Friday, April 29, 2011

Spreading the disease

It's been an interesting few weeks. I've succeeded in getting gigs writing for a number of other websites, though unfortunately I haven't updated Superheroes, etc. as much. I hope to change that soon, but in the meantime...

My latest review for PLAYBACK: stl is up today. I review the new collection of the UK war comic Darkie's Mob. Last week I reviewed Ziggy Marley's Marijuanaman and Super Dinosaur #1.

I've also joined the staff of Popdose. I will be reviving Extra Medium - the column I once wrote for Trouble With Comics - for Popdose. I hope to have the first installment up some time next week. In the meantime, I contributed to a collaborative post on The Best of Michael Scott in honor of Steve Carell's bittersweet departure from The Office.

Finally, I will soon be writing for the UK-based graphic novel review site Grovel. I don't have any reviews up yet, but I'm working on a pair of reviews for Matt Wagner's Batman and the Monster Men and the follow-up Batman and the Mad Monk.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

How to be stupid at Albany Comic Con

I stole a comic book today.

My hometown Albany, New York hosts the Albany Comic Con twice per year. It is, I'm told, a relatively small convention. I don't have a lot to compare it to since it is the only convention I've ever attended.

Small or not, it's growing. Usually most of the local shops have booths (I know Aquilonia, Comic Depot, Earthworld, and Paragon were all there), there are other independent vendors, a smattering a cosplayers, and in the past there was a relatively stable list of local-to-semi-local comics pros like Ron Marz, Fred Hembeck, and Herb Trimpe (though I did not spot Trimpe this time). It had its busy moments, but for the most part there never seemed to be enough people to make it difficult to navigate.

Things changed this year. When I drove into the Holiday Inn parking lot Sunday morning with my buddy Gene Kannenberg in the passenger side, we had to look around a bit to find a free spot. Our hopes dwindled as we noticed the same cars pass us two and three times, all with drivers just as frustrated as us about finding a parking space. Eventually we found a spot just barely big enough for the Dodge Caliber to wedge into, though Gene volunteered to get out before I pulled in so we wouldn't both be smacking the doors into neighboring cars on our way out.

I thought maybe there was something else going on at the hotel that day, but when we arrived - at 11 am, only an hour after the doors opened - the convention floor was already packed. I've only been to the con two or three times and I'd never seen it that crowded. You couldn't walk from booth to booth without bumping into a person or two and you couldn't have a conversation near a booth without becoming a traffic obstruction. My friend Alan Doane, who I missed this time around, mentioned his plan was to arrive early to beat the crowds. Whether he didn't show up as early as planned and that's why I didn't run into him, or he did and I just didn't spot him, I tend to doubt his plan worked out.

Though I didn't get to see Alan and his family, I bumped into local blogger Kevin Marshall who is a co-conspirator in a project to be revealed before the end of the year. I was surprised to see my co-worker Zack. Zack doesn't read a lot of comics, but told me he was there for the Star Wars related stuff. There were tons of Stormtroopers, Vaders, Leias, jedi, and a dude with a remote control built-to-scale R2D2. I always thought Boba Fett only had one outfit, but I saw at least 3 or 4 different Boba Fett costumes and all had different colors. One younger boy had his Boba Fett costume painted like the outfits professional dirt bikers wear.

Overall, there seemed to be much more cosplay activity than usual. Unfortunately, I didn't take any pictures. The reason isn't complicated. I'm shy about asking strangers for their pictures, even if they're dressed in a way that says "please take my damn picture."

The picture I most wish I had taken was of the most disturbing costume I saw: a Rorschach suit worn by a little kid. When we eventually left the hotel I expected to see the kid on the roof sling-shotting puppies into trees.

What I did see was two de-helmeted storm troopers on a smoke break. I really wanted to say "We're not the droids you're looking for" as Gene and I walked by, but I figured they might kind of get that one a lot.

Along with Gene, Kevin, and Zack; I also ran into my old acquaintance Jon Stephenson. Jon was good friends with my older brother and used to own his own comic book shop nearby until his shop's pipes froze, burst, and poured water all over his stock.

Jon and I got to talking in front of Aquilonia's booth. I had been looking through their TPB and hardcover bins. Gene entered the discussion as did a couple of folks nearby who overheard me mention I had written an undergraduate thesis on Marvel comics. Eventually we all went our separate ways.

