Game Review: Diablo 3

Diablo 3 is out. But is it a game? Or is it the most brilliant money making scam in internet history?

Movie Review: The Avengers

Okay, okay, I posted my Avengers review. Get off my back already, geez.

The Most Important Comic Book You've Never Heard Of

Action Comics #1. Detective Comics #27. Why is All-American Men of War #89 as important as these great comics -- and why have you never heard of it?.

Tales From the Vault: Lois Lane #93

If you thought Superman was a total tool before, you ain't seen nothing yet.

Mass Effect 3: The Official Review

Mass Effect 3 isn't the end of the world, it just portrays it.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Black History Month Top Ten: Part Two

Welcome back to our countdown of the top ten moments in black comics history. Last time, as part of our celebration of Black History month, we took a look at five important moments, characters and titles that helped shape the industry. Today we close out our list with the top five events so far in the black comic experience. And at number five on that list is one of the most popular comics and milestones in all comics history, Spawn #1.

5) Spawn #1

In 1991, Todd McFarlane, indisputably the most popular creator in comics at the time, left Marvel Comics to form Image Comics alongside other hot artists of the day like Jim Lee. The fledgling company's flagship title? McFarlane's Spawn, which sold an amazing 1.7 million copies of the first issue, which detailed the origin of the demonic hero Spawn, who happened to be African-American. Not only was Spawn #1 one of the best selling comics in the history of the medium, it was also notable for the fact that the character's ethnicity was incidental to the comic -- he wasn't Black Spawn, he was just Spawn, a hero who happened ot be black. The fact that he became so popular with mainstream audiences, eventually spawning (no pun... okay, who am I kidding) a cartoon series and a live action film, was indicative of how the industry -- and society at large -- had progressed since the early days of the medium.

4) All-Negro Comics #1

By 1947, comic books had become one of the most popular forms of entertainment in America, selling over a hundred million copies a month to readers of all ages. Yet there still was almost no African-American presence on the printed page. New reporter Orrin Evans decided to change that by putting together his own comic, aimed at black readers, featuring black characters and created entirely by black writers and artists. The result was All-Negro Comics #1, featuring strong depictions of African-American heroes like hardboiled detective Ace Harlem. Unfortunately, though material was completed for the second issue, it was never to be published; newsprint distributors, apparently strong-armed by other publishers, refused to sell any paper to Evans. With no means of printing the second issue, the enterprise was doomed. But its existence was still an important milestone in comics history and eventually paved the way for black creators and characters alike.

3) EC Comics Faces "Judgment Day"

In the mid-50's, EC Comics waged a public battle against both good taste and the American government, as their over the top horror comics ran afoul of McCarthyist censorship in a series of highly publicized public hearings. But while EC eventually lost the battle, with the Comics Code Authority taking over and gutting the industry, publisher Bill Gaines and his team of creators, who numbered among the best talents working in the medium, continued to push the envelope even after the crackdown. And the frequent focal point of their war with authority came over their repeated anti-racism stories. Arguably the most famous story EC ever published, and still one of the best known comic stories ever, was Judgment Day, a sci-fi cautionary tale about a human emissary sent to gauge whether the planet Cybrinia is ready to join their version of the Federation. After inspection, he discovers that the plane,t which is populated by robots of different colors, is too racist to join; the story ends with the revelation that the Earthman, who up to this point has been hidden beneath his giant spacesuit, is African-American.

The story (which you can read here)debuted to acclaim in 1953 before the code went into effect, but when Gaines tried to reprint it in 1956, this was too much for the Comics Code, who demanded that the lead character be changed to a white protagonist, a move that would have undermined the entire story. When Gaines drew a line in the sand and refused to change one word or picture, threatening to sue the CCA, they relented, and EC Comics ran the story in Incredible Science Fiction #33, the last comic the company would ever publish. The company's stand -- and the message of the story -- remains a central moment in comics lore.

2) The Black Panther Debuts

As we've seen, black characters were few and far between over the first four decades of comics; and outside short-live groundbreakers like All-Negro Comics and Lobo, positive portrayals were even rarer. By 1966, though, the superhero revival was in full effect, with upstart Marvel Comics changing the way superhero comics and comics in general were thought of. And Marvel's flagship title was Fantastic Four, which, behind the legendary creative team of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby was in the midst of an unprecedented run of classic comic stories. Fresh off their work on the Galactus trilogy (FF #48-50) and perhaps the most famous story the two ever wrote, "This Man, This Monster" (FF #51) the time was right to once again change the way comics did business. Fantastic Four #52 introduced the Black Panther, a noble African king who, in his iconic black costume, fought evil wherever it was found. This wasn't the first noble African prince Lee had helped bring to the market -- in 1954, as editor in chief, he oversaw the publication of Jungle Tales, which featured one of the first heroic black comic protagonists, Waku, Prince of the Bantu. But while that was a short term (though notable) effort, the introduction of Black Panther as the first black costumed hero paved the way for everything that has been done with black superheroes since. And while the folks at Dell had given it a good shot with Lobo a year earlier, Lee and Marvel by this time had the clout to do whatever they wanted, meaning distributor protests couldn't keep them from making Black Panther a major star in the world of comics.

1) The Falcon and The Civil Rights Movement

As we've seen, Stan Lee was a key figure in the development of black comics, which makes sense considering he was the editor-in-chief, head writer and later publisher of one of the country's largest comic book companies for over 30 years. And his contributions in many ways echoed the development of the country as a whole. As a teenager, one of his first published efforts included the creation of the racially offensive stereotype Whitewash Jones, which mimicked the widely popular minstrel characters of the time. A decade later, the more mature Lee introduced Waku, one of the earliest black heroes in comics, though detractors would point out that while Africans were now portrayed as heroic, it was still part of the noble savage stereotype rather than a modern African-American being given the same positive treatment.

But by the early 60's, when Lee decided to throw caution to the wind and write from his heart in his new line of Marvel Comics, he and the times had both changed again. In Sgt. Fury #1 (1963), Lee created what in many ways was a forebear to the later successful rebooting of the X-Men: the Howling Commandoes were carefully designed to represent each major ethnic group in America, including Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, Southerners and, in the person of Gabe Jones, a heroic African-American soldier (even though this decision created an anachronism, as the army wasn't actually integrated at the time the World War II stories were taking place).

