Monday, June 29, 2015

Justice League: The Grid (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Ivan Reis, Joe Prado, small bits by other assorted artists
Collects: Justice League #18-20, 22-23

The upward arc in overall quality continues for Justice League, but unfortunately the collection itself kind of pisses me off.

Regarding the story, in itself there's nothing wrong with the Grid. There's a fair amount to keep you interested, including the League opening its doors to new members for the first time since the unseen conflict with the Martian Manhunter. Despero shows up. There's some mystery over who broke into the Batcave and some obvious subterfuge going down behind the scenes. Plus, we revisit the old "Batman has a plan for everyone" chestnut, though this time Batman not only comes clean before anything happens, but everyone is far more reasonable about the whole thing.

This book also has a few... Heartwarming Batman Moments, I think we'll call them. I've noted before that while I'm fine with dark Batman stories, the old Batdickery bit had gone way too far, especially prior to the New 52. It's a problem similar to what we see with Iron Man over at Marvel, only not quite as severe; the writers take their behavior so far it's amazing anyone will put up with or work with them ever again.

As such, I enjoy bits that focus on their humanity and ability to get along with others, even in a small way. Here, Batman stops Jason Todd from beating himself up with a hand on the shoulder and a "I'm just glad you're okay". In another scene, he rationally discusses the at-the-time secret relationship between Superman and Wonder Woman, as well as the impact they have on how the League is percieved, without the theatrics or yelling you might usually see in a scene like this. Later, in private, Batman affirms that Superman is his friend and offers a briefcase with plans to deal with him, should the need ever arise. It shows the characters usual forward thinking while also showing a humility he simply did not have in the pre-Flashpoint version of this plot point, Tower of Babel. There, while technically correct in his thinking, there was an undeniable bit of arrogance to Batmans plan, seemingly suggesting that he was the only one there who was infallible.

Showing that the heroes are actually friends within the comic itself? That's something I wanted since volume one. I cannot dislike that. I'm not a rock. Throw in more Ivan Reis art and yeah, I'd say I'm pretty well on board with Justice League again.

Sadly, as I noted at the start, the praise had to end eventually. I didn't go into the story too much because, frankly, there isn't much to get into. You probably noticed the little "collects" bit there, right? Five issues. Issue twenty one is skipped because it's the full issue conclusion of the Shazam story that had been running in the singles as a backup and is, I assume, collected in the trade of that material. Of what we have, only three of the five issues are a coherent story exclusive to this volume.

The other two? Chapters of Trinity War, also collected in the Trinity War trade. You'll recall Justice League of America pulled this as well, but the difference here is that book had five issues of exclusive material. That's fairly reasonable for a volume. The Grid, however, has three. The Trinity War chapters are the bookends of the event and fairly incomprehensible without everything in between.

Whether it's intended or not, it feels like being fleeced. This volume, after all, has a suggested retail price of seventeen dollars for the paperback. I realize they were kind of put in a hard place here, but is there any reason they couldn't have collected the three issues as a small, nine dollar collection? It wouldn't be the first time that's happened. What other reason is there except that extra seven dollars a copy?

I'm enjoying Justice League now, but I don't enjoy feeling like I'm being bilked for extra cash and the score reflects that.

My Opinion: Try It

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Justice League Dark: In The Dark (comics)

Writer: Peter Milligan
Artist: Mikel Janin
Collects: Justice League Dark #1-6

Okay, right away, can I just say "Justice League Dark" is the dumbest title for a comic? I get the reasoning. The Justice League is a popular brand. I get it. Hell, Marvel does it too. But come on, you mean to tell me that with all the talented writers and staff on hand at DC no one could come up with a better title than "Justice League Dark"?

Just rolls right off the tongue. Could be worse, I guess. The concept could be as stupid as the name. Sup', Avengers A.I.?

Stupid name aside, I was actually kind of excited about this book when it was announced as a part of the launch of the New 52. A team comic based on the supernatural and magical elements of the DC universe? I'm into it.

Sadly, the first volume doesn't quite live up to the potential. The book has all the elements of something great. There's a bunch of interesting characters with diverse personalities and problems, you have magic, you have crazy vests attached to insane people. Split personalities. Just a bunch of cool stuff. It simply never comes together.

That's not to say that the book doesn't have its moments. Having Superman and a few other members of the main League go down early to an attack as bizarre as a hurricane of gross magic witch teeth feels inspired. Sadly, scenes like that prove to be a bit of an exception. Most of the book is aggressively average, from the writing to the art, which is not what you want to be when you're one of fifty two books introduced all at once in a massive relaunch.

Even the conflict is kind of ho-hum, at least for it's length. Apparently, the Enchantress has split into two, with June Moon running from the magical embodiment of her insanity. Not a terrible plot for a short arc, but for five issues it comes down to a fair amount of wheel spinning. The threat of the crazed Enchantress is rarely confronted head-on and her ultimate defeat just kind of happens without a ton of conflict, aside from two team members briefly fighting over the solution. I appreciate that the manner in which the threat is resolved shows Constantine as the outright bastard he typically is, but it doesn't make for an exciting read. The team scatters to the wind afterwards, since no one likes Constantine or trusts Madame Xanadu.

