Dec 22, 2014

The Coolest Thing in Comics in 2014

Duy here. I don't like "best of" lists at the end of the year. That would imply I've read everything and judged everything to make such a judgment. So you won't see something like Saga on this column, or anything else you might find in the top 10 lists that are so common at this point in the year. Instead we'll be talking about...

The Coolest Thing in Comics in 2014

By this, I just mean the one thing that happened in comics this year that made us say, more than anything else, that we were happy to be fans of comics.

I'll start.

Duy: It's early June. I'd just moved into a new home, amid one life change after another, seemingly more than I could count. I don't have internet in the house yet, and because I'm a neanderthal who doesn't own a smartphone, I have no way to access the internet.My nephew comes to visit and says, "Did you hear about Bill Watterson drawing Pearls Before Swine?"

Naturally, I get confused, and say "Huh? Watterson hasn't drawn in 20 years." And he says, "Oh, right. You don't have internet."

And then it all fell into place. Stephan Pastis on his Facebook page had announced a big surprise to start out the week, introducing a little girl named Libby. Not just a surprise, a mind-blowing surprise.

As the week went on, "Libby" had started drawing the strip, and we got these three segments out of it.

And then the weekend hit, I forgot about the big surprise, and boom. Turns out "Libby" was Bill Watterson.

My favorite comic strip creator had just done a guest shot on my second-favorite comic strip ever, and I didn't see it coming.

In a world where promises of a mind-blowing surprise rarely ever actually deliver for me, to be legitimately taken by surprise by something so cool (and good — the originals raised $62,000 for Parkinson's research) was beyond awesome.

And that's why, even amid a steady stream of awesome comics this year (Spider-Man, Daredevil, Don Rosa and Carl Barks reprints, Walter Simonson's Ragnarok, Warren Ellis' and Tula Lotay's Supreme: Blue Rose, Fallen Ash, Grant Morrison's Multiversity, featuring the orignial Marvel Family), even among what may have been the best year for comic-based movies (Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Guardians of the Galaxy, Big Hero 6), the coolest thing for me in 2014 was the creator of Calvin and Hobbes drawing Pearls Before Swine, something I never saw coming.

What I look forward to in 2015: I love alternate takes and multiverses, and it feels as if 2014 to 2015 is gonna be a great two-year stretch for me in terms of events. Provided it doesn't end on a down note, Spider-Verse is already my favorite Spider-Man epic, to the point where I'm getting all the tie-ins, something I didn't do for Spider-Island. Spider-Gwen, in an exciting new universe. Marvel's new Secret Wars feels like Crisis on Infinite Marvel Earths, and I cannot wait. Grant Morrison and Cam Stewart already introduced a Golden Age–type Captain Marvel, which I have waited for for a long time, and Evan "Doc" Shaner is going to do another take during DC's Convergence, doing a two-issue Shazam series.

And then there's more Carl Barks and Don Rosa Donald Duck/Scrooge McDuck reprints, the finale of Supreme: Blue Rose, continuations of Ragnarok, and of course, Avengers 2: Age of Ultron. There's more Avatar: The Last Airbender comics and hopefully new Legend of Korra comics as well (I'm still high from the series finale). Between new stuff, old stuff, borrowed stuff, and multimedia stuff all being readily available, there's something for everyone. This is the true Golden Age of comics.
Matt: I have two for the year. I have largely stayed out of reading series this year, but mean to check in on Saga at some point in 2015.

The first big thing for me in 2014 was rediscovering joy at the cinema. I used to be a movie buff in college, I would borrow movies frequently from the library and amassed quite a collection (just ask Duy, it was...intimidating and alphabetized). My favorites were always the adventure movies, whether they were sci-fi or just straight up action. If done well, they had comedy, pathos and a satisfying setup. They didn't have to make perfect sense, but fun was always top on my list. A personal favorite was always The Fifth Element, which takes inspiration from comics and adds some delightful mayhem (and Gary Oldman). I have sat through a diverse mix of comics movies in recent memory. Some were just bad and not worth mentioning I spent time or money on them. However, the ones I saw in 2014 were definitely a class above.

I've seen 3-4 movies this year, 2 of them were comics movies: Captain America 2 and Guardians of the Galaxy. I knew what was going to happen in Cap 2, but for Guardians, I had no idea. It was fun, there were jokes, the story made sense (as far as these things go) and there were actual character moments. Some people were grim, but Thanos is obsessed with Death, so he was rather light for Thanos. I have come to the realization that Marvel knows what it's doing when it comes to its movie business. They took a property that few were intimately familiar with, and encompassed a galactic story, and transformed it into one of the highest grossing and most enjoyable films I've seen in recent memory.

Cap 2 did the  thing all great sequels do: make me want more. It is certainly darker than Guardians, but it's an earned darkness. Cap has been around for a while now, his character is developed and between this film, The Avengers and the first Cap, Steve knows the world he wants isn't the world he lives in. The film was smart to show you that through the use of Bucky and Falcon rather than just having Robert Redford (spoiler!) reveal he's secretly a Hydra higher up. If you're going, "Wait, you said you love these things about movies, but Cap 2 doesn't have them," false. One, it has pathos, I just talked about that. Two, the fight scene in the elevator is a great example of using humor and action together to achieve something better than just a fight in a tight space.

