Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Longbox

Joe the Barbarian
issue: 1
writer: Grant Morrison
artist: Sean Murphy
publisher: DC/Vertigo

Grant Morrison holds a special place in my heart.  It was his run on "New X-Men" that got me back into reading comics in a major way again.  I have to admit though, I'm not familiar with most of his recent stuff.  I paid no attention to his work on Batman, not being so big of a fan of the DC stable of heroes, but did take in his older run on Justice League.  I feel I need to preface this article with that because I don't like what I have to say next.  "Joe the Barbarian" kind of left me with a "meh" feeling after reading it.

Don't get me wrong, Sean Murphy's art in this book is the top, nothing short of fantastic.  His layouts are strong and his visual style is something that is right up my alley.  However, it is the story itself that left me wanting.

Joe is a pretty typical kid living in whatever part of the world it is that he lives in.  He lives with his mother in a fairly normal house that seems to be locked in a time vortex style-wise.  There is also some indicators that they might be in danger of losing the house.  His room is in the attic, his father is a dead veteran, and his mother is very much on him about eating his candy.  Joe is also a pretty typical underdog.  He's an artist that is picked on by his classmates and seemingly misunderstood by his peers.  There also seems to be some animosity between himself and his dead father.

It isn't until he gets home that things take their usual weird turn that are often occurring in the realm of a Vertigo book.  He comes home following a class visit to the veteran's cemetery where his father is buried and where he has a run-in with the usual bullies.  When he gets home, he makes his way up to his room, which is littered with toys and collectables.  After laying in bed for a few moments, his surroundings shift and he finds himself somewhere else and then, just as quickly, returns to his bed.  After an attempt to figure out what just happened he winds up going back again and is confronted by an army that we find out is comprised of the characters from his drawings and toys around his room.

Now, mind you, this is a pretty good set up for the most part, and like I said Murphy's art really brings this book to life.  His attention to detail is fantastic and just really brings a great deal of the depth to the page.  However, this feels like a very typical fantasy story in the vein of "Alice in Wonderland" or "Jumanji" (yeah, I went there).  That's not to say that this couldn't turn out to be an amazing piece but I always figured Grant Morrison to be a bit more out there, a bit more crazy when it came to things.  This seems a little safe for him.  All the character constructions are solid, to be fair and the dialogue is spot on as well.  I'll be picking this one up for at least two more issues to see where it goes.  I'm sure if anyone can take something like this up a notch, it's Grant Morrison.

Longbox Special: Under Siege

Last week we got a look inside some of the histories and motivations of two of Norman Osborn's Avengers, Daken and The Sentry. This week we get a look at what's on the mind of Osborn's newest inner circle man, Taskmaster, as well as finding out what Captain America's Avenger's are up to.

Avengers: The Initiative #32 is another good character piece with subplots that carry on from outside the “Siege” storyline. This time, the focus is on Taskmaster, man in charge of the Fifty State Initiative and recent addition to Norman Osborn’s cabal of super-villains following the departures of Emma Frost and Namor. Taskmaster is another character I only know about in passing and this issue fleshes out his history and motivations. I just wish it would explain why he wears a skull mask and a LARPer outfit.

Taskmaster has come to realize just what it is that keeps himself and other lower-tier villains from the kind of greatness that Venom, Bullseye, and the like enjoy. Craziness. He has decided that the siege on Asgard is his chance to take a hold of greatness as opposed to his usually playing it safe. Taskmaster used to make his money by training the thugs for others while keeping below the radar and out of the way of jail time and the fists of heroes.

This issue continues to explore the relationship of Diamondback and Constrictor, two members of the Initiative who sit on different sides of the fence. Constrictor is a close friend of Taskmaster’s and so has enjoyed some of the perks that go along with being buddies with the boss. Diamondback, however, is a mole for the Avengers that have gone underground. To complicate matters even further, she’s gotten involved with Constrictor. Both of these characters try to come to terms with their relationship and just want the assault on Asgard holds for them.

Thirdly, because there’s always a third thing, there’s the subplot of the Avengers Resistance made up of former Initiative members Tigra, Night Thrasher, Justice, and Ultragirl. The amazing thing here is that these b-players have been taken and actually have something interesting going on. They managed to get information that connects the incident at Soldier Field to Norman Osborn. Of course their plan is not just to expose Osborn, but to stage an attack on camp H.A.M.M.E.R and shut it down.

