Jan 29, 2015

Review: Uncle Scrooge: The Seven Cities of Gold

The last Carl Barks book I reviewed was Trail of the Unicorn, with stories that were originally published in 1949-1950. In it, Scrooge still felt like a draft of the character he would eventually become. This latest volume, The Seven Cities of Gold, has stories from five years later, where Scrooge is already fully formed.

There are a few things that jumped out at me in this volume, not the least of which is that there are a couple (just a couple, not even a large number) of stories, "The Fabulous Philosopher's Stone" being one of them, where it's just a bit anticlimactic and seem to end quite abruptly. But  that may just be in comparison to the Barks stories I'm coming from, which normally wrapped up more elegantly.

Another thing that jumped out at me is the lack of 10-pagers. A staple of the previous volumes, there's all of one 10-pager and then a couple of 4-pagers and an 8-pager. I don't know why there's this sudden format shift, but the only real explanation I could think is that all these came from the Uncle Scrooge comic, so maybe the page count was different? I'm not sure.

There's also three stories here that showcase Scrooge's luck with money — that is, money seems to find him. I'm not as strict with the portrayal of Scrooge as someone who worked and scrimped for everything he owns, and do find it humorous when it's because of luck (mostly, it's just because Barks is able to execute it well), but I do admit that I prefer the hardworking Scrooge to the one who makes a million dollars without actually doing anything to earn that profit.

Supposedly, according to some of the notes in the back matter, this stretch of stories was really hard for Barks, since it was this period where editorial was changing his stories arbitrarily and with little reason. There's a revised scene in "The Golden Fleecing" where the editors asked him to revise a set of panels that not only changed the feel of the antagonists, but also seemed to have no good reason behind it.

The stories in The Seven Cities of Gold are still fast-paced, and are still really fun rides, even if they don't wrap up as well as stories from the previous volumes. Barks' use of big panels for big moments, such as when they enter the Labyrinth of Crete or see the Sleepless Dragon, is just as effective as they were in previous volumes, with Barks really turning up the level of detail to emphasize these big moments. There's still a lot to learn here, and certainly a lot to enjoy.

The stories in Uncle Scrooge: The Seven Cities of Gold first appeared in Uncle Scrooge #7-14, from September 1954 to August 1956, and are listed below.

Long Stories

  • The Seven Cities of Cibola. The most famous story in this volume has Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and Huey, Dewey, and Louie looking for arrowheads, as a way for Scrooge to rediscover the excitement of entering a new business venture. This leads them to look for the lost cities of Cibola, but the Beagle Boys follow them. There's a sequence in this in which Barks implicitly trusts the audience, as he relates the story of how some explorers visited Cibola only via the explorers' documents and some pictorial carvings done by the Cibolans. The reader has to put them together, the same way Scrooge and company do. When you consider Barks' audience (kids), that's a good way for a creator to show faith in his readers. This story also has the most tangible example of Barks inspiring George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, as it has the sequence that inspired the opening of Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The ending is also fun in that it provides a nice twist from the usual type of ending we're accustomed to, while at the same time being no less satisfying.
  • The Mysterious Stone Ray. Scrooge's frequent swims in his money bin have coated him with gold dust, clogging all his pores and making him incredibly tired and sluggish. He takes his doctor's suggestion to take a vacation, and a message sent in a bottle makes him choose an uncharted island. But when he gets there, he not only finds the Beagle Boys, he also finds a big giant ray gun that turns people into stone! Can they figure out what's going on, prevent themselves from turning to stone, and capture the Beagle Boys?
  • The Lemming With the Locket. A lemming steals a locket from Scrooge. The locket contains all the combinations to Scrooge's safes. The lemming gets on a boat. The boat lands in Norway. There are a lot of lemmings in Norway. Hilarity ensues.
  • The Fabulous Philosopher's Stone. Scrooge goes after the Philosopher's Stone, which turns everything it touches into gold. A small man with a giant beard is also after the stone. Although I criticized this story for having a rushed ending, to do so is to kind of miss the point, as the real meat of the story lies in Crete, when the Ducks find themselves in the Labyrinth of the Minotaur.
  • The Great Steamboat Race. In 1870, Porker Hogg and Pothole McDuck embarked on a boat race, with the winner getting a beautiful Southern mansion. However, the boats sank to the bottom of the Mississippi and the race was never finished. Now Porker's nephew, Horseshoe, challenges Pothole's nephew (guess who?) to finish the race. Scrooge accepts — but with the condition that they have to start the race from where it left off, which means that at the start of the new race, they have to raise the boats and get them running! Can Scrooge and the Ducks pull this off, even as Scrooge all of a sudden has a bad sneezing fit? This is not the first Barks story that involves a boat race, nor the first one to involve a sunken boat. Barks repeated motifs a lot because there was high enough audience turnover that things would remain fresh in readers' minds anyway.
  • Riches, Riches, Everywhere! Scrooge wants to prove to Donald that he can find treasure anywhere, and via a process of random selection, decides to do so in Australia. But two shadowy guys follow them everywhere, hoping to learn the secret of McDuck's prospecting abilities, splitting Donald and Scrooge up from the kids, and leaving Donald and Scrooge with no water. It's a running gag throughout that Scrooge just digs anywhere and finds something, so it may undercut his "I worked really hard for my fortune" personality. But what the hell, it's a funny story.
  • The Golden Fleecing. Scrooge wants a golden fleece so he can make a golden coat. He gets tricked by the mythical larkies (who were disguised as caricatured Arabs, an unfortunate sign of the times) and gets himself and Donald kidnapped and taken to Colchis. There, Scrooge has to judge a cooking contest, with the winning cook becoming queen of the larkies. Huey, Dewey, and Louie show up, but they not only have to get the golden fleece and evade the larkies; they also, somehow, have to get past the sleepless dragon! A really enjoyable yarn.

Short Stories (10 pages or fewer)
  • The Tuckered Tiger. Scrooge offers his weight in diamonds to the owner of the animal that wins a race. Of course, this is because he owns Lubricated Lightning, the fastest horse and animal in Duckburg. At the last minute, the Maharajah of Swingingdore shows up and enters Sabertooth Third, the fastest tiger to come out of Asia. The Maharajah also offers his weight in diamonds. As the race gets closer, both animals show worrisome signs so both Scrooge and the Maharajah start getting worried. This leads to them trying to lose as much weight as possible before the race even starts.
  • The Million-Dollar Pigeon. Scrooge wants to save money on postal fees, so he has a carrier pigeon, to whom he entrusts a million dollars to deliver to the bank. Unfortunately, it's time to fly south for the winter, so Scrooge's million never makes it to the bank. 
  • A Campaign of Note. Scrooge refuses to engage in crowd-pleasing maneuvers to be elected Treasurer of Duckburg, so Donald and the boys try to help him out.
  • Heirloom Watch. Scrooge has broken a watch that has been in the McDuck family for generations, a watch so accurate that it can even tell the exact minute of the next solar eclipse. However, he stands to inherit his Uncle Quagmire's estate, but for it he needs the watch!

