Monday, May 30, 2016

"East of West: The Promise" is a well illustrated, humorless pretentiousness to the max

Nick Dragotta is a talented comic book artist.  His imagery in the first TP of East of West: The Promise comic book series is fascinating indeed.  More than just an illustrator, the man creates quite a visionary world that can even be described as a gloomy, futuristic past.   The Wild West that is the setting for this unusual tale about the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse, is a most peculiar place.  Here one will find various politicians, assassins, and several weird looking characters who may or may not be Bible's own creations.  The juxtaposition of such villains and anti-villains creates quite a sight for the mind that's been starved of iconic imagery of late.

The writing, however, is altogether another matter.  Jonathan Hickman's characters speak in a manner that is rather dull and old-fashioned, and in this particular case it isn't a benefit to the story.  The dialogue, which is not only confusing and full of enigmatic phrases that will leave many scratching their heads, is also surprisingly humorless.   When Death, all high up on his giant black beetle (or whatever it actually is) that he rides all over, says, "I see nothin' but air... and dead men soon not needin' to breathe it", my reaction was simply, "Really?".  Even any attempt at comedy or  an injection of wit falls flat on its face, leaving us with a series of beautiful images that add up to a story that is all exercise, without even being an experience.

East of West has many characters, perhaps a too many, and judging from this first issue, none are very interesting as people or characters on a page.   They have way too much to say and do, and clearly suffer from an overwritten story that is jamming way too much pretentiousness in a 125 page space.   Will I eventually move on to the second TP of this series, in order to find out if Death and the other Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse will eventually put their differences aside and re-join forces, and if Mao Xiaolian and Death will regain their long lost child, and their love?  Based on the effect this first issue had on me, I'd say it's very unlikely.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

"We Stand on Guard" divides North America among itself, and its giant robots resemble Pacific Rim's Jaegers

Just like most contemporary sci-fi stories that incorporate war and violence, We Stand on Guard is essentially a tale of a family that's torn apart, and the young brother and sister who are forced to survive after their parents are murdered when US invades Canada.  Little Tommy and Amber become orphans in their native Ottawa, in the year 2112, and as they grow up into Canadian rebels and eventually freedom fighters (at least Amber does; Tommy ends up in a US POW camp), they evolve into less-than-compassionate killers of their enemy.  When Amber, pressured into shooting an American operator of a giant drone robot after the latter kills a Canadian freedom fighter, pulls the trigger without a second thought, we know we're dealing with a new kind of (anti)hero: one without a cold nerve, nor an ounce of remorse on her conscience.

Writer Brian K. Vaughan and artist Steve Skroce create a cold (literally and figuratively) world in which a very thin line separates the good guys from the bad (is the opposing interrogator woman, whom they call The American, really all that villainous and heartless in comparison with the Canadian rebels?).  Vaughan also gives us archetypal battle-ready characters, the members of the so-called The Two-Four, who seem to have walked in right out of a James Cameron sci-fi action movie.  There's Vic, the Chief, an all-black wearing female leader, who appears to be quite a fearless badass; Les Lepage is the former comedic actor, who mostly speaks in French, and whose cynicism and wit is sprinkled throughout the action and destruction; Dunn, the large, scarred and mean-looking man, with an artificial right arm, who has a general appearance of a lumberjack; and Highway, a former geologist who perhaps possesses more compassion than his fellow freedom fighters, among others.  These characters are distinctly imagined, and for the most part, come across convincingly.

Skroce's artwork is quite marvelous.  His graphic design of every frame, page and even scene is visually impressive and at once commanding of the reader's attention.  The coloring, by Matt Hollingsworth, is equally impressive, and it complements Skroce's design fittingly.  Vaughan has created another original comic, brutal and uncompromising, but still possessing that human element which many will able to relate to.  Amber's ultimate sacrifice isn't for naught, for she has saved her country from further US occupation, and has also reunited with her family somewhere in the afterlife.   Perhaps that was the main reason why she was in a such a hurry to die for her homeland after all.

Friday, May 27, 2016

"Locke & Key: Clockworks" takes us back in time and shatters expectations once again

So we've finally gotten answers to some of the most sought-after questions when it comes to the Locke & Key mythology.  Where did the various keys of Keyhouse come from?  Who created them?  And when?  In the opening chapter of Locke & Key: Clockworks, Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez takes us a few centuries back in time, all the way to the Revolutionary War, and they reveal the curse of the Keyhouse in the most graphic, engrossing way.  The result is an exciting and most mind-numbing chapter of this story yet.

Using the newly discovered Timeshift Key, Tyler and Kinsey take a trip back through history, and learn about how the Keys were forged, when their great-great-great... uncle Benjamin Locke used a leftover whispering-iron, a product from beyond the Black door, to melt and create the Omega Key, among others.   They also went back to the late 1980s and witnessed their father, Rendell, who was attending the Lovecraft Academy as a high school senior at the time, put on a magnificent play with his friends, the so-called Keepers of the Keys (or the Tamers of the Tempest, depending on whom you ask) - consisting of Rendell, Luke Caravaggio, Erin Voss, Kim Topher, Ellie Whedon and Mark Cho - all agreed to extract a piece of whispering-iron from the Black door for themselves.

Needless to say, things went awry, and Luke's soul was possessed by a demon from beyond, a tragedy that left Kim and Mark murdered, Erin without her wits, and the demonic Luke as a woman (thanks to the Gender key).   This section of the story was written by Hill and illustrated by Rodriguez with such originality and gorgeous detail that one couldn't help but hold their breath throughout.  No, seriously!  In fact, I'm still recovering from it as I type this.

Clockworks' conclusion sets us up for the ultimate climax in the series finale, Omega.  But regardless of what happens in the end, who survives, and who doesn't make it, Locke & Key has cemented its legacy with this, the most incredible and best chapter yet.  I only wish that I could use the Head Key to erase it from my memory completely, revert to the Timeshift key in order to go back a few hours, and experience it all over again, for the very first time.  

