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Comic reviews - John C. Kirk

Aug. 24th, 2012

03:43 am - Comic reviews

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Whenever I read a book, I put a review on Goodreads. This includes graphic novels and TPBs, but it doesn't work so well for individual comic issues or a series as a whole. So, here are some thoughts about comics I've read recently. I'm keeping spoilers to a minimum, but please proceed with caution if you're sensitive about that.

I'm no longer buying any monthly issues in paper format: I do it all digitally now. I wrote about DC's new 52 in February, and I've continued to read the titles that I mentioned there: Animal Man, Batgirl, Demon Knights, Resurrection Man, and Swamp Thing. They've all continued to be solid titles, although DC are cancelling Resurrection Man next month; at least it got a decent chance, and a chance to wrap up the loose ends. Batgirl is the best of the bunch, and I particularly recommend issue #8, where Barbara tracked down one of the Joker's goons from The Killing Joke (where she was shot and paralysed). This was a story that didn't go at all the way I expected, but in hindsight it makes perfect sense.

Fables continues to be reliably good, although the Fairest spin-off is a bit weaker. As with the other spin-offs (Jack of Fables and Cinderella), I think it suffers from having different writers involved, but I am looking forward to the next prose novel by Bill Willingham (Werewolves of the Heartland, due on 1st October). Sticking with Vertigo, The Unwritten is an excellent series: I have to make an effort to keep up, but it's worth it.

On a slight tangent, I read Action Comics #891-900 a few months ago. These were all written by Paul Cornell, and they had Lex Luthor as the protagonist while Superman was away. I mainly read these because #894 featured Death of the Endless, and it's very rare to see any of the Sandman characters appear elsewhere. Unfortunately, this was quite disappointing. The basic idea was that Lex Luthor was (arguably) dying, so Death turned up for a chat; Luthor got a bit stroppy, and told her that he had no intention of dying, so she should avoid antagonising him. If you want to see a similar idea handled far better, read Lucifer #26 (reprinted in The Divine Comedy TPB). Lucifer is far more eloquent and dangerous than Luthor, since he literally has godlike powers, and the end of the issue is very moving when we see the true motivations revealed.

X-Factor is an odd case, since it's the only X-book I buy, and I basically stick with it because Peter David (aka PAD) is one of my favourite writers. A while back on his blog, PAD asked who our favourite characters are. My initial answer was Madrox (the Multiple Man), since the series has brought up some interesting and amusing ideas about the nature of identity. Basically, each time Jamie Madrox produces a duplicate, it emphasises a different nature of his personality, so they don't necessarily agree with him; equally, he's not very good at making decisions, because his abilities mean that he can always try both options. I'm also familiar with Quicksilver from the Avengers comics that I've read, and PAD came up with a wonderful interpretation of his character: if you could move at superspeed, dealing with everyone else who moves at normal pace would be the equivalent of getting stuck in a supermarket queue behind someone who slowly fumbles around in their bag for coins, so it's no wonder that he's a bit grumpy.

That's all well and good, but it leaves the rest of the team unaccounted for. Having read the comic every month for several years, it bothered me that I didn't have any real sense of who they were; I could recognise them, but that was about it. In Monet's case, I didn't even realise that she was supposed to be black until someone mentioned it, mainly because the original "noir" artwork was so murky that it was difficult to distinguish skin tones. For a recent anniversary issue, Marvel included several character summaries from their handbook. In Monet's case, without looking it up, here's what I remember: she started out looking normal, then she turned bright red with spikes, then she was split into two separate people, then it turned out that none of them were really her and the original her had been trapped somewhere. I may have got some of the details mixed up, but I also skimmed over a lot of the convoluted backstory; this is part of the reason that I've never got into X-books. (The other reason is that I don't really care how people got their powers. I prefer a title like the New Warriors, where some of the team are mutants, one got his powers from an alien, another from a science experiment gone wrong, etc.) So, based on that, I think it's probably best to treat the characters as clean slates and just be content with entertaining stories.

