Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Naruto and the Great Disappointment: A Post Mortem (Op/Ed)

Aww shucks, we waited too long to put him down
and now 'Yellers gone rabid
[Note: This manga is long as hell and it's been a long time since I read the vast majority of it. If I get something wrong, it's a memory issue. This manga ran for something like fifteen years; you're bound to forget some things.]

Six years. That's how long I lasted before I gave up. I thought I'd mostly put it behind me and even laughed off the ending for a while when I'd heard about it. But the more time passed by, the more irritated I got. Eventually, all those old wounds re-opened and I had to write something about it.

I'm in a rare position where I really wish I could get the time I wasted following this mess back. When the hell do I ever feel that way? If you've read much of my site, you know I have a tendency to excuse a lot.

But Naruto, I find I can't really excuse, because...

- Narratively, this manga was all over the place

As far as stories go, I generally feel that you can pretty much do what you want as far as structure goes. To the surprise of no one who has read my blog more than three minutes, I'm heavy into superhero comics. Often, they are continuing universes that provide the opportunity to create a rich mythology around the characters and their world, which can be spun into many great self contained stories or runs. But I'm also a fan of manga to a lesser extent, which often attempts to create one over-arching storyline to rule them all, occasionally spinning off from there.

Both approaches are equally valid and have led to amazing work, whether we're talking, I dunno, Batman Year One - to go for the laziest possible example - on the American side and, say, Rurouni Kenshin on the Japanese. Or hell, even Dragonball Z, if you want an example that blends the two; that series could be broken up into four or five distinct "sagas" that, while ultimately tied together by the lore of the world, essentially dealt with their own thing.

You know what doesn't work? Throwing out said format halfway through. Take a wild guess what manga pulled that one.

The offending moment that unraveled the series happened past the halfway mark. It was also the first time red flags went up in my head. I'm sure you remember it. After a long arc focused around Shikamaru, we checked in on those wacky boys Orochimaru and Sasuke to see what shenanigans they were up to. It was at this point that, without warning, Sasuke decided he hated Orochimarus face and killed him so he could go do absolutely nothing of consequence for a while.

Keep in mind that Orochimaru wasn't exactly a third rate villain. Up to this point, he was very clearly The Big Bad. The Voldemort of Naruto with a dash of Ra's Al Ghul, if you want a comparison. He made his presence felt during the first ridiculously long plotline of the series, gave a sense of focus, made for a clear threat and was positioned to be a driving force for the rest of the manga. He had, by the end of Part One, convinced one of the principle characters that turning his back on everyone who loved him was totally rad (I mean, come on, give it a try, everybody's doing it), killed a hokage and even had an entourage so powerful a bunch of the ninja kids came an eyelash away from death. In Part Two he'd taken a bit of a backseat while the Akatsuki established themselves as secondary antagonists, but he held his own against a furious, Nine Tails empowered Naruto at a point in time where he couldn't even use jutsu. At one point, Naruto survived against Sasuke only because Orochimaru felt he could still be useful. He was still the evil mastermind behind the scenes.

Keep in mind, the vast majority of this was happening at a time when his body was falling apart. Didn't matter. Even with a failing body, when Orochimaru rolled up to the party, s*** went down. Up until he jobbed to Sasuke, anyway. So Akatsuki could take his place as a major antagonistic force, I guess? I don't know. The manga wouldn't be known for good decisions past this point.

At the time, I gave the author the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were going somewhere with it. The rest of the manga had, to that point, been tightly plotted and not a lot went to waste. This had to be deliberate, right? Orochimaru would return as a force to be reckoned with, he was just being taken out of sight for a while before he returned to piss in everyones cornflakes.

Spoiler alert: He didn't. Return as a force to be reckoned with. He came back eventually, sure - three billion chapters later - but he would never again be a driving force behind the manga. From what I understand, they never even bothered to wrap up the matter of his ass walking around again before the manga ended. He meant so little by the time they decided to call it a day on the entire series that they up and forgot about him.

From there, the manga didn't seem to know what it wanted to do. Akatsuki took over, but they never held the pure menace Orochimaru did; they started with about nine guys, but they couldn't go a single fight without someone getting their ass killed. Then Akatsuki Leader was the big bad for a bit while taking the name Pain, because why not, it's not like this fucking thing could get any more ridiculous, right? Then he jobbed out and fucking Tobi of all people ended up being the antagonist. For a while at least. It won't come as a shock to you that the ultimate bad guy turned out to be an Uchiha, because frankly the entire series was more about that family than the title character.

The rest just kind of fell like dominoes, with motivations getting murkier, characters acting like morons and the few gems buried under a mountain of bulls***. But it all started when Naruto threw out its main antagonist for no good reason and never recovered. Truly a life lesson for us all; ADD plotting does not make for a great series.

- The pairings the manga ended with made no sense

Clearly, Naruto mistook his mother for a black haired
woman with crippling social anxieties.
Naruto is, in fact, blind.
The manga ended with the titular character shacking up with Hinata, who you may remember as the character that did absolutely nothing of consequence, pretty much stalked the guy and had a total of maybe three conversations with him throughout the entire work. They even had a couple of kids. Said pairing, like all the others, was revealed in an epilogue so amazingly half-assed that even JK Rowling would have advised a second pass on the script.

Here's how developed that relationship is: They actually needed to focus the last movie of the Naruto anime on fleshing it out so it doesn't feel as fucking stupid as it actually is. Spoiler alert, it fails. Outside media doesn't matter; if you wanted to do it, you should have in the actual series during the fifteen some odd years you wrote this bloated monster, rather than building the title characters rapport with an entirely different female for the entire thing.

