Monday, January 26, 2004

Looking To The Stars: Mission Statement

Q: What is this?

A: Looking To The Stars is a weekly (most of the time) column written by yours truly. Though the exact subject matter varies from week to week, it is broadly about comic books, superheroes and all things that relate to the two. For instance, I may review a movie based on a comic book or discuss a game based around a superhero.

Q: What does the title mean?

A: It’s part of an Oscar Wilde quote: "We are all lying in the gutters,but some of us are looking to the stars." I’ve always liked the line because it suggests that no matter how low we may be, we always have hope. Also, it suggests looking onward and upward to better things, which is what I try and do with my discussions here.

Q: Isn’t the line actually “looking at the stars”?

A: I’ve seen it quoted as both, but prefer “To” since it seems more active.

Q: So who are you?

A: I write under the name “Starman” Matt Morrison.

Q: So what is your real name?

A: Matthew Morrison. Small wonder I use the nickname, Matthew being so common in the Bible Belt where I live.

Q: But why the “Starman”?

A: Back in the day, I was introduced to the classic “Starman” comic by a friend who said that the main character reminded him of me. In this case, the character was Jack Knight; a collectibles salesman turned superhero, whom had a unique style all his own. I got hooked on the title and it quickly became my favorite. Someone started calling me by that name and it stuck.

Q: What do you have in common with this “Starman”?

A: The biggest thing is personality. Both Jack and I are unmitigated smart alecks who are fond of innuendo, sarcasm and irony. One of my favorite lines in the whole series took place after Jack was punched by Captain Marvel and knocked to the ground, falling a few dozen feet to the ground. As he is asked if he is all-right, Jack quips “I think I landed on my Pez dispenser.” Make of that line what you will.

Aside from that, there’s some superficial traits. We both have eclectic taste, a wide variety of hobbies, tend to change our facial hair style on a monthly basis, are intense collectors and (while this wasn’t true when I first read the book) work in a collectibles store.

Q: So what’s the difference between you two?

A: The biggest differences are that Jack is, according to the Secret Files, taller than I am, lankier, has a criminal record and several tattoos and piercings.

I am 5’9”, broad-shouldered like a line-backer and have no record or body art.

Also, Jack Knight is fictional. I am, most of the time, a real live boy.

Q: What qualifications do you have to be writing this?

A: Well, I’ve been reading comics for about seven years now. I’ve been writing this column and reviews for 411 Comics for just over a year. Before that, I wrote for the now defunct comedy magazine “The Cult of Nobody” and the equally defunct “Fanzing”, where I had a monthly column called “The Mount”. You can read my old work for that here. Aside from that, I’ve written a few plays and short stories.

Q: Do you ever get in trouble for what you write?

A: I have gotten some heated letters from a few fans and even the odd writer or artist, but there were very few complaints about my writing by itself. The content of my writing, yes. But very few have offered constructive criticism.

Q: What is constructive criticism?

A: Letters that tell me how untalented I am but tell me how to improve without including George Carlin’s Seven Dirty Words.

Q: So you’ve done this for one year. What’s next?

A: I have a few surprises in store. True to title, I’m going to offer as much information on upcoming titles as I can. I’ll take you behind the scenes and discuss some of the history and back-story relating to what is happening today. I might even manage the odd interview or two and maybe, just maybe, another episode and nit-picker’s guide for some of my favorite titles.

Q. Nothing more specific than that?

A: Nope. I said they were surprises. I’m afraid you’ll just have to wait.

Tune In Next Week! Same Matt Time! Same Matt Web Site!

Monday, January 19, 2004

Hawkman #23 - A Review

Written by: Geoff Johns
Penciled by: Rags Morales
Inked by: Michael Bair
Colored by: John Kalisz
Lettered by: Bill Oakley
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Publisher: DC Comics

Reading the most recent Hawkman issue, I couldn’t help but notice a number of circular movements. In brief…

• It was one year ago to this week that I wrote my first review for 411 Comics, on Hawkman #11.
• The last issue of Hawkman I reviewed before this one (#19) foreshadowed and lay the basic groundwork for the “Black Reign” storyline. (ie Black Adam tries to recruit Hawkman for his new team).
• The layers upon layers connections between various other titles I have reviews in the last year.

Mind you, this is not to suggest that everything is going around in circles. Indeed, nobody can get a story moving like Geoff Johns. And like all good writers, Johns knows that it is the journey, not the destination that holds our memories.

This issue of Hawkman is rather sparse on its title character. Indeed, the vast majority of the issue centers more upon the members of the JSA, who are in town to try and lure Carter Hall into a social engagement on his birthday. (Well, not really his current birthday… but someone he was in a past life was bound to have been born that day, reasons Hawkgirl.)

What follows is a series of just-plain-fun vignettes, centering upon the various JSA members as they wander around the New Orleans inspired city of St. Roch. With the exception of one scene involving the new Hourman and his struggles with the obvious applications of his power to see the future and his addictive personality in a city where gambling is legal, very little happens in the way of plot or character development. Still, in a comic where we are treated to Power Woman’s novel approach to dealing with the drunken fools of “Girls Gone Crazy” and Ted Grant driving the much more staid and conservative Alan Scott and Jay Garrick crazy with his appreciation of the wild debauchery of the city… I can forgive a little mindless character comedy.

