A longtime showbiz journalist and fan's thoughts on comic books, movies and other cool stuff.

Month: December 2009

Christmas comics: Sin City: Silent Night (Nov. 1995)

Writer and artist: Frank Miller
Cover colors: Lynn Varley
Editor: Bob Schreck

There’s not much to say about the story in this issue, which can be summed as follows: Marv walks through a snow storm to a barred doorway that leads down to some kind of dungeon. He gives some cash to a woman dressed like a Nazi, who shows him a cell where a small and very scared young girl looks back at him. He turns on the woman and her armed thugs, shooting them dead right quick. He opens the door, tells the girl, Kimberly, that it’s OK and she’ll be home with her momma soon. He scoops her up and carries her out and back into the snowstorm.

This story is told completely in silent splash pages, with only one dialog balloon in the whole issue. That prompted a lot of howls at the time this was released since “reading” this black and white comic takes only a few minutes and it cost a then-whopping $2.95. But that belies that fact that it’s 26 or so pages of Frank Miller Sin City art, which has always been worth the price of admission alone. I always thought this was Miller’s attempt to do for snow what he did for rain in the first Sin City story. Was it a cash grab, as some have charged? Maybe, but again it’s Frank Miller art and there are few comics at the time where the entire package was worth $3, let alone just the art.

Of course, this ain’t the most happy, touchy-feely holiday story ever — but Marv’s good deed does stand out as a worthy gift considering how tough and hard-boiled every day is in Miller’s “town without pity.”

Christmas Comics: Star Trek: The Next Generation #2 (March 1988)

“Spirit in the Sky!”
Writer: Mike Carlin
Pencils: Pablo Marcos
Inks: Carlos Garzon and Arne Starr
Letters: Bob Pinaha
Colors: Carl Gafford
Editor: Robert Greenberger

I can’t recall many other Star Trek stories that dealt with Christmas — there was a Picard Christmas dream sequence in Generations — probably because the series’ humanistic point of view just doesn’t mesh well with the rituals and religious underpinning of the holiday. (Of course, Patrick Stewart’s one-man stage version of A Christmas Carol from the 1990s was extremely popular.)

This is still a really hard story to swallow and to judge because of the circumstances. This was the second issue of the first Star Trek: The Next Generation series DC published. It was released to coincide with the debut of the TV series itself in the fall of 1987. While DC’s classic Star Trek comic and the movie series were quite popular, no one knew if TNG was going to be a hit or a massive flop. So DC hedged its bet with a six-issue miniseries. And given the time frame of comic book production back then, the first few issues of the comic had to be completely written, drawn and ready to go to press long before the first episodes of the TV show were finished or aired. So all the comic creators had to go on were things like the series bible, early scripts, photo reference and the overall guidance of the Paramount licensing office.

So it kind of makes sense to do a Christmas story in this second issue, as Christmas stories can get away with a lot and it would buy DC another issue to try to figure out the new series.
Still, this is an odd one: On Christmas Eve, the Enterprise encounters a strange energy form, followed immediately by an encounter with an alien Creeg ship. The Enterprise crew, celebrating the many holidays of its diverse crew, welcome the Creeg and their leader, Captain Bronder, to the ship for the celebrations. But it turns out the Creeg are after this alien energy, which is hiding on the ship. A snoopy Wesley Crusher — in Kitty Pryde mode — stumbles upon a Creeg searching the ship for the energy and tells on him to the captain. This leads to some tense moments as they track through the ship this odd form of energy that brings a sense of happiness and good feelings to everyone it contacts. Eventually, it’s tracked to the bridge, where scanners show it resembling a jolly old man in a hat and coat. When even the skeptical Picard begins to believe in the energy form, it grows healthier and bestows good holiday feelings on the entire group before moving on into space.

