Monday, February 27, 2006

Comics Update - UPDATED FEB. 27

Some comments on various stuff I've been reading (or plan to read):

1) I've dropped "Ultimate Spider-Man", and so will not be reviewing any more storylines. This book has been on thin ice for a while now as far as I'm concerned, and the utter mediocrity of the most recent arc was the last straw. And so, from the four Bendis ongoings I was reading little more than a year ago, only "Powers" remains - and it's been so long since the last arc that I don't even remember what's been going on. That book will probably also be reevaluated as soon as the current storyline concludes. As for Bendis himself, he's now officially "Black List" material - meaning I won't be bothering with anything that has his name on it. How the mighty have fallen.

2) I won't be reviewing "Generation M" after all; I've read through the four issues that have been released and, eyes-glazing dullness aside, there's not much to say about it. "Son of M" and "The 198" are still on the list, though. "Deadly Genesis" will be treated as the first story arc of Ed Brubaker's run on "Uncanny X-Men".

3) Due to a desire on my part to avoid any more "House of M" stupidity, I'll be checking out Brian Reed's "Ms. Marvel" series starting with issue 1, not the prologue story in "Giant-Sized Ms. Marvel #1".

4) This was a difficult decision for me, but I won't be picking up Peter David's "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" after all. I was going to jump on as soon as "The Other" was over, but I don't think I realized how much PAD's principles have changed recently, as he's delving into continuity backwaters while incorporating such silliness as the Iron Spidey suit. That's really not what I was looking for.

5) "X-Factor" also has a big question mark over it, as issues #8 and #9 will be tying into "Civil War" and I am absolutely determined to avoid this event on every possible level. Now, past experience has taught us that PAD tends to swerve around crossovers rather than engage them directly (meaning he doesn't really deviate from the original story anyway), but considering how "X-Factor" and FNSM have been written, and how this "New PAD" is suddenly all about the bigger picture (though I guess I can't blame him, given where his more individualized series usually end up), I honestly can't be sure. Let's not forget that "Civil War" probably isn't the last Mighty Marvel Moron Mega-Event, and if hooking into every half-brained written-by-committee crossover becomes standard procedure for David... well, you can see where that would lead us.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Comics Review: February 26

Captain America #15

After an exhaustive thirteen issues revolving around the Winter Soldier, Ed Brubaker takes a bit of time to explore an unrelated plot thread from the preceding storyline: the return of Synthia Schmidt, daughter of the Red Skull.

It's painfully apparent that we're dealing with some very convoluted continuity here. There's accelerated aging and de-aging, cloning, brainwashing... it's a bit of a mess, really. But Brubaker streamlines the history, telling us everything we need to know without turning it into a Marvel Handbook entry.

The catch, of course, is that there's simply too much backstory to relay, and the actual plot of the issue is a bit thin: Crossbones tortures Synthia until she breaks through her SHIELD reprogramming. That's about it, really; the rest of the issue is given over to the retelling of Synthia's story, both for her benefit and ours.

Still, the end result is achieved, reintroducing the character and setting her up as a new antagonist for Captain America. It's a bit ironic, actually, because according to Crossbones' story she was always meant to replace the Red Skull, but she never got the chance because he survived. In fact, Brubaker may have inadvertantly undermined Synthia himself - we know what she and Crossbones don't, that the Red Skull is alive in some capacity. Which means we already see her as an also-ran, rather than a genuine heir.


Academy X: Childhood's End (20-23)

To avoid confusion with the Grant Morrison run (and also because there's only one "New X-Men" for me and this ain't it), I'll be using the alternative title of this series.

"Childhood's End" marks the beginning of the Craig Kyle/Christopher Yost run. These were the writers responsible for the "X-23: Innocence Lost" miniseries, which was surprisingly good. It's also one of the few ongoing X-books that underwent a major change, both stylistically and with relation to the core premise itself, as a result of "Decimation".

I'm only passingly familiar with the Weir/DeFilipis run that preceded this storyline, but even in the book's previous incarnation as "New Mutants", it was clear that their approach was problematic at best. Originally set during the Grant Morrison years, the remit was to focus on the expanded student body - fair enough, and to their credit the writers did manage to come up with a wide variety of mutants. Unfortunately, none of them were particularly compelling, since the heavy-handed teen melodrama tended to reduce characters to stock types, for the sake of efficiency. Even after the book was restarted and revamped during the Reload of 2004, nothing particularly changed... in fact, by the end of their run, Weir and DeFilipis were dealing with a cast of almost thirty students, and that's not even including the various X-Men who popped up from time to time.

Based on "Childhood's End", Kyle and Yost seem to be veering this book away from the 90210 paradigm. In fact, their first storyline strikes me as much more in line with the original "New Mutants" series than anything Weir and DeFilipis came up with, ostensibly because they never understood the need to balance the love triangles and the petty rivalries with the fact that these were mutant superheroes in training.

This arc actually makes for a good jumping-on point, because it's largely devoted to dismantling the Weir/DeFilipis run. It's a story that starts with, and is dominated by, destruction; and for the purposes of this introductory arc, you don't have to know who these people are beyond the obvious, because everything is being redefined anyway. It begins with M-Day, leaving multiple characters depowered and quietly shipped off. Then Reverend Stryker (of Claremont's "God Loves, Man Kills") makes a comeback, and the death toll starts rising. X-23 joins the cast, and is relegated to the periphery (assuaging many readers' fears that she'd take over the book a la "Supergirl and the Legion of Superheroes"). Meanwhile, Emma Frost sets up a brutal competition to whittle down the cast even further.

Like their previous collaboration, "Childhood's End" is a very solid story. A bit padded, especially with the rather pointless "Danger Cave" sequence, but overall it achieves its goal, generates interest, and uses the "Decimation" premise to great success. Proof, I suppose, that if you want to grow a good crop, you need manure. Future arcs will, of course, require a closer focus on whoever's left standing when the dust settles, but for now characterization isn't an issue (though Stryker is rather over-the-top with the Bible-thumping speeches). Issue 23 ends with a cliffhanger leading directly into the next storyline, which promises to bring the Stryker/Purifiers story to a head.

Friday, February 24, 2006

The Prince of Persia Trilogy: Warrior Within

Arguably the most controversial segment in the trilogy, and certainly one I had mixed reactions to.

Your journey will not end well. You cannot change your fate. No man can.

Spoiler alert: this review gives away a major plot point in the game. There's no real way around it, especially when I get to "The Two Thrones".

Though "Sands of Time" was considered a major critical success, for all the reasons noted in the previous review, it wasn't exactly a top seller. I'm not very well-acquainted with the rules of the video game market, but I'd hazard a guess that the most common complaint was "Not enough blood" or "Not enough boobies."

Ubisoft, ever so obliging, promptly ensured that the sequel, "Warrior Within", would appeal to the lowest common denominators. The result is a game where the technical aspects are greatly improved while the creative aspects take a nosedive. And the most infuriating part? I'm almost positive it sold more than "Sands of Time".

So... "Warrior Within". On the creative level, this is a game that allows two mindsets. If you're viewing it with a practical, objective eye, it's pretty shallow: the Prince goes from being a charming, naive adventurer to a tattooed, gravel-voiced, Wolverine-esque tough guy, shouting things like "You should be honored to die by my sword!" The internal monologue barely exists here, and when it does turn up it's always "I have to hurry" or "I have to pull that switch." Basically, the Prince becomes a cipher.

