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.

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