The issue concludes with the repelling of Thor’s intervention at Asgard and brings the Diamondback/Tasmaster story-lines to a convergence.

New Avengers #61 is set just before the siege on Asgard and puts The Hood back into play as the man to take down Captain America’s Avengers. Unlike the other “Siege” tie-ins thus far, this is less of a character piece and more of a straight up action segment. What we have are The Hood’s syndicate of criminals getting powered up by the Norn Stones, a gift from Loki to The Hood, and going after Cap’s Avengers.

Captains America are looking over the recently demolished remains of Steve Roger’s former headquarters. There’s not much time for talking before Steve and Bucky are attacked by The Living Laser and The Corruptor. The Corruptor uses his newly enhanced abilities to control the minds of others to pit Bucky against Steve in what could be considered a cliché fight between heroes. The conclusion looks to be typical for the set up but that seems to be something saved for the next issue.

Also going on Spiders-Man and -Woman stand watch on a nearby building monitoring activity at Osborn’s Avengers Tower, where things seem to be ramping up for something big. This is actually the more wordy of the two stories going on here and probably the more interesting. Jessica (-Woman) asks Peter (-Man) about Osborn since he’s fought him so many times in the past. This turns into a reinforcement of the idea that it’s just a matter of time before Osborn loses it and the empire he’s created for himself comes crashing down on his head. What else is kind of interesting here is that there are a bunch of throw away tie-in references to stuff like S.W.O.R.D and the Spider-Woman comic as well as the possible undoing of the Brand New Day storyline that’s going to be revisited this year. Before long, the two are also attacked by a duo of newly powered up criminals Madrill and Griffin, who I’m assuming are bottom of the barrel characters that Bendis likes to grab at times like this to add some flavor to the mix. It’s another mind controller, Mandrill, who gives Spider-Woman the order to kill Spider-Man and then to give him the location of the other Avengers.

I have to say that once again, these are two well done tie-in books that don’t rely so heavily on the main title. I’ve been very impressed with how Marvel has managed to address stuff that’s been going on in these titles, keep that stuff moving forward, and still connect it to the event without making either critical to the other for understanding. If you’ve been reading this books before “Siege”, you’re still going to enjoy Gage’s and Bendis’s work on them. If you’re only hooking in for the event book, you’ll get some nice spice added to the stew. Hopefully they can keep this up in February.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Genres & Judgments: THE BANNEN WAY

As I've repeatedly made clear on the site, I'm a junkie for a certain cache of things, namely some sort of combination of blood, booze, broads and bullets. I've paid more than I care to admit for some out-of-print novels with cover prices listed at 25 cents just to devour some really good crime fiction. Fortunately, they've all been worth it. But nothing beats finding a nice little crime story for nothing at all. Let's discuss The Bannen Way.
A 16-part, original web series from Crackle (more or less Sony's answer to Hulu), The Bannen Way is a pretty entertaining crime-action thriller. Best of all, since it's on Crackle, it's entirely free aside from a handful of 15-second commercials between every other webisode.
Much like Angel of Death, another Crackle series from 2009, the production value is high and the cast largely superb.
Mark Gantt plays Neal Bannen, a super-confident womanizer, yet down-on-his-luck con man who owes money to a gangster. He hails from a criminal family led by his uncle, but for rather vague reasons, is attempting to go clean. But he needs money to pay off his debt to avoid getting clipped, so his uncle sends him on a mission to steal an obscure artifact. In the process of his adventure, Bannen reveals the a list of his family's code, sorta like what Columbus does in Zombieland, such as "Give your opponents two choices...both of which benefit you." These nuggets of wisdom are the Bannen Way. Only thing is, Neal tends not to follow them.
Gantt pulls off the role of charming rouge convincingly and is complemented by a damn-good cast, including Vanessa Marcil, Michael Ironside, Michael Lerner and an especially on-point performance from Robert Forster.
All of this is pretty impressive for a feature that probably didn't have much capital behind it.
The one thing that The Bannen Way does miss the mark with a bit for me is its cadre of antagonists. Although this is not a story seeped in realism, they're overly cartoonish. Lerner plays an over-the-top Jewish mobster ironically named the Mensch, and is joined by a trio of female assassins going after Bannen (one is a buxom blonde wearing a corset and fishnet stockings without explanation in addition to specializing in demolitions -- she is, of course, known only as the Bombshell). If Bannen was given adversaries without the comic-book costumes and nicknames, I think the story would have been better served. Fortunately, not all the big bads are of this nature.
Overall, Bannen was worth sitting through the handful of ads and you can't argue with the price. It's set up for a sequel, and I certainly hope they produce another.
My two forays into Crackle originals have both been very fun. As enjoyable as The Bannen Way was, I feel Angel of Death is superior -- more violence, more unpredictable and more original (I should point out that the reason I sought Angel out in the first place was because it was written by Ed Brubaker, my favorite comic book scribe for a few years running now, so take that for what it's worth).
They're onto some good shit over at Crackle. Check it out.