"Hellboy: Seed of Destruction" is a pulpy trip to Mignola's red-devil underworld

Mike Mignola's Hellboy comic has, to me, always appeared to be a rather pulpy entertainment with more style than substance, at least from afar.   Having (unfortunately) seen the Guillermo Del Toro's movie adaptations before I even glanced at a single page of the comic, I'm now forced to work backwards, and read the original material after the films have already made a nice impression on me.  And so it was that I just finished reading Seed of Destruction only yesterday, some twenty plus years after it first hit the comic book shelves the world over.  Needless to say, I had a mixed reaction to it.

Seed of Destruction is structured plotwise, more or less, the way the original 2004 Hellboy movie was.  Nazis attempt to open the gate to hell way back in 1940s, and a small, devilishly red looking creature accidentally sneaks out, and is adopted by the good guys who are trying to foil the Nazis' plans.  As Professor Trevor Bruttenholm raises Hellboy as one of his own, the latter becomes an agent of the BPRD, and some 50 years after arriving on Earth, he once again has to face the evil Rasputin, the villain who's still attempting to summon the forces from the dark underworld into our own.  What exactly these evil demons mean to do on Earth after they enslave or destroy humanity, no one, I'm sure, can say (not even Rasputin).

If I have one problem with this first issue, it's that Mignola's artwork doesn't quite communicate the story that him and John Byrne have written.  Artwork and script don't quite mesh, as if they are completely different entities, and out of sync with one another.  The story itself is not very imaginative, nor original, and I ended up being more confused the more I read, as if the additional information from pages ahead only made everything I had read up to that point more unclear (Who the hell is Ogdru Jahad?  And why is everyone always talking about waking up the demons from darkness, as if there's any benefit to anyone, even to the villains, from such an endeavor?).

Hellboy is surely a charismatic and likable character.  His use of humor and innuendo is refreshing and entertaining, and I'm sure that with a story to match his charm, this edition could actually end up being quite good.  Seed of Destruction is a mediocre start to this iconic comic book series, and left a lot to be desired, if I'm being honest.  Here's hoping that the next issue will at least leave me looking forward to the next episode, because as it is, I'll need some serious motivation to keep reading.  

Thursday, May 26, 2016

"The Brothers Grimsby" shows Sacha Baron Cohen doing his best (worst?) Tom Green impersonation

Raunchy, perverted and definitely filthy. Like Tom Green on acid, Sacha Baron Cohen here pushes the limits of good (or plain bad?) taste to the absolute limits, much more so than Freddy Got Fingered actor/director ever did way back in 2001. You don't believe it? Than watch this movie, and witness his character suck his own brother's nut-sack (in order to extract a lethal venom out of it), insert a rocket-missile into his own anus, and even get ejaculated on by a male elephant, all the while hiding inside of a female elephant's vagina. Yes, it's that kind of movie. Some of Baron Cohen's punchlines aren't actually bad, but he's completely missing the build-up to any joke, so the effect is eventually lost. If he only possessed the talent to work his way up to the shocking climax, instead of merely jumping straight to it, he might once again regain the humor of Borat and Bruno. Since those movies, his work has been less than sophomoric (The Dictator, anyone?). In a way, this movie is "so bad, it's good!" (but really, it's just bad) Sigh.

"In Captivity" sheds new light on Sweet Tooth world mythology

The first volume, Out of the Deep Woods, introduced us to Gus, a hybrid of a young boy and a deer, and the post apocalyptic world he's grown up in.  We also met Tommy Jepperd, a tough guy, former hockey player, who "helped" Gus out of his home in the woods and brought him to a mysterious laboratory before betraying him.  Now, in Volume 2, In Captivity, writer and artist Jeff Lemire uncovers certain mysteries that have intrigued us during the opening arc of Sweet Tooth.

Jepperd's late wife, Louise, who passed while giving birth to their child, was his only motivation in life, and after finally giving her a proper burial, he's run out of reasons to live.  Succumbing to alcohol, depression and some meaningless violence, he seems to be at wit's end.  Meanwhile, back at the lab station, Gus is being studied by scientists who are trying to uncover the meaning behind the disease that wiped out most of the world's population.  It seems that Gus wasn't born from a woman, as the absence of a belly button would suggest.  Is he perhaps the reason the world has fallen apart?     How did he come to be?  Was he artificially created by his strange "father", or is he a second coming, of sorts?

Lemire keeps the tension and suspense at a high level throughout In Captivity, as some questions are answered, but others are wisely raised and left open to interpretation.  The cruelty of common man once again shows its ugly self; Gus is treated like an animal, and just may be butchered for the sake of "science"; Jepperd is beaten to a bloody pulp, and no one in the vicinity blinks an eye.  The world of Sweet Tooth is a cruel one.  Man has turned into animal, and if Gus is any evidence, vice-versa seems to be true as well.  Regardless, Lemire keeps the story elevating to new heights, and as long as he does, I'll be picking up the next issue.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

"Criminal: Coward" is a classic noir tale with shady characters and overwhelming sense of doom

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips' comic book serial, Criminal, is dark all around.  There are no good guys, only fallen heroes and femme fatales who will drag the "hero" down an even darker path.  Each issue is like an episode of a classic 1940s film noir featuring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, their fates already sealed well before they've been tempted by the devil.

In Criminal: Coward, Leo Patterson, a lifelong crook whose skill lies in being able to get away from any sticky situation, gets involved in a complicated heist after being talked into it by an old 'friend' and a crooked cop.  After the so-called robbery goes awry, bodies begin to pile up, police are quickly involved, and gangsters come looking for the loot that was originally theirs.  Involved also is Greta, Leo's old friend, and a needy mother to her young daughter; Ivan, the old man with a heroin addiction that Leo takes care of; and Roy L.T., a terrifying gangster who has a stake in Leo and Greta's abduction of a briefcase of heroin, the "loot" they stole from an armored police car in hope it was packed with diamonds and stones instead.

