Sunday, July 29, 2018

Three Great Books and Goodbye to Steve Ditko

My reading of comics is somewhat sporadic. I have a ton of new comics to read, old collections I want to re-read, regular books and various news articles. What this means is that it is often that I’m reading something which is old news in the comic book world. Still I finished three series recently that deserve mention. Doctor Star by Jeff Lemire and Max Firuma, Grass Kings by Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins and Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook. All were complete stories with a beginning, middle and an end. In addition to that I also don’t want my column to miss out mentioning the death of Steve Ditko. So let’s take them one at a time.

First off is Doctor Star. Jeff Lemire and Dean Ormistad have created what is an analogous version of the DCU with Black Hammer. From that series Jeff has spun off some mini-series and one was Doctor Star. Written by Jeff Lemire and brought to life by artist Max Fiumara and colorist Dave Stewart. It is a story about making choices, being heroic, being a father and being a husband. Jeff pays homage to the DC Starman series by naming Doctor Star James Robinson. It is a story that interlaces adventure and heroics with Greek tragedy.  The story is one that draws on the familiarity of knowing DC super heroes but ultimately, I believe can be read without any prior knowledge. It is more of an Easter egg type thing as it adds to the enjoyment if you know it, but you are not missing anything if you do not know it.  The choices our hero makes are done for good and altruistic reasons. As a hero and with the instinct to help others you would find it hard to blame him. Sadly, those choices cause untold pain and heartbreak to his family. The ending is both sad and wonderfully touching. If I was the type to tear up, this story would have made me do it. I’m being purposely vague about details because I want to encourage any reader to go out and buy this book or I’m sure a forthcoming trade.

Second up is Grass Kings by Matt Kindt and Tyler Jenkins. The story is about a group of people who have decided to live off the grid. Inside of this setting Matt has built a story about the loss of a child and wrapped it up in a fantastically well-done murder mystery. What is so surprising about the series is that I never even felt like it was a murder mystery the whole time because the character development was so well done that I got wrapped up in knowing the players.  You really don’t need to know anything else about the story other then it is a complete story. It does leave room for future stories about the Kingdom. Matt is at the top of his game the last few years and basically if Matt is writing it, I’m at least trying it. I’d be greatly remiss if I failed to mention the art. Tyler Jenkins painted art is gorgeous. It takes Matt’s story to a whole new level and fits the story to a “T”. I loved the work so much I purchased a page from the series (seen here). The best part about this page it is absolutely the page I wanted.

Third is Harrow County by Cullen Bunn and Tyler Crook. Now Cullen is a writer who I am beginning to enjoy more and more but only his independent work. Cullen and Tyler tell a story over 30 plus issues of a young girl who discovers she is a witch and how she handles her origins and everything about Harrow County. I loved the ending as it wrapped up everything in great fashion. Over the course of the story we meet many “Haints”, supernatural creators of all shapes and sizes. We meet Emmy, the main character, family, friends and extended family. You often wonder if she will make it out alive and in one way she ---- no, no spoilers. I will add that the skinless boy was one of my favorite characters in the series. Highly recommended, seek out the trade paperbacks and buy Volume 1, if you like that you will love the rest.
All three of these writers are gentleman who have been in the industry for a decent amount of time. All 3 have held jobs or still hold jobs at the big two, but all 3 shine the brightest with their creator owned work. For me the prospect of stories having a begging middle and an end is a major plus.  At this point in time I would say Jeff, Matt and Cullen are 3 of the top writers in comic books, with Tom King as another great story teller.

Finally, a quick tribute to the man, the myth, the legend Steve Ditko who died recently, reportedly alone as that was how he lived most of the last few decades of his life. Best known for Spider-Man and Doctor Strange, but the litany of characters he created include The Question, Mr. A, Static, Hawk & Dove, the Creeper and many more. That doesn’t include all the villains he created. Steve was a follower of the Objectivism Philosophy of Ayn Rand, which helps explain his very black and white view of many situations. Still he was the writer and artist for perhaps one of the best comic book stories every done, Amazing Spider-Man #31-33, the original run. The two-page spread shown here are images forever locked in my memory. The life lesson I took from that book as a young child was you must do the right thing no matter the personal cost. I have tried to live up to that ideal most of my life and have fallen short, but I have also often achieved that goal. My personal philosophy has been better to die with my principals then to live with them compromised. Steve’s future work is often over looked and criticized by many.  Personally, as I read more of his writings and his later books he raises interesting questions and things worth pondering. Whether one agrees or disagrees his viewpoints are at least worth considering.  Steve Ditko was a one of kind talent whose work will live on achieving him some level of immortality.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Review: CatStronauts Mission Moon

written and illustrated by Drew Brockington

Story 4/5 stars

Recommended age: All ages!!! Best for reading with your kid(s) or independent readers up to middle school

As a space geek I am always attempting to show my son how the awesomeness of everything space. This means I have dragged him to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum twice in the 5 years he’s been around (we do not live near DC), taken him to a local Planetarium, made him watch Apollo 13 with me, gone with him to the Kennedy Space Center (I tear up every time I see space shuttle Atlantis), and generally geeked out on all things space. Finally, I was gratified to hear he told his teacher he wants to build rockets when he grows up – previous future jobs have included Batman, the Doctor, and Lego builder.

