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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Fables: Farewell

Title: Fables: Farewell

ISBN: 9781401252335
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2015
Artist: Lee Loughridge, Steve Leialoha, Mark Buckingham
Writer: Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges

Rating: 4/5

“Fables” #150 begins by jumping a head in time and we see that our narrator is Ambrose Wolf, the child prophesied to “judge the rest”. He’s a writer (naturally) and is working on what he refers to as the last volume of his history of the Fables in the Mundy world. This takes us to New Camelot, where Prince Brandish has defeated Lancelot in combat and in typical Brandish fashion, he’s gloating about it. Flycatcher decides to take things into his own hands and challenges Brandish to another combat based on charges he brings up against him with the power he holds in Haven. The core of this story is two fold, Bigby is still feral and Rose Red is still bent on destroying her sister. On top of this, “Fables” #150, that also acts as the final volume of the series, is full of one page final stories for almost the entire cast including the final fulfillment of all the Wolf children’s prophecies.

The last arc of “Fables” found Snow White and Rose Red fighting each other and what we learned was that this was always going to be their destiny. They were from a very magical line and all groups of sisters in their family eventually fought each other to the death to completely own the magic. Snow and Rose are next and Rose Red has pulled out all the stops to defeat her, including using Bigby Wolf as a weapon. Fabletown was also being divided into two camps with Totenkinder taking the side of Rose Red and Cinderella taking the side of Snow White and this too was something that needed to be wrapped up.

Willingham and Buckingham wrap things up very neatly and Totenkinder and Cinderella have one of the most brutal fights in “Fables” history. These two women were undeniably the warriors of Fabletown but worked in very different ways. Totenkinder was about loyalty to people and Cinderella was something similar to Captain America in that her loyalty was always to Fabletown itself. Both of their different skill sets are on full display, with Buckingham creating some of the best action heavy artwork he’s done in the entire series, and their endings pack a huge emotional punch that while sad, is still very fitting for the two of them.

Bigby’s faceoff with his family could have ended in disaster and it would have arguably ruined the ending as a whole and this is where the almost too tidy feeling of the wrap-up works. He spent so much of the later part of the series killing and all it took was for Connor to stand up to him and begin to fulfill his fate as a hero to make Bigby snap back to reality. I won’t like and say that I didn’t want Bigby to make it out of this unscathed but this happens almost too easily.

When you look back at what’s happened in the series thus far, everything was always going to end up right here with Rose Red and Snow White facing off. From the first issue of the series, they were at odds and even when things were good, there was always something lingering in the background. Snow always thought of herself above her sister and as Rose became more powerful, more loved and more responsible Snow became more defensive. Her power slipped away and Rose became more resentful towards her sister for how she felt. Willingham and Buckingham planted the seeds from the beginning and the payoff ties into a bigger theme that “Fables” has played with a bit before. War is ugly, war is oftentimes pointless and people die needlessly. That’s what ultimately happens in the conflict between Rose Red and Snow White. It wasn’t only about them and so many other characters died because of their fight. Beast, Ozma and more died fighting in what was their conflict but unlike real wars, intelligence and compassion won. Many people will call how their fight ends anti-climactic and they may say that these death ultimately meant nothing but it’s a statement about what these fights do to people. It also acts as a great illustration of how these two characters aren’t perfect but eventually get to the right place and do their best to try and fix things before it goes too far.

Mark Buckingham is as important to the success of “Fables”as Bill Willingham and maybe even moreso. “Fables” has been a fantasy book from the beginning even if the tone changed depending on the storyline. “Fables” #150 features Mark Buckingham doing some of his very best work from the panel layouts to the backgrounds. Buckingham lays out a lot of the pages in his main story with long columns and there’s a sense of urgency because of it. This story is almost over and there’s a lot to get to so the art moves across the page quickly. Buckingham however doesn’t rush his craft and each column is detailed so nicely with some of the action overlapping into the next panel. The fight between Cinderella and Totenkinder is something right out a disaster movie with massive explosions and a real sense of danger. It’s a gorgeous sequence that reminded me of the final battle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 because it was a visual representation of the ending and a new beginning for these characters.