The 1-pagers. I'm not going to summarize them because, well, they're a page long, but just for the sake of cataloging them, here they are:
  • Temper Tampering
  • Wrong Number
  • Diner Dilemma
  • Cash on the Brain
  • Classy Taxi
  • Blanket Investment
  • Easy Mowing
  • Ski Lift Letdown
  • Cast of Thousands
  • Deep Decision
  • Smash Success
  • Luncheon Lament
  • Come As You Are
  • Roundabout Handabout
  • Watt an Occasion
  • Doughnut Dare
  • A Sweat Deal
I don't think this was up to the level of what's come out so far, but it's still so fast, so full of momentum, and so well-crafted. I'll still highly recommend it.

Jan 28, 2015

On the Fantastic Four Teaser Trailer

On the Fantastic Four Teaser Trailer
Travis Hedge Coke

“Why tomorrow? Why not wait?”
Roberto Agguire-Sacasa
Fantastic Four: Season One

“Well, thank me or spank me.”
Karl Kesel
Fantastic Four: 40th Wedding Anniversary Special

The upcoming Fantastic Four movie is probably going to be the best FF movie since The Ice Storm. At the very least, it won’t have Galactus-cloud, Sue getting her clothes off in public, repeatedly, for no sensible story reason, or that weird orientalist wedding ceremony that couldn’t even be flanked by a few Japanese guests.

Is it going to be greatest movie ever? Probably not. But, no FF movie so far, released or unreleased, have approached that. What this does have going for it is a good director, a very sound cast, a nice visual security, judging by what we see in the teaser, and a willingness to not get explicitly optimistic or pessimistic straight away. There’s a lot of glory and bigness in the teaser, but there’s warnings throughout, both verbally and visually communicated. The name “Cronenberg” has been tossed around already, and some “fans” got bent out of shape, but yeah, those early FF issues, and some of the best stories since, like Morrison and Lee’s 1234 or Warren and Grant’s The Ever-Lovin', Blue-Eyed End of the World, are heavily steeped in body horror. The earliest Kirby and Lee FF comics are practically infected with disdain and panic for physical abnormalities and bodily dysfunction. Ben can’t get a cab or stand in public without people screaming at him. Johnny’s accidentally setting fire to cars or the chair underneath him. Sue, whose invisibility would seem to be the most innocuous of all their powers, creeps people out. Fast-forward several decades and many, many comics, and Mark Waid establishes that Reed squeaks when he stretches, and that upsets people.

So, no, it’s not just “this new, stupid movie” treating the main characters as disfigured freaks who don’t like their situation. Within the first year of Fantastic Four comics, Ben had exploded constantly with rage and self-hatred, Johnny dropped out of his life, high school, heroing, everything, to stay in a homeless shelter, Sue was throwing herself in ten different directions to get out of her situation and her skin, and Reed was either locking himself away or loudly calling the others to him for a mission. There is anger and fear in the earliest FF comics. Those characters are traumatized and transfixed. And, they’re all cranky as hell.

But Fantastic Four is not one hundred percent horror, nor should this current movie version be. It shows no signs, so far, of being that, but evidence doesn’t really hinder fear and clearly some “fans” are afraid.

Fantastic Four is often profoundly silly. Silly is not dumb, however, and FF does not need to be dumb. To go back to Cronenberg, eXistenZ and Crash are silly movies, without ever being dumb movies. As horrible as a Kirby and Lee FF scene could be, as sad or traumatic, the next page could bring Popuppians like the Impossible Man, a pointy-headed green imp from space who likes to turn into objects to get attention. When Kirby and Lee made the FF “fight God,” the world-eating ancient giant Galactus is bare-legged with a big G on his belt buckle. FF shouldn’t be afraid to get goofball.

Goofy is, probably, how many of us find out optimism. It’s why Disney cartoons seem so bright and cheerful even if people are falling off cliffs or being kidnapped by deformed royals and their cursed servants. Mickey Mouse used to be a real jerk sometimes, but he’s silly, we roll with it. If Johnny Bravo was a real guy, he’d be seven feet of pure beef and you’d still want to kick his ass, but as a cartoon, you laugh, you want more. Deep-seated silliness lets us tolerate horror and makes it easier to be optimistic, especially in entertainment.

Silliness and horror, neither, need to be dumb. The last two Fantastic Four movies too often sank into dumb. I like them. They’re entertaining enough I’ll watch every so often, but they are very small movies for all their fx shots, and from plot mechanics to scene developments, they’re often very dumb. That orientalist wedding that ends the second FF movie; the hell is that? What in the plot, characters, or world put that together? Nothing that I can see.

Somehow, there are “fans” who think that the new FF movie looks further away from the comics, because the team might be younger (Johnny always has been, and in at least two comics continuities, they all are), Johnny’s black (and still a young guy working on cars, instead of the last movies’ model and daredevil), Doom seems like he might be petty (like he’s never in the comics) and his “real name” might not be Dr. Doom (it’s not anyway; he’s not a real Doctor, accredited by anywhere, is he?). How these “fans” deal with any adaptation, I don’t know, but it seems pretty selective anyway. No FF movie, cartoon, toy, or secondary continuity comic has one hundred percent, or even seventy-two percent adhered to the original Kirby and Lee comics. Johnny got replaced by a robot in one show and the Thing was a teenager who transformed with a ring and met the Flinstones or something. Sue’s an actress in one thing, she’s a businesswoman or a biologist in others. Actress or biologist seem a little further apart, to me, than black guy or white guy, in terms of character changes. Doom was a businessman in the last FF movies and in this one he’s a programmer, a change that distresses some people quite a bit, especially if they don’t know the difference between “hacker” and “programmer,” but it’s Doom! Yes, programming is going to be something Doom does, in any version. He makes frigging robots!

It wouldn’t be silly if he made robots but couldn’t program to save his life. It wouldn't be scary if Ben Grimm turns into a four-fingered pile of super-strong orange rock and it never bothers him. These are changes that, no matter how loud a few fair-weather “fans” whine, would make it dumb. Just dumb.

Jan 26, 2015

The Usagi Yojimbo Chronicles

The Usagi Yojimbo Chronicles
Ben Smith

I discovered Usagi Yojimbo in the same way most kids of my generation did, by his guest appearance on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon. I know I liked him instantly, but much like the Turtles themselves, had no idea that he was a comic book character. I'd eventually find out, but his comics aren't the type that would have appealed to me as a kid, with the lack of X-Men and all. A few years ago, I finally decided to try out the comic series, and purchased the first collection of stories. Unfortunately, with the exception of a few stories, I didn't like it that much. It happens.

Those that know me, know that my sons are both obsessed with the Ninja Turtles. Since I can't always stand to watch the same Nickelodeon series episodes over and over, I put on some of the original series, and whenever I do that, I always make sure Usagi's appearances are included. (I will get them to like Usagi or die trying!) They seemed more interested in Genghis Frog and the mutant frogs from Florida than the samurai bunny, but it did inspire me to give Usagi comics another try.

I started reading the same book that I did before, and after only two stories, decided I was in love. Why it works for me now, and not before, I can't really explain, other than I probably didn't have the same love for the "cartoony" art then as I do now. I was much more into the hyper-detailed art of a Steve McNiven at that time, and the "mature" storytelling of The Killing Joke. The idiocy of youth.

It doesn't take a whole lot of analysis to determine what makes Usagi great. First, he's a super cute bunny. Secondly, he's a badass that will fuck you up. There you have it, review over.

