Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Reviewing the New 52: Green Lantern Corps, Legion of Super-Heroes, Blue Beetle & Captain Atom

Week four of the New 52 arrived in stores last Wednesday and here's what I thought of the four $2.99 titles that caught my eye: Green Lantern Corps #1, Legion of Super-Heroes #1, Blue Beetle #1 and Captain Atom #1.

Beginning with Green Lantern Corps #1, this is obviously a Justice League style team story for the Green Lantern group of titles. John Stewart and Guy Gardner star, but the host of other exotic looking GL's mean it will obviously blend the sci-fi and superhero themes that are characteristic of all Green Lantern comics. 

It was a well drawn comic and had some pretty serious story matter. That said, I’m not sure I'll go back -- so far I see my Green Lantern interests being filled by the Hal Jordan storyline of Green Lantern #1. But the art was good, the conflict poignant, and because of that it deserves a positive review.  

Our next book is Legion of Super-Heroes #1. I’ll be honest; I hadn’t the foggiest of what was going on in this comic and shouldn’t have bothered buying it. I’ve read Legion before and understand it’s a title with a lot of diverse characters, but this reboot was just difficult. Unlike Justice League #1, which introduced us to a small number of characters at the beginning, thereby giving us a manageable way to grow with the title, Legion threw us into the deep-end and because of this I had no idea what was going on. I will not buy the second issue.

Our next book, Blue Beetle #1 brings us the BB of Jaime Keyes, but also gives us a Green Lantern-style science-fiction introduction to the origins of the Blue Beetle's scarab, an alien device that gives this young man his powers. All in all, it was a decent comic and although I've never been a Blue Beetle fan, I might flip through the second issue to see if it's worth buying again.

Finally we have Captain Atom #1. This was a fantastic comic and hearkened back to Alan Moore’s Doctor Manhattan which was, in a word, awesome. This story gives us Captain Atomic, gifted with extraordinary powers, but  also powers that could destroy him. Because of this, he must use them sparingly and although he does, we see it will also severely limit him. The non-polished art gives the book a gritty Frank Miller feel and the cover is absolutely fantastic and already up on my home office wall. For my money Captain Atom is one of the best super-heroes out there and if you haven't already figured it out, I will definitely buy the second issue.   

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reviewing the New 52: Batman and Robin, Suicide Squad, Green Lantern & Red Lanterns

The next batch of DC's 'New 52' arrived on shelves yesterday and here are some brief thoughts about the four $2.99 titles that caught my interest. 

Our first reviewed title is Batman and Robin #1 with Damien Wayne, Bruce Wayne’s son as a precocious 10 year old Robin working with the Caped Crusader. Frankly, I don’t like this Robin. He’s comes across as a petulant brat and I can already tell much of the title will devote itself to tired storylines about the ‘wunderkind in trouble'. Patrick Gleeson’s artwork was fantastic but the art could not salvage the premise and I will probably not buy #2.

Robin being petulant in DC's Batman and Robin #1, November 2011
Although I've never been a consistent reader of the Suicide Squad,  the idea of a group of super-villains working for government authorities has always integrated me. In Suicide Squad #1 we are introduced a new squad consisting of Deadshot, Harley Quinn, King Shark, Savant, Voltaic, Black Spider and El Diablo working within Task Force X. The story is pretty much what you would expect from an issue that needs to introduce eight different characters and turn them into anti-heroes quickly, but artwork was good and even though we didn't really see much of an advanced plot, I may check out #2 to see where the story develops. It was a little gruesome in parts, but that was to make the point that this is a group of hard-edged criminals and it worked. Because of this I will possibly buy #2. 

From DC's Suicide Squad #1, November 2011
Green Lantern #1 and Red Lanterns #1 are not reboots unlike other 'New 52' titles but continue from the War of the Green Lanterns storyline that ran earlier this year. Because of this, we were not introduced to the classic Abin Sur meets Hal Jordan story but rather one that consists of a  ringless and down on his luck Hal Jordan, mysterious and spiteful Guardians of the Universe and a reformed yet unscrupulous Sinestro. Having always liked Green Lantern but never having been a consistent reader, I will probably not buy #2 and get earlier (and later) TPBs and get caught up that way. 

