Thursday, May 28, 2009

New Comic-Con pictorial history is an absolute must have!

Attending Comic-Con is a unique experience — there’s nothing else like it on earth and the experience is different for each person, each year they attend. And as the show has grown exponentially, it’s become almost impossible to experience more than a fraction of it. Admittedly, it can at times be as frustrating an event to attend as it much more often is exhilarating and exciting.

So I was thrilled to find a review copy of what is sure to be one of the hottest items at this year’s convention: A big pictorial history book of the show, titled “Comic-Con: 40 Years of Artists, Writers, Fans and Friends.”

I guarantee: This will be the hottest item at this year's show.

What’s in it? Well, there’s a good overall history of the show, from its earliest days through to today’s pop culture phenomenon, but even better the book is absolutely packed with photographs, artwork, profiles, vintage articles and lists of the show’s many guests and awards. All this is wrapped up in a fantastic cover by Comic-Con mainstay, Mad-man Sergio Aragones.

Among the amazing tidbits and sights I learned from devouring every page of this book are:
  • In 1975, Alan Light (founder of what became the Comics Buyers Guide) and his Dyna Pubs produced an LP record featuring programs from the Comic-Con. I instantly hit Google to search for more info on this, as I would love to listen to this, and came up empty. Anyone know anything about this? Has it ever/could it be re-issued? I love that this simply exists somewhere.
  • Vintage photographs of Chuck Norris shaking hands with Stan Lee at the 1975 show and Alan Moore with Jack Kirby at Moore’s only U.S. con appearance ever in 1985. Also pics of folks like Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, Harvey Kurtzman, Harlan Ellison ... and it just goes on and on. This book is a treasure trove of photos of comics creators and Con attendees past and present.
  • Images of program covers, promotional fliers and ads, badges, limited-edition prints, all the official Con T-shirts, and even the covers of the updates and magazines.
  • Profiles of Con mainstays, illustrated of course, such as Forrest J Ackerman, Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, Ray Bradbury (who also writes the intro), Will Eisner, Dave Stevens, Mark Evanier, Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller and Jim Lee.
I have to say I’m thrilled to see all this history out there, because it’s not been something terribly easy to come by in years past. I recall editing the first Comic-Con special for Variety five years ago and finding little published material out there on the Con’s past. I was therefore thrilled when Evanier, one of the few folks who has been to every San Diego Con, agreed to write a piece for the special. (You can read that piece here.)

Flipping through this book evoked for me much the same thrill I get from attending the show. There’s something amazing to look at with each turn of the page. This book instantly made the two-month wait for this year’s convention seem unbearably long.

The book, which was written by Comic-Con mainstays Gary Sassaman and Jackie Estrada (with lots of help), is designed and published by Chronicle Books — so I’m sure that it will be made available through normal book publishing outlets at some point.

But I’m also convinced this will be one of the hottest items at this year’s Comic-Con. The current issue of Comic-Con magazine offers a preview of the book and says the first print run will be limited and a special preordering system will be set up for folks to pay their $40 in advance and pick up at the show. Details will be forthcoming at

Don't miss out. This one is worth it.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Reading a Big Stack of Comics, Part 2

Let’s get right to it, shall we?

Ignition City #1-2 (Avatar Press, $3.99 each) was exactly the kind of thing I think to myself that I want to read. So I should really have liked this, but instead I found it annoyingly unsurprising. Maybe I should take a break from reading just about everything Warren Ellis writes, because Ignition City felt too much like Ellis-by-numbers: Tough, smart, hot chick protagonist? Check. Lots of swearing, drinking and talking about swearing and drinking? Check. Making a fetish of air travel, space travel and or British exceptionalism? Check. I still liked it, though I wish artist Gianluca Pagliarani didn’t try so hard to get me to look at Mary Raven’s ass.

Soul Kiss #1-2 (Image Comics, $3.50 each) puts a fun twist on the deal-with-the-devil idea as a struggling young production assistant gains the power to kill with a kiss. Man of Action Steven T. Seagle delivers a peppy script, well matched by some bold and vibrant from the artist, Marco Cinello. This feels like the indie comics of decades past and I’m on board for the rest of this one.

