5/28/2016

Ultraman Vol. 3

Story: Eiichi Shimizu  Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi.  Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions.
Story: Eiichi Shimizu 
Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi

Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions.

This was an appreciated change of pace. Unlike the previous two volumes, Ultraman Vol. 3 doesn’t feature an extended battle sequence between the titular protagonist and a rogue alien. The book engages in more fan service and some much needed world-building. This results in a somewhat disjointed narrative. The first half of the volume fleshes out the relationships between Shinjiro Hayata and the members of the Special Science Search Party (SSSP), particularly taciturn agent Dan Moroboshi. The second half shifts its attention to detective Endo and his unsanctioned investigation into the serial homicides he correctly deduced were committed by aliens. This further deepens the impression that Eiichi Shimizu and Tomohiro Shimoguchi are reimagining Ultraman as some kind of Men-in-Black inspired conspiracy story about extraterrestrials infiltrating human society.

The first thing Moroboshi does when throwing Shinjiro into the deep end is introduce him to a city populated by aliens, hidden somewhere on Earth. The SSSP supposably controls access to the city’s entrance. But that’s probably not true. Alien's might be getting out without their knowledge. And the city has at least one human resident, who goes by the alias Jack. Fans might recognize that the names Moroboshi and Jack refer to other bearers of the Ultraman mantle, so expect the SSSP to assemble an Ultraman squad in the near future.

Despite the euphoria from his successful battle in vol. 2, Shinjiro has reverted back to vacillating about whether he wants to be Ultraman. Moroboshi continues to give him a hard time while his dad Shin Hayata not so subtly pressures him into continuing his legacy. Meanwhile, colleagues Edo and Mitsuhiro Ide mysteriously plot his possible future. Shinjiro has no peers he feels comfortable enough to confide in and process the mixed signals coming from his various authority figures. His character arc is starting to contain shades of Neon Genesis Evangelion.

Story: Eiichi Shimizu  Art: Tomohiro Shimoguchi.  Ultraman created by Eiji Tsuburaya & Tsuburaya Productions.

And what about Endo and his famous teenage daughter Rena, who were introduced last volume? Their one face-to-face interaction involves a short argument over whether Shinjiro’s Ultraman, who saved Rena’s life, is the real deal. I wouldn’t be surprised if their relative positions reflected a real-world generation gap among fans about this manga, back in Japan. It’s also obvious that Shinjiro and Rena are being set up to be romantically linked, over Endo’s initial objections. But for now, Shimizu and Shimoguchi are taking more time advancing the plot than I would have preferred when getting their “New Age” off the ground.

5/22/2016

Wonder Woman: Earth One

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.
Story: Grant Morrison
Art: Yanick Paquette
Colors: Nathan Fairbairn
Letters: Todd Klein

Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

[this review contains spoilers]

Among comic book fans, Wonder Woman continues to be strongly linked to her original creators William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter. After almost 80 years, their version of the character is still considered definitive, which is sort of an issue. Since Marston’s death in 1947, DC Comics has been steadily moving away from their peculiar vision to make WW a little more compatible to an entertainment industry not always friendly to modern feminism, let alone a female supremacist social order prominently featuring female bondage and a veiled form of lesbianism.

Wonder Woman: Earth One is an ostensible return and update to her classic origin story. The writer chosen for this task, Grant Morrison, has a reputation for revitalizing iconic characters like Superman and Batman while retaining their core ideals. So it seems like a foregone conclusion that he’d eventually turn his attention to the last and reputedly most problematic member of the DC “Trinity.” To assuage any concerns, Morrison’s given interviews where he’s stated his admiration for the work of Marston and Peter, as well gone through the canon of feminist literature. So is that why the creative team for this book is all-male? Is it some kind of faithful imitation of the 40s workplace?

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

At any rate, Morrison and artist Yanick Paquette get many of the details right. The kangas, Purple Ray, Holliday Girls, Festival of Diana, a voluptuous Etta Candy and her “Woo woo!” catch phrase, and the numerous scenes of bondage, both voluntary (“loving submission”) and involuntary. Even Paquette’s ornate cover image of a regal-looking Diana wrapped in chains promises something different from the usual warrior woman interpretation. And yet, there’s something off about the story. A harshness that fails to capture the compassion at the heart of Marston’s vision of femininity (which was strongly informed by his polyamorous relationship with Elizabeth Holloway Marston and Olive Byrne).

Part of the problem is that the politics tend to get a bit reductive. The comic opens with a triumphant Hercules standing over a chained and kneeling Queen Hippolyta. He refers to her by the b-word, then spends several pages insulting her before she finally breaks free and kills the Demi-God, liberates her fellow Amazons, so they can slaughter his invading army. The deed accomplished, Hippolyta swears to live in a world without men. The story then skips 3,000 years ahead to reveal Paradise Island, a glittering utopia without a single male presence. The story itself is faithful to Marston’s original tale, but rendered more shocking by the explicit language and more detailed art. And with it, an uncompromising black-and-white view of gender relations begins to form in Hippolyta’s mind.

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

Paradise Island, as drawn by Paquette and colored by Nathan Fairbairn, is a gorgeous, pastel-colored wonderland that mixes gleaming classical architecture with curvaceous futuristic technology. The floral designs found on the flying motorcycles, invisible planes, and some of the fashions are suggestively vaginal. The Amazons, unsurprisingly, are all perfect specimens imbued with a casual sensuality found in fashion models and pin ups as they cavort on the pristine beaches and verdant forests. Morrison and Paquette underline this sultriness with much more open portrayals of lesbianism than found in Marston and Peter.

But perfection has a habit of quickly turning oppressive. Unlike Marston's creation, Hippolyta is dead set on maintaining her kingdom’s splendid isolation. There’s no outside threat (e.g. the Nazis of Marston's era) she feels deserves her attention, let alone requiring intervention by sending a champion. When she looks into her magic mirror and spies on the rest of the world, all she sees is a “wasteland beyond our perfect shores. The dreadful din is man’s nightmare of unending conflict… Their ’masculinity’ is a sad, broken aberration of nature. Genetically incomplete man. Always yearning for what he cannot be or own.” It’s no wonder that when the plane piloted by Captain Steve Trevor crash lands on the island, Diana is forced to hide him and concoct a plan to smuggle him out, lest he face summary execution. What’s Hippolyta's response to her daughter’s unexpected disobedience? She sends the gorgon Medusa after them both.

