Saturday, February 7, 2009

Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 vol 1: The Long Way Home

Collects Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 8 #1-5 written by Joss Whedon with artwork by Georges Jeanty and Paul Lee.

Let me start by confessing to this: I abso-bloody-lutely love Buffy the Vampire Slayer. I was there when the show started its seven year run, I bought the DVDs and I have watched the entire run of the series at least seven times. While the show is not the most perfect run of any TV-show in the history of television, it is among the most original and addictive. Much has been said about creator and all around evil genius Joss Whedon’s feminist agenda and reinvention of the female hero as well as the high school teen-show, so I won’t repeat any of that here. But I love Buffy. So now that is out in the open.

The last season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended perfectly. It had the kind of ending that any great TV-show should have: One that brings the essence of the show, the metaphor, if you will, to the front of the story and wraps everything up nicely within an episode that feels like the ultimate episode of the show. So many shows have tried doing something different in their final episodes (like the sitcom Friends that wanted you to cry instead of laugh in the finale… a very bad idea), but Buffy and Joss Whedon stuck to their guns and delivered an amazing finale. The RIGHT finale.

So when it was announced that Whedon would executive produce and sometimes write an official in canon season eight in comic book form, I was both insanely excited and a little worried. Because how do you continue on from the perfect ending?

I needn’t have worried, as Whedon knew exactly what he was doing. Season Eight opens in a much different place than where we last saw Buffy. It even brushes off some annoying bits of information about Buffy’s life after the show that we got in the spin-off show Angel within the first few frames. And then Buffy jumps out of a helicopter and kicks some demon butt. Buffy never jumped out a helicopter on the show. Except maybe that time when she did, but I think that was on Angel, so it doesn’t count. My point is that Whedon embraces the endless possibilities that the comic book form provides him with. No more bad CGI, no more rubber monsters. Instead you get an army of the undead (and who doesn’t love an army of the undead these days?) and Willow the witch flying through the air like that dude from those DC comics.

Buffy now has an army of vampire slayers and the American government is not impressed. This story arc was written before Barack Obama and his Dreamamerica (a term I have shamelessly stolen from the great Jon Stewart) became a reality, so the US government is still evil and sees terrorists everywhere. You know, the bad old days? So it seems that Buffy is going to war with the US military or maybe even the entire human race. Buffy and her army of slayers, mystics and witches is seen as a threat to humanity, and I guess you can’t really blame us dumb humans for getting a bit jumpy when an army of superhumans suddenly appears and seemingly acts outside the law.

Is Buffy losing touch with the world? Is her army of slayers really in the best interest of the world? This theme seems very familiar, especially if you are at least a semi-regular reader of any X-Men book, but Whedon has never denied having lifted many ideas or themes from X-Men in just about everything he has ever done (okay, maybe not Toy Story), so it shouldn’t come as a surprise to regular fans of the Buffyverse.

Some have complained that the world of Season 8 is too far removed from the TV-show, but I really don’t see that as a problem. The show ended perfectly, so why continue down that road? This is in many ways Buffy Vol. 2, and thus it should be different. Whedon does seem to have lifted something a bit more problematic from the X-Men books, though: The comic book series is burdened by an insane amount of continuity. You really do need to have watched the show, if you want to understand ANYTHING that’s going on in this book. Then again, that’s not really different from picking up most books from Marvel or DC these days. But Season Eight issue 1 is really Buffy issue 145. You need to have watched the other 144 episodes if you want to understand this.

The book ends with a stand alone story, which is probably the greatest single issue Whedon has ever done. Buffy is nowhere to be seen in this story, but Whedon explores a corner of his newly created comic book version of the Buffyverse and creates a whole new world. In 22 pages. It’s a great story.

The artwork in this volume is done by series regular Georges Jeanty. While he is no Bryan Hitch or John Casseday, he does get the job done. His style has the exact right mix of realism and cartoon-style that a book like this needs. Buffy has always mixed real and raw emotions with the lightness of the classic superhero comics, so Jeanty is a fitting artist. He has also designed a version of Buffy that doesn’t really look that much like actress Sarah Michelle Gellar, but still looks like Buffy Summers. He has made the character his own. Towards the end of the main arc in this volume the panels do get a bit messy, but that might just be Whedons script that is a little too busy. But overall the book flows nicely.