However, if you're willing to be a little generous, you can argue that the Prince's transformation actually is a product of an ellipsis, and of the plot itself. Basically, the second game begins seven years after the first. The Prince, having changed history, is being hunted by an invincible creature called the Dahaka, a manifestation of Fate that wants him dead. Those seven years on the run are ostensibly what leads to the Prince's personality shift, as he's become hardened and frightened. When an old man tells him about the birthplace of the Sands of Time - created on the Island of Time by the Empress of Time (note the creative titling) - the Prince decides to go on the offensive, travel back to the past and prevent the Empress from completing her task, rewriting history to the point where he'll never have dealt with the Sands at all.

While this would seem to answer the major issue, it does give the plot a bit too much credit. In reality, the game's story is nowhere near as intricate as "Sands of Time" - the majority of it is given over to jumping back and forth through two time periods, running from the Dahaka, and trying to stop the Sands of Time from being created. Except... well, you see the problem, don't you? There's an in-game contradiction - every time you rewind time, the Prince is changing his fate. Also, stopping the Sands from being created is just another way of altering what happened to the Prince - so why is it a solution to the Dahaka problem? And leaving all that aside, I don't recall a particular moment (in the story, not in gameplay) where the Prince should have died in "Sands of Time", and didn't. So the whole thing is riddled with plotholes, and frankly, is an example of dumbing down a game so people don't have to think about it.

There are only two other characters in "Warrior Within". Both are women, both are villains, and both are ridiculously over the top in the T&A department. The first is Shahdee, lieutenant to the Empress of Time, who fights literally butt-naked. The second is Empress Kaileena, a CGI sex doll who - in the game's alternate (and canon) ending, pulls a Monica Lewinsky on the man who tried to kill her, and whose brain is inversely proportionate to her breasts (she's a demigod, with an army at her command, and the best plan she's got is to sit around like an idiot and make the Prince think she's a servant?). It's blatantly commercial, but it also means there isn't much dialogue in the game either; aside from a lack of narration, Shahdee dies early in the game, and the Prince only has two or three conversations with Kaileena throughout the whole thing. So most of the game is spent in complete silence.

So that's the creative side. But the game's redeeming feature is that, having thrown story and characters overboard, the developers have put the rest of their efforts into improving the gameplay. And it is much improved. For starters, you now absorb sand automatically, thanks to Farah's medallion (the only tangible connection to "Sands of Time"), which means you get to concentrate on killing your opponents. And with the ability to wield two swords, your range of attack combos is greatly increased. I admit, it's fun to set off such wildly varied combat moves.

"Warrior Within" also introduces something "Sands of Time" didn't have - boss fights. Oh, I suppose that last duel with the Vizier counts, but really, it's not that different from regular battles. Here you have five major boss fights: two against Shahdee, one against the Empress, one against a Griffin, and the last fight depends on whether you've found all nine life upgrades and found the secret Water Sword (most powerful weapon in the game). If you haven't, you fight the Empress again and get an abbreviated ending movie. If you have, you fight the Dahaka itself and get a longer "secret" ending, which was used as the basis for the sequel, "The Two Thrones". It's a nice break from your run-of-the-mill combat sessions.

Additionally, there are several sequences scattered throughout the game called "Dahaka Chases". It's self-explanatory, really - at various points in the game, you come across the Dahaka, and it chases you. It can't be fought or slowed down, so you basically have to run for your life and navigate all sorts of traps and pits and obstacles without letting it catch you (which means instant death).

It's a mixed bag, really. As I said, the major imbalance in "Warrior Within" is between the creative and technical sides: it's an entertaining game if you don't think about it, but it doesn't hold up if you stop to think about what the hell is going on.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

The Prince of Persia Trilogy: Sands of Time

Having recently completed "The Two Thrones", I thought it'd be nice to look back over Ubisoft's "Prince of Persia" trilogy in a sequence of reviews. I'll be focusing primarily on story, gameplay and characters. Previous "Prince of Persia" games such as "The Shadow and the Flame" will not be reviewed.

Most people think Time is like a river that flows swift and sure in one direction. But I have seen the face of Time, and I can tell you: they are wrong. Time is an ocean in a storm.

The series begins with "Sands of Time", the story of a young and naive Prince who participates in a Persian invasion of India. Victorious, he then visits the neighboring kingdom of Azad and is manipulated into unleashing a deadly plague upon the palace and all its inhabitants. Aided only by a mysterious Indian princess, the Prince must fight his way through the byzantine, demon-infested palace in search of a way to undo his mistake.

All three "Prince of Persia" games - the entire series, in fact, from ancient first to last - rely heavily on reflex, knowing when to jump, when to roll under a spinning blade, how to time a drop. But where the DOS games would send you all the way back to the beginning of the level if you slipped up (costing you valuable time which you couldn't get back), Ubisoft's trilogy adds a gameplay mechanism that allows you to learn from your mistakes: the ability to rewind time.

Very early in the game, the Prince acquires the Dagger of Time, a mystical weapon that serves two primary purposes. The first grants the player the ability to turn back time for about eight to ten seconds; if you jump too soon and plummet to your death, a tap of the proper key sends the Prince on a backwards trek. Each reversal consumes a Sand Tank, and the Dagger holds several of these (with more added as you progress). If you're killed without any Sands in the dagger, you'll be sent back to the last checkpoint, to repeat the entire sequence.

The Dagger's secondary function is equally vital: it is the only weapon that can vanquish Sand monsters. And I mean all Sand monsters. Except for various animals you infrequently come across, every single enemy here can only be destroyed by slashing them with your sword until they collapse, and then stabbing them with the Dagger to absorb their Sands (and prevent them from reconstituting themselves, which they will if you fail to strike within a few seconds). It's a nice little trick at first, but you'll inevitably reach situations where you're fighting ten to fifteen enemies (usually no more than three at a time; as soon as one is dispatched, another teleports in). And it becomes a bit tiresome.

The Prince himself is surprisingly acrobatic: he can run up or along walls, shimmy across ledges, leap over enemies to attack them from above, and rebound off flat surfaces to propel himself like a spear. In addition to all this, you'll gain additional Dagger powers the more Sand you absorb.

The combat system is also interesting. On the one hand, it's a bit tedious because you have to destroy every single enemy you encounter - save points will not be accessible until the surrounding area has been cleared. These save points offer brief glimpses of the terrain ahead, but leaving that aside, this is very much a game where you want to save at every opportunity. On the other hand, the fact that you can't not kill your enemies means that "leveling up" is inevitable - the Dagger gains additional tanks for every few dozen enemies slain, which means more chances to rewind, more powers unlocked, and so on.

Visually and audially, "Sands of Time" is beautiful: the soundtrack mixes Middle Eastern melodies and rock, adding mesmerizing vocals to several tracks. The game environment is suitably exotic and detailed, from the grandeur of the palace architecture to the decaying dungeons, to the magnificent sunrise as you near your goal.

With every other living being in the palace transformed into a Sand demon, the only characters with significant screen time are the Prince and Farah, the daughter of the conquered Indian Maharajah. Farah isn't a playable character, but she follows you throughout most of the game, reaching places the Prince can't and occasionally using her skills at archery to support him during fights. The banter between them is always entertaining, as are the Prince's monologues during gameplay. It's important to note that the interaction between them fills up a lot of "dead space" in the game that would otherwise be spent silently running and jumping around - this is a subtle strength that Ubisoft would not fully appreciate later.

