Thursday, June 28, 2012

Moore Goes Head-to-Head with New WATCHMEN

It had to happen sooner or later, I guess.

The Before Watchmen line continued yesterday with NITE OWL #1, the fourth new title released in this prequel line of comic books based on Alan Moore's WATCHMEN characters. With a new title streeting every week, that's no surprise in and of itself, but this week a new Moore comic also arrived; namely, THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: CENTURY 2009. And thus was the stage set for the most public (if not exciting) geekdom Beef battle since, well... the last time Lord Alan got something published, I guess.

The verdict? Alan Moore wins this round hands down.

If Brian Azzarello's THE COMEDIAN #1 failed for taking too many liberties with the source material as it is understood by the fans, J. Michael Straczynski falls just a bit short for rehashing too much of what we already know and mixing it with original material that just isn't very exciting either on its own or in juxtaposition with the history as it's represented. His script is by no means bad, but it's not as exciting as either of Darwyn Cooke's books (MINUTEMEN and SILK SPECTRE) have been thus far. Rorschach fans will be delighted to find him in great support in the second half of the origin story, but I found the multitude of Hurms to be tiring and betrayed a use of the familiar to make up for a basic lack of understanding of the character.

Nite Owl was based on Charlton Comics' Blue Beetle, and JMS has really tapped into that for his portrayal of Daniel Dreiberg as Night Owl II. He is an affable, comical hero, which seems slightly at odds with his adolescent home life, but that would seem to fall completely in step with the personalities of stand-up comics of that era (the 60s), many of whom used comedy as a relief for the harsh circumstances of poverty or abuse. His partnership with the deadpan Rorschach makes for an interesting odd couple, and fans will want to see as much of this team-up as the space allows, which could get in the way of the narrative in a limited series.

I've said this before and I'll say it again: I feel that the page count is a serious handicap in this new line when compared with the original series. Eight less pages is a huge, possibly insurmountable deficit.

The original pitch behind this new line was in presenting the origins that we never got to see in WATCHMEN, but so far (with the exception of SILK SPECTRE #1) we are being rushed through those stories. So anyone expecting NITE OWL YEAR ONE will be sorely disappointed. Also, like with COMEDIAN #1, the cover art and the interior art is so different, that it's easy to feel baited and switched. Andy Kubert's cover is text book perfect comic art, but the interiors look much more like his dad's SGT. ROCK work. There's nothing wrong with that necessarily, but war books and superhero books have different looks and the interior pencils have a sort of schizophrenia as a result. This book doesn't feel very heroic, and not in a post-modern sense –which might have been a good thing. Still, it's got a solid backbone of readability that Straczynski brings to most of his work. His lack of feel for the Rorschach character might be a strength; by not allowing a secondary character to chew his way through the scenery, he positions Night Owl to shine. I'm looking forward to seeing what the specific plot of this book will be, and I hope it enriches the legacy of the original series.

The final chapter of Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill's third volume of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (BLACK DOSSIER was a stand alone one-shot) was also released this week. It had been so long since the last one (1969) that I had to go back and reread it and 1910 to get back up to speed. And I'm really glad I did because each of the previous volumes enriches this latest one, and vice versa. I prefer O'Neill's WARLOCK art that he did for 2000 AD and his brilliant MARSHAL LAW to his pencils on this set of characters (and I absolutely hate the cover of this last installment), but there is no doubting that his work with Moore is his best from a raw storytelling perspective. It's been a challenge for everyone who has worked with Moore to rise beyond his shadow, but fans have little choice but to give credit for the success of this collaboration equally among the partners.

Moore is in top form as wordsmith and conjurer. He has a gift with language and dialogue that knows few peers, and the meta-narrative employed here is presented unconfusingly and almost poignantly. It's refreshing to see an author rework themes from previous works to better effect, and to do so within the framework of a story that utilizes borrowed characters and confront our current reality in that mix is a work of genius. Where I found FROM HELL to be a beautiful but incomprehensible mess, I find CENTURY to be a clever, well-constructed ruse.  If it is hampered by anything, it is the inherent pessimism of the author's world view, but Moore doesn't really do "happy."

So if there really was a competition, Moore & O'Neill outpunched Straczynski and the Kuberts, and they landed those blows with more power, but there are no losers in this fight. The fans least of all.

