Saturday, June 23, 2012

TWO ISSUES, LAST CHANCE? MIND THE GAP 1&2

This week I’ve been examining the first two issues of new comic book series to see if they warrant my buying a third. So far I’ve had two series that failed to convince me to continue on and one series that won me over instantly. In this fourth part of the series we’re going to take a look at Mind The Gap from Image Comics. Written by Jim McCann (who worked on the critically acclaimed “Hawkeye &  Mockingbird” series at Marvel Comics) with art and covers by Rodin Esquejo and Sonia Oback. In issue one, a young woman named Elle Peterssen has been injured or possibly attacked and is in a coma. Whirling around her is a generous helping of mystery, melodrama and the metaphysical as we learn about her family and friends, some of whom are not what they seem, some are jerks, and one might be the person who failed in their attempt to end her life.

There’s also lots of drama in the hospital. Dr. Geller is the ER doctor on call and she is first to treat Elle. But Geller is pushed aside by the seemingly career climbing Dr. Hammond. Hammond is fully aware that Elle’s family is rich and a patron of the hospital. Meanwhile, the comatose Elle’s mind is still active and functioning in a strange limbo like world called “The Garden”. Here wanders the minds of those with damaged brains who are trying to find their way back to their bodies and their previous lives. In issue 2, Dr. Geller finds out that Elle’s brain activity is much higher than normal for someone in a coma. In the Garden, Elle learns that she has the ability to inhabit the bodies of other comatose patients. 

Dr. Gina Geller shares some suspicions she has about the Elle Peterssen case and the career climbing Dr. Hammond with her wife, Detective Annie Wallace. There’s also some strange goings on with Elle’s seemingly detached mother and distraught father. Mind the Gap is a bit like Twin Peaks meets Ghost meets Deadman. I am intrigued by the story that McCann is weaving here. Reading this series I am reminded of the fun of the old night time soaps such as Falcon Crest, Dynasty, St Elsewhere and others in that vein.

Melodrama often has a hard time translating to the page of a comic when colorful superheroes aren’t involved but I have to say that I love the melodramatic aspects of Mind the Gap as much as I do the more mystical and mysterious elements of the story. The art is just lovely. I will say that I enjoyed the art in issue one just a bit more than issue 2. There were several pages that were a bit too dark and murky for my tastes.  However, the cover to issue one is one of the most stunning, eye catching covers that I have seen in a long while.  The story is solidly entertaining and gripping. I’ve read issue one and two of Mind The Gap and I will definitely be on board for future issues as long as the story is this entertaining and the quality of the talent involved is this good.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

TWO ISSUES, LAST CHANCE? THE SHADOW 1&2


I have been examining first and second issues of new series that have come out recently to see if they merit my buying a third issue or more. So far we have had one title that warrants my continued support and one that doesn’t. This week we’re taking a look at Dynamite Entertainments The Shadow by Garth Ennis and Aaron Campbell(the third issue came out this week). The Shadow, like The Spider, is a pulp magazine hero who has been revived in comics several times since his pulp and radio heyday of the 30s and 40s. All to varying degrees of success. First in the mid 70s at DC comics by writer Denny O’Neil and artist Michael Kaluta. Later he was revived again by Howard Chaykin in a mini series that spawned an ongoing series by Andy Helfer, Bill Sienkiewicz and Kyle Baker. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I am a longtime fan of the Shadow. I’ve read almost all the old pulp magazine stories and listened to all available radio show versions. So my standards for the character might be higher than most. That said, the thing with the Shadow is that he isn’t just another hero with a dual identity. But I’ll get back to that.

In issue one of Dynamite’s new Shadow series we see the Shadow telling us about the horrors of the “Nanking Massacres” and then see the Shadow taking bloody vengeance on those who participated. Okay. Slightly bad taste but very “pulpy”. We then see some convoluted nonsense about something in the hold of a ship that government types are looking for but has disappeared. Then we see the Shadow’s alter ego Lamont Cranston using Margo Lane for sex. In issue two, Cranston and Margo are on a deluxe passenger plane on it’s way to Hong Kong when the passengers turn out to be spies trying to kill Cranston for some inexplicable reason (apparently this version of the Shadow doesn’t “know” as much as he did in the pulp magazines of the 30s). And then there is some more muddled goings on with Asian spies and something about Pearl Harbor. Now I do enjoy a well written, complex story about spies and a violent and formidable vigilante. But the Shadow is more than that.

