Saturday, April 28, 2012

Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Vol. 1 (comics)

Writer: Phillip K. Dick
Artist: Tony Parker
Collects: Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? #1-4, essays on Dicks work by numerous comic creators

This is exactly the sort of project I tend to question the existence of.

I get the trouble with adaptions. If you stick too close to the source, you risk utterly boring your audience; some segments simply do not work the same way in film, for example, as they do a book. Same for a comic book. Each form of media has its own strengths and weaknesses. Slavish devotion is the enemy of many an adaption; after all, the key word here is adapt.

If you go too far, however, you're going to piss people off. In some cases, straying too far will even destroy the entire message or purpose of a work. That's the point where you've failed outright.

"Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?" already received the perfect film adaption. Now they decided to give the original story a comic version. The problem is, it's more the former than the latter.

This book is slavishly devoted to the point where I could actually list Phillip K. Dick - long dead - as the writer. They literally took the text of the book and put it over comic art. Nothing was cut, from descriptions to dialouge.

Most any fan of comics will understand why this is problematic. Part of the strength of a comic is that it can be a medium between film and prose. But many of the same principles for other adaptions stand. The art - seen physically instead of the use of your imagination prose requires - takes care of descriptions; after all, a big rule in comics is to "show, don't tell" as much as humanly possible. But this "adaption" is a case of telling everything you're showing; not a panel goes by where the prose isn't describing what we're seeing reflected in the art.

While I appreciate the intention - keeping as close as possible to the original, which is indisputably a classic - as noble as it is it does not make for a good comic. Every panel is wordy as hell. It does make for a dense read, but in an odd way; words and sentences structured to feed your imagination clashing with artwork that shows what's described.

So, is there any worth to this? Well, there are essays by comic pros talking about Dicks work. There's also the fact that if you've never read the original story before, you won't lose anything by going this route. That is, unless you count money. This hardcover is twenty five dollars and collects four issues. The maxiseries collects the entire prose story in twenty four issues. At that rate, it will take six volumes and a hundred fifty dollars. Quite the investment when you could get both this and "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale" for about twenty dollars, which is less than a single volume of this.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

If I had to give a recommendation I'd say to get the original prose story. Even with the essays this isn't worth that much money. This is for hardcore Phillip Dick fans only; and even then only those with a lot of money burning a hole in their pocket. It's not worth it when you can get the paperback for a pittance, with the only tradeoff being that you may need to use your imagination.

Meanwhile, my imagination cannot dream up the thought process that led to Boom doing it this way.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Blackest Night (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Ivan Reis
Collects: Blackest Night #0-8, Directors Commentary, sketches, scripts for deleted scenes and other bonus material

Ahh, Blackest Night. The culmination of the first five years of Geoff Johns run on Green Lantern and his third big event for DC. Thing is, I'm not a big Green Lantern reader. By all rights, Geoffs run on Green Lantern has a lot of things I generally like in comics - as much as it's been derided by the smarmy corner of internet reviewing, the mutli-colored corps are a hell of a way to throw color around and history will show I like that - but I've long had difficulty really caring*.

To tell the truth, that's been a bit of a problem for me in general regarding Geoff - I'm generally fond of his work, but Teen Titans aside he has quite the affinity for characters I couldn't care less about - but in this case, he threw zombies into the equation. I'm not a rock; I had to get around to this one eventually. It certainly helps that I loved the idea. After all is said and done, this one didn't sell me on the Green Lantern, but I have to admit that this is probably the most accessible - even if it isn't the smartest - event he's done to this point.

So, basically, lots of dudes in neon spandex like killing each other in space with rings that produce colored light. Of course, differences need to be put to the side when, holy crap, black rings show up and start reviving dead bodies. While on Earth, heroes and civilians are celebrating their own day of the dead, honoring the fallen in the line of superheroics. What a lucky coincidence that some black rings are around to raise dead loved ones and have them eat some hearts, right? This looks like a job for... some second stringers!

