Monkey See, Monkey Zoom

First in Space original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: James Vining
Letters: Douglas E. Sherwood
Editor: Randal C. Jarrell
Publisher: Oni Press
Price: $9.95 US

I really didn’t know much about this graphic novel before I delved into the preview copy I was sent, but when it’s got the Oni Press logo on it, I trust I’m in for a solid reading experience. Based on the cover image, I expected something of a cute story about astronaut animals or something, maybe something with a talking chimp. It turns out that First in Space isn’t a comedy, but a piece of historical fiction, with a greater emphasis on the history rather than the fiction. With this Xeric grant-winning project, creator James Vining manages to bring out the down-to-earth, human, emotional side of the space race by focusing on animal-test subjects (and their trainers). Vining presents up a surprisingly touching story, and though the opportunities present themselves, he offers no judgments about ethics or history. The art is a surprise as well, as Vining’s simple, cartoony style is remarkably effective at capturing a realistic tone throughout the book.

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War Correspondence

In the latter part of its run, DC’s 52 has proven to be a solidly entertaining read, with some solid super-hero action, melodrama and imaginative use of obscure characters, so I was looking forward to this spinoff event. I’m at a loss as to why DC would release all the episodes of a five-issue story in the same week. The publisher clearly expects potential readers to pick up all the issues, so why not release it as a special, graphic-novel sized issue of 52? I thought that would prove to be the most frustrating and puzzling aspect of 52/WW III, but I was quickly proved wrong. The plot is limited to just one of these five comic books. The rest of them seem to serve only to address a number of minor points of continuity and little more. I don’t mind DC sorting out its continuity, but it shouldn’t have come at the cost of storytelling and characterization, which should be priorities, not afterthoughts.

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Quick Critiques – April 18, 2007

Nightwing Annual #2 (DC Comics)
by Marc Andreyko, Joe Bennett & Jack Jadson

This self-contained story about the past and future of Dick Grayson and Barbara Gordon’s relationship is meticulously crafted, heartfelt and quite grounded despite the impossible circumstances that make up the main characters’ lives. It’s a thoroughly satisfying read, not only for DC readers who have been wondering what came of Dick Grayson’s proposal last year, but for those who sought to understand and appreciate this fictional romance. There’s one problem: Andreyko’s script incorporate a lot of continuity. Some are small and unimportant, but others are vital. Taking the readers back to events from two decades ago could threaten to alienate some readers, but for those of us well versed in these bits of history, it’s an entertaining trip down memory lane. Andreyko’s plot boasts a couple of grown-up moments, which could be a bit much for younger readers attracted to a cover image that harkens back to more innocent days in super-hero comics. Still, it’s a convincing script and an engaging, personal drama. Also, Joe Bennett turns in what is probably his strongest performance as a comics artist to date. He really emphasizes the down-to-earth qualities of the main characters, and his take on the Batman is imposing and impressive. The overall tone of the art is slightly dark, which is fitting, given that these characters are members of the Batman Family. But the art doesn’t seem too dark either. This is a love story, after all, and the overall atmosphere of the story is a hopeful, upbeat one. Andreyko approaches the characters as two people with a lot in common, which has naturally drawn them together, but he also points out that one has to discover himself as an individual before he can be an effective part of a couple. 7/10

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Gratuitous Insults

I pass the time during lulls at work with a good novel. There are a few TV series that I follow religiously every week, never wanting to miss a new episode. And there’s nothing like going to the movies and taking in a flick on the big screen. But my favorite storytelling medium, obviously, is the comic book/graphic novel. Unfortunately, fans of the medium are saddled with an unfortunate stigma. You’ve seen it on The Simpsons in the form of the Comic Book Guy. You’ve seen the extreme fans at comics conventions as well, and those whose battle with unfortunate personal hygiene is a Never-Ending Battle in and of itself. The stereotype of the pathetic Comic Geek stems, sadly, from a certain fragment of reality. It’s really frustrating, though, when a major player in the medium and industry contributes to the preconception of the comics consumer as a horny, sexually frustrated basement dweller.

