Guest Review Month 2010 prize drawing and thanks

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

A gigantic Collected Editions blog thank you to our 2010 guest month reviewers: Azn Badger, Andrew Belcastro, Paul Hicks, Aalok Joshi, Zach King, Damien Lockrow, Chris Marshall, Adam Noble, Kevin Pasquino, Tom Speelman, Tim, and Todd Wagener.

Due to the overwhelmingly wonderful response we received to the call for guest reviewers, some of these reviews you saw this past month, and some will be coming at you over the next few weeks and early next year. Great job everyone, and much thanks.

You can read a wide variety of Collected Editions guest reviews by following the "guest review" post tag.

As I mentioned in the Guest Review Month 2010 introductory post, this year's special event was sponsored by Simon & Schuster's new Pulp History series of illustrated books. Devil Dog and Shadow Knights are both in stores now, and as a thank you to the guest reviewers, Simon & Schuster is sending copies of each book to one lucky reviewer, drawn at random.

And the winner is .... (drumroll, please) ... Andrew Belcastro! Congratulations Andrew -- your books will be on their way.

Thanks again to all our guest reviewers. Coming up on Thursday, a first for Collected Editions as part of our fifth year celebration. Don't miss it!

Review: Batman: Strange Apparitions trade paperback (DC Comics)

Monday, November 29, 2010

[This guest review comes from Zach King, who blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

The best thing that I can say about Batman: Strange Apparitions is that it's iconic in many senses of the word. The worst thing I can say for it is that the whole is greater than the sum of its collected parts.

I'm more than a little surprised that DC has allowed the Steve Englehart/Marshall Rogers run of Detective Comics to fade into the mists like the ghost of Hugo Strange which haunts the pages of Strange Apparitions. There's a sequel of sorts, Dark Detective, still in print, but it's nowhere near as entertaining or significant (or even critically lauded) as the original yet out-of-print Englehart/Rogers collaboration. (The two most prominent chapters -- "The Laughing Fish" and "Sign of the Joker" -- are more readily available, in Joker: The Greatest Stories Ever Told, among others.)

If you asked one hundred Bat-fans to list the creators who most "understood" Batman in their work, a great number would mention Englehart and Rogers; they probably wouldn't lead the pack due to more high-profile work by Frank Miller, Jeph Loeb, and Grant Morrison, but Englehart and Rogers recontextualized Batman for a new generation of readers. Eschewing the kitschy 1950s and the campy '60s styles, the 1977-78 run reintroduces Batman as a detective first, with a sharp intellect and an irresistible allure that women can't resist (unfortunately for Bat-purists, his romantic scenes have nary a Neal-Adams-hairy-love-god-chest in sight). Englehart and Rogers have practically been canonized by comics fans for "saving" Batman from what he had become.

I think, though, it's time to reevaluate the position of Strange Apparitions in the Bat-library. No, I'm not out to try to pin it down continuity-wise; that's a feat I'll leave to the readers, if they so desire (but I think it's "in" since Hugo Strange's unmasking of Batman got a reference in Arkham Reborn). As a movement, the Englehart/Rogers dynamic duo is undeniably important, with a moody overtone and genius-level detective at the forefront; as a collection, Strange Apparitions reads as incredibly uneven, with formulaic plots punctuated by moments of high characterization and inventive storytelling. It's almost as though the collection were written by two different people -- oh, wait, it was.

Bafflingly, Strange Apparitions is marketed on the backs of Englehart and Rogers, yet they're only together for six of the eleven issues collected; we also get two issues written by Len Wein (with Rogers illustrating) and three issues illustrated by Walt Simonson (with Englehart writing). Structurally, this is a little jarring. The Englehart/Simonson issues are essential to the narrative, but Simonson's pencils and paneling lack the polish that Rogers would bring; conversely, Wein's Clayface issues have nothing to do with the overarching storyline (except for ephemeral references to Silver St. Cloud) and seem like a less successful version of Alan Moore's work with the same character, but Rogers's work is fine and pristine.

The highlight of the collection, of course, is the six-issue run of Detective Comics that paired Englehart with Rogers. Long-time Bat-fans unfamiliar with Strange Apparitions will be surprised how much of it feels familiar, since it's been appropriated by other Batman titles left and right; Hugo Strange's unmasking and subsequent auctioning of Batman's identity, the presence of Rupert Thorne as Gotham's resident crime boss, and the infamous "laughing fish" Joker caper were all translated (sometimes verbatim) into the fantastic Batman: The Animated Series, and the "laughing fish" stories have been collected every time the Joker's name is invoked.

These are the greatest moments in the collection; these stories read quickly and delectably, with Englehart's breakneck pacing challenged only by the absolutely gorgeous artwork by Rogers that demands you linger over the panels even as the narrative demands you move forward.

But I came to Strange Apparitions expecting eleven issues of legendary greatness, and I just didn't get it. Aside from the issues that pair Englehart and Rogers with other creators, there are two other issues that just don't feel right. In separate issues featuring the Penguin and Deadshot, Englehart and Rogers both feel like they're phoning it in; the stories are more Batman '66 than Batman '89 with an emphasis on elaborate schemes and stagey fight scenes atop gigantic typewriters. These stories are so hit-and-miss that it's difficult to believe that it's the same team throughout the middle of the collection.

The only strength of these two issues is that Englehart seems to know that the main plotline is ultimately a one-and-done, so he sprinkles in tantalizing clues toward the larger story arc at work; the ghost of Hugo Strange stalks his murderer, and the Joker lurks ominously in the shadows, laughing maniacally but ultimately unseen.

Perhaps it is precisely these moments that make the better issues in the collection a success. The Joker's appearance in "The Laughing Fish" has been teased throughout Englehart's preceding seven issues, such that his grand appearance in the copyright commissioner's office can't help but feel epic (and the iconic full-length panel filed with "HAHAHAs" doesn't hurt, either).

The collection itself is bookended by a kind of filler, but the meat of the collection is itself bookended -- this time by the two best and brightest Englehart/Rogers stories (featuring Hugo Strange and the Joker). For these two stories alone, Strange Apparitions is worth the price of admission, because when the book is closed that's what the reader takes away: the high caliber of artistry displayed in those four chapters.

That's why I say that Strange Apparitions is not a perfect collection -- because there are only a few stories in it that are as delightful as advertised. But despite a few low-quality chapters, for a few shining moments Strange Apparitions touches that Platonic ideal of what a Batman comic book should be.

[Does not contain full covers, disappointingly. Printed on non-glossy paper. For these two reasons alone, Strange Apparitions deserves a new printing.]

Review: Adventures of Superboy Vol. 1 hardcover (DC Comics)

Thursday, November 25, 2010

[This guest review comes from Todd Wagener of Brown Bag Comics]

The Adventures of Superboy hardcover collection from DC came out recently and I was thrilled! I had only read a few of these stories due to the fact that DC has not reprinted them before now, and was really feeling quite antsy to get them. Superboy was a mainstay favorite of mine, due in no small part to the fact his adventures were more fun and bound by the mind of a child, and not by the grown-up standards placed on him as an adult in Superman. Also, Superboy helped found my favorite team ever, the Legion of Super-Heroes!

That said, this book should have been one of my most valued collections, but it fell short. DC has decided that the hardcovers of classic Golden Age and Silver Age material should be printed on newsprint instead of a nicer, glossier or slicker paper. I know that these are not DC Archives, which are quite wonderful on their own, but when you reprint material that is available only in books from the 1940s and has not been seen in a modern reprint collection, you have a duty to make the presentation as nice as possible.

After all, DC is charging $39.99 for this book, and for only $10 more, it could have been an Archive instead. I, for one, would have been happy to purchase it as a DC Archive for $50, but that wasn't to be. Heck, if you were going to put it on low quality paper, why didn't DC print it as a DC Showcase like it was initially going to be? You must give the consumer quality if you are going to charge a quality price.

