Sunday, January 30, 2011

Transformers: The IDW Collection Volume 1 (comics)

Writers: Eric Holmes, Shane McCarthy, Simon Furman
Artists: Alex Milne, Casey Coller, E.J. Su, Nick Roche and others
Collects: Megatron Origin #1-4, Spotlight: Blur, Spotlight: Cliffjumper, Spotlight: Shockwave, Spotlight: Nightbeat, Spotlight: Hot Rod, Spotlight: Soundwave, Infiltration #0-6

This is only my second real foray into Transformers comics. Clearly they have fans - though they've never reached the heights of popularity that GI Joe did in the 80's, as far as I can see - but I've admittedly been a bit skeptical about it. I love the brand and have since I was a kid, but comics never struck me as a great fit for the Transformers.

The reason for that is because one of the key distinctive features of the Transformers has always been the transformation itself. Back when the toys first came out, it was what set them apart from the action figures of the day and to a young mind offered more play oppourtunities than the standard figure. In cartoons, it was still a major strength of the brand, because it was just cool to see them in motion, the transformations animated. For all the strengths of the comics medium, this is not something you can properly depict in detail without spending panel upon panel on the transformation itself. What's left are the characters themselves - and the allure of giant fighting robots - without one of the key features of the brand.

Luckily, I'm quickly finding myself convinced that's enough.

My first taste of the IDW continuity was the opening volume of All Hail Megatron, which takes place further down the line. I liked what I saw quite a bit, but instead of jumping right into the second volume, I figured I'd jump back to the beginning and read back up to that point. IDW had started putting together the big hardcovers, so damn, that's about as good an opening as any, right?

IDW started up their continuity in a rather unique way, one which is on full display in this volume. Instead of sticking with a lot of long story arcs, the bulk of the work is made up of one shot spotlight issues - each focusing on a different Transformer - sandwiched between two bigger stories that play out through the course of a miniseries. The spotlight issues are a great way to get to know the bot in question and while most of them generally begin and wrap in the course of the twenty two pages, the writers are slick in using the issues to set up numerous subplots, several of them feeding into the miniseries.

The result is a continuity that feels connected without being overpowering, which is a nice use of it as a tool instead of a crutch.

The opening story - the first of the two miniseries included here - is the IDW continuities official origin of Megatron. It's not quite the standard opening you might expect from this franchise. Megatron's a disgruntled miner in the midst of having his job ripped from him and his fellow miners by the Autobot government.

It's an interesting switch in that the Autobots, before the rise of the Decepticons, are portrayed as almost corrupt in the upper echelons, their government just as cold and uncaring as ours might be. For a time, it almost looks as though they're shooting to make Megatron sympathetic, even going so far as to show him shook up from his first kill. But that's not what they're going for; any sympathy for Megatron quickly melts away as he becomes increasingly ruthless, finding the killing easier and easier. Soon, he's become the evil tyrant we all know he is.

Speaking of Megatron, before I talk about anything else in the Origin, it's worth noting that this is not the mostly incompetent buffoon we know best from G1. Clearly, this is meant to be the Generation 1 Megatron, but by the end of the collections it's obvious IDW's version follows on the general trend since G1 of making the Megatrons far more dangerous and far better at what they do.

This is the first iteration I've seen of Generation 1 Megatron that was as vicious and competant as the Beast Wars Megatron - without the latters crippling arrogance - who has long been the gold standard. He may turn out to be even more ruthless than the BW counterpart; it's too early to tell, but if he continues in this vein he may just take the crown. Upon learning of Starscreams treachery, Megatron casually dispatches the cronies who followed him before completely trashing Starscream like it ain't no thing. This is not a Megatron to be trifled with; even BW Megatron had a bad habit of letting guys like Tarantulus and Terrorsaur hang around a bit too long.

Anyways, back to the mini itself. The writing is pretty good, but I think it's hurt by the art. Alex Milne isn't a stranger to the Transformers - he's done work on the Energon comic prior to Dreamwaves closure, as I understand - but while he draws some awesome looking robots, there are occasional storytelling hitches. There were instances in the course of the mini where it was difficult to figure out what was going on. I'm not entirely sure it's Milne's fault - much of my confusion seemed to result when the coloring messed up - but it's still disappointing.

After the Origins mini, the next third of the book is taken up by the spotlight one shots. They're all enjoyable and well written, setting up future plots while serving as enjoyable stories in their own right. A couple of them are written by Shane McCarthy, who I recognize as the writer of All Hail Megatron, but halfway through Simon Furman takes the reins, penning the rest of the material in the book.

