Friday, August 22, 2014

The Drop List

In my various comicbook bloggings, I tend to skew positive. I've written before about why that is, but it boils down to generally feeling more energized by comics I like than those I don't. Negativity is an essential part of any criticism though, because not everything is going to be good, and when it's bad someone ought to say so. In that spirit, then, below are the comics I've decided to drop from my current pull list as of whenever I get around to sending an e-mail to Kelly at the store. (It'll probably be right after this). Oh, and of course, the reason(s) I'm dropping them.

Archer & Armstrong: I'm not totally sure when Archer & Armstrong went sour for me. It's still got a lot of fun and humor in it, but it feels like it's fallen into a narrative rut. The title characters keep fighting ancient evils and protecting ancient artifacts from being misused, but there isn't much actual progress made. This was probably always true, but it becomes more grating and noticeable the longer it lasts. Also, Archer and Armstrong haven't managed to remain as endearing as they once were, as individuals or a pair. Some of the playfulness has been sapped out of their relationship, and they both feel like empty echoes or their former awesomeness. I guess the whole series just got watered down somehow, not devoid of the elements that made it such solid entertainment in the past, but offering weaker, less interesting versions of those elements at every turn. Maybe this is more my fault as a reader than its fault as a comicbook; perhaps I've become less enamored of things that are exactly the same as they used to be, and I just can't say why. Whether I'm to blame or the books is or we both are or even neither of us are, though, is largely irrelevant. Bottom line is I'm over this title and ready to move on.

Hawkeye: As a rule, I've been less impressed with Hawkeye than other critics, or anyway the ones I read. I think there's been some smart stuff, but I wasn't as wowed by things like the dog issue or the most recent sign language issue. Cool ideas, carried through respectably and skillfully, but not mind-blowing or even necessarily stuff I'd never seen before. Not in that context, certainly, or in Aja's excellent style, so there's new good material, no doubt. It just doesn't excite me all that much. In between, there are Kate Bishop issues, which pretty much all suck. I don't have much experience with the character outside of this book, except for Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Young Avengers where she was considerably sharper, calmer, and more interesting. Fraction writes her as a little manic, and that makes her issues manic all over. There's a cartoonish energy about her and her stories that grates on me, doesn't fit with the Clint issues at all, and makes me dislike Kate as a character. I'm only talking about her recent move to L.A. In the early issues of Hawkeye, I loved Kate, and she was very much like her Young Avengers self. Maybe it's Fraction saying something about L.A., maybe it's the artists who should be blamed and I am pointing the finger at the wrong person...whatever the case, I have yet to like a Kate-Bishop-does-L.A. installment of this series. And I've always hated the bro villains. Cannot, will not, shall not accept them as a serious threat, no matter how many clown-themed hitmen they have in their ranks. The patriarch figure wheres what appears to be a Kangol hat and the world's douchiest sunglasses, so...not happening. With all the downsides and the longer and longer waits between issues, Hawkeye just ain't worth the wait any longer. Or the money.

Nailbiter: My normal probationary period for any new ongoing series is the first three issues. It's an arbitrary number, but three issues feels like the right amount to prove that you're worth following as a series. It gives the comic a chance to fully introduce its concepts, characters, and style, plus (ideally) move the story forward a significant beat or two. With Nailbiter, three issues wasn't quiiiiiite enough for me to make up my mind. There were some obvious negatives right away that never got better, but there was also the kernel of decent story in there, and I remained curious and invested despite the flaws. However, it only took issue #4 five pages for me to know I would not be following this series any longer (even though I still read the whole issue, because, you know, gotta finish what you start). There were two lines of dialogue in Nailbiter #4 that sealed the deal. First, a little background to explain why they were so awful. The story of Nailbiter takes place in a town that was the hometown of sixteen different serial killers. Nicholas Finch gets called out to that town by a friend of his, Detective Carroll, who believes he has finally uncovered the secret of why so many murderers come from the same place. By the time Finch arrives, Carroll is missing, so Finch teams up with local sheriff Shannon Crane to find him. This all leads to Finch and Crane digging up the grave of the first serial killer, which is what they're doing when issue #4 begins. BACKGROUND OVER. So, on page four, Crane says something about the guy they're digging up, and Finch says, "He was the first, huh? The first of the sixteen killers?" Ugh. I get it, they're trying to make this accessible to readers for whom this is the first issue of the series...but come on. That's not even trying. There is no way in the world Finch would feel the need to say that to Crane. It's a long-established fact that this is the first killer, and even if I accepted that Finch might want to confirm that, the notion that he'd qualify the statement by saying, "The first of the sixteen killers?" is just insane. She knows what he means by "the first" and he knows she knows it. The line isn't just forced and awkward, it's distractingly lazy writing. Then, at the bottom of page four and spilling onto page five, Crane gives a speech about how it wasn't until killer number sixteen, the titular "Nailbiter," that anyone paid any attention to the small town and its messed up history. According to Crane, "The victims showing up with their fingernails missing was big business." NOPE. Not buying it. The first three pages of this issue are devoted to describing another of the killers, called "The WTF Killer," who mutilated and messed with people's corpses like art projects. Two pages later you want to convince me missing fingernails is what got the headlines? Bullshit. It wouldn't take more than four or five serial killers coming from the same rural town for somebody to connect the dots, some cop or fan or reporter, and make it into something. Crane does say a few small-time books were written, but that's just not good enough. Fifteen killers went under the radar, but a guy chews on one not-that-intimate part of his victims' bodies, and that's news. I'm never going to be getting over that detail, so might as well call it.

