Sunday, August 14, 2016

Pacifism in Rubber Suits; Running through Godzilla Part 1: the 1950s

Villain. Reluctant anti-hero. Beloved hero. The variables change. What remains constant: an indestructible force of nature. His appearance can send an entire nation weeping for their lives, or cheering from the sidelines, and every combination in between. Godzilla (called Gojira in his native country) is a Japanese icon, a reminder of a horrifying past, and one of cinema's most fascinating and enduring film franchises.

Produced by Tomoyuki Tanaka, with writing and story contributions by Takeo Murata and Shigeru Kayama, the original Godzilla production took recognizable form when Toho Studios hired Ishiro Honda to finalize the script and direct the picture. There have been countless monster movies made before and after Godzilla, but perhaps none as devastatingly tied to the real world. This 50-meter-tall sorta-reptilian sorta-dinosaur resembling monster (designed by Teizo Toshimitsu, Akira Watanabe and Eiji Tsuburaya) is a physical manifestation of humanity's contempt for itself to grow so tragically severe to allow the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki to occur. Described by scientists in-film as an ancient sea monster that had been hibernating for centuries, Godzilla is woken up by the nuclear fallout, and his own biology is impacted by the bombs.

Fantasy, horror and science-fiction media don't usually concern themselves with subtlety; it's often an endearing trait of genre fiction. Some of the all-time great works are known to preach their social and political criticisms to the audience (I'm looking at you,
Twilight Zone), with Godzilla among them. Blatancy vs Subtlety shouldn't be a debate, with the former works of art being derided for choosing to address real world concerns under the guise of easier-to-digest genre mechanisms. Some people would label this film (or if not this film specifically, then almost certainly the sequels) a b-movie; a movie with a visibly low budget and tells a relatively familiar story that falls under a genre such as horror, fantasy, or science-fiction. There's a sort of unwritten formula to them, that you only pick up on once you watch so many movies of any specific genre. Genre films have a harder time earning the praises of critics than “real-life” dramas, so-called arthouse films, or films directed by established directors with auteuristic qualities. You can tell a sweeping, emotional story about the effects of the atomic bomb on Japanese society, but if you throw in a 150-foot monster (or some other fantastical element) then all of a sudden people will approach it from a critical distance. Even among people who enjoy genre films, a lot will not even admit to taking them seriously. There is the so-bad-it's-good label, the shut-off-your-brain-at-the-coming-attractions argument. There are those who come into these films with an ironic distance, which hurts genre cinema. If its fans can't even take it seriously, then why should the critical community? By refusing to take b-movies/genre films as seriously as other movies, we are depriving film criticism of some much needed variety, and limiting the types of discussions that can be had about certain movies. As post-war reflections on life in Japanese cinema go, Godzilla is the real deal, and it shouldn't be out of place to be brought up in the same discussions as The Human Condition, for example. Fortunately, critical consensus has lately been giving this film its deserved respect, possibly helped in part by the Criterion Collection's decision to add it to their Blu-ray library. Godzilla has earned its place in the film canon, but none of its sequels are given the same consideration. It's not even a question of if these movies are actually good, or how good they are, because the type of criticism they receive is so dismissive of them at first glance that they are not even given a chance to succeed. Critics and wider audiences alike should be more open minded about experiencing genre cinema, and not feel the need to disassociate them from other areas of film.

The human plot-lines in Godzilla films have a tendency to be less interesting than whatever the monsters are up to. This is a problem more-so with the sequels than the original, which works as a straight laced drama for much of its duration. There is a compelling mystery in the first act, as villagers are shocked by their sunken fishing boats and destroyed land. Even loss of lives. There are rumblings of monster talk, but the beast remains unseen. There is a growing anticipation in his debut, with a payoff that's a little more gruesome than todays generation of viewers might expect. The towering figure grazes the city streets, lumbering, but destructively. Each step shattering the buildings and roads beneath his feet. Telephone poles stripped from the ground. Fires nearly as high as the monster itself blazing behind him. In the foreground people are manic, running as fast away from the chaos as possible. The film occasionally cuts from the action to close-ups of people, in packs and individually, looks of horror painted on their faces, some huddled in corners; too close to the monster to escape in time and accepting their cruel fate. The accompanying sounds are an overlap of composer Akira Ifukube's doomsday score, and the screams of everyone across Japan, afraid for their lives. Godzilla's reputation in the West tends to lean towards his campier exploits of the 1960s and 1970s. It doesn't help that the original film was released in the United States in mangled form in 1956, as Godzilla, King of the Monsters!, eliminating 16 minutes of footage from Godzilla and including newly shot exposition scenes. The truth of Godzilla, however, is one of horror brought on by the atomic bomb.

The beast's on-screen appearances are the most memorable moments. This is a horror film, and its scenes of Godzilla laying waste to buildings and people, grazing through cities as they burn to the ground behind him, still leave a deep impression. In one later scene, the camera pans right to left in one long take to illustrate the damage that's been done; what appears to be an entire town, no more. Godzilla's screams a harbinger of death, they echo throughout the film, and burrow in the subconscious.

