Friday, August 29, 2008
Ultimate Iron Man II #5
This Wednesday brought a long-awaited conclusion to the second Ultimate Iron Man mini-series, and yet the fandom was strangely silent about the whole thing. Perhaps by now most of us are used to the delays that plague the comics these days, particularly the ones under Marvel’s Ultimate imprint. Or perhaps Marvel is hoping to gather the fans’ attention when they inevitably publish the upcoming trade paperback collection that collects the whole mini in its preferred format.
In any case, it’s impossible to discuss this issue without turning the attention towards the whole project it serves to conclude.
It shouldn’t be hard to understand the way the whole enterprise begun, more than three years ago. Marvel was happy with the way the Ultimate line was doing, carefully managing it in four ongoing titles – Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Spiderman, Ultimates and Ultimate Fantastic Four. Tapping high profile creators to reimagine their key books as accessible, new reader-friendly titles brought a lot of success to Marvel.
Still, they had a major problem with their flagship title, the Ultimates, and the heavy delays it suffered. Not content on leaving money on the table, Marvel decided to have their cake and eat it too, filling in the publishing schedule with Ultimates Annuals and minis. When it came to spotlighting Iron Man, the editorial came up with the idea of pairing the famed SF novelist Orson Scott Card with Andy Kubert, a surefire veteran of the line, who worked on both Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four.
Counting on the publicity brining in a respected author would get them, Marvel had no reason to think there would be any problems with such a foolproof strategy.
And yet, after the deals were made and the project green-lighted, nothing seemed to go the way it was supposed to. The first mini took a long time to be completed, and by then Andy Kubert was already gone to DC, forcing Marvel to hire Ultimate Spiderman’s Mark Bagley to finish the last issue. By then, it was clear that the story will stretch to another mini-series, and Marvel worked to find a replacement for Kubert, whose action-oriented approach always felt a bit miscast with Card’s slow burn story.
And what a story it was. Starting out with the events surrounding Tony’s birth, it was clear from the start that this version of Iron Man had little in common with his older self , as depicted in the Ultimates. Perhaps invited on by Marvel to do another take on the kid genius archetype he spotlighted in his “Ender’s game” series of novels, Card concentrated on telling a coming of age story of teen Tony, that bears more similarity to Harry Potter than Marvel’s infamous Shellhead.
For some reason, even the mainstream Marvel universe toyed with the adolescent depiction of the character, which brought out the controversial “the Crossing” storyline that even replaced Marvel’s icon with his younger counterpart. It’s unclear what exactly motivates Marvel to keep presenting the version of the character that isn’t a playboy or a heavy drinker, character traits most closely associated with Iron Man.
In any case, the first mini ended on a cliffhanger, with adolescent Tony making his first moves towards his superhero destiny. Marvel waited a long time to pick a new artist and started serializing the second mini, despite the fact that such measures undermine the project’s already erratic schedule.
At last, come 2007, with Pasqual Ferry on artistic duties, Marvel was finally able to continue publishing Card’s story. Ferry was a great choice, as his style was open and attractive. He came on the book following a departure from working on Mister Miracle and penciling Ultimate Fantastic Four.
Again the series ran into schedule problems, and was at the last minute resolicited with a bonus issue, designated to tie up the loose ends. By then, the lateness had long scrapped any possibility of tying in with the movie, and the whole idea of a Ultimate Iron Man mini-series was seemingly forgotten by the fans.
And now, after six months of waiting, the fifth issue finally materializes. Peeking through the covers, it turns out that Ferry’s art stops at the middle point, and the rest of the story’s illustrated by Hellblazer’s Leonardo Manco. Perhaps Ferry was brought back to DC comics before finishing the mini, making it a full circle since two years ago, when he abandoned the Mister Miracle mini mid-stream to work at Marvel. Whatever the case, shifting the art to Manco’s grittier style doesn’t do any service to the title.
And yet, that doesn’t number among the book’s biggest problems, considering that most readers will get to sample it in its designated form, that of a trade paperback collection. Concentrating on the project in this way, it makes an uneven picture, making it hard to understand why Marvel saw fit to package it as two separate mini-series.
