From A Library – Superman: Secret Origins

Superman: Secret Origins covers

Superman: Secret Origins #1–6
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Gary Frank

It’s strange reading a story that came out in 2009/2010 that is now irrelevant due to the Nu52 rebooting the entire DC universe. It’s extra strange when the writer behind it is the Chief Creative Officer at DC – did he know that the story would be pointless when he was writing it? Did he just want to write his version of the Superman origin story before things changed? Did he want to leave a footnote to the history while he had the chance? When I think about what Johns was thinking about, it wrinkles my brain; I can’t imagine what it did to him … I have enjoyed work by this creative team before (I particularly enjoyed their Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes), so I thought I’d read this curio even if it has no connection to current DC continuity.

If you’re reading this blog, then you know the origin of Superman, so you don’t need the summary. The point here is to add details and see the story through a slightly different prism. For starters, Johns has a nice angle on the young Clark Kent: he’s developing his powers at puberty, as well as his feelings for Lana Lang, and then his adoptive parents reveal the truth to him, making him a young man in torment and confusion beyond normal adolescence. Johns also introduces some nice touches to the history (which, as mentioned previously, no longer matter), such as the lenses from the glasses he wears are from crystals from the rocket ship because they can absorb his heat vision and that the costume is Ma Kent’s idea from the crystal holograms of Krypton’s history. Johns is a big fan of DC, so he’s obviously spent a lot of time thinking about these little twists to established lore, and this story shows that he is enjoying adding these finesses.

A fortunate aspect of the art in this comic book is that Frank, a talented artist whose work I’ve always enjoyed, can actually draw teenage individuals, instead of just drawing slightly smaller adults with excessive musculature. I particularly enjoyed his teenage Clark – Christopher Reeve is the deliberate model for Clark (Johns was an intern and then production assistant with Richard Donner), and Frank captures him perfectly as a teenager. Later, he displays Clark ‘acting’ as the oaf in the crumpled suit, the goofy grin and the glasses, and it’s a nice bit of storytelling.

I mentioned the Legion of Super-Heroes, and the second issue firmly places them in the Superboy story (possibly because John Byrne’s Man of Steel deliberately removed them?), and I’ve got no problem with that, even if it doesn’t mean anything now (I really should stop harping on about that …), because Superman and the Legion should be entwined. The other aspect that is intrinsic to Superman’s origin is Lex Luthor, and Johns puts in extra twists of the science/business man who buys up 78% of Metropolis and controlling the newspapers and running the Luthor Lottery, which effectively controls the city’s working-class populace. These are interesting additions to the canon, and I like how the Daily Planet is handled, but the solid build-up doesn’t survive through to the action because the plotting seems a little mechanical and coincidental: a fat man turns into a monster within seconds of eating a toxic spill in a corridor; the man who puts on the Metallo suit to bring down Superman is a soldier who Lois’ dad has under his command and who of course wants to court Lois [an aside: I did like the placid smile on Clark’s face when the soldier tries to crush-shake Clark’s hand] and who when hurt is operated on by Luthor and sent back out as a condensed Metallo almost immediately, which stretches belief even in a comic book.

The Clark–Lois relationship is well handled, but the other side of the story doesn’t click together – I’ve found that this is a common problem with origin stories that try to add an action plot on top of the origin story (there is a reason why, in old comic books, origins were relegated to flashbacks: origins don’t always work as a complete story in their own right because they are just beginnings) – which means that the six issues don’t hold together as a whole. The book works as a love letter to Superman and Christopher Reeves, with some lovely Frank art and some nice embellishments to the origin story.

Continue Reading

From A Library: Blackest Night

Blackest Night #0 teaser

Blackest Night #0–8
Written by Geoff Johns
Art by Ivan Reis

Wow, Geoff Johns really loves Hal Jordan, doesn’t he? There is no other hero more super: he’s the greatest because everyone keeps saying he’s the greatest, and no one else can do what he does. At least according to Johns. This is the equivalent of literary fellatio and it can sometimes feel too intimate to read.

This also reads as rather depressing because of the inherent morbidity. To paraphrase, let’s talk about death, baby: Batman (at the time this came out), J’onn J’onnz, Aquaman, Katana, Tim Drake, Kyle Rayner’s girlfriend Alex, Jade (daughter of Alan Scott). DC, and to an extent its Chief Creative Officer, developed an unhealthy obsession with killing off characters or at least mutilating them in a bloody fashion in the years running up to the Nu52 reboot. Now, I’m not going to proselytise that superhero comic books should be devoid of death and grimness, because firstly that would make me a hypocrite (when I started reading comic books, I read 2000 AD and my first adventures in mainstream superhero comic books had the Mutant Massacre storyline, and I’ve turned out all right, relatively speaking), but secondly I’m not going to tell people how to do their jobs which they have earned (which I realise is an unusual attitude for a blogger). If stories are going to reflect a certain level of reality, then death is part of that reality and can’t be ignored. However, the obsession with violent deaths of characters for sake of sensationalism, headline grabbing or just to shake up the status quo is disturbing and doesn’t do anyone, not the readers or the writers or the industry as a whole, any good now or in the long run.

