Friday, October 10, 2014

A Frank Review of "The Girl's Guide to Depravity" Season 2 (2013)

The Short Version? Sex. City Optional.
What Is It? Comedy-Drama
Who Is In It? Nobody you know.
Should I See It? Maybe.

Like most scripted original cable softcore series, The Girl's Guide to Depravity has a weird, sketchy history. Originally running from late February through May of 2012, the show stayed off the schedule for sixteen months, only to return with a rejiggered cast/sets/etc. What were the adventures of a couple of under-thirty professional women and best friends following the dating advice of the exalted but rarely seen Sienna switches to a trio that shuffles off the former co-lead in the season premiere. The show used to go out of its way to tell viewers it was set and filmed in Chicago, but it looks like Bucharest, Romania is now its primary locale. Basically, the series must have worked well enough to manage an extension, but not so well as to evade sweeping changes. How well does that work out? Let's see...

  1. "The Girl On Girl Rule": Since last season, Rebecca Blumhagen has co-starred with Parker Lewis Can't Lose in a straight to video sci-fi thriller, and has in the pipeline a romantic comedy with Jaimie Kennedy and fourth lead in a Lily Tomlin vehicle. That's positively stellar compared to the currently unemployed actress Sally Golan, which bums me out. Sam may have gotten the web hits for her occasional awkward reverse-jailbait shagging, but Lizzie was the salvation of most episodes with her distinctive looks and steadier delivery of the goods. Lizzie may have been the less likable "bitch" character, but she was also the determined, motivated one who could cycle through boy toys and had a "story engine" through her legal career to create plots. Sam is the relationship girl, who is still in a relationship with the relationship guy from last season. All of Sam's plots last season were about her desperation to land a man, and as the meek "relatable" one, her carrying the show on her own spells trouble.

    The season premiere is extremely clunky, trying to pull off the effects and overall vibe of the series debut on a plainly smaller budget with two seeming Cousin Olivers wedged in. However, the soundtrack for the musical montage is good, and it soon becomes apparent that John Doggett and Monica Reyes might end up being Steve Urkels. Instead of bringing back Dirty Hot Guy, some French dude is introduced and incites Lizzie's exit. Sam has boring, badly scripted old people sex with the returning Jason (Jesse Liebman.) With the reliably porny neighbor Riley Steele quietly written out, the show desperately needed new blood. Playing to extremes, Tessa Harnetiaux's Megan is vastly more pathetic and clueless than season 1 Sam, while Megan Barrick's Jenna overshoots Lizzie, aiming for Sienna-level calculated depravity. That actually makes more sense for a series based on a tongue-in-cheek blog intended to guide young women in the ways of debauchery and revenge. Veteran writer Chloe Danger and director Alex Merkin maintain the tone of the first season, and once the messy business of the retooling is dispensed with, one hopes the cavorting shenanigans will see an uptick.

  2. The Do Me Rule: You have to give the show credit for having much greater conviction in its characters and stories than most Skinemax fare. Lizzie only has a cameo, but her presence (or lack thereof) still permeates every scene involving Sam and/or Jason. It matters that she was there and is now gone, so I suspect the producers want to keep the door open. I understand Sally Golan is an event planner and daughter of a billionaire, so this might all be on her.

    Moving on, the men appearing on this show have gotten sleazier, and therefore offer more excuses for guiltless abuse, as opposed to the more average-to-nebbish fellows last season. Time is being taken to organically insert the new characters into the ongoing narrative, which is appreciated. God, the new girls are white though. Like, deep European forest white where communism prevented immigration and commingling of the races white. It's also unfortunate that on-screen texting plays a major part in scenes, but the effects are so poorly executed as to be illegible. It's the first program I know of to recreate the tedium of sidelining a conversation to wait for your friend to finish playing with her phone.

  3. The Bar Sex Rule: I'm not sure the geeks or anyone else have won when even softcore shows start integrating heavy continuity into their narratives. There's callbacks to previous episodes this season, one from last season, and developing subplots. I'm not sure all this fucking soap opera is good for my fucking cable porn. Anyway, it's a nice enough episode, where the Barney Stimple type Dean (Nick Clark) gets a sort of comeuppance, but not before a decent few minutes of boning. The new trio of leads finally come together, not entirely organically, but it's progress.

    Megan should be my type, but as written, she's horrible. She hooks up with a guy who falls on the wrong side of believable metrosexuality while both praise a horrendous eurotrash dance song as "genius." I'm hating these two, and I have no faith in his having an actual boner. Speaking of boners, way to wait until the end of episode three to alleviate the main impediment of the series moving forward.

  4. The Morning After Rule: Oh, dear, God. Who wants lots of slow moving relationship stuff in their softcore? How about a show where there are two job locations spotlighting hateful dragon ladies, and the viewer sides with them over the spineless pseudosympathetic primary characters? Oh, and the hardbodies that get a sex scene with potential in the first half peter out quickly with lots of guilt attached. Yay? Rebecca Blumhagen has been co-writing these episodes, and that perhaps needs to stop.

    This show feels like it's in damage control mode. Lizzie keeps phoning (or in this case, Skyping) in cameos to keep her presence felt. Rachel Ward (Chasty Ballesteros) is a newer character whose entire personality is formed out of Lizzie's working relationship with Jason and other "lesser" men. Megan is a more pathetic overacted spare Samantha, who has herself mostly drifted aimlessly. Jenna, who was already a combination of Lizzie and Sienna, has her screen time given to Rachel as she (barely) appears as gullible and passive while her boyfriend is off doing what he does. In the midst of all this, Sam's younger brother Charlie (Blake Lowell) moves in. Why the fuck are there so many new redundant characters crowding the air out of the room? If women are writing these shows, why isn't there more diversity in the personalities of the female characters? In a show with "depravity" in the goddamned title, why is everyone moping and muddling through boring couplings?

  5. The Get Under Another Rule: I started watching episodes from the first and second seasons consecutively, pitting them against one another, with the first season winning consistently. However, "he Bitch Rule" was one of the least appealing episodes of the first run, so there's a chance for a shake-up here.

    Not off to a good start, though. Jenna seemed like she was going to be the crazy cool vindictive "Girl," but she settled back into boring couples sex with her cheating longtime boyfriend Ben, making her the wrong kind of sucker for this type of program. Speaking of dull partners, Sam and Jason are still dealing with their issues, though I prefer Jason's handling. Megan continues to be borderline disturbing and squicky. It's up to newly introduced supporting characters Rachel, Charlie, Dean, and Jason's lesbian ex Amy (Nicole Rodenburg) to keep the show afloat. The unconvincing trio of girlfriends sure aren't making it happen. The episode ultimately pulls ahead of the pack through some peculiar but amusing creative choices and some of the most interesting sex scenes of the season late in the show.

  6. The Fuck Yes Rule: Bi-seasonal synchronization is proving detrimental to my viewing pleasure, as this episode continues the upward trajectory from last time, but I watched it after seeing "The Magic Pussy Rule," one of the best episodes of the entire series. Sally Golan and Rebecca Blumhagen had a rare, sincere chemistry by softcore standards that clearly cannot by replicated. The producers are wisely pushing the show to become more of an ensemble, here spotlighting Amy in only her second show appearance. I don't recall if we've seen any girl-girl action previously on this series, and while the sex scene doesn't quite click, I respect the handling of the new lesbian elements. I just wish the attempts at comedy landed, like, almost ever. There's some needed (though predictable) story progression, so that's a good thing.

  7. The Hos Before Bros Rule: The show appears to finally be settling after the upheaval of the first half of the season, but what it's settling for is more in line with an upscale Life on Top or Co-Ed Confidential than the low rent Sex & the City of season 1. There are a lot more characters offering greater opportunities and varieties for sex scenes, but they're all sub-sitcom shallow, though there still seems to be effort in the writing/acting/production values above the typical Skinemax fare. On the other hand, the illogical convolutions necessary to get out of them clothes seem like an awful lot of work when fellow network fare embraces a more laissez-faire (porny) attitude. Meanwhile the sex doesn't benefit from the added neurosis and dubious characterization. I mean HBO's Girls is one of the least sexy and most depressing things on TV, so having Sam's current beau be an Adam Driver cosplayer is a bit of a turn-off. It would almost be an improvement to return to the nondescript himbos she cycled through before Jason.

