Monday, April 20, 2015

Big Wow Comicfest 2015

For the second year in a row, I went to the Big Wow Comicfest in San Jose. I had heard about the convention before, but I never bothered attending it. When I would go to a convention, I'd go to WonderCon, but that has since moved to Southern California, so Big Wow is the event for me if I want a convention fix. (I don't count the East Bay Comic-Con, which I also went to this year. Don't get me wrong, it's pretty cool, but it's pretty small. It's definitely worth the $5 admission price though.)

I wasn't entirely sure if I was going to go, but when I saw that Don Rosa was on the guest list, my mind was made up. For those who don't know, Rosa drew the adventures of Donald Duck and Scrooge McDuck in the 1990s (for the most part), with the highlight of his career arguably being The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck. He's a fairly big celebrity in Europe, where Disney comics are even more popular than the superhero stuff is here.

I have to admit that I've only recently started following his work, as I was too wrapped up in Marvel and DC back when he was doing his thing. I still read that stuff, but my taste in comics has broadened significantly in the past ten years, and I've come to appreciate all-ages books the same way I appreciate a good Pixar film. Apparently he even did a signing once at my local comic book store, but I don't even remember having heard about that. I was feeling like the chance to meet him had passed me by, so I felt really lucky to get my chance now - especially considering that the first two volumes of reprints from Fantagraphics have come out.

The next thing to decide was whether I would go by myself or not. I went by myself last year, but I thought it would be nice if my wife would come with me. She's not into comics, but she enjoys coming along with me so we can spend some time together. I figured that we'd have somebody, likely my in-laws, babysit my son, Logan. He's four years old, and while he did just fine when it was just me and him at the East Bay Comic-Con, I wasn't sure how practical it would be to take him to a much bigger convention where I would likely want to stay much longer (and actually wait in line to get a few signatures).

Since his grandparents weren't able to watch him all day, I figured that I'd take the chance and have him come with us; otherwise, I would have just wound up going by myself. Turns out that this was a good move, as they had a "Kids Section" with Legos, crafts and face-painting. My wife hung out with him a bit there as I went off to do a bit of shopping. He enjoyed himself, and he especially got into his face-painting. The woman who was doing it has done it for some time at Disneyland, and while she had some specific designs that she would do, she said that she'd take suggestions. Well, my little guy had a very specific idea of what he wanted. He didn't just want to be a zombie, but he wanted to have "one zombie eye and one regular eye". You can see the results for yourself, and I think it turned out pretty good.

In addition, they had some video game tournaments, and that's where he's really in his element. He's only four, but he really enjoys playing Wii U games. He even beats me from time to time at Super Smash Brothers. I don't remember the name of the game he was playing, but he kept beating an adult and another kid who was a few years older than him.

So, there was definitely enough stuff there for it to be worth to bring him, so long as you have a significant other who's willing to hang out with your young one a bit while you snoop around.

Don't get me wrong. The whole day wasn't me looking at comics and my wife babysitting. He came with us while we met Don Rosa, and he got to watch the artist do a really cool sketch in one of the collections. I asked Mr. Rosa to make it out to Logan, as we have read through several of those stories together.

I had heard before that Rosa can be a bit short with people who get in line for an autograph but aren't really fans. I'm not sure why somebody would do that in the first place. Perhaps they're looking to sell the stuff off to fans in Finland for an inflated price? I got to witness that firsthand, as the guy in front of me gave off the impression that he didn't know who Rosa even was. When asked what he wanted for his sketch, he asked for a picture of Daredevil. Umm...Daredevil? Rosa has only done Disney comics. To be specific, he's only done Duck comics. Anyway, he wasn't a jerk to the guy, but he didn't really converse all that much, and he drew a really hasty sketch.

When it was my turn, I asked for a picture of Donald Duck being indignant. For anybody who reads the comics, that's pretty much what he looks like half the time. That was all the convincing that Rosa needed that I was there because I was a fan. I had him sign one book over to me, one over to Logan, and one over to my wife. I also bought one of his art prints, which I had signed over to me, but I wish that I had him make it out to the Johnson Family. Oh well, maybe next time.

He really took the time to draw a great sketch, even adding some highlights to it to give it some depth. It's my understanding that his eyesight is really poor, so I'm guessing that he does these drawings mostly out of muscle memory. It probably also helps that he draws them pretty big. Considering that he's doing it for free, it's pretty darn cool, and it's obvious that he's a man who appreciates his fans. I personally don't blame him for being a bit short with people who are looking to take advantage of his generosity just to make a buck. The man has been ripped off by Disney so much in the past, with various publishers using his name to advertise reprint books with no compensation going to him, that I would probably be far more surly about it than he is.

