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Sunday, April 30, 2017

X-Men: The Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic Vol 1

Title: X-Men: The Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic Vol 1




ISBN: 9780785117148
Price: $29.99
Publisher/Year: Marvel, 2014
Artist: Terry Dodson, Steve Epting, Nick Napolitano, Joe Bennett, Ian Churchill, Roger Cruz, Alan Davis, Trevor McCarthy
Writer: Howard Mackie, John Francis Moore, Brian K. Vaughan, Scott Lobdell, Ralph Macchio, Terry Kavanagh, Judd Winick
Collects: X-Men Chronicles # 1-2, Tales From the Age of Apocalypse: By the Light, X-Man #-1, X-Man `96 Annual, Tales From the Age of Apocalypse: Sinister Bloodlines, Blink # 1-4

Rating: 1.5/5

Over the years, comics (through its main genre of super-heroes) has taken to the idea of alternate realities like no other medium. Television and cinema has had brief flirtations with the concept over the years – Star Trek mirrorverse episodes, Sliders, Sliding Doors – and has recently started to push the concept to the mainstream with shows like Lost and Fringe. Comics has been actively dabbling with alternate realities since the 1950s though. In 1984 DC had one of its biggest publishing events ever, Crisis On Infinite Worlds, built around the concept, traipsing through alternate worlds in a way that a more mainstream piece of fiction would still struggle to get away with now.

The alternate reality has become a staple of the super-hero comic and it’s not hard to see why. Most comic book super-heroes have either been around since the 1940s-1960s or are tied into shared universes that have been. It’s hard therefore to take a character or a concept and completely reinvent it from the ground up the way one could with a film or television entity. Alternate realities offer that opportunity and few have done it so well as the Age of Apocalypse.

Created in the mid-90s, the Age of Apocalypse was yet another X-Men cross-over story. Unlike its predecessors and successors such as the X-Cutioner’s Song and Operation: Zero Tolerance though the Age of Apocalypse was a true “Event” with a capital E. For four months, every X-Men related book disappeared from the schedules, replaced with eerie doppelgangers. Generation X was replaced with Generation Next, Cable became X-Man, and the X-Men were no longer Uncanny but Astonishing and Amazing. Characters went through radical overhauls. Beloved heroes became amoral monsters, resolute villains turned into tragic heroes, as they all tried to survive in the world under Apocalypse’s boot heel. This wasn’t some run of the mill alternate universe where Superman happened to be going grey or most people were left-handed. This was a topsy-turvy dystopia.

It was also wildly successful, with a legacy that still continues. Despite the Age of Apocalypse being a world gone wrong that shouldn’t exist, tonnes of its characters managed to escape through into the ‘real’ Marvel universe. Nate Grey (the eponymous X-Man and alternate version of Cable), the villainous Sugar Man, the twisted Dark Beast all made the jump. Blink and Sabretooth would both reappear a few years later as core members of Exiles, along with a slightly different version of fellow AoA stand-out Morph. Exiles would later manage to return to the Age of Apocalypse and pick up Apocalypse’s son Holocaust. Recently, Uncanny X-Force went there as well, picking up the native version of Nightcrawler and setting up a new ongoing sequel series, nearly twenty years after the original event. It’s also inspired stories on several X-Men cartoons and even a video game. Not bad for a four month event.

The more immediate aftermath of the Age of Apocalypse was sporadic prequel stories through various X-Men titles of the mid to late 90s and that’s what makes up this nominal first volume of the Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic collected edition series. Which is a shame, for two reasons.

