Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Wednesday Is Hack/Slash: Death By Sequel For All I Care #148

The following stories were collected in the 2007 second Hack/Slash trade paperback volume Death By Sequel. However, I myself read all these tales in the Hack/Slash Omnibus.

Hack/Slash: Land of Lost Toys #1-3
Hack/Slash: Trailers
Hack/Slash: Slice Hard

Hack/Slash: Land of Lost Toys #1-3 (Devil's Due Publishing, 2005-2006, $3.25)
Dave Crosland seems like a swell artist, based on an opening sequence involving My Little Pony figures coming to unholy life and trampling a little girl. Then the book progresses to Cassie and Vlad in a graveyard dealing with a Memorial Day slasher that are kind of rough. The main story kicks in of a Freddie Krueger type who kills through twisted dreams involving licensed toy lines. By this point, Crosland is drawing like a poor man's Bob Fingerman, which is totally inappropriate for the real world sequences. The art further degenerates from there, playing out as some sort of college comedic minicomic, destroying scenes written to be tragic and gut-wrenching. Somehow, the art keeps getting worse-- more choppy, amateurish, and subversive of the story's intent. Vlad's origin is revealed, and as depicted seems laughable. Finally Crosland tries to supply some T&A with asses that look like potato sacks and tits that look like pears in a plastic bag. I think I may have made it through the first issue in one sitting, but I only made it a few pages into the second before setting the volume aside for a week or two. I finally powered through the last 37 pages, aided by a lack of dialogue and a lot of large panels/splash pages. The story isn't the greatest, but it isn't bad either, just so poorly served visually as to become unpalatable.

Hack/Slash: Trailers (DDP, 2006, $3.25)
In an amusing turn, this special was a collection of short teaser stories intended to play like movie trailers for upcoming stories (although only Machete has actually been released. Er-- I mean "Tub Club.") It's a fun way to allow new artists to try out on the property, and old ones to revisit it.
  • Blood and Nuts: An unnecessary potential sequel to Comic Book Carnage elevated through nice art by Skottie Young, mostly drawing himself.
  • Renegade Knife: Itai!: A solid premise, but the art of Sean Dove is inspired by the worst manga filler material.
  • Tub Club: Not a very legit "sounding" trailer, and the good girl art reminds me that I'm glad Tim Seeley decided against drawing the series himself, but the premise and "scenes" are solid enough to explain why this was ultimately "produced."
  • ORBITuary: Jason X was probably my favorite Friday the 13th sequel, but my dislike/disinterest in that franchise likely played into my enjoyment of the parody. Sending Hack/Slash into space has no similar appeal, because it is ridiculous in the context of featuring (vaguely) realistic characters I like. Beyond that, the slasher seems really lame. It's a shame, because Mike Norton's art is appealing.
  • Dead Celebrities: Stefano Casseli provides good art and a decent premise.
  • Once Bitten: Josh Medors' art is alright, but our heroes seem out of their depth, and the story's structure is less trailer than a comedic short offered in full.

I'm not sure where it was originally presented, but the Hack/Slash Omnibus offers the holiday short "Slashing Through the Snow" bundled with the trailers. This one is five pages of verse with spot painted illustrations by Mike O'Sullivan and Steve Seeley. It's an amusing enough distraction with one of the better iterations of Santa Claws.

Hack/Slash: Slice Hard (DDP, 2006, $4.95)
After a mini-series with lousy art and a special without a single complete story, Slice Hard was a rebuilding edition. Like Trailers, the art was wildly varied, and this time in service to one plot, but both disciplines were of sound quality. The story opens with a misdirection, then switches artists/gears for some foreshadowing. Another shift into exposition finally allows entry into the high concept premise. Though more than a bit of a stretch in the believability department, the schizophrenic art makes sense when our deadly duo are faced with a super-group of slashers in a confined space. The pieces are put together briskly, and the shit hits the fan early on, leaving plenty of killer action and inventive variations on fright flick analogues. There's lots going on to hold your interest, and you wish other slasher movie mash-ups worked as well as this. Artists include Tim Seeley, Mark Englert, Nate Bellegarde, Andy Kuhn, and Joe Largent hold together well enough stylistically, and the story does the rest of the work.

Friday, May 25, 2012

nurghophonic jukebox: "Honey" by Bobby Goldsboro

Written By: Bobby Russell
Released: Spring, 1968
Album: Honey
Single?: Five weeks at #1 on U.S. Billboard

It's super-duper-sappy, but I must confess, it has managed to choke me up in occasional weak moments. Bob Shane recorded it first, but his single didn't spark, so Goldsboro swooped in to turn it into an international smash. I understand that it's broadly loathed in critical circles, considered by some a #1 on their worst list. Fuck 'em. It's manipulative and has a mixed message, but it works.

