Star Wars Infinities: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars Infinities: The Empire Strikes Back 

By Various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-990-5

There are a lot of stories from “A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” still to be told and some of them never happened. The Infinities sub-brand uses the more familiar film canon as the basis for “What If?” tales extrapolating different events and outcomes from a pivotal change in the original storyline.

Here the basis for this good-looking but unsatisfying concoction is the death of Luke Skywalker from an attack in the snows of the ice planet Hoth. With the death of the young hero Han Solo and Leia must undertake his fore-destined journey to Dagobah but there’s still that bounty on the ex-smuggler’s head and the Empire is marshalling its forces…

Although an earnest effort this story doesn’t offer the same thrills and rewards as either the film on which it’s based or, more importantly its own predecessor in this series. Perhaps a less obvious plot concept might have yielded better results. Still and all, the art is very effective and not everybody wants “War and Peace” every time you crack a book.

© 2003 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars Infinities: A New Hope

Star Wars Infinities: A New Hope 

By various (Dark Horse Books)
ISBN 1-84023-432-6

It would appear that there is an inexhaustible demand for stories from “A Galaxy Far, Far Away…” but this time as another tale of noble rebels and dastardly Empires unfolds there’s a big difference. Taken from the first four issues of the Dark Horse comics series, this tale explores what would have happened if one simple, but key, event had been changed in that first movie all those years ago.

When Luke Skywalker blew up the Death Star he did it by firing a Photon torpedo into an exposed vent tube. But what if that torpedo failed to detonate? Asking that question, and providing a rip-roaring answer are writer Chris Warner, artists Drew Johnson and Al Rio, ably assisted by colourists Dave McCaig and Helen Bach, and Steve Dutro provided the lettering.

With the super-weapon still in Imperial hands the Rebellion is crushed and Leia becomes an acolyte of the Emperor. Luke and Han Solo must find a lost Jedi Master before the last hope for the galaxy is lost forever…

It’s easy and fun to play the “What If” game. It has been a staple of comic strips since the earliest days, and frankly, those tales often range from the inane to the insane, but here the creative team has pulled out all the stops, encapsulating and even topping the first three movies (I’m speaking chronologically here) in one go. Especially satisfying is the role by Yoda in a quite spectacular climax. I know that fans of all types are essentially purists but this is a book that all aficionados should read.

© 2001, 2002 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men 1977-78

Marvel Masterworks: The Uncanny X-Men 1977-78 

By Various (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-84653-009-8

This second volume of these cheap‘n’cheerful UK editions featuring early landmarks of Marvel’s most popular characters starts with the conclusion of a tale wherein the team visit Banshee’s ancestral castle in Ireland but run afoul of the ultra-powerful Juggernaut and Banshee’s cousin Black Tom Cassidy. There’s lots of action and much background on the newly minted mutant heroes. And Leprechauns. No, really. That one was originally printed in Uncanny X-Men #103.

Following on in swift and wonderful succession are the contents of issues #104-116, which once again leaves the reader with a bit of a cliff-hanger situation — although, in fairness, it would be hard to find an episode that didn’t end with some kind of unresolved plot thread.

Throughout those early stories a mysterious enemy calling himself Eric the Red was sending villains to attack the team. His next ploy was to restore Magneto to full power (he’d been turned into a baby – a very common fate for villains in those faraway days) and the arch villain’s subsequent attack nearly destroyed the team. After that he orchestrated an attack by the Firelord, an alien flamethrower, then a slight digression as overstretched artist Dave Cockrum was given a breather by a fill-in tale featuring psychic clones of the original X-men from Bill Mantlo and Bob Brown.

The regular story resumes with Eric revealed as an alien spy and the heroes catapulted to another galaxy to save the universe. This marks the beginning of the cosmic nature of the X-Teams. They meet The Shi’ar Imperial Guard (an in-joke version of DC’s Legion of Super Heroes), the heroic space pirates the Star Jammers, and uncover a plot to unmake the fabric of space-time. This tale (from issue 107) was also the last drawn by Cockrum for many years. He would return to replace the man who replaced him.

