Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Chronicles of Conan, Vol. 1: Tower of the Elephant and Other Stories

Writer: Roy Thomas
Artist: Barry Windsor-Smith
Collects: Conan the Barbarian #1-8 (Marvel, 1970-71)
Published: Dark Horse, 2003; $15.95

Conan the Barbarian: a character whose very name is sure to elicit a knowing chuckle from most people. And rightly so, if we’re talking about the Arnold Schwarzenegger movies! I’ll admit, I went into this collection fully prepared for brainless stupidity, but since the series is an important part of comics history, and because it’s written and drawn by two industry legends, I thought it couldn’t hurt to see what it was all about.

To make a long story short, I was dead wrong about Conan. I quickly realized that in order to enjoy this book, I would have to throw out all of my preconceptions about the character. Conan, in the comics, may be impulsive and headstrong, but he’s certainly not a dumb brute. While his stories are fairly straightforward, at least in this first volume, they’re often also poignant and moving. The image of Conan created by Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith is one of a young man coming of age, through a series of picaresque adventures, in an interesting and dangerous fantasy world.

As most people are probably aware, the Conan mythos wasn’t exactly an invention of either Thomas or Windsor-Smith; as a character, Conan had already existed in the works of Robert E. Howard for several decades, since the early 1930s. But this was his first venture into the world of comics, and his ongoing series was also the first true “sword and sorcery”-type fantasy comic ever to be produced by a major publisher. With Marvel having just snagged the rights to Conan from Howard’s estate, the first few issues consist mainly of adaptations of the original novels and short stories. At this point, neither Thomas nor Windsor-Smith had quite found their creative footing yet, although it’s hard not to at least appreciate how much effort they put into it.

The stories improve with time, though, and there are several standouts in this volume, my favorites being “The Tower of the Elephant” and “Devil-Wings Over Shadizar.” The former concerns Conan’s encounter with an alien being held captive by an evil sorcerer; the latter is the first of Conan’s adventures in which he is motivated by genuine affection toward another human being, making its tragic ending all the more powerful.

At times the stories can take on a somewhat formulaic feel – Conan arrives in a new place, Conan gets into a fight with the locals but befriends one of them, Conan and his new friend go on a hunt for treasure, Conan’s new friend is killed, and Conan just barely escapes death himself – but whenever it starts to get boring, Thomas throws a curveball of a plot into the mix and everything feels fresh again. One great example is “The Twilight of the Grim Grey God,” an excellent story which serves as a potent commentary on the nature of war itself. I can see the prototypical Conan plot wearing thin if it continues for much longer after this volume, but for now, I think it’s suited perfectly to the character as he makes his way through the world and grows into a man.

The art, in the beginning, is fairly average for the decade in which Conan was first published, but Windsor-Smith starts to come into his own by the third or fourth issue. Thomas had originally intended for the series to be drawn by John Buscema, and while he’s a fantastic artist, I’m glad things didn’t end up working out on that front. While the art style in Conan is actually very similar to Buscema’s – due in no small part, I’m sure, to the fact that John’s younger brother Sal fulfills the inking duties throughout – there is a certain visceral quality to Windsor-Smith’s pencils that lends the comic a sense of individuality. Even at this early point in his career, it’s easy to see why Marvel would later choose him as the artist to depict Wolverine’s brutal origin story in the pages of Marvel Comics Presents.

The only truly negative thing I can say about this collection is that it doesn’t include any of the series’ original covers. As Thomas writes in the afterword (which is excellent, and certainly one of the book’s highlights), the covers were an important part of the series and its history. It’s hard to blame anyone specifically for the omission, since I believe it was the result of legal issues between Dark Horse and Marvel, but it’s still unfortunate. (In case you’re wondering, the original issues were published by Marvel, but Dark Horse is now reprinting them since Marvel no longer has the rights to Conan.) From what I can tell, this problem has been corrected for more recent volumes in the series, although it would be nice if future printings of the first one could be updated as well.

Overall, the adventures of Conan far exceeded my expectations, and even if you think you already know what to expect from them, I would still recommend taking a look. It’s actually a pretty unique series, especially for its time, and features some truly great art. I’m looking forward to reading the next book, in large part because I’m curious to see whether Thomas will begin to flesh out some kind of overarching plot. Even if that’s not the route this book ultimately takes, though, Thomas and Windsor-Smith have demonstrated that the character has more than enough potential variety to keep things interesting for some time.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Monday, April 19, 2010

Hellboy, Vol. 1: Seed of Destruction

Writers: Mike Mignola, John Byrne
Artist: Mike Mignola
Collects: Hellboy: Seed of Destruction #1-4 (1994)
Published: Dark Horse, 1994; $17.95

Seed of Destruction begins with an idea that’s interesting enough: as the Second World War comes to a close, the Nazis attempt to summon the powers of Hell to turn the tide in their favor. Unfortunately for the Third Reich, their success works to their enemies’ advantage, with the demonic baby they conjure up – soon to be dubbed “Hellboy” – falling into the hands of the Allies.

