Monday, August 31, 2009

the War that time forgot #1-12

"the War that time forgot" was a DC comics maxi-series, by writer Bruce Jones and penciler Al Barrionuevo. In the current market, 12-issue series are a rarity, so it's a bit perplexing trying to figure out why did the publisher choose to commission such a huge project. Even if the central idea was to produce a series that would renew the copyrights to a backlog of their non-superhero titles, devoting a year to it's publication seems a bit excessive.

The 12 issue limited-series format is in a lot of ways a throwback to the comics of 1980s, with some seminal works appearing in the format, such as "Watchmen", and "Camelot 3000", along with familiar superhero projects like "the Vision and Scarlet Witch". Still, in the current market where a lot of low-profile ongoing titles struggle to enter the second year of shelf-life, perhaps it's reasonable that the editorial saw fit to determine the right size for the project from the start.

It's interesting that Bruce Jones was chosen to be the writer for the story, as the veteran superhero writer's career has seen ups and downs during recent years. The former "Ka-Zar" writer has effectively re-entered the comics field in early 2000s with his work on "the Incredible Hulk". That was enough for DC to have Jones sign an exclusive contract with them, but his resulting output at the company was very polarizing. Starting with the run on "Nightwing", the company almost immediately turned their back to his ideas. After the "Man-Bat" mini-series, Jones has parted ways with Bat-office to try his hand on other properties, such as the "OMAC" and "Vigilante" mini-series. After DC cancelled "Warlord" and Vertigo stopped publishing "Deadman", two of his only ongoing series for the publisher, his work was seen in the closing issues of "Checkmate", once again to little acclaim. It was very strange then to see Bruce Jones listed as the writer of "War that time forgot".

Considering that DC comics has not solicited additional work from the writer, it may be that the maxi-series was chosen as a vehicle to round out his contractual obligations. In any event, it doubles as not only a Silver Age pastiche, but strangely a kind of a commentary to Jones' career so far. "War that time forgot" is a decades-old series that dealt with the bizarre premise of military fighting dinosaurs on a mysterious island. Perhaps due to the sheer oddity of the premise, it has actually resurfaced in 2004 in Darwyn Cooke's acclaimed "New frontier" mini-series. Still, Jones and Barrionuevo's iteration of the concept recalls another limited series, 1998's "Guns of the dragon". Interestingly, Tim Truman's 4-part tale also features Enemy Ace, a WW1 German pilot that serves as one of the many characters of Jones' epic. Thus, it perfectly brings into context the difference, as the latest "War that time forgot" series decides not to reinterpret the publisher's past, but also does it in a very old-fashioned storytelling style.

Namely, it brings to mind "Secret wars", one of the first 12-issue maxi-series ever published, and a superhero event classic. The 1984 crossover used a contrived way to bring all of the major Marvel characters in a cosmical locale, forcing them to battle against each other. The event is notable for pitting against each other various super humans for the first time, and presenting them to readers in a very succinct way. This is ultimately very similar to what DC comics decided upon regarding their new series, with "War that time forgot" serving as both an entry point to some of the publisher's lesser known characters, as well as featuring them in a complete adventure in it's own right.

It's notable that Marvel has revisited the concept recently with "the Beyond" mini-series, while the DC editor in chief declares himself a fan of "Secret wars", perhaps explaining why he finally green lighted the years old similar "Salvation run" idea as a tie-in to the "Countdown" event. Still, both of those works employed a modern approach, even if ultimately shying away from shocking consequences they teased at various points. This is in stark contrast to "the War that time forgot", which in every way evokes a more classical method of storytelling.

This is nowhere as clear as in putting a traditional heroic figure at the center of plot. By using WW2 pilot lieutenant Carson as their protagonist, Jones and the editorial have made a strange choice in the cast brimming with previously established characters, all of them soldiers from different wars. Thus, the one original and most-developed character in the cast is not really a reader's contemporary, but a period figure himself, and that much harder to identify with.

Still, having such a brave and morally superior protagonist doesn't excuse the rest of the players, who remain as stereotyped as they appear at first. It's very off-putting to be reading a 2009 comic whose characters are content to be time and again identified solely by their nation and battle rank, spouting cliches every time they open their mouth. It's perhaps to be understood that no real development could happen with the cast of literally dozens, but in the end only the very few develop any kind of relationship with one another, and those are as basic as taking a side, or showing affection. Most of the time, the series gives off a feeling of reading a boy's adventure comic, with the cast constantly arguing about rank and assuming control in an extremely over the top situation.

This kind of book was bound to be particularly heavy on the artist, but DC solves this problem by employing Al Barrionuevo, who lasted until the last quarter as the regular penciller. Even with a style as paired down as his, the sheer amount of clunky Silver Age designs he has to employ, couple with the density of the jungle and the constant array of dinosaurs would take toll on every artist. The script practically begs to be serialized in Sunday section of the newspaper, so that every panel would get as much flourish as possible. With Barrionuevo though, it's all about simplicity, which certainly helps with distinguishing the characters, but doesn't leave the intended impression. Backgrounds are sparse and non-existent, the figures rushed, but always in motion, giving the work a rushed feeling that matches some of the non-stop action, but doesn't call attention to itself. In this aspect, Mike Atiyeh's colors reinforce the strangely drab and stagnant feel of the story, leaving a feeling of competent work that is content with it's place as a generic genre comic.

It's telling then how the story opens up and shines when he starts coloring Scott ("the Flash") Kollins, the first fill-in artist, really manages to inject a lot of energy in the proceedings. After his run on the Flash, the artist has had a number of low-profile jobs at Marvel, pencilling the aforementioned "Beyond!" series, before getting back to DC. As a part of his workload the last couple of years, he has done everything from "Countdown" to pencilling "Final Crisis: Rogue's revenge story". Thus, by all accounts, "the War that time forgot"#9 should have been another fill-in job, that is all the more tedious, taking into account the huge number of references involved. Somehow, Kollins seems to find it all challenging, producing some of the most vibrant and steady art in his career, with colors that for his one fill-in issue interrupt the scheme to suit adopt the style that suits his work best. He seems to find the work so inspiring that for the first time, the anonymous figures in the background start developing a character of their own, with Jones appearing to follow suit and actually give them some dialogue for the first time.