Now for the other drawback to this book: the binding is so tight that actual panels are obfuscated beyond readability! Knowing that Golden Age pages were larger than Silver Age or certainly Modern Age pages, DC should have decided to shrink the images slightly to avoid putting panels within .75 of an inch of the binding. As it is, most of the time you read Adventures of Superboy, you have to break the spine to read the words of important dialogue. In fact, it seems the writers of Superboy at the time had an edict that the third panel on a page was the primary dialogue/exposition panel and thus, all important data is in that panel.

I normally read my books and enjoy them, but I treat them like the library books I borrowed from the library when I was a kid and was told to treat them gently since they were not mine! So now as I have been purchasing these hardcovers, it really hurts me to break the binding or even push it to the limit just to read the story. I value my hardcovers just like I value my individual comics as more than just reading material, but rather as collectibles that others will want to buy or trade for. And who wants to buy books that aren't neat and have the spine looking like someone who got forty lashes!

The stories are dated but fun, and I liked the fact that they are presented in order from the first appearance in More Fun Comics #101 up until the change in title to Adventure Comics - all from the Golden Age. These are not the more science-fiction-y, young Superman versus young Lex Luthor-type Superboy stories that most readers are familiar with from the Silver Age. In these, the writers make a specific point of how a young Clark Kent showed morals and good upbringing to a generation of readers long before Fredric Wertham published Seduction of the Innocent! The style of these stories was always to entertain first, and provide moral/ethical leadership second. Personally, I enjoyed seeing Superboy play along to help a man pose as Santa Claus to give unfortunate children gifts -- it's a classic, timeless concept that many artists and writers have re-used over the past sixty-plus years.

In 2010, these kinds of stories might even seem naive, but in 1945 the goal was to teach children to be civil and not to judge people based on race, creed, or financial circumstances. In the story "Happy Birthday," for instance, Clark is going to a schoolmate's birthday party that has apparently been ruined because her father has been questioned for a crime and exonerated -- but this causes none of her schoolmates to come to the party except for Clark. Superboy decides to make this right by seeking out the inspector in charge of the case and taking him back to the classmate's houses to tell them that the girl's father was questioned by mistake and the real robber was already apprehended. All of the mothers call one another to make sure that the classmates go to the party. To top it off, the day is also Clark's unofficial birthday. Sweetly amusing, that is why this book is such a gem: it shows the distinct difference in society's innocence between 1945 to today.

Also, you won't find any villains or even characters that populated the Silver Age Superboy, with the notable exception of a very young Perry White. Perry makes an appearance in "Perry White, Cub Reporter" (originally from Adventure Comics #120). You see the future-editor of the Daily Planet get his job at the Daily Planet and how a young Clark Kent helped him do so, even though the story never actually became part of DC continuity (though it is echoed in the current Smallville mythos -- ed). Even more notable is that, though Perry is recognizable, this early Superboy's parents in this series aren't the Ma and Pa Kent we're so used to.

I can't really say I had favorite stories here, but it is a favorite era of mine. The 1930s and 1940s were a better time to be an American and to be a kid. This is a time when kids played on the river on homemade rafts and people having to go to the sheriff instead of phoning him. It's the time when doctors made housecalls and might even have performed surgery on the kitchen table, as shown in "Weather, Hurricane!" from Adventure Comics #106. There's stories here of kids making toys to sell for money for an operation in "Toytown, U.S.A." from Adventure Comics #104 and a story about careless driving in "Super Safety First" from Adventure Comics #112. That story uses the headline "Careless Driving Kills And Maims More Than War," which is interesting since it was published in 1947!

As for the issues included in this volume, they include all of the Superboy stories from More Fun Comics #101-107 and Adventure Comics #103-121. This covers almost three years of stories from DC's archives. And the work of such writers as Jerry Siegel, Bill Finger and Don Cameron along with the art of Joe Shuster, John Sikela, George Roussos and J. Winslow Mortimer bring to life this wonderful time. But the cover by Michael Cho, while evoking the time, does not really help "sell" the collection to newer readers. At a time when groundbreaking covers by Alex Ross are being done for other collections, DC used a light-hued cover of Superboy carrying a wagon with a boy, a girl and a dog in it. The color palette is a little weak, and will look washed out on the book shelf alongside your copies of the current Blackest Night collection or Absolute Crisis on Infinite Earths volume.

Nonetheless, this is a book made for fans to love and admire the early work of the World's Greatest Hero. Event comics, in my opinion, are short-term excitement, but good writing is a long-term prize. The Adventures Of Superboy is that long-term prize to be read, enjoyed and re-read again for years to come.

Review: Savage She-Hulk trade paperback (Marvel Comics)

Monday, November 22, 2010

[This guest review comes from Adam Noble]

Marvel has been putting on a good show lately of branding themselves as the lady-friendlier of the Big Two Superhero Companies, with its recent releases spotlighting female characters (the Rescue, Namora, Sif, etc. one-shots, the awkwardly named mini-series Her-oes), female independent comics creators (Girl Comics) and the upcoming Women of Marvel Omnibus. Nearly all solid efforts, some of which I've really enjoyed (Kelly Sue DeConnick is poised to become a recognized A-List writer with her upcoming run on the upcoming supervillain prison comic Osborn, and it's a conferral that's long overdue).

However, I have to confess there's a serious lack of female characters at Marvel that I'm all that interested in reading about regularly. There's lots of brooding ladies (this is Marvel, after all), eternally patient mother-sidekicks (looking at you, Sue), women who seem to bring about the apocalypse on a semi-regular basis (I wouldn't get too attached to Hope or her Generation, everybody). There's a lack of fun, funny, fully-realized distaff characters at either DC or Marvel these days. I mean, U-Go Girl's still dead, Kitty Pryde's a mute ghost and Jessica Jones has been doing the Jodie Foster "Stay away from my child" thing for the past couple of years, right?

The very reason that Jessica "The Sensational She-Hulk and Attorney-at-Law" Walters made for such a great character and ongoing title when written in the 1980s by John Byrne and again in the 2000s by Dan Slott was that both writers realized that the character's very essence has comedy gold built into it ("She's like the Incredible, Rampaging Hulk... but more ladylike!"). Slott and Byrne (and Jen) broke the third wall and made for great meta-commentary on the silliness of superhero comics. Basically, she's the only Marvel character I can see fitting in seamlessly with the Giffen/DeMatteis-era Justice League. That should tell you everything you need to know right there.

But that was then, back when mainstream in-universe superhero comics were permitted to be at all silly. Now I'm a pretty huge Fred Van Lente fan -- anybody who can write a cartoon primer to almost all philosophical thought ever (Action Philosophers) as well as a great all-ages Wolverine/Kitty Pryde team-up book (Wolverine: First Class) is aces. So it was pretty exciting news when his She-Hulk miniseries was announced initially -- it sounded like a great pairing of character and writer. Surely Van Lente could make liberal use of Walters' sense of humour and intelligence and bring us another all-time great She-Hulk story?

Except... this wasn't Jen Walters? It was apparently some alternate future daughter of the Hulk and... Thundra? I guess? My knowledge of the Hulk and his foes are pretty much limited to the ones who've appeared in the movies, or who have been mentioned in other Marvel Universe titles, so I had no idea what Thundra's deal was.

So what of the trade itself? The All-New Savage She-Hulk (TANSSH?) is written by Van Lente with art by four or five boilerplate superhero artists who draw with stiff anatomy and bland faces. Van Lente pulls off a few clever flourishes, including having TANSSH, or Lyra, travel back in time to modern-day Marvel NYC armed with a feminist-lingo-spouting reprogrammed Tamagotchi as her sidekick on a quest for the DNA (ahem) of the world's greatest "hero" Norman Osborn (then masquerading as good guy Iron Patriot during the utterly uninteresting status-quossover Dark Reign).

