Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Batman Eternal #2 - A Review

I've complained in previous reviews of the main Batman series that Scott Snyder seemed to be have been taking his sweet time in telling his stories since City of Owls.  Zero Year in particular seemed to have been drawn out, with the promise of a revamped and deadlier Riddler being held ever out of reach until recently.  Well, I can make no such complaints about Batman: Eternal.  

The first issue kicked things off with a bang and this issue continues the trend, as Batman mobilizes his allies in the wake of a major disaster in Gotham City.  A disaster which Jim Gordon seems to have caused but nobody in the Bat Family or the GCPD can honestly believe he is responsible for.  There's a lot of good character moments throughout the book and we know what villain is responsible for Gordon's fall by the issue's end.  I won't spoil it here but it was an honest surprise and a true indication of how things have changed for Gotham City in the New 52 universe.

The artwork is uniformly excellent.  Jason Fabok's matches Bryan Hitch for the ability to fit amazing amounts of detail into a panel but I think Fabok's line-work is neater and more precise.  The inks are surprisingly sparse for a Batman comic and colorist Brad Anderson highlights the artwork with multiple shades of black and grey.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Doctor Who: Only Human - A Book Review

When the TARDIS' disturbance alarm goes off, The Doctor is quick to investigate.  With Rose Tyler and Captain Jack Harkness in tow, The Doctor travels to modern day London, where a young Neanderthal man named Das has suddenly appeared some twenty-eight thousand years after humanity wiped out his species.  Unfortunately, due to the cheap and nasty method of time travel responsible, The Doctor cannot take Das home since he is so chronologically unstable that another trip through time will vaporize him.

As Captain Jack sets about the difficult task of acclimating Das to the culture of the early 21st century, The Doctor and Rose follow the trail back to the dawn of humanity.  It is there they find a hidden colony of humans - all of them with movie-star good looks and glazed, emotionless expressions.  They also find Chantal Osterberg, whose plans for humanity can't be properly called "mad" as she has eradicated madness along with all of the other deviant mental states, such as depression, anger and unhappiness.

Can our heroes save the human race from extinction?  Yes, but not unless The Doctor becomes the God of the Horses, Rose introduces manicures to humanity several thousand years early and Captain Jack manages to explain that Mrs. Slocombe from Are You Being Served is not real to a crisp-addicted caveman.

Gareth Roberts has fast become one of my favorite Doctor Who writers, not only for his wit but for his versatility.  Even if you don't enjoy the multiple media of Doctor Who, you've likely chuckled at his work in episodes such as The Shakespeare Code and The Unicorn and The Wasp.  He's written novels, audio plays, a stage-play, comics as well as episodes of the show and proven equally capable of writing in all mediums skillfully.

Reading Only Human, one wishes that Roberts had been on the writing team for Series One.  This would have been a great story to see adapted into a shooting script.  Roberts does a grand job of capturing the essence of the characters and one wishes we could have seen Christopher Eccleston trying to be sarcastic towards a villain who has chemically removed his ability to be sarcastic.

Despite that, I can't help but think perhaps it is best that this story stayed a novel, as the greatest moments of the book involve elements that would not translate well to other media.  For example, rather than writing out the action of Jack and Das' misadventures in modern London, Roberts' relates these events to us through the personal diaries of both men.  Roberts also avoids the easy jokes one might expect from a film like Encino Man and derives just as much humor from Jack's frustration at being stuck in such a primitive (from his perspective) and boring point in time as he does from Das' failure to grasp basic concepts such as lying and fiction.  One wonders how much of this sequence and the base idea of a time-traveler trying to acclimate to an ordinary existence inspired Roberts' later work on The Lodger.

If this book has a flaw, it is that the character moments and comedy are far more riveting than the actual plot.  The story is fairly standard stuff for Doctor Who and the villain is ultimately a bargain basement Davros.  But readers are likely to forgive this since Roberts disguises the drab plot with such glorious moments as Captain Jack streaking to provide "one of the biggest distractions you'll ever see", the swear-filter on the TARDIS translator causing a group of primeval humans to sound like the cast of EastEnders and the revelation that psychic paper also works on animals.