Godzilla doesn't just reflect on the past bombings on Japan, but on the state of weapons of mass destruction. The film's eccentric and reclusive character Dr. Serizawa has created an Oxygen Destroyer, a device which breaks down oxygen atoms surrounding an area, causing any organism nearby to die of asphyxiation. An invention which could prove to be a miraculous tool for science, or a civilization destroying weapon. Serizawa repeatedly refuses offers by the military to use it against Godzilla, afraid of creating another weapon and repeating a chain of events that saw Godzilla arise in the first place. Dr. Serizawa's scientific breakthrough would always become a weapon. A sorrowful truth of humanities inward destruction. He eventually agrees to use his discovery to save Japan, but in an act of self preservation, he destroys the beast, as well as himself, burying with him the secrets of this potential weapon. In Rod Serling fashion, a final monologue warns against nuclear weapons testing and how it could lead to the creation of other Godzillas and other creatures like him.

was a box office hit, and Toho rushed a sequel, putting Godzilla Raids Again (1955) in cinemas not even six months later. Motoyoshi Oda's only directed Godzilla film, Raids Again is fascinating in parts though not cohesive as a whole. It is partly a retread of the predecessor, hitting the same beats and meditations on violence and war but lacking in Honda's humanity. Honda's work is undeniably pacifistic. Oda seems either unsure of his political leanings, or unwilling or unable to put his own self into the series like Honda did. The rushed production put a rather low glass ceiling on the potential of the Godzilla sequel. While it partially carries over the previous film's pacifism, it introduces a second monster, Anguirus, pits both it and Godzilla in battle, and almost revels in their mayhem. As the two creatures do battle in civilized territory, the human causalities and loss of homes is prevalent, but Godzilla Raids Again is hardly concerned. This movie creates the monster vs monster set-up of the kaiju genre/movement that swept Japan in the 1960s, with Godzilla at the forefront of it all. Those movies all do a better job conveying monster-on-monster battles than this one, which has some of the weaker kaiju action scenes in Toho's Godzilla series. When Godzilla and Anguirus battle, they grapple each other like wrestlers, and pummel each other with left and right hooks, grapple some more, with shoving back and forth, and back to punches again. They repeat this formula, and they move much too quickly. The actors inside the monster costumes are unsure on how they should be moving, and prance with the agility of lucha libre wrestlers. It doesn't work at all considering the shape and perceived size of these beasts, and they fight at such a speed that none of their moves leave an impression. They appear to take no damage from each other, and don't even slow down from exhaustion as you would expect opponents to do in battle. To make matters worse, the footage appears to be sped up during these fights, suggesting the film wanted to illustrate these monsters exhibiting supernatural speed, an idea that is dropped in the 1960s films. The later sequels improve on the fight choreography exponentially, with the actors smartly playing to the camera, and making every move matter.

The most interesting thing about Godzilla Raids Again is the carefree attitude the human characters portray throughout this movie, especially in regards to the cities-wide destruction caused yet again by our title villain. They're laughing and joking in the face of Godzilla news, and simply trying to live their lives to the best of their ability, around this recurring nightmare. Once is a tragedy, twice is a statistic. Japan has already become desensitized to their giant destroyer. And if you think that's poor or unrealistic writing just look at America's mainstream reactions to daily mass shootings. You can only mourn the loss of life for so long. Even when it continues, at some point you become numb to its effects, as horrifying as that sounds. Who knows if this was an intentional aspect of Godzilla Raids Again, but it certainly strikes a chord nonetheless.

Toho didn't follow up Godzilla Raids Again for seven years, the franchise experiencing its first of several lengthy hiatuses. While Godzilla lay dormant, other monsters sprang up, with Toho keeping Ishiro Honda to direct monster movies for them: Rodan (1956), Varan the Unbelievable (1958) and Mothra (1961). These movies kept the kaiju genre alive, and it exploded in popularity throughout the remainder of the 1960s as Honda crafted his own monster movie universe, with Rodan and Mothra becoming recurring fixtures in the Godzilla franchise, and popular characters in their own right. Japan was no longer home to just one giant monster, but many. Capitalism refused to let the King of Monsters die, morphing the anti-war sentiment into Japan's very own - and very profitable - antihero. And with a host of other colourful creatures to both oppose and assist him, Godzilla grew into a family friendly blockbuster series.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Adventure Time: “Cherry Cream Soda”

Adventure Time: “Cherry Cream Soda”
Season 7, Episode 3
Air Date: November 4, 2015

Root Beer Guy was set up to be one of Adventure Time's later-series breakout characters, debuting in season five's “Root Beer Guy” (a season highlight in the show's greatest season), but tragically died a year later in season six's “Something Big”, sacrificing himself to save the Candy Kingdom. Root Beer Guy's widow Cherry Cream Soda takes centre stage in her titular episode, which explores one character's grief in a way previously unseen in this series.

We've had death and mourning in Adventure Time before (“James”), but not from the perspective of a person mourning the death of a romantic partner; specifically, a wife grieving over her dead husband. The opening four minutes in “Cherry Cream Soda” are among the most quietly sad and thoughtful the show has produced, where we discover Cherry Cream Soda has dreams every night recounting Root Beer Guy's death. Confused every morning, she stumbles into the bathroom, and seeing the shower is running, thinks her sweetheart has come back. Instead, it's Starchy, her new husband of two months. He is growing frustrated at Cream Soda's inability to cope with Root Beer Guy, but tries to play the supportive husband role. There is a tenderness between the two in their early scenes together, though not exactly a romantic spark. It is reminiscent of the scenes shared by Ruth Fisher and George Sibley in Six Feet Under's later seasons. In both situations, we're given reason to wonder whether Cherry Cream Soda and Ruth are actually in love with the new men in their lives, or are merely trying to fill the void left by their deceased husbands; evidence leans towards the latter for both.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Adventure Time: "Varmints"

Adventure Time: “Varmints”
Season 7, Episode 2
Air Date: November 3, 2015

In discussing Adventure Time, we are so far removed from the traditional Saturday morning cartoons of old, shows built around a single premise and status quo, and would spend years building narratives off the same launch pad. Even Cartoon Network's own classic first-wave of shows – Powerpuff Girls, Dexter's Laboratory, Johnny Bravo – functioned this way. You could stumble upon the show while channel surfing and immediately get into the episode, a season one episode or a season five episode working with the same base ingredients. There's a comforting familiarity in a series that doesn't experience drastic changes, generally keeping the premise static throughout the show's entire lifespan. It's a cartoon staple, from the Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner short films to more adult fare such as The Simpsons.

