Saturday, September 10, 2011

Batgirl #1


The almost original Batgirl, Barbara Gordon, is back, and as you can see with her new textured gloves she can open a mean pickle jar and dispense gardening justice. We all know that what was 25 years, or so, for us, and, it seems, three years ago for Babs, she was shot in the spine by the Joker and was unable to walk for the rest of the century and a bit. This is part of the new 52, so just how much this Barbara has in common with the Barbara we all grew up with seems to sort of be up to the reader. I for one don't mind the ambiguity, but if there's one thing continuity bears hate, it's ambiguity; so this could end being a big snag for the titles in the new 52 where some of the old history apparently either applies or is at least duplicated, but they don't exactly tell you.

The writer is Gail Simone and artist is Ardian Sarif who at his best actually reminds me a bit of Herb Trimpe, strangely (though this could in part be down to the inking of Vicente Cifuentes) - but who unfortunately has a few anatomy problems to work out, as evidenced by a Spider-man-esque splash page of Batgirl swinging through the city in which her body parts look a bit distorted. There is also a certain amount of spatial confusion on a panel to panel basis, but it is still overall quite decent. There is nothing outstandingly distinctive about his style, at least so far, but it is cinematic and does the job.

As far as the writing goes, there are some neat touches. I like the idea that Batgirl's eidetic memory, which is something that has been referenced probably as far back as her first appearance in Detective #359, is a kind of burden as she is tormented by the memory of the Joker's attack on her, which, as she mentions in the narration, was part of a home invasion - neither contradicting nor sustaining the exact version of the event we saw in The Killing Joke. This is also interesting because in a way, it is almost that this attack is now at least one of her motives for fighting criminals, just as the murder of Bruce Wayne's parents is for Batman. As a matter of fact, this does accomplish the feat of turning a story idea I never liked into something interesting. However, that this version of Barbara Gordon had some affiliation with Batman before the incident is made plain in one caption; but it's not clear if she was actually Batgirl or not. Again, ambiguity. I'd be just as happy with the stories just going forward without that being cleared up or obsessed about much, but that likely won't happen.

In this version it seems that event happened three years prior, and Barbara has actually regained the use of her legs and is now very anxious to take down some criminals. And so in the opening story, we see her confront a group of home invaders, she gains a somewhat irritating new roommate, a villain named the Mirror is introduced, and then we end on a cliff hanger. My main beef is the continuing use of the first person narration via captions, which have essentially replaced thought bubbles in modern comics. They have that weary, jaded tone that's in every comic, I wouldn't mind seeing something different. But this is a decent reboot, and Batgirl's costume, a little more textured, looks good back on Babs.

On a scale of one to ten I'm giving it a B+. Nothing blew me away but it sustained my interest and I will get #2 and probably more because I want to find out more about The Mirror.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Shuffling Through the New 52

Well, it's a bold move and I'm all for boldness. My biggest concern about the new DC Universe about to be born is that it seems tailored to appeal to the audiences which already exist, rather than being its own new and innovative thing. When Superman first appeared, it was not known that the audience for him existed. When Stan Lee started creating the Marvel universe, he was not trying to match what was seen as having popular appeal, in fact he went against that, and it worked, obviously extremely well. Looking through the materials for the new 52, what I see is an attempt to match current tastes, rather than something which is new and surprising and different. Heck, as much as I don't like Watchmen, I'll admit that when it came out, it was not much like anything that had ever been seen but it created its own audience. I tend to feel something that is deliberately made to appeal to trends is doomed, and it is perhaps especially fatal in the comic industry because theoretically one wishes to create a continuity to last at least 20 years, and if the designs are so obviously matched to current tastes, it means updates will be needed in a few years.

Maybe that's where comics are heading. I hear Marvel's Ultimate line is restarting, so it could be that the future of comics is in kickstarting a new continuity every few years. Basically like doing a remake of a movie once a decade. I suppose there is no real reason that these things can't be done just because they haven't been. I'm fairly certain that Superman and Batman, and probably at least some of the rest, will be around in some form in 200 years, and likely they will look different and have undergone some significant changes. Just as I am sure that the myths and legends that survive from previous civilizations did not first appear as we know them.

I personally have decided to give most of the more iconic books a pass, and will concentrate on some of the interesting looking other books. While I love the big guns, I am also a fan of DC's history of offbeat characters as well as their horror comics. My pull list as it stands is:

Batgirl - I have always liked the Barbara Gordon Batgirl, and am now interested in what will be done with her returning to the costume. While it is controversial that she is back, I always felt her original injury itself was a bit of a cheap move, ie the shock value of having something from a prestige one-shot have lasting consequences in the main universe.

