Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Future Proof

So it's Tuesday, my typical column day, and I have no new column. Or, more accurately, this thing right here is standing in for what would usually be a comicbook-related column. The last couple weeks have been abnormally full for me, and as such I've fallen way behind on my comicbook reading and writing. Unfortunately, I don't see that changing anytime soon.
      This week, I've got a new D&D game starting (YIPEE!), a few improv performances, and some non-comicbook-criticism writing to wrap up, and then next week I'm in California for a wedding. So for most of the first half of August, my schedule isn't going to allow for the regular weekly Pull List Reviews, and I wouldn't be surprised if I was too occupied to even bang out any full-length columns in the upcoming weeks.
     The bottom line is that I'm not sure what, if anything, is going to be happening here on the blog in the immediate future. In a lot of ways I have loved having this project for the past several months, but it is definitely time-consuming and, more and more, it has the effect of making reading comics into something that, emotionally, resembles homework. And that's the very last thing I want.
     When I started this blog my goal was to get myself into a rhythm, to reintroduce some discipline to my writing that had been lacking since college, if not earlier. This has been accomplished, and that's awesome, but in the process I seem to have sapped some percentage of my joy out of diving into a fresh stack of comicbooks. So in the next couple weeks I'm going to reassess the blog's purpose, schedule, and necessity. This may be the end of the project right here, or maybe I'll revamp things and attack it with a renewed energy and enthusiasm by the end of the summer. I just don't know.
     For the handful of you who follow Comics Matter with any regularity, you know I love your support and am eternally appreciative for it. Hopefully this is just a hiatus, but if it's goodbye for good, then I wanted to be sure to thank you before I disappear. Check back soon to see where I've landed and what the future may hold.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Real Life Gets in the Way

I had a big week for new comics: twelve titles from the Pull List, including two debut issues, are sitting in a hotly-anticipated stack on my desk at home right now. Unfortunately, I had a much-busier-than-usual Wednesday night, and am now entrenched in my day job for the next eight-and-a-half hours, so chances are I won't get around to reading this week's pile until late tonight or even sometime on Friday. As such, the reviews will be delayed, shortened, or possibly even canceled outright this week. Depends on when I really sit down to read and what other non-comicbook-blog-related activities or obligations arise between now and then. Time will tell, as it always does.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

This Exists!: Carbon Knight

This Exists! is a semi-regular column about particularly strange, ridiculous, and/or obscure comicbooks I happen to have stumbled across. 

Carbon Knight was published by Lunar Studios, an independent company from Elysburg, PA that I can only assume was formed for the sole purpose of producing this book. Elysburg's biggest claim to fame is an amusement park that anyone who isn't from the region has never heard of and can't pronounce: Knobels. (No, the K is not silent). The story of Carbon Knight is set in the even-smaller Centralia, PA, and literally the only thing you need to know about that place is that it's had an unstoppable underground coal fire burning beneath it since the 60's. What I'm getting at is that this series is pretty Pennsylvania-centric, and I only even know about it because I happen to be from the area, and when I was young enough to be impressed by anyone at all who made comicbooks, I got to go to a tiny local convention and meet the creators and get signed copies of all three (at that time) issues. Something like a year later they put out a fourth and final oversized chapter, but I never tracked it down, because by then I took my comics slightly more seriously.
      And Carbon Knight is not to be taken at all seriously. Even as a child I managed to suss that out. Bulky 90's art, unnatural dialogue, illogical plot beats, and uninteresting ideas pile on top of each other to create a less-than-impressive whole. Throw in the locally-based historical fiction aspect of the story, and the undoubtedly low-volume printing and limited distribution considering the publisher, and the fact that the title had four whole issues and got to do a proper finale becomes sort of impressive. The creators clearly wanted it to be an ongoing series (see below), but ended up with a mini-series, which, I guess, is something. It's a shame, though, that I never sought a copy of issue #4, if only because now, more than fifteen years later, I am able to appreciate the series for the earnest if amateurish effort it was, and I genuinely wish I knew how the narrative wrapped up. I can pretty much guess, though, because it's a dry, simple, predictable story.

Fire Chief Kyle McKnight---who, if you couldn't tell from his last name, is the man who eventually becomes Carbon Knight---is maybe the most extreme version of the noble boyscout character I've ever seen. He will sacrifice life and limb to do the right thing and/or save another, he's a loving and capable husband and father, and he stands up to corruption and foul play wherever he finds it. And this is all before he becomes a superhero. 
Chris Ring, who writes and draws the entire first issue himself, does this kind of broad character work with everyone, and the addition of his (I assume) brother Brendan Ring to the creative team in Carbon Knight #2 doesn't ever add any notable depth to the cast. They are largely archetypal characters who say whatever they are thinking out loud in the plainest possible language, even if it means pointing out something weak about the plot.

And it is a flimsy plot at best. After McKnight's mysterious, clichéd supernatural accident while trying to stop the Centralia fire, he is transformed into a being with skin like coal, super strength, and, inexplicably, flight abilities which involve his legs creating fire. He then sleeps for thirty years, buried in a collapsed coal mine, until he is finally awoken and, through a string of ridiculous coincidences, ends up rescuing his now-grown police officer son Daniel from the same corrupt politician who had a hand in McKnight's original accident. The coincidences include things like McKnight deciding that, even though he knows it's not a good call, he'd rather take a late-night flight to clear his head than work with a scientific genius to figure out what the hell has happened to him.

While out, he's lucky enough to arrive at his son's capture just in time, which also happens to occur on that same night for no particular reason. This sort of happy accident isn't uncommon in even major superhero books, but in Carbon Knight it's kind of all there is. McKnight's grandchildren and daughter also wind up involved in the adventure in their own ways, all through dumb luck. And always, more than anything, through the most unnatural, expositional of dialogue.

Chris and Brendan were not shy about the long-term plans they had for the book. In the back of the very first issue, we get this never-explained teaser:

And Carbon Knight #3 has a whole sketchbook of "upcoming characters" who never got to have their stories told:

But while making plans for the future, the Rings never took the time to craft a sturdy opening arc, and so the only tale they ever got to tell ends up being a bust. There's no reason this character couldn't have been a fresh, locally-inspired take on superhero tropes. The foundational concepts for that kind of story are here. Yet instead of being original, Carbon Knight just feels irrelevant, too derivative of its predecessors in the medium and from too insignificant a company to ever have any hope of gaining a large enough following to keep it alive. Even as a ten- or eleven-year-old fledgling comicbook fan, not yet jaded by the industry or reading with anything resembling a critical eye, I wasn't excited enough by what I saw in these three issues to notice or care when a fourth was produced.
     Though here I am, more than fifteen years after first being underwhelmed by Carbon Knight, not just revisiting it but writing about it long-windedly. I wanted for it to be better than I remembered. I want to know what lessons the Ring boys learned from their failed attempt at self-starting a comics career, and if they're working in the medium in any way today. Even though I don't like the series, it interests me. Yes, a lot of that is its ties to my past and its connections to some of my earliest comic-related memories, but also...I admire the ambition if not the talent of the two young men who tried to write about their own characters in their own world on their own terms. They got ahead of themselves, it's true, making long-term promises they couldn't keep because they had not fully grasped the basics of solid storytelling. But they stuck their necks out and accomplished more than any number of similarly aspiring creators, and they made it into the formative reading years of at least one lifelong comicbook fan, so hey. Good on you, Chris and Brendan, wherever you are today.
     As a final thought, I've never seen worse hair in anything ever.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Smatterday 07/21/2012

The Only Thing That Matters is Aurora, CO
Normally this would be a bunch of links to a variety of things, but today I just want to send my thoughts and condolences to the victims of the insane, horrific, tragic shooting in Colorado. We all need to do whatever we can to help the survivors of this incident, and to never forget or make light of this unthinkable massacre.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Pull List Review: Wonder Woman #11

First of all, Demeter needs to be in this book more, now that we know what she looks like. It's always great to see Cliff Chiang back on art for Wonder Woman, and he proves why he's the best right away with his design for the harvest goddess. Immediately after that, we get not one but two different takes on Artemis. When talking with Demeter, she seems to be made of moonlight, but later, for battle, she is simply made of moon. These fresh interpretations by Chiang of mythological figures continue to be the book's best, most beautiful facet.

It's not just their look but the way the gods act that makes them such fun, full characters to follow. Chiang humanizes them emotionally while elevating and enhancing them physically so that their status as gods cannot be questioned. And he also draws one hell of a street brawl, just the right amount of close-up punching, visual injury, and big, powerful moments. The best of which was, essentially, the fight's climax, with Zola hitting Apollo with her car and, immediately afterward, blasting him with a rifle from inches away, all without doing any damage.

Unfortunately, Chiang gets little support from writer Brian Azzarello, most notably during the fights. The man cannot write smack talk without it coming across as just laughable. Incessant wordplay, puns, and childish personal digs do not make people look tough. It makes them look ridiculous, campy, and lame, and it detracts from what could have been a fully awesome fight scene. The conversation before the fight about Zola's choice of doctor was, I thought, excellent, and a solid moment for Wonder Woman as a lead character, of which she needs more. And Zola herself, when finally captured by the gods, continued to be the best, brightest character in the whole cast, despite being the only full-blooded mortal. So it's not as if Azzarello's script was a total flop, it's just that he keeps screwing up the action dialogue with an excess of verbal cheese.

