Sunday, September 18, 2011

After I wrote about my problems with Justice League #1 the other week, my lovely wife and I talked some more about our issues with the story. We realized that leading their relaunch with a Justice League series pretty much highlights our biggest problem with DC in general. The DC “universe” isn’t interesting in and of itself just because it’s a shared universe. It’s interesting because the individual characters and their stories are interesting, and the fact that they can interact is just an added bonus. By relaunching their line with a team book, DC is once again putting the cart before the horse, focusing on their overall universe at the expense of interesting stories.

However, this week, DC began restarting those individual stories in full force, and I found a number of them more satisfying that Justice League #1. So I thought I’d share my thought about them.

While, with one notable exception, most of the comics read like good, accessible jumping-on points, almost none of them read like complete restarts. That’s fine; there are very few comics fans today who would have started reading any DC superhero comics from the very first issue any more. We would all have started the story somewhere in the middle. Most of these issues felt like the first step into an already-existing universe, by which I mean it didn’t feel like we’d come in on the middle of the story, but it did feel like these characters had lives before we joined their tales.

My two favorites this week were Action Comics #1 and OMAC #1, for different reasons. Action Comics, by Grant Morrison and Rags Morales, showcases the early days of a Superman who is both radically different from the character we’ve come to know, and at the same time very true to the character’s roots. This is a Man of Steel who is using his powers to fight for justice wherever he sees the need, not just working to keep the system in place. In a world where we’ve lost faith in our government, big business, traditional media, and other social institutions, this feels very relevant and contemporary. If this is what the “new” DC is going for, they definitely succeed here.

OMAC, by DC executive editor and Keith Giffen, is easily the most fun new DC comic I’ve read yet. It’s basically a big fight scene, but well-choreographed by veteran artist Giffen. He’s wearing his Jack Kirby influences on his sleeve here. That’s completely appropriate, since not only is the original OMAC a Kirby creation, but this issue incorporates a number of other Kirby creations. The issue leaves a lot unexplained, but it’s in a way that tantalizes the reader. It doesn’t feel like the writers assume we know the back story; instead, it’s clear that they’re setting things up to be explained as we go. The book has the most energy and excitement of any of the new DC comics I’ve read so far, and I’ll eagerly follow it.

Another winner was Paul Cornell’s Stormwatch. Aside from a clunky bit of expository dialogue, as a character explains her powers and origin, this felt like a fresh, interesting take on the wilder side of super-powered adventures. (Though they’re not superheroes; they make that clear right up front.) It’s the sort of story where characters get in a fight with the moon, and that makes perfect sense.

A surprise for me was Hawk and Dove, by Sterling Gates and Rob Liefeld, who I used to really not like. Liefeld still produces some awkward panels, but overall, his storytelling is clear, fast-paced, and interesting. I’m even more impressed by the writing by Gates, more economical here than in Supergirl. This series, more than most of the others, comes with a great deal of history, with Hawk having issues working with the current Dove, who replaced his brother. Gates manages to encapsulate all that history in a few pages, in a way that sets things up clearly without making the reader feel like they need to go back and reread all the previous issues.

Less effective at dealing with past history was Batgirl #1, by Gail Simone. Featuring Barbara Gordon back in her costume, after spending the past 20 or so years in a wheelchair after being shot by the Joker, this series has aroused controversy by taking away one of comics’ only disabled heroic characters. DC has made it clear that her paralysis still happened, as is evident from the amount of time Batgirl reminisces about it as she fights some masked killers. However, the only reason given for her recovery is “a miracle.” If we weren’t going to get an explanation for her recovery, then there doesn’t seem to be a need to dwell on it as much as this issue does.

It would have been a cleaner introduction if they had just shown Batgirl on an adventure, and then explained her backstory, including her paralysis, as they story progressed in later months. Instead, it feels like DC and Simone were rushing to reassure readers that Barbara Gordon’s years as Oracle still happened. That’s something directed more towards longtime readers, not the new readers DC is ostensibly courting with this relaunch. And it truly does make the new reader feel as if they’ve missed something.

As frustrating as Batgirl #1 was, it pales in comparison to Swamp Thing #1. Rather than focusing on the introductory story, about something weird going on with the world, causing mass deaths of populations of wildlife, writher Scott Snyder chooses to focus on how Alec Holland has returned from the dead but still somehow has all the memories that Swamp Thing had, because Swamp Thing thought he was Alec Holland while Alec Holland was dead. If I hadn’t read the issues leading up to this story, that wouldn’t make much sense to me either, and this is a series ostensibly intended for readers who haven’t read those stories. Again, I feel that Snyder should have led with the mystery, and then fed in the character backstory as it went along.

I don’t actually have a lot to say about Detective Comics #1, Green Arrow #1, or Justice League International #1. I enjoyed them all; they were all perfectly serviceable superhero stories. The art, particularly, was very nice in all three.

Animal Man #1 was another nice surprise; it’s a great mix of superheroes and weirdness, which gives it a nice edge. I know from interviews that writer Jeff Lemire and Swamp Thing writer Scott Snyder are friends and talk about their books a lot. Hopefully, Snyder will learn from Lemire’s example, and Swamp Thing will improve as it goes.

Finally, Men of War #1 was a book I was looking forward to a lot. It’s been too long since DC has tried anything besides superhero books. While this is set squarely in the DC universe, I like the idea of ordinary soldiers having to deal with super-powered beings as weapons. I also like the idea of straight war stories as a backup feature, although I thought the dialogue in the first installment of Jonathan Vankin’s Navy SEALs story felt a little too Robert Kanigher gung-ho.

So, overall, the new DC universe seems to be producing a decent line of mainstream superhero comics. The biggest successes seem to be the ones in which the creators have the confidence to forge ahead with new stories, instead of feeling the need to drag along the weight of the backstories. Since that’s what’ll help bring new readers aboard as well, I hope we see more of that as the line progresses.

Sunday, September 04, 2011

So it’s a week of reboots. This week, I read the first issue of the new Justice League of America, by Geoff Johns and Jim Lee. I read the first issue of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, co-written by series creator Kevin Eastman. And I read Carte Blanche, the new James Bond novel by Jeffrey Deaver. Each one presents a new start to their respective series, giving new readers “start here” points without being concerned about what’s happened before. And each achieves its goal, with varying degrees of success.

Arguably, the most successful one would be the Bond novel, if only because it’s a complete unit, while the two comics are both just the first chapters in longer stories. Deaver presents a decent spy story, with the sort of larger than life villain and twisty plot one expects from a Bond story. (And, to be clear, when I say “Bond story,” I mean more than the Ian Fleming novels; I’m including all the later novels by other authors and the entire movie series.) It’s a fun, fast-paced read.

It’s not perfect; Deaver has some storytelling quirks that got annoying after a while. For example, on several occasions, he ends a scene or chapter cutting away from Bond making a phone call to an undisclosed recipient. In the next chapter, Bond finds himself in some sort of pickle, only to escape because of something he set up in the phone call he made previously. The first time, it was cute. After about five or six times, it felt like the cheats from old serials, where the resolution to the cliffhanger at the end of the previous chapter turned out to lie in scenes of the hero escaping that we just weren’t shown as part of the cliffhanger.

Overall, though, it was an entertaining story. But is it a good Bond story?

As someone who has read most of the Fleming books, as well as most of those by other authors, and seen almost every movie, I’d have to say it was. Deaver’s Bond felt like the guy I know. He’s not exactly the same person; he’s not as cold and distant and—most importantly—not as misogynistic. And that’s fine; this is a contemporary novel about a man who grew up in the 80s. We’re supposed to like him, and having him treat women they way he did in the Fleming novels would have just felt anachronistic.

And, ultimately, that’s the thing: this isn’t an Ian Fleming novel. If that’s what fans want, they need to reread the originals. If they want new Bond stories, they’re going to have to accept books like Carte Blanche. New Bond novels shouldn’t be period stories; that’s not what the originals were. They shouldn’t be by writers trying to imitate Fleming’s style, either. I think if new Bond stories need to be told—and I’m not entirely sure that they do—then this is probably the way to do it.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is probably the most honest of the reboots I read, since one of the original creators is involved. Part of the story is set in the present day, beginning in media res, with one of the turtles separated from the group for reasons unknown. The rest of the story begins retelling the origin of the turtles and their rat mentor, Splinter in flashback.

It’s a different origin than the original, replacing the accidental mutation of the turtles with deliberate experimentation. This may be a sign of the times; as we experiment with more and varied ways to kill each other, making the turtles a part of that experimentation process makes the story seem more contemporary. It’s also probably more logical than them just getting exposed to a mysterious chemical accidentally. Since this is only the first part of the story, it’s tough to judge where the revised origin might end up.