Lyra's grim quest to overcome the edicts of a bleak alternate world is given a shot of lightness, mercifully, when Jennifer Walters shows up and helps convince her that Osborn's team of Dark Avengers are Not Okay Dudes and Lyra totally should not have carnal knowledge of the ex-Green Goblin. Despite the fact that Lyra was created by typically fun-loving and inventive writer Jeff Parker, Lyra is basically Green Lady Cable, so it's nice that Jen is able to inject bring make with some jokes. Despite the revelation that Lyra actually loses her strength when she gets mad, the concept isn't explored to its full ironic potential. The extent to which this superpower demonstrates itself is limited to Lyra using words like "supple" and "flow" and the phrase "bend like a reed" while deploying Zen Future Kung-Fu against the Dark Avengers.

There's a back-up story featuring the second appearance of Lyra written by Paul Tobin, but it's odd that her aforementioned first appearance by Jeff Parker (Hulk: Raging Thunder) isn't included here, especially since it's heavily referenced in the roundtable discussion between Parker, Tobin and Van Lente.

The following year I was once again optimistic when Marvel published a sequel mini-series written by Parker and illustrated by Salva Espin (Wolverine: First Class, Exiles), one of the best superhero artists working today. Alas, the trade paperback's title is at least as convoluted as the plot: Hulk: Fall of the Hulks: The Savage She-Hulks. The first half of the TPB re-prints the Van Lente-written backups featuring Lyra working for an interdimensional patrol agency fighting leftover villains from Seven Soldiers of Victory (seriously!) and low-powered female versions of Hulk enemies. It is not very distinctive or good, and leads directly, albeit awkwardly, into the "Fall of the Hulks" crossover.

If you've been reading this crossover this book might make sense to you, but as I said, I am not a huge Hulk fan, particularly when the title is being masterminded by a latter-day Jeph Loeb. So I enjoyed looking at Espin's art here (until it disappeared during a She-Hulk fight with an army of Red Hulks to replaced by a bad manga imitation style). The story itself is utter confusing nonsense – something about a Red She-Hulk, who according to Wikipedia, is [spoiler redacted -- ed.] Is there any Hulk supporting character who isn't themselves a monster at this point? And if I'm right and that's the case, doesn't that defeat the original point of the Hulk's outsider status? But I digress.

There's a token attempt throughout H:FOFH:TSSH by Parker to tie up Lyra's conflicted relationship with her mother, but it's a subplot that belongs in a better/less crossover-ridden book.

From what I can tell, the Hulk line of comics seem to be in a bit of chaos despite this crossover. In addition to Incredible [green] Hulks (yes, plural) and [singular, red] Hulk there's an ongoing She-Hulks title debuting in November written not by any of the writers mentioned above, but Harrison Wilcox, a newcomer to comics, but a veteran writer of TV's Heroes.

The teaming of Lyra and Jen Walters still has terrific potential and if the pair can manage to steer clear of crossovers and if Wilcox can make the odd-couple/surrogate-mother dynamic work we might see Savage She-Hulk Lyra become a breath of fresh air in the Marvel Universe and some newfound adult responsibility for Sensational She-Hulk Jen Walters. My advice for fairweather She-Hulk fans like myself? Wait and see how the reviews for the new ongoing turn out, then maybe go back and pick up these trades to fill you in on who exactly the redheaded She-Hulk from beyond the future is.

Otherwise, hang tight for the new John Byrne run reprints coming in early 2011. Now that's some girl power.

Uncollected Editions #1 - The Atlantis Chronicles

Thursday, November 18, 2010

[The first in a new series of posts called "Uncollected Editions" by Paul "Hix" Hicks]

Welcome to "Uncollected Editions," the first of what I hope will be an infinite series (at least six or so) where I highlight the gold that has never made the leap from staples to spine. I might even highlight some of the more tarnished stuff too, as even ordinary stories can be significant.

Exactly twenty years ago there was a mini-series (or was it a semi-maxi-series?) called The Atlantis Chronicles. There were seven issues, all running around forty-four pages, very few ads on quality paper-stock. It was written by Peter David and featured the sublime work of a single artist, Spain’s Esteban Maroto.

This comic stood apart from almost all of DC’s output at the time and since, in that it was a multi-generational fantasy epic. The only comics I can think of that are remotely similar are Age of Bronze and Camelot 3000. The premise for the book is it is an adaptation of the archeologically recovered manuscripts written by the various royally appointed chroniclers of Atlantis. This book follows seven generations of Atlanteans and covers thousands of years.

The story begins with Atlanteans living on the surface, packing lasers while the rest of the planet has spears. Their superior technology is a major impetus for the series of tragedies to come, as the king, Orin want to share the benefits of their knowledge and resources. His blond-haired brother Shalako, an isolationist, has major issues with rational, technological ways and believes in the power of the gods. The book shows us, without a doubt, that the power of the gods is very real and this sets up one of the themes of the book -– faith versus science.

Orin is a very modern character with a single wife in contrast to Shalako and his harem. Both brothers are arrogant and their conflict starts from Orin’s contempt for religion and Shalako’s conviction that science offends his gods. A skull-shaped speck in the heavens is the first hint of impending doom for the peoples of Atlantis. The reader is left wondering if the rapidly growing meteor is coming because Orin has offended the gods, or because Shalako is demanding their punishment of the secular king. Shalako’s fanaticism leads to him taking the next big step and reaching out to the dark gods for assistance.

Trouble with the locals leads to Orin commissioning a protective dome over the main city of Atlantis -– Poseidonis. Shalako’s subsequent interference in a peace negotiation with the neighbouring tribes leads to the death of Orin’s most trusted advisor and to Orin's harsh retaliation against the natives. Here’s the big theme emerging -– brother against brother. While possibly highly offensive to the sky gods, this dome is to keep out the hostile tribes, but it also serves as Poeidonis’ salvation when the meteor hits the ocean and sinks the known world. I don’t want to keep telling you the plot, but I am especially impressed with the bleak picture Peter David paints of what it must be like to go from living in the sunshine, to suddenly being trapped in a dome at the bottom of the ocean surrounded by decimation.

There is a rotation of narrators as the Chroniclers live and die, and this provides contrasting voices to the narrative. The first Chronicler is a staunch supporter of the fanatical Shalako, the second is a wannabe poet, third is a young woman obsessed with the gossip of the court, and so on. Some are unreliable, some are biased and some are salacious.

In a wonderfully organic way, Peter David shows the development of Atlantis and the adaptation (some technological and some magical) required of the survivors
Along the way many of the frequently asked questions about Atlantis in the DC Universe get some natural answers:

* How did they come to breath underwater?
* What about the mermaid-type Atlanteans?
* How does this all fit in with DC’s earlier Arion stories of Atlantis?
* What about the Idyllists (Aqualad’s people)?
* Where does telepathic communication with sea-life come from?
* Why is it bad to have blond hair?

The book isn’t a dry (heh) and clinical work, however; it’s packed full of human foibles and epic drama; there’s nudity, rape, violence, murder, betrayal, redemption all on show, but never gratuitous. It’s like AMC meets Shakespeare.

Maroto just rocks on the art, as his characters are all easily recognisable, even as they grow from children to old men and women. His strength in making the character’s faces "act" sells every bit of drama that David is going for. His architecture, fashion, interiors and sea-life are all wonderfully done, making the book a fantasy that you can believe in.

The book takes era-sized leaps to show the Atlantean response to the surface world and their impact on ancient Greece and Egypt. Had this story been written today, I’m sure we would have seen cheesy cameos by Black Adam and Dr Fate, but this book shows that the expanse of history is far greater than just some touchstone moments with familiar characters. Eminently suited to being read in a single volume, Atlantis Chronicles had varying chapter lengths within the issues and stories ended at the right moment, rather than fitting the page count available.

The book ends with Peter David giving you everything you need to know about Arthur Curry’s parentage and the details of his abandonment on Mercy reef. This was setting up his Aquaman ongoing series, which commenced with the Aquaman: Time and Tide Year One-esque mini series. The brother vs. brother theme is one that works very effectively in Aquaman lore but don’t be put off by that continuation, as The Atlantis Chronicles can be enjoyed completely independently of what comes after. It is also clearly superior to David’s Aquaman work, and every other comic I’ve ever read by him (even Young Justice? -- ed.).