Seaguy: Slaves of Mickey Eye #1 (Vertigo, $3.99) is something I bought mostly because anything Grant Morrison does is almost always worth a look. But this is a reminder that not everything he does pans out. My first clue should have been that I remembered the art from reading the first Seaguy series but nothing about the story. This sequel made an equally lax impression on me as Seaguy mopes his way through a story that’s strange but as lifeless and pointless as the first series was (now that I remember it).

Elephantmen #15-18 (Active Images/Image Comics, $2.99 each) has turned into a real favorite, largely because each issue actually adds to the story. The pace isn’t exactly a rip-roaring roller coaster, but unlike too many other series when something happens in Elephantmen it happens for a reason. It also looks fantastic, with great artwork, lovely coloring and effective (though occasionally over-busy) designs and top-notch lettering. It also is one of the few comics that actually feels like a periodical publication, its pages filled with bonus features, articles about British comics and even backup features. I particularly liked issue #18, which featured some lovely artwork from comics newcomer Marian Churchland.

Astro Boy: The Movie #1 (IDW, $3.99) debuts a four-part prequel to the upcoming CG-animated movie. The comic has an appealing, simple style, courtesy of writer Scott Tipton and artist Diego Jourdan, that is ideal for a kids audience (which is what I assume they’re going for). Fans of Osamu Tezuka or the old anime Astro Boy cartoons are probably going to find this a little shallow, but this is pretty good for a kids-movie tie-in.

From the Ashes #1 (IDW, $3.99) is a strange and fun “speculative memoir” by misanthropic cartoonist Bob Fingerman in which he and his wife, Michele, appear to be the sole survivors of a mysterious apocalyptic event. It’s surprisingly funny to watch them take relief in the idea of not having to go to work or that all the annoying people they hate aren’t around — until, of course, the cannibals show up. The almost blasé reactions are a nice counterpoint to the hysteria of, say, Cloverfield.

Buck Rogers #0 (Dynamite, 25 cents) is a short preview of a new series resurrecting the classic sci-fi hero for the 21st century. Most of my knowledge of Buck Rogers comes from the 1970s TV show, which was decidedly cheesy, so this is a pleasant surprise. Scott Beatty sets things up with an action packed script and the art by Carlos Rafael has a terrific modern look.

American McGee’s Grimm #1 (IDW, $3.99) is a reasonably fun little lark in which the title character — who apparently stars in his own video game series — spoofs superhero comics by helping the supervillains actually win, for once. While superhero comics are a pretty easy target, this has a few clever moments and some interesting looking artwork, courtesy of writer Dwight MacPherson and artist Grant Bond.

Stephen Colbert’s Tek Jansen #4 (Oni Press, $3.99) continues the series spun off the Comedy Central faux news hosts’ fan fiction joke. The joke was funny when the first issue came out, some two years ago, but it’s wearing a little thin in this fourth issue.

Blue Monday: Thieves Like Us #1 (Oni Press, $3.99) brings back Chynna Clugston’s ode to ’80s high school highjinks and hasn’t lost a step. There is something odd about seeing these characters coming back after a pretty lengthy absence having aged not at all, but it’s made up for by Clugston’s overall sharp sense of humor and an art style that’s increasingly influenced by the work of Jaime Hernandez. Now, my sole complaint is that this series isn’t in color …

Spawn #188 (Image Comics, $2.95) is Part Four of the Endgame story that brings creator Todd McFarlane back into the creative process. Having read this book for the past few years, I find this title to be quite underrated. McFarlane co-writes the story with Brian Holguin and it’s got a good hook, a sufficiently creepy undertone and makes loads more sense than any of the issues McFarlane did back in the early 1990s. Artwork also is quite goood, with pencils from the always-interesting Whilce Portacio and “digital inks” from McFarlane himself. It may not necessarily look much like classic McFarlane, but at least a little of his iconic style sneaks through to nice effect.

