Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Road to Hell: The Squadron Supreme Review.


For all my love of the superhero genre in the mainstream, I'm aware--sometimes painfully so--of it's limits. Much like followers of professional wrestling, a fan of the Big Two of DC and Marvel comics must eventually come to grips with the fact that the fix is in, that for all the struggle and travail his or her favored protagonist may go through, true and lasting change in conventional superhero comics will never truly happen. At the end of the day, Bruce Wayne will always be Batman, Superman will always be Clark Kent, and the cycle of their adventures will be forever bound in an eternal loop of origin, present day, origin, present day. You will never see the last Batman story, or the last Superman story, save in 'imaginary' tales. The Earth will never become a utopia in the pages of Marvel Comics; with geniuses like Tony Stark or Reed Richards you'd think there'd be cures for cancer and flying cars abounding, to say nothing of fusion power and complete freedom from reliance on fossil fuels. Why is mental illness still rampant on Marvel Earth when the potential for telepathic cures via powerful psychics like Charles Xavier and Jean Grey exist? Hell, the Purple Man (and yes non-comics fans, there is a character called the Purple Man. Oddly enough he's not themed around grapes) should be raking in the dough by offering dieting and smoking cures via simple use of his mind control abilities. Of course doing that would distance Marvel Earth from our world and that would be unrealistic (how 'realistic' a world rife with super-soldiers, gamma-irradiated behemoths, Norse Gods, and mutants who can regenerate from a drop of blood is a matter best left to wiser men than I).

Mainstream superhero comics don't change. They offer an illusion of change, yes, but by and large it's an exercise in re-arranging patio furniture: it looks very nice and it's different than how it used to look, but all the components are intact, simply in different arrangement. One either embraces this truth or ignores it.

Stories like Watchmen or Kingdom Come, wherein the hard-hitting questions were asked about the connections between heroism, power, responsibility and insanity, broke new ground in taking a step back from the superhero genre and examining what made it tick. Watchmen with the curiosity of turning over a brightly colored stone and examining the worms and bugs skittering beneath the bright surface, Kingdom Come with the bible-thumping conviction of heroism versus vigilantism and an ultimate rejection of the grim and gritty trappings of 1990s superheroics with an eye toward returning to the more old-time religion of more hopeful, optimistic fare. Yet before either of those works were published there was a series which took a look at the concept of the superhero and asked some of the questions that Watchmen and Kingdom Come were later to explore. That series was Marvel Comics twelve-issue maxi-series Squadron Supreme.

Initially the eponymous heroes were little more than Marvel's own thinly-veiled take on the Justice League, a band of superbeings from an another dimension who looked a little. . .familiar. . .whom the Mighty Avengers would usually trounce due to the Squadron falling under the influence of mind control(that beloved staple of writers everywhere, ensuring those superhero/superhero battles readers love). For a while no further depth was needed, and the formula worked as something to break out every so often to show the House of Ideas' inherent superiority over the Distinguished Competition. Until writer-editor Mark Gruenwald came along. Gruenwald had been a longtime fan of the Justice League despite working entirely for Marvel throughout his career, and saw the Squadron as an opportunity to tell a story that would not only give a nod to the beloved comics of his youth, but also comment on the genre as a whole.

In the wake of one of their crossovers with Marvel Earth, the Squadron Supreme are left in their home dimension in the wake of an absolute disaster. A power mad entity from the world of the Marvel heroes had seized control of the Squadron and led the world to ruin. With the aid of their other-dimensional brethren the Squadron were able to break free and save the world, but even with their Earth saved the planet is a complete wreck. The global infrastructure has collapsed, with shortages, riots, and absolute chaos taking place all over the globe. The heroes do what they can to help, but it's clear that the situation is dire. It's in that period of recovery that Hyperion (the Squadron's Superman analogue) proposes that this is a moment they could do more than merely return the Earth to status quo. They could enact changes that could benefit all mankind; eliminate war, disease, crime. . .to build a true utopia for the entire human race.

This is met with nearly universal acclaim from his fellow heroes, save from Kyle Richmond, aka Nighthawk (the Batman analogue). He feels that any effort the team undertakes to better the world runs the risk of stripping the population of their fundamental rights. The debate is intense, but ultimately Hyperion wins out and Nighthawk chooses to resign from the Squadron. Stepping down as President of the United States due to his role in the crisis which led the world to ruin, Richmond (yeah, Batman was president on this Earth. Let the awesome of that thought sink in for a moment) has the opportunity to kill Hyperion with an argonite (guess what it's supposed to be) bullet, but reneges at the last minute. Hyperion lays out the Utopia Project to a listening America and the world, and the first issue ends with the Squadron unmasking, revealing their true identities and declaring their intent to make the world a better safer place. The last panel has the Squadron looking confident, the heroes smiling and standing boldly clearly ready to whip the world into shape. The only off note to the otherwise joyous image is Kyle Richmond in his civilian clothes, head lowered slightly and features downcast, putting the lie to the otherwise triumphant scene.

For a while, it even seems to work. The team creates a city/headquarters in the midst of the desert, where they work to improve the lot of the world. Their steps include such bold moves as endeavoring to eliminate the existence of firearms across the globe, and the implementation of the B-Mod device. Simply put, their resident genius Tom Thumb creates a machine that can realign the moral centers of the brain. Hardened criminals can have the machine placed on their heads and then be remade into model citizens with absolutely no thought of committing violent crime or being anything other than a productive citizen. On the surface, this all sounds great. No guns and no criminals? That's awesome! Right?

Neil Gaiman once said in an interview that the trouble with a utopia is that eventually you have to fill it with people. Principles and high ideals are one thing, but people can be at once saint and sinner, bold and craven. The behaviour modification technology is great. . .depending on who uses it. The lack of guns is great. . .until the Whizzer's family is threatened and he immediately grabs the first sub machine gun he can find and lets the bullets fly. The Squadron's intentions are noble, but that doesn't stop Nighthawk from allying with Master Menace (the Squadron's Lex Luthor) to attempt to stop them from taking over the world. But even he has to shake hands with the devil and put the b-mod technology to work for him. Nobody comes out of this series with their hands clean. Not everyone comes out alive either.

Despite my status as the resident Silver Age junkie in my comics group, I enjoyed Squadron Supreme for that selfsame moral complexity. The violence and the ethical quandaries posed within its pages serve the story, rather than feeling like simple gimmicks to shock and jar the reader. The book was completely unlike anything like it on the shelves in 1985, and while it's perhaps not aged as well as it could have (the art style is a bit In-House at times, though still serviceable), the story stands as a testament to how the genre could be--and perhaps should be--challenged. Hyperion has a point with his ideals, but Nighthawk has one too, to say nothing of the individual members of the Squadron and their beliefs. Eventually it comes down to a final battle between the two groups, and while one side emerges victorious, it's a Pyrrhic victory at best. Unlike other stories told in this genre, this one has consequences that left both the world and its heroes changed.

Whether in an effort to see the foundations laid for Watchmen and Kingdom Come or just to enjoy an enjoyable superhero yarn with a bit more depth than the average fare of it's time, I'd advocate reading Squadron Supreme. It's a self-contained tale that's at once familiar for longtime comics fans but welcoming for the casual reader. Recommended.

Stac

Ps. 100 posts! Woo!

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

New posts delayed for the Xmas season.


I will return with my next review piece shortly, but for now I'm taking a much-needed break to spend time with family and enjoy the holiday season. Here's hoping that you and yours have a joyous solstice/holiday and a happy new year. Enjoy your upcoming turkey coma. . .or vegan turkey substitute coma. As long as you have fun. ^.^

Stac

ETA: Holy crap, my next post will be my 100th. No pressure there, none at all. . .eeek.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Somethin' very familiar about this. . .

