Sunday, May 22, 2016

These are some graphic novels that I read recently:

Astonishing Ant-Man Vol. 1: Everybody Loves Team-Ups (Marvel Entertainment)

This is the second collection of Nick Spencer and Ramon Rosanas Ant-Man series, which Marvel has helpfully given a new title and then went ahead and printed a "1" on the spine. Consider this Exhibit K that Marvel is much more interested in whatever little short-term advantage there is to re-naming and re-numbering titles as often as possible, presumably in order to retain their direct market advantage over traditional rivals DC Comics, as opposed to making it easy to get copies of their comics and trades into the hands of casual readers.

This one is a little more galling than other books, too, because much of this particular 145-page collection consists of specials published under the pre-Secret Wars title Ant-Man, rather than the post-Secret Wars title of Astonishing Ant-Man. There's Ant-Man Annual #1, Ant-Man Last Days: #1 and then the first four issues of the relaunched, retitled Astonishing Ant-Man. Despite that numeral 1 on the spines, this picks up right where Ant-Man Vol. 1: Second Chance Man left off.

In the annual, current Ant-Man Scott Lang teams up with original Ant-Man Hank Pym (going by Giant-Man at that point, I think) to take on Egghead in a flashback of sorts, while in the present Lang learns of Pym's ambiguous fate from Rage of Ultron (I think?), where Pym is apparently presumed dead...ish. The Wasp appears, and a new Giant-Man gets introduced.

The Last Days special, like all of those Marvel comics branded with that title, focuses on how the title character spends the eve of the (temporary) apocalypse of Secret Wars; for Lang, that means making a surprising discovery about the financial backer of Ant-Man Security Solutions and the many senior citizens of her very special retirement home.

And when the title becomes Astonishing, about half-way through this collection, several familiar guest-stars and villains start appearing. Current Captain America Sam Wilson (formerly The Falcon) recruits Ant-Man's help in a fun little team-up that allows the two to riff on the difficulties of legacy (with Wilson having much bigger boots to fill that Lang), the new Beetle from Spencer's sadly canceled Superior Foes of Spider-Man shows up to hook up with Lang (repeatedly, and to her own embarrassment) and Ant-Man Security Solutions gets hired to provide security for Lang's ex-girlfriend (and ex-Fantastic Four teammate) Darla Deering, aka "Miss Thing").

Aside from all the inter-personal conflict, some of which is of the yell-at-the-character-for-making-such-obviously-poor-decisions variety, Spencer finds an over-arching conflict in the form of "Hench," a sort of Uber for supervillains, which allows crimeboss types to hire villains like Whirlwind to attack superheroes for them.

It's a fittingly fun threat for Ant-Man, and for Spencer and Rosanas' Ant-Man/Astonishing Ant-Man, which makes use of the deep catalog of Marvel characters for straight-faced, often deadpan comedy. While Spencer's gags, all effectively told and sold by Rosanas and their other artistic collaborators, achieve a pleasant base-line of an entertaining read, they occasionally spike even higher. Like, for example, when one villain pays off another with a briefcase full of cash and notes, "And you can keep the briefcase! Nobody ever mentions that."

Or, as in maybe my favorite panel, when new legacy villain The Magician throws weaponized playing cards at Ant-Man and Darla, and our hero exclaims, "Gah! HE's a Gambit knockoff!"

"It's a playing card!" The Magician replies, "He didn't invent those things, you know!"

Astonishing Ant-Man Vol. 1 is just as solid a superhero comic book as Ant-Man Vol. 1 was; good luck finding and following the story!

Cage of Eden Vol. 20 (Kodansha Comics)

The latest volume of Cage of Eden, Yoshinobu Yamada's fan-service filled drama about a plane full of Japanese high school students who crash-land on a mysterious island populated by long-extinct prehistoric beasts, is dominated by the kids' investigation of the mystery behind the island. Having something of a respite from life-and-death battles against the local wild-life and any more sinister, adult crash survivors, and having found a fourth large, man-made structure on the island, our hero Akira Sengoku and a team of nine others investigate what appears to have been some sort of headquarters or living quarters for the people who made the island and grew re-created the animals.

That means scores of pages of the cast walking around ruined hallways, finding clues and theorizing out loud about what they all might mean. Another character seemingly loses their life in particularly dramatic fashion, and the clues the group uncovers are pointing in a rather unexpected direction. I don't know if it's really going in the direction the new clues all seem to indicate, particularly during the frustratingly melodramatic conclusion (complete with a cliffhanger in which Sengoku freaks out at the site of a photo that the reader can't see), or if this is simply an example of Yamada manipulating readers into thinking he's heading in that direction but, well, I got a sinking feeling that maybe some amount of time-travel was involved after all, and it's not of the sort that a reader might have expected in the earlier volumes.

This 200-page chunk of Yamada's epic is sadly devoid of beasts, save for a sketch of a Paraceratherium, "The largest terrestrial mammal in history...", which will almost certainly be arriving in the near future, but it seems like it may be drawing near a conclusion or, at the very last, an explanation. If so, that should provide something of a relief, as these sorts of super long-form mysteries always run the danger of going on too long, and then not being able to deliver a satisfying resolution given the amount of time invested in seeking that resolution.

If I understand the Wikipedia entry correctly, then I believe this may be the penultimate volume, which, if that is the case, may prove to be a blessing–provided Yamada can resolve the mystery and wrap up so many sub-plots in just another 200 pages or so...

Captain America & The Falcon by Christoper Priest: The Complete Collection (Marvel)

I'd like to believe that the existence of this 330-page collection of the entire 14-issue, 2004-2005 Captain America & The Falcon series owes its existence to a sudden resurgence of interest in the excellent (and awfully underrated) writer Christopher Preist, or perhaps in response to high sales and high praise of the Black Panther by Christopher Priest collections. I'd like to believe that, but I suspect it might have more to do with the recent release of the third Captain America movie, which rather prominently features The Falcon character.

As for the series' relatively short life, I would attribute it in large part to the timing of its release. It launched during a time of transition for Captain America, The Avengers and Marvel. Captain America & The Falcon launched as the 32-issue Marvel Knights Captain America was coming to an end, and was shipping its last issues as the influential Ed Brubaker-written run was starting up. Meanwhile, Brian Michael Bendis was changing the direction of the Avengers franchise with his "Avengers Disassembled" story arc and the first issues of his New Avengers (In fact, the second of this title's four story arcs is called "Avengers Disassembled" and is a kinda sorta tie-in to the events of the Avengers book).

The fairly terrible, occasionally unintelligible artwork surely didn't help at all, either.

Admirably, Priest's 14 issues are devoted to telling one big story, with few deviations–the "Disassembled" business makes little sense in the context of this book, and the ending feels off, as if Priest didn't get much warning that the book was cancelled, and had to wrap everything up in too few pages. The subject matter and tone of the scripting seems very much in line with that of Brubaker's and even the Marvel Knights books, the focus pretty squarely on a symbolic superhero trying to navigate post-9/11 realpolitik while engaged in espionage missions and trying mightily not to ever compromise his own rigid moral code. Reading it today, it felt very much a product of the era of the Bush Administration.

The first story arc, entitled "Two Americas," features a pretty complicated plot set in Miami and Cuba, involving The Falcon, a Daily Bugle investigative reporter of his acquaintance, a bio-weapon, a drug cartel, SHIELD (still run by Nick Fury back then), Naval intelligence, Captain America and another, second Captain America created by a Navy admiral who would become the main antagonist for the book.

Bart Sears, sometimes inked by Rob Hunter and sometimes inking himself, draws this story arc, and as much as I liked Sears art back in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it felt extremely wrong for this story. His Captains America (or is the plural "Captain Americas"...?) and Falcon are all mountains of muscles, his few women are Barbie dolls, and everyone else seems like an after thought.

Sears has a weird visual art tick in this arc in which just about every single page features a huge figure, or maybe just part of a figure, that is not part of the grid of panels, but stands off to the side or over it. You sometimes see this in manga, when a character is being introduced for the first time especially, but here it's on like every single page, and it makes the already occasionally messy art harder still to read.

He and colorist Mike Atiyeh cheat with the reveal of the second Cap, as for much of the first issue we're meant to believe that the Cap in action is "our" Cap, while it's not revealed until later there's a second one in the mix. But Sears draws them identically, and Atiyeh colors them the same, right up until the point where we learn there are two, after which the other Cap, who is repeatedly referred to as "The Anti-Cap", sees a random coloring change, wherein the blue of his costume is suddenly black.

Back in the United States, life gets pretty hard for our heroes. They've captured Anti-Cap, but don't want to return him to the Navy, as that would be a death sentence for the character, who was created to fight terrorists in the same way that the original was created to fight Nazis (he first decides to enlist after the Oklahoma City bombing, and becomes active after 9/11). So Cap is holding a prisoner illegally, SHIELD and the Navy want the prisoner back and, since you can't very well arrest Captain America for anything, they go after The Falcon because, well, for the obvious reasons.

Most of the rest of the book is devoted to the two characters trying to navigate this terrain, which only gets more complicated once the nature of that bio-weapon is revealed. Falcon gets a new costume, courtesy of an off-panel Black Panther–Black Panther supporting character Omoro makes frequent appearances–and a gradual personality re-write, as he becomes more and more hardcore, apparently reverting to his old "Snap" persona for...reasons.

During the "Disassembled" arc that reason seems to be The Scarlet Witch inadvertently fucking with everyone around her–Cap has weird nightmares with residual, real-world effects, and even hallucinates a romantic entaglement with Wanda–but what was really going on in Avengers/House of M isn't explained here; had I not read those comics a decade ago, I would have had no idea what was going on here, and all that sits rather uncomfortably amid the ongoing plot.

Aside from which, Sam never really seems to recover, and, as I mentioned earlier, his story arc seems to go unresolved in this book, as he eventually teams up with Anti-Cap to help fight off the villains behind all of their troubles, and then switch allegiances from Cap to Anti-Cap before ditching his costume during the equivocal ending.

As a graphic novel, it's not entirely satisfying, but Priest's plotting is top-notch, his characterization is great and he really seems to have found hooks for his two lead characters that made them feel quite relevant for that particular time-period (I also enjoyed his two pages or so of Luke Cage; Scarlet Witch, The Hulk, Yellowjacket/Hank Pym, Iron Man and J. Jonah Jameson all appear at various points as well, plus a classic but surprise Marvel villain).

The artwork improves after Sears' issues, but it changes frequently, with the last two, Dan Jurgens-penciled issues probably being the best looking. Joe Bennet, Andrea Di Vito and Greg Tocchini also all contribute pencils, and there are at least as many inkers. That's a whole lot of artists for just 14 issues.

Motorcycle Samurai Vol. 1: A Fiery Demise (Top Shelf Productions)

I didn't really care for this. The work of cartoonist Chris Sheridan, Motorcycle Samurai is basically a Western that replaces horses with motorcycles, six-guns with swords and...well, that's about it, really. The milieu contains a pastiche of elements more strongly associated with other genres. There's a professional wrestling match, a jet pack, a laser gun and a hot air balloon. But "a Western with a few alterations" pretty much covers Sheridan's world-building.

The probably title character is The White Bolt, a sword-wielding, motorcycle-riding bounty hunter who is returning a mute Happy Parker to the small town of Trouble. She wears a motorcycle helmet mask decorated with a white skull that covers her entire head, and only tips it up high enough to get a bottle to her lips.

Once in Trouble, she meets a cast of colorful characters who all circle one another warily for the bulk of the book, before ultimately forming two sides that go to battle with one another in a city-shattering showdown. While there's a degree of closure to the conflict, it feels as if the book beings and ends in medias res.

Every single one of Sheridan's many characters speak in an irritatingly affected, portentous manner that I tired of pretty quickly. It's an across-the-board habit of the cast, which lead me to wonder if Sheridan was perhaps parodying certain filmic melodramas, but even if that is the case, it's an explanation for the punishing verbosity, not an excuse for it. There's an awful lot of action here, but it's eclipsed by all the talking.

I did like Sheridan's artwork quite a bit. His character designs all feature long limbs and necks, and their joints seem to have a certain amount of rubber in them, allowing them to move in particularly fluid and dramatic fashion. His male character's have big, distinct faces with a ton of character, many of them resembling a Cartoon Network adaptation of a Jeff Lemire character. The White Bolt is, appropriately, the most intersting design, her helmet apparently absorbing her head, and giving her a misshapen, almost jaunty quadrilateral head. Permanently cocked, all of her expressions comes from her big eyes, visible through the big eye-holes of her helmet mask, and her body language.

There's a lot to like about Sheridan's comic, particularly if you look close at particular aspects, but over all I personally found it pretty dull and derivative. Less than the sum of its parts, really, which I found terribly disappointing given how good it looked and the amount of praise heaped on it from other quarters.

The Oven (AdHouse Books)

Sophie Goldstein's relationship drama set in a fucked-up, dystopian future not too different from ours follows a young, idealistic couple who escape that world of the future–suggested in a handful of panels showing their commuter rocket ship leaving a bubble-enclosed city and dropping them off in a harsh and dusty, sun-lit world where they're picked up by a surly driver in a hover pick-up truck.

As is gradually revealed economically in classic, show-don't-tell fashion, they have decided to move into a sort of iconoclastic, live-off-the-land commune so that they can have a child; such things were tightly regulated in the city, and they weren't eligible to breed with one another.

In the future hippie commune, in which families live in trailers and make-shift homes built around bits of space ships and landing pods, they discover just how hard such a life is, with Eric having to help farm and Syd learning semi-lost domestic arts like sewing, cooking, preserving and child-rearing. The new lifestyle isn't what either one of them expected, and it quickly shoves a wedge in their relationship.

The book is labeled "science fiction/life," but despite a few trappings and references to technological advances and cultural shifts, it's not science fiction so much as just fiction; with just a few alterations, this same story could be told with Syd and Eric escaping the big city to try living an off-the-grid life of subsistence farming.

Goldstein tells her tale in deceptively simple artwork, the highly cartoony figures rendered down to fairly simply but devastatingly effective emotion-conveying designs. The limited black, white and orange palette gives the proceedings a distinct look that helps to divorce them further from the here and now. It's a very slight, very quick read, but that's in large part because there's nothing wasted: There's no page, no panel, no line of a drawing and no line of dialogue that doesn't absolutely have to be there to tell the story.

Read The Oven, and pay attention to Goldstein.