The final part of the cosmic saga was drawn by John Byrne, whose work was to become an industry bench-mark as the X-Men grew in popularity and complexity. The bravura high-octane thrills of “Armageddon Now” seemed a high-point, but Claremont and Byrne just got better each issue. Weapon Alpha attacked in an attempt to force Wolverine to rejoin the Canadian Secret Service. He would later return, renamed Vindicator, with Alpha Flight — a Canadian team that would eventually star in their own comic.

Another fill-in, by artist Tony Dezuniga, featuring the assassin Warhawk and best forgotten, is followed by a thrilling mystery when the heroes vanish. X-Men graduate the Beast tracks them to a carnival where mutant hypnotist Mesmero has enslaved them. No sooner have they escaped that trap when Magneto returns, and after a titanic struggle is defeated. The battle, in Antarctica, seemingly claims the lives of all but Beast and Phoenix, who return to civilisation and try to pick up their lives. This ‘tragedy’ directly leads into the justly famed “Dark Phoenix Saga” but that’s a tale for another volume.

In actual fact, the X-Men survived by tunnelling into the subterranean paradise known as the Savage Land, a Pellucidarian tropical jungle beneath the ice where dinosaurs and cavemen still live. Here the team recuperate until they encounter an old foe, Sauron, and become embroiled in a war instigated by a Zaladane and Garokk, a mad queen and reincarnated God, respectively. After defeating them the team try to return home but get caught in a major typhoon…

And that’s where this volume closes, but don’t let that dissuade you from this book. It’s a bright and breezy introduction (or even reintroduction) to these characters, and irrespective of your views on the current series it serves as a reminder of just how good comic book adventure can be.

© 1977, 1978, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

JLA: Trial By Fire

JLA: Trial By Fire 

By Joe Kelly, Doug Mahnke and Tom Nguyen
ISBN 1-84023-928-X

More super histrionics featuring the Justice League as an alien telepathic presence apparently subverts the will of the mighty Martian Manhunter, leading to lots of fighting and destruction. The JLA has a long history in all its incarnations of starting strong and losing focus, and for extended periods coasting by on past glories – which usually ends with a desperate rush of ancillary series, a crash, cancellation and a relaunch with major creators. Reading this compilation of issues 84-89 I sense fresh first issues in our immediate future.

© 2004 DC Comics

Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest

Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest 

By Brad Meltzer, Phil Hester and Ande Parks (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-781-3

This one’s a cool treat for inveterate superhero fans as author Brad Meltzer joins artists Hester and Parks for a touching and exciting run through the history of a character who’s been fighting crime, pretty much uninterrupted, since the beginning of the 1940’s.

If you’re a newcomer to the minutiae of the super-guy’s world there’s something you need to accept. Dead is dead, but not always and not forever. It is a fact acknowledged by the empowered community – if not the world at large – that you can occasionally come back from Heaven without starting your own religion.

Such a returnee is Oliver Queen, Green Arrow. He got blown to shreds saving Superman’s hometown from an airborne bomb and went to his reward. If you want more on that part of the tale I suggest you track down the collections Quiver and Sounds of Violence, both written by movie maker Kevin Smith, as they’re pretty entertaining too.

The hook here is that as the Arrow is back, what happened after his funeral? Using the concept of a “Porn Buddy” – a friend who gets to your home first when you die and clears up the stuff you’d rather not have discovered about you – Meltzer crafts a compelling tale of family ties and the steps a hero would take to protect his loved ones from beyond the grave. A welcome bonus is that he manages to do so in a way that balances narrative redundancy for old-time fans with introductory exposition for the newcomer to create a sharp one-off read. Great stuff done well!

© 2002, 2003 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Daredevil Visionaries

Daredevil Visionaries 

By Kevin Smith, Joe Quesada & Jimmy Palmiotti (Marvel Comics)
ISBN 0-7851-0737-1

Kevin Smith generated a lot of excitement when he was announced as the writer of the new Daredevil comic in 1998, and that transferred to high sales when the comics finally appeared. Unlike Frank Miller’s legendary tenures, Smith’s run (Volume 2, #1-8 “Guardian Devil”) wasn’t about tearing down and rebuilding as much as shining a light on dusty forgotten corners, reminding fans why they liked the character whilst presenting him to new readers.

