Sunday, March 29, 2009

Off to the Emerald City.

Hi guys,

It's been a smidge quietier around here than I'd like, but I'll have to beg your indulgence. I'm currently on a much-needed vacation in Seattle, and the schedule of reviews/assorted pop culture ramblings will pick up again on or around April 7th.

This will be my second visit to one of the west coast's larger-yet-still-reasonably-sane comic conventions, the Emerald City Comic Con. The programming looks to be enjoyable and I remember having a blast last year wandering the convention floor and just geeking out in general. I'll be taking my notebook with me and will do my best to document as much of the convention that strikes me as I can. It might get a little stream of consciousness but we'll see how it goes.

Best to all you knuckleheads,

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Do we really need a label?

I won't waste much of your time going over the recent debacle involving the American Sci-Fi network's recent decision to rename themselves 'SyFy'. Much has already been made of it in the online pop culture circles and I'd only be treading a well-worn path by this point.

It did get me thinking though about this near-constant need on the behalf of the media to label those who fall outside the defined normalcy of beer/sports/infotainment that works for the vast majority of the population. And please understand me when I say this is not meant as a slight against those people. You're havin' fun doing your thing baby, I got nothing against you, we're totally cool from where I'm sitting.

I don't watch Sci-Fi (as a Canadian we enjoy our home and native Space: The Imagination Station), but I was aware of them via their website and its online presence. The decision to change their name comes as the final death knell of an original network with some original ideas. Where once roamed cool shows like Sci-Fi Buzz and the Anti-Gravity Room, now comes professional wrestling and the cinematic masterpieces of the fine caliber of Boa Vs. Python II. So they're hardly the beating heart of geekdom. Still, their decision is telling as they attempt to distance themselves from the market that made them what they are, it seems an attempt to 'Spike' their network and make it more appealing to the mainstream.

It strikes me as an example of a larger issue that's been touched on before, this knee-jerk societal mental branding that comes from being different to what others accept as 'normal'. This doesn't make sense to me. Why can't people just relax and both enjoy what they gravitate toward while leaving others to their particular entertainment of choice? Whether its a guy painting himself blue and going to an Oilers game or someone dressing in period costume and doing some LARPing, it's all the same thing really. Of course given the choice between sitting passively and watching a hockey game or donning a cloak, viking helm, and grabbing a foam warhammer to become Vladimir the dwarven trollslayer. . .I think you know where I'd tend to fall.

FOR GLORY!!!!!!!!!

. . .ahem.

This strange and subconscious need on the part of people to label others and place them somewhere in a nonexistant, often nonsensical heirarchy fascinates me. Is it a holdover from our more tribal days? Is it just a product of societal pressure and a need to find peers? Is it assinine and largely redundant? I think only the last has a clear and definitive answer, though I find the others fascinating.


More on Moore: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

Someone once wrote that the supreme virtue in all things is simplicity. My own take on it would be that simplicity is nice, but sometimes a deceptively simple idea can provide unexpected depth.

The central premise to The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is one that fits the above criteria like a glove. What if the greatest heroes of 19th century British fiction had been brought together to fight in common cause? Up until it's initial publication I think you'd be hard pressed to find such an idea in print. Fred Saberhagen did something similar in having two famous Victorians cross paths in his enjoyable novel The Holmes-Dracula File, but in comics I don't think we'd ever really seen the like. Oh sure, Batman once met Sherlock Holmes but that was in a contemporary setting, a cameo appearance in an anniversary issue of Detective Comics that worked to pass the torch from the previous 'World's Greatest Detective' to his modern heir.
League is a very different story, and over the course of it's initial three volumes the story shifts and changes to become something quite different. Within the first volume the premise sells the story; A gentleman by the name of Campion Bond (clearly a paunchy, officious ancestor to a more famed secret agent), has Mina Murray (of Dracula fame) assemble a band of unlikely champions to obtain a stolen piece of scientific equipment from an evil mastermind with the fate of England and the Empire in the balance. The intrepid band consists of Allan Quartermain (hero of King Solomon's Mines), Captain Nemo(20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), Doctor Henry Jekyll(and his alter ego, the brute Edward Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson's novel), and Hawley Griffin, the Invisible Man (of H.G. Wells' eponymous novel). Together they square off against the fiendish ruler of Limehouse at the behest of their patron, the mysterious individual known only as M.