X-Men '92 Vol. 0: Warzones! (Marvel)

Co-writers Chad Bowers and Chris Sims take on 1990s comics using the most popular characters of the era as their vehicle: The Jim Lee-generated X-Men who starred in the shoddily-animated, all-around-poorly-made 1992-1997 animated TV show.* For a generation of fans at least, these are probably still the X-Men. They were certainly my first and most thorough introduction and indoctrination into the characters (the very first time I met the X-Men was on that one episode of Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends, although was just for like 20-minutes or so).

Bowers and Sims walk a very fine line between parodying and celebrating these iterations of the characters and their particular context, and if they occasionally wobble, they never put a foot down on either side of that line. The story arc, which ran through the four-issue X-Men '92 mini-series, is played pretty much straight. This could be a comic from the early 1990s, for the most part, albeit more competently-drawn and more self-aware than any X-comics of that era ever seemed to manage.

The TV team line-up–Cyclops, Wolverine, Jean Grey, Beast, Gambit, Rogue, Storm and Jubilee–investigate a somewhat sketchy-seeming Clear Mountain Project, where Director Cassandra Nova is rehabilitating evil mutants to make them productive members of society.

Nova is, naturally, up to no good, as the X-Men discover too late–after they've been strapped into chairs that send them into Nova's "Mind Field," where she attacks them psychically, sorting them in order to form her own "New X-Men," complete with white, formal outfits with Frank Quitely-like Xs on their jackets.

If Quitely and Grant Morrison's millennial Cassandra Nova from the pages of their New X-Men seems like an odd choice of villain for a comic based on a cartoon from a decade previous, it's worth noting that Bowers and Sims '92-ize her, so that rather than Professor X's twin, she is no an Apocalypse-created clone of Xavier, fused with The Shadow King. And the contrast between the '90s team and the Morrison-lead break with them in the early '00s is quite intentional.

"The world that's coming deserves a better class of mutant," Nova tells the captured X-Men at the conclusion of the first issue. "One that isn't burdened by all those pouches filled with aggression and inner turmoil."

Their ultimate victory over Nova would seem to serve as a refutation of the millennial New X-Men, if one is inclined to read the story that way, but that doesn't really seem to be Bowers and Sims' intent; if they play with meta-context, it seems to be just that: Playing, rather than making some sort of bold statement about how X-Men comics should be. The real conflict that they seem to be looking at is the tension between the more "adult" X-Men of the comic books and the sanitized, kid-friendly versions that appeared in the cartoon for children. It's no coincidence that Nova works for the Bureau of Super-Powers, which shares the same acronym as Broadcasting Standards and Practices. Nova and her set-up are, in part, in-story representations of Fox Kids' efforts to de-claw Wolverine, de-sex Rogue and Gambit and generally keep the X-Men's adventures PG rather than PG-13.

Most of the gags come courtesy of artist Scott Koblish, and they are visual in nature, as when Wolverine does some shopping at the mall and visits a store called Rugged, which only sells the jackets, flannel shirts and pants that were his "street clothes" on the cartoon, or in the simple background image of one of Baron Kelly's robot dogs sitting like a human, or the outrageously gigantic guns that Cable and Bishop tote around.

There are a few jokes regarding points where the comic is deemed inappropriate for children, and red lettering, notes and arrows or simple rejection stamps marked "BSP" appear over dialogue or implied gore. These fall a bit flat, given the change in media, though, and the particular (and unfortunate) context of the miniseries.

That is, this is a Secret Wars tie-in.

Set in the domain of Westchester, ruled by Baron Kelly, its references to the rules of Secret Wars' "Battleworld" setting are few and far between...but just enough to prove potentially alienating to someone on board for a comic based on the X-Men cartoon, but not necessarily interested in Secret Wars.

That is, I assume, something that will be rectified in future collections, which this was clearly created with a mind towards; at the end of this issue, the team's line-up is undergoing a minor shake-up (as Xavier and the X-Men adopt an aspect of Morrison's New X-Men run; namely, turning Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters into an actual school for young mutants, rather than simply a front for a mutant paramilitary organization), and we see villains waiting in the wings for future issues.

Sure, it's not perfect, but Bowers and Sims have ideas at play here, and that's more than can be said for a lot of the Secret Wars tie-ins. The faithful re-creations of elements of the cartoon show coupled with a critique of many of its elements make this the X-Men comic book I wished existed in 1992.

Better late than never.

*That theme song kicked ass, though. The Hollywood composers who have worked on the seven live-action released so far–I'm writing this before the eighth, X-Men: Apocalypse, sees release–have yet to come up with something so distinct, let alone catchy.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Marvel's August previews reviewed

This summer, there is no Marvel Comics–there is only Civil War II! That's the cover of the fifth issue of the series, while I believe every single thing Marvel has planned for release this August is a tie-in.

Okay, I exaggerate, but only by a little. To count the actual tie-ins, you can click here. To hang out with me for a little longer, well, just stay where you are.

• You've dreamed of it, you've asked for it, you've longed for it -- and now, you're going to GET it! No Avenger is safe from -- the fan fiction of Kamala Khan! Featuring a bevy of special guest creators!
40 PGS./Rated T+ ...$4.99

Hey, I did want this, but I didn't know Marvel knew I wanted it, or were prepared to give it to me! I'm a little surprised that it's showing up in an Avengers book, particularly Too Many Words Avengers book, instead of in a Ms. Marvel annual or special, but I'll take it wherever I can get it. Those are five very talented comics creators listed above; I look forward to finding out who the "& More" are...

• Who are The Americops?
• #givebacktheshield is trending.
32 PGS./Rated T ...$3.99

Who are The Americops? Well, based on that image, I'm going to guess that they are an elite squad of cosplayers doing some sort of hybrid Cobra Commander/police officer thing.


Say, The Cobra Command-cops sounds cooler than The Americops, now that I stop and think about it...

• Remember when Deadpool's inner monologues were at war?
• Now, one of those voices is out and about...revealed as MADCAP!
• And he's got a mad-on for REVENGE!
32 PGS./Parental Advisory ...$3.99

One of the first Marvel comics I ever read–this would have been back when I was a teenager and didn't have money to buy comics indiscriminately–was an issue of Ghost Rider featuring Madcap. I liked the character, his powers, his costume and, especially, his hat.
He looks...different here, but I think that's simply the difference between Aburquerque's portrayal of him for a comedy book and 1993 Bret Blevins' portrayal of the character for a "serious" superhero book, rather than any sort of dramatic redesign.

There aren't enough hats in the superhero genre in general, if you ask me.

40 PGS./Rated T+ ...$4.99

40 PGS./Rated T+ ...$4.99

These are always fun! These comics, presumably tied to Civil War II in some manner, are so classified, that Marvel can't even tell anyone who is making them! I bet it's super-fun to be a comic shop owner, look at that "CLASSIFIED", and then try to order the right number of non-returnable stock for your store...!

Hmm...I wonder if shop owners could try filing Freedom of Information Act requests with Marvel Entertainment and see how far that gets them...?

I like it any time Arthur Adams draws something. Like this cover for a Guardians of The Galaxy comic with a suspiciously low issue number, for example.

Jacob Chabot (W) • DAVID BALDEON (A)
In case you've been living under a rock, Tsum Tsums are HUGE! Well, not LITERALLY (they're actually pretty tiny) but these seemingly cute and cuddly creatures are sweeping the globe! So what happens when these pint-sized piles of fur find their way into the Marvel Universe? After a crate of them falls to Earth en route to THE COLLECTOR, one small group of Brooklyn teenagers will find out! Featuring all of your favorite Marvel heroes and villains, this is sure to be TSUM-thing you won't want to miss!
32 PGS./All Ages ...$3.99

Apparently, I've been living under a rock, as I had never heard of Tsum Tsums until it was announced Marvel would be doing some dumb variant cover thing with them. I guess they're doing more than just some dumb variant cover thing though, they're also doing an entire four-issue miniseries, that talented adults have to try and take seriously enough to get it made.

Props to writer Jacob Chabot for involving The Collector, which seems like the natural way to go if you're forced into a Marvel Universe comic featuring real world collectibles of any kinds.

I left the variants in the solicit just because I'm intrigued by "MARVEL TSUM TSUM 1 CLASSIFIED CONNECTING VARIANT A AVAILABLE." What could it be? Is that tied into Civil War II as well, and it will reveal which Tsum Tsum is accused of murdering which other Tsum Tsum? I guess we'll have to wait until August to find out!

• Out of time, money and options, Hedy Wolfe calls up the two people Patsy most hoped to leave behind -- her (literally) Evil Ex-Boyfriends.
• How will Hellcat and friends contend with this dynamic dude-o?
• See what I did there?! Come on, you loved it!!!
32 PGS./Rated T ...$3.99

I'm pretty sure I mentioned that it was my intention to wait for the trade on this book, but my friend loved it so much she literally forced me to read the first two issues (granted, she had to force me to read the second one a lot less hard, given how great the first one was). Based on the admittedly small sampling I've read while awaiting the trade collection, I think it's fantastic, and probably one of the better Marvel comics of the moment.

That said, while I'm really looking forward to seeing The Son of Satan, one of my favorite Marvel characters based pretty much entirely on his 1970s appearances, I do not care for his design as it appears on the cover. I think Nick Dragotta's nice suit version of S.O.S. from Vengeance (which, remember, was pretty much the best thing ever) is probably the best design the character's had.

• Jessica Drew is a hard-boiled private eye who's got a newborn baby, so she's trying to steer clear of this whole "CIVIL WAR" thing.
• But when a startling new case lands in her lap, keeping herself out of the conflict becomes impossible...
• ...and so does taking Carol's side of things.
32 PGS./Rated T+ ...$3.99

Trying to steer clear of this whole "Civil War" thing...? I know exactly what you're going through Jessica.

• The one thing that could tear the Ultimates apart forever is inside that briefcase...
• ...and someone just opened it.
• Meanwhile, Thanos is ready to strike. And he has an ally...
32 PGS./Rated T+ ...$3.99

What?! Tear the Ultimates apart...forever?! That...might be a bit more dramatic were they together longer than, um, ten months in August.

Written by RYAN NORTH
Proof that we're living in the best of all possible worlds: Marvel is publishing a Squirrel Girl graphic novel! It's a standalone adventure that's great for both old fans and new readers! It's a story so huge it demanded an original graphic novel! It's a story so nuts it incorporates both senses of that word (insanity and squirrel food)! And it's the best! Squirrel Girl kicks butts, eats nuts, talks to squirrels and also punches really well. She has defeated Thanos, Galactus and Doctor Doom (twice!). But now she'll encounter her most dangerous, most powerful, most unbeatable enemy yet: herself! Specifically, an evil duplicate made possible through mad science (both computer and regular) as well as some bad decisions. In other words, Squirrel Girl beats up the Marvel Universe! YES!
120 PGS./Rated T ...$24.99
ISBN: 978-1-302-90303-9
Trim size: standard

I am really excited about this, although $25 is an awfully high price point for just 120 pages of comics. Maybe I'll wait for the paperback...? If Patsy Walker isn't Marvel's best comic at the moment, then Squirrel Girl is. Like I said, I haven't read enough of Patsy Walker to know for sure, and it's hard to make that kind of judgement because Squirrel Girl started so much earlier that there's so much more of it, you know?

Michael Del Mundo, ladies and gentlemen. I don't always want to read the comics he draws covers for–although word on the Street is that this one, The Vision, is great–but I always want to see what that guy draws. Del Mundo, that is, not The Vision.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Comic Shop Comics: May 18th

Jughead #6 (Archie Comics) This is it! The conclusion of Chip Zdarsky and Erica Henderson's six-issue Jughead epic, which is every bit as good as Mark Waid and company's reinvention of Riverdale in the pages of Archie, except it is even more better, in that it is funnier.

Jughead and his allies (well, friends) have their final showdown against suspicious new principal Stanger, and all is re-set back to the status quo by the final page, but not before many jokes are told.

Perhaps the best of them is that Dilton demonstrates his "greatest ability," and no, it isn't anything the least bit science-y, as you might expect (Zdarsky offers an editorial box underscoring his own gag, noting that "This is now canon x infinity." The power of a writer!).

Henderson's rendering of a slow clap in six-panels is pretty awesome too, though.

If you haven't been reading Jughead monthly–and you really should have been–don't miss the trade collection of these six issues. It's every bit as fun and funny as, say, Howard The Duck (which Zdarsky writes) or The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl (which Henderson draws).

The Legend of Wonder Woman #6 (DC Comics) "Why is Wonder Woman so difficult to figure out?!" a frustrated Etta Candy shouts aloud, speaking for pretty much everyone who has tried to make a Wonder Woman comic since her creator William Moulton Marston passed away.

Etta, who has assigner herself the task of coming up with a costume for her friend Diana, who has just done her first superheroics in Man's World and has been dubbed Wonder Woman, eventually figures it out in a moment of inspiration. Writer/artist Renae De Liz has obviously figured it out as well. If she has had any difficulty figuring out Wonder Woman, it certainly isn't evident in the comic that has resulted.

Diana and Etta are now on the frontlines in France, and when Diana gets a lead on The Duke of Deception, she puts her mother's gifts on, tapping in to their attendant powers to confront The Duke and his undead Nazi soldiers.

The previous issue included mentions of characters from the wider DC Universe–Perry White, John and Martha Kent, Plastic Man–and here we get another, stronger one that puts Wonder Woman squarely in a shared universe of superheroes, even if it's simply a single line of dialogue that does so.

When Diana flies back from her battle to find a concerned Etta waiting for her, Etta convinces her that she's "a those people in that Justice Society of America I keep hearing about!"

While I won't go so far as to say De Liz's Wonder Woman origin story has been perfect, it's probably just about tied with Grant Morrison and Yanick Paquette's Earth One original graphic novel for the best post-Marston Wonder Woman comic. I have no idea if De Liz wants to do more Wonder Woman comics for DC in the future, and if she does, if she will want to just continue telling tales of Golden Age Wonder Woman like this, but if she decided to follow up The Legend of Wonder Woman with Wonder Woman and The Justice Society of America, well, you wouldn't hear me complaining about it.

Legends of Tomorrow #3 (DC) Gerry Conway and Eduardo Pansica's Firestorm feature and Aaron Lopresti's Metamorpho feature essentially just keep on keeping on, with no real new or terribly interesting developments. Keith Giffen and Bilquis Evely's Sugar & Spike is this weird anthology book's best feature, visually as well as in terms of story, and this month's installment is no exception.

