3/25/2017

Superman #19 & Action Comics #976

Superman #19 Writers: Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason Art: Patrick Gleason Ink: Mick Gray Colors: John Kalisz Letters: Rob Leigh Variants: Gary Frank, Brad Anderson. Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Action Comics #976 Writer: Dan Jurgens Art: Doug Mahnke Inks: Jaime Mendoza, Christian Alamy, Trevor Scott Colors: Wil Quintana Letters: Rob Leigh Covers: Patrick Gleason, John Kalisz, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Superman #19
Writers: Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason
Art: Patrick Gleason
Ink: Mick Gray
Colors: John Kalisz
Letters: Rob Leigh
Variants: Gary Frank, Brad Anderson


Action Comics #976
Writer: Dan Jurgens
Art: Doug Mahnke
Inks: Jaime Mendoza, Christian Alamy, Trevor Scott
Colors: Wil Quintana
Letters: Rob Leigh
Covers: Patrick Gleason, John Kalisz, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson


Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

[Spoiler Warning for the two comics]

Every major reshuffling of DC’s shared universe will include a few common elements: it usually begins with some version of the Flash acting as a harbinger of change, and ends with another rewrite of Superman’s story. As Superman goes, so goes the DC Universe. The Superman of the New 52 relaunch attempted to bring him back to his social justice roots, erase his romantic history with Lois Lane, and even strip him of his secret identity and much of his powers. DC even got rid of his iconic red trunks. Did any of this work for DC’s readership? Outside of Grant Morrison’s run, I don’t know. The DC Rebirth rebranding promised to roll back many of the New 52 changes. And just recently, the first indication of a cosmic reshuffling occurred within the pages of Superman #19 and Action Comics #976.

Rebirth introduced the theory that the New 52 was basically the previous DC Universe, only with ten years stolen from its history during the last universal reset, by an as yet unidentified entity. But it was already revealed a year before that the previous incarnations of Superman and Lois Lane were alive and well, living incognito with their son Jon. They’ve kept out of the way of New 52 Superman until the latter died. And they were the only refugees from the previous Universe until Wally West/Kid Flash showed up in the pages of Rebirth. You know who else knows of their existence? Mister Mxyzptlk. And for some reason, he’s mad as hell at Lois and Clark for not bothering to contact him all this time.

Superman #19 Writers: Peter Tomasi, Patrick Gleason Art: Patrick Gleason Ink: Mick Gray Colors: John Kalisz Letters: Rob Leigh Variants: Gary Frank, Brad Anderson. Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

Superman #19 attempts to explain the paradox of two pairs of characters co-existing in the same Universe by going back to the cosmological well one more time - that powerful forces conspired to split Superman’s reality into two parallel versions. It’s not a particularly satisfactory explanation, given how often DC resorts to multiversal shenanigans to tidy-up their continuity. Equally unsurprising is the the well-worn resolution - the two versions must merge. Mxyzptlk has trapped the Kent family inside a limbo dimension in order to torture and eventually eliminate them. But this act inadvertently allows Lois and Clark to make contact with the souls of their dead New 52 counterparts. Presumably, the rest of the New 52 Universe has to somehow follow Superman’s example in order to fulfill the promise of Rebirth and regain those lost ten years.

At this point, this all feels like an elaborate form of hand-waving that doesn’t even begin to resolve the tangled mess created from contradicting other titles like New Super-Man and Superwoman, let alone Superman’s various appearances within the New 52 timeline. For example, what happens now to his established romantic connection with Wonder Woman? And how many times has Superman died in this timeline?

Action Comics #976 Writer: Dan Jurgens Art: Doug Mahnke Inks: Jaime Mendoza, Christian Alamy, Trevor Scott Colors: Wil Quintana Letters: Rob Leigh Covers: Patrick Gleason, John Kalisz, Gary Frank, Brad Anderson  Superman created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.

The end of Action Comics #976 further underlines the cynicism at the heart of Rebirth. As Mxyzptlk flees and the Universe is realigned around Superman’s new timeline, the comic ends with a panel of the planet Mars accompanied by the ominous words “Is it Superman who has the final say? Or him?” Yup, Watchmen character Doctor Manhattan, and not the guys who run DC, is still allegedly to blame for the crappy state of the New 52 Universe.

3/19/2017

Man-Thing #1

Man-Thing #1: Story: R.L. Stine Art: German Peralta Colors: Rachelle Rosenberg Letters: Travis Lanham Covers: Tyler Cook, Francesco Francavilla, John Tyler Christopher, Stephanie Hans, Ron Lim, Billy Martin, Rachelle Rosenberg  Man-Thing created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gray Morrow.
Story: R.L. Stine
Art: German Peralta
Colors: Rachelle Rosenberg
Letters: Travis Lanham
Covers: Tyler Cook, Francesco Francavilla, John Tyler Christopher, Stephanie Hans, Ron Lim, Billy Martin, Rachelle Rosenberg

Man-Thing created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gray Morrow.