Monday, January 25, 2010

TV Tweets: Jan. 18 - 24

As always, you can follow me at LowBrowJon to get my latest fistful of letters, as well as other LBM updates.
Jan. 21st [24, The Walking Dead]
  • You may be getting back into my good graces again, 24. Let's keep it up.

I hated 24 last year. It had become too predictable and overly ridiculous (even by 24 standards). I wasn't even sure I was going to watch this season. But the Bauer-ite of old won out, and I may be glad it did. Chole being back in the fold is a huge plus and the newbies are likable for the most part thus far (and I can't believe I'm not annoyed by Freddie Prinze, Jr). It could easily fall back into insanely predictable mode, but it hasn't gotten there severely yet.

I wasn't really captivated by the first six issues of the comic, but tons of people I know love this series. Mike is one of them; maybe he can chime what makes it great in the comments. Frank Darabont is no hack, so it sounds like it's in good hands, plus AMC has an amazing track record, the lone exception being The Prisoner remake.

Jan. 22nd [Torchwood]

Still wondering, btw.

Jan. 23rd [The Office, 30 Rock]
  • Really? A clip show? And not even a particularly good one. #TheOffice

For shame, The Office. For shame.

  • "Your neighbors named their daughter Belichick."

At least something good finally came out Jack's high-school-sweetheart storyline. I was dying after that one. Any time you can mock the Pats is okay in my book. Definitely not enough to bump it up to the Salma Hayek one from last year.
30 Rock is still pretty damn funny, although I don't think I've been laughing as much as I had been the past two seasons. I'll come back to this in a few weeks if I figure out why.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Longbox Special: Under Siege

Not too long ago I wrote up my review for the first issue of Marvel’s latest event, “Siege”. Well, I decided I would take a hand at writing a weekly bit about the books coming out that looks at the tie-ins. This past week we got installments of Dark Avengers and Dark Wolverine...

Dark Avengers #13 gives a bit of insight into the character of The Sentry. I admit to not having what one would consider a comprehensive understanding of this guy, I didn’t read any of the stuff that introduced him. What I’ve come to understand is that he’s a Superman-like character as far as his powers but has that wonderful quirk of being mentally unstable. Not only is he The Sentry but he is also his own arch-nemesis, The Void.

It is revealed that Robert “Bob” Reynolds, the guy who became The Sentry, is that he was not some innocent, bright-eyed kid who wandered into a lab and drank a serum that he shouldn’t have and gained the powers that he did. It turns out Bob was a junkie and was looking for his next high by rooting through a lab for materials. He drank a serum, got that first spike of power, and like most junkies he wanted more.

It’s also revealed that what is understood about The Void, that it’s just a darker impulses of Bob, is wrong. Apparently The Void is in some way connected to the wrath of God. The force that killed all the first-born of Egypt but spared the Israelites who marked their door with the blood of a lamb? The Void.

The thing that confuses me though is that I thought The Void had been locked up inside the mind of Scott Summers after Emma Frost had extracted it from Bob and held it in her mind by remaining in her diamond form. Hopefully this will not go unnoticed and will be further explained next issue.

Dark Wolverine #82 is my first exposure to the book since the Wolverine title was changed for “Dark Reign”. This is another situation where the character is new to me save for a small amount of exposure in the other X-books that led up to “Dark Reign”. What I know is that Daken is Wolverine’s son and that he hates his dad, of course, and seems to swing on both sides of the sexual orientation fence.

