Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Longbox: Fray

writer: Joss Whedon
artists: Karl Moline and Andy Owens
Dark Horse Comics, November 2003
Few franchises have been created over the last two decades that rival the popularity of the TV shows Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. Many of the characters have crossed over into the realm of comics, sharing other adventures not seen on the small screen. Judging from the Buffyverse comics I've gotten my hands on that came out while the shows were on the air, most of those stories were put out there for nothing more than the almighty dollar. I'm sure some of the hardest of hardcore fans love these comics -- after all, if you were craving a couple of new Spike retorts in the middle of July 2001, these would have held you over until the real thing hit in the fall -- but they're weak at best, usually written by people who have watched the show as opposed to having sat on set or in the writer's room.
Since the shows have ended, new comics from IDW focusing on Spike and Angel have surfaced, and while they are improvements over the Dark Horse issues I've read, they are still not quite up to the standard I'd come accustomed to as a fan.
That is until I came across Fray.
Fray is different than all other Buffyverse comics for one reason -- it was scripted by Joss Whedon, the mastermind of all things slayer. Unlike the other comic adaptations, Whedon's book has not only the distinctive tone that allows me to immerse myself in that universe so completely, but also a story that feels fresh, not merely a rehash of other ideas already expressed on television.
Fray is the story of a slayer from the future, a future far from the Sunnydale we'd become so familiar with. Fray lives in an urban slum populated by an array of humans, mutants, fish-creatures, and of course vampires -- only they're no longer known as vampires, but rather as "lurks" because they've been obsolete for so many generations. Whedon's play with language in Fray is actually a very natural progression to the setting of the book. It's one of the main aspects which separate it from the TV show.
Another major departure from the show is that Fray doesn't even realize she is the slayer. She just knows she has certain super powers and those powers allow her to live on the wrong side of the law, stealing specific objects to sell on the black market. In fact, no one knows what a slayer is -- save for Urkonn, a demon sent to instruct her on the ancient ways of the slayer in order to save her world from the inevitable doom that waits. In other words, he's her Watcher. Fray's also got a past that would make Faith's life seem sheltered, especially in her relationships with her brother and sister (I won't spoil those in this review, but they're a couple of doozies).
In addition to the riveting, action-packed script, there is some really fine artwork. I'm not familiar with Karl Moline, but he is definitely a talented man. His monsters are creepy when they need to be, the movement between panels is fluid, and his futuristic backgrounds are reminiscent enough of our own world to not seem completely foreign. But his most favorable attribute as an artist is how he approached Fray. She is very far from the typical big breasted, toothpick waistline that is an epidemic amongst comic book artists. Moline draws Fray as if she were a real girl. Sure, she would be beautiful if she was an actual woman, but it's captured in a natural, athletic form of beauty. Plus, Fray may be a slayer, but I was never imagining Buffy, Faith, or even Kendra as she jumped, kicked, and staked her way through the book. Of course, a lot of that was due to Whedon's characterization of her, but Moline's talent is undeniable.
As much as I enjoyed the majority of this story, it is not without its flaws. The mutant humans seem a bit unnecessary as they're not developed enough to warrant inclusion in the book. Also, a few of the standard Whedon twists occurred too quickly and without enough explanation, particularly concerning one of the major characters at the end of the story. But these are minor gripes and I suspect Whedon had to cut scenes in order to fit the meat of Fray into the original run of eight issues.
Now, I've used a ton of names and terms that are common knowledge amongst fans of the Buffyverse, but this book is not only for those people. Joss clearly wrote this for anyone to pick up and have an enjoyable read. So have no worries if you're unfamiliar with all things slayer related; you'll be able to grasp everything of importance. Pick this one up regardless if you're a fan or not. It's unlikely you'll be disappointed.
9 out of 10

*** Now that LBM has expanded beyond comics, I've retooled some of the columns for the sake of simplicity. This was originally part of a feature I did called "Graphic Novel Grab Bag." I only ever wrote five, so I've re-tagged them as Longbox entries. Enjoy the early days of LBM that I've somehow resisted the urge to purge. -- JA, 1/20/10 ***

