Saturday, December 28, 2013

Sword Art Online (Anime)

To say I've been out of touch with the Anime scene would be a pretty accurate statement. The last I bothered to watch was Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex. The last one I actually bought on DVD was Cowboy Bebop, also known as the greatest thing Japanese animation has ever produced. At some point, I grew bored with it and decided to take a break from it entirely.*

Flash forward to today, where I stumble on Sword Art Online, which might have brought me back into the fold. I binged on it - watching the entire series in a day - and immediately found myself looking to see what else I might have missed while I was away. Even when you're sure you're out, all it takes is one good hit to bring you back in.

The premise of the series is that VR tech is now a reality and video games have naturally begun to make the leap, especially MMO's. Unfortunately, the creator of one such VRMMO - the namesake, Sword Art Online, to be exact - has essentially done the equivalent of spitting in the players faces and waving them the middle finger. There is no logout button. The only way to escape the game and return to reality is to clear all one hundred floors to reach the final boss. If you die in the game, your VR headset will fry your brain, killing you in real life.

With a premise like that, you'd naturally expect a lot of action and for the majority of the series to focus on finishing the game, but a lot of what I appreciate about Sword Art Online is that it does the opposite. The quest to return to reality isn't as much a driving force for the series as you might expect. Rather, the series focuses on the effects that being trapped in a situation like this might have on ones psyche, relationships and demeanor. Some crack under the pressure, some fight hard to clear the game.

Others, like the hero, drift between a desire to clear the game and to just live. His own philosophy, the one he teaches to the heroine, is that even if they're stuck there, it's like it's own reality. Why waste it? You are still alive. Life goes on. It's a message that we see in non essential characters, as well; some of those too afraid to fight or die turn to simpler lives, building families, businesses and even hobbies such as fishing.

All of this is the sort of thing you'd typically see a series gloss over entirely; which is often a shame, because more than once I've found background bits and implied consequences just as interesting as the main plot. But with Sword Art Online, the things you might expect - guilds forming, grinding, everything associated with MMO's and the overall action - are just a backdrop. The characters are the focus and it's easy to grow to like them. It certainly helps that the animation is amazing and the soundtrack is appealing as well.

One other thing I enjoyed about the series is that it's not afraid to switch genre's from time to time. One episode might focus on a boss battle, while the next will consist of a murder mystery the protagonists will have to solve. I don't intend to compare the two series, but I do feel like mentioning that it reminds me of Cowboy Bebop in that regard, which was a series that was unafraid to throw almost any style of story at the wall if the writers felt it would make for a good episode. It lends a fair bit of variety to Sword Art Online and helps to keep it from growing stale.

Not to say Sword Art Online is perfect, as if anything is. The fourteen episodes of twenty five that the characters are stuck in the first MMO - the namesake - take place over the two year span they're stuck within virtual reality. As such, we often jump a month or two in time between each episode. As much is implied in this series as is shown - though we see most of the important character interactions - and that is not something that is going to work for everyone. Some people like a defined plot with a clear throughline from point A to point B. There are plenty of shows like that, but SAO is not one of them and I imagine that is going to hurt it with some.

I also hate to say it, but the second half is a bit weaker than the first. By that point, you care enough about the bond between the hero and the heroine that you're invested in his quest, but it sacrifices some of what made the first half quite as memorable for a clearer direction and goal. It's still very good, but in a different way, perhaps more akin to what some people seemed to expect from the series to start with.

Something about the second arc I also feel ought to be addressed is the fact that the heroine is reduced to a damsel in distress, not to mention absent for the majority of the eleven or so episodes the Fairy arc is spread across. It's a little jarring - the two protagonists define the Battle Couple trope and it's shown she's pretty damn near his equal in battle - if perhaps necessary to keep the series grounded in it's VR concept, seeing as she and some other players are still stuck and need rescuing. Assuming Sword Art Online has a second season/series - and there's more than enough material for that, since the source material is still going and there are two more full arcs after to adapt - this will be less problematic, because it will just be one arc of several, instead of about a third of the series.

It's worth noting she doesn't just sit on her hands though, held captive or not. She escapes at one point through use of her own wits and almost manages to log herself out. She doesn't sit and wait to be rescued the entire time; when she got an opportunity, she went for it. So there is that.

My Opinion: Watch It

All told, I'd say Sword Art Online is well worth your time. I'm actually not sure how good or bad the dub is, as I watched it subbed, but even DVD's seem to have both language tracks on disc as a standard these days, so it doesn't much matter. It rekindled my interest in Anime, so give it a look. You might love it like I did. Even if you don't, I'm sure you'll agree it's damn beautiful.

* I kind of took a sabbatical from both manga and anime. Naruto was what actually did it. I ended up becoming so disgusted and so pissed off at that goddamn manga that I probably stayed away from Japanese media for longer than I intended to.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Time Isn't Always On Our Side (Op/Ed)

Everyone has that one band that means more to them than any other, don't they? The one group that connected with you through their music, maybe even played a role in a wonderful memory. Iron Maiden has always been that band for me.

I got into them kind of late in the game, as you can guess. They've been around since the 80's, after all. Luckily, I skipped the 90's, which was when they were stuck in Replacement Singer Hell. It was around 2000, so I must have been thirteen or fourteen. Dad picked up their Somewhere in Time album to replace a copy he lost a long time prior. At first I didn't pay it much heed, but eventually I listened to it. I was hooked immediately. I rushed to devour every prior album all the way up to the 1990's.

Around this time, Maiden made their comeback. They reunited with their most popular singer and guitarist, made a new album and almost immediately set out on the road to tour. I bought that album of course- its title was Brave New World - and fell in love with it. After my parents bought me the Rock in Rio tape, one thought stuck with me. "I have to see these guys live".

It's funny how many old bands have made triumphant comebacks in the 2000's. Several of my old favorites have returned, putting out amazing new albums that earned a place in my CD collection. They practically defied conventional wisdom; it's usually said - and most of the time it's true - that eventually a band is going to taper off in quality before sinking into the depths of irrelevance.

Maybe it's just bias on my part, but no one bucked conventional wisdom more than Maiden. Of the four albums they've put out, only one was anything even remotely resembling a disappointment and that's only when compared to the other albums released during this comeback period. I'd go so far as to say their most recent - The Final Frontier - is as good as anything they've done in the past. Maiden didn't just age gracefully. Musically, they're far better than they've ever been.

I bought all four of those albums when they came out, of course. For some reason or another, I didn't get to see them live for the longest time. Tour after tour passed me by. It wasn't until last year that I finally managed to see them in concert. It wasn't until this year that I'd know what that night would mean to me.

My mother could never get around well. Hit by a drunk driver when she was seventeen, her knees slowly degenerated over the years, leaving her all but crippled. By last year, she could barely get around with a cane and my arm for support. Much of my life over the past several years has revolved around taking care of her.

I took pride in it. She was a wonderful lady who, despite her lot in life, loved her kids and would do anything for us. It felt like a small way to pay her back. Plus I got to spend a lot of time with her. She was, without question, my best friend and the person I looked up to most in life. I managed to get paid for taking care of her; it wasn't a ton, but it was enough. I'd always had plans for afterwards; she was going to get knee replacement surgery and as soon as I felt I could be away for a while without worry, I intended to go to a training school.

She, as I recall, was the one who convinced me we should go to the concert. She wasn't as excited as I was about it - she had, after all, seen Maiden in their prime and had her stories, which she loved to tell - but she wanted to go to keep me company. Not to mention the fact that Alice Cooper was the opening act; Cooper was one of the few rock bands she had never attended a concert for, even in her youth. So we bought our tickets and when the time came we made the journey down to Darien Lake.

We had a wonderful time. It was hard on her, of course - the simple act of walking was agony for her - but she managed. We took pictures, bought overpriced shirts to remember the occasion by and revelled in the experience. She was enthralled by Cooper, who put on a great show as always. For me, it was the main event that hooked me. You'd never guess the members of Iron Maiden were in their fifties judging by how effortlessly Bruce Dickinson raced across the stage. The energy he possesses is enough to be the envy of men half his age.

After the show, we ate at Denny's and holed up in a motel for the night. I was too exhausted from the show to safely make the drive home. It wasn't some big vacation, but we had a great time. We always figured there would be more to come; she'd get her knee surgery, I'd get a decent job and I'd take her with me to see all sorts of different places. It wasn't supposed to be the last time we got to do anything big together.

Turns out it was.

My mother died this year on the 13th of July around 11 AM*. I'll never forget it. Three days later and it would have been exactly a year from our trip. I still don't know what happened. I still don't understand why. She didn't deserve it. There was so much left for her to see and do. There's so much left we never got to do. So much left, stolen from us without warning. I miss her all the time, months later. The tears have dried, but everything's changed. What I wouldn't give to go back in time.