  8. The Basic Instincts Rule: This episode addresses some subplots, and by that I mean stuff that has gotten mentioned here and there progressed a smidge in a single story, not that there's some overarching narrative coming to fruition. This is a checklist of plot points on an email circulating the writing staff's mailing group, not Saucy Seinfeld. Probably the best possible coupling among the new characters was dismissed as a one-off, but it's not like we need another static relationship, and it's not like anyone cares about these people. In a nod to progress, the lesbian gets scenes of development in her coupling, but no sex, and her ambivalence counters her initial depiction as a free spirit injecting some pizzazz into the show. Perceptive Bear has hooked up with the only other gay guy on the show, Tyler the barkeep, but I'll allow it because he's the best character on the show whose name I can't recall, so he needs more screen time. I do remember Dean's name now though, because he kept appearing, even though he's a stereotypical womanizer whose main purpose is to aggravate the increasingly unsympathetic and uncharismatic Sam while delivering the eye candy for his nigh-episodic schtooping sessions (by which I mean he's done the deed in many episodes, not that his scenes make you want to hit the fast-forward button from tedium, like sex addict Ben's.) Something's gone terribly wrong when the "plucky" female lead is waging a workplace war against a slimy heel, and you don't know if you should root for her, because at least the cad isn't a total boor.

  9. The Wingwoman Rule: Blair! Perceptive Bear is Blair. It even rhymes. Oh, and Amy is the lesbian. I thought it was kind of dehumanizing to just call her the lesbian. Yes, she's several episodes into a storyline about her anxiety over moving in with a girl she's only known a few weeks that takes up approximately 90 seconds per episode, and her only other appearances have been as a barmaid serving her "friends" with minimal dialogue, and she's had two instances of showing her tits for totally arbitrary reasons plus one tepid love scene, so all signs point to her being a stereotypical committee inclusion instead a character any of the writers want to deal with, but that's no excuse to define her solely by her sexual preference. She's Amy the Token Lesbian. I can probably remember that.

    What was this episode about? Oh yeah-- after my shit talking, the show really is advancing a variety of established storylines seemingly toward a resolution by season's end. Ben struggles with his sex addiction while Jenna stands way too firmly behind him. Megan might actually be formulating some sort of personality as she and Charlie prove less casual than either thought. Sam's passivity has been falling away between her conflicted relations with Jason and not-Adam Driver, but more so because of her professional and personal rivalry with Dean combined with the stress of her girlfriends' needs. Sam could no longer carry the show as Sam, so she's filling the personality and motivational vacuum left by Lizzie. Blumhagen can't carry it off as well as Golan did by half, but it's better than Sam continuing to float along. There's a couple of sex scenes if I recall correctly-- no wait, three. They're all kind of fucked and unappealing, but they come somewhat naturally from the stories. But, umm, what I said about lowlife Dean being a better character than Sam this season? Developments here embolden that dicey proposition. Sam is behind the most depraved initiative of the show's history, but it's really not cool, y'know'wa'a'mean?

  10. The Breakup Sex Rule: Holy shit, this show is becoming zany! Zany is good. It's fun and bubbly and entertains during the refractory period. The writers are also carrying their storylines along, with continuity and complications that keep things interesting. One problem I had with the first season was its "you can watch any episode in any order without it mattering much" nature, which is fine if you're just doing crappy softcore, but nobody writes reviews for that stuff that don't involve a picture scale of various stages of penile erection as its primary critical measure. They still need to figure out what to do with The Lesbian Amy though, because her dull story isn't going anywhere and feels like an intrusion on the better material surrounding it. Also, since this season has been at least partially defined by my increasing dislike of Sam, I'll add that she has another sex scene that is practically interchangeable with any other Sam sex scene throughout the series. It's funny, as Megan started out as entirely pathetic, but has worked her way up to replacing season one Sam, except Megan's sex scenes are much more diverse in practice and partners. Plus, Sam cockblocked Megan and Charlie, which was a better pairing than any other in the series. Megan's become a better Sam than Sam, while Sam's a much worse Lizzie, so I'm at the point where the character could be jettisoned and it would only improve the show.

  11. The Back Door Rule: Hannah Fierman's Pill Pusher Patty was great in the first season, so I resented Christina Collard's replacement Pill Pusher Penni, but she ended up in five times as many episodes. That's bound to wear you down if the actor is any good at all, so while I miss Patty's intensity and near psychic intuition, Penni's bizarre behavior and chemistry with Tyler won me over. Sam and Ryan's screwball romcom plot makes me not hate both those characters. I don't know why they saved all the good music for later episodes, but I really enjoy the soul and jazz numbers that enhance the lovemaking and even comedy bits. Rachel and Jason remain among my favorite characters, though I was bummed that this was easily Chasty Ballesteros' worst material of the season, and hope that was an aberration. Regardless, I'm liking the series again, and now that it's got so many decent characters to work with, I'm hopeful a third season wouldn't be as disrupted by a single actor's departure as this one.

  12. The Breaking and Entering Rule: Okay, it's taken me, like, a year to finish watching this season and do the write-ups. I even reread my season one review, and I'm pretty sure I never credited Sam's current love interest Ryan (Jesse Pepe) or that scene stealing Perceptive Bear Blair (Jeff Takacs.) Feels good to make that happen. While I haven't been super diligent or anything, it seems like Chloe Danger wrote most of the season, and Alex Merkin directed much of it, through good and bad. I did credit The Lesbian Amy (Nicole Rodenburg,) who has been resigned to being a sounding board for Sam and receiving only one sex scene half a season ago. That character was treated shabbily, and her wretched, exasperatingly padded non-narrative blessedly resolves. Rachel's sex scenes are half as good with Jason as with anyone else, but at least they're still solid enough, and the one in this episode has an especially nice song playing over it. I even tried to Google it up through the lyrics, which is more effort than I usually expend on these reviews. Jenna turned out to be a total snooze of a character, so I'd hate to see the commendable sleaze Dean end up with her, but I'll admit that they get up to fun shenanigans in the later episodes. Could have done without the plot point that hinges on an unreadable onscreen text. Megan continues to have problems, but she's getting better, while Sam predictably sputters. The forced drama of the last scene was a drag. Say, the credits confirm the show still has a Chicago unit, so good for them. Maybe I should find that song while I've still got the credits on my DVR...

    Jasmine Ash - Light On | Listen for free at

  13. The Coming Together Rule: That last dangling plot point is used to wrap up the season, and it involves the camera lingering on Chasty Ballesteros' bare ass while making Sam deeply uncomfortable. Go on... I'm with you on this. Speaking of uncomfortable, Dean proving a better relationship guru than Sienna doesn't feel like the right way to go on a "Girl's Guide" show, but I like Dean so much better than "the rules" that I'll stay aboard. He might even redeem Megan, who gets another good lay, quietly serving as the show's MVP in that department. Pill Pusher Penni on the other hand gets trampled over as the season winds down. It would be best to get Patty back for season 3 after this. There's a lot of attempted humor in the back half of the episode that doesn't come across, and even with some important reunions in the finale, the closing feels cheap and tacked-on. It doesn't help that Sam and Ryan and some sort of coupling mandate dominates.

Two seasons in, and I'd have to say this is a show where I'd cherry-pick maybe three episodes a year to tepidly recommend to anyone. Things wrap here much the same way they did with season one-- the promise of a show that had good moments and hopefully has its shit together to fully deliver next time. However, season two was a hot mess, and who knows when or if season 3 will happen with what component parts. My recommendations would be that if you're going to have gay characters as more than comic relief, don't be afraid to let them do some gay shit. Get a stronger, more appealing mentor figure if you're going to keep the "rules" aspect, but it would be okay to toss that crap. If Lizzie isn't a season regular again in S3, she'd be perfect as a recurring guest star in this capacity, showing up to set the "Girls" straight in times of trouble. Much better than making them seem like bimbos spouting slut scripture that doesn't legitimately play. Rachel could also serve in that role, though preferably in the regular cast. Jenna needs to develop past a featureless victim who gets revenge. Maintain Megan's progress. Seriously consider downgrading Sam's screen time, as that character was a weak link that dragged the whole show down. Work on your skin-fu for better depravity in a show that never lives up to the title. Finally, for goodness sake, please write the leading female characters with the diversity and verve of the male supporting cast, who routinely outshine the presumed subjects of the damned program. That last one is a rule the show may well live or die by.

"The Girl's Guide to Depravity" Season 2 Extended Promo from Rive Gauche Television on Vimeo.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The Seventh Circuit Court of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Appeals For All Anyone Cares #18

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (1966)
Dynamo #1
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (2011)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (2014)

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
Hey look, another classic Tower issue in my possession! However, I didn't read any of these stories prior to picking up the second volume of DC's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives, so no rosy glow of nostalgia here. This issue had a lot to live up to after the exceptional prior edition, and at least at the start, it seemed like it would meet the standard set there.

