Monday, December 31, 2007

Top 20 of 2007: #19 Fantastic Four Omnibus Volume 2

I didn't buy the first Fantastic Four Omnibus when it was initially released. I already owned the Masterworks editions, and I didn't see the point. But when this volume came out, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn't ignore the ratio of greatness included between the two oversized, hard covers. True, I already owned the Masterworks that included this same material, but I sold those suckers once I got this, covered the cost of this beast and made a bit of a profit. But before I sold those Masterworks, I compared the printing in each, and the Omnibus BLOWS THE MASTERWORKS AWAY.

I was especially impressed with the way they corrected the printing of Fantastic Four #52, the first appearance of the Black Panther. In the Masterworks edition, Volume 6, I believe, the Black Panther is just a blob of blackness. In the Omnibus, you can actually see the interior lines and the shading. In that same issue, the Fantastic Four look drawn with cheap ballpoint pen if the Masterworks are to be believed, but the Omnibus returns the proper line weight and matches the original art with much more accuracy.

If you think you already own these stories (and by the way, this Omnibus reprints Fantastic Four #31-60, plus Annuals #2-4), and you don't own this volume, then you're wrong. The Essentials, the Masterworks, even the original comics, can't compare to the way the stories look here. And, as you must know, this is the height of Lee and Kirby: The first appearance of Silver Surfer and Galactus, the Frightful Four, the Inhumans, Black Panther, "This Man, This Monster"--these stories are all in one gigantic, beautiful hardcover edition.

The only reason not to buy it is the cost. But, you know what, you're worth it.

Read it.

Top 20 of 2007: #20 Blue Beetle

As much as I love Keith Giffen (and I love him a lot, me being a bit-time Ambush Bug and Legion fan and all), Blue Beetle really became a great comic when John Rogers took over the title as the solo writer. On top of that, Rafael Albuquerque became the regular artist in 2007, and his expressively clean linework has made this comic one of the best-looking DC titles each month.

Blue Beetle is a great example of what an ongoing comic book series can be, largely because Rogers knows how to structure a large-scale story (a complex and subtle alien invasion--the underlying story for the entire series) and yet keep each installment relatively self-contained. Plot threads continue from issue to issue, but Rogers actually has things happen in each individual episode, and that makes for some old-school comic book enjoyment. Plus, Rogers has developed a vibrant supporting cast to provide a layered backdrop for the adventures of Jaime Reyes, boy-superhero.

This comic has been referred to as a kind of DC version of Spider-Man. I don't disagree, but a more accurate comparison would be: Blue Beetle is a DC version of Ultimate Spider-Man, except better, faster, and more compressed. And, it's totally different.

Read it.

To Maximize New Year's Eve Enjoyment

Ryan and I have recorded a special podcast to help you celebrate New Year's Eve. Listen to this tonight (or any night, really), and it'll be just like hanging out with us. Why would you want to do that? Beats me. Loneliness? Desperation? High standards and great taste? Whatever the reason, you won't be disappointed. (Especially if you're really drunk--note: don't drink unless you're over 21; actually, let's make it 35, just to be safe.)


Go to the Geniusboy Live podomatic site to download the awesomeness: Geniusboy Live New Year's Special

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Nick Fury VERSUS S.H.I.E.L.D.

In one of the comments, Marc Caputo asked me if I'd ever read the Nick Fury vs. SHIELD series from the late 80s. He said he remembered it being "very good," but it was in storage, so he couldn't take a look at it. I began writing a reply to him, but it became so long, I thought it would work better as a post so everyone can read about my relationship with that six-issue series:

When Nick Fury vs. SHIELD came out (in 1988), my brother was the big Marvel collector and I bought the DC stuff (that way, between the two of us, we could read EVERYTHING--and, oh yeah, I also bought all the "independent" stuff like Pacific, and Eclipse, and Comico). Neither of us could find that "vs. SHIELD" series, because our local store didn't stock any of the square bound comics, or, if they did, they didn't stock enough, because we never saw those issues on the racks. The series looked like the coolest thing ever, with the painted covers and all. I'm sure we read all about it in Marvel Age, which we faithfully purchased every month. Marvel Age, by the way, was Marvel's in-house promotional comic book magazine. It had plenty of preview art, listings of upcoming comics, and very, very thin articles about comics and creators. In other words, it was a decade before the internet existed.

My brother and I finally tracked down a complete set of Nick Fury vs. SHIELD at the very first "convention" we went to, probably around 1990. By "convention," I mean hotel lobby where a bunch of dealers sold comics out of boxes. You may remember the type, back before conventions were places you could pay to see movie trailers and wait in long lines to get a glance at the cheerleader from Heroes.

I don't know what I purchased at that convention, but my brother got the Nick Fury, plus a copy of Captain America #100 (the first issue of the Marvel Cap series). I didn't get anything close to that cool, so when we got home, I couldn't wait to read this elusive Nick Fury series that we'd read so much about. When I finally got a chance to open the covers, I was disgusted. The painted covers hid some of the ugliest comic book art in history. I haven't double-checked on this, but I'm pretty sure Paul Neary penciled the series, and I really can't blame him, he was just the penciler. I thought his art on Captain America had been serviceable, and I'd seen some of his British stuff to know that he was a decent-enough artist. But the coloring was both the most muted and garish work that I had ever seen. The whole comic looked like it'd been colored in faded piss. Quite a contrast to the dynamic, fully-painted covers. I don't know that I ever read the series once I looked inside.

I'm sure I've read stuff with worse art, but the sheer disappointment was too much to bear.

So, no, I guess I haven't honestly read Nick Fury vs. SHIELD, but maybe I'll take another look at it, now that it's had nearly two decades to soften the disappointment. I do own the series myself, now. I bought my brother's entire collection off of him when he went to college.

The comic can't be any worse than the Nick Fury made-for-tv-movie starring the Hoff, can it?

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Batman #672 Quick Review

Here we go! Now, Morrison's run is back on track after that weak, WEAK Ra's al Ghul non-event.

In Batman #672, Morrison returns to the patterns and themes he established when he took over this comic last year. The multiple-Batman plotline continues here (something that began with the false Batman shooting the Joker in the face in the opening scene of Morrison's first issue), and the Black Casebook stuff gains more prominence, especially at the end of this issue, with "Zur En Arrh" reappearing and a surprise appearance by non other than Bat-Mite! Yes, Bat-Mite.

One of the things Morrison's doing in this Batman run is re-engaging with the character's pre-Dark Knight past. Morrison's brought back the Batmen of All Nations (who debuted in 1955), "Zur-En-Arrh" (the planet of Super-Batman, which debuted in 1958), and now Bat-Mite (from 1959). He's tried to establish Bruce Wayne as a Neal Adams-era "hairy-chested love god," and he's done a pastiche of Denny O' Neil's 1978 prose story, "Death Strikes at Midnight and Three." I'm sure I'm forgetting more than a few artifacts from Batman's less grim and gritty past that Morrison has thrown into the mix, but the point is that Morrison is expanding the context of Batman by pulling relatively obscure ideas from Batman's past and building it into a contemporary narrative. And that's always fun to read.

An additional thought: I don't know who Branca and Muller and Vane are, but perhaps they're part of an obscure Batman story as well. On the other hand, Muller (who, it turns out, is the guy we've been calling Bane-Bats) might be a play on "Miller," as in "Frank Miller" (the Bane-Bats is a bulky, vicious incarnation of the caped crusader, after all), which would tie into Geoff Klock's theory that Morrison's Batman and Miller's All-Star Batman are in dialogue with one another. I don't know who Branca would be in that case, but "branca" means "branch," and comes from a word meaning "paw," so if anyone knows a famous creator closely tied to Batman who has a name like that, let me know. (Or could it simply be that "Branca, Muller" equals "Frank Miller"?)

For reference, here's what I said about previous Morrison Batman issues when they first came out (and some of these posts go much deeper into the patterns and themes I mentioned above): #663, #664, #665, #666, #667, #668 (#669-#671 didn't inspire me to blog at any length, unfortunately)

Friday, December 28, 2007

Legion of Super-Heroes #37 Review

This is a pretty big deal for Legion readers.

Jim Shooter has returned to The Legion of Super-Heroes with issue #37, and it signals a new (old?) direction for a series which has had as many reboots and revisions as its had members. The cover boldly indicates where Shooter is planning to take this comic, especially if you compare it to any random cover on the Waid/Kitson run which concluded a few months ago. The costume redesigns have been discussed across the internet since the first Francis Manapul images appeared, but I hadn't seen that new logo until I walked into the comic shop today. The new logo abandons the upright, formal typeface of earlier Threeboot issues in favor of a colorful and dynamic font which recalls the original, post-Superboy comic and the Giffen/Bierbaum run from two decades ago. Todd Klein blogged about Legion logos this summer, and if you take a look at the top cover and bottom cover from that Klein blog page, you'll see what I mean about this new logo being a combination of two classic looks. Obviously, someone at DC wants to signal that this new Shooter run will return the Legion to the good old days.

But is issue #37 any good? Yes, with a few exceptions.

