Saturday, September 25, 2010

Review: Channel Zero

Review Channel Zero Brian Wood Image AiT Planet Lar Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriter/Artist: Brian Wood
Collects: Channel Zero #1-5 (Image, 1998)
Published: AiT/Planet Lar, 2000; $12.95

Before Demo, DMZ, Northlanders, and a handful of other wonderful comics being written today by Brian Wood, there was Channel Zero. If you didn’t know better, though, you might be hard-pressed to pick out Wood’s first graphic novel as having come out so long before what he’s done recently; it fits in that well, stylistically and thematically, with the rest of his body of work. Although he actually created it as part of a final project for graduation from design school, it shows the same depth and polish as his comics today, proving that Wood is an artist whose intimate understanding of his craft extends all the way back to his beginnings.

Channel Zero is set in an alternate near-future in which America is controlled by government corporations and freedom of expression has been all but completely suppressed. The media has been taken over by the government as well, due to Congress’s passage of the “Clean Act.” Wood writes that the law was spearheaded by the extreme right and that most of the population went along with the change, being “either in support of it, or too lazy to do anything about it.”

Enter Jennie 2.5, a young, self-described “uber-geek” whose dream to be an investigative journalist met an early death in the wake of the Clean Act. She’s an angry, rebellious young woman, as evidenced by her heavily tattooed body and penchant for hacking into various government-controlled computer systems. You can think of her as sort of a cross between Aeon Flux and Neo from The Matrix, except without that’s movie’s rampant slow-motion effects or its crash-course approach to college freshman philosophy.

Jennie is one of the few people actively seeking to bring the Clean Act down, and she sets out to do it by broadcasting her own pirate television program. Over the course of the book we see her rise from techno-punk revolutionary to widespread cultural phenomenon, both from her perspective and from the perspectives of everyday people living in New York City. This is actually one area where the book falters a bit, in that it spends a little too much time (in its second half, especially) focusing on the lives of people other than Jennie. One section, for example, tells the story of a “cleaner” whose job is to eliminate people who speak out against the government, even if their crimes are as minor as posting anti-government flyers. While it’s effective in building on the backstory of the world in which Channel Zero takes place, it does fairly little to advance Jennie’s story, which I think is by far the most crucial aspect of the book.

The art has a strong graphic design element to it, which makes sense given Wood’s background – although he worked in comics off and on for a few years around the time of Channel Zero, he was actually a graphic designer first and foremost until 2003. You’ve probably seen a good deal of his pre-comics work without even realizing it; he designed the box art for a number of video games, including Grand Theft Auto III and Max Payne. Elements of that style are definitely apparent in Channel Zero, with its mix of photorealistic and sketch-like art, all in stark black and white.

Wood’s background in design also shines through in the form of fake propaganda posters which frequently intercut the main story, almost like advertisements in a traditional comic book. Taking the propaganda theme even further, Wood often hides the catch-phrases and buzzwords from these posters (e.g., “evolve and revolve,” or “make them understand”) in the artwork of actual story pages, effectively creating mock subliminal messaging. Some parts of the book are even more overt in satirizing the media – for instance, one lengthy scene actually has an ongoing ticker tape running along the bottom of the pages. The end result is a comic that ridicules the media for using certain techniques as tools for social manipulation, even as it reappropriates those very techniques for its own purposes. It’s a neat effect, and one I’ve never seen attempted in this medium before.

As you can probably tell from everything I’ve said about this book so far, Wood’s politics in Channel Zero aren’t exactly subtle. It would have been predictable and easy for him to end the story with Jennie leading the people to some glorious, government-toppling revolution, in which case I think I still could have called this book a good, if not great, first graphic novel. But its ending is actually quite unique, in that it paints a realistic picture of one person’s inability to change society, no matter how popularly known that person is. Jennie isn’t devoid of the same flaws and selfish desires that any other person possesses, nor does she have the power to command social influence by force of will alone.