Usagi Yojimbo was created by Stan Sakai, and made his debut in Albedo Anthropomorphics #2, in 1984. (Fun fact: the character's name is Miyamoto Usagi, not Yojimbo. Yojimbo means "bodyguard." He's also partially based on a famous samurai.) After a few more appearances in anthology books, he quickly became popular enough to get his own comic series in 1987. The stories are largely episodic, with a few larger story lines running in the background, and references to past battles, enemies, and history.

Since this is likely to become a new obsession, I've decided to document my thoughts, as I've been known to do, story by story. Buckle up, this could end up being a long one.

The Goblin of Adachigahara

Usagi stops at an inn for shelter and rest, and battles a goblin with ties to a fateful battle from Usagi's past, the Battle of Adachigahara. It was in that battle that Usagi's master was killed, making Usagi a ronin (masterless samurai).

Sakai was already clearly a master at his craft, with crisp, appealing artwork and a simple story, if slightly predictable. (It could be the predictable nature of the stories that didn't appeal to me the first attempt at reading them, but not everything needs to be about surprises.)

Lone Rabbit and Child

Usagi crosses paths with the young lord of the Geishu Clan, Noriyuki, and his bodyguard Tomoe Ame. Noriyuki, having recently become the sole heir to the clan, is traveling to the capitol so that the Shogun can establish him as the new clan leader. However, the corrupt Lord Hikiji has hired multiple assassins to attack them, so that he can lay claim to the Geishu possessions. Lord Hikiji was on the opposing side of the Battle of Adachigahara, and so Usagi decides to offer his considerable assistance.

The Confession

Lord Nerai, conspirator with Hikiji against Noriyuki, was ordered to commit seppuku for his failure. Before doing so, he wrote a full confession implicating Hikiji, which Usagi must deliver to the Shogun. Armies of ninjas stand in his way, but Tomoe Ame shows up to assist. Noriyuki, Tomoe Ame, and Usagi eventually present the confession to the Shogun's trusted advisor, Lord Okii, but unfortunately he is secretly aligned with Lord Hikiji.

(As a child of the '80s, I was raised on hundreds of movies to believe the ninja was the ultimate martial arts masters. Turns out, ninjas were sneak attack artists, and mostly operated as spies, assassins, and mercenaries. Many of the qualities of honor and expert swordplay associated with ninjas in modern pop culture, are more in line with the history of the samurai. If you can't trust classic movies like American Ninja, what can you trust?)

Bounty Hunter

Usagi meets a bounty hunter named Gennosuke, and assists him on collecting a bounty on two brothers. Gen pays him for this help, but in a humorous ending, leaves him with the bill for the local inn. (I'm fairly certain Gen is going to be a returning character.)

Horse Thief

Usagi runs off a group of bandits attacking some guards, and takes possession of the one horse left behind. When he tries to sell it at the nearby village, it turns out to be owned by the Town Magistrate, which he finds out when he tried to sell it to him. Assumed to be a bandit, Usagi escapes with the horse. Later, Usagi is still trying to unload the horse, and finds what he assumes to be some horse traders. Instead it's the same bandits he ran off in the beginning, and they are all quickly joined by the Magistrate and the guards, who were tracking Usagi. Chaos ensues, Usagi escapes, and finally finds someone to take the horse. A very fun and entertaining story.

Village of Fear

Usagi encounters a savage cat beast, which has held the nearby village in its grip of fear. (It ends with a pun, which should make Duy happy.)

A Quiet Meal

Usagi stops for a quiet meal, but some gamblers are being rowdy and menacing the other patrons. When they decide to turn their bullying attention toward Usagi, he demonstrates some quick, non-lethal sword work. He spends the rest of his meal in peace. Another quick and fun story. (It's really refreshing to see that Sakai has a variety of different stories he wants to tell with the character.)

Blind Swordspig

A blind outlaw named Ino passes through a village, and causes a lot of destruction when they recognize him and attempt to collect on his bounty. When Usagi passes through the same village later, they tell him of the horrible villain that attacked them for no reason. As Usagi attempts to track Ino, he finds him trapped in a hole. Not knowing who he is, they strike up a friendship. When a couple of bounty hunters try to collect on Ino's bounty, Usagi discovers who he is, and is forced to match swords with someone he considered to be a new friend. The brutal results of the battle leave Usagi with what is sure to be a vengeful and returning foe.


Usagi finally arrives home, just in time to save a child from the Mogura Ninja. The boy winds up being the child of Usagi's former flame, Mariko, and his former rival, Kenichi. Kenichi was made the Town Magistrate after Usagi's father, the former magistrate, was killed by Lord Hikiji's men as part of the overthrow of Lord Mifune, coinciding with the Battle of Adachigahara.

The Mogura Ninja again attempt to take the child, but as a distraction while they raid the town supplies. Kenichi and Usagi put aside old rivalries and track the ninja down to their cave in the Eastern Mountain. Later, Mariko accompanies Usagi to the grave of his father. They reminisce back to when Usagi cut off a lock of her hair to keep with him forever, and she in turn kept the knife he used to cut off that hair. A heartfelt moment to close what proved to be a key look back into the history of Miyamoto Usagi.

(Did Claremont steal Mariko, or is it just a really common name?)

Bounty Hunter II

Gen and Usagi cross paths again, and Usagi agrees to assist him on another bounty. Only this time, turnabout is fair play in the end.

Thus ends the first book. I'm sure Sakai only continued to improve as an artist and storyteller, but I can't help but be amazed at how fully formed he seems to be at both, right from the beginning. The look and characterization of Usagi is rock solid from the very first page. I like the different types of stories he told with the character, from funny, to action-packed, to sad. There's the references to a deeper history to follow, and the lingering threat of Lord Hikiji. The burgeoning supporting cast of characters are all engaging and interesting as well.

Great characters, beautiful art, excellent storytelling. There's not a single thing not to like about Usagi Yojimbo. Which really makes me wonder what was wrong with me five to ten years ago. Anyway, it's never too late to admit you were very, very wrong. Don't make the same mistake I did. Read Usagi Yojimbo now, before it is too late!

Next week: The Legion of Super-Heroes!

Jan 21, 2015

Quick Reviews: Supreme Blue Rose #5 and 6, Sirens #2, Ragnarok #3

Supreme: Blue Rose #5–6, Sirens #2, Ragnarok #3
by Duy

It's been a while since I've had the chance to do reviews of these three series. Work just really piled up at the end of last year, and they all just came out at the same time. In an effort to make up for my lack of reviews at the end of the year, here are quick reviews of all three titles.

Supreme: Blue Rose #5 is rather full of exposition and explanations, but since the whole thing is ending with #7, this was the time to do it. After four issues of me saying, "It's pretty! I don't get all of it!", different plot threads finally start to come together and paint a clearer picture of what's going on. What's more, stakes are heightened as our heroine Diana Dane finally faces true danger. There's still a lot we don't know, such as Darius Dax's true agenda, but it starts to really come together in issue #6, and the action really amps up too, with the various plot threads (even the Professor Night TV show) interweaving into the main storyline and explaining some oft he vague plot points. We know as much (if not more) than Diana Dane does, and Warren Ellis can be trusted at this point to pull it all together and deliver with the conclusion. All the while, Tula Lotay's art is still beautiful, a true revelation in 2014. I'll miss this series when it's gone, and I look forward to getting the collection of Vertigo's Bodies when it's out, just to see her work. I can honestly say it's been a long time since I've felt that about an artist.

