Sunday, March 31, 2013

Movellan On Up

The 7th series of Doctor Who resumed last night.  In the upcoming seven episodes, in addition to the much anticipated Neil Gaiman penned Cybermen episode, scheduled, I believe, for next Saturday, we have been promised the return of the Doctor's old foes the Ice Warriors, last seen sometime during the Jon Pertwee era.   Those malevolent Martians, I am given to understand, being somewhat new to Doctor Who fandom, are the only major recurring enemy from the original series yet to make a reappearance in the new version.  So, with all the major alien races revived, perhaps its time to resurrect some of the minor ones who only appeared for one serial.
As you may have surmised, I have a specific suggestion for just such an opponent I would like to see return.  
A four part story from 1979, "Destiny of the Daleks" kicked off the show's seventeenth season and introduced Lalla Ward as the Doctor's "new" companion, the freshly regenerated Time Lady Romana.  This serial also marks the last Dalek story, indeed the final Doctor Who work overall, by Terry Nation, creator of the Daleks.  I've read that Nation was upset with script editor Douglas Adams' near total rewriting of the script.  Although I've also seen where Adams claimed the "script" he received from Nation was little more than a plot outline and he basically had to write the story from scratch. If you're familiar at all with Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series, you will certainly be able to see his fingerprints all over this one.  His distinctive sense of humor is much in evidence, especially in the early scene where Romana tries out several new looks.  Also, in one scene the Doctor is shown reading a book by Oolon Coluphid, mentioned throughout the Hitchhiker's series as the author of such books as Where God Went Wrong, More of God's Greatest Mistakes, and Well, That About Wraps It Up For God.
The story finds the Doctor returning once again to the Daleks' home planet of Skaro to become caught in the middle of a conflict between his oldest enemies and a robotic race known as the Movellans.  We are told that the two races have been at war for centuries and now find themselves at an impasse.  The Daleks have returned to their old stomping grounds to dig up their creator Davros in hopes that he will help them end the stand off.  The Movellans seek to prevent this, and at the same time seek to recruit the Doctor to aid them in their efforts against the Daleks.
After this serial ended, the Movellans were never seen again, though they were mentioned in the Doctor's next encounter with the Daleks, "Resurrection of the Daleks", which aired in 1984 and was the fifth Doctor's one and only meeting with the Daleks.  In that episode, its revealed that the Movellans had won the war by creating a virus that affected the mutants who lived inside the Daleks' robotic shells.  Once again, the Daleks seek out the aid of Davros, this time to devise a cure for the virus.
In "Destiny of the Daleks", the Movellans are really little more than a plot device.  We learn next to nothing about them other than the bare bones facts that they are a race of shiny robots who don't much like the Daleks.  This leaves a lot of questions hanging in the air.  Since the Movellans are robots, someone had to build them, right?  Who these builders were, what happened to them and why they created a race of robots, not to mention why the Movellans were at war with the Daleks in the first place, are all questions that go not only unanswered, but totally unaddressed. 
Those mysteries are why I would like to the Movellans return to the Doctor Who universe. Of course, I have my own ideas.  They involve Davros, who in the episodes I have seen with him in them always seemed to have his own agenda separate from the plans of the Daleks, creating the Movellans himself and sending them backwards in time to destroy the Daleks.  
If you've got any theories of your own about the origins of the Movellans, or if there's any obscure aliens or monsters from the original Doctor Who you'd like to see brought back for a curtain call, let me know in a comment.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

More On "Welcome Back, Kotter" #3

Now, I realize that I previously declared that I had said all I had to say about Welcome Back, Kotter #3.  It appears, however, that I was mistaken.  Upon reading it again after over three decades I was impressed by how well the comic has held up over time.  It would seem that one reason this particular comic has stuck in my mind for all that time is that its actually a pretty good comic.
As you may remember, if you're a fan of cheesy 70's TV sitcoms, the basic premise of Welcome Back, Kotter was that, in high school, Gabe Kotter had been a member of a group of remedial students known as the Sweat Hogs.  Years later, Gabe has become a teacher and finds himself back at his old alma mater, James Buchanan High School, teaching Social Studies to the newest group of Sweat Hogs.  I mention this because its important to the story in this issue.
"The Return of Augie Berelli" has Kotter receiving an unexpected visit at school by the Augie Berelli of the story's title.  Berelli was another of the original Sweat Hogs with a rep as the toughest kid in school, as well Gabe's rival for the affections of classmate Dolores Duffelmeyer.  Kotter tricked Augie to get him out of the way so that Gabe could go to the prom with Dolores, and Berelli vowed to get even.  It doesn't make Kotter feel any better about Berelli's return that, in the years since high school, his old classmate has become a prominent gangster.
The real purpose of Berelli's visit to James Buchanan High, however, is to visit his nephew, Vinnie Barbarino, one of the current crop of Sweat Hogs.  Vinnie looks up to his uncle and the other Sweat Hogs are impressed by his expensive clothes and fancy car.
After Berelli takes the Sweat Hogs out for pizza, Gabe is approached by FBI agents who want his help to apprehend Berelli.  Vinnie, who had stayed behind when everyone else left, confronts Kotter and the Feds and ends up slugging one of the G-Men on the jaw.  Kotter agrees to help the FBI if the agents will agree not to arrest Barbarino.
When Berelli hears about the incident, he worries that Vinnie follow his footsteps into a life of crime.  To prevent this, he contacts the Feds himself, and hatches a plot to turn himself in and make himself look like a heel in front of Vinnie and the Sweat Hogs while making Kotter look like a hero. 
As a tale of misplaced hero worship, "The Return of Augie Berelli" is hardly the most original of stories.  If you were in a particularly uncharitable mood, you might even call it cliched.  Even Shakespeare borrowed many of his plots from earlier works of myth and history.  The magic of any story lies in the telling.  I'm sure that even Tony Isabella, the writer of this issue, would agree that he's no Shakespeare, but he does tell this particular story very well.  He displays a gift for humor that I've not really seen in his super-hero comics.
I've mentioned the opening line of the story, which I had remembered, across the decades since I'd last read this story, as one of the funniest lines I'd ever read in a comic.  There are quite a few other funny lines as well.  For example, when Augie extends his hand to Kotter, Gabe, still fearing that Berelli has come seeking revenge, reacts, "This is the handshake of death, right?  Like the kiss of death, but more sanitary."  Overall, Isabella nicely captures the feel of a typical Kotter episode.
He also effectively portrays the emotional reactions of the characters, especially Vinnie.  The final panel image of Vinnie sitting in an empty classroom, head in hands and crying, is genuinely moving.
The art is by Bob Oksner over layouts by Ric Estrada.  Oksner was a veteran of earlier DC humor books, including The Adventures of Jerry Lewis, The Adventures of Bob Hope, and Angel and The Ape, and had a gift for caricature that made him perfect for this book.  Meanwhile, Oksner's layouts tell the story in a clear and effective manner.
The letters column heralded Isabella's arrival as the book's new writer.  However, this would be the only issue of Welcome Back, Kotter that he would write.  That's too bad, because based on his performance in this story, I'd kind of like to have seen him do more Kotter stories.
I was going to post this yesterday, but I decided to wait a bit and see if I have now really said all I have to say about Welcome Back, Kotter #3, and I think I have.  I can now move on to other, more important, topics, like....oh, I don't know...Prez or "Super-Heroes Battle Super-Gorillas" or something significant and earth-shaking like that.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Star Trek #7 (DC; 2nd Series)

