Bipolar disorder, mania, depression, anxiety. I'm only just discovering what those words mean for my well-being and the shattered pieces of my life. The "work in progress," it turns out, is me. Expect an exploration of my thoughts, my feelings, and my journey. And hopefully some fun stuff like my opinions on comic books, movies, and books to name a few.

Old "archive" posts remain if you want to get to know me further.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Bags & Boards: 11/11/15

National Novel Writing Month is kicking my backside. Last week’s reviews never materialized. And this week’s are late. But, one must soldier on. As always, thanks to Rich and Cougar at Whatever Store for often very good recommendations. Possible spoilers…

Superman American Alien #1
Book of the Week
“When you break something, you’re not just breaking the thing. You’re like…hurting everyone who made it the way it was.”

It’s been said more than once that this isn’t a Superman story. But If the soul of this book lived in Superman comics, I’d probably read more of them.

There have been a lot of Superman origin stories over the years. I’ve never read any of them.  Perhaps some of the themes Landis touches on here have been touched on before. I don’t have a frame of reference for comparison. This first issue sees a very young Clark Kent growing into his powers—in this instance flight—and his parents looking for ways to cope.

There are a lot of fun moments in the book, but there’s a lot of sadness, too. Clark can’t control when he starts floating up, and he’s terrified every time it happens. He can’t navigate—can’t get himself back down. If that wasn’t bad enough, later we see him watching a movie about aliens, and he momentarily faces existential questions of what he is and what people would do to him if they knew he was different. All of this leads not unsurprisingly to Clark wishing he were normal—a sentiment I’d be willing to bet most readers remember from some point in childhood.

Getting almost as much time in the spotlight as Clark are his parents. Jonathon and Martha spend a lot of the issue looking for answers that can help their son. I’d honestly never considered the idea that the Kents would have had to have told the family doctor about Clark—or that the doctor would use a Geiger counter on him. But these moments feel perfectly natural. Jonathon has the harder time with the situation—at first seeming to long for a normal child, even as he adores Clark, before finally turning into the skid and embracing how different his son is. The scenes of Jonathon trying to help Clark learn to fly might be among the most heartwarming I’ve ever read in a comic book.

So what does a kid want when he finally does learn how to fly? He wants to take his family on vacation of course. The last page is Clark spinning off scenario after scenario of where the family can visit because Clark is sure he can be strong enough and fly fast enough to get them there. It’s a great moment not because this is Clark Kent and the reader somehow expects that Clark Kent was always perfect, but because this is a ten year old boy and this is exactly what someone would expect from a ten year old boy.

Lest it feel like I’m ignoring Dragotta’s art, I have to point out his superior work on Clark. The boy who would be Superman is expressive and alive; the moments of elation and heartbreak work not just because of Landis’ story but also because Dragotta can communicate all of that emotion on Clark’s face and in his posture.

I think at this point I’ve gushed enough. This book’s charm isn’t that Landis has retconned some great origin that’s far and away better than any that came before it. The beauty is that Landis and Dragotta have captured a little piece of childhood and, inserting it into the larger Superman mythos, made a basically god-like character as human as every one of his readers.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Bags & Boards: 10/28

Several weeks away for a variety of reasons no one else will care about…and at last I’m back. Stopped into Whatever Store and walked out with four from the pull list and two store picks—a helpfully light week since I’m still wading through weeks of books I need to catch up on. The first review is a touch longer than usual, so I’ll dive right in. Spoilers of varying degree may follow.

Sam Wilson: Captain America #2
Book of the Week
“Because Steve Rodgers, in his heart, believes that when the chips are down, when its values are at stake—his country will do what’s right. And me? In my heart? I can only hope it will.”

Something a little different with this issue. It doesn’t take top spot because I particularly cared for it. I likely will not pick the series up again.

This issue continues the missing person case that Sam embarked on last issue and, after a brief delay, picks up with Steve Rodgers interrupting Sam’s border skirmish with Serpent Supreme. We also learn about a Snowden-type character who blew the whistle on a secret SHIELD and NSA program. This provides the explanation for Sam’s estrangement from Steve and from SHIELD. Sam, viewing the whistleblower as a patriot, opposed SHIELD’s attempt to arrest and try him for breaking the law by revealing classified information. There’s also a twist where Serpent Supreme is working with a mad scientist—providing the kidnapped illegal immigrants to him for experimentation. Misty Knight has a cameo where she looks a little too much like the heroine in a blacksploitation movie.

The narrative is what it is. For my money it’s the least interesting part of the issue. What’s really worth discussing here is what Marvel (at least as evidenced by these first two issues) is attempting with the series.

This year saw DC and Marvel incorporate greater diversity into their title characters. People are free to debate whether that’s out of an optimistic view of making the books more representative, a pragmatic effort to appeal to a wider audience, or some combination of the two. Midnighter and Iceman are gay. Thor is a woman. Captain America is black. Moves like these aren’t uncommon. Both companies have spiced things up with such moves before; several years ago there was a stir when Batwoman was revealed to be a lesbian. But it does feel like this wave of diversification hit critical mass lately, and a fair question is: Will any of it last?

Will Sam Wilson remain Captain America? Smart money is probably on “no” since there’s another Captain America movie coming out staring Chris Evans. Will Thor remain a woman? Also probably no (or at least not as the only Thor) and likely for the same reason. As for Midnighter and Iceman…it’s harder to make characters un-gay if you can’t swap out different characters in their places.

Assuming, however cynically, that some of these changes aren’t permanent, the next question is: Will any of them have consequence? Northstar being gay affected his entire disposition (retroactively justifying his douchebag qualities). It’s great that Midnighter is gay. Does this affect his interactions with others, and why or why not? It’s great that Thor’s a woman. Is there any difference within Asgard society with respect to how women are treat, and does it change how Thor as a character views and is treated by humanity?