But it’s not all fun and games, campers. Hawkman does eventually show up and delivers a mighty mace of whoop-ass to another old-school villain who picked the absolute worst place and time to make a comeback, what with Carter having regressed into Conan with wings in the wake of yet another rejection from his destined soulmate. The issue closes with Carter hearing the news of the last JSA issue and announcing that he is taking over command of the team.

Regular penciler Rags Morales is back and better than ever, with regular inker Michael Bair. The artwork on this book has never been bad (and the painted covers are the best!) but somehow this book feels a lot more “right” with its regular team. The characters look exactly as they do in the pages of JSA and it is never difficult to identify who is who, even without masks or costumes to identify the players. My one complaint is that Power Girl, while busty, seems to defy the laws of physics…specifically the laws regarding a container and pressure by volume.

Looking To The Stars: The Second Annual Starry Awards

The Golden Globes. Mr. Blackwell’s Best & Worst Dressed List. And now (once again), it is time for The Starry Awards. Because it’s just not the start of the new year without yammering about the best and worst of last year.

Welcome back, dear reader, for those of you who caught it the first time. For those dear readers who didn’t, that’s what the scroll bar at the bottom of the page is for.

In any case, welcome to what has become a yearly staple of 411 Comics: The Starry Awards for Excellence and Disgrace in Comics Writing.

(NOTE FROM DARON: It isn’t a yearly staple! He did this crap last year and he’s doing it again cause he didn’t have anything else to write this month!)

Of course it has been pointed out that the comic industry already has the Eisners, the Harveys, the Eagles and… gods above help us… the Wizard Awards. Why on Earth 2 then, these alleged people ask, do we need another damned award?

(NOTE FROM DARON: Because he’s an egotistical madman who likes to feel important.)

The Starry Awards were started so that I, the ever humble author of this column, might dispense awards to those I felt were most worthy of praise or damnation based on their works in the past year.

(NOTE FROM DARON: Ha! Told you! Humble my sweet bippy!)

The Starries name ten stories in total. Stories, for the purpose of this award, can be single or multiple issues of one book or multiple books relating to one plot-line. The Starries are based solely upon the personal opinions of Matt “Starman” Morrison and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of anyone else.

(NOTE FROM DARON: They REALLY don’t reflect the opinions of anybody else. Really. You want to complain, e-mail him. I’m still sorting through all the hate-mail from his last review…)

Five Staries are awarded to stories which, more than any other stories this year, made me stand up and cheer, burst into tears or just stopped me in the middle of reading to say “This is damn good stuff.” Five Staries are awarded (if you can call it that) to stories that, for some reason, I found disappointing. Stories that left me feeling that a mark had been missed and missed badly. Some of them are stories that, in fact, I think are just plain terrible!

That said: Here are the winners and losers!

The Best of 2003

Best Moment All Year: Mary Jane and Peter; Together Again.

As told in Amazing Spider-Man #49-50

Marvel to break up the Peter Parker/Mary Jane Watson marriage. For the most part, the reasoning was that it killed Peter’s history as a loveable loser and Marvel used this excuse to justify some rather lackluster sales during the nineties. Thankfully, saner minds prevailed… eventually. And after someone pointed out that the reason nobody liked Mary Jane any more was because she was being written with little of the characterization that had made her so likeable since the good ol’ days and had been turned into a trophy wife who did little more than “comfort” Peter after a long day of saving the world, most of the talk of killing her off or arranging for a divorce ended.

Still, this left the Spider-Man books in an awful mess of nuclear waste. Thankfully, thanks to the efforts of several writers over a score of books, our favorite Wall-Crawler came back to the respected level he so surely deserved. And once Peter was fixed-up, the task of bringing back Mary Jane and deciding where to go with her fell upon the shoulders of Amazing Spider-Man scribe J. Michael Stracynski.

This harrowing task was slowly done over the course of JMS’s run, culminating in issue 49 where, after what can only be described as some very rocky waters involving near death, Peter’s fidelity and the question of “Can I really count on you to put me above the rest of the world?” that all women want answered, we get to see just how much these two characters love each other.

The two each decide to fly to see each other and declare that they are sick of being separated and want the other one back because they are so truly madly deeply in love that it hurts. The thing is, they do so without calling the other and wind up at each other’s apartments on the same day, with no inkling as to where the other is. To add insult to injury, Peter tries to call home to see if maybe “the special guy” he was told by her doorman she was leaving to see was him, only to find that in typical Parker-luck fashion, his phone has been disconnected.

What follows is the two looking around each others living space, noting all the funny little details you memorize when you love someone as they wait and hope that the other will walk through the door any moment. After a night, they decided the other person is off somewhere with someone else and that things are truly over. The only thing that saves the relationship is a chance accident and twist of fate that puts the two in the same airport at the same time, where a much needed talk is had… even as the world and the walls are collapsing around them.

