Review - Big Trouble in Little China / Escape From New York #2

After a first issue that was stronger and more ambitious than expected, Big Trouble in Little Chine / Escape From New York #2 makes everything bigger, raises the stakes, and most importantly establishes who the characters are in greater depth. Apart from advancing the plot in a high octane way with a highly interesting conclusion, Snake, Jack Burton, and Bobby Liu are all given enriching character moments.  

The way that the comic introduces the similarities between Snake and Jack is brilliant. The first issue of the crossover seemed most concerned in establishing the differences between our two heroes. Seeing Snake's thousand-yard-stare as he flashes back to the Siege of Leningrad softens the character without sacrificing him. It adds a level of connection that makes the story feel legitimized and not like enhanced fanfiction.  Greg Pak's writing is complemented perfectly by Daniel Bayliss' art, which illuminates the difference between these two men to tremendous effect in a panel where Snake punches Bobby Liu and Jack catches him. The expression on each man's face manages to completely sell the inherent difference between them in one panel. Just like with #1, Triona Farrell's coloring work is noticeably excellent. 

The amplification of Jack's accident-induced heroics is one of the best things I've read in a comic all year. For two issues, representations of his luck have been extremely engaging, and it's something that I eagerly await in future installments. Apart from that, Pak's writing is really excellently paced. The plot never has a lull and switches gears before any scene seems to overstay its welcome. 

While strong character work dominates the main cast, with Bobby Liu even being given more depth and higher stakes, the inclusion of Blind Apple Mary is, as of now, strange. Pak obviously picked her to be rescued over some sort of MacGuffin for a reason, but she isn't fleshed out in this issue. I look forward to seeing where the story goes with her, but as of now she robs the story of a little bit of its momentum. The comic ends with David Lo Pan summoning an army of alternate universe Snake Plisskens to do his bidding. This is a very interesting set-up for the rest of the crossover. The past two issues painted Jack as an alternate universe version of Snake while maintaining the possibility of Snake being an alternate Jack Burton. The summoning of all of these eyepatch-clad Snakes highlights that Jack is the anomaly and really leaves a lot of interesting narrative space for Pak to explore in the next four issues. Is there an army of Jack Burton's to fight back? Will Snake reflect on his morality as being similar to the army that now serves David Lo Pan? This is a fantastic comic, and if you haven't started reading it yet, it isn't too late to catch up on #1 and #2 in anticipation of #3. This is going to be a wild ride. 

Big Trouble in Little China / Escape From New York #2

Rating: 4.5 / 5


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Review - Big Trouble in Little China / Escape From New York #1

After a summer where mainstream comic events have been bogged down by bloat, delays, and odd plot choices, the immediate impact of reading Greg Pak's Big Trouble in Little China / Escape From New York crossover is thoroughly refreshing. Both John Carpenter creations have continued in comic book form, including a brief one-shot from Marvel and, most recently, a pair of ongoing series from BOOM! Studios. The comic series have had the general hindrances that licensed comics often have, but have been an underappreciated and consistent experience of the past few years. A crossover of Kurt Russell's most iconic performances (sans Captain Ron) elicits both skepticism and nostalgic optimism. For readers who pick up this book with no knowledge of either the films or comics (I'm sure there are, like, four of you out there), this opening issue provides enough context and outstanding artwork to entertain. For diehard fans of the comic continuations, don't expect too much continuity. For fans of both source films, which is ultimately the target audience, this first issue is fantastic.

One of the biggest challenges this comic has to overcome is merging the styles of both Russellverses, and making Snake and Jack look, speak, and act like different characters. Pak does stellar characterization work throughout, with each character being unmistakably identifiable. Daniel Bayliss' art is another standout of the issue, fluctuating smoothly between the quieter, exposition-laden moments and the high-octane, also exposition-laden moments. While this issue is understandably pretty heavy on establishing who its characters are and why they are now together, it never feels like a hindrance. Pak gives them enough to do and Bayliss gives noteworthy reactions when the characters don't say anything. Bayliss also deserves credit for making Snake and Jack look like different universe interpretations of the same character, and not like vintage Kurt Russell cosplaying as his favorite 1980's badasses. I would be doing a huge disservice if I failed to mention Triona Farrell's contribution as the colorist. In a comic that is dense with fun writing and engaging artwork, the fact that the color work not only stands out but in many panels outshines the other work is insane. This book is an absolute gem to look at.

The plot is mostly concerned with getting the heroes together and establishing the tone of the five issues that are going to follow. A former security guard named Bobby Liu attempts to summon the great hero Snake Plissken, but gets some John Carpenter-style BOGO when he summons Snake and Big Trouble in Little China's Jack Burton. It turns out that Jack is his universe's incarnation of Snake Plisskin, or maybe Snake is an incarnation of Jack, and Bobby Liu is an incarnation of Big Trouble's Wang Chi. Stylistically, this feels more like Big Trouble in Little China than it does Escape From New York, which is honestly the best route they could have gone. There are elements of Escape From New York's grittiness, but the fun and magic of Big Trouble provide the most appropriate backdrop. Plus, Jack Burton's clumsy brand of heroism wouldn't translate as well. When Jack routinely gets, as Bobby Liu describes it, "lucky", it is sold so earnestly in both story and artwork. 

I was expecting to enjoy this comic as a fan of the source movies, and a casual fan of Big Trouble in Little China's ongoing series. It managed to surprise me in just about every conceivable way. For fans of both movies, this is a no-brainer. Even if you aren't the most avid comic book fan, you should definitely still be reading this. It is adrenaline fueled writing and some of the best art / color combos I've seen in a comic this year. 