The opening Woody Dynamo story had a swell hook, our downtrodden hero reflecting on his being wanted for treason. That would have been a good engine to run a longer story, or even to launch the Dynamo solo series that came out the same month. Too bad they kept things short and simple, a cute ten page yarn that wraps up easily. The story is interrupted by an ad for the "Commander Abdominal Supporter Belt," but that girdle isn't fooling anyone.

There's a lot of good to be said about the Lightning strip. The returning Warp Wizard has a power that believably checks a super-speedster, unlike making rain or champion boomerang throwing. Mike Sekowsky depicts the villainy well, with a particularly suffocating countdown to doom. Steve Skeates' dialogue pops, but if I had to finger a problem, it would be with the writing. This is the second time Skeates has used the same villain in two consecutive installments of the strip, and for every inventive turn taken, there's something dumb that has to happen because the script said so. All in all though, Lightning is one of the book's most consistent entertainers.

"Subterranean Showdown" was weird. The art was credited to George Tuska, but he's barely recognizable. There's a bunch of continuity references in the story, but characterization is way off. Dynamo is an over-eager sexist nitwit, Kitten Kane is a useless coward, and NoMan is cavalier with the life of a fellow agent. The return of Dynavac has potential that is squandered, and a whole new one-time power is invented for an agent to wrap things up. A Dynamo pin-up is repurposed into an ad for his spin-off book, and then Iron Maiden gets her own lovely dossier page by Wood and Dan Adkins. Next up are full page ads for Fight The Enemy and Undersea Agent, then a letters column. An editorial reply noted "Lightning has become tremendously popular."

I guess I spoke too soon about John Giunta taking over Menthor, as he was moved to NoMan after only two months, though it's understandable once you get to the last story of the issue. Before that though, Bill Pearson offers a histrionic Invisible Agent under circumstances that are understandable but uncomfortable with regard to characterization. NoMan basically flips out over the human opportunities he's lost in becoming a supposedly tireless agent. The good is that this is an unusual story for its time which sets NoMan apart from other companies cookie cutter crimefighters, but on the other hand, it kind of invents NoDickery. Giunta appears more comfortable with this character than Menthor, though perhaps the inks of Sal Trapani helped.

Finally, the big one, likely the most highly regarded and oft-noted T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents story ever: Menthor in "A Matter of Life and Death!" by Dan Adkins with additional layouts/inks by Wally Wood that render the Steve Ditko pencils barely recognizable as such. It's funny that nobody ever mentions the Ditko part, but you can see it in the body language and the more exaggerated Subterraneans. The story does a good job of pointing out the mishandling of the property to date, including the need for added security measures after John Janus had the Menthor helmet stolen, what, three times in seven issues (with one retrieval spanning two issues?) Where he was once a double agent for the Warlord, that promising angle was forgotten after the second issue, so a new confrontation plays out as straightforward as it would with any other Agent. There's no internal conflict in Janus anymore, and while his physical prowess is again highlighted, it's not enough to get the job done. Dynamo is often compromised, but where he always ultimately works out a "no harm, no foul" remedy, Menthor was only ever a guy in an Atom costume with a less novel gimmick than shrinking. With this story, he serves a higher purpose, and though it's slightly clunky, that only helps to offset the infamous turn it takes toward the end. The somber tone isn't what I read the book for, but this story was a trailblazer that kept its promises.

As I'm sitting here comparing my Archive Edition to my lower grade original copy with light brown pages, I've got to say how much I appreciate DC's superior reproduction. Solid blacks replace grays, muddy flat colors are made both more vibrant and more subtle... unlike many other garish modern reprints I could point to, the Archives work entirely in service to improving the presentation quality of these stories over their initial run. Kudos! By the way, you're only missing out on ads for 200 toy soldier "comic flats," learning to play guitar, and hypnosis.

Dynamo #1 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
Say, yet another issue I own the original of but have never read before, and like T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 this one also has an ad for a "Magic-Scope" on the inside cover and an engaging Dynamo splash page by Wally Wood! Running across the lunar surface while being strafed by a flying saucer? Sold! Shame my opinion on the "traitor" story bares out here. A good chunk of the first portion of this yarn was dominated by NoMan, and considering this is the first story in a new ongoing series, none of the characters are properly introduced to a potential new audience. On the other hand, it was fun to see a tale like this from before man had actually walked on the moon, where the technology and concerns about failure of same are contemporary and realistic. At the same time, matters felt drawn out, there's too many arbitrary developments, and the menace remains shrouded in mystery. If it wasn't for the glorious art, this would have been a sorry way to launch a new book.

"A Day in the Life of Dynamo" seemed off to me. I'm used to Mike Sekowsky on Lightning, and he doesn't feel right on Dynamo, plus his work is buried under Frank Giacoia's inks. The story aims for humor but misses, coming off jingoistic and diminishing a host of prior villains in rapid succession. "Back to the Stone Age" was much better, with a more comfortable, funny script and great art by Reed Crandall and Wood. The team-up of Demo and Dr. Sparta didn't amount to much, as it was Sparta's gimmicks, cast, and characterization that carry most of the tale, but so long as it was a good one, right?

Dynamo had a few different ads from the mother book, including one for its seventh issue and Undersea Agent #4. I have one or two issues of the latter, but I wish someone would reprint them. I'd have rathered DC put them in their Archive Editions instead of the cheaply available upscale format Deluxe series, but maybe IDW will include them in their otherwise redundant current series of trade collections. Also, there's ads for a seven foot replica "Polaris Nuclear Sub" that fired torpedoes, and a life-sized, personally autographed pin-up of David McCallum for $1.

Thanks to Steve Ditko doing full pencils, the layouts on "Dynamo meets the Amazing Andor" are clearly his, despite heavy handed inks from Adkins & Wood. This is a highly unusual story for the line, as it begins twenty years previous, prior to the formation of T.H.U.N.D.E.R., and offers an honest to gosh superhuman. Also, we learn here that there's a whole council of Warlords with a "Mighty Overlord," and individually named Subterraneans. Also, as I guy who's read more revivals than original issues, I'm familiar with prominent mentions of Andor, but had never read an actual story with him. He seems to be like the original Amazing Man taken to the nth degree, which makes him a serious badass who's still vital as an adversary at story's end. He also seems like an attempt to revisit the original Menthor premise and hopefully better see it through this time. My guess is that subsequent publishers held Andor in reserve for later storylines that never materialized in the face of swift, unexpected cancellation. I'll be surprised and disappointed if he doesn't turn up again in the Tower run. My only complaint is that Kitten Kane has forsaken all of her feminist credibility since the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad lost their feature, with Alice Robbins being a more capable, reputable damsel in distress.

Finally, a Weed solo strip, returning to the lighthearted mundanity that's been missing from the Tower comics! After being beaten over the head with the Guy/Kitten relationship dramatics of the '80s series, it's jarring but nice to see Gilbert go out on a date with some random Olga chick. Hey buddy, you may be dying one speeding mission at a time, but you're not dead yet! If that doesn't work out though, room can be made for Weed! John Giunta can't draw sports cars, but he's a fair fit for "Mr. William Wylie" (in case there was any doubt that he was Wallace Wood's analogue.) Nice to see the Agents in a fun story, and even Menthor is redeemed somewhat by a villain who would have been a natural in his strip showing up all of his fellows at once.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7
(DC, 2011, $2.99)
I don't understand the thought process of modern writers. This book presumably licenses the rights to the lyrics of the Dion song "The Wanderer," which "plays" in full on a radio across several pages of a flashback that gives way to more pages of a domestic scenario. Then there's a sequence of violence, and the whole thing is bookended by a page each of basic context. None of it involves much dialogue. Even if this were the storyboard for a movie, that's maybe two minutes worth of finished film. Gave Mike Grell some work, at least.

I assumed the five page back-up strip was drawn by Paul Smith until the credits revealed it was actually Nick Dragotta, which should be taken as a compliment. The strip revisits a dynamic that dated back to the '60s comics and informed the lead story. It's so much more enjoyable and full than the Grell story that by rights they should have switched page lengths.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #7 (IDW, 2014, $3.99)
I seriously thought that with IDW behind it, this volume of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents might reach and exceed the longevity of the Tower original. Instead, I finally realized they had quietly canceled the book with the eighth issue only after it had gone months without new solicitations. It's not like they had the smartest business plan anyway, reprinting the old comics that DC had already reprinted in readily available Archive Editions, only marginally cheaper and with questionable extras (vintage ads? Whoopee.) DC caught the edgy Nick Spencer just as he was getting noticed, while Phil Hester is a veteran without any heat doing a fairly traditional super-hero book. Coupled with the licensing fees for Radiant Assets, LLC, whoever the hell they are, it's no wonder the ongoing turned mini-series double quick.