Such a catchy tune. Where've I heard it before?

Hm. . .

Kiss Me Deadly: The Femme Noir Review.

Femme Noir: The Dark City Diaries
Writer: Christopher Mills
Artist: Joe Staton
Inks: Horacio Ottolini, Mark Stegbauer.
Colors: Melissa Kaercher, Matt Webb, Michael Watkins
Cover Art: Joe Staton & Alfredo Lopez Jr.
Published by Ape Entertainment

There's just something about the noir mystique that keeps drawing an audience; the rain-slicked streets, the double-crossing, the messy lives often leading to messy ends. The notion of angels with dirty halos walking down the mean streets doing their best to do right in a world that doesn't much give a damn is an appealing motif that endures as a backdrop to entertaining and engaging fiction. Some of the toughest characters in modern fiction have walked those grimy avenues dealing out their rough brand of justice; Sam Spade, Phillip Marlowe, Lew Archer, Mike Hammer. Tough characters all, but I doubt they've ever dealt with the kind of trouble the city of Port Nocturne can dish out. Oh, there's the usual amount of gangsters, guns, and murder that's par for the course in settings such as these. But in this troubled city, sometimes it's best to expect the unexpected, the eldritch, and the flat-out bizarre. While the aforementioned gentlemen are doubtless capable of dealing with the mundane, in a crooked city like this sometimes you need someone with a bit more finesse. In Port Nocturne the law may be corrupt but lady justice is quite alive. And justice is blonde.

No one quite knows who she is or where she came from, but on the corrupt streets of a city that could give a damn about whether good people live or die she's the one person who'll stand up for what's right. There are theories, of course. Is she Laurel Lye, intrepid reporter? Dahlia Blue, the enchanting nightclub chanteuse? Or Vanessa DeMilo, the bereaved mafia princess? In a city reeling from crime, corruption, and the twisted results of Science Run Amok, it pays to have a woman like the mysterious 'Femme Noir' on your side.

It's rare that there's a book that can straddle that fine line between noir pastiche and old-school pulp, but Femme Noir manages with a style and aplomb that's to be envied. Writer Christopher Mills has created a world where gangsters, robot crime lords, and jungle queens from monster islands can rub shoulders without detracting from the noir sensibilities of FN's world. The initial mystery of who this female vigilante is draws the reader in, but the adventures themselves are so entertaining on their own that I really didn't concern myself with who the protagonist truly was, only that she kicked ass and took the appropriate number of names.

Artist Joe Staton's work has been something I've come to recognize over the years, and his style works very well in bringing Mills' world to life. Staton's work has a flair that lends itself well to the 1930s-50s style era of the work that is fantastic enough to allow for giant monsters and lost civilizations as well as robotic gangsters, but whose realism in moments of sudden violence works to drive the reality of the dangerous situations our heroine faces home. It's a mix that really works for this setting and makes it highly enjoyable.

The trade itself collects the entirety of the original mini-series which introduced the character, as well as a couple bonus stories and a sketchbook. The foreword by Max Allan Collins (author of Road to Perdition as well as creator of the badass mystery heroine Ms. Tree) provides an entertaining introduction. The book is well put together, with chapter breaks that feel more like the posters for an old-time adventure serial than comic book covers.

I don't want to give too much away, as reading the trade is entertaining as all get-out, but what I will say is that this is a character that deserves an ongoing title, or at least a series of trades like this one. In an industry that seems to rate it's heroines less on how badass they are and more on how little they wear, Femme Noir is a welcome breath of fresh air. She's a lady who'll kick your ass five ways from Sunday, can shoot blazing, twin-pistol death with the likes of the Shadow or the Spider, and doesn't have to dress like the Phantom Lady to battle evil.

Just don't call her a dame.

Stac

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

After the Oceans Drank Atlantis: The Warlord Volume One Review.

DC Showcase Presents The Warlord Volume One
Written and Illustrated by Mike Grell
Published by DC Comics

Let's talk about the joy of faith rewarded for a moment.

Longtime readers of TCD may recall that my initial review of the recent relaunch of Mike Grell's sword and sorcery hero The Warlord met with a relatively lukewarm review. I didn't hate the book, but it had yet to wow me with the same intensity as I'd remembered from reading my cousin's comics so long ago in Ostrea Lake, Nova Scotia in the early '80s. Hearing that DC was going to be collecting Grell's run on the title into their affordable black and white Showcase volumes gave me some cause to hope, and I awaited it's release with eager anticipation. I plunked down my 23 bucks plus tax and took it home to my To Read pile atop my computer desk. And there it waited. . .

. . .and waited. . .

. . .and waited some more.

I was afraid. Afraid that--as with so many things in our lives--that time and experience would dull my enthusiasm for something that I'd loved so much as a kid. I put off reading it for as long as possible until my pile thinned out enough so that the iconic cover above was staring up at me every morning as I rose to check my e-mail. With no other option open to me, I warily picked up the tome and began to read, hoping against hope that the book would be as epic as I remembered. It wasn't the first time I've been wrong, and it won't be the last.

This book wasn't as epic as I remembered. It was even better.

It's more metal than an Iced Earth/DragonForce double-bill, and that my friends is pretty damned metal.

The premise is elegant in it's simplicity: in 1969 at the height of the Cold War, Lt. Colonel Travis Morgan of the United States Air Force is tapped to fly a reconnaissance mission in that hazy airspace between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. along the North Pole. He's spotted by those rascally Ruskies and his plane is damaged, sending him spiralling out of control. He manages to ditch at the last minute, his navigational instruments having gone haywire, and parachutes into a strange new world. A world of eternal sunlight, a world of ancient technologies that might as well be magic, and primitive beasts from epochs long past. I think the alternating tag lines of the series puts it best:

'From the sky he came, to a world of eternal sunlight and eternal savagery--Travis Morgan, a man with a lust for adventure and passion for freedom! As his fame spreads, so grows the legend of--THE WARLORD.'
And
'In the savage world of Skartaris, life is a constant struggle for survival. Here, beneath an unblinking orb of eternal sunlight, one simple law prevails: if you let your guard down for an instant, you will soon be very dead.'

If you ever wondered what a grindhouse sword and sorcery film would look like, look no further than Mike Grell's The Warlord. The storytelling engine is so simple and so elegant that the work and care that's gone into it might almost be lost. Grell's Skartaris is a world unto itself, a land where time stands still (quite literally, as Morgan finds himself back in his own world at one point to discover the year is now 1977. What have been days and weeks for him have been years for the rest of the Earth) and a variety of perils can be thrown at strong-thewed heroes with a lust for life and adventure. Grell's creation is the heir of heroes like John Carter and Eric John Stark, men from our world who've literally fallen down the rabbit hole into a world where their prowess in combat can be more asset than the liability it might prove in more 'civilized' surroundings. Here, life and death is decided by how quick you are with a sword, and sudden danger lurks around that next corner or over that jungle mesa.

Morgan is our protagonist, but he has a pretty solid supporting cast too. Tara, warrior-princess of Shamballah and the love of his life, Machiste the gladiator turned lieutenant in Morgan's crusade to overthrow the tyranny of his arch-nemesis Deimos(whom will get to momentarily), and Professor Mariah Romonova of Moscow University, an archaeologist and fencing champion who takes Morgan up on the chance to see history's savage past life in the flesh. . .which she tends to bare in an outfit that makes Red Sonja look like an extra in a Jane Austen novel. Grell has a talent for distributing equal measures of beef-and-cheesecake, as most everyone who fights to survive in the savage world of Skartaris does in fact tend to look like they stepped off the cover of Men's Fitness and the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Running from marauding dinosaurs, fighting blade to blade against bandits, and wrestling eldritch-spawned horrors amidst ancient ruins from the ancient past probably provides for good cardio and chiseled physiques. Maybe Grell could share the secrets of the Warlord's fitness regimen in the current series.