The latest issue serves as the conclusion to nothing more than the second act of a three part story, one that’s left a lot of threads in the air. At the story’s current point, Tony Stark is still a superhuman with fantastic abilities not mentioned in the Ultimates title, a teenager who has a long way ahead of him to becoming that character.
Structure-wise, perhaps the biggest disadvantage to this approach is that it doesn’t fulfill its premise, that of Iron Man’s early days, repositioned so as to include his clash with Obadiah Stane. This should not be glossed over, considering that Stane is a defining villain for the regular Marvel universe version of the character, and the closest thing Iron Man has to a threat in his cinematic debut. Finishing the story in this way, Marvel cheats out their readers of a showdown they spent two mini-series building up to.
So, how does the editorial compensate for the supervillain presence in the finale of this tale?
Well, the book retraces its steps and brings back a supporting player from the beginning of the story to antagonize the character. This way of doing things actually does bring some closure and does not so much come from the left field as it seemed at the close of the previous issue. In many ways, the last couple of issues benefitted from the long and exposition-heavy set up at the beginning of the second mini, treating the reader to some suspenseful and action-filled sequences.
On the other hand, a couple of supporting characters end up wounded in the process, and another is rushed into an early grave. It all goes to show that this issue should’ve been no more than a chapter break before the concluding mini brings the characters to a logical ending point, some years later in the book’s internal chronology.
Choosing to end things like this, Marvel not only cheats us of a well-deserved throw down with Obadiah, but leaves us with Howard Stark that’s still not fulfilled his character arc, along with his under-utilized female assistant. Even Tony’s drinking problems feels mishandled. Bringing it up at this early point in his life and not going through with it ends up as fanservice, complicating the already cluttered story in the hope of adding more nuances to Tony’s character. With a set up like this, even the pre-superhero Ultimate universe framework feels as somewhat underutilized, in that it mostly consists of using Ultimate Fantastic Four’s Baxter building as a generic top secret lab. It all adds up to the feeling that what Card has shown us is a new version of Iron Man, pretty much divorced from both his Ultimate and Marvel universe counterparts.
Forced to take a microscopic look at the project as its author intended it, Ultimate Iron Man is a science fiction story inspired by the superhero icon. It fails to build up the license friendly take on the character, but serves up a smart, well thought out story that stands up to a closer inspection. The book does not cheat its audience of the elaborate details needed to really immerse in its setting, and presents us with smart and witty characters, seeking out new adolescent readers who would have trouble identifying with the more familiar, corporate version of the character. The book remains political enough to place a major terrorist ploy at its center, regardless of whether it finds its intended audience or not. The premise is carried over from the first mini, and this time around the authors see fit to tie it seamlessly with Iron Man’s debut as a new kind of superhero, bringing all subplots together in the main narrative.
The story still struggles as it brings in the government as an interested party, and keeps repeating the same story points, mostly evidenced by continued and unbelievable peril that threatens Howard Stark’s life while he’s imprisoned as part of the villain’s frame up. The female characters are forced to fight for space as part of the supporting cast that’s already packed too tight, and end up feeling as little more than token smart, racially diverse girls.
The whole mini goes to great lengths to set up the villain’s appearance in this issue, after treating us with the henchmen, such as the ultimate Whiplash and an unfamiliar midget fraud named Dolores. It doesn’t really pay off, primarly because it’s so obvious that the writer has an enormous affection for little Obadiah, who keeps stealing the show in every scene he’s in.
Thus, our attention is continually diverted from the strangely bland and uninspiring Tony Stark with his regenerative abilities and vaguely defined cloud of nano bots. Even War Machine feels not so much shoehorned in but cliched and uninteresting, failing to really catch on as Tony’s sidekick. Eventually in the last issue, James spends most of his time off-panel, in order to provide Tony for face-time with the adversary.
In fact, the whole finale feels rushed, and the villain’s psychotic antics seem familiar and fail to leave an impression. Considering the book feels a lot like a contemporary action movie (especially with the plane sequence in the earlier issues), the villain’s modus operandi unintentionally brings the whole endgame to an unfavorable comparison with the Dark Knight’s chilling Joker sequences.