There are a few huge splash pages throughout the main story that are absolutely breathtaking because of how grand they are. Buckingham features some of the characters in big close up scenes on these pages with detailing done from their hair to the finer points of their armor. Their facial expressions, especially in the eyes are full of emotion and in Rose Red’s case in her huge moments, the feeling of determination comes right through. There are a couple of splash pages featuring some of the giant creatures of The Farm and he takes his designs to the next level. With some of these characters on Rose Red’s side of the “war”, they come off far more menacing than usual. The backgrounds on every page give us the proper setting and nothing ever feels very static in that sense. So many artists do this weird thing where action seems to take place on just a color block without any context. Buckingham takes the time to build every single scene. The final pat of the book “The Last Snow and Bigby Story” features a massive gatefold that is easily the greatest thing Buckingham has drawn.

Lee Loughridge on colors with Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy and Dan Green on inks are vital to the success of this book. The inkers add a nice amount of depth to the pencils and never overdo it, allowing Buckingham’s pencils and designs to shine through. Loughridge, one of the best colorists working, does a wonderful job with light, fluffy colors that aren’t at all too much. Even the golden avatar of hope isn’t overwhelmingly yellow and the explosions in Fabletown are layered in a nice way that makes it feel a bit more authentic and cinematic.

“Fables” #150 is a massive book coming in over 100 pages that features multiple artists working with Bill Willingham to tell the final stories for many different characters. I won’t go into every single one, because if I did this review would go on forever, but none of them are truly pointless. Each one adds something to what happens next for this world of characters because the story doesn’t end when Rose Red and Snow White end their fight. The world changes in a huge way thanks to the destruction of Fabletown and each of these stories shines a small light on what came next. We also get the final say on each of the Wolf children and how they meet their fates. Mike Allred, Joelle Jones and Aaron Alexovich are some of the artists who’s pages stand out the most because of their very unique styles.

The final couple of pages will undoubtedly bring a tear to the eye of all “Fables” fans because of its focus on the most important romance of the entire series. Bigby Wolf and Snow White get their day in the sun and they get a happy ending. It’s not easy for them to get to but for someone like me, who rooted for them since day one, the last line of dialogue between them moved me. It was beautiful and spoke to so much more than just their love.

Where does “Fables” rank in the history of comics? I don’t know if that answer is known to us just yet. There’s no question that it has a firm place as one of the best fantasy series comics has ever seen and it’s won many Eisners but as far as the pantheon of comics goes, I don’t know. Now that it’s all said and done, there will be a group of readers who will decide that by borrowing trades from their local library the way I did. They will fall in love with it and they will determine where this book ranks among everything else.

“Fables” ended up being a piece of the history of these characters but what we learned from them will stay with fans forever. “Fables” in many ways taught us about the passage of time, loss and being able to live with all of it in a healthy way. People come and go, life moves on but we will always have the memories of the moments that mattered most. Prince Charming’s heroic sacrifice in the Homeland, Flycatcher’s journey to becoming a King, Boy Blue’s death, Snow White’s leadership in tough times, Cinderella’s constant sacrifices for Fabletown and even Dare’s death that ultimately saved his sister all mean something to the readers in ways that can’t be forgotten. These things shaped so many of us as comic readers over the last 13 years and this final volume is for us. I’ve never experienced a time where “Fables” wasn’t on my monthly pull list and it’ll be a tough adjustment but I couldn’t think of a better way for the series to go out.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Fables: Happily Ever After

Title: Fables: Happily Ever After

ISBN: 9781401251321
Price: $17.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2015
Artist: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha, Andrew Pepoy, Dan Green, Eric Shanower, Tony Akins, Shawn McManus, Nimit Malavia, Jae Lee, Terry Moore, Russ Braun, Chrissie Zullo
Writer: Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges
Collects: Fables #141-149

Rating: 4/5

This is the 21st volume (the 2nd to last) in the Fables series. It did an excellent job of continuing the whole Rose versus Snow storyline that has been ongoing. It also did a great job of wrapping up the stories of many other random characters throughout the series.