I'm two days away from my 27th birthday. I can't help but think of her and think of where my life is right now. I put so much into helping her and I can't help but ask myself what I have to show for it? Aside from my father and sister, I'm alone. I haven't had a girlfriend in years. I'm struggling to get everything in order so I can go on with the plans I made well before she passed. What do I really have?

She'll never see me get married. When I have kids, she'll never get to meet them. She'll never see me make it in anything I want to do. It wasn't supposed to be this way. I'm still struggling to figure my life out. To figure out where I go from here. It isn't easy.

One thing I do still have are memories. A big one is that concert. If Iron Maiden weren't around anymore, I wouldn't have that memory.

I guess when it comes down to it, that's part of the point of this. In some way, it made a band I already loved special to me in a different way. I guess I can never make fun of the Rolling Stones again for the fact that they're still around despite being half dead.

So keep on upping the irons, Maiden. Keep going until the six of you are a bunch of skeletons performing on stage if you want. I'll be there. I like to think Mom will be there with me in spirit.

* Yes, this is why the blog has been reduced to maybe a post a month.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Does the Mascot Era Hold What Gaming Has Been Missing? (op/ed)

Not the face I expected to think of when
considering the king of modern platformers*
So who called Rayman being the character to star in the two of the best side scrolling platformers ever made? If you raise your hand you're a goddamn liar. The Rabbids had more exposure than him.

Then, lo and behold, Rayman Origins released and suddenly Rayman was cool, possibly for the first time. Bright, clean, colorful graphics, responsive control, excellent co-op, tons of secrets, bitchin' level design, challenge factor, especially if you made it all the way to Land of the Livid Dead. The game had it all. Then Legends came along and somehow took it even further.

Rayman is kind of an anamoly these days. At some point early in the previous decade, the idea of the video game mascot just sort of died off. It wouldn't be a stretch to say the jump to 3D models and environments is what did it; even Sonic, a king of the 2D era, took years to finally get it right. Several saw their franchises die with a bad 3D entry.

Times change, of course. We finally got out heads out of our collective asses on the whole 3D thing. So isn't it about time for a comeback?

Seriously, gaming's missing something these days. Nowadays it's all about guns and war. Drab, dull soldiers running around drab, dull, brown landscapes shooting drab, dull enemies. I've never been against those type of games and have enjoyed my fair share but it makes for most of the industries modern output. Not helping matters is the fact that the shooter has become a safe bet; video game companies got the idea in their heads that anything that isn't a First Person Shooter is a tough sell and adjusted accordingly.

Lately, I find I've drifted away from that. What catches my eye these days is the colorful, the crazy, the out there idea, even in modern genres. It's no secret that I'm not a huge fan of GTA IV, a game that, in its quest to tell a serious, heavy story about the nature of the American Dream, kind of forgot it was supposed to be fun. Then I discovered Saints Row the Third, an entry in a franchise I had previously dismissed. It was off the chain. Any and everything could happen. The laws of physics might not apply, zombies might show up, you might hang out with a luchador or a pimp that speaks in autotune. It was bombastic, crazy and unafraid to throw the rules out the window if it might make for a good time. But more than that, it was fun. It was everything Grand Theft Auto used to be.

It's not an isolated incident. I've retained my love for Sonic the Hedgehog, a franchise that's finally embraced what it used to be and stopped trying to be so damn serious. Rayman has obviously won my heart. I wasn't thrilled with how far back it threw, but Mega Man 9 was decent and 10 was godly. The Katamari games never innovate, but they're consistently wacky and always a good time. Bionic Commando: ReArmed was excellent. Then we have Ducktales and Castle of Illusion finding themselves remade for modern day.

You'll notice a pattern here. Truth is, a lot of the things I love about these games were the norm back in the 90's. You know, back when family friendly mascots ruled the game systems.

Lest you think I'm just being nostalgic, I assure you I'm not viewing this with rose tinted glasses. I remember the duds. Seemed like everyone was in a rush to rip Sonic the Hedgehog off wholesale in the hopes of getting a fraction of his sales, leading to abominations like Bubsy. I don't forget the blatant advertising, either; people bitch about it in modern games, but back then they'd make entire games centered around the mascots for soda or cheese crunchies. Most of them sucked**.

But then... how often did we get a winner out of the deal? Guys like Sonic, Mario and Mega Man go without saying***. But what about Sparkster (or Rocket Knight if you prefer)? Or guys like Earthworm Jim, whose world had all the wacky hijinks and off the wall humor you could handle? He's fallen far since then, but everyone loves the first three Crash Bandicoot games. Spyro had a great trilogy, too. They've never been my thing, but many swore by the Banjo Kazooie games. Vectorman? Bomberman? The modern age had a few great ones too, with fare like Sly Cooper and Jak picking up the slack.

I recognize there's a sound argument to be made that if I got my way, we'd be trading one set of samey crap for another. But think about it. Even the duds rarely resembled each other in look, style or design. Take your modern shooters, on the other hand; at times, it's difficult to tell them apart. Do we really need another Tom Clancy? Call of Duty? Generic Shooter #476? Is there anything substantial enough to set each of them apart?

I don't know about you, but I'd rather have a crapload of colorful mascots traversing diverse, out there world, even if half of them were crap, as opposed to a crapload of drab, boring shooters that look and play the exact same. Doesn't it get depressing, looking at all that brown? All those dark colors? I'm tired of depressing. I want fun.

* Yes, I'm going to far as to say Rayman's dethroned Mario, at least for the time being. Think about it. When's the last time a Mario game felt particularly inspired? Or even fresh? The first Galaxy? Maybe the second, which refined and polished everything that made the first one great. Since then, it's mostly been a revival of sub-brands like Land and World. Even Mario's recent return to 2D - New Super Mario Brothers - simply cannot hold a candle to Rayman's recent offerings. Nintendo needs to step it up.

** Cool Spot's one of the few exceptions, but his games are remembered better than they actually were. There's a difference between being a good game and a great one, a distinction few make when it comes to Cool Spot. But that's splitting hairs; they're better than you'd expect a blatant product advertisement to be, which we can probably thank David Perry and Tommy Tallarico for.

*** Even if Mega Man's all but dropped off the map thanks to a hissy fit Capcom threw when Keji Inafune left the company.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Earth 2: The Gathering (comics)

Writer: James Robinson
Artist: Nicola Scott
Collects: Earth 2 #1-6

This is blasphemy of the highest order, but I never could get into Starman. Everyone and their grandmother claims it's a classic, but I tried the first volume and didn't make it past the first issue. It felt like someone vomited words onto page after page. It was like somebody forgot they were writing a comic and just started writing a novel instead. It wasn't long before I tapped and went to read something else.

Earth 2 is better in this regard, but only just. Starman began and ended in the 90's. Earth 2 debuted in 2012. Not a whole lot of forward progression.

Ultimately, this is the problem with James Robinsons writing. He's way too verbose, seeming to forget that we left the Bronze Age of Comics a long time ago. This is more of a problem for some than others; given my attention issues, it's no surprise I have difficulty with his work as well as older comics. Still, I feel like I expect - and should expect - him to progress in this regard.

I hope I'm not coming off too harsh here, because this is not going to be a scathing review. Despite all this, Earth 2 did what Starman could not. It kept my interest.

While I've established that Robinsons weakness is his overly purple prose, his strength is, without question, his ability to build worlds. I didn't make it through Starman*, but I read more than enough about it to appreciate just how much work and thought he put into that series. Worldbuilding is an important skill, especially when doing what Robinson does here; essentially reworking common tropes into an alternate universe rich enough to stand on its own.

Earth 2 does that well, even without the big marquee heroes that prop up the regular line of DC Comics. Don't let the cover fool you; Earth 2 Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman are important to this universe, but as it's backstory. They're off the table two thirds of the way through the first issue.

No, a retread of the typical DC Universe with a different coat of paint is not what this series is about. Robinson is essentially given the keys to the group of characters he obviously has the most affection for - the Justice Society of America - and he builds an entire world around them, reminiscent of the old days of the multiverse. Only this time, they're not old timers who fought Hitler and aged gracefully, eventually mentoring the next generation. This is their genesis; here, we see their start, in the present day as young heroes just coming on to the scene of a world that has gone a long time without heroes.

The prose may be stuck in the 70's or the 80's, but the retool feels modern, which does make for an odd clash in style.

Unfortunately, we don't get far enough in this volume for the series to really get going. The six issues do "wonders"** for set-up purposes, but in six issues we barely get past the first threat. Robinsons verbosity is part of the problem; the sequence where Mercury meets Jay Garrick and gives the man his powers is a good six pages of exposition that could have been pared down to three, maybe four. Mercury just will not shut up. Hell, no one will in this book. Earth 2 needed a pass or two by the trusty red marker.