Last and certainly not least is a reissue of one of my all time favorite comic book runs. IDW have placed the same love and care they put into their brilliant THE ROCKETEER: The Complete Adventures volume into David Mazzucchelli's DAREDEVIL: BORN AGAIN artist's edition. Curiously absent from the cover is Frank Miller's name, almost refreshingly so. If Alan Moore has been something of a curmudgeon regarding his opinion of other comic book professionals, Frank Miller has become a talk radio version of his former self (and rarely do his occasional right-wing rants do anything to endear fans to his cause), but there's no denying the impact he's had as a writer on the medium, and Born Again is one of his very best. By making this all about Mazzucchelli from the cover onward, we are afforded the opportunity to see the extent of their collaboration and just how powerful David's line work is. He brought a swashbuckler feel back into comics that had been missing since John Romita's run on THE AMAZING SPIDERMAN, but he also captured a film noir sensibility that perfectly complimented Miller's narrative. His heroes are beautiful the way that Milo Manara's women are beautiful, the way that Bernie Wrightson's FRANKENSTEIN was beautiful. Mazzucchelli mastered the compromise between telling a story and drawing a picture. His pencils and inks are a textbook example of everything that was wrong with the Image comics that followed. It's amazing how the time and space that passed since this was first published have done nothing to detract from it at all. If anything, this volume will make you enjoy it more -even if you forget what you're reading because you've lingered on the art.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

An Iron Patriot for the Silver Screen?

James Badge Dale as Eric Savin
in what looks like Iron Patriot armor
(photo credit: TheSuperficial.com)
By now, most comic movie fans have seen a photo of actor James Badge Dale on the set of IRON MAN 3 in a suit of armor that bears a strong resemblance to the Iron Patriot suit donned by Dark Avenger, Norman Osbourne in Matt Fraction and Salvador Larroca's award-winning run on THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN.  Recent reports claim that the suit is actually a War Machine redesign, but if that's the case why isn't the actor in the suit Don Cheadle?

Further complicating things from a comic book continuity standpoint is that Dale is playing Eric Savin aka Coldblood. It's quite possible that Marvel publicity is trying to keep a lid on things after the leak, and some sources have suggested that the new War Machine could end up being called The Iron Patriot in this installment of the film franchise. None of these scenarios annexes the possibility of that armor being used against Tony Stark, which makes issue  #18, page 22 even more significant now then it was when it was included in the original Pop Sequentialism exhibition back in May 2011. That original art page is still available for sale, and comes with the comic book, too.

(ABOVE) THE INVINCIBLE IRON MAN (2008)
by Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca
Issue #18, Page 22: Splash
First Appearance of The Iron Patriot
Graphite and ink on board
Signed by Salvador Larroca
11" x 17"
$1,200.00

Over the next couple of weeks I'll be selling off some of the key titles in the Pop Sequentialism archive, giving other fans (like me) an opportunity to own pieces of history -and for less than the reprinted Omnibus & Absolute editions are fetching!  These are the truly great collaborations of writers & artists in the comic book medium, and I'll be packaging them as sets, runs, and in some cases entire series. If you're looking for something specific and don't want to risk it getting listed and sold, shoot me an email and I'll be happy to hook you up if I can: info[at]popsequentialism.com



Friday, June 22, 2012

Little to Smile about in COMEDIAN #1

It's probably fair to say that among the seven prequel mini-series in the Before Watchmen line, COMEDIAN is one of the two most anxiously awaited (in back of RORSCHACH). It's probably also a fair assessment that among the myriad of talented writers working in comics today, aside from original series creator Alan Moore, Brian Azzarello is the writer from whom most fans want to read a new Comedian tale. His JOKER graphic novel released to tie-in with the Dark Knight film is one of the best one-shots written in the past two decades and his treatment of the titular character is among the best if not actually the best.

So why am I a little let down by COMEDIAN #1?
In a word, expectation.

J.G. Jones' penchant for S&M costumes was part of WANTED's charm, and he would seem to be a natural choice for Edward Blake's alter-ego. But that's not what we get in this first issue. Jones' pencils here are more reminiscent of his D.C. LEGACIES interiors than his superlative MARVEL BOY or FINAL CRISIS work. The colors are very muted, and shadow wins over detail on every page. These are likely stylistic choices utilized to evoke a grey 60s vibe along the lines of John Frankenheimer's films from that era; I don't really endorse this decision and would have been much happier with bright, vibrant ultraviolence. With such a provocative cover, we're led to believe that the restrain Moore showed back in 1987 (ie. not much) is about to be let loose and our hero allowed to go completely medieval. Instead we are treated to a kinder, gentler Comedian with likeable movie star status who is close personal friends with JFK and the whole Kennedy clan. He is, ironically, not very comedic, but urbane and dignified; basically the exact opposite of what we know about him from the source material. Missing is the grim cynicism and signature black humor  –the only hint of which is a quip (an allusion really), about the sexual preferences of J. Edgar Hoover's G-men. Perhaps this is the set-up and we'll get to witness the events that create the bitter nihilist we see in Vietnam with Dr. Manhattan, but since these events take place years after Blake's rape of Silk Spectre I, Sally Jupiter, this revisionist take of Blake as a likeable man's man seems disingenuous. The context of the Kennedy assassination also seems to be at odds with the official Moore & Gibbons cannon, which borders on unforgivable.

