Monday, June 21, 2004

Review - Captain America and The Falcon #s 1-3

Captain America and The Falcon #s 1-3
By Christopher Priest, Bart Sears,
Rob Hunter, and Mike Atiyeh
Published by Marvel Comics

Phrases like, "critical acclaim, poor sales," and "the best comic you’re not reading," have become the official mantras of fans of Christopher Priest, one of the industry’s enduring underdogs. The number of titles canceled during Priest’s watch has given rise to the "Priest Curse" superstition which, according to Priest, while only a joke to most, infects the perceptions of not only some fans, but a few unnamed comics professionals as well. As far as paranormal conspiracy belief goes, it rates right up there with the morons who circulated posts over the Internet that Chris Claremont – with The Fantastic 4th Voyage of Sinbad – had predicted the 9/11 disaster. Titles featuring household names like The Ray and Quantum and Woody hardly need supernatural intervention to get the axe. The announcement that Christopher Priest was given a shot at the new series Captain America and The Falcon, a title with at least one marquee Marvel character, was a welcome one.

For the most part, Priest is at the top of his game with Captain America and The Falcon. The book bears little resemblance to the 70's title of the same name (the regular Captain America title was renamed Captain America and The Falcon in 1971, with The Falcon’s name removed in 1975). The new title is a conspiracy thriller in superhero clothes, and it blurs the nature of the relationship between The Falcon and his star-spangled mentor. The plot is as suspenseful and engaging as the best of Tom Clancy’s novels, and ambiguity of Cap and Falcon’s respective positions plunges the story that much deeper into mystery.

Non-linear storytelling seems to be one of Priest’s favorite scripting tools, but many readers who gave Black Panther a test-drive complained it made the plots too confusing. It’s been tamed a bit with Captain America and The Falcon. The first three issues of the series use just enough time-shifting to heighten the suspense without frustrating the reader. It’s good to see Priest making the title more accessible to new readers without abandoning the style entirely.

Priest jumps right into the mystery in the first issue, without any real intro to the characters, apparently trusting the readers are familiar enough with the key players. It succeeds in getting the suspense on the ground and running, but it’s a risk. Cap may be a recognizable enough figure, but Falcon, not so much. It almost feels like this was originally conceived as a limited series rather than an ongoing monthly. Time will tell whether or not Priest’s trust in the readers will pay off.

Priest isn’t new to conspiracy stories; they were one of the hallmarks of his run on Black Panther, but instead of the Atlantean wars, magical golden frogs, and time-traveling Kirby clones of that late title, Cap and Falcon deal with a plot much more grounded in reality. It involves an infamous Cuban drug cartel, a loose-cannon spook who shares Cap’s uniform but none of his moral scruples, and a dangerous new weapon everyone’s trying to get their hands on.

There are times when the less "super" nature of the story doesn’t work. With his motives and intentions clouded, Falcon sometimes comes off as more of a super-spy than a superhero. In Falcon’s first non-flashback appearance in the first issue, for example, his feet are propped up on a desk as he fingers an unlit cigar in one hand and aims a pistol at members of the Cuban drug cartel in the other. You could get away with a scene like that with the Punisher. Maybe Batman. Maybe. But a guy in a bright white-and-red suit, sporting a feathered flying machine on his back, with a golden beak perched on the bridge of his nose trying to come off like a Tarantino bad-ass? Nah, that doesn’t work.

The primary aspect of the title that keeps it from reaching its full potential is the penciling. Whether you love the art of Bart Sears or hate it, it’s clear he wasn’t the right penciller for this series. There isn’t enough subtlety in his work to adequately portray any of the real world aspects of the tale and his habit of flanking the panels with profile shots of the main characters only breeds confusion. The exaggerated humanity of his renderings work best in the more "super" moments of the story, such as when Falcon is caught in hurricane winds at the end of the second issue, or his battle with the so-called "Anti-Cap" at the end of the third. The fourth issue will be Sears’s last, with Joe Bennett (who Priest worked with on The Crew) taking over the penciling.

