Darth Vader: Vader

June 21, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

vaderDarth Vader: Vader by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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I’ve heard a lot of good things about this title, enough so that I bought the first two volumes when I found them on sale for Kindle. I wasn’t expecting them to be Watchmen-level good, but I figured they might be entertaining. What I didn’t take into account is the main character being Darth Vader, stone-cold killer and all-around totally unlikable dude. Considering this arc takes place between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, I should have realized there wasn’t going to be much sympathy for the character here.

The first volume follows Vader shortly after the destruction of the Death Star, when he has to face Sidious and own up to his failings. He’s sent on a task to meet with Jabba the Hutt, and while there, he arranges for two bounty hunters to do some work for him: one to find out who it was who destroyed the Death Star; and the other to find the identity of the person who may serve as Vader’s replacement (and since the Star Wars universe is lousy with recurring characters, of course one of the bounty hunters is Boba Fett).

There’s not a lot of tension to the story, since it’s hard for us to care about either Vader or Sidious. We see the beginnings of Vader’s feelings toward Sidious, as he feels betrayed when a potential replacement comes into the picture, but even that isn’t enough to make us sympathetic to him. Gillen brings in a secondary character through a chatty archaeologist who pilots Vader around the galaxy, and I couldn’t understand why she hooked up with him. Vader has no love for history as it happened, so why would an archaeologist choose to help him? It might have been different if she had been forced, but she seems cool with helping him, just because he’s on the winning side. Plus, when she’s introduced, she appears to be a carbon copy of Indiana Jones, right down to her dialogue.

It might have been a better read if the artwork had supported the story, but for all the action the story has, the artwork feels static. It’s clear, and shows what happens, but it doesn’t feel like there’s any motion from panel to panel. Instead, it feels like we’re reading dialogue over snapshots of action. I’m not sure what it is about the art that makes it feel this way, but it’s the first comic I’ve read that does.

I’ll go ahead and finish volume two of the series (I already bought it, and it only took an hour to read this one), but I don’t expect much from it, and I don’t expect it will inspire me to read the other two volumes. I’m not sure what it is I’m missing, but it’s far from the story the reviews led me to believe it would be.

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HiLo: The Great Big Boom

June 8, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

boomHiLo: The Great Big Boom by Judd Winick

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I’m a Judd Winick fanboy. I’ve been one since discovering Frumpy the Clown, which pointed me to Barry Ween and Pedro and Me, and then on to HiLo. It’s hard to be objective, though it doesn’t stop me from being critical when I feel it’s appropriate. The Great Big Boom is the continuation of the story of HiLo (and D.J. and Gina).

At the end of Saving the Whole Wide World, Gina got sucked into a portal, her destination unknown to either D.J. or HiLo. It was a tragic ending, and it reminded me a bit of Sara’s story in Barry Ween. I was hoping that Winick would take the story in a different direction, and while he does (I figure Sara’s end would be a bit too dark for the HiLo story), he still borrows from it. I guess I understand that — Barry Ween is an esoteric title, so few people reading the series would know it — but I wish he had gone with a new story. Saying that, though, I should point out that this isn’t just a re-tread of Barry Ween; it’s its own story, just with a few familiar details.

And what a story it is! HiLo learns more about his past here, and we get to see more of the playful banter between him, D.J., and Gina. We also meet a slew of new characters, since the portal they have to enter to save Gina takes them to a completely new world. I felt like the story strayed from its roots by going to the new world, but that’s not to say the story lacks its trademark charm. It’s impossible not to like the main characters, not just because of the way Winick writes them, but also in the way he draws them. He captures the comic and the serious with equal efficiency, and uses them to their strongest effect.

HiLo is an excellent series for kids, but I would recommend it for adults, too. If your tastes run like I do, where you can appreciate something as heavy as Geek Love and something as light as The Mud Flat Olympics, you’ll love the series. Plus, its main characters are people of color, which is still rare enough to treasure in this genre. Do yourself a favor and read these, if you haven’t already. Heck, if you have, go back and re-read them; they’re good enough to read multiple times!

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Archie: Volume Two

May 15, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

archie2Archie: Volume Two by Mark Waid, et al.

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I had a lot of fun with the first collection of the Archie reboot. It captured the heart of the characters, updated them to life in the modern world, and had decent stories that were reminiscent of the comics I read when I was a kid. I’d say I was surprised, but Mark Waid was at the helm of the reboot, so I kind of expected it to be all of those things. I just wasn’t expecting it to be good enough to capture forty-four-year-old me.