In all seriousness I don’t actually care what he does when he grows up as long as her sticks with the morals he’s learned from Star Trek TNG and comic books. Oh, and as long as he can generally support himself because I don’t want him living in the basement when he’s 35 or whatever. Still, I was pretty excited that he’s been on a rocket building career kick the past month or so and I found this great all ages comic book, CatStronauts, to work with his interests.

First, the good.

This book was a lot of fun. The art is appealing and accessible. My son easily followed the plot and really liked the various characters (especially Waffles, the pilot, and Blanket, the robotics expert). The book had easy to understand jokes for a young kid and was still entertaining for me to read – because it let me geek out on space stuff! My son has even quoted the story and told other people about it so I know he really enjoyed it.

The characters are cute. Waffles is always hungry leading to some mischief and Blanket is building a robot during training without permission. Major Meowser is a pretty straight forward mission commander, and Pom Pom doesn't get much of a chance to shine in this book but I hope the characters will become more developed in the other stories. 

I loved the premise of the story as well. The cats have to return to the moon to build a device that will help provide energy to the Earth so all the power doesn’t go out forever. All the mission training the CatStronauts go through was decently researched. The launch and trip to the moon (and back) were based on fairly accurate information from the Apollo missions. Basically, I was super excited to have such a fun and kid friendly way to teach Henry about the moon missions.

The story also includes problems with the mission somewhat reminiscent of the Apollo 13 mission (along with problem solving strategies). My son's favorite page is below. For whatever reason Waffles saying "prepare for lunch" cracked him up over a few days.

Now, the bad

Not a whole heck of a lot!

My only complaint is none of the astronaut characters appear to be lady cats. However, the head of mission control is a lady cat so that's cool. Also, you can only tell because the ladies have visible eyelashes so who knows, maybe I'm mistaken and Pom Pom the mission specialist is a lady cat. It's a minor quibble.

Beyond that, it’s not really a book most adults would enjoy reading more than once unless they want some very light reading. However, if you want a fun, entertaining, and even somewhat educational book to read with your kid(s) -or a book for maybe up to middle school for an independent reader – this is an exceptional choice. We will definitely be purchasing other books in this series. The next one up is about the CatStronauts going to Mars - I am super excited!

Bottom line: A+

Sunday, July 15, 2018

RIP DCEU 2013-2018 (What a Missed Opportunity)

The latest information (sparse as it is) coming from Warner Bros and industry insiders is that they have decided to forego the DC Extended Universe in lieu of the disastrous reception of the Justice League film. They will still put out singular franchise films, but are stepping away from the crossover films. This means that Aquaman will still come out the end of 2018 and will feature Jason Momoa. Wonder Woman 2, now titled WW84, is currently being filmed with the original director Patty Jenkins and actors Gal Godot and Chris Pine returning. Shazam is slated for release next year, and currently a Gotham City Sirens movie and The Batman are at various stages of development. Flash keeps being rumored to start all of the time, but at this point, I'll believe it when I see it, much like Ben Affleck's return to the role of Bruce Wayne/Batman. And then, there's the Joker. (More on him later.)

Could Warner decide to change their minds? Sure. One thing is clear: they don't have a real game plan. There is no Kevin Feige at the helm. Zack Snyder was the closest thing they had and gave him the keys to the kingdom without much oversight, and then they were surprised when the product was met with divided fans and critical backlash. I blame WB/DC more than I do Snyder. From the first film in the DCEU - Man of Steel - they have been reactionary to the market of superhero films, to Christopher Nolan's Dark Knight films, and to Marvel's success. Event their decisions during Justice League's notorious reshoots and subsequent replanning stink of being reactionary. The plan is to react. They react when something is good (The fans love Wonder Woman! We have to make it less grim and gritty! Fix it with reshoots!), and they react when something is bad (there are currently no plans for more Justice League, and they were originally going to use Flash's film to soft reboot the DCEU, but now it is unclear what they are doing with that film). 

I'm a little disappointed that instead of righting the ship, so to speak, they've opted for a more singular film success plan which is arguably what they should have done in the first place. MoS kinda did it, but then they immediately jumped to BvS which was like a 2 1/2 hour trailer for an expanded universe done in an incredibly juvenile way. And I say that as someone who sort of liked it. I liked many scenes in the film, but the overall narrative doesn't work and the characterizations of the main leads are often forced down the viewers throats while asking for huge leaps of logic and absolving characters for being, well, stupid. 