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Undead Reckoning

Xombie Reanimated #1
Writer: James Farr
Artist: Nate Lovett
Letters: Brian J. Crowley
Cover artists: Tim Seeley (cover A) & James Farr (cover B)
Editor: Mike O’Sullivan
Publisher: Devil’s Due Publishing
Price: $3.50 US

According to the website, Xombie Reanimated is the comic-book sequel to an Internet property that’s experienced some strong word of mouth and success. This limited series stars the same characters and is set in the same post-apocalyptic landscape filled with flesh-eating, mindless zombies. Zombie stories are a growing genre in comics today and in pop culture in general, but many creators approach it from the same, tired standpoint, making for a glut of derivative material. Fortunately, James Farr’s creation manages to stand out as unique in a couple of ways. First of all, the hero of the book is a zombie himself, and furthermore, Farr casts off some of the conventions of the genre to arrive at something a little more interesting. The writer/creator’s script is an accessible one, but more importantly, it’s one that boasts a strong sense of personality and fun. The script endeavors to establish an urgent, serious tone, but the cartoony quality of the art tells the reader that this is really more of an action-oriented, attitude-filled romp.

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Keep Your Eyes on the Road

Red Eye, Black Eye original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: K. Thor Jensen
Publisher: Alternative Comics
Price: $19.95 US

A casual perusal of this website might lead one to believe that I’m a fiend for super-hero comics, and that genre alone in the medium. That’s not the case. Though I love the feelings of wonder and nostalgia that super-heroes stir up inside me, I really enjoy comics that challenge me and provoke introspection. That’s a domain that the world of small-press and indy comics do better than the larger publishers, and Red Eye, Black Eye is a shining example. Cartoonist K. Thor Jensen boasts an artistic style that one could describe as crude, but it’s remarkably effective at bringing his grounded memoir of an adventure on the road to life. This autobio comic rings incredibly true, because some of the main character’s experiences lead nowhere while others have more of an explosive quality. The central point to Jensen’s overall narrative is a bit elusive at first, but it seemed to become crystal clear by the issue’s end. To me, Jensen says life is meant to be a series of one’s own stories, of dramatic and unusual moments, good or bad, but that they can only happen if one actively seeks them out (even if it’s unknowingly).

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Quick Critiques – April 10, 2007

Dynamo 5 #2 (Image Comics)
by Jay Faerber & Mahmud A. Asrar

Creators Jay Faerber and Mahmud Asrar prove that the strength of the first issue of this novel super-hero title was no fluke with another solid story that combines old-school action with a premise that opens the door to interesting possibilities for characterization. Faerber’s script is thoroughly accessible, and I like how different dynamics, personalities and attitudes are emerging among the protagonists. Slingshot is developing into a natural leader, and Scrap’s tough exterior is balanced by her insecurities about making her dream of a career as a filmmaker come true. Faerber also maintains a strong balance in his portrayal of Maggie Warner; she’s determined and ruthless, but there’s a maternal quality that’s beginning to shine through here. My one qualm with the story is that Whiptail’s motives for rampaging through the city aren’t apparent at all. Mahmud Asrar’s art continues to impress. His work is dynamic and full of energy, and his style is still reminiscent of such strong super-hero artists as Kevin Nowlan and Mike McKone. There’s a darker tone to be found in Ron Riley’s colors. That’s fitting, given that most scenes are set at night, but the approach also brings a slightly more mature tone to the story. I’m pleased that the first printing of the first issue of this series sold out. It seems as though it’s finding an audience. It looks as though Dynamo 5 will be the project that finally serves as Faerber’s big breakthrough. 7/10

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Boot Camp

Avengers: The Initiative #1
“Happy Accidents”
Writer: Dan Slott
Artist: Stefano Caselli
Colors: Daniele Rudoni
Letters: Virtual Calligraphy
Cover artist: Jim Cheung
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.75 CAN

Civil War certainly was a sales success for Marvel Comics, but it certainly wasn’t a critical darling. Fortunately, there seems to be a payoff from the crossover event when it comes to the stories that have spun off from it. Avengers: The Initiative approaches the Marvel Universe from a military standpoint, and the premise is actually one that makes sense in the context of the 21st century. This project will prove to be a turning point in artist Stefano Caselli’s career in comics, as he offers up his slickest, strongest work to date. The book is also filled with a wide variety of colorful super-hero characters, from lesser known but established Marvel heroes to new creations. Writer Dan Slott’s love of Marvel’s history shines through here, but more importantly, this comic book showcases his ability to craft strong, character-oriented moments. The characters, not the crossover, take the spotlight in this first issue that will no doubt hook readers and have them coming back for more.

