Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Is It Me?

I don't know if this is something to crab about since I never look for excellence in professionalism in the comics shop retail arena. Tell me if I'm overreacting.

I was anxious to get out of the house after being cooped up with a cold for a few days. I tagged along with the girlfriend as she ran to look up a few items at Sam French. I knew there was a comics shop down the block from there, so I walked down and killed some time. I used to frequent the store when we lived in the area, but I think they had a different owner then.

The shop seems cleaner, yet more disorganized than I remembered. I know that makes no sense. The new stuff is very neat and organized while some of the older detritus (lots of 90's leftovers) seems to clog endtables, piled high for deep discount (lots of sundamaged Robocop action figures, for example).

The kids running the shop seem like the young hipsters that would want to work in a comics shop: Kind of detached, almost too cool for the place. The kind that would immediately talk about customers behind their back the second they left the shop (which I was witness to).

The thing that got me was that when I brought my purchases up to the register, I was asked if I wanted bags and boards. I usually decline when asked, though my regular LCS throws them in for free. Please note that I had a few "new" comics and a few older comics, the point being that the older items were already bagged and boarded. "No thanks," I said.

So, imagine my surprise that the clerk proceeded to remove the bags and boards from the back issues I was purchasing.

Is it me, or does that seem incredibly cheap?

The experience kind of soured me on the whole store. Granted the older issues were going for cover price, but if they were, say, $20 a pop, would he still have repossessed the bags and boards? I don't think I'll go back there anytime soon.


Monday, January 29, 2007

Comics: Week of Jan. 24, 2007

52 Week 38 - In where we return to Monster Island, or wherever it is that the mad scientists are located? I'm interested in the crime bible and its references to the Fourth World. Could the missing Yurrd the Unknown, the hunger-lord, be Skeets? He did eat the Phantom Zone?

I liked the callbacks to the Question's origin in the O'Neil series. What seems like throwaway ramblings are little nods to the first time Charlie "died". I'm crossing my fingers...

Eternals #6 - I smell padding. Wasn't this supposed to be a 6 issue miniseries? What's going on?

I thought the mind control exchange between Ikaris and Iron Man was pretty clever. The new status quo established at the end of the issue regarding the dreaming Celestial really sets this mini up for an ongoing. Who knows? Gaiman's had a problem wrapping up stories before... at least for comics.

Marvel Adventures: The Avengers #9 - How could I resist the buzz around this issue? I haven't picked up a Marvel Adventures book before, but are they all this fun? It's nice to read an angst-free Marvel title. "A.I.M. barbeques"? I'd like to see that.

Nextwave #7-11 - I've put off reading these for a while. Reading them all in one go was a blast. The punk rock aesthetic of this book is hard to resist. Too bad it's coming to an end, but we'll always have battle-chaired, eye-blasting Stephen Hawking.

The Spirit #2 - Nice done-in-one. What I like about this series is that the story and exposition are nicely interwoven, like how comics used to be before writers got lazy. If you're hesitating on picking this up because you don't know anything about the Spirit, don't let that stop you. Cooke will give you enough in the story so you don't feel lost. Go now.

X-Factor #15 - I think I missed an issue. Good thing for the recap!

Yet another inventive (and slightly creepy) use of Madrox's powers. David's really turned a c-lister into a solid, entertaining character.



Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Fancy Comics

Between X-Mas gifts and gift cards, plus other unforeseen bonuses to my comic habit, I've picked up a few graphic novels from off the beaten path. In the case of gift cards, I always like to use them to try new stuff, or stuff I've heard good things about, but somehow never got around to purchasing.

I've been picking my way through Best American Comics 2006 from Houghton Mifflin (a new variation of their annual "Best" series). It's exciting for me that comics get this kind of recognition, and especially from a yearly anthology series. I've seen some of the included material from other like-minded literary collections (McSweeny's springs to mind), but none with the kind of personal influence of the editor(s). Harvey Pekar guest-edits with series editor Anne Elizabeth Moore. I especially liked Pekar's introduction, which shows both his enthusiasm and worry for the medium.

Of what I've read so far: Joel Priddy's The Amazing Life of Onion Jack is a great opener in that it is a helpful transition from the superhero genre into that of the more independent, personal bent of the book. Plus, it made me laugh out loud and I cried a little at the end. Rabbithead by Rebecca Dart takes Chris Ware's method of breaking page layouts into parallel, diverging timelines and literally runs with it. Thirteen Cats of my Childhood by Jesse Reklaw came so close to my own personal experiences that I feel as if he read my mind.

Those were just a handful of stories I've read so far. The rest are just as impressive, personal and accomplished. I highly recommend this volume.

Peanut Butter & Jeremy: Best Book Ever by James Kolchalka - Purchased at Earth-2 Comics through their great "Buy 10 trades, get 1 free" policy.

