Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fort Navajo - Mission to Mexico

Serialized in 1968, "Mission to Mexico" was the fourth entry in the Fort Navajo cycle. Publishing their stories in French's premiere "Pilote" magazine, writer Jean Micheal Charlier and artist Jean Giraud were rapidly developing the lieutenant Blueberry style and feel.

What differentiates "Mission to Mexico" is that it takes a strong step away from the previous three albums, and is definitely the first entry in the series to give off the feeling of the creators thinking beyond their Apache wars inspired story. Even though the bulk of the story deals, more than ever before, with direct conflict with the groups of Indian warriors, for the first time it feels like the conflict is merely a framework for a more traditional Western story. This laid back feeling is epytomised by the introduction of Jimmy McClure as Blueberry's guide to the Indian territory, who subsequently goes on to become a permanent supporting cast member.

From the start, almost instinctively, Charlier and Giraud seemed to be rejecting the leaden stereotypical soldiers that have served with Blueberry in Fort Navajo. Giraud dully tried to render them as both stoic and emotional, but they always felt too robotic and cliched, their appearance almost entirely photo referenced.

"Mission to Mexico" starts with Blueberry searching for lieutenant Graig, who has gone missing while carrying the president's response regarding the negotiations with the Apache. The following situation is both elaborately set up and cleverly executed, drawing on the traditional Indian lore, yet on the other hand, it feels as staged and dated as a typical pulp adventure hook. Also, using Lonesome Eagle as the head of the hostile group so soon after the previous volume feels even more stilted and campy.

It is precisely after this lacklustre introduction, and Blueberry's return to Fort Bowie that the album, and the series as a whole even, starts finding a new voice. The basic set up of a possible love triangle between the heroic lt. Graig, his friend Blueberry, and young miss Muriel gets basically abandoned between the lines, as the anti-heroic protagonist finally starts easing up in a more natural manner. Gone is the crusader against alcohol of the very previous volume, and especially the suffering universal hero of the "Thunder in the West".

With McClure on his side, Charlier finally feels at liberty to make Donovan capable of making a wrong choice, and indeed it is Jimmy who becomes somewhat of a father figure to him at various times in this volume. The hard-drinking, elderly rogue stands in sharp contrast to the various soldiers we have already seen in this series, and Blueberry immediately takes a liking to him. And not only is Jimmy Captain Haddock to his Tintin, but the unkempt overweight prospector is initially to be very capable in his role as a scout of the Indian territory. Counting on the Indians' continued tolerance of his comedic appearance, he plays a key role in leading Blueberry to Mexico, where he is to contact Cochise.

Along the way, our protagonist actually learns from Jimmy, and the two make a very interesting pair. This is not to say that they manage to avoid all danger that comes their way, as the genre work tries to maintain tension at all times. Yet, for once both Charlier and Giraud's interest in the historical background of the Indian conflict seems to be waning, as there is little direct involvement with any of the events that happened in the old West.

Thus, the encounters with Indians, and later on, Mexicans, have a feeling of status quo to them, with Blueberry's trip to Mexico serving almost like a McGuffin stringing together the necessary dangerous situations. The threat of the Indians likewise continually devolves, as the capable warriors of the previous albums, are increasingly rendered in buffoonish and stereotypical manner. Of course, their relative incompetence was always a key factor in keeping the protagonist alive, but in those previous situations, they have at least proven capable of decimating the ranks of unknown soldiers surrounding him. This time, they resort to empty threats and continually manage to have Jimmy and Blueberry slip under their noses, due to their gullible nature.

A particularly egregious example is Jimmy's ruse to escape the Indian patrol by tricking the warriors into drinking a special brand of beverage. Truly, this time around, under Giraud's directions, the proud tribesmen behave little more deadly then their fellow comic book villains, the Romans that plague Asterix and Obelix in Goscinny and Uderzo's classic albums (even those creators previous "Oumpah Pah" Western series seems to have treated the Native Americans more sympathetically than "Mission in Mexico").

Unfortunately, all of these encounters have had a direct impact on lessening the threat of Fort Navajo's chief antagonist, Lonesome Eagle, who has direct involvement in most of the Indian parties going after Blueberry in this album. The ingenious hunter and at every point Blueberry's equal of the previous volume seems to have been replaced with a pulp villain, who is continually beset and incapable of doing serious harm to the hero. With every encounter, the Indian's threat diminishes to the point where he feels almost like a nuisance, an authority figure that keeps turning up to sober up the relaxed adventurers. By the end, even his allies shy away from him, which seems logical, but still feels like Giraud should have built some kind of framework from keeping the Eagle from being directly responsible for all of the crushing defeats that he suffers in this volume.

Once in Mexico, the creators pick up on some of the historical backdrop of the time, which works to somewhat lessen the generic style of most of the preceding pages. The Jayhawkers expatriate soldiers feel like a very nice addition to the series, and provide for a lot of the color and excitement in the book's final pages. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the Mexican authorities, whose late addition to "Mission" seems slight and necessary only because of the historical framework that the story is set in. It is not that they deter from the plot, only that the manner in which they are presented is too overly familiar, almost perfectly their perfunctory role in Giraud and Charlier's depiction of the conflict.

The return of lieutenant Crowe serves a function to the plot, but does little to further develop the character, following his emancipation in "Thunder in the West". Once again, despite their role in the events, the original Fort Navajo characters feel stiff and both Giraud and Charlier have trouble with them. Even with the redesign and the greater role Crowe has got to play following his somewhat low key introduction, he doesn't really feel like a presence that could be maintained following the Apache wars conflict, which was exactly the fate his creators have eventually assigned him.

Going back to Jimmy McClure's status as the new sidekick to Blueberry, his very presence seemed to be inspiration to the creators. Seeing Mike drop his guard, get back to cards, and in doings so all sense of time and hurry, while under the pretense of helping Jimmy out of an unfortunate situation, shows exactly where Charlier and Giraud were doing the penultimate chapter of their Fort Navajo epic. The creators have quickly found their niche in dramatizing American history, but five years into doing this, they have certainly earned their right to try and breach out into the more creative direction. Hence, the Apache war being relegated to finish in the very next album, enabling them to try something new, that would bear the name of Lieutenant Blueberry, and not his former military facility.

And it is exactly in the image of Jimmy McClure that the reader can see all the difference. His derelict appearance is full of character, and also much more universal to the old West than that of the soldiers serving with Blueberry. But even more important, Jimmy seems like the first character that Giraud is completely at ease with. His lucid look, the careless way he goes about, mash perfectly with the Spaghetti western sensibility that characterized all but the original military premise of the series. While rapidly distancing themselves from the classical Western storytelling, the creators are merely acknowledging the complex morality that was always apparent in their stories. It is only that with Jimmy in tow, Blueberry finally starts navigating Giraud's astonishingly detailed and life-like backgrounds with much more charm and humanity. And this is exactly what has lead the series to attract such a huge following in the years subsequent to the Fort Navajo cycle.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Scalped #39-42 "Unwanted"

Vertigo's "Scalped" has recently seen the conclusion of the four part "Unwanted" story-arc, featuring a sustained narrative by the regular creative team of Jason Aaron and RM Guera. Their newest effort follows up directly from the themes introduced in the preceding issue, spotlighting the protagonist's father. The publisher has already decided to group both "Unwanted" and the several issues before, into one extra-sized collection.

Structurally speaking, the four part arc is very methodic. Each issue starts with a flashback detailing the previous generation's struggle with the same issues concerning their children in the present. The start of the arc makes this connection apparent by intentionally obscuring the identity of the woman until the reader identifies her as Carol's mother. Aaron breaks this theme of flashbacks in the final chapter, by teasing a possible flash forward or a genuine time jump, before drawing the reader back in the present day, which has itself been transformed through the heft of the preceding three issues.

As for the drama that unfolds in the main narrative, it's anything but the bloody neo-noir storytelling that has preceded it. And while "Unwanted" definitely takes place in the Prairie rose reservation, the arc centers on the fate of Dashiell and Carol's individual lives, when they're briefly separated from their self-destructive relationship. Basically, it's an arc of "Scalped" without a gunshot, where even the strong language Red Crow uses to fend of Dash's father seems coarse and unwarranted.

The everyday of the Lacota tribe after the turbulent 70s being what emotionally draining for all of these characters has everything to do with their predicament, but it offers no help when they try to break from the lifestyle they have been trapped in. Both Carol and Dash are fixated on the past, but the gravity of the situation suddenly changes when Red Crow's daughter decides to no longer ignore her pregnancy. By leaving Dash for the time being, her main concern is shared with grandma Poor Bear, an aging wise woman, incapable of having her own children, and acting as a caretaker of sorts, for her tribe members wary of institutional social services.

Dashiell similarly finds himself being offered help from Red Crow's lieutenant Shunka, who drags him off to a traditional but nevertheless highly unsympathetic way of dealing with the situation. Similarly, the return of his long-absent father appears to only further aggravate young Bad Horse. This comes as no surprise as the younger generation of the tribe residents uniformly react by lashing out, incapable of really dealing with the pent up anger at the mistakes of their parents, when they yet again start affecting their lives.