This issue raises questions about just why Daken is involved with Osborn and there’s a teasing of some kind of secret that he’s managed to keep from the H.A.M.M.E.R leader. He is also tied to the Asgardians as entities that I can only assume are a kind of Norse version of the Sisters of Fate, watch Daken from afar and comment that he is the bringer of Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse.

Daken is definitely playing his own agenda in all of this and there is what seems to be an 11th hour betrayal in the middle of the siege on Asgard. How this will all play into the bigger picture of the main story is unclear, if it will happen at all. More than likely, this will all just play into a hopeful advancement of the character that will extend past the event.

These two books were both solid background pieces on characters involved with Osborn’s plan. However, I wouldn’t consider either of them essential reading to understand the larger story, at least as far as it stands now. If you like The Sentry or Daken, you’ll certainly want to pick these up as they are solid character pieces.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

The Longbox

issue: 1 of 4
writer: Brian Michael Bendis
artist: Olivier Coipel
publisher: Marvel

Siege #1 left me hopeful but also somewhat worried at the event Marvel tells us has been “seven years in the making.”

Bendis delivers a tight script, great dialogue, and some spot on pacing. The now seemingly standard “The Story Thus Far” segment on page one and a verbose opening allow new readers to pick up the book without needing too much from other books. Coipel’s pencils with Mark Morales’s inks are sharp and dynamic.
For those not in the know, since the conclusion of the Skrull invasion of Earth, Norman Osborn has been placed in charge of S.H.I.E.L.D, now H.A.M.M.E.R, and has assembled a cabal of super-villains to take advantage of the situation. In the time during Osborn’s “Dark Reign”, his cabal has begun to disintegrate and the tenuous hold he’s maintained on his own sanity has begun to slip. Now, Osborn has begun to conspire with Loki to launch an attack on Asgard, but to do so they need an incident to justify the attack, something big.

Siege #1 opens with this incident where Volstagg, one of the Asgardians, is lured into a fight that leads to the destruction of Soldier Field during a football game and the deaths of those in attendance. Osborn assembles his Avengers as well as the Initiative and makes his move on Asgard against the orders of the President of the United States. Armies clash over Braxton, Oklahoma where Asgard floats and a comatose Tony Stark lies in the care of Dr. Donald Blake. Blake takes to the battle as Thor where he is quickly taken down and an angry Steve Rogers (Captain America) watches on via televised news coverage.

Everything in this issue is delivered in big budget action movie style. A building story and beautiful visuals punctuate every moment of every page. My worry, though, is the four issue count they’ve decided to go with. I’m sure Bendis can deliver the goods in four issues but just how good will they be? With the promise that this storyline will bring together Captain America, Iron Man, and Captain America for the first time in years, I wonder if four issues can do a story like that justice?
In the end, Siege #1 does what any good first issue of an event should do. It sets the stage, draws lines, and teases of great things to come.

Monday, January 18, 2010

TV Tweets: Jan. 12 - 17

As always, you can follow me at LowBrowJon to get my latest waking wonderments, as well as other LBM updates.
Jan. 12th [Big Love]
  • Dang. Somehow I forgot about what happened to Roman last season. #BigLove
Really I just watch this show in hopes it spins off into The Lois and Wanda Crazy-Lady Hour. You listenin', HBO?
(Warning: Google-imaging "big," "love," and a woman's name is only recommended when at home, and then only at your own risk.)

Jan. 16th [Fringe]
  • Two eps of #Fringe aired this week. One was very blah, other was kinda meh even though Astrid had her big fro back. Better luck next week.
The first created much confusion amongst the Fringe faithful and a text-message fight with a friend of mine. It turned out to be an unaired episode from last season. Good job of giving us no explanation, FOX. The second of the week was largely unremarkable, though clearly better on an individual level than a lot of what we got in season 1, after the early-week reminder.