Last issue ended on a cliffhanger that cut to the core of the team's lore, and I wonder how far in advance Hester knew he needed something big enough to draw the volume down. After reading the Dr. Sparta story in Dynamo, I wonder if the kid here was originally supposed to be Wilbur and his elder Sparta. While the script was well done, in retrospect it's odd that Hester referenced an Undersea Agent and introduced an all new Lightning (did he ever get named?) plus revisited John Janus and Dr. Sparta in these last issues only to return the story to the ancient towers that dominated the first four issue arc. This issue was exceptionally busy with turnabouts and cross-cutting. I continue to enjoy Roger Robinson's art, especially his use of tones little seen since computer coloring took over shading. I have some issues with changes Hester made, but seeing the potential of the book and some smart decisions that were made, I'm sorry to see it go so soon.

I'll have to stop complaining about the Subscription variant covers, because at least they offer a choice. If I recall correctly, the gorgeous Jerry Ordway variant I got was used in the solicitations, whereas I don't believe the standard Roger Robinson was, and that's a whole lot more businessman crotch than I'm game for.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Zero Vol. 1: “An Emergency” (2014)

Back in 1993, when Brian Michael Bendis was a nobody who styled his name with an "Æ" because he was insufferable, he produced a two issue mini-series through Caliber called Fire. It was an Americanized version of La Femme Nikita, like Point of No Return, but if the boyfriend were the spy. It was all about secret training facilities that churned out amoral cutthroat agents who were kept in the dark and fed shit by their ruthless superiors who would pit them against one another or leave them to rot somewhere as it suited their agenda. Twenty years later, Zero is just like that, except with more Bond-influenced Steranko sci-spy elements, like a less sexy version of Fraction, Ba & Moon's Casanova from a few years ago. I bring all this up because the cover of the Zero trade paperback has all these hyperbolic blurbs about how it is "changing comics" and "takes the spy genre to a new level" and yeah, shut up, no it doesn't. Let's just enjoy this for what it is.

What I like about Zero is that after I've done so much bitching about the lost art of single issue storytelling, this collection of the first five issues of the ongoing series tells five complete if interdependent tales. They span from the beginning of this century through 2038 and numerous locales around the globe. Each chapter is drawn by a different artist, usually one with very few credits in the field, creating an appropriate disorientation and unfamiliarity as our protagonist is dropped into one extremely dangerous situation after another. It's a showcase not only for a variety of imagery, but also for Ales Kot's ability to write to each. That diversity also means individual readers are going to enjoy some stories more than others, and there is a consistent, oppressive tone of brutal conflict and general doom that is perhaps less appealing. At the end of the book, Zero is still basically a cypher intended to function within each story's demands, so there isn't exactly anyone to root for or become invested in. Still, it's a worthwhile experiment within the industry, and enjoyable single serving fictions that I might continue with, so long as the next volume doesn't fall on a month with too many other treats to try.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Revolutionary War (2014)

In 1988, my half-brother visited his grandparents in Ireland, they made a trip to London, and he brought me back a souvenir copy of Dragon's Claws #2. It seemed like a rare and exotic artifact, but as it turned out, the Marvel UK series was being distributed concurrently in the U.S. direct market. We both had access to comic shops in 1989, and between us collected the entire ten issue series. I doubt it would read exceptionally well today, but at the time its gritty, violent dystopian future of death sport and government malfeasance was exciting to a teenager gravitating toward more aggressive fantasies. Death's Head had a few single page comic strips and a guest appearance in the book, and I liked him, so I picked up The Life and Times of Death's Head trade paperback when it turned up at a B. Dalton Booksellers a year or so later. It was an interesting read, given that the character had debuted in Transformers and Doctor Who comics that weren't licensed for republication, but there were a lot of nudge-nudge/wink-wink asides packed in to reference them. My brother also bought a few issues of Knights of Pendragon, but I don't think it clicked with either of us.

A revamp mini-series, Death's Head II, was solicited in 1991 but delayed until 1992. Very influenced by Terminator 2: Judgment Day, the story was action-packed time travel liquid metal nonsense drawn in a more commercial take on the Biz style, perfect for the times. I was hooked, and when Marvel UK rolled out a new wave of titles to exploit the speculator boom, I sampled the majority of them. Hell's Angel had art by Dragon's Claws Geoff Senior which I enjoyed very much, but none of the bleak humor of the prior series and tedious seemingly monthly X-Men tie-ins, so I jumped after a few issues. The Death's Head II ongoing series initially retained the flashy art of Liam Sharpe, but lost all its momentum from the mini-series due to tedious seemingly monthly X-Men tie-ins, so I jumped after a few issues. Warheads was closer to the vibe of Dragon's Claws with its dimension hopping mercenaries and sci-fi/action/horror vibe, though the main draw was the junkie fever dream art of Gary Erskine. He's still likely the only artist to ever sneak a silhouetted scrotum into a Marvel comic, but he left the book very early on. Then there were the tedious X-Men/Marvel US tie-ins, so I jumped after a few issues. You might notice a pattern emerging, and I did too. Despite some very pleasing early art by Gary Frank, I only gave Motormouth and the obligatory Marvel US guest stars a one issue trial, and skipped Digitek and the Knights of Pendragon revamp entirely. It didn't help that they were pumping out ever increasing amounts of obvious low rent garbage to fill the stands with polybagged #1s, including about half a dozen variations on Death's Head II. My last dance with the line was MyS-TECH Wars #1, which despite the talents of Dan Abnett and Bryan Hitch couldn't overcome the toxicity of the line or the unnecessary inclusions of Marvel US characters.

Elements of the Marvel UK books have popped up again in recent years, mostly under nostalgic British creators. Andy Lanning, recently "divorced" from his decades long writing partnership with Abnett, pitched a revival mini-event to editor Stephen Wacker for 2013. Joined by new co-writer Alan Cowsill, Lanning scripted four of seven one-shots that made up "Revolutionary War," a play on Dez Skinn's "Marvel Revolution" of the UK branch in the 1970s. I'm not sure how they would work for the uninitiated, but as a reader who has brushed up against these concepts off and on for a quarter century with a reserve of nostalgia built up, I was entertained by the lot.

Revolutionary War: Alpha started things off with the return of Captain Britain and Pete Wisdom of the late MI13 series, as they learn of a retcon used to write the old UK heroes off the stage, and the need to reactive several of them. There's a nod to the classic '80s run of Captain Britain, but this is mostly set-up with pedestrian art by Rich Elson. Dark Angel comes up next, under a title change necessitated by a legal settlement with the Hell's Angels biker club back in the '90s. Kieron Grant reestablished the anti-heroine here for a string of appearances in Iron Man, including circumstances surrounding the her that use a demonic contract to reflect the financial crisis of 2008. It's occasionally too cheeky for its own good, but mostly works well, especially with the appealing art of Dietrich Smith.

Rob Williams takes the piss out of Knights of Pendragon, a very British thing to do, but it did nothing to endear me any further to that property. The art by Will Sliney was fine enough, but wasn't conductive to the humor of the script, such as it was. Fell flat all around. Death's Head II was the closest to its origins in tone, given that it had a co-creator on board, a recognizable supporting cast, and prominently featured the first Death's Head in character. The only fault here is the art of Nick Roche, rubbery in the manner of later '90s output. I completely passed on the first run of Super Soldiers, and once again Rob Williams gives me no cause to regret that. The art by Brent Anderson is so bad that I wonder if its the same guy I know by that name, or if he maybe developed some sort of issue with his drawing hand. Tom Palmer's inks may also be to blame, as he's well past the point of being viable on a full length comic. However, there's a poignancy here as a sense of permanent doom starts to seep into the proceedings.

Glenn Dakin wrote an issue of Motormouth back in the day, and emphasizes the lighter tone of that run in contrast to the depressing domestic squalor of current circumstances with the aid of a semi-chibi opening sequence. Ronan Cliquet's art is a bit loose at times in the story proper, oddly showing influences as diverse as Peter Snejbjerg and Mike Deodato, but it serves the material well. Warheads is heavy on exposition, revisiting the dooming scenario of the book's team while spelling out most of the plot meant to unite these one-shots. Erskine returns to give the period details punk authenticity, but he's also smoothed out and lightened up over the years, so the art doesn't reach the old highs. It's a solid yarn with consequences that wouldn't typically be a legitimate issue for mainstream characters, precisely because there isn't another creative team coming in next month to effect a reversal. It's the high point of the book, meaning Revolutionary War: Omega whimpers out by comparison. The same creative team is on the bookends, though Rich Elson's art is much improved by drawing the legions of Hell over spooks in suits. There's an oh-so-appropriate single page shoehorning in Marvel US heroes, but with the stakes established by Warheads, the resolution seems too pat and underwhelming. Regardless, as a whole I had fun on this ride.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

God is Dead: Volume One (2014)

God is not dead. It's actually a second coming, not of Jesus, but of oodles of ancient deities of world myth clashing like Mortal Kombat with global consequences.