None of this is to say the page space is entirely wasted. As I said, Robinsons specialty is worldbuilding and while this arc could have used some trimming, he still manages to cram in quite a bit. By the end of the volume we know more about the world and its inhabitants in six issues than we do the Justice League after two years of the New 52 series.

Nicola Scott may be a least a part of why Earth 2 kept my interest while prior Robinson comics didn't. Her artwork is gorgeous the whole way through. I don't know if it was her doing, but I particularly liked the costume design of just about everyone in the book, especially the Green Lantern. Superman's another I enjoyed. His costume is a major improvement over the pseudo-armor of the regular version; it's kind of a shame we have it for all of one issue.

Typical extras round out the collection. Character sketches, pencil pages. The usual. They're always welcome, mind you, just sort of expected.

My Opinion: Read It

This was one of the tougher scores to give. I have my misgivings, but I still enjoyed the book and I think the series has potential. I'm a little wary going forward, though; I hear the series only gets wordier as it progresses. Still, it's worth the time.

* I may give Starman another shot in the future. I tried it years ago, after all. I might have an easier time sitting through it now. Who knows.

** I really liked how the superheroes were referred to as "wonders" in this world. As if they were a new set of modern "Wonders of the World". Fitting, not to mention it feels natural. I could see the world latching on to something like that when they first arrived on the scene. It's a far sight better than that turd of a line we got in Justice League, "you're the worlds greatest super-heroes". Ugh...

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Detective Comics: Scare Tactics (comics)

Writers: Tony Daniel, Gregg Hurwitz, James Tynion IV
Artists: Tony Daniel, Ed Benes, Pere Perez and a metric ton of others in the backups
Collects: Detective Comics (vol. 2) #8-12, #0, Detective Comics Annual #1, plus all the backups

Volume One was a swing and a miss. The focus on a new villain was laudable, but Daniel forgot to make him interesting, despite having six issues to do it. Volume Two manages to fix some of the issues that plagued the first, enough to be worth the read, but it's also Daniels last. He seemed to catch on to what needed fixing just as he was leaving.

Figures, right?

Length has a lot to do with the improvement. Perhaps it's because he was winding down his run, but Daniel decided not to go with another six issue plotline; instead, he busts the page space into smaller chunks. None of the stories go past three issues. In fact, the majority of them are all of a single issue. As regards actually writing a comic, Tony Daniel is as hit or miss as they come. By keeping the length under control, he's made it easier to deal with the losers of the bunch; after all, if a given story is a dud, it's far easier to sit through when it's only a single issue as opposed to six.

As a side benefit, there's a fair bit of variety to Scare Tactics. The Court of Owls are around for an issue, the Mad Hatter pops up, Dr. Strange cameos, Daniel introduces what I believe is a new villain in Mr. Toxic - who holds the only multi issue plot in the volume - and Catwoman even pops in for a few pages. Scarecrow's around too, but despite the obvious allusion to him in the title, he's there for all of two pages. The book doesn't just sit around, content to stick with one focus; since one issue stories make up the majority of the volume, we're constantly moving to something different.

The annual is the last issue Tony Daniel scripted. In a way, it's his run on the character coming full circle. Life After Death was far from the greatest comic to ever hit the racks, but it's easily the biggest story Tony Daniel ever did with Batman; it warranted tie-ins, a miniseries that acted as a prologue or side story and references throughout the line. Fitting then that Daniel revisits the Black Mask one more time before departing.

It's the quintessential "putting the toys back in the toybox" story. Life After Death was meant to retool the Black Mask character in the wake of his death way back when, putting a new face beneath the mask. With the relaunch, that's no longer necessary - plus that story sort of removed the one Arkham figurehead Batman could interact with - so with a a cursory reference to his death and a handwave, Roman Sionis is back. It serves its purpose - and what follows is a fairly decent little adventure - but it's far from remarkable.

Part of the problem is that I just couldn't get used to Daniels take on Black Mask. My favorite voice for the character has always been the one we got out of Judd Winicks "Under the Hood"; Winick gave him intelligence, purpose and a dark wit that elicited sincere laughter out of me on several occasions. In comparison, Daniels take lacks personality; as a result, it feels as though he's only used so Daniel could use the relaunch to fix a few things.

None of the stories are all that remarkable, but at least I didn't forget it after about a week like the last volume. The collection finishes with a series of backup strips; I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I believe it's every one up to the last issue of this collection. They range from good to dull to outright bizzare; Two-Face chills with some zen monks or something? The one about Jokers severed face is the best. They aren't worth the price of admission alone but they're nice extras.

My Opinion: Try It

The last hurrah of Tony Daniels Detective Comics is an improvement over the prior volume, yet still far from remarkable. Worth a read if you see it in the local library, since there's no need to have read the first. Not sure it's worth a purchase though.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Deathstroke: Legacy (comics)

Writer: Kyle Higgins
Artists: Joe Bennett, Art Thibert
Collects: Deathstroke (vol. 2) #1-7

It seems like no one ever manages to do a book centered around a villain properly. There's several reasons for that, but the main problem is the fact that it's difficult to make the audience care about an irredeemable scumbag. If there's nothing to latch on to or make you care, there isn't much reason to read, is there?

Final Crisis Aftermath: Run manages it by making the central character a loser who stumbles into good things and promptly blows it. More often, the writer will smooth out the rough edges of the character, making them more of an anti-hero. If they're not total scumbags, it makes it easier to root for them and to care.

Deathstroke actually had a prior book in this vein. In fairness, it wasn't a betrayal of character; Deathstroke was never flat out evil even when he'd tussle with the Teen Titans. He even helped them on occasion afterwards. But that was a long time ago; somewhere along the way they decided a mercenary who played whichever side was convenient wasn't cool enough, so they had him drop Chemo on Bludhaven. He's been a villain ever since.

Hence, we're back to the original problem; how do you make the reader want to keep up with a character who is, frankly, a douchebag? Kyle Higgins gives it his best shot and the results are surprisingly readable. Slade is not a nice guy at all, but he's interesting; we see how his choices often end up creating the problems he faces. Slades pride in his reputation causes him to do some pretty drastic things when he feels no one respects him anymore and each action he takes to rebuild it has a reaction that costs him.

The last issue - which is sort of a denouement - is pretty good too. It goes into his backstory - which, if I'm mistaken, is all new - and serves to give context to his life choices and the way he turned out. It ends up as a fitting end to the volume and shows us just how Slade ended up getting the last laugh.

Legacy contains seven issues total. Overall, it's a pretty self contained arc. Good thing too, because Deathstroke is another of those titles that had its creative team for all of one volume before a change. It's a shame; I would have liked to read a couple more volumes of Higgins Deathstroke. But then, maybe it's for the best; books like this tend not to have the sales figures to support them for long periods, so perhaps its better we get a pretty self contained seven issue arc instead of a long form story that ended up cut short by cancellation.

Rob Liefeld took over next. I won't be reviewing it. Liefelds work is... not for me. It's best to leave it at that and not even bother reciting the list of criticisms. The rest of the net has that one covered in exhausting detail.

My Opinion: Read It

I'm not sure how long Deathstroke could have continued in this vein, but what we got is well worth a read. Take it out at a library at least. It was fun while it lasted.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Justice League: The Villains Journey (comic)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gene Ha, Jim Lee
Collects: Justice League #7-12

If I had reservations after the first volume, they have now turned to outright dismay. Origin stumbled, but it was a game attempt at giving a definitive modern story of the formation of the League. The Villains Journey skips forward five years to the present day of the DCU and it is... a "quality challenged" book.

A regular joe who was caught in the middle of Darkseids attack in Origin - he even wrote a book about the incident - lost his family from some inexplicable disease in the years following. Now he blames the League for it and has decided he'll take them down through the use of spirits and junk. But first, he needs a way to get under their skin, so he captures the League liason - Steve Trevor - and starts knocking over the dominos.

First off, when the liason to your team is the most interesting, relatable character in the book, you are doing it wrong. The first issue of the volume, an interlude before the main arc, revolves around him, giving him the most exploration of any character in the entire first year. It's also the only issue of the twelve to actually try and give some character to the League. How? Through a short flashback sequence. One per member. After a year we barely even know these characters, aside from the fact that they bicker constantly. They're ciphers, serving little purpose other than the fact that we need something to center the plot around. Problem is, if you don't even give a crap about the central players, it's difficult to care about whatever fine mess they find themselves in.

It's difficult to like some of them. So tell me, Wonder Woman; any real reason you had to haul off and beat the shit out of Green Lantern, who was only trying to keep you from walking into an obvious trap without backup? He wasn't even being a dick about it either and she not only knocks him halfway across town, but actually goes after him, sword in hand, so she can presumably carve him up and beat the piss out of him some more. "I don't take pleasure in this" my ass, Wondy.

