JLA: Pain of the Gods

JLA: Pain of the Gods 

By Chuck Austen & Ron Garney (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-033-6

Getting over a post-celebration hump is always tricky for a long-running comic series. An anniversary or centenary is usually celebrated by some large-scale cosmos-shaking exploit which it’s impossible to top, leading to an anti-climactic “day in the life” venture. In the case of Pain of the Gods – reprinting JLA #101-106 – Chuck Austen and Ron Garney take that hoary tradition, and indeed the equally tired plot of heroes’ soul-searching angst after a failure to succeed, and run with it to produce a stirring and powerful exploration of humanity too often lacking in modern adventure fiction.

Each chapter deals with an emotional crisis affecting an individual Leaguer. Superman, Flash and Green Lantern all fail to save someone, Martian Manhunter is forced to confront the life-long emotional barriers left after the death of his entire species, Wonder Woman faces her own mortality and Batman has to acknowledge that he can’t know and do everything alone.

The entire story can be seen as a post 9/11 treatise on fallibility and post-traumatic distress with superheroes acting as metaphors for Police and Firemen and the sub-plot of a seemingly mundane family seeking redress plays well against the tragic grandeur of the stars. It’s good to see a super hero book that thinks with a heart rather than act with gaudily gloved fists for a change.

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters

Green Arrow: The Longbow Hunters 

By Mike Grell with Lurene Haynes & Julia Lacquement (DC Comics)
ISBN 0-930289-38-2

First appearing in More Fun Comics #73 in 1941, Green Arrow is one of the very few superheroes to be continuously published (more or less) since the Golden Age of American comic books. This combination of Batman and Robin Hood seems to have very little going for him but has always managed to keep himself in vogue.

Probably his most telling of many makeovers came in 1987, when, hot on the heels of The Dark Knight Returns, Mike Grell was given the green light to make him the star of the second ‘Prestige Format Mini-Series’. Grell was a major creator at the time, having practically saved the company with his Edgar Rice Burroughs inspired fantasy series Warlord. He had also been the illustrator of many of GA’s most recent tales.

In the grim ‘n’ gritty late Eighties, it was certainly time for an overhaul. Exploding arrows yes, maybe even net or rope arrows, but arrows with boxing gloves on them just don’t work (trust me – I know this from experience!). Thus, in an era of corrupt government, drug cartels and serial killers, this emerald survivor adapted and thrived.

The plot concerns the super-hero’s mid-life crisis as he relocates to Seattle and struggles to come to terms with the fact that since his former sidekick, Speedy, is now a dad, he is technically a grandfather. With long-time ‘significant other’ Black Canary he begins to simplify his life, but the drive to fight injustice hasn’t dimmed for either of them.

As she goes undercover to stamp out a drug ring, he becomes embroiled in the hunt for a psycho-killer dubbed “The Seattle Slasher” who is slaughtering prostitutes. He also becomes aware of a second – cross-country – slayer who has been murdering people with arrows when the “Robin-Hood Killer” murders a grave-digger in the city.

Eschewing his gaudy costume and gimmicks he reinvents himself as an urban hunter to stop these unglamorous monsters, stumbling into a mystery that leads back to World War II involving the Yakuza, the CIA, corporate America and even the Viet Nam war.

This intricate plot effortlessly weaves echoing themes of vengeance and family into its subtle blending of three stories that are in fact one, and still delivers a shocking punch even now in its disturbingly explicit examination of torture, which won the series undeserved negative press when it was first published. Although possibly tame in many modern eyes this was eye-opening stuff in the 1980’s, which is a shame, as it diverted attention from the real issue. And that was quality.

Grell has produced a gripping, mystery adventure that pushes all the buttons and artwork – in conjunction with Lurene Haynes and Julia Lacquement – that was and is a revelation. The beautiful, painterly visuals perfectly complement the terse, sparse script, and controversy notwithstanding, this retooling quickly spawned a monthly series that was one of the best reads of the 1990s.

In fact I should be favourably reviewing collections of that series too. How about it, DC?

© 1987, 1989 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Ex Machina 4: March to War

Ex Machina 4: March to War 

By Brian K. Vaughn, Tony Harris, Tom Feister, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story & JD Mettler (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84576-253-3

This volume of the adventures of retired superhero and New York City Mayor Mitchell Hundred collects issues #17-20 and the Ex Machina Specials #1 and #2. Set in early 2003, this storyline concerns the build-up to the invasion of Iraq and deals with all the disparate views of a troubled people whilst never losing sight of the big picture – making an entertaining story.

As the mobilisation tension builds the Mayor increasingly finds himself fighting good advice, and his principles war with his duties and common sense. He permits a major peace rally through the City streets, but when terrorists attack the demonstrators, the repercussions have personal, as well as professional consequences. And naturally, Joe Public lets the side down as ordinary Americans retaliate the only way they know how, by attacking anybody who doesn’t look or sound like they do.