I'm being snarky, sure, but the idea is pretty sound. Basically, the black rings revive dead heroes and loved ones who could get a rise out of our heroes, causing them to feel emotions. They need these emotions to power up the Black Lantern battery, at which point they could really smack around our heroes. You can see why this was retooled from being just a Green Lantern story to a full on event; there's a lot of potential here for mining the storied DC history - which, at the time, was played as one of DC's defining elements - for emotional drama.

As you can tell by the contents, this was an eight issue event, not including the short zero issue that served as a prologue. That's a hell of a lot of room to work with, arguably too much for an event. These things are sold largely on hype, so somehow you need to keep wowing people each issue, in this case having to do so for eight issues.

To Geoffs credit, he pulls it off. The stakes are high early on and manage to keep going up. Even when you think "this is it, the good guys have it in the bag", Geoff will have one more trick to pull. As such, the book is filled with big moments that will stick in your mind, even if the general story does not. These alone hold your attention very well even in the collection; it must have been really exciting month to month.

It's a good thing Geoff knows how to wow you though, because his writing in this book is not always the sharpest. Some exchanges vary from either hammy to corny, while some of Green Lanterns cracks about "lite bright" and "rainbow brigade" are a little too wink wink, nudge nudge to fan grumblings to really work. For every moment that works - there's some speechifying Flash gives Mera and Atom about halfway through that I thought was effective - there's another that isn't.

Worse still, the book feels like a jigsaw puzzle with a few of the pieces missing. There are some quick cuts that are obvious setups for the tie-ins, but in the process the main story suffers somewhat. Green Lantern is spirited off a third of the way through the book to round up the rest of the corps and doesn't appear again until a while later, the whole recruitment bypassed. Similarly, you could be forgiven for forgetting the Lanterns in space are in trouble too, because after some quick setup early on showing them besieged by black rings, we almost never see them again until the end.

Sloppy, confusing and stupid. Probably easily fixed too with a bit of trimming.

All that said, if you ignore these moments, the book IS readable. Like I said, it's pretty accessible even if you don't care a whit about Green Lantern. This was clearly what they were shooting for. Of course, the fact that "readable" and "genuinely great" aren't the same thing happens to be lost in the process. Still, I'm not sorry I read it, which is a hell of a lot better than some other events I've read.

The event is bolstered by the presence of Ivan Reis, who is on art duties from start to finish. His work is great as always. The coloring isn't quite as lush as Brightest Day - considering this is a story dealing heavily in death, it probably shouldn't be - but the actual linework is still top notch. No artist changes midway through either, which really bolsters the book. Better written events were practically sunk by art shifts partway through; had the same fate befallen Blackest Night I think it would have joined them. Never underestimate the value of a consistent look.

The Score: 7 out of 10

Not as great as I hoped it would be when it was in the midst of monthly serialization, but it's definitely a solid seven. It might have fared better if the Green Lantern issues were included in their proper place; at times it felt like I was only getting half the story. I imagine I will get to that collection eventually. In the meantime, the core event is worth a read at the least. But unless you're a fan of Geoffs ongoing Green Lantern saga I hesitate the recommend an outright purchase.

* Actually, that's not entirely fair. There was a point during Blackest Nights publication where I had honestly considered trying to get into Geoffs Green Lantern starting from Rebirth on. The trade collection plans are what changed my mind. I wasn't happy when I heard the Green Lantern tie-in issues were to be collected separately, as what I'd heard made it sound like they easily slotted in the issues of the event and added a lot of depth. A lot of folks would have just sucked it up and switched off between the two books, but I'd hoped DC would eventually collect Blackest Night and the GL tie-in issues in a big ol' "Ultimate Collection". So far, it hasn't happened.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Carnage: Family Feud (comics)

Writer: Zeb Wells
Artist: Clayton Crain
Collects: Carnage #1-5

If there's one thing I didn't quite expect, it was to see another story I liked actually centered around Carnage, much less one tied to "Maximum Carnage". I enjoyed Maximum Carnage for what it was, but it took a fairly limited character - Carnage being not a whole lot more than a serial killer symbiote - to its limit, essentially exhausting any potential he had in his second appearance. It didn't help that the damn thing was fourteen issues. Middling appearance after middling appearance made it so I wasn't exactly broken up when Sentry tore Carnage in half in Earths orbit.

