Romance, Westerns, Superheros – DC Comics’ SOLO Collection

I can safely say that, as of late, DC Comics has been a bit disappointing.  Sure, they’ve got Sandman: Overture starting up in October and some Vertigo titles are still pretty great (I’m looking at you Unwritten!), but as a whole… The company seems to be, creatively, headed for a valley.

The New 52 is sputtering like an octogenarian gumming his way through breakfast, Before Watchmen was a horrendous misfire that didn’t stir up sales as much as controversy, and their new plan of having a Frank Miller-style battle between Batman and Superman is… distressing to say the least.

But, after nearly seven years, DC Comics has finally collected their bi-monthly series Solo into a very nice Deluxe hardcover.  How does this collection fare?  Read on, read on…

Solo
Written and Illustrated by Tim Sale, Richard Corben, Paul Pope, Howard Chaykin, Darwyn Cooke, Jordi Bernet, Michael Allred, Teddy Kristiansen, Scott Hampton, Damion Scott, Sergio Aragones, and Brendan McCarthy
DC Comics
June 5, 2013
568 Pages

Solo The Deluxe Edition Cover

Solo, when originally released, was published bi-monthly and done as a sort of artist’s showcase with some of the finest illustrators working in comics.  Just check out the list above and you’ll be hard pressed not to find something to enjoy in this volume.  And the best part?

It isn’t all DC continuity!  In fact, probably less than half of the stories had anything to do with DC Comics characters.  Batman shows up quite a bit, as to be expected, but that’s about it.

The biggest surprise was a brief story written by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Teddy Kristiansen and starring Boston Brand, the Deadman (proving once again that the Brits will invariably go ass over elbow for the Silver Age of comics), but Darwyn Cooke’s entire issue was top-to-bottom fantastic, Tim Sale’s issue is pretty great (even with the terribly uneven Jeph Loeb), and Sergio Aragones is (expectedly) fantastic.

But it isn’t all sunshine and rainbows, at least for me.

Despite how cool it was to see some Western comics, many of those kind of blend together for me and are, at the end of the day, forgettable.  The same goes for the adventure comics as well.

Similarly, some of the art just didn’t do it for me.  Artists like Brendan McCarthy, whose cover art I loved in the Vertigo Shade, The Changing Man series, was too weird.  Much of looked to me like Grant Morrison fucked R. Crumb in a psychedelic love-nest.  But it didn’t work for me.  I’m sure someone who actually knows anything about art would have found more to enjoy.

But if I were to whip out my biggest complaint, it would be that there’s a very small amount of female creators involved in the project.  None of the twelve issues focuses completely on any female artists.  Thankfully, Laura Allred shows up to assist in the writing and coloring of her husband Michael’s issue… But we couldn’t get Jill Thompson in there?  Amanda Conner, or Pia Guerra?  I know that much of comic books is (unfortunately) a man’s world, but certainly there could have been at least one female artist brought on board for this project.

Couldn’t there?

Despite this painful oversight, this still warrants a buy vote from me.  Michael Allred’s issue reads like a bizarre love-letter to the Silver Age of comics (and his story “Batman A-Go-Go!” is by far the best deconstruction of the character as it exists in a post-Miller world) and Darywn Cooke’s issue shows why he’s one of the best working in the business today.

Even with several of forgettable stories, this is a strong collection with a good mixture of serious, funny, disturbing, and thought-provoking comics that show that comic books are more than just muscular dudes in tights.

Sometimes, it’s also Batman doing the batusi.

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Death’s Perspective – Lessons Born From Tragedy

I’ve been thinking about how we, as humans, respond to negative points in our lives.  Beyond my own sufferings, I’ve had several people in my life who have recently had to deal with the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, and other terrible detours in their travels through life and it has given me cause to wonder how they deal with it.

One of my solutions has been, since the tortures of middle school peers, finding a quiet, comfortable spot to read.  Sometimes I would put on music, other times I would revel in the sweet silence and the quiet rustle of flipping pages.

Regardless of the exact situation, my first instinct has always been to retreat.  My Fight or Flight-o-meter has always had its needle pointed directly at Flight.  In most situations of serious confrontation, I will (metaphorically and\or literally) curl up into a ball and hope it goes away.

This is a character flaw that I am entirely aware of.  And now I’m fairly certain I’ll be more critical about it in the future.