See the tree, how big it's grown
But friend it hasn't been too long
It wasn't big
I laughed at her and she got mad
The first day that she planted it, was just a twig
Then the first snow came
And she ran out to brush the snow away
So it wouldn't die
Came runnin' in all excited
Slipped and almost hurt herself
And I laughed till I cried
She was always young at heart
Kinda dumb and kinda smart and I loved her so
And I surprised her with a puppy
Kept me up all Christmas Eve two years ago
And it would sure embarrass her
When I came in from workin' late
'Cause I would know
That she'd been sittin' there and cryin'
Over some sad and silly late, late show

And honey, I miss you
And I'm bein' good
And I'd love to be with you
If only I could

She wrecked the car and she was sad
And so afraid that I'd be mad
But what the heck
Though I pretended hard to be
Guess you could say she saw through me
And hugged my neck
I came home unexpectedly
And caught her cryin' needlessly
In the middle of the day
And it was in the early Spring
When flowers bloom and robins sing
She went away

And honey, I miss you
And I'm bein' good
And I'd love to be with you
If only I could

One day while I was not at home
While she was there and all alone
The angels came
Now all I have is memories of Honey
And I wake up nights and call her name
Now my life's an empty stage
Where Honey lived and Honey played
And love grew up
And a small cloud passes overhead
And cries down on the flower bed
That Honey loved

And see the tree how big it's grown
But friend it hasn't been too long
It wasn't big
And I laughed at her and she got mad
The first day that she planted it, was just a twig

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

A Frank Review of "Blood Mania" (1970)

The Short Version? I wish. Fifteen minutes tops would have been nice.
What Is It? Crime Drama.
Who Is In It? Alex fuckin' Rocco, for a minute or two.
Should I See It? No.

On paper, this sounds like an interesting movie. A personal physician with a past in back alley abortion becomes tied up in a murder-for-inheritance scheme when a blackmailer shows up demanding 50K. There's madness and supernatural imagery and unnecessary nudity every ten minutes. What's not to like? Pretty much everything. This flick is dull as watching shit dry. Almost every second worth seeing is in the trailer, minus a few boobies. The script is an aimless mess, the dialogue is garbage, characters disappear without much reason for ever being introduced, and it finally stops more than ends. While there's quality skin in terms of the ladies baring it, their demonstrations are frustratingly obscured or rendered ridiculous by its use. The absolutely highlight of the film is a purely perfunctory cameo by Alex Rocco, but hey, it's Alex Rocco. It's a small something; a life preserver amidst the fatiguing ineptitude and anti-eroticism, like a peanut in the poop. Do not reach for the peanut.

NSFW Clips:

Saturday, May 19, 2012

A Frank Review of "The Dictator" (2012)

The Short Version? Borat by way of Saddam.
What Is It? Comedy
Who Is In It? Ali G, the "Scary Movie" chick
Should I See It? Yeah, sure, why not?

This is not the kind of film that inspires a long winded review, unlike Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan and Brüno. Sacha Baron Cohen's previous films were about ambushing unsuspecting people and confronting them with their own secret biases/hatreds in pursuit of daring, insightful comedy. Those were dishonest charades that sought out honest discourse. The Dictator is an above average crude comedy that goes for cheap laughs through shock, some ham-fisted political satire, and chauvinism of all types. Whereas the previous films could be forgiven for tacking on a loose, formulaic narrative to string together isolated pranks, this entirely scripted affair is terribly predictable and uninspired while linking the numerous good but plentiful bad gags. Baron Cohen is an outstanding improvisational character actor bouncing off people, but as a writer in full control of every outcome, there's not that much to distinguish him from the dregs of Happy Madison or Farrelly Brothers productions. Admiral General Aladeen is not an endearing innocent making fucked-up mistakes, but a heinous asshole who milks humor out of cruelty, ignorance, and stereotypes. The anglo actors here are mostly embarrassing (Anna Farris FTL,) but the "ethnic" one are solid. The flick is much better than the trailers would indicate (which include 60% of John C. Reilly's total screen time,) but I doubt you'll be plagued by co-workers quoting it endlessly. However, Cohen's cock makes its third straight appearance in a Larry Charles joint, if that does anything for you.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Some Wednesdays I Pay For Comics I Don't Care For #147

The Avengers VS The X-Men #1
Danger Club #1
Fanboys vs. Zombies #1
Star Wars: Blood Ties-- Boba Fett is Dead #1

AVX: VS #1 (Marvel, 2012, $3.99)
So let me get this straight: a six-issue mini-series of nothing but the between panel brawls from a separate maxi-series involving members of two heroic teams paired off to rumble? That's an idea just stupid enough to work, with the right amount of talent and forethought. I had fun reading DC vs. Marvel, for instance. This one fails on format, though. There's only two matches per issue, with no real ties to a narrative. As creatively bankrupt as most modern comics are, the "talent" just wastes space instead of brain cells.

Magneto fights Iron Man for ten pages consisting of a double page spread, a six panel spread, a nine panel spread, a half splash and only three pages with greater than six panels. They're drawn by Adam Kubert, if you're into that sort of thing, but I never have been. Jason Aaron's story mistakes multiple ex machina for cleverness. It just makes me tired. The other match is the Thing versus the Sub-Mariner, as if Namor hasn't fought the entire Fantastic Four enough times over the past half-century. Four 3-panel pages, one splash, one bisected, and four of worthwhile density. It was by the Immonens, so while it was a bit more entertaining, it was still a dull match that ended in a glorified tie. Who cares; fuck this; moving on...

