Supergirl: Candor

Supergirl: Candor 

By Joe Kelly, Greg Rucka, Ian Churchill & Ed Benes and others (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-354-8

Comics isn’t baking. The theory goes that with the right ingredients and the correct recipe you get perfect results every time. Sadly we’re not talking about baps but the new incarnation of Supergirl. Hang on though…

Supergirl first gained popularity as the back-up feature in Action Comics, as a tag-along (and trademark protection device) to her more illustrious cousin. After many years of faithful service, she was killed as a sales device in the groundbreaking Crisis on Infinite Earths maxi-series in 1985. Since then there have been a number of characters using the name – but none with the class, nor the durability of the original (and it’s always useful to have a trademark protection device).

The latest incarnation has much of original’s trappings – Superman’s cousin, close variation of the suit and symbol – but a much more modern attitude and edgier origin as suits today’s readership (and modern kids understand the value of a trademark protection device).

Candor is a dreadful mish-mash. It starts with Power Girl (herself once a Supergirl substitute) in a story from JSA Confidential #2 (and recently reprinted in Power Girl’s own trade paperback), and a selection of pages from JLA #122-123 which had Supergirl on them (no cohesive narrative, just the bits with her in). Then a team-up with her cousin from Superman #223 and a Power Girl/Huntress team up from their Earth 2 days originally seen in Superman/Batman #27.

Confused? If you’re not a comic collector then I’ll just bet you are. Such out-takes and shavings might fill up the book, but they have no real relevance to the narrative. Some depictions – all culled from before DC continuity ‘re-set’ in the Infinite Crisis storyline – actively contradict their later characters. So let’s be straight here: Either these books are a way to get more and new people reading comics or they are just another way to get extra cash out of the same poor suckers who buy the monthly pamphlets. If it is the former then a lot more editorial planning is necessary. These convolutions frankly baffle the casual reader.

After the never-ending calamity of the DC Infinite Crisis event, the company re-set the time line of all their publications to begin One Year Later. This enabled them to refit their characters as they saw fit, provide a jumping on point for new converts and also give themselves some narrative wiggle-room.

One year later, Supergirl and Power Girl are in Kandor, a miniaturised city full of assorted aliens, trapped in a bottle in Superman’s Fortress of Solitude. Krypton worshipping supremacists are instigating a species-pogrom, using Superman’s likeness as the basis for a hate-based religion. Our heroines are part of the resistance, taking the identities of legendary heroes Nightwing and Flamebird. But a hidden villain is behind all the horror and Supergirl is drawn to the dark side by…

Candor is a mess. There’s no real hook or bite – just aimless flailing about, trying to fill pages with pitifully uninspired stock scenarios pilfered from dozens of other stories, and someone, someday, is going to have to acknowledge the difference between Graphic Novels and periodical comic publishing. You just can’t have ‘big reveals’ of mystery villains in ‘proper’ books – and simply assume your audience recognises them because they buy all the books you publish. That’s purely an astonishing – but increasingly diminishing – facet of comic-book readership. It’s no way to grow the sales base. And even in comics it is SUCH a cliché.

So what can I say about this book? I wish I could be more positive. I’m here to make comic reading more popular, not to warn potential readers off. You can see the largest breasts on a super-heroine? There are many great artists producing cheesy, prurient puberty-porn? It’s all blithering nonsense and a there’s total disregard for the reader’s intelligence plus a truly harrowing reliance on the modern fashion for story resets whenever things start getting too complex to solve with a well illustrated punch? There’s certainly all that and less…

I’ll always try to say something nice or positive. Taken out of the book’s context, the Power Girl solo tale is very good – so you should buy the Power Girl collection and read it in its entirety. The Huntress/Power Girl story from Superman/Batman #27 is funny and beautifully illustrated by Kevin McGuire. The final story of the volume, wherein the inexplicably returned to Earth Supergirl goes clubbing and reminiscing with a coterie of fellow youngbloods is both poignant and amusing, so kudos to Kelly, Churchill and Norm Rapmund for that at least.

Otherwise? This is rubbish. I’m absolutely positive. Only get this if you’re blessed with a very short attention span, or haven’t had a girlfriend yet.

