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The Non-Marvel Action Hour – 2/20/8

Ex Machina, the latest Wonder Woman, old Suicide Squad, new Blue Beetle (though not the
latest issue), Monkeyman & O’Brien, and Hopeless
Savages.

Employee’s Pick

Ex Machina 15

[DC] Ex Machina #11-16

Been too long since I read some Ex Machina. It’s one of those series where all I’ve read has either been cheaply acquired or borrowed from the library, and I put off making any real financial commitment to it just because there are thirty-seven other series I’m trying to catch up on. Pfft. Even for someone as picky as I am, there are too many good comics to keep up with them all. But I keep trying, and any book by BKV is likely worth throwing a few bucks at.

Kremlin at the comic shopClick to inflate.

That’s Brian K. Vaughan, writer of such comics as Runaways, Y: The Last Man, and this here book. Ex Machina is about Mitchell Hundred, aka Ex Machina, aka The Great Machine, who winds up with the power to talk to and command machines, becomes a superhero, and after the World Trade Center attack, retires from heroing and successfully runs for mayor of New York City. It’s interesting to compare this book to Y: The Last Man; Despite Y having a much simpler concept, it’s just as strong a book, which speaks to the skill of its author but also to how unimportant concepts are. Good ideas are common, good execution is rare, and it’s the latter that makes a story compelling. The first two Ex Machina trades were… Well, they were good enough that I should’ve bought the third one – or the issues it collects, that I’m now reviewing – ages ago and now be ready to pick up the newest issue this week. But I’m skeptical, and I hate hate hate getting burned. Good writers can disappoint, too, and they’re more likely to take your money while they let you down. We’ll see…

Yow. Love that art. Like Alex Ross and many others, Tony Harris uses a ton of photo reference, so his characters literally look like real people. Harris does your standard pencil & ink drawings, as opposed to painted art, which is fine by me. Mayor Hundred has decided that fortune tellers are bad for the city and is looking to shut them all down. He makes a good case; in real life, fortune telling is bunk, and aside from Mitchell having superpowers, this comic doesn’t deviate much from reality. The logical conclusion is that they’re legitimized con artists, and the mayor has the power to take the "legitimate" part away. Problem is, the cops don’t want to enforce the new law, fearing roma retribution, and one of the mayor’s staff swears a so-called psychic saved her life. So Hundred goes to see this psychic. It gets… emotional.

In issue twelve, the mayor serves jury duty. Fun! Also, there’s a new superhero (superrobot?) in town, claiming to be the creation of Mitchell Hundred. He’s no Ultron, but he’s going about busting people for prostitution, squatting – petty BS. Then he falls for a fake mugging (those wacky police) and gets shot a bit. He’s OK, though, or what passes for OK for robots. Back to jury duty, where Mayor Hundred is one of six people asked to deliberate on the case of the crappy (literally) food. It turns from potentially embarrassing to potentially lethal when one of the jurors threatens to kill another unless the mayor uses his powers to heal him. But, he can’t do that… right? His mojo only works on machines.

Yup, he was bluffing. Hundred resolves the hostage situation while his friends take care of the superimposter. Then he gets a distress call from his mom, whom he hasn’t seen in three years. Turns out she just wants to talk, where "talk" uses the lesser known definition, "confess to having murdered your father and called it an accident." It was an accident, or self-defense, or both; she clubbed him while his dumb drunk ass was choking the life out of her. Hundred and Hundred have a heart to heart until they’re interrupted by guntoting rednecks. More bluffing, followed by Mitch flying his mom back to New York with him.

Mmm. Good as it ever was. As much as I love boy scout-types like Superman, Captain America, and the lady in the next review, I find that characters like Mitchell Hundred are more interesting. They’re as decent and honorable as the next hero, but sometimes they lie, sometimes they’re mean, sometimes they do the wrong thing without meaning to. They can let you down, like you can let yourself down. But most people still root for themselves, figuring "hey, he’s not such a bad guy," and you can still root for guys like Hundred when they stubbornly refuse to be perfect. To be simple, as life isn’t, and see the solution to every problem as clearly as an omniscient observer does. Not that that makes me any less mad at him for not being on speaking terms with his friend, mentor, father figure and confidant, Kremlin. It’s like Batman fighting with Alfred, it isn’t done.