Adventure Time's narrative progression from episode to episode traces back to the show's anime influences. Many of the writers and animators were of the generation that grew up on the first major wave of dubbed anime airing in North America throughout the 1990s; series such as Sailor Moon, Dragon Ball Z and Mobile Suit Gundam Wing. I'm younger than the creators of Adventure Time, but I grew up on those same shows towards the end of the '90s into the new millennium, so I admit to a degree of nostalgia that explains why the storytelling structure of Adventure Time resonates with me. Dragon Ball Z, Sailor Moon, as well as Pokemon and Digimon, were the first arc-based television shows I started watching; the first time I grew invested in serialized stories, to a degree where I experienced some pretty hardcore fandom for several years. I would excitedly think about these shows all day and discuss them with my friends and plop in front of my couch every day after school to watch my favourite characters in new adventures. Unlike the Western animated shows I watched at the time, the anime told stories of consequence; things actually mattered and events would directly influence future episodes and the possibility of missing just a single episode of these shows was akin to breaking a Commandment. Adventure Time is a little more episodic than these anime, and it rarely forms proper story-arcs, but the world building and naturally progressing character story-arcs are there. Adventure Time is sneaky in how every plot, no matter how lite, can matter in a big way and be setting up future narratives; it's one big world and every action has consequences.

Continuity and over-arching narrative progression isn't new to animated television, but it's rarely seen in a series targeted towards such a youth audience as Adventure Time's, and with the show's inconsistent and difficult-to-track air dates, it's likely that a large portion of its youth audience doesn't even watch every episode in order. While every episode is a self contained 10 minute story that's accessible enough on its own, this is a series that rewards its most dedicated viewers, and I can't imagine not watching every episode in order.

A season three episode titled “What Was Missing” which aired back in 2011 received a lot of attention in regards to Princess Bubblegum's and Marceline's relationship. In the episode, a creature called the Door Lord causes mischief by stealing one prized possession each from Finn, Jake and BMO, before transporting through a magical door out of their tree-house. The trio follow his path and soon meet up with Marceline and Bubblegum, who are also after the Door Lord. He is hidden away through a large locked door that can only open through the power of song. The gang form a band and try to rehearse a possible song, but bickering between Bubblegum and Marceline causes Marceline to sing a song directed at her, “I'm Just Your Problem”. Lines like “Sorry I'm not made of sugar / Am I not sweet enough for you? / Is that why you always avoid me? / That must be such an inconvenience to you” imply a bitterness in their current relationship, feelings of resentment toward one another, and hint that there was a friendship between them at one time. It also reads a break up song, even containing a suggestive throwaway lyric “I'm gonna drink the red from your pretty pink face”. After the Door Lord is defeated, the crew find the items that were stolen from them by the villain. Among them is a black band t-shirt, that Finn and Jake assume to be Marceline's. We're told it's Bubblegum's, as it was a gift from Marcy to her a long time ago, and Marcy blushes when Bonnibel admits to still keeping it (even saying she wears it as pyjamas). It clearly means a lot to Bonnibel for the Door Lord to take it in the first place, and for her to chase after him to retrieve it. “What Was Missing” opened up a lesbian subtext that has grown in credibility in recent years.

The Marceline and Bubblebum relationship was resurfaced in season five's "Sky Witch", which contains many subtle nods at a lingering romantic history, such as Bonnibel deeply inhaling the scent of the band t-shirt she slept in the previous night (previously seen in "What Was Missing") or the photograph of the two of them posted on the inside door of her closet. Marcy and PB carry the plot of the episode, which revolves around them trying to retrieve Marcy's beloved stuffed animal Hambo from the Sky Witch, Maja. Hambo was a deeply significant possession of Marcy's, given to her centuries ago by her then-guardian Simon (before he became the Ice King), but was sold to Maja by her ex-boyfriend Ash. To respect the laws of the kingdom, Bonnibel decides to make a switch, but the only way to get back Hambo is for Peebs to give Maja her most prized possession - which we later find out is the rock t-shirt she was gifted by Marcy. Bubblegum sacrifices her most beloved possession so Marceline can get hers back, in one of the most touching displays of genuine love we've seen throughout Adventure Time.

In "Varmints", Marceline flies into Bubblegum's former bedroom at the Candy Kingdom and is shocked to find the King of Ooo in her bed, sleeping in Bubblegum's own pajamas and sporting a wig of her hairdo. He has been the Princess of the kingdom for two months, and Marceline is hurt that Bubblegum didn't tell her the news herself. She goes to Bonnibel's small ranch, which she dubs her Garden Kingdom, where Marceline helps watch over her friend's garden patch which has been the victim of multiple vermin attacks. Viewed in isolation, it's as entertaining a 10 minutes of television that series has produced, but for long time viewers is an instant classic; an important chapter in the long-running Bonnibel Bubblegum narrative and Bubblegum/Marceline relationship, and comes closer to textually canonizing their romantic feelings for one another.