Bottom Line: Only Human perfectly captures the feeling of a Ninth Doctor era story.  If you like New Who, you'll love it.

Batman #30 - A Review

Batman #30 is simultaneously the final act of Zero Year and part one of Savage City.  We finally learn the meaning of the title Zero Year, as The Riddler - now firmly in charge of Gotham City - elected to establish a new calendar when he took over.  It remains to be seen how this will affect Julian Day but I'd just love it if The Calendar Man wound up saving the day instead of Batman, as he fights for the concept of time itself!  This is probably why I review comics instead of writing them.

I appreciate Scott Snyder's attempts to turn The Riddler into a more credible villain but what The Riddler has accomplished here strains credibility.  At least, that's what I thought until Eddie showed his face on the jumbotron in Gotham's equivalent of Times Sqare and Snyder reveals that while the stakes of the game may have been raised, Riddler is still the same know-it-all who has to prove he's smarter than everyone else.  What makes this story so revolutionary is that - for the first time in a long while - you actually believe Edward Nygma is as smart as he thinks he is.  And perhaps even more astonishingly, Batman has actually lost a battle to him.  Twice even!

I hate to dismiss the awesome artwork of Greg Capullo and Danny Miki by describing their work on this issue as "up to their usual standard" or some equally humdrum phrase.  And yet, that sentence - while dull - would be accurate.  Capullo and Miki consistently bring their A-game to this title and it is one of the best looking books on the shop stands as a result.

Sheena #1 (Moonstone Books 2014) - A Review

Moonstone Books' Sheena #1 is a good comic but a bad first issue.  This is because, in all the ways that matter, this isn't a first issue but a continuation of the 2007 Sheena series printed by Devil's Due Publishing.  Reinvented for the modern day by Die Hard screenwriter Steven E. de Souza, this series established The Queen Of The Jungle as Rachael Caldwell - an heiress thought lost in the Amazon as an infant, who was raised by friendly natives and taught the ways of the animals.   Now, having been reunited with her robber-baron grandfather, Rachael plays at being a vapid party girl by day while spending her nights protecting the rain-forests as Sheena.

This is briefly explained at the start of this issue but precious little else is.  It seems to have been assumed that anyone reading this book will already be familiar with the DDP Sheena series, which is a bad assumption after several years of inactivity and never a good idea for a first issue.  We do get glimpses of Sheena's supporting cast - shaman Don Felipe, environmentalist Bob Kellerman and bodyguard Martin Ransome - but only Kellerman is identified directly by name.  In fact, Martin Ransome's name is not mentioned once in the whole issue!

The artwork by Jake Minor is equally problematic.  Minor is a good artist but I don't believe him to be the right artist for this story.  Minor's style is bold and exaggerated in a way that is reminiscent of Will Eisner's The Spirit.  This would be a fine thing were the script written on the same light-hearted level as Eisner's The Spirit but this book has several bloody moments (including one man taking an arrow through the neck and another man being devoured by piranhas) that are graphic enough to push this book into T+ (16 and Up) territory.  These scenes, as rendered by Minor, look goofy rather than horrifying.

Despite these problems, I enjoyed Sheena #1 immensely.  More care could have been taken to reintroduce the supporting cast but Sheena herself is explained well enough.  More importantly, Sheena is depicted as a capable heroine.  And while I may take issue with certain scenes looking odd, Minor's action sequences are well-choreographed.  There is enough right with this book for me to recommend it, provided you pick up a copy of the first two DDP Sheena collections along with this first issue.    

Friday, April 18, 2014

Doctor Who: Players - A Book Review

1915.  Major Winston Churchill is attacked by renegades in No Man's Land.  After the death of his driver and bodyguard, The Major thinks he's found salvation twice - once when he is rescued by a funny little man named Dr. John Smith and once again when they find a nearby chateau at which to take refuge.  Pity the chateau is owned by hostile nobles ready to hand Major Churchill over to The Kaiser!