What works? One of the reasons Paul Levitz was such a great Legion writer was that he could juggle a large cast and a variety of locations in each issue. He could convincingly shift from one group or Legionnaires to another, from one planet to the next, in a span of a few pages, and keep everything moving forward toward a climax. Jim Shooter recaptures that kind of Legion rhythm almost immediately in this issue, by jumping from a partially-botched Karate Kid operation at the Disk Region to an unstable Lightning Lad plotline at Headquarters to a group of Legion emissaries sent to Triton (Neptune's moon) on a mission of warning. The three plot threads weave together nicely, and Shooter fades the Disk Region mission out as the Triton mission ascends in importance. Meanwhile. Lightning Lad is overwhelmed by the practical requirements of Legion leadership back the the HQ.

Even though Shooter throws in some strange structural quirks that aren't seen much anymore, like scene transitions that occur in the midst of a page instead of at the end of one, he does a nice job keeping the plot clear and moving forward with appropriate swiftness.

Shooter also handles the characterizations quite well, even if they don't exactly match what Waid and Bedard had established. Karate Kid, in particular, shows more anger (and overall emotion) in this issue than the previous 36 issues combined, and Phantom Girl is established as a sexy flirt all of a sudden, but these changes work well to define these characters for a potential new audience, and they don't necessarily contradict anything that came before. Waid and Bedard hadn't done a whole heck of a lot with some of these characters, so Shooter has plenty of blank slates to work with.

Francis Manapul, as penciler, is also a great asset to the book. He brings a style that's reminiscent of mid-career Travis Charest, but with a stronger sense of fluidity. His characters are more animated than Charest's ever were, but he has a similar sense of light and shadow.

What doesn't work? Manipul's pencils are not ideally served by the inker, Livesay. Livesay may be a fine inker, but here, his penwork fails to give substance and weight to Manipul's lines. Some of the ink lines seemed either not to have reproduced well, or are too lightly feathered (or both), but Manipul would benefit more from an inker who could add lineweight, not make everything seem even less substantial.

Shooter also makes a few missteps, mostly with the dialogue. The characters speech seems a bit clunky, although that might be Shooter's attempt to sci-fi it up. Sci-fi stuff has clunky dialogue, doesn't it? Well, so does this. He's also got some cringe-worthy bits like the Triton native's favorite greeting: "Yo-d'lay!" (which is repeated so many times that you can only suspect Shooter either thought it was really funny, or that he's thinking, "no, they SERIOUSLY say that"). Also, here's Shooter's take on future snowboarding slang: "And the body on those perky yumdrops...! Makes my metab rate spike!" "Perky Yumdrops?" I think it's the word "perky" in that sentence that's the creepy part. But those characters are supposed to be creepy badguys, so it's not such a bad thing.

Overall? The cover bodes well. The characters may not actually don the costumes on the cover just yet. I assume that will come in a few issues, but this issue sets this book up as a more dynamic, active incarnation of the Legion. It's not a reboot by any means, but it's a new beginning and now that I've read the first issue, I'm looking forward to this comic more than ever.

Edited to Add: This is my 200th post on this blog! I didn't realize that until I went to compose the next one. Anyway, thanks for reading, and check back daily!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Just Outside the 20: Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD Masterworks

I've already blogged about the quality of Powr Masters, The Salon, and Wisdom, all of which made their mark in the great comics year of 2007, but this has also been a good year for collected editions of classic material, and one of the best of the bunch is "Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD Masterworks, Volume 1." It didn't quite make my end-of-the-year Top 20 list, but I loved the heck out of it.

Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Masterworks, Volume 1

After Stan Lee and Jack Kirby brought their WWII-era Sgt. Fury character into the present as a government operative during an early issue of Fantastic Four (the one featuring the shocking reveal of the Hate Monger as, gasp, Hitler! Remember when people thought Civil War was going to turn out with a reveal like that? Good times!), a latter-day Nick Fury series was inevitable. The resulting comics, which took the gruff, cigar chomping military hero and mixed him into a "Man from U.N.C.L.E."-inspired world, are far superior to anything Lee and Kirby produced on the Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos series, even though Kirby only did layouts on the SHIELD stories. The problem with the Howling Commandos comics is that each issue tried to be more bombastic than the last (and apparently Lee's intention with Sgt. Fury was to show that the "Marvel style"--that is, totally over-the-top action and drama escalating from page to page, combined with pathos--could work in ANY genre). Because Sgt. Fury is a bombastic character in a bombastic setting (World War II, vs. Nazis!), everything feels even-keeled and therefore flat. By juxtaposing the Howling Commander himself, Nick Fury, with the sleek (and more "quiet") spy genre, the series increased the dramatic tension. Plus it had lots more cool gadgets.

What did I like? I like being able to watch Stan Lee and Jack Kirby make up this corner of the Marvel Universe as they go along. The same could be said about any Silver Age Marvel Masterworks title, I suppose, but these Nick Fury stories are only 12 pages long, and they feel even more improvised from issue-to-issue than most other comics of the time. Perhaps it was because the Marvel line was expanding by the time Nick Fury became an Agent of SHIELD, and Stan and Jack were at their frantic height, but whatever it was, it worked. At first, they seemed to play the series as a straight spy narrative, forgetting who Nick Fury used to be (or maybe assuming he'd softened up in his old age--not that he looked a day older than he had in World War II, even though the SHIELD stuff began twenty years later). Soon, though, Fury started acting like his name--raging against the buttoned-down conformity of his administrators, chomping on cigars, nearly getting fired as often as he saved the day. And the birth of Hydra happens in these pages, along with AIM and brilliant third-tier criminal geniuses like Mentallo and the Fixer. All of these sinister threats are tied together by a larger-looming threat, obliquely referred to as "THEM," although I'm pretty sure THEM ends up just being the Hydra organization after all. See, they were clearly making it all up as they went along, and it is an absolute blast to read.

Why didn't it make the Top 20? "Making it all up as they went along" is great, but it also leaves some strange moments littered throughout the book. Old Howling Commandos Dum Dum Dugan and Gabe Jones show up as SHIELD agents without any explanation, and without much specific reference to their past relationship (and without any rationale to explain why neither they nor Fury have aged a day in the previous 20 years). The evil machinations are revealed to be the work of the villainous Hydra organization, then AIM (a division of Hydra) joins the fray, then another incarnation of Hydra, and even Mentallo and the Fixer supposedly operate on behalf of Hydra. In other words, too much Hydra in this book. A bit more variety would be nice, and a little less slavish imitation of the Man from UNCLE. Plus, as sharp as the artwork is with Kirby on layouts and guys like John Severin, John Buscema, and Jim Steranko on finishes, I know the book gets EVEN BETTER when Steranko takes over and turns the whole comic into a mod trip through super-spyland.

Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD Masterworks, Volume 1 is a great addition to the Masterworks line, and I can't wait for the next Volume. Read it for yourself and you'll see why Nick Fury was such a cool fixture in the Marvel Universe.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Just Outside the 20: Wisdom

Here's another book that I liked quite a bit--I kind of loved it, actually--but not enough to list it in my Top 20 of 2007. It's a good comic and you should check out the trade.

Wisdom, by Paul Cornell, Trevor Hairsine, and Manuel Garcia

Wisdom began last year, but most of the six issue series came out in 2007, and it's the fourth best Marvel comic of the year. I won't tell you what the other three are yet, because they're all on my Top 20 list, but this comic is in really good company. I'd never even heard of the Pete Wisom character (or writer Paul Cornell) before this series, since I'd dropped Excalibur the first time Alan Davis left, and I've never seen a complete episode of any incarnation of Dr. Who. Apparently Pete Wisdom was some kind of early Warren Ellis creation, and apparently Paul Cornell wrote some good Dr. Who stuff (episodes and novels and the like), but I didn't know any of that when I read the first issue. And it was my favorite first issue in recent history. Unfortunately, the quality wasn't as consistent all the way through the series, but it was still a pretty great six issues, and I believe Paul Cornell will begin writing the new Excalibur title next year, which means I'll have another Marvel monthly to look forward to.

What did I like? The first issue threw so many ideas at me, and Pete Wisdom, as cool as he is, was probably the least interesting. Cornell gave us the journeyman Captain Midlands, who was kind of like what Captain Britain would be like if he were mediocre at everything and kind of pissed off about it. He also gave us a Skrull who acted like John Lennon and some kind of badass pixie called Tink. The whole first issue not only had plenty of characters to introduce and plot to set up, but it also had action and humor. Every issue, in fact, seemed quite compressed compared to any mainstream comic over the past few years. Some readers complained about the lack of exposition, or the disorienting feel as each issue jumped ahead to a new adventure, but I reveled in a Marvel comic that actually moved forward. I don't want to give the impression that Wisdom was good just because it was better than the usual crap on the shelves. No, it was just so much better, without any fanfare, that it surprised me. And the first couple of issues were drawn by one of the most underrated superhero artists working today: Trevor Hairsine. If you've ever seen his Captain America arc from before the Ed Brubaker relaunch, you know how good he is. He also did the Ultimate Six miniseries, and the Ultimate Universe has never looked so good. I know it's blasphemy to say this, but I think he might be better than Bryan Hitch (who his style resembles), simply because he doesn't put the "camera" so close to the action. He gives us a deeper sense of how characters occupy space in relation to one another, which I appreciate.