My other solution, for many years, was to write.  I’ve never had the talent to draw, nor the patience to learn how to play an instrument.  But I found in high school that I enjoyed putting pencil to paper and drawing out ideas and coming face-to-face with feelings I wasn’t aware of.

Eventually the stresses of college life blocked me up so bad that I still struggle to write to this day (as evidenced by my several near-abandonments of this blog in the last year), but I’ve still used books of all kinds as a way to work through my shit until I’m able to function like a normal human being again.

I’ve already posted previously about how I believe Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series helped get me my life back.  I still believe it.  Of course, I’m still not completely over what happened in December.  Coming that close one’s mortality is bound to give even the most mentally fit person an ongoing set of issues.  And I’ve never been one hundred percent mentally fit… But I have more closure than I had before and I once again have Neil Gaiman to thank.

I was given the chance to meet Neil Gaiman again here in Portland and I made it a primary goal to tell him how his comics rebooted my brain and allowed me to once again rejoin the throngs of people who hadn’t spent two hours huddled in terror in a tiny room with forty other people, wondering how long it would be before a crazed gunman figured out where we were and blasted his way in.

I believe I said something slightly more eloquent than that.  But maybe not.  It was close to 95 degrees outside that day and more likely closer to 100 inside the venue…  I think I spoke in full sentences.  I may even have had the presence of mind to talk about how Sandman was pretty much my Kübler-Ross model to make my way through the issues I was dealing with following the shooting.

Either way, Neil was incredibly gracious and kind in the brief interaction and I’m glad I was given the opportunity to explain what happened and to thank him for his part in my recovery.

It was later that day, when I was walking back to the train stop that I suddenly remembered another Gaiman tale that I hadn’t re-read in December when I was attempting to reorient my brain and thought processes beyond eating and sleeping to keep my body moving.  Some days I felt like a great white: keep swimming, or die.

After getting home, I asked myself many things.  The biggest question I had for myself was, “Why wasn’t this story the very first one you went to?” And I… don’t really know.

Death © Chris Bachalo Source: http://www.chrisbachalo.net/gallery-miscellaneous.html

Death © Chris Bachalo

“The Wheel” (illustrated by the wonderfully underrated Chris Bachalo) is a simple story, not epic in scope like Sandman.  It doesn’t follow the story of a tragic and tortured personification of Dreams.  In fact, the story, contained in five short pages and stars a young boy named Matt who climbs to the top of a ferris wheel because he plans to throw himself from it.  Why?  Well, Matt’s mother was killed in the 9/11 attacks and he wants answers.

And, because this is a Neil Gaiman story, the completely normal kid then meets some completely abnormal new friends. In this particular story, his two new friends are Death and Destruction, two of the Endless from Gaiman’s Sandman comics.

The story, being five pages long, appropriately hits on the five stages of grief.  The first two pages, denial.  The story isn’t true, but he’s going to tell it anyway.  He starts crying but insists that he’s fine.

Third page? Anger, of course.  Anger at God, which Destruction wisely attempts to have the boy realize that God, or gods, don’t make people do evil things… People do evil things. People choose to do evil things.

In a hold-over lesson from Sandman, The Endless (and also gods and their ilk) are simply reflections of humanity’s own psyche.  They were created by man to be the personification of our inner selves, but neither humanity, nor the world requires them to take action.  We all have choices to make and no one can make them but ourselves.

Then… bargaining.  This is more subtle (and I may be reading too much into it here, but… too late to stop now!), but Matt wants answers… and he’s willing to pay any price to get them… even if it means his death.

Then Death herself arrives and we start into the depression stage.  Destruction tells Matt, “Everybody dies.  Just as everything created is eventually destroyed” which naturally leads the kid to ask, “Then what’s the point of anything?”

Death, ever the sage tells him, “The point? Walk the world.  Help to feed the hungry, help comfort those in pain.  Do what you can to leave the world a better place.” And as soon as Matt begins his argument against her words…

The wheel lights up and starts moving.  Matt rides the wheel with the lights and sounds going, finds a happy memory of his mother and the ride has completely changed his perspective.  He’s decided to heed Death’s advice to ride the wheel.  Ah, sweet acceptance.

And it works!

It works really well… Mainly because the main character is a reader analogue.  Oh and a writer analogue.  Why do bad things happen? What is our appropriate reaction? Is there an appropriate reaction?  In the writing, Gaiman gets to work his way through the pain and confusion to get the answer.  And as a reader, so do we.

Well, maybe not The Answer.

There aren’t any answers to the Big Questions.  If there were, what would I have to keep me awake at night?