I can also see a lot of people taking umbrage with Azzarello's portrayal of Jackie Kennedy, which infers a cattiness and deviousness at odds with just about all existing biographical and historical evidence of her character. The Kennedys of Camelot are by no means sacred cows, but invocation of that legacy really just cheapens the narrative in the same way that comparing any run of the mill politician or dictator to Hitler pretty much guarantees the loss of a sane argument. What Gibbons and Moore might have conveyed in a couple of brief panels is given several pages and it does little more than slow the story down. Rather than evoking an Outer Limits sense of counter-factual history, it comes off more like a Forrest Gump cameo run too long.

And if reviving one of America's darkest hours for cheap drama is merely bad taste, the ham-fisted working-into-the-plot of Moloch the Magician comes off as truly pedestrian. It was completely unnecessary and makes the drunken confession in the original series less dramatic. In short, this new number one is what most WATCHMEN fans were afraid of: it cheapens the original by playing loose with the facts as we know them. It's even more disappointing (no pun intended) because of the talent involved. What could have been a worthy updating of Garth Ennis' UNKNOWN SOLDIER instead has the hollow commerce-driven banality of a badly researched SECRET ORIGINS. I'll continue to read this to see if Azzarello can dig out of the ditch he's made for himself in this first issue, and I'm still excited to see what he and Lee Bermejo have cooked up for RORSCACH, but as it stands, the Before Watchmen line has its first dead on arrival failure with COMEDIAN #1.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ghost with More Substance than God: SILK SPECTRE

Yesterday the second Before Watchmen title hit comic shop racks. SILK SPECTRE #1 is (like MINUTEMEN #1) written by Darwyn Cooke, but this series is drawn by Amanda Connor. No doubt line editor, Dan DiDio, was looking for her to bring the same woman's touch she brought to her fan favorite runs on VAMPIRELLA and POWER GIRL. I think she aced it.

This title is different from MINUTEMEN in several respects. Firstly, it starts out as a high school drama, and secondly, it is set in the late 1950s. The Steranko-esque cover aside, there are no attempts to capture the era in retro-style pencils or panel design. Otherwise the trappings of the time frame are spot on. Amanda has a real gift for capturing emotions without necessitating the dialogue point it all out, and she seems to have eschewed the stylized, slight-anime look that characterized her interiors on POWERGIRL for the more realistic, yet playful detail of her highly sought cover work. This is the best of both worlds for Connor fans who get to see her work with yet another great writer on a resume that already includes Grant Morrison, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis

If Amanda is the star of this issue, Darwyn is only slightly less so.

Cooke uses a collection of interrupted song titles and television soundbites as an issue-wide storytelling device that quite frankly does not work. It detracts from the linear ease of the story which is otherwise fine without it. In fact, I prefer this first issue to the last Before Watchmen #1 because the nature of the smaller cast allows more space to become invested in the titular hero. The rocky relationship between Laurie Jupiter and her mom (original Silk Spectre, Sally Jupiter) is established, as is her outsider status at school as a result of being the daughter of a tabloid heroine. Her training regimen is revealed as is her inner dialogue via brief fantasy panels that rely more on symbolism and facial/body language than forced explanation. Possibly because of the lead character's age, I found myself reminiscing about the first issues of INVINCIBLE, but (due in no small part to Amanda Connor's artwork) I have to say that I prefer SILK SPECTRE thus far.

If it seems I'm being critical of Darwyn Cooke this issue, it's only because his collaborator out-shined him this time around. I enjoyed this comic immensely, and I eagerly await the next issue. This is by no means the type of comic that Alan Moore would have written, and I think we're all better off for it. If Cooke had contrived to imitate Moore on this title, it would have resulted in a pale imitation that would have failed miserably. Instead, Cooke is treating readers to a story that I doubt Moore could deliver: a believable tale of teen angst that sheds light on an origin barely hinted at. If comparison is necessary, this might be Cooke doing his best Joss Whedon. And that makes me wish this was more than four issues...