Like a lot of Kolchalka's work, Best Book Ever reads like a children's book that grownups can enjoy. It's the story of a sweet cat, who thinks she works in an office, and scheming crow that's constantly trying to trick her. Fairly simple, yet there are little bits of business that hint at deeper characterizations of the two. The book is divided into shorter stories that repeat themes of friendship and anxiety, with a little slapstick here and there. It's a great way to escape for a little while and indulge the kid in you.

Goodbye, Chunky Rice by Craig Thompson - I've heard good things about Thompson's other title, Blankets, but its size has been a little intimidating. I decided to warm up with the more manageable size of Goodbye.

This is a story for anyone who has ever had to say goodbye. The best way to describe it is that it reads like a poem. It has an internal sense of rhythm, and treads a line between the cuteness of anthromorphic cartoon animals and the darker areas of human nature (loneliness, hopelessness). Thompson draws the whole thing in lush ink strokes, which is refreshing. I always prefer to see the artists hand at work as opposed to the polished perfection of so many mainstream comics today.

Part of me wanted to see the story continue just a bit longer, which isn't a bad thing. Maybe I am ready for Blankets.

American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang - I really enjoyed this book when I finished it, though as time has passed, I've started to wish it had a bit more meat to it. Maybe its the National Book Award nomination... that kind of thing can screw with expectations.

The story is told on three tracks, all tied by issues of identity and an unexpected twist at the end. I liked the end for what it tried to do, but after some thought, it felt a little forced. Forced, but then totally appropriate for the medium. I don't know, my opinion changes from moment to moment on this.

The book does an excellent job of showing that awkward phase in everyone's life where they try to take control of their own identity. There's plenty of embarrassment and guilt to go around, and it's detailed fairly effectively. Add issues of race and culture, and the stakes get raised even higher. It's a good read and worth seeking out, despite my reservations about the end.


Monday, January 22, 2007

Comics: Week of Jan. 17, 2007

52 Week 37 - At first I though it was silly to have such a spoiler cover, but then I quickly reversed myself and thought it was clever. Dispensing with the long-running mystery of Super Nova's identity just leads to more questions, and what better way to get it out of the way than to feature him on the cover. I've been loving 52 so far, but this issue felt more kick-ass than usual. Now that we know who he is and how he is, we now turn to who or what the hell is Skeets anyway? My guess? I'm thinking he's another villain in disguise... Given the penchant the writers have for rehabilitating forgotten and under-appreciated characters, would it be impossible for the Time Trapper to make a come-back?

Also, the last page went far to gain my confidence back in the handling of Buddy's death. As always, Morrison rules the school.

Astonishing X-Men #19 - Everything is coming together. Whedon looks like he's going to tie up all the loose ends on the run to the finish.

Fantastic Four: The End #2-4 - I've been a fan of Davis since he was on Batman and the Outsiders. I always marveled at his ability to maintain an uncanny consistency in characters, even incidental ones. I can't think of a better artist to handle Marvel's flagship title. I'm unfamiliar with the The End series that they've been doing, and whether they always involve such a large cast, but this book has everyone, and it's nice to see an artist who can handle drawing so much.

The story seems pretty straightforward. With the family broken up, I can only assume it's all leading to one last reunion to defeat the big bad. I like how the story seems to be dropping in on all of the various foes the Four has had over the years, though by the fourth issue, it was getting a bit predictable, especially the Super Skrull reveal and the Mole Man. Given the simplicity of the story so far, I'm thinking that the whole Kree/Skrull breach of the quarantine zone is a red herring, and that it's all Doom and one of his patented contingency plans from beyond the grave.

I loved the bit with Johnny and Ben, and the sly reversal of personality. Ben always been so fearless and bombastic, and to see him worry now that he's a family man was touching. For Johnny to give Ben the speech he's undoubtedly heard so many times before from Ben himself captured the very essence of their bond.

Irredeemable Ant-Man #4 - I like how this title has woven in other events in the Marvel universe. It's something that Marvel always kind of excelled at, until recently. Clearly I'm up for a series with an unlikeable protagonist awash in black humor. The payoff may be that this guy actually does some good, whether he realizes it or not. My only criticism is that I'm anxious to move beyond the origin story and the SHIELD stuff. It's a small one, and due to the appeal to the character. They've managed to actually make Ant-Man cool, and I want to see him out there in the larger Marvel U.

Manhunter: Trial by Fire TPB - Finally the second trade makes it to the stands, just in time for the series cancellation. I wonder, if this second trade was made available a year ago, would it have made a difference. Between hunting down back issues and the trades, I've read the entire series now, and Trial by Fire finds it hitting its stride.

