Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Hellboy, Green Hornet, JSA, Hawkman's war crimes

Hellboy/Beasts of Burden: Sacrifice: One has to give Mike Mignola credit. In creating Hellboy, he has arguably created one of the more significant and successful comicbook heroes created in the modern age. And, he did so by following what interested him. He liked drawing monsters. Big monsters and big fights. So, he created a character that was himself somewhat monstrous and a world that had even bigger and badder monsters. His art-style which was already developing into something unique was well-suited for it. Now, quite a few years later, his creation has developed into an empire and universe by itself. It's spawned two successful big budget movies, a short-lived cartoon series, several novels, a regular spin-off comic in B.P.R.D. and regular mini-series with the main character himself. Mignola doesn't do as much of the art these days, but he keeps a hand in and regardless of the writer or artist so that each book still manages to keep to his vision. In the days of constant retcons, complex continuity and overly ornate and rendered artwork, Mignola has managed to still follow the K.I.S.S. method, Keep It Simple, Stupid. Part of the appeal to Hellboy is his relative simplicity and iconic background and design. While the character has had his status quo change and various things concerning his destiny revealed, and a large supporting cast and world developed, the character himself is still basically the same guy from all those years ago. It is also interesting to note that this was all done by not having a regular ongoing series with interminable storylines, flooding the market with different continuity versions, but through minis, specials and one-shots. Along the way, he developed a storytelling style that incorporates the best of gothic horror, German Expressionistic silent films, Lovecraftian menace and even the Hammer films. His art grows more abstract, but still recognizable. He uses non-storytelling panels interspersed through pages to set mood and reinforce the story's symbols and themes. You have to wonder if the people at Marvel ever look at Hellboy and think about what they could have done if they just let Mignola run amok with Thor, the Thing and their horror books. Would Mignola have been just as happy doing the same thing only using characters like the Living Mummy; Deathlok; Blade, the Scarecrow; the Golem; Frankenstein's monster; It, the Living Colossus; Ulik the troll; Adam Warlock; and Morbius the living vampire?

The simplicity of the character has lead him to be able to fit alongside many other characters. At this time, he's appeared with Batman and Starman, the Savage Dragon, Dark Horse's Ghost, Painkiller Jane, John Byrne's Torch of Liberty, and now a bunch of talking dogs and cats protecting a town from supernatural threats in Beasts of Burden. Which is what this review is really about.

I missed out on the first arc of Beasts of Burden, it was halfway through when I first heard about the series and it looked interesting. Yet this one-shot is not marred by that at all. Ivan Dorkin and Jill Thompson manage to create a group of animals with mostly distinct and yet familiar personality types that even being thrown into the world, it feels like suddenly finding old friends. When revealing the villain and that he is a foe the beasts have met before, enough information is given that as a new reader, I don't feel left out of the story, I'm given all the info I need to continue on without a hiccup. The art manages to make the animals expressionistic without devolving into being cartoony, almost Disney-esque in manner. Their variety in looks and personalities is almost bound to remind a reader of a favorite pet, endearing them instantly. The book is lushly colored in a water-color style that's evocative of many children's books, yet not becoming at odds with the supernatural story or the odd guest-star. Instead, it gives the book a certain level of realism, that allows you to buy into the world of talking dogs and cats fighting undead monsters and such. The animals retain a certain cuddliness and cuteness while the danger and threats seem real and mystical.

Overall, one of the best single issue comics I've read in a long, long time. It makes me want to go out and buy the trade of the first Beasts of Burden mini and continue on reading about them.

Baltimore: The Plague Ships #3 of 5: With this issue, I realize there has been a bit of decompression in the story-telling. We're at the middle issue of the mini, but in reality the plot behind the title is just now getting introduced. The first issue introduced us to Baltimore as a character, the current status quo and his traveling companion. The second issue spent quite a bit of space going over the back-story of the events of the novel, explaining just who Baltimore is and what happened to him. This issue we get even some more back-story of what his mission is, why he does what he does and why the vampires and the plague exist. After a storm with giant sky floating jellyfish, Baltimore and Vanessa find themselves washed up on the shore of a graveyard for German submarines as well as other ships full of plague victims and a strange mold. And, the blurb for next issue reveals that even more of Baltimore's back-story will be revealed.