New-Type Books

Wonder Woman 17

[DC] Wonder Woman Vol. 3 #17

The conclusion to Gail Simone’s opening four-parter, The Circle. Oh boy! It starts with another flashback, giving us more of the Circle’s history. The four amazons that make up Queen Hippolyta’s private guard are off to kill the first Amazonian baby, Wonder Woman herownself. One look at Wonder Baby, though, and they fall in love like everyone else. You just can’t hate the Wonder. Their leader, Alkyone, stubbornly refuses to abandon their mission, but of course it fails and Wondy goes unharmed. Yadda yadda yadda, they’re imprisoned until present day, where we find everyone’s favorite amazon princess beating the hell out of nazis. Woo!

After taking pity on the pathetic nazis, letting them limp away utterly defeated, WW is challenged by the Circle, who fare rather better against her. In fact, they nearly kill her, but decide to back off because… Well, they don’t say. A point of honor, perhaps, but that’s not implied in the text. The issue fell apart for me from there. It’s more good than bad, but sloppy writing in patches drags it down, keeps it from being as good as it should. The art, however, is consistently spiffy. Even in shots where background characters are too far away to be rendered in detail, it doesn’t look crude or rushed. I’m going to miss the Dodsons.

Badass Wondy

Several intriguing details in the epilogue. Hippolyta’s not dead (shockaroo). Some of the gorillas stay behind on Themyscira, which is odd since they’re guy monkeys. Wondy flies off in a giant seashell (whee!). Etta Candy, who seemed set to be a nemesis to Diana in this series, turns out to be her ally. Huh. And Diana begins to question her origins, which is sure to lead to future plotiness.

Back Issues

Blue Beetle 9

[DC] Blue Beetle Vol. 7 #9

Just the one new book this week. Sorry. Working on it. Here’s another issue from one of the titles I hope to catch up on soon. I also have #22, which would count as "new," but none of the intervening issues. It’ll have to wait. Keith Giffen and John Rogers were still co-writing at this point, and Duncan Rouleau filled in on art. Rouleau’s not bad enough to throw me out of the story, but I’d have to think twice about reading a title where he’s the regular artist (don’t expect any Metal Men reviews). He’s so sketchy and blurry, and no one looks like themselves. I saw a panel with Peacemaker, the mysterious dude who’s been following and helping Jaime, and I had no idea who it was supposed to be. The dialogue in the preceding panel and the shot of his tattoo in the next make it plenty clear in context, but… Uch! Writing, story, concentrate.

Ahh, that’s the stuff. One page of dialogue and I don’t care about the art anymore. Jaime and friends are back from their visit to Danielle Garrett, slightly unhinged granddaughter of the original Blue Beetle, and they brought boxes. Lots and lots of boxes, filled with Beetle-related files they hope will give Jaime a clue as to what the scarab is all about. While they sort through the myriad articles and notes, Peacemaker delivers backstory about how he used to hang out with (and fight crime alongside) Dan Garrett, and how he came across the same alien technology that gave Garrett and, later, Jaime their powers.

Brenda’s worried about Jaime. They have the ol’ inches-away-from-kissing-when-they’re-suddenly-interrupted scene, as Paco drags Jaime away to show him his new secret headquarters. On the computer. Bonus: two new sidekicks! Helpers. Teammates? A brother and sister pair of computer whizes who inform him of a nearby chemical spill. It’s superhero time! No action for us readers, though. Checkmate’s Fire shows up at Brenda’s house, but sadly, she doesn’t stick around. Brenda finds a strange, Kirbyesque box, and suddenly, boom!

Monkeyman

[Dark Horse] Monkeyman and O’Brien #1-3

So, LCBH is kaput. Sucks, but we got some great comic-based figures out of it. Figures that inspired more than a few people to track down long-forgotten back issues, such as this mini-series, written and drawn by Arthur Adams. Adams is a skilled penciler (and inker; he does everything in this book save color and letter the pages, the former handled by one of the best in the biz, Laura Allred), but his writing leaves much to be desired.

We start with exposition, explaining some of what’s come before, how Axewell Tiberius (Monkeyman) came here from another dimension and he and Ann O’Brien were bathed in super-strength-granting radiation. That’s fine. Exposition, in lieu of a recap page, is a necessary evil. Only it’s supposed to stand in stark contrast to how exciting the rest of the story is, and that doesn’t happen here. Instead we get dialogue that feels like it was a struggle to get onto the page, interspersed with more exposition (no longer necessary or forgivable) and occasional moments of passable humor. It’s not painful to read, but it ain’t fun.