It's interesting to contrast Carol's reaction then. The long suffering young woman has a much direct problem at her hands, in that dealing with pregnancy has previously affected her to such an extent that she blames many of the aspects of her current erratic behavior on the past. Yet, the traditionally hot tempered Indian woman displays a much firmer grip on the current situation then her lover. By taking grandma Poor Bear's advice and trying to struggle with the crisis brought on by unrestrained life style, she shows a much more focused approach to the unenviable position she finds herself in.

Dash on the other hand, starts panicking, which is reasonable considering he's dealing with the after effects of substance abuse, and isn't even aware of Carol's pregnancy when the arc starts. For him, the problem at hand is only the culmination of everything that's happened since his return to the Rez, and he still has no idea how to approach solving it. With Red Crow being the one initiating his return to sobriety, it goes without saying that what he goes through can only be described as a horrible ordeal.

Even without the threat of violence, these characters simply have no way of slowing down and dealing rationally with a bad situation, and are therefore forced to confront the enormity of it head on, and suffer through the consequences every step of the way. This means that R.M. Guerra gets to illustrate page after page of naked bodies falling into fetal positions, of panels centering on aggressive dismissals, and the general air of bleakness and claustrophobia that makes up their Prairie rose surroundings.

It's three issues full of characters struggling with indecision and trying to overcome the predicament by finding a firm ground to stand on. Both Carol and Dash reach this point by the end of the third issue, which is where they finally confront each other. Thus, it makes sense that Aaron would postpone their conversation in the concluding episode by featuring yet another of the time displaced opening sequences. Following this, their interaction is almost too serene - enough so that the writer feels the need to generate drama by spotlighting their second thoughts in narrative captions.

But despite this, and the horrible weight of the decisions they have had to shoulder to get to this point, both of them do emerge from the conflict with a new found sense of purpose. For the time being, the series will no doubt favor centering upon the after effects of the "Unwanted" from Dash's point of view. Simply, the decision that is fostered upon him by his father's simple question dovetails neatly with answering many of the wider plot threads, and as such provides a clear break which will be continued upon in the next arc.

As it stands, the four-parter is a great example of "Scalped" at top form. The slow-paced, character-based storytelling, that still advances the plot in a logical and realistic way is exactly what has lead readers to warm up to the series. It goes without saying that all of this is achieved through Guera's superbly atmospheric artwork. And just as the series starts once again enlisting guest artists to provide time for him to illustrate the next story arc, the "Unwanted" goes to rem how strong the book is at the it's peak.

And to top it all of, what Aaron and Guera have produced is such a distinctively defined storyline that could even be characterized as neo-noir soap opera. It's a testament to their strengths as creators that they have taken a highly controversial theme, filtered it through the genre mash up and made it succeed at every stage as part of the book's preexisting storyline. The regular readers can only hope that the succeeding arcs will be as strong as this one.

Friday, November 5, 2010

Blueberry Fort Navajo 3 - Lone eagle

Serialized in 1967, "Lone eagle" had it's premiere in "Pilote", continuing the saga of Civil war veteran Mike Steve Donovan "Blueberry". In the third entry of the Fort Navajo cycle, both Jean Michel Charlier and Jean Giraud were already so comfortable with their new comic, that their hard work turned into page after page of solid western storytelling, without the experiments witnessed in the previous volumes.

In fact, the creators confident grip of the story is evident from it's very first scenes. Following the always dubious use of a map when it comes to depicting larger then life events, Charlier proceeds to recap the story so far. This is done using completely new characters, that serve to be introduced to Blueberry in his present state, and disappear as soon as their role is served. Yet, it's hard to find fault in this kind of a decision, considering the complicated events that are to follow. The reason for starting small is apparent as soon as the protagonist reaches Fort Quitman, for it is here that Charlier and Giraud's fiction meets it's real life inspirations, and the plot starts connecting to the important events in the previous albums.

Once again, Blueberry is put in front of the major action in the Apache wars, acting as a fictional surrogate replacing many of the important players in the events that took place in the old West. Interestingly, the long march connecting the rest of the military outposts with the ammo that Blueberry's new regiment is carrying, turns the story into a real thriller. In fact, almost all of the first half of "Lone eagle" plays almost like a detective story, with an unknown outside force sabotaging the convoy. Unfortunately, employing such specific genre conventions while restricted with page count, often leads into mysteries that are much too obvious, considering the modest number of introduced suspects.

Charlier must have been aware of this, which is why he proceeds with a scene cut, revealing the identity of the saboteur to the reader, before Donovan and his men are able to figure it out for themselves with absolute certainty. In doing so, the creative team manage to spotlight the Lone eagle character, revealing him to be a perfect foil for the protagonist, and certainly the first clear villain as such, in the series so far.

Following the trickery needed to alert the Indians to the approach of the military convoy, the story turns into a much direct confrontation between the opposite sides, making it feel like a truly well executed military serial. But again, Fort Navajo effectively turned into the Blueberry series with the previous album, thus most of these skirmishes are overshadowed by the game of wits, between two skilled hunters. Seeing someone else employ the wilderness savvy strategies that have saved Blueberry and his friends so many times before, certainly brings a welcome dynamic to the proceedings.

Yet, Lone Eagle isn't the only foil Blueberry has to endure throughout the long trek to reconnect to the other outposts. The men he's leading are dozens in number and generally virtuous, yet their given commander is a highly improbable Irish caricature. Sporting red hair and a hard drinking problem, O'Reilly is to blame for many of the mistakes that the creators are simply unwilling to let their protagonist make. Ultimately, the heroic Blueberry is cognizant of his fellow soldier's simple failings, but in recognizing O'Reilly as only human, Donovan somehow reasserts his own status as an archetype, standing in for the real world military personnel that have made the decisions attributed to him. "Lone Eagle" is thus definitely not the volume that spotlights the character's anti-hero side, but still falls short of "Thunder in the West"'s almost mythological treatment of the character.

Interestingly, Charlier uses the closing scenes for the reintroduction of a major "Fort Navajo" character, with lieutenant Graig, returning to participate in the final set piece. And following several literal highly orchestrated cliffside skirmishes, the last chance to stop the army from reconnecting with the rest of the troops in Fort Bowie, Lone Eagle uses to stage an elaborate trap. It goes without saying that Giraud used most of the album's rugged settings to get the most authentic and life-like atmosphere, but in that last ditch Indian effort, the artist advances to provide a visually spectacular scene of frantic chase and high stakes action.

In as dense a plot as "Lone Eagle" has developed over the serialization in "Pilote", the proceedings are still very clear, despite at one time the army being split in three directions. Giraud's faces are still somewhat less relaxed and natural, going against his style of clean layouts and detailed textures. Despite this, all of the main characters have distinctive designs and it's always clear what their role is, even in the most complicated of setups, dealing with false tracks and advanced strategic thinking employed by Blueberry and Lone Eagle, trying to sway the outcome to the benefit of their own respective sides.

And even though the closing scenes dully set up the following events in this fictional recreation of Apache wars, "Lone Eagle" is effectively the first time the readers were treated to a complete story by Charlier and Giraud. Their third Fort Navajo album has a very definite beginning and the end, which cannot really be said for the preceding volume, with it's last minute Mexico adventure.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Shadowland: Moon knight #1-3

After several years of centering their whole publishing line around event mini-series, from "Civil war" to "Secret invasion", the last couple of years saw the company taking a step back and turning attention back to the individual titles. This is especially evident following "Siege", with the following crossovers being limited in scope and impact to their respective "family" titles. This has been a regular X-Men practice for decades, but in 2010, Marvel decided to use Daredevil as a center piece of just such an publishing strategy.

With "Daredevil"'s history of being traditionally the most successful of Marvel's street level superhero character titles, it made perfect sense to use the book's long foreshadowed "Shadowland" storyline as a lynchpin for spotlighting that particular part of their line. When it comes to the ongoing titles participating in a crossover event, Marvel has been very particular of late, usually commissioning a separate tie-in mini-series, so as not to derail the regular creative team's plans for the title. This has lead to a slew of clearly labeled three parters, readily available on the stands, with intentionally peripheral stories that serve to entertain just such a customer interested in a very specific product.

Where "Shadowland: Moon Knight" defers from the rule is that the character's ongoing series has been cancelled just before the crossover, thus making the following tie-in mini-series something of an exception. Written by the regular "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" scribe Gregg Hurwitz, adamant on providing some sense of closure to the cancelled titl, and pencilled by the "Deadpool the Merc with a mouth"'s Bong Dazo, the series had a complicated task of balancing between two previously unrelated storylines, while ostensibly trying to appeal to the average reader.

From the start, it's very easy to identify which of these plots the writer is more interested in, as he duly follows the editorial mandate of actually spotlighting the role Moon Knight has to play in the proper "Shadowland" mini-series, but otherwise steers clear of the connection, building the story he really wants to tell around the crossover. This approach definitely benefits existing "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" fans, but can hardly be considered fair to the readers who picked up the obligatory tie-in, interested in seeing the wider event story to the fullest. This is perhaps understandable, seeing as how the potentially interested members of wider superhero audience don't really have a place to continue reading Moon Knight's solo adventures if the character starts sparking their interest in this very moment.