In the case of Sam Wilson, we have our answer. Forced by circumstances to leave the cocoon that Captain America historically operated in—government sponsored and often in league with SHIELD—Sam’s perspective changes. He’s community driven. He’s appealing to the people. He’s solving the small problems. And he is most decidedly not seeing the same world that Steve Rodgers saw because he is not Steve Rodgers. Nick Spencer does a great job building Sam’s motivation and making a case for why this kind of Captain America is at least as valid as the one Marvel’s offered for several decades. This Captain America is grounded in the real world. We have the Snowden stand-in. We have the skepticism of government (name dropping the NSA, even). We have a story that wades into illegal immigration with a desert border crossing.

So, after just saying how much I appreciate what Spencer’s doing, why am I dropping the book? If you checked out past reviews, you may have noticed my praise for several Secret Wars titles that folded in metaphors for real-life issues. I like a good metaphor. As a science fiction junkie, I love a good metaphor. In my comic books, though, I kind of want them to stay that way. I come to these universes looking for fun and entertainment, and if I get to think a little that’s a bonus. The closer the story gets to real life, the harder it is to have the fun that is my primary pursuit. I have to wonder, therefore, how sustainable a comic book is over the long haul if it’s going to confront issues that polarize its readership on a regular basis. But that hurdle does not invalidate the attempt.

I will be curious to see what people make of Marvel’s approach and Spencer’s execution, especially the real world sensibility. But at least in the end—whether the reason for a black Captain America was appreciation of diversity or smart business decision—we may actually see some consequence and meaning behind what otherwise could have been nothing more than a token character change.

Art Ops #1
Whatever Store Recommendation
“It felt like one of those bad trips where you should’ve used mouthwash before dropping.”

Indeed. The guys at Whatever Store don’t often miss, but they whiffed this time.

The concept: Art is real and people in paintings are real and they can be removed from a painting—replaced with look-alike stand-ins. A team called Art Ops does this to protect the paintings from theft or destruction. In the issue’s opening pages, Art Ops removes “Lisa” from da Vinci’s Mona Lisa because the painting is in unspecified danger. Eventually the entire Art Ops team vanishes and an operative’s no account son (head operative maybe—it’s not quite clear) has to take over.

The story never grabbed me because it never answered the question I asked as I was reading the first three pages (the Mona Lisa “rescue”): how does taking the people in a painting out of the painting safeguard the painting if the rest of the painting is lost or destroyed? If Art Ops has “Lisa” out walking around but Mona Lisa gets stolen, that’s still a whole lot of Mona Lisa that’s missing.

The issue’s main character is the son, Reggie, who ends up inheriting the responsibilities of the entire organization. The reader is treated to a lot of internal monologue from Reggie, and it felt like it was aiming at hardboiled or noir but missing wide every time. I didn’t relish the amount of time I spent with him.

As for the art (which I kind of have to talk about since it’s a comic book about art), at times I was reminded of the animation in Archer. At other times less so. Reggie was often off-putting; his constant expressiveness from panel to panel left me thinking that Allred just didn’t have a great handle on his face.

This is one of those times where I think a fun idea just needed a better execution.

Black Magick #1
Whatever Store Recommendation
“What the hell is that? Is that incense? You smell like a headshop, partner.”

I love black and white comics. There’s something in the shading that I just don’t often get to see in colored comics. That’s probably an unfair generalization—and it may have as much to do with the relative novelty of black and white versus color as with any actual style differences. All of this is a long lead in to me saying that I love the art in this book. Scott’s panels are detailed. Her characters are expressive—especially Rowan Black, the main character, and the man who takes her hostage—and that expressiveness tells so much of the story in the silent panels that Rucka and Scott use to develop the moments within the story.

As to plot, Rowan Black is a detective who happens to be Wiccan. She’s called to the site of a hostage crisis; a man in a diner has taken four people hostage and will trade them for Detective Black. The detective makes the trade. The hostage taker knows Black is a Wiccan and is being controlled or coerced into—you guessed it—burning her alive. This is when we learn that Black can do magic and she uses it to save her life. The mystery created is who was behind the hostage taker’s actions.

This issue is masterly paced. Rucka could easily have ended it on the jeopardy facing Black rather than resolving it—certainly so many first issues do that these days. Instead Rucka develops the narrative on a slow burn, beginning with a great set piece in a Wiccan circle that disarms the reader in advance of the magic reveal near the issue’s end, while still telling a complete tale that fits in quick moments of development for Black.

This book was such a winner for me, and I’m so curious about where Rucka’s going with the story that it pretty much makes up for that unfortunate other recommendation.

The Rest
"I did everything the Al Ghuls demanded! I passed your stupid trial and for what? To gain the world and forfeit my soul?”
Robin Son of Batman #2 makes it okay to like Damien as a hero because Nobody has the opportunity to let him die and she chooses not to. The sworn enemy that wanted him dead saves his life. That happens after it’s revealed that all those artifacts Damien’s been taking from Al Ghul Island were binding a great evil—preventing it from attacking and destroying the Al Ghul line. Oops. Talia, Damien’s mother, tells him he needs to get the artifacts back. Damien refuses. And in the end it’s too late. The ensuing battle sees Den Darga, the aforementioned great evil, wipe the floor with Damien, Nobody, Talia, and Goliath. Before Talia interrupts and the battle begins, there’s a great moment—the implied impetus for Nobody’s decision—where Damien and company run into discarded Batman clones; they’re mentally handicapped and physically disfigured and Damien sees them as family. It happens fast and little is made of the moment, but it might be the best glimpse into Damien as Damien (not as Robin, not as an Al Ghul) that Gleason has written yet.