But getting back to the story of Zeus' throne, and bringing back the series' regular, impeccable artist are both steps in the right direction, there is no doubt. A fine issue, and one that looked great, but with a fight as the centerpiece and also the weakest section, it just didn't wow me.

Pull List Review: Uncanny X-Men #16

While fun and large-scale, this all felt inevitable. Certainly that's how Sinister saw it, and I think it ended up being a weakness, because Sinister has been assuring his minions and the readers for two whole issues that his plan would work and, then...it does. It goes off without a hitch. Obviously the story isn't over and his plan isn't complete, and the non-Phoenix X-Men arrive just in time to maybe do something about it, but still. Watching a villain, or any character, win without trouble and in exactly the way they promised they would isn't especially exciting to read.

Kieron Gillen has a lot of fun bits to throw into the mix, like Gambit clones being used as human bombs or Sinister's castle using the Jean Grey School method of being built on a Krakoa. But most of these succeed more because of Daniel Acuña's art than anything else. Acuña handles the chaos of this epic battle quite well, and all the various types of foot soldier which Sinister sends out are distinct from one another but appropriately uniform as groups. And Sinister himself, as he was last issue, is pitch perfect: smug and composed and wickedly British. This all adds life and depth to the generally straightforward script, and brings a kind of fantastic realism to the combat itself.

Also, I think I prefer Acuña's take on the Phoenix Five to anyone's I've seen. His Emma Frost, especially, looks truly powerful instead of merely hyper-sexualized. And even though I'm not sure I've seen him use this power anywhere else, Colossus growing to giant size so he could fight the Krakoa looked awesome, and I hope he employs that tactic again in the future. Although, admittedly, it might've been the mangled Krakoa clone with a castle for a hunchback that I was really so taken with.

Anyway, I hope this Mr. Sinister story isn't the end of Gillen's plans for him. I think Gillen gets the character but that, in the face of AvX, he's had to pit Sinister against the Phoenix Five instead of the usual X-Men and that has led to a story which, so far, isn't really clicking. I have no clear sense of what the conclusion might bring, though, either, so perhaps I'll eat these words in a couple weeks. But I do wish that there'd been a bit more of the unexpected in this middle beat, because it ended up being more boring than it needed to be, considering the size and scope of the fight.

Pull List Review: Saga #5

The shine was bound to wear off a bit eventually. I'm still enjoying Saga immensely, but this issue left me feeling less enthusiastic than the previous four. I think it boils down to this: the story, while interesting, is moving at a snail's pace, because it has so many threads already and such a massive world to build. Meanwhile, Fiona Staples' art, while no less impressive here, didn't have as much new stuff to do this time as it has in the past. Saga #5 was more about advancing the stories of the bulk of the cast than building the reality of this book out any further, and so we weren't introduced to the usual visual surprises. Staples still did amazing work top to bottom, but without the unbridled joy of seeing her invent something brand new, I was less delighted by this issue.

Less delighted is still delighted, though. The scene where Marko gives into his violent urges was probably the strongest, both in terms of story and art. I appreciated the rhythm Staples gave to the coloring, with one blue panel on both the first and last pages of the fight, while the rest was done in harsh, rage-filled red. And I like Marko and Alana's strange relationship to violence in general. They're both used to it and, apparently, it comes naturally to them, but they are working together to put a stop to that, even if it means momentarily hurting one another to prevent further bloodshed. It's a delicate situation at best, a powder keg at worst, and it makes for a bizarre but understandably powerful bond between them.

I was less into The Will's scene, if only because it didn't advance far enough. I'm guessing we're building toward the little girl he's saving sticking around and becoming some kind of twisted friend/ally to The Will, but right now he's still stuck on a horrible planet trying to save her and failing. A planet that I'm not sure I get why he went there in the first place, based on his reactions to it so far. Nor am I clear on why rescuing the girl matters so much to him. Yes, I see the difference between killing a child and keeping one as a sex slave, but it still doesn't quite mesh with my picture of this freelance murderer that he would be so desperately broken up over one strange young victim.

Also, The Stalk's death at the end (if she's really dead, I guess) is hard to care about. She may be the best-looking creature in this book so far, but she's a cold bitch and an obvious villain and we've only seen her a handful of times. So not as hard-hitting an ending, especially with it tying into The Will's whole mess, as it seemed like it wanted to be.

Nevertheless, Saga #5 is a beautiful comicbook with a lot of solid characterization and dialogue when it comes to the two main characters. Not a misstep so much as a slight stumble.

Pull List Review: Rachel Rising #9

Terry Moore is an astoundingly talented storyteller. Rachel Rising is the first time I, personally, have read his material, and though I had heard only excellent things about his other series (Strangers in Paradise and Echo, primarily) I didn't really know what to expect. After a while, though, I started to feel like I was getting a solid feel for this title, like I was settling into the tone and momentum of the story. But just as I got comfortable, Moore put out Rachel Rising #9, and over the course of a single conversation between two characters, blew the lid off of my imagined understanding. I have no idea what this book is going to be, or even really what it is yet, but that's what I love the most about it.

Lilith, the as-of-yet nameless woman who has seemed, to this point, to be the source of all the death and destruction in the series, finally gets a voice, a personality, and a bit of history. And none of them are even remotely what I expected them to be. Not at all the detached villain she seemed, Lilith becomes a sort of sad, sympathetic character, but still selfish and unhelpful and obviously an enemy for the book's heroes. She's just a less terrifying enemy in the face of Malus, an ancient demon who introduces himself in this issue and has designs of his own for Rachel, her friends, and her town. And though he claims to be on Lilith's side, it all feels a bit more complicated than that, especially at the issue's closing, wherein Malus finds a new, horrifying host.

There's not a whole lot of Rachel in this issue, but her scene in the opening is typical of the kind of natural-yet-unsettling dialogue Moore has saturated this series with. More and more, the town is taking notice of the abnormal, inexplicable occurrences, but they respond realistically. Humanly. Even the crazy ones don't freak out in any way that would draw attention. They still want to go about their lives, even in the face of such enormous mysteries. But it's starting to feel like that won't be a possibility for much longer.

I've praised Moore's drawing before, but it, too, pulled some new maneuvers this issue. When Lilith first traps Malus, the art stretches like rubber, capturing the speed and force of Lilith's obviously potent magic in a single frame. And in the end when we watch Malus enter his new host, even before he reveals himself through dialogue we can tell what is going on via subtle but distinct facial cues in the character's face. Moore gives such life to his cast that even these small changes in mood or focus are obvious, but obvious without being over-the-top. They're obvious in the way you can tell in real life when a close friend is going through something internally. We get so familiar with these characters so quickly, it's easy to pick up on even the slightest shift.

Rachel Rising continues to tug at my heart and mind in equal turn, while I read it and, usually, long after. It's one of the most inventive and impressive monthlies coming out right now, especially so in this issue.

Pull List Review: Infernal Man-Thing #2

Sometimes a series finds just the right combination of writer and artist(s) to tell its story, and Infernal Man-Thing is one of the strongest examples of that I've come across in years. Kevin Nowlan's grasp of Steve Gerber's mind-bending script is phenomenal, and the resulting artwork is as disturbing as it is hilarious as it is gorgeous. While this is true on every page, I was most struck by it in the panel where Feebo, the pro-social alien, blows his brains out. Feebo and his back-up band are all done in the style of a child's cartoon, but just a shade or two darker than anything you'd actually find on TV. Yet the inside of Feebo's head, as it explodes outward, is as realistic and disturbing as can be. So, too, is the fear and horror on the faces of Feebo's friends, and the excruciating sadness and pain from Feebo himself. The ultimate effect is a panel that simultaneously amuses and hurts to see. Which is a good way to describe the whole of this series.

Because there is a lot of humor here, mixed in with the darkness. Mindy the Tree, despite being a bit one-note at first, is exceedingly funny in her cheery reactions to Brian's emotional strife. And when Man-Thing arrives and he and Brian embark their Star-Trek-inspired joint hallucination, it adds a lightness to the sad, gruesome reality of both characters' insanity. And this book is, first and foremost, an exploration of insanity. An empath meets a man who is at the edge of his mental and emotional rope, and while neither of them has a full understanding of what's going on, each of their experiences is heightened because they are together. They're perfect for each other, just like Gerber and Nowlan, and between the four of them this title is quite a gem.

It's not your typical comicbook fare, and it's not a story which is easily understood or digested. But the creators involved have an obvious passion for the project, as Brian has for his own, so Infernal Man-Thing #2 sucks you in and grips you tightly right away. And it never lets up, and you never want it to.

Pull List Review: Hellblazer #293

Even though this story has been teased for several months, Peter Milligan fills it with the unexpected. Constantine himself is caught off-guard by the grisly magical sewer murder (or near-murder, as it were), with which he's faced. He behaves unlike himself and can't explain why, and by the end he is forced to admit that, like it or not, he and his long-lost nephew are being drawn to each other, so he may as well get on board.

