Saturday, August 31, 2013

Before Watchmen: Minutemen/Silk Spectre

 Of all the BEFORE WATCHMEN books, this was the one that I was least looking forward to reading. I really wasn't interested in reading about The Minutemen, and The Silk Spectre was not a favorite character of mine. (Don't get me wrong, I liked her in WATCHMEN, but I didn't feel like she was a character that needed further exploration.)

 I'm happy to say that the creative team of Darwyn Cooke & Amanda Conner made a believer out of me.

 BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN/SILK SPECTRE starts off with Writer/Artist Darwyn Cooke's six-part MINUTEMEN story, THE MINUTE OF TRUTH, which is nothing short of brilliant. Cooke's story uses Hollis Mason's biography, UNDER THE HOOD, as a springboard, as Mason attempts to get the blessing of his former Minutemen teammates before the book's publication. Mason's memories of the team's true history make up the bulk of the story, and coalesce into a gripping mystery with an absolutely shattering climax. Cooke is firing on all cylinders here, making all of the characters involved into fully-realized, three dimensional people. The finale beautifully mirrors Nite-Owl and Rorschach's assault on Ozymandias's fortress at the end of the original WATCHMEN, and aside from ending a little too abruptly for my tastes, it was masterfully executed. I especially enjoyed the way Cooke used the Edward Blake/Comedian character, portraying him as a totally unrepentant sociopath, rather than a man who is at the mercy of forces beyond his control. This is really good stuff...It's no WATCHMEN, but it's strong enough that I think it will stand the test of time.

 Darwyn Cooke returns with the four-part SILK SPECTRE story, teaming up with Co-Writer/Artist Amanda Conner, and while it's not as good as MINUTEMEN, it's still a lot better than I expected it to be, mainly thanks to Amanda Conner's gorgeous art. I've always been a fan, but she really dialed her already beautiful art up to 11 here. I don't think there's anyone in comics, with the possible exception of Kevin Maguire, who can give their characters such a wide range of facial expressions. Conner contributes a wonderful little afterword at the end of the book that confirms my assumption that the art for SILK SPECTRE took her a long time to finish, and all of her hard work shows. The art was so beautiful that I hated to turn the page, let alone close the book. The story didn't work quite so well, unfortunately. While I really enjoyed seeing the complex relationship that Laurel Jane Jupiter has with her Mother Sally, the original Silk Spectre, the bulk of Laure's story finds her running away to live in San Francisco, where she becomes embroiled in a plot (Masterminded by a thinly disguised Frank Sinatra, of all people!!!) to lace LSD with a chemical that will make Hippies go out and spend more money. This plot is right out of a Scooby-Doo episode, and while it would fit in with a standard Super-Hero book taking place in the late '60's, it's a little (Or a LOT...) too far fetched for the world of WATCHMEN. But Conner's art was so damned good that I really didn't care. I want to see more SILK SPECTRE by Amanda Conner. Make it happen, DC.

 BEFORE WATCHMEN: MINUTEMEN/SILK SPECTRE features all of the original MINUTEMEN and SILK SPECTER covers, as well as all of the variants, an Afterword by Amanda Conner, sketches, pencil art, and character design pages.

 DC provided a review copy, but my crazy ass went out a purchased a hardcover anyway, because I'm nuts that way.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Before Watchmen: Comedian/Rorschach

 I was as horrified as the next guy when DC announced that they were going to publish prequels to the classic Alan Moore/Dave Gibbons mini-series WATCHMEN. The news was hardly unexpected, but it was still shocking. I always figured that one day DC would just give Moore the high hard one and realize that there was money being left on the table by not exploiting these characters, which is their right, since they do own them. I'm a huge Alan Moore fan, but, in all fairness, it's hard to take him seriously when he bellyaches endlessly about people stealing his ideas and using his characters, when he's made a career out of using other peoples characters in ways that the original creator may not necessarily have approved of. (I mean, what would H.G. Wells and Robert Louis Stevenson have thought of The Invisible Man being raped to death by Mr. Hyde? And let's not even get into what Moore did to Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy....) Moore is a phenomenally talented man, but he's no more sacred than Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and every other screwed-over creator. I'm not here to judge...well, I am here to judge. Never mind.