Jan. 17th [Powers]
Obviously, there's nothing to see yet, but any news about adapting Powers into a TV show is great news in my book. For the uninitiated, Powers is a police procedural comic book set in a world with rampant superpowers by Bendis and Michael Avon Oeming. Kinda like NYPD Blue meets Heroes before it completely sucked and forced me to stop watching (sorry; Heroes rant over).
Dream casting: Katee Sackhoff (Battlestar Galactica) as Deena Pilgrim. Jon Hamm (Mad Men) as Christian Walker. Hamm will never happen, but I'll hold out hope that Sackhoff could.FX is a great network for it to land on since they take a few more risks than most. This could really make a great television show, so I hope it happens.
[This retweet was courtesy of the official, real, actual Brian Michael Bendis]

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

TV Tweets: Nov. 13 - Jan. 11

Again, apologies with the severe lateness of this post, but the technical difficulties stretched far and wide, affecting my computer and television setups. That seems to be behind me now, so on with the show. Plus, TV has been on a hiatus for awhile, but is slowly coming back this week.

As always, you can follow me at LowBrowJon to get my latest tenacious telegraphs, as well as other LBM updates.
Nov. 13th [Torchwood]
  • Wowsers! Torchwood: Children of Earth is one of the best pieces of sci-fi ever. Happily, I found this news afterward.
Dammit. I was so delighted with my Best of '09 List, and then a couple days later I finally start going back into the tweet vaults, I find this reference.
Not sure how I forgot about it, but I might have named this the best TV show of the year if I did it over. Children of Earth is superb. Torchwood really needed this long-range focus of one fully developed story looked at from virtually every angle possible. It takes the sci-fi version of the grand dilemma of choosing between the needs of the many and the needs of the few, so famously presented in Wrath of Khan, to the greatest depth I can recall. Word is they're going to make more, so yippee!

Nov. 23
[Twin Peaks]
  • I know it's a David Lynch creation so I shouldn't be surprised, but WHAT THE FUCK is going on after 5 eps of Twin Peaks?
So I finished season 1 because, although very bizarre and dated, Twin Peaks is still pretty engaging. But I've been majorly struggling to get to the fifth ep of season 2. Knowing that it doesn't really go anywhere is disheartening. (Btw, the scene which freaked me out so much was the one with old Agent Cooper and the midget talking in backwards German or whatever the hell was going on there. Such fantastic confusion.)

Dec. 4th
[Sons of Anarchy]
Season 2 was a big upgrade over last year. Not the best show on out there, by any means, but I always enjoy it. Looking forward to more.

Dec. 19th
[The Prisoner (2009)]
  • Finally got through new #ThePrisoner mini. My thoughts on it? Meh.
Jan. 2nd [Friday Night Lights]
  • I'm hoping that Tink will be the bigger, blacker Landry Clarke next season. #FridayNightLights
I'm quite proud of this prognosis, thank you very much.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Genres & Judgments: The Best of 2009

This is late, very late, so big apologies if any of you were actually waiting for it. I'm hoping my insane amount of technical problems from the year, especially the last two months, are behind me and I can post with more frequency as in September and October.

What follows are my picks for the album, comic book, tv series, novel and film of 2009.

Album of the Year
Yonder Is the Clock - The Felice Brothers [Team Love Records]
I don't really listen to a lot of new music any more (most of the music I discovered this year came out before 2009 when I looked back), which I suppose is why I enjoy the brothers' Felice so much -- their sound is largely of a century past. But to write them off as merely a folk/rock act sells them too short. This is not a bunch of guys that tried to capitalize on the O, Brother fad from a few years back. These boys live it on the road with accordion, washboard and fiddle in tow. They even have an album available for purchase only at their live shows that was recorded on a two-track in a chicken coop.
Unlike a lot of contemporary folk, hailing from the Catskills as opposed to Appalachia or the Bayou gives them a distinctly unique sensibility to that old-timey sound. With song subjects featuring the star of Bethlehem, sweeping porters and not one, but two songs about chickens on Yonder, they place you in a long-lost mindset where Honus Wagner and the steam engine ruled the land. But then they'll throw in a reference to Adderall, and suddenly you're transplanted to the now via the past.
In short, Yonder Is The Clock is a remarkable musical achievement.