The second issue of George Perez's Sirens is an improvement over the first issue. The action is still fast-paced, and our heroines (each one based on a real-life cosplayer) come face to face with their arch-nemesis Naida. Some of the fun is tongue-in-cheek, although I can't help but feel that Perez would be crucified for doing some of these things if he were anyone else ("High heels totally inappropriate for combat... perfect!"), but I guess it helps that he loves cosplayers and cosplayers love him. (The lesson here, kids, is that it genuinely pays to be a good and considerate human being.) Perez the writer still is too ambitious for his own good, doing too many scene cuts to different eras and not really being, shall we say, deft enough to do it gracefully, but this is how he's written when left to his own devices, so it's not like I didn't know what I was getting into before I bought the issue. The coloring still bugs me, since it still looks pretty garish and the gradients don't really blend. I still liked it despite the overambitiousness of Perez the writer, the visible decline of Perez the artist, and the coloring, but Perez is my favorite creator of all time and I'll always be predisposed to enjoying something he does.

From a living legend whose draftsmanship is visibly in decline (Perez went through eye surgery a while back), we go to one who seems to just be getting better. Walt Simonson's Ragnarok #3, from the start, already has two eye-catching covers.

I think that one on the left (which is what I got) is just a perfect cover, with eye-catching concept and composition, and an expert use of colors by Laura Martin. But the second one's good, too, since it shows you that something big's about to go down.

Both covers are actual scenes in the book, an old-school touch that, when done right, still works wonders in terms of, if not standing out at the racks (something less important as time goes by in the Previews age), at least amping me up for what I'm about to read. Starting immediately after the events of the previous issue, when Thor was awakened as a stone god with a missing jaw and kills all his would-be assassins, the Norse god of thunder and lightning sets forth to figure out what's been going on in his absence. It's not pretty, and he doesn't like the answer. What's more, he's still the same Thor he always was — reactive, ready to fight, and prone to anger, especially when innocents are threatened. What results is a momentum-driven, adrenaline-rising 20 pages, with Thor ready to fight anything and everything in his way.

This isn't Marvel's Thor, the Thor created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and before the "No one created Thor" crowd comes in, you know well enough to know that I mean this particular incarnation of Thor), so it's distinct enough from Walt's legendary Thor run, but it strikes me that Ragnarok has been paced kind of like Stan and Jack's old Thor run, in the sense that it just keeps going. The end of each issue is a cliffhanger because that's where Walt stopped drawing, not so much because he planned to end each issue there. Ragnarok doesn't stop moving. Action-packed comics at its finest, from a master who's only getting better.

Jan 19, 2015

Black Panther, Part 4: Girls, Draculas, and Dr. Doom, Oh My

Black Panther 
Part 4: Girls, Draculas, and Dr. Doom, Oh My
Ben Smith

With the announcement of the Black Panther movie, I decided to do an extended look at the comic book history of the character. You can read all about this in the previous parts. Let's get started.

The most recent Black Panther series, primarily by Reginald Hudlin and Ken Lashley, introduced T'Challa's younger sister Shuri as the new Black Panther. It wasn't a series I was expecting to enjoy, but it ended up being one of my favorites in the history of the character. It's not hard to figure out why, it's mostly about Dr. Doom launching a full scale economic, agricultural, and political attack on Wakanda.

The series begins with Dr. Doom almost killing T'Challa, before he can escape in his quinjet back to Wakanda. While Storm uses magical means to try and save T'Challa from death, Shuri is nominated to become the new Black Panther, and face the Panther God. At the same time, Morlun (groan) is steadily making his way toward Wakanda so he can feed on the panther totems, and has thus far proved to be unstoppable.

After Storm saves T'Challa, he distances himself from her and the rest of the royal family, obsessed with restoring his former glory and preparing for the rematch with Doom. Shuri is making the rounds globally as the new political head of Wakanda, while trying to figure out who attacked her brother, something he has kept secret from everyone. Her investigation leads her to The Broker, Walter Declun. Declun and Doom were working together, and planted false information implicating Namor, so Shuri foolishly fought Namor head-on.

Reed Richards was able to intervene in time before Namor could kill her, and explain how they had been tricked. All the while, a political group called the Desturi had overthrown the royal family back in Wakanda and taken over. The Desturi is a Swahili word for "tradition" and the group claimed to be upset with the way the royal family had not kept them isolated from the rest of the world. Thanks to the failing economy, the absence of Shuri and T'Challa, and some media manipulation, the people supported the coup. Storm had been been made the scapegoat for the failing agriculture, manipulated into attacking a citizen, and put on trial. T'Challa finally shows up to reveal that Doom is behind the Desturi, the attack on his life, and pretty much everything else.

This all led into the 6-part mini-event, Doomwar. The mini started out promisingly, with Doom making his play for the Vibranium in Wakanda, and the Panthers enlisting the help of the X-Men. Apparently, the vibrational properties of the rare metal, when combined with magical powers, would make Doom the most powerful being on Earth.

In a truly badass scene, T'Challa and Shuri have Nightcrawler teleport them inside Wakanda, where they snap the necks of the Desturi, and begin their fight to take back the nation.

Reed has a moment of clarity, when he realizes Doom isn't his own personal nemesis, but a far bigger threat to the world. (Something long time readers will know is an approach I've always wanted for Doom. For the most part Marvel has done a pretty good job of not relegating him to the Fantastic Four books. He's a much more natural enemy of characters like Black Panther, with them both being relative peers as heads of entire nations. In all my Black Panther reading, I've enjoyed the Doom interactions the most.)

In an intriguing bit, Dr. Doom is able to pass the Panther God and enter the vibranium chamber by explaining that the only future of the human race that doesn't end in extinction is with him as ruler. Doom claims to have traveled to the future many times, and it always ends in disaster. The one time it doesn't, is under his rule.

Doom takes control of the Vibranium, and the rest of the series devolves into The Panthers, Fantastic Four, and X-Men futilely fighting to stop him. It all gets a little too convoluted, especially when Deadpool shows up as T'Challa's "x-factor" for no apparent reason. T'Challa eventually ends the threat by using a magic button to destroy all the unrefined Vibranium on Earth. A massive status quo change for the Panther corner of the Marvel universe.

Which brings me to the final series in my long and winding journey through the back issues of the Black Panther. Following the events of Shadowland, Matt Murdock needed some time to himself to rediscover himself. He asks T'Challa, who needs some time for self discovery himself, to watch over Hell's Kitchen for him. Starting with Black Panther: Man Without Fear #513, by David Liss and Francesco Francavilla, T'Challa establishes a new identity and a new life in New York, taking the place of Daredevil.

T'Challa has taken over management of a diner, and moved into a nearby apartment building to be near the people. In the power vacuum created by the removal of the Kingpin, a new crime boss is on the rise, Vlad Dinu, a Romanian that goes by the name of Vlad the Impaler. As a result of super soldier experiments in Romania as a child, Vlad has super strength, and the ability to convert matter to energy.

After Panther breaks up a couple of Vlad's operations, Vlad lures him into a confrontation, and ends up killing a cop and the busboy at T'Challa's diner, Brian.