Two other fill-in issues follow suit, with Barrionuevo returning only for the finale. Graham Nolan, that pencils #10 and #11 works in a style much closer to the series' regular artist, yet with a somewhat better more solid line work. His artwork really brings Ron ("Wolverine: Weapon X") Garney to mind, but otherwise gels much better with the rest of the issues than Kollins' work did. And yet, it's twelve other artists that really spoil the reader. Perhaps faced with the prospect of what the lack of marketing might do for the sales of such a niche book as "the War that time forgot", DC comics decided to spare no expenses when it comes to the covers.

Starting with Neil ("Batman") Adams and Brian ("Camelot 3000") Bolland, the publisher has went to great lengths to ensure the visibility of the copies on the stands. Walt ("Thor") Simonson, Michael Wm. Kaluta, Jose ("Elephantmen") Ladronn, Geoff ("Hardboiled") Darrow, are only the some of the artists that showcase their art, providing images that actually match the story content. Yet, opening the covers the reader finds a much different art style employed with the exotic locales, giant beasts and out of time warriors.

It's not that Barrionuevo is an amateur, he excels at dynamics and pacing the action, while clearly being an artist much more interested in how characters emote. It's just that the traditional art style associated with such wild flights of imagination calls for a more graphically detailed art-style, and the schedule that can afford it. Even with all the effort and the necessary shortcuts, the series has clearly proven to be too much of an effort for the artist to produce in a monthly fashion. Such as it is, the art contributes to the feeling of a project that seemed sound in the planning stages, but was rushed into the production without the necessary care for the final product.

The island, as envisioned by writer Bruce Jones is perhaps the best example of the book's problems. It seems inhabited by three species of dinosaurs only, making their presence known when all the other drama draws to a halt. What's more, it seems that the basic world building aspect is missing altogether to make way for mystery and the in-fighting, leaving the book with only the most basic of locations set up. Establishing distinctive locales and tying them together with local lore is much more essential for a fantasy setting, then all of the dinosaur attacks.

The characters don't seem to notice though, transfixed as they are on individual differences, while stumbling in the dark regarding the bigger mystery behind it all. When called in attention, such actions seldom maintain any kind of logic behind them. Thus, it seems hardly plausible that the time-displaced soldiers maintained any kind of life before Lt. Carson's arrival, which is when they start noticing the most obvious things, like using the exotic beasts as mounts. The same is with the local feud, that quickly resolves into an understanding, with seemingly no real casualties, despite all the fighting.

The whole comic is a throwback to an earlier age, with characters finding a way out of every danger, even when they appear dead. None of them seemingly make any kind of comments despite announcing themselves and wandering around the plot. Yet, it's even worse when they start developing feelings for one another, as the romance between two main characters seems forced, particularly in the way it starts out. Thus, the book places all of it's hope in the mystery behind the island and it's many particularities. This is revealed in stages, and revolves around the basic premise of time travel-inspired physics, that was hinted in the original version of the concept.

By itself, this is not a bad decision, it's just that it pulls the book too much toward science fiction, and feels like it somehow misses the point behind the concept of "the War that time forgot". In trying to apply a kind of morale and consequence to the characters' action, even by such outrageous concepts, Jones and Barrionuevo somehow betray the original premise of marines versus dinosaurs. It's difficult to explain, but it really feels that by detailing the advanced technology behind the possibility of the island that has trapped the war heroes, the comics wants to attain a loftier level of meaning, but ends up only saddled with a further mixing of the genres that actively works against the readers' expectation.

It's hard to escape the feeling that the whole project worked much better at the plotting stage, because none of it's major beats is so problematic as to ruin the whole experience. It's just that the scope of the twelve issues lead to a series of improvisations by the whole creative team, who seemingly wanted only to make a functional comic out of a very complicated assignment. Perhaps with the editorial support and somewhat loftier ambition than producing the DC universe variant of "Lord of flies", sprinkled with homages to "Lost" and "Jurassic Park", the final product could have ended up being more inspired. As it is, it betrays the work of two professionals, and their assistants, who struggle with time and energy to really find the emotional core of the whole thing.

At times, it really feels like Bruce Jones is the only one caring whether Viking Prince has already met Enemy Ace, and whether Lt. Carson's decisions will prove him a leader worthy of saving his band of new found comrades. Interestingly, even without the detailed flourish, and any kind of real ambition, the work almost subconsciously acts as a perspective of the creator's work. Just like with "the Hulk", he primarily works on creating a mystery that keeps the reader guessing along with the characters perpetually searching for an answer. And yet, it is exactly the kind of haphazard plotting that made both that run and all of "Man-Bat" such frantic and potentially confusing reads. Yet, the final shape of the project, and the ultimate answers behind the plot that teases both aliens and conspiracies, recalls a different and much older work.

It was in 1981 that Bruce Jones, coupled with strong art by Brent Anderson, began working on Marvel's "Ka-Zar", an early Direct Market book. Set in a prehistoric wilderness, their stories worked in an episodic format that was usually both self-contained, while teasing a bigger story-arc to tie the disparate elements. Eventually, after more then a year of writing essentially one larger continuing mystery, the writer gradually got to explaining some of the more otherworldly phenomena that his protagonist encountered, making heavy use of the patchwork of Marvel's continuity. Thus, perhaps some of the most innovative ideas became woven into his own corner of the company's universe, featuring Atlantis, robot-technology, and tying even into Dante's "Inferno".

It's exactly this kind of rampant imagination that runs throughout "the War that time forgot", that despite it's many flaws remains a throwback to an earlier age of pulp-inspired storytelling. Because, behind the over-expository dialogue and the meandering plot, hides a story that comics simply stopped telling over the years. And that's exactly the kind of story that should be found in a comic featuring a group of soldiers trying to escape from the dinosaur island. It's just a shame that the editorial didn't see that they have to try much harder to really make the most of such a scenario, especially if they want to introduce new readers to some of their most obscure characters in tow.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Vertigo - reimagining comics since 1993

"Vertigo" is the title of the well-regarded DC comics imprint, that has long been a home to the company's more ambitious, and usually creator-owned projects. It hat it's roots in DC's previous horror and fantasy line, undergoing it's more mature phase with titles like "Swamp thing", "the Doom patrol" and "Shade the changing man". Thus, their initial offerings were positioned very clearly as a bold and different continuation of the superhero-oriented properties. And yet, analyzing the starting points of the plot to some of the imprint's most famous comics acknowledges certain remarkable similarities.