In order to discuss DC's second volume of Star Trek comics, I am afraid that I will have to touch on, at least briefly, a rather unpleasant topic: Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.  Around the time of "that film's" release, Paramount took it upon itself to renegotiate all of it Trek related licensing deals.  As a result, DC's first Star Trek series came to an end with #56.  Ultimately, DC retained the rights to produce Trek comics.  Thus, one year after the conclusion of the first volume, a new Star Trek series began, preceded by an adaptation of "that film." 
The new comic was published in what DC referred to as their "New Format."  This was sort of a middle ground between the traditional newsprint of the so-called "Standard Format" titles and the higher quality and price tag of the "Deluxe Format."  Besides the quality of the paper stock, one other thing that distinguished the "New Format" from "Deluxe Format" comics was that select "New Format" titles, Star Trek among them, were made available outside comics shops alongside "Standard Format" books.
Although Peter David, who had come onto the previous volume as writer with #48, continued on in that capacity for the first year and a half of the revived comic, the second series otherwise shared no continuity with its predecessor.  The events of that series, along with the new Enterprise crew members created by its initial writer Mike W. Barr, were relegated to a footnote to Trek history.  Paramount, as a matter of fact, forbid the addition of new characters to the cast of the second volume, insisting that the stories focus on the already established main characters.  This decree forced the abrupt disappearance of the David created character R. J. Blaise following the twelfth issue.  Blaise was introduced as the Enterprise's "protocol officer," however her true purpose on board the ship was to keep an eye on the controversial Captain Kirk on behalf of the Federation council.  She figured prominently in David's early storylines, yet David was given no chance by Paramount to properly write her out of the book and wrap up her plotlines.
"Not...Sweeney!" in #7 kicks off a three part story that begins with the Enterprise being assigned to evacuate the inhabitants of a doomed planet who don't want to be rescued by them.  When I phrase it that way, it kind of sounds like a replay of Marvel's seventh issue of Star Trek.  However, Peter David took that basic idea in a whole different direction than Tom DeFalco had.
The residents of the Federation colony on Tau Gamma II desperately want to get off their rapidly disintegrating planet, they just don't want to ride with Jim Kirk.  It would seem that their fears are well-founded.  Captain Kirk has become a lightning rod for the Federation's enemies.  The Klingons are still pissed at him over the events of Star Trek III.  In David's first storyline for this series, the captain managed to incur the wrath of a new, and very nasty, race of yellow-skinned aliens who call themselves the Nasgul.  Further complicating matters for Kirk and the colonists of Tau Gamma II is the fact that Sweeney, a semi-legendary figure widely feared as "the galaxy's most dangerous bounty hunter," has set his sights on the captain.
Sweeney's fleet surrounds the Enterprise in orbit around the planet, forcing the ship to retreat and seek reinforcements, thus stranding Kirk, Spock and Blaise on the surface.  Sweeney, meanwhile, goes in his personal ship down to the planet to capture his quarry personally.
Up until the final page of "Not...Sweeney!" the enigmatic bounty hunter is seen only as a menacing shadow.  Once his true form is revealed, he is most definitely not what the reader expects.  Rather than Lobo, he more closely resembles a young David Niven, complete with neatly trimmed moustache, striped tie, tweed jacket and dialogue suggesting a British accent.
The story continues in the next two issues, as Sweeney announces his plans to sell his captive to the highest bidder.  This leads to a four way confrontation between Sweeney, a fleet of Federation vessels led by Enterprise, and representatives of the Klingons and Nasgul.  Needless to  say,  Kirk escapes and triumphs over Sweeney, as well as the Klingons and the Nasgul.  Nevertheless, the ordeal convinces him that the best thing for all concerned would be for him to turn himself in to face the charges leveled against him by the two alien empires.  This sets up the three part storyline "The Trial of James T. Kirk" in issues #10-12.
Paramount having learned exactly the wrong lessons from the success of Star Trek IV, subsequent films took an ill-advised and poorly executed turn toward interspersing scenes of broad comedy amidst the "serious" moments. (I use quotes because it is impossible for me to take "that film" seriously.)  The comic reflected this trend.  However, with Peter David writing it, its certain that the comics would have taken on a more lighthearted tone even if the films had remained as grim as The Search For Spock.  One of David's trademarks as a writer is his mixing of humor and straightforward action/adventure.  Fortunately, David pulled it off much better than the writers of the last two films with the original cast.
This issue is a good example of that.  Kirk's rocky, to say the least, relationship with R. J. Blaise provides the comedy, while the action springs from Kirk's attempts to  outwit Sweeney and two alien races while racing against time to save the colonists from a planet that could explode at any time.
The art in the early issues of this series, including #7, was provided by James Fry and Arne Starr.  Fry gets the likenesses of the actors down pretty well.  It's on the characters original to this story that his depictions are inconsistent from panel to panel.
This is the last of the Star Trek #7's in my collection, but probably not the end of this series.  I also happen to have copies of the seventh issues DC's Star Trek: The Next Generation, Malibu's Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, and Marvel's Star Trek Unlimited.  Also, Marvel published its own DS9 series as well as a Voyager series and comics chronicling the adventures of Captain Pike and his Enterprise crew and a series set during the second five year mission following the first movie.  I don't have copies of those seventh issue, but I'm always on the lookout for them.  So expect further posts in the not so distant future.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

(Near) Total Recall

Its funny the things that stick in your mind, isn't it?
A while back, I did a piece on the career of Tony Isabella, and in it I mentioned that he was responsible for what I still to this day think is one of the funniest lines I've ever read in a comic book in Welcome Back, Kotter #3.  I went on to quote that joke. However, since at the time I did not own a copy of the comic in question and it had been over thirty years since I'd read it, I had to rely on my memory.  
Well, as I mentioned yesterday, I just acquired another copy of Kotter #3 at Gem City Comic Con this past weekend.  So I decided to go back to that earlier post and check how accurately I'd actually remembered the passage.  It turns out I did pretty well.
I had the line as "There are a million stories in the Naked City.  There are almost as many in Brooklyn, but here we keep our clothes on.  It makes it easier to conceal weapons that way," which is pretty much verbatim.  I only left out two words.  The last part actually reads "It makes it a lot (italics mine, added for emphasis) easier to conceal weapons that way."
Not bad for a middle aged guy, huh?
Now if I could only remember where I set down my coffee cup.

Grant Morrison's Action Comics Overview

What had been perhaps the most anticipated run of the New 52 prior to the launch of the rebooted DCU a year and a half ago, Grant Morrison's take on Superman's early years in Action Comics, has come to a slightly delayed end with the release last week of Action #18 featuring the Man of Steel's climactic showdown with 5th Dimensional menace Lord Vyndktvx and his Anti-Superman Army.
In the beginning, Morrison's story line was being promoted as a return to Superman's roots, telling tales of a Kal-El far less powerful than he would eventually become acting as a defender of the common man.  The first issue started out that way, but that direction didn't last long.  The seeds of what was to come were planted in the very first panel with the appearance of "the little man," who would eventually be revealed as Vyndktvx.  Then things got cosmic pretty quickly as Brainiac showed up at the end of the second issue. Following the defeat of Brainiac and Superman's discovery of his Kryptonian heritage, things start to get truly weird and Morrisonian, as the story of Lord Vyndktvx's revenge moved to the fore.  At first, the villain only made cameo appearances in what appeared at first to be a series of stand alone one or two issue stories.  With #14, though, his plot against the Last Son of Krypton swung into full force. 
This is definitely a story that reads better when taken in all at once rather than in monthly installments.  Reading the last few months worth of issues as they came out, I really couldn't make heads or tails of them.  However, when read straight through, the pieces of the puzzle fit together neatly to form a surprisingly straightforward tale of vengeance, albeit one played out across all of time and space and through various alternate dimensions and planes of existence.  Despite taking an extra issue to wrap things up, the ending still in spots comes off a little rushed and disjointed, but that's actually pretty typical of Morrison's epic super-hero sagas.  Despite its flaws, the final chapter was a fittingly grand conclusion to Grant's run.
It does seem to a certain extant that Grant is having his cake and eating it too with this story.  While it reintroduces a new Superman for the New 52 continuity, it simultaneously draws on the past history of the character.  Certainly a working knowledge of Superman's past encounters with Mr. Mxyzptlk helps in order to get the full impact of the tale.
On the whole, Grant Morrison has crafted in these nineteen issues a Superman story in the classic mode, pitting the Man of Steel against a foe truly worthy of his might and once again reinforcing his stature as the world's greatest hero.  If the run failed to live up to some people's expectations, I would say that is likely due more to the fact that,  spurred on by Morrison's earlier All-Star Superman, those expectations were almost impossibly high, rather than any deficiencies of Morrison's story itself.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Gem City Report

