25 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 066 - Mothersquiggle


ZVR Adventure #1
Writer - Chris Ryall
Artists - Menton Matthews III, Paul McCaffrey, Gabriel Hernandez
Publisher - IDW Publishing. $3.99 USD


Aside from the cover, Ashley Wood doesn't provide any art in this spinoff from the Zombies vs. Robots miniseries. If you recall IDW's Bloodsucker Tales, an anthology spinoff from the Steve Niles/Ben Templesmith 30 Days of Night books, this is kind of the same idea, but with original writer Ryall continuing with three serials here.

The first, "Kampf," deals with a particularly steadfast soldier in the war on zombies. He has to abandon his wife and child, in order to hopefully keep them safe by killing a lot of what might eat them. To aid in the war effort are a fresh batch of indefatigable robot soldiers. Matthews gives them a simple, perversely appealing design, and the rest of the art is pretty dramatic, and quite similar to lots of videogame cutscenes in the Photoshop faces, but with more of a painterly approach to the scenery and skyline. I'm not convinced he's synthesized the two effectively yet, but it's striking.

"Masques," with art by McCaffrey, is the cute story of the book, about a regular guy finding a bunch of adaptable work robots who will obey his commands, as well as blueprints for an Iron Man style armored suit, which he has now instructed the 'bots to build at the end of this chapter. McCaffrey's style is the most traditional, but with very good computer coloring. I got a little bit of a Moebius feel from it.

Gabriel Hernandez brings an interesting blend of Ash Wood, Denys Cowan and Bill Sienkiewicz to "Zuvembies vs. Robots," a perhaps unfortunately timed story set in Haiti, featuring a witch doctor who's going to raise his own army of zuvembies to go up against these viral zombies. There's a big, simply designed robot who's right in line with a Wood design, and some decent humor in his gentle embarrassing of a skeptical Haitian.

I like the premise of the book fine, to show the kind of silly ZVR world as richer and possessed of other tones and types of stories. However, I do think there could have been a little more meat to the book. "Kampf" especially suffered--three double pages spreads on a nine page story seems awfully luxurious, especially when there was more room for story if the inconsequential sketchbook section had been dropped. Not bad, just hope it moves along at a brisker pace next issue.


Milestone Forever #1 (of 2)
Writer - Dwayne McDuffie
Pencilers - John Paul Leon, Mark D. Bright
Inkers - John Paul Leon, Romeo Tanghal
Publisher - DC Comics. $4.99 USD


Look, we all have some hard-to-justify attachments to bad comics from our youth, certain creators, whatever. If Milestone was your thing back in the late '80s, I don't mean to take a dump on it. But I never read any of it, and while I like McDuffie's writing on cartoons like Justice League Unlimited and Static Shock, I just can't overlook how bad this reunion effort is.

I'm not sure what this was originally planned as, but what we have here is a curious first issue that's more of a one-shot and doesn't seem to lead into a second and concluding issue very well. Some hooded, mystical character sees portents of doom and destiny and whatnot in a framing sequence, really nicely drawn by Leon, and then we're treated to a bad after school special about staying out of gangs. Well, more accurately, various Milestone characters are reintroduced and they team up to stop a Jheri-curled villain who leads a superpowered gang with laughable (and very '80s to early '90s) names like Tech-9, Brickhouse (essentially Ben Grimm in a wig), Dogg (a talking bulldog) and Bubbasaur (don't ask). To toughen things up, there's a nice cover with cool stencils and creator credits done like graffiti tags, plus a ilberal use of "bitch" and a squiggle sign where variations of "fuck" would go. As in, "I'm strong as a mothersquiggle," and "I'm standing up to your bullsquiggle." The bad guy blows up real good, and most of the good guys stay together to help keep Dakota City blah blah blah. It's kind of sad because aside from Leon, who has grown as an artist, McDuffie and Bright are very static, no pun intended. Bright's style is stuck in the past, and McDuffie's dialogue wavers between dull and self-parody. Avoid.


Sparta, U.S.A. #1
Writer - David Lapham
Artist - Johnny Timmins
Publisher - Wildstorm. $2.99 USD


The thing I like about Lapham is he goes all out on pretty much every project. Maybe you didn't like Young Liars, but you remembered it, and you could tell he was putting his heart into it. Sparta throws a lot of crazy stuff at the reader right away and part of the fun is the way it challenges you to either jump on or stay behind. We learn a little about this mysterious town that's surrounded by mountains and where everyone plays football--there are over a dozen professional teams! They seem cut off from the rest of the world and seem to have been taught there are no more United States anymore. Their greatest quarterback, Godfrey McLaine, went up to the mountains years ago and disappeared, perhaps killed by a yeti. But no, he's back, in warrior garb and sporting red skin, ready to throw down with the town's blue-skinned leader, the Maestro, the one who makes the choices of which couples get the babies handed out every season.

When you have something fresh and nutty like this, you want a fresh artist, too, and Timmins throws himself into the project. It's heavily photorealistic (I think Godfrey's modeled on Colin Ferrell) but at least he picks his shots well. What Lapham is trying to do here, how deeply he wants to go into political allegory, fantasy, who knows? I'm signing on.

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24 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 065 - Wolk Sulk, Suat Hulk

I'm not sure if it's restraint or just an ingrained verbosity that keeps Gary Groth from turning his apology for TCJ.com's painful rebirth into the same aggressive, arrogant and still out-of-it tone about 60 words in with which he began the whole online exercise a couple months back. Just to be clear, I want it to succeed, and I'm not one of those who think it's a total failure. At the same time, I read it much less frequently than I did Dirk Deppey's old Journalista. As many have noted, part of it is that it's not that easy to navigate or find things once they've slipped off the main page. That seems to have been improved a bit, and there's better labeling. So it's not so bad. Still, as good as Douglas Wolk's interview with Kevin O'Neill was, why would you run it in five parts?

TCJ's Kristy Valenti explains to commenter "Wesley," that, "This is a 30,000 word interview, so we are running it in five parts. Each part will have the previous posts linked to at the top, and now on the homepage as well." That's not an explanation, that's just gilding the silly. If I threw a rock through your window and you asked me why I did it, explaining that I had the rock in my hand wouldn't really cut it, right? This is the internet. If someone clicks on the link to the interview, presumably they want to read the whole thing, and as easily as possible.

I don't have any big stake in TCJ making it or not. I hope they do, mainly because even in this form it's still a good way to read some good reviews and interviews and pick up some comics news. I just find some of the thinking here sort of backward. Groth says the crew have been working nearly 24 hours a day to fix things, which I don't really believe, because it doesn't seem like the technical issues are all that complicated. Maybe I'm wrong, which is something it would be nice to hear from Groth, actually. For someone who admittedly doesn't follow the blogosphere, he seems pretty confident about what he can bring to it, and yet so far it's some fairly vague talk about what others aren't doing and what TCJ can do best, like hard-hitting journalism. Well, where is it? Your #1 journalist, Michael Dean, is editing TCJ. Can't someone else take up some of the duties of wrangling more reviews and cracking the whip on blogging activity while Dean files a story? What big comics stories are really being missed, anyway, or not in the depth Groth wants? Danish conspiracy? Con War? State of the DM? Angouleme? Seems like I read these every other day.

It seems to me that "in-depth" is just something that gets thrown around a lot, but what seems like a worthy goal often becomes restrictive. Ng Suat Tong is correct about TCJ.com needing to show a strong editorial hand and clear vision, but I think he's off the mark here when he says, "A website which treats single line blog entries and articles running into a few thousand words with equal weight and respect is clearly one which doesn’t warrant any serious writer’s attention or approbation." Perhaps he is drawing his own line between his own group blog, where roundtables share space with reviews and the results of Wikipedia searches for obscure Star Trek character actors, and website TCJ.com, I don't know. For the record, I liked the Star Trek stuff. What I'm saying is that while you could perhaps more clearly separate the spontaneous, bloggy stuff from the lengthier stuff, the main goal is that it all be entertaining. There's nothing wrong with a fifteen minute review of a comic if it gets the job done. I'm going to go do one right now on some dumb Hulk comics, and that's all they really deserve. What TCJ needs is not necessarily more long pieces, but a higher standard of what runs, a cleaner way to find and view it, and a little more energy. Some, like R. Fiore, have gotten into the spirit, and I'm sure more will follow. But I think it will take more than more design tweaks and unearthing old audio to get the b.o. out of this thing. It's probably going to take some young blood to basically take the thing right the fuck away from Dean and Groth and remake it, louder, funnier, once again taking no prisoners. Right now it's sort of like Mayberry R.F.D.. Lot of the same people, one step further technically, but missing energy and purpose, as well as a deputy and lovable drunk.


Hulk #19 & 20
Writer - Jeph Loeb
Penciler - Ed McGuinness
Inker - Mark Farmer

Incredible Hulk #607
Writer - Greg Pak
Artist - Paul Pelletier
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 ea. USD


When I started with reviewing those beginning Fall of the Hulks issues, I was in fairly high spirits, not having read any Hulk stuff in years. Now I realize I skipped a couple chapters in this "saga," and I'm wondering if I should even go on. Ah, well, it happens. Hulk #19 finds Loeb writing a reasonably decent Fantastic Four before a generic Frightful Four shows up and nabs Mr. Fantastic way too easily. Most of this is pretty autopilot, right down to a needless Thing/Red Hulk fight before they team up to do...something. Red Hulk has to absorb energy from the Negative Zone for reasons that may make sense later. That's mainly what the issue is about, a lot of bogus action to advance the plot slightly. About the most I can say is McGuinness' Red Hulk is fun to look at, especially the black fingernails.

