Wednesday Comics Woundup: Who Is Jake Ellis?

Who Is Jake Ellis #1 & #2 by Nathan Edmondson and Tonci Zonjic

Who Is Jake Ellis? is probably the hottest indie book around right now. There’s so much buzz around this book that it’s practically dripping honey.

But is it any good?

Well, yes. I think. I hate reviewing single issues of comics, as it’s a little like reviewing a movie based on the trailer. In today’s “wait for the trade” comic culture, most comic stories are designed to be spread out over 4 or more issues, and so reviewing the first two issues of something like Jake Ellis is a little tricky. But I felt compelled to weigh in on this book as it’s one of the most talked about books on the stands right now.

What is it about? In a word, espionage. It’s the story of Jon Moore, a former CIA analyst-turned-professional spy with a mysterious past. In fact, it’s so mysterious that I can’t tell you more about it in fear of spoiling it for you. And to be honest, I don’t know more than that either.

What I’m worried about is that writer Nathan Edmondson doesn’t know more than that either. Don’t get me wrong; Edmondson is quickly becoming one of my favourite up-and-coming comic writers, and I think the guy has a very promising future. My concern is that  Ellis might not be more than just a really cool idea. The first issue was probably the best first issue to a comic I’ve read all year. It had intrigue, action, and an extremely compelling plot twist. It was also a welcome introduction to the work of Tonci Zonjic, a penciler with such promise that I can’t help but compare him to artists like Michael Lark, Sean Phillips, and maybe even Darwyn Cooke.

One of these people is Jake Ellis. I think. Maybe. I'll let you know if I figure it out.

The second issue put on the brakes a bit. We did get a slight peek into the circumstances that brought Moore to his present predicament, and the story has progressed a bit. But so much of this story seems to rest on the backs of the “twist” that Edmondson concocted in the first issue. Whether or not this book ultimately succeeds is riding on how the question posed in the title of the book pays off, and one can’t help but worry that the writer has laid too many story-telling eggs lie in one basket, so to speak. High concept twists are great when you’re putting together a pitch, but it’s an invitation for disaster if that’s all you’ve got.

I’m very much hoping that there’s more to this story than the Manchurian Candidate-ish tropes that have been posited (though those have been effective) thus far. This has the potential to be the breakout book of 2011. It’s got action, drama, and so much mysterious suspense and  that one is tempted to think that Edmondson might be the lovechild of Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. The question is whether or not he can keep the pressure on, and I’m very much hoping that the answer is yes.

Rating: B+

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The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 36: Captain America

U S A ! U S A !

On the surface, I shouldn’t like the concept of Captain America. It’s a throwback to a previous time. He’s a jingoistic, nationalist, character that really shouldn’t work in today’s geopolitical climate. But in terms of the Marvel comics universe, he’s the top dog. Although not always (or often) reflected in sales, his character is always at the forefront of Marvel’s storylines, and does for Marvel what Superman does for DC, in that he’s the de facto leader of Earth’s heroes. I think I admire the simplicity. At the character’s best, he represents everything that is “good” about America. At his worst, he’s a government puppet, fulfilling the mandate of whatever politician is currently in power. It’s a fine line, and when done well (the runs of Mark Gruenwald, Mark Waid, and Ed Brubaker), he can be a compelling plot device. But the character itself is quite bland, and so it’s been my experience that there are more bad Cap stories than there are good. As I’ve done this project, there are books that I realize I need to pick up, and Mark Gruenwald’s epic run on Captain America is at the top of the list.

Captain America – The Otherworld War/The New Deal

Blah. A bland, generic, character is bound to guarantee some bland, generic stories, and these are two mini-series that fit the bill. There’s not much to discuss here, as there isn’t much to either of these. Although the New Deal does have the benefit of John Cassady’s pencil work, and is somewhat readable, neither comic is anything other than just a run of the mill exercise in blandness.

