28 December 2005

Birth of A Nation

Premise: What would happen if East St. Louis decided to secede from the United States of America?

This is a scathingly funny and thought-provoking graphic novel that skewers race relations, foreign policy, and the fractious nature of the African-American community. It asks tough questions and does not provide easy answers. Filmmaker Reginald Hudlin ("House Party", "Boomerang" ) drew upon his experiences growing up in East St. Louis while co-writing this book with "Boondocks" creator and noted raconteur Aaron McGruder. The infinitely talented Kyle Baker tones down his exaggerated style a notch and delivers some of the best art of his career.

Recommended for: Fans of The Boondocks or The Daily Show.
Not Recommended for: habitual listeners of conservative talk radio.

24 December 2005

We'll call it a Holiday vacation...

My computer died a few weeks ago, and my access to the net has been limited, so the updates haven't been as regular as I'd like them to be. I apologize and will update when I can.

07 December 2005


This graphic novel features numerous comic-book creators telling personal anecdotes, ranging from the humorous (legendary cartoonist Sergio Aragones illustrates the time he met Richard Nixon), to the unsettling (Fabio Moon and Gabriel Ba recall an encounter with a gang during their trip to Paris). Some of the stories are poignant (revered creator Will Eisner talks about his first professional rejection), some are cute (Bill Morrison's remembers his childhood obsession with Batman), and some are educational (Matt Wagner depicts his method of making Chicken Parmesan); but all of them are entertaining, and make for a fascinating look into the minds of various comic-book creators.

(This book was originally published in 2003. A sequel is forthcoming; check here for details.)

Recommended For: people who enjoy hearing people tell personal anecdotes at parties; people who listen to the audio commentaries or watch the "making-of" featurettes on DVDs.

Not Recommended For: people who read comics purely for their escapism value.

12 November 2005

Fables vol. 1 - "Legends in Exile"

Premise: After being forcibly driven from their homeland, various characters from classic fairy tales adjust to their new lives in modern-day New York.

Fables is an excellent gateway comic because everyone already knows the main characters. Just about everyone has heard of Snow White, Prince Charming, and the Big Bad Wolf. Of course, they may be a little surprised to find that Snow White has become a cynical workaholic, Prince Charming is a philanderer with three failed marriages (to Snow, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella) under his belt, and that the Big Bad Wolf is now the sheriff of Fabletown (the neighborhood where all of the fables secretly live among the normals).

Writer Bill Willingham has put together an imaginative series that speaks to the reader's inner child and jaded, embittered adult simultaneously. Pencillers Lan Medina and Mark Buckingham (among others) render a world that is equally magical and grounded in reality. And the painted covers by James Jean are simply stunning (DC/Vertigo were wise to include them in each volume).

Recommended for: anyone who ever had fairy tales read to them as a child; fans of Into The Woods, Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister, and/or Wicked.
Not recommended for: people who only know these characters from their Disney cartoons.

10 November 2005

Marvel Team-Up #14

Premise: Invincible is accidentally transported into the Marvel Universe and lands in the middle of a fight between Spider-Man and Dr. Octopus. Hilarity ensues.

There are numerous reasons for me to recommend this issue:
  1. It is accessible to new readers.
  2. It is literally an all-ages comic (wholesome enough for kids, but witty and engaging enough for adults).
  3. It will hopefully introduce Invincible (the most interesting new hero to come along in a long time) to a wider audience.
  4. It is laugh-out-loud funny.
It came out in comics stores last week (check the sidebar to find one in your area), and should be available in bookstores next week.

Day of Vengeance

Premise: Can a band of second-string mystical heroes prevent two spirits of vengeance from wiping magic from the face of the Earth?

In a previous post, I talked a little bit about Infinite Crisis. To further fuel the spark of interest among comics fans, DC published four miniseries which would help to set the events of Infinite Crisis into motion, but could be appreciated on their own merits. One of the series was called Day of Vengeance.

The story itself is a good one. Writer Bill Willingham does an excellent job of putting the readers inside the heads of some obscure heroes as they embark on what feels like a suicide mission, and he gets bonus points for making a silly character like Detective Chimp relevant to a modern audience. Penciller Justianino is equally adept at rendering both large-scale battles (two giant characters fighting over the city) and small scale scenes (a dingy other-dimensional tavern, a suburban, middle class home). If this book consisted of only the story, I would heartily recommend it.

Much like a special-edition DVD, the extras are where this book really shines. In addition to the story, the book includes the covers from the original comics, some pages from Justianino's sketchbook, text pieces that introduce the backstory and the heroes to new readers, and a bonus story reprinted from the Superman comics. This story (written by Judd Winick and pencilled by Ian Churchill) helps to establish one of the villains of Day of Vengeance and features an extended fistfight between Superman and Captain Marvel (Shazam!), which is always fun.

Recommended for: fans of Buffy, Lord of the Rings, and/or The Seven Samurai; people who always root for the underdog.

Not recommended for: people who absolutely refuse to take any story with a talking chimp seriously.

22 October 2005

Plastic Man: On The Lam!

Premise: Plastic Man's former life as a criminal comes back to haunt him, and hilarity ensues.

Plastic Man has been around since the 1940's. He fades into obscurity every few years, only to bounce back into the public consciousness and delight a new generation of fans. He is currently enjoying newfound popularity as member of the Justice League of America. Positive fan reaction to his appearances inspired DC Comics to give him his own series, written and drawn by acclaimed comics creator Kyle Baker.

The most important element of a Plastic Man comic is humor, and Baker knows how to deliver the laughs. This book is packed with inspired sight gags and clever one-liners. The art is done in a very cartoony style, which works well for the character. It's zany, wacky, and completely over-the-top, which is exactly how a Plastic Man comic is supposed to be.

Recommended For: fans of The Incredibles, The Mask, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Ren & Stimpy, or old Looney Toons cartoons.
Not Recommended For: people who don't enjoy slapstick comedy.

21 October 2005

A Brief History of Aquaman

After last night's episode of Smallville, I was inspired to write an entry about Aquaman and how he is a vastly underrated character. While researching, I ran across an article by Alan Kistler on the Monitor Duty blog which does a more thorough job explaining the character than I could do, so I'll just direct you to that.