Rose Red has started her round table of knights in what she believes is a positive (but a bit misguided) way to rule the Fables and is determined to hunt down and kill the monster Bigby has become. Snow White has long ruled Fabletown and ends up throwing down against Rose Red to save the Fables’ way of live and to save her husband. There is a high body count in this volume as hero after hero falls to the claws and teeth of Bigby.

Additionally throughout there are some “Final Story of So and So” parts. These parts tell the last story of Sinbad, or the Frog Prince, or whomever…and give us us a quick look into where these characters are and what they are doing.

I really enjoyed this volume. The struggle between Rose Red and Snow White is pretty epic. I loved that Snow finally got her kick-butt armor and sword to mirror Rose’s. We also finally get to learn the origins of how Rose and Snow ended up in Fabletown.

The artwork for this series continues to be well done and easy to follow, so I really enjoyed that was well.

Overall I thought this was an excellent continuation of the Fables series. I just got volume 22 and am eager to see how everything wraps up. This has been a wonderful (and incredibly long-running) urban fantasy graphic novel series that I have really enjoyed.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

The Walking Dead Volume 22: A New Beginning

Title: The Walking Dead Volume 22: A New Beginning

ISBN: 9781632150417

Price: $14.99

Publisher/Year: Image, 2014

Artist: Charlie Adlard

Writer: Robert Kirkman

Collects: The Walking Dead #127-132

Rating: 3.5/5

A New Beginning jumps right into things by introducing some new characters – though one never really knows how long they’ll last in this comic series. Thankfully for this group, they’re saved by Jesus, Rosita, Eugene, and several other heroes on horseback…except it turns out that these ‘heroes’ led the horde of zombies right into the newcomers.

That said, I thought it was a bit silly how much Rosita was beating herself up over having done so – it’s clear that some time has passed and that it’s been a while since they found new people, and they were just trying to lead the horde away from their three communities – Alexandria, The Hilltop, and The Kingdom.

That’s right, I said three communities. Just as Rick promised Negan in the end of All Out War (Part Two), the “good” people are rebuilding. They’ve set up a barter system and scheduled patrols of the main paths between their settlements; they’re farming and transplanting fruit trees, building mills and training people in skilled jobs.

Meanwhile, a lot has changed for the main characters as well. Carl has grown up a lot, though now he’s more annoying teenager than annoying child. Rick still walks with a cane thanks to Negan snapping his leg, but he’s got a hook attachment for his arm. He and Andrea are still together, but they’ve reached a point where Carl is referring to her as “Mom”.

Yet through all this, it’s still unclear how much time has passed since the end of the Negan War. The best marker is probably Maggie’s son Hershel; she was still pregnant at the end of Volume 21, and now the boy is speaking – at least minimally – so I think it’s safe to say that at least a year has passed. The problem is, I don’t think readers should have had to wait to see ‘baby’ Hershel before even being able to figure that out on their own. Perhaps outright saying “One year later…” was unnecessary, but there should have been better markers, earlier on.

It’s been a while since Carl’s storyline was quite this frustrating, but now that Rick has allowed him to move to The Hilltop to work with the blacksmith, I’m hoping that we’ll see some changes in Volume 23. The fact that Carl was visiting Negan and telling him things that he obviously wasn’t telling Rick was a bit too contrived, and I have a bad feeling it’s going to come back to haunt him.

Negan may be locked away, and the new group – Magna and crew – may not have believed his lies, but it’s never a good thing when a Big Bad is still alive at this point. Especially when the writers really wore that story down to its bare bones.