The second thing that shocked, shocked me in comics in 2014 was agreeing with Ben on a woman being drawn as Thor. Ben and I don't agree on a lot (except mocking Duy), but when we do, it's a powerful force for snark and potentially potent arguments. Thor being a woman doesn't change anything about the ability to wield a hammer, summon lightning and beat up frost giants. I didn't pipe up on the Captain (Falcon) America kerfluffle, but I too am weary of people who don't have legitimate, good storytelling-related complaints about comics piping in when things change. Comics are a fun, entertaining and imaginative medium, being a cranky person about change is pretty much the antithesis of comics. It almost makes me want to put the onion back on my belt.

Things I am not looking forward to in 2015: Finishing Amalgam, as I promised Duy I would.
Tanya:  Here are the things that delighted me in 2014.

1. While many of us were sad to hear of Hayao Miyazaki’s retirement, Studio Ghibli managed to release another enchanting anime The Tale of Princess Kaguya. For those that missed it in theaters, it will be released on DVD/Blu-Ray in February 2015.

2. Release of Time Killers by Blue Exorcist mangaka, Kazue Kato. This is a compilation of Kato’s previous works as she was just starting her career. There is one short that you can see the genesis of what is to become Blue Exorcist. Kato gives insight into each short and her process as an artist.

3. Seconds by Bryan O’Malley, a charming graphic novel about Katie, who dreams of opening her own restaurant. She has one crappy day by running into ex-boyfriend, and a co-worker getting seriously injured on the job. She discovers a way to do her day over, which only leads to further complications.

4. Finally, after a graphic novel adaptation, a movie called Edge of Tomorrow, All You Need is Kill has been made into a manga. Story follows a soldier named Keiji, who after contact with the aliens known as the mimics is doomed to repeat the day over and over again. He then meets the mysterious hero Rita Vrataski a.k.a Full Metal Bitch, who has experienced the same thing. Together they try to unravel the mystery and stop the invasion.

Travis: I can’t say what the most surprising thing of 2014 was, because I don’t accurately remember what was contained to the year 2014. I’d want to say, Alisa Kwitney + superheroes, but that’s 2013 in prose, and a 2015 miniseries. Or, how, with the amazing talent they had on it, Astonishing X-Men was canceled, but I don’t remember if that was this year or last year, either. I still feel like Mark Waid’s only been writing Daredevil for about ten months despite knowing I've read twice that many of his issues, because I’m too busy reading Patsy Walker issues or Peter B Gillis’ fantastic Dr Strange half of Strange Tales vol 2, to keep track.

So, my end of the year wish, because that I can be accurate with: I wish speedy recovery to Norm Breyfogle, an easy time for Frank Miller, great success to everyone from Marie Javins to Chuck Dixon to Chris Burnham, and Marvel kindly reprint Conspiracy, Gargoyle, and the two Heroes & Legends jam comics, and Larry Hama’s Ben Grimm and Logan.

Also, judging from everything I just said and the fact I’m watching Thor: The Dark World right now, means this, for me, was clearly a Marvel year.

Ben: Like Duy, I’m not going to claim to be an arbiter of what were the best comics in 2014. For example, I’ve never been a fan of Saga or Walking Dead. I always have been, and always will be, Marvel inclined. DC has continued to disappoint me with their lack of imagination and tonal variety. I don't think every creator-owned comic is automatically better or more mature because it's not Marvel or DC. This is sounding really negative, let's just move on.

Unlike Duy, I hate puns, so while I like Pearls Before Swine, Bill Watterson’s big surprise guest-stint was a pretty cool story (in the comic and the story about the comic) and that’s about it. Instead, here are the coolest things that happened in comics this year, that made me happy to be a fan of comics.

Honorable Mentions: Walt Simonson returning to Norse mythology with Ragnarok. Brubaker and Phillips giving us more noir crime with The Fade Out. Howard Chaykin doing Chaykin things with Satellite Sam. Chaykin’s writing partner Matt Fraction, and Chip Zdarsky’s Sex Criminals (with the best letters page in comics). The return of fun Batgirl. The insanity of Multiversity. Waid and Samnee continuing the greatest Daredevil run ever. The continued excellence of Hawkeye. Greg Rucka managing to get me to read a Cyclops comics, with Corsair even. The multi-faceted, and nuanced approach to religion in Ms Marvel, which also doubles as a pretty great coming-of-age story. The expansion of the Asgard universe with the excellent Loki: Agent of Asgard, the female Thor, and incorporating Angela into the family. The thrilling conclusion to Superior Spider-Man. The consistent hilarity of Superior Foes of Spider-Man. Marvel's continued overall experimentation with new ideas, and new creators.

The Top Five:

5. Moon Knight by Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey, and Jordie Bellaire. One of the first books to really make me appreciate color (it’s not something I would usually notice) and a magnificent take by Ellis, as usual for him.