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

Her contemptuous attitude is shared by the rest of the Amazons. They react similarly to Diana’s actions with anger and aggression. And their view of the rest of humankind is equally unforgiving. Instead of treating the women in man’s world as worthy of their respect, they’re seen as being almost as debased as the men. When Diana’s jilted lover Mala first sets her eyes on the Holliday Girls, she remarks with obvious disgust “These are women of man’s world? Deformed, shrunken, bloated — domesticated cattle.” After listening to Elizabeth “Beth” Candy, the updated version of Etta, passionately defend Diana’s actions to Hippolyta, the physician Althea dismisses her testimony with “This is absurd. This girl is sick — her body mass grotesquely distorted.” That’s right, the Amazons are a bunch of pampered, body shaming mean girls.

Not that Diana does much better upon arriving in America. Her first contact with the U.S. military results in her tossing a hummer and questioning the masculinity of the soldiers, just because of their clean-shaven faces. She’s haughty and belligerent, demanding that “This broken man’s world must submit to the merciful authority of the wonder women of Amazonia. Then all will be well. Trust me.” It’s only due of the influence of Beth and Steve that she learns to moderate her views. “It’s not just man’s world out there… Sure, the patriarchy sucks, but we ain’t shy about telling ’em!” declares an always upbeat Beth. And Steve, who’s been recast as African American, admits to not entirely trusting his military commanders and points out that “My ancestors were enslaved by men with too much power.” His speech is a little on the nose, but both supporting characters come across as truly sympathetic, which is more than can be said for the supposably superior immortals who populate this book. When the Amazons insult Beth for being overweight, they become a metaphor for the kind of economic privilege needed to meet society’s unrealistic beauty standards. That doesn’t seem right for a Wonder Woman story.

Wonder Woman: Earth One, Story: Grant Morrison Art: Yanick Paquette Colors: Nathan Fairbairn Letters: Todd Klein, Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston and H.G. Peter.

This makes for a intertextually complicated read. On one hand, it’s impressive how eagerly Morrison uses so many of Marston’s classic elements. But the end results are as much a deconstruction as a homage. Instead of being paragons of empowerment, the Amazons express so many militant ideas they practically become the kind of man-hating straw feminists whose objections will be overcome by the understated nobility of Steve and the infectious optimism of Beth. Their perfection is an ideological conservatism to be surpassed by the wealth of experiences found in the outside world. And their Queen Hippolyta a 3,000 year old tyrant and overbearing parent any child would want to escape from, eventually.

Diana is a child of that isolated civilization. She’s spoiled and clueless. But she’s willfully looking for any pretext to rebel. In what is a complete reversal of the spirit of Marston's Amazons, Diana learns towards the end that she's a weapon created by Hippolyta to conquer man’s world, should the need ever arise. So Morrison’s Wonder Woman isn’t a saviour sent during a time of need, but a byproduct of Diana's rebellion against a narrowly defined role, and a self-conscious attempt to bridge the gap between the exceptionalism of the Amazons and the inclusiveness of Beth and Steve. But as with many rebellious kids, Diana still has a lot to learn.

5/20/2016

More NonSense: Dawn of the Civil War

Captain America: Civil War

Critics and fans have observed that a common theme connecting the much-derided  Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice ( leading to a corporate reshuffling) and the more well-recieved Captain America: Civil War is how both comment on the current political climate in the U.S., namely the issue of America's descent into authoritarianism. Some have noted, with some dismay, that the titular hero Steve Rogers has now become an un-American douchey libertarian/unilateralist. It's also a 180 degree turn from the days when Tony Stark was the jerk telling Congress and the military to kiss his @$$, but is now willing to work with more government oversight because he once unintentionally created a genocidal AI called ULTRON who almost destroyed the world. On the other hand, unwieldy bureaucracies (the U.S. army, World Security Council, S.H.I.E.L.D.) have consistently let Steve down, and the government tossing his pals into a maximum security prison located in the middle of the ocean without due process isn't helping him change his mind. Good or bad, it's not entirely out-of-character for Captain America's cinematic incarnation. For all the hype, the filmmakers doesn't necessarily side with him on this.

Superheroes may not be real. The Manichaean world view the genre espouses doesn't quite fit the real world. But their central themes of authority and violence seem to have struck a familiar chord with film viewers. Or maybe it's the cool special effects that only the studios can afford.

Some have noted that with the release of X-Men: Apocalypse, the X-Men film franchise has not kept up with superhero movie trends. With Civil War's reveal of a dorky, bright spandex-wearing Spider-Man and the unexpected success of fourth wall breaking Deadpool, there's greater pressure on filmmakers to be faithful to the source material. Alas, Superman's red trunks will probably not be making a comeback given that they've been banished from the comics.

One of the more noteworthy features of Civil War was the number of Black superheroes on screen. Particularly important was the introduction of Black Panther. Unlike the Falcon and War Machine, he's clearly a hero who goes through his own character arc, and not just a sidekick. This primes the audience for the upcoming Black Panther movie, which reportedly has now cast Michael B. Jordan and possibly Lupita Nyong'o. That's a pretty strong cast. There's also an article on how Nate Moore, the lone African-American producer in Marvel Studios' film division, helped bring these characters to the screen.

DC Comics released a statement regarding their sexual harassment policies. While not addressing specific incidents, this is clearly an attempt to address regarding the allegations against Eddie Berganza and the firing of Shelley Bond. Honestly, the banal wording feels like an attempt to downplay/bury the controversy over DC's less than ideal workplace culture. It's the kind of culture which finds it acceptable that Berganza can be the editor for Wonder Woman: Earth One, a book about a feminist icon created by an all-male team.

Wonder Woman #37 by Darwyn Cooke.

R.I.P. Darwyn Cooke (1962-2016), who lost his battle to cancer. His family has indicated that donations can be made in Cooke's name to the Canadian Cancer Society and Hero Initiative. Cooke's distinctive style didn't ape trends toward more complex and murkier art, but often evoked a more classic age, making him one of the most recognisable artists working in mainstream comics. He's perhaps best known for DC: The New Frontier. and his adaptations to the Parker book series.