Never in recent memory, has any comic so strongly portrayed the depths of two popular characters’ love. And that is why this story wins Best Moment of the Year.

Funniest Read All Year: Lord of the Hirelings: Return of the Bling-BlingAs told in Nodwick #23

The author and artist of the best comedic fantasy webcomic around gives us his comedic take on “The Lord of the Rings”. While this be very lame with name parodies and recreations of epic battles with pie-fights or some such (ala the over-hyped National Lampoon’s “Bored of the Rings”), Williams manages to fit the definitive fantasy epic around his own unique characters and keep things just twisted enough to be amusing even for those of us who have memorized the books and movies completely.

For instance, the town of Nazgul are now Nazgoths… beings who dress all in black and seek “This One Ring” as a fashion accessory, for such a cursed and evil thing would surely make them all the envy of all who hang out at that club which is only open one night a week. Williams even gets a tribute in to Igor of “Dork Tower” with his “Smeagor” character, who seeks “This One Ring” as the ultimate rare collectible. Funny stuff all around.

Best Team-Up: Superman/Batman

As told in Every Bloody Thing Jeph Loeb Wrote This Year

Whether it be for a brief scene in the middle of the epic that was “Hush”, or in the pages of their new team-up book together, Jeph Loeb has shown us for nearly half a year why these two heroes are still called “The World’s Finest” some 70 years after their individual creation. Though it did not take much time, relatively speaking, for the two heroes to be teamed-up, it was only recently (within fifteen years) that the divide between the two would be deepened to mark the contrasts in their style and approach to heroism. Light and Dark. Power and Finesse. Training and Natural Ability. They are both the Yin and Yang that complete each other, forming the perfect-two man team.

Best Make Over : Birds of Prey

As told in Birds of Prey 56-62

Much has already been written about how writer Gail Simone and the former Supergirl art team of Ed Benes and Alex Lei took this book, which had fallen on hard times in the wake of longtime writer Chuck Dixon leaving it and a long series of substitute artists and writers. Throw in its tie in title only to an action show that it had nothing to do with, and you had one title that looked like it was slated for the bargain bin.

Such was not to be. For artwork that showed beautiful women in tight costumes without being exploitative coupled with stories that balanced action, drama, plot, characterization and comedy to create one of the best books on the market.

Best Retro Tale: Spider-Man/Doctor Octopus: Negative Exposure

With Doc Ock starring as the main badguy in the upcoming Spider-Man 2, Marvel has been heavily featuring him in several recent mini-series and will keep the good doctor busy until July 4th. It would have been all too easy for them to have a couple of stories hacked out and stretched out to last from now until next summer. Thankfully, it appears that most of the stories featuring the bad guy I always thought of as Spidey’s most dangerous enemy are of exceptional quality. This is especially true of “Negative Exposure”.

Distinguishable as a retro tale only because of its reference to Peter’s dating a cute blond, being in college and still working at The Daily Bugle to pay the bills, this mini-series by Y: The Last Man scribe Brian Vaughn has proven to be quite the surprising treat. Each issue has used many levels of humor, from the traditional Spidey insults (the “Scooby Doo” comment to Mysterio in particular, was a classic) to a bit of dark humor from Doc Ock himself. Throw in some good action scenes, an old-fashioned super-villain smackdown and a central focus who views Peter Parker as a big winner while HE is a the unlucky loser make this story something special and unique.

The Worst of 2003

Most Likely To Cause Continuity Robots Heads To Explode: Judd Winick’s Writing

As told in Green Arrow & Outsiders

I detailed the specifics of this case in Of Cons and Continuity, so I shall recall them briefly here.

In short, Judd Winick displeased Black Lightning creator Tony Isbella with how the character, always a fiercely conservative and family-oriented man, was going to have a child out of wedlock. Throw in problems with a niece (Jefferson Piece was an only child), his severely out-of-character casual murder of a corporate executive and the fact that Winick apparently spoke to Isabella about how to properly handle the character before-hand and you had the makings for a big creator slap fight. Add in a spattering of characterization that, according to many fans and creators, didn’t jibe with what had happened in the past (particularly among fans of Nightwing and Green Arrow) and you have one big mess that says this; Judd Winick is a good writer when he is working with his own characters, but he just plain stinks when he has to share his toys.

The “What The Hell Just Happened?” Award: JLA: Scary Monsters

The award name says it all. Did anyone like or understand this series?

The “I Waited For This?!?!” Award : Ultimate Adventures

One of the three books in late 2002’s “U-Decide” contest, this was to have been run monthly for half a year alongside Peter David’s “Captain Marvel” (rebooted into its fifth volume) and Bill Jemas’ “Marville”. The best selling of the three books would continue on as an on-going series. The other two would get the chop.

Today, Captain Marvel just had its 18th issue come out. Marville, the U-Decide contest and Bill Jemas himself have gone the way of the buggywhip. And issue six of Ron Zimmerman’s Ultimate Adventures JUST NOW came out. Exactly one year late.