Of course, it likely benefits from the fact that Giffen has reinvented the baby stars of the old gag comics as private investigators whose clientele consists entirely of members of the Justice League, so after working for Batman and Superman in the first two installments, it is now Wonder Woman's turn. She wants them to investigate the monster she almost married in the Silver Age, who has suddenly resurfaced and is set to potentially embarrass her. It's probably the weakest of the three Sugar & Spike strips to date, as it revolves almost entirely around the fact that Sugar is a terrible person, and her punching bag Spike gets more abuse than usual (including apparently getting kicked in the genitals by his evil partner), and spends a little too much of the story ogling Wonder Woman.

Finally, there's Len Wein, Yildiray Cinar and Trevor Scott's Metal Men feature, which includes mechanical guest-stars Robotman and Red Tornado. Once the Metal Men defeat Tornado, we get to see his new, New 52 costume, and it might actually be an improvement over his past costumes. He's more of a black tornado than a red one, with a black cape and a black pair of pants, with a red head, torso and boots, and some yellow highlights. I kinda dig it, and it's not often that one finds a New 52 redesign that actually improves upon a pre-Flashpoint design.

For a good example, check out the cover, where the great Kevin Nowlan draws all these classic DC characters in their current incarnations, and the result is mainly to make one wish he was drawing them in their "real" forms.

Lumberjanes #26 (Boom Studios) Scouting Lad Barney and Lumberjane Hes join our protagonists from Roanoke Cabin as they set off to rescue the Lumberjane leadership from the clutches of a gigantic bird. Some of those kittens with the magical super-powers that filled the last issue come in particularly handy in this issue. It ends with a rather typical genre comic cliffhanger, but reading between the lines of some of the dialogue, I think the book is headed towards a particularly huge status quo change in the very near future, which will have little to nothing to do with the monster bird.

Lumberjanes: Makin' The Ghost of It 2016 Special #1 (Boom) First of all, fuck this comic. Boom Studios charged $7.99 for the one-shot special, which I gladly paid, assuming it was at least a double-sized issue. There are only a couple of $3.99 comics I buy regularly, and Lumberjanes is one of them, so if this special was double-sized, and was being sold for the price of two copies of Lumberjanes, well, it's not ideal pricing, but it makes a certain amount of sense. But when the book ended way too fast, I went back and counted pages and guess what? It is not double-sized! It is only 40 pages long! So it is only 18-pages longer than your average, 22-page issue of Lumberjanes, and they still charged $4 extra dollars for it! That's just...evil.

Breaking out the calculator, the Lumberjanes monthly costs an already-too-damn-much 18 cents-per-page, while the Special costs a wallet-wrecking 20 cents-per-page. I sure hope this book is bought primarily by grown-ups to read themselves or to give to little kids, and not by little kids spending their own allowance or anything...

There are two stories in this issue, one a somewhat over-sized, 32-page story written by Jen Wang, who provides one of the book's two covers (the one above) and drawn by Christine Norrie. It's a well-written and rather beautifully-drawn, but ultimately trivial story that could have fairly easily slotted into the regular monthly, rather than earning a special. It's published size is, obviously, too big for one issue and too short for two issues, but it could rather easily have been trimmed or lengthened accordingly. It opens with a full-page splash, and the individual pages are lighter on panels than the average Lumberjanes story; many pages have just 2-4 panels on them, and the story sequence at the heart of Wang's tale could easily be made longer, as it seems unfortunately truncated (it also rather awkwardly and obviously avoids using the words "murder" or "cannibalism," despite being about a cannibalistic murderer).

It's well written and wonderfully drawn, but there's nothing to it really, not even a really good gag.

The eight-page back-up, written by Kelly Thompson and drawn by Savanna Ganucheau has that, at least. Ripley totally saves Jen's life by answering the riddle of a sphinx and earning a wish, in a fun, fleet story that Ripley herself tells to the rest of the Roanoke cabin. Despite the lack of space, Thompson seems to capture the zaniness of the characters and concepts better than Wang.

The letters in this back-up, by a "Mad Rupert," are pretty cool. I generally dislike when comics characters get distinct styles of dialogue balloons, but I've never seen dialogue balloons like those given to the sphinx in this story.

All in all, it's a pretty okay extra serving of Lumberjanes, and it is interesting to see what different creators choose to do with the characters and concepts, but man, it's hard to say it's worth that crazy-high price tag...

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

DC's September previews reviewed

I can tell without checking that this year's Suicide Squad movie is opening in August, based on the number of times "Suicide Squad" shows up in DC's August solicitations.

There's the first two issues of the relaunched ongoing series, Suicide Squad: Rebirth #1 and Suicide Squad #1. There's a new Suicide Squad's Most Wanted anthology miniseries, featuring two different characters than the previous one, Suicide Squad Most Wanted: El Diablo and Boomerang (Did Digger Harkness lose his rank? In both the title and the solicitation copy, he's called "Boomerang" instead of "Captain Boomerang"). There's Suicide Squad: War Crimes Special #1, a one-shot written by John Ostrander (whose basic vision of the team is the one propelling the film), the cover of which is above. And there's Suicide Squad: Katana, a trade paperback collecting the Katana half of the previous Suicide Squad's Most Wanted anthology series. (There's also a ton of Harley Quinn material, as there so often is, but the $10, 160-page Harley Quinn's Greatest Hits, which includes a few issues worth of Suicide Squad material.)

They are also, of course, publishing many comics that have nothing to do with the Squad or Harley Quinn, and you can find their complete solicitations here. And to look over my shoulder as I read them--or is it more like having me look over your shoulder while you read them?--you can stay right where you are.

Celebrate more than seven decades of the ruler of the seas, king of Atlantis, and Justice League team member: Aquaman! Since his debut in 1941, Aquaman has defeated villains and saved the world on land and in the ocean, and this anthology collects his brightest and darkest moments in the definitive look at his history as a DC Comics Super Hero. Whether it’s Orin or Arthur Curry, Aquaman is a beloved and timeless hero, and we’re pleased to present this collection in honor of his 75th Anniversary.
On sale OCTOBER 19 • 400 pg, FC, $39.99 US

These 75th anniversary collections are always interesting, not simply because of the stories they contain, but because of what the stories within say about how the publisher perceives the character. Given DC's rather defensive attitude about Aquaman in general, and their recent attempts to over-compensate by making the character more powerful and more violent and more "dark," I'm particularly interested to see the contents of this particular book.

Looking at the artist, it seems like the first four listed comprise those one would expect to see in any collection of the greatest Aquaman comics, although I'm genuinely surprised not to see Peter David's name listed under writers. I'm assuming there's a David story in there somewhere–there would have to be, right?

I'm slightly baffled by the cover, which is from a cover of the first story arc of the Geoff Johns-written, Jim Lee-drawn New 52 Justice League. Not only is that particular version of Aquaman not a particularly, popular, enduring or even familiar one–that's his look from that one single storyline–but Green Lantern Hal Jordan is lying at his feet, which sure sends a weird signal. They couldn't find a single Aquaman cover that was just Aquaman? I find that a little hard to believe.

To be honest, I'm kind of surprised that these A Celebration... collections haven't all just recycled Alex Ross covers or posters for their covers, as presenting iconic images of the most recognizable and resonant versions of DC superheroes is kind of his whole deal.

“My Own Worst Enemy” part one! Superstar writer Scott Snyder explodes into an all-new Batman series alongside legendary artist John Romita Jr., reimagining some of the Dark Knight’s greatest villains. First up: Two-Face! Batman must take Two-Face to a destination out of Gotham City, but the duplicitous villain has a two of spades up his sleeve. Every assassin, bounty hunter and ordinary citizen with something to hide is on their tails with one goal: kill Batman! Handcuffed together on the road to hell, this is Batman and Two-Face as you’ve never seen them before!
On sale AUGUST 10 • 40 pg, FC, $4.99 US • RATED T

Given the fact that Two-Face has been all but MIA in the New 52–correct me if I'm wrong, but I think he was only featured in a single story arc in Batman and Robin, and had a cameo or three elsewhere–Batman writer Scott Snyder focusing his attention on the classic, Top Five Batman villain makes an awful lot of sense. (Two-Face's relative absence from the DCU over the last five years or so has actually been kind of curious, given what an increasingly prominent role the character has played since "Batman: Year One.")

I wish I knew what "Rebirth" meant for DC continuity, however, as I thought I had read that Two-Face was killed off. Of course, the previous books DC published with the words "All-Star" in the title–All-Star Superman, All-Star Batman and Robin, The Boy Wonder and I suppose All-Star Section Eight–have all been set outside the "real" DC Universe (Well, the Superman and Batman books definitely were; the Section Eight book had a more ambiguous relationship with the DCU, and I guess the best way to put it was that it was set in the New 52 DCU but shouldn't be considered canonical).

Written by HOPE LARSON
“Beyond Burnside” part two. Batgirl is off to Singapore! Following the mysterious advice of the ancient superhero known as Fruit Bat, Babs dives into the dangerous world of MMA fighting. But her first opponent may be more than just an adversary in the ring. Could she be connected to Babs’ new travel-companion-slash-maybe-crush?
On sale AUGUST 24 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T

Well, I like the name "Fruit Bat" for a Bat-Family character, and I remain curious about what a Hope Larson-scripted superhero comic book might be like, but other than that I don't see anything here that really excites me, either in the solicitation copy or in Albuquerque's relatively bland cover. That's a pretty big difference from how I would feel when seeing Babs Tarr's covers for the previous volume of Batgirl in these monthly solicits.

Written by NEIL GAIMAN
New York Times best-selling author Neil Gaiman’s tales of DC’s greatest superheroes are collected in a single volume. Gaiman, co-creator of THE SANDMAN and author of American Gods, teams with superstar artist Andy Kubert to tell the story that truly defines the years of Batman’s life in the epic “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” Also included are stories starring Batman, Poison Ivy, The Riddler, Metamorpho and others from the pages of SECRET ORIGINS #36, SECRET ORIGINS SPECIAL #1, WEDNESDAY COMICS #1-12, BATMAN #686, DETECTIVE COMICS #853 and GREEN LANTERN/SUPERMAN: LEGEND OF THE GREEN FLAME #1.
On sale OCTOBER 12 • 224 pg, FC, 7.0625” x 10.875” $29.99 US

I think I have all of these in single issue format save for the story from Secret Origins #36* (it's a Poison Ivy origin with Mark Buckingham, if you're curious), but I would highly recommend this to anyone who is missing many of those.

I think it's pretty safe to say that none of the above represents Gaiman's best work, regardless of how strong that Secret Origins Special comic is or how brilliant-ish as that Legend of the Green Flame story is. For the most part, these are simply decent, more-clever-than-most superhero comics, most significant not for their writing, but for their art.

The Green Flame comic, originally conceived and written as a kind of coda to Action Comics' weekly, anthology phase, was completed by a who's who of artists, for example. Some of them are among those credited above, but also contributing were John Totleben, Eric Shanower, Eddie Campbell and Jim Aparo...Oh, and Frank Miller drew its cover. That story is a who's who of artists in a collection that looks to similarly be a who's who of artists, some of whom do the real heavy lifting in some of those stories (The Metamorpho comic from Wednesday Comics, for example, is more Mike Allred's show than it is Gaiman's).

I still hate all those costumes, but now I feel kinda guilty saying that I hate Tim Drake's new Red Robin costume, given that it's so many hundreds of times better than his previous Red Robin costume, which he is apparently still wearing in the pages of August's issue of Teen Titans.

Written by PAUL LEVITZ
Trapped in the realm of the Efreet, young Khalid Nassour must fight to regain his soul or be lost for all eternity in another dimension, and the only person who can aid him is the previous Doctor Fate, Kent Nelson. But has Nelson returned to help Nassour learn how to wield his powers, or to wrest them from him and keep them for himself. As we learn the startling answer to that question, Nassour’s life hangs in the balance.
On sale AUGUST 17 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T

Written by DAN ABNETT
A new menace rises to threaten the fragile order the Wonders struggle to maintain. Emboldened by Green Lantern’s loss of power, the Ultrahumanite emerges from the shadows with an army of super-powered slaves. His goal is nothing less than reforming Earth-2 in his vision, utilizing the Amazonian technology that Fury had hoped to use to rebuild a better world.
On sale AUGUST 10 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED

I am honestly shocked that both of these comics are still going to be published as of August, given that so many of those launched--or, in the case of Earth 2, re-launched aound the time of DC's "DCYou" initiative have been canceled...and/or re-launched. Neither of these seems to sell particularly well, neither are particularly well-written, and, in the case of the latter, its very existence just seems to dilute the DC Universe brand in general.

Earth 2 also has an annual shipping in August that promises "an epic turning point in the history of Earth-2’s Batman." Fun fact: The current Batman of Earth 2 is the third Batman of that planet (well, planets, since the first Earth 2 was destroyed and settled a second Earth 2) since the title first launched in 2012. So it's not like this particular Batman has much in the way of a history, nor would any change of it seem too terribly epic, as these Batmen serve shorter terms than Presidents do...

Written by MARK WAID
Montage cover
In 1990, Mark Waid’s legendary writing career began when he scripted his first issue of THE FLASH. Waid would continue to work on Wally West for nearly a decade, building a world that would keep the character running for years. In this first volume of a new series, Young Wally West is quickly in danger—not only from The Flash’s enemies, but from powers that he doesn’t know how to control! Collects THE FLASH #62-68, THE FLASH ANNUAL #4-5 and THE FLASH SPECIAL #1.
On sale SEPTEMBER 7 • 368 pg, FC, $29.99 US

So here's a comic book I've been meaning to try and read for almost ever now (I've only really read the later years of Waid's run, plus a random back issue-bin find here and there). This seems like the perfect opportunity to finally do so.

Art and cover by NEAL ADAMS
(Mumble-mumble) years ago, the alien race known as the Scrubb forced Superman into a boxing match for the ages, against Earth’s greatest heavyweight champion, (mumble-mumble)! Now, (mumble-mumble) years later, the Scrubb have returned…but with said champion unavailable, the Scrubb have chosen the next-best thing: Harley Quinn! This can’t end well for anyone involved. Featuring unbelievable art by the legendary Neal Adams, it’s a tribute to one of the greatest Superman stories of the 1970s, in Harley Quinn’s own particular, ah, idiom!
On sale AUGUST 24 • 48 pg, FC, $4.99 US • RATED T+

Well, that sounds like a pretty much perfect use of a guest artist, having him draw an elaborate homage to one of his own previous stories.

