Reviews of trade paperbacks of comic books (mostly Marvel), along with a few other semi-relevant comments / reviews.

31 March 2009

Promethea, Book 2

Collects: Promethea #7-12 (2000-1)

Released: February 2003 (DC / ABC)

Format: 176 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781563899577

What is this?: In v. 2, Sophie learns more about Promethea and magic and strikes back at her tormentors.

The culprits: Writer Alan Moore and penciler J.H. Williams III

As much as I thought Promethea, Book 1, was an underappreciated part of the Alan Moore canon, I’m not sure what to make of Promethea, Book 2.

Ideas, for most writers, are easy. For Moore, they seem effortless. But continuing and developing the idea is often more difficult, and although I won’t say Moore ran into difficulties with Book 2, it’s not as enjoyable or effortless. Book 1 introduced Sophie Bangs, a college student, and Promethea, a fictional character who pops up in different fictional creations over the years. Sophie discovers that although Promethea is fictional, she can exist in the real world, and Sophie becomes the host for the most current version of the heroine. She learns from her predecessor and resists her enemies.

Promethea, Book 2 coverIn Book 2, her training continues, and she strikes back at those who have attacked and threatened her — almost too quickly, too effectively. The idea of ubiquitous collections was new when Moore was writing, but this volume is paced oddly; the climax comes in the middle. I can’t complain about how that storyline plays out, which some might see as a letdown, but I thought the lack of a battle was a neat stroke by Moore, especially given Promethea’s fictional background.

The rest of Book 2 is more difficult. I’m not sure I can assume some parts of the book are brilliant just because of Moore’s reputation. Two of the final three issues deal directly with magic and as such are dialogues. One event takes up the first issue, and nothing happens in the second. The craftsmanship of these two issues are outstanding, both by Moore and artist J.H. Williams III (who I just noticed is co-creator of Promethea). Moore communicates his knowledge and passion for the subject. But the complexity of the discussion of an already recondite subject doesn’t make it easier for readers. I suspect that’s part of Moore’s point, that it’s not an easy subject and can’t be reduced to words — symbols and metaphors must be used. But sometimes that makes the writing come across as impenetrable or a waste of time, and all the Aleister Crowley jokes in the world aren’t going to change that. I may be alone with this opinion; Promethea #10, the first of these dialogues, won the 2001 Eisner Award for Best Single Issue.

Sophie has to deal with a death of someone close to her; I don’t want to give it away, but those who have read Book 1 can probably make a good guess. It’s interesting how quickly the sorority of Prometheas seem to become family to Sophie, especially given how little family seems to play in her life.

More difficult to deal with is how Promethea and Sophie share Sophie’s body, especially in matters carnal; I found myself a little squeamish about some parts of Book 2 because of that. Moore has no trouble with writing about human sexuality, of course, and my squeamishness is my failing. Still, he has to deal with the implications of that sharing more definitively; I have confidence he will (or has, since Promethea is complete), though.

Once again, I’m impressed with Williams’s art. The issues about magic call for a high degree of imagination and skill to make two conversations interesting (although the sex scenes in the first probably helped), and I’m astonished by how many art styles Williams has to ape over the course of Book 2. Issue #7 has digital art from Jose Villarrubia, which is supposed to be the view inside one of the Promethea’s memories; the effect nicely marks off the section, but it seems a little off in its photorealistic zeal.

The ambition of this book makes me want to recommend it; it’s a difficult read at times, though, and I hate to tell others to read it without knowing there’s a payoff. My confusion makes me rate this one in the middle of the road, with the reservation that however confused I am, I was confused by people who are doing an excellent job.

Rating: America’s Best Comics symbol America’s Best Comics symbol America’s Best Comics symbol (3 of 5)

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28 March 2009

June 2009 Solicitations

Every month they come out. Sometimes, I mention them. It’s the graphic novel solicitations for June 2009:

 cover The Most Exciting News from DC is that the final volume of 100 Bullets, v. 13: Wilt, will be released July 8. This will wrap up the 100-issue run of the title, and despite containing twelve issues of the series, will only cost $19.99. For fans of the absurd, DC has Superman and Batman vs. Vampires and Werewolves. No, really. There are two Showcase volumes for the month. The expected one is Batman, v. 4, which reprints Batman #202-15 and Detective Comics #376-90; this is still the ‘60s, so I’m not going to bother, but it’s coming closer to an era I’m interested in. The surprising title is Bat Lash, a 240-page volume for only $9.99. Still, that’s less than half a normal volume, for more than half the normal price; of course, if you’re a Bat Lash fan (honestly? huh), you’re not going to worry about the price. Those who have been waiting for the paperback of Astro City: The Dark Age, Book 1 will be able to stop waiting.

