Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Changes, Changes, and A Fresh Look at My Favorite Intergalactic Bounty Hunting Badass

Okay.  I'll admit it.  While I'm quite good at many things, maintaining a regular blog apparently isn't one of them.  It's been a depressingly long time since I've posted anything here at all and there have been a ton of happenings in the Marvel and DC Universes.

I'll be getting to some of those soon (I hope).  I just got a hold of the complete Death of Wolverine limited series and the nine issue run of Marvel's most recent event, Axis.  Those are next on my reading list.

Right now, however, I wanted to talk about my favorite regenerating degenerate bounty hunter in the comic universe.  Surprisingly, it's not Deadpool.

Sorry.  It just wasn't you this time.
The most recent issue of Deadpool
is pretty great, though.

Don't get me wrong...I'm as big of a Deadpool fan as anyone, but the topic for today is coming from DC.  The main man, Lobo, is back in his own on-going series.

As part of the New 52 universe, Lobo has been reinvented.  The hulking brute that he once was has been destroyed.  That Lobo actually made an early New 52 appearance in the first Deathstroke title (the relaunch of Deathstroke and his actions in the New Suicide Squad are fodder for another entry), but it has been established that this Lobo was, in fact, a fraud.

The tough-talking, cigar-chomping, muscle-bound brawler has been replaced (meaning brutally murdered) by the "real" Lobo.  As the new series begins, writer Cullen Bunn (Deadpool Killustrated) gives us a charming, polished former royal bodyguard, who is just as lethal as the Lobo that we all knew before.

It's an interesting gamble that DC has taken.  Lobo was originally designed as an over-the-top parody of Marvel's Wolverine.  His tough persona and healing factor were intended to emphasize the comparison.  However, with the recent death of Wolverine in the Marvel universe, maybe this shift in the character of Lobo is coming at just the right time.  I'm a little doubtful, simply because I loved the over-the-top, larger than life Lobo.

The Lobo that most of us know and love.
Four issues in, though, and I'm enjoying the new series.  Is it the greatest story I've ever read?  No.  Not by a longshot.  However, it is an interesting premise that Bunn brings in the first story arc.  Someone has hired eight of the universe's deadliest assassins to destroy the Earth.  Lobo, in turn, is hired to prevent that from happening by taking out the assassins.  While Lobo would happily have taken the planet-killing contract himself, he is just as capable of preventing the destruction.  The arc, at least, has potential.

Okay.  At least he still has some cool weapons.
He just looks like he has too much
potential to become the Twilight version
of Lobo.
More interesting, however, is the backstory of Lobo that is slowly being developed over the course of the arc.  I'm curious as to how much more will be played out through the infrequent flashbacks that we're given to Lobo's life on Czarnia prior to the destruction of his entire race.  In some ways I wish I could still have the old Lobo with this developing backstory.

Will this be a sustainable on-going series?  The potential is there.  However, as is often the case with anti-heroes, there is just as much potential to push too far an either put the anti-hero in ridiculous situations (his teenage tech guru is kind of pushing this line already) or the make him too ruthless to be likable.  Hopefully, Bunn will be able to strike that balance and give us a series worthy of the character.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

And Now for Something Marginally Different...

Well, December has come and gone without me managing a post.  In all honesty, I've fallen behind.  My stack of unread books is growing and, due to circumstances beyond my control, I'm not up to date on some recent comic book events.  So, while I put a little time into catching up on Forever Evil, Cataclysm, Infinity, and Inhumanity, I thought I'd divert a little time and present Gene Yang's American-Born Chinese.

Yang's graphic novel is an interesting look at Chinese-American culture and the struggles of multicultural students fitting into a primarily Caucasian school/suburban life.

The graphic novel develops three plot lines, alternating the stories of the mystical Monkey King (this is about as close as this comes to my usual reading habits), Jin Wang (a second-generation Chinese-American student), and Danny (who is humiliated by the over-the-top stereotypical antics of his visiting cousin, Chin-Kee).  Yang blends these seemingly different plot lines together masterfully, providing some of the best writing that I've read lately.  Ultimately all three (yes, even the Monkey King) come together in an interesting twist of an ending that I was not expecting.

The Monkey King, Jin Wang, and Cousin Chin-Kee

Beyond the well-crafted plot lines, Yang's work gives the reader a look into the difficulties of reconciling the desire of wanting to assimilate into a dominant culture and the desire to preserve one's own traditions. There is a lesson to be learned here for all readers. While this graphic novel does present some very stark (some may argue racist) stereotypes of Chinese-Americans, I would recommend it for readers who can set aside the cheap laugh in order to see the deeper lesson.