On the other hand, the grim and disturbing atmosphere to be found in the pages of "Shadowland: Moon Knight" clashes even with the tone of Hurwitz' cancelled ongoing. And while a disturbing ending for this part of Moon Knight's fictional life was always an alternative judging by the set-up in the writer's opening arc, it seems that somehow Shadowland's own brutally grim outlook impacted on the crossover, beyond the obligatory Daredevil scenes. This is nowhere as apparent as in Dazo's pencils, whose work seems particularly intense the whole time, starting with the oversized first issue.

His work with inker Jose Pimental on Deadpool's likewise cancelled second ongoing title, likewise felt exaggerated and raw, but maintained a fitting sense of immaturity. On Moon Knight, once again under Matt Milla's colors (supplemented by Chris Sotomayor's work for the first two thirds of the mini-series), following the very first page, this playfulness turns into a perverse exploration of the darkest parts of the Marvel universe, with crooked and bent characters leering maniacally, through gritted teeth, while sulking through the story that echoes of madness and supernatural.

There is literally no respite for the the character, as the body count starts piling up from the moment Daredevil enlists the aid of Profile, designed by Charlie Huston and David Finch as Moon Knight's chief human opponent. The criminal genius finds a way to once again shake up the protagonist's status quo, by creating a threat that proceeds to shake up all of the parts of Jake's past, that he thought he's managed to deal away with. Thus, the conspiracy comes alive in the form of Shadow Knight, composed equal parts of Moon Knight's paranoid connection to the Egyptian mythology, and his darkest personal failings, that sets out to endanger his current fragile balance, under the auspices of securing an item important to the wider crossover.

The gauntlet the character's been put through is severely rigourous and mirrors the darkest excesses of 1980s superhero "realism" when the character starred in first ongoing series. And while his status as Marvel's answer to Batman, with all of the tortured heroism that entails, always made for severely brutal stories, rarely has a single adventure seemed this bleak and depressing. The threat comes from Moon Knight's past and starts severely punishing him, on every level imaginable, leading to some very questionable creative choices. And while it's one thing to attack the constantly changing array of the character's alter egos to represent the psychological cost of the emotionally catastrophic events engulfing Jake, it's quite another to so severely attack his longtime partner, Marlene.

And while the superhero girlfriends have been longtime defined by the careless status of damsels in distress, the personal cost of the title characters' crime fighting has long surpassed the slight inconvenience witnessed in their Golden age debuts. Paralleling the complicated maturation of the genre, an accidental trend of graphically depicted torture to the female form, has been getting it's louder and louder opposers, thus it's difficult to see the reason for it's continuation, in the pages of a tie-in mini-series, of all places.

The way it's handled, this kind of development certainly raises the stakes in the final showdown between the two avatars of Khonshu, it would have likely provoked a severe outcry, if it had been more extensively featured in the main Shadowland mini-series. Just looking at Dazo's brutal drawing of Marlene, bruised and battered, but still showing a provocative look at her cleavage seems beyond cynical. It's telling that her subsequent appearance amounts to exactly one panel designed to spotlight Moon Knight's current state of mind. Her recovery relegated to a side-glance shot in the mirror reveals not so much a lack of space devoted to the character, but more or less a complete disregard to the deeper motivation behind Moon Knight seeking vengeance, beyond driving the plot where the editorial saw fit.

On the whole, this whole project does fulfill a lot of the promise set up in the early Hurwitz-Opena issues, it's just that the execution itself is very particular. The themes of whether Moon Knight could find acceptance in the wider Marvel universe by avoidance the use lethal force against his enemies, and the possibility of his continued mental well being have been directly dealt with, in this unlikely tie-in mini-series. The only problem is that the execution behind it doesn't carry through on the relative strength of the plot.

It's hard to look at Dazo's tortured work and think that the story has inspired him beyond potentially raising his profile in the industry. He does some of his character work by utilizing the shadows to show Jake's fractured mental state, but even these decisions, when noticeable, seem like narrative tricks long familiar to the Batman readers. The artist fares much better with the introduction of New Orleans as the setting of the final duel, with no doubt the lack of actual Shadowland tie-in scenes inspiring him to end his commitment on a high note. The somewhat more whimsical atmosphere really seems to bring forth the artist's interest, making his work in return have that much of an added weight and definition, to help smooth out the increasingly bleak outlook of the fight.

It's not so much that he renders a local fortune teller Jake encounters with a particularly memorable design, but the care that Dazo and Pimental show in rendering almost all visitors of the Mardi Gras with a distinctive design, which then colorist Milla proceeds to generalize with subdued colors, so as not to interfere with the chief kinetic elements of the page. And while it's unfortunate that the artistic team finds so little inspiration in the Shadowland scenes that dominated the parts of the earlier issues, it would be unfair to say that the event has in any real way clashed with Hurwitz's plans for the rest of the story.

For instance, Shadow Knight, despite the overblown nature of the threat he poses, gets a very natural introduction to the story, his presence foreshadowed by the events depicted in flashback. Those particular character beats, rendered in distinctive sepia tones, certainly work much better in developing the relationship with the title character, than the brief segments devoted to Marlene.

Likewise, Hurwitz treats the story's McGuffin with a serviceable in-story reason that connects the Daredevil and Moon Knight trappings. Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that all of the writer's efforts were merely compromises, realized through the medium of a sympathetic editor. Yet, for all of the effort of Axel Alonso to preserve as much as he can from Hurwitz' initial pitch, it's hard not to wander what would have happened if the proposed "Vengeance of Moon Knight" run continued to it's logical conclusion, under the artistic development of the title's original penciller Jerome Opena.

It surely couldn't have lead to such an intense and repulsive arc finale as the Shadowland tie-in mini series, and along the way would have clearly returned to the rematch with Bushman, whose reintroduction formed the main plot of "Shock and awe". Unfortunately, the economical realities of North American superhero marketplace have once again worked against any long term planning, which shouldn't really come as a surprise, considering Moon Knight's history with the company. The 35-year old property has seen multiple perspectives, relaunches, and different creative teams tackling the character and his supporting cast, with all of them seemingly very honest in their attempt to produce their most professional work.

Unfortunately, Moon Knight, as well as most of the participants in the Shadowland crossover, hasn't been able to lay claim to Daredevil's success of more or less uninterruptedly producing hundreds of monthly issues. With the recent news of the avatar of Khonshu being announced as a cast member of the Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning incarnation of "Heroes for hire", even his place on "Secret Avengers" seems to be in question. Meanwhile, the editorial doesn't seem willing to completely abandon the concept of the character's solo series, as evidenced by "Shadowland: Moon Knight"'s ending.

Just like the previous Huston/Finch launched series, that ended with Mike Benson and Jefte Palo providing a transition to the "Vengeance of Moon Knight", a title that was apparently already in preparation at the company. What's interesting is that this time, Marvel has committed the award winning "Daredevil" creative team of Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev to redefine the character, in what is not yet as being a mini-series, or a continuing project. The creators promise a scope rivaling their previous collaboration, that has firmly established them, both together and separately, as major talents in the genre.

The resulting effort remains to be seen, but for now, Moon Knight remains Marvel's substantially less popular answer to Batman than the superhero in whose story he just guest starred in. Just like Black Panther, who is expected to have a more direct benefit from the Shadowland event aftermath, Marvel is continually investing in Moon Knight, no doubt with the mind to once develop the property outside it's inherent medium. And while the cancellation of the "Vengeance of the Moon Knight", and the Hurwitz-Opena take behind it certainly doesn't bode well for any plans such as the once discussed Moon Knight TV series, the editorial's continued enthusiasm is bound to turn up interesting material along the way.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Vengeance of the Moon Knight #7-10 "Killed, not dead"

With the conclusion of the "Shadownland: Moon Knight" tie-in mini-series, Marvel have officially ended the Greg Hurwitz run on the character, while announcing the plan to continue with the character in a different direction. This comes on the heels of breaking up the creative team following their first arc on the title, with artist Jerome Opena getting employed to assist with the relaunched "X-Force".

At the time, the editorial had only announced that #7 and 8, guest starring Deadpool, would feature the fill in art of Ten ("Ghost rider") Eng Huat. Following the dwindling sales results for the title, Marvel have no doubt hoped to attract some of the attention by featuring the comedic Merc with a mouth, content that the "Vengeance"'s focus on broader Marvel universe would make it somewhat more creatively justified. This approach ignored that now, at the peak of his popularity so far, Deadpool has been overexposed to the point of absurdity. Therefore, his presence alone certainly doesn't help the two-parter turn into a novelty factor for an already too jaded audience. Even if it did bring in those new readers, what little "Killed, not dead" had to present itself certainly did Moon Knight no favors.

This tale of the two anti-heroes' conflicting interests over a hospitalized criminal, and his right to live, does appear to at least continue Jake's character arc under Hurwitz' authorship, but that's the extent to what it does to separate it from the underlying Silver Age of the Marvel Universe. Deadpool is, like always, completely over the top, but the end result is neither funny enough for the reader to be entertained, nor is nuanced in such a way to convincingly lead one to empathize with the wrong woman whose grief is at the center of the story. Amid Haut's stylish angular anatomy, and energetic points of view is nothing less than a missed opportunity, teasing the reader with the premise of juxtaposition between the mercenary pasts of the characters, only to abandon the subplot in the second issue.