I read God is Dead yesterday, and had planned on mounting a lengthy takedown of the book based on Jonathan Hickman's elevated reputation and the high profile of the book by Avatar standards. I was going to compare conflicting views of last Sunday's "The Watchers on the Wall" episode of Game of Thrones and use them to consider objective versus subjective critical evaluation. It was going to be involved. Then I read some reviews online, spanning from tepid to condemnatory, and figured there's no sense in killing myself trying to shine amidst a choir.

God is Dead is a poor piece of craft. Hickman is given a full credit for the writing of the six issues collected in this arc, and even though I haven't liked much of his work that I've tried, he's previously been competent. Mike Costa shares writing credit, and assumes it solely from the seventh issue forward. Given that his primary writing experience has been on adaptations of Hasbro toy licenses, I'm inclined to think Hickman gave Costa a basic outline with the expectation that it would be fleshed out, and Costa did no such thing. Where the premise brings to mind Gaiman's "Season of Mists," the execution is less nuanced than the remake of a Devlin/Emmerich film directed by Uwe Boll. It reads like a maladjusted teenager smashing a younger sibling's action figures together while cursing.

The title reeks of cultural imperialism. The most powerful god is a very Caucasian Zeus. The only non-white characters are the gods of the Hindus (gray/blue-skinned,) Ancient Egypt and Latin America (anthropomorphic.) The primary aggressors are Nordic, most recently acknowledged in real life by Nazis and White Supremacists. There could have been subtext drawn there, but rest assured, the material is too shallow for anything but a surface reading. The collective of super-scientists trying to figure out how to stop the gods are uniformly honky, including an extremely distracting Albert Einstein and a merely distasteful Stephen Hawking analog. The only prominent female is a gun-toting new wave/goth sex kitten perhaps modeled after early '80s Jamie Lee Curtis who never changes out of her impractical bosomy costume and exists based on how she relates to the male characters. Almost impossibly, those characters are even more threadbare and disposable, giving ammunition to Men's Rights Advocates looking for offense. Everybody who reads this suffers.

The art by Di Amorim reinforces the feeling that this was an ultraviolent mid-90s Thor annual that fell out of a parallel universe. It functionally represents the plot with a smidge of faux-Image flash while being stiff, flat, and altogether failing to convey any legitimate trace of humanity. There are no actual characters in the book, merely dramatic events and gory fatalities divorced from emotional context. It's a Chromium Age crossover from a small publisher you're unfamiliar with whose characters are all washed out recreations of better known properties, full of blood and thunder divorced of relevance to the reader.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Prison Pit, Book One (2009)

I've had limited exposure to Johnny Ryan, mostly through Angry Youth Comix, which wasn't my bag. However, Tucker Stone has talked up his graphic novel series Prison Pit, so I opted to give it a try. Johnny Ryan still isn't my bag. A badass alien criminal who dresses like a luchador gets sentenced to a truncated life on an extremely hostile penitentiary planet. I don't recall if he's ever given a name, and it's unimportant. This guy commits and has committed upon him acts of heinous violence that usually bring in some element of wild alien biology as a complication in the action. Animated tentacle intestines, exo-suits made from mounds of ejaculated sperm... that sort of thing. There isn't much plot or dialogue, so you can burn through the initial 120 page volume inside a few minutes. If you're into unpretentious, boyish avenues to ultraviolence or are curious how Jack Kirby might have handled a symbiote that fellates its master while he's covered in the blood and gore of their opponents, this might be for you. To the rest of us, it's juvenile, amateurish, uninvolved, unevolved and all around ridiculous.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Six Degrees of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. For All Anyone Cares #186

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (1966)
JCP Features The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #1
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (2011)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (2014)

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
In the interest of full disclosure, I have to point out that this issue was probably the first of the original Silver Age series I ever owned, purchased at SDCC in 2000 during my only wonderful trip there. There's a lot of positive association for me, but at the same time, I feel I can objectively say that it's a great issue. I don't know that I ever made the connection between the Red Dragon's appearance as I read it (a reprint story in #20 from issue #3) versus "Dynamo and the Sinister Agents of the Red Star," but this titular disciple put the original villain to shame. Red Star has a better costume, contrasting against Dynamo's blues, and his martial arts finesse allows him to work over the powerhouse using his own misguided muscles. For me, this is a quintessential Dynamo yarn, with troubled romance, job problems, very cheeky humor, charming Cold War super-spy tropes, and heroic difficulties that embarrass and stymie without making Len Brown look like a meathead. The women are strong, sexy and respectable, the villains cunning, and the art by Wally Wood and Dan Adkins stunning. I also have to point out the silent semi-splash where Dynamo is fired like a torpedo toward the enemy submarine. It's only two-thirds of the page, but by using the surrounding panels for set-up and the simple restraint of not using the same trick anywhere else in the story, it has vastly more impact than one of Ivan Reis' lovely but limp mini-portfolios DC has the nerve to call comic book these days.

Since I have the actual Tower comic for once, I'll point out the presence of a house ad here for Dynamo #1, which you could get free with a ten issue subscription commitment to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents for just $2.50. It was strategically placed after the Dynamo story, opposite an ad for Balentine Books' Edgar Rice Burroughs collection. Later in the issue, they plug Dynamo #1 again as a twenty-five cent single issue direct mail offer to "Avoid the disappointment of your newsstand being 'sold out,'" along with Find the Enemy... Fix the Enemy... Fight the Enemy #1.

Given what a blatant rip-off of the Flash he is, and how I've never liked speedster characters, I have to admit that the Lightning strip was one of the most consistent in quality of the early going. Steve Skeates, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia clearly had a solid Flash run in them, and they were all moonlighting from DC Comics anyway, but absent that opportunity they deliver the goods here. Guy Gilbert is frankly not as bright as Barry Allen by half, but his military background offers a different path toward problem solving that entertains. Sekowsky brings his wily, rocky vibe to the premise, making up for the lack of Flash Facts with shaggy dog charm and a greater propensity for violent overtures. "The Origin of the Warp Wizard" could have easily been a dog, especially with the villain looking like Doc Brown on crack in a bland all purple get-up, but he sells himself with his wry grin and mad twinkle of the eye. It's still odd though how for a dude being slowly killed by his powers, Guy never once takes the Lightning costume off and seems completely disconnected from the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad. I miss them.

"T.H.U.N.D.E.R. vs. Demo" once again answers questions I'm not sure anyone was asking, but Woody seemed bound to ride herd over the shoddy continuity between the strips in the team feature through the power of the retcon. Demo's appearance in the previous issue didn't seem like it was going to amount to much more than a Gil Kane showcase, but here it becomes the spine of a key event. Having gotten a taste for NoMan's invisibility, Demo sets out to steal all of Professor Jennings' creations from the individual super-agents, which sets off a string of events that returns his girl Friday Satana in a new role and would lead somewhat to a major character death in the next issue. Where I complained about the inks of Wally Wood & Dan Adkins overwhelming others, John Giunta's dated, cluttered style benefited much from their strong influence. Demo starts a line trope here, but there's cute wrinkles in this story that later derivative works could have used.

Speaking of John Giunta, Menthor became "his" character after Sekowsky moved permanently to the Lightning strip, and it did nothing to correct the character's disastrous drift off course. Menthor was the anti-Dynamo, Len Brown being a Peter Parker-like relatable schlub who was capable of overwhelming good, but only ever reaped the whirlwind of unlucky turns and harsh criticism for his efforts. John Janus was supposedly a virtual Adonis who pleased his superiors endlessly, but his stories always seemed to pivot on his being an arrogant douchebag who loses his telepathic helmet to one dubious dope after another. In "The Carnival of Death," the mentalist Zizaqz might as well have been the Entrancer in disguise, and he wasn't even targeting Menthor for a plot-- the idiot just created a situation Zizaqz could exploit. As usual, Janus spends most of the tale trying to shake a mental whammy, recapture his belongings, and bring the bad guys in. When that sort of thing happens to Dynamo, he struggles against long odds. With Menthor, he again keeps a portion of his powers even without the helmet, and still fails at most of his mission goals. The cluttered, coarse art as inked by Carl Hubbell looks a bit like Frank Robbins, but without the idiosyncrasies that make him interesting. There are actually a few amusing turns in this script, but the character and art mute any pleasure they might have brought.

