superheroes

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I’m trying to do something about the massive backlog of 60-98% complete post drafts. It’s scary in there! For example, both of these bits are from (gulp) 2012.

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Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (1993), by Frank Miller & John Romita Jr.

While Daredevil has long been my favorite single superhero, I wasn’t the right kind of fan to be the target audience for this. This is an origin-story miniseries that fills in gaps and juicy details (the rise of Kingpin, Matt’s childhood training, and his initial relationship with Elektra in college). I grew up with 4 or 5 single Daredevil issues around the house – much obsessed-over, but far from exhaustive enough for me to be able to appreciate the back-filling that Miller does. Since Miller compresses over a decade into 5 issues, the pace was also too breakneck for me to feel like I could really sink my teeth into the narrative, until Miller slows down enough to focus on a crucial kidnapping incident at the end of the series.

General thoughts: the style is strikingly noir, which is not surprising given that it’s Miller. Matt’s rage is always simmering in the background, and his rough upbringing in Hell’s Kitchen lays down the basic growth medium and texture for his character. Miller emphasizes in his intro that Daredevil could easily have been a supervillain. The emotional hook of the miniseries is that Matt’s righteous anger and physical prowess aren’t enough to make him a hero (there’s a really awful moment where he accidentally kills a prostitute while trying to attack one of his father’s killers); he must also learn self-mastery.

I warmed very slowly to Romita’s art, as it’s sort of blockily formless a lot of the time. However, there are occasionally really effective panels that made me okay with him by the end – in particular, the poetic silhouettes of Daredevil bounding across the Manhattan skyline, and one creepy close-up of Kingpin’s chilly eyes.

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Hellboy: Wake the Devil (Vol. 2) (1993), by Mike Mignola

Paranormal folkloric bingo! On top of the evil Nazis + Rasputin + cosmic/Revelations-flavored menace from last time, there are a Napoleonic-era vampire lord kickin’ it old school, Thessalian witches, Baba Yaga, an iron maiden broken in by Elizabeth Bathory, Lamia, Hecate, a homunculus… Honestly, it got overwhelming at times (I felt whiplashed), and occasionally I questioned the lumping of so many mythologies together, given that it really did start to feel like “lumped together” instead of “woven together.”

But the goofy dialogue lightens things up well, and Mignola’s art always sells it. There’s a spectacular cosmic setpiece of about 5 pages towards the end of the arc that actually had me reading with my mouth open. And then – emo Rasputin! Because even villains bent on universal chaos have to question themselves sadly sometimes, even if it’s just to ask if they’re being selfish enough.

Plotwise, this is really just expanding on the “evil Nazis/Rasputin plot for cosmic chaos” direction. Not too much more character development, sadly, although there’s plenty of character exposition.

– E

 

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…the superhero redesigns over at Project: Rooftop! Jemma Salume’s winning entry for the Canary on the Catwalk contest was my first (and possibly still greatest) love (if I could marry an illustration…) (IT’S JUST SO PERFECT), but there’s always something new to catch my eye, often accompanied by tantalizing snippets of imagined storylines.

I wish Denis Medri’s 1950’s Batman reboot were a real thing, for starters; it’s just the perfect blend of retro glam and grit, down to the muddied-up candy hues of the color palette. Betty Paige as Catwoman, hot-rod Batmobile, and leather jackets everywhere – sigh.

Project: Rooftop is also fun in that it highlights one of the most fascinating elements of the superhero genre: the relative freedom that different creators have to weld new themes, aesthetics, and cultural anxieties onto the preexisting chassis of a given character or series. I can’t think of any other contemporary media that enjoy both the long-term continuity and short-term adaptability of a comic-book hero who’s remolded and rebooted (and occasionally resurrected) over the course of countless issues, in the hands of dozens of artists and writers, each seeking to carve out new narrative space and (ideally) to reflect some aspect of contemporary culture. Hellblazer (which has been running continuously since 1988) has to be given particular props in the continuity department, since its timeline progresses and its characters age more or less in real time – in my mind, that level of verisimilitude can bolster the series’ effectiveness as a work of cultural criticism, though I haven’t really read far enough along yet to judge how well John Constantine ages as a character past the ’80’s.

Of course the eerie agelessness of most superheroes simply adds to their status as modern-day quasi-deities. I can’t remember who it was whom I first saw drawing a parallel between the teeming universes of Chinese folk traditions and superhero comics (possibly Barry Hughart? I can’t find the quote, at the moment), but it’s an apt comparison.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.30.2012
Book from: Personal collection

The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 2: DallasThe Umbrella Academy: Dallas begins and ends with presidential assassinations; in between, a whirlpool of crises sucks in the already battered members of the Umbrella Academy superhero “family,” and spits them out again even more embittered and doubtful of their humanity. In between, there’s extensive time travel, nuclear annihilation, a brief interlude in heaven, a man with a goldfish for a head, and page after page of Gerard Way’s incredibly sharp, incredibly funny, incredibly on storytelling and dialogue. (I found myself wanting to deliver affirmations like, “Why yes, Gerard Way, a pair of Girl-Scout-cookie-obsessed hitmen WOULD sound exactly like that!!”)

