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New Jonah Hex graphic novel defies expectations

It’s always amusing watching DC Comics scramble to get something into the bookstores to tie in with the release of a film or TV series based on one of their properties, especially if it’s a lesser known one. Last year’s Watchmen was easy – there’s only the one book, and the film was, at least visually, a close adaptation of it. It’s when the film or TV series strays wildly from its source material (as they invariably do) that DC feels the need to help the potential new readers out by making it clear that yes, this is the book they should buy.

In the case of the recent Human Target series a simple “the inspiration for the television series” blurb on the cover of the trade paperback should suffice, but DC chose to confuse the issue by also releasing a new Human Target miniseries based on the show, no doubt their way of compensating for the fact that the TV series, while quite good, bears virtually no resemblance to the comic book series it is based on.

To tie in with the hopelessly ill-conceived Constantine film, we got Hellblazer: All His Engines, an original hardcover graphic novel. Not a bad book, but the central purpose of the plot seemed to be to move the series from its usual British setting to Los Angeles, where the film takes place. Had the movie been successful and spawned the inevitable sequels, the monthly Hellblazer series would likely have been permanently relocated to bring it in line with the film series. Luckily for everyone (except the filmmakers), the movie was a flop, All His Engines was largely forgotten, and John Constantine is back in England where he belongs.

All of which brings us to Jonah Hex. To tie in with the upcoming film DC has just released No Way Back, an original hardcover graphic novel by the current Jonah Hex writing team of Justin Gray and Jimmy Palmiotti, with artwork by comics legend and original Jonah Hex artist Tony DeZuniga.

Thankfully, No Way Back does not appear to be an attempt to bring Hex’s comics continuity in line with the film. Instead it has the more basic task of explaining just why Jonah Hex is such a complete bastard, while also giving some background on El Papagayo, a long time Jonah Hex villain who to my knowledge does not appear in the film.

It is a relentless and unforgiving story that uses many of the standard clichés of the western genre, but still manages to deliver some surprises along the way. Jonah Hex’s night of drinking and whoring is interrupted when he is presented with a wanted poster depicting his long-lost mother, which sends him on a journey to find her and confront her about why she left him with his alcoholic, abusive father to run off with a traveling salesman. From here the story takes some interesting twists and turns, all the while rooted in classic western themes of revenge and redemption.

The writers take great pains to ensure that the cast of characters are as well-rounded as possible, presenting us with a hero it’s very difficult to love, and a cast of villains it’s all too easy to sympathize with. Hex finds himself coming to the aid of a religious community who are willing to do some surprising things to protect their town, and even their leader is steeped in moral ambiguity, with his too-young wife and stranglehold on the town he runs as both preacher and sheriff.

The artwork in No Way Back is less successful. Tony DeZuniga co-created the character and did some phenomenal work on the series back in the 1970s and ‘80s, but here his work is overly sketchy, relying on thick patches of black to fill in the panels. Colorist Rob Schwager does a good job salvaging the art by adding a lot of texture to areas DeZuniga lets trail off. Ultimately, the story is compelling enough that the art doesn’t detract from it, but it is a bit of a shock after the consistently excellent work by a variety of artists that has appeared in the monthly Jonah Hex series.

Jonah Hex #53.

A few months ago in Jonah Hex #53, we were introduced to Lana, a saloon showgirl who bore a striking resemblance to Megan Fox’s character in the film. I remember rolling my eyes when I saw the cover and thinking “here we go…” Throughout the story she behaved as expected, and they seemed to be setting her up as a regular supporting character, thus bringing the comic in line with the film. It was that expectation that made the twist at the end of the story all the more effective.

That’s the strength of what Palmiotti and Grey do, both in the monthly Jonah Hex series and in No Way Back. They’re working in a cliché-ridden genre, so they use those foregone conclusions to set up twists and turns that the readers never see coming.

The filmmakers would do well to do the same.

— Jefferson Powers

Posted by Jefferson - June 10, 2010 at 12:15 pm

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A near miss for Solomon Kane

The frustrating thing about Michael Bassett’s Solomon Kane film is that it comes so close to getting it right. The cinematography and gloomy atmosphere capture the somber tone of Conan creator Robert E. Howard’s Solomon Kane tales very well, and there is a scene in the film where Kane encounters a mad priest who keeps a “congregation” of gibbering cannibals locked in the basement of his ruined church that feels like it could have been directly adapted from one of the original stories.