R.I.P. Maurice Sinet, a.k.a. Siné (1928-2016), French political cartoonist and activist known in his home country for his anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist, anarchist views. He founded the short-lived journal, Siné Massacre, in 1962, and L’Enragé in1968. He worked for a time at Charlie Hebdo until he was controversially sacked after being accused of anti-semitism (Siné was a strong supporter of the Palestinian cause). Siné died after undergoing surgery at a hospital in Paris on May 5th.

There's an article on why Kate Beaton recently decided to return to her hometown of Mabou, on Cape Breton island, and how the move has changed her perspective. This piqued my curiosity about her planned book about Fort McMurray.

Here are some photos and panel recordings from the Toronto Comics Arts Festival (TCAF), which took place from May 13 – 15.

5/08/2016

More Nonsense Jon Snow Lives!

Game of Thrones - Home


Sean T. Collins on nerd rage and the future of Game of Thrones.

Paula Young Lee and Arthur Chu on the Hollywood whitewashing of Asian comic book characters.

Harris Publications shuts down

March has been optioned as an animated series.

Comics professionals pay tribute to Shelley Bond.

Atena Farghadani was freed from Evin prison on May 3.

Zulkiflee Anwar Ul-Haque, aka Zunar, received the 2016 Cartooning for Peace Award.

James Harvey colors the recent work of Frank Miller, sparking a discussion on the decline in quality of the artist's work. But Harvey does convincingly demonstrate that in a collaborative project, the right partners have an impact on the final product.

Bryan Bishop on the evolution of the unofficially produced high-end lightsaber, which parallels the evolution of lightsaber combat as a martial art.


4/25/2016

More NonSense: Purple Rain


Heidi MacDonald and Rich Johnston on the sexual harassment allegations against Superman editor Eddie Berganza, brought up after the firing of longtime Vertigo editor Shelly Bond.

Prince, one of the great pop musical icons of the Eighties, died at his Minnesota estate, Paisley Park. He was 57.

Keith Knight offers a comic tribute to Prince’s “1999” album.

Prince as a comic book character by Dwayne McDuffie.

Star Wars and the martial arts in America.

4/17/2016

Star Wars: Poe Dameron #1 & C-3P0 #1

Star Wars: Poe Dameron #1 Story: Charles Soule, Chris Eliopoulos Art: Phil Noto, Chris Eliopoulos Colors: Jordie Bellaire  Letters: Joe Caramagna. Star Wars created by George Lucas.
Star Wars: Poe Dameron #1
Story: Charles Soule, Chris Eliopoulos
Art: Phil Noto, Chris Eliopoulos
Colors: Jordie Bellaire 
Letters: Joe Caramagna

Star Wars created by George Lucas.

(Spoiler Warning for Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

Depending on a fan’s perspective, one of the coolest or most annoying things about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is how much world-building was left to ancillary materials. There was a lot left unsaid about how the collapse of the Galactic Empire and the establishment of a New Republic led to a covert war being waged between the First Order and the Resistance. This was a stylistic choice aimed to recreate the in media res storytelling of the 1977 film. The audience is thrown into the middle of the action with little explanation. The big difference however is the massive publicity push that accompanied TFA, which included a neverending stream of media tie-ins from Disney and Marvel to answer every single question and explore every topic raised by the film.

One of the more intriguing characters of TFA, X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron, has already had some of his backstory revealed in novel form and in the comic Shattered Empire. Played on screen with tremendous charisma by Oscar Isaac, his limited interactions with the equally engaging John Boyega were enough to launch a thousand Finn/Poe shipper fanfics. Poe has quickly become the 2nd greatest X-Wing pilot of all time (Sorry folks, the top honor still belongs to the venerable Wedge Antilles). He’s certainly the sexiest X-Wing pilot around. So is it any surprise that he now has his own comic book series?

via Uproxx
Also unsurprising is the choice of series artist Phil Noto, already the go-to artist for much of the ancillary material. A Poe Dameron comic is first and foremost about translating Isaac’s performance into two dimensions, and Noto is a proven quantity with his examples of numerous cover and pin-up art. Much of the comic’s appeal depends on the close-ups of Poe staring back at the reader with a friendly, imploring expression. It’s pure fan service, although whether the reader will like this comic will depend on whether they’re charmed or spooked by Noto’s uncanny ability to capture Isaac’s likeness in a photorealistic manner.

Plot-wise, the comic is set shortly before the events of TFA. Poe and Black Squadron have been assigned by General Leia Organa the mission of finding the enigmatic Lor San Tekka, the person played by Max Von Sydow seen at the beginning of the film handing the map to Luke Skywalker to Poe. Writer Charles Soule tells a simple adventure story that sticks closely to the contours of the TFA universe. There’s a bit of daredevil flying that hints at Poe’s later heroism on Starkiller Base, and Poe meets a strange cult who seem to be one possible source for the Force-based religion observed by Lor and the massacred villagers on Jakku. Future installments promise to delve deeper into this mystery. Fans who enjoyed TFA will be interested to follow this comic.

If that’s a little too boring and conventional, there’s alo a cute backup story about BB-8 playing matchmaker drawn in a more humorous vein by Chris Eliopoulos.


Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1 Story: James Robinson  Art: Tony Harris Letterer: Joe Caramagna. Star Wars created by George Lucas.
Star Wars Special: C-3PO #1
Story: James Robinson 
Art: Tony Harris
Letterer: Joe Caramagna

Did anyone care when C-3PO started brandishing a red left arm in TFA? It looked weird, but the only odd thing about it was the mismatched color. Otherwise, what’s so unusual when a droid has to have a body part replaced, especially an older droid? And The Phantom Menace did establish that Threepio would have been a very old droid who saw three generations come and go by the time Poe joined the Resistance. The rest of the cast didn’t seem to care, occupied at the time by the recent actions of the First Order. And Threepio is known to drone on about the smallest matters. But in this case, the droid hinted that the arm was more than just a run-of-the-mill replacement. It was kind of a big deal to Threepio  and now the reader knows why.