Whenever celebrity writers from outside the industry make the jump to working on a comic book series, readers can expect their prose to play an outsize role in the comic. At the heart of the award-winning March are the personal recollections of John Lewis told in casual first person voice. The first arc of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ run on Black Panther is a slowly unfolding discourse on the relationship between the state and the people embodied as dialogue between the comic’s numerous characters. So when Marvel hired Goosebumps author R.L. Stine to work on a Man-Thing mini series, the result is a a story helmed by the kind of prose once described as “funny, icky, and just a bit menacing.” Put another way, the usually mute swamp monster now talks like a young R.L. Stine protagonist.

The menacing part (or at least the icky part) is quickly exhibited. The comic opens with a swamp battle between Man-Thing and a hideous centipede creature. Our hero is stymied on how to defeat the monstrosity. But then, the centipede starts talking: “Whoa. I didn't know they could pile human waste that high. Where does the swamp end and you begin?” More surprising is Man-Thing’s internal monologue, represented by a constant stream of thought bubbles. Ted Sallis (Man-Thing’s former human identity) turns out to be a really chatty person.

Man-Thing #1: Story: R.L. Stine Art: German Peralta Colors: Rachelle Rosenberg Letters: Travis Lanham Covers: Tyler Cook, Francesco Francavilla, John Tyler Christopher, Stephanie Hans, Ron Lim, Billy Martin, Rachelle Rosenberg  Man-Thing created by Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway, Gray Morrow.

Stine keeps piling on the ironic twists. Ted is now a resident of Los Angeles and a struggling actor. His dream of a successful Hollywood career receives a serious blow when a sleazy studio executive bluntly points out “You’re a nice guy - but you’re sickening.” The studio’s instead considering going with Ant-Man. Stupid Marvel Cinematic Universe! When Ted walks the streets, he’s relentlessly heckled by pedestrians for his alien appearance. Artist German Peralta draws a suitably creepy Man-Thing and somehow manages to convey the dejection behind the hulking figure with glowing red eyes by using some pretty subtle body language.

There’s a bit of Peter Parker in Ted’s sack sack behavior, with a dash of Ben Grimm for good measure. His response to the unwelcome attention on the street is “Don’t let my good looks fool you. Deep down inside I’m very ugly.” But Stine’s pulpy approach to horror is on full display when the story goes on an extended flashback of Man-Thing’s origins. “Ted Sallis wanted to build an indestructible killer. He never dreamed it would turn out to be himself!” Whoa. Aren’t scientists who work for the military just the worst?

3/14/2017

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

Kong: Skull Island (2017): Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.  King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.

King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.

In kaiju movies, the giant monster is the star of the show. No matter how large and varied the cast, the human characters are mainly there to anchor the story, not to steal the the big guy’s thunder. And if two kaiju decide to throw down in the middle of downtown, the humans had better get their puny selves out of the way, assuming they want to live. Or as Dr. Ishiro Serizawa from the 2014 Godzilla kept begging the military, “Let them fight.” King Kong is Hollywood’s most venerable movie monster. But the giant ape of Kong: Skull Island doesn’t quite fit into the established pattern of Hollywood’s Kong remakes. This Kong belongs to the MonsterVerse, and must be able to interact with Japan’s king of kaiju on an equal footing. That means the bigger he is, the better.

This also means the removal of the titular character’s classic “beauty and the beast” storyline. As the film’s trailer mentions, our hero keeps to himself, mostly. And he’s provoked into fighting the humans only because they keep dropping bombs on his home. This Kong is closer to Godzilla when he’s acting as curmudgeonly protector of the Earth than to the original besotted leading man envisioned by Merian C. Cooper. Consequently, there are no leading lady roles similar to those played by Jessica Lange and Naomi Watts in their respective remakes. Kong is essentially a misunderstood tough guy who maintains an icy exterior, but with no one left to share an intimate connection. As if to underline this point, the human characters are in one scene forced to play a game of cat-and-mouse with the film’s monstrous baddies while amongst the skeletal remains of Kong’s family. Against great odds, Kong is fighting to remain the last of his kind.

Kong: Skull Island (2017): Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.  King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.

Given the emotional gulf between super-ape and humans, the film’s hugely talented cast is mainly there to lend their considerable star power to the script’s two dimensional characters. The story is set in 1973, so it fills some of the backstory of Monarch, the organization founded in 1954 to study Godzilla. Monarch has convinced the U.S. government to fund an expedition to Skull Island. Their scientists are burdened with much of the expository dialogue, which is a somewhat more detailed explanation of the theories first expounded in the 2014 film. They’re accompanied by a military escort composed of a helicopter squadron who served in the Vietnam War.

The story turns into a ham-fisted message about the War, during which U.S. forces were beginning to withdraw from Vietnam that year. Squadron leader Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) blames the liberal media back home for America losing the War. Except that America didn’t lose, he claims, they exited. His opposite, photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), only confirms Packard’s suspicions when she proudly proclaims herself to be an “anti-war photographer.” WTF? How the heck did she get on this expedition? Caught in between these two extremes is world-weary James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), a former SAS officer who’s on the expedition because Monarch promised him a big fat paycheck to act as the group’s tracker. Guess who he sides with later on when Packard and Weaver inevitably come to loggerheads?

Kong: Skull Island (2017): Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.  King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.