Captain America and The Falcon is rich with potential, and it’s certainly one of the more suspenseful of Marvel’s titles. Hopefully, the change in the creative team will help the book be all it can and should be.

Monday, June 14, 2004

Review - Empire

By Mark Waid, Barry Kitson, James Pascoe,
Comicraft, Alex Bleyaert, and Chris Sotomayor
Published by DC Comics; $14.95 USD

Sometime in the '90s, when Mark Waid first conceptualized Empire, a villain-led title may very well have been the "novel notion" he claims it was in the introduction to the trade, but these days there’s no shortage of bad guy books on the shelves. There are at least a half-dozen ongoing titles featuring bad guys, former bad guys, or kinda-bad guys, as well as the occasional mini-series, but if you’re looking for the continuing exploits of an actual, honest-to-badness villain, you won’t find it in any of those titles. The writers always find some shortcut to turning the bad guy you love to hate into the not-so-bad-guy you don’t hate so much. Either they transform the villain into a hero, guaranteeing some good sales since a villain-turned-hero will necessarily be higher on the bad-ass scale than most, or they pit the psychotic bastard in question against a more psychotic bastard.

The result is that what makes the supervillain story a promising concept is precisely what the reader is denied. You’re just getting a slightly skewed superhero story. There may be a little more blood than usual, but it’s still just a superhero story (and during a time when one of comicdom’s most popular heroes deals with bad guys by punching steel claws through their flesh, what’s so special about a little blood anyway?).

This, more than anything, is why it’s a good idea to read Empire. Golgoth is the subject of the series; an imposing armor-clad baddie who wrestles control of almost all the world’s nations, slaughtering the Earth’s super-powered protectors along the way. The story follows Golgoth’s battles to bring the remaining free nations under his control, the attempts of the few brave souls left to resist him, and the dangerously ambitious exploits of his lieutenants. While Golgoth is the main character, what keeps you turning the pages is the intrigue between his followers. Kept loyal to Golgoth only by a powerful drug of unknown origin, the villain's underlings are constantly at odds with each other, sometimes for power and sometimes just to fulfill their decadent cravings.

What distinguishes Empire from pretty much every supervillain story to come before (and probably after), is that it is actually a supervillain story. Even in the brief moments where some minor endearing quality is attached to Golgoth, there’s no threat of redemption. He’s not just a deluded guy who thinks he’s doing the right thing, or a tragically misunderstood madman. He’s a genuine, power-hungry evil mofo who’s got the world by the short ones, and the only question is whether or not his grip will fail. This story is the reason the Comics Code included the "good guys always have to win" rule.

While there are better stories out there, you’d be hard-pressed to find a better supervillain story. Empire is a suspenseful, dark story about power, secrets, and the price you pay for both, and it's the closest the industry has come to making a Godfather for the supervillain.

Monday, June 07, 2004

Review - The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye

The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye
By Robert Kirkman, Tony Moore and Cliff Rathburn
Published by Image Comics

I don't like zombie movies. I never have. Really, I don't like any movies that involve hordes of undead guys swarming down on innocent warm-blooded folk. If you ask me why, I might tell you I just don't harbor enough sadism to enjoy watching innocent people being torn to shreds, but those quick of wit and knowledgeable of my tastes will point out I go ga-ga over Tolkien's super-elephants stomping the guts out of regiments of good-guys. If I'm honest, I'll tell you I too often live vicariously through the characters whose exploits I follow, and living, vicariously or not, in a horror flick is a risky proposition. The world of Nosferatu and Freddy Krueger is usually too unforgiving for me. There's just not enough spiritually uplifting, life affirming, cock envy fulfillment moments of the hero finally righteously smiting his foes; there's just people getting slaughtered in the worst ways imaginable. Give me the choice of either dying at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields or in that Mexican night club in From Dusk Till Dawn, and I'll let Babar step on my head a dozen times before I'll be Sex Machine's midnight snack.