CULL

Captain America – The Winter Soldier Vol. 1 & 2, Red Menace Vol. 1 & 2, Civil War, The Death Of Captain America Vol. 1, 2, 3, The Man With No Face, Two Americas, Reborn, No Escape

I’m not going to go as far as many people have and declare Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America to be “the best ever”. But it is a very good run, one that blends superhero theatrics with quasi-realistic espionage thrills quite seamlessly.

Even now, this is still one of the better superhero comics on the market, though it doesn’t quite have the impact that it did in its hey day. There is a lot of story here: The death and resurrection of Cap’s arch-nemesis; The resurrection of Cap’s WW2 partner Bucky; Cap being wanted by the US government; Cap being shot and killed; Bucky taking up the mantle of Cap, The original Cap coming back from the dead, etc. As I said, there’s a LOT of stuff going on here. And while this book is quite plot heavy at times, it still never gets too dense, and doesn’t take itself too seriously. I would say that Brubaker finds the character of Bucky to be a little more interesting than that of the original Cap, as he’s done more in terms of character development with that character than with that of Steve Rogers. Brubaker takes a similar approach to Steve Rogers as Christopher Priest did to the Black Panther, in that he really makes the book about how others perceive the title character, more than he makes it about that character himself. Good approach for an iconic character like Cap.

I would recommend this as a good-to-almost great mainstream superhero book, though at times it resembles spy books like Queen & Country more than it does more traditional Cap stories. The Cap Reborn trade is easily the weak link of the bunch, though I’m keeping it.

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Captain America – Fallen Son

This was an attempt by Marvel to capitalize on the hype created by the “death” of the original Captain America, Steve Rogers. Like much of Jeph Loeb’s writing these days, it’s heavy on schmaltz, low on story. And so while you get some decent character moments, it’s not really compelling enough to justify a reread, and comes across as inconsequential.

CULL

Next: Captain Britain! Captain Marvel! The son of Captain Marvel! A shapechanging alien that thinks he’s Captain Marvel!

 

 

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 35: The Black Panther

 

If Bill Gates, Barack Obama, and Batman had a baby, this is what he would look like

The Black Panther is one of the great untapped Marvel characters. There is literally no type of story that you can’t tell with him: Straight forward superhero, sci-fi, magic, politics, espionage, noir,  you name it. You can do anything with him, but he’s never had what you could call a successful series, though Marvel has given it a shot a few times, to their credit. The two latest attempts both never really took off from a sales perspective, but one of them actually got quite a bit of critical acclaim. The Panther’s story is this: He’s the hereditary king of Wakanda, a tiny African nation that possesses technology miles beyond anything else on earth, primarily due to the fact that it has one of the very few stockpiles of Vibranium, a near-mystical metal with supernatural properties. Oh, and he dresses in a black cat suit and takes drugs to get his superpowers. Oh, the 60’s.

 

Black Panther – Black Panther, Enemy Of The State

These two trades collect the first 12 issues of what I consider to be not only the greatest Black Panther story of all time, but actually one of the very best Marvel series of the late 90’s. Christopher Priest somehow convinced Marvel to let him take the Panther on a wild ride of geopolitics, Satanism, comedy, and urban blight. And it works. It really, really works. The story is so perfectly crafted, so expertly planned, that it boggles the mind that Priest isn’t writing a superhero book for one of the two major companies. And since the actual character of the Panther is by nature slightly inscrutable, Priest creates a great supporting characters in Everett Ross, who essentially is there to look into the camera and comment on all the craziness. And things are crazy. And great. Priest’s Panther is the baddest bad-ass in the Marvel Universe. He’s a genius, a brilliant tactician, and one of the toughest hand-to-hand combatants on the planet. He’s basically Batman, minus the crippling guilt, but with the added responsibility that comes with ruling a small country. The only bad thing I can say about these trades is that they were the perfect launching point to a series that never really realized it’s potential. After these, Marvel removed the titles from its edgier “Marvel Knights” line, and it became just another superhero book. A decent one, but one that had the wind knocked out of its sails. Note to Marvel: If you’re not going to collect the rest of this great series in trade, can you at least do a new printing of the first 2 trades in a hardcover format? Like most of the trades from this time period, mine are falling apart.