Saga: I might actually decide to keep reading Saga for another month or two. It's so fucking good-looking and visually inventive, I resist walking away. But looking at my pull list (without the other five titles in this post) Saga is the only thing I'm not actively enjoying right now, the only one where I feel no attachment to any characters or plotlines. It's a dullard, as narratively dry as it is visually...wet, I guess. Rich. Whatever the proper opposite-ish adjective is. It drags and drags and drags, filling time and space with dialogue that thinks it's clever and/or risqué and/or funny but is usually none of those things. Lots of gratuitous sex and violence, too, which I'm sure the creators would say has meaning but the meaning has yet to reveal itself to me. It's spectacle more often than not, and that has its place, but I can't afford to stick with it indefinitely if nothing meatier is ever going to be provided. Sometimes I love an individual issue, but that hasn't happened since before the most recent little hiatus the title took, so it feels like forever ago. Is the hope of it ever happening again worth the risk of being super-duper bored for another month's worth of this comic? No, but I may avoid giving up just yet nevertheless, due to weakness. Be strong, Matt. Drop that bitch.

Unity: Of all the comics on this drop list, Unity is the one I should've left longest ago. The opening arc was pretty fantastic, for several reasons, but it got fairly crappy as soon as that ended and has yet to step its game back up. I think the problem is that Harada had to become a villain, since in his "main" book of Harbinger that guy is way evil, but he was a big part of the brilliant combat strategies that made Unity stand out at first. His tactical mind and immense powers contributed a lot to the team's overall agility and capability. Also his personality helped stir things up. Now it's just people who agree with each other working toward common goals. Wah wah. The other huge change, and easily the biggest reason to stop reading this series, is that Doug Braithwaite left. He was most of why I picked it up in the first place, having been none-too-impressed with Matt Kindt's writing, historically. I should have departed when Braithwaite did, but I've now read more issues without him than with, and enough it enough already.

The Wicked + the Divine: So far, everyone who's said anything in this comic has been incredibly, insufferably full of themselves. They think they're so smart and funny and fantastic, but mostly what they are is boring passive supermodels who do nothing but talk about themselves and each other. Yes, ok, some heads blew up and some people were set on fire, but even then it happens so casually, and with a literal snap of the fingers, so as to make it seem insignificant. The idea of this comic, with the group of gods who show up every ninety years as hip young weirdos, is sexy and cool in all the right ways, but so far all the book has really accomplished is to idly roll around in the brilliance of its own concept. The most recent issue (#3) was mostly wasted space used not for story advancement but just to introduce two crazy annoying and clever-in-a-not-at-all-cute-way characters, who ended up not even mattering to the plot yet and walked off stage as suddenly as they entered. Boo, hiss, etc. I'm sure there's a plan, and that what seemed to me like wasted space was in fact a super-important piece of a puzzle too enormous for me to grasp yet, but I already don't care to ever grasp it. If this is the pace at which this comics plans to move, and these are the types of people who populate its world, then no thank you. Parting shot: the plus sign in the title is just obnoxious. Unless, I suppose, it's pronounced, "The wicked plus the divine," in which case it just has a dumb name.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Problem is I'm Not Reading Enough Random, Weird, Old Comics Lately

