Review: American Splendor trade paperback (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Monday, June 29, 2009

[This review comes from Adam J. Noble, a public librarian living in Eastern Canada. At Noble Stabbings!!, he is blogging his attempt to read all of the comic series Cerebus in 2009.]

“This guy might be the worst thing for comics.”

That summary of Harvey Pekar’s current standing comes courtesy one Tom Scharpling, host of the radio program The Best Show on WFMU, when Scharpling and regular guest/comedian Paul F. Tompkins were debating whether Pekar still has any relevance in modern comics. Scharpling posited that Pekar’s most recent issues of his autobiographical comic American Splendor (published by DC/Vertigo in 2006-2008) have gotten so dull that the only way to spice them up would be to have Pekar develop super-powers and be forced to write about the very thing that he loathes more than nearly anything on Earth: superheroes. (One industrious listener of the Best Show created a mock-up page of what American Splendor: Super “Hero” Harvey might look like and it is, one has to admit, pretty awesome.)

Scharpling and Tompkins’ shots at Pekar are pretty funny and, one has to admit, pretty accurate (“Are you seriously gonna leave me hanging? How did he like the oatmeal cookies?!” sez Paul). But the FM funnymen are being unfair: yes, Pekar’s living situation has changed – he had his comic made into an award-winning movie; he is retired (his sweetly autistic former co-worker Tobey Radloff is nowhere to be found within these pages, sadly), and, yes, Pekar does spend a lot of time in these twin volumes in the role of “writing about the life of a guy who writes about his life.”

But criticisms like this miss the point of these two volumes and of The American Splendor Project in general. First of all, American Splendor was never a thrill-a-minute cavalcade of laughs and tears, even in its “file-clerkin’/getting pilloried by David Letterman/going through a succession of romantic failures” heyday. It was always dull. That was kind of the point. And the hit-to-miss ratio has at least improved since the early-90s Dark Horse era of the book, which contained far too many lectures about jazz for anyone’s RDA. The second attraction of the book was/is its dare to the revolving door of artists: “hey, make this schlubby guy and his misadventures visually interesting!” And in that regard, the DC/Vertigo volumes trump nearly anything done in American Splendor before (excepting of course R. Crumb’s seminal work on the book).

In Another Day (reprinting DC/Vertigo’s first four-issue mini), we’ve got Ty Templeton, Eddie Campbell, Chris Weston (never been a huge fan, but his two-tone art sells me), and Gilbert Hernandez, as well as Pekar standbys Dean Haspiel, Greg Budgett and Gary Dumm. Recurring themes throughout the book are Pekar’s interactions with sales clerks, difficulties getting/taking medications and the everyman’s struggle with that most essential and infernal of household fixtures, the flush toilet.

Another Dollar (reprinting “Season Two,” another four-issue mini) sees a greater continuity between issues, as our hero injures his arm in #1 and struggles with this latest health crisis through subsequent issues. He is aided by some returning artists from the previous series, as well as Darwyn Cooke, Warren Pleece and Sean Murphy. David Lapham illustrates what is perhaps the funniest post-movie-era Splendor story, in which a neighbourhood teenage pseudo-fan awkwardly drops by the Pekar residence to ask our hero advice on how to break into film – during which Harvey gets so bored, he gets up to grab himself a drink of juice, abandoning the kid on the front porch for a spell.

And speaking of artists whose work is pleasantly surprising in black-and-white, Darick Robertson, who has always seemed to lack focus on Transmetropolitan and The Boys completely wins me over here. I’m guessing that doing a real-world story forced Robertson to reign in his tendency for over-the-top reaction shots which makes it a lot easier to admire his finely detailed, expressive and humane depiction of a Pekar faced with a broken-down car and the receptionist who proves his only ally against this crisis. In a comic where Pekar tries to come to grips with a reviewer who praises his comic but trashes its author, illustrator Chris Samnee reminds me of the early work of Stuart Immonen, which probably shouldn’t work, but does, terrifically – every ambivalent line on Pekar’s face is hilarious.

Harvey Pekar is a survivor – of failed relationships, of financial hardships, of a go-nowhere job, of cancer fergawdsake – all of which were chronicled wonderfully in decades’ worth of comics as well as in the filmed adaptation of said comics. The movie may have provided some validation to The American Splendor Project – the damaged-but-not-broken everyman putting his life on display for any who care to look, and thereby exalting that life – but it didn’t end it. Pekar’s journey to the finish line continues, financial success and retirement from civil service be damned, and these volumes do a superb job of capturing that journey and presenting it for any who care to follow him.

And in case you were still wondering, he liked the cookies.

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

DC Comics Trade Paperback Solicitations for Early 2010

Friday, June 26, 2009

I'm interrupting our Guest Review Month one more time for some early 2010 DC Comics collected solicitations for your comics library:

Final Crisis Aftermath
* Final Crisis Aftermath: Run

* Final Crisis Aftermath: Dance

* Final Crisis Aftermath: Ink

* Final Crisis Aftermath: Escape

- For those of you waiting for the trade to add Final Crisis to your bookshelf, all the spin-off mini-series are on their way.

* Superman: New Krypton Vol. 3: James Robinson

* Superman: Mon-El Vol. 1

* Superman: Nightwing and Flamebird Vol. 1

- The headline here is that New Krypton will run three volumes in hardcover before we see the various titles split into their own collections. In this case, here's Greg Rucka's run on Action Comics (and added, Superman: Mon-El, currently listed by mistake as from Vertigo on Amazon. This lists Richard Donner as one of the authors, suggesting it does indeed contain a story from a recent Action Comics annual).

* Batman R.I.P. SC

* Batman: Heart of Hush

* Oracle: The Cure

- Batman RIP and Heart of Hush both make their softcover debuts here, along with Oracle: The Cure, which I hope includes the final issues of Birds of Prey.