Why didn't it make the Top 20? Unfortunately, Hairsine left after the first two or three issues and Manuel Garcia came in to finish the series as artist. Garcia is a fine penciler, and if he had done all six issues, I probably would have ranked the series higher, actually. I know that sounds paradoxical after raving about Hairsine above, but I value a consistent art team more than a flash of inconsistent brilliance. The inconsistent art hurts the overall story, and that bothers me. Also, Cornell started off with such a bang--some kind of war with the world of faerie--that the other issues seemed a bit less spectacular in comparison. Even when he brought in an army of Jack the Rippers, he couldn't top the opening issue.

Wisdom didn't get much attention from anyone this year, but it's been collected as "X-Men: Wisom--Rudiments of Wisdom" in trade paperback. I don't know if adding the X-Men tag (and it's not an X-Men book AT ALL) helped sales, but I suspect it didn't help too much, since it's currently ranked at #450,000 on Amazon, and even MY book is beating it, sales-wise, at #430,000. But Wisdom, whatever it's now called, is good--really good, and worth a close look.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Just Outside the 20: The Salon

Yesterday, it was Powr Masters which didn't quite make the Top 20 of the 2007. Then, I changed my mind about it. But, today, I'm taking a look at a book I liked that DEFINITELY will not make my Best of 2007 list, but it's still a pretty good graphic novel. By the way, in retrospect, 2007 has been a phenomenal year for comics, once you get past all the Countdown/Amazons Attack/Event Fatigue stuff that continues to wear all of us down.

The Salon, by Nick Bertozzi

When a book like this doesn't make my Top 20, you know it's been a great year. Nick Bertozzi's graphic novel is gorgeous--his characters are distinctive, his color palette vibrantly discordant, and his brush work is bold. The setting is fascinating, as well: Early-20th century Paris, as Modernism was beginning to blossom.

What did I like? The art and setting, as I mentioned above, definitely. I also fully enjoyed the Picasso and Braque interactions and the moment when they "discovered" cubism by looking at a crumpled up sketch. Bertozzi seems to be at his best, at least in The Salon, when he's linking the history of comics with Modernism with artistic inspiration, all neatly described in a narrative. He gives us a dynamic lesson about how artists influence one another, and the social roles each artist fulfills. Bertozzi is a major talent, without a doubt.

Why didn't it make the Top 20? Bertozzi relies too heavily on magical absinthe. The supernatural conceit of the graphic novel is that the characters can imbibe a blue absinthe which allows them to physically enter any painting they desire. The conceit is not only ridiculous (would these characters really want to enter into a painting? Haven't they seen What Dreams May Come? Robin Williams is waiting to pounce!) but it is completely unnecessary to the graphic novel. It feels like Bertozzi's attempt at "jazzing it up." He didn't seem to think anyone would want to read about the early Moderns making art, discussing art, embracing art. So he had to come up with something magical to compete with the attacking Amazons on the comic shelves. The conceit runs throughout the work, and it even builds to a "suspense-laden" climax. Unfortunately, the magical absinthe sequences are the least interesting parts of the book, and its emphasis, especially near the end, pushes all the really important stuff (like the advent of Cubism and the way this group of painters changed the way we see art) to the side.

The Salon is an important work by an important artist. But its flaws keep it from being one of the Best Comics of 2007.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Just Outside the 20: Powr Masters

I don't know exactly what will make my Top 10 Comics of 2007, but I have my Top 20 hammered out, and I know the books that fell a bit short. These were things I liked a lot this year, but not quite enough to give them a spot in the elite 20. Over the next week or so, I'll be discussing these books that fell short, explaining why I liked them and why they didn't quite make the list.

Powr Masters Volume 1, by CF

Don't be fooled by the seemingly simple linework and child-like compositions. Powr Masters is an adventure story which dips into the waters of surrealism and absurdism to create something that I've never quite seen before. And that's a good thing.

What did I like? The lack of exposition. Nothing is explained, and the disorientation contributes to the dream-like quality of the narrative. Characters appear without introduction, disappear, and then return later. The plot moves forward, but toward what? We don't know. Everything is a surprise as we try to decode the signs and signals from a world with which we are unfamiliar. CF uses the tropes and archetypes of Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy adventures as his starting point, but this book has such humor and grace, and such mystery, that it avoids any of the cliches you'd find in any other Gygax-inspired tale.

One of my favorite aspects of Powr Masters is the straight-faced dialogue filled with non-sequiturs and absurdities, along with the seemingly unstoppable flow of ideas. Just when you think the story is settling into a pattern--some logical structure--something new pops up, whether it's an unseen prisoner shouting for help without much luck or a small army of robots emerging from the fertilized soil. It's the first of several(?) projected volumes, I believe, and I will certainly continue picking them up to engage in this delirious tale of who knows what.

Why didn't it make the Top 20? It's close, first of all. It would be in my Top 25. But it doesn't quite make the cut. The main reason is that it's the type of comic I could only recommend to a small subset of readers. Not everyone will "get" Powr Masters on any level. The art looks like the worst kind of amateurish on first glance, and the story doesn't "make sense." Most readers won't be able to get past that. I go back and forth on this stance, but this week I tend to think that Best Of lists should err toward widespread appeal and away from the esoteric. I might change my mind about this on other days, and scream, "No! Best Of lists should champion the new, the innovative, the bold, even when it will be despised by all but a tiny minority." And perhaps when other Powr Masters volumes premiere, I'll do exactly that, but I just don't think its quality outweighs its apparent ugliness. It's the comic book equivalent of a Guy Maddin film, and it's really not for everyone.

Edited to Add: You know, I reread Powr Masters last night, and I love it so much it might make the Top 20, hell--the Top 10--no matter what. It's really good, and I can't stop thinking about it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Will Pfeifer is Good at Stuff

Tom Spurgeon has an interesting interview with Will Pfeifer, writer of the much-maligned Amazons Attack. Honestly, Amazons is not representative of Pfeifer's work at all. His HERO was one of my favorite books before it concluded its run, and his Catwoman has been one of the best ongoing DC comics over the past couple of years. His use of a genuine emotional subtext with Catwoman's baby, and his incorporation of "classic" DC villains (like Triangle Man!) has made it a real treat. Pfeifer also does a three-minute dvd bit on the new Around Comics podcast every Monday, and the guy has excellent taste in his recommendations.

Pfeifer references my Morrison book in the interview, which is pretty cool of him, and pretty cool of Tom Spurgeon for linking to book's Amazon page. So, thanks Will and Tom!

Anyway, check out the interview--it's a good one: Spurgeon does Pfeifer.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

No Country for Old Men

The Coen brothers are in my top three holy trinity of great directors, along with Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson, both of whom also have movies released this fall. (And, yes, that would make four individuals in that trinity, but perhaps that's why it's holy.)

No Country for Old Men is one of the best films of the year.

Check out my review of the movie over at Geoff Klock's blog.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Pile O' Stuff Next to my Bed

Here's stuff I hope to read in the next week or two, but right now it's just piled next to my bed:

The Rest of Last Week's Comics. This is the stuff I haven't read from last Wednesday, which probably means I should cut these comics from my pull list. That would make sense, right? But I still buy these issues and just let them pile up--although I do read everything by the next shipment, usually. Here's some of the stuff in that pile of random, not-so-eagerly-anticipated comics: Wonder Woman #15, Captain Carrot and the Final Ark #3, Black Adam #5, Simon Dark #3, Salvation Run #2, New Warriors #6, Suicide Squad #4, JLA Classified #48, DMZ #26, and Wonder Girl #4. I do want to read all of these comics, honestly, but I'm just not in much of a hurry. I'll probably cut everything off that list except DMZ and Wonder Woman once the new year hits, though. Maybe. Here's a trivia question: which one of the above titles is the best? Which is the worst? I'll let you know.

Scott Pilgrim Gets it Together. I was so looking forward to this, I pre-ordered it from Amazon because my comic shop wouldn't get it soon enough for me. Yet, here it sits, next to the bed. I really want to read it. Maybe later today. I definitely want to read it soon, since it should be considered when I'm drawing up the inevitable Best of the Year list. I don't know if it will be good enough to make the list, but it's Scott Pilgrim! It should be considered, right?

McSweeney's #25. The last issue of McSweeney's, with the Donald Barthelme tribute, was fantastic, and I read almost the whole issue. But I rarely read even 25% of these, even though I love them as art objects and I love many of the writers involved. I just never get around to reading short fiction as much as I'd like to. When The Believer comes, I devour it, but not so much with McSweeney's. I've turned into a comics and non-fiction reader, even though I teach primarily short fiction and novels. What's up with that? Cause and effect, maybe?

Marvel Masterworks Captain Marvel, Volumes 1 and 2. I literally have 50 Masterworks, Archives, and Omnibus editions on my shelves that I haven't fully read. That is ridiculous. I need to start reading these, and I'm starting with Captain Marvel because I've never read ANY of the stories in these volumes, and I know it's not considered the pinnacle of Silver Age Marvel, but I love me some space heroes and both versions of the costume (green/white and red/yellow/blue) are super-spiffy. I often tell myself: do not buy any more hardcovers until you read at least 10 that you already own. I neglect my own advice regularly.