It's a bit difficult to talk about the art for the one shots. There's literally a different artist for each one. So talking about each one would take all day. But what can be said is that it's uniformly good. No problems following them either, which is what hampered the Megatron Origin.

The last third or so of the book is the Infiltration mini, which seems to be the first "big" storyline of the continuity. I really enjoyed it. Humans are introduced here for the first time; I don't carry the disdain for human characters like some Transformers fans do, but the ones introduced here are probably the best bunch I've seen from the franchise as actual characters. Furman's got a good handle on everyone; I'd expect as much from a long time writer for the franchise, but I was still surprised, considering this was my first exposure to his work.

The brunt of the story picks up on plot threads introduced in the spotlight mini's; Starscream gets hold of some totally awesome energon and decides hey, now seems like a bitchin' time to betray Megatron and take over. Megatron doesn't really care for that, of course, so off he goes to give Starscream a stern talking to. Which, for this Megatron, involves creating giant holes in Transformers bodies and leaving them for scrap. Like I said, this Megatron doesn't screw around.

It's fitting that it closes out the volume, because it does so on a high note. This is probably my favorite of the volume. The writing is good and the art is great. It also sets up the future nicely and leaves me ready for volume two. IDW's Transformers work is pretty awesome, from what I'm seeing.

There's also an unusual risk taken with this continuity in that - Megatron aside - it doesn't focus on the better known Transformers much. Bumblebee isn't seen until Infiltration and Optimus Prime isn't seen at all aside from a cameo or two. Optimus in particular is the most surprising omission, since he's a principal character and arguably the face of the franchise. But it works; when he finally does show up, it feels kind of like a big moment, arguably the one we've been waiting for, and helps with that whole "looking forward to Volume 2" thing.

Overall, this is a very nice package. It's a handsome hardcover and while it's not, say, omnibus size, there's a decent amount of content here. Seventeen issues isn't anything to sneeze at and makes for a pretty thick hardcover. It feels substantial, really; and while I'm normally not a hardcover guy, this is the sort of package I could make exceptions for. Very good work in putting this together.

The Score: 8 out of 10

Seventeen issues of good writing and mostly good art in a beefy, well produced hardcover. As a whole package, this book earns its high mark. I look forward to where things go from here and most of my skepticism about Transformers comics is pretty much gone now. Hopefully the second volume is as good, if not better.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Batman: Death Mask (comics)

Writer/Artist: Yoshinori Yatsume
Collects: Batman: Death Mask #1-4

I've got a bit of a love/hate relationship with Japanese entertainment right now. On the one hand, I'm fascinated by the culture - and there are genuinely good things in entertainment from there - but I long ago found myself annoyed with the quirks of their creative works. What was once endearing and different - back when the Japanese style was something new and totally different to our American sensibilities - long ago grew old and stale, their own tropes having become their own worst enemy.

However, I do still hold some affection for what they do, though I could probably fool you with the way I talk about it these days.

So, add in Batman. He's a character that's very much open to interpretation, which makes seeing other countries take a crack at such an enduring icon interesting. In the case of a mangaka taking on the Dark Knight, that hits my radar pretty quickly, despite my reservations. We don't have much in the way of Japanese takes on Batman readily available, save Bat-Manga, so already it's somewhat unique. So I gave it a try.

Storywise, we find our hero besieged by nightmares of a shadowy figure. Naturally, he's not too worried, so he goes about his day. A Japanese company is in town apparently, looking to show off some masks. At the meeting, he seems to find a familiar face, one from his past in Japan. About the same time, a string of murders begin with an unusual MO; the face of the victim is sliced clean off and taken from the crime scene. When Bruce finds himself face to face with this killer, it stirs memories of his time in Japan. The past is there to haunt his present and Batman must figure out what it all means.

This story has several things going for it. For one thing, it uses Japanese culture effectively within the context of Batmans world. The bulk of the story concerns masks, from the mask Bruce Wayne uses to become Batman to the traditional masks of the Japanese. In particular, parallels are drawn between Batman and the Oni, which I actually thought was fairly clever.

Much of this is accomplished by generous amounts of flashbacks to Bruce Waynes time in Japan. Bruce Wayne's journey around the planet, learning everything he can, is something that is largely unchronicled, or at least not in great detail. This aspect of his past allows for these kind of stories - a similar use occurred in the Tao story of the Batman International trade - which allows Batman to fit into just about anything, anywhere, anytime.