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Black Panther – Who Is The Black Panther, Civil War, The Bride

So far, I’ve managed to do most of this project without being overtly mean. I’ve taken pot shots here and there, but most of the time I’ve tried to see the positives of each story I’ve read, and usually if I malign a writer in one post, I make up for it in another (Chuck Dixon, Jeph Loeb, Grant Morrison). Until now.

When Marvel relaunched the Black Panther, I gave it a try (actually several tries), mostly because of my fondness for Priest’s run. And while it quickly soured on me, I would still try to go back every now and then, to see if things had improved. They never did. After rereading these, I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve read a worse modern age Marvel comic book. This comic book is terrible.

I don’t mean the creative choices, although whomever decided to marry the Black Panther and Storm together should be fired. It’s one thing to disagree with a creator’s character choices. That’s always going to happen. But when the product is executed so poorly, with so little respect to reason or continuity, that’s when I get pissed.

Reggie Hudlin is a tremendously talented TV producer and writer, but that skill does not translate to writing comic books. The pacing here is poor. Hudlin often forgets that this is a visual medium, and has no concept of how to let the artist do the job of communicating information to the reader. And so it’s often very difficult to tell what is happening from panel to panel, as Hudlin seems to view the artist’s role as mere adornment.

Continuity is a big problem here. Not just the regular “This story clearly conflicts with issue 289 of Fantastic Four where it’s stated that Black Panther prefers Ego waffles to Cheerios” kind of continuity. It’s the most important continuity that’s at stake here, that of character. For Hudlin’s Panther, all men want to be him, and all women want to fuck him. And so you get characters that have been written for decades as strong, confident men and women being reduced to giggling caricatures of themselves whenever they get near the Wakandan king. Part of the problem is that while the Panther is a great character, he doesn’t interact that well with the rest of the Marvel Universe, and it takes a good writer to straddle the line between realistic stories, and epic superhero adventures. Reggie Hudlin is not that writer. I think that one of these days someone is going to pitch a hell of a Black Panther Max (Marvel’s adult line). But it’s not going to be Hudlin. He doesn’t have the chops. Even the inclusion of the great John Romita, Jr  on pencils for the first arc wasn’t enough to save this stinker.

CULL

Next up: Captain America!

 

What I learned at Emerald City Comicon

I’m not a big comic con person. I’ve been to San Diego’s famed convention a few times, but haven’t been to many other than that. In fact, despite the subject matter of my blog, I’m not really a comic book geek at all, or at least in terms of sharing a lot of the “truisms” that comic book geeks are supposed to have. Most of my friends don’t read comic books, I don’t play video games, and I watch as many independent art-house films as I do  big budget sci-fi films. I also have personal hygiene, have basic social interaction skills, and have actually known the touch of a woman. Ha! I kid because I love.

 

The shoes my wife bought while I was at the comic con

But I do love comic books. I love them, and I love talking about them, and I’m even working on writing them. And so I trekked down to Seattle’s Emerald City Comicon yesterday, along my good friend and writing partner, Jay. My wife came along for the ride, but spent the day shopping, and ogling the good-looking shoe sales guys at Nordstroms.

As I’ve said, I’ve been to the San Diego Comic Con several times, and while I found it exciting, I can’t say it did much for me from a comic book perspective. I did get  some nice sketches, and saw some crazy movie panels, but it’s not creator friendly, and to be honest it’s a little soul crushing. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Emerald City was quite comic book focused, and at least from my perspective, seemed to be a lot more creator friendly than San Diego is. Geek culture was prevalent, however, in that there was lots of cosplay, lots of people who still can’t over the fact that Firefly was cancelled, and excessive line ups for TV “stars” that aren’t famous enough to even make the janitorial crew at the medical centre where Celebrity Rehab is filmed.