I don’t know Peter David personally; I know he’s prone to strong opinions but I don’t know if he’s prone to bitterness. If I was him I would be incredibly bitter that DC never collected this book. At the time it was probably seen as a huge risk to put out a 300-page book when the sales weren’t guaranteed. Now, any buzz about this title is long dead. Original series editor Bob Greenberger was long associated with DC’s collected editions area and I can’t imagine he didn’t try to get it collected. I’m certain DC has missed out on a lot of sales from this decision.

These issues are some of the first I grab when an outsider expresses an interest in comics, right up there with Batman: Year One and Watchmen. This book could have made David and Maroto names akin to Morrison and Quitely, Millar and Jansen, Moore and Gibbons even. DC should have been releasing the Twentieth Anniversary Absolute edition this year -- this book was meant to have a significant legacy and that was very sadly stillborn.

I highly recommend that you find these issues if you can. Read ‘em, share ‘em, pass ‘em to your children.

Comic Book Gift Guide 2010

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

As has become a yearly tradition, the Collected Edition blog presents my top pick suggestions of trade paperback and graphic novel presents for your favorite comic book fan -- or suggestions to help introduce others to the medium. (See the 2009, 2008, and 2007 lists.)

Of course, it wouldn't be a Collected Editions gift list if I didn't help you get free shipping (nothing I dislike more than paying for shipping). My focus this year is on good gift packages -- books you can buy together or mix and match and your work's all done. And all of these gifts represent full stories or at least big chunks -- no one wants to get a present only to find they have to buy something else to resolve the cliffhanger.

Here's hoping with these suggestions, you'll be a hit!

* Star Wars Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle
* DC Comics Year by Year: A Visual Chronicle
* DC Super Heroes: The Ultimate Pop-Up Book

I literally wasted an unexpected hour at a bookstore the other day flipiing through the Star Wars Year by Year documentary book. This oversized tome, full of pictures, takes you through Star Wars' history year by year from before the first movie's release to Clone Wars today. I dare anyone to pick up this book, flip to the year you first encountered Star Wars, and see if you're not hooked following your own life alongside Star Wars the rest of the way through. This is my highest gift recommendation for this year -- and the price is enough that you can get it with free shipping on its own or with anything else on this list.

Of course, being a DC Comics fan, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a similar Year by Year volume for DC history; this book was not as detailed as I hoped, but I imagine it would still be a welcome gift for any comics fan. This one, too, comes with free shipping (I couldn't find a similar Marvel book, but if I overlooked it, please correct me). And if big gift books is your thing (or the thing of your favorite comics fan), DC also has a dynamic pop-up book this year that will thrill both the young and the young-at-heart (DC Super Heroes: Ultimate Pop-Up Book doesn't qualify for free shipping on its own, but mix with any other book on the list or two of the I Can Read stocking stuffers (below) for free shipping).

* Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Boxset
* Lost At Sea

* Diary of a Wimpy Kid Box of Books

As I mentioned, when I give comics gifts, I like to give full stories. If your favorite comics fan enjoyed this year's Scott Pilgrim vs. The World movie, introduce them to the whole Scott Pilgrim saga at once -- perfect for holiday vacation reading -- with this box set available in just a few weeks from Oni Press -- and of course, no shipping! If you want to jazz up the package a bit (and really seem in the know), include writer Bryan Lee O'Malley's Lost at Sea, a separate book he published in the midst of working on the Scott Pilgrim series.

And, still in the movie-to-box-set vein, if your favorite comics fan is a little younger try the Diary of a Wimpy Kid box of books, collecting the most recent four volumes in Jeff Kinney's series on which this year's movie was based (with a sequel movie scheduled for next year). Need I even say it? Free shipping!

* Superman: Earth One
* Luthor
* Superman: Secret Origin
* Absolute All Star Superman

Superman's my favorite superhero. Even though he's fallen out of fashion lately -- not considered as cool, I think, as Batman, nor has Superman's multimedia forays been as popular as Batman's -- I like to think that the recent excitement over the Superman: Earth One modern retelling of Superman's origin precedes a renaissance for the character. To that end, I was pleased to see four gift-worthy Superman books coming out close to the holidays; not only Superman: Earth One, but also the Luthor graphic novel about Superman's greatest enemy by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo; Superman: Secret Origin, a new in-regular-comics-continuity Superman origin by Geoff Johns and Gary Frank; and the deluxe reimagined story of Superman's last days in Absolute All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. All of these are popular, well known creators, and they're writing Superman. Joy!

Absolute All-Star Superman gets free shipping on its own, or mix and match any of the other free for an award-winning Superman gift package.

* The Walking Dead: Compendium One
* Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s

If scary is more your loved one's thing, I spotted Four Color Fear in the bookstores around Halloween. This is a great collection of 1950s horror comics published before the Comics Code regulations, so there's plenty of fright and gore even if the work seems a little dated. The stories come with bits of notes and history, making this more than just your everyday graphic novel and the kind of coffee table-type piece (if your coffee table likes that kind of thing) that's right for gift giving.

Four Color Fear doesn't qualify for free shipping on its own, but you can combine it with Lost at Sea, one of the Superman volumes, or a couple of the I Can Read Books for free shipping -- or get a double-dose of horror with the Walking Dead compendium collection. This massive 1,000+ page book collects eight volumes worth of the Walking Dead series, acclaimed on its own and now a major AMC TV series already renewed for a second season. The Walking Dead compendium gets free shipping on its own, so anything else with it gets free shipping, too.

* Invincible Iron Man Omnibus, Vol. 1
* The Death of Captain America Omnibus
* Thor by J. Michael Straczynski Omnibus

With all my talk of Superman, I don't mean to exclude the Marvel fans out there. Next year promises to be a big year for Marvel with the release of the Captain America and Thor movies. In keeping with our push for complete volumes, three books I've been considering are The Death of Captain America by Ed Brubaker (whose work I loved on DC's Gotham Central), Thor by J. Michael Straczynski (I don't know much about Thor, but Straczynski got my attention with Superman: Earth One), and -- for those who didn't get enough Iron Man this past year, Invincible Iron Man by Matt Fraction (which Doug Glassman says well resembles the movie). Each of these books is eligible for free shipping, which gives anything else on this list that you pair them with free shipping, too.

* Blueberry Girl

A little something different on the list now. Amidst Coraline and Graveyard Book and Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader, I admit I missed Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess's Blueberry Girl, an affirming story mostly intended for young girls or mothers-to-be. Gaimain apparently wrote it originally for Tori Amos before the birth of her daughter, and that alone catches my attention as I remember clearly Amos's great introductions to Gaiman's Sandman and Death collections. For your favorite Gaiman fan (or someone you want to interest in Gaiman) or young reader, this is one they might not already have. Pair with Lost at Sea and one of the I Can Read books, and get three titles for about $25 and free shipping.

* How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less
* Footnotes in Gaza: A Graphic Novel

* Berlin: City of Stones: Book One
* Berlin: City of Smoke: Book Two

Sarah Gidden's How to Understand Israel in 60 Days or Less just came out from Vertigo, and I've found it interesting that the book is a travelogue created from a trip the author took for the purpose of creating the book -- it makes the book part memoir, part reportage. My holiday wishlist is often the time I break from superheroes to see what else the graphic novel genre has to offer, and Giddens's book is on my list. In considering what to pair it with, I thought of Joe Sacco's Footnotes in Gaza, more illustrated reporting told here from the Palestinian perspective -- if you want to get serious with your gift-giving, or maybe have a non-comics-reading loved one interested in current events, these two books together give a broad range of perspectives on the situation in the Middle East (and fit together for the all-important free shipping).