I also like how Batman is written, here. The Bruce Wayne written here is one that seems to have it together, for the most part. He's not the impossibly brooding dark avenger that was in vogue since Frank Miller made such a splash with it. He's probably more akin to the Batman we know from the O'Neil/Adams era on. He's a bit more open and sure of himself, which is something I really like. The story kind of slots into the general era entered after Infinite Crisis, where Batman started lightening up again to great effect.

If there's a negative to this, it's that the story is perhaps a bit overwritten. There seems to be more dialogue than necessary at times, which reminds me of comics from the early eighties on back. It's not quite that bad, but the obvious is stated a bit too much.

A bit more of Batman could also have gone a long way. We see Bruce in costume from time to time, tracking down some leads or trying to get to where he needs to be next, but most of the Batman action we get is contained in the climax. Death Mask is a bit more of a Bruce Wayne story, focusing on his past in Japan and his dealings in the present day. The rogues are completely absent, aside from a two page splash showing the majority of them, but that's not necessarily a problem; I'd rather have a story refrain from using them rather than try to shoehorn them in.

The art pulls its weight well. The book carries many of the problems somewhat typical in manga - background detail being mostly an afterthought, faces being a bit too clean or perfect and so on - but the minimalistic style actually seems to work to this particular stories benefit. Natsume puts in detail where necessary, but pulls back when it's not; and he accomplishes it so well that, unless you're really paying attention to everything, you may not notice until late in the story or a second read through.

He can also put together some striking panels and give the feeling of motion to the visuals. There's a panel late in the story - at the climax - where Batman is chasing the figure that's haunted him through the story. The figure has raced up the stairs and the panel in question shows Batman in hot pursuit. The determination on the face, the pose, all of it; I could practically visualize Batman running up those stairs in my mind. It's a small panel, but it struck me. A part of comic reading is being able to fill in the blanks between panels, visualizing in your mind what is happening; what strikes me is how some panels in this story make that very easy.

It gives me the impression that the author behind the book really knows his craft and leaves me with some positive feelings I haven't had for a manga in a long time.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

In all, this is a very solid outing. It's not something that's going to change things as we know it or have great importance down the line, but I was entertained by what I read and genuinely enjoyed it. It feels like a worthy addition to Batmans long legacy instead of the disappointment I was steeled for. I enjoyed it enough that if Yoshinori Natsume and DC ever decide they want to do a sequel, I'd be willing to read it.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Justice League of America: Sanctuary (comics)

Writers: Alan Burnett, Dwayne McDuffie
Artists: Ed Benes, Ethan Van Sciver, Carlos Pacheco, Jon Boy Meyers
Collects: Justice League of America #17-21

First off, a pet peeve. I really friggin hate it when the issue numbers collected aren't listed anywhere on or in the collection in question. Guess which trade doesn't bother to tell us its contents. Yeah, sure, I can always look them up, but it still annoys the piss out of me.

Anyways, first up we get a three issue story by Alan Burnett where the heroes look into the events of Salvation Run, which was a thing at the time. Basically, the Suicide Squad rounds up all past and present villains, dumps them on a planet and allows them to work the rest out amongst themselves. Naturally, the League doesn't care for this, especially since Martian Manhunter went with the villains as a covert spy and cannot be reached. After that, we get a one-off where Queen Bee is kind of being a douchebag, necessitating Flash and Wonder Woman to smack her around a little bit. Then, the volume closes with a quick Final Crisis tie-in.

I probably don't need to point out what the problem is here.

It's pretty much common knowledge by now that editorial had a bit of a hand in where McDuffies run went, meaning they basically wanted tie-ins to happen at a relatively frequent clip. This is back in the midst of the disaster that was Countdown, where DC was attempting to make series that were "spines" of the universe and reflected the events going on at the time. But even if you're inclined to cut some slack, when four out of five consecutive issues are tie-ins to different series going on at the time, there's a problem.

Of course, that problem is compounded by the fact that these tie-ins go do nothing of worth. The three issue Sanctuary story by Alan Burnett is the worst reflection of this. Obviously, the Salvation Run mini proper has to be allowed to do it's thing, but that doesn't leave much room for tie-ins. What results are three issues that go absolutely nowhere; we read two issues of the League wringing their hands about what to do about the whole thing and then when they go to find the villains they don't even end up in the right place.

Oh, and a space villain is thrown in there, because the League needs to beat someone up in the midst of this story. Nothing is resolved; they don't even try to take Amanda Waller to task over the whole business. So, three out of the five issues are effectively worthless as a story; they read decently, but unless you've read Salvation Run you have no idea why you should give a crap about any of it and if you did by some chance you already know what happened to the villains.

