Book Review: All The Birds In The Sky

All The Birds In The Sky book cover

All The Birds In The Sky
Written by Charlie Jane Anders

The near future. Patricia is 6 years old when she helps a sparrow with a wounded wing, who tells her to take her to the Parliament of Birds in the nearby forest to fix him. The sparrow tells her she’s a witch, if she can talk to animals. Laurence (definitely not Larry) is a smart 6-year-old kid who doesn’t like doing stuff that Gets Him Out Of The House, who makes a Two-Second Time Machine from schematics he finds on the internet. He decides to go to Boston to watch the launch of a prototype rocket, which he doesn’t see but he does meet all the engineers who made it because of the Two-Second Time Machine he made.

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Comic Book Review – Doctor Who: Four Doctors

Doctor Who: Four Doctors cover

Doctor Who: Four Doctors #1–5
Written by Paul Cornell
Art by Neil Edwards
Colours by Ivan Nunes
Letters by Richard Starkings/Jimmy Betancourt
Edited by Andrew James
Published by Titan Comics

On the planet Marinus at some point during the Time War, the War Doctor is with the Voord, a hive mind race, who are resisting the Daleks; they are worried that the Time Lords will remove what the Voord have become during the war and ask the War Doctor for help. Cut to: Clara Oswald and the Twelfth Doctor, with the word ‘Marinus’ popping in to her head – after a quick recon trip, she goes to a café in Paris, 1923, to meet two other companions: Gabby Gonzalez (would-be artist from Brooklyn who is currently the companion of the Tenth Doctor) and Alice Obiefune (former library assistant from London who is currently companion to the Eleventh Doctor). Clara needs to convince the other companions of an important fact or the universe will be destroyed: their Doctors must not meet … Of course, things don’t work out like that and, as the Twelfth Doctor says, “We’re all going to have some sort of ‘Multi-Doctor … Event’! Whether you like it or not!”

After the Blinovitch Limitation Effect creates a paradox at a fixed point in time, Reapers appear to feed on the energy, so it’s time for our Doctors and their companions to run, where the three Doctors deliberately cause their Tardises to become docked into one, allowing plenty of running down corridors, then going to Marinus when they shouldn’t because it’s obviously a trap, revealing the reason why they’ve been lured there, a continuity bomb, and why the series is called Four Doctors. The story includes references to pivotal moments in the lives of the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors, lots of in-jokes and references and lovely dialogue (Eleventh Doctor: “Is this what deja vu is like? I’ve always wanted to have deja vu.”), plus some nice moments that illuminate the various Doctors and their respective companions. It’s all set at a frantic pace, with twists and turns aplenty, excitement, adventure and the feel of a story that you would see on the television (there must have been plenty of careful coordination with the various creators so that storylines didn’t get messed up, helped by the fact that Cornell has written for the TV show as well) instead of just a piece of tie-in merchandise.

This story works really well as a Doctor Who crossover – it feels organic and connected to the history and reliant on the different characteristics of the different regenerations. Cornell brings the right mix of comic book and television to the mini-series so that it works as a comic book that could be a television episode (well, an extra-length special at the very least) without feeling like it’s simply a storyboard for a show that didn’t get made; it’s a tricky balance to pull off, but Cornell manages the equilibrium superbly. He fills it with detail to show that the book is rooted in details of the series but also gently mocks it as well to create the light touch that drives the current incarnation, mixing humour with adventure that has consequences. So there are lines about the Valeyard looking like something ‘out of a panto’, a sly reference to the fact that the Ninth Doctor isn’t part of the Multi-Doctor Event (‘There was … a problem involving him.’), and the Twelfth Doctor describing the Tenth and Eleventh Doctors as ‘Manic Pixie Dream Doctors’ – a phrase that makes me smile just writing it – and as ‘Baby Doctor’ and ‘Posh Doctor’ respectively. Add in references to Harry Potter, Asterix the Gaul, Bugs Bunny, Star Wars and Carry On films, and you have that beguiling mix of entertainment that is Doctor Who.