Frankenstein, Agent of SHADE - I'm a fan of Creature Commandos, its original run in Weird War Tales, and this looks like it could be that kind of fun.

Demon Knights - I realize Medieval superheroics might sound like the essence of corny to some, the concept appeals to me and I love Etrigan and his original series.

DC Universe Presents - This one looks like a sampler, so it might give me some idea about the rest of the stuff without me taking the plunge on a lot of other books.

I, Vampire - I'm a fan of the old House of Mystery series, which was certainly ahead of its time and foreshadowed characters like Angel. This actually looks like it could be a prime example of what I'm talking about, in the sense of pandering to current tastes, but I'm going to give it a try. For some reason this paragraph will not de-italicize, my apologies.

Justice League Dark - While the name could not be more distressingly on the nose, and I normally hate "dark" superheroes, I like the idea of a team of super supernatural people, which has been done before to a lesser or greater degree, but this group of characters is intriguing. It just might be there's a kernel of originality in among all the typicalness of it. We shall see.

So that's probably it, it's possible I might end up feeling like I missed the boat on something, but I've also gotten a bit tired of the task of getting rid of comics I decide I don't need to keep around for rereading. These ones I'm getting will at least be unique and if they're cancelled early, I can fit them in my section of quirky misfires like Brother Power the Geek. For the ones I'm not getting, I look forward to reading the thoughts of other bloggers.

It's not to say I don't have the highest hopes for the relaunch, and wish DC well. I love comics and would like them to last for eternity. I'm probably a bit jaded but this is just not the first reboot I've been around for, as it won't be for most of you, and it's made me a bit sad to see how in the last ten years, since the phenomenon of more exposure through films, comics have become increasingly obsessed with the "cool" factor, rather than being fascinating for those indefinable but joyous reasons they were in the past. But time marches on. Anyway, it's not the first time DC has changed according to its audience's perceived needs.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Marvel Paperbacks I Have Loved

These days it may be hard to believe there was ever a time when comic stores didn't exist, and there wasn't a place to walk into to find hot and cold running reprint editions, repackagings of every kind for the various types of comic book fan.

No, for people wanting to read the early issues of Marvel characters we had limited options. Among them were these paperback editions, which I own a few of. I remember borrowing some from friends as a kid. There was always a sense of awe while reading them as if I was finally getting to explore the early, primordial times of characters I'd come to know well from comics of the late seventies and early eighties. It was a feeling akin to learning the most cosmic secrets of the universe.

However, at the time I did not own any, and I'm not sure where they were sold, whether they were available at book stores or if they were sold in 7 Eleven next to the regular comics, though if they were I don't remember.

The ones that I own now I bought at conventions in the years since, some in the nineties, or more recently.

In the case of this Captain America one,

...I've actually bought it twice. I bought it once in the nineties and then it disappeared, I believe a roommate might have absconded with it. But I came upon it again at a mini-convention in May for a few bucks, and was overjoyed. Well, maybe not overjoyed, but joyed. It starts off a reprint of Avengers #4 and the epic return of Cap after years of being a human popsicle worshipped by Eskimoes. Then it goes into some early sixties solo adventures from various sources, one tale of a rescue in Vietnam before going into some freshly created WWII era stories, I mean freshly created in the sixties. I wonder how many other Vietnam rescue stories of Cap there were? Lee and Kirby maybe had trouble fitting in the ultimate patriot character with the morally ambiguous times, but that was what I imagine made him right for Marvel at that time, the fact that he was a man out of his era trying to fit in. Anyway, it's been great to have this book for boning up in anticipation of the film.

This Hulk one is a nice thing to have,

...because, as it says, it contains Hulk's first six issues from his earliest series. I believe in the first issue he has been recoloured green from gray, I suppose for the sake of consistency. But of course in these earlier appearances Hulk's personality is much more like what would eventually be the "Gray Hulk", he's shrewd, aggressive, and swaggering, not the more well known "Hulk Smash" style. I enjoy both depictions but anyway these first six issues are a great read, even teeny tiny as they are. This is the same material that is contained in the first volume of Hulk's Masterworks series.

And speaking of which, I now own the first Marvel Masterworks volume for Fantastic Four, but still hold onto this -

...because it was the first format in which I read the first six issues of the World's Greatest Comic Magazine.

