Phoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm

January 9, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

unicornPhoebe and Her Unicorn in the Magic Storm by Dana Simpson

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I discovered the comic strip Phoebe and Her Unicorn over two years ago. It’s fantastic. It’s about a precocious young girl who befriends a unicorn, and how they become best friends. It’s about a lot more than that (friendship, diversity, acceptance, and family), but the relationship between Phoebe and Marigold Heavenly Nostrils (no kidding) is the real draw. There’s a sincerity and maturity about the strip that reminds me of Calvin & Hobbes, but with much less snark.

The Magic Storm is the sixth book featuring the characters, but the first five were collections of the strips. I don’t usually record or review those, since there’s not as much narrative structure to a strip (save for the few extended storylines), but this book is the first self-contained, extended story featuring Phoebe and Marigold. It also features the other main characters (Phoebe’s parents, her friend Max, and her frenemy Dakota), as well as introducing a couple of new characters. It’s probably not the best place to start with the strip, since the background between Phoebe and Dakota is better developed through the strip, but all that means is you get to read the first five books. (Trust me: This is a Good Thing™.)

The story opens with Marigold sensing something strange about her magic, while at the same time Phoebe is receiving severe weather alerts on her phone. The two, of course, are related, and it takes the two of them working together with their friends and the goblins to determine the source of the problem. It’s peppered with the lighthearted humor of the strips, and shows the positivity of the relationships of the characters. There’s a particular feel to the strip, and Simpson has captured that same feel here.

The Magic Storm isn’t the most tightly plotted story, but it’s intended for younger kids, and the lessons of the story are important ones. Given the choice between strip collections or self-contained stories, I would likely choose the strip collections, but if Simpson wants to keep telling these tales, I will keep reading them. Any chance to revisit the charm of her characters is one to take.

Started: October 18, 2017
Finished: October 18, 2017

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The Walking Dead, Volume 28: A Certain Doom

January 3, 2018 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

doomThe Walking Dead, Volume 28: A Certain Doom by Robert Kirkman, et al.

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Something big happens in A Certain Doom. I won’t spoil it for you, since that “something big” seems to be the point of the entire arc. Other things happen outside of that “something big”, but they seem inconsequential compared to it, not just in importance but also in a narrative sense. There’s a sub-plot regarding infighting, but it’s handled quickly, as if Kirkman were ready to get to the “something big”. There was a lot I liked about this volume (including, believe it or not, Negan), but I wish the events had received as much attention as their “something big”.

While reading this volume, I realized how well this comic works in black-and-white. Aside from giving the mood of the story a darker edge, it also helps make the blood and gore more effective. Were this presented in full color, with bright red blood and mottled grey corpses, it would come across as garish and exploitative; in black-and-white, it’s muted, making us focus more on how it affects the characters than the gore itself.

It’s hard to talk about this arc without giving away the “something big”, but it satisfies. The most significant thing to happen in this book, narratively speaking, is the character growth, though it occurs more in the secondary characters than where you would expect it to happen. As always, Kirkman ends the story in such a way that I want to keep reading, and since the series is already up to 172 issues, I figure it will keep me reading for a long time.

Started: October 10, 2017
Finished: October 10, 2017

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Wolverine

December 29, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

wolverineWolverine by Chris Claremont & Frank Miller

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I came into comics too late to read Wolverine right off the shelf, but man, did I know about it. It was a grail title of mine, since I loved Wolverine’s character, but it was always too expensive for me to buy to read. At some point, I wound up with the first issue, but I never got any further than that with the story. That first issue starts out strong, though, with an opening line as iconic as “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”: “I’m the best there is at what I do, but what I do best isn’t very nice.”

From there, we follow Logan hunting a bear that’s been left for dead, but has instead gone on its own killing rampage. He finds the bear, kills it, and expresses remorse over the act since it had been driven to it; then, he tracks down the man who poisoned it but didn’t kill it, fights him, and sends him to jail without any regrets. It sets the tone of his character, and shows him being more animal than man. In short, it defines all that is Wolverine.