Thanks to my reading multiple chronologies of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents at the same time, I almost missed Steve Ditko's debut work on the series with NoMan in "To Fight Alone." It occurs to me that he would have probably been able to salvage Menthor, who in practice was the most Randian hero of the group, but in principle was supposed to be an evil agent driven to good by technological compulsion. Can't imagine that sitting well with Ditko. Anyhow, despite a script credited to Steve Skeates, it seems unlikely that Ditko didn't have something to do with an anarchist cult leader hypnotizing upright citizens into giving up their hard earned material possessions. Even if that was already in the script, Ditko's presentation makes it all his own. Ditko seems uncomfortable with NoMan's hooded cape, and I'm not sure the glowing eyes he gains here quite work, but the mood and storytelling on display suit the Invisible Agent. There are some fantastically dramatic angles and novel techniques employed that wow, and I appreciate Tower's willingness to let the art tell the story in many silent action sequences. A strong closer for the issue!

JCP Features #1 (John C. Productions Inc., 1981, $2.00)
In rereading the Deluxe and the Archie/Red Circle comics, I realized I'd judged John C. Carbonaro's genuine contributions too harshly against the razzle-dazzle of Singer's. On revisiting this magazine, I wonder how much it contributed to that critique, since it is friggin' terrrr-ib-ble. Total amateur hour torture session. I published reviews of the fifth issues of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents at the end of March, and had read ahead to review some seventh issues by mid-April. This round of reviews were written then, except for this magazine's, and trying to sporadically read it held up posting for two months! I haven't read every T.H.U.N.D.E.R. comic yet, but this is the worst that I have read, and I feel confident that when I'm done it will continue to hold its all time standing at the very bottom.

Why is it so bad? For starters, it's just cheap and shabby. There's a nice painted cover, but it's marred by the crumby hand lettering in the the large ugly yellow boxes pasted all over the piece. The inside cover editorial is typeset, and I mean it looks like someone xeroxed the template, fed the paper into a typewriter, and wrote out the editorial and indicia in one rip. There's poor hand lettering through the black & white story, with ill-advised freehand recreations of old Tower logos. The first "story" spotlights Raven, and is written by Warren editor Chris Adames. It is pure, dry exposition recapping the Tower run in a few pages, mixing hand and typed lettering. Lou Manna would go on to do decent work on the Archie issues, but here he offers a collection of ugly swipes from the old comics. He's inked by Mark Texeira at the coarse dawn of his career, though his embellishment is a highlight compared to co-finisher Pat Gabriele, a never-was with a handful of low rent credits. This is followed by a second "story," which is actually a continuation of the first, and sees a shifting of job duties to Tex pencils, Gabriele inks/edits, and a script by occasional Warren writer Kevin Duane. Ostensibly about Dynamo, it's really just a five page bridging sequence to set up the action for NoMan (mostly by the same team in the same roles.) Where the Tower stories would have been separate single stories, these are unsatisfying, disjointed chapters in one long, damp narrative.

The fourth "story" jumps the tracks so abruptly that you'd be forgiven for assuming this was a legitimate new tale. Not so fast, because creative auteur Pat Gabriele has simply dumped a Kirby pastiche space opera into the midst of the current yarn without set-up or regard for the Tower aesthetic. It looks like one of Jack's Bronze Age bombs, complete with Asgardians/New Gods, but at a fraction of the aptitude. Four pages in, Gabriele cedes the script to the unknown Richard Lynn and inks to Texeira for no apparent reason. The division of labor isn't terribly important, since the whole book is a hash of hoary corporate comics cliché, purple prose, and clunky hand-me-down art diluted by too many chefs. There's no vision and little style, plus it's humorless and charmless in direct opposition to what made the Agents stand out. It's so flavorless that I find myself tuning out as I try to read, like it was a textbook on a dull subject.

I lost track of where we were. Installment six? Lightning? Yeah, or course Guy Gilbert whines about his impending death due to his usage of super-speed. It isn't the scripter's fault that this same scene would play out in nearly every Agents comic until the character was finally dropped in the late '00s, but the only thing added to the lot was Lightning's being able to run from Earth to outer space thanks to "newly designed antigravity gloves." Even in comic books, the suspension of disbelief has its limits.

For thirty-some pages that feel like twice if not thrice that, the Agents exposit or numbly battle inconsistently drawn aliens (reptiles? subterraneans?) and robots while mouthing off crap to fill up space. Then the tiniest of big bads turns up on the last few pages, there's an explosion, and the story ends with... another dialogue balloon of exposition and a crap line from Dynamo to fill space. Oh, and a third of the final page is devoted to a horrible sketch by Kelly Freas of Pat Gabriele offering a brick of typeset words of acknowledgment. Following were a two page reprint excerpt of a Fly story by Simon & Kirby and a ten page Black Hood reprint by Morrow, Adams & Giordano. Just to remind you how professionals do things.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6
(DC, 2011, $2.99)
Worst issue of the series to date. Wally Wood didn't seem to have a problem with illustrating extended sequences of people in offices wearing business attire discussing stuff, but that always gave way to something exciting, usually involving cool looking things having knuckles smashed against their mouths. By comparison, Nick Spencer is a pleasure denier. All of the key action in this issue takes place off-panel, and much of the issue is devoted to characters explicitly not even discussing what happened. Seriously-- characters bring stuff up, and then other characters just say "tut-tut-- mum's the word," and then there's some nudging and winking. Like, six instances of that, and then an Arkham City sneak preview starts. Cafu & Bit illustrated the entire issue this month, so I didn't catch what I guess was an anti-climax to the main story, followed by an Iron Maiden five-pager that also ends so abruptly I was all "whaaat" when Batman and the Joker showed up-- rifling the pages looking for an actual conclusion to the issue in hand. Nothing happens in this issue but characters staring at their navels over stuff the audience only sort of get having happened, and then Iron Maiden rips off the Wonder Woman in Vietnam segment of The New Frontier.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #6 (IDW, 2014, $3.99)
Phil Hester has fun reimagining and critiquing a Silver Age villain, which translates to the page. I'm still enjoying the art of Roger Robinson, which I can take more seriously than the book's previous toycentric look. I'm digging most of the redesigned Agents, though I'm still struggling with Robo-Dynamite. A new "old" Agent gets introduced that checks two boxes on the Equal Employment Opportunity questionnaire, and while a bit self-righteous, she's still an improvement over other recent attempts. Can't get behind Weed's altered look though, and in fact he reminds me more of Perez's Raven than a character Woody modeled after himself. Body type is another path for diversity, and all these agents are too uniformly buff. There's a modest undercurrent of political commentary, and subplots brewing, that make this volume seem like it's catching up in quality to the DC incarnation without the vaporous decompression that hurt that run.

Returning to the theme begun last review of Andrew Currie sucking on the Subscription variant cover, this no background having, altogether incomplete group shot added insult to injury by not even being colored. I ordered this sight unseen, which will not happen again. Friggin' IDW is on my list, man!

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The Walking Dead Volume 20: All Out War, Part One (2014)

I read this trade a month or two ago, but put off writing a review because of general life fatigue and because it just wasn't an important thing for me to do. With the announcement of the bi-weekly arc "All Out War," the series gave me a jumping-off point, so we're in lame duck mode here. The series has always been a bit of a western, but has taken on a few war feature tropes, though processed through a Road Warrior filter that renders it cheesy and half-assed. This volume starts with a gentle wading in chapter, establishing where our heroes and their relationships sit at the eve of war. Then comes the first big gambit against our villain, Negan, which is half clever/half obvious. It's nice to see the good guys take an early advantage and undercut the seeming infallibility of Negan, but we all know that won't last, because, y'know, Rick's the leader. The war continues on other fronts with the idea of building up Rick's rep, but this is done through highlighting the incompetence and cowardice of leaders who are not Rick, so that we know he's at least the best of what's around. The worm turns, bad things happen to nothing characters, and our heroes return to underdog status by the chapter break.

While we're waiting for the wrap-up, how about that fourth season? The mid-season breaks are always strong, but that show sure meanders on the back half, huh? Thankfully, the writers were wise enough to tear their focus away from Rick and Carl to show us how other survivors dealt with the fall of the prison. That led to "The Grove," one of the series' best episodes, which was both faithful to a comic book storyline and built upon it magnificently through the twisting relationship of Carol and Tyreese. Others fared worse, like I'm now hoping the sickening codependency of Glenn and Maggie ends with their grizzly deaths. The jarring cosplay of Abraham, Rosita and Eugene sure was distracting. The shipping of Daryl and Beth was sweet though, and I still like wholly original supporting players Tara, Sasha and Bob Stookey. Finally, good to see Jeff Kober getting work, and the more organized Terminus was a solid deviation from the comics, though the show has suffered from excess fidelity of late. The closer it gets to the comics post-prison, the deeper it enters the territory that has me ready to stop reading.