“Well, he wasn’t Doctor Doom back then. He was Victor von Doom. Which, now that I think about it, makes me wonder when he ever studied for his doctorate. If he’s not really a doctor, someone should look into that.”
I have surprisingly little to say about Spider-Man 2099 #2. The book landed on my pull list thanks to a combination of nostalgia and Peter David love. Miguel starts the issue out in a blind rage after he learns about Tempest’s death (a consequence of the exploding truck at the end of last issue). The rest of the book is Miguel putting pieces together in pursuit of vengeance. Standard stuff. David writes a man possessed very well, but I find myself longing for the casual moments and random dialogue that he so often hits out of the park. It’s still so early that I don’t know what to make of Miguel or his supporting cast. I think I’m waiting to find out who this Spider-Man 2099 is. Which may be fair because I’m not even sure if the character knows. So far Miguel hasn’t been much of anything.

“Invaders come from out of space, and the country’s first recourse is to consult the imagination of a man who couldn’t imagine his way out of a cupboard.”
In case the first issue wasn’t punny enough, Wild’s End: The Enemy Within #2 gives us a mink named Mr. Minks. Cornfelt and Runciman, the science fiction writers brought in last issue to help understand the alien arrival, interview the eye-witnesses in this issue. At first Cornfelt’s pressing for traumatic details comes off as insensitive until it’s revealed that several of his books were ghost written by his ex-wife who just so happens to be one of the interred eye-witnesses. Was Cornfelt looking for another story? And will that be a problematic motivation now that he’s been dismissed from his position and interred with the eye-witnesses? There’s also an escape attempt at foot in the issue. But the fun, of course, is the animals. Culbard’s ability to impart emotions on animal faces of relatively limited expression is fantastic. The show stealer for me was Laidlaw, the squirrel who is the government agent overseeing the whole thing. I’d have never expected that someone could draw a squirrel and make it look like an asshole. But that’s exactly what Culbard does. I really wanted to punch the squirrel.

Art Ops #1
Shaun Smon: writer
Michael Allred: artist and cover
Laura Allred: colorist
Todd Klein: letterer

Black Magic #1
Greg Rucka: writer
Nicola Scott: artist
Jodi Wynne: letterer
Chiara Arena: color assists
Image Comics

Robin Son of Batman #5
Patrick Gleason: script & pencils
Mick Gray: inks
John Kalisz: colors
Tom Napolitano: letters
Gleason, Gray & Kalisz: cover
DC Comics

Sam Wilson Captain America #2
Nick Spencer: writer
Daniel Acuna: artist
VC’s Joe Caramagna: letterer
Daniel Acuna: cover
Marvel Comics

Spider-Man 2099 #2
Peter David: writer
Will Sliney: artist
Frank d’Armata & Andres Mossa: color artists
VC’s Cory Petit: letterer
Francesco Mattina: cover artist
Marvel Comics

Wild’s End: The Enemy Within #2
Dan Abnett: writer
I.N.J. Culbard: illustrator and letterer
Nik Abnett: additional material
I.N.J. Culbard: cover

Boom! Studios

Friday, September 25, 2015

Bags & Boards: 9/23/15

A slight format change starting this week as well as a new release time for Friday mornings…Every Wednesday I pop into Whatever Store on Castro Street in San Francisco to pick up my haul of new comics. In addition to the books on my list, Rich and Cougar toss in one or two recommendations. I read the books. I think thoughts. Those thoughts may contain spoilers.

Astro City #27
Book of the Week
“A chibi-type hero. Strong, fast, powered by her mystic hair scrunchies…”

I come at comic books from the point of view as a writer. As much as I enjoy, appreciate, and marvel at the art, a story and dialogue will often carry the day for me. This issue of Astro City was one of the rare books that blew my mind with the art.

The story focuses on villains called the Unbodied who take corporeal form via myths and legends. As a way of getting into the world, they prey on a video game designer and start taking the form of her villains while she sleeps. But the villains aren’t yet powerful enough to exist in the real world all the time so they create a hero who can act as a kind of anchor: American Chibi. The final battle takes place in the game world where these modern myths are building their power in preparation for an attack.

Infurnari’s style at first jarred me. Compared to the traditional Astro City look it is rough, possessing an almost charcoal sketch quality. The sketch quality, combined with a muted color palette, leaves characters and backgrounds heavily shadowed, implying a kind of existential darkness that would be at home in Gotham City but is seldom seen in Astro City. A massive style shift, hinted at on Ross’ cover, comes not quite halfway through the book when American Chibi and the Honor Guard visit the game world. The rough edges are flattened, the shadows are gone, and the colors are bright. The characters all resemble lively Pop! Vinyl figurines—an appearance that gels with American Chibi’s overall look.

It isn’t, however, this initial style shift that made an impression. The story ends with American Chibi having to stay in the game world which severs the connection between the game designer and all of the mythical characters. But Chibi has left behind totems that grant at least some of her super powers to the designer, and on the last page she flies through the air relishing the opportunity to follow in American Chibi’s heroic footsteps. It’s this last page, taking place in the roughly drawn and heavily shadowed real world, that Infurnari bridges the two styles—deepening the connection between the two worlds and the hero and her creator—by carefully incorporating part of the game world’s color palette and dropping the shading ever so much.

The story in the issue was fun. The idea of incorporating video games as modern myth makes complete sense, and Busiek writes American Chibi as a character relishing her life and her heroic calling. In this case, though, it was Infurnari’s style choices that made the book really pop.

Friday, September 18, 2015

Bags & Boards: 9/16

Sorry for the delay this week. Every Wednesday I pop into WhateverStore on Castro Street in San Francisco to pick up my haul of new comics. In addition to the books on my list, Rich and Cougar toss in one or two recommendations. I read the books. I think thoughts. Those thoughts may contain spoilers.