Mainstream Comic Series of the Year
The Invincible Iron Man - Matt Fraction & Salvador Larroca [Marvel Comics]
I've had to take a hiatus from comics this year due to my finances, but this Iron Man comic was the hardest one to give up, not to mention the last. What Fraction has done to a character conveniently pushed into the spotlight by an excellent movie is impressive. Tearing him down from the heights of Director of S.H.I.E.L.D. and making you care each step of the way was no small task. All it's done is make me more excited for the coming sequel film as well as care about Iron Man, which I certainly did not before this series.
Also, it's nice to see that my prediction of Fraction becoming the next big thing in comics is firmly cemented 3 and a half years after the fact. It's going to be a hard task not picking up the new Casanova issues about to hit shelves.

Independent Comic Series of the Year
Criminal - Ed Brubaker & Sean Phillips [Icon/Marvel Comics]
While I did eventually force myself to give up The Invincible Iron Man, I haven't done so with Criminal. It's the only monthly I CANNOT put down. In part because of the unparalleled level of crime fiction you get in each issue (it's my favorite genre, so I look for it in all mediums; nothing is consistently better), but also because of the extras included in the back pages. The trades don't include these essays on the best film, comics and novels that crime fiction is included in, so Brubaker and Phillips have ingeniously forced my hand.
The best news is that the mini series format shows no signs of slowing down, and allows for new readers to jump in with a new storyline. If you do that, make sure you visit the previous stops in the Criminal-verse.

Television Series of the Year
Battlestar Galactica - Season 4.5 [SciFi Channel]
This was a tough decision, a testament to just how good some shows have become, but ultimately I have to give it to BSG. The finale may not have been perfect, but damn was it close. Easily the best science fiction show ever forged, it accomplished exquisite social commentary in a post-9/11 world on religion, the role of the military and government, and the significance of humanity, among other topics, while never losing an ounce of entertainment value.
In a roundabout way, it will live on through Caprica, a prequel series that will begin later this month. Its pilot was strong and showed promise as a worthy successor to one of the greatest television series ever made.

Novel of the Year
My Dead Body - Charlie Huston [Del Ray]
The fifth and presumably final chapter in the Joe Pitt Casebooks, Huston's vampire-noir series, came out late this year in deliciously bloody fashion. Huston is far and away my favorite writer right now, so I'm majorly biased here.
This series is about a litany of colorful vampire clans battling for territory and general survival in New York City with the lone wolf Joe Pitt caught in the middle of all them, creating havoc more or less in the name of love. Unlike some of the more popular vampire stories out there right now, Huston tackles the need for feeding, the science of vampirism and even AIDS head-on. But he doesn't lose sight of love, even amid a hail of bullets and double-crosses.
Many people seem to classify him as a prose Tarantino, a description with some merit, and before seeing Inglourious Basterds this year, I had sorta ignored. To me, Huston is like Cormac McCarthy with a genre flair. He embraces horror, science fiction and violence with much more ease than what I've seen in my limited exposure to McCarthy but still is able to evoke the same resonance with an outstanding individual voice and flow of words.
My Dead Body will probably be the last installment, but it concludes inconspicuously. I wouldn't be surprised to see more tales emerge from this universe if it ever gets captured on film.

Films of the Year
Star Trek - J.J. Abrams [Paramount Pictures]
Inglourious Basterds - Quentin Tarantino [Universal Studios]
I've been trying to pick between these two for a couple of months now, and I just can't. Together, they filled all my requirements from a movie. Star Trek was the thrilling, yet wondrously crafted popcorn movie that made you want another installment. Basterds was a full-blown cinematic masterpiece that got better the more days went by. Both were made by directors who are at the top of their game, yet will probably only get better. The combination made for a superb year.

The Rest of 2009's Top Films:
3. District 9 - read my review here (scroll down)
4. The Brothers Bloom
5. Thirst
6. Taken - honorably mentioned in my most-underrated list
7. Anvil: The Story of Anvil
8. Watchmen
9. Avatar - read my review here
10. Up

2009-Released Films I Didn't See, But Wanted To:
The Road
(500) Days of Summer
The Hurt Locker
Sherlock Holmes
Public Enemies
The Fantastic Mr. Fox
State of Play

2009's In-Theater Experience Shit List:1. X-Men Origins: Wolverine
2. Year One
3. Terminator Salvation
While I'm always hoping for something new and unexpected, I am confident that the contenders for next year's list will include Iron Man 2, Vampire Weekend's Contra, and Mad Men - Season 4.

Got other ideas on what to look out for next year? Tell me in the comments.

With that, bring on 2010!