And Lee didn't back down from the issues this created, often including racial commentary in the comics themselves. Avengers #33-34 (1966) introduced the Sons of the Serpent, a racist organization bent on cleansing the nation of all foreigners and African-Americans; the story, which introduced Bill Foster (who would later become Black Goliath), is one of the earliest instances of social (and racial) commentary in mainstream comics outside of EC's lightning rod efforts a decade earlier.

Meanwhile, over in Amazing Spider-Man, Lee introduced the always competent and level-headed African-American newspaper editor Robbie Robertson to act as a counterweight to the deranged J. Jonah Jameson. Lee and his collaborators, far more than any other comic creators or companies, embraced the events of the civil rights movement in the best way they could: on the page, by introducing real and realistic black characters -- sometimes villains, often heroes, always complex.

And while we've already covered one of the most famous and obvious effects of this policy, in the creation of Black Panther, the pinnacle is undoubtedly Lee's creation of The Falcon in 1969 (Captain America #117). The Falcon, who in his alter-ego of Sam Wilson was a Harlem social worker, was not only one of the first black superheroes period (and one of the only ones for a long time not saddled with the "Black" prefix), he also holds the distinction of being the first black superhero to star in his own book, starting with Captain America and The Falcon #134 (Feb. of 1971), where he would go on to share billing with one of the premiere comic characters in the world, Captain America, for the next 88 issues. Each of which would show a character not defined by his ethnicity (as the African prince Black Panther might be said to do) nor by new stereotypes (such as blaxploitation product Luke Cage) but simply by his actions as a man and hero. In many ways the creation of The Falcon could only have taken place at the specific time it did for, as we see with Luke Cage, just a handful of years later the civil rights movement had petered out to the point where the main message seemed to be "hey, we can make money off black people too."

For those reasons, and the lasting effect Stan Lee's decisions as writer, editor and publisher of Marvel during the 60's had on comics, the creation of The Falcon and Lee's response to the Civil Rights movement are number one on our list of the top moments in the history of black comics.

[Note: It should be mentioned that during this time DC did have a couple notable efforts as well, namely the introduction of African-American soldier Jackie Johnson in Sgt. Rock and the excellent, progressive stories folks like Joe Kubert and Robert Kanigher were turning out in their war department. Their more mainstream superhero books, on the other hand, not so much; even the introduction of eventual DC stalwart John Stewart in Green Lantern #87 (Dec. 1971) isn't enough to get them on the list, since it took another decade and a half for them to remember the character existed.]

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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Black History Month Top Ten: Part One

Over the past few months I've made a habit of celebrating holidays and special events with top ten lists, such as the ones that graced Thanksgiving, Pearl Harbor Day and Christmas. Most of the time these features consist of a list of covers, but for Black History Month I thought I would do something a little different and present a look at how the industry has handled African-Americans over the years with a list of the top ten key moments in black comics history.

Before I get into my list, I'd like to add that I'm not really an expert on this, so researching it has been very interesting. Though I've consulted a few different resources online and offline, I'd like to mention in particular Dart Adams and his Poisonous Paragraphs blog, which presented a far more detailed timeline of black comics history, which you can read here and here. It's worth a look, as is this examination of the subject by blogger Mercurie.

Okay, with that out of the way, let's jump right in with our look at the Top Ten most important events in black comics history!

10) Storm joins the X-Men

When the good folks at Marvel decided to re-imagine the failed X-Men franchise in 1974, they made the decision to recast the team as a global group, with representatives from a number of different ethnicities and nationalities. And among them was the African-American weather queen Storm. Not only has she become by far the highest profile black female character in comics (with almost no competition) but thanks to X-Men becoming the most popular comic in the country for over two decades -- and spawning a line of equally popular films -- she has become one of the most recognizable superheroes, period.

9) The Blade Movie Premieres

Unlike Storm, just about nobody outside of the most hardcore Marvel zombies had ever heard of the obscure supporting character Blade the Vampire Hunter when the first Blade film debuted back in 1998. But it went on to become a surprise hit, not only becoming one of the most successful comic adaptations made to that point but also one of the most successful action films to star an African-American lead. The film and its two sequels raised the profile and proved the viability of African-American superheroes in the mainstream marketplace.

8) Luke Cage, Hero For Hire #1

Despite what it claimed on the cover of Power Man #17, Luke Cage wasn't the first black superhero, nor was he the first African-American character to star in his own series. But there's no argument that Hero For Hire, which debuted in 1972, was the first major series to feature a black lead and gain widespread success; the comic ran for 125 issues before finally ending, while Luke Cage himself has become one of the key figures in the Marvel Universe thanks to his leadership of the company's flagship title Avengers throughout the last decade. All of it started with this comic, which proved that comic fans of all colors and creeds would buy a comic starring an African-American. (It should be noted, of course, that the characterizations were straight out of the blaxploitation handbook, which keeps this from placing higher on the list).

7) Fawcett Retires Steamboat

In the late 30's and early 40's, when comics were hitting their stride, the entertainment industry as a whole was rife with offensive stereotyping and superhero books were no exception. Picking up on the popular cliches perpetuated by characters like Buckwheat and Stepin Fetchit, publishers across the board began introducing their own versions, such as Timely's sidekick Whitewash Jones. At Fawcett, their version -- ironically and amazingly intended to appeal to African-American readers -- was named Steamboat. But while many of the creators working on the immensely popular Captain Marvel books were oblivious, fans weren't, and after a delegation of irate schoolchildren protested to editor Will Lieberson at the Fawcett offices. Lieberson, by his account, had come to his own conclusion that the character was racist and quickly complied with their demands, issuing an edict that Steamboat was henceforth banned from their books. Protests and actions like these helped end the popularity of these characters, and they soon vanished from comics, thankfully for good.