Speaking of the new group, they seemed okay at first, but it was still a bit predictable that they almost immediately started causing trouble. Of course the goal of the comics is to keep people reading, and that’s one of the downfalls of reading the volumes – with so many issues published in one book, readers don’t really get a break from the constant developments.

One interesting thing to note, though, is that Magna and the others were on the road for seven months and claimed not to have seen another living human in all that time. I suppose when one takes that into account, it’s a bit easier to understand how they think Alexandria – and Rick Grimes – are too good to be true. However, I think they’re a bit in over their heads, ‘capturing’ Andrea for questioning like they did…especially after the panels where Rick and Carl had to fight zombies on a supposedly clear road, leading to a beating via cane when the patrolman responsible showed up. Rick may be healing physically, but there are clearly plenty of underlying issues with him, and I think it’s safe to say that Magna doesn’t want to be on his bad side.

There are other problems afoot, as well. At the moment the rebellious kids at The Hilltop (although it seems that only the other kids are aware of the situation) seem to be less important than Hilltop resident Marco’s tale of “whispering” zombies, especially when it turns out that he was right, in a way. Maggie is the leader at this community, and when Marco returned alone she sent some of her best men out to find his co-patrolman Ken, whom he’d left behind. What these men found definitely eclipses the fact that Magna doesn’t trust Rick and that Sophia is having to fight troublesome teenage boys – because The Walking Dead brought in a hell of a new gross factor at the end of A New Beginning – there are people out there who wear zombie-skin suits.

Volume 22 was mostly what I’d hoped for in a post-Negan-War story. Yes, Negan himself may still be alive, but it seems that at least for now he’ll remain as a background problem as Rick realizes that they haven’t built paradise yet. (And, let’s be honest, probably never will.)

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Batman: No Man's Land Volume 4

Title: Batman: No Man's Land Volume 4

ISBN: 9781401235642
Price: $34.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2012
Artist: Roger Robinson, Sergio Cariello, Paul C. Ryan, Dale Eaglesham, Damion Scott, Rick Burchett, Jim Balent, Scott McDaniel, Greg Land, N. Steven Harris, Pablo Raimondi
Writer: Dennis O'Neil, Chuck Dixon, Devin Grayson, Greg Rucka, John Ostrander, Jordan B. Gorfinkel
Collects: Batman Chronicles #18, Batman #572-574, Detective Comics #739-741, Legends of the Dark Knight #125-126, Azrael: Agent of the Bat #59-61, Catwoman #75-77, Batman: Shadow of the Bat #93-94, Nightwing #38-39, Batman: No Man’s Land #0, Robin #73

Rating: 2.5/5

Volume 4 is a rather sloppy finale to the No Man’s Land saga. It never quite builds enough momentum and often repeats plot points over and over again verbatim because the story was told in multiple titles that are all collected here. That gets pretty annoying pretty fast. However, volume 4 also features some of the very best chapters that this epic had to offer like a devilishly clever Joker attack, Two-Face’s kangaroo court, and the reconciliation between Batman and Jim Gordon that is one of the most memorable moments the two characters have shared in their entire history.

Okay, so first I should probably address my claim of this book being “sloppy” and one of the best examples of that I can lay out on the table begins with Volume #3. The previous book ended with a cliffhanger about Tim Drake gaining fame as the innocent boy lost in Gotham City. A missing person’s case. He’s all over the news and it’s put No Man’s Land back in the headlines. What could possibly happen next? Well it’s never addressed again until the second to last chapter of Volume 4! That issue, Robin #73, shows the rescue operation to bring Tim Drake back to the mainland and reunite him with his father. It’s not a bad episode, it’s actually pretty fun. However, it took us 483 pages to get to that point and in the meantime we’ve already seen a chapter that shows Tim Drake having dinner with his pop and that would be pretty confusing to someone reading this story for the very first time.

Another instance of sloppiness is how Batman: No Man’s Land #0 is tossed into the center of the book and totally breaks the tension created by the previous chapters. This segment about Huntress back when she was disguising herself as Batgirl doesn’t belong here. Instead, it would’ve been more fitting back in volume 1 or 2 when these events were pertinent.