It’s a little easier to judge the contemporary part of the story. I thought starting off with a story about the group being broken up was a bit awkward, because we haven’t seen them together yet. I felt as if I were coming in on the middle of the story. I suppose that’s probably the writers’ intention, with the hope being that I’ll stick around to learn how things got to be this way. And I will, at least for the time being, but I would have preferred it to be because I cared more about the characters than the plot.

In a way, it’s a storytelling choice made because, while this is a new starting point, these aren’t new characters. We know that there are four ninja turtles, so we know that there must be something wrong if one of them is out on his own. But it feels like a storytelling choice made out of prior knowledge of the characters, rather than something that works with the fresh-start philosophy reflected in the new origin, or reintroduction of characters like April O’Neill or Casey Jones.

Ultimately, I’m intrigued enough by the story that I plan on keeping with it for the time being. I always wanted to jump onto the turtles in the past, but it seemed like there was too much continuity I didn’t know. So a fresh start, with one of the creators involved, still is something I’m interested in, even if it isn’t the cleanest start they could have provided.

Finally, the highest profile of the three would be the first issue of the new Justice League of America #1, by Jim Lee and Geoff Johns. I found a lot to like about this first issue. The art, by Jim Lee and Scott Williams, was gorgeous, as always. And I really enjoyed the new characterizations Johns gave Batman and Green Lantern. Their personalities were distinct and funny, and he managed to work a great deal of character information into the fight scenes.

I also liked the new world presented in this series. This is a world that hasn’t had superheroes around since World War II, and I like the notion that they aren’t immediately trusted or accepted. We live in a world where we no longer trust traditional institutions like big business or banks, the media, or the government. Some folks don’t even trust science or education. How likely is it we’d trust people with super powers who hide their faces?

Having said that, I don’t know if this issue was the best introduction to the new DC universe. Because we haven’t met these versions of Batman, Superman, or Green Lantern yet, it’s jarring to see their conflicts. In a perfect world, we would have been introduced to the characters as individuals first, before seeing how they work together. I think the same issues are in play here as with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: we know they’re going to end up together eventually anyway, so let’s just get on with it. Which pretty much sums up my problems with the Green Lantern movie, which also featured heavy involvement from Geoff Johns.

At the end of the day, I guess the main question with restarting series like this is whether or not it’s even something that should be done. Does the world really need new James Bond stories, or Ninja Turtles stories? Or should they be left in the past?

However, the question is academic; we are getting new stories with these characters. And if we’re getting those new stories, they need to be versions that are as relevant to readers today as the originals were to their original fans. And that means updating the concepts, especially in the case of James Bond. It may not be what long-term fans or purists want to see, but in the end, I don’t see any other way.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

So, last weekend, we attended the D23 Expo in Disneyland, the bi-annual convention put on by Disney’s official fan club. And I would blog about what a poorly run, disappointing experience it was, except that’s been done better by someone else at the Disney Travel Babble blog here. So I refer you there. Particularly to the pictures of the long lines, because that was our weekend. And we didn’t get to see Dick Van Dyke perform, which is what we were most excited about. Poop.

Since I don’t need to blog about something that made us miserable, I’m going to blog about stuff that’s making me happy instead. I blogged about ebooks in my last entry. Since then, I’ve discovered a couple of new series, both from Crossroad Press. Like the Rancho Diablo series (which released its fourth, and so far best, installment this week), they’re shared world series, with groups of authors all writing stories in the same setting, sometimes about the same characters.

I’ve been a fan of the shared world fiction concept for decades. Arguably, any TV series, with episodes about the same characters written by different authors, is a shared-world series, but that’s stretching the definition. However, I did realize the other day that the first shared-world anthology series I encountered were probably on television: The Love Boat and Fantasy Island. Each had authors bringing their own new characters into a shared environment and telling their own complete stories, also involving the regular characters from the series.

That was one of my fascinations with the superhero comics from Marvel and DC as well. They all told separate stories about different characters, but they all took place in the same universe, and stuff in one series would occasionally cross over into another. (Now, it feels like the shared universe aspect has become more important to those companies than telling the individual stories, and that’s lessened my interest somewhat, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I suppose technically, movie and TV tie-in novels are also a form of shared-world literature, and I’ve enjoyed reading those for years as well. However, since the authors don’t have any real control over the main characters, I’m not going to count those in the same vein. Still fun to read, but for the purposes of this essay, a different beast (though not completely unrelated).

The first time I heard about shared-world books was in a review of the then-latest Thieves’ World book in Marvel’s Epic Illustrated. The review described the concept, that several authors had gotten together at a convention and talked about how tough it was to build a new world from scratch every time they wanted to start a new series. They discussed creating a world together in which they could place their stories, and thus the Thieves’ World series was formed. The review observed that the earlier books read like a collection of stories that just shared a location and made references to each others’ characters, but later volumes read like cohesive novels with a shifting point of view.

That fascinated me. I’ve always been interested in stories that feature a large cast of characters, without a single focal character that you know will always be safe. And this was about the time that TV was telling more stories like that, and I was being drawn in to dramas like Hill Street Blues and St Elsewhere, as well as nighttime soaps like Dynasty and Falcon Crest. (Never Dallas, oddly enough.) In my high school years, I watched afternoon soap operas for pretty much the same reason. Mostly just Days of Our Lives; this was in the mid-80s, when they were doing big, over-the-top James Bond storylines. But that’s also a topic for another day.

Anyway, I started reading Thieves’ World. I got maybe halfway through the series before I went away to college, and found my leisure reading time greatly reduced. It was about that point in the series that, in addition to the regular anthologies, authors were producing spin-off novels featuring their characters, and I thought that was cool, too. Thanks to the success of Thieves’ World, other shared-world anthology series started up; perhaps the most successful one, still running today, was George R.R. Martin’s Wild Cards. That one was tailor made for me: a shared-world prose anthology about superheroes? Yes, please!

Wild Cards has gone from publisher to publisher over the years, sometimes with some lengthy gaps in between. It seems to be coming out fairly regularly these days, probably due to the strength of the George R.R. Martin name. Thieves’ World attempted a comeback seven or eight years ago, but disappeared again after a novel and two anthologies. If there’s anything of their like on the shelves now, I’m certainly not aware of it. (There is a new Bordertown anthology, but it’s unclear to me if it’s the start of a new series, or a one-off anniversary book.)

Fortunately, it appears that the rise of the ebook is also helping revive the shared-world series. As I’ve discussed previously, not having to claim space on bookstore shelves helps. Being able to sell short stories or short novels individually for low prices instead of asking new readers to spend eight dollars or more on a new concept helps. Not having to slot a book into a physical publishing and printing schedule, or make readers wait an extended period of time helps as well.

For that matter, I’m sure that the more rapid communication methods of today help these projects as well. Instead of authors having to physically mail stories to each other and to editors to coordinate things, they can email them almost instantly. So it’s easier and cheaper to coordinate a shared-world project like this. So now we see series like the Scattered Earth and O.C.L.T. reaching fruition.

The Scattered Earth series concept, according to their Facebook page, is that at some point in the far future, the Earth is destroyed and the survivors scattered across various planets. Each of the planets of survivors now believes themselves to be the original Earth. Created by three authors (David Niall Wilson, Aaron Rosenberg, and Steve Saville) and with books announced from another couple of authors beyond them, it looks like each writer, at first, is focusing on a specific planet or region. They’ve said that more definite connections won’t appear until the second or third wave of novels. So, right now, each author’s series can be read individually.

So far, Crossroad has published a novel and short story in Rosenberg’s Dread Remora series. Focusing on the first ship to carry an amphibious race beyond the atmosphere of a water-covered world, it feels like a classic nautical adventure crossed with a space exploration series along the lines of Star Trek. The first novel, The Birth of the Dread Remora, is an exciting origin story, telling the tale of the launch of the Remora and how its crew handles going into space and encountering the varied life forms to be found out there. Turns out, it’s a dangerous place, and the crew has to make some hard choices in order to not let themselves be seen as pushovers.

The second Scattered Earth story to be released is a Dread Remora short story, Crossed Paths. On its own, it’s a bit unsatisfying, seeming to set things up for the future rather than tell a complete tale in its own right. However, since this is an ebook series, with novels costing less than $3 and short stories for less than a buck, I’m okay with getting something that’s just an installment in a longer tale. (As long as the questions this story raises do get answered eventually, that is.) Already, I’ve gotten more than a novel-length’s worth of story for way less than a paperback book would cost me.