6) The Original Lobo

The first comic book debuted in 1934, yet, amazingly enough, it wasn't until 31 years later that an African-American character finally landed his own title. That book: 1965's Lobo, from Dell Comics, which followed the adventures of a black gunslinger in the old west. Unfortunately, even with three decades lead time, distributors were still unready for this level of equality: Dell was deluged with an unprecedented number of returns, many of them still in unopened bundles as stores and newsstands refused to sell the title. Because of this, the comic was canceled after the second issue, but it remains a milestone in comics publishing.

Tomorrow: The top five! Spawn! Black Panther! And much, much more! Be there, as Black HIstory Month rushes to its thrilling conclusion!

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Monday, February 22, 2010

Movie Reviews: The Princess and the Frog

As many of you know, I like to think of myself as a Disney feature film connoisseur. I've seen nearly all of their theatrical releases, at least in terms of classic animation, having only skipped a few of their weaker efforts this decade. So when I heard that they would be returning to the hand-drawn Disney style for The Princess and the Frog, I was intrigued to see how it turned out, especially with Pixar genius John Lasseter now in charge of animation at Disney. Would this be a return to glory, or just another paint-by-numbers knock-off effort?

Well, now that I've seen the movie I can happily say that it is closer to the former than the latter. While Princess and the Frog falls a bit short of classic status, not quite living up to their efforts from the early 90's or from Walt's days, it's a handsomely drawn and enjoyable film that offers glimpses of greatness even if it doesn't quite live up to its own promise.

The best part of the film is in many ways the set-up, as we are introduced to the spunky and relatable heroine Tiana, a hardscrabble waitress working in... the late 1920's maybe?... in an effort to realize her dream of opening the restaurant she and her deceased daddy had dreamed about. The opening half hour or so, where we meet Tiana's family and learn of their hard-working ethics is well played and well drawn.

Also more than up to Disney snuff is the villain, the Shadow Man, a legitimately disturbing bad guy with nice character design (that skull top hat is to die for) and some very, very scary friends who will likely give anyone under the age of ten chronic nightmares for years to come. That's a good thing (unless you're a kid, I suppose), and some of the film's most visceral sequences involve the Shadow Man.

Where the film falters a bit is with the lead, Prince Naveen. Oh, he's serviceable enough, but once the main plot gets going and he and Tiana have both been turned into frogs, the film itself seems to follow suit to a degree. That's not to say the sequences with Tiana and Naveen in full frog mode aren't nice, but the middle of the film does succumb a bit to cliche; I had a hard time believing the two of them falling in love, as the romance seem predetermined by the plot rather than an extension of their personalities. Granted, you could lay this charge at previous Disney princesses, but the romances of, say, Belle or even Ariel seemed more natural by comparison. I never really bought this one.

Beyond that, though, the film also adds in the usual elements of a big Disney film with something approaching a workmanlike attitude, checking off the infectious tunes and comedic sidekicks one by one. It's especially disappointing considering the heart displayed at the beginning of the film, as though Lasseter got a hold of the project just in time to add some but not all of his Pixar experience to the proceedings.

That's not to come down too hard on the film, for in the end the overall product is still an above average effort from Disney, meaning it's way above average when compared to some of the knock-off crap Dreamworks continues to foist on America. But not even some surprising decisions, such as the honest-to-god death of a supporting character at the hands (and feet) of the Shadow Man, can quite elevate this to the level of the classic it aspires to be. A worthy addition to the Princess line, but not quite true greatness.

My Grades: Visually it gets an A, but overall it will have to settle for a B. Which isn't bad at all.

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Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tales From the Vault: BRAVE AND THE BOLD #62

All the nation is currently enthralled by the Winter Olympics up in Vancouver, so we thought this would be a perfect time to break out a classic appearance by the world's foremost Olympic-themed supervillain, The Sportsmaster. Yes, for those of you not familiar with The Sportsmaster, he was a Golden Age villain who used his amazing sports acumen to challenge heroes and orchestrate crimes. Have you ever wondered what might happen if Michael Phelps turned to a life of non-cannabis related crime? Well, wonder no more!

Details: The Brave and the Bold #62 comes to us with a cover date of Oct/Nov 1965 and features a team-up between the Golden Age Starman and the Golden Age Black Canary, who would later go on to become her own daughter in a convoluted continuity retcon that is far too complex for me to get into here. Luckily, the classic DC team of Gardner Fox and Murphy Anderson don't get into that minefield at all. Whew.

Synopsis: Our story starts with a recap page, explaining who The Sportsman is (an "all-around athlete who used his extraordinary skills to commit crimes" before vanishing forever from the pages of comics 15 years earlier on account of being a really, really stupid character) and that he has, since his last appearance, gotten married to the much cooler Huntress. Now they're back, but for reasons only Gardner Fox knows, they've decided to refer to themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Menace. I guess this is better than going by their real names, though, since Sportsmaster's true identity is Crusher Crock. Mr. and Mrs. Crock: maybe not the best moniker.

Anyhoo. It's a peaceful night at the annual Sportsman Show, when suddenly a wax statue of a Greek discus thrower shatters to reveal... The Sportsman! Well, why not? The show is named for him, after all. The Sportsman, as you might expect, is dressed in a fly fishing outfit complete with knee high waders, floppy hat and a ginormous fishing pole. How he fit that inside the statue with him, I'd rather not contemplate.

Now that's he's free, though, he quickly uses the rod to snag the event's big trophy, then smashes the other statues, which are filled with tennis balls that fly into the crowd at alarming speeds, causing one patron to shout "Watch out! Those things are hard! They can knock you out!" Well, if that was a statue of Roger Federer, maybe. Plus: sack up, you wuss.

Having distracted everyone with his array of flying balls, The Sportsmaster rushes out of the room and quickly changes into a skiing outfit (by the way, his costume is basically the traditional outfit of whatever sport he's doing, plus a little black handkerchief dangling over his face. Pretty godawful), complete with rocket powered skiis, which, again, where did he have those stashed exactly? Wherever they were, they work, and he zooms to safety as Dinah Lance (aka Black Canary) watches helplessly. She was there, I might ad, as chief of security, so this is a particularly poor showing all around.