Ridiculous relationship two is Sasuke and Sakura. At least this one had some connection early on. Trouble is, the manga - and characterization - marched on. Sakura started as a fangirl for Sasuke, but steadily matured after he left to the point where he was barely a factor in her life anymore. If anything, as the manga wore on it seemed like Naruto loved the guy more than she did, practically breaking apart at his every mention. For his part, he never genuinely liked her and tried to kill her and Naruto on more than one occasion. They weren't even on good terms near the end. So of course she ended up marrying the guy. Good luck, I'm sure that will work out.

I remember there was a discussion on a forum I used to go to about all this, asking if the author was bad at writing female characters. There was this one older lady on there who strongly disagreed, saying that the author was a feministic writer and the way Sakura was built was proof. I kind of wonder if she's re-evaluated that stance in the time since. By the way, the answer is yes, the author is awful at writing female characters.

But hey, forget both of those pairings. They're not even the worst. Can someone explain to me where the hell Sai and Ino came from? Did they ever even speak to one another? This is a legitimate question. I guess if any pairing ever illustrated how awful this series is at romance, that would be it.

At least there's precedent for that one though. Remember Asuma and Kurenai? Of course you don't, they barely spoke to each other prior to Asumas death. Then suddenly we find out they hooked up offscreen and she was pregnant with his kid. All in service to the plotline of one of the ninja kids. who barely did anything before or after that arc. So it's not like this kind of insane, out of nowhere horseshit never happened before.

Naruto: The Best at Romance.

- There are never any consequences

Okay, never may be a strong word, but the statement is generally true.

The point where I flat out gave up on the manga came two thirds of the way in. Near the end of the Akatsuki shenanigans, the Leader decided to show everyone who was boss by wiping the village of Konoha - home of every character that mattered - right off the damn map. It was shocking, exciting and stoked the flame of my dying interest. Could he even DO that? What does this mean? What is Naruto going to do? There's barely a village left. Does he take charge of the situation, help rebuild the village with the survivors after defeating the leader and become Hokage, leading it back to glory? Is there even enough LEFT to rebuild? The possibilities seemed endless and there didn't seem to be a way out of it.

Instead, true to form, the author had said villain make a last minute face turn and basically resurrect the entire village before dying. Because of course he did. Why would he do anything else? It was the last straw; I stopped reading in disgust and only checked in with the old online haunts every couple months to get the gist of what had happened, holding on to a small, laughable hope that maybe the series would turn itself around.

I said true to form, because the worst kept secret around is that the author of Naruto is the King of Cop-Outs. The Colonel of Cold Feet. On numerous occasions, he'd script something bold, then pull back at the absolute last possible minute, almost as if he were afraid of how it might change things. Nothing big ever really happened. No one important ever seemed to die, even if they'd been given the comic equivalent of a eulogy. On the one occasion that someone did, the impact was felt for maybe twenty chapters before it stopped being a thing. Whenever someone kicked the bucket, it was a non-entity like Asuma, who contributed a grand total of nothing to anyone, even in death. Everyone else almost always survived, including Hinata, who at one point decided she was going to buy Naruto some time, charged at the Big Bad of the week and was hilariously shut down before she even got a hit in. The villain stabbed her clean through the back. Of course she survived, because she was so important she went on to... uhh... marry the main character out of nowhere in the epilogue?

The earliest example I felt the pull back was the end of Part One. The fight where Neji almost died, in fact. That entire thing could not have screamed "this is goodbye" any harder if it tried, from the symbolism to the word choice to the tone. He's dead Jim. Only, oops, no he isn't. For the longest time, I thought I was just mistaken and he'd never been intended to actually die. I re-evaluated that when the manga made a suspicious number of reversals as it marched on. There may even be an earlier instance, but that was the first that stuck out.

For the record, Neji went on to do absolutely nothing of consequence from there before dying later in some ninja war. Frankly, he'd have been better off dying the first time. At least then, he'd have really made an impact; imagine that last arc of Part One if one of Narutos friends died in the midst of Sasukes abandonment of the village. It was tense as it was, but adding in the death of someone Naruto made a positive impact on would have only strengthened that.

Oh, speaking of Sasuke and the utter lack of consequences. He turned his back on his home village to go hang out with the villain that had murdered its leader. He very nearly killed the guy who considered him a brother. He hung out with every one of the three million "Big Bads" of the manga at least once. He even joined Akatsuki at one point. Pretty sure he killed a bunch of people at one point. Oh yeah, and he said on more than one occasion that he wanted to slaughter the entirety of Konoha for supposed crimes against his family of overpowered monsters.

Guest what his fate was. You'll never get it. Not in a million years. Would could possibly be fitting of such a treasonous, outright bastard? Ready?

He's pardoned for every one of his crimes, ends up marrying the closest thing the manga had to a heroine - and someone he cared little about - and ended up accomplishing every goal he set out to do.

Proof that it sure is handy being the authors pet if ever I saw it.

- This manga had a nasty habit of forgetting who the main character was supposed to be

Naruto always had a bad habit of meandering, even early on. But back then, those fanciful strolls through drawn out plots at least had the decency to feature the main character and did a good job of fleshing out the world. One also has to give some leeway here; it is a Japanese manga, after all, which are well known for being decompressed to their breaking point. I mean, a lot of these series have an eighteen or so page chapter put out a week, so a lot of it is going to be ponderous, if only to fill space. What do you expect?


Part Two, however, had a bad habit of letting the title character linger off screen for obscene lengths of time. The big Shikamaru arc didn't feature him at all or even accomplish anything, for that matter. It was about lazy genius boy and the death of his useless mentor.

