Sunday, November 24, 2013

Warren Ellis and Jason Howard's "Scatterlands"

Starting in February, Warren ("Planetary", "Authority") Ellis and Jason ("Amazing Wolf-Man", "Super Dinosaur") Howard started a daily webcomic, styled after newspaper strips. Updating every workday, "Scatterland" released one panel at a time until it reached the end of its first storyline in June.

The limited palette restricts itself by focusing on stark red and grey, with subdued black and white giving a duo-tone look. Styled after the classic newspaper strips like "Prince Valiant", the panels are captioned in an engaging style, giving more depth to the futurescape and providing the title character with a clear motivation for her journey in a hostile land.

The story concerns Amira, who left the Western Court to journey to Bioscape, searching for a Songline. Before the reader is able to parse this information, the story unfolds in a string of well told action sequences, forcing the reader to return for another read, providing a better context for the dynamic adventure that they've just been taken on. The writer's love of science fiction and technology shines both in the world building and the gadgets given to the characters, all of which are used in the service of the story and don't detract from the rushed pace given to Amira's actions in Bioming.

It stands as a testament to the creators' strengths that the journey of the reckless, yet highly competent character stays gripping the whole time, with the each challenge in the new land presented in a visually arresting way. The inventiveness used by Ellis and Howard stems from the angles the panels are presented in, as well as the artist's clear definition of the characters. The use of red is particularly noteworthy in that it helps the elements of the composition stand out from the crosshatching and anchor the scenes in an urgent manner, befitting the tone of the script.

The creators present the protagonist fully clothed, with the long cloak presenting the character's defining visual element. The addition of the pouches to her belt completes the design in a way that feels practical as she proceeds to her objective, despite the threats from the local sect and her Western court pursuers. The webcomic dispenses with dialogue bubbles and sound effects, relying completely on the captions and visuals in presenting her mission.

Interestingly, the story ends a definite progression, as Amira leaves the Bioming and the book dispenses with the color scheme to signify the change. What little the reader sees of the new location supplements red for the blue, with the final panel containing the story's sole dialogue bubble. This is enough to pique the readers' interest in the upcoming developments, and given that the story has reportedly been plotted on the day to day basis, its remarkable how well it stands on its own.

As of now, no further work has been presented online or in print, despite the announcement that the story will be continued from Warren Ellis' website to its own domain. Image has released the first volume of the story as a webcomic in July, billed as their initial digital-first comic book. Despite the announcement, the story has yet to be released in the print edition.

Hopefully, with the Warren Ellis' return to writing the serial superhero stories for Marvel will mean that he will find a place in his schedule to continue the collaboration with Jason Howard.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Marvel and Scott Pilgrim

In an interesting overlap, two of Marvel's latest releases feature references to Bryan Lee O'Malley's Oni hit-series "Scott Pilgrim". Both issues focus on teenage members of X-Men and Avengers, but otherwise lack any other sort of connection, both creatively and editorially.

First off, "Young Avengers" #12 features a direct reference to Scott Pilgrim, made by Loki, who has previously posed as a team member in his pre-teen incarnation. The scene is structured to cement the now-adult character as someone who is trying to appeal to his appeal to his teammates, with Wiccan deadpanning to remind him that they are no longer peers, even in appearance.

A creative interpretation could make the connection between Loki now modeled after his movie incarnation as the reason for the character going for a movie reference instead of the comic book original, but for all intents and purposes, the interplay serves to establish Scott Pilgrim as a series near and dear to the book's teenage cast. 

Under Kieron Gillen, Jamie McKelvie and Mike Norton, "Young Avengers" has stood out as stylish and urbane and is being marketed as a title in a similar vein to Marvel's "Hawkeye" (even sharing one of its main characters with the Fraction and Aja's co-protagonist). Seeing how Bryan Lee O'Malley created a memorable alternate cover to its first issue, the reference makes even more sense. 

On the other hand, "Uncanny X-Men" #14 is a new chapter in Brian Michael Bendis' saga, enfolding in two of the franchise's core titles. The Scott Pilgrim reference is much less literal, with the creators sneaking the name on the last panel, as a bogus identity of a new X-Men member Benjamin Deeds.

The character is using his shape-changing powers to gain access to a high security SHIELD facility and his using the name of Bryan Lee O'Malley's hipster protagonist to remind the reader of his youth. Seeing as how the name is only partially visible, the in-joke works as little more than an Easter egg.

It's interesting to note that both Bendis and Bachalo are middle aged creators known for their off-beat teenage series ("Ultimate Spider-Man", "Generation X", "Wolverine and the X-Men"). The Scott Pilgrim reference here is subtle and does not take the reader out of the comic, compared to the one made in "Young Avengers". "Uncanny X-Men" typically focuses on the older members of the team and is marketed to longtime X-Men fans, many of whom probably have only a passing familiarity with the Oni hit.

