Other Casualties

As I type this, lots of both first-print covers of Captain America #25 are selling on eBay for 50 bucks or more. Say what you will about speculators and comics retailing, but the success of the “Death” of Captain America — both in terms of sales and publicity — is undeniable. And from a personal perspective, I’m pleased to see that the new storyline boasts glimmers of real strengths, of being sustainable beyond its connections to Civil War. Once the dust settles, it’s a safe bet Cap #25 — with its two first-print editions and already announced second printing — will clock in with impressive sales numbers, perhaps even topping 200,000 copies, I’ll wager.

Retailers should be celebrating, as Marvel ensured strong availability of this surprise event with a generous overprinting, and mainstream media coverage reportedly drove non-comics readers to direct-market specialty stores (rather than big-box bookstores) in search of the “landmark” issue. However, I wonder if Marvel’s timing and marketing of the Death of Cap wasn’t something of a misstep. The bullets that struck Cap down struck some other Marvel heroes as well.

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Spartan Decor

300 the movie
Actors: Gerard Butler, Lena Headey, Dominic West, David Wenham, Vincent Regan, Rodrigo Santoro & Andrew Tiernan
Director: Zack Snyder
Screenplay: Snyder. Kurt Johnstad & Michael Gordon
Studios: Warner Bros/Legendary Pictures/Virtual Studio
Rating: R

Like many filmgoers in the west this weekend, my girlfriend and I attended a screening of 300, the film adaptation of Frank Miller’s comic-book series of the same name (most have been referring to the original work as a graphic novel, but they seem to have forgotten it was released in an episodic format initially). The historical epic is surprisingly accessible for the masses, and it’s been long enough since I read Miller’s original work that the story offered a couple of surprises along the way. Obviously, the greatest appeal of the movie is the never-ending array of visual delights, from stunning special effects to Miller’s dazzling character designs. In fact, one’s initial impression of this film is that its appeal rests entirely in the visual experience, that storytelling and characterization are barely secondary concerns. But that’s really not the case. The actors’ charisma — especially that of star Gerard Butler — keeps the audience involved in the plot even when alien and monsters visions aren’t filling the big screen.

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Quick Critiques – March 9, 2007

Captain America #25 (Marvel Comics)
by Ed Brubaker & Steve Epting

I found that the previous three issues of this series, which tied into Marvel’s Civil War, were actually quite strong, definitely better than the crossover series. The same holds true of this latest issue, which flows out of the ending of Civil War. To be honest, the storyline here is really not all that dependent on the events of the crossover. This is the climax of months of subplots from this title, not other Marvel books. The Red Skull/Dr. Faustus plot offers a shocking and gut-wrenching twist (though not an entirely logical one, as it requires the reader to ignore the fact that no one and nothing witnesses the actual source of Cap’s fatal wounds). I also remain impressed with what Brubaker’s doing with the Winter Soldier. Now lucid and centered, he’s a much more interesting character. Also fascinating is how Nick Fury is maintaining such a presence and power over events even though he’s never seen. Obviously, the greatest hindrance to this story is the reader’s knowledge that there’s no way Steve Rogers is actually dead. Though the story is titled “The Death of the Dream,” ultimately, it’ll no doubt prove to be “The Absence of the Dream.” Epting’s art is effective, achieving a nice balance between a realistic look and a grittier, edgier style. The most fun aspect of the story is that it’s not about the death of a super-hero icon or the American ideal, but rather the beginning of a fascinating tale of espionage and deceit. 7/10

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How the Mighty Have Fallen

Mighty Avengers #1
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Frank Cho
Colors: Jason Keith
Letters: Dave Lanphear
Cover artists: Frank Cho (regular) & Leinil Yu (variant)
Editor: Tom Brevoort
Publisher: Marvel Comics
Price: $3.99 US/$4.75 CAN

When I was a kid, it wasn’t long after I discovered the world of super-hero comics that I was drawn to the team books. I loved me them team books, even through my teens and into my adult years as a comics reader. I still love super-hero team books. I’m a sucker for a good team book. Unfortunately, Mighty Avengers #1 is not a good team book. It’s a good-looking super-hero comic, and Bendis’s story is fairly accessible. But in this first issue, the characters contradict themselves, react blindly for no good reason and speak to one another in such a high-speed, pitter-patter banter mode that it would give Aaron Sorkin a headache. There’s certainly some fun to be had here. Seeing the heroes take on giant monsters was amusing, and Bendis offers up an interesting take on Tony Stark. In the end, though, this new title reaches for the stars but fails to really take flight with its debut issue, and the cliffhanger doesn’t instill confidence regarding what’s to come.