A good hero is nothing without a good villain, and with The Warlord as our stalwart protagonist Grell meets that challenge with the scheming mastermind Deimos. Replete with his ebony hair, pointed goatee, and wizard robes with flared collar, he is the quintessential evil sorcerer. Of course, as we learn over the series he isn't using actual magic so much as the ancient technologies of the first peoples of Skartaris, the survivors of Atlantis. With their super-science Deimos does his ample best to set himself up as the lord and master of all he surveys. It's just too bad Travis Morgan is always on-hand to topple his every scheme, even killing our villain fairly early in the series. Of course, you can never keep a good baddie down long, and Deimos proves to be just as unkillable as the Joker, and even more ruthless given his plots and schemes as the story progresses.

Mike Grell's artwork is a joy to behold; he clearly has a blast depicting Morgan cutting loose with sword and .44 pistol against dinosaurs, dragons, and assorted dastards. Unlike some other Showcase editions the artwork here is actually helped by black and white format, giving the reader an appreciation for the detail and frenetic energy Grell bring to his battle sequences. Grell's prose is lean and services the story in carrying things through from the jolting start of each issue to it's conclusion, usually tying things up with our heroes in triumph(though on occasion he delves into an epilogue that foreshadows storm clouds to come). These books are products of the late 1970s, where newsstand distribution was still king and each story had to work hard to provide a complete reading experience in and off itself. Threads are picked up over the course of the 29 issues contained herein, but this book is tight, lean, mean and refreshingly free of the decompression of more contemporary fare.

This book was everything I hoped it could be and more. If you want an enjoyably escapist read that's self-contained and doesn't require a degree in comics continuity I'd encourage you to seek out Showcase Presents The Warlord Volume One. It's a comic that takes the sword and sorcery genre in all it's ale-swigging, sword-slinging, vine-swinging glory and runs with it. A delight from start to finish, I recommend it as highly as I can.

Stac

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Dynamic Duo of Kandor: The Adventures of Nightwing and Flamebird Review.



Superman: The Adventures of Nightwing and Flamebird
Written by: Cary Bates, Paul Kupperberg
Inks by: Allen Milgrom, Romeo Tanghal


I love the Silver Age of Comics. The period encompassing the mid-1950s through the late 1960s is one of my favorite eras of the entire genre. Wertham's Seduction of the Innocent had led to the crackdown of the Comics Code, which put EC Comics and their various horror, crime, and suspense publications out of business. In the wake of the Code, DC Comics underwent a second renaissance under the editorial leadership of Julie Schwartz, who reintroduced Golden Age heroes like the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Atom with a science fiction spin in keeping with the UFO/Sci-Fi (an ugly term, but apt for the period) craze sweeping the nation. The Marvel Age of Comics, with it's heroes burdened with their own personal drama in addition to the perils common to the superheroic community, was just around the corner. DC's big three; Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, had been going strong since the 1930s, although by the dawn of the Silver Age their adventures had been running continuously for about twenty-odd years apiece, and it could be a struggle to keep the concepts fresh.


It was in the Silver Age that so much of Superman's rich mythology really locked into place; Krypton as Utopian paradise, the Fortress of Solitude, the Phantom Zone, Supergirl. . .and the Bottled City of Kandor. Truly one of the more bizarre (not Bizarro, we'll cover him another time) creations of the time, the city was once a thriving community on Superman's home planet of Krypton that had been shrunk down and placed in a bottle by the android villain brainiac as an addition to his growing collection of alien cultures. This spared the people of Kandor when Krypton exploded and one day Brainiac's marauding took him to Earth where he ran afoul of Superman, who managed to liberate Kandor from Brainiac's clutches and return them to his Fortress of Solitude. Unfortunately, while Superman could devise temporary ways to shrink himself down and enlarge the populace contained within, he could never find a lasting solution to their predicament. That was the supreme irony of the concept; there was an entire city of millions of Kryptonians alive and well. . .and stuck at mere inches in height.


With Kandor, Superman could visit Krypton, or at the very least a piece of it, which led to some interesting stories (the creation of the Superman Emergency Squad being one of them; a band of Kandorian heroes who would journey beyond the bottle where--while tiny--they still gained the full suite of superpowers common to Kryptonians under a yellow sun, clad in little red and blue uniforms to aid Superman should he ever need them). . .and the sheer insanity which I'm about to share with you. Submitted for your approval: Nightwing and Flamebird, the Batman and Robin of Kandor!


During a visit to Kandor, Superman and his pal Jimmy Olsen soon discover they're public enemy #1 due to a villain's plot, claiming Superman has kept the people of Kandor as 'pets' when he had the means to enlarge the city all along. On the run from the lynch mob, they seek sanctuary with a friend of Superman's father Jor-El, who doesn't believe the outlandish claims of the villain and shelters Superman and Jimmy while they plan their next move. Realizing he'll be captured the instant he steps outside in his brightly-colored Superman attire, and powerless beneath Kandor's simulated red sun, Kal-El decides to crib from his pal Bruce Wayne's playbook and creates the secret identities of Nightwing and Flamebird, two very. . .familiar caped crusaders based on two avian creatures native to Krypton. With the aid of some Batman-esque gadgets and Kandorian super-science (not the least of which are a pair of sweet rocket belts), Nightwing and Flamebird save the day, with Kal and Jimmy cleared of the false charges while saving the city from potential destruction.


It was an insanely goofy one-off story. . .but apparently it must've clicked with the reading audience, because every once in a while Nightwing and Flambird would return. The costumed identities were eventually inherited by Kal-El's cousin Van-Zee(who was practically Kal's twin. . .it's comicbooks people) and ex-Phantom Zone convict Ak-Var, who became the second pair of heroes to don domino mask and rocket belt to roam the streets of Kandor in the Nightmobile (seriously), battling Kandorian criminals and mad scientists and ensuring their city is safe for the law-abiding and the just. Throw in a secret base known as the Nightcave(yep), and you get a recipe for something very familiar. . .but something a bit unique as well. The stories collected in the Adventures of Nightwing and Flamebird are backup tales to the Superman comics of the 1970s, so more than ten years later the adventures of Kandor's dynamic duo were still entertaining readers.


By no means is this collection a reinvention of the genre a la Watchmen or Kingdom Come, but it is quite entertaining. There's just something so wonderfully absurd about seeing the Batman archetypes played with in the Superman universe, especially in the city of Kandor, which we see as futuristic and solemn, a place of high science, portentous announcements, and Marlon Brando. The art ranges from '50s art deco (Schaffenberger) to 1970s Neal Adams/Gil Kane hybrid (Rogers), but Kandor's Utopian look remains largely intact. Van-Zee and Ak-Var aren't quite Bruce Wayne or Dick Grayson, but a pair of heroes with some interesting quirks. Van is a scientist, husband, and father trying to ensure Kandor's continued safety while Ak-Var is an ex-con who's gotten a second chance at a better life and is determined not to squander it. The villains here aren't the grotesque carnival of Batman's rogues gallery, but rather mad scientists, monsters, and other assorted menaces that might plague such a science fiction setting. Brainiac makes a return appearance, and gradually an overarching plot develops in the form of a criminal mastermind known only as the Crime Lord, an evil genius gathering various Kryptonian relics who turns out to be. . .but that'd be telling, wouldn't it?