The plot of the first issue concerns the Mole Man Shrewmanoid, who crawls up from underground for some nefarious purpose and is defeated in short order. Issue two features the Froglodytes, aliens who invade Earth because… wait, more exposition? Oh, no, no way. He’s repeating some of the same exposition from the first issue. And now he’s recapping the story I just read. Ugh. It’s not so bad if you’re reading issue two out of context, except that the Shrewmanoid plot has no bearing on this issue. New reader or not, you’re better off without it.

"As you no doubt recall." "As you well know." Then why do you keep telling her? Issue three does not, as I feared, start by recapping the previous two issues, but the insistence on explaining everything in excruciating detail is almost worse. Axwell names a ship the Yuri Gagarin (look it up), and Ann asks him why. Why ask why? It’s just a name! Sigh. It’s a half-decent read when they aren’t asking why the grass is green, but an eagerness to inform permeates the book. Then there are the characters. When they aren’t doing their best impression of a tutorial, Ann and Axwell are fairly interesting. They’ve more in the way of personality than I’ve seen in books like Perhapanauts and The Circle. The villains, on the other hand, are strictly 2D. The Shrewmanoid is your classic repulsive troll with a huge ego and what passes for a crush on the female lead. He kinda sorta almost displays shades of grey, but there’s no real hope of character growth. The Froglodytes like to conquer planets. Also, they’re frogs. There’s nothing more to them. Issue three puts the focus on would-be archnemesis King Quash, an interdimensional overlord and unrepentant black hat who delights in quashing rebellion with his Omega Beams megabolts. You can get good mileage out of pure evil types, but as it is Quash is just another baddie for our heroes to triumph over.

I’m glad this comic was made, as it led to the astoundingly accurate Monkeyman build-a-figure (and the somewhat less accurate but still good Ann O’Brien figure), but I’ve had my fill of it. I’d rather use the toys to act out my own adventures. Maybe I can’t think up a better plot than Adams, but at least I can skip the explanations and go straight to the fun.

Suicide Squad 1

[DC] Suicide Squad Vol. 1 #1

One of the more interesting concepts in the genre, a team consisting of heroes, villains, and soldiers with a higher than zero mortality rate. I suppose it’s not so strange these days for superheroes to die in the line of duty, if only temporarily, but it used to be assumed that all the good guys were coming back intact at the end of the mission, and that’s still true to some extent today. Titles like Suicide Squad purport to meld two genres, superheroes and stories where actions have consequences, proclaiming on the cover of the debut issue, "These 8 people will put their lives on the line for our country. One of them won’t be coming home!" It’s positively bursting with potential. As I said in my Gotham Central review, many comics try to give the illusion of danger, to convince you that any or all the characters you’re so attached to could die without warning. Logically, if superheroes could bend or break the laws of physics to gain a foothold in our reality, many would still be susceptible to harm and in their chosen profession, frequently in mortal danger. Their mortality rate would likely match that of police or soldiers, and if resurrections were possible they’d be dependent on factors other than popularity and the whims of omnipotent authors. Or not. The point is, so long as we have the neverending tales of Batman, Superman, et al, there will be room for a change of pace, for books both fantastic and grounded in reality, where you can’t be sure anyone’s coming home at the end of the day.

Of course, this isn’t that deadly a book, and even the best fiction writer is crafting an illusion. The trick isn’t for everyone to genuinely be in danger, it’s to make the reader think they are. Unfortunately, anyone who has a passing familiarity with the DCU can spot the cannon fodder as soon as the Squad’s introduced. That’s the problem with back issues. If it had been a famous character, you’d probably know about it before you got past the cover. I knew Barry Allen died in COIE before I got near that series, and I still haven’t read the infamous Jason Todd murder-by-phone story. You also lose a lot of tension by knowing which deaths aren’t permanent (nearly all of them). My best guess is that I wouldn’t be able to tell for sure who wouldn’t survive this issue if I had no prior knowledge, but as it’s the most expendable character who bites it, it’d be obvious in retrospect.