4. Afterlife with Archie by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and Francisco Francavilla. Only the truly simple-minded would still read regular Archie comics, but if you kill off adult Archie, or make Jughead patient zero for a zombie apocalypse, then it’s definitely something worth checking out. It took my until this year to recognize the brilliance of Francavilla (I know, I’m slow on that front) but he’s one of the few artists I’ll always give a second look, no matter what he’s working on.

3. Spider-Verse/Spider-Gwen by Dan Slott, Olivier Coipiel, and others. With Spider-Man 2099 already having traveled to the present, and launching his own book, we saw the return of Ben Reilly, Spider-Girl, and Spider-Ham, and the debut of an all-new alternate universe where Gwen Stacy gained the spider powers. Latour and Rodriguez made Spider-Gwen an instant sensation in just one comic, and Slott has dreamed up one of the all-time can’t-miss stories in Spider-Man history. With all the great versions of Spider-Man running around, the story only has to be adequate to live up to the hype, but thankfully it’s been great so far.

2. Fallen Ash by Kimberly Smith, Benjamin Bartolome, and Sam Gungon. It’s been a true pleasure seeing this idea finally realized, with great artwork and in full splendid color.

1. Guardians of the Galaxy. This year we got two of the three greatest superhero movies of all time, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and (of course) The Guardians of the Galaxy. James Gunn crafted pretty much the perfect synthesis of the Marvel Studios dynamic, with great action, drama, a big heart, and lots (and lots) of laughs (it goes without saying it’s my favorite Marvel movie yet, and my favorite movie period).

Thanks to the movie, and the continued full-push of the entertaining Guardians of the Galaxy comic series, the obscure heroes became household names this year. Not only is there the main series, but solo series launched for The Legendary Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon, and they’ve been immensely fun. The original team got in on the action with Guardians 3000, by Andy Lanning (one of the key creators of the current version of the team). With a Gamora solo book and a team-up book on the way, the Guardians has never been more prevalent than they are now. This is unfathomable to imagine when only five years ago, one Guardians book wasn’t successful enough to sustain itself in the market. Equally unbelievable is the fact that my children, and my parents, know who Rocket Raccoon and Groot are. I don’t think you can properly understand how crazy that is unless you’ve been a fan of comics as long as I have. Next up, animated domination with the upcoming Guardians of the Galaxy cartoon.

The Least Coolest Thing in Comics in 2014: Continued fan entitlement, and now cranky old creator entitlement. Comics are not made specifically for you, they don’t owe you anything. Comics should reflect the world outside our windows, and if an African-American Captain America, a female Thor, and diverse casting in movies are the way to do it, I’m all for it. Cosplaying has been around as long as comic conventions have, so the only difference I can see in it suddenly being a problem now, is that it’s mainly new female fans interested in the medium, that don’t come with their “I was bullied as kid” badge that some cranky old fans seem to think you need to become a comics fan. I don’t see anything wrong with new fans, of any type, especially when they are expressing genuine interest in learning more. Get over yourselves, be inclusive, and have fun. It’s comics.

Things I’m Looking Forward to in 2015: The aforementioned female Thor. After his excellent She-Hulk, I’m excited to see more from (newly Marvel exclusive) Charles Soule. Squirrel Girl and Howard the Duck comics! Sam Humphries. Valerio Schiti. More from Andrea Sorrentino, who was mind-blowing on the Uncanny X-Men annual. The return of Star Wars comics to Marvel. More Jim Starlin Thanos comics. The previously mentioned Gamora, and Guardians of the Galaxy Team-Up. DC finally having some fun with their history and multiverse for once. Avengers: Age of Ultron, of course. Agent Carter and Daredevil television series. After what was probably the all-time worst year for comic book event crossovers, I don’t think I could be more into the upcoming Secret Wars. Spider-Gwen! Spider-Gwen! Spider-Gwen!

It’s been another fantastic year in comics this past year. It’s going to be another fantastic year in comics in the upcoming year. Let’s get excited!

That's it for the Cube this year, folks! We'll be back on January 5th for a week-long retrospective on The Amalgam Age of Comics. In the meantime, Happy Holidays!

Dec 19, 2014

Cube Roundtable: GI Joe: Silent Interlude

On G.I. Joe: Silent Interlude

Duy:  Of the three of us you're about to read pieces from right now, I am decidedly the one who would not be classified a GI Joe fan. Yes, I watched the show when I was a kid, more than Travis did, but I never really took the time to get to know the different characters (really, off the top of my head, I can name Snake-Eyes, Duke, Scarlett, Hawk, Flint, Lady Jaye, Gung Ho, Roadblock, Shipwreck, Storm Shadow, Destro, Cobra Commander, Baroness, Major Blood, Dr. Mindbender, Serpentor, Tomax and Xamot, and Zartan. So basically, everyone who got a significant amount of screen time that I'd have to really be not paying attention to not know who they were. Everyone else is just another Joe or a Cobra henchman. I can also name Snowjob, but I don't know what he looks like. I assume I'd be able to pick him out of a lineup because he'd be the one in winter gear, but let's not kid around, I don't remember "Snowjob" because he's a great character or anything. And I can also name Sgt. Slaughter, but I knew who he was way before I saw him in GI Joe), and I only have a handful of the comics.