But “The Wheel” helped move me forward a few more steps toward some sort of final reconciliation of what happened.  Some days, that’s all you can do… Just keep moving forward.

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In Appreciation – Brian K Vaughan

Brian K Vaughan writes some of the most convincing, funny, and moving dialogue in comics today.  I’m starting there because he’s one of the most interesting and frustrating comic writers.  Moreso even than Grant Morrison.

Vaughan doesn’t rely on being impenetrable, like Morrison.  Nor does he consistently go for the weird, or the gross-out, like Ellis, or Ennis.  Brian K Vaughan is a simple, straight-forward author who writes intriguing plots, excellent dialogue, and never comes right out and tells you what the fuck is going on!

That said, he’s my favorite author of monthly comics.  I followed Ex Machina from issue 30, until its conclusion at issue 50, and I’ve been picking up the singles of Saga since issue 1 (though it was sold out until I was able to pick up issue 3!) and… that’s all I’ve really picked up from comic stores on a monthly basis.  That should tell you how high I hold Vaughan’s work as a writer.

Hell, I’m even buying his digital-only comic series Private Eye and I never purchase digital content with my own money (a gift card? maybe… a free download with a movie I bought? sure!).  Given the pay-what-you-want structure behind Private Eye (even nothing!), the series is easily worth the money every month(ish) they release a new issue.

But what are the best things Brian K Vaughan has done?  He’s been busy since 1996 and has written for Ultimate X-Men, Wolverine, and Doctor Strange for Marvel.  Vaughan spent time at DC working on Batman and Wonder Woman.  He’s also done Swamp Thing for Vertigo and a veritable crapton of stuff as an independent creator of comics properties.  Below I’ve compiled a Top 5 list of my favorite Brian K Vaughan titles.

5. Pride of Baghdad (2006), Illustrated by Niko Henrichon

Vaughan’s Pride of Baghdad tells the story of a pride of lions that escaped from a Baghdad zoo during the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States.  I went into this graphic novel not knowing what to think… and it was a really fantastic allegory.

Vaughan manages to portray the suffering of a country with lions people! And Henrichon’s art also manages to convey a humanity and a beauty, even amongst the darkness of war-torn Iraq. Definitely a must-read!

4. Ex Machina (2004-2010), Illustrated by Tony Harris et al.

Ex Machina is an excellently weird mash-up of science fiction and political commentary that would probably be higher on my list if it weren’t for a fairly disappointing ending.  The story follows Mitchell Hundred, the sitting Mayor of New York who was previously a superhero known as The Great Machine.

As The Great Machine, Hundred could communicate with machines, which made his jetpack\ray-gun set-up pretty much ideal… except for the fact that he’s not very skilled.  His career as a superhero is over before it begins… until he stops the second plane from flying into the World Trade Center, an act that catapults him to the Mayor’s house.

The story jumps back and forth in time so that each issue generally starts with a brief flash-back of Hundred’s time as The Great Machine, then following up with a scene from his life as Mayor.  The dichotomy is done very well and Vaughan is able to strike a great balance between superhero antics and political satire.

A great series that would be made greater if it was kind enough to give you more answers when you get to the end.  I know that’s kind of his thing, but… this was a lot more frustrating than the end of Y The Last Man.  Still, a well written mash-up of political intrigue, superhero pathos, and sci-fi madness.

3. Runaways, Illustrated by Adrian Alphona, et al. 

Runaways is, above all else, a whole lot of fun.  A simple story of a group of teens who find out that their parents are the head of an evil secret society called “The Pride” and go on the run to try to fight against the injustice their families want to bring down on Los Angeles.

The only real downside to this series for me is that it is a Marvel title, meaning that it has to tie into the Marvel Universe.  The guest spots with Captain America and Wolverine don’t bug me as much as my general confusion that comes from years of not reading much in the way of Marvel comics at all.

Even with that confusion, the series is worth reading.  Vaughan’s dialogue is (of course) snappy and witty and it is definitely the most fun comic of his that I’ve read.  Beatles references are fast and furious as well, and Vaughan’s not afraid to tug on some heartstrings… In fact, I haven’t read Joss Whedon’s continuation because of how badly Vaughan broke my heart…

2. Saga (2012-present) Illustrated by Fiona Staples

This may be unfair as the series is still in progress (it currently is on a brief hiatus at issue 12), but it is really, really fantastic.  The emotional tie-in is there from the get-go and Fiona Staples is doing such stellar work that I’m willing to call this one right now.