This would have been anti-climactic, even if the book itself were worth reading. Sadly, had this contest taken place without delays on the part of two of the books, I doubt that Marville and UA could have overcome a writer like Peter David, who has a good deal of experience and a fanatically devoted fan base.

Incidentally, Mister David? While I have criticized most of your recent comic book work, I loved your book “Knight Life” and recommend it highly to all fans of Arthurian legend.

Worst Makeover: Aquaman

Speaking of Arthurian Legend, what fresh hell was this book?

I’ll give them credit for an inspired idea; tying Arthur Curry in with King Arthur and the Lady of the Lake was neat. But the magical water hand that cannot be used to harm others added a mystic element that has never really suited Aquaman. Mix with some rather lackluster artwork and is it any wonder this book is being retooled again?

The Worst Comic Of the Year Award : X-Men: Phoenix

No X-Men. No Jean Grey. No mutants at all.

So what DOES this book have?

Lots of mangaesque artwork of buxom redheads with armor made of equal parts heavy plate and dental floss, bending into improbable positions as they duel sit in saunas and battle nasty shadow tentacle monsters.

And to think… some men wonder why women have a negative view of us comic reading males.

A total rip off for the X-fans. An insult to all things good and decent in humanity. Gratuitously sexual, even for a hentai comic. The worst thing released all year, without a doubt.

And considering the competition, that is REALLY saying something.

Tune in next week. Same Matt time. Same Matt website.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

Heaven's War - A Trade Paperback Review

Written by: Micha Harris
Penciled by: Michael Gaydos
Inked by: Michael Gaydos
Colored by: N/A
Lettered by: Nate Pride
Editor: Nathan Massengill
Publisher: Image Comics

The world is in the midst of a great war, the result of repercussions of a war some years before which was itself though to be the greatest battle of all time. A power-mad wizard of amoral attitude stands poised to move in and alter the course of the battle and indeed the world for his own gain. All that stands in his way is a small band of three, committed but seemingly incapable of stopping that which stands before them, as they vie for control of a magical artifact.

No, I’m not talking about Lord of the Rings. Though Tolkien is involved in this story, aside from a brief mention of “the new Hobbit” book. And like Bilbo Baggins starting with his own book, I find myself at a loss as where to begin summing up “Heaven’s War”. Still,the title itself seems as good a place to start as any.

In the midst of World War II, a group of professors and writers meet at Oxford to each lunch, share ideas and critique each others work. They are known as The Inklings and among them three members have a deep interest in the supernatural, despite their strict Christian upbringings and beliefs. These writers are Tolkien (whose works I don’t think I need list), C.S. Lewis (who is perhaps most famous for his “Narnia” books, although he was no mean satirist as well) and Charles Williams, who wrote metaphysical thrillers such as “War in Heaven”, which is paid tribute to in the title of this work.

Williams, the most obscure of these three, is the hero of the tale and the focus throughout most of the story. The story begins as he is summoned to visit Arthur Waite, who designed a tarot deck and wrote a number of books on the Freemasons. Waite warns Williams that Alister Crowley, a real-life magician and self-proclaimed “most evil man in the world”, is currently in route to retrieve a great secret hidden in the church of St. Magdalene in the French village of Rennes-le-Chateau. After surviving a magical assassination attempt, Williams tells of the story to his fellow Inklings, and the three go to France to stop Crowley.

This story is very involving, though it is unlikely that the average reader will know exactly what they are getting into with this book or of the broad history behind it. Aside from touching upon the lives of some very real and very complex men, the story also delves into some deep speculation regarding the very real mysteries of what happened to the Templar nights, the Mergovian dynasty, what the Holy Grail was and some deep metaphysical ideas regarding the very nature of how time functions. Luckily, Harris includes his own annotations at the stories end that give the briefest of all possible explanation while leaving the reader hungry for more information about the real people behind the characters of this story.

Gaydos’ art is sketchy, but not overly or annoyingly so. Every panel looks like it was taken right out of an artist’s sketchbook, but this does not make the book feel incomplete or unfinished. Indeed, it makes one feel as if you are watching the story through the very same ether as the angels and the demons who, in one flashback, fight the original war in Heaven.

Monday, January 12, 2004

Ultimate Spider-Man #52 - A Review

Written by: Brian Michael Bendis
Penciled by: Mark Bagley
Inked by: Art Thibert
Colored by: Transparency Digital
Lettered by: Chris Eliopoulos
Editor: Ralph Macchio
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Reading through the latest issue of USM, I have two questions; what happened to Brian Michael Bendis and does CrossGen know that Chuck Dixon broke his exclusive contract to ghost write this issue?

Believe it or not, those rhetorical questions are complementary. This issue breaks the usual mode of Bendis’ writing style, reminding me of Chuck Dixon’s work on the early issues of Birds of Prey. The sharp dialogue and wise-cracking, self-depreciating monologues we all expect of a Spider-Man book are still there, but not in the usual high volume.

