Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Batman: The Dark Knight - Mad (comics)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Opinion: Try It

Overall, there are some scattered scenes I enjoyed

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Naruto and the Great Disappointment: A Post Mortem (Op/Ed)

Aww shucks, we waited too long to put him down
and now 'Yellers gone rabid
[Note: This manga is long as hell and it's been a long time since I read the vast majority of it. If I get something wrong, it's a memory issue. This manga ran for something like fifteen years; you're bound to forget some things.]

Six years. That's how long I lasted before I gave up. I thought I'd mostly put it behind me and even laughed off the ending for a while when I'd heard about it. But the more time passed by, the more irritated I got. Eventually, all those old wounds re-opened and I had to write something about it.

I'm in a rare position where I really wish I could get the time I wasted following this mess back. When the hell do I ever feel that way? If you've read much of my site, you know I have a tendency to excuse a lot.

But Naruto, I find I can't really excuse, because...

- Narratively, this manga was all over the place

As far as stories go, I generally feel that you can pretty much do what you want as far as structure goes. To the surprise of no one who has read my blog more than three minutes, I'm heavy into superhero comics. Often, they are continuing universes that provide the opportunity to create a rich mythology around the characters and their world, which can be spun into many great self contained stories or runs. But I'm also a fan of manga to a lesser extent, which often attempts to create one over-arching storyline to rule them all, occasionally spinning off from there.

Both approaches are equally valid and have led to amazing things. You know what doesn't work? Throwing out said format halfway through. Take a wild guess what manga pulled that one.

The offending moment that unraveled the series happened past the halfway mark. It was also the first time red flags went up in my head. If you followed the series at all, I'm sure you remember it. After a long arc focused around Shikamaru we checked in on those wacky boys Orochimaru and Sasuke to see what shenanigans they were up to. It was at this point that, without warning, Sasuke decided he hated Orochimarus face and killed him so he could go do absolutely nothing of consequence for a while.

Keep in mind that Orochimaru wasn't exactly a third rate villain. Up to this point, he was very clearly The Big Bad. The Voldemort of Naruto with a dash of Ra's Al Ghul, if you want a comparison. He made his presence felt during the first ridiculously long plotline of the series, gave a sense of focus, made for a clear threat and was positioned to be a driving force for the rest of the manga. He had, by the end of Part One, convinced one of the principle characters that turning his back on everyone who loved him was totally rad (I mean, come on, give it a try, everybody's doing it), killed a Hokage and even had an entourage so powerful a bunch of the ninja kids came an eyelash away from death. In Part Two he'd taken a bit of a backseat while the Akatsuki established themselves as secondary antagonists, but he held his own against a furious, Nine Tails empowered Naruto at a point in time where he couldn't even use jutsu. At one point, Naruto survived against Sasuke only because Orochimaru felt he could still be useful. He was still the evil mastermind behind the scenes.

Keep in mind, the vast majority of this was happening at a time when his body was falling apart. Didn't matter. Even with a failing body, when Orochimaru rolled up to the party, shit went down. Or at least it did right up until he jobbed to Sasuke. So Akatsuki could take his place as a major antagonistic force, I guess? I don't know. The manga wouldn't be known for good decisions past this point.

At the time, I gave the author the benefit of the doubt. Maybe they were going somewhere with it. The rest of the manga had, to that point, been tightly plotted and not a lot went to waste. This had to be deliberate, right? Orochimaru would return as a force to be reckoned with, he was just being taken out of sight for a while before he returned to piss in everyones cornflakes.

Spoiler alert: He didn't. Return as a force to be reckoned with. He came back eventually, sure - three billion chapters later - but he would never again be a driving force behind the manga. From what I understand, they never even bothered to wrap up the matter of his ass walking around again before the manga ended. He meant so little by the time they decided to call it a day on the entire series that they up and forgot about him.

From there, the manga didn't seem to know what it wanted to do. Akatsuki took over, but they never held the pure menace Orochimaru did; they started with about nine guys, but they literally could not go a single fight without someone getting their ass killed. I'm serious. I swear, if they so much as left the house someone died. Then Akatsuki Leader was the big bad for a bit while taking the name Pain, because why not, it's not like this fucking thing could get any more ridiculous, right? Then he jobbed out and fucking Tobi of all people ended up being the antagonist. For a while at least. It won't come as a shock to you that the ultimate bad guy turned out to be an Uchiha, because frankly the entire series was more about that family than the title character.

The rest just kind of fell like dominoes, with motivations getting murkier, characters acting like morons and the few gems buried under a mountain of bullshit. But it all started when Naruto threw out its main antagonist for no good reason and never recovered. Truly a life lesson for us all; ADD plotting does not make for a great series.

- The pairings the manga ended with made no sense

Clearly, Naruto mistook his mother for a black haired
woman with crippling social anxieties.
Naruto is, in fact, blind.
The manga ended with the titular character shacking up with Hinata, who you may remember as the character that did absolutely nothing of consequence, pretty much stalked the guy and had a total of maybe three conversations with him throughout the entire work. They even had a couple of kids. Said pairing, like all the others, was revealed in an epilogue so amazingly half-assed that even JK Rowling would have advised a second pass on the script.

Here's how developed that relationship is: They actually needed to focus the last movie of the Naruto anime on fleshing it out so it doesn't feel as fucking stupid as it actually is. It fails. Outside media doesn't matter; if you wanted to do it, you should have in the actual series during the fifteen some odd years you wrote this bloated monster, rather than building the title characters rapport with an entirely different female for the entire thing.

To make matters worse, the sequel story, starring Naruto's son Boruto - yeah, the author didn't even try here - shows a picture perfect portrait of a broken home life. Naruto is barely around. His son hates him for a while. Yeah, that optimistic kid who never gave up on anything or anyone and cares about others a great deal turned out to be a barely present, workaholic father you wouldn't wish on anyone. Just how we all imagined him, right?

Ridiculous relationship two is Sasuke and Sakura. At least this one had some connection early on. Trouble is, the manga - and characterization - marched on. Sakura started as a fangirl for Sasuke, but steadily matured after he left to the point where he was barely a factor in her life anymore. If anything, as the manga wore on it seemed like Naruto loved the guy more than she did, practically breaking apart at his every mention. For his part, he never genuinely liked her and tried to kill her and Naruto on more than one occasion. They weren't even on good terms near the end. So of course, when he came back, she reverted to who she was in part one and ended up marrying the guy. Good luck, I'm sure that will work out.

I remember there was a discussion on a forum I used to go to about all this, asking if the author was bad at writing female characters. There was this one older lady on there who strongly disagreed, saying that the author was a feministic writer and the way Sakura was built was proof. I kind of wonder if she's re-evaluated that stance in the time since. By the way, the answer is yes, the author is awful at writing female characters.

But hey, forget both of those pairings. They're not even the worst. Can someone explain to me where the hell Sai and Ino came from? Did they ever even speak to one another? This is a legitimate question. I guess if any pairing ever illustrated how awful this series is at romance, that would be it.

At least there's precedent for that one though. Remember Asuma and Kurenai? Of course you don't, they barely spoke to each other prior to Asumas death. Then suddenly we find out they hooked up offscreen and she was pregnant with his kid. All in service to the plotline of one of the ninja kids. Specifically, the ninja kid who barely did anything before or after that arc. So it's not like this kind of insane, out of nowhere horseshit never happened before.

Naruto: The Best at Romance.

- There are never any consequences

I admit never may be a bit too strong a word, but the statement is generally true.

The point where I flat out gave up on the manga came two thirds of the way in. Near the end of the Akatsuki shenanigans, the Leader decided to show everyone who was boss by wiping the village of Konoha - home of every character that mattered - right off the damn map. It was shocking, exciting and grabbed my attention at a point where I had more or less checked out. Could he even DO that? What does this mean? What is Naruto going to do? There's barely a village left. Does he take charge of the situation and help rebuild the village? Is there even enough LEFT to rebuild? The possibilities seemed endless and there didn't seem to be a way out of it.

Instead, true to form, the author had said villain make a last minute face turn and basically resurrect the entire village before dying. Because of course he did. Why would he do anything else? It was the last straw; I stopped reading in disgust and only checked in with the old online haunts every couple months to get the gist of what had happened, holding on to a small, laughable hope that maybe the series would turn itself around.