MEANWHILE! We cut to Starman, aka Ted Knight, who is described as being at his home in "Federal City". Odd; in James Robinson's acclaimed 1990's Starman series, Knight and family live in Opal City, but it's clearly the same place as evidenced by the fact that Knight is preening over the fully functional copy of the observatory from Mount Palomar which he has just built on his estate. That observatory is the centerpiece of his home in Robinson's Starman, so I wonder why he decided to move them to Opal? Or maybe Fox just fudged up in this appearance.

Whatever the reason, Starman is basically wandering around preening over how rich he is when he suddenly hears a cry for help coming from inside a Chinese maze that he constructed for some reason. Even he isn't sure why a maze is on his property, thinking "It's so complicated I haven't learned my way about it yet!" which is perhaps the best description of a Gardner Fox script ever given. Anyway, he finally gets to the center by changing into his Starman outfit and flying there, where he randomly finds Wildcat (Ted Grant) inside a cage. Yeah, that happens to me all the time.

He doesn't have much time to puzzle over why any of this is happening, because just then Huntress shows up, equally puzzled why Starman is messing up her plans. Irritated, she summons a flock of trained falcons to attack Starman. But Knight has a trick or two up his own sleeve; first he diverts a meteorite into their midst, which he claims is a way to take care of them without killing them -- color me skeptical. Then he... well, here's how Fox puts it: "But now Starman summons down the powers of starlight itself -- freezing it into great blue cubes". Say wha huh?! He follows up this brilliantly impossible tactic by summoning the Aurora Borealis from the North Pole and "interposing that multi-colored wall between himself and the predatory birds".


Needless to say, Huntress is watching all this with a look on her face that says she must be thinking exactly what I'm thinking, so she decides to just vamoose before Fox has a chance to drop any more acid. Just then, though, The Sportsmaster shows up and, seeing Starman chasing his wife, he yanks off a ski and hurls it javelin style right into Starman's face. Kerpow! Let's see the Aurora Borealis block a ski to the melon, smart guy!

Luckily for Starman, Black Canary shows up right then and rushes to catch him... no, wait. She ignores his falling body and instead starts wrestling Sportsmaster, trading a bunch of lame football puns while Starman presumably plummets to his death off panel. Nice one. It looks like she's at least taken down Sportsmaster, though, after she heaves him through the air with enough force that his ski sticks into the ground like a tent stake. But sadly for her, Huntress comes up behind her and decks her.

Rather than press their advantage, though, Mr. and Mrs. Crock decide instead to hop into a nearby jet and get while the getting's good, taking a quick detour to gather up the still unconscious Wildcat. With them out of the way, of course, Black Canary finally has a chance to go look for Starman, who as you might expect is lying flat on his back off in the woods. The two of them quickly hatch a cunning plan: noticing that Sportsmaster has left his rocket skis behind, they stand there and wait for the skis to activate a homing beacon. Luckily, this actually works, and they follow the skis to the Menace household, where they quickly locate Wildcat in a basement array of cages.

Also in those cages? A bunch of wild animals. As soon as they let Wildcat out, all these other beasts also come out, which allows Fox and Anderson to give us the spectacle of Wildcat boxing a kangaroo, Canary using jiu jitsu on a gorilla (which, shockingly, is not on the cover of the comic for once) and Starman using his deus ex machina stick to engulf the whole room in cleansing fire. That one pretty much defeats the animals a little faster than a couple uppercuts.

Meanwhile, though, there's no sign of Sportsmaster and Huntress. Why? Because they have flown off using the greatest escape vehicle ever made, a putting green Sportsmaster has cleverly turned into a hovercraft. The two of them float off to a nearby golf course, where Sportsmaster proceeds to take out all the competitors at the tournament by floating over them and shaking golf balls off his hovercraft right into their faces, leaving the course strewn with unconscious bodies. Awesome. Just think how different things would be if Tiger had one of these instead of a lame SUV.

Anyway, Starman and Black Canary nicely ditch Widlcat (who bitches about it at length, but since he can't fly, sayonara) and take off after Mr. and Mrs. Menace, finally catching them just before they are about to abscond with a bag of cash. Of course, a big brawl breaks out, with Starman creating green Lantern-style giant tennis rackets and whatever. (As a side note, Gardner is really fond of coming up with cutesy nicknames for his characters, like "Astral Avenger" for Starman. However, at one point he calls him "The Rod Ranger". Yeah... I wonder why that didn't catch on).

Finally, Starman realizes that Huntress is trying to maneuver them underneath the hovering putting green, so instead he turns the tables and sure enough, as soon as Mr. and Mrs. Menace are underneath the green, giant metal bars pop out of the bottom of it, imprisoning them in their own trap. Curses!


Extras: This is a very interesting comic for fans of Starman, as this issue (and the previous one to an even larger degree) set the foundation for a lot of stuff Robinson did thirty years later, specifically with regards to the affair between Starman and Black Canary that he revealed. To be honest, it's not that big a stretch after reading this issue, as it helps explain this otherwise arbitrary team-up.

This issue is also important as it's not only the first silver age appearances for Sportsmaster and Huntress but also for Wildcat, who I have to admit I've never been a big fan of. I'm not sure why they bothered re-introducing him in this tale, though; he spends the whole issue captive or unconscious, and then when he finally does wake up and is sprung from jail, he gets off like two punches before they others ditch him. He comes off as pretty useless, not exactly the impression you'd want to give if you're testing the waters for future appearances.

My Grades: Starman gets a C- for being a boring Green Lantern ripoff (though he does have a decent name and costume), and the story as a whole gets a C+ for being a totally average Silver Age DC superhero comic. But Black Canary is always cool, so she gets a B in this issue, while for historians and Starman fans, this has to get an A- at worst for importance. And that putting green gets an A+++++.

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

New Comic Cavalcade: Siege #2 and More

Hey kids, welcome back to the latest episode of New Comic Cavalcade. You may recall that last month, we reviewed Siege #1, Warlord #10 and the Blackest Night tie-in Weird Western tales #71. So how far have things progressed in the course of a month? We're about to find out, because it's time for reviews (with spoilers) of Siege #2, Warlord #11 and the Blackest night tie-in Starman #81. Yes, I have been buying other comics, but I also value continuity. So, let's go to the comics, why don't we?