Tokyo Ghost #1
Book of the Week
Whatever Store Recommendation
Last week I was unimpressed by the first issue of Faster Than Light; it felt overburdened by dialogue that went nowhere. Tokyo Ghost is no less overburdened by dialogue, but unlike Faster Than Light you’re rewarded with real substance if you persevere through it. The concept reminded me a lot of the book Ready Player One in that we have a society full of people who are constantly plugged into a virtual world. But where Ready Player One took nobility from that idea, Remember exploits it here to show the darkness of human excess. People not only lose themselves in a virtual world because of the ugliness of the real one, but in the real world they modify themselves emotionally and physically with addictive chemicals (at one point a doorman is bribed with a vial of “self-esteem”). For all my fascination with the world building, though, the issue is a bit of a slog. It’s dense with dialogue and narration—especially from the villain who just will not shut up. Speaking of the villain, the fight where he spends pages running around killing random people we do not know and, given the setting, don’t have sympathy for lasts entirely too long; it felt like excess for the sake of excess—proof of this world’s ills delivered like blunt force trauma. And frankly throughout most of the fight I was wondering why I was even reading the issue. But—at last—hidden beneath the overwritten excess is the core of the book: a tragic love story that only becomes apparent in the closing pages. It’s the desperate relationship between the two main characters, a woman who’s the only Los Angeles resident that’s not wired in and a man who’s a full-blown tech and chemical addict, that has me waiting for the second issue. Two people, broken in very different ways, who are poised to maybe find their way back to each other. Also of note is that Murphy’s art is a perfect companion to this world; it’s an ugly world beautifully drawn, and everything looks rough to the touch—like wood before it’s sanded down.

The Paybacks #1
Whatever Store Recommendation
So where do super heroes get their financing? And what happens if they can’t pay it back? Those questions make the central premise of Cates’ and Rahal’s story. This first issue introduces us to the overall concept of the Paybacks, the super-powered repo men responsible for collecting on unpaid debts, as they clean out the Night Knight’s secret headquarters. The scenes with the Paybacks are played reasonably straight which balances the absurd humor elsewhere—the Night Knight, answering the call of his Batsignal-esque Knight Light, is pursuing a nemesis who has kidnapped the queen in what is apparently all just playacting—and the mysterious unanswered questions such as how a van seems to house a giant secret headquarters. The unique concept and quirky humor kept me interested through this first outing, but as my previous reviews of the first two issues of We Stand on Guard bear out, I am suspicious of unique concepts because there’s always the danger that there’s no “there” there.

Robin Son of Batman #4
Damien’s quest for redemption is interrupted when Deathstroke, angry at Nobody for abandoning her job, pays Damien and Nobody a visit of the unnecessarily violent kind. This issue didn’t blow my mind, but in a week of mostly uneven also-rans, its conclusion made an impact. Damien’s fight with Deathstroke doesn’t go particularly well. He holds his own, more or less, but victory seems unlikely and Deathstroke will probably kill Nobody if Damien loses. So Damien solves it the way you picture a rich, spoiled brat solving a bully problem: paying him off. Damien gives Deathstroke the five million dollars he had earmarked for restarting a health clinic (this issue’s redemptive quest). After worrying last issue that Damien was being redeemed a little quickly (a consequence of his own efforts to inspire Nobody toward nobler aims), I loved this end to the fight. Gleason’s choice makes perfect sense; it reflects not only the logistics of the situation—I don’t care how well-trained Damien is, I can’t imagine a scenario where he beats Deathstroke solo—but also Damien’s willingness to play by a different set of rules than Batman or any of the previous Robins.

The Rest
Burning through good will faster than anything I’ve been reading lately is Age of Apocalypse and the fourth issue is no exception. Short version: the legacy virus Apocalypse released last issue infects mutants through the use of their powers and then causes them to lose control. As uninteresting as the issue was, the virus at least kills Apocalypse in one of the greatest much ado about nothing ways you could imagine: he melts into a flood of goo. There’s one quick moment with Magneto that recollects the first two issues’ ideas of struggle in the face of inevitable darkness, but beyond that, we’re just fighting it out to the end.

I was hoping Beauty #2 would go a little slower with the plot and give us a little more time with the characters Alas... The book’s concept has such potential to be a metaphor for human obsession with physical appearance and for the stigmatization of HIV. But this issue’s pace (as it was with the first issue) makes it hard to connect with the characters; Haun and Hurley pack in so much plot that I lose the threads of these people I should care about. There was a great moment where Foster, newly infected at the end of the last issue, tells his partner about how he reacted. The retelling was presented so formally that I wished I’d gotten to see the events Foster was describing—gotten to see him lose control because he did nothing wrong and he’s infected anyway.

I don’t know that I have much to say about Sex Criminals #12 besides noting that Jon and Suzie encounter another person that can get in the quiet—and in doing so he summons a cum fairy with tentacles in her vagina.

Age of Apocalypse #4
Fabian Nicieza: writer
Iban Coello: artist
David Curiel: color artist
VC’s Clayton Cowles: letterer
Marvel Comics

Beauty #2
Jeremy Haun, Jason A. Hurley: story
Jeremy Haun: art
John Rauch: color
Image Comics

The Paybacks #1
Donny Cates & Eliot Rahal: script
Geoff Shaw: art
Lauren Affe: colors
Michael Heisler: letters
Geoff Shaw & Lauren Affe: cover
Image Comics

Robin Son of Batman #4
Patrick Gleason: script & pencils
Mick Gray: inks
John Kalisz: colors
Tom Napolitano: letters
Patrick Gleason, Mick Gray, John Kalisz: cover
DC Comics

Sex Criminals #12
Matt Fraction & Chip Zdarsky
Image Comics

Tokyo Ghost #1
Rick Remember: writer
Sean Murphy: artist
Matt Hollingsworth: colorist
Rus Wooton: letterer

Image Comics

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Bags & Boards: 9/9

Every Wednesday I pop into Whatever Store on Castro Street in San Francisco to pick up my haul of new comics. I read them. I think thoughts. Those thoughts may contain spoilers.

