Tuesday, August 27, 2013

newuniversal: Everything Went White (2007)

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of "Marvel Comics" (as opposed to Timely/Atlas/etc., launched in 1939,) it was decided to update the formula that made the work of Lee, Kirby & company so successful by creating a self-contained line of more realistic takes on comic book concepts. This New Universe would be stripped of most pure fantasy elements, geared for comparatively grounded science fiction, or at least would feature less ridiculous spandex stuff in a real time setting. A "white event" lit skies around the globe for a moment, and signaled the shift from the real world as the readers knew it to one that included manned robot suits, occasional aliens, and modest super-powers. The 1986 launch was much hyped, but the eight core titles were not very well received, half canceled after the first year. Marvel Editor-in-Chief Jim Shooter was one of the project's primary architects, but he was fighting wars on all fronts between creative, editorial and management, and was himself canned in 1987. Shooter would later place most of the blame for the New Universe's lackluster creative pool and slapdash production on his successor, Tom DeFalco, and on a series of budget scale-backs set by the suits who fired him. Convenient, yes, but it's worth noting that Shooter would later take the same basic concepts and caliber of washed-up veteran/neophyte talent to construct Valiant Comics.

Despite lasting only three years, a lot of readers from my generation have a sentimental attachment to the New Universe, so Marvel celebrated its 20th anniversary with a series of one-shot specials set in the relative glory days of the line, which also served to promote a six issue mini-series that would radically reboot the properties by Warren Ellis and Salvador Larroca dubbed newuniversal. The most obvious comparison to their approach would be how Ronald D. Moore took a corny '70s Star Wars knock-off with some brand value and turned it into the tense sci-fi political thriller Battlestar Galactica. The most obvious contrast to their execution of this approach is that only one of the two pulled it off. Warren Ellis is occasionally a great comic writer, but most often, especially when doing corporate comics, he's a willful hack. In other words, Ellis will write what he wants to no matter what, but he's perfectly willing to plug in the names of someone else's IP into his boilerplate cast-offs. Infamously, he once took a rejected proposal, changed his characters' names with minimal additional rewrites, and turned it into connecting mini-series dubbed "The Ultimate Galactus Trilogy." Ellis is faithful enough to the New Universe properties to make it clear that was not the case here, but his storytelling sensibilities run roughshod over them, and their unambitious employment are set to cruise control.


My favorite of the New Universe books was Star Brand, which offered an obvious author insertion protagonist for Jim Shooter, but it also allowed him to portray a deeply flawed hero with personal insight. Ellis reworks Kenneth Connell as a passive himbo in the 94th unnecessary Akira lift. Justice was one of the longest lived NU titles, featuring a mulleted anti-hero serving as judge and executioner of action movie bad guys. Peter David wrote much of the series, but there's clearly room for improvement in the concept. Ellis instead turns John Tenson into a super powered serial killer. Nightmask was basically a costumed version of the 1984 Dennis Quaid vehicle Dreamscape, but Ellis "improvement" is to trade out a heroic take on Freddy Krueger for Betty Clawman from the contemporaneous failure New Guardians. Instead of assisting with psychological disturbances through cooperative lucid dreaming, Izanimi Randall interacts with newuniversal's core plot device and teleports the players where they need to be. Spitfire and the Troubleshooters was probably the title closest to Ellis' aesthetic, but he does decide to infect its lead character with Extremis all the same, and her role is minor in this collection.

As Ellis is wont to do, the space between the NU characters is filled with archaeological digs that uncover ancient conspiracies, morally ambiguous government agents, a generally pessimistic tone, and 75% of the characters speaking in the same cynical voice as in every other Ellis script. The book isn't about anything besides setting up the revised characters for further adventures that, aside from three one shot specials, never materialized. There's some troubling subtext to John Tenson's first execution that blurs the line between mercy killings and hospice care, but I get the feeling that speaks more to a bungle than Ellis having anything of value to say about "the world outside your window."

While unexceptional and pointless, newuniversal would have been a reasonable excuse to pass some time if not for the atrocious artwork. Salvador Larroca photo references this thing to death. Not only is Bruce Willis the model for John Tenson, but it's specifically Willis playing Hartigan in make-up from the 2005 Robert Rodriguez movie Sin City (itself a comic book adaptation) with only a modification in the type of scar that mars his features. The unmistakable likenesses of James Cromwell, Johnny Depp, Leonard Nimoy and James Gandolfini are applied to prominent characters. Jenny Swann is less clear, but some panels are obviously meant to portray Angeline Jolie. Larroca has a trickier time with the woman in general, as one character seems the vary from Nichole Kidman to Charlize Theron, and I can't quite place the Asian actress Izanimi is lifted from. The artistic references are also there, as Larroca spends a lot of time aping Jae Lee, but there's a lot of Gulacy in there, and a melange of tropes from the 80s/90s wave of painted comics that recalls old Innovation books. The difference between Larroca's more familiar mangacentric approach in the sketchbook and the riffapalooza in the story pages is striking.