Once the expedition reaches Skull Island, the cinematography starts to ape (no pun intended) Apocalypse Now, and the soundtrack blasts 70s protest music. Everything goes pear shaped when Kong shows up and takes exception to the military's habit of stomping around with guns blazing. But some sanity is restored when Hank Marlow (a delightfully goofy John C. Reilly) appears with a dozen Skull Island natives (in only a marginally better portrayal, since they don’t try to sacrifice anyone to Kong) to act as the voice of wisdom. His jovial reaction to everything injects a much needed dose of levity to the dour proceedings. A WW II aviator marooned on Skull Island for the last 28 years, Marlow naturally asks one soldier if America won the War. To which he receives the laconic response “which one?”

But everyone’s here to gawk at the king, while of course getting stomped on, torn apart, or eaten by the local mega-sized megafauna. And Kong is certainly impressive to behold. The creature design hearkens back to the chimp-gorilla hybrid with an upright human gait from 1933, instead of later attempts to make Kong look like an oversized gorilla. This allows mo-cap actor Terry Notary to imbue Kong with a humanlike swagger. If the spectacular kaiju-style battle that ends the film is any indication, this Kong is being promoted to the rank of badass, and getting ready to take on Godzilla.

Kong: Skull Island (2017): Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John C. Reilly, etc.  King Kong created by Merian C. Cooper.

3/09/2017

Logan (2017)

Logan (2017): Director: James Mangold Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen  Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe. Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.
Director: James Mangold
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen

Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe.
Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.

The uneven X-Men film franchise went through a reboot in 2014 with Days of Future Past. In its future setting, the robotic Sentinels have enslaved humanity and hunted the mutants to near extinction. To save themselves, Professor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) sends Wolverine/Logan (Hugh Jackman) back to 1973 to prevent the creation of the Sentinel program. After Logan succeeds in his mission, he wakes up in his bedroom at the Westchester mansion. Everyone’s alive and healthy, without a single sentinel in sight. Having no memories of the new timeline, Logan confronts Xavier with his conundrum. The film ends with Xavier’s delighted reaction and a promise to inform his friend about the brave new world he helped usher into existence.

None of this is necessary to understand Logan. On the contrary, the time travel shenanigans only serve to make the story both sillier and less accessible. But the contrast between the 2017 film and its predecessors is perturbing. Like Marty McFly, the Logan from the 2014 film finds himself in a much better present than the one he left behind. But this lovely vision is cruelly snatched away from him, only to be replaced by another horrible timeline where the mutant apocalypse arrives as a kind of slow and inevitable demise. There are no flying killer robots in Logan. The more fantastic superhero elements are pushed deep into the background. When they are foregrounded, it’s in the form of X-Men comic books, which Logan openly mocks for only getting it half right.

This meta commentary is a shout out to the increasingly baroque Marvel Cinematic Universe, the televised Arrowverse, the sputtering DC Cinematic Universe, and every Hollywood attempt to sustain a ubiquitous multimedia franchise. As they seek to outdo each other in over-the-top spectacle, larger ensembles, and convoluted continuity, Logan pulls back. The cast is smaller, the set pieces are more intimate, and the stakes are far from world-saving.

Logan (2017): Director: James Mangold Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen  Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe. Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.

But the tonal shift also feels timely. Director James Mangold economically sets up a future America that has become a fascist police state. In 2029, an aging Logan freelances as a limo driver in El Paso. The healing factor which has kept him alive for over 200 years is greatly diminished. He drinks too much. And Logan cares for an ailing Xavier who rants like a mad King Lear. The mutants, once a symbol of a brighter tomorrow, are again endangered. Both Logan and Xavier are haunted by their memories of the “Westchester Incident,” an event from five years ago that spelled the end for the X-Men and the beginning of the end for mutantkind.

This portrait of two aging individuals who’re being slowly destroyed by their own superpowers serves as a more effective way to convey the loss of their shared utopian dream than any attack from a fleet of Sentinels. Logan’s claw openings occasionally spew puss, a possible sign he’s being slowly poisoned by the adamantium that laces his skeleton. With the help of fellow mutant Caliban (Stephen Merchant), Logan has Xavier tucked away in an abandoned industrial compound located south of the Mexican border, not only to protect themselves from unwanted attention but to also keep anyone from being exposed to psychic attacks unleashed whenever Xavier suffers a seizure. But neither of them is willing to articulate their shared guilt over the loss of the X-Men and mutantkind. When Xavier experiences a moment of lucidity, he simply says to Logan is “What a disappointment you are.” It’s a brilliant performance of someone losing the battle with dementia from Stewart.

If Mangold’s earlier outing The Wolverine drew from Asian martial arts fantasy, Logan is clearly informed by westerns. The two older mutants are very much akin to retired gunslingers scarred by a life filled with violence. The film even directly quotes the 1953 western Shane. Like that movie’s titular hero, Logan can’t quite escape his past. And like Reuben Cogburn from True Grit, he’s been given a chance at redemption by accompanying a young girl on a perilous journey. If that's not enough, helping to convey this message is the music of Johnny Cash.

Logan (2017): Director: James Mangold Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen  Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe. Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.