The first problem is that really, the first volume of this trade-paperback series should just be the first wodge of issues from the original Age of Apocalypse titles. Readers in the 90s were dumped straight into the event with little heads-up. Well, ok, there was a preceding storyline that showing the time travel shenanigans that lead to the change into history that created the Age of Apocalypse (reprinted as Age of Apocalypse: Prelude), but beyond that it was ‘hey, all the X-Men you know don’t exist any more, meet these guys.’ Putting all the prequel material first rather kills that. It’s similar to making someone who’s not familiar with Star Wars watch the modern prequel films before the original trilogy. It neuters the original story’s impact. Finding out that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father isn’t as suspenseful when you’ve just watched three films of him as a mewling brat and sulky teenager. While that twist is now common knowledge, a lot of readers are going to be coming to the Age of Apocalypse trades not having read it before and are going to be confronted with a first volume that pisses all over the rest of the series’ surprises. The X-Man annual included in here is especially bad as it almost blatantly explains how the whole event ends, let alone shows the fate of Nate after the series. Prequels may be set before an original story, but by their very nature they should be read(/watched/heard/played) after.

The other problem with all the prequel material in this volume is that it’s largely utter dreck. It’s painfully bad in places, in all aspects, from the writing to the artwork. The very nature of these sorts of Expanded Universe stories is that they go and shed a light on parts of a story not fully explored before, regardless of whether there’s any real benefit to doing so. And for comic book alternate realities, there’s often a case of ‘I wonder what this guy was up to during all of this?’ So here we get a story that shows what happened to Cyclops and Havok’s father, Corsair, in this altered reality, that’s ultimate points are to a) rather redundantly foreshadow Cyclops’ disillusionment with his place in Apocalypse’s regime (which, if this is the first volume you’ve read of AoA, won’t have really been fully explained or familiar to you) and b) answers continuity questions no-one was asking. Then there’s another story whose raison d’etre is, again, to foreshadow Cyclops’ disillusionment, while showing you what’s up with the Inhumans in the Age of Apocalypse (a question on the minds of precisely no-one). Just fuck off and let the original story deal with Cyclops’ disillusionment.

More palatable is the story that shows the early days of Magneto’s X-Men, with their initial school in Wundagore, that at least shows why Scarlet Witch wasn’t in the main series, but this again feels the need to clumsily foreshadow the main series by having Wanda, with her dying breath, tell Rogue to be Magneto’s friend in the future. Because they end up a couple, you see. And you couldn’t have accepted that without a story where Wanda tells Rogue to do it. Or the other story that shows them getting together. Sigh.

All of this would be more bearable if it was well written, but it’s really not. I’d be surprised if anyone who worked on any of this material (with the exception of Judd Winick on the lame Blink mini at the back, who was clearly sounding out ground for the later, greater Exiles) wasn’t just doing it for the paycheck. One issue is so bad that I actually couldn’t finish reading it. I just had to give up. I’ve been reading American comics for over a decade, in huge amounts and though I’ve read plenty of stuff that isn’t good, that’s only the second time I’ve ever managed to not finish something (the other being the X-Treme X-Men: Savage Land mini series about 8 years ago).

And then there’s the art, which manages to cover all the bases of crap 90s comics art. You’ve got Jim Lee/Image imitation from Ian Churchill (whose work I have a soft-spot for, I have to say, even though it’s not terrible good in this period) through to roid-rage Ed McGuinness knock-off Joe Bennett (whose art seems to be in a fight with Scott Lobdell’s script to see which can make the least sense and be more awful) and then some grotesque crap that I assume is aiming for ‘cartoony’ by Trevor McCarthy on the Blink mini. There are some very good artists present in this volume – Alan Davis, Steve Epting and Terry Dodson namely – but their art is either before their prime or compromised by poor inking or self-indulgent, experimental computer coloring. There are rafts of mistakes as well. Blink, who is quite blatantly a character with bright pink skin (though she’s described as ‘purpley’ in one issue’s script for some reason) is colored grey for an entire issue in here. One in which she is the focus character. Morph is miscounted as navy blue at one point, a mistake made worse by the fact that the panel’s reused on the back cover.