 First off, thank you, DC, for not making us shell out extra money by having each mini-series get it's own hardcover. They could have easily doubled the cost by doing that. I suspect they thought it'd take some of the bad taste of of fandom's collective mouth if the "Bang for your buck" ratio was increased.

 I'm not sure if these collections are better off being read in a particular order, but I randomly decided to read this one first, and I'm glad that I did. BEFORE WATCHMEN: COMEDIAN/RORSCHACH is written by Brian Azzarello, who is very hit-or-miss with me. I really enjoyed 100 BULLETS, until around issue 40 or so, when I realized that my enfeebled mind was incapable of following such a byzantine book as a monthly floppy...It was just getting too confusing. I should probably buy some of those humongo hardcover collections that DC/Vertigo has been printing, but I need another massively expensive comic like I need a hole in my head. Anyway, I'm happy to say that Azzarello landed in the "Hit" department with these two stories.

 I think that Alan Moore gave the reader every little bit of information that they could possibly need to understand the story he was telling in WATCHMEN, so that made me wonder: Do we NEED to know any of the information that would be conveyed in BEFORE WATCHMEN? The answer, as far as this collection goes, is no. Nothing here gave me any new insight into Edward Blake and Walter Kovacs, but I sure had a great time seeing them in new adventures.

 Both of the mini-series reprinted in BEFORE WATCHMEN: COMEDIAN/RORSCHACH are really character studies, as opposed to full-fledged stories. The Comedian's six-issue arc follows him from the J.F.K. Presidency, through Vietnam, and into the period right before WATCHMEN. Rorschach's four-issue arc loosely follows his efforts to stop a serial killer known as "The Bard". Azzarello has a lot of quirks in his style that annoy me and interrupt my reading flow, and these are on full display, especially in The Comedian's arc, but the work was strong enough to get me past those bumps in the road. A lot of credit has to go to the artists, J.G. Jones on The Comedian, and Lee Bermejo on Rorschach. Bermejo, in particular, is in rare form. His Rorschach covers are works of art. The cover to RORSCHACH #3 had me going "What the hell...?", until I squinted at it. Now I consider it a work of genius.
                                                                  Best cover ever.....?

As I said, none of this is essential reading, as far as WATCHMEN goes. But reading this book made me realize that I was, however unknowingly, hungry for more of these characters. So far, BEFORE WATCHMEN looks to be a success, at least as far as I'm concerned.

 BEFORE WATCHMEN: COMEDIAN/RORSCHACH collects BEFORE WATCHMEN: COMEDIAN issues 1-6 and BEFORE WATCHMEN: RORSCHACH issues 1-4, and features all covers, variant covers, promotional art, statue designs and sketches, and sketches by Jones and Bermejo.

 DC Comics provided a review copy, but I bought a hardcover anyway, because I'm nuts.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Noir: A Collection of Crime Comics

 Dark Horse Comics delivers 120 pages of pitch-black crime (With a dash of Sci-Fi thrown in via Dean Motter's MISTER X story...) with their delightfully bleak graphic novel NOIR: A COLLECTION OF CRIME COMICS. The book features a stellar lineup of talent, including Eduardo Barreto, Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips (Who contribute a staggeringly good CRIMINAL story), Alex De Campi & Hugo Petrus (The one dud in the entire thirteen story book- I just didn't get it. The art was nice, though.), The Fillbach Brothers, Stefano Gaudiano, Rick Geary, Paul Grist, Ken Lizzi & Joelle Jones (An illustrated prose piece, which I usually detest in a comic, but this one worked well, at least until the "Too Sci-Fi for me to swallow" ending.), Kano, David Lapham (Who contributes a nasty Virginia Applejack/Amy Racecar STRAY BULLETS tale), Jeff Lemire, Dean Motter, Chris Offutt, M.K. Perker, and Gary Phillips.

 All of the above, aside from Alex De Campi's story, range from "Really damned good" to "Excellent", but the reason I'm posting this rave review is because of the final story, Written by Brian Azzarello, and Illustrated by Fabio Moon & Gabriel Ba. "The Bad Night" is.....ummm....well, there's no way to talk about it without getting into a spoiler that would ruin the whole point of the story. But it's a phenomenal read, and the ending made my jaw drop. I'll say this, which is probably too much already: Most people who have been reading comics for a long time will be glad they picked up this book. Azzarello's story puts an entirely new spin on a tale that's engrained into every longtime fan's subconscious.