This leads me back to the main problem of The Shadow as Ennis interprets him and that is the lack of mystery surrounding the identity of the Shadow and exactly who and what he is. One of the cornerstones of the Shadow was that no one knew who he was. Whether they be civilians or the Shadows most trusted agents. He didn’t date the commissioners daughter. Even the readers didn’t know who the Shadow was. Was he Lamont Cranston?  We never knew for sure.  There was a Lamont Cranston, Millionaire playboy industrialist.  In a story from the pulp magazine titled “The Shadow Laughs” Lamont Cranston returns from Europe to find that someone who looks exactly like him has assumed his identity. Cranston discovers that this doppelganger is none other than the Shadow. Or so we are lead to believe. It's possible he was an agent of the Shadow being used because of his physical similarity to Cranston. Either way, the real Cranston was blackmailed by the Shadow to play along and become one of his agents. The Shadow also went by the name Kent Allard, a WW1 pilot who was shot down over South America.

In the story “The Shadow’s Shadow” we learn that Kent Allard actually died in the crash and another man assumed Allard’s identity. This man might have been The Shadow. The point here is that we didn’t know who the Shadow was and we weren't supposed to know. We learned tiny bits about the Shadow through his agents and enemies but we never really learn who he really is. The Shadow was a force of nature. An unseen puppet master who pulled the strings of agents who, to the Shadow, were often little more than pawns to be sacrificed in a larger game of Machiavellian power plays with the representatives of evil. Valuable pawns perhaps, but still just pawns.

One never knew where the Shadow would turn up or what guise he would take when he did. The readers were never meant to identify with the Shadow. The readers were never meant to sympathize with the Shadow. They were meant to identify and sympathize with the Shadow’s agents and the victims of evil that the Shadow saved. Through the agents, we looked up in awe at the Shadow’s terrible vengeance as he would violently mete out bloody justice. The Shadow was a storm. A tsunami. A hurricane. One doesn’t look for the humanity in a hurricane. One just hides and waits for it to end. That was The Shadow. Denny O’Neil got it right but many who followed didn’t.

Writers felt the need to make the Shadow human. And worse, they felt the need to make him a once evil human.  Because only someone who was evil could comprehend the “evil that lurks in the hearts of men”.  You know, takes a thief to catch a thief?  This lead to making Lamont Cranston the actual alter ego of the Shadow instead of a mysterious puppet master. Which brings us to Ennis’ Shadow/Cranston. Ennis’ Cranston is basically a smug jerk. But it was okay for him to be a jerk because once upon a time he used to be evil. This is the core of the problem with Ennis’ Shadow and Chaykin and Helfer’s before it. Making the Shadow a flawed human who is just like us only ends up making the Shadow like every other vigilante, and that he is not.

The Shadow of the pulps does not read like someone who was evil and turned to good. He reads more like a fanatic in the cause of good. A true believer, a religious zealot who despises evil rather than as someone coming to terms with the evil inside of them. He's downright pius. The Shadow is Cotton Mather hunting down the witches. The movie began this narrative of a man who was basically an addict, hooked on evil and trying to get clean. That's not the Shadow. The pulp Shadow is, based on his network of agents, his resources etc, someone who has formulated and dedicated himself to a meticulous plan to eradicate evil and possibly deluded enough to think it's an attainable goal in his lifetime. The Shadow is offended by evil. Evil is an infection and The Shadow is willing to cut off any limb he feels might be compromised by that evil. The Shadow kills those he thinks are evil not because that act comes naturally to a formerly evil man, but because he doesn't want to see that evil infect others.

The Shadow is not Batman even though he influenced the creation of Batman. The Shadow is not The Punisher or the Spider or any other comic book vigilante. The Shadow’s agents are like the disposable CTU agents in the TV show “24”. Any of them can die at any time. Some of them, like Jack Bauer, last a little longer than others. In 24, when Jack Bauer fails, the bad guys win. In the world of the Shadow, when an agent fails, or dies, that’s when things are just getting interesting because that’s the point when the Shadow intervenes and personally takes action. The death of an agent is to the Shadow like the vibration of the spider's web that has just caught a fly. It's a warning to the spider that his trap has been sprung. And God help the bad guys then! Ennis has some good moments in the Shadow. I don’t hate his interpretation. It’s just a flawed and predictable interpretation that borrows more from the film than from the source.