And what fills up the rest of the volume you ask? The title says it all…cat fight. Elektra and Black Cat, to be exact. And for several pages we are treated to the sight of two sweaty, gorgeous, leather-clad women struggling, grinding against the pavement and each other, lithe muscles…

Yes. Well, you get the idea.

Peter doesn’t say much while this is going on, proving the old saying that “women and cats do what they do and there is nothing a man (or a Spider-Man for that matter) can do about it.” That’s Heinlein, incidentally, for those who care.

After an anti-climactic scene where Peter is thrown off a roof, Peter finally gets an extended monologue too big for word balloons and returns to the scene of the fight to find both girls gone. And no sooner does Peter chide himself for the stupidity of sneaking out in the middle of the night to meet a criminal, a shocking cliffhanger on the final page shows that even with one woman out to kill him, a professional thief crushing on him and his being implicated in several thefts, there is no situation in Peter Parker’s life that cannot get worse.

Bagley’s art is given a stronger focus here, with the brief dialogue taking up so little space that we get to see that in addition to being a mean “eye” artist, Bagley is no mean background artist. The fight scenes are well illustrated, with appropriate close-ups and unlike most comics featuring girl-on-girl fighting, this one doesn’t feel posed or exploitive for a second. Quite a change from the Greg Horn and Terry Dodson images of Elektra and Felicia, I must say.

Overall, this issue is different but not bad. Bendis isn’t playing to his strengths, but this book is far from bad and doesn’t seem like filler despite most of the book being taken up by one long fight scene. The art is, as always, wonderful, and all the characters who are supposed to be teenagers actually look like teenagers.

Looking To The Stars: Lost Magic - Why I Stopped Reading Wizard Magazine

The following document was presumed lost due to a freak accident involving a robotic okapi and a small green dish towel named “Trevor”. Well, no.. actually it involved a writer who sent his work in early due to his going on vacation for a week and a forgetful editor who somehow managed to lose the article during one of his frequent drinking and whoring binges, but the bit about the okapi sounds much better.

(Note From Ben Morse: I don’t drink! And those were groupies, not whores! I don’t have to pay for women on my binges… unlike SOME members of this staff I could name!)

We now present, in its’ entirety, the presumed lost (for one week) classical work of “Starman” Matt Morrison.... LOST MAGIC; a brief rant on Wizard Magazine and the place of the critic.

Several years ago, after having been in the comics-reading game for a while, I made the decision to stop reading Wizard Magazine. Wizard, if you somehow don’t know, is perhaps the most well-known print magazine devoted towards comic book news, reviews and pricing. This decision was made after considering a number of factors.

1. The News

Electronic media has a huge advantage over print media in today’s fast-paced world. Yahoo News can slap up a story about the capture of Saddam Hussein within minutes, whereas the newspapers had to wait until the next morning to publish the story. Time Magazine would have to wait a whole week to cover the story as the magazine was released on Mondays and their latest issue had already gone to print on the Sunday morning of Hussein’s capture.

Wizard suffers from the same problem. On the whole, you can get the same news from Comic Book Resources, Newsarama and yes… even 411 Comics before the next issue of Wizard comes out. Of course Wizard does get a lot of exclusive news simply because a lot of creators prefer to talk to Wizard over the rest of the news outlets. This is, however, another part of the problems I had with the magazine.

2. Brown-Nosing-A-Plenty

Read Wizard for an extended period, say four months or so, and you’ll notice that the same names pop up over and over in stories and news quotes. Around the time I stopped reading it, you could open up any issue and be guaranteed three things… an exclusive preview of whatever Alex Ross was working on, a “greatest BLANK of all time” list made up mostly of people who had just gotten into the business within the last ten years and an article detailing whatever fancy thing Todd McFarlane was spending his millions on THIS month.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy Alex Ross’s work, think there are a lot of talented people who are just getting into the business and… well, okay I DON’T care to know about what movie is being funded and/or which sports collectibles have just been bought by Mr. McFarlane. The fact is that Wizard is far too celebrity obsessed and focused on too few “celebrities”. And most of these articles are written in a fanboyish “I’m so cool to be talking to this person” style that is grating in the extreme.

3. Standing Up For The Little Guy

On the same token, Wizard has very little use for the little guys in comics. There was very little coverage of the smaller, independent press books when I read it and aside from “Strangers in Paradise”, I can’t think of a single book ever discussed in the book that wasn’t a typical big-name superhero title. Not that I have ANY problem with superheroes (and I think my last year’s worth of writing will show that), but there are a lot of writers and artists out there who don’t get much attention and could sorely use the press a lot more than a discussion over why all writers from the United Kingdom either really need a haircut or shave their heads.

4. Out With The Old…

Wizard also seems to have a problem with noting events before the start of the “Dark Age” of comics (circa 1985) and any mention of classic comic characters and stories from before that era is likely to be insulting. “Oh, look at how corny the old comics were”, ala The Mort of the Month feature or the altered-word balloon covers that decorate the pricing guide section of the magazine.