DC Universe
* The Flash: Rebirth

* Solomon Grundy

* JSA: Strange Adventures

* R.E.B.E.L.S.: The Coming of Starro

* Brave and the Bold Vol. 3: Dragons and Demons

* Batman: King Tut's Tomb

* Titans: Old Friends

* Strange Adventures

* Hardware: The Man in the Machine

* The Last Days of Animal Man

- New debut collections include R.E.B.E.L.S.; Titans: Old Friends finally comes out in softcover; glad to see Jim Starlin's Strange Adventures and Last Days of Animal Man both in one volume, not two; Batman: King Tut's Tomb reprints Batman Confidential #26-28, if not more; Hardware continues DC's new printings of the Milestone series.

Special Collections
* Starman Omnibus Vol. 4

* Hitman Vol. 2: Ten Thousand Bullets

* Justice League International Vol. 4

- New volumes of Starman and Hitman should make readers happy.

What are you most looking forward to next season?

Review: The Perhapanauts: First Blood trade paperback (Dark Horse Comics)

Thursday, June 25, 2009

[This review comes from Kelson Vibber, whose websites include Hyperborea, K-Squared Ramblings, and the Flash-centered Speed Force.]

Perhapanauts is a fun, rollicking adventure featuring a team of supernatural troubleshooters as they track down creatures like vampires, chimeras, demons and Bigfoot. Actually, that's not quite right.

Bigfoot's actually a member of the team.

The series chronicles the exploits of a field team for BEDLAM, the Bureau of Extra-Dimensional Liabilities and Management. It's sort of a cross between the BPRD in Hellboy and the movie version of Men in Black, with a tongue-in-cheek tone somwhere between MiB and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

The leads are Blue Team:
  • Arisa Hines, a psychic and the team's leader.
  • M.G., a mysterious guy who can slide between dimensions. A condition of his employment was that BEDLAM would not dig into his past.
  • Bigfoot a.k.a. "Big", a Sasquatch who was exposed to an "evolvo-ray" which made him a genius.
  • Molly MacAlister, a timid ghost who hasn't quite adjusted to her status.
  • Choopie, a chupacabras who was exposed to the same evolvo-ray as Big, and has the mind of an 8-year old boy.
The cast is rounded out by BEDLAM's staff -- an administrator whose face is always in shadow, a telepath, a man whose eyes can erase memories -- its researchers, and Red Team, led by a no-nonsense ex-Marine whose training sometimes gets in the way of managing a team that includes a Mothman and a water sprite.

First Blood features two main stories. In the first, the team is dispatched to locate and detain a hulking, seemingly unstoppable monster from the dawn of time. By the time the story is through, the reader has a solid sense of each character's skills and personality, and how they manage when Plan A falls through. (One of my favorite moments is Molly's response to a plan that involves sending cement-eating slugs back in time to the precise moment needed to arrange for a building to collapse now.)

The second story pits them against an aswang, a vampire-like creature from Filipino mythology, and you get to see how they handle a somewhat less successful mission. Actually, "less successful" is putting it midly, as the book ends on a cliffhanger -- a gutsy move, considering it was originally published as a miniseries, with no guarantee of a sequel!

Like Buffy, Perhapanauts can switch between action, horror and comedy at the drop of a hat. BEDLAM learns about a breakdown in the fabric of reality...from a man who talks to butterflies. Choopie dismisses the aswang as a "stinking vampire...and then the scene shifts into intense character drama as Choopie struggles with his own bloodsucking nature. Craig Rousseau manages give his characters a full range of expressions matching the tone shifts.

All of the leads have at least a moment in the spotlight (I particularly like Arisa's psychic battle in the first story), but it's Choopie who steals the show with his hyperactive personality, his tendency to shoot first with his "mess-you-up gun," his penchant for mischief, and the fact that despite a need to drink pre-packaged goat's blood, he still has a thing for sugary junk food. (Fruit pies become a running gag in later volumes.)

In addition to the lead stories, there are three short character pieces. "The Terror from Within!" introduces Karl, the Mothman, whose ability to project fear is matched only by his inferiority complex. The story provides a glimpse into the minds of the heroes, as well as a first look at Red Team. "Seven Months Earlier" is a more action-oriented tale of the last disastrous mission of the previous Blue Team, and how Arisa proved herself capable of becoming its leader. "Fiepick" is a comedic piece in which Choopie tries to "help" as Big and M.G. tinker with highly advanced machinery.

Rounding out the book is a dossier with profiles of the BEDLAM agents, staff, and targets, and an art gallery featuring Kevin Nowlan, Nick Cardy, Mike Wieringo (who also wrote the introduction) and others.

First Blood is followed by Second Chances. With the third volume, Triangle, the series has moved from Dark Horse to Image. The later volumes broaden the focus considerably, allowing characters like Hammerskold the ex-marine, Karl the Mothman, and the Merrow to grow past the one-note caricatures glimpsed in the background of "First Blood." We also learn more about Blue Team, particularly Arisa and Big...and a surprisingly poignant revelation about Molly. Seemingly random events from volume one turn out to be setup for future storylines, and the title begins to make sense as the team begins to navigate "the Perhaps."

One word of warning: Image started the numbering over, so First Blood and Triangle are both labeled #1. Just go with the numbers in the titles, and you'll be fine!

If you'd like to check out the series, Todd Dezago has made the 2008 Perhapanauts Annual #1 available for free as a PDF on his website,

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

Review: Star Wars: Legacy: Broken trade paperback (Dark Horse Comics)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

[This review comes from Bob Schoonover, who's annotating NBC's Chuck on his blog.]