 

Random character that I don't care about.

We went just for one day, and kept to the convention floor for the most part.There were panels, and while many of them were comic book themed, they mostly consist of the following: Disgruntled Fan: “I love (insert obscure character’s name here. It could be Superman. Or Wolverine. Or the Golden Pretzel. Doesn’t really matter).”  “I don’t like that you did (insert random character event here. It’s usually death. Or turning the character gay. Or a combination of the two) to him. Since my world view is so narrow, I thought that rather than voting with my dollar and supporting different comics created by talented creators that don’t necessarily succeed or fail on the whims of billion dollar multi-nationals, and since I really only want to read about the adventures of 70-year-old marketing franchises, I’ve decided to come here and complain to you, even though you have tried to revitalize (insert character here) a dozen times to no avail, and tell you that not only that everything you have done to this point sucks, but also to tell you that everything you are planning on doing in the future sucks, and also that ideas that you haven’t even formulated in your brain suck.” Editor-in-Chief: Good question! We love (insert character here), and trust me when I tell you that we’re planning great things with (insert character here) but I can’t quite tell you about them yet, mostly because everything we’ve ever done with that character has failed miserably, and because anytime we try anything new, you shit all over us, and so now we’re terrified of change, even though we need it in order to survive in the long-term.  We hope to have announcements at (insert upcoming comic convention held in more important city) regarding (insert character here), although you and I both know that any new thing that we do with that character will be ignored by the next poor creative team that we somehow convince to take over the thankless task of babysitting our increasingly fickle fan base.  Good question!” 

 

 

Apparently, this guy was Indiana Jones.

And so it goes. As I said, Jay and I spent the day on the floor, except for a brief spell where Jay decided to stalk the guy  who played Indiana Jones. No, not that guy. The other one. No, not that one. The guy you’ve never heard of. Right.

I brought in a few books to get signed by creators that I knew were going to be there, but line-ups deterred me from following through on this for the most part. They weren’t that long, I just didn’t feel like standing in them. However, I did get books signed by Matt Kindt, Ethan Nicolle, and Ben Templesmith, so it still worked out all right. Jay is better than this than I am, mostly because a) he has freaky luck in picking the exact moment where no one else is bothering the person, and b) he’s actually a friendly, engaging person that people aren’t terrified of when he says hi. So he’s very much unlike me, and 98% of the rest of the people who go to these things. And so he got signatures by Greg Rucka and Geof Darrow.

In terms of original art, I got a nice little sketch of Hellboy by the writer/artist of Icarus, Ryan Cody. The big prize for me was buying an original piece of art from 3 Story: The Secret History of the Giant Man, by one of my current favourite creators, Matt Kindt. Jay won out on this as well, as he commissioned Matt to do a truly amazing piece for him. Jay picked Indiana Jones as the subject, and so Matt complied and the results were incredible.

I also picked up a few books, but it was a relatively small haul: The awesome little BPRD – Hell On Earth: Seattle comic that Dark Horse produced just for this con; the first issue of Officer Downe by Joe Casey; Casey’s Godland TP’s Vol. 4 & 5; a really interesting little sci-fi graphic novel

Godland, baby!

called Jan’s Atomic Heart by Canadian Simon Roy;  Two The Incredibles trades by Mark Waid; The Solomon Kane: Death’s Black Riders TP (I also got writer Scott Allie to sign this); the TP of a mini called Olympus, also signed by writer Nathan Edmondson; the first issue of Icarus, signed by creator Ryan Cody; and a copy of Mephisto And The Empty Box, which is the only graphic novel by Matt Kindt that I didn’t own. Awesome for me!

