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.