Then there's Batman, who continues his streak of uselessness in this book. Yet again, he contributes nothing to the fight, doesn't even seem to be respected by his team-mates and is pretty much just there. Had the book opened explaining Batman left the team sometime in the five years gap, I think we'd all be better off. After all, it's clear the creators don't know what to do with him and you have to figure Batman has better things to do than stick around a group that doesn't even seem to respect him.

All of which is to say the book lacks anything resembling character depth. They're all shallow, save maybe Steve Trevor. After thinking on it for a while, I realized the difference between a good comic by Johns and a bad one comes down to its focus. Much of his best work - Teen Titans, JSA, Brightest Day, 52 - was driven, at least in part, by the cast. The big plotlines were there, but Johns spent enough time with the characters themselves that anything they did or trouble they found themselves in had weight.

One of the best volumes of his Teen Titans run - and a favorite of many - is The Future is Now. At that point, we'd spent three volumes with the team and Johns had done enough character work with each for us to invest in them. So we care when they meet their possible future counterparts and find out they're villains. It has meaning. The premise would not have worked if it had been, say, the second story, which is exactly what this book attempts.

Getting back on the topic of The Villains Journey, there are also some noticeable discrepancies. I guess Johns didn't bother reading JLI before he made mention of it here, because not only does he pen a scene where Batman tells Steve Trevor the JLI are basically useless and that he wants them shut down - the exact opposite of how he felt in JLI, where he also encouraged Booster Gold to keep at it - but he kind of misses the fact that the JLI never even had the chance to become an official thing.

It doesn't feel like this team has been together for five years either, no matter what the book says. They don't listen to each other, they don't follow orders, they're often berating each other and they somehow don't know a thing about one another. Yet they've had countless adventures in that span of time. It's a story befitting of a team that just formed, not one that has supposedly kept the entire world safe for five years. It's one of the things that hurts "The Villains Journey" the most; this volume seems like it should be the endgame to, say, the first or second year the team has been together, where they finally put aside their differences and work to become the team they should be.

This all feeds into the biggest problem with the book; The Villains Journey has not earned a single one of its big moments. One instance is the big kiss that made all the headlines - not only is "we're lonely, hey, we should start a relationship" dumb*, but it's another moment ruined by the fact that we have no investment in these characters - and another is the dismissal of Steve Trevor as the League liason after all of a single volume in that role. But my prime example is a scene late in the book, where Green Lantern quits the League - saying he was responsible for the fight with Wonder Woman - so the team has a scapegoat to keep their reputation intact. It's supposed to be an emotional moment and a big deal, but it means absolutely nothing.

Not only is GL's "I started the fight" bit not what happened at all - which should be clear to any eyewitnesses - but we have no reason to care. There's this supposed five year history, but we've seen none of it, leaving us with no real idea of Lanterns experience with the team, what it means to him, how hard a choice this might be for him or how it might affect the team itself. The scene just happens and yet the creators expect it to have an impact; in reality, it just hangs there, lifeless, because it lacks the context to lend it any gravitas.

Honestly, that example is the issue with this comic in a nutshell. For this story to work at all, the book needed a couple of stories after Origin to show some early adventures. Instead, they dropped the origin, threw a five year time skip at us and then expected a plotreliant on events we haven't even seen to have weight.

At least the pacing issues that plagued Origin aren't quite as bad this time.

Making matters worse is the fact that the art is subpar Jim Lee work. Origin had the same problem. It's fairly decent most of the time, but the fact that it's not his best is inescapable. This is Lee's last volume and I hate to say it, but it might be for the best. Lee is amazing when he can take his time, but I think his Justice League run proves he can't hit a monthly deadline anymore without the quality taking a serious hit. It's a damn shame, too.

My Opinion: Skip It

Justice League: The Villains Journey just doesn't work. Most of the problems are avoidable, some are just a consequence of the circumstances and stories placement. Either way, they add up to a whole that just isn't worth the hassle. This book needs to shape up fast. The flagship book of DC's entire line should not be this screwed up.

* I'm probably not telling you anything new here, but starting a relationship based out of sheer loneliness is a recipe for disaster. I like to think Johns is aware of this and that it's a part of his plans for the book, but who knows. As it stands, it's pretty groanworthy; it doesn't help that we have no reason to care. Unless, well, you're a shipper who thought this should have happened long ago, in which case you probably cared before this, quality and sense be damned.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Superman: What Price Tomorrow? (comic)

Writer: George Perez
Artists: Jesus Merino, Nicola Scott
Collects: Superman (vol. 3) #1-6

Now it's time to tackle the other Superman comic.

So, you relaunch your entire line. Obviously you do it partly to try and get new readers to jump on with your new initiative. Preferably young readers, in contrast to the aging fanbase that's held the industry up for a decade or so. Of course you want a writer that will speak to younger readers, so the natural choice is... George Perez?

They are looking to appeal to new readers, right?

Just to be clear, this is not a knock on Perez. He's a very skilled artist and I've always loved his work. But that's the thing, he's known for his art, not writing; had he been put on a monthly to draw, this might have been an entirely different review. But he wasn't.

More than that, he's one of the "old guard", I guess you could say. I've never been as big a fan of Marvel as I am DC, but they've long been better at cultivating fresh talent while DC is more likely to stick to what it knows. Relaunching your entire line and then putting a guy you've used for decades doesn't exactly dispel that notion and it is, in fact, probably detrimental when you're looking to get new readers.

This is all important, because it's easy to tell Perez is from a different school. This comic is very wordy, to the point where, if not for the art, you could be fooled into thinking this was a Bronze Age comic. He sometimes slips into using thought balloons as well, a practice the medium has essentially abandoned in favor of the less glaring narration box.

None of this is to say the book is particularly bad. The "is the hero a magnet for the danger his people encounters" well has been hit in the past, but there's a reason for that. The story also has Superman fighting some elemental creatures and an invisible lizard, which is fun. But if I'm looking to bring new eyes to comics with one of the biggest books in the company, this is the last thing I'd slot in to kick it off. A part of monthly comics is hooking a reader, after all. It may not be a particularly elegant way to put this, but screw it; What Price Tomorrow feels like the kind of thing you'd slot in between bigger runs by name creators, not the kickoff in an initiative meant to bring fresh eyes to the product.

On the upside, Perez has some talented artistic partners. I don't really need to sing the praises of Jesus Merino and Nicola Scott, do I? Their work kind of speaks for itself. Especially Nicola Scott. George Perez himself doesn't do any interior artwork, but we do at least get some covers, so there's that.

This is another of those "one and done" volumes we've already encountered a couple times in the New 52. George Perez is gone next volume. I doubt it will be the last time this happens. DC's apparently had some serious creative issues behind the scenes ever since the regime change. Whatever's going on, they need to get it together.

My Opinion: Try It

Not exactly the direction I'd have gone, but What Price Tomorrow isn't terrible. If you like the way comics used to be written, you'll probably get a kick out of this. Can't say it's something I'd recommend purchasing though. Check the library for a copy if you're interested.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Batman: The Dark Knight - Knight Terrors (comic)

Writer: Paul Jenkins, David Finch
Artist: David Finch
Collects: Batman: The Dark Knight #1-9

Of the New 52 line, The Dark Knight is one of the books I had the lowest expectations for. Golden Dawn was not what you'd call high art and that's without taking into account the fact that Finch couldn't even manage five full issues of art in a years time. Hard to have much confidence in that.

Knight Terrors exceeded my super low expectations, but that's not saying much. The comic is still a hot mess.

Do you enjoy reading a Batman who's kind of an idiot? Yeah, me neither. The Batman we get in Knight Terrors simply cannot put two and two together even when the clues all but slap him in the face. It's not like there's some complex caper going on, either; you can guess who's behind it on the last page of issue one and you're not even supposed to be a great detective!

The plot is almost as dumb; very action figure-y, much like Golden Dawn. It does, however, give Finch plenty to draw. If he didn't get to tackle everything he wanted to with the first story, I'm sure he has now. Just about everyone shows up in Knight Terrors, whether they add to the story, such as it is, or not. If you really like David Finchs art - or hell, are even jonesing for some classic rogues* - that may be reason to check this out.

I'll give Finch credit; he defied my expectations. He actually manages seven full issues before a guest penciller has to step in for an issue. Really makes you wonder what the hell the problem was with the first series. His work is typical David Finch; maybe a little less detailed due to the strict deadlines, but still easily recognizable as his. That includes the drawbacks.

Artists who like to draw females on the verge of cheesecake are pretty common in comicss, but Finch kind of takes it to a new level here. The White Rabbit is just... wow. Here we have a character who is literally running around, occasionally tormenting Batman, in her underwear. White corset and pink panties. Dead serious. The White Rabbit is a walking ass shot. Even Psylocke - Miss Ass Floss herself - would look at her and go "damn, put it away girl".