In a marketplace where each month seems to bring another 'Event'--that you absolutely must read now because things will never be the same again--The Adventures of Nightwing and Flamebird is a relic of a bygone era. A time when a backup feature only had 10-12 pages to entertain, and the creative teams made damn sure you left with your money's worth. The concept was absurd, but it's made to work so well that the occasional cheesiness (Nightcave? Really?) can be forgiven for the sake of a cracking fun adventure story. If a nit has to be picked, it's in the fact that the debut story for the concept isn't included in this collection, but is instead found in the Superman: The Bottle City of Kandor trade. Which is understandable, (it is one of the better Kandor-based stories) but still a bit of a letdown for those wanting the total NW&FB stories in one location.


Nightwing and Flamebird appear to be undergoing a third renaissance in the pages of Action Comics, with yet another character pair in the title role. For a simple, done-in-one anthology of fun Batman-esque tales with a Superman twist that's enjoyable for readers ages eight to eighty, you'd do well to give The Adventures of Nightwing and Flamebird a read. Recommended.



Stac

Monday, November 16, 2009

Doctor Who: The Waters of Mars review.


'Why are you telling me all this?'
'As consolation.'

Doctor Who is the best science fiction series on television. The renegade Time Lord and his TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimension In Space) have been travelling through the vortex for over 46 years now, and the series has accumulated hundreds of episodes worth of amazing adventures through time and space. Flat out it is my absolute favorite science fiction program, one I recommend wholeheartedly and without reservation. Yes, the older episodes do feature wobbly sets and aliens that look cobbled together from cardboard and aluminum foil, but there was such an insane fury to the show, a zest and bounce and sense of fun that helped it through the cheesiest of cheesy episodes during it's original tenure of 1963-1989. Put 'on hiatus'(a nice way of saying cancelled) in '89, the show would not return to the airwaves (with the exception of a Fox television movie in '98) until 2005.

Trying to explain the continuity of a show that's damn near 50 years old would be an exercise in pointless futility, so let's break it down to the essentials. The Doctor (the only name he's ever given, apart from the occasional alias of Dr. John Smith) is a Time Lord, the last of his race who fought a war throughout time and space from which he emerged as the sole survivor. He's an alien being with twin hearts, a phenomenal constitution (two hearts and the ability to undergo a regenerative process that makes him a completely new man. . .which has allowed the series to have had a total of ten--soon to be eleven--actors inhabit the title role), and an intelligence that'd put a skyscraper full of geniuses to shame. He roams through time and space, a wanderer and a vagabond who often travels with people from Earth, his favorite planet. His mode of transportation is the aforementioned TARDIS, a space-time machine from his home planet of Gallifrey that the Doctor 'borrowed' centuries ago to escape the Utopian tedium of his home planet so very long ago. The TARDIS is dimensionally transcendental (leading many to note in awe that it's bigger on the inside than it is on the outside) and--if in proper working order--would possess a chameleon circuit allowing it to blend in seamlessly with the surrounding countryside whenever it materialized from the depths of the space-time vortex. Unfortunately, the Doctor's ship isn't exactly in perfect working order, and after a time the circuit jammed and the TARDIS became stuck in the shape of a London police box from the 1950s(it's also a point of irony that for the most advanced piece of technology his enemies or companions will ever see, the Doctor's TARDIS is old and holding together with a combination of the Doctor's technical know-how, bailing wire, and liberal amounts of percussive maintenance). With this simple formula, what originally was intended as a children's program about history morphed into a science fiction saga that has enthralled millions.

David Tennant (perhaps best known to North American audiences for playing Barty Crouch Jr. in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) is nearing the end of his tenure as the 903 year-old protector of time and space, and they're bringing his era of Doctor Who to an end with four specials, The Waters of Mars being the second to last. The TARDIS lands on Mars in the year 2059, bringing the Doctor to Bowie Base One, the first human outpost on the red planet. Here he quickly finds himself entangled in a potential disaster. . .one that must become a certainty. You see, Bowie Base One was destroyed on November 21st, 2059. It's destruction a matter of historical fact. But as the body count rises and the clock counts down, can the Doctor stand idly by and let history take it's course, knowing that it means watching good people die?

The Waters of Mars is vintage Doctor Who, with the Doctor coming across an outpost or way station and becoming embroiled in the events there. The kicker is that this is one instance where his intervention is something that has to be avoided; this disaster must take place as it's a matter of recorded historical fact. How that fact endures with the Doctor's presence is one of many twists and turns through an enjoyable enough adventure, though to be fair I have to say it's not the series at it's absolute finest. The hidden enemy, the Flood, is effective enough in a scary sort of way, but it's not really developed all that well beyond a spooky method of vampiric transformation and some creepy visuals. The denouement leaves the viewer scratching his head as to whether a big explosion is really capable of taking out alien baddies comprised of water. . .I mean, it'd just be mutated alien water now, wouldn't it? It's effective enough in an Aliens sort of way, but Doctor Who villains work best if they offer a moral or intellectual challenge to the Doctor.

Now that said, the special was still a lot of fun, with Tennant turning in his usual enjoyable performance as the Doctor, albeit one laced with a bit of arrogant darkness that brings the viewer up short at the end. Lindsey Duncan plays Adelaide Brooke, commander of Bowie Base One and the Doctor's 'companion' for this adventure, and it's here that the importance of the companion as moral compass for the Doctor is illustrated nicely. Without someone to question him or provide some perspective, things could go very, very wrong. This episode gives us a nasty example of how even the best of intentions can lead down a very dark road.

Is it the best the series has ever produced? No, for that I'd have to offer Blink or Doomsday for the sheer creepiness or emotional devastation that comes with great Doctor Who episodes. This was good, very good indeed and while it's not the best Who I've ever seen it's certainly a lot more fun than some other shows out there where smiling is verboten and the concept of actually enjoying being in space, having adventures is considered a crime punishable by Angst. Recommended.

Stac

Ps. Sorry it's been so long but I'm neck deep in National Novel Writing Month. I'll post more regularly soon, promise.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

DUDE.

http://www.ironsky.net/site/

Watch the teaser. NOW.

Good God, the only thing that could make this any more amazing is if there was a division of gorilla troopers. With jetpacks.

I gotta siddown. . .

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

These things, I give them to you for free:

As I mentioned in a previous review, Red 5 Comics' Atomic Robo is joy. I encourage you to go to their site to show some love (or pick up the individual issues and previous trades in one fell swoop, as they're still available for order from finer comicbook stores everywhere. Like this one, say). It is bliss in purest form, and an example of just how amazingly entertaining and enjoyable a comicbook can truly be.

Yet I can understand that there may be some hesitation involved in committing to a series you've never heard about or really sampled in terms of flavor. So you know what? I'm such a swell guy I'm going to link you to Nuklear Power, where creators Brian Clevinger and Scott Wegener have done a free Atomic Robo story. Free! Who are you to resist free joy? Read it here.

You know I spoil you.

Stac, aka the Linkatic.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Online Theatre of the Mind.


As a child of the '80s I never got to be in on the ground floor for the golden age of radio. In my youth in Nova Scotia C100 FM would broadcast Theatre of the Mind, a weekly slot of time where they'd trot out old favorites like the Burns & Allen Show, Gunsmoke, and The Green Hornet. I used to sit by the radio for the entirety of that week's episode, riveted by a world that I couldn't see save with my own imagination.

For the past few months I've had the privilge to be part of the HG World online podcast, creating an audio drama about the fall of human civilization in the midst of the zombie apocalypse. Jay Smith's writing is out of this world and as we move through the prologue things are really heating up. I encourage anyone to check out HG World here. It's zombie horror in the best Romerian tradition. Even if I wasn't a company player, I'd be listening with rapt ears and vivid imagination painting a portrait of sheer and utter terror. Recommended most highly.


Stac

A shameless plug, but a plug worth making.

