Saturday, January 28, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Since I Found Serenity...

Before we get started on the comic talk today, I'd like to write a bit about my friend Sam. Sam was taken from this world far too soon by a sad parasite of a man who returned Sam's charity with pain. The good news is they finally caught the guy this past week and justice will hopefully be served shortly.

There are two reasons why I wanted to talk about Sam this time around. First, for reasons that will become obvious, this week's column is dedicated to Samuel Lea whom was as much as a superhero in his 28 years as anyone who ever graced a comic page.

I can't do justice to all the stories I heard about Sam's kindness in the days after his death from his many friends. Suffice it to say, he was the kind of man who'd give you the shirt off his back if you needed it and who would drive out to the bad part of town at 2 am if your car broke down. His loss is a loss to the world at large.

The other reason I want to talk about Sam is because he was one of the people who exposed me to the subject of today's column: Serenity.

Strictly speaking, Serenity doesn't have much directly to do with comics. Sure, the show was created by Joss Whedon, who has written more than a few comic books and other TV shows of geeky interest. Sure, one of the writers/producers was Ben Edlund, best known for creating The Tick. And the basic plot – bunch of misfits join together to survive in a world they didn't make – well, THAT'S certainly never been done before in a comic book.

The story of Serenity first started on a critically acclaimed but(in a typical display of stupidity for the Fox Network) canceled TV series called Firefly. Thanks to a rabidly loyal fan base, a cheap DVD rushed to market and sheer word-of-mouth advertising, the show has become a major cult hit since it's cancellation four years ago and proved popular enough to inspire a major motion-picture release in the form of the movie Serenity

To describe the Universe of the show as a post-Civil War western in space is simplifying things a bit, but it's as apt as anything. It's some five years after a war between The Alliance (think The Empire, minus the Dark Jedi) and the Independents, with the Alliance having come out on top. Malcolm Reynolds, an Independent sergeant who managed to survive the very bloody Battle Of Serenity Valley, spent the last of his savings to buy a ship (named, due to Malcolm's twisted sense of humor, Serenity) and turn freelance contractor.

Zoe, the only other soldier from his command to survive the war, signed on as First Mate and they shortly brought on an expert pilot named Wash and a natural mechanic named Kaylee. Along the way, they pick up some passengers in the form of Jayne (a mercenary who signed after getting a better offer), Inara (a "lady for hire"), Book (a traveling preacher) and a young doctor named Simon and...

Well, that would be telling.

Suffice it to say, I highly recommend that everyone out there go pick up a copy of The Complete Firefly DVD set. If you're a fan of Joss Whedon's X-Men, the Keith Giffen Justice League or anything that mixes equal bits of action, drama and humor, you'll love it. And even if you don't like science-fiction (and believe me, I am there with you), you will love this. It doesn't seem like science-fiction. It ain't Star Wars. It sure as hell ain't Star Trek. In fact the closest thing I can think of as a comparison as far as basic science fiction goes is the Hitch-Hiker's Guide To The Galaxy books. Simply because it has the same spirit of rebellion as well as a similar bent of smart humor.

And for those of you unwilling to buy a DVD set just on my word, no worries; Netflix has it for rent!

The release of the movie also saw the release of a Serenity comic book mini-series. And this past week saw the release of the TP of said mini-series; which I was glad to see as I missed out on the comics during the first printing. And the second printing. As did a lot of loyal Firefly fans.

How does the comic stack up to everything else now that I've finally read it? Well, it's a good read (Joss had a hand in it, after all) but it suffers a bit if you're new to the world of Serenity. The comic was made as a bridge between the last episode of Firefly and the opening of Serenity so there are some plot points and discussions that may confuse non-fans – a problem that Serenity the film was wise enough to address. Then again, they probably figured that nobody but the fans would be getting the comic. And yet, I knew a lot of comic fans who tried to get into the series through the comic and came away confused. I can now see why.

That is why I recommend you get the TV series. THEN read the TP of the comics. THEN see the film.

