Thursday, April 29, 2010



I may be slightly excited.

ETA: All right, let me explain: After the balloon goes up and the world is left an iiradiated wasteland with mutants and giant monsters galore, a group of heroic scientists operating out of an underground complex wear medieval-looking armor and roam the countryside in defense of the remaining few bastions of civilization. Riding giant dalmatians.
Dear God, I want it right. Now.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Nocturnal Lunacy: The Essential Moon Knight Review.

'Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord.' ~Bible: Romans

Stop me if any of the following sounds a bit familiar: A wealthy millionaire, living in an opulent mansion on the outskirts of a major metropolitan city, wages a nightly war on crime and corruption by donning a cloak, going forth with the aid of his European man-friday to bring justice to the mean streets in a one-man war on crime. All of this is true of Marc Spector, the man known as Moon Knight. . .but it's not quite as damning a fit as you might think. Yes, Moon Knight does resemble a certain bat-themed hero from the city of Gotham, but scratch the surface and you find a much more interesting character than any mere knock-off.

In the beginning Moon Knight was little more than a cool visual, a one-off antagonist in Marvel's horror comic Werewolf By Night. Contracted by a mysterious Committee to bring in the eponymous hero of the book, Moon Knight went on to develop something of a growing fan following, enough to warrant a few one-off stories in Marvel Spotlight, and eventually his own backup feature in The Hulk's color magazine back during the peak of the Bill Bixby/Lou Ferigno popularity. Under the pen of writer Doug Moench and the amazing pencils of Bill Sienkiewicz, the back-up feature would set the tone for the character's backstory, and eventually lead to the establishment of his own monthly series. The closest parallel I can bring you from contemporary pop culture would be the character of the bounty hunter Boba Fett from The Empire Strikes Back. What would start out as little more than a striking background image would eventually develop layers that made him a unique and rich character all his own.

Marc Spector is not a nice man. A paid mercenary and soldier for hire, he and his comrade in arms Jean-Paul DuChamp (whom he affectionately calls 'Frenchie') come into the employ of a ruthless soldier of fortune named Raoul Bushman. Coming across an archealogical expedition led by Doctor Peter Alraune and his daughter Marlene, Bushman decides the temple will provide an ample source of loot and plans to plunder it. Spector reaches his breaking point after Bushman murders Dr. Alraune, challenging him to single combat. It's a fight that leaves Spector a beaten, bloody mess. Wandering the desert wounded and without water, he's found by worshippers of the temple's deity and brought to the site. There, laying on the dirt-floor of a temple centuries old Marc Spector's heart stops. He dies. . .and is reborn beneath the statue of Khonshu, the Egyptian god of the moon and vengeance. Donning himself in an ivory cloak Spector goes forth and defeats Bushman, this time seemingly a great deal more formidable than he was before. Returning to America with Marlene, Frenchie, and the statue of Khonshu, Marc becomes a super-hero. Utilizing the money gained from his years as a mercenary he purchases an elegant manor on the outskirts of Manhattan, creating the identity of millionaire playboy Steven Grant to better mingle amidst high society. To keep his ear close to the streets he crafts another identity, that of New York cabbie Jake Lockley. One man suddenly becomes four men as our stage is set: Marc Spector, the mercenary looking for redemption, Steven Grant, the altruistic millionaire who Marlene herself believes is the 'true' identity of the man she's fallen in love with, Jake Lockley, the cabbie and man of the people, and Moon Knight, the masked hero and possible avatar of Khonshu. Which of these identities is the real protagonist? Sometimes even Spector himself isn't too sure, and as the series progresses those moments of hesitancy and confusion burrow and entrench in his psyche from slight cracks into full-blown fault lines.

You see, that's the real trick of Moon Knight as a character, and as the character is examined in greater depth you begin to understand. Firstly, Batman--while driven--merely pretends to be crazy to provide him with an edge against the criminal element. With Moon Knight, there is a very strong possibility that the man may actually be insane. He believes he owes his life to an ancient god of the moon and vengeance, and has become a warrior acolyte in the name of his god. Batman is a crimefighter. Moon Knight is a warrior-priest. Batman fights for justice, to ensure that what happened to the eight year-old Bruce Wayne never happens to another helpless child. Moon Knight fights for redemption, to atone for the things he did as Marc Spector that he is deeply ashamed of, and to honor the god he feels he owes his life to. Batman is a superhero with pulp trappings, while Moon Knight feels more like a pulp hero with superhero trappings.

This first essentials volume introduces us to the character, and provides a fascinating look at how a concept like Moon Knight develops. From his origin as a one-off mercenary created by a criminal group to the eventual retcon of it all being a set-up by Marc and Frenchie, to the development of the character's backstory and his motivation for his nightly crusade, it's fascinating to watch Moench and Siekiewicz work, adding layer upon layer to the character until what results is an amazing mixture of concepts and ideas that come together in a whole that provides for an entertaining and surprising read. Those that feel that Moon Knight is little more than a dark knight doppelganger would do well to give this volume a look.

The character has undergone something of a second renaissance these days, with a recent series penned by writer Charlie Huston detailing the hero's return after a long absence, as well as further exploration of the character as a near-madman clinging to the edge of sanity by his fingernails. Artist David Finch made the book's visuals stunning stuff, and The Bottom is a favorite series of mine and one I point most of my friends to if they want something that has as much grit and assorted jaw-dropping amazement as Nolan's The Dark Knight. With Essential Moon Knight Vol. 1, we see the beginnings of the character, the seeds planted that took a simple mercenary antagonist and forged him into a character that people are still telling stories about 34 years later. Recommended.


Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Enter the (Young) Dragon: The Essential Iron Fist Vol. 1 Review.

