Sunday, February 27, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Superman: The Animated Series, Season 1 DVD

"Superman is the man," Jerry Seinfeld once said. "There is no other man." The first superhero, first and foremost among them even today. He is the first superhero to come to mind whenever superheroes are brought up. Heck, the term "super-hero" was named for him!

Still, Superman gets a hard time of it. Despite being the most well-known superhero in the world, he's not the most popular. Many comic readers won't read his book, saying there's no point in reading a book based around a hero that is so powerful. "I am Superman. I can do anything," the song says.

Regardless, the same team that brought new life to Batman in 1992 was able to do wonders for the Man of Steel and created a series that was much better than many of the stories being done with the character at that time. (Electric Superman, anyone?) The DVD set of the first season came out recently and I was fortunate enough to finally have some time to sit down, watch the whole thing, and record some thoughts.

Layout and Set-Up

The box art is similar to that of the Batman: TAS set and would not look out of place next to it on the shelf. The menu design is more animated that that in the Batman set. Literally. Whereas the Batman menus were static pictures of Batman, the Superman menus feature two mini-screens of moving pictures. Much more dynamic and exciting, this is a definite step-up from the Batman set. One curiosity; the set is packaged on two DVDs, one regular disc and one double-sided disc. One wonders if the WB was too cheap to spring for three discs, because the double-sided one just looks odd in comparison to the nice label on the first disc.

Disc One

1, 2 & 3. Last Son of Krypton

Told over three rough "acts", this is the origin of Superman. Born on the doomed planet Krypton, he was sent to Earth by his scientist father. Found by Jon and Martha Kent, he is raised as a normal Earthling, discovers his powers as a teenager and goes on to travel the world helping people before settling in Metroplois and taking a job as a reporter. It is here that he first starts wearing a costume, is given the name "Superman" by reporter Lois Lane and comes to draw the ire of millionaire industrialist and secret crime-lord Lex Luthor. This story is familiar enough to most of the world, but the team find a way to make it seem new with some changes to the main story that make it exciting for fans old and new alike. A number of reoccurring characters are introduced here, including head thug John Corben (who would later become the robotic Metallo) and Kryptonian computer Brainiac. All in all, everything you hope for in an opening story and one heck of a movie on its' own. 5 Stars.

4. Fun and Games

Local crimeboss Bruno Mannheim finds himself under siege by a mysterious figure who is attacking his operations and his men... with toys. Superman quickly finds himself protecting one baddie from another, as the mysterious "Toyman" comes looking for revenge. One of the creepier episodes (the Toyman's frozen doll mask gives me shivers), this episode managed to modernize one of the sillier Superman villains but didn't quite make him popular. Toyman proves formidable enough, but too limited in his motivations. Used only once after this episode, probably because the writers had difficulty in figuring out what to do with him once Mannheim got his just deserts. 4 stars.

5. A Little Piece Of Home

After Superman shows signs of weakness when approaching a display of space rocks while stopping a museum robbery, Lex Luthor begins to find ways to use this new "Kryptonite" to keep The Man of Steel out of his business affairs. Kryptonite, probably the silliest super-weakness outside of the color yellow, is introduced smoothly and in a way that makes perfect sense in the context of the world of this series. 4 Stars.

6. Feeding Time

An unwitting accomplice in a robbery of STAR Labs, janitor Rudy Jones is changed by a chemical bath into the energy and memory-draining monster dubbed The Parasite. Another great villain episode, this episode is a lot better than anything I have seen done with the character of The Parasite in the comics. Rudy shows up again in later episodes, but never seems to be a bad guy. Rather just a loser who wants to take advantage of the one break he finally got. 5 Stars.

Disc Two, Side A

1. The Way Of All Flesh

When mercenary John Corben comes down with a deadly disease, his old boss Lex Luthor is all too eager to help by transplanting John's brain inside a robot body made of a new indestructible alloy called metallo. Powered by a Kryptonite heart, Corben sets his sights on getting revenge against Superman... but what cost will his new body have? Yet another great villain episode, Malcom McDowell's voice work here as Corben is amazing. He handles the transition from amoral jailbird to psychotic robot very smoothly so that by the end of the episode, you can't help but feel sorry for him, despite his evil, just because of how masterfully he was manipulated at every step by Lex Luthor. 5 stars.

2. Stolen Memories

Lex Luthor makes contact with alien life; a robot by the name of Brainiac, willing to trade information on countless other worlds in exchange for information on Earth. But as Superman will discover, Brainiac is not nearly as altruistic as he portrays himself to be and he has a connection to Superman's past that nobody could guess at. Somewhat predictable if only because we know from the first three episodes that Brainiac is not to be trusted, having directly prevented the salvation of Krypton. Still, this does set up the character well and leads into a whole host of other stories. Deserves mention as the episode in which we first get a look at what will become The Fortress of Solitude. 4 Stars.

3 & 4. The Main Man

Intergalactic biker bounty hunter Lobo is hired by a zookeeper known as The Preserver to bring in the last Kryptonian (i.e. Superman) for his zoo. When The Preserver decides his menagerie also needs the last survivor of the planet Czarnia (i.e. Lobo, who blew up the planet as part of his high school science project), Lobo is forced to team up with Superman in order to escape. Another Paul Dini masterpiece, this one perfectly balances humor, action and drama. Lobo is voiced perfectly, sounding like a slightly more subdued Randy Savage and played as true to form as he can be on children's TV. 5 Stars.

5. My Girl

Clark Kent's high-school sweetheart, fashion designer Lana Lang comes to town and quickly winds up on the arm of Lex Luthor. She has ideas about becoming Superman's sidekick and quickly winds up in trouble when her efforts to spy on Luthor are discovered. One of the weaker episodes of the first season, but not bad by any means. One does wonder how Lana continues to draw breath after the failed attempt to kill her at the end, given Lex's usual ability to hold a grudge. Still, a funny little episode that tells us more about Clark Kent's past. 3 Stars.