Shrapnel: Aristeia Rising #2-3 (Radical Comics, $2.99 each) is military sci-fi in the mode of Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. While the machismo, even from the lead female character, is a little much for me, fans of this kind of thing will likely find this to be a superior comic. Created by Mark Long and Nick Sagan and scripted by M. Zachary Sherman, the details of the story get a bit lost in the dark but lovely painted artwork of Bagus Hutomo. I appreciate the look of the art, but some clarity in the images would help the storytelling.

Hotwire #1-2 (Radical Comics, $2.99) is another Warren Ellis comic starring a tough-as-nails hottie chick — this time she’s a exorcist detective in a world where ghosts are real. Scripted and painted by Steve Pugh, this is an imaginative world featuring a story that’s attractively told and could develop into something really interesting.

The Unwritten #1 (Vertigo, $1) is the discount-priced debut of the new series from writer Mike Carey and artist Peter Gross. This ongoing series kicks off with a guy named Tommy Taylor, whose father wrote a series of Harry Potter-style books starring his son — and suddenly disappeared. Tommy himself is the object of adoration at conventions, signings, etc. — until it’s revealed he may not be who he says (or thinks) he is. Written with Carey’s usual care and in a nice literary style, this book also looks terrific thanks to Gross’ excellent art and truly fine coloring from Chris Chuckry. This feels like the kind of hit Vertigo specializes in and should make fans of Fables, Sandman and Y: The Last Man happy.

BONUS BLAST FROM THE PAST #1: It doesn’t really matter that DC’s Heroes Against Hunger #1 (1986) is not a good comic, because it was a benefit book for African famine. It’s amazing to look back and see how many benefits of this type there were, from Band-Aid and Live-Aid to USA for Africa, Northern Lights and Marvel’s X-Men comic Heroes for Hope. This is very much like Heroes for Hope, in that it features a ton of great talent all contributing a few pages at a time. The story, such as it is, features Superman and Batman working on various hunger problems and needing the help of Lex Luthor. It’s got a cool cover by Neal Adams and art by just about every top artist of the era — Jack Kirby, Carmine Infantino, George Perez, John Byrne, Barry Windsor-Smith, Walt Simonson, Dave Gibbons, Denys Cowan and Jose Luis Garcia-Lopez. It’s also got most of the DC writing stable of the era, but it’s lacking the star power evident in Heroes for Hope, which had pages by Alan Moore and Stephen King. Again, little of that matters, as this wasn’t really meant to work as a great piece of art as much as a good excuse for comics fans and DC to contribute to a good cause.

BONUS BLAST FROM THE PAST #2: Pacific Comics is no longer around, but Alien Worlds #2 (May 1983) proves it put out some good stuff. This particular issue offers fans of sci-fi art some terrific eye candy. Up first is a tale called “Aurora,” written and drawn by the late Dave Stevens in 1977. It’s a great reminder that he was a fantastic illustrator, and this sci-fi tale portrays a beautiful heroine in a lush, beautifully detailed and believable alien world. Each panel looks like it was labored over with love, and the result is really enchanting. Up next is a harder-edged story from Ken Steacy that again is beautifully illustrated with inky shadows and slick tech. Last is “A Mind of Her Own,” written and drawn by Bruce Jones and another tale where each panel encourages the reader’s eye to linger. Terrific, and well worth seeking out.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

The Other Side of J.J. Abrams’ Star Trek

I saw Star Trek the other night and feel the need to write down my reactions to it here, even though Trek is not a comic-book property. My love for Trek, however, does extend to comics and my collection includes all but a dozen or so issues of the Gold Key run, everything from DC and Malibu, and some of the Marvel stuff from the mid-1990s, which was the point at which my interest in Trek began to fade. And I’ve never made a secret of my skepticism for this reboot, as evidenced by the article I wrote for titled “10 Reasons to be Worried About Star Trek.” That article was written well before I saw the film and is definitely an exercise in playing Devil’s advocate. I would have been happy to have been proven wrong about all of those points and happy to agree some of them didn’t pan out.

There’s no way I can write objectively about this new Star Trek. I have been a fan since Grade 1, when every boy at my elementary school rushed home each afternoon to watch this coolest of cool shows in syndication. I was already a space fan, thanks to a book my parents gave me about the planets and the moon missions, and classic Trek was the first and, I think, still the best pure science fiction show ever made.