I said true to form, because the worst kept secret around is that the author of Naruto is the King of Cop-Outs. The Colonel of Cold Feet. On numerous occasions, he'd script something bold, then pull back at the absolute last possible minute, almost as if he were afraid of how it might change things. Nothing big ever really happened. No one important ever seemed to die, even if they'd been given the comic equivalent of a eulogy. On the one occasion that someone did, the impact was felt for maybe twenty chapters before it stopped being a thing. Whenever someone kicked the bucket, it was a non-entity like Asuma, who contributed a grand total of nothing to anyone, even in death. Everyone else almost always survived, including Hinata herself, who at one point decided she was going to buy Naruto some time, charged at the Big Bad of the week and was hilariously shut down before she even got a hit in. The villain stabbed her clean through the back. Of course she survived, because she was so important she went on to... uhh... marry the main character out of nowhere in the epilogue?

Now, I'm not saying you have to kill characters for drama or stakes, but if you're very clearly going in that direction either pull the trigger or don't bother building to it.

The earliest example I felt the pull back was the end of Part One. The fight where Neji almost died, in fact. That entire thing could not have screamed "this is goodbye" any harder if it tried, from the symbolism to the word choice to the tone. He's dead Jim. Only, oops, no he isn't. For the longest time, I thought I was just mistaken and he'd never been intended to actually die. I re-evaluated that when the manga made a suspicious number of reversals as it marched on. There may even be an earlier instance, but that was the first that stuck out.

For the record, Neji went on to do absolutely nothing of consequence from there before dying later in a ninja war. Frankly, he'd have been better off dying the first time. At least then, he'd have really made an impact; imagine that last arc of Part One if one of Narutos friends died in the midst of Sasukes abandonment of the village. It was tense as it was, but adding in the death of someone Naruto made a positive impact on would have only strengthened that. But to tell the truth, that's probably why he didn't go through with it; Sasuke was always meant for redemption, however half assed, and directly tying the death of someone Naruto befriended through sheer force of will throws a monkey wrench in that.

Oh, speaking of Sasuke and the utter lack of consequences. He turned his back on his home village to go hang out with the villain that had murdered its leader. He very nearly killed the guy who considered him a brother. He hung out with every one of the three million "Big Bads" of the manga at least once. He even joined Akatsuki at one point. Pretty sure he killed a bunch of people. Oh yeah, and he said on more than one occasion that he wanted to slaughter the entirety of Konoha for supposed crimes against his family of overpowered monsters.

Guest what his fate was. You'll never get it. Not in a million years. Would could possibly be fitting of such a treasonous, outright bastard? Ready?

He's pardoned for every one of his crimes, ends up marrying the closest thing the manga had to a heroine and ended up accomplishing every goal he set out to do.

Proof that it sure is handy being the authors pet if ever I saw it.

- This manga had a nasty habit of forgetting who the main character was supposed to be

Naruto always had a bad habit of meandering, even early on. But back then, those fanciful strolls through drawn out plots at least had the decency to feature the main character and did a good job of fleshing out the world. One also has to give some leeway here; it is a Japanese manga, after all, which are well known for being decompressed to their breaking point. I mean, a lot of these series have an eighteen or so page chapter put out a week, so a lot of it is going to be ponderous, if only to fill space. What do you expect?

Part Two, however, had a bad habit of letting the title character linger off screen for obscene lengths of time. The big Shikamaru arc didn't feature him at all or even accomplish anything, for that matter. It was about lazy genius boy and the death of his mentor.

Then there's the period of time right after Sasuke shivved Orochimaru. They might as well have renamed the manga "Sasuke and his Amazing Friends" at that point, because for a solid six months worth of weekly chapters, Not-The-Main-Character and his team of toadies wandered here and there, boring the audience to tears and making us all question the purpose of life.

Not helping is the fact that the entire arc was also a waste of time; it served the express purpose of giving Sasuke his own group to replace Team 7, whom he betrayed. Guess what they went on to do? Suck air. They contribute next to nothing. If this were an American cartoon from the 80's, I'd assume they were made for no other reason than to sell toys. Hell, they may have been for all I know; I'm not sure how much of that sort of lazy shilling they do in Japan.

These wouldn't be the only occasions either. None of the extended breaks accomplished anything. I'm going to go into ex-fan theory mode for a minute here, so what is to follow is rooted in nothing more than speculation. I've long wondered if the author of Naruto simply got tired of the story he was telling for whatever reason - hey, he'd been doing the same story for, what, eight years by this point and barely made it halfway through, so I could understand that feeling - and decided to throw whatever he could at the wall to rekindle his interest. It would explain a lot, like the long breaks from the main character, the nonsense additions to the world and even why he would simply discard the villain he'd been building for years without warning. I don't know. Maybe we'll never know.

What I do know is that a lot of this manga felt as though it were more about Sasuke Uchiha than the guy whose name was on the cover. Maybe that's why the manga drifted from Naruto a lot in Part Two. He didn't have the authors favorite character hanging around all the time anymore to ensure he'd always be in the thick of things.

- The Title Character accomplished about half his goals, but some were practically handed to him

Lets take a quick look at what Naruto wanted at the outset for a moment, shall we? He wanted to become Hokage. He wanted to win the heart of the girl he cared about. To earn the respect and admiration of the village that had shunned him. All simple goals. Easy to keep track of.

I'm not even going into number two, because that's a touchy subject. Women are not prizes to be "won" or anything of that sort. Obviously. Still, it's worth noting because one of the things the manga did right was build the friendship between he and Sakura from nothing. She hated him at the start, he cared deeply for her. Over time, she began to see him as a true friend and they became closer throughout the manga.

It was one of the most believable personal relationships in its growth over time and still might be a highlight of the whole thing if there were anything else to latch on to. That was thrown all away in the epilogue, for a pairing that lacked even a thousandth of the build or natural story flow. Even worse, what I've heard of the stuff that comes after the main series suggests they barely interact or even care about each others circumstances, which suggests, despite overwhelming evidence over seven hundred chapters, they weren't even real friends. Go figure.

Number one and number three I will get into, because those are tangible goals that don't rely on the feelings of another person. Number three he definitely accomplished on his own. Naruto had finally gained the respect and admiration of the village a good halfway through, just by his very nature and the things he'd done for them. I guess once NaRudolph got to be a semi-famous ninja who'd rescued a few important asses from death and ended up a trusted friend of the sitting Hokage the rest were ready to let him join in their reindeer games.

The Hokage thing I'm chalking up as a failure. I know, I can hear you now. "But he WAS Hokage at the very end". Yeah, because Kakashi - his ascension a convenient plot excuse for Sasukes pardon, because the author clearly felt there was no other way out of that mess - stepped down. The entire point of the characters journey was that he was going to earn the right to be Hokage and make everyone respect him. Instead, it happened years later in-universe in a denouement, after the actual story had wrapped. Just one more thing you can say essentially happened offscreen.

- The big theme of bonds never made a lot of sense

"Hey Sasuke, remember that time we
touched fingers? That meant we're brothers."
"Thanks for ruining the moment with
your creepy stalker shit. I'm going to
stab you now."
Before I really touch on this, I'm going to say up front that this could easily be a culture thing and therefore a difference I probably wouldn't get without explanation. I don't know. It happens. It doesn't escape me that manga, while well loved in America, isn't exactly made for our audience. I'm not belittling the idea of your work having a theme either. It isn't necessary, but theme is important, especially early on when a reader has little to latch on to yet beyond that.

That said, I never felt like the titular "brother bond" made a lick of sense.

For the vast majority of Part One, Naruto and Sasuke were rivals. They barely got along even on a basic level and there was never anything suggesting some deep bond between the two. They came off as rivals who kind of tolerated each others company. Maybe they had a bit of respect for the other guy and appreciated the idea that they were team-mates.

When Sasuke left, suddenly the manga decides to beat us over the head with the idea that these two have a bond of brothers. The proof? A quick scene of a time when, years ago, Sasuke briefly reached out to a lonely Naruto. Nothing more, nothing less. Past that they didn't have much more than the rivalry thing.

Look, I've had friends I considered as close as a brother. It takes a hell of a lot more than that. A hell of a lot more in common, at least. It also doesn't come out of nowhere. Same goes for small moments that have a big impact on us. I've had that happen with actual family. They're fond moments I look back on. I still don't excuse said family members bullshit and, to this day, hate their guts long after they died. Even family - we're talking genuine blood family - doesn't mean you excuse everything they do.

So, we're left with a theme that had zero buildup when it appeared. That left it on shaky ground. If your big bonding moment doesn't ring true, how can anyone buy into what you're selling? How can they look at a moment and think it flows naturally from what we've been shown?