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History Bleeds

Nat Turner Vol. 2 of 2: Revolution original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Kyle Baker
Publisher: Image Comics/Kyle Baker Publishing
Price: $10 US

I was fascinated and a bit inspired by the first volume of Kyle Baker’s Nat Turner (originally published as traditional, “floppy” comics), due in no small part, no doubt, to the face that U.S. history is not one of my strong suits (I’ve got a good excuse: I’m Canadian). I was really taken with Baker’s unusual approach to telling the story of a slave who managed to educate himself in secret to rise up to fight against what was arguably the most egregious injustice in American history. But with the release of the second part of the story, a darker, more disturbing atmosphere takes over, making it difficult to see the title character as a hero. Baker doesn’t offer any judgments himself, allowing the barbarities of one group of people to be compared to those of another. The question that this story ultimately poses is whether or not Turner’s revolution was a matter of war or one of frenzied revenge. Baker’s art is richly detailed, but his cartooning influences still shine through without compromising the grave nature of the subject matter.

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Is There Love After Death?

My Dead Girlfriend Vol. 1 original graphic novel
“A Tryst of Fate”
Writer/Pencils/Cover artist: Eric Wight
Inks: Eric Wight, Mike Allred, Michael Cho & Nick Derington
Greytones: Mark Lewis
Letters: Mark Lewis & Lucas Rivera
Editor: Julie Taylor
Publisher: Tokyopop
Price: $9.99 US/$12.50 CAN

People in the comic-book industry have been singing the praises of Eric Wight for a couple of years now, but I don’t think we’ve really seen a project that one could point to as really belonging to him. The one-time animation artist has illustrated short stories in a variety of comics titles, but there was never one that one could call “that Eric Wight book”… until now. Given the amount of work he’s done for the big super-hero publishers, it might strike one as surprising that Wight would opt to make his debut as a writer/artist of original graphic novels outside that arena. Signing up with Tokyopop for this project is not only a good thematic fit, though, but it offers him a stronger penetration into a market that might not be as familiar with his work. My Dead Girlfriend is a light, entertaining read. The imaginative mix of the supernatural, comic elements and teen melodrama is quite charming, and the sweet and innocent love story is saccharine, yes, but quite cute and touching too.

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That Yang Thang

American Born Chinese original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Gene Luen Yang
Colors: Lark Pien
Publisher: First Second
Price: $16.95 US/$22.95 CAN

American Born Chinese was released a few months ago, to much acclaim. It’s garnered praise and awards in a way that’s rare (though fortunately not unheard of) for an original graphic novel. I’m running a bit behind schedule when it comes to giving this landmark book a read, and apparently, I’ve been depriving myself of a fascinating, fanciful and frank story for months. Creator Gene Luen Yang’s story is made up of three different plotlines that converge surprisingly well and seamlessly. Yang’s storytelling focuses on matters of racism and culture shock, but it also deals heavily in matters of self-esteem. That makes for characters and circumstances to which the reader can easily relate. Yang’s artwork is charming with its clean simplicity, but the slightly muted colors bring a grounded quality to the visuals as well. This slice-of-life/fantasy story actually reminds me a great deal of another great graphic novel released last year: Mom’s Cancer. The subject matter and storytelling approaches are radically different, but the personal and down-to-earth tones of the two books, as well as the lighter look for character design, make them seem like companion volumes in an odd way.

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Quick Critiques – Feb. 22, 2007

Civil War #7 (Marvel Comics)
by Mark Millar, Steve McNiven & Dexter Vines

I’ll give Millar credit for ending this series in a wholly unexpected way. This ending would suggest that it’s been Iron Man and the government that’s been in the right all along. I don’t agree, but I appreciate that Millar brings the story full circle to the ethical debate rather than a huge super-hero fight scene. Marvel gets points for the unexpected ending, though things here wrap up a little too neatly. The sudden appearances of cavalries for both sides at key moments in the conflict are a bit hard to swallow, and the villains’ dominance in battle dissipates so quickly that it lacks credibility as well. McNiven’s art boasts the same kind of detail and expressiveness that’s made it so attractive in the past, but I found the generic costumes for the new, registered heroes to be far too reminiscent of what we’ve seen in The Ultimates and Squadron Supreme. This final issue sets up an ambitious new status quo for Marvel’s America as something of a totalitarian regime, with Big Brothers galore, all colorfully clad, watching over everyone. It seems as though Millar and company have failed to actually tell the whole story. We’re missing an ending, which is something that happened at the end of House of M as well. Ultimately, this final issue felt surprisingly anti-climactic, with the final act serving as promotional material for new titles to spin off out of this crossover event. 6/10