Then there's the period of time right after Sasuke shivved Orochimaru. They might as well have renamed the manga "Sasuke and his Amazing Friends" at that point, because for a solid six months worth of weekly chapters, Not-The-Main-Character and his team of toadies wandered here and there, boring the audience to tears and making us all question the purpose of life.

Not helping is the fact that the entire arc was also a waste of time; it served the express purpose of giving Sasuke his own group to replace Team 7, whom he betrayed. Guess what they went on to do? Suck air. That's about it. They contribute next to nothing. If this were an American cartoon from the 80's, I'd assume they were made for no other reason than to sell toys. Hell, they may have been for all I know; I'm not sure how much of that sort of lazy shilling they do in Japan. They're businesses like anywhere else, so I assume that sort of thing has to happen occasionally.

These wouldn't be the only occasions either. None of the extended breaks accomplished anything. I'm going to go into ex-fan theory mode for a minute here, so what is to follow is rooted in nothing more than speculation. I've long wondered if the author of Naruto simply got tired of the story he was telling for whatever reason - hey, he'd been doing the same story for, what, eight years by this point and barely made it halfway through, so I could understand that feeling - and decided to throw whatever he could at the wall to rekindle his interest. It would explain a lot, like the long breaks from the main character, the nonsense additions to the world and even why he would simply discard the villain he'd been building for years without warning. I don't know. Maybe we'll never know.

What I do know is that a lot of this manga felt as though it were more about Sasuke Uchiha than the guy whose name was on the cover. Maybe that's why the manga drifted from Naruto a lot in Part Two. He didn't have the authors favorite character hanging around all the time anymore to ensure he'd always be in the thick of things.

- The Title Character accomplished about half his goals, but some were practically handed to him

Lets take a quick look at what Naruto wanted at the outset for a moment, shall we? He wanted to become Hokage. He wanted to win the heart of the girl he cared about. To earn the respect and admiration of the village that had shunned him. All simple goals. Easy to keep track of.


I'm not even going into number two, because that's a touchy subject. Women are not prizes to be "won" or anything of that sort. Obviously. Still, it's worth noting because one of the things the manga did right was build the friendship between he and Sakura from nothing. She hated him at the start, he cared deeply for her. Over time, she began to see him as a true friend and they became closer throughout the manga.

It was one of the most believable personal relationships in its growth over time and still might be a highlight of the whole thing if there were anything else to latch on to. That was thrown all away in the epilogue, for a pairing that lacked even a thousandth of the build or natural story flow. Go figure.

Number one and number three I will get into, because those are tangible goals that don't rely on the feelings of another person. Number three he definitely accomplished on his own. Naruto had finally gained the respect and admiration of the village a good halfway through, just by his very nature and the things he'd done for them. I guess once NaRudolph got to be a semi-famous ninja who'd rescued some important asses from possible death and ended up a trusted friend of the sitting Hokage the rest were ready to let him join in their reindeer games.

The Hokage thing I'm chalking up as a failure. I know, I can hear you now. "But he WAS Hokage at the very end". Yeah, because Kakashi - his ascension a convenient plot excuse for Sasukes pardon, because the author clearly felt there was no other way out of that mess - stepped down. The entire point of the characters journey was that he was going to earn the right to be Hokage and make everyone respect him. Instead, it happened years later in-universe in a denouement, after the actual story had wrapped. Just one more thing you can say essentially happened offscreen.

- The big theme of bonds never made a lot of sense

"Hey Sasuke, remember that time we
touched fingers? That meant we're brothers."
"Thanks for ruining the moment with
your creepy stalker shit. I'm going to
stab you now."
Before I really touch on this, I'm going to say up front that this could easily be a culture thing and therefore a difference I probably wouldn't get without explanation. I don't know. It happens. It doesn't escape me that manga, while well loved in America, isn't exactly made for our audience. I'm not belittling the idea of your work having a theme either. It isn't necessary, but theme is important, especially early on when a reader has little to latch on to yet beyond that.

That said, I never felt like the titular "brother bond" made a lick of sense.

For the vast majority of Part One, Naruto and Sasuke were rivals. They barely got along even on a basic level and there was never anything suggesting some deep bond between the two. They came off largely as somewhat friendly rivals who kind of tolerated each others company, maybe had a bit of respect for the other guy and appreciated the idea that they were team-mates.

When Sasuke left, suddenly the manga decides to beat us over the head with the idea that these two have a bond of brothers. The proof? A quick scene of a time when, years ago, Sasuke briefly reached out to a lonely Naruto. Nothing more, nothing less. Past that they didn't have much more than the rivalry thing.

Look, I've had friends I considered as close as a brother. It takes a hell of a lot more than that. A hell of a lot more in common, at least. It also doesn't come out of nowhere. Same goes for small moments that have a big impact on us. I've had that happen with actual family. They're fond moments I look back on. I still don't excuse said family members bullshit and, to this day, hate their guts long after they died. Even family - we're talking genuine blood family - doesn't mean you excuse everything they do.

So, we're left with a theme that had zero buildup when it appeared. That left it on shaky ground. If your big bonding moment doesn't ring true, how can anyone buy into what you're selling? How can they look at a moment and think it flows naturally from what we've been shown?

From my own perspective, there came a point when Narutos desire to bring his "brother" back got a bit disturbing. Sasuke did a lot of bad things in the manga and was, for the most part, not the most mentally stable character around. None of this was reflected in Naruto. Rather than some character moments or reflection on why bringing Sasuke back was so important, he doubled down. There were points where Naruto felt as though he were becoming obsessive. Maybe even as far as an obsessive, stalkerish ex-boyfriend. He cried, he couldn't talk about the guy without plummeting into depression, he even physically fought anyone who came to the fairly reasonable conclusion that "this guy is causing us some serious problems and we have to do something about it".