According the Wikipedia, Warren Ellis' computer crashed, taking with it files he was using to write those sporadic newuniversal specials, so he's given up on the project. Clearly, it meant a lot to him. Jonathan Hickman's now mining both this mini-series and the original books for Avengers material, so hopefully it will not have all been for naught, but in the meantime, I hear the Valiant revival is doing pretty well...

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Chronicles of Wormwood Volume 2: The Last Battle (2011)

There's a term used throughout this collection, "bitching out." Maybe it's an English thing, but that means something else entirely in the States. In what appears to be a prophylactic self-criticism, The Last Battle pussies out in a variety of ways, and seems to ask that you not judge it too harshly as it does so. What I'll be doing in this review is bitching out.

The first volume was like a Cliff's Notes encapsulation of Ennis' career long assault on Christian hypocrisy, as skewered by an unwilling metrosexual Antichrist with the help of a brain-damaged African-American second coming of Jesus Christ and a talking bunny named Jimmy. Presumably it was successful enough to warrant a sequel four years later with art by a higher end former DC Comics talent than was normally seen at Avatar. The problem is, after taking a literal road trip through Hell and taking on God and the Devil in one neat package, there isn't really anyplace else to go with these subjects. Instead, Ennis chose to tell a largely new type of story with preexisting characters who, while likable, aren't necessarily built for this sort of narrative.

Oscar Jimenez was an excellent choice to depict a quieter, more intimate struggle, but after the audacious comedy of the Burrows series, the disparity between volumes is as clear visually as it becomes textually. At about the halfway point, the primary concern of the plot is pushed to the back burner to bring up forced leftovers, including a primary villain with dubious motivation and underwhelming goals. At the same time, back-peddling on a concern related to Jesus also seems a bit pussy, like a means of addressing some unintended subtext by writing it out. Wormwood is still a well intentioned and pleasant enough read if you have an appropriate tolerance for disembowelment/deviant porn/etc., but it seems like a slight and unnecessary follow-up where it might have benefited Ennis to shape his main plot into something fresher in a different context. As it stands, if Rosemary's Baby had given birth to a Two Jakes, well, here you go.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

nurghophonic jukebox: "Hobo Humpin' Slobo Babe" by Whale

Written By: Whale
Released: 1994
Album: We Care
Single?: Top 40 international hit, #24 on U.S. Modern Rock Tracks chart

While I was a longtime music fan when it came to country and pop, I didn't really get into alternative music until I was introduced to the short-lived Houston radio station The Rocket by a couple of teenagers I worked with when I first started moonlighting at a comic shop. The station was blessed with a complete absence of DJs and very limited-to-no commercials in the early days. I was working most nights as a security guard, and the exposure to a wealth of classic new wave/goth plus the best in contemporary college rock helped keep me vital in the witching hour. Hearing this novelty tune always sends me back to the days of stomping around a parking lot and doing cartwheels to keep myself awake. I'm sure the lolita-chic of the video helped soften my heart to other Swedish bands, including my personal favorite, the Cardigans. Sadly, one day robo-DJs turned up, then more commercials, then super obnoxious live jocks. The Rockets basketball team probably took exception to the name, and Clear Channel ended up turning the station into "The Buzz." Twenty years later, the "modern alternative rock" station is still playing the same goddamned grunge songs like Kurt Cobain was frozen in carbonite, plus when the metal station folded in favor of reggaeton, they added "Mandatory Metallica" for maximum sell-out. I tried to dig up some more Whale when P2P was big, but yeah, you can basically call it a day right here without missing anything.



Lyrics:
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!

Baby, we don't love ya
Baby, we don't love ya, baby, yeah!
Baby, we don't love ya
Baby, we don't love ya, baby, yeah!
Baby, we don't love ya
Baby, we don't love ya, baby, yeah!

Seeking candy, on the shore
Lost her eyesight, teeth are poor
Left for dead, back for more
Left for dead...

Seeking candy, who sleeps around
Araid of telling, tiny sounds
Left for dead, left for good (seeking candy)
Left for dead, not understood (back for more)

But you... (back for more)
Always came back for more...

You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! yeah!
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!