From my own perspective, there came a point when Narutos desire to bring his "brother" back got a bit disturbing. Sasuke did a lot of bad things in the manga and was, for the most part, not the most mentally stable character around. None of this was reflected in Naruto. Rather than some character moments or reflection on why bringing Sasuke back was so important, he doubled down.

There were points where Naruto felt as though he were becoming obsessive. Maybe even as far as an obsessive, stalkerish ex-boyfriend. He cried, he couldn't talk about the guy without plummeting into depression, he even physically fought anyone who came to the fairly reasonable conclusion that "this guy is causing us some serious problems and we have to do something about it". Some of this is a natural exaggeration of emotions and expressions that can come with a visual medium, especially in a work that is mainly action. There's still a point where it becomes too much.

The main character became creepy in service to the theme, which may be a sign you've either taken it too far or you simply flubbed the execution and now the whole thing doesn't make any sense.

- With the series wrapped, it's now clear the emotional journeys of the characters meant nothing 

This may be the one that hurts the most out of any of them.

Take a look at the epilogue. Look at the situations they have found themselves in and the resolution to plotlines. Did anything that really happened in Part Two make a lick of difference?

I mean this in several ways. At the start of the manga, Naruto wants to be hokage and secretly kinda worships Sasuke. At the end of the manga, Naruto is Hokage and still kinda worships Sasuke. Sakura starts as a viciously immature girl who hates Naruto and has a straight up fangirl crush on Sasuke. At the end, she's a housewife to the guy she had a shallow crush on at fourteen. Sasuke started out as the coolest ninja in the room with his family bloodline granting him the best ninja power of all and his family name guaranteeing he had the respect of everyone. He ended the manga having accomplished all of his goals, marrying a girl he didn't even like - he magically accepted her two plus years past feelings for him in the last couple chapters, because good writing - and even got to have a kid to continue his doomed bloodline.

You notice what you don't see in there? Anything that happened in Part Two. Because the epilogue made it clear none of it mattered.

Much of the development of the characters ended up having little effect on where they ended up. Naruto learned so much in the meantime, skillwise and emotionally. He deepened his friendship with Sakura. He became one of the best ninja around. Didn't matter. He ends up Hokage only when his mentor steps down, well after the manga itself has basically ended. Sakura pushed herself, began to emotionally move herself past said crush, became a strong emotional pillar to her friends, became a fighter so strong she impressed a lot of people and became the best combat medic you could ask for. She reverts back when said crush comes back into her life and ends up a doting housewife.

Oh, and Sasuke? Sasuke pulled every villain trick in the book, right down to declaring he was going to slaughter the entirety of the village he grew up in. Didn't matter. He was pardoned by his one time mentor, paid for nothing he did and didn't even really have to deal with personal consequences for his gross violations of trust, broken friendships and the aftereffects that would naturally occur after you try to murder a couple people.

My point is that the epilogue made no sense after everything that happened. The only way you can really draw a straight line between what we saw and what we ended up with is if the manga stopped at the Chunin Exams, skipped everything that happened after and went right to the epilogue. Which makes you wonder... why the hell did I even read this crap for so long?

- The series has a boatload of missed potential

You've been reading my blog a while, right? If not, one trait you'll probably find if you read more is that the works that make me the saddest are the ones that have all the potential in the world and end up squandering it. I find these projects fascinating - it can be fun to dissect them, figure out where they went wrong and what could have been changed - but they're equally depressing. Naruto is one of them. Look, I wouldn't have kept reading for a little over six years if I didn't think this manga could be something special. I still think that, for whatever flaws it had, Part One and the first quarter of Part Two had all the right stuff and could have led to something great. There were so many great moments, the series felt as though it had purpose, everything felt planned.

Now, it exists to me as a curiosity. Something I once enjoyed, but went so very wrong that the entire endeavor ended up a ruined mess. Did the author get burnt out? Was he forced to continue it longer than he wanted to? What was even the point? What was he trying to say with this? Was he trying to say anything? Was it ever intended to run this long? Would it have ended sooner - with a better overall ending - had it not become a global phenomenon for a time? Was there a point it could have been salvaged?

Those questions hang over Naruto. We'll probably never have the answers. It simply exists as it is, a series that could have been something but ultimately ended up a failure. More than anything, that makes me sad.

It also makes me want those six years back, but we can't have everything. The next time I read a shitty superhero comic, I can take heart. At least when the current writer leaves, there's a good chance the next will take the characters I love and do something amazing with them. You'll never see that with Naruto and his friends. I'm still deciding whether that's the saddest part of all.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Batman/Superman: Cross World (comics)

Writer: Greg Pak
Artists: Jae Lee, Ben Oliver
Collects: Batman/Superman #1-4, Justice League #23.1: Darkseid

A good writer paired with a fantastic, but slow, artist. Said team is put on a monthly. Guess what went wrong?

By now, Batman/Superman has a bit of a reputation. It's constantly late, with delay after delay marring its schedule. Prior to the relaunch, this kind of thing wasn't as big of a deal unless the delays got out of hand - see Superman: Last Son - but after a relaunch that's done a good job of reigning in a publishing line riddled with delays, a comic like this will stick out like a sore thumb.

But hey, do you know what people never remember after a book has hit collection? Yup. Delays. Lucky, then, that Batman/Superman is good enough that it will probably overcome its punctuality issues as years go by.

It never hurts to start from the beginning. Cross World is the story of the first meeting of Batman and Superman in the New 52. It may even be the first time their initial adventure as a duo has been told in decades. So already it has instant appeal. Throw in alternate Earths, doubles from said Earth, even the impending threat Darkseid and stir. Not a bad concoction.

Cross World is not nearly as earth shaking as I probably make it out to be, but it serves its purpose well as an introduction to the Worlds Finest Team. Pairing them with older, wiser versions of themselves on their first adventure - who are, in contrast to "our" Batman and Superman, long time best friends - is an inspired move that serves up a nice contrast. Nothing groundbreaking, but it doesn't need to be; you don't always have to reinvent the wheel.

One thing I particularly enjoy is that it has a place in the puzzle of the DCU's beginning. There are plenty of things to criticize when it comes to DC's approach to the New 52 initiative, but one thing they did right was to stagger the rollout of any origin stories, taking that task one piece at a time. The end result is a linear telling of the DCU's opening year, starting with Batman: Zero Year, feeding to Batman/Superman to Grant Morrisons Action Comics run to the Origin arc of Justice League.

Say what you will about some of those stories - you may recall that Origin is not my favorite comic - but we have a straight line through the big milestone moments. That may be a first for DC. Most attempts to tie things together in the past were wild and often contradictory, leaving plenty of questions as to what was canon and what wasn't; see the did-it-or-didn't-it-happen dance around JLA: Year One for just one example.

If anything bothered me, it's the ending. Essentially, the adventure is wiped from their minds, save the scenes in the park where they meet for the first time in their civilian identities. Obviously, that's not built to last - you just know they'll remember the events at some point - but it feels like a cheap out. That said, it doesn't ruin the book.

Jae Lee's artwork really elevates the material, in my eyes. This would be a perfectly readable arc without it, but Lee's style goes a long way toward making it a must read. Lee is minimalistic in regard to background, but coupled with his sense of design and panel composition, it works amazingly well. Your eye sticks to what it needs to. I'm sure this comic is maddening to read in single installments, given the mammoth delays, but as a collected edition it has none of those issues and holds together beautifully as a result.

I doubt Lee will be on the book for long - when you need six months worth of fill-in to keep a book going between arcs, even with a crossover, the writing is on the wall - but it's nice to have while it lasts, even if DC ought to have known better.

Also collected is the villains month issue for Darkseid - also written by Pak - which serves as something of an origin story for the New Gods. I'm not sure if it's all new material - I'm not well versed in the Kirby lore - but it's fairly compelling backstory. It may be the first concrete details we have regarding the New Gods in the New 52. I'm not entirely sure. Either way, it fits in well, given its ties to a character that played a major role in the events of Cross World.

One more thing to note. I don't know if it's just the copy I got from the library or it's a recurring issue, but several pages of the first issue collected were quite blurry. Production error? Whatever the case, it's distracting and can make the test difficult to read. I hope it's not a major problem.

All told, I don't have any major complaints with Cross World and I liked it enough that I'll be back for more.