Anyone who wants a fun afternoon's read from a fan both knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the comicbook genre would do well to check out my brother Ryan's blog over at Fanboy Power Hour. He's currently doing reviews of the finds he's been making at the back issue bins of local comicbook shops and conventions in his own approachable and entertaining style. And while you're at it, why not click the link to his store, Red 5 Collectibles, purveyors of fine pop culture items at affordable prices? Ryan is that rarest and most precious of fan-vendors who not only loves this stuff with a passion and can discuss it with you for hours, but who genuinely wants to give you the best deal for your money. If you're tired of getting jerked around by nickel-and-dime stores that want to jack up the price of that piece of genre merchandise you've had your heart set on, talk to Ryan. He can and will do you a solid. Click the link on the right under The Sites to See for the store and its wares

Stac

Recommended Reads: The Life and Times of Savior 28

The Life and Times of Savior 28. Written by J.M. DeMatteis, Art by Mike Cavallaro. IDW Publishing.

'As much as I love superheroes, as much as I appreciate and understand the metaphoric power of the concept, I've always been uncomfortable with the violent content in superhero comics. Beneath all the big sci-fi ideas and character interplay and philosophical layering, these stories often--if not always--come down to two guys in costumes beating the living crap out of each other. I talk about this in terms of comics, but really it's what pop-culture storytelling is about: hero fights villain. Villain blows up. Audience cheers.' -J.M. DeMatteis

I love superheroes. As much as I may wander far afield in the realm of comicbooks, film, literature and all the other avenues and byways of popular culture, my feet will invariably lead me back to the spinner racks and shelves of my friendly neighborhood comicbook store for at least one or two books starring a heroic figure in bright colors punching a bad guy (preferably a brain in a jar attached to a robot/gorilla/gorilla-robot) in or around the face. My love of the superhero genre and it's conventions runs deep and I wouldn't have it any other way.

But for all that, I recognize that at it's core my entertainment medium of choice has a distinguishing characteristic, indeed much of my entertainment in general beyond the 22 pages of my favorite comics: violence. Superhero comics are pretty violent, usually involving the protagonist and antagonist (or most often in days of yore the book's protagonist and a heroic guest-star mistaking each other for a villain and wailing on each other unmerciful until the inevitable realization they must work together against a greater evil yadayadayada. . .) attacking each other with fists or assorted melee and ranged weapons. From the inception of the genre, superheroes have stepped outside the law and used violence and the threat of violence to impose their will upon the world. We're given a brightly colored world where Good is stalwart and true and Evil must be opposed, most often by beating it into the ground like a tent peg. It's the way things are in contemporary storytelling and the way it's always been. We like it neat and simple. But does it have to be that way? What if a superhero suddenly took a hard look at his world and the battles he'd been fighting and decided maybe--just maybe--a better way could be found?

The Life and Times of Savior 28 begins with James Smith, the eponymous hero of the book, engaged in a vicious battle with his evil doppelganger, Savior 13. The two are battling as superhumans are wont to do, but in this epic battle our hero accidentally hits his foe too hard at the wrong angle, slaying him. A feud that has lasted for decades is ended in a moment of brutality. Smith, a hero whose aging has been slowed thanks to his powers, also has to endure the loss of his longtime sweetheart to the ravages of time and old age. A bit less the moral paragon than his reputation (and personal mythology) would have others believe, James sinks into a drunken funk that only lifts. . .on September 12th, 2001. The loss of thousands in the wake of 9/11 leaves James bereft of purpose and crushed, but a revelation convinces him that perhaps all the world truly needs is a loving heart. Savior 28 returns to the world of costumes, ray guns, and epic battles as an advocate of peace. A peace activist at the height of George Bush presidency, a time when the nation was at it's most jingoistic. Needless to say, it doesn't go very well. In fact the story begins at its ending, with the world reeling in the wake of Savior 28's assassination at a peace rally. Our tale is told in flashback by Dennis McNulty, once the Daring Disciple, Savior's trusty sidekick. Now an older and bitter man, he recounts the rise and fall of his hero with a mixture of admiration and bile, compassion and candor.

The Life and Times of Savior 28 is a story that at once exults in the ideal of the superhero while at the same time condemning their methods. It's a grim tale at times, but ultimately it's final message is one of hope, of the notion that it's not the public acts of courage and daring that matter most but the quieter, less telegenic acts of generosity and compassion that ultimately win out. DeMatteis is a writer whose work on Captain America is a clear influence on his work with a character of his own creation (Savior's attempt to walk away from the violence of the superhero lifestyle and advocating of peace was originally planned for Cap), but Savior 28 represents the quintessential superhero as much as Steve Rogers. Perhaps moreso, for while James Smith is a heroic figure he's not without flaws; an embellisher of his own mythology, a liar, a bit of a cad with the ladies and more than a little hypocritical in his behavior, Savior 28 is a man of good intentions whose ego keeps tripping him up, hopeful that the grand gesture will be the one to make people naturally see things the right way. Namely his. Of course, people being who they are and in a world where simple truths can be spun in any direction, the story goes to some dark places. Places ably illustrated by the pen of Mike Cavallar, who provides the book with a feel that's at once timeless and timely, a book that has a slightly cartoony look that lowers our defences and provides just that more of a punch when the story goes for the gut.

'As sophisticated as our society can be, a part of us seems to crave this black and white vision of the world, where 'bad guys' get their comeuppance from 'good guys' and of course this isn't a new phenomenon, this goes all the way back to the ancient epics. Time and again violence is presented as a viable solution. In comics we've been doing it month after month, year after year, for seventy years. And as comicbook culture spreads out into the broader culture, we're now selling that mindset on a mass scale, in movies and television.' - J.M. DeMatteis.

The Life and Times of Savior 28 is a work that challenges a lot of preconceived notions about the superhero genre, about our entertainment in general, and the violence it entails which we take in without oftentimes fully realizing it. It's entertaining but also enlightening. Highly Recommended.

Stac

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Recommended Reads #1, Part Two: Faster, More Intense.

Two columns in a row? I spoil you, you know. As I said the last time we met here in the Canadian Defender Bistro and Cafe, we'd be discussing fun comics that entertain but are free of baggage to allow the casual reader the chance to get on board without need of 10-20 years of previous backstory. Without further ado, let's get cracking on the next wave of recommended reads:

Adventure Comics #1-2. Writer: Geoff Johns Artist: Francis Manapul Published by DC Comics


Growing up is tough, and never moreso when you're a teenager. Questions of identity become paramount as we make that passage from youth into adulthood; are we are who we are because of our experiences, or are we predisposed from our upbringing and background to be a certain way no matter what we do? That's the quandry faced by Connor Kent, aka Superboy II in this latest incarnation of Adventure Comics.

Connor is the clone of Clark Kent, and was one of the four potential 'replacements' (like it would've actually happened) for the Man of Steel during the brief period in the '90s when he was slain by the monster Doomsday. He had a series of adventures from the '90s to the present, but this book is a clean slate so detailed knowledge of the character's backstory isn't essential. Becoming part of the Kent family, Conner is living with Martha Kent and attending high school in Clark's old stomping grounds of Smallville and attempting to reorient himself to better attempt to follow in the footsteps of his older 'brother'(or father, depending on how you look at it). Connor's life is further complicated by the knowledge that he's not only Superman's clone. . .but also Lex Luthor's.

That's right Smallville fans; Lex Luthor and Clark Kent had a son. Doesn't look a thing like Tom Welling or Michael Rosenbaum though. Odd that.

The book has just gotten off the ground and is in that process of establishing itself, much like the pilot and early episodes of a television show. Added to that is the backup story (oh, sorry, 'co-feature') chronicling the adventures of Superman's childhood pals The Legion of Super-Heroes, now all grown-up. Superboy's story is about identity and finding your own way either by emulating (or evading) the example of those who've gone before, while the Legion stories seem to be moving toward more traditional adventure fare.