The girl in question is Laura (Dafne Keen), who is for all they know, the last young mutant left on the planet. She’s on the run from the kind of corporate overlords who rule future America and are raising mutants from birth to become living weapons. It’s also hinted that they’re also responsible for engineering a federally sanctioned act of mutant genocide. As any hardcore X-Men comics fan already knows, Laura has the same mutant powers as Logan. Despite this uncanny resemblance, Logan is hesitant to escort Laura towards a possibly fictive safe haven. But he and Xavier abscond with her once they realize the goons responsible for bringing Laura in are just as happy to target them. What follows is a quiet, melancholic road trip through the more desolate parts of the country’s western interior, punctuated by the requisite gory violence.

And those action set pieces are filled with tension. Keen’s portrayal of a frenzied Laura manages to make her an extremely dangerous combatant while still being a young innocent screaming in terror at her adult assailants. The balletic fight choreography highlights Laura’s diminutive stature and vicious fighting style. She’s constantly sliding between her opponents' legs to slice off their tendons, chopping off arms, or diving claws first into their chests.

As for Logan himself, he’s a diminished figure from his last two solo outings, literally. Jackman’s finally been allowed to shed some of the muscle he’s gained from playing the role for the last 17 years. When he runs through the woods in the film’s taut climax, every heavy exhalation and clumsy step he takes seems to only bring him closer to collapse, if not death. It’s a glimpse of the fragility behind the invincible adamantium frame which makes for a more terrifying throwdown. This is a fitting farewell to Jackman’s star making turn as Canada’s quintessential wild man.

Logan (2017): Director: James Mangold Stars: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen  Wolverine created by Roy Thomas, Len Wein, John Romita, Herb Trimpe. Laura Kinney/X-23 created by Craig Kyle and Christopher Yost.

2/25/2017

The Old Guard #1

The Old Guard #1, By Greg Rucka Art: Leandro Fernández Colors: Daniela Miwa Letters: Jodi Wynne.
By Greg Rucka
Art: Leandro Fernández
Colors: Daniela Miwa
Letters: Jodi Wynne

The Old Guard introduces its familiar premise with the famous words once uttered by General Douglas MacArthur, “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” The comic takes only the first part of that sentence literally. AndromacheAndy” of Scythia and her comrades in arms Nicky, Joe, and Booker are immortal warriors. They don’t understand the underlying cause of their immortality. But they do not age. Knowing nothing else than how to fight, the quartet has participated in numerous battles, and have yet to die from their wounds. Rather than fading away, they’re imprisoned in a self-imposed hell they don’t seem to be capable, or all that interested, in escaping.

This latest cynical take on human nature from Greg Rucka begins with Andy engaging in sexual intercourse. This scene is quickly overwhelmed by a montage illustrating the many past occasions of Andy repeatedly fighting and fornicating through the centuries. But she constantly frets over two things: She fears about what could possibly terminate her immortality. But she’s already so beaten down by the cyclical nature of her existence that she craves an end to it. “So goddamn tired of life.” Andy intones. “Of going through the motions, of killing time.”

The Old Guard #1, By Greg Rucka Art: Leandro Fernández Colors: Daniela Miwa Letters: Jodi Wynne.

It’s an efficient enough layout, if not the most compelling approach, from Leandro Fernández. The use of deep shadows and silhouettes accompanied by deep, flat tones by Daniela Miwa reminded me of the house style that would come to dominate the Vertigo imprint in the late 90s. In short, it’s a little muddy at times. Fernández is on shakier ground when it comes to character design. Andy’s appearance is fairly generic as an attractive brunette. Nicky, Joe, and Booker are somewhat nondescript. They’re almost background characters.

But Rucka dispenses with individual characterization and moves right into the A-plot. The setup is pretty current to the “War on Terror.” The four immortals are private contractors who seem to to be regularly sought after by western intelligence agencies for their services. The assignment they accept is reminiscent to the real world events involving the 2014 Boko Haram kidnapping of schoolgirls. And then there’s the intersecting B-plot, which involves a female soldier who is part of the US forces deployed in Afghanistan. It’s apparent from her actions that she’ll eventually run into Andy, probably in the next issue.

Needless to say, things go sideways for the immortals. And the issue’s cliffhanger suggests that they’ll be forced to serve at the behest of some shady organization in the near future. But if the basic theme is a little time-worn, the fantastic elements mixing with the present political context could prove to be intriguing.

2/19/2017

WildC.A.T.s #1

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.
By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi
Inks: Scott Williams
Letters: Mike Heisler
Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon

This post is a continuation of an examination that began with Spawn #1.

Image Comics was founded on the conviction that Marvel Comics fans would follow their favorite artists into a new publishing house because they loved their talents more than they loved the properties they were working on. So confident were they that the Image founders initially rejected working with veteran writers, or be subjected to editorial oversight. Their collective stance even set off a mini-debate at the time on which was more important for creating a successful comic: art or writing? Sounds silly, given that Image is now partially known for writers like Robert Kirkman and Brian K. Vaughan. But at least a few of the Image founders had reason to be cocky. For example, the efforts of Todd McFarlane raised the sales of The Amazing Spider-Man so dramatically Marvel established a second Spider-Man title in 1990 just to keep him from abandoning the character and the company. The first issue sold a breathtaking 2.5 million copies.