My Opinion: Read It

Thursday, August 14, 2014

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

Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: John Romita Jr.
Collects: Captain America (2013) #1-5

Sad as it was to see him go, it's hard to argue it wasn't time for Ed Brubaker to take his leave. I've read most of his run and while I've enjoyed it consistently, it was clear he was running out of steam and wasn't necessarily writing the stories he felt passionate about anymore. You have to know when to step away and it seems clear Brubaker knew that. It was time for fresh blood.

Is this direction what the book needed? That I'm not so sure about.

Castaway in Dimension Z wastes no time in getting going. Cap is suckered into a train that blasts him to another dimension, one ruled by Arnim Zola, immediately finding himself in a bad way. He escapes, of course, managing to take Zolas artificially created son with him on the way out. Cap and his adopted son then fight for survival for over a decade in this harsh universe, the dream of making it home ever further with each year that passes.

There's something to be said for starting your run off with a bang, but I'm not sure how wise it was to lead off with this extended storyline. We're starting with a fresh volume not far removed from the end of one of the definitive Captain America runs. One has to assume that some people will be lapsed readers - Brubaker was on the book for eight or nine years, after all - and some may be coming in fresh. I don't think it's smart to throw the character out of his comfort zone immediately when you haven't even established that comfort zone at all in your run.

I think this has a detrimental effect on the story. It feels harder to explain than it probably is, but the simplest way I can put it is that Rick Remender never bothered to establish what it is that Cap is losing by finding himself stranded in another dimension for eleven years. If you're a long time reader, sure, you know, but for the purposes of the story, we never really met Caps friends in this run save Sharon, never got a bead on his life save one battle at the start and didn't get a feel for what he cared about back in the real world. It's like leading off with a "their personalities are different, they must be under mind control" story, which I've seen happen before; how are we supposed to have any idea they're acting off when the writer hasn't shown us what they're supposed to be like in normal circumstances? Same principle.

Worse than that, there's something about Dimension Z that doesn't strike me as particularly interesting. It's different, sure, but it feels uninspired. It's mostly a wasteland with a couple groups of weird looking creatures. It's clear we won't be there long enough to get a feel for the ecosystem or how it works - which are sort of hinted at here and there - and it's not visually dynamic enough to make you turn your brain off and forget to worry about the specifics. Dimension Z is just... there. It kind of failed to pull me in.

The timeskips aren't helping its case, either. There are two within the five issues collected. One right after the first issue, skipping a year, and another an issue or two later that skips ahead a whopping eleven years. Most of the trials and tribulations of surviving in this world aren't even touched upon. Same for any character growth for Caps adopted son Ian. Ian is kidnapped - or reclaimed, if you ask Zola - by the end of the fifth issue. He's only been twelve for maybe two and a half issues at that point. How are we supposed to care? We haven't had nearly enough time to get to know him.

It feels like this storyline is trying to pull the trick Cables series way back when did - where he hopped through time, raising Hope through the years - only skipping the character moments and compressing the hell out of it. This feels like the sort of status quo change you hinge upwards of thirty issues on, just to mine all the potential. Instead, we're halfway through, barely scratched the surface so far and only have five issues to go.

I have the distinct feeling that I'm just not getting it, but I genuinely don't know what there is here to get.

John Romita Jr.'s our regular artist. Very hit or miss artist, for me. This one lands somewhere in between. He does pretty capable work here, but at the same time, he shows a new weakness I wasn't aware of before. Apparently, JR Jr. has some difficulty with drawing varied age groups. At the start, Ian is a newborn baby; one year later, he looks like a four year old; eleven years later he still looks like a four year old. Pretty distracting and potentially confusing, especially considering this is a story that loves it some time skips.

I'm not overly impressed with the new direction. Truth be told, I was a bit bored with it. I may read book two to finish out the story, but if it doesn't do a better job of grabbing me, I may pass on following Remenders Cap run any further than that. Too many other books to spend time with.

My Opinion: Try It

Friday, August 1, 2014

Superior Spider-Man: A Troubled Mind (comics)

Writer: Dan Slott
Artists: Humberto Ramos, Ryan Stegman
Collects: Superior Spider-Man #6-10

Round two, FIGHT.

After an opening volume that put the pieces on the board, volume two offers more of the same. Make no mistake, that is meant as a compliment. The first five issues only scratched the surface of this idea.

As expected, SpOck pretty much wrecks Peters old life, one piece at a time. He's on the outs with the Avengers, he barely seems to pay much attention to Horizon Labs and most of the friends Peter made have fallen by the wayside. In its place are some new, equally interesting scenarios that come about due to the connections Ock establishes in his return to college in pursuit of his doctorate.

Less expected is the fact that the "back door" I mentioned in the last review is dealt with a hell of a lot sooner than I expected. I didn't go into detail last time, but the gist is that some part of Peter Parker remains in his mind, taking a visual form as some sort of apparition for our benefit. This seemed like the obvious solution to bringing Peter back when the time came, but the situation comes to a head here, within the first third of the series. I doubt everything is as it seems - I'm sure it will be revisited down the line - but for now it appears to have wrapped.

Not a moment too soon, in my opinion. I get why the fragment of Peter was there. People were pissed when this storyline kicked off. Marvel and Slott needed something to take some of the immediate heat off, so patting readers on the head and almost immediately assuring them that Pete isn't completely gone seems like a fair enough price to pay to keep it for a while.

Trouble is, it wasn't doing Peter Parker any favors. It's kind of hard to miss someone when they won't go away in the first place and Ghost Peter was verging on the point of being an annoyance. Using him to highlight the differences between his and Ocks way of doing things is fine, but there came a point where they were beating us over the head when the story didn't need it. It also doesn't make him look all that great; he gives credit where its due at times, but more often than not he's worried more about what is happening to his life and second guessing Ock than he is with noting the clear improvements to his crime fighting formula.

SpOck needed room to breathe and that wasn't happening with Pete around. There's a scene late in the book where Mary Jane finds herself in trouble; Ock doesn't know that, of course - even if he did, I'm not convinced it would have changed his mind - so he reroutes the call to the fire department - people trained to handle such situations - and thwomps some of Hammerheads goons across town instead. Mary Jane expects Peter to rescue her at every point in the affair - and, if we're being honest, he absolutely would have dropped everything to save her - but he never comes.

See? We can spot the difference in approach with no problems and we didn't even need Peter the Whiny Ghost to beat it into us.

Also of note is the new supporting character in Anna Maria, one of Ocks classmates in college. She really bucks convention in a way most female characters in Spider-Mans supporting cast do not. Peter Parker has had relationships with a fair number of women, but most of them are cut from the same cloth; stunningly beautiful, perfect in appearance, well loved and, in the case of Mary Jane, occasionally a model or actress. Anna Maria is a far sight under five feet tall and, while she's drawn as a fairly pretty woman, she's not supermodel level attractive like most of the girls Peter has falling all over him. She also has to put up with some obvious challenges, including the expected bullying. Her personality and outlook add something new and, frankly, she's the best supporting cast member Slott has made so far. It's kind of a shame she's probably going to fall to the wayside when Peter regains his body.

Humberto Ramos is back. Past reviews will show that he is not one of my favorites, but I've kind of come to terms with the reality that he's clearly going to be in the rotation of artists until Dan Slott decides to move on. To be fair, aside from a few scenes that show his weaknesses, he's does good work here that is mostly devoid of the oddly sized limbs that I hate so much. Stegman also returns for the last two issues of the collection; his artwork is stylized as well, but for some reason it goes over better with me.

Two volumes in and Superior Spider-Man remains a clear winner. Maybe I'll feel differently once we near the end, but it's kind of sad that I'm already a third of the way through this series. This really feels like a status quo that deserved an extension, much like the Dick Grayson era of Batman recieved. I genuinely think this could have carried another twenty issues, especially given the fact that Marvel double-ships Spider-Man books.

My Opinion: Read It

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Superior Spider-Man: My Own Worst Enemy (comics)

Writer: Dan Slott
Artists: Ryan Stegman, Giuseppe Camuncoli
Collects: Superior Spider-Man #1-5

Well, here we are. It took longer than expected to get to this point - largely due to Ends of the Earth robbing me of any desire to read Spider-Man for a solid year - but I've finally started on the Superior era of Spider-Man. Frankly, I should have tried it sooner.

I was interested in this right from the announcement and you can place that almost entirely on the high concept. One of Peter Parkers greatest enemies assumes his life and role as Spider-Man. How will he fare? This caused no small amount of bitching on the internet but I feel pretty safe in saying that it turned out for the best.