This book makes the unhealthy fascination with dead characters its central premise and almost fetishizes it: it visits the graves of Pa Kent, Ronnie Raymond, Ted Kord; the Teen Titans memorial, the Valhalla cemetery in Metropolis, the morgue of dead supervillains in the JLA headquarters (there is a double-page spread of dead heroes as Hal shows off the dead) – DC kills a lot of characters for the sake of stories, and it’s rather wearisome.

Blackest Night #2

It’s not long before the bloody violence appears in this book: a Black Ring-controlled Guardian bites out the throat of another Guardian and pulls out his heart – there should be a warning on the front of DC books: ‘Please read our disturbingly violent comic books responsibly’ – and Hawkgirl is stabbed through the heart with a spear, because that’s the sort of thing that DC wants to publish for youngsters today, apparently. Johns comes across as a person at conflict with himself, because he loves DC’s superheroes but he also loves to kill them off in graphic fashion.

The sad thing is that the idea of this book is actually interesting – a Black Lantern power battery sends out thousands of rings that bring back to life all the dead heroes, creating a Black Lantern Corps decked in funky black uniforms, and sets them out to kill all the live heroes, which brings about drama and conflict as well as an examination of a character after death brought about by living a heroic life. It’s just a shame that the central conceit requires so much death for the story to work; it demonstrates how cheap death is in comic books and how regularly it is used (thus losing the intensity of the dramatic reason of death).

Johns is a good writer, despite his psychopathic tendencies, and he does set up the premise of the book well and escalates the tension before introducing the potential saviours in the form of the spectrum of the power rings (red=rage, orange=greed, yellow=terror, green=will, blue=hope, violet=love, indigo=compassion), which is an admittedly silly idea but then this is comic books and Johns knows how to sell it in the writing.

Blackest Night #8

As a story, there is a minor glitch between the end of issue four and the start of issue five (did I miss an important tie-in issue that isn’t collected?) because the Lanterns of all colours are together – Hal (green), Sinestro (yellow), Star Sapphire (violet), Larfleeze (orange), Saint Walker (blue), Atrocitus (red) and Indigo-1 (indigo) – looking for the Black Lanterns (there’s a nice double-page spread of them reciting their individual oaths, except for Larfleeze). There are other nice twists, such as the Black Rings affecting those heroes who died and come back (Wonder Woman, Superman, Superboy, Bart Allen, Green Arrow) except for Barry Allen and Hal (Barry runs to avoid them). Another nice touch is for Ganthet, one of the Guardians of the Universe, to become a Green Lantern and activate the other colours to deputise like-minded individuals, turning Barry Allen into a Blue Lantern, Lex Luthor into an Orange Lantern, Scarecrow into a Yellow Lantern, Ray Palmer into an Indigo Lantern, Wonder Woman into a Star Sapphire, Mera into a Red Lantern; I thought this was pretty cool, which shows how much of a sucker I am for these things in comic books.

The art in this book is impressive from Reis – there are some great ‘Fuck Yeah!’ double-page spreads throughout, drawn spectacularly by Reis, such as the full complement of different Lantern corps arriving behind John Stewart and the spread of all the heroes arriving for the big fight at the end, but particularly the when the heroes turn into the White Lantern Corps – there is something especially cool about seeing Hal and Barry and Superman and Wonder Woman in white costumes that tickled the superhero-loving side of my brain something special. I’ve always thought that Reis was an above average exemplar of the current DC house style, but he does a great job here, and I shall have to upgrade my opinion; he has a strong style, good storytelling skills, sharp anatomy, a good line and a perfect choice for this sort of company-wide book.

Enjoying the book despite myself and the constant cheerleading for Hal Jordan, I did find the ending a bit weak after all the build-up and the hand-waving to return some heroes to life at the end was very flimsy. However, Blackest Night is an entertaining read and enjoyable while it lasts; if you love Hal Jordan as much as Johns does, you’ll probably enjoy it even more.

Continue Reading

Book Review: Hallow Point

Hallow Point

Hallow Point
Written by Ari Marmell
Published by Titan Books

I really enjoyed Hot Lead, Cold Iron, the first Mick Oberon job, so I was delighted to get a chance to review the second book, Hallow Point. Oberon is a private detective in 1930s Chicago, except that he’s not a normal bloke: he’s a former prince of the Fae (the aes sidhe) who left it all behind and came to live in our world; the presence of so much iron is unpleasant, but he puts up with it because he doesn’t want to be back in Elphame, in the Otherworld Chicago that exists there. He has his wand, with which he can steal luck and transfer pain, the Fae ability to enforce his will on humans, and little need for sleep or food (except for warm milk, with the occasional bit of cream as a treat).