If any one of the Joes keeps me coming back though, at least to take a cursory look at what's up with the franchise, it's Snake-Eyes. That's a cliche answer, but it's true. I love Snake-Eyes. Snake-Eyes is cool. Snake-Eyes is a ninja soldier who can't and doesn't talk. Snake-Eyes was wearing pouches and carrying loads of weapons before the 90s ever hit, and he looked awesome.

And so, 20 years after the fact, the famous silent issue, "Silent Interlude," probably the quintessential Snake-Eyes story, has me obsessed. This one single issue was a landmark of comic book storytelling, inspiring many youngsters at the time to to get into the comics game. This past August, IDW released a recolored, remastered edition of Silent Interlude, complete with extras, in hardcover format. Let me say that again: a single issue, 22 pages, got the hardcover treatment. I saw the copy in the store, then passed on it when I realized I could buy the trade paperback that contained it instead, which also had the origin of Snake Eyes in it.

Snake Eyes was the most popular Joe when I was a kid, and it couldn't have been from the show, because he was barely in the show and didn't have many highlights past the first miniseries, when he survived radioactivity with nothing but his willpower (yes, I just typed that. And it was awesome!). So it must have been from the comic. And "Silent Interlude" was the start of the comic's process of delving into his past. It's not a complex story. Storm Shadow kidnaps Scarlett, and Snake Eyes goes to save her. They get away, and then it's revealed at the end that there's a connection between Snake and Storm Shadow.

There's a few notable things about the comic. The first one is that it's actually really progressive for 1984. Yes, Scarlett's been kidnapped by Storm Shadow and Snake Eyes goes to save her, but she really doesn't need any saving. She's able to break free of her chains, outwit Storm Shadow, fight her way past a bunch of guards, and steal a cool glider thing. She comes really close to getting stabbed with Storm Shadow's sword, yes, but that's because she puts herself in between it and Snake Eyes, so he doesn't have to take the hit. We talk a lot about strong female characters now, but Scarlett was right there, front and center. Added to that, Storm Shadow's pretty clearly Japanese. Snake Eyes is a white American male, but he's covered up from head to toe that anyone reading the comic in a vacuum may automatically assume he's Asian, as well.

I was also pretty surprised at how violent the comic is. The only real reason for this is because I'm so used to GI Joe being that show where you can fire a bunch of lasers at other people and blow up airplanes without anyone actually dying or getting hurt (except for Duke not-dying-but-falling-into-a-coma). In this one though, Snake Eyes plays for keeps, throwing enemies into the way of swords and blowing them up with grenades. It reminded me of the fights in Captain America: The Winter Soldier. No moralizing, just surviving.

Finally, of course, there's the fact that the issue is completely silent, with no captions, word balloons, or sound effects. How many of us just skim through the pictures and read the words, figuring that they'll provide us with all the information we need to get through the story? More, how many comics — mostly the ones rushing to meet a deadline — rely on captions and dialogue to make sure they're understood clearly? The comic gets rid of those crutches, and really makes you "read" the pictures. It's a good comic to give to someone who doesn't read comics and who doesn't know how to (which, weirdly, has been common in my experience).

What's more, it's pretty easy to see how, if you were a kid who had any interest in drawing and/or making comics, this comic fueled your imagination. This was the first completely silent action comic that was seen by a mass audience (And how appropriate then, that the protagonist was Snake Eyes.), and it had to be mind-blowing. Marvel's entire silent "'Nuff Said" month last decade could be traced back to it, and I would even bet that something like the Batman/Catwoman short, "Chase Me," can as well. But it's more than that. For a whole comic to be told completely in visuals, the entire principle of "show, don't tell" must have been hammered into a lot of aspiring creators' minds.

On the whole, "Silent Interlude" is a comic that can be given to new fans and aspiring creators, and have them learn from it. But it's also a comic that can be given to casual GI Joe fans, such as I, and to more devoted fans, such as the two who are about to talk about it. I didn't read this comic off the rack, and I didn't read it in the context of a larger GI Joe saga — I just saw "Silent Interlude" as the high mark of the licensed comics of the 80s, the kind of comic that makes me wonder why the other creators on other similar titles didn't try something similar, or something as ambitious. Considering the only other comic based on a pre-existing property that I've felt that way about are the Carl Barks Ducks, I'd say that's saying something.

And now, on to Ben and Travis.

Ben: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero was the definitive gateway comic, bringing in an entire generation of new comic readers, unrivaled by anything this side of the Star Wars comic. Unlike Star Wars though, the G.I. Joe comic was actually good, and that’s almost singularly because of Larry Hama. I can imagine a world where the editorial team at Marvel didn’t give much thought to the G.I. Joe comic, despite it being probably one of their biggest sellers (it was the first comic with its own television commercial, after all). Obviously Hasbro wasn’t paying attention, beyond the characters looking toy accurate. So Larry Hama was able to do pretty much anything he wanted, which culminated in the landmark “silent issue.”