The volume ends on a single issue where the group decides to stick together after having some shared nightmares. Six issues in and we finally have our team formally introduced. Credit where it's due, however; while the team doesn't form until the end, we meet each member fairly early in the book and their paths cross numerous times before we're done. It's a fair middle ground between Justice Leagues staggered approach and Justice League Internationals quick formation.

We close with an interesting cliffhanger that promises a tie to one of the New 52's under-rated gems, but I sincerely hope business picks up in volume two, because you can only coast on potential for so long. Justice League Dark might have an easier time surviving than, say, Shadowpact, if only because of the name, but eventually you need to properly hook people if you want to keep readers. As it is, having an opening trade this bland doesn't help the books cause, especially since DC insists on numbering them and subsequently discouraging the more casual reader from skipping a duller volume.

My Opinion: Try It

Sunday, June 7, 2015

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

Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: John Romita Jr.
Collects: Captain America (Vol. 7) #6-10

So, I wasn't a big fan of the first volume. It had some good ideas, but most of the emotional beats hit with a resounding thud. It was a rare occasion where some extra decompression might have actually helped the story. Even an extra issue or two in the story might have made it easier to swallow.

I figured that I might as well finish out the story, so I'm back for round two.

The second book isn't so much improved as it suffers from fewer issues with selling its big moments. Things ramp up immediately as Cap sets out to recover his adopted son Ian and the volume doesn't really slow down until the end, so there's less to be concerned with. Still, there are some hiccups born of the structure choice - the big moment with Steves would-be rescuer don't work if someone decided to start with issue one of this Cap volume - and the rescue attempt hinges on whether the reader could buy the father-son dynamic the first volume tried to present. I've already gone over that particular problem the first time around, so I won't repeat myself, but it didn't work that well in my opinion, so the payoff we get here falls flat.

Again, this really felt like the kind of direction you apply to fifteen or more issues, not ten.

JR Jr.'s artwork hasn't changed much since the first volume. Same strengths, same weaknesses. The weaknesses are a bit less glaring though; we have no time skips as in the first part of the arc, so we are mercifully sparred jarring moments like Ians complete lack of growth. Still, it's not something I'm super into. Plenty of others disagree, so take it as you will.

The ending does leave us with some potentially interesting tidbits for the future, so the book could easily improve. If I decide to continue it will be because the library has it, which is fairly likely. I'd recommend you do the same. Castaway in Dimension Z is far from bad, but it's not something I'd recommend purchasing.

My Opinion: Try It

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Batman: The Dark Knight - Mad (comics)

Writer: Gregg Hurwitz
Artists: Ethan Van Sciver, Szymon Kudranski
Collects: Batman: The Dark Knight #16-21, Annual #1

Three volumes in and The Dark Knight seems to be settling in to its own niche as the "villain origin" book. Last volume, the debut of Gregg Hurwitz as the new ongoing writer, focused on the Scarecrow. It was decent, but not something I was in a rush to review; if I had, the vast majority of it would have focused on the fact that Batman hooked himself up to a device on the Batplane and bled all over the city to cure Scarecrows latest toxin, because reasons.

Perhaps the most "important" development of this comic has been the introduction of a new love interest for Batman. We almost immediately dropped into familiar territory with that one, with Bruce almost immediately feeling she's "the one". Also familiar is his desire to share his secret identity with her, as well as the desire to retire from crime fighting to foster said relationship.

Do I even need to tell you where this is going? If you answer "they fridged her", well, of course they did. Barring the animated Phantasm movie that kind of development never goes in any other direction. Which leads you to wonder what the point is. Creating a love interest only to kill her off in a short span of time, said event accomplishing nothing, really.

That's really the problem here; familiarity is the death of this volume. It's a Mad Hatter story and it's the exact Mad Hatter story you're thinking of. You know the one. He concocts a Wonderland for his Alice - an unrequited crush from the past - and then attempts to kidnap her. I suppose I understand the desire - Batman: The Animated Series nailed it on the first try, but the comics never really translated it into a "definitive" story - but it adds to that derivative feeling.

One thing I do enjoy regarding Hurwitz approach is his use of flashback. We cut to them fairly often, each one showing the past events that led the villain to their current state. It started last volume with the Scarecrow story and continues here. It's an obvious pattern, but it does allow us to get into the things that made them who they are a little better.

I'm hoping they lay off the childhood trauma bit, though. I can appreciate it in certain characters, but at times it feels like all writers think a villain needs a sympathetic connection to the reader stemming from some form of abuse. While that's a very true to life scenario, it's getting to the point of over-saturation. Sometimes, a villain should just be left as an evil dickbag.

Oh, there's an annual too. It focuses on a few of the rogues this series has handled thus far getting themselves trapped in an old, abandoned asylum for crazy kids and scaring themselves senseless out of fear that it's a trap set by Batman. In an amusing twist, they're at least half right.

The art is by Ethan Van Sciver. I hear he's popular with some folks. His work here is clean and fairly expressive. There's not a lot to talk about. Szymon Kurdanski handles the annual and one issue of the arc. His ark is murkier than Van Scivers. This helps sometimes, especially given the tone of the annual, but on the downside it leads to a few instances of unclear storytelling within his issues.

Overall, I wouldn't say this is a bad volume. There are parts of it I enjoyed. It's just derivative. There are worse things to be. It would be nice if we could get past that whole "create a female character for the sake of killing" deal though.

My Opinion: Try It

Overall, there are some scattered scenes I enjoyed

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