Danger Club #1 (Image, 2012, $2.99)
If you're looking for a pull quote, it's "Mainstreamed Brat Pack!" I refer of course to Rick Veitch's evisceration of the teen sidekick premise from the early '90s, except instead of the mentors being deviants, they're just M.I.A. This leaves the Teen Titans to play Lord of the Flies by way of Fight Club. While the premise is ugly and well-trod, Landry Q. Walker and Eric Jones salvage it through execution. After years polishing their craft on Johnny DC titles, the duo are well versed in throwing readers into a story that gets all the necessary backstory across while offering a satisfying single-serving experience. There's more gratuitous violence and too many silent action panels for my taste, as the pair are clearly working through a rebellious phase after freeing themselves from the shackles of all-ages work made for hire. Still, it was a kick, and I'd like to read more in an affordable trade paperback collection.

Fanboys vs. Zombies #1 (BOOM! Studios, 2012, $1.00)
If this comic book had a face, I'd want to kick it in that face. I'm amazed when a comic manages to evoke such strong emotions in me, and it's a shame this one comes from the dark side of the force. An entire page is wasted on establishing the setting as being the San Diego Comic-Con (although they insist on calling it Comic-Con International: San Diego, per the wishes of Comic Con officials who want to keep their location options open, and in opposition to Comic-Con International: Bismark.) They also refer to the event as "Nerd Prom," when we all know that's the White House Correspondents Dinner, so they can't even keep their geek references straight. We push-in to a group shot of the cast, who are immediately irritating, but manage to progress through the issue into outright loathsome. Maybe the point is for anti-social dorks to get off on seeing their idiot asshole buddies from the LCS getting devoured by zombie cosplayers in a supreme episode of minority self-loathing? It fails utterly even in that respect, since legit genre references are few, and the casting is straight out of 90210. These awful beings have relationships with one another that are spelled out as laboriously as possible, like that chick you can't stand from work who yammers on endlessly about a personal life you haven't the slightest interest in. Of course, they're all drawn in a romanticized manga fashion in hopes that you'll at least eye-fuck them for twenty-two pages. Hardly.

The story is that a bunch of fans who know and often hate one another manage to have a run-in at a comic convention panel just as a zombie epidemic sweeps the compound. I've been to Comicon, so I understand what an intimidating prospect that is. The place is huge and crowded, plus managing to escape the center just means you'll next contend with hotels and restaurants brimming with the undead as you try to hijack one of those bike-rickshaw things and to peddle for Mexico. The novelty of the setting is destroyed by cartoony art that fails to engage or repel, even as monsters munch on innards. There are attempts made at humor that aren't even in the same zip code as funny or insightful. In essence, it's Gakuen Mokushiroku, but with more aggravatingly flat characters, less pathos, and a near absence of sexuality. It's a painfully calculated, abysmally executed bid for schmuck dollars, and if this is any indication of the output of the suddenly hot Sam Humphries, I'll be sure to avoid his future efforts like the plague.

Star Wars: Blood Ties-- Boba Fett is Dead #1 (Dark Horse, 2012, $3.50)
Given that this book is about the relationship between long lost half-brothers by cloning in the convoluted Star Wars Universe, it was reasonably accessible. That said, it starts with Boba Fett dead, and then has a concealed figure who is almost certainly Boba Fett going all High Plains Drifter on the responsible parties. Boba's bro is imperiled by the vengeance trail, and that's about it. The book has stiff painterly art by Chris Scalf and a serviceable quarter of a story by Tom Taylor. That's all I've got.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Last Saturday Was FCBD 2012 For All I Care #146

I bought a box of these things this year, so it'll take me a while to dole out reviews, even four at a time. This week: Mildly "Edgy" Indie Super-Action...

Anti #0 FCBD Edition/The Ride #0 FCBD Edition
The Intrinsic #1
Valiant Comics FCBD 2012 Special #1
Witchblade Unbalanced Pieces FCBD Edition

Click To Enlarge

Anti/The Ride: FCBD Edition (12-Gauge, 2012, Free)
12-Gauge isn't a company on people's radar, which explains a laughable bid for attention like Trace Adkins is Luke McBain. Pushing old Caliber/Desperado Publishing material probably doesn't help. Even their entry into dollar comics, last year's I.C.E., wasn't deemed worthy of my attention. Well, that and not wanting to support a book that promotes La Migra as an action property while Arizona's fighting to keep their deportation gestapo in the Supreme Court. After so many misfires, Anti seems a step in the right direction. Based on the twelve page preview, it's about a demon hunter doing the Armageddon tango. It's hardly an original theme, especially in 2012, but Peter Calloway's script balances action with intrigue, while artist Daniel Hillyard does a solid Leinil Yu impersonation, all in full color. There's enough here to hook me on the $1 full issue, and we'll see how things go from there.

The Ride is less successful. They've been doing this black & white car-themed anthology for a few years now, and I'm surprised anyone still sees mileage in it. Starting off with the novelty of a key party, Nathan Edmonson's story descends inevitably into a violent act against a woman that you know is coming from the first page, but have to squirm through seven more to get to. It plays like an opening scene in a movie, but without further context, it's a snuff piece. Paul Azaceta is as tasteful as possible in depicting the alternative edit of date night with Chris Brown. Still, it can't help but feel sordid, and a real downer after the ass-kicking femme of the first story.