There’s some really weird stuff going on in this issue. Pablo Marcos’ artwork is very stylized and he has a flair for futuristic fashions and architecture that counters a decided stiffness in the poses of the characters and staging of the scenes. The only problem with the former is that nothing besides the bridge really looks like the interiors of the Enterprise from the show. The fashions are the funkiest and perhaps coolest art addition, and surely would have caused a sensation had the show’s actresses ever worn such clothes. And none of that comes close to the image of Data wearing a tie and a vest — with no shirt. There are other relics from the original conception of the TV show, such Wesley Crusher being especially whiny and an overly diverse crew represented here by the super-annoying Bickley characters and a helmsman named Skooch.

Despite all the weirdness inside, I think I like the cover the best, with the snow and Christmas Tree on the bridge as a muscular Captain Picard faces off with Bronder. I think I had this comic — which I bought as a back issue about a year after it came out — for a few days before I even noticed those elements because it was so stylized and strangely colored.

In all, this issue is a major mess that I’m sure Paramount would like to forget ever saw print. But it’s also kind of cool to have this very strange take on TNG from the days before its identity was truly pegged down as one way the series and franchise could have gone.

Christmas Comics: The Uncanny X-Men #230 (June 1988)

“’Twas the night …”
Writer: Chris Claremont
Pencils: Marc Silvestri
Inks: Josef Rubinstein
Colors: Glynis Oliver
Letters: Tom Orzechowski
Editor: Ann Nocenti
Editor in chief: Tom DeFalco

When they reprint classic merry mutant tales, they usually omit this one (more on the more popular X-Men holiday stories soon). Perhaps because this tale is tied into the Australian outback era of the The Uncanny X-Men, which is both admired and reviled, depending on who you listen too. This is easily the goofiest X-Men Christmas story, but it’s also not without its charms.

The story begins with the X-Men on a typical training session in the outback town they took over in the previous issue from The Reavers. But Longshot is absent, lured to a room filled with “haunted treasure” that wants to return to the owners The Reavers “liberated” it from. This is a weird idea, that these objects have some kind of sentience and, even more, an emotional attachment to their owners. This is ascribed to Longshot’s power of psychometry, which was an ability outlined in his original 1985 miniseries. Haunted by the pleas of these items, Longshot’s tales prompt the X-Men to try to return every item to its rightful owner.

The ridiculousness of the idea is commented upon extensively in the story — Claremont’s halfway successful technique for selling the idea to an audience most likely too “cool” to take the concept at face value — with Havok and Wolverine noticeably scoffing at the idea. But like most good Christmas stories, the season’s good points melt away the skepticism and everyone joins in whole-heartedly. Even Wolverine gets in on the act, wearing a Santa hat and carrying a big bag of gifts over his shoulder — all of which is pretty out of character and most likely not “cool” with the average late 1980s X-Men reader, but it is Christmas.
Amid all of this, there are a couple of subplots. One has Rogue trying to connect in some way with Gateway, who at this point is still a silent mystery. The other has Dazzler trying to come to terms with her new, non-glamorous life living with the X-Men in the outback and craving the missing comforts of books, TV, music and fun in general.

The general hokeyness is complemented by a some quite nice little moments in which people surprisingly recover treasures long thought lost. I particularly liked a four-panel scene in which a couple of kids catch Dazzler in the act and she claims to be one of “Santa’s special helpers.” There’s also a nice little nod to The New Mutants, who at this point believe the X-Men dead and are in mourning, as Storm gives them some weather worthy of an extra Christmas carol.

That all this happens on Christmas is fairly obvious, but not overtly commented upon until fairly late in the story, when the X-Men make a gift to Dazz of the super-trendy motorcycle she’s had her eyes on. (Presumably, it was one of the gifts that had no signature for Longshot to register.) Rogue also gets a subplot resolved as her attempts to connect with Gateway.

The art is an interesting mix. This was the pre-Image Silvestri — lots of mood and emphasis on setting with a slightly sketch and abstract style. I was always conflicted about Rubinstein’s inks, which are polished but also add a soft and slightly cartoony feel that clashed with the usually over-serious approach of Claremont’s stories. Faces in particular were not as expressive with this art team — Silvestri’s sketchy style lacked some range in this area, and Rubinstein flattened out and distorted things a bit.