Another of my recent finds (and I know, I'm probably way late to the game) is Jason Lutes' Berlin series. The first two volumes, collecting issues published by Drawn and Quarterly, came out over ten years, and information is spotty (help, anyone?) but I'm eager for the third to arrive so I can start reading them all together. Berlin, which Time named one of its ten best graphic novels ever, apparently follows the citizens of Berlin as conditions in the city get rapidly worse in the run-up to World War II. For another option off the beaten path, and maybe for a loved one interested in history but who hasn't read a comic before, both Berlin volumes together arrive with free shipping.

* Troublemaker: Book 1
* Troublemaker: Book 2

Mystery/romance author Janet Evanovitch's Troublemaker series of graphic novels have made me smile every time I see them in the stores, because they're such a blatant attempt at grabbing a cross-over market -- and yet, as a trade and graphic novel fan, I'm rather hopeful that they'll work (also still looking for someone interested in seriously reviewing these for me). Just like the history graphic novels above, maybe you have someone on your list that you're trying to entice to graphic novels who might know or like Evanovitch's work or her Alex Barnaby mystery series -- and both books plus one of the I Can Read titles equals free shipping.

* Superman: I Am Superman (I Can Read)
* Batman: Meet the Super Heroes Team-Up (I Can Read)
* The Dark Knight: I Am Batman (I Can Read)
* Wonder Woman: I Am Wonder Woman (I Can Read)
* Spider-Man: Spider-Man versus the Green Goblin (I Can Read)

I'm glad to see it seems DC and Marvel have upped their output of kid-centered superhero books of late, all the better to start the next generation of comics readers early. The above Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, and Spider-Man books all cost under five dollars, and they're perfect for rounding out a comics order in order to achieve that all important free shipping. Even if you don't have a kid around who might enjoy these books, if it'll help you get the free shipping, consider buying one and donating it to a local hospital or shelter.

To all -- good comics reading!

(Lots of bloggers, by the way, have Amazon links like the ones above, and when you make a purchase after clicking these links, the blogger gets a few cents. This holiday season, if you're buying gifts through Amazon, consider clicking on someone's link before you buy -- I have and continue to do so. There are lots of hard-working bloggers out there [see blogroll], and this is a great, easy way to support them.)

Review: Chicken and Plums graphic novel (Pantheon)

Monday, November 15, 2010

[Guest review by Tom Speelman]

Marjane Satrapi is, to me, the new Alan Moore. Though she’s only been around comics for a decade, she has produced a story of such monumental achievement in her two-part graphic novel memoir Persepolis, that any other work she publishes will be judged based on that. That’s a real shame, because Chicken With Plums is a fantastic book, and one that deserves to be noticed.

Satrapi is back in the well of biography, but not her own story, although she does have a cameo at the end; instead, this is the story of her great-uncle, Nassar Ali Khan, a renowned tar player in Tehran, Iran in the 1950s.

What is a "tar?" Well, it’s hard to say really; it looks like an elongated lute mixed with a guitar and sounds like a mix of a banjo and a violin. I’m listening to tar music as I write this and it’s fascinating. If you look it up, the tar’s an instrument with much cultural history in the Middle East.

[Contains spoilers]

The book is structured in an unconventional manner. At the beginning, in 1958, Nasser, after encountering a woman on the street (the full importance of this isn’t revealed until the end) heads to a music shop and tries several tars out over a period of a month to replace the one broken by his wife. Eventually he journeys to the city of Mashad and buys a tar said to be the best in the world. He goes home, plays it, and through a beautiful sequence, the music is ruined for him and to quote the text itself, “Since no other tar could give him the pleasure of playing, Nassar Ali Khan decided to die.” The next page? A shot of his funeral. 

That’s it. We know how it ends. But it’s not over; Satrapi tells us that he died eight days later after the events of the opening. But we see through Satrapi’s gorgeous black-and-white pencil-and-brush-ink artwork that Nassar Ali is flashing back and forth between his past, his present, and his dreams, and it’s utterly captivating to read.

The story is told mostly in flashback, and a reader’s only way of distinguishing between the two is that the panels in the flashback sequences have dark backgrounds, whereas the present-day ones do not. There are a lot of these flashbacks: some are funny, some are strange, and a lot are tragic. A very profound sequence is the one in which his wife snaps at him for not picking up his son from school and, enraged, breaks his tar. The panel of her breaking the instrument over her knee while angrily proclaiming “There!” is so stark, it gives you a jolt.

The title of the book is a reference to Nassar’s favorite food, but when his wife makes it in hopes of reconciliation, he spits it out in disgust. This incident gives you just the tip of the iceberg on just how much animosity there is in their relationship and it’s heartbreaking to watch their love unfold with such promise but soon fade away. 

This is a book that drives home the reality and finality of death, as well as that sense of the unknown that always lurks about the subject. It’s no wonder Satrapi won the Best Album award at the Angoulême International Comics Festival in 2005. She is a master of the comics form and if Persepolis suggested it, Chicken with Plums proves it.

Review: Kill Your Boyfriend graphic novel (Vertigo/DC Comics)

Thursday, November 11, 2010

[This guest review comes from Zach King, who blogs about movies as The Cinema King]

I was ecstatic when I took a trip out west and by serendipty found a copy of Grant Morrison's out-of-print Kill Your Boyfriend on the dusty shelves of an LCS that looked halfway toward going out of business. The shelves were full of old hard-to-find books that Amazon users sell for upwards of $90, but Kill Your Boyfriend jumped out as one of the last Morrison books I needed to complete my collection (all I need at this point is for The New Adventures of Hitler to be reprinted).

After reading Kill Your Boyfriend, I was surprised that it's been allowed to go out of print, especially now that Morrison's an undeniable A-lister in the comic world. It's not that Kill Your Boyfriend is touted as one of Morrison's greatest works -- it's that, as a simultaneous distillation and reexamination of all his major early themes, it very well ought to be.

In Kill Your Boyfriend, we're introduced to our unnamed protagonists, commonly referred to as (simply) The Girl and The Boy. The Girl, bored with the rote mundane life she's been given, runs away from home and joins up with The Boy, a local hooligang with an anarchist bent. After learning of The Girl's disappointing relationship with her dorky boyfriend Paul, The Boy takes it upon himself to kill Paul, an act which sparks a wild rampage of sex, drugs, and countercultural violence -- in other words, exactly what one would expect from Grant Morrison.

Even without reading the 1995 copyright date, one can tell that Kill Your Boyfriend is very clearly early Morrison; its emphasis on anarchy and a subterranean countercultural movement sets it apart from Morrison's recent emphasis on mythos and superhero deconstructionism in Final Crisis and Batman. The Boy is a classic distillation of Morrison's "last angry man" figure, with a chip on his shoulder and a loaded gun in his jacket pocket; despite his violent nature, there's something so disarmingly charming about The Boy that it's a wonder Johnny Depp hasn't played him in a movie yet. In all honesty, Kill Your Boyfriend is as close to a screenplay as Morrison's written; gleeful smash cuts and fourth-wall shattering monologues from The Girl seem ready for the silver screen -- which, hopefully, might spark the book back into print circulation. (Seriously, DC: option this property next.)

Morrison's script is tight as always, but any comic book literati knows that a good script isn't entirely good if it's not backed up by a decent illustrator. Philip Bond -- not a name that gets tossed around a lot, unless you're reading Tank Girl (who gets a visual shout-out here in the character of Billy) or other similarly eclectic reads -- creates a perfectly off-kilter atmosphere throughout, his style a blend between the cartoonish realism of Chaz Truog and the sketchy edges of Frank Quitely. Everything feels normal, but the art has a nice tilt to it that puts just the right amount of unrealism on top of the derailing outlandishness of the story. It's a credit to Bond that The Girl's in-panel narration to the audience feels perfectly natural, like a moment out of Ferris Bueller's Day Off, without losing the subconscious surprise of a similar moment in Morrison's first-rate Animal Man series.

