adams, this looks to be at least a beautiful series on the the front end. The Golden Gladiator, Viking Prince and G.I. Robot get added to the cast of time lost soldiers, which should be wonderful stuff. The Gladiator, Prince, an ancient Greek by the name of Cassus and a few others seem to be the other side of this conflict as they follow the orders from a malfunctioning G.I. Robot, mistaking him for some kind of god. Where it slips is the writer plays up his Mary Sue characters, making them look good. Instead of opting to find what made the likes of the Golden Gladiator and Viking Prince heroes, they serve to be more "realistic" by being brutes and ruffians, close minded due to their barbaric time periods and natures. After all it wouldn't have been too hard to have some other Romans and such also involved and contrast the nature of Gladiator and Viking Prince with them. Bruce Jones could stand to revisit the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs and even Robert E. Howard and see how to write characters that can be savage and brutal but still retain that heroic and noble nature. Hopefully, we'll see the classic DC characters take on bigger roles instead of just background guest-stars.

TELLOS COLOSSAL: I missed this mini-series out when it first came out years ago and was very happy to see that Image was collecting it in a single volume. It's a good mini-series and the late Mike Wieringo's artwork is such an obvious joy to behold. Apparently, Mike was still with us when this was going to press. I'm reminded a bit of LEAVE IT TO CHANCE though the two series don't have much in common other than an infectious sense of fun and whimsy while not shying away from touching on real life. What Jeff Smith's MONSTER SOCIETY OF EVIL almost achieved. I hope that writer Todd Dezago is still able to bring more of his and Wieringo's vision to us.


I apologize for the random nature of my postings. About 6 months ago, the newspaper I worked for announced layoffs, that it was getting rid of the majority of the people that produce the ads and graphics for the advertising sections in favor of outsourcing said jobs. But, I had the job until the beginning of June and I couldn't really argue with the severance package as I'd been there for over 18 years, the majority of it scanning, toning, and sometimes creating graphics for publication. I trained on Photoshop 2.0 or 2.5.

I think a lot of the thinking going into the layoffs is backwards, that they are looking things primarily from an accountant's point of view. Shortly after I started working at the paper, back when it was family owned, the industry was going through some changes. Many cities also used to have both morning and afternoon papers, at one point these were competing papers, but some of them had merged such as Greensboro News and Greensboro Record, became a single morning paper The Greensboro News & Record. The News & Observer had an afternoon paper by the name of the Raleigh Times, and it was one of the last that I'm aware of before it bit the dust. Now there's a bar and restaurant downtown by that name.

But, a big wave of exciting changes was pretty much begun by the publication of a national newspaper by the name of USA TODAY. Computers were increasingly more powerful and essential to the work. USA TODAY embraced computer technology, state of the art printing, and a pop-culture approach to news with colorful graphics, not just photographs, but graphs, maps, side-bars, etc. Being national, they pushed carrying last of the minute sports scores, photos, stocks, etc. Being national, this affected papers across the country in a way that if it was just The Washington Post wouldn't have. USA TODAY was a direct competitor in ways that television and radio weren't. They were in almost every newspaper market putting together a slicker package than any of the local boys were capable of doing.

Did newspapers retreat into their shells, start laying off people in efforts to cut costs due to lost revenues? No. Because if they had, they'd have lost the long game. That didn't address the core problem. To be competitive in this new market, papers were going to have to spend money.

I was one of the last people trained on the system of producing two daily papers. Half of my training was followed by "this won't matter in 3 months." I was also the last person trained on setting ads on the old machines before the Macs were brought in. Being one of the few people that had worked with Macs, I was also about the quickest to be trained in the new system. I taught myself rudiments of Photoshop and Illustrator (ironically for doing comic-fan stuff) before it became part of my job. Scanners were bought, more and more graphics would be digital as opposed to being "pasted up". We worked at streamlining color processes and receiving satellite photos digitally. The big push was also in deciding about upgrading the press and whether it would involve getting a new building. Millions were spent in new equipment, training, and even bringing in new people. Risks were being taken. Our paper was one of the first to have an online presence and because it was all so new, we had to also be an IP provider to the community. For quite a while, my pastor had a newspaper email address. The son of the publisher was quoted in THE INDEPENDENT when talking about the risks in the new designs and such to the effect, "It's not brain surgery. If something doesn't work, we can change it. No one dies."

A shift slowly happened. Typesetting and pasting up ads and newspages were considered trade jobs. By coincidence, I was the first of many to come later that had a college degree in Journalism, with a background in art, photography and some computer experience. As what was considered pre-press morphed into something different, the new ad-designers would have more formal training in graphic arts and design. More and more of them, this was part of their career choice, not part time jobs or something you could just train on the job.

I talk about that to show the difference in thinking between the newspaper when it was privately owned and now that it's corporately owned. It's not just us, but newspapers across the board. The last time the industry underwent fundamental changes, it was seen as opportunity. To stay competitive, money had to be invested into the people, their tools and their training. Those blue-collar people weren't laid off. Some did leave. Most of them stayed. They learned the new skills and were in place when new people were brought in to plug gaps. One of the reasons of the outsourcing? They figure they can save money in the long run by not having to update computers and software (and people I assume) even though they are spending thousands right now. It was that kind of thinking that lead the newspapers to either go under or spend millions in upgrades and updates when USA TODAY came out. Because most of the equipment hadn't changed at that point in decades, the press alone was close to 40 years old, even though the technology had made huge gains. Comic books were printing using newer technologies than the newspapers were.

Instead, having trained and talented people is considered not an asset but a liability in the new newspaper environment. Don't look to ways to make use of them to make money, but as ballast to toss off. Instead of looking to improve quality and customer service, decisions are made that EVERYONE including the people responsible for making the decisions know are going to result in worse quality, more mistakes, and less customer service to the advertisers. The one person to benefit from this? The guy that is responsible for making many of these decisions just got promoted, he's going to be making more money.

It's hard for me to be too upset. As I said, I'm getting a nice little severance package that allows me some time to decide where to go from here. And there was a 50/50 chance that I'd leave anyway in a year or so as I'm dating someone from another city, a 2 hour drive. So, I've got options. I've been developing some freelance work, ironically supplying realtors with graphics for their big real-estate book that is printed and published by the paper that laid me off.

And, I'll be taking a trip to India starting on Friday, so I'll have minimal computer and comic exposure the next couple of weeks. After that, who knows? I plan on taking some classes to buff up my web-design skills and continuing with my freelance work while I decide what shape the next stage of my life will be.