The Squad’s first mission is to combat an arabian terrorist group called the Jihad, who lead off the issue by attacking an American airport, slaughtering hundreds and downing Air Force One with the president inside. Fortunately, this is 1987, so arab terrorists are a distant, cartoonish threat (like Cobra!), and it’s not a real airport nor located in the US. Unfortunately, those are real people, and while the president doesn’t die, an actor playing him does. We get a truckload of exposition here, but it’s more palatable than the Monkeyman kind. For one, it’s framed in a more or less natural way, as psych profiles and a mission briefing. It also serves as our introduction to the characters, telling us a little about each one, and past stories are only hinted at, never recapped in full. That’s how you do it; give me enough that I want to learn more, and leave the job of teaching me to the older stories themselves.

The real meat, however, is in the showing; you discover someone’s personality through their words and deeds, not some profile. We get a clear look at Captain Boomerang’s character here, and hints of the others. Turns out there’s no payoff this issue, and I realize at the end that only seven of the eight squaddies pictured on the cover have been introduced, which argues against my hypothesis that I’d have been able to narrow it down back in ’87. It’s still obvious, but only because I know too much. As first issues go, this one is solid. All setup, but it’s hard to do more than that and still do it well. John Ostrander accomplishes the chief task of a #1, hooking the reader for the longrun. This is an 80’s book, so the paper quality is poor and the art hasn’t aged well. Luke McDonnell puts a fair amount of detail into his penciling, but his figures are often stiff, and the coloring is of little help. I pass on a lot of older books because the quality simply can’t match your modern stuff in many areas. But writing is ageless, and although this book doesn’t feel too out of place in a quarter box, there’s plenty here to like.

Trade

Hopeless Savages

[Oni Press] Hopeless Savages Vol. 2: Ground Zero

Jen Van Meter’s Hopeless Savages is about the children of retired punk rock stars Dirk Hopeless and Nikki Savage, the four Hopeless-Savages. More specifically, this digest tells the story of Skank Zero Hopeless-Savage – youngest of the clan – her band the Dusted Bunnies, and her romance with Ginger Kincaid. The art’s a mixed bag, with four different artists illustrating parts of the story and Terry Dodson on covers. Christine Norrie’s the best, but her more realistic style is only used in a couple short scenes. The book is dominated by Bryan O’Malley’s exaggerated, cartoonish style. It works surprisingly well, here and in O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim, but I’d have rather Norrie drew the main story, as she did in the first and third volumes. Two other artists contribute flashback sequences that are only made bearable by the writing. There’s Andi Watson again, adding a murky, painted look to his crude pencils, and Chynna Clugston-Major, whose Amerimanga style is reminiscent of Totally Spies and similar dreck. I’ve heard good things about Clugston’s own Blue Monday, but I can’t get past the art to give her writing a chance.

Right, that out of the way, let’s start the lovefest, ‘cuz flaws and all, this is one of my favorite comics ever. It has the best use of original slang – invented by Zero – I’ve seen since A Clockwork Orange. Usually, when a writer tries to invent words or alter the meaning of established ones, it ends up confusing and lame. Van Meter uses context to keep things clear to the reader, so that even when a word like "swerval" pops up, you know what it means. Zero’s slang feels like the sort of thing a kid would make up, like a secret code language between friends. It’s imaginative and fun.

There are several subplots keeping things delightfully chaotic. A VH1-style documentary crew is filming the family, going to sleazy lengths to capture embarrassing moments. Several factors combine to set Zero and her mom at odds. Older brother Twitch Strummer has his own romantic difficulties, a string of boyfriends who fail to live up to the one who got away, the one he let get away to his everlasting regret. Zero keeps getting in trouble in school, which until recently was odd for her, so she keeps getting grounded, so her romance with the adorkable Ginger gets all kinds of sidetracked. And what a romance it is. Ginger’s harbored a secret crush on Zero since she and her siblings saved him from some bullies back in first grade. Ten years later, Zero’s oblivious and Ginger has convinced himself that the worst case scenario is also the most likely. It’s a struggle, but anything good’s worth struggling for.

Truncation

Ex Machina – One of several reasons Brian K. Vaughan is among the best writers working in comics today.
Blue Beetle – A nice, quiet, between-fights issue.
Wonder Woman – A mostly satisfying conclusion to The Circle. It’s sad that this is the only book Gail Simone’s on right now.
Monkeyman and O’Brien – I’d like to see more comics from Arthur Adams, provided someone else is writing them.
Suicide Squad – Solid introductory issue.
Hopeless Savages – Great romance comic, or greatest romance comic?

 


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