Thursday, March 30, 2006

Suicide is Painless

Back in the late 80s, when I was in high school and reading tons and tons of comic books, I never picked up Suicide Squad. I am not sure the exact reason, but I do remember seeing mention of Amanda Waller & Co. somewhere and never feeling particularly interested.

One of the great things about not reading particular titles when they are first released is that they will be there waiting for you whenever you may be ready. After reading some good reviews about this series over at CBR, I decided to track it down and picked up issues #1 through #20 from Lone Star Comics for well under a buck a pop.

After reading the first dozen or so issues I am pretty impressed. I have always been a fan of John Ostrander and his mixture of witty banter and consciously slow character development here is particularly strong. Right off the bat, I was much of a fan of the artwork by the team of McDonnell and Kesel, as it seemed so 'Generic Late 80s DC'. What really struck me was the weakness of the covers - with the exception of Chaykin's kick ass cover for #2 and the cool Deadshot cover for #6 - and the varying quality of the art on some of the characters. The squarehead look given to both Bronze Tiger and Colonel Flag looks like its out of a second tier fanzine.

The cast of characters, for the most part is quite good - I find Flag's attempts to channel his inner Fury to be quite endearing. Of the villains, Ostrander seems to have the most fun with Captain Boomerang's 'French Quarter Cad' routine. As a sucker for all thing Charlton - it's great to see Nightshade back in action. On the downside, I am not sure where they are going with the 'Deadshot pulling his shots' bit, and I find the Enchantress to be a bit of a one note character. I hope they resolve both of those issues.

As for the stories, the first few issues are great as the reader gets to follow the Squad on its first few adventures. I must admit to feeling a bit lost at first, not having read the Secret Origins issue that is incessantly referenced in the editor's notes, but quickly got me bearings. I particularly liked the multi-issue sojourn to the Soviet Union as it has a real 'Remember the 80s?' Cold War vibe to it. The infiltration of Belle Reve by Batman was fun, but his whole vendetta against the Squad - which was revisited in the JLI issue - has not been explained to my satisfaction. I could have also lived without the Millennium issue. Back in the day, I went out of my way not to be millennium books as my relatively thin wallet was pissed at DC for interrupting our regularly scheduled programming. Funnily enough - I own a page of Norm Breyfogle art from the Millennium Detective Comics issue featuring Batman and Jim Corrigan.

Overall the series is pretty consistently strong, thanks to Ostrander's strengths as a storyteller, and as I finished each issue I looked forward to picking up the next. I am even starting to better appreciate the artwork, which improved once Bob Lewis started on inks. I believe that much of the problem has to do with the quality (or lack thereof) of paper used by DC at the time, it pretty much kills most artwork. I am looking forward to finishing my run up to number 20, but I will reserve judgment about tracking down any more issues until then. At this stage, I am just happy to be reading some fresh stories that I missed the first time around for less money than they would have cost me at the time.

Monday, March 27, 2006

A Tale of Two Sergeants

I was interested to see that both Marvel and DC have seen fit to publish a miniseries featuring their best known WW2 soldiers. I picked up Sgt Rock: The Prophecy #1, as I am always interested in seeing what Joe Kubert is up to. It was good enough to keep me going and I am now half way through the series, quite interested to see where it is going. The only real problem for me is that the central figure here – the character named David – interests me the least. The whole religious/spiritual angle is what is supposed to separate this tale from all other ‘Easy’ tales, but it’s just not doing much for me. What I am finding to be quite fascinating, however, is the portrayal of the fight for survival in the Balkans. The encounter with the Lithuanians was wonderful and the cliffhanger at the end of Chapter Two added a very sinister atmosphere to the story. It’s pretty impressive to see that Joe Kubert is still able to produce such a high quality comic book. His writing is quite good and his dialogue seems to have evolved with the times. All in all, it’s a pretty solid piece of work. At the halfway point, I’d give it a solid B.

On the other hand, we get Marvel’s Fury: Peacemaker – which tells the story of a man whose love for peace is so strong that he’s willing to fight for it. No, wait – wrong character. This book has a very different vibe to it that the DC miniseries, and deals with the pre-Howlers experiences of Nick Fury at the outset of America’s involvement in WW2. I was not at all impressed with the first issue, and had I not bought #1 and #2 together, I’m not sure that I would have continued. The purposed of issue #1 is to show that America was perhaps not quiet ready to enter the fray. This is illustrated by some of the most convoluted and difficult to follow storytelling that I’ve seen in a long time. To be fair, if the creators were trying to show the anarchy of war – they did a good job. I had to re-read page after page to make any sense of the action. Luckily, aside from the ridiculous cover, issue #2 is a vast improvement as we get to see a little something called character development. Fury hangs with a group of British soldiers deep behind enemy lines in North Africa. Garth Ennis’ script starts to make more sense and the storytelling slows down to a reasonable pace (although the action scenes are still tough to follow). The artwork by the team of Darick Robertson and Jimmy Palmiotti is very smooth and shiny – I’ll file it under ‘Quitely wannabe’. The greatest asset are the British chaps, none of whom carry an umbrella, as they ooze confidence and war weariness and help give the miniseries a kick in the ass. I was not impressed at first, but it’s growing on me and escapes with a C+.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Slam Evil: Chuck Dixon Style

A few weeks ago, while scanning the racks of the latest issue of Jonah Hex, one cover really jumped out at me. It was from a Phantom series I’d never heard of by a publisher I never heard of. Feeling like trying something new – and feeling like it was my duty as a comic book fan to support a good cause, I picked it up. It was issue #9 of an ongoing series, but luckily the story was the beginning of a two-parter so I was in no danger of feeling lost.

