Wednesday, January 23, 2013

It's Moving Time

You heard me. Regrettably, I'm behind a post or two going into February. But this blog is also going to be featured (hopefully as of 2/1/13) on the main page of the great Open Letters Monthly! Here's where to find my latest post:

Thursday, January 17, 2013

New England Red

This blog, originally dedicated to superheroes and their weekly shenanigans, has morphed into a catch-all for the best comics I can find. And as you've likely noticed, I've chosen to ignore the dross that irritates me. While full-on bashing is easy fun, it's nevertheless an advertisement for creators whom I'd rather didn't get any. Here and there I'll drop a name, pin it to the internets with a smart-ass remark, then move on. By and large, though, I prefer celebrating comics I love.

"Duh," say you loyal readers, "start discussing Locke & Key already!" I just wanted to acknowledge that writing about comics has changed my reading habits. Weekly superhero titles, especially the icons published by Marvel and DC, are extremely tough to unpack in two or three paragraphs. To maintain my own writing's freshness, I've been searching for interesting stuff ever further afield. Which brings me to-

Ah, there it goes. That's my shame floating away, now that I've sampled the gothic tonic that is Locke & Key. Published by IDW, this is a comic that's crept below my radar for years simply because it doesn't feature capes and domino masks. It's about the Keyhouse mansion in Lovecraft, Massachusetts, the many doors of which open with supernatural consequences. Locke family siblings Bode, Kinsey and Tyler (a boy, a preteen girl and a young man) move back to their ancestral home after their father is murdered by a psychotic high school student.

After picking up the 2011 Free Comic Book Day issue, I fell hard for this anything-goes, exquisitely drawn title. Novelist Joe Hill (Horns) and artist Gabriel Rodriguez capture New England in all its beautiful eeriness. They fan suspense from a series of sparks, and never dampen it with needless flashbacks. The characters- including the kids' parents, uncle Duncan, and the murderous Sam Lesser- develop with a craftiness not often seen in comics.

Welcome to Lovecraft collects the first six issues, and immediately there's a voltaic thrill created by text that challenges the art. The opening scene introduces us to Mrs. Locke as she answers the door of the family's summer home in Mendocino Valley. Scuzzy, mullet-wearing Sam and his crony Al Grubb stand by, and we can see the axe and revolver hidden behind their backs. "Mister Locke showed me a picture of your place last year," Sam lies to the mother of three, "and said I should come up and say hi sometime. Maybe hang with Tyler." Her husband being the high school guidance counselor, this does actually sound like him. "He did? I like your pick-up." Close view on the weapons, "It isn't ours. We jacked it." Then, in a full page of the truck's rear, we see bloody bodies wrapped in canvas. "From my uncle," says Sam. "He doesn't mind."

Amid funeral scenes, we get the fractured, tragic events that move the survivors to Keyhouse. Grubb attacks and rapes Mrs. Locke (don't worry- she gives him his axe back, through the skull). Sam shoots her husband, only to be bludgeoned by Tyler with a brick. All of this is preceded by the brief flitting of a death's head moth. It returns later, once Bode stumbles upon the key that opens a black door. As he steps through it, the youngest Locke's spirit leaves his body.

Throughout, the depiction of a grieving family is incredible. Tyler walks with shoulders slumped and cap pulled low. Kinsey starts off wearing dreadlocks, then realizes, " only advertise your political beliefs with a T-shirt if you're seriously insecure..." Their mom is always haggard, dressed in black, and tipsy from the generously stocked wine cellar.

Artist Rodriguez combines the bug-eyed emotional range of Humberto Ramos (The Amazing Spider-Man) and the meticulous draftsmanship of Howard Porter (The Flash). His flair for illustrating gardens and architecture (both wooden and stone) is exceptionally thrilling. Two or three issues in, these elements gel for some of the spookiest scenes this side of Watchmen. One shows Sam in Mr. Locke's office at the high school. A painting of a well-house on the wall fascinates him, and we soon see a woman- trapped inside- asking for help. This is the same well-house that Bode's been investigating, physically and as a ghost.