There was a similar problem a while back, when a couple of the characters time-travelled into the future. I'm happy with the generic idea of a post-apocalyptic future, Sentinels stomping around hunting mutants, etc., so I could keep up with that. I was also amused by the old (possibly senile) version of Dr Doom referring to Cyclops as "Mr Clops", i.e. he'd misheard the name as "Si[mon] Clops". However, I was a bit thrown when a particular character turned up; she wasn't named, but the following month's recap page said: "As you all know, this was Hecate." My immediate reaction was "Who the heck is Hecate?" I recognise the name from Greek myth, but I don't know the Marvel version. Again, though, I was able to keep up. This isn't necessarily a series that I'd recommend, but it's just on the right side of the "drop it" line for me.

Sticking with PAD's work, he's often said that he's most proud of The Atlantis Chronicles. This was a 7 issue mini-series, which is basically a prequel to Aquaman, but it's never been reprinted as a TPB. However, it's now available digitally through Comixology so I picked it up in one of their weekend sales. I think it's a decent read, and it stands alone without relying on any other DC comic. The conceit is that each issue has been written by a different historian; this isn't quite the "unreliable narrator" trope, but it's along those lines. My main criticism is that the characters still act too much like surface dwellers, e.g. marching into battle and falling off cliffs when they're at the bottom of the sea. PAD did make an effort to address these issues, e.g. sewing lead into the hems of dresses so that they wouldn't float away, but I recommend the novel Falling Free (by Bujold) for a better job of world-building; that deals with "quaddies" in a zero gravity environment, but it's similar.

Ghostbusters has had several one-offs and mini-series over the past few years (with different publishers), and it's now on an ongoing series. There's nothing too groundbreaking here, but I like it. They've brought in Kylie Griffin from Extreme Ghostbusters, although this is essentially an alternate version of the character since these comics predate EGB. The comic has also come up with some new ideas, e.g. a Winnebago version of the Ecto-1 with a portable containment unit (like the thing in the firehouse where they empty their traps). If you liked the film then you'll probably like this, but it does rely on nostalgia.

Speaking of nostalgia, I recently read GI Joe Classics vol 3 (collecting #21-30). In the UK, GI Joe was rebranded as Action Man (for the 12 inch figures) and Action Force (finger length figures). I had some of these when I was young, and I read the Action Force comic, but I think this was separate to the American GI Joe comic. (Transformers was in a similar situation.) Volume 3 is an odd place to start, but I specifically wanted to read #21, aka "the silent issue". There was no dialogue in this issue at all, so the story was conveyed entirely by the artwork, and people have been talking about it online for years. It's inspired other people to do the same thing, e.g. Marvel did a "silent month" about 10 years ago where every comic used the same gimmick, and PAD did the same thing in an issue of Young Justice (I'll write about that series in a separate blog post). Inevitably perhaps, it didn't live up to my expectations: it's competent, and it may have been groundbreaking at the time, but it's been overshadowed by the stories it inspired. Still, there's no shame in that.

More generally, the "excuse" for the silent issue is that it involved Snake Eyes as the protagonist. As with the recent film, he never speaks, but in the comics it was the result of injury rather than a vow of silence. (Similarly, his face was badly burnt, which is why he never removes his mask.) In the following issue, he goes off to handle an Eskimo funeral, and his pilot keeps up a running commentary to explain everything that's happening. This is a classic example of exposition, since he's saying things that both characters already know, solely for the benefit of the audience, and it doesn't really fit the solemnity of the occasion. I think it would make more sense to show Snake Eyes' internal monologue, although I can see why the writer didn't want to do that (to preserve the mystique). As an alternative, I'd prefer to have an omniscient narrator (i.e. caption boxes) to explain everything. There are some other odd choices in these stories, e.g. GI Joe are apparently based underneath a military chaplain training school (and the chaplains don't know about them) while Cobra are based in a small town and they have a marching band brought out when they return from missions (not exactly a secret base!). Maybe it would make more sense if I'd read the previous issues, but I doubt it. Ah well, this was aimed at young children, so I shouldn't be too picky, but I doubt that I'll read any more issues.