This first volume of League served as the basis for the film LXG, and if you've seen that film you have a rough idea of the characters in question and their ultimate adversary, but by no means think that knowledge of the film gives you knowledge of the work in question. LXG is an extremely watered down, gutted, and restructured version of the League comic, with only the characters remaining included (albeit with the addition of Tom Sawyer to appeal to American audiences). Even then liberties are taken in the extreme, particularly with the placement of Tom Sawyer. The casting of Sean Connery as Quartermain remolds the character into a traditional badass role, whereas in the book the dynamic action and leadership role is filled by Mina Murray. Mina in the comic is not a vampire, but rather an independent divorcee and a woman whose virtue had been assaulted, both serious social black marks to the prudish society of 19th century England. Quartermain in the comic is a man who until recently had crawled into an opium den and was proceeding to stone himself into a narcotic oblivion, he's not the grizzled warrior of the Connery version and proves to be very keen on avoiding violence and preserving his safety until there's no other choice. By making Connery's Quartermain the central focus of the LXG league, the film loses the flavor of the original work. To say nothing of their portrayal of the Invisible Man. Moore keeps to the character of the original novel, implying a double had been stomped to death and that the original, quite insane Griffin of the novel is indeed alive and well. The Invisible Man of the comics is creepy and not at all likable, a far cry from the cheeky cockney thief of the film. About the only things the film got right were the visual aesthetic of Nemo, Jekyll and Hyde, but even then there are flaws. I could go on, but you get the idea. If you've only ever experienced the League through the film LXG, you owe it to yourself to check out the comic.

Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill clearly had a blast in creating the world of League, so much so that they came back for two additional volumes with a fourth on the way. What's fun to watch about the League books is the growing enthusiasm Moore has for the material. O'Neill's art is amazing stuff, almost feeling like it could conceivably been art from the period while at the same time having a contemporary energy that makes it leap off the page, particularly in his action sequences.

Volume One is just what it sets out to be, a fun adventure romp with a mess of references and sly nudges at English fiction. The sequel is even teased at, as explosions on the surface of Mars lead to the League's second great trial; the invasion of England by aliens as chronicled in Wells' War of the Worlds. The second volume's adventure itself is also fairly straightforward while immensely entertaining, so I won't ruin it for the prospective new reader. What I will say is that the backup feature to the main story hints at what is to come in Moore's next installment. The New Traveller's Almanac purports to be an Atlas of the world of the League, which one comes to realize as you read the work that it is literally the world of fiction itself. Everything is referred to here; from Camelot's ruins to Lilliput to Wonderland to Lovecraft's Arkham and the Mountains of Madness. Every piece of classic fiction that can be referenced, detailed, and stitched in as part of League's tapestry is made to fit with an exuberance and an attention to detail that is at once impressive and daunting. I'm uncertain as to whether he references everything in Western literature but it's damn near.

