Teen Titans: Beast Boys & Girls

Teen Titans: Beast Boys & Girls

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-166-9

Beast Boys and Girls starts by reprinting the Beast Boy mini-series from 2000, which, although a competent and readable outing by Ben Raab and Geoff Johns, illustrated by Justiniano and Chris Ivy, seems rather at odds thematically with the character’s treatment and portrayal in the Teen Titans regular series.

The effective and determined young man of this tale – whose shape-changing powers are by the way cool side-effects of a rare African disease and a subsequent experimental cure – thwarts a murder/frame plot by a shape-shifting psychopath whilst re-launching his movie career, but is curiously at odds with the meandering fifth-wheel of a character in the second half of the book. Originally from the Teen Titans monthly comic #13-15, the follow-up tale shows him as a whiny disease vector that attacks children. This seemingly causes his animal morphing powers to destabilise, subsequently infecting every child in the city. Johns is joined with Tom Grummett and Larry Stucker for this laborious mini-epic.

Teen Titans is one of DC’s strongest brands but the lack of cohesion in its various incarnations is a real hindrance if the publishers want to expand the base of readership beyond the limited confines of the already converted.

© 2000, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Teen Titans: Family Lost

Teen Titans: Family Lost 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84023-998-0

Family Lost sees penciller Ivan Reis, inkers Kevin Conrad, Marc Campos and Norm Rapmund, plus colourist Sno Cone, join the burgeoning creative brigade with issues #8-12 of the monthly comic, plus the premium Teen Titans #½, collected under one cover.

Deathstroke the terminator has a wild-child daughter called Rose who is a borderline psychotic and these adventures recount how she joins the team, co-opting her dead brothers code-name ‘Ravager’. Our hormone raddled heroes must keep a wary eye on their newest member whilst fighting the menace of a vampiric incarnation of their old foe, Brother Blood.

These are all very competent superhero tales with lots of action and – I presume – the kind of dialogue that today’s kids are hip to, but that really shouldn’t be all there is to them, surely? Doesn’t it seem that you should concentrate on storytelling and entertainment fundamentals rather than depend on the opinion that old fans just want to name-check favourite characters and plots on their fan-boy score-cards?

© 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game

Teen Titans: A Kid’s Game 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84023-839-9

This series has as its theme the idea that super-hero kids need somewhere to go to be away from their mentors and partners. Practically speaking that means that Robin, Superboy, Kid Flash and Wonder Girl hang out every weekend with the survivors of previous incarnations of the 1980s teen team such as Starfire, Beast Boy, Cyborg and latterly, Raven.

A Kid’s Game details the coming together of the newest team in the aftermath of a tremendous battle that led to the death (yeah, right!) of long-time Titan Donna Troy. It also ties up some long hanging plot threads regarding ex-Titan Jericho (he wasn’t really dead after all, you see) whilst positioning Deathstroke the Terminator as the title’s major villain.

The creative team is the ubiquitous Geoff Johns with pencils by Mike McKone and Tom Grummett. Inkers Marlo Alquiza and Nelson provide the finishes and Jeremy Cox the colours. The stories were originally printed as Teen Titans #1-7 and Teen Titans/Outsiders Secret Files 2003, and as super-hero comics go it’s not a bad use of your cash. Readers of a less insular persuasion might be a bit baffled though, and fans coming to the volume because of the Warner Brothers cartoon show will be, frankly, baffled and somewhat disappointed at the lack of charm and humour.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told

Superman/Batman: Greatest Stories Ever Told 

By various

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-433-1

This most inevitable of hero pairings first occurred on the Superman radio show in the 1940s, but for picture purposes that event happened in the pages of Superman’s own bi-monthly comic (issue #76, May/June 1952). Pulp science fiction writer Edmond Hamilton had the task of revealing how the Man of Steel and the Caped Crusader first met and accidentally discovered each other’s identities whilst sharing a cabin on an over-booked cruise liner. Although an average crime-stopper yarn in itself, it was the start of a phenomenon. The art for The Mightiest Team in the World was by the superb Curt Swan, with inking by John Fischetti.