I missed Incredible Hulk #606, but it's easy to gather that Cosmic Hulk and Dr. Doom slugged it out for a while before Doom was defeated and captured by the Intelligencia (Leader, M.O.D.O.K., Mad Thinger, Wizard, Red Ghost), so that's two of eight right there. Hulk #20 makes much of the strategic battle being waged between the Leader and Red Hulk, and once again it ends up with Red Hulk and Bruce Banner arguing and Red Hulk saying a cryptic line that lets you know he hasn't shown his true agenda yet. Before that happens, Red Ghost and his Super Apes (now Gamma-enhanced) show up to Ororo's birthday in Wakanda and abduct a completely ineffectual Black Panther from likewise ineffectual X-Men Cyclops, Beast and Iceman. Red Hulk is there, too, and at Cyclops' order, they waste their energies trying to fight him while Red Ghost gets away with #3 of 8. One of the more embarrassing outings for the X-Men I've ever seen. I also got a kick out of Red Ghost telling one of his apes to kill Red Hulk. Who is he kidding? Even better, Red Hulk ripped the ape's jaw apart (off-panel), killing him, which somehow led to an enraged Red Ghost punching him unconscious. Hard to get a handle on the power levels here. More stupid than fun, and damn, we have five more superheroes to capture before we even know what the big plan is? Yikes. I liked the typo of "causalities of war," too--it's rare when a mistake sounds smarter than what was intended.


Finally (for now), Incredible Hulk #607 takes this storyline to the Avengers, as Red She-Hulk's part of the plan is to capture Henry Pym. But being the "scientist supreme," as he calls himself twice here (I guess he's in his cocky, Yellowjackety phase), he figured out the plan and takes the fight right to the Intelligencia, but has to come back to try to stop Red She Hulk from killing the Avengers singlehandedly. With all the characters, this issue is a bit busier and more compressed than the others, and maybe that's also just the difference between Pak's style and Loeb's. Skaar is there but isn't very interesting, and as with the X-Men, the Avengers make a pretty weak showing for themselves. The good part of the issue is Banner finally revealing his own motivation here, which is to rescue his wife Betty from the Intelligencia, though from what little we've seen, she may not want rescuing and may not actually be with them. At least this heartfelt (we think) goal gets the Avengers on Banner's side, but still, so far it's all going the bad guys' way, as Pym is captured.

I find myself talking almost entirely about plot points here. Unfortunately, while this last issue finally provided a glimpse of humanity amidst all the green, red and blue muscular characters, there hasn't been much else to talk about. Undoubtedly Pak, Loeb, Jeff Parker and their editor(s) have hashed out the story so that this will all make sense down the road, there isn't really a consistent rhythm or tone to the issues, which is understandable with three different writers, of course. Loeb is blustery and that suits Red Hulk and Samson scenes fine, while Parker and Pak are maybe a little more character-focused. Pelletier is suited to drawing the Avengers, and the glossier coloring fits well with the established style of Bendis' run with David Finch and Mike Deodato, while the more "matte-finish" look works better on McGuinness' art. I haven't read much of how Henry Pym is being written these days to know if he's off, but from what I can tell here, both the X-Men and Avengers are out-of-character enough, or just too darned weak, that I think this storyline is going to have its share of detractors from fans of those characters dropping in to see what they're missing. The story could use someone to like, too, as right now I'm sort of rooting for the Leader.

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23 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 064 - Chick Fight


Supergirl #50
Writer - Sterling Gates, Helen Slater & Jake Black
Penciler - Jamal Igle, Cliff Chiang
Inkers - Jon Sibal & Mark McKenna, Cliff Chiang
Publisher - DC Comics. $4.99 USD


There are a number of things I find disturbing about this comic. Let's start with the cover. It's easy to pick on Michael Turner, but I think he can occasionally be effective. Here, though, while it's not the worst sort of static, representative anniversary cover shot, it looks like Supergirl's right breast doesn't really line up correctly, and he seems to have forgotten a ribcage. It's not his fault for the long-sleeve/bare-midriff costume, but why emphasize the saggy cuffs?

Getting to the contents themselves, Jamal Igle makes a pretty competent George Perez imitator. The faces are more on the grotesque side, but then, everyone seems pissed off in this issue. Which brings us to the story. Aside from a couple issues at the end of the Peter David run a few years back, I've never read any Supergirl. I don't know if I'm being unfair, but with seeing any indication on the cover that this issue was the finale of some story arc, I kind of figured the 50th issue would be a bit more accessible, would take a moment or two to introduce new readers to the characters and status quo.

That doesn't really happen here, but comprehension is the least of Gates' problems here. As his name is new to me, I can only assume he hasn't been on the book since #1, so he may be inheriting some of the problems. I guess Lucy Lane, Lois' sister, somehow has Supergirl-type powers, and she's an Army major, and her dad is a very hawkish, anti-superhero general. There's a scene where he finds her in the woods, injured, and is suitably fatherly, but then grows instantly cold when she accidentally kills a soldier with her heat vision. That works well enough, but it's a small scene in the book, which is padded with the doings of minor Superman supporting characters like Gangbuster. It's a tradition with spinoff books that they use characters from the main character's world, to make them seem like their book is essential, part of a rich legacy, whatever. But Gangbuster is really a reach.

The rest of the story involves the real Supergirl, Kara, and Gangbuster infiltrating a hive formed by giant bugs and facing the Insect Queen, who's a hybrid of insect and Superman's high school sweetheart, Lana Lang, who has apparently been like a sister to Kara the past year. After the Queen is defeated and Lana is recovering, Kara tells her she can't be in her life anymore for lying about her illness. Lana sensibly defends herself, saying she didn't know what her illness was and that sometimes you lie to protect people you care about, but alien Kara doesn't understand and flies off. Maybe having seen their relationship develop in previous issues would have made this scene more dramatic for me. As it is, I had some difficult reconciling the innocent, obtuse alien girl with the one who swears a lot in Kryptonian in other scenes. Also, giant bugs are a pretty lame menace for an anniversary issue. Worse than this, though, is the all-too-common way longtime supporting characters are treated, particularly females. Supergirl aside, it seems like any woman who has a connection to Superman has to get some superpowers just so writers have something to do with them. Lana Lang can't just have a full, rich life doing charity work or politics. She has to turn into a cockroach, and even once cured, she's haggard and lined, no longer any kind of rival for Superman's affection. Lucy Lang can't just be Jimmy Olsen's ex or be a source of support or frustration for sister Lois--she has to become an evil Supergirl.

The cover promises "A Tale by Helen Slater," whom a handful of readers will recall was the star of the unsuccessful Supergirl movie. She's actually the cowriter, with someone named Jake Black, of a short backup story where reporter Cat Grant (also now aged and cougary) debates the merits of Supergirl on a contrived, "Meet the Press" type show. Cat rips Supergirl, then the host presents a long speech in her honor, with man-on-the-street clips of Supergirl supporters. It would be pretty wretched but for the Cliff Chiang art.


Power Girl #1-9
Writers - Justin Gray & Jimmy Palmiotti
Artist - Amanda Conner
Publisher - DC Comics. $2.99 ea. USD


Gray and Palmiotti have an easier time with Power Girl, as she's less obviously associated with the world of Superman. Her costume's unique, simple and unashamedly revealing, which is fine as, unlike Supergirl, she's an adult. They also inherit her after what I vaguely recall was some effort on Geoff Johns' part to settle her angst over being stuck in the regular DCU Earth instead of the alternate one in which she grew up, fought alongside the Justice Society, etc. So they have a fairly clean slate.

They get to work right away, having her start a tech firm in her civilian guise of Karen Starr and start interviewing hiring a supporting cast. One arrogant scientist who didn't make the cut will obviously bedevil her in later issues. The supporting cast, which also includes a new girl to go by the name of Terra, doesn't make much of an impression yet, but they're all so nice.

In fact, this book is nice almost to a fault. If so much of the rest of DC's output wasn't so grim and endlessly convoluted and interwoven, this series would be cloying, but it's kind of refreshing at the moment. Power Girl is smart, kind, resourceful and has a decent sense of humor. She's kind of like Spider-Man if he made self-deprecating jokes about his junk bulging in his blue tights.

The stories are cute but maybe a little too light to justify the length they get. Ultra-Humanite wanting to put his "perfect" brain in Power Girl's perfect bod is a fun idea but three issues' worth? And three issues for a story with three reckless but mostly harmless humanoid alien girls who just want to party? Both of these should have wrapped up in two issues each, tops, which was the perfect length for the return of the kitschy, very '60s/'70s alien lothario, Vartox of Valeron, who wants to mate with Power Girl because his race has been sterilized by enemies. That was pretty funny stuff, and with a healthy sexuality to it, playful rather than lurid.