I'm not going to lie to you, I'm playing a bit fast and loose with my rule to avoid that dreaded c-word (continuity!) with this offering, but in my defense I don't find Adventure to be all that daunting to the prospective new reader. If I had to break it down, I'd say: 'The Adventures of Superman's Younger Brother' and 'Space Opera Meets Superheroes'. Both stories within the book show much promise. Geoff Johns is a writer whose work I am informed I will adore (though his activities with dead heroes acting like asshats and ripping hearts out of their friends' chests doesn't sit right with me. . .lookin' right at you Blackest Night. Keep right on walkin'. . .) and I have to say he doesn't disappoint here. Francis Manapul's art just evokes a Neo-Rockwell sensibility that adds depth and character to Superman's old stomping grounds and making that mythical American heartland look timeless. Of course, any book that features my favorite super-character (next to the man himself) is going to get the nod from me. Who, you ask? I will do nothing to give it away, save to say that you will believe a dog can fly. Oh, and be completely awesome.

The Legion story has a bit less going for it, but at its core its about young heroes from the future doing their best to get things back on track after a severely dystopian turn of events in their normally utopian future, so I'm willing to give it time to win me over completely. It is the Legion after all, and my love of them is something I make no effort to hide. Recommended.

Atomic Robo: Shadow From Beyond Time #1-5. Written by Brian Clevinger, art by Scott Wegener. Published by Red 5 Comics.

Atomic Robo is joy in its purest form. I can offer no praise higher, no accolades loftier without sounding hopelessly gushing but the fact stands regardless. Simply put, Clevinger and Wegener's robotic adventurer is one of the most entertaining and outright fun creations of the 21st century and I will roshambo anyone to dare speak otherwise. The book has been released as a series of mini-series, with Shadow From Beyond Time being the latest (and to my mind finest) installment.

Let me describe it as best I can in the clearest of terms: Atomic Robo is a robot created by Nikolai Tesla in 1923 who has become head of Tesladyne, a premier scientific thinktank known the world over for dealing with problems that veer toward the--shall we say--exotic end of things. These guys aren't so much about the boring conferences or guest lectures at high schools as they are about dealing with invasions by giant ants, runaway pyramids, and the brains of Nazi supergeniuses in robotic bodies and their hordes of cybernetic minions.

Shadow From Beyond Time features the intrepid Robo coming up against a creature of eldritch origin and malicious intent, a being that exists outside of conventional space and time as we know it. It had been defeated previously by Tesla and Charles Fort in 1908, but the beast has returned (and will return, as the book jumps from the '20s to the '50s to the '70s to the present day) always coming up against Robo and Tesladyne. Can Robo come up with a means to finally thwart this vile abomination once and for all?

Funny, exciting, and clever as all get-out Atomic Robo is a book you need to be reading. Clevinger's dialogue and scenarios mixed with Wegener's cartoony and crisp art make Robo feel like the most awesome Saturday Morning cartoon that never was. Let me put it to you in my Greater Atomic Robo Equation:

Buckaroo Banzai + Robocop + Indiana Jones + Men in Black + G.I.JOE + Ghostbusters = Atomic Robo.

If any of those elements might appeal, then you owe it to yourself to give this comic a try. The first two series are collected in trade (Atomic Robo and the Fightin' Scientists of Tesladyne comprises volume one with Atomic Robo and the Dogs of War containing the second storyline) and I urge you to seek them out. Highly, highly recommended.

The hour grows late, and I'd best depart to get some semblance of sleep. Join me next time for our thrilling, concluding piece for Recommended Reads. Same Bat-time, same Bat-channel!

Stac

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Recomended Reads #1: In which the author brings awesome to the attention of the discerning reader.

There's no doubt it my mind that now--at this very moment in time--there has never been a better opportunity for potential fans of the genre to get on board with comics. Whatever your particular fancy or flavor, I practically guarantee there's a book out there for you. If nothing else comes of the Recommended Reading pieces I plan on making a (hopefully) weekly feature around these parts, I want to make abundantly clear to you from the outset that comics are frickin' amazing, and if you want in on the ground floor I will do my damnedest to offer you reads that not only do not require an encyclopedic knowledge of certain character's minutiae, but are accessible and fun reads for both the longtime fan and the casual reader. My style will be a little off the cuff and informal (but then again, if you were expecting formality at a site where getting the collected Kirby Devil Dinosaur are referenced and rejoiced. . .well. . .), but hopefully will be informative and enjoyable enough to pique your curiosity and get you down to your friendly neighborhood comics shop for a look-see. So without further ado, let's dig into the recommended for this week:

Devil's Due Press' Barack The Barbarian #1 and 2. Writer: Larry Hama, Artist Christopher Schons:


I know, I know, I know. . .the American President's image in the media has taken a somewhat-shall we say-messianic tone, and after the whole Spider-Man cover debacle from Marvel a while back it seemed to become fashionable for comicbook companies to take the President's likeness and slap it on the cover of their book du jour to promote sales. Add to that the revelation that Mr. Obama was a comicbook reader in his youth with a fondness for both Spider-Man and Conan the Barbarian and well. . .wheels were bound to turn.

Barack the Barbarian is a strangely recognizable story chronicling the rise of Barack of Shikhago, warrior, deal-maker, slayer of monsters, who roams the fabled republic of Merika in search of the fabled treasure of stimuli. His wanderings bring him to the decadent city of Warshingtun, where in the shadow of the ruins of the great Emancipator's temple he forges an alliance with the Valkyrie matriarch Hilaria to work to overthrow the despot Boosh and his wicked Vizier. . .will Barrack find the fabled stimuli, or will the Old Warrior and Red Sarah beat him to it?

I'm not going to attempt to persuade you that this book is a modern classic of the genre, but as a parody comic/sword and sorcery tale it is a lot of fun. As we make our way through the story we learn that this is the tale being told to children during the Ice Age of our contemporary time, in which some things may have been a bit. . .distorted in the telling. Hama is a longtime writer of Marvel Comics (and virtually built the G.I.Joe franchise as it existed in the '80s from the ground up) so he's a deft hand at telling a story that is at once a series of groanworthy puns and a fun adventure romp all at once. Christopher Schons is a capable artist whose work is just cartoony enough to make the conceit of this being a tale told to small children fly while also evoking the classic Marvel Conan comics of yore. Is it a classic? No. Will it be remembered in a year and a half? Probably not. But as funny, goofy entertainment goes you could do far worse. Recommended.


IDW Publishing's Ghostbusters: Displaced Aggression #1. Writer: Scott Lobdell. Artist: Illias Kyriazis.


Tie-in comics are dicey, dicey prospects for the average reader. On the one hand they can provide a welcome dose of comforting familiarity when navigating the peaks and valleys of the average comics shop. On the other hand, tie-ins sometimes follow their source material a little too slavishly, becoming lost in their franchise's canon to the point where the average reader wonders why they even bother. The happy medium is the media tie-in book that's familiar enough to bring a casual reader into the fold, but also fresh enough to entertain the longtime reader who's seen it all with a new wrinkle on the franchise's familiar themes. With that said I'm happy to say that Ghostbusters: Displaced Aggression is exactly that. If all you know of the Ghostbusters lore is the feature films, you won't be lost at all. In fact, I'd call DA a far more fitting sequel to the 1984 classic than that other film which had a similar title followed by the number 2.

