Archive for March, 2012

Saucer Invasion

Saucer Country #1

This is a new Vertigo series, written by Paul Cornell and illustrated by Ryan Kelly. The initial description really grabbed me for two reasons — first, I’ve got a weakness for all things New Mexico because I lived in the Land of Enchantment for a couple decades, and second, I’ve been a colossal cynic and disbeliever in UFOs, which is very big business in parts of the state. So yeah, this one was almost designed to make me want to read it.

Our lead character is Arcadia Alvarado, Democratic Governor of New Mexico. She’s preparing to announce that she’s running for President, making preparations with her chief-of-staff and a Republican consultant who’s agreed to help her campaign, dealing with an alcoholic ex-husband… and she’s just been abducted by aliens. Is this going to end the campaign before it even begins, or does this make things even more urgent?

Verdict: Thumbs up. A very fun story, very engaging, with great dialogue and characterization. The art makes the scenery look genuinely New Mexican, and it has plenty of wonderfully creepy moments as well. Alvarado’s announcement speech is a barnburner, too — some smart candidate could hire Paul Cornell as a speechwriter. All that, plus we get to meet the Pioneer 10 couple! All told, it’s a great first issue, and I’m looking forward to reading more.

Batgirl #1

Frustrated by her difficulty in getting re-adjusted to beating up criminals, Batgirl goes to see Black Canary in the hopes that sparring with her will help her get her fighting spirit back. Dinah gives her a mission to handle for the Birds of Prey — a gang leader called Grotesque is holding up a high-society party, and Batgirl needs to bring him down. Unfortunately, the villain kills the party host while demanding an incredibly rare bottle of wine. She’s able to beat down his goons, but Grotesque still almost kills Batgirl in the sewers — and then she discovers something awful about one of his henchmen.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Good story, excellent dialogue. Erm, not a lot else I can think to say about it, but I was happy with what I read.

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A Dose of Awesome: Christopher Lee!

It’s been quite a while since we took a look into our Awesome Box of Awesome Things, so let’s talk about one of the most awesome people in existence: Christopher Lee!

Aw, just some old guy? What’s so awesome about some old guy? Well, mister, lemme tell ya, you better put on yer noseplugs, ’cause you’re about to get drowned in awesome.

If you want the straight facts on Lee, you can check his Wikipedia page, or for a bit more levity, there’s his TVTropes page… but even with dry ol’ Wikipedia, you just can’t hide what an amazing life the man has had. He’s just shy of 90 years old, he’s almost six-and-a-half feet tall, he’s got a voice that is really just one of the most amazing things I’ve ever gotten to hear. And he’s played a spectacular number of roles on the big screen. How many? Well, he holds the world record — 275 roles!

He was Count Dracula in the Hammer horror films of the 1950s and ’60s — and he’s still considered the best actor to have every performed that role. He played Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy, and plenty of other roles in other Hammer films. He was Francisco Scaramanga in “The Man with the Golden Gun.” He played Lord Summerisle in the original “Wicker Man.” He played Sherlock Holmes and Mycroft Holmes. He played Saruman in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. He played Count Dooku in the “Star Wars” prequels. He was even the voice of Death in two British adaptations of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.

Oh, but there’s more to him than just acting. He met M.R. James, the greatest ghost story writer in history, while applying for a scholarship at Eton. He was the only member of the cast of “Lord of the Rings” to have actually met J.R.R. Tolkien and re-reads the entire trilogy every year.

He served in the Royal Air Force during World War II — and he was a member of a secret espionage unit called the Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare. There is a very good chance that he actually killed Nazis, which is more awesome than anything you’ve done, isn’t it? One of the men who served with him in the war was his step-cousin Ian Fleming, creator of the James Bond novels!

He’s an expert fencer. He did his own swordplay in the “Star Wars” movies and his own stunt driving in “The Man with the Golden Gun.” He received his knighthood on Halloween. He’s an operatic bass-baritone. And he released a couple of heavy metal albums. Both of them were named after Charlemagne. Why Charlemagne? Because Christopher Lee is a direct descendant of the most badass of the French kings.

I don’t know what else to say. Christopher Lee is so awesome, it hurts.