Brubaker creates a shady world where no one can be trusted, where police are just as crooked and dangerous as mobsters, and where ruthless murders are as common as cigarettes that are barely hanging on the mouths of every antagonist and protagonist alike.  The artwork by Phillips is also just as dark - literally and figuratively - and that style remains consistent throughout.  Reading Coward, we get the impression that the story takes place in some Earthly form of hell, where evil is the omnipresent and only force these characters know.  By the time we get to the dreary third act, we realize there is no other way this tale could've possibly ended.  The protagonist ends up reaping what he sows, as he well should have.

Judged as a simple noir story, Coward is more or less standard of the genre, not offering anything new, but also not disappointing.  However, if viewed as a comic, it has plenty of style and more than enough fresh and quotable lines that can stay with the reader well after they've turned the last page.  Leo may not be a coward after all, but he sure is one memorable criminal.

Friday, May 20, 2016

"Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods" is a creepy look at the post-apocalyptic world of hybrid human suffering

Jeff Lemire is a unique comic book artist.  Excuse me, I meant writer.  Ahem, actually he is both; in a word, the man is an auteur.  Just like some of the great comic book creators that preceded him (Terry Moore, Hugo Pratt, etc), the man both writes and illustrates his comics.  That is a unique feat, and a talent worth noting.

His post apocalyptic series, Sweet Tooth, is some sort of a hybrid story (much like its lead) of an old world gone by and the new one yet to come.  The characters who inhabit it, like the people in similarly themed movies such as The Road, The Survivalist and the long running series The Walking Dead, are themselves the future species of the extinct, mere ghosts walking around the creation that has long ago given up on them and any other living thing.   There is no society anymore, only scavengers and ruthless humans looking to destroy anyone and everything they come across for their own personal gain.  The hero at the story's center, Gus, a.k.a. Sweet Tooth, is a naive hybrid of a deer and a human nine-year old boy, and following his father's death, he ventures out of the deep woods where he was raised, much against the advice of his late dad.

Sweet Tooth: Out of the Deep Woods is an effective intro to this comic book series, which some have already described as "Bambi meets Mad Max".  Lemire does a nice job of immediately hooking us into his tale, as there is very little text, since his characters don't talk very much.  Lemire the writer, at least so far, seems to be more of a talent than Lemire the artist, but that's is no knock against the man, simply an observation that his artistic style is rather simple, but still clear and easy to follow.  When Jeppard, the mysterious hunter/assassin who rescues Gus from a couple of no-good hunters early on, ultimately betrays him and turns him to some strange men at a peculiar experimental station, we are left to stare at the heartbroken eyes of Gus, an innocent living in a world of sin and anarchy, who just can't catch a break.  Lemire captures this moment rather well, and at the end of this first volume, definitely leaves us wanting more.

Sweet Tooth may not be the most fascinating comic out there, nor does it feature some of the best artwork available, but what it lacks in its graphic design, it more than makes up in creepiness and sheer unpredictability.  I have no idea what will happen to Gus next, and I can't wait to find out.   I suppose one could say I'm in my early stage of developing a Sweet Tooth for Sweet Tooth.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

"Locke & Key: Keys to the Kingdom" exposes Caravaggio, introduces Face Key and continues to blow our minds

Is there any other comic book writer-artist duets out there who've reached the heights that Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez have in their Locke & Key franchise?  Ok, Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples have done wonders with their Saga epic so far, and I'd have to be lying if I said that Italy's Guido Nolitta and Gallieno Ferri didn't form one of the all-time great writer-artist teams in the history of comic books on their famous superhero Western serial, Zagor.  But Hill and Rodriguez are taking the art form to a whole new level: it's as if each was born (for the most part) in order to complement the vision of the other.

In the fourth volume of their horror story, Locke & Key: Keys to the Kingdom, the aforementioned duo continue in their telling of the Locke family story, and the conniving Zack Wells (Dodge, or Luke Caravaggio by birth) who will stop at nothing in his deception to find the enigmatic Omega Key. We witness Tyler Locke get his heart broken by the sexy yet unreliable Jordan GatesKinsey nearly discovers the truth  about the keys and her family history from an old woman, Erin Voss, but Dodge unfortunately gets there first and uses the Head Key to erase any memory she may have had; and young Bode uses the Animal Key to turn into a Sparrow and save his older siblings from a pack of wild animals, who were led by Dodge (transformed here as a wolf, also using the Animal Key).  Rufus Whedon is given a larger role in the story's mythology, and Hill turns him into a more essential character than may have first appeared; it would seem the "slow-witted" boy knows and understands a whole lot that is going on, and his method of communicating in some sort of toy-army-speak may just be a ploy on his part.

Rodriguez's artwork of the opening chapter, Sparrow, is handled quite exquisitely.  He illustrates the scenes from a few different points of view: the third person viewpoint, which is the style we've grown accustomed to, and also a more basic, child-like drawing style, which clearly suggests Bode Locke's interpretation and viewpoint of the events in question.  The juxtaposition and juggling of two such contrasting styles within the same section - or even on the same page - is quite marvelous for the eyes and imagination of a fan of this series, which seems to be re-inventing itself as it continues to amaze us in all the right ways.  Keys to the Kingdom kills off some main characters, introduces new twists and turns in this ever-engrossing storyline, and keeps our heartbeat at the absolute maximum throughout.  Because, to be honest, anything less than perfection would be a letdown at this point.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

"Long John Silver: Neptune" strips the honor of piracy and stoops to deception, violence & mutiny of common men

Long John Silver's second volume, Neptune, really hits home when it comes to portraying the conditions of living on a ship on the high seas, full of pirates, treacherous criminals and a lack of order in general.   The (in)famous captain of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island decides to take matters into his own hands, and betray not only Lady Vivian Hastings, but also the current captain of Neptune ship in starting a mutiny, during which Long John Silver cuts off the captain's arm before throwing him overboard into the wild and stormy sea.   It is an ominous scene, executed during the darkest night, on a ship that is slowly losing its soul, and heading into the unknown with perhaps even more doubt than ever before.