And I think that’s a point worth remembering. Trek came along and did science fiction — traditional science fiction, not the space fantasy with sci-fi trappings of Star Wars — at a time when there was none on TV. And while there were a few imitators, Space: 1999 being the most obvious example, none was as good or successful or worthy of re-watching as Trek. In the 1980s, the Trek movies were dependable and successful productions and the series was second only to the runaway success of Star Wars in terms of sci-fi. By the time of The Next Generation, there was no other science fiction on TV, and even TNG’s success didn’t do much to change that for quite a while. I think this is important because Trek really was a pioneer that had precious little company for a very long time. Many of the hipper, more fashionable shows that have come since — everything from The X-Files to Lost to the revamped Battlestar Galactica — owes something to Trek. So does the convention scene, which borrows a lot from the heydays of Trek cons. (I’m pointing this out for the benefit of the many bloggers out there who are bashing Trek as dated and talky, implying that Trek is something most of them would never watch were it not for J.J. Abrams finally coming along to make it cool enough for them to admit they’re interested.)

That’s a long intro, so let’s get to the movie itself. While most everyone considers Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan to be the best Trek movie so far (and I agree with that), this new Trek owes a lot more to 1996’s Star Trek: First Contact. That film had many of the same elements, including time travel, a nasty but attractive enemy in the Borg Queen, and some terrific action sequences that the TV version of TNG could have used a bit more of. Abrams and company take that example and amp the action way up, creating a wild, enjoyable and at times thrilling ride through the Trek universe. This is the most purely entertaining popcorn movie I’ve seen in a long time and most everyone I know who’s seen it was sucked in right away and stayed in love with it right through to the end.

My take is a little more complicated. There’s plenty to like, but at the same time there’s a lot missing or glossed over that takes away from the qualities that used to define Star Trek.

On the plus side, the film’s storytelling style is tight and economical. It even works well within the established parameters of the Trek universe. It also hits a lot of iconic moments from previous incarnations. Perhaps most amazingly, the time travel element manages to keep this new Trek in continuity with the old while explaining at the same time why a lot of things are different. That is a pretty impressive bit of storytelling right there, on top of the film having a nice, fast pace that never lets go of your attention.

The next real plus is the cast, especially Chris Pine as a young James T. Kirk. I have been extremely skeptical from the start that anyone could step into this role and both convince you this was the same character and not do an impression or imitation of William Shatner’s performance. Somehow, Pine manages it far better than I would have expected, and with only a couple of exceptions I bought him as Kirk. He adopts a few mannerism Shatner used on the classic series, but they’re surprisingly subtle and pulled off well enough that they actually enhance rather than detract from the character.

Zachary Quinto is a bit more of a mixed bag as Spock. His version of the half-Vulcan science officer is decidedly more human than Leonard Nimoy’s version. He’s more expressive and just seems softer in the role. I think fans will debate this one quite a bit, as the devotion to logic and amazingly relentless intelligence that came through from Nimoy’s version is missing and sorely missed in this film.

The rest of the classic crew doesn’t get as much screen time as you may think. In fact, many of their best bits are already on display in the various trailers and clips. And it’s a real shame because the glimpses we do get of these characters, especially Karl Urban as Dr. McCoy and Simon Pegg as Scotty, are spot on. The script cleverly and seemingly effortlessly concocts moments for each to deliver a trademark line — “I’m a doctor, not a physicist,” “She cannae take any more!” etc. — but not a lot more. In the case of McCoy, I think it’s sorely missed, as his relationship with Kirk in the classic series was a grounding influence that would have helped make Kirk’s arc a little more convincing.

Zoe Saldana’s Uhura has a bigger role than Nichelle Nichols ever got on Trek, but it’s not necessarily an improvement as she’s unfortunately reduced to the role of hot chick where Nichols’ version had a competence and natural dignity that carried special significance in the mid 1960s but remain admirable qualities even today. Eric Bana does a good job as the villain of the piece, Romulan Captain Nero. But with so much ground for the film to cover he never gets the chance to make as much of an impression as Khan, the Borg Queen or even Christopher Lloyd’s Captain Kruge from Star Trek III: The Search for Spock. Also good but underused are Bruce Greenwood as Captain Pike and Winona Ryder as Spock’s mother, Amanda Grayson.