The main character became creepy in service to the theme, which may be a sign you've either taken it too far or you simply flubbed the execution and now the whole thing doesn't make any sense.

- With the series wrapped, it's now clear the emotional journeys of the characters meant nothing 

This may be the one that hurts the most out of any of them.


Take a look at the epilogue. Look at the situations they have found themselves in and the resolution to plotlines. Did anything that really happened in Part Two make a lick of difference?

I mean this in several ways. At the start of the manga, Naruto wants to be hokage and secretly kinda worships Sasuke. At the end of the manga, Naruto is Hokage and still kinda worships Sasuke. Sakura starts as a viciously immature girl who hates Naruto and has a straight up fangirl crush on Sasuke. At the end, she's a housewife to the guy she had a shallow crush on at fourteen. Sasuke started out as the coolest ninja in the room with his family bloodline granting him the best ninja power at all and his family name guaranteeing he had the respect of anyone. He ended the manga having accomplished all of his goals, marrying a girl he didn't even like - he magically accepted her two plus years past feelings for him in the last couple chapters, because good writing - and even got to have a kid to continue his doomed bloodline.

You notice what you don't see in there? Anything that happened in Part Two. Because the epilogue made it clear none of it mattered.

Much of the development of the characters ended up having little effect on where they ended up. Naruto learned so much in the meantime, skillwise and emotionally. He deepened his friendship with Sakura. He became one of the best ninja around. Didn't matter. He ends up Hokage only when his mentor steps down, well after the manga itself has basically ended. Sakura pushed herself, began to emotionally move herself past said crush, became a strong emotional pillar to her friends, became a fighter so strong she impressed a lot of people and became the best combat medic you could ask for. She ends up a doting housewife.

Oh, and Sasuke? Sasuke betrayed his village on numerous occasions, joined with every villain around, at one point declared he was going to slaughter the entirety of Konoha, killed a few people and tried to kill his best friend. Didn't matter. He was pardoned by his one time mentor - conveniently Hokage at the time - paid for nothing he did and didn't even really have to deal with personal consequences for his gross violations of trust, broken friendships and the aftereffects that would naturally occur after you try to murder a couple people.

My point is that the epilogue made no sense after everything that happened. The only way you can really draw a straight line between what we saw and what we ended up with is if the manga stopped at the Chunin Exams, skipped everything that happened after and went right to the epilogue. Which makes you wonder... why the hell did I even read this crap for so long?

Couldn't tell you; I've been asking myself that question since long before the epilogue was even a thought. Years before. The epilogue just made it entirely clear I'd wasted my time.

- The series has a boatload of missed potential

You've been reading my blog a while, right? If not, one trait you'll probably find if you read more is that the works that make me the saddest are the ones that have all the potential in the world and end up squandering it. I find these projects fascinating - it can be fun to dissect them, figure out where they went wrong and what could have been changed - but they're equally depressing. Naruto is one of them. Look, I wouldn't have kept reading for a little over six years if I didn't think this manga could be something special. I still think that, for whatever flaws it had, Part One and the first quarter of Part Two had all the right stuff and could have led to something great. There were so many great moments, the series felt as though it had purpose, everything felt planned.

Now, it exists to me as a curiosity. Something I once enjoyed, but went so very wrong that the entire endeavor ended up a ruined mess. Did the author get burnt out? Was he forced to continue it longer than he wanted to? What was even the point? What was he trying to say with this? Was he trying to say anything? Was it ever intended to run this long? Would it have ended sooner - with a better overall ending - had it not become a global phenomenon for a time? Was there a point it could have been salvaged?

Those questions hang over Naruto. We'll probably never have the answers. It simply exists as it is, a series that could have been something but ultimately ended up a failure. More than anything, that makes me sad.

It also makes me want those six years back, but we can't have everything. The next time I read a shitty superhero comic, I can take heart. At least when the current writer leaves, there's a good chance the next will take the characters I love and do something amazing with them. You'll never see that with Naruto and his friends. I'm still deciding whether that's the saddest part of all.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Batman/Superman: Cross World (comics)

Writer: Greg Pak
Artists: Jae Lee, Ben Oliver
Collects: Batman/Superman #1-4, Justice League #23.1: Darkseid

A good writer paired with a fantastic, but slow, artist. Said team is put on a monthly. Guess what went wrong?

By now, Batman/Superman has a bit of a reputation. It's constantly late, with delay after delay marring its schedule. Prior to the relaunch, this kind of thing wasn't as big of a deal unless the delays got out of hand - see Superman: Last Son - but after a relaunch that's done a good job of reigning in a publishing line riddled with delays, a comic like this will stick out like a sore thumb.

But hey, do you know what people never remember after a book has hit collection? Yup. Delays. Lucky, then, that Batman/Superman is good enough that it will probably overcome its punctuality issues as years go by.

It never hurts to start from the beginning. Cross World is the story of the first meeting of Batman and Superman in the New 52. It may even be the first time their initial adventure as a duo has been told in decades. So already it has instant appeal. Throw in alternate Earths, doubles from said Earth, even the impending threat Darkseid and stir. Not a bad concoction.

Cross World is not nearly as earth shaking as I probably make it out to be, but it serves its purpose well as an introduction to the Worlds Finest Team. Pairing them with older, wiser versions of themselves on their first adventure - who are, in contrast to "our" Batman and Superman, long time best friends - is an inspired move that serves up a nice contrast. Nothing groundbreaking, but it doesn't need to be; you don't always have to reinvent the wheel.