What's with the "(Mumble-muble)" business, though? I sincerely hope those aren't supposed to be Muhammad Ali-Parkinson's jokes, because jokes about people with Parkinson's or other such diseases generally aren't very funny. (UPDATE: Actually, read the comments to see how wrong I was!)

Written by BRYAN HITCH
“The Extinction Machine” part two! Massive earthquakes shake cities to the ground as the ancient intelligence known as the Awakened takes control of the people of Earth, forcing them to turn against anyone with superpowers—including the Justice League! Unable to fight a war on two fronts, Batman asks for help from the one man he trusts less than anyone.
On sale AUGUST 3 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T

Written by BRYAN HITCH
“The Extinction Machine” part three! The hive-mind entities known as the Awakened take their vendetta against the Justice League to the next level by changing ordinary people into grotesque monsters bent on hunting down super-humans all over the world. Meanwhile, Superman journeys to the center of the earth to stop the catastrophic quakes that are taking lives all over the world.
On sale AUGUST 17 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T

As weird as it might seem that DC has handed one of their top books to artist Bryan Hitch to write but not draw, it seems weirder still that DC re-launched the book with Hitch writing it before his previous Justice League book even ended. Counting the Rebirth Special, the above are the third and fourth issues of Hitch's tenure as the new writer of Justice League. Meanwhile, his run on Justice League of America finally concludes in August with the publication of JLoA #12 and JLoA Annual #1, neither of which feature artwork by Hitch which, if you'll remember, was kind of the whole selling point of the title--a new Justice League comic written and illustrated by superstar artist Bryan Hitch.

I can't imagine what goes on behind the scenes at DC--and a lot of times, I don't think I want to--but it sounds like the publisher rather unexpectedly found themselves without a Justice League writer, and simply moved Hitch from one League title to the other, where he can continue to tell whatever stories he might have had planned for the franchises B-title.

“Made in China” part two! The New Super-Man must face off against the Justice League of China? When Kenan Kong was imbued with the powers of Superman, he didn’t waste any time using them! Now it’s up to the New Bat-Man and New Wonder-Woman of his home country to bring our hero back down to earth—just in time to stop the attack of the deadly Sunbeam!
On sale AUGUST 10 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T

Feh. I'm looking forward to this book quite a bit, and while a Superman of China is cool, I feel weird about there also being a Batman and Wonder Woman of China. Get you own heroes, China! I think The Great Ten still exist post-Flashpoint and, if not, I'm sure Yang can make up his own fairly inspired Chinese superheroes.

Written by GARTH ENNIS
Variant cover by NEAL ADAMS
In the tradition of the original Hard-Traveling Heroes, Green Lantern and Green Arrow, Sixpack and Dogwelder are ready to bring their allegedly socially aware brand of justice to the lands beyond Gotham City!
After the events of ALL-STAR SECTION EIGHT, Sixpack is fighting to keep what’s left of his team together. Dogwelder has gone in search of his past, while newlyweds Bueno Excellente and Guts are dealing with some fidelity issues. Could Section Eight be done for good?
But everything changes when a mysterious trenchcoat-wearing chain smoker offers our favorite dog enthusiast some clues about his true nature. Is Dogwelder everything he seems? Or is he meant for something greater?
On sale AUGUST 24 • 32 pg, FC, 1 of 6, $3.99 US • RATED T+

Well this is unexpected, particularly since All-Star Section Eight didn't exactly set the sales charts on fire or anything. I'm a little disappointed that Sixpack co-creator John McCrea won't be involved--and I'm really disappointed by that price tag--but at this point I'm more surprised by the book's very existence.

Neal Adams' bizarre homage to one of his own most classic covers is...something, and I'm glad that Steve Dillon gets to draw Dogwelder, as I understand it was he that originally suggested the character.

It's probably worth pointing out that, aside from the various Harley Quinn books (which I never find the least bit amusing), this is the only comic book DC is publishing this month that appears to be a genuine attempt at a comical comic book. That stands in sharp contrast to the massive superhero line of their rivals Marvel, who publish plenty of superhero books that double as comedies.

Supergirl turns to the shadowy organization known as the D.E.O. (Department of Extranormal Operations) to restore her lost powers once and for all! But as a fateful experiment sends Kara Zor-El rocketing toward the sun, disaster strikes at home in the form of the lost Kryptonian werewolf Lar-On! All the epic action of the brand new Supergirl series starts here!
On sale AUGUST 17 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T

As glad as I am that the Supergirl TV show wasn't actually cancelled (along with Agent Carter and the Netflix Marvel shows, that's the only other superhero TV show I watch), I did think it would be kind of funny if the network decided to cancel Supergirl right before DC finally--finally!--solicited a new Supergirl comic book. As you can see from the solicitation, the comic will reflect the TV show in at least one respect.

It's probably also worth noting that DC has a bunch of Supergirl collections solicited for August as well.

Soldier. War hero. Traitor. Captain Rick Flag was one of America’s greatest military commanders before he was banished to a secret military prison. But after years of isolation, Flag’s life changes forever when a woman called Amanda Waller offers him redemption in exchange for taking on the single most dangerous job in the entire DC Universe: keeping the Suicide Squad alive!
On sale AUGUST 3 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T+

It kind of amazes me that it took the publisher this long to re-introduce a key character from the Ostrander-written, 1980s iteration of Suicide Squad to the series, which is being relaunched here for the third time since September 2011. It depresses me that adding Flag back into the mix was more likely a response to the film than to anything else.

Retailers: This issue will ship with two covers. Please see the order form for details.
“Who Is Superwoman?” part one! Lois Lane takes flight! Now powered up with the abilities of Superman, Lois pledges to carry on the super-legacy as Superwoman! There’s only one problem: Lois’ new powers are killing her, and neither she nor her friend and confidant Lana Lang know what to do about it. Will Lois even survive long enough to learn the deadly secret of Ultra Woman?
On sale AUGUST 10 • 32 pg, FC, $2.99 US • RATED T

In the grand DC Comics tradition of giving readers exactly what they want, but in a way they don't want it, we finally get that Lois Lane ongoing series we've been asking for forever...and it will feature Lois Lane as a distaff version of Superman instead of, you know, Lois Lane.

On the bright side, it's being written and drawn by Phil Jimenez, who was responsible for what I think is probably the strongest post-Crisis run on the Wonder Woman title, which happened to include a pretty great issue teaming Wonder Woman with Lois. So while I kind of hate this premise, especially since a newspaper version of Gotham Central starring Lois seems infinitely preferable (and truer to the character), if anyone can do right by it, Jimenez can.

*I know all of those particular secret origins are like two-to-four reboots out-of-date now, but I still kinda wish DC would go ahead and collect that entire series. I'd read it. It's one of the many comics I've tried finding in back-issue bins over the years and, like Suicide Squad and All-Star Squadron, I never got as far as I'd like...and would greatly prefer something bound and not smelling of moldy paper, if possible.

Monday, May 16, 2016

I'm not entirely sure the term "Celestial" means the same thing in the Marvel Universe that it does in our universe

In the previously reviewed Age of Ultron Vs. Marvel Zombies, the Hank Pym from the Old West domain of 1872 is introduced by the modern Marvel Universe version of OT* Jim Hammond to his girlfriend in this universe, Ryoko/Radiance, who is Japanese. Pym immediately refers to her as a "Celstial," and she responds quite awkwardly.

I actually had to read through this sequence twice before I realized what writer James Robinson was getting at. By having 19th Century Pym refer to Radiance as a "Celestial," he meant "a Chinese person," as that was a common term for Chinese immigrants to English-speaking countries at the time, as China was sometimes referred to as "The Celestial Kingdom."

It obviously fell out of disuse, and I'm honestly not entirely sure how derogatory a term it actually was at the time. Using it today would be similar to using "colored" or "negro," I suppose, as those were once widely acceptable terms in mass media in generations past, but are so archaic that they are know only used negatively, and guaranteed to cause offense. There are certainly much stronger racial slurs to use for both Chinese people and black people there were in the late 19th century, too.

And then there's the whole thing about applying an old-timey term for Chinese person to a Japanese person.

Of course, in the Marvel Universe, a "Celestial" is also a term that refers to a race of astronomically ancient, god-like alien beings that are part of that fictional shared-setting's creation myth, being responsible for the creation of the universe, life and death (They were, of course, created by Jack Kirby, like so many of the foundational elements of the Marvel Universe; he created the Celestials in 1976 in his book Eternals).

Since the Ryoko of this particular scene (and comic) is apparently the one from the modern Marvel Universe (where Robinson and artist Marc Laming created her in Robinson's short-lived All-New Invaders book) and the grand-daughter of a World War II vet, I wonder, wouldn't she think of those Celestials first (um, as I did), before the 19th term for people from China in the U.S., England and other English-speaking countries?

On the other hand, the Kirby Celestials are generally depicted as gigantic humanoid creatures encased in Kirby-esque armor, so maybe she would think of the old-timey term first...

*Original Torch

Friday, May 13, 2016



Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Upon deciding to make and release a film in which Batman and Superman fight one another, Warner Brothers and director Zack Snyder decided not to title it Batman Vs. Superman, the proposed title of a once announced and in-development film, but Batman V. Superman, as if it were a court case...and then to tack on a more or less nonsensical sub-title that vaguely presages a future Justice League movie to compete with Marvel/Disney's Avengers franchise. It's worth keeping in mind, as not only was that the first hint that this film was likely going to be disastrously bad, but also because it proved emblematic of almost every other aspect of the film: Snyder would always make the wrong choice, and make it not just wrong, but bafflingly wrong.

Given the Snyder's track record, the dismal trailers, that title and the horrible opening weekend word of mouth (I didn't read any reviews, but couldn't avoid the headlines of reviews), my expectations were adjusted as low as they could possibly be adjusted. And the film still failed to meet them.

During the first of my two bathroom breaks (the film runs two hours and thirty-one minutes, including two consecutive climactic battles and an interminable series of epilogues), I returned to find Jeremy Irons' Alfred teasing Ben Affleck's Bruce Wayne about his heavy-drinking. My friend told me what transpired while I was gone: "Batman went into the mausoleum, and there was blood dripping out of his mom's tomb. Then a bat-monster with fangs jumped out and bit him on the neck. And Lois Lane was in the men's restroom, and someone told her she belonged there because she had such big balls." I didn't believe her; I assumed she was kidding, because why would that happen? In fact, I thought she was kidding up until I saw the extended sequence set in a ruined city in a desert, where Batman is wearing a trench coat and goggles over his costume and tries to buy kryptonite, but is interrupted by Superman's army, Parademons and then Superman himself, who rips out Batman's heart. And then he wakes up, and it's just a weird-ass dream sequence–and then maybe the Flash appears out of the speed force to shout at Bruce Wayne a warning that has nothing to do with what preceded or follows–and Batman wakes up again.

Okay, bat-monster in his mom's grave? Sure, why not?

So Affleck plays a late-career Bruce Wayne/Batman, who has been active for 20 years now (And yet the press and police still refer to him as "The Bat of Gotham"," and the police try to shoot him on sight...although there's also a bat-signal in Gotham, so...). The film opens by re-staging the most objectionable parts of Snyder's 2013 Man of Steel, which this is a direct sequel to: The battle between Superman (Henry Cavill) and General Zod (Michael Shannon) and his army, which leveled city blocks and lead to the deaths of "thousands", as per the dialogue in this film (although I would have guessed millions, based on my viewings of Man of Steel), complete with gross, 9/11-imagery appropriation that uses the visual trappings of a national tragedy like particularly exploitative frosting on the movie equivalent of junk food.

This time, we're seeing the events from the perspective of Old Bruce Wayne, who races recklessly through the streets of Metropolis, almost mowing down bystanders and causing untold automobile accidents, in an attempt to save his employees at the local branch of Wayne Enterprises Or Whatever. Wayne is not a well man, as he's haunted by the deaths of his parents (staged in slow-motion, for those in the viewing audience who hadn't heard about what happened to the Waynes in the previous nine Batman feature films) and prophetic dreams of the upcoming Justice League movie.

He's not so sure about this Superman character, and so when Batman's not busting crooks in Gotham City and branding them with a red hot bat-brand so that they will be killed in prison later (I am not making this up), he's trying to track down a large enough source of kryptonite with which to murder Superman (Seriously, not making that up either: "He has the power to wipe out the entire human race and if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty," Old Man Batman tells Alfred when justifying his pre-meditated killing of Superman just in case he goes bad one day).

What's Superman up to? When we first see him, he's rescuing Lois Lane (Amy Adams, who spends about 65% of her substantial screen-time soaking wet, for some reason) from a terrorist group in Africa. He's too late to save Jimmy Olsen from being shot in the face (according to the credits and interviews Snyder has given, the CIA agent posing as a photog is Jimmy Olsen, anyway; he's not name-checked as such in the film), or to prevent dozens of other deaths, but he does arrive in time to save tackling the guy holding a gun to her head at super-speed and flying through a couple of brick walls with him.

Superman's not so sure about this Batman character and his ruthless brand of justice (which doesn't seem any more ruthless than his own; Superman kills his foes outright, Batman brands them so they can be killed in prison by others), and he wants to write an investigative crime piece on him for the Daily Planet, but editor Perry White (Laurence Fishburne, back again) would rather he stick to writing sports.

Oh, by the way, Clark and Lois are apparently an item, and have been living together; there's an implied Man of Steel 2 that occurred before this film, just as there is an implied cycle of Batman films that might explain things like why Wayne Manor is now a burnt-out ruin and Wayne and Alfred apparently live in the Batcave drinking heavily together all the time (All of that they don't bother to show, but we see the murder of his parents again, repeatedly, because, it turns out, that the film hinges on the coincidence that both of the title characters' moms are named Martha–again, not making this up).

Before they fight, some actually interesting characters appear. Jesse Eisenberg's Luthor, presented as a motor-mouthed millennial whose collection of ticks gradually transforms him into more of a Joker than a Luthor, is one. Eisenberg may be over-acting all over the place, but he's the sole actor who seems to be giving a performance, and the sole actor who seems to have any fun at all, so let's not begrudge him the CGI scenery he chews. The other is Gal Gadot's Diana Prince/Wonder Woman, who mostly just skulks around in revealing dresses in the sorts of places Bruce Wayne frequents, until the end of the film where she suits up to help the title characters defeat Doomsday in the film's second consecutive climactic battle.