19 October 2005

Batman: Strange Apparitions

Premise: Even after facing radioactive mosters, mad scientists, cold-blooded assassins, and the Joker, Batman faces the biggest threat of his career: love.

Much like Superman, Batman has undergone numerous changes since his debut in 1939. In his first appearances, he was a vicious vigilante who killed criminals in cold blood. In the 50's & 60's, he was a smiling do-gooder who often duked it out with outlandish villians on giant typewriters. Today, he is a tortured soul who is as dangerous to his friends as he is to his enemies.

Personally, I prefer the Batman of the 1970's. As a response to the campy TV show starring Adam West, the creators of the time returned Batman to his roots as the Dark Knight. They made him more intense and more serious than he was in the previous decade, but he still carried fantastic gadgets and acted like a true hero (Grant Morrison referred to this period of Batman as "James Bond in a cape").

Batman: Strange Apparitions contains a series of stories from this period (1977-78, to be precise). Despite some purple prose and a tenuous grasp of science, writer Steve Englehart delivered engrossing and atmospheric scripts that were quite sophisticated for the time. Marshall Rogers (penciller) & Terry Austin (inker) provided clean, dynamic art that serves the action-packed moments just as well as it does the quiet, dramatic ones.

Many fans consider Englehart, Rogers & Austin's works to be the "definitive" Batman. It would be safe to assume that the people who worked on Batman: The Animated Series would be among those fans, since two of the stories in this book were later adapted for television (including the infamous "Laughing Fish" episode).

Recommended For: fans of Superfriends, Justice League, or any of the Batman films (particularly Tim Burton's 1989 version); people who watch soap operas; film noir afficionados.
Not Recommended For: people who couldn't care less about Batman as a character; people turned off by the 70's aesthetic (all the women have feathered hair, all the men are wearing leisure suits); science majors.

18 October 2005

The Adventures of Barry Ween, Boy Genius

Premise: A 10-year-old inventor and his best friend get into all sorts of surreal adventures.

I can honestly say that no comic series has ever made me laugh harder than Barry Ween. Writer/Artist Judd Winick packs each volume (to date, there are four) with bizarre plots, madcap sight gags, pop-culture references, and lowbrow humor (the latter comes primarily from Barry's sidekick, Jeremy). There is also the occasional poignant moment (usually involving Barry's classmate Sara) that never feels out of place, even among all of the mayhem.

Recommended For: Fans of Kevin Smith films, South Park, Dexter's Laboratory, and/or Family Guy; fans of off-color humor in general.
Not Recommended For: people who are offended by profanity.

04 October 2005

"A Damn Public Service..."

Evidently, Larry Young of AIT-Planet Lar saw my review of his Astronauts in Trouble comic and linked to it on his site.
Now would be as good a time as any to mention that he publishes a lot of other fine comics too. Check out the rest of his site as well.
(And Larry, if you're reading this, when can we expect Citizen Dave?)

EDIT: Evidently, that link caused another comics (and other stuff) blog called The Low Road to llink to me and say some kind words. Check that blog out as well.

02 October 2005

Superman: Birthright

Premise: Is it truly possible for an alien to find a home on Earth?

Superman's origin story has been told and retold numerous times over the course of his 67-year existence. Just about every man, woman, or child in the western world knows that he was "rocketed to earth from a dying planet, where he gained powers far beyond that of mortal man." If they didn't read his origin in comic books, they saw it in one of they movies, TV shows, or cartoons that he has starred in. There's already been two other major graphic novels that retold his origin in the last 20 years: John Byrne's The Man of Steel and Jeph Loeb & Tim Sale's Superman For All Seasons. Is another retelling really necessary?

If that retelling happens to be Superman: Birthright, then the answer is yes.

Writer Mark Waid distills the best elements from various sources to bring the Man of Tomorrow into the 21st century. He takes the sense of grandeur of the first film, the angst of Smallville, the populism of Siegel & Schuster's original comics, the fast pace of the cartoons, and the witty banter of Lois & Clark, and blends them together in a way that honors the past but looks towards the future.

I would be remiss if I didn't mention the astounding pencil work by Leinil Francis Yu. He is equally good at rendering big action sequences and quiet dramatic moments. His attention to detail is also quite impressive, particularly the subtle differences between the ways he draws both Superman and Clark Kent.

All in all, this book encapsulates everything that makes Superman great. I highly recommend it.

Recommended for: Fans of Smallville, Jusitice League, or Superfriends; anyone who thinks Superman is outdated; anyone who wonders how a pair of eyeglasses could possibly fool Clark Kent's co-workers.

Not Recommended for: people who are completely indifferent to Superman.

23 September 2005

Battle Royale

Premise: 42 high school students are kidnapped, sent to an island, and forced to fight to the death in front of a live television audience.

This is a manga with both style and substance. On the surface, it's all about excessive violence and gore. On another level, it's an indictment of the educational system and the treatment of teenagers by society at large (while the finger is pointed firmly at Japan, there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn with America as well). Over the course of the series, there are many flashbacks to help the reader understand why the major characters react as they do, but without absolving them of their brutality.

And boy, is this series brutal. Boys and girls are shot, stabbed, maimed, impaled, and blinded. It can be exploitative at times. But it's never dull.

Recommended for: Fans of A Clockwork Orange, Natural Born Killers, Fight Club, Kill Bill, or Lord of the Flies; people who saw the Battle Royale film and wished there was a little more to it.
Not Recommended for: the squeamish.

19 September 2005

Star Wars Infinities: "A New Hope"

Premise: What if Luke Skywalker wasn't able to blow up the Death Star?

Back in the 1970's, Marvel Comics began a series called What If...?, which featured alternate versions of important events in Marvel Universe history ("What if Spider-Man joined the Fantastic Four?", "What if Captain America died in World War II?", etc.), which proved popular with comics fans. DC created a line of comics called "Elseworlds" which featured similar types of stories (one of my favorites was The Nail, which imagined what the DC Universe would be like if Clark Kent never became Superman). Dark Horse Comics has done a series of comics that propose alternate versions of the Star Wars films. They call the series of comics "Infinities", and have done a miniseries based on each film of the first trilogy.

