Review: 52, Vol. 2

52, Vol. 2

Storytellers: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Mark Waid, and Greg Rucka; various artists.

Publisher: DC Comics

Year of Publication: 2016

Page Count: 584

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: In a shared universe like that of DC Comics, continuity is king. You have to meet the standard thresholds of good art and solid story structure, dialogue, and character beats, but if you’re a writer who really wants to resonate with fans, tapping into continuity is the way to go. That’s what Marvel is doing with their movies, and it’s working.

Of course, this can be done wrong, such as in the infamously craptastic Justice League: Cry for Justice, but 52 gets it more than right. How did Rucka, Morrison, Waid and Johns get it right? They demonstrated a solid grasp on the fandom zeitgeist and the continuity itself, allowing them to build an awesome story.

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: While there were a lot of different artists working on this book, it stands as a testament that such an arrangement doesn’t have to be a liability. Each art team manages to fit their art to the feel of the stories for which they’re respectively illustrating.

It would be one thing if more than one artist worked on the same issue, as I’ve seen done before to underwhelming effect, but the minds behind 52 seem to avoid that trap. The obvious explanation for the rotating art teams was that they wanted to keep up with the demands of a weekly book, but they did it in a smart way by pairing each art team with the appropriate story.

Recommendation: B

Notes/Review/Synopsis: 52 is a love letter to DC continuity, hailing from a happier era of Big Two comics. It follows the events of the lost year between Infinite Crisis and the subsequent One Year Later event. Although I am no longer closely following the goings-on of the Big Two, I look forward to reading up on all these lovely reprints of older comics, readily available through my local library.

Image from GetComics.info

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Review: Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne

Batman: The Return of Bruce Wayne

Storytellers: Grant Morrison, various artists

Publisher: DC Comics

Year of Publication: 2011

Page Count: 232

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: Morrison likes to make the reader think when they read his stuff, so I appreciate that about his writings. That said, such a writing style probably communicates to the reader better when read issue by issue, as it gives the reader time to process what’s going on in-between issues. In the form of a trade paperback, you’re getting all of Morrison’s signature mind-bending all at once, which makes it harder to digest.

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: There’s a whole pantheon of artists attached to this collection, but the end result is pretty cohesive. Chris Sprouse’s art works well for “Shadows on Stone,” and and Frazer Irving’s art works well for “Until the End of Time.” The only story that I think could have used a different art style was “Masquerade,” which really could have used a more noir-like feel. That would have sealed the deal pretty well in terms of what the story was trying to accomplish. That said, “Masquerade” is still pretty darn trippy, so maybe the creators did that on purpose.

Recommendation: B

Notes/Review/Synopsis: The first thing I said to myself after finishing this book was: “What was Grant Morrison smoking when he wrote this thing?” Crude jokes aside, I was able to mostly understand this trade going in, given that I haven’t read Final Crisis. Morrison, however, has this way of writing really disturbed, mind-twisting stuff, even if this instance was a more mild form of that predilection.

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Review: Powers, Vol. 1: Who Killed Retro Girl?

Note: Several of these new posts reviewing various graphic novels were adapted from posts on the forums of Comics Experience, where I participated in the 30 in 30! challenge, in which entrants tried to read thirty graphic novels in thirty days over the month of November.

I did not complete the challenge, but I am now sharing my posts from that contest on my blog, using the same format as used there. This review is the first review post I have written that was not part of the contest. All previous posts did fall under that classification.

Powers, Vol. 1: Who Killed Retro Girl?

Storytellers: Brian Michael Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming

Publisher: Image Comics

Year of Publication: 2006

Page Count: 207

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: Bendis really knows how to make his characters stand out through dialogue. Supported by a good artist, he communicates the story well. I don’t know how much of his panel structure is the work of Oeming, but the propensity for two-page spreads which I’ve seen in some of his other work, such as Ultimate Spider-Man, suggests that that’s something he does. Bendis’ plots are also really tight, held together like glue. That’s tough to do, but probably easier with a creator-owned book like this.

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: Oeming proves in this book that you don’t need to have all your characters look like sculpted Greek gods to communicate a good story. When I first heard about this series a while back and saw the art on the cover, I was hesitant. Past-me was convinced that the more cartoonish art utilized by the likes of Oeming had no place in a “real” comic. I’ve since learned that art like Oeming’s does half the work of telling a story, especially a noir. Bendis notes in the sketchbook in the back of this trade that a good artist is able to make his subjects look good from all sorts of different angles, and not just the muscle-bound power poses. Just look at more mainstream comics with standard house-style art like 52, and you’ll see what he means.