Batman and Superman's first meeting comes at the end of a long, violent car chase, in which Batman kills so many guys with his Batmobile-mounted machine guns while trying to take a shipment of kryptonite from Luthor's paramilitary squad of bazooka-toting delivery men (Even though Batman put a tracking device on the shipment, so could presumably just show up to steal it peacefully, as he does later anyway). Superman ignores all the guys firing heavy ordinance, but instead wrecks the Batmobile and tells Batman to stop being Batman.

Then, they fight. It is a very long, very stupid fight. Luthor kidnaps Lois and Martha Kent (Diane Lane, reprising her role from Man of Steel), and gives Superman an hour to fly across the bay–Oh yeah, did you know Metropolis and Gotham City are on either side of a bay? You can literally see the bat-signal in the sky from the roof of the Lex Corp Tower. How have Batman and Superman never met? Superman should be zipping over there to capture all of Gotham's bad guys constantly. Anyway, Luthor tells Superman to fly the few miles to Gotham City and bring him Batman's head, or else Luthor will have Martha burned alive.

Superman opts not to use his super-senses to instantly locate his mother (although he does try threatening Luthor with his heat-vision first), but instead goes to ask for Batman's help. Batman is wearing a dumb suit of armor (one of several direct homages to Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, the adaptation of which is apparently the movie Snyder would rather have been making), has some half-assed traps set up, and is waiting for Superman. By sheer coincidence, Batman decided to challenge Superman to a fight to the death the very night that Luthor decided to send Superman to fight Batman to the death. Supes tries to ask Batman about the whole helping-him-find-his-mom situation twice, but after he's interrupted by Batman's sonic weapons and machine guns, he decides to just give up and start throwing Batman through buildings.

Luckily Gotham City is completely abandoned! These two merciless assholes try to murder each other for what feels like about two hours or so (but is probably actually no more than ten to twenty minutes), and when Batman is finally ready to drive a kryptonite-tipped spear through an incapacitated Superman's face, Superman asks Batman to save Martha, and Batman loses his shit hilariously for a few seconds, screaming about Marthas (Adams' wet Lois shows up, to explain that Superman's mom's name is Martha...Say, Batman seems to think, we both have moms named Martha? Maybe we're not so different after all, you and I!).

This leads to the team-up, in which we almost see a cool Batman fight scene, but it's filmed incoherently and seemingly lit by a cell-phone, so it mostly sounds cooler than it looks. Good work, foley artists! It ends with Batman blowing up one of the kidnappers, which is the sort of thing Batman is well-known for doing. Superman confronts Luthor, who has a Plan B prepared. Luthor unleashes a Cave Troll borrowed form The Lord of The Rings movies!

After a long fight scene, it eventually mutates into Doomsday, and while it has Superman and Batman on the ropes, Wonder Woman finally shows up to a guitar solo to pitch in. What brought here there? Well, Batman emailed her Luthor's metahuman files prior to all the fighting, and there's a really head-slappingly dumb scene in which we watch Gal Gadot click on one file after another and literally watch teaser footage for future Aquaman, Flash and Cyborg movies...which is about as riveting as it sounds.

Wonder Woman uses her bracelets to block Doomsdsay's energy blasts, she uses her magic lasso to bind him and she generally livens up the movie for her few minutes of screen time, but that may just be because we haven't spent about two hours watching her glower and talk about, think about or commit murders.

Then things get really stupid, as Superman gives his life to take down Doomsday, and Luthor gets his head shaved by a prison guard (his exact crime is never specified, and it's hard to imagine what he arrested for and how he was convicted, as the only witnesses to any crimes he might have committed are either dead or Batman), and screams about Darkseid appearing in the Justice League movie, although he never uses the word "Darkseid," and, honestly, if you don't know your DC lore, I don't know what on Earth one would make of some of the foreshadowing; hell, I do know what the omega symbol means in the DCU and who the goggle-rocking bug-men work for, and it still didn't make any goddam sense to me in the context of this film. It's got to just seem completely random. They're not Easter Eggs, like Jimmy Olsen getting shot in the face was apparently meant to be; they're plot points and significant passages of the film.

Snyder seems to have flipped through The Dark Knight Returns, and saw a few images–"Talking heads in the media, Batman in armor to fight Superman, Superman gets skinny after being hit with a nuclear bomb, got it"–and half-listened to an assistant as they read the Wikipedia entry on "The Death of Superman" as he went to work on a stitched-together script that seems to have been composed entirely of scenes from scripts of films that were never made (And, in fact, a Justice League movie, a Batman vs. Superman and a Superman vs. Doomsday movie were all green-lit and in-development before abandoned at one point or another).

It's one of the worst films I've ever seen, and definitely the worst comic book superhero film I've ever seen, at least when one factors in the amount of money and talent marshaled and then wasted. The cast is actually pretty phenomenal–and I would love to see most of these folks play these characters–but here, they have nothing to do. The title characters mug at one another, Amy Adams offers exposition and absorbs water, Gal Gadot mo-caps for an action scene, poor Jeremy Irons doesn't even get to wear a tux or sass Master Bruce. As I said, only Eisenberg seems to have the least bit of fun, or to have even showed up to work.

As a fan, I'm about as excited for Justice League at this point as I was for Green Lantern 2 in 2011...based on the quality of this thing, I would imagine a Justice League movie and spin-offs featuring the cameo-ing characters in this to be about as likely as a Green Lantern 2 at this point, but there's been so much money poured into this thing, and Wonder Woman is already filming, so maybe the best one can hope for is that the DC Cinematic Universe films spawned from this pop cultural shared trauma will at least be better than Batman V. Superman.

And that, at least, is something to hope for–after all, it's not like Wonder Woman or Justice League or Aquaman or The Flash could possibly be worse any than this.

Deadpool: I've been bemused by the commentary on this film and its incredible (and certainly surprising) success, as some argue that the R-rating contributed to that success, while others argued that it wasn't the R-rating, but the fact that it stayed so true to the character.

What amused me about that line of argument is that Deadpool comics, of which there are several billion at this point, have almost never been R-rated, but rather exist in the sometime-tasteless and peculiar PG-13 of mainstream sueperhero comics, where there can be tons of violence, but no nudity and very limited swearing, with black-out bars and grawlixes in place of many of the worst bad words. As far as I know, the only Deadpool comics that could actually be considered the equivalent of an R-rated film are those that appeared on Marvel's Max imprint, David Lapham and Kyle Baker's 2010 maxiseries Deadpool Max (and a six-issue sequel series and a Deadpool Max-Mas Chrismas special). For the most part, the vast bulk of Deadpool's considerable body of comics are no more R-rated than the source material for the X-Men, Spider-Man or Marvel Studios movies are.

So what can the film's success be attributed to? Well, opening in February surely didn't hurt, nor did its all-around likeable, and totally committed leading man, nor its long-term and often clever marketing. And, of course, one shouldn't dismiss the fact that the character is extremely popular in comics circles now, his fourth-wall breaking nature perfect for film, and here's a crazy thought, the movie was actually pretty good. I think Deadpool's impressive–and, to other movie studios, enviable–box office was a confluence of hard-to-replicate factors finally falling in to place after a very, very long development process, and any studio or filmmaker who focuses in on the R-rating as the key to its success, and decides to have Jason Mamoa's Aquaman declare "Out-fucking-rageous!" in every scene or the next Spider-Man film set primarily in and around a strip club aren't exactly guaranteed Deadpool bank.

As to the quality, I was genuinely surprised by how good it was, and how much I liked it, particularly considering I am in no way anything approaching a Deadpool fan. It did suffer a bit from over-previewing all the good stuff, I think, and was still a remarkably straight forward, even generic superhero plot, but director Tim Miller and screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick managed to do just enough differently to make it feel a lot fresher and more exciting on a first viewing than it will likely appear on later viewings.

Good-hearted mercenary-turned-hitman Wade Wilson meets and falls in love with Morena Baccarin, and all is going swimmingly until he is diagnosed with all sorts of terrible cancers. Feeling he has nothing to lose, he signs up for some horrifying experiments meant to torture the activation of the mutant "X-gene" in anyone who might have it (or kill them in the process) and it works! Ryan Reynold's handsome, smart-mouthed, pop culture-referencing, living episode of Family Guy gets Wolverine-level healing powers (which makes him into something of a literal cartoon character, at least in his ability to recover from grievous injury in the space of a scene change). The side-effect is that he gets very, very, very bad skin.

Bent on revenge for all the torture and the disfigurement, he begins killing and torturing his way through the local crime world in a series of increasingly better-made costumes in search of Ed Skrein, the mutant mad scientist what did it too him, who goes by the name "Ajax," but Deadpool only ever refers to as "Francis." It gets even personal-er when Francis kidnaps Baccarin's character.

So a pretty basic superhero origin story, complete with a save-the-girl climax. Deadpool differs in telling the story kinda sorta out of order, beginning with a big action scene, and flashing back repeatedly to show how Deadpool got to be Deadpool, while moving the revenge story forward. And then there's the swearing, the violence, the meta-jokes and the sense of humor; like, say, Guardians of The Galaxy or Ant-Man, this isn't just a superhero movie, it's a superhero comedy, albeit one with a higher amount of screen time devoted to comedy, and a constant deflation of almost every bit of melodrama that arises.

It's also got the X-Men, or apparently just two, relatively easy-to-afford X-Men, something which Deadpool mentions repeatedly, as when he visits the Xavier School and notes what a big house it is, but somehow it seems like the two of them are the only ones who live there. The two are CGI Colosssus, who is never shown not metal-ed up. He's had only brief appearances in the X-Men films, so I suppose fans might be a little disappointed that this is where he shows up and gets the most screen time, and he's reduced to a simple moralistic foil to Deadpool but, hell, he and Negasonic Teenage Warhead are key to the film's best scenes (NTW, played by Brianna Hildebrand, is a pretty delightful extrapolation. She's technically a Grant Morrison creation from early in his New X-Men run, but he basically just re-assigned the name of a Monster Magnet song to a teenage mutant, who gets killed in her first appearance; her appearance and powers from that comic are nothing at all like those of the character in the film. The filmmakers apparently just liked her name, and wanted to give Colossus and Deadpool a shared foil).

Almost deceptively simple, if there are lessons for future superhero filmmakers to take from Deadpool, they likely have with trying to do something different, even if that something different proves extremely minor (Swear words! Flashbacks! Making fun of the X-Men franchise!), staying as true to the character as possible in an adaptation (I think Deadpool may be the best example of costume and appearance fidelity for a comics-to-screen character) and, for God's sake, don't take yourselves or your film too seriously.

The Hateful Eight: I have to confess–I spent an inordinate amount of time counting characters throughout this film's runtime, and trying to suss out exactly which of the eight characters count as The Hateful Eight. Most of the time there are at least nine characters in the room that much of the film takes place in, and they come and go (And yes, this being a Quentin Tarantino film, much of them "go" by being rather brutally slain).

I also spent a lot of time trying to count Tarantino movies in my head, as this is, the opening credits say, "the eighth film by Quentin Tarantino."

And it is a Tarantino movie, maybe one of the most Tarantino movies, meaning there is a lot of violence, much of it directed towards women, there is sexual violence directed at both men and women, there is questionable, or at least deserving discussion, content regarding race, and some of these things overlap one another in particular instances and scenes.

It is also a film obsessed with film, full of references and allusions, and more than content to add to its runtime by spending minutes taking in the beautiful, if harsh, winter scenery and letting the actors all act their asses off. Most of this very long film consists of eight or so people holed up in a trading post, attempting to wait out a blizzard, and almost none of them are who they at first appear to be. The mystery component provides more than enough suspense to hold a viewer's interest, at least on a first viewing, as Tarantino allows his actors and fellow filmmakers to indulge in filmmaking.

Like just about everything Tarantino's done, then, this movie is probably not for everyone, and far more for those who share Tarantino's own particular interests and obsessions than any general audiences. I loved it; I would not be at all surprised if anyone told me they hated it, though.


Batman: Bad Blood (2016): This typically truncated direct-to-DVD animated film is notable for its inclusion of Batman characters and plotlines of relatively recent vintage: Batwoman and her father Jacob Kane (2006), Dick Grayson reluctantly taking over as Batman for an MIA Bruce Wayne and teaming with newly minted Robin Damian Wayne (2009), Lucas Fox becoming the armored Batwing (2013) and minor villain The Heretic (2010) and still more minor villain Tusk (a single appearance in 2014). It's remarkable in that writer J.M. DeMatteis manages to assemble all of these disparate characters and weave them into a single, coherent narrative with more characterization and emotional depth than most of DC's similar animated films (which, to be honest, isn't that high a bar).

New villain The Heretic–redesigned poorly, on both sides of his mask–is consolidating Gotham's bottom-feeding supervillains, all of whom were apparently chosen by the filmmakers for their relative obscurity (Onyx, The Electrocutioner, Tusk, The Calculator, a never-named Hellhound), their necessity to the plot (The Mad Hatter, as mind-control is involved) or to give Batwing someone to fight (Firefly and Killer Moth, both of whom have major, high-tech upgrades, for aerial super-armor battles). Heretic is, of course, backed by a "surprise" villain, who is the exact one a Batman fan or reader would expect from a story prominently featuring Damian and The Heretic.

Trying to shut the new players down is new Gotham vigilante Batwoman, who is characterized a bit like early '90s Huntress, at least in terms of her willingness to use weapons far more deadly than Batarangs and fists (although Batwoman uses guns, rather than crossbows). She and Batman battle the allied villains together, and the Dark Knight goes missing in an explosion after throwing her clear.

Still missing after weeks, he's presumed dead, and so Nightwing returns to Gotham from Bludhaven, and he and Damian become the new Dynamic Duo. The Heretic's gang next attacks Wayne Enterprises, grievously wounding Lucius Fox, who was working on a high-tech, Batman-by-way-of-Iron Man suit, which his former Marine son Luke dons to help fill in for Batman.

This newly assembled, ad hoc Bat-Family fights crime, hunts for and ultimately rescues Bruce Wayne and then take part in a sprawling climactic battle in which the stakes aren't just Gotham, but the entire world. Why, they're so big, even Alfred Pennyworth has to get involved, showing off his pugilistic skills against The Calculator.