See, I'm generally a bit more receptive to this type of stunt. It's worked out a lot in the past, including Dick Graysons turn as Batman; well, when Grant Morrison was writing him anyway, as the era had maybe two or three stories worth reading outside of him in the two years he was in that identity. Much like that, it was clear the move was temporary; by the end of the first issue, we see there's a backdoor to be exploited in the future of Superior Spider-Man. They thought this one out ahead of time, which is the difference between this and, say, the Clone Saga.

I also find that having someone else under a mask - or, you know, in the body of a hero in this case - also provides a nice contrast with the usual and makes you either appreciate them more or look at them in a different light. One of my favorite Captain America comics is Patriot. That story had jack-all to do with Steve Rogers, aside from the necessary noting of his disappearance, what he meant to people and so forth. We saw the life and times of one of the men who took his place after his disappearance and it gave a wonderful story of a man trying to live up to the legacy. In this case, we have an egotistical villain taking the life of a hero and trying to make good. That just screams interesting reading.

So far, Doc Ock as Spider-Man has turned out to be an inspired move. Dan Slott had built Peter up way too much prior to this, but he isn't even tearing that life apart in a quick, dirty manner. It's all falling apart gradually, piece by piece, just by the way Ock does things. He cuts ties with Mary Jane in a moment of strength; he realizes he'd inherited Parkers feelings for her, but more than that he sees their back and forth for the destructive relationship it is. But in the midst of that, we start to see him slowly piece things together outside of Peter's circle. It's fascinating reading.

Superior Spider-Man also makes a solid case for its lead living up to that billing. Ock pulls a few obvious superhero no-nos - he actually kills a villain in the book, even though said villain killed upwards of thirty people for no good reason - but we also see a Spider-Man that is far, far more practical. Ock thinks of things Peter never would have - partly because Peter is stuck so far up his own ass in regards to his life and is not the best at budgeting his time - and generally makes for a more efficient superhero at the most basic level. Someone in a highly populated area? Ock calls the cops to surround the place and keep it contained until he gets there. Said murderous villain tends to hold hostages strapped to explosives at another place? Ock takes care of that first, whereas Peter would have jumped right in the fray and found himself in a bad position there is no easy way out of. Need to balance a social life? Better use the Ock-bots to patrol the city constantly and weed out the smaller hazards the trained professionals can handle from the big problems that require a superhero.

Frankly, Peter looks kind of incompetent for failing to think of even the most basic changes Ock makes.

It is immediately compelling. No lie, I'm super into this, because it's going to be interesting to see just how the book ends up justifying Parkers way of doing things and proving it's better than Ocks. That's the obvious endgame here, right? But it won't be easy. Even if you prove that Peter is a better hero morally and ethically - you know, the obvious stuff like believing anyone can change, not killing and such - Ock has his crap together more than Spidey Classic ever did. If nothing else, Ock is more efficient than Peter, who always had a habit of flying by the seat of his pants and figuring a way out of messes once he's already in them. This book has pulled a double whammy here, immediately selling me on Ocks time in the suit while also putting forward some fascinating questions for the inevitable return, which is no small feat given where the Peter Parker portion of Slotts run had gone.

Slott also has a good artistic partner in Ryan Stegman. His work is stylized, but not to the point of parody like prior artists for Slotts run. It's dynamic work while being far easier to take. I'm not familiar with the other artist, Camuncoli, but their work is just as good, just in a style that's a bit more traditional and befitting of a typical superhero book. Both artists in this volume are winners.

This volume sold me the rest of the way on this change-up to the Spider-Man world. I hesitate to tell you to go out and buy it right off - this is only the first volume and I don't know if the quality keeps up through the whole thing - but you definitely ought to read it. Doc Ocks turn as a superhero makes for some damn good reading, easily the best of Slotts run thus far. I'm in to the end.

My Opinion: Read It

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Justice League of America: Worlds Most Dangerous (comics)

Writers: Geoff Johns, Jeff Lemire, Matt Kindt
Artists: David Finch, Brett Booth, Doug Mahnke
Collects: Justice League of America #1-7

Spinning out of the end of Justice League: Throne of Atlantis comes  the Justice League of America, an interesting book that suffers from outside circumstances.

Going by the first five issues, this would be a pretty decent start to a longer run. Our team is formed pretty quickly, they're out on a mission by the second issue and they come up against a threat befitting of a super team. Most of it is made up of characters you wouldn't normally associate with the JLA and some curious choices from the Leagues past, but it's anchored by the Martian Manhunter - a beloved stalwart who hasn't been involved in League related matters since the start of the New 52 - and does a decent job of selling us on the rest. Also along for the ride is Steve Trevor, who you may remember as the most interesting character in the first two volumes of Justice League, and Amanda Waller, who is looking much slimmer these days.

The only problem is that this comic isn't around long enough to make enough of an impact. It's clear right from the start that it's a piece of Johns overall puzzle, setting up for the inevitable three way conflict in Trinity War. That's fine. We ought to have at least a couple storylines with this team to invest in them before the fireworks, though. Instead, we only manage to do the introductory arc, which one leaguer - the Green Lantern on the cover, Simon Baz - isn't even around for. It feels like we jumped to the big story too soon.

If this was the route they were going to go, they should have just announced this as a miniseries, packaged it with a few issues of Justice League and called it volume four when it came time for the collection. Also odd is the inclusion of issues six and seven; both are a part of Trinity War, presented here divorced of their context. I guess they were worried about throwing out a five issue hardcover, but it isn't like it hasn't happened before. That's just the way it works out sometimes. Throwing in issues that are obviously going to show up in another collection wasn't the way to go.

All that aside, the book is still worth reading. I wasn't kind to the early volumes of Geoffs run, but Throne of Atlantis and Worlds Most Dangerous have done a good job of bringing me back into the fold. I think the big difference is that the over-arching plot has emerged and is actually a lot more interesting than I would have figured. It's become fairly obvious that we're building toward big things down the line and some of it is the kind of thing that might not have flown within the prior continuity. The New 52 hasn't done nearly enough of that and it helps to smooth out some of the glaring problems.

Also included are some back-ups that ran in the single issues, scripted by Jeff Lemire. Martian Manhunter is the lead and they mostly serve to re-introduce the character. A fair amount of the backstory is the same, but a few interesting liberties are taken that could lead to something. Nothing absolutely essential, but I'm never going to scoff at extra stories. At the least, it's good to see J'onn associated with a League again; I totally get why they shuffled him off*, but Stormwatch wasn't doing anything for him.

The art is handled by David Finch. I'm not sure what to say about it. It's David Finch art, all right. If you're into that kind of thing, well, here you go. I will admit Finch probably fits this story better than he would had he done a stint on the main title.

Problems aside, I'd say Worlds Most Dangerous turned out to be a worthwhile venture.

My Opinion: Try It

* J'onns inclusion made a lot of sense during the two decades or so that DC shied away from including its most recognizable characters - Martian Manhunter became the muscle of the team - but whenever the League embraces the "Big Guns" concept, he presents a problem. There's simply way too much overlap in power set when Superman is on the team. Martian Manhunter has a lot of the same powers Superman does as well as several he doesn't. He just isn't as marketable. Putting him on a separate Justice League is far from the worst idea I've ever heard.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Justice League: Throne of Atlantis (comics)

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artists: Ivan Reis, Tony Daniel, Paul Pelletier
Collects: Justice League #13-17, Aquaman #15-16

It's certainly been a while.

About ten months ago I reviewed the second volume of this incarnation of the Justice League and it was scathing. The Villains Journey was bad enough that I wasn't sure I'd be back at all. But time can temper your annoyance. Eventually I decided to give the book another chance.

Throne of Atlantis is a crossover with the Aquaman title, concerned as much with advancing that comics story as it is the League. The short version is that a missile test goes wrong - foul play is evident, but that's left to simmer a while - and Atlantis is left with the impression that it was an attack. Thoroughly pissed off, Atlantis attacks the surface. The Justice League retaliates. Aquaman, who wants a peaceful solution, is caught in the middle. The creatures of the Trench are also involved; they were introduced in the first volume of Aquaman.

I'm not sure what it is about Aquaman that brings out the best in Geoff Johns, but if nothing else he's done a pretty great job of making the character interesting. Between Brightest Day, the characters solo and this crossover, it feels almost like a rehabilitation project for him. Throne of Atlantis does a fair job of redeeming the League, as well; they feel more heroic here than they did in the last volume. Even Wonder Woman has signs of likability as she attempts to solve a conflict with a classic rogue without bloodshed.