Jim Lee had an even more impressive track record. His work on Uncanny X-Men was so popular he was also given his own title in 1991 where he could exercise greater creative control. The first issue of X-Men sold a whopping 8.1 million copies, considered the best selling comic book of all time. His character designs were so influential in defining the look and feel of the X-Men franchise, they wouldn’t receive a major overhaul until New X-Men in 2001. So Lee probably had as much cause as any of the Image founders to parlay his Marvel-bred success into nurturing his original ideas. Like the other founders, he established his own studio, which he named Homage. Lee then partnered with childhood friend Brandon Choi to create a new superhero team, the WildC.A.T.s.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

To anyone who was familiar with Lee’s X-Men, WildC.A.T.s would certainly seem familiar. It’s a team book. Its members call back to recognizable archetypes. There’s the boy scout leader, the berserker with a blade fetish, the psychic woman, the mountain of muscle, the amazon warrior, the rake with a mysterious past, etc. The similarities between the character designs of the two teams are unmistakeable. The WildC.A.T.s could have been inserted into Lee’s X-Men pages as background characters, and no one would been the wiser.

Lee, McFarlane, and Image co-founder Rob Liefeld were developing a distinct new drawing style at Marvel when they decided to jump ship. One that resonated with fans of the late 80s and 90s. It eschewed the naturalism of the previous generation of artists for something more stylized. More Baroque. There were differences between them, of course. If McFarlane emphasized mood and atmosphere, Lee was all about frenetic action. And WildC.A.T.s pretty much embodies Lee’s approach to storytelling, meaning that the first issue is a mess.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

The comics starts out with two pages filled with irregularly shaped panels that are keen to impart a sense of chaos. But the panels are so small and confusingly composed on the page, they effectively obscure some pertinent details. This includes the story’s macguffin. Characters and word balloons are crammed tightly together as leave little breathing space.

But these are hallmarks of Lee’s style even when the rest of the story is drawn with more conventionally-shaped panels. Lee is one of those artists who fears the negative space, so he tends to minimize it with a combination of close-ups and word balloons. He also often resorts to heavy cross-hatching as a substitute for actual background detail or just leaves the space blank, both time saving devices which mimic contemporary shonen manga being translated into english.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

Lee’s unwillingness to illustrate proper backgrounds results in a comic that possesses no clear establishing shots, let alone any sense of the space the characters are supposed to inhabit. If he has to pull back occasionally in order to communicate a wider view of the setting, Lee almost always shrinks the panel, basically sidestepping the need to draw complicated details while minimizing the possibility of being bogged down by the challenge of rendering tricky perspective.

Off course, this makes for a comic informed by an underlying flatness. There’s no variation in mood or emotional content. The pacing is monotonously rushed. Characters are introduced and shuffled of the stage to make way for the next set of characters. This is where the text comes in. Lee inevitably relies on text-heavy narration to properly relay what his art could not. This rereading revealed that he’s a lot chattier than I remembered. But his large cast has yet to find its voice and gel into a compelling ensemble at this point.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

But if WildC.A.T.s is a poor showcase for Lee’s abilities as a storyteller, it exploits his appeal as an artist. The coloring used by Joe Rosas isn’t anywhere as advanced as that found in Spawn, but it manages to convey a shiny world bathed in primary colors that works with Lee’s individual aesthetic. The Image founders drew figures that were highly exaggerated, resulting in action scenes seemed bigger. The behavior of the heroes and villains became more operatic. But if McFarlane’s figures were grimy and had a hint of the grotesque, Lee’s were lithe and flamboyant. It points to the influence of the hyper-real sensibilities of Japanese anime. And Lee is probably the slickest figure artist among the lot of them. The Image style would set the tone for mainstream comics for the next decade, as both Marvel and DC Comics would attempt to replicate it for themselves.

The premise of WildC.A.T.s is a war between two alien factions, although it isn’t examined much in this issue. Rather, this comic is mostly concerned with gathering the heroes tasked with protecting the Earth from their evil counterparts, the Cabal. The WildC.A.T.s founder/benefactor Jacob Marlowe gets the lion’s share of the dialogue. And the other males of the team get to talk more than the female members, especially the gun-totting Grifter. But they’re not exactly the main source of interest. Lee structures the flow of the comic around panels that do double duty as pinup imagery. With the introduction of each female character, their panels noticeably take up more space. When the final member Zealot makes her grand entrance, we’re treated to a glorious two page spread of her poised for battle while accompanied by Grifter’s appreciative commentary. This sacrifice of narrative efficiency for glamour shots which satisfy the fanboy gaze is the organizing principle behind Lee’s popular X-Men tenure. Fanservice follows it’s own narrative logic.

WildC.A.T.s #1 By Jim Lee and Brandon Choi Inks: Scott Williams Letters: Mike Heisler Colors: Joe Rosas, Digital Chameleon.