The third Scattered Earth story released to date, Wilson’s The Second Veil, tells another story of a planet leaving its atmosphere for the first time. This time, we visit a world where a toxic atmosphere is held at bay by a system of domes and purifying pumps and filters, all put in place to protect humanity by a mysterious power ages ago. Civilization has stagnated, and blind faith has replaced scientific curiosity in most of the population. However, when a mysterious object plunges to earth from space, they realize the time has come to begin to explore and understand the greater universe beyond their domes.

The idea of a society stagnating, replacing technological advancement and inquisitiveness with religious ritual isn’t particularly new, I suppose. However, given that there are folks who still refuse all scientific evidence about climate change and evolution, I think it’s still a theme worth exploring. In his book, Wilson creates some interesting characters who I’ll enjoy spending some time with. Like the Dread Remora series, this appears to be about the first group of explorers to leave their planet. However, while the Dread Remora starts with the ship leaving the planet, The Second Veil ends at that point, so it’ll be interesting to see how the series differ.

The third book, by Keith R.A. DeCandido, is supposed to be released soon, and I enjoyed the excerpt he read on his podcast. Unlike the first two series, he’s writing about a civilization that has already established itself across the stars. So that’ll definitely be different.

The other series from Crossroad Press that I’ve started is O.C.L.T., also created by Wilson and Rosenberg. So far, two short stories (one each by Rosenberg and Wilson) and a novel (by Wilson) have been released. So far, I’ve read the two stories, and am about 3/4 of the way through the novel. Interestingly, all three stories so far are actually prequels, introducing the characters who will feature in the series, but not actually bringing them all together yet.

O.C.L.T. appears to be a paranormal investigation series set in a world close to ours, only dealing with the magic and mythical creatures and events living in the shadows and between the cracks. I appreciate that the series is taking the time to introduce the characters and the world gradually, instead of throwing us in the deep end. And, again, at less than a buck for each story, and less than three bucks for the novel, it’s not that much of an investment for me. I’m enjoying the characters, and the adventures they’re having, and will definitely keep following the series.

So far, the O.C.L.T. series is a bit less distinctive than Scattered Earth, probably because these sort of paranormal investigation series are much more common in print and on television. In fact, both series feel a bit like good tie-in series based on TV shows. This may be because the writers—including DeCandido—are mainly known for writing media tie-in novels. Having said that, these do not feel like Stargate/Star Trek/Fringe novels with the serial numbers filed off. Some of the motifs are familiar enough to bring in genre fans looking for something new but still comfortable. But the series still feel wholly original.

Monday, July 18, 2011

So it’s been a bit longer than I’d like between blog entries. That’s mostly due to some frustrating a/c problems, first with the wife’s car, then mine, and finally, last week, with the house. The expense of getting the car problems fixed has been a stress. Even more so were the house a/c problems. The repair were covered by our home warranty, but since we live in Las Vegas, and it’s July, having no a/c for a period of time was pretty awful.

We ended up boarding the pets for the whole eight days the a/c was out. So that was traumatic and upsetting for us, having an empty house that was also untenably hot most of the time. (It was also expensive, and not covered by the warranty.) We went out to the library or the movies to enjoy air conditioning. It was too hot to cook, so we ate every meal out, and that was expensive and also not healthy. We even spent two nights at Santa Fe Station when the week was at its hottest.

Anyway, no matter how you slice it, these past few weeks haven’t been very conducive to concentration or focus. So no blogging.

However, over those same past few weeks, I’ve been getting more interested in the ebook scene, thanks to a couple of projects that I would like to share with you:

James A. Owen announcing that he would be releasing his previously-unavailable-in-English series, Mythworld, as a series of ebooks, first piqued my interest. He plans to release one about every month or so, with a total of fifteen books in the series. I got the first one and read it as soon as it was available. It’s a bit talky, and focuses more on exposition and scholarship than characterization and action. But it’s still interesting.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed in Owen’s work is the way he draws together various folklores and mythologies from disparate sources and creates his own mythology by unifying them. Those themes are very present in this book, which, to be fair, is probably mostly setup for stuff that will play out over the course of the series. And at only $4.99, it’s a good price for an installment in a serialized story.

I love serialized storytelling, whether it’s in comics, television, books, whatever. And reading the first Mythworld book made me realize that digital publishing may revitalize that method of storytelling in a way that couldn’t happen any more in print. By publishing Mythworld digitally, Owen doesn’t have to deal with the time and expense of printing copies of his story. The books don’t have to be shipped to stores, and stores don’t have to make room for fifteen new books coming out from one author in the space of a year. (They don’t seem to have that problem displaying James Patterson’s books, but that’s a different story, and a different scale of sales.)

Also, as a reader, the digital delivery means a lower price, which means I’m more okay with getting a serialized story. Even if the Mythworld books came out on a monthly basis in print, they’d probably cost at least $12-15 each. For that price, I’d want something a bit more self-contained, in case I didn’t want to continue with the series. At $4.99, it’s a lot easier to take a chance.

Mythworld was the first full novel I read on my iPad, as well. I had read that the iPad isn’t the ideal ebook reader, because the screen is backlit, unlike the Kindle or Nook. However, the iPad does everything else that I want it to do that dedicated ebook readers don’t, and I don’t want to have to buy yet another piece of hardware. Fortunately, I found the reading experience just fine. So, armed with the knowledge that reading books on the iPad for an extended length of time was something I could do, I started seeking out other ebook series that might interest me.

I had heard a lot about the Dead Man series, created by TV writers and novelists Lee Goldberg and William Rabkin. Described as an attempt to revive the monthly men’s adventure paperback genre mixed with an ongoing horror story, the books tell the story of Matthew Cahill, a man who comes back from the dead with the ability to see evil physically manifested on people. Goldberg and Rabkin produce the series monthly with a variety of authors, treating it like a TV series with themselves as producers/showrunners.

So far, I’ve read the first two books. They’re fast-paced action stories with some genuinely creepy horror elements in equal measure. There’s also enough (dark) humor to keep things from getting too depressing. They’re quick reads, but at only $2.99 each, they’re good value for money. I’m looking forward to getting caught up on the series, and then reading each new one as it comes out.

Another new ebook series that I’m really enjoying is the Rancho Diablo series of westerns. The brainchild of three authors (James Reasoner, Mel Odom, and Bill Crider), the books tell the story of Sam Blaylock and his creation of the Texas ranch the books are named after. Three books are out so far, with plans for more, plus a spinoff series about some of the characters from the town’s backstory.

The first book, by Odom, dealt with Blaylock building the ranch. The second, by Reasoner, focused a bit more on Blaylock’s family, as well as darker elements from his past. I haven’t read the third one yet, but according to interviews, future books will focus on some of the other supporting cast members.

As a kid, I loved reading shared-world anthologies like Thieves’ World and Wild Cards. I loved the idea of a series of stories about a large cast of characters connected by their location. In a way, the Rancho Diablo series is reminiscent of that. Again, this is the sort of thing you couldn’t do in print: a series of shorter stories that don’t necessarily always feature the same central character. As a series of less expensive ebooks, there’s less financial risk on the part of the reader. Don’t particularly like this story? You’re out less than three bucks and maybe 90 minutes of your time.

Because there’s only three guys working on Rancho Diablo, they aren’t coming out as quickly as the Dead Man books. That’s fine; I’ve still got one to read before I’m caught up. After that, though, it’s going to be tough waiting between books.

And these books are only the tip of the ebook iceberg. More and more established authors seem to be turning to self-publishing via ebooks, rather than try to find a place in a traditional system that seems ever-more unfriendly towards the midlist authors. Authors like Peter David, along with friends of his better know for writing Star Trek novels than original material, have just started Crazy 8 Press, to publish their own work. Paul Kupperberg, whose comics I loved in the 80s, has started publishing his own novels as ebooks. Lots of good stuff seems to be coming out now that they don’t have to fight for space on the shelves of traditional bookstores. Plus, authors can continue to make their backlist available, instead of them going out of print.

Of course, there’s plenty of self-published stuff that isn’t necessarily any good. (Note to if I bought a book for my Kindle app on my iPad, that doesn’t mean that you should recommend every other book ever published on the Kindle to me.) So that’s another thing these authors will have to try to compete against. However, even if it means that these authors have to fight to get their work noticed among the crowd, at least it’s out there to be noticed. If Peter David has to publish his non-Trek work himself through Crazy 8, that’s fine, as long as it means there’s more non-Trek Peter David books out there. Because those are the books I want to read.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Some time ago, I blogged about how much I love Dave Stevens’ Rocketeer, and how I was looking forward to the then-upcoming IDW Rocketeer Adventures series with a mixture of excitement and sadness. Well, the first issue is out, and I’m going to talk about it today. So, consider this your spoiler warning.