The plot itself revolved around a young girl who believes she has given birth to a new Messiah, entrusting him, and possibly the fate of the world to the emotionally scarred and battle-weary Matt Murdock to protect them from eerie foes and the temptations of a seemingly insurmountable and pervasive evil. Despite living day to day among monsters and magicians can the Man Without Fear, a coldly logical lawyer, rationalise these events with the superhero’s deeply held Catholic beliefs? Is a different kind of evil at work here?

As a stand alone book Visionaries is a great example of an inspired idea competently delivered. Smith chooses to embrace all of the hero’s long history rather than re-tailor the hero to fit his vision, and the highly design-oriented style of art from Joe Quesada and Jimmy Palmiotti is garish but oddly appropriate to this moody tale. Seldom out of print since the first collection in 2001, this book remains a sadly rare high point in Marvel’s output of recent years.

© 2001, 2005 Marvel Characters, Inc. All rights reserved.

Green Arrow: City Walls

Green Arrow: City Walls 

By Judd Winick, Phil Hester, Manuel Garcia, Ande Parks & Steve Bird (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-039-5

Green Arrow is the kind of character, with the right kind of supporting cast, that readily lends himself to book-length epics. So it’s strange that this volume (reprinting issues #32 and #34-39) kicks off with a stand-alone buddy story featuring the ‘we’re just guys’ antics of his son Connor and long-time sidekick Roy (Speedy/Arsenal) rather than a tale of the Emerald Archer himself, but it works as a character piece to highlight the similarities and differences of these second generation hero-archers and acts as a jolly warm-up for the drama to come. Besides, gags about what oafs guys are never go astray in modern society.

The major portion of the book is a dark action-fest with the entire dynasty of bowmen stretched to their limits to capture the Riddler, whose conundrum-crimes are simply a prelude to the subjugation of the entire city by giant, flaming demons tasked with keeping the absolute and total letter of the law. This canny tribute to Assault on Precinct 13 has heroes, cops and criminals working together to liberate their home as it slowly starves, and descends into grotesquely suppressed chaos.

There’s no big message, just a solid thrill-ride that’s stuffed with invention, snappy patter, mood and menace, with the usual understated Hester and Co. picture quality. Here’s the kind of graphic novel you can give to ordinary people if you’re looking for comic converts. How come no-one’s making movies about this bunch?

© 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 3

Crisis on Multiple Earths Volume 3 

By Various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-946-8

I’m going to “cop a plea” on this book. Like any other comic book geek who grew up in the 1960’s and early 1970’s I was captivated by gaudy costumes and the outrageous battles to save the city, the country, the world, the universe, the multiverse, et al, ad nauseam. I loved all this stuff. I loved the funny animals, the comedies, suspense and horror stories, the Sci-Fi. Newspaper strips, Annuals, Albums, American, British, whatever. I even liked the romance stories which usually demanded a much higher standard of drawing than all other types of comic strip.

In regard to comic material from this period I cannot declare myself an impartial critic. That counts doubly so for the Julie Schwartz edited Justice League of America and its annual summer tradition of teaming up with its progenitor organisation, the Justice Society of America. If that sounds a tad confusing there are many places to look for clarifying details. If you’re interested in superheroes and their histories you’ll even enjoy the search. But this is not the place for that.

This volume reprints get-togethers from 1971 through 1974, tightly plotted tales comfortably rendered by the tragically under-rated Dick Dillin, although perhaps sometimes uncomfortably scripted in the vernacular of the day (“Right on brother,” says one white superhero to another white superhero!). There are adventures featuring inter-dimensional alien symbiotes and swamp monster Solomon Grundy (JLA #91-92), evil geniuses and the time-marooned team of 1940’s superheroes called the Seven Soldiers of Victory (JLA #100-102), an accidental detour to a parallel Earth where the Nazis won the second World War and the meeting with yet another team of 1940’s characters, the Freedom Fighters (JLA#107-108), and a genuinely poignant tale of good intentions gone awry featuring the Golden Age Sandman (JLA# 114).

In terms of “super” genre the writing consists of two bunches of heroes who get together to deal with extra-extraordinary problems. In hindsight, it’s obviously also about sales and the attempted revival of more super characters during a period of intense sales rivalry between DC Comics and Marvel. But for those who love costume heroes, who crave these carefully constructed modern mythologies and care, it is simply a grand parade of simple action, great causes and momentous victories.