T'Challa, stripped of his powers and vibranium, uses his smarts to build himself some new weaponry, to combat Vlad's considerable energy powers. He finds a crime fighting assistant in one of his waitresses, Sofija, a Serbian with a sordid past. (I really liked Sofija, too bad she's probably destined to disappear.) Vlad's son Nicolae, wanting some super powers for himself, is going to test the new formula that he's devised, based on blood samples secretly taken from his father, on the not-quite-dead-after-all Brian.

I wasn't the biggest fan of Francavilla's art the first time I saw it, but it didn't take long for him to win me over. (Strangely enough, I think it was Afterlife With Archie that made me a disciple.) His noir style is perfect for this series, and I absolutely love it here (and everywhere else). He tweaked the Black Panther design towards urban commando, and it's a great look. (If you removed the ears and added a visor, he'd look like Snake Eyes.) It matches the tone and style of the series. (I've never been one to critique coloring, but I think his coloring might actually be better than his drawing. It all works together to create a mood and energy that I'm not smart enough to explain.)

A serial killer with mysterious ties to T'Challa, kills Vlad's wife, and Black Panther is of course mistaken for the killer. T'Challa must find the real killer, stop Vlad, and save Brian.

After that, Kraven the Hunter and Storm stop by for a two-parter, with art by Jefte Palo. It is... not as good. Francavilla returns for the Fear Itself tie-ins, with a new Hate Monger causing trouble for Black Panther in Hell's Kitchen.

Then there's an adventure in Spider-Island.

Then Shawn Martinbrough takes over on art, for a tale about the Kingpin trying to take control of the board of directors of the Wakandan bank. Lady Bullseye and Typhoid Mary are around to help. It's a good story and the art is decent, but not as good as Francavilla, which shouldn't be an insult. (It doesn't help that Francavilla was doing amazing covers for the issues.)

I've said the same about the two previous series, but this one ended up being my favorite of them all. Not a bad place to end my extended look.

Black Panther has had a long and storied comic book history, full of many interesting and engaging stories. He's rarely been one of the more prominent members of the Marvel universe, so it's easy to overlook what a great read most of his series have been. Hopefully I've helped point you in some good directions if you're interested in trying some for yourself. As usual, I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Next time, something different.

Jan 15, 2015

Marvel’s Inhumans: Inbreeding! Fatalism! Slavery!

Marvel’s Inhumans: Inbreeding! Fatalism! Slavery!
Travis Hedge Coke

What’s the deal with the Inhumans? Most importantly, the Inhumans in Marvel’s cinema and television properties does not have to have anything much to do with how they are in the comics. What those Inhumans will be all about, I’ll have to wait like most of you for future movies and episodes, from Age of Ultron to Agents of SHIELD.

The Inhumans as they’ve appeared in, and been used in comics, that I can talk about.

Created by Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, the Inhumans are a genetically-modified subspecies of humanity, who live in a hidden city-state called Attilan that is ruled by an unbroken genetic line of royals that dates back beyond conventional human history. Often, they have a simpleminded slave class of near-identical Alpha Primitives to work their public utilities, occasionally they are all the slaves of the star-faring aliens called the Kree, who you may remember from Guardians of the Galaxy, and once in blue moon there’s a sort of “we’re all free now!” story, but that never sticks. Attilan, itself, is portable with dramatic effort, and has been relocated to the Himalayas, the luna surface, over Manhattan, in the the ruins of Atlantis, and was even shrunk into a jar for a bit. “Currently,” in Marvel Comics, there is no Attilan and the Inhumans are spread in hiding or chaos around the Earth.

While we have met Inhumans of all classes, the royal family is what is generally focused on: the king, Black Bolt, his brother, Maximus, and wife, Medusa, her sister, Crystal, and their cousins (royalty keeps it in the family), Gorgon, and the brothers, Triton and Karnak.

Why the focus on the royals? For one, they were introduced first, as they were out in New York City, looking for the wayward and amnesiac Medusa. But, also, focusing on the royals helps us forget that they are royals, that they are a ruling class in a slave-using society. I think it’s safe to say, a lot of fans like to take the approach that the Alpha Primitives are happy to slave away, despite the fact that mostly when we see them, it’s either for a “know your place” story, or to criticize slavery or oppression (as seen, especially, in the Paul Jenkins and Jae Lee Inhumans). marvel.wikia.com states, “For all the successive millennia, [they] have been working without any complaint,” without emphasizing that they’ve been surgically lobotomized and never presented with a chance of freedom, and without connecting this sentiment to the examples of rebellion that immediately follow.

The most interesting aspects of the Inhumans, for me, are the parts that many fans would prefer to leave unaddressed, including this slavery - that they deliberately hobble these slaves’ intellectual capacity and then pat themselves on the back as four thousand years of unchanged benefitting from slavery is judicious of them. The incestuousness of the Inhumans also fascinates me, and the familial infighting. Thousand and thousands of years of no out-of-family coups, alone, is gonzo stuff, though a late-addition genetic council of elders can make, at times, this unbroken line of kings seem a little lip-servicey. And, the Inhumans are politically, religiously, and socially so fatalistic!

A zillion and five years ago, the Kree came to Earth, found some cavemonkeys, and made them Inhumans for the lulz (and because they could collect them later, when they finished genetic-baking, as excellent space-slaves and space-soldiers). When they come of age (with different criteria judging the appropriate age for the individual Inhuman), each Inhuman is subjected to a chemical compound called terrigen mist, and undergoes an unpredictable mutation. Medusa can control her hair. Black Bolt can rearrange atoms with his mind, punch real hard, and his whispers level mountains. Marilla, a nanny, is just ugly. Karnak can see the cracks or soft spots in anything, be they physical, psychological, social or engineering flaws. Since “flaws,” in this sense, is almost entirely a collection of disparate elements unified on a metaphorical level, this means he basically has like twenty-seven different perceptual or tactical superpowers. So there’s no telling. Some fly. Some run. Some think. Some have twenty-seven powers instead of just one. One guy just looks a bit like a lion and generally holds a weapon in his hands, possibly to compensate for not getting atom-rearranging fire-hair.

And, with all that randomness, the Inhumans still believe everything has a reason, that there’s an implicit plan. You find me the religious leader of any massively hierarchical religious system on Earth, from the Catholic Church to the NRA, and you introduce to their life that their neighbor might randomly have spider-legs explode from his face, or that their eyes might one night melt away, and their faith in the system is going to be shaken. But, this unpredictableness, for the Inhumans, is the system. We do not, in general, question our own systems, unless we are fractured, ourselves, from that system, by experiencing outside societies. While fans may not want to dwell on the morality of a lobotomized slave class, the Inhumans, themselves, probably don’t often even register that the systemic oppression is there. Slaves and royals, for the Inhumans, like their faith in an implicit engineering and elevated status to their people, is the natural order.

When the Alpha Primitives rebel, it’s part of the plan, things will return to normal. When the Kree come back and try to destroy the Inhumans or enslave them, it’s part of the plan, things will return to normal. When King Blackbolt renounces his crown to go into hiding amongst the humans, it’s part of the plan, things will return to normal. A young girl’s skin detonates with lightning. An Inhuman begs for a second exposure to terrigen. Maximus declares himself king, it’s… It’s always part of the plan.