Thus it came to be that two very different books, featuring teenage versions of the company's most popular team-books happened to be issued the same week, calling back to O'Malley's teen classic, more than a couple of years after it reached the peek of its popularity. With the fans patiently awaiting "Seconds", the creator's follow-up to his breakout hit, Oni's latest effort concerns republishing the critically acclaimed series of graphic novels in color. Just two weeks ago, the publisher has released the new edition of the series' fourth volume which will hopefully finds its way in the hands of at least a portion of the audience interested in Marvel's teenage superheroes.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Marvel's Thor - A brief history: 1 Lee and Kirby

Thor was created in 1962 to headline the anthology "Journey into Mystery", with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby fitting him with a very auspicious beginning. The story in #83 introduced the Norse God into the nascent Marvel universe by casting him in a generic science fiction scenario. The underdeveloped feature had an additional misfortune that both of it's creators couldn't devote much of their creative energies in his first year of stories. Yet, the character continue to headline the anthology and little by little, the broad strokes of the mythology started to fill out.

In a way, Thor was Marvel's reaction to Superman, a very powerful folk hero with a civilian secret identity that was in love with his co-worker. The physician Donald Blake was a handicapped man that transformed into a mythic hero by tapping his stick, but aside from a vague mythology connection, his stories had little to differentiate them from many of his costume compatriots. Early on, the creators settled on his evil half-brother Loki being his chief foil, with their rivalry overseen by the leader of the pantheon, Odin.

Jack Kirby never stops tinkering with the latter's design, with the All-father changing appearance in every issue. Much more tellingly, the creators slowly step away from Donald Blake as a human host for Thor, and start treating them as one and the same. Much like the murky origin, the character is slow to pick up a gallery of foes, with the creators resorting to uninspired Silver Age cliches (a double, an evil wizard), with an early low point being a retooling of the Fantastic Four's first encounter with the Skrulls. Some of these characters, such as the Radioactive man and Lava man would later work their way into other comics, but by and large the comic was hurting from not receiving Lee and Kirby's full attention.

In these early days, Lee and Kirby are slow to make full use of the Norse mythology that first inspired them and Thor is basically used as simply a powerful Silver Age superhero, frequently foiled by the Mister Hyde and Human Cobra teaming up. Beginning with "Journey into Mystery" #97, the character was additionally featured in a supplement called "Tales of Asgard", that started by retelling original Norse myths in pages consisting of four panels, which really brought Jack Kirby's contributions to the fore.

In the main feature, Thor continued to fight with the likes of Grey Gargoyle, with the subplots basically relegated to the budding romance between his civilian alter ego and nurse Jane Foster, who was unlikely to win Odin's favor. Thor was also a founding Avengers, with the team-up title serving to introduce him to the company's wider readership. Following the obligatory crossovers with the X-Men and the Hulk, the title finally gets around to introducing an iconic Silver Age villain in the Absorbing man, made into a credible foil thanks to his ability to transform into the materials he touched.

After finally deciding to dig into Thor and make the title work, Lee and Kirby launch into a longer saga pitting Loki against Thor, in the process introducing the Destroyer armor. Sporting a strong Kirby design, the Destroyer was to remain a staple of Thor mythos, but Loki was proving much more problematic. Despite receiving constant attention, Thor's evil sibling seemed slow to develop into an interesting foil, and was basically relegated to a role of laughing maniac, a petty wizard who enjoyed being evil and dreaming of seizing his father's throne.

The back-up "Tales of Asgard" continued to reintroduce the heroes of Norse mythology, such as Balder the Brave and Heimdall, the guardian of Asgard's rainbow bridge. These characters were slow to reappear in the main Thor stories, which were still benefiting from the increased focus. In Lee and Kirby's hands, Hercules, the Greco-Roman demigod served as a perfect foil for their protagonist, with the hedonist champion standing in stark contrast to the dignified Thor. The heroes were quick to establish a friendly rivalry, with Thor's loyalty to his opposite number in the different pantheon a driving force behind the character's another memorable early adventure.

With #126, the feature took over the anthology, with "the Mighty Thor" finding his place on the racks among other more popular Marvel characters. Gone were the days of small panels filled with familiar comic book imagery, the Jack Kirby of mid 1960s was an artist increasingly sure in himself, with his pages bursting with energy as the larger then life characters fought out their conflicts on a scale they truly deserved.

In every way that matters, Lee and Kirby were finally hitting their stride, which meant further changes for Thor. Specifically, the creators continued to step away from his civilian life, with doctor Donald Blake's practice getting increasingly sidelined for the epic adventures. As the creators were opening up the outer space to add another dimension to their hero's adventures, Jane's continued to act as Thor's human anchor, with the hero that once labored over revealing his human identity to her now considering whether their marriage would gain his father's approval.

Thor's outer space adventure introduced the memorable characters of Rigellian Recorder, Ego the Living Planet and the High Evolutionary, once again proving how far the creative team's come from the title's meager beginnings. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were really hitting their stride with "Thor", featuring memorable characters and settings each issue, that have remained the staples of the characters ever since. Yet even then, the duo had to slow down for an issue, to resolve the question of Jane Foster. Thus, #136 pitted Jane against Odin's scorn for his son's mortal paramour, at the same time introducing Lady Sif as the character's new love interest (a different version of Sif was introduced as Balder's sister in an early "Tales of Asgard" back issue).