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Atomic Reaction

Madman Atomic Comics #1
“Jumping Silent Cars That Sleep at Traffic Lights”
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Michael Allred
Colors: Laura Allred
Letters: Nate Piekos
Editor: Jamie S. Rich
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.50 CAN

You know, I never really got Madman.

I’ve read numerous Madman comics, spinoffs and crossovers, but I’ve never understood the character. Michael Allred’s surreal storytelling has always been diverting and rather charming with the somewhat innocent tone that dominated some of the issues. Mind you, after reading this latest relaunch, I’ve come to realize that I was trying to delve into a bizarre world without knowing all of its weird history. Allred provides a look back at the life (afterlife?) of the zany hero of Spin City in this new first issue, and I certainly appreciated the greater context. However, I know I’m not picking up on all of the metatextual references here and the more philosophical side of the property. Still, Allred’s ultimate purpose here seems to be about self-awareness, of determining one’s own identity in the face of influences that would steer one in a different direction.

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Take Your Picoult the Litter

Wonder Woman #6
“Love and Murder, Part 1”
Writer: Jodi Picoult
Pencils: Drew Johnson
Inks: Ray Snyder
Colors: Alex Sinclair
Letters: Travis Lanham
Cover artists: Terry & Rachel Dodson
Editor: Matt Idelson
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65 CAN

While the scheduling and release of the first five issue of this relaunched series proved to be a disaster, DC couldn’t have asked for better timing with the release of novelist Jodi Picoult’s first issue and foray into super-hero comics. Picoult is the Queen of prose fiction bestseller lists right now. I was walking through the local big-box bookstore the other day, and there was a big display of Picoult books that one couldn’t miss. I’ve not read her books, and after reading this Wonder Woman story, I don’t plan to do so. To be fair, writing novels is a radically different business than writing comics, and perhaps Picoult’s strengths lie with prose. The writer does nothing to distinguish her take on the title character from Allan Heinberg’s, and the script here is repetitive. Even more frustrating is a tired premise.

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Unlimited Possibilities

Justice League Unlimited Season 2 DVD box set
Writers: Dwayne McDuffie, J.M. DeMatteis, Matt Wayne, Paul Dini, Geoff Johns,
Directors: Joaquim dos Santos & Dan Riba
Producers: McDuffie, Bruce Timm & James Tucker
Publisher: Warner Home Video

When Justice League Unlimited first aired, I didn’t catch it on a regular basis. I don’t get the Cartoon Network in my cable package, and here in Canada, the show aired on YTV. The schedule was rather sporadic and choppy, though, and I’d miss several episodes in a row. It was frustrating, but as the Justice League and JLU shows were being released, the age of DVD releases of TV shows was upon us. I felt confident I’d get my chance to see every episode, and I was right. I’ve picked up every set, and I was eager to see the series wrap up with this final 13-episode run. The producers and writers have clearly opted to take a more traditional approach to super-hero storytelling, making for a season that’s more appropriate for all ages. The second season of Unlimited continues with efforts to include a diverse array of second-tier and even obscure DC characters, and it’s even more satisfying that the first season in that regard. These cartoons are a delight, full of fun and energy, serving as a celebration of the wonder and fantasy the genre has offered over the past seven decades.

