Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days

Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days 

By Brian K Vaughan, Tony Harris & Tom Feister (Wildstorm/DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-025-5

It is always a genuine pleasure to see something different done with the tired cliché of the superhero in the “Real World” and this new series from Vaughan and Harris is probably the freshest and most entertaining example I’ve seen in many a year.

Mitchell Hundred is a civil engineer in New York City who accidentally gains the power to talk to electronics and machinery. Like every other right thinking post-baby boomer he decides to become a superhero, which plausibly enough results in a total fiasco. He then does the next most logical thing. Publicly abandoning his role as the Great Machine he runs for Mayor – and wins.

The real bones of this tale lie in the interplay of a capable idealist thrust into that other great machine – politics – and how a life already cursed with mysteries aplenty has to deal with the day to day job of making a difference in the most chaotic and charismatic city on earth.

This collection of the first five issues is charming and thrilling by turns, with plenty of West Wing/Spin City brand humour, an engaging cast of characters and even lots of bang and boom thrills all lavishly captured by the superb art and design skills of Tony Harris (who won so much acclaim with Starman). We have an absolute gem here, something which is actually worth making into a movie.

© 2005 Brian K Vaughan & Tony Harris. All rights reserved.

Boneyard, Volume 5

Boneyard, Volume 5

By Richard Moore (NBM)
ISBN 1-56163-479-4

Boneyard goes from strength to strength. This black and white collection (there’s also a line of books collecting these self-same issues of the comic book series in full colour) features the young guy who inherited a cemetery and the extremely engaging gang of goblins, monsters and out and out weirdoes who inhabit it in more sharp, funny and endearing horror comedy for the lost generation.

Michael Paris shares his life with a hot vampire chick, a werewolf, an over-sexed fish-woman, assorted demons and monsters. But somehow, these are the good guys and they are often beset by really nasty types who have evil intentions. For example, there’s the US government, or the creature that keeps beheading counsellors at the kid’s summer camp across the way, or what about that creepy Pumpkin head guy who magics you unconscious then desecrates your dreams?

The peculiar sub-genre of horror/comedy is in safe hands with Richard Moore, whose light, deft touch combines traditional cartooning with spot-on slapstick, surreal humour, and a touch of contemporary cynicism. He can also imbue his abhuman cast with genuine humanity when necessary. And he’s disarmingly honest too, apparently, as this book begins with the last chapter of the previous story-arc, which he seemingly “forgot” to include at the end of the previous volume. Doesn’t someone like that deserve your money? Especially if he’s going to plough it back into making more great comic stories?

© 2004, 2005 Richard Moore. All Rights Reserved.

Batman: Year 100

Batman: Year 100 

By Paul Pope (DC Comics)
ISBN 1-84576-424-2

Paul Pope is one of the most individualistic comics creators to emerge in the last decade, both in his writing and the superbly moody drawing. He’s worked on a few Batman projects in that time but none quite as high profile as last year’s prestige mini-series Batman: Year 100.

In Gotham City 2039AD there’s a conspiracy brewing. In a dystopian, authoritarian world where the Federal Government is oppressive, ruthless and corrupt, a long-vanished threat to that iron control has resurfaced. In spite of all odds a masked vigilante is once again taking the law into his own hands.

Eschewing the contemporary obsession with spoon-fed explanations, Pope leaps head-first into the action in this dark political thriller. We don’t need a backstory. There’s a ‘Bat-Man of Gotham’ dispensing justice with grim effectiveness. There’s a good but world-wearied cop named Gordon helpless but undaunted in the face of a bloated bureaucracy. There’s a plot to frame this mysterious vigilante for the murder of a federal agent. Ready, steady, Go!

Fast paced, gripping, eerie and passionate, this version of the iconic Batman taps into the primal energy of the character seldom seen since those early days of Bob Kane, Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson. Once more a special man, fights for good against all obstacles, and uncaring of any objections – especially the police.

Guys with suits and a Plan have always scared me more than nutters in spandex and it’s clear that I’m not alone in that anxiety, as Pope’s civil servant antagonists cut a swathe of destruction through the City they’re apparently protecting. Like so many previous Administrations in US history, the objectives seem to have obscured the intentions in Gotham 2039. With such sound-bite gems as “To save the village, we had to destroy the village” echoing in your head, follow the newest Caped Crusader as he cleans house in a dirty city in a dirty world.

Also included in the book are ancillary text pages to supplement the story, notes and design sketches, and as a bonus, Berlin Batman Pope’s first ever Bat tale from 1997. In this alternative yarn (originally published in Batman Chronicles #11) Pope and Ted McKeever depict the career the nature of a Jewish super-hero who plagued the Nazis through the darkest days of the Third Reich.

All science fiction is commentary on the present, not prognostication of tomorrows. The Heroic Ideal is about wish-fulfilment as much as aspiration and escapism. Batman: Year 100 is a moody yet gloriously thrilling story that honours the history and conventions of the Batman by speaking to modern audiences in the same terms as the original did in 1939. This is a book for the generations.