As I said, I had bittersweet feelings about this miniseries. Until now, the Rocketeer had always been Dave Stevens’ character, with the exception of a short story by Peter David and Gray Morrow in Disney Adventures (which tied in to the movie, so that doesn’t really count). While only two stories appeared in print, Stevens had plans for many more that never saw the light of day. He passed away in 2008, so those stories will never be realized.

Part of me feels that if a character is so strongly identified with its creator, then maybe the character should die with him. Having said that, I love the two Rocketeer stories that we got, and I have always hungered for more. That means that either someone figures out how to draw comics with an Ouija board, or new Rocketeer stories are going to have to be done by artists other than Stevens.

I think I’m willing to accept Rocketeer stories by other artists, because Stevens was very willing to recruit help. The second story was co-written by Danny Bilson and Paul DiMeo, writers of the movie. Stevens also received plenty of help on the art, from the likes of Sandy Plunkett, Mike Kaluta, and Art Adams, among others.

He even says in his autobiography that because he was such a slow artist, he should have gotten other creators involved in the series earlier, with him supervising production. Who knows; maybe if that had happened, we’d have seen Rocketeer stories on a much more regular basis, and the character would be much better known with a larger body of work. On the other hand, maybe there wouldn’t be the same mystique if we had more than the relatively small number of much more personal pages that Stevens (with help) was able to produce.

At least IDW chose to produce an anthology book of big name creators contributing short stories about the character. This may just be a prelude to a regular series by a single creative team of not-so-big names, but taken on its own terms, it’s a good idea. These aren’t just creators churning out Rocketeer stories; they’re tributes to Dave Stevens, done with love and admiration.

This first issue features three stories and two pinups. The first story, by John Cassaday, starts at the tail end of a Rocketeer adventure, with girlfriend Betty held hostage by gangsters and strapped to a rocket. A recap page sets the scene, telling us that Cliff had uncovered an extortion plot involving the rocket, and Betty was taken hostage to force him to back off. The actual story is mostly action, showing how Cliff rescues Betty and stops the gangsters.

John Cassaday is one of those artists who I wish drew more comics I want to read. I loved his work on Planetary, but have no interest in reading his X-Men comics. I’ve only read a couple examples of his writing, but he’s pretty much proven that he doesn’t actually need to work with a writer. He’s the perfect example of the sort of artist who, 15 years ago, could leave superhero comics behind and do his own creation. Now? He’s doing covers for Superman, I think.

His art resembles Dave Stevens’ clean, clear, classic style. It’s beautiful and subtle, detailed where it needs to be, but not at the expense of expression or storytelling. His characters are all individuals with their own personalities. Which, considering he’s drawing Cliff Secord and Betty in his own style, makes it all the more impressive that they are clearly the characters that Dave Stevens created.

The second story, by Mike Allred, tells the aftermath of Cliff’s New York adventure (the last published Stevens story) and sets things up for the next stage of the character’s development. As a character piece, it carries a little more weight than the Cassaday one, and that makes it a little more jarring. Because it isn’t Stevens telling this story, it makes me that little bit sadder that he’s gone.

To be clear: the Allred story is very much in keeping with the tone of the original stories. But it’s also very much in Mike Allred’s artistic voice. As a story, it feels like a legitimate continuation, but artistically, it’s different. And that difference is what drives home the point that Rocketeer stories will never be just the way Stevens did them any more, because they can’t be.

On my first read, the Allred story felt a bit incomplete, as Cliff Secord told his friends he was off to start a new, vaguely-defined mission. Since the first two Stevens stories take place in 1938-39, and this follows from those, and the next story in the book takes place during WWII, it feels as if Allred is setting up a story that will probably never be followed up on.

Upon rereading the comic, it flows better. In the Stevens stories, Secord gets involved in his adventures for personal reasons. He’s not a proactive hero. The Allred story marks the transition from reactive to proactive. In the third story, we see the results of that, with the Rocketeer fighting Japanese super-powered foes during the war.

(In some ways, things would have flowed better if the book had led off with the Allred story. The Cassaday story is beautiful, but Cliff was never a crime-fighter by choice. Leading off with a story describing him as just that feels a little wrong, even though the rest of the story is very faithful to the original.)

That third story is probably my personal favorite of the book, even though it’s the least like a traditional Rocketeer story (whatever that is). Written by Kurt Busiek and drawn by Michael Kaluta, it’s really Betty’s story, back on the homefront, only learning about Cliff’s adventures through his letters. We get snapshots (literally) of the Rocketeer on a couple of pages, but we see how Betty forces herself to stay strong, and true to her man, despite her fears that the worst may have happened overseas.

The Cliff/Betty relationship was so central to the original series. Stevens may never have had the chance to show them finally reuniting on the page, but it was clear from the ending of Cliff’s New York Adventure that their happy ending was inevitable. It’s great to finally see that reunion in Mike Allred’s story, but even better to see that their relationship endures in the Busiek/Kaluta story.

The two pinups, by Mike Mignola and Jim Silkie, are nice. The Mignola one makes me wish we could see a whole Rocketeer story by him. The Silkie pic is a pinup of Betty. Since Silkie has done tons of illustrations of Betty Page, this is really just another one, but it's still pretty.

Overall, I’m very pleased with IDW’s Rocketeer Adventures as a tribute to Dave Stevens and his creation. Whether I’ll really consider it a legitimate continuation of the character depends on how cohesive the series reads as a whole. Either way, the book is a definite success as far as I’m concerned.

Monday, May 16, 2011

The last couple of weeks, I was starting to feel a little frustrated with comics. Well, DC comics, to be exact. Well, Geoff Johns taking an entire year to bring back Alan Moore’s version of Swamp Thing, to be exact. Well, that, and me ordering the first issue of a Flashpoint miniseries because it was drawn by George Perez, only to find out that George Perez isn’t able to draw all three issues of the series, which I was only ordering for his art.

But, you know, there’s still plenty of stuff to be excited about in comics, and that’s what I’m choosing to focus on instead.

First, while the (hopefully) first wonderful series of Marineman is drawing to a close, I’ve found another potentially fantastic series to look forward to. Robert Kirkman, champion of creator-owned comics, has just released Super Dinosaur, created with his artist from Astounding Wolf-Man, Jason Howard. And they’ve done a great job.

Super Dinosaur feels like the best sort of classic children’s entertainment, by which I mean that readers of any age will find something to enjoy in it. They’ve included a lot of elements of the classic boy genius/adventurer genre, but melded it with so many other things that it’s much, much more than a thinly disguised take on Jonny Quest or Tom Swift. There’s big explodey action and heart-rending quiet character moments. And, you know, dinosaurs.

It took me some time to come around, but I’ve become a fan of pretty much everything Kirkman writes these days. And this book is no exception. Jason Howard, back coloring his own work again, also beautifully draws it. This looks like the start of something truly entertaining, and I hope it finds its audience.

That’s always going to be the hard bit for comics trying to reach out to kids, of course. They’re sold in comics shops, and if kids aren’t reading comics, they’re not going to come into a comics shop in the first place to find some, no matter how perfect something like Super Dinosaur may be for them. And regular bookstores just pile them all into one catch-all graphic novel section. So maybe the best thing the industry can try to do is to produce the comics for the aging comics-shop audience, in hopes that the 30 and 40-year old dads will purchase them for their kids.

Certainly, if I were an adult fan of Invincible and Walking Dead, and wanted to share my love of Robert Kirkman’s books with my kid, I’d purchase Super Dinosaur to read with them. Similarly, fans of Brian Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming’s Powers ought to pick up Takio for their kids. (Same great writing and art, characters young readers can identify with, and a lot less swearing.)

And fans who want to introduce their kids to mainstream superheroes should really be able to share the regular Marvel and DC comics with their kids. And the idea that they can’t is partly a problem with the publishers, and partly a problem with the readers. Because, seriously, if you are young enough to have kids who are just now old enough to read superhero comics, you probably haven’t been reading Green Lantern or the Flash or Spider-Man since the very beginning yourself. At this point, the majority of superhero readers joined whatever comics they’re reading somewhere in the middle of the run, and had to figure out stuff on the fly. But, somehow, we seem to have lost sight of this, and now proclaim today’s comics as “inaccessible.” And while they can be pretty impenetrable at times, I think we’re not giving new readers (of any age) enough credit if we think they won’t be able to figure stuff out. And maybe giving current Marvel and DC comics too much credit if we think they’re too complicated to figure out.

And, really, if a regular issue of Amazing Spider-Man or Batman or Thor is too mature for middle-school kids to read, what the hell is happening in the pages of those comics? And how true to the original creators' intentions could that possibly be?