Having just such a throwaway story between two more ambitious arcs in an ongoing title would be a much more reasonable decision, providing the regular penciller with a headstart on the upcoming issues. As it stands now, Marvel's B-titles such as "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" are essentially so unsuccessful that the publisher gains more from the stop and start tactics of constantly relaunching and cancelling the series (with the added benefit of rethinking the brand in-between), than by the continuing publication of a traditional ongoing title, where one creative team follows on the heels of another. Trying to make the best of a bad situation, all the editorial could think to do was use the final two issues as a training ground for introducing new artistic talent to the company's pool of freelancers.

Hence, Juan ("Black summer", "No hero") Joze Ryp makes his debut for Marvel in an over-sized issue, teaming up Moon Knight with Spider-Man, after the company's flagship mismanaged cameo appearance in the opening arc. Once again, the story has little bearing on Jake's new Batman-like status, being decidedly lighter, and focusing on a cliched interpretation of both leads. Hurwitz's story seems to draw as much inspiration from Moon Knight's classical appearance of a superhero being flown around on a helicopter, as well as "Spider-Man 3", hoping that the reconfiguring of the title past it's Marvel Knights phase will endure such a lighthearted approach. In practice, "Collision" becomes an instantly forgettable diversion, seemingly aimed solely at testing the penciller's storytelling skills.

As such, the museum heist perpetrated by the Sandman certainly bring to the fore Ryp's kinetic and detailed style, alebeit rendered more universal, than his Avatar press work. And by abandoning horror and gore as his trademark subject matter, the artist still manages a story that feels much richer, and interesting in appearance than the regular, serviceable work offered in Marvel's less popular titles. That said, Juan has much more trouble rendering Moon Night's new body armor as lean as Opena, as well as spending far too much time on splash pages in an issue that's already stretched way past the limits of it's simple story.

The heavy Geoff Darrow influence is still hard at play, but Ryp somehow makes it his own, with superhero fans traditionally favoring just such an intensively realized version of New York, and the chaos on the streets in the hero/villain scenes. Just like Eng Huat, his commitment to the title covers one more issue, albeit that being a new story, clarifying Moon Knight's place in the Avengers franchise. At the time of the solicitations, there was still some doubt whether the title would continue past #10, but all was made clear soon, when no new "Vengeance" material was being announced past the "Shadowland" tie-in mini series.

Thus, the title proper ended it's run in another generic story, imitating the style of Ed Brubaker and Mike Deodato jr.'s "Secret Avengers", albeit with the Moon Knight as the spotlighted character. Such a slight distinction makes for a very unrewarding reading, particularly when the team title the protagonist has been included in still hasn't found it's own voice. Hurwitz finds his niche in showing the team protecting an ancient artifact from falling into hands of a rather over the top Captain Barracuda and his crew, ostensibly dusted off from the archives of Marvel's decades old filler material.

It goes without saying that just such an issue serves as no recommendation for the Secret Avengers title, neither is it a proper Moon Knight tale, by any stretch of the imagination. In returning the character to his West Coast Avengers phase, Marvel is simply following the tradition, of cancelling his solo book, and keeping the property in the minds of fans by having him play a role in one of the satellite Avengers books. As for the artistic contribution, even Juan Joze Ryp can do little to elevate such a silly story, and be inspired to make it stand up as an enjoyable superhero romp. Working under heavy coloring of Andres Mossa, his art becomes indistinct and blurry, brining forth the rawest parts of his style under the nightmarish sky and murky tanker walls. This is particularly off putting, following the open and lighter colors of the artistic team's collaboration in the previous issue.

In many ways, this issue hardly makes a case for it's existence, except by acting as a clear signpost of where the fans can expect to find the character next, now that "Vengeance of Moon Knight" has been cancelled.

Looking at the four issues following Opena's departure, it becomes clear that Marvel has rushed it's new ongoing series into existence. Following so quickly after the previous volume's conclusion, the publisher would have perhaps been better of by soliciting the 6-issue "Shock and awe" Dark Reign tie-in as a mini-series. Thereby, judging by the success of it's performance, the editorial could have made a more sensible decision regarding the start of a potential ongoing follow up.

Still, their entrust the creative team with a monthly series doesn't seem so misguided, when taking into account the general tendency of mini-series to underpeform in today's market. North American comic shops are simply overflowed with superhero books, and launching a new series starring a character that can at best be considered fan favorite, by employing a creative team that still has to find sizeable following, would have always been a risky proposition. That eventually, the work itself proved only adequate, certainly did the title no help in at least attracting the positive reviews that could have potentially helped the title stay afloat a little longer.

Yet, this was still not the end for Hurwitz's take on the character, as a last minute "Shadowland" event tie-in mini-series ended up providing something resembling a true ending towards a few of the main themes set up in his and Opena's opening "Vengeance of the Moon Knight" storyline.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Blueberry Fort Navajo 2 - Thunder in the West

"Thunder in the West" is the 1966 follow-up to Charlier and Giraud's western debut, originally serialized in Franco-Belgian's seminal "Pilote" magazine. Continuing directly from their "Fort Navajo" debut, the creative duo comes back with a story that is much more clearly in line with the overall lieutenant Blueberry saga. By dispersing with the ensemble cast scenario of the debut album, they put Mike Steve Donovan first and foremost as the hero on a quest of vital importance. Still, this decision feels very much like an organic progression, and is all the while fully integrated into the historically inspired setting of the looming war between the US army and Indian tribes.

In a lot of ways, "Thunder" is a much more wholesome entry in the series, despite being the second of the five volumes in the cycle. Charlier accomplishes this by having the background plot continue around his hero's mission that takes him away from the direct involvement in the events in Fort Navajo. The expensive setting of the Apache wars lends itself neatly for just such a treatment, in turn dividing this second volume in roughly three acts. When all is said and done, Blueberry's solo adventure takes up only the middle third of "Thunder", but despite the important events plot-wise taking place before and after his ride to Tucson, it forms the heart of the story.

At the same time, this fictional episode provides for a much more mythic portrayal of the journey, as if the temporary diversion from the historical canon of Apache wars inspired Charlier and Giraud to imagine Blueberry as a western Ulysses of sorts. Yet, despite the all around storytelling innovations in the "Thunder in the West", this early entry in the lieutenant Blueberry saga still has all of the hallmarks of the Fort Navajo story arc.

And although later editions have somewhat softened up the garish coloring of the original, the whole of Fort Navajo remains a very complicated and laborious beginning, with a very rigid plot, and a much more formulaic realization than the later, more freewheeling Blueberry adventures. This is not to say that the exposition heavy volume is solely of historical importance, but that it's hard to view it as something other than the training ground for the massive loose story that follows it up. Because, genuinely, the many twists and turns the Fort Navajo saga offers are very interesting, with "Thunder in the West" particularly being a good example of both creators doing extensive work to get the reader to invest emotionally.

Once again, the plight of the Indians, wrongly accused, and forced to defend themselves, forms the emotional core of the story, with a very important exception. Due to special attention given to Blueberry, the reader is drawn to start sympathizing with his efforts, beyond the casual attention given to whether one of the introduced US soldiers will live or die, that must have been a common reaction to the plot-heavy "Fort navajo" debut. And, Blueberry is not the only one to benefit from continued focus in "Thunder in the West" - lieutenant Crowe particularly displays a complex morality only hinted in the previous album, quickly becoming a major factor in Charlier and Giraud's depiction of the conflict.

Interestingly, the major plot point achieved at the close of "the Thunder" feels perfunctory for just that - the lack of extra care taken to fleshing out the particular concern. As for the chief impressions beyond the characterization, most of them involve the more practical concerns, voiced in the many action scenes. Once again tying in with the "Fort Navajo" debut, the creators extensively spotlight Blueberry's abilities as an experienced hunter and tracker. Giraud is called upon to time and again illustrate with clarity one of lieutenant's tricks, improvised at the moment, that usually serve to help him stack the odds in his favor. In a very real way, by slimming the cast of Fort Navajo to one clever soldier, the creators abandon all semblance of objectivity and focus on symbolizing a hero's plight, albeit illustrated with all of the realism that they can muster.

It is important to note that despite the storytelling approach of the day, favoring large doses of dialogue, broken only to be replaced by the captions, Charlier and Giraud still manage to provide a very suspenseful in "Thunder". The creators' sense of timing is impeccable, and most of the twists manage to be both entertaining and, in retrospect, logical. Likewise, when the stakes feel too much to convince the reader of Blueberry's survival, Charlier wisely introduces, and in one case, reintroduces, a companion to even the odds against the lieutenant.

Most impressively, the duo's compatibility achieves a stylistic highpoint in the scene depicting Blueberry's approach to the Diamond ranch. This single page is so brilliantly laid out and executed, that the reader is kept feeling every step of Blueberry's approach. As the point of view switches around, the scene reaches the climax of it's tension just as the reader is about to turn the page, and discover the truth of the matter at hand. By utilizing such a thrilling approach, Charlier and Giraud almost approach the horror atmosphere and keep it going just enough to get their point across and then continue with the plot.

