The best blog from the best author you've never heard of. Assorted thoughts ranging from comic books to politics. Sometimes I even talk about writing.

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.



Credits
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.

Credits
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




Monday, September 7, 2015

If Writing With an Outline is Like a Drive on I-5, I'll Happily Take Highway 1


This entry contains potential spoilers for The Loyalty of Pawns.

Imagine you’re taking a road trip for your vacation. You know where you’re starting, and you know where you’re ending. In between there are landmarks, like the world’s biggest ball of twine in Kansas and the John Deere museum in Illinois, which you just must visit along the way. But your vacation lasts longer than it will take to drive a straight line from start to finish along those landmarks, so you have some flexibility in your trip.

My stories generally start out as a concept. There’s no narrative. There are no characters. There’s just an idea. The Loyalty of Pawns started out as three ideas: genetically engineered soldiers, a Europe that’s subservient to the United States, and a United States government subservient to powerful corporations. But an interesting idea doesn’t make a story. If I want to explore an idea I find interesting, I need a group of characters I can drop into that world who can look at it from different angles. For me it’s the characters that determine the plot, and if I can’t come up with the right set of characters, I can’t develop a story. I’ve never been able to work it the other way around.

So let’s say I’ve got an idea and some characters. If I’m going to turn the ideas into a story, the first two questions I answer is what the story’s beginning and ending are—where am I coming from and where am I going. If I don’t know those two things I’m little better than the person who moves into the inside lane of a roundabout and then can’t figure out how to escape. Suffice to say I don’t worship at the altar of formal construction. How I get from the first chapter to the last sentence is a lot like that vacation road trip.

This is all by way of explanation for how the follow-up to The Loyalty of Pawns moved to my back burner. I had a carful of wacky characters, a few of whom I find to be morally reprehensible—but what can I do, they came out of my head after all. I had my starting point. I had my destination. I had my plans to stop at the corn palace in South Dakota and the world’s largest olive in California. Along the way a few of my characters rebelled. It wasn’t that they didn’t want to make the road trip or go where we planned, but there was a lot more jockeying over the front seat, the radio, and where we were grabbing dinner than I anticipated. We could have finished the road trip and gone everywhere we planned, but we wouldn’t have enjoyed it nearly as much. So we went home.

If you’ve followed my overworked, on life-support metaphor this far, you’re probably wondering why I don’t outline more—if I were a better planner I’d have published the follow-up by now. But I find the freedom in this method invaluable. In the case of The Loyalty of Pawns, there was one character who was key to the beginning of the book but became less important as the story went on. I’d always known where he fit into the book’s end, and while it made perfect sense in terms of his development and the story it wasn’t terribly exciting. But as I wrote I realized that there was a perfect opportunity to change his fate—kill him off—and in doing so up the stakes in the book while improving the arc of another character. Would a detailed outline and chapter breakdown have left me the flexibility to make that decision and deal with the consequences? Would I have even been willing to consider such a change that late in the game? There’s no question in my mind that his death was honest under the circumstances and that it served the story and the other characters better than his original fate—which was no less honest.

The long and the short of it is that I have to do what my characters want. They’re not just chess pieces I move about. There’s something of me in all of them; that makes them real enough as far as I’m concerned—real enough to be capable of changing my mind. And that’s the reason that I mulched the book.


I promise next time I’ll actually talk about the book I am writing…

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.