So, bad writing, bad art, no good reason to exist. The Complete Age of Apocalypse Epic volume 1 is hardly a good introduction to this influential alternate reality event. Putting this out as the first volume is a real shot in the foot by Marvel and I have to wonder how many willing customers have picked this up and been driven away from the rest of the series because of it. If you’re interested in the Age of Apocalypse, do yourself a favor and start with volume 2.

Godhood





















Over my years of roleplaying experience, I have heard of several times where a certain character, or characters, have reached a deity-like status, or simply Godhood. I've never actually run a game where this happened, or have I been a part of a game where this has happened... but the thought has recently drawn my interest as I read the comic book series, The Wicked + The Divine.



The premise of the series is that deities are created every 90 years, but the Gods of "The Pantheon" only live for 2 years.



My first thought was to run a campaign... probably in a fantasy setting like D&D or pathfinder... where the ultimate end goal for all characters was to achieve Godhood status. Then I thought that this wouldn't really work for characters playing a Cleric, Paladin or some otherwise religiously devout class or character type.



At the very next moment, I realized that what I would need to do in order to accomplish this is to chose 1 player of the group to advanced on this end goal. But if the entire party knew that a character was wantingly striving for Godhood, they might behave differently than if they were unaware. Some players may take offense to the idea and actively work against that achievement. Though the more experienced players that I have had the pleasure of gaming with over the years would not take out-of-character knowledge and use it in-character, there are some that are inclined to do so.



My first attempt at a solution to this problem would be to survey the group before the campaign begins. I am working to develop a set of questions to provide me with a better understanding of which players/characters would be more pliable towards the idea of reaching Godhood. Once I have a candidate in mind, I will try to work the idea into the game, subtly and directly with the specific character.



So here's the questions I have about what parameters I should use to set the Godhood goal at:


  • In a level-based system like D&D or Pathfinder, should I set a specific level where Godhood would be attained, or should there be another level of measure?

  • Instead of a predetermined level, should I use a found magic item to bestow the Godhood mantle to the character? In this option, there is also a chance of a different character receiving said item and using it for themselves.

  • If the other characters in the party catch wind of the Godhood goal, should I actively use the deities for the Cleric/Paladin/Etc to work against the goal? (I guess that would all depend on the specific deity in question, huh?)


Ultimately, Godhood would come around the time of the close of the game/campaign. This would be the ultimate MacGuffin, and I while I want to eventually use it, I want to be as careful as I can. I know that players get very attached to certain characters over time, and this will create a strong bond for the player to their character and give them tales to tell over the years. I want to be able to make sure that these tales they pass on to other players help to promote similar ideas and great campaigns for future players and DM/GM/ST's.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Harley Quinn Vol. 2: Power Outage

Title: Harley Quinn Vol. 2: Power Outage





ISBN: 9781401257637

Price: $16.99

Publisher/Year: DC, 2014

Artist: Chad hardin, John Timms, Marco Failla

Writer: Amanda Conner, Jimmy Palmiotti

Collects: Harley Quinn #9-13, Harley Quinn: Futures End #1, Harley Quinn Invades Comic-Con International: San Diego #1



Rating: 3.5/5



Power Outage collects Harley Quinn issues #9-13, the Futures End issue, and the Harley story from Secret Origins. Of the monthly issues, the final three are a Harley Quinn/Power Girl team-up, and the first two involve Harley's hijinks in a burlesque show and a roller derby. This combines what I liked best about the first book, Hot in the City -- Seinfeldian stories about "nothing" where Harley goes on with "normal" life in her Harley Quinn way -- with what I felt could be improved; the first book was mainly given over to a spy caper whose jokes were outside my realm of familiarity, whereas writers Amanda Conner and Jimmy Palmiotti riffing on Power Girl's costume and Thanos-analogue "Manos" is right in my wheelhouse.