Another important factor that makes this book feel like a comic book that is also something that could be on television is the art. Edwards has continued to grow as an artist and he makes this book come alive – not only is his art dynamic with excellent storytelling but he also does really good likenesses, something that can be the bane of comic books that are tie-ins to live-action shows. He perfectly captures the mannerisms and facial reactions of David Tennant, Matt Smith, Peter Capaldi and Jenna Coleman, which makes the banter and jokes land so much better. He also copes with the tough task of capturing the feel of the show and the accuracy of the Tardis interiors, which makes the story easier to invest in and go with, because the reader can sit back and let the narrative pull them through without anything taking them out of the story.

Doctor Who: Four Doctors is a fun, action-packed, genuine Doctor Who crossover that entertains and delights and makes you glad you’ve read the book. I thoroughly enjoyed it and think that you will as well. It’s Doctoriffic.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.

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Notes On A Film – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens official poster

It has taken me three weeks to finally post my thoughts on this film – I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens on Friday 18 December; in the intervening time, I couldn’t bring myself to write them because (whisper it) I was disappointed.

*Ducks for cover and hides from internet for ever*

Qualifiers: I’m a Star Wars fan. I’m writing this while wearing one of my many Star Wars t-shirts (one of the Chunk ones); I watched the films in the cinema, recorded the films on video tape when they were shown on television and watched them regularly, watched the films again in cinema when they were rereleased, bought the VHS versions, bought the DVD versions, saw the prequels in the cinema, played the Star Wars Lego games over and over. The notification noise on my smartphone is the sound of the MSE-6 droid from the first film. I don’t have the toys or the novels or the comics, but my love for Star Wars is pretty strong.

The main problem I have with The Force Awakens is the familiarity with what has gone before. I was excited by the prospect of new canon in the Star Wars cinematic universe, so the last thing I wanted was to see the same things done again but slightly differently. When you can map story beats from the original sequel to this film, you lose any excitement about what is going to happen because you already know. If you know the outcome as soon as somebody walks onto a gantry, it removes the emotional impact completely. When my girlfriend and I left the cinema, it was with a sigh instead of an exclamation of exhilaration.

This is not to say that everything is bad – this is a good Star Wars film with lots of good things. The dialogue is better, and it’s funny (‘Oh really, you’re cold?’) and most importantly of all is the fact that there is diversity in a female lead and a black co-lead, so it’s no longer a solely white male fantasy. The acting is good and the new people are perfect – Daisy Ridley as Rey shines (and looks like Keira Knightley when she smiles, which is weird), John Boyega (who was great in Attack The Block) knocks it out of the park as the stormtrooper who doesn’t want to be one any more and joins the Resistance, Oscar Isaac exudes movie star charisma as the best pilot in the galaxy – and scenes where they are together crackle with chemistry and energy. It’s a delight to see Han, Chewie and Leia again – Harrison Ford in particular is fantastic as an older Han Solo. The fights in space look fantastic (and more dynamic than The Dambusters rerun in Star Wars). The reliance on real props and sets instead of CGI means that the film looks like Star Wars should. The film is well made (JJ Abrams might have missed the point of the Star Trek franchise, but he knows how to direct a film and make it look good), and sets up questions for future films, even if it does have more than a few plot holes along the way; this is better than any of the prequels by a long way.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens unofficial poster by Phil Noto

The reason I can’t love it and didn’t enjoy it is the repeating of events – George Lucas always talked about the way he treated the films like music so that themes would echo through all the films, which was why you get dialogue repeating, but he wasn’t remixing the first trilogy to create another film and claim it’s completely new. There were always going to be callbacks to the originals, but I didn’t expect something akin to a reboot with blatant nods (the chessboard, charges being mounted on columns to blow up something pivotal, a death star blowing up a planet). My girlfriend and I feel out of synch with the rest of the world, which has fallen deeply in love with this film, wondering why nobody has mentioned that this film is just the same thing over again. Perhaps that was the point – other Star Wars fans seem to be in ecstasy at having the same thing but newer, and the powers that be at Disney wanted to give people exactly what they wanted so that the toys and the advertising tie-ins and the merchandise keep on going.

I know I’m in the minority here (and at least I won’t get hate mail for writing something slightly negative, such as what happened to Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir), but it feels weird to be out of step with so many people about a franchise I love. If you enjoyed Star Wars: The Force Awakens, then I’m very happy for you; it saddens me to say that I didn’t enjoy it.