I want to write something tonight. I have the time, the energy, and the inclination. But not the subject. I thought I might talk about Warren Ellis and Declan Shalvey's just-completed run on Moon Knight, which was awesome, but it's been getting so much praise in so many other places I don't want to just add to the roar. Except to say that the whole thing was like some suave, dashing exchange student, showing up suddenly with his cool look and weird word choices, then making a graceful exit well before the sheen had worn off. I'm excited for Brian Wood and Greg Smallwood to take over that book, almost entirely because of Smallwood. It feels like a perfect character for his style, and hopefully Wood will be cool enough to let the art be the title's main draw, like it was when Ellis and Shalvey were running things.
     I also considered doing a whole post on how FBP #13 was kind of a disappointing ending to the "Wish You Were Here" story arc. The whole plot revolved around main characters Adam and Rosa being placed into a semi-fake reality, created and powered and controlled by their minds, so that the whole world was built to satisfy their wishes. Adam got to play out his action hero fantasy, and Rosa got to figure out a way back to the dimension she's from originally. There was a lot of time spent in this alternate reality, like half of the five-issue arc or more, and all along I kept wondering how much of what happened there was going to matter. There were suggestions that some or all of it might come true in the "real" world, but also that maybe none of it would, which made it difficult to know how invested to be. A character was brutally killed, Adam had a new romance blossomed and get spoiled by betrayal, Rosa opened a stable passageway from one universe to another—how much of this was going to stick?
     Turns out, the answer is, "Some." The dead character didn't die, so that's two emotional experiences I was robbed of as a reader: 1. when she died I didn't fully feel it because I was skeptical about the permanence of her demise, and 2. when it was revealed she didn't really die, I felt none of the relief, even as Adam was feeling it, because I'd never been all that worried. The ruined romance didn't happen, but the woman Adam fell for is an actual person, so I guess that's something. Not sure what it means yet, but it's bound to have further significance as the series continues. As for Rosa's portal home...that seems like the most real thing, a theory she already had and just needed to test in the proper environment in order to prove it. Time will tell. What I'm saying is the conclusion was too have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too for me to enjoy. They got to have a bunch of crazy shit go down in the safe little playground of Adam and Rosa's fake world, then undo it all, making much of the content of "Wish You Were Here" feel purposeless. Maybe its purpose is yet to be revealed, but it sure would've been nice if the end of the arc felt like it even attempted to make the rest of the arc feel important.
     That's about all I have to say about FBP #13, and I probably stretched it out with too many specifics as it is. So no full post out of that tonight, either. And nothing else I've read in the past couple weeks even comes to mind as a hypothetically viable topic. I mean...any comic, any panel could potentially be studied and analyzed and dissected for thousands upon thousands of words, but nothing has sparked in me the itch to blather on about it recently. I'm pretty sure [insert title of post here]. I follow all my weekly, ongoing new series, and I read stuff from 1987 for the CSBG column every couple weeks, but I haven't taken the time to dig into any of the assorted back issues and random crap I've picked up over the years. Nor have I done any back-issue diving at any of my local comicbook shops of late to add to the aforementioned collection of crap. I've been subsisting on a diet of only fresh new comics, and they're just not getting my motor running.
     I suppose the best thing for everyone, then, would be if I wrapped this self-indulgent exercise up right now and maybe cracked open one of those random, weird, old tales instead.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Elsewhere

This week, I had two pieces go up at two different sites on the same day. It sure made me look productive, even though one of them was actually written a week before. That's the magic of the internet! Over at Comics Should Be Good, my latest "1987 And All That" was about Fallen Angels, a fun and odd and somewhat immature eight-issue mini-series. Then on PopMatters, I wrote about how the current Silver Surfer run stacks up against Stan Lee & Moebius' Silver Surfer: Parabale. The two titles have very different interpretations of their main character, and it made me wonder what, exactly, defines the Surfer, and what details are more flexible/expendable. I never landed on a firm answer, but I asked the question a lot.

Something I Failed to Mention
In the Fallen Angels post, I focused on the plot and the themes it contained, as well as discussing each character in the sizable cast in some degree of detail. That all had to do with me getting to my main, closing argument, that Fallen Angels most likely works best as a kids' comic, since it has a lot of life lessons strewn throughout its narrative. The side effect of spending all 2,000+ words on building up to and then making that one point was that I essentially didn't discuss the art at all. The series had, in eight issues, three pencilers and three inkers, who didn't even work together in consistent pairs. Co-creator Kery Gammill drew half of the issues, but not in a row; she did the first two, the fourth, and the seventh. Marie Severin stepped in as penciler just for issue #3, and then Joe Staton handled the rest (5, 6, & 8). Tom Palmer inked three of Gammill's four issues (1, 2, and 7) plus Severin's one, but Val Mayerik was on inks for issue #4, as well as Staton's first two chapters. Finally, Tony DeZuniga showed up out of nowhere to ink the finale with Staton's pencils. It's a messy hodgepodge of artists, with the one thing that ties the visuals together being Petra Scotese's skillful coloring. None of the pencilers are bad on their own, and their styles don't exactly work against one another, but they are different enough to notice, and that gets distracting. It's probably the book's biggest weakness, this artwork irregularity, and it makes Fallen Angels feel less self-confident than it maybe ought to. Then again, the whole series is about teenagers who aren't super self-confident learning to believe in themselves and each other, so in some ways the fluctuating art style fits with that perfectly. So it's annoying but not too damaging to the overall quality of the title. Oh, and Joe Staton's Boom-Boom is probably the best Boom-Boom I've ever seen.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Terminal Hero #1 Review

