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.


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


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.


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!


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.