What follows is a wonderfully madcap story, at times ribald, at times ridiculous. When so much of popular comedy, especially movies, creates humor through gross-outs, I appreciate Harley as a true situational comedy -- Power Girl crash lands in front of Harley, amnestic, and of course Harley convinces her that they're crime-fighting partners. The humor is often verbal, and rewards close reading -- especially as Conner and Palmiotti's Harley patters a mile a minute -- as when Harley feigns offense that someone refers to Power Girl's breasts as "crowd pleasers" instead of "party favors," or when Harley chuckles sotto voce when someone says "cups," or "mount," or "cosmic organ." There's a definite Beavis and Butthead or The Office vibe; Harley says what the reader's thinking but would be too mature to speak aloud.



Comic books take a friendly beating in this volume, between a variety of gags about Power Girl's costume and physique; the appearance of Manos, ruler of the Infinity Rings; and Harley opining about where Manos's cosmic children use the bathroom in space. As I've said before, the Harley Quinn comic is the next in a long line of parody comics -- most recently Lobo and Ambush Bug -- that serve perhaps as a kind of pressure valve for the DC Universe as a whole, the place where we can acknowledge Superman (formerly) wearing his underwear on the outside and the ridiculous window in Power Girl's uniform. This culminates, at the end of the book, in the Harley Quinn Invades Comic-Con International: San Diego special, which lampoons geek culture in general and DC Comics in specific, including a cameo by Stephen Amell (the "convention special" being another way Harley Quinn in the 2010s inherits the mantle of Lobo from the 1990s).



Again, as I get these jokes and I'm familiar with these characters, I liked all of this a lot more than Harley battling zoo animals with alter kocker super-spy Sy Borgman. Palmiotti and Justin Gray's Power Girl series got a little too silly for me at times, too, and I didn't much consider myself the right audience for the Harley Quinn/Power Girl team-up miniseries to follow Convergence. But the Harley/Power Girl partnership is riotous -- as when Harley has to ad lib an origin for Power Girl on the spot -- and if the miniseries has the same meta-interpretive tone that Power Outage does, I might give it a look after all.



Weaker here, I felt, was the Harley Quinn: Futures End issue. This is undoubtedly in part because the story has nothing to do with Futures End -- not even that there's no rampaging OMACs, but that it could be Harley Quinn: The Day After Tomorrow as much as "five years later." It's a "Harley crash-lands on a deserted island" story, which does allow the writers to make Lost jokes and Castaway and Joe Versus the Volcano jokes (maybe Tom Hanks should get a royalty). It does also include a basically Batman: The Animated Series Joker, and there's some enjoyment in this Harley and "Mr. J" interacting even if the issue otherwise distracts from the Power Girl story.



This volume also reprints the Harley Quinn origin that I previously read in Secret Origins. The story serves Conner and Palmiotti's purposes well, offering the genesis of the Harley Quinn series's stuffed beaver Bernie. At the same time, the story has a curious leap in logic that I'm not sure is purposeful or not: psychologist Harleen Quinzel enters Arkham as a patient to better rehabilitate the prisoners, but it's seemingly in the span of a panel that she transforms into a cop-killing criminal. That panel is one where the Joker kisses Harley, and we can't see her face as the Joker stares at the audience evilly. The narrative glosses over the change, and I wonder if the audience is supposed to intuit some influence here that changed Harleen to Harley even before her dip into a vat of chemicals.



Additionally, the writers have Harley note that she learns from the Joker how to be "someone who could be anything they wanted. The sex kitten, the seductress, the innocent, the aggressor, the antagonist, the victim, the ditz." This is surely held up in Power Outage, as Harley is manipulating Power Girl one minute and being the comic relief the next. Secret Origins is a venue more amenable to seriousness than the Harley Quinn comic, toeing the line as the origin does between the Harley Quinn Harley and the Suicide Squad Harley, but way at the end of this Harley Quinn run, I wonder if the authors might acknowledge that Harley has been in control all along, and every zany moment was calculated just for the right effect.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Powers: Supergroup

Title: Powers: Supergroup




ISBN: 9780785193098
Price: $15.99
Publisher/Year: Icon, 2015
Artist: Michael Avon Oeming
Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Collects: Powers Vol. 1 #15-20

Rating: 3/5

After the comparative disappointment of Little Deaths featuring much non-story material, Supergroup is a return to expectation and form.