Maybe 15 minutes later, two men walked up to me. By this point Gene and I had migrated to an area in the back of the con space; just beyond the hotel's pool. There were only a few booths and some tables set up for trading card games.

One of the men asked me, "Sir, have you visited the Aquilonia booth today?"

My natural bullshit defenses went on. I couldn't understand why someone would be asking me that. My first thought was that Aquilonia was having someone go around and talk up their booth to get more traffic.

"Yeah," I told him. I noticed he was looking at the books under my arm.

"Did you take a copy of The New Frontier?"

"Uh, no." I had no idea what he was talking about. For some reason, I thought he was referring to some kind of Star Wars or Star Trek comic book.

"This gentleman," he pointed behind me to a guy I hadn't noticed until then, "said you may have a copy of The New Frontier you didn't pay for."

I looked at this second guy - who was looking at the books under my arm just like the first guy - and I suddenly realized what happened.

As I mentioned, before Jon walked up to me at the Aquilonia booth I was browsing Aquilonia's tpbs. I had fished out DC: The New Frontier Vol. 2 with every intention of buying it once I'd made my way through all the books. Once the conversation with Jon and everyone else ended, instead of continuing to look through the trades and paying for the book already in my hands, I just walked away. DC: The New Frontier was lost in the already thick pile of books I carried.

I apologized over and over and quickly dug out my wallet to pay for the book. I was absolutely mortified. I felt like everyone's eyes were on me. Once I gave the Aquilonia owner?/employee? the money I owed him, I felt the need to get as far away from the booths as I could because I was sure the vendors overheard the discussion and would be giving me the stink-eye if I got too close to their merchandise.

To be clear, the guy from Aquilonia didn't give me a hard time. No one asked me to leave, insulted me, or said anything once I handed over the dough. I don't necessarily know if he believed me when I said it was a mistake, but he didn't give me the impression he thought I was lying. It was just an unavoidably tense and awkward scene.

On our way to the back booths I had spotted a Pepsi vending machine near the pool. The incident left me sweaty and nervous, I desperately wanted a drink to cool me off, didn't even blink at the stupidly high $2 price tag, and sighed in defeat as the machine's dollar slot refused to work. Eventually I found a table on which to rest my books and I did my best to calm down while Gene toured the artist alley (where he got a great sketch from Fred Hembeck of a young Peter Parker reading Spider-Man and Hembeck himself reading it over Parker's shoulder). It wasn't until later, when Gene and I ordered matching Guinnesses at the nearby Ninety-Nine, that I finally relaxed.

My lovely girlfriend Maryann gave me the perfect ending for the tale. After lunch at Ninety-Nine I dropped off Gene, drove home, and I didn't even get to say hello before Maryann celebrated my return to the apartment by sneering at me from the couch and saying: "THIEF."

I may have failed to mention that when I leaned against that table while Gene talked to artists, part of doing "my best to calm down" involved using my Blackberry to inform all of my Facebook friends what happened.

Along with "stealing" a comic, I did at least three other stupid things at Albany Comic Con.

1. I didn't take any good pictures. I took maybe a half dozen photos and none of them were very different from the one at the top of this post.

2. My karmic punishment for not-really stealing a comic was to buy a comic - The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 5 - I already had.

3. I bought an Infinity Crusade trade from Earthworld's booth. There were - what I thought were - two copies of the trade but with different covers. I thought that was strange and didn't realize until I got home that there might be more than one volume of Infinity Crusade. The idea came to me at home because I noticed that the Infinity Crusade I bought did not cover the entire Infinity Crusade series. What makes the stupidity of this purchase start to snowball into an avalanche is that I feel stupid for not buying the second volume of Infinity Crusade when I really should feel stupid for buying ANY volume of Infinity Crusade.