One thing I particularly enjoy is that it has a place in the puzzle of the DCU's beginning. There are plenty of things to criticize when it comes to DC's approach to the New 52 initiative, but one thing they did right was to stagger the rollout of any origin stories, taking that task one piece at a time. The end result is a linear telling of the DCU's opening year, starting with Batman: Zero Year, feeding to Batman/Superman to Grant Morrisons Action Comics run to the Origin arc of Justice League.

Say what you will about some of those stories - you may recall that Origin is not my favorite comic - but we have a straight line through the big milestone moments. That may be a first for DC. Most attempts to tie things together in the past were wild and often contradictory, leaving plenty of questions as to what was canon and what wasn't; see the did-it-or-didn't-it-happen dance around JLA: Year One for just one example.

If anything bothered me, it's the ending. Essentially, the adventure is wiped from their minds, save the scenes in the park where they meet for the first time in their civilian identities. Obviously, that's not built to last - you just know they'll remember the events at some point - but it feels like a cheap out. That said, it doesn't ruin the book.

Jae Lee's artwork really elevates the material, in my eyes. This would be a perfectly readable arc without it, but Lee's style goes a long way toward making it a must read. Lee is minimalistic in regard to background, but coupled with his sense of design and panel composition, it works amazingly well. Your eye sticks to what it needs to. I'm sure this comic is maddening to read in single installments, given the mammoth delays, but as a collected edition it has none of those issues and holds together beautifully as a result.

I doubt Lee will be on the book for long - when you need six months worth of fill-in to keep a book going between arcs, even with a crossover, the writing is on the wall - but it's nice to have while it lasts, even if DC ought to have known better.

Also collected is the villains month issue for Darkseid - also written by Pak - which serves as something of an origin story for the New Gods. I'm not sure if it's all new material - I'm not well versed in the Kirby lore - but it's fairly compelling backstory. It may be the first concrete details we have regarding the New Gods in the New 52. I'm not entirely sure. Either way, it fits in well, given its ties to a character that played a major role in the events of Cross World.

One more thing to note. I don't know if it's just the copy I got from the library or it's a recurring issue, but several pages of the first issue collected were quite blurry. Production error? Whatever the case, it's distracting and can make the test difficult to read. I hope it's not a major problem.

All told, I don't have any major complaints with Cross World and I liked it enough that I'll be back for more.

My Opinion: Read It

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Captain America: Castaway in Dimension Z Book One (comics)

Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: John Romita Jr.
Collects: Captain America (2013) #1-5

Sad as it was to see him go, it's hard to argue it wasn't time for Ed Brubaker to take his leave. I've read most of his run and while I've enjoyed it consistently, it was clear he was running out of steam and wasn't necessarily writing the stories he felt passionate about anymore. You have to know when to step away and it seems clear Brubaker knew that. It was time for fresh blood.

Is this direction what the book needed? That I'm not so sure about.

Castaway in Dimension Z wastes no time in getting going. Cap is suckered into a train that blasts him to another dimension, one ruled by Arnim Zola, immediately finding himself in a bad way. He escapes, of course, managing to take Zolas artificially created son with him on the way out. Cap and his adopted son then fight for survival for over a decade in this harsh universe, the dream of making it home ever further with each year that passes.

There's something to be said for starting your run off with a bang, but I'm not sure how wise it was to lead off with this extended storyline. We're starting with a fresh volume not far removed from the end of one of the definitive Captain America runs. One has to assume that some people will be lapsed readers - Brubaker was on the book for eight or nine years, after all - and some may be coming in fresh. I don't think it's smart to throw the character out of his comfort zone immediately when you haven't even established that comfort zone at all in your run.

I think this has a detrimental effect on the story. It feels harder to explain than it probably is, but the simplest way I can put it is that Rick Remender never bothered to establish what it is that Cap is losing by finding himself stranded in another dimension for eleven years. If you're a long time reader, sure, you know, but for the purposes of the story, we never really met Caps friends in this run save Sharon, never got a bead on his life save one battle at the start and didn't get a feel for what he cared about back in the real world. It's like leading off with a "their personalities are different, they must be under mind control" story, which I've seen happen before; how are we supposed to have any idea they're acting off when the writer hasn't shown us what they're supposed to be like in normal circumstances? Same principle.

Worse than that, there's something about Dimension Z that doesn't strike me as particularly interesting. It's different, sure, but it feels uninspired. It's mostly a wasteland with a couple groups of weird looking creatures. It's clear we won't be there long enough to get a feel for the ecosystem or how it works - which are sort of hinted at here and there - and it's not visually dynamic enough to make you turn your brain off and forget to worry about the specifics. Dimension Z is just... there. It kind of failed to pull me in.

The timeskips aren't helping its case, either. There are two within the five issues collected. One right after the first issue, skipping a year, and another an issue or two later that skips ahead a whopping eleven years. Most of the trials and tribulations of surviving in this world aren't even touched upon. Same for any character growth for Caps adopted son Ian. Ian is kidnapped - or reclaimed, if you ask Zola - by the end of the fifth issue. He's only been twelve for maybe two and a half issues at that point. How are we supposed to care? We haven't had nearly enough time to get to know him.

It feels like this storyline is trying to pull the trick Cables series way back when did - where he hopped through time, raising Hope through the years - only skipping the character moments and compressing the hell out of it. This feels like the sort of status quo change you hinge upwards of thirty issues on, just to mine all the potential. Instead, we're halfway through, barely scratched the surface so far and only have five issues to go.

I have the distinct feeling that I'm just not getting it, but I genuinely don't know what there is here to get.

John Romita Jr.'s our regular artist. Very hit or miss artist, for me. This one lands somewhere in between. He does pretty capable work here, but at the same time, he shows a new weakness I wasn't aware of before. Apparently, JR Jr. has some difficulty with drawing varied age groups. At the start, Ian is a newborn baby; one year later, he looks like a four year old; eleven years later he still looks like a four year old. Pretty distracting and potentially confusing, especially considering this is a story that loves it some time skips.