We meet him this time round on a missing person case, when his cop buddy Pete comes to him for help (Oberon helps out Pete since Pete was bitten by a werewolf, so has to stay locked up for three nights every month): there’s been a break-in at the Fields Museum of Natural History. However, nothing seems to be have been stolen; instead, something seems to have been left hidden among the other artefacts. When they arrive, at a scene that was a simple break through a window with no alarms triggered), they discover that the new artefact has been stolen, and then Oberon comes into contact with Herne the Hunter, an encounter that leaves him the worse for wear and warned off the search for this new artefact, an Iron Age spear of some sort.

When Oberon returns home, he receives a visit from an officer of the Seelie Court (the court that rules Elphame), asking him the whereabouts of the missing item, indicating how important it is. Then he receives a visit from a woman, Ramona Webb, who is having troubles with her ex-boyfriend and a cousin and money they owed to various bad people. She needs Oberon to find them and to protect her. Also in the mix is a strange southern lawman who is following Oberon, someone who can make Oberon feel like prey, overcoming his own emotions (something very difficult to do to a Fae). Then things get even worse, as Oberon is forcibly invited to a meeting with the Unseelie boss, Lady Eudeagh, who controls the Fae equivalent of the mob – she uses the marker acquired from Oberon in the previous book to get Oberon to bring her the spear (bring, not just find it), leaving him with a bunch of nasty redcaps and a boggart to keep tabs on him back in our world. Things do not look good for Oberon, but he’s a private detective – it goes with the territory.

Oberon has to run down leads (a dvergr fence called Hruotlundt, a low-level leprechaun called Franky Four-Leaf, the gangster family he helped out in the last book) while avoiding the other supernatural creatures in town because of the spear (bagienniks, River Fae from Eastern Europe; a rusulka, a river nymph/siren/mermaid creature; the southern lawman who is part of the Wild Hunt, which destroys areas during its hunt; a bean sidhe, a banshee who is an official emissary of the Seelie Court disguised as a high-ranking federal agent) and with Ramona in tow because it’s the only way she’ll let him protect her. All because he can’t renege on his marker: if he did, he would lose all Fae protection for a year and a day, meaning anyone could do anything to him with no legal repercussions, plus losing all his mystical ability with luck and becoming a beacon to bad guys who want to destroy a vulnerable aes sidhe. When he discovers that item he’s looking for is a powerful spear that was one of the four hallows of the Tuatha Dé Danann, the original lords of the Fae, and whoever gets it will be unbeatable in battle, he finds himself in a real pickle …

Marmell has found a good seam to mine in a Fae private detective set in the recent past: it allows for the full realm of folklore characters to inhabit the book, which contrasts with the not completely mundane world of Chicago in the 1930s. The mix works well, as does the comparison between the legal and criminal enterprises on both sides of the divide. Plus, there are mythical creatures. Marmell leans into the hard-boiled narration, making the prose style sound like someone from the era: ‘She stole into my office like a snake in a fox fur-and-human stole, dress of forest green rustling and sliding as if it couldn’t wait to be shed … I always did wanna start a sentence like that.’; ‘Can I tell you, again, how swell it is not to sweat?’; ‘Well, you remember my place well enough, year?’. And he also makes a point of saying that the missing person case is completely incidental to the main story and that you shouldn’t expect it to tie into events, which is very unlike the traditional pattern of private eye stories. The narration also deliberately hides elements so that the reveal can be more dramatic – which sounds about right for the Fae.

The story has a sufficiently dramatic and exciting resolution, with twists and turns you would hope for, and it also sets up events for future books, providing plenty of scope for the interaction of all manner of creatures in both realms. Marmell has written another enjoyable read – sharp, enjoyable, intriguing, colourful – and I’m looking forward to the next one.

Disclosure: this book was provided for review purposes.

Continue Reading

From A Library – Avengers: Endless Wartime

Avengers: Endless Wartime cover by Mike McKone

Written by Warren Ellis
Art by Mike McKone

Tblunka, capital city of Sorenia, nestled between Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. A mercenary, part of a force formed by the unseated regime trying to retake the country from the democratically elected government, shoots down something strange with ‘US Air Force’ on it.

Stark Towers. The Avengers: Captain America (Steve Rogers), Hawkeye, Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers), Iron Man, Black Widow, Wolverine; the characters are introduced by Ellis in a clean, quick, efficient manner but with lovely sharp banter that essays character (Stark: ‘Captain America wants to stomp on me.’ Pepper: ‘Well, in his defense, he has met you.’) The news in the briefing room shows the shot-down drone – Steve recognises the name,  ‘Hereward’, a military contractor based on the Norwegian island of Skrekklandet.