I remember buying this issue off the stands and thinking it a bit of a throwaway issue — one of those quiet issues Claremont would use to emphasize character after a big change in the status quo. One of these every so often worked nicely, but there was a definite hunger to see the new Australia direction take off. This had come after the resolution of Fall of the Mutants in #227, a fill-in tale in #228, the establishment of the new direction in #229 and there would be one more character-oriented fill-in in #231 before things got back to the meat of things with the return of the Brood in an action-packed three-parter starting in #232. This was obviously never going to be a pivotal issue in the X-Men canon, referred back to via footnotes for as long as they used footnotes, but something about this kind of simple, all-in-one holiday story evokes a fondness for those days when comics could tell stories outside of serialized trade collections and mega-crossovers.

Christmas Comics: Power Pack #20 (March 1986)

“Turning Point”
Writer: Louise Simonson
Artist: Bob McLeod
Letters: Joe Rosen
Colors: Glynis Oliver
Editor: Carl Potts
Editor in chief: Jim Shooter

Power Pack always was a book I really enjoyed and, for a time, was one of the best books Marvel published. This issue has a Christmas tie-in, but there’s a pretty convoluted plot to wade through, not to mention a fair bit of continuity that’s not well laid out for new readers.

This story began in Power Pack #18 — a Secret Wars II crossover! — when mom Maggie Power is badly injured by the rampaging Kurse while picking up poster board for her son Alex to use for a school science project. That lead to a crossover with Thor #363 (which was written and drawn by Louise Simonson’s husband, Walt) and a double-size Thanksgiving issue in #19 that guest starred Cloak and Dagger and, of course, Kitty Pryde and Wolverine.

There’s also a bunch of continuity from The New Mutants to deal with, as Illyana had somehow lost control over Limbo in another Secret Wars II-related storyline I don’t exactly recall at the moment. And that’s where this issue starts: with a bunch of Limbo demons running through New York looking for innocents to sacrifice so they can move the entire island of Manhattan to Limbo.
Power Pack gets drawn into all of this because they’re at the hospital awaiting word on their mom, whose condition is deteriorating, when the demons show up to kidnap some babies from the maternity ward. They fight, find a library card belonging to their pal Kitty Pryde and call Xavier’s school to see if she’s OK. But it’s Dani Moonstar who answers, and she, Cannonball and Wolfsbane come to the rescue.

It’s a nice touch that this issue is drawn by Bob McLeod, who co-created The New Mutants. He has a realistic, illustrative style that is particularly expressive with faces. I like that all the characters are drawn with their breath showing when they’re outside in the cold winter weather. On the other hand, it’s occasionally too realistic for superheroes and there’s this odd quality, kind of like watching a movie version of a comic where they didn’t have the money or techniques to do really good visual effects, when it comes to the demons. And why the hell does he draw Dani Moonstar wearing leather Geronimo pajamas at the mansion? Isn’t the pinkish coloring of her skin, leather headdress, moccasin boots and native-style belt enough of an indication that she’s Cheyenne? Rahne isn’t wearing a kilt and playing the bagpipes and Sam’s not decked out in Kentucky overalls, so why pick on Dani? It’s just weird, looking at it now.

Anyway, the fight plays out like a lot of superhero comics from that time. Little Katie gets captured and the demons want to use her as an innocent and a power source to open the gateway to Limbo. Meanwhile, in case it wasn’t confusing enough, Dani recently became a Valkyrie in the big Asgard adventure from The New Mutants Special Edition #1 and X-Men Annual #9, which brought Hela into the situation regarding Maggie Power. Turns out Maggie is about to willingly go to her fate with Hela until Dani can remind her of her kids, then she changes her mind while Dani wards off Hela long enough for Maggie to turn away from the light.

When it’s all said and done, The New Mutants go home, Maggie wakes up and it’s the best Christmas gift the Powers have ever had!