When I was a teenager, Channel 4 had a season of Godzilla films on Friday nights. These were the old films, i.e. guys in rubber suits rather than CGI, but I enjoyed them. These introduced the idea of Monster Island, where there were other giant monsters running around (e.g. Mothra). The modern comic Godzilla: Kingdom of Monsters takes a similar approach: it's a reboot, but the publishers have the rights to other Toho monsters, so it sounds encouraging. Unfortunately, I've only read #1 so far, and that was a very quick read with not much happening. I'll try a couple more, because I like the concept and I hope it improves, e.g. I'd like to actually see these other monsters!

Speaking of monsters, zombies! I've been reading The Walking Dead for several years, and it's one of the few comics that I buy as single issues and TPBs. I had some doubts about recent issues: they were a very quick read, partly because they had so many splash pages (single or double). However, #100 came out last month, and it was amazing: it put all my doubts to rest, by putting the characters in a situation where their normal tactics simply won't work. I've just read #101, and I'm actively looking forward to the next issue again, which is what I really want from all the comics I buy.

Zombies vs Cheerleaders: Geektacular was a 1-off, featuring the 3 Geeks. I liked their old comic series, so it was good to see them again, even if the continuity is a bit bumpy. The backup stories are fun too.

Fanboys vs. Zombies is a bit more tricky. The basic concept is that a bunch of friends go to ComicCon every year, but they've started to fall out with each other (e.g. love triangles). At this year's convention, a dubious combination of events (e.g. people sneezing on a hot dog that was already past its "sell by" date) leads to zombies, so the group have to put their differences aside and work together. That's all fine, and I'm quite happy to skim over the details of where zombies come from: any story like this gets one "freebie" for my suspension of disbelief. It's certainly written to be contemporary, e.g. in #1 one of the characters says: "That is a #humblebrag and a #firstworldproblem." I haven't heard anyone use Twitter hashtags in spoken conversation, but sadly I can believe that it happens. One of the characters can produce giant weapons, apparently out of Hammerspace, and it's just handwaved away as "a family trait". That's a bit more iffy, but I was willing to accept it, and just not think about it too much.

The first 4 issues were quite fun. There was a gap before #5, then it all went downhill. Half the cast disappeared on the first page, in a way that's inconsistent with what we saw before. (#4 ended with them on a roof looking down at a crowd of zombies, then #5 started with them on the ground surrounded by said zombies, so they hardly had an excuse to be surprised.) This also meant that the character development up to that point got thrown away, e.g. it was implied that one character had acted a particular way because he was secretly gay. #5 also introduces a new black character, and we get this dialogue:

Brendan: "Listen, we all know what happens to the only black guy in a horror movie... Also, it bugs me out that it took a full-blown zombie apocalypse before you let a black dude into your little club. What's up with that?"
Jenna: "You're right, the wrecking crew has been mostly eggshell in color. But comics with black characters don't sell very well in this marketplace."
Brendan: "Isn't that a self-fulfilling prophecy? Maybe if comics reflected diversity in the first place--"


That annoyed me, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, it's breaking the fourth wall, which disrupts the flow of the story. Some people can do this well, e.g. Dan Slott on She-Hulk and GLA, but this creative team didn't. Secondly, even if the concerns are valid, the characters are talking at cross-purposes. If they want to argue about waiting until #5 to introduce a black character then they shouldn't be referring to the zombie apocalpse, because that happened in #1. Alternately, if they want to talk about social groups lacking diversity (i.e. that it takes a disaster to bring them together) then the stuff about comic sales is irrelevant and intrusive. I'll also observe that in the stories I've read/watched, it's far more common for people to say "the black guy always dies first" than for the black guy to actually die first; I don't know whether that's representative of stories in general. The only good thing I can say about #5 is that one of the variant covers had the characters in the A-Team van. So, I doubt that I'll continue with this series.

Irredeemable and Incorruptible have now finished, and I'm glad that they were able to tell complete stories rather than stopping abruptly mid-run. However, I also felt that they had strong starts and lost their way a bit, so I'm glad that they didn't continue any longer. Irredeemable was basically a Superman story, the idea being that he gets fed up with people being ungrateful and/or taking him for granted and finally snaps. Incorruptible was about Max Damage, a former supervillain who steps up to be a superhero when the Plutonian (the Superman equivalent) goes rogue. The interesting idea was that Max doesn't really know how to be a hero, and his sidekick pointed out that it's probably a bit more complicated than just "do the opposite of whatever you used to do as a villain". Both series had some creative ideas about superpowers, so they're worth reading.