The real star of the book is Amanda Conner, taking her place alongside Adam Huges and the Dodsons as one of the best current "good girl" artists around. She draws Power Girl's ample bosom and barely-concealed butt every chance she gets, but there's something almost wholesome about it. This is a character who must be proud of her body or else why wear such a costume, so Conner approaches the art with the same lack of shame. It's not gratuitous--there's no jiggling or nipple outlines--it just sort of winks at the reader, and indeed, the way she draws the fabric makes it seem thicker and more realistic than the way most male superheroes are drawn. Conner also gets the most out of PG's hair, which is in that great kind of bob that's sexy but no-nonsense, and always falling adorably between her eyes. The hair helps, because it does have to be said that Conner seems to draw pretty much the same face for many of her women--check the full page in #9 with PG, Terra and Satanna.

Aside from some minor, and welcome, JSA cameos, the book is in its own world and unaffected by Blackest Night or anything else going on in the DCU, and it's all the better for it. Aside from the slightly-too-decompressed pace, my only other minor complaint is that it doesn't make a lot of sense for this alternate Earth woman to use so many of our pop culture references. Wouldn't it be more interesting to sprinkle in ones that reference some of our own celebrities in weird ways, as if things developed differently on that Earth? Enjoyable book, though. If it wasn't for the occasional use of "bitch," I'd let my daughter read it.

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20 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 063 - Constantine Beat


Hellblazer: Pandemonium
Writer - Jamie Delano
Artist - Jock
Price - $24.99 USD

Hellblazer #260-264 "India"
Writer - Peter Milligan
Artist (#260) - Simon Bisley
Penciler (#261-264) - Giuseppe Camuncoli
Inker (#261-264) - Stefano Landini
$2.99 ea.
Publisher - Vertigo


John Constantine celebrates his 25th year of existence as a character with both a graphic novel and what appears to be a well-regarded run of the regular series. Although created by Alan Moore in Saga of the Swamp Thing (another example of a Moore creation providing steady income to DC for years), Delano did a lot of the work really establishing what Constantine was about, filling in his family history and establishing the chilly, nasty and often British personality of the Vertigo imprint. And he doesn't seem to have gotten a lot of credit for it. Maybe it's that there have been lots of acclaimed writers after him, like Garth Ennis, Warren Ellis, Brian Azzarello, Andy Diggle. It could also be that unlike those guys, he didn't follow this with something more popular. I confess when I checked his Wiki entry I was surprised to find I had read more of his work than I thought, but a good deal of it was stuff I dropped after an issue or two. Of late, he's done some stuff for Avatar, following the leads of Ellis and Ennis, and a lot of what they publish kind of reminds me of famous filmmakers doing episodes of TV anthologies like Amazing Stories or Masters of Horror: you can find some of your favorites doing some out-there stuff, but never their best stuff, and always on a budget.

I was interested to see what he came up with in his return to the character, though. In Pandemonium we find Constantine forced by the British government to go to Iraq to stop some supernatural serial killer. He accompanies Iraqi Aseera al-Aswari, the alluring woman who helped trap him, not that he holds a grudge. Delano has 120 pages or so to stretch out here, so Constantine isn't just whisky, smokes and double-entendres. There's some charm and respect in his casual, inevitable wooing of Aseera, but Delano also recognizes (and for all I know he established this trait in the first place) Constantine's obstinate, self-destructive side, causing him to get in soldiers' heads to mess with them even when he knows he's being unfair, or his compulsion to escape their supervision and set his own agenda.

I wouldn't call Jock an inspired choice as artist, but when I say that I just mean that after his work on The Losers he would be a natural choice for another gritty, militaristic comic, especially one starring another grizzled, spiky-haired jackass. That said, he has really stepped his game up since then, not so much compositionally but in his use of digital color and texture effects. You really feel the gritty swirl of the sand, the baked-on sweat, the chill when the sun goes down. It's a pretty vague Iraq setting, true, and Delano probably doesn't get quite as much out of it as he can by setting so much of it inside. Unfortunately there just aren't that many genre comics set in far off, real world places, so we take what we can get. The way the story plays out, Delano may have chosen Iraq as one more example of humans used as pawns in games and struggles over their heads, as Constantine is used, and as Aseera is used.

Where the book comes up short is the third act, where Constantine goes up against the demon/evil god behind the stinky-poison-vapor killer as the proxy poker player of a more humane deity. Maybe it's just that I'm not much interested in card games, even ones played with soul coins against mythical opponents, but I think it's more that card games are pretty hard to make exciting in comics. Moreso when the rules aren't explained and Constantine wins with cockiness more than skill. Not a bad effort overall, but there are sure a lot better ways to spend $25.


Milligan is a writer I have tended to like more than Delano, particular X-Force/X-Statix and Human Target. Right there you have some characters who make bad choices and revel in them, who have trouble making lasting relationships. Seems like a natural to write Constantine. And Milligan is pretty good. I'm coming onto his run after he apparently lost that one woman who really got to him (if you're going to write a character who's been around 25 years, why not make your mark and make it early). After a nice transitional issue with Constantine trying to escape gangsters and cops and get out of England on a phony passport (and wow, Simon Bisley's art looks committed for once!), he's off to Mumbai to maybe bring her back to life or save his soul. Of course, that story alone could be kind of dull, so Milligan and Camuncoli give us a colorful blue Indian demon occupied by a Raj-era British colonel's soul. This creature is being fed hot young Indian actresses by a filmmaker and a false British guru (old friend of Constantine's) in exchange for...well, I forget just what they get out of it besides getting to stay alive. It's not really that important. As with Pandemonium, part of the interest for a sheltered American is seeing a bit of the culture and crazy-ass deities of another land, with the added zing of thoroughly disreputable British character trying to not only improve his own karma but also to do a little to redress some of the wrongs his country did to India. And like Pandemonium, the climax is kind of weak. It probably would be a bad idea to try to come up with some rules and limitations on Constantine's magic, but it seems more often his ability to bluff or taunt his way through his magical battles makes for unsatisfying conclusions rather than being some intrinsic part of his charm.

What Milligan does do well here is give us a Constantine who's still a scoundrel but also knows grief and may have a little bit of desire to do a good deed if it's not too much trouble. The key is always to surround him with people who make even worse choices than him but also don't have his spunk or good lines. Plus, unlike Delano, who makes Constantine look like kind of an idiot for insisting on wearing his trenchcoat in the Iraqi desert, under body armor, Milligan isn't afraid to mess with the formula, here getting Constantine shirtless and covered in blood as a kind of lure for the demon. Milligan also creates a female character in gangster's daughter Epiphany who's not just a "strong female character" because she's tough, but because she seems to have her own life and goals beyond just propping up Constantine. He might be too stuck on his dead Phoebe to see her potential, but the reader isn't. She seems like a character who will soon be telling Milligan what she wants to do. Aside from the too-easy conclusion, this is good stuff.

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18 February 2010

Ebert

Hey, just a brief note on something that touched me, which is this Esquire interview with film critic Roger Ebert, kind of a profile on how he's spending his days lately with no lower jaw, an inability to speak or eat solid food. I guess that could be heartbreaking, and sure, the photos are a little uncomfortable, especially for those of us who grew up with the pleasant, salt-and-pepper-haired critic with the friendly, round face and wry good humor on Sneak Previews and At the Movies.

I grew up in a Chicago suburb, so I've known Ebert's criticism most of my life, although we always subscribed to the Chicago Tribune rather than the Sun-Times. Watching the shows was a treasured ritual with my mom up in our "TV room," a little den next to my bedroom, where we might enjoy some Stouffers Creamed Chicken or Creamed Chipped Beef inside puffed pastry shells while watching the show.

I don't want to delve further into those memories, because a) they would make me hungry for that creamy, fattening food, and I'm on a diet, and b) there's no reason to eulogize Roger Ebert, because he's very much alive. In fact, he seems as much or more alive than ever, his challenges our benefit, as he has focused even more on the movies he loves, while also infusing his writing with more personal insight and wisdom than ever. My mom always used to give me one of his fat review yearbooks as a Christmas gift, and I admit there were stretches over the years where I felt like Ebert was getting too soft or finding value in films I thought were mediocre at best. But one thing he taught me, which I've applied to my comics reviewing, is to try to judge the work on its merits rather than what we hope it to be. That is, an autobio artcomic isn't inherently better than Superhero Comic #467, but does Superhero Comic #467 accomplish its goals? Escapism isn't something to look down on. We all seek it, whether in our art or sex or food or other substances. It's tough to be alone with our thoughts and the crushing realities of the world. Entertainment is a noble endeavor, and there are no guilty pleasures.

These are things I've gleaned from Ebert's writing. But from the example Ebert's set with his own life, it's harder to say. I like to think I could face the day not just with stoicism but childlike enthusiasm, but who knows? I haven't experienced his hardships. What I do know is that it has made his writing even richer and I couldn't respect him more. His wife Chaz seems like a rare gem as well.

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09 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 062 - Imprimaturity

Tim O'Neil is a writer I've read on and off for years, but without finding that crucial window into what he's really all about. Let's face it, it's not easy to reconcile an academic tone with a love for the work of Mark Gruenwald, particularly the execrable Squadron Supreme. Sometimes O'Neil will write something I enjoy and agree with (his music reviews are always good), and then he'll write something irritating, occasionally seeming contentious for its own sake.

I thought that was what he was doing here, in which he reduced the past decade's worth of comics as a glut of mediocrity. It struck me wrong based merely on my own general belief that of any art, around 80% of it is mediocre/crap, and only 20% or so is good to great. Even taking aside the time I spent trying to keep up with "The Golden Age of Reprints," there just never seemed to be enough time to read all the stuff everyone else thought was goodPlanetes? Maybe this decade. Probably not. And the truth is, like almost anyone else, I get caught up with the mediocrity, and only occasionally is it because it's a work assignment. I mean, I'm reading Fall of the Hulks and Blackest Night right now, and just as a preview of my eventual BN #1-8 review? It's awful.