This one is my personal favorite. Chris Warner's script is very much in keeping with the spirit of the films, even if it takes the story in directions that George Lucas would never think to take it. He has a keen understanding of the main characters (Luke, Han, Leia, Vader, etc.). Both art teams (Drew Johnson & Ray Snider and Al Rio & Neil Nelson) capture the aesthetic of the Star Wars universe perfectly. So far, only Episodes IV, V, and VI have been given this treatment. I, for one, would love to see an alternate take on the prequels.

Recommended for: Star Wars fans (particularly those who thought that the films could have been a little edgier).
Not recommended for: people who have absolutely no interest in Star Wars.

17 September 2005

100 Bullets

Premise: A mysterious stranger goes from town to town offering people an opportunity to literally get away with murder.

To be honest, this barely scratches the surface of what 100 Bullets is about, but it was the high concept that writer Brian Azzarello and artist Eduardo Risso used to hook readers into this series. It was initially marketed as a sort of anthology series, with a series of protagonists visited by the enigmatic Mr. Graves, who gave them a briefcase containing a gun, 100 rounds of "untraceable" ammunition, a photograph, and proof that the person in the photograph had grievously wronged the recipient. The first few stories were examples of excellent hard-boiled crime fiction with terrific artwork.
As the series progressed, supporting characters and protagonists from previous story arcs reappeared, and the reader slowly pieces together why Mr. Graves chose some of these protagonists, as well as how he can promise the recipients that they won't be prosecuted for murder.
The 8 collected volumes of the series collect the first 59 issues. The series is expected to end with issue #100. I highly recommend starting at the beginning and seeing the conspiracy unfold.

Recommended For: fans of Raymond Chandler, Elmore Leonard, John Woo, and/or Quentin Tarantino; people who liked Sin City; conspiracy buffs.

Not Recommended For: anyone who is turned off by gratuitous sex, violence, and/or profanity.


Premise: What happens when a supervillain actually manages to conquer the world?

Empire is the story of Golgoth, a Dr. Doom-style supervillain who used his superior technology and tactical knowledge to crush all opposition to him. In order to maintain his monarchy, he employs a cabinet of "trusted" ministers to handle things in his absence. Over the course of the book, he has to deal with freedom fighters, disloyal ministers, and his teenaged daughter, Delfi.

What could have been a standard comic-book story reads like a Shakespearean tragedy in the hands of veteran comic writer Mark Waid. This is an incredibly intelligent work with fully-realized characters, complex plot threads, and a shocking climax. Waid's frequent collaborator, Barry Kitson, delivers pencils that are clean and realisitic, yet still bold and dynamic. This book should be read by anyone who dismisses superhero comics as children's fare.

Recommended For: Fans of 1984, Brave New World, Dune, and King Lear.
Not Recommended For: people who hated reading Machiavelli's The Prince in high school.

11 September 2005

Big Ups to the Retailers

Robert at Comickaze made some helpful suggestions to the site that I intend to implement soon. He runs a great store, and if you're in San Diego, it's well worth a visit.

Also, I added some links in the sidebar to the websites of comic shops that I've visited in the past and enjoyed, as well as a link to a site that will show you where the shops in your area are located. Check them out first before you go to Amazon.

08 September 2005

New X-Men - "Planet X"

Premise: Magneto, The X-Men's greatest enemy, returns, in order to wipe humanity from the face of the planet. All hell breaks loose.

For about 30 years, The X-Men family of comics have remained consistently popular with comics fans. The story of outsiders struggling to be accepted by society strikes a chord with lots of fans (myself included). In 2000, even with the success of the movie, the sales of the comics started to slip. The comics were stagnating creatively as well. So, in 2001, they hired iconoclastic writer Grant Morrison to give the book a creative shot in the arm. Over the course of 3 years, he introduced new characters, substantially altered longtime characters (Beast, once an apelike character with blue fur, became a giant blue tiger), and replaced their colorful costumes with black and yellow leather jackets and combat boots. Some welcomed this shake up of the status quo. Others felt that his changes were too drastic, and completely disregarded what had come before.
Of all of the X-Men stories he wrote, none were more controversial than "Planet X," his penultimate story arc. The story crackles with urgency and a sense of finality. Popular characters die and big, big changes were brought about because of this story. In a lot of ways, it would be a fitting end to the X-Men legend.
Many of the changes brought about by Morrison's run have since been contradicted and brought back to their original state, but for a brief, shining moment, it was good to see the most successful comic on the market was also the most courageous comic as well...

Recommended For: fans of the X-Men movies; fans of epic storytelling; fans of progress.
Not Recommended for: people who demand a happy ending; people who expect rigid consistency in their heroes.

06 September 2005

Comics vs. Cinema: "Fantastic Four"

There are a lot of movies based on superhero comics being released these days. As these films are released, I plan to include entries that talk about how faithful they were to the source material, where they deviated from the comics, and whether these deviations were a good thing or a bad thing. Finally, I'll recommend some of the comics that I think best exemplify the spirit of the character or team.

My first entry is about the recent Fantastic Four movie.

What stayed:

  • The origin story. They had to modernize it a little (originally, Reed Richards built a rocket to help America beat the Russians in the Space Race; bear in mind that these characters were created in 1961), and they had to come up with a reason for Susan and Johnny Storm to be there (in the original story, Sue was nothing more than Reed's girlfriend, and Johnny was a teenager who was just along for the ride), but the origin story was otherwise fairly accurate.
  • The Thing/Human Torch rivalry. From Day 1, Johnny would find new ways to push Ben's buttons, and Ben would threaten to murder him, but at the end of the day, they were the best of friends. The film did an excellent job portraying their odd relationship.
  • The Thing, period. Before the Fantastic Four, all comic-book heroes were handsome and noble, and lived to fight crime. Ben Grimm was unlike any hero that had come before him: a disfigured, tragic character that would give up his powers in a second if it meant that he could live a normal life. He's always been one of my favorite characters, and Michael Chiklis was absolutely perfect in the role.
What changed:
  • Doctor Doom. The portrayal of Victor Von Doom was incredibly inconsitent with his various incarnations in the comic. Originally, he was not present when the heroes got their powers (although in the Ultimate Fantastic Four comic, he is there, and I personally think this is a change for the better). Also, he was originally disfigured before he encounters the Four. And he does not have the powers that he has in the film (although in the comics, he seemed to get new powers with each appearance; originally he had a suit of armor, then he also gained the ability to switch minds with any character, and later, it was revealed that he was a sorceror). The greatest change was that he was never the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation. This was a bad idea, and made the character a lot less interesting, in my opinion. Also, Julian McMahon may have been miscast in this role. His snippy, spoiled rich-kid act is inconsistent with the larger than life, megalomaniacal gravitas given to Doom in the comics.
  • Alicia. In the comics, the Thing's girlfriend is white. In the film, she's black. I can definitely get behind this change, as there really isn't as much ethnic diversity in these comics as there should be.
  • The Reed/Sue/Doom love triangle. In the comics, Reed & Sue were in love from day 1. She did get frustrated by his inattentiveness, but it was more of an annoyance that a real threat to their relationship. And she did develop feelings for one of the bad guys, but it wasn't Doom. It was Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, and while she loves Reed, she still has an attraction to Namor. Maybe they're saving that for the sequel.
Recommended Reading:
  • Fantastic Four, Volume 1: This hardcover collects the first year of Mark Waid & Mike Wieringo's run on the series, which lasted from 2002 to the first half of 2005. The first story serves as an excellent introduction to the characters and their motivations. The final story arc in the book, "Unthinkable" is the best Doctor Doom story ever written. Read this story, and you'll understand why I was so disappointed in the movie version of Doom.
  • Ultimate Fantastic Four, vol. 1: This series is a more modern retelling of the old tales. The origin story is closer to the one in the film. Doom's transformation in the comic is not unlike the one seen in the film (although they do a better job here; I can't tell you enough how disappointed I was with the movie version of Doom). Adam Kubert's art is excellent, as is Stuart Immonen's.
  • Essential Fantastic Four, vol. 1: This affordably-priced book reprints the first two years worth of the original Fantastic Four comics by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. It's a little dated (these comics were written between 1961 & 1963), and the black and white reprints can be hard to read at times, but the manic energy of these old comics still comes through and they are a lot of fun.

29 August 2005

Invincible vol. 2- "Eight is Enough"

Premise: The teenage son of a famous superhero develops powers of his own. Can he balance being a hero with getting through school?

It's been said that good stories entertain and great stories surprise. By that rationale, Invincible is great.
Volume 1, Family Matters is a fun, lighthearted and entertaining story, and well worth your time and money; however, I'm going to recommend that you start with Volume 2, because it is surprising, and therefore great. It is a better example of what Invincible is all about: a well-written series with plot twists that you never see coming, but are still perfectly logical and plausible (well, as plausible as superhero stories get, anyway). The mood of the series can and will shift on a dime, going from funny to heartwarming to infuriating to depressing over the space of a few issues.
People who really want to jump into Invincible with both feet should pick up The Ultimate Collection. It collects the first 13 issues of the series (or the first 3 paperbacks). But if you want a small sample of a great comic, then start with Volume 2.

Recommended for: fans of Buffy, Smallville, the Spider-Man films, and/or John Hughes movies.
Not recommended for: people who prefer a more consitent tone to their stories.

23 August 2005

A Brief History of Wonder Woman

(I wrote this for another website back in 2002. I present it here with a couple of minor edits for the sake of clarity and modernity. Perhaps I will do more character overviews like this in the near future, if you'd like...)

I can't explain why I love Wonder Woman like I do. Perhaps it stems from fond childhood memories (The second comic I remember owning was an issue where she fought off an alien invasion singlehandedly; also, I was a toddler when the TV show began). Perhaps it is the admittedly lascivious quasi-dominatrix costume (a beautiful woman wearing red leather boots, a bustier, and star-spangled panties, tying people up is just begging for scrutiny). Perhaps it's because she has been the central character in many imaginative and interesting stories (that ain't it; the comics have been hit-and-miss). In any case, everyone has heard of her and seen her, but nobody really knows anything about her. That's why I am here to help...

Wonder Woman is the brainchild of William Moulton Marston, PhD. In addition to being a noted psychologist, lecturer, columnist, and creative consultant for Universal Pictures, Marston also invented the polygraph (lie-detector). In the early 1940's, he saw that comic book characters such as Superman and Batman were staggeringly popular with young boys. He wanted to create a superheroine that young girls could look up to. He was fascinated with ancient cultures, which would help to explain the heroine's connection to Greek mythology. He based the heroine's appearance on his secretary Olive Byrne, a tall brunette who regularly wore a pair of very large bracelets (He would later have two children with Ms. Byrne). Assisted by editor M.C. Gaines (both he and Marston shared a writing credit as "Charles Moulton") and artist Harry Peter (which, to my knowledge, is not a pseudonym), Wonder Woman made her debut in All Star Comics #8 (December 1941-January 1942). He continued to write Wonder Woman's adventures until his death in 1947.

For those of you who don't know her backstory, this is the most recent version:

Diana is the daughter of Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. The gods endowed her with strength, speed, and extraordinary beauty. The amazons live on Themyscira (Paradise Island), which exists outside of time. Around the time she became an adult, the Amazons were planning to open up diplomatic relations with the "Man's World." Hippolyta forbade her daughter from entering the contest to select an ambassador to the "Man's World," so she donned a mask and entered the contest anyway. She won, and was given the title of Wonder Woman, and was sent to teach the Amazonian philosophy of peace to the nations of the world, even if she had to put a boot in somebody's ass to do it.

She has gone through many changes over the years. In the 60's, she lost her amazon powers and became a kung-fu babe ala Emma Peel. She's lost and regained the invisible jet numerous times. She can no longer be rendered powerless if she is bound by a man. As of 1986, her powers have been defined as follows:

  • She has been given superhuman strength by Zeus, and, in times of crisis, can draw strength from the Earth itself (she is roughly equal to Superman in terms of strength).
  • Hermes gave her superhuman speed and the ability to fly (She's been clocked at about Mach 3).
  • She carries an unbreakable magic lasso, forged by the gods, which compels all who are bound by it to tell the truth.
  • She wears magic bracelets, which she can use to deflect bullets, energy beams, etc.
  • Her tiara is razor sharp, and can be hurled like a boomerang.
  • She is highly resistant to blunt trauma, but is susceptible to edged weapons and bullets.
  • Her only real weaknesses is her rather black-and-white view of the world (the consequences of which can be seen in current DC comics).
Unfortunately, the number of collected volumes of Wonder Woman comics is low, and for the most part, those that do exist are mired in continuity and are not that good. My personal favorite Wonder Woman collection is "Paradise Lost" by Phil Jimenez. It's a fantastic introduction to the character, the art is excellent, and the stories are intriguing. Batman, Robin, Lois Lane, and Lex Luthor show up at various points in the book, and are used to good effect (particularly Lois Lane).