Civil War #4
Book of the Week
“I was in the ice before Truman dropped the bombs. I always thought that if I’d still been around, maybe I could have found another way. I wondered why he didn’t find some other answer. Judged him for it, even. Now I realize just how unfair that was.”
The forces of the Iron and the Blue collide in battle. And that is all I can say in summary because I refuse to reveal the surprise—one that I did not see coming but that made complete and total sense if you think back on the backstory the first issue provided on Civil War’s aftermath and realize what major Marvel event it left out. Yet again Soule is firing on all cylinders with his writing. Last issue it was Peter deep in reflection; this time out it’s Steve Rodgers. How involved Soule was in the conceptual design of this series I don’t know, but he understands the world and the characters inhabiting it. There aren’t any cute beats—aren’t any “gotcha” moments. Just a tense, inexorable slide toward a dark end. I’ve said little about Yu’s art to this point, but I’d be remiss to not comment this time. So many characters appear in these pages, and Yu does an expert job of delineating all of them while adding subtle wear and tear denoting not only their age but the struggle they’ve lived through.

Diesel #1
Whatever Store Recommendation
“…Tomorrow I’ll be the boss of like, all of them!”
From Boom! Studios’ all ages line, Diesel is the story of a girl on the cusp of turning eighteen and inheriting a flying ship that is a kind of mobile garage (the first page reminded me a bit of Bioshock Infinite and the flying city of Columbia). The book is a fun romp filled with plenty of gags and fast, snappy dialogue. Hesse gives us backstory and introduces us to characters as a consequence of Dee Diesel, our titular almost-eighteen-year-old, roving about the airship. Hesse maintains a great sense of comedic pace. What stands out, though, is the art. The book is vibrant and the characters lively. Hesse’s characters, drawn in a style that reminds me of a lot of old comic strips, communicate so much with their faces and gestures that even without dialogue you could understand their relationship to Diesel in every panel. If you’re looking for a fun, casual read that will brighten your day with a smile, look no further.

Amazing Spider-Man Renew Yours Vows #5
“This madman’s holding my child by the neck. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do for her. I have to win this—while being the person she needs me to be.”
I hated the retcon of the Spider marriage. I hated the retcon of Aunt May’s death—a triumph of writing even if it did come in the middle of the clone saga. I always felt the strength in Spider-Man was Peter Parker’s struggles with real life. Obviously I was predisposed to enjoy this mini-series. And after a stellar beginning I expected one hell of a finale. The issue’s first half is a standard beat-up-the-villain climax. Young Annie May Parker even gets in on the action. It’s near the end when Peter, his daughter threatened by Regent, makes a choice that reminds you of the internal struggles he’s always balanced. Slott doesn’t forget Peter’s actions from the first issue, but he does bring him out from under that darkness and redeems the character’s decisions to hide from the larger responsibility he’d always committed himself to. Speaking of Slott’s writing, he folds in a great callback to the seminal moment where Peter escapes a mountain of debris he couldn’t possible lift because Ant May’s life is on the line, and he reminds you why Mary Jane was such a fun character in the first place. Did the book blow my mind? Maybe not. But it was Spider-Man through and through.

Red Hood & Arsenal #4
“He once told me…‘Any day you wake up sober—and go to be sober? It’s a good day.’”
Jason and Roy have tracked Underbelly to Gotham because if the heart of organized evil would spawn from anywhere, it would definitely be Gotham. Once there, a fight with the new Batman ensues. ‘Cause why not. The humor I’ve enjoyed takes a backseat to some introspection in this issue as Jason reflects on his past—whether he could have been the same man he is without Bruce Wayne’s help—and Roy visits an AA meeting. Roy opening up to Killer Croc, his onetime AA sponsor, is an unusual set piece to be sure. Lobdell plays it straight, though, and we’re treated to a great look at the inner workings of a character that spends most of each issue wisecracking. These few pages add a lot of depth to Roy Harper, balancing his dark humor and proving he won’t turn into a less insane Deadpool-like sidekick—an over-the-top funny guy to Jason Todd’s straight man routine. Very smart are the thoughts Jason has about Roy’s past, his addiction, and his choice to hide his going to a meeting. The writing was so dead on that the real life angst was more interesting than the obligatory Batman fight. A superb issue.

The Rest
Whatever Store had two recommendations this week, so I also took home Faster Than Light #1 on their suggestion. The premise at the heart of this new science fiction series is that decades ago Earth received an alien transmission. Once decoded, humans learned how to construct a faster than light engine and that a dangerous alien is on its way to Earth. The concept intrigued me, but I have to say that this first issue was slow and talky. And for all the dialogue—so much that some of it felt redundant—I can’t say that I walked away feeling like I’d gotten to know the characters very well. On a light week this was an okay try-out, but I don’t know if I’m interested enough to give the series a second look if the next issue falls on a heavier week.

Star Wars Shattered Empire #1 picks up during the closing moments of Return of the Jedi and takes us through an attack on an Imperial base the morning after. The book opens with Sharra, our main character, displaying her piloting prowess during Jedi’s climactic battle and follows her throughout the issue. She’s married to a Rebel commando and the two of them realize that they may now get to have a real life. Not centering on the movie characters is smart; the time Rucka invests building Sharra’s character makes you want to come back not just for the Star Wars mythos but for her.