As with the other Image titles released that year, WildC.A.T.s was a massive bestseller. But just as with the other co-founders, Lee and Choi could not sustain a regular monthly output. The series would fall further and further behind. This chronic lateness from most of the Image titles is often cited as the main contributing factor to the comics direct market crash of the 90s. Lee would eventually leave WildC.A.T.s in the hands of more capable storytellers and initiate other projects. Homage was renamed Wildstorm Productions, and would become the most prolific Image studio. The “Wildstorm Universe” effectively replaced the stillborn Image Universe, until DC purchased the studio and Lee’s creations in 1998. The WildC.A.T.s and the rest of the Wildstorm Universe would be incorporated into the DC Universe after the New 52 initiative. As for Jim Lee himself, the young artist who left Marvel to work on his own characters is now one of the chief architects of the DC Universe. For the last several years, the look and feel of some of the world’s most iconic superheroes has borne the stamp of an Image co-founder.

2/12/2017

Spawn #1

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.
By Todd McFarlane
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Colors: Steve Oliff

Image Comics was born in 1992. Unlike the present-day publisher of high profile, creator-owned works such as The Walking Dead and Saga, the original Image was a very different beast. Founded by seven fan favorite artists who left Marvel Comics because they wanted to exercise greater creative control over their work, the whole enterprise seemed poorly conceived at the time. Almost all the founders would head their own studios, which were free from editorial oversight. But each comic book series they produced was meant to be part of a superhero-style shared universe. To this jaded comics fan, those actions and their underlying motives came across as juvenile and derivative instead of courageous and original.

This impression was further cemented with the behavior of Todd McFarlane, perhaps the most outspoken of the Image founders. According to Neil Gaiman, he once compared Marvel and DC to slave plantations, and the Image founders were slaves who had freed themselves from captivity. This tone-deaf analogy would come back to haunt him when he became embroiled in a legal battle over the rights to characters Gaiman created for Todd McFarlane Productions, McFarlane’s studio. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The Image founders were a group of young men informed by a climate of increasing awareness of the abuses publishers heaped upon individual creators (such as Marvel’s troubled relationship with Jack Kirby). They married their clumsy understanding of creator rights with a Marvel-honed grim n’ gritty superhero aesthetic influenced by the works of Alan Moore and Frank Miller. They were quickly gaining “rock star” status. And unlike their predecessors, no corporation was going to screw them over. Not if they could help it.

McFarlane’s contribution to the first wave of Image titles was the occult-themed comic Spawn. According to Wikipedia, the first issue sold 1.7 million copies, and the series would go on to become the publisher’s most consistent bestseller during its early years. Rereading it now, what’s immediately apparent is that the comic openly wears its influences. McFarlane’s most famous work at Marvel was on Spider-Man. And Spawn basically looks like Spider-Man if he were redesigned to look more Metal. The impossibly billowing Doctor Strange cloak, those Punisher-style skulls, random giant spikes, leg pouches that contained nothing, and the chains. Those stupid, non-functional chains. This excessive 90s ensemble was at least held together by a sleek red and white on black design that made him look part-ninja.

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.

The first issue reads like a homage to Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns (McFarlane dedicates this issue to Kirby, one of Miller's idols). The story begins at nighttime. New York’s buildings are oddly shaped, craggy silhouettes. The gloomy urban landscape is punctuated by flashes of lightning, revealing our hero Spawn doing his best Batman impression by skulking precariously on the city's rooftops, because why not? Completing the noir setup is a brief introduction to a pair of homicide detectives named Sam and Twitch. Their Abbott and Costello routine can’t quite hide a family resemblance to James Gordon and Harvey Bullock.

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.

McFarlane imitates Miller’s heavy use of first-person narrative text framed as a series of artfully arranged captions. He even resorts to that Dark Knight staple, multiple talking heads appearing on television screens, to supply some of the exposition. Not that this very wordy comic explains a whole lot. Spawn was a soldier Al Simmons who died under mysterious circumstances, but was reanimated with a supernaturally powered body after striking some kind of Faustian bargain in the afterlife. Al just doesn't remember any of its pertinent details. The only heroic act he performs with his newfound abilities in this issue is to beat up some street thugs who were about to rape a woman. The resulting energy expenditure causes a drop in the readings of a glowing numerical counter found on the panel margins. It all looks very much like a display from a video game.

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.

The story conveys the sensibilities calculated to appeal to morose teenagers, and reads as if narrated by someone who might not be emotionally that far off from being an angry adolescent. Like Wolverine, Al only recalls fragments of his former life. And he’s also just as driven by extreme emotions like love and hate. McFarlane’s obsessive lineart enhances the claustrophobia Simmons feels when struggling to comprehend his strange new body.

But if the story is lacking in originality, the production values certainly don’t disappoint, even when considering technological advances that have taken place since. Spawn was the first comic I read that truly exploited the digital workflow for artistic effect. The end results were something that stood out from anything released by Marvel and DC at the time. That cover impressed me with the use of gradients to model the figure. The use of bluish lighting to delineate Spawn’s red cape is an appropriately eerie effect. For all intents, Steve Oliff was inventing a new vocabulary which would be exploited by subsequent colorists. The same could be said for letterer Tom Orzechowski. Digital lettering allowed for the accurate reproduction of a wide variety of fonts. The production line utilized by mainstream publishers traditionally treated the coloring and lettering stages as secondary to the lineart. But McFarlane, Oliff, and Orzechowski demonstrated within the pages of Spawn the potential for these visual elements to achieve a more integrated and balanced relationship.