Bubblegum is exhausted, even more-so than we saw from her just an episode ago in "Bonnie & Neddy". Losing the Candy Kingdom - both her home and throne - and the trust of the candy people has taken a mental toll on her, and retreating into a simple rural life is an essential step in her healing process. She's always been proud and stubborn, and isn't the type to casually seek out help from friends. If Marceline hadn't visited Bonnie herself, who knows how much longer Marceline would have been out of the loop in regards to her friend's life. The two go on a mini adventure together, while also becomes a stroll down memory lane, while the pair discuss their past in between hunting and killing the varmints that have been hurting Bonnibel's garden. It's an episode that lovingly balances a heartfelt dialogue throughout nearly its entire duration in between a basic action plot line, and its emotional pathos is off the charts. After witnessing Bubblegum's gradual ascent into shadier political and governmental corruption across Adventure Time's first six seasons, it's such a refreshing change of pace to see her in this light; as a person, vulnerable, hurting, and in need of help and healing.

It's interesting to see Marceline and Bubblegum act as angry (recent?) exes towards each other in "What Was Missing?", then to see their friendship gradually mend itself to where they stand in "Varmints". This is as emotionally close and on best terms as we've ever seen them, and there will be more scenes shared between them throughout the "Stakes" miniseries. Here's wondering if "Stakes" will shake up their friendship once more, or bring them even closer after achieving yet another victory together.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Adventure Time: "Bonnie and Neddy"

Adventure Time: “Bonnie & Neddy”
Season 7, Episode 1
Air Date: November 2, 2015

Adventure Time has returned this week from its own five month exile from television, the longest break in the show's five-and-a-half year history. In its absence, we've seen the popularity and critical acclaim of its sister series Steven Universe (created by former Adventure Time writer Rebecca Sugar) reach new heights, now met with the same excited fandom that Adventure Time itself experienced in its early and mid seasons. Now seven seasons in, the veteran Adventure Time can be easily taken for granted, but to fans such as myself, that would be unwise, as this series is still as rich as its ever been.

“Bonnie & Neddy” occurs two months after the status-quo destroying sixth season endgame, and the social order in the Candy Kingdom is still weird and broken. After losing the election at the end of last season, Bonnibel Bubblegum (with Peppermint Butler) left the Kingdom to live in a wooden shed where she tends to her garden. The King of Ooo (who has previously only made a couple appearances in the series but appears to have become a far more significant character now) has replaced her, and dubs himself the “One True Princess Of Ooo”. He's as unhinged and lousy of a ruler as he is uncomfortably eccentric in personality. While not “weird” or nightmare-inducing in the way that a character like Lemongrab is, K.O.O. puts me on edge. You could argue that everyone in the Land of Ooo is an eccentric by our own standards, but K.O.O's demeanour - in both physicality and speech - is so lavish and forced that it feels put on; King of Ooo isn't the real deal. In a world of oddballs and misfits, he is a conniving con artist playing the part of Ruler of Oddballs. His physical presence and way of speaking come close to that of the Candy Kingdom citizens, but in missing the mark the cracks in his armour show. He's not like his citizens; he is amoral and frighteningly unpredictable, and as the new Princess of the Candy Kingdom, he is the series' strongest sense of danger and impending doom at the start of this season. The Candy Kingdom is likely going to get a lot worse before it gets better.

The appointed heroes of the Candy Kingdom, Finn and Jake find themselves in a new position themselves, as the bodyguards of K.O.O. The duo who would frequently protect the city against all harm, are now attired with ridiculously impractical suits of armour and frequently hang around K.O.O., tending to his needs, and standing guard by his bathtub when he showers. They're fed up with the gig, but are fueled by their distrust of the King to keep doing their job to better keep an eye on him and the Kingdom. In “Bonnie & Neddy”, he carelessly orders Finn and Jake to investigate a room labelled “Extreme Danger” on the off chance it might contain valuable treasures. It turns out to be a sort of control station, where a candy dragon is continuously sucking nectar from roots and transforming it into a pink, candy juice; the liquid that is the lifeblood of the Candy Kingdom. K.O.O. immediately concocts a plan to profit from the distribution of candy juice, but as soon as the dragon notices the intruders in his room, he grows terrified and flees the city.
Finn and Jake immediately inform Bonnibel of what happened, to her shock. The candy dragon is Neddy, her brother (they both spawned from the same mothergum). In an emotionally affecting and unsettling flashback, we see the consecutive births of Bonnie and Neddy. While Bonnie majestically plops from the womb above onto the floor, Neddy lands on a sharp rock, causing him to cry in severe pain and confusion. We cut to another flashback, this one of infant Bonnie and Neddy walking through a scenic field past flowers and butterflies. The experience overjoys Bonnie, but she soon has to console her brother, who can't adapt to the world around him, and fears his surroundings. In later seasons Bubblegum's character has been accused of being an evil and heartless leader of the Candy Kingdom, but her scenes with Neddy are a reminder that she is also a loving, empathetic candy person. In the early goings of the Candy Kingdom, Bubblegum builds a secret room just for Neddy, where he can stay all day sucking on nectar roots and producing candy juice (an activity that made him happy even in his earliest moments, as seen in the flashbacks), which would become the liquid that fuels the entire kingdom.

Neddy is a disabled person as well as an introvert – and appears to have a severe case of social anxiety disorder - and I've read harsh criticisms of the episode that seem to forget the latter; saying it is despicable of Bubblegum to lock her brother away from the rest of civilization because he is so different, or attacking the episode itself for condoning her actions. What they overlook is that from what little we've seen of his life, the act of producing candy juice is the only thing that makes Neddy happy, or not cry in fear. The sight of any person who is not Bonnibel causes him to panic. He's not being isolated because of a birth defect, but rather because he prefers being alone. Bonnibel briefly but sweetly brings up Neddy's disability and introversion in one short speech at the end of the episode:

“People get built different. We don't need to figure it out. We just need to respect it. Maybe he likes his own company better than I like mine.”