I got a chance to talk to him a little bit, and I told him that I was glad that all of his work was getting such a high-quality reprint treatment. He told me he was too, as he wasn't able to read all of the other nice collections (because none of them were in English!)

That was definitely the highlight of the event for me, but a close runner-up was meeting Dave Gibbons, co-creator of Watchmen and The Secret Service (the comic which the movie Kingsman: The Secret Service was based on). He's actually going to be signing at my local store this Wednesday, so it wasn't going to be a big deal for me if I missed him. I swung by his table a few times only to find him gone. Right before it was time to leave, I decided to try one last time. On his table was a note saying that he'd be back in ten minutes, so we decided to stick around.

A line formed shortly after, and sure enough, he came back right on time. I actually met him once before at Comic-Con in San Diego. I didn't have anything for him to sign, but I got a chance to talk to him for a moment. This time, I had my copy of Watchmen, the first issue of The Secret Service, and a Darth Vader comic that he did years ago for Dark Horse Comics.

He informed his fans that they could get a sketch of Rorschach if they donated to The Hero Initiative, a charity that helps out retired comic book creators who need financial assistance. It's a great cause, as so many of these creators have contributed so much to a vital art form, and yet they haven't been fairly compensated and many of them are without any kind of health insurance. I've given to it before, and I tossed a ten into the donation bin.

Gibbons is a really friendly guy, and we got to chat for a few minutes as he signed my books. He even chatted it up with my son, who wanted to show off the Batman action figure he purchased. (One other thing that's cool about taking your kid to a comic book convention is that they tend to have a lot of cheap action figures. This was a Batman figure that used to go for $18 - an older sticker was on it - but it was in the discount bin for $4. I guess people figured it would be a collector's item, but the market is pretty saturated with action figures, much to the benefit of little boys like my son who have a few bucks to spend at a convention.)

I don't have a story to go with it, but I also got to chat with Paolo Rivera and got an issue of Daredevil signed by him. He's probably one of the few new artists whose name I can remember, so I definitely wanted to bring something for him to sign.

Big Wow! may be one of the smaller conventions when compared to WonderCon and Comic-Con, but it reminds me a bit more of what WonderCon used to be when it was just starting out, and that is that it's primarily about the comics rather than related media. I was also pleased that it was such a family-friendly event, and I'm hoping to go again next year. I know that Logan wants to go, as he's already asking about when the next one is.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Star Wars at Disney

It's old news now that Disney has purchased Lucasfilm, its most notable property being, of course, the Star Wars franchise. The true test for whether this was a good thing for fans or not will be the upcoming Episode VII: The Force Awakens. However, there are a few indicators as to whether this is a good thing or not, and so far I'm feeling pretty positive. What are these indicators, you might ask?

JJ Abrams - Put me in the pro-Abrams camp, as his Star Trek reboot is one of my favorite movies from the past decade. While I think that the sequel fell a bit short, it's gotten better on repeat viewings. I've also seen Super 8 and MI:3, and while I didn't love either one of them, it's clear that he's a competent director who knows how to get good performances from his actors.

Star Wars: Rebels - I know that I'm not the only one who's been impressed by this show, which fits in with the new continuity that Disney is establishing. While I have only seen a few scattered episodes of Clone Wars, I've found this show to be far more compelling - perhaps because it follows a specific set of characters. Also, I find myself a bit more partial to the Empire era than the Republic one, at least as far as storytelling goes.

What's so great about the show? Just about everything, really. The characters are fun and diverse. The animation is great. Also, it gives Star Wars fans what they want with bounty hunters, lightsaber duels, lessons on The Force, and even cameos by the likes of Lando, C-3P0 & R2-D2, and Darth Vader.

The comic books - Perhaps Marvel gets most of the credit here, but since they're owned by Disney, it all still counts. For those who don't know, Marvel used to publish Star Wars comics in the 70s and 80s. From the 90s through just last year, Dark Horse published stories in what was then known as the "Expanded Universe" of Star Wars. When Disney bought Lucasfilm, it was pretty obvious that Marvel would get the rights to the comics once Dark Horse's license expired. To their credit, Dark Horse produced a lot of really good stuff, and I know that they got me excited about Star Wars again with their initial offering, Dark Empire. Eventually, they started to saturate the market with titles, and many of them weren't all that great. Ultimately, this made me lose interest, and I only found myself picking up the random title here and there.