6. Tools of the Trade

Bruno Mannheim's gang starts receiving high-powered technology from a Mr. Kanto and his mysterious employer. Beloved by Jack Kirby enthusiasts because of focus of Dan Turpin (who was modeled on The King of Comics himself), this episode is rather slow to get started and slow to finish. The introduction of Intergang and the New Gods should have been handled with more grace. Still, this is somewhat redeemed by the appearance of Darkseid at the end. 2 Stars.

7. Two's A Crowd

When a mad bomber goes into a coma before revealing where his bomb is, The Parasite cops a deal in exchange for his help in reading the terrorist's memories. But when something goes wrong, and Rudy Jone's personality is overpowered by the charismatic bomber, what hope does Metroplois have with a bomb in hiding and a more cunning and crafty Parasite stalking the streets? A bit slow in points but still faster-paced than Tools of the Trade. It's a nice little follow-up for Parasite, but strictly typical as far as episodes go.
3 Stars.

8. The Prometheon

Superman and his friend Professor Hamilton of STAR Labs must race to save the world after the actions of a trigger-happy general release a heat-absorbing monster on the Earth. Another favorite of the Jack Kirby fans, I still find this one to be little more than twenty-minutes of Superman slapping around and being slapped around by a big dumb monster, beautiful though the design is. While the character of General Hardcastle would play a major role in later episodes as well as the Justice League cartoon, his "stupid alien" attitude here seems a little too exaggerated for the realistic standards this show usually sets for its' characters and enters into the realm of stereotyping military men as unthinking grunts. While this kind of character works well in Spider-Man, it doesn't work here. Still, this episode could be used well as part of paper discussing the anti-authoritarian aspects of the Superman mythos. 1 Star.

Disc Two, Side B

1 & 2. Blasts From The Past

Experimenting with a device found in the rocket which brought Superman to Earth, Dr. Hamilton and Superman discover a portal into The Phantom Zone and an imprisoned criminal, Mala, who claims she has served her sentence. When Superman finds her to be too uncontrollable to be an effective crime-fighter and considers returning her to the Phantom Zone, she steals the projector and releases her former commander Jax-Ur, a general whom she seconded in a plot to take over Krypton which was stopped by Superman's father. Superman must now face down two criminals with power nearly the equal to his in order to save his adopted homeworld from their tyranny. Liberally based upon a dozen old comics and the second Superman movie, this one manages to seem different from those works but does not surpass them. Still, it is a serviceable enough two-parter. 3 stars.

3. Livewire

Superman-hating radio-starlet Leslie Wills is turned into a literal shock-jock after a lightning strike during an outdoor concert turns her into pure energy. The first original villain created for the series, Lori Petty put more energy into her performance than Evan Dorkin and Sara Dyer did into the script. Still, despite this being a rather "seen-it" villain origin story, it does manage to be more amusing than most of the episodes. 4 Stars.

4. Speed Demons

Superman agrees to race speedster superhero The Flash around the world 100 times for charity. But both will find themselves at the most uncharitable hands of a new villain called The Weather Wizard. The first Animated Series appearance of The Flash, this episode is fun but nothing really special. 3 Stars.

Special Features

In what is becoming a trend for the set, there are very few extras to be had in this DVD set. There are two documentaries and four commentaries on 18 of these episodes.

Thankfully, things are a little more lively this time. I don't know if its because this time we have Paul Dini for all the commentaries (he was an executive producer, rather than just a story editor this time around) or because we also get executive producer Alan Burnett, directors Dan Riba and Curt Geda as well as art director Glen Murakami in the room as well. Regardless, having five people talking about the episodes gives us a lot more information and a lot more liveliness than the rather stoic two-person conversations that dominated most of the Batman commentaries. In fact, the commentaries this time have a running gag with Paul Dini commenting on how much better every episode would be if he had been allowed to put Mr. Mxyzptlk in it. 4 Stars.

Superman: Learning To Fly

Short and sweet, this documentary discusses the many difficulties in designing the show and bringing it to the small screen. Lots of opinions from the creators and art designers, this is a must see for all fans of the Man of Steel. 5 stars.

Building the Mythology: Superman's Supporting Cast

A basic introduction to the thought that went into the characters. We don't learn much we couldn't have told from the episodes and there's next to nothing said about the comics that inspired the show. Still, it is entertaining on its own. 4 stars.

Overall, I'd give the Superman: The Animated Series Season One set a solid 4 stars out of 5. Not all the episodes are great and the whole series of WB Animated Series DVD sets would benefit from more commentaries by the creative minds behind the show AND the actors. Still, for what it is, this is a more than worthwhile investment for Superman fans old and new.

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

Y: The Last Man #31 - A Review

Written by: Brian K. Vaughan
Penciled by: Pia Guerra
Inked by: Jose Marzan Jr.
Colored by: Zylonol
Lettered by: Clem Robins
Editor: Will Dennis
Publisher: Vertigo > DC Comics

There are some books it is painful for me to review. Brian K. Vaughan writes most of them. Is this because his books are painful to read? Hell no! Far from it. Vaughan is, in fact, my favorite writer at the moment and the most consistently excellent one in the business. Is there any other writer who writes such a wide variety of titles and writes them all so well? I think not.

No, the pain comes from within my own dark and twisted soul. Because I know that there is very little I can say about this book to influence my audience regarding it. I do not know anyone, not ONE single person, who has read this book and not enjoyed it. I have not heard one negative comment, sarcastic jab or even so much as a discouraging word about Y: The Last Man. It lends a certain beautiful futility to my job, let me tell you. Heck, the only reason I haven’t stopped now is because I’m hoping to get a nice blurb printed in Previews Magazine with my name under it because of that first paragraph.

Still, for those of you who haven’t started reading “Y: The Last Man” yet, let me tell you why you should start. Simply put, this is the most realistic science-fiction story I have ever seen in any comics. Yorick, and his pet monkey Ampersand, are the only males to survive a plague which has killed every male, animal and human, upon the planet. The two survived for reasons which are just now becoming revealed. They are traveling with a federal agent known only as 355 and Dr. Mann, whose research may enable the human (or should that be hu-woman?) race the ability to have children without sperm until the population can replenish themselves. In this issue, Amepersand is kidnapped by a ninja working for a mysterious employer and the book ends with our trio of heroes stuck looking for a way to follow her.