The book opens in the Old West with a stagecoach beset upon by outlaws. Before you can wonder if you've perhaps picked up a copy of Jonah Hex by mistake, we're treated to the sight of a pack of ghostly desperadoes about to plunder the stage for the only commodities they're after; the souls of the living. Just when things seem their bleakest, an oddly familiar figure with a snarky sense of humor and a steampunk-styled particle accelerator proceeds to lay some western smackdown with plenty of Murrayian panache. Over the course of the issue we learn that one Dr. Peter Venkman has been living in the 19th century for a few months, shortly after he and his fellow Ghostbusters had a massive battle with an eldritch entity named Koza'Rai. Remember the first Ghostbusters big bad, the Cthulian entity know as Gozer the Gozerian? Gozer the Traveller, who will come in one of the prechosen forms? The being that manifested as a one hundred foot-tall marshmallow man and nearly laid waste to the Earth? That guy? Yeah, this is his dad. And daddy's pissed. Realizing the boys in gray wouldn't roll over even if he killed them, he scattered the four heroes to the far corners of the time stream, clearing the way for his conquest of the present (or the future, given our protagonist's current point of reference). Over the course of the issue we're treated to everything from the West's version of our favorite paranormal elimination franchise to a bit of Zemeckis-style chicanery that gets the good doctor on the road and on his way to recovering his friends.

This book was a pleasant surprise and a helluva lot of fun to read. It's got a bounce and a pep to it that amuses, and the teaser imagery for the next issue(and the once and future 'buster it features) had me grinning from ear to ear. Lobdell has an ear for dialogue that just brings to mind the tones of Murray or Lorenzo Music, and Kyriazis' art has a style that lends itself well to Western, Horror, and Science Fiction all at once. If you're looking for a dose of old-school Ghostbusters fun, you'd do well to give your local shop a call for Displaced Aggression. Definitely Recommended.

DC Comics R.E.B.E.L.S. #1-8 Writer: Tony Bedard. Artist: Andy Clarke.

Hmm. . .how best to introduce the awesomeness of R.E.B.E.L.S. to the casual reader without bringing up that dreaded c-word (continuity!) and driving them off. . .all right, how's this for a tag line:

'It's Battlestar Galactica by way of Invasion of the Bodysnatchers mixed with Superman II-level superhuman mayhem amidst an intergalactic backdrop in which our only hope is a hyper-intelligent tyrannical monster. Think Doctor House with the scruples of Lex Luthor.'

That'd be how I'd pitch R.E.B.E.L.S. Vril Dox is a super-genius and utter bastard who (up until a very short time ago) was head of an organization called L.E.G.I.O.N. (Licensed Extra-Governmental Interstellar Operatives Network), a planetary scale security and peacekeeping group that planets paid into to maintain law and order. Unfortunately a rather pesky problem with an overwhelmingly powerful alien invasion force of parasitic aliens from another galaxy has put a bit of a crimp in Dox's normally orderly and powerful lifestyle and he's been forced to go on the lam with a group of ragtag misfits that he's managed to A)Cajole, B) Strongarm, C) Kidnap or D)all of the above in an effort to save the galaxy from the menace of the star conquerors.

This book is a treat, and so wonderfully self-contained that you don't need reams of comics data to understand what's happening. It plays like a classic space opera. . .whose protagonist manages to be just slightly better than the evil he's fighting. Just. But he does it in such a wonderfully snarky, overbearing way that you can't help but love him. R.E.B.E.L.S. is the SF comic you should be reading. Recommended.

That's all for right now. Tune in tomorrow when I bring you Recommended Reads #1, Round Two.

Stac

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Wherever there's trouble: The G.I. JOE review.

"G.I. Joe is the code name for America's daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world."

G.I. JOE is yet another example of what I like to call a 'six-step' movie. You will no sooner have left the theatre and taken six steps toward your car when the combined stupid of what you've just watched will take the creaking structure that had suspended your disbelief for the last hour and a half and send it clattering to the ground in a broken mass of rubble. It is a film that does have some enjoyable bits of business to it and when it's firing on all cylinders it's an amazingly fun dumb action flick. In the end though the things that irked and didn't work edged out the things I did like to the point where I can't say it'll be on my list of repeat viewings, nor will I be clamoring for the DVD. Let's get down into the nuts and bolts of Stephen Sommers latest popcorn flick and talk about what worked and what didn't. Spoilers ahoy for those who've yet to see it:

THE GOOD:
The visual aesthetic: The film certainly looks impressive, and does have several eye-catching set pieces (G.I. Joe HQ, the Cobra Stronghold, the Baroness' estate). The film leaps all over the world and if nothing else the movie gives you a truly worldwide battle against the forces of evil, with deserts to cities to arctic ice as the backdrop. I can't fault the film for not looking impressive. Stephen Sommers is an old hand at the globetrotting adventure schtick from his Mummy films, and we're served in good stead with some amazing location work, even if most of it is replicated on a soundstage somewhere.

Ray Parks as Snake-Eyes and Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow: Admit it: deep down these two were the sole reason any of us wanted to see this film. Yeah, the other Joes are cool enough, and yes the Baroness is as smoking hot as the brief glimpses of her have tantalized at, but c'mon. There's a reason that this former kids show had ninjas on the good and bad sides. Because one ninja fighting soldiers? Cool. Two uberninjas fighting each other? Epic. Parks and Lee bring their martial-arts A-game to the film and they really do liven things up in a film where you'd be more inclined to tug at the dangling plot threads and wonder 'hey waitaminute, this movie kinda suc-NINJAS! KEWL!!' The martial arts both warriors exhibit is damned awesome, and makes for an entertaining series of fight sequences, however ultimately brief they were. Both are equally badass in their own way, and their hard work makes this movie almost passable. Almost.

Sienna Miller as the Baroness: Hot. So very, very, very, very, very, very hot. Let's face it, after Princess Leia and the Gold Bikini, Cobra's own femme fatale the Baroness has to stand as one of the all-time fanboy/nerd crushes. I can't speak for everyone else but there's just something about a kickass woman in glasses (sexy Euro accent optional) that melts me like butter. Sadly there's no accent here, but Sienna Miller does fill the Baroness's boots (to say nothing of the rest of that wonderfully silhouette-friendly leather outfit) with some style and aplomb, kicking ass and taking names. My major gripe comes in the form of her characterization but we'll get to that later on. If nothing else, she looks awesome and kicks some ass.

Dennis Quaid as General Hawk: I've liked Dennis Quaid ever since I first saw him as Tuck Pendleton in Joe Dante's awesome adventure/comedy Innerspace, so it's always great to have him show up in a genre popcorn flick. Sadly he's stuck in the role of the 'Older Mentor/Badass who will be disabled by the third act so the Young Turk Hero can step up and save the day', but what little he does have to do here makes me want more in a sci-fi action hero vain from him. Kristopher Straub, creator of the webcomic Starslip Crisis raised the intriguing point that Quaid is exactly the right age to play an older but still believable Indiana Jones and I for one could see it. He's got the grizzled features, the same wry grin. I say slap a fedora on him and let Harrison Ford collect his gold watch.

Marlon Wayans as Ripcord: Hold it, hold it, hoooooolllllld it. A Wayans brother acting in a film in such a way that I don't want to gouge my own eyes out? I know, I'm as shocked as you are. Wayans' character is actually pretty fun, being the Wiseass Sidekick, and he has a good rapport with the Channing Tatum's Duke (in point of fact I think it's the scenes with him that allow us to see the few glimpses of actual personality Tatum brings to the character). Wayans' comedic bits cut some of the tension and help keep the movie. . .well, not grounded per se but at least allow us to chuckle a bit at the sheer implausibility of it all. The scene where he comforts Scarlett (Rachel Nichols) shows some nice interplay between the two characters, and while I never quite bought the Obvious Romantic Subplot between the two, his character does a lot to make these walking action figures just a bit more human.

All right, now that we've gotten the few bright spots in the film out of the way, let's take a bracing breath of air and dive together in the stygian blackess of the abyss, shall we?