Lee and Kirby were not at all subtle in giving Thor a female companion that could carry her own in battle, making her a much more natural part of the title. Another multipart story introduced Ulik the Troll, before settling down for a series of more pedestrian issues. Thus, our hero faces the Avengers' arch-foe Kang and his android, with another robot to follow in the very next issue's episode. There is a momentum that propels all of these stories, even when they are as inessential as a fight with Fantastic Four's Superskrull.

A fight against the Enchanters (no relation to Enchantress, introduced in an early Lee/Kirby issue) quickly turns deadly and raises the stakes for the title's increasingly grandiose stories. Thor's Asgardian allies finally start playing a larger role in the main plot, even as the back-up that introduced them was discontinued with #145. The complicated relationship between Odin and Thor begats an oddball story of a powerless Thor working for the Circus of Crime, but at this point there is such a rhythm and energy to the title that the reader is liable to find charm in the creative duo's indulging their whims.

Having made Loki into Thor's arch-villain, Lee and Kirby naturally return to the character, who serves to introduce another of Marvel's perennial Silver age supervillains - the Wrecker. His debut signals the beginning of another multipart epic, benefiting from having a workable cast of characters. Hela, the Norse goddess of death makes a memorable early appearance as Thor battles life and death to help his friends. At this point, the title is making the most of its potential as a vehicle of retelling heroic legends by using Marvel's Silver Age superhero formula, and the reader is delighted to be along for the ride.

It's interesting to ponder Thor's companion Balder the brave's place in Lee and Kirby's work. Whereas Thor as depicted in these pages still seems torn between Earth and Asgard, his Asgardian friend is continually depicted as extremely competent and fiercely loyal. After envying Thor for having Sif at his side, the creators provide the supporting character with his own paramour, in the guise of beautiful Karnilla. By making her into a witch queen, the creators make for an interesting contrast and add more drama and flavor to their ever expanding cast.

With the same care applied to the main plot, Thor once again encounters Ulik, with the Troll reawakening the ancient evil that is Mangog. Despite the unfortunate design, the villain's appearance signals probably the strongest Thor story to date. With the monster powered by the anger of an entire race seemingly wronged by Odin, the powerhouse makes its way across Asgard to the Odin's throne, intent on unleashing Ragnarok against the Nordic pantheon.

Thor's "Tales of Asgard" companions make their first real appearance in the main title and are dully dispatched by the unstoppable evil of Mangog, in his attempt to raise the Odinsword against all that our hero holds dear. Following what is without a doubt the creative peak of the Lee and Kirby run, the duo stops to provide a recap for their previous work with the character, in the process making another set of revisions to his meager origins. Namely, #159 tackles the question of Donald Blake's relationship to the Norse deity that he inhibits, in effect providing a new origin for the popular character.

Once again, the creators were forced to reconsider their early work and find a way to proceed further with a stronger foundation. Interestingly, when they were finished with the controversial move, they repositioned the title as something approaching a "Fantastic Four" spin-off. For almost a full year Galactus remains a presence in the pages of "Thor", which is where his origin gets told. This is followed by another story featuring the rebirth of Adam Warlock (then known as Him), once again a solid Lee/Kirby effort that makes use of the existing Thor mythos, but in a way that builds upon the pair's work in their more popular title.

At this point, it's unavoidable to discuss the impending split between Lee and Kirby, as the period corresponds to the time the artist has been said to have saved his new characters and concepts to be used by his work outside of Marvel. Perhaps this explains the amount of space given to the concepts the pair have already established in their previous work, but it also speaks to a larger question, that of the authorship of the stories themselves.

Jack Kirby, unsatisfied with the compensation for his work that won the hearts and minds of Marvel fans felt that he was contributing much more than the artwork on the company's magazines. The writer/artist felt that he was largely responsible for creating the stories themselves, working from a very loose plots devised with Lee. 1970's Jack Kirby was no longer an inventive artist tasked with helping birth Marvel's Silver Age superhero line - he was a superstar and a major draw for the company that has richly capitalized on his work.

By this point, he was very aware of his strengths as a storyteller, and his last issues on "Thor" are certainly seem like the work of a man who is holding back on unleashing the full brunt of his talent. Seeing Thor fight another robot in Thermal man and watching his rematch with the Wrecker seem inconsequential even compared to the prolonged fight against Galactus that returned the title to outer space and reunited Thor with the Recorder. Ironically, a one-off story featuring Thor trusting to a science fiction procedure to save his former love Jane Foster reads like a classic Jack Kirby tale.

Ulik's reappearance tied to another bout with the Circus of Crime is merely uninspired, while the next issue's encounter with Crypto-Man goes so far to rework an entire earlier issue of "Thor". It is no wonder that Kirby was gone before the end of the next storyline, itself largely a callback to the earlier Mangog conflict. Loki and Surtur make much less of an impression with their plan to attack Asgard, and by the time the reader notices that Jack Kirby is missing, they will be given little reason to continue.

What awaited was a short run with Lee scripting over John Buscema's pencils, mostly notable for introducing the legendary penciler to the title that he'll be working on for years on end. Unfortunately, starting with the story featuring the Stranger, Buscema's work on the title will provide full of stories that can largely be categorized as harmless diversions that kept the character on the newstands, in lieu of producing entertaining work that could compare to the Lee/Kirby original.