© 2005-2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Son of Superman

Son of Superman 

By Howard Chaykin, David Tischman, J.H. Williams III & Mick Gray (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-56389-595-1

2017AD. In an overwhelmingly conservative and corporate America, Superman has been missing since 2000, the Justice League has become an arm of Federal Government, and the biggest threat to security is the terrorist organisation “The Supermen” led by the vanished hero’s oldest friends Pete Ross and Lana Lang. Ruthless and unscrupulous Lex Luthor owns most of the planet.

Jon Kent is a smart mouthed high school kid and his mother, Lois, is a Hollywood screen writer. Their lives are pretty normal (for rich Americans) until the worst solar storm in history triggers young Jon’s superpowers and mom has to reveal that his long dead dad was in fact the world’s greatest hero. From having to deal with girls, grades and puberty John Kent suddenly finds himself the focus of all manner of bad attention, heroes and villains, the Feds, and his own budding conscience.

How this new hero saves the world, busts the bad guys, and solves the mystery of his missing father makes for a good old-fashioned “never trust anyone over the age of 30” romp, full of thrills and spills thanks to the scripting skills of arch-nonconformist Howard Chaykin and writing partner David Tischman, with spectacular artwork from J.H. Williams III (of Starman and Promethea fame) and Mick Gray.

This surprisingly enjoyable if unchallenging alternative tale of the Man of Steel comes courtesy of the much missed ‘Elseworlds’ imprint, which was designed by DC as a classy vehicle for what used to be called ‘Imaginary stories’ – for which read using branded characters in stories that refute, contradict or ignore established monthly continuities. Although often a guaranteed recipe for disaster, every so often the magic of unbridled creativity brought forth gems. This is one of the latter. Ooh, Shiny!

© 1999 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Pride of Baghdad

Pride of Baghdad

By Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon (Vertigo)
ISBN 1-84576-242-8

It would be far beyond crass to suggest that anything good at all has come out of the monstrous debacle of the Iraq invasion, but Pride of Baghdad at least offers a unique perspective on a small moment of that bloody mistake.

Vaughan and Henrichon, using the narrative tools of Walt Disney and George Orwell, tell the anthropomorphised tale of a family of Lions who are unwillingly freed from their zoo during the taking of Baghdad, and run loose in the deadly streets until their tragic end.

This is not a spoiler. It is a warning. This is a beautiful, powerful, tale with characters who you will love. And they die because of political fecklessness, commercial venality and human frailty. The magical artwork makes the inevitable tragedy a confusing and wondrous experience and Vaughan’s script could make a stone, and perhaps a Republican, cry.

Derived from a news item that told of the lions roaming the war torn Baghdad streets, here we are made to see the invasion in terms other than those of commercial news-gatherers and government spin-doctors, and hopefully can use those different opinions to inform our own. This is a lovely, haunting, sad book, which shows why words and pictures have such power that they can terrify bigots and tyrants of all types. Read this book. Maybe not to your kids, not yet, but read it.

© 2006 Brian K Vaughan & Niko Henrichon. All Rights Reserved.

Orbiter

Orbiter 

By Warren Ellis and Colleen Doran with Dave Stewart (DC/ Vertigo)
ISBN: 1-4012-0056-7

This offering from the industry’s Enfant Terrible is a heartfelt but insubstantial slice of post-Twilight Zone hokum, set on a dystopian Earth in the years following the mysterious disappearance of the space shuttle Venture. It vanished from Earth orbit a decade previously, taking with it a crew of seven and ultimately, the world’s taste for space flight. When Venture crashes into the shanty-town that used to be the Kennedy space centre it carries only the original – catatonic – pilot, dust that could must have come from Mars and alien technology that has transformed a glorified glider into a true inter-stellar voyager. The last dregs of NASA must then reform to solve the mystery and return to mankind the defrayed, delayed destiny of The Stars.

For avowed space aficionados Ellis and Doran this is probably an earnest labour of love, but the truth of the matter is that there’s nothing particularly original or worthwhile that hasn’t been done to death elsewhere, although the artist’s departure from her usual glossy, highly stylised and glossy pencils for a more gritty and European manner of drawing is an welcome and effective surprise.

