Comic Books
 

Quarterbin Follies #15: Wildstorm-Tossed (Part 1)

Gen13-1In the beginning there was MARVEL. Well, to be more accurate, there were these guys that worked for Marvel. These guys were rock stars with pencil and pen. And as rock stars are prone, they wanted to play by their own rules. And, with vigor, and with flourish worthy of Steve Martin at his ‘Jerk’iest, these fellows struck off to start their own, better universe. Or should I say “Universes.”

Well, let’s be honest here, people; this is exactly where my expertise stops. You see, while Liefeld, Silvestri, Lee and all were inventing Image, I didn’t care. You couldn’t have paid me to care. My pubescent self was a DC devotee all the way, being a huge Batman fan and all. At first, I couldn’t be bothered by Marvel. I mean, what were the chances that Batman was going to run into Spider-Man, I mean, really? Eventually, I came around on Marvel, being introduced to Daredevil by one, Joel Deitz (thanks, wherever you are, man), but still, I never got into Image.

So, a few weeks ago, I sat down with Barry Tetz and a bottle of Scotch to discuss Image and all that it meant to him. You see, in addition to being my buddy and business associate, Barry was a devout Image Comics fan, cutting his comic teeth on their grim-n-gritty fodder. And, it was into that memory and experience I looked, to filter out many of the questions that had sprung from my own reading of the three books I will be addressing in this series.

When Image got its start, you see, there was not a single guiding force – no sole creative impulse to direct the animus that the founders brought together. Rather, there were several lampposts, each beaming from the mind of one of the rock stars, and each prepared to illuminate a separate if parallel path. Around and about these lights were formed the various Image studios: Silvestri’s Top Cow, Todd McFarlane Productions, or Jim Lee’s Wildstorm among them (yeah, there were six studios in the beginning, but just how long do you want this to be?).

Image has had nothing, if not a bizarre and bent path, continuity-wise. Having six North Star’s will do that. This was, of course, exasperated by the various splittings and pairings that inevitably accompanied comings and goings of creators and studios. And, it is this factor that plays into the reason I am looking at three books over the next few weeks, as I meander upon my point to focus upon WildStorm and upon Gen13.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not not take a paragraph to explain a little about what, and who, I have learned Gen13 was. Between the intrepid Mr. Tetz and Wikipedia, I learned that the super teens were the children of the historic Cold War era super-spy-group, Team 7. Now, that is an interesting tidbit for me, because “legacy” is one of my favourite themes in literature and comics. It is a part of why I love Roy Thomas and the Justice Society of America. Anyroad, the Gen13 kids lived in a world where super-humans had been extant for centuries, and where the culture and religion of all people had been influenced by various interferences by various warring aliens. To manage all this meta-human and trans-planetary action, the US began IO, an intelligence agency focused on keeping track of the metas. It is from these threats that the kids of Gen13 find themselves trained by John Lynch, a friend of all their fathers, and a former member of Team 7. But, I knew none of that in 1997.

Gen13-2By that time, I’d developed an interest in Marvel and had discovered Generation X, which I would casually follow on the spinner-rack, though I was still using my money to follow Batman and Nightwing. I’d seen the Gen13 kids in Wizard Magazine, and seeing the Gen13*Generation X: Generation Gap on the shelves of our local collectibles shop, I figured $1.95 was worth the risk. Maybe I’d get a great introduction to this new world of WildStorm and Image. I was wrong.

Written by Brandon Choi with art by Art Adams and Alex Gardner, Generation Gap is full of ham-fisted dialogue and fraught with the frustrating assumption that the reader already knows the characters – what they can do, and who they are. This is especially true of the Gen13 kids. Choi does spend some time introducing the Marvel half, the first part of the tale beginning while Banshee is a rookie INTERPOL agent hiding his mutant powers, and while Lynch is a operative for International Operations (more on them later). Nevertheless, the characters mainly come through as cyphers. The art is really spot on, and Choi was able to use villains from both universes, but the story also suffers from “over-villainy,” much like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. Over all, it kind of left me with a “What just happened?” sort of feeling.

This comic was my only real exposure to Image and WildStorm for years, and it failed to leave any positive impact on me. Over the course of time, WildStorm was bought by DC Comics, and remained there for a spell. We will talk more about that next week, I suppose, but for now, like Choi, I must end this with perhaps too much abruptness.

##

Quarterbin Follies #16: Wildstorm-Tossed (Part 1)

Gen13-1In the beginning there was MARVEL. Well, to be more accurate, there were these guys that worked for Marvel. These guys were rock stars with pencil and pen. And as rock stars are prone, they wanted to play by their own rules. And, with vigor, and with flourish worthy of Steve Martin at his ‘Jerk’iest, these fellows struck off to start their own, better universe. Or should I say “Universes.”

Well, let’s be honest here, people; this is exactly where my expertise stops. You see, while Liefeld, Silvestri, Lee and all were inventing Image, I didn’t care. You couldn’t have paid me to care. My pubescent self was a DC devotee all the way, being a huge Batman fan and all. At first, I couldn’t even be bothered by Marvel. I mean, what were the chances that Batman was going to run into Spider-Man, I mean, really? Eventually, I came around on Marvel, being introduced to Daredevil by one, Joel Deitz (thanks, wherever you are, man), but still, I never got into Image.

So, a few weeks ago, I sat down with Barry Tetz and a bottle of Scotch to discuss Image and all that it meant to him. You see, in addition to being my buddy and business associate, Barry was a devout Image Comics fan, cutting his comic teeth on their grim-n-gritty fodder. And, it was into that memory and experience I looked, to filter out many of the questions that had sprung from my own reading of the three books I will be addressing in this series.

When Image got its start, you see, there was not a single guiding force – no sole creative impulse to direct the animus that the founders brought together. Rather, there were several lampposts, each beaming from the mind of one of the rock stars, and each prepared to illuminate a separate if parallel path. Around and about these lights were formed the various Image studios: Silvestri’s Top Cow, Todd McFarlane Productions, or Jim Lee’s Wildstorm among them (yeah, there were six studios in the beginning, but just how long do you want this to be?).