Starting with "the Sandman", the series begins with the Lord of dreams reclaiming his title after a prolonged absence from his affairs. It's strange how this basic idea would repeat in the line's biggest sellers, from "Transmetropolitan" to "Fables". "Transmetropolitan", though initially published by the short-lived "Helix" imprint, begins with Spider Jerusalem, a newspaper columnist forced to reenter the field of politics after having entered a self-imposed exile. Even titles as diverse as "100 bullets" have come upon the same formula, that of characters reacquainting themselves with their previous lives, in a well developed setting. Surely these are all surface similarities, but perhaps there is a reason why "Vertigo" comics keep telling this kind of story.

And it is actually not at all exclusive to the mature readers imprint, with many superhero comics operating under the same premise. The difference is, of course, that the ongoing Marvel and DC serials are forced to tell these kinds of tales by their very nature. "Captain America" is arguably a book that starts with his reintroduction to the Marvel Universe in the pages of "the Avengers", with the character's WW2 actions in his original appearances providing the context for his modern set-up. With DC's "Justice Society of America", the first superteam introduced during the same real world conflict, their post-War status quo was defined from the more mainstream "JLA" exactly by their original adventures. The current premise of both books heavily relates to their origins, being comics that deal with previous continuity more than any other kind of theme.

With "Vertigo" comics, even the creator-owned books largely retain the similar approach, choosing to deliberately set the action at a later part of their characters' lives. Despite all the experimentation, they keep being genre books that still ignore the beginnings of their heroes' career, to concentrate on the latter days. This is true even with books like "Scalped", featuring a second generation of people living on the Rez' whose lives are defined by their parent's action. In that case, the continually referenced past events are inspired by real events relating to the civil rights movements.

At first glance, it seems strange that all of these creators would deliberately set-up a very complicated history to the characters' lives and times, before a series ultimately begins, one that directly informs their present actions. Yet, it is here where all of the imprint's philosophy comes to the core. Because, the basic idea of tweaking a common genre trope implies experimentation with the form, with the current example of "Fables", the imprint's flagship title being a modern follow-up to the well known fairy tales. In this case, the previous events all constantly referred to, subverted and built upon, are children's stories, familiar to every reader, even though the creators resist making way for having the series relate their own version of it.

Some of this may well have to do with the idea of setting a series in the past alienating a lot of readers, but such concerns could be avoided by a well-developed present day framing sequence. With "Vertigo"'s books, it seems that in order to integrate the spirit of the renowned books of films the creators seek to imitate, they all come up with a similar scenario. Because a lot of the imprint's appeal comes from applying the techniques of other media, that has experimented with the genre forms on a much higher scale than the American comics have done at that point in history, due to various limitations.

Regarding the plot, it seems that these inspirations seemingly become a part of the characters' past, which the creators then try to build upon, such as in "the Sandman" whose mythological past the book continues upon exists in the kind of real world culture that inspired it. Thus, the reader can get understand both the well-developed setting that the book starts out with, as well as the creator's own signature stylings, by getting acquainted with the ancient Greek and Roman history and culture, as well as the classical medieval literature. Similarly, "Scalped" focuses on the past that is actually a redressed as a crucial piece of the plot, based on the aforementioned real events.

Thus, it seems that by driving a clear line that abstracts the book from the fairy-tale basis that inspired it, that the "Fables" form the break with their past and are able to achieve their distinct notoriety. It seems that by starting well after the original events, these books serve to underline the differences in the creative approach. That seems to answer the question as why none of them are set in the times of their character's peak - because the more classical version already exists, and with the creators not being the original authors, they seldom seek to go back and rewrite the exact stories that inspire them. By setting "100 bullets" in modern milieu, the authors are free to think up of a new mix of the decades-old noir and detective stories that the book draws upon. At the same time, the criminal past that hangs over their characters' heads is that of a more classical time, undistinguished from the paperbacks that inspired it, which is why it's filled in only in flashbacks.

Placing an extended focus on the history that these series derive from, no matter how big a role it plays regarding the current events, would result in a period piece in which the creators could do little but pay homage and subvert the reader's expectations in small ways. By placing the story in the current time, the authors are able to apply their distinct view of the today, while conveniently placing their inspirations in the past where they belong to. It is the only way that acknowledges the literary and historical research that went into creating comics that are informed mature works on par with their other media genre peers.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers #1-4

"Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers" was the title of the recently concluded Marvel mini-series, by writer Chris Eliopoulos and artist Ig Guara. Nominally a Marvel Adventures title, the mini-series was given further push by the company, in an attempt to build a kids-oriented title with a strong identity on its own. Following on the heels of the similarly envisioned "Doctor Doom and the Masters of Evil", the editorial tried to build a book that will bridge their two main superhero audiences, by appealing toward the oddball sensibility inherent in most comic readers. Despite the ludicrous premise, it's already clear that the "Pet Avengers" have outsold the former mini-series, and the company has plans to continue the experiment.

The basic idea is that of taking various animal sidekicks that have accompanied Marvel's characters during the decades, and putting them in one, light-hearted book. Of course, this is a throwback to the Silver Age DC idea of "Legion of Super-pets" starring various Superman-family related cats and dogs that have accompanied some of the campier tales. Being a somewhat more reactionary publisher, Marvel has always eschewed the more traditional superhero trappings, thus their warming up to a similar idea was always fated to be somewhat more ironic in tone.

The publisher has established a very strong focus on it's larger superhero universe in the last year, yet they continue to experiment with easily described high-concept ideas. Thus, "Lockheed and the Pet Avengers" can be seen as the concept that follows up ventures such as "Marvel zombies", and "Marvel apes". Just like with those two properties, Marvel has decided to approach establishing the new brand by sticking to the potential series of mini-series format. Starting out with the initial limited series, should the launch fail, the company can still hope to sell their customers a trade-paperback featuring a wholesome story, without many loose-ends to be tied up in the forthcoming story arcs.