Marvel once again received the bulk of my attention. There are three Runaways volumes this month, not bad for a struggling title. The paperback of the beginning of Terry Moore’s run on the title, Dead Wrong, and a hardcover of his second arc, Rock Zombies, will be released, and those of you who have been waiting for the digest of Joss Whedon’s run, Dead End Kids, will find the wait over. I would argue that issuing the three titles in the same month would cause confusion or make readers choose one of the titles over the others because of budget reasons, but what do I know about marketing? Perhaps saturation is what the Runaways market calls for. The Essentials will be Dr. Strange, v. 4 (v. 2 #30-56), which I am eagerly awaiting, and Thor v. 4 (#167-95), which I am not. (Sorry, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby fans!) I’m also not excited about the price increase to $19.99, but there’s nothing to be done about that . For reasons I can’t understand, Irredeemable Ant-Man gets a complete-series compilation. Marvel’s take on Silver Age Superman, Sentry: The Age of the Sentry, will thrill fans of the stunning illogic of that era. The final TPB of Amazing Spider-Girl, v. 5: Maybreak, will give fans of the cancelled series something to absorb their tears. On a happier note, Marvel continues to put Walt Simonson’s Thor work back on the shelves with Thor Visionaries: Walt Simonson, v. 3.

Image: Nothing caught my eye.

Dark Horse has Gigantic, a cross of monster movies and reality TV. Despite this being the June solicits, the Dark Horse Web site says Gigantic will be coming out in September. The other titles aren’t much better; claims these will be August releases. Myspace Dark Horse Presents, v. 3, has Usagi Yojimbo, Firefly, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer stories, as well as a story by Mike Mignola in the Hellboy universe; interesting, if you like that stuff. Dark Horse is also re-issuing several Usagi Yojimbo trade paperbacks, as they had allowed them, for some nefarious purpose, to go out of print. Savage Sword of Conan is up to volume 6, covering #61-71 — the solicits helpfully add “for the complete Conan collector!” Well, yes.

That is it; anything catch your attention?

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27 March 2009

Marvel Legacy: The 1960s-1990s Handbook

Collects: Four Marvel Legacy Handbooks (1960s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s)

Released: (Marvel)

Format: 280 pages / color / $19.99 / ISBN: 9780785120827

What is this?: Faux Marvel Handbooks, constructed to look like they were written on the last day of each of the preceding four decades

The culprits: Head writer Jeff Christiansen and a host of writers and artists

Marvel Comics Legacy: The 1960s-1990s Handbook is a weird idea, both creatively and commercially. Marvel Legacy consists of four issues, each representing a decade: the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s. Each issue gives Official Handbook-type entries for characters as they stood on the last day of the decade — so the “Spider-Man” entry in the 1960s issue features the character as he appeared December 31, 1969, and leaves everything that happened after that a mystery.

Marvel has been bound and determined to mine the market for their handbooks, and given that eight Essentials of the old handbooks and seven volumes of their new, hardback handbooks have been released, Marvel has proven there is a market for it. But this is just an odd idea, cutting off each character at the end of a decade. The big characters receive entries in multiple decades, and at the end of each decade’s handbook there is a “Where Are They Now?” appendix, but the divisions seem arbitrary. They probably seemed less so when each decade’s handbook was published as a single issue, though.

Marvel Legacy handbooks coverThe success of the new handbooks has influenced the characters chosen for Marvel Legacy. Sure, there are the big stars of each decade, slogging their way through history, but the book is filled with Z-listers and no hopers. Thermal Man? Father Darklyte? Both Lunatiks? Spider-Ham, for Heaven’s sake? There all here, whether you want them or not, because the Handbook team didn’t want to rehash the histories of the mid-listers.

I will admit to finding a considerable charm to the obscure characters, especially ones from the 1970s. Where else will you learn the story of Hypno-Hustler or Those Who Wield Power? Still, despite that charm, the parade of the obscure can get irritating. The ‘80s entries contain New Universe characters very few people care about. The ‘90s issue are studded with characters that are awful or kewl. The ‘60s feature ideas from Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and Steve Ditko that didn’t resonate, and there’s a reason. The 1970s — well, I can’t say much bad about the ‘70s issue, except perhaps to note the higher than average horror content and bad women’s rights characters.

Marvel Legacy strives for a period look for each decade — using colored pages for older times to simulate yellowed paper, for instance, and it uses art from each decade as well. They get points for trying, but ultimately that doesn’t weigh heavily in my evaluation.

Marvel Legacy is a slog to read straight through. I don’t think this is the fault of head writer Jeff Christiansen or his team, but the fact remains I could only get through a half dozen pages a night before my eyes began to cross. One obscure character may be interesting; two might be amusing. But by the time I’d read six in one sitting, the details began to blur together, and my mind began to wander, especially with entries about confusing ‘90s characters who were retconned within an inch of their lives. I also know it would have “broken character,” but I would have preferred the “Where Are They Now?” segments at the end of each entry rather than at the end of each issue.

But, on the other hand, Marvel Legacy isn’t much use as a reference either. What is the chance that the obscure character you’re looking for will be in this book? And you have to know that character’s decade as well to find out anything about him. (Although that’s not likely to be a problem.) The book gives such a random slice of weird characters readers can’t count on finding useful information. It can be decent if you’re trying to figure out what had happened to Spider-Man in each decade, but how often do you have that desire?