Here's my haul:

Alan Moore's The Courtyad
Alan Moore's Light of Thy Countenance
The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 5 (to be more precise, this is part of the library's haul, because they're probably the ones I'll be donating it to)
The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 8
The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 9
The Best of Twisted Toyfare Theatre Vol. 10
DC: The New Frontier Vol. 2 (Paid for and everything)
Fred the Clown
Grendel: Devil's Reign (I was very happy about this; I love Matt Wagner's stuff and have been meaning to check out Grendel for a while)
Infinity Crusade Vol. 1
Marvel Fanfare: Strange Tales (I was pleasantly surprised when I left the con, flipped through this, and learned the classic battle between Hulk, the Blob, and Unus the Untouchable is collected here)
Rising Stars Vol. 3

Next time the Albany Comic Con swings around, I hope to have saved up a bit more money. I'd love to start building a collection of Hulk convention sketches.

Though they weren't very good, here are the rest of the shots I took:

Friday, April 15, 2011

Spreading the disease

For the past couple of weeks I've snaked my infectious tentacles into more corners of the Internet.

(i.e. I've e-mailed websites I like and asked if they'll let me write for them)

Today brings my first review for the St. Louis-based pop culture website PLAYBACK: stl. I review Liar's Kiss from Top Shelf. Thanks to PLAYBACK: stl's Comic Books Editor Jason Green for the opportunity. I have at least one review planned for next week, maybe two.

Also, earlier this week I posted my first review for Alex Ness's group blog Poplitiko. I reviewed Darryl Cunningham's excellent Psychiatric Tales. I plan to post there regularly; at least every few weeks if not more often. Thanks Alex for inviting me to the blog and letting me stay after I waited months before contributing.

Soon - perhaps as early as next week - I will have news of an upcoming regular feature on another website, but I don't want to count my tentacles before they're...tentacles.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Review - The Unwritten: Inside Man

The Unwritten: Inside Man
By Mike Carey and Peter Gross, et al.
Published by DC/Vertigo; $12.99 US
168 pages
Collects The Unwritten #s 6-12

The Unwritten is the story of Tom Taylor, son of a dead writer - Wilson Taylor - who enjoyed enormous success with a blatantly Harry-Potter-esque series of novels. The series begins with Taylor living off his father's fandom. When questions of Taylor's identity and his real connection to his more famous father arise; Tom finds himself in an unrecognizable world of magic, supernatural killers, and dark conspiracies reaching back centuries. The first volume ends with a super-strong murderer slaughtering a group of writers in Wilson Taylor's old villa. Tom is wrongly accused of the killings and as the French police carry him off he spots a mystical ally who is only supposed to exist in his father's novels.

The second volume - The Unwritten: Inside Man - begins with Tom Taylor carted off to prison. He quickly befriends the seemingly more streetwise Savoy, who hides a Tom-Taylor-specific agenda for his imprisonment. In the meantime Tom's enigmatic ally Lizzie Hexam gets herself sent to prison so she can help Tom, a squad of assassins heads to the jail to kill Taylor and steamroll anyone in their way, a prison riot climaxes with yet another character from Wilson Taylor's imagination emerging in the real world to find Tom (but this one isn't there to help him) and there are strong hints that Wilson Taylor isn't as dead as everyone believes. Just as the first volume ended with a stand-alone story - a fictionalized retelling of the life of Rudyard Kipling - Inside Man ends with the dark and hilarious tale of a man trapped in a children's book story as the foul-mouthed and murderous rabbit Mister Bun.

The Unwritten hits its stride with this second volume. The first volume was wonderful, but I felt much more swept up in a page-turning urge as I read Inside Man. Unburdened with the set-up, the story is more enthralling. As soon as the volume begins Tom is almost completely past that often frustrating denial stage characters in stories featuring the supernatural always experience, and his eventual acceptance helps the story move at a faster pace.

Carey reveals more about the conspiracy aimed at Tom Taylor and the bizarre fiction/real world relationship that drives it. Lizzie communicates with Wilson (presumably either he's in hiding or she speaks with his ghost) by speaking into books she pulls off the shelves of a bookstore and opens them to find his typed response. After escaping the prison; Tom, Lizzie, and Savoy travel to a ghost-like landscape set in World War II Germany where Tom must use the powers he doesn't yet understand to "fix" a story corrupted by the German propaganda machine.

Not unlike a Lost-modeled TV show, The Unwritten keeps you guessing about what exactly is going on. Is Tom really Wilson Taylor's fictional hero Tommy Taylor and is the "real world" just a ruse concocted to protect him? Is Tom Taylor even real? What does this mysterious cabal want with Tom and what the hell does it have to do with fiction and its writers?