Some of Kirby's last "Thor" pages end up providing an introduction to an instantly forgettable story of Loki trading places with Thor. One Silver Age cliche is supplanted by another as Thor fight Doctor Doom, another staple of Fantastic Four franchise that has had such an unexpected impact on the title. Lee sticks around for a mystical adventure pitting Thor against the all encompassing other-dimensional evil of Infinity, that provides a strangely ominous atmosphere and highlights Buscema's strengths as a penciler. Hela once more plays a larger ruler in the story, before Lee returns to Loki.

Thor's evil step brother is the villain of the last regular Stan Lee "Thor" story, with Durok the Demolisher the writer's last addition to the series. The android would show Thor a future ravaged by man's worst faults, in the process coming into conflict with Silver Surfer, a character associated with both Lee and Buscema. Yet, it was Gerry Conway that was slated to wrap up the conflict, in the process becoming the title's new writer.

Lee will return to his co-creation a couple of times, but never in an ongoing commitment. After experiencing the pinnacle of his writer/artist career with the Fourth World books as DC, Jack Kirby eventually returned to Marvel in 1977. His latter day work on "the Eternals" proved surprisingly influential on the Buscema drawn Thor plots, but it was his entire body of work that has inspired and continues to inspire countless writers and artists working in the superhero tradition.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Hit-Girl #1-5

The latest outing in Mark Millar and John Romita Junior's "Kick Ass" franchise is a spin-off series starring the breakout character Hit-Girl. Although originally announced with Leandro Fernandez as the artist, the series was eventually laid out by the "Kick Ass" co-creator John Romita Junior, with Tom Palmer providing the inks and the finished art.

Chronologically, "Hit-Girl" takes place between the first and the second mini-series of the parent title, and serves to further delineate the motivation between the key players, most notably Mindy, the 12 year old assassin. As the story starts, she has moved in with her mother and the police officer foster father, trying to balance the life of an ordinary school girl with her nighttime activities as a vigilante serial killer.

It goes without saying that the book is completely over the top. Hit-Girl's bizarre attempts at fitting in the school's social structure are played as a parody, with the child assassin showing her classmates the same ruthlessness that she dishes out in her superhero escapades. Unfortunately, Romita junior's depictions of children leaves a lot to be desired, as most of Mindy's peers are rendered in a way that bears only cursory resemblance to actual human anatomy. The artist has spent his whole career in the superhero industry, and naturally feels much more assured when tackling the scenes dealing with out of school activity, which thankfully make up most of the book.

Besides the main narrative detailing Hit-Girl's troubles with the secret identity, Millar weaves several subplots, with the girl's relationship with Kick Ass being perhaps the most interesting. Using the knowledge thought to her by her late father, the hyper competent protagonist spends the first half of the book drugging her parents and going out to train the five years older Dave, who also doubles as a sympathetic school friend. This kind of a reversal from the traditional superhero/sidekick dynamic is relatively fresh for the medium, and certainly in keeping with the book's general tone, but once Kick Ass suffers a minor injury, the character's arc more or less ends.

Millar uses the remaining space to spotlight more of the villainous Red Mist's origin, which is entertaining, despite being largely divorced from the main plot. The fact that Dave's nemesis doesn't get to play the antagonist here presents a major problem, as the criminals opposing Mindy never outgrow their roles as one-dimensional foils. Red Mist's scenes ultimately serve to further explain his motivation and set up his actions in the second series, while also reminding the reader of his role in "Kick Ass 3".

Thus, the role of a direct foil ends up belonging to Marcus, Mindy's foster parent, who presents an honest policeman in a crooked squad. He is aware of his daughter's vigilante past, but actively discourages her nighttime activities, citing her mother's fragile health. By calling back to Spider-Man's original motivation for hiding his secret identity, Millar is simply using the genre tropes to support his story, and ultimately ends up fully utilizing the set-up in the book's action packed conclusion.

The gangsters Hit-Girl dispatches left and right end up threatening her family, by way of blaming her foster father for refusing to actively side with the Genovese family and their associates. The plot contrivance, coupled with smart scripting leads to a conclusion that epitomizes Mindy's abilities, but also leaves her largely unchanged for the beginning of the second "Kick Ass" miniseries, which it precedes chronologically.

This is another, and perhaps the most profound of the book's weaknesses. Despite seeding the debuts of some of the minor superheroes and providing the details regarding Mindy's secret identity and her family dynamic, the book is largely static. "Hit-Girl" serves to provide fans with more of the breakout character, but is largely superfluous to the main plot, while being completely anti-climatic. Having read "Kick Ass 2", the reader is aware of the ultimate outcome of the characters and their struggle, robbing the book of the shock factor that has provided so much of its appeal.

Millar and Romita junior could have utilized the spin-off to subversively introduce a major element, such as a romantic subplot between two teens (which would have been shocking considering the age difference), but they seem satisfied with providing another look at the ruthless world of the Kick Ass. The reader is offered a slight plot, filtered through the eyes of a side character, but at least in that respect the book is a success.

