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Sunday, November 27, 2016

Original Sin

Title: Original Sin

ISBN: 9780785190691
Price: $75.00
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2014
Artist: Javier Pulido, Jim Cheung, Paco Medina, Mike Deodato, Ryan Kelly, Ramon Villalobos, Mike Perkins, Rick Geary, Raffaele Ienco, Ty Templeton, Ryan Brown, Mark Bagley, Joe Rubenstein, Alex, Maleev, Erica Henderson, Butch Guice, Scott Hanna, Chip Zdarsky
Writer: Ed Brubaker, Mark Waid, Jason Aaron, Ales Kot, Ryan North, Nathan Edmondson, Stuart Moore, Frank Tieri, Ty Templton, Charles Soule, Dan Slott, James Robinson, David Abadta, Pablo Dura, Al Ewing, Chip Zdarsky
Collects: Original Sin #0-8, Original Sins #1-5, Original Sin: Secret Avengers Infinite Comic #1-2, Point One #1

Rating: 1/5

For millennia the Earth has been observed by Uatu the Watcher, an immensely powerful cosmic entity, it is his duty to record what passes on our planet, never to intervene. But what happens when the innermost secrets of mankind are revealed?

Original Sin was Marvel’s big event of the earlier part of 2014 which has now been collected by the fine folks of Panini along with the supporting Original Sins mini-series. As an event about the nature of secrets and their impact upon the unsuspecting denizens of the Marvel Universe it’s rather difficult to review without letting any secrets out along the way.

The heart of the story is a whodunnit coupled with a series of character revelations driven by the plot which spanned out beyond the core event titles into the wider MU. This really weakens the collected event as none of the wider reveals happen within the book and they’re hardly referenced in the story. This gives the impression of Original Sin being the most unnecessary type of comics event, needlessly retconning swathes of Marvel Universe history to little actual effect other than to create room for aspects of the cinematic universe to be adopted.

A quick look at wikipedia shows that as well as the nine issues of Original Sin there were a couple of interstitial series Original Sins 3.1-3.4 and 5.1-5.5. I’m all for taking unnecessary elements out of event books to keep the number of issues manageable but only where it doesn’t detract from the story, in this instance it’s the latter. There’s no heft to the story because there’s no emotional impact on the page.

I find it hard to argue with that point of view as I was completely underwhelmed by what I read. The idea of parallel histories being revealed via retcon is fairly well established in comics, although I can’t recall it being used in such a high-profile title it was a central part of Marvel stories as recently as Secret Warriors. Whereas in that title the reveal was stunning, so much so that it was healthily robbed for the Captain America: Winter Soldier plot, after reading what a key Marvel character has allegedly been perpetrating for decades I was just left thinking “what?!”.

What was worse is that as revelations go it wasn’t hugely revelatory. Veering dangerously close to spoiler territory I will just say that if Marvel want to scrap the original versions of their characters in favor of the movie versions I wish they would just do it and not keep fiddling around. The inclusion of characters from Grant Morrison’s Marvel Boy series felt like Jason Aaron trying to tap into the reflected glory of their creator.

Events are often judged on the basis of whether they stand the test of time. I would be amazed if the retcons made by this series aren’t ignored or undone over the next couple of years..

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Justice League Vol. 7: Darkseid War Part 1

Title: Justice League Vol. 7: Darkseid War Part 1

ISBN: 9780101264529

Price: $16.99

Publisher/Year: DC, 2016

Artist: Jason Fabok, Kevin Maguire, Phil Jimenez, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Scott Kolins, Jim Lee, Scott Williams

Writer: Geoff Johns

Collects: Justice League #40-44, DC Sneak Peek: Justice League #1

Rating: 4/5

The Gods and the Amazons are some of the more interesting aspects of DC lore, and it is from that well that Darkseid War gets its origins from. For such a far-flung and epic storyline, the beginnings are pleasantly intimate, really coming down to a tale of a mother and a daughter rebelling against their father. The father just happens to be Darkseid, one of the most powerful entities on the planet.

Be the difference between hungry and well-fed.

In fact, many of the relationships on display throughout are parental, as Geoff Johns guides us through life as a son or daughter through numerous characters eyes. Wonder Woman, Grail, Kalibak, and Mr. Miracle all anchor the story, showing what someone can be because of and in spite of their childhood circumstances. Johns also manages to streamline the convoluted history of the New Gods and Apokolopis into something digestible for old and new readers alike, which has become his calling card.