Overall, "The Sands of Time" is as much a work of art as it is a game: rich, compelling, and worth the hours you'll spend shrieking in rage as you miss a complicated jump for the third time. :)

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Hell Hath No Fury Like Diana Scorned

Or: "Another Reason Mike Marts Does Not Want To Meet Me In A Dark Alley"

Wow. I never thought I'd be posting this, but I'm dropping "Exiles" soon.

Not because I'm not enjoying it, mind you. But because, in a display of stupidity that is nothing short of astounding, writer Tony Bedard is being replaced by Chris Claremont.

Yes. Chris Claremont.

I don't understand. I really don't. "Exiles" hasn't been this good since Judd Winick left. Everything was going well. Sales were stable. Plenty of stories left to tell. Meanwhile the nostalgic crowd had "New Excalibur" for their Claremont fix and everything else was left out of the endless cycle of mind control and slavery and domination.

And now this. One of my favorite books, being run into the ground by that senile has-been. I haven't been this furious about a comic book in a good long while.

As far as I'm concerned, the series is cancelled with issue 83.

Monday, February 20, 2006

Comics Review: February 20

For this week, we've got a standalone story from Brian Vaughan in "Runaways", featuring Molly Hayes, the youngest member of the group. Molly's been a rather problematic figure from the very beginning; barely 12 when the story started, it was clear that she wasn't quite on equal ground with the other teenaged characters, and this often pushed her to the periphery of the plot; token shows of strength and comic relief aside, she's probably the least-active Runaway, ostensibly because she rarely understands what's going on - she's not stupid, but her perspective is rightly limited by her youth.

Vaughan tries to solve this problem by temporarily taking the other Runaways out of the picture - this issue focuses exclusively on Molly herself, separated from the rest of the group. She basically falls headfirst into a 21st-century version of Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist", as she's forcibly recruited by a Fagin-esque magician into a gang of underaged thieves. Molly, sweet and naive as she is, gets in a bit over her head, and has to figure out how to escape her captor and free the other kids.

It's a very atypical "Runaways" story because it's focalized through Molly, and as such it's significantly more simplistic than the book's usual tone. There are things we, the readers, can see that she doesn't, such as the fact that the Artful Dodgers are mirrors of what Molly might have become, had she been less fortunate in running away. There's no indication that she understands this, because Molly sees everything with the eyes of a child. But that point of view is what makes the last few pages of the story all the more heartbreaking; she is a child, and she has been through a lot since she and her friends discovered the truth about the Pride. And the fact that she's managed to retain innocence in such a situation makes her all the more endearing.

Character moments aside, the plot is a bit thin, but it's the calm before the storm, as next issue promises to kickstart the New Pride subplot that's been ticking over since the relaunch began.


And this?

This is a thing of genius. Because it's probably be better than the product it's lampooning. :)

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Movie Review: "Ultimate Avengers"

Or: "The Ghost of Suckiness Yet To Come"

Okay. I can see the appeal of adapting Millar's "Ultimates" to movie format. It's accessible, it's written with a cinematic flair, and any quasi-mature moments can certainly be retooled without losing too much impact.

What I don't understand, though, is why Marvel and Lion's Gate Entertainment would perform such a hack job on what was ostensibly supposed to kickstart an entire line of animated features. If this is the model subsequent films will follow, it's not very encouraging.

Basically, "Ultimate Avengers" is a compressed version of the entire first volume of "Ultimates" - you've got Captain America, the Chitauri and the Hulk all mixed in there. Unfortunately, the movie is barely longer than an hour, and when weighing the importance of story vs. Big Ship Go Boom... well, have a guess as to what was prioritized.

It's barely coherent: characters jump in and out with zero motivation and even less personality (ie: What's Tony Stark doing in an Iron Man suit? Why does Thor have such a big gay crush on Captain America?). There's almost no exposition: what are the Chitauri doing on Earth? What is SHIELD? When did the whole Hulk situation happen (it takes place before the movie begins). It's basically seventy minutes of explosions, cool animations and largely awful voice acting, occasionally punctuated by displays of superpowers.

Now, I imagine this is less of a problem for readers of Millar's "Ultimates", since most of the blanks can be filled in by referring to the original stories. But taken on its own merits, "Ultimate Avengers" falls very, very short. It's a disappointment, really, because it's probably one of Millar's best works (considering he usually writes with the depth of Malibu Stacy, that's saying a lot), and it's not like there's some quality to it that defies conventional adaptation. Incompetent writers and editors aside, there's really no reason for this project to fail the way it does.

That's two strikes for Lion's Gate, also responsible for the abysmal "Man-Thing" debacle last year. I imagine prospects for upcoming projects don't look very good right now.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

May Be Yes, May Be No - UPDATED

My pull list shrinks every month. This disappoints me. :(

* The last arc of Mark Millar's "Ultimate Fantastic Four" promises to pull together all the loose threads that have plagued this series since its inception. I'll tentatively give Millar the benefit of the doubt here, even though it's been ages since he's deserved it.

* "Ultimate Spider-Man" puts two issues out: the first rounds up an Ultimate Deadpool story, the second begins an Ultimate Morbius story. I've pinpointed where this series has gone wrong: it's become nothing more than a vehicle for revamping characters, except that - since the Ultimate line is so isolated and everyone's doing their own thing - nobody really does anything with these new Ultimate figures, least of all Bendis himself. Venom, Hobgoblin, Iron Fist, Shang-Chi and all the other characters recently introduced just show up, do their thing and disappear - but since it doesn't go anywhere, what's the point?

* "Civil War" begins. In addition to the Millar-written central miniseries, this month's tie-ins include "Amazing Spider-Man" #532, "She-Hulk" #8 and "Wolverine" #42. I might as well announce that I plan to ignore this storyline altogether, so aside from the obligatory tally of tie-ins I doubt I'll be discussing it in any way.

* Both "Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man" and "Spider-Girl" feature Hobgoblin stories. Unfortunately, PAD's series both features that ridiculous red-and-gold costume and claims that "continuity fans better break out their back issues, because both Spidey's past and future will change when an old (and unexpected) foe executes his master plan!" There's a bright idea, pandering to the continuity fans. And then he'll wonder why nobody's buying the book, leading to its inevitable cancellation and a final issue with thinly-veiled metafictional whining. Truly, the wheels on the bus go round and round.

* The sequel to "Last Hero Standing", "Last Planet Standing", launches with two issues. Strange that they waited until the cancellation of "Spider-Girl" was official before publishing what might have created a promotional push, but I suppose the damage is done.

* Ed Brubaker relocates "Captain America" to London, following up on previous storylines (Lukin, the Winter Soldier, Crossbones and Sin, etc.). Obviously, we're going for a "saga"-type story - which affects how it's to be read, I suppose.

* Here's a very odd one: Karl Kesel writes a Fantastic Four one-shot called "Death in the Family", apparently relating to the death of the Invisible Woman. Now ordinarily I'd just dismiss this as some sort of trick storyline where Sue dies and comes back to life and we all learn a valuable lesson about family, etc. Except Straczynski's "Fantastic Four" has no issue for May, and the Aguirre-Sacasa "Four" (formerly known as "Marvel Knights 4") is cancelled. It won't stick, of course, but it does seem that's the direction they're going in.