In many ways, the best parts of the album as a whole mirror the experience of the Diamond ranch scene. The creators cover a lot of plot, albeit somewhat less epic parts of the conflict, with inspiration and a lot of ingenuity, and still eventually leading to fairly important story points, as signified by the final chase that finishes of the album. "Thunder in the West" remains a transitory chapter, a more personal one that fits well into the over action oriented fictional representation of the Apache wars conflict. Yet, by giving Blueberry the requisite spotlight, Charlier and Giraud slowly start working towards making him a character broader than the Fort Navajo epic, and capable of continuing in the other West-oriented adventures, that have come to define him much more definitely than his military days. The end result is, of course, one of complete success, in that by trusting their instincts and refining their craft, the creators have eventually created the complex and definite portrayal of the essential Franco-Belgian western comic, one whose fame far outstrips it's somewhat humble Fort Navajo origins.

As with many a long-form serialized story, there is simply no point in going back and bemoaning the lack of the familiar level of competency as shown in the title's mature phase. What's important is that "Thunder in the West" was deemed interesting by it's concurrent audience, and that support has helped Blueberry's up and coming creators work their way to the more memorable tales. Today's readers will no doubt be drawn to the Fort Navajo saga by recognizing it as the beginning of a long run starring a popular character, and looking at the work like that, it's best to take it as an engrossing genre story that equally serves as a showcase of the evolution of style of Charlier and Giraud, with the latter being of particular importance considering his eventual medium transforming influence and productivity.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Lieutenant Blueberry "Fort Navajo"

In 1963, French premiere comics outlet "Pilote" started serializing "Fort Navajo", a western publication by the magazine founder Jean-Michael ("Buck danny") Charlier and the newcomer Jean ("Jerry Spring") Giraud. Envisaged as the post Civil war ensemble piece spotlighting several different soldiers stationed in the eponymous outpost deep in the Indian territory, the story was heavily inspired by the Bascom affaire, that started the 25 year long Apache wars.

Starting out with a familiar scene set in a western saloon, the creators introduce the main characters, lieutenants Graig and Donovan, as an odd couple of action heroes. Yet, it is the latter, the anti-hero of the two, nicknamed "Blueberry" that has gained so much prominence and spotlight since, that the series was effectively rebranded under his own name following the debut episode. Following the opening scene, Charlier and Giraud almost immediately start launching a complicated plot mechanism that would showcase all of their creative choices regarding Fort Navajo as a story setting.

Thus, a simple investigation into a robbery they stumble upon on their way to the garrison, leads rapidly into a severe misunderstanding with the local Indians, threatening to erupt into an all out war. In order to rapidly accelerate the revenge story, Charlier uses a number of plot contrivances, all leading to the worst possible outcome, that still matches the key events, as they happened some 100 years previous.

In the process, the writer establishes only a handful of non-historical characters, and most of them in shorthand. This collection of archetypes is easily excusable when taking into account the epic brush strokes of the conflict. Lieutenants Graig, Blueberry and their new friend, half-Indian Crowe all get somewhat more nuanced portrayals, with distinctive character designs. Even then, only the Civil War soldier Blueberry comes out as a fully formed character, with formally trained officer Graig a distant second.

Still, their superior major Bascom is likely to elicit the strongest emotional reaction from the reader. Charlier depicts the historical character as a racist career man that directly makes all of the most controversial decisions, leading to the conflict with Apache leader Cochise. The storytellers cleverly paint Bascom almost like a force of nature, a character that the reader both fears and loathes, but taking a closer look, one realizes that there would simply not be much of a story without him.

Laying the groundwork for the rest of the story, "Fort Navajo" is a somewhat exposition heavy debut, but it nonetheless manages to carry across a lot of plot and three intricate action scenes. The first of these highlights the difference in the approach lieutenants Blueberry and Graig take in investigating what seems like an Apache raid. During the initial skirmishes with Indians, Mike Steve Donovan displays a lot of his later trademark wisdom and experience, by tricking his opponents in order to help his new friend.

Following the dialogue heavy opening, these chase scenes highlight Giraud's aptitude towards the material, revealing the young artist as endlessly adept at providing very naturalistic depictions of animals and the western surroundings. His detailed style is somewhat more formulaic when it gets to the characters, who seem to possess a somewhat plastic, and too visibly researched grimaces. When it gets to open spaces, and the combat dynamics, though, even this early, Giraud seems unequaled in depicting the plausible and memorable Wild West atmosphere.

Simply put, the artist's depiction of desert feels searing hot, simple and unforgiving, yet lined with a bevy of characteristically western rock formations that enrich and carry across the unique atmosphere of the prairie.

Yet, perhaps the series' biggest achievement is that in humanizing the Indians, it carries over a feeling of realistic politics, not only mirroring the historical Apache wars, but getting the reader to really appreciate the complexity of the situation. The original album is content to introduce the conflict and masterfully raise the foreboding feeling, with both sides victims of an elaborate set-up. After the massacre that serves as the book's central point and it's emotional highlight, the volume ends with a powerful and subdued scene clearly depicting the outcome of the negotiations and spelling disaster for the three lieutenants. Outranked by their greedy superior, and outgunned from all sides by the Apache tribes, these fictional stands ins to the violence that exploded around Fort Buchanan in Arizona, invited "Pilote" readers to accompany them through the dark days ahead.

Considering the talents of Charlier and Giraud, even though their first collaboration seems tame and classical compared to their later work with Blueberry, it was a very sensible proposition that lead to some of the greatest moments in the history of Franco-Belgian comics, while at the same time paving a way for Giraud's later experiments that would lead to him adopting the Moebius pseudonym and cement his world wide fame.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

the Shadow returns

In 1986, mainstream superhero comics were forced to reevaluate their criteria, based on the debuts of the new critical darlings, "Watchmen" and "the Dark knight returns". And while both of these prestige format DC comics limited series were commercial hits as well, it's notable that the latter, Frank Miller's bold reimagining of the Batman mythos for the 21st century, got published almost side by side with his former studio mate's new project, coming from a very similar creative stand point.

At the time, Howard Chaykin was already lauded as the writer/artist of "American Flagg!", the cyberpunk satire that paved the way for a new type of genre comics in America, it's type being felt both in superhero and the alternative parts of the industry. In retrospect, the creator's work on the Shadow proved a temporary diversion in one of his attempts at trying his hand on work for hire concepts, that coupled with his subsequent revitalization of "Blackhawk", wound up being continued upon by the company's other talents. And while DC quickly gave up on following Chaykin's vision, trying their best with the more traditional approach on the Golden age concept, the 1986 mini-series stands up as a work that delivers all that it promised to.

Howard Chaykin's reconfiguration of the Shadow for the 1980s was just that, which goes to explain a lot about the controversy that it caused, during it's initial publication. As an other media character licensed to DC comics, any adaptation of the Shadow was always going to catch the purists as a surprise. This is ironic in a lot of ways, considering Batman reportedly being heavily inspired by the radio drama/pulp novel anti-hero, particularly taking into account the popularity Frank Miller's radical take on the Dark knight enjoyed at the time. Chaykin was purposely trying to attract a broader audience with his approach on the Street & Smith licence, but the conservative and ostensibly compartmentalized comics market proved uncompromising. Thus, "Blood and judgment" ended up being lauded presumably only by the Chaykin devoted, which wasn't that small a number considering the popularity the creator enjoyed at the time.

In a way, much like DC's other flagship, Superman, the Shadow was come to be identified by a myriad of details, all stemming from the different incarnations of the company owned property. Thus, each and every new iteration of the concept consists of the new creative team getting to pick and choose the elements, as it suits the editorial approved new direction. Chaykin, of course, did all this, but with a freedom reserved for the select few of the most sought after comics professionals - the ability to add a lot more of his personal touch to a new spin on the decades old icon.

When it comes to Chaykin, a large part of the appeal of his work lies in his layered, powerful art, perfectly suited for pulp-era adventure comics. Yet, Howard is also an ambitious storyteller, who doesn't let the escapist trappings of his chosen field of entertainment completely rob him from indulging in personal excesses. These have everything to do with the politics of the day, and thus, his Shadow is by it's very nature, a contradiction. In the writer/artist's fiercely independent hands, the very character design appears the same, but irrevocably changed, from the familiar icon, which has nothing to do with the fact that Shadow carries uzis, and not his signature 45s (in fact, the action scenes never slow down for the reader to notice the distinction). Just looking at Chaykin's drawing of the silhouetted figure, dressed in a black coat furnished with a scarf, with a wide-brimmed hat on top, betrays everything the project's about. Simply put, Chaykin's vision completely overpowers the Shadow'' original look, and is a far cry from the signature hook nosed, gaunt avenger - and the creator knows it.

The title characters' costume design was something was probably inarguable, and Chaykin did his best at making it his own. Thus Lamont Cranston sports the same stocky, muscular, glass-jawed look of all of his protagonists, and that's for the best. Because, everything else besides the costume is pure Chaykin.