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Comic Book Review: The Troop #1

Cover for The Troop #1

Written and created by Noel Clarke
Art by Joshua Cassara
Colours by Luis Guerrero
Letters by Rona Simpson
Edited by Steve White
Published by Titan Comics

Noel Clarke should stop being so damn capable at everything he tries. In addition to acting, screenwriting, producing and directing films, he’s turned his attention to writing comic books, and he’s created a really good comic book that is interesting and exciting. It’s so frustrating …

The Troop is definitely a comic book with comic book antecedents, which is definitely a good thing – the industry is littered with comic books written or co-written by film/television personalities that are nothing more than thinly veiled pitches for films or television shows, which is a sad indictment on the way that some people view the medium. However, this story is created by someone who loves comic books: the super powers – a woman who can turn rocky, a man who can create fire from his hands, a girl who can manifest diseases in other people – are rooted in comic books, and this first issue is an archetypal ‘gathering the team’ story.

The story stars in Australia, where a young woman is rescued from a paramilitary squad trying to apprehend her by a man who teleports in to help (he also has technology that blurs his face in video footage) – she can turn her body to rock, giving her strength and a degree of vulnerability. Later, the two of them rescue the young man with fire-hands and the disease girl from a man in advanced armour who calls them ‘demons’ and who reports in to ‘your holiness’. This element of religion is also present in the man who saves them – his narration refers to a prophecy that has begun but which he will not let happen. There is also a very brief glimpse of what would appear to be a vampire, so there is a lot more going on in this world and more to explore.

This is a comic book set in the real world with burgeoning super powers and shadowy organisations trying to control them or eradicate them, echoing the likes of Rising Stars or Heroes in its general tone, even though it feels more connected to the X-Men and the world of mutants in general – no explanation for powers, people fear and hate them, an older man saving them to be on his team. However, it does seem to want to aim for a mature-reader level – there is swearing, the violence seems a bit bloodier than normal, and there is full-frontal nudity (of both sexes). There doesn’t seem to be any reason for these things as yet, but perhaps the ensuing issues will justify the decision as it gets further into the story.

If this is Clarke’s first comic book script, he’s achieved a high level very quickly – the book is assured, competent, considered; the plot drives the story, the characters are fully realised and distinct and have precise backgrounds, there is an air of mystery and tension, and it instils a necessity to find out what happens next. This is an impressive achievement in a first issue of any comic book, let alone from an actor who decided to write and direct as well. It’s not perfect – the names of our protagonists are not all revealed in the first issue, the nudity panels seem unnecessary, the locations of events aren’t disclosed, the narration changes between characters but there is no difference in their voices despite their age and gender – but these are not insurmountable. Clarke is clearly a driven individual with strong ideas and the ambition to achieve them, so it’s satisfying to see a comic book that matches that.

I’ve never seen Cassara’s art before but I’m impressed: it is solid comic book storytelling with a nice style that makes me think of a British version of the good Top Cow artists, strong lines with a slightly grungy vibe, distinct character work and very good panel transitions, never losing clarity or pace. The action is dynamic and visceral, the design elements strong, such as the armour, and the right mix of realism and traditional comic book to enhance the tone of the story. The colours help in this regard, with a palette that reflects all settings instead of dominating the pencils with a single muddy palette that occurs frequently in stories set in the real world. The first issue of The Troop is a complete package and sets up what looks like a very interesting series. Damn Clarke and his talent, which doesn’t seem to know limits – I hope The Troop does the same.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.
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Comic Book Review: Crossed +100 Volume 1

Cover for Crossed +100 Volume 1

Crossed +100 #1–6
Written by Alan Moore
Art by Gabriel Andrade
Colours by Digikore Studios
Letters by Jaymes Reed
Crossed created by Garth Ennis
Published by Avatar Press

The mark of a truly great writer is the ability to create work in any genre, even a genre you don’t necessarily enjoy, and surpass the expectations and limitations while demonstrating their skill and craft to open your eyes to a good story. Alan Moore does that here. Working in a zombie-like setting, he creates a new dialect for a post-destruction Earth, examines the nature of the concept and then pulls the rug from your feet while misdirecting you with his talent. It’s a phenomenal achievement.

Crossed is a concept created by Garth Ennis – a pandemic that turns the infected into homicidal psychopaths indulging in murder, cannibalism, rape, torture, who are marked by a rash on their faces in the shape of a cross (Ennis can’t escape his religion-baiting tendencies) but retain the same level of intelligence; transmission is via bodily fluids and is extremely quick, meaning that the world was overwhelmed within weeks. The execution of this idea in the first comic book was so horrific (I read the first issue and my stomach churned at a particularly noxious double-page spread at the end) that I have never read another issue, despite being a fan of Ennis. However, the thought of Moore turning his attentions to this world was too much to resist.