It's with the third volume that the series goes completely mad, and the series becomes as much about the nature of fiction as it does an adventure story proper. With Black Dossier, the storyline jumps to the 1950s, with the recently deposed Big Brother government (Orwell's own 1984 having come a bit earlier in the universe of the League)making way for the more traditional government of MI6 and secret agents of the Crown more along the lines of Campion's young nephew Jimmy(yeah, it's him. Moore and O'Neill can't outright say it but you know it is). Mina Murray and Alan Quartermain are presumed dead, along with the rest of the original 1898 League, but if that's the case who's after the Black Dossier, a compendium on the League since its earliest incarnation in the court of Queen Elizabeth? What are the hidden secrets it contains and why are this man and wife pair on the run from the secret service with it? Moore and O'Neill explore the world of fiction of Britain in the 1950s, from secret agent tales like the Bond and Bulldog Drummond stories to the dreams of the space age present in comics like Dan Dare, the references are again all over the place. Here the main plot does tend to take a back seat to the sourcebook material provided by the Black Dossier itself, and the lead up to the book's 3-D finale. Here the secret truth of the League's world is laid bare, and it's at this point I think some people may check out of the story. Not to give anything away, but let's just say things get seriously metaphysical at the end. Whether or not Moore and O'Neill can parlay that mad energy into a more action-oriented story in the upcoming Century volume has yet to be determined. Either avenue of exploration sounds great to me.

The League's world has become one not just of exiting adventure stories, but of a greater story about stories themselves. If that seems a bit paradoxical, one shouldn't be alarmed at this point. To expect a standard of normalcy and your imagination unchallenged in an Alan Moore story is to walk away disappointed.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Coming attractions.

Hi guys,

Just wanted to let you know that the next installment of 'More on Moore' should be up tonight. Apologies for the delay, but I was a little distracted last week:

I was busy bringing justice to the streets of 1972 New York alongside Rorschach as the second Nite Owl in Watchmen: The End is Nigh for the Playstation 3. The game is a lot of fun, if a bit repetitive. If you're not into scrolling fight games along the lines of Final Fight you're going to tire of this one pretty quick, but for some cathartic baddie-busting I can't reccomend it enough.

My one real beef was I couldn't fly the Owlship. If they make a sequel solo Nite Owl game (maybe with some fun flashback play to the Hollis Mason days) I encourage the designers to make it so. 'Cause, y'know, they should cater to the one lonely fanboy out there who wanted to fly the Owlship. Obviously.



Tuesday, March 10, 2009

More on Moore: Tom Strong

I thrive off escapist literature. I can't help it. We all have our weaknesses, our foibles that take us down a peg. While part of me yearns for the acceptance of the literati, the hoi polloi who follow such sacred and wise institutions as Oprah's Book Club, or the CBC's latest opus on which Bavarian eccentric recluse author is just the darling of the 500-plus page introspective coming-of-age story drawing room crowd, you give me wirepoon guns, steam-powered pneumatic men, talking gorillas and helicopter backpacks and I am in, no questions need be asked. Be it super or science heroes, I love a thrilling tale of good versus evil that not only takes me away from the conventional reality of the everyday, but makes me feel this new vision of reality has it's own (albeit tweaked) ideas on the true strength of family and friendship.

When last we spoke I waxed lyrical and at length about Alan Moore's take on the Superman archetype in the form of Awesome Comics' Supreme. Shortly after Awesome Comics folded up its tents (nobody ever said Rob Liefeld was the greatest entrepreneur in the world) Jim Lee of Wildstorm Comics offered Alan Moore the chance to create his own line of comics about whatever he chose. With his Watchmen cache, Lee knew that anything Moore put to paper would be taken seriously by the comicbook reading elite, and Moore didn't disappoint. With Kevin O'Neill, Moore launched one of his most ambitious works to date in the form of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, a six-issue miniseries that brought the greatest heroes of 19th Century literature together in common cause in the bet Stan Lee meets Charles Dickens manner. Flush off that initial success, Moore returned to another primal archetype of serial adventure fiction, a spiritual successor to his work on Supreme, in the form of neo-pulp adventure hero Tom Strong. With the Tom Strong series, Moore created a work that at once hearkened back to the classic heroes of pulp fiction whilst simultaneously crafting a vision of family adventurers comparable to Stan Lee and Jack Kirby's Fantastic Four.