The highlight of the whole book is probably the last issue, a Court of Owls tie-in. Judd Winick scripts, giving us a tale of an old Talon the court retired when age dulled his skills. It's a nice one-shot, giving some background to one of the numerous Talons the Court employs. Winicks best work has always been with Gotham, in my opinion, so it's always nice to see him jump back in. The issue even has David Finch on art, so he's actually lending his work to a story that makes sense! I know, I'm as surprised as you are.

But regardless of how good it is, one issue cannot save an entire volume.

Oh, one last thing. I mentioned in the review for Golden Dawn that I had no clue if anything from that volume would re-appear. Now I can say that's a no for sure. I have zero faith anything from this volume will be resolved either, since a new writer is on board for the next volume.

My Opinion: Skip It

This comic almost makes me want to re-evaluate my stance on Faces of Death. At least that one kind of held together. If you really like the artwork of David Finch, you can bump the score up one. Otherwise, I'd wait for the next volume of this book or just read another Batman book instead.

* The other Batman books are mostly concerned with new villains. I could be mistaken, but I think The Dark Knight is the only one that didn't follow this trend.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Detective Comics: Faces of Death (comic)

Writer/Artist: Tony Daniel
Collects: Detective Comics (vol. 2) #1-7

I've always liked Tony Daniel as an artist, but as a writer he leaves something to be desired. The plots are rarely gripping and it's easy to forget a lot of what you just read. Even with this book, which I read a week or so ago, I've been struggling to recall what happened without going back to the book for a refresher. Never a good sign; even worse when we're talking about one of the flagship Batman books in the wake of a line-wide relaunch.

Don't be fooled by the cover, either; after the first issue, the Joker vanishes, not to be seen again until Scott Snyders "Death of the Family".

Faces of Death actually focuses on a new villain. A laudable approach that I'm all for DC doing more of. Trouble is, said new villain has no spark. The Dollmaker is not much of a character beyond the fact that he cuts faces off, which is an MO we could get from any old grimdark comic book. Without an interesting threat, the book just kind of falls apart.

Still, I enjoy Daniels artwork, as always. A lot of people give him flack for being too "90's", but his style's always worked for me. He's not quite as reliably good an artist as some - he seems to like to experiment with technique a lot, which doesn't always pan out - but when he's on top he can make some really memorable images. Memorable as in "wow, that's a cool splash", not "uhh... huh, a splash page of Jokers severed face". Unfortunately, those type are in short supply here, but the art is still pleasant enough.

Even so, there's nothing here that you just gotta see and it's not quite good enough to make up for the lackluster story.

My Opinion: Skip It

Faces of Death isn't really "awful", but it's forgettable enough that I'm comfortable saying you don't need to bother. Kind of a dud, all things considered. Tony Daniel's done better.

Monday, June 24, 2013

X-Men: Blank Generation (comics)

"With the plane as our decoy,
we can easily escape!"
Writer: Brian Wood
Artists: David Lopez, Roland Boschi
Collects: X-Men #30-35

I tapped out on this book after X-Men: FF. I gave fair marks to the first two volumes, but that was where it became apparent the writer didn't really get the characters he was working with and the art was not on a level that could save the material as in previous volumes. But then Schism happened.

As you can guess, a new writer came on and the book got a new mission statement - our protagonists are now the "Security Team" of Utopia, whatever the hell that's supposed to mean - so, like most of the franchises books, I gave it another shot. I was a little concerned about the concept, but it's pretty clear it's just a name. They're based in a high tech jet, keep a teleporter around and are constantly on the move; they're really more like a first response group.

Right away they're knee deep in some heavy business. Someone managed to dig up some proto-mutant DNA and weaponize it, which naturally pisses off the mutants, since it's a gross misuse of a new discovery that changes everything they thought they knew about their past. Meanwhile Storm ducks and dodges dealing with Cyclops - which I think any of us might if we had to deal with him - and it causes friction on the team because heaven forbid we don't inform our overlord of everything before we even know what we're dealing with.

Even if it hasn't been done in this exact manner, the "Endangered Species" status quo has been going on for so long that it feels like we've seen a concept like this before. The first four issue arc doesn't even have a particularly climatic ending. There's a couple panel airborne fight, then one character crashes into the stronghold and, without spoiling anything, the threat is over within a page and without a fight.

Luckily, the book relies as much on character dynamics as anything else. Storm is the leader of the team, but it's pretty clear just in her actions that she isn't comfortable dealing with Cyclops, much less even being on the side she's found herself*. Colossus, ever the yes man for Cyke of late, obviously has issues with this.

The art for the first four issues, done by David Lopez, is pretty stellar. Plenty of style, a lot of color and clear action. We even manage to go the entire arc without a gratuitous Psylocke ass shot! The one time we see it, it makes sense for the panel and is not at all posed so you get a cheesecakey view of ninja rump. Keep in mind that I have no issues with some cheesecake art, but artists have a nasty habit of going out of their way to show the Queen of Ass Floss Tights "assets".

Then we have a different artist for the last two issues and it's a downgrade, in my opinion. There are fairly good pages in there. On the other hand, some pages and panels in the latter two issues are just downright ugly. On the plus side, the artist is good at panel composition. Two pages in particular, I'm willing to chalk it up to the artists style just not working for me.

Oh, I'd hate to forget to mention the downright awesome covers by Jorge Molina. Some great, great design there.

My Opinion: Try It

A definite improvement over the last volume I read. I'd say it's worth a read, if not something you want to run out and get. If nothing else, the book has the distinction of starring a team mostly comprised of females - who aren't exploited in the art, either - so if that sounds like it's up your alley then give it a look.

* You'll recall that, in the aftermath special for Schism, she wanted nothing to do with Utopia anymore and had every intention of following Wolverine to the new school before Cyclops guilted her into staying.

Batman: Earth One (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Gary Frank
Original Graphic Novel

The only thing that surprises me about this is how long it took DC to put Geoff Johns on a Batman project. Teaming with him for it is Gary Frank, the artist of Geoffs all too brief run on Action Comics. It sounds good creatively, but do they manage to make a good book?

Right away, it's apparent this isn't the Batman we know. DC has done more than their fair share of stories regarding Batmans early years, but despite his inexperience or mistakes he makes, there's still a baseline level of competance there. In Earth One, Batmans first night out is an unmitigated disaster; his grapple gun backfires, he misses a jump and ends up in a trash heap. Hell, by the end of the book, it's plain to see that the legend of the Batman far outstrips the reality; Bruce Wayne will have to work hard to actually be on the level the public immediately assumes he is.

Alfred is one of the biggest changes. I remember during the hype phase when a lot was made about the characters new background as a Royal Marine. It isn't without merit, because it alters the dynamic completely; Alfreds mindset is that of a soldier, putting him at odds with Batman, who is against guns and killing. The new dynamic makes the book, providing ample fodder for an endlessly interesting take on the vigilante and his butler.

One aspect I like about the interaction is that Alfred does not understand why Bruce Wayne will not use guns as Batman. Obviously, his rule against guns is, by now, ingrained into the character. When you think a lot about him, the reasons make sense. We understand why he does not use them. But it's rare anyone ever challenges him about it. Everyone simply goes along with Batmans rules. Alfred doesn't push the matter too far here, but it does not seem like an issue he will just drop. It could be interesting to see a full scale blowout over the issue, with the mindset of a soldier clashing with the mindset of a man who wants nothing more than to keep someone else from losing their loved ones to a criminal act like he did.

Johns version of Harvey Bullock is also compelling. Essentially a glory seeking reality TV cop, Bullock comes to Gotham when his show dries up looking for new prospects. Everyone immediately writes him off, especially Gordon. But as we go on Bullocks better nature comes to the fore, his nature as an outsider shining a spotlight on just how screwed up Gotham has become.

Unfortunately, not every change works. So far the Earth One books seem intent on using original villains in their first outing. Trouble is, they're duds right from the start. Superman was saddled with a new villain who was as cookie cutter as it gets and ultimately amounted to little more than a plot device. A familiar rogue does come out to play in Batman: Earth One, but his role is minor. No, the book hinges on finding the victims of the new guy before he butchers them.

I'm talking about Birthday Boy, our "paint by the numbers" serial killer. He is ridiculous. That's not a bad thing to be, but taken in the context of what Johns and Frank have set up, he sticks out like a sore thumb. I mean, here we are with a relatively down to Earth take on the genesis of Batman and along comes this hulking behemoth with a party hat who says "make a wish, but don't tell anyone" before stabbing his victim. The only hint of motive is a throwaway line near the end and he lacks any sort of interesting facet to him. He's just there so Batman can fight someone in the third act. They could have slipped Zasz in there and I don't think anyone would know the difference.