This story is set 100 years since the infection started; there are fewer infected around because they tend to eat their babies and have no care for survival, and humanity is beginning to re-emerge. The book focuses on Future Taylor, a young woman who is the archivist for the settlement of Chooga (formerly Chattanooga). She is with a team investigating local areas for information about the world (books, videos, maps) that will help the survivors continue to thrive, but also to understand what happened (although Future has a predilection for ‘wishful fiction’, i.e. sci-fi stories). During their journey, they come across a family of infected, something Future hasn’t seen before because it’s so rare. She also finds what looks like a small shrine to an uninfected man, which is incredibly strange. She also finds another one in a large (and familiar to us) mansion in Memphis, where they lose a member of their crew to the infection. They return to Chooga to discuss the outcomes with their community, which leads to the crew being sent out to the settlement of Murfreesboro for information and help. She learns from the Murfreesboro archivist that the photo in the shrine is that of a serial killer, and she finds video of what looks like infected being experimented on. It’s only when she’s on another expedition does she learn the full truth …

This is a fascinating book to read primarily because of the language – instead of people in the future using the same words and grammar, Moore has created a believable evolution of English that uses words from today in different but identifiable ways (I believe he similarly created a different language for the first chapter of his novel, Voice of the Fire). So ‘hearting’ is ‘liking’, ‘sexing’ is ‘fucking’, ‘fuck’ is a general emphasiser, ‘movie’ is ‘amazing’, ‘skulling’ is ‘thinking’ or ‘knowing’, ‘opsying’ is ‘watching’ or ‘seeing’, ‘fooded’ is ‘ate’ or ‘fed’, ‘churchface’ is ‘sad’ – linguistically, this book is a delight. The creation of another dialect is impressive, but writing dialogue that is clearly different but that we can also understand at the same time is the mark of a great writer.

Cover for Crossed +100 issue 01The aspect that realises the depth to which Moore has created this world is the detail in the new society, with regards to religion and women and how the community functions. This also takes into account Moore’s influences of stories set in societies recovering from a global disaster – Future Taylor reads various ‘wishful fictions’, such as Walter Miller’s A Canticle For Leibowitz, Isaac Asimov’s Foundation and Empire, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and mentions for Tolkien and Heinlein – and presumably other influences I’m not sufficiently well read to recognise. This is a work-for-hire job, six issues of genre comic books, set within those constraints and still including the horror and violence associated with the many preceding books in the Crossed world, but which manages to be something more than that.

The real kicker is something that can’t be discussed in a review – and I feel bad for mentioning the existence of it for fear of ruining the reading experience – and that’s the way Moore turns the course of the book in a different direction from what you think you’ve been reading. I can still recall that feeling of reversal, the sensation as my stomach dropped as I began to realise the ramifications of the clues Moore had left for us and what it would mean for the story, the need to read more quickly because I couldn’t wait to find out if the suspicions were true. It was an incredible sensation, something you come across rarely, and perhaps more impressive that it was in a horror comic book that wasn’t even Moore’s own creation.

I’ve been rhapsodising about the writing because I’m a Moore fan, but I should mention the art – Andrade does sterling work here, creating a thoroughly believable portrayal of civilisation after disaster and trying to cling on to existence, as well as the horrific scenes (I always feel sorry for artists, having to take the descriptions of repulsive acts and transform them into visible reality, and I worry for their sanity). He also manages the tough job of working from a Moore script, notorious for the detail and density of information, while creating beautiful panels in the middle of carnage or pits full of skeletons, showing humanity at extremes in the middle of a tightly plotted script and giving depth to the fully realised characters that Moore has created.

If this review seems overly fulsome in its tone, it’s because I wasn’t expecting to be so blindsided by the experience, coming in with low expectations of the genre and having them revealed as shallow on my part. I hope you enjoy some of the same experience when you read this book.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.
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Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 3)

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 poster

The Amazing Spider-Man 2

After Kick-Ass 2 and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For, it’s time for the last in my little series of disappointing comic-book movie sequels. I cared so little for The Amazing Spider-Man, I didn’t see it in the cinema and didn’t bother to compile my thoughts on it in its own post – I included it in a collection of reviews of DVDs, and I didn’t even give it the prominence its alphabetical status warrants. Obviously, I wasn’t first in line to see the sequel, or even rushing to watching it when available to view at home.