I've checked out every comic that Marvel has released so far, and as of now they're among some of my favorite titles. Even better is now that all of the comics are considered to be canon. In other words, it's all being overseen by the higher-ups to make sure that nothing contradicts the movies, novels, video games, etc. (Which is what happened previously.) They include:

  • Star Wars - This is the main title, which focuses mainly on Luke Skywalker and the other main characters from the original trilogy. We get a lot of great moments, including a great bit of Han Solo getting in way over his head, all the while Leia gives her critique of the situation. Plus, there's a really cool confrontation between Luke and Vader that manages to not take anything away from their more important one in The Empire Strikes Back. (The series takes place between A New Hope and Empire.) The first story arc has been completed, and it's left a pretty intriguing cliffhanger for the next one. I should also note that the writer, Jason Aaron, is one of my current favorites with books like Thor and Southern Bastards
  • Darth Vader - This one is becoming my favorite of the bunch. Writer Kieron Gillen has taken advantage of everything we now know about the former Anakin Skywalker and is using it to his advantage. He's a major player in the Empire, but he's definitely not in a comfortable place, especially after having been one of the few survivors when the first Death Star was destroyed. The story really picked up with the third issue as the character Doctor Aphra was introduced. Think of a female Indiana Jones, minus the conscience, who runs at the mouth when she's nervous - and Darth Vader makes her nervous. Vader has need of her services, and she's not going to turn him down. To add to this odd pairing, the anti-C-3P0 and R2-D2 are brought along. (It's a protocol and an astromech droid, and they're both programmed for homicide.)
  • Princess Leia - This is my least-favorite of the bunch, but that's only because the others are so good. It might just have my favorite art of all of them though, as I've always dug the work of Terry Dodson, and he's a great choice for this. Writer Mark Waid utilizes the fact that Princess Leia is a...well, princess, and he explores exactly what that means, especially considering that she's the princess of a planet that's been destroyed. How does she relate to her fellow survivors - especially those who are not royalty like she is but think that she's not living up to what a princess is supposed to be? Shoot, only two issues have come out so far. It might just become my favorite if the next few issues keep getting better.
  • Kanan - The Last Padawan - This follows the adventures of one of the main characters from the Rebels TV show. Kanan is one of the few Jedi to escape Order 66, and this series explores his earlier years. I was the least excited for this one. It didn't feature any of the characters from the original trilogy. It didn't have a creative team I recognized. However, with the first issue I was completely on board. In Revenge of the Sith, you get to see a lot of Jedi being gunned down while on combat missions. But what about those who were relaxing? What about those who bonded with the clones who were to become their executioners? That's what the first story of this series deals with.
George Lucas - From what I understand, Lucas gave Disney his outline for what he wanted the sequel trilogy to be. (A trilogy that he once said existed, then it didn't, then it suddenly did.) Disney decided to do something else. Turns out he's not even on the comp list for the comics, as he had to pick them up at Midtown Comics in Times Square.

How is this good? Okay, let's be honest. George Lucas created something wonderful and awesome. But Star Wars outgrew its creator. I'm not a prequel-basher, but I'm honest about the fact that they weren't as good as they could have been. I would hope that the folks at Disney at least listen to him every now and then, but yeah, it's a good thing that he no longer is in control of this. I don't think that he's going to miss any meals.

The novels - I haven't read any of the new, in-canon novels yet. How about you? Leave some comments if you have something to say about them.

The trailers - Awesome, right? I know.

Whether this is good, bad, or indifferent, Star Wars means a lot to me and a lot of other people. It's part of a shared experience. And truth be told, the stories from a galaxy far, far away always resonated more with me than any religious story I was told while growing up. (Although I certainly wouldn't have admitted that back then!)

Of course, we fans have been burned before. But right now, I think that we have a lot of reasons to feel pretty positive.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Read these comics! - Part IV

I did this once before. Then I did it again. Then I done did it one more time.

Summer is just a few months away, and that means the Big Two (Marvel and DC) are gearing up for their big events. In the case of Marvel, we have Secret Wars, and with DC, we have Convergence. Normally I'm pretty excited about these things. I've loved stories like Civil War, Blackest Night, Forever Evil, Secret Invasion, Spider-Verse, etc. This year though? Meh. I think that the biggest problem is that I just can't seem to wrap my head around them. They both seem to involve parallel realities and fighting of some sort. The first issue of Convergence came out, and it was okay, I guess. I'll probably pick up the second issue, but I didn't get any of the ancillary titles. Honestly, this summer I'm looking more forward to what's going on at Image Comics, as they are attracting some top-notch talent.