Spawn #1, By Todd McFarlane Letters: Tom Orzechowski Colors: Steve Oliff.

Unfortunately, none of this could completely conquer my utter disinterest in Al’s life story. Nor could it overcome the weaknesses in McFarlane’s writing. Spawn is still being produced by Todd McFarlane Productions. But McFarlane has over the years hired numerous creators to help with the writing and art, including the aforementioned Gaiman. To use his own words, McFarlane's studio had become a plantation. I couldn't care less. Like all the titles created by Image founders, Spawn has since dripped from its lofty perch as massive bestseller. Changing tastes render what was once dark and edgy somewhat silly now (not to mention subject to The LEGO Batman treatment). The Image universe quickly collapsed as the Image founders started squabbling with each other or drifted apart. Younger creators have since become the new industry rock stars. And the production techniques pioneered by Spawn have since been widely adopted and further refined by the rest of the industry, making this comic seem less striking by comparison. It's a slick product that's nonetheless kinda ugly to look at. But for better or worse, McFarlane and Spawn were instrumental in establishing what has now become the most successful American comic book publisher outside of Marvel and DC.

2/01/2017

More NonSense: You’re gonna make it after all

Cover variant for Civil War II #0, revised, by Phil Noto.
Go to: Twitter, by Phil Noto (via Mark Seifert)

Punching Nazis in the face goes viral.

The comics community loudly and repeatedly responds to President Donald Trump's arbitrary immigration ban.

Zach Weinersmith pens an eloquent response to the ban.

Mark Medley on the recent closing of The Beguiling.

Heidi MacDonald on the history of the NYT graphic novels bestseller list and its recent cancellation. Abraham Riesman on the reaction from the comics community.

R.I.P. Mary Tyler Moore (December 29, 1936 – January 25, 2017). The 20th Century keeps slipping further back into the rear view. Tributes from Bobby Finger, Dana Stevens, Willa PaskinJennifer Keisbin Armstrong, TwitterJohn Swansburg, Tatiana Baez.

R.I.P. John Hurt (January 22, 1940 – January 27, 2017), another beloved actor.

R.I.P. Jack Mendelsohn (November 8, 1926 – January 25, 2017).

R.I.P. Dan Spiegle (December 12, 1920 – January 28, 2017).

R.I.P. Masaya Nakamura (December 24, 1925 – 22, January 2017), video game pioneer.

David Harbour’s acceptance speech at the SAG Awards are the inspirational nerd-filled words of the month.

1/29/2017

Justice League/Power Rangers #1

Justice League/Power Rangers #1, Story: Tom Taylor Art: Stephen Byrne Letter: Deron Bennett Cover: Karl Kerschl Variants: Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Carrie Strachan, Marcus To, Wendy Broome, Dan Hipp, Yasmine Putri, Marguerite Sauvage, Dustin Nguyen  Justice League of America created by Gardner Fox. Mighty Morphin Power Rangers created by Haim Saban, Shuki Levy. Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger by Toei and Bandai.
Story: Tom Taylor
Art: Stephen Byrne
Letter: Deron Bennett
Cover: Karl Kerschl
Variants: Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, Carrie Strachan, Marcus To, Wendy Broome, Dan Hipp, Yasmine Putri, Marguerite Sauvage, Dustin Nguyen

Justice League of America created by Gardner Fox.
Mighty Morphin Power Rangers created by Haim Saban, Shuki Levy.
Kyōryū Sentai Zyuranger by Toei and Bandai.

Justice League/Mighty Morphin Power Rangers is the latest crossover between two intellectual properties who have no business being smooshed together. Two recent inter-company crossovers involving DC characters were Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and DC Universe Vs. Masters of The Universe. But this may be their most dissonant team-up on paper. On one hand is the current iteration of the Justice League, a collection of the world’s most recognizable superheroes, plus Cyborg. On the other hand are the Power Rangers from season one, six “teenagers with attitude” tasked with defending the planet from alien incursions. The Power Rangers TV show was (and continues to be) a weird mixture of American actors being grafted onto stock footage of older Japanese Super Sentai shows. The result was something hyperkinetic, very loud, brightly lit, and kinda dumb. The show was unabashedly designed to appeal to the sensibilities of preteens, although the mashup was a particularly surreal experience for people like me who actually grew up watching super sentai. That first season has receded far enough into the past to evoke its own form of nostalgia. But how would the optimistic spirit of the Power Rangers work with the relatively somber tone of the DC brand identity?

Judging from the first issue of the crossover, the answer involves shifting the Power Rangers to be more in line with DC. The story uses the trope of interdimensional travel to get one set of characters to visit the universe of the other. In this case, the Power Rangers are accidentally transported to the DC Multiverse after a battle with arch-nemesis Lord Zedd. Gotham City to be more exact. Naturally, they run into Batman. Hilarity ensues. And I do mean that there’s some real humor generated by the contrast between the two set of heroes. Of course, DC practically popularized the idea of interdimensional team-ups, so meeting a bunch of colorfully clad masked warriors from another universe is probably to the Justice League just another Wednesday night.