Although I enjoyed Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker, and particularly his chemistry with the always fantastic Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, I didn’t need any more Spider-Man films by Sony; however, because Marvel has proved that there is money to be made from superhero franchises, Sony was going to give us a sequel whether we liked it or not. And like it we did not.

The film suffers from money-grabbing instincts – it spends more time setting up sequels and spin-offs (does anyone really want a film about the Sinister Six? Really?) than it does concentrating on the job in hand – namely, making an entertainment film that would engender in people a desire to see more films about the lead character and implausibly minor characters from the small collection of supporting villains because that’s all Sony has to try to milk money out of comic-book fans.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a classic case of completely missing the point of the success it’s trying to emulate: Marvel built up the films slowly, drip-feeding the future and sneaking in Easter eggs (well, except for the heavy-handed tactics in the less-than-stellar Iron Man 2); Sony forces it down your throat in one go – it’s like they hadn’t learnt the lesson of Spider-Man 3, stuffing it with too many villains and making a film nobody liked (even if it made money). It’s sad to see the great Paul Giamatti slumming it here in the hope of something more in a spin-off that is never going to happen. It’s a shame to see Chris Cooper spending his limited time in bed, waiting for future promises of more screen time that are now dust in the wind. Don’t get me started on the ridiculous of the plotlines involving Richard and Mary Parker and the secret subway train nonsense. Having Electro develop the power levels the equivalent (and look) of Doctor Manhattan didn’t help matters, creating a truly bizarre finale in the electrical pylons. No wonder Sony had to face facts and work with Marvel from now on …

However, the worst crime in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is believing that because it happened in the comic books, it had to happen in the film. Spoiler alert if you haven’t seen the film (although you wouldn’t be reading this if you hadn’t), but Gwen Stacy dies in the film, and the only reason is because it happened in the comic book. I can’t begin to describe the disappointment I felt that a group of white men in control of a genre that is dominated by white males thought it was perfectly natural to kill off one of the few great female supporting characters, just to make Peter Parker even sadder.

When Gwen appeared in the first film, I hoped that this would be part of the Marvel trend of not being completely beholden to comic-book lore – Iron Man’s identity is not a secret, Thor is not pretending to be a doctor with a limp, Ultron isn’t created by Ant-Man, Captain America isn’t a humourless dullard – and using the comic books as basis not blueprint. Gwen, as portrayed by Emma Stone, is smart, resourceful, funny, independent, principled, believable – everything that comic-book movies are lacking apart from Black Widow (Mary Jane in the first trilogy wishes she had half the gumption of Gwen). Stone’s onscreen chemistry with Garfield is great, and it looked like there might be a female character in a comic-book movie that could be an inspiration, a role model, a woman who was more than accessory to the male superhero … until she was killed off in an updating of the famous scene from the comic book.

It’s mind-boggling to witness the decisions of white men who have ignored the concept of Women In Refrigerators while retaining a sensibility from 1980s action films (that women exist only to be captured or be killed to motivate the male hero) and who completely believe that Gwen’s death MUST occur only because it happens in the comic book and adds a layer of tragedy to Peter Parker. A character who constantly carries with him the guilt of responsibility for his beloved uncle’s death, so he is clearly in desperate need of even more guilty and tragedy … This level of misery porn is one reason why I’ve never been a big fan of Spider-Man, and I naively hoped that it wouldn’t make the transition to a film made in the 21st century. I was wrong. We’ll see what Marvel can do to help, but I’m not holding my breath.

And that’s everything off my chest about those three films. I hope I don’t have to do this again, film studios.

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Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 2)

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For movie poster

Sin City: A Dame To Kill For

Yesterday’s Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie sequel was Kick-Ass 2. The next comic-book movie sequel that was a disappointment was Sin City: A Dame To Kill For – I can understand why it ended up on Netflix, like Kick-Ass 2 (Netflix UK does not get the best choice of films).