And for all the articles and interviews detailing the latest up-and-comers, how much space is devoted to some of the founding fathers of the genre? When was the last time you saw a profile of Lee Falk or Martin Nodell? Heck, when have they ever written anything about Stan Lee other than mentioning he was doing a cameo in the next Marvel Movie? Surely “The Man” is just as worthy of some press as which superheroine has the most revealing thong?

5. Just Not Funny

I never found the “funny” bits of Wizard funny. I mean, laugh-out-loud, ha-ha funny? I assume that someone does find it funny and judging by your average issue of Wizard, it is probably the same people who find Zoo-Radio DJ’s funny. Most of Wizard’s humor has the same sophomoric frat-boy quality, with bits such as transcriptions of crank calls to people with the same name as a comic book character or a famous writer. Maybe I’m just an old fart at 25, but crank calls stop being funny for me (and most of the population) past the age of 12… and I don’t see much humor in calling up some guy named Clark Kent and saying you know his secret identity.

6. Quantity Over Quality

Wizard was founded in 1991, in part, as a speculator’s pricing guide. Wizard still heavily promotes the idea of comics as an investment. I’m sure I don’t have to reiterate to all of you how this kind of attitude resulted in a devastating crash which almost killed the industry, where quality was tossed aside in the name of creating more collectible issues with chromium covers, #1 “first” issues and artists ruled the roost with the story taking a back seat to huge splash pages.

When I left Wizard-reading behind me, they had just begun promoting the latest in collector’s toys: The Comics Guaranty Company issue. CGC is a company that professional grades comics, seals them up in a hard shell, and then either charges you an obscene amount of money for the service of telling you how much your comic is now worth or sells off the latest “hot” comics for an obscene amount of money through the Wizard website.

Aside from the potential abuse and possible conflict of interest in a magazine that reports the value of comics having an interest in a company that grades hot comics and assesses their value, the CGC comics seem to be a mug’s game. The CGC value, we are warned, only applies so long as the comic remains sealed up. God forbid you should want to read the book. And am I the only one who thinks that buying a comic that you can’t open and examine is a bit like buying a used car without getting a test drive?

Now, I realize that my saying all this makes me sound like some kind of pointy-headed, clove-cigarette smoking elitist who reads nothing but obscure, black-and-white titles with print runs in the lower hundreds in the top of his ivory tower and would sooner lose his autographed picture of Warren Ellis than read a book with Michael Turner artwork. This could not be further from the truth – I don’t smoke.

Indeed, it was Michael Turner’s artwork, or rather the subject of it, that made me pick up the most recent Wizard Magazine. What can I say? The promise of a preview of the real, proper and Kryptonian Supergirl returning in some form was enough of an incentive to overcome my dislike. Besides, I told myself… it may have gotten better in the last few years.

To some degree, things have gotten better… and yet are more the same than ever. For one thing, the news is still weeks old to me… but I realize that the magazine is invaluable to those who are not as broadly-read as me or indeed, do not have Internet access at all. Still, Wizard has begun to make up for this lack of currency by including full previews of comics unavailable anywhere else instead of just sketches of upcoming issues. I got to read the first few pages of the comic that will mark the first appearance of the new Supergirl as well as the entirety of the upcoming Fantastic Four Marvel Knights title. (And there’s a whole other column in that, which I will write later.)

The content was much the same as before. There was lots of news on upcoming comic book movies with a few interviews. Whole columns I remember from the past, such as the Casting Call and Mort of the Month were gone, though there was a sidebar casting a potential Superman movie. The lame humor, sadly, was still there, with a Top Ten list of Christian Bale’s preparations to play Batman. And the major feature article about what was planned for several comics over the next year was a bit biased towards the “hot titles”, with a big list of major titles and then an “Also in 2004” section for “less hot” titles.

Now, call me out if I’m wrong about this, but isn’t the goings-on of critically acclaimed titles like Gotham Central or The Goon or long-running titles like Iron Man or Hellblazer slightly less worthy of the “Also Ran” list than new and as of yet unproven titles like “Common Grounds” or “Kiss Kiss Bang Bang”? And before anyone gets all upset, remember the praise I had for Common Grounds in my Wanted #1 review. I’m looking forward to it and “KKBB”, but I think the separation should have been made along the lines of what is proven to last and what is new; not what is popular and not.

And the celebrity system is still in full swing. Of the Top 10 most highly anticipated events of 2004, a 5th of them involved Mark Millar; The Second Volume of Ultimates (#9) and a new Spider-Man book penned by Millar (#6). The return of two long-inactive artists who did a lot of work for Top Cow made up another 5th of the list. (Michael Turner Returns #4 and Marc Silvestri on New X-Men #5), and even these listings are suspect. Silverstri’s first issue on the book will just barely qualify as a 2004 publication and Michael Turner already “returned” earlier this year with the publication of three issues of Aspen Comics. I find it suspect that all this attention is being given to a “hot” writer and two artists renowned for their connection to the multiple-cover gimmicks that so heavily fuel the speculator trade that Wizard has a vested interest in keeping active.