It's a beefy trade that covers the period between Identity Crisis and includes some buildup to Infinite Crisis. Andreyko, in the tradition of Alan Moore and James Robinson, takes the intrusion of a company crossover and turns it into an opportunity to expand his corner of the DCU. The trial of the Shadow Thief, even though it stems from Identity Crisis, seems natural, and uses the themes of the miniseries to build on its own. The appearance of an Omac later in the trade likewise feels like a clever way to tie the series into the rest of DCU, but also tie a nice bow on the Manhunter continuity, and gives the various title holders a connection.

I'm going to miss this series.



Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Comics: Week of Jan. 10, 2007

A little late this week.

This cover is a truth-in-advertising violation52 Weeks 33-36 - This run has: A little resolution to the space arc, or at least the main threat is dealt with (though it seemed a little rushed). A bait-and-switch concerning the death of a character (he better not be dead... it's wrong on so many levels, and pointless). A reveal of where Rip Hunter has been hiding that I thought was quite clever.

Apparently, we'll find out who Supernova is in short order. My bet is the Ray Palmer theory that's been floated out there on the interweb. It makes more sense than it being Booster (though I'm not ruling that out). My hopes for a zombified Superboy seem to be dashed.

Robots are coolAgents of Atlas #6 - Nice tidy wrap-up to this series. I hope Parker gets a chance to revisit these characters, as they are some of the most interesting I've seen out of Marvel lately. The reveal at the end is along the lines of what I was expecting, but the new status quo was not. Given that Marvel seems to be throwing continuity out the window more than not, it's nice to read a series that has no baggage that needs to be forcibly ignored in order to enjoy it.

This is not a commentary on the industryAll Star Superman #6 - Simply the best Superman series I've ever read. Captures everything great about the character and world, weaving in elements from his best incarnations. The thing I like most about Morrison, a trait he shares with other great writers, is that he has his own internal sense of continuity that he returns to when he can. I like the Silver Age goodness that permeates this title, but I also like the little bits pulled from Morrison's JLA and DC One Million.

Now with more angst!Civil War #6 - It's official: I've lost any kind of enthusiasm for this series. I know, I know, what could I expect? I don't know... I thought this thing was going to be relatively self-contained and balanced. I'm a fool, I know.

At the very least, I trusted Millar to write something that would be compelling on its own instead of the bare-bone outline that this series has turned out to be. I'm not getting the full story in Civil War, which I knew going in, but I figured I'd be getting a story. I'm getting an ad for other titles that way tell me the story...

How will all this resolve? Probably some half-ass half-measure where heroes can come forth of their own will and get government funding and training. Also, there will be fallout Marvel Angsty Moodiness (TM) for the foreseeable future... until Hulk returns and the Annihilation Wave arrives and everything dovetails into the next event I most likely will bow out on.

I may go back to waiting for trades when it comes to Marvel. At least I'll have a better idea if something turns out well or not, plus I hear Marvel puts more quality into their trades than their floppies /sarcasm

It's full of starsJSA #2 - Now the Alex Ross story credit makes sense. Looks like Kingdom Come is being brought into play (Can Hypertime be far behind?) as well as pre-Crisis Legion? That was Dawnstar in issue one's teaser, and as far as I know, she hasn't reappeared since. Starman looks like he might be a time-lost Thom Kallor, bouncing around alternate realities.

Shhh?Manhunter #27 - I had great hopes that this series would kick out all the stops for its now-confirmed final arc, but it seems to be slowing down a bit out of the gate. Andreyko has written one of the most unique characters to come out of DC since, well, Starman and Chase back in the late 90's. It's too bad no one's buying, and the company seems all too eager to plunder the ideas and characters for other, more commercially viable properties. Sigh. I've heard rumors that somehow this series may play into an upcoming event, but I don't know. The story about Wonder Woman on trial feels like it's already been dealt with, and I'm getting a little "Is this OYL or not" anxiety. I'll hang on to the bitter end, though. It's still a better read than most.



Monday, January 15, 2007

OT: Children of Men

Children of Men is a beautiful movie. We saw it last weekend on a day trip down to Pasadena. Originally, we were going to see The Good German but changed our minds as we made our way into the lobby. I'm so glad we did.


Children of Men follows the fine tradition of great sci-fi stories that transcend the genre by being less about the fictitious word and more about the real one. The hook is that it's 2027, and humanity has mysteriously lost the ability to procreate, and no children have been born for the last 18 years or so. The story follows Theo, a former political activist, who gets drawn into a plot that may change the world: namely, he's charged with getting the miraculously pregnant Kee to a secret rendevous with the outlaw Human Project.

The filmakers sketch just enough of this world to paint a believable picture of a future without hope. The focus is on Britain, though one gets the sense that the rest of the world might be even worse off. The government serves mostly to keep the population from a collective freak-out by gross distractions (illegal immigratation) and heavy medication (the government is handing out sedatives and euthanasia kits... "You decide when" coos the advertising). Little bits cribbed from Orwells 1984 and Nevil Shutes On the Beach give the viewer just enough information to make it all seem horrifically plausible. Leaving the theatre I thought, "This is exactly what would happen".