Unlike Kick-Ass 2, Sin City 2 has the same writer/director team as the first film; like Kick-Ass 2, it uses comic books as the source material, additional Sin City storylines from Frank Miller’s catalogue (plus two original stories he wrote for the film) as the basis of the film; another similarity is that Sin City 2 includes most of the original cast (including interesting new faces such as Christopher Lloyd and Ray Liotta). Yet another similarity is that I enjoyed the first film (see my thoughts on Sin City), which is another reason why the sequel felt even worse. Like Kick-Ass 2, Sin City 2 is not a good film in its own right and not a good sequel to the first film made nine years previously.

The first Sin City film was ridiculously violent, highly stylised, with a colour palette derived from the comic books and (at the time) a unique look, and it had a freshness, a vitality, a distinctive tone; the sequel is leaden, scattershot, pedestrian, a faded copy, the stories coming across as footnotes to the stories in the first film. I couldn’t believe that the sequel was made by the same creative team, who seemed to be genuinely making a proper Sin City film instead of some sort of parody film. As I said in my tweet, the last line of the film summed up the viewing experience: ‘It soils everybody.’

The first film managed a balance between the ‘realism’ of the setting with over-the top action, the verging-on-pastiche dialogue, the rather bleak view of women, and some clichéd aspects of hard-boiled fiction. The sequel decided to forget to bother with that and just go balls-out for unbelievable action – a young girl slicing off the heads of disposable gangsters while jumping impossibly high in the air; people standing across a courtyard from each other and firing machine guns and somehow surviving – and force terrible parodying dialogue in the mouths of good actors. It made me feel sad for people I like when they appeared in the film – poor returning Rosario Dawson, poor newcomer Joseph Gordon Levitt; the only person who comes out of it with dignity is Eva Green, a terrific actor who manages to generate the right insane intensity for the role within the movie so you can’t take your eyes off her.

Frank Miller’s comic-book work was entering into self-parody by the time he was only doing Sin City work (which was around the time I stopped buying any Miller comics), and it has a been a long time since he was a vital contributor to the form (the Dark Knight Returns sequel was hideous, and I’m not looking for the upcoming third instalment), so it’s unsurprising that this sequel feels uninspired. The film also suffers because Miller’s own directorial debut, the dire film adaptation of The Spirit (or, rather, Frank Miller does The Spirit as Sin City, completely missing the point), which destroyed a lot of affection for the Sin City film style by using the Sin City style inappropriately and making a truly horrible film (as I tried to encapsulate in my blog post about it).

Another thing: Robert Rodriguez hasn’t made a film as good as Sin City since, seemingly regressing to making films that are cinematic releases but look and feel as if they should have been released straight to video (and yes, I deliberately used the word ‘video’ because that’s how archaic they feel); this leads to a lack of strong directorial vision in charge of this sequel that nobody was clamouring for anymore. The only positive is that the film did not do well theatrically, so at least it brought us the possibility of no more Sin City films and, even better, no more films by Frank Miller.

Come back tomorrow for the final Unsatisfying Comic-Book Movie Sequel.

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Unsatisfactory Comic-Book Movie Sequels (Part 1)

Kick-Ass 2 movie poster

It used to be that, as a rule of thumb, sequels weren’t as good as the first film. The exceptions to this were so small that you could easily list them (The Godfather Part II, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, Aliens) and stay confident in the generalisation. However, there was a slow turnaround in the fortunes of sequels so that it was no longer a small list, and the rule of thumb was no longer a rule. In comic-book movies, this trend had significant outliers – Blade II was better than Blade, X-Men 2 was better than X-Men, and Captain America: Winter Soldier was exponentially better than Captain America: The First Avenger – but, unfortunately, there were still examples that seem determined to adhere to the original maxim. I wanted to use to talk about three of them.

I love comic books and I love films, so I love the combination of both (see my ‘comic book movie’ tag for evidence); I tend to see them mostly in the cinema and then blog about them. However, there have been comic-book films that I haven’t had the desire to watch on the big screen, and, when I’ve watched them at home, I didn’t have any desire to talk about them on the blog. Three comic-book movies that fit in this category all happen to be sequels, so it seemed sensible to jump on a theme and collectively bash them instead of doing ‘proper’ reviews (I use the sneer quotes to denote that what I do aren’t proper reviews).