Artist Mathieu Lauffray surpasses his own work from the first volume, and in this issue his frames and pages are alive with the wildness of a rather angry ocean and the bluest of all nights, leaving the  reader with an impression of classical, 18th century paintings.  Without exaggerating, I can honestly say this is one of the most impressively illustrated graphic novels I've ever come across.  The Neptune ship in this volume appears to be a vessel from hell, carrying an array of lost souls back into the underworld where they belong, with newly crowned captain LJS playing the role of Lucifer himself.  The fact that he lets a young man (Jack) receive a fatal whipping due to a "crime" he didn't even commit (Lady Hastings' servant girl, Elsie, was murdered by Silver's scoundrels when she discovered information detrimental to his position) only further solidifies that he no longer has a soul, if he ever had one to begin with.

The writing by both Lauffray and Xavier Dorison is sharp and honest, never giving us too much unnecessary chit-chat, but only the essential information that their characters need to share externally.  More than just a rousing tale of pirates looking for long-lost legendary treasures that the first volume of this series promised us, Neptune dives deeper into the mythology of easily corrupted pirates and the true evil that lies deep within hearts of those whose primary objective in life is greed.  It is a dark tale, to be sure, but also an adventure whose conclusion I wouldn't miss for anything in the world.  I can't wait for The Emerald Maze.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

In "Under the Sign of Capricorn", Corto Maltese embarks on an adventure in Latin Americas...

"... A leader who leaves his people without a plan and lets himself 
be captured like a child in order to solve what was a personal 
matter doesn't seem very competent to me."

As celebrated and beloved worldwide that Hugo Pratt may have been - and still is - his writing and the dialogue of his characters surely sounds unique and unusual to an English speaking ear.  I'm not sure how much of his sarcasm and irony gets lost in translation, but it's easy to notice how some of the words and sentences spoken by his protagonists and antagonists come of as too literary, or even too illiterate, if you catch my drift.   Perhaps his works read really well and come off as liquid smooth when read in Italian or French, but in English they still sound as too cynical and unnatural, as if those who translated his original words into English didn't quite know how to do it properly.  However one may look at it, his Corto Maltese series is a wonder to behold, whether the reader loves him, merely admires him, or despises the cynicism of the world-famous earring and side-burn wearing free spirited Captain of the world's oceans.

In Under the Sign of Capricorn (Euro Comics IDW Publishing, 138 pgs), Corto finds himself in the Dutch Giana, San Salvador de Bahia, Maracatoqua, and a few other islands and beach-front villages, where he helps young Tristan Bantam, a British boy, search for his half-sister Morgana.  Accompanied by Professor Jeremiah Steiner, a well-known drunk, Maltese will sail various parts of Atlantic Ocean in search of possible treasures of decades and centuries past.  He will also help his newly discovered friends look for the lost continent of Mu, a mythical place that was researched and studied by young Tristan's deceased father, Ronald Bantam.  Along the way they will encounter sailors from the German navy, Cangaceiro rebels, and even an old acquaintance, Captain Rasputin, who has a unique "I-love-you, I'll-kill-you" kind of relationship with Corto.  An arch-enemy of the highest order, Rasputin is Maltese's eternal foe who will keep popping up in this serial not because his presence will threaten our hero fatally, but because Pratt's created him to be a complete antithesis of our protagonist, a person representing all the vices that our hero possesses, but to a more dangerous extreme.

"... I don't know how they did it, but they got me involved in 
a game that until last night I was completely indifferent to..."

A fascinating aspect of Corto Maltese is his interaction with female characters to whom he has an attraction.  In the final act of Under the Sign of Capricorn, Corto finds himself on a small island, stranded among the rocks with his memory having abandoned him, while a mysterious foe shoots at him from a distance.  With no clue as to who he is and how he got there, he is eventually discovered by a young and lovely woman with golden hair, Soledad Lokäarth, who comes from a family of Evangelists.  She reminds Corto of Pandora Groovesnore, the young lady who shot him in his previous adventure, The Ballad of the Salt Sea.  Just like Pandora before her, Soledad also shoots Corto (what's with this guy getting shot by every woman he shows interest in?), albeit accidentally, and after nursing him back to health and helping him recover, she finds herself having to bid him adieu.  Charmed and clearly smitten with her innocent, naive beauty, Corto tells her, "... Soledad... you must leave now... it's not easy to say goodbye to you...".

Unlike some phrases and expressions, which, at least to me, appear to have been lost in translation from Pratt's original language, this one, I imagine, sounds exactly as its author intended it to.  I suppose it is just as they say: love has only one spoken tongue, which is understood by all universally.   Or perhaps the author's language, irrelevant of translation, is simply starting to grow on me.  Just as Corto Maltese's adventures.

"... but dreams remain dreams, Steiner, and you are one 
who dreams too much.  Let's go drink our beers and thumb our noses 
at those who would do us harm."

Monday, May 16, 2016

Kirkman's "Outcast" is a good follow-up to his long running Zombie serial

When I think of Outcast, what comes to mind initially is The Exorcist, that terrifying movie from the early 1970s about a young girl possessed by the devil.  I am also reminded of Bill Paxton's 2002 movie Frailty, although to a smaller extent.  Whatever this comic book series was influenced and inspired by, the result it has on its reader should be one and the same: a drama about one man's past experiences and struggles against a supernatural evil in a world that is very much like our own.  Add to the equation the obligatory priest who helps the protagonist in his quest to defeat the evil spirit that's clouding the minds and hearts of particular citizens in the small West Virginia town, and what we have is a horror tale that is a classic throwback to the countless exorcism movies that have preceded it.