Milligan has done a lot to build the size and importance of Constantine's family in this series, and the addition of the mysterious stolen child who may himself be a powerful black magician is a welcome next step in that process. Not to mention that all signs point toward Finnbar Brady, who evidently has no memory or understanding of what's going on. That layer makes the story all the more compelling, because it indicates some larger, even more evil and dangerous force involved, pushing the two Constantine men toward one another for unknown reasons. And the horrid, gory nature of the events of this opening chapter promise an enthusiastically disgusting and high-powered finale.

Giuseppe Camuncoli & Stefano Landini get the gore and filth just right, showing us enough that we can see how severe things are but still leaving it largely hidden or obscured so our imaginations get to do most of the work. This plus the look of deep, genuine shock on the face of the typically unshakable Constantine bring home the seriousness of what's going on, the power and potential of the evil at work. And there is a general gritty roughness to the artwork that goes hand-in-hand with the underlying uneasiness Constantine feels. He's not quite in his right mind, and he knows it, but he doesn't know why, and the edginess of his surroundings underline that feeling of things being unfamiliar even though nothing has noticeably changed.

Where this story is headed is anyone's guess, but since we've known that Hellblazer was headed for this arc for some time, it's nice to see the first issue of it still have plenty of enjoyable surprises. Another twisted branch on the Constantine family tree is growing, but the shape which it will take is still unclear.

Pull List Review: Daredevil #15

There is so much impressive, lovable stuff in this issue. I guess the logical starting point, and possibly my personal favorite aspect, was the subtle expansion of Daredevil's powers. It's an elegant solution to the problem introduced last issue of DD having his senses stolen from him, and one that is unexpected while still feeling totally appropriate and logical, pulling from the character's origin and reexamining it to end up with a new understanding of what happened. And writer Mark Waid earns it, making it a struggle for Matt Murdock to, first of all, find the patience within himself to let his body heal and, even when his senses being to return, they are so weak and muffled that his escape attempt only barely succeeds. It's not a deus ex machina situation, where after time Murdock is able to undo the damage done to his brain for no understandable reason. Instead, it is a band-aid on the gaping wound of Daredevil losing his superhuman abilities, and is therefore more satisfying.

Speaking of satisfying things which Mark Waid totally earned, the arrival of Iron Man to save the day at the end was perfectly executed. I'm not typically a fan of this approach, but Daredevil pulls off so much amazing crap on his own here, and under such intense circumstances, that he absolutely deserves the win, even if it means being rescued by another hero. And I appreciate that Waid utilizes the greater Marvel Universe when appropriate in this series, without relying on it heavily enough to ever to pull his title character out of the spotlight.

Although it may be that the real reason I was so pleased with Iron Man's entrance was Chris Samnee's art. You can practically hear the dramatic music and the sound of the bullets futilely ricocheting off Stark's armor. It's not even a full-page splash, but it feels like one, demanding the reader's attention with it's drama and action and heart. There's a lot of emotion coming from underneath Iron Man's metallic exterior, not just in his first panel but for the whole issue. His anger toward Beltane, his genuine concern for Daredevil, even his cockiness as he turns scares off a pair of Latverian soldiers with a simple, "Really?" Samnee somehow lets the human beneath the suit shine through powerfully, and it adds a lot to the character's unexpected guest appearance.

Samnee is an artistic rock star from the very start of the issue, too, along with colorist Javier Rodriguez. The fuzzy vision which Murdock slowly gains is so expertly rendered, and acts as a gorgeous and telling contrast to the radar vision we've seen before. And that panel of Daredevil hanging from a window ledge in the rain was fucking marvelous. Even with some of his skills coming back to him, he is one man in a terrifying foreign land with little hope of survival, all of which is expressed fully in that single image.

This book has been highly-praised since its launch, and Daredevil #15 is a powerful reminder of why that's so. A new twist on a the abilities of a familiar character, lots of fun and beautiful action, a bombastic and satisfying surprise ending...it's the recipe for an exemplary superhero comicbook, and that's precisely what we get.

Pull List Review: Birds of Prey #11

I don't know if it was a matter of Travel Foreman and Timothy Green II just not meshing stylistically or what, but the art in this book fluctuated dramatically from page to page. Not in quality, so much. There were definitely some not-so-impressive panels, but the real weakness was to total lack of consistency in the look and feel of the cast. Of all the Birds, Poison Ivy shifted the most noticeably, sometimes looking like an anime character, sometimes like a proud and powerful classic comicbook supervillain, and at least once reminding me of an 80's sci-fi movie alien. It was true of the reast of the cast, too: the shape of their faces changed, the size of their eyes, etc. And the evil chairman of the corporation the Birds attacked looked like his head was made of melting play-dough. In his very first panel his face is stretched and warped to the point that I wondered if it might not be intentional. Like maybe he's a new supervillain with Clayface-like powers. But no, he's a regular guy, but apparently the artists on this book can't draw wrinkles on a human face without turning it into a gummy, running mess.

I don't want to too harshly criticize the art because it's not as if it was truly horrible or ever unclear. But it's jarring to have a visually uneven characters, and because this issue had so many different people involved in the story, these shifts happened on nearly every page. There are panels which, on their own, would be far more impressive, but when placed near other panels of the same characters that look wildly different, they lose some of their impact.

Duane Swierczynski's script also suffers from being less than steady. Through Poison Ivy, this issue acts as an info dump to move us into this new story arc, and though the core ideas behind her wicked plan are pretty cool in an only-superhero-comics-can-do-this sort of way, having her calmly and confidently explain them to her teammates is a lackluster approach. Also, I can't help but feel that her turn here, where she once again becomes the a full-fledged villain, would have been more effective if we were deeper into the series. This team hasn't yet had a chance to settle into any kind of grove, and already we get a significant shake-up. And because Ivy is the least surprising character to have act as betrayer, the effectiveness of this plotline is dampened considerably.

And that "cliffhanger" ending where we hear but don't see a gunshot? Weak sauce.

Overall, a disappointing issue. Travel Foreman's move to the title has yet to top what Jesus Saiz was doing before, and the narrative hasn't been able to get all the way back on track since then, either. With a second artist this month and one of the least exciting scripts to date, Birds of Prey #11 just misses the mark.

Pull List Review: Avengers vs. X-Men #8

Certainly living up to the promise of the title, Avengers vs. X-Men #8 is one big, dumb battle between Phoenix Namor and a whole slew of Avengers. Including, once again, Beast, despite the fact that he walked away in this very book just a month ago. Namor is the obvious villain of this conflict, attacking Wakanda for no real reason other than his own insanity and bloodlust. He tries to make the argument that the Avengers brought it on themselves but, come on, Namor. No one is buying that load of crap. And fortunately, he is defeated, although the details of how that goes down are as of yet unexplained. It has something to do with something the Scarlet Witch can do. Presumably her sway over the Phoenix Force is going to be a major reveal down the line, so for now all we know is that she struggles against Namor's power but ultimately takes him down.

And that's fine. I don't expect to be spoon fed every tiny detail right away. It might have been nice, since this issue didn't deal with anything beyond this fight and its fallout, if the most important and dramatically tense moment of the combat made sense to me as a reader, but I can live without it. My bigger complaint is that, at this point, I just don't care. The scale of this fight is epic, but it still feels low-stakes, so I never found myself excited by or even interested in what was going on. We know full well Namor isn't going to succeed in wiping out the Avengers, and there's nothing else going on besides his pig-headed attempt to do so. There aren't any characters to latch onto or follow here because everyone's just pissed off and violent from start to finish, except the rest of the Phoenix Five, who show up at the very end in order to deliver the one important piece of info from the enitre issue: when a member of their group falls, the rest of them absorb that person's share of the Phoenix Force. What "falling" actually means isn't obvious. I assume, again, it has to do with whatever the Scarlet Witch did, because it can't be as simple as, "If you lose any battle you lose your power." Right?

Brian Michael Bendis doesn't do a bad job of writing this massive fight scene, it's just that he has so little to accomplish, story-wise, that the script ends up being a dud. There are one or two cool moments, but not a lot of truly inventive strategies or tricks employed by either side. It's a fairly straightforward one-big-bad-guy-vs.-team-of-heroes slugfest. And that's boring.

Adam Kubert does his best to liven it up on the art side of things, and for the most part he actually succeeds. It's not incredible art, but he handles the most blockbuster moments well: the Avengers falling from the sky en masse to attack Namor, the Phoenix Five becoming the Phoenix Four, even Wanda's appearance, despite the confusion it brought, was fittingly large-scale. The panel where Red Hulk has his arm broken looked silly and sloppy, and there were other, smaller things in the same vein. The Thing never quite looked right or consistent, for example, and Hope just looked bored. But Kubert does maybe the best Captain America I've seen yet in this title, and since he's such a central figure, it was nice to see him done with care and detail.