Color me surprised then, because Zeb Wells - who is becoming "the symbiote guy" at Marvel - not only brings him back, but manages to make an entertaining story with him. Maybe I shouldn't be so surprised. Venom recently saw a resurgence as well.

While attending a Medical Supply Expo, Tony Stark senses foul play when a computer manufacturer has made some sudden, miraculous advances in prosthetic tech. The kind of thing that's obviously a bit out of his field of expertise. Before he can investigate, the Doppleganger - not seen since Maximum Carnage - shows up, trying to take down an armored car, before it's sliced in half by a couple of Iron Man knockoffs employed by the earlier mentioned computer manufacturer. Turns out the armored car - again employed by said manufacturer - is carrying Shriek, the once-girlfriend of Carnage.

You can probably guess what's right around the corner.

This book is as much a Spider-Man and Iron Man teamup as it is about Carnage. They're our protagonists for this particular ride and Wells scripts a fine rapport for the two. Both feel well within character. Meanwhile, Carnage is somewhat retooled a bit as a "hilbilly hick", as Spidey calls him, which is fairly humorous in its own way.

Look... there's just something cool about the symbiotes. They often come with striking designs filled with color which often reflect well off one another. Comics were carried on the back of it and the old spandex set just wouldn't be the same without all those stark colors flashing about. The shape shifting, tendrils, colors and power of the symbiotes tend to give artists a lot of cool things to draw as well.

While that's muted somewhat by Crains art - his work, while feeling fairly realistic, tends to deal in darker, muddier colors - his art is strong enough to make up for it. I tend to be on the fence about his style to some extent - it sometimes feels a little too realistic - he tends to produce strong work. Symbiotes in particular seem to agree with him.

It won't win any awards, but this miniseries is a fine read and a fine opening salvo for Wells and Crain. Hell, it's also a better return than Carnage could have possibly asked for. I guess even a bland, straightforward serial killer can have a pretty decent story spun around him. Who knew?

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Like symbiotes? Want a Spider-Man/Iron Man teamup? If so, this will be up your alley. It's not going to re-invent the wheel or anything, but you could do far worse. Hopefully the sequel is even better.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ultimate Thor (comics)

Writer: Johnathan Hickman
Artist: Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Ultimate Thor #1-4

After they finished publishing Ultimatum - widely acknowledged as the worst comic event ever put to paper - Marvel had the problem of trying to salvage the Ultimate line. Intended to clear the deck, it ultimately did even more harm to what was once one of Marvels crown jewels. Their solution was to slim it down to four books - a couple ongoings and successive miniseries - and relaunch it.

Ultimate Thor was one of the books that ultimately resulted from that, penned by Johnathan Hickman - a guy quickly proving to be one of Marvels best - and the always stellar Carlos Pacheco.

Hickman is not a guy known for penning straightforward comics. He has a habit of drafting labyrinth ongoing plots and telling stories in a way that's a bit less than direct. Here, he focuses on three different time periods - Eons Ago, 1939 and Now - and shifts between them throughout the course of this four issue miniseries. It tells the tale of the Ultimate Universes version of Ragnarok, leading up to the rebirth of Thor and his decision to join the Ultimates.

So, basically, it kind of positions itself as a prequel; and that's not necessarily the best choice.

His shifting focus on the different time periods works very well, moving each along without the later ones ever spoiling the events of the prior. Of the three, however, only two really go anywhere. The Present Day third of the book ends up positioning itself as a prelude to The Ultimates. I honestly think any connection to The Ultimates should have been left out. Obviously, we're dealing with the past of the same character, but the direct tie encourages reading it prior to the Ultimates. That's not really a smart plan; one of the long running questions of The Ultimates was whether the man who called himself Thor really was the Norse God of old, a question that wasn't answered until late in the second series.

This miniseries throws such ambiguity out the window and as a consequence is best read after The Ultimates, despite being played as a prologue. This could have been an easy fix, really. Playing up whether the man we see in the present is really the same man we see in the past could have preserved the twist.