It's been a long time since I wrote a review of a new single issue, but after reading Terminal Hero #1, I felt compelled to unpack my feelings about it. I like the concept and creators so much, and everything that happens in this debut is pretty great, but...it rushes through all of its ideas so quickly that the whole thing almost feels like a teaser or trailer of a different, slower comic that might be what I really want to read. On the other hand, excessive decompression is a trend I'm less than wild about, so there is something semi-refreshing about an issue that moves at such a fast pace. On the third hand, I'm not crazy about any of the characters yet, because we don't see much of them, and what we do see is mostly negative, shallow, damaged, idiotic behavior.
     After an opening page where a glowing man fires beams of some kind of energy out of most of the holes in his face and then gets shot by people in radiation suits, Terminal Hero #1 jumps to "five years later" where junior doctor Roy Fletcher is in the middle of learning he has an inoperable brain tumor. While Rory wrestles with accepting his impending demise, his best friend and fellow young doctor Raz does some illegal digging and uncovers details of a project called Treatment Q. Led by Professor Matthew Quigley, Treatment Q was an experimental and supposedly successful solution to tumors like Rory's, but was shut down due to some nasty, top-secret side effects. At this point, one can pretty safely assume the issue's first page was a depiction of those side effects, so there's an immediate sense of how bad things might get when Raz forcefully convinces Rory to try the treatment. Raz claims to have improved upon it somehow, but things go sour fast, with Rory developing weird reality-warping, wish-fulfilling superpowers. Basically anything he imagines happens, and being a fucked up young guy with depression, Rory does not handle it well.
     Doesn't that already seem like it could be a whole issue? I've only described the first half of it, and I even left out a scene where Emma, another doctor, throws herself aggressively at Rory after hearing about his illness, but he turns her down, not wanting to take advantage of the situation. Later, once he's realized the extent of his new abilities, Rory goes to Emma's place and almost rapes her, going so far as to mentally shred her clothes before stopping himself. Even then, he wonders if the instinct to attack her is his true self, and the guy who rejected her before is just who he pretends to be.
     The notion that Rory's powers might make him a worse person or bring out a bad side of him is one of several interesting nuggets in Terminal Issue #1 that feel like they don't get their due. It only comes up at the very end, shoehorned in a bit, like it was something Peter Milligan wanted to make sure was included but he didn't leave enough room. Most of the issue is made up of such details:
1. Rory has a dead sister he's clearly still hung up on, and we get a one-panel flashback worth of history, but his sadness still feels superficial because the topic of his sister comes and goes so quickly.
2. Raz's motivations turn out to be more selfish than they seemed at first—Rory was a test subject, and now Raz is lying to other people about the results of that test so he can have even more human guinea pigs. But then Rory finds out, confronts Raz, and kills him, so that thread is snipped before it has a decent chance time to unspool.
3. Rory's doctor is weirdly pleased/aroused by the rarity of his tumor. This is discussed for like a total of three or four non-consecutive panels, but it's still the only interesting thing about the character so far, who seems poised to be a major player and possibly even the primary villain.
4. The fake science behind Rory's powers has to do with where in his brain the tumor is located, but the explanation Raz gives is extremely basic and not totally satisfactory. I'm not sure if it's because we're not told enough about the brain, about Treatment Q, or both, but there's just too little info for me to really have a grasp on Rory's powers yet or how the treatment caused them.

I know probably all of these points are going to be developed in future issues, so my own impatience factors into my reading of this debut as hurried, I'm sure. But I think if any one of them had been fleshed out more here at the start, having the others be so thin wouldn't bug me as much. The trouble is that everything is thin right now, so I'm not sure which pieces I should be latching onto. On top of that, Rory is a half-schmuck right away, who becomes a full-on psychotic once the powers kick in, so it's not clear who I'm meant to be rooting for, either. Raz is terrible, Rory's doctor and the Treatment Q people he ends up working with seem like a typical gang of cold intellectual villains...the only likable character is Emma, but the first thing she does is rip her shirt off in the street, and her only role thus far is to be a sex object in Rory's twisted mind, so I'm not exactly optimistic that Milligan is going to use her well moving forward. Terminal Hero #1 contains a cast of asses, each bigger than the last, and a plot made up of undercooked but cool ideas.
     The best aspect of the comic is Piotr Kowalski's art, colored by Kelly Fitzpatrick. I only know Kowalski's work from Sex, where he's colored by Brad Simpson in neon washes and heavy shadow. Fitzpatrick is more earth-toned in her palette and softer in her lighting, though she can be brash when the story gets more extreme. The subtlety of Kowalski's acting comes out more powerfully with Fitzpatrick on board to ground things, which helps strengthen the somewhat flimsy characters.
     When Rory goes nuts and his powers wig out, the art becomes a real spectacle, piercing the more understated feel of the other pages. This is where Fitzpatrick's colors are brightest, some panels overpowered by hot orange and red. When Rory is in this mode, he looks like he has thick, wet fire flowing upward from his head, easily the strongest image in the comic, and one we see many times from many angles. He's a cool-looking super-being, reminiscent of Firestorm but less controlled, less familiar. If nothing else, that seems like reason enough to see what the future of Terminal Hero has in store.
     Because the thing about having a debut that moves through so much story material in so little time is it means, in the long run, this title could cover a ton of ground. And who knows if this will be the normal pace? Milligan is a versatile writer, and I bet there'll be a few deep-breath, contemplative chapters if this series gets to last a while. (I'm assuming it's an ongoing...?) He wanted to get to a certain place in this issue, or he wanted to make sure the audience was fully tuned into the concept, or some other thing that made him cram this much into the first script. Whatever the reason, nothing was confusing, it all looked great, and while the cast hasn't won me over yet, the intense, unpredictable superhero medical drama has. There are a bunch of strange ideas in there already, and I'm hoping later issues will circle back and beef them up.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Elsewhere

Because of my wedding and a few other external factors, I was somewhat less productive on the other sites for which I write this past month or so, and as such I haven't done one of these Elsewhere posts in a while. So, let's see if I can catch up on everything right quick. It's really not much to cover. A few weeks back I wrote a "1987 And All That" column for CSBG about Detective Comics #580-581, a none-too-impressive two-part Two-Face story. More recently on that site, I wrote about the Amazing Spider-Man wedding special, which was also, unfortunately, less then spectacular. Most recently of all, I did a piece for PopMatters about some of the hassles and frustrations I subject myself to by choosing to remain a single issue collector. There, see...just three things after all this time.

