Thursday, January 13, 2011

Reviews - 20th Century Boys, Afrodisiac, Hulk and Irredeemable

20th Century Boys Vol. 5
By Naoki Urasawa
Published by Viz; $12.99 US

I was disappointed with this volume though not so much because of the quality of the writing or art, but the course of the plot. December 31, 2000 finally arrives and a massive robot spraying some kind of deadly chemical weapon is unleashed in Tokyo. Kenji and his friends head off to save the world.

And then the story leaps ahead to 2014. The world has apparently been saved but we don't know how. A massive memorial stands in Tokyo honoring the robot's victims, including one for the "saviors of the Earth." The story follows a now teenage Kanna who, despite her age, lives alone, annoying her neighbors by blasting her Uncle Kenji's music as loud as she can. She works at a restaurant and somehow manages to negotiate a cease-fire between some of Tokyo's crime syndicates (inspired to do so because they're having shoot outs near her favorite ramen shop). It's strongly hinted that at least some of Kenji's group did not survive the New Year's Eve battle, and the only one of the old group we see is Yukiji, who is vainly trying to teach Kanna some humility. The volume's ending makes it clear that the cult of The Friend is not only still around, but more powerful than ever.

I felted cheated out of the confrontation between Kenji's group and the robot. I'm assuming eventually this will be revealed in flashback, but it was frustrating to get to that moment and have Urasawa pull a Battlestar Galactica.

I was happy to finally see what I suspected was inevitable - the appearance of the adult Yanbo & Mabo, the fat twins who terrorize the young Kenji in the series' flashbacks. I liked that they were not only physically very different, but completely oblivious as to how they had tortured the other children. In my experience, adults who used to be bullies tend to have these blind spots. It's interesting.

By Jim Rugg and Brian Maruca
Published by AdHouse Books; $14.95 US

Afrodisiac is a pimp powered by Satan. A radiation fueled super-pimp. A humble janitor touched my magic. A mysterious man from a far-away land. A militant black cyborg.

Afrodisiac is also a 1970s super-hero/pimp who first reared his handsome head in Street Angel #5 and later appeared in Project: Superior. The Project story is reprinted here along with all of the stray panels featured in Street Angel, as well as a bunch of new stories. Most stories start with descriptions of Afrodisiac's origin, and each one is different from the last (I kept thinking of Tenacious D, who seem to rewrite their origin story in every other song). Afrodisiac is a hilarious, beautifully rendered homage to pop culture, '70s comics, and Blaxploitation. Pages are convincingly yellowed to look like they came right out of somebody's longbox. At least I hope all that stuff is part of the design, because if not I need to find Kareem and tell him to stop writing his name on my comics. There are a lot of faux comic covers of Afrodisiac romance comics and Afrodisiac funny animal comics. The image I remember being shuffled around the Internet the most prior to Afrodisiac's release is one of my favorite - an uncolored page of Afrodisiac running from a dinosaur.

There's no real arc in the stories and there doesn't need to be. Reading Afrodisiac is more like going through a vibrant, funny collage. Maruca and Rugg expand Afrodisiac's world a bit with recurring characters like detectives Dugans and Wills and his assistant Dizzy who waits for him in his Base of Operations, Afroca. Afrodisiac fights adversaries as varied as Dracula, Hercules and President Nixon.

I still love Rugg's fight scenes, and I can't help but think that mainstream super-hero comics would be so much better if the artists took a page (or, perhaps more accurately, were allowed to take a page) from Rugg's book. In spite of the parody aspect of Rugg's super-hero stuff, his action scenes are often a lot more interesting and fun than most offerings from Marvel and DC.

Every inch of Afrodisiac is beautifully designed including the front and back covers, and it seems pretty likely that everyone involved in this book had loads of fun making it. I can't help but wonder what the comic book world would look like if more creators were able to go wild with their projects like these two did.

Hulk: Fall of the Hulks Prelude
By Various
Published by Marvel; $24.99 US
Collects Hulk #s 2, 9, and 16; Skaar: Son of Hulk #1; Hulk: Raging Thunder; Amazing Fantasy #15; Planet Skaar Prologue; All-New Savage She-Hulk #4 and Incredible Hulk #s 600-601

I took this out of the library specifically so I could try to catch up on all this "Fall of the Hulks" and "World War Hulks" and "Crisis on Infinite Hulks" crap that's been going on since I was last reading Incredible Hulk.

Hulk: Fall of the Hulks Prelude is exactly what it sounds like. It offers stories from a pretty wide variety of comics, presumably to catch the reader up before the "Fall of the Hulks" event. Some of the stories are really bad, some of the stories are good, and some are just kind of okay. It's frustrating because as soon as you get to the cliffhanger at the end of each chapter, you get a completely different comic and never get the conclusion of the previous story.

Of course, the priority with Fall of the Hulks Prelude is to catch you up, but I tend to assume that the first priority of any comic collection is to entertain. Not to mention that $25 seems a hefty price tag for a "catch up" book. You could just as easily go to a message board for free and ask people what happened. I'm just glad I used my library card to get it rather than my credit card.

Irredeemable Vol. 2
By Mark Waid and Peter Krause
Publish by BOOM! Studios; $16.99 US
Collects Irredeemable #s 5-8

If you don't know about Irredeemable - you know that Five for Fighting "Superman" song? You know when he sings "I'm not crazy or anything"? Well, Irredeemable's main character is a very Superman-like character named the Plutonian, and his version of the song would probably skip that line. For a variety of reasons, and not all of them are meant to be clear yet, the pressures of being the world's premiere superhero drove Plutonian bonkers. The rest of the world's super-heroes and super-villains are in hiding, some trying to stop him and others just hoping he won't find them. Millions have died at his hands and it seems likely they aren't the last. Though he hasn't stated any specific demands, Plutonian has the entire world by the short hairs, and its people can do nothing but wait until the next catastrophe.

When I heard of Irredeemable's concept, I was glad to hear it was Mark Waid who was writing it. When I reviewed Mark Waid's Empire, the saga of an unapologetic super-villain at the brink of complete world domination, I said it was "the closest the industry has come to making a Godfather for the supervillain." Mark Waid is perfect for a book with a villain as the protagonist specifically for two reasons. First, his villains don't stop being villains just because they're the protagonist. He doesn't dangle the possibility of redemption in front of the reader's nose and he doesn't pit the villain against someone who's somehow "more evil." Second, while Waid's villains may be cold and uncaring, his writing isn't. When his bad guys kill and maim the way bad guys do, it isn't just for a cheap joke. I'll take Empire over Wanted any day.

The first volume of Irredeemable ended with Plutonian's destruction of Singapore. The second opens with Plutonian airing a chilling worldwide broadcast in which he shows he's been able to monitor not only what private citizens have been saying in random conversations about him, but even what they've been writing in their journals. Later, Plutonian's old super team The Paradigm breaks into his lair at the same time Plutonian finds their hideout. Right before Plutonian manages to take a surprisingly brutal beating, one of Paradigm's members manages to get a story out of Plutonian that helps explain what made the guy go coo-coo for Coa Coa Puffs. In the meantime, there's dissension brewing among the Paradigm as details about the relationship between Plutonian and Bette Noir are revealed, and the question of where Plutonian's arch-nemesis Modeus is and exactly how he's manipulating the situation hovers over everything

Irredeemable is a wonderfully dark re-imagining of Superman. It's suspenseful, full of mystery, and my only concern is what Waid's long term plans are for it. I don't think this is a title that could just keep going and going. It should be a Lost and not a Gilligan's Island. So far I'm hooked.

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