Amazing Spider-Man Renew Your Vows #5
Dan Slott: writer
Adam Kubert & Scott Hanna: art
Justin Ponsor: colorist
VC’s Joe Caramagna: letterer
Adam Kubert and Jim Campbell: cover artists
Marvel Comics

Civil War #4
Charles Soule: writer
Leinil Francis Yu: penciler
Gerry Alanguilan: inker
Sunny Gho: colorist
Joe Sabino: letterer
Leinil Francis Yu & Sunny Gho: cover
Marvel Comics

Diesel #1
Tyson Hesse: writer & illustrator
Mariel Cartwright: color assistance
Jim Campbell: letters
Tyson Hesse: cover
Boom! Studios

Faster Than Light #1
Brian Haberlin: story & illustrations
Geirrod VanDyke: colors
Francis Takenaga: lettering
Image Comics

Red Hood & Arsenal #4
Scott Lobdell: writer
Denis Medri: artist
Blond: colors
Dave Sharpe: letters
Howard Porter and Hifi: cover
DC Comics

Star Wars Shattered Empire #1
Greg Rucka: writer
Marco Checchetto: artist
Andres Mossa: colors
Phil Noto: cover
VC’s Joe Caramagna: letterer

Marvel Comics

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Bags & Boards: 9/2/15

Every Wednesday I pop into Whatever Store on Castro Street in San Francisco to pick up my haul of new comics; this week I battled some fantastic allergies in the process. With much sadness, their pick of the week, Toil &Trouble #1, was sold out. I should have a belated review for it next week. So this time you’re stuck entirely with my tastes, and on that score it was a rough week…

Groot #4
Book of the Week
“And who said I was a super villain?...Most of them are idiots—always trying to take over the universe or eat the sun or something. Seems exhausting.”
At this point I’m probably looking like a shill for Loveness, Kesinger, and co. I can’t help it. Month after month this is one of the funniest and most fun books I’ve ever read. This month we have Mantron and his 1996 technology (complete with the need to load combat programming from a floppy disk), Skrulls that mistakenly attack Earfk refueling station because the print on their map was so small it looked like “Earth,” and a celestial being capable of influencing fate…and giving people hiccups. The central theme remains the friendship between Groot and Rocket, and Rocket even acknowledges his shortfall in that regard and points out that Groot’s strength is turning just about everyone into a friend. Story wise, we at long last see Groot and his assembled band of brothers commence their Rocket Raccoon rescue. It…it does not go well. The last page, though, is a fantastic homage to a Marvel classic that Kesinger pulls off while staying completely faithful to style he’s created for the book; I’ve included the original page at the end.

Monday, August 31, 2015

Bags & Boards Extra: Sex Criminals Volume 1

Sex Criminals
Vol. 1
One Weird Trick
Matt Fraction
Chip Zdarsky
Image Comics

Basic premise of Sex Criminals: some people stop time when they orgasm.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I stumbled on Sex Criminals issue 11 as an experimental pick-up. Also, as a general matter, almost anything Matt Fraction writes will get a looksee from me. It was a good issue, and I was intrigued. The letters column itself was gold. A ten issue backlog isn’t terribly large, so I went out and picked up Sex Criminals volume one: “One Weird Trick.”

“One Weird Trick” contains issues 1-5. Covers of each of those issues (and their extra printings) are included as well as a few extras. Letter columns weren’t included, and that omission has me wanting to pick up the individual issues.

Two parallel stories are told in “One Weird Trick;” short clips of the present are interspersed among long stretches of what is essentially flashback, and by the end of the book, the flashback has caught up to the present. Suzie narrates directly. She promises sex and jokes in the story but begins with her own biography. Suzie starts the story with her father being killed at the bank he works at. Suzie’s in high school. The tragedy ends any productive relationship between Suzie and her mother. Stuck growing up more or less on her own, Suzie has to answer a lot of questions by herself. Eventually she masturbates. And time stops. And she has no idea why. Suzie tries and fails to understand what that’s all about, and it takes her a while to realize it doesn’t happen to everybody.

We skip ahead and Suzie’s an adult. She’s at a party. She meets a guy named Jon. He’s an aspiring actor. He’s well-read. He’s charming. The two of them end up sleeping together. And when Suzie orgasms and time stops, Jon’s right there with her. Suzie and Jon are surprised the other is there in the frozen time; it turns out Jon stops time also.

Jon tells Suzie about himself, informing us by extension. His story isn’t as rife with trauma but he’s experienced the same solitude, and like her he’s searching for understanding and for someone like himself.

The five issues collected within this volume deal mainly with the burgeoning relationship between Suzie and Jon. Aside from the time freezing sex, it’s pretty basic stuff. Suzie’s already told Jon that she’s a librarian; she goes on to explain that her library is in danger of being foreclosed on by a bank—coincidentally the bank her father worked for and the bank that Jon current works for. This is where Jon floats the idea that connects our long flashback to the quick scenes in the present: to save Suzie’s library the two of them stop time and rob branches of the bank foreclosing on the library in order to pay off the library’s debt. It turns out, though, that there is a kind of sex police: people who stop time and monitor the others like them. They confront Suzie and Jon in the last bank and, using sex toys, apprehend them. Suzie and Jon just barely escape.

This may be the most unorthodox story I’ve ever read in comic books. But when you remove the time stopping, the bank robbing, and the erotica employing police, the heart of Sex Criminals’ first volume is about two people going through life and searching for understanding—of themselves, of others, of the world. It’s a search that began in adolescence and continued into adulthood. While Suzie and Jon couch this search in their particularly unique terms, it’s still just about sexuality. Is there anything else in adolescence that isolates people quite so much as the thought and worry about sexuality? As discombobulating as Suzie’s and Jon’s circumstances are, the curiosity and confusion they experience is not that far afield of what everyone goes through at the same time.

The bank robbery is a fun scenario, but the charm of “One Weird Trick” is Suzie and Jon—their lives, their foibles, their troubles. Their difficulties growing up and their excitement meeting someone they each feel understands them. They spend most of a weekend together sharing intimate details with each other, warts and all. The dialogue has the gentle pace of a romantic comedy but none of the too-cute, hardly-believable, we-know-how-it will-turn-out faux heart and soul that so many of those movies possess. Fraction pulls no punches; it’s mature sexual subject matter in a frequently comedic setting, and there might be the temptation to become either too cute or too crude for the sake of a bigger laugh. To be sure it straddles an interesting line at several points, but Fraction plays it straight all the way and never loses sight of the greater honesty behind the story of human connection.