The creator's uncompromising work stars from the very first page, as he opens with a scene of a crime, that gives way to an assortment of murders, graphically depicted on the page. All of these rapid cuts are devoid of any sort of context, introducing a whole slew of character names, and basically acting to alienate all but the most stubborn of readers. Gradually, a plot starts to emerge that is legible even to those not familiar with the Shadow's extended cast of characters, but just as soon as Chaykin reveals the direction he's taking the title in, the first issue is over.
Yet, the cliffhanger ending goes a long way into enticing the audience to continue with the series.

By utilizing a rare splash page, the effect is even more direct, serving a simple purpose of promising more Shadow by Chaykin. Once again, Lamont Cranston, though dressed in a fitting suit, looks nothing like his usual depiction, but that doesn't stop him from proudly revealing himself as the original Chaykin protagonist. The creator was wholly aware of the work for hire nature of the assignment, but that didn't stop him from producing a very experimental first issue, capped by the introduction of his signature male model on the last page, as if he was directing a movie adaptation of the Shadow, with a very sly opening shot of himself in the title role.

Having introduced the plot and the characters (in his own way), Chaykin proceeds to spend all of the second issue on developing the motivation behind the story arc. Considering the largely flashback nature of the segment, it also doubles as providing the clearest indication of the writer/artist's take on the protagonist. As expected, Howard draws from several different interpretations of the character, and by presenting his origin, gets to explaining the continuity reasons for the Shadow's retirement following 1949 (the year of the cancellation of "the Shadow magazine"), all of which tie neatly with the threat that draws him from his Oriental seclusion.

For a writer so concerned with the radical reinvention of the property, Chaykin leaves his Golden age adventures as more or less the same as presented before, with one major distinction. The main sources of the Shadow's 1930s adventures diverged slightly in the matter of the avenger's secret identity, with novels explaining that Lamont Cranston was the assumed identity of WW1 pilot Kent Allard. Howard decides not only to continue the idea novel writer Walter B. Gibson had, of Allard knowingly impersonating Cranston in his quest as the Shadow, but goes even further in the four part mini-series, by making the distinction between the two men the focal point of the plot, centered around the Shadow's formative Oriental years.

Thus, concentrating on the identity crisis, the writer/artist solves the matter of finding a suitable villain, and both makes "Blood and judgment" a story that could only be told using the Shadow as the protagonist. As for the Asian backdrop, it's characteristically over the top, with the creator placing mythic Shamballa at the heart of the main character's motivation, while revealing enough about the ancient civilization to irk all but the most devoted of readers. Namely, in dealing with the hints of the Shadow's supernatural nature, Chaykin falls to his characteristic least subtle, presenting the oriental mystics as basically a race of supermen, equipped with flying cars, and miraculous healing technology. Hence, the training they imparted on the Shadow is nothing less than making the strange creature in black nothing less than metahuman, paralleling the origins of his new publisher's Superman.

Yet, by dispersing with the admittedly unconvincing martial arts explanation for his agility, Chaykin also firmly crosses the line straining the suspense of belief, and actually undermines some of the intrigue of his lead. This stylistic choice is perpetuated by the continuing appearance of Cranston's two sons, who contribute little to the story, except for calling to attention the extent of revision at play. Fortunately, the rest of the supporting cast provides some interesting color, most notably Harry Vincent and Margo Lane, Cranston's closest former aides, who, when faced with their elderly lives being turned upside down all of a sudden, find solace in one another.

Yet, most of the space in the penultimate issue is reserved for Harry's daughter Mavis, another Chaykin addition, and the supposed reader identification character. Still, despite being introduced as the spunky police profiler, playing the routine role of the journalist-like "love interest", once the Shadow shows her the make up of his new operation, she submits to the will of her "Master". The character subsequently fades into the background, and the writer/artist seemingly loses all interest in her, while setting up the climatic confrontation with Mavis as just one of the Shadows' many agents.

Along the way, the reader is treated to a brief look at another of the anti-hero's female agents, one with whom he maintains a much more professional relationship. This is no surprise, considering that Lorelei's brief on panel appearance consists of some of the most bizarre scenes in the whole series. Eventually, as a truly memorable female presence, the reader finds himself warming up to Mercy Preston, the presence behind so much of the carnage in "Blood and judgment".

Sadistic, obsessed with sex and death, she is in many ways a perfect fir for the Chaykin's version of the Shadow, yet Mercy forms only one part of the plot against the vigilante. The beautiful psychopath is married to the elderly, wheelchair bound Mayrock Preston (the original Lamont Cranston), forming a weird sexual triangle with his genetically engineered heir. In fact, this energetic combo gives the series most of it's energy, and connects it perfectly with it's creator's satire of the 1980s. That the heads of the Mayrock corporation employ sadistic new romantic club goers as their assassins, gives the work it's most apparent topicality, with the impact culminating in an off handed mention by the elderly Mayrock.

Admitting that he has AIDS to his young wife, now an HIV victim herself, draws a wedge between them needed for Shadow to step in. This is a much more potent symbol than the family's plan to activate the nuclear projectile aimed at New York, seeing as to how it relates to the thematic core of the project. In a very clear way, the original Lamont Cranston becomes not just a random gangster linked to the Shadow mythos by a clever application of trivia, but almost turns into Chaykin's own approximation of the ability of these pulpy concepts to survive in the cynical everyday of the new times. Preston's desire to extend his youth by taking over as his own son, an satirized version of the 1980s health and fitness devoted, feels much more sympathetic than the eternally young Shadow's motives for opposing him.

The knot of secret identities is for once very purposeful, and directly feeds into the story's themes. The Shadow is certainly charming, but he takes Shamballa for granted, having used it's science to continually prolong his youth. Lamont Cranston, the man whose identity he has usurped has lived to the old age in the world he's left behind and now wants nothing more than to change places once more, having been fatally ill with the latest disease. The metaphor is much more potent when taken into consideration that Chaykin connects the Shadow with Orient chiefly to serve as a perfunctory explanation for his continued vigor, considering that it has already long served the same purpose regarding his vigilante training.

Beyond this, the anti-hero has no motivation, and in choosing not to connect with Harry's daughter on any kind of deeper level, it's hard to see his mission continuing past the defeat of his "original" rival. The letterer, Ken Bruzenak employs a subtle effect indicating the Cranston's voice changing as he goes in character, which is perhaps the most notable addition in the depiction of the Shadow's attack on the "Mayrock casino hotel". Seeing the Master operate is almost like looking at him going through the motion, with even his signature laugh blending with the panel borders under Alex Wald's palette limited by then current coloring standards.

Because, no amount of action poses and ingenuity in the dynamic drawings can bring the Shadow, as written, to 1980s. And while it certainly makes sense that he would triumph in his memorable fight against the Preston family, there is no reason for him to stay away from Shamballa. In fact, Cranston leaving the mantle to his two sons would make much more sense story-wise. Still, leaving DC comics to continue publishing the Shadow with two half-Asian characters in the guise of their father would certainly have caused problems with both the audience and licencors.

Thus, no matter the Shadow's children already showing their preference for America, and the much reported crowds of Shadow fans dressing as their idol all over the country, the writer/artist ends his run on the expected point. With his leaving to continue work on other projects, it's clear that Chaykin understands that he's left behind a complete story without real need of a follow-up, but even then, "Blood and judgment" would have certainly benefited from an expended page count. Especially the concluding issue feels slight, when taken into account the numerous subplots that go unresolved considering the Shadow and his agents. Particularly Harry and Margo, whose resentment at being abandoned by Cranston seemingly plays no role in their getting to aid him with the attack on the Prestons.

Still, taking into account all that, with "the Shadow" Howard Chaykin has produced a very professional work that lives up to the complicated set of goals set for it and succeeds at every turn, while never forgetting to maintain a sense of fun with every step of the way. And while "Blood and judgment" never tries to equal "the Dark knight returns" in it's scope and ambitious, one must take note that Frank Miller's career path differed greatly from his former studio mate's. Namely, Howard was already an independent comics legend when he got to working for DC and Marvel, while the Batman scribe turned to creator owned comics only after he'd achieved mainstream success working in the superhero industry. Thus, it was only fitting that Chaykin approached his next assignment, revamping Blackhawk in the fittingly titled "Blood and iron" in much the same way he did with the Shadow, proceeding in the style that comes most naturally to him - his own.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Asterix and the Falling Sky

"Asterix and the falling sky", published in 2005, is the thirty third volume of the most successful European comic book series created by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo. It is also only the eight one since the latter started both writing and drawing the book, which is significant considering that Goscinny died in 1977. To date, it appears that "the Falling sky" will likely remain the last full length Asterix adventure, discounting the two special albums that have been published around it, spotlighting short stories, and acting as the anniversary special, respectively.

Taken on it's own, this album is also quite likely the strangest Asterix story, and certainly the one that most deviated from the classic feel of the series. The cover homages the original "Asterix the Gaul" album and both invites the comparison, and yet reveals very little of the actual details of the plot. The story proper starts as a typical Goscinny/Uderzo adventure, featuring the pair of Gaulish heroes hunting for wild boars, but wastes no time to set up it's controversial plot. Just as the reader is eased into returning to the familiar characters and their typical ways, Uderzo breaks form and adds a completely alien to what might have been a start of just another Asterix and Obelix yarn.