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Brave New Whirl

The Brave and the Bold v.3 #1
“The Lords of Luck, Chapter One: Roulette”
Writer: Mark Waid
Pencils/Cover artist: George Perez
Inks: Bob Wiacek
Colors: Tom Smith
Letters: Rob Leigh
Editor: Joey Cavalieri
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65 CAN

I’m a major fan of Mark Waid’s writing and George Perez’s art in the super-hero genre, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating the launch of this title. But what’s really had me eager to delve into the new series is my fondness and nostalgia for team-up titles. As a kid, I found I was drawn to team titles such as Justice League of America and The New Teen Titans, but also to DC Comics Presents, Marvel Team-Up and, of course, The Brave and the Bold‘s first incarnation. As a younger reader, I relished the chance to get to know new, colorful characters and villains, and I actually loved that I got not just one but two flashy super-hero logos on the cover. Though most of those old-school stories of the 1970s and ’80s were single-issue, self-contained tales and this series promises longer story arcs, Waid has certainly taken a traditional tack with this new series. Unfortunately, a couple of cooler plot elements are cast off, turning out to be minor in nature, and Perez’s art, though full of energy and imagination, is a bit difficult to follow in the more chaotic moments of the story. Even so, those who feel super-hero storytelling has grown too dark and grim over the past decade or so will enjoy the lighter tone that’s restored here.

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Dead Mailmen Do Tell Tales

Mail Vol. 1 original graphic novel
Writer/Artist: Housui Yamazaki
Translation: Douglas Varenas
Letters: IHL
Editor: Carl Gustav Horn
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics/Dark Horse Manga
Price: $10.95 US

Though I initially found it difficult to glean what this book was titled, reading it turned out to be a great diversion on a slow afternoon. Mail Vol. 1 proved to be one of those rare manga publications that actually appealed to me. If there’s one thing that Japanese creators seem to do well, it’s horror storytelling. Mail is really an anthology of horror stories, with the common thread of the same medium/ghostbuster turning up in each disparate, creepy tale. There are flaws in some of the choices that writer/artist Housui Yamazaki makes at times, but overall, he manages to offer up some fun but chilling stories of the supernatural without resorting to gratuitous, gory imagery to do it. Another reason these eerie ghost stories are so entertaining is that the creator never takes things too seriously. There’s an irreverence to the storytelling that helps to offset a couple of the more derivative or convenient elements. The biggest problems with the book have little to do with the craft of comics, actually, but rather with design and marketing.

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Quick Critiques – Feb. 18, 2007

Astonishing X-Men #20 (Marvel Comics)
by Joss Whedon & John Cassaday

I’ve been enjoying this series, despite its sporadic publishing schedule, pretty much since the start (well, since #2). and there’s a lot to like about it. Cassaday’s art is always breathtaking, and even though his detailed style tends to lean toward a more dramatic, stoic atmosphere, he still manages to capture the whimsical elements writer Joss Whedon tosses in. Whedon’s dialogue really makes these characters come alive, and he’s brought some intense action and innovative plotting to the mix. And despite those strengths, I just didn’t enjoy this issue. After reading it, I sat back and wondered how the plot shifted so suddenly and dramatically from a super-villain assault on the X-Mansion to a space opera. Whedon seems to refuse to allow any particular plotline to resolve before throwing the characters waist deep into their next catastrophe. It’s dizzying. The frenetic pace of the multiple plots almost seems desperate in tone. On top of that, this notion of the X-Men’s strongman as a prophesized destroyer of worlds strikes me as an awfully hard pill to swallow. Furthermore, Agent Brand fails to come across any kind of character, but rather the voice box for every all-too-convenient plot device that allows the impossible action to leap forward from scene to scene. Whedon strings together small, clever ideas about the application of the X-Men’s powers here, but the plot serving to link to those scenes just doesn’t work. 6/10

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Comics Prose from a Comics Pro

Batman #663
“The Clown at Midnight”
Writer: Grant Morrison
Artist: John Van Fleet
Letters: Todd Klein
Cover artist: Andy Kubert
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Publisher: DC Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.65 CAN