Arcana Studio Presents The Intrinsic #1 (Arcana, 2012, Free)
One look at that cover full of poor man's genre archetypes and discount Top Cow art style would lead most to assume that this book would be teh suck. Actually, the first eight pages of D-Grade intracompany crossover massacre prophesy don't do it any favors, either. However, there are another eighteen(!) pages of story that slowly breaks down your resistance to what ends up being a better version of how this sort of thing would play out in the majors. Black Doctor Strange (not Brother Voodoo) and Mr. E have to save a couple destined to be essential in the construction of a super-team of Arcana properties that must stop the big bad. While my most immediate translation of the result would be Primal Force, it's smart of Arcana to actually launch an ongoing series with a widely distributed #1 that gives the full court press. Given that the writing credit is divided by Sean Patrick O'Reilly, Casey Jones and Erik Hendrix, the script is surprisingly consistent. Penciler Allan Otero is, well, like something out of a Triumphant Comic had they survived a few years longer. I doubt the phrase "off brand Ken Lashley" has ever been uttered, so let's go with that. I also have to point out the impressively intricate two page spread of the Arcana Universe, populated by dozens and dozens of generic character designs that makes me wonder if there is a single human being on Earth who could possibly name them all. While hardly a revelation, and despite possibly the worst super team never ever, The Intrinsic #1 is well worth your spending dollars and invested time.

Valiant Comics FCBD 2012 Special #1 (Valiant, 2012, Free)
All year, I bitch about how lightweight modern comics are, and then Free Comic Book Day kicks my ass. Besides the sheer volume of "free" books I order, everyone is trying to hard sell you with extra story pages, interviews, text pieces, etc. Few are pushing harder than the revived Valiant, and by extension, few will compete with this book as a slog.

The X-O Manowar section starts out with a cover, some amusing infographics, and a six page preview. Thanks to the coloring pallet and some polish, Cary Nord's art reminds me of Paul Gulacy, which is not a bad thing in the least. Robert Venditti's tale is a largely silent retread of a few pages of a decades old zero issue, flashing back to some 3rd century Visigoth action, and is good for what it is.

Next comes five pages of Harbinger. There are two large panels featuring oodles of thought balloons to illustrate the protagonist's telepathy. They repeat, both in basic content and verbatim, but I read them all and they were okay. Three largely silent pages flash back to 1951 Tibet, and then there's a flash forward that vaguely reintroduces the guy from the splash page. Joshua Dysart's story is interesting for the few seconds of running time. Khari Evans' art is reminiscent of Phil Winslade, propped up by excellent coloring. Following a very attractively rendered and colored Valiant Universe pin-up in the center spread by Arturo Lozzi, there's a puff piece interview with Dysart.

A seriously pathetic Bloodshot promo involves four pages of redacted script, a pin-up, a cover, and a puff piece interview with writer Duane Swierczynski. A puff piece interview with Archer & Armstrong writer Fred Van Lente chases a a puff piece interview with X-O's writer. There's a lot of Valiant hype, so folks would be forgiven for flashing back to Wizard Magazine in the boom years. Additional illustrations tease Eternal Warrior and Rai.

Valiant was created by a batch of industry pariahs led by Jim Shooter, who were abetted by young turks getting their start and old hacks too broke to retire. This relaunch reminds me less of the old days, and more of the "Birthquake" initiative after Acclaim bought the company. Amidst an industry melting down, Acclaim restaffed the titles with middle of the road names. It wasn't the modest hit & egregious miss formula that came from Fabian Nicieza's later line reboot, but instead a nice revitalization of the core properties after the speculator boom saw Valiant's already shallow talent pool positively evaporate under the intense heat. I believe that these characters deserve to be published, and that mainstream comics are so hideous that fans from back in the day may be well served by jumping ship to Valiant. On the other hand, it's still hired guns toiling on corporate properties fueled by nostalgia for better days. Pick your poison, pardner.

Witchblade Unbalanced Pieces FCBD Edition (Image, 2012, Free)
This was an interesting book. Top Cow's Artifacts event series quietly rebooted their universe. Ron Marz spent several years legitimizing the line on Witchblade, but having ended his run recently (to relaunch Voodoo as part of the New 52 before being shitcanned,) used the Darkness to illustrate the changes in a five page piece. John Tyler Christopher does the accompanying pretty pictures. As far as I can tell, the only major difference is that Witchblade's baby got retconned away (see also: every other comic book pregnancy not involving Sue Storm or a Summers) while the Darkness now has a family (to inevitably be slaughtered.)

Meanwhile, Tim Seeley is now writing Witchblade, and after the steady enjoyment provided by Hack/Slash, I could see coming aboard. I somehow managed to miss ordering the $9.99 trade collection of his first arc (but did get the second volume of the Hack/Slash Omnibus that same month, randomly.) I wasn't even aware he'd started yet, and thought this book would be his introduction to readers. There's a lot of caption boxes with Sara Pezzini narrating the story of her new life as a P.I. in Chicago, an antagonistic supporting character, and a fresh vibe all around. At first, I thought this was a noir schtick, but by the fourth page it felt off. There was too much information being imparted; too many unfamiliar faces and concepts. It began to feel more like a summary of a trade paperback than, with its absence of dialogue and abundance of incident. Sure enough, somebody used these newfangled computers to rearrange panels/pages from several issues of the book, laid out in such a way that you could hardly tell. The art by Diego Bernard and Fred Benes suits the material perfectly, marrying cheesecake to body horror in a way that maximizes the exploitation of both for highest profitability. Seeley's much more entertaining than he has a right to be in this format, and seeing as how they leave the story at a cliffhanger moment, I'll have to see about catching a reorder on the trade. Well played, Top Cow.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

A Frank Review of Marvel's The Avengers (Assemble, 2012)

The Short Version? A redhead in black leather and a dapper fellow save the world amidst lighting and thunder. Plus a Hulk.
What Is It? Super-Hero Action/Comedy
Who Is In It? Derek Lutz, Harvard Hottie, Braddock the Nannie Diarist, Detective Giovanni A. Malloy, George Kirk, Sergeant Doyle, Richard Campbell, Robin Scherbatsky, Martin Vanger & Mister Señor Love Daddy
Should I See It? Yes.