Rather than go into a lengthly diatribe about Tom Strong and his world, I'll let the inside cover flap of Tom Strong Book One do the heavy lifting for me:

'Unorthodox American scientist Sinclair Strong had a vision for his only son Tom—to raise him as the perfect human. To do so, he and his wife Susan retreated from civilization in 1899 to the peculiar, remote South Seas island of Attabar Teru. Creating an advanced high-gravity environment for the boy, with revolutionary teaching tools and a special diet, Sinclair and Susan began the bold social experiment, and Tom developed with unusual strength and intelligence. When tragedy struck the family, it was the native Ozu people who helped Tom continue his unique upbringing and prepared him for a life of invention, exploration, and adventure that came to span the 20th century.'

Tom is a mental and physical paragon, the pinnacle of human achievement. He can't lift massive weights or fly of his own power, but he is an inventor par excellence, able to out brawl a score of men with his near-superhuman strength and get around his American home Millenium City with aid of his helipack. Thanks to the age-retarding properties of the Goloka root, a plant native to the pristine jungles of Attabar Teru, Tom's relative youth and vitality have remained largely unscathed over the sum span of the 20th century, from his debut as a 'science-hero' of the 1920s to the series present-day of 1999. Considering the world-threatening challenges he tends to face he's not doing too badly for a guy pushing a century old.

It's interesting to note the similarities Tom shares with the pulp heroes of yesteryear as well as the differences that make him a product of the current day. While his origins clearly indicate a strong Doc Savage/Tarzan ancestry, the contemporary can clearly be felt in the manner in which Tom is raised. The Ozu people and their culture had a strong effect on Tom's moral upbringing, and his wife Dhalua is no swooning damsel in distress. Nor is his daughter Tesla who's a developing science heroine in her own right (though appearing to be a teenager due to the influence of Goloka she's actually well into middle age). The family unit is completed by Sinclair Strong's formerly steam powered pneumatic man (named Pneuman by a young Tom) and of course King Solomon, an intelligent ape whose brain was enhanced by Tom who tends to affect the manner of a P.G. Wodehouse character. And seriously, if you can't get a kick out of a talking gorilla speaking with the diction of Hugh Laurie in Jeeves and Wooster, I'm not really sure how I can sell you on this series. One either embraces the inherent mad genius of the concept, or you don't.

Another key difference is that Tom is no Doc Savage, at least in the sense of being infallible and beyond need of assistance. Indeed, rather than being mere sidekicks, the rest of the Strongs are heroes in their own right, bringing a postmodern Fantastic Four feel to the book.

Tom Strong is escapist adventure fiction at it's finest. Under Moore's hand and with art by his former Supreme collaborator Chris Sprouse, it told some pretty damned cool neo-pulp action stories. As with Supreme, there are a number of flashback stories detailing Tom's adventure-laden past, with art provided by such luminaries as Arthur Adams, Gary Frank, Jerry Ordway, and Dave Gibbons. Set in the sprawling vertical metropolis of Millenium City, Tom grappled with evil like the frozen foe Jack Frost, the mob boss Charley Bones, Nazi superwoman Ingrid Weiss, and of course the arch-criminal and Tom's opposite number, the notorious Paul Saveen. As the first volume of the book progresses we see a lot of guns being hung on the wall, creating a world that begs to be explored, and Moore does with a crazed enthusiasm that carries well into the first four volumes.

While a great read, Tom Strong does get a bit choppy. A sudden breakdown in the relations between Moore and Wildstorm (mainly due to the latter's being bought out by DC Comics, whose relations with the author have been strained to say the very least)caused the writer to largely abandon his ABC work, only returning to draw the whole thing to a close. Tom's adventures were chronicled by a succession of other writers, making the book a bit of an anthology. Though still entertaining, the book kind of locked into a bit of a holding pattern until Moore's return for the finale in volume six. There Tom Strong faces down the end of the world. . .and is powerless to prevent the apocalypse. How does the hero who's managed to save the day time and again withstand the unstoppable? The answer may surprise you.