From this point, writer/artist Mike Mignola fast-forwards the story half a century into the future. It’s almost too bad, because I think the adventures of baby/child/adolescent Hellboy could have been pretty interesting. The title character, along with teammates Abe Sapien (a merman) and Liz Sherman (a pyrokinetic), is now an agent of the U.S. government who investigates paranormal activity. A series of strange events involving one of the Americans who originally discovered him leads Hellboy and his team to an old Victorian house – here, he confronts the wizard responsible for bringing him into the mortal plane in the first place.

This book was my first Hellboy comic book experience and, having heard so many good things about the series, I expected to enjoy it quite a bit. However, several things prevented that from happening. First, there’s a sort of “hurry up and wait” pacing to the book that just feels a bit off. I would have liked to learn more about Hellboy and his world after the exciting opening sequence, but instead the character rushes straight into the clutches of the bad guy, spending a full half of the book as a helpless captive. Most of the story consists of the wizard rambling on about his past and his master plan to destroy all of creation, with Hellboy taking on the equally clichéd “You’ll never get away with this!” role. Very little time is spent with Abe or Liz (who is actually unconscious for most of the book), which is disappointing because both seem like characters with a lot of potential.

The main draw of Seed of Destruction is the artwork, which is fantastic. It’s dark and moody, but in a fun, almost campy sort of way, and the Lovecraftian monsters that the wizard spends most of the book trying to awaken are especially eye-grabbing. My guess is that Mignola, who didn’t have much experience writing comics before Hellboy, came up with the plot and asked John Byrne (who receives credit for co-writing the book) to help with the script. Although the central ideas are interesting, the result is still an ill-paced, overly verbose comic that runs at least one issue too long. I suppose I’ll give the second book a try, but only on the basis of all the praise that’s been heaped on this series over the years; my hope is that with Mignola penning the subsequent volumes by himself, the end product will be a lot less average.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Monday, April 12, 2010

Criminal, Vol. 1: Coward

Writer: Ed Brubaker
Artist: Sean Phillips
Collects: Criminal #1-5
(2006-07)
Published: Marvel/Icon, 2007; $14.99

Leo Patterson is a coward. At least, that’s what everyone thinks, and not without good reason. Leo is an expert at planning heists, but he’s also an expert at escaping disaster when his plans go horribly wrong. The first volume of Brubaker and Phillips’ Criminal picks up on Leo’s story five years after the “Salt Bay job,” a failure so terrible that Leo has left the big-time and now operates as a simple pickpocket. But when he’s approached by a corrupt cop and another survivor of the “Salt Bay job” for his help in knocking over a police van, everything changes. Leo is initially hesitant at the idea of working with a cop, but ultimately agrees when he learns that Greta, another old friend, will be in on the heist as well.

As it turns out, Leo’s misgivings are justified. The cop is actually working for a drug lord who wants one of his thugs, a man named Delron, released from police custody. The web these characters weave is intricate, and it provides for a very satisfying number of double- and triple-crosses. The job goes horribly wrong, of course, and Leo gets away as usual (along with Greta) – but this time, for a change, he actually escapes with the score in his own hands. What follows is by far the most interesting part of the story, as Leo and Greta try to evade the people who set them up.

Coward borrows from a number of other works in the crime genre, but not in a lazy or uncreative way. Delron, for instance, recalls Loren Visser, the villainous private detective of the Coen brothers’ Blood Simple, but somehow manages to be even more sadistic and patently evil. The story includes most of the tropes of modern crime fiction, from extreme violence and torture to sex and drug addiction. While Brubaker doesn’t emphasize any of these elements with particular inventiveness, the way they come together is original and interesting. This is because the internal conflicts that define the two main characters are inextricably tied to these genre conventions – while Leo is a brilliant criminal strategist whose mysterious cowardice seems to stem from a violent past, Greta is a recovering heroin addict who seems one bad decision away from losing everything all over again.

Adding to the dramatic tension is the fact that more than just the main characters’ lives are at stake. For years, Leo has taken care of Ivan, an elderly heroin addict with Alzheimer’s; similarly, Greta has a daughter who needs her. Over the course of the book, Leo and Greta also develop feelings for one another that extend beyond their criminal partnership and even friendship. The question that drives most of the book is how Leo and Greta can possibly extricate themselves from the situation they’ve been thrown into, and even if they do, how they can make their lives right again.