(Wow, I was a wordy person back then. Well, there have been a few more good Wonder Woman comics since then. I'll review them for you soon.)

Noble Causes vol. 1 - "In Sickness and In Health"

Premise: What happens when a normal woman marries into a famous (and dysfunctional) family of superheroes?

Superhero comics and soap operas actually have a lot in common. Both feature larger-than-life characters. Love triangles and outrageous plot twists are staples of both. And nobody EVER stays dead in either genre. So it was only a matter of time before someone decided to create a superhero comic that was an homage to soap operas.
Noble Causes centers around the Noble family. They are a rich and popular family who are as dysfunctional as they are powerful. The father is cold and distant, the mother is a media whore, the oldest son is recovering from a disfiguring accident, and the daughter is pregnant by an unnamed father. Writer Jay Faerber includes all of the elements of a worthwhile soap opera: romance, bastard children, death, and infidelity. And for the guys in the audience, there's demons and killer robots.
I mean, really: Sex AND killer robots? What's not to love?!?

Recommended for: soap opera addicts; people who grew up reading X-Men in the 80's and early 90's.
Not recommended for: people who don't like heavy melodrama.

20 August 2005

Yet Another Comics Blog

Thanks to Yet Another Comics Blog for the link. The favor will now be returned.

Arrowsmith - "So Smart in Their Fine Uniforms"

Premise: What if World War I was fought by wizards instead of generals, airmen flew into battle with dragons instead of biplanes, and the Germans sank ships with sea serpents instead of U-Boats?

The story is your typical hero's journey. A spry young farm boy named Fletcher Arrowsmith runs away from home to join the Overseas Aero Corps. While fighting in Europe, he experiences life, love, and the horrors of war. Much like J.R.R. Tolkien and George Lucas, writer Kurt Busiek pushes the setting to the forefront and populates it with classic archetypes (the naive young hero, his cocky rival, the bored socialite, the wise old farmhand, etc.) to act as the reader's window to this strange new world.

What really drives this book though, is the art. Carlos Pachecho (penciller), Jesus Merino (inker) and Alex Sinclair (colorist) do some of the best work of their careers in this book. Their work truly gives the book an epic, cinematic feel. I really can't say enough good things about it.

Recommended for: Fans of Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, or war movies; history buffs.
Not recommended for: people who don't like fantasy, people who prefer more traditional fantasy stories.

18 August 2005

"What is a Graphic Novel?"

A few years ago, Jessica Abel wrote and drew this two-page comic strip for the now-defunct Artbomb.
It is an excellent primer for non-comics fans. It will also be linked in the sidebar from now on.

11 August 2005

The Authority vol. 1- "Relentless"

Premise: Explodo!

In my previous post, I described how Warren Ellis renovated StormWatch. Well, critics loved it, and Ellis developed a loyal cult following, but it still wasn't lighting the sales charts on fire. So he ended the series and began a new series with the same creative team and some of the same characters that he introduced in StormWatch. He wrote scripts with less political intrigue and more "explodo". The series was called The Authority, and it was a huge hit with fans.

The team is led by Jenny Sparks, "the spirit of the 20th Century," a 99-year-old British woman who looks about 20. Like most of Ellis' protagonists, she's a hard-drinking, chain-smoking cynic. She is joined in her quest to create a better world by her former StormWatch teammates Jack Hawksmoor ("The God Of The Cities") and Swift (a winged huntress), former StormWatch antagonists The Apollo and Midnighter (picture Superman and Batman as an openly gay couple), and two new heroes: The Doctor (a wizard/drug addict) and the Engineer (who can create weapons out of thin air).

The two stories in this first volume are not very deep. Some things destroy a city, and the Authority beats up on those things, as well as whatever sent the things in question. This series isn't about depth, though. It's about atmosphere, style, and explodo. Lots and lots of explodo.

Recommended for: people who enjoy mindless entertainment from time to time.
Not Recommended for: homophobes; conservatives.

10 August 2005

StormWatch vol. 3 - "Change or Die"

In the mid 90's, Warren Ellis was hired to revamp StormWatch, a mediocre comic about a team of UN-backed superheroes. He immediately pared the cast down to a manageable number, added a few new characters of his own, and infused the comic with a sense of political awareness (the growing tensions between the UN and the U.S. Government was a recurring theme in many of the stories). The resulting comics generated a great buzz, and helped Ellis to build a cult following (I fully admit to being a member of said cult).
While StormWatch volumes 1 and 2 (Force of Nature and Lightning Strikes respectively) are quite good, Ellis really hit his creative stride with "Change or Die". In the lead story, a band of superhumans emerges from the shadows and attempts to tear down society in order to rebuild it. Over the course of the story, numerous philosophical questions are asked. Is a superhero supposed to change the world, or just protect the status quo? Is the status quo worth protecting? Can idealism and realpolitik co-exist?
One quick warning to new readers: these stories do build on threads that were started in the previous two volmes, but they do a pretty good job of recapping for anyone just coming in.

Recommended for: iconoclasts; conspiracy theorists.
Not Recommended for: isolationists.

Astronauts in Trouble

Recently, Larry Young (creator of this series), published Master Flight Plan (pictured here), which compiles all three of his Astronauts in Trouble story arcs ("Live From The Moon," "Space:1959," and "One Shot, One Beer"). Since I have each of these story arcs collected in separate volumes, I will be basing my review on those, rather than Master Flight Plan.

"Live From The Moon" takes place in the year 2019, when Ishmael Bennett, the world's richest man, asks the Channel 7 News Team (anchorman Dave, cameraman Heck, and segment producer Sparky) to follow him to the moon to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Neil Armstrong & Buzz Aldrin's celebrated landing. Unfortunately, the eco-terrorist organization known as Greensleeves sabotages their trip, and that's when things get interesting. Despite its futuristic setting, the story has very few science-fiction elements, focusing more on action and character development. The pacing owes more to "Moonraker" than "2001: A Space Odyssey". This is the longest story in the book, and my personal favorite.