However, the real kicker is that the comic opens with a scene of extreme carnage which takes place 36 hours after the initial meeting. It’s the most unsettling scene in an otherwise conventional team-up story, and an event that would never have happened on the actual Power Rangers show.

The comic’s visual tone is also more suitably dark. Stephen Byrne employs a highly saturated palette of golds and deep browns, especially in the Gotham scenes. As everything in this installment takes place at night and features Batman prowling the city rooftops, the whole chapter can feel a little oppressive.

But there are certain elements that serve to remind us about the sillier origins of the Power Rangers. Byrne preserves their bright, disco-colored uniforms and how they stretch and drape over the body like real fabric. He also maintains the normal physiques of the actors who play them. The contrast is particularly telling when set next to the the hyper-defined musculature of their DC counterparts. Actually, the art is in certain ways more realistic than the original show since the characters were played by a bunch of twenty somethings trying to pass for teenagers. Byrne’s Power Rangers look more closer to their purported age. When they meet the Justice League, there’s a small hint of a generational divide as a bunch of rambunctious youths meet their stuffy, middle-aged counterparts. Score one for the Power Rangers.

1/22/2017

The Mighty Thor #15

The Mighty Thor #15, Story: Jason Aaron Art: Russell Dauterman Colors: Matthew Wilson Letters: Joe Sabino Variants: Ryan Sook, Christian Ward, Mike Deodato, Frank Martin, Andrea Sorrentino  Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby.
Story: Jason Aaron
Art: Russell Dauterman
Colors: Matthew Wilson
Letters: Joe Sabino
Variants: Ryan Sook, Christian Ward, Mike Deodato, Frank Martin, Andrea Sorrentino

Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby.

The Mighty Thor continues to be one of the best monthly titles coming out of Marvel. Artist Russell Dauterman and colorist Matthew Wilson paint gorgeous set pieces full of the requisite magical elements and epic battles. This is compounded by the high stakes dramatic conflict provided by writer Jason Aaron. Entire worlds are threatened with annihilation while Thor/Jane Foster continues to fight a losing battle with cancer. But even more pertinent to current events, the series is about the main hero facing down a succession of powerful males who won’t hesitate to mansplain to her at every opportunity. Whether it’s the all-father Odin, who still can’t believe his son isn’t worthy of the hammer Mjölnir, the venal Roxxon CEO Dario Dagger, or the genocidal Dark Elf King Malekith. It helps that they strut around like the villains they’re mostly meant to be. In fact, Malekith is still on the loose and plotting the death of millions of innocents when with this installment, the series pivots to commence another arc called the Asgard/Shi’ar War.

The action is what readers would come to expect from such a title. Heimdall, guardian of the rainbow bridge Bifröst is suddenly attacked by Kallark, better known to fans as Gladiator. Unfortunately we don’t get to see the ensuing fight because the scene cuts to Jane being confronted by all-around nice guy Cul Borson, who wants to evict her from Asgardia. Is it amusingly defiant that Jane is wearing a Big Gay Ice Cream shirt, or is that too much New York-based humor? Their verbal sparring match is interrupted by the commotion outside. By the time Cul can witness it for himself, the rest of the Imperial Guard has entered the fray, commencing a battle royale with the entire population of Asgardia.

The Mighty Thor #15, Story: Jason Aaron Art: Russell Dauterman Colors: Matthew Wilson Letters: Joe Sabino Variants: Ryan Sook, Christian Ward, Mike Deodato, Frank Martin, Andrea Sorrentino  Thor created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, Jack Kirby.

The rest of the issue is taken up with Thor joining the Asgardian defense. But if fans are dying to see how she fares against Super-douche bag Kallark in an emotionally satisfying extended beat down (The old Thor had already fought him twice), the action is cut short by a cliffhanger ending. I strongly suspect that question will be answered in future installments. But for now, the mystery of the Shi’ar Empire’s unexpected quarrel with Asgard is this story’s more immediately pressing quandary.

1/20/2017

More NonSense: March

March, By John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, Nate Powell.

TCJ lists their best comics of 2016.

2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize awarded to landmark comix Maus. Women Write About Comics holds a roundtable about the work. Last year's article by Michael Cavna quotes several comics creators who were influenced by Maus, including Gene Yang, Chris Ware, and Jeff Smith.

March is the best selling book on Amazon, just in time for Martin Luther King Day.

Isaac Butler compares the story of John Lewis in March and the presidency of Barack Obama.

Who would have thought Superman's red shorts would have become a hot political issue? Comics, folks.

Barack Obama on the power of fiction and storytelling.

Chris Ware, Cosey and Larcenet are three finalists for Angoulême’s Grand Prix, while Alan Moore steps aside again.

The Winter Issue of the Martial Arts Studies is available for download.

Ben Judkins on the limits of authenticity in martial arts. Who would have thought these kinds of discussions would eventually include lightsaber combat?