Recommendation: A

Notes/Review/Synopsis: Powers is a police procedural set in an unidentified city populated by several superheroes. After the titular Retro Girl is murdered, homicide detectives Christian Walker and Deena Pilgrim are assigned to the case.

This book is like a cross between Gotham Central and Astro City. I like them both, but they are completely different. Bendis bridges that gap by creating his own world of superheroes (like Astro City) and making a noir police procedural out of it (Gotham Central). Note, however, that this book is not for kids. It’s loaded with four-letter words that would earn it a strong R-rating. Viewer discretion is advised.

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Review: Astro City, Vol. 1: Life in the Big City

Astro City Vol. 1: Life in the Big City

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Storytellers: Kurt Busiek, Brent E. Anderson, and Alex Ross

Publisher: Wildstorm

Year of Publication: 1996

Page Count: 192

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: Kurt Busiek writes in the introduction of this trade paperback that superheroes are a great way to illustrate metaphors. Superman is a male power fantasy, and Spider-Man is the teenage experience writ large. That gave me an idea: How could a superhero metaphor be used to illustrate religious experience? There’s an idea! Aside from that, I also learned something about the nature of narrative realism. Busiek again writes in the introduction that Astro City is not a realistic take on superheroes; It’s got time travel, aliens, evil shark cults, and vampires. It is, however, a plausible story which relies on complex character studies to drive the plot forward. This flies in the face of the idea that a story about superheroes are a substandard genre of comic book storytelling.

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: Brent Anderson’s art avoids the excesses of most ’90s comics, while retaining a visual “oomph” that lends and impressive, intimate feel to the art. If I learned anything, it’s that a good artist can make all the difference in a comic book story. With writing like Busiek’s and art like Anderson’s, the feeling of nostalgia and humanity that generally sums up the stories found in this trade is completely palpable.

Recommendation: A

Notes/Review/Synopsis: I really like Astro City. It’s basically a wholesale meta-critique of the DC Universe, often from the point of view of the man (or woman) on the street. In a previous review, I covered The Dark Knight Returns, which helped kick-off the wave of superhero deconstruction that lasted up until the early 2010s. Astro City is the first in a wave of comics that are a response to that deconstruction, a reconstruction, I suppose. Every comic of that persuasion from Robert Kirkman’s Invincible to Bryan Q. Miller’s Batgirl almost certainly owes a debt to Astro City. I certainly do now.

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Review: Clinton Cash: A Graphic Novel

Clinton Cash: A Graphic Novel

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Storytellers: Chuck Dixon, Brett R. Smith, and Sergio Cariello

Publisher: Regnery Publishing

Year of Publication: 2016

Page Count: 112

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: Chuck Dixon and company managed to take a work of popular non-fiction, written by a reporter and columnist, and turn it into a more-or-less compelling graphic novel. If I learned anything from reading this book, it’s that comics, being the versatile medium that it is, is more than capable of handling more substantial content, in this case, reporting mixed with political satire. Unfortunately, most of the jokes fall flat, and the comic itself reads more like an illustrated abridged book than an actual comic. Mr. Dixon and company would probably have had more success in my book if they had tried to tell a more convention story rather than providing an extended series of illustrated info-dumps.

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: The art style used for this book stayed toward the middle of the road on the sliding scale of the cartoonish and the realistic. That worked well for the story, which is meant to be a funny and unsettling take on rather serious contemporary American political intrigue. Insofar as art is concerned, it helped communicate the story well. In regards to that element of the graphic novel, there is nothing wrong with it.

Recommendation: C

Notes/Review/Synopsis: Politics aside, I personally didn’t find Clinton Cash: A Graphic Novel to be particularly funny or unsettling. Sure, it’s got goofy illustrations and it pokes fun at various politicos and cronies, but I just didn’t find anything worth laughing at. If I were in Mr. Dixon’s shoes, I would have focused on a particular episode in the Clintons’ sordid political careers (as covered in Clinton Cash) and constructed story, be it funny or unsettling, out of that specific incident. That would have a lot of great humor potential.

Incidentally, my dad thought it was incredibly funny that somebody made a graphic novel based off of a work of non-fiction. He wasn’t laughing at the comic itself, but at the fact that it had been made at all. Go figure.