Anyway, if you've been away from comics for a while, here are some books that I've been reading lately and enjoying quite a bit. Most of them are available, or soon will be, in at least one collected edition.

Birthright - One thing I always emphasize to my students is that Shakespeare never came up with new stories (possible exception: The Tempest). What he did, however, was take familiar stories and put a new spin on them. That's exactly what you have going on with this series by Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressan.

The setup for the comic is a young, everyday boy getting lost in a magical and dangerous world filled with all kinds of fairy tale horrors. Even though the comic flashes back to his initial experiences in this world, that's not where the real story begins. It begins when he comes back to the normal world, and he's now a fully grown man, yet only a couple of years have passed by back home. His family has split apart, as his father was blamed for his disappearance. (That's probably one of the best subplots, as his father was basically a man who was redeeming his past by trying to be a good father.) Also, he's now older than his older brother, through the magic of time moving more quickly in the magical world where he went.

You can no doubt see the potential for problems that this can cause. How can the police believe that "Mikey" has returned home when he's a giant, muscular, tattooed, bearded man? What about the family? It was hard enough losing him in the first place, but this sort of a return only causes more problems, as a missing child is at least something that happens in what they consider to be real life.

All of this is interesting enough, but Williamson adds even more layers to the story, as it's obvious that Mikey hasn't just returned as a gruff warrior, but he's harboring a secret as well, and the two worlds are starting to collide together. Also, enough can't be said about Bressan's work. While his artwork really comes alive during the fantasy sequences, he also expertly handles all of the quieter moments and "real world" action.

Descender - I originally only wanted to write about comics that have had enough issues to be reprinted in a collected edition, but I simply love this series too much to not write about it, even though only the second issue has come out so far.

Much like how Birthright takes a familiar concept but gives the reader a new approach to it, the same thing goes for this series by Jeff Lemire and Dustin Nguyen. It's essentially the Pinocchio story, only it's about a robot boy in the future who is discovering his humanity. Yeah, I think that if I had only read that summary without having glanced at Nguyen's gorgeous artwork (always liked him, but he's doing amazing stuff here), I might not have given this series a chance.

First of all, the humanization of Tim-21 is done really well. I was already intrigued with him by the first issue, but I genuinely care for the character by the second one. Again though, just like Birthright, the familiar trope isn't the main story. We begin following Tim-21 after his family has died and he has awoken years later. Giant robots have attacked humanity in the meantime, and robots are targeted for elimination. Our protagonist has an extra big target on himself though, as there is some connection (as of yet unrevealed) between him and the giant robots.

Again, I've always liked Nguyen's artwork ever since I first saw it when he was drawing Detective Comics. It took a little getting used to, but his expressive characters and clear storytelling eventually grew on me. With this, he's handling all of the art, including the colors. It's definitely a step up.

Spider-Verse - I can't think of a time when I've ever been all-in for a crossover, collecting not just the main series but all of the supporting titles as well; however, I was in for the full thing when it came to this particular Spider-Man centered crossover.

One of my favorite series of comics of all time was Excalibur back when it was written by Chris Claremont and drawn by Alan Davis (and it got even better when Alan Davis took on both the writing and the art). One of the fun things about it was that it involved various parallel worlds, all of which interacted together as part of a huge bureaucracy called the Multiverse that was protected by the Captain Britains of each world. Spider-Verse is reminiscent of that, even including Spider-UK, the Captain Britain/Spider-Man hybrid of Earth 833.

The setup of this story involves the return of Morlun, a villain who has only appeared a couple of times in Spider-Man comics. The first time, he nearly killed Spider-Man. The second, he actually did kill him (Spidey got better.) Morlun was a pretty good addition to the canon of Spider-Man villains because he was like a force of nature. He had supposedly been around for generations, occasionally hunting various "totems" (basically people who represented animals). He didn't try and kill Spider-Man because he hated him. It's just what he did, and to him, it wasn't personal.

Anyway, with this story, we learn how Morlun was able to come back more than once (he's from another dimension, and he gets cloned whenever he "dies"). We also learn that his whole family is in on the totem-hunting game. In this story, they decide that they need to hunt spider-totems. And not just one of them. ALL of them. As in, all of them across the Multiverse. This means going after the Peter Parker we all know and love from the comics but every version of him and every other version of Spider-Man (or Spider-Girl/Woman in many cases).