Wood’s purpose, I think, is to show that in order to oppose a system, one first has to acknowledge its existence; and that in the very act of acknowledging it, one enters into dialogue with and therefore becomes a part of it. In Channel Zero, Jennie does just that. Although she wants to be a “woman of the people,” she also wants to be a celebrity, in her own way, and unfortunately for her it’s impossible to be both in her world. By becoming a part of the “mainstream,” Jennie also becomes a cog in the wheel, another tool to be manipulated by the powers that be. In the very act of rebelling, she has played into the oppressor’s hand.

Some have suggested that Channel Zero is a traditional “government vs. the people” story set in a hyperbolic extension of Giuliani’s New York. If that were the case, the book would be little more than an angry political statement by an up-and-coming comics creator; but it’s more than that. Jennie’s recognition of her failure as a revolutionary and activist seems to represent the author’s own frustrations: Wood clearly yearns for social change, but at the end of the day the best he can do about it is to write and illustrate a comic book story – and aren’t comics themselves just a part of the mass media system that Wood so despises?

Like Jennie 2.5, it would seem that Wood too has become a part of the system. By the same token, though, I think he also shares in her optimism and in her hope for the future – a hope that the next generation will learn from the mistakes and limitations of this one, and that their world will be a better one than ours as a result. And what can we do to ensure that this better world comes into being? If we believe Brian Wood, it all starts with turning off the television.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Friday, September 17, 2010

Review: Gambit Classic, Vol. 1

Review Gambit Classic Volume One Chris Claremont Howard Mackie Bill Jaaska Mike Collins Jim Lee Lee Weeks Uncanny X-Men Storm Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Chris Claremont and Howard Mackie
Artists: Bill Jaaska, Mike Collins, Jim Lee, and Lee Weeks
Collects: Uncanny X-Men #265-267 (1991) and Gambit #1-4 (1993-94)
Published: Marvel, 2009; $24.99

As I’m pretty sure I’ve mentioned before, I think Gambit is an incredibly stupid character. It’s become strangely fashionable lately for comic book creators to claim there are no bad characters in comics, just bad stories – but that’s a lie and everyone knows it, especially if they’ve ever read a comic featuring Gambit in any capacity whatsoever. So why, of all things, do I now find myself reading and reviewing a book called Gambit Classic, Vol. 1? I don’t know, to be honest. Maybe I was hoping to be proven wrong. Or maybe I’m just a glutton for punishment – and punished, I truly was.

The story begins with Storm (who has for some reason regressed mentally and physically to childhood) robbing criminals in Cairo, Illinois. Since the character originally hails from Cairo, Egypt, I guess this is supposed to be ironic or something. I’ve never found Storm particularly interesting as a solo character, and the amnesiac child angle in these issues is exceptionally boring. The story is written by Chris Claremont, who has always seemed to think (incorrectly, most of the time) that he excels at writing strong female lead characters. He also has an unfortunate tendency to reuse certain villains to the point that they’re no longer the least bit menacing – in this case, Nanny and the Orphan-Maker, two characters who are about as dumb as you might guess based on their names.

At this point, you may be wondering: where exactly does Gambit fit into all of this? The short answer is that he doesn’t, really. He just happens to show up as Storm is getting a beat-down courtesy of the minions of the Shadow King (another incredibly lame character), and he helps her escape. He doesn’t speak too much, other than to exert his “Cajun charm” to try and persuade the Shadow King and his mind-slaves to let him and Storm go. Aside from that, he mostly just chain-smokes and occasionally blows things up. At the end of the third issue, he and Storm (who is no longer amnesiac, but still a child) head off to join the X-Men.

Now, here’s where Gambit Classic becomes really frustrating. Instead of reprinting the issues where Gambit becomes a member of the X-Men and we actually get to know something about his character, there’s a page of text explaining his activities over the next few years before the book skips ahead to the four-issue Gambit miniseries from 1993. I suspect the reason that his appearances in X-Men and Uncanny X-Men were omitted is that many of them have been reprinted elsewhere (namely, in the out-of-print trade paperback X-Men Visionaries: Jim Lee), whereas the ones with amnesiac-child Storm have not. But while I understand Marvel’s desire not to collect the same material a hundred times over, this book is still the first volume in a series called “Gambit Classic.” To my mind, that means it should collect the character’s early appearances rather than being some sort of career-spanning “greatest hits” compilation.

