Box Diving for Fun and (No) Profit


So we had a little funnybook show here in town this past weekend. Nothing spectacular. Just a Masonic Lodge full of comic and toy dealers, and a few local artists shaking hands and drawing pretty pictures. A friendly little con, and a damn fine end to my vacation, where I enjoyed socializing as much as I did box-diving. But I got some of that done, too, and (since my brain is still too vacation-addled to write anything more disciplined) I thought I’d share the loot I snagged.

I’m pretty discerning about what I buy in back issues these days. I’ve got most everything I really want at this point, and I’ve developed an allergy to old newsprint to boot. There’s not many books I’m willing to pop a Benadryl to read. But sometimes, I make exceptions. I’m a total sucker for Jack Kirby’s 1970s work, for instance. I’ve got most of that stuff on my shelf in book collections, of course, but there’s an undeniable appeal to having samples of it in its original format. So if the price is right, and I run across something sufficiently cool…

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

…I wind up with Devil Dinosaur. This is one of the few Kirby books of the era I’ve never actually read. But as you can see above, it’s pretty trippy stuff. I enjoyed the issues I picked up this weekend so much, in fact, that I ordered a copy of the trade collection. So there might be a retro review coming up one day soon.

That’s not the craziest book I picked up, though. Not by a long shot. I also found one of the few issues of Flaming Carrot Comics I’m missing:

Burden Flaming Carrot 4

In this one, the Carrot punches some dudes, gets drunk, meets Death, picks up chicks, dodges a murder attempt from a disgruntled ex, and buys an inflatable love doll named Melba. Other comics only wish they were this awesome.

Even Flaming Carrot has a tough time beating my next buy for sheer randomness, however:

Frankenstein Cover

Heh. Love me some Spandex Frankenstein. This is one of those legendarily awful comics, right up there with Brother Power the Geek and the collected works of Rob Liefeld. But there’s a charming idiocy to this one that makes me smile. I mean, this is a funnybook in which the Frankenstein monster is awakened by a massive bolt of lightning and decides to fight crime in sleeveless red tights!

Speaking of which… The whole thing is made just that little bit more ridiculous by those bare arms. Because Frankenstein has a green face, but his arms are lily-white. And not pure white like on the cover, but regular old white-guy Caucasian pink:

Tallarico Frankenstein Mask

(Probably makes that disguise a little easier to pull off.)

 

As the story progresses, Our Hero saves the life of a rich guy (or at least, saves him long enough for the old boy to hand over his millions before his heart gives out from the strain). Then he picks up a girlfriend determined to prove he’s Frankenstein (maybe she just wants to know if anything else on him is green?). And he also fights Mr. Freek, a midget genius who rides around on the back of a monstrously strong gorilla. It’s simultaneously awesome, and absolutely terrible. A welcome addition to my collection, then, well-worth the five bucks I paid for it (and long-time readers know how reticent I am to pay five dollars for any funnybook!).

Frankenstein is not the pinnacle of my con finds, however. No, that honor goes to another book by Mr. Jack Kirby:

Kirby 2001

A much-maligned later Kirby work, 2001 is actually one of my favorites. This is, of course, an adaptation of the Stanley Kubrick film, and it would be difficult to think of two storytellers whose aesthetics are more diametrically opposed than Kubrick and Kirby. Whereas Kubrick is all about quiet subtlety and control, Kirby is all restless creativity and non-stop bombast. They’re interested in similar ideas, though. Or at least they were in their respective adaptations of Arthur C. Clarke. So while Kirby is tonally the most wrong person possible for this book, his fascination with evolution and transcendence, the nature of human advancement over time, makes him the perfect guy to have tackled it. It’s that dichotomy that attracts me to the book.

Well… That, and the truly psychedelic extremes to which the King went in this series:

click

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to

to

embiggen

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Woo! Trippy! You might notice that not much of that looks like something from the movie. That’s because Kirby knocked out his direct adaptation in a Treasury Edition tabloid, and spent the regular series expanding on the themes. It’s the regular series I’m most interested in, Kirby’s exploration of what it was he thought the movie was about. Because of licensing issues, however, it’s doubtful that 2001 will ever be collected. So I’ve been picking these up on the rare occasions I’ve run across them in the wild, with only limited success. But this weekend, I found a nearly complete run at a more than reasonable price. So I pounced. Much like Devil Dinosaur, I can’t wait to dive in. Definitely expect a retro review of this one once I’m done reading.

Alright. I picked up a few other things…

Adams Challengers 74

Neal Adams Challengers of the Unknown, anyone?

 

…but that’s the highlights. The con was a good time, and I got some good reads. What more can a dork ask for?

Objets D’Art: Eisner and Kirby Make Beautiful Things to Look At


I’m afraid I won’t be doing my usual in-depth, over-intellectual funnybook reviews this week. Why? Well, for one thing, I’m on vacation, and just don’t have the discipline required to do all that. But for another… Sometimes it’s nice to just look at something pretty. And luckily, as it happens, I’ve recently come into possession of two books that fit the bill.

First up is a Spirit pop-up book.