The presiding metaphor of this volume is of the jungle, and jungle beasts. (“I am in the jungle and I am too fast for you. You have teeth and stripes and things that tear. But I am much too fast… […] Only I know where the jungle is… only I know…” goes Number Five’s crazed self-paean as he single-handedly destroys an army of time-traveling enforcers. It’s both hilarious and chilling, in combination with Bá’s increasingly saucer-eyed rendition of Five and Dave Stewart’s lurid colors for the scene.)

Umbrella Academy works off of the psychological model for superheroes that’s prevailed since Watchmen: they’re average human beings – willful, petty, self-absorbed – acting out their neuroses and capacity for brutality, both emotional and physical, on superhuman scales. Kraken is the series’ Rorschach, obsessed on a primal level with vigilanteism. Spaceboy began as (to jump comic universes) the moody, nobly pathetic X-Man, ashamed of his physical monstrosity (his head was grafted to a Martian gorilla’s body in a lifesaving operation at some point in the past), but by the beginning of this arc has gone over to Nite Owl – overweight, impotent, haunted by crumbling ideals of heroism.

Spaceboy is an obvious visual manifestation of the jungle-beast metaphor: the superhero who’s at least as much monster as man, a Frankensteinian creation as cognitively dissonant and surreally comical as the intelligence-augmented chimps that now constitute a significant proportion of the world of the Umbrella Academy. The chimps were also experimental creations of the Academy’s founder, Sir Reginald Hargreeves, of course. The brief glimpses we get of frigid, controlling Hargreeves are some of the most disturbing moments of the series; it’s a wonder that the Umbrella kids, his grandest experiment, didn’t turn out even more dysfunctional.

In the end, disaster is averted and the world is saved, but at the cost of the life of a good man, and further erosion of the tenuous bonds among the Umbrella Academy. I was pretty heartbroken by the end of the volume, especially after the emotionally devastating bonus story, “Anywhere But Here,” which reveals a pivotal moment from Vanya’s past. Way and Bá have taken their superheroes to such depths of despondency that it’s hard to imagine where they’ll go from here, but I trust that they’ll continue to unfold their heroes’ fates with style, wit, and humanity.

Go to:
Gerard Way: bio and works reviewed
The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite (2008): review by Emera

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Date read: 3.17.11
Book from: Library
Reviewer: Emera

book umbrella

From the back cover:

In an inexplicable worldwide event, forty-seven extraordinary children were spontaneously born by women who had previously shown no signs of pregnancy. Millionaire inventor Reginald Hargreeves adopted seven of the children; when asked why, his only explanation was, ‘To save the world.’ These seven children form The Umbrella Academy, a dysfunctional family of superheroes with bizarre powers. Their first adventure at the age of ten pits them against an erratic and deadly Eiffel Tower… Nearly a decade later, the team disbands, but when Hargreeves unexpectedly dies, these disgruntled siblings reunite just in time to save the world once again.”

The Umbrella Academy is clearly an enormous excuse for Gerard Way to make moody, tentacular love to all the tropes of the superhero comic. Father-figure issues, intra-team rivalries and romantic tensions PLUS frolicsomely deranged villains and a tortured, vengeful supervillainess PLUS nonstop, glibly surreal* storytelling = one gloriously dark, weird, and addictive series. I can’t speak to there being much real substance under the surface – other than Way’s manifest passion for superheroes and their particular brand of wounded humanity – but it’s a terribly stylish and entertaining comic, with occasional moments of real sweetness and charm.

Art highlights: Dave Stewart’s yummy colors – heavy on dark, desaturated oranges and purples. And I love the weight of Gabriel Ba’s figures, and their elastic, elongated torsos – makes for interesting stances and gestures. Also, I could stare at the cover forever. Hi, Vanya. What shapely F-holes you have.

(I know. I’m sorry.)

I devoured the first volume in one sitting, and am jonesing to get my hands on the second. Also, this may well be my favorite single line of comic-book dialogue: “And just as I suspected – ZOMBIE-ROBOT GUSTAVE EIFFEL!”

* The kids’ surrogate mother is an animate anatomical model. What’s not to love?

Go to:
Gerard Way: bio and works reviewed
The Umbrella Academy, Vol. 2, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (2009): review by Emera

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Date read: 12.23.07
Read from: Digital collection
Reviewer: Emera

book hellionsA four-issue side-series off of the most recent New X-Men storyline, featuring, obviously, the current crop of Hellions, Emma Frost’s protégés and the New X-Men’s bestest rivals within the Xavier Institute. Written by Nunzio deFilippis and Christina Weir, pencils by Clayton Henry.