© 2006 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Y The Last Man: Girl on Girl

Y The Last Man: Girl on Girl 

By Brian K. Vaughan, Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka & José Marzán Jr.

(Vertigo)  ISBN 1-84576-179-0

I’m finally warming to these travails of Yorick Brown as he lives out the supposed daydream of every man, namely being the only guy on a planet full of chicks. Naturally, life is never so simple nor, luckily, quite so crass, and the horrors which this nondescript young hero has to endure are as much of his own making as the result of cosmic catastrophe.

When every male creature on Earth expired, Beth, Yorick’s true love, and dedicated anthropology student, was on a field trip in the Australian Outback, and all his previous adventures have been geared to reuniting with her, despite the collapse of civilisation, and ultimately all higher life on Earth. This volume, reprints issues #32-36, with Yorick aboard a ship bound for Japan.

He and his long time-retinue, bodyguard Agent 355 and biochemist Dr Allison Mann, who have been tasked by the surviving US government (coincidentally his mum) with the twin tasks of ensuring our boy’s survival and finding out why he’s still breathing, are all in pursuit of Ampersand, his pet monkey, the only other male alive, who has been ape-napped by a mysterious ninja. Apparently the monkey holds the secret to the mystery of the plague which killed all us mouth-breathing, unsanitary louts.

Whilst aboard ship, Yorick’s drag disguise yet again fails and his concomitant and somewhat unwilling liaison with the lusty ship’s Captain is only thwarted by a torpedo fired by the Australian Navy. It seems that the lad is going to Oz after all, despite the depredations of pirates, drug runners, ninja-assassins and the imminent return of old foe General Alter Tse’elon and her renegade cadre of Israeli commandos, but naturally life – and comic-books – ain’t that simple. Yorick might not be absolutely sure that Beth is actually alive, but we are, and the last chapter tells her story, and hints that when her man comes for her, she might not actually be there anymore…

By sticking with this overused premise but by carefully building strong, credible characters and situations, Vaughan has crafted an intellectually seductive fantasy soap-opera of memorable power, and the narrative thread has consistently advanced to the point that this less than avid original reader is actually keen to see where we go from here. The quality of writing and art have won this series many fans since it began and if I can become one, then so might you.

© 2005 Brian K.Vaughan & Pia Guerra. All Rights Reserved.

Identity Crisis

Identity Crisis 

By Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales & Michael Bair

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-34576-126-X

For such an impressive and far-reaching comics event, this collection is quite a slim and swift read. Whilst the comic drove the narrative forward in the manner of a whodunit, most of the character by-play and the ripples of the bare events related could only be experienced in the (inter-linked) individual issues of the involved titles. When this is all absorbed week-by-week, month-by-month, the cumulative effect is both bewildering and engrossing, but such an experience could not be duplicated in traditional publishing.

The plot involves DC heroes re-assessing their careers whilst hunting down the murderer of the wife of second-string hero/detective, Elongated Man. As the investigation proceeds, heroes and villains confront many of their bedrock principles such as tactics, allegiances and even the modern validity of that genre staple, the Secret Identity. The dialogue is memorable and the artwork magnificent and the aftershocks of revelation did indeed live up to their hype. How sad then than this “core” book feels like a rushed “Readers Digest” edition, whilst many of the key moments are scattered in a dozen other (unrelated) collections.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

Teen Titans: The Future is Now

Teen Titans: The Future is Now 

By Geoff Johns, Mike McKone, Ivan Reis & Tom Grummet

(DC Comics)  ISBN 1-84576-166-9

This compilation reprints issues #15-23 of the monthly comic and the Teen Titans/ Legion of Super Heroes special which saw our eponymous heroes catapulted into the thirty-first century for a huge punch up with the Fatal Five – who had teamed up with their counterparts from 495 alternate Earths – to wipe out the future heroes. And in a way they succeed as the special is a prologue to yet another refit and re-restart of the fan favourites. But we’ll deal with that if DC ever produce a Legion graphic compilation.

The bulk of this volume concerns the time-displaced Titans fighting adult versions of themselves when they fetch up a decade into their own future – a dystopian America where the Titans have taken over the reins of government. When they finally get back to where they belong, but not before lots of running, fighting and trenchant prophetic musing, and thus forewarned if not forearmed, they promptly add a new member just in time to fight Dr Light, fresh from his pivotal role in the Identity Crisis publishing event. The conclusion neatly leads directly into the books that comprise the Infinite Crisis publishing event.

As a stand-alone read this is all a bit of a mess, with no real cohesive narrative thread and a bunch of done-to-death plot devices that were old even before I was. Fans won’t complain, I’m sure, but this won’t work with all those new readers the coverage of Infinite Crisis is intended to pull in.

© 2004, 2005 DC Comics. All Rights Reserved.

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.