The story in itself isn’t necessarily all that remarkable. Basically, Threepio loses the old arm during a dangerous mission which wipes out the human crew and strands a miscellaneous collection of Resistance droids and one First Order protocol droid named Omri on a hostile alien world. Threepio assumes leadership of the ragtag group and succeeds in completing the mission, but not before suffering heavy casualties and the loss of an arm. The red arm is a kind of personal tribute to those fallen comrades.

But James Robinson and Tony Harris color slightly outside the lines of the Star Wars cinematic universe. Harris draws in a dark, inky style that seems more suited to horror-fantasy than futuristic sci-fi, but this works to heighten Robinson’s tale of existential dread. The heart of the story is an ongoing conversation between Threepio and Omri. Despite being a captive enemy combatant, Omri isn’t really on anyone’s side. The droid questions the nature of droid programming, and the war between the two factions, which inevitably leads to uncomfortable questions about the concept of good and evil, not to mention free will.

Then there’s the usually glossed-over reality that droids in the Star Wars universe are often treated as second-class citizens. Omri notes that protocol droids are granted a level of self-awareness not accorded other models. But when the discussion gets around to the way people have no problem repeatably wiping a droid’s memory in order to  reprogram them, the implications of this behavior are horrifying, not to mention inhumane. As older droids, both Threepio and Omri have already experienced several lives, only to have those experiences torn away from them by repeated memory wipes. This reframes every droid death that takes place in the comic as brutal, needless, and even heartbreakingly tragic in their sacrifice.

As unexpectedly poignant this happens to be for a Star Wars comic starring Threepio, it’s still a Star Wars comic. In the end, there’s no droid uprising in sight. And anyway, The final shot of Threepio in TFA has his golden arm restored. So there’s a slight disconnect between the comic and the film. Or did the droid have the arm repainted?

4/10/2016

Black Panther #1

Black Panther #1: Story: Ta-Nehisi Coates Art: Brian Stelfreeze Colors: Laura Martin Letters: Joe Sabino Design: Manny Mederos Logo: Ryan Hughes Variant Covers: Olivier Coipel, Felipe Smith, Alex Ross, Skottie Young, Sanford Greene, Ryan Sook.  Black Panther created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby..
Story: Ta-Nehisi Coates
Art: Brian Stelfreeze
Colors: Laura Martin
Letters: Joe Sabino
Design: Manny Mederos
Logo: Ryan Hughes
Variant Covers: Olivier Coipel, Felipe Smith, Alex Ross, Skottie Young, Sanford Greene, Ryan Sook

Black Panther created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby.

For a whole host of reasons, this latest Black Panther relaunch is one of the most hotly anticipated comic book series to come out of the current Marvel era. Ta-Nehisi Coates is the kind of respected literary figure that no one in their right mind would ever expect to write for hollowed-out corporate properties, let alone a superhero comic. Coates is a black writer widely known and lauded for his commentary about cultural, socio-economic and political issues, particularly those regarding the African-American community. His comics debut comes at a time when the medium is experiencing increased scrutiny for its representation of women, LGBTQ characters, and people of color, both on and of the page. This makes pairing Coates with African-American artist Brian Stelfreeze on a title starring Marvel’s most important black superhero particularly significant, especially given the comic’s release is timed ahead of the character’s cinematic debut in Captain America: Civil War. And then there’s Black Panther himself, a problematic blend of exotized Africanist elements that both idealizes and sidesteps the historic African experience. To say that people were curious to see how Coates would deal with the character is a bit of an understatement. The comic arrived with a lot of goodwill, and the reviews have been generally positive. I too want Coates to succeed. And I was left a little underwhelmed.

Obviously, high expectations could have played a part in my initial response. But let's first tackle the parts of the comic that worked. Coates has gone down the route of deconstructing the Black Panther character, who has been portrayed in the past as an astute political leader, fierce warrior, scientific genius, and crafty manipulator. In short, a superhero. In contrast, Coates T’Challa has lost his way. He’s recently returned to a Wakanda being torn apart by political strife after the death of its last ruler and Black Panther for a short time, his younger sister Shuri. His initial attempts to quell the restless population produce disastrous results. This only causes him to question his own leadership. While armed insurrection is imminent, even members of his elite bodyguard the Dora Milaje are poised to rebel against the government. Coates has created an intriguing setup with a diverse cast of characters to explore the bizarre trope of a technologically advanced society still governed by ancient tribal custom, and more particularly a caste of divinely ordained rulers. What happens when the people stop believing in them?

Black Panther #1: Story: Ta-Nehisi Coates Art: Brian Stelfreeze Colors: Laura Martin Letters: Joe Sabino Design: Manny Mederos Logo: Ryan Hughes Variant Covers: Olivier Coipel, Felipe Smith, Alex Ross, Skottie Young, Sanford Greene, Ryan Sook.  Black Panther created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby..

The drawback, as always, is that the reader still has to consider the wider Marvel Universe. Coates has revealed in interviews that he's a genuine Marvel comics fan. The result of that obsession is that the comic’s beginning is weighed down with the usual continuity porn. There’s the Infinity series to consider, a war with Atlantis during Avengers VS. X-Men, and the events leading up to Secret Wars. All of this is necessary to explain the chaos engulfing Wakanda and T’Challa’s precarious hold on power. But even the rest of the comic is bogged down by a lot of exposition-heavy narration that gets quickly tedious to have to read.

Which brings up Coates thoughtful, articulate, sharply observant, deliberately paced, writing style. Great for prose, but still trying to settle into a proper groove with comic books. If other readers found it powerful and expressive, I just found it ponderous. Coates has carefully assembled his cast to raise certain arguments and consider certain points of view. This does lend a bit of thematic depth to the story. Though it’s one thing when it turns T’Challa into a brooding hero, but does everyone else have to speak with the same gloomy cadence?

As for the other main contributor, Stelfreeze is as good an artist as any working in Marvel today, I’m curious to see how he’ll proceed in fleshing out the nation of Wakanda. But his monolithic style with its stiff heavy lines, strong chiaroscuro, figures held in rigid upright postures while wearing stoic facial expressions, tends to underline Coates own limitations as a comic book writer. In a story filled with so many serious looking talking heads, the brief action sequences don't land with the intended emotional impact.