Broken, the first trade in the Star Wars: Legacy series, is really a primer on how to start a new series in a shared universe. John Ostrander and Jan Duursema have crafted a truly worthy successor to the Star Wars Original Trilogy by creating a cast of compelling characters that comes close to equalling the characters everyone loved in the original movies. Each character has their own arc and motivations, and screen time is not given exclusively to the "protagonist" of the series, Cade Skywalker.

For those of you that feel daunted by the fact that there are approximately 300 comics and 50 novels in the Star Wars universe that you haven't read, let me sum up everything you need to know to hit the ground running in this newish series: Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance started a new Jedi order and Galactic Republic; the Empire was defeated, but not destroyed, and became an ally of sorts with the Republic; the galaxy far, far away was invaded by an extra-galactic alien race called the Yuuzhan Vong, a warrior race that used biological, rather than electronic technology; the Yuuzhan Vong were defeated and allowed to remain in the galaxy, despite killing billions (they dropped a moon on Chewbacca!); Luke Skywalker married a redhead named Mara Jade and had a child, Ben. Okay, everyone is caught up.

Broken begins about 120 years after Return of the Jedi ended. The Empire is again at war with the Republic/Alliance (the reason for this becomes clear later). The Jedi are attacked by a horde of Sith warriors, and Kol Skywalker, among others, falls in battle. His son, Cade, in an attempt to avenge his father's death, sets out in a fighter to attack the Sith. Shot down, Cade is thought dead, and abandoned by the fleeing Jedi. Meanwhile, Darth Krayt, the newest Dark Lord of the Sith deposes the Emperor, Roan Fel, and takes over the Empire. And that's just the first few pages.

The story continues seven years later, following Roan Fel and his attempts to retake his Empire, Darth Krayt and his Sith minions ruling the galaxy, the scattered Jedi and their plans to fight the Sith, and Cade Skywalker: bounty hunter. Ostrander and Duresma (artist and co-plotter) have managed to find a new path for a Skywalker to follow. Cade, a reluctant adherent to the Jedi code in the first place, was recovered from his starfighter attack by mercenaries, scavenging the wreckage for Jedi artifacts. Cade joined up, and became a pretty good bounty hunter. Of course, as with every Skywalker, destiny calls, and Cade is thrust into the middle of the war between Fel and Krayt. However, Cade does not make a sudden turn to the Jedi way. Bucking conventional wisdom, Ostrander and Duresma keep Cade on the fringe, trying to sit out the galactic war, but always willing to use his Jedi training or natural Force skills if circumstances dictate.

What makes this story works is that the Sith have the variety and depth of the Sinestro Corps from Green Lantern. The many named Sith - Darths Krayt, Wyrrlock, Talon, Maladi, Nihl, etc. - each have an agenda, skill set, and personality, and could probably carry their own series (and yes, if Tomasi or Johns was writing it, I would read a series about Sinestro, the Cyborg Superman, or Ranx in a heartbeat). Likewise, Cade is not one- or two-dimensional - he's a protagonist who has been given a pretty bad hand in life and is doing his best to avoid being re-dealt a new, worse one.

I think my favorite thing about the new characters, though, is Marasiah Fel, the daughter of the deposed Emperor. She is the idealistic, fight-for-what-is-right character that most writers would put front and center. It would be easy (and predictable) to have her be the Skywalker descendant, fighting the Sith and standing for truth and justice. Instead, she is relegated to the second tier (at best). She may be fighting the good fight, and she might beat the Sith (it's hard to say), but that's not the story Ostrander is telling. He's telling a story about Cade, a complicated young man that finds his family heritage too much, and has just shrugged it off.

I can't finish this review without praising the artwork of Jan Duursema. The art in this book is top-notch. There are roughly 20 or 30 important characters - both alien and human - contained in this volume, and each is distinct and consistent throughout. There are also a ton of new starships and alien species, and each looks different than anything from before (although Imperial fighters have the same cockpit design they had 150 years earlier). The sheer effort at making this book look so good must have been phenomenal. The only disappointing thing about Broken, and in fact, all Star Wars trades by Dark Horse, is that not all of the cover art for the issues contained inside is displayed. The front and back covers of the trade display two covers, and I believe one more is shown in the interior, and that is it. With such great art, it's a shame Dark Horse can't give us everything.

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

Guest Review: Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book One hardcover (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Monday, June 22, 2009

[This review comes from Adam J. Noble, a public librarian living in Eastern Canada. At Noble Stabbings!!, he is blogging his attempt to read all of the comic series Cerebus in 2009.]

This hardcover volume, entitled Saga of the Swamp Thing: Book One reprints "Saga of the Swamp Thing" issues 20-27, the opening eight issues of Alan Moore's mid-eighties run on the series. It includes the famous story "The Anatomy Lesson," in which the titular muck-man discovers that he is not a man transformed into a mossy beast, but rather a vegetable-creature who has deluded itself into believing it is a man.

As an "archival" edition, this new hardcover is ... durable, I guess, which you want in something calling itself "archival." Gone is the original beautiful Michael Zulli painted cover from the trade paperback, replaced by a lot of black, Alan Moore's name in big lettering and Swamp Thing's head in profile.

There are other problems with this volume, and they also have to do with how it stacks up to the earlier paperback edition. Yes, this hardcover is a big deal because, for the first time, it reprints "Loose Ends," issue #20 of the original series, where Alan Moore tied off the stump of Martin Pasko's run, and sowed the seeds of Moore's own story-to-come. However, there is always a price to be paid: we got some Moore, but we also lost some Moore. The original text introduction by Moore is gone in the new edition, most likely because it did its best to summarize Swamp Thing's back story for the new reader, up to and including "Loose Ends." Fair enough, death to spoilers and all that, but in the process we also lost some excellent musings on the horror genre, DC continuity, comic book continuity in general and storytelling in general including a tangent in which Moore discusses the possibility of Dr. Frankenstein performing experiments on the heroines of Little Women, a notion that seems to anticipate both League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Lost Girls.