That’s just plot though. As always, Vaughan’s strength lies in characters and knowing how people work. The book works at its’ best when dealing with the idea of how a world run by women would really work and what it would be like to be the one man stuck in it. With little touches such as a group of feminist actors traveling from city to city in the medieval tradition and finding that their risky plays aren’t wanted and that there are women who want them to act out their favorite soaps, the book can be just as much a comedy as it can be an epic about the end of the world.

Amazing Spider-Man #517 - A Review

Written by: J. Michael Straczynski
Penciled by: Mike Deodato & Mark Brooks
Inked by: Joe Pimentel & Jamie Mendoza
Colored by: Matt Milla & Brian Reber
Lettered by: VC’s Chris Eliopoulos
Editor: Axel Alonso
Publisher: Marvel Comics

No good deed goes unpunished. Sure seems to be a truism for Peter Parker. After several years, an old friend by the name of Charlie looks him up. Charlie, who was even more of a screwed-up nerd than Peter in high school, has gotten an idea for a scientific breakthrough but has no capital.

Feeling sorry and remembering how badly he treated Charlie because it took the bullies’ attention off him, Peter agrees to act as a job reference. Charlie goes to Tony Stark, lies a bit about how much Peter is involved in the experiment, gets his capital and starts experimenting. Peter stops by the lab only to find Charlie working under some seriously dangerous conditions. He protests and Charlie rushes the experiment, trying to finish before the police show up, only to wind-up covering himself in a layer of liquid Vibranium.

Charlie, true to form for his life thus far, blames someone else (in this case Peter) for his mistakes. And as this issue opens up, he is on Peter’s doorstep threatening to destroy everything and everyone Peter loves if he doesn’t help him to clear his name and avoid jailtime.

JMS introduces a wonderful new villain in Charlie. Charlie is a good example of a dark-mirror character. That is, a representation of everything the hero could be if he had the same background but went down the path of darkness. Peter has an internal monologue which sums this up perfectly, in which he ponders (through the aid of a fairy godfather with the face of jolly J. Jonah Jameson) that there are two kinds of people; those who look to the future and those who wallow in the past. Peter, for all his regrets about the past and kvetching over his mistakes, does look forward and try to make things better. Charlie, by contrast, cannot get over how badly he was treated in high school and his attempts at scientific genius come more out of a desire to wow his peers than to better himself or the world.

This contrast is driven home in a flashback scene (done by a completely different art team in a style not too dissimilar to that of Ultimate Spider-Man) in which we see Charlie remembering his mistreatment at a jock and cheerleader not too different from Flash Thompson and Liz Allen. Charlie’s reaction, and the darker art created by Deodato & Pimentel, help to illustrate not only the difference in time but the difference between Charlie and Peter.

Of course, I would be remiss if I did not mention the fact that in addition to some wonderful art and some brilliant characterization, this book also features a semi-cameo by Bruce Campbell. Remember the scene in Spider-Man 2? Peter has to deal with a surly usher in this issue who looks… well… suffice it to say, Peter leaves their conversation muttering about “…big chin, son of a…”

Yes, this is a bit silly and gratuitous. But since it is actually funny and not done in an overly obvious way (the gag is only four panels on one page), I don’t mind. Just like I don’t mind recommending this title to anyone who enjoys a good superheroic yarn.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Constantine- A Review

We're going to do something totally different this time. Because I am sick of reviewing movies and then seeing other writers saying that is unfair for me to judge something as an adaptation of another work. So for the sake of argument, we're going to give it a shot.

We are going to ignore the fact that this movie takes considerable liberties with the original comics on which they are nominally based.

We are going to ignore the fact Alan Moore, who has had quite a few of his books turned into movies that took considerable liberties with the source material, demanded to have the "Created By" credit removed from THIS movie.

We are going to ignore all issues of adaptation, continuity, original characterization and such minutia as to Chas Chandler, tough guy cabbie and John's only friend to not die being transformed into Chas Kramer, wannabe sorcerer and little wimp. We are just going to look at one simple question. Is this movie, in and of itself and its own world, any good?

Short answer. No. Long answer to begin in the next paragraph.

As a film, Constantine fails on all nearly every front. Though there are some small features that might win it redemption, this film should be damned to the movie theaters in Hell. But lest we think I'm all doom and gloom, I'm going to start out with some things about the movie I did like.

1. Papa Midnite

The one character in the movie that shows signs of an interesting personality. Actually, the only character who shows ANY sort of personality, but why quibble? This may well explain why, out of all the characters who could have gotten a solo comics-series this year, a Hellblazer villain who died in the books ten years ago after two appearances was chosen. Some suit at WB probably saw the movie and said "This guy is cool. Let's get a comic about him!"

2. Constantine's Entrance

The first scene, I actually had some hope. Sure, the trenchcoat is nice and black. His suit is clean and he looks way too clean-cut. But the walk... the sneer... the way he lit the cigarette, looking like a walking Tim Bradstreet painting. Physically, Keanu managed to be John Constantine for one minute. It all went downhill as soon as he began talking, but it was better than I had hoped for.

3. Settings

The sets in this flick were gorgeous. Full props to the set-makers and props people for making the backdrops more lifelike than the actors.

4. Music
The film does have some nice background tunes. I was particularly surprised to hear Dave Brubeck's "Take Five". It's the jazz song playing on the record when John is examining magical artifacts near the start of the flick.

5. Woah? No.

Keanu does not say "Woah" once in the movie. Color me surprised.

Besides that, the whole thing lies there like a corpse.

The plot is pretty standard horror stuff, with the names changed to bear some slight resemblance to the Vertigo comic Hellblazer. John Constantine is an unwilling expert on fighting the forces of darkness, trying to buy his way into Heaven after being diagnosed with lung cancer: the result of a 30-a-day-since-15 smoking habit. The end of the world is nigh and John is drug into trying to stop Armageddon after starting to investigate whether or not a mental patient's suicide really was a suicide. Naturally, there's a love interest to rescue (Rachel Weisz, as the suicide and her twin sister, who is a cop), a hapless (re: annoying) sidekick, a host of colorful (re: drunk and weird) associates and The Devil himself mugging it up worse than Robin Williams after a three-day crack binge.