What this leaves us with is a book without a compelling challenge for Batman, whether we're talking physical or psychological. Thankfully, the obvious challenges that face Bruce Wayne take up the slack. Johns and Frank do a fine job of showing us a Batman who might just be in over his head - who might not even be ready for the task he's set for himself - and that's where the heart of the book lies. The book could have done with saving any of the rogues gallery for the next volume and would probably have been better for it.

Luckily, what's good about Earth One is good enough to come back and see where Johns and Frank might be going with it.

My Opinion: Try It

Between this and Superman, it's clear the Earth One line is not for purists. Some people have very clear opinions about these characters and often lash out at anything that deviates. Trouble is, Earth One is all about the deviation, which puts it at a critical disadvantage. Walk in with an open mind and there's a good chance it will work for you.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Spider-Man: Ends of the Earth (comics)

Writers: Dan Slott, Ty Templeton
Artists: Humberto Ramos, Stefano Caselli
Collects: Amazing Spider-Man #682-687, Amazing Spider-Man: Ends of the Earth #1 and Avenging Spider-Man #8

This volume may have busted Spider-Man again. I suppose it's been happening since Dan Slott went solo on the title, but it isn't until this volume that it became unbearable. The reality is that Spider-Man has been on a backslide to a place Marvel went to a lot of trouble pulling the character out of. Slott clearly loves and respects Spider-Man, but perhaps has lost sight of what makes him work.

Once again, things are way too perfect for Peter Parker. I guess it started back with Big Time. Suddenly, Parker's so smart he lands a job at a big time science lab where he makes ridiculous amounts of cash. He can come and go as he pleases, something that takes care of all the realities of vigilantism that kept him from holding down a regular job. He has access to anything he could ever need. He can devise weapons to use against his villains in his spare time, while the tech also has practical use as inventions for his job. His rich supporting cast has been scattered to the four winds yet again*. On top of all that, the series has fallen back into that annoying habit of treating Mary Jane like she's "The One" and that they're perfect for one another, whether they're together or not, and she's patient and never mad at him when he has to run off and did I mention she's a supermodel or an actress depending on what you're reading**?

The pressure has been building for some time and Ends of the Earth is where the dam burst.

Slott obviously meant it as the culmination of everything Doc Ock has been doing since he returned to the book in... #600, I think it was. The scope and scale is suitably epic. The odds are insurmountable. The world is against him and it seems hopeless. All that is precisely the problem.

Within the second issue, the Avengers - called upon by Spider-Man to give him a hand - get the hell beat out of them with ease. It's not even a clever out like in Spider-Island; they're actively jobbing to Doc Ock. From then on, it's Spider-Man, in a spiffy new suit designed to counteract the powers of the entire Sinister Six - because he can come up with shit like that in his spare time now - against, quite literally, the world. Silver Sable and Black Widow are along, but Sable's the only one of any use. In this story, Spider-Man by himself is more resourceful than an entire team of Avengers. He comes up with the big ideas that take down the Six, he has Ocks plan figured before anyone else, manages to defeat several mind controlled Avengers in combat (he comes up with the solution to the predicament too) and... need I go on?

To top it all off, he has this "no one dies" thing going on and literally sulks after saving the entire world because one person died.

I just... what in the actual hell did I just read? I realize it's his solo, but suddenly Peter Parker is the smartest, toughest, bestest superhero around. There isn't even a "his deeds will never be known" bit; everyone knows he just saved the entire planet more or less by himself. I'm not saying stories like that can't work, but this one sure as hell doesn't. There are few, if any, points in this story where it seems like Spidey is on the ropes or in a difficult situation. Also completely ignored is the fact that, if he can seriously come up with a counter for all his villains now, no one should pose much of a threat to him going forward.

It's too much. I'm not going to pretend I don't know where this is going, but I have a hard time believing the events a couple volumes from here can salvage this, in my opinion, misguided direction. At this point everything Brand New Day brought back is being slowly tossed out the window again and it's annoying the piss out of me.

Arts pretty great though, I'll give it that. Stefano Casseli is just as great as when he did Venom issues during Spider-Island. Humberto Ramos is around, but only does two issues of the storyline. And hey, credit where it's due; I liked his work in this one a little better than I usually do. The art is the only reason you're not seeing red right below this.

My Opinion: Skip It

This is a bridge too far. I'll be around long enough to try out Superior Spider-Man - I love the concept, so I'm going to give it a chance - but if it doesn't seriously impress me I think I'm done until there's a serious change in direction or creative team. This book just is not working for me anymore.

* Characters are going to come and go depending on what happens to them, but we're at a point where a bunch of the characters Brand New Day went out of its way to bring back are flat out gone now. Slott has tried to control the damage by giving Peter some new friends and colleagues at Horizon Labs, but most of them - except maybe Pete's boss and I suppose Grady's alright - aren't on par with the best.

** All the other love interests are, yet again, either gone or a non issue. This is exactly why I dreaded the day Mary Jane returned to Amazing Spider-Man. I was afraid the series would fall back into old habits. Sadly, I was right.Time will tell if it holds, but I'm not optimistic.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Flashpoint: Green Lantern (comics)

Writers: Adam Schlagman, Jeff Lemire, Pornsak Pitcheteshote
Artists: Cliff Richards, Joe Prado, Ig Guera and a metric ton of others
Collects: Flashpoint: Green Lantern #1-3, Flashpoint: Green Arrow Industries, Flashpoint: Frankenstien and the Creatures of the Unknown #1-3, Flashpoint: Hal Jordan #1-3

So, the actual title is supposed to be "Flashpoint: World of Flashpoint starring Green Lantern", but screw that. Kind of long and a little redundant. Anyways, with all the New 52 reviews, I took a look at my trade stack and figured an interlude was in order. What better than a tie in from the event that led to it?

In theory at least; most of what's collected here really isn't that interesting.

Green Lantern has top billing for this volume, since six of the ten issues collected star the character. They're kind of underwhelming. Abin Sur survives the crash and the consequences of that turn out to be exactly what you expected. Neither series goes in any new or unique directions, which is a complete waste of the concept; this is, of course, an alternate universe that would temporarily replace the normal DCU, so it isn't like they had to worry about breaking anything. The writing is iffy at times - Hal Jordan holds together a bit better than Green Lantern - but more than that it's really not that interesting. Considering these two comprise over half the book, you can probably guess my score just as easily as you could the plot of either miniseries.

Green Arrow Industries does better for itself. Ollie never really grew up in this universe and ended up manufacturing weapons, all the while feeling like he was meant for something better. Time and again he fails to make the right choices. I liked some of the ideas - Flashpoint Ollie deciding to steal the gimmick weapons of villains and reverse engineer them into his own designs is a nice touch I'm surprised no one has done in the regular DCU - and it was a decent read. Unfortunately, the main plot kind of falls a bit flat; the comic could easily have survived as a character piece on a man who has lost sight of his better nature and become the supplier for a devastating war.

Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown, however, is where it's at. This three issue miniseries is a joy from start to finish. Ever want to see Frankenstein kill some Nazi's? Maybe decapitate Hitler? Beat the crap out of a military robot, all while flanked by a vampire, werewolf and merwoman? If you don't, imagine me looking at you funny. Why it was collected with Green Lantern is a mystery to me - Green Arrow at least has a connection beyond color, given that he and GL are basically best friends normally - and frankly I'd rather it had been put in with better material. Great as it is, it sadly cannot buoy a lackluster trade all by itself.

The art's barely worth mentioning. There isn't a single consistent artist for anything in here. It's pretty much a different artist for every issue. There isn't anything particularly bad to be found, but it feels like a patchwork quilt of different styles. I don't get why it happened either. As I recall the miniseries all had no more than three issues spread out monthly.

My Opinion: Skip It

There's little reason to bother with this volume. It isn't technically bad, all told, but it wastes the opportunity to tell different stories in a world gone to hell. Definitely get Frankenstein and the Creatures of the Unknown, but you don't need to buy this volume just to get it. Pick it up in single issues.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Action Comics: Superman and the Men of Steel (comics)

Writer: Grant Morrison
Artists: Rags Morales, Andy Kubert
Collects: Action Comics (vol. 2) #1-8

Supermans origin has been redone so many times it's safe to say we probably don't need to see it again for a long time. But if you are going to sell me on it, you could do far worse than bringing in Grant Morrison. Even better, Morrison had a great idea that no origin had touched on in decades.

Morrison finally brought the character full circle. Superman started out, way back at his inception, as a social crusader who cared more for justice than what people thought of him. He did the right thing, whether the law agreed or not. Kind of interesting that the Man of Steel has been made to be very relevant again simply by going deep into his past. With corporate recklessness at a high and people deciding the way to fight back is to occupy the streets, isn't this the sort of hero the world needs right now?