This first story arc climaxes with Sam's escape from prison, a demon's escape from the well-house, and (gulp) a change of sex for one of them. It's all I can do not to stay up zipping through that second Locke & Key trade sitting a foot away from me. Without even knowing it, this is exactly the kind of comic I've been wanting to read. Hill and Rodriguez have wrapped their excitement for the medium in a tale that's contagious to the touch. At its best, the Buffy TV show was like this. Claremont and Byrne's Uncanny X-Men was like this. Brilliant work cracks you open, changing the light by which you see everything else.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Golden Years

Riding glorious momentum and addictive panache, The Amazing Spider-Man just reached issue 700. After such a milestone, a character and his creators can go (narrative-wise) wherever they'd like. So, it's with balls that could chase Indiana Jones that superstar writer Dan Slott takes Spidey back to the 1990s- the era of clones, alternate identities, and nagging redheads!

Not literally, of course. But the gimmick he's instituted this month- that of Spider-Man's smartest foe, Doctor Octopus, know inhabiting Peter Parker's body- ranks high among the many outrageous, intrusive and careless stunts fans have been putting up with since creator Stan Lee's scripting chores ended.

Or does it? Yes, Slott received Tweeted death-threats when word of this plot escaped. Yes, screwing with an iconic character's core backfires ninety-nine percent of the time. And yes, this absolutely is sales-goosing insanity, in lock-step with the Marvel NOW! program.

But most superhero comics in the 90s were as much fun as a surprise root canal. The mind-scraping inertia of grim and gritty writing had readers endlessly asking, "What fresh hell is this?" Not many comics were reliably mature and entertaining (Impulse and Astro City among the few that were), which contrasts deeply with today's parade of hip, Hollywood-savvy heroes.

Fans are aware today that no run, no matter how clever or successful, can last forever. Slott and Peter Parker have been a heavenly match since the "Big Time" era began in 2010. Many of these stories (like "Spider Island" and "Ends of the Earth") were huge, detail-driven extravaganzas. Once the webs settled, we had a hero/scientist with an even stronger commitment to saving lives.

But he couldn't save his own. Doc Ock used some mad-scientist tech to switch bodies with Parker, who then took a beating outside Avengers Tower. As our hero died, Octavius suffered the merging of their memories; this gave us young Otto with Aunt May and Uncle Ben, with dead Gwen Stacy in his arms, and with knowledge about great power and great responsibility. "Farewell, Peter Parker," he says. "You may be leaving this world, but you are not leaving it to a villain."

So better to burn Parker out than let him fade away, right? Slott might have told all the best tales he wanted to with a straight-laced New Yorker. Now, with a maniacal villain who'd been near death (and decaying for years) suddenly in a body capable of seducing women and scaling buildings, Slott can pan for black comedy gold.

With artist Ryan Stegman along, The Superior Spider-Man promises just as much energy as the Humberto Ramos-led "Big Time." Actually, Stegman reminds me most of Joe Madureira (Uncanny X-Men), but scratchier and more flexible. The first issue introduces us to a new Sinister Six, comprised of Shocker, Speed Demon, the Beetle, Boomerang, Overdrive and the Living Brain. Otto dives into battle against the team he founded with, "I guess they're letting ANYONE call themselves the Sinister Six these days."

Naturally, Otto brutalizes them. He's added razors to his gloves, and uses his "unparalleled genius" to create a power-dampening field and traps (all of which appear crippling). Everyone else in Parker's life notices that he's a bit off, too. Mary Jane, love of his life, can't quite believe that he's drinking, calling her "woman" and wearing a phone on his ear during dinner. Max Modell, his boss at Horizon Labs, wonders if he'll ever stop designing weaponry for Spider-Man. The man then gets a list of benign scientific applications grouchily shoved under his nose (by a Parker dressed like Dr. Frankenstein).

The Superior Spider-Man is wonderfully smart and will someday be considered vintage Slott. Those emotionally attached to Parker needn't toss in their sleep or stress eat. Batman recently "died" and Dick Grayson (Nightwing) took over until his convoluted (though entertaining) return, remember? The Iron Patriot (Norman Osborn) ruled Marvel for two years, which proved a compelling idea with great mileage. Besides, by the end of this first issue, we already get the Ghost of Nerdly Past appearing to calm Otto's frenzied bloodletting. "I don't know how, but I am still in the fight! I AM Peter Parker, and I swear I will find a way back." Yerp.

Monday, January 7, 2013

All The Ways Are His

This in reply to a young monk asking, "I seek the King of Dreams. Am I going the right way?" The exchange comes in the middle of an astounding dream sequence, across pages of silent, exquisite narrative. We witness the monk traverse a midnight void on a sparkling bridge. Or is it a river, for he soon must leap from a yawning golden cataract. When he drifts to a halt, his wood-block sandals meet a jagged jade landscape, where they soon disintegrate. From there, a bleached bone-yard of fantastic remains, and a garden of whispered contradictions.