"Space: 1959" is sort of a prequel story (I'll give you three guesses as to what year it takes place), which follows the original Channel 7 News team as they stumble across a top-secret military operation in the middle of the Space Race. It's a pulpy, action-packed yarn that can be read or skipped at your leisure.

"One Shot, One Beer" takes place 10 years after the events of "Live From The Moon." Someone opened a bar on the moon, and the patrons of the bar tell anecdotes that serve as an alternative view of events that happened in the previous two stories. It's a fun, quick little read, but not essential.

By itself, "Live From The Moon" makes Master Flight Plan worth the cover price; think of the other stories as the second disc of a 2-disc DVD set.

Recommended for: fans of the James Bond movies, Armageddon, or any other big, explosive summer blockbusters.
Not Recommended for: anyone who already owns "Live From The Moon."

08 August 2005

Powers vol. #1 - "Who Killed Retro Girl?"

Premise: a pair of homicide detectives (Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim) investigate superhero murders.

On their first case together, Walker and Pilgrim are assigned to investigate the murder of Retro Girl, a Wonder Woman-type heroine whose popularity is equivalent to that of Princess Di in the real world. The two detectives have to brave the resulting media circus, various lawsuits, and uncooperative superpowered colleagues of hers to get to the truth.

Brian Bendis (who is writing many of Marvel's best comics these days) delivers solid, noirish scripts with sharp, spiky dialogue. Michael Avon Oeming's art is bold, simple and full of contrast, and is reminiscent of the Batman cartoon from the early 90's. If you want to follow the series month to month, the creators are very good about alerting the reader when a brand new story arc begins on the cover; however, I recommend picking up the collected volumes instead. Not only do you get the complete story, but Bendis, a notorious film buff, treats each collected volume like a DVD, and loads it with extras: interviews with the creators, Oeming's original sketches, and some of his original scripts, which are almost as entertaining as the actual issues.

Recommended for: Fans of any of the Law & Order or C.S.I. shows; regular readers of The Smoking Gun.
Not recommended for: children (there's lots of sexual references and strong language, and the murders can be rather grisly).

06 August 2005

Kingdom Come

You see it all the time in popular culture: a movie, CD, or TV show comes along, strikes a chord with audiences and critics, inspires a legion of imitators, and redefines its medium for years to come. The comics industry is not immune to this kind of phenomenon. Back in the mid-80's, books like Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns deconstructed the myth of the superhero and inspired a more "grim & gritty" age of heroes with deep psychological problems.
In 1996, Kingdom Come was created as a response to this dark age, and it, in turn, inspired an age where heroes were allowed to act like heroes again.

Kingdom Come takes place at an unspecified time in the near future, where Superman is forced into retirement after the general populace turns its back on him in favor of newer, more proactive superheroes (i.e., superheroes who are willing to kill). Unfortunately for the public, these heroes are more interested in fighting each other than fighting crime, and they jeopardize more lives than they save. When one of their superbattles goes horribly wrong, Superman comes out of retirement and reassembles the Justice League to teach these "heroes", and the world, what superheroes are SUPPOSED to act like. Unbeknowst to him, however, his actions may well set off a cataclysm that threatens to destroy the world...

Mark Waid's script is a mature and thought-provoking look at superheroes and society, as well as a scathing allegory of the comics industry at the time. The real star of this book, however, is Alex Ross. For those of you that saw "Spider-Man 2", Ross was the artst who did all of the paintings during the opening credits. He renders the entire book in photorealistic watercolors, and it is breathtaking. His art really brings the story and the characters to life.

At the time of it's release, Kingdom Come was a phenomenon. Now, a decade removed from the hype, it still holds up.

Recommended for: Fans of big, epic stories; skeptics who think that superheroes are inherently naive.
Not recommended for: people who couldn't care less about Superman, Batman, or Wonder Woman.

The Filth

Grant Morrison is the closest thing the comics industry has to a rock star. He has matinee-idol good looks, prodigious talent, and a reputation for drug-fueled debauchery. He is equally comfortable writing mainstream superhero comics (JLA, X-Men, and soon, Superman) and more alternative fare (We3, Kill Your Boyfriend, Doom Patrol). His mid-to-late 90's series The Invisibles, has attracted a cult following with its premise of young, beautiful hedonists trying to make the world more surreal. If The Invisibles was one long party, then The Filth is the morning after.

The Filth begins by showing the reader a typical day in the life of a man named Greg Feely. He goes to work, rides the bus home, looks at pornography and feeds his cat. He's about to go to bed when he discovers a strange woman in his shower. She tells him that his real name is Ned Slade, and that he is actually a secret agent of The Hand, a shadowy organization that keeps the world safe from various surreal events that would disrupt the status quo. Over the course of the book, he sees other dimensions, meets cyborg dolphins and chimpanzee snipers, and fights insane superheroes, rogue agents of the Hand, and pornographers who want to destroy the world. At the end of the day, though, all he wants is to get back to his life as Greg Feely.

I will warn you: this book is not for everybody. It is full of some truly disturbing images, and despite the bright colors and fast pace, is actually rather dour and melancholy. However, if you can handle a grim, twisted tale that is unlike anything you have ever seen (or probably ever will see), then you should pick this up as soon as possible.

EDIT: If you do read this book, and you STILL have questions (and you will), this site will have answers.

Recommended for: Fans of David Lynch and/or Charlie Kaufman; people who have taken hallucinogens; people going through a rough period in their life.
Not Recommended for: people who are ON hallucinogens; people who are fully comfortable with their perception of reality.