Time for a flashback to 1944: Steve was investigating ‘wonder weapons’ being built on the island, a Wunderwaffe station that exploded and fell into the ice. In the present, Steve is focused on investigating the drone, almost to the point of anger (the other Avengers react when Steve is stern with Tony). Upon hearing that Slorenia has outsourced the action, Steve reacts: ‘You’re serious. We hired a corporation to fight a war for us.’

Steve wants to go into Slorenia; the others are against it until Thor turns up. He recognises the drone creature – it is related to a Nidhogg, a vile creature trapped under Yggdrasil, the world tree, and that escaped to Midgard; Thor fought it and killed it, but only after going into a berserker rage. So now, the Avengers are after ‘Norse Nazi maggot robots. Of death.’

Thor takes Captain Marvel ‘and also, sadly, Stark’ to hunt the creatures; Steve takes the rest of the team to the launch base, where they find a scientist who says that the creatures started going crazy but there are other models, more efficient and deadly, in a SHIELD base on American soil. SHIELD knows all about them because they’re a threat against the Avengers, so they drop Bruce Banner on the SHIELD base, but before he turns to emphasise the point. But Bruce delays things until the Avengers go to where they need to stop everything: Skrekklandet. (Hawkeye: ‘It never, ever ends, Steve. Only old people think things end.’)

Ellis does a very efficient job with this book: snappy banter, character-revealing dialogue, a clean plot that links Captain America and Thor but also requires the Avengers, action that requires the full use of the team, as well as portraying different sides to the same philosophical aspect of the fight. This is a lot harder than it seems – a lot of writers over-dialogue pages when there are lots of characters, causing the art to be obscured by word balloons; other writers also have trouble providing a plot that uses all the characters in a team and gives them all something important to do. This is a lean, mean superhero graphic novel, the equivalent of a self-contained four-issue story that gives you a beginning, a middle and an end, and it’s something that Ellis does well (see RED, Ocean, etc.); it’s also good to see it as a graphic novel instead of a mini-series to be collected later in trade paperback (if only Marvel were doing more of that …).

As a relatively straightforward superhero graphic novel, Avengers: Endless Wartime has a solid superhero artist in McKone – his art style is solid, with slick lines, smooth shapes, sharp anatomy, clear storytelling and an approach that favours collaboration with the narrative instead of flashy pages intended for selling off later. I’ve always enjoyed his action scenes – they are dynamic, easy to follow, knowing where to focus, with a bit of flavour and colour to the panels – but he also does a good job with the dialogue-based panels, infusing the characters with reactions and individuality that enhance the story without distracting from the plot.

In summary – Avengers: Endless Wartime is a very good superhero graphic novel; it’s not essential, but it does the job well and provides you with a complete, enjoyable story.

Continue Reading

Comic Book Artists: Dale Keown

Banner–Hulk transformation by Dale Keown

This series of posts is about comic book artists whose work I like. The normal pattern is that I talk about the artist’s career and mention when I started enjoying the work and include various images by the artist. However, in this case, the text aspect will be a little lighter than normal because, unfortunately, there isn’t a huge amount of ongoing series or different mini-series to discuss.

Continue Reading

From A Library: The Perhapanauts

The Perhapanauts by Mike Wieringo The Perhapanauts: First Blood (The Perhapanauts #1–4) and The Perhapanauts: Second Chances (The Perhapanauts: Second Chances #1–4)
Written and co-created by Todd Dezago
Art and co-created by Craig Rousseau

I love this idea: a Bigfoot, a ghost, a psychic, a chupacabra (literally ‘goat-sucker’, an animal rumoured to exist in the Americas that gets its name from what it supposedly does), plus a bloke who is a bit of a mystery, are agents of BEDLAM (Bureau of Extra Dimensional Liabilities and Management), an organisation that tries to control paranormal problems (the unknown, the unexplained, the freaky stuff, the creepy stuff) where the fabric of reality is thin and other dimensions can make incursions. This is a solid concept that allows for a huge range of stories, and the creative team runs with it, providing a lot of enjoyable entertainment.

The Perhapanauts by Art AdamsThe team is led by the psychic, Arisa; Molly is the ghost, Big is Bigfoot (who has been made smarter and stronger by an evolve-ray) and Choopie the chupacabra (also treated with an evolve-ray but it wasn’t as successful as with Big); the mystery man is MG. The characters are introduced in a clever manner in the first issue of the first trade paperback by a janitor (who isn’t all that he seems …), where they meet a foe in the form of a chimaera. Enjoyable though the first four-issue story is, I found the plotting to be odd – it seems haphazard instead of progressing logically, pulling story elements out of nowhere and rushing through the narrative at a detriment to the story. For example, the chimaera is dealt with using ‘cement-eating slugs’ that are placed 35.6 years back in time using a time machine; there is also the use of a dimensional gate to defeat the chimaera later on. It seemed a bit random to me, although I did enjoy the book over all, with an interesting cast of characters, and back-up strips that introduce some back story and the Mothman.