At some point, they do discover that while unpredictable, the mutations are not random and do somehow manage a social stabilization despite all the rigidness of Inhuman politics and the inbreeding and isolation and such. This doesn’t explain how the mutant, Quicksilver, could have lived with the Inhumans, marrying into the royal family and heading their army for awhile, but then, why the Inhumans need an army when they don’t generally interact with anyone is also a bit up in the air. Presumably, they have a standing military because one simply ought to. It’s either pro forma and for the future, or both pro forma and in case they need one down the line a few thousand years. Still, it’s an army so lackadaisically arranged, that you cannot easily tell who, of the Inhumans, is in the military, unless it’s everyone who isn't a maid or a tattoo artist. In Jenkins and Lee’s Inhumans, almost all of the youths are sent to military training. In Pacheco, Marin, and Lucas’ followup miniseries, also titled, Inhumans, and currently published as Fantastic Four: Inhumans, the entire society is weaponized by the Kree, the alien empire who way back when started the ball rolling. And, whenever the city of Attilan is attacked, pretty much every single Inhuman joins the fray. So, maybe they are all in the military, meaning Quicksilver was in charge of nearly everyone and still no one noticed he isn’t really a mutant human, but a secret Inhuman, as per a recent revelation.

Inhuman policy appears to be, simply, “Don’t think about it too hard.” Faith-based in a very sincere and dramatic fashion that, when we examine in contrast with the outside world, or even we look close at any individual Inhuman's private life, we see as a manufactured lie resting precariously and ready to tip.

To Be Continued… as we learn more about the Inhumans and their supporting characters, from Queen Medusa to the Follower, the Pursuer, Eelak, the one who looks like a tree but is not Groot, and Thanos, the madman of Titan, who is the same Thanos from Guardians of the Galaxy and The Avengers!

Then, To Be Continued Again… when we explore some of the biggest Inhumans stories! From Jack Kirby to Jae Lee! The Himalayas to Manhattan to the Moon and beyond! Atlantis Rising to Inhumanity!

Jan 14, 2015

On the Legend of Korra Finale

On the Legend of Korra Finale, the Bechdel Test, and Two Women in Fiction
by Duy

I've almost always avoided talking about non-comics things on the Cube, and have pretty much never talked about anything that didn't at least originate in comics. I've preferred to leave that stuff on my little corner at the Hasslein Blog. But I thought this was important and personal enough that it should go on the Cube.

Spoilers for The Legend of Korra follow.
"With the entire show being digital now, I kind of hope they pull the trigger on Korra and Asami. You know they want to do it." -me to friends, September 27, 2014

The Legend of Korra did not start out well for me, and at times I wanted to give up on it. A very large part of it is that I hold Avatar: The Last Airbender in high regard, and I had just finished a marathon of the whole series a week before starting Korra. Korra, the Avatar, capable of controlling the four elements of water, earth, fire, and air, was the exact opposite of Airbender's Aang. Where Aang was a calm, serene, and soulful young boy, Korra was impulsive, headstrong, and quite frankly, whiny teenage girl.

The shift from Aang's characterization to Korra's was so stark that she came off as really unlikable. I think maybe it would've been different if I had watched Airbender as it was coming out, and then waited the years-long wait for the spinoff, but that wasn't the case. As a result, despite having a female protagonist in Korra, the show didn't seem as progressive as its predecessor. Airbender was an incredibly progressive show — moving past all the obvious racial stuff, it actually featured more competent female characters than male ones. Azula was the most powerful firebender under the age of 30, and may in fact have been the most powerful firebender, period, if she weren't crazy. Katara eventually became the most powerful waterbender excepting maybe her mentor Pakku. Toph was inarguably the most powerful earthbender in the world and was the inventor of metalbending. Ty Lee, Suki, and Mai were the best at hand-to-hand combat (in that order, in my opinion). Prince Zuko was constantly portrayed as not being good enough as his sister (also, count the number of fights in the show he actually wins. His winning record is around 10%.), and Sokka was portrayed very early on as not giving women enough credit and continually paying for it. Only Aang was truly a more powerful force than anyone, and that was by virtue of him being the Avatar. And even then, there's some strong implication that of all the Avatars, the most powerful and effective was Kyoshi, who lived for centuries and was the most commanding of them all.

What I thought was really interesting was there was some sort of meta-commentary, intentional or not, with the Order of the White Lotus, a secret organization devoted to the unity of the Fire Nation, Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, and the Air Nomads, being composed purely of men, while at the end of the show, the heroes are half female and half male. I love female heroes and I love female characters. I enjoy reading and watching fiction where the protagonists aren't like me in some fundamental ways, as I think finding common ground between me and the characters, or finding something in the characters to aspire to be, is a rewarding experience. I enjoy that experience and I like the fact that by virtue of existing, such fiction is telling girls to never settle for the discriminatory gender roles; that they, as people, can be whatever they want to be. Many of my closest friends are girls and I have a niece, and it's always cool to see them represented in fiction in much the same way I, as a male, am constantly represented to whatever extent I can say that sentence, being Filipino.

But Korra wasn't working for me for most of two seasons, and it was pretty easy to figure out why. Korra seemed to never learn from her experiences and constantly had a temper. These are things we could all relate to if we had ever been teenagers, which Korra was when the show began, but as a man in his 30s, it was frustrating to watch. It got me to thinking the show wasn't for me. (And let's face it; it primarily wasn't. It was for people who had watched Airbender when they were younger and were now grown up.) And I was willing to accept that.

What kept me watching the show through two seasons was realizing that Korra was basically this guy.

Prince Zuko in The Last Airbender had the same problems as Korra. He was impulsive, stubborn, headstrong, and seemed to never learn from his mistakes. You rooted for him to do the right thing and he almost always didn't do it (something that caused me to actually get up and yell at the TV several times, which rarely ever happens). He was a frustrating, annoying individual who, once he hit his turning points (there were two of them) and "came of age," so to speak, became my favorite character on the show.

Korra also had two major turning points in my estimation, with the second one coming late in her fourth season. The two latter turning points are something I'm going to be talking about in a future column, but for me, the first turning point for our Water Tribe Avatar came in the beginning of the third season, when she started hanging out with Asami Sato.

The romantic entanglements in Korra were painfully predictable and, if you ask me, forced in the first and second seasons, as they introduced a young firebender named Mako in the first episode as someone Korra had a crush on.

Mako's the stereotypically heroic-looking dude there, with the red scarf.

Mako eventually meets Asami (who was written in, originally, as an enemy spy, but creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino loved her so much they changed the script just for her, indicating, as they would say later on, that Asami took on a life of her own right away) and started dating her. After that, he cheats on her with Korra, gets together with Korra, breaks up with Korra, hooks up with Asami again —

It sucked. It was forced. It was cliched. It was not entertaining. All throughout those two seasons, I could feel it. These two had no chemistry with Mako, whatsoever. I'm sure they tried, but again, characters can take a life of their own, and when it doesn't work, it doesn't work. There is no formula for writing fiction. There are ways to maximize the possibility of success, but no way to guarantee it.

So the third season started and I guess the writers figured, hey, our supporting cast still has to interact with each other, but why would either of them want to hang out with Mako at this point? Let's pair 'em up and maybe we'll get some good stuff out of it. And right away, something clicked.