The story started with a series of "Edge of Spider-Verse" stories, where we were introduced to all kinds of different Spider-people (including one where his famously deceased girlfriend Gwen was bitten by the spider instead and poor Peter Parker was the victim of a super villain). Those were a bit hit-or-miss but overall pretty interesting. My favorite was with a "Peter Parker" who was a bit of a budding young sociopath before getting bit by the spider. From there, you can imagine The Fly (Jeff Goldblum version) as he slowly loses what bit of humanity he has.

From there, the main storyline happened in The Amazing Spider-Man bi-monthly and subplots continued in Spider-Man 2099 and Spider-Woman. There were also a few miniseries that showcased various Spiders from across the Multiverse. Some fun bits included Miles "Ultimate Spider-Man" Morales teaming up with the Spider-Man from the 1960s TV cartoon. Walloping Websnappers!

Even though the artwork started to suffer toward the end of the story, I thought that the story wrapped up in a pretty satisfying way as it brought together subplots and developments that were set up throughout the entire story. I suppose that this one is for die-hard Spidey fans, and I'm one of them, so yeah, I dug it.

Southern Bastards A couple of guys from The South, with a real love/hate relationship with it, create a comic that takes place in Craw County, Alabama. I don't know what The South is really like, the furthest I've ever gone is Monticello in Virginia. However, it's a very evocative setting in the hands of Jason Aaron and Jason Latour.

The eighth issue came out recently, and it finished up the second story arc. The first one featured Earl Tubb, a man who had left Craw County years ago, but he came back to right some wrongs. The second arc focuses on the antagonist, Euless Boss, and personally I found that one to be more compelling. Jason Aaron does a great job of creating a villain and then creating some sympathy for him. And now that his story is wrapped up, it looks like the story is going to focus on the daughter of Tubb. (Which is what I was expecting for the second arc, so I could be wrong about this one.)

I think that this series really speaks to the fact that I ultimately don't care too much what the subject matter is of a story so long as it's well told. A big part of this comic involves football, or to be more specific, Southern football culture. Apparently it's where the sun rises and sets in high schools along the South, as for many young men, it's their one chance to shine in their lives. (I'd hate to think of my life peaking in high school.) Also, with so many crime comic books taking place in various urban jungles, it's interesting to see one set deep in the South.

Just like the other books I'm recommending, enough can't be said about the artwork of Jason Latour. His characters are alive and expressive, and the colors help set the mood with his generous use of various shades of red.

Scott Pilgrim - Okay, I'm way behind the curve here, as this series came out years ago. I'm a big fan of the movie, and it was only inevitable that I would eventually pick up the comics. I hesitated for some time as when I flipped through them, it looked like they were too exactly like the movie, and I feared that it would feel like I'm just reading a bunch of storyboards.

Well, I finally bit the bullet and purchased the first five volumes of the new color hardcover reprints when my local comic book store had a big sale. It was a fairly big expenditure (even though it was like getting the fifth volume for free) but man, am I glad that I bought them. I think it's safe to say, even this soon, that these are some of my favorite comics of all time. Yes, it really is that good.

For me, the best comics are those where the story and art merges in a way that can only be done in a comic book. Don't get me wrong, the movie, Scott Pilgrim Versus the World, is genius at capturing some of the language and idiosyncrasies of the comic book. However, that still turns it all into a movie. Bryan Lee O'Malley's original creation captures everything that's glorious about comic books - one scene in particular comes to mind, that being the sequence where The Clash at Demonhead (a band fronted by Scott's ex-girlfriend) make their stage debut.

If you're somebody who loved the movie, then you need to read the comics. If you loved the movie and you love comics, then what the hell is wrong with you? Read the damn thing! And even if you've read the original black and white comics, you should check out these new color editions. I'm no black and white hater, and when it comes to some artists, I prefer their work in black and white (Terry Moore, for instance). However, these are so nicely done that they really make the characters jump out of the page.

While there are definitely some moments that nearly play out as storyboards for the movie, there's enough that's different for it all to be worth it.

So, that's all for this installment of me telling you what to do. There are some other great comics out there that I might get around to writing about in another installment sometime soon, including Batgirl by Cameron Stewart, Brendan Fletcher, and Babs Tarr; Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo; Velvet by Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting; and pretty much anything that Mark Millar writes.