What I find unique about the mysteries Carey presents us with is that I feel none of the usual frustration when theorizing about what's "really" going on in The Unwritten. Carey has so much fun playing with the notions of stories and fiction - and turning these notions into plot elements of a supernatural thriller - that I'm content to enjoy the ride and trust I'll get my answers in due time.

On a bit of what I hope won't be a stupidly cryptic tangent; a very specific character is pulled from the fictional world into the real one in the beginning of Inside Man, and I was pleasantly surprised with his return to the narrative. When I reviewed the first volume in February and mentioned how much I enjoyed Peter Gross's rendering of the character, I never expected him to return, and now I'm looking forward to what will hopefully be some more sightings.

I have changed my mind about one thing between the first volume and this one. I still don't like the faux Internet pages, but I think I see their purpose more clearly. The Unwritten is a story about stories and since it's set in in the present, it makes sense to involve the format in which most of our stories are being told. Still, they turn me off and I usually just skip them.

My personal knee-jerk reactions aside, The Unwritten: Inside Man is a great second act and hopefully there will be a lot more.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Review- Astonishing X-Men Omnibus

Astonishing X-Men Omnibus
By Joss Whedon, John Cassaday, and Laura Martin, et al.
Published by Marvel; $75 US
Collects Astonishing X-Men #s 1-24 and Giant-Size Astonishing X-Men #1

I tuned out of the X-people a long time ago. Since then I stopped reading comics, eventually revived my interest in them, and in the interim there was too much X-stuff to wrap my head around. Dozens of spin-off solo and team X-titles lived and died in the time it took me to leave comics and return. I felt like all my doorways back into the X-mythology were shut, and honestly I didn't care all that much. Sure, there was the tug of nostalgia. Some of my most potent comic book memories involve the Chris Claremont/John Romita, Jr. days right before "Mutant Massacre." But between the movies, the abundant monthlies and minis, and the cartoons; for me the X-men in general - and Wolverine in particular - were by that time the comic book version of that pop song you love the first time you hear it, and the second, and the third, and the five hundredth, but eventually it gets played every hour and you think next time you pass by someone who's humming it you're going to punch him in the throat.

The announcement that Joss Whedon was writing Astonishing X-Men didn't appeal to me at first. I didn't doubt his talent. Any list of my favorite TV programs will inevitably include Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly. However, at the time I was very pessimistic about comics. I didn't worry in spite of the potential of Joss Whedon steering the course of an X-book, but because of it. My expectations were guided by my own version of Murphy's Law stating not only that if it can go wrong it will, but that the better it sounded the worse it would be.

As it turned out, while my pessimism about presidents, corporations, and George Lucas sequels may never err; Joss Whedon and John Cassaday's Astonishing X-Men proved me wrong. It is easily one of the most satisfying mainstream superhero titles I've read, and certainly the best X-book I've cracked open.

Whedon creates a single story of many parts, hitting all the notes for a great X-Men yarn. His first storyline is a clever variation on the usual mutant persecution story: a so-called cure for the Mutant gene is developed. The rest of the series sees an old X-Men "character" rendered the perfect adversary, an assault by a newly formed Hellfire Club, the return of Cassandra Nova, and an intergalactic war over the survival of Earth.

Whedon's humor is perfect. It is recognizable and uniquely Whedon, but he doesn't get in his own way. The humor serves the story and not the other way around. There are comic book writers who give comic relief far too much prominence - sometimes even letting it steer the plot - and often I've suspected that Joss Whedon is precisely who these writers are trying to ape. I think, other than my general cynicism at the time, this is the reason I was concerned about Whedon writing Astonishing X-Men. I let my impressions of writers trying to channel Whedon color my opinions of Whedon himself, but ultimately the book was just too good to deny.

It's clear that Kitty is the character with whom Whedon feels the most comfortable. Her relative absence in recent years gives Whedon the freedom to subject her to the same problems as always. It's clear that she feels unsure of herself though now her doubt comes from time, distance, and trauma rather than youth and inexperience. Rather than telling a you-can-never-go-home-again story with Kitty, Whedon tells a you-can-only-go-home-again story with her and sometimes he goes too far in turning back time. One example that stands out is in the first issue when Kitty sheepishly tells the team "Okay, I officially really, really don't know why I'm here. I'm not a fighter, not like you guys." Any longtime follower of the X-Men would raise an eyebrow considering all that Kitty went through with the X-Men and Excalibur. To reference Whedon's other work, sometimes it feels like Whedon's Kitty is too much Dawn and not enough Buffy.