This is interesting, but ultimately, it’s a better idea than a reference book. There’s an attempt to capture the flavor of times gone past that I applaud, but I’m not sure Marvel did that; it’s like trying to preserve a piece of pizza by pressing it like a flower between the pages of a book. Still, it will sit on my shelf with all the other Marvel handbooks, and I can’t say it will be used all that less …

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (2 of 5)

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26 March 2009

2009 Hugo Graphic Novels Nominees

The 2009 Hugo Award nominees were announced last week. Just so you don’t have to scroll down, I give you the first-ever Hugo nominees for “Best Graphic Story”:

  • The Dresden Files: Welcome to the Jungle: written by Jim Butcher, art by Ardian Syaf (Del Rey / Dabel Brothers)
  • Girl Genius, v. 8: Agatha Heterodyne and the Chapel of Bones: written by Kaja and Phil Foglio, art by Phil Foglio, colors by Cheyenne Wright (Airship Entertainment)
  • Fables, v. 11: War and Pieces: written by Bill Willingham, pencilled by Mark Buckingham, art by Steve Leialoha and Andrew Pepoy, color by Lee Loughridge, letters by Todd Klein (DC / Vertigo Comics)
  • Schlock Mercenary: The Body Politic: story and art by Howard Tayler (Tayler Corporation)
  • Serenity: Better Days: written by Joss Whedon & Brett Matthews, art by Will Conrad, color by Michelle Madsen, cover by Jo Chen (Dark Horse)
  • Y: The Last Man, v. 10: Whys and Wherefores: written / created by Brian K. Vaughan, penciled / created by Pia Guerra, inked by Jose Marzan, Jr. (DC / Vertigo Comics)

The only one of these nominees I’ve read is Fables; I was lukewarm on it, but since it wraps up the story Willingham and Buckingham have been setting up for the last few years, I see why it was nominated. I have a feeling Y would have been nominated regardless of its content, for the same reason; v. 10 is the end of the series. The two licensed / spinoff titles, The Dresden Files and Serenity, have name recognition and might have benefitted from the low number of ballots cast (212, less than a third of the number of Best Novel votes and lower than any category other than “Best Fan Artist”). On the other hand, I’ve heard good things about Dresden, and Whedon’s work is, well, Whedon’s. I’m familiar with the Foglios’ work on Girl Genius, although not this volume in particular.

The only nominee I know nothing about is Schlock Mercenary. I’ve never heard anyone else talking about it either, but it appears to be a Web comic, begun in 2000, about a far-future mercenary company. It’s extremely different from the other nominees, to say the least — not only in form (comic strip vs. comic book) and initial medium, but it’s the only nominee to be produced by only one person.

This is the first year for this award, so there’s no history to indicate who might win. It’s not really worthwhile handicapping science fiction / fantasy awards anyway. But my guess would be that voters would go for what they’re most familiar with, and that puts Y and Fables in the driver’s seat. Or maybe familiarity with Butcher or Whedon wins out. Or maybe I’m wrong completely, and “Schlock Mercenary” or Girl Genius gets the award.

The Hugos will be presented at Anticipation in Montreal in August.

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24 March 2009

Mini Marvels: Secret Invasion

Collects: Various Mini Marvels strips (2001-9)

Released: February 2009 (Marvel)

Format: 96 pages / color digest / $9.99 / ISBN: 9780785137177

What is this?: More fun with little Spidey and the rest of the Mini Marvels as they take on Civil War, World War Hulk, and other stories.

The culprits: Chris Giarusso with a few other contributing writers

I really enjoyed the first Mini Marvels volume, so when I heard about Mini Marvels: Secret Invasion, I was really excited. As it turns out, my excitement was well placed. Chris Giarrusso, who drew all the stories and wrote most of them as well, has an outstanding touch with the Mini Marvel characters, who are pint-sized versions of Marvel heroes.

Giarrusso is at his best when his Mini Marvels are reliving Marvel history. The first story, “Conspicuous Invasion,” retells Fantastic Four #2 and #18, the team’s first contact with the Skrulls and the debut of the Super Skrull. It’s amazing how much humor Giarrusso manages to squeeze from a relatively straight retelling of Marvel’s stories, with only a few detours for extra jokes. In another writer’s hands, this could come across as mocking Stan Lee’s early whip-quick plotting, but here Lee’s original becomes part of the warped logic of the Mini Marvel world. His stories lampooning the return of Thor and World War Hulk are similarly funny, although they go off the plot more for their laughs.

Mini Marvels: Secret Invasion coverPerhaps the best story in the bunch, however, is “Hawkeye and the Beanstalk,” which crosses the first Galactus story in Fantastic Four #48-50 with “Jack in the Beanstalk,” as Hawkeye tries to get superpowers. Giarrusso has the enthusiastic but not terribly bright Hawkeye blunder through the story, managing to outwit Galactus and the overbearing Iron Man to save the Earth and get cosmic power. (Interestingly, Giarrusso’s Silver Surfer looks a lot like Jeff Smith’s Bone, without the large nose.)