Siege #2
By Brian Michael Bendis and Olivier Copiel

Last month, I complained about the lack of footnotes or any other kind of context, which proved confusing considering the comics that were supposed to set up Siege were in many cases yet to be released. Now, a month later, I can safely say that... well, some of them have come out. I'm still not sure how Thor or the Asgardians ended up back in Oklahoma, but I guess we'll just chalk it up to magic (the magic of editorial screwups) and move on.

So how does the actual issue measure up? Well, it's by Bendis. That's not necessarily meant as a dig, but this issue even more than last seems very Bendis, meaning that like many of his bigger stories there's a lot of surface flash and dazzle that may distract readers from the shaky foundations. Basically, half of the story focuses on Sentry going into full Miracle Kid mode and tearing Ares in half with his bare hands in a giant two page spread that consists almost entirely of a huge splash of blood and flying internal organs. Subtlety is apparently not high on Copiel's to-do list and as a long time fan I could only imagine the kind of infarct this sequence would have caused Jim Shooter.

As usual, though, that's the big problem with Bendis: the comic is cool enough assuming you've never actually read any Marvel comics before. If you have, you might start asking pesky questions like, how can Taskmaster easily take on Asgardian warriors? That sort of thing, of course, is increasingly irrelvent in light of the fact that Bendis places massive plot importance on characters such as Sentry, Daken and Phobos -- in other words, on newer characters whose sudden primacy in the MU is sure to drain much of the drama of the story for older readers, who are probably stuck somewhere between "who are these people?" and "why do I care about any of them?" I will give Bendis some props for turning Sentry into pretty much a grade-A supervillain, which I hope sticks after the end of Siege as it's basically the only justification for his pimping over the last several years that would seem reasonable to me. But as a whole, while there's plenty of pretty action to look at, this comic is still way to much flash (and gore) and not enough substance.

My Grades: It's entertaining enough. But so are cat themed youtube clips, and those aren't actually good either. C.

Starman #81
by James Robinson and Fernando Dagnino

And here, after more than a decade, is a new issue of Starman. Before we get into the issue itself, let me say again that I think this is maybe the greatest event tie-in idea ever, resurrecting entire titles as zombies to go along with the zombie storyline. It's genius. Of course, as we saw last month with Weird Western Tales, it's kind of hard to write a story that's actually relevant in one of these one shots, but heading into Starman #81 I was curious to see if Robinson could pull it off, especially considering the widespread negative reviews he's been receiving lately for stuff like Cry for Justice.

I'm happy to report that no negative review is needed for Starman #81. With this story, Robinson manages to stay true to himself and the series (to the point where, as promised, Jack Knight still remains retired in the happily ever after and doesn't appear in this issue) while still providing both a solid tie-in to Blackest Night as well as a coda to Starman that's actually relevant to the characters. In this case (since Jack remains off limits) those characters as The Shade and his erstwhile love interest Hope O'Dare, who are confronted by the reanimated corpse of Jack's brother Will, who was killed in Starman #0 way back when the series launched.

The fact that this attack take splace right as Shade and Hope are in the middle of having one of those awkward relationship-defining conversations that couples sometimes have means that unlike Weird Western, this comic is elevated beyond a simple zombie shoot out with in-jokes for fans of the defunct property. Actual advancement and development takes place, meaning that instead of being an empty (if cool) exercise, this comic can safely takes it's place right after Starman #80 as a worthy addendum to the series as a whole. Not a half bad trick to pull off.

My Grades: The art by Dagnino is solid, even though it doesn't quite match up to Tony Harris, and the story likewise fits right in. The only real downside is that you will wish Starman was still being published. A-.

Warlord #11
by Mike Grell

And, of course, the Warlord doomsday clock hits eleven this month. The good news is that Grell is back doing the art again, and any time you get a dose of Grell art it's a good day. Even better, the storyline, which revolves around yet another rebirth for arch-enemy Deimos (I believe this is his 6th go-round, though I would have to double check to be sure), looks like it may also provide a resolution to the long-running subplot about Warlord's son Tinder, who Warlord mistakenly believes he killed long ago (way back in the original Warlord #21 from 1979). Personally, I would say that 31 years is more than enough time to work out a plotline, so I for one will be really happy if this finally gets resolved (for those not familiar with the comic, the person Warlord killed was actually a clone of his son, while the real son has been hanging around as a supporting character in an ongoing subplot ever since, both parties unaware of their familiar connection).

So that's good. And this issue is okay, though it still suffers a bit from data dump syndrome, as we get several more pages devoted to going over Warlord's backstory, this time in the form of explaining the whole Deimos-Tinder-clone thingy. But there's some nice action drawn by Grell and the prospect of a resolution has me excited.

Unfortunately, I have a strange feeling that this also is a swan song for the title. There's nothing in the book specifically stating this, but the fact that Grell is back on art and finally tackling the Tinder plot suggests that DC may be giving him a chance to wrap up his dangling threads before they pull the plug. I hope I'm wrong, as I would like to see this comic finally take on some new material instead of just recapping the last 40 years of publications for new readers, but this could be the end.

My Grades:
Looks great, but even with all the action in this issue it still plods along. Travis Morgan is actually starting to seem as old as his 84 years. B-.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

February Zuda Reviews: Part 2

Welcome to part two of our February Zuda reviews. Yesterday we brought you the first batch of five hopefuls, so, naturally, today sees the other half of the field. And so far this month, unlike last month, nobody has been forced to dro out of the competition, so that's a positive as well (though I wouldn't really miss a couple of these to be totally honest). So will today's group be stronger than yesterday's mediocre crop? Let's find out.

Island, Alone
by Rich Fuscia & Shawn Aldridge

The comma in the title is perfectly appropriate for this comic, because there are a number of superfluous commas in the text and dialogue throughout the story. Maybe that's a minor thing, but it irritated me. Anyway, other than that this was pretty good. The art was solid -- starting of a little frenetic for my taste but getting better as it went -- and the plot was okay if nothing groundbreaking. There were a couple non-comma issues with the dialogue, mainly becoming too expository at times, but overall a pretty decent effort that ended with a nice tease.