Sinestro in DC's Green Lantern #1, November 2011
Red Lanterns #1 gives us background into the rage driven Red Lantern Corps and the story of its leader, Atrocitus and his quest for vengeance against the Guardians of the Universe. The Red Lanterns are great foils for the Green Lanterns and, while the story was a little disjointed in places,  I enjoyed the exotic science-fiction themes and revenge-driven story line. If this book is to be sustained however, it will need to involve the Green Lanterns as an enemy force and because of this it will be an occasional purchase and I will probably not buy #2. 

From DC's Red Lanterns #1, November 2011
It’s often been said that when making an argument it is good to leave your weakest points in the middle. This may have been what DC was thinking when making their argument for increased comic purchases in this third week of the New 52. Of the four books read above, none of them really gripped me like Swamp Thing or Batwing last week. We'll let you know how next week goes. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Reviewing the New 52: Green Arrow, OMAC, Batwing & Swamp Thing

This week was your week if you’ve ever wanted to own a first edition Action or Detective Comics because this was the week DC launched the ‘New 52’ en masse by giving us eight new titles to choose from. 

But because most blogs will be reviewing the new Superman and Batman titles, I decided to review four comics that might not otherwise experience a deluge of traffic. These books: Green Arrow #1, OMAC #1, Batwing #1 and Swamp Thing #1 were also in the $2.99 price category which made them easier on the wallet and held to DC’s earlier promise to ‘hold the line at $2.99’: a welcome development for an increasingly expensive hobby.

Let’s begin with Green Arrow #1. The story starts by ret-conning Star City into Seattle and presenting Queen Industries as a massive conglomerate with a Q-Core division personally operated by Oliver Queen. It isn’t quite clear where the namesake officially stands within the larger company, but it's clear he's at odds with a prominent member of the Board of Directors and this will lead to problems. The main action comes with Green Arrow chasing villains through Paris, and eventually prevailing with the help of high-tech arrows and a team back in the USA. By the end of the book we also meet a nasty group of rogues.   

Seattle in DC's Green Arrow #1, November 2011
This comic was okay. The new Green Arrow is sharply modernized and resembles Smallville’s Oliver Queen rather than the goatee wearing Errol Flynn-like fellow of the past. Beating three baddies simultaneously seemed to be a little formulaic, as did the ineptitude of the French super-authorities towards the end, but the story laid a foundation for another socially-conscious Green Arrow that will be as political as he is heroic. Because of this, I am curious as to where this comic will go and will possibly buy #2.

From DC's Green Arrow #1, November 2011

Our second book is OMAC #1, a reboot of the original ‘One Man Army Corps' series by comics legend Jack Kirby. OMAC first appeared in 1974 and had Buddy Blank, a nobody in the ‘The World That’s Coming’ become a futuristic super-soldier working for the Global Peace Agency. If you’ve ever read the original 70s OMAC, you will remember a very strange comic with faceless men, mechanically made women and a big orbiting satellite called “Brother Eye”. In 2005, the OMAC was changed into a group of fierce looking cyborgs for the Infinite Crisis event, but this new book is clearly a throwback to the earlier Kirby title. 
From DC's OMAC #1, November 2011
The story introduces Cadmus Industries, a 'corporate leader in genetic research and medical technologies', a rogue OMAC doing damage to that business, 'Brother Eye' and an underground group of villains who have the same faceless and mechanical features we saw in Kirby’s earlier rendition. Indeed, this book is clearly a Kirby throw-back and as you can see from the posted panels, Keith Giffen, Dan Dido and Scott Kiblish have worked hard to emulate 'The King', all the while updating this OMAC in ways that will satisfy newer readers who may not know Kirby or appreciate his work. Like the earliest OMAC, I suspect this will not be integrated into the larger DC Universe, which is both a blessing (no crossovers!) and curse (no crossovers!) and will have to stand on its own stories. I am curious to see where it goes, but don’t think it will be a regular purchase and will probably not buy #2.

Kirby's influences are legion in DC's OMAC #1, November 2011

Batwing #1 was another title that caught my interest. Batwing is a new character to the DC universe, appearing only last year in Batman: Incorporated #6. When he made his debut, he received some media attention because he operated out of Africa, making him one of the few comic superheroes from that part of the world.