It’s not much of a Christmas issue, to be sure. There’s not much carol singing or many holiday elements on display. In fact, it’s full of demons and pagan gods, which surely wouldn’t go over too well with folks who object to these sorts of things. But it does have a nice little Christmas coda and was something of a turning point in the story of Power Pack, which was transitioning from co-creator June Brigman as the artist to Jon Bogdanove, who took over with issue 22, I think, just in time for a big outer-space storyline that bookended the series’ opening arc.

Lastly, this issue can’t go by without mentioning the cover, penciled by none other than Hellboy creator Mike Mignola and inked by Terry Austin. When Mignola talks about the endless stream of Marvel comics he drew in the days before he struck out on his own with Hellboy, this is exactly what he’s talking about. It’s a little bit of a muddled cover, which is dominated by Lightspeed’s rainbow trail. The rest of the characters are small and get lost amid a mess of Limbo demons. It’s not going to leap out at anyone from the racks, really, but a closer look shows some really nice little touches and some very fine inking, which is no surprise from the excellent Mr. Austin.

Cooke’s Hunter is a stylish, hard-core crime tale

Things don’t get much  tougher on the crime fiction front than The Hunter (IDW Publishing, $24.99, 2009), Darwyn Cooke’s adaptation of the classic Richard Stark novel introducing the iconic criminal character Parker. This is easily the most hard-boiled crime comic to come along since Frank Miller founded Sin City in the early 1990s.

Set in 1962, this is a tale of a truly unrepentant criminal who is out for revenge on the woman and men who double-crossed him and set him up for dead. And it’s that setting — 1962 Manhattan — that makes Cooke the ideal match for this project. His style, which evokes classic animation, captures the style of the era in a way few other artists could. It’s abstract at times, vividly concrete at others and always powerfully focused on its story.

Done in a lovely two-color format, the narrative does run out of steam just a bit by the end, partly because Parker never really becomes anything more than a one-dimensional vehicle for the kind of mayhem that must have really stood out in 1962 but is a bit more common now. That small quibble aside, it’s a very stylish and highly entertaining thriller that will surely wow hard-core fans and casual readers alike.

Stumptown makes tough tales fun again

Stumptown #1 (Oni Press, $3.99, Oct. 2009) is a pleasant surprise, mostly because it’s so great to see a writer with the talent of Greg Rucka take time out from writing superhero comics (although his Batwoman stories in Detective Comics are really, REALLY good) to do the kind of indie project that got him noticed in the first place.

Stumptown is an old-fashioned private eye story starring an unusual sort of private eye (for comics, anyway) in Dexedrine C. Parios, a smart-ass with a gambling problem who looks after her younger brother, Ansel, who has Down syndrome.

This is a smart book that’s tough but still fun. The art by Matthew Southworth and colors by Lee Loughridge are attractive, clear and a great match for the story.

Planetary ends better than it began

It took ten years, but Planetary #27 (Wildstorm, $3.99, Dec. 2009) is finally out and finishes up the popular series by Warren Ellis and John Cassaday.

Not having read or re-read any Planetary since #26 came out about a year ago, the specifics of the series’ plots were not fresh on my mind, but I still found it an interesting denouement.

Planetary is one of those series that I always had trouble really connecting to. I loved the second issue, with the dead giant Tokyo monsters all rotting away on an island, but found too many of the early issues weakened by being essentially riffs on various popular comics genres. Because of that, I preferred Ellis’ short but pitch-perfect run on The Authority, which began about the exact time as Planetary, and, of course, Transmetropolitan as the writer’s definitive works.

As for Cassaday, I go back and forth on his art. At times, it’s beautiful and subtle and others too minimalistic and reliant on a good colorist (which Laura Martin most definitely is). At least Planetary finally — after many long production interruptions — has made it to a satisfactory end, something few series can claim.

Crumb draws too-literal Book of Genesis

I tried very hard to read The Book of Genesis, Illustrated by R. Crumb (Norton, $24.95, 2009), but after a few dozen pages resorted to simply skimming the text and lingering over the best of Crumb’s always amazing artwork.