Eisner - Pop-Up

This was apparently released five or six years ago, but I didn’t know it existed til recently. It’s out of print, near as I can tell, but thankfully we live in an age when such things are easily attainable via the interwebs. So I got my hands on one, and it’s really cool.

The Spirit (if there’s anyone reading this who doesn’t know) is the creation of Will Eisner, one of the most influential cartoonists in funnybook history. The strip ran not in a regular comic book, but in newspapers as a separate comic book supplement to the Sunday funnies. As the cover above may indicate, it was an atmospheric noir detective strip, famed for gripping drama and inventive, multi-layered page layouts. It’s those layouts that made me want to get a copy of this, and they translate well to pop-up book form:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

NEAT. The book is an adaptation of one of the Spirit 8-pagers from the 1940s, featuring the first appearance of Sand Serif, femme fatale and Our Hero’s childhood sweetheart. The story unfolds (no pun intended) across multiple large pop-ups like the one above, and in smaller separate booklets and flaps arrayed around the pages. The translation of Eisner’s original flat pictures into 3-D is nicely-done. Here, for instance, is the above image as it looked in the original comic:

Eisner Spirit Logo

Wonderfully gruesome, and (though it’s a bit hard to see in my photograph) faithfully reproduced, floating corpse and all. The story’s a little complex, though, and the pop-up spreads don’t always make it entirely clear how they’re supposed to be read. That’s the case here:

click to embiggen

click to embiggen

You’re supposed to read across the top, pull the tab on the upper right, then come down to the flap on the bottom left, open it, move to the stairs, go to the flap on the right, open it, and wind up with the panels in the bottom right-hand corner. But when that staircase comes popping out into your face, it kind of steals the show, and proper eye flow is pretty much a lost cause.

But HOLY CRAP A STAIRCASE JUST UNFOLDED RIGHT INTO MY FREAKING FACE! And the pull tab shifted an image so that it flowed directly into another, connected image! And both the lower flaps had pop-up sections of their own! It’s so much fun that I don’t really care if it’s a little hard to follow. It’s pretty to look at, something worth owning just because it’s cool. All other considerations are secondary.

But I said I wasn’t going to do much reviewing. So here’s a couple more spreads for you to gawk at, without my annoying commentary getting in the way. I had some trouble getting these to photograph well, however, so I shamelessly stole these from other places around the web. Places that were smart enough to buy this thing when it came out. And also smart enough to edit their couches and coffee tables out of the pictures…

Eisner - Pop-up 3 Eisner - Pop-Up 4

Hee.

The other pretty thing I bought recently won’t be officially released until tomorrow. But I was given the opportunity to take a sneak peek at my copy for review purposes.

Kirby Mister Miracle

It’s the new Artist’s Edition of Jack Kirby’s Mister Miracle, reproducing the original art for issues 2-9 of the series at the size Kirby drew them. I hadn’t intended to buy this book, honestly. I like the Artist’s Editions, but there’s two problems with them: they’re crazy expensive, and they’re freaking huge. I have the Wally Wood book they did a few years back, and it’s also a thing of beauty. Something worth putting on display as an objet d’art in my home. But doing that takes up three-quarters of a book shelf, when I’m constantly fighting for shelf space (my library is, as you might guess, a bit overstuffed).

This one, though… Sigh. I just couldn’t pass it up. First of all, as you can kind of see from the cover, the whole book is designed to look like old circus posters. That’s even more apparent on the back cover…

Kirby Mister Miracle Back

…with its printed-on flaking and creases. If and when I put this thing on display, that’s the side I’ll be turning out for people to look at. The circus poster motif continues more obviously inside, though, on the title page…

Kirby Mister Miracle Title…and the two-page credits spread:

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click to embiggen

Those look pretty great on the screen, but now imagine them reproduced at 12×17. Guh! That two-page spread is two feet across! Your eyes can’t even quite take it all in. Great googly-moogly that’s fun to look at. They’ve done cover mock-ups for each issue in this poster-art style, as well, I assume because they couldn’t get the original art for the actual covers. Which is a trifle disappointing, but if you’re going to be missing something that important, at least they did something cool to replace them.

But the real focus here is the art itself, Kirby’s original boards reproduced at full size. When I was looking at it, trying to decide if I was going to buy the thing, I thought the individual pages were nice…

Kirby Mr Miracle Artist Edition 3

(Love the sideburns. Also the fact that Scott and Barda have a painting of Kirby Krackle hanging in their living room.)

(Hubba.)

(Hubba.)

…but it was the two-page spreads that really sold me.

Kirby Mr Miracle Artist Edition 1

click to embiggen

Again, that’s TWO FEET ACROSS, with every detail of all that weird-ass Kirby machinery blown up all in your face and stuff. And that’s not even my favorite spread. It’s just the only one I could find on-line. Because the book itself is far too big for my scanner, and (as you can see above), my camera doesn’t take the greatest pictures.