My interest is rapidly fading, though, in the events of this event. Marvel's obvious disinterest in keeping things logical or consistent makes it hard to allow myself to get invested. I have too many questions and points of confusion before I even start reading this book every other week. Avengers vs. X-Men needs to figure out what it wants to say and where it wants to go, and fast, because if it doesn't turn this mess around soon it'll be too late. Finding flimsy excuses to keep pitting the same characters against each other does not a story make. Hopefully the (wedged in and totally forced) addition of Xavier to the action will add a twist that saves the day. I'm doubtful, but it's all I have to hang onto as we move toward the final act.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dearly Departed: Casanova: Avaritia

Dearly Departed is a semi-regular column where I look back on recently completed or canceled series.   

Hot and heavy. That's how I would describe Casanova: Avaritia. Not in the sexual sense, although there's plenty of passionate, psychedelic lovemaking going on. But when I say hot and heavy, I'm referring more to the emotional impact of the series. There is a heat to the pace and, even more so, the art of this book. Blazing guns, explosions, rocket ships, and oh so much blood, all done in a palette founded in stark, warm reds. It's as if there was a burner underneath the story, being slowly but steadily cranked up, forcing the characters to charge ever faster toward their individual destinations. As for the heaviness, it comes from the content and, more specifically, the attitude of our titular hero, Casanova Quinn. The ne'er-do-well charm and smugness which were such definitive aspects of Cass's personality in the previous two series are largely absent here. He's no longer playing a game in which he finds any joy, instead feeling trapped in a life of ceaseless violence and pain. Though no less likable a lead, his is definitely less fun and funny here than in the past, and it adds a significant weight to the events of Avaritia. It's hot and it's heavy, and while I'm not yet convinced that it's my favorite of the Casanova titles, it made for the most intense and challenging read.
     The choice of red as a base color this time out is an excellent one. Cris Peter uses a variety of crimson shades to underscore the high-octane action and deep sadness of the narrative equally. When violence erupts, so do the colors, as harsh and striking as any of the images they display. But the reds can also be dulled and/or darkened as needed for those times when Casanova is grappling with his depression. In his quieter, more brooding scenes, there tend to be either calmer reds or, more often, simply fewer of them. Peter makes careful use of soft greens and white space to add depth to these more contemplative moments. Cass's hope is fading, and so the world around him becomes muted, especially in contrast to the brash hues of the fight sequences.
     While the coloring is a powerful component, as it has always been in the world of Casanova, without Gabriel Bá's insane and insanely gorgeous artwork it would be far less visually stunning. The colors may highlight the book's intense moods, but it is Bá who captures and displays those mood in the first place. Casanova's despair, Luther's innocence and fear, Sasa Lisi's confidence, Seychelle's wickedness...Bá has his entire cast down to a T. Yet even as he delivers nuanced performances from the characters, his style remains generally broad and chaotic, which adds tremendously to the ultimate feel of the series. At its heart, this is still a madcap sci-fi adventure, so the story's severity doesn't mean Bá's art is any more subdued. Quite the opposite, in fact. Early on there is mind-blowing splash page where Casanova is pulled out of a dying universe and back into his own, and from there things only get more artistically astounding. There are pages covered by grids displaying the same events over multiple realities, each rendered just as convincingly and beautifully as the next. Countless new locations, scenes of chaotic action, tender moments of intimate romance, and everything in between are all handled deftly. And, my god, there is an amazing sequence in the final issue that feels like the entire nightclub experience, designer drugs and thumping music and flashing lights all, translated into comicbook form. It's a singular feat of graphic storytelling.
     There's no denying the impressive work done by all parties involved in expressing the larger feelings and ideas of this narrative, and Matt Fraction's script is just as essential a facet as the images which accompany it. Casanova is forced by his father Cornelius to eviscerate entire realities in an attempt to erase his arch-enemy, Newman Xeno, from existence. These universe-wide genocides begin to take their toll on Cass, and even when he learns Newman's real name, Luther Desmond Diamond, all that changes is that rather than wipe out whole worlds, Casanova becomes a reality-hopping assassin, incessantly murdering new versions of the same guy. It's a gripping set-up, and it ultimately leads to Cass and his girlfriend Sasa Lisi fighting against Cornelius' goals and rescuing one of the innumerable Luthers to bring into their hearts and their bed. An ultra-violent, sometimes meta-fictional, spacetime travel action love story. No wonder it never has the time (or space) to catch its breath.
     One slightly negative result of this pedal-to-the-metal approach is there are a few plot details which end up being rushed passed or glossed over. I've read Avaritia several times, and, I admit, there are a handful of things which still confuse me. The workings of the Lacuna, for instance. Is it where they send Luther in the end, or is it what Cass uses to escape? It appears to be the latter, but then what, exactly, do they do with Luther, and why don't Cass and Sasa merely do the same with themselves? And either way, why did Sasa build a spacetime machine that only one person could use to get away? What was the purpose of suddenly introducing Suki Boutqiue to the story only to just as immediately remove her from the board? And did Kaito murder Cornelius, or is it his cancer that finally does him in as promised in the first issue? Based on what we have here, feels like it could go either way.
     Here's the thing, though: I don't really care to find answers to these questions. I'm sure some of them are contained within the book's pages, and as I reread this and the other Casanova titles, those which came before and the ones to follow, I suspect I'll notice more and more until my confusion disappears. But even if that's not the case, I enjoyed the ever-living daylights out of Avaritia, possibly in spite of its breakneck pace but also in part, I think, because of it. Right around the time most of my questions arise, Sasa Lisi describes this whole mess as a "Race to get fucked to infinity," and that's precisely what it feels like. These characters, at least initially, are unable to avoid the violence and death which surround and engulf them, and so they each find their own twisted ways to embrace it instead. They throw themselves headfirst into the muck and, once they meet each other down there, try to kill one another. That is, they do until Cass and Sasa, fueled by their own love, decide to push back against this impulse and, instead, protect a life or two. They spare Suki (may that's why she's in here!), rescue Luther, and in the end Sasa helps Casanova himself escape. The specifics of the methods they use to accomplish all of this saving and fleeing my be unclear, but they're also unnecessary. What matters is that it happens, that in the midst of a seemingly unbreakable cycle of violence these two characters actually manage to protect some lives. Ideally it'd all be understandable, but I'll take emotional/conceptual relevance over total story clarity any day.
      The very, very end of Casanova: Avaritia, by which I mean literally the final two or three pages, is also a tad confounding. Presumably meant as a sort of lead-in to the next series, Acedia, it's not so much a resolution as a massive shift in status quo that is not, as of yet, explored. But again, this is not a complaint. While Cass may have managed to escape the situation he was in when this tale began, he clearly has not outrun all of his enemies or problems, and that's a logical place for him to end up. His circumstances were so dire at the start of this narrative, any amount of improvement feels like a major victory, so we get the payoff of seeing our hero succeed even if we know his satisfaction and safety are not going to last for long. The good guys may not win outright, but they accomplish their more immediate goals and also stop the villains from doing the same, so we get to be happy for them, even if only tentatively so. More importantly, though, is the wild ride which brings us to this endpoint. Having already pulled out all the stops in the preceding Casanova titles, Fraction, Bá, and Peter are free here to tell their most hard-hitting narrative to date. It may be more dismal and sometimes depressing than what came before, but it's all the more compelling and ultimately satisfying for it. Nobody is safe from the enormity of what goes on in this book. Not the characters, not the creators, and certainly not the readers. As Sasa Lisi says, "Everybody gets fucked to infinity."

Casanova: Avaritia #1-4 were published by Marvel Worldwide Inc. and are dated November 2011-August 2012.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Smatterday 07/14/2012

This weekend is, obviously, San Diego Comic Con. And while I am not one of the bazillion attendees this year, there's no escaping the overwhelming outpouring of news and announcements coming out of the convention. So below are a small handful of things that interest me personally from SDCC '12 so far.

Undoubtedly Gorgeous New Sandman Material
Neil Gaiman announced that he would be returning to Sandman in 2013 (the series' 25th anniversary) to write a brand new story illustrated by J.H. Williams III. I saw a fair amount of naysaying online when the news broke, people calling it "Before Sandman" and whatnot, but as far as I'm concerned this is unequivocally good news. An amazing writer returns to an amazing character with an amazing artist. I'm celebrating.

David Marquez In Your Face
I've never been shy about my adoration of David Marquez's work on Ultimate Comics Spider-Man, so any new project with him on art duties is bound to draw my attention. But a nutty sci-fi family adventure series done entirely in 3D by Marquez? That I will absolutely be buying. The Joyners in 3D is, so far, the title I'm most excited for that was announced at SDCC this year. And really, how could anything hope to top a gimmicky, beautiful, three-dimensional space romp?

The Eisners
Of course the Eisner Awards are always a major piece of comicbook news, and last night the winners were announced. Mark Waid and Jim Henson's Tale of Sand led with three wins apiece. I have not read Tale of Sand but it moved up my "to read list" considerably after last night. And Waid definitely deserves the win. He's a killer writer working on creator-owned and Big Two series in both digital and print. Also a big fan of the decision to give Francesco Francavilla Best Cover Artist. That dude is one of the strongest artistic talents currently working, and deserves to be acknowledged for it. Overall a satisfying year of Eisners.