This is still a good comic that promises to get better as Coates develops his ideas and improves his abilities as a scripter. It’s just a fairly conventional introduction for a superhero comic, and not as inventive or as fun as some of the other relaunches I’ve covered before.

Black Panther #1: Story: Ta-Nehisi Coates Art: Brian Stelfreeze Colors: Laura Martin Letters: Joe Sabino Design: Manny Mederos Logo: Ryan Hughes Variant Covers: Olivier Coipel, Felipe Smith, Alex Ross, Skottie Young, Sanford Greene, Ryan Sook.  Black Panther created by Stan Lee & Jack Kirby..

4/03/2016

Zodiac Starforce

Zodiac Starforce: Story: Kevin Panetta Art/Letters: Paulina Ganucheau Covers: Marguerite Sauvage, Kevin Wada, Jacob Wyatt, Babs Tarr Color Assists: Savanna Ganucheau, Kristen Acampora, Tabby Freeman
Story: Kevin Panetta
Art/Letters: Paulina Ganucheau
Covers: Marguerite Sauvage, Kevin Wada, Jacob Wyatt, Babs Tarr
Color Assists: Savanna Ganucheau, Kristen Acampora, Tabby Freeman

The four issue miniseries Zodiac Starforce is a love letter to the magical girl genre and more specifically to one of the most influential manga series on American fandom, Sailor Moon. And it answers the question as to what an Americanized take on the venerable shojo manga would look like. Would the core concept of a group of teenage girls attending high school by day, while battling the forces of evil as astrology-powered, sailor-suited, super soldiers at night, successfully translate when removed from the exotic locale of Tokyo, Japan? Creators Kevin Panetta and Paulina Ganucheau certainly think so, and the story they craft will definitely feel familiar to anyone who has read Sailor Moon or watched the anime adaptation. To everyone else, this is an adorable looking comic that might not quite stick the landing.

Naturally, the comic’s main draw is Ganucheau’s slick reimagining of the Sailor Moon aesthetic. The saccharine color scheme of her Zodiac Starforce costumes immediately recalls the designs of the iconic Sailor Senshi fuku, but replaces their fetishistic elements with more utilitarian fashions in order to hew closer to the sensibilities of the American audience. This informs the warm tones used throughout the comic. Another way that Ganucheau updates the manga's art is in how she foregoes the earlier work’s heavy reliance on black and white zip tones for digital color gradients, making every page mimic the glossier appearance of modern Western animation.

Ganucheau's most overt alteration calculated to appeal to Americans is adding a lot more diversity to the cast, which can also be seen as a reaction to women’s generally problematic portrayal within mainstream superhero comics. The Starforce members exhibit more varied body types, faces, hairstyles, fashions, and ethnic markers. And their respective costumes/powers/weapons are visually reflective of their own differing personalities.

Zodiac Starforce: Story: Kevin Panetta Art/Letters: Paulina Ganucheau Covers: Marguerite Sauvage, Kevin Wada, Jacob Wyatt, Babs Tarr Color Assists: Savanna Ganucheau, Kristen Acampora, Tabby Freeman

Where the comic stumbles slightly is in the story’s pacing. Panetta avoids having to narrate an origin tale by setting the comic at a point in time when the Starforce members have already retired after having actively served for an unspecified period. But it still takes awhile to establish the cast and reassemble the team. This puts the story on a slow burn which doesn’t pick up until the latter half. Most of the cast falls into recognizable archetypes: the reluctant leader, the muscle, the hothead, the meet-cute couple, the mean girl. Compared to their visual portrayals, their personalities still feel a little undercooked, in part due to page count limitations. The same could be said of its generic scholastic setting, which doesn’t distinguish itself enough from other fictional school settings seen in countless teen stories. And despite the greater effort put into fashioning the team’s leader into a more complex, conflicted individual, she still ends up getting upstaged by the villain's backstory during the climactic showdown.

In short, this visually sumptuous comic is interesting mainly for its unrealized potential. While constructed as a self-contained story, it's also the setup to a much more substantial arc. But for now, it doesn’t quite transcend being a homage to its Japanese inspiration.

3/26/2016

The Sculptor

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud.
By Scott McCloud

The Sculptor reminded me of that final bit from the 1984 film Amadeus when the aging composer Antonio Salieri realizes that he will never be remembered as anything more than another humdrum talent. So he declares himself the patron saint of mediocrity and absolves everyone around him of their own unremarkable qualities. Scott McCloud seems to be engaging in a somewhat similar act in this tortured, just shy of 500 pages, meditation on the nature of art, fame, and his own place in the comics pantheon. Not that McCloud makes any direct reference to himself in the story. His main hero David Smith is a failed sculptor, the running gag being that he shares his name with a real-life famous sculptor and dozens of anonymous people living in New York city. But David expresses some very definite ideas about art that will be recognizable to readers of McCloud’s Understanding Comics. Since that book’s publication, McCloud has acquired a reputation for being a notable comics theorist. But The Sculptor marks a much-heralded return to professional fiction writing after more than a decade’s absence, not to mention a test case for McCloud to put his own theories into practice. Dave himself starts out in a creative rut, and spends much of the book fighting his inner demons, which are an emotionally crippling blend of self-loathing and uncompromising perfectionism.

David is sort of an angrier, older version of Jenny Weaver from Zot! Despite being a reasonably good-looking guy, he’s too much of a social misfit to make friends, let alone get a girl to go out with him. More regrettably for him, he's burned almost all of his bridges to the highly competitive New York art scene. As he’s wallowing in self-pity, David receives a visitation from Death itself in the form of favorite uncle Harry. He’s then offered two options: Live a long and happy life in total obscurity, or make his mark on the world in the next 200 days before dying. When David chooses the latter, Harry imbues him with a superpower which will make it easy to mold any material into any shape or form - a useful skill for a sculptor.

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud.