The second trade carries on directly from the first book (in a Hellboy ‘series of mini-series that are really an ongoing series’ fashion) with Arisa requiring a hospital and BEDLAM in trouble due to voracious aliens that have come through the dimensional gate. MG tries to save Arisa while Big, Molly and Choopie try to save BEDLAM, with Big meeting his future self (as well as future selves of other members of the team). With all this action in the first issue of the second trade, the next issue is devoted to the characters, before dealing a little grey alien, and Karl the Mothman travelling back in time with the group (travelling through The Perhaps, hence the name of the book). These stories are fun but the pace seems uneven, much like the random plotting of the first book.

The Perhapanauts by Walt SimonsonPart of the enjoyment of a comic book (and a book like this) is in the artwork and Rousseau does really good work – he does lovely character work on the individual members of the team and drawing dynamic action scenes, and his style perfectly fits the nature of the stories that they are trying to tell. The only issue I had was that his outlines seem strange, somehow pale and weaker compared with the line work on the covers, which have a much stronger, more confident line that seems more suitable to the characters and the atmosphere the book is trying to achieve. This is probably just me and my tastes in art; it’s not helped by the pin-up and introduction by the late (and sorely missed) Mike Wieringo – as a big fan of Ringo’s art, I wanted his version of the Perhapanauts, something than can unfortunately never happen.

Despite my slight artistic reservations, this is a fun title and I’ll be looking out for the collections of the Image comics (these first two mini-series were published by Dark Horse) and I should point out that Todd and Craig have a Kickstarter going for a Perhapanauts 54-page hardback graphic novel, which started in May 2015. I hope they reach their target.

Continue Reading

Notes On A Film: Ant-Man

Ant-Man movie poster

If you are even slightly pop-culture literate, you’ll know that Ant-Man was going to be directed by Edgar Wright, from a script by him and Joe Cornish; it was a project that Wright had been developing for several years, only to leave at almost the last minute due to ‘creative differences’, to be replaced by the less stylistic Peyton Reed, and with a script polish by star Paul Rudd and Adam McKay (who has written and directed many funny films with Will Ferrell). The question of ‘What if Edgar Wright had directed Ant-Man?’ hovers over the film – like a winged ant, perhaps? – but it doesn’t detract from the solidly entertaining product that has been made in his absence (he and Cornish still get a writing credit, suggesting the bulk of the film was based on their original script).

The most impressive aspect of this film is that it demonstrates the ability of the Marvel studio to consistently create entertaining films starring properties from the comic books that jump between genres and provide a satisfying movie. Ant-Man has never been a successful character – despite being one of the original Marvel heroes from the 1960’s Kirby-and-Lee explosion (there’s a nice nod towards Ant-Man’s original book, Tales To Astonish, incorporated into dialogue early on in the film) and one of the original Avengers, Ant-Man never had his own series, and his main attribute (Hank Pym created Ultron) has been passed off to Tony Stark in the MCU (thankfully, the MCU has ignored the other main attribute, the spousal abuse, because that would have been terrible and it’s not something the comic books should continue with). These factors mean that the cinematic Ant-Man has a clean slate, but it also means that there is no (urgh) franchise awareness, beyond that of Marvel studios itself.

The success of this film is that it does what other successful Marvel films have done: take an established film genre and put a superhero twist on it. Captan America: Winter Soldier was a conspiracy thriller; Guardians of the Galaxy was a space opera; Ant-Man is a heist caper. After a brief flashback to 1989, when an airbrushed Michael Douglas (as Hank Pym) quits SHIELD (cameos for Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter and John Slattery as Howard Stark) because of the misappropriation of his Pym particles, the story returns to the present. Scott Lang (Rudd) is released from prison for his burglary (not theft – he didn’t use force) of money from corporations and giving it back to the people the corporations stole from. He can’t get a permanent job because of his prison record, and he needs a regular income so that he can pay alimony to his ex-wife so he can see his daughter Cassie on a regular basis again. Therefore, he turns to his former cellmate, Luis (an hilarious turn from Michael Peña, who steals scenes with his fast-talking shtick, particularly where he’s relating a story and the camera flashes to a montage of the events, with all the other characters in the montages speaking in the same voice-over as Peña provides), who has a tip for a simple breaking and entering job.