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Review: 52 Volume 1

52 Vol. 1

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Storytellers: Geoff Johns, Grant Morrison, Greg Rucka, Mark Waid, and Keith Giffen

Publisher: DC Comics

Year of Publication: 2016

Page Count: 584

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: 52 is one of those comics where lighting was caught in a bottle. Four talented writers each working on a weekly comic which spanned the entirety of the DC Universe over the span of one year in a particular context of in-story continuity was something that needed a perfect storm to be pulled off right. If this series means anything, it’s that the right team with the right vision can make a pretty darn good comic. Contrast this with the more recent Batman Eternal, which basically tried to be 52 in the Bat-verse. The result was less than satisfactory. Like I said, lightning in a bottle. 52‘s formula would be very hard to replicate, as seen with the equally ill-reputed Countdown to Final Crisis.

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: Keith Giffen did most of the art on this trade, and his art is pretty solid, from a DC “house” style perspective. It’s nothing special, but it helps maintain a feeling of narrative cohesiveness, which is nice. Having a different artist for every issue, which was the case for much of Batman Eternal wouldn’t have done the story any favors. Getting experimental and dabbling in more unorthodox art styles probably wouldn’t have helped either, so in this case the powers-that-be made the right call.

Recommendation: C+

Notes/Review/Synopsis: This my first time reading 52, and I think it captures the zeitgeist of contemporary cape-comics. It’s hard to believe that it’s been some ten years since it’s original run concluded. The whole shared-universe continuity that started at the tail end of the ’80s, got its foundation laid in the nineties, blossomed into something beautiful in the 2000s. I’m more of a Bat-verse guy, but I gotta say, DC is being really dumb not capitalizing on the rich interconnecting continuity they have at their disposal with books like 52. As long as they keep ignoring the source material, Marvel won’t even have to try to stay ahead at the cinema.

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Review: Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

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Storytellers: Frank Miller, Klaus Janson, and Lynn Varley

Publisher: DC Comics

Year of Publication: 1986 (original run); 1997 (trade paperback)

Page Count: 224

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: Frank Miller’s approach to comic book storytelling breaks every rule of comics writing that I am accustomed too. None of the individual issues open with a splash page. The pages are crowded with sometimes up to a dozen panels each. If I learned anything from reading The Dark Knight Returns, it’s that once you think you’ve gotten your writing craft narrowed down until it’s almost a science, everything you know is blotted out when you read something that does the job in an altogether different fashion.

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: The fact that Miller is both the artist for and the writer of The Dark Knight Returns earns him the designation of Cartoonist. Will Eisner reserved this distinction for comics creators who both wrote and drew. Eisner operated on the philosophy that the writer and artist should be one and the same, so as to better translate the story that the writer had in mind onto the drawn page. In other words, if the writer and artist are the same person, then the artist won’t be able to misunderstand what the writer wants drawn. This point is crucial to Miller’s ability to tell the story of The Dark Knight Returns. He is able to draw the story exactly as he has written it.

Recommendation: A

Notes/Review/Synopsis: When reading The Dark Knight Returns, I realized something that was missing from all the debates about grim-and-gritty versus fun-and-light: The Dark Knight Returns is a work of satire. It’s meant to be ironic and humorous. The comic book that drove the over-the-top excesses of comic books in the nineties (along with Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen) wasn’t mean to be taken as seriously as it was.

From the opportunistic media and the exaggerated caricatures of Ronald Reagan and Superman to the grinding and course narration of the titular Dark Knight, this book was meant to poke fun at Miller’s favorite whipping boys while at the same time mocking the Batman of the 1960’s television show. The fact that an entire generation of comic book creators took it at one-hundred percent face value and poured that same style into their own comics as a result is at the same time farcical and unsettling, just like this comic.

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Review: Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four 1963

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four 1963

Storytellers: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Publisher: Marvel

Year of Publication: 2007

Page Count: 347

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: In this massive tome, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s collaborative use of the Marvel method of writing comics is again on display. Speech bubbles and captions are voluminous in comparison to today’s comics, seeming to copy in words what the art already shows. However, given the method in question, the story would probably be hard to understand without the words, the comic itself being a product of a unique way to writing. However, Lee does know his stuff in terms of writing comics. Every page ends with a panel that makes you want to turn to the next. The first page is always positioned to draw the reader into the story from the very first. Nearly every first page is a full-page splash panel. Speaking of which, that brings us to…

What I Learned About Art/Storytelling: As with the previous volume I reviewed, Kirby’s art is definitely the driving force of the narrative. Lee’s captions and speech bubbles are what provide meaning to it, but the art is a foundation of the whole story. Kirby is very good at creating impressive visuals which are very good at propelling the story along. For instance, the Molecule Man lifting up the Baxter Building in one panel is an excellent visual, as is Namor’s coronation ceremony, spread over two pages near the end. I learned here that the art and the writing are inseparable. They need each other. This much easier if the writer is also the artist, but in a collaborative work, as is the case much of the time, the roles are symbiotic.