While much credit is given to Alan Moore as a creator of the sublime and the seminal, there's something to be said for an artist who can simply sit down and produce an enjoyable piece of entertainment. While not the groundbreaking magnum opus of Watchmen caliber, Tom Strong is an entertaining read from start to finish, a pulp hero for the new millennium that you'd do well to check out. It's well-written, well-drawn, largely self-contained fun of a kind you don't get to see much of in the world of sprawling ginormous epic crossovers that will change the status quo forever(this time for real)! In a time when comics seem to be becoming stuffier and more congested with continuity and a need to have been a fan for a decade or more to appreciate the Big Two's current status quo, books like Tom Strong are a welcome breath of fresh air.

Strongman of America #7157.

Ps. If you'd like to get a peek at what I'm talking about, check out the entire first issue of Tom Strong offerred online by Wildstorm absolutely free! It can be found here. The entire run of Tom Strong is currently available in trade paperback from Wildstorm and can be found at finer comicbook stores everywhere(No I don't get a cut, I just like to help point out the awesome where I can).

Friday, March 6, 2009

More on Moore: Supreme

Alan Moore is a genius.

Hardly the most provocative or enlightening of statements I know. The mind who brought us V For Vendetta, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Promethea and of course Watchmen, Moore has long since justified his claim as one of the greatest comicbook writers the medium has ever seen. There's no question of the man's fierce talent, and justifiably so; his best stuff not only entertains on a purely escapist level but provides an equally beguiling and thought-provoking subtext as well. With the release of the cinematic adaptation of Watchmen this Friday, I thought it'd be fun to look over my shelf and pull down a few of the Alan Moore works that have blown me away. Yes, there will of course be the inevitable Watchmen review but I thought it'd be fun to take a look at some of his works that most newcomers to comics might not have heard of, and longtime readers might not have taken a look at. Without further ado, let's take a look at Alan Moore's reconstructionist take on the superhero with SUPREME: THE STORY OF THE YEAR.

If the character of Supreme looks a little familiar its because the character is largely a Superman pastiche, a take on the classic caped flying strongman archetype that was originally produced by Image Comics. An Image book created by one of the founding fathers of Image. . .a founder who was later shown the door. I'm hesitant to mention his name, for to invoke it is to bring his all-seeing eye down upon you. And aware of the references as I am, I'd rather say Voldemort 900 times in a row whilst dancing through Hogwarts and take the One Ring through the gates of Mordor whilst braying 'We Are The Champions' at the top of my lungs than mention the name. . .Liefeld.

Okay, okay, so maybe Rob Liefeld isn't quite that bad. In fact, in retrospect I'd have to say the guy is surprisingly canny. Who better to write a Superman pastiche than the guy who wrote 'For The Man Who Has Everything' or 'Whatever Happened To The Man of Tomorrow?' (and if you haven't read either of those stories. . .why? Seriously, Justice League Unlimited even did an adaptation of FTMWHE and it was one of their best episodes). Liefeld approached Alan Moore to essentially take over the monthly Supreme comic (then released by his company Awesome Comics). Up to that point the character had been a bit of nigh-omnipotent jerk, with a snarky personality that suited the Iron Age of comics and a series that hadn't really found any kind of direction. The character had jumped from overpowered to underpowered, sane to insane, sneering egoist to impassioned bible thumping megalomaniac and hadn't really done anything save take up shelf space at the local comicbook store. But by bringing Moore aboard, Liefeld gave him carte blanche to make of the character what he will, and oh boy did Moore will.

The essential premise of the story is at once simplistic but complicated, which is what you'd expect from Alan Moore. Supreme returns to Earth after a sojourn in space only to find the planet in a state of flux. The world is shifting around him, people and places going from contemporary to anachronistic and back again. No sooner does Supreme arrive and attempt to piece together what's happening than he's beset upon by a group of caped characters who all seem to be variations of Supreme himself! After tussling with Superion(seemingly a Supreme of the future), Sista Supreme(a funky superpowered lady who seems very '70s), the Original Supreme, and Squeak the Supremouse (I swear to you I did not make that up), Supreme is taken to an otherdimensional realm called the Supremacy, a Valhalla for previous incarnations of the hero that have been sent to this limbo-like place during previous paranormal events the inhabitants have come to call 'Revisions'. Here Supreme is warmly congratulated and lauded, the previous rough patches in his continuity smoothed over, and the hero is deposited in his 'new' reality as Ethan Crane, mild-mannered artist for Dazzle Comics and half of the creative team producing the seminal superheroic adventures of Omniman! And that is all within the span of the first issue people. Decompression need not apply when reading Supreme.