Some Other Stuff I'll Likely Read
I am a huge Books of Magic fan and am already following Justice League Dark, so the announcement that Tim Hunter would be joining the series was something I definitely noticed. I don't know if I would describe myself as "excited" for it, but I'm curious to see how Jeff Lemire handles the character and how different Hunter's experience will be dealing with the JL Dark rather than the four cosmic powers from the original series. Constantine carries over, but the New 52 Constantine is a wildly different guy than the Vertigo one, so that barely counts.

Because I like Nathan Edmonson a lot and am also reading all of Marvel's current Ultimate titles, I expect I'll read Ultimate Comics Iron Man come October. The "Divided We Fall" crossover might turn me off before then, as events are wont to do, but barring that I think I'll make the four-issue commitment.

Lastly, I suspect I'll pick up Masks when it comes out. My experience with Chris Roberson is pretty limited (still haven't cracked open any iZombie but I read his Cinderella mini) but Alex Ross is a tremendous talent and, I don't know...a "pulp crossover event" just sounds like something I want to read. Dynamite has a great track record of late, and this is, in theory, meant to bring new readers to a bunch of its titles, so Masks will likely be an excellent series.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Pull List Review: Wolverine and the X-Men #13

The very first page of Wolverine and the X-Men #13 establishes an interesting detail about Warbird's past and personality. Then almost every single other page in the issue reiterates the same point, but more overtly, over and over again. It's a twist on the character which I actually like, but it did not need nearly this much time and space. So Warbird is secretly a sensitive artist, and because of her culture she's ashamed of that. It's not new ground, and nothing especially original is done with it in this instance, so without much else going on either, the issue ends up being a bit of a dud.

Not to mention that this was supposed to be the payoff for all the previous Gladiator build up. And it was, I guess, technically, but man...what a disappointing way to handle that. We barely see Gladiator, he doesn't do or say anything worthwhile, and then he gets pummeled into submission as a B-plot to Warbird's cheesy backstory. That was all just a bummer, because I've been looking forward to Gladiator finally showing up and blowing up, and now it looks like I'll never truly get to see that.

Also...does Warbird's costume always look so ridiculous? I need to go back and look into that, because it's entirely possible I just haven't noticed before, but if this is just Nick Bradshaw's own take on her design, then...for shame. The lack of defense for her vital organs (assuming they're in the same place as humans, which they may not be, and if so then just read that as "the lack of defense for her breasts") is outrageous, and the whole thing looks impractical and uncomfortable in favor of being sexy. No, sorry, not sexy. Slutty. It's a slutty fucking costume.

Other than that Bradshaw's work is steady but stiff. I guess that's a fair description of Jason Aaron's script, too. He has a single point he wants to make about a single character, and he makes it multiple times, but in a boring and straightforward fashion. Steady, yes, but oh so very stiff.

Pull List Review: Uncanny X-Force #27

I've been a fan of the Fantomex-Psylocke relationship from the very beginning, so for me this issue was a treat. I like how they behave together, what their strange connection does to them. I liked her reasons and strategies for saving him in Otherworld several issues back, and I loved his rescue and sacrifice to do the same for her here. He's a brilliant character, using everything available to him right up to the moment his heart is torn out, and even though it's hard to believe a superhero character's death, the ripples of Fantomex's demise were powerful in-story and for me as a reader.

And yes, I love this new Brotherhood of Evil Mutants. Not just because they look so scary and bizarre as a group, and not just because there are so many colorful characters amongst their numbers. What I appreciate most is how put together they are. That many bad guys with that much power pulling off such a multi-faceted plan so easily? Imagine what else they might be capable of. Chills.

So Rick Remender was got me firmly back on the Uncanny X-Force cheer squad now, aided in no small way by the art team of Phil Noto & Dean White. In particular, their Mr. Skinless is an imposing, hideous creature. Almost a storybook villain, but for sick-minded grown ups. And I was quite taken by Eva's evolution (how much you want to bet she's the one who saves them from the explosion at the end?). Her new form exudes all the wisdom and confidence she has always possessed, and she looks pretty badass now, too, which is a bonus.

But the truest visual delight is the final page, where we get a full view of the Brotherhood in its maniacal, sociopathic glory. Even standing in a nice room and smiling, they are a terrifying lot, and now they have their own pet Apocalypse. That on top of Fantomex's noble death means the stakes are as high as they've been for this series in a long while, and as we move further into the story, it's bound to get a lot more intesne. Bring it on, says I.

Pull List Review: Ultimate Comics X-Men #14

At one point in Ultimate Comics X-Men #14, Kitty Pryde says she's tired of waiting for bad things to happen to her and her friends. And I agree. Kitty told her allies and the readers last issue that she had a plan, that it was time to start fighting back, and when our heroes hit the road I assumed that plan would be under way presently. Instead, we get an issue that mostly comes across as stalling. Brian Wood does a lot of strong characterization in this issue, but very little story beyond that. The only conflict that does arise is dealt with almost too easily, and then almost too predictably, it shows back up at the end and becomes a real problem. Before and in between, we have a dull road trip story that never gets anywhere.

I suppose Wood is setting the stage. He reminds us what the state of the country currently is in the Ultimate Universe, and why Kitty and crew are doing what they're doing. But I didn't need that reminder, and in providing it Wood also finds a feasible excuse to quickly brush aside the most interesting aspect of Nick Spencer's time on the title: the voices Rogue and many other characters seem to hear in their heads, the apparitions of dead loved ones returning to speak to them. Effectively, through Kitty's narration, we are told to forget about that particular detail for now, because there's no time for it. It's a weak move, and not enough new, interesting stuff takes place to fill the space left by removing what has come before. There is an out-of-nowhere romantic spark between Kitty and Johnny that might lead to something further along but, here, feels forced and too brief. Wood is still trying to reshape this series, but I felt like he'd done enough of that in his first issue, and what he should've been doing here was diving head first into those ideas instead of continuing to shuffle and introduce others.

I still have high hopes for the new direction this title seems to be moving in, but this was a lackluster opening to its part in the first event of the newest Ultimate line.

Pull List Review: Swamp Thing #11

I can't tell if I'm just so sick of this Rot storyline that I can't get into anything having to do with it anymore. Animal Man is grating my nerves these days, and Swamp Thing #11 felt similarly annoying. It's a one-long-fight issue, Anton Arcane vs. Abby & Swamp Thing, but the fight isn't all that inventive or interesting, the dialogue throughout is just the same old death-is-beautiful-and-everywhere-and-can't-be-stopped rhetoric all the Rot-based villains refuse to shut up about, and the ending is so abrupt it feels like Scott Snyder just crashed into the crossover without realizing it was time. Arcane just decides to leave. He gets pounded on over and over, and the whole time keeps healing himself and turning his wounds into mouths and blathering on about how unstoppable he is, then one gunshot to the head and he bails. It makes no sense, and nobody even tries to make sense of it before the Baker family appears out of nowhere to get another several months of Rot story rolling.

Ok, so, I can tell. I am too sick of this Rot storyline to enjoy it any longer. Unless, of course, it were to somehow offer something new. Next month we get zero issues, providing some sort of Rot-centric history, it would seem. And then after that I think I give this and Animal Man one more issue each, one official chapter of "Rotworld" to convince me to stick around.

Marco Rudy's art, at least, was superb. The two-page spread where Abby looks into the Rotworld alone saved this issue from feeling like a total waste, and even though I'm sick of looking at all these dead or undead or half-dead monsters, Rudy draws thoroughly disgusting versions of Anton Arcane and his un-men. But there are an awful lot of pages devoted to them, and I grow as tired of looking at them as I do listening to them, eventually.

I'm on the border with this book and Animal Man both. It's sort of a bold move on DC's part to have these two series so closely tied together through one story for so long. Because if it doesn't work, like it's failing to work now, then they're bound to lose sales in a pair of titles simultaneously. Definitely close to losing me.

Pull List Review: Space: Punisher #1

I'm so, so pleased that they went the campiest, most ridiculous route possible with this. I'm not all that familiar with the Punisher as a character, but I've seen him enough times to know he isn't usually this quippy, punny, and outrageous, but it's a look that suits him. In the context of this grand space adventure, anyway.

The opening scene is Punisher literally diving out of his spaceship into combat with a Brood/Venom Symbiote mix, which leads to the use of a bomb that apparently creates a black hole. So we're shown pretty immediately what kind of comicbook this intends to be. And it keeps delivering on that promise until the very end. It feels like Frank Tieri had the time of his life writing this script, because there's a vibrant energy to the pace and humor of it all. It's a fantastically funny book, and it knows it. Frank Castle knows it, so he does and says all of the funniest stuff. Blasting Rhino out of existence with his orbiting spaceship is probably the top of that list, but naming his sonic and lazer guns Sound and Fury respectively is a dangerously close second.

Rhino may be the most enjoyable, if obvious, space-drama redesign of a classic character Mark Texeira brings to the table. I don't even think anyone ever calls him "Rhino" but there's no mistaking him. All the members of the Six-Fingered Hand are brilliant reimaginations as well, but I'm most excited for Ultron with those enormous bottom tusks. Based on the panel layout, he'll probably go last, but Dr. Octopus and Green Goblin are presumably up next, and they both have the potential for some visually fascinating fights.