Seeking candy, out of line
Broken kneecap, velvet spine
Left for dead, left for good (seeking candy)
Left for dead, misunderstood. (back for more)

But you... (back for more)
Always came back for more...

You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!

Baby, we don't love ya, (seeking candy)
Baby, we don't love ya, baby, yeah! (out of line)
Baby, we don't love ya, (broken kneecap)
Baby, we don't love ya, baby, yeah! (velvet spine)
Baby, we don't love ya, (left for dead)
Baby, we don't love ya, baby, yeah! (left for good)
Baby, we don't love ya, (left for dead)
Baby, we don't love ya, baby, yeah! (misunderstood)

You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!
You hobo humpin' slobo babe
Get it off, get off, get off of me!

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah!
(seeking candy)
(back for more)



Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Victories Volume 1: Touched (2013)

Michael Avon Oeming loved those high end late 80s/early 90s deconstructionist super-hero comics. I don’t personally know the guy or much of anything about him, but there’s some pages here where his storytelling techniques are so Sienkiewicz that he might as well have skinned the guy and turned the cured flesh into a suit and looked into a mirror saying he’d fuck himself. However, Oeming’s surface style is from an entirely different planet, so he can’t dazzle you into forgetting about a pedestrian Frank Miller action yarn through hoity-toity art school jazz hands. His latest creator-owned series The Victories was also sold with the exploitative zeal of a Millarworld travesty. “If you like to get fucked up and do fucked up shit—in imaginary spandex adventures—work out your problems with women and minorities by pandering to your basest desires in another bestselling mini-series soon to be optioned for a major motion picture: ID MONSTER!” I don’t have many reviews of Mark Millar books up on this blog, because I caught on to his one trick early, and it’s odious.

Back to Oeming, I didn’t approach this book as a fan by any stretch, since I’ve never embraced any of his creator owned projects or partnerships with Brian Michael Bendis. I thought he was a good match for Andy Helfer on DC’s short lived licensing of Judge Dredd around the time of the Stallone movie, but otherwise, he didn’t float my boat. Between my history with the guy and my disdain for the type of book Dark Horse made The Victories out to be, you could say I was a hostile audience. Also, did I mention that the book is called The Victories? We’re officially out of good names for super-teams.

The first two issues collected in this volume didn’t leave me questioning my initial prejudice. It’s one of those near future dystopias where half the narration comes from clearly biased news reports and every figure of authority is hopelessly corrupt, so that the populace prays for one brave libertarian avenger to restore liberty. Blech. There’s the usual cussing and ultraviolence, with a particular fetish for dismemberment you’d think would give an Islamic fundamentalist a hard-on. The protagonist is pre-Miller Daredevil making wisecracks like the second rate Spider-Man that he was, but in a Post-Miller/Mazzuchelli world of sadistic super-freaks. The team isn’t introduced until the second issue, predictably a bunch of assholes and a collection of tropes.

A funny thing happened in the third issue, though. For one, the hero turned out to be African-American, which wasn’t quite clear earlier on, because his race is completely inconsequential to the story. Secondly, his cool vigilante name is Faustus, but rather than being an arbitrary selection, that name was relevant to the story being told. Third, while this is meant to be a team book, Oeming was taking the time to thoroughly introduce this one member so that he's fully fleshed out and distinct from any other super-heroes, rather than the endless parade of analogues that are either slaves to a plot or promised depths that are never actualized. Fourth, this isn’t another nihilistic joy ride, but in fact a book dealing with the very real consequences of the types of transgressive acts Brian Azzarello trades in. Finally, The talking heads on the televisions began to sound less like pastiche and more like the writer addressing the all too familiar excesses of partisan media in an increasingly fascistic environment.

Rather than serving as a vehicle for propaganda or jumping on the sleaze circuit, Oeming is employing his many and obvious influences to tell a personal, human story, hopefully the first in an anthology vehicle more in line with Kurt Busiek’s Astro City than Garth Ennis’ The Boys. In some ways, it speaks to a truer form of heroism than the early tales of Peter Parker overcoming impossible odds to face common concerns. While darker and more adult, Oeming’s book is about inspiring people to rise above the horrors of life to make something better of their world. We could use more books like this, and I’m happy that Oeming finally set me straight on where he was coming from. I look forward to seeing what he has in store for the next volume...