Just seeing a 3d rendering of a simple model hovering above the Gaulish village, and spelling doom for it's defiant residents gives away the creator's intent. There is no subtlety to Uderzo's ideas at work in "the Falling sky", and just how the reader reacts to this will determine their enjoyment of the proceedings. By taking an oft repeated phrase of his characters fearing only the sky falling on their heads, and using it as a springboard to introduce a biting satire on the entire comic book industry certainly seemed as an ambitious undertaking. It's further polarizing how Uderzo gets to depicting it, tackling such a metafictional story at 78 years of age.

As for the context going in what was to be Asterix's most polarazing adventure, "les Editions Albert Rene/Goscinny Uderzo" prefaces the volume with a photograph that briefly describes the artist's start in the industry. Coupled with an endearing tribute to Walt Disney that closes of the volume, Uderzo makes sure the reader understands the impulses that led to introducing such strange and off-putting science fictional elements in what was always a premiere historical comedy, exemplifying the best in European comics targeted at a younger reader.

As many of his generation, young Uderzo was an artist influenced by Walt Disney and others early cartoon pioneers to contribute to the form of the newly established comic book. Thus, while him and Goscinny certainly felt inspired by the American comics Golden age, most notably by producing the western themed "Oumpah-pah the redskin", they have certainly since come into their own as quintessential European comic book authors. With "Asterix the Gaul" they had created something that was at once stylistically their own, as well as working as a period piece set 2000 years in the past of their own country. Despite the date never really advancing in the thirty odd Asterix stories since, a lot of the book's visual language and distinctive humor has since progressed to the point where it was when Goscinny died, and where it has, more or less, remained since, due to his artistic partner continuing the series.

Yet, despite some of Uderzo's ideas seeming somewhat more political and controversial, never has his work been as polarizing as with "the Falling sky". Considering that it was published so late in the author's life, when his output has dwindled to producing a single album every several years, the expectations have likewise significantly lowered. "Asterix" seemed to be defined by his decades old work, much more than the obligatory new volume, that seemed an impulse purchase from his many fans, who have literally grown up reading these charming tales. As such, the impact of "the Falling sky" was even stronger, considering such risk taking was nowhere near what was expected of the venerable, and widely beloved creator.

Yet, he was interested primarily in pointing out the special place Asterix and Obelix, and even broader, the Franco-Belgian comics, had on the comic book landscape, as defined by it's two largest industries, America and Japan. In order to make his points clear, he decided to borrow the narrative vocabulary of these distinctly different school of comic work, and proceeded to incorporate it wholesale in his existing, well-defined Asterix mythos. The result was bluntly putting into play two interstellar races coming to Earth in search of Getafix's magic potion, and stopping at nothing to hide their presence. Such a dramatic departure was potentially meant to be lessened by introducing a Mickey Mouse analogue in "Toon", the ambassador of Tadsilweny (a Walt Disney anagram) empire, as well as showing the reaction of his regular protagonists first and foremost.

And while the reader was to be entertained by just such a diversion, the in-jokes still feel odd and overpowering. And while Uderzo never proceeds to introduce more of emperor Hubs' (anagram of former president George W. Bush) forces beyond the Superman clones, what little there is of the political commentary thankfully quickly gets subdued. Unlike his superhero parody, further cementing the idea that the aliens' search for the magical potion doubles as the commentary on America's campaign for finding the weapons of mass destruction in Middle East would have surely driven the book into a territory simply unsuited to be dealt with using these children's characters.

This is likely for the best, considering that the addition of Nagmas, the Japanese-styled race with a corresponding set of anagrams, further complicates Uderzo's specific viewpoint. As opposed to the Tadsilweny invaders that Asterix and Obelix can somehow deal with, these other aliens are much more hostile, and depicting as possessing none of the whimsy of their interstellar rivals. And while Uderzo certainly plays his homages to Disney and Superman prototypes as both whimsy and dim-witted, not a lot of that spirit remains for their Asian counterparts.

In fact, the mangas are presented as single-minded and malevolent, hostile to both the Gauls and their newfound allies. This hilariously one-sided argument serves to demonstrate manga's rapid expansion of the last couple of decades, but it still seemingly betrays the creator's bias. Simply by paying attention to the somewhat tenious connection between Asterix's magical potion and that of the superclones' powers of strength, Uderzo seems to group them together and against the Asian invasion. The cockroach like armor and a martial arts substitute seem like a poor match for the united Gauls and Tadsilweny, making for an early climax that circumvents the role the Roman invaders have played in the plot so far, to make for the second ending only pages away, that ends the book.

Thus, the manga homages end up playing the role during the book's central act, only to be literally off the face of the Earth during it's final part. Concentrating on making his Disney homage be even more transparent, Uderzo sacrifices some of the book's drama, in order to bring back his own characters in the fray once more. The resulting clash with the Romans is once more a delight to read, if perhaps too brief. Solving the aliens' last minute dilemma, Asterix and Obelix make way for a twist ending, that once again approaches the territory of universally reviled tropes in fiction. In a very polarizing move, the creator solves the problem of having such an unwholesome element in the series' canon, one that truthfully always lept of the page as extraneous.

Thus, making good on the false climax a ten odd pages before, Uderzo finishes with a couple of typical Asterix jokes to round out the volume, and say goodbye to his characters under the computer generated background of the evening sky. Not surprisingly, Obelix the menhir maker ends up stealing every scene he's in, as the richest and organic part of the landscape, with some of his fellow villagers playing their typical roles to entice a pleasant nostalgia in the long time reader.

Uderzo was severely criticized for almost every aspect of "Asterix and the Falling sky", from the obvious clashing tone to the simplicity of the art style that he and his assistants have given the work, but the artist is still to be commanded for the exhibited ambition. The whole volume was certainly an experiment on his part, meaning that it was always going to be polarizing to the conservative readership, but it also seems to speak from the heart of a veteran comics professional, about the phenomena that he finds personally interesting. And while it's always the finished product that bears examination, not the original idea that inspired it, Uderzo's execution still feels typically tongue in cheek and charming as all of the classic Asterix stories. It is perhaps unfortunate that his final larger story was to be such a controversial offering, but despite the oft-putting introductions and a generally disconnected final product, this book proves why it closes the series.

"Asterix" has been good to Uderzo in a ways that even the most optimistic couldn't have expected, and in the end all that was left for the creator was to subvert the dynamic and try to entertain himself in ways that distance him from the fifty years of colorful stories. His subsequent decision to sell his share of the rights for the property, to make way for further stories by his assistants and eventually different creators, ensures that the series continues beyond his involvement, no doubt trying to evoke much more of the familiar Asterix elements beyond the ones featured in "the Falling sky".

Friday, August 6, 2010

Ultimate comics Avengers 2 #1-6 "Crime and punishment"

As part of their continued effort in re-energizing their Ultimate line of titles, Marvel has just concluded the second storyline of the imprint's co-architect Mark ("Civil war", "Wanted") Millar on "Ultimate comics Avengers". His collaboration with Leinil ("Secret invasion", "Wolverine") Francis Yu has also served to mark the halfway point of the writer's scheduled engagement, packaged as four connected limited series.

That the publisher is serious in rethinking their once premier brand, is apparent from every facet of the bi-weekly presentation. The result is nothing less than a very solid action comic, and a surprisingly accessible one. Overall, the "Ultimatum" crossover that preceded the line-wide rethinking of the Ultimate brand seemed to have been conceived with the idea that the company should cancel the most problematic titles and start over with a tighter focus. While in practice this meant limiting the number of writers to a small cadre of proven commodities, and pairing them with some of the most popular superhero artists, with "Ultimate comics Avengers" another very important facet is notable from the start.

By inviting back Millar, the writer of the company's smash hit "Ultimates", Marvel primarily seemed to have been interested in his qualities as an ideas man. And while some of his trademark fan-baiting ideas still come through, the whole of "Ultimate comics Avengers" project feels much less political and ambitious than it's famous precursor. The company seems certainly open to his innovations, with the commitment showing in making these spin-off stories be as startlingly visual as they can be, following Carlos Pacheco's work with the art team of Yu (inked by fellow Filipino Gerry Alanguilan) and celebrated colorist Laura ("Planetary", "Astonishing X-Men") Martin.

The creators open their story in a very intriguing way, by basically having the whole of first issue be a prelude, meant to reintroduce the Ultimate universe version of the Punisher. As such, it reads like a perfectly serviceable "the Punisher" comic, albeit penciled by Yu. And just as the reader familiar with the character starts resenting the set-up as a yet another generic retread of the ground so often covered much the same way in the regular Marvel universe, Millar comes up with a fast and effective way of reminding the reader of the team concept implied by the title. There is not much more to the opener, except for a callback to Matt Fraction's run on the "Punisher war journal" title, demonstrated by Ariel Olivetti-inspired costume the character ends up sporting in "Ultimate comics Avengers".