Sex Criminals met with mixed reviews at Whatever Store, my weekly comic shop, because of the art. For me, though, Zdarsky’s pencils are one of the series’ high points. The art doesn’t feel stylized. I look at the panels and see subtlety and restraint; I see everyday people in everyday settings. Even the art during the frozen moments isn’t over the top—threatening in that direction only in the attire of the self-appointed sex police. Zdarsky’s mastered these characters; the range of expression on the faces, especially Suzie’s and Jon’s, reveals mood as well as Fraction’s dialogue. It’s the borderline ordinariness of the art that matches it to the story.

Sex Criminals is definitely on my pull list for the future, and I’ll grab the second collected volume soon. Whether subsequent issues have this level of earnestness I don’t know. But this first collected volume is a fun, reflective take on the solitude and the searching that is part and parcel of the human experience. I can’t imagine anyone reading “One Weird Trick” and not seeing a little bit of him or herself in its pages.

Friday, August 28, 2015

This Week's Reading: College Tuition

College tuition reform is all the rage on the Democratic side of the presidential race. I can see why. With so many graduates saddled with thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars of student loan debt and so many current students staring that future in the eyes, it’s not only a practical matter worth discussing but also a political winner; reducing a debt burden and shifting future costs to the larger taxpaying population would be a great way to win millennial votes.

The plans range from “debt free” tuition that would determine tuition cost based on formulas similar to what FAFSA uses now (a scenario that eliminates tuition for lower income families while impacting it marginally or not at all for higher income families) to straight up free college for everyone attending a public college; these would of course be paid for through re-directed government funds or additional taxes. Supporting both plans is the argument that a broader group of people getting a college degree, especially from lower income families, is a net positive. Additionally, supporters of Sanders’ free college plan claim this will aid overall college diversity as students from higher income families will be enticed to attend public colleges rather than private because of the savings in tuition.

Proponents of greater federal aid for college tuition often point to other western democracies that offer free college tuition. What is sometimes lacking from the conversation is relative tertiary enrollment. Despite the lack of greater public funding for college, the United States sees the vast majority of its high school graduates attend college (and the attendance rates surpass many countries that offer free college tuition through taxes).

But in the United States we’ve seen a growing number of underemployed college graduates—the stories of young people earning college degrees and then working as baristas, for instance. This is a trend that shows no sign of reversing itself, so I’m forced to wonder what happens when we send the remaining 18-20% of high school graduates to college. When I was growing up, the idea behind going to college was that a bachelor’s degree would separate me from other people who had only a high school diploma. That kind of separation is still going to be necessary because skilled applicants outnumber skilled openings. The first breakdown I anticipate in this system (and one that will likely play against arguments in favor of Sanders’ plan) is an even greater emphasis on the school an applicant is matriculating from; rather than inspiring higher income students to attend public schools for free, it seems likelier that private schools would find themselves in greater demand as a way to set a graduate apart. The second breakdown will inevitably be a desire for applicants to have graduate degrees as undergraduate degrees become the new high school diploma; if these new levels of federal funding of higher education don't extend to the graduate level, young people will simply be deferring debt for a few more years. Finally, it’s important to note that missing from all of these plans is any explanation of how additional federal funding will curtail increases in college costs since up until now all evidence points to the contrary. If greater federal funding ultimately comes with strings like what programs a public college can offer and what a public college can pay administrators and professors, will this further drive demand in private schools?

I have college loans that I’ll be paying back for at least ten more years. I chose to attend a private school, and this is a burden I have because of that decision. I’d be lying if I said the basic pleasure center of my brain didn’t like these college tuition proposals. But none of them address any of the consequences that extend outward from such programs. Nor do any of them touch on the issue of high school graduation. Yes, the United States enrolls more high school graduates in college than Germany (to the tune of over 20%) even though Germany has a free tuition program. But Germany also has a high school graduation rate of 95%. We were thrilled recently when ours hit 81%. Rather than throw around sexy sounding tuition proposals to attract millennial voters, I’d love to a see a comprehensive plan that gets more students through high school and does a better job matching up educational supply with the different levels of vocational, technical, and skilled demand.

(Single subject post this week...partially because I've found recent conversations on the topic interesting and partially because nothing apocalyptic has happened in Greece. Greater variety next week I hope.)

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Bags & Boards: 8/26/15

Every Wednesday I pop into Whatever Store on Castro Street in San Francisco to pick up my haul of new comics; this week I battled some fantastic allergies in the process. But never fear; I read the comics and thought thoughts that I can now share with you.

East of West #20
Book of the Week
“Uh, at this point you’ve sent all of our political enemies, minor campaign donors and any supporters left who happen to be vegetarian.”
The beginning of a new story arc gave me the opportunity to try this book out. The issue is a collection moments set amidst heavy atmosphere. There is only one action piece in the book, and it’s quite short. Mostly we have a lot of dialogue, sometimes clipped and sometimes lofty depending on who’s doing the speaking, that reveals details of the sides in what appears to be a longstanding conflict. The characters aren’t just different speakers telling one long narrative; Hickman creates distinct identities in cadence and word choice. Meanwhile Dragotta’s art is superb, offering detailed landscapes and very real people. His characters aren’t variations on a theme; we get an array of body types and face structures. A lot of my enjoyment of this relatively slow issue was the satisfying ease of experiencing the art in very neat, uncluttered panels. If this issue was the beginning of a story arc, it planted kernels more than laid out a full plot. I look forward to discovering what the next issue has in store and maybe exploring some of what I’ve missed before now. A definite jumping on point, though Hickman doesn’t hand out everything you need to know on a silver platter.

Zodiac Starforce #1
This Week’s Whatever Store Recommendation
“Parties are dumb.”
In a million years I wouldn’t have picked this book up on my own, and unfortunately I can’t say as I found in it anything that would convince me to get the second issue. The high point for me is probably the art, with lines and dimensions that remind me of Archie. The color palate is bright and alive. Visually the book is vibrant and energetic. The writing I found more problematic. While Panetta’s dialogue has painted an accurate picture of teenagers (or at least most every adult’s mental picture of the teenage experience), it’s almost too spot on. Halfway through the book I grew tired of the main characters’ bickering and stopped caring about whether they got the team together in the end; I really just wanted to get past the angst of the party they were at and find my way to the book’s last panel. My gripes about the characters and their dialogue is probably a larger issue of me not enjoying the overall style and in that way isn’t really a criticism. But there’s nothing her to invite me back into this series or other series of a like style.