And we're back for "ALL OUT WAR!" Meh. I do like Stefano Gaudiano's inks in this environment, adding a crispness and clarity that suits the more action-adventure tone of this arc, though it occasionally becomes so sharp and flashy as to reveal its Image roots. If I'm thinking about Cyberforce and Pitt during your "realistic zombie apocalypse," something may have gone awry. Charlie Adlard is still great at grounding the action though, even as the horror is lost amidst the flash-bang and soap opera. As has been the case for some time, the problem with the book is Robert Kirkman-- too enamored with empty spectacle to spice up plodding plotting; having lost faith in his zombies and divided his attention to oversee (and I hear micromanage) his empire. The new characters don't stick in the mind, while the old are wearisome and tainted. I can't imagine a way for this to end well, in the sense that there's anything to make me change my mind about leaving. To quote the show, it's too far gone to ever come back...

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Sex Criminals, Volume One: One Weird Trick (2014)

I find it strange and a bit disappointing that Image has released two buzzy series in the past year whose titles start with the word "Sex" and neither is especially sexy. It's also strange that Casey & Kowalski's SEX is listed under the genre "Romance / Drama" where it feels more like crime fiction, while Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky's Sex Criminals reads like a quirky romantic dramedy, but is listed as "Science Fiction." Sex Criminals spends a lot more time exploring human sexuality and its emotional resonance, but aside from scenes in an adult boutique of comparable explicitness to Neighbors, it's reasonably safe for all but the most prudish readers. It's a lighthearted look at the early stages of a relationship with echoes of broadly accessible Japanese sex comedy (say Rumiko Takahashi) and/or John D. MacDonald's The Girl, the Gold Watch & Everything.

Sex Criminals is much more readily enjoyable than Sex (or, yeah, just plain enjoyable as entertainment at all) but it's also, frankly, base. The characters are relatable millennials who, having grown up with the internet, are comfortable with appliances of pleasure and discussing common kinks. The characters come together because each can access the ability to temporarily halt the progression of time through sexual gratification, and they use their powers to rob banks, but it's okay because it's all for a good pro-literacy/anti-corporate cause. Despite featuring early adolescents rocking a tub faucet, frozen midair ejaculate, and glowing penis wands, it's all amazingly safe for your average HIMYM viewer. It's breezy and mildly amusing, but I'm clearly not the target audience, because I'd rather spend more time in miserable Saturn City than continue to pleasantly, passively bop along to a mash-up of Trancers and (500) Days of Summer with dildos.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

SEX Book One: The Summer of Hard (2013)

Growing up poor and nomadic, I embraced television, comic books and action figures to an unhealthy degree. These were, after all the "relationships" I could afford to maintain and carry with me wherever my shitty deadbeat parents dragged me. By the late '90s, I'd put away my toys, but running a comic shop scratched that itch, and I traded out TV for a pathetically large attention investment in the internet. Outside of DVD sets, my estrangement from television held through the aughts, but the rise of high quality cable offerings finally drew me back to weekly television.

My interest in a lot of these shows could readily be shared with others, but my regard for Mad Men was more isolated. Where something like True Blood was a lightweight confection ideal for marathon/party viewing, Mad Men was a heavy, filling drama that was difficult to sit through much more than an episode at a time. I was recently talking to one acquaintance who found himself stalling out in the second season, and asking me if it would get better. In terms of storytelling quality and advancement, it certainly would, but in terms of the existential angst and suicidal depression it wallowed in, no it would not. It's a show set during the initial crack-up of the "golden age of white Americans," centered on deeply unhappy people whose identities hinge on their performance in an industry of generating falsehoods. Total red wine and sleeping pills in the bathtub viewing.

Presently, my connection to the comic book universes have been strained, so I've been seeking out more esoteric fare, to mixed results. Just as when I was getting back into cable TV, I've sampled a lot of stuff, and appreciated their more loose morals, but too often found that the material wasn't all that different from what's driven me away from the mainstream. For instance, I never really warmed to the notion of mutant brothels in the X-Men books, or the self-consciously "cool" writing of Joe Casey in general. His moving into creator-owned works and fully embracing his gratuitous inclinations on a book like Sex is more palatable to me than his efforts at DC & Marvel, but the debt he owes them is readily apparent. Audacity has its merits, but it isn't near as rewarding as originality.

Sex, Vol. 1 is basically the scenes from Watchmen involving Nite Owl and Silk Spectre in plain clothes pining for their glory days extended for eight long issues at a very affordable $9.99. Filling the extra space is loads of Howard Chaykin and Frank Miller pastiche achingly familiar to readers of late 80s/early 90s "mature graphic novel" sludge-- the Moore Wave/Post-funk era of comics. Not-Batman is in a po-faced malaise after promising a dying not-Leslie Thompkins to give up the cape and cowl. Not-Bruce Wayne suffers through anhedonia while intentionally exposing himself to graphic sexuality while drifting through a "real life" not of his choosing. To assist with the amorous in nature but not in elicited response imagery, a prematurely aging not-Selina Kyle runs a whorehouse, where not-The Riddler seduces one of the girls. The only action pulse comes from the rougher side of town, where "Urban" Jason Todd is still trying to mete out street justice to That Yellow Bastard, The Calculator, and Heckle and Jeckle.

While it's a goddamned shame that so much of the super-hero genre is so nakedly dependent on tarted up blatant swipes of corporate IP, Sex seems to aim outright for melancholy in a familiar milieu. Mad Men owes as much a debt to filmmakers of the '50s & '60s as it does to Matthew Weiner's fuzzy half-memories of life in that era. Donald Draper is hounded by his compulsions toward self-destructive adultery and other debauchery, but Mad Men has never been interested in glamorizing those inclinations as playing out the emptiness and psychic wreckage that comes with it. In spite of the appealing and often naughty art of Piotr Kowalski, Sex is in no way about getting the audience off, and is in fact a denier of pleasure. The book reads like a condemnation of the '80s avant guard in comics, as though a young Joe Casey followed them like an apostle, only to find their nihilism and judgment of earlier creators' naive works led him to a place where he could produce such a joyless, defeatist book as this.

I can't say that I enjoy Mad Men much anymore, but I'll follow it to the unquestionably bitter end in 2015, as it warrants viewing, analysis, and measured praise. For what it's worth, Sex is something like the Mad Men of modern comics, whispering in your ear during a viewing of Pillow Talk that Rock Hudson's really a queer who's going to die of A.I.D.S. in the end. I can't exactly recommend Sex, but there's enough of admittedly bleak interest here that I'll commit to at least slog through a second volume.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

A Fifth of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. For All Anyone Cares #184

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (1966)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Action #2-4 (1986)
Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (1986)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (2011)
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (2014)

So here we are at the fifth issue and, well, the novelty is wearing off. As I've mentioned in the past, I got into the Agents through the short-lived Deluxe Comics series, and only read the Tower books as highlight reprints or sporadic bargain low-grade back issue finds. Reading five different incarnations a month in their individual chronological order in a manner closer to how they were released has given me insight into why the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents have consistently failed in the marketplace.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (Tower, 1966, 25¢)
"Dynamo and the Golem" starts off this issue with unsure footing. Reed Crandall was a great artist even before he was thoroughly processed into the house style by inkers Wally Wood and Dan Adkins, but a consequence is that his story looks more like slightly off-model Woody than its own thing. The script has a similar issue, with masked terrorists, Subterranean Warlords and a behemoth for Dynamo to fight. All the expected elements are there, but they don't play out correctly. Len Brown doesn't struggle with the mundane trials of his job before finding relief in physical conflict. Instead of sarcastic asides, Dynamo has a completely silent punch-out for seven panels sandwiched between flat expository dialogue (followed by more cycles of the same.) Dynamo is perhaps too competent, recalling Menthor as that character shows up and falters in a cameo, swapping hats. The story even ends back at HQ with Alice Robbins, but with propagandistic sloganeering replacing romantic misunderstanding/petty bickering. Aside from the lovely visuals-- hell because of them-- the tale brings to the fore the Dynamo formula of coming up with goons for the hero to toss around and something big for Len to punch without much regard for logic or nuance, simply coasting on visuals. For a character only a couple of months away from having to support his own giant-sized solo spin-off title, this tale underlines how little creators have to work with there in the absence of the Woody sheen.