It doesn't necessarily break a lot of new ground, either, or change anything. The traitor that brings about Ragnarok is the same person it always is, for instance; I kept waiting for a twist or for it to be someone else, but no dice. I think that may be the biggest disappointment with this series; the Ultimate universe has positioned itself as a place where anything can happen and beloved characters are changed in different ways, but as it turns out Thors backstory is pretty much the same.

So, all that said, is it worth reading? It's tough to say; it doesn't tell you anything you didn't already know if you are familiar with Marvels Thor even in passing. It leaves the book feeling fairly irrelevant, trying to tell its own story while leading into another, yet failing at both. These failures clash with the fact that it's perfectly entertaining and a fine read regardless of its failings. But in a world where The Trials of Loki already told this same basic story in a manner close to perfect, is "entertaining" or "a fine read regardless" enough?

I can't say that it is, even if Hickman and Pacheco try their damnedest.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

This book, despite its flaws, is still good. But it lives in the shadow of "Trials of Loki". If you're interested in the minor tweaks for Ultimate Thor or this sounds more your bag, by all means go for it. But this book has already been done better, so unless you haven't read Trials or just don't care to, it's hard to recommend it.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Chew - Volume One : Tasters Choice (comics)

Writer: John Layman
Artist: Rob Guillory
Collects: Chew #1-5

When it first started, this was probably the internets favorite creator-owned book. The critics favorite too. It's won a few awards and is probably on the way to many more. I'm here to tell you that it deserves every one of them.

Tony Chu has a special ability. He's Cibopathic, meaning he gets psychic impressions from whatever he eats. As the book explains, it means when he bites into an apple, he can tell the tree it was picked from, the pesticides used on it and the date of its harvesting. It also means if he chows down on a bit of a dead body, he can find out who killed the person, with what and where it was done. Did I mention he's a detective? You can see how this would come in handy; you know, aside from the disgusting parts like eating a bit of a dead dog.

This book is utterly unique from top to bottom. From the premise to the artwork to the humor, you simply won't find anything like it on shelves. This is one of those books that just nails it right off. It's fun, it's funny, it's fairly gross and it has a lot of heart. This is a book that has absolutely everything going for it.

It doesn't take long for the book to hook you. By the end of the first issue, it's easy to fall in love with this world and this cast of characters. Chu lives in a strange world with stranger things happening to him, but he's very likable, as is his partner Mason. It's why the events of the volume, including the last issue, hit as well as they do. We get a reveal that, under normal circumstances, I'd argue was a bit too soon for an ongoing series; but by this point Layman has painted a vivid enough world with characters diverse enough that it still works all the same. That's pretty impressive.

Even the art's a winner. Admittedly, there were some bits that took some getting used to, but the artwork in Chew is a thing all its own. By the end of the volume, I was a convert; and I didn't hate it to start with. I couldn't picture the book looking any other way. It's exagerrated and - loathe as I am to say this, as it's often taken in a negative context - cartoony, but it combines with bright colors to paint a vivid picture. The gross out humor and things Chu is forced to eat would not work in a more realistic style; here, the color and the style take some of the disgusting edge off, leaving a palatable sense of icky humor I imagine even those with relatively sensitive stomachs could take.

I simply cannot rave enough about this book; John Layman and Rob Guillory have a real winner on their hands.

The Score: 9 out of 10

Buy it. Seriously, just buy it. After one volume, this has quickly wormed its way into my heart. It may be my favorite creator owned series not written by Brian K. Vaughn. The lost point comes from the art taking a bit of getting used to, but once you do you won't be able to picture the book any other way. I'm definitely on board this book now and in the future. I highly recommend Chew.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Batman: Bruce Wayne - The Road Home

Writers: Fabian Nicieza, Mike W. Barr, Bryan Q. Miller, Adam Beechen and others
Artists: Cliff Richards, Roman Bachs, Pere Perez, Scott McDaniel and others
Collects: All eight "Bruce Wayne: The Road Home" one-shots

Kind of inevitable that DC would want to capitalize on Bruce Waynes return from that whole time traveling thing, right? So I can't blame them for this. But these kind of "shove some product out there to get some extra scratch" projects rarely produce anything of value. The Road Home is no different.

