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.