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.


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. ^.^


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.


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.'
'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.


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.