The Phantom has a very peculiar track record as a comic book character. He is one of the oldest, and best known globally but has seemingly struggled to sell comics here in North America. There have, of course, been some great Phantom comics in the past – mostly notably runs by Jim Aparo and Don Newton for Charlton, but the Ghost Who Walks really hasn’t made much of an impression on the funnybook world in the past 30 years. This raises the question of whether a character who is described as ‘timeless’ is really just out of touch.

I am pleased to announce that, based on what I’ve read so far, the Moonstone series is full of promise. Issue #9, written by Chuck Dixon, deals with the illegal slave trade, and this setting really helps to set a sinister tone. This is a perfect backdrop for a Phantom adventure, and Dixon does a good job of balancing dialogue with action. Eric J’s artwork is uneven and some of the facial expressions are just a bit too distorted for my tastes. That being said, the cliffhanger ending has me anxious to read #10. Comics don't often have that effect on me these days.

Future writers would do well to study Dixon’s solution to dealing with a 21st Century Phantom: Have the Ghost That Walks deal with issues of the modern developing world.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

My Hex Life Has Never Been Better

Ladies and Gentleman, for the first time in over 6 years - I have purchased 5 consecutives issues of an ongoing series.

That's right, aside from DC: New Frontier, I have not bought 5 issues of a title off the rack since the days of Sandman Mystery Theatre and Image-era Astro City. Well, all it took was a scarfaced gunslinger and I am back to handing my loonies over to my LCD. It's no secret that I think western are almost the perfect genre for funnybook, and this series has won me over big time. Let's look at what we've seen so far:

Jonah Hex #2
I love a good western tale that takes place in a corrupt town south of the border. The themes in seem to come right out of a Peckinpah western, and yet still seem fresh. Luke Ross' art is really growing on me.

Jonah Hex #3
Ok, this one shared some similarities with an early episode of Deadwood, but that can be forgiven as we are blessed with a Bat Lash appearance. Maybe we'll be luck enough to see a spin-off? Ok, but I can still dream. The Phil Noto cover was freakin' gorgeous.

Jonah Hex #4
I spotted the Chaykin cover on the rack from about 15 paces. This story of false accusations is probably the weakest of the lot so far, but still quite good.

Jonah Hex #5
Tony DeZuniga alert! This was a stroke of genius - almost as though they were reward us older fans for sticking with the earlier issues. What this proves is that a western can be handled by any type of artist (from Ross to DeZuniga). Dezuniga's pencils are very appropriate for this claustrophobic story.

Hell, these stories have been so good that I'll keep buying them as long as they keep printing them. I love the single issue stories. It actually rewards the reader for picking it up off the racks. So many titles today seem to be loss leaders for the TPB market. My fingers are crossed that sales are strong enough to warrant a long run.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Join the Legion of Doom (Patrol fans)

I recently had a long-time customer on eBay tell me that he was really getting into the Doom Patrol and whether I had any comics for sale. I’ve got probably 75% of the original series, and this is a guy who is willing to pay a good price for comics, but I had to tell him that there was no way I was letting go of my babies.

So, what is it about the Doom Patrol that makes it such a great series? At first glance, DP looks like an ugly duckling when compared to its contemporaries at DC such as the staid long-running Superman and Batman titles and the stylish titles featuring revamped Golden Age characters.

I have also heard that Doom Patrol is more akin to Marvel books of the early 60s, mainly due to the mixture of in-fighting and outsider angst. I don’t really buy that as the storytelling and characters in Doom Patrol are far too fantastical and silly (for lack of a better word) to co-exist with the likes of Tony Stark and Reed Richards.

Once you scratch the surface, it quickly becomes apparent that the Doom Patrol’s greatest strength is that it is so different from other titles. In fact, the Doom Patrol should almost be allowed to exist in its own alternate universe, without regard to superhero norms. Of course, exceptions could be made, allowing for crossovers with the Challs or the occasional wedding.

So, how’s does such a strange little comic book pop up in the middle of the straightforward Silver Age? Well, I guess it all starts in Arnold Drake’s brain. I imagine that he may be the only person who has written both X-Men and Little Lulu. His strength here is that he was able to create interesting characters; each having a unique angle that prevents them from becoming merely recycled heroes.

Let’s look at Negative Man. He is the team’s nearly omnipotent member whose greatest weakness is a time fatal time constraint. By keeping his exploits to 60 seconds, the creators ensure that he does not overshadow the rest of the team. Rita’s powers have been used almost since the dawn of comic books – but her background as a Hollywood star is a great twist (or perhaps stretch). In a way, a celebrity becoming a freak reminds readers not to get too comfortable with the status quo. In Robotman, we get your typical Ben Grimm, man trapped inside a monster’s body gets through life by alternating between anger and comedy, but the real genius here is that we some pathos is developed through the back-up series in which we series Cliff Steele on the lam.

Of course, these odd heroes pales in comparison to their unbelievably wacky foes. It you were to assemble a Wacky Villains Hall of Fame. I would imagine the liked of Monsieur Mallah, Animal-Vegetable-Mineral Man and Mr. 103 would all be charter members. Finally, I have to mention Mento, Rita’s love interest who would have a tough time cracking the Justice League Antarctica line-up.

And yet, with all of this goofiness going on, the stories are still very engaging and a real pleasure to read. The artwork, mainly by Bruno Premiani, is absolutely perfect for the titles as it is loose and mildly abstract without ever being too over the top. It’s hard to think of another Silver Age artist who could have pulled this one off – although I would have liked to see Steve Ditko give it a try.
Anyway, that’s my attempt to put my finger on what makes Doom Patrol such a fun read. If you’ve never tried the book, I suggest picking up an issue or two. Try browsing eBay, where lower grades copies can be found for peanuts.