We get those here, too, not just with the Brood but at the very end, when Deadpool, Sabretooth, and The Leader---a bizarre and varied grouping---all attack. These characters are closer to their original looks than many we've seen so far, but just seeing them in this new combination and artistic style means there's a lot to discover and enjoy.

This is a blustering, silly, over-the-top comic, but it is wholeheartedly so. Never taking itself too seriously nor ever becoming obnoxiously tongue-in-cheek, Space: Punisher #1 is high quality entertainment with low brow appeal.

Pull List Review: Smoke and Mirrors #4


I just can't get excited by this series. There was so much about the pitch that intrigued me, particularly the idea of including an interactive magic trick each month. But I don't even think this issue even had one---arguably the bit where Ward is projecting an image into the guy's head was supposed to be it, but, I mean, come on---and the story built around them just isn't clicking. I do think Smoke and Mirrors #4 was possibly the best issue yet, the closest to grabbing my attention, but it still missed the mark.

What worked was Mr. Carrol finally openly embracing his villainous role. Ryan Browne makes Carrol very menacing, his face always stone cold and often obscured in shadow. And the two panels where he "names" things  by their true, magical names looked great. I wish there was more of that kind of world-warping magical imagery in this series. The final splash page actually has a lot of the same elements, and was another favorite moment of mine. When the magic is being used at full steam in this world, it's hypnotizing, but those moments are rarities. And the rest of Browne's art, while more consistent this issue than before, is still a bit too plain and vague to capture me. And why did Tim look so similar to Carrol? Was that intentional? Because if that doesn't end up being a story point, it was a really, really bad call.

I guess, generally, Smoke and Mirrors #4 was more like what I hoped it to be from the beginning. It's been a long wait for Carrol to come face to face with Ward, but even when that moment arrives, it's so slow-moving and so little is accomplished that it just feels boring. Only one issue to go now, so I'm in until the end, but I'm not excited for it in the least.

Pull List Review: Revival #1

Introducing an original concept, a unique world or reality, is not an easy thing to do well. You want to find the right balance between telling the reader directly and letting them see and learn for themselves. And there needs to be enough information and explanation early on to hook people, but if you reveal too much too quickly then the shine wears off and you'll lose people anyway. Even truer if the narrative is one based in mystery, in things which even the characters are struggling to understand. So Revival #1 had a challenging task to accomplish, but Tim Seeley and Mike Norton pull it off near-perfectly on every level.

Seeley does a lot of things well here, but perhaps most impressive is his inclusion of so many different and distinct characters. Dana Cypress, the apparent star of the series, is still something of a question mark, but we already know he to be an affable woman who loves and is good at her job on the police force. Through her brief but telling interactions with her son, father, and sister, we actually end up with a fairly full impression of Dana, made even stronger when we get to see her in the field. All of her family members are also clearly and quickly established. Her son, Cooper, is imaginative and intelligent. Wayne Cypress, Dana's father and the local sheriff, is stern without being overly gruff. He may be a no-nonsense guy, but it comes from a place of genuine care. And though Martha, Dana's sister, has the least to do in this issue, she ends up being possibly the most important character we meet, in terms of Dana being able to, ultimately, solve the series' larger mystery.

That mystery, by the way, revolves around people in the Wausau, WI area coming back to life after they die. How long this has been going on isn't spelled out, but Seeley makes it obvious that it's neither a totally new nor very well-established situation. The government, the local police force, and the family members of these "revivers" are all still in the dark about the cause of these resurrections and their implications. And nobody yet knows what, if anything, should be done about it. But the people living in the area, the characters we get to spend some time with, are going about their normal lives, anyway. They might be living in a quarantine, but it doesn't stop them from going to work, arguing with their neighbors, and playing with their action figures. That last one is just Cooper.

Anyway, the normalcy in the face of the inexplicable is one of the greatest points of this debut, because it's so true-to-life. There's a powerful realism at work in every corner of this book, even during the strangest and most horrific scenes.

Seeley gets a lot of the credit for that, but without Mike Norton's exceptional artwork to even further ground this story, I think it would feel far more fantastic. Norton can draw a zebra-horse hyrbid running through the snow and then having its face explode with blood without it feeling out of place. Even the twisted white spirit-monster which Copper catches a glimpse of (and vice versa) looks strangely alive. But Norton really won me over when we got to the old lady in the barn. The panel of her teeth regrowing through her bloody gums only moments after she pulled them all out with a pair of pliers is going to stay with me for a long, long time. Presumably until the next issue of Revival when Norton somehow tops himself. And all of the gore and violence in that scene was just right. Slightly outlandish, perhaps, but only to the extent that it all felt perfectly at home with the rest of the issue.

The back-from-the-dead higher concept of Revival does not, I admit, have me hooked on its own. In less capable hands, this same exact narrative could easily be dry and dull and even a bit trite. But Seeley and Norton are both at the top of their game here, building a familiar yet foreign world inhabited already by many rich, nuanced characters. If they can keep up this level of work moving forward, Revival may well be one of the best new series to come out all year.

Pull List Review: Harbinger #2

As far as second issues go, Harbinger #2 hit all the right notes. Joshua Dysart has already found a solid pace for this story. After last month's strong debut, this issue is a logical but impressive next step. We get a chance to see the potential greatness of Peter, our protagonist, and the problems of him brainwashing the girl he loves and having an emotionally and mentally unstable best friend are dealt with in a way that feels believable. I'm sure we'll see both Kris and Joe again in the future, and the damage Peter has done to each of them certainly has yet to be undone (Kris especially), but for now they are satisfactorily set aside so that the main thrust of the story can continue to move forward.

The focus of the issue, though, takes place before Peter's departure from his peers, when he unleashes the full might of his psionic abilities against the soldiers from Project Rising Spirit, an organization whose motives are unknown but who don't appear to be the least bit friendly or good. Peter's mental attacks are awe-inspiring and frightening, and visually quite stunning as well. I especially enjoyed the van and, later, the helicopter which Peter mentally crashes. The force of their impacts is easy to feel in Khari Evans' art---the noise and heat and rubble and glass. Evans does this kind of detailed work for the entire scene, but really what makes it pop is the coloring from Ian Hannin and Moose Baumann. The harsh lighting of the fight adds significantly to the urgency and insanity, as does the strange fire in Peter's eyes. It's a superpowered action sequence through and through, but one which looks and feels distinct and strangely realistic.

Evans' greatest strength in this series, and Dysart's, too, is the portrayal of the various teenage characters and their broad emotions. These are flawed kids, thrown into an unthinkable situation, and their reactions fit with their supposed ages. Peter is incredibly well-intentioned underneath, but too inexperienced and immature to do the right thing right away. It's why he used his powers to force someone to love him, it's why he sticks by Joe in spite of everything, and it's why he can't regain control of himself once he starts to let his powers out. All of that makes sense, and paints the picture of a young man with enormous potential for good, but with the strong possibility that he might slip up on his journey and fall into the evil side of things.

Of course, exactly what "good" and "evil" mean in this title remain unclear. Harada is, at best, a shadowy figure, and while so far he's done nothing but assist Peter, his endgame remains unclear and his presence unsettling. Even in the opening sequence where he, essentially, saves a baby boy (I assume it's Harada in that scene though I could be mistaken) there's something undeniably strange and unnerving about the whole thing. When Harada asserts, forcefully, that he is more powerful than the child, it feels as much like a threat as a statement of fact. Not sure precisely why I get such a disturbing vibe off the character, but if, in the end, he is more morally skewed than he pretends, I won't be surprised.

That opening sequence, by the way, is what I assume constitutes Lewis LaRosa's artistic contribution to the issue, and damn if he doesn't do a fantastic job. Even the most messed up panels, in terms of content (e.g. young Harada pulling the baby out of a deteriorating body) were soft and enchanting. Really strong work, and it sucks you in right away, so by the time Peter becomes the focus, you're already enthralled and invested.

I continue to be hooked on Harbinger, and now that Peter has decided to pursue the study of his powers, it promises to only get better and more complex. Get on board now, before the inevitable madness fully kicks in.

Pull List Review: Frankenstein Agent of S.H.A.D.E. #11

I don't think I like Matt Kindt's take on this character. He's contemplative, verbose, and self-deprecating, none of which was true when Lemire was at the helm. It's a fine enough direction to take Frankenstein in, and I trust Kindt has his reasons for doing so, but I just don't think it's for me. I'm not against the concept of Frank having flashes of memories from the lives of the people he's made out of, but I am against it turning him into a whiny punk. Also, after setting up the mystery last issue with strange panels showing horrible scenes, and then doing the same for the bulk of this issue, Kindt just has Frankenstein explain what's going on, out loud, with practically no provocation. I'm not sure how else Kindt could've have told us we were seeing bits of Frank's piecemeal past, but this definitely felt like the easiest, laziest method.

Same thing happens for the explanation of Leviathan. There's more of a reason for the character to spill the information (i.e. Frankenstein will kill him otherwise) but it was an overly-simple way to fill in those blanks. Isn't this meant to be, in part, an espionage series? Why not have our heroes do a bit of actual spy work to figure out where they are, rather than just being told, in no uncertain terms, from the first guy they ask? All of that was just weak storytelling, and did nothing to help with my dislike of Frank's budding new personality.