Then, it moves to Japan. Mariko is Logan’s love, back in Japan and not accepting or sending letters. He goes to Japan to track her down, and becomes enmeshed in some crime drama related to Mariko’s new husband. That’s the point where the story goes off the rails and stops making sense. The Hand is involved, but it’s hard to tell what’s driving the crime gangs, and what their business actually is. For the story, Claremont only makes it clear that they’re criminals, and organized. I guess he feels like this is all we need to know.

What we do need to know, apparently, is Logan’s backstory. We get it at the start of each issue. In four or five panels on one page, we get his name, hear about his mutant healing abilities, his adamantium-laced skeleton, and his claws. Even at the time of the title’s publication, people knew who Wolverine was, and he was already a fan-favorite. Readers didn’t need it reiterated with every issue, but that’s what we get.

Released back in 1982, Wolverine is a comic that shows its age. At its time, it might have been a little progressive; it seems like Claremont did some research into Japanese culture instead of just populating the story with offensive stererotypes, and having a female assassin might have bucked some trends at the time. Thirty-five years later, the culturalism comes across as stereotypical, and the female characters are little more than story-dressing. Mariko doesn’t have any depth outside of her being a daughter, or Logan’s love, and the assassin, Yuriko, is inconsistent. During a fight, she’s cut by a sword, and Logan notes that she doesn’t make a sound, because she’s tough like that; later, she’s threatened by a crime boss, who grabs and twists her wrist, and she cries out, saying, “You’re hurting me!” That she falls in and out of a relationship with Logan only reinforces that inconsistency.

I hadn’t known Frank Miller had done the art in this book until I started reading it, and it’s sufficient. It feels kinetic, and isn’t done in such a way that things aren’t clear (in fact, there’s a scene where, mid-fight, Logan pulls an arrow from his arm to use against another assassin, and it’s done subtly enough that it’s not obvious, nor does it fade into the background), but parts of it made me laugh. Every time Logan snikts his claws, each one has to gleam in the light, and there were times when his mouth would be wide open in a yell (the better to show off those animalistic canines, my dear), only to be saying one word, quietly. The artwork didn’t always match the mood of the story.

I’ll freely admit my expectations were too high for Wolverine, but man, did it let me down. It’s too much a product of its time to hold up well so many years later.

Started: September 28, 2017
Finished: September 28, 2017

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Archie: Volume Four

December 11, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

archie4Archie: Volume Four by Mark Waid and Pete Woods

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In the afterword of the first volume of the Archie reboot, Waid noted that when he started writing the series, he hung a sign on his bulletin board that read, “First, do no harm.” It served as a reminder to tackle the characters honestly, as members of the Archie universe, and to maintain the themes and feelings of the original series. He’s accomplished this in the allegorical sense, but with Volume Four, he shows that he’s not necessarily abiding by that rule in the literal sense.

(Spoilers ahead.)

This volume packs an emotional punch, as the Betty/Veronica question continues to be a central part of the title, and also because Betty winds up in a serious accident by the end, serious enough that she flatlines before coming out to learn she can’t feel her legs. I’m a little torn by the reveal, because I can’t deny that it’s effective, but I also wonder if this is just a narrative ploy to drive Archie back to Betty. If that’s the case, then it makes Betty’s character pretty worthless, doesn’t it?

The accident is the result of a drag race between Archie and Reggie, and comes in mostly out of nowhere. Betty catches wind of it, and attempts to prevent it, but it forces her off the road, where she is seriously injured. Somehow, the two male characters come out of it with hardly a scratch, and it’s hard to tell how they react to the news, since the volume ends on a cliffhanger. Waid suggests this will be a big thing for Archie (and for Reggie, though for different reasons), and it all sits uncomfortably with me. Betty has been strong and independent, and unless this turn of events is there to make Betty stronger, it all feels like a girl-in-the-refrigerator moment. I’m withholding final judgment until I see where this part of the story goes, because it can go either way from here.