I read O'Neil's essay as a way to blame largely innocent, generally competent, meeting expectations comics for his own feelings of being displaced as an enthusiast, one whose enthusiasm dated back before comics became respected, cross-platform entertainments. As interesting as the essay was (although it could have used some dates and the timeline was a little confused), by the end of it I felt like O'Neil was kind of doing to comics what hipsters do to bands whose talent has led them to a major label contract. It's not the music that changes but how we change, what life does to us that causes us to hear it differently.

Luckily, I didn't go off half-cocked like I usually do and write something fiery or withering, because O'Neil had a neat trick up his sleeve. In modular fashion, the essay can work on its own, but O'Neil surprised me (and no doubt, many others), with Part Two, in which he puts the blame for his ennui back where it belongs, on himself. I am absolutely praising him here for his self-reflection, even if it's unfortunately probably fair to use his "dancing bear" metaphor to find a comics reviewer's self-reflection at all noteworthy. In other words, it's a shame it doesn't happen more often, but I guess it's not surprising, because to some extent immersing oneself in comics or any medium is to buy into that illusion that time spent in one's room reading about superheroes in one's 20s, 30s, 40s and beyond is a more worthwhile pursuit than going for a walk, interacting with people, taking a class, making your own art or craft.

It's a very difficult thing to do, challenge one's own beliefs, because after all, it's not like we have a separate brain with which to do it. Any parent has had to, in a pinch, clean smutz off their kid's face with their own spit on a tissue, or their thumb, but is that really cleaning? It's hard, so it's understandable that O'Neil vacillates between questioning whether he's the turd in the punchbowl even as he defends his disdain for the so-called great comics he doesn't like. He says Marjane Satrapi paid her dues even while he introduces the idea that she didn't; he accepts that comics are bigger than his need to be in a club of outsiders even as he laments this acceptance. It's fairly extraordinary, and while it's maybe a little short of a breakthrough, in therapeutic terms it's significant progress for the first couple sessions. And somehow, he digs a little deeper and looks at himself a little more squarely in Part 3.

So obviously, the question then is, where does he go from here? Is there going to be a different approach to what he does? Do you take your comics at a degree of remove, so that they'll never get that close again, or do you throw yourself into it wholeheartedly, trying to find that lost innocence, that anything's possible/best is yet to come feeling? Are we encouraged by his following this introspective trifecta with terrific pieces on great Aughts books like Brunetti's Schizo #4 and the Milligan/Allred X-Force? Is the piece on whether Joker or Mr. Zzazs make sense in the real world (as if Batman does) a regression? Hard to say, but a good effort nonetheless. Would that more of us tried it.


Batman: Legends of the Dark Knight Special #1
Writers - Mark Waid, Paul Dini, Greg Rucka
Artists - Brian Bolland, Mark Chiarello, Rick Burchett, Don Kramer
Publisher - DC Comics. $5.99 USD


I thought BLODK was canceled a long time ago? I think this was originally done as some sort of bonus in a box set or something, and now available to trick people thinking their six bucks is going towards new, exclusive material. Yep, this is all reprints, some just a couple years old and some going back to the '90s. And like the roughly 350 lb. Batman in Alex Maleev's cover, it has a bloated and unjustifiably self-satisfied feeling to it. Editor Bob Joy put this together with a really kind of pointless idea: let's present one story each featuring James Gordon, Two-Face and the Joker, and we'll preface each one with a brief origin piece for anyone who never saw Batman: The Dark Knight Returns. Did anyone need to read a one page Batman Secret Files piece on Jim Gordon again? And while Waid is certainly concise in his origins for Batman, Two-Face and the Joker, and the art by Kubert, Chiarello and Brian Bolland is good given the tight space (and for the last two, it's rare to see sequential work from them anymore), these were just filler pieces from 52 and Countdown, respectively.

So with those, and a fine old 1990 cover from Neal Adams reprinted, we have three actual stories here. The Rucka/Burchett "Falling Back" is a 2000 story I remember fondly, with Batman and Gordon trying to restore their friendship after Batman's abandonment of Gotham during No Man's Land. It maybe rings a little over-earnest now, but fine.

"Double Jeopardy" has some annoying pencils by Wheatley and a sputtering script by Fisch about Gordon cajoling Two-Face to help solve the murder of gangster Boss Maroni, the man who had the acid thrown in Harvey Dent's face that caused his mental breakdown/transformation into Two-Face. Fisch is maybe not letting us into Harvey's head so as to make his motivations for helping more enigmatic and compelling, but to me it just came off uninteresting. Somewhat better is the Dini/Kramer "Slayride," which shows the resourcefulness of the Tim Drake Robin as he tries to keep a cool head when kidnaped by the Joker, on a maniacal spree of hit-and-runs. Kramer doesn't bring much to the table, but I kind of liked Joker's bluntly cruel plan of just running over a lot of civilians to try to make Tim crack.

In this download age, reprint compilations like this one may be going the way of the original motion picture soundtrack. Aside from Chiarello or Bolland completists, I can't see a lot of reason to pick this one up, and there are dozens of other stories that better capture the characters.


Zorro: Matanzas #1 (of 4)
Writer - Don McGregor
Artist - Mike Mayhew
Publisher - Dynamite Entertainment. $3.99 USD


Speaking of old material, Dynamite sees fit to follow their Eisner-nominated Zorro from a different creative team with this oddity, a miniseries that was already several years in the making when Topps yanked the rug out from under the creators a decade ago, not publishing any of it. Not that McGregor was cutting edge in 1999, but at least there's a helluva lot of enthusiasm for the character here. McGregor is, not surprisingly, verbose as all get out, and that leads Mayhew, who I recall had yet to make a bigger name for himself on Vampirella and eventually some Marvel stuff, to...see what I did there? I wrote like McGregor. Anyway, the wealth of expository captions from our young hero, Don Diego, sometimes causes Mayhew to have to be creative an compact in how he gets his visual information across in the reduced space left to him. He draws an attractive Diego, and it touched the childlike part of me to see the diagrams of his underground lair with the secret passages, (primitive) laboratory and so on.

Storywise, it's a lot of setup, which Diego's father wanting him to be more responsible, settled down, and attending to family business. Diego has come up with an excuse for his frequent absence to go administering masked justice, and it's a lot like Bruce Wayne's excuse--he's a playboy, although McGregor needlessly confuses things by making Diego feign being effeminate. There's a cruel, scarred, one-handed villain who inexplicably is a kind of friend to Diego's father, and this man is planning some sort of revenge, but it's not clear what that is. More importantly, it's not really clear what Diego is fighting for. Even in that '90s Antonio Banderas movie, you knew he was fighting corrupt Mexican officials, but here who knows? As such, it's hard to get very interested.

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06 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 061 - Ural Nautilus


Weapon X: Wolverine #10
Writer - Jason Aaron
Artist - C.P. Smith
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD


I'm pretty sure this is my first exposure to Aaron's writing. Marvel seems to have locked up more of the younger, fresher writers the past couple years than DC. Anyway, I was intrigued by the cover, which is badly drawn by Adam Kubert but has the germ of a funny idea to it: Wolverine as ladies' man. Kubert draws such a tiny cocktail glass for Mystique that I have to think he never goes out--maybe he just drinks from a hose in the backyard? He also has to use a sound effect--unusual for a cover--to convey Wolvie's boredom. At least the idea reflects the contents within, as Logan only has thoughts of his new gal, Melita, a San Francisco reporter. Smith draws a leaner, more Jackman-like Logan, and has the honor of drawing the flashback to his loss of virginity (Logan's, not Smith's). Aaron gets to the finish line where there's an unsurprising wrap-up: Melita is the one for Logan, because she accepts him, won't put up with his crap, has her own gig away from the X-Men, and is able to rationalize the severe increase in her chance of being killed due to dating a superhero as no different than the dangers of riding a bus. We'll see how long that lasts and if Aaron has the chops to find real dimension in her character and their relationship. What's funny is how he gets through the issue, with centuries-old Logan acting like John Cusack in Say Anything, leaning on his female friends like Ororo, Rogue and Black Widow for advice. Of course, Lloyd Dobler never had to turn down guilt-free, cyborg ninja sex.


Red Hulk #1
Writer - Jeff Parker
Penciler - Carlos Rodriguez
Inker - Vicente Cifuentes
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD


Parker has a pretty good batting average with me, but when you write for Marvel or DC, you do tend to get sucked into crapping out a superfluous story or ten when you're involved in a multi-title event. This could have just been a regular issue of any of the regular Hulk books instead of a new #1, and not a whole lot happens. Red Hulk and Rick "A-Bomb" Jones team up to break into an AIM base for information on M.O.D.O.K.'s new doomsday device. It's a trap, though, designed to get Red Hulk near the old "Cosmic Hulk" clone/robot/something, which gives it the spark of energy it needs to take off. So, basically, our heroes blew it, plus Red Hulk revealed himself as a traitor to old bosses M.O.D.O.K. and the Leader.