In this volume, other writers get a shot at the Mini Marvels, with Giarrusso providing the distinctive and deceptively simple art. Marc Sumerak writes a Civil War parody, featuring Spidey babysitting Power Pack; Sean McKeever brings in Firestar and Iceman in “Spidey and His Amazing Co-Workers”; Paul Tobin contributes a pair of Hulk / Power Pack stories, introducing the TV show “Dr. Hawkeye, MD” to the Mini Marvels world; and Audrey Loeb has a series of Green / Red / Blue Hulk one pagers. Most of these are a little short of Giarrusso’s work but still funny. Sumerak’s Civil War story, the longest of the non-Giarrusso tales, lags when Spidey is actually babysitting but picks up when it touches on Civil War itself.

It’s the details in Giarrusso’s art that drive the humor home. For instance, in one scene, Hawkeye talks to Quicksilver while Quicksilver does dishes; the background goes from a sink full of dirty dishes to a drainer full of clean dishes to an empty drainer, as Quicksilver completes the task between panels without either character calling attention to the fact. In one of the Hulk stories, the multicolored Hulks play on a stack of luggage; when the luggage is scattered and the suitcases fly open, all you see are torn Hulk pants. Or Ms. Lion the dog from the “Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends” TV show being a level boss in a video game Spidey plays instead of working his paper route with Firestar and Iceman.

This isn’t quite as good as the first Mini Marvels volume, and I still think $9.99, the new price for Marvel digests, is a little high for this slim volume. The book does reprint a few of Giarrusso’s older strips, which is a nice bonus, but it doesn’t make up for the price.

Mini Marvels: Secret Invasion is worth buying — and it’s still worth buying even though doesn’t seem to have it — and I’m looking forward to Giarrusso’s Image digest, G-Man, v. 1: Learning to Fly, as well as his future Mini Marvels work.

Rating: Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol Marvel symbol (4 of 5)

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20 March 2009

Astonishing X-Men: Deathwish

Collects: X-Men #92 and 95, Astonishing X-Men #1-3, Uncanny X-Men #375 (1999)

Released: October 2000 (Marvel)

Format: 160 pages / color / $15.95 / ISBN: 9780785107545

What is this?: The X-Men shatter, help a child in trouble, learn a shocking secret about Wolverine, and are attacked by Apocalypse’s latest horseman, Death.

The culprits: A crossover crew including writers Alan Davis and Howard Mackie and penciler Brandon Peterson

Astonishing X-Men: Deathwish comes from an early time in the development of Marvel’s graphic novel program. In 2000, the Essentials line was in its infancy, and Marvel was scrambling to put some of its classic storylines into print while also getting “new classics” into circulation. Deathwish belongs to that latter category, as the book was published under the “Marvel’s Finest” banner soon after the floppies were released.

So what we have here is fin de siècle X-Men. All the stuff between Chris Claremont leaving and Grant Morrison arriving should be regarded with suspicion, but writer Alan Davis’s run was a rare bright spot during that time. Unfortunately, we get only glimpses of what he was doing as plotter of X-Men (script by Terry Kavanagh) and writer of Uncanny X-Men.

Astonishing X-Men coverDeathwish runs into the fringes of “The Shattering,” in which the newly returned Xavier seems to be having a mental breakdown. Most of the team says, “Sod it,” and takes a vacation; the rest don’t leave quickly enough and get drawn into the eponymous Astonishing X-Men miniseries. Bad luck for them, then. When Astonishing is over, everybody gets pulled back to hear a couple of shocking secrets, be psychically beaten by Xavier like a rented mule, and then get in a fight with the real villains.

The scene with Xavier spoils the straightforward charm of Davis’s work in Deathwish. X-Men #92, in which Davis and Kavanaugh set up the miniseries, works well, with Davis showing Xavier’s apparent instability and paranoia believably and giving nearly everyone a reason to skedaddle. He portrays the reactions to the death at the end of Astonishing well, and the final big fight is clever enough. But Xavier … to test loyalties, he merges the Danger Room and his psychic abilities to make the X-Men think they’re killing one another. Not satisfied with that, he makes the survivors watch their loved ones die. It is, frankly, a horrifying experience, especially since a teammate had just died in reality, and I’ve never been sure how the psychic test part worked. The worst point is no one calls him on it. It seems out of character that no one except Gambit would complain about him putting the team through a simulation that called for betrayal and death.

Unfortunately, Davis’s work on the X-titles is marred in the reprints by other titles. In this case, it’s with the miniseries Astonishing X-Men, written by Howard Mackie. Nothing puts the fear in an X-fan like realizing they’re reading Mackie’s work, except perhaps the Onslaught crossover. Fortunately, it’s not as bad as Mackie’s reputation might lead one to think.