* "Amazing Fantasy" is not listed for May, and has been confirmed as cancelled.

* "Iron Man" ships another issue. Looks like the monthly schedule is indeed back in effect. Meanwhile, the Casey miniseries "Inevitable" concludes.

* The cover of "Runaways #16" may contain a massive spoiler (ie: "He among us who is not among us is surely the culprit") with regards to the upcoming New Pride storyline.

* Mike Oeming's "Ares" concludes with the promise that the title character will be joining a major superhero team in 2006.

* Another oddity: there's a separate category for "Planet Hulk titles" even though there's only an issue of "The Incredible Hulk" in said category. Moreover, "Planet Hulk" is supposed to be self-contained. *shrug*

* UPDATE: Two issues of "Exiles" this month: one wraps up "Future Imperfect", the other goes to the land of "big man-chests and bigger action", Heroes Reborn, for the conclusion of the saga.

* "Son of M" concludes, promising reprecussions echoing into "Civil War". Uh... wasn't this a "House of M"/"Decimation" spin-off? Geez. Meanwhile, "Sentinel Squad O*N*E" also wraps up, but as I'm sure you've all noticed, it's actually a prequel to the Milligan storyline, where these pilots are tertiary characters at best. I'm not quite clear as to why we should care who's driving the big killing machines.

* "X-Factor #7" is devoted to the death of Sean Cassidy - not simply because a cast member of this book is related to him, but apparently to "convince fans that one of Marvel's mighty mutants was genuinely killed in action and never returning". Of course, Magneto's been decapitated, Colossus has been cremated and I think Psylocke was sent to a taxidermist or something. It's way, way, way too late in the day to be worrying about convincing fans - who, by definition, have been around long enough to know the score. Whether they care or not is another issue.

* Looks like there's some rescheduling going on, as "Uncanny X-Men" #473 is listed for May release now. Which makes July's #475 Ed Brubaker's first issue. Now there's a nice anniversary gift.

* Peter Milligan rounds up the "Blood of Apocalypse" arc, introducing "two brand-new Sentinels". Er... yes. "X-Men: The 198" also ends, along with "X-Statix Presents: Dead Girl".

* I'll probably regret showing an interest in this, but C.B. Cebulski launches a new series titled "X-Men: Fairy Tales", which is basically a riff off that old "Kitty's Fairy Tale" story from Ye Olde Claremonte days: it takes the characters of the X-Men and recasts them as figures in various fairy tales. The first issue, for example, places Cyclops in what seems to be a Japanese myth about "Momotaro, the Peach-Boy", out to save a beautiful red-haired princess. It's so off-the-wall, it just might work.

* Oh, look, "X-Men: The End" features Cassandra Nova taking over Charles Xavier's body. That about says it all, really.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

Webcomics: "Boy Meets Boy"
Archive here:

This one really impressed me. As the title suggests, it's predominantly based on a love story between two guys - in case of homophobia, the exit is in the upper-right corner of your browser.

There's a lot to say about this strip in terms of what it delivers, but I want to look at the process of its creation. As I understand it, it started with K. Sandra Fuhr's first series, "Utopia", a sci-fi comedy that featured a vampire threesome: Mikhael, Harley and Tybalt. While developing these secondary characters, Fuhr decided to spin them off into their own series, "This Is Home", making them the protagonists of the story. "Utopia", as far as I know, was removed and is currently undergoing a drastic revision.

"This Is Home", described by the author herself as the product of teenage high school angst, was a bit typical of "fangirl excess a la Anne Rice" - a lot of blood, rape, brutality, pain and horror, not necessarily done for purely artistic reasons. Ultimately, Fuhr felt (rightly so) that it didn't really work, and abandoned "This Is Home" (going so far as to remove it from the Internet altogether), transplanting Mikhael and Harley (eventually followed by other supporting cast members from both prior series) into a realistic setting, and a different genre altogether. This was the birth of "Boy Meets Boy", and it's not hard to see why it became so popular during its run - having removed the unnecessary trappings, Fuhr let the characters make the story; they became accessible and believable as people.

This process of development is interesting because, while BMB stands on its own, it's intriguing to see where and how Fuhr reconfigures her own mythos and characters when making the cross-genre transition. You can't get away with a legitimate threesome in a romantic comedy, the way you might if you were writing a pseudo-Gothic fantasy, so the relationships have to be recontextualized.

BMB itself can also be seen as an ongoing development, in that it's clear Fuhr didn't have every detail planned out when she launched the series (ie: Abby was introduced as a major player, only to summarily vanish when Aurora came in). But where this would trip up the overall narrative of lesser writers, Fuhr takes advantage of the unpredictable angles by working them into the series on a thematic level. Mik and Harley aside, no one in this series ends up where you think they will - it's both the result of changed plans and a comment on the unpredictability of life, circumstance and growth.

So what is "Boy Meets Boy"? It's a very sweet, simple love story laced with humor that ranges from wacky (Tabitha's supernatural hijinks) to irreverent (the "Whee! I'm naked!" running gag) to just plain funny (the "Girl Meets Girl" parody). The series initially centers around the romance of Mikhael and Harley, but once the secondary characters are established it becomes a wider tapestry of interpersonal relationships. There's a very manga-esque sensibility about it: big eyes, a bit of androgyny, odd hairstyles and a general optimism that never allows the story to sink too far into melodrama or tragedy. Sex plays a major role, but it's barely risque - if you can watch "Brokeback Mountain" without flinching, you'll have no problem here.

Most of the characters are gay or at least bisexual - even Cyanide, the token heterosexual guy, has "impure thoughts" about his best friend. It would be a bit monotonous in a "Queer as Folk" way if being gay was an issue, but it isn't. I can't tell you how refreshing it is to see characters who don't succumb to stereotypes - or if they do, there's more to them than just the stereotypes. Orientation isn't a selling point here, the way it was for characters like Northstar or Midnighter and Apollo. Fuhr's characters are who they are, and there's never any qualification or justification given to Mikhael and Harley: they're in love, and they're no different from anyone else. I can only think of one or two storylines where the fact that they're gay is actually brought up as an explicit plot point, but even then, it's a long, long way from the kind of self-hating tripe you'd get in a Kevin Williamson story or a Marvel/DC "OMG GAY!!!" type of thing.

There are moments of saccharine fangirlishness, of the type that made me wince and would probably go over much worse with male readers... but those moments are few and far between, and easily forgiven. Mikhael in particular starts off as this ridiculously overblown romantic archetype (his pickup line is "We are now as one"), but it becomes clear as the story proceeds that this is the whole point of his character: he's so socially inept that he looks to Pablo Neruda as a guide to flirtation. It's also a bit of an in-joke, because while characters in the realistic mode wouldn't talk like this, Master Vampire Mikhael of "This Is Home" probably would.

One of the things I love most about this strip is, as I mentioned before, its unpredictability. Protagonists nonwithstanding, almost every other character's journey takes a 90-degree turn sooner or later. You really get the sense that these people are changing and evolving as time goes by - some (Skids) more than others (Tabitha). I also like that some things aren't resolved: Fuhr never gave Cyanide closure, even though she could have in the name of fanservice. But she stuck to her guns for the story's sake, and wrapped the series up with a string of new beginnings. Friends drift apart, babies are conceived, new relationships start... and we'll never know what happens next. It's the lesson Neil Gaiman taught us in "Sandman": endings always lead to new beginnings, but the story has to stop somewhere.

