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‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’ Leads 2014 Comics Movie Pack

Original art for X-Men #141 by John Byrne and Terry Austin, as it appears in
 Fantagraphics’ The X-Men Chronicles II from 1982. 

2013 was a pretty good year for comic-book movies in particular — and movies in general — with 2014 also looking sharp.

Top of my list to see is, not surprisingly, X-Men: Days of Future Past, due out May 23 and looking to have the same sort of big Memorial Day box-office debut as X-Men: The Last Stand. This is adapted from one of the most influential and beloved X-Men stories, published long ago in 1980 in The Uncanny X-Men #141 and 142.

I remember being a new X-Men fan in the mid-1980s and realizing the importance of this story was second perhaps only to the Dark Phoenix saga in the mutant mythos. I scored my copy of #141 at a long-gone comics shop in Phoenix for something ridiculous like 50 cents back in the fall or winter of 1986-87. The following summer, I bought #142 at All About Books and Comics for an amount I can’t even recall. I took #141 to my first Comic-Con in San Diego in 1993 and got it signed on the first page by John Byrne and on the cover by Chris Claremont. The story — in which an adult Kate Pryde psychically travels back in time from the desolate future of 2013 to her younger self in 1980 to convince the X-Men to stop the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants’ planned assassination of future president and anti-mutant activist Sen. Robert Kelly.

This story fully brought the Holocaust themes Claremont had been hinting at into the X-Men, and the future timeline in which Sentinels rules America and had hunted down or imprisoned in work camps all known mutants was startling in its boldness. Not only were bunches of X-Men already dead, but we saw a glimpse of the future reformed Magneto, the then-mysterious redhead Rachel, and the gruesome deaths of Wolverine, Storm and Colossus. Even though it was copped from an episode of one of the Brit sci-fi TV shows like The Avengers or Doctor Who — favorites at the time of both Claremont and Byrne — the story really works well as the ultimate expression of everything that the X-Men are fighting for going wrong. The movie version will be quite different, with Wolverine reportedly put in the main role of time traveler instead of Kitty, but it’s exciting to see the X-Men movie series move forward with a kind of merging of the best parts of Bryan Singer’s original films and Matthew Vaughn’s First Class crew. I expect big things for this movie, and for the Apocalypse follow-up Singer teased for 2016.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is due out May 2 and I expect to like it much more than the first installment in the series, which spent so much time retelling the origin story that it was hard to figure out what made Marc Webb’s version very different from Sam Raimi’s. I like Jamie Foxx as Electro and Paul Giamatti as The Rhino, but I’m not looking forward to playing out once again the inevitably tragic fate of Gwen Stacy. That’ll probably be saved for part 3, but we all know it’s still coming.

300: Rise of an Empire, due out March 7, makes me scratch my head a bit. I don’t think we really needed a prequel or sequel to this movie, which I think got a bit of a bad rap when it came out from critics. It was a cool exercise in style that paid off extremely well for Zack Snyder et al., but I suspect there will be little here to make the sequel stand out and stand up on its own.

The same could be said for Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, which really should have been made about five years ago. Due out Aug. 22, this won’t have the same “wow” impact that the first Sin City did, but the stories Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller have to work with are pretty good and should make for a fun movie and a modest hit if it turns out comparable quality wise to the original.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier, out April 4, looks very good. The opportunity to see Cap working in the modern world will help keep things fresh after the obligatory World War II outing in the first movie. I haven’t read Ed Brubaker’s run and am not familiar with the specifics of the Winter Solder storyline, though people whose opinions I trust assure me it’s good, so I’m thinking this will be another hit for Marvel.

And then there’s the big wildcard and gamble of the year: Marvel’s Guardians of the Galaxy, due Aug. 1, right after Comic-Con. Marvel’s obviously putting a lot of muscle into this one, with some interesting casting and a more movie-friendly take on the franchise already tested out as a comic. I expect this gamble will pay off for Marvel, especially in the usually sleepy movie month of August, and show the studio’s savvy at turning even its C-list and D-list characters into hit movies. I wish they’d lend some of that knowhow to DC, which still is having a hard time getting B-list characters off the ground in theaters.

And that’s just the comic-book movies. There’s also cool stuff like Transcendence, Interstellar, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 and The Hobbit: There and Back Again to look forward to.

‘Captain America,’ ‘Punisher’ and ‘Daredevil’ relaunched with unexpected style, substance

Before I delve back into DC waters, it’s been interesting to notice that Marvel has been relaunching a lot of titles lately as well, though without anything like the fanfare that DC has been getting.

In addition to next month’s relaunch of Uncanny X-Men — the very last long-running title from Marvel or DC to get a new first issue — Marvel recently relaunched Captain America, Daredevil and The Punisher. I had started thinking about this piece a while back when only one or two issues of each was out, but now there’s four issues of DD out and three each of Cap and Punisher.