There's a fun parallel invoked with the Dionysian myth, but what's more interesting about Kill Your Boyfriend is that Morrison groupies won't help but read the book as an odd kind of interrogation of The Invisibles, Morrison's seven-volume magnum opus. Like The Invisibles, Kill Your Boyfriend follows a ragtag group in their fight against the establishment, but here the establishment is less markedly evil. Sure, Paul is more interested in sci-fi/fantasy porn than in The Girl, and policemen steal crematory urns for use as ashtrays -- but we don't have any time-bending chaos lords or beetle-women pulling the strings. Consequently, it's a little more difficult to slap down a "good guys/bad guys" label on any of it.

Compounding the connection to The Invisibles, the bus full of anarchic artists (or are they artistic anarchists?) is filled with characters who seem straight out Morrison's other work; white-haired Cleverly visually recalls the renegade Invisible John-A-Dreams, and the portly homosexual Fudge might as well be the Marquis de Sade (I'd have to reread The Invisibles to see if it's possible that Fudge is the Marquis; knowing Morrison, I wouldn't be surprised if he is, and I'd be disappointed if he weren't). What's more, The Girl dolls herself up like Lord Fanny, remarking of her red dress and blonde wig, "I feel like a transvestite."

But appearances can be deceiving. Kill Your Boyfriend is filled with people who are not what they pretend to be: The Girl's demure schoolgirl image conceals a hungry sexual appetite, while Paul's sexual prudery masks his own perverse addiction to pornography; policemen steal human remains, high-ranking political officials wear feminine undergarments beneath their trenchcoats, and the bus full of anarchists turns out to be little more than self-indulgent aspirants who are more interested in a government grant for the arts than in real acts of destruction, an act that turns The Boy's stomach. The climax at the Blackpool Tower explodes off the page (quite literally, at one moment) with a stunning apex reached when The Girl aims a gun directly at the reader. It's a climax that ultimately asks, "Is there really anything to fight against? Is it worth it to fight for fighting's sake?"

And the answer comes back, resoundingly, "Yes, of course it's bloody well worth it!" (Hey, it's still a Morrison comic, after all.) There's a one-page epilogue which explains the fate of The Girl with Morrison's classic tongue-in-cheek nature, and while she never tells us directly what's become of her, she remarks (with what I can't believe Bond didn't pencil as a wink), "You know the rest." Bond's paneling and deft depiction of facial expression (never more prominent here and in the Blackpool scene) tells us all we need to know; sometimes, all it takes to shake up the system is something as simple as killing your boyfriend. The rest, they say, is easy.

Worth far more than the $5.99 cover charge, Kill Your Boyfriend feels a lot longer than the scant 56 pages it runs. It's a work that you'll want to reread as soon as you've concluded -- not for fear that you've missed something or might pick up on a new theme, but because it's such a fun ride that it's worth reliving -- provided you can find a copy. Just don't do anything rash to get it.

Or maybe, do.

[Contains an afterword by Morrison and a fold-it-yourself origami fortune teller. Printed on semi-glossy paper.]

Review: The Atomic Knights hardcover (DC Comics)

Monday, November 08, 2010

[This review comes from Todd Wagener of Brown Bag Comics]

Let's talk about the Silver Age of comics and the recent spate of collections from that time-period, as well as the Golden Age. DC Comics has finally decided that their vaults are no place for some of the best comics produced during the 1940s, '50s and 60s, so they have brought them out into the light of day and cleaned them up for everyone to consume. That is why we have gotten collections of the earliest Superboy stories, Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's Newsboy Legion, and now this, Atomic Knights!

After being teased for the last decade that DC would finally collect the sixteen stories from John Broome and Murphy Anderson's premiere team, Atomic Knights, DC finally released this in hardcover. Of course, we had expected them to collect it in the Showcase Presents format, along with the Hercules Unbound stories and the like for The Great War collection that was promised years ago, but instead they decided to concentrate on just presenting the tales of Gardner Grayle and the gang from 1960 through 1964 appearances in Strange Adventures (a wonderful anthology that DC is presenting from the early days in a Showcase Presents volume before the Knights were introduced). The issues we have in this volume are Strange Adventures #117, 120, 123, 126, 129, 132, 135, 138, 141, 144, 147, 150, 153, 156 and 160.

In the early 1960s, most Americans feared nuclear holocaust, especially after the events of the Cuban Missile Crisis. This fear forms the basis of Broome and Anderson's Atomic Knights stories. In the days after the Great War, after the last H-Bomb exploded and left humanity without adequate food, water or shelter, the book finds Gardner Grayle and schoolteacher Douglas Herald protected from a bomb attack by six suits of medieval armor. Finding that all technological weapons are useless against these irradiated suits of armor, Gardner decides to form a band of knights to foil the despotic local leader, The Black Baron. This became the Knights primary mission -- fighting ruthless despots throughout America to get communities back on their feet and thriving.

Grayle completes the Knights with Hollis and Wayne Hobard, two farmers, a scientist named Bryndon (science caused the weapons of the Great War, so scientists are for the most part considered evil here except Bryndon), and finally Marene, Douglas's sister. Marene is used as a backup in most stories, since this was the 1960s and women were treated not truly as equals especially in the military, so Broome made a point of catagorizing the sixth suit being too small for a man to use.

The villains of the story include the reoccurring Khagan of Atlantis, and then one-off appearances by cavemen from below New York City, electrical giants created from mutant brains, mutated plants that walk, aliens looking to be our overlords, mole-men (my favorite because they can only fight you at night), a King of New Orleans who has his city hypnotized, and the marauding Wild Boys. One of my favorite parts was when the Atomic Knights, while fending off an attack by Khagan, find a crashed spaceship containing giant dalmations, which they (naturally) harness to use as horses.

Basically, these are great stories and should be appreciated by everyone who reads them. My review would be all positive except for two things: the paper quality and the use of bad art for the cover. The lower quality of paper is to DC's shame: they can do trade paperbacks in a slicker quality and even make other hardcovers use the good stuff (Starman Omnibus), but they use newsprint for a book that collects these timeless classics. At $39.99 for this volume, I'd think some of that money could go toward paper that's not so cheap!

My other complaint about the bad art is not a dig at the wonderful Murphy Anderson. No, it is a dig at the fact they used a small image of Gardner on a dalmatian and blew it up to 500 times its original size for the back cover. And instead of the wonderful line-work of Anderson, you get huge lines that make the image look like a poor imitation of his work instead. DC could have used images from other panels or maybe even the cover of Strange Adventures #144 with the Knights and those wonderful Mole-Men. Heck, if they had to, DC could have used art from someone current as a re-interpretation. But instead, they used that one poorly reprinted panel to represent some of the best sci-fi stories that ever appeared in comics.

Overall, I can honestly say that this Atomic Knights volume is one of my favorite books that DC has produced. My memories of these stories are great and seeing them in this one book made me so happy, I have read it three times since I got it in August. Paper and cover aside, this is a wise investment as well as an interesting one.

Showcase Presents Trial of the Flash, Firestorm, Blackest Night paperbacks continue DC 2011

Friday, November 05, 2010

Following DC Comic's trade solicitation of Aquaman: Death of the Prince (collecting the 1977 Aquaman Adventure Comics run) comes news of a Firestorm: The Nuclear Man paperback collection including Ronnie Raymond's first appearances by Gerry Conway, and a Showcase Presents Trial of the Flash black-and-white TPB collecting the noted 1980s Barry Allen story.

That DC is finally collecting Trial of the Flash, but in their Showcase Presents black-and-white format, will undoubtedly be a disappointment to most. Given that this story spans Flash #340-350 at minimum for the trial itself, and possibly at least ten issues in addition to that ten for Iris Allen's murder at the hands of Professor Zoom and Barry Allen's subsequent killing of Zoom that lead to the trial, it's understandable why DC would choose this cheaper omnibus format for the collection. As well, with historical value aside, the arc isn't widely regarded as well-written in terms of the story.

That said, I for one do wish DC would have chosen maybe one or two color volumes rather than the black-and-white format; for a story of this importance, I'd rather a volume that suggested more lasting value. And I'm holding out hope for a Suicide Squad-type last minute reprieve (where what was solicited as a Showcase Presents.