By now, Archie and Veronica are a thing, and Archie and Betty are not. Of course, Archie being Archie, it’s not that simple. Archie has feelings for both of them, for good reasons, and while I remember as a kid just accepting that about them, here we get to see why. We already knew why he and Betty were a thing, but Veronica’s spoiled-girl routine made it a bit of a mystery why Archie was so hung up on her. Here, Waid tells us why. It helps to build the character, and it also helps to start at the very beginning like they’ve done, because when I was a kid, the characters had already been around for thirty years. Maybe the very first comics gave readers some similar reasons why, but by the time I was reading them, it was just a foregone conclusion that this was the love triangle.

Fiona Staples drew the art for the first arc, and I was somewhat hesitant when I saw she wasn’t involved with the second one. My hesitation was for naught, though; the artists here do a great job of capturing the mood of the comic, from the dramatic moments down to Archie’s pratfalls. They blend the comic (that is, funny, and capturing the style of the comics) with the serious so perfectly that you roll from one to the other without noticing.

I’m not sure if it’s the nostalgia affecting how I feel about the series, but I’m impressed. We’re only twelve issues into the new series, and we’ve run the gamut of emotions with the characters, which is the sure sign of a successful story. So long as they keep this momentum up, I expect be a part of this revival.

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H.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers

March 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

cthulhuH.P. Lovecraft’s The Call of Cthulhu for beginning readers by R.J. Ivankovic

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I first heard about this project a few years back when the artist showed off a few pages on Deviant Art. A few blogs picked it up, and I (along with a slew of other people) responded with “Shut up and take my money!”, so a few years later, we finally have this book in our hands. And it’s fantastic.

To prep for reading the book, I went back and read through the original story, just to have the details fresh in my mind. I wanted to see how well the author adapted the story into Seuss’ anapestic tetrameter, and the answer is “Extraordinarily well”. He hits all the high points of the story, from the first book where the narrator finds his uncle’s research, to Legrasse’s recounting of the cult in New Orleans, to the doomed expedition to R’lyeh in the third book. He combines the text with the whimsical illustrations reminiscent of Seuss, though he doesn’t hesitate to hint at child sacrifice and men eaten alive by Cthulhu.

It’s safe to say that this book is aimed toward the hardcore Lovecraft fan, but I think anyone familiar with the mythos and is a fan of whimsy will find a lot to like about the book. I’d recommend reading it aloud to get the full effect of the verse and how well Ivankovic captures it.

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Paper Girls 2

January 3, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

paperPaper Girls 2 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

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The second volume of Paper Girls picks up right where the first ended, with Erin encountering her older self in the future. Things don’t stay simple (heh) for long, though, as another Erin from further in the future, but looking exactly like Erin from the 1980s, gets involved, and no one is sure exactly who to trust. With KJ missing, though, they have to do something, and since all three Erins are driving the paper girls forward, what else is there to do?

The story stagnates a little with this volume, but not because of lack of ambition. Vaughan is driving the story toward a future point he knows well, but he’s giving us information only a small piece at a time. We don’t get many questions from the first volume answered, and those we do get answered are replaced with more questions as the story grows more complex. I’m a little uncertain by this point, since I was expecting to get something that would ground the story by now, but the potential for where it’s going is still great. Vaughan just needs to start bringing it in for a landing sometime soon.

A lot of the criticisms I saw regarding the first volume — that it moves slowly, that it doesn’t give us much in the way of the main characters, that the plot is moving at a glacial pace — still apply, so folks who had those complaints for the first arc won’t feel different about the second one. I usually expect a series to lay down the exposition in the first arc, and then start examining the plot in the second, but here it feels like Vaughan still has some exposition to explore. I hope he gets there soon. I’m patient when it comes to graphic novels, but if he doesn’t start bringing it together soon, I’m going to lose interest.

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Paper Girls 1

October 28, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

paperPaper Girls 1 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

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Like “The White People”, Paper Girls came recommended to me through a Stranger Things-alike list, but unlike “The White People”, Paper Girls hits closer to the mark. For one thing, it’s set in the 1980s; for another, the whole parallel-world aspect of the story plays a larger role; for yet another, the core group of characters corresponds well to that of Stranger Things. In fact, a handful of reviews I’ve seen for this title calls it “Stranger Things with a female cast”, which is pretty accurate.

The main character is a 12-year-old girl who begins a paper route the morning after Halloween, and runs into some oddities after avoiding an attack from a group of teenagers and then meeting up with a band of three other girls her age who are also delivering papers. What starts out as merely unusual becomes downright ominous as they encounter deformed people who speak a strange language, while people they know disappear from the streets.

A lot of reviews criticize the story for not giving us a lot of detail about the characters, and for the story moving too quickly, but I found the balance of both to be just right. First volumes of new titles are always mostly exposition, and I felt like Vaughan gave us just enough details of both to keep us engaged enough to keep reading. Plus, this collection ends with an ending that promises more answers (and certainly more questions) to come.