In a way, Coward is sort of like Casablanca. While Casablanca is one of the best films to have been produced within the limitations of the classic Hollywood system, the first volume of Criminal is an exceptional melding of story and art rooted firmly within the crime genre. It’s not as brilliant as Casablanca, to be sure, but in a similar way it tests the boundaries of convention even if it doesn’t quite rise above them.

I have yet to read beyond the first volume of Criminal, but from what I’ve heard, Coward is just the first part of a deeper, overarching plot, much like the opening volumes of 100 Bullets. But even if that’s the case, the book is self-contained enough that it reads perfectly well on its own, and I would encourage anyone interested in the crime genre to give it a look.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Some Final Thoughts on Green Lantern: Rebirth

Looking back at the review of Green Lantern: Rebirth I posted earlier this week, I’ve realized that there are still a few more things I’d like to say about it. The main thing I left out of the review was my opinion of the short story which begins the book, which I think may give a slightly better indication as to why I have a lower opinion of Rebirth than many people do (although, to be clear, I do still like the book – I just don’t think it’s magnificent). The short story was originally published as a preview for Rebirth in the pages of Wizard Magazine, and to the best of my knowledge, it was never published as part of any single comic book issue. It’s only six pages long, and after a few pages telling us that “Parallax is coming,” the rest of the story is devoted to a fight between Parallax and the Spectre over Hal Jordan’s soul.

Quite frankly, I think the story is terrible and that its inclusion in the collected edition is a mistake. As I mentioned before, Rebirth was the first Green Lantern book I read that was published after about 1965. I had been told that it was the perfect jumping-on point, even for people who were completely unfamiliar with the character. But when I read the preview story, I was incredibly confused; in fact, I distinctly remember closing the book afterward, and I came very close to never opening it again. Who were Parallax and the Spectre, and why, in this story that was supposedly new-reader-friendly, was it assumed that I already knew who they were? The main series does a good job of explaining these questions, of course, but this introductory story makes for a baffling start. It’s very clearly written for people who were already following Kyle Rayner’s exploits as Green Lantern prior to Rebirth, and even as someone with a working knowledge of the character and his mythos, I found it completely inaccessible as a new reader.

I would be really curious to hear what other people thought of the story, and if they had as much difficulty with it when they first read it as I did. I would also be interested to hear from people who were already following Green Lantern around the time of Rebirth: Did the story make sense to you? Or, since it was published in Wizard and never released in single issue format, did you skip it completely?

Shifting gears somewhat, as I’m sure many people know by now, Rebirth is soon going to be re-collected in Absolute Green Lantern: Rebirth, an oversized hardcover which will retail for $75. Personally, I think this is a bit silly. A six-issue comic book series does not warrant a collection that expensive, and no amount of extra features could justify a $60 price difference to me. After all, the softcover version already includes Johns’ original proposal for the series, as well as several sketch pages – what more could you really want? The Absolute Edition, according to Amazon, will be 224 pages, whereas the softcover is 176 pages. That isn’t a substantial difference, which leads me to believe that the new material will be limited to some script pages, a few pages of un-inked pencil art, and maybe an interview with Geoff Johns or Ethan Van Sciver.

I might feel differently if the Absolute Edition also included the first ten or twelve issues of the main Green Lantern series, and if it was the first in a series of hardcovers reprinting Johns’ run on that title. At least then you might be paying a reasonable price for the amount of material in the book; as it is now, Absolute Rebirth will essentially be charging you over $12 per issue. This is even more ridiculous when you consider that Absolute Batman: The Long Halloween and Absolute DC: The New Frontier were sold for the same price, but had 400 and 462 pages, respectively – roughly twice as many as Absolute Rebirth.

And with that, I think I’ve said my piece on Green Lantern: Rebirth. If you have a moment or two, feel free to share your thoughts on the Wizard preview story or the Absolute Edition in the comment section. See you on Monday for another review!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Green Lantern: Rebirth

Writer: Geoff Johns
Artist: Ethan Van Sciver
Collects: Green Lantern: Rebirth #1-6 (2004-05)
Published: DC, 2006; $14.99

In Green Lantern: Rebirth, Geoff Johns had the unenviable task of fixing more than a decade’s worth of DC completely mishandling the Green Lantern mythos. He was also tasked with restoring Hal Jordan, the original Green Lantern, to the focal point of the franchise. I can’t imagine this was an easy task for him, and the end product isn’t entirely perfect. With the help of the extraordinarily talented Ethan Van Sciver, though, he manages to pull it off fairly well.