In closing, I'd like to tell two separate stories that, in a way, tie into Serenity and the quiet heroism that the show tends to inspire.

First, Nathan Fillion (the actor who plays Malcolm Reynolds) is a comic fan. Incidentally, the TP is worth getting just to read the introduction where he waxes philosophical on the comic book store of his youth. But it was in a comic book store NOT like the one of his youth where he was trying to buy a comic with his picture on it, as a gift for his mother. Said store had, within the first week of the comic's release, raised the price on it to $20. While the book did sell quickly, it didn't sell out that quickly and Mr. Fillion protested what he saw as an act of gouging. The employee of said store was reportedly rather rude in his response.

This lead to Mr. Fillion starting a boycott of said store among his fans and... well, reportedly word has spread and the OTHER comic shop in said town where he got the good service common to the Canadian retail industry is doing much better business than the other one. This seems to be proof positive that it pays to be polite when you run a comic book store or, at the very least, that you shouldn't piss off an actor with a rabid fan-base.

My other story is a story of Sam and a boycott he started. It wasn't quite so successful, being limited to himself and the comic shop I worked for. Sam had worked for them too, for a time, but was fired... unfairly by most accounts... after he called in sick but trusted in leaving a message for his boss rather than speaking directly to his boss. After that, Sam swore that he would never ever patronize "the dark empire" again nor set foot in one of their stores.

The same day that we saw Serenity in the theater, I made mention of the fact that there was now a Serenity role-playing game out. Before the movie, Sam said that he could probably get it cheaper on-line. I said that this was unlikely, given my discount. Sam said it didn't matter – he'd still get his copy elsewhere. And then we saw the movie.

When we got out, this being me, Sam and the rest of our gaming group... the conversation went to the game we were going to have that night and some other games we'd like to run. It was pretty much agreed that we all wanted to take a look at that Serenity game. Without a word, Sam reached into his pocket, pulled out his wallet and handed me a $50.

"Don't say anything. Just bring me back the change."

Sam was a man of principle. But when it came to his friends he was willing to break his own rules. Bit like Mal Reynolds in that respect. And several other respects as well.

Rest in peace, Sam. Keep flying.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Mass Of Reviews

This past week was one of the largest new comic release days in recent memory. And by good fortune, I haven't had a chance to read any of them until today – the first lazy, rainy day Texas has had in quite some time. This seems like as good a time as any to do some reviews for the first time in a long while.

Action Comics #835

I've never read a bad story by Gail Simone... but this final issue on Action Comics is probably the worst one I have read. Whether it was because of the sudden wish to sum up several plotlines on the way out quickly or some other outside influences, this issue feels very rushed. 22 pages and we get the in-continuity origin of Animated Series villain Livewire, a battle between Livewire and Superman, the continuation of the plot with Lois' stalker and Superman accepting a dinner invitation. While this isn't really bad per say, Livewire deserved a lot better entrance than she got here and it is to Simone's credit that the voice of the character is clear in her all too brief time on the page.

All Star Superman #2

To all the people who complain about Jeph Loeb dragging the classic, Silver Age Superman trappings back into modern comics.

After this issue, I'd damn well better hear you punks complaining about Grant Morrison just as loud. Everything old is new again, as Superman takes Lois Lane on a tour of the Fortress of Solitude. Complete with Superman Robots, a collection of intergalactic weapons and a closet full of Kryptonian formal wear. And the next issue promises even more classic fun. Got a problem with that?

Batman: Gotham Knights #73

Wondering where The Joker has been the last few months? Going even crazier and training killer pigeons if you can believe it. And if you can't believe it, I am right there with you.

Birds of Prey #90

You know the long awaited Deathstroke/Green Arrow rematch we were promised at the end of Identity Crisis? Well, while we're a-waiting and a-waiting for Judd Winick to finally get around to writing it... read this; the not-promised but very well written rematch between Black Canary and Deathstroke. To say nothing of a few moments with Batman that make this issue something special that every DC fan should pick up.