Jack Kirby's Fourth World Omnibus, Volume 3. I can't believe I haven't read this yet. I read the other two volumes the week they came out, but this one's still in the middle of the pile. By the way, what do you think is the best way to read this Kirby stuff? I love how the Omnibus reprints the issues in order of publication, so you can get the full-on Fourth World tapestry effect, and I want to read these books straight through, but doing so kind of fries the brain, don't you think? Maybe one story per day? Would that be better? Alternatively, I sort of want to wait for Volume Four and then read the whole series in one day and see what happens. Will I achieve transcendence, do you think?

Back Issue #25. I enjoy this magazine every couple of months, and I usually read it right away. I'll get to this soon (which probably means grabbing it from the middle of the pile). I've been contracted to write a piece for an upcoming issue, by the way, and I'll let you know more about that when it's closer to publication.

24Seven Volume 1. I know there's a new volume of this, but I still haven't read the first one. I love anthologies (see McSweeney's) but I never seem to actually read them (see also my bookshelf filled with the Brunetti-edited anthology, various volumes of Flight, and Best American Comics 2006, none of which I've read all the way through. Although I do actually read Mome every few months).

King Leopold's Ghost. This is the non-fiction account of the type of stuff Joseph Conrad wrote about in Heart of Darkness. I teach Heart of Darkness and I should really read this book, and it's sitting next to my bed, and I'm interested in it. I haven't read past page 20 and the book was given to me, by a student, two years ago.

Popgun Volume 1. Another anthology. I should probably just give up on buying these. When will I ever read it?

Best American Comics 2007. I never read last year's volume--think I'll get to this one? Actually, I've read half the stories already, when they showed up in Mome and Kramer's Ergot. But this is one of the books that I can't NOT buy, even though I might never really read it. If anything, it's going to be a fascinating historical document some day. THIS is what was considered the BEST in 2007? (Not that I disagree with the choices, but, in retrospect, all Best Of collections seem wrong--for examples, see any Best Of lists or Award-nominated books or movies from the early 20th century.)

Comic Art #9. I love this magazine. It's the best magazine about comics that I've ever read. Yet, I've skipped around and read all the parts I'm interested in, and although I want to read the rest, I just haven't. That's why it's still on the pile, though. I'll get to it eventually. Or not.

What's on your to-read-soon pile?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Five Question Friday

In which I ask five questions I've been pondering since Wednesday, and then provide the answers:

Dear Myself, why wasn't Nova #9 very good?

Simple. Abnett and Lanning came up with a great concept for this new story arc (which began in issue #8)--a strange alien/superhero colony on the other side of the universe, living inside the skull of a Celestial, or something like that. Cool stuff. The "lost in space with weirdos" thing was a bit similar to Abnett and Lanning's Legion Lost series, but still good for another drive around the block. But Dan and Andy must have realized, "hey, wait--we are writing a ginormous EVENT book called Annihilation Part 2, and we're also writing this space superhero book called Nova. We know that Nova was just part of the crossover, but, seriously, we can't NOT have him involved, so let's get him back to the Annihilation action. Now!" Such thinking destroyed any sort of story they were going to tell inside Celestialheadland, but it's kind of like Shakespeare getting to the part in Hamlet where he realized that he couldn't really send the prince of Denmark all the way to England, so he threw in that whole unlikely off-stage pirate action. It's all the same. Onward to Annihilation. Unfortunately, both Act IV of Hamlet and Nova #9 paid the price.

Dear Myself, have you ever seen such disparity between art and story as you see in Green Arrow and Black Canary #3?

No. Cliff Chiang is one amazing comic book artist. I'm sure he's been around for even longer, but I first recall being impressed with him when he was doing the Josie Mac (was that her name?) back-up stories in Detective Comics. I thought to myself, "here's the heir to David Mazzucchelli" (this was before Michael Lark tried to reinvent himself as Mazz junior). "I like this Chiang fellow," I thought. And then he got BETTER. Dr. Thirteen was genius. Now, he's putting his sleek style in the service of a story that...well, let's be honest here--This Arrow/Canary series has been a turd in a teacup. To emphasize the point, Judd Winick writes a chamber pot scene. You know what doesn't mesh with pretty artwork? Scatology.

Dear Myself, is it possible that this whole "Resurrection of Ra's al Ghul" Bat-Crossover will turn out to be worthwhile.

I'm afraid not, gentle questioner. It didn't start that strongly, and although Grant Morrison's one installment was the worst Batman story he's written, it's better than the other chapters, sadly. Take the writing in the most recent chapter, from Nightwing #139: Fabian Nicieza has never been known for his mastery of prose, but he's been a serviceable comic book writer for two decades. Yet, in Nightwing #139 he has the title character narrate in a pastiche of an old, tired cliche: "[blah blah blah]: Easy. / [blah blah blah]: Costly / Having to fight the brother I came to rescue: Priceless." Yes, Fabian, we've seen those commercials for the past seven years. Way to write! But Fabian's not done, for on that very same page, in the very next line of dialogue, Nightwing says, "So, Robin... / ...You think maybe we can hug this out?" Well-played, Mr. Nicieza! A pop-culture reference immediately after another pop-culture reference. Spoken by the relatively monastic Dick Grayson, no less. Poorly written comics don't make for great Ra's al Ghul resurrection stories.

Dear Myself, don't babies need their heads supported when you're holding them?

Not in the "Messiah CompleX"! In X-Factor #26, among other installments, Cable is running around, literally, with the new messiah mutant baby in a little Baby Bjorn carrier. The baby is not facing toward Cable's chest, with his neck supported by the carrier. No, he's facing out, his head bopping to and fro while Cable leaps and flips and dodges lasers and kicks people. Now, I understand that mutants aren't real and Cable's not real and the Marvel Universe doesn't follow the laws of physics, but even in a fake-mutant-civil-war-Cable-world-where-people-have-robot-arms I would hope that they would know how to properly use a Baby Bjorn. Unless that mutant baby's mutant power is a superhumanly strong baby neck. Which is as stupid as it is possible.

Dear Myself, you are grumpy this week. Didn't you read any comics that made you happy?

I did, actually! I read the new issue of Scalped, and I liked Punisher War Journal (which is MUCH, MUCH better now that Ariel Olivetti has moved on to inflict his bad video game poster art elsewhere). I also liked Green Lantern #25 quite a bit. You should all read it--hell, read the whole Sinestro Corps thing. It lagged for a handful of issues in the middle, but the finale and the teaser for 2009(!) more than make up for it. By the way, the Corps of Many Colors is a great idea--and a logical extension of what Geoff Johns has been working towards, but indigo is not really a color of the spectrum. A rainbow is actually just Roy G Bv, no "i." Color scientists classify indigo as violet. Look it up on Wikipedia. It must be true. Either way Green Lantern #25 is awesome. It makes me not grumpy at all.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Justice League Unlimited vs. Aesthetic Criteria

One of the titles I buy each month for my son is Justice League Unlimited. (If you're curious, the others are Marvel Adventures Avengers, Marvel Adventures Iron Man, Teen Titans Go!, and his favorite: Sonic the Hedgehog--along with whatever Power Pack series is currently running.) I read these to him at bedtime, so the measure of quality for these books differs from what I'd want from comics that were just for me. Although sometimes the two standards overlap, as in the case of several All-Star Superman issues, and Blue Beetle, which we both enjoy tremendously.

The normal standard of quality for a read-at-bedtime comic are...

1. Clear artwork (and my son has definite standards on this--when artists on Teen Titans Go! are off-model, he refuses to look at the issue--and the Marvel Adventures comics often have coloring that is too-murky and difficult to decipher for a little kid)

2. Swiftly moving plot completed in a single issue. Cliffhangers are extremely disappointing at bedtime.

3. Dialogue that's funny or minimal at least. Marvel Adventures Iron Man completely fails in this department, and I'll probably stop picking it up because of it. Each issue has too much exposition, and too much technical jargon in proportion to the amount of plot. Teen Titans Go!, on the other hand, is really good at funny and appropriately spare dialogue. Sonic the Hedgehog is almost impossible to read out loud, the dialogue is so stilted and archly formal. Yet, he still says he likes it, but I think he's losing interest in that one too.

4. Familiar characters mixed with new faces I can explain to him. He likes learning about the Marvel Universe and the DCU, and these comics are his gateway when writers bring in supporting characters or "new" villains--new to him, or new to the youth comics, anyway.

5. Morality. This is a big one for bedtime reading, and I don't expect moral lessons in my "big-boy" reading. Yet, these Johnny DC and Marvel Adventures books (more in the DC stuff than the Marvel, BY FAR) have moral lessons to teach kids, and I appreciate it. It allows for some interesting discussions after the stories, instead of just talking about Spider-Man's jokes that he doesn't get or how cool Iron Man's steath armor looks.