Bubblegum sincerely loves her brother, and did what she thought was best to make his life as pleasant for him as possible. She's made mistakes in the past and you could argue this being among them, but she created an environment for Neddy that actually makes him happy, and even an integral part of the Candy Kingdom. In her typical totalitarian way she used Neddy's gift as a means of running her own city, but her heart is in the right place, and she succeeded in forging an enjoyable life for her brother.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

50 Best Comics of the Decade (2010-2015) Thus Far: Part 6 (#25-16)

Kadokawa Shoten / Viz Media
25. Neon Genesis Evangelion (Kadokawa Shoten/Viz Media, 2010-2014, Volumes 12-14)
Writer and Illustrator - Yoshiyuki Sadamoto

Shortly after Hideaki Anno conceived the Neon Genesis Evangelion anime in 1993, he met with comics creator Yoshiyuki Sadamoto and together they collaborated on a manga adaptation that was set to premiere shortly before the anime to help boost interest in the television series. While the 26-episode series aired in entirety over just six months, the manga - which retold the same story, more or less - ran for nearly 20 years, not completing its run in Japan until 2013 (with Viz publishing the final volume in 2014). Being a mostly faithful adaptation of the greatest anime series of all time pretty much guarantees the manga to be solid as well, but what makes it so valuable to the Evangelion diehards is the little differences that set the manga's version apart. Sadamoto makes this story his own, consistently evoking different moods than Anno, and filling in interesting sections of narrative that the anime left vague. Many Evangelion fans likely view the manga as just supplementary material, but even so, it's a story so incredible that it works nearly as well in comics as it does in anime.

Boom! Studios
24. Adventure Time (kaBoom!, 2012-2015)
Writer - Ryan North
Illustrators - Shelli Paroline, Braden Lamb, Mike Holmes, Jim Rugg
Colourists - Lisa Moore, Studio Parlapa, Chris O'Neill, Whitney Cogar
Letterers - Steve Wands

Boom Studios! sure knows how to cash in on a hot property, publishing many different Adventure Time comics over the last three and a half years (most of them very good), but it's the one that started them all that probably remains the best. Ryan North didn't tell stories that would have made great television episodes, he told stories that could only be told in the comics medium. He toyed with his medium just as well as the TV series does, and just as episodes like "Shh!" and "Food Chain" are experimental of animation and moving pictures and can only be told in their respective medium, the same can be said of "Choose Your Own Adventure Time!", "Adventure Me", and the visually inventive issues #15 and #25, which push the conventions of comics construction so far they become intertwined with their medium. Few mainstream comics writers are as gleefully meta in their writing as Ryan North, who can consistently write jokes and craft stories around the mechanics of comics, while honouring the spirit of what has made Adventure Time such a television hit.

(The series continues running today with a new writer. I haven't yet read any of the series made after Ryan North's departure.)

Dark Horse
23. Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 10 (Dark Horse, 2014-2015)
Writers - Christos Gage, Nicholas Brendon
Illustrators - Rebekah Isaacs, Richard Corben, Karl Moline, Cliff Richards, Megan Levens
Colourists - Dan Jackson, Beth Corben Reed
Letterers - Richard Starkings, Jimmy Betancourt
Inker - Andy Owens

Back in April I wrote a Comics Communion entry devoted entirely to Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Season 10 and why it not only a top-tier Buffy comic, but an excellent comic overall. 5 issues later, and I stand by everything I wrote there. Now in its second half, Season 10 is as exciting as ever.

22. Moon Knight (Marvel, 2014-2015)
Writers - Warren Ellis, Brian Wood, Cullen Bunn
Illustrators - Declan Shalvey, Greg Smallwood, Ron Ackins
Colourists - Jordie Bellaire, Dan Brown
Inker - Tom Palmer
Letterers - Chris Eliopoulos, Travis Lanham

Prior to the launch of launch of Moon Knight on March 2014, I had never read any of the character's previous comics, had only caught glimpses of him in various Events without paying him any mind, and knew nothing about him. Today he is one of my favourite Marvel heroes, and I have this series for thank; he's even a character I've even been motivated to collect in back-issues in my spare time (I've currently collected one-third of his 1980-1984 series, his entire 6 issues miniseries from 1985 and two-thirds of his 1989-1994 series). With the help of Warren Ellis, Declan Shalvey and Jordie Bellaire, Moon Knight captured my imagination; with its minimalist storytelling, sublime illustrations and wizardly colours, it knocked me out month after month with its episodic adventures. And I'll go against the grain and say that Brian Wood/Greg Smallwood/Jordie Bellaire and Cullen Bunn/Ron Ackins/Tom Palmer/Dan Brown runs are also great. If you dropped Moon Knight after #6, you're missing out.