As for the other stories, we see less of Cheryl Blossom (though her story takes an unexpected turn), and there’s a cute interplay between Jughead and Veronica that’s endearing, but the story is overwhelmed by the Betty arc. This isn’t necessarily bad, but it was nice to see some other characters get some time in the spotlight. Moose even gets some panel time!

Unfortunately, so does Reggie. Reggie was never a likable character, so it’s no surprise that he’s nobody’s friend in the reboot, but Waid seems to be trying for Riverdale’s own version of Henry Bowers, instead of an obnoxious prankster. There’s an air of finality around his pranks that didn’t exist in the old series, and it feels like it goes too far in the revamp.

Despite my concerns, I still think this is a solid volume, with some effective storytelling. It relies a bit too much on coincidence and might be pushing characters into making decisions that don’t support their characters, but it’s definitely memorable. I’m eager to see how Waid will wrap up this storyline in Volume Five.

Started: September 5, 2017
Finished: September 5, 2017

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Paper Girls: Volume 3

November 23, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

paper3Paper Girls: Volume 3 by Brian K. Vaughan and Cliff Chiang

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I’ve come to realize that I like the potential behind Paper Girls more than I do the actual story. This isn’t a bad thing; like Saga, it’s full of ideas that, taken to their conclusions, could be epic, but right now it still feels like Vaughan is scrambling to figure out what to do with his ideas. In this volume, the four paper girls find themselves in prehistoric times helping someone who could be a paper girl herself, if only she weren’t a few hundred thousand years before their time.

Oddly, the most compelling of all the volumes so far is the first one, when the four girls find each other, before all the weirdness kicks in. By now, I would have expected the exposition to settle, and for the story proper to begin. Instead, it feels like Vaughan is still playing out the exposition. I suppose it’s possible that we are in the story proper here, but it’s hard to determine, since we’re still getting new characters and new plot points orbiting the main characters. Plus, I’m still not sure what it is the four girls are trying to accomplish.

This isn’t to say I don’t like the title, though. The four main characters are likable (mostly), and the weirdness suggests a lot of what’s to come, but I’m beginning to lose patience with the story. I get the feeling the plot might become apparent with the next volume, but I thought that about Volume 2, so we’ll see how it goes. I’m not ready to give up on it just yet.

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Dark Forces: Soldier for the Empire

November 9, 2017 at 7:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , )

empireDark Forces: Soldier for the Empire by William C. Deitz

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It’s hard to give proper credit for this title, since the original book was a graphic novel that should probably credit the artist, and the edition I “read” was the audio adaptation of the story, with a full cast and sound effects, which should probably credit the actors and adapters. The simple solution is to find the common element — the writer — and just stick with him. Just keep in mind that it’s hard to identify who to credit when it comes to my thoughts.

The story is the first of three parts, intended to tell us more about Kyle Katarn, the Rebel agent who becomes a Jedi Knight over the course of the video games Dark Forces and Jedi Knight. This volume reveals Kyle’s time spent in the Imperial Academy, training to be an officer against the Rebellion. We see why he joins, how he commands, and why he ultimately rejects the Empire for the Rebellion, as well as meeting other characters who will feature in the games.. Overall, it’s an interesting arc, but it moves so quickly we don’t get a real sense of emotion out of it all. Instead, it feels like we’re being told how things happen instead of being shown.

Part of it, I think, is the limitation of the audio format. Since we can’t see what’s happening, we have to hear about things through dialogue, and a lot of it doesn’t sound natural. Why, in the middle of a gunfight, would a character talk about what he sees if he’s not relaying that information to somewhere else? Why would they mutter to themselves about what they’re thinking when they’re walking through a crowd of people who aren’t sympathetic to him? It doesn’t make much sense, but I’m not sure how else they could have done it without having a third-person narrator talk over the action.