Taking all this into consideration, Marvel’s years in the making techno thriller reads and feels very uneven. Judging by the recently concluded Ultimate Hulk/Iron Man mini, the editorial is actively avoiding the trouble they went through collaborating with Card and are much more keen to get back to the movie tie-in minis (like they did with Ultimate Daredevil and Ultimate Elektra), as Marvel prepares to reposition the Ultimate Universe and hopefully bring it back to the fans’ attention with the Ultimatum event.
Monday, August 18, 2008
David Lapham’s Silverfish
To start with, all I knew about this graphic novel is that it’s something that Vertigo’s been teasing for a while without a clear date, much like “Alcoholic”, “Sentences” or “Incognegro”. I knew that David Lapham has made himself a name writing and drawing "Stray bullets" but the only thing I read of him has been a story-arc on "the Darkness" that was very strange and surreal but also worked better than most of other stories in the second volume of the series. Now I see that the what he did there was break continuity and do his own thing which is why it was interesting and original. Anyway, what brought me to Silverfish was the back cover blurb that was very brief but also strange in a completely original way:
“With her dad and new stepmother, Suzanne, away for the weekend, Mia Fleming finds her stepmother’s secret possessions: an address book, a stash of money and a knife caked in blood. As Mia begins to unravel Suzanne’s twisted double life, she unleashes a Pandora’s box of horrors when she phones Daniel, a sadistic killer who believes he has a demonic fish living in his ear…“
The story is in black and white, much like most of David Lapham’s other work, it starts out slow but it builds on, having a proper length of 150+ pages and it never seems cluttered. A lot of (back) story is told, and usually in conversations at that but most of it very intersting, and even than the book picks up the pace in the frequent silent action scenes. The whole thing ends up a real page-turner even though the art can be a bit rough in some places. The supernatural elements perceived by a character are handled in a very reader-friendly way which in most books can get a bit heady and more mysterious than is good for them.
The characters are quickly established, most of them familiar movie archetypes that work well in the context of the story, with the only flaws being visually in the relative similar way the two best friends, Mia and Veronica look and narratively in the way of their buddies, a couple that plays a very small role in the plot after vanishing completely without any mention in the second part of the story.
The action movie set pieces are all there and there is nothing wrong with them – the fear of the past and it’s present implications is fueled by the physical isolation while the ending takes place in a memorable locale previously established that actually adds to the psychological effect of the supernatural on a character. One of the characters also has a disability that serves the story well to add to the tension in a way that is perhaps a bit of cliché too but handles itself well and proves useful by not drawing too much attention to itself, while very importantly pumping up the atmosphere.
The graphic novel is similar in a way to Dark Horse’s recently released “the Secret”, but while that mini-series’ plot starts with a series of prank calls that is also where two stories part ways, this one not turning out a take on a Scream-like horror story.
“Silverfish” is set in the late 80ies around New Year’s eve in the same way that films like “Donnie Darko” do – it looks like 80ies and feels like a product of that time but remains universal in all the ways that matter.
What should be clear by now is how much the whole thing works like the movie, everything about David Lapham’s story works like a very visual movie-pitch and a modestly budgeted one in the best sense of the term. The Vertigo imprint does not shy away from their tendency to produce sophisticated genre entertainment, so this should come as no surprise.
As for the merits which make this a mature readers story, they are on the level. The story is deeply disturbing and shows graphic violence at times while shying away from exploiting it along with it’s protagonists’ bodies. The sex is implying to have taken place and is part of the story but there is no nudity I can think of, which is very telling in it’s own right, considering none of the mostly female characters are objectivized, keeping to their realistic outfits and, most importantly, acting and behaving like real people.
Finally, at its heart this is the story of the way people trying to secure the best place in life for themselves and deserving that trust told from the point of view of ordinary teenagers and balanced by the use of a frequent contemporary paranoia trope - the serial killer. When all is said and done, the story lives up to what it’s set out to do, being a very entertaining and griping thriller, preciously rare in the American superhero dominated comic book industry.