My Grades: B-. It would get a B if not, for the use of, commas.

by Brock Heasley, David Schlotterback & Michael DeVito

Monsterplex is a fairly fun strip that uses horror tropes for humorous effects; the cineplex in question, which shows only horror movies, turns out to be a full, live experience complete with vampires and zombines and the like, all running roughshod over the (often eaten) audience. While the pacing and dialogue were just a bit on the stiff side, particularly in the beginning, the story ended with a nice twist while the art, though a little bit to Erin Esurance for me, was similarly solid. One of the better efforts this month.

My Grades: B. I'm not sure it will win, but it wouldn't bother me if it did .

New Morning
by Louie Chin

Let's start with the good parts: the graphic design for New Morning is cool and some of the little footnote jokes are amusing enough. The art is also solid, particularly on the first page, which had some bold set-up panels to establish the scene that I thought worked nicely. On the down side, the "narrative" was pretty choppy and barely recognizable as a story. I'm not always a fan of decompression, but some could have been useful here, even if it would have meant some of the material wouldn't have fit inside the eight page restriction.

My Grades: The flavor is nice, but the aftertaste is sour. C+.

Sci-fi Drive By
by Ryan Estrada

On the other hand, Sci-Fi Drive By similarly doesn't present a coherent story, yet I enjoyed it all the same. That may be in part because the vignettes are fairly delineated into separate gags, meaning I wasn't expecting more than separate. I'm not sure how well this kind of structure will hold together in the long run, but for eight pages it amused me. That's not bad.

My Grades: The art was solid even if the last "wi-fi" joke sequence was a bit flat overall. B.

Techno Insecto
by Samir Barrett

Don't look now, but there seems to be a superhero comic in this month's Zuda competition. And even more surprising? It's pretty good. yes, there are some clunky bits of exposition that could be safely removed (such as the main character exclaiming "It's you! The Techno-Organic Insectoid Mechanism!" in his best Stan lee impersonation) as well as some cliched bits (the old "he's not shooting at me after all, he's shooting at the menace behind me!" bit) but overall this is a fast, fun read, thanks in large part to the sharp character designs and vibrant coloring that make the artwork look more like cels from an episode of Teen Titans than a comic book.

My Grades: It could be tightened up some, but it's a pretty convincing package overall. B+.

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Monday, February 15, 2010

February Zuda Reviews: Part 1

Welcome to this month's batch of Zuda reviews. Okay, the month is more than half over, but what are you going to do, right? The important thing is that voting is still in progress, so it's not too late to weigh in on this month's competitors. My comments will be somewhat briefer than usual, but no doubt that comes as a great relief to many of you, so no problem.

Enough chatter, let's get to the comics.

Aliens vs. Ninjas vs. Samurai
by Darrin Stephens & Jorge Vega

This story pretty much delivers exactly what the title promises, although the aliens don't really show up until the last page. It's a cute enough concept I suppose, though not exactly cutting edge (only lacking pirates and Chuck Norris to fulfill internet mandates), but the art is so stylized it was hard for me to get into it or necessarily follow what was happening. It was like Mary Blair doing thumb puppets. I'm sure some people really loved the art, but I wasn't one of them.

My Grades: Eh. A C. For what it is, I've certainly seen worse.

Divided By Seven
by Scott Boyce

What if the Flash was actually a holocaust survivor from the future? That seems to be the premise of Divided by Zero, which tells the story of a dangerously emaciated speedster who has had some sort of unfortunate experiments done on him. The art was a bit uneven; some parts looked really sharp, while others were a bit too stiff, especially in depicting the runner's form. There seemed to be the germ of a solid idea in there, but it didn't develop quite fast enough for me, instead running in place. See what I did there?

My Grades: A strong C+. I think there's potential here but Boyce needs a bit more work on his storytelling to realize his vision.

by Alexander Diochon

I have to hand it to Fulcrum creator Alexander Diochon for one thing at least: he uses a lot of words. that's not something most creators these days seem to like doing, and for an old school comic fan like myself, it's nice to see someone who remembers that words are half of the magic of comics. Unfortunately, none of the words he uses were interesting to me. This story of prisoners fighting each other or something inside a prison city just left me cold and suffered a bit from what a lot of Zuda entries suffer from, namely a lack of sympathetic characters. I say execute them all.

My Grades: C+. It just didn't do anything for me.

by Lazarus Ray Berry

Well, this one is interesting. The art is pretty good throughout, although it occasionally suffers from over ambition, particularly in Berry's attempts to fuse a gritty fantasy style with manga-inspired character designs. That doesn't always work, but it makes some sense for a story that seems to be trying to combine Conan-esque fantasy with supporting characters form Inuyasha. I didn't hate it, but this may be a case where the creator's vision is too specific to translate well for anybody else reading it. I could see what he was going for, but I couldn't quite see why he was going for it.

My Grades: Another C+, though separately, most of the individual elements might get higher scores. The whole is less than the sum of the parts here.

by Marco Palombelli

Hawkrider is like 20 pages of story fit into an eight page structure not by compressing the storyline but by the simple means of leaving out the rest of the pages. You might be forgiven for reading this through several times to figure out just what is happening, if you happened to like it enough to re-read it, which seems unlikely. I don't mean to sound overly harsh -- the art has potential and the basic concept seemed solid enough -- but I just didn't get this one at all.

My Grades: C-, with the occasionally cool artwork saving it from a lower score.

The other half of the batch. Will they be more exciting than this group? Based on these grades, you'd almost think they have to be, right?

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Saturday, February 13, 2010

January Zuda Wrap-Up: Controversy Strikes

Okay, so it's a little late in the game, but it's finally time to wrap up last month's competition over at Zuda (as a quick refresher, you can check out part one of my January reviews here and part two over here). As you can see, it was a fairly strong batch, though there were no obvious favorites or stand-outs. My highest grade went to War of the Woods, which ended up winning the competition. So it looks as tough my influence has spread through the internet and everyone agreed with me that War of the Woods was the top choice, right?

Well, not exactly. As long time readers know, Zuda seems to be a pretty front-loaded operation; the title that gets ahead in the first week almost always ends up winning (or, at least, that has been the case since I started following Zuda). In January that comic wasn't War of the Woods, however, but instead was The Thunderchickens. Thunderchickens jumped out to a quick lead and throughout the month maintained its edge, which normally would produce a pretty sure win for the comic.