At the end of the school year (and prior to the events of M-Day), Julian/Hellion brings his team members back to California with him to hang out at his family’s mansion. Unfortunately, after a typical Hellion-style scuffle at the airport, his parents cut him out of the family fortune. Spiteful and disgruntled, Julian digs deeper into his parents’ background, and ends up making a deal with the same figure who got his parents rich – the Kingmaker, who proceeds to grant the dearest wish of each of the Hellions. Sooraya/Dust is reunited with her mother at an Afghan refugee camp, Cessily/Mercury finds herself welcomed home again by suddenly loving parents, Santo/Rockslide becomes a wrestling star (dream big, boy), and so on. But after the trial period is up, The Kingmaker returns to extract payment…

This was a REALLY fun read, and  made me realize how boring by comparison pretty much the entirety of the New Mutants series was, revolving as it did around petty disputes and page after page of overwritten adolescent moping. Not that Hellions was that much deeper or more novel, but let’s face it, rebellious teams are pretty much always more fun (even if their leader is a twit), and being limited in length, the series packed a lot more interest into a lot fewer pages. The writing was tight and featured equal helpings of action and character exposition; I’ve always been fond of Cessily and Sooraya in particular, so it was fun and occasionally genuinely affecting to see a bit into their pasts and family lives.  Coloring was too shiny for my tastes, but the pencils and inks were strong and consistent. All in all, something that might actually have re-read value for me, unlike the rest of the pre-M-Day New Mutants/New X-Men: Academy X storyline. (No, I don’t know why I kept reading it, either. Of course as soon as most of the irritating characters had been dispensed with and Skottie Young started doing the art and I was getting genuinely interested in the series, it was cancelled.)

Go to:
Nunzio deFilippis: bio and works reviewed
Christina Weir: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 11/16/09
Book from: Personal collection
Reviewer: Emera

(Nightcrawler: The Winding Way collects Astonishing X-Men: Nightcrawler #7-12.)

After being seriously wounded in an inexplicable attack, Nightcrawler struggles to escape the nightmarish memories of his past: his youth in Germany behind the scenes of a circus, his unwilling murder of his brother, and his eventual enslavement in an American circus. Once recovered from his injuries, Nightcrawler retraces his history both in Germany and in America, seeking to understand the forces that seem determined to dredge up his past and threaten the boundaries of the mystical worlds.

Nightcrawler: The Winding WayHmm… well, for starters, I don’t like Darick Robertson’s art (I’ve also seen his work in The Boys). Though a few of his cover spreads for this mini-series are nicely textured and moodily desaturated (e.g. the cover above, which I quite like), his art within the run is hilariously inconsistent, and flat-out terrible on several pages where it’s obvious that he had to rush it. He’s also one of those people who can’t draw women without certain parts of their anatomy straining at their improbably tissue-thin, vacuum-suctioned-to-the-skin clothing. Also, not so much a fan of Matt Milla’s coloring, either, as it’s in the digital style of which I am an anti-fan – hard, oversaturated, metallic colors.

Storywise, this is also not amazing. Schmaltzy dialogue and narration, predictable plotting. The only bits I enjoyed were the angsty Nightcrawler flashbacks, and that’s partly just me being a Nightcrawler fangirl – there isn’t that much genuine emotional depth to them. I’d probably only reread it for those bits, though, so at least it has some reread value.

Also… I’d love to use stronger language here, but I’m going to control myself and just say, enough with the Wolverine cameos. Really. Are there really that many people on the face of the earth who would pick up a comic title purely because it includes a certain Canadian flaunting his body hair and tossing off predictable lines involving the word “bub”? (Don’t answer that question, and yes, I’m sure I’m late on the bandwagon of people who complain about that.) In general I’m losing interest in the Marvel superhero universe, or at least the mainstream superhero titles. It’s so frustrating that their overall storylines are really compelling, but they generally end up being killed by the writing, or the art, or both. Case in point: I love that the Nightcrawler series concept is to have him investigate the mystical and paranormal events that the X-Men generally don’t handle, but the end product is hardly worth reading.

…That was a lot of spleen.

Go to:
Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa

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Date read: 8.14.09
Read from: Subterranean Press
Reviewer: Emera

John Scalzi’s “Denise Jones, Super Booker” is a superhero satire that makes me not tired of the superhero satire trend. It’s a wry sketch in the form of an interview with an agent who books superheroes for employment opportunities ranging from contracts with cities in need of protection from giant Gila monsters, to bar mitzvahs in need of entertainment. Pretty much every line is quotable, so I won’t even bother to pick pull quotes – just go and read it when you have the chance!