Like Duy alluded to, I am a G.I. Joe fan, but my fandom mostly came after the demise of the Transformers. (A fact I can distinctly remember my brother and his friend chastising me for since, in their estimation, G.I. Joe could really happen and Transformers couldn’t. While a special mission’s force created to battle terrorists is very definitely a real thing, I’d still like to believe that alien robots will one day visit us, and fight each other for our natural resources.) I was always a Snake Eyes fan, because what boy wasn’t at the time, but I don’t think I had many, if any, issues of the comic book. I think Duy is wrong (as he often is) that it wasn’t the cartoon or the comic, but the toy that made him so awesome. Even if you never saw or read anything with him in it, you can’t beat a toy ninja with machine guns.

I did watch the cartoon of course, and remember vividly Snake Eyes shrugging off radiation poisoning like most people do the flu, and that was about it for him in the cartoon. Maybe it was enough, because it’s still the main thing I think about when it comes to the series, and that was probably true for me as a kid. No matter how much they wanted to make me like Shipwreck, I always had Snake Eyes glowing red with radiation (or him in a dress, but that’s beside the point).

It wasn’t until a few years ago I decided to hunker down with the IDW trade paperbacks and read the series in full. I was surprised by how well the series aged. It wasn’t as burdened with the required exposition of comics of the era, and it presented a violent take on the war between Joe and Cobra. (I remember my parents not really liking G.I. Joe so much because it presented a war where no one dies, and that’s in stark contrast to the real thing.) Duy mentioned it before, there’s no moralizing in a firefight, only surviving, and the comic series did a good job of portraying that. Something that I’m sure was important to Hama, being a Vietnam veteran. Sure, the main characters may have all survived, but that’s because there were still toys to sell.

The silent issue was obviously a landmark issue in the annals of comic history. Here was one of the most popular comics of the era, trying an experimental method of comic storytelling, to a wide-ranging and varied audience. It’s not hard to figure out why the next generation of comic book creators was so artist centric, because Hama had shown them that a comic could be told without words. You could say Hama and Snake Eyes are directly responsible for all the clichéd excess of the ‘90s. Liefeld and Jim Lee took all the wrong lessons from the silent issue, giving you nothing but art, with none of the storytelling. Deadpool might as well have been the love child of Snake Eyes and Wolverine. Pouches, ninja swords, and machine guns were suddenly everywhere. Cable is a descendant of the silent issue, and I’m a little sad for that.

The silent issue inspired an entire generation of young readers, and future creators. Like Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, future writers and artists would learn all the wrong lessons from the comic. Art still needs storytelling, no matter how pretty the poses.

Travis:  Silent Interlude is one of the best-written GI Joe comics, and possibly one of the best-written Marvel comics. It’s practically a masterclass in comics storytelling techniques and application. Most Marvel comics, even up to that point in time, were filled with action-to-action panel transitions with a steady Bam-Bam-Bam pacing in roughly three six-page acts and a hook epilogue per story. A lot of Marvel comics, a lot of action comics in general, were very into followthrough and explanation. Silent Interlude implicitly trusts its reader. Nothing is explained twice, visual and text cues are all eidetic, in the scene and anchored, almost embedded in a palpable sense of veracity. These are real places, that people with legs and arms and a sense of fear or hunger or anger are actually moving through. Snake Eyes, Cobra Commander, Scarlett and Destro all come off as developed, living and breathing characters

And, the danger in this comic, the veracity, comes through because Larry Hama knew when to keep it real, when to exaggerate for the readers’ sake, and when to cut off the fat that in real life you have to chew through, but takes time and gets distracting. When Scarlett, who is just the best, steals a jetpack, the page is given over primarily to three panels of her wrapping a chain around too guys’ necks and dropping them. The considerably more complicated act of strapping herself into the pack, working the wings or the flaps and slats on the wings, is left off-panel. While that scene has to have happened, and it would not take her out of her concern or awareness of her situation, it would take us out of it. A fight being paced into three panels does not dilute our excitement or investment, but a technical run-through, would.

Which, leads me to my favorite scene, wherein Hama outdoes Raiders of the Lost Ark by having a ninja showing off his mad sai-twirling ninja skills and Snake Eyes chucks a grenade at him. All the details are there. It’s a grenade in the air, safety lever flying off, pin in Snake Eyes’ hand still, but the panel at the bottom of the page as the wording on it rotate towards us, as the ninja stares at his impending death. At least for me, there’s an immediate feeling of a deeper, realer understanding. Like seeing “Front Toward Enemy” on a Claymore, it has a psychological effect to read it, that goes beyond what the visual alone can carry, the same way that seeing the damage a bullet can cause affects one separately from the understanding one has looking at an unfired round.