Conan #24

Kurt Busiek begins his penultimate arc with this issue; a story in which our favorite barbarian finds himself on the wrong side of everyone in the fabled City of Thieves. A magistrate is after his head for deflowering his wife AND looting his counting house. The local thieves' guild is after him for lack of subtlety. Even his trophy wench has turned on him, plotting to set him up in the wrong place at the wrong time! Tim Truman is going to have his work cut out for him when he takes over this title, for Busiek has written a tale that has earned a place on the shelf next to Robert E. Howard's writings.

Flash #230

And so it ends – not with a bang, but a whimper. Just run on ahead to Infinite Crisis #4.

Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man #4

Good news! Someone finally remembered Flash Thompson, last seen paralyzed and brain-damaged from the Paul Jenkins run on Spectacular Spider-Man and decided to do something with him!

Bad news! He's got partial amnesia and has no memories of his buddy Peter, who did so much to help him out. So he's back to the "Puny Parker" geek-hating jock personality (if personality it can be called) of olden times.

Worse news! While they remembered Flash, they forgot that Peter got fired from his teaching job for chronic tardiness and sick-leave about eight months ago in Marvel Knights: Spider-Man. So the whole bit about Flash going to work as a high-school gym coach at the same school Peter teaches science at doesn't really work.

Oh wait! This is a Marvel title. I forgot this is par for the course!

Green Lantern #7

I've been dreaming of a good, old-fashioned Green Lantern/Green Arrow team-up for quite some time. And damned if Geoff Johns didn't deliver it! The interplay between Hal and Ollie is perfect here and I love the subtle additions to the Green Lantern mythos that Johns sneaks into every issue. Apart from the rings now being able to act as "cop-car cameras" and the revelation that Green Lanterns DO have to fill out paperwork, this issue is worth getting just to see that the rings apparently have the latest security features of Yahoo Messenger installed.

"Ring. Ignore Guy Gardner."

That's worth a BWA-HA-HA-HA!

Hellblazer #216

Anyone following Mike Carey was going to have a hard time convincing me to stick with this book with my limited budget for comics. But newcomer Denise Mina has managed the impossible with this issue. The story is reminiscent of classic stories by Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis in that it starts out in a bar with a novice to the world of magic telling John a story of something that needs sorting. But it goes someplace else entirely and where it will end... well, I can't say just yet. But I'll be sticking around to find out.

Infinite Crisis #4

There are so many "Oh wow!" moments in this book, that I can't say much without totally spoiling it. Suffice it to say that if you aren't reading this book by now... there is something wrong with you.

Legion of Super-Heroes #13

War. Huh. What is it good for? Turns out it is good for one heck of an intergalactic planetary battle. But as good as the main story is, my heart goes out to the Legion Letter Column. Which is, in itself, an OMAC Project tie-in. Seriously!

Lucifer #70

It's a story about storytellers this time around, with several stories being told at a storyteller's contest. It's quite a step down from the "end of the Universe" epic that occupied the last few issues. Still, Carey tells a quiet story just as well as a loud one. And this one is very well told.

Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #22

So 11 issues in and we finally find out what "The Other" is. And it appears to be the replacement for Venom now that Mark Millar has rendered the symbiote we all love to hate total FUBAR.

And you wonder why I've all but stopped reading Marvel titles...

Red Sonja #4

If they put half as much effort into getting this book out on time as they did securing artists to do alternate covers and Dynamic Forces specials, this would be one of the most critically acclaimed books published. The lateness is hurting the book's reputation, lumping it in with other chronically late "art" books like Dawn, Lady Death and most of the works of Avatar Press. Which is a real shame as this book, despite staring the definitive scantily-armored warrior babe, has writing as sharp as blade of its' heroine. Don't judge the book by it's four covers – give it a shot and you'll find it to be an engaging read.

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

Sunday, January 15, 2006

Looking To The Stars - Cool Stuff I Found While Surfing

We have much to do and less time to do it in. So let's get right to business. Or at least, as business like as we can be when the matter at hand is fun, comic-related things I found while surfing the web this week.