Anyway, enough of that. I also just finished reading a book I have been waiting almost my entire life for, it turns out: Genius, Isolated: The Life and Art of Alex Toth. (I can’t post any scans from the book, because it’s literally too big and heavy to put on my scanner.)

I can’t actually remember the first time I knew I was reading an Alex Toth story. I know I read a Black Canary two-part story he did, and I knew he drew a Challengers of the Unknown series in Adventure Comics Digest. And he did a Superman Annual that I would love to read again.

Once I connected his name to his art, I knew that he was one of my favorite artists. I’m no artist, so I can’t tell you how his art works. But I loved his clear, bold, minimalist style, telling the sorts of adventure stories I loved clearly and beautifully. My admiration of his work probably paved the way for me loving the artists who influenced him (first Milton Caniff, although I didn’t know it at the time, then Frank Robbins, Noel Sickles, and many others), as well as those influenced by him (Steve Rude, Randy Reynaldo, just to name two).

My earliest introduction to superheroes was probably the first season of the Superfriends cartoon. Years later, I learned that he was the designer for that series, which makes him responsible for my getting interested in comics in the first place. However, after reading this book, I learned that I’ve been a fan much longer than I thought.

When I was a kid, my dad would take periodic trips, to conferences, or to visit his ailing parents, or who knows what other reasons. I was a kid. Anyway, at the time (the early 70s), because he wasn’t a big fan of flying, and he was a big fan of trains, my dad was just as likely to take the train as he was to fly somewhere. Maybe it was cheaper, too, for all I know.

Anyway, one time, my mom and I went to the train station to pick him up from one of his trips. I can’t remember the circumstances, but I was allowed to pick a comic book from the station newsstand to read while we were waiting. Even at that early age, I was reading comics, but mostly Harvey and Disney humor comics. This time, however, I picked a comic telling the story of Paul Revere’s ride.

This realistic, historical comic may seem like a departure from what was then my usual fare, but one of my dad’s hobbies at the time was building detailed paper models (from kits) of historical buildings. One was the Old North Church in Boston, and he had explained to me the role that the church had in the story of Paul Revere’s midnight ride. That story had fascinated me, and seeing it told in comics form, I probably was motivated to read it to learn the whole thing.

I loved the comic, but only after reading Genius, Isolated, did I learn that it was drawn by Alex Toth. I’ve found the whole thing online here, and it totally holds up to my memories. So it’s entirely possible that Alex Toth drew the first ever serious adventure comic that I read, just as it just so happened that my first ever Batman comic was also the first one drawn by Marshall Rogers.

Alex Toth is a name most comics fans (hopefully) know today, and this book shows why that should be the case. Reproduced wherever possible from his original art, the book demonstrates Toth’s skills as a storyteller. Arguably, the scripts he worked from aren’t as groundbreaking as the art, but there’s not a single story I had to struggle through. Ironically, the clunkiest writing is Toth’s own, in the strip Jon Fury, which he did for an army newspaper. You can see a talented storyteller struggling to master unfamiliar skills, with word balloons almost crowding out the artwork with stilted, wooden dialogue. If Toth had given himself the opportunity to practice and develop his writing skills as much as he did his art, he could have become an even more influential creator.

Genius, Isolated, the first of three volumes, is fantastic, and not just because it’s full of comic book art drawn by Alex Toth. (Although, to be fair, that would be enough to make any book fantastic.) It’s also a great biography, giving a great sense of the man behind the art. It not only tells Toth’s story, but the story of the comics industry as it was developing at the time. But it’s also fantastic for me because it helped me reconnect with a part of my past, when buying new comics was still a revelation, not just something I did every week.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

First, congratulations on Marineman’s nomination for an Eisner award for Best New Series. Well deserved. If you haven’t read it, and have an iPad or similar device, the first issue is available digitally from Image Comics for free. Seriously, check it out.

The other week, I finally, properly read Stumptown, by Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth (also up for an Eisner). I had read the serialized version, but there were big delays between issues when it came out. Plus, I was so behind on my comics reading at that point, I accidentally read the fourth issue before reading the third. So, really, reading this new collected edition was the first time I’ve read this story properly. And, having done so, I think this may be my favorite Greg Rucka comic book series. (Maybe even my favorite Rucka series overall.)

Stumptown tells the story of Portland, OR private detective Dex (short for Dexedrine) Parios as she searches for a missing girl, in order to erase her gambling debts at a local casino. Both the story and the art are straightforward and down-to-earth, full of local Portland details that give it a strong sense of place. While the delays in the original issues may have been down to Matthew Southworth, ultimately the results are worth it. Rucka has said that they won’t release the next story until they have most of the issues done already. That's great, because it means no delays, but also that the book will still be drawn by Southworth.

I mentioned in an earlier blog about how much I enjoyed his most recent novel, which may turn out to be the final Queen & Country story. And while I love that series tremendously, and I love Rucka’s two Whiteout stories, Stumptown has them beat for me. Unlike his other comics work, it’s much more human and down to earth. As relatable and real-world as he makes the espionage setting of Queen & Country, it’s still a globe-trotting spy story. Whiteout still has its exotic setting. But Stumptown is an ordinary story about (relatively) ordinary people in a normal city, motivated by ordinary petty things.

I recently read Brad Meltzer’s latest novel, The Inner Circle. What I really enjoyed about it was how what looked to be a centuries-old conspiracy, in the vein of The DaVinci Code, boiled down to petty, venal, human emotions. And that’s what I loved about Stumptown; despite some characters’ ties to real-world organized crime, the story is ultimately about love, loyalty, and family.

I had read interviews where Rucka cited ‘70s and ‘80s TV detective shows like The Rockford Files, Simon & Simon, and Magnum, PI, as influences on Stumptown. Fortunately, he’s created his own version of those sorts of series, instead of “creating” a thinly-veiled adaptation of something he loves. What Stumptown has in common with those shows is its focus on a normal human being, not a superhero, just trying to make a buck by doing a job anyone could do. Dex, his detective hero, doesn’t have superpowers, and she isn’t superintelligent. She’s determined and stubborn and observant. In short, she’s someone you believe could actually exist.

The situation she finds herself trying to solve is equally believable. The fate of the world isn’t at stake. There’s no secret weapons or larger-than-life villains here. It’s just a story about how people love each other, or want to be loved, and what that love or lack thereof drives them to do.

I’ll always have a soft spot for Greg Rucka’s work. A couple of years ago, I was trying to put together a comic convention for the library. I knew that the only way it would succeed would be for us to get a big-name writer to headline the show. And Rucka was always at the top of my list. And he came to our little convention, and helped make it a huge success.

On top of that, he was an incredibly nice guy. Polite and friendly and down-to-earth, there was nothing of the superstar about him (which, for a guy with acclaimed runs on Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman, is no mean feat). When you listen to him talk about his stories, it’s clear that he has a passion for, and deep understanding of, the characters he is writing. Doesn’t matter if it’s a character he owns, or a company character like Superman or the Punisher. He understands what drives those characters, and sees them all as deep, complex beings.

Most importantly, he’s a Doctor Who fan. So, you know, gotta love him.

I’ve also got a soft spot for detective comics, particularly those starring women. One of these days, I’ll probably blog about the first issue of Comics Scene Magazine, and the influence it had on me. One of the articles in it (if I recall correctly) was an interview with Max Allan Collins, who was just beginning his Ms. Tree series. That would probably have been one of the earlier alternative comics I started following, and it also led me to Collins’ prose work, which led me to other mystery writers. (It also led me to Dick Tracy, but that's another story.) So whenever someone starts a new female detective series, I’m at least curious.

So congrats to Rucka and Southworth for their Eisner nomination, and just for creating a great comic. I look forward to the next installment, whenever it turns up. I have every confidence that it’s going to be great.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

At WonderCon in San Francisco, DC Comics announced a series of comics called Retro-Active. The line features three comics each for Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Justice League. The comics pay homage to the way the characters were portrayed in the ‘70s, ‘80s, and ‘90s, done by creators who worked on them in those periods.

I’m excited, mostly, because the ‘70s and ‘80s is when I became a fan of those characters. The writers DC has chosen are the ones who made me a fan. Marv Wolfman is doing the ‘80s Superman comic. Gerry Conway is writing the ‘80s Justice League one. Dennis O’Neill, Roy Thomas, and Len Wein are writing a bunch. And, best of all, Mike W. Barr is writing the ‘80s Batman one.