I love ‘em, not because they’re the best of their kind, but because I did then and they haven’t changed even if I have. Do you fancy trying to find your Inner Kid again?

© 1971, 1972, 1973, 1974, 2004 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Bizarro World

Bizarro World

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-085-9

What do you get if you give seventy-two alternative comics creators carte blanche and a broad brief?

This follow up to the surprisingly successful Bizarro Comics again invites a coterie of small press and alternative comics creators to make sport of various hallowed DC icons. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and all the lesser gods appear in a collection of tales humorous, dolorous and just plain peculiar, drawn in an eye-wrenching range of styles. Many of those involved display a disturbing knowledge of, if not respect for, the DC continuity of the 1960s whilst others seem to centre on the TV and Movie interpretations, but the fondness for times gone by is readily apparent throughout.

Watch especially for “The Batman Operetta” by Paul Grist, Hunt Emerson and Phil Elliot, “Personal Shopper” by Kyle Baker (with Elizabeth Glass), “Legion.com” by Ariel Bordeaux and Rick Altergott, “Krypto the Superdog” by Paul Dini and Carol Lay, “The Red Bee Returns” by Peter Bagge and Gilbert Hernandez, “Bizarro Shmizarro” by Harvey Pekar and Dean Haspiel and “Where’s Proty?” by Abe Foreu and James Kochalka among the thirty-five little gems on 200 plus colourful pages wedged between thick card covers. Stand out stories for this reviewer are “Batman: Upgrade 5.0” by Dean Haglund and Peter Murrieta, illustrated by Megaton Man creator Don Simpson and the pant-drenchingly funny “Batman Smells” by Patton Oswalt and Bob Fingerman.

What do you get if you give seventy-two alternative comics creators carte blanche and a broad brief? You should get this.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Bizarro Comics

Bizarro Comics 

By various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-56389-779-2

I’ll happily go on record and say that all of the fun and true creativity in comics comes out of the ‘alternative’ or non-mainstream writers and artists these days. To prove my point I’d list a bunch of things, and very near the top of that list would be this book.

In its seventy-five odd (some, ever so) years in publishing, DC Comics produced many of the most memorable, most engaging and most peculiar comic characters and concepts you could imagine. They also managed to create a deep and abiding affection in the hearts and minds of some of the most creative people on the planet.

Within the hilarious framing sequence of a monstrous creature attempting to conquer Mr Mxyzptlk’s 5th dimensional home, Chris Duffy and Stephen DeStefano tell a weird and wonderful tale of the outlandish failed Superman clone Bizarro. As the appointed champion of the endangered dimensional our ‘hero’ resorts to his ultimate power, producing comic strips featuring unfamiliar adventures of DC’s most recognizable heroes…

Cue a veritable who’s who of the cool and wonderful of modern comics creating a plethora of wacky, dreamy, funny, wistful and just plain un-put-downable strips that would delight any kid who read comics but then accidentally grew up.

If you’re a fan of Jessica Abel, Kyle Baker, Gregory Benton, Nick Bertozzi, Ariel Bordeaux, Ivan Brunetti, Eddie Campbell, Dave Cooper, Mark Crilley, Jef Czekaj, Brian David-Marshall, D’Israeli, Evan Dorkin, Sarah Dyer, Hunt Emerson, Bob Fingerman, Abe Foreu, Ellen Forney, Liz Glass, Matt Groening, Tom Hart, Dean Haspiel, Sam Henderson, Gilbert Hernandez, Matt Hollingsworth, Dylan Horrocks, Nathan Kane, John Kerschbaum, Chip Kidd, James Kochalka, Roger Langridge, Carol Lay, Jason Little, Lee Loughridge, Matt Madden, Tom McCraw, Pat McEown, Andy Merrill, Tony Millionaire, Will Pfeifer, Paul Pope, Brian Ralph, Alvin Schwartz, Marie Severin, Jeff Smith, Jay Stephens, Rick Taylor, Craig Thompson, Jill Thompson, Andi Watson, Steven Weissman or Bill Wray you’ll see them at heir best. If you haven’t heard of anybody on that overwhelming list then get Googling. Then get this book and get enjoying.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.