Probably the most valuable thing I got in Seattle was information. I’m currently writing my own comic books with my writing partner Jay, and so we went to Seattle with the goal of trying to talk to as many writers and creators we could, just about their experiences and recommendations. We had some awesome talks, and here are some highlights:

Oni Press Booth – In terms of the bigger companies, these guys were the most helpful, and the most engaging. The guy running the booth really went out of his way to talk to us, and gave us the low down on some my favourite Oni titles, like the Sixth Gun, Wasteland, Stumptown, and Guerillas. According to him, putting out books on time is his top focus this year, and so their new policy is not to solicit books that aren’t completely done.  Also had a short talk with Brian Hurtt, artist of the Sixth Gun, and he told us that the book is on track, and that they’re continuing to work on it for the forseeable future.

Top Shelf – I’m a fan of Top Shelf in general, and although they’re small, I think that they put out a nice cross-section of stuff. I asked about when the next installment of League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen was coming out, and was told this summer for sure. Uh huh. Had a nice conversation with J.D. Arnold, the writer of BB Wolf And The 3 LP’s, about the blues, and the incredible art work of Rich Koslowski. The only negative thing about this booth was that when both Jay and I complained that both copies of a book that we own are falling apart, we were given explicit instructions as how to fix it ourself. No offer to exchange the book, or refund our money, but rather a how-to guide on book binding. Good if you’re a 19th century homesteader, I guess, but not what we were looking for.

Dark Horse, and DC –  Meh. Not much going on here, and I’m not really sure why they bothered putting up booths.

The Image booth – This was probably the most fun we had at the con. Had some really great conversations with people like John Layman (the writer of Chew), Nathan Edmonson (the writer of The Light, and Who Is Jake Ellis?, and Jay Faerber (writer of Noble Causes, and what looks to be a really interesting new crime book called Near Death), and Jim Zubkavitch (writer of Skullkickers). I think that working these kinds of things can be hell for up and coming creators, and so the impression we got is that they enjoyed talking to people who actually knew and appreciated their work. Got some great tips on networking and writing, and some cool peeks into what they were working on in the future.

We also spent some time talking with Cameron Stewart, the creator of Sin Titulo. He confirmed what had been reported by Rich Johnston of Bleeding Cool.com, that he will probably be putting out Sin Titulo in hardcover form sometime in 2012. Very friendly and engaging guy. He also seemed to appreciate talking to people who have read something that was so obviously near and dear to his creative heart.

Probably the most rewarding time we spent there was in talking to the writer/artist Matt Kindt. Both Jay and I are big fans of his, and seeing him be so kind and generous with his time was awesome. He told us a bit about some of the projects that he’s working on, including an upcoming spy comic for Dark Horse, and a sequel of sorts to Super Spy.

So all in all, a rewarding trip. Although I did like the comic book focus, I was still surprised at how few small comic publishers were there. I know it’s Seattle, and the little guys probably have to be pretty choosy which cons they go to, but still. That being said, it was still great to see so many people enjoying the medium I love.

 

 

The Great Comic Book Cull Of 2010/2011 Part 34: Still. More. Avengers. Sigh…

I’m about as sick of talking about the Avengers as Charlie Sheen is of being sane. But an unanticipated result of Brian Bendis’ commercial success on Avengers was the spin-off book. Or I should say spin-off books. Lots and lots of books. I should say that although this period had a lot of spin-offs, for the most part they felt like natural, organic parts to the larger story that Marvel was telling at the time. I happen to like this period (Civil War/Secret Invasion/Dark Reign) of Marvel’s history, as I felt that it flowed together quite well, and that everything served a larger purpose.

Breasts. Evil, evil breasts.