It’s not great either; it’s a forgettable story, saddled with the Mannites, who are a bunch of childlike ciphers who are supposed to be even mutantier than mutants. The cobbled-together team, which includes the alternate universe X-Man and Cable, works together far more smoothly than it should, and the plot is more overwrought than necessary. The story doesn’t flow all that smoothly, either; there were a few points where I wondered what was going on and how far the two groups of people were from each other and how did they get there, anyway? It’s all just three issues in search of a dramatic revelation, and it delivers that in the end. I won’t spoil it, but it’s better if you just have someone tell you that revelation and skip those three issues.

The art is very good for a crossover, especially Adam Kubert’s issue of Uncanny X-Men. I’ve long been a fan of Kubert, ever since I first saw his work in Wolverine in the early ‘90s. This isn’t as vibrant and sharp as those issues seemed to me, but it’s still quality work. Brandon Peterson does a good job on Astonishing — the art certainly outdoes the writing — and although the style of Bret Boothe, who assists with pencils in #2, is noticeably different, it isn’t jarring, especially by the standards of crossovers. Jeff Johnson and Tom Raney work ably on the X-Men issues.

The book is out of print at the moment, but an expanded version of the title (X-Men: The Shattering) is listed as a future release by The book hasn’t shown up in Marvel’s solicitations yet (and perhaps never will), but that listing plus the publication of the following Uncanny X-Men / X-Men issues is a small indication these stories will be back in print again.

I can’t particularly recommend Deathwish because the Astonishing X-Men miniseries takes half the book, but with the expanded contents, The Shattering might be worth checking out.

Rating: X-Men symbolX-Men symbol (2 of 5)

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17 March 2009

Captain America and the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas

Collects: Captain America and the Falcon #1-4 (2004)

Released: August 2004 (Marvel)

Format: 144 pages / color / $9.99 / ISBN: 9780785114246

What is this?: Captain America hunts the Falcon, who has busted a prisoner out of Guantanamo.

The culprits: Writer Christopher Priest and artist Bart Sears

I don’t usually talk much about the art in a book. I’m more focused on the writing, the story, and my education didn’t afford me the knowledge necessary to get into deep detail about the craft a penciler employs.

On the other hand, there comes a point when the flaws of an artist are so extensive, if you don’t talk about the art, you’ll look like a fool. Rob Liefeld’s output is like that. So is the art in Captain America & the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas.

Captain America & the Falcon, v. 1: Two Americas cover Bart Sears supplies the “art.” He’s listed as a “storyteller” and is one of two inkers (I’m not going to name the other because I have nothing against him). Sears’s vision for Captain America and the Falcon is hyperthyroidal men who have been doused in steroids and inflated with bicycle pumps until their skin is about to burst. It is very nearly Liefeldian in its composition. You can argue there’s a place for that in comics art, sure; the Hulk and other ludicrously strong characters could be portrayed that way with no problem.

But this is Captain America, who is human, albeit the best of human physical fitness: strong but agile. Sears interprets this as meaning even his chin has muscles. At times, Captain America doesn’t have a neck so much as his shoulder muscles merge into his skull. Captain America is so muscular even his cheeks are cut. Even worse is the Falcon, who, despite being a fine superhero, has never been overly bulked up; yet he is almost as large as Captain America. The bicycle pumps were used on the women as well; Scarlet Witch has breasts as large as her head (literally). Other women have smaller breasts that are only the size of their faces, although they get waists the same size as one breast, so they’re smaller all over.

Sears compounds the problem by doodling in the margins, drawing large-scale versions of the characters as page borders. So not only does everyone look larger than they should, there are even larger versions of the characters looming in the margins like Godzilla over Kansas. At times I felt like shouting, “Watch out for that giant crotch, Captain!” But there’s no way he can avoid this, surely; between pages, he and his absurd pecs and biceps have to collide with the private parts of some giant monstrosity, whether it’s male or female.

These muscular monsters and top-heavy women leave the art looking as subtle as a bread truck through a plate-glass window. This is bad news for the story, as writer Christopher Priest has written a story that, while perhaps not as convoluted as some of his other works, has some depth and subtlety to it. You are supposed to realize early in the story, for instance, that something is wrong with Captain America; Sears makes this somewhere between impossible and nigh impossible to work out. And even if the subtleties are in there somewhere, the art’s just too distracting — the only way it could be more distracting is if Sears used the “plaid” tool in Photoshop.

I feel sorry for Priest. I don’t think this is his best work, although it’s not bad by any stretch. But still, I can’t be sure. I almost can’t hear his voice with Sears’s art shouting at me, which, given the distinctiveness of Priest’s writing, is quite an accomplishment. There are some good ideas in the plot, I think, but “evil / misguided / conscienceless counterpart of Captain America” doesn’t thrill me as an adversary. Also, by the end, I was so eager to be done with the story I didn’t pay much attention to Priest’s revelation about the McGuffin, a missing virus. Looking through again, I can’t see where its true nature is revealed. I don’t really care, which is a bad sign. Still, it’s impossible for me to say whether I disliked the writing or the art prejudiced me against the story.

