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Sunday, May 29, 2016

Star Wars: Lando

Title: Star Wars: Lando

ISBN: 9780785193197

Price: $16.99

Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2016

Artist: Alex Maleev

Writer: Charles Soule

Collects: Star Wars: Lando #1-5

Rating: 4/5

Wait, Lando isn’t in it? Seriously?!

That was my reaction when I first heard the news that the beloved scoundrel of Cloud City would not be appearing in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Lando Calrissian, a silver-tongued scoundrel with a heart of gold, was a great character, and I was disappointed to learn that we wouldn’t get to find out what kind of life he had built for himself after the events of Return of the Jedi. Fortunately, though, Disney made the wise decision to team up with Marvel and bring the character to back to life in the five-issue comic miniseries Star Wars: Lando. And while it may not be quite the same as seeing Billy Dee Williams back on the big screen, Lando is a rock solid addition to the ever-expanding universe of Star Wars.

Written by Charles Soule, illustrated by Alex Maleev, and colored by Paul Mounts, Lando takes readers back to a time before the events of Empire Strikes Back, a time when the character got by exclusively on his wits and charm. In this series, he sets out to settle an old debt by stealing something far more valuable than he had imagined when he took the job. Unsurprisingly, things don’t quite go according to plan, leaving Lando and Lobot — you know, the silent dude with the cybernetic implants — in a real bad spot.

On the surface, the series’ central plot sounds predictable and ordinary. And that’s because it is. But while the planned heist may be the biggest thing going on in Lando, it’s not the most important, or even the most satisfying. Lando is really about the evolution of the character himself. The heist is nothing more than a vehicle for the kind of development that he never received in the original cinematic trilogy. In this series, we get to see just what kind of man he was before becoming a valued member of the Rebel Alliance, providing valuable context to the emerging dichotomy between Lando the scoundrel and Lando the hero. We’re also treated to a firsthand look at the relationship between Lando and Lobot, the latter of whom is far more talkative than you might have guessed. It’s always a treat to see secondary characters get a second chance to shine, and Soule certainly makes the most of the opportunity, expanding upon and adding to the deep emotional bond between the two men.

If there are any flaws with the writing, they can be found in the dialogue. For the most part, Lando’s personality is accurately reflected in the tone and tenor of his speech. However, Soule does try a little too hard at certain points in the story, inserting lines of dialogue that just feel a little too cheesy and forced. It’s not a persistent problem by any means, but it happens frequently enough to catch your attention. Other than that, the writing is as good as any Star Wars comic series you’ve ever read.

The quality of Soule’s dialogue and characterization is given a run for its money by Maleev and Mounts’ artistry, which is some of the best — and, more importantly, some of the most unique — I’ve come across in Marvel’s various Star Wars miniseries. Mounts’ color work gives the story a bit of a noir feel, especially in the early stages of the story. That’s not something I’m used to experiencing in a Star Wars comic, but it meshes perfectly with the overall mood of the story. Maleev’s illustrations are equally impressive, as his depictions of the characters couldn’t possibly be more lifelike. Perhaps the most striking feature of the artwork in Lando, though, is the masterful use of shadows and lighting to keep the readers’ eyes focused on the most important visual elements within each individual panel. Whether it’s a subtle grin flashing across Lando’s face or a blinking red light on a ship’s control panel, Maleev and Mounts make certain that the first thing you see in each new panel is what they want you to notice first.