James Purefoy (HBO’s Rome) is well cast as Solomon Kane. Even the film’s basic plot, in which Kane must battle a band of grotesque raiders led by an evil sorcerer to rescue the kidnapped daughter of a travelling Puritan family, rings true, and is similar to the plot of Howard’s “The Moon of Skulls.”

The problem is in the characterization of Solomon Kane himself. Howard’s character is a mysterious wanderer, a Puritan who fights evil for no other reason than his own righteous fury. The strength of the stories is in the visceral action as Kane fights his near-hopeless battles against exotic backdrops such as the Black Forest in Germany or the jungles of Africa. It’s not particularly highbrow material, but it is exciting entertainment.

The film introduces us to a Solomon Kane who is a brutal, vicious and greedy mercenary. While looting a castle of its gold in Spain, Kane meets “the Devil’s Reaper,” a creature who informs him that the Devil has laid claim to his soul. Kane manages to escape, and we next meet him several years later, living a life of quiet contemplation in a monastery, where he has renounced violence in an effort to redeem himself. The monks send him packing for reasons that remain unclear, and while travelling he falls in with a Puritan family. They are beset by raiders who kill the father and his young son, and kidnap the teenage daughter, Meredith. With his dying breath, Meredith’s father tells Kane that his soul will be redeemed if he rescues her.

This is all a fairly by-the-book Hollywood way to give the character a background and motivation that will be easy for the audience to understand, but it backfires. Kane’s reason for wanting to rescue Meredith now appears entirely selfish – it’s his own escape from damnation in the fires of Hell that he is fighting for. These waters are further muddied with a back story involving Kane’s father and brother, another attempt to give him a personal connection to the events going on around him.

There is a character-defining scene at the beginning of “Red Shadows,” the very first Solomon Kane story, published in Weird Tales in 1928. Kane comes across a young girl, dying in the road after having been attacked by brigands. “Men shall die for this,” he vows, and spends the better part of a year tracking down her killers. The thing that makes the character interesting is that he is so driven to avenge the girl’s death, in spite of the fact that he has no personal or self-serving reason for doing so.

The film really misses this fundamental character point, that Solomon Kane is simply a good man who stands against evil because he must. Like any hero should be.

— Jefferson Powers

Posted by Jefferson - June 4, 2010 at 11:56 am

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Batman is dead…long live Batman!

I like Batman as much as the next guy. He’s a character with a simple, relatively believable back story and far and away the most impressive roster of villains of any superhero out there. The character’s continuous appearance for over 70 years in just about every media there is, from comics to movies to video games, is a clear testament to the versatility and longevity of the character.

But, perhaps as a result of that continuous, never ending flow of Batman material, I have never followed any of the monthly Batman titles for more than a handful of issues, usually when they get a writer or artist I particularly like or do a single story I find interesting. My favorite version of the character is the one presented in Batman: the Animated Series and its assorted spin-offs in the 1990s. I liked its more simple approach to Batman and his supporting cast, free of the complicated continuity of the DC comics universe.

It was this connection to continuity that kept me from reading much of Grant Morrison’s run on the regular Batman title, but when DC launched Morrison’s new series Batman and Robin, I decided to jump in, hoping that it would stand alone like his excellent All-Star Superman. It turned out that Batman and Robin would in fact be firmly entrenched in the DC universe, picking up soon after the largely unintelligible Final Crisis, but its premise was relatively simple. All the reader needed to know was that Bruce Wayne had died and former Robin Dick Grayson had taken over as Batman, with Damian, Bruce’s son and grandson of classic Batman villain Ras al Ghul, stepping in as the new Robin.

The thing I love most about the series is the juxtaposition of these two characters and the sharp contrast with their predecessors. Where Bruce Wayne was driven and overly intense, Dick Grayson is a bit more relaxed, yet unsure of himself. Damian’s Robin is no wisecracking sidekick, but an imperious little snot with an overblown sense of entitlement who nevertheless backs up Grayson as Batman. The interplay between the two characters is a refreshing change from the usual hero-sidekick stuff.

