8/20/2017

Spy Seal #1

Spy Seal #1, By Rich Tommaso.
By Rich Tommaso

The anthropomorphic spy thriller Spy Seal is unlike any comic currently being published in this genre. Rich Tommaso sets the story in jolly old London during the Cold War era. Russian spies are afoot and causing mayhem throughout the city. But this isn’t a modern, gritty tale about the moral compromises that have to be made in order to uncover terrorist plots and save innocent lives. There isn’t any wallowing in the “dark side” as Dick Cheney once described it. Tommaso’s comic is a homage to classic high adventures starring a dashing protagonist facing off against an array of dastardly villains speaking with funny foreign accents. Only in this case, the hero happens to be a talking grey seal. Along the way, there’s government intrigue, elaborate assassination plots, beautiful femme fatales, and a macguffin that will presumably send everyone involved in a high stakes hunt to various exotic locales. Tomasso demonstrates an ability to capture the rhythms and plot points that propel this kind of story forward. The result is a fairly entertaining page turner.

It’s also a very pretty comic story inspired by the visuals of Hergé. Tomasso tempers the absurdity of his anthropomorphic cast by drawing them in the ligne claire style. There’s an attractive minimalism being demonstrated which unites what turns out to be a surprisingly wide variety of mammals, birds, and reptiles walking about the streets of London. The clean, geometric shapes and flat, pop aesthetic of his color palette gives the bustling metropolis a certain period glamour. And of course, the comic’s retro style instantly recollects The Adventures of Tintin to anyone who has ever read them. This is especially true during a bizarre rooftop chase, as these types of action scenes are a staple of every Tintin comic.

Spy Seal #1, By Rich Tommaso.

If there’s one glaring weakness, it’s that none of the characters have come into focus yet. They mainly fit into broad archetypes without any sharply defined individual traits to set them apart. This is particularly true of the titular protagonist Malcolm Warner, who already enters the comic with a set of useful skills as an ex-military man and jiu-jitsu exponent. While those make him handy in a fight, he doesn’t exhibit any curiosity or independent initiative. This unfortunately draws attention to the largely accidental nature of his involvement with the main plotline. If Malcolm wasn’t in the right place at the right time, and if he didn’t catch the attention of a certain undercover operative, he would have carried on oblivious to the events around him. Needless to say, there's some clunky exposition exchanged between the characters before the actual adventure can begin.

But there’s also a tiny hint of sardonic humor that keeps it from being just a nostalgic retread. The comic’s first act takes place in an art gallery where several of the works on display are vaguely reminiscent of Damien Hirst installations of preserved dead animals. Naturally, the remains of real world creatures have no noticeable effect on the gallery’s patrons. Why should they? It’s just Art.

8/13/2017

Mister Miracle #1

Mister Miracle #1: Story: Tom King Art: Mitch Gerads Letters: Clayton Cowles Cover: Nick Derington  Mister Miracle/Scott Free created by Jack Kirby.
Story: Tom King
Art: Mitch Gerads
Letters: Clayton Cowles
Cover: Nick Derington

Mister Miracle/Scott Free created by Jack Kirby.

Jack Kirby’s Fourth World is a major milestone of the medium. But his densely packed cosmos told through an interconnected web of comic book titles has never been sustained in any meaningful way past the original vision of its creator. And if we ignore the occasional appearances of main antagonist Darkseid, and the Forever People, the Fourth World has largely receded from the New 52 DC Universe. In short, most new comic book readers are probably unfamiliar with its continuity. But in their attempt to revive the adventures of Darkseid’s wayward son Mister Miracle, Tom King and Mitch Gerads make no concessions for them. In fact they double down on the titular character’s tangled history with his evil father with a rather abstruse, nonlinear tale that updates him for a less heroic age. Gone is the swashbuckling hero of the 1970s who defied Darkseid’s totalitarianism with a string of impossible feats of escape. What we have instead is the weary veteran who acts like he can no longer stem the rising tide of evil. Sort of like the gloomy Luke Skywalker as seen in The Force Awakens, but only more depressing.

Just to impress how bad things have become, King quotes the introductory text from the original Mister Miracle #1, dated from April 1971:
Is he a master of spectacular trickery or is he something more? You will have to decide when you confront the strangest, most incredible superhero to appear in comics! You will see what he does! You will wonder how he does it! But always waiting in the wings are his two greatest enemies: the men who challenge him—and death himself!
That final part leads to the comic's opening scene: A two page spread of Scott Free bleeding out on a bathroom floor after he has slit his wrists, apparently in an attempt to commit suicide. He’s rushed to the hospital by his wife Big Barda. The rest of the story becomes more fragmented: Scott recuperates while experiencing flashbacks, visions, hallucinations. Or is he being manipulated by unseen forces? Is he actually still dying on that bathroom floor or a hospital ward?

Mister Miracle #1: Story: Tom King Art: Mitch Gerads Letters: Clayton Cowles Cover: Nick Derington  Mister Miracle/Scott Free created by Jack Kirby.

Gerads is key to creating this sense of unreality. His lo-fi art is the antithesis of today’s slick, digital production values. Or more accurately, it’s just as slick as anything in mainstream comics. But crafted to appear more analog. Colors are washed out. Lines are blurry, as if the printing plates might have been improperly registered on the offset press. There are printing artifacts such as halftone and moiré patterns. Some of the pages looked taped together.

