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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Star Wars Volume 1: Skywalker Strikes

Title: Star Wars Volume 1: Skywalker Strikes

ISBN: 9780785192138
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2015
Artist: John Cassaday
Writer: Jason Aaron
Collects: Star Wars #1-6

Rating: 4/5

It is a fanboy’s perfect fantasy: set between the two best Star Wars movies, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, our heroes – who all look like the original cast from way back then - continue their campaign against the Empire in the wake of successfully blowing up the Death Star.

Han Solo leads a covert rebel strike force against the Empire’s biggest weapons factory on Cymoon-1. But things don’t go as planned, especially once the Empire’s “negotiator” appears.

Elsewhere, Luke continues his quest to become a Jedi Knight, Leia discovers a massive secret about Han’s past, and Vader investigates this mystery boy mentored by his old friend, Obi-Wan…

(Text disappears and camera pans down to empty space – annnnnd scene! But seriously, the classic movie opening style is also how the book is introduced!)

Jason Aaron and John Cassaday’s Star Wars is a very good comic and a promising start to Marvel’s new Star Wars line but I don’t think the quality is what made its first issue the biggest-selling single issue in 20 years; the hysteria following that first Star Wars teaser from JJ Abrams’ forthcoming Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, probably had a lot to do with rekindling peoples’ love of the franchise (not to mention that second teaser – they’re home!!!).

That said, the first three issues of this arc are truly outstanding. The rebel attack on Cymoon-1 is expertly choreographed by Aaron who splits up the action between three groups: Chewie, Threepio and the Falcon; Han, Leia and Artoo causing havoc inside the weapons factory; and Luke and Vader dueling. Aaron jumps from one group to the next in perfectly measured doses. The action is exciting and the story fast-moving and completely engrossing. Couple that with Cassaday’s gorgeous art that recalls the glory of those original movies, aided by Laura Martin’s beautiful colors, and it’s the best possible start the series could’ve had.

Then the second half of the book starts and… it’s a bit meandering. Aaron’s tightly-knit first half is gone, replaced with characters basically treading water. Han and Leia go looking for a new rebel base, which we know will be Hoth; Luke and Artoo vaguely look for something to help with his Jedi training; Vader stands around looking menacing, wondering who the kid really is (he and Luke haven’t had the “I am your father scene” yet) – it’s underwhelming stuff following on the heels of that blistering opener.

Star Wars icon Jabba the Hutt has a cameo and fan favorite Boba Fett plays a large role in the second half of the narrative, both of which helps waylay the increasingly slow-moving, er, “story”. Then it ends on a big soap-opera-esque reveal that’s currently generating lots of spoiler-filled articles on comics sites (and isn’t that great a surprise anyway).

Aaron has the voices of the characters down cold, particularly Han whom he writes with a flourish, while Cassaday’s art faithfully replicates the look and feel of those original movies (even if he is a bit too enamored of the Dutch angle). Besides the second half’s plotting, I have no complaints about the writing or the art – these two are a great match.

In terms of the extended universe that was built up over at Dark Horse, I don’t think Marvel have kept any of it - it’s all gone and they’re starting anew. Not so good for fans of all that stuff, good for new readers jumping on board and only have experience of the movies. I’m not a fan of Star Wars comics (I’ve read only one other Star Wars book before this) and I had a blast – I imagine bigger fans of the franchise will gobble this up!

Star Wars: Skywalker Strikes is a fine first volume from two creators at the top of their game, and perfectly timed by Disney to take advantage of the keen anticipation for The Force Awakens this Christmas. It’s half a superb book but the other half still has plenty of cool moments to keep readers interested. A grand space-operatic fun read!

Here’s hoping you-know-who doesn’t ruin this comic by ever feeling the urge to do a special edition of it!

Sunday, February 21, 2016

George A. Romero's Empire of the Dead: Act One

Title: George A. Romero's Empire of the Dead: Act One

ISBN: 9780785185178
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2014
Artist: Alex Maleev
Writer: George A. Romero
Collects: George A. Romero's Empire of the Dead: Act One #1-5

Rating: 3/5

Everyone knows that George A. Romero is considered the father of the zombie genre, so anytime he is involved you know that there is potential for something special. While he is most known for his film work, one of his latest projects has him teaming up with Marvel comics for the series Empire of the Dead alongside artist Alex Maleev. If for some reason you haven’t had a chance to check it out now you can get your hands on the first five issues with Empire of the Dead Act One.