Mindy will never be as shocking as she was when she debuted in the original "Kick Ass" mini-series (as well as the movie adaptation), but she is still reasonably entertaining and, more importantly, works as a lead character in her own book. The creators' mandate seems to have been to present a well paced book with high production values, in order to keep the attention on the property while the second movie is being produced. Despite sacrificing some of the original's notoriety, "Hit-Girl" likewise works as a lighthearted tie-in, published in anticipation of the creative team's supposed final work on the subject, the "Kick Ass 3" mini-series.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Darwyn Cooke's final word on "Before Watchmen"

"It'll never be like it was when it was new, but there's still plenty of life in this old baby."

This is how Darwyn ("Parker", "New Frontier") Cooke ends "Minutemen", the linchpin of the first wave of "Before Watchmen" books. The prequels were controversial while they were still in the concept stage, with the original "Watchmen" co-creator openly denouncing them, while deriding the company for opening a new channel for exploiting the comic book classic. DC countered by touting the talent involved with the relaunch, announcing a slew of mini-series that revisited the 1985 series, purporting to be a faithful to the original.

The ones that have seen completion so far have maintained a respectful attitude towards "Watchmen", paying close attention to plot details, and genuinely picking up on the stray threads, but staying away from a serious attempt to challenge (or even try to attempt) the original's formalism. "Night Owl", "Moloch" and "Silk Spectre" have settled for providing the back stories to some of the original "Watchmen" players, elaborating on the character motivations while maintaining the quasi-reality of the original.

The "Silk Spectre" was even co-written by Cooke, but it doesn't stray too much from the coming of age model mostly adopted by the other two series. And while there's still as many tie-in mini-series that have yet to conclude, it is the just finished "Minutemen" that is arguably the most important. Even among the line-up of solid mainstream-oriented creators signed by DC to revisit "Watchmen", Darwyn Cooke sticks out as the most potent creative voice. Brian Azzarello, the writer of "Rorschach" and "Comedian" is also a very influential writer, but one that remains a presence in DC's ongoing "New 52" initiative, despite his bias towards working with superhero material.

Cooke has, on the other hand, enjoyed a career that used the "New Frontier" prestige format series' success to ensure that he could be much more selective when it comes to his forthcoming projects. The writer/artist was the one DC turned to when they relaunched Eisner's "the Spirit", another major contribution to the medium, leading to his producing a series of graphic novel adaptations of Donald Westlake's "Parker" novels, garnering him even further acclaim, and cementing him as one of the Direct Market's strongest creative voices.

The decision to create a flagship "Before Watchmen" title came with the writer/artist announcing that he had a particular story to tell. Citing this as the only reason for his participation might have made his involvement with the "Silk Spectre" series slightly dubious, but it seemed to strengthen the sympathetic fan's decision to keep up with "Minutemen". If Darwyn Cooke was willing to devote his time and energy into a editorial-lead initiative that revisits the themes he worked with in "New Frontier", he would not go on to produces something that would only besmirch his reputation in a part of the comics culture that wanted nothing to do with "Watchmen" comics produced without Alan Moore's consent.

Yet, it's hard to look at the resulting series as a major argument, both for the creator's participation, or the continued existence of more unsanctioned "Watchmen" related material. While revisiting the Silver Age past of Moore and Gibbons' "Watchmen", the writer/artist takes a thorough approach and crafts a multi-layered narrative that jumps through different time frames, revolving around Hollis Mason, the original Night-Owl's desire to publish the book he wrote detailing the true history of the 1940s superteam. The manuscript shows up as a back-up in "Watchmen", fleshing out the alternative history and providing a better understanding of the dynamic between the various superheroes alluded to in the main narrative.

In the original, Moore and Gibbons use these pages to parody the genre's past and further embellish the unreality of the superhero ideal, when brought out in the open. The superheroes of the comics' idealized past were no paragons of virtue, but a dysfunctional band of misfits, satisfying dark cravings under the masks, and more often then not failing spectacularly to live up to any kind of ideal. Their story existed as a little more than a backdrop for a major reveal between two of the book's characters, with the rape scene shattering away all semblance of nostalgia.

In the original "Watchmen", the men and women of the Minutemen were highly sexual individuals, with the hideous incident being the final proof that they could never exist as a functional band of heroes. Having a superhero rape his team mate could never have happened in the comics' Golden Age, which is precisely why the original creative team proceeded to depict it, in their attempt to present the genre with deeper characterization and actual human violence.

The original Minutemen's villains are likewise completely forgettable - the whole point of the back-up material was in presenting the origins of these superheroes as people, full of human flaws but never outright evil and villainous. Cooke picks up on this, and his characterization of the Comedian as an anti-hero, and a deeply complex individual pertains throughout these six issues, but it also leaves him without the plot.

Thus, the writer/artist resorts to making "Minutemen" the coming of age story of Night-Owl, detailing his Minutemen years. In order to provide a sense of mystery, Cooke resorts to inserting an artificial plot involving a serial killer, which picks up on some of the hints regarding the team's characterization. The only way to make this prequel relevant is to draw out some of the original "Watchmen"'s side characters and build them up into fully realized people, while hinting at a dark secret of their mutual past.