Alberto Ponticelli is a talented artist, handling the balance of current and "flashback" panels well without sacrificing any clarity. And the full-page splash of Leviathan in all it's horrendous glory was breathtaking. But that's the closest Ponticelli gets in this issue to being able to cut loose, to do the large-scale monster madness that is his greatest gift to this series. Other than a few panels of Frankenstein yelling, the rest of the plot is so subdued that the art is forced to match it. And a subdued Ponticelli is never as strong as one who gets to do big, bombastic action. It's true of the artist and of the main character, both, actually. Without at least one opportunity to pull out the stops and have some hard-hitting, gore-filled monster action, Ponticelli and Frankenstein are each far less interesting than they otherwise would be. I hope Kindt can realize that sooner than later and get this title back into the rhythms that made it such a strong offering within the original New 52.

For now, we have a much quieter, more thoughtful, more reigned in installment, and as far as I'm concerned, it falls flat. And the ending was 100% impossible to understand. Who is the guy screaming his head off on that last page? Am I supposed to know? Did we meet him last time and I totally forgot? Even if that's the case, his appearance on the final two pages here is jarring and forced. A real whiff of a conclusion to an already dulled issue.

Pull List Review: The Defenders #8

The quality of art is always fluctuating on this book as new artists rotate in and out every issue or two, but this month is definitely a high point. Jamie McKelvie, assisted by Mike Norton, hits numerous visual home runs. My favorite was easily the page where Black Cat finds John Aman's treasure room. First there's a gorgeous splash page revealing to both the reader and Black Cat all of Aman's innumerable, incredible possessions, and then in the corner we get a close-up panel of Felicia's unadulterated joy over the discovery. I guess it worked for me mostly because you don't often get that kind of absolute elation from a character, especially in the middle of a kingdom constructed out of its ruler's victims' bones. Which reminds me, the details of the horrible backgrounds of Z'Gambo were also expertly drawn, as was the deep horror our heroes feel in the face of it.

And speaking of excellent drawings of our heroes, there are two Defenders-in-action panels in this issue that Marvel needs to blow up into posters or billboards and use as advertising for the series. For the first time since the title began, The Defenders really looked and behaved like a team, and it gave this issue a powerful boost. Just in time for this new level of teamwork, we have the emergence of a remarkably powerful and dangerous bad guy, John Aman. Although he's been setting himself up as an opponent of the team for a while, it is in the dramatic final scene that he firmly establishes himself as their primary rival, at least for the immediate future. And before that, we as readers get our first look into Aman's point of view, and while he's still undoubtedly a mad and dangerous man, it definitely helps to make him more understandable, human, and sympathetic. The absolutely stunningly beautiful terrarium he is so fond of goes a long way in that direction, too.

Getting into Aman's head is a smart move by writer Matt Fraction, who gives all the narrative captions to either Aman or Black Cat and lets the actual stars of the series speak more through their actions than words. It's another move highlighting the idea that these people are really banding together as a unit. We don't need to get inside their heads because we already understand what The Defenders are after and why. So while we watch them continue to chase answers to the mystery of the concordance engines, we're also shown the thoughts of the surrounding characters, filling out the events of the issue by letting the reader in on everyone's perspective. And even though we have new insights into Aman's motives and history, his escape and attack at the end of this issue is still an effective, powerful surprise. What has he done to our heroes, what will become of them, and what will Aman's next move even be? Having these kinds of questions looming after such a satisfying issue is a good sign that the story of The Defenders is back on track.

Pull List Review: Dark Avengers #177

I'm not sure how he accomplishes it, but Jeff Parker fits more into a single issue of a modern comicbook than pretty much any other writer I'm aware of. Maybe that's not fair, because it's not like a whole lot of complicated stuff actually goes down in Dark Avengers #177. One fight ends and another begins. But Parker does bring us the next chapter in two distinct stories, each with sizable casts, and both are excellent and manage to give every single one of their characters at least a small moment to shine in their respective roles. That feels like a major accomplishment in this age of intense decompression.

For the time-lost Thunderbolts, we get the resolution of the team picking up a similarly displaced Dr. Doom and then see them once again move through time without any control over where they end up. In other words, despite being only half an issue, it's a complete installment of this time travel saga, beginning when they arrive in one new era and ending as they land in another. And the fighting they do in the meantime is a blast, most notably when Troll and Mr. Hyde get to tear through Doombots like tissue paper. Meanwhile, we learn at least some of the details of the Dark Avengers' mission, and while their story is less action-packed this issue, Parker does a good job of giving each of his new cast members a chance to display their skills and/or personalities. Plus he builds up what promises to be a formidable villain with numerous powers and tricks in Sultan Magus. So still very much a full and entertaining story, even if nobody got blown up or magically transported to Hell.

Kev Walker and Declan Shalvey are always strong on this book individually, and splitting the art duties does nothing to deter that. They fit together seamlessly, both of them bringing a style that matches the series' tone: lighthearted, high-powered, balls-out superheroics. Probably the best visuals came in the scene with Man-Thing, solemnly surrounded by butterflies, but there is strong stuff on every page. I suppose my other favorite image was Luke Cage's not-so-subtle smirk as he said, "Dark Avengers...Dark Assemble." Not too difficult a joke to think up, but one that sticks the landing here in large part due to the strength of the art.

Dark Avengers is sort of two books right now, because despite its recent name change the story from Thunderbolts continues to progress and develop in interesting ways, even while a whole new team sets off on a seemingly disconnected mission. But both books are hilarious, hard-hitting, and gorgeous, and they each have compelling stories being well-told that make me eager to come back for more. Of all the titles Marvel has decided to double ship, this one may be the most fitting. And the most fun.

Pull List Review: Batman #11

In the conclusion to this sprawling Court of the Owls story, Owlman (are we officially calling him that? I am...) and Batman each get a chance to make big, sweeping speeches that summarize their individual interpretations of their relationships to each other and to Gotham. And both speeches are largely pretty lame. It's not that they are badly-written, because they're not. Scott Snyder has obviously dug deep into the psychologies of these men, so they express themselves clearly and sincerely. It's just that the whole thing feels a little easy, script-wise. First our villain spouts the details of his history, his motives, and his goals in the middle of a fight so intense and fast-moving that I find it hard to believe Batman could even hear him. And then, after Bruce gets away but doesn't really defeat his would-be brother in a long-term sense, he has yet another revelation about the essence of Gotham. I appreciate Snyder's love for the city as a character, as a force which is just as powerful as any superperson, but that concept is wearing thin from overuse. Although I did crack a wide smile when Bruce tried to say Gotham wasn't Batman and Dick responded, "It's a little Batman. Come on."

Also, I hate the "there was no body to uncover" resolution. It's cliche, it's a cop out, and in this particular case it makes no sense. Why would Owlman survive one explosion and then immediately attack again, only to survive a second explosion and then go into hiding? Wasn't his goal, basically, to kill Bruce at all costs? So why isn't he charging into Wayne Manor while his enemy stares pensively out the window in a wheelchair? I know he'll return someday with a whole new twisted revenge scheme, and probably that'll be a fun and messed up story, but it doesn't help me deal with this illogical short-term ending. I'm glad the Court of Owls won't be the title's focus for a while, but not satisfied with the reasons for it.

Luckily, while the story was a disappointment, Greg Capullo's art was just as on point as always. He really came into his own on this book over the last year, and his awesome rendering of the Batman-Owlman slugfest helps distract from their weaker dialogue. Even though his mask, Owlman's madness and bloodlust is abundantly evident. He has moments here of being truly, effectively terrifying. And nothing tops the panel where Batman is whipped into the side of a glass building.

I was not wild about the page where we suddenly had a maze to solve. Felt like an excuse to fill one of those final, slower wrap-up pages, and it added little. But the rest of the conversation between Bruce and Dick is handled well by Capullo. Bruce is contemplative without being as brooding as we've seen him lately; you can feel him beginning, however slightly, to relax after months of high tension. And Dick helps move this process along with his humor and lightheartedness, which Capullo captures perfectly. So while the scene itself was sort of a limp across the finish line, it was still good-looking and emotionally rich.

I'm glad to be done with the Owls, even temporarily, because in my mind the whole story peaked several issues ago. Once Bruce escaped that labyrinth way back when, the whole affair began losing steam, and this final issue sputters out rather than racing to the epic conclusion promised on the cover.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

What Is It About Deep Sleeper?