Thus far Saga tells the tale of star-crossed lovers Alana and Marko, two lovers from two different alien races.  They’re on the run from all sorts of people who want them dead… and they’re bringing their newborn child along.  Think “space opera Romeo & Juliet” but with main characters who aren’t completely insufferable twats.

The next issue comes out in about a month and I’m super-excited!!!

1. Y: The Last Man, Illustrated by Pia Guerra et al.

If Runaways broke my heart, Y The Last Man shattered it and turned it to dust.  Lots of people will complain about the lack of a clear explanation by the end.  Heck, it certainly frustrated me not that long ago.  And it still does.

But I don’t think the plague that wipes out all men is the point of the story.  I mean… that’s just the impetus for Yorick to get off his ass and make something of himself.  The plague drives Agent 355 and Yorick together, but their story that comes after it is so much more interesting than any explanation for the plague could be.  It happened and the world moved on.

But the ending… Oh, the ending.  I’m not going to spoil it.  I know the series is old at this point and if you haven’t read it, you should have… blah blah blah.  But I just can’t.  The last few issues are precious and really need to be experienced with no hint of what’s to come. But when you’re finished reading the series… come back here and we can have a nice cry together.

This list is obviously only including Vaughan’s creator-owned properties.  His Batman stories are just OK, his Wolverine mini-series is decent, his Mystique run is pretty great, and his run on Swamp-Thing would have been better if it hadn’t been cut off at issue 20… Well, maybe.  It definitely cuts off too abruptly.

What’s next?  Hopefully not another list!  I’ve recently finished Doughnut by Tom Holt, Silver Linings Playbook, Gaiman’s new one, and I’m just digging into The Shambling Guide to New York City.  Yay reading!

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The Detective And The Killer – Warren Ellis Goes Back To Basics In Gun Machine

Warren Ellis is not what many would consider a mainstream author.  Nor would anyone typically accuse him of being… well, typical.  His stories are often mad romps through strange futures, like Transmetropolitan or perverse, over-the-top detective tales like Crooked Little Vein.

That’s why Gun Machine comes as such a surprise.  It is, for the most part, a by-the-books thriller\crime drama\police procedural that takes the reader to the heart of New York City.  Does it work?  Read on, dear reader, to find out.

Gun Machine
Warren Ellis
320 Pages
Mulholland Books
January 1, 2013

Gun Machine CoverI often have trouble connecting comic book authors with the characters they help to breathe life into.  I’ve often wondered if Grant Morrison or Garth Ennis have some sort of magic mirror (or perhaps a kind of wormhole) that allows them to remotely view incredibly messed-up shit and then write about it.

I’ve also wondered about Warren Ellis, especially after I finished his weirdly excellent\excellently weird 2007 novel Crooked Little Vein, an odd mash-up of a hard-boiled detective story, insane conspiracy theory, and really disturbing sexual fetishes.

That said, I still enjoyed it.  But it was with some trepidation that I picked up Ellis’ latest novel, Gun Machine.  Still, it couldn’t be as off-the-wall and disconcerting as Crooked Little Vein, could it?

In a word… No.

But I don’t see this as a fault of the novel at all!  Quite the opposite, in fact.  Ellis manages to cage a lot of dense and interesting ideas into a plot that would feel right at home on a show like Law & Order… except Ellis’ story is much smarter.

So what’s this novel about?  Well, it starts out with a bang.  Detective John Tallow responds to a fairly routine call when his partner is shot and killed in front of him.  Tallow retaliates in kind, killing the shooter.  When he investigates the scene of the crime, John stumbles onto an apartment that is lined entirely in guns.

Guns from every era and of every type.  Pistol, rifle, semi-automatic, full-auto… just about any type of gun you can think of.  The firearms are arranged on the walls and ceilings in an odd shape that Tallow immediately recognizes as important… but what does it mean?

As the guns are analyzed, they all point to unsolved murders in New York… starting centuries previously. Even infamous weapons, such as the gun used by Son of Sam, are discovered in the apartment.

Every couple of chapters, Ellis writes from the perspective of the killer, referred to as The Hunter.  The chapters are creepy and disconcerting because he keeps jumping in and out of modern New York.  Sometimes, he sees the buildings and the cars, other times he perceives the world around him as full of trees and moose.