Unfortunately, this is where the story begins to unravel a bit. But let’s first talk about the book’s virtues. McCloud has had a lot of time to hone his craft. Though not a particularly strong figure artist, here he doesn’t shrink from the arduous task of portraying dozens of very different individuals. And the results pay off. Even secondary and background characters feel well-thought out. And for a story set in New York, McCloud does a great job in capturing the city’s crowded conditions and diverse settings. The dark blue duotone palette combined with his scratchy linework produces a certain gritty, timeless appeal to the great metropolis. And his choice of viewing his characters from above in many panels conveys the imposing scale of the city’s architecture.

And the book is an engrossing page turner. The 200-day time limit creates plenty of tension to keep the reader guessing as to whether David will be able to sculpt anything memorable before the deadline, or whether he’ll be able to find a way out of his Faustian bargain. The Sculptor becomes increasingly cinematic as McCloud employs every panel-to-panel transition technique and nonlinear narrative device he’s outlined in the past to manipulate the flow of time within the story.

But McCloud has a habit of trading in archetypes that prevents him from shaping more believable characters. As a mouthpiece for McCloud’s aesthetic philosophy, it’s a laudable choice that David starts out as such an unsympathetic individual. His tendency to view the world from the vantage of moral absolutes and his initial complaint that he doesn’t have the chops to translate his vision into real art will be all too familiar to anyone who's hung around in an art school setting. There’s just a certain rigidity in execution that doesn’t allow McCloud to develop his character in unexpected ways or to acquire a more nuanced world view. At one point, David becomes a guerrilla artist. But this doesn’t mark any greater engagement with anyone outside of his small circle, or an increase in social awareness. He’s essentially still the same mopey individual, only now he’s defacing public property. This makes the book’s cheaply melodramatic conclusion kind of irritating. Even if David’s final artistic statement isn’t supposed to be a great masterpiece (which it clearly isn’t), does he still have to be so obnoxious about it?

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud.

Exacerbating David’s insufferable high mindedness is that for a college trained New York artist, he’s kind of crappy at what he does. That’s because his works look less like what a mediocre artist would produce than a cartoonist’s half-assed ideas about sculpture. For all their superficial similarities to abstract expressionism, they’re too pictorial, too tied up to a specific narrative, with not enough thought about their 3D qualities. A snooty critic compares them to a Polynesian gift shop. I’d say David’s sculptures have more in common with the PVC statues and action figures sold in comic conventions than the works found in an obscure student art gallery. This highlights McCloud’s artistic limitations. His style doesn’t quite succeed in projecting that sense of mass and volume needed to properly portray on the page David’s chosen medium.

The Sculptor actually devotes very little of its 500 pages to David’s creative process, and more to the love story between him and the enigmatic Meg. in my review of Zot! I noted how Zot was largely devoid of an inner life. His main job was to pull Jenny out of her misery. This is exactly the same with Meg and David. He first meets her playing an angel in a public performance piece, and she quickly becomes his muse. Meg’s so much of a savior figure that she even initiates David into certain mysteries of sex and how to relate to an actual functioning adult. Yeesh! To his credit, McCloud doesn’t make Meg half as ebullient as Zot. But his attempts to make her a more rounded personality are clunky in their delivery, particularly the introduction of her bipolar disorder. It still fails to impart Meg with much individual agency, let alone a complex inner life. So it turns into just another thing David has to deal with and work through on his way to making his deadline.

As for the art market David desperately wants to become a part of while constantly throwing shade at it, many of the attacks he levels at it are pretty familiar: Its disconnect from the rest of the world. The fixation on celebrity. A concern for economic value that overides artistic merit. But there’s something about the dogmatic proscription about what defines art combined with the book’s penchant for sentimental portrayal that comes across as immensely self-indulgent. And that ultimately ends up reinforcing the system it critiques.

The Sculptor by Scott McCloud.

3/11/2016

If You Steal

If You Steal By Jason Colors: Hubert Cover Design: Keeli McCarthy.
By Jason
Colors: Hubert
Cover Design: Keeli McCarthy

If You Steal is the third compilation of short stories from Norwegian cartoonist John Arne Sæterøy, aka Jason, to be published for the English language market. In many ways, this is his most accessible book. Almost all of the eleven stories use some kind of hook based on popular genre conventions. His  treatment to these elements is playful, at least for a Jason comic. On display is his usual inimitable style: The anthropomorphic characters with the deadpan expressions and hunched poses. The middle distance perspective. The unvarying four panel grid. Decompressed silent panels. The sparse detail of his clear line. All the stories make for a quick read. But the variety of subject matter and execution on display hints at the inventiveness that belies his outwardly uncomplicated drawings.

Take the lead story “If You Steal”, A crime drama about a lowlife forced to commit to one more heist in order to pay off some huge gambling debts - the usual setup. The melancholic tone and sense of inevitable tragedy will be familiar to readers of his past collections. But the entire narrative is broken down into one page vignettes recounted out of sequence. Each page is an example of economic storytelling. But put together, they give the reader just enough information, not to mention a few ambiguous Magritte imagery, to piece together the broad stroke of events.

The playfulness continues with “Karma Chameleon”, a homage to those 1950s sci-fi B-movies featuring giant monsters which are actually just normal animals being obviously enlarged through the era’s cheap film effects. The story features the usual cast of characters: the hero, the local sheriff, an eccentric scientist, and his beautiful daughter. And there’s the predictable showdown between monster and military. But the eccentric scientist can’t even keep on topic, preferring to talk about masturbation to anyone he can corner.

If You Steal By Jason Colors: Hubert Cover Design: Keeli McCarthy.

Jason then turns his attention in "Lorena Velazquez" to another 1950s movie tradition - Mexican films starring lucha libre wrestlers like Santo battling all manner of supernatural horrors, because why not? The story is fairly straightforward, with the masked hero entering a castle to rescue a damsel in distress. He takes out a couple of hooded henchmen. But things quickly become chaotic as he confronts a vampire, a Frankenstein monster, a horde of mummies, a wolfman, all manner of aliens, even Adolph Hitler himself. It’s absolutely nuts.

Come to think about it, many of the stories riff off famous mid-20th century figures: Frida Kahlo is an assassin who works for the mob, a mashup of Brigitte Bardot and Samuel Beckett’s famous play Waiting for Godot, the Van Morrison album Moondance reimagined as a series of 1950s horror comic book covers, a story about jazz musician Chet Baker, or the most ludicrous theory linking the assassination of John F. Kennedy to 9/11. It’s a fairly wide sampling of pop culture, all of which may have shaped Jason’s sensibilities.