As comic book page counts dwindled, World’s Finest Comics, which had featured solo adventures of the heroes, simply combined the two in one story per issue. Many were illustrated by the legendary and unique Dick Sprang. One particularly fine example is Superman and Batman’s Greatest Foes from World’s Finest Comics #88 (1957), with Hamilton again scripting and Stan Kaye inking a team-up of Lex Luthor and the Joker. The Composite Superman (WFC #142, 1964) and the The Cape and Cowl Crooks (WFC #159, 1966) both came courtesy of Hamilton, Swan and George Klein, and dealt with foes with far mightier powers than our heroes – a major concern for young readers of the times. To this day whenever fans gather the cry eventually echoes out, “Who’s stronger/faster/better dressed…?”

1968 brought radical changes to DC, and edgier stories of the Boy Scout heroes began to appear. From World’s Finest Comics #176, comes The Superman-Batman Split by Cary Bates and the iconoclastic Neal Adams. Ostensibly just another alien mystery story, this twisty little gem has a surprise ending for all and a guest stars Supergirl and Batgirl.

A Matter of Light and Death (WFC #207, 1971) is a fine action-mystery romp by Len Wein, Dick Dillin and Joe Giella, and the last of this volume’s tales to feature the long-standing partnership in its traditional form. After the Crisis on Infinite Earths series rewrote the DC universe in 1985, everything was shaken up and the retooling of Superman by John Byrne the following year in the Man of Steel miniseries re-examined all the Caped Kryptonian’s close relationships in a darker, more cynical light. From the third issue comes a new first meeting with Batman in One Night in Gotham City, written and drawn by Byrne, inked by Dick Giordano.

The venerated title “World’s Finest” has resurfaced a number of times since its cancellation during the 1980s. In 2000 a twelve issue maxi-series re-interpreted the growing friendship of the two characters. A Better World (Superman & Batman: World’s Finest #7) by Karl Kesel, Peter Doherty and Robert Campanella is an introspective and very human discourse of motivation and achievement from the pair. This is followed by a magnificent two-pager from Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale first seen in Superman/Batman Secret Files 2003. When Clark Met Bruce posits a road not taken with telling force and subtle wonder.

We come full circle with a retelling of The Mightiest Team in the World from Joe Kelly and a veritable army of artists (Ed McGuinness, Ryan Ottley, Sean Murphy, Carlo Barberi, Dexter Vines, Cliff Rathburn, Don Hillsman II, Bob Petracca, Andy Owens and Rodney Ramos – if you’re keeping score). Originally published in Superman/Batman Annual #1 (2006), Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One… is a retelling of that landmark tale in a thoroughly modern context, with super-villains replacing gangsters, and heavily slanted towards an audience accustomed to action/comedy movie blockbusters, which ends this volume on a very frenetic high note.

These ‘Greatest Stories’ volumes are a smart outreach idea for an industry desperately in need of new and returning consumers. If you accept the premise that everybody has read comics at some time in their life, and that new kids are being born quite a lot, then re-packaging good stories featuring characters that have ‘broken’ on the world stage can only bring new business. For us fanboy vets however, what defines ‘good’ is still a cause for debate. Good thing we’re not the target market then isn’t it?

© 1952, 1957, 1964, 1966, 1968, 1971, 1986, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007 DC Comics.
All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: Staring at the Wall

Hellblazer: Staring at the Wall 

By Mike Carey, Marcelo Frusin & Doug Alexander Gregory

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-233-9

This collection of the adventures of the world’s cockiest mystical bad-ass (from Hellblazer issues #187-193) sees an on-his-uppers John Constantine gathering what feeble allies he can muster as the un-nameable supernatural horror that has been waiting to devour humanity since the dawn of time (and for the previous two volumes) finally gets its snout in the door.

The chills begin with his niece Gemma having her own grisly adventure as the dupe of an old acquaintance of her uncle, who lures her to a seemingly deserted Scottish Island to complete a old mission and a new magical machine in Bred in the Bone, illustrated by Doug Alexander Gregory, before she eventually, and reluctantly joins Constantine in London for the main event, drawn with creepy and economical effectiveness by regular artist Marcelo Frusin.

Carey’s writing smoulders with a steady and overwhelming oppressiveness as his rag-tag band of desperate and self-serving mystics are forced to combine their talents in a desperate and inevitably futile attempt to thwart a truly unstoppable opponent who (which? what?) not only out-powers them, but has also achieved the inconceivable by out-foxing the arch-trickster Constantine.

How the wily con-man defeats a Thing that has won it all, and what the genuinely terrible cost is, provides a masterful horror tour-de-force that is compelling and eminently satisfying. Mike Carey’s tenure on this series is going to be one that will always rank as the highest of high points.