This leads me to the same fundamental problem I had with Deadpool Classic, Vol. 1. In both that book and this one, so many of the character’s early issues are omitted that I felt out-of-the-loop by the time I got to the later stories. That’s an even bigger problem with Gambit Classic, since the 1993 miniseries is basically a sequel to a crossover story that took place in two issues of X-Men and another two issues of Ghost Rider – none of which, of course, are collected here. (Interestingly, those issues were collected in a trade called X-Men & Ghost Rider: Brood Trouble in the Big Easy – a book which has been out of print for nearly twenty years.)

Even if those issues had been included, though, I doubt they could have salvaged my lack of enjoyment for the miniseries. The story is so mundane, it’s barely even worth summarizing; all you really need to know is that the Assassins’ Guild and the Thieves’ Guild are at war in New Orleans, and Gambit is the cause of it (sort of). The Thieves’ Guild apparently has some deal with a perpetually half-naked immortal French woman named Candra, who supplies them with an elixir each year that gives them longer life. But now the Assassins want the elixir, and so does Gambit, and so do some other people, etc. – you get the picture.

The story isn’t so much bad as it is astoundingly boring. I suppose that’s sort of a compliment when you’re talking about anything written by Howard Mackie, but I’d like to think my taste in comics is exponentially better than even Mackie’s least offensive work. The miniseries’ only (slightly) redeeming quality is that it’s drawn by Lee Weeks, an artist whose work I normally like very much. Even that doesn’t save it from mediocrity, though, since Weeks’ art is only occasionally good in this series; most of the time, it’s mired in over-the-top, vein-popping ’90s ridiculousness.

It’s worth noting that even by 1993, it’s clear that no one really has any idea of how to write Gambit. Half the time he sounds like he’s auditioning for Hamlet, and the rest of the time like he has some sort of speech impediment; the animated X-Men show was the only time I think anyone has ever gotten his accent quite right. It’s also fairly obvious that Gambit’s “mysterious” past is just a cover for the fact that the writers have no idea where he came from or what to do with him. Readers at the time were apparently eating him up, though, so I guess it’s hard to blame them for trying to capitalize on that.

In short, don’t be like me – don’t read this book, for any reason. I can’t even think of a single nice thing to say about it, honestly. I just hope that Marvel never releases a second volume, if only because of the remote chance that my curiosity may get the better of me again.

Rating: 1 out of 5

Friday, September 10, 2010

Review: Green Lantern: No Fear

Review Green Lantern No Fear Geoff Johns Darwyn Cooke Carlos Pacheco Ethan Van Sciver Simone Bianchi Secret Files and Origins DC Comics Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Geoff Johns and Darwyn Cooke
Artists: Darwyn Cooke, Carlos Pacheco, Ethan Van Sciver, and Simone Bianchi
Collects: Green Lantern Secret Files and Origins 2005 #1, Green Lantern #1-6 (2005)
Published: DC, 2008; $12.99

This first volume collecting Green Lantern’s most recent ongoing series, Green Lantern: No Fear, picks up soon after the events of Green Lantern: Rebirth, beginning with a story from the Green Lantern Secret Files and Origins one-shot. Written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke, this issue is by far the best part of the book. It’s essentially a series of flashbacks framed by a present-day sequence in which Hal Jordan begins to forge a friendship with Kyle Rayner, the man who served as Green Lantern in his stead for several years. In the flashbacks, Cooke explores the complex emotional history of Hal’s relationship with long-time love interest Carol Ferris; it’s a really touching story, and the beautiful colors in these scenes evoke some of Tim Sale’s best work (Superman for All Seasons and Spider-Man: Blue, in particular).