Taking place in some nebulous time period where Bruce is back but Dick and Damian have conveniently forgotten this fact*, dude decides "hey, may as well check up on everybody and see how they've done in my absence". Of course he doesn't tell any of them he's back and screws with their operations to test them. That's right folks, we're in Batstard territory; right after Grant Morrison went through all that work to close the book on the whole "Batman treats his comrades like crap" meme.

Meanwhile, Vicki Vales continued snooping into the identity of the Caped Crusader finally lands her in real trouble**, as someone has put a big ol' bullseye on her back.

Originally I thought this miniseries existed to show the Bat families reaction to Bruce Waynes return. Turns out there's only a little of that, since Bruce is hiding his return for most of the book. In order to give this story some manner of an overarching plot, Fabian Nicieza decided to use it to finish up the Vicki Vale subplot he's been toying with whenever he got hold of a Bat family book for a bit.

It's a good idea, but the problem is that Fabian only writes three of the eight one shots. The Vale plot is still carried through the others, but as a consequence it's decompressed. We take some slightly ridiculous turns - such as Vale getting herself involved in the Gotham Underground in her quest to prove Batmans identity, because that's somehow necessary and couldn't possibly go wrong - leading to things like Batmans rogues going after her for her knowledge when they have no bearing on the endgame. As a result, things lose focus and what could have been an interesting story had Fabian handled the entire thing is instead stretched to its breaking point.

Which is kind of a shame, because I like Fabians writing well enough when he's on his game. I think I would have enjoyed this plot with Vicki Vale chasing the identity of Batman and his family under normal circumstances, like a four or five issue arc in one of the Bat titles. Sadly, the patchwork nature of this format assures it does not get the sendoff it needed.

Outside of all that, there are some nice touches. I quite enjoyed the Batgirl issue, done by the usual creative team of her ongoing at the time, even if there was a bit too much Batstard involved. The Commishioner Gordon issue had some nice, moody art. It's just not enough to raise this fairly disappointing volume.

The Score: 5.5 out of 10

Don't bother. It's not really worth the money. A possible exception may be if you've been following the Vicki Vale story prior and want to see how it ends.

* That or Batman & Robin Must Die has yet to take place. I suppose, if you must place this somewhere in continuity - I say "why bother" since it's not that great, but some folks prefer knowing - it's probably right after Return of Bruce Wayne but before Batman & Robin Must Die. Kind of hurts the climax of that one, if you ask me.

** It seems the lions share of this subplot took place in Red Robin.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Justice League International vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Kieth Giffen, JM DeMatteis, John Ostrander
Artist: Kevin Maguire, Bill Willingham, Luke McDonnell
Collects: Justice League International #8-13, Suicide Squad #13, Justice League International Annual #1

So here we are with the second volume of the much loved Justice League International run. To sum it up quickly, it's a bit more of the same. Unfortunately, that goes for both the good aspects and the bad; the contents of this volume suffer from the main problem I had with the first one while simultaneously being hit with those oh so lovely things called tie-ins.

The good is, of course, still good. We're still treated to a fair amount of solid team fare with some of the trademark humor the run would come to be known for. The humor has started to become more of a factor as we move onward; the first issue of the collection is entirely centered around the new JLI embassies going up, which contains our first outright Bwa-Ha-Ha moment. Thankfully, it's still not our primary focus; there's plenty of super heroics to be found along with the endearing yucks and team dynamics.

They also write an effective Batman; he's a bit too far on the Batstard side of the scale for me, but there's no denying he's very effective. This is most apparent in the two issue crossover with Suicide Squad - the #13 issues of each - that advances plotlines from both series. The Suicide Squad issue contains a knock down-drag out fight between Rick Flag and Batman; it effectively lasts for about three total pages of multi-panel grids, yet it sells the fact that these two are beating the hell out of each other like few of todays overused splash pages can. The punch-for-punch flow of the action and full twelve panel grid moves the fight along at a fast pace while feeling as brutal as it is short. Some modern day writers and artists ought to take notes.