Big Trouble in Little China / Escape From New York #1

5/5

Review - Skybourne #1

The debut issue of Frank Cho’s Boom! Studios comic Skybourne is notable for the ways in which it creates memorable moments and how it avoid many opening pitfalls. It makes a lot of sense that good #1’s are so difficult. There is no prior understanding to the world or aesthetic of the Skybourne universe. That all has to be established in the opening pages. Readers don’t know anything about the protagonists, so #1 has to introduce us to our primary cast of characters. And if all of those are done well, why should we keep reading? An arc for the next several issues has to be carefully woven throughout the opening.

This is a lot to do, and even the most experienced comic book writers at the Big Two publishers struggle with it. Thankfully, Skybourne #1 manages to accomplish everything that is required to make a great first issue.

Where the comic truly excels is in the way that it creates memorable moments. Skybourne #1 is a collection of exciting and cinematic comic book moments. The cold open alone is one of the most interesting sequences of the year. A well-dressed man is clutching a picture of a woman as he calmly plummets to the Earth from several miles above. He lands on his back and creates a small crater. He opens his eyes and is mildly frustrated. It’s the kind of strange thing with enough anchors to normalcy that the slight deviation from expectation makes it particularly memorable.

This scene comes off the heels of the title page, which tells us about this man, Thomas Skybourne, and his brother Abraham and sister Grace, explaining that they have been blessed with superhuman strength, impenetrable skin, and immortality.

The second one is going to become very important, as well as very wrong.

The rest of the comic follows Grace Skybourne as she bargains for, then takes a sword from a crime boss. While driving away with the sword, she encounters an old man dressed in robes. He then overturns her vehicle and the two begin to fight. The fight lasts several pages, and is well-paced and full of unpredictable turns and solid moments. The conclusion sees the old man take the sword that Grace acquired and run it through her stomach. The title page established the rules of these three characters. The opening scene with Thomas demonstrated the validity of those rules. The final scene subverts those rules immediately. It’s all really masterfully constructed and is some of Frank Cho’s best work.

While the wealth of memorable moments is Skybourne #1’s greatest strength, it is also in many ways its biggest weakness. The moments are stellar, but the tissue connecting them isn’t as strong as it could be. The middle act with Grace and the crime boss are predictable and straightforward. It’s a lull between two dizzying highs. We don’t get much time with any of the Skybourne’s to understand who they are and their motivations. Overall, this is a very solid debut issue and has my attention for the remainder of the series. I’d like to see more of these moments, but I’d also like to learn who these characters are in a greater sense.

Skybourne #1

Rating - 4/5

 

Review - Backstagers #1

Backstagers #1 – Rating: 4/5

 BOOM! Studios Backstagers is delightful and fun, even on a purely aesthetic level. The art manages to toe the fine line of appearing to blend a multitude of influence and styles while still adhering to a completely cohesive look. Backstagers looks like the combination of a lot of elements, but Backstagers looks like Backstagers. Rian Sygh has created the perfect look for James Tynion IV's bouncy world and bright characters.

The story follows an outcast named Jory who has transferred to a new private school. At his mother's insistence, he joins the drama club. Anybody who has ever been a part of their school drama club knows that it can be one of the best ways to meet new people in high school, and that the time you spend in drama club creates powerful bonds through the high stakes cooperation it entails, and the magic inherent to being a part of a performance. Tynion takes the magic of the stage and makes it literal as Jory heads to the prop room only to discover that it leads to a surreal, ever-changing panorama of worlds.  Sygh is pushed to some pretty insane limits as an artist with the amount of surreal panels during this sequence, but it manages to stay grounded, barring a few moments of confusion. The titular team of crew hands frequents these worlds behind the stage unbeknownst to the actors. A small conflict involving some adorable tiny monsters called tool rats, but for the most part this is an issue concerned with establishing a world and giving life to its characters. In that regard, it is a success.

Sygh's art, as mentioned, is at the nexus of many things. There are shades of Steven Universe, Adventure Time, and Astro Boy that seem like the most apparent influences. For a series that is already establishing itself as a lighthearted rump with enjoyable characters and heartwarming moments, this is the perfect look. It's fun and whimsical, without ever being too much. There is an air of 1980's Saturday morning cartoons, but not of after school specials.  

Backstagers #1 is also notable for it's incredible sense of diversity. In breaking away from being a very white and heteronormative medium, comics have gone through a problematic phase of tokenism, as well as a slightly less problematic phase of making nearly self-aware big deals out of their own diversity, which at best can come off as capitalizing on social change, and at worst further marginalizes the already underrepresented groups. Where Tynion implements diversity brilliantly is the way that any potentially marginalizing label stands far behind several layers of characterization. They bounce off one another in interesting ways over the comic's 24-page run, and all manage to be completely likable. The entire comic comes off as likeable. With the big two comic book publishers doing huge events and often resorting to grim levels of grittiness, Backstagers looks to be a refreshing series. 

X-Men Retrospective #2 - The Phoenix Saga

Uncanny X-Men #101 – 108

We last left the strangest teens of all in the wake of a crash in Jamaica Bay that kind-of-sort-of-but-not-really-because-comic-books claimed the life of Jean Grey before she emerged as Phoenix, life incarnate. This is a Big Deal. Seriously, this one event winds up being more influential to its series and the Marvel Universe as a whole than Gwen Stacy's death. In one page, X-Men architect Chris Claremont sets into motion events that affect entire story arcs for decades to come. Most comic books stories have to go through an entire company-wide crossover event to make that happen. Granted, there is more to the story of Phoenix, and it is likely that the conclusion of the Dark Phoenix Saga has just as much of a ripple throughout the continuity, but it all traces back to the end of Marvel Girl.