The performances here are a study in contrast. Half the actors overact with a shamelessness to make William Shatner blush (Shia LaBeouf, as Chas is particularly grating). The other half look stoned or bored. Keanu Reeves is, as usual, the biggest offender in this area. When asked by the woman he is helping to awaken her ability to have visions if she needs to get completely naked before entering a full bathtub, he makes no physical reaction other than to stare blankly and then say "I'm thinking" when she asks for an answer. Rachel Weisz is not much better, being able to smile vacantly but little else.

The CGI is also a bit of a weak point. While it is an improvement on some of last summer's horror/action movies and tons better than Van Helsing, it still fails to feel seamless. A bit of a nitpick, but other movies with lower budgets have managed to look more convincing.

Finally, the movie seems unclear about its own rules and mythology. We are told repeatedly that demons cannot physically manifest on Earth, which is why they have to possess people spiritually. And yet, these rules are broken several times... John is attacked by a demon made of roaches, he and the cop are attacked by several flying beasties and the Devil himself walks the Earth with relative ease. No explanation other than an instance that demons cannot walk the Earth is ever given for how the rules are being broken. I'm also curious about the existence of half-breed demons and half-breed angels if said beings cannot manifest physically. Then again, I'm not THAT curious if it means hearing a lecture upon the mating habits of trans-dimensional beings.

All in all, I'll give Constantine a solid 3 for effort. It might be worth checking out on video if you're fond of "Mystery Science Theater 3000: The Home Game", but its worthless for much else. And if you're a die-hard fan of the books, do not watch this movie under any circumstance short of being force at gunpoint. You'll be much happier. Trust me.

This review is dedicated to my friend Aaron, without whom I would have had to pay good money to have seen this movie.

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

Green Lantern: Rebirth #4 - A Review

Written by: Geoff Johns
Penciled by: Ethan Van Sciver
Inked by: Prentis Rollins
Colored by: Moose Baumann
Lettered by: Rob Leigh
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Publisher: DC Comics

I was worried this week. So many titles I read came out. All of them were great.

Birds of Prey had a great issue, with Gail Simone introducing her “Thorn” character from last year’s amazing Rose And Thorn into regular continuity. Ex Machina was a little slower than usual, but no less enjoyable for it. Space Ghost continues to surprise me. And the first chapter of I Can’t Believe Its’ Not The Justice League proved to be as hilarious as I hoped. But one title outshone them all and I was so worried that I wouldn’t get the chance to talk about how great it was.

Lucky me. I get to review it.

Green Lantern was my favorite superhero growing up. I’m not sure what inspired this. Green being my favorite color then? Yellow being my least favorite color? Hal Jordan being the Superfriend with brown, curly hair like mine? The fact that when Superman–best superhero there is to a young kid–got hurt and couldn’t fight something, it was nearly always Green Lantern who saved him? Or maybe it was because I was the imaginative sort who saw the value in having the power to make anything you thought of real? Either way, Green Lantern was my hero.

Now imagine that. You have the power to make thoughts reality, but you only have one limit. You can’t affect anything yellow. Doesn’t sound like much of a weakness. Until you realize you have an enemy. An enemy with a serious grudge against you. One who has the same powers that you do, but none of the weaknesses. And everything he thinks of? It comes out yellow.

Time once was that Sinestro making an appearance in a Green Lantern story was a big deal. It conveyed the true horror of what it was like to have that total power and then to suddenly be powerless against someone who wanted you dead. That is how this book opens, with Sinestro standing over an injured Green Lantern and Green Arrow (Kyle Rayner and Ollie Queen) and it builds from there.

Honestly, if you’re not reading this title by now, anything I say here won’t do much. You’re either loving this book as much as I am or you aren’t reading it. Geoff Johns has written a skillful script. Ethan Van Sciver and Prentis Rollins have created some beautiful pictures. And the whole thing just plains rocks in socks. There’s not much else to be said.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

JSA #70 - A Review

Written by: Geoff Johns
Penciled by: Don Kramer
Inked by: Keith Champagne
Colored by: John Kalisz
Lettered by: Jared K. Fletcher
Editor: Peter Tomasi
Publisher: DC Comics

This seems to be a week for classic film references in my reviews. Earlier, I reviewed Batman: The Man Who Laughs, which took its title from a 1928 film, whose tragic hero was part of the inspiration for the appearance of The Joker. Now, I find Michael Holt (a.k.a. Mister Terrific) quoting In The Heat Of The Night as he is faced down by a group of angry Klansmen who demand to know what they call him up North.

“They call me… Mister Terrific,” he says with only a moment’s hesitation as he too gets the joke.

This is why JSA is one of my favorite titles. There’s lots of little “in-jokes” for those who get them. But unlike most comics which attempt such Easter Eggs, you don’t have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of DC Comics history, old movies or the minutia of 17th century Scotland’s economic turmoil to enjoy the basic story of JSA.

The story right now is complex, but capably covered by Johns writing. A time-traveling baddy by the name of Degaton has gone throughout time and killed off most of the modern incarnation of the Justice Society of America. The last surviving members of the modern JSA, all second or third generation heroes, have gone back in time to talk to their mentors and convince them not to break up the team in the wake of being asked to unmask by Congress during the height of McCarthyism. The team’s break-up, all part of Degaton’s plan, will be the cause of a huge disaster which will eventually lead to the destruction of the present day.

Trust me: it reads much better spread over three issues than in a one paragraph summary.

Don Kramer’s artwork is a perfect match for this book. He has to draw a wide variety of characters in a huge variety of settings and manages to make every single one of them look unique. Even the simplest thug will have a distinctive face and personality; something many artists will “cheat” on when doing a book with such a wide and varied cast.

Sunday, February 13, 2005

Looking To The Stars: She-Devil May Care

Am I the only one who cares about the total mess Frank Cho has made out of the good name of Dr. Shanna O'Hara?

While giving myself a refresher course in the history of the original "Shanna The She Devil", I determined that out of the eighty websites that came up during one web search, only four of them yielded any information about the character outside of Frank Cho's new pet project. Of those, only one gave any suitable background information on the character whom was Marvel Comic's first attempt at creating a feminist icon. Yes, even before Ms. Marvel!