I'm a huge fan of DC characters, probably moreso than Marvel, and I can't help but feel like they wanted the success of Marvel without putting in the work. Even with that being the case, we're getting Aquaman (early buzz on the film is that it is good), WW84, and Shazam. I have high hopes for all. I also remember telling friends a year or more ago that, "Wouldn't it be funny if the Superman and Batman in the DCEU weren't done right but Wonder Woman and Aquaman were?" I'm afraid that after the release of Aquaman, I might realize I was a prophet. A seer. I honestly didn't want to be right after I said it. It was a joke. Why can't they all be great?

DC Entertainment President Diane Nelson (I believe she has either relinquished this position or will soon) stated recently, "there's no insistence upon an overall story line or interconnectivity in that universe." That's a nice way of saying it doesn't all take place in the same universe like Marvel does it. Justice League seems to have killed the DCEU. (I still haven't seen it.) If it had been awesome, you can bet they would have stuck with it. This idea that the films don't need to connect was proven this past week when the Joker origin film was announced

Sunday, July 08, 2018

Erased by Kei Sanbe

This week I wanted to talk about something a little different from our normal topics.  Don't get me wrong, I'm still going to talk about sequential art but it's not American sequential art.  This week I read Erased volumes 1-4 by Kei Sanbe.  Why? The first reason is because the four volumes are the complete series.  I knew up front that I was going to get a story with a beginning, middle, and more importantly an ending.  Far to many series don't have any type of ending and it wears me out.  The second reason is that Yen Press collected the story in four oversized (for manga reprints) hardcovers.  I'm a sucker for deluxe collections so this was an easy buy for me.

So, was it worth it?  Yes it was!

The story revolves around Satoru, a struggling manga artist who is emotionally lost and can't seem to find anything to fill the voids in his life.   To complicate things, he periodically has "revivals" which cause him to go back in time 3-5 minutes to avert some accident.  An early incident has him reviving back 5 minutes to prevent a young boy from being hit by a car.  During one such event, he encounters the serial killer who terrorized his town as a child.  In order to prevent the killer from murdering his friends, Satoru travels back to his days in elementary school in an attempt to stop the murderous spree before it ever starts!

The story is a simple riff on "if you could do it again what would you do differently?" with the added twist of a serial killer.  The events of the past are the driving force for the two-thirds of the story.   It's a masterfully executed game of cat and mouse between our hero, now a 10 year old boy, and the unknown serial killer with periodic forays into the present to see how or if things are changing.  This part of the story quickly sucks you in and the pages fly by.  The last third is all set in the present day after our hero discovers the killers identity.  While entertaining it's not nearly as exciting as the first part and it becomes a little bit of a slog to the ending.

It's not quite fair or accurate to say the last third is a slog because, to be honest, I'm a lazy reader.  There's an aspect to the series in which Sanbe explored the emotional voids in the various characters lives.  Each of the main characters was damaged in some way and had trouble connecting with others and/or finding meaning in their own lives.  While, I really enjoyed the cat-mouse aspects of the book, I just "read" the emotionally insightful stuff.  The last third really brings the emotional conclusion to the story.  Our hero grows (bleh) and his growth makes other people better (double bleh). 

Don't get me wrong, I recognized it and realized it was being executed brilliantly but it's not my cup of tea.  So, yes, there's some interesting emotional explorations in the book that I shouldn't really comment on. 

Overall, this is a highly enjoyable series and if you're willing to analyze the emotional stuff it's even better than that!


Sunday, July 01, 2018

HOW COMICS WORK by Dave Gibbons and Tim Pilcher -- A Review

Sometimes writing for this blog can be like Mission Impossible.  Jim will forward an e-mail he's received inviting anyone of us to review something by somebody.  You know "your assignment, if you choose to accept it" type of thing. There is no pressure and it's totally on us as to whether we participate -- he just throws out the contact information.  I've rarely (if ever) taken the gig.  I mean, this reinvigorated blogging exercise is just for fun, an extracurricular activity to our already busy lives and National Debt sized comic book reading backlog.  It would have to be something really special for me to commit to completely reading and reviewing the product. This time, it was a no-brainer for me to accept, like a "must-have" impulse purchase (such as the $10 Space: 1999 Eagle seen in one of my recent "Shelf Expressions" posts), and I responded immediately (beating out Lee).  Boy, am I glad I did.  Not only was the experience thoroughly enjoyable, but it had an unexpected ENHANCED my comic book reading!!!

The press release for How Comics Work, which was nominated for (and I predict will win) a 2018 Eisner award, stated that it "is everything you need to know to get started creating great comic books."  That statement is definitely true, but it is also woefully incomplete as this book operates on multiple levels.  Do you want to make comics?  Read this book.  Do you want to learn about one of the great comic creator's thought-processes on some of the most critically acclaimed stories (like Watchmen)? Read this book.  Do you want feast your eyes on some original artwork?  Read this book.  Do you want to be turned on to other cool comics and their creators? Read this book.  Do you want to get more out of reading comics?  Read this book.  I'm not exaggerating.  This book is TERRIFIC and it bares repeated readings, whether to master a comic creating aspect or study the generous array of examples throughout (although some might need some additional magnification).

[See the rest of the review after the break]