Mighty Avengers – The Ultron Initiative, Venom Bomb, Secret Invasion Book 1 and 2

This was also written by Bendis, and was a direct result of the events that took place in Marvel’s Civil War cross over. At this point in the storyline, this team was the “official” Avengers team, and basically filled the more “traditional” Avengers role: They only took care of planetary threats, were sanctioned by the government, etc. This book was a little bigger, a little more epic than the New Avengers book. It also attempted to break some new stars, specifically Ms. Marvel and Ares. I think it succeeded with the latter, but maybe not as much with the former. This book started with a bang. The Ultron arc is awesome, in the truest sense of the word. It’s a big-time, world is about to end, Avengers story, and with incredible art by Frank “I can create better breasts than God” Cho, and it stands up well as one of the better self-contained Avengers stories of the past few years. The Venom story is also good, but gets a little bogged down with some of the subplots of what’s happening with the other Avengers team. After that, the book becomes just another Brian Bendis Avengers book, and it loses a lot of the scope and wide-screen adventure that the first two arcs had. All in all it’s a good superhero book, and the first arc in particular is a barn burner.

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Eeeevil. So very evil.

Dark Avengers – Assemble, Molecule Man, Siege

If Mighty Avengers was a response to Civil War, then Dark Avengers was a response to the Secret Invasion storyline. Quickly then: The supervillain formerly known as the Green Goblin has somehow become in charge of America’s security. As such, he leads a new team that he calls “Avengers”. In actuality, the new team is composed of criminals, posing as popular heroes (Moonstone as Ms. Marvel, Bullseye as Hawkeye, Venom as Spider-Man), as well as Ares and the Sentry, and of course Norman himself. I would have thought that the fans would have been up in arms over this, but for the most part people embraced this, and so did I. I don’t think this would have worked so well without the years of set up that Bendis had prepared us with beforehand, but by the time this storyline came out it felt as a very organic part to the epic that Bendis was crafting. Even though the team is composed of nothing but villains, Bendis still makes you care about them, if by care you mean ” I REALLY can’t wait until someone comes along and kicks their ass”. By this point Mike Deodato had evolved into one of the better superhero artists on the market, and his work here is exemplary.

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Because training child soldiers is always a good idea.

Avengers: The Initiative – Basic Training, Killed In Action, Secret Invasion, Disassembled

Yep, another spinoff, this one coming out of Civil War. So now every hero has to “register” with the government, and The Initiative the government’s way of training all these new heroes. This was writer Dan Slott’s first big book, and he did a nice job with it. He put familiar faces like Tigra, Hank Pym, and Justice in as the trainers, and then threw a combination of new and old (but still not well-known) characters in as the students. When I started rereading this, I think I thought I would be getting rid of these. But I was pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoy this book, mostly for its engaging character development. Slott is pulling out all the stops in trying to get us to love these new characters, and for the most part it works. Unfortunately, the book is not without its problems. Like his previous work on She-Hulk, the book did start to get bogged down with sub-plots. Because so much was happening in the Marvel Universe at the time, it feels as if this book was being pulled in too many directions at times. That being said, it’s still an enjoyable read, if not entirely essential.

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Young Avengers – Sidekicks, Family Matters

This book started not long after the original New Avengers title started, and shares the bleak “Our heroes are gone, what will we do” vibe that Bendis’ book did for a time. The premise is that a group of young heroes with costumes and code names reminiscent to Avengers of the past is patrolling the city, and Jessica Jones (formerly of Alias fame) is trying to get to the bottom of it. And so are Captain America and Iron Man.

This is a very good teen superhero book. It’s more superhero than teen, but it’s still quite good, and easily the equal (if not better) than DC’s recent Teen Titans books. The question is this: Why would trained, experienced combat fighters like Iron Man and Captain America let untrained children dress up and fight crime. The answer: They wouldn’t. Which of course leads to conflict, which is something that teen superhero books often lack. What is forgotten is that no matter how powerful these people are, they’re still kids, and should act like them. I don’t mean have scenes with them making out with each other, or playing X-Box all the time. YA avoids these clichés (thankfully), but it does show them acting the way teens do: erratically, but trying to do the right thing. Allen Heinberg and Jim Cheung did a beautiful job with this series, and it’s nice to see that they’re currently in the middle of another one with the same characters.

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Next up: NOT AVENGERS! YAY!