What really rounds the novel out, however, is the supporting characters.  The two CSI members, Bat and Scarly, are more in line with what readers have come to expect from Warren Ellis characters.  Tallow has his own streak of misanthropy, but Scarly is particularly sour and Bat is particularly odd, whiny, and hilarious.

All that said… the book isn’t perfect.  There’s a fairly lengthy series of coincidences that lead up to the end of the novel and the end itself is… well, not so spectacular.  But Ellis does such a good job with the characters and the message of the novel that I’m willing to overlook some of the other issues present.

The book works better overall than Crooked Little Vein and the two main characters are memorable enough to make a reader want to revisit them at a later date.  The complexity of the plot, outside of the more coincidental portions, is particularly well-thought-out, so…  check it out.

Warren Ellis is one of the smartest writers out there today (hell, he’s the only author worth reading in Ultimate Fantastic Four and The Authority) and it really shines through in this novel… just be warned that it isn’t as consistent as Transmetropolitan or Nextwave.

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Killer Russian Chimps, God Frogs, And Assorted Weirdness In Panels

I love comic books and graphic novels!  This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who regularly reads my blog.  I’ve had a brief love affair with sequential stories (going on seven years now), but I’ve made a heavy investment of time and money in the pursuit of the hobby.

My favorite creators aren’t typically writing superhero fare.  Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Brian K. Vaughan, G Willow Wilson… None of these are primarily known for their superhero comics (though Alan Moore is very well-known for his deconstruction of the superhero genre).  My favorite writers are also, generally, pretty straight forward.

But comics can be a weird place, especially as the comic creators who are publishing now are far enough in the shadow of influential tales like Watchmen and Sandman to have grown up reading them and being inspired by them.

This post is meant to celebrate the weird and the strange in comics.  Many writers and artists are popular in the mainstream (like Grant Morrison), but are still able to do work that is almost avant-garde in style.  Here are some of the strangest comics I’ve read in my short time enjoying comic books.

5. Walt Simonson’s Thor

Thor #337

Technically, Simonson’s work on Thor isn’t that strange, all things considered.  But for a superhero comic, it seems exceptionally weird to me.  All told, Simonson (working as both artist and writer for much of his run) brought odd new situations to the life of Marvel’s most famous Asgardian for nearly a decade.

In this nine-year span, he introduced a character named Beta-Ray Bill, Thor himself turned into a frog by Loki, and even a frog version of Thor (yes… a frog with Thor’s powers that is separate from Thor himself as a frog).

Beta-Ray Bill is an alien who, surprisingly, has the ability and worthiness to wield Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir.  The story, character’s name notwithstanding, is actually quite good.  The coloring of the books, like many comics from the pre-digital age, hurts the hell outta my eyes, but they’re well worth checking out just the same.

Also consider that Simonson took care of both scripting and art duties for much of his run… And delivered (near as I can tell) monthly.  Genius comic critic Chris Sims has a nice Top Ten List worth checking it out too.

4. Brother Power The Geek by Joe Simon and Al Bare

Brother Power Issue 1

There’s really not a lot to say about this oddity from the DC archives.  The series ran only two issues in 1968, but is a sort of weird genius comics.  Not quite a superhero comic, not at all any other kind of comic…  The two issues are downright bizarre.

In an attempt to channel the hippie culture of the time (and, according to Wikipedia allegedly the more philosophical side of Silver Surfer), Simon created Brother Power with a Frankenstein-esque origin wherein a mannequin is dressed up in bloody, sweaty hippie clothes and comes to life when struck by lightning.

The two issues are almost inconsequential outside of the origin and the supposed final appearance of Brother Power, as he’s shot into orbit on the orders of Governor Ronald Reagan.  The title was quietly cancelled by DC’s editing and publishing staff and forgotten.

Well almost forgotten.  Neil Gaiman retained the knowledge of the character and brought Brother Power back in Swamp Thing Annual #5 (which was supposed to be Gaiman’s inaugural issue on the series, but wasn’t because of another DC editorial fuck-up regarding Rick Veitch’s plans for Swamp Thing to meet Jesus).  There are scans to the original series online, so check ’em out if you’re bored.

3. Transmetropolitan by Warren Ellis and Darick Robertson

Spider Jerusalem

When I was just starting out reading comics about seven short years ago, one of the first titles recommended to me was Transmetropolitan. A co-worker had seen me reading both comic books and Hunter S. Thompson and told me, “Read Transmetropolitan.  It basically is Hunter S Thompson living in a Phillip K. Dick world.”