In conclusion, Marvel’s Lando is clearly one of the best Star Wars spin-off series, if not the best spin-off series, that we’ve seen so far. Soule’s decision to focus more on character development and relationship building than shootouts and space battles is wonderfully refreshing, and Maleev and Mounts’ artistry is as good as it gets. I’d put this particular book in the “can’t miss” category.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

Title: Howard the Duck: The Complete Collection, Vol. 1

ISBN: 9780785197768

Price: $34.99

Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2015

Artist: Val Mayerik, Tom Palmer, Dick Giordano, Dave Cokrum, Frank Brunner, John Buscema, Gene Colan, Alan Weiss, Ed Hannigan, Tom Palmer, Al Milgrom, Mike Nasser

Writer: Mary Skrenes, Steve Gerber, Frank Brunner

Collects: Fear 19, Man-Thing (1974) 1, Howard the Duck (1976) 1-16, Howard the Duck Annual 1, Marvel Treasury Edition 12, material from Giant-Size Man-Thing 4-5

Rating: 3/5

Trapped in a world of 1970s social satire, Steve Gerber’s iconic, and occasionally infamous, creation Howard the Duck still remains as prescient as ever. Finally back in print in an affordable format, today’s comic book-reading audience can enjoy the acerbic wit and zeal of a curmudgeon duck and his gal pal Bev Switzer. In this first collection, Howard meets the Man-Thing, gets transported to Cleveland, runs for president, and much more.

Gerber is joined by some of the finest artists that the mid 1970s Marvel Bullpen could offer, from co-creator Val Mayerik’s invention of the iconic character to the brilliant dynamism of Gene Colan.

This collection also offers an interesting historical insight into urban life in the 1970s, examining everything from hippies and lobbyists to Canadians and white supremacists. Gerber also took the time to criticize and examine the popular genres of American comics of the time, such as kung fu, horror and, of course, Marvel’s bread and butter, super heroes.

While some readers may have a preconceived notion of who and what Howard is, this comic offers instead a surreal, comedic and revolutionary series of stories that will satisfy any reader who dares.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel

Title: Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel

ISBN: 9781484737842

Price: $19.99

Publisher/Year: Disney Lucasfilm Press, 2016

Artist: Matteo Piana, Igor Chimisso

Writer: Alessandro Ferrari

Rating: 4/5

Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel is the newest comic adaptation from Disney Lucasfilm Press; it is the latest evidence that Disney gets it. The work is proof-positive that Disney cares about the Star Wars brand by continually reinvigorating our beloved mythology in new and refreshing ways. The art is crisp, and has a style that features a manga-hybrid quality, but contains a spirit evoking the classic original Marvel adaptions. It is aimed at ages 8-12, but is suitable for all ages, and, as promised on the back cover, allows the reader to experience the saga in a way you never have before.

It appears that nine different artists contributed to the book, and while this is noticeable on occasion, it is not particularly distracting.For instance, the familiar mask of Vader is on the cover, and while it seems more alien than the film version, it still creates the appropriate amount of menace in context with the other characters. His helmet is more distorted, but fits in well with the iconic McQuarrie model recognizable by fans of the Original Trilogy. It’s a different method of expression, but it works. It maintains the essence of the Sith Lord, and so many of the other character designs create this atmosphere as well.

For instance, Lando Calrissian looks like a smooth-talking shyster, which is exactly as it should be. Herein lies the fun of this graphic novel. Whether you are an artist or not, the designs give you something to talk about. Nothing is done haphazardly, and is painstakingly created. The attention to detail in the work enhances the storytelling greatly, even down to the dialogue boxes. When Darth Vader speaks, it’s in black, which helps to capture the tone of James Earl Jones’ booming voice. This provides an excellent method of expression that is welcome, and adds greatly to the narrative.

The layout does this too; of particular note are the presentations of some of the more iconic action sequences. When Vader faces Luke Skywalker on Cloud City, or in the Emperor’s throne room in Return of the Jedi, it is easy to follow, and manages to escape some of the frenetic tropes that have become all too familiar in modern comic book storytelling. It would be easy to throw something like this together for a cash grab, but happily, this is not the case here.