But the biggest problem is the repetition. You see the same exchange, dialogue and all, between Catwoman and Batman not once, not twice, but three times back-to-back-to-back. And later on there’s a catastrophic explosion that you have to watch play out twice, but sadly, even though it has greater impact on the story in the 2nd telling you don’t care because you already know it’s coming. There’s no surprise there. If anything, you’ll be confused (I was) because you would’ve thought that this event happened days ago in the story.

Those are all pretty big structural problems, but lets talk about the story itself. What is going on in NML #4. Well, Gotham is trying to recover. The government is on the verge of lifting the No Man’s Land blockade and Lex Luthor has his sights set on taking over most of Gotham’s real estate (although I’m sick of seeing this guy pull real estate schemes in the movies, this instance actually fits quite well). Do I like the Superman connection? No. Not really. I would’ve been happy with some other Gotham related character doing the deed. Reminding me that Superman exists destroys my suspension of disbelief. I addressed this in the other reviews when Superman came into play, but come on… after watching the Death Battle episode recently with Goku vs. Superman, the idea that Superman couldn’t clean this whole mess up in 2 seconds is ridiculous (I know they try to make the point that a quick-fix can’t solve Gotham’s problems, but in this volume Luthor offers exactly that, a quick fix, and everything works out fine).  Thankfully there aren’t too many extended DCU references in this work. Dr. Fate gets mentioned once, but unlike previous volumes the Teen Titans never visit and nobody writes another inept Superman into the tale just to make Batman look better.

Speaking of Batman, he’s not really in this book very much. In fact, for most of No Man’s Land he’s standing over Oracle’s shoulder or showing up to a fight at the very last minute before telling his team what needs to be done next. So it could be argued that No Man’s Land is actually more about the bat-family than it is about Batman himself. However, the moments where we actually see Batman, those are easily the best and it starts with the very first chapter about Leslie Thompkins. Leslie is a shamefully underused character in the New 52 so it’s great to see her used so well and so often in all volumes of No Man’s Land. There’s a tender moment between Bruce and Leslie here and it brought back fond memories of Batman: The Animated Series, which also utilized Dr. Thompkins beautifully. When will we finally see this character on film? Nolan’s films seem to have given some of her characteristics to Rachel Dawes, but I want to see the kindly old lady, dammit. Other than Batman and Leslie, another character who shines in No Man’s Land is Commissioner Gordon. When talking about great Jim Gordon stories we often hear Batman: Year One get thrown around along with Black Mirror and maybe Gotham Noir (which is alright until you think about the twist and then that whole book falls apart). But really, No Man’s Land deserves to be on that list and ranked quite highly. Gordon stayed in Gotham when Batman didn’t. He also helped hundreds of people survive, fought wars, was destroyed by how the rest of the world saw him and rose back from that to become an even greater hero figure.

As you know, The Dark Knight Rises and Batman: Arkham City borrow pretty heavily from this saga and if you loved the hospital scene between Bruce and an injured Jim Gordon in “Rises”, you’ll adore Legends of the Dark Knight #125 “Falling Back” as much, if not more. Personally, I think this is an instance in which the comics did it better. For one, Gordon wasn’t dazed from medication and actually got to speak to Batman man-to-man about how abandoned he felt. This is not only an emotionally powerful segment, but it breaks down the Batman/Gordon relationship nicely. There are two other great Gordon chapters, but I’ll only go into one of these because saying what the final one is could spoil things for someone who has never read these comics.

Two-Face’s kangaroo court. Out of all the stories that cut out Batman entirely, this is the one that function the best. Not once did I get bored or wish I was watching Batman do whatever he does when not bossing everyone else around. No, the drama of Gordon being put on trial was more than enough. It’s not only a good story for Jimbo, but we see plenty of Renee Montoya and Two-Face is at his craziest.