As I arrived back at the Sunday Comix table in the last hour of the Gem City Comic Con on Sunday carrying my latest, and final, purchase--volume four of The Complete Bloom County Library as well as the complete Outland and Opus volumes, all aquired for $20, or half cover price, each--Canada Keck quipped, "So, do you have enough Bloom County?"
"No," I chirped ('cause sometimes I do chirp), "They didn't have volume five."
So, while my collection of the collected works of Berkely Breathed remains incomplete, with Complete Bloom County LIbrary Volume 5 being the final remaining piece of that puzzle yet to fall into place, I did manage to complete my run of Prez.  I located reasonably priced copies of #'s 1and 3, the issues I was missing, and went ahead and picked up a new copy of #4 as mine was in such bad condition that it really wasn't even much good for a reading copy.  I've been planning to write about Prez sometime here in the near future, and now I'll be able to give a more complete overview of the series and actually know what I'm talking about.  You may not believe it, but I do ocassionally like to know what I'm talking about.
Some of the other Bronze Age books I picked up this weekend, and which I may end up writing about here, include:
  • Hercules Unbound #'s 1, 2 and 4 (I already had a copy of #3) I've been considering doing a series on the many collaborations between writer Gerry Conway and artist Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez.  In addition to this series, these include Atari Force, Cinder and Ashe, as well as various Superman and Batman stories.
  • Green Lantern/Green Arrow #113--I mentioned in an earlier post a  December 1978 DC house ad spotlighting four holiday themed issues  released that month.  I now have every book mentioned in that ad.  I also have several other Christmas themed Green Lantern books, so you might just see a "Green Christmas" this December.
  • DC's first and only issue of Sherlock Holmes, featuring adaptations of the Arthur Conan Doyle short stories "The Final Problem," in which Holmes is killed off, and "The Adventure of the Empty House," in which he returns, written by Denny O'Neil and drawn by E.R. Cruz with a cover by Walt Simonson.
  • Three issues of DC Special including #11, entitled "Beware...The Monsters Are Coming Here!", #17 from 1975, which contains several Green Lantern reprints, apparently testing the waters for the revival of the character's series that occurred the following years, and #16's "Super-Heroes Battle Super-Gorillas."  Seriously, how could I pass that last one up?  I do have a rep to uphold, after all, and I'm sure there are some people who might be surprised I didn't already have a copy of that one.
  • Mystery in Space #111---the first issue of the short-lived late seventies  revival of the classic SF title, featuring a great "silent" story drawn by master storyteller Jim Aparo
  • Welcome Back, Kotter #3--I've probably already said all I have to say about this issue on this blog in my overview of the series as a whole and my tribute to the career of Tony Isabella, who wrote this one, which, now that I think about it, may be the first thing I ever read by him.  I just wanted to have a copy and I'm looking forward to reading it again after several decades.
There were only a couple of items that I was really looking for at the show.  I found the Green Lantern/Green Arrow issue, but was frustrated by the fact that out of the dozens of dealers and thousands, hell, possibly millions, of comics gathered in the E.J. Nutter Center on the campus of Dayton's Wright State University, there was apparently not one single copy of Steve Ditko's Shade, The Changing Man #6.  I encountered at least one copy of every other issue of the series except the one I need to complete my collection.
When I wasn't searching in vain for a copy of Shade #6, I spent some time behind the table of Columbus cartoonist group Sunday Comix, where I helped Canada tell people who wandered up all about the group and describe the books by our various members that were on display.  I even managed to sell a couple of my books collecting my Wasted Potential comic strip.  That brought in four dollars, which really didn't do much to offset what I spent over the course of the weekend.  Still, I consider it all money well spent.
As  with every mainstream comic convention, there were many people dressed as their favorite characters.  I saw several Robins, an overweight Captain America, a Dr. Fate and Jay Garrick, the Golden Age Flash.  Canada got a picture of me posing with Ambush Bug.  As soon as she sends me a copy, I'll share it with you.
There were also a couple of my favorite artists on the guest list whom I was eager to meet. I learned something very important about one of them.  Which is that Howard Chaykin does not care what I think of him.
Or you, for that matter, I'm sure.
I know this because he told me so.
When I reported this to Mike Carroll back at the Sunday Comix table on Saturday, Mike's immediate response was, "Did you try to pay him a compliment?"  As it happens, that's exactly what I did.
When I walked up to his table, Chaykin was already engaged in a conversation with a fan.  As he signed the two books I presented (yes, two--more about that later), he was saying that he considered himself probably the least talented of his generation of comics artists.  At that point I interjected with, "You're probably the only one who would say that."  This is what caused him to respond with, "Well, I don't care what you think about me. Its not my business to care about that." He went on to give an assessment of his progress as an artist.  He characterized his work during the 1970's as "shit."  He said that he didn't do work he considered decent until after "woodshedding" by doing other things such as painted book covers before returning to comics with American Flagg! He went on to say that he makes up for what he considers a deficit of talent with hard work.  
While I wouldn't exactly say call Chaykin's early work "shit," I would agree that his art on Monark Moonstalker and Star Wars, and his writing on the former, is far surpassed in quality by his post Flagg output.
I don't want you to get the wrong idea here.  He wasn't mean or angry and he wasn't yelling at me.  This wasn't a repeat of the Aragones incident from Mid-Ohio Con 1996. (I may tell you about that someday--or I may not.)  He was simply giving an honest, if well rehearsed, self assessment.
I say well well rehearsed because I did get a certain sense of deja vu as I listened to him.  I seemed to remember having read the same sentiments from him in one interview or another in the comics press.  This is perfectly understandable, of course.  Anyone who is in the public eye and has made numerous public appearances and been interviewed multiple times must encounter the same questions over and over again.  The answers to these questions rarely change, so its natural that the responses begin to sound rehearsed after awhile.  
Based on having read a few interviews with him, I found Mr. Chaykin to be exactly what I expected.  He was gracious, if somewhat gruff; self-assured and self-confident but definitely not arrogant; secure in his sense of self, and opinionated and not afraid to share those opinions.  At 62 years of age, though he doesn't look it, I suppose he's old enough to be described as curmudgeonly, though I imagine he wouldn't like it if I did so, so I won't. 
Before I shook his hand and told him it had been a pleasure to meet him before heading back to the Sunday Comix table, Chaykin mentioned that he was currently working as hard as ever.  He is apparently booked up through next year.  He might have mentioned what those projects are if I'd stuck around for a few more seconds, but whatever they may be, I look forward to seeing them. 
By the way, I mentioned above that I got Mr. Chaykin to sign two comics, even though I said earlier that I was only going to present him with one book.  However, Joe Staton was also a guest at Gem City, and someone else I was eager to meet.  While browsing Green Lantern issues on the Comic Book Data Base, I remembered that I possessed a comic on which both Staton and Chaykin had worked.  Green Lantern #196 contains interior art by Staton with a cover featuring a striking image of Guy Gardner by Chaykin.  The remnants of fanboy within me just couldn't resist getting both of their signatures on one book.  It'll be a perfect reminder of a great weekend.
Joe Staton was considerably less argumentative than Chaykin when I told him how much I enjoyed his art on Dick Tracy.  If you haven't read Tracy since he and writer Mike Curtis took over, I highly recommend that you do so.  The Curtis/Staton run have breathed new life into the feature.  In my opinion, this is the best Tracy has been since the early days of Max Allan Collins' tenure when it was drawn by the late Rick Fletcher. 
Staton was there promoting Calling Dick Tracy Volume I, an upcoming e-book from Rabbit Hole Comics collecting approximately the first year of his Tracy run.  I asked if there was going to be a print edition, and Joe said that there might be if the digital version performs well.
In conclusion, I want to publicly and effusively thank SPACE promoter Bob Corby for everything, and I do mean everything.  He sponsored the table for Sunday Comix that got me into the con, drove me down to Dayton on Saturday morning and back the next day, let me crash in his hotel room Saturday night and generally made a wonderful weekend possible. 