Korra and Asami hit it off like two peas in a pod. Their exchanges together were crisp and sharp, and I have to imagine the voice actresses Janet Varney and Seychelle Gabrielle must have been in the same room as they recorded their lines, because the pairing just worked. They'd spent two seasons figuring out which one of them was better with Mako, and the answer was neither; they were better off on screen with each other. This was not a case of me thinking they should have gotten romantically involved; in fact, it was more something that reminded me of these guys.

"Who, us?"

The showrunners of Buffy the Vampire Slayer paired up Buffy with Angel for two and a half seasons and with Spike for another two and a half, sparking a debate between fans on who Buffy should really be with (the correct answer is no one; they're both terrible for her). When Buffy ended, they moved Spike to Angel, and the pairing just clicked. Spike and Angel together were like two petty little boys, always trying to one-up the other. It was a pairing that was so much more entertaining than any pairing that happened on Buffy.

(Side note: Every pairing on Buffy that didn't involve Buffy was better than anything with Buffy in it. Faith and Spike were entertaining for the 10 whole minutes they shared together. Faith and Angel had a genuine but not romantic connection. Cordelia and Angel even seemed more mature than Buffy and Angel. But I digress.)

So I figured that was basically it for Korra and Asami. They'd found a pairing that was entertaining on screen and could give us sharp dialogue when they were together. But where Spike and Angel were all about one-upping each other, Korra and Asami were all about protecting each other and growing together. When Korra would enter the Spirit World and her body needed protecting, Asami would be the one watching over her. And when Korra got poisoned at the end of Season 3, it was Asami that took care of her. Already there were hints of something more happening with the two of them (there was no shortage of characters that could have taken care of Korra when she was poisoned), when Asami took Korra's hand and said, "If you need to talk — or anything — I'm here."

Obviously this could very well have been just two women being affectionate toward each other. After all, women don't need to be attracted to each other to be affectionate to each other. But on the inverse, why couldn't it have been attraction? Even Konietzko says on his website:
Just because two characters of the same sex appear in the same story, it should not preclude the possibility of a romance between them. No, not everyone is queer, but the other side of that coin is that not everyone is straight. The more Korra and Asami’s relationship progressed, the more the idea of a romance between them organically blossomed for us. However, we still operated under this notion, another “unwritten rule,” that we would not be allowed to depict that in our show. So we alluded to it throughout the second half of the series, working in the idea that their trajectory could be heading towards a romance. 
Despite this, I know people who missed the clues, including when Korra wrote only to Asami in a three-year span of being gone, and Mako asking them, upon their reunion, "What's going on between you two?", and all of these. These are things we wouldn't question if it had been a guy and a girl, or two guys. so maybe, as Konietzko says, "If it seems out of the blue to you, I think a second viewing of the last two seasons would show that perhaps you were looking at it only through a hetero lens."

If you want to point out that they were both attracted to Mako first and showed no signs of being attracted to each other, I point to the trend of higher sexual malleability among women. But I didn't think it was out of nowhere, as I saw the hints. But I also didn't think it was going to progress beyond hints. However, when the series ended, Asami and Korra went into a Spirit Portal together, to go on a vacation, just the two of them, with romantic music playing in the background as they held each other's hands and looked deeply into each other's eyes.

I couldn't believe they did it. That was as close as they were going to get with a network show, and it was a huge step for animated shows and networks for children. And it made me happy. Yes, I know, I am a straight dude, and some of you are probably thinking "You're a straight dude, and you just rooted for it so you could perv," which you're free to think, but you'd be wrong (and you should also probably find real people to perv over). I rooted for Katara/Zuko during Airbender, for Buffy and Angel, for Faith and Spike, for Ross and Rachel, for Jerry and no one and Elaine and no one. I don't watch much TV but there has never been a shortage of attractive women I could pair together in my mind; this was the first time I actively rooted for it. And it was great.

Konietzko said the following:
Once Mako and Korra were through, we focused on developing Korra and Asami’s relationship. Originally, it was primarily intended to be a strong friendship. Frankly, we wanted to set most of the romance business aside for the last two seasons. Personally, at that point I didn’t want Korra to have to end up with someone at the end of series. We obviously did it in Avatar, but even that felt a bit forced to me. I’m usually rolling my eyes when that happens in virtually every action film, 
So it wasn't planned out; once again, the two characters just took on lives of their own. (And I agree with Avatar. I would be 100% in the Zuko/Katara camp if I didn't like Mai so much.) What's more, I think it was important. When I talk about the ending, or really, anything involving queer fiction, I still hear things like "Is that safe for kids?" I'm guilty of it too, actually, as my nephew would, some years back, watch Buffy with me, but lost interest in the middle of Season 4, before Willow got together with Tara, and I breathed a sigh of relief because I didn't know how to show that to him. It didn't feel like my place to do so.

But it's ridiculous. It's stupid. What's there to be afraid of? Queer people exist. Bisexuals exist. Some of my best friends in the world, from childhood, are attracted to people of the same gender. They shouldn't be able to see themselves represented in fiction just because some uncle doesn't want to be the one to tell his nephew about it, just because some parents don't want to have conversations with their kids? (Spoiler: the kids can take it!) That's absurd, marginalizing, and condescending. It shouldn't be something to avoid, and The Legend of Korra, by going in this direction, made a bold statement that could go towards changing children's programming forever: homosexuals and bisexuals exist, and they're not something to be afraid of.

This last bit by Konietzko gets me, because I really related to it:

Was it a slam-dunk victory for queer representation? I think it falls short of that, but hopefully it is a somewhat significant inching forward. It has been encouraging how well the media and the bulk of the fans have embraced it. Sadly and unsurprisingly, there are also plenty of people who have lashed out with homophobic vitriol and nonsense. It has been my experience that by and large this kind of mindset is a result of a lack of exposure to people whose lives and struggles are different from one’s own, and due to a deficiency in empathy––the latter being a key theme in Book 4. (Despite what you might have heard, bisexual people are real!) I have held plenty of stupid notions throughout my life that were planted there in any number of ways, or even grown out of my own ignorance and flawed personality. Yet through getting to know people from all walks of life, listening to the stories of their experiences, and employing some empathy to try to imagine what it might be like to walk in their shoes, I have been able to shed many hurtful mindsets. I still have a long way to go, and I still have a lot to learn. It is a humbling process and hard work, but nothing on the scale of what anyone who has been marginalized has experienced. It is a worthwhile, lifelong endeavor to try to understand where people are coming from.
Society planted in me early on the notion that people who weren't like me were people to be wary of, whether they differed due to skin color, sexual orientation, class, or even gender. But I've been lucky enough, fortunate enough in my life to have met people from all walks of life, to have learned that empathy, getting to know people from different backgrounds, and finding the good in them is a rewarding and enriching experience, much like and signficantly moreso than finding common ground with fictional characters who aren't anything like you. I had many prejudices when I was younger, all chipped away as I met different people from different backgrounds. There's still such a long way to go, so many people to meet, so many backgrounds to get to know. I would never call myself well-traveled, and given that, I think it would be really cool if fiction rejected cynicism as the synonym for realism and instead reflected the diversity and the beauty of the melting pot that is real life. Everyone should have role models. Everyone.

So thank you, Legend of Korra, for taking a stand and a step forward, among the other steps forward you have already taken for diversity, and bonus points for somehow being able to do it organically, without tokens and motifs being pushed down our throats. It wasn't always a great ride, but it was a rewarding one, and I will miss it.