The trade-off though is that this pacing does help maintain the mood, the sense of ever impending doom, that we're looking at the last days of man even though it's set in the final days of WWI. With the aid of the dependable Dave Stewart on the colors, this is a world of bleakness and depression. The sun never shines and mankind has found itself to be small ineffectual beings in the world, subject to arbitrary rules and events. The average man has gone from fighting on the battlefields at the behest of their nation's leaders for unclear political reasons in a war that encompasses the world, to finding out that even this man-made construct of war must give way to unknown disease and plague, and other dark things that man's science is unequipped to explain. Telling a horror story in comic form that can truly scare and linger with you, needs that feeling of mood and impending doom. It has to take time to develop characters that you care about but also can believe that something truly horrible can happen to. So, despite the decompression, I think overall it works for this type of story and I'm interested to see what new horrors can be visited upon the long suffering soldier Lord Baltimore.

Captain America: Patriot #3: The cover is very strong and could almost serve as a lead-in page for the comic, as this was the climactic moment of the previous issue. Yet,  I cannot help but feel it would have been better as the cover to the second issue, setting up an inexorable fate for the end of that issue. It's not like that  Bucky II's fate is uncharted territory and would thus be revealing some new twist. The cover's power is completely undermined by having the day-glo green Hulk in the box in the corner serving as an advertisement for a cartoon. I grew up when the boxes used to have little thumbnails of the characters' heads or full body shot, so I think it would have been kind of neat to see one of the Patriot there. The Hulk is just a little jarring though.

The book maintains its strange dichotomy of being both well-written and well-drawn in some regards and disappointingly cliched in others. Heck, even on the first page you have it. Mace is a reporter, so it's kinda neat to have the first page be a pseudo mock-up of The Daily Bugle relating the story so far in a couple of articles. Yet, the effect is ruined in the main article as the writing style is clearly just a recap and not a faux news article though the secondary article on the page manages to maintain the illusion of a news article. Kesel delivers on making Mace a likable and stand-up guy with a sense of tragedy about him. Yet, Mace is consistently played as being a second banana to almost every one else, even the second Bucky. He has a few nice moments but at no point does he really come off as a really cool character in his own right. Instead, he seems to be defined by his mediocrity, deserving his obscurity beyond a single defining moment. Kesel gets points though for remembering the second Cap's bullet-proof cloak when he was the Spirit of '76 and was a kewl moment to have Golden Girl to be wearing it. An odd bit of synchronicity trivia: she dyes it green. The Spirit of '76's cloak was blue but he was visibly based on the Fighting Yank who had a mystical cloak that gave him powers including being bulletproof. The Yank's cloak was already green. Kesel also manages to tell a story, a complete in each issue while delivering a longer story, something that is a lost art amongst many more critically acclaimed comic book writers. The heavy handed foreshadowing of the previous issue was indeed meant as a red herring as surmised being possible and that there might be more to Mary, something more mundane and less obvious than just going bad.

The art continues the dichotomy in that the cover is very powerful and there's quite a bit of subtlety in the Breitweisers' colors and pencils. The fighting mad Captain America is very well done. But, the toned down colors keep characters like Golden Girl to really stand out and seem, well, golden. For the sake of realism and a nostalgic mood, we have none of the sense of wonder inherent in the superheroes. Yet, we have the Torches standing around in full flame for no reason, in a hospital no less.

Green Hornet Year One #6 of 6: The mini chronicling the origins of the golden-age Green Hornet draws to a close. Storytelling and artwork holds to much of the standards set by the other issues and there's a neat little nod to the movie serials as the last page of a newspaper headline reveals "Green Hornet Strikes". Yet, I found this all anti-climactic in the end, despite a nice long fight scene. It's an origin storyline and so there's only so much that can be done. The status quo is introduced but the hero cannot be so successful that it renders it senseless for him to continue to fight crime. Hence the problem of tying the hero too strongly to a specific menace or mission, in this case organized crime. Instead of opening the way up for many types of stories, it's limiting and confining. What you are almost forced to end with is the hero successful in establishing a status quo but no strong victory otherwise in order to stay within the character and story's themes and limitations. The main reason this feels flat at the end though was despite all the small menaces and dangers met and overcome over the course of the story, there was no real sense of danger or threat to the main story or menace. There was no Third Act twist that upends the hero's plans, that sets things to a feeling of the real danger of unraveling. No sudden new or unrevealed menace or twist to the villains' plans. We know the Hornet and Kato won't die, but there's not enough of other characters established whose lives we should care and fear for that can suddenly be threatened to up the ante.

JSA #44: It's probably saying something that of all the comics I'm reviewing and reading, this is the only ongoing. And, if it was of anyone else other than the JSA, probably wouldn't be getting it.