Still, I’m only cautiously optimistic about this. If, for example, DC is going to these writers and asking them to just write the best self-contained Green Lantern or Wonder Woman story they can come up with, featuring the characters as they were in the ‘80s or ‘70s or whatever, that’s one thing. But if DC insists that it “feel like a ‘70s comic” by, I don’t know, sticking in lots of references to hippies and having characters say, “Groovy!” a whole lot, that’s going to ruin it for me. Even worse, if they insist on sticking in lots of continuity references, so fans can know exactly where to place their stories (as sounds like is the case with the ‘90s stories, at least), that also takes the fun out of it for me.

Similarly, I hope that the writers don’t try to force a lot of things into their writing that are viewed as stylistic hallmarks for the period. For example, ‘80s comics do feature more expository captions and thought balloons than comics today. That was the style then, and just because it isn’t the style now doesn’t make them any less well written, any more than Shakespeare is any less classic literature just because people don’t write in iambic pentameter these days. However, if these writers try to make themselves go over the top, it’s just going to feel silly.

Finally, the choice of artists is going to be a big deal. As great as it is to have Martin Pasko and Cary Bates doing ‘70s Superman and Justice League stories, the definitive artists of those books from that period (Curt Swan and Dick Dillin) are dead. So, sadly, are a lot of the other great artists from that period. Or, if they’re still living, they’ve retired. So while it’s exciting to me that Mike Barr is writing a new Batman story, featuring the version of the character that I love, I know it’s not going to be drawn by any of my favorite Batman artists from the same period. Not Jim Aparo (dead), Don Newton (dead), Marshall Rogers (dead), Gene Colan (retired) or Alan Davis (Marvel exclusive contract, I think).

In the end, though, it’s just hard to go home again. When I reread the comics I loved as a kid, part of the enjoyment I still feel comes from the context in which I first read them. In the same way, they are the products of the environment that produced them. They weren’t “‘70s or ‘80s comics” when they were written. They were just comics. Trying to produce a comic today that feels like it was written 30 or 40 years ago adds a layer of self-awareness that may work just fine, or may be just the ingredient it takes to ruin the experience for me.

Having said that, it’s new comics featuring my favorite characters by my favorite writers. So I am totally going to be buying them.

More exciting is the news that DC is going to be producing collections of Batman stories by my favorite artists. The first comes out this summer, collecting a number of Batman stories by Gene Colan. While he is perhaps best known for his Tomb of Dracula stories, I first encountered Colan’s art on Night Force, written by his Dracula writer, Marv Wolfman. (That’s scheduled to be reprinted later this year as well, and I’ll probably blog about it then, as it was a formative reading experience for me.)

When he took over drawing Batman, I became an even bigger fan. I didn’t realize it at the time, but his dynamic panel layouts and use of shadows and light may have impacted my tastes in comics art every bit as much as flashier, brighter artists like George Perez and Keith Giffen. The stories at the time actually treated Bruce Wayne and the supporting cast as characters as well, so the fact that Colan could draw ordinary human drama as well as superhero action was important. Definitely an artistic high point from my youth, and definitely a book I’m looking forward to.

Steve Englehart and Marshall Rogers’ run on Batman appeared in the ‘70s, but I didn’t read it until it was reprinted in the ‘80s. And it instantly became another favorite. I was ecstatic when they returned to the character several years ago, and heartbroken when their proposed third and final part of the story wasn’t published. (And heartbroken all over again when Marshall Rogers passed away.) Once again, it was the perfect marriage of artist and character, with Steve Englehart’s down-to-earth characterizations giving a human heart to the fantastic adventures as icing on the cake.

Having said that, Rogers did plenty of Batman stories without Englehart. In fact, years later, I learned that the very first actual Batman comic I read was actually the first issue that Rogers drew. And, as it happened, I hated it. Not because of the art, or even the story, but because it wasn’t the Batman I was expecting. I had become a fan watching the Adam West TV series (in reruns, I’m not that old). The actual Batman comic of the time was dark and serious, and that’s not what I wanted to read at the time.

I’ve no idea what this new Marshall Rogers collection will contain. Possibly both stories he did with Englehart, plus maybe the Legends of the Dark Knight story he did in the 90s, written by the late Archie Goodwin, completed by James Robinson. All that would be fine, and I’d love to have it all in one nice volume. But I’m also really hoping it has some of his earlier, uncollected stories. Especially that very first one, since that would be so perfect.

While Gene Colan and Marshall Rogers are fairly well known artists, I was particularly surprised (and very pleased) to learn of plans of a collection of Don Newton’s Batman stories. He’s nowhere near as well known as the other two, but he was the artist on Batman when I first started buying the comic regularly. He should have been better known only he died too young. Again, I have every intention of getting this book.

And if DC Comics were to collect all the Mike W. Barr/Alan Davis Detective Comics issues, and maybe start collecting Jim Aparo’s work on the character, I would never need to buy a new Batman comic again. Because I could just reread the stories that made me love the character in the first place, instead of reading new ones that make me wonder why.

Actually, that’s harsh; there’s nothing wrong with the Batman stories being published now. Except that they’re not the Batman stories that I want to read. I understand that styles change with the times, and that characters need to grow and evolve. But with corporate-owned characters like Batman, that growth and evolution is so artificial.

I keep banging the creator-owned comics drum, but when I read a creator-owned comic—even a superhero one—I know that any changes are at the wishes of the creator, and are as permanent as they want them to be. Jay Faerber can change everyone’s powers around in the pages of Dynamo 5, and as far as I know, that’s the status quo from then on. Eric Larsen can kill off the main character in Savage Dragon and replace him with his son, and for all I know, that’s the way it will continue to be.

What Grant Morrison and others are doing with Batman right now is probably interesting, but they’re not the kinds of Batman stories that made me a fan. I don’t want to read an in-depth exploration of his psyche; I want to see him and Robin stopping crazy crimes by the Joker and Penguin and Riddler. And any changes from that aren’t logical developments in the character by his creators, and there’s nothing to guarantee the next creative team won’t ignore them.

So I’m glad that the stories I do love are coming back in print, and I look forward to DC’s attempts to pay homage to those periods in the characters’ creative histories. No matter how it all turns out, it’s still a new Batman story by Mike W. Barr, and that’s something to get excited about.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Having a busy, frustrating weekend, and I'm not sure I'll be able to carve out the time for the Batman blog that's percolating in my brain. If that shows up later today, you'll know I managed it. If not, here are the reviews I posted on Goodreads and Amazon about books I read last night:

The Spider: Burning Lead for the Walking Dead by Mark Wheatley

Veteran artist Mark Wheatley writes and draws an adventure of the classic pulp hero, the Spider, as he tries to stop the evil Cannibal Queen's plot to turn the city's elite into flesh-eating cannibals. Will he succeed? What do you think?

Wheatley's art is as fantastic as ever, and really captures the crazy air of weird menace that typified the old Spider adventures (Or so I assume, not having ever actually read any.) Unfortunately, while the writing may very well capture the same spirit, it doesn't make for that fascinating a story. I understand the desire for fans of the old pulps to pay homage to them, but if all we get is a story that's right out of the old pulps, what's the point? Why not just read one of the originals?

I love those old stories as much as the next person, and thrill to reprints of the old Doc Savage and Shadow books. But if someone were to write a new story about them today, I'd want it to feel more like a contemporary novel about those characters. Or create new characters that also pay homage to spirit of inventiveness that the best pulp writers displayed.

Sadly, this book gives us characters with thin-to-no motivation or background. Lots of crazy ideas and weird imagery, but not enough to hold it all together. It also doesn't really give us the background of the heroes at all, instead presuming knowledge of stories from 60 or 70 or more years ago. (Fortunately, since the story depends not at all on the characters having personalities, that doesn't really matter.)

Recommended for long-time fans of the character, I suppose, but for the rest of us, it's no more than a brief diversion.

iZombie: Dead to the World by Chris Roberson and Michael Allred

Gwen Dylan works as a gravedigger in a Eugene, OR cemetery by day. By night, she hangs out with her friends, tries to figure out the meaning of her life, and tries to just survive.

But her friends are a ghost and a werewolf (or, more accurately, were-terrier). Gwen survives by eating brains once a month, in the process absorbing the memories of the recently-deceased and -consumed and finding herself compelled to resolve any unfinished business they've left behind. Because Gwen is a zombie, but not just a mindless, shambling corpse. She is still the same person she was before she died (as far as she can remember, which isn't 100%). Why is she so special? That's what she wants to find out.

She and her friends aren't the only monsters in Eugene. There's a pack of vampires, running a paintball range. And there's a couple of monster hunters, including Horatio. Gwen should probably stay away from him, before he finds out who, or what, she really is. If only he weren't so darn cute!