The artwork in the final, stand alone chapter is by Paul Lee who’s style is not quite as organic as Jeanty’s, but is still perfectly fitting for a fill in artist. Credit should also be given to regular cover artist Jo Chen and her elegant covers. The front cover to this collection is especially iconic.

Buffy Season 8 is off to a great start.


Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Secret Invasion

Collects Secret Invasion #1-8 written by Brian Michael Bendis and drawn by Leinil Yu.

This is it. The Marvel mega-event that everyone and their grandmother have been talking about for what feels like an eternity. The brainchild of Brian Michael Bendis, the infamous writer who have set forth to change the face of the Marvel Universe, one universe-spanning event at a time. This is his magnum opus (in a Marvel context, anyway), and this is most likely what he will be remembered for the most once the dust has settled and everything's back to normal (ohh, the cynicism of long-time comic book readers...). And let me start by saying that it's actually pretty good. Not in the "Holy shit, I need a new pair of pants!"-kinda way, but more in the "Hm, not bad, not bad. Pretty good actually."-kinda way. I enjoyed it.

I won't bother with a detailed explanation of the story, lets just say that Earth is invaded by Skrulls and the heroes need to get together to save the world while not being able to trust each other or, in some cases, even themselves. Pretty much every corner of the MU is represented in some form or another in here, although obviously the main focus is on the Avengers cast of characters. The main strengths of the script is the massive scale of the event and the spectacularity that automatically comes from having every major Marvel character in the story. There's a bunch of cool plot twists that you will probably already know about if you've been anywhere near an active internet connection within the last year or so, and plenty of action to spice up the whole thing. This book has been accused of being just one long outdrawn fight scene, but I have to disagree with this. There is a lot action, maybe even more than in your average monthly, but the plot moves along at a nice pace and the action only helps to increase the feel for the gravity of the situation. The finale doesn't disappoint either, as was the case with Civil War to some extent, and of course it has a suspenseful ending that leads into the next big universe-spanning event, Dark Reign... Ah, will it never stop?

The main problem with this book is that it does not read as a complete story. It has a beginning, a middle and an end, so you'd think that it's a complete story. But the problem is that there are so many unanswered questions remaining after turning the last page, that it makes the X-Files seem pretty self-explanatory. I assume all or most of these questions will be answered in the numerous Secret Invasion tie-in books, which I will be getting like any other Marvel-addicted junkie out there, but at the end of the day I'd be hard pressed to call this book a complete story in and of itself. It seems to me that Marvel wants to put it out as a stand alone book while also benefiting from the added sales of tie-ins, and that does compromise the overall quality of the main title.

Yu is one of my favorite Marvel artists these days. His quirky style has given personality to a book like New Avengers, but unfortunately he has chosen to change that in this book to a much cleaner style. Personally I prefer his usual style to this one which seems a bit more, well, anonymous. Still, his compositions and ability to bring out the personality of every single Marvel character on the page, does put him a head above the rest.

One thing I want to praise Marvel for is the speed at which this book was put out. The last issue of the series was put on the stands in December (if I'm not mistaken) so it's only been a month or so until this book came out. This is in stark contrast to earlier publishing fiascoes where books of the same series came out in wrong order because one of the books has to come out in a HC version first. Lets hope that Marvel keeps up this good publishing policy, although I've been told that it's only something they do for major event books.

Yes, I'm quite pleased with the way this book came out and I recommend it to anyone who wants to know what the fuzz is all about or if their specific Marvel idol was a Skrull all along. If you're planning on getting this book, you might also consider getting the latest New Avengers book and the New Avengers: Illuminati book which both function as prologues to Secret Invasion. Now all we can do is sit and wait for Dark Reign...


Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Uncanny X-Men: Divided We Stand

Collects Uncanny X-Men #495-499 written by Ed Brubaker with art by Michael Choi.

There is no doubt that Brubaker is one of the hottest writers around these days. The Daredevil book hasn't looked as good as it does right now in ages. Captain America is one of the most interesting Marvel reads these days. And the three Criminal books have all amazed readers and critiques alike. But his Uncanny X-Men somehow fail to make this list. It's simply not very good. It started out pretty well with Deadly Genesis. Then came Rise And Fall Of The Shi'ar Empire which was decent, but nothing special. The Extremists then started the downwards slide towards where we are today. Messiah Complex was good, but you couldn't really tell Brubaker's voice from the rest of the authors.