Image has had nothing, if not a bizarre and bent path, continuity-wise. Having six North Star’s will do that. This was, of course, exasperated by the various splittings and pairings that inevitably accompanied comings and goings of creators and studios. And, it is this factor that plays into the reason I am looking at three books over the next few weeks, as I meander upon my point to focus upon WildStorm and upon Gen13.

Now, I would be remiss if I did not not take a paragraph to explain a little about what, and who, I have learned Gen13 was. Between the intrepid Mr. Tetz and Wikipedia, I learned that the super teens were the children of the historic Cold War era super-spy-group, Team 7. Now, that is an interesting tidbit for me, because “legacy” is one of my favourite themes in literature and comics. It is a part of why I love Roy Thomas and the Justice Society of America. Anyroad, the Gen13 kids lived in a world where super-humans had been extant for centuries, and where the culture and religion of all people had been influenced by various interferences by various warring aliens. To manage all this meta-human and trans-planetary action, the US began IO, an intelligence agency focused on keeping track of the metas. It is from these threats that the kids of Gen13 find themselves trained by John Lynch, a friend of all their fathers, and a former member of Team 7. But, I knew none of that in 1997.

Gen13-2By that time, I’d developed an interest in Marvel and had discovered Generation X, which I would casually follow on the spinner-rack, though I was still using my money to follow Batman and Nightwing. I’d seen the Gen13 kids in Wizard Magazine, and seeing the Gen13*Generation X: Generation Gap on the shelves of our local collectibles shop, I figured $1.95 was worth the risk. Maybe I’d get a great introduction to this new world of WildStorm and Image. I was wrong.

Written by Brandon Choi with art by Art Adams and Alex Gardner, Generation Gap is full of ham-fisted dialogue and fraught with the frustrating assumption that the reader already knows the characters – what they can do, and who they are. This is especially true of the Gen13 kids. Choi does spend some time introducing the Marvel half, the first part of the tale beginning while Banshee is a rookie INTERPOL agent hiding his mutant powers, and while Lynch is a operative for International Operations (more on them later). Nevertheless, the characters mainly come through as cyphers. The art is spot-on in that late-’90’s-glossy-paper sort of way, and Choi was able to use villains from both universes, but the story also suffers from “over-villainy,” much like Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 3. Over all, it kind of left me with a “What just happened?” sort of feeling.

This comic was my only real exposure to Image and WildStorm for years, and it failed to leave any positive impact on me. Over the course of time, WildStorm was bought by DC Comics, and remained there for a spell. We will talk more about that next week, I suppose, but for now, like Choi, I must end this with perhaps too much abruptness.

##

Revisiting Sandman #3

sandman1This installment is part of an ongoing series in which Christopher re-reads and analyzes one of the greatest comic book series of this or any age. Truth be told, he thinks way too hard about this series, but it’s okay: he knows that other people think way too hard about this series as well. He likes to justify his thoughts by telling himself that he is writing this series for those people.

When last we left Morpheus, king of dreams, he had just recovered the three artifacts of his power: his mask, his pouch, and his dream crystal. With the destruction of the crystal at the hands of Dr. Destiny, Morpheus’s power returns to him in full, making him more powerful than he has been in centuries. What follows is a single issue that is most likely the most important issue in the first volume, and possibly the most important issue in the entire series.

When “Sound of Her Wings” opens, Morpheus is sitting and moping and feeding pigeons. After completing his revenge on his captors and retrieving his belongings, he is listless and unmotivated, unsure of what to do next. Enter his big sister, Death, who offers him the opportunity to accompany her on her work that day and talk. Within 22 pages, which ultimately feel way too short, we are transported around the world, as Dream watches Death guide people into the afterlife. While this is happening, Death guides Morpheus and gives him direction, ultimately creating a beautiful sibling interaction that is remarkably sweet, considering the two characters are eternal representations of metaphysical concepts.

This issue is notable for a number of reasons. In the afterward of Preludes and NocturnesNeil Gaiman calls this issue an epilogue to the preceding stories, and in this sense, it’s very true. The first seven issues of the collection are a self-contained story documenting Morpheus’s imprisonment, escape, and recovery. Once this is complete, we the readers are left as unsure of the future as Morpheus is. While Gaiman could have just jumped through time to start a new story in the following issue, he instead chooses to slow down the pacing and explore what makes Morpheus tick.

Additionally, this issue is important because of its introduction of Death, who would go on to be a major fan favorite. Morpheus’s big sister is everything he is not, and that is wonderful. Where Morpheus is dark, brooding, and morose, Death is happy, perky, and energetic. This first appearance shows Death smiling and talking about Mary Poppins, and I don’t know about you, but in all my musings and thoughts on death, this persona is most unlike anything I’ve imagined. This juxtaposition is especially striking, considering that Death’s job is to literally guide people through their deaths. It makes sense within the context of the story, I guess. As Morpheus says, “It is as natural to die as it is to be born.” It is humanity that cowers in fear of death, when really, it’s just one more phase of life. In this sense, Death’s appearance and demeanor fits very well.

As to why people glommed onto her as a character, I think that some of that has to do with her reactions to those around her. We see her being stern and disapproving, when she first talks to Morpheus, to cool and comforting a few pages later, when an infant asks, “is that all I get?” While Morpheus is the king of Dreams, and the main character of entire series, it is Death that provides the pathos within these pages, and it is that pathos that engages us as the readers.

Or, maybe, she just gives people hope. Maybe, when we die, we’re greeted by a goth girl wearing an Ankh around her neck, who guides us to the afterlife amid the sound of her wings.

Gaiman calls this issue an epilogue, and it certainly serves that purpose. It caps off the previous stories, providing some much needed closure and bridging a gap to the storyline that follows. Additionally, though, it bridges an even wider gap, between who Morpheus was, and who he becomes in the rest of the series. It’s a single, self-contained issue that, as I said earlier, feels way too short, but it’s an issue that everyone should read. Even more so, it’s an issue that would be a great introduction to the series for someone who has never read any other issues.