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Skull and Bones

iZombie #23

Xitalu, an ancient evil god, is coming, and he’s going to wipe the planet clean. Amon was able to help stop him the last time he showed up a few centuries ago, but one complication this time is that Galatea is actually trying to speed up Xitalu’s arrival, hoping that she and her allies will be able to harness his power. The Dead Presidents and the Fossor Corporation team up to try to stop her. Amon, meanwhile, has his own plan to stop Xitalu — and it involves sacrificing Spot! Even if those plots can be foiled, is there any way to prevent Xitalu from destroying everything?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Lots of action — and it all works with the series’ ongoing soap opera surprisingly well. And hopefully, Gwen will have something to do other than talk to her boyfriend and get ordered around by other characters — I like her a lot, but she needs to be less passive if she’s going to the lead character.

Avengers Academy #27

While Lightspeed worries about whether Striker is adjusting well to his homosexuality, he surprises everyone by holding a press conference to come out. Turns out he thinks it’ll be great publicity. Meanwhile, the Runaways have come to the Academy hoping that they have a way to retrieve the team’s pet dinosaur, Old Lace. After an unusually brief fight, the two teams agree to work together and even get along. Unfortunately, Giant-Man and Tigra have decided that, though the rest of the Runaways can go their own way, Molly and Klara are too young to be out adventuring, so they plan to take them away and put them in foster homes. Everyone soon ends up traveling to a prehistoric world to find Old Lace — but some of them may not be coming back when the Runaways find out what Giant-Man and Tigra have in mind for them.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Nice to see the Runaways, even if it’s been so long since I read the book, I don’t recognize all the characters. It’s also nice that their “We’re All Superheroes So Let’s Fight” routine was blissfully short. And it’s great to see Old Lace again — the world needs more dinosaurs in comics. If I’ve got a complaint, it’s that Giant-Man and Tigra are carrying the Idiot Ball this issue, thinking they can do something as shady and underhanded as breaking up the Runaways without facing some serious consequences.

The Amazing Spider-Man #681

Spider-Man, the Human Torch, and astronaut John Jameson (son of NYC Mayor J. Jonah Jameson) are trapped on a space station, surrounded by crewmen who’ve been taken over by Dr. Octopus’ Octobots, with no escape shuttles to let anyone back down to earth safely. And Doc Ock is remotely setting the space station to crash. So why does the plan to save everyone involve flushing all the station’s oxygen into space? Is there any way for Spidey and the Torch to save everyone?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Very nicely done. Lots and lots of action, fantastic dialogue, great suspense, humor, drama, you name it. Definitely worth reading — this title is hitting on all cylinders.

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Friday Night Fights: Rocks Fall, Everyone Dies

If it’s Friday, and it’s getting pretty close to evening, then dang it, it must be time for… FRIDAY NIGHT FIGHTS!

Tonight’s battle comes to us from February/March 1959’s Challengers of the Unknown #6 by none other than Jack Kirby! The Challengers are on the run from evil aliens who displayed them in a space circus, when they discover the unusual properties of an asteroid they’ve landed on…

That’ll do it for me. See you guys back here on Monday…

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Noir Pigs

Fatale #3

We start with a flash-forward back to the modern day where Nicolas Lash has had a leg amputated after a car accident where a mysterious woman named Josephine helped him escape from some murderous thugs. He learns that the home of Hank Raines, his late godfather, has been ransacked, and his godfather’s secret novel is bizarre almost to the point of incoherence. His research into Raines’ life soon leads Lash to horrifying news…

And at that point, we jump back to the 1950s, where crooked cop Walt Booker is getting bawled out by his supervisor because he’s been busted taking bribes under the table. Booker discovers that his former lover, Jo, who he’s just sold out to supernatural hitmen in exchange for a cure for his cancer, has skipped out on him, and if he can’t find her soon, something worse than cancer is going to kill him. And Raines is hanging out with Jo, and she takes him for a walk to an old boarded-up house where she claims she once died — and where they’re accosted by a cultist who wants to kill them both. How will they survive, and what horrible things are on the horizon?

Verdict: Thumbs up. Outstanding art and great retro-noir storytelling. And the supernatural/horror elements are starting to creep up there in significance, too. It’ll be interesting to see how this noir-horror stuff works out…

Justice League International #7

The UN has been bombed in an attack designed to strike at the JLI. Much of the team is injured — Fire is in a coma, Ice’s legs have been shattered, Vixen may never walk again. Booster, Batman, Guy Gardner, August General, and Godiva try to rescue as many people as they can, but things are pretty bad, and there’s an enemy out there waiting to ambush them.