Old Business

First off, the last time I discussed cool net-related stuff, I mentioned the comic-parody films of one Matt Gardner. Among other things, Mr. Gardner is doing a series of films mocking House of M.The latest chapter came out recently a and this one is, for my money, the best one yet. So if you haven't looked at it yet, now is the time.

Also, in that same column, I mentioned my discovery of the Weird Al of Fandom, The Great Luke Ski. I would be remiss in my duties as a comic-book columnist if I did not mention that his free MP3 of the month for January is House Party At Arkham Asylum, which if you are any kind of Batman fan, you owe it to yourself to listen to at least once.

New Business

Earlier in the year, I posted about how a fund has been started to help the people of Cross Plains, Texas – the home of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan – which has suffered greatly in the recent series of fires that ravaged the Texas plains. The fund was originally cash and check donations only, but now a Paypal account has been created so you can donate through credit or debit cards. More information can be found at The Robert E. Howard United Press Association.

For those in the area who prefer a more direct form of charity, those in the North Texas area might be interested in attending a fan gathering being held in to raise money for the Cross Plains Relief Fund. It will be at the Black Dog Tavern in downtown Fort Worth this Saturday the 21st from 2 to 5 pm. Directions and contact information can be found here. It'll be a good place to meet fellow Conan fans as well as raise a few in the name of Robert Howard as you raise some money for a good cause.

(Of course this WOULD be held on the one afternoon I can't get off work...)

A final note on Conan; while most of the buzz among the on-line gaming set this year is about the upcoming official Dungeons and Dragons RPG, this reporter is casting his vote for a different game. One that will take players to a great Age undreamed of, when shining kingdoms lay spread across the world like blue mantles beneath the stars... The Age of Conan!

Finally, I stumbled across the artwork and web comics of one Jin Wicked recently. I'm not even going to attempt to summarize the plethora of wonders that await you at Just show some faith in your Unca Starman, for once. 'kay?

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

Sunday, January 8, 2006

Looking To The Stars - The "Friendly" Local Comic Shop

The New Year is firmly begun and I am finally free of the duties of the comic book shop. Not that the job was ever truly unpleasant (though some of the company was) but there comes a time in life when you need to change things and move on. For me, that time is well past. And while a part of me will miss being the friendly neighborhood comic guy, I'm looking forward to the opportunities before me as a professional librarian.

Considering all this has gotten me to thinking about something I've been hearing and reading a lot of people talking about lately; The Friendly Neighborhood Comic Shop. Or the Friendly Local Game Store. Or the Friendly General Hobbyist Emporium. Or whichever little name the hipsters are using as they wax philosophical upon the small shop for a niche market that is usually just barely scrapping by.

Most of those who write upon this subject tend to emphasize the Local part of this equation. They say that if you just buy everything off the Internet then you hurt the people down the street. Usually, this invokes images of the art teacher who loves comics or the ex-soldier who loved war games and how they took their savings in order to give something of their hobby to the next generation. You don't want them to starve in their old age, do you?

This is all well and good, except for one small problem. At what point does Local become more important than Friendly?

This distinction seems to be lost on many who proclaim the holiness of the Friendly Local Comic/Game Store/Shop. I expect to take some hits for the statement that follows. But having shopped at six different local comic/games shops in the decade I've been reading comics and playing RPGs and having worked for one for over three years, I feel I have some capacity to speak on this subject. So taking into account my experience, my advice to all of you is this...

There is no shame in supporting a Friendly On-line Comic Shop.

Consider this: most of the On-Line Comic Shops are, to someone, a Friendly Local Comic Shop. And isn't it better in the long run to support the people who, though a great distance away, do their best to make sure that you get what you want in good condition at a reasonable speed than to continue throwing money at the guy down the street who acts like it is a personal insult anytime you make him get off his butt to practice his own unique brand of "customer service"?

I'm lucky. I have a good shop in my city. Up until a few days ago, I helped run it. But a lot of us don't.