Even if the names Neil Gaiman and P. Craig Russel mean nothing to you, opening The Sandman: The Dream Hunters graphic novel makes you one lucky lemur. As I said, the scene above is a fantasy within the fantasy. I belabor this because both artist and writer have been floating gargantuan ideas for decades. It's probably more challenging for them to craft the mundane.

Novelist and comic-scribe Gaiman reinvented DC's Sandman for mature audiences in 1988. The character went from being a Depression-era vigilante to a deity whose "adventures" spanned time, space and literature. Ending in 1996, when Gaiman left, The Sandman might be the most widely-acclaimed ongoing comic ever; it ranks high among readers who like The Watchmen, high-flown indie fluff, and little else.

I can take or leave Gaiman's novels, dripping with >kewt< as they are. The voice of his comics, however, when paired with the perfect artist, is irresistible. For The Dream Hunters, he crafts a faux Japanese legend about a monk who falls in love with a fox. Originally this tale had been published as prose, with illustrations by the inimitable Yoshitako Amano (Final Fantasy). But thankfully Russel couldn't get the imagery out of his head, so here we are.

In the 1970s and 80s, adapting the work of Rudyard Kipling and Michael Moorcock, Russel wielded an intimidating baroque style. He's since become a storyteller of startling balance; his panels no longer paralyze the eyes with detail, but draw them further in. Forest landscapes offer lushly-lined foregrounds that give way to mountains and clouds of hypnotic simplicity. All of these, including water courses, crisp and curl like Japanese block-prints of old. The coloring by Lovern Kindzierski, too, is in homage to this bygone era, as is the texture of watercolor paper, added digitally.

While it would be easy to gush over the storybook elegance of every panel (and their marvelous interaction on every page), there are highlights. One is the scene in which a demon tears free a piece of the monk's shadow. The piece is then ground up and used in an incantation by the small and jealous onmyoji, whose material wealth has failed to settle his soul.

Another great scene has the fox, who can craft elaborate illusions, dangle herself before the onmyoji as a beautiful young woman. She lures him from his wife, concubine, home and possessions on the promise of filling his existential chasm. During the meal they share, he experiences a lavish home and delicious food. The reality the fox hides, of a derelict shack and bowls of mice, unfolds chillingly. As usual, the Sandman appears late in the tale, as Gaiman's characters reach never-forced, poetic crossroads.

As a cape-chaser, an action junkie, I found The Sandman late in my reading life. I decided to finally read him not because someone forced me to, or spoke so eloquently about his travels that I couldn't resist. No. I entered his world simply because nobody could describe it. Here, I've done The Dream Hunters hardly any justice. But sometimes you just want to say, "Thank you."

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Stranger Paradise

The idea of Image Comics revisiting their roots in 2012 was a great, splashy red one. Classic early runs of The Savage Dragon and Spawn were bloodier than comics had ever been. And gleefully so. But twenty years later, current Image titles like Revival and Danger Club tweak genre tropes and prove a helluva lot smarter than their 1990s counterparts.

Which brings us to The Strange Talent of Luther Strode, today's best ongoing splatter-fest. Written by Justin Jordan and drawn by Tradd Moore, this comic has a name that evokes Victorian bestsellers. Its innards, however, ask what might've happened if Peter Parker grew up with an abusive dad and a love of Friday the 13th movies.

Minus the radioactivity, of course. Stick-boy Luther gains the power "to focus [his] mind, body and spirit towards one goal" from a book called the Hercules Method (advertised in comics, in a nod to Flex Mentallo). We see him, in a few quick panels, meditate, do push-ups, down some protein, and proclaim the whole endeavor pointless.

Worry not, savages! The tale opens, lest we underestimate our hero, to explosive gore. First, Luther pops bullets from his flesh like pesky blackheads. Then, with a Godfather poster in the background, we see him standing astride a half-dozen corpses. His barehanded attacks, able to disembowel, have left dead gangsters punched through the ceiling, ripped in half, and armless (with one arm going down and out through another guy's throat).

Artist Moore should be proud. His take on ultra-violence is hilariously nasty, and something every human being should witness (like autumn in New England and I Dreamed a Dream, from Les Miserables). He and writer Jordan also use a nifty technique in which Luther sees the shadow of something dangerous before it happens. Not quite a "Spider-Sense", but we're also treated to panels where Luther literally sees red, in the form of people's musculature. It's gruesome, intriguing, and one of many features that makes this title so rich.