And this is such an apt description that I’ve used it often to recommend the series to people hunting for a new comic to read.  The series stars Spider Jerusalem (best name ever, right?) in his battle to bring justice to the fucked up 23rd Century United States… through journalism!

Big guns, drugs and plastic surgery on-demand, unfrozen cryo-refugees wandering deep in culture shock by the brave new world they’ve been thrust back into… oh and I swear there’s a talking dog who is also a cop.  That sounds like it probably came from this series.

Ah dystopia.  Who doesn’t love a good dystopic future?  Check out the first trade.  You get a nice, full story there (well, pretty much) so that if you don’t enjoy it, you won’t be out much.  Ellis fills the series with a nice mixture of humor, social commentary, and the amount of messed-up shit I’ve come to love from him.

2. Nextwave: Agents of H.A.T.E. by Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen

The Nextwave Team

Oh man… When I first read Nextwave, I was but a wee lad, in Marvel Comic terms.  I think I had read Civil War and Old Man Logan.  That was about it.  Maybe by then I had read Brian K Vaughan’s Runaways.  I can’t be certain.  But this comic is like a crash-course in the odder side of the main Marvel 616 universe.

Nextwave is a rogue superhero team who defected from H.A.T.E. (because everything in Marvel is an acronym… from S.H.I.E.L.D. to S.W.O.R.D., H.A.T.E. stands for Highest Anti-Terrorism Effort) when it was discovered that H.A.T.E. was secretly funded by the evil Beyond Corporation.

But… that’s not that important.  All that matters is that they’re fighting Dirk Anger (an even-more-ridiculous Nick Fury) and his massive collection of U.W.M.D.s (Unusual Weapons of Mass Destruction, naturally), which includes Fin Fang Foom, Elvis MODOKs, and a giant red tyrannasaurus named Devil Dinosaur.

Reading the series is a weird distillation of just about everything that makes comic books wonderful… and also what makes Warren Ellis one of the craziest bastards in comic writing.  It doesn’t make sense… but it is funny as hell.

1. The Filth – By Grant Morrison, Chris Weston, and Gary Erskine

The Filth

And on the other side of the publishing fence, we have Grant Morrison’s mad, perverse, disconcerting Vertigo-published series The Filth.

The series begins with a man named Greg Feely buying immaculately dirty porn from a convenience store.  This is pretty much the last normal thing that happens in the book.

Greg Feely is simply a cover for a man named Slade (presumably no relation to Deathstroke, given that Slade in The Filth has both eyes and is outfitted in gaudy, colorful outfits that would even make Jack Kirby think twice).  This man, Edward Slade comes in from the cold to rejoin a secret group known as The Hand.

The Hand, comprised of sub-groups like The Horns, The Finger, and The Fist, is best described by the character Nil, “We’re garbagemen Ned. We stop the world’s backyard from stinking.”  Ned, Nil, and other members of the Hand (including a chimp with a penchant for assassinations) go on all kinds of adventures to maintain the Status Q and… I’m really confused.  The whole thing is a bizarre conglomeration of surreal, abstract ideas and over-the-top perversity.  I’m not sure if it works, but… it does have people being attacked by gigantic sperm, so… there’s that!

I’m fairly certain there’s more weird comics out there.  A good deal of them are probably written by Grant Morrison.  His runs on Animal Man and Doom Patrol (or anyone’s Doom Patrol, really) are some of the best, weirdest comics of the 80s.  Then there’s Alan Moore’s Promethea which is an odd combination of superhero comics and Kabbalah…  But not weird enough to be included here.

What’s everyone reading out there?  I’m midway through A Storm of Swords and I’ve been bouncing between comics, YA fiction, and odd medical history books in the last couple weeks…  I’ll be back soon with more!

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Doomed To Repeat It – Matt Fraction’s Invincible Iron Man

I’ve been a huge fan of the character of Iron Man since the first film starring Robert Downey Jr was released in 2008.  HUGE!  It was everything I wanted from a superhero movie: a great origin, lots of humor and explosions, and Robert Downey was back!  Iron Man even drove me to finally check Downey out in Zodiac (which was also a great film!).

Moreover, the film made me more interested in Marvel’s Golden Avenger than I had ever before.  Up to that point, I was pretty much a DC guy.  I enjoyed the first two X-Men movies and the first two Spider-Man flicks, but I found the comic properties of those films to be too dense and confusing to jump on to and really enjoy.