Some of us have to deal with salesmen who, dollar signs in their eyes, begin trying to fast-talk us into investing in some $100 board game when we just came in to get the new Superman book.

Some of us have to deal with people who haven't showered in three days, standing a foot away from you, blathering on and on about what's going on in the new X-Men book while trying to hand you things you should be reading, oblivious to the fact that you want to shop in peace.

Some of us have to deal clerks who look at us glassy-eyed as we ask what's going on in the Marvel Universe.

"Uh... I only read independent titles."

(This is just an example, incidentally. I personally read a lot of independent titles and know some comic stores where asking about Strangers In Paradise will get you nothing but blank stares from some guy in a Wolverine shirt)

And we're expected to put up with this? And for what? The feeling that somehow, we're striking a blow against Corporate America? The idea that we should support the little guy instead of big business?

Sorry. I'm not buying it. There are plenty of small companies with a website that can handle my business just as well on the rare occasions I can't get something at my local shop. It would do the rest of you good to remember that as well. Remember, if they keep getting your money, they aren't going to see any reason to change. So if the shop stinks (and I mean that in terms other than olfactory), just stop shopping there!

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

Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Looking To The Stars: The Fourth 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 a new year, without us yammering about the best and worst of last year.

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

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

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.

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.

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 2005

Best Moment All Year: Welcome Back, Jordan
(As taken from Green Lantern: Rebirth #5)

This whole series was excellent, but the best moment of all came when Hal Jordan and Kyle Rayner – two Green Lanterns of two generations – joined up to fight Sinestro, the greatest enemy to ANY Green Lantern anywhere. But as great as the fight scene was, the best moment of the year came afterwards when Hal offered his hand to Kyle and the two truly shook hands for the first time as friends and allies. What is more, as Kyle sold himself short... finding himself for the first time TRULY in the presence of the legend whom everyone measured him against... Hal cut him short and told Kyle that he was just as much a hero as him.

"Fighting from one end of the universe to the other. Risking your life to help someone who everyone else wrote off. Facing Sinestro One-On-One and living to talk about it. What do you think you've been doing, Kyle? Hiding under your drawing board?"

Mark Twain once said that "the really great make you feel that you, too, can become great." Such it is with Hal Jordan. With this scene, Geoff Johns gave both heroes a chance to shine while keeping them both in character and showed the generation of comic readers who grew up without Hal Jordan what my generation found so appealing. It wasn't just his courage or his fearlessness; it was the fact that he gave us the belief that we too could be better. And isn't that what superhero comics are all about, really?

Funniest Read All Year:GLA

A scathing satire of this year's trend to take unpopular and/or "joke" characters and kill them off, just for the sake of attracting attention and assuring the comic-reading public at large that "now things are serious", this book had more laugh out loud moments than anything else to come out this year.

Best Team-Up:Spider-Man/Human Torch: I'm With Stupid

Remember when comics were fun? Not funny, but just plain amusing. No brooding plots about the end of the world or realities being erased like mistakes on the blackboard. Just stories that just made you think that throwing on a pair of tights and running around on patrol would just plain be fun? Dan Slott does. And this mini-series was a tribute to those days even as it did address more serious matters. While I liked this book for the sheer silliness of moments like Peter Parker being forced into a job as Johnny Storm's personal photographer I loved it for the more touching moments where Spider-Man and Human Torch wind up talking about their lost loves while trying to build a Spidermobile that could climb walls. If that seems contradictory to you, then stear clear. But if you're the least bit curious as to how Spider-Man prompted Paste Pot Pete to change his name, track down this title in single comics or TP format.

Best Make Over: Red Sonja

Like Conan before her, she Roy Thomas lovingly nicknamed "Big Red" has returned in force to the world of comics. While the title has suffered somewhat from lateness (the fault, it seems, of the many pin-up artists working on the book's endless variety of alternate covers), it has proven to be one of the most engaging new titles this year. Thanks to Mel Rubi, Sonja the Red has never looked better and her dialogue is as sharp as her sword thanks to the wonderous Mike Carey and Michael Omening.