From DC's Batwing #1 November 2011
Of the comics read, this was by far the most gruesome and mature themed. It features a villain named Massacre, who seems both appropriately named and is quite good at what he does. Batman also makes an appearance and while we were not completely introduced to how Batwing became friends with his Gotham-based benefactor, we see a bond and should expect further cameos by the Caped Crusader.  I actually found the comic quite captivating and the explicit violence aside it was quite a cool experience. The story involves a young police officer turned costumed crime-fighter named David Zavimbe who works both within and outside a corrupt justice system to fight organized crime. I expect this comic will be a mixture of African travel, world politics and superheroes and because of this will certainly buy #2.
From DC's Batwing #1, November 2011
The final comic reviewed is Swamp Thing #1. Now, this was a hotly anticipated book, but I put in into the non-famous category because I hadn’t really read Swamp Thing in the past (including Alan Moore’s legendary run) and wasn’t sure what to expect. Of the four reviewed, I have to say this was my favourite. The story begins with the mass death of animals across the DC universe and we then meet Dr. Alec Holland, a former botanist turned construction worker who is hiding from a troubled past. When Superman arrives to check on our hero, we learn about Dr. Holland’s previous work and his ideas about plants. At this point we are also introduced to his mentor’s ideas and are given some insightful commentary into the natural world. We are also introduced to a elemental villain, but this was not a major focus to the story. 


Above panels from DC's Swamp Thing #1, November 2011

This comic was truly an educational and enjoyable experience. The discussion about botany was above and beyond what is usually found in comics and the Swamp Thing himself looks very well done. Because of this, I will  certainly buy #2 and finally get back into earlier Swamp Thing stories, especially those written by Moore. 

That is it for my reviews today. I will be travelling  for the next little while and will probably not have much to say about the next batch of the New 52. As always, thanks for reading and please feel free to leave some comments or feedback. 

Thursday, September 8, 2011

X-Men #1: 20 Years Later

In 1971 the X-Men were in trouble. Marvel had stopped producing new X-Men comics and from here until 1975 would only reprint earlier stories. The title still had a loyal following, but it was not nearly as popular as the Fantastic Four or the Avengers. In 1975, this would change with one issue that would spark a nearly a two decade long sequence of events that would culminate in an (Uncanny) X-Men spin-off becoming the highest selling comic book of all time. This happened exactly 20 years ago this October and to mark the occasion, I would like to look at the history of X-Men #1, how it came about, and how this comic book represents the pinnacle of the early 90s comic collectors boom, an important event in the history of comic book collecting.
(From X-Men #6, July 1964 reprinted in The Original X-Men, November 1980)
The X-Men were created in 1963 when Stan Lee wanted another superhero team for the Marvel line-up. Until then, the Fantastic Four (created by Lee and Jack Kirby to compete with DC’s Justice League of America) was selling well and Lee wanted to keep the magic going. The challenge soon became how to create a team of superheroes instantaneously. Marvel contemporaries such as Spider-Man, Hulk or the Fantastic Four had been given their powers by acts of science gone wrong, but this was getting trickier. Lee’s answer was beautiful in its simplicity: make these new heroes born with powers activated at puberty. Thus began the long story of mutants and their struggle with the blessings and curses of genetically gifted superpowers.
(From X-Men #6, July 1964 reprinted in The Original X-Men, November 1980)
But by the mid 70s things were not working. The original X-Men looked tired and while they appeared in new comics throughout the Marvel universe, their book consisted of reprints. Seeing an opportunity Roy Thomas, the new editor-in-chief, decided to reboot the title and tapped Len Wein and Dave Cockrum to create a special Giant-Size X-Men #1 to get the ball rolling. In the story, the original X-Men were in trouble and Professor Xavier needed a new team of mutants to help them. What resulted was the good professor travelling the world searching for mutants to join a new, multinational force that would eventually save the day. In one fell swoop, X-Fans were given new characters with distinctly international personalities. The book was a success and not only injected new blood into the X-Men franchise; it turned a story about American teens into a multinational force the whole world could enjoy.
But was it enough?