1899.  The height of the Boer War.  A young war correspondent named Winston Churchill is on a military patrol stopped by a rockslide on the train tracks.  It seems a routine delay until a sniper in the hills tries to take-out the young writer.  Only the timely arrival of The Doctor and his companion Peri Brown saves Churchill's life, though it also sees the three of them locked away in a South African prison...

His interest piqued after recalling the tale of how his second incarnation met Winston Churchill, The Doctor concludes that some unseen player is trying to kill the great leader at a young age to alter the course of history.  With Peri Brown in tow, The Doctor journeys to 1936 at the height of The Abdication Crisis and assumes the identity of Ambassador John Smith.  It will take all of The Doctor's cunning to ensure Winston Churchill's survival as well as his own, as unseen hands pave the path for an alliance between the empire of King Edward VIII and Adolph Hitler!  

I've heard a number of criticisms leveled at Terrance Dicks as a writer.  He's incredibly dull.  He writes women badly and depends too heavily on rape threats and cliched peril whenever a female companion gets captured.  He writes every Doctor exactly the same, regardless of incarnation.  I've even heard differing opinions that he depends too much on the continuity of the show in his writing and that he ignores it completely!

None of those complaints seem evident to me in Players, though it must be admitted that the concept of some unknown figure meddling with the time-stream is perhaps the closest thing to a stock-plot one can find in Doctor Who.  The titular Players, however, are unique in that they seem to have no motivation past seeing what changes they can cause through the most simple and basic of manipulations.  True, this is reminiscent of The Meddling Monk, but his schemes were not so subtle as what we see the Players attempt.

I don't think the female characters are treated badly at all in this story. Indeed, I thought Peri better acquitted herself as a companion in this story than she ever did in any of the episodes  where she was paired up with The Sixth Doctor.  No bouncy California girls in this story.  This is the Peri who starred down The Master and told him that she could shout just as loud as he could!  

Terrance isn't as overly-demonstrative in his depiction of the various quirks of different versions of The Doctor as some writers.  Yet I do think Dicks does a fair job of putting a few fine details in the text, here and there.  For instance, his Second Doctor rubs his hands together when he is working out a problem and responds to veiled threats from villainous captors with a polite, clownish enthusiasm that belies his strong mind.  And his Sixth Doctor has a fondness for bad puns, a snarky wit and a habit of playing at pretending he is someone he isn't.

Dicks does lean heavily on the continuity of the show but not at the expense of the story.  The 1915 flashback scene is based on Dicks' story The War Games but no familiarity with that episode is required to enjoy the sequence.  More often than not these references are just in-jokes to amuse the devout fan or, failing that, Dicks himself.  One of the better ones involves Pinkerton detective Tom Dekker (a character from Dicks' novel Blood Harvest) who notes that he once knew a Doc Smith who hung out with a girl named Ace back in Chicago. When Peri asks if there's a chance that might be a future incarnation, The Doctor bristles and says that he doubts his future includes "being a 'funny little guy' running a speakeasy in Chicago during Prohibition!'

The most amazing aspect of this story is that Dicks does a fair job of making as educational as it is thrilling.  As an American, I'm largely unfamiliar with Winston Churchill's life before the second World War.  Dicks plays up the adventurous aspects of Churchill's youth, going out of his way to tie The Doctor into real events such as Churchill's escape from a Boer prison in 1899.  It must be said that the exposition The Doctor must recite doesn't seem quite so forced as Peri, being an American, is as equally unfamiliar with The Boer War and The Abdication Crisis as the average American reader.  Dicks also does an effective job of playing off the real-world events and playing up how very fortunate we were not to have wound up with an English King who was friendly to the Nazi regime.

Bottom Line: Players is a grand game from start to finish.  Highly recommended for all Doctor Who fans.