This ties into something I said about Geoff Johns in the last review, mainly that his best work seems to be when he focuses on the characters as opposed to simply worrying about the plot at hand. Unsurprisingly, that's part of why Throne of Atlantis works where Origin and The Villains Journey absolutely did not. He's clearly trying to do better with Wonder Woman, who has been portrayed as little more than a bloodthirsty warrior in past volumes. Cyborg has to make a hard choice in order to go save the League. Aquaman struggling with his dual heritage obviously has a lot of focus. It plays more to Johns strengths as a writer than the usual shock schlock.

We even get some long overdue moments between team members, chiefly Aquaman and Batman, who finally come to an understanding. Batman is the first to get what kind of position Aquaman is in, adamantly states that Aquaman will get a chance to resolve the conflict peacefully when the rest of the League is ready to go in and even goes for the old "we were both at fault" chestnut when Aquaman starts to blame himself. It's exactly the sort of thing this comic needed a lot more of; had a few storylines with similar development been done between Origin and Villains Journey, the conflicts of the prior volume would have been easier to take at face value. Batman and Aquaman feel like teammates here.

On top of that, there's a decent fake-out regarding the character behind the events that transpire. I won't spoil what happens, but it's a plot beat that has some more weight of you were a fan of DC or even just Aquaman before the New 52. The story leaves you expecting it to go in a familiar direction, then it flips the script. It's simple, but effective.

It's not all sunshine and roses, however. We get the fallout to the big kiss that closed the prior volume. You may recall I wasn't fond of that whole thing. It doesn't get much better. Geoff's clearly trying to make this work, going so far as to show the two on a "date" in civilian garb, but it feels like too much, too soon. We have the implied five year history, but nothing about the actions of the characters or their dynamic suggests people who have known each other for that length of time. We're told five years passed after Origin, but it feels like these events could only happen a year later at maximum, if that makes sense. So with things like Superman and Wonder Womans budding relationship, it feels like they've only just met - even if we know better - only to throw themselves into a relationship with the other. Mainly because they're lonely, which is the other problem. They don't even have much chemistry, at least in my opinion.

I'm want to just accept it at face value and move forward - after all, this is clearly going to be a thing whether we want it or not, so it's easier to just let it go - but I can't escape the feeling this whole thing is as shallow as I feared.

There's also the reality that the League this comic was sold on is changing. We've already lost Green Lantern because of plot contrivance. It's unclear, but we may be losing Aquaman as a result of this volume; the epilogue deals with his decision to go back to Atlantis and lead, interspersed with the League discussing recruitment. The New 52 Justice League was clearly marketed as a team of the greatest, most recognizable heroes and by the end of the second volume we've already started losing members. I was on board with the lineup, so the fact that it's already in flux isn't a good sign. I could always be reading the epilogue wrong and Aquaman will be present at the start of the next collection.

Oh, and Batman is still sort of useless, which is an obvious negative, but the book is clearly trying to work him in better.

Unlike Origin and Villains Journey, I don't have any major problems with the art of this collection. The highlight is, of course, Ivan Reis, but the others do a good job of keeping a visual consistancy. Aside from a few iffy panels where the storytelling isn't particularly strong, Tony Daniel manages to hang tough for his two issues as well. Jim Lees departure may have hurt the book in star power, but the result is stronger as a whole.

We'll see if the quality holds, but for now Justice League has won me back.

My Opinion: Read It

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Superman: Secrets and Lies (comics)

Writers: Dan Jurgans, Keith Giffen, Scott Lobdell
Artists: Dan Jurgans, Jesus Merino
Collects: Superman (vol. 3) #7-12, Superman Annual #1

Hey, are you ready for another switch of creative teams? Too bad! Jugans and Giffen are only around for this volume. Lobdell takes control with the Annual - included here - and has the reigns for a couple volumes.

This volume of Superman may have the highest creative turnover of the entire New 52 line and it's not doing the book any favors.

We've already encountered Dan Jurgans at least once in the New 52. He's a dependable talent, not shifting too far in either direction as far as quality goes, but I'm hard pressed to think of anything he's done I really loved. The trend continues here, despite the addition of Keith Giffen; I enjoyed his art and the writing isn't half bad, but nothing about this book is even remotely memorable.

Part of that may have to do with the constant creative shifts. George Perez didn't last longer than a volumes worth of comics either. It's difficult to set up some sort of stable status quo or do anything interesting when no one can even settle in before they're gone. Still, it makes for a forgettable experience.

So we're left with a book that doesn't have a real direction; as such, it's sort of become a dumping ground for short, old school, disposable Superman adventures. I suppose there's some merit to the approach - it's a contrast to Grant Morrisons approach over in Action Comics - but the New 52 wasn't really supposed to foster books like this, where you can practically see the wheels spinning. It was supposed to foster excitement and new directions, wasn't it?

Instead, the Superman comic has felt like something out of the past. You may recall one of my complaints with the first volume was that it felt like a throwback to the Bronze Age. Well, it didn't get any better with this one. It has the same feel of a comic from a bygone era, though maybe a bit more modern than What Price Tomorrow. It only manages to get worse when we get to Scott Lobdells Annual; George Perez occasionally slipped into the old timey practice of using thought balloons, but Lobdell straight up embraces it.

Guys, we moved past the thought balloon for a reason.

Ultimately, nothing of consequence really happens here. I mean, it sort of advances the Daemonite plot that's popped up here and there and tries to set up a villain I assume Lobdell will be using, but it all feels like we're killing time. It's difficult to remember what actually happens save a few bullet points; I just read it last night and I can only remember the broad strokes. I actually stopped three times in the course of reading it, which is never a good sign for any volume that doesn't collect a number of issues somewhere in the teens.

I can typically see the purpose of a New 52 title or why DC might have been looking for when it made a certain comic. Superman is the title I understand the least of any of them. I don't really get what they were trying to accomplish with this or why they decided on this direction. All I know is it's not working.

My Opinion: Skip It

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Captain America by Ed Brubaker Vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Alan Davis
Collects: Captain America (vol. 5) #6-10

Sometimes it's difficult to write about Ed Brubakers Captain America. Reviews are often the hardest when a series is consistently good. What do you say? It would likely be a lot easier if you could do it in bigger chunks, like two volumes of nine or ten issues as opposed to four with five issues. But then Marvel makes half the money, right? Can't have that.

Volume two picks up where the first left off and it carries the same tone. Brubakers Cap feels different now; it's focused more on superheroics than than the intricate plotting of the past. It's not a bad approach, but I'm not surprised it turned people off. I appreciate it for what it is; it's kind of fun to see something a bit more straightforward as Bru prepares to depart the character.

The story for this volume is that Caps powers are out of whack. He's changing back to the ninety pound weakling he was prior to the Super Soldier Serum seemingly at random. The timing couldn't be worse, because someone has set up some Madbombs in New York, causing dangerous riots in the midst of some highly populated areas. Cap and friends have to figure out what is going on with him and stop the villains behind it.

All told, it's an average adventure. But it does have one thing going for it. Alan Davis is the artist and his work can elevate any material. He's as good as ever and frankly I wish we saw more of him in mainstream superhero comics.

I'm not sure what else to say. This isn't a story that fosters a ton of analysis, but it's perfectly enjoyable for what it is. You wouldn't just pick this volume up in a vacuum, but if you're already this far into Ed Brubakers I imagine you're in it until the end. Just don't go in expecting something that will blow your mind and you should have a good time.

My Opinion: Read It

Friday, May 23, 2014

Daredevil by Mark Waid HC vol. 1 (comics)

Writer: Mark Waid
Artists: Paolo Rivera, Marcos Martin, Emma Rios, Kano, Khoi Pham
Collects: Daredevil #1-10, #10.1, Amazing Spider-Man #677

About two years ago I reviewed Daredevil Reborn for Collected Editions. You can find it here. Since it was meant to clear the deck, I read it in preparation for this relaunch, which I believe was just beginning to hit the shelves in collected form at the time.

The fact that it's been two years since I've read a single thing involving Daredevil ought to tell you how well that worked out.

Part of that can probably be attributed to a lack of love or tolerance for the character. While he's enjoyed a solid decade of critically acclaimed, well loved stories, the end result is a character that is cripplingly depressing. I've said it before, but it's worth repeating; the three runs prior to Waid did everything in their power to keep things interesting, but in the process didn't pay enough attention to the consequences. Bendis - and later Ed Brubaker - left the book after some big, status quo shattering events, leaving the pieces for whoever was next to work with. Usually, said writer would break them into smaller pieces.