As for the other characters…

Nightwing and Oracle have a story of their own here as well. A two-parter that dives into their romance too, which was fun to read since it’s something that’s hardly been addressed in the New 52. Seeing the damaged Barbara push away Nightwing is heartbreaking stuff.

Azrael hangs out with Batgirl and the two of them seem to be the only ones who try and keep the peace in this town anymore. In fact, Batman sends Azrael after the Joker. THE JOKER! I don’t know why Batman put so much faith in Jean-Paul Valley in the 90’s but he did. Once again, Nightwing is overlooked and all hope is put into the guy who was raised in a bizarre Christian cult that trained him to be a killing machine.

Lucius is probably the one working the hardest and causing the most change because he’s the one on Capitol Hill doing everything he can to bring Gotham back into the embrace of the United States. It’s odd though to see Batman hiding his identity from Lucius, though. After the Nolan films and the recent Batman Incorporated stuff it feels like Lucius should absolutely know who Batman really is under the mask. It would make life a lot easier on Bruce.

Catwoman is fighting robots, gets her origin story elaborated on (it’s a lot better than the New 52 issue #0 version), and plays games on Penguin and Lex Luthor. These chapters can be skipped, really, especially the stuff that repeats beats from Azrael’s comics.

And the Joker… The writers behind No man’s Land never really found anything for Joker to do. Instead they seem deadset on not letting him do much of anything simply so they could save him for the climax. They even go so far as having Bane and Mercy (henchgirl from Superman: The Animated Series who made her comic book debut in No Man’s Land vol. 3) go on a mission to track down and kill the Joker and they actually have him. 100% could kill him, which was what they were sent to do mind you, but suddenly Mercy decides to just let him go because “He got the message.”

Thankfully, when Joker does show up again the the final quarter of the book we get some pretty fantastic scenes. The battle between Joker and Petit’s forces is easily one of my top 3 moments from the entire saga and a must-read.

Other villains don’t get quite as much attention. The focus is instead on Lex Luthor and Batman’s plan to use him to save the city and then kick him out before he can take control of it. It’s a good plot line but I wish someone like a Roland Dagget type character would’ve been used instead so it would’ve been a pure Batman story without the distraction of knowing it exists in a world where magic and super powered heroes are an option.

The saga doesn’t exactly end in epic fashion. It instead closes in tragedy and the notion that help is on the way and the worst is over. The cleaning-up of Gotham happens very quickly and that didn’t sit too well with me after all the struggle witnessed in previous chapters. It didn’t feel natural. What it felt like was DC said “That’s enough of the dystopian stuff, make everything normal again.” and so it was.

There are a few diamonds in all of this rough, but overall Volume 4 is yet another horribly unbalanced read. No Man’s Land is one of the most awesome concepts for a Batman story but it appears as though the creatives behind the scenes were not well coordinated in what the saga would ultimately be. Batman is hardly in this book, the ending arrives far too abruptly, and after 4 whole volumes worth of buildup that can be pretty unsatisfying. Still, there are some must-read chapters here. Greg Rucka’s segment about Batman asking for Gordon’s forgiveness is one of the best Batman stories of the past 20 years and the tragedy that befalls one of the book’s heroes near the end is deeply saddening.

I used to think that No Man’s Land was a classic but after reading it all these years later and really analyzing it I’ve found that I’m more in love with the idea of No Man’s Land than I am the actual book. If anything, I’m now wanting to go back and read the novel by Greg Rucka again, which was what exposed me to No Man’s Land in the first place. From what I recall it focused more on the true Batman characters and Superman and Azrael entirely. Perhaps what No Man’s Land needs is a remake. Studios do remakes of TV shows and movies all the time, so why not a comic book arc? There is something truly captivating here in No Man’s Land but the comics collected in these 4 volumes barely scratched the surface of a premise that ignited the imagination of an entire fanbase.

MtG Decklist - One Deck to Rule Them All

  A few years ago, I was watching a video on The Commander's Quarters YouTube channel, and I remember loving the concept so much, that ...