The delightful conceit that a liberal independent could be elected to such high office never occludes the thoroughly grounded nature of this series. Despite all the fantasy elements involved, this is always a wonderfully ‘real’ tale. The tragic aftermath of the attack, hate-crimes and over-reactions of the security forces all have the painful authenticity and veracity of our world, not a comic book.

The remainder of this volume tells the history of Hundred’s ‘evil counterpart’, a man named Pherson, who had control of animals in the same way that the Mayor can manipulate machines. Of course this more traditional fare is couched in solid political terms as our liberal hero is ambushed in a radio debate on the death penalty.

I can’t say enough good things about this series. So I’ll just shut up and assume you’re already reading it. Don’t let me down.

© 2006 Brian K. Vaughn & Tony Harris. All Rights Reserved.

Ex Machina 3: Fact v. Fiction

Ex Machina 3: Fact v. Fiction 

By Brian K. Vaughn, Tony Harris, Tom Feister & JD Mettler (WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84576-253-3

Retired superhero and current Mayor of New York City Mitchell Hundred never ducks a controversy, but even he is surprised at the reaction when he decides to enforce the laws against fortune telling by shutting down all the city’s psychics and grifters.

A bigger problem and a clever window into our protagonist’s past is Automaton, a semi-copycat vigilante who seems to be carrying on the Mayor’s previous career. Peeking into Hundred’s boyhood as a comic fanboy – no shock there – we see the events that inspired him, and possibly the seeds of his eventual downfall.

A further revelatory complication occurs when he decides to serve on a jury rather than dodge his obligations as a citizen. Naturally, it doesn’t go according to plan, but then nothing does in this wonderful, literate, clever series, featuring some of the most human characters ever seen in a funny-book, beautiful art, stunning dialogue and a dull, empty longing once you get to end of these too, too short volumes.

This is a series you should read, and re-read and tell others to read. I mean it.

© 2006 Brian K. Vaughn & Tony Harris. All Rights Reserved.

Exiles

Exiles 

By Judd Winick & Mike McKone (Marvel Comics)
ISBN: 0-7851-0833-5

This mellow piece of fluff takes Marvel’s What If concept up a level by having an amorphous team of young mutants from alternate universes team up to correct mistakes and clear blockages in the fabric of the multiverse.

Reality is a plethora of differing dimensions, you see, and if things go awry in one it can have a cumulative and ultimately catastrophic effect on all of them. Led by Blink (who had her own miniseries and starred in the X-Men extended storyline Age of Apocalypse) this team of rejects from their own realities, acting like the cast of the OC in fancy dress zap from place to place doing the Dyno-Rod thing.

Notwithstanding the hackneyed concept, however, it’s not a bad package, but this first volume – which rushes through an origin of sorts and sends them to an Earth where their great mentor is evil and another where they have to re-engineer the X-Men’s greatest tragedy – relies overmuch on a familiarity with the minutiae of Marvel continuity that might deter the casual reader.

If you’re prepared to accept the fact that you won’t get all the gags and references you might enjoy the light tone, sharp dialogue and lush illustration, and unlike most comics books, at least the dead stay dead here. I think. Perhaps. Maybe.

© 2001, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Dan Dare: Voyage to Venus 2

Dan Dare: Voyage to Venus 2 

By Frank Hampson (Titan Books)
ISBN 1-84023-841-0

Earth is starving! The only hope is for the expeditionary force on Venus to find food! But Dan Dare and his team have not been heard from in weeks!

Colonel Dare has his own problems. Venus is inhabited by two advanced races trapped in a Cold War for that has lasted for millennia, but it turned pretty hot once the Earthmen got involved. As the Therons battle the ruthless Treens, the malevolent Mekon launches an invasion of our planet, too!

Breakneck pace, truly astonishing high concepts leavened with wholesome music hall larks and some of the most beautiful and powerful art ever to grace a comic page makes the concluding volume of Frank Hampson’s first Dan Dare adventure as much a magical experience now as it was in 1951. These stories captured and still hold the minds of a generation, and you’d be crazy not to see why for yourselves.

This volume also includes a fascinating and lavishly illustrated interview with the creator and a nominal ‘prequel’ in the form of a strip (from an annual) set on Mars eight years before that fateful trip to Venus.

This Titan Books series is glorious tribute to the unforgettable heroes of a forgotten future. They deserve and demand your attention. It makes one proud to be an Earthling.

© 2004 Dan Dare Corporation. All rights Reserved.

Et Cetera

Et Cetera 

By Tow Nakazaki (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 1-59532-130-6

This irreverent, genre-bending western pastiche is a delightful romp if you don’t worry too much about history or logic, which sees young girl Mingchao leave her mountaintop shack and wild-west roots for an entertainment career in Hollywood. With her she takes the fantastic Eto Gun built by her grandfather that fires the spirits of the (Japanese) Zodiac. These fantastic bullets manifest in the form of animate animal ghosts.