Meanwhile, Pym has been invited to his company’s headquarters, where his former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), announces that he has discovered Pym’s old research and successfully recreated the shrinking formula, which he will sell in the form of a suit, the Yellowjacket, to the highest bidder who wants a tiny army. His daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), still works at the company – despite a rift between her and her father due to the death of her mother (the real story for which isn’t revealed until later in the film), she knows that Pym particles in the hands of a dangerous man will be catastrophic, and is trying to help her father. Hank wants to steal the formula and destroy the Yellowjacket – what he needs is a certain kind of thief …

Promotional image from Ant-Man

What follows is a fun initiation into a crazy world, as Lang steals the suit (because Pym wanted him to), then Pym and Hope train him to fight as the Ant-Man, learn to use the size-changing powers he’ll need, control the ants as his helpers, and discover the hero within by infiltrating the heavily guarded corporate headquarters and stopping Cross. The shrinking scenes might have been more dazzling in the hands of Wright, but Reed does a good job of making them visually entertaining – having the ability to shrink and revert in an instant is a dynamic visual, used for wonder at the small scale and for laughs at the reversion. Rudd is perfect as the everyman trying to do his best for his daughter, with some lines that sound so Rudd-like, you can’t imagine anyone else saying them (it helps being a co-writer). With McKay on board, the film is very funny – I’m sure it was funny in Wright and Cornish’s script, but I think McKay’s time on Saturday Night Live and with Ferrell are responsible for a lot of the big laughs. There is emotional content as well, with the parallels between fathers and daughters.

The casting, another area Marvel excels in, is perfect across the board – Douglas is in fine form as Pym, spouting scientific gobbledegook one minute and one-liners the next, and seems to be having a grand time in the role; Lilly is good as his daughter who can take care of herself; even Abby Ryder Fortson as Cassie is a delight. Stoll is suitably threatening as the use-and-dispose villain (another part of the Marvel approach), but proceedings are softened by Rudd’s grounded charm and Peña’s scene stealing. Add to this the connections to the Marvel universe (a cameo from a new Avenger that I’m guessing wasn’t part of Wright and Cornish’s script), a mention of the Avengers’ destructive antics, the obligatory Stan Lee appearance, a throwaway line about a ‘guy who can climb on walls’, and two scenes after the film has ended, one a coda to the movie (with Hope saying, ‘About damn time’) and the other a teaser for the next Marvel movie, and you have another polished package from the studio that can’t do wrong at the moment. Fun, funny, entertaining, exciting, occasionally dramatic, visually spectacular – when a finale involves a cut between the shrinking world and the real world where the size doesn’t have the impact you think it would, and you laugh out loud at the sight of a massive Thomas the Tank Engine, you know you’ve been Marvelled.

Rating: DAVE

[Explanation of my updated film rating system]

Continue Reading

From A Library – Richard Stark’s Parker: The Hunter

The Hunter adapted by Darwyn Cooke

Adapted and illustrated by Darwyn Cooke

I haven’t read the original novel but I have seen the film adaptations (Point Blank, Payback), so I can’t verify the authenticity of the job that Darwyn Cooke does of adapting Parker into graphic novel format (apart from reading the plot synopsis on Wikipedia, but that doesn’t really count). However, even I can tell the apparent authenticity of the feeling, the atmosphere, the respect for the source material that Cooke infuses this story with that make for a perfect adaptation to the comic book page.

Cooke’s art is exactly how I imagine the style for this book set in New York and Chicago in 1962 – his art style has that noirish vibe but with a cartoony edge that bridges the novel and the films (his pencils seemed similarly appropriate, although with a little cleaner and clean-cut edge to it, in the pages of The New Frontier, about DC superheroes in the Silver Age), where period detail looks genuine, people dress in suits and don’t look out of place, cars are big and streets are mean.

The story starts with some fine visual storytelling: 12 pages of dialogue-free, narrative-free panels that introduce the reader to our protagonist, Parker. It’s a masterclass in the art of portraying story in the comic book form, providing the reader with the setting and the character without words. This could have been a one-off, a bit of pizzazz that can’t be maintained, but the high quality of sequential narrative is there throughout the book, which is an impressive achievement.

If you’ve seen the films, you know the basic story: Parker is out for revenge after the successful heist he organised led to betrayal and he was left for dead; now, Parker is going through his connections to find the man who betrayed him, a man who is now under the protection of the Outfit (a nationwide organised crime syndicate) after he bought his way in with the money from the heist. And Parker isn’t taking any prisoners … I presume that this adaptation is true to the novel because it provides much more detail and information than the films, which have to eliminate the flavour in order to stick to the plot. Whereas John Boorman went for an almost hallucinatory visual style and Brian Helgeland (or rather the replacement with the rewritten script and a voice-over narration) had a more comedic feel, this feels like how it must have been when people first read the Donald Westlake novel (under the Richard Stark pseudonym) – a raw experience of a genuine career criminal who is very professional and doesn’t care about anybody. Parker is not a nice guy, and you don’t feel much empathy for him past the fact that he was double-crossed and left for dead. The gritty details from the novel have been transferred to this book, making for a more satisfactory realisation of the original story.