Outcast: A Darkness Surrounds Him introduces us to Kyle Barnes, an everyman still tormented by ghosts from his past, in which his mother was possessed by an evil force that resulted in her death.    He's also traumatized by a recent separation from his wife and child due to an incident in which his daughter being possessed by a similar ominous spirit caused Kyle to nearly beat the young girl to death.  So now he spends his days in solitude and isolation, visited only by his sister Megan.  With the help of a wise and good-natured priest, Reverend Anderson, Kyle will try to use his special gift (his blood apparently has the ability to burn those who have been possessed) for the good of mankind.

Robert Kirkman does a great job of presenting us with a convincing brother-sister relationship that is free of cliches or otherwise redundant scenes.  Megan comes across as a real person who is authentically worried about her brother's secluded existence, and who truly wants him to come out of his shell and get past his recent personal struggles.  The story in general is engaging and tense, and I can only hope that it doesn't end up dragging the way Kirkman's The Walking Dead has for the past decade or so, clearly past its prime, having jumped-the-shark years ago.

The artwork by Paul Azaceta is very simple, yet effective.  His style is convincing in portraying the appropriate emotions that his characters are going through, showing the ability of being able to draw inner turmoil, shocking surprise, and even terrifying fear on the faces of Outcast's characters.  His illustrations are never a distraction, only an asset, to this tale that doesn't necessarily excel at any particular element, but stays consistent and fairly engrossing in its writing and artwork.  It is certainly a comic worth checking out, and a tale that I doubt will bore anyone.  In an ocean of numerous other mediocre comics in contemporary America, Outcast does not disappoint.


Saturday, May 14, 2016

"Rat Queens: Sass and Sorcery" looks great, but sounds stale

It's about time someone put out a comic with a fantasy theme, and with not one, but four heroines at its center.  Rat Queens Volume 1: Sass and Sorcery is an imaginative and visual treat for the eyes.  However, the effect it has on the ears and the brain is another one altogether.

The four leads here are a curious bunch: small, elf-looking Betty, who's all about getting high and tripping on mushrooms; Violet is the hipster who apparently used to have a beard, but no longer does;   Dee apparently comes from a family of monster cultists, and finally there is Hannah, who is an elven mage sporting a rocking attitude and image.  These so called Rat Queens fight giant orcs, battle mysterious and unknown assassins who're trying to kill them, and do a fair amount of cursing and partying.  All in a day's work for rebellious and sassy undersexed warrior women.

Writer Kurtis J. Wiebe and artist Roc Upchurch's fantasy epic is perfectly illustrated and impressively stunning on most pages.  The supporting characters, as well as the four heroines, are presented with great attention to detail, as each frame vibrates with life and action.  However, the writing is less than impressive.  The plot of this first TP is confusing and unclear, and the characters do way too much talking for a genre that is supposed to feature sorcery and dragons and all things fantastical.  The leads appear to be interesting girls/women, but they don't really have a story worth following, nor a quest of any sort that is appealing.  By the time I reached the last page, my only reaction was, "Is that it?"

From a graphic perspective, this serial is similar to Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples's sci-fi opera, Saga.  The characters in both universes appear to be human, but are instead hybrids of human and animal, giving them a look of modern centurions, at least above the waist.   The major difference between Saga and Rat Queens, though, is that he former pulls you in and engages you with the characters and their plight, whereas with Rat Queens, you're flipping past page 100 and still looking for a reason to keep on reading.  I, unfortunately, could not find one.  My engagement with this serial will apparently end sooner than expected.  But hey, don't blame me: I'm not the one who's supposed to have sorcery on my side.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Warren Ellis' "FreakAngles: Volume 1" is slow paced, meticulous and a bit pretentious

FreakAngels, Volume 1, is a unique comic in more ways than one.  For one, its arrangement of frames (or panels) is very traditional, and as such, it resembles a European comic that possess the standard layout of four or six (or any even number) of equal sized frames per page.   The story - if one can even call it a story in the traditional sense of the word - is slow moving, deliberate, and perhaps a bit too much character driven.  The writer Warren Ellis and artist Paul Duffield are certainly treading new waters when it comes to introducing their characters into the American comic book landscape.

The story focuses on several of the twelve children, the so-called Freak Angels, who possess special  psychic powers, and who were all born on the same day some 23 years ago.  When they were all 17, the world apparently ended.  They spend their time in an abandoned and half-flooded London, resembling a ghost town the way it did in the movie 27 Weeks Later.   Some are homeless bums (Luke), some spend their times guard-watching on roof tops (Kirk), while others are too busy participating in some (surprisingly unsexy) orgies (Sirkka), no name just a few of them.  They walk around, make small chit chat, bring new vigilante members into their group, and communicate to each other telepathically.  In short, none them are doing anything worth noting nor following, because for the most part, this first volume of FreakAngles is very light on plot.  There's no clear villain or antagonist, nor any internal conflict worth mentioning.  I'm not quite sure, after reading nearly 150 pages of it, what this serial is actually about, or at the very least, if it's heading anywhere worth looking forward to.

The creator of FreakAngels, Ellis, has said several years ago, "I've written over 200 pages, and I've no idea what it's about..."  These are definitely not encouraging words, to be sure, as the readers will have even less idea what they're reading.  FreakAngels looks relatively good, because Duffield does an exemplary job of drawing the characters distinctly, and not making the common mistake of having them all look alike (something most serials suffer from).  So the blame here clearly doesn't fall on Duffield, but on Ellis.  His FreakAngles are unimaginative, slow, and worst of all, quite boring.  And with no direction at all, it's a miracle that they've managed to run long enough to publish six volumes.  Some things, I suppose, are beyond comprehension.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"Captain America: Civil War" is Marvel's latest Superhero explosion, even better than "The Avengers"

An Avengers Lite, if you will. Captain America continues to enjoy high quality writing in Hollywood, possibly more so than any other hero of the Marvel Comics universe. This movie delivers plenty of action, explosions, betrayals and deception to make its nearly two and a half hour running time worthwhile. The conflict at the center, between Iron Man and Captain himself, is well handled, and executed with conviction, and the battle scenes are definitely exciting. 