Naturally it takes a while to discover how it works – by dipping the gun in the “essence” of the totem animal, such as food or clothing made from them or more often as not their droppings – and often the trouble she inevitably finds herself in is best dealt with by her innate feistiness and ingenuity. Along the way she has been befriended by a mysterious, young and good-looking “Preacher-Man” named Baskerville.

As they make their way to California they encounter many of the icons of the untamed bad-lands such as cowed townsfolk, villainous outlaws, evil cattle-barons, cows, ornery ol’ coots, cow-punchers, distressed widow-wimmin’, cows…

This light-hearted meander through the iconography of a million cowboy movies is fast paced, occasionally saucy and often laugh-out-loud funny, and has the added benefit of the freshness afforded by seeing these old clichés through fresher, oriental, eyes. This volume also includes a number of themed puzzle pages for anyone wanting to take a deeper dip into the legend.

© 1998, 2005 Tow Nakazaki. All Rights Reserved.
English script © 2005 Tokyopop Inc.

Catwoman: The Movie & Other Cat Tales

Catwoman: The Movie & Other Cat Tales 

By Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-991-3

If you’re one of the six people who saw the truly abysmal Catwoman film: Sorry, no refunds.

If you bought the movie adaptation comic, here it is again, and even the tremendously gifted Chuck Austen can’t make sense of the silly, silly tale of corporate dogsbody Patience Philips, murdered by her cosmetician boss and revivified by the Cat Goddess to seek revenge. Artists Tom Derenick and Adam DeKraker are competent too, and worth looking at, anywhere but here.

I really enjoyed the other volume designed to cash in on this film (Catwoman: Nine Lives of a Feline Fatale ISBN 1-84023-833-X) but I cannot understand the thinking behind this volume. It also includes one of the many origins of the Selina Kyle incarnation (from Catwoman #0 1994) and two of her later revamps from her current comic series (issues #11 and #25).

Three such disparate and recent inclusions must surely be confusing to the movie-going purchaser who doesn’t know or care about two different Catwomen and this filler must already be known to or ignored by the comic reading audience. Surely they’re not just here as padding, like the sketches by comic superstar Jim Lee who was invited to draw Halle Berry on the set of the film? Nor to justify such a high price tag for a book reprint of a magazine still gathering dust on most comic store’s new comics racks?

Nah!

© 1992, 2002, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Blade of Heaven

Blade of Heaven 

By Yong-su Hwang & Kyung-il Yang (Tokyopop)
ISBN: 1-59532-329-5

This fast-paced and uproariously irreverent fantasy tells the tale of an unlikely alliance between Heaven, Earth and Hell in the face of a conspiracy that threatens to destroy the natural order of the universe.

Soma is an uncouth and vulgar human warrior who is captured whilst breaking into Paradise and accused of stealing the legendary Blade of Heaven. He is “befriended” by the beautiful and seemingly ingenuous Princess Aroomee (who is desperate to escape the cloying dullness of the Heavenly Court) and they are sent back to Earth to recover the missing sword, which is vital to the security of the sky-realm. The King of Heaven, being a dutiful parent, also sends the ancient and powerful elemental General Winter with them as a chaperone.

On Earth, the mysterious demon fighter Makumrang is pursued by his father’s vassals and harried by monsters when Soma and his crew meet him. They form an uneasy compact of mutual defence as a monstrous plot by the Demon-Lord Barurugo is revealed that will topple the hierarchy of the cosmos.

Although it might not sound like it, this light-hearted blend of slapstick and action makes mock of traditional fantasy themes but is nonetheless an engaging romp that will satisfy any fan of the genre.

© 2002 Yong-su Hwang & Kyung-il Yang, Daiwon C.I. Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Arkham Asylum

Batman: Arkham Asylum 

By Grant Morrison and Dave McKean (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-022-0

This is, by all accounts, “the best-selling original graphic novel in… comics history”, which, obviously does not mean it is the best written or drawn. It is, however, pretty damned good. A brooding, moody script was treated as a bravura exercise in multimedia experimental illustration, literally changing the way artists and consumers thought about the pictures in comics. The attendant media play also spread throughout society, and as with Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns generated one of those infrequently recurring periods when Comics become Cool. All those big budget super-hero movies you’ve enjoyed or suffered through might not have happened without these media zeitgeist moments.

On the most basic level, however, it’s still a fine tale of the hero having to overcome terrible foes, terrific odds and traumatic trials to vanquish evil as the Caped Crusader fights his way through the freed lunatics that have taken over their asylum to save a hostage from the ravages of the Joker.

This 15th Anniversary edition also includes Morrison’s original script and page breakdowns, offering those of you intrigued by the mechanics of comic creation a hard lesson in production and inspiration.

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.