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Constantine #1 Reviewed

Close, but no cigar. 
There is a cigarette, though. I was afraid DC would have bowed to the current social climate to make John Constantine a teetotaling nonsmoker.  This isn't quite John Constantine, however.  At least not the same Constantine created by Alan Moore and developed by Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis, and their successors in the pages of Swamp Thing and Hellblazer.   There are similarities, but in the end the discrepancies are too much for this old Hellblazer reader.
Jeff Lemire doesn't get the character's voice quite right.  In both accent and attitude, John Constantine came to represent, to me at least, the quintessential Britisher.  The Constantine in this issue sounds to me more like an American who has overdosed on British sitcoms.  The fact that this new Constantine lives in New York City adds to that perception.  The city of London was as much a part of the Vertigo incarnation of Constantine as he was part of the city.  
This character seems a little more coldblooded than the original as well.  To be sure, John Constantine has had to sacrifice his friends and companions to save his own ass, but never, it seemed to me, as casually as he abandons Chris to Sargon the Sorceress in this issue.
I don't like that cover either.  It looks like it comes from the wrong Keanu Reaves movie.  Its more Matrix than Constantine, at least the Constantine of the Vertigo comics (to be honest, I've not seen the film).   I prefer the variant cover showing Constantine leaning against his own headstone surrounded by grasping, undead hands.  This is more in line with the character as I knew him. However, the Laughing Ogre wanted fifteen dollars for their sole copy of that edition, so I settled for the action hero version.
The story concerns the efforts of Constantine and his soon to be late friend Chris to locate the components of a magical artifact capable of detecting other magical artifacts or magic users before a secretive cult known as the Cold Flame gets to it.  Its not a bad story, over all, but not quite compelling enough to win me over given my problems with this new pseudo-John Constantine.  I most likely won't be continuing with this series beyond this issue.
However, if you're looking for a well done if fairly standard magic tinged super-hero adventure comic, then I actually would recommend Constantine #1.  But if you really want to read about John Constantine, then I would direct you to the back issue bins and trade paperback racks.
By the way, if you read the preview of this story that appeared in the New 52 comics a couple of weeks back, you'll notice if you read the same pages in this issue that there have been some changes in the artwork and narration between then and now.  Old Phantom Stranger foe Tannarak has been substituted for Dr. Occult as one of the founders of the Cult of the Cold Flame.  My guess is that some other writer or editor at DC had plans for Dr. Occult and didn't want him off-handedly declared dead in a caption.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

A Game of You (Sandman and Related Topics)

Neil Gaiman has said that "A Game of You" may be his favorite Sandman arc "... because it's most people's least favourite volume, and I love it all the more for that."  It is certainly true, at least among Sandman readers to whom I've spoken, that "A Game of You" is the least well regarded segment of the series' seventy-five issue run.  Yet, upon re-reading it recently, I still find myself unable to fathom exactly why that is, as it remains perhaps my favorite Sandman tale.  Join me, won't you, as I examine some of the reasons I love this story, and try to work out why others may not.
The story centers on Barbie, first seen in "The Doll's House."  She is now divorced from her husband Ken and living on her own in New York City.  She used to dream herself as the Princess Barbara in a fantasy realm called simply The Land, which she has populated with characters based on the barely remembered stuffed toys of her childhood.  Since the apocalyptic events of that earlier story, however, she has not returned there.  Now, an agent of an entity called the Cuckoo seeks to bring Barbie back to The Land in order to complete her plan to destroy that realm so that she can be free of it.  In doing so, George, the Cuckoo's agent, causes the other residents of Barbie's apartment building to have nightmares.  One of those neighbors, Thessaly, who turns out to be a centuries old witch, recruits two more neighbors, lesbian lovers Hazel and Foxglove, to travel to the Dreaming to find Barbie and seek revenge on the Cuckoo.
Part of my affection for "A Game of You" may be due to the fact that it was my introduction to Sandman.  Shortly after I moved to Columbus, a friend lent me his copies of #'s 32-37 and I began buying the series for myself with #38.  Mostly though, the story stands on its own merits, which include one of Neil Gaiman's most imaginative stories, as well as the art of Shawn McManus, who illustrates the bulk of the story.  Not coincidentally, McManus also drew another of my favorite Sandman tales, "Three Septembers and a January," the story of Joshua Norton, the first and only Emporer of the United States of America.
Actually, in my sister's case, I know why she doesn't like this story, and that also has to do with the art of Shawn McManus.  Its because of Hazel's dream in Chapter Two, "Lullabies of Broadway."  While Sandman had long since transcended its roots in the horror genre to become what has been called a "dark fantasy", this sequence still contains the single most horrific image of the entire series.  After a drunken fling with a waiter at the restaurant where she works, Hazel has become pregnant.  Under the Cuckoo's influence, she dreams that she and Foxglove each have babies.  Fox's is a healthy baby boy, while Hazel's is the corpse of a baby seventy years dead.  Placed side by side in a crib, Hazel's zombie baby attacks and kills Foxglove's child. Part of what makes the image so disturbing is that McManus renders this scene of unspeakable horror in his trademark blend of realism and cartooniness.  Drawn by any other artist, that image just wouldn't have had the same power.  Unfortunately, that sequence, though it is, as I mentioned, atypical of Sandman, has caused my sister to dismiss the entire series out of hand, though I know that there are some stories, such as "Dream of A Thousand Cats", that she might really like.  Hell, she'd probably enjoy "A Game of You" if she could see beyond those couple of panels.
McManus perfectly captures all the various moods of the story, from the terror of the various characters' nightmares, to the beauty and wonder of Barbie's fantasy dreamworld, to the gritty, mundane reality of  real world New York City.   More than any other Sandman arc, "A Game of You" plays with the notion that just beneath the surface of what we think of as reality, there exists a rarely, barely glimpsed universe of magic and wonder.  McManus' art gets that point across beautifully.
Though praised in the letters columns at the  time, I have since read some criticism of Gaiman's portrayal of the transgendered character Wanda.  He especially gets critical heat for killing her off at story's end.  This may account for some of the lack of respect the story gets.  Perhaps another factor contributing to that lack of respect is that Morpheus himself is barely present in the story. He only takes an active role at the end, in what, when you think about it, is yet another Deus Ex Machina ending, to resolve the fine mess the story's real protagonists have  gotten themselves into. The lack of the series' titular star doesn't bother me so much when the characters who do get the spotlight are so engaging and interesting.  Barbie goes from a minor character in the earlier story "The Doll's House" to a strong, fascinating character more than capable of carrying a storyline by herself. The new characters introduced in the arc, especially Hazel and Wanda, are equally compelling.  We want to see more of their stories, and, in Hazel's case, we get to in the two Death mini-series.  Sadly, Wanda's story, as I note above, ends here.
As for "Deus Ex Machina" endings, I suppose that's to be expected in series where many of the major characters are, in fact, gods or god-like entities. 
Perhaps a portion of the disregard for the story comes from the fact that, from a continuity standpoint, this storyline isn't all that consequential.  It does, however, introduce Thessaly, who would eventually be revealed to be the lost love that Morpheus is moping over at the beginning of the next major story, "Brief Lives." Once again, for me, the charms of the story overwhelm such concerns.
In the end, I suppose, it really doesn't matter to me why others may not love this story as much as the rest of Sandman.  What matters ultimately is that I do will continue to.