Geoff Johns writes the book from this point forward, and he begins by reworking bits and pieces of Hal’s past in a story set firmly in the post-Rebirth universe. Before long, Hal has rejoined the Air Force as a fighter pilot (restoring one of the character’s Silver Age trappings) and begins fighting the Manhunters, a group of robots constructed in the ancient past by the Guardians of the Universe, before they created the Green Lantern Corps. The new plot elements all feel so natural that I didn’t even realize some of them were new until after I had done a bit of research. Carlos Pacheco’s pencils, in combination with the bright, vivid colors of W. Moose Baumann, are effective at capturing Hal’s joy at being back both as Green Lantern and as a pilot.

Johns follows this story with several issues revolving around the classic Green Lantern villains Shark (a mutated tiger shark who can walk on land) and Hector Hammond (a giant-headed telepath with no physical control of his own body). These issues are drawn by Ethan Van Sciver, whose style marks a drastic change from Pacheco’s. He’s certainly a proficient artist, and his talents are put to use just as well here as they were in Rebirth; but to be quite honest, I’m beginning to feel that the way his work is typically colored is just too dark for the Green Lantern franchise. The character has always been more about “brightest day” than “blackest night” for me, which I understand probably puts me somewhat in the minority given the recent success of DC’s Blackest Night crossover. Even with that being the case, there’s still no denying that the artistic differences between the stories by Pacheco and Van Sciver are pretty difficult to reconcile.

No Fear comes to a grinding halt in the final story, an issue penciled and inked by Simone Bianchi. His artwork tends to be either hit or miss for me, often, ironically, within the same comic – in Wolverine: Evolution, for instance, his characters look stunning on one page, and like amorphous blobs on the next. His character renderings are actually fairly consistent here, but the problem is that he doesn’t seem to have any concept of lighting. Characters and objects are often lit from two or three intense light sources in a single panel, and then from two or three entirely different sources in the next. The art is so disorienting, and the characters’ physical actions match the dialogue so rarely, that it actually makes the story itself seem pretty disjointed at times.

Colorist Nathan Eyring is partly to blame as well, as his tendency towards plain white backgrounds gives the issue an incredibly unfinished feel. This change is probably the most jarring aspect of the story, especially in comparison to the rich blues and blacks, respectively, which serve as a backdrop to the Pacheco and Van Sciver issues. It strikes me as I write this that I’ve talked quite a bit about color in this review, more than I think I ever have previously. I suspect that has to do with the fact that the best superhero comics today strive to maintain at least some sense of visual continuity, even if its various parts are drawn by different artists. Captain America, for example, was drawn until about a year ago primarily by Mike Perkins and Steve Epting, and their styles were largely unified by the consistency of Frank D’Armata’s colors. Even New X-Men, with its infamously huge roster of artists, maintained a fairly consistent color palette until the end, when the story and art both took a darker turn.

So when I read a book like Green Lantern – a comic that people consistently praise as one of the best on the market – and it contains such wildly different-looking art from issue to issue, some of it quite bad, I can’t help but stand up and take notice. It just seems to me that a book that garners as much attention and sells as well as it does would have some level of artistic consistency in common with something like Captain America (again, just as an example), a book that does similarly well in terms of sales and critical response. There are other factors that contribute to how people respond to a comic book, of course, but I think it remains an interesting observation.

Aside from its inconsistent visuals and terrible final issue, I found No Fear disappointing in one other respect: it barely addresses the events of Rebirth – aside from that series’ most overt implication for the franchise, of course, which is that Hal Jordan is back in the role of Green Lantern. I understand that Johns wanted to get away from the damage DC had done to the character over the preceding years as quickly as possible, but I’m not sure ignoring the past completely is the best way of accomplishing that. I’m not terribly interested in seeing writers rehash the same one-dimensional characterizations that have been around since the 1950s, and by the end of this book, I feel like Johns is dangerously close to falling into that trap.

First of all, there are plot details like the fighter pilot plot device which, while interesting for a little while, don’t add anything to the story in the long run aside from the nostalgia factor. Much more troubling, though, is Hal’s flat characterization, which similarly hearkens back to the character’s earliest adventures. There’s a point at which having “no fear,” as the book’s title puts it, simply makes a character un-relatable and uninteresting, and too often while reading this book I felt that Hal was simply stoic to the point of arrogance. Johns seems to have used Rebirth as a vehicle not just for resetting the character’s status quo to one more in line with the character’s Silver Age origins, but for imposing on Hal a more simplistic and less dynamic personality – one that gives him the ability to conveniently ignore the moral quandaries which he should by all rights be dealing with in the wake of what’s happened to him.