I'm not overly impressed with the new direction. Truth be told, I was a bit bored with it. I may read book two to finish out the story, but if it doesn't do a better job of grabbing me, I may pass on following Remenders Cap run any further than that. Too many other books to spend time with.

My Opinion: Try It

Friday, August 1, 2014

Superior Spider-Man: A Troubled Mind (comics)

Writer: Dan Slott
Artists: Humberto Ramos, Ryan Stegman
Collects: Superior Spider-Man #6-10

Round two, FIGHT.

After an opening volume that put the pieces on the board, volume two offers more of the same. Make no mistake, that is meant as a compliment. The first five issues only scratched the surface of this idea.

As expected, SpOck pretty much wrecks Peters old life, one piece at a time. He's on the outs with the Avengers, he barely seems to pay much attention to Horizon Labs and most of the friends Peter made have fallen by the wayside. In its place are some new, equally interesting scenarios that come about due to the connections Ock establishes in his return to college in pursuit of his doctorate.

Less expected is the fact that the "back door" I mentioned in the last review is dealt with a hell of a lot sooner than I expected. I didn't go into detail last time, but the gist is that some part of Peter Parker remains in his mind, taking a visual form as some sort of apparition for our benefit. This seemed like the obvious solution to bringing Peter back when the time came, but the situation comes to a head here, within the first third of the series. I doubt everything is as it seems - I'm sure it will be revisited down the line - but for now it appears to have wrapped.

Not a moment too soon, in my opinion. I get why the fragment of Peter was there. People were pissed when this storyline kicked off. Marvel and Slott needed something to take some of the immediate heat off, so patting readers on the head and almost immediately assuring them that Pete isn't completely gone seems like a fair enough price to pay to keep it for a while.

Trouble is, it wasn't doing Peter Parker any favors. It's kind of hard to miss someone when they won't go away in the first place and Ghost Peter was verging on the point of being an annoyance. Using him to highlight the differences between his and Ocks way of doing things is fine, but there came a point where they were beating us over the head when the story didn't need it. It also doesn't make him look all that great; he gives credit where its due at times, but more often than not he's worried more about what is happening to his life and second guessing Ock than he is with noting the clear improvements to his crime fighting formula.

SpOck needed room to breathe and that wasn't happening with Pete around. There's a scene late in the book where Mary Jane finds herself in trouble; Ock doesn't know that, of course - even if he did, I'm not convinced it would have changed his mind - so he reroutes the call to the fire department - people trained to handle such situations - and thwomps some of Hammerheads goons across town instead. Mary Jane expects Peter to rescue her at every point in the affair - and, if we're being honest, he absolutely would have dropped everything to save her - but he never comes.

See? We can spot the difference in approach with no problems and we didn't even need Peter the Whiny Ghost to beat it into us.

Also of note is the new supporting character in Anna Maria, one of Ocks classmates in college. She really bucks convention in a way most female characters in Spider-Mans supporting cast do not. Peter Parker has had relationships with a fair number of women, but most of them are cut from the same cloth; stunningly beautiful, perfect in appearance, well loved and, in the case of Mary Jane, occasionally a model or actress. Anna Maria is a far sight under five feet tall and, while she's drawn as a fairly pretty woman, she's not supermodel level attractive like most of the girls Peter has falling all over him. She also has to put up with some obvious challenges, including the expected bullying. Her personality and outlook add something new and, frankly, she's the best supporting cast member Slott has made so far. It's kind of a shame she's probably going to fall to the wayside when Peter regains his body.

Humberto Ramos is back. Past reviews will show that he is not one of my favorites, but I've kind of come to terms with the reality that he's clearly going to be in the rotation of artists until Dan Slott decides to move on. To be fair, aside from a few scenes that show his weaknesses, he's does good work here that is mostly devoid of the oddly sized limbs that I hate so much. Stegman also returns for the last two issues of the collection; his artwork is stylized as well, but for some reason it goes over better with me.

Two volumes in and Superior Spider-Man remains a clear winner. Maybe I'll feel differently once we near the end, but it's kind of sad that I'm already a third of the way through this series. This really feels like a status quo that deserved an extension, much like the Dick Grayson era of Batman recieved. I genuinely think this could have carried another twenty issues, especially given the fact that Marvel double-ships Spider-Man books.

My Opinion: Read It

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Superior Spider-Man: My Own Worst Enemy (comics)

Writer: Dan Slott
Artists: Ryan Stegman, Giuseppe Camuncoli
Collects: Superior Spider-Man #1-5

Well, here we are. It took longer than expected to get to this point - largely due to Ends of the Earth robbing me of any desire to read Spider-Man for a solid year - but I've finally started on the Superior era of Spider-Man. Frankly, I should have tried it sooner.

I was interested in this right from the announcement and you can place that almost entirely on the high concept. One of Peter Parkers greatest enemies assumes his life and role as Spider-Man. How will he fare? This caused no small amount of bitching on the internet but I feel pretty safe in saying that it turned out for the best.

See, I'm generally a bit more receptive to this type of stunt. It's worked out a lot in the past, including Dick Graysons turn as Batman; well, when Grant Morrison was writing him anyway, as the era had maybe two or three stories worth reading outside of him in the two years he was in that identity. Much like that, it was clear the move was temporary; by the end of the first issue, we see there's a backdoor to be exploited in the future of Superior Spider-Man. They thought this one out ahead of time, which is the difference between this and, say, the Clone Saga.

