Saturday, February 20, 2010

Transformers: All Hail Megatron volume 1 (comics)

Writer: Shane McCarthy
Artist: Guido Guidi
Collects: Transformers: All Hail Megatron #1-6

Everyone loves a good villain, right? They're an important part of almost any fiction and a good villain is important to establishing a good hero. Just look at Batman; the character's one of the richest in fiction, but his villains are also some of the best and help make his mythos as interesting as they are.

Transformers aren't exactly lacking for good villains. Either major Megatron (G1 or Beast Wars, for those unfamiliar) rank among memorable villains and the rest of their squads aren't slouches either. But let's face it; they don't exactly come out on top much. For the most part, like many 80's cartoons, the villains didn't get that many victories and the franchise has followed suit.

But what if that was different? What if Megatron and the Decepticons came out on top, just this once? That's the premise of All Hail Megatron; and honestly, so far it's pretty interesting.

The series doesn't really waste time with any Autobot versus Decepticon battle to show the villains winning. It effectively starts after that battle, right when the action begins. With the Autobots nowhere to be seen, Megatron arrives and swiftly takes over New York City as his base of operations, showing up the US military as a bunch of chumps. The resistance fails miserably and soon the other countries of the world are forced to consider other options. Meanwhile, the Autobots have survived, but they've been ravaged; stranded on Cybertron, they've lost definitively with no way off the planet and Optimus Prime down, forcing Jazz to take the lead.

The story essentially shifts between three real plots and sets of characters; the humans, the Decepticons and the remnants of the Autobots. The human portion is the one with the least concrete direction. You follow a central human for a while, but before you know it he's gone and it shifts to a general snapshot of the military as it deals with the sudden attack. The other two are a bit more straightforward; the Decepticons are wiping out any humans they can and the Autobots are stranded on Cybertron and trying to get their crap together. It's effective, if nothing else; the general mystery of what happened to bring this about is unfolded slowly, the pieces are put into play and the story builds.

It's something of a slow burn, really. Much of this volume sets up the situation and advances the pieces in a slow but steady manner, bringing them to interesting places by the end. If nothing else, you could say that this volume consists of the first real act of the story. But it works, as we get time to see the Decepticons in victory and are teased the possibility of mutiny thanks to the notion that what held the disparate Decepticons together was the hope of victory, leaving the question of where they go once they achieve it. It allows Jazz to show some leadership chops as well, reminding you just why the character was always one of the coolest of the franchise. It feels like one of those stories that benefits from decompression, giving the story enough time to breath before the fireworks start.

Aside from some cheesy dialogue for the humans in the early issues, there's only one thing that really bugs me about the story in this volume, which would be the fact that Optimus Prime is, once again, near death in this story. If you're a fan of the Transformers franchise at all, you've definitely seen this before, because they never let the cliche go. Optimus has died or been near death at least once in, well, pretty much every damn Transformers continuity ever made. We can all thank the original G1 movie for that; kids cried, it left an impression and suddenly no writer can resist the urge to mine that well. Personally, I'm beyond sick of it and could go without seeing Optimus die or on the brink of death ever again. It needs to be put to bed, badly.

The art is very good for the volume. Solid, consistant and colorful. Everyone looks like they should, their G1 forms brought to life on the comic page. It's nothing spectacular, but it's the kind of art that can tell a story and not stick out. For a property like Transformers, it hits the proper notes, so while you're not going to see anything defining, it does it's job.

There is one thing that's a major standout about the art though. The covers. They're simply fantastic, evoking old Soviet propaganda posters with the colors and the simplicity. Very eye-catching and evocative. I loved them.

The Verdict: Dramatic Thumbs Up

Definitely worth a read. The volume is a lot of setup, but it's the good kind. If nothing else, the premise alone makes it worth a read for a Transformers fan, as it's not often you see the Decepticons actually, you know, winning. I just hope the second volume is as good and pushes things into gear. But as far as this volume goes, it's an interesting and enjoyable read. If you're a Transformers fan, it's worth a look at the least.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Uncanny X-Men: Rise and Fall of the Shi'Ar Empire (comics)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Billy Tan
Contains: Uncanny X-Men #475-486

Picking up where X-Men: Deadly Genesis left off, the third Summers Brother known as Vulcan has flown off into space to get revenge on the Shi'Ar for what they did to his mother and the circumstances of his birth. Professor X, now all but banished from the team he created, is no longer welcome at the X Mansion because of his mistake and choices. But with Vulcan headed for the Shi'Ar, where his ex-wife rules, he cannot let it stand. He rounds up the few X-Men still loyal to him and heads off into space, looking to stop Vulcan and fix his mistakes.