Anyway, by these five standards of quality, Justice League Unlimited #40 succeeds, even though it's not what I would call a good comic. I have loved many issues of the series, with the summer's Question spotlight issue as an excellent example, but this particular comic, written by Ben McCool and drawn by Dario Brizuela, doesn't quite cut it for me. My son liked it, though, because it met all five criteria of good bedtime reading for a six-year old. The story, a Zatanna spotlight, basically, is cleanly illustrated, fast-moving, straightforward, moral, and contains more than a few "new" DC characters my son hasn't seen in a comic before: Golden Age Green Lantern, the Shadow Thief, and the Warlock of Ys to name three. Plus, we got to learn more about Zatanna's family history, and since my son's only exposure to the character was from the Justice League Heroes Playstation game and her few animated appearances, he didn't know that Zatanna's father had magical powers as well. (By the way, Zatanna is the most powerful character in that Playstation game--or at least the most fun--since she can turn all of the threats into cute little bunnies you can kick.)

But the story was a mess. The Shadow Thief was granted new powers by the Warlock of Ys (for no apparent reason--to distract the heroes, I guess--but why the Shadow Thief of all villains?), and Zatara, who hasn't been seen by his daughter in years (she tells us) appears as a captive of the Warlock (why? Because the Warlock wants to combine Zatara's power with Zatanna's. Why? It will somehow help him. Or something like that.) It's an illogical plot that turns on too many coincidences and underdeveloped threads, and even the resolution is fuzzy with Zatara springing off to some mystical dimension because it's too dangerous for him to stick around near his daughter. It's just not a story that fits with previous JLU issues, nor does it really make complete sense on its own (or as some kind of foreshadowing set-up--which it probably won't turn out to be anyway). And it's not zany in a Silver Age kind of way, either. Or, at least it doesn't feel as whimsical and inspired in its lunacy. It just feels pieced together and nonsensical.

So I guess what I'm wondering is if story quality matters in a comic like this. It does the five things my son wants it to do. It interests him in the characters and the superhero universe. At what point does inconsistent, underdeveloped storytelling matter? Do we expect a fully developed, logical narrative in Harold and the Purple Crayon or If You Give a Mouse a Cookie? I think we do, even if the storytelling is just fulfilling a simple pattern.

What say you?

Friday, December 07, 2007

Everything New is Old Again and Other Marvels

You might not have picked up The Twelve #0 or Omega the Unknown #3 this week. You're probably busy trying to follow the complex sophistication of the Countdown crossovers, the sensational return of The Ultimates, or the naked ladies in the most recent issue of Heavy Metal. Or, like most intelligent comic readers, you're probably just waiting for the fancy hardcover editions. But I just want to point out to you how weird and exciting these two issues were. You're missing out, honestly, and I know you don't want to do that. You HATE missing out.

I can understand why you'd pass up J.M. Straczynski and Chris Weston's The Twelve #0. Who would pay $3 for a few completely obscure Golden Age reprints plus a brief preview of the upcoming 12-issue series? I would, and it was worth it. Sure, the "preview" was just two out-of-context pages from issue #1, and the "extras" were just the same old character designs you can find for free on Chris Weston's blog, but those three glorious reprints, and everything they imply, more than make up for the weak bonus features.

One reprint features "Rockman," an underground emperor of a sort who also has really cool drilling vehicles and the ability to smash through walls with his head. Oh, he's also obsessed with protecting America from foreign threats, even though he's not, in any way, American (or human). Lucky us! It's an imaginative tale with artwork by the great Basil Wolverton. Wolverton's Spacehawk was one of the few reprint series I bought decades ago, and he is one of the not-so-secret-missing links between Golden Age weirdness and Mad Magazine.

The other great reprint in The Twelve #0 is the Laughing Mask, who devilishly creeps around and frightens gangsters by shooting at them. The reprint features a genius scene in which the Laughing Mask drops a glowing mask from the ceiling of a villain's lair, then, while it is falling, he runs down the fire escape, punches hole in the window, reaches in and turns off the light switch, ALL BEFORE THE MASK HITS THE GROUND. What skill. What elegance.

The collection of reprints sells the upcoming series more effectively than the Weston art preview (although Weston is a fantastic artist, surely), because these characters are absolute maniacs. Unlike other Golden Age Marvel characters we're more familiar with, these are the ones that never caught on--they were too odd, too brutal, too sociopathic, with their laughing masks and their wall-smashing head-butts. I have never been a Straczynski fan, but all signs point to The Twelve being one of the best comics of 2008. Check it out.

You're probably also waiting for the collected edition of Omega the Unknown, especially after that strange first issue, which was almost a beat-by-beat retelling of the Steve Gerber first issue from 1976. But this new incarnation of Omega has veered off in a different direction while still maintaining the off-beat quality of the original and establishing the same themes of displacement and alienation. The school scenes here, in issue #3, as written by Jonathan Lethem, are certainly more "realistic" than Gerber's, but they are still overly simplistic, showing the intellectually-bankrupt public education system run by thugs and drones.

The real draw in this series, though, is the Farel Dalrymple artwork, which violates almost every rule of Mighty Marvel Storytelling. Therefore, it is brilliant. It's unlike anything else on your mainstream superhero shelf, and yet it's a mainstream superhero book. Dalrymple crosses word balloon tails, uses a static camera again and again, lacks dynamic anatomy, and is all-around gorgeous and strange and ugly and beautiful. Omega the Unknown has a chance to be a major work of graphic fiction, believe it or not.

Both The Twelve and Omega the Unknown rely on retellings of past stories with a postmodern twist. I know it's nothing new. But, then again, everything I've loved in the comic medium has been the same type of thing. And that's okay with me.

At least it's not more attacking Amazons.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Quick Comic Reviews: Week of 11/28/07

I haven't done a quick review post in quite a while, and I've been reading a ton of stuff each week (to balance out my lack of moviegoing, apparently), so I'm overdue. Here goes, in no particular order...

Ultimate Spider-Man #116: I'm getting used to Immonen's new Shadowcat costume, and, honestly, Immonen is about 10 steps up from Bagley in the artistic-quality department. Bendis does his thing, and it's good. This comic is the best Spider-Man title out there, and I know that's not saying much right now, but it's pretty much everything Spider-Man should be.

Batman and the Outsiders #2: I can count on zero hands how many Chuck Dixon comics I've actually enjoyed (although, he was involved in the Batgirl: Year One series, wasn't he? That was good stuff), and I'm not all that impressed with this title, either. Conceptually, I like Batman leading this kind of dirty-jobs type of team, but this issue felt like a way for Dixon to clear the deck and abandon the Five of a Kind team that was handed to him. That's not necessarily his fault, but it doesn't make for good reading.

All-Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder #8: I still don't know what the point of all of this is, but I have to admit that I put this issue on the very top of the pile when I came home from the comics shop. I can't wait to see what Miller and Lee try to pull off each month or three. I like Miller's take on the Joker, even if it just sort of appears out of nowhere eight issues into this series. And I like the Green Lantern appearance, even as a fan of the character--he is kind of a goof. How does any of this add up to an actual story? 8 issues in, it doesn't. But it's certainly not dull.

Black Panther #32: Remember when Hudlin abandoned his own revamp of continuity and reconnected to the Marvel Universe through a global road trip of wife-seekery? Then the married couple traveled around diplomatically during Civil War? Then Black Panther and Storm joined the Fantastic Four and hopped around the universe with them? Doesn't the Black Panther ever stay in one place for more than a month? Apparently not, as he jumps to some Skrull-mockery of an Al Capone world from some previous FF story that I probably read years ago. The best thing about this book is Francis Portella's art. Next issue: Gladiatorial Combat! We've seen it before, frankly.

Casanova #11: There are good monthly comics, like Ultimate Spider-Man, and then there are comics like Casanova. Fraction and Moon's work will stand, decades from now, as an example of how to do great comics. Why? Each issue moves forward, swiftly. Each issue is full of insanity, allusions, and humor (like All-Star Batman and Robin) but with a coherent plot structure both within each issue and within the overall story arc (unlike All-Star Batman and Robin). Casanova is even better than you think it is.

Crime Bible: Five Lessons of Blood #2: I'm usually more interested in the contents of a book than the way it's marketed, but doesn't the name The Question have any kind of cache? It does in my house. Yet, no mention of the character anywhere in the title or caption. And the cover art is so stylized, a reader could be forgiven for interpreting the blank face on the cover as a visual metaphor. Seems a bit unnecessarily abstruse for a straightforward superhero detective story. The contents do little to rise above what might be expected.

Lord Havok and the Extremists #2: This, on the other hand, is better than you might expect. I expected absolutely nothing from this series, and it's decent. It's fun to see the Marvel analogues twisted into a mockery of a post-Civil War malaise, and this particular issue delves into the fractured psyche of the Doc Ock analogue, Gorgon, in a story that unfortunately ends with bathos. The ending is ridiculous, both in pacing and content (as Gorgon learns the "truth" about his life in a series of expository panels), but I was enjoying the comic quite a bit until those final pages. I do like the final image of the comic, with Lord Hovok (aka Dr. Doom) giving the symbolic metal finger to Monarch.

Teen Titans #53: McKeever has quickly righted this particular ship. I love the direction of this arc, and if the trend toward maximalism has become a bit played out (Justice League UNLIMITED, Injustice SOCIETY, and here: Titan ARMY), at least it's amazingly, freakin' awesome. I'll take awesome over dullness any day, and that's what McKeever brings. Eddy Barrows art looks sharper here than it did on Countdown to Adventure, and any comic which has Blue Beetle facing down an overwhelming horde of evil Starro-infected Titans is worth the cover charge.