As a final, tiny bit of business, this Wired UK article about Wonder Woman's movie costume from last month included, among others, a link to this guest piece my friend and Wonder Woman superfan Meredith generously wrote for me last year. So that was pretty cool.

Something I Failed to Mention
In the PopMatters single issue post, I broke down my behavior into five sections: Collecting, Storing, Culling, Moving, and Reading. There is, though, a sixth piece of the puzzle that I foolishly neglected, and that's Sorting. It goes along with Storing, I suppose (and not just because they're nearly the same word) but really Sorting is its own thing. Every collector organizes their comics differently, and so does every comicbook store, for that matter. People group books by creator, character, year, publisher...basically anything that could be used to categorize the issues is being used by somebody somewhere. Personally, I like to go with straight-up alphabetization by title, but even that can create wrinkles here and there. Like, is it Adventures of Superman, meaning it goes with the A's, or Superman, Adventures of, which puts it with the S's? In that example, I go with the latter choice, if only because it means all the Superman titles are closer together, but part of me thinks I'm cheating, since in my heart I know the Adventures comes first. Then, because there's such an overabundance of them, I keep all of my Batman comics separate from the rest. But this only means series with the word "Batman" in their titles—Detective Comics, for instance, is in with the D's. It's an arbitrary distinction, but one I made a long time ago and have stuck with out of stubbornness, tradition, and laziness. I don't want to have to reinsert the Batman comics into the rest of my collection, nor do I want to pull the Detectives out, because either of those activities would mean reshuffling all the issues of all the books presently on my shelves. Therein lies the connection between Sorting and Storing, which is most likely why I failed to include Sorting in my PopMatters column. Thank goodness I've made up for it now.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Dirty Dozen: FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics

Dirty Dozen is a semi-regular feature with twelve disconnected thoughts on the first twelve issues of a current ongoing series.

1. Perhaps my favorite thing about FBP is that it feels like the kind of concept that doesn't just lend itself to the comicbook medium but actually needs to exist in that medium in order to be what it wants to be. The prose is necessary for the explanations of the big physics ideas. The art is necessary to show us what a world where the laws of physics are coming to pieces actually looks like and how it operates. And even the monthly serialization is important in that it allows each new concept to be explored more completely than might be possible if they all had to share the same, smaller space. It's the perfect idea for a comic, and I'm not sure it would even get off the ground in any other format.

2. I don't know how I would feel about the lengthy and on-the-nose title of FBP: Federal Bureau of Physics if that had been this book's name all along. I doubt I'd love it, but I might not hate it so damn much if the first issue hadn't been published under the immeasurably superior name of Collider. What a raw deal that it had to change with the second issue. I wonder how much potential audience was lost in the transition.

3. Robbi Rodriguez's art is great for many reasons, but what makes him such an awesome choice for this series in particular is how he manages to show us immediately and regularly how unstable the world of FBP is. The characters are a little bit warped in their designs; the linework is jittery but in a controlled, strategic way; the set pieces are all sprawling and manic. In a story where the fabric of existence is coming apart at the seams, it's important to have an artist who can capture the madcap energy of that reality and relay it to the reader. Rodriquez does so page after page, because his natural style is a bit madder and less restrained than most, and on top of that he often intentionally plays up the craziness and chaos in this book, always with purpose and to great effect.

4. Hey, Vertigo, what possible reason could there be to not include colorist Rico Renzi and letterer Steve Wands on the covers? Renzi has colored every issue, and Wands has lettered all but one. And they've both done impeccable work all the way through. Give them some damn credit, ya jerks.

5. The opening arc, "The Paradigm Shift," is probably still my favorite, though technically "Wish You Were Here" won't end until issue #13 so maybe my opinion will change when that concludes. "The Paradigm Shift" was such a strong introduction to the series, though, and it was followed by the considerably weaker "There's Something About Rosa," which had some problems that were hard to ignore. For one thing, the opening sequence in which Rosa is tied to a chair by the arc's villains is never returned to---even when we see her get kidnapped, she isn't ever tortured or bound like that. Then in the end, Rosa, Adam, and Cicero all agree on trapping the baddies in an infinite black hole loop, a rather heavy-handed response to their villainy, and one with some enormous moral/ethical implications that never get discussed. I don't have a problem with the protagonists going to such extremes, necessarily, but it would've been nice to see them weigh their options at all, or for at least one of them to have had some qualms about their decision for even a second. They are so cavalier about it that the impact of what they do is actually lessened by their unnaturally casual attitudes. Following "There's Something About Rosa" meant that "Wish You Were Here" had some goodwill to earn back, and I think it pretty much has, but even that arc doesn't feel as tight as "The Paradigm Shift" did. On the other hand, the story of "The Paradigm Shift" wasn't nearly as dense or daring as either "There's Something..." or "Wish..." so maybe what I'm reacting to is the book's growing complexity, and I need to just shut up and enjoy the ever-more-intricate ride.