The mess created in the decade prior to Rebirth really can’t be understated. Not only had Hal Jordan become a crazed mass-murderer, but he was now the embodiment of the Spectre (God’s Spirit of Vengeance — whatever that means), and his replacement as Green Lantern was a younger, “hipper” character (Kyle Rayner) who still had yet to be truly accepted by many fans. The Guardians of the Universe and the Green Lantern Corps, intergalactic organizations that had been staples of the Green Lantern universe from the very beginning, had been completely removed from the books. Likewise, Hal’s mortal enemy Sinestro had been rather anticlimactically killed off. Oh, and Guy Gardner (Earth’s Green Lantern in reserve) had become a super-muscled half-alien with the ability to morph his body parts into weapons. God bless the ’90s, right?

From the first issue of Rebirth, Johns does a great job of establishing these characters’ personalities and the current status quo of their collective universe. This makes the book a great place to start for people who aren’t very familiar with Green Lantern. Before I read Rebirth for the first time, my only knowledge of the character came from having read about a dozen issues of the first Green Lantern series (published in the early 1960s), and I felt like I understood the characters in no time at all. But Rebirth also appeals to long-time Green Lantern fans, who I imagine were happy to finally see some justice done to their favorite characters when the series began in 2004.

The main thrust of the story is that the atrocities committed by Hal were actually caused by Parallax, an entity made of pure fear that corrupted his mind and took control of his body. While that may sound like a lazy explanation at first, Johns makes it all work by incorporating Parallax into the pre-established Green Lantern mythos. Hal’s ring has always been powerless over the color yellow, and by establishing Parallax (the embodiment of fear itself) as the ring’s “yellow impurity,” Johns actually gives meaning to a limitation on the character that’s always been somewhat arbitrary.

Considering some of the more clichéd comic book conventions Johns could have used to absolve Hal of his actions (clones, time travel, etc.), this explanation works pretty well. In fact, while I haven’t read many of the stories that were effectively undone by Rebirth, I suspect Johns’ new explanation for the events they portray is actually better than the original ones were. I can’t help but wonder if, by some weird literary retrofitting effect, those stories might actually read a little better now if we keep Parallax and the yellow impurity in mind.

But as Brad Meltzer notes in the book’s introduction, Johns doesn’t stop with simply restoring Hal to his former grace. It would have been easy to kill off Kyle, and maybe even Guy, but Johns breathes new life into them instead. He gives them a purpose again, one that both supplements Hal Jordan’s role in the DC Universe and works in its own, self-contained right. (In fact, the story of Kyle, Guy, and another Green Lantern, Kilowog, actually continues in the miniseries Green Lantern: Recharge, which then becomes the ongoing series Green Lantern Corps.)

However, I do have one major bone to pick with Rebirth, and it’s Johns’ characterization of Batman. Throughout the story, Batman is depicted as a bad guy for being suspicious of Hal and the fact that he has returned to life. Realistically, this makes perfect sense; Batman would have to be pretty ignorant to just blindly accept that a man responsible for so much death and destruction is suddenly one of the good guys again. The worst moment comes toward the end of the book, when Batman demands an explanation and Hal’s response is simply to punch him in the face and fly away. Even if Batman’s suspicions were groundless, Hal has just been “reborn” — shouldn’t he try to take the high road in this new life, and start off on the right foot with his fellow heroes? Shouldn’t he have grown as a character as the result of his rebirth, or should we be content with him being exactly the same character he was before DC editorial decided to make him a murderer all those years ago? If anything, the whole conflict makes Hal look like an even bigger jerk than Johns seems to think Batman is.

I also don’t buy Johns’ attempt to make Batman and Green Lantern into diametrical opposites — as manifestations of fear and hope, respectively. Batman is not a character defined by fear, as GL is by hope; rather, Batman instills fear in his enemies. Green Lantern does the exact same thing (as do most superheroes, for that matter), even if he doesn’t go about it as theatrically as Batman does. The center of Johns’ analogy simply doesn’t hold, and the ending of Rebirth rings hollow as a result.

That said, there’s still a lot to like here, and it’s thanks in large part to Van Sciver’s artwork. I particularly like the way he draws each of the five Green Lanterns in the story (Hal, Kyle, Guy, John Stewart, and Kilowog) as having different ways of handling their powers. Each has a visually distinctive method of flying, and the way energy emanates from their respective power rings in the final battle against Parallax is unique as well. Little touches like these make it clear that Johns and DC intend to treat these characters with the individuality and respect they deserve, and that we don’t have to worry about the mistakes of the ‘90s rearing their ugly heads any time in the near future. Welcome back, Hal.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5