Let us go back to a different time; when there was great social unrest, the country was torn apart by a war many felt to be unjust and a president of questionable moral integrity sat in the White House.

(Well, okay. Maybe not THAT different a time.)

The year was 1972. The Women's Liberation movement was becoming a true force to be reckoned with. Helen Reddy had just released I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar. And Marvel, seeing the way the wind was blowing, decided that perhaps they should start publishing some books about empowered, modern female heroes.

And so it was that they release three titles. Night Nurse; a rather forgettable title centering around three nurses working night-shift in a hospital and their many adventures. The Cat, whose base concept would later be used to create a different "The Cat", who would eventually go on to become the heroine Tigra. And finally, "Shanna, The She-Devil, which would go on to have the greatest lasting effect upon The Marvel Universe.

Shanna O'Hara had a happy enough childhood. Raised in Africa on a nature preserve by her father, a former big-game hunter who has turned to conservation, Shanna was raised with a deep respect for nature and a love of animals. She would later go to school in the United States, where she would get a doctorate in veterinary sciences and get a job with a zoo.

It is while working at the zoo that Shanna began to develop a deep hatred of modern "civilization", particularly in regards to how badly the animals in her care are treated by her co-workers and the patrons of the zoo. It is then that she decides to do the only sensible thing a rational woman can do; she dons a leopard-skin bikini, rescues a panther and a leopard (named Ina and Biri, respectively) and goes to bless the rains down in Africa faster than you can say 'Toto'.

Okay, that is pretty crazy on the surface of it. But that is no more irrational than radiation being able to make you big, green and strong.

Shanna would then go on to a lucrative if brief career. She protected the wilds from poachers and fighting third-rate villains such as The Mandrill. She also struck a blow for women everywhere by proving that she could rescue the wannabe love-interest who kept getting in their way just as well as any Superman. In Shanna's case, she had to keep bailing out a thick slab of Irish beefcake by the name of Patrick McShane. Still, it may have been too much, too soon.

Still, one cannot fault the talent behind Shanna for the book's inability to take off. With covers by legendary artist Jim Steranko (Check out this page for a peek at the first one.), artwork by long-time Wonder Woman artist Ross Andru and scripts/plots from Howard the Duck creator Steve Gerber, this book had the talent to take it into the stratosphere.

But despite Wonder Woman making the cover of the newly-launched Ms. Magazine, Marvel may have overestimated the number of enlightened women reading comics. The numbers were lower than they had hoped and all three of these books were canceled with a speed unseen even today at Marvel. Night Nurse and The Cat lasted a scant four issues. Shanna did little better, lasting until issue five before getting the axe.

Still, Shanna would later move on to better things. She became a frequent partner of Spider-Man and Daredevil throughout the 70's and 80's and would have a brief relationship with the latter hero. Though the romance didn't last, they would remain close enough that Shanna would later name her son Matthew in Matt Murdock's honor.

That son, of course, came at the hands of Shanna's most famous romantic partner: the man she eventually married. Kevin Plunder, aka Ka-Zar - protector of the lost jungle known as The Savage Land. Perfect place for a woman seeking to get away from it all. Sadly, while Ka-Zar's several solo series lasted slightly longer than Shanna's, neither was able to completely escape from the feeling among some fans that in a world of flying superheroes, the adventures of a married couple and their son living in a jungle fighting monsters is pretty dull stuff. Never mind that Tarzan and The Phantom did just fine with that concept for years.

So what does any of this have to do with Frank Cho's "Shanna, The She-Devil"? Thankfully, at least from the view point of someone who has been following the adventures of Dr. Shanna O'Hara through a whole lot of cameos, not bloody much.

Cho has gleefully disavowed HIS "Shanna" from having anything to do with Ka-Zar, her son, The Savage Land or indeed any of the rich feminist or environmentalist roots of the original character. To quote Mr. Cho from a 2002 interview...

To be quite honest, I've never read any Ka-Zar or Shanna stories in my life until couple of months ago. To prep me for Shanna, Marvel sent me a bunch of 1970's Shanna comics and couple of 1980's Shanna comics... Those Shanna comics were some of the worst comics that I've ever read in my life. So, I called up {senior editor} Axel Alonso at Marvel and told him that I'm completely reinventing her and build her up from scratch. No more B.S. animal rights or environmental message or stupid-ass stories about her being a daughter of a big game hunter or her being married to that Tarzan-lite, Ka-Zar. And Axel Alonso, bless that man, gave me his full support to radically redo Shanna.

To be honest, I was rather relieved to read those above words. Suddenly, it all made sense... why the book that Frank Cho has released has absolutely nothing to do with the original character; the one who I fell in love with reading Mark Waid's run on Ka-Zar.

Okay. So we aren't going to have any of the original plot or characterization behind Shanna. What CAN we expect to see in this series, Mr. Cho?

She's literally a brand new character with no ties to other books and stories. No Plunder clan. No stupid animal rights or environmental message. Nothing. It's strictly Shanna. You have to read it to see what I'm taking about."

Hmmm... so we're going to write the character by completely discarding everything that makes her unique and turn her into a general generic jungle bimbo, akin to what we've seen in Avatar Press' Jungle Fantasy? Interesting. But what will this new Shanna be about?

...action, suspense, humor, violence, nudity, and a whole lot of jiggling...

Well, not so much nudity now that Marvel has gone and Nerfed what was meant to be an adults-only book and thus removed the only worthwhile element of this revamp. I have said it before and I'll say it again; the only people buying Frank Cho books are adolescent boys in men's bodies, who are too scared to go out and buy a Playboy Magazine to satisfy their natural urges.

And having read the first issue of Frank Cho's Shanna (which you can read for free at Mile High Comics) I can tell you that the only serviceable use it has is as pornography for teenage boys. You can get the same basic effect of reading this book by watching Jurassic Park with the sound muted and a nude-picture of Gena Nolin taped to one side of the screen.