Silent Interlude does not shy away from words, it just uses them where they’re best suited for the story. Words are only one tool in the toolbox of comics and from perspective shifts, to insets, scene transitions, panel pacing, changing up the shape and rhythm of the panels, close ups and obfuscations, this is a comic that’s using near the whole toolkit. There are scenes, like Scarlett, chained in an enemy base, biting Storm Shadow’s finger or Snake Eyes parachuting down, that are extended to far more panels than they would have got in any other comic that year, they are affording breathing room just to hammer in how badass the characters and those moments are, but when we need quick cuts, we have those abrupt cuts. When a symbol, such as the shared tattoos on Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow, or the Cobra emblem communicate better than detailed descriptions, that’s what we get. If words and numbers best get across the message, such as the probability of airborne infiltration we see Destro look at, that’s not a “cheat” or a weakness, it’s the best way to communicate that piece of information, and the best way to, in that scene, heighten our awareness as readers that what Snake Eyes is trying here is high stakes.

Rules or expectations aren’t what makes this comic excellent. It’s energy, it’s pacing and emotion, the way it affects a reader is immense. That’s what’s important, at least to my mind. It’s a very giving comic. It’s rewarding. and when you read it again, it pulls through right back through. It pushes you along, nonstop, fully-immersed, all the time radiating full-burn energy and fighting an invisible clock, as the heroes know they might not get out, and we know eventually we’ll hit the final page.

Dec 15, 2014

Black Panther Part 2 – Politics, Batroc, and Racism, Oh My

Black Panther
Part 2 – Politics, Batroc, and Racism, Oh My
Ben Smith

As I detailed previously, I was sufficiently inspired by the Marvel Studios Phase 3 announcements to embark on a quest to familiarize myself with the adventures of the Prince of Wakanda. Last week covered the lunacy that was the Jack Kirby run as artist and writer.

Next up, I decided to take a sizeable chunk out of writer Christopher Priest’s Black Panther series. The early part of the book had its moments, such as taking down Mephisto with one punch, or Hulk as club hopper, but the (forced upon him) method of storytelling got to be too annoying.

Fortunately, I skipped ahead to the “Sturm Und Drang” story in issues #26-29, an exciting tale about a standoff between Lemuria, Atlantis, and Wakanda. The story was filled with enticing scenes of politics between Magneto, Black Panther, Dr. Doom, and Namor. As boring as that might sound, I assure you I am totally serious when I say I could read that on a monthly basis.

Plus, the relationship between Storm and Black Panther was further developed, something I had always thought was forced upon the characters later on. T’Challa has a rare moment of transparency and vulnerability as well, which I found really powerful.

Next on the docket was the acclaimed “Who is the Black Panther” by Reginald Hudlin and John Romita Jr. Hudlin is not a writer I had much confidence in, since his only work I’d read previously was as part of the worst era in Spider-Man history, but he crafted an entertaining and subtly provocative story here. I tend to have a like/hate relationship with modern Romita Jr., but he’s competent enough here to not be distracting.

The plot is simple enough. Framed around a retelling of the origins of Black Panther and Wakanda, Klaw assembles an invasion force including himself, Rhino, Batroc, Radioactive Man, and the Black Knight.

One of the things I like most about the Black Panther in my short time reading him, is how competent he is portrayed. (This shouldn’t really be something that impresses a superhero comic book reader, but you have to remember I grew up reading Spider-Man and X-Men.) He is basically the Marvel equivalent of Batman much more than Captain America is, something I am told angers Batman fans to no end. (Knowing this pleases me.) Panther always has a plan, and even when things don’t seem to be going to plan, it was always a part of his plan anyway.

Another interesting part of Hudlin’s storytelling, is how ugly and racist some of the characters are shown to be. Most comic book writers tend to be white males, so there can be an understandable level of trepidation for one of them to consider writing “jungle bunnies” into a script for Black Panther. This often means that the ugliness and racism that still exists in our society is sometimes overlooked or not addressed. It’s not the type of thing I’d find entertaining to read about as the center of a story’s plot, but including it in the margins, gave the story a level of authenticity that’s not often achieved. Racism is ugly, and it still exists, no matter what you want to believe.

Alongside that, is a depiction of the U.S. government and military that I regretfully find completely believable (to a point). Despite Wakanda never attacking any force that wasn’t already at their borders, that doesn’t mean that tomorrow they won’t decide to invade other countries and take over the world, at least in the eyes of American military leaders. There used to be a time when our country used its military power to do the right thing, not to consolidate more power and resources (or use the bodies of dead soldiers to make a cyborg army). At least that’s the viewpoint of this superhero comic, so feel free to agree or disagree at your leisure.

I liked Black Panther’s philosophical religious question here, if only because I think there are way too many athletes that think God really wanted them to win whatever game they’re playing.

Longtime readers will know that I have an irrational love for Klaw, based on his role in Secret Wars, which was formative in my childhood development. Klaw finally gets his comeuppance (for now) in this story. But it’s not the Klaw I know and love from my childhood, so it’s not as traumatic and damaging to my psyche as it might otherwise be. (Klaw was much more traditionally recognizable in his appearance during the previously mentioned “Sturm Und Drang.”)