(When this volume was announced, months ago, I donated my "Loose Ends"-less Saga of the Swamp Thing trade to my local library. After the hardcover came out, I quickly made a photocopy of Moore's intro to stick between the pages of the new hardcover. Don't laugh, there but for the grace of God go you.)

It's also a shame that Moore's intro has been lost because new readers may find themselves surprised at how easily Moore's Swamp Thing bumps up against other denizens of the DCU proper. After all, Gaiman's Sandman usually tried its best to ignore those early cameos by the Martian Manhunter and Mister Miracle. Same goes for much of Hellblazer. But Moore's Swamp Thing is a "mature readers" book that happily co-exists alongside Jack Kirby's Etrigan, the Justice League, and later, the Crisis on Infinite Earths itself. The DCU is a true cosmos of fiction that we're often in danger of taking for granted, and the lost Moore intro illustrates that point explicitly -- although we've still got the comics themselves, so I guess it's not so bad.

Oh, incidentally: instead of Moore's intro, we get a chummy, backslaps-all-around intro by Swamp Thing creator Len Wein and another by horror author Ramsey Campbell, who gives a brief history of the "mature reader" comic up to the point before Moore began to work in American comics ("My ward is a junkie!" et al).

It's necessary to read Swamp Thing now with the proper context in mind. Moore's prose is sporadically overblown and purple; the art by Moore's former Miracleman cohorts Stephen Bissette and John Totleben, while evocative and atmospheric, is sketchy and at times bogged-down with "inventive" (read: difficult-to-follow) panel layouts; the "horror" is, to be honest, pretty conventional. But the characters shine through all the rough patches: "Alec," the Thing himself; his lover Abby Cable; Abby's husband Matt (later to be seen as the pet raven of Dream); and perhaps most indelibly, Jason Woodrue, the villainous Floronic Man, who delivers to Alec the truth about his inhumanity, before trying to Take Over the World with only Alec to stop him.

Whatever its flaws and growing pains, without Moore's run on Swamp Thing, modern comics would look very different indeed, and we certainly wouldn't have Vertigo, which is the biggest evolutionary step that mainstream comics has ever taken.

And, finally, did anyone else's copy arrive slightly sticky, as if slicked with chlorophyll? If so, DC, I am declaring this the worst cover gimmick ever.

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

Review: Ex Machina: The First Hundred Days, Vol. 1 Trade Paperback (Wildstorm/DC)

Thursday, June 18, 2009

[This review comes from guest reviewer Erika Peterman of the I Don't Read My Blog Either blog.]

Writer Brian K. Vaughan set the bar high with Y: The Last Man, an epic series set in the aftermath of the sudden, mysterious death of (almost) every male on Earth. While the circumstances in Ex Machina aren’t quite that dire, the story of an unlikely superhero-turned-politician in the post-Sept. 11 era is gripping in its own way.

After a disfiguring explosion, civil engineer Mitchell Hundred emerges with the ability to hear – and command – certain machines. With the aid of a flying contraption he built, Hundred embarks on a brief, bumpy career as “The Great Machine,” a hero that his fellow New Yorkers greet initially with skepticism and flat-out scorn. Hundred’s first meeting with salty Police Commissioner Amy Angotti is comically ill fated, but it also forces him to consider the unintended consequences of his crime-fighting activities. However, one particular act of heroism plays a key role in Hundred’s retirement as The Great Machine and his ascent to an arguably more intimidating job: Mayor of New York City.

The opening pages, which show a dejected Hundred partly in shadow, strongly suggest that his term doesn’t end well: “This is the story of my four years in office, from the beginning of 2002 through Godforsaken 2005,” he says. “It may look like a comic, but it’s really a tragedy.”

Ex Machina is often described as having the feel of a top-notch television drama, and the fast pacing and layers of intrigue are especially satisfying to experience in trade form. In the first few pages alone, Mayor Hundred faces down a would-be assassin and a bold journalist who interrogates him about his origin. As Hundred’s administration handles one crisis after another – a racially incendiary painting at a publicly-funded museum and murderous attacks on city snowplow drivers – there are revealing flashbacks to his childhood and his unconventional journey to the mayor’s office.

Vaughan has surrounded Hundred with a rich supporting cast, including longsuffering Deputy Mayor Dave Wiley, irreverent bodyguard Rick Bradbury, and intern-turned-staffer Journal Moore. But Hundred’s most emotionally loaded relationship may be with his longtime friend Kremlin, an old-school radical who pressures him to suit up again as The Great Machine. Kremlin has known Hundred since he was a boy, and there’s a sense that Hundred’s status as a politician – the ultimate insider – has come between them.

Such a complex story must have been a challenge to illustrate, but Tony Harris’ pencils expertly capture the sweep of the city and the authentic facial expressions of a diverse set of characters.

There’s a saying that people who enjoy sausage and politics should never see how either are made. In the case of Ex Machina, however, the down-and-dirty nature of politics – with a helping of superpowers – makes for a highly recommended comic series.

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

DC September 2009 Solitications: Wonder Woman in simultaneous HC, TPB release

Monday, June 15, 2009

Wonder Woman: Rise of the Olympian, to be released in hardcover and trade paperback on the same day!

Wow. I mean, wow. Wowser-wow-wow-wow. Wow.

Hate to interrupt Guest Review Month, but I couldn't let this one go by. For all the discussing, all the back and forth we've had on the Collected Editions blog about hardcovers versus trade paperbacks, how some people have collected paperbacks all along and that's what they like, while others find the hardcovers sturdier, how hardcovers may have better production values but they slow the release of the paperback, how if you want to stay current many feel they're roped in to paying more for a hardcover ...