NoMan "In the Caverns of Demo" has a few more surprises, not all of them good. The famed Gil Kane returns for the first time since the debut issue on a different strip, and while it's still a looser, lesser job, Kane suits NoMan better. Demo also returns to become NoMan's first recurring foe, and his presence is set up through a retcon that backs up Iron Maiden's situation in the previous issue. You get a strong impression of how momentous T.H.U.N.D.E.R.'s defeat of the Warlord was in the second issue while simultaneously making clear that G.I. Joe already beat their Cobra and have no one substantial to fill that void. Further, there's no reason Demo specifically needs to be in this story beyond it dispensing with set-up and affording fan service continuity clean-up. The island of "barbaric sub-breed" humans could only have been worse if they were not unambiguously Caucasian (this time.) It's an okay adventure with solid art, but rote in a title becoming defined by being rote.

Dan Adkins provides a peachy pin-up/dossier entry for Lightning, which seems like a precursor to Who's Who/OHOTMU. It contrasts sharply against the Lightning story that follows by Steve Skeates, Mike Sekowsky & Frank Giacoia. In their forward to T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Archives Volume Two, Robert Klein and Michael Uslan noted that the Lightning strip was the closest to standard super-hero fare and was created under the greatest autonomy away from Wally Wood's editorial eye. Put more critically, it was bog standard for middle rung DC of the early Silver Age, not inventive enough for Julie Schwartz, but maybe a decent effort out of George Kashdan's office. No one should be impressed that Baron Von Kampf is already back. Oh hey, I just got that. Since he's Lightning's first recurring foe, would Guy refer to him as "Mein Kampf?" Speaking of Guy Gilbert, his being in the suit seems of no consequence to the story; sub-Flash fare without reference to the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad or even what Guy looks like under that mask. Mediocrity runs so deep that the Lightning logo can't escape falling below standard. Sekowsky's idiosyncrasies are the only saving grace here.

"Menthor vs. the Entrancer" proves the general rule that the worst written story of any given issue will probably star Menthor. John Giunta isn't stingy with panels per page, especially during the villain's origin sequence, but his style is a tad dated and the story being told feels like a throwback to the late Golden Age. The Entrancer is a thuggish lift of Doctor Strange, which by T.H.U.N.D.E.R. bad guy standards is rather advanced developmentally, but he comes to a limp end in a dull yarn. The basic premise of John Janus being an evil double agent stymied by his helmet seems to have been forgotten, and his supposed role as most qualified T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent is undermined by mistakes and dependency here. It doesn't help that there's no consistency in his creative pool from month to month. Remember how Janus now has powers even without the helmet? Neither does the scripter. Between his highly derivative costume and the lack of investment in the character behind the scenes, it's no wonder that telltale zero on his brow is starting to look more like a target bullseye.

"Double for Dynamo" closes out the book with a team feature, and makes clear that kids were paying twice the standard comic book cover price of the time for this story and a bunch of ballast. Steve Skeates continues along the thread started in his NoMan story of last month with a frantic search of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. for android replacements. It's too bad for the promising premise that they have a reliable detection method in place from page one, and that no one of consequence was found to have embedded themselves in the agency. The Mastermind is a bit of a goofus nogoodnik who literally does a bellyflop before this whole affair resolves. He's outclassed by his masked minions, who looked to have inspired the Black Spider from '70s Batman comics. The tale is light entertainment drawn by the Wally Wood studio, and the main takeaway is that the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Squad's Weed was being actively groomed as a street smart sidekick for Dynamo.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Action #2-4 (Savoy, 1986, 75p)
Once again, I've never had copies of these books in my hand, relying solely on the internet for my reading pleasure, as can you. Aside from badly (and likely illegally) reconstituted British Tower reprints, the final issues of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Action also offered two full color (colour?) newly (amateurishly) created tales by artists Eddie DeVille and Jon Sussex. The NoMan feature is brief with a predictable non-twist (and an unforeseeable panel of gratuitous nudity. Blame Page 3.) The Dynamo & Iron Maiden story echoes Menthor's closing comment from the fifth issue of the Tower run, "You may not be smart, Len... but you're sure lucky!" Both stories are actually fairly inventive for three page filler. Why everything has to take place on private islands off the coast of New England, I don't understand.

Wally Wood's T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (Deluxe, 1986, $2.00)
I have yet to replace the copy of The T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents Companion I ordered a few months ago, only for it to "mysteriously disappear" at my old shipping address, but I do have other Twomorrows magazines lying around that covered some of Deluxe Comics' scams. I used to defend David Singer based on his own line of bull and superior product versus Carbonaro, but on further inquiry, he seems to have been super shady. His last editorial page in the final published issue of Wally Wood's invokes Nixon by name, which would be damning enough. Following this with a Jerry Ordway illustrated story that throws several Agents under the bus to promote awful seeming Codename:Danger characters in a never-to-be-finished crossover is itself a criminal offense. Ordway is the most obvious and potent direct inheritor of Wood's artistic DNA, and for fifteen pages we visually received the finest revival the Agents deserved. However, the story is lame, waving away what should have been a continuation of a previous subplot with a line of dialogue, and setting up new threads to dangle forever. It's a shame, especially since Roger McKenzie's script pops when he's not tripping over Singer's junk, and even Paty's coloring steps up.

There's an all-text advertisement for 1987 Honeymooners and Buckwheat calenders offering "trivia, dates of importance" and such for just $9.95 shipping inclusive ($20.56 in 2014 dollars.) Even accounting for Eddie Murphy's years old series of Buckwheat SNL skits, even if somebody would have wanted these things in 1986, could there have been a worse way to advertise to them than an all-text page?

The Lightning strip goes out as it came in-- an abomination. The serial killer "mystery" is solved through the revelation of a previously unseen figure from Guy Gilbert's past that thinks in heavy exposition with a bad "accent." In case you were concerned that the misogyny might lighten up, no worries, a lovely professional is hideously disfigured and her eyeballs gouged out (partially) off-panel. Keith Giffen continues to cut as many corners as possible to lighten his workload with barely comprehensible narration full of extreme close-ups, shadows, stats, and general abstraction. The Bierbaums' script continues to anticipate the demeanor of message board trolls. Nothing is or will ever be resolved to anyone's satisfaction, but at least I don't have to read this anymore.

Singer is joined by Mike Harris for a cheeky, copyright flouting Dynamo lark that tries to near literally treat the character as a Superman clone in the fashion of Christopher Reeve. The Big Two pseudo-cameos at a costume party aren't appealing, but it is fun to see period obscurities like Grimjack, Sable, Aztek Ace, Thunderbunny and so on. Still hard to see the point, as it isn't exactly funny, nor is it a character study, and it certainly isn't exciting.

The capstone on the run is yet another Dynamo tale that doesn't do the property any favors. The creative team behind the minor black & white boom hit Ex-Mutants; the now forgotten Anthony Pereira, John Statema and Mike Witherby with '90s Marvel poster boy Ron Lim; offer an inane yarn seemingly designed to fill as much space with as little of consequence as quickly as possible. Ignominious indeed. Say, did you know Rob Liefeld, Jim Balent and Dale Keown used to do covers on that series in their early days, and it launched Paul Pelletier's career? Marvel owns that now, right? I don't remember it being all that great, but you'd figure if it was still on the market, somebody would have done an omnibus by now.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (DC, 2011, $3.99)
This series is frustrating. It's telling one of the most sophisticated and involving stories of the lot, but doing so in the least satisfying manner episodically. For instance, this issue has a five page flashback sequence well rendered by Ryan Sook that serves up needed exposition. The rest of the book is another strong showing by Cafu & Bit where pieces set up in previous issues finally begin to click together. Then, it just stops, again. Every month, about the point where Nick Spencer has ratcheted up your interest, he breaks off to have a smoke and stargaze. He's screwin' just like a Chinaman.

T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents #5 (IDW, 2014, $3.99)
I think this was my favorite issue of this run so far. I previously had trouble getting past Andrea Di Vito's high-end licensed toy comic visuals, where new artist Roger Robinson is more of a storyteller. Robinson isn't as polished, but he brings mood and more varied angles. Colorist Rom Fajardo is still swell, but he seems to be taking greater license with his contributions, adding digital squiggles and other bits of personal panache. With the main characters established, there's a greater sense of their moving toward an overarching story, rather than being pieces of P.O.V. in a perfunctory scenario. I also like the nods to Tower, playing on reader familiarity to create foreshadowing, but in the present enough not to lose new readers. I do have one complaint. I've been buying the Subscription variants, which tended to have bigger name artists and play with the classic incarnation more often. With #4, I bought two copies, so I could make use of the blank sketch cover this convention season. Starting with #5, Andrew Currie has taken over the Sub covers, and it's plainly inferior to Robinson's standard cover. It's so bad that I might have to rethink my buying habit.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

“Strange Tales” by Steve Garcia

Nick Fury A, B

Doctor Strange A, B

I was also inspired to put one of my own together, derived from the art of Kevin O'Neill...

“We Can Be Heroes”


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