Let’s start with Captain America, which seems to have gotten a new first issue to coincide with the release a few months back of the movie. That’s not a bad move on Marvel’s part, and it’s one I’m surprised they haven’t used to greater effect in the past.

This isn’t much of an introductory first issue, but it really doesn’t need to be. Comics fans know who the characters are and the basic setup, while readers new to the character who saw the movie will be in pretty much the same place. There’s a nice connection to the movie with the first issue opening on the funeral of 91-year-old Peggy Carter that also introduces Sharon Carter, a.k.a. Agent 13.

Unlike most of last month’s DC debuts, Captain America has a very distinct tone and feel to it that is tailored quite well to the character. My original thoughts were that it was a bit decompressed, but on a second read I think it’s far from being the worst offender in that category. The second issue does drag a bit, however, with much of the first half of it devoted to back story before stuff starts happening. The third is another good issue, and writer Ed Brubaker has surprised me by writing comics arcs that are structured like they used to be, with enough going on in each issue to keep me interested.

The best part of this series, though, is the exquisite artwork of Steve McNiven on pencils, Jay Leisten on inks and especially Justin Ponsor on the harder-than-it-looks task of coloring. McNiven does a terrific job of truly choreographing the action scenes. When Cap hurls his shield, you can follow it on its ricocheting path with a clarity that’s usually lacking. And the fights are overall realistic and yet suitable to a character with Cap’s abilities.

Not only that, but the art is pristine in its clarity and full of details that add to the story and not distract. Leisten deserves a lot of credit for doing a fantastic job of old-fashioned inking — making everything look better, sharper and clearer.

Ponsor’s colors also are detailed, and normally I dislike when the colorist adds to the image through highlights and shading that wasn’t there in the line art. But those details are done extremely well, and bolster the excellent palette of colors that Ponsor brings to the book. This is light, airy and clean, where a lot of coloring is dank, dark and muddy.

A few final notes: I like the cover design, which puts the logo front and center and very large so it’s easy to read and, in fact, hard to miss on the stands. The one drawback is that this is one of Marvel’s $3.99 books, and if I didn’t enjoy what I read so much and appreciate the care that went into this book, I’d complain about it a bit more.

Moving on to The Punisher, which boasts Greg Rucka as the writer and Marco Checchetto as the artist. This is a character who seems very tough to write and do well, because most fans have different answers to the questions of how realistic The Punisher should be, how violent and how much he should interact with the Marvel Universe at large. Rucka delivers a solid mix of all three, without ever becoming excessive — a pretty amazing feat in itself.

This opening arc sees the Punisher getting drawn into a gang war after a clash at a wedding kills some 30 people including the groom. Most of the story is told through the eyes of others — the cop who’s slipping info to the Punisher, an aggressive young reporter, and a few of the bad guys. The Punisher himself is scarcely seen in the first issue, but his presence is felt very strongly. By the third, the Marvel interaction becomes clearer with an appearance by the Vulture, who looks a lot different than the old Spider-Man villain I remember.

Rucka definitely writes good crime stories, and this is a very slick, very entertaining crime story with the Punisher at its heart. It’s complemented by some very sharp visuals from Checchetto — an artist I’m not familiar with — and good coloring from Matt Hollingsworth that brings definition to the murky world Checchetto is drawing. Even the production value is high, and the book’s slick paper and high-quality reproduction all add up to a very nice package. As with Captain America, the covers by Bryan Hitch, Paul Neary and Paul Mounts are well designed and eye-catching, with the logo spread very big and very legibly across the top.

The result surprises me. I haven’t read much Punisher in ages, but find this one quite interesting because Rucka’s put enough story into each issue to make it so. It also helps that, after the extra-long first issue, the price dropped from $3.99 to $2.99. I’ll keep buying it for a while at that price.

This also is what I would consider a very good first issue. If you had never read The Punisher, this introduced Rucka’s conception of the character and the story well enough to be entertaining to a new reader. Quite a coup, when this is something like the seventh Punisher #1 Marvel’s published in the last 25 years.

Lastly, there’s Daredevil, a character whose definitive run was the then-groundbreaking visceral violence and grittiness that Frank Miller made his specialty. DD has been rebooted a number of times — not as many as Punisher or Cap, but this is I think the third first issue for the character since 1964.

Writer Mark Waid does the unexpected in Daredevil — rather than try to one-up the Miller version, he goes back to the original, lighter version of the character and then modernizes it to make it feel completely and utterly modern. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone pull this off as well as it is in the first four issues of this comic.

Story wise, there’s a lot going on and a lot of things that look like they’ll continue to pay off. I hadn’t noticed until re-reading them that this series starts — just like in The Punisher — with a crashed wedding that involves mobsters and a key event set at the Cloisters in New York City. There’s also some old Marvel villains from the fringe, like Klaw and Spot, though they’re used to great effect.