This concludes our revisit of Preludes and Nocturnes, the first volume of Sandman. Overall, this is a terrific opening to a terrific series, and Gaiman does a fantastic job of drawing us into the world and making us want to stay. In the next installment, I’ll head into the second volume, The Doll’s House, which finds Dream continuing to rebuild his realm.

##

Quarterbin Follies #15: The View from the Cheap Seats

The_Marvel_UniverseWell, I suppose it was only a matter of time. Inevitable, really.

616 is no more. El finito. Deep Six’d. Garroted.

Really, this is sort of a big deal, I suppose. So big, that Chris asked me to put my normal Quarterbin Follies column on hold (tune in next week for some thoughts on Gen13!) and give some thoughts on the END from the perspective of a continuity obsessed uber-nerd. Sure, it seems like the kind of thing to rankle the crochetey hackles of a middle-aged and loud-mouthed comic-book wash-out, right? Sounds like some “good TV.”

And to be honest, when Chris first mentioned it, I was a little miffed. It is no secret that I HATE the New 52 and all it stands for. As a general rule I hate “the relaunch,” and all that it implies: the new ideas are better than the old ones, or that there is something wrong with how things were done. There’s an inherent disrespect in that type of thinking. So, you’d expect that I would have some pointed opinions about what Marvel should do, or how it should or should not proceed, but I don’t think I can care.

I could go on about how the 616 began: about how Roy Thomas, the original Super Fan, saved the Marvel Golden Age, and how Marvel had formerly been one of the more reboot proof universes. I could do that, but I won’t. As I said in the beginning, this move was inevitable. Hear that, Fan-Boys? If you didn’t see it coming, you are fools (for the record, I didn’t see it coming, either, damn it). It really has only been a matter of time, and no greater evidence should have been needed than Disney’s sundry decrees over in the Lucas-Verse.

The Star Wars Extended Universe was one of the most closely guarded and edited fictional universes in history, but it still was not safe from the mighty swing of the Great Axe of the Mouse. With a single swing, decades of side stories and timelines were undone. Now, I get the reasons, and I am even excited for the new Star Wars products (Star Wars: Rebels has been a ton of fun!), but there is a lot there for a nerd to lose sleep over. Nevertheless, why should that have an impact on Marvel?

With Marvel’s recent success as a movie studio, and recent acquisition by the Disney “conglom-co,” it is suddenly true that there is a reason for a single, interlocked product that can be MARVEL, under the umbrella of “House of Mouse.” However, the late 90’s and the 00’s were not kind to this kind of uniformity. Marvel began struggling for ‘relevance’ in the face of a shrinking comics industry, and so they tried to re-invent themselves with the Ultimate line. (Gah—how I hated the Ultimate line, but now is not the time for that).

But even if they had not, this reboot was the doom required by the intrinsic assumption of Marvel. You see, Marvel – like many of their other mainstream counterparts – built a universe with a rotating timeline, where everything that happens in their comics is happening “now.” This constant present tense does make for easily engaging stories, but at the same time it ties the legs of the narrative. Comics take a while to come out, and because modern comics are telling complex, nuanced stories, this practice stretches days into months and years to the point that the whole hot mess eventually falls into itself. I am not going to bore you with the math here, but I trust you can see what I am talking about. Just how long can Peter Parker stay a teenager?

Anyway, because comics refuse to tie their stories to any kind of realistic time frame, and yet refuse to leave themselves untouched by real-world events, the reboot becomes needful and, despite my impulse to hate it, well, that just doesn’t matter.

So this merger, which, as I understand it, will not be an entire reboot, will still leave few things unscathed. Only these things I hope:

  1. Captain America stays hopeful in spirit and believes in all the best of what America was meant to be. It worked in the movies, guys.
  2. Wolverine stays really short and really damned old. And that he is not a statutory rapist
  3. Nick Fury has his beginnings in the Golden Age. He is so much more interesting as a point-to-counter-point to Cap, and you miss a lot of that if they don’t have the same roots.
  4. Bruce Banner is more Dr Jekyll and less Mr Hyde.
  5. Miles Morales finds a place and Peter finds MJ. The former deserves a chance, and the latter, a break.

Well, I suppose that’s what I have to say. I don’t know if it’s because I really don’t have an opinion, not being a die-hard Marvel fan, or I am just argued out, but, damn people, let Marvel do what they want. They were gonna do that anyway.

Me, I am going to sit back and watch. From a respectful distance.

##

An Open Letter to Miles Morales

Miles_MoralesDear Miles,

I hope this letter finds you well, especially in light of Marvel’s recent announcement that they would be merging your Ultimate universe with the standard 616 universe into something called Battleworld, which sounds more like a post-apocalyptic movie from the 1980s. Of course, this announcement brings with it questions about your existence. What happens to you in Battleworld? Unfortunately, I doubt the outcome will be good. And, for that, I am sorry.

I was talking with my friend, Rhys, about the announcement shortly after it was made, and I mentioned that I had severe doubts that you would survive the experience. He asked if your death had been confirmed, and I replied that it hadn’t. Maybe it’s the cynic in me, though, because I do believe wholeheartedly that it’s coming. Peter Parker is one of Marvel’s golden boys, and he always has been, and there is no way they’re going to give him up, or let him down, or turn around and desert him. He has a longer history, and he’s much more well-known to Spider-Man fans, and because of that, it makes more business sense to keep him around and let you go. And, I for one, think that’s a dang shame.

For starters, you are necessary. It isn’t that Peter Parker isn’t necessary, but he’s old and overcooked. We’ve followed Peter Parker’s crappy life for over fifty years now, and he’s tired, and done. You, however, present new stories to tell, as you learn and grow and deal with your own past, present, and future. I think it’s a shame that we’ll never get to see those stories. Because, you ultimately represent a stronger voice, and one that is sorely needed in comics. There have been some amazing black and latino characters in comic book history, but we need more. Diversity is always a good thing in any medium, because your experience, your world, your life, your truth is so much different than mine. And that is why you are so important, because you speak to those with similar experiences in a way that Peter Parker will never be able to.

The idea of a universal story is a myth, and when we lose the opportunity to tell different truths through our different stories, the medium as a whole suffers greatly.