This is one of those volumes that depends largely on what kind of X-Men reader you are. Or more to the point, what kind of X-Men story you prefer. This is of the X-Men space epic variety of story without a shadow of a doubt and about ninety percent of the twelve issues comprising the storyline take place in space. If the space adventures of Marvels mutants were never your thing, this story probably isn't going to change your mind. If you like them in any fashion, however, this will probably go over quite well with you.

The story is quite long, clocking in at the aforementioned twelve issues, but collected as it is it doesn't feel overly so. Ed Brubaker is great at plotting stories and space adventures with the X-Men are a perfect fit for his usual tropes, considering much of the Shi'Ar are embroiled in politics and attempted coup's. He uses the large amount of space allotted to him well, juggling different plotlines and bringing in many of the disparate elements that populated past space stories. Hell, even the Skrull are involved to a very minor extent. The story is a slow build, but an engaging one that never lost me as a reader. On top of that, the story does bring about changes to the typical status quo of the Shi'Ar, which was welcome (these changes play out in other books once this story wraps, I understand).

The group of X-Men chosen for the story are interesting, to say the least. The highest profile character of the entire group is Nightcrawler, the rest of the crew otherwise made of C to D list X-Men. On the one hand, it might be somewhat off-putting, but personally I grew attached to several of the characters over the course of the story, so Bru seems to do well with them. It also serves a good story purpose as well; the Professor is not the most popular guy around the mansion of late, so for him to only be able to get so many makes sense. Plus, for some reason I really liked that despite everything, Nightcrawler was the one who never lost faith or affinity for the Professor.

The art by Billy Tan is very solid and colorful. Nothing I saw really sticks out as offensive or out of place and the colors are well suited. It's hard to describe the feeling I got from the artwork, but the best way I can put it is that the art in the book feels comfortable. It's not going to absolutely wow you, but it tells the story well and looks solid the entire way through. In other words, it's the kind of art that feels natural to modern comics and the kind I have something of a preference for.

If there's any real problem with the art, it's that there are a couple of pages extremely late in the book - say, the climax - that look somewhat iffy. It's nothing in an action scene, but it might still be noticeable as off. Also, a character death late in the book doesn't really come off as such. I'm glad it was a low-gore death - which is contrary to ninety percent of comic deaths these days - but the body looked almost untouched aside from some spots of blood. For that matter, the attack didn't even look lethal; I wasn't even sure the character was dead until the last few pages, simply from the lack of real indication from the art. Considering what you might see in the midst of a battle like that, he looked relatively unscathed. But these are all minor points on an otherwise solid job throughout the story.

The Score: Dramatic Thumbs Up

If you don't like space stories with the X-Men, you can certainly skip this volume as I very highly doubt it's going to change your mind. But if you don't mind a good space story or outright love them, this is a good read. I wasn't quite sure about Ed Brubaker on X-Men - it just never seemed like a franchise that would suit his style and preferences - but this wasn't your typical mutant adventure and I found myself pleasantly surprised. Recommended if you're into this sort of thing.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Joker (comics)

Writer: Brian Azzarello
Artist: Lee Bermejo
Contains: Original Graphic Novel

You'll notice right away that the word "Batman" is nowhere to be found in the title of this. It's very fitting. This is really Jokers story through and through.

The comic's story isn't straightforward in a strict sense. This is the Batman universe if you'd bathed it in noir pathos and dried it with grime. The Joker is released from Arkham without even the loosest explanation of how or why; a fitting omission, because in truth it really does not matter. The Joker is loose, he's mad and he wants to rule Gotham. We see his insanity through his henchman, Jonny Frost; a two bit thug with aspirations as high as the sky. A man who at one point wanted the sort of thing the Joker takes in the story until he slowly realizes just who and what the Joker is. This is not a crime story or a Batman story; in truth, this book is more a character study of the Joker than anything else.

In that manner, things just happen without a lot of resolution. You'll see several Batman rogues over the course of the tale and Joker will trade things, shoot people and threaten others, but we don't always get all the details. Why Joker calls Penguin "Abner", why Penguin is running a boxing gig, what Joker bought from the Riddler; all of these and some more are unresolved and given no explanation, but when you boil it down, they don't really matter either. In truth, the story itself is a ride with the Joker, diving within the depths of his madness. Little of what happens really matters; you know right from the beginning and all through Jonny acclimating to the new lifestyle that there's only one place the story can go to, but the journey there is a whirlwind and that knowledge builds the tension until the inevitable happens.