And there’s certainly nothing heroic about how the characters are drawn. Gerads’ down-to-earth representations make Scott and Barda look about as ordinary and vulnerable as anyone in reality. The couple spend most of the comic shuffling about in their cramped home. The only parts which betrays their otherworldly origins are visits from Highfather and Scott's sort-of brother Orion. That and the ever present threat of Darkseid. Almost every page is organized into the nine panel grid. Its primary effect here is to make the setting very claustrophobic. But with every grid, one panel is blacked out and populated with the words “Darkseid is.” As the comic reaches its end, more panels are randomly blacked out, until the story arrives at an entire black page occupied with nothing but those words.

Mister Miracle #1: Story: Tom King Art: Mitch Gerads Letters: Clayton Cowles Cover: Nick Derington  Mister Miracle/Scott Free created by Jack Kirby.

This will probably resonate with many anxious Americans experiencing the creeping sense of authoritarian rule undoing years, even decades, of progress. Witnessing epressions of hate and intolerance becoming more common. Or even just the vague sense of existential dread permeating modern life. If things seem desperate enough, might death seem less like an enemy, but more a relief from suffering? What happens when your own mind becomes the trap? How do you punch away depression and paranoia? But King and Gerads do show two crucial scenes where Darkseid’s message is absent. It’s the readers’ and Mister Miracle’s lone slither of hope.

8/06/2017

Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #22

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #22, Story: Ryan North Art: Erica Henderson Colors: Rico Renzi Letters: Travis Lanham Logo: Michael Allred  Squirrel Girl created by Will Murray & Steve Ditko.
Story: Ryan North
Art: Erica Henderson
Colors: Rico Renzi
Letters: Travis Lanham
Logo: Michael Allred

Squirrel Girl created by Will Murray & Steve Ditko.

One of the pleasures of reading The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl is how the series has made no concessions to alter its offbeat tone to better fit into Marvel’s regular churn of crossover events. The Squirrel Girl comic is better characterised as Marvel Universe adjacent. And that’s fine as long as Ryan North and Erica Henderson can get to keep producing one of the best, not to mention the funniest, comics being released by the beleaguered publisher. So while every other series feels like it’s getting sucked into the dark vortex that is Secret Empire, our titular character is vacationing in the Savage Land and hanging out with dinosaurs, because dinosaurs are the best!

The reason Doreen Green and her roommate/fellow computer science major Nancy Whitehead get to hang out with dinosaurs is because they entered an online programming contest which claimed to award its winners “unspecified fabulous prizes.” Well, that doesn’t sound suspicious at all. No siree. For the reader expecting some kind of twist, it’s delivered at the very last page. But North and Henderson spend half the book carefully ratcheting up the anticipation of their arrival at the Savage Land, so the real emotional payoff is watching Doreen and Nancy geek out and identify every species they set their sights on, all the while dropping knowledge about the Mesozoic era. See, comics are educational.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #22, Story: Ryan North Art: Erica Henderson Colors: Rico Renzi Letters: Travis Lanham Logo: Michael Allred  Squirrel Girl created by Will Murray & Steve Ditko.

The comic is naturally a playful subversion of the Lost World trope. It turns out that the Savage Land is now accessible via commercial airlines (even to airlines arriving from Latveria). The Land itself (or at least part of it) is being run as a wildlife preserve, complete with the usual tourist amenities such as hotels and tacky gift shops (which Doreen just loves). More importantly, everything seems to be running smoothly with nary a rogue dinosaur in sight eating any of the staff or guests. Suck it, you incompetents who run Jurassic Park!

So the mayhem promised by the comic’s Frank Frazetta-inspired cover has yet to be delivered here. But we do learn two significant things. Nancy likes cute boys who know their dinosaurs (even if they hail from Latveria). And Squirrel Girl will definitely get to ride a pterosaur (I'm envisioning the mighty Skybax rider) at some point, because it’s what she now wants out of life.

The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl #22, Story: Ryan North Art: Erica Henderson Colors: Rico Renzi Letters: Travis Lanham Logo: Michael Allred  Squirrel Girl created by Will Murray & Steve Ditko.

7/29/2017

More NonSense: Comic-Con 2017 Edition

Comic-Con International in San Diego.

Comic-Con International in San Diego (at least until 2021) is the big comics-adjacent event this July. How did this year's super-massive convention go down? Here are a few links to get you started:

Words:
Moviepilot reports on DC's future publishing initiatives. Todd Allen reacts to the news that the comics industry is close to collapse.
John Lewis leads a march through the San Diego Convention Center.
Comics Announcement: The Terrifics by Jeff Lemire and Ivan Reis.
The 2017 Eisner Awards.
LA Times
Vox on the the film juggernaut that is Marvel Studios.
The Verge
The Beat, more, more, more,
io9more, more, more, more,
Time
Tor
Women Write Write About Comics

Videos:
Comics Announcement: Superman: Year One by Frank Miller.
The Beat,
io9, more, more, moremoremoremore, more,
Lupita Nyong'o, more,
Estelle
Tested
Yellow Productions, more,
Hyper RPG

Trailers & Clips:
io9, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more, more,
Voxmoremoremoremore, more,

Photos:
Bleeding Cool
The Guardian
io9
Reuters
Space.com

Glen Weldon lists ten comics that changed the medium. It's a fairly conventional list since most pundits would agree with his choices.

Glen Weldon also lists his top 100 graphic novels.

Glen Weldon lists the most influential newspaper strips.