Similarly, the second issue is devoted to reestablishing the role of the Hulk in the Ultimate Marvel universe, a concept that the writer introduced in his first arc. By having two new characters substituting for the role of the team's uncontrollable strongman, Millar seems to be determined on setting up some kind of reconciliation regarding the issue. The matter is left to be resolved in another mini-series, presumably featuring the original Hulk, who is still supposed to be alive in the Ultimate universe. As for the matter at hand, Tyrone Cash is introduced as a simple idea, that of the Banner's mentor and first historical Hulk posing as a criminal warlord. The inclusion of another identity and the tragic past is there to help give the character a typical Marvel feel (as well as tying in with the mini-series' thematic core). Despite the enormous bulk and the facial tattoos, the character somewhat resembles Luke Cage and is certainly stereotypical, albeit on purpose. Millar and Yu use him in an engaging way, and it is likely that his hinted depth will resurface at a later date.

It is only with the third issue that the writer finally provides exposition on the nature of the threat that Nick Fury has assembled this particular black ops team to deal with. As is his mandate, this ends up being a revitalized version of another longtime Marvel mainstay, the Ghost rider. Despite considerable effort by Millar to establish the supernatural anti-hero as a compelling force in his own right, he faces a very particular problem. Despite his decades old status, coupled with a surge of popularity in the 1990s and a 2007 feature film, the Ghost rider has always been a cult favorite character. Certainly the most popular of Marvel horror titles, his comic has still faced cancellation time and again, making it a particularly challenging to update the concept for modern audiences in the alternate continuity of the Ultimate line.

On his end, Yu responds with a relatively tame version of Johny Blaze's costume, more or less reimagined into a typical biker's outfit. This lets the artist concentrate on Ghost rider's motorcycle and his main opponent, introduced in the last act. And while his designs are fluid and in keeping with the mythos' jagged edge, they seem to concentrate too much on the spikes and chains to be particularly iconic in their own right. This might seem an ironic thing to say when talking about a character that is all but defined by these things, but it's the lack of a strong central designing motif that makes Laura Martin's coloring the chief help in separating the two related hell-powered creatures.

Bearing in mind that it was Millar who famously broke away with the relative restraint of the Ultimate universe's science foundations, to introduce genuine pagan mythology, the addition of an unambiguous take on origins of the Ghost rider does seem slightly overstated and out of place. Certainly, faith plays a large role on the motivations of several of the featured players, but it feels like a fine line has been crossed from having Johny's infernal mentor not be Daimon Hellstrom from the same well of Marvel's supernatural properties, but Mephisto himself.

Getting back to the rest of the cast, the aforementioned the first Hulk and the Punisher naturally benefit the most from an arc that deals with some of the darker concepts touching at the heart of their motivations. Hawkeye the Ultimates mainstay likewise enjoys some convincing character moments by integrating with the Punisher. In this way Millar makes a commendable effort on continuing on with the character after putting him through a very rigorous ordeal in the set-up of the "Ultimates 2"'s final storyline. Unfortunately, just like Pacheco preceding him, Yu is forced to work with Joe ("Battle chasers", "Ultimates 3") Madureira's redesign, that works as a typical superhero costume but creates a disturbing effect when juxtaposed with Hawkeye's emotional disposition. Yu wisely tones down some of Mad's touches, and goes for a style that seems much more suited to a military uniform, albeit still far away from Bryan Hitch's original concept.

The two least developed characters that still inhabit a lot of panel space are the new Black widow and War machine, who once again fades into the background role. But at least the Iron Man mainstay's presence gets felt when it comes to the fighting, which cannot really be said for Monika Chang, who is for the length of another whole mini-series still actively defined by her former marriage to Nick Fury. As is always the case with Millar, both the set-up issues, and the climax of the "Crime and punishment" arc are action-filled, striving to be entertaining first and foremost, and this stays true throughout, despite the problems of exposing Ghost rider's revised origin, such as it is, and some minor art details, such as War machine's armor being too bulky to fit comfortably on the page.

Yet, for a couple of veteran comic professionals (despite Leinil being a mere 33 years old), some very strange mistakes happen during the course of the story. The fourth issue seems particularly problematic, opening as it does with a splash page, that is instantly reproduced as the first panel of the next page, stopping the pacing just a few seconds, but enough to take the reader out of the story. Similarly, a one-panel appearance by a small child, frightened by Mephisto, ends up being possibly more disturbing than the harrowing vengeance perpetrated by the Ghost rider. The reason for this is simply the rush in which the penciller turned out the page, causing him to imbue a pre-school boy with a head far too large and mature for his own age. Similarly, the cameo appearance by Tony Stark feels strangely disconnected and not at all because of the effect of the surprise the character has on the gathered SHIELD agents. The storytelling simply fails at setting up a proper pace and choreography for his intended role, while ironically proceeding with a very effective sequence featuring the mysterious Spider acting as the team's oracle.

As for the somewhat controversial aspect regarding the political background of Ghost rider's direct opponent, it feels tacked on, being foreshadowed by a few lines that fail to properly accentuate their importance. Millar's try for provocation seems similarly half-hearted and is bound to irritate only the most controversial of the readers. Despite his importance to the plot and Johny Blaze's revenge, the villain's impact still seems less direct than the previous storyline's controversial reinvention of Red Skull. Perhaps it's the lack of the connection to the team members themselves, but Ghost rider's opposite number feels very much a character too closely related to his own mythos, and shoehorned into fighting battle-ready Avengers at the last moment.

Regarding the character arcs that build the narrative tissue together, Millar is very careful in pairing up the conversing team members, thus providing both interesting subplots and opportunities for a dialogue that feels somewhat naturalistic, given the circumstances. There is a certain lack of a noticeable female presence in the story, but it can be somewhat understood, as it's dealing primarily with themes of extreme physical aggression. Still, the lack of resolution of Nick Fury shutting off his SHIELD superior Carol Danvers feels unfortunate, if not bordering on parodic, almost as if Millar was drawing a line excluding the presence of pretty girls in serious, otherworldly matters.

As for that wider thematic connection, it deals with justifying zealotry, as exemplified by Punisher, the first Hulk, Hawkeye, and finally Ghost rider. All of these characters have a fair bit of fanaticism to themselves, motivated by personal loss. Yet, Millar decided to go one step further and openly invite religion in a superhero story, intent on making a more precise point than the usual use of the holy symbol against the supernatural threats. To achieve this, he has the Punisher presented with a spiritual epiphany, that of a message from the afterlife. And while this too becomes a plot point by the end, once again highlighting the similarity between the vigilante and Ghost rider. A climatic final showdown even takes place in the church, with Millar intent on making it bear deeper symbolism than the typical use of the fighting on the holy ground being forbidden, as seen in movies like "the Highlander".

And while seeing superheroes discuss religion in such open terms is always somewhat disconcerting, Millar makes the most of introducing the ideas of Hell in his story, by largely forthcoming with his intent. In the end, "Crime and punishment" makes good on it's promise of an action story, in large part thanks to Leinil Francis Yu's contribution. While not concentrating himself on the acting of his talkative characters, giving them serious faces when not smirking or gritting their teeth, the Filipino artist still manages to handle even the most complicated of the set pieces with clarity and an approach all his own. His sketchy style given concrete definition by Gerry Alanguilan (sharing credit with no less than three assistant inkers the final issue), Yu conveys a lot of energy and movement in a way that seems typical of 1990s heyday of over muscular forms and gory details.

His attention to detail varying with the impact of the panel (and one would guess, the constrains of rigorous deadlines), it starts being colored by Laura Martin with shades of grey being broken by touches of blue and flashes of green and red, the palette seems to change for darker with the arrival of her replacement, Dave McCaig for the final four issues of the series. The difference is subtle and mostly noticeable due to addition of bright yellow to signify movement and danger. Even with the addition of Frank Martin coloring some of the pages of the apparently hastily put together final issue, the effect is that of unified coloring scheme, employed to highlight Yu's drawings in a very effective way.

For all their work, it is doubtful that the sum total of Millar and Yu's work on this particular mini-series will interest the potential new readers to the validity of the company's supernatural storytelling possibilities, particularly regarding a follow-up Ghost rider appearance. The character is competently presented, but once he follows through on the logical progression of his origin, there seems little of any inherent value in continuing his story in the Ultimate universe. Thus, it makes sense that the focus continues on Nick Fury's Ultimates black ops team, even as they confront Blade in next arc's yet another superheroes fighting vampires scenario that the writer has teased with such enthusiasm. Still, getting to the readers' good side will no doubt prove easier with the fan-favorite Steve ("Preacher", "the Punisher") Dillon on art, while Millar's creator owned "Superior" project with Leinil Francis Yu gets published alongside.

What is certain is that Marvel seems poised on letting all of Mark Millar's vision for these characters see light in a high quality presentation. The latter two mini-series will no doubt still function as stories that can be read on their own, with the added benefit of subplots working in the background for the reader who choses to read through all of these stories in sequence. This was always the plan for the Ultimate imprint, and it's refreshing to see Marvel stick to it even when publishing derivative work from one of it's strongest voices.