I’d like to say that Iron Man was different in this manner… but it really wasn’t.  I found a couple of trades that I enjoyed (most especially Warren Ellis’ excellent 6 issue run entitled Extremis), but even some of the long-held classics like Demon in a Bottle left me feeling bored and listless.

Now there’s nothing really wrong with Demon in a Bottle, but… well, the four-color art is too-bright sharp for my lazy eyes that have been raised on mostly digitally-colored art-work  and often I find it difficult to enjoy comics from the pre-computer color era.  JR Jr’s art looks great, as always, but the color… just kills me.  Can’t do it.  Michelinie’s writing is also consistent as the story goes on and Stark has a more and more difficult time in fighting his alcoholism… But…

Hiram Dobbs

Early in the run, there’s an excellent battle between Iron Man and Namor that would be so much better if not for one of the supporting characters.  The story introduces us to a man named Hiram Dobbs, a character who would fit right in if this were a Wild West comic and we needed a stereotypical Old Coot, but to me… the character felt hackneyed and forced.  Took me completely out of the story, which makes me sad.

Still, the story has been incredibly influential to future writers of Iron Man books and some great things come out of it in Matt Fraction’s fantastic sixty issues.

The Invincible Iron Man
Writer: Matt Fraction
Artist: Salvador Larroca
Published July 2008 through October 2012
Sixty Issues + One Annual

Invincible Iron Man Omnibus Volume 1

The first thing you need to know is this: the first nineteen issues are collected in an omnibus collection and this is the way you have to get it.  It is another beautiful hardcover from Marvel (see: Avengers VS X-Men and Bendis’s Avengers: The Heroic Age for other examples of this) and you get awesome value when you buy the issues in a large collection like this.  The hardcover is much preferred over buying the three paperbacks.

A second omnibus has also been released, collecting through issue 33 and is also a great value.  The second quarter of the story arc is more hit and miss, but… we’ll get to that later!

To begin: I hadn’t read any of Matt Fraction’s work before I started on this series, but I’m excited to check out his ongoing Hawkeye series after reading Invincible Iron Man.

What I’ve come to appreciate most about Matt Fraction from this series is definitely his sense of pacing.  The first seven issues, an arc titled “The Five Nightmares” not only sets the stage for pretty much the rest of the series, but also stands alone as my favorite run of issues in the series.  The pacing is tight and quick, the artwork is superb, and the plot is timely, frightening, and unbelievably tense.  In addition, the dialogue is snappy and Fraction includes just enough Iron Man’s history to tie it all together without being too confusing for new fans just starting off.

“The Five Nightmares” is a story of a hero brought low.  In it, Tony Stark\Iron Man is fighting against an enemy unlike any he has fought before… but also one with which has some familiarity.  The villain of this arc is Ezekiel “Zeke” Stane, son of Obadiah (Iron Monger) Stane, one of Iron Man’s villains from the 80s.

There is a tendency in the Iron Man films (and to a lesser extent, the comics) to have Iron Man fight against an enemy who is using basically the same power set… a powered exoskeleton (or armor) that is supposed to take the Iron Man armor to the limit… And that’s… fine, I suppose.  But the premise definitely seemed tired after forcing Whiplash down our throats in the second film.

Fraction gives Zeke a similar power set, but uses it in a much different way.  Stane is a genius, much like his father, but has much less money and much worse tech on his side.  Still, Zeke Stane is able to seize Iron Man tech from the black market and uses a number of off-the-grid centers to coordinate his attacks and quickly move on.  After several terror attacks where seemingly normal people go nuclear using tech similar to Iron Man, Tony Stark is forced to investigate.

Stane is also particularly frightening because he is almost an anti-Iron Man.  Instead of an actual suit, he has managed to upgrade his biology in order to lower his metabolism.  This results in an excess of energy that allows him to fire repulsor beams from his hands, similar to Iron Man, but without any sort of armor.  Even though Tony Stark is practically one with his armor after the Extremis story, Stane is just as capable outside of an armored suit, which makes him very dangerous to Stark.

The seventh issue really sells the whole collection, as it pairs Iron Man and Spider-Man together, as Spider-Man chases Iron Man around New York.  Peter Parker’s goal is to get a big news story out of Iron Man so he can save the fledgling paper he works for.  Iron Man doesn’t know who Spider-Man is because of… well, let’s call it “Stupid Bullshit Editorial Decisions” and move on…

The last issue in the first arc manages to both humanize Stark’s character and allows the reader to sympathize more than they should with a genius billionaire.  Mainly because, by the end of the collection, Stark is a billionaire no more.  Left to pick up the pieces of his fallen empire, will Stark rise?  Or will he continue to fall?