Naturally then, our uncanny heroes spend the next few issues taking a bit of a detour from the major story arc that Claremont is slowly and famously piecing together. This is the late 70's – we weren't sectioning arcs off into neatly sliced 6-issue paperbacks. This retrospective covers Uncanny X-Men #101 – 108 and the first three issues only feature Jean Grey / Phoenix on the peripheral if at all, and have our core group of new X-Men off in Ireland visiting Banshee's family castle, picking up a blink-and-you-miss-it plot point a few issues ago where a panicked man sent Banshee a letter. These three issues aren't bad by any stretch, but they have some uninspiring villains in Black Tom Cassidy and Juggernaut, and the team is saved in #103 by leprechauns. It's goofy and I'm not going to write anything else about it.

 

On the plus side, we get some great depth added to Storm. Up until now, Ororo Munroe has been largely the most powerful and capable mutant out of the new batch. Honestly, Storm is the best. To have such a prominent, powerful, and unique black female at this time is impressive. Ororo doesn't get reduced to stereotypes, and her backstory being fleshed out more with attention given to her recurring claustrophobia is a really strong storytelling beat. We also see that the dastardly Eric the Red from a few issues earlier has been not only orchestrating these events, but also working for a greater evil. He also reveals to the reader that there is another, more deadly foe waiting for them. AND HIS NAME IS JOHN CENA!

Just kidding, it's Magneto. In non-X-Men comics, the master of magnetism was turned into a baby before Eric the Red aged him back up to adulthood. In #104, he engages our mutant heroes in the first of a series of conflicts where the metal-boned Wolverine and metal-skinned Colossus inexplicably throw themselves into a fight with a man whose entire deal is that he controls metal things. But hey, it's going to make for some gruesome stuff about a decade down the line. This conflict also continues the trend of the new X-Men being absolutely stomped by their opponent and being compared to the original five. Also, Chris Claremont does his usual plant-a-seed-that-takes-forever-to-grow plotting when he reveals a glowing door labeled "Mutant X". This won't pay off until literally YEARS later. The frequency and effectiveness with which he makes this feel like an incredibly serialized epic is astounding. This issue also introduces the space pirate Corsair and his ragtag crew of Starjammers.

Enter, a legend... 

Enter, a legend... 

#105 is a pretty big deal. It gives closure to the strange, cosmic visions that Professor Xavier has been having and introduces an interesting and unusual character in the humanoid-but-kind-of-bird-like-alien Lilandra. She explains her plight as the wayward empress of the Shi'Ar Empire, which has fullen under the rule of the Mad Emperor D'Ken. D'Ken has disguised a lacky as Eric the Red and has been tormenting the X-Men for the past several months. Most recently, he has tricked Firelord, a former Herald of Galactus, to attack the heroes. Jean Grey, as Phoenix, wipes the floor with him. To clarify and add context: he is bestowed with a portion of Galactus' godlike cosmic power and loses to Jean Grey. He is far and away the most powerful foe that the X-Men have faced up to this point, and one of them manages to defeat him alone. Also, Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum have a funny and self-referential cameo.

The story takes a bit of a detour before the next major step. Instead of progressing to the space drama of the Shi'Ar Empire, #106 is largely a flashback to a time that Xavier subconsciously attacked the new X-Men with psychic incarnations of the old X-Men. It's largely forgettable and inconsequential, but it is one of the first times that Charles Xavier as a force of ultimate good is questioned. There is a dark side to the man, and that is something that the series will explore more than once, and with varying degrees of success. Where were we? Right, the M'Kraan Crystal. So the M'Kraan Crystal is a mysterious source of limitless power at the nexus of the universe. Also, Chris Claremont thinks apostrophes make something alien. The X-Men, who are still pretty new to the super hero game sans Cyclops and Banshee, are outmatched against D'Ken's warriors. The Starjammers, led by Corsair, who is actually and secretly Cyclops' father, arrive and turn the tide. X-Men is really at its best when it’s a soap opera. For the final issue of the saga, the heroes are taken inside the M'Kraan Crystal, where Jean uses her awesome and tremendous powers, with the aid of her comrades' life forces, to prevent it the crystal from destroying and rewriting the universe. This issue is particularly notable for having some beautiful and surreal art courtesy of John Byrne. One interesting way that Claremont really builds up the stakes of the issue is by showing other heroes from the Marvel Universe noticing how something major is going on and its on a cosmic scale.

That's more or less the Phoenix Saga in a nutshell. It isn't the end of Phoenix by a long shot, and we still have a largely overlooked arc in the space between these issues and the monumentally famous Dark Phoenix Saga. It's a wild ride, and definitely one worth picking up a subscription to Marvel Unlimited for. Over the course of the next decade, things just get better. 

X-Men Retrospective #1 - Pre-Phoenix

The X-Men have held a significant place in my heart for a large portion of my life. While I have vague recollections of the pure, undistilled awesome of the 90's X-men cartoon, it was really X-Men Evolution, the Kids WB cartoon series, that truly introduced me to not only the franchise, but superheroes and the idea of comic books. It had become important to me, and I wound up passionately discussing things like Magneto's morality, Nightcrawler's parentage, and the specific mechanics of Cyclops or Rogue's powers with anybody who was also a fan. It was around the time of the first two X-Men films, both of which are great. With X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, I found myself less invested in the series, which makes sense. That movie was garbage. Luckily it was the X-Men that hooked me back into the franchise, and ultimately created a comic book fan. While pouring through Wikipedia page upon page of Marvel lore around 2009, I stumbled upon an X-Men story called House of M, which fascinated me, and made me an X-Men reader.  