Matthew Thurber lists 10 cartoonists for art lovers.

Abraham Riesman on the rapidly expanding kids comics market.

Shannon Wattres, Tom King, And Veronica Fish list 17 comics to read at the beach.

Kelly Haircloth looks back at the 1950s boom in romance comics.

Amanda Shendruk analyses gender representation in comics.

Abraham Riesman on the fallout over Marvel making Captain America evil.

Christopher Butcher employs the somewhat unsatisfying "Marvel will be Marvel" observation when commenting on the publisher's recent woes.

Tom Holland trying to pass off as an American teenager in order to experience what life is like for students attending American high schools is cute. Then again, critics are going gaga over his portrayal of Peter Parker in "Spider-Man: Homecoming."

The "Marvel Cinematic Universe" version takes more liberties with the character created by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko than the two previous Sony Studio incarnations. But the changes have actually resonated with the MCU audience because they still manage to tap into the character 's core appeal. Take his relationship with Tony Stark/Iron Man. Peter's classic Spider-Man suit being gifted to him by Tony would seem like a violation of the superhero's reputation for self-reliance and creativity. But the relationship also hones in on Peter's often troubled history with terrible father figures. And Tony, who essentially substitutes for Norman Osborne/Green Goblin as wealthy industrialist with dubious motives, is as terrible a father figure as any. Peter's rejection of his generous offer at the film's end is in line with the character's emerging maturity. In the meantime, his hacking of the suit's parental controls is what any overprotective adult should expect from a very bright, if not too experienced teenager.

Holland's dorktastic Peter isn't the lonely outcast of Lee and Ditko. But the bumbling hero who learns to rely on a supportive network is one of the more welcome changes of the Miles Morales/Kamala Khan generation. More importantly, Holland is the most convincing adolescent of any actor ever tasked to play Peter. And it is refreshing to see him interact with a similarly young (not to mention multiethnic) cast of actors after so many MCU films populated by serious-looking adults.

Alex Abad-Santos on the film's homage to the iconic scene in Amazing Spider-Man No. 33.

Pepe the Frog now has a lawyer in Kimberly Motley.

Sean T. Collins lists the top 40 "Game of Thrones" characters  and the top 25 episodes in anticipation of the series July return on HBO.

RIP Joan Lee, spouse of Stan Lee.

RIP Sam Glanzman (December 5, 1924 - 2017), veteran artist known for  his many war comics made for Charlton and DC in the 1960s and 1970s.

RIP Flo Sternberg (March 17, 1939 - July 23, 2017), Marvel's 'Fabulous Flo'. Tribute by Michael J. Vassallo.

RIP George Romero (February 4, 1940 - July 16, 2017), director of "Night of the Living Dead". the film that spawned the modern zombie genre. Reactions from his colleagues.

RIP Martin Landau (June 20, 1928 - July 15, 2017), veteran Hollywood actor, whose credits included "Space: 1999", "North by Northwest", "Mission Impossible", and "Ed Wood".

RIP June Foray (September 18, 1917 – July 26, 2017), celebrated voice actress. Tribute from Matt Zoller Seitz.

Video: Stronger than You

7/24/2017

Batman/Elmer Fudd Special

Batman/Elmer Fudd #1 “Pway for Me” Story: Tom King Art: Lee Weeks Colors: Lovern Kindierski Letters: Deron Bennett Variant: Bob Fingerman  “Rabbit Season” Story: Tom King Art: Byron Vaughns Colors: Carrie Strachan Letters: Deron Bennett  Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Elmer Fudd created by Tex Avery & Chuck Jones. Bugs Bunny created by Ben Hardaway, Cal Dalton, Tex Avery.
Batman/Elmer Fudd #1
“Pway for Me”
Story: Tom King
Art: Lee Weeks
Colors: Lovern Kindierski
Letters: Deron Bennett
Variant: Bob Fingerman


“Rabbit Season”
Story: Tom King
Art: Byron Vaughns
Colors: Carrie Strachan
Letters: Deron Bennett


Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger.
Elmer Fudd created by Tex Avery & Chuck Jones.
Bugs Bunny created by Ben Hardaway, Cal Dalton, Tex Avery.


When two tonally dissimilar fictional characters meet in a crossover, the resulting story must play a delicate balancing act that lends credibility to both. Archie Comics has usually accomplished this by setting their crossovers in the Archie universe (see Archie vs. Predator). However, the current DC/Looney Tunes series of one-shots splits the difference: a main story takes place inside the DC universe, while a backup story takes place within the more cartoony Looney Tunes setting. The latter isn’t that hard to imagine, given that Looney Tunes has already skewered DC multiple times (remember BatDuck?). But the former requires DC’s stable of writers to be clever when reimagining the Looney Tunes characters operating in a timeline that normally doesn't acknowledge talking cartoon animals.

Regular Batman scribe Tom King succeeds by making Batman/Elmer Fudd a noir story about the small town vs. the big city. His Elmer is a starving country boy who moved to Gotham and parlayed his hunting skills to become a hitman. When his girlfriend is murdered, Elmer tracks down her killer Bugs “The Bunny” to a local dive called Porky’s. Bugs bargains for his life by giving up the name of the client who ordered the hit - someone named Bruce Wayne. Without realising it, Elmer has been put on a collision course with the Dark Knight Detective.