© 2003, 2004 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Fables: Homelands

Fables: Homelands

By Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, David Hahn, Lan Medina & Steve Leialoha

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-124-3

Vertigo’s best title just keeps getting better. As well as the long anticipated revelation of the identity of the Adversary, this volume (collecting issues # 34-41 of the monthly comic) also contains concurrent adventures featuring the fate of the morally ambivalent Jack (the Giant-Killer, and the Bean-stalk, et al) plus a foreboding, foreshadowing tale featuring Mowgli’s (of Kipling’s Jungle Books) return from a mystery mission.

Fables deals with refugee fairytale characters who all fled to mundane Earth from their various mythic realms to escape conquest by a mysterious and unbeatable adversary. Keeping their true nature hidden from humanity they have created enclaves where their immortality, magic and sheer strangeness (all the talking animals are sequestered on a remote farm in upstate New York, for example) keep them luxuriously safe. Many characters wander the human world, but always under an injunction not to draw attention to themselves.

This volume begins with a revelation that the always ‘difficult’ Jack has gone to Hollywood with stolen Fable funds and created a new studio solely to create a trilogy of fantasy films detailing his own exploits, absolutely counter to Fabletown edicts. His fate (illustrated by David Hahn) serves as a lead in to the true meat of the book: Little Boy Blue’s return to the lands of Fable on a mission of revenge and a search for his lost love. Following this, Jack will be starring in his own spin-off series, of which more at a future date…

In many ways this is the most traditional story – in comic book terms – that this series has ever produced, as the heroic Blue, with the aid of plundered magic weapons taken from the Fabletown Armoury, battles his way to the adversary’s very throne room before he is defeated by the Snow Queen, the tyrant’s number two.

Compounding cliff-hanger with teaser, Willingham then switches the story back to Earth for a glimpse at the lives of the other escaped story-people. Meanwhile drawn by Lan Medina, updates the continuity with a series of vignettes that serves to set up the next major storyline as well as lay the groundwork for the eventual return of the long missing – and popular – Bigby Wolf.

Returning to the Homelands opus Willingham and Buckingham complete their tale with stirring panache, revealing the identity of the arch-foe, delivering a memorable climax, and even then managing to pull a surprise rug out from under the feet of we weary, worldly-wise funnybook veterans.

This series just keeps on improving. A wild and savvy exploration of traditional story-telling leavened with acerbic wit and cynical street-smarts, always beautifully drawn. You must read this series (but only if you’re over eighteen, or nobody in authority is watching).

© 2005 Bill Willingham & DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man 1964

Marvel Masterworks: The Amazing Spider-Man 1964

By Stan Lee & Steve Ditko with Jack Kirby

(Marvel/Panini UK)  ISBN 978-1-905239-58-0

The early years of Marvel Comics produced nothing but evergreen classics, and this cheap and cheerful softcover collection of the Spider-Man stories with cover-dates of 1964 – (issues #8-19 of the comic, plus the first Amazing Spider-Man Annual) is a wonderful way to introduce very valuable stories to the greater public in an accessible manner and at a very reasonable price. I’m not going to attempt to explain the vagaries of the US distribution system – just remember that in America the month on the cover denotes when the issue should be taken OFF sale – that’s why all the Christmas stories have February or March cover dates. This is a book for readers not collectors, okay?

The second year of the moody and misunderstood Peter Parker’s superhero career kicked off with a battle against a robot that divined his secret identity before going on a rampage at his high school, and a battle with the Fantastic Four’s Human Torch (drawn by Jack Kirby but inked by Spidey’s artistic godfather Steve Ditko, who drew everything else web-based in those formative years). Closely following were the first encounters with Electro and The Enforcers as Lee and Ditko balanced costumed villains with more down to earth criminals. Doctor Octopus made a return appearance and then Mysterio, The Green Goblin and Kraven the Hunter all took a bow. For added flavour – and free advertising – Lee began using guest appearances of his other heroic characters. The Hulk appeared with the Green Goblin, and Spider-Man actually teamed up with Daredevil to battle the Circus of Crime.

The growth of comics continuity can be seen here, as a storyline – innovative for the times – stretched over three episodes when the returning Green Goblin, Sandman and Enforcers seemingly made a coward of the web-spinner and not even the Human Torch could help him. It all worked out eventually, of course, and the year “concluded” – for the purposes of this book at least – with a re-presentation of the landmark, and still magnificently thrilling, battle against the ‘Sinister Six’. When a team of villains comprising Electro, Kraven, Mysterio, Vulture, Sandman and Doctor Octopus kidnap Aunt May and Peter’s girl friend Betty Brant, Spider-Man must defeat them without his Spider-powers! Also included are original pin-ups and special feature pages and the comedic short ‘How Stan Lee and Steve Ditko Create Spider-Man’.