The old Shadow radio shows had to soften up and simplify the Shadow and make him a more accessible crime fighter with a dual identity, albeit a fairly scary one as portrayed by Orson Wells (pictured right). That was something that radio had to do because anything else would have been too complex for radio audiences and the confines of a 40 minute format. The Shadow was Lamont Cranston. The Shadow’s girlfriend was Margo Lane. Simple. But where a half hour radio show has to simplify a complex character for the sake of time restraints, a book or a comic book has no such restraints. The Shadow doesn’t have to be so simple. He can be complex. He can be a perpetual mystery. Ennis seems to have forgotten that. He’s taken the more simplistic Shadow and turned him into an amalgam of the persona in the radio show and the dreadful 90s movie version, making him simply a smug Bruce Wayne. Ennis' Margo Lane is basically the Shadow’s own personal prostitute, equally unlikable and not much more than that.

Not that I have anything against Margo Lane being a prostitute but if the only purpose she serves is to help Lamont take the edge off, then it’s really a waste of a character. As written by Ennis in issue 2, she can't even fight worth a damn. Ennis' Margo makes me long for the Margo of the radio show as played by Agnes Moorehead (pictured at left). Margo has been transformed from a wealthy socialite to a hooker. I didn't like when they did that to Catwoman and I don't like that they've done it to Margo.  Ennis has shown us too much. He’s shown us all the cards in the Shadow’s hand before the first issue has ended. Ennis gives us a Shadow who is just a guy who kills bad guys. There is nothing new about Ennis' version of The Shadow. He has simply made the 90s movie Shadow a bit more gritty.

It’s kind of ironic because Ennis clearly wants to give us something that is evocative of the old pulp Shadow without actually giving us the Shadow of the pulps. That’s unfortunate because the pulp Shadow is a character that is right up Ennis’ alley. Tailor made for his particular style of writing. Instead we get a bland, predictable Shadow in a comic with underwhelming yet functional art that fails miserably to live up to the promise of the stunning Alex Ross covers. I’ve read issues one and two of The Shadow and they have left me cold and bored. I've seen this Shadow before and I'm not a fan.  I don't want a simple human with human foibles.  I want the Shadow who was so scary that he would send the Grim Reaper running.  I don't want to look behind the curtain and just see a man.  Ennis has had two chances to get me on board with his interpretation of the character and has failed to draw me in. I’m afraid I won’t be able to give him a third.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

TWO ISSUES, LAST CHANCE? BIONIC WOMAN 1&2

Bionic Woman #1

In this second part of my “Two Issues/Last Chance" feature, we’re going to take a look at the first two issues of Dynamite Entertainment’s Bionic Woman series. I’ve written on this blog about how much I enjoy Kevin Smith’s Bionic Man series, also from Dynamite. Bionic Man is fast paced with witty writing and lots of fun nods to the original series. In Bionic Woman 1 we see what appears to be a female agent and a spy she’s trying to both protect and get information from, both on the run from other agents who supposedly want them both dead, or something.

While running, the female agent starts asking questions about Jaime Sommers aka the Bionic Woman. It’s here that we get a sort of running commentary about the history of the Bionic Woman, how she quit the OSI and went rogue, as well as finding out about a group of criminals who are kidnapping people who were once part of the OSI’s “six million program” and stealing and selling their bionic parts. This often has the side effect of leaving them dead. Issue one leaves off with a cliffhanger as a bullet is making it’s way towards Jamie’s head.