Overall, Hudlin and Romita delivered an entertaining and engaging superhero comic book story. If you’re not immediately drawn in by the promise of Batroc and subtle racism, I don’t know what else I can tell you. Body-swapped prostitutes play a role, for those needing a little extra incentive.
I’m going to continue with my Black Panther reading, so if there’s anything I feel significantly inspired to write about, we’ll cover that next time. If not, may the Black Knight have mercy on your racist soul.

Dec 10, 2014

Review: Short Peace

Short and Sweet Animes by Talented Directors: Short Peace Review
by Tanya Lindquist

Short Peace is a series of short anime films by some of the most talented directors in Japan. There is a companion piece to the films in the form of a video game called Ranko Tsukigime's Longest Day. The films and video game explore Japan in different time periods. The film opens up with a girl entering a portal and begins to change clothes and hairstyles once inside, signalling to us that we are entering a world where magical things will happen.

The first short is called Possessions by the director, Shuhei Morita, of Tokyo Ghoul. This film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short in 2014. The story follows a man seeking refuge in a Shinto shrine for the night. Once inside, strange things begin to occur. Supernatural spirits visit him and seek his assistance. The man soon realizes there he can’t leave the shrine unless he helps them. This world feels right at home in a Hayao Miyazaki film particularly Spirited Away. What I enjoyed the most was the use of color in the umbrellas and in the fabric.

The next film, Combustible, is by the director of Akira, Katsuhiro Otomo. Set in the Edo period, the film evokes imagery of a woodblock print. The opening scene unfolds as if you were unveiling a scroll. A tale of childhood friends, Owaka and Matsukichi, who fall in love as adults. Their love is not meant to be when Matsukichi is disowned by his family, and Owaka is arranged to be married to someone else. While the story is very generic, there is no denying that a master is at work here. The animation is exquisite, and every inch of the screen is full of detail.

Gambo, the third entry, goes down the horror route. Story is about an ogre who kidnaps the women of the village for nefarious purposes. The villagers ask a samurai to rid them of the ogre. The only woman left in the village is the Emperor’s daughter, and they want her protected at all costs. The Emperor’s daughter runs off and lays among a field of red-orange flowers. The imagery of that scene is quite striking and is a clear contrast of what is to come. This scene is interrupted by a white bear. The samurai, who is following her, is suspicious of their interaction. He had a previous run in with the bear and regards it as evil. The girl is able to approach the bear, and asks it to destroy the ogre. This was by far my favorite of the films shown. It is the one that lingers with you through the credits. The confrontation between the bear and ogre is visceral and full of tension.

The concluding film called A Farewell to Weapons, and is directed by Hajime Katoki, famous for his work on the Gundam series. The anime follows a ragtag group of soldiers who are sent into a torn down city to defeat an enemy. The enemy turns out to be a robotic weapon that seems unstoppable. The quick cuts and shaky cam in this anime made it feel a lot like other live action military films. As a result, it becomes confusing who is who when they jump around to different soldiers and get the action from their perspective. The ending is what makes the viewing worthwhile. The tone of the pieces switches from action film to biting satire.

Short Peace is a worthwhile series of anime to seek out. Each one is unique and is reflective of the director’s style and artistry. The closing credits that appeared at the end of each segment felt bothersome at first, but by the end it provided some much needed time to pause and reflect. I hope Otomo considers doing a Short Peace 2 with a whole new set of directors.

Dec 8, 2014

Black Panther Part 1: Brass Frogs, Yetis, and Colonel Pigman, Oh My

Black Panther
Part 1 – Brass Frogs, Yetis, and Colonel Pigman, Oh My
Ben Smith

Recently Marvel Studios announced Phase Three of their plan for the movie universe, which will include movies for Black Panther, Doctor Strange, and the Inhumans. Being the easy mark that I am, I decided to dig deep into the back issues for Black Panther and Doc Strange (I don’t think I’ll ever develop an affinity for the Inhumans) to get my intelligence quotient up.

Black Panther has always been an intriguing character, but much like with Strange and the Inhumans, not one I ever felt got that prestige run by a celebrated creative team (Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko aside) that will pull in the uninitiated. I loved T’Challa on the Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes cartoon (and that’s the voice I hear when I read him in the comics now). He was part of my core rotation in the Marvel Ultimate Alliance video game (the best Marvel video game ever, besides Maximum Carnage). I’ve always weirdly loved the striped lines on his gloves.

Yet, I’ve never gotten around to reading all that many comics with him. This is mostly because, as longtime readers will know, I was primarily a Spider-Man and X-Men reader as a kid. I didn’t venture into the Avengers side of the universe until (physical) adulthood.

I read the Black Panther’s initial appearance in Fantastic Four #52, and the follow-up that introduced my beloved Klaw in the very next issue. Standard high-level Stan and Jack comic book storytelling. There’s pretty much no way I’m going to read Roy Thomas comics on purpose, so that leaves out Panther’s early appearances in the Avengers, which leaves me with one final early option for high level Black Panther storytelling.