6. I like how Adam is such a shameless slut. He doesn't look down on or even actively objectify women, but he does flirt compulsively and sleep with anyone who's into the idea. It's unusual to see a character who is so sexually aggressive without being immature about it or overly interested in it. Adam is at times distracted by his sex drive, yes, but it's far from being his defining characteristic, and it's never really a big deal in the scheme of things.

7. Nathan Fox's approach to the cover art is perfect. For one thing, his style complements Rodriguez's, so there's consistency there which is always a plus. What I really admire, though, is how Fox always captures the spirit of each issue in a beautifully boiled-down form. Sometimes it's a scene or detail from the issue reimagined and highly stylized on the cover, sometimes it's more a visual representation of the central themes or characters of the story inside, but it's always a great fit and a strong first beat to each chapter.

8. Simon Oliver isn't afraid to jump suddenly from one scene to the next, or even leave out some things, letting the in-between moments happen off-panel so the reader can get more of the meaty good stuff. Sometimes this is a little jarring, when the transitions take place mid-page and without warning, and then all of a sudden the characters have information we don't. But Oliver is smart and structured enough to fill in any gaps quickly; he never leaves us hanging for very long. It's an efficient way to write, especially in a book so full of huge, hard-to-understand ideas, and it's nice that Oliver respects his readers enough to not worry about everything being perfectly smooth or easily consumable. He provides all the details we need to make sense of the story, he just does it via an unexpected, syncopated narrative rhythm that's as hard to predict as the physics of the story itself.

9. I did not care for the "too be revealed" panel in issue #12. If you want to allude to events I haven't seen yet, then just do it, and show them to me when the time is right. Give your audience enough credit to suss out what's being discussed from context clues without needing an editorial interruption to say that the answers are forthcoming. Also, don't advertise a series I'm already reading within the pages of that same series. It was distracting and off-putting, and wholly unnecessary.

10. I appreciate the diversity of the cast of FBP, and the way it's handled by the creators. It is never ignored, and even sometimes openly discussed, most notably when Sen and Cicero talk about Sen's gender identity, but even then it is not the point of the story, never the center of attention. FBP doesn't show off or brag about its diversity, nor does it try to dig too deep into the politics of race or gender or any of those sticking points. It stays true to its mission and its narrative, and just happens to have a less homogenous cast than is unfortunately still the norm. The characters are aware of and realistic about their differences, but that is never their focus, nor is it the book's.

11. If I had to choose a single scene as my favorite thus far, it'd have to be in issue #11 when the bad guys shoot wildly at Adam as he jumps into Newton's Gulch, only to have one-third of their bullets return through the weird physics of the area and kill the shooters instead. It's a nice bit of comically violent justice, and a perfect payoff for the concept of the Gulch, introduced a few issues earlier.

12. Right from the start, FBP is all about change. The series' central concept has to do with changes in our world due to the laws of physics breaking down, and no sooner is that established than there's another major change when the government decides to open up the physics game to private industry, making the FBP practically obsolete overnight. Adam's partner changes from the first arc to the second, and his goals and priorities seem to be in a state of near-constant flux. Sen changed herself so her body would match the gender with which she identified internally. Cicero represents a change in the FBP's approach from learning in the field via hands-on experience to learning in a classroom and then bringing that education to the field. And so forth. This is a series about the impermanence of anything and the instability of everything, and it is that theme—way more than the scientific theory or the zany action or any other aspect of this book—that keeps me coming back for more.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Monthly Dose: July 2014

Monthly Dose is a semi-regular column where I reread one issue each month of long-completed series.

100 Bullets #21: What I like most about this issue is that Jack's past as a deadbeat, coked-out security guard looks appealing when compared to his present state as a homeless heroin junkie. By starting in the present and then moving backward, Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso manage to make his former life seem like the good old days. As a character, Jack's a nice study in contrasts. He's enormous but insignificant, and has a sort of soft, naive simpleness about him, but also an aura of danger and rage. He's like a sleeping lion, except when he's like a pouncing lion. Jack's story is not especially interesting, which is too bad since he's such a strong lead. His problems are all too familiar, and his apathy toward them doesn't help. He's a fun, strange guy to watch, but the things he does and the people who populate his world don't do much to get my attention. The most captivating detail was that we never saw Graves on-panel, just heard Jack reference an old man who gave him a gun and bullets, then saw the attaché in flashback, but only after Jack had taken it and Graves had presumably departed. It's smart of Azzarello not to waste time having Graves actually explain himself again. The constant reintroductions begin to wear over time. Besides, at this point, with the larger story starting to poke through and a full twenty issues in, it seems reasonable to expect the audience to know who the "old man" is, and if they don't, well...that's just one more thing that makes Jack's nameless junkie friend such a good point-of-view character. He wants to know what happened to Jack, what he did with his gun and how he ended up where he is now, just as much as we do. The mysterious old man is what Jack uses to draw his friend in to the story initially, and it does the same for the reader, whether they know who Graves is or not. So there's some stuff that really clicks, and Jack is a great addition to the ever-expanding world of this series, but the narrative in which he stars is, thus far, nothing special.