That didn't happen this time, however, for an unusual reason: the comic was pulled from the competition entirely.

As a result of the withdrawal (the reasons for which we'll get into momentarily), Zuda decided to void all the votes given to Thunderchickens, allowing people who had voted for it to instead cast their votes for a different title. Those votes apparently broke overwhelmingly for War of the Woods, because before the controversy began it had been tracking steadily in fourth place. The comic did move up one spot while the controversy was raging on the message boards, but until Thunderchickens was pulled it was still in third place behind NewBot, which had been solidly camped in the number two spot for the entire month. When the Thunderchickens votes were voided, however, NewBot remained in second place while War of the Woods vaulted over it to take the win and the contract from DC Comics.

Voting curiosities aside (and I am stuck by how similar to a political convention that turn of events was), there still remains the question of why Thunderchickens withdrew -- or was removed, whichever it actually was. Those details are a bit fuzzy, with the only official announcements being Zuda's declaration that after discussions with the creative team it was decided to be the best course of action, along with a cryptic statement from Thunderchickens artist Bill Blankenship indicating that the withdrawal was due to some action on his part that resulted in a mutual decision with zuda to pull the strip.

So what happened? Well, apparently Bill got in an online name calling contest with NewBot creator Chuck Harrison that sprang at least in part from a cartoon Zuda reviewer Bryy Miller drew as part of his commentary on the January entries. Or something. At this point it would pretty much take CSI to unravel it, as most of the pertinent info has been ab-blasted right off the face of the Earth, but apparently the argument between Blankenship and Harrison escalated to the point where it involved accusations of cheating and vote tampering, finally requiring Zuda to step in to correct what Blankenship described as unprofessional behavior.

The end result, of course, is that neither Thunderchickens nor NewBot won the competition; NewBot's involvement in the Thunderchickens disqualification may also explain why fans of Thunderchickens decided to throw their support behind a third party rather than boost NewBot from the number two spot into the win. Instead the big winner out of this mess is War of the Woods creator Matthew Petz, who now finds himself in possession of a professional career and one year deal with DC Comics.

In the end it is that professionalism that should be the focus of any post-mortem of the January competition. The fact that Zuda presents an great venue for up and coming creators has also, in my brief experience with the endeavor, been it's achilles heel; just as many of the submissions seem to be works in progress that fall somewhat short of professional standards, so too do many of the creators seem to be in a formative period regarding professional standards of behavior. That's not to paint all Zuda contributors with the same brush, as many are very friendly and positive in their fan interaction, but the nature of such a public competition also seems to bring out the worst in many. Going forward, then, the withdrawal of Thunderchickens will hopefully prove to be a valuable lesson and perhaps even a turning point in the life of Zuda as it strives to be a showcase for professionals rather than just another online amateur hour.

Let's hope the lesson is well learned.

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Friday, February 12, 2010

Captain America vs. The Tea Party

While the nation slept, Marvel somehow got dragged into one of the more unusual controversies in recent comic book history, as the conservative political group Tea Party has begun lambasting the publisher over this month's issue of Captain America. At issue is a protest rally depicted in #602 which shows average citizens holding signs decrying the government's tax policies -- signs that apparently originated at an actual Tea Party event.

Here's a look at the pages in question (click to enlarge):

In response to this comic, Tea Party blogger Warner Todd Huston posted an editorial on decrying the issue as an attack on the Tea Party.

"Isn’t it wonderful that a decades old American comic book hero is now being used to turn readers against our very political system, being used to slander folks that are standing up for real American principles in real life — and one called “Captain America” at that?"

Huston takes issue with a number of things, including the fact that the protesters are depicted as being all white, and goes on to accuse Marvel of implying that "Tea Party protesters just “hate the government,” they are racists, they are all white folks, they are angry, and they associate with secretive white supremacist groups that want to over throw the U.S. government."

While comics are usually completely ignored by everyone outside of hardcore fans, this particular complaint struck a nerve for some reason. Whether it's because of Cap's recent higher profile following his death and rebirth, which were both heavily covered by the media, or because this sort of thing is catnip for conservative news sources, the story quickly spread through the blogosphere, eventually ending up on mainstream outlets like and The New York Times.

In response to this tempest in a teapot, Marvel Editor-in-Chief Joe Quesada conducted an interview with the folks at Comic Book Resources, where he apologized for the "mistake," saying that an editorial assistant working under deadline filled in the signs on the page in question in order to make the scene more realistic and that there was no intent to specifically identify this group as the Tea Party. Beyond this apology, though, he did call out Huston for his accusations of racism:

"Where I do take exception with Mr. Huston’s article is when he states that we are calling the Tea Party racist...wait I’m sorry, that we’re saying that every white person is a racist along with several other horrible and inflammatory accusations. Nothing can be further from the truth, accidental placement of a Tea Party sign or not, those sentiments are not in the pages of our comics and are a complete and irresponsible misrepresentation."

So what's really going on in Captain America #602? I had a chance to read the issue earlier today and while I agree that it probably wasn't wise to use specific Tea Party images in the story (even ones as juvenile and embarrassing as the ones chosen), I also think that even without those signs the connection to the Tea Party would have been pretty obvious, as they are the main tax protesting group in the country.

That, however, is how it should be, because conservative bloggers lambasting Marvel for politcizing comics are missing the mark entirely given the fact that Captain America has always been an explicitly political character and series. Right form the first issue in 1941, where Cap is shown on the cover punching out Hitler months in advance of America's entry into World War II (a stance that earned creator Jack Kirby death threats from American Bundites at the time), Captain America has been used as an allegory to discuss political and social issues confronting the nation. Political commentary is not only regular within the pages of Captain America, I would argue it is essential to the character and that attempting to remove political elements from the series would essentially destroy the entire point of the series. As anyone who ever read CapWolf knows, writing Cap as just another crime fighter in long johns is a sure way to write a crappy story.