05 August 2005

Prelude to Infinite Crisis

For years, it has been accepted that all of the heroes owned by DC Comics live in the same universe. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc., all live in cities not too far from one another. They started a club to fight crime together (The Justice League of America). They occasionally trade villains (The Joker has been to Metropolis; Lex Luthor helped rebuild Gotham after it was hit by a massive earthquake). For the most part, they have maintained a cohesive universe, but after 70 years, some inconsistencies are bound to show up. Comic book fans love to point these things out ("How can Batman be helping to rebuild Gotham after if he just got sent to the 853rd Century by his futuristic counterpart? And why isn't Superman helping with the rebuilding? Fighting an army of robotic duplicates of himself can't be THAT hard!").
Over the years, when the inconsistencies got too far out of hand, DC comics would do some massive housecleaning. In 1985, they released a series called Crisis on Infinite Earths. In this landmark series, the very fabric of time and space was threatened, numerous alternate realities were merged into a single universe, and many heroes and villains were killed along the way. Now, 20 years later, to deal with the inconsistencies that were left in the wake of this series, they are about to release another series this fall called Infinite Crisis, which will reboot the DC Universe yet again.
They have been dropping hints in various comics over the past year or two as to what is going to happen. Prelude to Infinite Crisis compiles scenes from these comics, and reprints some key stories which will feed into this upcoming series. It's also an excellent primer to the DC Universe as a whole. And it's $5.99, which, at 96 pages, is a bargain compared to a lot of the comics out there.
In addition to Prelude to Infinite Crisis, DC's website is offering Crisis Counseling. Every Monday, they will update readers on events that happened in the previous week's comics which will lead into Infinite Crisis. I think it's an excellent way to ease new readers into the fold, and well worth a look.

Recommended for: people who want an entry point into the DC Universe; people who like to get in on the ground floor of a big event.
Not Recommended for: people who like smaller, quieter, more realistic stories.

04 August 2005

The Intimates (ongoing series, Wildstorm/DC Comics)

The premise of this series isn't terribly original: a bunch of super-powered teens are sent to a special high school to learn how to be heroes. The characters aren't that original either: the four main characters are a super-strong hick, a rural white boy who acts like a gangsta, a spoiled rich girl, and an overweight girl with self-esteem issues. Still, writer Joe Casey uses these cliches as a springboard for one of the most innovative and subversive comics on the market.

The structure of the series is based around the typical school year (The series debuted last fall and took place on the first day of school; the last few issues [July & August] gave us a glimpse of how these characters are spending their summer vacations), and seems to take place in real time. Subplots revolve around issues that all high schoolers face at some point in their life (unrequited love, bad cafeteria food, school dance anxiety, etc.), issues that modern teenagers face (classmates finding someone's blog, teens being hounded by corporate "coolhunters") and some that they don't (being acceped by your fellow teens when you're undead, keeping a powerful telepathic teen from destroying the world).

My absolute favorite thing about this comic is the ticker along the bottom of the pages. Like the banners that run along the bottom of the TV when watching the various news channels, these tickers provide interesting factoids about the people on the page (example from issue #1: Punchy [the aforementioned "gangsta"] has been banned from mass e-mailing by four internet carriers..."), statistics (issue #7: "Median age of ideal corporate trendspotters: fourteen years old"), and "helpful tips" (issue #5: "Teen assimilation tip: keep your head down and try to conform..."). You can ignore the tickers and still enjoy a good story, but if you do, you're really missing out.

Recommended for: anyone who ever went to high school; people who appreciate innovation.
Not recommended for: people who don't like information overload.

Superman/Batman vol. 1 - "Public Enemies"

(This review was originally written for Clusterstruck, and I intentionally limited myself to 100 words. If you prefer this review format to the other one, please leave feedback.)

Recently-elected president Lex Luthor declares Superman and Batman enemies of the state, and battles them using America's resources.

Thoughts:Writer Jeph Loeb has written comics about both characters separately, with great critical and commercial success. Unlike most other comic writers, he seems to love both heroes equally, and you can feel that love in every page. Artists Ed McGuinness and Dexter Vines infuse an already fast-paced story with a breakneck, manga-inspired energy that practically lifts the action off of the page and directly into your brain, making this book an intense, cinematic experience.

In short: Best $13 you'l ever spend.

02 August 2005

Supreme Power, vol. 1 - "Contact"

Quick Comics History Lesson:
Back in the Sixties, Marvel Comics created the Squadron Supreme, a team of superheroes blatantly based on DC Comics' most popular heroes (Hyperion is modelled after Superman, Nighthawk is a Batman clone, Power Princess bears a striking resemblence to Wonder Woman, etc.). Originally intended as mind-controlled punching bags for The Avengers (whose ranks include Thor, Iron Man, Captain America, and many others), the Squadron proved popular enough to make many guest appearances over the years, and even star in a few comics of their own.

Now, in the series Supreme Power, writer J. Michael Straczynski (creator of TV's Babylon 5 and the comics series Rising Stars) and penciller Gary Frank (JLA, Gen13) are using these characters to tell a dark, paranoid tale about what would really happen if superheroes suddenly appeared out of nowhere.
At first glance, the story might sound a bit familiar to you: An alien baby lands in the middle of a cornfield, where he is discovered by a young midwestern couple. On the next page, the story takes a sharp left turn, as the baby is seized by the U.S. government and placed in the care of two undercover agents posing as a typical American couple, to ensure that he embraces the American way of life wholeheartedly. As the story unfolds, the reader discovers that his arrival is responsible for more super-powered beings and costumed crimefighters appearing on Earth, whether directly (in the case of Doctor Spectrum, The Blur, and Kingsley) or indirectly (Nighthawk, Zarda).

Straczynski does an incredible job of taking these pastiche characters and infusing them with freshness. Hyperion isn't too far removed from his original incarnation (or from Superman, for that matter), but other characters receive altered personalities (Doctor Spectrum, formerly a clean-cut astronaut, is now a stone killer for the U.S. Government), nationalities (Nighthawk is now an African-American man who watched his parents get killed by stereotypical rednecks), names (The Whizzer has thankfully been renamed The Blur, and has also been made an African American), and genders (Kingsley, the Aquaman-type character, is now a woman who appears to be half-human and half-angelfish). Frank's art strikes a very delicate balance, and he makes the heroes seem equally larger-than-life and down to earth.

Recommended for: people who like comic-book movies, but wish that they had less explosions and more character development; people who loved superheroes as a kid, but feel that they outgrew them.
Not Recommended for: people who don't like the idea of superheroes that curse and/or have sex; people who refuse to question the motivations of the U.S. Government (the comic is still fairly non-partisan, though; Presidents Carter, Bush Sr., and Clinton are supporting characters, and all come across as somewhat machiavellian).