I also have fond memories of these -

...which were many early adventures of the good doctor from Strange Tales. I recall the bizarre Ditko multi-dimenstional imagery blowing my young mind when a friend lent me his copy in grade six. It was a definitely a case of me feeling like I was actually being shown what goes on behind the thin veneer of what we mortals call reality. I've never read these stories in any other form, to read them any other way would just feel...strange.

Wait, now that I think of it that's actually not true, I have a Marvel Treasury with some of those in it, in fact it uses the same cover. I imagine the two books were published in conjunction. So some of the stories I have read tiny, and supersized. No middle ground.

For stories from other books that I did eventually read in other formats, it actually was a bit odd to suddenly see them so large, or regular sized. It was a bit like taking a movie you're used to watching on TV and then suddenly seeing it on a regular sized movie screen.

I believe there were more in this series, I saw a Spider-man one at that mini-con, but since I own his original stories in both Masterworks and Essentials formats, I let it go. It would be tough to go from having read something regular sized to readng it tiny, and I sometimes have to put my completist urges on the backburner in order to have the money to indulge other completist urges. Priorities!

I have some other Marvel paperbacks, pictured below, but these were more general as far as material goes, and used a cut up technique so that almost normal-sized panels are made to fit, usually about two per page. The Daredevil one reprints, in black and white, a couple early stories with art by the great Wally Wood, although I must confess, while the art is great by most standards, I don't feel that he brought his a-game, for whatever reason.

It contains two stories, the first one with the Fellowship of Fear from Daredevil #6, which was also the last story with DD's original yellow and red costume. The second is the first Stiltman story from #8.

This X-Men one is also black and white and is simply the seminal story from Giant Size X-Men #1, which shocked the world with its introduction of the second team of X-Men, one of the most successful revamps in human history; as well as the story "Psi War" from Uncanny X-Men #117.

And lastly, this Hulk one, which also uses the cut-up technique, though it's actually in colour, and features the Jarella story "The Brute that Shouted Love at the Heart of the Atom", from Incredible Hulk #140, and "They Shoot Hulks, Don't They?" from Incredible Hulk #142.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The January Jones Effect a term I have coined for when a performer appearing in a comic book film has a name that sounds even more like a comic book character's name than the name of the character they are playing.

New case in point is the young actor Sebastian Stan, appearing next month as Bucky Barnes, Captain America's ill-fated sidekick in the motion picture Captain America: The First Avenger being released on July22

Will the appearance of Bucky in a successful film convince movie makers that boy sidekicks can work in superhero flicks? Only time will tell, old chum, only time will tell.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Gene Colan Takes On DC Icons

The prolific and unique Gene Colan passed away at age 84 on June 23. He was a master of storytelling and action pacing. In terms of visuals, for some reason the word that comes to mind for his style was "slippery". Everything had a liquid feel to it, as though each comic panel morphed into the next one. I loved his work on Marvel's clever and absurdist Howard the Duck with writer Steve Gerber. The same team took on the Man of Steel in The Phantom Zone miniseries of 1982, exploring the furthest reaches of the titular nether region; which also meant some other DC Icons slipping into the fray. Here are some selections with inks by Tony Dezuniga.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Green Lantern's Light!


Green Lantern is a superhero movie that dares to be fun and exciting and return the comic book hero to a time when it was about good versus evil. The movie reminded me of what I love about comics, a feeling that has taken a beating with some of the torturously dark films of recent years.

Now this was more like it. I found Green Lantern to be more in the spirit of superheroes than almost any movie I've yet seen. I've gotten quite used to the idea that when I see a superhero movie, it's going to be the movie version, ie a version of a character made acceptable to regular movie viewers, at best meeting the fan half way. The thing is, often this almost seems to be how fans want it, there is a sense of embarrassment over the fantastical excesses of the four-colour universe. Because of this I'd come to believe a superhero movie is just never going to be as enjoyable, as limitless-feeling, as reading a comic.

This is one of the first comic movies I can remember that so fully embraces its comics roots, sparing just about nothing and thus becoming a fantasy and science fiction film as well as a superhero movie. It's really only hampered by being an origin movie, and because of that there are not going to be huge dramatic surprises, as we see a hero gain power, and a villain gain power, and then a clash, although even that contains some interesting twists. To those who see Green Lantern as derivative, what they don't realize is how many things actually derive from GL, from the style of his costume, which preceded Spider-man, to the Green Lantern Corps, which, as a powerful universal peace force, was surely an influence on the Jedi of Star Wars - though admittedly the Lensmen series of books was an influence on the Green Lantern Corps.