I really dug the artwork here, too. I don’t usually mention the art in graphic novels unless the style is noteworthy, and Chiang’s style is so without being invasive. It’s not a minimal style, nor is it overly detailed. It’s not cartoonish, nor is it lifelike. Instead, it’s just enough to convey what we need to see without taking us away from the story being told.

Paper Girls 1 is all about potential, and Vaughan makes it work remarkably well. I’m not sure if Vaughan is a guaranteed author for me just yet (Y: The Last Man eluded me, and I didn’t find a lot to like about We Stand on Guard), but Saga continues to impress the hell out of me, and now I have Paper Girls doing the same thing.

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The Walking Dead: Call to Arms

September 26, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

armsThe Walking Dead: Call to Arms by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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I’ve been pleasantly surprised with how well Kirkman has maintained this series. With over 150 issues in the comic, it can’t be easy to keep the story fresh, especially when the premise stays the same through it all. How many different ways can he show us that, in the midst of a zombie apocalypse, the real monsters are still the real people? We’ve had The Governor, Negan, the Scavengers, and now the Whisperers, and each has brought their own style to the title.

Call to Arms shows that maybe — just maybe — Kirkman is going back to the well. Negan has been imprisoned in Alexandria since his defeat, mostly because Rick didn’t want to go back to the old ways of just killing people who were a threat. On the one hand, it was an admirable characteristic; on the other hand, I had the feeling it was going to backfire. In Call to Arms, that’s what happens, and I can’t help but feel like we’ve already seen enough of Negan.

Negan is a good villain, with his own odd sense of loyalty and responsibility, but he’s run his course in the story. Bringing him back is just revisiting a story that’s already been told. It may be a new setting and new circumstances, but it’s still Negan being Negan, with all that entails. The rest of the story — Rick preparing the Alexandrians to go to war against the Whisperers — is interesting, but Kirkman muddles it by bringing Negan into the equation. The way the story is headed, this arc will culminate with Rick and Negan going head-to-head — again — instead of the Alexandrians going up against the Whisperers.

Also, if I’m being honest, I hate the way Negan speaks. His profanity grates on my nerves, as well as his stream-of-consciousness dialogue. When he was imprisoned, he didn’t sound like that, but now that he’s free, he’s in full-on Negan mode. It feels lazy, and sounds annoying.

I’ll stick with the series to see where Kirkman is taking this — maybe it will end quickly, with more of a “Jon Snow punching the shit out of Ramsey Bolton” catharsis — but I was extremely disappointed with this volume. If it keeps going down this path, it will make it harder and harder to stay with it.

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Harrow County: Snake Doctor

September 23, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

snakeHarrow County: Snake Doctor by Cullen Bunn, et al.

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Harrow County is a fantastic horror comic, full of atmosphere and otherworldliness, preferring to show the disquiet of events instead of close-ups of amputations and mutilations. It’s not for the faint of heart, but neither is it excessive or exploitative. It’s a perfect blend of story and character, and the artwork matches it perfectly.

Until Snake Doctor, that is. Each collection so far has comprised four issues in the main series, covering a single arc in Emmy’s story, but Snake Doctor is made up of one two-part story, bookended by two one-shot stories. The two one-shots are drawn by artists who are not Tyler Crook, who has defined the look of the series. The first one has a style that is close enough to the usual style not to be too intrusive, but the second one is such a divergence that it’s like reading a different title. Even my favorite comic series had different artists, but here it’s almost like sacrilege. I can’t imagine anyone other than Fiona Staples drawing Saga, for example, and I can’t see anyone other than Crook capturing the horror of this title.

The middle story has the usual feel of the title, but it features Emmy only tangentially. I like that the authors are expanding their focus, showing what it means to be in Emmy’s orbit, but it seemed to go in an odd direction. Part of what makes the title unique is how Emmy is the witch, and that’s as far as the supernatural goes. What supernatural does happen in the story orbits Emmy, but here we see that the unusual things happening around her town aren’t necessarily related to her. Plus, the story sets up the reader to believe one thing, and then by the end subverts that idea into something unexpected. I don’t have a problem with that, but Bunn creates that setup and reversal over the course of two issues. It felt rushed, and unsatisfying.

The first three stories in the collection suggest that there’s more to the story than what we get here, and that alone will keep me reading this title. The last one, though, feels like a throwaway story, like it was written to fulfill a deadline. Snake County is the weakest of the series so far, but I hope to see it pick up with the next volume.

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Monstress: Awakening

September 13, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

monstressMonstress: Awakening by Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda

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Wow. I’m not sure how this title managed to fly under my radar, but I only recently discovered Invincible, despite it being around for thirteen years. Monstress has only been around for about a year, and this collected edition has only been out for a few months. Either way, I’m glad a friend of mine suggested I read it.