One final note, and I’ll go. When I was flipping through this thing down at the funnybook store today, a buddy of mine who was looking over my shoulder pointed out something interesting: other than a few proofreader’s marks in blue pencil, these pages have very few production notes on them. That’s a marked change from Kirby’s Sixties pages, where he would make story, lettering, and inking notes, and sometimes even suggest dialogue. The difference in these Seventies pages can, however, be explained by the credit box:

Kirby Mr Miracle Credits

There’s just two guys involved in the production of this whole comic. Well… Two guys, and Mark Evanier serving as proofreader. But, still. Kirby had tight control over these comics, and when you’re doing it all yourself… there’s no need to make notes.

Villainy, Horror, and a Many-Boobed Cyclops: FUNNYBOOKSINREVIEWAREGO!!


Alright. Last week’s bad-mood diatribe has left us with two weeks’ worth of funnybooks to discuss. There’s no way I’ll get to them all, but let’s try and plow through the highlights…

Darth Vader 2, by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca

Granov Darth Vader 2

May I just say again… Sassiest. Vader. Ever.

The comic’s pretty good, too. This second issue is a fun, tight villain comic, featuring Darth Vader dealing with an unwanted lieutenant, assigned to spy on him by his new boss, General Tagge. The interactions between Vader and Tagge are particularly great, Tagge coming off as a magnanimous bastard, a cheerful true believer in the power of fascism, and Vader responding with a sort of cold arrogance that fits the character well. I could hear James Earl Jones in a lot of his dialogue here, and that’s a good thing.

Also good is the way we see Vader plotting the removal of his new aide. Without getting into spoilers, he leads an assault on some space pirates (because, yes: SPACE PIRATES!!), stalling for time while we see his real plan unfolding elsewhere. It’s a fun ruse, but also one of the more casually callous displays of villainy I’ve seen recently. A bunch of Stormtroopers get killed in the assault, and there’s no doubt in my mind that Vader could have prevented at least some of those deaths by acting faster. But that’s not his game. He needs to delay, and so he does. No matter how many of his men die while he’s doing it.

That’s a nice touch, and something I didn’t even consider on my first read. But that’s why I write these reviews sometimes: they make me go back and see things I might have missed.

So two issues in, and I’m still finding Darth Vader a fun read. Still don’t know if it’s four dollars worth of fun. But we’ll see. We’ll see…

Grade: B

Ody-C 3, by Matt Fraction and Christian Ward

Ward Ody-C 3

I just got around to reading this book last night, even though it came out two or maybe even three weeks ago now. That’s not because I didn’t want to read it. It’s just that I wanted to wait to read it until I had presence of mind enough to enjoy it. It’s been a demanding time at the day job recently, you see, and I’ve been sick on top of that. Often, I’ve been coming home and going straight into a Nyquil coma. And even when I didn’t, I really didn’t have enough brain power to enjoy anything much more demanding than social media and a Mystery Science Theater rerun. And this comic asks a little bit more of its readers than that.

I mean, it’s not Ulysses or anything.

Ward Ody-C 3 Apollo

Oh, wait. Actually, it is. But it’s not James Joyce, that’s my point. Fraction and Ward’s retelling of the Odyssey is a bit more straightforward. But it’s still not an easy read. Fraction’s not writing this thing in any sort of glib modern speech, nor is he using the heightened (but still recognizable) English of the old sword-and-sandal epics. No, he’s telling the story in an English approximation of Homer’s dactylic hexameter. Which is a weird meter for English. It’s taken me three issues to fall into the rhythm of it, and I’m still not sure I’ve really got it. But it’s beautiful when it clicks. Also, he’s making changes to the story (like, making everyone a woman), and logical leaps behind and around it, to the point that someone like me, who knows the story, but not intimately, is kept constantly off-balance by it. Couple that with Christian Ward’s incredible acid-trip artwork…

Many-boobed cyclops! (click to embiggen)

Many-Boobed Cyclops!
(click to embiggen)

…and you’ve got a comic that keeps me on my toes. This is not a bad thing, understand. Far from it. But reading this thing when I’m not on my A Game… is not a good idea. It’s great stuff when I work through it, though. Not touching or affecting on a personal level, but inspirational for the work that went into crafting it, and the passion behind it. It always leaves me feeling energized, and wanting to write. And that’s not something I take lightly.

Grade: A

Savage Sword of Criminal, by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips

Phillips Savage Sword

A special issue celebrating the sword and sorcery magazine comics of the 1970s with a sharp send-up of them, interspersed with the sort of pulpy crime story we’ve come to expect from Brubaker & Phillips. I won’t go into too much detail on how all this works; that’s part of the fun of reading the thing. But it’s fun stuff, and well-worth picking up in the magazine-sized special edition (seen above). It costs a dollar more, but that gets you something closer to that Savage Sword of Conan feel they’re shooting for. Plus, you get this back cover ad that might be worth a dollar all by itself:

(click to embiggen the dealiness!)

(click to embiggen the deadliness!)