Of course, you had your haters for this very reason. You were different, and people said that you were the result of the United States electing a black president, or political correctness gone awry. I have my own opinions on the subject of intentional diversity, and maybe someday I’ll write a bit about it. but let me respond to those accusations concerning you specifically. Don’t ever imagine for one second that you weren’t Spider-Man. At his essence, Spider-Man is an allegory for growing up, and black or white or Asian or Indian or whatever, Spider-Man stories need to explore these ideas. And you did that in your stories. Maybe it was a different coming of age story than we were used to, and some of us couldn’t necessarily identify with all of your experiences, but your stories as Spider-Man fed this requirement, and it fed it well. You grew up into the mask of Spider-Man, and discovered, in your own way, why great power brings great responsibility.

And, ultimately, that is why the return to the status quo of Peter Parker is so sad. Because, Peter is an adult, and he learned long ago that with great power comes great responsibility, and continuing to beat that dead horse feels as stale as stale can be. Eventually, Peter stops feeling like a kid trying to balance real life and superheroics, and more like the guy that sits down the aisle from me at work and spends all day complaining about how much he hates his 40-hour-a-week job, but he can’t leave, because his dad got him this job, and he needs to pay his massive credit card bill that he ran up eating all-y0u-can-eat tacos every Tuesday night for four years in college.

During our conversation, Rhys asked me why both you and Peter couldn’t exist together in the same universe, and ultimately, that would most likely be a happy medium. But, I sincerely doubt that as well. Because the last time Marvel tried to make two Spider-Mans (Spider-Men?) exist in the same universe, we got the Clone Saga, and the less said about that, the better. I still have major doubts that your fate is anything other than bleak.

Ultimately, I’m sure this letter makes me sound like a grumpy old man, or a social justice warrior, or a weird combination of the two, but I don’t really care. Miles, you were the best thing to come out of the Ultimate universe, and the freshest thing to come to Spider-Man in years, and your presence and voice will be greatly missed.

Goodbye.

Sincerely,

Christopher David Lawton

##

Quarterbin Follies #14: Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

Indy2Hey, do you remember LucasArts? You know, LucasArts, the video game wing of all things George Lucas. Well unless you are old or a giant nerd, you might not realize that long before The Mouse shut it down for being lame, LucasArts made some pretty cool games, and not just Star Wars, either. Well, the games that stuck out to me the most were the adventure games: Sam and Max, The Day of The Tentacle, the Monkey Island series. And, of course, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. Man, that was a fun game, full of globetrotting investigation, action, puzzle-solving, and anti-Nazi propaganda (which is not to say the Nazis didn’t have it coming – damn Nazis.)

Any road, it was a great game chock full of replay value, what with three different game modes and multiple endings. Problem was, when I moved from my childhood home to try my hand at college, and then the real world, I didn’t get to take the game with me! And so, I never got the shot to try and finish it more than once. Well, that was a long time ago, and the damn thing won’t even work on modern PC’s. Well, not in anyway I know of. Dark Horse to the rescue. Sorta.

Indy1You see, unbeknownst to me Dark Horse published a comic book adaptation, a miniseries that ran three acts in four issues in 1991. The first time I knew about it was a few months ago when I spotted the TPB (from ’92) at Game Time, our local comic shop turned game shop, which does a sideline selling off some old comics from its previous life. And so, after many years of not knowing what I was missing, I had the chance to dig into a little-sung adventure of everyone’s favourite fake archaeologist.

The story gets off to a great start, taking us to meet a 1939 Indy: thrill as he teaches! Of course, it is not long before Adventure sings her sultry, dangerous tune. In this case, a man comes a-calling, asking about an odd and lonesome artifact from the Jastro Expedition, a dig in Iceland that Indy had been on as a youth. One ransacking later, Mr. Jones is off to the city that never sleeps. It seems a fellow former student and ‘Jastro’ alum, Sophia Hapgood, has given up archaeology to be a fortune teller, guided by the ‘spirit’ of Nur-Ab-Sal. It is hard for Indy to determine what he is more disappointed with: Sophia’s ‘charlatan’ ways or her insistence that Atlantean artifacts even exist. This latter complaint takes a back seat as Indy and Sophia find themselves in a race, and sometimes chase, across the globe – and against the Nazis – to visit the other ‘Jastro’ fellows. And all along the way, they acquire such strange artifacts that Indy must concede that Atlantis is very real.

Indy4All this is very much like the video game (story by Hal Barwood and Noah Falstsein). So much so, that the writers/adapters William Messner-Loebs (Issue #1), Dan Barry (Issues #2-3), and Mike Richardson (Issue #4), seem to have not felt the need to write the whole story. Now, as I said before, the TPB starts great, giving us a wonderful intro to the heroes and the villains, and leading us into the stories about Atlantis, both legends and impressions. Indy and Sophia, and even Marcus Brody, have a time to shine there, but once they leave Iceland, well, things get weird. All the stops and plot points from the game are in the comic, but there are huge chunks just missing.

Now, the game is a puzzle-based, investigative adventure game, and large bits of it are reserved for the rooting and digging about that those types of games offer. Understandably, these moments do not make for the best in your comic book reading. But, many of the puzzles are just missing from the TPB. There are huge bits of the story that are just left out – or alluded to – and by the time Indy and Sophia discover the Lost City, they have all this stuff, and they just know how to use it to get inside. The third act slows up again, and we are able to follow the events in the Lost City as they “happen.”

Indy3And that is what makes it such a strange TPB. The intro section is a great pace, and we get a lot more a chance to feel ourselves fit into the events. Then—WHAM!—the story races along, and the reader is just left behind. Until the end. And the end is handled as well, if not better than the end of the game. I imagine this is largely due to the intricate difficulties of adaptation and of the sort of “creation by committee” that the project seemed to have going for it. I would be tempted to suggest that you just play the game (available on STEAM), excepting two things: The first act is much more fulfilling, and the art, by the team of Dan Barry and Karl Kesel, with luscious colors by Lurene Haines, is really something. Dan Barry took over all the art chores for the final issue, and, sadly, you can tell. But the whole is still worth checking out. Especially if you can find it in the QuarterBin.