The series follows a quarantined Manhattan struggling to keep the undead plague at bay while the flesh eaters shamble through the streets and are beginning to evolve including a former cop who will not let it stop her from completing her mission. While the outside is decaying and overrun, Central Park’s Circus Maximus host bloody zombie gladiator battles while another ancient creature is slowly taking over. Now it is vampires vs zombies with humans caught in the middle. To no surprise this series plays up like a film more so than a normal comic. There are a lot of things happening in this story that has set up numerous interesting twists to come all while keeping it interesting and moving forward. The art from Alex Maleev is gritty and sometimes messy in a good way that works perfectly for the book. Have no fear this isn’t a watered down story either and features plenty of zombie flesh eating, vampire bloodletting and gun toting action to keep any fan of the genre satisfied.

This collection is the perfect chance to get in on this really cool series and not only features the first 5 issues, but also a variant cover gallery from artists Frank Cho, Greg Horn and Arthur Suydam. Don’t miss out on the latest epic zombie masterpiece from Romero and Marvel available now.

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Batman: Year One

Title: Batman: Year One

ISBN: 9781401207526
Price: $14.99
Publisher/Year: DC, 2005
Artist: David Mazzucchelli
Writer: Frank Miller
Collects: Batman #404-407

Rating: 3.5/5

If there has ever been a modern Batman story more influential than Frank Miller's 1986 masterpiece, The Dark Knight Returns, it was Frank Miller's 1987 masterpiece, Batman: Year One. It's remarkable that the same writer scripted two such extraordinary stories a year apart, but truly incredible that the two stories approach the character so differently and accomplish such different things. Yet, there is no contradiction between the two works: Year One depicts a young man who is about to leap, literally, into his life's work, while DKR stars an aging man who accepts that his mission is something he can never leave behind. But these two moments are so far apart that we can barely fathom that the same character's life contains them. Year One stands separate from DKR, not as a prequel.

Superman, Wonder Woman, and other DC characters were significantly redefined by post-Crisis reboots, but Year One leaves the facts of Batman's life much the same as before. Year One, rather, fills in small details during a legendary year; the time frame that Year One spans is covered by just four panels in an earlier origin story, 1980's The Untold Legend of the Batman. This gives Miller freedom to blend existing stories and new elements into a new work that feels familiar just often enough to make Miller's inventions resound.

Year One has a particular quality that is shocking to the reader, a quality that virtually all previous superhero comics had energetically rejected: Realism. Could Batman be real? Of course not. But could the Batman in Year One be real? Still, the answer is no, but many scenes play so close to real life that we feel like we've jumped right out of the superhero genre and into a different world. Year One shows Bruce Wayne going into action eight times, and three of them go badly. He is stabbed once, shot four times, beaten over the head once, and trapped by the police twice. True, he escapes both time he's captured, and the most unrealistic thing in the story might be that he heals well enough to continue as Batman, but for a while here and there, we forget that Year One's world isn't our world. This draws the reader into thinking about Batman's weapons and tactics on the practical basis that Batman's voice-over narration provides, and so the story works on a level that a Green Lantern or Flash story never could, and earlier Batman stories usually did not. Year One's realism has spun off a new "How To" subgenre of Batman story, with narration exploring Batman's training and tactics filling many pages in post-Year One stories and at least three entire published books. The practical details of being Batman show up in every Batman movie since 1989's Batman, and provides much of the basis of Batman Begins and was a major focus of a new title, Legends of the Dark Knight, which focused on key events early in Batman's career when his crime fighting approach was being shaped.

In addition, Year One introduced the organized crime family of Carmine Falcone, who, unlike many "disposable" mobster characters seen in Batman stories over the years, provided a substantial basis for future stories exploring the same era. Year One's take on the Falcones and a younger Harvey Dent recurred in The Long Halloween and other stories, building up a rich Godfather-like early history of Batman continuity. This created a timeline in which Batman faced more realistic, organized-crime opponents, rather than masked super villains, early in his career. While Year One devotes considerable time to developing Selina Kyle as a third focus, and mentions the Joker in the very last panel, the emphasis on realistic criminals further grounds the series in realism.

At the heart of Year One are two men: Bruce Wayne – who has the inspiration, on panel, to become Batman – and Jim Gordon, then a junior officer new to Gotham. The narration alternates between the two men with calendar dates in the captions, showing us a year in their lives as Wayne figures out how to fight a war in the streets and Gordon fights one at work and another one in his marriage. Both men are fiercely principled, physically tough, and in way over their heads. In time, they learn to trust one another, but not until the titular year reaches November. Along the way, they square off against one another, directly and indirectly, with Gordon gradually figuring out how to wrest himself from the clutches of the corrupt Gotham City police force that prefers its criminals to the new caped crime fighter.