Grade: B+

Nameless 2, by Grant Morrison and Chris Burnham

Burnham Nameless 2

I love the weird genre mix of this book. On the one hand it’s Lovecraftian horror, all South American mythology and medieval demon magic. On the other, it’s about a team of experts rocketing out from a moon base to stop a giant asteroid from hitting the Earth and ending life as we know it. That mix of the supernatural and the science-fictional is a bit unusual, to be sure, but it’s very much true to Lovecraft’s spirit. Albeit as filtered through a modern sci-fi blockbuster lens.

It’s got a more pop-fiction sort of aesthetic than Lovecraft all the way around, I suppose. Because this isn’t one of Grant Morrison’s more difficult works thus far. I mean, it’s got all the super-compact dialogue and pay-attention-damn-you plotting I’ve come to expect from him in the current decade. But you could also do a pretty satisfying surface reading of it, I think, one that treats all the weirdness as window dressing for a pretty straightforward horror-adventure story.

I mean, it’s still plenty weird. You still have to deal with the idea of people being driven mad by messages from beyond human understanding. And tools brought forth out of dreams for use in the real world. But I think you can appreciate that without being so into the mythology of the comic that you understand how cool it is that the message from space is written in a language made up by John Dee.

Still. Great comic. Lots of high weirdness, lots of horrible ugly things. I dig it.

Grade: A-

Supreme: Blue Rose 7, by Warren Ellis and Tula Lotay

Lotay Supreme 7

And so my pick for “Best On-Going Series of 2014″ comes to its planned conclusion seven issues in. Duhr. Should have known better than to think this was anything but a mini. It just seemed so expansive, though! So full of potential and unexplored ideas! How could it possibly last less than 12 issues?!

Rather easily, as it turns out. Ellis and Lotay bring things to a satisfying ending, all things considered. The broken reality is resolved in the manner it always had to be, with an unlikely hero saving the day, and all those tantalizing possibilities left just out of reach. Which is maybe for the best. Sometimes, exploring cool ideas winds up rendering them mundane. And really, there’s no worse fate for super hero concepts.

Still, though… I could have read this book forever, and I’m sad that it’s done.

Grade: A-

Crossed +100 3, by Alan Moore and Gabriel Andrade

Andrade Crossed +100 3

Alan Moore’s exploration of what happens after the zombie apocalypse rolls on with a look at what a human city looks like, 100 years on. It’s a strangely… hopeful vision, especially for a series as grim as Crossed. I mean, just look at that cover up there! It’s positively… heartwarming! Sure, life is hard. Food is scarce, electricity unreliable. But with so few normal people left, America has become a true melting pot, with divisions based on race, sex, or sexual orientation falling away in the name of survival. It’s like some kind of post-apocalyptic anarcho-hippy paradise.

Well, except for having to live in a walled township for protection against the infected. That bites pretty hard.

But speaking of the Crossed… There’s something going on with them, too. Their extreme recklessness has thinned their number significantly at this point, so yay. But now it’s starting to look almost like someone’s attempting some kind of forced evolution on them, selecting out for individuals with a little more control over themselves. That makes them far more dangerous in the long term. So maybe this thing’s not going to end well for humanity, after all.

All that said, though, this series has not been Alan Moore’s best work. It’s still better than 95% of everything else out there, mind you. Still well-worth reading. But there’s just a little something lacking, some essential element of style or depth that I’ve come to expect from Moore. It’s almost too simple, I guess, and the artwork, while technically very nice, lacks flair. I dunno. It’s good. Just not as good as I’d like it to be. Maybe my expectations are too high. Still, I can’t quite bring myself to give this one a top grade…

Grade: B+

Okay. I think that’s all I’ve got time for right now. Hope you enjoyed it. Next week, we’ll have… something. Only time will tell what.

BIG MAN PLANS!!


Keepin’ it short tonight.

(That’s a joke, son! Don’tcha get it?!)

Big Man Plans 1, by Eric Powell and Tim Wiesch

Powell Big Man Plans 1

Have you ever wanted to see a pantsless dwarf goin’ down on a foxy black mama in the back seat of a Cadillac? Or see that same dwarf (still pantsless) beatin’ the crap outta her boyfriend with a tire iron after gettin’ caught in the act? How ’bout (fully clothed this time) stabbin’ a man in the throat with the broken-off end of a plastic fork?

If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, seek professional help. But first, check out Big Man Plans. ‘Cause I think it just might be your kinda funnybook!

Grade: A

Why I Hate Funnybook Movies


So we’re gonna eschew the normal reviews this week. Not because there’s nothing to review, understand; we just got a new issue of Wicked + Divine, after all, and that’s always worth talking about. But unfortunately, I’ve been a bit under the weather. Nothing serious. Just a tenacious cold I can’t quite shake. So lots of sneezing, coughing, snot, and headaches. It’s the headaches in particular that’ve kept me from writing. Makes it hard to concentrate. Makes me a little ornery, too. So I’ve decided to write something that doesn’t require a whole lot of conscious thought. Something that’s been percolating in the back of my mind for a while, and that’ll allow me to blow off a little steam to boot. A rant, in other words.

Step back. This may get ugly.

Step back. This may get ugly.