Some of the CGI is being criticized, but I really have yet to see a film where CGI isn't apparent, including the highly praised Avatar, which I stopped watching after about forty minutes due to the leaden heavy-handedness of its story. Certainly the big boss villain of this film, the giant evil cloud with a head called Parallax, in some shots reminds me a bit of Malebolgia from the original 1997 Spawn movie, but at least his mouth movements are in unison with his words ( I think Malebolgia was supposed to be uttering thoughts telepathically but that was never apparent). There is at least a wonderful malevolence to the Parallax monster, its sense of being evil incarnate palpable but without it being overdone. I've read some compare its look to giant fecal matter, but if someone's stool looked remotely like that, they would be well advised to see a doctor immediately.

To me an important element of this film was the way in which the viewer is reminded that superheroes fight for the good of humanity, believing it worth saving. After a slew of comic book type movies with a sort of juvenile jadedness, actually daring to return to the roots of what a superhero story is about is a powerful message, one I believe audiences will respond to. It doesn't have a bunch of "cool" or "hip" dialogue. There is nothing - ugh - "badass" in sight. So many comics I've read in the last ten years seem to create dramatic situations simply so the hero can utter a tough guy line. While this movie has some drama, and gives its characters lives, it never loses its focus on being a superhero film about powers and saving the world. There are no long-winded dramatic scenes to try to convince us this is all "real", an element of many comics and comic movies that to me always takes away from the reality, the fact it's being taken so deadly seriously seeming to make it all the sillier.

Ryan Reynolds really surprised me. Going in, I always liked the way he could pull off smart-guy roles, such as in Blade Trinity, but here I was pleasantly surprised by his capacity for sweetness and sincerity, especially in the scene where he pleads with the nicely rendered Guardians for the chance to try to save earth - a scene that strongly evoked similar confrontations from the comics where Hal Jordan has to tell his immortal bosses that they don't know everything.

There is little about the dialogue that doesn't work for me. Many comic fans feel embarrassed by romantic dialogue, but the truth is that relationships work that way. I loved some of the scenes of Hal and Blake Lively's Carol speaking, set against a wistful, dreamy sunrise background, and there is much amusement in how she deals with his new powers and dual identity.

Mark Strong was incredibly charismatic as the still (at this point) heroic Sinestro, and I greatly appreciate that the actor reportedly fought to ensure that Sin would not be revamped with a goatee and a pony tail, as if an alien would be aware of the fashions on earth and thus feel embarrassed to have a non-hip mustache. Peter Sarsgaard as Hector Hammond looked like a classic movie monster as he begins to mutate. His tweaked origin I felt was integrated more satisfyingly into the the larger story than in many superhero movies with multiple villains.

I love the other members of the Corps who appear, Abin Sur and Tomar Re both projecting a sense of nobility, and Kilowog appearing suitably menacing and ominous. Unlike some reviewers, I'm glad that the Corps is not part of the final action scenes, because for me the movie was about Hal. But I greatly enjoyed the scenes where Hal is part of a giant Corps assembly, and we can see many of the members who have been part of the comic mythos since the Silver Age.

The action in the movie is big and fun, with many amusing green energy constructs, and in the end, Hal's way of defeating his opponent is pure classic comic book. I left the film when it was over with a sense of excitement about the endless possibilities of superhero stories.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

X-Men: First Class


Here we are with the exciting new "one post every six months" format. It's been way too long, but it started with losing the internet temporarily and also was related to me initially wanting to only reach 100 posts.

But with this outrage called X-Men: First Class being foisted on the public, I can no longer keep silent!

Just joking, I didn't dislike it that much, I just didn't love it. I sort of want to feel the excitement that other people experienced from the new X-Men movie but it didn't have it for me. I'm not trying to convince anyone who liked it not to, because to me, in the grand scheme of things, someone enjoying a movie that I didn't particularly like is not the worst thing in the world, in fact if someone enjoys an evening at the movies it's pretty positive.

First of all let me say my problem is not, as it is with a lot of fans, that the First Class has nothing to do with the original X-Men team, which we all know consisted of Ringo, Gilligan, Shaggy, Potsie, Drooper and Snork. I completely support film tweaks of original material when there is reason to go back in with more recent revelations, and so forth, or just to not be extremely laborious and predictable - I'm a big Smallville fan, after all, which, more often than not, played fast and loose with the mythos in a knowing way, such as how Lena Luthor was depicted. I would hardly expect a film production company to invest in a story that wasn't very successful its first time around even as a comic book, as in the case of X-Men and its original team. Do those "hardcore" fans really want a step by step retelling of the original Marvel stories, with scenes such as the X-Men using their powers in construction jobs to raise money? I mean, I'd get a kick out of that, but I think some of the so-called "purists" would scream bloody murder. Just not cool enough. Comic fans hate being exposed to the general public as liking silly things.