Verdict: Ehh, I dunno. The writing is overall pretty good, even though the dialogue is, as always, a bit clunky. I’ve got issues with the idea that so many female characters are in the hospital with serious injuries — looks a lot like they’re getting fridged, at least temporarily, to give Booster and Guy something to angst about. There’s too dang much angst in the New 52 already — why can’t there be a team comic dedicated to good old fashioned superheroics?

The Defenders #4

This issue focuses almost entirely on Dr. Strange and Molly, his one-night-stand from the first issue. She’s a grad student working on her thesis, and she needs a book from Strange’s library to complete her research. Strange loans it to her, and an unscrupulous magician finds out about it and manages to slip his lucky magic coin into the book, allowing him to astrally project himself into any house containing the coin. He tries to blackmail Strange into letting him have access to anything in his house that he wants — but smart people don’t try to blackmail Dr. Strange. Meanwhile, Strange has been studying the magical machine that the team took from Wundagore Mountain last issue and inadvertently wishes an old girlfriend named Martha back to life.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The last issue was not very good, but this one is a lot better focusing on just a few people and their weird semi-magical relationship issues. I’m a bit bummed that apparently neither Molly nor Martha had last names. That’s really the sort of thing that should be mentioned — if they’ve been mentioned before, you can’t expect the readers to just remember that sort of trivia, and if they’ve never had last names… well, you should give ’em last names, ya know? It’s just good character work.

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Octopus Garden

Kraken: The Curious, Exciting, and Slightly Disturbing Science of Squid by Wendy Williams

Okay, got another unusual review I want to do today. Not a comic, not a novel, not even a book of Hitchcock poetry — this is a nonfiction book about squids and other cephalopods.

I decided to review this for three reasons. First, I was dead out of any other comics I could review. Second, squids are near and dear to the hearts of geeks worldwide, with everything from Cthulhu to Davy Jones to Doctor Octopus and “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea” and Dr. Zoidberg and Squidbillies and Squidward and many, many more.

And third… it’s my blog! I do what I want!

So here’s “Kraken” by Wendy Williams. Very much in the pop-science model — it’s about science, but it isn’t a textbook. There’s a lot less detail in some ways, but there’s a lot more reader-friendly writing so as not to run off people who don’t have advanced degrees in zoology.

There’s a lot of really interesting stuff here — we start out with a short history lesson, where we meet the first people to prove that large squids actually existed. We get lots of detail about squid anatomy. We take a cold, nighttime boat ride with a bunch of marine researchers as they do the messy, chaotic work of catching, tagging, and releasing Humboldt squid in Monterey Bay. We get details about cephalopod luminescence and about their amazing ability to change color in extremely detailed ways — especially interesting because they’re colorblind. We learn how the study of squids has led to breakthroughs in biology, medicine, and neuroscience. We get probably more info than we ever really wanted on the bizarre, endlessly varied mating habits of cephalopods.

What else we got? We get a lot of info about just how smart squids, octopuses, and cuttlefish are. I really think this is one of the most interesting scientific questions out there right now — there’s pretty widespread consensus that cephalopods are smarter than we suspected they might be, but no one really knows if they’re as smart as a mouse, as a cat, as a dog, as an ape, or even higher. They seem to be very good at figuring out puzzles — but is that true intelligence or animal instinct? Are their camouflaging and color-changing abilities better indicators of intelligence? Researchers who work closely with these animals say they’re intelligent and even have individual personalities — but is that just mankind anthropomorphizing animals? And how on earth do you measure the intelligence of any creature as deeply alien to the human bipedal norm?

And really, that’s me covering a lot of what this book talks about, very quickly, in a very small amount of space — because this book has a lot of interesting stuff in here about squids.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Deeply fascinating and extremely readable. Some things are covered amazingly well. We get a very real sense that scientists are sometimes frustrated by how much they know but how little they understand about animals like squids. And this book has the very best discussion I’ve ever seen about animal intelligence and the question of how to measure it. Researchers used to give dogs the same IQ test they’d give babies — paint a dot on their forehead, put ’em in front of a mirror, and see whether they realize that the image in the mirror is really them. The problem, however, is that dogs don’t have a strong visual sense, so mirrors aren’t particularly significant to them — sense of smell, on the other hand, is very powerful for dogs, so intelligence tests should focus on the ways dogs learn through their olfactory senses. So how do you design IQ tests for an octopus?

If this book has a weak point, it might be that it gives very short shrift to the cephalopod in popular culture. There’s some discussion of some old novels and a monster movie from the ’50s, but this really is a golden age for squid popularity in the mass media, and it was an element I was a bit surprised to see get so little attention in this very thorough and comprehensive book.