Eyeshield 21, vol. 1

One thing I respect about manga is that it encompasses a broader scope of genres than American comics. One of their more popular genres is sports comics. Manga about basketball, baseball, and professional wrestling have proven successful, so why not a comic about high school football? Hence, Eyeshield 21.
The basic premise is as follows: A shy teenage boy transfers to a new school, where he meets a devil-may-care scoundrel and a gentle giant. Together, they start a football team in order to win the prestigious Christmas Bowl, and hilarity ensues.
I enjoyed this manga for a variety of reasons. First of all, I like football, and seeing football action rendered in a hyperkinetic manga style is vastly entertaining. Secondly, it's quite funny, in a silly, slapsticky sort of way. Finally, it is educational, as it teaches the basic rules of football to the uninitiated.
In conclusion, this book is a light, fun, cheap little read. Give it a shot.

Recommended for: Football fans; manga fans; people who don't fully understand the rules of American Football.
Not recommended for: people who don't enjoy sports; people who find the various conventions/cliches in manga to be tiresome.

Starman vol. 1 - "Sins of the Father"

I love superheroes, but I can see why a lot of people wouldn't. The average superhero wears a ridiculous costume, deals in antiquated, black and white morality, and solves all of his problems with violence. If that type of character does not appeal to you, then you should try Starman. In the first of 10 volumes that collect roughly 60 issues, James Robinson (writer) and Tony Harris (penciller) introduce us to Jack Knight, owner and proprietor of a collectibles shop. His father invented the cosmic rod ("Huh-huh, he said rod...") that gives a Starman his powers. When he retired, he passed the rod onto his son David so he could take up the role of Starman, which didn't bother Jack at all, since he finds the hero game to be a bit childish and silly. Fate has other plans for Jack, however, and he is forced to take up the rod and save his beloved Opal City.
Jack Knight is arguably the most realistic and complex superhero ever created. He doesn't wear tights, instead opting for a leather jacket, tank goggles, and a sherriff's star that he got from a cereal box. He doesn't always win his fights, and takes more than his fair share of brutal beatings. He often has to think and talk his way out of situations, although when he does have to throw down, he is more than handy with his cosmic rod (yeah, I know, it's immature, but it's funny).
Anyway, the series wasn't without its flaws. When I kept up with it from month to month, I would often get impatient, as it took a long time to get to the explodo. Reading it in collected form isn't nearly as frustrating. Also, when I had another non-comics friend from college read the book, he said that there were too many references to other comics, and that he felt lost.
I don't really agree with that, but I accept that I may not be fully divorcing myself from my fanboy nature, so I'll include his criticisms as a caveat.

Recommended for: people who wish superheroes were more realistic; collectors and hobbyists.
Not Recommended for: impatient people, people who like lots of explodo (it delivers, but sporadically).


This is writer/artist Alex Robinson's follow-up to the critically-acclaimed Box Office Poison, and it proves that he is no one-trick pony.
Tricked follows individual characters from different walks of life whose paths all ultimately intersect at the big climactic moment.
Robinson is an incredibly gifted storyteller. In the hands of a lesser writer, the reader wouldn't have very much emotional investment in these character archetypes (How many times have we seen the washed-up rockstar, the waitress looking for love, the teenage girl just off the bus from the middle of nowhere, etc.?). In the hands of Robinson, though, what could have been tired stereotypes became fully-formed, fascinating characters that compel you to keep reading. The dialogue is clever, but not forced. The pacing is excellent, and builds to a satisfying, yet unexpected, climax.
The art, on the other hand, is a different story. Robinson's drawing style is reminiscent of the cartoons in the local college paper. It's a bit over-inked, and possibly too cartoony for such a serious story. Still, it is easy to follow, and it isn't so bad that it distracts from the story.
In any case, Alex Robinson is a true talent, and Tricked is an excellent read. Ask your local comic shop or bookstore to order it for you.

Recommended for: music geeks, sports memorabilia collectors, anyone who has ever been in love.
Recommendation to avoid: people who read comics mainly for the art.

Transmetropolitan vol. 1- "Back on the Street"

(I chose this book to start since I feel that it has been most successful at converting my friends into new readers.)

This book collects the first 3 issues of Warren Ellis' & Darick Robertson's groundbreaking science-fiction comic, published from 1997 to 2002. I used to describe it to people as "Hunter S. Thompson living in the world of Blade Runner," but that description doesn't really do it justice. It follows a misanthropic, drug-addicted journalist/author named Spider Jerusalem, who has returned to a futuristic American metropolis known only as The City, where there is a large division between the rich and the poor, genetic and cybernetic self-modification are popular among the youth, television is full of hardcore sex and violence, and politicians are power-hungry sociopaths who care more for power than the people. The more things change...
This book is actually my least favorite in the series, but that's because the series just got better and better as it went on, building to an explosive climax, and a quiet, beautiful epilogue. Still, it does an excellent job setting the tone for the rest of the series. Ellis' writing is sharp, caustic, and frightfully precognitive, as our world is becoming more and more like The City with each passing day. Darick Robertson's pencil work is highly detailed, and he excels at bringing The City to life.

Recommended for: Fans of William Gibson and/or Hunter S. Thompson; science-fiction fans; people who like sex, drugs, violence, and profanity.
Not Recommended for: Devoutly religious people; people who are apathetic about politics.

Origin Story

Hello, and welcome to the new blog.
The idea got started when I was at a party a few weeks ago with an old college friend. We were discussing his love of zombie movies, when I told him about a comic series called The Walking Dead. He was intrigued, and wanted to check it out. He then mentioned that comics in general had always interested him, but getting into the hobby seemed a bit daunting. A few years ago, I had lent him Judd Winick's excellent graphic novel Pedro & Me, since he is a big fan of The Real World, and he enjoyed it quite a bit. My track record for getting friends and ex-girlfriends to read comics has been pretty good so far. Perhaps I could recruit people into the hobby on a larger scale. And so, Gateway Comics is born.

My plans for this blog are as follows:
  • Write reviews of some of my favorite graphic novels that are geared towards people who don't read comics with regularity, to give them an idea of some of the books they might enjoy.
  • Get some of the friends I forced comics upon to contribute to the blog, and offer opinions on what they read.
  • Use my friends' children as guinea pigs, to see what kind of comics kids would like and not like (I may be an immature 30-year-old man, but I am still a 30-year-old man; I have no business second guessing the likes and dislikes of an 8-year-old girl).
  • Recruit as any people into the hobby as humanly possible.
All of that having been said, please stay tuned, spread the word, and enjoy.

EDIT: I almost forgot. Unless otherwise specified, all of these books can be ordered through either your local comic book store or Amazon.com.