However, there's still plenty that's less than believable, even though it takes places in a world where suspension of disbelief should be in full effect (how does a man free-fall from high up in the sky, hits the ground flat, and survive? Not even Marvel can make this kind of preposterousness fly). Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans do a terrific job at conveying the inner turmoil that their characters are going through, and as such, they resemble two Shakespearean tragic (anti)heroes, albeit with bigger muscles and better gadgets. Another interesting factor is the introduction of the new Spider Man (the young Tom Holland) from a yet another upcoming re-boot; this kid is charming and much younger than the predecessors who played him, and should make a very effective Peter Parker and his alter ego.

All in all, this barrage of superheroes and superheroines will, of course, spawn even more sequels and spinoffs, until the franchise branches out and the Marvel Comics start publishing episodes based on the movies, instead of the other way around. Art imitating Hollywood, and the other way around. Circle of life at its most "super".

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

"Locke & Key: Crown of Shadows" lets Rodriguez's art shine & take over

The shadows in Joe Hill's and Gabriel Rodriguez's third part of the Locke & Key saga are large and in charge.  They resemble boogey men and demons from our worst nightmares: one looks like an evil ice queen, another like a Roman centurion gone completely villainous, and yet others resembles large, giant wolves in drag.  As the wicked Dodge continues to deceive the Locke children, all the while still searching for the Key to the Black Door, he comes across the Shadow Key, which allows him access to the Crown of Shadows.  This ornament possesses the ability to grant its owner the power to wake and command the shadows of the underworld to their liking.  Needless to say, Dodge leaves no stone unturned.

In Crown of Shadows, the story we've grown to love and be amazed by keeps delivering more surprises, all the while continuing to challenge our imagination and our sense of awe.  Dodge tries to negotiate with Sam Lesser in the dead zone, which is accessible by the Ghost Key, but their disagreement only leads to Sam suffering more harm.  Meanwhile, the Locke children branch out a bit.  Kinsey, led by Scot Kavanaugh, ventures into the cave under the Keyhouse to discover her father's name etched in stone, along with some other names, from the year 1988 (there's also a corpse of a woman lying way below the water's surface, but her origin remains a mystery up to this point).  The Locke girl also experiences a first ever French kiss, with Scot's close dreadlocked friend, Jamal.  Tyler, meanwhile, watches his mother sink deeper into a new level of alcoholism, and Bode, along with his older brother, discovers the Giant Key.  At the end, the eldest Locke child may have, after all, found the ultimate of all keys, albeit by sheer accident.

Hill continues to amaze us with his inventive ideas, further expanding the mythology of Keyhouse and its connection to the Keys.  But the star in this third installment is clearly Rodriguez.  His artwork carries this issue to levels that only few comic book artists could ever dream of, and in the fifth chapter, Light of Day, we finally see the magnitude and sheer visual power of Rodriguez's interpretation of Hill's words.  There are several splash pages here, in which Tyler fights the evil shadows, illuminated by the bright blue moonlight of Eastern Massachusetts, that are master artworks in and of themselves.  Each could easily be blown up to a full size painting, hung on a wall, and marvelously stand toe to toe with some of the best contemporary art.

It is a rare thing indeed for any comic book series to challenge its readers emotionally and spiritually, but that's exactly what Locke & Key continues to do.  I can't think of any other American serial that's had a grip as strong as this on me.  It's like a dream infused with elements of nightmare, but unlike most horrors I experience while asleep, this is one unconscious fantasy I never want to wake up from.

Sally Field shines in the underrated "Hello My Name is Doris"

A very effective and unique comedy about an older woman (in her 60s?) who's got a crush on a much younger man, and who resorts to all kinds of tricks and deceptions to try to win him over. Sally Field can apparently still amaze; her character here is a strange woman indeed, and the way the actress portrays different kinds of emotion and expression in various situations really is marvelous to watch. Her Doris has apparently never known true love, or even mediocre love. She seems so alien to the dating scene that the very idea of romance is something so alien and new to her, as if she were 6 years old, and not ten times that age. Actor Max Greenfield holds his own as the object of Doris' desire. Their scenes together are actually quite charming and touching, and the very last scene (or shot, for that matter) is pure genius (do they? I mean, does he? Ahh, I guess we'll always wonder). We need more clever and insightful movie comedies like this one, because unlike most films of this genre, Hello, my name is Doris is about character rather than slapstick and cliches. Thank god for Doris and her cluelessness, for without her we'd continue to have idiots roam the cinematic landscape as heroines without any integrity.

Monday, May 9, 2016

"Corto Maltese: The Ballad of the Salt Sea" is a fitting intro to Pratt's legendary graphic novel hero

Hugo Pratt's legendary comic book/graphic novel series hero, Corto Maltese, has always been the epitome of cool.  The man has style, looks, intelligence and wit to spare.  Hell, even the Marlboro Man would be envious of him.  A world traveler and a high-seas adventurer, Maltese is 20th century's Marco Polo: a born sailor and a captain of various ships and boats in the South Pacific.  If the tide of the world's oceans had a name, it would be called Corto Maltese, and fittingly so.

In his maiden adventure, The Ballad of the Salt Sea (Universe Publishing, 2012, 253 pgs), Pratt places his timeless hero in the Coral part of the Pacific Ocean, not far from New Guinea and Australia's northern coast.  Found adrift in the open sea by Captain Rasputin and his pirates, Corto is taken aboard the vessel, where he meets two teenagers: Cain Groovesnore, a disagreeable and suspicious blonde-haired young man, and his cousin, Pandora Groovesnore, a beautiful and seductive young woman, whose intentions and mannerisms, at least at first, seem to fluctuate a great deal.  Rasputin's intention is to bargain with the wealthy Groovesnore family and trade the children for big ransom money; Maltese, of course, wants to make sure that no harm comes to them, so he agrees to help Rasputin return them to safety in one piece.