Thus, "Minutemen" attains a strange relationship with the original text, that has relegated these characters to little more than one sentence cameos, parodying the stiffness of the Golden Age characters. Cooke takes these as a starting point, and uses them almost like a bad reputation these characters must escape, while proving themselves as real people. Night Owl, Silk Spectre and the Comedian, are obviously the strongest when it comes to this (as they all had supporting roles outside the back-up strip), but Cooke tries his best at elevating the characters such as the Mothman and Sillhouette, who were specifically designed as being miscast in the superhero community.

The writer/artist's insists on referring to them by their first names, adds a lot of personality to their make-up, trying to convince the reader that they are capable of supporting the narrative as key players. This counter intuitive approach is best illustrated when it comes to Dollar Bill, a man who dressed up in superhero suit to entertain the customers of a chain of banks he worked in. In the original "Watchmen", the character was presented as merely the butt of a dark joke on the part of the creators, but Cooke insists on him being a capable superhero, whose life ended in bizarre irony.

Narrating the story, the Night Owl begrudges the reader for assuming that the Dollar Bill was only a superhero who met his end because of his stupidity and the sheer impracticality of the traditional superhero uniform. At first, this seems like a misreading of the material, concerning the character that got his personal name out of a tie-in RPG sourcebook, but it proves crucial to understanding Cooke's effort. If the writer/artist was to acknowledge the ridiculousness of the situation, he would also acknowledge the key problem of the whole project.

Thus, "Minutemen" largely shies away from making any kind of meta commentary regarding the comic book medium, aside from presenting a few panels in the mock Golden Age artistic style. These act as excerpts from the superhero comics that idealized these character's adventures in the world of Watchmen, in contrast to the harrowing realism that supplanted them in the true story of Minutemen. In effect, Cooke insists that "Minutemen" tells the story of "Watchmen" in half the length, making the same juxtapositions that Moore and Gibbons depict in the characters' 1980s future.

The writer/artist seems to be saying that the rape of Silk Spectre wasn't the only notable event in these characters' past, but that there was a heretofore unknown whole other story boiling around the team's largely uneventful existence. Cooke uses the intrigue and ambiguity in Moore and Gibbons' portrayal of the Hooded Justice to get to the center of the child killer case, but the plot remains extraneous precisely because it's contrary to the group's original conception.

Dramatizing the Minutemen's pointless clashes with gimmick villains while the team collapses under its own weight could be considered a creatively dubious mission. Having the detailed flashbacks and flashforwards inside the Watchmen narrative while building to the climax around the Comedian's assault might be on par with the various re-visitations of the typical superheroes' origins, but DC was adamant that their "Before Watchmen" prequels amounted to more than that.

The resulting story has the requisite density, a high level of craftsmanship and a definite love for the original, but it fails to make a case for its existence, outside the commercial concerns. "Watchmen" was a success on the plot level, but it's applauded for its style and the ground breaking ideas it brought to the superhero genre it was deconstructing. Returning to the story after more than 25 years, and concentrating on tying up minor concerns from it's back-up strip is hardly the ideal vessel for producing major work in the medium.

In Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' hands, the story of a serial killer hunting superheroes quickly transformed itself into a major reexamination of the long dormant medium, while Darwyn Cookes' narrative involving a child killer inspired by Robert Louis Stevenson's children songs never transcends the tie-in format. In his homage to the original, the writer/artist has produced a capable tale, one that reads better than the genre's average, but basically amounts to fan service, giving the reader a continued look at the interesting situations teased in the Moore and Gibbons' back-ups.

There is a clear attempt to provide a working thematic framework and believable characterization, but the writer/artist's work ultimately puts the minor "Watchmen" plot concerns before the people who have created it. And while there would certainly have been a poorer "Minutemen" spin-off without Cooke's involvement, it speaks ill of the whole "Before Watchmen" initiative, when even the creator of his caliber isn't able to provide a potent enough reason for its existence.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Vampirella Lives #1-3

In 1996, Harris comics, then-current owner of the Vampirella licence, commissioned another in a series of mini-series starring the former Warren publishing phenomenon. The publisher was apparently happy to continue working with Amanda Conner, who had become a go to artist for all things Vampirella, sporting a very appealing cartoonish style, that nevertheless succeeded in capturing the darker edge of the property. At that point, she had already collaborated with the up and comer writer Warren Ellis on a short story that ultimately served as a prelude to their "Vampirella Lives" mini-series.

And while Ellis went on to write a couple of other, crossover-related Vampirella stories, it was the three-parter that served as the central attraction of Dynamite's 2010 "Vampirella Masters" series. The property's current owner was wise to market the story on his name (even if it's no excuse for leaving Conner out of the title), as it certainly helps orient the uninitiated reader to an entertaining piece of entertainment starring the character.

In recent years, Vampirella has proved a hard character to update, but what this series proves is that she can work just as well the mainstream publishers' darker titles, if given proper attention. This is not to say that the mini-series is a completely stand alone entry, as it follows up directly from the previous work with the property, but the creative team try their best to limit the number of references and stick to the premise as established in the opening pages.

Following her defeat at the hands of a villainess, and her brief sojourn in the afterlife, Vampirella returns to Earth with a new purpose and outlook on life. In order to ground the story in a semblance of reality, and provide a reader identification figure, the creative team offers Sam Feaveryear, a paranormal investigator of Whitechapel, a US town with a dark secret of its own. The veteran detective serves as Vampirella's guide to her new surroundings, but Ellis and Conner never let his quirks detract from the fact that this is Vampirella's story.