Also, I had a realization during this drama, and that’s the fact that writers should avoid using the phrase “As you know” in dialogue. It always follows a question (“Hey, you’ve read Moby Dick?”), followed by an affirmative response (“Oh, sure.”), followed by “As you know” to fill in the point the author wants to make to the reader. When I see them, they’re usually about something the writer wants to say to make his characters sound smart. Instead, they come across as condescending and less sympathetic. One of these moments appeared in the presentation.

Kyle is an interesting character, and this presentation is a good introduction to him, but I feel like I should have just read the book instead. I went with the audio because the books are out of print and expensive, but for other interested readers, I’d point you to your local library. I’m not sure that the graphic novel would present the story better, but it certainly can’t be as clunky as this drama.

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Harrow County: Abandoned

September 26, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

harrow5Harrow County: Abandoned by Cullen Bunn, et al.

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I’m no expert on horror comics, but Harrow County is at the top of my list for that genre. It combines the weird with the graphic, the unsettling with the mood, and it creates an atmosphere that’s unique to the title. Afterlife with Archie comes close to hitting that magic combination, but that series relies a bit too much on what the reader already knows about the characters, while Harrow County fords new territory.

The story this time centers on Abandoned, the four-eyed creature that roams the woods near Harrow County. We learn more about his history and how he ties in with Emmy and her history. We also see firsthand what happens when outsiders come to town in search of the monster they’ve heard so much about, and how it rarely ends well for them.

The first half of the story is okay, but I feel like the revelation should have been more impactful. As it was, I just read it and thought, “Huh.” It makes sense, it fits the story, and it doesn’t stir anything up. Maybe it will have more relevance over the next few arcs, but I found myself much more interested in the hunters who have come to try to kill Abandoned. It encompassed the myth surrounding Harrow County, and gave us new details about it. Plus, it shows us how powerful Emmy has become, and what her choices will mean for the future of the town.

Bunn pulls in another artist for the first two issues in the book, which I wasn’t thrilled to see (Tyler Crook, as far as I’m concerned, has defined the look of the series and should be the only artist working on it), but McNeil does a good job of mimicking his style without it being a straight copy. It helps that she isn’t required to create any new characters for that half of the story.

Abandoned is half-good, half-okay, which still works out to being a decent arc. I hope Crook will remain the sole and constant artist, and I hope Bunn keeps this story going in unusual, thought-provoking directions. The series works best when it does so, and I feel like he’s set it up so we’ll see some consequences in future issues.

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Darth Vader: End of Games

September 22, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

endDarth Vader: End of Games by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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End of Games brings the saga of Darth Vader between the events of Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back to a close. Throughout the series, Vader has been pursuing his own agenda while following the Emperor’s orders, and in this final volume, it all comes together with his final showdown with Cylo, his rival against the Emperor. Everything — Vader’s apprenticeship to the Emperor, Doctor Aphra’s role in Vader’s plans, even the fate of the two murderous droids — comes to a conclusion here, so I’m sure anticipation is high.

The thing is, I could barely get interested in any of it. I’m in the minority in that I didn’t find this series to be interesting at all, but so much of what happens here is forgettable. What makes it even more regrettable is that there’s a decent attempt at bridging the gap between the first two movies in the saga, but the characters feel too wooden, too unrealized to draw the reader in. Plus, I feel like I’m the only one who finds Triple Zero and BeeTee to be more annoying than anything else, so that’s not helping, either.

I know a lot of people like the Darth Vader comic, but I’m not in that group. I haven’t given up on the new Marvel titles all together (for one, I bought a bunch of the ebooks when they were on sale; for another, one of the titles is written by Marjorie Liu, and Cullen Bunn helms another one), but as a starting point, Darth Vader isn’t recommended. Even when my expectations has been lowered, I was still disappointed in them.

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Darth Vader: The Shu-Torun War

September 21, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

shuDarth Vader: The Shu-Torun War by Kieron Gillen, et al.