##

Chris's Comic Picks: Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft

locke-and-keyChristmas has come and gone, and I hope in the spirit of the season, dear reader, you came away with a few new funny books to enjoy. My family has never been huge on giving gifts, but this year, my wife gave me a couple of books that I look forward to sharing with you in the coming weeks. The first of which I want to talk about today: Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft.

I was first exposed to writer Joe Hill about seven years ago with his fantastic debut novel, Heart-Shaped Box. Like most readers, I had more than a little experience with his famous father, Stephen King, but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Hill brought to the table a voice altogether unique from his father’s, and I enjoyed the novel immensely.

So, when I first heard about Locke and Key, a comic written by Hill, I was intrigued to say the least. On the other hand, though, I was trepidatious as well. It isn’t that I thought Hill would do me wrong, by any means. The man knows how to spin a great yarn, and I have faith in his ability. It’s that writing a novel and writing a comic book are two very different things. While there are definitely some similarities – a story is a story is a story – the ability to write one does not automatically gift you the ability to write the other. Still, I followed Hill on Twitter. I knew he at least understood the medium, so I knew he would at least bring some solidity to the project.

When I finally sat down to read Locke and Key, though, I was very pleased. Not only was the book “solid,” but it felt fresh compared to other horror comics I had read, in terms of pacing, characters, and perspective. While I’ve always thought Hill was a fantastic writer, Locke and Key convinced me that he is more than that. He is, dare I say it, a master storyteller.

The story follows the Locke family, mother and three kids, in the wake of the brutal murder of the patriarch, Rendell, at the hands of teenage serial killer, Sam Lesser. Nina Locke moves her and her three kids, Tyler, Kinsey, and Bode, across the country and into the Keyhouse with Rendell’s brother, Duncan. It’s a large house, with plenty of secrets hidden, which are slowly uncovered by the kids, who are each struggling with the death of their father in their own way. Tyler, the oldest, is angry and feels guilty for his father’s murder, Kinsey attempts to hide from the world, and Bode explores the house, finding a door that turns him into a ghost and a girl trapped at the bottom of a well.

While all of this is happening, Sam Lesser is in a juvenile detention center awaiting trial for multiple murders, when he makes contact with his “Master,” a spiritual entity that pushed him to commit the murders. The entity, which turns out to be the girl at the bottom of the well ensures him that she will help him escape, so that he may continue that which he was tasked to do: find a very special key somewhere in the Keyhouse.

As one would expect, all of these things come to a head at the end of the volume, as some questions are answered and even more are asked.

This comic works for a number of reasons, one of which is the idea of the house itself. Throughout the story, Hill takes great care to release little tidbits regarding the power and history of the house, and these tidbits are easily enough to whet my appetite for more information. I want to know what the deal is with the different doors. I want to know why the girl was trapped in the well. Above all else, I want to know what sort of history Rendell and Duncan had in the Keyhouse as kids, because from what I know, some major crap hit some fans at one point. In this sense, the house almost becomes a character in itself, no less important to the story than any of the Locke’s.

Where Hill nails it aside from the setting, though, is really in the pacing of the comic. The first volume collects six issues, each of which work together to detail the lives of the characters at a point of time in their lives. The first and last issue serve as omniscient narratives of the beginning and end of the story, respectively, while the middle four chapters are each from the perspective of one of the children in the story, Tyler, Kinsey, Bode, and Sam. These individual issues bounce between the time leading up to the murders and what happens to the characters afterward. It’s a very unique pacing style that serves the story well, as we get pieces of the puzzle in each one, revealing more and more about the characters and their experiences. What we end up with is a small slice of a much larger story, but a slice that feels self-contained. When I finished the final page, I certainly wanted to read more, but I didn’t have to. In these six issues, Hill tells a great story that works on its own, but still leaves plenty of mysteries to solve in later issues.

Overall, if you are a horror/fantasy fan, you can do a heck of a lot worse than Locke and Key: Welcome to Lovecraft. Heck, come to think of it, I’m not sure you could do much better.

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away (Part 2)

SW1When we last left the Star Wars comics universe, Dark Horse’s 20-year publishing license was set to expire with the end of 2014, with Marvel taking over all comic book publishings set within the Star Wars universe. I would make a joke about how this is kind of like this movie I once saw where an emperor rules an entire galaxy with an iron fist. I think it was Flash Gordon, but my memory fails me at the moment.

Anyway, the end of 2014 has come and gone, and sure enough, the Star Wars collection on Dark Horse’s store has gone silent, nary a book in sight. Meanwhile, Marvel is preparing their first foray into publishing new Star Wars comics with the upcoming Star Wars #1. Like the delicious Dark Horse series I talked about last time, this title is again set immediately following the events of Episode IV. I’m not entirely sure what the appeal of this era of the Star Wars canon is, but apparently, people really, really want to know what happens next. This new series does have the writing chops of Jason Aaron, which is notable in itself. And, if you have a chance to see any of the artwork, it certainly looks great. Even if the series is retreading covered ground, I think it will still be a great read. But, it is not what I’m talking about today. No, I want to talk about the last time Marvel released a comic called Star Wars.

Oddly enough, the Dark Horse series was not the first comic titled Star Wars to cover this time period. In fact, shortly after the A New Hope was released, Marvel Comics published the very first attempt to tell stories about the events immediately following the first movie. Unlike the next two series to use this name, the first six issues of the 1977 series were a direct adaptation of the film’s script, and for the most part, it’s pretty good. Some of the dialogue is a bit clunky, as can be expected in a comic from this period, but it’s a pretty straightforward adaptation, and it does a decent job.

What came after, though, is something unlike anything I’ve seen in the Star Wars universe and unlike anything we’ll likely see in the future. I think the important thing to remember is that, at this point, there was no “after” A New Hope. Now-a-days, we have decades of expanded universe material to read through. We’ve seen the years up until A New Hope, we’ve seen alternate stories set during the movie, and we’ve seen novels and comics that cover the time period immediately after. But, back in 1977, there was only the movie. This was something I briefly touched on last time with the Star Wars Holiday Special, but I think it’s even more glaring with this series.