Superman/Batman #43: Mike McKone has become one of the best superhero artists of the decade, and this issue showcases his work nicely. Unfortunately, the story is nothing special, although it's a step above the previous arc, which felt like a quickly burned off inventory story (DC clearly doesn't want Fourth World stuff sitting around once the Death of the New Gods ends--hence we get overloaded with stories about the New Gods like we saw in this series and Superman Confidential). A pretty comic, though.

Green Lantern Corps #18: This whole Sinestro Corps thing has gone on too long, honestly. And I don't like how DC justifies it by saying things (I'm paraphrasing), like "we didn't expect it to be such a hit, so we allowed the creators more time to tell the story," instead of honestly saying, "we're milking it." The expansion of the story has killed its momentum, and since we know how it ends, basically, because of Kyle Rayner and Superman-Prime's appearances in Countdown it all seems kind of silly at this point. Yet, and issue where an Ion-powered Daxamite throws down with a Kryptonian can't be all bad. Too bad the story has been deflated by external DC events.

Superman Annual #13: I really could not care less about this "Camelot Falls" arc. What a waste of talent.

Batman #671: This was my least-favorite Morrison issue of Batman thus far. It seems like exactly what it is, a Bat-family crossover arc that hits all of its marks, but has none of the inspiration of Morrison's usual work. It's a solid issue, but nothing more.

Madman Atomic Comics #5: Mike Allred is one of my top five favorite comic book artists ever. Okay, maybe not top five, but he's definitely in the top seven. And, as I blogged about last summer, his metaphysical, quasi-religious exploration continues in the Madman universe. This issue features the Atomics, zombie-beatniks-turned-fashionable-superheroes, and it looks amazing. The pacing has picked up now that Frank Einstein has returned from his metafictional space jaunt, and I have nothing bad to say about this comic. It is what it is, and what it is is very, very good. (That was not the best sentence I've ever constructed, I know.)

Blue Beetle #21: This has been an excellent monthly series for DC. Like Ultimate Spider-Man, it mixes humor with adolescent drama and a young man trying to figure out how to be a hero. Both comics have interesting supporting casts, tight dialogue, and dynamic artwork. Unlike Ultimate Spider-Man, however, this series doesn't rely on decades of past stories for its foundation. Blue Beetle exists in relation to its past incarnations, but it doesn't retread old ground--it moves the Beetle legacy forward, and it does so with style. This issue, a fill-in, maintains the quality of the series admirably, as Jaime Reyes confronts issues of justice and vengeance in the form of the Spectre. It's the type of comic I can read aloud to my son (and I do), and enjoy fully as an adult as well. Blue Beetle won't break any artistic ground, but it is an excellent superhero comic.

Daredevil #102: Brubaker is hitting his stride on this title now, and with the appearances of the Enforcers, the Wrecker, and Razor Fist, I really couldn't be happier with this issue. Daredevil has become one of Marvel's most tortured heroes, and as much as I like to see him struggle in his own web of lies and hubris, I like to see him kicking supervillains in the face. Brubaker balances both nicely.

Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #36: Tony Bedard was clearly brought in to set the table for Jim Shooter. Bring back the superheroics: Check. Get rid of Supergirl: Check. Keep it dramatic but less political: Check. Introduce Wildfire: Check (although Shooter apparently dislikes the character--so was that something Bedard did just to screw with him?). Anyway, I think this Legion Threeboot has been a reasonably interesting take on the team--Waid and Kitson's run read much better as a single story, and Bedard and Calero have illuminated new corners in the Threeboot universe. I would have been perfectly happy to see where Bedard and Calero would have taken this series over the next years, but after seeing Manipul's designs and covers for Shooter's upcoming run, I'm actually excited to see what will happen next. Shooter's Legion might be a failure--last time he came back to write the series, he was the epitome of blandness--but maybe he's hungry, maybe he's going to shock us all. I'm looking forward to issue #37, I don't know about you.

Friday, November 30, 2007

At the Movies

My wife and I used to see EVERY movie that came to our local multiplex. We didn't have kids yet, we took graduate courses to become certified teachers, we worked at the mall at night, and after work, we'd go see something that was playing at Hoyts Cinema. Whatever was playing. The "good stuff" first, obviously, but since we took turns choosing, it was definitely a range of genres (and quality). By Wednesdays and Thursdays we were stuck with stuff about secret agent dogs and movies starring Brendan Fraser. Yet we sat through it all. And sometimes, when she worked late (at the Cinema, which is how we got in for free to see all these movies), I'd go see something by myself, waiting for her to finish her shift. (I've only walked out of two movies in my life, by the way--and both were atrocities I tried sitting through while waiting for my wife to get out of work: Mad Love and Destiny Turns on the Radio.)

Now, I get to the movies about once a month, and it's stuff like Bee Movie and Enchanted, but as much as I miss seeing the "important" films on opening weekend, I don't really mind watching stuff at home a few months later. I don't miss the idiodic crowds with their cellphones that they have to check every ten minutes, or, in one case, a lady who literally brought a book to read during a movie--and sat there reading it with a had-lamp shining brightly on the pages. I don't miss those people at all.

But, even though I did manage to sneak out and see No Country for Old Men (which I'll be reviewing for Dr. Klock's blog next week), I feel like I haven't really seen all that much this year, even on dvd.

Out of the "important" movies from 2007, which, I guess, includes: American Gangster, Before the Devil Knows You're Dead, No Country for Old Men, Michael Clayton, Gone Baby Gone, Sicko, Ratatouille, Zodiac, Superbad, Knocked Up, Spider-Man 3, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, The Darjeerling Limited, and who knows what else, I've only seen four. I feel out of the loop.

Yet I could speak extensively about Shrek 3. But I won't. Because it wasn't very interesting.

There's still hope for me, though. Paul Thomas Anderson's There Will be Blood is coming out soon. I'll be there opening weekend. Count on it.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Enchanted Review

Not only am I back to blogging, but my blogging can't be constrained by the walls of GeniusboyFiremelon. I've written a review of Enchanted for Geoff Klock's blog. Check it out HERE!

Monday, November 26, 2007

Fenimore Cooper in ACTION

One of the slides I show in my "History of American Comics" lecture (which begins, by the way, with Richard Outcault and ends with Darwyn Cooke) is this cover and interior page from Action Comics #8 (January 1939).
I like the juxtaposition of these two images, because you can clearly see the contrast between the illustrative work of cover artist Fred Guardineer (who was, by the way, the creator of Zatara the magician) and the stiff but blunt penwork of Joe Shuster.  If you enlarge the image by clicking on it, you'll see more interesting details, like the tiny panel numbers, indicating the comic strip origin of Superman.  The first Superman story was a cut-up and rearranged comic strip that failed to find a syndicate, and Joe Shuster continued to number the individual panels even after Superman found a home in comic book form.
You'll also see the brutal thugishness of the Golden Age Superman as he literally throws some character named Gimpy out of town.
But the most striking detail is the complete absence of Superman's name from the cover of the issue.  No image of the character, no "Thrilling Superman Tale Inside!" cover blurb, nothing to indicate that the "Action" indicated by the title is anything other than some James Fenimore Cooper frontier combat.  Weird, huh?  We always think of Superman being popular from his very first appearance, but DC didn't necessarily know what it had during those first couple of years.
Plus, it makes me think about all the frontier action we're missing in comics these days.  Sure, we have Roy Thomas's adaptation of The Last of the Mohicans at Marvel, but once the current Viking fad plays out, can't you see the rise of the Leatherstocking genre?  It's been a long wait for those of us who fondly remember Action Comics #8.

Responding to Marc

I want to thank Marc Caputo for being the first to comment on my return to blogging, and to honor him, I want to comment on his comic book observations in a dedicated blog post. Plus, nobody reads the comments anyway, as Geoff Klock has taught us. So here's what Marc said,

"Thor has continued to amuse and amaze - I've never been a JMS fan, but I'm getting to be.

Booster Gold is up there with All-Star Superman and Green Lantern as DC's best book and that puts BG in the lead for best new series. Johns has definitely hit a hew stride.

The X-books are pretty damn good leading up to Messiah Complex.

But, for me, the best thing about the last two months is the fact that a) the Superman books are back on track, b) there's been a new book every week in some way and c) the Legion arc in Action is shaping up quite well."

That's all well and good, Marc, for you to have opinions, but here's what I think:

Thor has been surprisingly good, although the ONLY thing that saved the most recent issue (#4 was it?) from the trash bin of cliche "perils of war" stories was the appearance of the Warriors Three. Which means that the issue wasn't actually any good, but it seemed good because, hey, the Warriors Three! Cool! But I have enjoyed Coipel's work immensely, and it's probably the least bad JMS I've read, which is a terribly backhanded semi-compliment, but there you are. JMS is the guy who turned the Squadron Supreme into a mopey snooze-fest about, ultimately, nothing. So, yeah, I'm not a big fan of his "approach" to superheroics. His Thor does give me a bit of hope, though, but, like all his work, it will probably be well set-up (and by "well," I mean laboriously slow) and then just kind of sit there. In other words, I hope the Warriors Three get to mess some shit up. And when Sif returns, watch out!