Green Lantern: Emerald Dawn #3: Somehow, M.D. Bright is back on pencils, even though Keith Giffen still gets credit for the breakdowns and Romeo Tanghal is still on inks. The creative team continues to grow, but instead of making Emerald Dawn choppy like you might expect, it gets stronger with every issue and maintains a steady narrative momentum. What puts this issue above the first two is that Hal Jordan finally became fully likable and even a tad heroic. After Legion—the giant metal space robot who hunts Green Lanterns—destroys the hospital where Hal's friend Andy was staying and also destroys all of Ferris Air, Hal realizes how in over his head he is, and seeks some help/knowledge, at the source of his power. This leads him to find his power battery, which in turn helps him discover that his ring can talk to and educate him. He sees, via a transmission from his ring's memory banks, Abin Sur's death at Legion's hands, right before Legion shows up to try and kill Hal. There's a chase throughout Abin's crashed ship, because the Green Lantern powers don't work against the color yellow, so Hal can't fight Legion directly. Eventually, his ring leads him to the engines when he wishes half-jokingly for a nuclear option, and when Legion catches up, Hal sets off the nuke, the issue closing on a full-page splash of a mushroom cloud. Colorist Anthony Tollin does an especially nice job on that last page, the cloud done in soft pink hues that aren't nearly as predominant in the rest of the issue. It adds to the suddenness of Hal's decision and the shock of how effective it is. It's also a wonderful halfway mark for the series, the hero and villain trapped together in an enormous explosion after the villain has already caused massive destruction, motivating the hero to more fully step into his role. The conflict between them escalated quite a bit in this issue, but there was still room for Hal to grow as a character and superhero. It's possible Emerald Dawn has fully found its footing now, and certainly this chapter was an excellent action-packed comicbook adventure.


X-Force (vol. 1) #21: Greg Capullo continues to do a great job drawing a whole bunch of characters in panels of various sizes, each of them doing all sorts of jumping and running and fighting and other physical activities. He's in his sweet spot in this issue, with the hulking War Machine and Nick Fury fighting almost the entire X-Force team on a space station. Wide open spaces, cool backgrounds, things to blow up, lots of large-bodied combatants—it's Capullo's bread and butter, so his quality work comes as no surprise. To be fair, there's a sprinkling of scenes with no action, as Fabian Nicieza continues to build on and add new subplots, and Capullo does a good job with those, too. He and Nicieza both seem very comfortable in this issue, jumping from the main story of X-Force vs. S.H.I.E.L.D. to the various side stories intelligently, and getting the B- and C-plot portions knocked out quickly so the A-plot is never out of sight for long. Just like Emerald Dawn #3 above, X-Force #21 involves its stars getting better at their heroism, and then concludes in a devastating explosion. Cannonball and Sunspot learn how to make the most of Professor, the computer system Cable built to run Graymalkin (the space station on which the story takes place). Cannonball and Sunspot have Professor send the weapons and other important cargo from Graymalkin back to their base of operations on Earth, planning for their future rather than rashly reacting to their present like they usually do (and do at the beginning of this issue, even as Cannonball verbally acknowledges that, "X-Force only seems to know ONE WAY ta do things!") It's nice to see Cannonball being a good, thoughtful, strategic leader, rather than being leader just because he has the most forceful personality and Cable liked him best. Too bad for him, though, his growth may come too late, because Graymalkin can't handle all the destructive violence and ejecting of cargo for long, and Professor spazzes out and sounds an urgent alert before the whole place suddenly blows up. It's not quite as thrilling a blow-up as the one in Emerald Dawn, but it's a solid cliffhanger at the end of a tight, well-done, all-systems-go issue.