It really doesn’t matter. The story would have to have been outstanding before I’d recommend anyone read this thing. But I can’t, in good conscience, suggest anyone subject their eyes to Sears’s art, especially with life being so short and all. Besides, there are some things you can’t unsee, and this definitely qualifies.

I guess what I’m trying to say is the art isn’t very good.

Rating: Half Marvel symbol (0.5 of 5)

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13 March 2009

Promethea, Book 1

Collects: Promethea #1-6 (1999-2000)

Released: July 2001 (ABC / DC)

Format: 160 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781563896675

What is this?: Sophie Bangs becomes Promethea, the spirit of a fictional character who merges with people in the real world for some ostensibly good goal.

The culprits: Writer Alan Moore and penciler J.H. Williams III

When it comes to writer Alan Moore’s body of work, Promethea is an overlooked title. It certainly isn’t mentioned as the same breath as Watchmen or V for Vendetta, nor should it, really. But it also doesn’t get as much attention as the titles Moore was creating for America’s Best Comics at the same time: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Top Ten, or Tom Strong. And as much as I adore Top Ten and League, that’s just not fair.

Promethea, Book 1, is, like many Moore narratives, a story that works on many levels. On the surface, you have Sophie Bangs, a college student who is researching the odd tales surrounding the fictional character Promethea. While interviewing a former model for a comic-book version of the character, Sophie sees the model become a “science hero” version of Promethea, albeit one who is middle-aged and out of shape. Promethea thrusts the mantle of the character onto Sophie, who becomes the new Promethea. From there, Sophie-merged-with-Promethea meets her predecessors, who teach her in the Land of Immateria about her powers and legacy.

Promethea, Collected Edition: Book 1 cover All very much the common comics theme of growing up, passing the torch, etc. But Moore loves to play with the nature of fiction and ideas, and Promethea is very much a character of the imagination, a fictional character who can interact with the material and immaterial worlds. Sophie has to learn what the imagination means, how to use it in the material world, and who wants Promethea to stay in the land of imagination.

The temptation is to take everything Moore writes and label it a work of genius. I’m not sure about “genius,” but Promethea is often fascinating. There’s a very definite sense that Moore wants to concentrate on the value and world-shattering power of art. Moore uses the material / immaterial split to focus on how ideas and fiction affect the real world. He’s mostly setting up the idea in v. 1, but the groundwork is laid well. Moore also has some very definite things to say about magic, I think, but he wisely keeps most of them in the background for v. 1.

There’s also the idea of how different creators can use the same character to make vastly different points; the different Prometheas were all created for different purposes, so their embodiments have very different characters. Given the collaborative nature of writing comic books, with legacy characters who have been written by dozens of writers, this is an interesting issue. (And that’s not even considering Moore’s use of Victorian characters in a completely different way than they were conceived in Extraordinary Gentlemen.)

Moore even throws in a strange recurring theme of the Weeping Gorilla, a teary-eyed simian who thinks banal, maudlin thoughts and is the star of Weeping Gorilla Comix. Among Sophie’s young friends, Weeping Gorilla is the height of ironic hipster humor, although it’s pretty clearly an inherently unfunny character.

I have no idea whether Moore has the most discerning eye for artists in the comics industry or if he inspires the artists who work with him to raise their game. Dave Gibbons, Gene Ha, Kevin O’Neill … the list goes on. J.H. Williams III is no exception. He gives an earthiness for scenes set in the “material” world, and he has a more whimsical and imaginative touch he gets to use when Sophie is in Immateria.

Moore has a lot of intriguing ideas here, and it will be interesting to see where it goes, especially with an excellent artist like Williams working with him.

Rating: America's Best Comics symbol America's Best Comics symbol America's Best Comics symbol America's Best Comics symbol Half ABC symbol (4.5 of 5)

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11 March 2009

Watchmen (movie) — No pun review

First off: Watchmen was never going to live up to expectations. It was going to fail critically, commercially, or fanboyishly, because very few movies can satisfy in all three of those dimensions. The Dark Knight did to some degree, as did the first two X-Men and Spider-Man movies. But neither of them were crushed by the expectations Watchmen labored under: the greatest graphic novel of all time, written by Alan Moore, who disowned the movie. Can anyone live up to that? Fans will tend to nitpick, critics will compare its depth unfavorably … it’s easy to get the feeling this won’t end well.

And that’s the problem. I enjoyed this movie. Let me repeat that, so it doesn’t get lost in the nitpicking to come: I enjoyed this movie. It’s not Citizen Kane for the costumed set, but it wasn’t boring, it told a great story, it was rich in details … Watchmen does a lot right. It’s just that when compared to the original, any movie will fall short, and Watchmen is so seminal, so important that many will have trouble separating the movie from the graphic novel. Including me.