The story is trite stuff. Generic army grunts find a secret Nazi base (we know it's a Nazi base because they have Nazi flags all over it: nice way to keep it secret) and discover a naked woman grown inside a tank. They let her out, explore around and find a woman hiding inside a closet. Faster than you can say "dummkopf", the raptors are loose and ready to eat everyone. Bullets seem to have limited effect, but the mysterious naked (now covered under a blanket, John Ashcroft style) woman is able to snap their necks easy as pie.

Honestly, I couldn't care less about this series anymore. For once, Marvel's lassie faire editorial policy will work to our benefit. If this story no longer has to be part of a set continuity, then it doesn't matter how poorly written it is. It doesn't matter that one of the first feminist characters of Old Marvel has been turned into a screaming example of why most women avoid comic shops like the plague. It doesn't even matter that Shanna is a blonde when she's supposed to be a redhead.

Why? Because you boys can have your fun for the next seven months. We real men will enjoy ourselves reading about a real woman.

Still, don't take my word for it. Here is a list of every comic in my collection featuring the original Shanna, The She-Devil. I encourage you all to track these issues down and judge for yourselves which is better; the feminist crusader or the wordless wild-woman.

Shanna, The She-Devil #1-5
Rampaging Hulk : Vol. 2, #9
Ka-Zar : Vol. 2, #1-2
Daredevil : Vol. 1, #109, 111-113, 117
Marvel Two-In-One #3
Savage Tales #8-10
Marvel Fanfare : Vol. 1, #56-59
Contest of Champions #1
Ka-Zar : Vol. 3, #1-32, 34
Uncanny X-Men Annual #7 and #12
Avengers : Vol. 1, #257
Iron Man : Vol. 1, #202
Fantastic Four : Vol. 2, #316-317
West Coast Avengers Annual #3
Marvel Comics Presents #13, 16, 68-77
Uncanny X-Men #250, 274-275, 354
Ka-Zar: Graphic Novel
Namor : Vol. 1, 16-19, 21
Tales of the Marvel Universe #1
Sensational Spider-Man #13-15
Ka-Zar Annual '97
Ka-Zar : Vol. 4, #1-20
Captain America : Vol. 3, #29, 31

One last thought, before I close out. For the real woman in my unreal life.

Sierra, baby? Happy Valentine's Day!

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

Batman: The Man Who Laughs - A Review

Written by: Ed Brubaker
Penciled by: Doug Mahnke
Inked by: Doug Manke
Colored by: David Baron
Lettered by: Rob Leigh
Editor: ?
Publisher: DC Comics

The Man Who Laughs was a 1928 film based on a story by Victor Hugo. In it, the Lord Clancharlie’s son Gwynplaine has his face cut into a hideous permanent grin as punishment for his father’s plotting against the King.

This has precious little to do with Batman, except for one thing. The hideous look of Gwynplaine in the movie was one of Bob Kane and Jerry Robinson's inspirations in designing the original look of The Joker.

The Man Who Laughs is also the title of a new book released this week. It retells the now classic story of how a two-bit, masked criminal called The Red Hood would take a fall into a chemical vat and then grow to become Batman’s greatest enemy.

It’s fair to say that if you’re fan of Batman or The Joker, then you’ve probably already seen this story in some form or another. It is all the more impressive, then, that in telling a familiar story writer Ed Brubaker has managed to create something new and enjoyable. The tone of the book is film noir, with a heavy focus upon detective work and the lone figure in the night; elements usually associated with Batman, but not so much lately in his monthly titles. The feel is similar to Batman: Year One in that we get to see Batman off-balance and still finding his feet; a welcome change from the nigh-unstoppable maniac written by practically every other writer at DC Comics. We also get to see Jim Gordon, Captain instead of Commissioner, still fighting against the corruption above and below him as opposed to the prematurely grey elder-statesman of the Gotham City Police Department.

The art by Doug Mahnke is perfect. Everything is shadowy and inky except for The Joker himself, who almost appears to be in his own personal, permanent spotlight. One particularly effective scene occurs right at the beginning, as we enter a crime scene where The Joker apparently experimented on several unwitting subjects while perfecting his Joker Toxin. The only complaint about the artwork, and this is a personal thing, is that Joker’s hair is colored as bright nearly neon green. I always thought of it as being a darker shade, but that’s just me.

Sunday, February 6, 2005

Looking To The Stars: Dark Knight DVD - Review of Batman: TAS, Volume 2

It was my first year in junior high when it came out. Literally half a life-time ago for me. I was not quite a kid, just taking the first steps to adulthood. I was supposed to be moving past playing with toys and watching cartoons. Well, I was already past toys but there was one cartoon I just couldn't avoid watching when I heard about it. A new Batman cartoon was starting not too long after school started. And it would be on every afternoon AND Saturday mornings.

As it turned out, this cartoon was the perfect thing for a boy who grew up on Superfriends who was ready for something more mature. Something he could watch without feeling ashamed of doing "kids stuff". I speak, of course, of Batman: The Animated Series. Now, some 13 years after their original release, Warner Brothers is releasing all the original episodes in DVD box sets. The Second Season just came out this past week, and I have some thoughts ready upon the episodes themselves and the special features therein.

Disc One

1. Eternal Youth

A new executive health spa promises a dangerous fate for its guests when Poison Ivy is in charge. Mostly remembered as the first and last episode in which Alfred's girlfriend made an appearance, this is a serviceable Poison Ivy story, but not much else. 3 Stars.

2. Perchance To Dream

Bruce Wayne wakes up to find himself in a world where his parents are alive, he's engaged to Selina Kyle and Batman is someone else. One of my personal favorites, this was one of the few episodes to truly offer a good detective story and a surprise twist. 5 Stars.

3. The Cape And Cowl Conspiracy

The only episode by legendary writer Elliot S. Maggin. A nice Silver Age story, Batman finds himself hounded by a death-trap creating thief named Wormwood who uses riddles to lure his targets into his traps. The only bad thing about this episode, apart from the dues ex machine revelation as to who hired Wormwood to steal Batman's cape and cowl, is that it makes all the future episodes with The Riddler look bad by comparison. 4 Stars.