Thursday, August 14, 2008
Now, this bit of review actually got deleted from the publisher's massage board, so I guess it could even be considered controversial!:)
I remember being satisfied with this when I wrote it, and I hope it makes for a nice read.
Let's try to imagine that North wind is the movie, which will make for a much easier start of the review. Now, North wind the movie is your slightly atypical post-apocalyptic block buster movie, and it just opened in theatres. The story is basically a coming of age tale, set in the backdrop that is much more fantasy than sci-fi.
As a framing device, we're being told the story from a particular point in the future, which makes a framing device whose importance is clear in the epilogue. North Wind the movie doesn't give its main character Pak much to work with, painting him as a classic destiny-obsessed figure, whose idealism does not waver or accept the harsher reality the rest of the characters live in.
That said, most of them are stock characters, playing the roles of strong and ambitious single mother, spiritual wise tutor who steps in for the boy as a father figure, a slightly fazed love-interest, and a ruthless villain whose single redeeming feature conveniently stops being an issue by the end of the second act, just in time for the final confrontation. The less said of the fun-loving drunkard who Pak relies on when he gets to the city of
Having said that, the setting is very early established and except for a single characteristic very quickly fades into the background, becoming yet another dark post-apocalyptic city.
As for the rest, there are a few times when a plot point takes the viewer by surprise, especially the ending, but was no doubt agreed upon to differentiate it from many other movies of the same ilk. There's even a tournament Pak enters incognito after he gets in the city, vying to win the chance to play catch up with his long-lost childhood friend, now distressingly in the domain of the evil governor. In the eleventh hour, the writer decides to throw in the obligatory resistance movement, just to raise the stakes for the explosive endgame.
There's not much more that can be said about North Wind the movie, except that there's always a possibility for the sequel. You either like this kind of movie, or you don't, and there's enough of a distinction on the surface, that coupled with a few twists in the story and a healthy dose of special effects, that it can leave it's mark on the jaded audiences, weary from the latest extravaganza that failed to entertain them.
Which is all well and good, but North Wind is a comic-book mini-series, which depending on how you look at that, could change everything.
2. the Mini-series
North Wind was a publishing experiment for Boom! Studios, an independent comic-book company mostly devoted to work on the projects which could be easily adapted into feature films. It also had the distinction of being the first comic-book to be officially distributed for free on MySpace, simultaneously with its release in the more traditional pamphlet format.
It's already optioned as a movie, which might mean nothing in the long run. It's also receiving flattering reviews on the Internet, but most of them are subjective anyway, which are traditionally willing to turn a blind eye towards non-superhero material, in favor of someone actually acting up on the good word and checking out the low-selling stuff too.
This is where things take a turn for the worse. Now, North Wind is by no means a bad comic-book, the writing is crystal clear, approachable, nicely-paced and art is both fitting, serviceable to the story and atmospheric, mostly of the well above-average level. The main problem lies in the basic idea that this is not a comic-book story, but one told in comics because of the inherent pulp thematic connections. The authors don't aim to achieve any particular artistic or entertaining value connected in the comic-book playing field, they are merely just another people trying to find their way to
Which is not bad for the industry, but still makes the whole thing kind of soulless and interchangeable, particularly today, when the book's competing with many similar projects on the market. And that's where the irony becomes apparent, because even at their worst, comics fare better than retreading the same cliches, sporting your average bland protagonist like the latest CG-fueled movie does. The medium has potential for so much better and more innovative stuff, which has been proved time and time again, both in the mainstream and small press publishing.
Comic creators usually pick a more interesting angle, and find space to tell the story sporting something new and quirky, even when it's clear that they're not dealing with a winner. They try, make the whole thing into an ongoing and change direction, struggle with it, and even after it's ended or cancelled, a lot of questions are still in the air, along with a wealth of story and ideas that can eventually being mined into a solid movie.
North Wind is a comic-book designed from the start not to stray from its point, and thus forced to go through the motions, just to catch it's audience and surprise them when it steers left, at the moment when we all thought it would go right. It's a big action movie, but you are left feeling nobody got to attached to the thing, it was just an exercise in branding something very familiar into the next big thing everyone kids will pay their money to enjoy, and later continue the experience with the obligatory video-game tie-ins.