Nevertheless, that’s a very minor nitpick for a book I really had a blast reading. Go pick it up.

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Hot off the Depressed

The Li’l Depressed Boy, Volume 1: She Is Staggering

I was a pretty severe latecomer to this series, which I only just recently realized was written by an Amarillo resident. If I still lived in Lubbock, I suspect several folks would’ve already told me about this, but living so far away, there’s no one to tell me the local comics news anymore. But better late than never, right?

So here we’ve got “The Li’l Depressed Boy” by writer S. Steven Struble of Amarillo — in fact, he says he moved to Amarillo specifically to write comics — and illustrated by Sina Grace from Los Angeles, which probably has some nice opportunities for folks working in comics, too. The comic is mid-way between a slice-of-life book and romance comic. This trade paperback collects the first four issues of the series.

Our lead character is a guy called the Li’l Depressed Boy, or LDB for short. He is — or at least, he looks to us like — a life-sized stuffed doll with a crudely drawn-on face, though the smart assumption is that’s how he feels, since no one ever says “Holy cow, you’re a walking doll!” LDB actually is depressed, though perhaps not clinically so. He just spends most of his time alone, reading, watching TV, and feeling sorry for himself. He resolves to try to get out more often, meets up with one of his few friends, and runs into a girl named Jazz, a classic Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and they start hanging out together, playing zombie shoot-em-ups, bowling for style points, raiding thrift stores, playing Lazer Tag, and going out to spray-paint the cars at Cadillac Ranch (which explicitly sets the story in Amarillo, which is kinda nice). Can LDB make this new relationship work? Or is it doomed from the beginning?

Verdict: Thumbs up. I love the optics of LDB as an oversized sack doll, and the rest of the art is muy bueno as well. The dialogue is great — frequently hilarious — and the characterizations are fun, too. The antics that LDB and Jazz get up to are also very funny — bowling for style points is really something that should catch on everywhere, though I don’t know about using a bowling ball for a hadouken is something that should be encouraged. I also really enjoyed the way the story used music — actual musicians are featured in the stories, often performing at clubs or parties, and it gives the story a fun vibe.

Best thing about it — the series feels like real life. If you haven’t known people like this, you’ve probably been in similar situations, you’ve been in similar clubs, you’ve been to similar hipster parties. The settings feel like the real things — who hasn’t been to a thrift shop or bowling alley or run-down apartment like the ones we see here? The whole story feels like it’s happening near where you live. Even with a sack doll as the lead character.

Not sure if I’ll end up picking up the ongoing series — even with reading the first four issues, I’m still way behind on the rest of the series — and I certainly regret not picking this up from the beginning.

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Make a Squish

Tiny Titans #49

The focus in this issue is on — no big spoiler — the squishy and stretchy members of the Tiny Titans, including Plasmus and Offspring, with guest appearances from Proty from the Tiny Legion and Clayface, in his “Tiny Titans” debut. We get to sit in on a Squishy Titans meeting, watch Clayface get mud all over everything, watch them impersonate superheroes — and we get Clayface’s truly epic list of all the amazing things you can do with mud. All that, plus Larfleeze and Glomulus stop by for a visit.

Verdict: Thumbs up. Lots of high-spirited lunacy, in the finest Tiny Titans tradition — Clayface spending a whole gigantic page to enthuse about mud, Plasmus joyfully dancing around about a cheese log, the bizarre debut of Man-Bat, the Squishies disguising themselves as Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and all the way down to Plasmus getting knocked out by a kiss from Bumblebee. This is the next-to-the-last issue, and it should be obvious to everyone that we’re losing something really special when this series ends.

The Amazing Spider-Man #680

There’s an emergency situation on the Apogee I space station — and J. Jonah Jameson’s son John is on board. Spider-Man heads for the Baxter Building — they’re the only people around who could get a ship up to the space station in time to help with a rescue. Unfortunately, only Johnny Storm is in, but he and Spidey head into orbit, dock with the station, and head inside, only to find it deserted… except for a bunch of Dr. Octopus’ Octobots. Unfortunately, Spidey’s webs are ineffective in zero gravity, and Johnny can’t flame on without burning up the station’s limited oxygen. John Jameson is able to save them, but they’re not out of the woods yet — the crew has been zombified, and the Sinister Six are getting ready to destroy the station completely.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The banter between Spider-Man and Johnny Storm is absolutely perfect and is probably worth the price of the comic all by itself.

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