In point of fact, when Fuhr launched "Friendly Hostility" (a spin-off from BMB focusing on Fox and Collin, introduced midway through the series but originating in "Utopia" - see what I mean about the development process?), she made it very clear that we'd never see other BMB characters in this new series. Not as guest-stars, not in cameos, not even in the background. Because that story is over.

It's almost a mirror image of "Something Positive" in a way. Fuhr tells the story of a group of friends who eventually split apart and find their own paths, whereas Milholland starts his story after the break, focusing on a handful of people who were once part of a larger group. And we never see that group. There was one storyline when PeeJee flashes back to those old friends, but nobody shares her nostalgia; even Davan, who spends most of his life stuck in the past, tells her it's a waste of time to think about the people who were part of their lives once and aren't anymore.

I recommend this webcomic with one reservation only: it may appeal more to women than men. I'd be very interested to hear the straight male perspective on this series, to see if the author's gender influences the way the story is told and if that, in turn, influences the opinions of women vs. men as readers.

Monday, February 6, 2006

Old recs

Devin Grayson's "User": Quiet, down-to-earth, very heartfelt and well-written. It asks simple yet frightening questions about identity - personal, sexual, fabricated - and how we're never really what we say we are, or even think we are.

Kyle Baker's "Why I Hate Saturn": Kyle Baker's first and most hilarious graphic novel, full of manic energy and a surprisingly believable woman protagonist. What do you do when you've got lunatic millionaires trying to kill you, you can't get a date and your sister is Queen of the Leather Astro Girls of Saturn? Answer: road trip! :)

Frank Miller's "Martha Washington: Give Me Liberty": If the election of 2004 scared you, don't read this book. :) Martha Washington is a poor, black girl living in the ghettos. The higher she rises, the further the United States of America descends into corruption and decadence. The story suffers a bit for lack of a greater nemesis for Martha - but then, that was probably Miller's point, that for all her idealism there's not much she could do other than fight the personal battles.

Grant Morrison's "Kill Your Boyfriend": Grant Morrison playing Quentin Tarantino. Girl meets boy. Girl loves boy. Girl and boy go on mad killing spree. It's the love story Titanic should have been. :) One of the reasons I absolutely loved this story was because there's so much going on. On one level, it's a Tarantino romance where an average teenage girl falls in love with a dark and dangerous boy, and is swept up into his world of madness, murder and sex. Morrison goes for a modern-day interpretation of the Dionysius myth (more commonly known as Bacchus), but it's also a story of teenage rebellion taken to extremes, as the lovers break moral, judicial and sexual boundaries just because they can. Then there's the psuedo-philosophical debate on identities: the protagonists are unnamed. The Girl says it best: "We can be anyone." The problem, of course, is that no one really KNOWS who they want to be: the Girl's first boyfriend lives in a fantasy world, the politician is a cross-dresser, the "anarchists" can't bring themselves to actively cross the line and BECOME anarchists, the Girl's seemingly-normal family has corrupt secrets of its own... and the book itself reflects this confusion by not adhering to the conventions of a single genre. Of course, like all great romances, this one must end with tragedy. But we don't get a "Romeo and Juliet" moment where the lovers are united in death and a lesson is learned. The tragic separation of the lovers is compounded for the reader (but not the characters) when we learn something about the Boy that we didn't know before; and after the death, the other lover is prevented from following the same path by a twist of fate, and is forced to submit and become domesticated (though not without a hint of lingering defiance). And from the characters' perspective, that is the worst tragedy of all: to be shackled to a mundane existence after tasting true freedom.

Eric Shanower's "Age of Bronze": Forget "Troy". "Age of Bronze" is everything you ever wanted to know about the Trojan War. An uncensored, brutally honest and stirring account of what really led to the conflict that was eternalized in myth. A great read for people who thought "Troy" should have been more than slabs of beef parading about for the ladies (not that I had any complaints).

Brian Michael Bendis' "Jinx: The Definitive Collection": One of Bendis' earliest and finest works. Take three million dollars, two grifters and one world-weary bounty hunter. Add guns, explosions, a bunch of mallrats, gratuitous cursing, and Bendis getting shot in the brain, and you've got "Jinx".

Pat McGreal's "Veils": This beautiful graphic novel tells the story of a young English woman swept into an exotic, erotic world of magic and intrigue. On a visit to the Sultan's palace, Vivian Pearse-Packard is given a brief respite from her abusive husband in the harem. There, as her life story intertwines with that of a mythical queen, she embarks on a journey of discovery that will end in death... or glory beyond dreams.

Peter Kuper's "The System": Told entirely through visual art, without a single word bubble or caption, "The System" explores the interconnected lives of a group of city-dwellers who cross paths every day and never know it, even though they all have tremendous influence on each other.

Laini and Jim Di Bartolo's "The Drowned": A haunting tale of insanity, witchcraft and revenge. Theophile Finistere has spent the last five years in an asylum, tormented by shattered memories of his family and his home town. But when he is mysteriously compelled to escape, he finds himself tangled in the machinations of witches, demons, a cabal of warrior-priests and a loved one long thought dead. But what is real and what exists only in the broken delusions of a madman?

Pat McGreal's "I, Paparazzi": You might think being a paparazzi is all about stalking celebrities in their underwear, but for Jake McGowran, it's a way of life. But when he decides to go after the biggest, most powerful star in Hollywood, he gets in over his head and uncovers a horrible secret. Now he's being hunted by assassins, fashion models and conspiracy nuts, and worst of all, he's got a deadline... I really didn't know what to expect here: a renouncing of the controversial vocation through an unlikeable character? A glorification of celebrity and intrigue? This book's primary strength is its ability to keep you guessing; you're never sure exactly how to classify this book, even after the end. Is it an X-Files conspiracy story? A sci-fi thriller? Romance? Noir? A madman's dream? The ending is open enough to allow you your interpretation, but not so broad as to leave you without any conclusion whatsoever. The writer captures the world of the paparazzi very well and fleshes these star-stalkers out, makes them into human beings like anyone else. "I, Paparazzi" is an exhilirating ride that leaves you breathless and waiting for the next twist.

Warren Ellis' "Switchblade Honey": Warren Ellis writes, in his words, "The Anti-Star Trek". Sure, it'd be nice to think that by the 24th century mankind would be peaceful and benevolent and living in a tolerant utopia... but I wouldn't bet on it. A dark, intensely cynical look at what would happen if humanity reached the stars and stayed exactly as they were.

Frank Miller's "Ronin": In feudal Japan, a brave samurai gives his life to destroy his demonic archnemesis. Eight hundred years later, he is reborn into a world of technology and corruption, a world he can scarcely understand. Unknown to him, his nemesis has followed him into the future; and there, in the heart of a ruined metropolis, they will fight their final battle as the world crumbles around them. Interestingly, this book predates the popular cartoon "Samurai Jack", which used a very similar premise to great success.

Warren Ellis' "Ruins": The Marvel Universe is a place of wonders and heroes, a place where the fantastic is commonplace. But in another world, a heartbeat away from ours, radiation kills and mutation deforms, goddesses debase themselves and aliens wither away in concentration camps. Phil Sheldon (from Kurt Busiek's "Marvels") is unable to shake the feeling that this world is not right, and sets out to discover what could have gone so terribly wrong. Ellis masterfully dodges a rather fatal bullet, as his story was cut from four issues to two while he was writing it, leaving us with an abrupt ending... and yet, thematically, it's one which works perfectly.

Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning's "Tales of the Marvels: The Wonder Years": Cindy Knutz was just an ordinary girl... until Wonder Man saved her life. Now she's the newest member of his fan club and she can't stop thinking about him. The line between love and obsession blurs, as deep down she knows they're destined to meet again. Then he dies and leaves her life in shambles. Can she survive without him?

Bob Hall's "I, Joker": Centuries after the death of Bruce Wayne, Batman's legacy has been twisted beyond all recognition. In this dark and filthy Gotham of the future, the Batman is a tyrant-god who recreates his enemies once a year to participate in a brutal and bloody hunt. But this year something is different. This year "Joker's wild", and things are going to change. An interesting take on what happens to the legend of a superhero when he or she is long dead.

Peter David's "The Last Avengers Story": This is for anyone who might have found Bendis' "Chaos" to be a bit lacking (to put it mildly). Looking for a better swan song for Earth's Mightiest Heroes? PAD delivers in spades. Keep in mind, though, that it spins off a somewhat antiquated Avengers team.

Ed Brubaker's "Deadenders": A dystopian urban drama. Beezer is just another disillusioned kid living in the slums... but he has visions of a better world, a world that may or may not have existed once. His quest to discover their origin and meaning takes wonderfully unpredictable turns in this sixteen-part series. Highly recommended for anyone looking for something a little different.

Jason Lutes' "Jar of Fools" Failed magician Ernie Weiss is on the brink of total despair: his brother has died, his girlfriend has left him, and his mentor is slowly slipping into senility. A powerful story about fighting to hold on to the ones you love.

Peter Milligan's "Enigma": What would you do if your favorite comic book suddenly started playing itself out in reality? Michael Smith finds himself face to face with his childhood hero, the Enigma... but there's a lot more under that mask than anyone suspects. Very off-the-wall and bizarre - but then, we wouldn't want Milligan any other way.

Mike Carey's "My Faith In Frankie": Surreal romantic comedy. Frankie Moxon is a college girl looking for love. She's also the sole worshipper of Jeriven, a minor deity who's watched over her all her life. But when an old crush of Frankie's makes a surprise return, Jeriven finds her devotions waning... and the weirdest love triangle you'll ever see takes off.

Nabiel Kaman's "The Birthday Riots": A simple but powerful story of disillusionment. Natalie is losing faith in her father, Max is confronted with reminders of the life he left behind and the mistakes he's made, while the gypsies seek a promised land they don't really believe in anymore. It's very touching, with characters that encourage empathy; utterly realistic without being over-the-top, poignant but not hopeless.

Well, that about wraps it up. Hope that's enough for decent filler. :)

Sunday, February 5, 2006

Webcomic Review: Something Positive

Randy K. Milholland's "Something Positive" ( is the jewel in the crown of webcomics.

I don't profess to be an expert in webcomics. I doubt I've covered a tenth of what's going on out there. But I very much doubt I'll find anything as funny, as poignant, as real as this masterpiece. It's so easy to see Davan, PeeJee, Aubrey and their friends as people; so easy to miss cast members who walk away; so easy to care, despite the girls' propensity for mindless violence and Davan's endless supply of snark. It's unconventional. It's unpredictable. It's fun. It's fucking brilliant. And while it favors comedy over drama, there are moments that hurt, and Milholland always knows when to pull away, and exactly how much we need to see without going overboard.

I can't recommend this webcomic strongly enough.

Saturday, February 4, 2006

Comics Review: February 4

Captain America: The Winter Soldier (8-9, 11-14)

(Note: I'm skipping over issue 10, which was a completely unremarkable "House of M" tie-in that has nothing to do with anything.)

This one's a bit of a mixed bag, really.

I'll start by asserting a general point: it's a sign of my faith in Ed Brubaker that I'm even reading this series - Captain America is, IMO, not a character who has aged well, and more often than not the writers who use him tend to lean towards very distasteful jingoism and hyperexaggerated patriotism ("If we give up... THE TERRORISTS WIN!").

But I follow the writer, not the character. And I do admit that Brubaker's first arc, "Out of Time", took care of precisely that problem by looping the focus of his run around Steve Rogers as a character, not as a symbol. The first six issues relayed the relevant backstories in an efficient manner, set up all the players and proceeded to dive headfirst into Brubaker's long-term plan. This complicates evaluating his individual arcs, of course, since the series is taking what Brubaker calls the "meta-arc" approach - that is to say, it's all one big storyline, broken down for the sake of TPBs rather than any intentional division. This is clear enough with "Out of Time", which ends with an open cliffhanger seguing directly into the second arc, "The Winter Soldier".

Of course, that method of storytelling doesn't quite work with the massive delays this series has suffered from. A lot of momentum has been lost, and that tends to color the perception of what's going on here. Basically, we pick up right where "Out of Time" leaves off: Aleksander Lukin has powered up his Cosmic Cube, the Winter Soldier who serves him may or may not be a brain-damaged Bucky Barnes (Cap's old partner, and previously the only other person aside from Ben Parker who was really, really dead), and the Captain himself is on the brink of losing his mind. It seems a confrontation with his best friend is inevitable.

The problems start when, having built up to said confrontation, Brubaker deflates it with cliches: Captain America snatches the Cube and uses it to restore Bucky's identity, and the horror-stricken Winter Soldier promptly teleports away to angst. Now, conventionally it's possible to properly end a story with an anti-climax - sometimes that's really the best way to go. But one major plot point throughout Brubaker's run so far is that the Cosmic Cube warps the desires of anyone who tries to use it: no matter what you wish for, it'll always go sour somehow. That's why Lukin gives it up, enabling the aforementioned showdown between Cap and Bucky.

All well and good, except Steve's wish doesn't backfire. He doesn't get the tearful reunion he might have been hoping for, but Bucky's reaction is pretty much what you'd expect given the murderous rampage he's been involved in for the last fifty years. Now, if Bucky had gone mad in a Drusilla way after getting all his lost memories crammed back into his head, it would've been tragic. It would've been precisely the "Monkey's Paw" twist Brubaker's referencing, and it would have put the blame squarely on the Captain's shoulders.

As it stands, it's a bit too color-by-numbers, and dissatisfying when read on its own because there's no real sense of gravity in relation to Bucky's resurrection. Brubaker has basically undone a death at the very heart of the Marvel Universe, but because the plot succumbs to cliche, we don't get to see how deeply this affects either partner. To make things worse, Lukin - who started out as a villain with the potential to match the Red Skull - turns out to be a bit of a lightweight; and that's without mentioning the very last panel of the arc, which seems to suggest that (promises and expectations aside) the major death from Brubaker's very first issue isn't as permanent as we'd hoped.

I'm tentatively listing this as a disappointment, though there's still plenty of room for improvement given that none of the plot threads have actually ended here.


Y: The Last Man #42

Another standalone issue, but this one is much better than the last one. Here we learn the secret origin of Ampersand, Yorick's monkey. Yes, Yorick's monkey. You wouldn't think there's much of a story there, I certainly didn't.