Still, there were signs of progress with brief sections dedicated to manga and anime… as well as the two page “Secret Stash” column about “small press” titles. While this is a far cry from the space that these features receive from other magazines, it is still a vast improvement over how it was when I last read it. This, in fact describes the whole product; a vast improvement over how I found it.

Finally, I would like to discuss a letter in Wizard that proved almost prophetic. The letter was from a fan who said that he missed the old days of Wizard when they would “crap all over books they didn’t like”. The editor responded that Wizard had “grown into something more than a fanzine” and that “wasting valuable page space to trash bad books doesn’t make sense” when your main goal is “to tell people what they should be reading”.

I must respectfully disagree with this viewpoint as worded. Granted, there is something to be said from getting away from the school of criticism where insults are hurled like dung from a monkey’s hand but criticism is much more than just “telling people what they should be reading.” There is a responsibility to cover the good and the bad.

I could quite happily spend the rest of my career writing about everything written by Geoff Johns, Gail Simone or the classic works of Roger Stern and Roy Thomas… but that would make for some dull reading (or in my case dull writing) after a while. And what if all critics did that? What if they only reviewed the books they wanted to read? Even with the vast diversity of the market today, only a minor percentage of these titles would be reviewed. And how many people would be willing to take a chance on a new title that they had heard nothing about? What if there is a new title… a good title… that gets ignored by the critics?

This is all a bit hypothetical, I admit, but I give this example only to emphasize my point that a true critic wears two hats. In the first guise, the critic is a king who dispenses rewards and praise to those who earn their respect. In the second guise, the critic is the jester who speaks the harsh truths that nobody will hear with a wink and a knowing smile. As pleasant as it is to be the king, you must occasionally play the fool. Because there are times when the emperor has no clothes, and rather than ignore the naked man, somebody has to say “Hey! That guy is naked!” And I promise that as long as I am writing here, I shall always strive to point out the nudity to you all. Figuratively speaking, that is.

Tune In Next Week! Same Matt Time! Same Matt Web Site!

Monday, January 5, 2004

Kingpin #7 - A Review

Written by: Bruce Jones
Penciled by: Sean Phillips
Inked by: Klaus Janson
Colored by: Lee Loughridge
Lettered by: Cory Petit
Editor: Warren Simons
Publisher: Marvel Comics

Amazing what difference a few months can make. Originally, Kingpin was meant to be a six-issue mini-series about the early years of Wilson Fisk, aka The Kingpin of Crime. Sometime along the way, it was decided to turn the series into a full-length retro-series (ala Emma Frost) and to add an issue to the mini-series turned opening story arc. Now, sometime later again… the regular series is now a mini-series and is ending with this issue. And sadly, this issue looks like what it is… an editorially-mandated extension onto what was a done-deal story.

This is not to say that the issue is bad or bad reading. It just has a lot of scenes which are clearly filler and have no directing bearing upon the events at the start of the issue or indeed some of the events of the whole series.

I cannot say enough good things about the art. The covers by Tony Harris, while portraying the classic Kingpin, are gorgeous and I think any fault in the depiction probably lies with the editorial staff and not Mr. Harris, who likely painted the covers months ago. The interior artwork is just as gorgeous, with Janson’s inks giving Phillips pencils an appropriately dark aura not unlike that of a more gritty Steve Ditko.

The Marvelous Adventures of Gus Beezer With Spider-Man #1 - A Review

Written by: Gail Simone
Penciled by: Gurihiru
Inked by: Gurihiru
Colored by: Gurihiru
Lettered by: Rus Wooton
Editor: Teresa Focarille
Publisher: Marvel Comics

I am a man torn.

On the one hand I am happy, for this is one of the few books in recent memory written for a specifically younger audience with the intent of bringing younger readers into the hobby of comic book reading which also manages the neat trick of being just as enjoyable for cynics and other alleged adults like yours truly.

On the other hand, I am sad, because Gail Simone (on who I have gushed more praise than I think anyone is comfortable with) signed an exclusive contract with DC Comics and that likely means that it will be at least a year before I am able to enjoy Gus Beezer’s marvelous adventures again!

In case you missed it the first time, Gus Beezer centers upon Gus Beezer; your average 10 year old comic fan, who has the added advantage of living in the Marvel Universe. He plays pretend in his head and vanishes into his own little world where he fights along-side (or becomes) his favorite heroes, only to have his boyish fantasies come crashing around him as reality sets back in. In other words, it’s Calvin and Hobbes for comic geeks. Still, its not all that bad for Gus who has gotten to meet a lot of his heroes in one way or another. The X-Men stopped by his house (sadly, it turned out his baby sister is the mutant they were looking for), he survived an encounter with The Hulk (who just wanted some pudding) and it turns out that his cousin Peter is really good friends with Spider-Man.