I bought the first issue of Deep Sleeper at a discount bookstore for 75 cents. I had never heard of it, nor did I, at that time, have enough experience with either of its creators to recognize their names. I bought it because the cover was attention-grabbing, the pages I flipped through looked dark and twisted, and it cost less than a dollar. I have purchased countless stray comics this way, which mostly ended up being read once, bagged, boxed, and forgotten. But Deep Sleeper #1 stuck in my mental craw, and something like two years later, while at a comicbook store other than my usual one looking for something else entirely, I noticed the hardcover collection of Deep Sleeper on the shelf and snatched it up without even checking the price. It did not disappoint, and continues to be a title I regularly reread, recommend to friends (comic fans and non), and sometimes just sit and ponder, turning over a particular scene or concept in my mind. On my most recent visit to the familiar four-issue series, however, I began wondering what, precisely, I find so lovable about the book. I mean, it has powerful art, compelling characters, and a lot of hauntingly poetic language, but...so do any number of other comics that I hold in lower esteem than Deep Sleeper. What is it that so immediately gripped me, and why does it keep reeling me back in?
     Firstly, I don't want to just say "it has powerful art" and leave it at that, because whatever other treasures Deep Sleeper may contain, Mike Huddleston's carefully-constructed and gorgeous drawings are doubtlessly a significant factor in my adoration. Working entirely in black and white, Huddleston does so much with shading, careful use of empty space, and dynamic page layouts that there is as much life and energy in these pages as any full-color book. And he brings a bizarre, somewhat raw style that utilizes what I can only describe as selective pointillism---some of the panels are really just collections of dots, some are dotless, and most lie in between---to highlight the surreality and, when appropriate, the horror of the story's events. There are numerous monsters and other creatures of the dream world seen throughout the series, and Huddleston fills them all with such intricate detail that they often look more lifelike than the human characters. Add to all of this the deep and nuanced emotions his cast displays, and the overall tone of controlled chaos in the artwork: use of ink splatter, fading images, crumbling panel borders. Deep Sleeper is certainly a singular artistic vision and accomplishment, but again, this is not necessarily unique praise. Other titles, even titles Huddleston has worked on since, have had equally original aesthetics, so while the art of Deep Sleeper is worth study and appreciation, it cannot be that alone which has me hooked.
     So that leaves me to dive into Phil Hester's script. It's not easy to summarize without glossing over a lot of important details, but the long and short of it is that our hero, Cole Gibson, is pulled into the middle of an ancient conflict because, he comes to discover, he has a great but as-of-yet-untapped power. On one side of the fight is Ramman, an insane, self-serving, immortal monk with plans to pierce the barrier of reality and come out the other side a god. He needs Cole's help with this because Cole, he believes, is a bridge between the dream world and the real one, and the barrier exists in both. Working against this are Tulsa and Dar, members of Ramman's former sect who believe he is on a fool's mission and want to save the innumerable innocent souls he plans to burn up as a part of it. Both sides try to recruit Cole, but he's not interested in being a cog in anyone else's machine. So, seeking his own answers, he explores the workings of the dream world and, ultimately, reaches the understanding that there is no difference between it and reality. For Cole at least, whatever he imagines becomes real, and he uses this discovery to defeat Ramman once and for all and lay rest to an age-old struggle.
     No individual element of this narrative is, on its own, especially groundbreaking. Stories that exist partially or even primarily within dreams are fairly common, and Ramman isn't much different than any other megalomaniacal evil genius. Even the final message of dreams being as real and as powerful as anything in our waking world is one I've heard elsewhere, before and since my discovery of Deep Sleeper. Part of what holds this story above the rest is how Hester structures it so thoughtfully, delivering a lot of exposition in relatively small spaces so that the action and/or dream sequences have all the room they need to be as grandiose and spectacular as possible. And in Cole he creates an instantly relatable and likable protagonist, but also one who we learn right away is flawed and unhappy, struggling to succeed as a writer and, in many ways, as a father and husband. He has a tremendous, obvious love for his family, but that love alone is not enough to keep him from making mistakes, from sometimes failing to protect them. Then we watch him grow into his full potential, and ultimately sacrifice himself to save not only his family but numerous faceless strangers, too. It is a sacrifice that feels earned, and allows the story to land on a note of hopefulness without being needlessly cheesy or tidy. So, yeah, it's a fantastic script, to be sure. But like Huddleston's art, I'm not convinced that it's anything specific to Hester's writing that so powerfully impressed and impresses me still.
     I come back to that first issue, then, the initial three-quarter purchase that sucked me in and has yet to let go. What did those original 32 pages do that inspired me to buy the hardcover edition all those months later?  Obviously, everything I've pointed out above is a part of it, but I believe the true secret of the series' success lies in one particular aspect, with the rest of the high-quality work acting as gravy on an especially delicious graphic meal. Where the core of my affection for Deep Sleeper lies is in the delicate balance it strikes between the confusing and the clear, the real and the surreal. Cole as a character is largely in the dark about what's going on and why he's involved in it for a decent chunk of the series. Then, even when he begins to get answers, they are often lies, half-truths, or just incredibly cryptic. However, even in the face of all these question marks, Cole never fully drowns in confusion, and neither does the reader. Hester provides enough insight at just the right times to keep propelling everything forward, and both he and Huddleston, from the very first page, make it abundantly clear that dreams and "real" events are just as important as each other in this series. We open on one of Cole's dreams, spend several pages in the thick of one of his short stories, and see details from both spilling out into reality all in that first issue. So even though it isn't said out loud until the story begins to wrap up, we know from the beginning that imagined things hold power in this world, and it makes any hard-to-grasp moments easier to swallow. In a sense, everything we see is real, everything is true, so if Cole or the reader ever has a question about something that just happened, they can pretty much take it at face value for the time being and hope for a fuller explanation down the line. And, more often than not, that explanation does arrive, but in those cases where it doesn't, it's a safe bet we know as much as we'll ever need to.
     I think I can best express this point with an example, and the strongest single example is the character of Jahi. On his first fully-lucid visit to the dream world (in the second issue), Cole sees a dreamshow put on by a mysterious, possibly-human woman named Jahi. It holds some of the most captivating and beautiful pages, visually, of the whole book, and is an important moment in Cole's journey, because watching the show distracts him enough for another dream traveller to steal his physical body while he sleeps. But who Jahi is, whether or not she also lives in the waking world, and the hows and whys of a "dreamshow" are never explained. We never see Jahi, her performance, or anyone else's for the rest of the story. While it is unfolding, though, there is no need to question it, no impulse to wonder what the point of her captivating dance might be. By then we understand that just by existing, just by being something which Cole experiences, Jahi's dreamshow has weight and power, and will matter to our hero in some way, because literally everything does. Whether it takes place in an imagined space or not, Hester and Huddleston make it all equally important, so by the time Cole decides there is no border between his mind and his world, it feels inevitable.
     Deep Sleeper is a brilliantly crafted tale, strange and layered yet filled with familiar ideas and still easy to follow. Perhaps I am taking away from it somewhat by trying to pinpoint one characteristic that keeps it so high on my list of all-time favorites, but when I love something I always want to understand why. And like most things having to do with Deep Sleeper, the reasons for my love are seemingly elusive but, in actuality, are relatively simple to understand.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Smatterday 07/07/2012

The Harvey Awards
So the 2012 Harvey Award nominees were announced this week. It's a pretty damn solid list, I'd say. I like my award nominee lists to acknowledge lots of worthy people, but only pick one per category who I'm truly rooting for, and the Harveys have mostly accomplished that this year. Pretty tough call between Bettie Breitweiser and Francesco Francavilla for Best Colorist, but otherwise I've got my personal choices set. I doubt if I've picked all winners (is this a world where something as small and understated as Rachel Rising can take "Best New Series"?) but my fingers are crossed nonetheless. My biggest takeaway from the list, though, is that I need to read Page by Paige. It got like five nods and I've never even heard of it, so that one's on me.

When they say "NOW!" the mean October
The biggest comic-related hullabaloo this week was the announcement of Marvel NOW! It's Marvel's revamp (not "reboot") of their line through the introduction of some new titles, as well as new #1 issues with new creative teams for several of their old titles. There's been, of course, a lot of chatter about the project, good, bad, and in between. Personally, I'm having a hard time landing on a firm reaction, which I think has a lot to do with the way in which Marvel has chosen to roll this revamp out. They've announced only a handful of the titles so far, and they're going to be releasing only one or two new #1's each week for five months, October-February. So without knowing what's ahead or what the whole of the Marvel line is going to look like come February, it's difficult for me to settle on a single opinion. Mostly what I feel is apprehensive. I'm nervous that it'll bring in no new readers while simultaneously alienating old ones. I'm afraid the five-month plan will be detrimental, because if the series that start in October don't generate the buzz Marvel wants, by the time February rolls around no one will even be paying attention anymore. And I'm mostly afraid that this isn't really going to change anything. We'll get artist, writer, and cast shake-ups for a while, and then it'll settle and we'll move into the next ridiculous line-wide blockbuster event involving 90% of the characters in the Marvel U, effectively undoing whatever was established in the revamp. I hope I'm wrong on all counts, but I suspect I won't be, and in March 2013 we'll all be looking back at Marvel NOW! as a weak, half-hearted failure of a response to the New 52. Which was only a marginal success to begin with.

Critical Hit
There's an awesome new charity organization called Critical Care Comics whose mission is to deliver donated comicbooks to children who are in the hospital. I mean...it's one of the best ideas for old comicbooks I've ever heard. Last weekend they held a fundraiser for the project, and evidently it was a success. So perhaps the modern world isn't a dismal, hopeless place after all. Seriously, support the Critical Care Comics project in any way you can. They more than deserve it.