Sturdy enough work from Rodriguez but without the power Romita, Jr. and McGuinness have been bringing the Hulkverse of late. I'm still getting used to Rick Jones as a big, spiky blue behemoth, and despite his many years around superheroes, Red Hulk comes off the more sensible, pragmatic one. All in all, you'd be fine to skip this and just catch the next recap page of the next related Hulk issue.


The Indomitable Iron Man
Writers - Paul Cornell, Howard Chaykin, Duane Swierczynski, Alex Irvine
Artists - Will Rosado, Howard Chaykin, Manuel Garcia & Stefano Gaudiano, Nelson DeCastro
Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD


I'll give it an extra point for a new adjective for Iron Man, although if you're going to use "indomitable," maybe the longest story here, the Cornell/Rosado "Berserker," shouldn't be about failure? It reads a lot to me like an '80s inventory story, maybe something David Michelinie would cook up for the month when Bob Layton got behind or something. A kooky terraforming robot probe designed by Tony Stark for NASA gets its lifelike programming screwed up and tries to turn Earth into an alien world. It's angry at its daddy, Tony, for abandoning it, and in reprogramming it he somehow has some feelings of paternal regret. Not a bad premise, just not done that well here, although I liked Rosado getting into that old school spirit with an abundance of Ben-Day dots.

While that one certainly isn't a real inventory story, Chaykin's "Multitasking" looks more like one, as he draws more of an '80s style of armor. Actually, "multitasking" has lost a lot of its significance, hasn't it? It's like "recycling" or "rebooting,"--something that's so commonplace now it has lost all its initial zing. Anyway, it's an insignificant tale of Tony Stark fielding a number of calls from big clients and friends like Nick Fury (still directing S.H.I.E.L.D.), Captain America and Mr. Fantastic, while fighting a number of minor menaces as Iron Man. It's notable only for Chaykin's art, rarely seen in just black and white (the whole special is colorless, modeled on Marvel's '70s magazines), and his use of the exact same panel composition for each page, which works splendidly. Also, no one draws Stark more like an early '80s porn star than Chaykin. You can almost smell his mustache.

Swierczynski offers probably the most interesting story here, "Brainchild," which finds the granddaughter of Pepper Potts entering the protective monolith where an aged, Howard Hughesian Stark has been cooped up for decades, working on solutions to the real problems of the world without the distraction of fighting supervillains. There's a nicely bittersweet quality to the ending, where she gets him out into the fresh air to see how his ideas have been the building blocks for other scientists to finish and improve upon, but this only makes him feel obsolete. However, my favorite part was when he tells her he recycles his waste into nutrients and then asks her if she'd like something to drink. "Ah, right. You're probably going to pass on that. I would."

In keeping with the Marvel magazine model, there's a text story by Irvine and DeCastro, but as I've written about many times, I just have a big hangup about text stories when I'm trying to read comics. Aside from that, though, it's a pretty entertaining, if mostly forgettable, special, and probably a little more forgettable due to being in black-and-white from artists who are not generally good enough to carry the art on their own, or in the case of Chaykin, who is almost invariably served by thoughtful coloring.


Demo (Vol. 2) #1 (of 6)
Writer - Brian Wood
Artist - Becky Cloonan
Publisher - Vertigo. $2.99 USD


Demo was the first thing Brian Wood wrote that I actually liked. I found the works that got him his first industry attention, Channel Zero and The Couriers, to be pretty childish, petulant, though well-designed and drawn. But from the first issue of Demo on, I felt like he was reaching a new level, focusing on real emotions and with a genuine attempt to understand other people. Part of that may have been in writing for an artist like Cloonan, someone who hadn't yet settled on a style but had at least half a dozen capable-to-very-good ones to choose from, and also because he was writing stories that didn't use car chases or explosions to make their points.

Demo brought both Wood and Cloonan to Vertigo for other series, but they've overcome any trepidations they may have had about trying to catch lightning in a bottle to offer up another six issues together. This first, "The Waking Life of Angels," is a bit further removed from the "young people with superpowers" umbrella under which much of the first series operated, but there is some mysticism here, at least. Our heroine, Joan, has been experiencing dreams/visions of an angel in danger, falling from the upper floor of a cathedral. No one ever said Wood was the subtlest writer, so yes, our Joan is kind of like Joan of Arc, and readers can find out for themselves if she suffers a similar martyrdom for reasons that may be divine or could just be mental imbalance.

I haven't read much of Cloonan's work since the first series. It's lost some of that lovely, chunky inkiness, but while it's more assured, she hasn't lost that essential innocent quality. Even though rough pencils included at the back of the issue show just how hard she works, the end result feels unforced, and both she and Wood have a special working chemistry that doesn't appear to have dissipated. I wasn't absolutely thrilled by the ending, but ambiguity will do that, and all in all it's a quite welcome return.


Ultimate X #1
Writer - Jeph Loeb
Artist - Arthur Adams
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $3.99 USD


I sure didn't expect to start off 2010 reading a bunch of Jeph Loeb comics, but that's how things work out, I guess. I also thought the reformed(?) Ultimate Universe would be restarting small, but I suppose it's pretty typical of Marvel to start cluttering it up again right away. I actually picked this up not really knowing it was part of the Ultimate Universe at all. I mean, sure, it's got "Ultimate" in the name, but the trade dress is different from Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man and Ultimate Comics: Avengers. I just wanted to see Adams' art.

Adams has never been one to be able to handle monthly deadlines, so we'll see how long he lasts on the book. But what you do get from him is, still, excellent work, for however long he can manage. And clearly, he doesn't adjust his effort based on how important he may think the title in question is, because let's face it, no one was exactly clamoring for another title with "X" in it.

And yet, this is pretty good, even while it has so many familiar elements, not just from various mutant books but also the recent Star Trek movie. Based on one of the variant covers which features a team of heroes including the Ultimate Hulk, Loeb is going to give us a "gathering the forces" arc, each issue focusing on one future team member. This time out, it's Jimmy Hudson, a rebellious, reckless teenager who's a real handful for his parents, James and Heather Hudson. In this universe, neither are Canadian superheroes; James is the sheriff of their small town, Heather his wife.

Like his dad, Jimmy has a thing for redheads, except Hudson isn't his real dad. As he learns from a visiting Kitty Pryde, his father is Wolverine, who died during Loeb's much-derided Ultimatum storyline, but not before recording a Princess Leia-style hologram for Jimmy. Jimmy knew he healed quickly from any injury, and now, with Kitty's prodding, he finds he can extend bone claws from his hands just like his dad, PLUS form metal over them, kind of like Colossus. And that's pretty convenient and easy, ain't it?

It would probably be rather been there, done that, if not for a couple things. Adams, as mentioned above, brings his "A" game, helped enormously by Peter Steigerwald's beautiful coloring (I suppose it's a sign of the times that Steigerwald gets cover billing while the digital inker, Mark Roslan, doesn't). Also, Loeb's use of the elder Hudson narrating, while a little confusing at first, ends up adding a warmth to the proceedings. You know how much the man cares for and worries about his headstrong son, and any kind of focus on the parents of mutant children is a welcome change. Of course, there's a lot more work to do from here, getting readers to care about the other characters, offering Ultimate versions of villains that aren't simply retreads, etc. But it's a better start than I expected.

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03 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 060 - Galacta


Galacta: Daughter of Galactus
Writer - Adam Warren
Artist - Hector Sevilla Lujan
Publisher - Marvel Comics.


I haven't checked out any of Marvel's free online content until now, and I have to say that while it could be a bit easier to navigate, good job so far. Lots of fairly current stuff is available as well as some random old issues from the '90s, from what I can tell. And while that wasn't the greatest decade for Marvel, it's cool that they're reaching back a bit and offering these surprises.

And they're also offering web-only comics like this one, which gives us a previously unknown, can't-honestly-be-in-continuity-right? daughter of the Devourer of Worlds, who has pretty much the same costume and same diet, but is otherwise a pretty normal teen girl who tweets. Preposterous idea from Warren, but I'll give him credit for getting Marvel to bite. Navigating the story was a little odd: clicking on the next page arrow just brought you through the same page first, sort of panel by panel but not quite, with some panels suddenly larger or smaller without a lot of rhyme or reason. You get the hang of it.

For a sort of cute, girl-friendly story, Lujan's soft, subtly manga-influenced style works well, and Warren can write a quirky teen girl's thoughts without embarrassing himself. That being said, I don't expect I'll come back for more.

In fact, after reading this, I really didn't feel all that much like doing a review. I just wanted to come up with more daughter of/switched gender spinoffs of existing heroes and villains. Alan David Doane came up with Batroca, which actually gave me some actual story ideas. Hopefully Tom Spurgeon won't mind me mentioning a couple of his winners, Heather the Duck and Klawmentine.

Here are some of mine. Hopefully at worst they are stupid but inoffensive.

Kangela
Nomaid
Speedovary
Valkyroy
Shebomination
Lady Ego the Loving Planet
Shang-Chick, Mistress of Kung-Fu
Black Widower
Arkonnie
Ragwoman
Woman Torch
Male Furies
Nicole Fury & Her Nagging Commandos
Wolveronica
Eve Strange
Justice Ladies Auxiliary
Spawnette
Milord Xanadu
Jill of Hearts
Sons of the Daughters of the Dragon
Grendella
Kravena the Homemaker
Va Vang Voom
Gentlewoman Ghost
Violatrix
Mr. Tree
Sister E
Damedevil
The Confusing Spider-Tran
Cowseye
Queenpin

And since I started this, I can't get the image out of my head of Red Skull with long blonde hair. Wouldn't he be scarier that way?