Jason’s visuals are usually so consistent that I couldn't discern if these stories were originally published together, or if they were assembled from disparate sources. Unfortunately, Fantagraphics doesn't supply any information within the book's pages. Whatever the case, this is as good an introduction as any to the artist’s peculiar blend of surface kitsch and sardonic humor. Though in the closing story “Nothing”, Jason seems to do away with any outside reference in order to tell a humane and disturbing tale of frailty.

If You Steal By Jason Colors: Hubert Cover Design: Keeli McCarthy.

2/26/2016

The Star Wars

The Star Wars: Story: J.W. Rinzler Art: Mike Mayhew Additional Art: Scott Kolins, Sean Cooke, Killian Plunkett, Stephane Roux, Ryan Kinnaird Colors: Rain Beredo, Dan Jackson Letters: Michael Heisler Covers: Nick Runge, Jan Duursema, Douglas Wheatley, Ralph McQuarrie Design: Jimmy Presler  Star Wars created by George Lucas.
Story: J.W. Rinzler
Art: Mike Mayhew
Additional Art: Scott Kolins, Sean Cooke, Killian Plunkett, Stephane Roux, Ryan Kinnaird
Colors: Rain Beredo, Dan Jackson
Letters: Michael Heisler
Covers: Nick Runge, Jan Duursema, Douglas Wheatley, Ralph McQuarrie
Design: Jimmy Presler

Star Wars created by George Lucas.

(Mild spoiler alert for the entire Star Wars film series)
As with any successful franchise, Star Wars constantly tempts fans to speculate about the inner workings of its creative process prior to the reveal of the finished product. This is further exacerbated by George Lucas and his pronounced habit of constantly revising his own story. Did he always intend to produce six movies or nine? When did he decide to make Emperor Palpatine a Sith Lord? Or settle on the familial connection between Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa and Darth Vader? The franchise is maddeningly slippery to anyone who insists on the existence of eternal truths (e.g. Han Solo shot first!), which sets them in opposition to the equally obstinate Lucas. So it’s not surprising that some people would be curious to read the legendary rough draft to what would become the original Star Wars from 1977, if only just to understand what ideas were percolating within Lucas head at the time. But for those of us who can’t be bothered to track it down, Dark Horse published a graphic novel adaptation back in 2013 written by J.W. Rinzler and drawn mainly by Mike Mayhew.

Needless to say, this is not the story that would go on to conquer the world and change popular culture. The Star Wars is a very workmanlike effort that even more obviously owes a debt to Flash Gordon. Events unfold in a typically serialized manner, with the protagonists facing down one peril after another. It’s often been rumored that the rough draft contained elements for the original trilogy, but this adaptation implies that this is also true for the prequels as well. The setup of the New Galactic Empire conquering the rebellious planet Acquilae mirrors the Trade Federation’s aggression towards Naboo in The Phantom Menace. The attempts to protect a young Princess Leia from Imperial forces anticipate similar actions towards Queen Amidala. The Wookie uprising in the latter part of the comic foresees the participation of the Ewoks and the Gungans in the film series.

The Star Wars: Story: J.W. Rinzler Art: Mike Mayhew Additional Art: Scott Kolins, Sean Cooke, Killian Plunkett, Stephane Roux, Ryan Kinnaird Colors: Rain Beredo, Dan Jackson Letters: Michael Heisler Covers: Nick Runge, Jan Duursema, Douglas Wheatley, Ralph McQuarrie Design: Jimmy Presler  Star Wars created by George Lucas.

But the sprawling structure makes it too unwieldy to work as a feature film. The films would have to compress events and merge characters. No less than four separate people are combined to fashion the Darth Vader fans know and love. It’s not exactly clear how much of Lucas draft informs Rinzler’s script, but the narrative is all plot and zero characterization. Individuals act out not from some internal motive but because they need to do so to move things along. The dialogue is mainly expository with some technobabble intruding into the proceedings. No one possesses any personality of note. So it’s hard to care about what happens to anyone. The reader is only aware when someone is in love because they proclaim it. Some characters make the ultimate sacrifice and their deaths are barely mourned. Others just drop out altogether. The pacing allows no room for quiet introspection. At best, this is uninspired, mechanical storytelling.

None of this does any favors to Lucas half-baked critique of American imperialism. The New Empire, which is somehow different from the previous Empire, is now evil because it persecutes the Jedi and the worlds that harbor them. There are a few attempts to insert some realpolitik that go nowhere. And the portrayal of the Wookies as stereotypical primitives who can be duped into worshipping someone as a god, à la the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi, only demonstrates how much a younger Lucas was a man of his time. For him, anyone who wasn't a droid or a funny-looking alien (Han happens to be big and green) was by default white.

Mayhew and colorist Rain Beredo attempt to insert into the proceedings some much needed vim and vigour, while letterer Michael Heisler employs fonts recalling the classic look of the film. But they can’t overcome the indifferent scripting. The photorealism can even sometimes hinder the flow of the comic due to the regular use of exaggerated but frozen facial expressions. No matter how hard the art team tries to make the characters look and act like actual human beings the reader can relate to, they remain inert and unengaging.

The Star Wars: Story: J.W. Rinzler Art: Mike Mayhew Additional Art: Scott Kolins, Sean Cooke, Killian Plunkett, Stephane Roux, Ryan Kinnaird Colors: Rain Beredo, Dan Jackson Letters: Michael Heisler Covers: Nick Runge, Jan Duursema, Douglas Wheatley, Ralph McQuarrie Design: Jimmy Presler  Star Wars created by George Lucas.

Because of the comic’s origins, the art becomes oddly metatextual. The designs are attempting to recreate the ideas of Lucas and original concept designer Ralph McQuarrie before they acquired their more recognizable onscreen forms. But Mayhew et al. is obviously drawing inspiration from the original trilogy. The end result is a world that gradually appears more familiar as the story progresses, though more retro in feel. It’s as if someone had wiped away all the dirt and grime from the Star Wars universe. Or maybe the dirt and grime had not yet enough time to settle in.