Could those days be over?

I won't jump right now to how this could radically change trade paperback comic book collecting as we know it (but it could!). DC Comics is not doing this with every collection release, at least not as far as September 2009 is concerned. This could just as much be a fluke of the scheduling as a marketing attempt to get more people reading Wonder Woman. There could be a lot of reasons. But this really, really bears watching.

In the same vein, thumbs down to DC for switching Green Lantern Corps over to hardcovers with Emerald Eclipse. Yeah, I know it's all part of the big run-up to Blackest Night, but I dislike that this series that started in paperback now switches format (and expense). Wish they'd taken the cue from Wonder Woman and released both formats simultaneously; I tell you, what Blackest Night has to live up to gets greater all the time.

So which Wonder Woman collection format will you buy? What else caught your eye?

More guest reviews coming this week. And next month, the Collected Editions blog returns to regular programming as we head toward our review of Final Crisis. Don't miss it!

Review: Batman: The Man Who Laughs hardcover/trade paperback (DC Comics)

[This review comes from Adam J. Noble, a public librarian living in Eastern Canada. At Noble Stabbings!!, he is blogging his attempt to read all of the comic series Cerebus in 2009.]

This edition has, like Batman and The Joker themselves, a really weird and convoluted back-story. Here goes. Batman: The Man Who Laughs was originally a 2005 prestige one-shot by Ed Brubaker and Doug Mahnke (The Mask, Major Bummer) that told the story of The Joker's first caper, a direct sequel to the penultimate page of Batman: Year One, a.k.a. the best comic ever in history. The Man Who Laughs went out-of-print, and Brubaker's name gradually became more and more of a selling point.

Early last year, DC republished the book as a hardcover, and found some Brubaker-penned filler bound The Man Who Laughs together with three issues of Detective Comics in which Batman teams up with Alan "Green Lantern, no not that one" Scott, who is significant to the Bat-mythos in that he was the first superhero (in current DCU chronology, at least) to operate out of Gotham, and if you go by Hush, then Scott served as a major inspiration to young Bruce Wayne's initial idea to become a crimefighter.

Now, in 2009, The Man Who Laughs comes to us in softcover once again, still including the GL-team-up. And here's the thing: I bought this knowing that the titular story isn't very good. Brubaker is a great writer whom I've admired for more than a decade -- Criminal, Scene of the Crime, the under-read The Fall, Daredevil, Gotham Central (-- and Catwoman! -- ed.) are all masterworks of the crime comic form. Some of those books may feature superheroes, but nevertheless ... Brubaker is not a great superhero writer.

He doesn't know how to just let superheroes be ridiculous/stupid/fun, which I think is one of the criteria for the title of "great superhero writer." And if you are writing a Batman comic that attempts to fill in the gaps between Year One, The Killing Joke and Matt Wagner's twin Hugo Strange mini-series Mad Monk and Monster Men, you are one-hundred-percent obligated to provide another masterpiece, or just don't bother. This is not that thing, particularly in hindsight, now that a certain billon-grossing movie has given us (arguably) the definitive Joker, and at least the definitive Batman-fights-The-Joker-for-the-first-time story.

Doug Mahnke does a great job here, but the wild energy of his MAD Magazine-meets-George Perez style isn't right for Brubaker's psychological, low-key writing (a year later, Mahnke would be matched with his perfect writer on Grant Morrison's Seven Soldiers of Victory: Frankenstein!, a book which is made of such unadulterated "win" I'm astonished it still isn't an ongoing). (Seconded! -- ed. again)

The Man Who Laughs' plot itself is just a re-hash of Batman '89 and Batman #1 with Joker seizing the airwaves to terrify Gothamites and assassinate prominent fat rich guys. But! I shelled out for the softcover, ultimately, because, primed by the silly and wonderful Batman: The Brave and The Bold, I wanted to see Batman on a really dopey team-up with Alan Scott, an 80-year-old media baron who wields the world's most powerful weapon, whose existence makes no sense in a Post-Crisis DCU, and whose only weakness is wood. (If Alan Scott didn't already exist, Jeff Parker would have had to invent him.)

But I should have known better: Brubaker is far too left-brained a writer to really have fun with this team-up. Something like a goofier, super-powered version of the "Beware the Grey Ghost" episode of Batman: The Animated Series should ensue, with Batman discovering that not only is one of his inspirations fallible, but, really, if GL had decided to remain in Gotham instead of joining the Justice Society and moving to New York, really could allow Bruce to take a weekend off now and then (maybe even the occasional Spring Break!).

Instead, we get a story of supervillain revenge that could have featured just about any other superhero. Brubaker manages to script a touching moment between the two heroes in the Batcave at the end of the final chapter, but it doesn't really feel earned. It feels like the end of a more interesting story, where Batman got to work out some super-abandonment issues with Alan Scott as a surrogate dad like those wire monkeys from the experiments, only powered by alien ore.

Anyway -- Tim Sale provides the original covers for the Green Lantern story, so those are at least unique and striking. I also have to wonder why DC didn't take the opportunity to cash in on the popularity of Brubaker's Criminal and Marvel's superhero Noir line and re-package Brubaker and Sean Philips' similarly out-of-print Gotham Noir one-shot here. But regardless, the book we have fails to live up to any of the potential the characters or creators should have brought to the table.

However, if you're anything like me, you will buy this trade anyway, because it is, after all, a sequel to Year One, after all, and you'll stick it on your shelf next to The Long Halloween. I guess the joke's on us.