The title character, on the other hand, is far too caught up in the mythological struggles of her own kind to serve as a typical relatable protagonist, but her larger than life persona still serves to effect sympathy from the reader. This is no mean feat when it comes to a property that is defined by her sexuality, sporting a sensuous costume and body language designed to constantly provoke the audience. The mini-series certainly doesn't go as far as subverting the title's main appeal, with Conner continually depicting the voluptulous anti-heroine in a way that emphasizes her physicality, even in scenes where she's overcome with heartbreak and tragedy.

This kind of artificiality has become so traditional with American superhero comics, that it's hard to single out the Warren original as being at fault. The character was always marketed as a seductress and her sexuality is a much firmer part of her appeal than her always shifting origin story. The creators accept this and proceed to make a dark and sexual story of their own, which is the primary draw of the mini-series. Simply put, no matter the excess, and the obscure mid 1990s continuity, Warren Ellis and Amanda Conner make sure that the story is first and foremost.

Their three issues are nothing like the badly paced, aggressive juvenalia that characterized so much of the 1990s superhero output, switching from one subplot to another and generally forming a very unsatisfying whole. "Vampirella Lives" is instead a revenge story, a story of a town beset by vampires, which largely succeeds on the strength of its central mechanism. Ellis and Conner set up a lot of the story in an expertly paced manner and continue to entertain until resolving all of the plot threads in the explosive finish.

Their story is a testament to the best of the genre comics, a complicated narrative which fulfills all of its many requirements, while remaining thoroughly fair to the reader. Ellis doesn't begrudge his audience for their aesthetic choices, he doesn't talk down to them, instead offering a smart and very functional collage that is neither too campy, nor too scary to be actively repulsing. Conner likewise understands that she is illustrating a horror thriller, one that continually fetishizes its protagonist, but she is at least as concerned with panel layouts, clarity of storytelling, and keeping a sense of humor about the whole thing.

These are comics featuring a vampire resurrection, psychokinetic assassins, and above all, a town called Whitechapel. Yet, the storytelling is so strong that it manages to be much more than a sum of its parts, and ultimately ends up making a real story. The protagonist's return is contrasted with her brethern trying to bring another of their own kind back to life, while Vampirella's selfless actions are continually compared to that of Nyx, her self-serving nemesis. This kind of thematic resonance is typically instinctive in the material of this kind, but it is anything but accidental when it comes to Ellis and Conner.

Both of them were at an early stage of their careers when they collaborated on Vampirella, but they still demonstrate a high level of craft in every aspect of the book's production. Ellis' dialogue is highly idiosyncratic and functional, the characters finely chosen genre archetypes serving to accentuate every part of the protagonist's unique nature. Conner  visualizes them in her own animated style, placing them in a seedy, cynical world which she makes sensual and inviting.

Despite both creators' subsequent ventures in the world of mainstream publishing, their early collaboration still remains one of their most potent genre offerings, avoiding the headier concerns of their more ambitious material to provide what Dynamite has rightly recognized as highly commercial material selling on the strength of its creator(s).

Friday, January 4, 2013

Best of Comics in 2012

When it comes to new releases, 2012 was a year where I had access primarily to mainstream American publications. The bulk of my reading consisted of older material, which I found of much higher inherent value than the current works I came in contact with. That said, these are some of my 2012 reading highlights, broadly categorized with my comments underneath the images.

Best Event Series 

I felt that "Everything Burns", Marvel's crossover between "The Mighty Thor" and "Journey into Mystery" managed to tell a reasonably entertaining story that also served to wrap up the current incarnations of the two Thor-related titles in a satisfactory way. The Kieron Gillen/Matt Fraction nevertheless chose Loki as their focal point, and used the series to finally explain the supposed paternal relationship between Loki and Hela. The Asgard/Vanir war looked delightful in the chapters illustrated by Alan Davis, but suffered when paired with the imcompatible work of Carmine di Giandomenico.

Best Storyline

"The Court of Owls" debuted as the most dynamic of DC's "New 52" opening storylines, featuring a well done Batman mystery that managed to slowly build a very ominous mood, threatening to undermine the underpinnings of the company's most marketable character. Following up on the episodic nature of his previous "Detective Comics" run, writer Scott Snyder proceeded with a much more concentrated narrative, that was illustrated in a remarkably fitting caricatural world of Greg Capullo. Unfortunately, the arc was continued with a mini-event in "the Night of the Owls", and ended up setting up a new villain, whose inclusion swiftly overshadowed the events leading up to it.

Best Ongoing Title:

I felt that Image's "Prophet" best fulfilled the role of an ongoing series where each issue was both a dense, self-contained read, as well as part of the greater whole that worked to update Rob Liefeld's character in a way that made him truly relevant to the medium. What was once a clone of Cable, modified to enable the writer/artist to continue with the character he created after he left Marvel, became a much different title in the hands of Brandon Graham and a cadre of artists sympathetic to his art style. Starting with Simon Roy, Brandon Graham continued to write scripts for Farel Dalrymple, Giannis Milogiannis, as well as illustrating his own stories, all informed by a truly idiosyncratic aesthetic. Bringing to bear influences ranging from "2000 AD" and "Heavy Metal", Graham has found a way to tell his own stories using the long dormant 90-ies property, presenting a title that is continually challenging and entertaining.