And then there is Nimoy, returning for possibly the last time as Spock Prime (that’s how he’s listed in the credits). Nimoy’s presence is the only thing that lets the film slow down even a bit from its breakneck pace and allows some of that old-time Trek magic comes into play. It’s a welcome break from the explosions and monsters, and helps set up the rest of the movie. It’s amazing how much class his small role brings the film, bestowing on it through his generous act of continuity approval for this new direction.

Definite negatives include the look of the film, which is all over the place. The bridge is a futuristic and modern set (which still looks to me like an Apple Store instead of a functioning command center), while on the lower decks of the Enterprise mundane industrial locations have replaced the Jeffries tubes and impressive warp core setup of previous Treks. The CG is top notch, but hampered by such short cuts that you rarely get more than a few moments to take in the new Enterprise in all its glory. There also was an annoying tendency to use lens flares wherever possible and some shots were out of focus. (I don’t know if that was just at the screening I saw, but it was distracting and pulled me out of the film.)

The score also is a major misstep. The music was always top-notch on previous Trek outings, which featured sweeping and rousing classical themes. Here, it’s all percussion and unfortunately sounds like every other action film score of the past decade.

There also are a few action sequences in the film that feel very unnecessary — such as one involving Scotty and a series of water pipes, and another in which a monster straight out of Cloverfield chases Kirk across an ice planet. They keep up the pace of he film, but don’t add much.

I also don’t know how people who know nothing about Trek will deal with the film doing almost nothing to explain who anyone is. There’s a brief explanation of Starfleet early on, but the Federation, the Romulans, Vulcans are never explained and the standard tech — transporters, phasers and warp drive — are present but barely referenced let alone explained.

So far, those are pretty minor complaints and most everyone I know who’s seen the film loves it unconditionally. But looking beyond the thrill ride, comparing the themes and drama to the humanity of previous Trek films, and Abrams Trek is as shallow as a theme park ride. It has great effects, amazing action sequences and appealing updated versions of its classic characters, but at the same time it has missed out almost entirely on the themes and ideas that made the original series so unique, enduring and popular.

Star Trek was never just about fighting space battles. The Enterprise is not a warship but a vessel of exploration. The drama came from its crew facing the unknown with a courage that opened up the galaxy and lead to a better understanding of the universe and humanity’s ability to lead it to a better tomorrow. Very little of that is found amid the very appealing surface of this flashy and action-packed new Trek.

To say as Abrams’ version does that Trek is mostly about cool space battles, hot chicks and quippy characters is like saying The Lord of the Rings is mostly about sword-fighting Hobbits, or Fahrenheit 451 is mostly about a fireman, or 1984 is about the crimes of a political traitor. The joy of spectacle is fleeting, and will be almost immediately challenged by such films as Terminator: Salvation or Transformers 2: Revenge of the Fallen.

(In the face of so much positive press, I’m actually somewhat relieved to see Roger Ebert and David Poland also raise some of these points in their reviews.)

The ending of the film is predictable and lacking in logic, but at this point the film has done its job and left the potential for the franchise wide open. I think the sequel will be as much, if not more than, a challenge for Abrams and Co. to pull off, but potentially much more fulfilling. I hope they avoid the idea of trying to re-imagine old characters (everyone keeps bringing up the idea of a new Khan) and find a way to reboot the heart of this grand series rather than just giving it a facelift.

Friday, May 1, 2009

X-Men Origins: Wolverine lacks passion, vision

X-Men Origins: Wolverine
can be taken in two completely different ways. Taken one way, it's a decent little bit of B-movie action entertainment. Taken another, it's a disappointing movie that unfortunately adds nothing essential or even interesting to the character and fails to have even a basic answer to the question of why anyone should care.