Recommendation: B

Notes/Review/Synopsis: The Fantastic Four is definitely fun reading, what with the bickering heroes and the over-the-top villains. It’s a product of a different era of superhero comics, when the audience was chiefly made up of ten-year old boys. Marvel needs to get back in touch with that particular demographic with its current line of comics. It made impressive gains with the Marvel Adventures line a while back, and it would probably do them good to go for that demographic with its comics again. Either that, or they could market these collections of old reprints not just to fanboys (and girls!), but to parents with kids who are looking for fun reading material for their children. I’m sure they’d find a ready audience.

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Review: Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four Vol. 1

I have decided to begin reviewing a new graphic novel or comic book collection once a week. This blog will now be updated every Monday.

Marvel Masterworks: The Fantastic Four Vol. 1

Storytellers: Stan Lee and Jack Kirby

Publisher: Marvel

Year of Publication: 2003

Page Count: 251

What I Learned About Writing/Storytelling: I’ve read about the Marvel method of writing comics versus the full script method of writing comics, the former being pioneered by Messrs. Lee and Kirby. The idea behind is that the writer gives a summary of the comic to the artist, who then draws the thing, after which the dialogue is added in as needed. I could see that this was definitely the case for this collection, where the writing and dialogue are definitely an outgrowth of the art, not the other way around. Lots of captions and big dialogue bubbles are present, trying to fit in as much plot as possible.

The actual stories of these early issues of The Fantastic Four were apparently very innovative for their time, such as setting most of the stories in New York City as opposed to a fictional municipality, and having the Four deal with internal strife, money problems, and a hostile media in additions to wacky supervillains.  Oddly enough, The Fantastic Fourfirst few stories don’t take place in New York, but in “Central City.” I wonder if they ever ran into the Flash? :lol:

What I Learned about Art/Storytelling: As previously mentioned, the art is definitely the main driver of the plot. Kirby knew how to create amusing and interesting visuals, such as the Thing dressed up as a pirate, or the various sci-fi backdrops which populate these pages. Bill Watterson once said that the best comics have good writing and good art, but sometimes the strength of one can make up for the weakness of the other. In a collaborative project, this maxim is doubled in importance, as the writer and the artist have to work together to create the best comic book story possible. Conflicting visions are possible, but in a great team like that of Lee and Kirby, the result is pioneering creations such as these.

Recommendation: B

Notes/Reviews/Synopsis: This book collects the first nine issues of the original The Fantastic Four series from the ’60s. Although it may bore older audiences, younger readers, especially those who have never been exposed to comics, will probably get a kick out of it. It’s harmless, silly fun that will spark young imaginations and help them learn to like reading.

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Great Movie Round-Up

In the last few weeks I’ve watched several very good movies. Here’s a quick rundown of each:

  • Zodiac – This movie is an intense crime drama which depicts a hunt for a vicious serial killer in the 1960s and ’70s. Very tight plot and excellent performances by every actor involved. I liked how the movie made it plausible that the police involved in these sorts of investigations aren’t the infallible experts you might find on television, where everything gets wrapped up in a nice tidy bow.

 

  • Schindler’s List – A very artsy portrayal of the story of Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist who goes from opportunistic profiteer to selfless humanitarian. A very hard film to watch, very much like the more recent 12 Years A Slave. It’s easily the best thing I’ve ever seen Liam Neeson in. The only other one that comes close is Batman Begins.

 

  • The Big Short – Promoted as a comedy, this expletive-riddled picture successfully dramatizes an explanation of the 2008 financial crises in a compelling manner. It’s humorous at some moments, and the plot is tight and smart, but it hardly qualifies as a genuine comedy, or even as a dark one. Christian Bale shows off his acting range nicely.

 

  • Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy – This movie was very long, very quiet, and very slow. Gary Oldman, another Dark Knight Trilogy alumni, does a good job with his role, as does every other actor in this movie. The film is something like a roller coaster: It slowly rises to the top of the ridge, before rushing downward and whizzing about through all the loops and sharp turns, and then grinding to a halt.
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