Approaching Eliopoulos and Guara, the company seems to have given the creators a mandate to ground the story in their superhero universe as much as they could. The result is certainly a very professional work, that touches on all corners of Marvel Universe to provide a very colorful story that definitely lives up to a particular comic book idea of fun. Taking the cues from Jim Starlin's "Infinity saga", this humorous book is surprisingly plot-oriented. Using the fantasy quest-structure, Eliopoulos shifts the locals (and even time at one point) to provide a very diverse array of superhero trivia, that engages the reader on more than a fan-service level. Whatever the reader thinks of the setup, it's hard not to admire the lush and distinctive locales, rendered by Guara, with colorist Chris Sotomayor sharing equal credit for establishing the mood so effectively.

Due to the nature of the book, the characters still take center stage, and they are all aptly introduced to the readers unfamiliar with the small roles they play in the larger shared universe continuity. It's easy to understand Marvel's confusion as to which of these characters to actively spotlight then, but the choice of Lockjaw remains problematic. He is not only an Inhuman living in a dog-like form, but a mute one at that, introduced in the original Stan Lee/Jack Kirby "Fantastic Four" run as a very peripheral player. The trouble is that he is also the most well known of all the other animal characters in the book, that has yet remained endeared to fans primarily because of the oddball concept of a huge teleporting bulldog with a moustache.

Eliopolous and Guara sidestep the problem of having their central character being a mere plot device meant to rally other animals in search of the Infinity gems, by pairing him with a mouthpiece. Of all the characters, this position goes to Thor-frog, again a concept seemingly remembered only for it's light-hearted value at the sidelines of Walt Simonson's epic "Thor" run. In any event, Thor-frog (dubbed Throg) spends most of the debut issue as de-facto narrator, going on and on in a mock-medieval tone that is even more dubious than his namesake's. The first issue is also the only one that features an extended origin sequence, drawn in a more caricatural way by guest-penciller Coleen Coover. Thankfully, the creators quickly find the right balance with "Throg", but he continues hindering the reader's attention until the end, due to his small-size that sticks out in relationship to other animals he shares the page with.

Among these the first is Lockheed, Kitty Pryde's pet dragon, and a long-time "X-Men" character. Eliopoulos has a very distinctive take on the character, suffering from depression due to his actions in Josh Wheddon's "Astonishing X-Men", but very little of it comes across on the page. Under Guara's pencils, Lockheed remains very detailed, but also strangely expressionless, and somewhat indistinct the whole time. Considering that he's long been used as a very charming diversion, it's strange to see how little mileage the creators manage to pull out of him here.

Another animal that fights for the space in a very crowded team book is Falcon's Redwing. Again, Eliopoulos has a particular characterisation that he imbues the "Captain America" character with, but this time around, even the little dimension the falcon has gets forgotten very quickly. Thus, the arrogant bird is relegated to just another flier, that like Lockheed, plays basically a supporting role, without really establishing any kind of relationship with the other animals.

This is perhaps due to the heavy focus bestowed upon the comedic duo of Speedball's cat Hairball, and Ms. Lion, a much lampooned creation from the "Spiderman and his amazing friends" cartoon. The sadistic cat seems to steal the show from all the other characters, with her rivalry and back-and-forth, between an ordinary dog being the series highlight. Ms. Lion is basically the team's comic relief, but despite some of the obvious jokes, the creative team manage to make him slightly irritating, but still a memorable addition to the cast.

The team gathering is largely over by the end of the first issue, with the only remaining cast member following suit in the first scene of the next one. Zabu, Ka-Zar's saber tooth tiger, represents another warrior-like member of the cast. Interestingly, Zabu's absence from the covers, presumably done in advance of the story pages, would seem to indicate that he was a last-minute addition to the group. His ferociousness does make him distinct from the other characters, that actually do react to his presence, particularly the afore-mentioned Ms. Lion. Considering that a lot of the second issue's plot hinges on the animals' adventures in the jungle(s) of his home, he actually feels right at home in the book, despite being perhaps the only one of the animal characters created as a somewhat serious animal companion.

The rag-tag team of animals assembled, they spend all of the second issue trying to get around the Devil Dinosaur, in order to collect a Infinity gem. Despite contrived plotting and almost RPG logic, this is the series working at it's best, in that it offers a complete, and very distinctive adventure. Putting the Pet Avengers against the Devil Dinosaur not only makes sense from the animal vs animal angle, but manages to make the title characters distinct while dealing with a fixed set of goals.

Unfortunately, using the same approach for the third issue proves much less inspired. This time touching upon Namor's undersea kingdom, the book has problems finding it's niche in a classical Marvel locale. Once again, the characters' reactions provide interesting banter, they have literally nowhere to go in this underdeveloped take on the Atlantis. This gets them into contact with Giganto the whale, that goes unnamed, which makes him even more of a cypher then the author's incarnation of Devil Dinosaur was. Namor's brutal beast is confronted in a somewhat predictable manner, that will still never the less endear the book to it's youngest readers, while bringing up another key point.

The search for gems that serves as an excuse for Lockjaw teleporting his friends to unique locations quickly turned transparent regarding it's story motives. In this instance, the Pet Avengers are lead to Namor's realm to track down no less than two Infinity gems, which renders them into little more than trinkets defined solely by their colors. But this is still far from the episode's biggest flaw. Looking at the pages of the third issue, one can't help but get a feel that the inked artwork looks rushed, which is usually indicative of an artist having problems with deadlines. On the whole, Guara's art is very detailed and lavish, which doesn't always suit the somewhat less than serious feel of the script. Still, even if a somewhat less busy and more organic art style would benefit the story more, it definitely meets the Marvel standards. Considering the mini-series format and the presumably long leadtime Ig had preparing to draw "Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers", it seems strange that the artist would have trouble keeping up with all of the nuances.

Perhaps the fault lies with the dual nature of the third episode's plot, which abandons it's underwater setting halfway through, in order to get to the White House where the finale takes place. Of course, this means leaving the self-contained format of the previous issues, to concentrate on the sales gimmick that the penultimate chapter was advertised with, namely the appearance of president Obama's pet, Bo. It would appear that faced with retailers under-ordering the debut issue, Marvel decided to try it's best in ensuring the sales of the rest of the mini-series don't fall off the designated level, thus exusing such a ploy. It is a very irritating move on the company's behalf, hiding under the pretense of a charming bit of reality meets fantasy to market the children's book towards the broader audience.