Civil War #3
“So many have died…what’s one more, really? Even Elektra? My wiring’s off, Hank. I need to…fix myself.”
The ugliness of war goes on and on. And on. I’ve enjoyed this series because it feels like the honest extension of what should have happened after Marvel’s Civil War several years ago. At the same time, though, it’s easy to see why that story could never have been told. While this kind of honest ugliness works and works well in the likes of DMZ, it’s not what most readers want from their superheroes. In a way that’s too bad. While the story itself is interesting, the characters Soule has created are amazing: broken, tortured, real. Peter Parker watching comrades die (and standing ready to kill) without a second thought. Tony Stark using the corpse of the Kingpin to give Doc Ock’s arms life so long as those arms churn out new technology. An old, tired Professor Xavier that can’t see through lies anymore. While Secret Wars is an effort to change and combine the Marvel multiverse, I wish this universe would continue afterward unhindered. It fascinates me.

Superman #43
“Your friend Jimmy shouldn’t be so quick to accept caramel lattes from strangers.”
In talking about the previous issue, I was somewhat unsatisfied with the abrupt way Lois discovers the secret of Superman’s identity. The payoff for that is here. The issue starts off with Lois and Superman almost getting reacquainted and an affirmation by Superman of the value of having Lois in both halves of his life since she’s decided to keep his secret. Unfortunately these tender moments are interrupted by the reveal (via a robot accidentally smuggled in within Jimmy Olsen…and subsequently puked up) that the big villain who knows Superman’s secret identity survived the massive explosion at the end of the last issue. His ultimate plan seems to be to siphon off all of Superman’s energy, a plan Superman is perfectly happy to go along with out of fear that the people closest to him will suffer if his identity is revealed. But it’s Lois who, to protect Superman and thwart the villain, reveals Superman’s secret to the world. There’s not a lot of time to reflect on this decision other than to present Superman as somewhat feckless under the circumstances: unable or unwilling to make the difficult choices necessary to defeat his adversary. More and more I also find myself enjoying Romita, Jr.’s take on Clark and Superman; we get sharper lines in the facial expressions and a harder edge where we have so often seen softness. It complements the new take on Superman that is emerging in the story.

X-Men ‘92 #3
“ *You already know if you read X-Men ’92 Chapter 2! –Jordan ‘Details’ White”
The send-up of all things 90’s continues with wild abandon. I almost cringe seeing Cable and remembering how cool I thought his character was back when he was new; it almost looks like the enormous gun he wields grows larger over the course of the issue. Also the blatant cliffhanger manipulation, not quite as common now in the era of ubiquitous trade paperbacks, actually made me laugh; the pronouncement of Xavier’s death was so big a moment on the last page of the second issue while here there’s a quick, “No, wait, he’s alive,” and our characters get on with business. Least satisfying s that there’s only one great moment of fourth wall breaking censorship here; it featured so prominently and to such humorous effect in the beginning of the mini-series that its absence actually feels as though  a plot point had been raised and then forgotten.

The Rest
Villalobos’ art seems to finally get in the Frank Quitely style in E is for Extinction #3; the results had been hit or miss in the previous issues, occasionally stumbling into a realm of adding ugly subtext to the characters. As for the story, this issue and the mini-series in general has felt like a deconstruction of Grant Morrison’s run on The All New X-Men. That could be me reading too much into it. But Emma Frost doesn’t pull any punches in dialogue, periodically coming off as bored and disinterested which doesn’t elevate the excitement and actively sabotages the end with a line that isn’t quite funny.

I find myself tiring of the quest to prove Superboy’s innocence that continues in Teen Titans #11. At least Pfeiffer took a moment to acknowledge in dialogue the stupendous overreaction that occurred in the battle in Chicago in the previous issue. But in practically the next panel the group, in a moment of overly saccharine friendship, all dive head first into a prison break (in a prison housing the worst of the worst) to find evidence to exonerate Superboy. I can’t say that I care terribly how this story arc ends other than to say I’d like to see if something better comes in its aftermath.

Civil War #3
Charles Soule: writer
Leinil Francis Yu: penciler
Gerry Alanguilan: inker
Sunny Gho: colorist
Joe Sabino: letterer
Leinil Francis Yu & Sunny Gho: cover
Marvel Comics

E is for Extinction #3
Chris Burnham & Dennis Culver: writers
Ramon Villalobos: art
Ian Herring: colors
VC’s Clayton Cowles: letters
Ian Bertram & Dave Stewart: cover
Marvel Comics

East of West #20
Jonathan Hickman: writer
Nick Dragotta: artist
Frank Martin: colors
Rus Wooton: letters
Image Comics

Superman #43
Gene Luen Yang: writer
John Romita, Jr.: penciler
Klaus Janson & Scott Hanna: inkers
Dean White, Leonard Olea, Blond: colorists
Rob Leigh: letterer
John Romita, Jr., Klaus Janson, Dean White: cover
DC Comics

Teen Titans #11
Will Pfeiffer: script
Ricken: art
Dan Brown: colors
John J. Hill: letters
Bengal: cover
DC Comics

X-Men ’92 #3
Chris Sims & Chad Bowers: writers
Scott Koblish: artist
Matt Milla: colorist
VC’s Travis Lanham: letterer
Pepe Larraz & Jim Charalampidis: cover
Marvel Comics

Zodiac Starforce #1
Kevin Panetta: script
Paulina Ganucheau: art and lettering
Savanna Ganucheau: color assists
Marguerite Sauvage: cover
Dark Horse Comics