Best Retro Tale:Thor: Blood Oath

Speaking of Michael Omening, he proved capable of writing his own fantasy works solo in what is easily the best work done with Thor in recent memory. Mayhaps I am nostalgic for a monthly Thor title but Omening's mini-series, detailing the adventures of the God of Thunder and his brothers in arms The Warriors Three to go upon a quest for great items of legend in order to appease the angry king of the giants and prevent war, satisfied my mythological needs quite well.

The Worst of 2005

Most Likely To Cause Continuity Robots Heads To Explode:Every X-Men Team Book All Year Including House of M.

'Nuff said!

The “What The Hell Just Happened?” Award: JLA: Cold Steel

This book wasn't really all that confusing compared to some past nominees. I'm just wondering who thought there was an audience for books about Superheroes piloting mech versions of themselves, apart from the overgrown kids who still watch Power Rangers reruns?

The “I Waited For This?!?!” Award: All-Star Batman and Robin

It came down to a four-way race this year between every issue of All-Star Batman and Robin, Secret Wars #5, every issue of Ultimate Iron Man and every book written by Warren Ellis for Marvel Comics. I disqualified Ellis since he got this award last year and I felt someone else deserved a chance. And Ultimate Iron Man, while not worth the wait, did at least have some good ideas behind it even if the execution fell flat.

Secret Wars #5 was late, over-hyped and the ending suggested that on paper, nothing much had really changed. Anywhere. And yet, I still have to give this one to All-Star Batman and Robin. Because I actually had high hopes for it and there was actually a chance at quality.

It seems like a no-brainer; pair the most acclaimed Batman artist of the last twenty years with the most acclaimed Batman writer and watch the money roll in, right? Well, the money may be rolling in but the product is not the high quality piece of work we hoped for.

Miller is, quite frankly, writing Batman in a style that is more appropriate to Sin City than to the Dark Knight Detective. In fact, it would not be too far of a stretch to say that Miller is writing Sin City Gotham Noir. Batman kills cops, curses and calls Robin a retard and drives a big damn car that demolishes everything it hits. Things hit new depths this past week with Issue #3, which mostly centers around an Irish bartender at a place called The Black Canary starting a fight after getting sexually harassed once too often. Admittedly an engaging scene, but totally unconnected to the story or action at hand.

Worst Makeover of the Year: Shanna The She-Devil

While the artwork was decent enough, Frank Cho's attempt to revive Shanna the She-Devil was like most pop singers– nice enough on the surface but completely devoid of intelligence or substance where it counts.

I've discussed the specific history in past columns, but Shanna started out in the 70's as an attempt to bring a more feminist (i.e. not obsessed with clothes, motherhood or becoming a model) character into Marvel Comics. While the attempts were somewhat ham-fisted, the thought was there and Shanna was popular enough to guest often in Spider-Man and Daredevil.

Cho took all of the rich history and thought behind the character and scrapped it in favor of his own vision; a Shanna who would be free of all that boring independence and eco-friendly philosophy. This news Shanna would star in what basically amounted to a seven-issue full-color, full-frontal nudity stroke book.

Thankfully Marvel came to their senses on releasing such a book during a time when the industry as a whole was trying to emphasize the idea of kid-friendly comics and Cho was forced to cover up his genetically engineered Nazi superwoman version of Shanna with a relatively more modest burlap bikini. But nothing could cover up the fact that without the gratuitous nudity, cursing and violence that this book promised as a MAX title, it was as pointless as Jessica Simpson's inclusion to a think-tank.

The Worst Comic Of the Year Award: Liberality For All #1

Usually, when I write about a work I've reviewed previously in the year during this piece, I will try and write something new. This year, however, I cannot think of any way to improve upon what I wrote about this book previously. I have nothing to add save that we can now add "two months late" to this book's lengthy list of sins. Hopefully, the book's lateness is due to whoever was funding this piece of severely horrible immature twaddle deciding that with talk of impeachment growing every day, this is probably not the time to be courting the ever-decreasing neo-con comic-reading market.

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