Extermination involves a team-up between a superhero and a supervillain after the world is invaded by aliens. I've seen several stories where the supervillains temporarily join forces with the heroes, on the grounds that it's their planet too, but this is a bit different: while the two characters are working together, they're challenging each other's ideas, e.g. the hero's refusal to kill. This is pretty good, with a mixture of humour and serious elements, so I'm sticking with it for now (up to #3 so far).

A few people have recommended Locke & Key so I bought the first arc ("Welcome to Lovecraft") in a sale. I think it's ok for what it is, but it's not really my type of story. Basically, it involves bad things happening to good people, with the promise of more bad things happening in the next installment, so I don't think I'll bother reading any more.

The original House of Mystery series involved a framing sequence around short stories, normally with a twist at the end. I've got the Showcase edition (black and white reprints) and the artwork is excellent: the people who drew skeletons etc. obviously had a good grasp of human anatomy. Unfortunately, the writing was poorer quality, so I found the stories rather dull. The modern version devotes much more time to the outer story, broken up by a few short stories, and I'm not convinced that it really works. I bought the first TPB of the new series, and it wasn't good enough to justify extra clutter, but I've recently read some of the later issues in digital form. I'm sticking it with it for now, but I may abandon it before I get to the end.

I read Marvels about 15 years ago, and it's an excellent story, written by Kurt Busiek and illustrated (painted) by Alex Ross. The basic idea was to take a look at the Marvel universe through the eyes of a photographer (Phil Sheldon) and see how various events fitted together, e.g. the Sentinels chasing the X-Men at about the same time that Reed and Sue got married in Fantastic Four. I recently read Marvels: Eye of the Camera which is sort of a sequel, co-written by Kurt Busiek and Roger Stern. I say "sort of" because it overlaps the first series; that means that you don't need to have read Marvels to follow this, but if you have then there's a fair amount of repetition in here. This series doesn't really seem to have anything new to say, although I did like the ending. Overall, if you haven't read either series then I recommend reading Marvels instead; if you've already read that, you don't need to bother with this one.

Jack Cross is a mini-series written by Warren Ellis. I gather that it was intended to be longer, but there was some kind of internal dispute at DC. It's ok, and it has some valid points to make about the balance between freedom and security post 9/11, although it's probably more relevant to an American audience. There are a couple of odd bits where the artwork shows an X-ray, e.g. someone's bones inside their finger. I initially assumed that there would be some reason for this, but there isn't, so it just seems to be a stylistic choice.

Who is Jake Ellis? came out last year. Some people compared it to Randall and Hopkirk (Deceased), but I never saw that so it reminded me more of Quantum Leap: a guy has an "invisible" friend who only he can see and hear, and this friend can warn him when to duck. I suppose it was ok, but I got to the end and thought "My life wouldn't be any poorer if I'd never read that".

I've picked up 2000 AD a few times, but never really got into it. However, I grew up reading British anthology comics (initially the Beano and later Eagle) and I've read American comics by British writers (e.g. Mike Carey's work on Lucifer and The Unwritten) so I feel that I ought to support it. They now offer digital subscriptions: £7.49/month, including 1 free month of back issues, as compared to £1.99 for each (digital) weekly issue. Each paper issue costs £2.35, and an annual subscription costs £74.99 digitally (+ 3 free months of back issues) or £117.50 for paper. So, it's nice that the digital comics are a bit cheaper than paper, unlike new releases of American comics.

So, that should give me a reasonable sample size, then I can decide whether to continue. Looking at the first issue I read (prog 1793), it included this dialogue: "A tortoise?" "Correction. A quantum tortoise." Splendid stuff! This week's issue is 1797, and apparently they're bringing their current storylines to an end in 1799, ready to start new stories in 1800. So, if you're thinking of trying it out, I recommend waiting a few weeks for a convenient "jumping on point".

Edit: Corrected pricing for 2000 AD.