Not exactly comic book related, but definitely in the cannon of pop culture and art is Ridley Scott's PROMETHEUS, which opened this past weekend. Scott seems to have revived the original H.R. GIGER designs, which are breathtakingly beautiful on screen. The digital compositing/CGI is the best I've seen up to this point, and I can now understand the comparisons to Terrence Malick's TREE OF LIFE. Unfortunately, there are casting problems and B-Movie plot holes that really ruin the film. It's almost heartbreaking that the filmmakers got so much of the really difficult stuff right, only to fail at the easy stuff. The cinematography is incredible, the set design impeccable, and the special effects are deliriously compelling. It's too bad that they put all that effort behind a predictable and convoluted script –and it is both predictable AND convoluted. It's a shame that the writers, whose combined credits include the abysmal COWBOYS & ALIENS and an upcoming MUMMY reboot, didn't take more direction from James Cameron's screenplay for the first ALIEN sequel, which had an emotional center; something completely lacking in this prequel. Instead, they seem to have started with an interesting premise but then rehashed every ALIENS ripoff, from THE RELIC and VIRUS to the AVP films. With the exceptions of Michael Fassbender, Noomi Rapace, Idris Elba and Patrick Wilson (via flashback), the cast is a parade of stereotypes and clich├ęs. Seriously, Hollywood: perfect the scripts before you greenlight one hundred, fifty million dollar movies!

And another thing: was it really necessary to make us wear those battery powered 3D glasses? There is hardly any 3D in the film. You'd think that a film with vicious, slimy, acid-for-blood aliens in it would have some great "Boo!" moments, but the horror in this was more excrutiating than surprising, and I know of at least a handful of audience members who had to exchange their pairs halfway through the film because the batteries shorted out. Battery powered glasses can't be healthy, can they? 

H.R. Giger
Motor Landscape (1972)
Silkscreen, A/P from a signed edition of 210
27" x 34.5" in 31.5" x 39.25" frame
$5,250.00
In spite of all that, I think that PROMETHEUS is still worth seeing for the flawless set design and special effects. I actually do recommend seeing it on the big screen, which amplifies the scale of the spacecraft and landscape. But if you can, save your money and catch a matinee or wait until it goes to the cheap theaters. If you're bringing a date, make sure he or she is up to speed on the first film, because otherwise they'll be completely confused. Come to think of it, even if you are a well-versed fan, the opening sequence might still leave you somewhat befuddled.

The mere mention of ALIEN gives me a great excuse to post this original signed & numbered, hand-pulled, silkscreen print from 1972 by H.R. Giger, which was published in Carnivora, The Dark Art of Automobiles (Scapegoat Publishing, 2009). Shoot me an email if you are interested in purchasing it. It's in a gorgeous frame and just happens to be an artist's proof. It should probably be priced $15K, but the collector who consigned it to me wants it go to someone who will prominently display it, rather than have it languish in his storage facility. He's got some original Giger paintings already, so letting go of an original print –even one as rare as this one, is no hardship. And yes, I said "paintings," as in plural.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

WATCHMEN Fans: Meet the MINUTEMEN!

This past Wednesday the first new WATCHMEN story since October 1987 hit comic store shelves. Visibly absent from the front cover are the names of original creators Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons. This has supplied no end of flame fodder for fan boys who feel that this is an unnecessary and unconscionable violation of possibly the greatest stand-alone comic book series ever published.

I love the WATCHMEN. I used the Origin of Rorschach page as the cover to my POP-SEQUENTIALISM book. I have read and re-read the original series at least a dozen times, and it has lost none of its impact. When I saw the film, I was critical of some of the artistic choices the director made –mostly with regard to the 1960s music cues, a bit of the casting, and in being too literal with some of the comic book panels (which I felt translated badly cinematically). I felt that the film got a lot of the difficult things right and completely blew it on what should have been easy things. So how do I feel about the new MINUTEMEN series written and drawn by Darwyn Cooke?

It's too soon to tell.

In Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons' first issue of the WATCHMEN, there was no need to explain anything that had come before, because nothing had come before. They got to start fresh with characters based on other existing characters with histories that could be taken for granted because there was no threat of a lawsuit; the publisher of their comic was also the license holder for the Charlton characters Moore had based this pantheon upon. Clues about the alternate reality of the Watchmen world were delivered subtly across the twelve issues and benefited greatly from the text-only backup stories that filled in the missing tone and setting. Indeed, to read the comics without reading the fake book excerpts, artificial police files, science journal entries and comics-within-a-comic would be to completely miss the details of the world, characters and plot devices that made that comic what it was (and is). Cooke likewise has no lawsuit to fear, but he's got two-and-a-half decades of expectations to overcome and the challenge of rebooting characters that many feel need no reboot.

In Darwyn Cooke, DC comics have found possibly the perfect person to revive the MINUTEMEN. Cooke's THE NEW FRONTIER is the most celebrated revival series of the current millennium, an award-winning retelling of the Justice League origin, that bridged the gap between the Golden and Silver Age. His retro art style is perfect for the World War II era in which MINUTEMEN is set, with his Kirbyesque squareness and his nouveau-deco aesthetic. In fact, Cooke's pencils might even be more suitable than Gibbons' for telling this particular story, which has the mood of Matt Wagner's SANDMAN MYSTERY THEATER and the feel of James Robinson's THE GOLDEN AGE. I'm glad that someone at DC realized it would be wrong to emulate a 1980s look for a story that takes place in the 30s and 60s. Unfortunately, because this is the first attempt at tackling these characters in a quarter century, this first issue is pure setup. Another drawback of releasing a comic book with impossibly high expectations is that the format itself has changed. In 1987, Moore had 32 ad-free pages to open his story. In 2012, Cooke has 24 pages. There is also a two-page, pirate backup story penciled by original WATCHMEN colorist John Higgins, that will continue into the next BEFORE WATCHMEN release, SILK SPECTRE #1, which streets this coming Wednesday. It's nice to have one of the original creators involved, but I find his 80s GORE SHRIEK reminiscent artwork to be completely wrong to support a title that takes place (at the latest) in the 60s and I'd have been much happier with a reverent EC imitation (like Joe Orlando's Tales of the Black Freighter in the original series), but since this is set to run as a back up in all seven of the prequel miniseries (most of which take place in the 80s), this will probably bother me less with each issue. Two pages at a time, it's nearly impossible to judge the quality of a comic book, anyhow. 

It's worth pointing out that nobody expects this or any of the series in the BEFORE WATCHMEN line to equal or best the original series, but I am impressed with the names connected with this re-boot, and from what I've read thus far, I'm hooked. I will definitely be buying all of the titles, and I will report on this blog what I think of each of them. I look forward especially to Brian Azarello and Lee Bermejo's RORSCHACH, which is likely to become a fan favorite in spite of the blowback the rest of the line is receiving in advance. If J. Michael Straczynski can deliver the kind of goods he gave us with THOR, then DR. MANHATTAN will be Adam Hughes' first work on a well written series, which is cause for rejoice under any circumstance. I'm hoping that JMS isn't overtaxed by writing two series (he's also overseeing NITE OWL, as drawn by Andy & Joe Kubert), but Cooke and Azarello are also tackling two titles each, as is (in a way) Len Wein, who is writing the pirate backup tale Curse of the Crimson Corsair and OZYMANDIAS, which Jae Lee is illustrating. Cooke's SILK SPECTRE is illustrated by Amanda Conner, who may be as perfectly suited for that title as Cooke is for MINUTEMEN. In addition to RORSCHACH, Azarello gets the honor of writing THE COMEDIAN with J.G. Jones penciling.

These are some heavy hitters, and while fanboys cry fraud at the suggestion of a revival that does not involve Moore or Gibbons, to be honest, I've been much happier with the work of Brian Azarello in the past decade than I have been with Alan Moore. Some of these comics will be good, and some of them might suck, but some of them might be great. None of that will change how I feel about the original series, and to be honest, it shouldn't affect how anyone else feels about it, either. While those original twelve issues are the entirety of the tale that Moore and Gibbons chose to tell, there is plenty of room in the unpublished record of these characters for more back story and further exploits. Moore thought so, himself, back in 1985 when he offered to write a twelve issue prequel before the first issue of WATCHMEN was released. Some years ago, fans may recall, Moore didn't want anyone to follow his run on MARVELMAN, and he actively prevented a young Grant Morrison from working on the character as published in WARRIOR Magazine when he abandoned it. Years later when Neil Gaiman finished the tale, fans were thrilled. It's quite possible that they've got reason to rejoice again. Only time will tell...