When it comes to retro comics, and specifically comics of the 1980's, Frank Miller and Alan Moore. They have no doubt earned their places among the pantheon of comic creators, but it does a disservice that people do not mention Chris Claremont as readily. Claremont got his hands on the X-Men in 1975, when it wasn't selling terribly well and had been reprinting older stories with new numbers (think of these as comic book re-runs). He wrote Uncanny X-Men and the majority of spinoff series until 1991. Let that sink in. From 1975 to 1991, the primary X-Men book and the spinoffs were the written by one person. That 16-year, multiple-title run creates what is potentially the greatest serialized epic of modern times. He elevated characterization to a level that comic books hadn't seen, plotted so intricately that he often foreshadowed years ahead of where continuity currently was, and elevated a failing series to become the most popular series Marvel had.

So what are we doing here? Simple. Every single X-Men story if the 1980's was a Chris Claremont story. But that story begins in 1975. This epic breaks down into a few epics. Some are very famous, and I can't wait to tell you about the Dark Phoenix Sage or the Brood Saga, but this article is about what I am going to call the Pre-Phoenix Saga. This spans six issues, from Giant Sized X-Men #1 to Uncanny X-Men #100. These are, for the most part, monster of the week stories, but they're significant in the sense that they establish the major players of this X-Men team (Cyclops, Wolverine, Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, Banshee, briefly Thunderbird, and eventually Jean Grey), establish key elements of the world these characters inhabit and how it responds to mutants, and includes two major plot elements that have consequences that span the entire series.

Chris Claremont is a wordy writer. There is no way around that. If you are purely accustomed to modern comic storytelling and the couple of dialogue-free pages that it can sometimes entail, you will find this change a little jarring at first. Stan Lee can be accused of the same thing with literally any Silver Age comic, but unlike Lee, every word that Claremont uses is significant in some way. Everything advances the plot, develops character, or establishes mood. If you sat down with a TPD like New Avengers Vol. 1 or House of M, it is reasonable to think that you could casually knock out all 6 – 8 issues contained within the time of a short nap. While you could read six issues of early Claremont in one sitting, I don't exactly recommend it. It takes time to break apart certain elements, and more noticeably it can wear you down. Don't let this be any indication of quality; it is just different from what you may be used to.

While the opening arc of Claremont's X-Men doesn't introduce the mutant hunting Sentinel robots, his vision of their implementation makes them seem like a larger threat, and makes the world seem much more anti-mutant than anything during the Silver Age. Claremont's Sentinels are funded by the government in shady, backdoor ways, and are disguised to look like the original X-Men team. When the X-Sentinels fight the new X-Men, the X-Men get beaten. Claremont from the start avoids the problem of invulnerability in superhero comics. The way that the Sentinels are used makes the prejudices of the world of X-Men feel utterly pervasive. It is the first time that it truly feels like the heroes are fighting for a world that hates and fears them.  It feels believable that this present can lead to the horrors of the Days of Futures Past timeline, which I can't wait to dive into. Part of why the X-Men have remained so culturally relevant is because of their status as the oppressed. The mutants stand in for the civil rights movement or the struggle of the LGBTQ community at different times. The analogy doesn't always hold up, but for most of Claremont's run it works powerfully. It blooms in God Loves, Man Kills, but these opening comics really sow the seeds for that. In the current post-Trump campaign American landscape, we need the X-Men, but that's really an article for another day.

One of the most striking things about the Pre-Phoenix arc is most noticeable when you look at it in the context of comic books as a whole. Two things happen in these six issues that has repercussions still felt in modern X-Men. If you don't want to be spoiled for the plot of these issues, consider yourself warned. Claremont always believed that nobody should be an X-Man forever, and that people should grow up and leave the team. The other way for them to be removed from the team is by dying. Two X-Men die in these opening comics. The first is Thunderbird. While he doesn't wind up being as relevant in later issues, his death really propels and sets in motion a lot of early development of the team. The second is Jean Grey. Her death is a self-sacrifice to protect her friends from a solar flare while re-entering Earth's atmosphere. I would go into further detail now, but this is only the Pre-Phoenix Saga. The Phoenix and Dark Phoenix arcs are where this is going to ultimately come to a climax.

If you would like to learn more about the X-Men from this era, I strongly recommend the podcast Jay & Miles X-Plain the X-Men. If you would like to read these stories, you can find them collected in a variety of forms or digitally on Marvel Unlimited.

http://www.xplainthexmen.com/category/podcasts/

Night Trap #1 Review

Though the genre is rooted in the late 70's, with John Carpenter's enduring Halloween establishing many of its tropes, slasher films are one of the biggest pop culture relics of the 1980's. We recognize them instantly. The way that soundtracks, camera techniques, storytelling choices, and imagery all coalesce creates something that is distinctly recognizable to us. Night Trap, the latest series from Lion Forge Comics, written by Cullen Bunn, drawn by JB Bastos, and colored by Robby Bevard attempts to bring these elements to a comic book format. In many ways it succeeds, but a lot is going to depend on the next issue in the series. A lot of its best qualities are on what it promises to deliver, an inversion involving Kelly, who will inevitably be the "final girl".   