This isn't to say that it's a minimalist sort of world. The story is rich with complexity of motives and goals for the various characters. One would figure that the first birth in 18 years would be greeted with joyous celebration as a miracle, but it's quickly spelled out how genuinely dangerous and volatile it is. The art direction for this movie is wonderful... the world is fully realized and the backgrounds and sets are packed with information that tells the viewer about this world. No space is wasted. The dialogue skirts around the crime of most bad sci-fi movies and never over-explains, or lays out clunky exposition. Everything that the viewer needs is laid out and shown, not told.

The movie does a remarkable job of painting the larger picture of society through through a smaller, more intimate one. There are a few bravura segments of violence and chaos, but they never lose sight of the individual experience. There is a climactic sequence near the end when the world erupts in war and violence that's flat-out amazing, and even more so when I realized that it was all done without a cut: the camera never leaves Theo as he negotiates a labrynth of a refugee ghetto that's under seige from multiple players.

The story boils down to a confilct of faith versus chance, hope versus cynicism. It's an especially resonant story in this day and age. The filmakers tip their hand a bit towards current events (most notably in an instance where Abu Ghraib is visually cribbed) but leave the rest of it relatively timeless. I have to admit that I was unsure of the movie before going in, expecting more of a "message" film, but got quite a bit more. It's probably one of the best films I've ever seen.



Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Flashback Sequence: 2006 Montage

What is it about the year-end holidays that makes us so reflective? Part of me thinks it's some evolutionary hard-wiring, some sense of self-preservation that we have constructed not one, but a multitude of year-end hoidays, events and traditions. As we humans head into the darkest parts of winter, we all gather round the hearth to celebrate, exchange gifts, drink and crab about the previous year. These things will keep us warm in the coming months til Spring arrives.

So, everybody's doing it...

Rather than gloss over the famous and infamous of the previous year, I'm going to try to keep this in the spirit of Thought Balloon: a rediscovery of the joy of comics and other related things. This will be more of a personal list.

In 2006, I discovered a few comics shops that had actual back-issues. I had a lot of fun catching up on old series that I had missed the first time around. In particular, I was able to find runs of the late 90's series Chase and the more recent Truth: Red, White & Black and Manhunter.

Trades, Trades, Trades...
In lieu of back-issues, it seems a lot more trades are rolling out collecting past series and story arcs. I was able to catch up on a lot of more recent storylines and series in 2006. Ex Machina, Ultimate Galactus, JSA, & Captain America: Winter Soldier to name a few.

There may be a day when the trade replaces the monthly, and that will be a sad day for me. Still, the trades look awfully handsome on my shelf...

The Big Event
I know I was complaining about event-fatigue when Infinite Crisis ended, shifting it's gears to 52 while Marvel was getting the Civil War underway. Still, I think 52 is a triumph of what comics have missed in quite a while, namely excitement, or at least interest, for the next installment. Whether or not this will backfire remains to be seen. Creatively, everything on DC's side seems to be firing on all cylinders. Even when the results fall short, I find myslef applauding the attempt.

Alternative Funny Books
This year, I finally got to enjoy Charles Burns' Black Hole in its entirety. There were also offerings from Chris Ware's Acme Novelty Library, a Rocketo trade and various items from James Kolchalka, mostly Super F*ckers. Reminders that if you love the medium, you've got to look for things beyond the mainstream superhero fare. It's worth it.

Since receiving an iPod for Christmas in 2005, I have been doing nothing but hunting for podcasts to fill it with. My favorite, by far, is the wonderful Comic Geek Speak. In conjunction with a forum that has proven to be the most level-headed place on the interweb for comics fandom, CGS is largely responsible for reactivating my nerd gene this year.

Also, I'd like to mention John Siuntres' Word Balloon, Fanboy Radio (who have been getting ridiculously great interviews lately), Raging Bullets, and Indie Spinner Rack. The future is indeed a marvelous place.

Comics Blogosphere
The friends I never had as a youngster. Look no farther than the sidebar here to find some of my favorites. A special thanks to blogging heavy-weight Mike Sterling for giving me a few link-bumps this year. Visits went from 2 to 3 a day to hundreds, and provided a bit of an ego boost here as well as a feeling of belonging to a community.

Finally, I'd like to thank my long-suffering girlfriend, who keeps the flame of my youth alive by indulging my nerdly flights of fancy. I'd like to think that I return the favor by attending the odd chick-flick/ballet/abtract theatre prodcution, but who am I kidding? How can love like this be measured? Sitting through another pre/post-Crisis compare/contrast, and the metatextual meaning of the creative process through the lens of corporate-owned characters may well prove that love is indeed infinite.