I also find that having someone else under a mask - or, you know, in the body of a hero in this case - also provides a nice contrast with the usual and makes you either appreciate them more or look at them in a different light. One of my favorite Captain America comics is Patriot. That story had jack-all to do with Steve Rogers, aside from the necessary noting of his disappearance, what he meant to people and so forth. We saw the life and times of one of the men who took his place after his disappearance and it gave a wonderful story of a man trying to live up to the legacy. In this case, we have an egotistical villain taking the life of a hero and trying to make good. That just screams interesting reading.

So far, Doc Ock as Spider-Man has turned out to be an inspired move. Dan Slott had built Peter up way too much prior to this, but he isn't even tearing that life apart in a quick, dirty manner. It's all falling apart gradually, piece by piece, just by the way Ock does things. He cuts ties with Mary Jane in a moment of strength; he realizes he'd inherited Parkers feelings for her, but more than that he sees their back and forth for the destructive relationship it is. But in the midst of that, we start to see him slowly piece things together outside of Peter's circle. It's fascinating reading.

Superior Spider-Man also makes a solid case for its lead living up to that billing. Ock pulls a few obvious superhero no-nos - he actually kills a villain in the book, even though said villain killed upwards of thirty people for no good reason - but we also see a Spider-Man that is far, far more practical. Ock thinks of things Peter never would have - partly because Peter is stuck so far up his own ass in regards to his life and is not the best at budgeting his time - and generally makes for a more efficient superhero at the most basic level. Someone in a highly populated area? Ock calls the cops to surround the place and keep it contained until he gets there. Said murderous villain tends to hold hostages strapped to explosives at another place? Ock takes care of that first, whereas Peter would have jumped right in the fray and found himself in a bad position there is no easy way out of. Need to balance a social life? Better use the Ock-bots to patrol the city constantly and weed out the smaller hazards the trained professionals can handle from the big problems that require a superhero.

Frankly, Peter looks kind of incompetent for failing to think of even the most basic changes Ock makes.

It is immediately compelling. No lie, I'm super into this, because it's going to be interesting to see just how the book ends up justifying Parkers way of doing things and proving it's better than Ocks. That's the obvious endgame here, right? But it won't be easy. Even if you prove that Peter is a better hero morally and ethically - you know, the obvious stuff like believing anyone can change, not killing and such - Ock has his crap together more than Spidey Classic ever did. If nothing else, Ock is more efficient than Peter, who always had a habit of flying by the seat of his pants and figuring a way out of messes once he's already in them. This book has pulled a double whammy here, immediately selling me on Ocks time in the suit while also putting forward some fascinating questions for the inevitable return, which is no small feat given where the Peter Parker portion of Slotts run had gone.

Slott also has a good artistic partner in Ryan Stegman. His work is stylized, but not to the point of parody like prior artists for Slotts run. It's dynamic work while being far easier to take. I'm not familiar with the other artist, Camuncoli, but their work is just as good, just in a style that's a bit more traditional and befitting of a typical superhero book. Both artists in this volume are winners.

This volume sold me the rest of the way on this change-up to the Spider-Man world. I hesitate to tell you to go out and buy it right off - this is only the first volume and I don't know if the quality keeps up through the whole thing - but you definitely ought to read it. Doc Ocks turn as a superhero makes for some damn good reading, easily the best of Slotts run thus far. I'm in to the end.

My Opinion: Read It

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Justice League of America: Worlds Most Dangerous (comics)

Writers: Geoff Johns, Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt
Artists: David Finch, Brett Booth, Doug Mahnke
Collects: Justice League of America #1-7

Spinning out of the end of Justice League: Throne of Atlantis comes  the Justice League of America, an interesting book that suffers from outside circumstances.

Going by the first five issues, this would be a pretty decent start to a longer run. Our team is formed pretty quickly, they're out on a mission by the second issue and they come up against a threat befitting of a super team. Most of it is made up of characters you wouldn't normally associate with the JLA and some curious choices from the Leagues past, but it's anchored by the Martian Manhunter - a beloved stalwart who hasn't been involved in League related matters since the start of the New 52 - and does a decent job of selling us on the rest. Also along for the ride is Steve Trevor, who you may remember as the most interesting character in the first two volumes of Justice League, and Amanda Waller, who is looking much slimmer these days.

The only problem is that this comic isn't around long enough to make enough of an impact. It's clear right from the start that it's a piece of Johns overall puzzle, setting up for the inevitable three way conflict in Trinity War. That's fine. We ought to have at least a couple storylines with this team to invest in them before the fireworks, though. Instead, we only manage to do the introductory arc, which one leaguer - the Green Lantern on the cover, Simon Baz - isn't even around for. It feels like we jumped to the big story too soon.

If this was the route they were going to go, they should have just announced this as a miniseries, packaged it with a few issues of Justice League and called it volume four when it came time for the collection. Also odd is the inclusion of issues six and seven; both are a part of Trinity War, presented here divorced of their context. I guess they were worried about throwing out a five issue hardcover, but it isn't like it hasn't happened before. That's just the way it works out sometimes. Throwing in issues that are obviously going to show up in another collection wasn't the way to go.

All that aside, the book is still worth reading. I wasn't kind to the early volumes of Geoffs run, but Throne of Atlantis and Worlds Most Dangerous have done a good job of bringing me back into the fold. I think the big difference is that the over-arching plot has emerged and is actually a lot more interesting than I would have figured. It's become fairly obvious that we're building toward big things down the line and some of it is the kind of thing that might not have flown within the prior continuity. The New 52 hasn't done nearly enough of that and it helps to smooth out some of the glaring problems.