In the ‘70s, Jack Kirby would return to Marvel, and the many characters he created, with a renewed vigor and level of madcap storytelling that can only be explained by heavy drug use (unlikely to be true). What follows is a semi detailed breakdown of all the reasons why you should make these comics your very own.

All issues were edited, written, and drawn by Jack Kirby, inked by Mike Royer, and overseen by Archie Goodwin (except for the final issue).

Black Panther #1

Black Panther and a little person, by the name of Mister Little, acquire King Solomon’s Frog, a brass keepsake that also happens to be a time machine responsible for such historic anomalies as Ali Baba’s Genie, the Loch Ness Monster, and Merlin. (If only that got more than one page of play.)

(“Cancel that bitch!” – Nino Brown)

Black Panther #2

Black Panther does push-ups to temporarily defeat a telepathic alien from 6000 years in the future. In the future, we still number things much like we do in the present.

Black Panther #3

Panther and his allies are able to send the alien back to the future, by rubbing two brass frogs together. I dare you to try and remove this image of Black Panther, holding two brass frogs really close to each other, out of your mind.

Black Panther #4

T’Challa meets Count Zorba, Colonel Pigman, and Silas Mourner. (Surprisingly, Colonel Pigman is the least strange looking of the three, which is not a bet I would have made.) All are members of the mysterious group, The Collectors. Panther’s allies to this point, Mister Little and Princess Zanda, are also members of the Collectors, who seek priceless ancient artifacts of power. (I feel like Kirby is making a comment about collector mentality here.) Regardless, you never want to miss a comic featuring someone named Colonel Pigman.

Black Panther #5

T’Challa fights the abominable snowman, on his quest to find the fountain of youth.

Black Panther #6

Okay, Kirby was definitely commenting on comic collecting.

Black Panther defeats a Samurai. The samurai requests death for the dishonor of losing, but T’Challa is honor-bound by his customs to grant a defeated foe mercy.

Meanwhile, in Wakanda, General Jakarra initiates his takeover of the country. They “shall all pay for the self-hatred which has driven little men with tall dreams…” hey, wait a minute! Uncalled for!

To resolve the death or dishonor dilemma, Panther fights another large man, while the little man sneaks in to steal some of the immortality water, on his own accord. When Black Panther asks him why, the only appropriate response would be the now legendary “Immortality, fool--!”

Black Panther #7

Surrounded by samurais with murder in their hearts, Black Panther invokes diplomatic immunity, saving himself and Mister Little. He settles up with the Collectors before leaving for home.

Black Panther #8

T’Challa pilots his helicopter home, while thinking back to when he won his place as ruler of Wakanda while disguised in an S&M mask.

Panther’s half brother Jakarra’s coup attempt ended abruptly, when his experiments with exposing himself to Vibranium turned him into a monster. A monster that “won’t be handsome, that’s for certain!”

That’s reason enough to be angry if ever I’ve heard one.

Panther picks up a few hitchhikers stranded at sea, who happen to be gangsters, one of which dies when the helicopter eventually crashes.

Black Panther #9

T’Challa’s family and friends form the Black Musketeers to take down the menace of Jakarra. Black Panther is rescued from certain death in the desert by a crew of moviemakers (who appear to be making Star Wars, a full year before it came out).

Black Panther #10

The Black Musketeers try to devise a way to defeat Jakarra, while Black Panther continues his perilous journey home. (Itobo looks like a 1970s hip-hop DJ, if you ask me.)

“Take off that laboratory smock!”

Panther returns just in time to administer the serum to stop Jakarra’s rampage.

Black Panther #11

Panther dreams of a fight against the Uglies, a dream he suspects to be a vision of the future. Itobo tests him for telepathic capabilities due to his exposure to the Vibranium mine, which prove to be true. The Uglies are led by a man named Kiber, who is kidnapping people, and converting them into pure energy.

Black Panther #12

Black Panther tracks down Kiber for the final showdown. He deduces that the Kiber everyone sees is only a projected image, with the real Kiber yet to be revealed.

Black Panther #13 – Plot: Jim Shooter; Script: Ed Hannigan; Art: Jerry Bingham; Inks: Gene Day

Kiber is revealed to be a melted mass of matter on the floor, but none of it matters because Kirby left due to bad treatment and better offers. (As much as I like Bingham and Day’s sleek and powerful Panther, and the storytelling is decidedly Shooter-era Marvel, it’s not Kirby insanity at its finest.)

I know I had read these Kirby Black Panther comics before, but it was most likely during my “comic books should be serious” period, so therefore I couldn’t appreciate them for what they are. Zany, maniacal yarns moving forward at a kinetic pace. Kirby working alone seemed to produce some of his weirdest concepts, and that’s never been more evident than here.

For those of you that prefer grim and gritty “serious” storytelling, this probably isn’t the Black Panther for you. For everyone else, come take a long hit and get high on that Kirby life in its purest form. When you exhale, little people try to steal immortality water.

Next time, the Priest!