By now, such tricks have become a spectacle of the entire industry, as the companies race to use any excuse in featuring the newly-elected president in their storylines, all due to his popularity and the declaration that he's a fan of both "Spiderman" and "Conan" comics. Tying "Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers" inot the media frenzy discredits the author's efforts in order to achieve a slight sales increase that will only hurt the book in the long run, as it devolves into a footnote in a future journalist analysis of the comics industry's misuse of Barack Obama's name and likeness. Seeing the abrupt turn the plot of their third issue takes halfway through, it's hard not to suspect that the whole idea was forced on Eliopoulos and Guara by the editorial, with the talents only trying their best while working under the company's edict.

Effectively, this means that ten whole pages of the penultimate issues had to be used to somehow feature the White House and Bo the dog. Due to the unusual nature of most of the book's cast, including magical animals and aliens, the entire sequence turns into an exercise in killing time while waiting for the cliffhanger. Thus, pages are filled with the animals sneaking Lockjaw up and down the stairs, while spotlighting the visual comedy that has defined some of the lighter moments of the previous issues. The dynamic is achieved in Guara giving his animals very believable movements, that coupled with witty dialogue and frequent use of repeated panels make up the most of the book's charm.

The added focus to Lockjaw helps to finally bring him to the spotlight. The creators use his size as the focus of comedy in setting up the last issue, which proceeds with no less than presenting the Inhuman as a hero in his own right. This is achieved by severely limiting his foe's capability, to bring about the scenes echoing the company's previous absurdistic highlight, of Squirrel-Girl besting Dr. Doom.

The Pet Avenger's final obstacle is the classical version of a villain that has been hinted at from the beginning, thus foreshowing making his sudden appearance. In this instance the book breaks with the previous animal-themed adversaries, but it's hard to imagine Marvel making a better choice considering the previous issues' haphazard plotting. There is a lot of drama in the mini's final sequences, as the pets lie scattered while faced with seemingly superior foe.

After a truly cosmic showdown, the quick epilogue works as a call-back to the first issue's opening, serving as a framing device from the standard Marvel heroes' perspective. But, more important than that, it directly promises the follow up project, annoucing it as simple "Pet Avengers #1". Due to the fast-pace of the character's first outing, it's easy to see where the book could go next, as the creative team has used the space available to set up the cast, their mission and their mission, while already allowing the readers with plenty of different adventures.

Still, hopefully Marvel will use the time to further rethink the book, as the current premise has some serious shortcoming underneath it's appealing surface. The chief of those is the need for a distinctive children's book feel that is missing from it's pages. The company clearly tries to build the comic's identity by marrying it's charming stars with a wide-array of specific Marvel settings, but it does both in a very blunt way. Having a cast with no less than seven relatively unknown characters is not unheard in comics, but so far Eliopoulos has proven that he is not the kind of writer to squeeze crucial bits of attitude during the non-stop action that the animals partake in. What's more, the Marvel Universe locations featured in the four issues are introduced in a very broad manner, which does little to inspire the younger readers to revisit them in the future issues. It's telling that the endgame to the Pet Avenger's first big caper ends on the White House lawn, which has long-served as a hallmark of realism in comics.

Perhaps the creators would've done better had they simply been allowed to pay their dues by using the previously established animals, before taking them into completely new directions. In any event, the four-part mini-series has proven too short to really get a glimpse into all of the authors' ideas regarding the make up of Pet Avengers' world, which is only hinted at. Perhaps the better way would've been by reducing the role of some of the cast members to the role of occasional helpers, which could grow into regulars if in time they prove to be viable additions to the book.

In any event, staying so close to the patchwork that makes up Marvel's Earth, does hinder the "Lockjaw and the Pet Avengers"' ability to truly achieve more of it's own feel. Hopefully, the forthcoming series will help bring together the vision that is shared by both the company and it's younger audience, always interested in something new and original.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Johnny monster 1-3

"Johnny Monster" was a creator-owned mini-series, written by Joshua Williamson, pencilled and inked by J.C.Grande, and published by Image comics' Shadowline imprint. Edited by the company's founder Jim Valentino, the line concentrates on black and white genre offerings by the up-coming creators, with "Sam noir" and "After the cape" being the highlights so far. Deciding to publish "Johnny Monster" in color, Image seemed set to give those titles a commercial successor.

On the face of it, "Johnny Monster" is a high concept book, marrying the monster movies iconography with the format of a Marvel superhero comic. It's easy to see why Image decided on allowing the creators to expend on their initial pitch, presumably consisting of the whole of the first issue. Within the space of a regular comic book, the creators have managed to introduce the entire cast, while getting the premise across, going so far as to establish the plot of the entire opening arc. Well-served by fast-pacing, Williamson and Grande use the simple, yet carefully chosen characters to get across the exposition in order to introduce their take on familiar pop-culture phenomenons.  

In a nutshell, the basic idea is that Johnny is a monster-hunter, who secretly lives with the huge creatures underground, protecting them from some of his more brutal colleagues. Despite the all-around absurdity around him, he is an idealistic, if somewhat naive, young protagonist in the typical Marvel fashion. This explains why Image got behind the project, deciding to further integrate the hero into their mainstream superhero universe.

Thus it was, that starting with the second issue, boasting the cover announcing a team-up with the Firebreather, that the company started trying their best to convince the readers that "Johnny Monster" justifies their need for fun, offbeat superhero comics. At their most commercial, they went so far as to tie the concept with "the Invincible", Robert Kirkman's best-selling answer to Spider-Man. 

Surprisingly, the approach worked, with the book losing nothing by having it's framework be rearranged to accommodate the Image universe power players. With the exception of the monsters suddenly claiming Firebreather's father as their king, it's as if the creators purposefully devoted all of the first issue to spotlighting the title character, before allowing the broader superhero universe elements to sink in.

All these external decisions did not stop the series from telling it's own story. The third issue is, thus, even more of a return to the plot-heavy style, tying up all of the series most immediate story threads in a fair and well-executed way. Thankfully, Johnny never becomes sidelined by the extensive cast, and his role as the protagonist is even more cemented in the conclusion. The supporting players, on the other hand, all end up with a concrete role, with each of the distinctive characters having their own character arc, and a clear place in the plot, no matter how small.