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02 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 059 - The Losers


Jack Kirby's The Losers
Writer/Penciler/Editor - Jack Kirby
Inkers - Mike Royer and D. Bruce Berry
Publisher - DC Comics. $39.99 USD


When Jack Kirby defected from Marvel Comics to DC, he entered into a contract that would have been backbreaking for a lot of artists even back in the early '70s, when he and his peers, those "Greatest Generation" guys, were pounding out pages to put food on the table for their families. Many of these men had work ethics strengthened by military experience as well. They took pride in their work, but the first goal was getting the work done quickly and getting paid for it. Adding to Kirby's time crunch was the fact he wasn't just the penciler, he was also writing the stories and plotting the course of his various series, to the extent he plotted anything out long-term. Flying by the seat of his pants, making it up as he went along--these qualities served Kirby well his entire career.

In this spirit of put-your-head-down-and-come-up-with-something-good, Kirby took on the assignment of Our Fighting Forces, one of several DC war books. Well, maybe he didn't just put his head down. He apparently grumbled about the assignment, as he felt the name of the team he inherited, The Losers, didn't fit his sensibilities. His characters were winners. I really don't know what The Losers were like before Kirby took them on, or how they were depicted after his twelve issue run collected here. But indeed, Kirby's Losers are winners.

Those who knew Kirby have often written of his propensity for telling tales of his WWII experiences over and over again. Whatever pain or horror he may have known in those days was largely private and bleeds through only occasionally in the stories here. But in a way, that's part of why they work. I'm not a great admirer of most war comics fan, but ones I've liked have been intense, realistic and based on actual battles, with clear goals and great attention to detail, like Garth Ennis' War Stories and Battlefields, or they've been humanistic stories dealing with the futility of war, the way it represents our failure as a species, such as Archie Goodwin's Blazing Combat or some of Harvey Kurtzman's Two-Fisted Tales. None of those works bear any relation to The Losers.

So why did I like this? Well, we all contain contradictions. Let's face it, more often than not, comics present an escape from an often grim reality. Reading war comics of any kind, safe at home, is something of an escape, sure, but Kirby's work is in a whole other dimension, and that's why I like it. Joe Kubert may give you the rumpled uniforms and unshaven faces, the grit and steely resolve, but The Losers are indefatigable, colorful, often grinning. They're a team incongruously composed of different branches of the armed forces, working together, appearing in various hot spots where they complete a tough mission together, make no lasting human connections with anyone, and next issue they're somewhere else, another theater of war. There's no debate--they're right to be at war, and whatever mission they're assigned is the right thing to do to help stop the Nazis or Japanese. Kirby never glories in death but doesn't shy away from it, either. Soldiers shoot or they get shot. That's what they do. He respects them enough that each issue even includes pages at the end with his depictions of various Allied and Axis weapons and armaments, insignia, and helmets throughout history.

It goes without saying that Kirby was unique among comics creators, but still, it's hard to imagine anyone else with military experience being able to throw away much of what he knew to be true in order to tell such entertaining but often outlandish stories, like "Devastator vs. Big Max," an over-the-top Freudian, wry, yet gripping tale of brinkmanship between the U.S. troops and the Nazis over whose weapon is biggest. It never happened, and the German Devastator is a pure Kirby creation that would never work (I'm guessing the heat, noise and noxious gases from its use would take out as many nearby Nazis as the Allies and citizens at the receiving end of its bombs).

Kirby comes up with a neat formula for the series that carries throughout the run. A sort of "cold opening" to set up the situation, then we get the title and the details of the mission The Losers need to accomplish. Within this framework, Kirby's able to tell a story of the danger of hubris in "Bushido," a ghost story in "The Partisans," and a good heart curdled by abuse in "Panama Fattie/Bombing out on the Panama Canal," as well as war and idealogy getting in the way of the purity of sport in "Mile a Minute Jones." In his Introduction, Neil Gaiman notes that none of the characters in these stories get what they want, and that's an astute observation, at least on the part of Panama Fattie and Jones and the others who grab the spotlight for an issue or two and then are killed or just left behind when the mission is over. What's interesting is that Kirby, perhaps carrying an aversion to the whole "loser" label, spends as little time as possible on the team of Captain Storm, Johnny Cloud, Gunner and Sarge. In some issues, Cloud would appear to be the leader instead of Storm, but aside from the two-part Panama Fattie story, where Storm showed real affection for Fattie and regret over the route her life takes, they're largely interchangeable cyphers. The same can be said of Gunner and Sarge, who are kind of the Johnny Storm (youthful exuberance) and Ben Grimm (sincere, stolid neighborhood fella) of the quartet, but much more hastily sketched. If the missions were more boilerplate and without Kirby's range and grandiosity, the thin characterization would be more of a problem, but most of the time readers will just be enjoying the imaginative action sequences to care.

Once again, few other war veteran cartoonists would be able to ignore their own backgrounds to create such bigger than life fantasy, but I think "would be able" is the wrong way to put it. I think this is how Kirby saw the world, and even his past went through this filter where every detail was enlarged, foreshortened, warped for maximum drama, or swapped for something better, like his subconscious was rewriting his own history. It's enjoyable to try to pick up the few bits of less-submerged feeling here, such as his obvious affection for the science fiction comics-obsessed soldier in 'Devastator," who obviously is meant for better things than war but will do his part regardless, or the obvious contempt for Nazi cruelty, and ceremony over compassion, in the first and arguably best story here, "Kill Me with Wagner."

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01 February 2010

Daily Breakdowns 058 - The Death of Captain America Omnibus


The Death of Captain America Omnibus
Writer - Ed Brubaker
Pencilers - Steve Epting, Butch Guice, Mike Perkins, Luke Ross and Roberto de la Torre
Inkers - Epting, Guice, Perkins, de la Torre, Rick Magyar and Fabio Laguna
Publisher - Marvel Comics. $64.99 USD


A common thread running through much of Ed Brubaker's work is redemption. Those who noticed this from as early as Lowlife and Deadenders up through current series like Criminal may have wondered what he could bring to Captain America. Cap is Marvel's Superman, not in terms of power but in leadership and impeccable moral fiber. Cap has rarely needed to redeem himself for anything, although now and then he takes it upon himself to try to redeem America's values.

Whether consciously or not, Brubaker's first two years on Captain America found him using Cap as the ultimate support system to help other characters redeem themselves. There is no character in the Marvel Universe who has given more idealistic speeches over the years, but Cap's best moments as a character are usually one on one, when he holds out a hand to help someone who's lost their way. This has happened with Hawkeye, Falcon, Nomad, and after an exciting two years of surprises, it happened for his first partner, Bucky. Or, it was starting to happen, and then Cap was shot and killed.

Death is rarely permanent in the world of superhero comics. Indeed, Bucky Barnes was one of the few Marvel Universe characters no one tried to bring back until Brubaker, probably because his death added a gravity to Cap and the otherwise boyishly gregarious exploits of the WWII depicted in Cap's Golden Age adventures. It's not for me to spoil anything that happens after issues #25-42 collected here. Whether Steve Rogers is dead or not is hardly the point, anyway. The stories here are about the redemptions of Bucky Barnes, former mind-controlled Soviet assassin Winter Soldier, and current mind-controlled SHIELD agent Sharon Carter, who killed her lover, Steve Rogers at the prodding of Red Skull and Dr. Faustus.

Reading this in collected form is a treat. After the shock of Cap's shooting, Brubaker doesn't offer any surprises on the level of the return of Bucky or the Red Skull's unusual sharing of his enemy's body, but he keeps a very consistent groove of just enough plot development per chapter, mixed with fairly strong character work. He's working with the inevitable but keeping it interesting. After all, if you're going to bring back Bucky and make him bad, there has to be a chance for him to become good again. As mentioned above, that's what Cap is all about, seeing that spark of goodness in someone and bringing it out again. It's just that this time, Cap's gone, and Bucky has to do it on his own. It's a very clever idea to have Cap have written a letter to Tony Stark to look out for Bucky. It not only shows how much more fatherly and compassionate Steve Rogers is than most superheroes, but it also gives Tony a chance to honor Steve's memory and mend some fences. Redemption all around. It's also pretty believable that the pragmatic, manipulative Stark would convince Bucky to take on the mantle of Captain America as well. As Bucky goes from murderously vengeful to honored, intimidated and eager to impress Cap's former partner The Falcon, it's impossible not to root for the guy. And the retcon of a past, unresolved love affair with the Black Widow is a terrific idea for both characters. Most writers haven't known what to do with her, romantically, aside from having her show up now and then to get her ex Matt Murdock to come out for some fresh air.

Sharon Carter's own redemption arc is a bit more problematic. Her horror at what she's done and her lack of control of her own body and mind are well done, and her comeback moments are fine, too. Why she had to wear the Sterankoesque '60s butt-hugging body suit, I'm not sure, and her brief pregnancy with Steve's baby was maybe a bit too much tragedy piled on top. It's more acceptable for Bucky to define himself by his relationship to Steve, because he was his sidekick and doesn't remember much of his life after that. It's a little different for Sharon, who has had many clearheaded adventures and lived most of her life away from Steve, so it would be nice if Brubaker would delve into her personality and history more rather than just seeing her as Steve's girl and a sleeper agent. That said, Brubaker has done an excellent job of making her, Bucky, Widow and Falcon a tight unit of caring professionals, so the groundwork is laid for many more good stories for them. And for that matter, who doesn't want to see Skull, Sin and Crossbones come back?