4 & 5. Robin's Recokning: Parts 1 & 2

I always preferred the episodes that didn't have Robin when I first watched the show. That is, until this episode. Which reminded me of how cool Robin is as a character and why I never really minded dressing up as him at Halloween (my brother and I recycled our Batman and Robin costumes for a few years). One of the darker episodes and yet the most subtle, this one didn't want for anything overall. Pity we lose the drama for action throughout all of the second half. 5 Stars for Part One. 4 Stars for Part Two.

6. The Laughing Fish

Paul Dini adapts yet another classic Detective Comics story, where Joker poisons every fish in the city, giving them his famous smile and then trying to get a cut of every fish-product in the city because his face is copyrighted. This is milking the goofiness of Silver Age Batman for all that it is worth. Joker's at his corniest, replying "Actually, I'm Irish" to a man who yells "Great Scott!" at his dramatic entrance. But it works. Even Joker's exit, jumping off a roof with an inflatable raft instead of a parachute, works well. Four stars.

7. Night of the Ninja

A face from Bruce's days training in Japan returns to get revenge for a perceived slight. Not the greatest episode ever, but enjoyable. 3 Stars.

Disc Two

1. Cat Scratch Fever

Released on probation for her crimes, Catwoman stumbles onto a plot to plague Gotham through contaminated cats. Dull, overploted and way too slow, this is one of the few bad episodes of the series. Catwoman is played as a straight hero and this has never worked well the few times it has been tried. Still, the voice acting is good. 1 star.

2. The Strange Secret of Bruce Wayne

Psychiatrist Hugo Strange is using a mind-reading machine to get into the minds and, through blackmail, the wallets of the elite of Gotham City. A Silver Age throw-back that should have been thrown back. This one is not without its charms but some very interesting villains who could have been used much better are turned into easily manipulated goons. Crazed as they are, I'm thinking that among Joker, Two-Face and Penguin surely ONE of them would have asked why on earth the man offering them Batman's identity would tape himself confessing to conning them. 1 Star.

3 & 4. Heart of Steel

Batman investigates a robot-making competitor whose creations seem to have taken on a life of their own. Classic. Notable for William Sanderson's performance as a robot maker; echoing his famous role in the movie Blade Runner. Also notable as the first appearance of Barbara Gordon, who makes an excellent showing in the action scenes, though she isn't quite Batgirl yet. 4 Stars.

5. If You're So Smart, Why Aren't You Rich?

Computer game designer Edward Nygma, turns to crime to get revenge on the boss who cheated him out of a fortune in royalties. A serviceable introduction to The Riddler, reimagined as a brilliant games designer rather than a crazed kook obsessed with puzzles. I've heard the show's writers say that had a hard time getting Riddler stories written, due to the difficulties in coming up with good puzzles and pitfalls for him to use. Where was Elliot S. Maggin when he was needed, eh? 3 Stars.

6. Joker's Wild

Joker escapes from Arkham, intent on revenge against the millionaire who built a casino based upon him. Flawless. This is Paul Dini writing Joker at his chaotic best. The first of many stories centering upon Joker as he works against another bad guy and leaves Batman to clean up the mess. 5 Stars.

7. Tyger, Tyger

Catwoman is kidnapped by a doctor who turns her into the perfect mate for his Cat-man. One of the creepiest, certainly the most poetic Batman episode ever. No pun intended, though the title comes from a William Blake poem and Batman quotes the first verse at the end. With a story drawn from The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Most Dangerous Game, this episode is less than the sum of its parts. 2 Stars.

Disc Three

1. Moon of the Wolf

An athletic millionaire is turned into a werewolf by a mad scientist. Everyone who wanted the return of the weedy scientist from "Cat Scratch Fever" rejoice. Milo returns and then thankfully, for the rest of us, disappears forever. Quite possibly the worst episode ever done for the series, Len Wein has written a LOT better. 0 Stars.

2. Day of the Samurai

Following up Night of the Ninja, Bruce's old rival from his samurai training returns for revenge armed with a new death-touch technique. Better than Night, this episode was very well written and neatly brought Batman into a martial-arts themed show. The fight scene at the end is one of the best in the series. 4 Stars.

3. Terror In The Sky

It appears that Man-Bat has returned, leaving both Batman and Dr. Kirk Langstrom swimming for answers. Another sequel, this one isn't quite as good as On Leather Wings, which was the pilot for the series. It's not bad. But neither is it that good. 3 Stars.

4. Almost Got 'Im

Batman's Rogues Gallery get together for a night of poker and tale-swapping of how they each "almost got 'im". A favorite for all fans of the show, this episode is not without its flaws but the humorous script and brisk tone masks them. 5 Stars.

5. Birds of A Feather

Newly release for good behavior, the Penguin is out to reform himself and reenter high society. A confusing episode, as we balance between Penguin presenting himself as a dapper king among rogues and then turning into crass buffoon when he's in the high society he wishes to be a part of. Much better to have had him played totally straight and instead having the comedy come totally from the reactions of high society to him. 2 Stars.

6. What Is Reality?

The Riddler Returns, this time trapping Commissioner Gordon inside a deadly virtual reality game. Not too bad, so long as you don't think about why Riddler goes through so much trouble AFTER accomplishing his main goal; destroying all the records of his identity. The animation, sadly, is sub-par. 2 Stars.

7. I Am The Night

In the wake of Commissioner Gordon's shooting at a steak-out he skipped to visit the site of his parents deaths, Batman questions how much good he is truly doing. The most psychological of the episodes, Batman is uncharacteristically angsty as he considers hanging up the mask for good. More than any other episode, this one explains exactly who Batman is and what he does. 5 Stars.

Disc Four

1. Off-Balance

Batman and a mysterious woman unite to recover a stolen weapon from terrorist leader Count Vertigo. Here is where Len Wein wrote better. An average episode, it is improved by some wonderful voice acting. That, and the cameo at the end that would hint at even better things to come. 4 Stars.

2. The Man Who Killed Batman

Low-level flunky Sid The Squid lucks (or unlucks as the case may be) into being thought responsible for killing Batman. Another one of several episodes that observe the effects Batman has on the city rather than showing Batman himself. Similar to Joker's Favor but with a heavier Noir influence. The scene with Joker giving Batman a funeral is one of the best ever. 5 Stars.