Eventually, they wrote themselves into a corner. The biggest events in the past ten years of Daredevils publication history were not the type you could easily undo. Even attempting it backfired. Daredevil Reborn, meant to get the house back in order, only served to make things worse. Every character in that book was a moron that made one monumentally stupid decision after another. Given the fact that Reborn seemed to want to handwave away some of the bigger issues to get to a familiar status quo, logic be damned, I didn't expect much.

Well, apparently Mark Waid is a wizard, because he found a way to fix things without getting too contrived. Not everything works the way I think they hoped - Matts way out of his blown secret identity is steadfast denial, letting the skepticism of others do the rest, even though we should be way past the point that would work - but in a world where Iron Man can just say he isn't in the armor anymore and everyone buys it, it's good enough to get you to suspend your disbelief. The Nelson and Murdock situation - a major, major issue with the end of Reborn - is addressed almost immediately. Waid managed to find a clever way around the elephant in the room with a delightfully comic book-y solution that doesn't insult your intelligence; impressive, especially considering I genuinely expected the whole situation to be glossed over.

Better yet, he manages to inject fun back into the character without sacrificing what came before or veering out of character. Murdock has his smile again, but it's abundantly clear that it isn't entirely honest; he's forcing clearly forcing it to some degree, which fits with his pattern of refusing to deal with things properly. His life isn't a series of devastating personal blows anymore, but a lot happened to him and he still isn't exactly the guy best equipped to handle the weight.

Another good idea centers around the choice to keep it brief. Most of the book consists of one or two issue stories with an overarching plot in the background. It makes for a nice contrast to many modern comics, where the four to six issue arc was adopted as the standard a long time ago. As a bonus, it feels like a lot happens in this one hardcover.

One thing did puzzle me, though. Matt comes into possession of an artifact mid-way through the book that has enough info to bury the five major crime organizations in the Marvel Universe. The book does have the decency to explain why Matt doesn't just hand it over to the Avengers or the Fantastic Four - other than the fact that it's his book, so he obviously needs to deal with it - but events at the end of the book did leave me confused as to why he doesn't just use the info to blow them all in. You'll see what I mean. It isn't a deal-breaker, though. Just odd.

I can't end without mentioning the art. It's easily the cleanest, brightest work Daredevil has been graced with in years. Alex Maleevs influence has been all over the franchise since his days working with Bendis; only now do we truly break away from it and it really, really works. It complements the tone of the book well and it's a good part of why the new direction works. Without Rivera and Martin, I'm not sure it would have the tone Waid was looking for.

Just good, good work all around. Assuming the quality keeps to this level, I may be in for the long haul. Highly recommended.

My Opinion: Buy It

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Incredible Hulk by Jason Aaron vol. 2 (comics)

Writer: Jason Aaron
Artists: Jefte Palo, Steve Dillon, Pasquel Ferry, Tom Raney, Dalibor Talajic, Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Incredible Hulk #7.1, #8-15

I liked volume one, but it left me concerned. While the high concept flipped the script on the Hulk in an interesting way, the things it said about Banner were not exactly kind. Turns out Jason Aaron knew what he was doing all along.

Too bad it stops here.

At the conclusion of the first volume, Banner had perished in the battle with Hulk. Or so we thought. After Hulk enjoys some time without Banner, he realizes his other half isn't quite as gone as he thought. What follows is a romp through the Marvel Universe, as Hulk tries his hardest to stay angry and somehow figure out what nefarious plan Banner has up his sleeve. But everything is not quite as it seems.

Jason Aaron broke away from the pack to become one of my favorite writers in a short amount of time and at least a part of that comes down to his sense of humor. Even a fairly serious story will be littered with a well time piece of dialogue or sight gag. Wolverine and the X-Men has a ton of it. His Ghost Rider run had a bunch of outlandish, ridiculous crap that you couldn't help smiling at. His Wolverine run had cancer bullets. A Jason Aaron comic stands out because it gives you things you never even thought of. The second and final volume of his Hulk has more of this type of levity than the first did and is better for it. I won't spoil some of the better moments, but suffice to say it made a decent comic even better.

Better than that is the fact that the story answers the question of what exactly was up with Banner in a satisfying way that doesn't really throw the character under the bus. Many Hulk writers have explored the MPD angle of the Hulk, but no one ever touches the implications. Hulk is a part of Banner, right? He's an undeniable part of Bruce Banner, the past he repressed most of his life, given physical form whenever he loses his temper. Yet Banner always wanted to get rid of Hulk. What happens when you do manage to eradicate a part of yourself? Nothing good could possibly come of that, right?

Turns out that question drove this story all along. I'm still not sure it speaks well of Banner - without Hulk, the manifestation of Banners rage, the history of insanity in his family comes to the fore - but it explains a lot and it's a novel take on the formula. Also a plus is the fact that, when whole, Aarons version of Banner is not a total douchebag, which was a problem in Indestructible Hulk.

Everything wraps up in a satisfying manner, clearing the deck for the next era, which would be the aforementioned Indestructible. The only real question I had pertained to Dr. Doom, more specifically what was going on with him. I assume it relates to events elsewhere in the Marvel universe, but there isn't even a "check ____ for the full story" footnote to help you find out. It isn't super important to the story, so it doesn't matter much in the long run, but it's an odd omission.

Unfortunately, there are a couple strikes against this. The least important of the two is the issue of length. At sixteen issues - including the point one in the number - it's the shortest run Jason Aaron has had on a Marvel property that I'm aware of. The first volume is good, but not quite great. The second is far better - as well as the point where it feels like Aaron has really settled in - but before you know it, the ride is over. Too long to be a punchy statement on the character, but too short to leave any sort of impact. The next Hulk series doesn't even reference it.

Worse is the art situation. Volume ones art was, well, not great. Volume two has the opposite problem. I'm sure you've noticed the artist list up top; no less than six people worked on this volume, most at one issue a piece. Most of it is good - Steve Dillon does the issue where Punisher guest stars and it's good to see him draw the character again, even if the issue seems to exist entirely for the "shoot me in the face" gag - but the result is a volume that lacks any sort of visual identity. It's offset by the fact that each issue is its own story within the arc, but even so, that's about eight artists for sixteen issues.

All told, between its length and the art, Jason Aarons Hulk is probably not going to go down as a definitive run. That's a shame. Maybe we'll see him take another crack at it in the future. Regardless, the story he did tell turned out to be worth it in the end and at two volumes it isn't exactly a big money sink, so I recommend it regardless.

My Opinion: Read It

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Superman: Earth One vol. 2 (comic)

Writer: J Michael Straczynski
Artist: Shane Davis
Original Graphic Novel

Well, I guess volume one was a fluke, because they already blew it with the second.

To back up for a moment, I thought the first volume of Superman: Earth One was a pretty decent effort. I enjoyed its portrayal of Clark Kent as a confused young man trying to find a place he could feel comfortable while doing the most good. So, a typical young adult. A fair bit of the Comics Internet hated it, but I noticed at the time that most of loudest detractors were often the ones who had strict, rigid ideas about who Superman is and who he should be. Flawed as it was - Tyrell is such a forgettable villain that, two years later, I can't even remember what his deal was - it had merit.

Volume Two doesn't.

Not everything about it is bad. At least this time they go with a recognizable villain in Parasite. The artwork of Shane Davis is still good. But there are some wrongheaded notions at the core of this book and they're serious enough to sink it.

One of which is its odd portrayal of women. Lois Lane has a small role in this book and every page of it concerns a downright unhealthy obsession with finding out whatever it is she thinks Clark Kent is hiding. This is not necessarily news for the franchise, but it hits an uncomfortable note fairly quick. It comes off as obsessive and occasionally downright stalkerish with little justified reason for her skepticism. It reaches a point where she basically kicks her boyfriend out so she can illegally access his information. It's clearly intentional, as Jimmy Olsen comments on it in the four or five panels he's in and all but makes dismissive wanking motions about it.

If it were the only thing going on in here, you could possibly excuse it as taking Ms. Lanes usual behavior in pre-marriage stories a bit too far. I mean, she's done worse, right? Silver Age Lois Lane took obsession to crazed heights. Actually, everyone in that era was kind of a dick, save maybe Olsen. But it's not an isolated incident.

No, new love interest Lisa Lassalle is the one that kind of solidifies it. She's likable enough, but falls into a lot of the same traps you see with most female characters. A fair bit of her behavior is overly flirtatious, which - while sadly stereotypical in most fiction - isn't in itself a bad thing, but late in the book we find out she's also a prostitute, or at least when she needs cash to pay the bills.