I'd rank Blue Beetle ahead of both Booster Gold and Green Lantern, personally, though I've been a Geoff Johns supporter since forever. You won't hear me trash the man--he does good superhero work. He's accused of continuity porn like it's a bad thing. Who doesn't like porn? So yeah, I do like this new version of Booster Gold quite a bit, even if Dan Jurgens reminds me of nothing more than early 90s mediocrity. Still, he tells a solid story, and I can't fault him for that. Although, how awesome is Ivan Reis on Green Lantern? Answer: the awesomest.

I really love Blue Beetle though. And I hated the first handful of issues. I'm glad I stuck with it.

The X-books, on the other hand, have just been pissing me off. If you look at my comic collection, and I suggest you don't, because that would be silly, you'd see my love/hate relationship with the X-Men titles over the years. I own chunks of the comics, usually with a couple of years missing in between. I was around for the end of Byrne and some of the Paul Smith issues, I bought it faithfully though Romita Jr, dropped it during Silvestri, picked it up for Lee, dropped it after that, have some later Romita Jr. issues, dropped it until Morrison/Quitely, ashamedly bought some recent Claremont just for the Davis art and then dropped it before Brubaker and Carey joined the party. And I hated the Peter David X-Factor relaunch. But I have been reading all the Brubaker/Carey stuff, and if you listened to the podcast you'd know that I've bought all of the crappy-Beast-wandering-around-sad-because-of-no-Mutants-crossover/non-crossover story which led up to Messiah Complex. I like a lot of things about the X-Men, but I really dislike anything with the Morlocks or the Reavers or anything Mr. Sinister-related, so I can't imagine that the Messiah Complex is for me. Yet, I didn't hate the most recent, New X-Men issue, even though I don't really know what that team's all about, and I'm going to keep buying it. We'll see if I can learn to love the X-Men again.

Speaking of love, I do love the Legion arc in Action Comics. Is it because of the continuity porn again? I don't care. It might be a shallow love, but it is strong, my friend. Very strong. And I'm eagerly awaiting each installment, which is pretty much what you want in a comic book.

By the way, I kind of like Simon Dark. I'm surprised by that as much as you are.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Back with a Vengeance!

I'm nearly done editing the Teenagers from the Future book, and I've been reading comics like crazy. I've even had a chance to catch a movie or two. Plus, I lectured at the Norman Rockwell Museum two weeks ago, and I want to tell you about that. Lots of stuff to talk about, pop culture-wise.

So, I'm back! I'll be posting AT LEAST twice a week, and I want to read your comments.

To get warmed up, let me ask you--what have you read or seen recently that was really great?

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Podcast Episodes Back Up

We lost all five Geniusboy Live On Demand Radio episodes when the site went down a few weeks ago. I uploaded everything back to their server today, and all five episodes are downloadable once again.



Sunday, October 28, 2007

On Hiatus

Hey! I'm taking a few weeks off to get some stuff done. I'll be back after Thanksgiving, though, so don't worry.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Format Wars: Whither Comic Books?

Since my local shop didn't get this week's comics yet, except for the final issue of Aquaman, of all things (which I bought, and I have to say that even though I haven't been reading it regularly, I enjoyed Tad Williams and Shawn McManus's take on the character a lot more than the humorless Busiek/Guice version), I can't talk about new comics much. So, instead I'll discuss which comic book format will thrive in the future marketplace: the floppy, the trade paperback, the hardcover, or the webcomic. Actually, I'll let those formats sort themselves out--I'm impartial myself:

Webcomic: I'll start, I guess since no one else seems to be...

Floppy: No. I'll start. I've been around a lot longer, so...

Hardcover: Wait. But you suck.

Trade Paperback: Yeah. Heh heh. You do suck.

Webcomic: They're right, dude.

Floppy: I know. (pause) But everyone used to love me so much. I once sold millions of copies of myself and wallpapered John Leguizamo's bathroom. What happened? Where did I go wrong?

Hardcover: Maybe it was all those "Tabacco is Whacko!" advertisements. Those really pissed me off, I don't know about you guys.

Trade Paperback: Yeah. Heh heh.

Webcomic: Or maybe it was because I didn't exist yet. Kind of makes it easier to compete with me. My not existing at all. By the way, have you read Perry Bible Fellowship. I am so awesome.

Floppy: What about all those years when I was coming out with great stuff like Daredevil or Watchmen or that Straczynski Strange series? Don't those count for anything?

Hardcover: Did you actually read that Strange comic?

Floppy: Yeah! It was the reimagining of Dr. Strange from the mind that brought us the reimagining of Squadron Supreme and wrote that Deep Space Nine show... Okay, you're right, I didn't read it. I was waiting for the trade.

Trade Paperback: Heh heh.

Webcomic: I'm not sure if I was clear earlier. I am awesome. Did you get that part?

Hardcover: You know what I used to like, Floppy? I used to like when your stories were so good that they made me want to come back for more--I couldn't wait to get the next issue.

Floppy:I still feel that way. I can still do that. Have you been reading Wonder Woman? Readers couldn't wait for the end of that first storyline!

Webcomic: Act-I-Vate. What is that? It's not even a word. What's with the hyphens? Beats me, but it's so freakin' Awesome!

Hardcover: That Wonder Woman story probably was good, but just like everyone else, I'm waiting for the trade.

Webcomic: I like Omnibus Editions! You should do PvP as an Omnibus. It would be so Awesome.

Trade Paperback: Sometimes I hold my breath for a really long time and imagine that I am a really, really fat Floppy.

Webcomic: Dean Trippe? Is that guy for real? Butterfly! That cracks me up.

And with that, Floppy sulked away quietly, Hardcover browsed through my bookshelves, Trade Paperback held his breath for an hour, and Webcomic went on Pirate Bay to try to find the newest Iron Fist issue. We may never resolve this eternal debate, but I think we all learned a little bit about ourselves today.

Monday, October 15, 2007

John Byrne Says Things Aren't What They Seem: Fantastic Four Visionaries Volume Two

I picked up a stack of John Byrne FF comics in trade paperback form. Byrne's work from this era is pretty fascinating. I started looking at the books on Thursday and I continue below:

In Fantastic Four #241-250, John Byrne begins to move away from the Lee/Kirby pastiche of his first half-dozen FF stories as his own ideology presents itself more strongly. The shift is not sudden, or overwhelming, but with the second Visionaries volume, Byrne's own attutudes about art, narrative, and society emerge more tangibly within the stories. He maintains the Silver Age-style trappings of pseudo-science, imaginative plots, and swift pacing, but beneath that (quite entertaining) surface, Byrne turns conventions on their heads and lets the readers know that EVERYTHING THEY KNOW IS WRONG, sort of.

Throughout the ten stories in this volume, Byrne returns again and again to the motif of illusion. Appearances are not only deceiving, but they are often artificially (or supernaturally) generated--sensory-defying holograms, or dreamscapes, or shape-shifted aliens. The sequence of illusions would presumably teach the Fantastic Four, and the reader, not to trust appearances, although the stories would lack conflict if the FF didn't fall for such optical deceptions, at least at first.

Another emergent pattern is Byrne's emphasis on the Fantastic Four as problem solvers rather than fighters. The denoument of each story often arrives not because of physical force but in spite of it. The FF don't use their powers to overwhelm opponents and beat their enemies into submission, but rather use their powers to escape and contain danger until they can find a way to defeat the villain intellectually.

In issue #241, as the male FF members are turned into virtual gladiators for the pleasure of alien/Roman Gaius Tiberius, Sue Storm saves them all by deducing that Tiberius's powers derive from his golden helmet--and by removing his helmet, he will become powerless against the team. The removal of the helm has unexpected circumstances, as she finds that the armor itself has sustained the consciousness of the being, and with its integrity destroyed, the illusory nature of the entire city falls apart. The story balances the Silver Age elements (alien Romans, gladiatorial battles, woman-in-distress) along with the illusion and problem-solving motifs and Byrne's attempt at showing progressive gender roles as the "woman-in-distress" herself, Sue Storm, saves the day with her intellect.

The potential danger of emphasizing the reasoning and problem-solving of the FF instead of the team's powers is that the comic could seem "boring" to some readers if such a pattern were to continue. Byrne, one of the best superhero artists who has ever put pencil to paper, is especially talented at showing the four-color glory of superhero slugfests, and yet he writes this series at times as if he'd rather draw guys in costume standing around discussing philosophical issues. But within each story, he's careful to include plenty of action to make sure that readers know that they are, in fact, reading an American comic book story. The action may not always come where readers have been conditioned to expect; tradition, until the recent trend of decompression, led to stories paced in this way: anticipation-action-pursuit-climactic action-resolution, but Byrne paces his stories like this: anticipation-action-problem solving-resolution. Yet Byrne's narrative model allows him not only to explore the illusory nature of reality (as character uncover the truth or get to the bottom of the deception), but also allows him to deal with the consequences of heroic action, a concern best shown in Fantastic Four #244.

In issue #244, Reed and company save the life of Galactus (after defeating him the issue before). The issue is almost entirely conversation, and although the characters may pose dramatically in the MIGHTY MARVEL STYLE (emphasis mine), the story is about compassion (for Galactus) and loss (of Frankie Ray, Johnny's love who becomes the herald called Nova). There's no slugfests in sight, and the act of saving Galactus have long-term consequences for the FF and the galaxy.