Batman/Elmer Fudd #1 “Pway for Me” Story: Tom King Art: Lee Weeks Colors: Lovern Kindierski Letters: Deron Bennett Variant: Bob Fingerman  “Rabbit Season” Story: Tom King Art: Byron Vaughns Colors: Carrie Strachan Letters: Deron Bennett  Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Elmer Fudd created by Tex Avery & Chuck Jones. Bugs Bunny created by Ben Hardaway, Cal Dalton, Tex Avery.

The comic’s appeal rests on artist Lee Weeks being able to transplant the Looney Tunes characters into the gritty noir setting while maintaining their general features. Elmer looks out of place in Gotham with his hunting jacket and oversized cap. But the getup serves as his menacing calling card. Bugs is bucked-tooth, and weaselly looking. Porky’s regulars also happen to be other Looney Tunes characters: from mustachioed biker Yosemite Sam, to a mohawked tough guy named “Taz.” What elevates the story from noir to some place even more surreal is that Weeks’ visuals are accompanied by Elmer’s first person narration. The character’s trademark “w” substituting for “r” and “l” speech impediment remains intact while he monologues like the typical male protagonist dead set on carrying out his revenge in the name of his dead lover. It sounds hilarious, and shows an awareness of the comic's own absurd premise.

When the inevitable confrontation between Elmer and Batman takes place, the fight is more evenly matched than most would expect from an Elmer Fudd/Batman fight. Elmer holds his own with nothing more than his signature shotgun. His brutal efficiency works so well against the caped crusader’s fancy, acrobatic dodging that even Batman has to eventually talk his way out of getting shot in the chest, again. Take that, f@#* one percenter! It's a duel between two people whose contrasting fighting styles reflect their backgrounds from different social strata. Not a small amount of class resentment is mixed with the desire for revenge when Elmer resolves to kill this spoiled billionaire playboy he doesn't know, but who probably never had to hunt and kill his own food.

And if that’s not to the reader’s delicate taste, Tom King’s backup story is basically the same story done in the more conventional Looney Tunes style. As Batman himself would say in the comic, “He is… quite a stinker.”

Batman/Elmer Fudd #1 “Pway for Me” Story: Tom King Art: Lee Weeks Colors: Lovern Kindierski Letters: Deron Bennett Variant: Bob Fingerman  “Rabbit Season” Story: Tom King Art: Byron Vaughns Colors: Carrie Strachan Letters: Deron Bennett  Batman created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. Elmer Fudd created by Tex Avery & Chuck Jones. Bugs Bunny created by Ben Hardaway, Cal Dalton, Tex Avery.

7/09/2017

Wonder Woman: Steve Trevor Special

Wonder Woman: Steve Trevor #1 Story: Tim Seeley Art: Christian Duce Colors: Allen Passalaqua Letters: Josh Reed Covers: Paul Renaud, Yanick Paquette, Nathan Fairbairn  Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.
Wonder Woman: Steve Trevor #1
Story: Tim Seeley
Art: Christian Duce
Colors: Allen Passalaqua
Letters: Josh Reed
Covers: Paul Renaud, Yanick Paquette, Nathan Fairbairn

Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.

This comic’s publication coincided to take advantage of the Wonder Woman film opening, so curious audience members could learn more about the character’s comic book incarnation. Apparently, that means reading more about Steve Trevor, who has been recently reinstated as Diana’s official beau. That will sound odd to most non-comics fans, but Steve hasn’t been romantically linked to her since the mid-eighties reboot authored by George Perez. But make no mistake, everything has now been set right by the powers that be. The comic even introduces the story within as “Wonder Woman's Boyfriend Steve Trevor” just in case there are any lingering doubts from skeptical comics fans who still remember that Superman and Wonder Woman were still an item until earlier this year. But given that in the film’s [Spoiler Alert] onscreen romance was kinda doomed, maybe DC is also hoping that film fans will be relieved to learn that the happy couple are still going strong within the pages of their own comics.

And yes, this is a Wonder Woman story even when Steve occupies most of its panels. Just as a Lois Lane story is actually about how Superman is seen through her eyes, or a story about James Gordon and the GCPD is ultimately about how Batman helps keeps Gotham safe from its resident lunatics. Steve is called away from Wonder Woman’s side to take part in a covert mission. But the mission itself, which involves rescuing a supernaturally enhanced individual from the clutches of nefarious forces, reminds Steve of his own complicated feelings towards Diana. Love is mixed with guilt over Steve being the person who contributed to Diana’s decision to leave her home in “paradise.” These emotions inevitably inform his actions on the mission.

Wonder Woman: Steve Trevor #1 Story: Tim Seeley Art: Christian Duce Colors: Allen Passalaqua Letters: Josh Reed Covers: Paul Renaud, Yanick Paquette, Nathan Fairbairn  Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.

This is an okay though unremarkable story drawn competently enough by Christian Duce. But the comic’s main purpose becomes apparent when Steve meets up with his usual team of crack operatives for the mission. They turn out to be the same trio of misfits from the film: The British sniper Charlie who suffers from PTSD, Moroccan aspiring actor and conman Sameer, and Native American tracker/smuggler “Chief.” Their comics appearance is remarkably quick compared to other characters introduced in other mediums making their way into the comic book pages. For now, Steve has kept his covert activities and his work with Diana far apart. But it’s safe to assume that at some point these two worlds will collide spectacularly as DC’s writers continue to flesh out this newly minted version of the Diana-Steve coupling. Corporate synergy, folks!