Lo and behold, not only is there a story, but it's a doozy. Seems Ampersand has a much deeper connection to what's been going on, as the issue begins quite a while before he and Yorick ever meet. We get our first look at the mysterious "Dr. M", whose connection to Allison is confirmed (her mother, most likely, though Vaughan also allows for the possibility that it's her father). We see a rather likely explanation as to how Ampersand could have protected Yorick from the plague. We even get an interesting look into the simian mind before catching up with current events.

Once again, Vaughan proves his skills: it's no small feat to tell a story from a monkey's point of view, especially when you have no narrative captions or thought bubbles. It's another thing altogether to actually weave such a story into the greater tapestry, so it becomes a major piece of the puzzle. Very well done indeed.


Legion of Superheroes #14

Hmm. This issue introduces Shrinking Violet/Atom Girl to the cast, and sets the stage for the next development in the Legion: the United Planets, embarrassed yet grateful for being rescued from the brink of annihilation, offer to fund the Legion's operations while promising them full autonomy and power equal to their oppressors, the Science Police. Of course, as Saturn Girl points out, there's no such thing as an arm that acts on its own volition - the strings are attached, whether they're visible or not. Meanwhile, Waid makes a pointed (and slightly juvenile) commentary on fanboys when a metahuman obssessed with the late Dream Girl goes berserk at the news of her death.

My enthusiasm for this book wanes more and more every month. Having concluded the "galactic war" plot, Waid is now turning his focus to interpersonal relationships within the core Legion... except those have been on the backburner for at least six months (if not more), and pushing them to the foreground because there's nothing better to do doesn't help. Also, there's a slight imbalance in this book between the main plot and the subplots, in that the former tends to dominate the page while the latter aren't consistently developed throughout. As a result, Waid can't really change gears because there's no foundation to build later stories.

The letter pages are still funny, though - despite their insistence on reminding me that Superbimbo will be joining the cast in two issues. Waiter! Check please!


Hard Time #3

This issue juggles several subplots: Cutter insinuating himself into the prison, Ethan learning more about his powers while suspecting Red of betrayal, and the return of Fruitcake. It's always fun having Fruitcake around, because more than any other inmate he knows what's really going on, and is willing to impart that information on Ethan. Gerber successfully balances the old and new characters here, and - probably for the first time - creates a nemesis for Ethan that transcends anything he's faced in jail so far. Another strong entry in this series.


X-Factor #3

Oh no he didn't.

Peter David did not just make me momentarily stop wishing Layla Miller into oblivion.


This series is generally moving upwards in terms of quality - it started off well, and is steadily getting better as the cast is consolidated and conflicts are set up. There's a lot of typical PAD humor here, which is a good thing: Monet and Rictor, the banter between Madrox and Siryn, and even Layla is amusing in a creepy kind of way (though her punchline is wearing thin). We see a little more of Singularity Investigations, and why they're so concerned about what X-Factor is up to.

However, PAD also seems to be heading specifically in the direction I was hoping he wouldn't: dealing with Decimation head on as a primary plot, as opposed to just using it as a distant platform for his own stories. To make things worse, it's not entirely clear why there's supposed to be this big investigation into M-Day and what caused it. Granted that the utter stupidity and lack of coordination during "House of M" means we don't know who remembers what, who did what to whom, and who came back to life/died as a result, but what is clear is that there are a number of people out there (including Wolverine, Emma Frost, Spider-Man, Ms. Marvel and others) who know exactly what Wanda's magic vagina did. So why is it such a big mystery?

I'm still feeling a bit of uncertainty regarding this book; it's quite good, but it's also traversing ground I'm deliberately avoiding. But it's entertaining enough to hold my interest until the book's overall direction becomes clearer.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

Comics Review: February 1

Exiles: World Tour - 2099 (75-76)

I had a chance to read four 2099 series (X-Men, Ghost Rider, Doom and Spider-Man) a while ago and I really enjoyed them, partly because they were well-written (duh) but also because it's a world almost completely detached from Marvel tropes. It's the kind of alternate reality you don't really get these days, so remote that the Days of Futures Past are two or three generations removed, and the very idea of a superhero is something relegated to myth, to legend. It's also notable because, while the line was in its prime, it never relied upon the old iconography: oh, you'd see a picture of Charles Xavier from time to time, and there was that "Spider-Man/Spider-Man 2099" issue, but there was no direct descent from the "time of Marvels" to the world of 2099 (with the possible exception of Doom, whose identity is problematic to say the least).

The point is, 2099 succeeded (and failed) on its own merits. It was a fresh playing field which the writers worked very well (personally, I always thought Miguel O'Hara was a hell of a lot more interesting than Peter Parker). Unfortunately, Marvel going bankrupt brought the whole line crashing down after editor Joey Calavieri was fired, followed by Spider-Man writer Peter David and Doom writer Warren Ellis. After four years of excellent stories, 2099 was dismantled by Ben Raab, Tom Peyer and Terry Kavanaugh, ending with a mediocre whimper that certainly didn't befit its creative and financial success.

Now, almost ten years since the line's demise, Tony Bedard and Jim Calafiore bring it back as a segment in the Exiles' "World Tour". When I reviewed the previous "New Universe" segment, I noted that I was able to take two avenues of criticism with regards to the overarching storyline as a whole: as a reader unfamiliar with featured realities, and as a fan who enjoyed the original stories.

So, does 2099 work as a welcome bit of nostalgia? Yes and no. Let's get the criticisms out of the way first: this story was too compressed. It's easy to understand why "Future Imperfect" gets two issues - it's a minimalist setting, you've got the Maestro and that's about it. But 2099 is at least as complex as the New Universe, if not moreso, and it doesn't accomplish everything it COULD have accomplished due to space. Keeping in mind that the first issue of this two-parter was the 75th issue, I don't see why it couldn't have been double-sized. Part of the disappointment stems from the misleading covers: it's a bit of a let-down to see the entire cast of 2099 on display only to discover that the story itself only features two characters from that reality (with a third making a painfully brief cameo).

Still, taking all that into account, Bedard again demonstrates an aptitude for knowing which characters work best in the story he's telling. With Proteus' current host body (formerly Justice) wearing out, he arrives in 2099 searching for the most powerful superhuman alive - one with a healing factor so immense that it may stabilize him for a while. The Exiles follow suit, and hijack Spider-Man 2099 to guide them. Unfortunately, the third confrontation with Proteus doesn't go any better than the previous two, and by the end of the battle circumstances force Miguel to join the team and abandon his home reality.

As I mentioned before, it all happens a bit too quickly: there's no real exposure to 2099 the way the New Universe was exposited in the previous arc. In fact, I have a hard time believing any reader can really appreciate what's going on without the context, which isn't as readily available here as it was before (ie: Tyler Stone's final threat to Spider-Man is a lot more creepy if you know who he really is in connection with Miguel). Of course, it's pretty much a question of priorities; there's only so much you can do in 40-odd pages, and we actually get some surprising character development - with Proteus, of all people. At first I thought Bedard was taking liberties with the character, until I went back to the original Claremont story and discovered that yes, Proteus actually does keep the memories of his previous hosts. So he's not as flat a villain as he appears to be. I like this development because it ties Proteus and the Exiles together in a much deeper way, adding a more personal dimension to the conflict than if he was just "Mimic's killer".