Johns’ version of Green Lantern isn’t lacking in so much depth that you should necessarily avoid the series – not yet, at least, and I hope the writer doesn’t allow future stories to reach that point. So while the overall package is somewhat of a mixed bag, I think No Fear is still worthy of a mild recommendation, if mostly for the strength of its first half and the excellent Darwyn Cooke issue, which is a definite must-read for any fan of the character.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Friday, September 3, 2010

Review: Avengers: Supreme Justice

Review Avengers Supreme Justice Kurt Busiek Len Kaminski Mark Waid John Ostrander Joe Edkin George Pérez George Perez Sean Chen Andy Kubert Derec Aucoin Carlos Pacheco Squadron Supreme Iron Man Captain America Quicksilver Thor Scarlet Witch Live Kree or Die Marvel Cover trade paperback tpb comic bookWriters: Kurt Busiek, Len Kaminski, Mark Waid, John Ostrander, and Joe Edkin
Artists: George Pérez, Sean Chen, Andy Kubert, Derec Aucoin, and Carlos Pacheco
Collects: Avengers #5-7, Avengers/Squadron Supreme ’98, Iron Man #7, Captain America #8, and Quicksilver #10 (1998)
Published: Marvel, 2001; $17.95

“Live Kree or Die” is a storyline that’s been collected rather confusingly over the years. As a result, I’ve sort of tiptoed around it in my reviews of Avengers Assemble, Vol. 1 and Iron Man: Deadly Solutions, since neither of those books actually include the story in full. As of this writing, Avengers: Supreme Justice is the only book in which the middle two parts of the story, originally published in issues of Captain America and Quicksilver, have been collected.

Before I continue, though, there’s something fairly significant I should mention: I took another look on Amazon this week at the new softcover edition of Avengers Assemble, Vol. 1 coming out at the end of the year, and it appears that unlike the hardcover, it actually will include “Live Kree or Die” in its entirety. Although that makes this review a bit less significant than I originally thought it would be, it doesn’t make it irrelevant in the least. Even with the extra issues in the softcover, the hardcover still has a significant edge, simply for the fact that it has bigger pages. When you’re talking about the artwork of someone as talented as George Pérez, page size would be a huge factor even if the missing issues were of pretty decent quality. As we’ll see a little further along in this review, though, that just isn’t the case here.

The vast majority of what’s collected in Supreme Justice is also collected in Avengers Assemble, although interestingly, the issues are placed in a different (and better) reading order in the former. In Avengers Assemble, the Avengers/Squadron Supreme Annual comes directly after Avengers #5 and #6, the issues in which the team does battle with the Squadron Supreme and tensions begin to rise between Warbird (Carol Danvers, also known as Ms. Marvel) and her teammates.

Since the Annual features the Squadron as well, it’s clear that the book’s editors wanted to group all of the issues featuring those characters together, which I suppose makes sense on some level. But here’s the problem: the Annual takes place after Warbird has left the team and Justice and Firestar have become active members, which means that it must take place after the final part of “Live Kree or Die” in Avengers #7. The Annual doesn’t refer to specific plot points or even mention Carol by name, so it’s not exactly debilitating to the overall story; however, it certainly wouldn’t be unwarranted for someone reading Avengers Assemble to be confused at Warbird’s sudden absence or the appearance of two new team members without any explanation.

Supreme Justice, on the other hand, places the Annual where it belongs, after the events of “Live Kree or Die.” What I find most fascinating here is that this book was actually published before Avengers Assemble; that is, Marvel got the reading order right the first time around but then screwed it up in later collections. As far as the new softcover version of Avengers Assemble goes, it’s impossible to say at this point whether Marvel will reprint the stories in their proper order or not. There’s nothing stopping you from simply reading the issues of the book in any order, of course, so perhaps I’m making a bigger deal of this than I should. Still, it’s a bit annoying to see such a major continuity error in a book which is otherwise quite excellent.