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The Darth Vader comic series hasn’t impressed me much so far. The stories don’t feel memorable, the art feels too static, and the backstory it’s supposed to fill doesn’t feel significant. It’s supposed to bridge the time between Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, showing us how Vader comes to find Luke is his son, but it focuses a lot on other things, including two murderous versions of C-3PO and R2-D2. People seem to love those two droids, but they get on my nerves. They’re trying too hard to be the complete opposite of those two characters, and still maintain that same sort of charm. It’s terrible.

The Shu-Torun War, though, is a different sort of story. It avoids the whole Luke subplot all together, instead telling us of a civil war on Shu-Torun, a mining planet that’s crucial for the Empire to control to build its ships and Death Stars. Vader steps in to control that civil war, only to find himself immersed in the culture and politics of the planet. Once he’s in control of the planet, he still has to control the situation, and that’s where the heart of the story lies.

Aside from the story showing how the civil war develops (and ends), this collection also shows how dangerous Vader is. Gillen captures the character well, showing him as ruthless, unsentimental, cool, and in control, without showing him as emotionless. The Shu-Torun War gives the character a focus outside of trying to find Luke or rule the galaxy; it’s a microcosmic story that has its own arc within the world of Star Wars without the baggage of being a part of the larger story.

I’m still not wild about the art in the series, though it’s detailed and fine. I just wish it managed to convey a sense of action better. There’s a scene near the start of the book where a shuttle crashes into a building, right above Vader’s head, and it looks like a movie still instead of showing any real sense of danger or action. It just is, and it’s disappointing. I don’t know enough about the art of writing comics to know how other writers and artists do it, but this series is the first time I’ve noticed it.

If I were to recommend any single story arc out of the Darth Vader series, this would be it. I think readers could get by with reading just this collection and not lose too much (Doctor Aphra goes missing during the events of Vader Down, so she doesn’t need to be explained, and the two murderous droids aren’t as present in the story), though they may be tempted to read the rest just to get the rest of the story. I don’t recommend it, but I can see readers wanting to do it.

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Vader Down

September 20, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

downVader Down by Jason Aaron, et al.

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Vader Down is one of those most dreaded comic book events: The Crossover. It’s a story that begins with a one-shot comic and then takes us over multiple titles (in this case the Star Wars and Darth Vader Marvel comics) to tell a complete story. Normally, these kinds of events drive me crazy, but Marvel at least had the sense to collect all the different parts together into a single graphic novel.

I hadn’t planned on reading any more of the Vader comics after reading the first two collections, but Amazon had a sale on a lot of Star Wars comic ebooks on May 4th, and my weakness got the better of me. Luckily, Vader Down takes place between the second and third volumes in that series, so I at least read it in the right place.

Vader Down is about Vader finally encountering Luke after the Battle at Yavin at the end of the first movie. They engage in battle over a planet, and then both crash-land onto said planet, though far enough away from each other that they don’t meet face-to-face. The story becomes about their rescue, Luke by Leia and Han, Vader by Doctor Aphra and the two killer droids. It’s not the greatest story, but it gives us more insight into their encounter in The Empire Strikes Back.

This collection is largely forgettable, but it’s intended for people who are current in both the Darth Vader and Star Wars titles. I wasn’t lost, as far as the plot was concerned, but I did feel like I was missing something in the sections of the story that featured in Star Wars. This is another reason I’m not wild about crossover events.

Like the first two Darth Vader collections, the artwork in Vader Down struck me as static, especially in the action sequences. I didn’t get a sense of activity from one panel to the next; instead, it was like I was viewing stills from a movie than an actual movie, which isn’t something I usually get from graphic novels. The artwork is great, and detailed, but it didn’t suggest movement as much as I would have expected. In that sense, it didn’t help the story much at all.

So far, I’ve not been impressed with the new Star Wars comics, but I’ve only read one of them. I look forward to reading the Han Solo title by Marjorie Liu and the Darth Maul title by Cullen Bunn, namely because I like what the writers have done outside of Star Wars. I still have two more volumes to go with the Darth Vader series, but I’ll be reading them more out of obligation than I will anticipation.

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