The true test, however, is the dialogue. The book credits Disney Lucasfilm Press, with a manuscript adaptation attributed to Alessandro Ferrari, and does an admirable job of providing much of the dialogue , which we are as familiar with as our address and phone number. While it is true that not every line from the films is present (that would not work well in a graphic novel anyway), it is permissible in this medium, as dialogue and art combine to tell the story. The spirit of Star Wars is alive and well in Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel, and I was pleasantly surprised.

All in all, it’s a nice compilation of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi, and will leave you engaged and satisfied. The end of the book reveals, “Coming soon in the same series, all the other episodes of the epic saga!”, and after enjoying Star Wars: The Original Trilogy A Graphic Novel, I am more excited about this than I would have originally guessed.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

House of Mystery: Room and Boredom

Title: House of Mystery: Room and Boredom

ISBN: 9781401212223

Price: $9.99

Publisher/Year: Vertigo, 2008

Artist: Luca Rossi

Writer: Bill Willingham, Matthew Sturges

Collects: House of Mystery #1-5

Rating: 3.5/5

Meet the inhabitants of the House of Mystery: the bartender, the poet, the pirate, the drama queen, and the latest arrival, Fig the architect. Trapped in a giant, sprawling Victorian mansion, a sort of supernatural Big Brother house without books, newspapers or television, the five prisoners each try to forget their own terrible pasts and work out why they are here. In the meantime they work in a bar frequented by patrons from all across time and space who pay for their drinks with stories.

The main character of this volume, Fig, is a young blonde woman who flees the ruins of her own mysteriously destroyed home from two strange figures known collectively as The Conception. She runs into a bar filled with an anachronistic mixture of people and creatures from all across time and space. Unfortunately, when she tries to leave Fig finds herself trapped in the house, along with four others. She learns that the only way to leave the house is when escorted by a mysterious coachman who shows up on rare occasions to take one of them away. No-one knows where those who leave are taken or what happens to them.

Fig recognizes the house as the building of her dreams which she has drawn pictures of ever since she was a child. It is what inspired her to become an architect. The house speaks to her in a voice that only she can hear. When Fig talks back to it the house doesn't like what it hears, which puts all five of its inhabitants in mortal danger.

Like the Sandman series, the plot of House of Mystery is convoluted and the length of the story, at eight volumes collecting 42 issues, makes it a bit intimidating to start with, like beginning a really fat novel. It is a bit hard to get into, but the stories told by the staff and customers of the bar stand alone so you can enjoy them even if you're not sure what's going on over all. There are stories about gangsters, witches, creatures of the deep, you name it! The creators make good use of the art and the story you get from the pictures is often quite different from the one you might glean from the teller's words alone.

House of Mystery: Room and Boredom is an intriguing start to the series. I will be picking up the next volume to see what happens next. I recommend it for fans of Vertigo comics and anyone looking for something a bit spooky to read in the lead up to Halloween.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Powers Vol 2: Roleplay

Title: Powers Vol 2: Roleplay

ISBN: 9780785192756

Price: $15.99

Publisher/Year: Icon, 2014

Artist: Michael Avon Oeming

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis

Collects: Powers Vol 1 #8-11

Rating: 3/5

The cover of Bendis and Oeming’s POWERS VOL 2: ROLEPLAY is a little misleading to me. It’s the costume of Detective Walker’s alter ego Diamond nailed to a brick wall. So obviously, I was hoping we’d get to dive into more of his backstory with some sort of threat to his former secret identity. That isn’t quite what happened, and I’m not sure how to feel.

One of the cool things about reading through the back catalog of one of my favorite writers is that I get to watch him build up to the writer he is now. The downside is that I feel like I know his tricks. I’ve been following Bendis since ULTIMATE SPIDER-MAN Volume 3: DOUBLE TROUBLE (2001); he was the first writer I ever needed to follow, and I always pay attention when he takes on a project. So as I read POWERS VOL 2 and reflected on last week’s POWERS VOL 1 review, I began to think about what I’ve learned about Bendis. Through the years, I’ve watched him kill and re-imagine beloved characters like Spider-Man and make devastating reveals in SECRET INVASION; I’ve seen him build characters that I didn’t even know existed, like Luke Cage, into leading men and women. I’ve seen him turn a classic stoic hero like Cyclops into one of the most controversial characters in the Marvel Universe, but, when I got to the end of WHO KILLED RETRO GIRL? as well as ROLEPLAY, even though I didn’t predict the ending, it wasn’t quite as shocking as it would have been to me in 2001.