Night Trap #1 has some heavy lifting to do in this regard. In the first issue, we get just enough characterization to know that Kelly not only is different from her friends who are with her in the rental home in the middle of nowhere, but also that she will undoubtedly survive the entire ordeal. Kelly doesn't have any interest in romantically or sexually pursuing any of the guys who have joined her friends, and she doesn't seem to have a desire to get intoxicated. According the quasi-puritanical slasher film ideology, she's the survivor. Her poor boy crazy blonde friend doesn't stand a chance.

Despite the promotional material and narrative framework that makes it clear that Kelly will not survive and subvert what is expected of the slasher world in which she finds herself, Night Trap #1 doesn't get to that point. It instead follows the beginning of the slasher movie point-by-point. There are several young adults who wind up staying together in a house in the middle of the woods, intending to drink and hook up. A backwoods sociopath and his family have set up a series of traps to milk as much terror as they can out of their victims before finally killing them. One of the guys staying in the home is sent out to turn on the water pump, because of course, and while he is out there he is the first of the group to be horrifically murdered.

That is, more or less, the first issue. It's a standard set-up, and I think that it's going to be one that makes more sense and will warrant a reread upon reading the next issue. I have a feeling that this is a set up of a very deliberate batch of tropes that are, for the most part, going to be inverted. Only time will tell if I'm right, but if it goes that way this could be a really cool book when read all at once. Bunn's writing does exactly what it is supposed to if that is the case. Everybody sounds pretty much expendable aside from Kelly. She is immediately written as the most likable and the point of reference for anybody seeking a character to connect with. He also does something interesting with the Trapper, the killer of the story. The comic opens with him watching slasher movies in his home and yelling at the screen. Unlike the characters in Scream, who yell at the victims – which makes sense given that they are the victims of their own story – the Trapper is yelling at the masked killer. It will be really interesting to see how the Trapper applies this sort of genre awareness to the story and how that gets blown up by whatever happens with Kelly.

Bastos' art is solid throughout. It's never terribly flashy, but it is very good at conveying just how alone the victims are. In particular, his use of light and shadow, as well as his rendering of the forest as a backdrop really convey the atmosphere of a Carpenter-esque slasher film. His job is just as difficult as Bunn's in this regard. There is also one particular panel early on that is just stunning as much as it is grotesque. We see the Trapper's previous victims in the Louisiana bayous, all tied down near the bottom of the swamp. The imagery and Bevard's coloring choices really make it a memorable panel long after you've finished reading.

This is going to be a comic that is made or broken by its next issue. It's solid and any fan of horror in general, and slasher movies in particular, will find a lot to like here.

Night Trap #1 comes out June 1, 2016

 

 

Knight Rider Vol. 1 and Knight Strikes Review

When looking at a modern reimagining of a retro story, it's important to keep a few things in mind. One is that these older television shows, movies, and comics are not without their context. I was a HUGE fan of Miami Vice Remix, and though I did not watch the source material as it aired, I have watched it after the fact. Miami Vice was good for what it was, but it was mostly just a fun and interesting TV show inherently embedded in the generation that spawned it. In other words, it's hard to watch or think about without a sense of nostalgia taking over. Knight Rider Vol. 1 and Knight Rider: Knight Strikes are similar to Miami Vice Remix in this sense, and the modernizing of a deeply 80's world creates a rich and engaging comic experience, particularly with Knight Strikes.

While Vol. 1 is interesting in it's own right and has some great character moments between Michael and Dr. Katherine Beachum, with the former being characterized like morally upstanding version of Sterling Archer and the latter getting much more depth than her TV counterpart, K.I.T.T. is oddly handled. It makes the famous car seem much more prone to malfunctioning and frailty. I suppose as an origin story, this is passable, but I would have liked to see more of humanity of the original K.I.T.T. present.

Knight Strikes, on the other hand, is remarkable from beginning to end. Rather than having a consistent arc throughout the entire book, it has a handful of episodic self-contained stories. The world the Michael Knight occupies has been updated, both in terms of technology and implied political / criminal activities. It often feels like the story is taking place in a slightly less cynical version of Ghost in the Shell. It honestly does the series wonders. The frequent change-up of artists and writers is not actually jarring as one might expect. You can see similar ideas and aesthetics, but it helps make reading Knight Strikes feel like a consistently fresh experience.

There is something genuine about these modern comic imaginings of retro content that is not present in something like the Robocop film reboot or the mess that is the Transformers film franchise. Knight Rider proves to be a rewarding experience in terms of both artwork and narrative. If you only pick one of the two volumes currently available, without hesitation make it Knight Strikes. Not only were some of the sloppier elements of Vol. 1 fine tuned, but the revolving door of a creative team behind it makes every issue feel fresh, and the world is fleshed out enough that I'm eager to see if the series continues in this post-cyberpunk direction.  

 

 

Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs #1 Review

Think of the 1987 anime-inspired American animated series Saber Rider and the Star Sheriffs as an Avatar: The Last Airbender of the 80's. It is not a perfect comparison, as the latter is a completely original creation while Saber Rider is a loose adaptation of an anime series, but it is similar in that it is a western studio working with an aesthetic that is quite foreign to them. Avatar did this in the Internet Age. Saber Rider did not. It is no surprise then that the original series is a little rough around the edges in ways not entirely unlike Thundercats at its lowest. After almost thirty years, Lion Forge Comics has rebooted the Voltron-esque space western super robot series as an entertaining and sleek limited comic series.