So I greeted the ads for the release of Batman: the Return of Bruce Wayne with more than a little disappointment. Dick Grayson’s Batman was just getting interesting, and now that wet blanket Bruce Wayne is going to come back and ruin everything. On the other hand, Grant Morrison is writing it, with an impressive lineup of artists including Chris Sprouse (Tom Strong) for the first issue and Frazer Irving (Seven Soldiers: Klarion) for the second.

The first two issues tell the story of a mysteriously resurrected Bruce Wayne who is lost in time with no memory of who he is. But amnesia can’t repress his need to see justice done, first for a tribe of cave men wiped out by their aggressive neighbors, and later in 16th century Gotham as he tries to put a stop to a trumped up witch trial. All the while, Superman and some of the Justice League chase him through time making cryptic comments about how something bad will happen if he makes it back to the 21st century.

It’s an intriguing story, covering a lot of the cosmic weirdness that fans of Morrison’s Doom Patrol and Invisibles should be familiar with. Even though the time travel story seems at odds with the usual Batman fare, the idea that Bruce Wayne is first and foremost a survivor is a strong one, especially when that very survival is the story’s underlying threat.

I’m sure the story will end with some kind of return to the basic Batman status quo, which is unfortunate but ultimately necessary. Staying simple and basically the same is what has ensured the character’s survival for this long, after all.

— Jefferson Powers

Posted by Jefferson - May 26, 2010 at 2:36 pm

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Marvel’s Avengers gets a new #1

I haven’t really been a Marvel fan since the early 1980s. I used to thrill to John Byrne’s Fantastic Four and Alpha Flight, Frank Miller’s Daredevil, Chris Claremont’s X-Men, Bill Mantlo and Rick Leonardi’s Cloak and Dagger… I even read Secret Wars II and ALL the crossovers.

But in 1986 when DC managed to poach a large amount of Marvel’s talent, I went with them, and found Byrne’s Superman and Miller’s Batman just as thrilling. For the most part I never looked back, a situation helped by the declining quality of most of Marvel’s output throughout the dark ages of the 1990s.

Since then there really hasn’t been much to lure me back to Marvel, with a few exceptions (Ed Brubaker’s incredible work on Daredevil and Captain America being chief among them). My taste for big crossovers has faded sharply since those heady Secret Wars II days, so even though I started reading Brian Michael Bendis’ New Avengers when it started back in 2004, it quickly sank into the fog of whatever summer “event” was going on at the time and lost me.

So it took a little work to convince myself to pick up the newly renumbered Avengers #1, by Bendis and John Romita Jr. I do have to admit that the collector’s nightmare of starting a series over with a new number one issue usually works on me – I’ll at least pick it up and look at it most of the time. And I’ve always found Romita Jr’s artwork to be very appealing, ever since he drew X-Men and Star Brand back in the glory days.

The classic Avengers team of Iron Man, Captain America (albeit the new one), Thor and Hawkeye are joined by Spider-Man, Wolverine and Spider-Woman, all favorites of writer Brian Michael Bendis and mainstays of the team since his New Avengers in 2004. It’s a treat to see Romita Jr draw them: his Thor is larger than life (even for a superhero), towering over the other characters, his Spider-Man is lithe and acrobatic, and he remembers that Wolverine is supposed to be short.

While I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to Wolverine being an Avenger, Spider-Man’s presence rings true and seems particularly important, as I imagine his jokey, carefree voice is closest to Bendis’ own. Bendis is a master of snappy dialogue, and he doesn’t disappoint here, although the sheer amount of witty repartee strains credibility a bit – nearly all the characters, not just Spider-Man, are a little too quick with the jokes. The “menace from the future” plot is extremely tired, but the surprise reveal at the end of the issue made it look like things may not necessarily be what they seem.

It was certainly intriguing enough to make me want to read the next issue, which is the ultimate goal of any monthly comic book.