I'll run down some of my problems with X-Men First Class.

One is that while we were given an origin for Magneto's hatred of mankind that contained absolutely nothing surprising but which instead, in typical prequel fashion, drew it out painfully, we actually learn nothing about where Xavier's humanitarianism really comes from. It seems like this iconic mutant's entire basis for his sunny outlook is simply that, having grown up rich, he experienced few real difficulties and was sheltered, having no chance to view either humanity's darker side or its more heroic side, which basically makes him seem naive. Granted, he's psychic, so in a way he is privy to everyone's thoughts and experiences. Maybe he's optimistic because he's able to tune in on some of people's finer thoughts, but that would also of course mean he could see their most evil thoughts. How does he sort that out? How does he deal with the potential disgust? But that's another thing - in this version, Xavier seems to just roam around in people's minds with no compunctions, and not just for tactical purposes, though he does that as well. He's depicted as virtuous, but at no point is it viewed as slightly shady for him to change someone's mind on an issue using psychic tampering. He is depicted as doing so quite playfully, and is not shown as having a moment of realization that this might not be much better, from an ethical point of view, than Magneto using his own powers aggressively.

Most of the young mutants have extremely generic, blurry personality types, with none of the actors, save the young actor depicting Hank McCoy, the kid from About a Boy, using acting ability to imbue the character with a sense of life as a good actor does when a character is underwritten. Havok seemed like a very poor man's version of Chris Evans' Human Torch from the much-maligned Fantastic Four movies. Angel, based on some new concept Angel, and portrayed by the daughter of Denise Huxtable, goes from being horrified that villain Kevin Bacon's forces have just slaughtered a bunch of men to suddenly joining up with him because of...why? Because some of those guys who were just brutally slaughtered made fun of her when they were alive, I guess. I've been made fun of before but I would still be utterly traumatized to see the perpetrators actually brutally killed, and I sure wouldn't want to then put myself in the hands of the killers. She sure didn't seem that cruel or that naive. I have to say I can not reconcile that side of her with anything shown previous to that moment; not as we can see the development of X2's version of Pyro.

In the end Magneto kills Sebastian Shaw by very slowly moving a coin through his head. He's bulletproof but supposedly this action contains no energy at all for Shaw to absorb because it's happening very slowly. Huh. Because to me, it might work better to throw Shaw's ship into space with him in it to see if he could absorb a vacuum. Or if Mags isn't quite up to that at this stage in his Jedi career, wrap a section of the hull around Shaw and then throw him into space. But it wouldn't have the poetic justice, I grant you. And putting things in space isn't as cool and "badass", which seems to be the esthetic demand for all films deemed worthy by fanboy masses.

I could sit and pick apart leaps in logic all day but I would bore everyone, especially myself. Comic geeks like myself are on shaky ground when they pick apart logic. In the approximately 4,000 comics I own there is probably an overall average of 10,000 crazy leaps of logic. But those comics, mostly, are fun to read, and I didn't find the film much fun at all. I will happily go along with crazy logic if it's for something fun that doesn't take itself so deadly seriously as this movie does, and if I have something invested in the characters. I mean my other blog is about how much I love b-movies, so I'm not trying to present myself as a snobby, serious film critic. X-Men First Class has moments, but there is also a lot of tedium waiting for something to happen. The action scenes I found were actually less exciting than the fight at Jean Grey's parent's home from the hated (by most) X-Men: The Last Stand; I felt much less invested emotionally because I hardly cared about the characters. If any of the nominal good guys had died I'd have been unlikely to cry myself softly to sleep that night. Also, the climactic scenes were choreographed and filmed sloppily so it was hard to make any spatial sense. I applaud the ambition of introducing battleships to superhero action, but not a lot of the action felt very visceral at all. There was nothing to match Wolverine's battle with Deathstrike at the end of X2, and as a villain Bacon doesn't measure up to Brian Cox's (admittedly less dynamic-looking) Stryker, even if he cuts footloose on making evil facial expressions while involved in mundane activities such as sitting in a chair.

If you liked the film, more power to you. I always say, if everyone felt like I do about everything, I'd lose my individuality and I sure wouldn't want that; and having fun watching a movie other people don't like isn't a sin. I know, I do it all the time.

Just so we don't all leave with a bad taste in our mouths, here's some art from a piece I always loved, a backup Steve Mellor did for Spider-ham back in the day. Mellor's style is great, I would have loved to have seen more superhero stuff like this.