The series continued with Supreme making sense of his new reality and status quo. In this reality young Ethan Crane and his puppy were exposed to a radioactive element (later called Supremium). Gaining fantastic powers beyond those of mortal men, the boy defended his home town of Littlehaven from the forces of evil and the machinations of the evil young genius Darius Drax as Young Supreme! In later years he, his dog Radar (the Hound Supreme!) and his stepsister Sally (aka Suprema, Sister of Supreme!) fought evil from their headquarters, the floating fortress know as the (you guessed it) Citadel Supreme! Not alone in their struggle for justice, Supreme was a founding member of the Golden Age hero team The Allied Supermen of America, and was a contemporary of Professor Night and Twilight the Girl Wonder.
All this is related as Supreme regains his memory (or the memories provided him by the Revision are slotted in place) and each 'flashback' is seemingly culled from a previous iteration of the character (be it the hokiness of the Silver Age or the dour and introspective quest for 'relevance' of the Bronze Age to all points in between) in an art style appropriate to the comics of previous eras. The positioning of Ethan Crane as artist of Omniman at Dazzle Comics is no less a stroke of genius, as it allows Moore to comment on the wave of revisionism that swept through comics that dispatched a lot of the Silver/Bronze Age tropes he embraces and exults in with his work on Supreme. Billy Friday, the British writer who plans on overseeing the 'Death of Omniman' storyline is a particular hoot, doing his best to deconstruct all the heroic archetypes and superheroic things around him that challenge his iconoclast perspective(and one suspects Moore might be poking fun at the notion of the 'British Writer In American Comics Waxing Pretentious' that has arisen more than once in fanboy conversation).

Alan Moore once stated he regretted the degree to which the 'baby had been thrown out of the bathwater' with the revision of Superman in the mid-1980s. With SUPREME, he revisits all the old familiar places while at the same time crafting an exciting adventure story that doesn't exclude new readers. There's plenty of fun bits of business to enjoy while the overall storyline is taking place, and as I said the flashback sequences are a blast, as Moore and Rick Veitch just go all-out to replicate the wonderfully goofy fairy-tale mentality of the Silver Age of Comics. Moore's writing crackles off the page and you can really get a sense of his enthusiasm for revisiting an avatar of the Superman archetype and going all-out with it. A variety of artists put in work on the book but it's Joe Bennett, Rick Veitch, and Chris Sprouse who stand out in my mind. The fact that Moore was able to secure Dan Jurgens, one of the architects of the Death of Superman, to provide art for Crane's illustrations of the Death of Omniman is nothing short of gleefully insane genius. Chris Sprouse would later go on to collaborate with Moore again on his America's Best Comics creation Tom Strong. But that's a subject for another review.

Supreme: The Story Of The Year is a different side of Alan Moore, one in which he attempts to restore to the figure of the superhero some of the charm and the magic that Watchmen took such care in disassembling. Checker Book Publishing Group has the complete two volumes of Moore's work on Supreme, both in THE STORY OF THE YEAR and the short-lived but fondly remembered SUPREME: THE RETURN. If you're looking for what Moore might have done with Superman with complete creative freedom, a neo-classic spin on a primal archetype of the superhero genre, or just an awesome comic featuring everything from time-travelling teens from the future, micronized cities of light, a dog in a cape with a radio collar and reams of outrageous superhero fun and escapist adventure, then look no further. This book reigns supreme.

. . .

. . .okay, so the pun was lame. But c'mon, the placement was killer.

Until next time,