— Jefferson Powers

Posted by Jefferson - May 20, 2010 at 3:48 pm

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Comics pick of the week: Gutsville #2

One of the many things I love about the world of comic books is its acceptance, both as a publishing industry and a reading audience, of bizarre ideas.  This remark may sound strange in reference to an entertainment medium so completely dominated to a single genre, but even within the superhero genre comic book publishers have shown much more willingness to explore unusual themes and ideas, from Alan Moore’s thought-provoking reworking of Swamp Thing to Walter Simonson’s “Frog of Thunder” story in Thor, which saw Marvel’s God of Thunder transformed into a frog for three issues.

Which brings us to Gutsville, a story with a setting so bizarre you will only find it in a comic book.

Gutsville issue 2 coverThe premise of Gutsville is that in 1850 the SS Daphne, a British ship bound for Australia, is swallowed whole by a giant sea monster.  But instead of being digested, the crew and passengers survive and build a permanent settlement in the beast’s stomach, surviving by fishing for salvage every time the monster swallows.  The story opens 157 years later, with the descendents of the Daphne‘s original survivors led by a religious sect who believe they must purify their spirits before they will be allowed to return to “the dryplaces of the Earth.”  The main character is Albert Oliphant, who has just inherited his recently deceased father’s job of catching the giant mutant rats that prowl the fleshy passageways of Gutsville. The plot thickens when Albert finds that his father has drawn a detailed map of the maze of passageways, which may just show a way out of the beast.

This entirely original set-up is accompanied by some sharp writing and an intricate plot by British novelist Simon Spurrier, and gorgeous, atmospheric painted artwork by Frazer Irving.  It is set to be a six issue limited series, but with a setting this rich and complex that hardly seems like enough issues to do the idea justice.  It seems like there is a lot of Gutsville to explore, so here’s hoping Albert won’t find his way out too soon…

Posted by Jefferson - September 21, 2007 at 2:55 pm

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Comics Pick of the Week: Hellblazer #234

John Constantine began life as a supporting character in Alan Moore’s successful and groundbreaking run on Swamp Thing.  The story goes that Moore created the character at the behest of the book’s artists, who wanted to draw a character that looked like the musician Sting.  Constantine was envisioned as a streetwise master of magic, foregoing the wooden dialogue and cheesy mysticism of Marvel’s Dr. Strange in favor of a much more contemporary, urban sensibility.  The character proved so popular that DC soon spun him off into his own series, Hellblazer, which became one of the founding titles of the progressive Vertigo line (along with Swamp Thing, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and Grant Morrison’s Animal Man and Doom Patrol) and is the only one to have enjoyed an uninterrupted publishing run to this day.

Hellblazer 234The series’ longevity is likely a result of the strong personality of its main character and his ability to consistently attract some of the top talent in comics, including writers Jamie Delano, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Garth Ennis, Eddie Campbell, Paul Jenkins, Warren Ellis and Brian Azzarello, and artists John Ridgeway, Dave McKean, Sean Phillips and Steve Dillon, among others.  Each creative team has brought their own unique viewpoint to the character, but Constantine has remained consistent in his characterization throughout the 19-year run of the title.

The current issue begins writer Andy Diggle’s second story arc, and it sees a return to the dark urban horror of the Jamie Delano years.  Diggle’s bleak script follows a fairly standard formula for Hellblazer stories, but is no less effective for it:  an already horrific situation is made only slightly worse through demonic interference as a group of teenaged hooligans begin a destructive rampage at the behest of the supernatural entity that is controlling their leader.  Constantine arrives halfway through the story and, sensing that something is amiss, decides to investigate.  Diggle has a good handle on Constantine’s character, which is of course the most important element of any Hellblazer story.  The dark artwork by Leonardo Manco and especially the muted color palette used by colorist Lee Loughridge complement the writing nicely and give the story the atmosphere of urban decay that always sets Hellblazer apart from DC’s other supernatural fantasy titles.

As the first part of a new story this is as good an issue as any for new readers.  For a book with such a long history, Hellblazer has acquired little in the way of continuity baggage and is an easy series to jump into.  And it is always a satisfying read.

Posted by Jefferson - July 25, 2007 at 3:01 pm

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This week’s comics pick: Justice League of America #11

This week’s pick: Justice League of America #11, written by Brad Meltzer, illustrated by Gene Ha, lettering by Rob Leigh and color by Art Lyon.