So, overall it's quite a successful continuation of an already acclaimed run. Cap's death and Bucky's return are not just gimmicks but the bases for compelling stories with good characterization. Brubaker works in some elements of the current Marvel Universe, namely Stark as SHIELD director and the Superhuman Registration Act, but there are no guest stars or digressions away from the main story. Helping keep the momentum up over the eighteen issues here is once again, Steve Epting, but he's also aided by Perkins, Guice and de la Torre, all of whom keep to the basic template Epting has created. That's pretty tough to do, so some credit has to go to editor Tom Brevoort for picking the right guys with complementary styles. Alex Ross and Epting came up with the final version of the Bucky Cap costume, and aside from a perhaps unnecessary shininess to it, it's mostly successful, the bottom black half symbolizing the darkness Bucky brings to the role while that same darkness highlights the chestplate/shoulders, which, as always, symbolize Captain America's ideals.

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28 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 057 - The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century


The Unclothed Man in the 35th Century
Writer/Artist - Dash Shaw
Publisher - Fantagraphics Books. $19.99 USD


I was rather alarmed to search online and realize I never got around to reviewing Shaw's Bottomless Belly Button, one of the best graphic novels of 2008. This is quite a different animal from that 720 page sprawling seriocomedy/weird romance/exploration of divorce, but that's probably to be expected. After such a huge work, it's natural for authors to scale back, do some shorter stuff, try out some different ideas without the commitment a graphic novel requires. That's sort of true of this book, but it can't be said that Shaw is resting on his laurels, goofing off, or coasting. If anything, the handful of short stories here represent great leaps in, or at the very least previously unseen examples of, his innovative approach to comics coloring, as well as some inventive storytelling techniques. He also swings and misses once or twice, too, but that's fine.

First, though, we have "The Unclothed Man..." to examine. Not a short story, this was originally a series of four two minute animated shorts written and directed by Shaw (with additional artwork from Jane Samborski) for the Independent Film Channel about a rebel in the future bent on bringing humanity back to the almost impossibly automated life in the 35th Century. Shaw's is not a dystopian future in the sense of it being apocalyptic, irradiated and doomed. Rather, it's a placid, dull, unchallenging existence, with the passions and survival instincts of our ancestors largely bred out of us. The first 24 pages of the book are devoted to the series, with some lovely paintings and studies for the series alongside three one-page strips that inspired the shorts, but the majority of the work here are storyboards, often 24 per page. The process is mildly interesting, but ultimately frustrating because Shaw's directing notes are hard to read in this small format, and because storyboard artwork is never meant to be as good as comics or the final animation product. One could question why so much space was given to this, but the IFC logo on the front cover is a good clue. Whether they had anything to do with the book, I don't know, but it's not at all a bad idea to have that logo on the cover, which is striking in itself, its acetate suggesting the qualities of an animation cell. I could easily see someone picking up this book in a bookstore, curious about the IFC connection.

Speaking of the shorts themselves, which can be viewed here, Shaw turns out to have great promise as a director, and his comics strengths are displayed well. Shaw is not really a futurist, but part of the charm is the silly retro quality of some of the designs--both here and in one of the short stories, characters wear helmets of great power and technical sophistication, but they really just look like children's toys, or the designs a child would make of a cool spaceman. I like that Shaw hasn't lost that, even as he playfully lingers on the rebel character clipping his pubic hair to complete his disguise as an art model-droid. The animation itself is jerky, organic, trippy but low-fi, totally in line with the humanistic theme of the shorts.

As with "Unclothed," the short stories are variations on the theme of a man trying to find or retain his identity in a confusing, cold world. There's often a satirical element, as in "Terra Two/Terra One," which has The New Yorker giving an enthusiastic review of a dance performance only unique because it is performed backwards. Perhaps on some level Shaw realizes the story itself, underneath strong art and attractive coloring, is a gimmick more than anything else, a la Benjamin Button, or dare I say, Mork & Mindy? And I say attractive coloring, as it's nice, but I don't see depicting the backwards-living man in blue and his forwards-living paramour in yellow as having a deeper significance, not the way David Mazzucchelli dug deeper with color choices in Asterios Polyp. Still, while it isn't poignant, it's still pretty funny.

Alternating various story/timelines/levels of reality with fields of cyan, magenta or yellow, "Satellite CMYK" is a more successful effort, harrowing, disorienting and sad. Shaw has a gift for finding horror and despair in a simple, friendly drawing style here that would normally be suited to a '60s teen humor comic. The blending of the colors and then the descent into darkness are masterful, with an ending that's nicely ambiguous--it could be hopeful, or just another illusion meant to keep them in line.

"Cartooning Symbolia" looks to be one of the older pieces here, from 2005. It's a long series of funny words invented to convey various emotions, with complex, often brilliant, visual signifiers of those emotions in comics form. Think of a light bulb or broken heart symbol over a character's head, taken to the third power. Some of the other stories almost strike me as juvenilia because of the wild shifts in style and tone, but based on several being from 2009, it seems they're experiments, and produced at a fairly rapid pace. This intense work ethic may explain a certain "living in his head" quality to the work itself (it's nitpicking, but salsa is packaged in jars, never cans), as well as all the protagonists being males, often around Shaw's age. There's a real sense of working through artistic problems and challenges first, with the story second, as in the tale of the would-be screenwriter/gofer on the set of James Cameron's The Abyss, where Shaw employs a series of circles (water tank, salsa lid, hot tub, tape reel, etc.) to little effect, although the dialogue is comparable to a Dan Clowes loser study, or "My Entire High School...Sinking into the Sea!," a flight of fancy that boils down to an escape sequence with triangular panels, an unsure attempt at inking waves, and a particularly ugly coloring decision to do everything in a Photoshop airbrush effect. But that's what experimentation is about. Judging from the examples here, Shaw doesn't seem to repeat things that aren't working.

Much better are stories like "Blind Date 1" and "Galactic Funnels," the latter of which was selected for The Best American Comics 2009. "Blind Date 1" adapts a real episode of the syndicated show, and Shaw lets the awkwardness, forced gaiety and psychological impediment to happiness (the guy, anyway--what's his problem?) speak for themselves, while his cool blues, moody shadows and abstractions add a jazzy sensuality the shot-on-video game/reality show lacks. "Galactic Funnels" is justifiably acclaimed, an assured King of Comedy-style romp through the hollow life of a young man who finds an artist he admires, imitates and eventually tries to absorb. Full of dazzling color choices and smart storytelling that firmly deny this is a satire of the art world, the two key panels are, appropriately, near the beginning and right at the end. We see young Stan Smart toiling away, trying by repetition to lock into his hero Don Dak's real inspiration, galactic funnels, represented by Dak as circles. The splashes of color on Dak's face and the intense look in his eyes makes clear who the real artist is. Dak is obsessed, inspired. Stan is hip, a planner. He slavishly copies, with a compass. His worship appeals to Dak's vanity, briefly, but Dak's muse wins out. There can be only one funnel artist, and his love is sincere. Even when Stan tries to make a small innovation, a new wrinkle to call his own, he succumbs to the impulse of the hack: do the same thing, only bigger.

Shaw ends with what appears to be a new story in storyboard form (although drawn and colored with more of an eye towards publication than the "Unclothed" storyboards) that's another story of disconnection, finding a sort of "Joe the Plumber" instant celebrity trying to deal with his new fame. What's funny is that while his new manager is undeniably a crass womanizer giving him advice that may not help him find a genuine soulmate, the advice is much better for at least getting the ball rolling and starting a relationship than Joe's naked sincerity. It ends up as a nice visual bookend to "Unclothed," a reassuring piece of self-examination from an artist whose star is on the rise, and in its comics/storyboard hybrid format a fork in the road for where his career may take him.

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20 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 056 - Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture


Moyasimon: Tales of Agriculture Vol. 1
Writer/Artist - Masayuki Ishikawa
Publisher - Del Rey Books. $10.99 USD


The first thing this manga has over a lot of others is a striking cover, with the playful use of cartoony bacteria in place of the stars in Old Glory. And make no mistake, bacteria are the stars of this series. Tadayasu has the unique ability to see them with only his eyes. They're depicted in a simple, cute fashion, basically round heads with different stemlike things coming off them in order to differentiate one species(?) from another. The fact that he doesn't see them as they really looked is even remarked upon once or twice in the book.

Tadayasu and his friend Kei, heir to a sake brewery, are just beginning their first day as freshman at an agriculture college when we meet them. Masayuki immediately finds a nice contrast between the typical big-eyed, overexpressive characters and realistic, carefully rendered flora, fauna and the surroundings. His fascination with microbes is immense and infectious, no pun intended. Who knew learning how fermented seal meat is made, or what makes sake go bad, or how caterpillar mold can be a moneymaker, could be so interesting? But while this is interesting stuff, and very readable with the confident storytelling and handy sidebars identifying this or that germ as well as a frequent rundown of who the characters are, there's a big element missing here. The characterization. The basic premise of the book is great: boy can see bacteria and this creates opportunities for mini-mysteries, humorous stories, and even some suspense as people seek to exploit his ability. But Masayuki has only, in the 200+ pages here, scratched the surface of Tadayasu as a character. Yeah, he's special, and used to be picked on, and now it's worse because he's also a lowly freshman, PLUS he has to try to keep his ability a secret, thereby prolonging his status as a nerd and outcast. But...so what? Aside from wanting to fit in, we don't know anything about him, what he wants or cares about. It's not a bad book; it's amiable and ingratiating, and I admire that Masayuki found a way to make a love of science (I have to believe this is a subject he cares deeply about--that comes through) into art. But maybe it's that side of his brain getting all diagrammatic or something, but the emotion just hasn't been invested in these characters.