The “Live Kree or Die” crossover begins with Iron Man #7, is also collected in Iron Man: Deadly Solutions. I discussed it a fair amount in my review of that book already, but just to recap, it’s a pretty solid issue, and it does a good job of propelling the plot of Iron Man’s own series forward while still contributing to a larger story involving the rest of the Avengers. The highlight of the issue comes when Iron Man confronts Warbird about her alcoholism, which she tries to explain away throughout a series of flashbacks that give the reader a great understanding of the character’s history, as well as the sense of loss that defines her personality.

When Tony gets into a bit of a sticky situation afterward, Warbird makes things even worse by bursting onto the scene completely drunk. In the process, she inadvertently exposes a splinter cell of Kree extremists, who have resolved to turn the entire human race into fellow members of their own blue-skinned species. Due to her connection to the deceased Captain Marvel (who himself was half-Kree), Carol is for some reason an integral part of the Kree warriors’ plan. As a result they try to lure her into their clutches, which proves none too difficult in her inebriated state.

It’s a rather convoluted set-up, but it gets the job done, I guess. The second part of the story, from Captain America #8, is kind of similar in that it’s just Warbird and one other hero fighting against the Kree. The issue takes place shortly after Captain America: To Serve and Protect, and it deals with some plot threads from that story in a brief scene at the beginning. With art by Andy Kubert, it’s a very good-looking twenty-odd pages. But in the end, the plot is nothing we haven’t already seen, with Captain America standing around looking incredulous while Carol generally acts like a drunken moron.

Review Avengers Supreme Justice Quicksilver #10 Issue Ten Joe Edkin John Ostrander Derec Aucoin Rich Faber Pietro Maximoff Wanda Maximoff Scarlet Witch Iron Man Ms. Marvel Carol Danvers Captain America Live Kree or Die Marvel trade paperback tpbThe story continues into Quicksilver #10, which is by all accounts an absolutely terrible comic book. First of all, the fact that Quicksilver ever had an ongoing series of his own is astounding to me, since I’ve never seen him portrayed as anything more than an unlikeable jerk. That aside, the actual script, by John Ostrander and Joe Edkin, is stilted and emotionless (and conspicuously devoid of contractions). See the picture at right for an especially painful moment, in which the Scarlet Witch robotically summarizes what’s been happening in the story so far.

I could go on and on about how awful this issue is, but in the interest of time I’ll give you just one example. There’s a positively ridiculous scene about halfway through in which a weakened Carol comes across a random vat of liquid in the Kree’s secret moon base and, somehow sensing its alcoholic nature, guzzles it down and regains her powers. It makes no sense at all: first, why would the Kree leave a huge, open container of alcohol just lying around? Second, how would Carol even know it was alcohol (or, for that matter, that Kree alcohol wouldn’t be poisonous to a human being)? And third, why would drinking it suddenly give her back the super powers she had lost? Correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that’s now how alcoholism works. Bizarre leaps of logic like this one are just one more reason why this issue rubs me the wrong way.

The final part of “Live Kree or Die,” from Avengers #7, is the only issue from the entire crossover that you actually need to read; the others just give it a bit more context, is all. It summarizes everything as competently as it can (given how ludicrously bad the Quicksilver issue is), neatly wraps up the Kree plot threads, and sees the expulsion of Carol from the team. Unfortunately, it doesn’t feel quite as tragic as it probably should – it’s hard not to want Carol gone after all the stupid things she’s done over the preceding issues.

In short, then, the two issues that are exclusive to Supreme JusticeCaptain America #8 and Quicksilver #10 – aren’t at all worth the price of this book, even if you can find it at a significant discount. They’re not a good reason to choose the softcover version of Avengers Assemble either, which I would only recommend if you can’t find the hardcover for a good price. Everything you need to know about “Live Kree or Die” is already present in that book, and it’s not as if it’s a wonderful story (even in concept) anyway. So, to be even shorter this time: just avoid this book.

Rating: 2 out of 5