Marvel's The Avengers (as opposed to the U.K.'s spy-fi TV series starring John Steed & various female partners) debuted last weekend, after already making a bazillion dollars overseas, thus doubling it to a kajillion. Pity the latest Batman and Spider-Man entries, sure to come in a half decade late and a GDP short by comparison (barring perhaps the autoerotic suicide of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, and even then it would probably have to be half a pact with Gary Oldman.) Quality cannot be accurately measured by financial success, but co-screenwriter/director has delivered a lot of former for little latter, so this is his karmic due. Perhaps as a consequence, despite some serious innovations, there's also some unfortunate Whedoncentricities that diminish my appreciation somewhat. The Avengers is the best super-team film ever made, but there's yet to be a great one, so this will have to settle for good.

The flick begins with a bunch of peripheral characters from other Marvel movies hanging out at that lab Simon Tam broke River out of, until that villain already defeated in Thor shows up to kill S.H.I.E.L.D. redshirts. A girl with no discernible personality then has an extended action sequence before she fades into the background for the rest of the running time. Feminism! Then, Scarlett Johansson has an obligatory action sequence, because Joss Whedon created Buffy the Vampire Slayer. If he could convince people Sarah Michelle Gellar was formidable at 5'4" & 115 pounds, he can also force Scar-Jo to starve herself into a reasonable facsimile Milla Jovovich after inheriting the miscasting. The Black Widow then leads us to Mark Ruffalo, the third actor stuck playing Bruce Banner in nine years, but the first to wisely say "fuck it" and just channel Bill Bixby like everyone wanted from the beginning. Steve Rogers gets in there at some point, but it's just a lengthened version of the post-credit sequence from his movie. What's interesting is these these are all sketches like those add-ons, connected by a plot thread but disjointed and inorganic. The movie doesn't actually start until Tony Stark shows up, followed by Pepper Potts and Agent Coulson. These are familiar characters (aside from the unsettling sight of Gwyneth Paltrow in denim shorts) you already like who have chemistry together, so it feels like Jon Favreau popped in to guest direct.

The super-team movie like for real this time finally starts coming together with the help of Captain America and Iron Man sharing space on a screen (alongside Loki, who throws things off a bit by being Loki in a knife fight with Captain America.) This leads to Thor showing up, which let me tell you, is Thor's role in a nutshell. We all knew Cap, Black Widow, Hawkeye and Nick Fury would be around, and we're cool with them wading into the movie at their own pace. Iron Man is the only star attraction as a franchise player though, which is why his arrival marks an uptick. Thor literally drops in unannounced, and his entry is only an element of the plot and a counterpoint to other characters. Aside from moments here and there, that's all Thor does. He's Loki's brother. He's Hulk's sparring partner. Basically, he's the female member of the team. It's a sort of progress, I suppose, but Thor fans feast on scraps here.

In movies like Fantastic Four, everybody in the team gets introduced in quick succession and gains powers at the same time. In Watchmen and Sky High, everybody was already part of a community that kind of knew each other. Often, other heroes pop up in answer to the debut of the lead protagonist, as seen in Kick-Ass. One of this film's innovations is that it recognizes that there is a preexisting universe of heroes, but they have not met one another, and would not necessarily immediately embrace one another. It's a dynamic the Marvel Universe was built upon, and while somewhat pointless and juvenile, Whedon carries the tradition into film for the first time in a way that works. From there on, the heroes personalities and powers bounce off one another in ways that affirm each individual's appeal while creating an invigorating dynamic as a group. This is especially true for the Hulk, who desperately needed something more interesting to play off than army men and mute monsters. It even helps Thor a little bit.

However you felt about the characters coming into this movie is how you'll leave it. While a bit more brooding and pig-headed, Chris Evans' Captain America is still the same guy as featured in his solo movie. His costume looks a bit goofier, but he gets to do more comic book style CGI-enabled acrobatics. Chris Hemsworth's Thor remembers the lessons he learned, and comes across as a more mature being, even though that also seems to mean he has the least room to grow here. Depending on whom you root for, Robert Downey Jr. is either a bit douchier here than in the Iron Man movies, or he's being perceived as such through the stoicism of Cap. I only have vague memories of Eric Bana's Hulk, and never saw all of Ed Norton's, but Mark Ruffalo is certainly the more personable of the lot. It never hurts to have a lengthy, slightly surreal aside with Harry Dean Stanton, either. Scarlett Johansson looks and acts the part of Black Widow far better here than in Iron Man 2, so I'll try not to whine about her as much. Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye gets some interesting usage in the first half of the movie, but the character seems defined by his lack of perceptible human emotions or charm. If he wasn't constantly decompressing his bow like a fratboy working a Borat quote, he could be mistaken for the Vision. Cobie Smulders does her best to compete in the realm of "why are you in this thing" as Maria Hill, and Stellan Skarsgård's reprisal of Dr. Erik Selvig is pretty thankless. Tom Hiddleston is a fun Loki, who hasn't grown an inch, and Nick Fury continues to be the name under which Samuel L. Jackson guest stars as Samuel L. Jackson. Clark Gregg steals his every scene as Agent Phil Coulson, and I hope he continues to have a strong presence in the Marvel movies.