Saber Rider #1 is visually striking immediately, courtesy of Sendol Arts. It very quickly reveals itself as a obviously-anime-but-somehow-not-completely style, but with, most of the time at least, artistic and computer-rendered sheen that is reminiscent of the work of Studio Bones, or even the aesthetically beautiful Gundam SEED. The production quality of the original show unwittingly emphasizes the western portion of space western, whereas the comic reinforces the futuristic aspects. We do not see much of the world of Saber Rider in this issue (though I would certainly bet money that this will change in later issues), as most of the action takes place in close quarters. It is in these close quarters that the art loses some of its appeal, as some panels don't quite come across as well as previous ones, and characters' faces seem a little strange. It's in these positions, however, that the writing excels.

Mairghread Scott has both an uphill and downhill battle at the same time with reimagining this already reimagined source material. The successes that come with the writing risk seeming inherent in the original work, and the flaws of the original work, despite no fault of the writer, risk seeming magnified compared to the nostalgia-protected 80's series. This is an issue with many post-Beast Wars Transformers releases, with which Scott has experience writing. The handling of these characters manages to improve on their initial depictions, especially with Rider and Colt. The balancing act between genuine character moments and tense mystery when Rider, by-the-books Star Sheriff, and Colt, Spike Spiegal reminiscent bounty hunter, investigate an empty train car in distress is remarkably compelling and impressive. Interplay between these two characters is what is going to have me eagerly awaiting the next issue. Well, that and the last frame of this issue.

April Eagle and Jesse Blue (regrettable names from the original series) are less impressive. April joins in very late and apart from some expository introductions doesn't have much to do, while the turncoat Jesse Blue is much more interesting through stories told about him than actual moments with him, though it will be interesting to see where both of these characters go.

Issue #1 of Saber Rider is out 03/16/16 and, despite some vestigial issues inherited from the source material, promises to be a series to keep on your radar. 

Spider-Gwen: Most Wanted? Review

The first three issues contained within Marvel's Spider-Gwen: Most Wanted? are pure fun, and then it pivots to an interesting deconstruction of the entire idea of Spider-Man. You don't need to have followed the backstory to this Earth-65's incarnation of Gwen Stacy as provided in Edge of Spider-Verse to get the most out of what writer Jason Latour and artist Robbi Rodriguez have to offer. You are quickly (and somewhat thoroughly) filled in. Gwen Stacy was bitten by the radioactive spider instead of Peter Parker. Rather than making this a straight-up gender-flipped story in the vein of Adventure Time's Fiona and Cake episodes, Spider-Gwen looks at the ripples caused by that one change instead of simply rearranging pieces. Instead of Peter Parker dying at the hands of Norman Osborn, he becomes the Lizard of this continuity. The bullying he experiences becomes much more severe when Gwen Stacy intervenes, because God forbid a girl stands up for him. As a result, he does everything he can to "be special… like [Gwen Stacy]", which leads to him becoming the Lizard because comic book science. When he dies, Gwen's guilt is much more pronounced and nuanced than the original Peter Parker's guilt over Gwen Stacy. It wasn't that she failed to save him. She indirectly pushed him to use the chemicals that ultimately killed him while fighting Spider-Woman. There is a lot of rich internal conflict and guilt to be pulled from that situation, and the writing doesn't disappoint. It is difficult for us as readers to stomach that the same Peter who becomes our beloved and quippy hero could devolve into one of his own rogues given a different set of circumstances. The goodness in our world is a lot more fragile than we would like to believe. Also, the Punisher is a gritty cop and Gwen is the drummer of a band called the Mary Janes, fronted by Em Jay herself. Aren't alternate universes fun? 

Spider-Man's whole deal has always been most famously expressed in Uncle Ben's oft-quoted  "With great power comes great responsibility" line. The guiding principle of Spider-Man is one founded on choice in the face of an erratic world. Peter Parker never chooses to be bitten by a radioactive spider, but once he does he must choose to use the power he has been given and deal with the consequences of using that power. Both series of Spider-Man films detail this brilliantly. Spidey's actions have consequences and he has to deal with those consequences. What makes Spider-Gwen so interesting is that the characters contained within this universe have just as much of a connection to actions and consequences, but the vast difference of Earth-65 to Earth-616 due to one changed in an event call into question just how much of our lives are dictated by the world around us. It's a heavy topic, and I'm going to expand on it a little later.

The art and overall vibe of the comic is, while not specifically 1980's, very similar to an 80's aesthetic. Lush neon colors and glows permeate just about every page, with a special focus often on pinks and teals (just look at those shoes on that dope costume). Action sequences are a highlight here, far outshining the static moments. Gwen as a character is one of the most charming comic book characters I've ever read. She's conflicted about her role and identity now that she's been bestowed with such life-changing power. As Spider-Woman, she's every bit as quippy as Peter Parker's Spider-Man, and regardless of whether or not she wears the mask she winds up swearing like a PG-13-censored sailor. 

Spider-Gwen is not an Alan Moore comic, where sometimes the artistic intention can get in the way of the entertainment. There is not a issue in this comic where the primary intention of telling an interesting and engaging story gets buried by anything philosophical. The deep, head-hurty stuff is there if you want to pull it out and dissect it, but you don't need to do so to enjoy it. Without getting too into the ridiculous discussion of highbrow art vs. lowbrow art, Spider-Gwen can be boiled down to the high-concept elevator pitch of "Gwen Stacy gets spider-bitten super-powers of Peter Parker". That's true, and for a lot of people that is good enough to sell them on the series, but Spider-Gwen is also story about how the arbitrary things outside of our control completely change our lives and the world around us. If something had happened differently in your life, how would that change you? If you had, for example, moved when you were 14 (or turn 14, who knows how old you are), how would your own life be different? How would the people around you have changed? Who would ultimately be worse off? To be morbid, who would that small change wind up utterly ruining. Everything is connected, and the chain of responsibility that brings can be overwhelming. This is the crux of the Spider-Person, and really any super hero. This is why super heroes focus on the one person they can't save and not the hundreds of people who live because of them.