THE BAD:
You cannot server two masters: G.I. JOE was hobbled by it's attempts to try and be both a kids movie and a movie for the adult who might've been fond of the cartoon. You either make it a straight-up kids flick in the brightly colored costumes and the laser bolts, or you make it contemporary and badass with bullets flying and people getting the crap kicked out of them as people most assuredly do in war. Yes, the anonymous mooks get killed by the handful and yes, Duke and Ripcord's squad gets blown to hell, but none of the key players gets truly dealt a death blow, and the people who do suffer the consequences (who aren't General Hawk) we never hear about or from again. The basic message the movie seems to convey is that war and combat can be truly horrific but if you're one of the Main Cast you'll be fine. Ah well, worked for Luke Skywalker and Company I suppose, but at least the tone of A New Hope lays it out from the get-go. G.I. JOE never commits to whether it wants to be a a serious action film or a kid-friendly toy vehicle, and that wobble in tone can be felt throughout the entirety of the piece.

For the love of God, stop explaining everything:
Look, I know a certain amount of exposition is required in the first film of a potential franchise but for the love of all things good and merciful stop expositing over things that don't really need to be explained. Say, didja want to know where Destro got his mask? Didja wanna know why Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes hate each other? Didja want to know that Duke knew Cobra Commander (oops, I mean, 'The Doctor') before they became enemies, and that he was the one who called Duke a 'Real American Hero'? Didja? Didja? C'mon, didja?! Well too bad, 'cause we're going to explain it all anyway! Every 'i' dotted and 't' crossed! Who needs to build an engaging mystery or just have an opponent we never truly get to know when we can hammer home plot point and backstory via flashback again and again and again! Guhhh. . .it's like the writers (Stuart Beattie, David Elliot and Paul Lovett) were just throwing story ideas back and forth while they were playing on a ps3. Exposition is great and character motivation is fine, but this is G.I. JOE for God's sake. I don't need to know where Cobra Commander went to high school, or what his real name was, because Cobra Commander is just an evil anonymous badass. Does he have the HISS tanks? Is the Weather Machine there? Does he have Storm Shadow to fight Snake Eyes? Then I'm set, thanks. Really. Just roll the film and get to the action, rather than giving me flashback after flashback to pad out two hours with.

Enough with the black spandex already:
Seriously. Stop it. Yes, Bryan Singer made it look cool in X-Men but that does not mean you have to keep doing it over and over. The G.I. JOE outfits the heroes wore never looked that implausible, and at the very least some individuality amongst the uniforms would've allowed them to actually, y'know, have some character, rather than have them all really be plastic action figures. I mean, seriously, swap out a couple lines of dialogue from the script that don't feature names and see if you can tell who's talking on the Joe end of things. I have a crisp, clean $5 bill for anyone who can pull that off. The black spandex costume is just a way of trying to wear growed-up pants when they are so very, very unnecessary. I know you wanted to make it look badass and kewl, but when the team looks less like the G.I. JOE of yore and more like--say--Team America, World Police. . .well, that pretty much speaks for itself.
(Speaking of a better movie, which Team America is, does anyone think the destruction of the Effiel Tower was a shout-out to Matt & Trey from Sommers? Because let's face it, JOE is Team America if they played it deadly serious.)

Baffling, baffling character links:
The Baroness was Duke's girlfriend and Cobra Commander's (whoops, 'The Doctor'. Oh, and how funny was it to have Christopher Eccleston calling the kid from Third Rock 'Doctor'? I think I was the only one snickering a fanboy's knowing snicker) brother? Oh, and she turns around to the side of good because her love for Duke burns away the Evil Nanites That Make You Evil, the film's MacGuffin to explain the fanatical loyalty of Cobra troops (they're a mercenary arm of McCullen's operation and not terrorists. Oh no, no no. G.I. JOE fighting terrorists? No. . .) and gives them a chance at love, even though she's quite rightly locked away for killing like a bazillion people. But true love will conquer all!
(These writers need to be beaten with Syd Fields copy of Screenplay and The Best of Larry Hama G.I. JOE trade paperback until they scream for mercy and swear they'll never do it again)

Duke, where's my jet pack:
Not one jetpack in your movie. Seriously? A movie with G.I. JOE, with Duke no less, whose classic toy was packaged with one, and he doesn't get a jet pack or an American flag? Stephen, I'm sampling this movie's sauce. . .and it's weak sir. So very, very weak. I go to the movies for two primary things; lightsabers and jetpacks. With Lucas out of the cinematic game I made my peace with a permanent lightsaber defecit but a G.I. JOE movie with no freaking jetpacks?! Damn you sir. Damn you to hell(and no, that glider wing thing doesn't count. Jet. Pack. Pack, with jets).

Okay, so maybe that last one was a bit facetious, but let's face it; G.I. JOE is good, but nothing to write home about. I can see what they were trying to shoot for, but the actual product lacks the energy and gung-ho (heh) energy of the original cartoon. If they make a sequel let's hope they'll tend to take themselves a bit less seriously, and to learn not to use the term 'Joe' as a verb.

Until next time, YOOOOO JOE!
Stac


Monday, August 17, 2009

Superhero tropes I love: The Legion of Super-Heroes.


Not so much a trope as it is a group and a title, but as concepts went in the grand scheme of things the Legion of Super-Heroes has to rate up there with the best of them. Kids like superheroes, and they like superhero teams, so what could be finer than a book featuring a superhero team comprised of kids? In fact, more than a team, the Legion was a club for young heroes, a group where they could get together and not only use their magnificent abilities for the betterment of the United Planets, but they could meet and do that which teenagers do so well; angst it up in the best emo tradition!

Okay, okay, I'm kidding obviously. But in all seriousness I have a lot of love for the classic 1980s Paul Levitz Pre-Crisis LSH. They were getting older, the enemies they were facing were getting formidable, and it was time when a guy could rock a beard and be in his mid-twenties and still be called 'Star Boy'. It also featured one of my favorite concepts; that of Superboy being a member of the Legion and time-travelling from the past to the 30th century to join in their exploits. While I take issue with some of the things Geoff Johns has done with Superman of late (following the Donner films a smidge too slavishly for one) on the whole he's gotten a lot of things right and no better instance of this exists than in the opening of the Superman and The Legion of Super-Heroes story wherein Clark meets people who are like him. Kids like him with powers. And they have a club, a place where he can belong. That's the core of the Legion to me. It's a place where you can belong, and I think that underlying theme explains the enduring love fans have for the book, that's allowed it to survive reboot after reboot and still gather fans despite continuity snarls and backstory problems that make even the hardest of the hardcore fanboys reach for the asprin. They've been kids, they've been grownups, they've even been cartoons but at the core of it all the Legion is a family. Sometimes a highly dysfunctional one, but that sense of belonging and community with it's upbeat utopian message that maybe we will make it after all makes the book for me.
The Legion's latest comicbook incarnation came to a close recently and it's now been relegated to a backup story (I'm sorry 'co-feature') with the current Connor Kent/Kon-El Superboy in the pages of Adventure Comics (fitting since that's where the Legion debuted in the first place). But it wouldn't surprise me if those teens from the future returned yet again. They're nothing if not tencacious.


Long live the Legion!

Stac
Ps. If I had my druthers and any juice in the comicbook industry I'd have Christopher Bird take a crack at writing the Legion. His 'Why I should Write The Legion' posts over on his blog are nothing less than pure awesome. Check them out here.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Glee.

My brother purchased the Devil Dinosaur Omnibus for me from Marvel. Sometimes a picture encapsulates my reaction far better than my tawdry scribbling ever could.

Oh, the art is by Tom Beland, whose site you should visit and whose autobiographical True Story, Swear to God is from all accounts wicked awesome. Link here: http://www.tombeland.com/tb.asp

Stac