Hope in Historical Releases
Still, that we're seeing any book at all with "Trial of the Flash" within is good news, as I know fans have been clamoring for that for a long time. "Trial," plus the Gerry Conway Firestorm and Aquaman collections, all represent DC stories, deep in their history, which are not as well-known or shiny as New Teen Titans: The Judas Contract or Legion of Super-Heroes: The Great Darkness Saga, but that are still relevant to current DC continuity and deserve to be available for current readers.

The same can most definitely be said for DC's forthcoming release of Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's Legion Lost, another long-awaited collection now scheduled to see print. If DC keeps this up, there won't be much left on my wish list still to hope to see reprinted.

("Titans Hunt." Also the death of Katma Tui. Guess there's still a lot on the list.)

Blackest Night for the Rest of You
I have held off of late posting about the collections (to no one's disappointment, hopefully) that I think we all can reasonably expect are coming out anyway -- I think we all know we'll see new volumes of Green Lantern, Green Arrow, Batgirl, Wonder Woman, Red Robin, Outsiders, even Batman: Knight and Squire, and I'd sooner make a fuss for something big and unexpected like Showcase Presents Trial of the Flash.

However, I know there's many out there who've been waiting patiently for Blackest Night to arrive in paperback to finally read this story (I don't know how you all do it, really). It looks like these are now a sure thing coming up in July and August 2011:

* Blackest Night
* Blackest Night: Green Lantern
* Blackest Night: Green Lantern Corps
* Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps Vol. 1
* Blackest Night: Black Lantern Corps Vol. 2
* Blackest Night: Rise of the Black Lanterns
* Blackest Night: Tales of the Corps

So, despite the fact that I myself have a hard time getting in to once-color, now black-and-white collections, in total I think this Showcase Presents release and DC's general trend right now is a good thing. Maybe if there's enough hubub about Trial of the Flash between now and when it's released, we might even find it with some color added. I can hope.

More great guest reviews coming next week. Thanks for stopping by!

Review: Dark Avengers Vol. 1: Assemble hardcover/paperback (Marvel Comics)

Thursday, November 04, 2010

[This guest review comes from fellow blogger The Azn Badger]

Let it be known folks: I am not a reader of “team books.” I find them clunky, muddled, and more often than not, inaccessible due to the inevitable inclusion of a team member or two whose continuity I am completely unfamiliar with. (That’s right, I’m looking at you Metamorpho and Tasmanian Devil . . .)

In recent years though, I’ve run across several team books that have not only held my interest, but have proven to be truly excellent reads throughout -- Marvel’s Thunderbolts and Dark Avengers, and DC’s Secret Six, for instance. All three have two elements common among them: They’re all relatively new series, and all of them involve teams that are comprised of villains and/or anti-heroes. I suppose that, given my massive collection of Punisher and Wolverine comics, I probably should’ve seen that coming . . .

That being said, let’s take a closer look at Dark Avenger’s first story arc, Assemble.

Essentially serving as the first major story beat under Marvel’s recently wrapped company-wide storyline, "Dark Reign," Assemble serves as the origin story for the Dark Avengers.

Who are the Dark Avengers? Well, they’re basically the normal Avengers, but DARK.

Just kidding.

The Dark Avengers are a team of super villains, “assembled” by head of H.A.M.M.E.R. (presently S.H.I.E.L.D.), former-Green Goblin and media/political darling Norman Osborn. Their role in the Marvel Universe is to serve as the public face of Osborn’s regime. On the outside, they don the costumes and titles of recognizable and time-honored heroes, meaning Venom is now “Spider-Man,” and Wolverine’s spiteful, vengeful, bisexual, over-exposed and Punisher-killing son, Daken, is now masquerading as “Wolverine” himself.

(Sorry, I still haven’t quite forgiven Daken for the whole “chopping the Punisher to pieces” thing. For the record, though, that was an awesome fight , well worth reading for any fans of John Romita Jr’s art, or brutally violent scenes of superhero violence.)

The whole point of the Dark Avengers is that, their actions -- however beneficial to the people of Earth -- ultimately adhere to the will and nefarious machinations of Norman Osborn.

Writer Brian Michael Bendis manages to cover a lot of ground in this first story arc, all while managing to keep continuity neophytes up to date (including me). In order, we get the obligatory “how they all came together” sequence, immediately followed by the team’s first field deployment. Being as this is a book about villains masquerading as heroes, it’s only appropriate that the Dark Avenger’s first mission is to rescue Dr. Doom, a member of Norman Osborn’s recently installed string-pulling Cabal organization, from the wrath of the vengeful time-traveling sorceress Morgan Le Fay.

Casting Morgan Le Fay as the villain of this first story arc in the series turned out to be a wise decision, as her magical abilities make her a formidable opponent to everyone on the Dark Avengers roster (the Superman power-leveled Sentry included). As well, it adds an interesting dynamic to the story to know that, despite Le Fay wanting to kill the central characters of the story, her intentions are righteous in the sense that she’s trying to prevent the formation of the Cabal, and thus pre-empt the entire "Dark Reign" storyline.

The protracted battle sequence set on Dr. Doom’s home turf of Latveria that dominate most of the pages of this story, with art by Mike Dedato, is exciting and beautifully rendered, with some genuine drama throughout as the heroes battle the demons and monsters at the command of Morgan Le Fay.

Despite what could have been a confusing mess, the plot is well-structured, with wonderfully kinetic pacing that makes the book hard to put down. I particularly enjoyed the two independent sub-plots involving Norman Osborn and The Sentry and each's questionable grasp of reality. Both characters have always been a little loopy, but in this instance, Brian Michael Bendis puts these issues front and center, causing the reader to question both whether Osborn’s going to put on the Goblin costume again, and whether the Sentry has any clue just what he is or how much power he has at his command.

It’s a thing of beauty watching Sentry repeatedly perform the superhero equivalent to miracles, only for the next panel to cut back and show the Dark Avengers, his teammates, wide-eyed and quaking with fear over obscene power wielded by their unstable comrade.

My one gripe with the story progression in this arc was the fact that some characters definitely could’ve used so more air time for us to get to know them better. In particular, Daken (the dark "Wolverine") and Marvel Boy ("Captain Marvel") seemed to get the short end of the stick in terms of characterization, while characters like Ares were at least given a panel or two teasing the reader of future plotlines.

As is the norm for Bendis stories, the dialogue is a highlight.

While his forte seems to lean more towards the humorous and childishly immature, Bendis’ dialogue is, at the very least, always entertaining. Some characters, like Bullseye (“Hawkeye”) and Ares, are played for laughs, but on the other side we’re given characters like Moonstone (“Ms. Marvel) and Norman Osborn who speak with an uncommon level of measure and articulation. It goes a long way towards legitimizing Assemble as a serious story arc.

In other words, though you’ll sometimes find yourself rolling your eyes and snorting at the silliness of the some of the exchanges and asides, you’ll never be bored reading Dark Avengers.

In particular, Bendis’s use of Mac Gargan’s Venom as a comedic element is just about spot-on perfect.

All of the Dark Avenger’s series is pencilled by Deodato, whom I first took note of when I started reading he and Warren Ellis’ Thunderbolts series. Employing much of the same style he used there, and indeed throughout the past decade or so, Deodato’s art is that of a semi-photorealistic painting style, with an emphasis on detail and motion being the order of the day. His lines are fluid and borderline “smudged,” such that characters don’t so much have outlines as they do “silhouettes.”

Deodato was an excellent choice of artist for Dark Avengers, if not for his realistic style, which is wholly appropriate given the political nature of the story, then for his versatility. Whether the characters in his panels are fighting demons and dragons, or sitting in a TV studio doing an interview, everything is brilliantly rendered, and framed in an effective and cinematic fashion.

By the way, you’ve probably read it elsewhere, but I suppose it’s worth noting that, yes: Mike Deodato did in fact use actor Tommy Lee Jones as a reference for Norman Osborn. Some have complained that they find it distracting, but personally; I kind of liked it.