Another is that the Hercules Method is an occult document, sent to Luther by an ancient group of death-obsessed lunatics. We meet them chained up in a cavern, disguised in bandages, and able to lethally spit teeth. Their footman, the Librarian (whose bald head, goatee and bow-tie screech NEMESIS), also happens to see people as sacks of meat.

By the time he confronts Luther, our dweeb has beefed-up and sharpened his skills on high school jocks, convenience store robbers and drug dealers. These encounters are exceptional- Jordan's got an ear for what's just abrasive and cocky enough to read well (unlike Mark Millar, who cranks abrasive and cocky up to eleven, then walks away swinging both middle-fingers). Here's alpha-douche Paul, channeling David Attenborough as he mocks Luther: "Behold the nerd in its natural habitat as it attempts to mate. Unfortunately, its small, almost vestigial penis will prevent success." Rounding out the supporting cast, we have Mom, best friend Pete, and future cougar Petra (if she lives that long). "Jesus," she says to classmate Luther, squeezing his arm, "you feel like a condom stuffed with walnuts."

While she's at it, Petra wears a NIN shirt. Her pens live on her desk in a Misfits mug. In fact, wherever the creators can tout their influences explicitly, they do. Luther and Peter attend (Jason) Voorhees High, read comics (that are clearly) by Grant Morrison, and love films like Akira and John Carpenter's The Thing. More than likely though, if you're reading Luther Strode, you already enjoy this stuff too.

In lesser talents, these visual shortcuts would be a crutch. Not so for Jordan and Moore. Aiding and abetting them is the indispensable Felipe Sobreiro, who brings cool, lurid colors to the mix while allowing oceans of bright red to command most scenes. His use of shadows even has me wonder what might result if animators tackled this material. Then I realize any translation would diminish Luther's world. This is a comic book- and a winking red spectacle of one at that.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Immortal Coil

So, we're still here. Mankind deserves to be ripped from the garden we've despoiled and chucked into frigid space, but we're still here. The ancient Mayans (and their modern day horde of capitalist proselytizers) were wrong. Whoops. Next year, when Bravo launches a program called Look What This Idiot Bought, many of us will vie for camera time to display our 2012 books, shirts, ornaments, statuettes, and probably fanny-packs. Not me, though. I paid tribute not by checking my brain at the temple door (nor by leaving vomit and glow-sticks on its steps), but by reading Red Hulk: Mayan Rule.

You're thinking, "Wait. Hold it. Slow your roll, poindexter. Red Hulk?" Bruce Banner, Marvel's scrawniest, angriest doctor, has been a gray or green monster, but never red. This feisty character is actually General Thunderbolt Ross, the man responsible for the gamma-bomb test that created Banner's duality. In this tale, written by superhero purist Jeff Parker and drawn by Canadian visionary Dale Eaglesham, Ross and his supporting crew tangle with the pantheon of Mayan gods.

Now, when I call Parker a purist, I compare him to the writers who followed Stan Lee at Marvel in the late 1960s and early 70s: Roy Thomas, Gerry Conway and Steve Englehart. Parker's scripts worship their era of dense plots and challenging characterization. He fills his comics (such as Thunderbolts and Agents of Atlas) with missing artifacts, enchanted locals, boisterous team-ups- anything and everything to not only keep you reading, but then rereading later, for the propulsive thrill of it.

Having not perused Red Hulk in a few years, I enjoyed seeing such elements still in fluid motion. Former sidekick Rick Jones continues his turn as A-Bomb, a blue version of the Hulk villain Abomination. Also present is Alpha Flight (Canada's premier team of mutant heroes), Machine Man (a cybernetic Mr. Fantastic), and newcomer Annie (an android, whose public displays of affection for Ross bring weapons-grade Viagra to mind).

The deity-on-deity action begins when Rick Jones (in human form) investigates an all too permissive tour of a Mayan temple in the Yucatan. The guide brings his group inside the ancient structure, only to pull a knife and drip some of his own blood on a squat, tabular idol. Shafts of aquamarine light then engulf a pair of tourists. The goddess Ixchel appears and sucks the life from them, leaving Rick to gawp at the bony husks. "I knew this tour was going somewhere bad," he says before launching into battle, "but you didn't know this temple had an A-Bomb in it."

Only certain artists should be drawing a Hulk comic. Eaglesham, whose panels roll forward like superhero evolution in progress, is one of them. Ed McGuinness (Red Hulk's first artist) is another; both polish Jack Kirby's furious sense of weight. But Eaglesham also combines it with John Buscema's wondrous musculature.