Further, the specific charges leveled against Marvel in this instance are spurious at best. While Quesada's insistence that the protesters in the above scene are separate from the militant right-wing group Watchdogs who Cap and Falcon try to infiltrate may seem like splitting hairs, in the context of the story he is absolutely correct that they are portrayed as two separate entities. Just from these two pages, the scene reads to me as though the crowd of protesters is intended to point out to the liberal Falcon that while the Watchdogs may be going overboard, their concerns are shared by many mainstream, regular Americans. Indeed, this scene can be read not as a denunciation of the Tea Party but rather as a wake-up call to the Falcon that there are real issues his liberal political stance doesn't necessarily address. And in that sense this isn't an attack on the Tea Party so much as a validation of them.

In addition, it's clear that neither Huston nor any of the other mainstream media commentators are familiar with Captain America's continuity, because if they were, they would recognize that this sequence and plotline is a carefully constructed re-working of a classic Captain America story from Mark Grunewald that appeared back in the late 1980's. In the first appearance of the Watchdogs, then-Captain America John Walker and his African-American partner Battlestar were tasked with infiltrating the nascent right-wing organization in order to determine their plans. In order to do this, they staged a fake fight with Battlestar pretending to be a porn director and Walker acting as a righteous citizen defending America's moral values from that kind of filth. This scene is repeated almost verbatim in #602 in the pages that follow the excerpt here, only with Falcon now playing an IRS auditor instead. The entire sequence is an homage to Gruenwald's work, with the hot button "family values" issue of the 80's replaced with the hot button tax issue of today.

I do think that writer Ed Brubaker could have been a little more subtle in his racial commentary here (which is surprising as Brubaker is usually a very solid writer) but Huston's charge that Marvel is portraying the Tea Party as racist overlooks four factors. 1) The racial subtext is in part carried over from the earlier Gruenwald story this is referencing; 2) the Tea Party protest is explicitly not the same group as the Watchdogs; 3) this entire sequence takes place in rural Idaho; for Huston to complain that "the people in these crowds are depicted as being filled with nothing but white folks" is somewhat silly considering that less than one percent of the citizens of Idaho identify themselves as black on the census; and 4) the actual Tea Party has indulged in it's own share of race baiting anyway (as the Comic Book Alliance points out in this excellent essay, Tea Party leader Mark Williams once called President Obama "an Indonesian Muslim turned welfare thug and a racist in chief"), meaning even if Marvel was making this charge they would be justified in doing so.

While some pundits have stated that Captain America has often had a liberal slant (a charge that was certainly true, for instance, during Steve Englehart's notoriously political run in the 1970's, which included a story about Richard Nixon heading a secret society of villains bent on ruling America -- another example of the comic's explicitly political past), it's important to note that villains such as the Watchdogs are an important part of Captain America's mythology and are certainly not limited to conservative groups. These groups act as allegorical substitutes that allow Captain America to confront major issues facing our country in a tangible way. Just as the Wacthdogs represent the dangers of right-wing militarism, Ultimatum, which Captain America has fought a number of times, represents the opposite problem of left-wing militants, while the Sons of the Serpent allow him to battle racism. And those are just a few examples.

Personally, I applaud Brubaker for including political commentary in his work, even if, with just one issue out of a four part storyline out so far, nobody actually knows what kind of statement he may be making with this arc. Comic books, especially Captain America, do not have to be mindless entrainment; they can and should deal with the social forces that shape our world. If that gets someone's knickers in a bunch because their lame "tea bagging" joke is turned against them, well, so be it. Asking Captain America to be apolitical strips the character of meaning and relevance.

And as this debate shows, we have enough irrelevance already without adding more to the mix.

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Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Breaking News: Brubaker to Write Secret Avengers

Marvel is continuing full steam with their barrage of Avengers news and the latest bit is a doozy, as acclaimed Captain America writer Ed Brubaker will be writing a second new ongoing Avengers title when Marvel relaunches the franchise this spring. Joining him on the book, which will be titled Secret Avengers, is popular artist Mike Deodato.

Over the last couple weeks, of course, Marvel has made one announcement after another. First they dropped the bomb that all four ongoing Avengers titles were being canceled at the end of the Siege crossover event; then they followed that up by revealing that their new event, The Heroic Age, would be jump started by the relaunching of Avengers by the team of Brian Michael Bendis and John Romita Jr.

Though most old school fans were excited at the prospect of the classic Avengers re-uniting, including Captain America, Thor and Iron Man all back on the team, their enthusiasm (okay, our enthusiasm) was leavened by the fact that Bendis would be continuing on as writer, which seemed to torpedo speculation (by myself among others) that Ed Brubaker would get the gig. Brubaker, after all, has been grabbing accolades for years for his work on Captain America, which itself has often resembled a team book thanks to the presence of a large and strong supporting cast including Bucky, Falcon, Sharon Carter and Black Widow.

Now, though, it looks as though Brubaker will be getting an Avengers book after all and judging by the title, Secret Avengers may well play to his pulp and crime strengths. Though the promo images being released are in silhouette to keep things "secret," my guess is that some of his cast from Captain America will be on board for this book, possibly joined by holdovers from New Avengers such as Luke Cage and Jessica Jones (who seems poised to "return" to her costumed identity Jewel). The title also suggests that the fell of the book may be closer to that of New Avengers, which has been an underground movement since Civil War, than a full-on superhero title.

Overall, this announcement (which was coupled with the release of another Heroic Age teaser that seemed more in line with a Secret Avengers type of roster than the original promo) looks like a win-win for Marvel, as it likely satisfies both Brubaker fans and fans of New Avengers. And by all accounts, Deodato has come a long way from his 90's days, when he would farm out a lot of his material to subpar studio artists and slap his name on their work. If he buckles down and turns in some solid art, this title could be a winner, even if the title is unfortunately reminiscent of 90's crapfest Secret Defenders.

No idea who that's supposed to be in the Secret Avengers teaser, though. It looks kind of like the Lizard, which seems highly unlikely, but guesses on the internet range anywhere from Beast to Spider-man to Gorilla Man. Personally I think it's one of Jack Kirby's Rorschach tests, so maybe it's the Demon Etrigan. But who knows. One thing's for sure: at this pace, chances are Marvel will be releasing some new image any minute for us to speculate about instead so there's no reason to get worked up about one shapeless blob when we have several more shapeless blobs still to come.

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