7/01/2017

More NonSense: Harry Potter 20th Anniversary Edition

Harry Potter Box Set illustration, by Kazu Kibuishi.

The Harry Potter franchise will be 20 years old this June 26. The publishing phenomena taught a generation of kids how to enjoy reading an increasingly hefty book series, and they would grow into one of the defining fandoms of 21st century popular culture. Pottermania helped push geek culture into the mainstream. The Harry Potter and "Lord of the Rings" film adaptations from the 2000s made it impossible to dismiss sci-fi/fantasy as mere niche entertainment.

But Harry Potter's early fame would naturally court controversy, namely with conservative Christians accusing the books for promoting occultism, paganism, devil worship. The usual stuff. Such dunderhead arguments did however touch on an important truth - Harry Potter's early appeal rested on Hogwarts. Like Starfleet or the Xavier mansion before it, the wizarding school was the kind of nerdvana misfits and outcasts could dream about. Everyone feels the desire to belong somewhere. And like its titular hero, fans would come to see Hogwarts as an ideal home for them as well. Who wouldn't want to attend a school which feels so comfortingly familiar, yet teaches subjects that are so cool, useful, and unconventional? A safe haven from the oppressive muggles who don't understand their geeky obsessions. And who now doesn't want to know which of the four houses is a natural fit for them? Go Slytherin! Or maybe it's Ravenclaw?

Tiffany Babb examines the mythological structure of superhero comics, using Marvel character Loki as a case study.

Abraham Riesman lists eight Comics You Need to Read This June.

Marta Bausells profiles Jillian Tamaki.

A short video on Trina Robbins as the first women to draw Wonder Woman.

Alex Abad-Santos on how the Wonder Woman film tackles her origin and its feminist content.

Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige thanks God that Wonder Woman has helped make it easier to make female-led superhero films. Alrighty then.

Cecilia D'Anastasio on the state of manga scanlators trying to go legit.

Deb Aoki on why manga industry can smile in 2017. Among them are increased variety of genres, digital first initiatives, and simultaneous English/Japanese publishing schedules.

Michael Livingston explains what "The Great Wall" gets wrong about Chinese history, and how it ends up playing into the White Saviour complex.

Derf doesn't have anything good to say about the ACHA.

Charles Pulliam-Moore asks why so many black superheroes have electricity powers? Sadly, it didn't occur to me until I read this that Jamie Fox playing Electro in "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" follows in this trope.

Sean T. Collins ranks ninety three "Game of Thrones" characters in order from most good to most evil. I don't think there's any disagreement on who the bad guys are. But who is the worst of the worst? The placement might spark some debate.

Matt Furie keeps trying to save his creation Pepe the Frog from being appropriated as an alt-right token. His latest move is to launch a kickstarter for Pepe to reclaim "his status as a universal symbol for peace, love, and acceptance." I wish him luck. It must be infuriating when one of your characters is officially considered a hate symbol. But the attempt sounds pretty futile.

Is Michelle Pfeiffer in "Batman Returns" the best movie supervillain?

RIP Adam West (September 19, 1928 – June 9, 2017), the world's most beloved Batman. More from Glen WeldonEvan NarcisseKeith DeCandido.

RIP Michael Bond (January 13, 1926 –  June 27, 2017), creator of the beloved character Paddington Bear.

6/24/2017

Loverboys

Loverboys, by Gilbert Hernandez.
By Gilbert Hernandez

Gilbert Hernandez made his mark early in the alternative comics market of the 1980s with his stories centering around Palomar - a fictional village located somewhere in Latin America. For over a decade, he weaved a complex tapestry of melancholic tales about small town love and intrigue using Palomar’s unconventional inhabitants. Hernandez has more recently moved away from these longform stories to shorter, more self-contained comics. But Loverboys will feel familiar to fans of Palomar. There’s the small town setting. A varied ensemble of individuals linked to each other by who they slept with, or who they want to sleep with. Unspoken rivalries bubbling beneath the surface. Voluptuous feminine figures with a mysterious past. An enigmatic supernatural element haunting his cast and informing their actions. All this is drawn in his signature cartooning style. But at barely eighty pages, Hernandez has distilled these components down to their bare essentials. The result is a story that tamps down on its more flamboyant soap opera aspects to exhibit greater emotional restraint. Not that Hernandez isn’t already an intelligent storyteller, but this narrative seems slightly more calculated.

The restraint is somewhat surprising given that the book’s front cover captures two of its principal characters in an intimate moment. But much of the sexual activity takes place off panel. And there’s even less outright violence. So much of the storytelling in Loverboys is economical. Hernandez’s art is perhaps even more starkly minimalist, if that’s even possible. His traditional page layouts, simple perspective, and uncluttered panel compositions function as an simple stage for his cast, which are always designed to be visually eclectic. Actually, this is a huge cast for such a comparatively short comic, so not all of them can receive equal attention. But the reader can easily spot several of them in the background either casually observing or surreptitiously eavesdropping on the foregrounded characters. This all serves to reinforce the gossipy nature of a tiny community.

Loverboys, by Gilbert Hernandez.

The minimalist visuals are complemented by the book’s spare dialogue. With the exception of the establishing pages used to introduce the fictional setting of Lágrimas, there’s very little exposition to describe the actions of the cast. Almost nothing is revealed of the inner lives of the minor characters. But the observant reader will notice some of them going through their own individual arcs. Clues are found in their actions, facial expressions, and offhand remarks. Even information about the central characters is divulged gradually: one crucial detail which helps to illuminate their motivations is delivered in a casual aside sometime past the halfway point.