Monday, March 18, 2013

"This Rose is Withered, May God Deliver the Rake at the Gates of Hell Tonight"

I've been reading a lot of Hellblazer recently, and writing a fair amount about it here as well.  This has led me to research on-line related topics such as author Brendan Behan and rock group the Pogues.  
Yesterday, in my review of Hellblazer #76, I mentioned Garth Ennis' penchant for borrowing titles from other writers.  In #63, after most of John Constantine's friends have gone home after his fortieth birthday party, the Lord of the Dance says to him, "The Pogues wrote a song that could've been about you.  You're a Rake at the Gates of Hell."  Ennis would go on to use that as the title of his final storyline. 
Until this most recent Hellblazer reread, I'd never heard the song "The Rake at the Gates of Hell", or, as a matter of fact, anything by the Pogues.  Now, though, I find that I quite the band.  "The Rake at the Gates of Hell" is a great song, and it really could be about John Constantine, at least as Garth Ennis wrote him.
Check out some sample lyrics and see if you don't agree with me:
"Hear the angels call above them
Watch them as the cold air sucks them
Down to hell, goodnight, God love them
If any should escape above me
Beg and cheat until they trust me
Drag them down to be damned with me
Laugh at them as they forgive me "
Better yet, why don't you just listen to the song.  Since one of the main purposes of this blog is to share stuff that I like with the world, I present for your entertainment and enlightenment The Pogues with "The Rake at the Gates of Hell."

(By the way, did you know the Pogues also did a song called "Transmetropolitan"?)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

"Confessions of an Irish Rebel" (Hellblazer #76)

Happy St. Patrick's Day! Today is the day that we celebrate all things Irish, but mostly their stereotypical tendency toward excessive drink.
As if I didn't have enough to read, to fill the interegnum between the end of Hellblazer and the debut of the New 52 Constantine series, I have been rereading my old issues of Hellblazer, of which I have somewhere around 50, mostly from the Garth Ennis/Steve Dillon era.  It would be a shame, don't you  think, to be reading all those comics and not get at least one post out of it.  Therefore, in honor of St. Patrick's Day, I'm going to tell you all about Hellblazer #76, a story entitled, in keeping with Garth Ennis' habit of swiping titles from other writers--though always with an in-story acknowledgement, "Confessions of an Irish Rebel," after the book by Brendan Behan, upon whom Wikipedia claims the character of Brendan Finn was based.  What better way to commemorate the day than by reading a story by an Irish writer set in a pub in Dublin?
As the story begins, John Constantine is returning home from his disastrous trip to New York City chronicles in the "Damnation's Flame" story line which wrapped up in the previous issue.  However, mechanical problems force his plane to make an unscheduled stop in Dublin, Ireland.  John, being John, decides to while away his enforced layover down at a local pub.  He is soon joined by the ghost of his old friend Brendan Finn.  Brendan passed on back in issue #42, the second chapter of Ennis' debut story line, "Dangerous Habits." The pair proceed to spend the remainder of the evening hitting the pubs, catching up on each others lives, or after-lives, as the case may be, and reminiscing about old times. Of course, in this case the old times happen to include some poor sod getting his genitalia blasted off with a shotgun.  This is, after all, Garth Ennis' Hellblazer.
As a writer, Garth Ennis has a well deserved reputation for over the top dark humor and graphic violence.  Those trademarks are certainly evident throughout his run on Hellblazer, and even to a small extent, as I noted above, in this very issue.  However, what often gets overlooked, even, it sometimes seems, by him, is his talent for writing the quieter, character driven moments.  He displays that ability to its full effect in "Confessions of an Irish Rebel," turning a simple reunion of two old friends into one of the finest issues of his entire run on the series.
The following issue followed a similar structure, as Constantine drops into a London pub to patch things up with his best friend Chas after the two had a violent falling out in the wake of John's break-up with Kit.  Together, these two issues gave the characters, and the reader,  a breather before all hell, pretty much literally, breaks lose in "Rake at the Gates of Hell," Ennis' final story line, in which John finally settles his account with the First of the Fallen.  Both of these issues are collected in the Damnation's Flame trade paperback, along with the story of that name.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Power & Glory of Howard Chaykin

The annual Gem City Comic Con takes place in Dayton next weekend. Bob Corby of Backporch Comics and SPACE is generously sponsoring a table for Sunday Comix, the Columbus, Ohio cartoonists group of which he and I are both members.  I'll be travelling there Saturday morning to put in some time behind the table.  Actually, the real reason I'm going is because I haven't attended a mainstream comics convention for nearly three years, the most recent being the last pre-Wizard World Mid-Ohio Con, and, most importantly, there are a couple of my favorite artists scheduled to attend and I really want to meet them.
One of these is Howard Chaykin, and I've been pondering lately which one--and only one--comic I wish to shove in his face and demand that he affix a signature to.  Among the list of candidates, from the works of Mr. Chaykin littering my collection of comics are

  • American Flagg!--probably his most famous work, and sort of a cliche choice if you think about it.
  • The Shadow--this four issue mini-series brought the 1930's pulp adventurer out of retirement and into the modern world of the 1980's
  • Blackhawk--this reinvention of a Golden Age character kept the legendary pilot in his WWII milieu but brought a 1980's, and distinctly Chaykin, sensibility to the tale
  • Midnight Men--a quite frankly unremarkable four issue mini-series from Marvel's Epic imprint.  Without rereading it, I couldn't even tell you what its about.
  • Marvel Premiere #32--featuring the debut of space-faring adventurer Monark Moonstalker
I thought about putting the question to you, my readers.  However, I decided the answer was pretty obvious.  It should be my favorite Chaykin comic. When I asked myself what that was, the title that leaped to mind was Power & Glory, the 1994 four issue from Malibu's creator owned Bravura line.
Power & Glory revolves around the efforts of fictional government agency the National Intelligence Agency, and its sleazy leader Malcolm LeStrange, to create a real-life American super-hero.  Unfortunately, the candidate LeStrange chooses to become A-Pex, the American is Allen Powell, a superficial, cowardly, NIA agent with a pathological fear of disease that is only amplified by the treatments that give him super-powers.  On his first outing in costume, Powell proves a potential embarrassment to the NIA and a threat to LeStrange's continued employment as NIA director.  Michael Gorsky, a dedicated if slightly disillusioned NIA agent who had been the second choice for the A-Pex experiment, is brought in to covertly do the real heroic work. Powell publicly takes all the credit, appearing on talk shows and magazine covers and having his name and image plastered on products ranging from breakfast cereal to video games and comic books.  Complicating matters is the fact that Gorsky is going through a divorce from LeStrange's assistant Avis Cutlett, who ends up sleeping with Powell until he leaves her for vapid pop star Belladonna.  Further complicating things is that the drug dealing third world head of state and rap musician, Jean-Paul M'butu, who went to school with LeStrange's son and calles the NIA head "Uncle Malcolm", is involved in secret dealings with LeStrange and wants Powell and Gorsky eliminated.  
Power & Glory is an often hilarious dark comedy that satirizes the super-hero genre, and 1990s pop culture and politics while providing generous helpings of the complex, multi-layered plotting and witty, fast paced dialogue, as well as the over the top sex and violence that fans had come to expect from Howard Chaykin. There's even a connection to American Flagg! snuck in on the very last page.
I happen to have two copies of the first issue.  It was released with two covers and I bought both of them. (Hey, don't judge me, man.  It was the 90s.  I was young and didn't know any better.  Everybody was doin' it.  We didn't realize we were helping the industry commit suicide.)  So, I can get one signed and stick it in  a bag for posterity and still have a copy to read again in the future.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The Pope of Comics