I'll be looking into another of Yang's graphic novels, Level Up, soon.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Only Reason I'll Read Archie Comics

So, I've been an utter failure at keeping up with this blog.  Stupid life, getting in the way of my plans...

Anyway, while I've been gone, I've been busily reading comics and trying to keep up on the latest new releases.  I've spent a lot of time catching up on DC's New 52.  Villains' Month and the 3D covers got my attention again.  Some were great, others were colossally disappointing.  More on that in a later post.

What really caught my eye recently though, was the new miniseries from Archie Comics.  Normally, I wouldn't grab an Archie comic.  There's a distinct lack of superheroes and/or zombies and an overabundance of smug and un-punched annoyances (looking at you there, Reggie).  Archie just doesn't carry the comic book feel that I look for.

Seriously, don't you just want to punch him?
However, something markedly different came along a few weeks ago.  Writer Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and artist Francesco Francavilla have brought out Afterlife with Archie.  For the first time ever, Archie Comics has brought out a direct market only, not-intended-for-all-ages comic.  As zombies descend on Riverdale, who will survive?

The series opens with the unfortunate death of Jughead's beloved pet, Hot Dog.  Things go from bad to worse when Sabrina, despite warnings from both her aunts, uses necromancy to raise Hot Dog from the dead.  Hot Dog, of course, comes back as a zombified dog, promptly infecting Jughead.

By the end of issue 1, Jughead is our only zombie roaming Riverdale, but his arrival at the high school Halloween dance on the final pages of the issue indicates that he will not be the only undead teen for long.

Issue 2 comes out on November 20.  If you're looking for zombies or just a whole new take on Archie, pick it up.  And be sure to grab the reprinting of the now-sold-out first issue!

Oh, and (minor spoiler alert), just how did Hot Dog die to start this whole thing?  Reggie ran him over while driving drunk.  Just like everything else wrong in Riverdale, it always comes back to Reggie.

C'mon, Archie - You Know You Want To.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

US History, Politics, and a Schizophrenic Old Man

It's been way too long since I've posted here.  Between the start of school and working on a master's degree, I've (unfortunately) not had the time that I would like to have to read comics.  So, while I try to get caught up on current events in the Marvel and DC Universes...I thought I'd talk about one of the best graphic novels that I've ever read.

Uncle Sam, written by Steve Darnall and (the amazing) Alex Ross, takes the reader on a journey through American history though the eyes of a man who may be either Uncle Sam, the incarnate spirit of the United States, or a homeless man with significant mental disorders.  Uncle Sam begins with the titular character depicted as a bum, dressed in ragged (yet still flamboyantly patriotic) clothes.  As he has flashbacks that place him in a variety of historical settings, ranging from the American revolution and Shay's rebellion to the civil rights era and assassination of JFK, Sam finds himself wondering what has happened to the United States.

Uncle Sam is not your typical comic book.  It's a look at the United States and the history of our country at both its best and its worst.  Kirkus Reviews called it "a damning account of American political history that also affirms basic democratic ideals."  This comic book carries more intellectual baggage that many things that I've read.  Darnall and Ross manage to force the reader to think long and hard about the nature of the United States; what it was meant to be, what it is, and the disparity between those things.

While the artwork is beautiful, what struck me most were the thought provoking lines of internal dialogue that Sam has during his flashbacks.  The most haunting line comes as Sam finds himself at the site of the Kennedy assassination, sitting in the presidential convertible, alongside Jacqueline Kennedy.  "Ask not what your country's done for you -- ask what your country's done to you."

Sam's odyssey through both history and present day ultimately culminates with his own self-searching discussions with a number of other incarnations of modern nations.  Finally, feeling himself again, Sam confronts a twisted, ultra-capitalist, super-consumer parody of himself.  The final battle is a climax fitting for this book that is more loaded with symbolism than most literary works.

Overall, I highly recommend this graphic novel to anyone with an interest in U.S. history or politics.  It's a deep read with many points that I think are relevant to our current political climate.  Even though it was written in 1998.

Friday, August 9, 2013

Batcave? Fortress of Solitude? Avengers Mansion? No, Thanks - I'll Hang at the Comic Shop.

Best Part of Wayne Manor? Definitely the Basement.

So, I'm going to deviate from my norm here just a little bit (and apparently slip into '90's slang if my post title is any indication).  Normally, I'd talk about some comics or a graphic novel that I've read lately.  That's coming; I've got a few in mind and might even do one later tonight. However, I was thinking this week and realized that while I've talked comics, I haven't talked about something that's really key to comic culture - the local comic shop.

I realize that not everyone has one.  Some prefer to get comics through mail order or subscription services. Ebay has, literally, millions of comics for sale at any given time.  But I think that there's something to be said for going to the comic shop.