While The Walking Dead features hordes of undead and some gut-wrenching gore, the series is less about fighting zombies than it is a look at how people deal with catastrophic events, how it changes them, and what it says about the beliefs we hold so dear.

The series starts off with a bang (or a "BOOM" if you follow the sfx), with the protagonist Rick Grimes -- a police officer in a small Kentucky town -- and his partner in a shoot out with an escaped convict. Grimes is injured in the battle, and by the second page he's already immersed in a post-apocalyptic world where the bulk of humanity has been transformed into flesh-eating zombies. He awakes from a coma, ignorant of the past few weeks' events, knowing only that his world has turned upside-down in, what seemed to him, a space between breaths.

Kirkman puts a lot of trust in his readers and it pays off. He doesn't waste time with exposition about how or why the world is filled with grunting cannibals. Later on, we learn some of what happened after the undead began to appear, but Kirkman doesn't give any hints as to what struck down humanity, and ultimately learning the why's or the how's doesn't seem that important. After all, while The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye, collects only the first six issues of the ongoing series, and it may be too soon to tell, it seems unlikely that Rick Grimes will be going on any crusades to save the world. He didn't awake from his coma uttering vows of vengeance and justice; he just wants to survive.

Considering so many of Robert Kirkman's other stories are satire/parody superhero romps like Battle Pope and Capes, Rick Grimes is easily the most believable and familiar of Kirkman's protagonists, and despite the fact that his work has never been short on violence, The Walking Dead is definitely his darkest tale to date.

Robert Kirkman's talent isn't the only to evolve with this series. Tony Moore's pencils have never been better or more realistic. There's still the element of cartoon, in fact there were a few panels here and there that reminded me of Kieron Dwyer's recent run on Avengers, but Moore's work is essential to the starkly real feel of the story. And considering how many people in the story show up as either undead or just plain dead, you have to give him credit for all the flies the poor guy had to draw.

While so many comics are printed without color simply for financial reasons, the black-and-white format of series drives home how gray and grim the world has become. It also mirrors how the lives of its characters become so viciously simple. One of the few aspects of the story the more politically-sensitive reader may take issue with is the choices the characters are forced to make. Stripped of civilization, some of the survivors question whether or not too many of their ideals are being left on the wayside. When a group of women wash clothes in a stream -- while the men hunt for food -- one woman comments, "When things get back to normal, I wonder if we'll still be allowed to vote." Later, Rick Grimes and another survivor argue about Rick's insistence that even the young children be made to carry handguns, and the scene which subsequently justifies Rick's decision is enough to make any card-carrying member of the NRA weep with joy.

Though I honestly don't know anything about the man's politics, it seems doubtful Kirkman's trying to slip in any survivalist propaganda here. This ain't Red Dawn. It's a sober look at what happens when all of our complicated ideals are put on hold for the essentials of life and perhaps, if anything, it's asking if our beliefs can't withstand cataclysm, were they ever worth a damn in the first place?

All social commentary aside, The Walking Dead can be a very scary comic book, and that's a lot more impressive than it sounds. Most horror comics don't genuinely scare anybody. Most horror comics give you big, hulking bad guys followed by dark clouds of fire and chains and overall evil cool stuff. Most horror comics just make you wonder when McFarlane is going to come out with the action figure. What renders the zombies of The Walking Dead so chilling is the matter-of-fact way they are presented. They become a natural part of the landscape. Even during calm moments of the story, they're always on the edge of possibility.

There are a few cliched Hollywood moments, mostly in the action sequences of the story, but overall The Walking Dead, Vol. 1: Days Gone Bye is a good, suspenseful, intriguing story with lots of promise, and just may be a welcome turning point for one of the industry's emerging writing talents.