The pages make it apparent that this was a labour of love for Cooke – you can tell how much he enjoyed the novels and wants to do the best job possible, to do justice to the material and the author. It’s a fantastic job, even if you can’t enjoy the attitude towards women in the book, which is representative of the genre and the time the story is set, and the fact that various innocent women die in the book. It’s a brutal story – death is a violent and horrific event, even in Cooke’s animation style – a pure revenge quest for a vessel of single-minded wrath in the persona of the cool-headed Parker; however, it is clear to see why the character had such an appeal and why there were so many more Parker stories (Westlake wrote 23 more novels) and why filmmakers were so keen to adapt it to the silver screen. This is a great graphic novel, and I’m looking forward to reading the next instalments in the Cooke adaptations.

Continue Reading

From A Library – Resident Alien: Welcome To Earth!

Resident Alien: Welcome To Earth!

Resident Alien #0–3
Written by Peter Hogan
Art/Colour/Letters by Steve Parkhouse

Dr Harry Vanderspeigle lives outside the small mountain town of Patience, USA. He’s a semi-retired doctor who keeps to himself, until the local police ask him to help in an investigation – the only doctor in town has been murdered, and he’s the only other doctor in the area. The only problem is that Harry is an extraterrestrial who crash-landed on Earth three years ago; he has blended into the community while he waits to be rescued, deliberately staying out of local affairs and trying not to get involved with the rest of the world.

My immediate response to this comic book was: ‘This is a great idea – why has nobody else done it before?’ The simplicity of the central premise belies the thinking behind it because it has a fish-out-of-water aspect, it has a great set-up for a murder mystery with added genre overtones to make it distinctive, it has a character forced to do good and interact with society against his will, it has the dimension of the dual nature of the alien in the United States, as well as the character interactions of our protagonist with the people he is now forced to deal with against the requisites of his mission. The scope for more stories is great, and it’s great to see that Dark Horse is allowing Hogan and Parkhouse to do more mini-series.

Harry is an interesting central character: he can ‘read’ human beings, which helps him in his chosen profession as a physician so he can diagnose more accurately and more easily, which means that he doesn’t have to interact with patients repeatedly because he cures them the first time. This ability is obviously helpful investigating the murder and provides the genre dimension that elevates this from a simple whodunit. His mental powers mean that nearly all people can’t see him for who he is – they see him as a human, although the art shows him as a pointy-eared, black-eyed purple alien – with the possible exception of the night nurse, whose father is a shaman who suggests that Harry might be ‘a visitor to our world’.

Harry is also a decent person – Hogan writes in the introduction that he wanted to have an alien as the good guy – and you care for him and his plight and you want him to be rescued. He is far away from home, he doesn’t know when he’ll return, he has a woman he loves waiting for him; he has been lonely, although he doesn’t know that he’s lonely, and he’s secretly fascinated by Earth and human beings, which is why he is drawn into their world. The resolution of the murder mystery isn’t a massive revelation that upends the status quo – it’s simply another part of existence on this planet – but that’s not the point of the story. It is a charming, small tale that draws you in, with the clear lines of Parkhouse depicting each of the characters in the book differently, with different body and face shapes to define the individual (something that a lot of comic book artists have difficulty with) but not as grotesque as the characters in The Bojeffries Saga, his collaboration with Alan Moore (who provides a nice pull-quote on the front cover). Resident Alien is a wonderful example of the joys of comic books and the result of two creators demonstrating top-notch craftsmanship.

Continue Reading

Writer Top Five: Peter Milligan

Continuing with the theme of my favourite works by a writer I enjoy: today is the turn of Peter Milligan. The man, the mystery, the enigma (deliberate reference – see later); Milligan is an unusual writer who revels in his unusualness and intelligence and literary passions. His website is called Ineluctable Modality, which comes from a quote from Ulysses by James Joyce, meaning approximately ‘A particular form of sensory perception or mode in which something is experienced or expressed that is inescapable or unable to be avoided’. If that doesn’t give you a sense of who Milligan is and what is writing is about, then you should read some of the stories I mention.

Milligan first came to prominence, like many British comic book writers, at 2000 AD – in the mid-1980s, he started to write Time Twisters (the traditional route for new writers) but soon found acclaim with his first ongoing strip, Bad Company, a sci-fi-set war comic with art by the late Brett Ewins; this led to other strips, such as Hewligan’s Haircut with Jamie Hewlett, and Bix Barton with Jim McCarthy, but he also wrote his first work for DC in 1989 – Skreemer, a six-issue mini-series with art by Ewins that was a mix of gangster films and Finnegan’s Wake. Despite not doing as well as it deserved, Milligan was given more work at DC, as well as continuing to work in the UK in 2000 AD, Revolver (the Rogan Gosh strip, later collected by DC) and Deadline (the Johnny Nemo strip).