Why the hell do comics fans get so damn excited about funnybook movies? Seriously. I don’t get it. Why is the announcement of a film adaptation especially exciting, in and of itself? If the announcement involves Your Favorite Character being portrayed by a particularly good actor, or a good writer doing the screenplay, or an interesting director helming the project… If it sounds like it’s going to be good, in other words… I can totally understand getting into it. But the level of excitement I often see, just at the announcement that a comic has been optioned, with no information about who’s working on it, boggles my damn mind.

BOGGLES. IT.

I mean, when I hear that a favorite book of mine is going to be adapted into film, the most enthusiasm I can generally garner is guarded optimism. Why? Because the vast majority of film adaptations suck. I had hope, for instance, that the Hughes Brothers might do something interesting with From Hell. But I was also pretty sure that they weren’t going to be able to do a proper adaptation of that monster of a book. So I kept my fingers crossed, went to the theater, and…

From Hell Movie

…wound up sitting through a fairly standard Hollywood detective story. It has its moments, and the fact that they worked in even a little bit of William Gull’s shamanistic dreamtime walkabout is impressive, under the circumstances. But that still doesn’t make it a good movie.

Now, I suppose I can understand some excitement on the part of super hero fans. I’m told that the Marvel movies have handled the characters and situations well. I still won’t go see one of the damn things due to the company’s absolutely abysmal treatment of Jack Kirby, but that’s a personal thing. I have no doubt that the films are, on the whole, well-done. And there have been enough of them at this point that I can understand people being excited to see what they’re going to do next.

I mean, hell. I enjoyed the Chris Nolan Batman films, and thought Man of Steel offered an interesting look at the development of the young Superman. So even though Batman vs Superman is sounding more and more like it’s going to be a train wreck, I can also see how they might develop the Man of Steel themes to create a more expansive spandex world. So I’m holding out hope. Guarded hope, of course. But hope nonetheless. So I guess it makes sense to me that somebody would look forward to more of the same stuff they’ve already been enjoying.

But I’ve had people tell me that the adaptation itself is important. That they’d rather have a bad adaptation than no adaptation at all. And that doesn’t make any sense to me. Why is it important that a comic, or any other piece of writing for that matter, be adapted into film? I mean, I like film. It’s a great storytelling medium. But I like comics as much or more. For that matter, I like reading in general. It’s a more active sort of entertainment that allows for more imagination and interpretation, and for the telling of deeper and more complex stories. So I don’t get it when friends defend some pretty indefensible shit just because it’s on their TV. Take Constantine, for instance.

Please.

Please.

I’ve kind of held off offering my opinion of the series because I have some friends who were involved in its production, and I didn’t want to publicly slag off on something that was part of their livelihood. But now that it’s cancelled…

I fucking hated that show. I’ll admit to having only sat through two episodes of it, but that was enough. They took some of the best horror comics in the history of horror comics and turned them into formulaic series television crap. They simplified the morality, simplified the characters, and worst of all… IT WASN’T SCARY. Hellblazer traded on a palpable sense of dread, and Constantine conjured up anything but. It was too white bread, too much in the heroic mold rather than the horrific. But beyond it being a poor adaptation… it just wasn’t good. The acting was poor, the dialogue leaden, the plots straight out of the TV writing playbook. Even when they adapted stories from the comic, they hammered them into cookie cutter series television structures that robbed them of all their interest, their frisson.

It just sucked. And yet, I’ve had friends defend it as “good enough.” Or “as good an adaptation as you’re going to get on network TV.” Or “it was bad, but at least it got made.” Well, fuck that. Fuck settling for crap. There’s already more good movies and TV out there than I have time to watch. Why should I spend one minute of that time on something bad, just because it’s based on something I like? In fact, when the source material is really good, why should I settle for anything less than work of equal quality? Dammit, Fanboys! THIS IS WHY WE CAN’T HAVE NICE THINGS!

Ahem.

Alright. Steam blown off. Headache pissiness satisfied. Hopefully didn’t lose too many friends.

Next week, illness willing, we’ll get back to writing about things I actually like…

Infinite Shades of Gray: Cloudy Morality Defines Grant Morrison’s Mastermen


A word of warning: the following review gets pretty SPOILERY, in the interest of analyzing the story. So if you haven’t read the book in question yet… Tread carefully.

Multiversity: Mastermen, by Grant Morrison and Jim Lee

Jim Lee Mastermen Cover

When I was flipping through this comic in the shop, I curled my lip a bit and thought, “Ugh! Who’s responsible for this ugly art?” So I checked the credits, and laughed. It’s Jim Lee! Nice to know I hate that guy’s work on its own merits, without being pre-conditioned to hate it because I know it’s him.

Luckily, however, he didn’t detract much from my enjoyment of the comic itself, because this is one of my favorite issues of Multiversity to date. This one’s set on a world where the Nazis won World War II, and Superman – excuse me, Overman – now rules over a fascist paradise built on a foundation of bones. Opposing him and his colleagues in the New Reichsmen (the Nazi Justice League) are Uncle Sam and the Freedom Fighters, American rebels who are vilified as terrorists in the press.