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

Review: Supermarket graphic novel (IDW Publishing)

Thursday, June 11, 2009

[This review comes from guest reviewer Angela Paman (@acomicbookgirl) of the 2 People Talking podcast.]

Brian Wood is one of those writers that I will buy whatever he writes in trade. He got me with DMZ. Since I couldn't exactly buy all of the issues, I decided to just buy it in trade. I made a pact with myself that I'll only buy his work in trade; makes collecting a little bit easier.

In between catching up with reading Scott Pilgrim and the gap for the latest volume to be released, I stumbled upon a comic in an issue of Previews titled Supermarket. Supermarket had similar art, and low and behold I saw the writer was none other than Brian Wood. I ordered it and a few months later it was in my hands.

Supermarket starts off with Pella talking about her typical day living in Woodland Hills, where everyone pays no matter what the charge. Pella works in a convenience store, not out of convenience, but because she likes sales and making her own money. When her parents are murdered, Pella learns of their past lives as members of the Yakuza gang and the Swedish adult entertainment industry. Pella must run for her life, learning along the way that Woodland Hills isn't as nice as she thought..

While the cover of the book by Kristian Donaldson reminded me of Scott Pilgrim, the darker art suits the story better. I especially liked the varied color palette that changed throughout the story.

Brian Wood is very versatile in his storytelling. Whether politics in DMZ or a girl finding her identity in Local, Wood brings it all together in Supermarket.

This trade is published through IDW and includes an art gallery of the original covers of the issues by Kristian Donaldson, as well as a pin up gallery that includes artwork by Evan Bryce, Jim Mahfood, Nick Derington, and Mike Huddleston.

Please check it out if you are fan of Brian Wood or Kristian Donaldson's work.

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

Review: The Death of Captain America: The Man Who Bought America hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

[This guest review comes from Scott Cederlund of Pop Syndicate and The Secret of Wednesday's Haul]

In Daredevil: Born Again, Frank Miller wrote one of the most succinct and concise descriptions of Captain America:

"A soldier with a voice that could command a god ... and does."

A soldier that can and does command a god. The Captain America that Miller described was Steve Rogers and he's dead. Bucky Barnes now has the shield and wears the familiar stars and stripes but, as we saw in The Death of Captain America Volume 2, when he needed to inspire the American people and rally them in times of political and financial trouble, he wasn't able to. He failed where Steve Rogers most likely would have succeeded. Fighting the Red Skull's terrorists and soldiers, Bucky had all the moves and fighting skills but when it came to getting the people behind him as Captain America, he failed. He was learning how to be Captain America but he still had a long way to go.

In the third and final volume of the trilogy, The Death of Captain America: The Man Who Bought America, Bucky Barnes has two loose ends after the murder of Steve Rogers. Sharon Carter, Steve Rogers' lover, is still under the Red Skulls' control and the Skull is still poised to attack America on a financial, political and terrorist level. And then there's the little issue of someone else running around in a Captain America costume, saving Presidential candidates getting the American public excited about the return of a hero. And what can it mean when the second Captain America endorses a candidate who's a pawn of the Red Skull?

While this story is called "The Death of Captain America," maybe calling it "The Birth of a new Captain America" would have been much more appropriate. Over the course of three books (and more if you count the entire Brubaker/Epting run on Captain America,) Bucky Barnes is learning how to live up to the dreams and aspirations of Steve Rogers. By this book, he's finally figured out that they way to do that is instinctively to fight for what is important. Ever since Steve Rogers was shot down, Bucky has thought through and questioned every act. He's spent a lot of time inside of his own head, asking himself "what would Steve do?" Trying to be Steve Rogers and Captain America got in Bucky's way. There's still that questioning and probing in this final book but when it comes time to act, Bucky fights like he always has, even like he did when he was the kid charging into battle with Captain America -- act first and think later. Actions are what makes the hero and Bucky has finally learned and accepted that by this last book.

It's an oversimplification to say that Brubaker and artist Steve Epting have created a Captain America for the twenty-first century but that's exactly what they've done. For the past eight years, Captain America has tried to be relevant and topical and failed. All you need to look at is the Marvel Knights relaunch post-September 11th that tried to address the attacks on America and the heroes reactions to them. The character floundered around after that, trying to comment on current society while getting sucked into typical superhero shenanigans with Avengers Disassembled. Let's be honest for a moment; it's been a long time since the character really mattered. And that's a harsh statement for someone who may be the top American icon behind Uncle Sam and maybe even Superman.

Somehow with this new Captain America, Brubaker and Epting have finally made him a reflection of society without being jingoistic or patronizing. Brubaker's Captain America isn't the relic from the 1940s that Steve Rogers could easily become even though Bucky also is a relic from the 1940s. Steve Rogers was just too much "your father's Captain America," a soldier and an American cut out of an old and outdated cloth. Considering that he was revamped in the early 1960s and still espoused a very 50s/60s viewpoint of America, it was hard to take him seriously after everything that's happened in the last 50 years or even in the last 10 years. Bucky allows a younger view of America and gives the writer a chance to explore and rediscover what makes Captain America a hero and what makes him an American hero.

In all three volumes of The Death of Captain America, Ed Brubaker, Steve Epting and a few other artists redefine Captain America. Spider-Man, Green Lantern and even Superman have all had new or different characters step into the costumes and we know that never lasts. In the back of our minds, we know someday Steve Rogers will be back wearing the blue chain-mail costume and slinging the shield but Brubaker and Epting have been pulling off miracles since they began on Captain America. They killed the Red Skull, brought Bucky back, killed Steve Rogers and now have Bucky stepping into the costume and role of Captain America.