Something I appreciated is that Morrison gives ample page time to Krypton without it dominating the character. One of the things that sometimes bothers me is when Supermans Kryptonian heritage is made to be a part of who he is. Morrison never forgets that, no matter what might have happened on Krypton, growing up on Earth is what shaped Superman into the person he is. His mother and father were the Kents and they gave him the life lessons and morals that shaped him into the hero we know.

One scene in particular that I enjoyed is a flashback, when young Clark is discussing where he came from with Johnathan Kent. He remarks that he doesn't even know what the S on his blanket meant. His father tells him that it doesn't matter; what matters is that Clark himself can make that S mean something through his actions, by reminding humanity of the best parts of us. That's what I mean; Krypton can be relatively important and interesting, but it should not inform his character too much. Earth is his home.

By the end of these eight issues, we've recieved a pretty good primer on Superman and the world he inhabits. A plus is that they saw fit to correct the reading order for the trade. One of the edicts of the New 52 was that the monthly books would ship on time*. Thus, when Action Comics fell a bit behind schedule, Morrison, along with Andy Kubert, slipped in a two issue story obviously meant to take place after the arc it popped up in the middle of. The trade places it after the main arc has concluded.

All the backup strips are included as backmatter; they're by a different writer, but add some welcome depth to the world. A couple of them are dedicated to Steel - who is now inspired by Superman far earlier in his career and joins the Man of Steel in the fight - showing what he was up to while Superman went to confront the threat in space. Another, my personal favorite, shows the life of the Kents and the hardships they endured leading up to finally getting their wish of a family in Clark. They're also well worth the read.

Oh, and all the variant covers are collected in a gallery at the back, along with some behind the scenes tidbits with the creators.

I was initially apprehensive when I heard Rags Morales was going to be the artist of the series. The main work I knew him by is Identity Crisis, where he opted for heavy realism to the point of basing the look of the different characters after famous actors. It was always pretty weird and I always kind of equated him with that book. Thankfully, he does well for himself here, showing off a range and versatility I didn't expect from him. His work is not perfect. Hell, it's downright rough in spots, particularly an odd, odd style change for the closing pages of the initial arc. But it works better than I expected.

Andy Kubert does that aforementioned two issue arc. As always, his work is a delight. It's a real shame that he's not a faster artist, because I'd love to have seen him work with Grant Morrison more often**.

All together, Superman and the Men of Steel is some pretty great comics and well worth the purchase.

My Opinion: Buy It

I've finally come across the first homerun of the New 52. Superman and the Men of Steel is everything I wanted and more. It has action, drama and most of all it has heart. I couldn't stop smiling while reading it.

* For the unaware, DC had a nasty problem with late issues prior to the New 52. In some cases, this is forgivable; a story is often so much better when a consistent artistic voice is applied and a lot of the delays were on the art end. On the other, even in the case of stories that benefited from the wait, it could get kind of ridiculous. Geoff Johns "Last Son" arc of Superman was delayed for so long - I think it took over a year for it to finally reach a conclusion - that almost the entire run of Kurt Busiek on Superman happened between the issues of that story. I kind of wish there were a bit more leeway given rather than the hardline stance they take now, but no one will question things needed to tighten up really bad.

** The only other thing I'm immediately aware of his his run on early issues of Grants Batman run. Unfortunately, it seemed he couldn't keep up and had to bow out after about seven issues. A real shame, even if Tony Daniel did a fair job following him. I'd kill for a miniseries by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert that allowed the two to do what they wanted without schedules to worry about.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Justice League International: The Signal Masters (comics)

Writer: Dan Jurgens
Artist: Aaron Lopresti
Collects: Justice League International #1-6

Some books benefited from the relaunch more than others. Save Firestorm, no other book may have been hurt by it as much as Justice League International. Prior to the New 52, the JLI found a new lease on life as the other half of a years worth of two biweekly series, opposite Brightest Day. It was pretty popular and it looked like an ongoing would follow by the same creative team.

Then the relaunch happened. The JLI continuity was one of the casualties. Any momentum the JLI had died with it.

The situation could probably have been salvaged of a star creative team had been tapped for the relaunch, or if the team on JLI Generation Lost had been retained. Instead, they went with Dan Jurgens. No disrespect meant - anything of his I've come across has been pretty readable, if unremarkable - but amidst a slate of fifty two titles, his name is going to stick out the least. All that together and you could make the case that this book was doomed from the start.

But it did make it to about twelve issues - plus an annual - six of which are included here. Make no mistake, the concept could have worked. The team is basically formed as an easier to control, United Nations sanctioned counterpart to the Justice League, whom operate independent of any government. It's a pretty believable response to a group of super powered individuals popping up - you can bet your ass the governments of the world would want SOMETHING in place just in case somebody on that team went rogue, for one thing - and it could have led to some pretty interesting drama, had the book survived enough to settle into a status quo.

As it stands, the book doesn't have nearly enough time to differentiate itself from the main title and carve out its own niche. It does not, however, have to deal with the level of scrutiny the other Justice League title does. Given the hype, superstar creative team and expectations, the reality that Justice League didn't live up hurts more. JLI, however, has an easier time getting away with just being "pretty decent". Another advantage is that this book doesn't screw around; Justice League took four issues to get the band together and went almost nowhere in between, while JLI has the team together and the threat in play by the end of the first issue. It's the exact opposite of the sort of decompression Justice League employed.

Something I really enjoyed was Jurgens portrayal of Batman. One of the unfortunate losses in the New 52 is the comraderie and rapport that had developed between he and Booster Gold over the course of Boosters own title. But while the history is gone, Jurgens nonetheless retains the dynamic. Batman actually acts as something akin to a friend to Booster in this volume; he's often there with advice, seems to look out for the younger hero, actively helps him get some cred prior to an important UN meeting and is initially the only one who believes in him.

Too often, writers stick close to the Grimdark template of Batman - which is fine sometimes, but horribly tedious when overdone - and make him the most anti-social guy around. Thus, it's always nice to see a writer remember that despite how screwed up he is Batman still cares. If he didn't care about people at his core, he wouldn't dress up as a bat every night in an attempt to keep others from the trauma and pain he's lived through. I, personally, have had about enough Batdickery to last me a good long while, so more of this would be appreciated.

Something I didn't particularly enjoy was Godiva. I think she's a new character? I don't recognize her. Regardless, she proves herself to be a female clone of early, glory seeking Booster Gold. She at least has a character arc and I don't hate the character, but she's a puzzling addition.

If I had to describe the writing, I'd say it's something of a throwback. It reminds me a fair bit of some of the more typical mid-range books of the 80's and 90's. All told, this probably could have passed for a pretty solid superhero team title if it existed back then. Today, it feels a little bit out of place, but if you can get past that you're good.

Before I wrap up, I should probably touch on the art. There's really not a whole lot for me to say about it, but I figure it's worth at least giving a shout to it. It won't blow you away, but it's pretty respectable work. Much like the rest of the book. It's a shame that's not necessarily good enough for a book launched in this sort of initiative.

My Opinion: Try It

Justice League International had the deck stacked against it, but manages to come out a readable work. Damning with faint praise, I suppose, but given the circumstances I expected worse. If you want some meat and potatoes superhero team action, this isn't a terrible way to kill an hour and a half. But it isn't anything you just have to read, either.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Justice League: Origin (comic)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Jim Lee
Collects: Justice League #1-6

If nothing else, DC Comics New 52 initiative was ballsy. They wiped out most of their continuity - Batman and Green Lantern are two of the very few exceptions - and relaunched the entire line, simultaneously going day and date digital with every book at a time when the industry had to be dragged kicking and screaming into it. The first book - the one to set the stage for this bold new DC Universe - was to be Justice League, by superstar creators Geoff Johns and Jim Lee. Could you have possibly announced a better team than that to try and get fans on board? But with that announcement came a lot of hype; and hype breeds high expectations.

If you're going to enjoy this book, you need to throw the hype out. Temper your expectations somewhat. The new Justice League is a pretty decent book, but make no mistake, as far as this first volume goes, neither Johns or Lee are bringing their A game.

This go around, we sadly get lesser Geoff Johns. You know the one. Strained, goofy dialogue, baffling story decisions, ridiculous amounts of hyper violence, no subtlety and a lack of depth to the story. The one that feels like he's trying too hard. It's the opposite of the guy who wrote Teen Titans; one of the two or three legitimately great runs with the book. It's always disappointing because I know he can do better.

From beginning to end, there are things that stick out as being off. Darkseid is the main villain, but he only shows up near the end to wreck the League a bit before being shuffled off through a Boom Tube back to where he came, screaming a hammy "I WILL RETUUUURN". Hell, what's to stop him from opening another Boom Tube and picking up where he left off? They shove him back to Apokolips and the fight is just over, as if there's suddenly no way any other Parademons could get to Earth and open another gateway. We barely know why he even attacked; Darkseid himself doesn't say more than three lines in the entire thing and the only clue we get is some minor henchmen babbling about looking for his daughter.