In issue 2, Jaime effectively avoids assassination and is captured by the group kidnappers who are harvesting bionic parts off their victims. Jaime narrowly escapes her captors and by the end of the second issue, she’s on her way to save a young boy with bionics who is soon to be harvested. The problem with the Bionic Woman series is that it feels so separate from that of the Bionic Man series. It would seem that the goal is to get the same audience reading Bionic Man to read Bionic Woman. Especially given that Jaime Sommers debuts in Bionic Man as the love of Steve Austin’s life. But as Bionic Woman begins, Sommers transformation from Steve’s fiancĂ©e to bionic super spy for the OSI who is no longer a part of Steve’s life (with extreme prejudice, I might add) to rogue agent on the run from her former employers and various bad guys is much too rushed and completely detached from it‘s sister series.  That's not to say that the character shouldn't have agency.  She should.  But her characterization here is too generic and isn‘t intriguing enough to stand on it‘s own without a stronger narrative connection to Bionic Man and the world the characters inhabit.

Another problem is the dialogue. This is pretty bad dialogue. We don’t really find out anything about Jaime that makes her remotely sympathetic or that makes us care about her in the slightest. She has a gal pal named Nora who is more interesting than Jamie. Jaime just runs around scowling. Her one brief quiet moment where she’s having lunch with Nora ends before we can learn anything about Jaime. I’m all for a little mystery surrounding the character but at least give us some characterization along with that mystery. She comes off more as a “Terminator” than as a woman whose life is changed by the addition of bionic limbs. Where Steve Austin is similar to his television counterpart, Jaime Sommers is nothing like hers. I thought this problem would be something unique to the first issue, but in issue 2 we just get more of the same.

Dynamite’s Jaime Sommers isn’t nearly as interesting or as engaging as the woman that Lindsey Wagner gave us. She’s not even as interesting as Michelle Ryan’s version of the character in the 2007 remake. Yes, there is action in this comic but it‘s cold action. There is no characterization, no vulnerability. The dialogue is forced and silly. The art by Leno Carvalho is sub par. Carvalho suffers from “same face” to the point where you can only tell the characters apart by their anatomy and the color of their hair.

The covers are even worse. They are terribly unimaginative and boring. Issue 2 has Jaime on a motorcycle even though we never see any sign of Jaime riding a motorcycle. I’m a fan of the original TV shows and after enjoying the Bionic Man comic, I was very excited to read these new adventures of Jaime Sommers. Sadly I was disappointed by what I saw in issues one and two. So, unfortunately, I won’t be buying issue 3 of the lifeless, poorly written and unimaginative Bionic Woman.








Tuesday, June 19, 2012

TWO ISSUES, LAST CHANCE? THE SPIDER 1&2

For me, the first two issues of a comic book is make or brake time.  It's the possibility for a home run or a first and second strike in a game with only two strikes before you're out. We live in financially precarious times and many comic book budgets have been cut down drastically. Mine included. Writers are taking a chance by giving us decompressed stories with few hooks in the first couple issues. So if a comic doesn’t really have me completely sold on it’s story by issue 2, then I cut that title loose. Of course it’s always possible that I’ll revisit it again when it becomes a trade and is for sale at a discount on Amazon. But these days I am far more selective about monthly comic purchases than ever before in my 40 year career as a comic book reader and collector. To stick with a title or give up. That is the question. I’m currently at such a crossroads with four different titles at the moment and I’ll be examining the first two issues of each of these new series in the following four posts.

THE SPIDER 1&2. Dynamite Entertainments The Spider is one of the latest pulp characters to be revived for a new generation. Instead of keeping the character in the 1930s, writer David Liss has transplanted the Spider to contemporary times. Richard Wentworth aka The Spider is a no holds barred vigilante. A veteran of an unnamed war. In the pulp magazines of the thirties, Wentworth was in love with best friend Commissioner Kirkpatrick’s daughter Nita. Here, Nita is a high powered print and cable news editor. Instead of being the daughter of the Commissioner, she’s his husband. This complicates things a bit as Wentworth is still in love with Nita. Seems Wentworth was going to marry Nita but was about to be deployed a second time and he didn’t think he’d return so he broke off the relationship rather cruelly.

Now they’re friends and the only way Wentworth can still keep some kind of closeness to Nita is to share with her that he is, in fact, the vigilante known as the Spider. The first issue does an exceptional and efficient job of setting up who Wentworth is, what his motivations are as well as letting us know about the other characters in his orbit. We also get lots of great, action packed, vigilante violence. Also in this first issue we find out that a certain Detective Joe Hilt suspects Wentworth of being the Spider and he isn’t shy about voicing his opinion to anyone who’ll listen. By the end of the issue we find out that some kind of military grade nerve gas is turning people into violent zombies.