Second: The sort of slavish devotion to the text that director Zack Snyder has been accused of isn’t always bad. Take the novel The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett. The movie version most of us know — the one starring Humphrey Bogart, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, and Mary Astor, actually the third attempt to get the story onto film — is remarkably close to the novel. Snyder has been accused of using Watchmen’s art (by Dave Gibbons, who hasn’t disowned the movie and actually worked closely with Snyder) as a storyboard; Falcon director John Huston could have been accused of using Hammett’s novel as a shooting script, dropping only the metaphysical story about Flitcraft and toning down the references to Joel Cairo’s (Lorre) homosexuality.26

Part of the reason Huston was able to do that was because the performances of the actors involved. Bogart, despite not being the “blond Satan” Hammett described Sam Spade as, left his indelible stamp on the movie. Greenstreet, in his first movie role, made fat man Kaspar Gutman even larger than life. Astor was perfect as the manipulative femme fatale Brigid O’Shaughnessy, and Peter Lorre — well, when someone cast Lorre in a role, the audience was always going to remember Lorre for being Lorre.

Watchmen does not have that perfect all-star team of actors. The standouts are Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan, whose CGI-blue presence is muted by his soft voice and his distance from humanity, and Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach, who nails the numbed sociopath who wants to avenge mankind’s sins. Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Comedian is gleefully violent, which is all I needed from him. Patrick Wilson as Dan Drieberg / Nite Owl II was passable; it’s easy to argue Drieberg is such a non-entity, a normal guy, that there’s not much there for the actor to sink his teeth into. Matthew Goode, as Ozymandius, affects a bizarre accent, and as many (including my wife) have pointed out, seems a bit wispier than the role calls for. Malin Akerman is a lifeless bit of femininity who can’t keep up with her peers; her performance is easily the worst part of Watchmen.

Third: Snyder’s reputation precedes him. This movie is bloody — needlessly bloody — and Snyder goes out of his way to provoke action, which for a movie like Watchmen is asinine. Short action scenes are prolonged for no reason to try to “push” the characters and overstimulate the audience, with punches and kicks delivering unbelievably traumatic results. The fight between the Comedian and his killer at the beginning of the movie is barely a page in the book, with the older, tired, and already defeated Comedian being quickly dispatched, but Snyder develops a long set piece that is distractingly frenetic. Silk Specter and Nite Owl, while battling a gang of toughs, inflict wounds no unarmed assailant could inflict, and rather than have them use sonics to incapacitate the prisoners during a prison riot, as Moore does, Snyder has them punch their way through their difficulties.

I appreciate Snyder’s lack of quick cuts. I don’t like anything else he does with fights.

Snyder is not afraid of the human body and the things that it can do — or can be done to it. Besides the excessive violence, Dr. Manhattan is nude throughout most of the film (as he was in the graphic novel), with a full view of the front of his body. There’s nothing excessive about this, and given the amount of female nudity, it would be hypocritical to complain about it. There’s a sex scene that’s a little more intense (and long) than what I’m used to in a movie, even an R-rated movie; where most directors would have glossed over the physicality, Snyder revels in it. It’s an interesting choice, and I don’t mind noting that I was uncomfortable with it. (Although I thought it was a good choice to keep the female partner’s thigh-high, stiletto-heeled boots on for the scene, given the movie and graphic novel’s discussion of the fetishistic aspects of superheroes.)

Fourth: Snyder’s devotion to detail is remarkable, with the sets and costumes looking almost exactly like they were lifted from the graphic novel. (Nite Owl’s costume transformed him from a middle-aged lump to someone who actually looked like a hero.) It is astonishing to see the page on the screen. The opening credit sequence, where forty years of costumed hero history is compressed into a few minutes as Bob Dylan’s “The Times, They Are a Changin’” plays is rightly praised.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the overall movie, Snyder seems to be both note perfect and tone deaf. He can reproduce what is on the page flawlessly; ask him to improvise, and the result is leaden. Where Moore hints, Snyder points with a giant neon sign and hires a man to shout, “HINT!” The difference between Moore’s words and the dialogue added to the film is like the difference between Mozart and children banging on rocks. I also disapprove of some of the readings of the lines; Rorschach’s farewell to Nite Owl in their first scene seems too jaunty, for instance, and Rorschach’s final line came across as completely wrong for the character. This movie’s Richard Nixon is, as Lawrence Person says, “a spoof of a caricature” and comes across as more laughable than repulsive or powerful.

Don’t take my comment about “tone deaf” to mean there’s something wrong with the movie’s soundtrack. From “Changin’” to “All Along the Watchtower” by Jimi Hendrix (another Dylan song, used in the graphic novel) to Nena’s “99 Luftballoons,” the music was fantastic and fit the movie very well. Some of the songs — “Changin’” and “Unforgettable,” for example — are suggested by but not used by the graphic novel, but it really sounds fantastic.

Fifth: The source material is fantastic. Snyder doesn’t wreck it or sink it; his casting and fiddling with the text can’t do that. He just doesn’t live up to it.

Sixth: Don’t take my word for it:

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (3.5 of 5)

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09 March 2009

This week: Special Moore / Not Moore Week!