ROLEPLAY begins with Walker and Pilgrim as they begin investigating what appears to be a copycat killer (imitating the murderer of Retro Girl from the first volume). They quickly learn that it isn’t a copycat killer, and the victims are not superheroes, just college students roleplaying as them. What began as a roleplaying game between friends quickly turns into a hunt when one of the deadliest super villains in the world gets involved, and Walker fights for his life.

The ending didn’t do it for me because I’ve seen Bendis do similar things in his smaller scale Marvel books, so it wasn’t entirely fresh to me. However, I really enjoyed the rest of the story. I was genuinely interested in the villain of ROLEPLAY, The Pulp, and I wanted to know more about him. I understand the nature of the story is to beat the bad guy, and in the detective’s life or death situation, he isn’t concentrating on hearing the villain’s life story, but a monologue would’ve been nice.

Deena Pilgrim is becoming a bit better than she was in the first volume, but I still don’t find her completely likable. Her character development suffers a bit due to her suspension from the force halfway through the story, but I think she’ll be more present in VOL 3. She does stick to her guns, though, I’ve got to admit that. Christian Walker’s character is roughly the same as in VOL 1. This is not to say that he’s emotionless, but we do see a bit more from him here. He’s got an anger streak that is justifiable, but it leads to activity that feels questionable. There’s also an awkward moment toward the end where he feels a bit depressed by finding out Deena has a boyfriend, so it seems he’s lonely too?

The art is obviously similar to the first volume, but somehow I feel like it’s a little looser. The noir aspects of the book are really emphasized in this volume because it has a dark subject matter. This leads to heavy shading, though, which often obscures features and distorts faces. This heavy shading does help to emphasize the emotions of the characters, but I feel like the character figures suffer because of it. The panel where Deena says “But it was an accident…” is an example of how her face seems misshapen, but the reader can tell that she feels alienated, and Oeming is possibly trying to symbolically have her appear as the villain in the situation because of the full faced nature of the shading.

While the art succeeds exceedingly in its effort to be cinematic, the panel structure of some of the pages is so crammed full of activity that it’s hard to tell what’s happening and what order it should be happening in. For example, in the pages above, Walker is interviewing a witness to the murder, and while these panels succeed in getting the plot to move, the panels that surround are not as clear. It’s hard to tell what Pilgrim is doing, and the heavy shadows on the art don’t aid the panel situation either.

Oeming and Bendis have added another small universe characterization moment in ROLEPLAY as well. In WHO KILLED RETRO GIRL? a pair of clashing foes crash into a building while Walker and Pilgrim are discussing their case in front of their car; the detectives don’t skip a beat and they continue talking about their case. This time, Walker and Pilgrim are in the same situation, but a dimensional traveler shows up.

Pilgrim reacts by throwing up, and Walker is obviously panicked, but in the following panel, Pilgrim shouts “Fuckin’ dimension-jumpin’ pieces of crap!”. This is a small but important moment because it shows that stuff like this happens often enough that it’s only moderately surprising.

While ROLEPLAY isn’t the story I expected or necessarily wanted, I know I have at least 14 more volumes of POWERS to get through, and it is a good follow-up to the story from the first volume. It adds some rules to the universe and we get to see the ugly side of police bureaucracy in a superhero universe. Sadly, the delicate balance between the superhero and noir genres that the art rides in “WHO KILLED RETRO GIRL?” is breached this time, and the clarity of the story suffers for it.

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