You’ll just have to read the rest of the collection to find out!  I really think you’ll enjoy yourself.  There’s very little down time in the first nineteen issues (or really the whole series) and they’re well worth reading.  There’s a bit of crossover material you should probably also read to get the full picture, but… you could skip it.

The Fear Itself: Iron Man trade stands out in the series as an incredible meditation on death, failure, and resilience that no fan of comics should miss… and you could (and probably should) skip the Fraction penned crossover that the series often references (seriously, Fear Itself ain’t that great).

Coming up in next week or so: That’s Not A Feeling by Dan Josefson, a post about how much a title can affect my knee-jerk reaction to a book, and maybe some more comic action.  After all, there’s at least six-thousand Brian Michael Bendis comics out a month and I may eventually catch up on those…

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There’s A Downstairs In Everybody – Making Sense of The World With Sandman

I wasn’t sure I was going to come back this time.

My brain’s always so fried this time of year, but I had a whole slew of posts lined up and ready to go (well, in my head at least) and was all ready to have a productive, if predictable  December.  Blogging about comics (maybe finishing A Naked Singularity) and just kinda coasting through the rest of the year.

And then on December 11th, there was a shooting at the mall I work at.

I came out of the back room around 2:20.  Maybe twenty seconds later, I heard what sounded like a series of electrical shorts.  Maybe a clumsy electrician dropping a pack of light bulbs.  Somewhere between eight and ten pops, echoing from down the way.

Just seconds after that, I heard screaming and people were running.  A couple of employees and I herded some customers into the receiving area.

I then received a call on my store phone telling me to go close the gates to the mall.  I’m somewhat ashamed that someone had to tell me, but I’m also sane enough to realize that I was in a bit of a panic at that point.

Gates closed, we made sure the store was clear and retreated to the break room for just under two hours while we waited for the police to clear the mall itself.

Two people were killed that day.  In the three weeks since the shooting, I haven’t been over to where it happened in the food court.  In fact, I’ve only been out into the mall just once.  Having sat waiting for the mall gates to close, I feel as if I’ve spent enough time in those areas for a bit.

I pretty much dropped most of what I was doing with my life at that point.  I stopped reading the couple of novels I was reading, I stopped work on crafting a Christmas gift for my wife, and I generally found myself to be more tired and irritable.  Especially when customers were back in the store and complaining about the long lines, or long waits for returns.

But, thanks to an excellent team of co-workers, I’ve successfully navigated another holiday season.  At this point, I’m hoping it’ll be my last retail holiday season, but… I’m not making any decisions at the moment.

In the interim, my reading has been two things: Matt Fraction’s fantastic Invincible Iron Man comic (seriously, I love this!) and another revisit to the world of The Dreaming in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman.

Why Sandman?  Well, in addition to it being the first long-form, on-going comic series that I loved… I always turn to it for good quotes.  Usually, I’ll find something in it (or in one of the two Death miniseries) that will help me with whatever I’m struggling with.  That and I can count on finding something new that I missed before.  A panel of art, a word or phrase… sometimes bits of foreshadowing, or callbacks that I didn’t recognize the last time I read it.

But there’s always something.

So I decided… I’m going to read Sandman again… but this time, in whatever order I come to it.  So I pulled the second volume of Absolute Sandman off the shelf and read the “Game of You” arc first.  I’ve loved this arc the most since I first read the series.  In fact, just before the following picture was taken, I thanked Neil for writing it and told him it was my favorite arc in the entirety of Sandman.

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So Sandman it is.  I’ve learned that there’s a TON of people at my work who love Gaiman himself and Sandman more specifically.  I’ve learned that the Absolute copies of the series are just as heavy as I remember them… and just as great.  I still love the recoloring!  I’ve learned that there’s always more to learn about just about anything…

I’ve also learned that there are going to be triggers for me.  Putting up, or down, the mall gates.  Seeing groups of ambulances congregated in the same places.  Hearing fireworks outside of the house…

I may have learned more.  Right now I’m content with the feeling that things are getting better in my head.  I feel more well aligned than I have in more than a month.  I feel more positive about my life, my body, and my soul.  Most of all…I feel ready to take a short stroll around the mall…

Thanks Neil!  For Sandman, American Gods… pretty much everything.  Thank you for helping me in getting my mind refocused and back to as normal as I can.

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