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Wednesday Is J.L.A.te For All I Care #176

Justice League of America #2 (2013)
Justice League of America #3 (2013)
Justice League of America's Vibe #2
Justice League of America's Vibe #3



Justice League of America #2 (DC, 2013, $2.99)
I've always had a fondness for the Secret Society of Super-Villains, so I'm happy to see them get a steady, ominous reveal, as opposed to the bait and switch that was Villains United almost (God help me) a decade back. Besides missing Amanda Waller's girth and her ability to walk the fine line of anti-heroism without falling off, it also seems like a good portion of her brains went M.I.A. as well. In a world with a finite number of powerful, viable super-heroes that the government could wrangle to serve their purposes, you don't throw a whole team at a wall to see who sticks versus splatters against unknown hostiles. Then again, Geoff Johns wrote her, so what was I expecting? A lot of that seems to be in service to rebuilding Steve Trevor, so I'm torn between being glad a classic himbo is back in the game and one of the few female African-American comic book icons being ruined in favor of a blue-eyed, blond haired white male. The lead story is rife with "because" with insufficient "why," and what's the point in teasing a conflict with the main Justice League if you draw their facsimiles as obvious robots? Also, David Finch's proportions were awful in some scenes, but I'll still take his dark mood and detailing over most of the flashier Image style artists DC now employs.

There's also a Martian Manhunter back-up story, which recalled a scene from the '80s event mini-series Legends where our hero saved a different president during a time of paranoia against super-heroes. Matt Kindt's script is okay, but he has a problem with repeating words like "gentle" and "country," sometimes in the same line of dialogue, and should therefore take advantage of Thesaurus.com (assuming he proofread at all.) The real draw in the artwork. I was very much not a fan of the late Scott Clark's efforts on Brightest Day, but I had at one time appreciated his style considerably, and this final effort is a visual feast. I'm sure there's some digital age cheating going on here, but the fine line feathering used on the figures is lovely, and Scott goes completely insane with the crosshatching on not-John Jones/The Manhunter. There are only three images of the Alien Atlas in this entire story, but I fully expect them to be extensively repurposed, because each one is wicked sweet. This here is a Da Vinci demigod of extraterrestrial origin, and I'll mourn for the pages of Clark art we'll never get to see.

Justice League of America #3 (DC, 2013, $2.99)
I'm mildly amused that the first five issues of this series are placed under the heading of one story arc that will surely be collected as such in a trade paperback. It reads more like a Prelude to Infinite Crisis type thing, collecting disparate issues of comics by varied creative teams that all lead into an actual story, despite having the same writer and only two different artists. There's two pages used to establish Stargirl and an adversarial relationship with Amanda Waller, and then that's backburned. The previous issue ended on a cliffhanger, so there's an action sequence and that part wraps up inside nine pages. Then, mid-issue, a new plot is initiated, crosses over with an issue of Catwoman in between panels, reenlists Green Arrow as a team member despite dismissing him unnecessarily last issue, then ends on another cliffhanger. That Green Arrow thing especially needs to be paid off at a later date, like maybe Steve Trevor wanted to disassociate from Ollie to keep him as an ace in the hole against Amanda Waller, or something. Speaking of whom, if there's one thing that bugs me about this book, it's that the characters are drawn so archly, they lack the layers previous demonstrated by other writers and become shrill. For instance, Vibe is a slightly nervous rookie with sound logic and critical thinking in his own book, where here he's a bumbling neurotic moron who is constantly on the verge of dying or accidentally killing others. It's much. I continue to be amazed that David Finch is willing to draw nine panel pages with each panel featuring a ridiculously fine line on details, even if its weird how he'll cram important information into minuscule boxes while offering disproportionate space to trivialities (like the two page spread of an empty conference table in #2.)

As with last month, the Martian Manhunter back-up is an art driven affair that's a pleasure to look at but otherwise could be done without. There are glimpses from earlier in the lives of Catwoman and Martian Manhunter, which perhaps confirms that J'Onn J'Onzz's comfort with killing is more Denny O'Neil than J.M. DeMatteis, but doesn't say much else. The Martian's natural form has been tweaked to be more "kewl" but less distinctive. Matt Kindt does that repetitive script thing, this time with whole lines rather than just words. This is probably the best art I've ever seen from Manuel Garcia though, with complimentary coloring from Jeff Chang. With this character, I'll take inoffensive and easy on the eyes, but with most I'd set the bar higher.