Then there's Batman. Johns had no idea what to do with him in this comic. It's painfully obvious. He contributes little past banter and it feels almost as though Johns felt like he needed to try to crowbar Batman into the climax somewhere. What I refer to comes two thirds of the way through the book; Batman peels off his chest emblem - because that makes total sense, right? - takes off his mask, reveals his name to Green Lantern out in the middle of the street*, gives him a pep talk and is then carted off by a Parademon through the Boom Tube to get Superman. Spoiler alert: When we see him in the next issue, he accomplishes nothing. The Superman thing just kind of resolves itself.

For a character who is in almost every scene, no one else feels as though they're just there as much as Batman. I don't want to make direct comparisons - it often feels unfair to do so - yet it's hard not to note that this stands in stark contrast to the Batman from Grant Morrisons JLA, whose intellect and resourcefulness was as big an asset to the team as any of his super powered colleagues. Here, the Batman we get seems as though he has almost nothing to add to the proceedings.

The rosters a plus, at least. It's about as iconic as it gets. Each of the key members you expect is accounted for** plus Cyborg, who has finally moved upwards into the big leagues. Only problem is that we don't even get to see them all until the fourth issue. This is not a huge problem in itself - I sort of like the idea of a member joining on to the merry band each issue - but it becomes one when you realize there's barely enough story here to fill four issues alone. When people complain about decompression, this is the kind of book they have in mind.

As if to put a cherry on top, the usual hyperviolence - which is beginning to become a trademark of Johns - is present. It doesn't quite reach the completely unnecesary extremes of early Brightest Day issues, but our heroes seem a little too quick to go with mutilation. Sure, the Parademons are invading aliens, but it still feels wrong to see Superman just grab some wreckage, take a swing and end up lopping an arm off. Sames goes for some of the Aquaman stuff.

All this said, the book is still a fun enough, turn-off-your-brain romp if you're willing to let dialogue like "you're the worlds greatest super-humans" slide.

The B story of the book is the origin of Cyborg. While it occasionally stumbles into some hammy territory - Victor catches a pass in front of the American flag, because of course he does - it's a fairly solid retelling that doesn't screw much with what worked. I'm actually pretty happy about Cyborg joining the League - for real this time - so the page time devoted to him is encouraging. He's the one member of the cast who needs the origin retelling, anyways; it's been thirty years since the glory days of the New Teen Titans and he's the one member newer fans are least likely to be familiar with. Everyone knows the origin of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. Cyborg? Not so much.

As I mentioned earlier, Jim Lee is not on his A game either. This is, unfortunately, something I should have expected. The New 52 had meant to stop the overabundance of late books, to the point where DC took a hardline stance against pushing just about anything back more than three weeks. Jim Lee did some flat out amazing artwork for All Star Batman and Robin - easily the best in his career - but that book was always late, to the point where a total of ten issues have been released to date, ten years after it started. Justice League had to be monthly. There was no way his work wouldn't suffer.

Luckily, even a rushed Jim Lee puts out some pretty decent work. His style is still in full effect, so if you like Jim Lee's work you'll probably like this too. Just don't go in expecting something on par with ASB&R or even the work he did on Hush and you'll be fine.

Lastly, I'd hate to forget to mention the backmatter. This volume has a bunch of supplemental material ranging from the typical concept art to the more uncommon items like classified interviews and forewords to fictional in-universe books. Hardly essential by any means, but it does help flesh out the new DC Universe in a way Geoff Johns neglected to spend much time doing in the main story.

My Opinion: Try It

I didn't want to come off as if I hated this book or were looking to disparage it. However, as the first book in the New 52, DC positioned it as the flagship title and de facto introduction to the new universe. "Decent" isn't quite good enough for that. Of course, I'm also a guy who has been reading for a while, so I may have different expectations. It may work far better for that mythical Unicorn we call the "new reader". Don't go in expecting dynamite in a dust jacket and you may have a pretty good time.

* It is, granted, not exactly populated at the moment and the area is a total war zone. Even so, he took his damn mask off and announced his name out in the open. It's almost hard to believe someone wrote that and thought it was a good idea. It doesn't help that I'm not even the least bit sure what he was planning or why he needed to remove his cowl and emblem to do it. Whatever Johns was going for here is lost in the details or just never made it to the page.

** The Martian Manhunter is the exception. It seems like a glaring omission - the guy is a League founder in almost every prior incarnation - but there's always been an odd overlap of power sets with Superman. Much as they try to play up the other powers, it's still fact that he has most every power Superman has plus others. He's arguably more powerful than Superman. It's not hard to see why they'd decide to replace him in the early going with Cyborg. Besides, I'd wager money that he joins the group in the future.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Uncanny X-Men by Kieron Gillen vol. 3 (comics)

Writer: Kieron Gillen
Artists: Greg Land, Billy Tan, Dustin Weaver
Collects: Uncanny X-Men (vol. 2) #11-14

Quick question. If you intend to launch an ongoing series, you probably have the intention of running it for a while, right? That seems to be the general idea. Well, not at Marvel! I hope you weren't getting attached to this volume of Uncanny X-Men, because it ends with the next collection.

That's right, this one got as far as twenty issues before another change so dramatic they figured a relaunch was in order. Why did they even do the first relaunch? They had to have had an idea where things were headed back then. Why not just wait until after the big status quo alteration for the full relaunch treatment?

Oh Marvel, you cads.

Anyways, as you can tell by that spiffy banner at the top of the front cover, Uncanny X-Men ended up in the old land of event tie-ins. To be completely fair to Marvel, this doesn't come out of the blue; the previous ten issues were all building up to Avengers vs X-Men. Still, there's something kind of sad about cancelling the over five hundred issue Uncanny X-Men, relaunching it, then letting it last all of twenty issues with ten of them tie-ins to a big event. If they absolutely had to relaunch the book at all, they should have waited for the end of AvX.

Despite having his title relegated to supplementary material for another series, Kieron Gillen makes the best of what he's got. He attempts to add some measure of depth to the proceedings, going so far as to try and give a reason for Namor to be on the side of the X-Men*. This probably shouldn't come as a surprise, but the best scenes all seem to hinge around Namor. Gillen seriously has that character down and his Namor alone has made reading this volume of Uncanny worthwhile.

Sadly, Uncanny's new status as an AvX tie-in comes with all the usual downsides. Most issues now read sort of like a clip show, with no flow between the issues. One issue Dr. Nemesis seems fine, the next he'll be more or less chemically paralyed with Storm and Magneto, who weren't in any of the prior issues. This is not Kieron Gillens fault, but it is still a major drag.

The only real upside is that Gillen manages to sneak in an issue focusing on Mister Sinister; you know, the one plotline Gillen has been able to truly cultivate prior to being hit with AvX. The downside is that if you want to see the conclusion to that, you're going to have to own a couple AvX tie-ins whether you want them or not. I guess you could always get the Sinister focused single issues and skip the trade. In fact, I recommend that.

Artwise, this one's a mixed bag leaning towards bad. I've made mention of Billy Tan before; he's pretty good but kind of workmanlike. Dustin Weavers issue - thanfully the Mister Sinister one - is as amazing as you'd expect. But then we're hit with two full issues of Greg Land art, because for some reason Marvel didn't get the memo that the less readers see of Lands work, the better. Seriously, there's a scene where some characters are near water and Greg Land couldn't even be bothered to draw the goddamn water. He just photoshops in an image of real water. Yeah, THAT doesn't contrast at all.

But man, that one issue of Dustin Weavers sure is pretty.

My Opinion: Try It

Kieron Gillen does his best, but the nature of the tie-in drags down his second to last X-Men volume. Still, he manages to make it worthwhile. I'm in for the last volume, but holy hell do I wish Marvel would have just let the guy do his thing.

Cyclops Douchebaggery Alert: Maybe it will read differently in AvX proper, but going by what we see here - which is the background of the pivotal scene where the battle begins - Cyclops starts the war by attacking Captain America with his optic blast. This is, I might add, without any form of physical provocation. You could argue Cap bringing backup just in case was a bad faith attempt at negotiations, but it's not like Cyclops is known for rational thought lately. Oh, and apparently he PLANNED to go to war with the Avengers, because he left the publicist of the X-Men a press release basically declaring his intent to give everyone the middle finger. Kind of amazing Marvel still considers this guy a hero. Cyclops is on a level of sheer douchebag that would make even Silver Age Superman say "damn!"

* As opposed to Captain Americas side. You know, the dude he's been friends with since World War II? Even with the mutant label they threw on him, you'd figure Namor would stay out of it as opposed to fighting Captain America, one of the few men he openly respects. Maybe it's just me.