Monstress is a densely-packed story, dedicating itself to world-building and character building, but not at the expense of exposition, and not with any excessive info-dumps. What we learn about the world and its rules is given to us through natural interactions between characters, and the slow reveals of the characters themselves. It’s not the easiest approach to the story, since the reader will have questions as they read, but the payoff is there; you just have to trust in the storytelling to get you there.

The story, as Neil Gaiman puts it on the front cover, is a story of magic and fear, and it’s also about growing up in a harsh world. We learn that through Maika Halfwolf, our main character (the story opens with her being auctioned off as a slave), but Liu doesn’t just reveal the world’s cruelties through Maika alone; she also reveals it through the other characters that orbit Maika. We see the cruelty through her eyes, through the eyes of others who are disadvantaged, and through the eyes of those who are cruel.

As such, Awakening is not an easy read, nor a gentle one. Much of this volume is setting up what is certain to come, and it’s clear that what is to come will be brutal, violent, and unsettling. That the story is still told with beauty and poetry is what makes it distinctive, and I look forward to seeing where Liu will take us in the future.

 

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RASL

September 9, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

raslRASL by Jeff Smith

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Everyone knows Jeff Smith, the creative wunderkind behind Bone. I’m not sure if everyone knows what he’s done since then, like this book, RASL. I didn’t, not until a year or so ago, and it still took me until now to get around to reading it. It just seemed like something far different from what Smith did with Bone, so it took me a while to convince myself to read it.

RASL is a surprise, because it’s such a departure from Bone. The premise of the story involves a scientist turned art thief, Robert Johnson, who travels between parallel worlds in order to protect the world from itself. Once he travels between worlds, he realizes the danger the technology poses to all of them, and begins working to undermine his own research. His two associates — his best friend and wife, with whom Robert is also involved — try to work against him, and that forms the conflict of the story.

The story draws on history as much as science fiction. It references Tesla’s inventions and research, and even brings in the fabled Philadelphia Experiment. All of it ties in with the story well enough to feel seamless, but not so much that the story doesn’t have a lot of loose ends. There are several characters who enter the story just to serve a plot point and are then dropped. Smith has given the story a sense of otherworldliness, not just through the plot but via the artwork, but that’s not a justifiable way to discard characters when they’re no longer useful.

In addition, there’s a vein of misogyny to the story that doesn’t rest well with me. Robert is our hero, and all the women who surround him in the story are there simply to move him along. Maya, his old associate, doesn’t appear to be as involved in the research as Robert and her husband, and her disappearance just serves as further motivation for Robert. Later, his new girlfriend is killed, again to give Robert more motivation to move forward. I’ve only recently heard of the “woman in the fridge” trope, but it feels like Smith threw two of them into his story.

The characters also don’t have the amount of depth I would have expected for this kind of work. Robert isn’t a likable character, even if he is somewhat sympathetic, and he’s the only character given any kind of real background. Everyone else in the story is just window dressing, including the protagonist, whose entire background seems to be “Kill Robert”. Aside from working for the government, he doesn’t have any motivation, and while being evil for evil’s sake works for some stories, it doesn’t work here. Plus, as odd as that character looks, I was surprised there wasn’t any attention paid to why he looks that way. at the very least, I thought it would be related to Robert’s research, creating a factor similar to that between Lex Luthor and Superman, but it was never resolved, or even discussed. It seemed like a missed opportunity.

Regarding the artwork, there were several times when it simply didn’t work. I’m willing to give Smith some leeway when it comes to how he portrays his characters here — the shifting between worlds would reasonably explain subtle changes in their looks — but sometimes characters just didn’t look right from one panel to the next. Robert’s forehead sometimes got tremendous, as did his jaw, and other characters had the same kinds of transformations. Add into that the fact that the sweat on their brows (and there’s a lot of it) was drawn as single droplets, and it winds up taking the reader out of the story more often than not.

The main difference between this style and that of Bone is that this one is intended to be realistic, while Bone didn’t. Sure, Smith populated that story with human characters, but with the Bones and the Rat Creatures, he indicated early in the story that this wasn’t our world. RASL is clearly meant to be our world, and when the style deviates from the norm, it’s too distracting.

While I was reading this book, I was fully engaged, but when I stopped to think about it after I finished it, I couldn’t make sense of a lot of it. The story is ambitious and entertaining, but still seems to miss the mark. Fans of Bone probably won’t be able to resist the book, but I can’t help but feel like they’re going to be disappointed, too. It’s just too different in style and tone to capture that same scope of Smith’s first story, and like it or not, it’s the story for which he will always be known.

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