Come to think of it, I liked this comic. It was by no means perfect, but Dark Avengers: Assemble held my interest throughout with it’s roster of colorful, identifiable, and ultimately dysfunctional characters and the frequent shenanigans/interplay between them.

Excuse me as I step out to purchase Dark Avengers Vol.2, Molecule Man ...

Review: Avengers: Under Siege Premiere Classic hardcover (Marvel Comics)

Tuesday, November 02, 2010

[This guest review comes from Chris Marshall of the Collected Comics Library]

I've always had a strange curiosity when it comes to death and comic book characters. Going back to my youth. I always thought that superheroes were immortal and nothing could hurt them no matter how evil the villain was.

This was proven to me when I watched the "History of Doom" episode from Challenge of the Superfriends. You may recall that at the beginning of the episode the Justice League and the Legion of Doom have decimated to the entire plant and all has been destroyed. Aliens visitor has arrived to find out what happened and in the end they reverse the war and set things right. Thus no one died. Later that same year Christopher Reeve turned back time in Superman: The Movie basically doing the same to save lives including that of Lois Lane.

Later as I got more into comics, I learned of Gwen Stacy and her importance to Spider-Man, but the original comics were impossible to come by and a trade paperback of reprints was non-existence at the time. It wasn't until I was in my twenties that I read the entire Lee/Ditko/Romita story.

That brings me to 1996 when I was just starting to get back into comics after college. I had dabbled in the Image explosion and had gotten back into Batman but I was curious to see what I had missed in the Marvel Universe. I was in for a rude awakening when I picked up Onslaught. That was a persona of Professor X and Magento that devastated New York City and its heroes including The Avengers and The Fantastic Four, sending them to their death (or so we thought) They were actually sent to another dimension and the year-long Heroes Reborn storyline began.

In the wake (literally) of the apparent deaths, a new team of heroes came about to pick up the mantle of justice -- The Thunderbolts, headed by Citizen V, a descendant of the WWII superhero, and his team of MACH-1, Techno, Atlas, Songbird, and Meteorite. Not only was their origin a complex secret, which made you want more, they also came across as a team ready to kick-ass. And for a few issues they did.

Headed up by writer Kurt Busiek, The Thunderbolts took on criminals and even teamed up with Spider-Man. However, it was all a ruse -- and a damn good one at that. The Thunderbolts were secretly the Master Of Evil -- Baron Helmut Zemo, Beetle, Fixer, Goliath, Screaming Mimi and Moonstone (that is, the sixth incarnation of the Masters of Evil).

Then Marvel Comics did a very cool thing. To coincide with the release of the first Thunderbolts trade paperback, Justice Like Lightning, Marvel published a collected edition of their first appearances as their original villainous counterparts, Thunderbolt's Marvels Most Wanted. I was sent into a frenzy and wanted to know just who the Masters of Evil were. I did some digging online and purchased the Avengers: Under Siege storyline (The Avengers #270-277) off of eBay. It's now been reissued as part of Marvel's Premiere Classic Hardcover line.

For all intents and purposes, this is the origin of what would become the Thunderbolts. All the players are here including a few other villains like Blackout, Black Mamba, Grey Gargoyle, Mister Hyde, Tiger Shark, Whirlwind, Yellowjacket, The Wreaking Crew, and Titania and The Absorbing Man (who hooked up during Secret Wars). We see how Zemo along with Moonstone form the team that will take over and destroy the Avengers once and for all. The plan is seemingly brilliant and fool proof -- the more villains there are than heroes, then the task would be easy; the Masters of Evil would divide and conquer.

It also helps that the Avengers are not a very large team nor very strong at this point in their history. Captain America is second in command to the Wasp who is having a love triangle with the Black Knight and Paladin. Captain Marvel (Monica Rambeau) is having trouble with her new-found powers, Hercules is half drunk and whining about humanity not treating him well and Namor flees just as the team needs him to avoid a court ordered summons. Add in that super-heroes pals like the Fantastic Four are off of Earth; neither the West Coast Avengers or Black Panther wi;; pick up the phone; Vision and Scarlet Witch are on vacation, and no one can find Daredevil or Spider-Man (but no one really looks); the Iron Men (Tony Stark and James Rhodes) are busy battling A.I.M.; only Thor eventually shows up to help save the day. But the worst excuse is that the Falcon can't help because he has the flu.

Even though the story is eight issues, nothing really gets going until Avengers #273 when Zemo arrives. The first three issues acts as an epilogue to the Prince Namor, The Sub-Mariner four-issue series from 1984. Writer Roger Stern had to do this not only to tie up loose ends with Namor, himself, but to spread the Avengers even thinner than they already were. )

I feel that Stern, and to an extent artist John Buscema, does his best here to show DC Comics that the Masters of Evil of the most formidable foes in either universe and to show how it's done in a simple, concise and powerful manner. There is absolutely no doubt that it worked and Avengers: Under Siege has become the go-to story when it comes to one good team vs. one evil team. Even now twenty-five years later it is referred to and copied over and over.

Stern created this version of the Masters of Evil to pay homage to Lee and Kirby. Then Busiek paid homage to Stern by reinventing the team into The Thunderbolts. This seems to me one of the hardest things to do in comics. It's not recycling old material -- it's taking a good idea and turning it on it's head to make it better. Ed Brubaker (Captain America) knows how to do this, so does Geoff Johns (Green Lantern), and to a similar extent JJ Abrams did it with Star Trek.

In the end it's no spoiler that the Avengers win and Zemo and his Masters lose. But the twist is why Zemo is doing this in the first place -- he blames Captain America for the death of his father. It's not an unfamiliar plot; it's laced throughout comic books, novel and movies and the theme is no different here -- family. The Avengers are a family built up with trust through time. Zemo on the other hand tries to quickly buy his family to help him get revenge for his father. He comes closer more then any other villain up to this point. The Avengers are down and out for the count and even though the mansion crumbles, it's about the people that occupy it and not the building itself. The Avengers will always come out on top.

I almost feel sorry for Zemo at the end of Avengers: Under Siege. Here he lies defeated and his master plan thwarted. His father is still dead at the hands of Captain America and there's nothing more he can do about it except wait for Kurt Busiek take over.

[Introduction by Roger Stern]

Guest Review Month 2010

Monday, November 01, 2010

Hope everyone's been enjoying the recent doings at Collected Editions, including our first-ever live event and the Collected Editions review of Superman: Earth One.

We've got lots more great stuff coming up before the end of the year, including a few surprises. But starting tomorrow, we're going to continue a grand tradition of handing the blog over to some guest reviewers for a while, to give the Collected Editions readers some new perspective on books old and new from DC, Marvel, and a host of others. It's going to be a blast!

And I'm happy to mention that this year's Collected Editions Guest Review Month is sponsored by the new Pulp History series of illustrated books from Simon and Schuster. The first two books in the series are Devil Dog by David Talbot with illustrations by Spain Rodriguez, and Shadow Knights by Gary Kamiya with illustrations by Jeffrey Smith.

Devil Dog, by Salon founder Talbot and Zap Comix's Rodriguez, is the biography of decorated US Marine Major General Smedley Darlington Butler. Butler both served in the military and later fought for veterans' rights, overthrowing a plot to kill the President Roosevelt along the way.

Shadow Knights, by Salon co-founder Kamiya and ilustrator Smith, tells of Britain's Special Operations Executive operation that fought against Hitler in World War II. The sabotage and spy missions of this volunteer group -- many of whom were women -- greatly influenced the war and hasn't been widely recorded before this title.

In recognition of this series, and as a gift to the guest reviewers, Collected Editions is going to pick one guest reviewer at random who will receive a copy of each book from Simon and Schuster. Thanks to all of this year's guest reviewers, and to Simon and Schuster for the contribution.

Guest reviews, surprises, and prizes, too! The Collected Editions Guest Review Month starts tomorrow ... don't miss it!