Later, we take another trip into tie-in land for a Final Crisis prelude issue. This one actually works better than Sanctuary because there's a good mix of lead-in for the event in question and advancement of things McDuffie has been working with. This is generally how most tie-ins should work, otherwise they feel more like a meaningless disruption. But even so, there's really no reason for this story to exist either.

Other than the extended talk between the Big Three, this issues not much more than a venue to show how the Human Flame got from the point A of a petty crook to the point B of being recruited by Libra for his role in Final Crisis. It's not exactly something that was begging to be told, because how the Human Flame got there doesn't really matter. But here we are. I can't help but think the only reason this was told in Justice League - aside from Libra being an old JLA villain - is that it would have seen more eyes than, say, putting it in a Secret Files or something.

While all this is going on, McDuffie pens a couple small back-ups advancing his subplots. One connects (well, kind of) and the other whiffs. The first one focuses on Vixen and her wonky powers. It's rendered redundant by Sanctuary itself, which adequately explains what's going on with her in the midst of it's unnecessary diversion. Aside from a tidbit about a power she shouldn't be able to replicate, it's a bit of a page waster.

The other one focuses on the Leagues emotional robot, Red Tornado, who apparently has a wife and kid. How the latter works I haven't a single goddamn clue, but there it is. No crying, but he scowls through the whole thing. I don't hate the character or anything and it read alright. It didn't seem quite as pointless as the other backup, I guess.

The best part of the entire collection is the fourth issue, where Flash and Wonder Woman team-up follows. It's the bright spot of the book. Wonder Woman shows up to talk to Flash, who has been neglecting his League duties since he came back. Then they catch wind of Queen Bee being kind of an ass, so they go and whup her.

It's a good read. Sometimes, it's nice to read a quick, one-off adventure where the heroes stop a quick plot by a villain and smack them around. We don't get them a lot these days. McDuffie shows a good handle on his characters, especially Flash; just because McDuffie wrote for the show - which had more of a jokester iteration of Wally - doesn't mean he treats comic Wally the same way as I feared.

While I note that there are a lot of problems with the volume, it's worth mentioning that the actual writing still works on some level. Dwayne McDuffie - and Alan Burnett as well - write likable characters that you wouldn't mind following in a series. Most of the cast feel like themselves and both writers make the interaction between the characters worth the exercise.

As for the art, there's a total of four different pencillers working on the issues within. All four are talented, sure, but still. The bulk of it - the three issue Sanctuary arc - is done by Ed Benes. Most people have a general idea as to whether or not they like his art. He tends to trend toward cheesecake - big boobs and ass shots wherever he can possible squeeze one in - so if that's not your bag, this will probably end up annoying you. Every female sans Amanda Waller - who you can't really sex up - and Black Canary - mostly because she's barely in this volume at all - is either showing off cleavage or their ass. It doesn't bother me all that much and I tend to think he's pretty good at what he does, but your mileage may vary.

Van Sciver pulls duty on the Flash/Wonder Woman team-up. As you might expect, he does very well. Between this and Flash Rebirth, I think Van Sciver is really growing on me as a Flash artist. He does very well when it comes to drawing speed and motion, which is all important when dealing with a character like this. If he were a faster artist, I'd probably start wishing he'd work on Flash regularly. It seems to agree with his style. Sadly, that's not the case, but I'd be happy to read whatever one-off issues with Flash he might want to do.

The last major artist is Carlos Pacheco, who illustrates the Final Crisis tie-in issue. His art is very, very good; truth be told, his work may well be the best of the bunch. A good third of the issue in question is a long talk between the Big Three. Most of the time, that's not something you'd want an artist like Pacheco to draw - not when you can shoot for more exciting things - but it really shows off Pacheco's ability to convey expression with his art. He pulls this off on a level I'm not sure I've seen since the last time I read a comic illustrated by Kevin Maguire. There's even room for a bit of action in the rest of the book, though it's not long enough for him to truly take advantage of.

Last on the artist front is Jon Boy Meyers. He does the back-ups for the first and second issue of Sanctuary. His style's very different from everyone else working on the issues contained here. His work is more minimalistic. It reminds me of the sort of look an animated series might go with. It really isn't bad, but it doesn't fit in with the rest of the material at all.

The Score: 5.5 out of 10

You can skip this pretty safely. This collection isn't much more than a bunch of tie-ins. They're readable, at least, but they fail as stories at the same time they fail to add anything to the series they tie into. The only stuff of note here are the fourth issue and eight pages of the fifth. That isn't worth fifteen bucks Standard Retail Price. Hopefully the next volume fares better.