21. X-O Manowar (Valiant, 2012-2015)
Writer - Robert Venditti
Illustrators - Cary Nord, Lee Garbett, Trevor Hairsine, J.G. Jones, Diego Bernard, Rafa Sandoval
Colourists - Moose Baumann, Brian Reber, Ulises Arreola, Matt Hollingsworth, Romulo Fajardo, Wil Quintana, David Garcia Cruz
Inkers - Stefano Gaudiano, Alejandro Sicat, Allison Rodrigues, Jordi Tarragona, Ryan Winn
Letterers - Dave Lanphear, Dave Sharpe

In fifth-century Europe, Aric of Dacia is a Visigoth warrior engaged in combat against the Roman Empire.  A man forged into being through violence, fighting is all Aric has known. His threat becomes all more frightening when he and the rest of the Visigoths are kidnapped by an alien race called The Vine. After being slaves for the Vine for several years, Aric stages a revolt, overthrows the aliens, and gets the ship to take them back to Earth, while in the process stealing a highly advanced piece of alien armor that has chosen Aric as its owner. Unfortunately for him, 1600 centuries have passed during his time spent in space, and Aric, now the X-O Manowar, is more lost and alone than he's ever been, his attempts at fitting back into the world a constant struggle. X-O Manowar is probably this decade's greatest ongoing action comic, with superbly choreographed and illustrated battle sequences in every story arc; with its deep emotional core dictating Aric's decisions at every turn, X-O Manowar's battles are never trivial; always fought with a heavy heart. The flagship title of Valiant Entertainment, X-O Manowar is their only comic to have surpassed 25 issues, and will be hitting its #50 milestone in 2016.

20. She-Hulk (Marvel, 2014-2015)
Writer - Charles Soule
Illustrators - Javier Pulido, Ronald Wimberly
Colourists - Muntsa Vincente, Rico Renzi
Letterer - Clayton Cowles

She-Hulk was too good for this world. That Marvel initially brought on Charles Soule to write a 12-issue series based on the female superhero isn't surprising, what it is surprising that the massive acclaim this comic earned didn't convince Marvel to renew its life span. Real-life lawyer Soule puts a greater emphasis on the occupational side of Jennifer Walters' life than typically seen in her comics, filling his court room scenes with accurate terminology and appropriate wordiness, but avoids  alienating the reader and makes it just accessible enough. Like many of Marvel's female solo series of recent years, She-Hulk has a lighter, humorous tone than typical for a Marvel series, and Pulido's drawings and Vincente's colours help make it a stylistic marvel; a series both simplistically pleasurable and with an innovative graphical design sensibility. She-Hulk was an all-ages delight and made a perfect entry point into the greater Marvel universe for inexperienced readers Again, Marvel: where is our All-New All-Different She-Hulk?

19. Divinity (Valiant, 2015)
Writer - Matt Kindt
Illustrator - Trevor Hairsine
Inker - Ryan Winn
Colourist - David Baron
Letterer - Dave Lanphear

Valiant Entertainment has achieved a great deal of success reinventing their characters from the 1990s into the modern day comic scene, and have done such a phenomenal job at making the former '90s relics feel so modern and relevant that it can be easy to avoid the obvious question, when will they create a brand new major hero? With Divinity, they did just that, and it's one of the most emotionally driven and genuinely surprising story arcs that Valiant has told in the last four years. At a mere four issues it is packed with pathos and philosophy; a meditative science fiction tale that pushes forward the Valiant universe in a genuine way.  I don't even want to give away any of the story, because it's a large treasure to see unfold. Divinity is going to be a major player in this company and universe's future, but they're smart enough to not over-utilize him, making us wait until April 2016 for Divinity II, an entire year after the first series closed.

18. Hawkeye (Marvel, 2012-2015)
Writer - Matt Fraction
Illustrators - David Aja, Javier Pulido, Steve Lieber, Jesse Hamm, Annie Wu, Francesco Francavilla, Chris Eliopoulos
Colourists - Matt Hollingsworth, Jordie Bellaire
Letterers - Chris Eliopoulos, Clayton Cowles

Though riddled with long delays between issues in the final stretch, Fraction/Aja's Hawkeye fanbase remained faithful and grateful to the end, in what is already being canonized as the definitive Hawkeye comic and one of the greatest superhero comics that focuses more on a hero's downtime. Its oh so many think pieces can better describe just what makes this such a special comic, and one that has influenced a crop of lighter-in-tone and visually-bright-and-exuberant comics from Marvel these last few years, including She-Hulk, The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, and Howard the Duck.

17. Archer & Armstrong (Valiant, 2012-2014)
Writer - Fred Van Lente
Illustrators - Clayton Henry, Emanuela Lupacchin, Pere Pérez, Khari Evans
Colourists - Matt Milla, David Baron
Letterers - Dave Lanphear, Simon Bowland, Dave Sharpe
Inkers - Pere Pérez, Guillermo Ortego

At this month's New York Comic Con Valiant announced the return of Archer and Armstrong, in an ongoing series titled A&A, which is to debut March 2016. I'm feverishly anticipating the return of the oddball duo, who have not been together since the end of 2014, making their only major 2015 appearances in a solo capacity (Archer in Dead Drop and Armstrong in Ivar, Timewalker). While Quantum and Woody is the most purely comical of Valiant's titles/characters, Archer & Armstrong scores big for being arguably the weirdest of Valiant's ongoing titles (while also being really, really funny). Its central premise is almost too bizarre to work; an 18 year old assassin raised by a fanatical cult family and given a sheltered existence away from the real world is set out to target and kill a party animal and alcohol loving immortal. Upon discovering they're both pawns in some wild conspiracy, the two become unlikely friends and travel together, on the run for their lives while also unearthing a series of convoluted mysteries. It's strange to me that Archer & Armstrong existed in the 1990s under the original Valiant, because this is so perfectly suited to Fred Van Lente's sensibilities I'd swear he invented the characters himself.