This was my first time reading anything by John Scalzi, but I can see now why both his blog and his writing have such a following.

Go to:
John Scalzi
Subterranean Press

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Date Read: 10.12.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Summary

Jimmy Jibbett is a boy who dreams of becoming a comic book artist and spends his days in the basement making his stories come to life on paper. His mother is also an artist, but his father is a humorless businessman and his two sisters are brats; overall, his family doesn’t really support his aspirations. But Jimmy finds hope through his friends, certain members of his family, and ultimately his imagination.

Review

This is a pretty charming little story, complete with full illustrations  drawn by the author in the style of a 10 year old. I was lured to buy this book when my friend pointed it out to me on a shelf and said something along the lines of, “Dude! That’s one of my favorite children’s books! It’s about this kid that draws comics!”. I mean, who doesn’t love a kid who loves and draws comics? Case and point.

I had no trouble envisioning Jimmy as this scrawny kid with a constantly runny nose who simultaneously entertained wild dreams of inventing the world’s favorite superhero and nurtured a secret desire for that superhero to come to life and be his best friend. Jimmy is pretty much the quintessential dorky pre-pubescent boy, and subsequently, loser so if you were one of those, read this book.

My one gripe is that it seemed like the entire story was covered by a slight sheen of awkwardness. Although the story is touching and relatable, the writing doesn’t achieve that level of lighthearted elegance usually found in Newbery winners and Jimmy as a character doesn’t really stay with you after you finish reading. The plot was a little bit too simple and straightforward, and the few plot devices seem like they were devised and then inserted into the story. However, I do have to say The Main in the Ceiling has one of the absolutely cutest endings ever.

Go to:
Jules Feiffer

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Date Read: 1.30.09
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

This humorous, 2003 Eisner Award winning one-shot is the story of an unlikely superhero, Screwn-on Head, who researches an occult myth at the behest of Abraham Lincoln. Apparently, an evil zombie named Emperor Zombie has stolen important ancient tomes that could lead to the destruction of the earth. The cast of this comic also includes Mr. Groin, Screw-on Head’s manservant, and Patience, Screw-on Head’s old vampire lover.

the-amazing-screw-on-head-opening-sequence

I actually first watched the TV pilot adapted from this comic written and developed by Mike Mignola (best known for Hellboy) and Bryan Fuller (Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies). After holding out for about a month to find a copy of The Amazing Screw-on Head, I gave up and attained a much more accessible copy of the TV pilot. Later, I finally found a copy on eBay (cursed OOP’s).

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Date Read: 6.12.09

Book From: Borrowed from Kakaner

Reviewer: Emera

The Adventures of Dr. McNinja is an ongoing webcomic about a doctor who is also a ninja; duh. Chris Hastings writes and draws, and Kent Archer inks. They used to be roommates, and you can kind of tell.

In the second volume of the Doctor’s adventures, Dutch action star and sworn ninja nemesis Frans Rayner has captured the Doctor’s loyal teen sidekick, Gordito, and will stop at nothing to destroy the Doctor and claim Gordito’s magnificent and authoritative mustache as his own. Meanwhile, a mysterious drug has hit the streets, endowing common hoodlums with ninja powers. Can Dr. McNinja D.A.R.E. to resist ninja drugs and violence? Will he be able to protect Ben Franklin’s clone from harm in a high-speed motorcycle chase? Will his gorilla assistant Betty ever be able to eat her hot dogs in peace?

It’s a tricky affair to read this on a train, or anywhere else public. First there’s the business of trying to hide the pages of neckbeards and ninja showdowns from seatmates and the people across the row from you; then you have to try not to keep hooting maniacally and out loud. Granted, you do have to have a pretty random and absurd sense of humor to enjoy Dr. McNinja, which relies on non sequiturs, preposterous plot twists, occasional nerd references, and a universe of characters who take themselves way too seriously – if you couldn’t tell from the summary.

Luckily, I am well-endowed in the random-sense-of-humor department, and get a huge kick out of every volume, although I also tend to feel slightly stupider afterwards. (By contrast, my brother read a few panels and preemptively declared, “This sounded awesome, but it’s stupid.” His loss.) The fact that Chris Hastings’ art tends to be kind of shaky – it reminds me of the illustrations that you’d see in a high school newspaper – actually adds to the comic’s humor. Disproportionate facial features, rather lumpen anatomy, and physically implausible poses just seem right.

I would recommend Dr. McNinja as being great for de-stressing. My own roommate and I read the first volume during some of our darkest academic hours this past school year, and still get way too much of a kick out of shouting, “FROZEN SHAMROCKS KEEP HITTING MY FACE.”

Dr. McNinja can be read for free online, or purchased in printed volumes – which replicate the original comics’ alt texts – via Raptor Bandit Industries.

Go to:
Chris Hastings

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