Congratulations to my Catholic readers--if there are any who haven't been put off by my occasional references, when appropriate to the subject at hand, to my unashamed atheism and liberal politics.  Most Catholics I know are staunch Republicans and refused to even vote for one of their own for President back in 2004 because he belonged to the wrong party.  Not to mention that more than a few of them actually belief in God.
Sorry, got sidetracked again.  Happens a lot. Maybe I should hire myself an editor.  Anyway, as I was about to say, there's a new pope as of two days ago.  This is the fourth time during my lifetime, including twice in 1978 alone, that the cardinals of the Catholic church have gathered to select a new leader for their little cult. (If I had any Catholic readers left, they're gone now)  The first two times, I actually sort of cared.  Though, in retrospect, I don't think I ever really believed, I was raised as a Catholic and attended mass regularly until the mid-1980's when I went off to college and got away from parental influence. Plus, I did think that it was kind of cool that the second pope chosen in '78 was one of my people--a Pole.  
The history of the papacy during the past four decades has been one of precedents and historic firsts.  The election of John Paul I to replace the late Paul VI (I remember reading a satirical headline in National Lampoon that declared, "John Paul Elected Pope; George, Ringo Miffed") was pretty much business as usual for the church, until JP I, in turn, died a mere 33 days later.  Though the reign of Pope John Paul I was by no means the shortest in history, it is, according to Wikipedia, in the top ten.  John Paul I's tenure of little more than a month was followed by the election of the first non-Italian  pope in more than something like four hundred years.
I suppose you could call it ironic that one of the shortest papacies was followed by the second longest papal reign in Catholic history.  John Paul II served for over twenty-six years.
After JP II's death in 2005, he was followed by Benedict XVI, a German with a somewhat questionable past.  (He's in his 80's and from Germany...you do the math.)  After an eight year reign marked by all sorts of controversies, Benedict broke centuries of precedent by becoming the first Pontiff to leave the office standing up for almost six hundred years.  
The new pope, Francis I of Argentina, continues the tradition of breaking with tradition by being the first from the "New World" of the Americas, and the first from the Jesuit order.
What the bloody hell, you may be screaming at your computer screen by this point, does this poorly researched treatise on recent religious history have to do with comics, which is what this damned blog is supposed to be about?  Well, John Paul II, during his quarter century plus reign, became one of the most popular popes in history.  Not only was he beloved by Catholics, but he made quite an impression on non-Catholics as well.  He also ended up making a few appearances in comic books over the years, including two that recounted the story of his life.
The first of those was published in 1982 by Marvel as part of the short-lived line of hagiographic comics produced in co-operation with the Catholic church that also included the Mother Theresa comic I wrote about last year.  (...and, relevant to the new pope, I believe there was also a book about St. Francis of Assissi, after whom the new pontiff renamed himself)  I have not actually read this comic, but the cover blurb promises "The Entire Story! From his childhood in Poland to the assassination attempt!"  The Life of Pope John Paul II was written by Steven Grant.  Grant's other credits from the decade include the 1986 Punisher mini-series, among other, more typical mainstream comics fare.  (The Pope and the Punisher...Now there's a team-up I would've loved to see.  I mean, if Frank Castle can meet Archie Andrews, then why not?
The second sequential retelling of John Paul II's life, The Life of Pope John Paul II...in Comics!, was published in 2006.  As it came out after John Paul II's death, I imagine the latter volume offers a more complete picture of the pontiff's life. 
In addition to those two biographies, the Comic Book Data Base lists a handful of other appearances by John Paul II in some perhaps surprising titles.  These include Vertigo's Kid Eternity, DC's Wonder Woman, and Marvel's Thor.  I don't know the nature of his appearance in Thor, but its interesting to imagine one of the foremost representative of Christianity meeting one of those "other gods" inveighed against in the First Commandment.
On a completely different note, and totally unrelated to anything I've written here so far, there's one thing I've been wondering as I mentally composed this post.  Why do popes take a new name when they get elected?  Why couldn't I, if I became pope, just be Pope Raymond I?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"A Debt Repaid..." in Marvel Team-Up #147

Analogy Time:  The Human Torch was to Marvel Team-Up what Green Arrow was to The Brave and the Bold, only more so.
You could say, as I once did about Green Arrow and The Brave and the Bold, that Marvel Team-Up was almost as much the Human Torch's book as it was Spider-Man's.  Like GA in B&B, Johnny Storm appeared in MTU more times than any other hero, save for Spider-Man, of course.  In fact, the Torch showed up in MTU more frequently than GA in B&B.  Whereas GA appears in 11 of the 151 issues between the initiation of the team-up format in B&B #50 and  the series' end with #200, MTU was graced with the Human Torch's presence 16 times in its 150 issues run.  Two of those appearances were as a member of  the Fantastic Four, while six of them were as the star of the book, teaming up with other heroes while Spidey took an issue off.  The tradition of teaming Spider-Man and the Torch predates MTU, of course, going back to their friendly rivalry in the early days of The Amazing Spider-Man.
So when I tracked down  Marvel Team-Up #147 for my ongoing series of reviews of 147th issues, I was not at all surprised to find that the web-slingers co-star for the issue was none other than the Human Torch.
"A Debt Repaid..." is written by Cary Burkett, with art by Greg LaRocque and Mike Esposito.  This is one of only a handful of stories Burkett wrote for Marvel, primarily in MTU.  He spent the bulk of his career at DC, where he wrote a few issues of The Brave and the Bold, including, not surprisingly, a Batman/Green Arrow team-up.  
This issue is the middle part of a trilogy of sorts, teaming Spidey with Nomad (in #146), the Torch, and Thor (in #148) against a new villain called the Black Abbott.  The Abbott has set himself up in a base located off the shore of New Jersey where he is using his hypnotic powers to recruit scientific wunderkind to help him build a device to amplify his psychic powers enough to allow him to control an entire city.  He is also planning an assault on the prison at Ryker's Island to free the prisoners there to act as an army to carry out his dreams of conquest.
One of the science prodigies the Abbott, wearing the psychic disquise of a seemingly harmless old coot calling himself Mr. Abbott, recruits is none other than Peter Parker.  Thanks to his Spider-Sense, Peter is able to resist the Abbott's mental control, but he goes along with him to find out what his scheme is and to perhaps a rescue an old friend of his whom the Abbott also claims to have recruited.
Earlier, the Torch and Spidey had rescued a defector from Abbott's organization from other agents of the Abbott seeking to kill him for his betrayal.  However, the man's injuries were too severe to allow him to survive for long, but before he died, he spilled the beans about the Abbott's plans to the Torch.  Thus, shortly after Peter arrives at the Abbott's base, the Torch shows up as well.  However, Torchy gets himself captured pretty quickly and ends up under the hypnotic control of the Abbott, unable to flame on or fight the villain in any way. 
Switching to Spider-Man, Peter finds the mesmerized Torch and attempts to snap him out of the Abbott's spell by hurling insults at him in an effort to make him angry.  One particularly cruel and totally inappropriate remark finally manages to piss Johnny off enough to snap him back to reality.  Infuriated with Spidey, he and the wall crawler have a brief fight---because this is a Marvel comic, after all, and such is expected--before teaming up to take down the Black Abbott.  Even though his current plans are thwarted and his offshore base abandoned, the Abbott himself escapes to regroup and face off against Spidey and Thor in the issue following.
The title of the story, by the way, comes from Spidey feeling that his motivating the Torch to fight back against the Abbott's mental control is repayment for the Torch unknowingly inspiring him to get back in the game and defeat Doctor Octopus way back in Amazing Spider-Man #3.
All in all, this is a pretty typical meeting of two Marvel heroes, playing out as so many others did during the Silver and Bronze Ages.  Nonetheless, its an enjoyable little story, and I'll be keeping an eye out for a reasonably priced copy of #148 so I can find out how the saga of the Black Abbott plays out.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Sandman and Related Topics: Season of Mists

"To Absent Friends, Lost Loves, 
Old Gods and the Season of Mists,
and may each and every one of us 
always give the Devil his due." 