(Wolverine joins the X-Men in Giant-Size X-Men #1, reprinted in Marvel Milestone Edition: Giant Size X-Men, 1991. His first appearance was actually Hulk #180, October 1974.)
It was. X-Men #98 picked up after the Giant-Size and led to a resurgence of the title. From here X-Men and the mutants took Marvel by storm and soon became one of the company’s top books. Gifted creators such as Chris Claremont and John Byrne would lead the charge and in the late 70s and 80s gave us memorable characters like Alpha Flight, Mr. Sinister and the Phoenix. By the time the speculators boom of the late 80s and early 90s rolled around, the X-Men were a dominant force in Marvel’s arsenal.

(From Uncanny X-Men #221, September 1987)
Which brings us to October 1991. Having spun off X-Men with titles such as The New Mutants and X-Factor in the 1980s, Marvel decided to launch a second X-Men title simply called X-Men. The original had become Uncanny X-Men in the 1980s and retained its number continuity, so this adjective-free book would be an altogether new line starting at number one. It also appeared, not by coincidence, at a time when comic books were achieving a popularity in the English-speaking world unheard of since the Golden Age. In a strange ‘cross-over’ the children of the Baby-Boomers were starting to earn money in part-time jobs or weekly allowances at the same time their near middle-aged parents were looking back at their youth and wishing their mothers hadn’t thrown out their copies of Fantastic Four #1 and Amazing Fantasy #15. Efforts by competitors DC with events such as the Death of Superman and its subsequent media hype also contributed to a speculator boom that had heretofore never been seen.
(One cover of X-Men #1, October 1991)
(From X-Men #1, October 1991)
But that a boom inevitably busts in a truism. From Tulipmania in the 1630s, to the South Sea Bubble in the 1700s, to the recent Subprime Mortgage Crisis in the United States and beyond, there has always been people who make speculative purchases with the hope of getting rich. Of course, by the time most of them make the purchase, it is already too late and the bubble is about to burst under the weight of unwanted tulip bulbs, unless stocks or bad mortgages.
(From X-Men #1, October 1991)
And this is exactly what happened to comic book collecting in the mid 1990s. It was nowhere near as serious as the global recession causing Subprime Mortgage Crisis, but many of the same impulses that led to 8.1 million copies of X-Men #1 being sold, also led to the house-crazed hysteria of subprime mortgages and the subsequent economic downturn we live with today. Now a complete economic analysis of the boom this is beyond the scope of this piece, but a concise explanation of this behaviour can be given using the words of Scotsman Charles Mackay in his old but still lauded book Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds Men. He writes: “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one." And while it wasn’t madness that drove middle-aged men who hadn’t collected comic books since the 1960s to buy five copies of X-Men #1, Superman #75 or Spider-Man #1, it was none-the-less a bubble of the sort we have long seen in modern economics.
Which prompts me to ask: how many copies of X-Men #1 do you have? I’m sure anyone reading this blog has at least a couple. Personally, I have four. At that time, I was both an X-Men fan, but also a speculator who believed the hype around him. Okay, maybe I didn't believe it would one day finance my house, but I did believe it would be worth something someday. Silly me; today it can be bought for 1 US dollar.
But twenty years ago it sold in uncanny quantities and because of this deserves a hearty congratulations on its twentieth birthday. Thanks for all the memories, X-Men #1! Will not soon see the likes of you again!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Random Reviews: Justice League #1

Well, it’s here! The first of the ‘New 52’, DC’s attempt to boost sales by restarting its entire line-up, arrived on the shelves the past Wednesday with Justice League #1. And while I’m still not convinced this will bring people back en mass to the comics medium, I have to say JL#1 is pretty good and actually has me excited about the next issue. The story is largely a Batman and Green Lantern yarn but gives us a sneak peak at Cyborg and Superman by end, and I have to say Kal-El is looking mighty cool in his newly redesigned outfit.