On the other hand, when the Buffy does come out of her, it's a sight to see. Kitty proves far more capable than ever, often providing the coup de grĂ¢ce - or something close to it - for the bad guys. A scene featuring a thorough ass-whooping of Emma Frost by Kitty in the penultimate storyline is beautifully rendered by Cassaday, demonstrates some cool and creative uses of Kitty's powers, and it shows a powerful and confident Kitty Pryde the likes of which we never saw back when she sported that blue gypsy outfit and played doctor with Doug Ramsey.

Anyone who only knows the X-Men through the movies, or whose memory of comics from younger days has been tainted by Singer's films, would do well to read Astonishing X-Men if for no other reason than to experience a refreshingly interesting look at Scott Summers. While I enjoyed Singer's adaptations, there were things about his "Meet Wolverine and Wolverine's Sidekicks" approach I didn't like and the dismissive handling of Scott Summers's character was one of them. Whedon gives us a Cyclops much easier to relate to. He's less stoic but his doubts in himself and his clinging obsession with Jean Grey are never far behind. A sequence involving an enemy telepath invading Scott's mind and taking a tour of his past is one of the most emotionally affecting of the book.

Whedon took a perfectly balanced, no BS approach with Wolverine; particularly impressive considering other than Firefly's Jayne Cobb, I can't think of many sympathetic characters like Wolverine that Whedon has written. Whedon's Logan isn't at all dumbed-down, but he also isn't the focus. Whedon has a lot of fun with him, including a telepathic assault that convinces Logan he's actually a small English child for three issues.

There were only two things I didn't like when it came to Whedon's handling of specific characters. The first is a relatively minor complaint. I didn't like Whedon's Machiavellian treatment of Professor X, mainly because I'm tired of the Professor-X-is-actually-a-bastard device and I hoped we would get something more. The second complaint is something I hate enough that I have no qualms about spoiling it - the revelation that Kitty's pet dragon Lockheed is a spy for S.H.I.E.L.D.'s intergalactic counterpart, S.W.O.R.D. It isn't just that it darkens the memory of a beloved, if minor, character; there really is no reason for it. Lockheed's treachery, and the manner-of-fact way it's revealed, does absolutely nothing for the story.

One of the most monumental events in the series is the return of Colossus. Peter Rasputin was believed killed when he sacrificed himself for the mutant-killing illness, the Legacy Virus. There were apparently some criticisms of Whedon's explanation. As to how Colossus could be alive when his body was incinerated and his ashes scattered, Whedon states simply that his body was switched with another. Perhaps the criticisms were valid. I don't know. I tuned out of the X-books long before Colossus was snuffed. All I know for sure is that Peter's return is the most elegantly handled superhero-resurrection I've read in a comic, and so it's difficult for me to care about any continuity blunders or sloppy explanations. Frankly at this point in mainstream superhero books, I think we've reached and gone whizzing past the point where it even matters if a writer bothers to explain a dead hero's return.

John Cassaday and Laura Martin give Astonishing X-Men breathtakingly awesome visuals. Cassaday pencils every issue of the story and every cover (with the exception of some variants), and the book overall has a slick and stylish feel to it. There is a crispness to Cassaday's work and Laura Martin's vibrant colors that almost leave you surprised you're looking at static images. Cassaday maintains a wonderful balance between more realistic subjects and superhero action. When you flip through Astonishing X-Men, it's easy to find yourself wishing Cassaday and Martin worked on every superhero title.

Marvel did well making sure neither Whedon, Cassaday, or Martin went anywhere for this run; not so much as taking a break for a single fill-in. It renders Astonishing X-Men more fitting for Omnibus treatment than some other books. In terms of both story and art it feels more like one long story rather than four TPB-length ones.

Astonishing X-Men Omnibus carries a significant price tag (I was lucky and picked it up new at a con for about $40) but if you love comics, the X-Men, and superheroes it's more than worth it.