One thing that the Batcave could have used
I remember being a kid (it was a lot like now, but everything was taller and I had slightly less money) and riding my bike to 7/11 to pick up a comic book.  I still have the comics that I bought then - even the copy of Kindred #1 with the scuffed up cover that I was carrying when I fell off my bike (public service announcement: don't read comics and ride).  7/11 was okay, but the one spinning rack wasn't really a comic shop. When I could convince my parents to drive me, Graham Cracker comics in Bloomingdale (long gone - I think it's a Lou Malnati's now) was the first real comic shop that I ever saw.  It wasn't big, but it had racks across all of the walls filled with current comics.  The center of the store had an island of tables with boxes and boxes of back issues.  And, of course, the requisite 25 cent bin.

Potential Gold Mine or Waste of Time?
There is No Right Answer
It's probably been 20 years since I shopped at Graham Cracker.  It wasn't until a few years ago (with a renewed interest in comics) that I found some of the local shops around me.  It's amazing how little has changed.

I still love going to the comic book shop.  There's something about the smell of the newsprint, the shelves filled with colorful covers, and the stacks of old comics to dig through.  Sure, some things are different - there's more emphasis on gaming than I remember, action figures (collectibles) line some of the walls now, but the comics are still the star of the show.  But still, the comic shop is an experience.  And, for many comic book geeks, allows at least some less awkward social interaction.

My favorite shops are both in Schaumburg, so it's a little bit of a time investment for me to get there, but it's well worth it.  If you're looking to check one out, I'd point you toward either one.

Keith's Komix on Roselle Road is my most recent discovery.  Tucked away in a strip mall at the corner of Roselle and Weathersfield, Keith's storefront windows are decorated with lifesize superheroes in the window.  My kids love the opportunity to see the large Hulk and Thor as we walk in.  The set up at Keith's is one of the most spacious comic shops I've seen.  The store is larger than most.  With walls dedicated to comics, graphic novels, and gaming supplies, it seems unlikely that you would be looking for anything they don't carry.  Their back issue collection is also extensive with boxes upon boxes arranged near the back wall of the store.  The staff know their stuff and can help you out with most questions or requests.  I can't say enough good things about Keith's.

Dreamland Comics, on Schaumburg Road, just west of Schaumburg High School, is another favorite of mine, though construction has kept me from going recently.  While smaller, Dreamland is well organized and carries just about as many things as Keith's.  The real draw at Dreamland is the constant sale on graphic novels - typically 20 - 30% off cover price.  Dreamland also offers a great subscription service - 35% off cover price of any comic subscriptions (minimum 5 titles).  I've been using their subscription service on and off for a few years and have had no complaints.

The local comic shop used to be the way to get comics (short of actually setting up a subscription through a publisher).  As more mail order services pop up and digital comics become more prevalent, I'm not sure what the future holds for actual storefronts.  I have to think that they'll still survive.  They'll find a way to adapt.  After all, just as Batman needs the Batcave and the Hulk needs whatever ditch he happens to pass out in before turning back into Bruce Banner, comic readers need the local comic shop.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Am I Evil? - A Closer Look at Supervillainy

Pictured above: Evil?
The perfect setting for supervillainy
This past week I've been in a small cabin on the shore of Lake Superior in northern Minnesota with my wife and kids.  It's a great week to relax and unwind as we watch summer wind down.  However, my wife's extended family also joins us in the neighboring cabins, bringing a wonderful kind of lunacy to the week as well.  I was playing (not necessarily voluntarily) with two of my wife's cousin's children - Teagan (8) and Jace (6) and the idea for this entry is, in part, thanks to them.

Teagan, being an inquisitive 8-year-old, was going from adult to adult asking, "What are you doing?"  Since I enjoy confusing children, I responded with "trying to take over the world."  This, in turn, led to Teagan and Jace spending the next half hour climbing all over me in an effort to thwart my evil plans.  At the end of our time, Teagan asked me, "Why don't you join the good side?"

My reply: "What makes you think I'm not the good side?"  This, of course, was met with a blank stare.

Now that I've shared my brief family anecdote, let me bring this into what you're here for: comic books.

The real stars of the blog
I recently read two graphic novels by Brian Azzarello: Luthor and Joker.  Each of these focuses on a villain from the DC Universe; the archenemies of Superman and Batman, respectively.  What struck me as I read these was the strikingly different portrayals of these two signature villains.