Also included are some back-ups that ran in the single issues, scripted by Jeff Lemire. Martian Manhunter is the lead and they mostly serve to re-introduce the character. A fair amount of the backstory is the same, but a few interesting liberties are taken that could lead to something. Nothing absolutely essential, but I'm never going to scoff at extra stories. At the least, it's good to see J'onn associated with a League again; I totally get why they shuffled him off*, but Stormwatch wasn't doing anything for him.

The art is handled by David Finch. I'm not sure what to say about it. It's David Finch art, all right. If you're into that kind of thing, well, here you go. I will admit Finch probably fits this story better than he would had he done a stint on the main title.

Problems aside, I'd say Worlds Most Dangerous turned out to be a worthwhile venture.

My Opinion: Try It

* J'onns inclusion made a lot of sense during the two decades or so that DC shied away from including its most recognizable characters - Martian Manhunter became the muscle of the team - but whenever the League embraces the "Big Guns" concept, he presents a problem. There's simply way too much overlap in power set when Superman is on the team. Martian Manhunter has a lot of the same powers Superman does as well as several he doesn't. He just isn't as marketable. Putting him on a separate Justice League is far from the worst idea I've ever heard.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Ivan Reis, Tony Daniel, Paul Pelletier
Collects: Justice League #13-17, Aquaman #15-16

It's certainly been a while.

About ten months ago I reviewed the second volume of this incarnation of the Justice League and it was scathing. The Villains Journey was bad enough that I wasn't sure I'd be back at all. But time can temper your annoyance. Eventually I decided to give the book another chance.

Throne of Atlantis is a crossover with the Aquaman title, concerned as much with advancing that comics story as it is the League. The short version is that a missile test goes wrong - foul play is evident, but that's left to simmer a while - and Atlantis is left with the impression that it was an attack. Thoroughly pissed off, Atlantis attacks the surface. The Justice League retaliates. Aquaman, who wants a peaceful solution, is caught in the middle. The creatures of the Trench are also involved; they were introduced in the first volume of Aquaman.

I'm not sure what it is about Aquaman that brings out the best in Geoff Johns, but if nothing else he's done a pretty great job of making the character interesting. Between Brightest Day, the characters solo and this crossover, it feels almost like a rehabilitation project for him. Throne of Atlantis does a fair job of redeeming the League, as well; they feel more heroic here than they did in the last volume. Even Wonder Woman has signs of likability as she attempts to solve a conflict with a classic rogue without bloodshed.

This ties into something I said about Geoff Johns in the last review, mainly that his best work seems to be when he focuses on the characters as opposed to simply worrying about the plot at hand. Unsurprisingly, that's part of why Throne of Atlantis works where Origin and The Villains Journey absolutely did not. He's clearly trying to do better with Wonder Woman, who has been portrayed as little more than a bloodthirsty warrior in past volumes. Cyborg has to make a hard choice in order to go save the League. Aquaman struggling with his dual heritage obviously has a lot of focus. It plays more to Johns strengths as a writer than the usual shock schlock.

We even get some long overdue moments between team members, chiefly Aquaman and Batman, who finally come to an understanding. Batman is the first to get what kind of position Aquaman is in, adamantly states that Aquaman will get a chance to resolve the conflict peacefully when the rest of the League is ready to go in and even goes for the old "we were both at fault" chestnut when Aquaman starts to blame himself. It's exactly the sort of thing this comic needed a lot more of; had a few storylines with similar development been done between Origin and Villains Journey, the conflicts of the prior volume would have been easier to take at face value. Batman and Aquaman feel like teammates here.

On top of that, there's a decent fake-out regarding the character behind the events that transpire. I won't spoil what happens, but it's a plot beat that has some more weight of you were a fan of DC or even just Aquaman before the New 52. The story leaves you expecting it to go in a familiar direction, then it flips the script. It's simple, but effective.

It's not all sunshine and roses, however. We get the fallout to the big kiss that closed the prior volume. You may recall I wasn't fond of that whole thing. It doesn't get much better. Geoff's clearly trying to make this work, going so far as to show the two on a "date" in civilian garb, but it feels like too much, too soon. We have the implied five year history, but nothing about the actions of the characters or their dynamic suggests people who have known each other for that length of time. We're told five years passed after Origin, but it feels like these events could only happen a year later at maximum, if that makes sense. So with things like Superman and Wonder Womans budding relationship, it feels like they've only just met - even if we know better - only to throw themselves into a relationship with the other. Mainly because they're lonely, which is the other problem. They don't even have much chemistry, at least in my opinion.

I'm want to just accept it at face value and move forward - after all, this is clearly going to be a thing whether we want it or not, so it's easier to just let it go - but I can't escape the feeling this whole thing is as shallow as I feared.

There's also the reality that the League this comic was sold on is changing. We've already lost Green Lantern because of plot contrivance. It's unclear, but we may be losing Aquaman as a result of this volume; the epilogue deals with his decision to go back to Atlantis and lead, interspersed with the League discussing recruitment. The New 52 Justice League was clearly marketed as a team of the greatest, most recognizable heroes and by the end of the second volume we've already started losing members. I was on board with the lineup, so the fact that it's already in flux isn't a good sign. I could always be reading the epilogue wrong and Aquaman will be present at the start of the next collection.

Oh, and Batman is still sort of useless, which is an obvious negative, but the book is clearly trying to work him in better.

Unlike Origin and Villains Journey, I don't have any major problems with the art of this collection. The highlight is, of course, Ivan Reis, but the others do a good job of keeping a visual consistancy. Aside from a few iffy panels where the storytelling isn't particularly strong, Tony Daniel manages to hang tough for his two issues as well. Jim Lees departure may have hurt the book in star power, but the result is stronger as a whole.

We'll see if the quality holds, but for now Justice League has won me back.

My Opinion: Read It