Likewise, the story introduces the concept in a very visual way. Dealing front and center with the idea of the secret identity, it is at a core a dilemma whether the hero will embrace the way of his biological cousins, or stay with his monstrous adopted family. By the end, the many action scenes actually add up to Johnny making a choice that will seemingly alter his life forever. He actually states his goals very matter of factly on the last page, but the possibility of readers seeing more of his adventures is perhaps a little more unclear.

The cover for the final issue makes it very clear what the creators want the concept to become, crossing over Silver Age sensibilities with the monster movie-inspired comics that preceded them. Updating these kind of ideas for a presumably teenage audience, even with Image's support, is no easy feat in today's market. 

Several decades ago, and with a much larger audience, Marvel could afford to spend years developing a bi-monthly magazine, until it developed a more concrete identity. Today, the writers and artists seemingly have to work it all out in advance, without the advent of trying out a slew of villains and locale changes, until they find the sub-genre and the thematic backdrop that fits the basic idea behind the concept.

With "Johnny Monster", Williamson and Grande have clearly spent a lot of effort in making their mark a fully developed series right from the start. Yet, a lot of it is unnecessary exposition, along with the art that tries its best at giving a lot of definition to the images. The unfortunate bluntness of the approach is not softened up by the bland character designs, that, although distinct from one another, retain a generic cartoon TV series look. Even the names of the characters are too obvious, in a not very ironic way, giving the whole project a rather clunky feel.

Where it should have gone with the charm and subtlety, to take the edge of all the rushed Godzilla-like figures, the dialogue goes for obvious one-liners that call too much attention to themselves. The campy trappings should have been the gimmick to entice the readers in a story that is original on several more interesting levels, but none of this is really to be found in "Johnny Monster". As it stands, the title has all the characteristics of a projects developed in multiple media by a corporate entertainment company, despite being the work of a couple of creators, developing their own idea, without the need to confirm to the sponsors' expectations. Such as it is, the book may have little chance of attracting that kind of multi-platform development on it's own, being published with little marketing, in the medium long abandoned by it's younger readers. 

Even if the ultimate goal was getting the major superhero publishers to hire it's authors as the talent for developing their long existing properties, it's doubtful whether this was the right approach. Despite all of the book's storytelling proficiency, "Johnny Monster" never becomes the slick and original idea that Williamson and Grande so obviously wanted it to become. If they ever get a chance to continue with the concept, much more care should be devoted to making it a distinctive and engrossing read beyond the level of presenting an interesting adventure story, and telling it in a clear way.

Until then, the character will likely be relegated to background scenes in the company's core superhero titles, along with "Astounding Wolfman" and "Brit", new characters that even Image partner Robert Kirkman couldn't find an audience for.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Captain Britain #10-15 "Vampire state"

"Captain Britain and the MI13" is the name of the recently cancelled Marvel title. Written by Paul ("Dr. Who") Cornell and pencilled by Leonard ("Supergirl") Kirk, it was basically the company's latest push in trying to bring in a more diverse readership, by once again proposing the concept of an English team of superheroes. Seemingly aware that on their own, these decades-old characters cannot hold their own series, the company has seen fit to try to brand it as an X-Men title in the past. The most recent example of this was the cancelled "Excalibur" series Chris Claremont wrote, and Paul Cornell was to continue. After trying the new incarnation of the team out in the "Wisdome" mature-readers mini-series, the company finally green-lighted the writer's take. Launching as part of the "Secret invasion" crossover, Marvel tried their best to support Cornell's idea and further differentiate their super-hero line. During the very next story-arc, the Internet saw rise of the rumours announcing the book's untimely demise, followed by contradictiong reports made by the editorial. The confusion was ultimately settled, and the book continued with the plans to produce it's new story-line. Unfortunately, printing "Vampire state" with no sales gimmicks and little noticeable marketing push, doomed the book's most ambitious and complex arc to remain the last chapter of this incarnation of "Captain Britain and the MI13".

On the face of it, the book was nominally set on spotlighting Captain Britain. Basically a Superman analogue, the character has been around since the late seventies, and is arguably the most famous Marvel UK creation. His adventures have been wide and varied, but usually somewhat fantasy related, making him also similar to Captain Marvel, once wildly popular in Britain. Due to the various revamps and status quo changes, the character has built up a severely complicated back story, making him even harder to introduce to the new readers. Cornell and Kirk solved this problem in the title's very first arc, by giving him a new start. By "Vampire state", the patriot symbolism has been downplayed, represented almost solely by his costume. Effectively, portraying Captain Britain as a love-sick veteran superhero powerhouse, the creators have him play the team's Superman figure. 

Yet it is by blending together the title character among his colleagues, that Cornell manages to concentrate on MI13 as a group. The writer's approach to the characterisation of the rest of the cast is to give them all a defined role to play, and about the same amount of focus. Naturally, Pete Wisdom takes the lead, as a somewhat more relatable character, as well as much more in keeping with the book's general approach. A stock Warren Ellis character type, Wisdom has been kept in heavy circulation long since his creator has stopped using him. Having him lead MI13, Marvel has given it's fans a notice that they're dealing with the spy/superhuman hybrid book. As such, it plays down Wisdom's superpowers, focusing on his ability in managing a unit of superheroes. By letting Captain Britain remain a field leader, Ellis' creation is better served as the team's agent when dealing with the government. This does not marginalize the character per se, but leaves him with little subplots of his own. In "Vampire state", this means the very start of a romance, that will probably remain undeveloped due to the book's cancellation. Thankfully, as with many other aspects of the final arc, the nature of the relationship is set up in such a way that it is not hindered by this unfortunate turn of events.

Due to the nature of the storyline, Jacqueline Falsworth gets to be spotlighted in a more direct way. The creators use the vampirism fostered upon her in a rather arbitrary continuity decision as a crucial piece of setup, and a credible reason for the reader to witness scenes of villains' scheming before they meet the rest of the team head-on. Interestingly, the creators play down her role as a WW2 heroine, along with her original superhero nickname of Spitfire. For the reader uninitiated in decades old stories, she comes off as no more than a reluctant vampire, which goes a long way for explaining longevity, and the complicated relationship she starts having with Blade.