Most of the story takes place on a small island called Escondida, where a mysterious figure in a hooded cloak - called The Monk - rules over the local natives.  He is an enigmatic person, to be sure, and perhaps even has some ties to the two Groovesnore children.  When he first lays his eyes on the lovely Pandora, he proceeds to throw a fit equivalent to a child who's been denied a lollipop in a candy store.  Did he recognize someone from his past in the young woman, or was he simply overcome with uncontrollable lust due to her provocative features?

Hugo Pratt's artwork is good, but alas, it is not consistent, nor impressive if we compare it to today's comic illustrations the world over.  I realize that being the writer AND an illustrator was probably a heavy burden to bear, but his Corto, although iconic in most contemporary images where he's smoking a cigarette while wearing a left earring, appears different from frame to frame.  He's not the only one; most of the main characters appear contrary in some panels.  Such a disparity among the same characters from moment to moment can be a nuisance, especially when so many of them already look similar to begin with.

I also have an issue with this edition's translation.  For a series that is admired by millions the world over - and especially in Europe, where Corto Maltese has a cult following - this English version deserved a much better translation than what Hall Powell has given us (I won't even dwell on the fact that there are numerous errors of the grammatical and punctual kind, in addition to having the same word or words being repeated erroneously in the same frame).  In many instances, characters say things in manner that isn't befitting for people speaking English: "...My father fought against him from the time he was a boy..." (it should read "since the time he was a boy"), or "You'll follow my orders to the letter!" (no one speaks like that in English; perhaps another phrase would've sufficed) It's as if Powell had focused on translating much of Pratt's original dialogue way too faithfully, and we all know that some, if not most of any language, can be lost when translated into another way too literally.  The way the current translation stands, much of the dialogue sounds stale, wooden and even juvenile.  Characters speak as if their mouths are stuffed with peanut butter, and the result is less than melodious for the human ear.

But despite all that, the bottom line is that The Ballad of the Salt Sea is a grand tale of sea faring pirates and criminals and soldiers and (anti)heroes in the South Pacific, and everyone who's a fan of such a genre will enjoy it.  There's jealousy, treason, murder, kidnapping, a knife fight with an octopus - and a shark - and several more than subtle moments of sexual tension.  The last encounter of parting between Maltese and Pandora is at once peculiar and heartbreaking: I wasn't sure if this was a goodbye between friends, or two lovers who've secretly enjoyed each other's intimacy for years.  Pratt never suggests that there's something between them, but an intrigued and curious reader can still hope.  This having been only Corto's first adventure, perhaps we will find out more about the tension between these two (lovers-to-be?) in the chapters to come.

"Mustang" is bold, audacious and a revelation about young women's lives in Turkey

A very insightful movie about the way young girls and women are treated and dealt with when it comes to marriage in old fashioned, conservative countries. Not unlike most places in the Middle East, arranged marriages are very common in Turkey, and the five orphan girls who are the subjects of this coming of age - and coming-of-forced-marriage - drama are uniquely born in the wrong place, but at a time when rebellious and sexually promiscuous behavior constantly clash with the cultural norms of a strict Muslim society. Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven has made a very important film about an even more important issue facing all women in backwards countries that are still practicing outdated traditions of the past, but in today's changing and (somewhat) progressive world it creates conflict and drama like no other topic. The lives that young women especially are subjected to in these places are sad and depressing indeed, and some parts were difficult to watch, albeit necessary for the delivery of its gut wrenching theme. I don't think I'll ever want to watch this movie again; however, I will remember it for many years to come.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

"The Night Manager" is the best le Carre TV/movie adaptation yet

I must admit, I've not been a fan of relatively recent movies based on John le Carre's novels.  Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and A Most Wanted Man were rather bland and overwrought, and left a lot to be desired.  I'm not ashamed to admit that until I saw the new TV miniseries The Night Manager, I thought the man's works were overrated and not really adaptable for the screen.  What the hell did I know.

The Night Manager, new miniseries (BBC and AMC) based on one of le Carre's novels from some thirty years ago, is good.  No, seriously.  It's really good.   Exploring the secret mission of one Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddleston), a British agent working undercover to bring down an international illegal arms smuggler Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie), the series is perfectly written, directed and acted all around.  We are treated to some glorious locales around the globe - Egypt, Spain, England, Turkey, Switzerland, to name just a few - and the cast does an excellent job of emitting subtle details of their characters' relationships to one another.  Ascene in a seafood restaurant between a frustrated Lance Corkoran (Tom Hollander) and an under-appreciated waiter is executed to near perfection; Hollander himself deserves an award for his bold performance, which is convincing to the max.

Director Susanne Bier, who admirably helmed every single episode, does a terrific job of keeping the tension and suspense at the highest level, from the opening moment to the final second.  She captures le Carre's story and theme appropriately, and is just as much of a creator of the story's time and place as le Carre here (setting has been updated from the novel's 1980s to today).  I don't know if there really are bad guys like Roper in our world, but it's hard to imagine there not being anyone who at least slightly resembles him.  All I can do in that case is hope that a real-life Jonathan Pine is out there somewhere, endangering himself and risking everything to keep us and our neighbors safe.

Friday, May 6, 2016

"10 Cloverfield Lane" is 80% bore, 20% excitement: all in all, mediocre

Misery meets War of the Worlds, kind of. The unfortunate thing is, there's too much of the former, and not enough of the latter. The movie has nice "bookends": the first 5 minutes, and the last 10 or so. However, it's the middle portion where it drags and becomes exhausting. John Goodman is not very convincing as the large, lonely bully who has plenty of skeletons in his closet, and whose attempt to impersonate a "savior" is obviously a charade. His tone is all over the place, and I didn't find much of his performance to be genuine at all; instead, it's labored and over the top. Mary Elizabeth Winstead is the real deal, and it's just unfortunate she doesn't have a better script to go with her obviously superior acting. I never cared much for the 2008 movie Cloverfield that this film is clearly a spin-off of. I'm not sure that I'd honestly ever want to re-watch either one again. The trailer for this one was great, though. Too bad that the whole movie doesn't possess that kind of mysterious excitement.