Monday, July 28, 2014

I Question My Own Opinion of Space: Punisher

Space: Punisher is campy, violent, and narratively blunt, but that's pretty much what I expected out of it. What I wanted out of it, even. It would've been great, yes, if it had managed to bring some intelligence to the proceedings along with all the pulp sci-fi blood-and-guts action, but it's simple-mindedness isn't necessarily a negative. Writer Frank Tieri isn't shooting for great literature; he's moving as quickly as he can from one fight scene to the next, so he can fit as many reimagined Marvel characters into this story as possible. And even with the lush painted artwork, Mark Texeira doesn't seem to be overly concerned with elevating this comic. He, too, goes heaviest on the violence and the character designs, having a lot of fun with rebuilding the Marvel Universe, with no loftier goals than to continuing having that fun through the end.
     A brief synopsis: In the world of Space: Punisher, Frank Castle's family was killed by an intergalactic mafia known as the Six-Fingered Hand (6FH). So Castle is determined to get revenge on the organization, despite how powerful and difficult to find they are. By the time we join him, he's already located one of their number, the Sym-Brood-Ant Queen, as well as the rest of her colony, which is a fairly badass combination of classic X-Men villain the Brood and classic Spider-Man villain the Venom symbiote. Castle steals information of the Sym-Brood-Ants about the other members of 6FH, then destroys their planet with a bomb that creates a black hole, and heads off to complete his revenge. Over the course of the next three issues, he kills the other five capos of 6FH: Doctor Octopus as a sort of alien octopus centaur with a man top half and tentacles for legs; The Green Goblin as an actual green-skinned, purple-winged space monster; Magneto, who is still just an old dude with magnetism powers but now dresses in semi-futuristic-looking robes; the Red Skull as a gaunt alien who looks kind of the same as always; and Ultron, who is also a skinny space creature, all-gray and with some nasty fangs/tusks sticking up from his lower mandible. Once these enemies have been eliminated, Castle learns that the power behind them is a group of six Watchers, so he confronts them, too. While they're too powerful for Castle to fight himself, they're evidently no match for this reality's version of The Hulk, a four-armed behemoth who flies through space freely and destroys everything in his path. Castle finds a way to call The Hulk to the Watchers' home base, where he promptly tears through them all like gore-filled tissue paper. Castle is satisfied, even as chaos begins to run rampant through a now unsupervised universe. The End.
     It's a narrow-minded tale about a narrow-minded guy, not interested in the ramifications of his actions because he's so intently focused on vengeance. Which, based on what I've seen of the character elsewhere, is exactly what The Punisher should be. Then again, that's why I tend to avoid Punisher stories. I don't mind having flawed, angry heroes, but something about Frank Castle's particular blend of arrogance and rage has always turned me off. Similarly, I'm not a big Hulk guy, because his emotional range is too limited by his fury-based superpowers. I know some writers have done some deeper stuff with both of these guys, and someday I'd like to check that out—Peter David's Hulk run in particular—but my early experiences with them always made them seem two-dimensional at best and I haven't taken the time to find books that will change my mind.
     Then again, in Space: Punisher, those two characters are boiled down to their simplest versions and tossed into outer-space, and somehow it works for me. Or at any rate, it doesn't grate on my nerves like these heroes often do. And in the last issue, when Bruce Banner's head comes out of The Hulk's chest and begs for Castle to kill him...it's the closest thing to a truly powerful, meaningful moment in the whole series. It comes as a surprise, so close to the end, at it maybe even feels out of place, though definitely not insincere. Texeira alone packs a lot of heart into that scene, which proves that he and Tieri can create something with depth, but maybe didn't have that on that agenda with this project. Neither did I as a reader. I was looking for some easy-to-digest space opera melodrama and action, and that's what I got.
     But is it a good example of that kind of story? Just because it's as uncomplicated as I imagined it would be, does that make it a success? There are some obvious problems with it. For one thing, even with all the deep-space versions of familiar Marvel characters floating around, none of them are women. I guess arguably the Sym-Brood-Ant Queen counts, and on the second-to-last page of the final issue we see, along with several other redesigned Avengers, The Wasp and The Scarlet Witch. But they don't get lines or even anything to do other than stand next to their teammates for a single panel while Iron Man's dialogue brings things to a close. The Punisher's ship, which has some semblance of a personality, is named Marie after his murdered wife, so that's the closest thing to a fully-realized female character this book has to offer. It's a drag, because Tieri pulls characters from all corners of the traditional Marvel Universe to incorporate into this new one, so you'd think one of them could've been a woman, no sweat.
     Also, beyond giving them a slightly new look, new setting, and new alliances with each other, this series doesn't really do much with its takes on these characters. Sabretooth in space is still a violent savage, Rhino is still a thug, the Watchers are still arrogant schmucks. Being in space is not inherently cool or interesting enough of a change if nothing else interesting comes of it, and with one or two exceptions, Tieri doesn't bother to get too inventive. Even Punisher is still just a guy with a grudge against criminals and a bunch of big weapons. It all raises the questions like What's the point of this book? and Is this series actually saying anything about these people? Ultimately, I'm not convinced it is. It's more like Tieri and Texeira are kids playing with their favorite action figures, putting the heroes and villains they like most into a sci-fi environment for no other reason than wouldn't that be cool? And it is pretty cool, but is that enough?
     I find myself enjoying the hell out of Space: Punisher as I read it, but not giving a shit about it when it's done. It's memorable but not worth taking the time to remember. Mindless fun has its place, has value. It appeals to the kid in me who also played with action figures and created his own realities. But it's hard to locate just where on the mindless-fun spectrum this series resides. Here's the moment that I think most exemplifies what I mean, and everything I love-hate about the comic:

As a final thought, the colon in the title Space: Punisher is super dumb. I know that the original plan was for this to be the first in a line of books, all set in the same universe, each starring a different character. So down the line there'd be Space: Daredevil and Space: Cloak & Dagger and Space: Hit Monkey (those are not real examples, just the imagined books I'd most like to see) but not only did that not happen, it was a bad idea to start. Just call it Space Punisher and do the same with the other books. People will be able to tell they're connected even if the "Space" part isn't separated from the rest of the title by punctuation.