In any lesser creator's hands, none of this would have worked. It would all have felt like cheap stunts to increase sales. Brubaker and Epting have created an instant classic with The Death of Captain America, redefining the character in a time of political, financial and international uncertainty and war. Bucky Barnes may not have the voice to command gods yet but he's on his way to being a hero and an icon. Maybe a new Captain America can be a symbol for a new America.

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

Review: The Death of Captain America: The Burden of Dreams hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, June 08, 2009

[This guest review comes from Scott Cederlund of Pop Syndicate and The Secret of Wednesday's Haul]

What is a hero? That's one of the main questions that writer Ed Brubaker has been asking during his run on Captain America. What characteristics and qualities do you find in your heroes like Captain America, the Falcon or even Iron Man?

Ever since Brubaker revealed that Bucky Barnes was still alive and brainwashed into being the Winter Soldier, we've seen Steve Rogers doing everything he could to rescue and redeem his former sidekick, friend and fellow hero. As Steve Rogers struggled to believe in and help Bucky, we've had to ask if redemption and freedom was possible as we've seen the Winter Soldier be used and kill. The Winter Soldier was more weapon than man and he was a weapon in the wrong hands. Bucky, one of the great deaths in comics, was back but Steve Rogers was the only person who believed he could be saved and we watched as Captain America fought to reach out to his friend, his ally and his brother-in-arms. Now Steve Rogers is dead, killed by the Red Skull and Bucky is out for revenge. Without Steve Rogers around to guide him, can Bucky Barnes truly be a hero again?

In The Death of Captain America Volume 2: The Burden of Dreams, events begin to come more into focus following the killing of a national hero and icon. The book opens with two of the main characters, Sharon Carter and Bucky, captured by the Red Skull, one brainwashed into serving him and the other being tortured and brainwashed. Even as the Red Skull fights to keep control of his ally General Lukin, no one is in complete control of themselves or their actions but it does look like the Skull has the upper hand. But the Red Skull does not have as strong of a hold over everyone as he likes to think and Bucky soon winds up on a SHIELD helicarrier, under the control of Tony Stark.

While it is still part of the same larger story, The Burden of Dreams is a very different book than the The Death of Captain America volume one. Brubaker shakes up his storytelling, abandoning the quick and choppy transitional storytelling of the first volume and spending more time developing his scenes while he concentrates firmly on the growth and development of Bucky, who takes center-stage in this story. The chaos and confusion following the death of Steve Rogers is replaced by planning and action as Tony Stark and Bucky begin filling the void left following Steve Rogers' death. Borrowing a term from another superhero's famous death, what do you do in a world without Captain America?

I don't think it's much of a spoiler at this point to say that by the middle of this book, Bucky Barnes is wearing Captian America's uniform and slinging his shield. Does the fact that he's got the look make him Captain America? Does that make him a hero? Brubaker has shown since the beginning of his run on this title that there's more to the hero than the clothes and the shield. It's the man who's wearing those clothes that's important. Steve Rogers wasn't a hero because he was Captain America. He was Captain America because he was a hero first. That's the man he was, sacrificing himself in his last moments to save one of his guards from the assassins bullet. Brubaker has continually shown that Bucky Barnes was a fighter and that he was loyal but his heroism is still questionable.

Brubaker doesn't give any easy answers to the questions he raises. His story is a fantastic thriller, equal parts Bourne Identity, All The President's Men and old school Marvel. The best Captain America writers like Steve Englehart, Jack Kirby and Roger Stern have used the character to explore heroism and the American way. Brubaker continues the heritage of Captain America, questioning the characters role in the twenty-first century. Setting up the Red Skull as the now head of a large mega-conglomerate corporation, Brubaker shows America being attacked on many levels, from within and without. As well as the obvious and overt actions of Sin, the Skulls' daugther, at causing chaos in Washington DC, the Skull's company begins undermining the fabric of America, striking at Wall Street and Main Street through weak financial institutions. On all fronts, America has been beaten and weakened and is in need of a hero. It's in need of Captain America.

Bucky may have the costume and the mask but he's still not Captain America in The Burden of Dreams. It takes more than a costume to be a hero just as it takes more than a hero to be an icon. In this book, America is under attack and looking for a hero and that may be Bucky Barnes but he still has the same doubts about himself that others have -- can he fill the void left by Steve Rogers? Can he be a hero like Rogers was, fighting for something larger than himself? Of course, Steve Rogers wasn't the national icon overnight, so how can Tony Stark or the Black Widow expect Bucky Barnes to be?

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

Review: Captain America: The Death of Captain America hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Thursday, June 04, 2009

[This guest review comes from Scott Cederlund of Pop Syndicate and The Secret of Wednesday's Haul]

Steve Rogers has been a hero, a soldier and an icon. When he is in the hands of the best writers and artists, he's a man of our times even when he was a man out of time. Since Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting took over the character in 2005, Steve Rogers struggled with the idea of Captain America. In Brubaker and Epting's first issue, they killed the Red Skull and introduced the Winter Agent, a shocking face from Captain America's past. In a move that most comic fans said could not and should not be done, Brubaker and Epting brought back Bucky, Captain America's WWII-era sidekick, long dead and a part of Captain America's legend for over 80 years. It was a bold move by the creative team that surprisingly worked out better than anyone actually thought. So, after bringing Bucky back, what could they do next?

They killed Steve Rogers. Shot him dead on a courthouse steps in front of hundreds of witnesses and broadcast around the world, thanks to the ever present live media coverage.

Captain America: The Death of Captain America literally begins with a bang as Brubaker wastes no time. There's no long, drawn out death scene, no final words or last rights; just a simple bullet in the early pages of the book. Even in the end, Steve Rogers dies a hero, saving the life of one of his guards. After the events of Marvel's Civil War, Rogers was arrested for his rebellion against the Super Hero Registration Act and was ready to meet his fate at the hands of the justice system. Brought to the court house by U.S. Marshalls, he is the only one in large crowd who notices a sniper's rifle in a far off building, trained on one of his own captors. Knocking the officer out of the way, Rogers apparently takes the bullet, saving a life as only he would.