Comics blogger Tim Callahan, fresh from his year-plus "Great Alan Moore Re-Read", has embarked on a re-read of Neil Gaiman's Sandman.  I've been playing along at home, re-reading the series along with Callahan and I thought I'd offer up some of my own thoughts and theories about the series and perhaps other comics that are in some way related to the series, if only tangentially.
I've decided to begin with the series' third major storyline "Season of Mists," which Callahan writes about here.  If you've not read the story, you may want to do so before reading either this post or Callahan's piece, as discussion of the ending figures in both. 
Now, if you haven't read the story and are still reading this, heedless of my above warning, I will offer a brief synopsis of the plot.  Morpheus, also known as Dream, the Prince of Stories, Lord of the Dreaming and the series' eponymous Sandman, attends a meeting of his family, The Endless, who all embody various big concepts and whose names all begin with the letter D, where he is shamed by his siblings Desire and Death for having, centuries earlier and as related in the prologue to "The Doll's House", condemned a former lover to spend eternity in Hell after she dared reject him.  He therefore decides to journey to the realm infernal to free her. This is complicated by the fact that on an earlier visit to Hell, he'd managed to piss off Lucifer, the fallen angel who rules that nether land, in  the course of retrieving his ceremonial helmut, which had come into the possession of a minor demon, causing Lucifer to swear the Dream Lord's destruction.  Prepared for a battle from which he may not return, Morpheus is surprised to find when arrives at the gates of Hell that Lucifer has no intention of fighting him.  Instead, the Prince of Darkness has recently decided to abdicate the throne of Hell and is in the process of evicting all of the demons and the damned before locking the gates and deserting his post forever.  As a final gesture, and perhaps as a way of fulfilling his vow to destroy the Dream King, Lucifer gifts Morpheus with the key to Hell.  The dark realm now belongs to Morpheus and the rest of the story is about him deciding what to do with it, as representives from various pantheons and mythical realms descend upon the dreaming to make their case for why Hell should be turned over to them.
As a result of Hell's being emptied out, on Earth, the dead are returning and Dream's sister Death has her hands full.  Gaiman shows the effects of this catastrophe in an issue illustrated by Matt Wagner that tells the tale of two deceased students at an English boarding school where other dead former students and masters have returned.
The toast quoted at the top of this post, recited as Morpheus shares a drink in dreams with an old friend, is my favorite bit of writing in "Seasons of Mists" and perhaps in the entire series. That may have something to do with the fact that it comes from my favorite character in the series, Hob Gadling, of whom I shall perhaps write more at a later date. That's not to say, however, that its the only good thing, or even the best thing, about the story.  No, the story offers much to love, despite its somewhat weak, Deus Ex Machina style ending, not the least of which is the art of Kelley Jones, who illustrates the majority of the tale. Jones' art, with its highly stylized and often grossly exaggerated anatomy, may not be everyone's cup of tea, but I've always been a fan, and I feel his style is perfectly suited to conveying the dark, brooding mood of the story. 
Now, about the ending.  As Callahan observes, though the insight is by no means original to him as I noted it myself as I read the story prior to Callahan's posting, the conclusion of "Season of Mists" is, in the most literal sense of the term, a Deus Ex Machina.  God, speaking through the angels he had sent to observe the negotiations over the fate of Hell, ultimately declares that since he created Hell its His and He's taking it back and appointing the aforementioned angels to rule over it in His stead.  You realize that the Almighty could have done this at any time, which could have rendered the whole story meaningless.  However, the preceding issues leadng up to God's pronouncement are so well written, entertaining and compelling that the somewhat weak ending really doesn't bother me.  Besides, when you think about it, there's really no other way the story could have ended.  Furthermore, the events of "Season of Mists" are far from being meaningless, but are, as I discuss below, pivotal to the unfolding, over-arching story line of the series as a whole.
"Season of Mists" is where Sandman truly became Sandman as it would come to be beloved by devoted fans for a generation now. By this time, the series has found its footing and Gaiman has found his authentic authorial voice.  It is here also that the story of the series begins in earnest, as the first two story lines had mostly been by way of introducing the reader to the charactersof Morpheus, his associates and his world.  With this story, Gaiman begins presenting many of the concepts and characters which would prove key to the series' eventual denouement.  The reader is formally introduced to the Endless, Dream's family, all of whom, with the exception of youngest sister Delirium, had appeared briefly during the previous two stories.  We are also told that there is another member of the Endless, as yet unnamed and referred to only as "the prodigal", who abandoned the family and his realm and responsibilities at the last meeting of the Endless some three centuries prior.  This resonates with Lucifer's decision to leave Hell and sets up a theme that would be revisited many times over the course of the series.
In his analysis of the story, Callahan writes of giving the collected edition of the story as a gift to someone who'd never read comics, let alone Sandman, before.  While I would recommend starting from the beginning with Preludes and Nocturnes, if you must dive head first into the middle of the series, then "Season of Mists" is probably the best place to do it.  (Although my first exposure to Sandman was, if I'm remembering correctly, "A Game of You," but we'll talk more of that when I write about that story in an upcoming post.)

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Hellblazer Poll Results

I guess, given a recent slight bump upward in my overall pageviews and the efforts I made to promote this poll, that I was expecting a somewhat higher turnout than I got.  I suppose the results prove, if nothing else, that the majority of Gutter Talk readers didn't read Hellblazer, and/or that not a lot of Hellblazer readers also read Gutter Talk. They may, of course, prove nothing of the sort, or, in fact nothing very much at all.  Nonetheless, the end results of my favorite Hellblazer writer poll, meager though they may be, were pretty much what one would have expected at the outset.
The final issue of Ennis' run
In the category of regular writer, Garth Ennis walked away with the majority of votes.  The remainder were split between initial writer Jamie Delano, Brian Azzarello, and Mike Carey.  
That Ennis won is not surprising, given that Hellblazer probably reached its peak of popularity during his run, and the series helped launch him into comics super-stardom.  My own vote went to Ennis, and Hellblazer remains my favorite work by him.
There was, briefly, one vote for Paul Jenkins, but it didn't show up in the final tally.  I guess someone must have changed their mind.  That's too bad, because what I've read of Jenkins' run was pretty good.  Also, from meeting him briefly at cons, he seems like a really nice guy and he's a fine musician.  Several years ago at Mid-Ohio Con I bought from him a CD by a band called Grave Goods, of which he was a member.
I suppose I might be a little surprised to see that Peter Milligan got no votes.  He's been a popular writer, especially with the Vertigo crowd, for a couple of decades now.  Furthermore, taking into account his fifty-one issues and one Annual of Hellblazer, and the eight issues of Justice League Dark  in which he essentially created the New 52 version of John Constantine, not to mention the three part story in Shade--The Changing Man in which Constantine appeared, Milligan has written more appearances of the character than any other writer.
Given that little fact, it occurs to me to wonder why he wasn't tapped to write the new Constantine title debuting next week.  Of course, I may have answered my own question.  Perhaps after writing the character for over four years, he needed a break from John Constantine.
Oops! Forgot this one--#32 by Dick Foreman
The guest writer category was flawed from the outset, as, despite my efforts to include everyone who had ever written the title in my survey, I left a couple of names off the list.  A comment on the initial post announcing this poll pointed out that I had omitted Dick Foreman, who apparently wrote issue #32, and Eddie Campbell's four issue storyline just prior to Jenkins taking over the reigns of the title also slipped my mind.  The omission of Foreman is excusable, I suppose, as I haven't read that issue and overlooked it in my research on the Comic Book Database.  However, given that I actually own copies of the issues containing Campbell's contribution, that omission is just plain stupid. 
Still, despite the omissions, the contest in this category could have been expected to come down to a race between super-stars Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.  That's pretty much just what happened, with Morrison winning out for his two parter in issues #25 and #26.
So, that closes the books on yet another Gutter Talk  poll. 