The real key to pulling off Waid’s stories is some of the best art I’ve seen in a superhero comic in ages, from Paolo and Joe Rivera, with excellent colors from Javier Rodriguez. Issue #4 and a back-up tale in the first issue feature art from the also-excelling Marcos Martin, colored by Muntsa Vicente. The art is more than just pretty pictures — though they are that — it’s excellent storytelling applied with a degree of economy, clarity and style that is all too rare in comics. From the first issue alone, the way the Riveras draw how Daredevil sees a character like Spot and Klaw is simple, inventive and something that completely works as a 2-D drawing. The two-page spread of Matt Murdock and Foggy Nelson walking the streets in the back-up story of the first issue, the way Captain America temporarily blinds DD in the second issue, the oddness of Klaw in the third and a fight with lions in the fourth issue are all extremely well done. The covers also are excellent — the first and fourth issues in particular are clever, graphic and extremely appealing.

Daredevil is a seriously fun comic book and an absolute joy to read.

Covering ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’

Chris Evans stars in Captain America: The First Avenger.

I should mention that I occasionally write for Newsarama.com, and wrote for them some articles on Captain America: The First Avenger.

These usually involve attending a junket, which consists of some combination of a press conference, roundtable interviews and one-on-one interviews. Nine times out of ten, these junkets are held at the Four Seasons Hotel on Doheny in Beverly Hills, so anyone who’s looking for a star sighting in L.A. could do a lot worse than to hang out at the valet station of this hotel. For example, while waiting for my car after the Cap junket, actor Jason Bateman pulled up and hopped out to meet with some publicists working on, I assume, something related to Horrible Bosses or The Change-Up.

Anyway, in addition to getting to see the movie in 3D a week early on the Paramount lot, I showed up at the Four Seasons for a press conference with the filmmakers. On the panel were director Joe Johnston; screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely; and Marvel Studios execs Kevin Feige and Louis D’Esposito. You can read what came of that session here.

That was followed by roundtables, where a hotel room is set up for groups of journalists — usually around a dozen or so at a time — to interview the talent. These are strictly timed and usually very short, forcing the interviewers to jockey for position to ask their questions before your 10 minutes with Chris Evans is up. For Cap, the actors did the roundtables, and we got a few minutes with Evans, the charming Hayley Atwell and Sebastian Stan. Read what came my group’s short session with Evans here.

Sometimes there even is a takeaway or, more accurately, a gift bag offered to the press. The bag at Cap included an action figure, a collectible cup from Dunkin Donuts, a copy of the soundtrack on CD and a Cap-branded copy of Norton Internet Security 2011 that is useless to me because I only work on Macs. There also are production notes with bios, credits and information on the making of the film for journalists to use as reference.

The third and final piece I wrote from the Cap junket was this review, which most people reading this blog will be able to compare with their own views on the film now that it’s been out in theaters for three weekends.

A lot of sites will take some of these interviews and transcribe them into Q and A style interviews. I’ve tried to do that in the past, but have come to the conclusion that it’s a huge pain in the ass and not nearly as effective as writing a more traditional news story. Writing an article, you can put the appropriate emphasis on what people say in interviews, provide context and get the point across much more clearly. Transcribing an interview is a tedious process that exposes the vast divide between the way people use language when they talk and clear writing. The latter is almost always better, devoid of the filler language most people are never aware is used unless you have to try to write it out. Email interviews are almost always better for quick Q and A’s. Long audio interviews like you’d find in the Comics Journal would require a lot of back and forth, editing and copy editing to get to the published state.

I managed to see Captain America: The First Avenger a second time when my wife and I had the opportunity to leave the house without the baby while some friends babysat for us. I liked the movie more the second time, and even though I enjoyed the 3D on the first viewing, I saw the 2D version the second time and it didn’t affect my opinion of the experience in the slightest.

I think Avengers looks like it’s going to be the blockbuster of 2012, and I’m impressed with how well Marvel Studios has pulled off this big plan to build to it, starting way back with the first Iron Man and The Incredible Hulk. I liked Thor okay and thought X-Men: First Class was terrific, so the summer’s been good for Marvel movies.

I was less impressed with Green Lantern, which was never obviously terrible but was so formulaic in the way it told the origin story and so rigidly followed the conventions of superhero movies that it just never added up to anything memorable. Green Lantern 2 needs to go in a different direction, so I suggest they reduce Hal Jordan to a cameo and make the movie about Guy Gardner, John Stewart and G’Nort. It most likely would tank at the box office, but at least people would have a reaction of some kind to what’s on the screen, even it’s just that two of those three characters are annoying as hell.

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