At the heart of the story is the May-December romance of young lothario Rocky and his former substitute teacher Mrs. Paz, and the effect this has on Rocky’s little sister Daniela, who happens to be Mrs. Paz’s current student. The relationship and its eventual dissolution isn’t in itself all that remarkable. What is compelling is how Hernandez is able to map how it creates ripples throughout Lágrimas. As the town’s resident pretty boy, Rocky’s romantic interest in the elderly Mrs. Paz sparks a considerable amount of interest. And as their relationship begins to flounder, Mrs. Paz is suddenly eyed by a random collection of singles - from the unlovable loser who’s never dated anyone, another would-be womanizer, a pair of creepy twins, to even a lonely schoolgirl. Through separate interactions with each of them, some of them sexual, Mrs. Paz in turn either embarrasses, humiliates, or enables them. Hernandez handles these scenes with his characteristic mix of empathy for his cast’s frailties while delighting (even sometimes indulging) in human sensual pleasures. Only this time his approach is a little more compressed.

Loverboys may not contain the narrative intricacy, sustained world building, or emotional highs of his earlier work. That’s not likely. But there’s something to be said when a talent like Gilbert Hernandez tackles new formats. If this is a lesser work, it’s still more accomplished than most  comics being currently published. Or to quote one of the characters in the book, “I think it’s beautiful.”

Loverboys, by Gilbert Hernandez.

6/17/2017

Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid Vol. 1

Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid Vol. 1, By Coolkyousinnjya.
By Coolkyousinnjya
Translation: Jenny McKeon 
Letters: Jennifer Skarupa

Manga is rife with ordinary people whose lives have been made more complicated by their association with monstrous roommates or supernatural love interests. Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid distinguishes itself from the competition with its ordinary human for once not being a socially awkward single male whose primary character trait is that he functions as a doormat for the more imposing (mostly) female characters. Who needs more of those? Miss Kobayashi is a working adult woman. More importantly, she’s not an office lady working an entry-level position. Kobayashi is a trained professional in the male-dominated field of software development. One night, she wanders up a mountain in a drunken stupor. And at the top she encounters a massive, but wounded dragon named Tohru. They fall into friendly banter, which ends with Kobayashi inviting Tohru to crash at her pad. The next morning, Tohru shows up at Kobayashi’s front door and morphs into a young human girl. Unfortunately, Kobayashi doesn’t remember a thing about last night. But against her better judgement, she lets the errant dragon stay anyway. Mischief ensues.

Kobayashi is more of a deadpan snarker than most protagonists. She mostly comes across as a woman who easily passes for just one of the guys. She dresses in male fashions. Her appearance isn’t particularly immaculate. She walks with a constant stoop. Kobayashi certainly does not read as kawaii. In fact, it turns out that she’s a closeted otaku with a maid fetish. Manga creator Coolkyousinnjya draws her in a minimal style that would seem rather appropriate to yonkoma. Indeed, the slice-of-life focus on Kobayashi’s interactions with Tohru reflects the format’s particular brand of light humor.

By contrast, Tohru in human form is superficially cute. She disguises herself as Kobayashi’s live-in maid. This being Japan, Kobayashi immediately evaluates her performance against Victorian maid ideals. Tohru consistently fails, not because she’s a bumbling fish out of water, but because she’s actually too efficient. Kobayashi refuses to ride Tohru’s back when in dragon form for her daily commute because Tohru flies too fast and her back’s too uncomfortable to sit on. Tohru doesn’t understand why Kobayashi insists on using washing machines to do the laundry when dragon saliva does a better job as a cleaning agent.

Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid Vol. 1, By Coolkyousinnjya.

Tohru actually has no problem passing for human and truthfully doesn’t think too highly of the species. But thanks to their mountaintop meeting, she’s fallen in love with Kobayashi. And in case anyone mistakes this for innocent puppy love, she clarifies to Kobayashi that her love is sexual in nature. Since this is a manga aimed at an adult audience, the frankness of the exchange is definitely more direct than most manga interactions written for younger readers. But at this point in the series, Kobayashi seems uninterested in reciprocating Tohru’s affections. So the conversation is brushed past pretty quickly.

Whatever goodwill is established between the two (and with the reader) is partially undone in one scene that unfortunately reveals the creepy otaku side of Kobayashi when she goes on a drunken rant about maid tropes that leads to her forcibly stripping Tohru of her clothes even while there’s a another person in the room. It’s a traumatic experience for Tohru, but the scene is mainly played as slapstick. Thankfully, the moment doesn’t linger. That’s the most problematic part in a comic which contains some light fanservice for its adult male demographic. Otherwise, there’s nothing else too egregious.

Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid Vol. 1, By Coolkyousinnjya.

6/10/2017

Wonder Woman Annual #1

Wonder Woman Annual #1. Story: Greg Rucka, Vita Ayala, Michael Moreci, Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing Art: Nicola Scott, Claire Roe, Stephanie Hans, David Lafuente Colors: Romulo Fajardo Jr., Jordie Bellarie, John Rauch Letters: Jodi Wynne, Josh Reed, Dave Sharpe  Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.
Story: Greg Rucka, Vita Ayala, Michael Moreci, Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing
Art: Nicola Scott, Claire Roe, Stephanie Hans, David Lafuente
Colors: Romulo Fajardo Jr., Jordie Bellarie, John Rauch
Letters: Jodi Wynne, Josh Reed, Dave Sharpe

Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.