The titular supergroup is FG-3, a trio with their own palatial midtown headquarters and known to have public disagreements. After one member executes a villain the team splits, and sinks into pronouncement and counter-pronouncement via the media. Isolated team member Wazz – possibly a term not used in the US as in the UK –  is the obvious suspect when his former colleague Ben Marley is murdered in particularly horrific fashion. He has a convincing alibi, though, that of conducting an interview live on television as the crime occurred. Detectives Walker and Pilgrim begin questioning the one accessible team member, at which point it all goes rather pear-shaped.

Until this point Walker and Pilgrim have pretty well been cocks of the roost, but when the FBI take an interest they’re frozen out, and on the receiving end of the arrogant attitude Pilgrim customarily spreads herself. It doesn’t sit well.

One of many excellent pieces of writing on Bendis’ part, not just here, but throughout Powers as a whole, is how he’ll slip something by the reader, then later slap them round the face with it. He pulls that trick here to brilliant effect with regard to events of the first volume. That Walker. He’s a quiet one, but when it comes down to it he’s a cop with an instinct. Something else at which Bendis is very adept is pulling the rug out from under the status quo. Long-running series generally settle into a formula, as Stan Lee once phrased it “the illusion of change”, yet the next volume, Anarchy, picks up in a very different place for the cast.

Bendis appears to have based FG-3 on the Fugees, and there’s more than a little about this story that has parallels with the murky world of exploitation and manipulation associated with manufactured pop groups. He’s taken that association and dropped it into even darker waters.

As ever, Michael Avon Oeming supplies some fantastic cartooning, although the art’s occasionally problematical when it’s not initially obvious that the page is to be read across the spread rather than down.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Powers: Little Deaths

Title: Powers: Little Deaths 






ISBN: 9780785193081

Price: $15.99

Publisher/Year: Icon, 2015

Artist: Michael Avon Oeming

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis

Collects: Powers Vol. 1 #7, #12-14, Annual #1, Powers Coloring/Activity Book, Jinx: True Crime Confessions



Rating: 3/5



The innovation that writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Avon Oeming bring to their storytelling has already been evident in Who Killed Retro Girl? and Roleplay. That really slips into high gear here in a story arc titled ‘Groupies’. Just as in the real world the rich, powerful and famous attract sexual favors, so it is with superheroes, and plenty are keen to take advantage.



One of them is Olympia, with an otherwise spotless reputation as a major league hero, who turns up dead in a shabby apartment he maintains for purposes of sex. He has a lot of it, so giving the collection its title. His story is revealed over three chapters, one of them designed as a faux celebrity gossip magazine complete with fake ads and captioned illustrations of characters who’ll feature later in the series. It’s a fascinating innovation, and ‘Groupies’ is well up to the established standard for Powers.



There’s been a playful nature about the series from the start. Bendis and Oeming have involved the characters donated by their creative friends, and name-dropped those friends in passing through the scripts. A later chapter takes the joke one step further by having British writer Warren Ellis drop by, and adds a poke at his trade by increasing even Bendis’ extensive word count for Ellis’ character.



That may seem a little indulgent to some, but it works in a tale that shifts gears from funny to terrifying. Unfortunately, the book then takes a giant step into whimsy and indulgence. It presents the entire coloring and activity book that might be handed out to kids visiting a police station, a story written entirely as a court transcript (or, as it’s known in the trade, not drawn), an interview with Bendis, and his first ever collaboration with Oeming.



The way the Powers story arcs break down, it’s understandable that the four main story chapters weren’t included in the following Supergroup, but they’d have bulked the slim Roleplay very nicely. Around a third of the book is inessential material, which makes this a premium priced product for the four and half chapters of story.

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