In many ways, Byrne's Fantastic Four seems to fulfill the promise of early Marvel. The combination of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby emphasized both character and action (in theory), but Lee's attempt at character was more akin to caricature, and Kirby's sense of character (as seen in unadulterated form in his 1970s work) was based more on archetypes than individuals. What Byrne does, at least in the stories reprinted in these first two Visionaries volumes, is juggle large-scale plots--Galactus coming to Earth, Dr. Doom's attempt to reclaim his kingdom--with character moments that actually work. Byrne's Johnny Storm struggles with the loss of Frankie Ray, Byrne's Susan Storm finds contentment in her role within the family but slowly develops a more forceful presence on the team, Byrne's Ben Grimm subconsciously fears turning human but loathes being the Thing, and Byrne's Reed Richards is confident but his confidence borders on hubris. Byrne's FF is not a dysfunctional family--it's a functional family struggling with overwhelming odds from within and without. Surrounded by things which are not always what they seem.

As a final note, I'd just like to point out that, as if to contradict any assumptions I've made about Byrne's direction with the series, this volume ends with a two-issue story which is almost 40 pages of one, long fight scene, as the Shi'ar Guardsman known as Gladiator comes to Earth in pursuit of some Skrulls and ends up facing the FF, Avengers, and anybody else Byrne felt like drawing that month. Gladiator, of course, is one of the Marvel analogues of DC's Superman. And in this two-part story, Byrne establishes some of the pseudo-scientific reasoning he'll end up using when he takes over the Superman title years later. He establishes that Gladiator's powers must be telekinetic in nature, since there's no way he can pick up a building by its corner and not have it fall apart under its own weight. Such an approach shows that perhaps Byrne sees himself as an intellectual problem-solver, making sense out of the illusions of the world which would seem to ask us to believe, honestly believe, that a man could pick up a building by a corner!

Luckily, Byrne and the FF are around to dismiss such illogical deceptions. It's all an illusion, or telekinesis.

I mean, how else can you possibly explain something so silly? Geez.

Mental powers. That makes sense.

I'll continue looking at John Byrne FF trade paperbacks every Monday until they run out (Byrne FF trades, not Mondays). On Thursday, I want to talk about NEW COMICS.

Friday, October 12, 2007

In Living Benday--Fantastic Four Visionaries Volume 1

Unexpected delays prevented me from posting yesterday, but in keeping with my promised Geek Assignment, here are my initial thoughts on John Byrne's first nine Fantastic Four stories, as reprinted in Visionaries Volume One:

With Fantastic Four # 232, John Byrne plants his flag as the heir to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. I'm not overly familiar with the post-Kirby, pre-Byrne Fantastic Four, but I have read a handful of the Roy Thomas and Marv Wolfman issues, and other than a few Heralds-of-Galactus-related plot points (Terrax the Tamer, mostly), it doesn't seem like Byrne is very much interested in anything that followed Kirby's exit from the series over one hundred issues earlier.

Byrne launches his long, continuous run with a straightforward superhero smash-em-up, as the FF confront the maniacal alchemist known as Diablo. Actually, they don't so much confront him as defeat his elemental minions through the old superhero switcheroo (with the heroes swapping enemies to more effectively defeat each one--an old trick from Gardner Fox era Justice League comics). It's only at the end of the issue that they capture Diablo, with the deus ex magica help of a suprise guest--Dr. Strange! He shows up out of nowhere to track down Diablo and give the story closure.

With the elemental minions facing the team, Fantastic Four #232 draws attention to the idea that the Fantastic Four members are, themselves, based on the four ancient elements. I seem to recall Stan Lee mentioning somewhere or another (readers, any clue where I may have read this?) that he had the notion of the four elements in mind when creating the FF (not that surprising--he's probably on record somewhere claiming credit for inventing earth, air, fire, and water as well), but I'm not convinced that it was part of the original concept. Sue's initial powers weren't so much air-related as, well, straight invisibility (wouldn't an air-concept hero be able to fly?) and the Thing didn't start out as the loveable pile of rocks we know so well--he was more a pile of hardened dough. So even though the concept of a "family" probably drove Lee and Kirby's initial concept more than the idea of "elementals" did, the characters eventually developed in such a way as to make the elemental parallels more obvious. And that notion is what Byrne plays with in the first story in the reprint volume. Each FF member faces his or her elemental opposite, sort of. Air vs. the Human Torch. Water vs. the Thing. Fire vs. Mister Fantastic. Earth vs. Invisible Girl. Then they do the switcheroo and have some fun.

Even with the silly and all-too-easy wrap up with Dr. Strange, it's a great way for Byrne to begin his run. It clearly demonstrates the powers of the team, establishes their relationships and use of teamwork, and provides all of this at the expense of a lesser Lee/Kirby creation in Diablo. It was originally published in 1981, but Fantastic Four #232 is a Silver Age story through and through.

After that, the stories in the volume become a bit more bizarre.

The Human Torch basically solos in a twist on a wrongly-accused-murderer story. The Torch uncovers evidence which proves a falsely-accused man innocent, but it's too late to save him, and even the victim's mother thinks that her son was a bad apple anyway, and "got what he deserved." It reads almost like a repurposed Daredevil story, with Maggia villain Hammerhead, but Byrne includes enough Human Torch-specific character moments to keep it faithful to the FF. He probably envisioned it as a change of pace story, a street-level tale for the readers before moving to more cosmic altitudes.

In Fantastic Four #234, L. R. "Skip" Collins inexplicably wields the power to alter reality as he wishes. It's like one of those Eisner Spirit tales, the ballad of a pathetic minor character with some deep and powerful secret. Skip Collins's tale leads nowhere, though, and every change he inflicts on the world is reset in the end as he wishes everything back to normal and apparently loses his power forever. The story serves a larger-scale purpose, as it helps to get the FF off planet in a rocket ship. (Collins hadn't been causing most of the disturbances, as Reed tells us, it's being cased by a probe from SPACE!) The idea of a reality-shaping character must have interested Byrne, however, even though he didn't seem interested in pursuing the idea with Skip Collins. In a later volume, Byrne gives very similar powers to Franklin Richards, but that is a discussion for another post.

One the team gets into orbit, they confront none other that Ego, the Living Planet (another Lee and Kirby creation, from the pages of Thor), and handle the cosmic threat in an appropriately fantastical way.

But the real gem of Visionaries Volume One is the story from Fantastic Four #236, "Terror in a Tiny Town." The team members find themselves powerless, havig strange dreams about powers they can't quite remember. What is reality? The Puppet Master's lurking around, but nothing seems to make sense. Sue even has her old, mountainous hairdo. The truth is finally revealed, however, as they learn that the world they inhabit is not a virtual reality simulation, it's not a dream. Instead, they find that they are living in a miniature scale model town, their psyches inhabiting tiny little dolls. Their bodies are hooked up, via Kirbyesque machinery, to some contraption that keeps them physically in stasis while their minds inhabit these teeny, tiny little versions of themselves. Talk about a brilliant supervillain death trap! And to make it even cooler, Victor von Doom is not only behind the whole scheme, but he is playing along, having inserted his own psyche into Tiny Town as well, just to prove how AWESOME he is compared to the FF. He's living out his ultimate teenage revenge fantasy. "I'll make them very tiny, and make myself wicked cool so I can mock them," he probably thought. It's what I would have done when I was 13 (if I had a maniacally genius mind, an armored facemask, and a green hoodie).

Nicely done, John Byrne.

It's really a fun story--a tale that captures the mixture of scientific brilliance, egotism, and stunted maturity that makes up the core of Dr. Doom. Byrne's portrayal of Doom in later stories is more noble, more haughtily tyrannical, but I like this cruel sadistic Doom-with-the-goofy-plan so much more.

By the way, the FF defeat Doom's Tiny Town scheme by RECREATING THE COSMIC RAY EVENT (or an approximation of it), thereby giving their teeny, tiny little bodies FF powers, which they use to fly up out of the little model town and kick some normal size bad guy butt. And, they trap Doom in his own creation, which serves him right, the bully!

Great, great stuff. Once again, Byrne seems to be at his best doing these inspired Silver Age-style comics.

He does a few other things in the stories that follow--he estabishes Frankie Ray's flame powers, he returns the Thing to his lumpy form, he gives us a Twilight Zoneish story about a weird little town and a cute little girl with a secret, and he brings in Lee and Kirby's Inhumans for a story in which the FF just kind of stand around and watch how cool the Inhumans are.

But it's really "Terror in a Tiny Town" that makes this first collection worth picking up.

I haven't finished Byrne's entire run yet, but I'm working my way through the rest of the volumes, and I know that it doesn't get much better then "Terror in Tiny Town," at least not in any self-contained issue. What Byrne perhaps does best, once he gets rolling on the series, is develop a consistent, slow progression of a long-term narrative. We see the beginning of it here, as he sets up a few things with Doom and Frankie Ray and threats from outer space, but nothing can really beat itty bitty Ben Grimm tearing open a full-size computer panel with the words, "I majored in destruction."

Join me on Monday as I look at Byrne's second Visionaries volume (which, unfortunatly, has no tiny little Ben Grimms at all).