Joss Whedon (along with Zak Penn on the writing end) does an incredible, previously presumed impossible job of pulling together four franchises under one roof, ironing out or contrasting their differences with the help of foundational bridging (the agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) plus his own new additions (expanding Natasha Romanov's character to be remotely comparable to her male teammates developmentally while feeding on the corpse of Hawkeye's non-role,) while also offering a satisfying self-contained story. It's rare in an action movie, but especially a super-hero one, for the narrative to be so propulsive. Everything happens for a reason, incidents building on incidents, culminating in a tour de force finale. Cap doesn't spar with Red Skull, they become separated, and then Cap goes back to battling Hydra until he gets to battle Red Skull again. The movie just keeps moving forward, upping the stakes and the scale. One shot in particular comes to mind, in which the camera pans through various city views as our heroes battle the forces of evil with their diverse abilities from different locations. In comics, that would be a dense double page spread, and its like has never been captured on film. Not only does the action work, but the dialogue is smart throughout, witty and funny and mindful of the established voice of each character. That said, the dialogue is sometimes too calculatedly funny for its own good, undercutting serious intentions. There's the trademark Whedon surprise character death, right up to the method and target recalling his only other feature film Serenity, coming across as cheap and arbitrary. The villains are an empty throng, and a intra-credit cameo walks a precarious fan service tightrope. An understated anticlimax in the post-credit coda makes up for any misgivings, though.

I thoroughly enjoyed all the swell moments in The Avengers. As a Cap fan, it was awesome seeing my guy lay down strategy and live up to his legend. I often laughed at Tony's quips, could feel the itching under Banner's skin, and so on. While a few characters get short shrift, the film remains an ensemble, and it does so in the midst of cosmic stakes that alone would suffocate a lesser piece. I was impressed with how Whedon brought and kept it all together, and with his original contributions to the visual language of these films. It is so wonderful to see a director convey ferocious speed and a multitude of combat elements while maintaining a clear eye so that the audience can comprehend and marvel at all the happenings. At the same time, there was an awful lot of retreading ground covered elsewhere by other directors and Whedon himself. It reminded me of Sam Raimi aping scenes from Evil Dead on a bigger budget in Spider-Man. I went in with high expectations, and they were mostly met, but I think I'll prefer the movie more on successive viewings with my mental bar set just a mite lower.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Yesterday Was FCBD 2012 For All I Care #145

I bought a box of these things this year, so it'll take me a while to dole out reviews, even four at a time. I decided to knock out the four most bland, obvious, mainstream releases first.

The New 52! #1
DC Nation Green Lantern/Young Justice Super Sampler &
Superman Family Adventures #1

FCBD Avengers: Age of Ultron Point One #0.1
FCBD Spider-Man: Season One #1

DC Comics - The New 52 FCBD Special Edition #1 (DC, 2012, Free)
I really have to applaud DC for giving away a free comic book featuring their biggest names. Shame it's so cheesy. The first four pages are drawn by Ivan Reis. We learn that the Phantom Stranger is probably Judas, that the Question is probably now a mystical being, and that the actual Pandora is the mysterious anti-heroine who was shoehorned into all the New 52 #1s. Together, they form the "Trinity of Sin." It's nice to see Geoff Johns rebel against Father Moore by hewing closer to a competing story by Father Levitz, but these are all still terrible ideas. To be honest, after reading Geoff Johns' screwy take on creationism vs. evolution in Christian vs. Oan theology, I began to form the impression that he was maybe not the brightest guy. Having 8th century B.C. Pandora being tried alongside thirtysomething A.D. Judas and Rorschach by a bunch of Crossgen sigil-bearers does not dissuade me from that nagging doubt. You may chalk it up to "comics, folks," but I can't help the distraction of the voice narrating the comics in my head sounding like Kirk Cameron.

Kenneth Rocafort drew pages 5-6, and I wish that hadn't happened, because I didn't like looking at them. They were preoccupied with trying to convince me that Cyborg is a worthy addition to the JLA, while simultaneously reminding me that Vic Stone is a jock-o homo whose dad is brilliant and mourns the loss of his son's technology more than the dickweed himself. These pages also offer a preview of how awful Earth-2 is going to be. In a word, "very."

One of the only good things to come out of the New 52 so far is the comics community finally collectively forgiving Steve Trevor for being such a tool before large segments of it were even born and allowing him to become a productive member of the DCU again. As Nick Fury. Or I guess Nemesis trying to act like Steve Trevor: Super Soldier. Still, it's better than limbo. Tracie Thoms is his sidekick, which is way better than being Fat Vegas Cary Elwes' secretary in a failed pilot. What bugs me is that we have another black character born out of assuming the role of a white character, insuring that she will never fully own her own identity. What's stopping Etta Candy being a funny chunky honky gal who has misadventures (Didio's "No Fat Chick Allowed" TV shirt,) while Tracie Thoms plays a completely different character from Etta Candy, which she was doing already? These Gene Ha pages were my favorite, because I enjoyed looking at bith his style and what he was depicting. Well, except for Pandora's Box being Despero's skull cast in gold, because what the fuck?