One of which gets their head blown off by the chief architect of this villainy, a voice on the phone known only as Anput. In issue two we see the number of citizens being turned into zombies has escalated. We find out more about the villainess called Anput. How tragic circumstances led her and her mother from Cairo to New York, where her mother died from not being able to get proper medical attention due to lack of insurance. Anput then became a prostitute who trained and turned herself into an even more fearsome and ruthless vigilante than the Spider could ever hope to be. Issue one and two of The Spider are fast paced, well written, with characters full of potential.

Anput makes for a great villain for the Spider to face off against. Her motivations make her sympathetic and that’s the mark of a great villain. Wentworth aka The Spider is also well written by David Liss. Liss gives us a ruthless, cynical vigilante yet one who is nursing a broken heart and who is trying to maintain a closeness to a lost love that is the wife of his best friend. Lots of juicy, complex melodrama to be found here. I am also enjoying the dark, moody, dynamic art of Colton Worley. Issue one was excellent, issue two was just as good. The Spider is a comic that has completely won me over and I’ll be sticking with this series for the foreseeable future.


Monday, June 18, 2012

MOVIES IN THE CAMPER: CATTLE DRIVE

The film roundtable that I take part in spent most of 2011 examining the "Film Noir".  This year we are taking on "The Western".  I was hesitant at first as Westerns have never been my favorite genre.  Of course there are some that I do enjoy.  The westerns of Anthony Mann and some of the Ford classics.  However, the more I watch the more I like.  One obscure little gem that I stumbled upon on Turner Classic Movies was  CATTLE DRIVE (1951).  This charming movie made me feel like a kid again, on the floor in front of the tv on a Saturday afternoon. It's so rare to see a really great coming of age movie that genuinely tugs on the heartstrings without being cheesy but Cattle Drive definitely delivers the goods in that respect. I think what makes this such a wonderful film is that it transplants the Captains Courageous story from the sea to a cattle drive in the old west. Dean Stockwell is the spoiled hell raising son of an absentee father and railroad magnate (Leon Ames). Traveling east by rail, the train pulls over at a water stop in the middle of the desolate southwest. Stockwell gets out to explore and is left behind. He is found by cattleman Joel McCrea who takes him under his wing. Stockwell is rebellious at first but he's an intelligent and fearless boy.




Stockwell starts out helping cook Chill Wills but before long he's helping to drive the herd. Of course he learns a few life lessons along the way. He fixes a race between McCrea and the camp troublemaker and learns a valuable lesson in honor. And he's almost killed in a stampede when he tries to catch a wild stallion for McCrea. Stockwell (who some will remember as the holographic side kick from the 80s time travelling TV show "Quantum Leap") is great in this. It's rare to see a child actor who can be subtle without looking wooden, animated without looking overdramatic (Freddy Bartholomew anyone?). 

The friendship that develops between Stockwell and McCrea is just wonderfully charming. McCrea is the father that every young boy dreams of. I felt like I was on this adventure with them. It was also fun to see Stockwell win over the rest of the cowboys. I loved how the film was able to make me see the adventure of the west as new through the eyes of spoiled easterner Stockwell and his friendship with McCrea. It was also a beautifully shot film in vivid Technicolor with nary a projected backdrop in site. This is a terrific family film and definitely one to watch with Dad. 

REVIEWS: SPIDER-MEN, SUPERCROOKS, CONAN, SILK SPECTRE

It’s an old but inherently entertaining premise in comics: two incarnations of a hero meet, most likely get into some misunderstanding or other, fight, make up, become friends and unite to defeat the enemy. SPIDER-MEN, the 5 issue mini series from writer Brian Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli, unites Peter Parker’s amazing Spider-Man with the Marvel’s “Ultimate Universe” version of the character, Miles Morales. As some may or may not know, the “Ultimate” universe is a sort of variation of the Marvel Universe “proper” aka the “616” universe. The 616 universe is where all the original Marvel characters reside. The “Ultimate” universe is a sort of alternate universe where we are given different incarnations of the Marvel Superheroes. In the 616 universe, Peter Parker is alive and well and fighting crime. In the Ultimate Universe, Peter Parker is murdered and a young man of African American-Latino descent named Miles Morales has taken over the role of the web swinging crime fighter. He’s younger than Peter Parker, still in high school and his powers are slightly different than those of his predecessor (although still based on those of a spider). 