And now, post-Messiah Complex, we have Divided We Stand. Which simply put, isn't very good. The X-Men are supposed to be disbanded, but this doesn't stop them from sticking together. Colossus, Nightcrawler and Wolverine go to Russia to get messed up in some bland brawl. And the rest get caught in a situation in San Francisco where the city is slowly being infested with a hippie state of mind caused by a mutant psychic whose identity I won't disclose, although I suspect people really don't care that much.

This book follows the pattern of X-Men: Divided We Stand in that it seems to be a setup story, although it is more vague in what will happen and it takes a lot of time to get there. What is told in five chapters here could just as well have been told in two or three chapters, and that would probably have made it better.

It seems to me that Brubaker never really achieved what he wanted with the X-Men. Fatal Genesis brimmed with boldness and new ideas, but that sort of faded away after a while. Maybe this has to do with the infamous editorial intervention, but who am I to tell? From the next Uncanny book Brubaker will be sharing the writing credits with Matt Fraction, until Fraction takes over completely, so things are looking up.

I'm not a big fan of Choi, although I think his technique is interesting. He employs a minimalist approach to line work leaving graduations and shadings to be taken care of by the colorist. I wonder how this works out work-wise? If all Choi does is the line work, I'd think the color artist, Sonia Oback, probably put more work into this book than Choi, but I'm just speculating here. All in all, I think the art is a little too static for an X-Men book, Choi doesn't seem to be used to drawing a lot of action scenes. He does seem to have a knack for drawing tech stuff, like big robots, so maybe he would be better off on a SF series of some sort?

This book is far from the quality it should have with a writer like Brubaker, and thus qualifies as a bit of a disappointment. Here's to hoping that things will get better when the transition to Matt Fraction as the writer on the series starts with the next event: Manifest Destiny.


Thursday, January 22, 2009

New Avengers: Illuminati

Collects New Avengers: Illuminati #1-5 written by Brian Michael Bendis and Brian Reed and drawn by Jim Cheung.

Yet another Secret Invasion prologue before the big bang. The Illuminati, consisting of Iron Man, Black Bolt, Dr.Strange, Mister Fantastic, Namor and Professor X, were introduced early on in New Avengers, and form an important part of the puzzle that is Bendis' vision of the Marvel Universe. In this book we are given some more background story on the group through glimpses of some of the situations throughout Marvel history where they have been working behind the scenes.

The stories are not particularly interesting in their own right, but they do leave some questions hanging that I expect will be answered in SI. This book is therefore more of a setupper than it's a story in it's own right, and as such it is difficult to say much about how well it succeeds, but it did leave me wanting for more.

Readers might have objections to some of the stuff in here. For example, I didn't really like the reinterpretation of the original Secret Wars story. The most interesting chapters are the first and the last, which both deal with the skrulls. The first chapter hints at how the skrulls have been able to invade Earth without anyone noticing, and the final chapter sees the Illuminati finally realizing that they have been invaded.

Whether you like these stories or not is going to completely depend on whether or not you like Bendis' MU. His vision of the MU is certainly more multilayered than what we're used to . We are far removed from the relatively simple four color hero-beats-up-villain stories of yesteryear. Here everybody have their own agenda, and real power works in the shadows. Trust is not easy to come by, and even old heroes don't trust each other anymore.

The art by Jim Cheung is flawless,. His clean, crisp style is extremely well suited for superhero books, especially team books. He easily handles large numbers of characters on the same page, without any one of them falling out of focus. He reminds me of the best of the 80s artists without feeling old fashioned. If he ever drew a poster with all the MU characters, I would put it on my wall while my wife were out.

This book doesn't really feel complete in it's own right, but I would recommend reading it if you're planning on reading Secret Invasion. If you do think Bendis-style Marvel is the best thing since the automatic dishwasher, you probably will anyway. In any case, you can always enjoy the beautiful art by Cheung.


Tuesday, January 20, 2009

X-Men: Divided We Stand

Collects X-Men: Divided We Stand #1-2 written by Mike Carey, Matt Fraction, Craig Kyle, Christopher Yost, Skottie Young, C.B. Cebulski, Duane Swierczynski and Andy Schmidt with art by Brandon Peterson, Jamie McKelvie, Sana Takeda, Skottie Young, Scot Eaton & Andrew Hennessy, David Lafuente, David Yardin, Frazer Irving and Chris Burnham. Also includes the X-Men: Messiah CompleX - Mutant Files handbook.