Issue #4 is really where this becomes apparent.  Gwen spends some time with Aunt May, who doesn't believe the media that portrays Spider-Woman as a villain (c'mon J. Jonah Jameson). Aunt May talks about Peter Parker's mental state, and it really hits just how fragile everything is. Removing the powers Peter gets in the original continuity and examining the way that person changes in a world where he is normal and sees somebody else with the powers, it shows how the same desires can lead to some very dark places. The only real weak issue of the batch is Issue #5. While it is interesting to see Felicia Hardy of Earth-65, it ultimately distracts from more interesting plotlines. I'm excited to see where the series goes, with an extremely compelling protagonist in Gwen Stacy and frightening new rogue in the form of Matt Murdock.

Now don't even get me started on the weird stuff beneath the surface of The Superior Spider-Man




Star Wars: Vader Down Review

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I should be upfront about this. I am a casual fan of Star Wars. In the collective panic attack that was the lead up to Stat Wars: The Force Awakens, I found myself mildly excited. J. J. Abrams had done a good job on Star Trek. The movie would probably be good (which it was). And despite the fact that I easily clocked over 100 hours in "Galactic Conquest" mode in Star Wars Battlefront II, I simply thought the Minions-esque onslaught of Star Wars media and merchandise was tolerable.

This is all to say that I approached the expansive Vader Down Marvel crossover comic series with an open mind. The series itself was penned as a team effort by veteran comic book writers Jason Aaron and Kieron Gillen. Gillen is responsible for a number of original titles. In fact, two of my absolute favorite series from the past ten years are Gillen originals (The Wicked + The Divine and Phonogram, go read Phonogram now). While it's unclear who was leading the writing duties when, Vader Down's writing does not feel as fresh and vibrant as Gillen's earlier works.

It's not that Vader Down is a particularly bad series. It's ultimately just mildly forgettable. In the hype surrounding The Force Awakens, the continuity of the series has been exploding in several directions, for obvious financial reasons. Star Wars makes big money. The most glaring aspect of the series holding it back is the dialogue. This is inherently a difficulty in adapting characters from a previously established (let alone overwhelmingly loved) franchise. These characters have specific voices that the reader will undoubtedly hear in their head. Darth Vader is a perfect example of this. He has that voice. He will always have that voice in your head no matter who is writing him. The lines he says can sometimes come across as cheesy. Not campy. Cheesy. The other reason Vader stands out so much in a negative way is that he is carrying this story. Vader Down follows Vader in the time between the A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. Luke and Leia also suffer from less-than-exciting dialogue and strange character choices. Of the established characters, Han Solo (and fine, I guess Chewie too, but honestly how hard is it to write HHHRRRHHHH) is the best written. The essence of the character's personality, and even of Harrison Ford's iconic performance are captured in the lines.

Aphra and 0-0-0 are both the show stealers, and characters I would like to see more. Apart from the fact that they are fun and engaging, bouncing off the cast in interesting ways, they have some interesting unexplored narrative space. The stories of the main Star Wars cast has been told to death. You can't do much with them in the time between A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back because we know how they will act and what they will do once the comic is over. Aphra, a sort of morally grey Indiana Jones-esque rogue archeologist, and 0-0-0, a C-3PO-looking droid that specializes in "etiquette, customs, translation, and torture", are not defined by any of the films in the series. They are free to breathe without the unbearable weight that the films have created on the extended universe.

Overall, if you are a Star Wars die hard, there is obvious interest for you here. You will enjoy it, and seeing Darth Vader as ace pilot, as well as an incredibly skilled and mobile melee fighter, will certainly leave you happy. If you are simply a casual fan of the franchise, and in particular if you have never read anything from the extended universe before, this is probably a pass. Something cooler will (hopefully) come out. Or not. Maybe the movies are enough for you. 

Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven Review

Two things are immediately striking within the first few pages of Andre the Giant: Closer to Heaven. The first has to do with the art, gorgeously drawn by Denis Medri (link). This Lion Forge Comics graphic novel is a deeply nostalgic affair. The art has the sepia tint of a flashback scene, which gets washed out for the actual flashback scenes. The sepia is an interesting and important choice. We are no strangers to neon at NRW; it gives us a hyper-energetic, vibrant, and largely imagined past. The sepia permeating the pages of the comic is like beautiful rust. It adds tenderness and charm, while also giving a strange kind of sadness. Andre Roussimoff is iconic of an age of wrestling where the wrestlers had folk hero Paul Bunyon-esque charm. In a world of larger than life characters, he was the largest. He died young, as a result of heart failure, and so the gentle giant never had the chance to age as poorly in the public eye as Hulk Hogan, his greatest rival.  This ties in to the second thing that struck me early in my experience reading the comic. It has to do with the story that Brandon Easton (link) has carved out of the life of one of the most immediately recognizable and loved figures of all pop culture. Unlike the narrative of professional wrestling, with its revolving door of caricatures and overly simple face vs. heel mentality, the narrative of the graphic novel explores the tension between optimism and pessimism.