This issue of the Dark Knight’s adventures is not a comic book. I know… it looks like a comic and feels like a comic, but it ain’t a comic. Writer Grant Morrison offers up a prose short story, accompanied by illustrations by John Van Fleet, which appear to be digital paintings. It makes for a much denser read, and it forces Morrison to flex a different set of writing muscles. The manager at my local comic shop told me he wished DC had released this as a separate, special one-shot. After reading the story, it’s clear why it wasn’t, though. Morrison specifically follows up a plot point from his first issue on this series from a few months ago — the near-fatal shooting of the Joker. The script here manages to make the Joker’s latest resurrection a real event, and the writer reconciles the various, divergent versions of the antagonist we’ve see over the course of six decades. Unfortunately, the novel take on the character is marred by stiff, confusing artwork and unnecessarily verbose descriptions of peripheral details.

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By Crom, I Want a Corvette

Conan and the Midnight God #1
Writer: Joshua Dysart
Artist: Will Conrad
Colors: Juan Ferreyra
Letters: Comicraft
Cover artist: Jason Shawn Alexander
Editors: Scott Allie & Matt Dryer
Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
Price: $2.99 US

From Marvel’s Conan comics to the Ah-nuld movies to The Savage Sword of Conan magazines, I’ve never been one for the barbarian genre. I’ve said this time and time again, so it should come as no surprise that I approached this sword-and-sorcery comic with some trepidation. To my surprise, I found what might be the beginnings of the best Conan story I’ve ever read. Writer Joshua Dysart presents us with a vision of Conan as a conflicted soul, torn in several different directions at once. It’s perhaps the most grounded vision of the warrior king I’ve seen, and I’m surprised to find I’m interested in where Dysart plans to go with the rest of this story. The artwork captures the title hero’s moods perfectly, reinforcing the down-to-earth elements in the story. The plot is fairly simple, but it boasts a political element that drew me into the book a little more as well.

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A (Less Than) Stellar Performance

Kid Kosmos: Kidnapped original graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Jim Starlin
Letters: Bill Tortolini
Publisher: Dynamite Entertainment
Price: $19.95 US

Jim Starlin certainly left his mark on super-hero comics in the 1970s and ’80s, and it’s showing up prominently in recent event comics from Marvel Comics, such as Thanos’s role in Annihilation and the resurrection of Captain Marvel in Civil War: The Return, a Silver Age character that Starlin took and made his own. In many ways, Starlin is the acknowledged king of cosmic super-hero storytelling. Just look at the free rein DC seems to have given him with the current Mystery in Space limited series. Starlin was also one of many pioneers in the 1980s when it came to creator-owned comics. His Dreadstar comics are still considered classics, and it’s encouraging to see that he’s still crafting astral adventures for new, cosmic crusaders, even three decades after he started. Apparently, he’s still doing what he loves. This book is a spinoff from Starlin’s Cosmic Guard comics, also publisher by Dynamite Entertainment, but as the title suggests, it stars a younger protagonist. In many ways, this is a typical story about a greenhorn teen hero who’s in over his head, dressed up with some of the trappings of DC’s Green Lantern Corps. It’s colorful and full of energy and imagination, but it’s also burdened by an unwieldy and redundant supporting cast as well as a lack of the kind of history and continuity that might allow this story to work within the confines of a shared super-hero universe.

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The Long Arm of the Raw

Strongarm #1
Writer: Steve Horton
Artist/Cover artist: David Ahn
Publisher: Image Comics
Price: $2.99 US/$3.50 CAN

There’s no denying that Japanese pop culture has taken Western society by storm. It only seems fair. Japan has had and continues to have its own fascination with our own pop culture. But nowhere in North America is the influence of Japanese culture more evidence than in comics. Manga hasn’t always appealed to me in the past; books I appreciated tend to be the exception rather than a rule. But there’s no denying the power manga has. I think I appreciate that influence when it’s more subtle, but that’s not the case with this original American comic that strives for a genuine Japanese feeling. The good news is that writer Steve Horton’s script cuts to the chase, getting to the core plot while offering an accessible tone. Artist David Ahn’s style is more than just inspired by manga but manages to achieve what I’d say is a convincing facsimile of Japanese comic art. My general disinterest in manga and Amerimanga actually didn’t come into play all that much when I read this inaugural issue. Instead, I found that the derivative nature of the building blocks of the story alienated me more. Horton’s rather basic story seems too familiar, and if a new title by an untested creative team is going to stand out, it needs to be different, to be unique, but Strongarm‘s debut issue doesn’t really stand out. The storytelling is capable and clear, but so far, it’s not compelling.

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