Once the adaptation of the movie is done, the series goes off the rails, leaving us with something more akin to the sci-fi pulp serials from the 1930s. The story immediately following the adaptation follows Han Solo and Chewbacca as they leave the rebellion, reward in hand. They are almost immediately ambushed by Crimson Jack, the most dreaded space pirate in the galaxy, who alleviates them of their burdensome fortune, leaving Han and Chewie high and dry, with the bounty on their head as high as ever. They escape to a world on the outer-rim, where they are asked by a poor village to protect the residents from a ruthless bandit, who steals their money and women. There’s definitely a Seven Samurai vibe here, which makes a bit of sense. It’s no secret that Lucas based one of the original drafts of Star Wars on Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress. It’s no surprise that Roy Thomas might base the first post-movie story on another Kurosawa film.

Where the comic reaches its highest levels of absurdity, though, is in the characters that Han recruits to fight the bandits. For example, he recruits a six-foot rabbit named Jaxxon, who kicks people with his abnormally large feet. While Star Wars has always had some interesting alien design, I think Jaxxon is probably the first rabbit in the Star Wars universe, and I think it’s unfortunate that he hasn’t been used since (at least to my knowledge). The story plays out exactly like you would think, with some of the heroes falling, while Han leads the remainder to victory over the bandits. The town is saved, and Han gets enough reward money to get away from the backwater planet.

Jaxxon

While this is all going on, Luke is sent on a top-secret mission to find a new Rebel base, since the base on Yavin IV was compromised during A New Hope. I find it interesting that both Star Wars series that have come out have dealt with this story idea almost immediately, and I wonder if Brian Wood was at all inspired by this earlier series. Unfortunately, the similarities between the two stories stop there. While searching for a new base, Luke crash lands on a water planet, is besieged by sea monsters and captured by salvagers, whose base of operations is a pirate ship complete with sails. Luke’s distress eventually brings Princess Leia and Han Solo, who had been captured by Crimson Jack, and we’re left with a silly little story about pirates on the high seas in space.

As silly as it all sounds — and it is definitely silly — there is a certain charm to these old stories. Later entries into the Star Wars expanded universe got super serious about everything, and while the stories have been good, they are also remarkably dark. These old stories, though, are just fun. Absurd, yes, but fun, classic science-fiction, without the condescension that later “fun” characters, like Jar-Jar Binks, attempted to inject into the mythos. It does feel like an old science-fiction serial from the 1930s, which makes sense. Considering that in addition to KurosawaLucas was also inspired by these classic stories, this may be the piece of the expanded universe that comes closest to Lucas’s original vision. So, take that for what it’s worth. I will say this: if you get an opportunity to pick up a few of these classic issues, do so. It may not be the Star Wars you’re used to, but it’s definitely fun.

I don’t know what Aaron‘s new Star Wars series is going to be like, but I’m excited to read it. I think it has some solid talent behind it, and who knows, maybe this will truly be the definitive continuation of A New Hope that everyone is apparently clamoring for.

I’ll tell you this, though. If there is not a six-foot-tall, green rabbit, I will be sorely disappointed.

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Quarterbin Follies #13: Holy Origin Stories!

Year3-1It was Christmas 1992, and there were only two things I wanted for Christmas: DC Talk’s latest album “Free at Last” and Batman Year 3. I am not going to take the time to discuss or defend my adolescent love of the Virginia-founded Christian rap trio, but I will take the time to discuss Batman Year 3. I just ask for a few moments to build up to it.

This story has two beginnings. One starts with the Crisis on Infinite Earths, in which the history of the DC Universe was re-written. Week by week, month by month, the DCU was changed and tweaked in ways big and small. For Superman and Wonder Woman, virtually everything before the Maxi-Series was thrown out in favor of fresh starts. For some characters, like the Green Lanterns and the Flashes, things remained largely untouched. And then there was Batman.

Post-crisis, like the four other heroes in constant publication since the Golden Age (Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Arrow, and Aquaman), there was no longer a Batman in the 1940s or beyond. Instead, Batman’s origin was revamped and condensed to a ten-year time frame in Frank Miller’s four-issue story arc, Batman: Year One. It gave the whole of Batman’s origin and world the same kind of grit that Denny O’Neil introduced in the 1970s. Year One, which many folk consider a masterwork, ran in Batman 404-407, which was followed on the heels by Max Alan Collins’s re-imagining of the second Robin, Jason Todd (issues 408-411).

This “new” Jason had a hard edge that Bruce tried to soften and hone for justice, to give Jason a reason to be. Despite this noble goal, Jason just never caught on, and by issue 429, he was dead, the deed done in “A Death in the Family.” But, I am a bit ahead of myself.

The wild success of Year One lead to Year Two, and with the loss of Jason Todd, a new Robin seemed in order. DC needed new blood. They needed a Robin connected to Dick Grayson. They needed one uniquely gifted. They needed one with his own story to tell. And they gave the job to the guy who, at the time, was the undisputed expert on all things Grayson: Marv Wolfman.

Wolfman, the writer of the popular New Teen Titans, had been the primary scribe of Dick Grayson since 1980, overseeing Dick’s growth from Robin to Nightwing. And so, he was a natural choice to create and introduce Tim Drake, who would become the third Robin. This introduction took place in the two-story tour-de-force that was Batman Year 3 and A Lonely Place of Dying.

Year3-2While Year 3 took the time to retell the beginnings of Robin, the boy wonder, it was Lonely Place that really dug into the question of why Batman needed a ‘Robin’ at all?

Spinning far and away from the DC Universe, and into the flesh and blood of our reality–turning to the not-forgotten hours of my own youth, we can now see the second beginning to my story.

I began reading super hero comics in the winter of 1990, and that next February I found (in the very same magazine rack, in the very same CO-OP grocer’s in my High Plains Nebraska town where I still buy comics today) Robin, Vol. 1, Issue #2. This miniseries showcased Tim Drake’s education abroad, and man, I was hooked. Here was a Robin, a nerd just like me, if a little cooler (because Rhys from 1991 thought Tim’s hair was THE coolest).