In a lot of ways, it's very fitting that this was released partially as a tie-in of sorts to "The Dark Knight". To be honest, the story feels like it could well take place down the line in that universe, sharing several similarities without ever meaning to. The Jokers look is a spot on interpretation of the Joker of the film - though this was not intentional, apparently - and the Joker here is in some ways like the Joker there. He just does things, being the tornado of chaos and insanity that he is. But this time, he's mad and focused; he takes on almost a mobster mentality in trying to take over Gotham, unwilling to let it go to the Batman. Gotham itself is less the gothic wonderland it always seems to be in most adaptions, but more the sprawling traditional city of the movie universe. The villains we see carry a similar realistic bent.

It's some measure of fun in seeing the Batman universe filtered through such dense noir pathos. Killer Croc is a black thug. The alleys are shadowed and rain slicked. Harley Quinn herself even shows up as a stripper in Jokers club, never saying a word throughout the tale while being his stalwart lackey. It's also implied she and Jokers relationship is heavily sexual. Drugs, pills and alcohol are all over. Everything carries a dark edge. It's fantastic.

As for Batman himself, he's wisely kept out of the story, for the most part. But that's not to say he's completely unmentioned. In a way, his shadow seems almost perched right outside the proceedings - in a fit of paranoia, the Joker vaguely refers to him, thinking he's watching throughout all the events that transpire - and that shadow builds until it looms large. Small hints of his presence in Gotham throughout the story culminate in the final sequence, or the point you knew the story had to reach.

Then, on top of all that is the artwork; it's simply mouth wateringly gorgeous. Everything is awash in grit and shadow, thick with atmosphere. It's simply stunning. I do not exaggerate when I say that the art is worth the price alone. It's great work that I cannot give enough praise to. In truth, it elevates the book to an even higher level than it was before.

My Opinion: Buy It

Monday, February 1, 2010

The Strange Deaths of Batman (comics)

Writers: Various
Artists: Various
Collects: Detective Comics #347, Worlds Finest Comics #184, Brave and the Bold #115, Batman #291-294, Worlds Finest Comics #269, Batman Chronicles #8 and material from Nightwing #52

This one really should have been called "The Strange Close Calls of Batman", but I suppose that doesn't sound as punchy; doesn't serve this volumes premise as a theme collection brought about by Batman RIP either.

That's the funny thing about this collection. Once you read it, you quickly realize that despite the name, there really isn't a whole lot of Batman dying going on. Out of the eight or so stories presented, he actually dies maybe twice - not counting a dream Catwoman has - and one of those are in a "what if" scenario after the main story is done. It does carry a very loose theme of death, but I find the disconnect kind of funny.

There are quite a few stories in this trade from era's past, but they were clearly picked by theme. As such, it won't surprise you to hear the quality varies from issue to issue. The story I may have enjoyed the most is the issue of "Brave and the Bold" included. In it, Batman's brain is fried by electrocution and the Atom has to shrink down, take control of Batmans dying body through stimulation of the brain and complete his last mission. The very idea is almost insane and that's what makes it fun. It feels very "seventies comic", but it's well crafted and holds up as an interesting read.

It's a bit dicier from there. The bulk of the trade (I'd estimate about half) is taken up by a tale called "Where Were You the Night Batman Died". It's from the seventies and features most of Batmans villains holding a mock trial to determine who really killed Batman, since everyone and their grandmother took credit. People familiar with Batman: The Animated Series will feel a sense of familiarity; a couple episodes seemed to take inspiration from this one. It holds up okay, though it does suffer somewhat from the dated writing style of the day.

After that, it's more a matter of personal taste. A few of the stories are from Batman's relatively forgettable Silver Age; they're alright, but not something you'll remember. There's a pretty decent 90's tale with Talia, wrestling with her fathers command to kill Batman; it's a nice enough, even if that particular thing had been done to death by then. The most modern thing in it is probably a short vignette at the end from an issue of Nightwing, where Catwoman dreams about marrying Batman and ends up killing him.

The production of this trade is pretty bad. It feels incomplete, for one thing; the covers for the given issues are nowhere to be found, which is basic trade composition in this day and age. On top of that, the trade is done on the old kind of paper that I've never been fond of. Details are missing as well; when I went to write this review, I realized that I had no idea whatsoever if the closing Catwoman six pager was a backup, part of the issue or what. To be blunt, the collection feels somewhat rushed; pushed through so it coincided with Batman RIP, a landmark story featuring the "death" of Batman. Damn shame too.

These kind of theme collections are always a crapshoot. Considering stories are often pulled from different eras, there's almost never any consistency and you don't really know what you're going to get beyond the basic theme. This wasn't one of the better efforts. Still, there's enjoyment to be had. If your interest is piqued, it might be worth a read.

My Opinion: Try It