Chris Roberson creates a group of interesting, three-dimensional characters in iZombie, and through them tells a story that's both hilarious and horrifying. But it's never predictable. Mike Allred's art is clean, clear, and detailed. He gives each character their own distinct look, and perfectly captures the tone of Roberson's story.

This is only the first installment in the adventures of Gwen and her friends, collecting the first five issues of their monthly comic. I can't wait to read more!

Monday, March 21, 2011

Once again, real life caught up with me last weekend, and I didn’t get time to write a blog entry. And while I’ve got a couple of things I want to write about eventually, I’m feeling a bit of pressure this week as well.

Plus, I’m pretty happy with how my previous entry, about the Rocketeer, came out. It’s the sort of thing I really want to do with this blog: talk about things that I love. I don’t want to write reviews, or detailed, well-researched retrospectives. I just want to talk about things that mean a lot to me, and why that’s the case.

But, like I said, I’m not feeling like I have the time to do that really well this week. So it’s going to be another quick recap of stuff that made an impression on me recently.

This past week was the Chicago Comics and Entertainment Expo, or C2E2 (not, as one might guess, the name of a supporting droid on Star Wars: Clone Wars). Not a lot of “news” coming out of the con impressed me at all. In fact, only two bits of news that I read made any real impact.

First, I was excited to hear about IDW’s Doctor Who comics being available digitally on the IPad. It should come as no surprise that I read these comics. I buy them as they come out monthly, then get them again when they’re collected into books so I can easily reread them and store them on my bookshelf. So the idea that I can dispense with buying paper copies of the serialized version, and just read those digitally as they come out is pretty cool.

Then there was the announcement of Brian Bendis and Mark Bagley working on a creator-owned comic, Brilliant. Again, I’ve made no secret of my preference for creator-owned comics. I became a fan of Brian Bendis through his early, independent crime comics, and still follow his creator-owned stuff. (His mainstream Marvel stuff is just fine. In fact, when I read it, I think it’s great. But I just don’t want to read Avengers or Ultimate Spider-Man or any of that, and because he does enough of his own stuff, I don’t have to.)

Mark Bagley, I remember from my youth as being the guy who broke into comics through the Marvel Try-Out Book. In 1983, Marvel published this thing as recruiting tool, giving prospective artists, inkers, letterers, colorists, and writers sample pages to work on, and send in to Marvel to show what they could do. Bagley was the winning penciler, so he was the first potential new comics superstar whose work I saw from the very beginning.

Most of Bagley’s work through his entire career has been for Marvel Comics, so I haven’t always gotten everything he’s worked on. But he always stayed on my radar. And now, apparently at the age of 53, he’s finally working on something he can own. So, obviously, I’m going to support that.

Anyway, here’s the books and comics I read over the last couple of weeks that I thought worth talking about:

Midnight Riot by Ben Aaronovitch

Aaronovitch wrote the Doctor Who story Remembrance of the Daleks, which is fantastic. He also wrote a couple of Doctor Who tie-in novels that were favorites of mine. This is his first original novel, about a London cop who ends up assisting the detective-inspector/sorcerer whose job it is to deal with supernatural crimes, and it’s also fantastic.

My joke is that it’s a novel set in contemporary London, featuring a cop solving crimes involving magic, but it’s not an Urban Fantasy because the cover doesn’t feature a chick in leather hot-pants poking my eyes out with her boobs. Seriously, though, it reads like a contemporary crime novel featuring magic, and that’s what makes it work. Aaronovitch seems to be building a world here, but isn’t caught up in shoving the clever details of that world-building down the reader’s throat. There are crimes, they involve magic, and there are rules to how that magic works. But it’s all in service of the story.

It’s also funny as hell, and a story that draws very deeply on its setting. Whether dealing with the history of Punch and Judy, or the geography of the London river system, it’s not a story that could be easily transplanted to another setting.

The sequel is already out, but I haven’t read it yet. Hopefully, these are just the first two in a long line.

Carbon Grey by Hoang Nguyen, Khari Evans, Paul Gardner, Mike Kennedy, and Kinsun Loh

It seems like a lot of creators, but Carbon Grey is the brainchild of video game designer Nguyen, aided and assisted by friends and colleagues who he says are better writers and artists than him. It’s a fantasy/sci fi/action comic set in what appears to be an alternate version of the First World War. I ordered it because the idea intrigued me, and the art samples I saw looked pretty cool.

In this first issue, he dumps the reader right into the world, without a lot of setup. This is a risky thing, and I’ve read more than one review chastising him for being too confusing. Me, I think I was able to follow the story, but I don’t feel like I’ve got the whole picture yet. That’s fine; it’s only the first issue, and if all my questions were answered already, I wouldn’t need to come back for the next part.

Having said that, I’m conditionally recommending it, because there’s always the chance that things won’t get clearer. In the meantime, though, it feels like Nguyen and his team are deliberately setting things up to be explained later. So I’m giving them the benefit of the doubt.

Weird Worlds by Kevin Van Hook, Jerry Ordway, Aaron Lopresti, and Kevin Maguire

DC Comics’ new anthology, Weird Worlds, seems to be getting next to no attention, and that’s a shame. It features three serialized stories: Lobo by Kevin Van Hook and Jerry Ordway, Garbage Man, created, written, and drawn by Aaron Lopresti, and Tanga, created, written, and drawn by Kevin Maguire.

Lobo is a character that I thought was fun at first, twenty-some years ago. Since then, I have lost all interest in the indestructible, bad-ass biker intergalactic bounty hunter, and this series is doing nothing to change that. However, Jerry Ordway, who should be doing higher-profile projects than this, draws it beautifully.

The other two series are what have me continuing to buy and read this comic. It’s not very often that DC or Marvel tries to introduce new characters into their universes. (To be fair, it’s because fans don’t want to seem to want to read about new characters, but there you go.) So the fact that these series do introduce new characters makes it something I want to support. Plus, each is the vision of a single creator, each writing and drawing his own creation.

Garbage Man, by Lopresti, seems to be a man-turned-monster horror story in the vein of Swamp Thing or Man-Thing. (Though I suppose Garbage-Thing wouldn’t have been a good choice for a title.) The art is nice, and the story is fun, although I wish the story felt less like a single, long, serialized origin story, and had instead presented more relatively self-contained segments. As it is, I don’t really have a sense of what a Garbage Man story will be, once the origin is done, and consequently don’t know if it’s a series I would want to see more of.

According to Lopresti,
"The Garbage Man saga is much more involved than can be handled in six nine-page story slots. Most of the story will pay off in the second six-issue "Weird Worlds" series."

This, of course, is a bit frustrating. One would hope that he would focus on making the first story a satisfying read, because if it isn’t there won’t be a second one. (How hard is the whole serialized story thing to understand?)

Kevin Maguire’s science-fiction hot chick story, Tanga, is more of a light-hearted romp. He has said in any number of interviews that he’s having the time of his life doing this story, and it shows. And that sense of fun is infectious. I’m hoping Weird Worlds does indeed spawn some sort of follow-up series for Garbage Man and Tanga. (And if I have to take more Lobo along with it, I’ll cope. Especially if it’s drawn by Ordway.)

Savage Beauty by Mike Bullock and Jose Massaroli

Mike Bullock wrote the Phantom comic for Moonstone Books, based on the classic newspaper strip. He placed the character (a costumed hero based in the African jungle) very squarely in contemporary Africa, dealing with modern issues like genocide, ethnic cleansing, and child soldiers. When Dynamite Comics took over the Phantom license, creating something that was almost but not entirely unlike the Phantom I know and love, I was disappointed. Fortunately, Bullock seems to be exploring the same themes through this surprisingly intelligent updating of the classic Jungle Girl concept.

I highly recommend this comic, but with some reservations about the publisher. Moonstone announces and solicits a lot of comics that catch my attention. Too often, however, they either never come out (or come out very late), or they end up not really being comics. I was very excited about their Return of the Originals line of comics based on old pulp characters. However, so far, the two books released in that line have been illustrated prose stories, not comics (and one was clearly being promoted as a graphic novel). And none of the other stories have managed to make it to stores yet.

However, Savage Beauty #1 did come out, and it’s the comic that was described. And it’s as good as I had hoped. The story is (sadly) relevant and topical. It’s not just about some leopard-skin-bikini-clad white chick fighting poachers or jewel smugglers or gun runners. The art has a nice European or South American feel to it. And there’s a fun reprint in the back, for folks looking for more of a classic Jungle Girl comic to balance stuff out.

I guess my biggest concern is that this is coming out from Moonstone, who do produce good comics, when they actually come out, and are actually comics. I know my local comics store regards them as wholly unreliable, and that’s not an entirely unearned reputation. Personally, I’m hesitant to order stuff from them not knowing if I’m getting a comic or something else. However, if they can keep putting this series out on a regular schedule, I’m happy to talk it up for them.