But, frankly, scripture has never been anything I’ve enjoyed reading. And in this case, with what seems like pages of biblical figures “begating” a new generation, it’s a real disappointment for Crumb not to portray that one activity he draws so well!

The literal approach ends up feeling more like an exercise for Crumb — it’s not really clear from his introduction or the book itself what, if anything, he was trying to add to these tales — than anything that could hold the interest of anyone but a die-hard fan. Which, in an odd way, means the Book of Genesis has a lot in common with most superhero comics.

Asterios Polyp needs a better ending

I for the most part really enjoyed David Mazzuchelli’s graphic novel Asterios Polyp (Pantheon, $29.95, 2009). Mazzuchelli, of course, is best known as the artist who collaborated with Frank Miller on Batman: Year One and Daredevil: Reborn, among other 1980s efforts at Marvel and DC Comics, before moving on to his own series Rubber Blanket.

This thick novel tells the tale of a divorced, pompous architecture professor who runs away from his life when his apartment catches on fire. It’s a beautiful looking book, drawn in a simple style suited to what’s accepted for a literary graphic novel, making nice use of colored line work in particular to create a lovely effect.

As for the story, I found myself very much drawn into the first half of the book and then drifting away from it as the plot seemed to stall in favor of a more episodic approach. The eponymous protagonist goes from a complex mystery to a rather human but mundane character. The story never really delivers on its most interesting element — the idea that Polyp is followed by what is essentially the ghost of a twin brother who died in the womb. The tale failed to achieve the kind of breakthrough character development that it promises early on, heading to an unfortunately predictable though not completely unsatisfying resolution.

Bell’s Invaders begins to clear path to Canuck hero knowledge

A book I acquired at San Diego Comic-Con in 2008, but had not read until now,  Invaders from the North: How Canada Conquered the Comic Book Universe (Dundurn, $40, 2006) is a book of obvious interest for someone like me who grew up a comics fan in the Great White North of yesteryear.

I’ve been interested in this topic since coming across John Bell’s article on the Canadian comic book heroes of the 1940s and 1950s in Alter Ego #36. For those who don’t know, Canada joined World War II in 1939 in support of Great Britain and the restrictions of the war economy quickly forbade the import of pulp fiction magazines, including comics, from the United States. A number of Canadian publishers struggled in this environment to find writers, artists, characters and even paper and ink to fill the void left on newsstands and in the process created a number of interesting and compelling characters. These publishers all faded away with the return of American comics to Canada in the post-war years, and many of these strips are all but forgotten.

Even a comics fan like myself who grew up in Canada in the late 1970s and early 1980s 0was completely unaware of the rich history of Canadian comic books, at least until I read Bell’s article. I asked my father, who grew up in Edmonton in the 1940s and ’50s about these books, but he didn’t remember too much about them.

As such, I looked forward to reading more about it in Bell’s book, and I can’t say I wasn’t at least a little disappointed. I don’t know if Bell was pressed for space, but it feels like he was — there’s places in the book that feature a lot of listing of names, publishers, titles, etc., and not much of an idea of what these stories were like. It’s also hard to gauge how popular these comics and characters ever became in Canada, and what — if any — kind of fan base still exists today. I think a solid collection of the best of these tales would be a sure-fire success on curiosity value alone, assuming it’s possible to work out the complicated rights issues involved.

The book gets better in later chapters, delving into the resurgence in Canadian comics fandom that produced Richard Comely’s Captain Canuck — I still remember envying a cool Captain Canuck T-shirt a friend of mine had way back in Grade 2 — as well as talents as diverse as John Byrne and Dave Sim. A spotlight section focuses on the considerable talents and achievements of Chester Brown, but reading it I wished the same sort of treatment had been eked out for Sim, whose early work and efforts as an advocate of creators rights have arguably had at least as significant an effect on comics.

I noticed in searching for an already-scanned cover image that this title is available on Google Books at  http://tinyurl.com/yh56h59.

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