The stories that get published in superhero annuals usually tend to be best described as “continuity lite.” For the most part, this also applies to this year’s Wonder Woman Annual. But thanks to the effects of the ongoing DC Rebirth, the character's history is presently in flux. In the New 52 timeline, Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman would meet during Geoff Johns and Jim Lee’s 2011 run of the Justice League, where they would team up to thwart an invasion from Apokolips. Apparently, this is also the plot for the comic’s upcoming cinematic adaptation. More recently, Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott have been retelling WW’s origin in their Wonder Woman Year One story arc. Their efforts have pretty much undone those events, the controversial Brian Azzarello 2011 run, not to mention the squicky Supes-WW pairing (with help from Superman's scribes). Wonder Woman is no longer the God of War (seriously, how was this ever a thing?), and back to being a symbol for empowerment, peace and compassion.

Rucka and Scott cap off their Year One arc with the Annual’s headliner “And Then There Were Three....” Taking place shortly after Wonder Woman #10, Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne catch Diana’s superhero debut on television, and independently conduct their own investigations. They both coincidentally (and very improbably) end up on the same patch of Nevada desert while trying to locate the secret government facility housing Diana. But while the two caped crusaders banter, WW has already snuck up on them.

Wonder Woman Annual #1. Story: Greg Rucka, Vita Ayala, Michael Moreci, Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing Art: Nicola Scott, Claire Roe, Stephanie Hans, David Lafuente Colors: Romulo Fajardo Jr., Jordie Bellarie, John Rauch Letters: Jodi Wynne, Josh Reed, Dave Sharpe  Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.

At ten pages, this is hardly the grandiose occasion envisioned by Johns and Lee. This is a character driven story where Rucka channels his experience writing for all three superheroes into amusing dialogue. Clark is consistently hilarious when trolling Bruce, I mean Batman (heh heh!). With Diana around, no one’s going to engage in needless name calling, macho posturing, or any gratuitous violence. But Batman’s still the biggest dork. And Rucka leaves no doubt who he thinks is the greatest hero among the three of them.

Since 2016, Scott has established herself as one of Wonder Woman’s leading artists. There’s a sweetness to her portrayal of Diana that hasn’t been seen in almost a decade. But in this story, she’s also proving to be just as good in capturing Clark’s relaxed confidence, and Bruce’s guarded disposition.

The other stories are more typically written to be harder to pin down. "The Curse and The Honor" by writer Michael Moreci and artist Stephanie Hans is however closer to Azzarello’s Diana as stoic warrior. She has travelled to rural Japan to aid a swordsman save his village from a curse. But the swordsman has already taken on the curse, becoming a monster in the process. The story is clearly a homage to samurai tales. But the ten page limit hampers both the reveal and the ending. Everything is dependent on drawing out the mood. Instead, everything feels rushed. This feels like a lesser version of a comic written by Frank Miller starring Wolverine or Elektra.

Wonder Woman Annual #1. Story: Greg Rucka, Vita Ayala, Michael Moreci, Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing Art: Nicola Scott, Claire Roe, Stephanie Hans, David Lafuente Colors: Romulo Fajardo Jr., Jordie Bellarie, John Rauch Letters: Jodi Wynne, Josh Reed, Dave Sharpe  Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.

“In Defense of Truth and Justice” by writer Vita Ayala and artist Claire Roe lands in more familiar territory with Diana rescuing the villainous King Shark from being executed by Markovian authorities for a crime he didn’t commit. Roe’s art combined with Jordie Bellarie’s muted palette makes the story look like a noir crime drama with superheroes. She draws the most buff version of Diana in this Annual.

But “The Last Kaiju” by writers Collin Kelly and Jackson Lanzing, with artist David Lafuente, repeats the same theme, only now with a giant monster. When Diana realizes that she can communicate with a Kaiju rampaging through the Pacific coast, she decides to protect it from ARGUS and find it a suitable home. Lafuente does draw the goofiest visuals. At one point, Diana grabs the Kaiju by the nose and airlifts it to safety. That’s one way to tame a beast. The sight itself is almost whimsical.

Wonder Woman Annual #1. Story: Greg Rucka, Vita Ayala, Michael Moreci, Collin Kelly, Jackson Lanzing Art: Nicola Scott, Claire Roe, Stephanie Hans, David Lafuente Colors: Romulo Fajardo Jr., Jordie Bellarie, John Rauch Letters: Jodi Wynne, Josh Reed, Dave Sharpe  Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.

6/07/2017

More NonSense: The Wonder Woman Film Edition

Wonder Woman (2017) alternative poster, by Doaly. Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.
Image via The Poster Posse, by Doaly

Did you know that Wonder Woman is finally headlining a groundbreaking, not to mention hugely profitable, film? The amazing amazon has become a genuine cultural phenomenon. For the beleaguered Time-Warner, it's the only instalment from the DC Cinematic Universe to have so far garnered critical acclaim. And director Patty Jenkins will be back to helm the sequel (maybe). But there have been a few controversies, such as leading lady Gal Gadot's Israeli background and her advocacy of the IDF leading to the Lebanese government banning the film.