That next summer saw my first real trips to real comic shops in Rapid City and Denver, and I spent every spare dollar I had – and a few I didn’t – on fleshing out my Tim Drake collection. A part of that was several volumes of the loose-leaf “Who’s Who in the DC Universe.” Between those pages and the letter columns, I ferreted out the title of A Lonely Place of Dying, and there I decided to add that story to my list. I got a copy of the trade that next winter.

It was in reading Lonely Place that I learned of Year 3, but as it had never been collected in trade, all I could find at the shops was this issue or that. It was discouraging. But fast forward yet another winter.

That year, 1992, there opened–for the duration of the holiday season–a fly-by-night comic shop. With Batman Returns in the theatre, and shops all over these United States selling die-cut-prism-pog-folding covers like they were hot cakes, one of the Rapid City shops opened a satellite store in my sleepy little hamlet. It was like Christmas every weekend, except that I didn’t actually get to open those packages. Well, one particular day of wandering and gaping, what did I spy? A gift package of all four issues of Year 3. Hot dog!

Year3-3I wasted no time in informing my mother of the two things I wanted: the aforementioned CD, and Year 3. What else could a nerd like me possibly want? The first appearance of one of my favorite characters! And, imagine my elation to find a garment box under the tree two weeks before that big day – a box that weighed just as much as four comics!

I have always imagined myself like something of a detective, even as a young child, and so I set out to study this pied parcel. I weighed it, measured it, and used a whistling toy to listen through the box. I timed the time it took the contents to slide loose across the inside of the box. I was certain I knew what it was, and I wasted NO time or opportunity in announcing I had figured out its secrets.

And so, it was that Christmas morning, I sat on the floor, surrounded by my family and Gran. I had the opportunity to open any gift I wanted, and I chose the garment box I had spent so much time with. I made a grandstanding announcement about the contents, thanked my parents for their purchase, and opened the paper-and-box to find: a CD taped to a comic-sized piece of cardboard.

I was crestfallen and embarrassed and confused, and the rest of that Christmas I remember as through fog. The last package I opened was the comics, and my mother and sister copped to having-me-on as retaliation for the pompous know-it-all I had been. Yeah, I had that coming.

So, I spent Christmas break reading and re-reading Batman: Year 3, so let’s get on with it.

Year3-4As previously mentioned, this storyline revisits the period of Batman’s mythos, in which he took Dick Grayson under his wings, to become his partner in crime-fighting. In the story, Bruce and Dick are on the outs, and Bruce is pulling away, reeling from the loss of Jason – poor exploded Jason. Meanwhile, we follow Alfred as he testifies at the parole hearing for Tony “Boss” Zucco, the mafioso who gave the order to kill the Graysons to send a message. This is all pretty straight-forward from the Golden Age origin of Robin, but Wolfman did make one notable change: “Boss” Zucco didn’t become boss from years of faithful service. He was no old man, but rather, a fairly young fellow with a record of where the bodies are buried.

Despite Alfred’s best efforts, Zucco is about to walk, and Batman and Nightwing have to hold back a gang war as rival families try to find Zucco’s journal. Interspersed in all of this are memories of Dick’s childhood, his relationship with Bruce, and his super hero career. It is a real primer for Dick Grayson, and one that leads right into A Lonely Place of Dying.

Having read Lonely first, there were a few spoilers for Year 3, so the story wasn’t quite as fresh as it could have been. Also, if I recall correctly, the art of Year 3 was not as crisp. I mean, penciller Pat Broderick has some chops, but when you hold it up to George Perez, who split art duties on Lonely with the famed Jim Aparo and did the covers for Year 3, well, there is almost no comparison. Never the less, this is a great little series, and it is a bummer that it has never been collected as a trade paperback.

Well, I hope you all enjoyed this little hodge-podge of memories, and behalf of all of us at Ideal Comics, Merry ‘old’ Christmas, and a Happy New Year!

Year3-5

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A Galaxy Far, Far Away (Part 1)

Star Wars Holiday SpecialWith the passing of midnight, we say goodbye to yet another Christmas, another opportunity to celebrate the birth of Christ and commercialism. Goodbye, dear Christmas. See you in twenty-fifteen. Now, this column isn’t about Christmas. My cohort already did a great job of covering that earlier this week. No, this column is about something entirely different. This column is about another famous holiday. No, not Boxing Day. Though, technically, it is Boxing Day.

Happy Boxing Day, everyone.

No, this column is about my other favorite holiday. The truly most wonderful time of the year. I am talking, of course, about Life Day. For those who have seen it, the Star Wars Holiday Special is certainly a treat, a venture into life after A New Hope. Originally broadcast on November 17th, 1978, the Holiday Special centered on Chewbacca’s family preparing for Life Day, a Wookiee holiday similar to Christmas, and Han and Chewie’s attempts to get the loveable furball home to Kashyyyk in time for the celebration.

In addition to including the classic characters from the trilogy, Han, Luke, Leia, C3PO, R2D2, and Darth Vader, the special also introduces Malla, Chewie’s wife; Itchy, Chewie’s father; Lumpy, Chewie’s son; Saun Dann (Art Carney), a human trader on Kashyyyk; Ackmena (Bea Arthur), a cantina owner on Tatooine; and Jefferson Starship (Jefferson Starship). The special itself is a silly little program, mixing an odd story about Life Day with an even odder mish-mash of musical and comedy acts, creating what is potentially the only variety special in history based on a science-fiction franchise.

It’s no secret to anyone who has seen this thing that it’s sort of the black sheep of the Star Wars universe. George Lucas, himself, once famously said that he wanted to track down every copy and smash them with a sledgehammer, and that guy wrote and directed Attack of the Clones. On the whole, it’s not great, but there are some very important things to note.