Kick-Ass 2
I recently watched Kick-Ass 2 and Sin City 2: A Dame To Kill For on Netflix, and I’m glad I didn’t see them in the cinema or pay money specifically to see them. Both films suffer from seeming like parodies of their originators, almost as if they are knock-offs instead of direct follow-ons (and I enjoyed Kick-Ass). In Kick-Ass 2, blame can be laid at the feet of writer/director Jeff Wadlow – instead of recapturing the specific tone of the first film, which mixed ultra-violence with style and a tongue firmly in its cheek, Wadlow thinks that lots of violence and Hit-Girl spouting clichés when she dispatches gangsters in action scenes scored to bizarre musical choices are all that is needed to repeat the success of Kick-Ass.

Jim Carrey, who actually gives a good performance, notably came out against the violence of the film before it came out, but it’s possible he’d seen an early cut and was using any excuse. The sequel also uses the casting decision of the first film of using British actors as Americans (Iain Glen pops up as a mafia boss, Steven Mackintosh and Monica Dolan as bereaved parents, Andy Nyman as a psychotic gangster, Daniel Kaluuya as an MMA fighter turned villain, and Benedict Wong as a Chinatown boss), and I still can’t work out why John Leguizamo decided to be in this.

The film suffers from the contradiction of pretending that it’s a film about superheroes in the real world but still having comic-book action that defies the laws of physics (the bit at the end where Hit-Girl gets an adrenalin shot and practically becomes Jesse Quick) and a plot that doesn’t make any sense. The only good decision made in the film is that it doesn’t opt for the horrific rape scene of the Mark Millar–John Romita Jr comic book, and the only bit I genuinely enjoyed was Hit-Girl using a shock baton to cause a bullying teenage girl to (digitally) vomit and shit her guts out. I may have a strange sense of humour …

Even though Matthew Vaughan was a producer, he seems to have taken a hands-off approach, and the film feels like a sequel for the sake of money, instead of being an adaptation of a comic book. This is something that connects the three films – come back tomorrow for the next Unsatisfying Comic-Book Movie Sequel.

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Comic Book Review – Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor #1

Cover for Doctor Who: The Eighth Doctor #1

Written by George Mann
Art by Emma Vieceli
Colours by Hi-Fi
Letters by Richard Starkings and Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt
Edited by Andrew James
Published by Titan Comics

Josephine ‘Josie’ Day is painting in an empty cottage in a Welsh village when she’s disturbed by a noise, then a man: ‘I’m the Doctor, and I’d very much like to know what you’re doing in my house?’; her life isn’t going to be the same. The man is the eighth Doctor (as played by Paul McGann for one film, over a decade of audio adventures and recently wonderfully revived by Steve Moffat in Night of the Doctor), ‘a romantic soul wandering the universe in search of culture, companionship and adventure’, as accurately described on the inside cover.

The Doctor has returned to his home on Earth – it’s been several decades since he was last in the cottage – and he’s looking for a book. He thinks it’s important because someone left it for him – himself, ‘The other me. Old one, white hair and frills.’ – a copy of Jane Eyre (‘It’s one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century! Don’t they teach you anything these days?’). He’s distracted by Josie’s paintings, which have very unusual subject matter, only to be disturbed by a neighbour with a story of being attacked in the pub by a monster (‘I’m the Doctor – and I love a good monster story.’), a monster that was just like the one in Josie’s painting … When the monsters turn out to be Witherkin, creatures of living starlight that fashion bodies from fragments of drifting asteroids, and animated ones created by Josie because she is covered with Animae Particles (I do like a good pun), it’s up to Josie to save the day and finish the story …

I’d read a novel by Mann before but none of his comic books; he does a good job of capturing the voice of the Doctor in his eighth incarnation, the quest for culture and adventure, and the story is very much in keeping with the current approach to Doctor Who stories – quick to action, peril without heavy danger, humorous, a resourceful companion. It’s good to see this version of the Doctor getting a chance to shine in comic books, a good medium for the adventures because it has the necessary limitless budget. Vieceli is a good storyteller – the art flows naturally and dynamically – but the approach to likeness is more impressionistic than realistic; there are times where the art reminds me of Mark Buckingham and sometimes when it reminds me of Mike Deodato, particularly the late ‘80s, early ‘90s style, with less emphasis on background detail and more on the characters in the foreground. It has a charm that matches the Byronic tone of the Doctor and the adventure – light, breezy, playful, dashing – that overcomes any slight inconsistencies. The same playful and breezy tone is developed in the colouring, which channels the pastel end of the spectrum, taking it further away from the photorealistic style and placing it firmly in the cartoonier arena, almost with a hint of old-fashioned children’s book illustrations. It sounds like it shouldn’t come together, but it does in that wonderfully strange way that Doctor Who does. This comic book is a done-in-one story, setting up further adventures for the eighth Doctor and Josie as they investigate the strange circumstances behind Josie’s Animae Particles and her knowledge of unusual Doctor Who villains, which sounds like a perfect recipe for this particular time-travelling team. A good start to the mini-series.