 So far, the current Justice League of America series has been characterized by huge, epic storylines featuring a lot of different characters, so it was nice to see a stand-alone single issue story.  The story is a simple character piece featuring only two characters and one setting across all 22 pages, a welcome change of pace from the previous JLA storylines, which have featured long, convoluted plots and a ridiculous number of guest stars.

The story finds Red Arrow (formerly Arsenal) and Vixen trapped in a collapsed building.  The action and conflict in the story are entirely psychological, as the two characters take turns doubting their abilities in the face of what seems like a hopeless situation.  We get to see a glimpse into the minds and motivations of both characters, but primarily of Red Arrow, Green Arrow’s former sidekick who has no super powers of his own but nevertheless chooses to fight alongside the more powerful members of the League. Over the course of the story we also discover a point of continuity concerning Vixen’s malfunctioning powers (she can channel the abilities of any animal) which will no doubt lead to a future storyline.

The gritty, painted artwork by guest artist Gene Ha goes with the story perfectly, and his use of narrow horizontal panels really serves to convey the claustrophobic atmosphere.

All in all this issue was a sharp contrast to what the Justice League of America has been so far, but with so many large stories about epic events, it is that much more important to have an occasional small story about something as simple as why a man fights day after day to be a hero, and how being a hero is sometimes just the ability to keep fighting even when the situation seems hopeless.

Posted by Jefferson - July 19, 2007 at 9:16 am

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This week’s comics pick: Countdown #42

Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be a weekly review of my top pick of the week’s new comic releases.  This week’s pick is Countdown #42, written by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever and Tony Bedard, pencils by Carlos Magno, inks by Mark McKenna and Jay Leisten, color by Rod Reis.

Countdown 42 cover artFor those of you who don’t follow DC Comics, Countdown is the follow up to 52, last year’s hugely successful weekly series about a year without Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.  I didn’t read 52 as it was being released, largely because it was introduced as the follow up to Infinite Crisis, an “event” miniseries which I fould so tedious that I stopped reading after a few issues.  But when I heard that Paul Dini, one of the masterminds behind Batman the Animated Series, was the head writer on Countdown, I decided to give it a try.

Countdown is a weekly series with backwards numbering (counting down, get it?), so issue 42 is actually the 10th issue in the 52 issue series.  The series jumps back and forth between multiple plot lines concerning Jimmy Olsen, Donna Troy (formerly Wonder Girl), Jason Todd (formerly Robin, the one that died), Mary Marvel (the sister of Shazam’s Captain Marvel, with similar powers of flight, invulnerability and super strength), Karate Kid from the Legion of Superheroes, the Trickster, and others.  So far there is little linking the various plots together, but the hope is that the gradual unfolding and linking of these seemingly unconnected events will be the point of the series as a whole.

Issue 42 distinguishes itself mainly by introducing what is probably the most unlikely superhero team up ever: Mary Marvel and the Riddler.  In recent issues of Detective Comics the Riddler has supposedly reformed and now uses his considerable criminal experience as a freelance detective and security consultant.  Of course, no one seriously believes that he’s reformed, certainly not Captain Marvel’s sister, but nevertheless the two enter into an useasy alliance to track down Clayface.  Hopefully it will be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

The rest of the issue moves forward plotlines concerning Jimmy Olsen discovering that he might have super powers, Jason Todd and Donna Troy’s search for Ray Palmer, the original Atom, Batman’s macho feud with Karate Kid (the kid beat him in a fight and his ego really can’t take it), the Trickster’s apparent remorse over  his part in the death of Bart Allen (formerly Impulse and until his sudden demise the current Flash), and, most interestingly, former Joker sidekick Harley Quinn’s new job as assistant director of an Amazon-themed women’s shelter.

So far, Countdown has been an intriguing look at the ins and outs of the DC Universe, seen through the eyes of some of its lesser known characters, and the themes of redemption and change are ones not often seen in comics, especially at DC where most of the major characters have remained relatively unchanged for 60 years or more.  It will be interesting to see what permanent effects the events in Countdown end up having on the DC Universe as a whole.

Posted by Jefferson - July 13, 2007 at 9:12 am

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