  • Firstly, can we all just celebrate the fact that because of this special, comedic greats Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman are all part of the Star Wars canon? Now, I know that since Disney bought Lucasfilms, the Star Wars canon is kind of messed up, but what they say doesn’t really matter. In the heads of the fans, the extended universe is still roughly canon somewhere, and in that canon, Art Carney, Bea Arthur, and Harvey Korman.
  • On the flipside, though, if we acknowledge that, we have to acknowledge that Jefferson Starship also exists within Star Wars continuity. I have nothing personal against Jefferson Starship, I guess, but I don’t really dig the tunes they lay down. The song they perform on the special, “Light the Sky on Fire” is about as boring as it gets in late 1970s rock music.
  • There’s also a really, really odd musical sequence starring veteran actress, Diahann Carroll, in which she plays a holographic “fantasy” enjoyed by Itchy, in what can only be described as, uh, well, disturbing. It isn’t that I don’t want to see an old wookiee get aroused, it’s just that I, well, yeah, no, it’s totally that I don’t want to see that.
  • The film features an animated sequence, which serves to introduce the character of Boba Fett. It’s an amazing piece of animation, and truly the best part of this special. It’s also the only piece of the special to ever receive a home video release as a special feature on the 2011 Blu-Ray release of the original trilogy.

 

  • The empire actually feels menacing in this special. I mean, in Episode IV, they are certainly menacing. They blow up an entire planet, for Lumpy’s sake, but I don’t know. Maybe it’s because so much of what they do is off-screen. We never see them kill Owen and Beru, or torture Leia, or anything else. It’s all alluded to through the aftermath. We do see them blow up Alderaan, but even that is on a viewport, far-removed from any sort of engaging connection. In this special, however, they directly interact on-screen with members of the rebellion, and there’s definitely a troubling dynamic there. When a stormtrooper threatens to beat a Wookiee child, it’s disconcerting to say the least.
  • Thankfully, this special finally gave some lyrics to some of those classic Star Wars tunes we all know and love. Ackmena sings a lovely tribute to alcoholism called “Goodnight, but Not Goodbye” set to the music of the Mos Eisley cantina band. At the end of the special, Leia closes us out with a musical tribute to Life Day, set to the Star Wars theme. I don’t know about you, but I’ll definitely be singing these lyrics the next time I watch the movie.

In all seriousness, one of the most interesting things about this special is the period of time in which it came out. In 1978, Star Wars fans were still two years from Empire Strikes Back. At this point, there was only one vision of life after Episode IV, and that was the Marvel comic book series, which we’ll talk about a bit next week. For the average fan, this was the first picture of what happened after the movie. And I think that’s important to note, because if nothing else, it foreshadowed not only how big a behemoth Star Wars would become, but also how much the public wanted to see what would happen next.

SW1And it’s certainly not the last glimpse we’ve been given into this time period of the universe. In 2013, Dark Horse comics released Star Wars, a series set in the immediate months after the destruction of the Death Star, following the further adventures of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia. The series, written by Brian Wood, deals with a struggling rebellion attempting to recover from the loss of its base on Yavin IV, and an empire struggling to rebuild after the destruction of its massive battle station.

A few weeks ago, the first six issues (the first storyline, In the Shadow of Yavin) were collectively sold for $2.99 on Dark Horse Digital, and I jumped at the opportunity. I had heard good things about the series, and I thought it would be a fun opportunity to check it out. While it’s certainly no Holiday Special, it is a terrific story, and one I’m sad to see go (more on that in a second).

This first storyline follows the rebellion’s attempts to find a new base of operations. After the destruction of Alderaan, even worlds traditionally sympathetic to the rebellion stand in fear of the sheer power of the Empire. As the alliance explores worlds on the outer-rim, they are constantly ambushed by Imperial forces, and it doesn’t take long to realize that these encounters are not coincidences. There’s a mole in the Alliance, and Rebel Leader, Mon Mothma, is dedicated to rooting him or her out. She tasks Leia with hand selecting a secret squad of pilots to work independently to both find a new home and ferret out the leak. While all of this is going on, Han Solo and Chewbacca have been sent to Coruscant, the Imperial capital, where they will purchase new weapons and supplies for the Alliance from an Imperial contact. But nothing is as it seems, and Han and Chewie are forced into the Coruscant underground, with Boba Fett hot on their heels.

Wood captures a lot of subtle nuances within the stories and characters that add quite a bit to the mythos. We see Princess Leia mourning her homeworld in the late night hours, when she’s not overworking herself on keeping a struggling rebellion alive. We see Darth Vader struggle with failure at Yavin IV and the emperor’s disapproval, while also realizing the importance of the name Skywalker, and what that all means. We see Han Solo sticking with a rebellion he doesn’t believe in, because at the moment, it provides protection from other more menacing forces that want to kill him. We see Luke Skywalker, the hero of Yavin, brash and cocky, and ready to take on the empire full-steam. And all of this works so well, helped along by the art of Carlos D’Anda, who captures the characters and settings in such a dynamic fashion.

The comics are fun romps through this portion of the Star Wars timeline, and they’re great examples of what Dark Horse could do, when they used the license correctly. Since they started publishing Star Wars comics in 1993, Dark Horse has had its fair share of ups and downs, with some stories excelling, while others falling far short. Woods’s Star Wars, is definitely an up, and one I recommend whole-heartedly.

It’s actually the first Star Wars comic I’ve read in a few years, which makes its cancellation much sadder. The series ran through issue #20, getting canceled in August of this year. And while I’m not entirely sure of sales figures, and if they had anything to do with it, I think a lot of that decision may rest in the fact that next week, after over 20 years, Dark Horse will stop publishing Star Wars comics. Since Disney owns both Marvel Comics and Lucasfilms now, it makes sense that they would move comic book duties into the mouse’s Empire, but it’s still a little sad.

What’s even worse is that all titles will be pulled from the digital catalog, meaning if you haven’t had a chance to read them yet, you might not get that chance after December 31st. You can always track down the floppies or trades, and some of the stories will be reprinted by Marvel, but it’s a damn shame that some great comics are going to disappear from the digital channels as of January 1st. I guess, if there’s a lesson here, it’s that you should buy up any digital copies of these comics now, before you lose your chance. The comics will still be available to read on your cloud; you just won’t be able to purchase them.

Of course, anyone who knows the history of Star Wars comics knows that this won’t be the first time that the House of M has taken on the Star Wars universe. But, that’s a column for another time. Specifically, next week. Be sure to come back next Friday, when I take a look at both the history and the future of Marvel’s Star Wars comics!

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