16. Pretty Deadly (Image, 2013-2014)
Writer - Kelly Sue DeConnick
Illustrator - Emma Ríos
Colourist - Jordie Bellaire
Letterer - Clayton Cowles

I previously wrote about Kelly Sue DeConnick and Emma Rios' Pretty Deadly for PopOptiq shortly after the completion of its first series. The much anticipated second volume launches next month.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Book of Death: The Bloody Opera That's Going to Attract New Valiant Readers

If The Valiant's focus was kick-starting the next chapter in Bloodshot's life (with Bloodshot Reborn) , then the same can be said about Book of Death and Eternal Warrior. Now that it's been confirmed that Wrath of the Eternal Warrior debuts this November, it'll be interesting to see just how much the latter issues of Book of Death are going to shake up Gilad's life.

Gilad is currently protecting the newest and youngest incarnation of the Geomancers, a young girl named Tama (who debuted just earlier this year towards the end of The Valiant). In the Valiant universe, the Geomancer is a mysterious mystic who watches over humanity and protects the Earth. When one Geomancer dies, another is immediately summoned. The Eternal Warrior has made it his life mission to protect the Geomancer at all costs. What makes Tama different from previous incarnations is that she comes from the distant future, and arrived on present day Earth with The Book of the Geomancer, which documents the entirety of Earth history, including the deaths of all things. The arrival of Tama coincided with a series of recurring natural and freak disasters across the globe, killing thousands. Tama is suspected to be responsible – whether directly or indirectly – for the tragedies, sending Unity to Gilad's doorstep. Burning bridges with his allies, the Eternal Warrior defends the Geomancer, and strikes back at X-O Manowar, Ninjak and Livewire.

The first section of Book of Death #2 is action heavy, and already packs more excitement than the entirety of the slow-going debut issue (which has been summarized in the previous paragraph). It's a one sided fight, with Gilad having the home advantage. With the assistance of Tama, he sets traps specific to each of his allies' weaknesses, and takes down his friends one after another. What's shocking is just how brutal the combat is, with neither side letting emotional attachment get the better of them. Ninjak's flesh is penetrated by several poles, and Manowar is stabbed all the way through the shoulder with a sword. We've seen the heroes of Valiant fight each other before, but it's rarely been this violent, and it was mostly early in one character's narrative, when they debuted as antagonist (for example, Ninjak being the antagonist to X-O Manowar is his early story arc, “Enter Ninjak” #5-8). In The Valiant, we saw all of the heroes on Earth uniting to take on a common foe, The Immortal Enemy. In Book of Death, we're seeing a divide between heroes, and alliances broken, though neither side feels like a bad guy here. Because Book of Death shows another narrative, the one of the other Geomancer being manipulated by Master Darque to cause the natural disasters, the reader knows that Tama is innocent and Gilad is right to defend her.
Book of Death is a mostly stand-alone event, not crossing over into any of the other Valiant comics throughout July-October. Its only issues outside of the core story are four “The Fall of...” one-shots, which are pages taken directly out of The Book of the Geomancer. These one-shots tell the stories of the last days of Bloodshot, Ninjak, Harbinger and X-O Manowar. They're not prophecies. They're stories told from the future, presented as fact. Book of Death #2's middle section actually gives us another “The Fall of” one-shot, this one about the Eternal Warrior. As Gilad and Tama drive away from the abandoned cabin, having just defeated Unity, Gilad asks her to read from the book, and she reads to him the story of his last days, only because of his curse of immortality, his story has no ending. He never dies. These wide paneled pages pack a punch, and stack up against the most poignant moments in the all-too-brief Eternal Warrior (2013-2014). Doug Braithwaite's artwork in these future scenes depicts a hell on Earth. A heavy cloud of smoke and ash obscure the background; building rubble sitting at the feet of the combatants. Battles that have endured for centuries, destroying everything worth fighting for. Lines are thick and smeared, character poses are operatic. Every panel depicting a significant source of movement, the Eternal Warrior and Master Darque are the performers of a ballet under the pencil work of Braithwaite. Colours have been washed away, along with most traces of life on the planet. Outside of dull greys and browns, red is dominant colour; the red of Master Darque's costume and and mystical powers, the red of a blood soaked Earth.

The present day scenes are a fitting contrast to Braithwaite's future. Robert Gill's lines are thinner and more precise, and while he has more panels per page to work with, he too maximizes on movement. Aside from the dialogue-heavy opening pages of characters standing and debating, there are big instances of motion and mid-action poses in every page. The main scenes being set in the desert, far away from civilization, mean that once again backgrounds are bare, often just the blue of the sky and the yellow of the sand. This is a book of foreground details; of bodies in motion against the black curtain of a stage. The action spectacles in Book of Death #2 are expertly choreographed classical dances. To read through this book and not look at the text, focusing solely on the images, is to witness an astonishingly smooth succession of events. The chain reaction from panel to panel is disciplined and logical. And the co-director of this action is Robert Venditti. As the writer of X-O Manowar for roughly 40 issues and counting, Venditti has one of the firmest grasps on action in comics today. He understands how to squeeze the most emotion out of characters in combat; the repercussions of violence on the world and on people; and also, the aesthetic beauty of two extraordinary looking specimens squaring off.
The colours in the present day sequences are more “typical” of a Valiant universe book than the future scenes, and have an appropriately appealing quality. Opposed the mugginess of the battle torn future, the present is bright and clean and optimistic; at the moment. When we cut to the pitch black backgrounds of the Master Darque present-day scenes, we catch a glimpse of the reality that is to come, the darkness that will soon be infecting the world itself. The colouring work throughout this book by David Baron, Allen Passalaqua, and Brian Reber is smart, diverse, and always beautiful.