Of course, they do earn that label, endangering civilian lives in attacks that are more symbolic than they are effective. The Human Bomb, for instance, operates as a sort of reusable suicide bomber, hitting an annual performance of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It serves no strategic purpose, but it sends a message. And threatens the lives of dozens of innocents. This idea of the American patriot as terrorist is, of course, a provocative one. Uncle Sam doesn’t quite come off like a home-spun Osama Bin Laden here, but the parallels to jihadists are impossible to ignore.

And that’s really the juicy part of this issue: the morality of it is hardly black and white. When Freedom Fighter attacks threaten the lives of innocent civilians, the New Reichsmen save them with heroic efficiency. And yet, they’re still representatives of a society that is demonstrably wrong. Prejudice is a defining social norm for these people, and the concept of democracy seems pretty much dead. Leatherwing (Nazi Batman) is a staunch defender of the fascist ideal…

Lee Nazi Batman

…and doesn’t hesitate to torture prisoners when he deems it necessary. Which makes him a bit of a jack-booted thug, yes, but with all that patriot-as-terrorist stuff swirling around, it also brings to mind the specter of American “enhanced interrogation.” In particular, I was put in mind of Jack Bauer, perhaps the most prominent heroic torturer in 21st Century pulp fiction.

But again, I must stress that this is not a story of bad people fighting worse people. Both sides have heroic qualities as well as ugly ones. Uncle Sam is perhaps more heroic, motivated as he is by a love of freedom. But do the ends justify the means? And the New Reichsmen, while unquestionably in the wrong, genuinely care about the well-being of society. They’ve rejected the worst of Hitler’s excesses, and have made the world into a utopia… at least for those deemed worthy. So this is a nuanced conflict colored in numerous shades of gray.

Lines of morality are further blurred when the source of the Freedom Fighters’ super powers is revealed:

Lee Mastermen Sivana

A Sivana, working as an agent of the Gentry, bringing other-dimensional technology to bear in Uncle Sam’s otherwise hopeless battle. Such a nice twist. Thus far, the Gentry have been shown working primarily with the bad guys. But that, it seems, is only because they’re easier to tempt. In this world, Uncle Sam’s desperation makes him the ideal target. And that brings the Gentry’s real goals into sharper focus. They don’t care about good or evil or any of the stuff that drives super hero fiction. They’re attacking the underpinnings of reality itself, the fictional rules that govern the operation of the Multiverse.

Because that’s what Multiversity is ultimately about: fictional realities, and the rules they work under. The world of the Mastermen is a fascist world, one in which totalitarianism is the norm and freedom doesn’t stand a chance. The Gentry interfere with that natural order, drive a wedge into the cracks and try to break it apart. Of course, it’s not enough to simply help the underdogs win. They need to infect these fictional worlds with ideas, tempt their heroes to act outside the normal bounds of the story. In Society of Super Heroes, they got the Atom to kill. In Pax Americana, they perverted the President’s attempt to create an expansive heroic narrative by driving one of that narrative’s architects to acts of desperate practicality. In Mastermen, they convince Overman to commit the sin of hope.

The how and why of that is something I won’t discuss here. I’ve been spoilery enough, without going that far. But before I go, I did want to mention a few small bits that made me love this issue, beyond the uneasy morality of it all. First, there’s this:

Toilet Hitler

HEH. That might be the best thing Jim Lee’s ever drawn.

It opens the issue with a bang, for damn sure, and is a great punch-in-the-face reminder that this series is funny as much as anything else. Literally, in fact, since Hitler’s bathroom reading is a funnybook on the cover of which he himself is getting punched out by Superman. Double funny!

Another great gag is the name of the Nazi Aquaman: Underwaterman. I chuckled the first time somebody said it, but by the third or fourth mention, I was reading it in a bad German accent. And that made it hysterical. I also got a laugh out of the reason the Nazis didn’t wipe out the Atlantean race with their reverse-engineered Kryptonian technology:

Jim Lee Underwaterman

Okay, so it’s a dark laugh for sure. But, still… Hitler. What a maroon!

And, since I always catch a little crap when I complain about Jim Lee artwork, I guess I should take a minute to explain why. Basically, he just sucks.

Thank you, and good night.

No, seriously… I think Lee’s an okay funnybook artist, but no more than that. His base style is pretty standard super hero fare, and on a good day he doesn’t get in the way of the story too much. He’s having a good day here, in fact, displaying few of the problems that drive me the most insane about his work. He doesn’t bust out ill-planned splash pages in this book, for instance, and I only tripped up on his panel-to-panel storytelling once or twice. He even, shockingly, designed some pretty good costumes for the Reichsmen:

Lee Mastermen

(Nazi Flash is especially nice)

 

So what made me instantly hate the art at a glance? It’s bland. The poses are stiff. The anatomy’s bad. The action is poorly-conveyed. And there’s freaking LINES all over everything. I think they’re supposed to be texture, but if so, it’s not being applied very effectively. It’s part of Lee’s style, sure, and all the most memorable comics artists have idiosyncrasies that define their work. But the really good ones know how to use those idiosyncrasies to best advantage, and when to reign them in. That’s not a type of control Lee typically shows, and it makes him a weaker artist than he could be. So that’s why I don’t like Jim Lee’s stuff.

It didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the book, though. Mastermen is smart, sharply written spandex comics. Well-worth your attention. Even if it is ugly.

Grade: A-

Take a Walk on the Dark Side


Vadercomic! Dark Side Represent!

Darth Vader 1, by Kieron Gillen and Salvador Larroca

Ross Vader 1

I picked this book up for exactly two reasons: 1. I like the idea of a story told from the perspective of Darth Vader, and 2. Kieron Gillen strikes me as a good choice to tell that story. I’m sure the prior has been done before, but I’m equally sure that it hasn’t been done by anyone as interesting as the latter. So it’s really the combination of the two that caught my eye. Gillen and Vader: killer funnybook tag team.

Vader, I’ve been intrigued by since childhood. He’s at once a domineering super-villain and a servant to an even worse super-villain. He seems to have his own methods and agendas, but we gain only the slightest insight into them in the original Star Wars films. And the prequels, maligned as they are…

(perhaps not without reason)

(perhaps not without reason)

…add further shadings and tragedy to him, revealing him as a good man doomed to fall, the damaged pawn of misguided men on both sides of the Force. And, if you’re paying attention, you learn that he’s also a cuckoo, a powerful child created through Sith manipulation of the Force. He gets mistaken for Jedi Jesus, and in the end brings about the destruction of both orders.

That’s pretty freaking epic, which might make some wonder why I’m so hot on seeing Kieron Gillen write the character. Gillen excels at subtle character interactions and accessibly flawed individuals. Not the sort of thing you’d expect to be a good fit for Star Wars. Except…

Larroca Vader Torture

See… See, that right there is exactly what I want out of this book: Dark deeds and webs of deceit. Machiavellian scheming between two of the greatest pulp villains of all time. And that, Gillen is great at. To understand why, and why that scene above is such a great example of it, we’ll have to cover a bit more background. This series picks up his story at a particularly interesting period in Vader’s life: the days following the Battle of Yavin, and the destruction of the first Death Star.

(It suddenly occurs to me that I’m tossing out Star Wars terminology as if everyone knows what the hell I’m talking about. Which, I mean… If you’re reading this, you probably do. I just had to marvel for a moment at the way I tossed off “Battle of Yavin” like it’s something I learned in high school history class. What a dork!)

Anyway. Vader. After the Battle of Yavin. As that battle’s sole survivor, Vader has to take the blame for… Oh, hell. Here. If they’re gonna be doing these opening crawls in these Star Wars books (and god knows I hope they keep that up), I might as well let them set the tone:

Darth Vader Scroll

Okay, so. That’s “evil bastard comic” step one: write your “the story so far” text from the perspective of the evil bastards. And this one speaks well to Vader’s mindset. In the prequels, we saw Anakin become a true believer in not only the Sith Way, but also in fascism. Is he deluded? Of course. Deluded, and arrogant.

That’s evident in his surprise at Palpatine calling him out on his own failures. Yavin was a stunning military loss for the Empire. I mean, Palpatine had started work on the Death Star even before he wiped out the Jedi. It was the culmination of 30 or 40 years of meticulous planning and resource management, the manipulation of countless billions across the galaxy, and the maintenance of a sham democracy that he only felt safe dissolving once the damn thing was operational. Then he loses it to a slight design flaw! A slight design flaw, and the failure of his disciple to stop the young pilot who made the one-in-a-million shot that destroyed his life’s work. Needless to say, the Emperor is not well pleased.

Larroca Vader Palpatine

And in his arrogance, Vader didn’t see this coming. He’s all, “Hey! I TOLD you that thing was a bad idea, man! Totally not my fault that your master plan’s in ruins!” Well, okay. Actually, he’s more like “That battle station pales in comparison to the power of the Force!” You know, just like in the movie. What’s funny to me is that Palpatine blows him off almost as dismissively as the Imperial military council does when he says it to them. It’s like, yeah… NObody wants to hear that religious mumbo-jumbo anymore.

That’s a great characterization of the Emperor, I think. That callous, arrogant practicality. With the advent of the Death Star, he came out of the closet as a full-on evil sonnuvabitch, and now he can’t even be bothered to fake reverence to his number one agent.

Such hubris. Fantastic.

But Vader. Lots of nice small touches here, little things that speak volumes about the mindset of the character. When Vader is describing the actions of the rebels he’s recently encountered (Han, Leia, and Luke, as it happens), he says that they tortured information out of some Imperial flunkie. They didn’t, of course, but Vader assumes they did. Because OF COURSE they did. It’s what HE would have done. And what he actually does do, to the same guy, a few panels later.

Which brings us, at last, back to that torture scene above, and why Kieron Gillen is a great choice to write this book. He’s writing these villains with aplomb, drawing on what we know about them from both film trilogies, and drawing the links between the two. He’s especially good, I think, at balancing the angry, impulsive young Anakin Skywalker with the more majestic, deliberate Darth Vader. That’s evident in how Vader responds to the punishments Palpatine hands down.