The most frightening man to ever
wear a purple suit.
In reading Joker, it's made clear that the title villain is clearly a sociopath.  There is no greater purpose behind his villainy other than personal gain.  Joker is evil for evil's sake.  Azzarello does a masterful job portraying the controlled chaos that the Joker personifies.  I especially enjoyed the more realistic, less campy version of the Joker that Azzarello brings into his depiction.  This Joker is similar to Heath Ledger's portrayal in The Dark Knight rather than Cesear Romero's slapstick version from the 1960's Batman television show.  Azzarello's Joker is a great character study of one of DC's most prolific and, arguably, most depraved villains that explores the basic nature of the character's evil.  Be forewarned, this novel is intended for more mature readers and does contain somewhat more brutal violence than typical Batman comics.

A study in biased pictures
As much as I enjoyed reading Joker and generally prefer Batman to Superman, Luthor and Azzarello's treatment of Superman's nemesis was, in my opinion, the superior graphic novel.  Lex Luthor is depicted as something more than just a force of evil.  Azzarello focuses on Luthor's intense distrust of the alien that has taken public opinion by storm.  The book is best summarized in Luthor's statement to Superman - "All men are created equal.  You are not a man."

Comics at their best:
Philosophy with pictures

Lex is shown in turns as generous, obsessive, loyal, protective, and evil.  His illegal union busting as he works to complete a construction project stands in stark contrast to his obtaining a scholarship to a prestigious school for a janitor's son.  The nuanced and complex portrayal of Luthor leaves the reader wondering, is Luthor really a villain?  Are his aims truly evil?

So, I'll turn the question to you, what makes a villain?  What draws the line that tells us that Lex Luthor is evil, while Superman is good?  Is there a definite line or, as recent comics and other media suggest, is the line blurring?

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Bumping Off the Blind Superhero: A Review of Daredevil - End of Days

So, I promised that I'd do this and it's taken me longer than I had hoped, but here we go.  Marvel recently published an eight-part mini-series starring the man without fear, Daredevil.  However, I think it "starring" might be an overstatement.

Daredevil: End of Days is the most recent effort by Marvel to break from the on-going series canon (though writer Brian Bendis asserts that this is part of the continuity) and jump to the end of the line for a given character.  Marvel has been doing this type of thing since the late 90's for various characters.  Sometimes the story takes the mini-series format, as it has with Daredevil, and sometimes the story is confined to a one-shot (single issue).

While the concept isn't new, Brian Bendis and David Mack take this story further than most "the end" stories go. The length of the mini-series (8 issues) is longer than most of Marvel's similar works.  Honestly, the length of the story appealed to me.  As I've said before, I like Daredevil and think that he's underrated by many readers.  Bendis and Mack took time to develop a solid story.

The story itself follows a complex series of twists.  I mentioned earlier that it may be a stretch to say that Daredevil "stars" in this mini-series.  While his name is on the cover, he's also dead before the middle of the first issue.

Not what one might expect of a title character
Daredevil's death, rather than serving as the culmination of the series, is the catalyst of the events that follow. The real focal point of the series is Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich, one of a very few people who actually knew that Matt Murdock was Daredevil.  While Urich has played a key role in several of Marvel's titles and interacts with a number of superheroes, he's not really what one might expect as the lead character of a series.

Marvel's least likely hero (possibly excluding Squirrel Girl)
Urich's goal over the course of the series is to track down the meaning of Daredevil's last word: "Mapone."  In his efforts to discover the secret behind who or what "Mapone" is, Urich interacts with a variety of characters from the Daredevil comics.  His interviews with key figures from the Marvel universe provide the forward progress for much of the story line.  Personally, I found his interview with the Punisher to be a highlight in the series.  The further Urich gets in his search, the more mysterious things get.  While I don't want to spoil the storyline for you, let me assure you that Daredevil is not the only character to die in the End of Days storyline - he's merely the first.  As Urich digs deeper and the body count climbs, a new Daredevil emerges as well - one who tracks Ben and seems to watch over him as something of a guardian angel (or guardian devil).

The noir feel that the story takes on worked for me.  I've always enjoyed the "street-level" heroes and the true-crime feel that their stories tend to take on.  The mystery in Daredevil: End of Days sells the story. While I won't reveal it here, the revelations at the end of the series in issues 7 and 8 worked well and resolved the story in a satisfying way.  End of Days received extremely positive reviews and I agree with those wholeheartedly.  This mini-series doesn't require much background knowledge from the reader and serves as a solid stand-alone story.

The original run of the mini-series started in October of 2012 and ended in June of 2013, so issues should still be fairly available in most comic shops.  The entire series was also released as a graphic novel this month and is readily available both in stores and on-line.

As always, feel free to post your thoughts, especially if you've had a chance to read End of Days or if you want to discuss part of the story.