The action in the movie is truly impressive; this was, surprisingly enough, one of the best kung fu movies I've seen in a while, as by far the best fight scenes are the one-on-one, hand-to-hand battles, particularly capoiera-expert Hellhound's tussle with Grayson in a convent guarded by machine gun-toting nuns (referred to, of course, as "nunjas"), Grayson's climactic battle with a brain-washed Batman and, best of all, the Batwoman vs. Talia battle in which they fight with fists, feet, swords and a gun at point-blank range. Seriously, the movie is well worth it, just for the animated martial arts.

It was also my first exposure to Damian Wayne in a medium outside of comics (I skipped 2014's Son of Batman and 2015's Batman Vs. Robin, the latter of which was also directed by Jay Olivia), and I'll be damned if that little bastard isn't just as much fun animated as he is in comics.

The film suffers in the same ways that all of these direct-to-DVD cartoons do. It's too short to flesh much of anything out, and it feels like important passages that might be there in a "real" movie are missing (although, as I said, it feels more complete than most of the other of these things I've seen); it's special effects are occasionally disconcertingly cheap-looking (anything with a vehicle, basically); and the addition of random swearing just because the PG-13 rating allows for it seems juvenile (There's a brief scene where Black Mask, in a brief cameo appearance, declares that Gotham City is his bitch, to which Batman Dick Grayson responds that makes Black Mask his bitch...ugh).

Oh, and if you're wondering why I, a great fan of the easy joke, did not make one about the title of film, that's simply because the How It Should Have Ended folks beat me to it, in a much more elaborate way than I could ever have managed.

Be Cool, Scooby-Doo!: Spooky Kooky Fun! (2016): I was so enamored with the previous Scooby-Doo series Scooby-Doo: Mystery, Incorporated, perhaps best described as Scooby-Doo meets Twin Peaks, with an unprecedented amount of all-ages comedy and more distinguishable characterization for Velma, Daphne and Fred than the usually interchangeable characters ever get, that I was disappointed by the very fact that a new iteration existed at all.

Well, that was a mistake: Be Cool is fantastic. The producers have ditched the ongoing, season-long and series-long mysteries and refocused on stand-alone, discrete, episode-length mysteries only, but they've upped the comedy quotient. This may be the first Scooby-Doo series wholly focused on all-ages comedy, meaning the comedy is actually funny, for kids as well as adults.

The vocal cast remains the same as that of Mystery Incorporated, save for the fact that Kate Micucci is now in for Mindy Cohn to play Velma. The gang's fashion has been altered only very slightly, most notably Daphne and Shaggy from the waist down.

The character designs are radically different, with thin limbs, bigger, rounder heads, and big, round, eyes that seem to have a second set of eye-lids at the bottom of the eyes whenever they squint. There's something vaguely Family Guy-esque about the show, and I think much of it has to do with the characters' eyes, but some of the sense of the humor carries through too, generally in the way in which people behave completely randomly.

Velma is by far the most re-designed, having lost the last of her 1970s weight and become not just slimmer and shapelier (and more Linda Cardellinni-y) as she has been gradually becoming, most noticeably in Mystery Incorporated, but here she is downright pixie-isque, built like the other young lady to play her in live-action movies, Hayley Kiyoko (in Scooby-Doo: The Curse of the Lake Monster and Scooby-Doo: The Mystery Begins). This new, tinier build makes some of the Velma-specific gags funnier (as in an episode where the rest of the gang jumps atop her shoulders, and forces her to run for them all, carrying them, in reference to a gag from the original series, here turned into a running gag* in order to exhaust it). On the other hand, given the fact that there are so few young women (or women of any age) with bodies like the original Velma, it's kind of too bad that Velma keeps shrinking.

In terms of personality, Scooby and Shaggy are unchanged (gluttonous cowards), as is Velma (the smart one). Fred's love of traps from Mystery Incorporated has been exchanged for a love of the Mystery Machine, which here is a high-tech machine that can transform into a submarine or plane as needed (not unlike that of Shaggy and Scooby-Doo Get a Clue, the most radical departure of any Scooby show thus far), and rather than the big, dumb guy of the group (as in Mystery Incorporated), he's now the long-suffering leader, putting up with his friends' many quirks.

The most dramatic, and refreshing, personality reboot belongs to Daphne. Over the years, they've tried different ways to differentiate her from Fred and Velma (at the beginning of the show, the three were basically like Huey, Dewey and Louie, interchangeable to the point of being one person in three bodies). She's been clumsy, she's been rich and spoiled, she's been a martial artist. Here she's basically insane. In each episode, she adopts a new eccentricity or obsession.

In the first episode, she's made hand-puppets of herself and the rest of the gang. In another, she's taken to wearing a false beard. In another, an exhausted Fred asks if she's decided to do anything random and impractical, and she cheerfully responds, "No. But I have taken up falconry!"

As for the mysteries, I found them to be a bit easier to solve than those in past shows (I probably correctly figured out about 80% of these, which is much higher than my usual average), and the explanation sequences are quite thorough, elaborate and funny.

The monsters aren't particularly scary ones, and I was amused to see so many familiar ones. The opening sequence features The Space Kook clinging to the top of the Mystery Machine and Captain Cutler among the assembled monsters, and some of the monsters and ghosts they face are quite familiar in design to those from the original series, including the ghost of a baseball player and a yeti. One episode opens with a cameo of the ghost of Captain Cutler, who everyone–the gang, the police–abandon in mid-arrest when something more interesting comes up. I've only seen the handful of episodes on this two-disc set, but it looks like other familiar ghost and monster faces, or at least types, will appear throughout the series.

A series, it turns out, that may be the best so far, at least in terms of comedy, only some of which is self-referential. Like, say, Teen Titans Go!, this is a Cartoon Network cartoon that is literally fun for the whole family, and that is a phrase I have never once written, nor ever expected to.

Final Girls (2015): Not to be confused with Final Girl, which takes its name from the same horror movie vernacular term that this one does, this elaborately-premised melodramedy/horror parody is a head-shakingly ambitious commentary on genre cliches, nostalgia and the need to let go.

Taissa Farmigia plays Max Cartright, the teenage daughter of Malin Akerman's down-on-her-luck actress Amanda Cartright, whose main claim to fame was a 1980s cult-classic, Friday The 13th-style slasher flick called Camp Bloodbath. When Max loses her mom in a horrible car accident, she becomes incredibly withdrawn, and, naturally enough, is pretty sensitive when it comes to re-watching the movie in which her young mother's character gets brutally slaughtered.

Finally prevailed upon by Thomas Middleditch's Duncan, the horror movie enthusiast brother of Max's best friend Gertie (Allie Shawkat), to attend a special screening of the film, Max and company are soon exposed to deadly danger. A fire breaks out in the theater, the crowd panics, and Max picks up a handy machete, cuts a hole into the screen showing the film, and leads Gertie, Duncan, her love interest Chris (Alexander Ludwig who, oddly enough, also appears in Final Girl) and Chris's pill-popping Queen Bee ex-girlfriend Vicki (Nina Dobrev) through the screen to safety.

They end up, naturally, inside the movie itself, and after a little while to adjust to playing by being-in-a-movie rules–they can't get too far away from the set, if they miss an opportunity to "join" the movie, they have to wait the length of its runtime for it to start over so they get another chance to do so, etc–they realize they have to try to survive the experience with the cast of the original film, including Nancy, the character played by Ackerman's character, who looks and sounds just like Max's mother but isn't (Nancy, by the way, is the name of the final girl that stars in the comic book series Nancy In Hell, an elaborate set-up that hinges on the idea of the final girl) and some other '80s "teens," the most amusing of which is played by Adam Devine.

There are the expected jokes about the temporal culture clash between teens from the 1980s and the 2010s, like the dumb girl trying to stick a smart phone into a boom box, for example, and the expected jokes about lucid character trapped in movies, but the kids from the "real" world have the advantage of an expert on the film with them, and thus foreknowledge of everything that is going to happen.

Things, naturally, don't go according to plan, as he's the first to take a lethal blow from a machete, soon followed by the film's original final girl. It's up to Max then to try and get her friends out of it alive and, if she can, save her mother from this particular death.

That latter conflict makes this a weirdly layered film, as it's awfully serious and has a great deal of genuine emotional content for a movie of this nature. It never gets weirder than at its climax, however, when Malin's Nancy attempts to draw the slasher out of the woods by performing a strip tease, all the while making eye contact with her daughter.

Without spoiling too much, no "real" people who die in a movie actually die, as is always the case with movies (a fact that carries over to this movie's movie-within-the-movie), and the film retains a surprise, but perfectly appropriate ending, in which our heroes learn they aren't out of the woods just yet. After all, they made more than one Camp Bloodbath movie.

I'm not sure how well it works, given the different directions it goes in, and the inherent tensions in pairing parody and comedy like this with such an emotionally raw story, but it does work. I loved it.

Fly-Away Baby (1937): The second Torchy Blane film (see Smart Blonde, below) retains the cast of the original, and its essential pleasures. Glenda Farrell's girl newspaperman Torchy tricks her way onto police detective boyfriend Barton MacLane's crime scene and immediately takes lead on the investigation. This one involves a murder and jewel store robbery, and gets more complicated, with a few more bodies and a smuggling scheme soon becoming part of the story.

Amusingly, this plot hinges almost entirely on Torchy's voracious appetite and, in particular, her fondness for steak, as important clues are found in a steakhouse. There's a little too much time spent on comic relief character Tom Kennedy's Gahagan, MacLane's driver, as he takes a new job as a P.I. on the sly, and the race-around-the-world conceit may be a little too of-its-time to make all that much sense today. Three reporters from three rival newspapers are racing around the world via airplane, but since they are all passengers on the same flights, it's unclear how one wins or loses, unless they miss a flight, I guess.

Watching this, I realized that this first chunk of the Torchy Blane almost presaged a modern TV series in their production, as the first three films were all relatively short, featured the exact same cast in the same roles, and were all released within the same year. The following year would bring three more films, although one of them would feature new characters in the Torchy and McBride roles, marking a perhaps pivotal moment in the origin of Lois Lane.

Hollywoodland (2006): In preparation for the ludicrously titled Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice, in which Ben Affleck plays Batman, I finally watched the movie in which Affleck plays the other character in that particular conflict, Superman. Well, he plays George Reeves playing Superman on The Adventures of Superman, but hey, close enough. Part-murder mystery, part-conspiracy theory, part-biopic, Hollywoodland is a modern day noir film set in the real world of Hollywood, during the transition from its mythic Golden Age to that of the fallen, cynical, post-War America with its fracturing media landscape, wherein radio and the movies were no longer the only sources of shared fantasy.

I've been meaning to see it pretty much since it came out, but never got around to it. I wish someone would have told me that it not only featured Empire Records' Robin Tunney as fiery, femme fatale-type Leonore Lemmon (note the initials, naturally occurring in this real-life Superman story) and Beverly Hills, 90210 beauty Kathleen Robertson in a small role. Had I known that, I would have probably been in theaters on opening day.

Adrien Brody stars on down-on-his-luck private investigator Louis Climo, who sees the apparent–but highly suspicious–suicide of Reeves as a sort of big break and, hired by Reeves' mother to investigate it as a possible murder, begins trying to unravel what happened that night.

Director Allen Coulter (who worked in TV mostly before and after the release of this film) and screenwriter Paul Bernbaum flashback continually to tell Reeves' story in between the scenes of Climo's investigation, starting with Reeves meeting older, married woman Toni Mannix (Diane Lane), wife of MGM "fixer" Eddie Mannix (Bob Hoskins). This is done in chronological order, for the most part, while Brody's Climo unravels various clues that lead in to each flashback.

There are only a few viable suspects, beyond the official gunman, Reeves himself. These are Lemmon, in some sort of crime of passion; Toni Mannix, reacting poorly to being dumped for the younger Lemmon and Eddie Mannix, sending employees to take out Reeves in revenge for hurting his wife's feelings.

The film dramatizes the death's possible scenarios, and never offers up a definitive solution to the mystery, but seems to cast suicide as the most likely explanation (it's the final, climactic dramatization), followed closely by Mr. Mannix ordering the killing (He kinda sorta confesses that he could and would do such a thing, and the most trustworthy character, the one who actually helps prove to Climo what a desperate a man Reeves had become, says he could see Mannix having been behind it).

In the years since, Affleck has had many more dramatic and lauded roles, but I was very impressed with him here, as he's got the required looks to play frustrated leading man-turned-TV star, and is a charming, affable presence throughout...except when he's succumbing to anger or depression.

There are actually quite a few funny moments, mostly stemming from the disconnect between Reeves and the character he played, and there's a half-obscured throughline about the tragedy of heroes being human, or, more broadly, our fantasies–be they escapism, or our ambitions for ourselves–being fragile, breakable things that are borne of tragedy and lead inevitably to still more tragedy.

Ironically, it may also be the very best Superman film I've ever seen, even though the Man of Steel's presence is a plot point and a metaphor.


So, the lady I watched this with thought it worth pointing out to me, and so I will point it out to you, that Affleck's and Lane's future roles in Superman films are illustrative of the double-standard when it comes to casting men and women of a certain age in such films. In this 10-year-old movie, the then-34 Affleck and the then-41 Lane played lovers (although Lane's character was meant to be a bit older than Affleck's in Hollywoodland). Flashforward a decade, and the now 43-year-old Affleck is playing Batman in Batman V. Superman, while the now 51-Year-old Lane is reprising her role as Superman's mom. In modern Hollywood, their eight year age difference translates into them playing characters from different generations**.

Never Cry Werewolf (2008): Writer John Sheppard seems like he deserves a slap on the wrist, or, at the very least, a severely judgmental look–complete with narrowed eyes, a raised eyebrow and a slowly shaking head–for this script, which goes so far in the direction of homage it skirts outright plot appropriation.

His inspiration is quite obviously 1985's Fright Night (the 2011 remake was still a few years off when this was aired on the Sci-Fi channel), which his script makes a few easy alterations to (changing the new neighbor who is actually a monster from a vampire to a werewolf, changing the gender of the suspicious teen) but otherwise keeps the same basic plot, up to and including recruiting a supposed expert from a TV show to help hunt the creature.

There are other elements that seem inspired by/borrowed from the long-in-development Wes Craven/Kevin Williamson Cursed (2005) and 1992's Bram Stoker's Dracula and/or 1995's Embrace of The Vampire, but in a genre so rife with cliches and homages, it can be hard to parse precise sources of inspiration.