 In SPIDER-MEN #1, Peter discovers his old nemesis Mysterio is up to no good. Mysterio is behind some sort of light that engulfs Peter and sends him to a parallel world where he has died and everyone knows his real identity. By the end of issue one, Peter meets a new version of Spider-Man. Unfortunately, not much happens in this first issue. In fact, the first half dozen pages doesn’t achieve much at all except to let us know that we are looking at a very much alive Peter Parker who foils a rather mundane crime and swings around thinking about how swell New York is. Things do pick up when Mysterio enters the picture and we get a little mystery going. Then Spider-Man is zapped to an alternate New York where he quickly runs into the Ultimate Universe version of himself.

Sara Pichelli’s art is pleasant enough to look at. I like how she draws Spider-Man with the 70s tv show “pinhole” eye slits. She’s got a great feel for the lanky hero. Her panel layouts are very attractive and the action, what there is of it, moves along at a nice clip. I haven’t read SpiderMan in a long while. Too many terrible stories that damaged the integrity of the character during the late 90s thru 2006 or so. But I enjoy the character when written well and I like what I’ve seen of the Ultimate Universe Spider-Man. Also, I’m a sucker for stories where the hero meets an alternate world version of himself. The thing is, this is only a 5 issue miniseries and as such, the story has no business being this decompressed. I’ll give the second issue a chance, but if there isn’t a whole lot more story in #2 then chances are I won’t be buying #3.

SUPER CROOKS #3 continues to be one crazy, rollicking, insane rollercoaster ride. Tired of dealing with Superheroes with powers that dwarf their own, a group of mid level super crooks decides to leave the “Superhero” rich United States and head to the superhero free Europe for a big score that will make them all rich and save an old friend and mentor who is in deep financial trouble with a particularly nasty super villain. In issue 3, the team of crooks decide to run a con on a retired criminal who just happens to be one of the most powerful and evil of all super powered villains. Humor, gore, insane violence, blackmail, embarrassing costumes and more fill the pages of Super Crooks #3. This series is a blast.

Conan The Barbarian #5 continues the “Argos Deception” story arc started in issue 4. Conan is still imprisoned in Argos and soon to be hanged for his crimes. Conan’s lover and partner, the deadly and passionate Belit has assured him that their plan to loot the city of it’s gold is still on and that she will not abandon him. But can Conan trust her? As Conan is led to the hangman’s noose, a mysterious woman steps forward and pleads on his behalf to let Conan fight for his life in a battle to the death with Argos’ greatest swordsman.

Brian Wood continues to deliver some great storytelling and James Harren’s art is simply amazing. Harren draws in an interesting and unique style and that’s rare in comics. His renditions of Conan and the bloodthirsty Belit is some of the most attractive art I’ve seen in a while. This is a must buy.



BEFORE WATCHMEN: SILK SPECTRE #1 by writer Darwyn Cooke and artist Amanda Conner shows us the early years of Silk Spectre 2 aka Laurie Jupiter. In this first issue we see Laurie dealing with typical high school problems, a cute boy, a group of mean girls and training with her mother Sally Jupiter aka the first Silk Spectre, to carry on the family superhero tradition. Well, almost typical problems. The story begins in the aftermath of Sally’s divorce and then years later when her daughter is a teenager who is beginning to rebel against her controlling mother. A mother who is dealing with the loss of fame and the limelight through alcoholism and living vicariously through her daughter.

The real treat here is the art of Amanda Conner. Every panel is simply a visual and emotional delight. Facial expressions that are comical and poignant. Wonderful detail and layouts that are beautifully rendered. While not as visually dynamic as her now legendary run on Power Girl, Conner still gives us quite a show here and given that Watchmen is inherently a more bleak and depressing story than Power Girl, it's nice to see her vibrant style shine though regardless. Every panel of Conner’s art is a treat. Of all the Before Watchmen prequels, Silk Spectre looks like it will be my personal favorite.