The rest of the book deals with the mourning and grieving of an American hero by those who knew and loved him. Sharon Carter fights to understand her own role in the tragic events. Tony Stark, the "winner" of the Civil War, tries to hold the country together. The Falcon and the Black Widow, two allies of Captain America, fight on, looking for the killers while trying to protect the legacy of Steve Rogers. Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, faces the toughest battle, believing in everything Steve Rogers did even after witnessing his assassination. The Death of Captain America is about the survivors trying to make sense out of actions that should not make any sense at all to them. Sharon Carter and Bucky face the worst in this story. Each, in their own way, have betrayed Steve Rogers and have to come to terms with their failures.

In a brilliant move, Brubaker hides almost nothing from the reader from the moment that bullet is fired. This is not a "whodunnit" type mystery, looking for clues as to who pulled the trigger or why. From the outset, Brubaker lets us know who is behind the murder and how it was done. The motivations are clear and make perfect sense within the story that Brubaker has been working on for the last couple of years. The hows and whys of the act are not what Brubaker is particularly concerned about here. He is concerned with how all of the characters react to it.

Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting killed a hero and an icon. It's a gutsy move to take your main character, a hero of several generations, and completely remove him from the book but this is not some cheap death, designed to boost sales and ultimately be forgettable. Brubaker and Epting have a story to tell about the loss of an icon. Steve Rogers may be dead but the dreams of Captain America still live on in his friends and allies.

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]

Review: Marvel Boy hardcover/trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, June 01, 2009

[This review comes from Adam J. Noble, a public librarian living in Eastern Canada. At Noble Stabbings!!, he is blogging his attempt to read all of the comic series Cerebus in 2009.]

There's always the question of what to listen to while you're reading. Grant Morrison probably would have picked something with more synth in it ("The Fall" is always a safe soundtrack for good superhero comics) but I went with Propagandhi's "Less Talk, More Rock" while re-reading the new hardcover collection of the 2000 Marvel Knights mini-series Marvel Boy, and it seemed to work OK -- both works are loud, dynamic, singular and explicitly in love with anarchy and hostile to corporations.

Until very recently when Marvel Boy (a.k.a. the Kree soldier Noh-Varr) joined the cast of something called Dark Avengers, debate raged as to whether this was the "secret first Ultimate Marvel book" which Joe Quesada had spoken obliquely of. Well, it's pretty clear now that it is in Marvel continuity proper (Earth-616) for better or worse, but the book definitely carries the smell of Ultimate Marvel and that imprint's mandate of "bringing Marvel Comics into the twenty-first century."

To me, the operative question is not "what universe is this book taking place in?" but rather "How does Marvel Boy figure into the oeuvre of Grant Morrison?"

On close examination, you can see Grant Morrison taking the opposite tack at Marvel than what he does with DC's stable of superheroes. At DC, everything he writes is connected, and Morrison is the first writer to use the notion of comic book continuity to its fullest literary potential. Animal Man connects to JLA connects to Batman connects to Seven Soldiers connects to All-Star Superman connects to DC One Million, and so on, enriching and enlivening the work. Of his three major works at Marvel, each has been self-contained to the point of barely needing to exist in a "comic book universe." The X-Men living in their own corner of the world is nothing new, but in four years' worth of New X-Men, Morrison never acknowledged the wider Marvel Universe. Fantastic Four 1234 was the same old FF story told on a broader scale and barely mentions any other superheroes. The same goes in Marvel Boy, except . . . not.

We never see the other superheroes, but their presence is felt. The villain, Midas, wears one of Iron Man's old suits, and is obsessed with giving himself the powers of the Fantastic Four. Marvel Boy is attacked by bastardized versions of Captain America called "Bannermen." Dum Dum Dugan and S.H.I.E.L.D. are present and accounted for. What's most important here is the sense of Marvel -- its ghost. As a logo, as a brand. Angry, alienated, rebellious ... Noh-Varr is almost the distillation of all the Marvel heroes, of Marvel as a brand\u2026 and so quite appropriately, Noh-Varr does battle with a living corporate identity at one point in the comic. (If not for thorny legal complications, I'm sure Morrison would have preferred to call this book Marvel Man.)

In both pacing, art style, coloring and dialogue cadence, Marvel Boy owes a lot to the then-recent Warren Ellis runs on The Authority and Planetary. And while J.G. Jones may be just a little less polished and fluid than Bryan Hitch and John Cassaday, his page layouts are more inventive, which serves to draw you back in for multiple reads. (However, Jones' at-times-stiff facial detailing recalls Bryan Talbot, who would is the last person you want drawing a Grant Morrison superhero comic.)

Noh-Varr is a punk superhero. He blows up an evil corporation with a cosmic bullet, carves obscenities into blocks of NYC and has his girlfriend blow up Epcot Center. Also, his best friend is his spaceship's living computer. (Is that punk? Sure! Why not!)

Superhero comics run on nostalgia and the veneration of decade-old concepts, so it's not surprising that something like Marvel Boy, which flies in the face of the familiar, takes some getting used to. But once you realize the hopefulness that's present in Noh-Varr's parting promise to turn Earth into the capital of the new Kree Empire, and also realize that Morrison will probably never complete this saga, it makes you love this unlikely volume all the more. Thanks, Marvel, for re-issuing this book as a hardcover, in an attempt to cash in on Final Crisis like the corporate shills you are.

[If you'd like to write a guest review for Collected Editions, email the address listed on the sidebar. You can also see our full Collected Editions review index.]