Buz Sawyer 1: The War in the Pacific by Roy Crane

One of those longer blog entries I’ll eventually get to is my passion for old newspaper comic strips. I had heard of Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy strips, but Buz Sawyer was new to me until the King Features web page started running it as part of their (wonderful) vintage strips program.

Now Fantagraphics has started reprinting Roy Crane’s work, starting with the Captain Easy Sundays and the Buz Sawyer dailies. This volume reprints all the Sawyer wartime strips, and they’re great. They totally demonstrate why Crane has the reputation that he does amongst comic strip fans.

The stories are pretty much a product of their time. As stories about the war published in mainstream newspapers during the war, they’re straightforward patriotic adventures of American heroism and ingenuity pitted against the menace of Japan. They’re not particularly introspective, nor are they politically correct by today’s standards. (Although, given recent comments I’ve seen online about how the Japanese earthquake and tsunamis are somehow “payback” for Pearl Harbor, I’m not sure if that’s really as true as I’d like to believe.)

However, they are fast paced, dramatic, and exciting. Personally, I don’t think the characters and plots are as deep or complex as those found in Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, but they’re pretty close. (Plus, I’m totally biased.)

More to the point, the artwork is gorgeous. I’m not familiar with any other newspaper comics artist who uses duotone craftint anywhere near as extensively as Crane, and it gives his work a very distinctive look. Plus, you know, gorgeous women.

I also just finished the first volumes of Little Orphan Annie and X-9: Secret Agent Corrigan from the Library of American Comics. Both great, so I’ll probably be talking about them more in the future.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

As a kid, I loved the Rocketeer. The creation of the taken-too-soon Dave Stevens, the 1930s hero first appeared in comics a few months after I entered comics fandom myself. Only a relatively few stories appeared over the next decade or so, but I eagerly devoured every one. And when the movie came out in 1991, I was in heaven. Last weekend, a number of things led to me wanting to watch the movie again, and that led to me rereading the comics. I’m pleased to say they all held up exactly as I remembered them.

The comic came out at the perfect time in my life. I had just started reading comics seriously. The cover of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew #1 had gotten me into the comics store, but it was the explosion of new publishers and series in the early 80s that kept me there. Pacific Comics had just debuted Captain Victory #1 about that same time, which was not only my introduction to Jack Kirby, but to color comics published by companies other than Marvel or DC. Pacific followed that up with Mike Grell’s Starslayer, and at the back of Starslayer #1 was an ad for a new backup series debuting in Starslayer #2: the Rocketeer.

The year before, Raiders of the Lost Ark had made me a fan of period adventure stories. The image of the Rocketeer, with his distinctive helmet, looming over a gun battle between some ‘30s looking gangsters with a beautiful woman (what did my 12-year-old self know from Bettie Page?) looking on in horror, completely captivated me and who knows how many other comics readers? All I know is that when Starslayer #2 came out, I was as eager to read that backup story as I was the main one.

And it lived totally up to those expectations. Writing about this now, almost 30 years later, it’s hard to remember exactly what appealed to me at the time. Part of it, I’m sure, was the art, with Stevens’ loving attention to period detail. For someone who, at that point, had only been reading either humor comics or superhero comics set in the contemporary world, this felt like the closest I’d ever get to reading a “new” story from what was already becoming apparent to me was the Golden Age of heroic fiction.

Plus, Stevens had a genuine knack at creating compelling characters I wanted to learn more about. This was quite possibly the first time I’d been in on the ground floor for a superhero’s origin, and in the character of Cliff Secord, Stevens created a winner by creating a loser. He wasn’t a guy who wanted to be a hero. He just wanted to make a buck. But by the end of that first story, when his friend was in trouble, Cliff stepped up and flew off to the rescue.

From that point on? Totally hooked. Couldn’t wait for the next installment.

Ironically, it turned out that waiting for the next installment became the primary occupation for Rocketeer fans. Dave Stevens soon earned a reputation for being an extremely slow, meticulous artist, and Rocketeer stories were few and far between. That first story appeared in four short installments from Pacific Comics, but before it could be finished, Pacific went out of business. Eclipse Comics published the conclusion before compiling the whole thing into a graphic novel, but according to Stevens’ autobiography, Brush with Passion, an acrimonious relationship with Eclipse kept him from doing further stories with them.

In the late 80s, I was overjoyed when Stevens produced two installments of the Rocketeer Adventure Magazine for Comico before they went out of business. The third installment of that series finally came out in 1995 from Dark Horse Comics. They are still in business, but that was the last appearance of the Rocketeer in print.

According to Stevens, it had just been too long between installments, and the comics industry was in trouble in the mid 90s. The sales just weren’t there to support new stories. Later, Stevens had talked to DC Comics about a comic teaming up the Rocketeer with the Golden Age Superman, but that never came to fruition due to differences between Stevens and DC. Which is really a shame.

Of course, in between the Comico and Dark Horse issues came possibly the greatest single Rocketeer story of all: the full-length movie adaptation from Walt Disney Pictures. I’ve always taken a “I’ll believe it when I see it” attitude towards movie adaptations of my favorite stories, but when this one actually came out in theaters, I was there opening day. (Possibly even for a special preview screening; the memory fails me.)

I was so excited when I saw the commercials, because they looked just like the comic I loved had come to life on the screen. I felt sure it would be faithful to Stevens’ comic; he had liked the screenplay so much he had the screenwriters help write the second Rocketeer story for Comico. I remember asking to leave work early, so the show wouldn’t be sold out before I got there.

I didn’t need to worry. I think there was maybe one other person in the theater. Although it had been getting great reviews, the movie bombed at the box office. I was heartbroken, because it meant there wouldn’t be sequels. But regardless of how it did, that didn’t change how good it was, or how much I loved it. To this day, it remains one of my favorite movies of all time.

A couple of weeks ago, we were in Disneyland, where they play the Rocketeer theme as part of the background music at Disney’s California Adventure. I saw the trailer for the Captain America movie, set in WWII and directed by Rocketeer director Joe Johnston. And IDW solicited the first issue of a new Rocketeer miniseries, with new stories by big-name comics creators. I had the Rocketeer on the brain, and wanted to watch the movie again.

My wife watched it with me, and she loved it too. Her first comment after it ended was, “Why isn’t there more Rocketeer stuff in California Adventure?” She couldn’t believe that the movie, with its perfect mix of action and humor, with a believable historical setting and three-dimensional, down-to-earth characters, wasn’t a bigger hit. I don’t get it either, but there you go.

After watching the movie, I reread the comics, finally available in a gorgeous new edition from the aforementioned IDW, after decades of being criminally out of print. And they held up every bit as well as I remembered. The stories are still fairly simple and straightforward, but the characters are compelling and the art is beautiful.

I look forward to the new miniseries with somewhat mixed feelings. I’m excited that we’re finally getting new Rocketeer stories that I haven’t read, but sad that this never happened while Dave Stevens was alive. I also understand that, obviously, this is the only way we’ll ever get new Rocketeer stories. Knowing that he had help writing and drawing the original stories, I’m okay with the idea of other people working on the character. (He says this should have been his original plan anyway.)

It’ll be weird, seeing the characters in other people’s styles, but because the character is so identified with Dave Stevens, I doubt we’ll see them taken in wildly inappropriate directions. By all accounts, Stevens was well-respected, both for his talent and for being a genuinely nice guy, so I expect these stories to be respectful homages. I’m really excited to see the comics, but it’ll be bittersweet.

A few years ago, when DC and Marvel were going through periods where major series (Infinite Crisis, Civil War, Action Comics, Wonder Woman) were experiencing huge delays due to slow artists. At the time, the companies pointed out that plenty of classic comics, like Watchmen, Camelot 3000, and, of course, the Rocketeer, suffered huge delays when initially serialized. Ultimately, the delays were forgotten by history if the quality of the finished story was good.

Clearly, the eventual loss of sales for the Rocketeer can be traced back to the infrequency of stories. Even Stevens says so. So that’s not a particularly good argument. More importantly, I think great work is worth waiting for if it’s the product of a personal vision. There’s nothing so momentous about a Spider-Man or Batman story that justifies making the reader wait for it.

But comics like the Rocketeer are different. You can feel the love Stevens pours into every single line, and that’s why the series (a mere 130 pages or so, maybe the equivalent of six or seven full-length comic books) is still regarded as a classic today. I waited patiently for each installment, and rejoiced when each one came out. Hopefully, the new stories will feature the same amount of love, and while Stevens can’t be with us to supervise these new stories, I’m sure the creators know that he’s still looking over their shoulders.