When all's said and done, I do feel - as a fan of 2099 - that there might have been room for a little more exploration. But as a reader of "Exiles", I acknowledge that Bedard did what he was supposed to do, using the setting to enhance his story rather than let this be a gratuitous fan-pleaser. This third confrontation with Proteus ends the way it does precisely because of a quality that was always inherent in the world of 2099. And there's no question that it'll be very interesting to see Spider-Man 2099 as an Exile. That's enough, for now.


Daredevil: The Murdock Papers (76-81)

It seems oddly fitting that now, at the end of Brian Michael Bendis' run of "Daredevil", I'm reminded why there was a time not too long ago when I'd pick up Bendis books sight-unseen.

I don't think there's any question that Bendis is a writer currently in decline, the quality of his work sagging across the board. Look at where "Ultimate Spider-Man" is now, as opposed to three years ago. Look at "Powers". Look at the transition from "Alias" to "Pulse". But I think that, of all the series he's been writing during his downward spiral, "Daredevil" suffered the least.

In fact, "Daredevil" is a very atypical Bendis book, in that his entire run - fifty-one issues in total - comprises one mega-structure. It really is one story broken into two halves, those halves fragmented into five arcs each. Very meticulous, very exact, far more than anything you'll find in any other Bendis series. It's pretty amazing, considering that even Frank Miller's definitive run tended to go a bit wayward from time to time.

That's not to say that every story was equally successful, of course. While the first half (26-50) counts among the writer's strongest works for Marvel, the post-ellipsis half (55-81, taking place one year after the events of issue 50) fell flat on occasion. I'm thinking here of "The Golden Age", which was a very lovely artistic experiment that, on the level of the plot, amounted to the Kingpin before Fisk coming to New York, slapping Matt around, and dying of a heart attack. To coin a phrase, "Big overture, little show." In fact, this is the biggest problem with Bendis now; it used to be that his stories took four or five issues (out of six) to actually get started, but the payoff was always worth it. These days, it isn't anymore, which really blows the point, doesn't it?

But as a whole, it's been one of Bendis' best series - and thank God he's getting off it now before his slump really started to show. As mentioned in previous entries, he's being replaced by Ed Brubaker, who has the same kind of urban noir/crime sensibility with the added bonus of putting actual content in single issues.

So "The Murdock Papers" is a summing-up of everything that has happened for the past five years of Daredevil's life. It's a violent eruption of all the forces that have been surrounding Matt Murdock since his identity was exposed. And it's a return to a level of quality I never thought I'd see Bendis reach again. There's no backing down here, no contrivance to reset the status quo. The Kingpin's plan is brilliant, and I recall now that Bendis always wrote Wilson Fisk excellently, as a true criminal mastermind who's two steps ahead of everyone else.

Yes, the arc is decompressed, the dialogue has some frustrating tics and the fight scenes are static and disjointed. But this storyline is a success on so many levels that I can forgive it its flaws. It's the natural, logical conclusion of everything Bendis has set up, going as far back as the trial of the White Tiger. At the same time, you have Frank Miller's foursome all together again - Matt, the Kingpin, Elektra and Bullsye. It's going forward with a brief look over the shoulder to remind us where it all comes from.

The last issue, #81, is especially good, wrapping up the run on a high note while offering an enjoyable narrative trick: when Matt "escapes", Bendis works backwards through the women as he introduced them: first we have Natasha (who made an appearance in "The Widow" after Milla left), then Milla, and it ends as it began, with Elektra. The only thing missing is a visit to Karen Page's grave - but then, her absence says enough. It's poignant, it's tragic, and for once Bendis doesn't leave anything up in the air. It's very clear what's happening, and why Matt makes the choice he makes.

Hiccups aside, Bendis and artist Alex Maleev leave behind a far better book than the one they took over, with a new status quo that's certain to provide Brubaker with a wealth of potential story angles. It's been slow at times, exciting at others, but certainly a run to remember.


BPRD: The Black Flame

It's getting progressively harder to remember what's going on in these books. Partly because the schedule is absolutely ridiculous, with no consistency and no recap to bridge the months-long gaps between various miniseries; partly because Mike Mignola and his associates just haven't fleshed out these characters enough to be compelling after long absences; and partly because the story hasn't been moving in any particular direction. While Hellboy runs around the world digging up foreign mythologies, the BPRD are in a bit of a loop: they find frog men, kill frog men, find some disgusting Lovecraftian giant at the core of the current Evil Nazi Plan, they kill said giant and that's it. Wash, rinse and repeat.

It's not that it's being written badly, mind you. It's just boring. Not that "Hellboy" has been any better - "The Third Wish" and "The Island" were probably scripted on napkins. But at least there you have Mignola continuing the theme of exploring the world's folklore through Hellboy, be it Russian or Chinese or African. It's educational, if nothing else. "BPRD" isn't even offering some kind of variation on the theme.

The next miniseries, "The Universal Machine", starts in April. I very much doubt I'll be there.



Thanks to Neverglades for this one.

Jeff Smith's "Bone" is one of those series that slipped under my radar when I first returned to comics; everyone was talking about it but nobody could tell me why it was so good. I find that attempting to describe it, more often than not, results in a bunch of oxymorons: it's simplistic yet complex, it's innocent yet not necessarily for children, it's fantasy but it's also comedy. It's most often compared to "Lord of the Rings", which is accurate on the thematic level: you have three diminuative strangers from a small, rural land drawn into a war for the fate of the world, which they will ultimately determine despite their outsider status (or perhaps because of it). However, Jeff Smith's writing is much more energetic than Tolkien's, as the artwork allows him to cut down on unnecessary descriptions (which I always felt was Tolkien's great flaw as a writer - his inability to get to the point without going on for pages and pages about the trees and the hills and the rivers).

Anyway, when I finally got around to "Bone", it had me intrigued by the end of the first storyarc, and utterly enthralled by the second. Fifty-five issues in length, it's an absolutely marvelous read. But even though the story is epic in scope, there's still an area the reader never gets to access: specifically, the immediate backstory to the current crisis. We're told what happened years ago to set the stage (Grandma Ben delivers the tale to the Bones in summary), but we never see Queen Rose in her prime, or how the Lord of the Locusts tried to free himself in the past.

Here, then, is that story in its entirety, a prequel to the actions that take place in "Bone". It's a bit jarring when you read it immediately after the main series, because it's a jump back to before most of the main characters were even born. At the same time, seeing Briar's fall is chilling, and Charles Vess' artwork grants the whole thing an ethereal feel, as though we're reading a fairy tale - which, in a sense, we are. There's no real surprise here for "Bone" readers (remember, we already know the story), but there's a sense of wonder nonetheless because "Rose" depicts a world that no longer exists by the time the main story begins. We never see other dragons aside from the familiar Red, nor are the Venu and their practices as commonplace as they are when Briar and Rose were young.

It's a lovely tale, one that stands on its own well enough but also provides one last glimpse at the fantastic world Jeff Smith created.


Girls #9

Not much to say about this one, as we're still holding course: the "quarantine" of Pennystown is having an adverse effect on its animal inhabitants, while the confined townspeople are starting to go stir-crazy. I do think everyone is a bit too quick to condemn Ethan unfairly - from what we've seen of his characterization, he's not that bad a person - but then, maybe that's the point.

Once again we have a last-page cliffhanger that seems to turn the entire series on its head... more on that, I suppose, when it develops. It's moving slowly, but at just the proper pace for a mystery.