Disclosure: this book was provided as a PDF for review purposes.
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Comic Book Review: Johnny Red #1

Johnny Red #1

Written by Garth Ennis
Art by Keith Burns
Colours by Jason Worde
Letters by Ron Steen
Edited by Steve White
Published by Titan Comics

Tony Iverson is a young, wealthy man (he made his money in the dot com boom) who has come to Vintage Flyers in Suffolk so that they can restore P7089: the battered and beaten airframe of a Hurricane plane (‘the plane that won the Battle of Britain while the Spitfire got the credit’). It has a strange history and the wreckage was recently found in Eastern Germany – for more details, Iverson will have to go to Russia to make further enquiries with a specialist contact. The contact in Russia locates a veteran of ‘the Great Patriotic War’ who says he knows Iverson’s plane, a former sergeant called Rodimitz. After laughing himself silly at the price Iverson paid for the Hurricane, Rodimitz (‘I would been happy to burn that worthless, stupid, obsolete English shitbox to the ground’) tells Iverson that he was Chief Mechanic of the fighter squadron the Hurricane flew with, and proceeds to tell him the ‘secret’ story of that time.

With that, the story flashes back to Stalingrad during the Second World War, where millions of Russians have died and those who remain survive and fight, and all planes were drafted to drop supplies so that the Russian defenders could continue the fight. However, the better German planes with their better pilots were always waiting … Fortunately, there was one plane that even the German fighter pilots recognised, a British plane flown by an Englishman leading a Russian squadron of which there is no record due to the story Rodimitz is going to tell Iverson …

Ennis is a fantastic writer of war stories (in my thoughts on Punisher: Valley Forge, Valley Forge, I mentioned that the prose extracts of a factual book about the war were fantastic and that I would read non-comic-book war stories written by Ennis) as well as a huge war geek, as he has demonstrated in his various collections of his war comics. He is also a huge fan of Johnny Red, so this must be a dream come true for him. This comes across in the writing – he cannily starts the book in the present day so that he can slip in his war-buff knowledge before making the transition to the original era, but it also allows him to set the story up in a way to draw in a modern crowd, highlighting the unusual setting of a British pilot fighting with the Russians on the Eastern Front. The material at the back relates how a real event was the inspiration for the original Johnny Red stories (although the unfortunate typos take away some of the gravity: ‘… or make for distance [sic] Russian. He sensibly opted for the later [sic] …’); although this is fiction, Ennis grounds it in the reality of the war and all the horror it involved.

Ennis also uses the build-up technique before the reveal, which is a nice touch and works even though the reader knows that the character is Johnny Red – the deliberate hiding of his face in various panels until the final page reveal (where he is corrupting a 17-year-old boy: ‘It’s time you started smoking.’) is a handsome way to introduce and set up the protagonist. The art by Burns is a fine assist in this regard: using different camera angles to delay showing Johnny Red’s face while still making that seem natural and telling the story at the same time is a tough trick to pull off, but Burns does so with aplomb. There’s a certain rough line to Burns’ style, particularly in the faces, but his attention to detail when it comes to the aeroplanes is anything but rough, something I’m sure was important for Ennis in this collaboration. The aeroplane battles are also impressive, dynamic and vibrant yet clear and easy to follow.

I continue to be impressed with how effortless Ennis’ writing appears – each timeframe has wonderfully natural dialogue that advances the story while dropping in important information and maintaining different styles between the different eras, as well as identities for the different nationalities without needing linguistic tics to achieve it. I have read (and reviewed) some of the previous Johnny Red stories, so I know a little of what to expect, and this new comic book feels exactly in the same vein as the original material. I hope the modern comic book industry has room for a boys-own adventure, because Johnny Red is off to a flying start (and I don’t apologise for that terrible pun).

Disclosure: this book was provided in PDF form for review purposes.
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