His DC work included writing some Batman stories and a short run on Animal Man after Grant Morrison’s acclaimed run, but it was his reinvention of Shade, The Changing Man that would put Milligan in the firmament of British comic book writers who rose to fame in the 1990s. It was completely different from Steve Ditko’s original version and stood out for its weirdness, maturity, adult themes and singular voice. Perhaps due to this success, a publisher was found for Skin, the story of a young thalidomide skinhead in 1970s London, with art by long-time collaborator Brendan MacCarthy, a powerful and disturbing book that was to feature in Crisis but the publishers were afraid to print.

Shade, The Changing Man would become one of the books that started the Vertigo imprint at DC, and it is arguable that Milligan’s best work was done for Vertigo. Enigma, the eight-issue series with art by Duncan Fegredo, is a marvellous book about identity and sexuality; there was also The Extremist (art by Ted McKeever), Face (with Fegredo), Egypt (with Glyn Dillon), Girl (with Fegredo), The Eaters (with Dean Ormiston), The Minx (with Sean Phillips), The Human Target, and Vertigo Pop London (with Philip Bond).

However, during this time, he also wrote for Marvel, doing an X-Men mini-series (The Further Adventures of Cyclops and Jean Grey) and, even more bizarrely, launching an ongoing series for Elektra, with art by Mike Deodato Jr. This would lead to his best work at Marvel, taking over X-Force with issue 116 in 2001 and, with art by Mike Allred, completely changing the team and the concept to that of a satire of modern celebrity, eventually becoming X-Statix a year later. He would go on to write various mini-series there, including a Wolverine/Punisher story and a Dead Girl/Doctor Strange mini-series, as well as a three-year run on X-Men, before recommencing work with DC at the same time. He has mostly stayed there, doing various things (The Programme, Infinity Inc.) in addition to various Marvel mini-series (5 Ronin), with only Greek Street and a long and well-received run on Hellblazer sticking out in his resume. Recently, he was part of the DC Nu52 reboot, launching Justice League Dark (featuring the rebooted versions of Shade and John Constantine) and Red Lanterns, and subsequently taking over Stormwatch; in addition, he’s been working with Valiant on some of their titles (Shadowman, Eternal Warrior, Bloodshot), as well as a Doop mini-series at Marvel, keeping all his options open but keeping in the superhero camp instead of the interesting, absurdist, literary work for which he is known. This is the edited highlights – he has written many, many more comic books of different characters for different companies – so trying to pin down Milligan is hard, something I think he enjoys.

My five favourite Milligan works:

5. Hewligan’s Haircut
Hewligan cuts his hair because he is leaving a lunatic asylum, only for it to form an impossible hole in the middle that you can see from any angle. And so begins a surreal odyssey in which Milligan and Hewlett (before Tank Girl and Gorillaz) show off, have fun, and enjoy themselves in an entertaining fashion. It shows that Milligan has a sense of humour and that you can mix the silly with the literary in a comic book with great results.

4. X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl
It has Dead Girl in the title, but it’s basically a team-up with Doctor Strange, and Milligan is the perfect writer for Doctor Strange, so this was probably the only way he could get his hands on the character. A villain is bringing back Marvel characters from the dead so he can be revived himself, and only Doctor Strange and Dead Girl can stop him, in a lively (pardon the pun) story with nice pop art from Nick Dragotta.

3. Bad Company
This story was where I first discovered Milligan, back in 1986 in the pages of 2000 AD, so will always have a place in my heart. A future war story on the planet Ararat where humanity fights the alien Krool, it is about Danny Franks, a new soldier, who is saved by the misfit Bad Company led by Kano, and then joins them in their fight against the Krool, if he can survive … The story was about the craziness of war with a literary bent (Danny keeps a diary) and the violence and its effects on the people who fight them. A really great 2000 AD story.

2. Enigma
A marvellous examination of sex, love, death, superheroes, and lizards, with beautiful expressive art from Fegredo and powerful writing from Milligan in a story about Michael Smith, an ordinary bloke who has forgotten about his imaginary childhood friend, the Enigma, who used to have his own comic books, until a serial killer strikes near to home and Michael investigates, only to find the Enigma in the real world. The reality and character of this book linger long after reading, and it’s a moving story of two people finding each other. A great series from the Vertigo heyday.

1. Shade, The Changing Man
Was there ever a better distillation of Milligan than in the pages of Shade, The Changing Man? Admittedly, he had more time to explore interests in an ongoing series, but it’s a book that grips you from the start: Shade, a ‘madness agent’ from the planet Meta, has taken over the body of the psychopath at the moment of his execution in order to stop the American Scream, and has to use the help of Kathy George, the woman who lost her parents and boyfriend to the killer, to do it. And then it gets really weird … The plots aren’t the main thing about this book, and Milligan was more interested in the madness and the characters, and he had Chris Bachalo developing into a talented comic book artist to help him. There is some argument that it should have stopped at issue 50 instead of 75, but it was always interesting and different, and that’s something that’s hard to achieve.

Continue Reading