Finally, there was a flash forward to the future drawn by Jim Lee, which was so disconnected from the main narrative that you know this is literally pages Jim Lee has already drawn for a script a year in advance because he doesn't want to blow his deadline (spoiler: he'll blow his deadline.) I've been over Jim Lee a damned long time now, and dual gatefold battle scenes that are sparsely populated by action figures amidst lazy props/backgrounds (wooo, nondescript pillars and rubble) had a lot to do with that. It foreshadows "The Trinity War," which is about how the Puerto Rican guy, the African American Green Lantern, and the Asian Atom aren't as good as their Caucasian betters, while hurling unjust accusations at the Anglo-Saxons Supreme. Oh, and Cyborg (eyes roll...)

Twelve pages of back matter reprints incomprehensible excerpts from the New 52 Wave Two titles ordered at a fraction of the levels of Wave One books. Even Captain Atom.

DC Nation FCBD Super Sampler/Superman Family Adventures Flip Book #1 (DC, 2011/2012, Free)
The Green Lantern Animated Series tale is the best. It introduces a bunch of characters efficiently, then uses them to tell a complete story. It was no great shakes, but it's made for kids, so it's alright.

The Young Justice section reprints five pages of a story that only had dialogue on two, involving Artemis and Robin working with their mentors. It's deeply unsatisfying filler junk.

Art Baltazar is the finest artist I've seen so far on the new Superman costume, mostly because he draws the old Superman costume without the dumb briefs they should have done away with years ago, plus a v-neck collar. The story is a lot like an issue of Tiny Titans, but less funny and decompressed. I guess that's where the New 52 influence really sinks in.

Free Comic Book Day 2012 (Avengers: Age of Ultron Point One) No. 0.1 (Marvel, 2011/2012, Free)
Shit like this is how DC is eating your market share, Marvel. Anybody who gave a fuck about this book bought it a year ago for $2.99 when you called it Avengers #12.1. I liked Bryan Hitch's rougher, less "precious" art here, aside from everybody having idealized bodies. I just don't believe the Mad Thinker or Red Ghost are manorexics, y'know? The story was retarded from top to bottom, though. I haven't read a Marvel comic with any regularity in years, but I know what S.W.O.R.D. is, yet Steve Rogers has to have it explained to him slowly like learning grandmama about the intrawebs. I love how Brian Michael Bendis takes his time to clue me in on a bunch of irrelevant Spider-Woman minutia written by Brian Michael Bendis, but he can't explain who the main villains are and why they've gathered together. See, other people wrote about those guys, so they don't matter as much. There's this guy called Protector in the book who I thought was from those '80s Keebler Teen Titans anti-drug comics, except now he was Kree. Thanks to the internet, I learned that Grant Morrison's Marvel Boy. It doesn't matter to the story, but it would have been nice to know and easy to convey with a blurb somewhere. I miss editor's notes.

There isn't any actual characterization in the story. Steve Rogers is senile and Wolverine is ornery and Ms. Marvel is Spider-Woman's friend and Iron Man knows about technology and pessimistic thinking (not mentioned: good scotch.) There are two villain types in the story; the one who says "let's do this," and the one who says, "no, let's not" immediately after. For a group of super-geniuses, they're too dumb to in any way prevent themselves from being tracked and raped by the Avengers. They're like "lets take this object with a perfectly unique energy signature, do nothing to conceal it from guys who we know have radiation GPS, and we'll even kidnap one of the heroes to insure we absolutely cannot possibly get away with this shit... and we call ourselves the Aristocrats!" Not that the Avengers are exactly stunning here, as they only had to follow a trail of breadcrumbs to M.O.D.O.K.s house, and their battle plan consists solely of "hit."

One thing I've heard bitching about with regard to Avengers vs. X-Men is that everyone is afraid of the Phoenix Force arriving on Earth, it's the sole motivation for all the fighting, and yet Phoenix was a member of Excalibur for a decade without anyone getting their panties in a wad. The surprising villain reveal (spoiler: it's Ultron) leads to gnashing of teeth and rending of Lycra over humanity being doomed to extinction. Because Ultron's back. The same Ultron Daredevil beat that one time. The Ultron the Avengers have beaten so many times I can't count them on my digits, even if I use my genitals to add three. I just looked at my dick on account of the accounting, and it was still limp. By the way, if you're going to cause an explosion that destroys a city block and is rendered in intricate detail, at least singe somebody's costume. When the non-powered vigilante Moon Knight is standing around in a clean pure white costume, it's unintentional comedy.

Free Comic Book Day 2012 (Spider-Man: Season One) #1 (Marvel, 2012, Free)
Not only is this another reprint, but it's only an excerpt from a graphic novel. Worse yet, J. Michael Straczynski's Smallville graphic novel made a bunch of money, so Marvel tried to cash in with about a dozen Marville books, failing to notice that what made Smallville commercially viable was turning Superman into Spider-Man. Spider-Man is already Spider-Man. Don't mean shit if he's Spider-Man for more pages targeting bookstores, especially without wooing that powerhouse Babylon 5 audience with "star power." This book is written by Cullen Bunn, which I think is what I ate with my Starbucks cappuccino this morning. It's drawn by Neil Edwards, who in terms of name recognition makes Shane Davis seem remotely famous comparatively by comic book standards.