All in all, though, despite being something of a departure for the writer and perhaps a disappointment for those dedicated comics fans expecting another Strange Kiss or Transmetropolitan, there’s still something of interest to be gained for the casual reader.

© 2003 Warren Ellis & Colleen Doran. All Rights Reserved.

Old Jewish Comedians

Old Jewish Comedians 

By Drew Friedman (Fantagraphics Books)
ISBN 10: 1-56097-741-8
ISBN 13: 978-1-56097-741-4

Technically, this isn’t a graphic novel or trade collection, it’s a picture book. But when it’s a series of drawings depicting a procession of Jewish American Comedians in their wrinkly twilight years by the absolute master of pencil rendering and ironic nostalgia I’m prepared to bend whatever rules I need to in order to make more people aware.

Friedman can just plain draw. His caricatures are powerful, resonant and joyful. He at once captures what these wizened laugh-smiths were about, and gives them a beer-goggles beauty that our generation of comedy fans just doesn’t see in recordings of the performers. A book for true art collectors, whatever their particular fascination.

© 2006 Drew Friedman. All Rights Reserved.

Megatokyo Volume 4

Megatokyo Volume 4 

By Fred Gallagher, with Sarah Gallagher & Dominic Nguyen (CMX/WildStorm)
ISBN 1-84576-476-5

Now, you and me, we’re normal. Sure we like comics, and sci-fi shows and big-explosion movies, toy guns and ninjas and beer, but that’s still regular stuff. Yet don’t we know a couple of guys that take it just a little too seriously? Maybe they’re a tad too… keen?

Piro and Largo are those guys. Piro is a big, Big, BIG fan of all things Japanese and collectable (there’s a word for it and that’s “Otaku” – which probably translates as “obsessive geek”). Largo is a hardcore Gamer – he even thinks and speaks in a game language, “L33T”. One night they get unbelievably drunk in America and sober up in Tokyo – with no money to get home.

And that’s really all the backstory you need to start reading this epic online comic strip (apparently the world’s most popular non-Japanese manga). The two hapless odd-boys must find jobs and earn enough money to get home, but Japan is seductive. Piro finds himself drawn into a web of bemused attraction with three very different girls and Largo becomes the charismatic leader of a group of ‘heroes’ dedicated to destroying a deadly ‘zombie horde’ plaguing the city. It’s all their dreams come true.

This is incredibly dense storytelling when gathered into book form. You need a lot of irons in the fire when you’re publishing daily, and the plots, sub-plots and asides are utterly packed with drama, comedy from satire to slapstick, and a delightful absurdist fantasy that can always be relied on to keep the audience guessing. With a dedicated pick’n’mix attitude to everything that intrigues them, the Gallaghers have re-fried all their favourite elements of popular culture into a seamless surreal blend of goofy unrequitable love, male haplessness, giant monsters, warrior cults, guardian angels, funny animals, fairies, imaginary science and soap opera. This is a fun, fun read. Here’s hoping the (book) publisher re-releases the previous volumes – mean time you could always check out www.megatokyo.com.

© 2007 FredArt Studios, LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Hellblazer: All His Engines

Hellblazer: All His Engines

By Mike Carey & Leonardo Manco (Vertigo/DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84023-966-2

To coincide with the release of the Constantine movie, Vertigo pushed the boat out with an all-original hardcover featuring the current creative team and a wicked little tale of the ultimate chancer at his dodgy best.

It’s bad enough when the world is gripped by a mysterious sleeping plague. It gets worse when Contantine’s oldest – for which read longest surviving – friend Chas begs him to save his grand-daughter from said affliction. It becomes intolerable when a demon intent on housing Hell’s overspill population on earth tries to blackmail the scruffy sorcerer into doing his dirty work for him, but when a disenfranchised Death God sticks his oar in, the old Hellblazer has no choice but to get up, get out and get it sorted.

All of which, of course, he does with his usual grisly and spectacular panache. This is the character at his absolute best, in a tour de force from writer and artist at the very top of their game, making this one of those rare occasions when the ride is actually worth the price of admission. Take it from me, forget the movie and buy this instead. You’ll be so glad you did.