Best Album

Dark Horse's reissue of the latest "Blacksad" entry counts as perhaps the most visible reprint of a Francophone mainstream  publication. Abandoning the more political themes of the series' previous two entries, "Silent Hell" features the return to the traditional noir of the title's debut. This time, the anthropomorphic characters play out their crime drama on the streets of mid-century New Orleans. Once again, Juanjo Guarnido's gorgeous artwork presents the absolute highlight, but Juan Diaz Canales' still gets to write an interesting story, that stays true to the characters, allowing the Americana elements to slip in the background as the book's heart continues to center on sociopolitical issues.

Best Mini-Series

In deciding to publish James Stokoe's proposed "Godzilla" series, IDW has given the independent sensation his first high profile release. The "Orc Stain" creator charts the story across the decades of the kaijo movies continuity, grounding the story in the relationship between a soldier, who gets to know the monster through decades of rampages. The story's primary appeal lies with the visuals, which are both impressively detailed and highly personalized takes on the original Toho property. That the writer/artist (who for the most part also colors the work) still serves a solid story, which forgoes the fan service for a respectful and entertaining narrative that stands on its own, serves to round out the project as a rare licensed comic that truly stands out as an artistic achievement.

Best Webcomic

2012 was the year Koren Shadmi turned to Kickstarter to fund the second part of his webcomic. Having secured the financial support, the writer/artist continued with his Sartre-inspired story, once again pairing flawless cartooning with a curious, very accessible story. Hopefully, "Abaddon" will soon continue to grow his audience once it's finished and finally collected, but until then, it remains of the most interesting free sequential offerings on the Web.

Best Single Issue

Last year's Angouleme Festival saw Boulet try another 24 hour comic experiment. The result was "Darkness", a complete and endearing story, every bit as potent and well realized as a typical indy comic. The French cartoonist's highly subjective and charming narrative regarding his roommate's romantic persona was a definitive highlight when it comes to successful stories told in short form. Hopefully, we'll hear more from the artist born Gilles Roussel in the years to come, whether it comes to work in short form, or longer stories.

Best Graphic Novel

After taking 2011 off to complete his work on "the Score", Darwyn Cooke and IDW prepared the new Parker adaptation for the San Diego Comic-con debut. Designed as a heist story on a grand scale, the book shows a writer/artist's consolidating all of his talents in service to storytelling. The reader is entertained with a complicated story told in the clear and playful manner, assured at all times that he is in the hands of a veteran visual stylist. Cooke is literally doing the work of his career on these adaptations, in the process bringing Westlake's writing to a whole new audience, and "the Score" might just end up being the best of the series.

Best Colorist

As part of their "Marvel NOW!" initiative, the publisher has formally acknowledged the quality of Dean White's work. By reuniting the "Uncanny X-Force" colorist with the series' original artist Jerone Opena on "the Avengers", the company has fully embraced the layered painted style which has brought consistency to the former title, even when it was pencilled by artists as diverse as Billy Tan and Greg Tocchini. White currently enjoys the profile previously held by Richard Isanove, and it will be very interesting to see how he continues to improve his craft and his profile in the medium. 

Best Inker

Tom Palmer has enjoyed a long career as inker and embellisher, working on titles such as "the Avengers", and providing visual continuity between genre greats such as John Buscema and John Byrne. His continued efforts in helping Mark Millar and John Romita jr. round out the most potent version of the "Kick Ass" franchise (along with the "Hit-Girl" spin-off) serve as yet another reminder of the importance an inker can make to the final product. Credited with both finishes and ink washes, at this stage in their collaboration, Palmer is just as responsible for the final look of Romita jr's art, as was Klaus Janson, who has inked so much of the artist's output.

Best Writer

Finishing "The Boys" for Dynamite and starting the critically acclaimed "Fury MAX" series for Marvel, Garth Ennis has been having a very strong year in writing genre comics. The writer has firmly stuck with his interests, and has continued to hone his own unique creative voice, while staying away from typical opportunities provided for his peers. And while his brief run on the "Shadow" may count as the closest he gets to a typical work for hire assignment, he has continued to write passionate, well realized scripts, that make use of his gifts for characterization and dialogue. "Fury" is yet another example of the unique blend of highly personalized, historical fiction inspired genre work from Ennis, who has still to announce his new next long form creator owned project.

Best Artist

In the year in which he has reworked "Building stories" from an interesting side project to a full blown major work, Chris Ware has once again come to the forefront of the medium that has long hailed him as one of its premiere innovators. In the years since coming into his artistic prime, the writer/artist has even seen such important figures as Daniel Clowes and Seth producing work following the same storytelling techniques, and it's tempting to say that at this point Ware works in a league of his own. In any event, the Pantheon published box of comic and artistic objects presents the creator continuing to work out his themes and obsessions in an even more ambitious form, bridging the gap between comics and fine art in a way that is both widely successful and completely personal.