The story is Spider-Man's origin. Again. We know Kim Jong-un is a comic book fan, so I guess Marvel figured the people of North Korea would finally be allowed access to a Spider-Man origin story. If you're in Pyongyang, and can't reach Half Price Books for an unsold copy of those Ultimate Spider-Man tomes, I guess this is the book for you. It's basically a reprint of a xerox of Ultimate Spider-Man, which tells an origin story that's been translated into probably every earthly tongue and was adapted into one of the biggest box office hits of all time. It's slightly more fresh than the origins of Superman and Jesus Christ.

Besides being utterly unnecessary and provided by journeyman talent, this version of the story is either terribly paced or had pages taken out for space considerations. I really needed all those pages of Peter Parker getting hit with balled up paper and running across rooftops. Those were AMAZ-ing. Such gripping insight into the character, with the being a nerd and thrilling to his powers, which was a revelation. This was needed by exactly nobody.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Mister X: Condemned (2009)

"When I was a child, I used to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man, I did away with childish things."

Given that I'm writing a review for a "graphic novel," none of that really applies to me. However, when I was a child, I tried reading comics like Swamp Thing and The One, and was in way over my head. Not only didn't I really understand the books at the time, but their edgy sophistication unnerved me. Getting into my teens, my mind expanded, but I still needed transitional mediums between the super-hero world and an adult one. These included the anti-heroic likes of Batman (The Dark Knight Returns, The Cult,) the Punisher, Grimjack, and Marshal Law. These led me to characters still further estranged from the funny book mainstream, like Morpheus, until I finally became comfortable with mature reading completely divorced from the genre fantastic. By that point, I could look back on books like Watchmen and Brat Pack not only unafraid, but unimpressed.

My first encounter with Mister X was a random issue in a quarter box. In the early '80s, there was a sea change as new independent creators entered the field with no delusions about the nature of work for hire comics and a desire to expand the medium from the edges of the frontier. However, my exposure to this avant-garde was mostly limited to ads in books like Heavy Metal back when I couldn't rely on living anywhere long enough to chance paying for something that would come to a mailing address. Besides, I wasn't digging through the discounted castoffs because I was flush enough to pay inflated low print run cover prices or shipping charges. I tossed through the issue, with interiors that surely didn't match the sleek new wave covers, lacking color, involving people in normal clothes having discussions, with no supporting issues to reference or progress toward. I simply was not prepared to take that plunge.

In the decades that followed, occasional Mister X material was released, and though I felt pangs of interest and guilt, I always passed. The book was revered, but I had no clear point of entry, at least not at a reasonable price. Finally, a few years ago, Dark Horse announced that Dean Motter would be rebooting and reintroducing his creation in an accessible mini-series. I ordered the trade, which collected a thin four issues and was produced in dimensions from that netherworld between standard comics and digests. For some reason, I have a tendency to shove those types of books on a shelf and forget about them for years, as I did with Mister X: Condemned. Only recently did I stuff it into my work bag for lunchtime reading.

Radiant City is an art deco, rigorously calculated creation of a team of architects, intending to work directly on the psyche of its inhabitants. The concept was successful, but not the ultimate result. Rather than being healthy, happy and productive, the city's citizens were driven to bleak neurosis by the design of the metropolis mockingly nicknamed "Somnopolis." A penitent but unbalanced architect dubbed "Mister X" attempts to correct his mistakes by helping to deal with the impact of his creation, including a rogues gallery of creeps straight out of German expressionist filmmaking. Mister X haunted the city like the title haunted the '80s, producing a couple dozen or so issues and influencing filmmakers like Terry Gilliam, Tim Burton and Alex Proyas. It is a compelling premise both perfect for and distinct from standard comics.

Unfortunately, it's also problematic in execution. While conceived by Motter, the early issues were created by Los Bros Hernandez, who quit over payment issues. Motter began doing the actual writing with the fifth issue, but had Seth as a hired hand on art. Other writers and artists produced later issues, making Mister X an early model for the Image Comics studios system of basically pulling the same freelancing contract crap they'd left Marvel over when it was theirs to sign. Condemned appears to be one of the few times Motter has written and drawn his owned damned creation, and the result is tepid. The retro-futurism of modern life filtered through a 1930s aesthetic is now passe. The plot and characters are also very much of that era, meaning an overcooked but under-seasoned plot involving bland, flat subjects. There's a murder mystery and rampant conspiracies, but they're all of the type seen elsewhere, across decades, handled better. What may have been innovative thirty years ago is now rote, and frankly, I suspect the book's reputation had more to do with "helpers" like Paul Rivoche than its credited author, anyway.

I still very much want to read the Mister X guys like Howard Chaykin and Warren Ellis rave over, but this effort only served to diminish my curiosity rather than inflame it. It's a book that tells you it has an interesting premise in the first panels, then neglects to show anything nearly as intriguing as what was suggested. The sluggish narrative manned with interchangeable characters is then sloppily wrapped up in the last few pages, once again through people holding guns while telling you their motivations and prior actions rather than demonstrating them with subtlety. The floorboards are loose, the pipes are rusted, and the whole construct looks ready to fall in on its foundation. This project was at least honest in its title, as it should rightly be condemned.


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