Friday, February 17, 2006

The Longbox 2/22/06

Daredevil #81
writer: Brian Michael Bendis
artist: Alex Maleev
Marvel Entertainment, 3/06
** Note: Since DD #82 was released this week, I've written a spoiler-heavy review. Continue at your own risk. **
Foggy Nelson. The Black Widow. Bullseye. Elektra. The Kingpin. The Owl.
The majority of the important characters in the Daredevil canon make an appearance in this final issue of Bendis' fantastic run on the title. It's an issue that wraps up so many of the themes and arcs that were introduced, yet opens so many new possibilities for the future of Mathew Murdock, that I'm beyond satisfied after finishing it.
Matt's gone through a lot over the last few years -- had a few torrid romances fail miserably, almost died a few times, put the smack down on a bunch of baddies, and has had some ups and downs in the courtroom. All of this is repeating your standard, ho-hum Daredevil stories that have persisted since the days when Frank Miller began writing the character almost 25 years ago. But there was something more in a Bendis script that compelled me to continue reading on. The primary reason is he has an incredibly realistic stranglehold on the English language -- not the grammatically correct version of it, mind you, but the sensibilities that allow you to feel as though you are in the room with these characters. He mixes the beats of everyday conversation with fast-paced action that episodic storytelling requires. He does this better on no title than Daredevil.
Now I know that Bendis has been routinely criticized for not including enough action sequences during this run, but I wholeheartedly disagree. Those slower points in the story allowed for the revelations made over the course of his run to be that much more of a bombshell than they otherwise would have been. Could he have mixed in more action? Sure, but that's not how Bendis writes. We, as readers, are at the mercy of the talent, and as long as the goods are delivered, I see no reason to gripe about how slow a memorable story started out. The best of these delivered goods on this run which separates it from so many that have come before it is the identity of Daredevil being revealed as Matt Murdock. Plenty of you hate that this has happened. Frankly, I'm surprised no one had done the identity-of-the-hero-revealed-to-the-world story before in comics. It just seems so obvious. Take away the people who actually knew he was Murdock and you would have to find someone who had repeatedly seen DD enter and exit his brownstone or swinging around the offices of Nelson and Murdock in costume and put two and two together.
Anyway, in this issue, Matt finally has to answer whether or not he is guilty of the "crimes" attributed to Daredevil. After the beginning of his trial, Matt escapes from custody with the help of the Widow and lives overseas with new wife, Milla. Then, evoking his traumatic past, Milla is killed by Bullseye's ace of spades, and Matt snaps Bullseye's neck in the middle of the street. (If you're a DD fan and didn't immediately put down the book after reading that scene to pause in order to soak up the enormity of what had just happened, I seriously question your level of DD fandom.) Matt then goes into hiding with Elektra, ending up where most of us want him to but realize that settling down with Elektra completely defeats the purpose of why he fell in love with her in the first place.
Alas, we then learn that this has all been occurring in his mind, and Matt is still debating whether he should plead guilty or not guilty to the charges. He chooses not guilty and goes to prison, now sharing a cell block with many of the psychopaths he helped to put in there, including the Kingpin and the Owl. The prior laziness of Matt Murdock with his secret identity has finally bit him in the ass. So many people in his life had known about his life as Daredevil -- numerous girlfriends, enemies, superhero colleagues -- that finally he has to pay for it.
And this is where my anticipation for issue #82 begins -- how is Matt going to co-exist on Ryker's Island with so many who will be out to get him? How long will he be locked up? What kind of people will he have to rely on inside in order to survive? Can Foggy find a precedent during the appeal so he can be released? Will he break out, disregarding the system of law that he believes in so dearly and yet openly defied in his red suit? Will some other Marvel hero attempt to break him out? Will he go with them if they do?
As you can see, I have way too much time on my hands to be able to think about what's to come next in the pages of Daredevil, but I do know they're being given over to the very capable hands of Ed Brubaker. If anyone can one-up Brian Michael Bendis, it's going to be him.
So long, Bendis. It was a great run.
10 out of 10

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

The Shortbox 2/8/06

Spider-Man and the Black Cat #6 (of 6)
writer: Kevin Smith
artists: Terry Dodson & Rachel Dodson
Marvel Entertainment, 3/06
So this mini finally ended after about 3 years of waiting. Was it worth it? Unless you like to have the final chapter of what started out as a great, action-packed story told in flashback, yes. I don't. Just like Smith's Daredevil and Green Arrow runs, this mini started out strong and then fizzled in the last two issues. It's a shame because I think the Black Cat has a plethora of interesting stories that can be told about her, but before those happen, she's got to get over Peter Parker. They've been beating that horse for close to two decades now. Hopefully someone else will make Felicia Hardy worth reading again and I hope they bring the Dodson's back with them.
And what's with Smith's hard-on for Mysterio? Stick with writing movies not titled Jersey Girl, Kev.
4 out of 10

Ultimate Extinction #1 (of 5)
writer: Warren Ellis
artist: Brandon Peterson
Marvel Entertainment, 3/06
Hopefully the pieces in the Ultimate Galactus saga will come together soon. As with the first two chapters, this one is pacing itself and hitting a lot of good notes along the way. I've looked forward to each issue and Extinction is no different thus far. Peterson's art is sleek and polished in the Ultimate tradition. Still, I'm waiting to see how the X-Men and Ultimates fit into the big picture of the series.
8 out of 10

Star Wars: Purge #1 (one shot)
writer: John Ostrander
artist: Doug Wheatley
Dark Horse Comics, 12/05
This issue takes place one month after the events in Episode III, and we meet a small band of surviving jedi knights, none of whom I remember from earlier pages of Star Wars: Republic (but doesn't mean some of them weren't introduced), and then subsequently watch them get butchered by Darth Vader. As great as it was to see Vader kicking ass since we didn't get to see it in the movie, I'm left flat without Ostrander's conflicted jedi, Quinlan Vos, from Republic. Look for more of my thoughts on Republic in "The Longbox," and you'll see why I feel this way.
Now I'm suddenly a little less enthused for the new Ostrander Star Wars title coming out soon.
6 out of 10

The Outsiders #32
writer: Jen Van Meter
artists: Matthew Clark & Dietrich Smith
D.C. Comics, 3/06
This group of Outsiders were initially supposed to be a strike-first group -- attack the baddies before they could actually do something bad, much like the current U.S. administration's stance on terrorism they began a few years back. Unfortunately, art is now imitating life as, like President Bush, the team doesn't have much of a focus on who it's enemy is anymore. In this issue we get half the team having a tedious flying-through-space trip and the other half hitching a ride on a cruise ship because they were stranded at the end of their last mission by the airborne members of the team. Regular writer Judd Winick probably would have made the cruise ship subplot enjoyable, but Van Meter writes the team so flatly, I'm amazed they even bothered putting out the issue. If it hadn't been for the Infinite Crisis crossover, maybe we would have been spared. This title really needs to be re-focused after Infinite Crisis, otherwise it won't be worth getting any longer.
3 out of 10