In other words, his fight scenes are frackin' astounding. As the narrative leaps among holographic pyramids (and the continents hosting them), more of our heroes fall to the Mayans, who drain life-force to reignite their presence in the here-and-now. Eaglesham plays with the paneling, offering borders that zig-zag, crumble, or are actually chunks of carved stellae.

Parker (likely jazzed by Eaglesham's drop-in for these five issues) meets the visuals with fang-sharp dialogue. "I've screwed up," says Rick Jones to Ross, after returning from the Yucatan, "and unleashed something horrible on the world. Figured you'd know some things about that." Another scene sees the General comment on riots in Guatemala (and our own cabinet of war criminals): "Shock and awe. [The gods are] shaking up the populace, upsetting order. Then they'll provide their own order, and the people will accept it."

Most intriguing is the fact that the would-be Mayan rulers continuously refer to Ross and his companions as gods. It never occurs to Big Red that while tussling with lava giants, man-serpents and living tidal waves, he himself could be worshiped. In the end, as Annie echoes scribe Grant Morrison's idea that superheroes encompass modern creation myths, Ross quips, "I just now got used to being a Hulk." And I never should've stopped reading Parker's work. The New Year will see that corrected.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Coast With The Most

On the cover of the new Justice League there's some squawk about a "Bold New Era" beginning. Only fifteen issues in, DC surely doesn't mean to imply that they were faking it during the ostentatious New 52 relaunch, right? Well, not quite. But the first story arc, written by Geoff Johns (The Flash) and drawn by Jim Lee (X-Men) often felt like Superman, Batman, and the rest of DC's best were action figures, getting a perfunctory crash-together by bored toddlers.

It was entertaining, pretty- and little else, despite the appearance of alien dictator Darkseid. That said, the more I chomp on this phenomenon, the more I realize the initial Justice League outing was simplified for as large an audience a possible- especially kids and teens who'd seen the recent Batman and Green Lantern films.

But now, with the visual fireworks of artist Ivan Reis in play, this is indeed a different, more fan-friendly League. Reis helped relaunch Aquaman last year, dazzling fans with a Johns-scripted tale of undersea cannibals (that revitalized the hero like never before). Here, we begin a cross-over with that title in which fish are seen leaving the Atlantic Coast in droves. A great opening page, forbidding and atmospheric, that brings us to test missiles blasting off from an aircraft carrier ahead of schedule. They zoom to the bottom of the Atlantic, hitting the fabled spires of Atlantis.

Action, we expected. Next, however, come the Earth-bound displays of personality that make us root for heroes like Superman and Wonder Woman. "Right in this room," says Big Blue, "I thought about giving up Clark Kent completely. But I like being Clark Kent. I like who I am and who my parents were." And, about whether or not to wear a mask, like Batman, there's this incredible line: "I'd rather good people trust me than bad people fear me." This is essential Superman speaking, whom we'd thought lost as the New 52 proceeded apace with endless intergalactic hay-makers.

Not to worry, those of you uninterested in seeing Clark and Diana wear glasses, sip wine, and revel in their anonymity. Once Atlantis counterattacks, hitting Metropolis with a tidal wave (Reis is at his astonishing best here), our heroes zip to the city's defense. Also, the personal is layered throughout the widescreen, as reporter Lois Lane notices that Wonder Woman is awfully quick to Superman's side.

Even the minor scene where Batman chases and disarms the Scarecrow's thugs (in boats, under the Gotham Bridge) is beautiful. Reis, who years ago polished his muscular style on the brightly-lit Green Lantern, seems particularly thrilled to draw the Caped Crusader. Fighting for just a few panels, he's as acrobatic as he is unholy. Then Aquaman intervenes, and we overhear a few cops try to bring him into their squalid little locker room: "Oh, yeah, sure. He's got an Aqua-Signal that throws fifty pounds of fish food into the bay whenever a sailboat capsizes." Yet when his ravishing wife Mera arrives, they haven't much to say. "Speechless?" she inquires, "Or just a little wet, I guess."

This first issue of "Throne of Atlantis" leads directly into Aquaman, also out this week and welcoming new series artist Paul Pelletier (She-Hulk). We learn that Prince Arthur himself wrote up the plan of attack that his brother now uses against the entire East Coast. In Johns' hands this premise captivates, though it owes much to Mark Waid's 2000 JLA story "Tower of Babel." More than likely, the heavyweight scribe is well aware of this. He might even be teasing us, chumming the water so we sink our teeth in.