Messiah Complex is over and the X-Men are gone. Does that mean we'll never see them again? Well, if you believe that, I got a couple of Eiffel towers I'd like to sell you. The dissolving of the X-Men does not stop Marvel from putting out this book of appetizers, giving readers a glimpse of where the X-titles will be headed the next year or so. A lot of the stories concentrate on (former) New X-Men characters, but we also get stories featuring Beast, Nightcrawler, Havok and Illyanna Rasputin.

My main complaint with these stories is that none of them ever get very interesting. Being teasers for future story arcs, I guess this is in their nature. The interesting parts should come later. The sheer number of stories and small number of pages per story, leaves a rather confused and not at all coherent impression. And this is the problem with this book. It wasn't designed to tell it's own story, but rather to introduce later stories. The result is a bunch of very short stories ranging in quality from totally indifferent to a little but interesting. There's nothing in here that will shatter your mind.

Whereas the authors never really get a chance to show what they can, this book does function as a showcase of some the artists that hang around the X-office. There's a lot of different styles in here, and some of them are pretty interesting. I would like to especially point out Skottie Young, David Lafuente and David Yardin as promising talent.

The Messiah Complex - Mutant Files is nice to have nearby when reading Messiah Complex. But one has to ask why this wasn't included in the Messiah Complex book itself? And in any case, the information in here is not more than a simple wikipedia search away.

The cynical would say that this book is just a way of making people pay for previews of future publications, but I think that is a bit harsh. There are some interesting bits in here, but as a whole the book is not really that interesting. If you like (very) short stories and are eager to get some hints at what will happen in the near future, e.g. Manifest Destiny, X-Infernus and Kingbreaker, you might as well get this book. If you're looking for the usual over the top all-out X-Men action I suggest holding your breath a little bit longer or rereading Messiah CompleX.


Monday, January 12, 2009

The Umbrella Academy Vol. 1: Apocalypse Suite

Collects The Umbrella Suite: Apocalypse Suite #1-6 written by Gerard Way and drawn by Gabriel Bá.

This is a book that's been receiving a lot of positive buzz lately, and after reading it I feel obliged to join the parade. Coming pretty much out of nowhere, this book is a serious contender to the 'Surprise Hit of 2008' award. Books written by celebrities usually turn out with mixed results (well, that's the polite version...) but this book is not written by Way the singer, it's written by Way the comic book writer. Way's real job as a singer in a world famous rock band (My Chemical Romance) is very downplayed here, being limited to a small note on the back of the book. There is no doubt that Way wants this to be about the book and not about him, and that is fortunate, because the book certainly deserves all the attention it can get.

At it's core Umbrella Academy is a superhero story, spiced with elements from different genres. I don't like to compare books of this quality to other great books, but I can't help but think of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Hellboy when I read this. But make no mistake, Umbrella Academy is good enough to stand on it's own, and really requires no comparisons. There are multiple ways of describing this story. It is a tale of the end of the world and the heroes who have to stop it. It is a tale of madness and the personal consequences it causes. It is a tale of a dysfunctional family that has to learn to live with itself. It is a tale of love and hate and everything in between. And it is a tale of people beating each other up. Take your pick, it's all in there.

The world of the Umbrella Academy has elements of Victorian England spiced with a bit of steam punk and other science fiction stuff I don't know what to call. Lets call it The World of the Umbrella Academy. There is no specific time nor place, although parts of the story take place in known parts of the world, e.g. Paris, but there is a past, a present and a future. And the greatest accomplishment of this book is how convincingly these three elements come to life with a minimal use of pages. Because this book doesn't start at the beginning, it starts at what I presume is well over the middle. Sure, the reader is told what he needs to now about the beginning but not more. Similarly, the reader is told what he needs to know of the future but not more. All this makes the world come to life, so much so, that 43 children being simultaneously and spontaneously born with super powers as a consequence of a show wrestler delivering an atomic flying elbow to a giant space squid seems almost natural.

For a debutant, Way shows very good understanding of comic book storytelling techniques. Although the story isn't lacking in dialogue, a lot of the story is told through pictures, making it feel like a story that could only really have been told as a comic book. It's amazing that this book was written by two people who had never worked together before, most writer/artist pairs never achieve this level of affinity and those who do take years to get there. The hugely talented Gabriel Bá certainly deserves his share of the credit of this book. His layouts and characters are excellent and his darkly expressive style conveys atmosphere of the world and the grimness of the characters perfectly.