Indeed, all of the costumes are properly modernized but there’s also a territorial (“Gotham’s mine, Coast City’s Yours”) edge to both Batman and Green Lantern that hearkens back to an earlier separation of the DC world. Lee’s artwork is good and Geoff John’s story, while being almost too reader friendly, held my interest throughout and got me excited for both the next issue and the complete re-launch and I expect to go back next month to some degree. It would have been nice to see DC ‘hold the line at 2.99’ on this book -- if only to give us a few extra pages and make a point of principle for the fans -- but unfortunately that wasn’t the case as this book was $3.99.

(Batman and Green Lantern guard their 'jurisdictions' jealously in Justice League #1, October 2011)

On a related note, we enjoyed speaking with the folks at my local shop (Paradise Comics in Toronto) and it sounds like sales have reflected the hype, which is great for them and the industry.

(Mutual mistrust of Superman in Justice League #1, October 2011)

So while this is clearly an advert for the other 51 books coming out this September, the first of the ‘New 52’ was pretty good and I recommend you pick it up if you still can.

(The new Superman outfit in Justice League #1, October 2011)

Friday, September 2, 2011

Random Reviews: Samurai's Blood

Of the many temples, shrines and castles I visited while living in Japan, Nijō Castle in Kyoto still captures my imagination like none other. Built by the Tokugawa Shogun in the early years of his rule, Nijō is a flatland castle within walking distance of the Imperial Place. Now, this on its own in unremarkable (the Tokugawa Shogun invested heavily in infrastructure to consolidate his rule after 1603), but Nijō also served a unique purpose: to monitor the Emperor so the Shogun’s power remained absolute. This raison d'être, in my mind, symbolizes the complexities of feudal Japan, a topic that still captivates my interests today.

This is why at FanExpo Canada this past weekend I strayed from my usual superhero comic fare and picked up the first two copies of Samurai’s Blood by a Benaroya Publishing/Image Comics team led by Owen Wisemen and Nam Kim. Samurai’s Blood is a limited series which takes place against the backdrop of Tokugawa Japan and gives the reader an opportunity to explore this fascinating period using comic books.

(Above and below panels from Image's Samurai's Blood #1, June 2011)

The first issue begins with the brutal betrayal and execution of the Sanjo Clan in their province and elsewhere. As the clan is reduced to a rump, we are introduced to the young daimyo (feudal lord), his sister Yuko, and the soon-to-be-star of our series, his friend and talented samurai retainer. In a harrowing final scene, these remaining Sanjo escape and the second issue begins with the trio finding themselves in a nearby city. After they are accosted by enemies and Yuko is captured, they meet an elder swordsman who offers to train the samurai and ultimately help the Sanjo towards vengeance and vindication. Think Dune meets Bloodsport and you get the idea.

So while the series contains a number of reoccurring themes in fiction, Wiseman’s writing is sharp and he has done his homework in setting the story against the complexities of feudal Japan. These Japanese details, in turn, give the American comic an authentic quality; while keeping it accessible for those who might not know about Japan in the 1600s. Most panels include a caption with has some haiku-type samurai wisdom, which both contributes to the story and gives the reader something deeper to think about. I’m not sure if this has been taken from a popular samurai-era text, but a quick look at Wisemen’s biography will reveal a long-time interest in Japan means famous texts like Musashi’s Book of Five Rings have almost certainly been consulted.

(Above and below panels from Image's Samurai's Blood #2, July 2011)

The artwork is great too. While there are obvious Japanese influences, it never-the-less remains accessible to those of us (myself included) who don’t particularly enjoy Manga. Details such as training with bokken (wooden swords), the samurai armour and Japanese urban geography all contribute to the storytelling and do well at portraying pre-industrial Japan. It is a rather violent comic, so I would not recommend it for children or even early teenagers, but the drama and complexity of Japanese society (and the expensive DC relaunch!) probably makes this age-appropriate suggestion moot.

So if you’re looking for a break from the mainline superheroes and want something with both action and human drama, give Samurai’s Blood a look. It’s a good story that has captured the complexity and majesty of feudal Japan, while presenting drama enjoyable for the unfamiliar Western reader. This comic also underscored what I consider the best part of any comic convention: the unexpected surprises you find there. Samurai’s Blood was this year’s surprise for me, and while it hasn't been on my pull-list before, it certainly is now.

Samurai’s Blood #3 is in stores now.