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Finders, Keepers

Gamekeeper #1
Writer: Andy Diggle
Artist/Colors: Mukesh Singh
Creator: Guy Ritchie
Letters: Rivikiran B.S. & Nilesh S. Mahadik
Cover artists: Neelakash K. (regular) and John Cassaday & Greg Horn (variants)
Editor: MacKenzie Cadenhead
Publisher: Virgin Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$4.25 CAN

It certainly doesn’t seem as though Virgin Comics — with its celebrity endorsements, big-name industry talent and East Indian culture influences — certainly doesn’t seem to have set the world of comic books on fire. There has been potential in the concepts, characters and craft, but of the titles I’ve sampled, none have really hooked me or set tongues wagging in fandom circles. This latest Virgin offering caught my attention thanks to two names. One is on the cover — movie director Guy Ritchie’s manic action/crime movies are a lot of fun, so I hoped for the same from this book. And writer Andy Diggle, best known for Losers from DC/Vertigo, is a consistently strong talent in comics today. Do they add up to a winning combination for a new comic-book property? Well, only in part. The atmosphere is engaging and the pacing of the plot interesting, but ultimately, Gamekeeper comes across as somewhat derivative in nature, eliciting easy comparisons to some well-known Marvel properties.

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Quick Critiques – March 27, 2007

Battlestar Galactica: Cylon Apocalypse #1 (Dynamite Entertainment)
by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Carlos Rafael

I don’t watch the new version of Battlestar Galactica that seems to have taken the sci-fi fan community by storm these days, and I have only the vaguest childhood memories of the original TV show from the late 1970s. It’s to writer Javier Grillo-Marxuach’s credit that he’s able to craft an accessible story that requires only the most passing familiarity with the original characters and concepts in order to follow along. The TV writer tells a story of a civil war in the robotic/cybernetic society of the Cylons and how the human soldiers of the Battlestar Galactica find themselves caught in the middle. We really only get the beginnings of the plot here, and I’m not completely hooked on it yet. But again, I found I was thoroughly impressed with its accessibility. Carlos Rafael’s artwork is clear and easy to follow, and he captures the designs and look of the original property with a slicker level of action in the space warfare scenes. His artwork shows a hint of influence from Rob (Onslaught Reborn) Liefeld’s style, but his figures aren’t nearly as exaggerated. Rafael’s figures are more restrained, and he boasts a stronger eye for design. He does an excellent job of instilling a creepiness in the various Cylon characters, even though they are expressionless. 6/10

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Ghosts in the Machine

B.P.R.D.: The Universal Machine trade paperback
Writers: Mike Mignola & John Arcudi
Artist: Guy Davis
Colors: Dave Stewart
Letters: Clem Robins
Cover artist: Mignola
Editor: Scott Allie
Publisher: Dark Horse Books
Price: $17.95 US

Mike Mignola’s decision some time ago to shift the Hellboy property to a series of limited series about his colleagues in the B.P.R.D. was a wise choice. He’s managed to avoid telling repetitive stories featuring Hellboy and how his toughness and grounded nature ultimately enable him to come out of supernatural scrapes intact, and the shift has also provided Mignola and co-writer John Arcudi to explore more character-based stories by fleshing out the supporting characters and adding to the cast. The writers take a split approach to the storytelling here, as they offer up a plotline about an intellectual quest that turns dangerous as well as a number of shorter stories that delve into the past and personalities of the members of the core team. It makes for a well-balanced and accessible read. And if ever there was an artist whose style was as well suited to the surreal and gothic, supernatural world that the B.P.R.D. patrols as Mike Mignola’s, it’s Guy Davis’s.

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Keeping an Ion Things

Ion #12
“Burying the Past”
Writer: Ron Marz
Artist: Fernando Pasarin
Colors: Richard & Tanya Horie
Letters: Rob Leigh
Cover artist: Kalman Andrasofszky
Editor: Eddie Berganza
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65

I admit it… I got sucked in. The cover for this issue, which serves as the concluding chapter of this limited series, as well as the first page, drew me into a comic book that I figured would focus on characterization above cosmic action. That didn’t prove to be the case. But hey, that’s OK, as I enjoy well-crafted cosmic action as well. But that’s not to be found in this comic book either. In fact, I really don’t see the makings of any kind of plot here at all. No epic is brought to a close. The title character seems to make no changes or advances in his life, super or otherwise. As far as I can tell, Ion isn’t really about Kyle Rayner or any kind of space-faring adventure. Instead, I was left with the impression that it was nothing but an exercise in teasing and setting up DC’s next crossover event book, which is rumored to be about the return of parallel universes to DC continuity.

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