3. Should you read it?
Tuesday, August 12, 2008
I've always wanted to have a place to regularly write about the things I like, and have finally managed to sit down and just get on with it.
Continuing on in the same spirit, for the first post I'll use an essay on "Stray bullet" I wrote and published on various websites. This time, I hope it finds the proper audience, along with my other forthcoming reviews and commentaries.
David Lapham’s Stray bullets is characterized by realistically depicting the continuing impact violence has on shaping the lives of a group of characters in the 1980s. It is told in a non-linear way, with differing points of view. Each issue is self-contained, in spite of it’s overall place in the book’s story, exemplified by the numbering counting every page as if there are no breaks in the story, not paying the attention to the format it’s serialized in. Unfortunate delays in publishing coupled with issues’ usual 30-odd pages of story betray it’s beginnings, that of a black and white independent comic.
In the place of the book’s de-facto main character is Virginia Applejack, a coming-of-age runaway that grows with each scar life cuts her, changing towns and false names. To break away from the sometimes somber town of the book, the author segues into colorful zany adventures of Amy Racecar, tying into the story as
The first issue is particularly misleading as it tells of Joey’s nervous breakdown, employing a much more visceral and disturbing tone than the rest of the series. It’s also notable in that it takes place considerably later than the rest of the series, perhaps showing us the story’s end point. Henceforth, Joey is seen in passing, as a damaged child, victimized by his mother’s ties to the local criminal element. The rest of the series’ first story-arc “Innocence of nihilism” consists of mostly thematically related short-stories, taking place in Baltimore, and spotlighting the upcoming recurring characters, though leaving them mostly in the background.
At the time unknown to the reader, one of those stories is central to the plot of the next story-arc, “Somewhere out west”, in which Lapham peaks as a creator. In a somewhat lighter touch, the author relocates the story to
It’s difficult to judge “Other people”, Lapham’s next story-arc, considering that the spotlight moves to Los Angeles, where the familiar faces once again try to find a way to make a living, if only for a short while. This time around, the drama that takes place is much more subdued, relegated to the complicated issues of marriage and infidelity, mostly filtered through the new characters that form a local social scene. Indeed, perhaps it’s best that the author opted to continue on in the same setting in the next storyline, “Dark days” which really shakes back the lives of the two runways, force to play the role of a surrogate family when they are both centers of weird affection by men. The story’s ties to organized crime are acknowledged by the new role of one of the previously emotionless suitors, eventually forced to oppose a kidnapper, as the story explores child molestation. Due to his increased presence in mainstream comics, David Lapham has yet to pencil the last issue of the book’s fifth storyline by the name of ”Hijinks and Derring-do”.
Lapham’s stories are expertly paced, his art-style being realistic just that much so as to depict real people in a tragic and believable way, as well as easily being able to bend into comedy as the hysteria strikes the other way. In the title that is only pessimistic on the surface, the author keeps exploring the themes of women in peril and the insecure men they manipulate to help them through complicated situations. The characters are spared the one-dimensional characterizations, ensuring they remain real people ignorant of the stereotypical “the psychopaths versus the innocents” approach.
Lapham forgoes the stylized dialogue for the realistic take, with characters fond of exclaiming the retro phrase “Cool beans”. The author utilizes the popular culture references sparsely, usually to establish the atmosphere by recalling the original Star Wars movies. He doesn’t escape the frequent trap of mature-readers comics, and digs at the superhero industry that marginalizes his and other comics tailor-made for more of mainstream success. Thus, a shy rich kid is depicted as a Marvel comics fan, going so far to pencil his own work, in a much warmer and personal touch by the author.
The overall message is concise and strong, teaching that empowerment, maturation and a semblance of regular life are not to be sought through getting in touch with the criminal element.
Monday, August 11, 2008
Todd & Craig
I'll start of by saying that "the Perhapanauts" is a brainchild of writer Todd DeZago and artist Craig Rousseau. I've known DeZago from "Tellos", a fantasy comic he did with late Mike Wieringo, while Rousseau is an artist with a long list of titles he's worked on.