Easton's script presents itself in the form Andre narrating his own life. This creates a pretty tricky needle to thread. It allows us to feel closer to Andre the person, as opposed to Andre the Giant. On the other hand, the immense difficulty of adequately portraying the inner life of a real-life mythic figure shows itself occasionally with minor awkward lines. The majority of the narration works, and even finds several moments where it presents profound and insightful lines.  The dialogue is more successful, and you can hear Andre's distinct voice in your head as you read him.

Throughout the transcontinental life that he led, it's impossible to not love him. As he learns of his shorter-than-average life expectancy, as he turns to the bottle to cope, as he really begins to understand that he is outgrowing the world, there is a heart to him that carries the story. He makes a racist joke and is reprimanded for it, but he owns up to his mistake. His defeat at the hands of Hulk Hogan at Wrestlemania III is gracefully portrayed before transitioning to a touching resolution. It would be interesting to do a Buddhist reading of this comic, as the driving force for Andre is his search for happiness. Fans of old wrestling, unique art, or heartfelt storytelling shouldn't miss this.  

Does anybody have a peanut? 

Bill & Ted's Most Triumphant Return #1 & 2 Review

A few weeks ago, after a wild summer of thinning out my Netflix queue, I noticed something strange. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was in the "cult" section of Netflix. Despite the fact that one could wager good money that everybody in the English-speaking world would recognize a young Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter sitting atop a high powered time travelling non-Tardis phonebooth, the film was paired with several films that have been seen by very few, including the underrated but also not-as-good sequel, Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey. Absurd run-on sentences aside, the film is one of a handful of quintessential 1980's movies. This led to an eager mixture of surprise and joy when I discovered that they were being given a comic book continuation.

hile I did enjoy the first two issues of BOOM! Studios six-issue run of Bill & Ted's Most Triumphant Return, written by Brian Lynch previously responsible for a number of Buffy and Angel comics, as well as the Minions screenplay, and drawn by Jerry Gaylord, I was surprised to see just how much it relied upon the lore established in Bogus Journey. The story follows the Wyld Stallyns traveling to their utopian future to meet a younger version of the Chuck De Nomolos than the one we know from the movie to try to prevent him from doing evil stuff that affects his future which affects Bill and Ted's most righteous present. Don't worry. We'll run through everything on a dry erase board before the test.

In case you forgot (which you probably did), Chuck De Nomolos was the Big Bad of Bogus Journey.

The story is comparable to The Midas Flesh, an under-appreciated comic by Ryan North. It has a certain jovial glee with implying some pretty heavy (and heady) time travel themes and elements, but then waving away from them or deferring to a joke. You never get the sense that it does this in an inconsistent-story sort of way, but rather much in the way the original films play with the notions of time travel (in Excellent Adventure) or eternity and the afterlife (in Bogus Journey). The Grim Reaper returns from the latter, but has a relatively insignificant role in the plot; unlike the repeated chant of "station", a word that can literally mean anything.

And there I go talking about the lore of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey again. Writing about art is a funny thing.

The best part of the first two issues is easily the side story at the end of the first issue. It's a standalone and it comes out of nowhere. It deals with Robot Bill and Robot Ted contracting a computer virus, and the notions and solutions that two young men from the late 80's would bring to a futuristic scenario. Overall, the comic will be loved by fans of the series. The jokes land and the art is vivid. The only downside is that Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey is unfortunately required viewing material before reading.

 

Miami Vice Remix Complete Review

I previously reviewed Miami Vice Remix #1. Spoiler alert: I loved it. A long and unruly wait courtesy of Amazon.com prevented me from reviewing the remainder of the series until now. Learn from my mistakes. Support local comic book shops. 

The story deals with an influx of a new drug called "Miami Bath Salts" and the efforts of our unconventional heroes Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs to find the source.  Almost everybody who tries the new drug becomes, for all intents and purposes, irreversible zombies. The drug lord is a practitioner of voodoo, and is reminiscent of Disney's Doctor Facilier, albeit much darker. The five-issue run ends on a cliffhanger, so the issue of whether or not the use of voodoo is problematic is hard to gauge. In fact, the only issue (pun!) I took with the series is the lack of characterization of the Big Bad.  

I said "almost everybody" because I would be remiss if I didn't mention my personal favorite sequence in the entire run. Detective Rico Tubbs trips on the bath salts in a controlled (by the standards of the comic) environment. It is absolutely insane. The narration is simultaneously hilarious and awesome and the art is at its best in the entire series. I don't want to give any specifics, but that sequence is worth reading the comics alone. Also, I officially claim Disco Psychosis as my next band's name. None of you can take it from me. 

The artwork of Miami Vice Remix is assaulting in the absolute best way. It was the standout of my review of the first issue. If you are a casual fan of comic books and also a fan of NRW, I can't think of a single better comic to start with. It captures the aesthetic of the scene so perfectly. 

As I mentioned, the story ends on a cliffhanger. The ending is mostly satisfying, but does wind up feeling rushed. This is not so much a fault in the writing as much as it’s a fault in the short run. The story demands more than five issues can allow. This could have easily been stretched into a phenomenal ten issues. I haven't been able to uncover any news of a continuation to the series, but suffice to say I will be pretty bummed if it doesn't get continued. The story throughout the entire run is full of unexpected turns and never feels boring.  

Buying individual comics can be daunting for people who don't do so often or don't have any shops near them. The good news is that all five issues will be compiled into a graphic novel to be released in November of this year. I strongly recommend it to fans of NewRetroWave; the pages will sync with pretty much any song on our channel.