The only bad thing I have to say about this book is that it's too short. It's too short because you don't want the goodness to stop, but unfortunately it is also too short because six chapters isn't quite enough to tell the story Way wants to tell. For a story that both sees the birth of the main characters and the end of the world and a lot of other stuff, it feels a little compressed and the central story of the book gets a little lost in all the details. This is the reason it's so difficult to say exactly what this book is about, what is the story Way wants to tell? At the same time, it is my clear impression that Way wants to tell us something with this book, it certainly has it's fair share of heavy themes. Fortunately, Way and Bá are currently working on The Umbrella Academy: Dallas, so I am confident that the future will bring us a clearer picture of what the Umbrella Academy is really all about.


Thursday, January 8, 2009

Avengers: The Initiative vol. 2 - Killed In Action

Collects Avengers: The Initiative #7-13 written by Dan Slott & Christos Gage and drawn by Stefano Caselli (#7-11) and Steve Yu (#12-13) and Avengers: The Initiative Annual #1 written by Dan Slott & Christos Gage with art by Salvador Larroca, Clayton Henry & Paul Neary, Steve Yu, Tom Feister & Carmine Di Giandomenico and Patrick Scherberger & Dave Meikis.

The attempt to cover up the accidental death of Initiative member MVP goes completely haywire as he wakes up again, although this time as a super-strong zombie-like uhm... thing, pissed off and out for revenge. And with his left arm replaced with the deadliest weapon in the universe. Needless to say, it takes a lot of B and C grade heroes to deal with this kind of trouble, and a lot of heavy punches are dealt here. And this guy is not content with a bit of happy slapping either, there is literally liters of blood spilled here. Meanwhile, the New Warriors, unhappy with upper management, decide to jump ship, foreshadowing some interesting things to come, and in the end the first class of the Initiative graduates, making room for new recruits.

Killed In Action keeps up the high quality of the first book, Basic Training, while shedding more light on some of the characters and continually introducing new subplots. This time the stories seem a little less self contained, with the MVP storyline taking up most of the book, but there are so many subplots that it feels like something new is happening all the time.

One thing that I immensely enjoy about this series is the characterization. Before reading the first book I was worried that the characters might be a little bit boring, mostly because I didn't know many of them I guess, but those worries have been proven completely unfounded many times by now. Baron von Blitzshlag, the extremely morally questionable ex-Nazi employed by the Initiative, is quickly becoming my favorite current Marvel character, and several minor characters are having a bit of a golden age of their own here: Henry Pym, Taskmaster, War Machine, Henry Gyrich, Constrictor etc. And then there's the new characters, through whose eyes we get to look into one of the darkest and at times most cynical corners of the Marvel Universe.

Although this book is about new heroes, in the tradition of New Mutants and similar titles, the tone is rather dark, definitely a lot darker than I expected before reading it. Twisted morals and double standards seem to be central themes here, and how the new heroes react to this is an important part of the story. But the new heroes themselves are not as blue-eyed as they seem, and this adds another layer to the story, removing the book from the black and white hero-beats-the-crap-out-of-a-villain-every-month genre. There is also a lot of humor here, which saves the it from becoming too depressing and makes it a pleasant and enjoyable read despite the dark themes. Few Marvel books has this kind of thematic sophistication today, and in that regard the book is a bit of a gem.

Another thing that this series has in spades is interesting subplots that swirl and merge and guarantees that the reader will never be bored. A good example is the subplots of MVP dying and the three Scarlet Spiders which turns out to be connected, or the New Warriors subplot or the multiple little seeds planted in the annual which hint at both Hydra and skrull involvements later on as well as the return of a character from the beginning of the series. There's a lot of stuff to keep track of and sometimes it can get a little confusing, but it meshes very nicely, and the result is a very entertaining story that never lets go until it ends.

The art in this book, most of it by Caselli, is very good, and I'm especially impressed with how well the drawing and coloring complements each other. The coloring by Daniele Rudoni is really good, and I can only imagine that Caselli and Rudoni must work very closely together to create this level of quality.

I certainly recommend this book, but you will want to read the first volume before this one. This has turned out to be a the surprise hit of 2008 for me, and I'm eagerly awaiting more. Slott has positioned himself as a heavy weight Marvel writer, and this series shows why.