Their collaboration is noted on the covers by their first names only, and I must admit that it was seeing "Todd & Craig's" listed above the comic's title, coupled with the cute character designs, that drew me to check Perhapanauts out in the first place.
Now, the title's actually one of the things I have problems with. I know that it sounds like a strange thing to say, but consider that I'm not a native English speaker. Anyway, the word "Perhapanauts" strikes me as hard to pronounce, and I actually had trouble learning to spell it correctly.
Presumably, the creators wanted the name to carry part of the comic's odd charm, but I'm not sure that this was the way to go, especially if merchandising is taken into account.
Speaking of media crossover appeal, I find that "the Perhapanauts" has the same animted movie-like sensibility that I found in DeZago's "Tellos". The concept of an SF team consisting of several distinctive races working together also reminds me of RPG, and could even be adapted as such.
As for the elevator pitch, that of the monster hunters being monsters themselves, at first glance it seems like a fresh idea, compared to the mainstream sf/horror movies. On the other hand, it's been tried in comics already, and to the mixed results. Both DC's Creature Commandos and later on Marvel's Howling Commandos tried to make the same premise work, but have failed to catch on with the readers. Dark Horse's own B.P.R.D. arguably achieved the most success with the idea, but it must be taken into accound that its cult status largely stems from the Hellboy connection.
Now, what are "the Perhapanauts"'s chances of succeeding where the others failed? Well, it spotlights "B.E.D.L.A.M.", a supernatural investigation agency that is much more light hearted than the average group of mad scientists working for a corrupt government. The agency employs a strike team of particular operatives, designated by the marker "Blue", whose character designs look pleasant and familiar in all the right ways.
All in all, the book is perfectly set up for a nice mix of horror and SF adventures, injected with a healthy dose of humor. It's not the most original concept around, but it's soundly set up, and with a proper execution could still prove enticing enough to attract readers.
The characters themselves are a well-thought out mix that works. They look interesting, and each possesses very specific character traits, that help further distinguish among them.
It hels that the mysterious aMG and psychic Arina, the two human characters, are wisely the foucs of the first mini-series. Molly the insecure ghost and two evolved monsters, scientist Big(foot) and a kid Chupacabra take supporting roles the first time around. That was more than enough to propel Choopie, an obvious creator favorite, to get in and steal the show.
The cast is set up in such a natural way that the reader accepts without thinking that there the team numbers two females (one a minority at that) , which would seem forced in almost any other comic.
In fact, the creative team manage to find a way to even give us a peak on the rest of B.E.D.L.A.M.'s facility. Thus, we the readers are also provided with a look at the characters who will become more important later on, setting them up right from the start as the Blue team's collegues and superiors.
"the Perhapanauts" open with an excellent first issue, featuring an action-packed encounter that serves to introduce the cast in the best possible way. The character's mission is framed around a sequence that is not only informative, but also manages to end the episode on a great cliffhanger.
By the second issue, the creative team shows us that they don't plan on letting up, and the previously established threat only grows in proportion and importance. Even after the monster's seemingly dealt with, in the third issue, the villian continues to indirectly shake up the team.
All the while, important character subplots pop up in the background, urging the reader to invest in perhapanauts' next adventure, however random it may turn out to be.
However, the creators decide not to end the first mini on an idea story point, which puzzlingly happens in the middle of the third issue. Instead they choose to use the rest of the pages to rush the new story's prologue.
On the surface, the fourth and final issue of the mini is expected to work as a one-shot adventure, but the overabundance of subplots that are carried over serves to steer the reader towards the bigger picture. Thus, my attention was drawn from the fight with a generic villain to the cliffhanger that serves as a prologue to the next mini, building directly upon the events of the previous issues.
And that brings me towards the first mini's major flaw - it's simply not meant to be read on its own. Otherwise, "First blood" is a fine example of the storytelling ideally suited for an ongoing title.
My final word is that "the Perhapanauts" is a much better developed comic then if appears to be at first glance. It has many strengths, and is definitely a fresh and much-needed addition to the American comic-book market.
Let's just hope that it lasts long enough to tell all the stories the creators can't wait to get around to.