Aside from Fright Night of course, as this is just Fright Night with a werewolf.

Nina Dobrev stars as a high-schooler who lives with her single mom and little brother next to a long-vacant house. It has just been sold to a mysterious, supposedly sexy man with a motorcycle and particularly mean dog (Peter Stebbings, a then 37-year-old actor whose pairing with then 19-year-old Dobrev is more creepy than anything else). He moved in one night, when the neighborhood was blanketed in supernatural fog, and while all the ladies seem to think he's super-hot, and her little brother thinks he's super-cool, Dobrev's Loren isn't so sure, especially after she shakes his hairy-palmed hand.

She starts spying on him and compiling evidence of his werewolf-ism, even going so far is to break into his house at one point, but no one she tells believes her (which is where the title comes in; it's not a direct analogy to the fable, which would also have made a good plot for a werewolf movie, but it kinda sorta works).

Stebbings' werewolf Jared–not a much better name for a werewolf than Jerry is for a vampire–menaces Loren but doesn't kill her, because he believes she's the reincarnation of his past wife/mate, and wants to turn her into a werewolf too. She decides to stock up on weaponry at a local gun shop, where TV "celebrity" hunter Redd Tucker (Kevin Sorbo) is signing autographs, and she and her male friend (and the store) are attacked by Jared and his dog, actually a familiar. Attacking a gun shop, of all places, seems like a poor plan on Jared's part, but these good guys with guns don't get it together until near the end of the scene, when they start pumping bullets into the familiar, who naturally shakes them all off...along with its skin, revealing a cool-looking, if cheaply-rendered, skin-less dog monster.

From there, the rest of the film is concerned with a showdown between Loren and Jared, with the guys in her life each playing small roles, while she's the one who delivers the decisive a skimpy sports bra, the film's first and only foray into any real cheesecake.

Sheppard's script is refreshingly interested in the more obscure occult aspects of werewolf lore (compared to most films of its kind, anyway), and the werewolf is apparently of the man-in-a-suit variety, giving its scenes a sense of authenticity usually lacking in post-CGI monster movies. Director Brenton Spencer never shows the whole wolf, usually just showing its drooly-fanged face or claws, but the intimation is that he's a huge, black, bear-sized creature that goes down on his forelegs like a gorilla at times.

It's quite obviously not terribly original, and occasionally cheap-looking, but it's nevertheless a pretty decent monster movie of a kind I'm particularly interested in: Teenagers vs. monsters.

Smart Blonde (1937): In his new book Investigating Lois Lane, Tim Hanley cites fast-talking "newspaperman" Torchy Blane, the protagonist of this film and its eight sequels, as a large part of the inspiration for Joe Siegel and Jerry Shuster's Lois Lane (In adition Torchy is played in one installment by an actress named Lola Lane), which is what lead me and my friend to checking this and Fly-away Baby (discussed above) out.

It's easy to imagine Torchy, played by Glenda Farrell, as a blonde Golden Age Lois, working at a different paper in a different city before moving to Metropolis to get a job at the Planet (and to dye her hair, of course). A brash and brilliant, she's got the observational skills and instincts of a great detective, and the street smarts to get through, around or over any obstacle she's faced with in pursuit of a story...which generally involves the solving of crimes.

Her partner in crime-solving is police detective Lieutenant Steve McBride (Barton MacLane), who she flirt/bickers with throughout the case (a typical, telling exchange has McBride scolding Torchy, "Why don't you stop trying to be a detective?" and her replying, "Why don't you start?"). He constantly tries to keep her out of his business, but it's apparent they need one another...he needs her for her smarts and detective ability, she needs him for his resources, the authority of his office and, occasionally, for muscle or the threat of muscle. Their romance is secondary to the point of sub-understatement, with much of the film's short run time having the apparently insatiable Torch asking McBride to take her out to dinner. Or just feed her. Or just let her eat. (It's a weird, cute little detail that is maybe the film's most engaging running gag...certainly funnier than the clownish antics of comic relief character Gahagan, played by Tom Kennedy.

As for the crime, it involves the murder of a nightclub owner, a shady legitimate businessman trying to become less shady and more legitimate, a few ladies, a drunk, disgruntled thug, some con artists and blackmail. It's essentially a hybrid screwball comedy/crime film, and it's a lot of fun. I would hope that anyone writing Lois Lane in the future would avail themselves of some of these old Torchy Blane flicks first, as her voice is that of an old-school that of Superman: The Animated Series, but with a longer skirt, a hat and a growling stomach.


Night Siege: The Hudson Valley UFO Sightings (Llewellyn Publications; 1998): Something of a classic among UFO literature, this collaboration from writers and investigators Philip J. Imbrogno, Bob Pratt and Allen Hynek chronicled the mid-80s reports of large, silent, low-flying UFOs over the titular locale. The reports sound an awful lot like those of "The Phoenix Lights" (of 1997). They were consistently described as huge (with a football field being the usual unit of measurement), triangular or boomerang shaped and bearing various patterns of lights...and they were described a lot. Also like the Phoenix Lights, these were seen by hundreds and hundreds of people, of all walks of life and levels of education and areas of expertise, often in groups. Some witnesses would have their stories corroborated by others they had never met, who saw the same thing from a different place. Media outlets, police stations and other authorities were flooded with calls and reports. Pictures and videos were taken.

This–again, like the Phoenix Lights–seems like one of those cases that offers pretty unimpeachable evidence that UFOs are some sort of real, experiential phenomenon (Provided, of course, that everything in the book is true; I obviously didn't research any of this on my own, but, for the most part, the methodology seems sound from my extremely amateur point-of-view).

What was going on? No explanation was ever offered, at least none that held up to any scrutiny, and these seem to have been offered by beleaguered desk sergeants and dispatchers to get people to quit calling and quit asking, rather than as part of any concerted effort to keep the truth, whatever it might have been, from getting out or anything of that sort.

Adding a strange twist to an already strange story was the fact that several of the witnesses who were interviewed reported that the craft or crafts (or whatever they were) seemed almost to respond to their thoughts about them, as well as their actions. For example, if someone flashed their headlights at an object, it might change the pattern of its lights or flash a light back at them. But if someone saw an object moving father away and wish they could get a better look at it, the object would in some cases suddenly turn around as soon as the thought was thought, and drift back in their direction.

A handful of abduction reports are included, and they are all of the suspiciously typical sort...and, unfortunately, recovered via hypnosis. At least one of them was by a person who specializes in recovering details of alien abductions via hypnosis, which I think has been pretty thoroughly discredited in the years since those reports were first taken, or even repeated in this updated version, which continues to follow reports into the late '90s (and follows up with some of the witnesses).

At the end of the book are all sorts of charts and figures and scientific-looking (i.e. boring) back matter.

It's a fascinating, even addictive, read, despite a handful of dated and questionable inclusions.


Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein: As a writer, I don't mind confessing that I found myself furiously jealous throughout Carrie Brownstein's memoir about Sleater-Kinney. She's got a story to tell, obviously, and plenty of fun, funny and poignant anecdotes, but it's the way she tells them that makes this book such a thunderbolt of a read. She is a great writer, and she writes about music and elements of the coming-of-age in the 1990s experience better than just about anyone else I've read. And that's in addition to being a hell of a guitarist, a fantastic performer and one-third of one the greatest rock bands. She's also super-hot, and I imagine she must be a fairly decent actress, as while I've never seen Portlandia, it's been around for a few seasons now.

It's just not fair that one person can be so great at so many things!

I started writing and re-writing this section of this post over and over, as Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl (which takes its title from the lyrics of "Modern Girl" off of The Woods) is one of those particularly challenging works: It's a great one, and one I'm really excited about, and one that I therefore want to give the review it deserves. But after a few drafts I had to remind myself that I'm not getting paid to write about that particular book, and this is just one section of one of those extremely long posts I assume (hope!) most of my readers just skim through, so I should probably just keep it as sort and sweet as possible.

As with Kim Gordon's recent Girl in a Band, Brownstein's book had an incredible revalatory component, as I knew next to nothing about Sleater-Kinney that couldn't be gleaned from their albums and the single time I saw them play live. For example, I didn't realize that Brownstein and Corin Tucker were dating around the time they founded the band and recorded their first albums (nor had I known Gordon and Thurston Moore were ever married until I listened to Gordon's also pretty great memoir). I've just never been that engaged of a music fan, where I was ever even terribly curious about the personal lives of the people that made the music as I was about the music itself.

There was a lot of information that was surprising, and some of it even shocking to me. First and foremost was the fact that Brownstein is as young as she is; she's only about two-and-a-half years older than I. We could have gone to high school together. And yet she was already on her third or so band and had recorded an album with the project that would define her career when I was still working on a bachelor's degree in English. I was shocked to hear her name bands that I've only ever heard on mixtapes traded with riot grrls in the zine scene (Team Dresch!), that she learned her first guitar chords from the guy from Sunny Day Real Estate, that Nirvana played at her school, that Sleater-Kinney opened for Pearl Jam and I missed it (I liked Pearl Jam a lot in high school, maybe as much as I liked Sleater-Kinney in my twenties and thirties, but never saw them play, because the band's principled stand against Ticketmaster made seeing a Pearl Jam show really goddam hard to do back when I would have most wanted to see them) and that, after Sleater-Kinney broke up, Brownstein through herself into volunteering at a local animal shelter.

That just strikes me as the most bizarre thing in the world. That you could walk into the right animal shelter and find a former (and future) rockstar volunteering there.

Brownstein is great enough of a writer that I would have been happy to read this in book form, rather than listening to the CD audiobook. As you can probably tell by how often Star Wars novels show up in these posts that I'm not too terribly discerning when it comes to audiobooks; I've much lower standards for what I'm willing to listen to during hours that would otherwise simply be wasted on driving than when it comes to what I want to spend time when I'm not stuck behind a steering wheel on (if you pay very close attention to the book-books that show up in these posts, they tend to be about monsters and the paranormal, for a pretty good reason. In fact, I only read Night Siege because I mistook it for another book that detailed what seemed like a coordinated UFO/Bigfoot flap by the mystery entities).

I'm glad I did listen to this in audiobook form though. Brownstein reads it herself, and I do so love the sound of her voice...reading as much as singing, it turns out. There's also some music in it; mostly some guitar from "Modern Girl," but there's a notable section where she plays a song she wrote in high school that she was holding up as something not that great and man, she was even good in high school. Fucking geniuses.

Anyway, this is a great book, and I'd kind of like to recommend it to anyone interested in modern music, from "alternative" music of the '90s to whatever genre one might classify Sleater-Kinney today...or to anyone interested in a creative pursuit...or to anyone interested in what it's like to be a woman in certain creative pursuits...or what it's like to have to interact from various angles and from various positions of powers with a "scene"...but I don't know, as I'm pretty biased to the subject matter, and was therefore interested in the book before I slid the first disc in. Suffice it to say that it is an extremely well-written book of an extremely interesting story, that of a talented musician who also happens to be an equally talented writer.

I've always been a Sleater-Kinney fan. Now I'm a Carrie Brownstein fan.

Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell: Sarah Vowell tackles the Revolutionary War in her usual manner, paying special attention to the endlessly amusing character of Lafayette, and the celebrity status he enjoyed almost immediately following America's achievement of freedom. It's been a while since I've listened to this one, so I'm afraid I will have to, by necessity, keep this review (or, more accurately, "review") short...much to your disappointment, I'm sure, as I know you all love reading every single word of these infinitely long posts.

It's pretty great, though, featuring the expected charms of a Vowell book. The ability to find a great deal of compelling humor in history, even the history we think we know well (certainly the Revolutionary War, more than the topics of her previous books, are things we all think we know pretty well–it is, at least, a subject thoroughly covered in school).

The two parts that stuck with me the most are Vowell's opening, which is basically a hilarious and persuasive essay about that which unites the United States more than anything else throughout our history (or freedom to, and willingness to, always disagree with one another vehemently), and the fact that, as a little boy in the French countryside, Lafayette used to wander around, hoping to run into the Beast of Gevaudan. That's the classic werewolf/historical monster that you'll constantly find reference to if you read much about monsters at all (as, um, I obviously do), which killed lots of people in 18th century France, and which there's still some speculation as to what the hell it might have been.

It's a pretty unusual intersection of U.S. history and historical cryptozoology, and there's probably a pretty fun story to be written about what might have happened had the eventual hero of the American Revolution had run into one of history's most famous "real" monsters...

Star Wars: Aftermath by Chuck Wendig: Or, as its listed on Amazon, Aftermath: Star Wars: Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens; that's three colons in a title! That's rare even for a superhero trade paperback.

This Chuck Wendig-written novel is the first*** produced for the new canonical Expanded Universe that details what happened after the end of Return of the Jedi and before the start of The Force Awakens. At this point in the timeline, we are much, much closer to the end of Jedi than the beginning of Awakens.

Contrary to how final and happy the ending of the first cycle of films might have looked, it turns out that you need to do more than destroy an enemy's greatest weapon and kill all of their leaders in order to vanquish a nation-state, or, in this case, a Galactic Empire. While reading (well, listening to) this, it became clear the degree to which the "new" Star Wars is/are informed by our new wars. The victory of the original trilogy wasn't such a clean cut and final victory of good over evil, but more a big, destabilizing blow, leading to a long, messy, confusing period in which two competing sides with competing ideologies struggle militarily and for the hearts and minds of civilians throughout the galaxy. No longer good vs. evil, it's now democracy vs. security, and no longer a series of winner-take-all battles, now it's a generational struggle.

There's also an extended scene in which Mon Mothma, leader of the Rebel Alliance, surveys the dead after a particularly deadly battle, while listening to two debating advisers about how to proceed: Pursue the remnants of the Empire and finish them off once and for all, or consider them defeated enough, and enter into a kind of detente. The fact that Awakens featured the successors of the two sides still in conflict ought to let you know what Mon Mothma chose. I'm not sure which is correct real-world, 20th century analogy here: Is this the first President Bush withdrawing from Iraq without capturing and killing Saddam and destroying his regime? Me, I'm about as anti-war as one can get, but her insistence that there had been enough death and bloodshed and ultimate decision to pull back struck even me as naive. Of course, I had already seen Awakens, so I guess I had the advantage of seeing how it all turned out.