Adding the character made famous by movies was a strange decision, with Blade appearing in the second arc on the strength of his almost forgotten English ancestry. Unfortunately, despite repeated proclamations of his importance, the character remains an arbitrary addition. Of course, as a "Tomb of Dracula" regular, it makes sense that he would appear, and Cornell and Kirk use Blade's previous associations to bring the rest of the cast to a crucial plot point. Still, his role could have been filled more naturally by Union Jack, a vampire hunter himself, and Jacqui's long-time lover. On top of being one of the more recognisable British superhero characters, Joe actually appears in "Vampire state", trying to find a way to work with Blade during the emergency. In any event, this is just another unsuccessful attempt by Marvel to replicate something of the Wesley Snipes version of the character, while the readership continually ignores their focus on the character.

The team is rounded out by Black Knight and his protege Faiza Hussain, introduced in the first issue as the reader identification character. Her 1950s created mentor is almost never refereed to by his code-name, so it's a bit jarring when she earns the clunky "Excalibur" moniker. It is even more perplexing, when taking into account that Cornell's intimate focus on his principal cast means having them mostly call each other by their civilian names. Faiza is originally depicted as a naive superhero fan, that has her wishes come true as she starts developing superpowers. The writer and artist have brought her to life, by granting her with a civilian occupation, and detailed social life, that are both utilised in this storyline. The latter, epitomized by her family is crucial to "Vampire state", while unexpectedly her growth as a superhero feels rushed. It's clear that the creators had plans for a much slower development. 

In any event, the focus provided on creating a single new character in the book that is such a mixture of long-existing unrelated superhero concepts, leaves Marvel with a unique opportunity. Due to her ethnicity being dealt with in a very respectful way, the creators have given the publisher a heroine that is the example of unity. Faiza is an immigrant who has come to both love and respect her new country, going so far as to be willing to give her own life for the benefit of others. 

Her mentor the Black Knight, on the other hand, is a much more complicated concept, that jarrs with the book's tone. Originally created in an attempt to marry the more classical parts of British folklore with a play on typical super heroic secret identity, he was re-introduced seemingly only to be succeeded by Faiza. By keeping him around in the role of the teacher, and teasing a romance with his pupil, Marvel has effectively asked the readers to tolerate a couple fantasy concepts in an espionage-heavy book. As the more medieval of the two, Black Knight is at odds with the basic nature of the series, leading to his being kept out of the "Vampire state"'s plot minutiae. In a reversal to the typical comic book dynamic, he is defined by the female character. Unfortunately his very existence asks the readers to stretch their sense of belief even further, in an arc that already tries it's best to balance between mixing the genre for added effect, and falling into outright camp.His extremely complicated back-story is never really delved into, but the one bit that remains, that of his being cursed with a literal "heart of stone", may be the best example of asking the reader to accept too much of the unreal. In MI13 Black Knight is defined solely by his association with cursed swords, which has been much more effective during the initial "Secret invasion" tie-in arc. Forced to deal with a "Black Panther" continuity detail, Cornell has again chosen not to be intimidated by the inter-title confusion, deciding to incorporate the matter in "Vampire state". Unfortunately, the pick and choose method of using Marvel universe trivia to the best of his advantage, does not really gel with the rest of the plot in this instance, rendering the Ebony Blade's inclusion as even more terse than Blade's McGuffin.

A cursory examination of the cast reveals that a large amount of the book's drama hinges on the personal relationships. Literally, by the end of the story arc, all of the book's principal characters have started sharing romantic feelings for one another. This is, of course, a rarity in today's more violent comic book climate, but never feels unnatural or forced when reading the book. Due to the high stakes the characters live under, it can probably be explained that the cast found a refuge in physical relationships, but the only other example of social contact to be found in "Vampire state" is that of the respect Pete Wisdom feels for Captain Britain, as a more traditional hero, albeit with a heart in the right place.

It is to be commended that despite the myriad subplots, Cornell takes time to add some poetic color to the dialogue, cementing the fact that his characters are, first and foremost, human. In much the same understated way, both the writer and artist tackle the larger than life elements that define their heroes' lives, never forgetting to go that one step further to take note of the irony and the beauty inherent in MI13's dangerous lives. Unfortunately, the British charm found in abundance in the "Wisdom" mini-series never finds a place to truly enliven both Cornell and Kirk's United Kingdom. Strangely, it is supplanted by characters inviting each other to tea so frequently that it almost becomes a common shortcut getting them back to the Earth, if not a running joke of sorts.

Despite the charm to be found in the Marvel universe characters and settings, the backbone of the book's flavour comes from a very particular niche it tried to fit in. By positioning itself as a spy/superhero hybrid, it entered a field where few titles managed to make a permanent stay in. With "MI15", this does not only signify a slightly more violent genre take, with a more corporate headquarters, but a real thought-out, military strategy in a world of fantasy. Thus, Cornell and Kirk's characters have to maintain their guard against the unchecked forces of unreality, using cost-heavy spells, and dealing with the other branches of the government's secret service. With the real world (of spy movies) as the main reference point, the superhuman defenses and launch-codes make up a somewhat realistic background for the frequently unbalanced portrayal of similar ideas in science fiction.

Still, when dealing with a full-scale supernatural invasion, this kind of scenario comes with a potential problem. Does coming up with vampire suicide bombers turn an innocent offbeat superhero book into an offending piece of caricature? Perhaps not, when the book already purports to introduce an imaginary government department determined to put a stop to the threat to the enemy, depicted in no uncertain terms as evil incarnate. Taking into account the amount of care spent on rendering Faiza Hussain as a realistic character, it's probably the best to view the series' quasi-realistic bent as window-dressing for telling modern superhero stories.

The war fostered upon Marvel's England is thus more of a game of misdirection and constant twists and turns. One densely plotted scene follows another, with a constant stream of faces and movement going on in the background. The carefully built up characters lend themselves to action scenes that never feel gracious, despite sometimes feeling cut off. It is understandable then, that Leonard Kirk couldn't have produced the amount of work asked of him in the saga of this magnitude, and to be able to illustrate all of it. The reader is taken out of the story the moment he sees Mike Collins's pages, with characters that are very slender, sporting somewhat more caricatural facial features. Thankfully, Kirk works much more in concert with Adrian Syaf, giving way to a familiar unified art style. 