Essentially, he’s told that he’s now going to be kept on a short leash, and that leash chafes. First, he’s placed under the command of the one member of the Imperial military brass who’d gotten off the Death Star before it arrived at Yavin (I’m not 100% sure, but I think it’s that disrespectful douche bag Vader force-choked in that meeting toward the beginning of Star Wars. Which, if so, is doubly insulting). Then he gets sent off on a demeaning mission to parlay with Jabba the Hutt for supplies desperately needed in the construction of the second Death Star.

More good work on Palpatine, there. He’s angry, but his punishments for Vader are mental rather than physical. Physical confrontations aren’t Palpatine’s style, and besides… it’s just barely possible that Vader could beat him. So instead he manages him. Insults and demeans him. Places him under the command of someone Vader doesn’t respect. That’s far worse than a slap.

Vader responds rather… violently.

Larroca Vader Attack

That’s where the issue opens, I should mention: with Vader’s approach to the palace of Jabba the Hutt. It’s intended, I think, to play as a dark parallel to Luke’s entrance to the same place from Return of the Jedi. Something’s missing from it, but I’ll get to that in a minute. On the positive side, it speaks to Vader’s mood. He’s angry, and when he’s angry he acts out. He continues to show that anger for the remainder of his stay on Tatooine, taking his frustrations out on some Sand People (for old time’s sake, I guess). And then he really gets busy.

He conducts some personal business with Jabba, then deals in secret with some bounty hunters (which, yes, means Boba Fett). One of them, he sends to kidnap a guy who he thinks is part of some secret plan Palpatine’s not informing him of. The other, he tasks with getting him information on this Force-Sensitive young rebel pilot he’s become obsessed with. This young rebel pilot who knew Kenobi, and who’s now running around with Vader’s old lightsaber.

So now Vader’s scheming, too. Proving, I suppose, that he can wield as well as being wielded. Is this the first crack in his devotion to Palpatine? The first time he’s doubted? The first step toward that final decision he makes that sends both of them plunging to their deaths in Return of the Jedi? For now, I choose to think that it is. And I like that it’s caused, in large part, by Vader’s discovery that his son is still alive.

But I mentioned that something’s lacking in Vader’s confrontation with Jabba. There’s a fan-service aspect to it, of course, but I think Gillen covers his ass on that. Jabba’s an established power in the Outer Rim, and it’s precisely the Outer Rim that’s causing the Empire trouble after the Battle of Yavin. The Senate helped them keep the outlying planets in line, you see, and… without that… or the Death Star to threaten them with, they’re… they’re losing… their iron grip and…

I’m sorry. Did your eyes just glaze over? I know that’s the kind of stuff everybody on Earth but me thought was boring in the prequels. But screw you guys. That shit’s fascinating, and Gillen handles it well, really earning his inclusion of The Character You Know From the Movies in this case.

So what went wrong? Well, the whole sequence is honestly a little bit clumsy. Check out this dialogue exchange, for instance:
Larroca Vader Jabba

I’m sorry, but that’s too wordy by half. The same line is better-delivered in Jedi. And when your dialogue sounds bad next to George Lucas dialogue? Yeesh. That’s not good. It just sets a bad tone, coloring my opinion of what follows. So I found the rest of it, with Vader explaining that the Mind Trick is a Jedi thing, and that the Sith don’t do that, to just be kind of flat. Pedantic, even.

But there’s also something missing, some dramatic essence that would make the whole thing more interesting and fun. That might be down to the general lack of dramatic flair in the art of Salvador Larroca, who’s great at drawing hardware, but whose work can be a bit lifeless. “Plastic” might be a good word.

So, yeah. Art and dialogue neither one firing on all cylinders. That’s never going to make for engaging reading, no matter how compelling the dramatic underpinnings are. And because that’s the scene that opens the book, I was really impatient with the rest of the issue. Honestly, all that character interplay I’ve been rambling on about didn’t even occur to me until I sat down last night and reviewed the stuff between Vader and the Emperor. That’s much better, and more interesting besides. But the Jabba stuff takes up the whole first half of the issue, so… The grade’s going to suffer a bit.

Speaking of which… What’s my final word here? Half of this book is great, the Darth Vader comic I always wanted but never had. The other half, the half with the fighting and the action, isn’t so hot. It’s a mixed bag. I want to like it, but I’m not sure it was worth the five dollar price tag. Not even at 34 pages. So this one’s going to be a real wait and see kind of thing for me. My fascination with all the evil scheming might compel me to pick up the next issue. But my dissatisfaction with the lack of compelling action (also an important part of the Star Wars experience) might lead me to leave it on the shelf. Or at least, to wait til I can get the story at a more reasonable price. I mean, I’ve waited almost 40 years for this book. A little while longer ain’t gonna hurt.

Grade: B

Oh! And as a post-script…

This issue includes the cover of the next, which…

Work It!

Work It!

HAH! That is the sassiest Vader ever! It’s like he’s top model at some kind of nerd fetish fashion show!

And with that, I leave you…