"The Beauty" leaves impression of a FOX TV drama: bland and overstuffed

When I first saw the copies of the somewhat recent Image comic The Beauty on the stands, I was mesmerized by its cover of a woman who appears to be ill with some very ominous sickness.   Who was she?  Where did she come from?  How did she come to appear this ... dead?  All these questions when through my mind.  But alas, I got answers to some of them - if not all - after having read the first Trade Paperback issue.

Featuring a pair of detectives who may or may not be secretly into each other, a la Scully and Mulder of X-Files fame, Jeremy Haun and Jason A. Hurley's new enigmatic, sci-fi-meets-possible-apocalyptic-doom-in-form-of-a-deadly-disease comic does remind one of old TV shows from Fox network (Fringe, anyone?).  Vaughn and Foster are investigating The Beauty, which is a sexually transmitted virus that gives its victims physical and cosmetic bliss, but also kills them by making their head combust internally, like a light bulb whose interior gases have expanded just a bit too much.

The artwork by Haun is clean and precise; his characters look more or less the same from page to page and from issue to issue, and that is not something that can be said of every work in the contemporary world of American comics.  However, the script/story here is a bit flat: it's simply overwritten, featuring too many characters whose motivations and intentions remain unclear.  I couldn't help but wonder if the appearance of a mysterious "villain", Mr. Calaveras, - who resembles Red Skull of Captain America universe - is simply there for show.  Calaveras likes to slice and dice prostitutes he sleeps with, and also touch naked men as much as he pleases.  Not only that, he has a bunch of goons who, when they get trigger happy, like to shoot up police who are on the verge of discovering a cure for The Beauty.  All that aside, he really isn't very interesting at all.  In other words, he's all style, no substance.

The Beauty reminds me a great deal of another Image comic that I've recently come across, Injection.    Just as in that one, I found the idea here of a world threatened by a virus or some other man-made impending doom somewhat unsatisfying, especially for a comic.  This medium, as diverse as it is nowadays with numerous genres and its leading heroic characters by various publishers, simply needs to be more fun. Or if it should take the serious tone, it should at the very least be engaging.  Sadly, The Beauty is not quite either.

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

"Keanu" is a one-note comedy which contains less laughs than one of Key & Peele's sketches

Meh. Forgettable. I'm a huge fan of Key & Peele, and their Comedy Central show was, for the most part, hilarious. But I honestly laughed maybe 3 or 4 times here, which is just as many times that I laugh in one of their 3 or 4 minute sketches. Many have already said that this movie is a bad sketch stretched out to feature length, and for the most part, they're right. The script is really lazy, suggesting additional sub plots that go nowhere (what is up with Clarence's wife and that dude who go on a weekend getaway together? And what is it exactly that he does that ends up offending her so? A better movie would've dealt with these issues), and additionally, it just takes the one-joke and runs with it, whether the gags work or not. For the most, part they do not. It's a shame, because these guys are very funny and talented; they just don't really prove any of that here.

Monday, May 2, 2016

"30 Days of Night: Dark Days" continues the vampire saga, but a little further south this time around

This sequel story to Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith's dark and murky illustrated vampire tale 30 Days of Night takes us to sunny California, far away from the frozen and dark vastness of the small Alaskan town, Barrow.  Stella Olemaun, wife of the deceased sheriff of Barrow, Eben Olemaun, arrives in Los Angeles to promote her new book about her encounter with vampires, hoping to raise awareness about the presence of these bloodsuckers in our world.  The thing is, no one believes her, and she's therefore forced to resort to alternative methods.

30 Days of Night: Dark Days continues to present us with pages that are predominantly black and difficult to define.  Their content is hardly ever clear, and is confusing more often than not; characters are identifiable, but their actions sometimes are not.  It is especially difficult to decipher scenes of conflict.  When two or more characters are involved in a fight, the result is the comic book version of a nuclear explosion captured in still time: it is impossible to tell who's winning, who is actually who on the page, and what the final result of such conflict is.

The unfortunate thing about this serial is that the very thing that made it unique and special - the stylish and overly ominous artwork - is the same thing that drags it down.  Illustration and drawing style aside, Stella's relationship with the vampire Dane here is well handled, and is definitely the aspect of this story that elevates it above its predecessor.  At the end, when Stella is somehow able to resurrect her dead husband Eben back to life, we're unsure if this is a clever ploy from Niles to inject a pleasant twist into the series, or a desperate move from a writer running out of fresh ideas.  Either way, Dark Days is a slight improvement, but it still leaves a lot to be desired, especially from a graphic standpoint.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

"Zootopia's" ambitions are grand, its leads are righteous and charming, and its story is charistmatic and engaging

A brave and ambitious new Disney movie, one that takes chances I've not seen in years (perhaps decades?). Visually and cosmetically, this is a movie for children, full of colorful animals and cute-looking characters they surely will adore; however, from a content perspective, the script is very clever and daring, exploring themes of "us vs. them" that is reminiscent of a coming of age drama, and as such only adults will be able to fully appreciate what it's trying to do. The Fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman) is a character for the ages, a scoundrel willing to rip anyone and everyone off for his own personal gain in this universe where Foxes aren't given the benefit of the doubt, but he's also a kind and thoughtful creature capable of surprising gestures. Ginnifer Goodwin's Judy Hopps is a young idealist prepared to do whatever's necessary to uphold the universal justice she holds so dear to her heart. The scene between these two characters in which she apologizes to him for being previously mean is worth the entire admission. The good thing is, the movie doesn't have a single bad scene. One of the best movies of the year.