 NOIR: A COLLECTION OF CRIME COMICS was published by Dark Horse Comics in late 2009, but it's well worth seeking out. Highly recommended.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Essential The Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 11

 As far as I'm concerned, the second-best run in Spider-Man history kicks into high gear with ESSENTIAL THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, VOLUME 11. Stan Lee and Steve Ditko will always be #1, but Roger Stern comes pretty damned close.

 Stern's AMAZING SPIDER-MAN run started in Spidey's last ESSENTIAL volume, but it really begins to click here. Volume 11 reprints 20 issues of AMAZING (Issues 231-248, and Annuals 16-17), all of which were written by Roger Stern. (Well MOST of which were written by Stern...He's credited as plotter on issue 237 & Annual #17, with Bill Mantlo doing the actual scripting.)

 The book starts off strong, with a two-part Cobra/Mr. Hyde story that's a nice follow-up to a previous Stern CAPTAIN AMERICA story. From there. we dive headlong into a multi-part arc that finds Spidey investigating the sinister Brand Corporation. We're also treated to the first appearance of the Monica Rambeau iteration of Captain Marvel, a multi-part Vulture story, The Mad Thinker, terrorists, Thunderball, and the beginning of the mystery of The Hobgoblin. The crowning achievement, however, is a quiet, heartfelt story called "The Kid Who Collects Spider-Man", which is, in my humble opinion, one of the best Spider-Man stories ever written.Thirty years have passed since I first read it, and it hasn't lost any of it's power.

 This is really, REALLY good stuff.....The early '80's Marvels are what I grew up reading, so I'm probably a bit prejudiced and overly nostalgic when I say that I consider those years to be Marvel's finest hour, but I think these stories do hold up remarkably well, and will be enjoyable to today's fans.  Highly, highly recommended.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The Wolverine

 The X-MEN movies have been a mixed bag for me: Aside from Hugh Jackman and Sir Ian McKellen, I really, REALLY disliked Bryan Singer's first film. I thought the second one was great, and I seem to be the only person alive that didn't hate the third film. X-MEN ORIGINS: WOLVERINE was hideously bad, like SYFY Channel bad. I really liked X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, despite the fact that it didn't jibe with the timelines of any of the other films. I was really looking forward to seeing THE WOLVERINE, but I was kind of put off by the bad reviews and underwhelming box-office. I was resigned to seeing that Oprah movie this weekend with my Wife, when fate intervened: I got some scary news about my health, and my Wife, bless her, decided that we needed to see a "Daddy movie". God works in mysterious ways......

 THE WOLVERINE follows the basic structure of the classic Claremont/Miller mini-series that finds Logan in Japan, where he meets his true love, Mariko, and becomes embroiled in her family's dirty business dealings. It's not a beat-for-beat adaptation, but it captures the soul of the story, and does so very well.

 Honestly, I was surprised how much I enjoyed the film. Jackman is, as usual, awesome. I've always enjoyed his Wolverine portrayal, but lately I've been finding that he's really good in damned near everything he does. And the guy must bust his ass to get the physique needed to play Logan. I think the Director, James Mangold, is a capable filmmaker, and I've enjoyed the films of his that I've seen (COP LAND, WALK THE LINE, HEAVY, and IDENTITY), but I've never been blown away by any of them. THE WOLVERINE didn't exactly blow me away, but I thought it was a damned solid film, and I would love to see Jackman and Mangold reunite for a follow-up, once Bryan Singer is done destroying the X-MEN franchise next year with his DAYS OF FUTURE PAST film. (Sorry, I'd love for it to be great, but Singer hasn't made a decent film in years, the movie looks like it has waaaaay too many characters in it to be coherent, and it's maybe one film too soon to take the spotlight away from the FIRST CLASS characters. Prove me wrong, Singer!!!!)

 I was also pleased to see that the film has a really big development for Wolverine that hasn't been spoiled online. For the first time in a long time, I was taken by surprise at the movies. There's a fairly CGI heavy battle at the end, and I had heard poisonous word-of-mouth about the effects, but I thought they were seamless, and I'm usually very picky about my CGI. The score, by Marco Baltrami, was awesome enough to make me go right out to buy a copy. Make sure you stick around through the credits, as there's a fairly long scene that you'll want to see. And did anyone catch a Stan Lee cameo? If there was one, I missed it, which would make this the first Marvel film that I can remember without one......