For as much empathy as the writer elicits for Mr. Miracle, a character I never really cared about, he elicits the same amount of animosity for Metron, the knowitall with the big chair. We'll just call him blue chair from here on out. Blue chair is a giant tool and is ready to manipulate someone at a moments notice. He says it's for the betterment of the universe or some such, but I don't believe him. He makes The Watcher seem like someone you'd like to go have a beer with.

Okay, back to the story, though blue chair does have an important role to play. Grail, who is revealed to be the daughter of Darkseid and the amazonian assassin Myrina, is helping her mother to take down their father, with the help of another DC big gun, the Anti-Monitor. Again, Johns is actually able to boil this character down from his immense convoluted past into something that makes some sense, and his motivations are simple. He's tired of doing his job, and he wants out.

The battle itself is very much secondary, at least in part one, though I did have an issue with Batman being taken out so quickly (before his role as blue chair). It's like 3 hits and then he's done. The goal of the book seemed less about that conflict and more about getting the league into their new "godlike" roles, so that may bother some looking for a slugfest. The whole Luthor and Superman subplot felt more like a plot device to get Superman into his new form rather than an integral part of the story, but maybe that will all come to fruition in part 2.

The book is helped by a fantastic art team, including Jason Fabok, Kevin Maguire, Phil Jimenez, Dan Jurgens, Jerry Ordway, Scott Kolins, Jim Lee, and Scott Williams, and it certainly doesn't disappoint. The character design for Grail and the Anti-Monitor also deserve some praise. I was never a fan of the big blue helmet and orange armor, making him look more like a Mega Man villain than a universe-threatening powerhouse, and this look is a step in the right direction. It could use a bit more color to help it pop more, but I like the way it's heading. Grail looks like her upbringing, with Amazonian and Apokolips traits displayed in her costume. The art team really knocked it out of the park.

For those looking for a jumping on point, this is actually not a bad place to start. Things will confuse you, especially if you haven't read a DC comic in awhile, such as Jessica Cruz's role in this, or some of the dynamics between Superman and Luthor, but overall there is a great deal to like in volume 1, and I'm looking forward to reading volume 2.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Conan Red Sonja


Conan Red Sonja

ISBN: 9781616556518
Price: $19.99
Publisher/Year: Dark Horse/Dynamite, 2015
Artist: Dan Panosian, Randy Green, Rick Ketcham
Writer: Gail Simone, Jim Zub
Collects: Conan Red Sonja #1-4

Rating: 1/5

I think Conan Red Sonja would make an fine book for a preteen who has not read many comics, or maybe someone a little older who needs a bit of distraction while waiting at an airport, or any someone who needed to get an idea who and what Conan and Red Sonja were but didn’t really want to know any the specifics (for some reason). Conan Red Sonja would make a suitable book for one of these persons.

There are some things Conan Red Sonja has going for it. It isn’t completely disjointed, despite having large time jumps between issues. It contains some good artwork. Some good colouring. It is printed on great paper. It is bound very well.

I also think I like what writers Gail Simone and Jim Zub were aiming at. And to be fair they don’t completely miss the mark. This book has a some nice set pieces. Individual panels here and there can be quite pretty. The splash pages are well composed. The whole package is there. Unfortunately its just lacking in all the little polished details that would have made Conan Red Sonja something really good.

In essence what’s wrong with Conan Red Sonja is that it is just not smart enough.

Now I bet most people who haven’t read a lot of Conan comics wouldn’t expect you’d go to Conan or Red Sonja comics for smartness, but I do.

It used to be that Conan’s stories were based on short stories by Robert E. Howard (and a few other authors). That tended to smarten things up quite a bit. And Conan comics, unlike the superhero comics, had real deaths, people would die and – get this – not just come back a few issues down the road. That was smart too. Trust me, I know whereof I speak on this whole issue. I’ve been reading comics since the mid 1980s. I grew up collecting and reading Savage Sword, Conan The Barbarian, King Kull, Red Sonja and pretty much every other Robert E. Howard character they’d do a comic about. So I know Conan and Red Sonja pretty damn well – and it can be very smart stuff.

This comic isn’t very smart.