Those who know Logan only from the movies will like this survey of his life more than most. The film does a decent job of covering all the bases, from the days of young James Howlett, through his ongoing rivalry with Sabretooth, the Weapon X program and his eventual struggles with memory. That the movie manages to pack all that in, reinventing it as needed, shows an effort on the part of the filmmakers to digest and do something interesting with the source material. And the story does follow a sort of logic and makes sense all on its own if you're not too picky about it.

But there's no getting around that there are some major problems with this film, which is just not very well made. The biggest problems are in the script, which for all its efforts to incorporate comic book storylines fails to transfer the character of Logan or his motivation for doing what he does in any way.

Admittedly, this has always been the problem with Wolverine comic books. Yes, the original 1982 miniseries by Chris Claremont and Frank Miller is a classic and you have to wonder why they didn't go that route for a Wolverine solo movie. But pretty much everything from the time Logan got his own solo comic in 1988 has felt in a lot of ways like a place holder. Wolverine comics have always sold well and the character remains popular, but few of the hundreds of Wolverine stories have made as much of an impact on him as anything that happened in one of the X-Men titles. What's weird is there's really no reason Wolverine comics couldn't be better, aside from the fact that really sticking to the core elements of what makes this guy tick results in a character that's too violent for Marvel to market to kids. So they always have to hold back and even create nice guy versions for the cartoons and so forth — leaving anyone older who might be interested in seeing this guy truly unleashed with not a lot to hold on to.

This movie doesn't seem to really know who Wolverine is. The guy they've come up with is definitely not the cool guy fans first came to know and love in the early days of the new X-Men.

So, my take on the character has always been that he was a mutant with a healing factor and bone like claws (even though I hate that idea, added in during the early 1990s) who was experimented on against his will and given adamantium bones and claws that made him near indestructible. The event was so painful and traumatic that he suffered severe memory lapses and, more importantly, struggled to retain control of his sanity in the face of his tendency to fall into animalistic berserker rages. It was always his struggle to hold on to the little bits of humanity — his few friends in the X-Men, Mariko Yashida, the idea of one day having control of his dark side — that defined him. The ultimate Wolverine action sequence was one in which he faced alone a giant horde of enemies who couldn't beat him no matter how much they shot, cut or punched him. Every blow hurt him and he'd walk out of it enraged and bloodied, waiting for his power to painfully knit him back together.

The movie Logan, however, is a real moper. Here he's cast as a good kid who did something bad, became a soldier in a lot of wars and did a lot of nasty things alongside his brother, but really always wanted to live a peaceful life away from it all. But it turns out he can't do that and when his past comes back to haunt him, he seeks revenge and willingly submits to the Weapon X procedure in order to get it. That's what you'd call a major change in your character's motivation, and you can argue based on it that the movie Wolverine is not Wolverine at all.

The procedure itself is described as terrible, and we have to take everyone's word for it because it seems to give Logan little more discomfort than a root canal before he's back out in the woods and using his newfound claws to chop up military vehicles. When he learns he was sort of tricked into getting the procedure, there's a bit of teeth knashing and distant stares, but not much more. The memory loss comes much later via a deus ex machina that I'll leave a surprise.

Along the way to that ending, there's a lot of action sequences — some of them fairly cool, though nothing especially exciting or innovative — and a whole bunch of cameos from various mutants, some welcome (Gambit, John Wraith), some not (Blob, everyone else). There is a cool, Die Hard-esque final battle against an interesting version of a popular Marvel character that's too little too late, and a terrible cameo from a CG Patrick Stewart as a walking Professor X.

In the end it's hard to get too worked up about anything in this movie because nothing about it conveys any kind of emotion. Wolverine should be about rage unleasahed, but nothing here is really all that interesting enough to get even slightly mad at. It's all very rote and routine, with no passion for the character or the story coming through in any of it.

On top of that, this movie is just not well made. This movie looks muddy, the editing does no favors for the action sequences or the performances, the score has no subtlety, and even though there's a lot of good CG VFX there's also some truly awful effects in there too.

In the end, I'm not sure the quality of this film matters much. Fox will keep making X-Men movies in order to hang on to the rights as long as possible. And their track record will likely continue to falter as long as they keep micromanaging the property instead of finding a filmmaker like Bryan Singer who can bring some passion and vision to the project and just let him do his job.