'The dance of battle is always played to the same impatient rhythm. What begins in a surge of violent motion is always reduced to the perfectly still.'~ Sun Tzu

The Martial Arts. A road to better awareness of the self, the seamless blend of mind and body moving as one in perfect sync, ancient wisdom handed down to provide the means to better the soul and broaden the horizons. Oh, and whip-kick someone in the face in one of the sickest things I have ever seen.

Let's face it, most people will never be quite on book with what the founders of styles like Kung-Fu or Karate or Aikido were trying to impart through their teachings, but we see the results in our popular media and find it to be, in the more common parlance, utterly badass. Martial Arts films still remain a draw at the box office, and as Batman: Arkham Asylum has clearly proven computer scientists are hard at work devising new and effective methods of conveying the giddy feeling of punching someone in the trachea, rearing back, and then driving your boot directly into their solar plexus sending them hurtling into a concrete wall. Simply put, the Martial Arts remains a keen source of entertainment for audiences everywhere. It was as true in the 1970s in the grindhouse theatres as it is today on the DVD shelves of your local Blockbuster.

One thing I absolutely, positively adore Marvel Comics for is it's ability to do it's best to stay current with trends in popular culture. It may not be as true now as it was then, but in the 1970s there was a feeling of mad science to a lot of Marvel's books. Where monsters were big, such as the Hammer Horror films, Marvel resurrected (heh) it's monster comics with titles like Tomb of Dracula, Werewolf By Night, Zombie, and Man-Thing. When post-apocalyptic dystopian futures were the rage, enter Marvel's Amazing Adventures, featuring the exploits of Killraven amidst the ruins of civilization in the wake of the second invasion from Mars. And when Marvel grew hip to the growing popularity of Kung-Fu Flicks, they immediately jumped in with both feet. Shang-Chi, the heroic son of Sax Rohmer's epic villain Fu Manchu, soon became the star of his own book with The Hands of Shang-Chi: Master of Kung-Fu. Deadly Hands of Kung-Fu was the second such title, but another character took the stage in Marvel Premiere #15 in May of 1974, one who has endured to this day as perhaps one of the Marvel Universe's deadliest warriors: Daniel Rand, the Iron Fist!

Daniel Rand is the son of a wealthy Industrialist, Wendell Rand. Together with his mother Heather and partner Harold Meachum, the three seek a mystical site that Wendell once visited years ago, the fabled city of K'un L'un in the Tibetan mountains. En route Harold Meachum seizes an opportunity to murder Wendell and attempts to convince Heather--whom he has always loved--to come with him back to civilization. Heather rejects him and mother and son fight to survive amidst the harsh cold and the savage animals of the mountain range. Heather gives her life valiantly to save her son and young Daniel finds himself taken in by the monks of the ancient city, a site that fades into and out of our reality every ten years.

Taken in by the warrior-monks, young Daniel is taught by the legendary martial arts instructor Lei Kung the Thunderer, who teaches him mastery of the martial arts. A rare honor is bestowed him as Daniel is given the rare chance to obtain the power of the Iron Fist by defeating the dragon Shou-Lao the Undying in ritual combat. Yes, Shou-Lao is an actual dragon, who must guard the still pulsing fiery heart that had been torn from his chest countless eons ago. During the battle Daniel's chest is branded by the Scar of Shou-Lao, and in his defeat of the dragon he staggers to the brazier containing the heart and plunges his hands in, granting him the power to channel his living essence or Chi into his fist until it becomes. . .like unto a thing of IRON!

Have I mentioned lately that I love comics? It bears repetition.

Passing his final test with his newfound power, Daniel prepares to re-enter the world of man as K'un L'un rematerialized onto the terrestrial plane. Leaving the fabled city, the Young Dragon seeks the man who killed his parents, determined to exact justice for their murder and see the guilty punished. Does he succeed? Yes and no.

Created by the amazing team of writer Roy Thomas and artist Gil Kane, Iron Fist went on from his humble beginnings to become one of the premier martial arts heroes of the '70s. Even when the Kung-Fu boom began to fade he was paired with Blaxploitation-themed hero Luke Cage to become part of the crimefighter/mercenary duo of Power Man & Iron Fist. The character has always been a cult favorite, and recently had a resurgence in the spotlight thanks to titles like New Avengers, spinning off into a title all his own in The Immortal Iron Fist written by the killer team of Ed Brudbaker and Matt Fraction with art by David Aja, which played with the mythology to delicious effect. The Essential Iron Fist Vol. 1 features work from writers like Len Wein, Tony Isabella, Doug Moench, and then Chris Claremont. The art chores went through a number of hands from Kane's skilled pen through to such luminaries as Larry Hama, Arvell Jones, and Pat Broderick before eventually introducing us to some of the earliest work by artist (later artist-writer) John Byrne. This first meeting of two such amazing talents would prove lightning in a bottle, and their earliest work together shows the initial sparks that would give way to the bonfire.

My enthusiasm for the work is as obvious as it is unabashed, and there are a metric ton of things I'm biting my cheek not to spoil for you; from battles with ninjas to cultists to supervillains alike. The inevitable battle betwixt the Fist of K'un L'un and a certain armored Avenger, the first meeting between Iron Fist and Power Man and the story threads that lead to an amazing showdown at the end of his initial title which is just pump your fist awesome. Were the Iron Fist stories meant to be ruminations on power and responsibility and the place of the individual in society and the inevitable letdown of high ideals versus modern cynicism? Of course not. They were meant to be entertaining adventure stories that did exactly what was promised on the tin; Kung-Fu action in the Merry Marvel Manner. And boy howdy did these talented men deliver on the promise. With 584 pages of black and white adventure for about $16.99, this book--like most of the Essentials line--is an amusement park's worth of pure reading fun that's both easy on the wallet and guaranteed to provide hours of entertainment. Recommended most highly.