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17 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 055 - Strange Suspense


Strange Suspense: The Steve Ditko Archives Vol. 1
Editor - Blake Bell
Designer - Adam Grano
Publisher - Fantagraphics Books. $39.99 USD


"That's pretty," she said.

"No, he's great," I explained. "Steve Ditko. He co-created Spider-Man, but he's this really principled guy and never sued for any profits from them. He just does his own stuff now, very much influenced by Ayn Rand and Objectivism."

She said, "No, I was serious. It's a really good drawing. I love the colors of it. It's intense."


This is a friend of mine, who happened to spy the desperate figure on the cover of this book. Here I was, sensing a slight and rushing to the defense of Ditko, and she honestly appreciated his artwork. It struck me that as much as we longtime comics readers think we know what to recommend to others when it comes to superhero comics, kids comics, and graphic novels, it's always a crap shoot. Now, she didn't actually read the book, just noticed the cover, so I'll stand by my guess that this isn't the best introduction to Ditko's work, or the best introduction to horror/suspense comics, either. Still, over 50 years since this image was created, it still has power to it.

Strange Suspense is the first of "The Steve Ditko Archives," which one surmises will encompass mainly work for publishers outside of Marvel and DC. Unlike the recent, The Art of Ditko, which was a more personal, idiosyncratic collection spanning around 20 years, this volume reprints seemingly all of Ditko's work, in chronological order (or in order of completion, where that information was available), from late in 1953 to mid-1955. There is about a six month gap between the cover for This Magazine Is Haunted #21 and the cover and story, "Car Show," for From Here To Insanity #10, a period in which Ditko was recovering from tuberculosis.

Bell doesn't have the benefit of being able to choose the best work. This is warts and all stuff, a young artist learning with every six pager. Bell helpfully points out Ditko's style at this point is a mix of Mort Meskin, Jerry Robinson (an early mentor) and Joe Kubert, and certainly the Kubert influence is quite pronounced in several stories like, "Range War," a Western involving poison. There's a romance tale as well, but the bulk of the work here are horror/suspense stories, many of which find bad people meeting a just, if grisly, fate. In structure, many are like EC Comics work around this time, down to the lettering, but many lack the elegance or solid O'Henryesque twist endings. "Triple-Header" is a good example. A guy on a jungle hunting trip overhears his buddy and wife conspiring to do away with him, so he poisons them first, before winding up killed by native headhunters. There's no irony here in the way he dies, just a mild one in that death finds him through other means.

A lot of the stories are like that, and Bell mentions in his Introduction the oft-told fact that Charlton (the publisher for most of the stories here) kept their printing presses running twenty-four hours a day, as it was less expensive than turning them off, and so one can conclude quantity was more important to them than quality. They had to keep feeding the hungry presses, an ideal situation for a developing cartoonist, though not so much for the contemporary reader who has read or seen many good iterations of Tales from the Crypt-type stories. That said, It's interesting to see aspects of Ditko's well-known style in a science fiction story like "You Are the Jury," the female character and aliens very much like what Ditko would bring to later work like Tales to Astonish or Amazing Fantasy, followed by stories such as, "3-D Disaster Doom Death" and "The Night People" done in an alternate, almost as compelling style that Ditko would wholly abandon within just a couple years.

We find Ditko at this point thoughtful but only occasionally inventive, such as the use of captions resembling strips of film in a movie-related tale. Sometimes he doesn't get the most drama out of his scenes, and his huge-eyed monsters are often silly, rarely unsettling. There is some juvenile pleasure to be had in the fact that these stories all predate the Wertham/Comics Code era, so there's quite a bit of blood, some severed limbs, and grisly comeuppance. And although still oscillating between styles and influences here, there is substantial growth between, say, the Feb '54 horror version of "Cinderella" and the June '54 "Rumpelstiltskin," the latter also from a prolific period for Ditko, drawing four to five stories a month. While the number of lackluster scripts do make this volume one that may take a few fits and starts to finish, even in its infancy, Ditko's art is increasingly potent.

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14 January 2010

Daily Breakdowns 054 - Mash of the Titans


Agents of Atlas: Dark Reign TPB
Writer - Jeff Parker
Artists - Carlo Pagulayan, Jason Paz & Jana Schirmer, Gabriel Hardman & Elizabeth Disadang; Clayton Henry; Benton Jew; Leonard Kirk; Karl Kesel; Michelle Madsen; and Val Staples
Published by Marvel Comics. $19.99 USD


First of all, don't worry overmuch about that exhaustive list of artists. This isn't one of those books where a ton of people were pulled in to do a page here and there to meet deadlines. Well, that could be part of it, but it's really the first five issues of the ongoing (but recently canceled) Agents of Atlas series, which had a different creative team for flashbacks, plus other Parker-written stories from several Marvel specials that featured the Agents.

The Dark Reign storyline is handled with confidence by Parker, bringing any readers up to speed who hadn't read the introductory Agents miniseries or who, like me, weren't that familiar with the new Marvel Universe status quo of Norman Osborn being a powerful "hero" with his own paramilitary group called HAMMER, as well as running his own version of the Avengers. Atlas leader Jimmy Woo has a good idea: get on Osborn's real, dark side by posing as a criminal outfit, offering to build him weapons that will end up not working. They play their hand too early trying to establish their evil cred, which leads to conflict with the Avengers, though handled without much bloodshed. Woven into this is an enjoyable flashback involving dragon scales and time travel and a humorous, harmless retcon centered on Captain America, with nice Hardman art evocative of Michael Lark but lighter and more compatible with the Silver Age tone of the story. Parker sets up some other conflicts including a possible usurper to Woo's leadership of Atlas and some other business, but his emotional scenes are spare and not quite as effective as the crisp, plot-based work, though they're fine.

The bonus stories also attempt to work the Agents into not just the current but the past fabric of the Marvel Universe, with an early brush with Wolverine and a meeting with the time lord, Kang. Parker is He's well suited to writing about heroes with somewhat earlier, more traditional values. Woo is not an amoral tactician--he cares about his teammates and doesn't want them to do anything they don't want to do. I can't comment on whether Dark Reign has made other Marvel titles any grimmer, but I do find the tone of this book refreshing. Artwise, though, aside from Hardman, the various other artists are just okay. I liked them but didn't see anything that stood out.


The Incredible Hercules: Against The World TPB
Writers - Greg Pak and Fred Van Lente
Artists - Khoi Pham, Paul Neary, Dennis Calero, Eric Nguyen, Reilly Brown, Carlos Cuevas, Terry Pallot, Chris Sotomayor, Bob Layton & Guru EFX
Published by Marvel Comics. $14.99 USD


This series did something that's pretty unusual for modern superhero comics--let another character take the lead. It was Incredible Hulk, and that transitional issue is included, as well as the first storyline under the new banner, and a Hulk vs. Hercules one-shot that's basically a flashback to an old fight. Now that story is guilty of the deadline/don't care problems mentioned above, where there are several different artists doing a few pages each, with the regular Pham/Neary team only providing a framing sequence. It's cool to see Bob Layton, who up to this point had done the only real work on Marvel's Hercules, a couple pages, but that's about all I can say for this one. Just another link from the sausage factory.

The regular series, though, there's something there. Or, again, there was something there, as I believe this is another of Marvel's acclaimed series not featuring A-list characters to get the ax. Van Lente is working from the other side of the table from Parker, but towards similar goals. Hercules is not the lusty, grinning adventurer of the Layton era, a flagon of mead in one hand and a wench draped over his shoulder. He's more in line with the Hercules (or Herakles) of myth, the one with the berserker rage that end up costing his wife and son their lives. He's haunted by this, especially when his half-brother Ares, now on Osborn's team, reminds him of it, to gain psychological advantage.

Herc is joined in this buddy action story by young Amadeus Cho, so-called one of the seven smartest people on the planet. It's a good match, as Cho is very smart but too young to have found his moral center yet, and that's something Hercules has struggled with, or willfully ignored, for three thousand years. But as fun as they've had, running from HAMMER and the new SHIELD and all that, it's time to grow up, while still retaining their dignity and freedom. Although a darker book than Agents of Atlas, it's still about people (including demigods) trying to do the right thing. Hercules is flawed, but not evil, like Ares, and he feels remorse. It's an interesting dynamic, seeing him find the balance between being a kind of cool uncle to Amadeus while still forcing the two of them to make the harder and more responsible choice.

It's all too easy, even for a fairly hardcore Marvel fan, to miss out on some gems like these, that have some solid storytelling along with a fair amount of humanity. There are so many books hitting the stands week after week that you can't blame someone for only being able to follow a few core titles. I'm not going to say my life has been immeasurably richer for following the word of mouth and tracking these books down, but at least I can say with certainty that Marvel's output isn't as dire as I thought it might be, and that they still manage to put out some good books. Now if they only knew what to do with them.

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