Justice League of America's Vibe #2 (DC, 2013, $2.99)
Vibe stops a robbery and an alien invasion, but not under expected circumstances nor with any appreciable level of difficulty. This issue felt very much like a placeholder or a series of deleted scenes, weaving in and out of sequences from Justice League of America #1 & 2, advancing subplots without a true core story of its own to tell. Pete Woods' contributions to the art improved from the debut issue, but since he was sharing chores with Andres Guinaldo and a slew of inking hands, the overall quality was inconsistent. I'm not at all keen on Gypsy's new backstory, Cisco remains a calculatingly inoffensive bore, and how many reminders do we need that Amanda Waller is in a shady business? At least there's a gentle humor on display in the script by Geoff Johns & Andrew Kreisberg, a rarity in the New 52.






Justice League of America's Vibe #3 (DC, 2013, $2.99)
Sterling Gates doesn't quite keep up the humor of the previous writers (gone so soon,) but he does immediately move Vibe past being a well-intentioned patsy into a more thoughtful and challenging protagonist. The story itself was dull, probably due to the forced inclusion of Kid Flash as part of the "What The Fifty-Two" line wide stunt. Don't get me wrong-- the series to date has been building toward a confrontation with "a" Flash, and the meeting marks a turning point in the plot line, but there's no emotional resonance to the actual interaction between the characters. The fight/team-up is a boon for exposition, not entertainment. I continue to find Pete Woods to be one of the dullest artists currently working on a regular basis, so it's almost galling that he can't even lend visual consistency by drawing an entire issue on his own. However, secondary artist Fabiano Neves has been toiling at Dynamite for years, so it's great to see him on a decent book I'd actually buy. Unlike Woods, Neves draws Vibe as heroic with consistent facial features from panel to panel, bringing welcome elements of Kevin Maguire, Steve Lightle, and Darick Robertson to the table with a slight Bronze Age vibe. It really perks up a saggy, perfunctory tale. Of course, either artist would be preferable to Brett Booth, who begins a run of hideous covers here. I really liked that guy on Backlash, but it now occurs to me that every character in that book wore a full featureless face mask or were furries, so his predilection toward using Jimmy Durante as his primary model wasn't as obvious.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Bedlam Vol. 1 (2013)

Nick Spencer is one of the better new writers in comics, and I've been waiting for him to do a book I could get behind. Iron Man 2.0 and Ultimate X-Men were major label bullshit, and even Thief of Thieves seemed like dues-paying within Robert Kirkman's Image fiefdom. Despite my affection for the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, the "Next Generation" approach and simply being co-opted by Dan Didio's DC kept me from even sampling Spencer's series. Morning Glories has probably been his biggest hit to date, and Existence 2.0/3.0 had been the thing I'd liked the best, but neither truly hooked me, and both were marred by art from Joe Eisma, who I find deeply off-putting.

Bedlam illustrator Riley Rossmo isn't going to be nominated for a 2012 Artist I Want To See Draw Things award either, and the whole premise is clearly Gotham Central fan fiction. No one would ever build a major U.S. metropolis under the name of "Bedlam," but as a way to have Arkham Asylum writ large over the whole of Gotham City, it's an appropriate conceit. The book is Spencer doing an unauthorized continuation of the Christopher Nolan Batman films, with the Heath Ledger Joker starring and the Christian Bale Batman reduced to a supporting role. There's even a Harvey Bullock in here. The main change-up is Detective Renee Montoya stepping into the Dana Scully/Dr. Joan Watson role as the distrustful skeptic who nonetheless ends up backing the plays of her more eccentric partner to investigate twisted homicides. As formulas go, you could do worse.

As diminishing as that summary sounds, Spencer's script is effective, with a mild twist in the first 48 page chapter that made me want to start the book over immediately to read it from a new perspective. From there, a Silence of the Lambs/Seven sensibility sets in-- gritty serial killers at play in a heightened reality that's grounded just enough to remain believable. Essentially, it's the Vertigo Batman comic, which would be one franchise spin-off I could get behind. In fact, I'm loving how Image Comics has essentially said "fuck it" and become Epic Comics (Verotika with less misogyny and more brains? A genre-skewing Fantagraphics with a better budget? Peak Wildstorm with penises?) Rossmo's art serves the material well, with a view of the world that's perpetually askew and a coarse, vulgar approach to the violence inflicted upon the human body. There's an ongoing dual narrative that helps explain the hows and whys of the situation, with one or the other always in the thick of some carnage you can't help but rubberneck. The first story comes to a satisfying, character-specific solution, and all the pieces are in place to make this work over the long haul. As an aging super-hero fan, I've been looking for more daring and fulfilling book to follow in the genre, and this looks to be exactly the sort of thing to scratch that itch. It's my hope that Spencer will continue do for the not-Dark Knight what Kirkman once did for not-George Romero zombies: geek out on the material thoroughly for an extended time as their enthusiasm infects the audience.


...nurghophiles...

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