This is, off course, long overdue for a character usually touted as one of DC's top three superheroes (the other two being Superman and Batman) but receives only a fraction of the attention directed at her peers. What took them so long? There are a few unfortunate consequences to being part of a cinematic universe. The film's dreary visual aesthetic had already been laid down since Man of Steel. So this is partly justified by setting the story in WW I Europe. In contrast, the sun-drenched island paradise of Themyscira is a welcome sight. The inevitable and annoying slo-mo action sequences favoured by Zach Snyder are also exploited to capture Diana's perception of fired bullets as moving through the air at a snail's pace. The film just can't quite overcome the dullness of the requisite CGI-enhanced final showdown, mainly because Ares (David Thewlis) is no more interesting a villain than Ultron or Ronan.

But these films live or die on the casting of their heroic leads. Gadot is a compelling presence, which was first evident when she was the one bright spot in the abysmal Snyder showcase that was Batman V Superman. Her bemusement at the great metropolis that is jolly old London made the small moments of pleasure she found all the more endearing. Chris Pine, playing Steve Trevor, proves to be an excellent second banana. A suitably cynical foil to Diana's moral absolutism. His attempted seduction of Doctor Poison (Elena Anaya) while speaking with a German accent is an amusing highlight, and convinced me that Pine should play the honey trap more often. It takes a while before Diana reaches the front line and joins the fray. But the moment she throws aside her disguise and crosses No Man's Land under a hale of machine gun fire might be the best coming out party for a cinematic superhero in the present era (and definitely in all of the DC Cinematic Universe).

Though Hera help me, I'm still not pleased with the decision to utilise elements from the controversial New 52 reboot for Diana's origin story. The choices made have the cumulative effect of closing off her connection to the larger world of Greek mythology (and dilute the attendant feminist overtones found in the comics) which I wished remained open for future instalments. I hope the gods aren't as extinct as Diana was led to believe. And the Amazons were so badass I wouldn't mind seeing them make a return appearance. And bring back the invisible jet!

After a series of misfires, DC's cinematic universe finally has a hero worthy of their efforts. Maybe they'll even learn to build on her success and make her the heart of future instalments.

Germain Lussier has a rundown of directors who made their debut with a smaller independent film, then were signed on to direct an expensive studio blockbuster. Patty Jenkins makes the list as one of the few, and now the most successful, women offered the opportunity.

Vincent Schilling lavishes praise on Eugene Brave Rock's portrayal of supporting character Chief. In their first meeting spoken entirely in Blackfoot, he introduces himself to Diana as the trickster Napi. That would explain his easy acceptance of her as an immortal being.

Nate Jones compares the film's fictional and real German general Erich Ludendorff.

Charlie Jane Anders speaks up for Wonder Woman as hero and role model.

James Whitbrook gives his recommendations for Wonder Woman comics.

Keith DeCandido speaks in favour for Wonder Woman's last great onscreen incarnation played by Lynda Carter, and critiques the mediocre animated feature from 2009.

Hunter Harris on the David E. Kelley Wonder Woman pilot that never aired.

Willa Paskin muses on how to better review superhero movies. Needless to say, this is already a controversial point in comics.

Emily Asher-Perrin examines the evolution of Robin Wright as a heroine by comparing her role of Princess Buttercup from The Princess Bride, and General Antiope from Wonder Woman.

Gal Gadot on auditioning for the role.

Angelica Jade Bastién on Wonder Woman's convoluted history and the tendency (especially by DC) to underestimate the character's enormous appeal.

Wonder Woman (2017) Director: Patty Jenkins, Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin Wright. Wonder Woman created by William Moulton Marston, H. G. Peter, Elizabeth Holloway Marston, Olive Byrne.
Image via Hollywood Reporter

Maggie Umber on the break up of her marriage with Raighne Hogan due to the financial stress caused by both partners running the publishing house 2dcloud.

Asher Elbein analyses the causes for Marvel's weak print sales. The Direct Market has generally done a poor job cultivating new readers. But Marvel deserves special recognition for going out of its way to alienate them:
The past decade has been a parade of singularly embarrassing behavior by Marvel writers and editors in public. The former editor Stephen Wacker has a reputation for picking fights with fans; so does the Spider-Man writer Dan Slott. The writer Peter David went on a bizarre anti-Romani rant at convention (he later apologized); the writer Mark Waid recently mused about punching a critic in the face before abandoning Twitter. The writer of Secret Empire, Nick Spencer, has managed to become a swirl of social media sturm all by himself, partially for his fascist Captain America storyline and partially for his tone-deaf handling of race and general unwillingness to deal with criticism.
And the publisher's lack of faith in its new titles is now well known:
Marvel’s marketing and PR must bear a hefty share of the blame as well. The company habitually places the onus for minority books’ survival on the readership, instead of promoting their product effectively. Tom Brevoort, the executive editor at Marvel, publicly urged readers to buy issues of the novelist Chelsea Cain’s canceled (and very witty) Mockingbird after the author was subjected to coordinated sexist harassment. 
The problem, however, is that the decision to cancel Mockingbird was necessarily made months in advance, due to preorder sales to retailers on the direct market. The book itself launched with only a few announcements on comics fan sites; no real attempt to reach out to a new audience was made. Marvel’s unexpected success stories, like Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Captain Marvel, are largely built on the tireless efforts of the creators themselves. (In Deconnick’s case, she paid for postcards, dog tags, and fliers for fan engagement out of her own pocket, for a character she didn’t own or have a real expectation of royalties from.)
Ben Judkins recommends his top five comics/animated works for the martial artist. I myself have reviewed Boxers & Saints and commented frequently on the Avatar the Last Airbender franchise.