Valiant keeps it simple. It says a lot that just about every new #1 they launch is an accessible jumping on point for any non-Valiant readers. Book of Death juggles a lot of characters, but it doesn't over-complicate its narrative or dwell on back story; it looks to the future. This is a comic that's looking at the Valiant-to-be. And if you haven't yet dipped your toes into this pool, Book of Death is the perfect opportunity.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Discussing 3 Strong Debuts Amidst Personal Trauma

Hands shaking. Mind racing. Shortness of breath.  Deep breath now. Get these words down. It'll help. This is therapy.

A universe-shaking Valiant event that promises to shake up the status quo like never before. A police procedural set in the far reaches of space starring the equivalent of a female Judge Dredd. A super sized magazine anthology featuring industry super talents. Three #1s landed in my pull list this week, each title I had been anticipating since their solicitations months prior. All three living up to the expectations I had set. Book of Death (Valiant), Mercury Heat (Avatar Press), Island (Image).

Book of Death (Valiant)
"These books all came out last week, how come you only got to them now?"

Fair question. Comics are released Wednesday and my away-from-civilization home in Newfoundland doesn't get them until the following day; I usually buy my new comics every Thursday or Friday. This week past, however, I didn't until Sunday. I've been housebound, stricken with a crippling anxiety brought on by a recent personal trauma.

The night of Monday July 13th at my place of employment (I work graveyard shifts at a restaurant chain) I was the victim of a robbery. A hooded stranger - criminal, bane of my existence, the villain in my life story of a comic book - threatened my life with a visible weapon and forced my cooperation in getting away with the store's money. A little more than a week has gone by, and he has remained uncaught. I think, anyway. I've only seldom left my home or spoken to people outside of my girlfriend and roommates, the thought of human contact now more frightening to me than ever before.

I've been unable to work since that night, and I like to think that in the event of extended breaks from work that I would at least be able to keep busy in my reading and writing, but the sad truth is, I struggle now to get into a rhythm to do either. A scenario which only spanned two minutes of my life (maybe less) has left me feeling broken, now eight days later. The most productive parts of my days include getting through a movie or multiple television episodes (the distraction is now a necessary component in my day-to-day life), going downstairs to make food and wash the dishes, and even just keeping my body out of bed for several hours at a time. My state of being is largely consumed with anxiety, a fear of life, and a lack of motivation (and lack of attention span) to perform certain tasks.

This is the first time I have been able to write since that night, and against my own wishes I find myself having to talk about that night. Sorry, comic fans. I'll try and get in some goodies for you soon.

Someone else's selfish act has altered my life in a significant fashion, undoubtedly for the worst, and I thus far find myself unable to move past it; to let it go. I've relived the incident over a hundred times. It haunts me and taunts me. I even get mad at myself for it having taken place and for my inability to pick up the pieces as quickly as I would like.

Mercury Heat, Free Comic Book Day preview (Avatar Press)
The harrowing potentially life-losing event throws me into an existential reevaluation; those tedious impossible-to-reach pimples on the back of life.

Comics, Trevor! Talk about the comics!

Oh, I want to. I want to go on and on about what I thought was so great about Book of Death, Mercury Heat and Island. Reading them two nights ago calmed me considerably. For just a little while, everything bad went away; no trauma. It was just me and books, full of colourful pages and intriguing worlds and enticing words.

But, there is the Other Thing. A sickness, it lingers. A fly buzzing around my head. Maybe this here, what I'm writing, is what I need to do.

"Writing is therapy." - ???

I feel like that's a quote a renowned person has probably said at some point. I just said it, but I'm not renowned. Will this swat my fly?

Island (Image)

Book of Death #1 is not as immediately exhilarating as The Valiant #1 and Divinity #1. I'm not saying it's not as good, this one is just off to a slower, more meditative start. This feels like the start of something big. Tides are turning. Character alliances changing? The return of a fan favourite villain? This seems to be kicking off the upcoming Eternal Warrior ongoing in the same way the The Valiant kicked off Bloodshot Reborn.

Mercury Heat is the first Avatar Press comic I have ever read. Um, I have been a fool to overlook them for as long as I have. It's an exposition-filled world-builder of an issue, so I feel like it can only go uphill from here. It's getting a lot of necessary plot droppings out of the way, and still managed to conjure one hell of a debut. With Kieron Gillen on board, I'm sure the lead will transcend the Female Action Hero trope; I'm excited to see the person she is going to become. Omar Francia's art conveys a sterile ugly world, and somehow makes it all look clean and attractive. Anyone who can make spaceship corridors look anything but drab is an A-plus talent.

Island is the best deal you'll find in monthly comics today. A 100 page book at $7.99 gives you nearly 5 issues worth of content for the price of 2 regular comics issues. It's a gorgeous magazine-sized book, lovingly put together. Three lengthy comic stories, which will be serialized and carrying over into future issues. Emma Rios' is my favourite of the bunch. All the comics look fantastic, their aesthetics perfectly constructed; you could spend two hours slowly paging through this book, admiring every one of its panels. None of them are as well written as they are drawn, but they may grow on me in future installments.


I will try to resume my ongoing Best Comics of the Decade series when I am feeling up to it. I apologize for the delay, but if you've read this far into this post, you know what I've been dealing with and I thank you for your patience.

I bought some trades recently, which I think I'll finally jump into this week: Rachel Rising volume 1, Phonogram: Rue Britannia, and Supreme: Blue Rose. I may report back and tell you what I think of them. I'm still trying to work out what format(s) this blog will take, so please bear with me as I try to find a comfortable rhythm on Comics Communion during these formative months.