Marc Guggenheim is a good writer. As a writer for Law & Order, he knows his way around characters, plotting intricacies and dialogue. I enjoyed his brief stint on Aquaman. I wish we saw some of that writer show up here. Much of what I didn't like isn't what I've seen panned on other reviews. I'm not especially bothered by Mr. Terrific discovering himself losing his intelligence. It seems to be a separate sub-plot and that is the whole purpose of plots and stories, to set up obstacles, trials and tribulations for characters to go through and hopefully emerge from the other side. I thought that was well handled showing a Mr. Terrific losing his intelligence is still smarter than most every one else in the room. Nor was I bothered by a previously unknown villain showing up and handing the JSA's butt to them. We need new villains other than seeing Mordru, Karkull or Solomon Grundy trotted out again. Sadly, the way that was done, not handled nearly as well though. Just as, I don't have a problem with Alan Scott being able to be physically taken out, but it's still done badly for several reasons.

First off, we have the fact that this overall plot is similar to the one-off by Robinson revealing Alan Scott heading up a mystical city on the moon. So, already we are covering the same ground in revealing Jay Garrick is slated to be mayor. The Fourth Reich storyline was kicked off with Alan Scott being killed and the JSA/JLA story of him being taken over by the Starheart. So, again we have him taken out first and with incredible ease and somehow being the blamed for what went wrong. And, while it has been established that he is really mostly an energy being, he has a physical body because mentally he still thinks of himself as being human. So, it's no surprise that a sudden attack could kill him or even break his neck or back. But, by the same token, short of immediately killing him or putting him in a coma, it's hard to injure him in such a way that he cannot come back once he's conscious. So, why is he being treated in a hospital as if he's like every body else and obviously with not Dr. Mid-nite overseeing as a ridiculous diagnosis as being paralyzed for the rest of his life would be ludicrous? Then there's the whole bit about them being somewhat surprised by the idea of super-powered terrorists despite a twelve issue series pitting them against Kobra. At some point, the editor should have stepped in.

The comic starts off with a modern day sequence of Jay being chosen as mayor and then jumps back in time to tell how they got to that point. Yet, the comic doesn't end at closing the loop, it doesn't answer the central and simple question posed by the first page. See where I praised for Kesel managing to tell a complete story that was part of the larger whole, this is where this is falling down. We have a deliberate and awkward storytelling device and it's used badly in terms of the issue. One, such scenes are usually ones of cliffhanger manner, rife with angst, questions and durm and strang. However, this is a very mundane scene played almost comically melodramatic. Second, despite the rather simplistic and mundane nature, it fails to deliver the payoff.

Then, we have the villain. As I said, I don't mind he's a new threat. But, he's a complete cypher. We don't know what his powers are, how he's able to handle the JSA with such ease, what his motivations are. He's being held by the CIA, and yet the JSA is sent to handle him with zero intelligence on the guy. Then, we are asked to believe that he can easily reach through the energy constraining bubble generated by Green Lantern, shrug off the magic by Dr. Fate not to mention the attacks by the others yet Lightning has enough juice to take him out?

It's hard to objectively judge the artwork because traditionally, Kolins' artwork can lead me to drop a book. The heavily painted style manages to sublimate the normally negative physical reaction I have to the point that I look at it and can say "it's readable" and be happy with that. There were scenes that confused me such as when the villain uses a sword to take out the t-spheres. The spheres are so obscured by the lightning effect in the earlier panel that I actually didn't realize it was them hitting the villain with the electric bolts since we have a character with that exact power. So, I was confused to see him swing his sword with what looked like blood streaming off of it and wondering how Mr. Terrific was continuing his cold logic internal monologue while being eviscerated. The villain's taking Green Lantern out was likewise poorly done as it doesn't really portray anything. I'm not asking for a graphic scene of the character getting his back/neck broken, but all we see is the villain reaching out and grabbing Green Lantern by the neck and just tossing him aside. Nothing suggesting the possibility of severe physical trauma. My only gripe concerning Wildcat who's left with not much to do is that the art for some reason makes him look to me like he's wearing Get Fuzzy's Bucky cat as a mask.

Here's hoping that the second issue will prove to be stronger than this initial foray.

Nature of Comics today: Here's a panel of one of the current comics put out by DC, the so-called Brightest Day. In it, we have the superhero Hawkman not merely torturing a villain but actually maiming him and tearing off of limbs. This is what passes for superheroes and the return of heroes? Who actually okays this stuff? Seriously, I see a scene like this and there's no way I could support a new ongoing Hawkman series unless there was some fundamental changes being made to the character and his nature. And, why I feel justified in staying away from the larger DCU in general and these massive continuity driven stories and events. And, I wonder why I don't see people on the comic boards reviewing the comics and interviewing the creators asking these questions. How the mighty and noble JSA have fallen.