Duy thinks there's a whole column to be written about the fact that they paired up two women in a fictional work and it led to a romance. Are genuine platonic friendships that pass the Bechdel Test that rare? And also, there'll be something about Dancing Dragons and Spirit Vines soon enough.

Jan 13, 2015

For the Love of Unico

For the Love of Unico
by Tanya Lindquist

Unico, by Osamu Tezuka, follows the story of a tiny unicorn who is banished to the ends of the earth. What possible sin should such an adorable creature commit? Bringing happiness and joy to everyone he meets. Unico is the embodiment of selfless love. If you love him he will transform into a grown up unicorn and make your dreams come true.

The two chapters that stand out are "Buffalo Hill" and "Cat on the Broomstick." In "Buffalo Hill," Unico befriends a young Native American boy named Tip. Tip asks Unico to take him into the forest, so he can explore. There he comes upon a girl named Mary and they become friends. He asks Unico to transform them into adults, and they fall in love. Their parents, on the other hand, warn the children that there is no way their love can last. They are from two different worlds, and the reality of their situation will tear them apart. Tip does make a choice that leads to tragic consequences for him and his tribe. This is the only story that Tezuka leaves on an ambiguous note. All of the others are wrapped up and have a definitive ending. You are not sure what fate lies ahead for the two lovers.

The next one, "Cat on the Broomstick," is about a cat who befriends Unico. This chapter and "Unico and Solitude" were combined and featured in the anime, The Fantastic Adventures of Unico. The cat, named Chow, reveals that she would like to be a human girl and learn magic. They end up living with an old woman, who Chow believes to be a witch. At this point, the manga and anime start to veer away from each other. In the anime, the villain feels more like a vampire. He has long flowing locks and a seductive personality. You feel like it’s a date rape situation waiting to happen when he invites her to his castle and offers her a drink. In the manga, he is a psychopath who enjoys hunting animals for sport and mounting them on his wall. He imprisons Chow in his castle, demands that she sing or he will kill her if it doesn’t please him.

Reading through of the stories, I found several commonalities. One, Tezuka draws the villains in a certain way. The shape of their eyes is meant to show that they are mischievous and untrustworthy. There is also a difference between adults and young characters. Adults have big noses, while young people have petite ones. The entire manga is in full color with bright blues, yellows, and greens probably to entice children to read it. Reflecting on the other Tezuka works aimed at children, the underlying theme that connects them is harmony between humans and other worlds. In Astro Boy, harmony in the future between humans and robots. In Kimba, the White Lion, that the animal world and humans can coexist. In Unico, the mythical realm of gods, goddesses and unicorns can aide others in finding happiness.

Overall, the Unico manga is an interesting read and definitely one for any Osamu Tezuka completist. The colorful illustrations will delight readers young and old. The manga also contains messages about harmony, love, and working together to resolve problems. In addition, the two anime films Fantastic Adventures of Unico and Unico and the Island of Magic are great companion pieces.

Jan 12, 2015

Black Panther, Part 3: Secret Invasion, Oh My

Black Panther
Part 3: Secret Invasion, Oh My
Ben Smith

If you tuned in toward the end of last year, you are most likely a close relative of mine. Regardless, I’ve been on a deep dive into the back issues of the newly announced future movie star, the Black Panther. What I’ve found are some highly entertaining comics, but the story I am going to cover today might possibly be the most entertaining of them all.

After reading the comics I covered the last time, I continued along with the Hudlin written Black Panther series, with a surprisingly decent House of M tie-in, on through the marriage to Storm, and the subsequent learning curve both T’Challa and Storm would have to experience as a newly married royal couple. The Civil War tie-in issues weren’t of the gravest importance to the main series, and were kind of boring, so I skipped ahead. (I wasn't that interested in their short stint as members of the Fantastic Four, allergic to most things FF that I am.)

Secret Invasion was a crossover event written by Brian Michael Bendis and illustrated by Leinil Francis Yu. Much like Civil War, it had a really strong concept (secret Skrull agents have been slowly infiltrating Earth, in preparation for a full-scale invasion) that arguably wasn’t fulfilled in the main series to maximum effect. Black Panther #39 -41, by Jason Aaron and Jefte Palo, is a tie-in to Secret Invasion, and may be the best story out of the entire event.

It begins as Commander K’vvvr leads a Skrull invasion force against Wakanda, fully confident due to the advance Skrull agents that have already infiltrated and embedded themselves in Wakanda.

What sets this story apart already is the inner monologue of K’vvvr as a war-weary soldier. To him this is one last battle, one last time he pretends to care about the Empire. This is obviously something that was sure to resonate with me personally.

As they approach Wakanda, the Skrull invaders are shocked to see the severed heads of their undercover agents on spikes.

Wakanda and the Skrulls trade cyberattacks, demolishing both of their weapons vaults, and then their electronic systems, leaving both sides to resort to a more traditional battlefield approach.

Two armies, with swords and shields, boots on the ground.

Storm is prepared to fight, but T’Challa sends her away, as part of his larger plan. (T’Challa always has a plan.) The two armies rip in to each other, with mass casualties on both sides. Black Panther comes face to face with a Super-Skrull with the martial arts skills of some of his closest superhero compatriots.

The Black Panther is too badass to be afraid.

Black Panther grieves for his people, as he sees soldier after soldier fall, each one a personal loss. He finally finds the weakness in the Super-Skrull’s attack, and deals with him in brutal fashion.

First breaking his arm.

And then ripping out his eyes.

Commander K’vvvr feels the pain and loss of war as well, but he remains confident, due to a few remaining undercover Skrull agents that don’t appear to have been caught.

It is those undercover agents that capture Storm and T’Challa.

K’vvvr has T’Challa and Storm strung up, ready to torture them in the hopes of gaining entrance into Wakanda. They refuse to cooperate, so the Skrulls proceed to mercilessly beat them both.

Commander K’vvvr excuses himself to send a message to his wife, a wife he’s not sure he even knows anymore. (Again, a “human” angle not often given to the evil alien invader.)

And that, is when Black Panther’s big plan is put into motion. I won’t spoil the exciting details for you, but rest assured the end result is this.

Message received.

This is the best possible example of a creative team taking full advantage of an event to tell an exciting story that spins out of the main series, but is not dependent on it. All too often writers resort to showing the actions of their individual characters between the panels of the main series, usually to boring or inconsequential effect.

Not only that, here they give the commander of the invading force a purpose and personality that most stories don’t bother to do, making me as a reader almost feel sad for him when it all goes wrong. Not everyone is immersed in the rhetoric of their government, some are just there to do their jobs and get paid.

Jason Aaron would obviously go on to be one of the central writers at Marvel, helming an event of his own in Original Sin (no comment). I’ve enjoyed a lot of his work that I’ve read, especially Wolverine and the X-Men. Jefte Palo I’m not as familiar with, but his art provided the perfect amount of dark and creepy for the story.

At first glance, most might dismiss this story on the surface as another event tie-in, but it’s probably my favorite Black Panther story yet. It’s short and sweet, with Black Panther at the peak of his highly competent abilities, the man always with a plan. It's brutal and violent, something I also tend to like, in the right context. And it's got lots of tough talk, which I also love. You’d be well served to seek it out for yourself.

Next time, the Black Panther love continues. Or doesn’t, who knows.