Gordon is yet another element who grounds the story, even down to his Chicago (a real city) origin. It is his story that makes the narration work, filling in the blanks between long stretches of time (according to the dateline captions) in which we don't see Bruce Wayne at all. Between January 4 and March 11, we don't see Bruce Wayne do anything at all except return home and kick a tree trunk. What is he doing in the meantime? Certainly not "nothing." The blank spaces invite the reader to contemplate that question and imagine what elaborate preparations of Wayne's body and equipment must be taking place. But they are left unseen, while Gordon begins a long and difficult road to fight temptation in the form of an attractive female partner and a very dirty police department.

But when Bruce Wayne first goes into action, amid scenery right out of Taxi Driver, and fails badly, we find out that his unseen preparation wasn't nearly enough. Wayne barely escapes with his life and identity intact, and beats a self-imposed deadline – a literal deadline, in which his blood will run out of his body if he doesn't summon Alfred to save him – to devise a better way to fight crime, a way that comes to him in crashing glass and a vow to become a bat.

Nothing goes right for the new Batman on his first try, and not always on his second. Year One tells us succinctly about his dozens of encounters interdicting street criminals and focuses, instead, on showing us how he uses skill and brilliance to bring down the city's big criminals, some of whom were elected. He fights a many-front war against ordinary crooks, big bosses, and even the Gotham police. His victories ultimately break up the logjam of corruption that made Gotham "no place to raise a family." By story's end, Gordon is free to call Batman to help on a case. That is the story arc that Year One brilliantly travels, taking an almost plausibly real city and introducing Batman into it, giving us for the first and arguably only time, a compelling explanation for the set-up that other Batman stories have simply assumed, that a man who dresses like a bat is the police's ally (and their superior) in fighting crime.

Batman: Year One stays with you. You don't forget Batman's failures and successes, the new Selina Kyle, the struggling Jim Gordon, or the Falcones. Miller's plot and dialogue and David Mazzucchelli's art create a new world, and although many creators have tried to take us, we've never really gone back to that place since.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

House of Mystery: Room & Boredom

Title: House of Mystery: Room & Boredom

ISBN: 9781401220792
Price: $9.99
Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2008
Artist: Luca Rossi
Writer: Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges
Collects: House of Mystery #1-5

Rating: 3/5

Vertigo got its start as a mature readers horror/fantasy imprint with such titles as Sandman, Books of Magic, Hellblazer and Swamp Thing. Over the almost 16 years that it has been in existence, the comic line has expanded its content however with the success of Fables, they seem to be returning to their roots to some degree. While Fables has been enjoyable, it has felt like Sandman-lite in some ways, invoking its use of mythology and stories, but without the subtext and dept that Sandman was able to convey. However, its popularity has spawned one spin-off title with several others in the works.

Vertigo has decided to build on the success of this by having the writers of Jack of Fables (with Willingham himself being the writer of Fables as well) bring their fantasy magic to a once long running DC Comics anthology series, House of Mystery from which, Neil Gaiman had borrowed characters from to populate his Sandman world. With this new incarnation, Willingham and Sturges create a comic that pays tribute to its anthology roots by having small anthology-like stories within the comic, surrounded by a bigger narrative for those who want a comic that feels like it has somewhere to go.

The main story centers on the House of Mystery itself and its occupants. The reader follows the newest occupant, Fig Reese as its introduction to the house and the mysteries that surround it. This is the main bulk of each issue, with a few pages dedicated to a story that one of the occupants tells, written by either Sturges himself or sometimes Willingham with artwork by a guest artist for each issue. It has to be said that Willingham’s name above the title is a little misleading, as he only writes the first two mini-stories. It rather feels like Vertigo wants Willingham’s name on the cover to appeal to the Fables crowd and thus asks that he writes a couple of these stories every few issues or so. This is however, Sturges’ baby all the way.

Luca Rossi’s artwork is quite Fables-like, which I would assume was a conscious decision by Vertigo and the writers, however there is a darker tone to it. It does suit Sturges’ storytelling style and gives an eerie look to the book while at the same time feeling playful. The guest artists are each a wonderful and add a nice contrast to Rossi’s artwork and they allow the reader to feel like they are experiencing a story within a story. The covers by Esao Andrews are also a beauty to behold and depict the darker side of this horror anthology as well as a beauty all at the same time.

Sturges and Rossi create a world that is interesting and enough “mysteries”, pun intended, to draw in readers to see where this is going. The horror/fantasy side of Vertigo as been quite sparse in the past few years and this comic is a welcome addition to that genre that shows there is still a market for it.

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