This book continues the trend, with Gus being frustrated over his inability to beat his bratty older sister in a race after managing to win a track meet at school - this being accomplished by his pretending he is Spider-Man and that the other kids are Venom, Electro and company chasing after him. Sent along with cousin Peter to his boring job as a photographer for the Daily Bugle, Gus finds himself duct taped to a chair after he almost mouths off to J. Jonah Jameson following a tirade about "that criminal Spider-Man". Still, things turn out for the best and after a truly priceless scene in which a bound-but-no-longer-gagged Gus gets to say his peace to Jolly Jonah, Peter returns from an errand (ie. Vulture and Green Goblin attack) with an autographed picture of Spidey as well as some heartfelt advice as to the best way to beat a bully.

The artwork is perfectly cartoonish, with Peter and Jonah looking disjointed but not unrecognizable. And as before, the bottom third of each page depicts a childishly-drawn comic book by Gus himself, depicting the adventures of Marvel Boy and Marvel Dog (aka Gus and his dog Zabu).

The only complaint I have about this book is that it is not published more regularly. Much has been said about how more books are needed which are written for a younger audience and yet are not "dumbed down". Much is said, yet few are actually DOING anything about the problem. Still, I hope this book will find the success it deserves and that we will find many more books like Gus Beezer in the coming year.

Friday, January 2, 2004

X-Treme X-Men #38 - A Review

Written by: Chris Claremont
Penciled by: Igor Kordey
Inked by: Scott Hanna
Colored by: Transparency Digital
Lettered by: Virtual Calligraphy
Editor: Mike Marts
Publisher: Marvel Comics

“Storm: The Arena”, as the buzz holds, was meant to be a Storm mini-series that got canceled at the last moment. Chris Claremont, being Chris Claremont, was able to get the story into the regular run of X-Treme X-Men and we are now being treated to one issue of this book a week, so that we may read the story without throwing off the regular flow of the book.

So what is “The Arena” about? To sum up simply; Chris Claremont is doing his own take on the superhero gladiatorial arena concept that was most recently done in the relaunch of the “New Thunderbolts” in issue #76 of that series. Sadly, I think that the New Thunderbolts was done much better than this… and I HATED the New Thunderbolts with the intensity of a thousand white hot blazing suns about to go supernova.

In the wake of having gotten the United States government to sponsor a new mutant-terrorism taskforce, Storm has to “do a favor” for some high-placed government hoo-hah and investigate reports of an underground club where mutant gladiatorial fights are taking place. Storm does this by calling up an old friend in Tokyo, dressing up in some fetish-ware that covers more than her usual costume and going clubbing. After one night of drinking, dancing and actually enjoying herself, the usually staid and self-control obsessed storm finds herself loosening up and then… losing control.

Which might mean something if this didn’t happen in every single story EVER about Storm trying to loosen up a little bit…

Faster than you can say “How Storm Got Her Groove Back”, Storm winds up jumping into something without thinking and beating the champ of the arena after entering a fight on a whim. Winner of the “Worst Codename Ever” contest, Strong Guy shows up and spells out the rules of the arena; win and you become rich and respected and taken care of… lose, and you become slave to the one who beat you. Still, this doesn’t strike Storm as a problem until she is challenged by the champion from another foreign arena.

In this case, the other champion is a physically altered Callisto, bearing a) more tentacles than your average Hentai b) a grudge against Storm for beating her once and c) a mutant power that makes her a master tactician. One butt-whipping later, Storm finds herself at the mercy of another former Morlock leader with a grudge; Masque. Not to be confused with Madame Masque, as I WAS confused until about the third time I reread this book. After running Storm through a variety of demonic forms for no readily apparent reason other than to “bring out your inner demons”, Masque puts Storm under the control of her underlings Pleasure (three guesses what her power is?) and Purge, who has the ability to inflict pain with a whip. Well, more pain than you would usually feel with a whip…

Storm is written with no apparent motivation other than driving the plot along. The same woman who was, for many years, the portrait of discipline… she who possessed enough independence to tell Charles Xavier that he is full of it and go on to form her own team is reduced to jumping into situations gung-ho and not thinking about the consequences of her actions further ahead than two minutes in the future. This is especially shocking and disappointing coming from the same man who did so much to shape Storm into one of the most positive female role-models in comics.

Kordey’s art isn’t much better, being far too posed and too full of gratuitous cheesecake shots. A no-reason shot of Storm’s Japanese gal-pal’s butt in a pair of short shorts and the BDSM-inspired costumes of Callisto, Pleasure and Purge come to mind immediately as examples of this. Kordey is also a poor visual storyteller, with basic things like the passage of time are not marked in either the art or the text. At one point, the shot of Storm being beaten by Pleasure surges into Storm preparing for another fight in the arena with no transition or note of it being “Later that night” or “The Next Day.” This is somewhat disorienting as the only note to the change is Storm’s costume.

Folks, you’d be harder pressed to find someone more disappointed and critical about the state of the X-Men franchise than myself… but even I can’t stand to see such great potential going to waste. While I won’t go as far as some of my colleagues in saying that Chris Claremont can’t write a good story anymore, I will say that he has written much better in the past and is capable of a helluvalot better than this! Hopefully the possibilities opened up by the new mutant police force will improve this book and the forthcoming Uncanny… but that may be wishful thinking.