I’ll point to five very specific problems:

There are no cannons in the Hyborian age. Maybe this wasn’t actually in the script, maybe this is just a slip-up by an enthusiastic artist who, thinking “this is a pirate ship” and “pirate ships have cannons” drew some cannons. They don’t have cannons, not in the Hyborian Age.

The pirate ship on the right. Do you see what’s missing? You can’t make racism go away by avoiding situations that might look controversial. Bêlit’s crew is supposed to black, made up exclusively of “ebony-skinned warriors.” Bêlit’s crew, in Conan Red Sonja don’t look ebony to me. Yes, Howard was racist, but Bêlit isn’t racist. She is selfish. Wanton. Cruel. But not racist. Having Bêlit not have a black crew is a stupid way to avoid looking like being racist. It’s like having the Kents of Smallville be Chinese for the purposes of racial diversity, but keeping Clark Kent white – he’s a fucking alien! – So, suffice it to say, I don’t get the point of the change here – it just makes me think yeahhh, they’re afraid to deal with the fact that the creator of this character was racist, so lets pretend everyone is white in the Hyborian Age. Howard specifically sets up this image in Queen Of The Black Coast. Bêlit is an “ivory” skinned warrior woman leading a crew of “ebony” skinned pirates. Deal with it.

No, Thoth Amon is not responsible for the poisoning of the Zarkheba River, nor, as we are probably supposed to infer, the subsequent death of Bêlit. Bêlit is responsible for her own death. Despite what writers Gail Simone and Jim Zub have Thoth Amon saying above, there’s no reason at all to have him say it – other than it is something for him to say.

First of all, Thoth Amon isn’t the be-all and end-all of evil in the Hyborian Age – he isn’t the evil behind every evil. He isn’t anything close to being the Professor Moriarty of Hyborian Age (and neither was Moriarty, actually). That’s just lazy, lazy writing.

Thoth Amon shows up in exactly one Robert E. Howard story, The Phoenix On The Sword, and the two characters never actually meet. Or as the Wikipedia page for Thoth Amon puts it “[Thoth Amon] is often used as Conan’s arch enemy in derivative works.” Well, here’s another derivative work to add to the list, Conan Red Sonja.

Moreover, Thoth Amon’s explanation for why he supposedly poisoned the Zarkheba River doesn’t hold water. There were no ruins of a coastal town at the mouth of the river! There was a ruined city upriver, that’s the setting for the climax of Queen Of The Black Coast, but that city was ancient, and had very different reasons for going bad. Again, shitty lazy writing.

Maybe there are excuses for this sort of thing, maybe the folks at Conan Properties International and Red Sonja, LLC, are so worried about protecting the characters they invented claim to own that they are micromanaging the writing team – telling them what can and cannot be written. I don’t know.

When not occasionally looking drugged, sometimes, just from panel to panel, Conan will look like a different dude. He will rapidly grow and then lose abdominal hair. Weird right? Too weird. I could buy a version of Conan with abdominal hair, or a version with chest hair, or a version with hair everywhere, or a Conan with a completely hairless torso (the traditional look). What I can’t buy is the growing and mowing I’m being asked to do between panels. Pick a fucking hair pattern.

While The overall plot McGuffin isn’t bad – I like the idea of a red seed (from space) – one that sprouts a red-thorned vine that infects and chokes all the life out of everything in a land – it’s not a new idea of course, its from H.G. Well’s The War Of The Worlds – I like it! Yet I don’t think this book uses it very well. For example, we’re told it kills absolutely everything it gets close to, and so when Conan, after getting infected somehow (the book doesn’t show us how) – after getting infected Conan has the red thorny vines growing out of the muscle on his left forearm. His cure for this infection is fire (which is cool) but when the red thorny vine grows back Conan just pulls it out by the root – and that cures it?!? WTF!? What about all the other people and animals and plants that were killed by this invasive red alien plant? You’re expecting me to accept that this burn it then pull it technique will work for Conan but didn’t work for anyone else?

And that again is the problem with Conan Red Sonja, this book doesn’t expect anything of me. It certainly doesn’t respect the rules and patterns of the Hyborian Age and so it can’t and doesn’t respect itself.

I’ve seen this happen with a lot with corporate controlled franchises. They turn a character with whom an author told stories into fan service machines – telling us more about the character and forgetting what made the original writing so compelling.

Don’t give us more backstory, don’t give us prequels, do something awesome.

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