That scene, by the way, is one of the many (many, many) "interludes" in Wendig's book, in which we essentially check in with various characters in various roles and strata of society throughout the galaxy in the immediate aftermath of the second Death Star battle. Most of these involve characters who are either brand-new or so minor I didn't recognize them, but there are a few of some prominence, like bounty hunter Dengar (locked in battle with a younger, more skilled bounty hunter) or Han Solo and Chewbacca deciding to ditch the mission for the alliance they were on in order to save Chewie's people. These are all brief, and Wendig's point seems to be to just give us a sort of snap shot of the state of the Galaxy during a particularly turbulent time, but several of them are almost certainly going to be followed up in future books (or maybe some of the others that are already on the stands; I don't know).

The main, non-interlude action takes place on the outer rim jungle planet of Akiva, where about a half-dozen prominent members of the Imperial power structure hold a secret summit to determine the future of the Empire...if there even is to be a future for them. Complicating matters for the Imperials is that a small band of their enemies are also on Akiva, some quite coincidentally. There's Jas, a Zabrak bounty hunter there to collect on the heads of the Imperials; Norra a former Rebel pilot who is returning to Akiva to find her son Temmin, an angry teenage mechanical genius who has reinvented himself as part of the local underworld after his mother abandoned him there; and Sinjir, an effete formal Imperial loyalty officer, who went AWOL during the Battle of Endor and is trying, very, very hard to lose himself in drink.

Their paths gradually cross and they form a sort of ad hoc rebel cell, aided by Temmin's refurbished Confederation battle droid "Mister Bones," re-programmed into a murderous maniac (That is, one of the "Roger, roger" droids from the the prequel trilogy, here covered in animal bones and tricked out with various weaponry, like a sharpened beak for stabbing).

I liked Mister Bones a lot, particularly as presented in the audio-book format, where his mechanized voice, a warped version of that familiar from the movies, takes on a slightly disturbing note as it slows down, speeds up and laughs while tearing bad guys apart.

The world-weary, often-drinking (if rarely drunk) and remarkably effective Sinjir is another great character. I spent the first few discs trying to think of who reader/performer Marc Thompson's voicing of the character reminded me of. I eventually settled on Johnny Depp, doing one of his very broad, Johnny Depp performances as a upper-class British bad-ass turned attempted hedonist. (Thompson gives Temmin a voice reminiscent of Billy West's Fry on Futurama, which was honestly a little distracting).

A few familiar characters make brief cameos–Leia, Wedge Antilles and General Ackbar, who gets to repeat his one big line from Jedi once, as well as say the word "trap" a couple more times. I suppose it doesn't count as a spoiler to tell you the good guys win, and (most) of the bad guys lose. I was personally glad that it ended with the ensemble cast deciding to stick together, as that promised future books featuring them, and I was more glad still when I noticed on Amazon that there's already a sequel on the horizon (The cover appears to read Star Wars: Aftermath: Life Debt, but Amazon lists it as Life Debth: Aftermath (Star Wars) (Star Wars: Aftermath Trilogy); looks like that is where they'll pick up on Han and Chewie's mission teased in a single interlude of this novel).

I had heard second-hand before reading this that it was "controversial," probably among the same a-holes who thought The Force Awakens was somehow anti-white because it had a black character in a much more prominent role than the black characters who appeared in the firs two trilogies, or thought it was deleterious in its "political correctness" because its protagonist was a woman instead of a man. That was, I heard, because it had gay people in it.

I was a little surprised then at how minor the "gay stuff" is in this book. It amounts to little more than the acknowledgement that there are at least three people in the Galaxy who are homosexual in their orientation. Temmin's aunts are referred to a few times, and appear in one relatively short sequence. Only one of the aunts is Norrah's blood sister; the other is her sister's wife.

It also turns out that Sinjr is gay. When Jas agrees to couple with him after their adventure is over and he recoils, she gets angry, thinking he has something against aliens. He explains it has nothing to do with her being an alien****, but rather that she's a woman. She answers with an "Oh," and, um, that's about it. So basically Aftermath just acknowledges that there are some gay folks in the galaxy. Not exactly revolutionary, let alone controversial: These guys have had laser guns, faster-than-light interplanetary space travel, flying cars and tractor beams for centuries, right...? Surely if they're that much more technologically advanced than us, they're at least socially advanced enough that two ladies can get married on one of the hundreds of planets in the galaxy, and at least one guy can be out, right...?

Star Wars: Dark Disciple by Christie Golden: At this point, I'm pretty lost in terms of what counts as Star Wars canon and what doesn't. This novel, by Christie Golden, is based on unproduced episodes of the Clone Wars TV show (the shitty looking CGI one I've yet to see an episode of, not the awesome "micro-series" that is probably the best Star Wars filmmaking of any kind). I believe that means it is still canonical, which would make sense, given how sharply it contradicts what I know of the lead characters from the Dark Horse comics I've read.

It's because of those Dark Horse comics that I was interested in this book at all, as the cover clearly shows Jedi Quinlan Vos, who John Ostrander and Jan Duursema's extrapolated from a background character in Episode I. Together they made enough comics featuring the character that he filled his own omnibus, Star Wars Omnibus: Quinlan Vos: Jedi In Darkness, and he played a fairly substantial role in the Dark Horse's Clone Wars series, also by the Ostrander/Duursema team (mostly).

The character's personality and mission are pretty much the same here as they were in the Dark Horse comics, although there's no mention of his apprentice Aayla Secura, and his former master has apparently been killed off before the start of this novel which, again, is based on unproduced episodes of the TV show.

The novel pairs him with Asajj Ventress, the one-time Sith apprentice who I am only familiar with from the micro-series (where she was awesome) and the Dark Horse Clone Wars (where she was less so), but apparently a lot has happened since, as she in, by the time of this novel, a bounty hunter with hair, who has had a falling out with Count Dooku.

The plot involves the Jedi Council deciding they should just assassinate Dooku in order to speed the war to a quicker end, and Obi-Wan has a bad feeling about that. They decide that Vos, an undercover expert, is best-suited for the task, and they suggest he befriend Ventress and maneuver her into helping him find and dispatch Dooku.

He does so, but something unexpected happens: The pair fall in love. Ventress trains him to use the dark side of The Force to make him strong enough to help her take out Dooku, and that doesn't go so well, with Vos eventually succumbing to the Dark Side and spending a lot of time at Dooku's side. Throughout much of the second half of the book, it's never entirely clear if Vos has really fallen, or if he has pretended to fall in order to get close enough to kill Dooku...and the mysterious other Sith.

Golden does a pretty good job of shaping what was obviously meant to be an episodic story into something more novel-like, although the ending really drags on for quite a while, as Vos and Ventress seem to flip-flop in their feelings about one another and what they really want to do.

I found Ventress' plan to kill Dooku pretty dumb. Instead of just sneaking up on him and stabbing him to death, she challenges him to a duel, and she and Vos lose the duel pretty spectacularly. That's, like, the opposite of an assassination attempt.

I do like both Ventress and Vos quite a bit, and Dooku's a cool character, too, so all in all, there are a lot of great characters in this book. Marc Thompson performs the book, and does his usual excellent job. He's able to do Ventress' deep, sharp, soft growl of a voice perfectly, as well as the silky, sonorous Dooku that the late, great Christopher Lee gave the character in the films. His Mace Windu had a curious, off-putting Southern accent for some reason, though.

There's an afterword by Katie Lucas, which at first annoyed me a bit when she was talking about how she got the opportunity to write for the TV show when she was still a teenager (Really? How ever did she earn such an opportunity?). But after a few minutes, she brings up how much she loved Asajj Ventress, and how the character provided a gateway for her into the Star Wars universe. Well, as a Lucas, she was pretty much born into the Star Wars universe, but Asajj Ventress made her feel a part of it, and excited her. It serves as a pretty good testimonial to the importance of characters in these sorts of shared universes (that is, the Star Wars Expanded Universe, the DC Universe, the Marvel Universe and...I can't think of any other fictional shared setting of their size and scope, really) that have something in common with would-be audience-members. Here it was Katie Lucas finding a female character who was as cool and as badass as any of the male characters–actually, probably a little cooler and a little more badass than almost all of the male characters.

This was meant to be Lucas redemption of the character, as she has her turn from the dark side to the good, and do a whole bunch of heroic stuff before her story ends. I suppose opinions will vary over whether it would have been better had this story arc been able to play out on the TV show or not, but I can't imagine it would have been handled as well as it was here in the novel, which naturally has more space than the TV show, and can tackle more mature subject matter than they would have or could have on the cartoon show.

Thomas Jefferson and The Tripoli Pirates by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yeager: Something felt a little off about Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger's book about a mostly-forgotten military conflict at the dawn of America, as the young country faced one of its earliest foreign policy challenges. I say mostly-forgotten, but more accurately might be "mostly never taught," as American merchants, their fledgling navy and then-president Thomas Jefferson were dealing with the predation of pirates associated North African Barbary state was happening at the turn of the 18th century into the 19th, a time when most American history classes switch their attention from the Revolutionary War to the domestic political and economic struggles of the then-new American state.

I thought the authors made a little much of the fact that the pirates and the leaders of the Barbary states were all Muslim, as if that were they're defining feature, and perhaps in some nebulous way the source of the conflict, rather than financial. Their professed religion may have indeed been Islam, but Kilmeade and Yaeger don't exactly keep referring to the Americans as a country of Christian denominations, deists and Freemasons, or to Anglican England or Catholic France. There's something uncomfortable about the suggestion that this is the beginning of America's conflict with Islam, which is of course silly. As the publishers will point out, this is nearly forgotten history, and, as I just mentioned, it's not exactly something rising to the level of, say, the Teapot Dome scandal in American classrooms. To suggest that it's the first battle in a centuries-long conflict with radical Islamic extremists is...well, I'm sure there's an audience for that in America, but there's no reason to believe that is the case. This is just one conflict that happened to occur between America and Muslim powers, and it seems to have had a hell of a lot more to do with money than religion or politics.

What bugged me the most, however, was the way Kilmeade and Yaeger made much of the Barbary pirates taking captives and forcing them into slavery. They present letters and journal entries from American and other Westerners forced to endure slavery, which was regarded as many back home as a great and unforgivable evil from which their countrymen and allies must be rescued.

The irony, of course, is that America was keeping thousands and thousands of its own slaves and had, in fact, built a significant portion of their economy on slave labor. Hell, President Jefferson owned slaves. The authors don't draw attention to the essential hypocrisy of the outrage over keeping white guys slaves, while black men and women were enslaved in astronomical numbers as a matter of course.

There are reasons why the men of that time might have thought that way, rationalizations they held that black people were suited to slavery while white men were not, but as that disconnect isn't even pointed out, naturally no context is given.

What bugged me the most about the book, however, was Kilmeade's reading. The co-author reads the book himself, and he does so in a loud, excited voice that reminded me of a sports commentator. It was the first time I've listened to an audiobook and considered stopping during the first disc specifically because the voice of the reader got on my nerves, but, as is always the case, I got used to the voice after listening long enough.

It's an all-around rather rousing bit of history as adventure, although it seems pretty amateurish as a work of history, with somewhat spurious political motivations, even if the suggestions of agenda come mostly through sins of omission rather than over-editorialization.

It wasn't until just this very moment that I discovered who exactly Kilmeade was, which explains his delivery as well, perhaps, his political motivation in certain areas: He is one of the Friends of Fox and Friends, hosts a radio show for Fox and has a background in sports radio.

The Vatican Prophesies: Investigating Supernatural Signs, Apparitions and Miracles In the Modern Age by John Thavis: John Thavis' immaculately researched and written book addresses the most fantastic elements of the Catholic faith, those which have historically been part of the church in varying degrees of importance but can now prove quite troubling. You know, miraculous relics, Marian apparitions, exorcisms and the like.

In the 21st century, crying or bleeding statues and the miraculous intercession of the departed faithful can prove not just uncomfortable, but dangerous for the Church, which has to investigate and ultimately determine whether or not, say, The Virgin Mary is really appearing to someone...or if that person is faking it, or if they are suffering from hallucinations or if they are being duped by the devil. If the church makes the wrong call and declares a hoax genuine, only for it to be proven to be a hoax a few years later, they look bad–and it can cause damage to the faith. Similarly, the church leadership is often reluctant to embrace "new" miracles and signs and wonders, because that age is supposedly passed, and a true believer really shouldn't need to see the sun dancing in the sky to come to Christ.

Thavis breaks various elements of The Vatican's relationship with the supernatural in the modern age into broad categories, and along the way we meet some extremely interesting individuals from both within the Vatican and without, including a guy whose job it is to make holy corpses look less-corrupted than they actually are when they are publicly presented, and a lay professional miracle-hunter, who helps advocates for the sainthood of a particular individual prove that the departed has the requisite miracles to his or her names.

Of greatest interest to me personally was a section devoted to the apparitions of Medjugorje, as I had read a book purchased from the lobby of a Catholic church as a child and, well, Thavis' take is very different than that offered by the other, which indicates the experiences are much (much, much) more subjective, and Vatican Prophesies also reveals one of the secret prophecies the Blessed Virgin supposedly shared with the children...and other, similar long-secret prophecies, which turn out to be a little on the disappointing side, given how innocuous they are.

There are subjects I would have liked to read a little bit more about (conspiracy theories about the Vatican, the church's ideas about the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life), and some I wouldn't have minded having read less about (relics), but honestly, each of the half-dozen or so categories of the supernatural and the Catholic church's strategies for addressing it could easily buttress a book-length discussion. This was an all-around fascinating read.*****

*Hey, it's a running gag about running! Neat!

**Actually, I wrote those few paragraphs on Hollywoodland before actually seeing Batman V. Superman, in which it turns out Batman is supposed to be quite a bit older than Superman, so maybe Batman and Martha Kent are supposed to be about the same age in this. Hell, Batman even calls Superman "son" at one point.

***The first for adults, anyway. And the first for adults that Iknow of.

****As I'm pretty sure I've mentioned before, it seems really weird that, in the Star Wars universe, human characters are called "human," and every other sentient, humanoid species is referred to as "alien." I guess I don't know how evolution works in this particular galaxy or anything, but it seems like the galaxy is lousy with humans, and they sprung up on a bunch of different planets independently, rather than there being one human "home world" as there is with, like, the Wookies. In a setting where everyone is from different planets, what makes one race or species an alien and another one not...? It's all about perspective, right...? Surely the Rodians or Twyleks or whoever would consider humans–and anyone else different from them–alien...?

*****Listen. Whatever.