© 2005 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Birds of Prey: Between Dark and Dawn

Birds of Prey: Between Dark and Dawn 

By Gail Simone & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-240-1

Dyed-in-the-wool super-hero fans and neophytes alike would be well advised to follow this series, featuring a more-or-less rotating team of DC’s female crime-busters, led and co-ordinated by the mysterious ‘Oracle’ (wheelchair-bound Barbara Gordon, daughter of Batman’s buddy Commissioner Gordon and an ex-super-hero herself) as they target the less flashy and more insidious threats to the DC universe.

This volume (collecting issues #69-75 of the monthly comic series) features a turning point in the fortunes of this idiosyncratic team, as, following the infiltration and eventual destruction of a religious cult that seems to be inducing teenagers to worship costumed heroes and commit suicide, they have to save their own leader from an insidious and overwhelming form of technological possession. Also included are a edgily hilarious change of pace as the girls invade a secret meeting where all the super-criminals’ hench-persons get together to form a union, plus an epilogue to the Batman publishing event War-Games where, following the loss of their secret headquarters in Gotham City, the Birds transfer their base of operations to a airliner and take their mission ‘on the road’, looking for evil pro-actively.

Gail Simone has cornered the market on smart, savvy and capable women who can square off with the best that the testosterone-charged heroes and villains of comics can produce, and yet still keep all the protagonists recognisably female – in word and action instead of merely in shape – although if you do like to look at pretty girls drawn well, a selection of more than capable artists have that well in hand. Indisputably, this is one of the top super-hero series being published today.

© 2004, 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved

Birds of Prey: Sensei & Student

Birds of Prey: Sensei & Student

By Gail Simone & various (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-027-1

The Birds of Prey concept has always been hugely enjoyable. Whether it’s the kick-ass hotties or the strong ties to the Batman universe, or perhaps simply the higher than average standard of the writing, these tales never fail to entertain. After being crippled by the Joker, the wheelchair-bound Batgirl recreated herself to fight evil as a knowledge resource for super-heroes before eventually forming her own strike force comprised of a fluctuating roster of women crime-fighters. An apparent similarity to Charlie’s Angels doesn’t seem to hurt either.

This volume (reprinting issues 62-68 of the regular monthly comic book) focuses on the early days of Black Canary, who is summoned to Hong Kong and the bedside of her dying kung fu teacher. There she meets fellow student and rival Shiva, universally acclaimed as the deadliest woman alive. Never friends, they find themselves thrown together to foil a murder-revenge scheme. As if all the martial arts brouhaha were not enough, the rest of her fellow crime fighters are embroiled in thwarting a contiguous plot to steal the near omniscient database of team leader Oracle (nee Batgirl).

This is a good old-fashioned rollercoaster that’s not afraid to be fun as well as a clear rival to the best of blockbuster action movies, and well worth your attention.

© 2004 DC Comics. All rights reserved.

Amazing Spider-Man: Skin Deep

Amazing Spider-Man: Skin Deep 

By J. Michael Straczynski & Mike Deodato Jr. (Marvel/Panini UK)
ISBN 978-1-905239-56-6

Peter Parker is Spider-Man, and family has always been important to him. Perhaps that’s because when he was a nerdy science geek at high school, he didn’t have many friends. Perhaps that’s why when one of those rare school-chums turns up begging a favour, Peter doesn’t think as long or hard as he should before acquiescing.

Uber-geek Charlie Weiderman had a worse educational experience than Parker, and the casual brutalities he experienced made him a man with no compunctions in using any method to achieve his ends. When his experiments turn him into a monster capable of almost any feat of murder, nothing will deter him from his goals. Not friends, not Parker’s family, not even Spider-Man himself!

Although sporting impressive creator credits this is a slow little tale, with lots of character-play and insights into Peter Parker’s past, but a decided lack of old fashioned Spider-action and indeed the costumed persona himself. I’m a great proponent of people over punches but even I felt the urge to shout “Get on with it!” every few pages. Also, casual readers should note that this was originally printed as Amazing Spider-Man issues #515-518, and the tactics of periodical publishing don’t always transfer conveniently to a trade paperback. It all starts with a hanging plot thread and closes on a partial cliff-hanger, so you might feel a little bit gruntled by show’s end.

© 2005, 2007 Marvel Characters, Inc. All Rights Reserved.