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Bluffton: My Summers With Buster

 Matt Phelan's wonderful graphic novel BLUFFTON: MY SUMMERS WITH BUSTER is a beautiful, nostalgic coming of age story that manages to avoid any and all traces of sappiness, schmaltz, and/or sickening sweetness.

 Clocking in at a massive 240 pages, Phelan gives himself plenty of room to convey the lazy summers that the young Buster Keaton spent in Bluffton, Michigan, a small town that became a summertime retreat for vaudevillians in the early part of the twentieth century. Young Buster is the selling point of the book, and the glimpses into his childhood are alternately fascinating, hilarious, and sad, but the real star of the book is Henry, a local boy who befriends the out-of-towners, and becomes a part of their extended family. This is a phenomenal book, and Phelan is a wonderful storyteller. My only complaint is that his faces all tend to look alike, and it was sometimes difficult to pick out who was who when there were a lot of children in the same panel. The review copy that Candlewick provided was in black-and-white, but the final version is in color. I've seen the color version, and I much prefer the black-and-white line art. The colors in the printed book are all oddly pastel, and look very out of place.

 BLUFFTON: MY SUMMERS WITH BUSTER is suitable for all ages, and highly recommended.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Essential The Amazing Spider-Man, Volume 10

 This book confirms what I have begun to suspect lately, as my quest for nostalgia leads me further and further back into the comic books of my childhood: I really don't like most of what was published in the '70's. ESSENTIAL THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, VOLUME 10 starts out with THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #211, published in late 1980, and boy, this is some good stuff.

 The book, which collects THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #'s 211-230, and Annual #15, starts off with a strong run by Denny O'Neil, John Romita, Jr., and Jim Mooney. For my money, both O'Neil and Romita, Jr. have never been better than they are right here. O'Neil perfectly captures the "voice" of Peter Parker/Spider-Man, and his run of issues 211-218 is a marvel, no pun intended, of plotting and pacing. Issue #211 features a Spider-Man/Sub-Mariner slugfest, which leads into Spidey's first clash with Hydro-Man, in issue 212. Issue #213-215 brings back The Sub-Mariner as he teams up with Spidey to face the new Frightful Four, which includes the Sandman. After a self-contained issue featuring Madame Web, The Sandman and Hydro-Man return in what must surely be one of the strangest Super-Villain team-ups ever.
  Shades of KING KONG, The Sandman and Hydro-Man are ready for their big Broadway debut.

 After O'Neil's glorious run, with ends with issue #219, things hit the skids for a while. (O'Neil also wrote THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN ANNUAL #15, illustrated by the legendary DAREDEVIL team of Frank Miller and Klaus Janson, the dreadful issue #221, and plotted issue #223's bizarre fight against The Red-Ghost and his Super-Apes.) There are numerous fill-in issues, of varying quality, before things start looking up. Issue #220 features a Spider-Man/Moon Knight team-up, featuring art by Bob McLeod. While the story is merely OK, this is a rare opportunity to see McLeod penciling a book. His art made any book a sure purchase for me when I was a kid, and it still holds up today. Issue #222 features another bad Bill Mantlo story that is somewhat saved by the clever way that Spidey defeats The Speed Demon. It seems like Mantlo wrote almost everything that Marvel published at one time or another. I liked his work when I was a kid, but it really doesn't hold up for me now.

 Things kick into high gear once again with issue #224, which starts Roger Stern's legendary run on the book, and this volume closes with one of the most well-known Spider-Man stories, "Nothing Can Stop The Juggernaut!", which features a bone-crunching "fight" between Spidey and The Juggernaut. This was a favorite of mine when I was a kid, and it holds up remarkably well 32 years later. Spider-Man has never been more heroic than he is in this battle. Even though he knows he has no chance of winning, he keeps going, because it's the right thing to do.
 You've gotta love Marvel's ESSENTIAL books.....You get great bang for your buck (21 issues for $19.99!), and they reprint the entire contents of the Annual, and all of the back-up material, including a feature where Spidey ranks his strength relative to the rest of the Marvel Heroes. Call me geeky, but I always loved the extra material you got in the Annuals, and it's a hoot to see it again.
 ESSENTIAL THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN, VOLUME 10 is great fun, and a must-read for children of the '80's. Highly recommended!