It is a necessary evil considering the need to keep a monthly schedule on a arc consisting of six issues, and literally hundreds of characters bursting from every panel. Once again, the creators seemingly embrace the restrictions of the superhero comics, by reminding the readers of some of the cult Marvel UK characters. Cameos aside, the main threat in the "Vampire state" comes from no less than Dracula himself, allied with a host of his undead nation. Despite the presence of Lilith and Captain Fear, both of whom work as opposite numbers for some of the MI13 team-members, the title's third arc shows a clear progression. Once again, the bulk of the fighting goes on with Skrull-like faceless drones, but Cornell and Kirk are not set on repeating Plotka's mistake as somewhat of an underdeveloped main antagonist. Sticking with the idea of combining the two approaches, the creators have made a gamble of getting behind the king of vampires as a gimmick that could attract the reader's attention. In retrospect, Dracula is shown to be a fearsome warrior, whose presence commands the arc. The authors are right in approximating that using the vampire to target the team makes the stakes seem that higher, but further analysis reveals this to be problematic from both story-point and the previous use of the character. Dracula's stated goals are not shown to be particularly Britain-oriented, as literally any country in the world could have provided the deeper folklore connection hinted at in his plan. Of course, his creator Bram Stoker set most of his novel in London, but following through on that kind of reasoning actually hurts Marvel's high concept. Despite the character's long-term use in the Marvel universe, he is of course a classical horror icon, wherein lies his notoriety and the novelty of using him in a story. The downside is that it renders "Vampire state" as no more than a piece of fan-fiction that benefits from the association with the better-known story.

As for Lilith, Captain Fear and even an unexpected appearance from someone in Jacqui's past, they are introduced providing for as little confusion as possible. As Dracula's pawns, their tasks are clearly outlined, with Kirk's designs to set them apart from the rest of the vampire's followers. A long-time reader of Marvel's various horror books will no doubt be familiar with some of them, but it is by no means a requirement, as Cornell's script once again gives all the information needed in terms of the story at hand.

It's clear that just as Leonard Kirk had his hands full with detailed layouts, the writer gave his all to craft a story that is bursting at the seams with attacks and counter-attacks, complex subplots, characters both famous and obscure, all the while trying and achieving a very particular genre dynamic. It is really impressive to see that amid all that, he still finds space to experiment with a page provided as if from an illustrated text-story. A dream sequence hidden in a very particular part of the story works to both raise the excitement, and tie-in with the previous story-arc in an unobtrusive way. Yet, despite the backing from the editorial, his is the story that most fans are just not interested in.

This is nowhere as apparent as in a short nod to the current "Dark reign" status quo of the Marvel universe at large. By effectively proving to be in vacuum as to the bulk of the continuity, theoretically "Captain Britain and MI13" to tell any kind of new and refreshing story, that is distinctively unique. Unfortunately, the company's own marketing department has worked for years to build a strong core of inter-related titles that it gravitates the fans to follow, in spite of the off to the side nature of the more experimental superhero titles.

That the creators' enthusiasm has remained on the level is perhaps best illustrated by an Annual, published after the announcement of the book's cancellation. A case could be made that the lead-story inside was to be a prelude for the next story-arc, perhaps even originally meant to be published as #16 in the series. It is possible that Marvel has scrapped such plans upon being disappointed by the sales on the title's final story line, relegating the long-teased return of Meggan to a strange and open-ended Special, tying awkwardly with "Vampire state". Going further with the analogy, one could surmise that the Annual's backstory, again teasing a potential Meggan-centered story-arc down the line, could have been originally produced as a short tale to be published on Marvel's "Digital Comics Unlimited" section of their website, hoping to interest the subscribers in the ongoing.

In any event, despite "Vampire state" finishing with a real ending that admittedly does not bother to tie up all the loose threads, it is actually the Annual that one must refer to as to how the book's future could have looked like, in it's current incarnation. In that respect, the reader is treated with a strange, magic-oriented story, featuring many of the company's lesser known villains. Patching his story up from unrelated bits of continuity, Cornell tries to get to the Meggan's mercurial psyche by building a real theme to her life. This particularly comes of as difficult to process, when told in fairytale fashion of Meggan dealing with the externalisation of her demons.

Of course, at this time it is not certain how different the whole storyline would have been, if it ever planned to be centered around Meggan, that is. The three "Captain Britain and MI13" story-arcs that have been published actually serve as a primer on what kind of tales the reader could have expected, and are satisfying when read as a whole, or even on their own. With the alternative possibly being a complete make over of the book, it is doubtful that this unprofitable version of the team would have been kept on the same track, should Marvel have decided to stick with the book after all.

The reasons for fans' indifference are, of course, numerious. Despite being seemingly inconsequential next to the more connected titles, it is a fact that neither any of these particular, nor the England of their setting, have ever led to a long and stable ongoing series that best serves the publisher's interests. The specific angle Cornell and Kirk have decided upon, while not the most comercially recognisible one, could have theoretically benefited a different book, that would be more to the liking of fans. Also, not to be forgotten, a large number of people have sampled both the initial issues, or some of the later ones, brought on by the title's status of something of a critical darling, and simply found it not to be to their liking.

This could very likely be due to the focus on the magical aspect of Marvel universe, that the publisher has been struggling for decades to attract it's audience to. It seems that most fans simply don't like their superheroes mixed up with the arcana, nor is the genre very popular on it's own at any of the smaller publishers. Despite the frequent outcries, the larger aspects of the superhero fandom have proven time and again what their tastes are, and truthfully there is little of them to be found in the book like "Captain Britain and MI13". Because while it possesses some of the blending with the traditional superheroic storytelling, blended with more violent and post-modern ideas, it was always going to be a niche title, for a particular aspect of fans, served by positive, intelligent superhero books like "Agents of Atlas", and "Incredible Hercules".

Working with their publisher, Cornell and Kirk had no choice but to tie up the possiblity of the hinted Meggan story into "Vampire state", and move on with their careers. Hopefully, at least the return of the back-story format to justify the higher cost of the existing Marvel books will provide a new home for the British super/spy team, and their strange, magical adventures.