What ultimately distinguishes, or diminishes, The Star Wars in the eyes of fans are the ideas that don’t make it into this version of the story. The Jedi and Sith are ancient enemies, but their feud doesn’t play a central role in the war between the New Empire and the Rebellion. The Sith and the Empire might be allies for the sake of convenience, but the latter barely tolerates the former. Both warrior cults are viewed as moribund institutions being swept away by the modern state. This contempt for the old actually makes its way into the original film, only to vanish when the sequels would reveal that the Sith were actually running the show.

Also nonexistent is the quasi-spiritualism associated with the franchise. While Jedi and Sith are formidable in battle, neither possesses any supernatural abilities. The Force as understood by modern fandom has yet to be conceived by Lucas. There are no sermons about “an energy field created by all living things” binding the galaxy together. Or dire warnings about being tempted by the Dark Side by giving into anger, fear, and aggression. Without The Force, the comic lacks the pseudo-philosophical content that has become an essential part of the Star Wars universe.

Perhaps the most significant absence is of its hero Luke Skywalker. There's a character with that name in the comic, though that’s where the similarity ends. This Luke is a seasoned Jedi warrior. The last of a dying breed, somewhat akin to an aging samurai still in active service after the collapse of the shogunate. Luke's fighting for the status quo he remembers. Noble perhaps, but a doomed cause. He's really more the template for Obi-Wan Kenobi. Quite a a far cry from the Luke the world would come to know as a naive farmboy who desperately wants to leave the farm and his hick family. Who daydreams about adventures in space, and perhaps of a better tomorrow. That’s the aspirational character many fans would embrace.

The Star Wars: Story: J.W. Rinzler Art: Mike Mayhew Additional Art: Scott Kolins, Sean Cooke, Killian Plunkett, Stephane Roux, Ryan Kinnaird Colors: Rain Beredo, Dan Jackson Letters: Michael Heisler Covers: Nick Runge, Jan Duursema, Douglas Wheatley, Ralph McQuarrie Design: Jimmy Presler  Star Wars created by George Lucas.

2/14/2016

Lulu Anew

Lulu Anew by Étienne Davodeau Translation: Joe Johnson Letters: Ortho.
by Étienne Davodeau
Translation: Joe Johnson
Letters: Ortho

The central conceit of the midlife crisis is that it's often used as an excuse to engage in melodrama. The protagonist chucks their stifling responsibilities and rigidly defined social roles in order to indulge in the kind of youthful indiscretions that they’ve generally avoided in the past. Or in more recent stories, as a chance to launch into a personal quest for self-actualization. Throw in some unsympathetic parents, small-minded acquaintances, or an uncomprehending spouse/significant other, and the elements are in place to send the hero on their merry way. The eponymous protagonist of Lulu Anew starts out in the usual pattern. Lulu is a French housewife and mother of three attempting to return to the workforce. But after going through another unsuccessful job interview, something about coming back to her lout of a husband causes her to hesitate. Before long, she's gone on a walkabout to the Coast without any concrete plans and without informing anyone.

If this sounds like the setup for American Beauty or Eat Pray Love, Lulu Anew couldn’t be further away from those predecessors. Unlike her American counterparts, Lulu isn't trapped in some materially comfortable but emotionally hollowed out middle class existence. Affluence is definitely not an issue for her. From all appearances, she needs the money to support her family. And a job would allow her to escape the confines of her claustrophobic domestic situation as a put upon housewife. But Lulu can’t actually afford to run away from home. She only manages to survive by relying on the kindness of strangers.

And unlike Hollywood’s screen idols, there’s nothing glamorous about Lulu. Étienne Davodeau draws in the Franco-Belgian tradition, which grounds the otherwise unlikely story in a naturalistic setting. Most of his adult characters look like they’re at least middle aged, with eye bags, wrinkles, frown lines, and flabby bodies. Lulu herself is hardly the vision of beauty with her flat unattractive features, drab clothes and unkempt hair tied back into a utilitarian knot. There’s an unmistakable working class bearing to Davodeau’s cast. At some point, Lulu acquires a love interest in the form of an ex-con trailer park groundskeeper named Charles. He vaguely recalls a schlubby Harvey Pekar as drawn by Robert Crumb, but with the addition of a pair of unfortunate sideburns. That’s nothing compared to his hairier two brothers who live in the park with him.

Lulu Anew by Étienne Davodeau Translation: Joe Johnson Letters: Ortho.

The book’s other main character is the placid French coastline. Drawn with virtuosity by Davodeau, the setting’s warm orange and cool blue color washes define the overall palette. While the book's page layout uses the twelve panel grid, Davodeau often employs silent action sequences to punctuate the narrative. The further Lulu travels, the more often the panels open up to wide angle shots of the distant horizon. The natural beauty of the landscape beckoning her into a state of wordless introspection as she watches the waves quietly roll onto land.

This tranquil mood keeps the book from wallowing in cheap sentimentality. Lulu doesn’t betray any unambiguous emotions about her rash decision to leave her family such as guilt, remorse, or joy and relief. She doesn’t pursue any unfulfilled ambitions, engage in bucket-list inspired feats of daring, or travel to exotic places. Her interactions with the locals are a lot more low key, and the personal revelations about what drives her come gradually.

The narrative is actually told from the perspective of Lulu’s friends and family. The story begins with several of them gathered around a table at dusk, for reasons only revealed at the end of the book, trying to piece together the events into a cohesive whole. While some convey the fallout from Lulu’s sudden disappearance, one particular friend named Xavier and Lulu’s teenage daughter Morgane supply much of the story’s spine. They’re generally a relaxed group. And their attitude exerts a powerful pull on the book’s mood. While they don’t all necessarily agree with Lulu’s behavior, they approach the events from the standpoint of inquiry rather than of judgement. As the conversation unfolds, each member drops subtle hints about the unhappiness that might have contributed to the commencement of Lulu’s journey.

Regardless of where the reader falls on the wisdom (or lack) of her actions, Lulu Anew taps into a strain of discontent that comes from living a circumscribed life, and the need to occasionally rebel against it by searching for the liminal.

Lulu Anew by Étienne Davodeau Translation: Joe Johnson Letters: Ortho.