Unfortunately, the issue I had with the last volume rears its ugly head again. Once more, several storylines resolve themselves without much League participation; this time, the overarching plotline going since issue one plays out with Maxwell Lord while the League is dealing with a New God. The annual comes down to the Martian Manhunter with the helmet of Fate saving the day. It's fairly noticeable; yet again, I hope this is ironed out as we move forward.

Also problematic is the Millennium tie-in issues. While I appreciate their inclusion for the sake of completion-ism, they're parts of an event. Even with the text pieces explaining some of what happened in the other parts, they make little sense. It's essentially a compromise between including all of the event or none of those issues, but given the choice, I'd rather have had one or the other. This is why I hate ongoing series tie-ins; I've seldom been happier with comics than when DC switched to having most tie-in stories in their own dedicated miniseries.

Thinking about it on the whole, we're two volumes into this run - both volumes containing a generous number of issues - and I'm still not completely happy with it. The right stuff is there and I love the team dynamics, but the downsides just leap out at me. If I wasn't assured it got better, I think it might have dropped down my totem pole of comic priorities a bit after this volume. I still like it - and I'd still continue - but this book is not in "oh god I need the next volume NOW" territory.

The Score: 7.5 out of 10

Same as last time. This is good, solid, enjoyable work, but there are still some kinks to be worked out. We'll see what the future holds for this book. If you're a JLI fan I'm sure you already have this volume. If not I'd say it's still well worth it, but temper your expectations, because the book still hasn't hit its stride.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Batman: False Faces (comics)

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Artists: Scott McDaniel, Rick Burchett, Scott Kolins
Collects: Batman #588-590, Detective Comics #787, Wonder Woman #160-161, Gotham City Secret Files and Origins #1

Brian K. Vaughan is known almost exclusively for his creator owned work, such as Y: The Last Man and Ex Machina, so you could be forgiven for forgetting that he broke into the business the same way most do, through superhero comics.

Each of the four stories collected here are from early in his career and each one - whether intentional or not - carries a theme of identity. The main arc deals with the return of the real Matches Malone - thought dead - and what it does to Batmans psyche. The second is a Mad Hatter story. Third has a two issue Wonder Woman storyline where she fights Clayface. The last one is a short story introducing a new villain we'd sadly never see again.

None of the work collected here carries the polish that would come later - hey, everyone starts somewhere - but these stories make it clear that even then he had talent. While none of them will be regarded as all time classics, they're all perfectly serviceable, standard adventures that are enjoyable to read. It makes for a nice contrast to his later work and leaves me wondering how he would handle iconic superheroes today

Vaughan - in the introduction - worries that maybe he peaked early, but while he has nothing to fear there, we see some genuinely interesting ideas here. The best one occurs happens to be the overall plot of the Wonder Woman story. Her post Crisis origin was always that she was made from magical clay. I always found that origin to be, frankly, pretty stupid - thankfully discarded in the New 52 - but it's used as an excuse to pit Wonder Woman up against Clayface, who wants to absorb her in a bid to become stronger. Yet another of those ideas we're forced to question why we never thought of it first.

Unfortunately, not all of the artwork is of the highest quality. While Rick Burchetts art is great - evoking Darwyn Cookes style - and Marcos Martin does as well as you'd expect, the other two miss the mark. I've never been a big fan of Scott McDaniels art, so it's not like I suddenly expected to like it here. Scott Kolins, however, did surprise me. He seemed to miss the memo that said "Wonder Woman should look younger once Clayface absorbs a piece of her" because not a hair on her changes. Same face, same body type, same hair length, same everything. When the entire story - and a lot of dialogue - hinges on her supposed de-ageing and sudden resemblance to Donna Troy, that's a serious problem. The page where Donna is supposed to find Wonder Woman looking exactly like her loses all meaning, because she never looked noticeably different to begin with.

Quite the artistic flub and it leaves two thirds of the book filled with subpar art.

The Score: 6.5 out of 10

It's worth a look to see the formative years of Brian Vaughan, but it's not a volume you just got to have. Check it out from the library if you can.