3. Mudslide

Matt Hagen, the actor mutated into the monstrous shape-shifter Clayface, comes out of hiding and returns to crime as he begins to lose his ability to hold himself together. A pitiful sequel to the original Feet of Clay which introduced the character, this one suffers from having too much to live up to. Still, it would have been a fitting swan-song for Matt Hagen, had he not been brought back for episodes which were even worse than this mediocre offering. 3 Stars.

4. Paging The Crime Doctor

The tale of the gangster, his brother the doctor, his friend the other doctor and The Batman. One of the few "common man" stories that never took off, this one is strictly average though it does have one of the best endings in the series run. 3 Stars.

5. Zatanna

Batman steps in to clear a teenage friend, the stage magician Zatanna, on charges of robbery. Not the best thing Paul Dini ever wrote, but far from unenjoyable. A shame it took them 12 years to do anything else with the character of "Zee" in Justice League. 3 Stars.

6. The Mechanic

Batman's personal mechanic's life comes into danger when The Penguin learns who he is. A rather flat and uninteresting story except for the purists who like to know "where does he get all those wonderful toys?" 3 Stars.

7. Harley and Ivy

After robbing the same museum the same night, villainesses Poison Ivy and Harley Quinn team-up for some prolonged larceny together. Saving the best for last, this is another episode listed by most fans as one of their favorites. The first to put Harley and Ivy, the screwball and the femme fetale, together, this one suffers from some odd animation at points but is enjoyable on all other fronts. 5 stars.

Special Features

For a show that redefined the genre of superhero animated cartoons, there is surprisingly little else in the way of extras than the episodes themselves. The special features are limited to four commentaries (one per disc) and three documentaries on the development of the show. None of the documentaries are more than ten minutes at the most, with most leaning closer to the five-minute mark.

The commentaries all suffer from a degree of sameness. With the exception of the last two commentary tracks, the commentary is limited almost exclusively to Bruce Timm and Eric Radomski- executive producers on the show. Sadly, they aren't the most interesting of hosts- spending most of their time trying to recall who storyboarded what scenes, complaining about how the animation didn't come off in some places and generally pointing out various flaws in the technical elements that I never noticed before and really didn't care about until I noticed them. While some of their talk about how the censors actually improved Robin's Reckoning by not allowing them to show the Graysons hitting the ground as their trapeze broke is interesting, elements like this are few and far-between on the commentaries on Robin's Reckoning and Heart of Steel.

Thankfully, Paul Dini shows up for the commentaries of Almost Got 'Im and Harley and Ivy, and things immediately lighten up. The talk shifts to ideas for the show, jokes they couldn't get away with and the things there were amazed they DID get away with. All of which is infinitely more interesting than hearing the two head guys talking about how rubbery the Batmobile looks hugging a curve. Overall, a solid 3 stars for the whole thing.

One comment though: next set, let's get some of the actors in the booth to talk about the episodes. I'd love to hear Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill talk about their work!

Robin Rising: How the Boy Wonder's Character Evolved

Brief but harmless, this series of interviews mingled with clips of the show, talks about how Robin's character was expanded, developed from the comics and how they eventually came to create the Jason Todd/Tim Drake hybrid for the final season. 3 stars.

Gotham's Guardians: The Stalwart Supporting Characters

The most interesting part is Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. talking about the character of Alfred and the relationship he shares with Bruce. Aside from that, we get very little new insight from the producers and nothing at all from the actors involved. 2 stars.

Voices of the Knight: Voiceover Stars Talk Some More About Their Work

Finally! Some commentary from the actors themselves. Though we only get brief tidbits from Batman, Catwoman and The Joker about their work, there is plenty to amuse here. Perhaps the best bit is Mark Hamill talking about practicing The Joker's different laughs while stuck in traffic on the freeways of Los Angeles. 4 stars.

Overall, I'd give the Second Season DVD set a solid 4 stars out of 5. It's not perfect and could really benefit from having commentaries for ALL the episodes. But considering I now have a little bit more of my misspent teen years ready to recall in one box, I can live with this.

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

Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Daredevil: Redemption #1 - A Review

Written by: David Hine
Art by: Michael Gaydos
Colored by: Lee Loughridge
Lettered by: VC’s Cory Petit
Editor: Jennifer Lee
Publisher: Marvel Comics

This story made me realize something. When was the last time we saw Matt Murdock handle a case? It’s been a while, hasn’t it? The last time I can remember was some years ago, when Matt handled the trial of the White Tiger shortly after his secret identity was released to the world.

This story has also made me realize how very much I MISS the stories which centered just as much, if not more, around Matt Murdock’s day-job than they did his work as a vigilante. And if you, like me, miss seeing this side of Matt Murdock’s life, than this mini-series is for you!

The plot is pretty basic stuff, though apparently based on a true story. In the small town of Redemption, Alabama, a boy is found murdered. With pressure on, the cops grab the first likely suspects; Joel, a preacher’s son, his girlfriend and her mentally-challenged brother. His father’s church abandoned, Joel has reportedly turned the place into a church of Satan and the three have gotten involved in no manner of bad things, though the worst we see is loud heavy metal music being played late at night and Joel’s black-dyed hair.

With the locals and the police showing the tolerance that Alabama is famous for, Joel’s mom flew to New York to beg the famous blind lawyer Matt Murdock to come and represent her son. Matt, famed for being open to a good sob story, agrees to come down and talk to Joel and starts trying to get down to the bottom of things.

Based on a true story or no, there’s a lot of cliche elements here. The punk re: different kid who gets blamed for everything; the lazy backwoods sheriff quick to find someone for any perceived crime; the rednecks so stubborn they can stand touching noses and never see eye to eye. Despite this, the story still rings true to me, though I admit this may be because I live in the deep South and can easily see the truth in such characters, cliched though they may seem.

Michael Gaydos’ artwork is perfectly chosen for this story. The use of shadow and ink is perfect, creating a dark and gothic atmosphere that perfectly suits the brief glimpses we get of Daredevil in costume and the gloominess of the “Satanic church”. Even the scenes taking place in broad daylight have deep shadows, suggesting the hint of corruption and spiritual darkness hidden behind a bright screen of respectability.