A few of my readers and casual Internet passerby will look up and mumble, “Review Watchmen!” …

… And I’ll look down and whisper, “No.”

Then I’ll smack my forehead and say, “Yes! Because that’s what I really meant. I answered without thinking.”

Tuesday I’ll have a Watchmen review. Friday will be a review of Alan Moore’s Promethea.

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More excuses

I missed putting up a review; a special review will be up tomorrow. You, the loyal reader, deserve a better excuse than “my personal life was crazy” or “I was crushed by the amount of work I had to do this week.” Frankly, you can get those kind of excuses anywhere, and we all know they’re lies, just excuses for being too lazy to put in the kind of quality work an unpaid “labor of love” deserves. So you get a better excuse. Like this one:

I journeyed to Richmond, having realized the Evil Robot James Buchanan was behind a monstrous plot involving the Democratic Party, an Abba cover band, and an exciting line of fruit smoothies.

When I confronted the Evil Robot James Buchanan in his lair, he admitted he had set in motion a Byzantine plot to prolong race wars by resurrecting the ghosts of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis. He said, “I’m not a Republic serial villain. Do you seriously think I’d explain my masterstroke if there remained the slightest chance of you affecting its outcome? I did it more than a century ago.”

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03 March 2009

Birds of Prey, v. 1: Of Like Minds

Collects: Birds of Prey #56-61 (2003-4)

Released: February 2004 (DC)

Format: 138 pages / color / $14.99 / ISBN: 9781401201920

What is this?: Oracle and Black Canary battle a rival information broker and decide about what to do with Huntress.

The culprits: Writer Gail Simone and penciler Ed Benes

In Birds of Prey, Vol. 1: Of Like Minds, writer Gail Simone takes over the reins of a mid-list Batman Universe title and makes it into something to talk about, whether or not the person talking had ever read Birds of Prey.

Is Simone experienced enough? Will having a woman write a book featuring women as its leads help the book? Will she start writing it as womyn? Will it hurt sales? Will it help sales? Frankly, these questions are unimportant to me. All I care about are the stories the book tells. I liked the earlier v. 1 of Birds of Prey, but it’s not like I had some sort of attachment to the title or creative team, so I have a relative open mind on where Simone takes the title.

Birds of Prey, v. 1: Of Like Minds coverSo we have Simone, who seems to be living the kind of life story every comics fan would like to experience. Gaining attention with Women in Refrigerators, Simone moved on to a humor column, You’ll All Be Sorry. From there, it was a clear path to full-time comic book writing, fame, money, and respect.

Well, not really. But it makes a shorter story that way, and my attention span isn’t … hey, isn’t Lost on tonight?

Simone makes some changes to Birds right away. She introduces humor into the story, although the good lines are unobtrusive and rarely require sacrificing plot or characterization. She also brings Huntress into Oracle and Black Canary’s group, and she introduces a new villain — Oracle’s opposite number, Savant, who uses his data hacking abilities for blackmail instead of justice. As is common for a new writer on a title, they seem to have a special fondness for their new characters. Savant is fun, in a savage way, although that might just be me — I like humor based on cruelty. Huntress is similar in some ways, her best lines playing off her greater willingness to inflict pain than the other heroes. The characters play well off each other; Simone’s facility with their interactions would be a credit to much more experienced writers.

It’s not all smiles and sunshine, though. I’m not sure what to make of Savant’s mental disability, in which he has a non-linear memory. Savant seems a little overpowered, which happens with new villains. The pacing seems a little off; the main story takes up four issues, making the final issues feel tacked on, stalling for time. That might be an artifact of the trade paperback, but, well, that’s what I’m reading. There’s an off-page breakup that smacks of clearing the decks. The moral dilemmas, involving blackmail information and Oracle’s fear for Black Canary’s well being, seemed contrived to me, a new reader.

Like many (most?) comic book artists, Ed Benes likes drawing pretty females, and he’s pretty good at it, although he is the first artist I can think of with a “long abdomen” fetish. (The legs are more out of proportion, but that’s not uncommon.) For some reason, Benes’s cheesecake irritates me, despite it not being an uncommon flaw. He revels in the cheesecake, and he makes no apology for it, not even when he gives us crotch or butt shots. Benes isn’t the one who gave Huntress that horrible new ludicrous bare-midriff costume — that was Jim Lee in Hush — but I don’t approve of its continuation. There are more than a few moments of physical comedy he seems to overplay as well, and I’m not sure he’s the right artist for Simone’s writing, which seems to require someone with greater delicacy of facial expressions.

I have a feeling Simone is going to improve as the title goes on (all right, I’m partially basing that on what I’ve heard from others). I’m excited to read the next volume, even more excited than I would have been to read the next Chuck Dixon volume of Birds, if there had been another. I’ll be even more excited for v. 4 of the Simone experience, when Benes leaves the title.

Rating: DC logo DC logo DC logo Half DC symbol (3.5 of 5)

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