Full of energy, verve, pathos and laughs, gloriously short of post-modern angst and breast-beating, these fun classics are quintessential comic book magic, and along with the Fantastic Four, they form the very foundation of everything Marvel. This volume is a fabulous opportunity for new readers of all ages.

© 1964, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

The Anime Encyclopedia

The Anime Encyclopedia 

By Jonathan Clements & Helen McCarthy

(Stone Bridge Press)  ISBN 1-84576-500-1

Although a bit of a reach for this particular forum, I thought I’d put in my tuppence-worth in regard to this splendid reference tome that thudded onto my doormat yesterday.

This is a revised and expanded edition of a very useful thing: a comprehensive, informative and passionate lexicon of all things to do with Japanese cartoons. If you’re a new convert, an expert, a nostalgic dabbler (Yay, Marine Boy!) or even a curmudgeon who thinks he has no interest, this is the book for you.

Subtitled ‘A Guide to Japanese Animation since 1917’, this hefty (nearly 900 pages) paperback covers film and television features, providing technical details and a synoptic overview of everything from A15 Anthology to Zorro the Magnificent with thematic entries, a huge index, 150+ illustrations, and screen captures culled from the more than 3,000 reviews. Separate listings of studios, creators and anime history are included. And there’s even a parental advisory for each entry — to prevent any surprise or misunderstandings when Gran visits!

Thoroughly readable, this work glows with the writers’ enthusiasm, making it a pleasure to consult. My review copy went straight to my reference shelf and yours should go next to your TV/home entertainment system.

Text © 2006 Muramasa Industries Ltd. & Helen McCarthy.
Original illustrations © 2006 Steve Kyte.

Tales From the Clerks (Omnibus)

Tales From the Clerks (Omnibus)

By Kevin Smith & Various

(Titan Books)  ISBN 1-84576-406-4

Kevin Smith is a very disturbed individual, and therefore one of the most creative and funny people working in the narrative arts today. You are probably aware of such films as Clerks, Mallrats, Chasing Amy and Dogma. If you weren’t appalled or disgusted by any or all of them, read on. If you did find them offensive or just not your thing, stop reading and move on, because I’m not talking to you, and you’ll only get upset all over again.

As his film career advanced, Smith began scripting some high profile comic books, and also some less iconic ones. The characters from Clerks appeared in numerous mini-series, which were eventually collected as the trade paperbacks The Clerks, Chasing Dogma and Bluntman and Chronic. This Titan Books edition gathers all that material plus the all-new Where’s the Beef, and includes the rare Walt Flanagan’s Dog from Oni-Double Feature#1 (drawn by Matt Wagner). A covers, sketches and artwork gallery, plus a host of other “Clerks-iverse” material, rounds out a package that must be nigh on everything ever published about this motley band of deviants.

If you like adult humour, social satire viewed from the bottom staring up, or just dirty, clever, frat-boy humour, this a book for you. Just be careful where you leave it.

™ & ©1998, 1999, 2000, 2001 & 2006 View Askew Productions. All Rights Reserved.

Star Wars: Honor and Duty

Star Wars: Honor and Duty 

By John Ostrander, C.P. Smith, Jasen Rodriguez, and Luke Ross

(Dark Horse Books)  ISBN 1-84576-334-3

It’s back to the beginning – as if that has any meaning with this franchise – in a tale of intrigue designed to fill in some edges in the puzzle of what happened between the second, third and fourth movies.

Sagoro Autem is a Senate Guard. That’s him on the left in most of those panoramic wide-shots, standing behind Senator, and later Emperor Palpatine. He’s basically a cop, and his life is a cop’s life. But when he becomes aware of some dangerous insights into just how the universe really works, he’s plunged into the thick of everything and his life changes forever.

Touching upon the disintegrating relationship of Obi-Wan Kenobi and Anakin Skywalker, the rise of the Empire and the first days of Darth Vader, this is a sharp little adventure (two, actually – originally published in Star Wars: Republic, issues #46-48 and 78) designed to satisfy die-hard fans, but crafted well enough to please any fan of a good comic read.

© 2006 Lucasfilm Ltd. & ™. All Rights Reserved