Look, I'm usually pretty forgiving - I get in disagreements with a friend of mine semi-regularly because I find at least some merit in things he doesn't - but when that revelation came about, I shook my head. Of course she hooks. No sexually active woman could possibly be anything else, except maybe a slut, right? It feeds right into the sort of double standards we as a society have struggled with over the past few decades. On it's own it might not seem as jarring - especially if it had a few other female characters of different mindsets - but in a book where the only other female character of note feels obsessive to the point of stalkerish, it raises a few alarms.

But this is nothing new, I can hear some say. It's hardly the first comic to have questionable portrayals of women. Nor will it be the last. What matters is whether the rest of the book holds up. How does Superman himself come off?

Well, I'm sad to say that this time I have to side with the detractors. JMS definitely screwed him up. Spoiler warning for the next paragraph.

The point volume two completely lost me came late in the book, but had its roots in an early scene. At the start of the book, we see Superman in action, doing typical Superman things, such as saving people in a foreign country from a natural disaster. His rescue mission ends prematurely when the countries leader - clearly taking cues from real life dictators like Saddam Hussein - basically tells Superman to get out of his country before he starts killing people. Superman has to make a hard choice; clearly, he could stop this mans army from killing everyone, but he can't be in two places at once. Eventually he would have to leave to help someone else.

This is fine. It's a little too close to the real world for my taste - using realistic dictators in a superhero story makes for an uncomfortable time, which is why you tend to have things like Black Adam ruling a country - but on the surface it plays into the themes of the Earth One Superman series thus far. As mentioned at the start of the review, most of the point of the last volume was seeing Clark go through different avenues to do the most good before inevitably donning the red and the blue. Now that he's hip deep in the superhero trade, it makes sense for this Superman to come face to face with his limitations; he can't punch every problem, as some are systemic and may have been easier to solve had he been in a different profession.

No, the problem is the bookend. Near the end, after the threat has been dispatched - I know, spoilers, but come on, of course he figures out a way to beat Parasite - Superman returns to that country and incites a revolution. He waltzes in, takes guns from the dictators men, gives them to the revolutionaries and allows them to violently overthrow this regime. There is no mistaking it. There is gunfire going off. Then he goes to the dictators house, tells the man what he's done and then, hearing revolutionaries coming to kill the dictator, leaves him to die. Even if the revolution is over in an hour with minimal bloodshed, people have died and Superman is directly responsible.

Look, we all have different ideas about how change should come about in the world. I'd prefer most conflicts to be solved without violence, but I can't deny that at times I think some people need to be punched in the face, at the least. That, however, is reality. This is fiction.

We're talking about Superman. Having him do things like this shows a complete lack of understanding of the character. But even if we set that aside, even if you buy that Superman could kill or leave someone to die, we're not talking about another Kryptonian with the same power set and potential for danger here. The last scene of the book shows people in the US government trying to figure out a way to kill Superman. We're supposed to feel it's paranoia, because he has supposedly been benign. We're supposed to think they're out of line. But Superman just walked into a middle eastern country and turned it into a war zone. Isn't that absolutely terrifying?

If you were a citizen in that universe and someone with the powers of a god - who is supposedly altruistic, but hasn't been around all that long - went ahead and did that, wouldn't you want some kind of assurance he could be stopped?

That I'm even asking that question brands volume two of Earth One a failure, because it couldn't misunderstand the character more. That's a damn shame. Don't even bother with this one.

My Opinion: Skip It

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Meet Me There (movie)

Director: Lex Lybrand
Writer: Brandon Stroud
Starring: Lisa Friedrich, Michael Foulk, Dustin Runnels

You might now know because I rarely ever talk about it on here, but I've long been a fan of professional wrestling. I've been watching WWE on and off since 1996. Occasionally it opens a few interesting doors through association. Meet Me There was one of them.

I've followed Brandon Stroud on Twitter for a while, due to enjoying his weekly Best and Worst of Raw columns. It was there I learned of the film. I enjoy a good horror film - which have been in short supply lately - and I didn't have anything planned for that night, so my sister and I decided to go. The lady who owned the room we rented out for the weekend even decided to join us.

Going turned out to be a good decision. It happened to be the premiere, so everyone was in attendance, including Dustin Runnels himself and his father Dusty Rhodes. I started with wrestling at childhood, so The American Dream was before my time, but I'm the sweet spot for having fond memories of Goldust. Meeting the both of them was a highlight. It's not often you get to hang out with wrestling legends. Turns out they're nice people. That goes for everyone involved in the film, actually, from Mr. Stroud to Lisa Friedrich on down.

Everyone - from the cast and crew to the people who came to see the film - hung around outside waiting for the prior film to finish its showing. Sometimes we discussed wrestling, sometimes the movie we were about to watch. Eventually, the audience of the prior film filed out of the small theater and we all made our way inside. We had a movie to watch, after all.

A pretty good one, as it turned out.

After an opening that succeeds in thoroughly unsettling you, we meet our protagonists, Calvin and Ada. Almost immediately - and wordlessly - we see the problem that drives the movie; they're dealing with a lot of sexual frustration and counseling isn't helping. Ada reveals that she cannot remember much of her childhood, something that throws up some obvious red flags and seems like the root of their troubles. Calvin, looking to make some headway, throws out the idea that the two of them drive to her hometown in the hope that it would jog some memories and help them through the situation.

Since we are talking about a horror movie, I don't think you need me to tell you things quickly go directly to hell without passing Go.

A key strength of the film is in the writing. Dialogue in film can feel too neat at times, but going too far in the other direction isn't ideal either; spend too long meandering and you risk losing the audience. Meet Me There manages to find that fine line between the two, giving enough background to the characters to make a connection without boring you to tears. There are moments in the film that are legitimately funny, as well; I audibly laughed a couple of times, especially at the Smurfs story.

They also manage to get some real mileage out of clearly limited resources. The effects are all practical and the feel is that of a B movie, which I mean in the best way possible. Actually, that might not be a hundred percent accurate, either; perhaps it's better to say it reminds you of a seventies horror film, back when most of the greats were made with little money. Speaking of seventies horror films, the film occasionally reminded me of Texas Chainsaw Massacre, which isn't a knock; the opening five or six minutes that feel unrelated until late in the film, the murderous rednecks, the entire town seemingly complicit in whatever shenanigans are afoot. I'm not sure if it was intentional, but if that film was an influence, I felt it.

Another positive is the ambiguity surrounding the events depicted in the film. The cast and crew had a Q&A session after the screening and what struck me was that, when asked what the last twenty minutes of the film meant, everyone had a different answer. I even had my own theory - that the town is meant to represent purgatory - which barely resembled any take they had. Not every film can pull something like that off - you risk the audience wondering what they've just seen - but when it works, it's very effective. Films based on the work of Phillip K. Dick like to go this route.

None of this is to say it's perfect. The film had some audio issues worth noting, including a score that felt unnecessarily loud; on more than one occasion I found I had difficulty making sense of the dialogue because of it, a problem my sister seemed to share. I think I recall the director mentioning that it had something to do with the audio mix not meshing properly with the theaters equipment - and that it wouldn't be a problem going forward - but even so, I can only go by my own experience.

There were a couple of points where the delivery faltered a bit, too. It wasn't anything major and the cast still managed to make the characters feel real, but occasionally a moment would have an iffy reaction that was a little jarring. It's forgivable - the film certainly has a leg up on most low budget horror films in that there's infinitely less ham and cheese in the acting - but it would feel wrong not to mention it.

That said, any trouble is easily balanced by Dustin Rhodes turn as the preacher and the lady playing his not-all-there daughter. Both were highlights. The daughter might have been the creepiest part of a film that had a lot of satanic imagery, some super xenophobic hillbillies with shotguns and a cultish orgy in the woods.

All told, it's well worth attending. It's easily the best the horror genre has given us in a while using a fraction of the resources. I had a lot of fun, got to hang out with some cool people and generally had a memorable night in what turned out to be a memorable weekend. There's obviously no guarantee you'll get to hang out with a Rhodes or crew member, but at worst you'll get to see a pretty good film.

You can't exactly catch it in your local theater, though. You can check the official website for screenings. DVD copies are, thus far, only available to the people who backed the indiegogo campaign, but when asked I've been told they're hoping to get distribution. If and when they do, I'll update this.

My Opinion: Watch It