Friday, March 8, 2013

GREEN ARROW #18 Reviewed

Have you ever enjoyed an issue of a comic so much that you couldn't wait to read the next issue, but because you liked the comic so much your expectations for the next issue were so impossibly high that nothing could possibly meet them, so the next issue, no matter how good it turns out to be, turns out to be something of a disappointment?
That was my initial response to the second half of  Alan Moore's farewell to the pre-Crisis On Infinite Earths Superman,"Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?", in Action Comics #583.  That, however, is quite possibly a subject for an entirely different post. 
We are hear today to talk about Green Arrow.
While the above outlined scenario could still occur next month, as of #18, "The Kill Machine", new writer Jeff Lemire's debut storyline, has only gotten better.  In my review of the previous issue I was already ready to place this story on a pedestal alongside "The Longbow Hunters" in the pantheon of great Green Arrow stories, and second installment only serves to confirm that opinion.
After losing his company, his fortune and most of his trick arrows and other equipment, our hero is wanted for murder and on the run from the law in both his Oliver Queen and Green Arrow identities.  New characters are introduced, older characters are violently dispatched, and the mysteries surrounding the secrets of Ollie's father and the time Ollie spent stranded on an island learning to use a bow and arrow and their connection to his current woes continue to deepen.  The action and intrigue move forward at a brisk pace and the issue ends with a mid-air cliffhanger.  We know  Ollie is going to survive, but I can't wait to see how. 
Furthermore, Lemire takes further steps toward making Oliver Queen a mature, interesting and likable character again.
I haven't mentioned the art yet, either here or in my last review, and that is a grievous over site. Andrea Sorrentino's dark, moody drawings wonderfully capture the tone of Lemire's script.
The first two chapters of "The Kill Machine" are a great start to Lemire's re-revamping of Green Arrow, and I'm definitely looking forward to reading more. 

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Not With A Bang...Hellblazer: "Death and Cigarettes" Reviewed

Prior to coming back to check out the final story line, it had been ten years since I'd bought an issue of Hellblazer.  Exactly ten years, as a matter of fact.  Excluding the final three issues, the most recent issue of Hellblazer in my possession is #180, cover dated March, 2003.  Thus, on my return to the world of John Constantine's London, I was struck right away at how much had changed in the time I'd been gone.  Several new and unfamiliar characters now populated the story.  The most notable of these was Epiphany, John Constantine's wife.
It seems kind of strange to find Constantine married, though its certainly not out of character.  He's had long term romances before, perhaps the most important being Kit during the Garth Ennis era, but they always seemed to end badly.  So it was a bit surprising to see him in  a somewhat stable and happy relationship.
Another one of the "new" characters, Angie Spatchcock, actually debuted during one of those last Mike Carey  written issues that I purchased a decade ago.  However, I'd completely forgotten that fact until I re-read those issues a couple of days ago.  She was a minor character in those issue,  but she seems to have become a major player in the series since that time and turns out to be critical to the conclusion of the series.
On the other hand, I also noticed how much hadn't changed.  John's old pal Chas was still hanging around, and Constantine himself was pretty much the same character as he had been since his days as a supporting player in Swamp Thing.  He may be somewhat older, but not a whole lot wiser.
Speaking of which, I had wondered if the series had continued to progress in "real time" as it had in the early years when John marked his 35th birthday in an early issue and turned 40 five years later in the first issue under the Vertigo imprint.  Sure enough, in the first part of the current storyline, he refers to having lived some "sixty odd years," which is about how old he should be.
Given that, the series couldn't have gone on forever.  Despite his efforts, including those in this story, to cheat death, Constantine is mortal.  Thus I suppose the 300th issue was as good a time as any to bring the series to a conclusion.
"Death and Cigarettes" begins as John has seen signs and portents telling him that he's going to die soon.  Thus, he makes plans to cheat the Fates and return from the dead, while others, including the aforementioned Fates, conspire to make sure he remains deceased.
The story unfolds as a pretty typical Hellblazer story, with John making his plans and scheming his schemes in an attempt to avoid the inevitable.  I enjoyed the story for the most part, but was ultimately somewhat disappointed by the final issue.
One thing that disappointed me is that there wasn't much of a farewell.  I was expecting, or at least hoping for, a text page containing some sort of message from the editor or writer Peter Milligan looking back on the history of the series and acknowledging its place in the history of comics, and the Vertigo line particularly, while thanking the past creators for their efforts and the readers for supporting the series for the past quarter century.  The closest thing we get to that is the final panel,  which works the names of everyone who has worked on the series into the artwork as writing on the labels of bottles in a pub.  It is, for this series, a somewhat fitting way of acknowledging these talented individuals, but I was hoping for more.
As for the story itself, my big problem is with the ending.  I'm not going to spoil it for you.  I don't really think I can.  After all, despite having read it twice now, I'm still not really sure what the hell happened.  The resolution of the storyline hinges on a story element introduced sometime during that decade that I wasn't reading the book.  Therefore, I'm confused as to where John ended up in the end.  Is it the afterlife...or is it Liverpool?  I can't say for sure.
Although, notwithstanding the confusing ending, I mostly enjoyed the story, ultimately it was a rather unsatisfying conclusion to twenty five years of Hellblazer.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

UPDATE: Controversial Superman Story On Back Burner After Artist Quits

I suppose its not surprising that the controversy over controversial author Orson Scott Card's contribution to DC's digital first anthology The Adventures of Superman would have a local angle, given the sheer number of comics creators who reside here in Columbus, Ohio.  One of them, namely Chris Sprouse, was set to illustrate the story.  However, as initially reported by USA Today on Tuesday, the controversy and media attention surrounding the story and Card has given Sprouse cause to have second thoughts, and he will no longer be lending his pencils to Card's story.  
Sprouse issued an official statement explaining his decision, which says:
"It took a lot of thought to come to this conclusion, but I've decided to step back as the artist on this story.  The media surrounding this story reached the point where it took away from the actual work, and that's something I wasn't comfortable with. My relationship with DC Comics remains as strong as ever and I look forward to my next project with them."
DC promises to "...re-solicit the story at a later date when a new artist is hired."  However, according to Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool, they're apparently in no big hurry. 

Indie Comics Fair Returns to the Ace of Cups This Saturday

Speaking, as I was at the end of my previous post, about places just down the street from where I sit and type these words:
What are you doing Saturday afternoon? Might you be up for hanging out with cartoonists in a bar named for one of the Minor Arcana of the Tarot which used to be a bank?
As I'm not quite the drinker these days that I was in my long lost youth, prior to last year's inaugural Indie Comics Fair, the last time I had been inside the building located at 2619 N. High Street in Columbus, Ohio that has for the past couple of years housed the bar known as the Ace of Cups it was occupied by a branch of the Huntington Bank, with whom I kept a savings account at the time.  There's still a Huntington ATM outside, one of the few left in the city that actually dispenses ten dollar bills. 
The Indie Comics Fair returns to the Ace of Cups this Saturday, March 9, from noon until 5 p.m. for its second annual outing, and a host of the titans of Columbus' independent comics scene will be on hand for the festivities.  The event is co-sponsored by Nix Comics and SPACE (the Small Press and Alternative Comics Expo) so you know that Nix publisher Ken Eppstein and SPACE promoter Bob Corby will be in attendance.  A partial list  (which is all I've been able to find on the web) of the other creators expected to be there includes such luminaries as Michael Neno, Matt Wyatt, Chris Monday, Chad Lambert, and the members of the cartoonists "collective", as they call themselves (sounds vaguely socialist to me, though) PANEL. 
Admission to the show is free. However, if you've got a wad of cash that you worry is slowly going to burn a hole in your pocket, fear not, for there shall be plenty on which to blow your paycheck.  There'll be beer (the show takes place in a bar, after all), barbecue (famed food truck Ray-Ray's [no relation] Hog Pit drops anchor in the Ace's parking lot on the weekends), and, of course, comics.
As I mentioned, the Ace of Cups is just down the street from me.  In fact, standing on the sidewalk in front of my apartment building, I can actually see it from where I live.  So, I will definitely be dropping in at some point during the afternoon to check out the comics, visit with some of my cartoonist friends and maybe even down a pint of ale as the Brits say.  I hope to see you there.