19 June 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part IV: Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days

Comic hardcover, n.pag.
Published 1999 (contents: 1989-99)

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2011
Neil Gaiman's Midnight Days

Writers: Neil Gaiman with Matt Wagner
Artists: Stephen Bissette, John Totleben, Richard Piers Rayner, Mike Hoffman, Kim DeMulder, Mike Mignola, Dave McKean, Teddy Kristiansen
Colorists: Tatjana Wood, Danny Vozzo
Letterers: John Costanza, Tim Harkins, Todd Klein

This book collects much (all?) of Gaiman's non-Sandman Vertigo work, presumably so the dedicated Gaiman-ite doesn't have to sully themselves by buying comics by other people. (Actually, most of the work here had never been collected in trade paperback before, so I'm just being mean.)

Swamp Thing: "Jack in the Green"
This story is about a Swamp Thing from the Middle Ages. It's the second comic Gaiman ever wrote. It's okay, I guess. Nothing really happens.

Swamp Thing: "Brothers"
In this story, Brother Power the Geek comes back to the Earth. He's a character who hadn't appeared for years before this and no one cared about him. I'm not sure why anyone should after reading this. I guess that's kinda the point-- he's the hippie who can't let go. I did enjoy the two side characters, though, one of which who actually was a hippie who couldn't let go. The evil government agent (who was also an ex-hippie) was a pretty cool character. The Claw or whatever his name was, not so much. Oh, and Batman is in it.

Swamp Thing: "Shaggy God Stories"
what is this I don't even

John Constantine, Hellblazer: "Hold Me"
I've never read a John Constantine story before. This was pretty good. The resolution makes little sense on a plot level, but is nice emotionally. Poor Constantine, keeps the world at bay, and even when he lets it in... it doesn't actually like him. The art is amazing. McKean and Gaiman showed they made a good team in Black Orchid, but this is even better from an artistic standpoint.

Sandman Midnight Theatre
I've read this story before, on its own, and it takes up half the book! Why not throw in the Poison Ivy story that Gaiman mentions instead; I want to read that, since he did such an intriguing Ivy in Black Orchid. Sandman Midnight Theatre belongs in a collection, sure... but in a Sandman Mystery Theatre one instead, where it's an important part of an ongoing narrative. It was nice to read it again, though, and Gaiman's introduction to the story provides some nice insight into the way it was written. (Gaiman and Wagner worked out a plot in a hotel room, Wagner wrote detailed breakdowns, Kristiansen drew the art following these, Gaiman wrote the dialogue to match the pictures.) Other than that, I have nothing to say that I didn't say last time.

The collection as a whole is a bit of a jumble, really. Nice to have it all collected, but none of it really stands out or impresses on its own, except for maybe "Hold Me."

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part III: Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame

Perfect-bound comic, 38 pages
Published 2000

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2011
Green Lantern/Superman: Legend of the Green Flame

Written by Neil Gaiman
Artwork by Michael D. Allred & Terry Austin, Mark Buckingham, John Totleben, Matt Wagner, Eric Shanower & Arthur Adams, Jim Aparo, Kevin Nowlan, Jason Little
Colored by Matt Hollingsworth
Lettered by Todd Klein

Action Comics Weekly sounds like the kind of thing I'd've liked, given my enjoyment of Wednesday Comics: an anthology title that came out weekly, with several stories advancing slowly issue to issue. But it was apparently a nightmare to pull together, and so it didn't even last a year. Legend of the Green Flame is the finale it never got, as Gaiman's script was dumped for someone else's, finally being illustrated and published some twelve years later. The story unites all of the characters-- the Blackhawk Squadron, the Green Lantern, Superman, Catwoman, the Phantom Stranger, Deadman, and a demon who totally isn't Etrigan, honest-- from Action Comics Weekly into one big story.

In this tale, Hal Jordan and Clark Kent find an old green lantern, originally found in some rubble in 1949, in a museum exhibit. When Hal uses it to charge his ring, the two of them end up flung into Hell itself. It's short, only a little longer than your typical single issue, so not a whole lot actually happens. What does happen is fun enough, I suppose, though I suspect it would have been funner had it actually been read as the conclusion to all of these characters' stories in Action Comics Weekly. I think my favorite random appearance was Deadman, who gets some funny material. I don't get why the Blackhawks find dead members of the Justice Society (including the Sandman, natch) in 1949, though.

As it is, it's nice to see Clark Kent and Hal Jordan hang out together. I don't know why Hal Jordan is so mopey here, or why the events of this story make him get over it, but Gaiman write a nice Clark/Superman. There's a fun bit where in the middle of a conversation, Clark flies off and gets a cat out of a tree, and the best scene in the book is probably when, upon their arrival in Hell, Superman is incapacitated by being able to hear the torment of every single being in Hell at once. Sometimes it sucks being Superman.

The resolution is a bit too easy, given all the buildup it gets, but that's a done-in-one story for you, I suppose. There are a number of different artists for some reason, but it's not as jarring as you might think, since each of them does a different chapter, and each chapter takes the story some place completely different. Oh, and the ending joke is fun, though it wasn't until just now that I finally got it. "The place is all yours," indeed, Neil.

Faster than a DC Bullet: The Sandman Spin-Offs, Part II: Black Orchid

Having taken my brief sojourn outside of the DCU with Y: The Last Man, I'm back inside it with the first set of what were very many spin-offs of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman. Well, sort of. Most of these stories predated Gaiman's work on The Sandman, and though there are some overlaps, they're very different. Given what the man became famous for, it's striking how integrated these works are in the DCU, even if sometimes obscure parts of it. They feature appearances by Superman, Lex Luthor, Batman, the Green Lantern, Poison Ivy, Firestorm the Nuclear Man, and more:

Comic trade paperback, 155 pages
Published 1991 (contents: 1989)

Borrowed from the library
Read June 2011
Black Orchid

Written by Neil Gaiman
Illustrated by Dave McKean
Lettered by Todd Klein

I don't know who Mikal Gilmore is, but he wrote the introduction this collected edition of Black Orchid. Gilmore seems very impressed with all the "unanticipated" things that the book does-- so impressed, in fact, that he tells you what they all are before you get to read them yourself. Which is why I don't feel bad about discussing them, but it's not like you were going to read the book anyway. I don't even think Neil Gaiman fans read Black Orchid, even if my front cover does try to grab the dozens of people who watched MirrorMask. (Seriously, I forgot that film even existed until I saw it mentioned here.)

Gilmore cites Black Orchid as "one of those books that has helped break modern comics history in two and signalled the rise of a new courage and a new spirit of aspiration within the medium," placing it alongside Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, Alan Moore's Miracleman, and Alan Moore's Watchmen. Frankly, I never thought I'd see The Dark Knight Returns described as having "a new spirit of aspiration," but I think there's a reason we don't remember Black Orchid alongside the potent critique of fantasized superhero and state violence that is Watchmen. Gilmore says it's one of the only comic books that critiques violence without being forced to resort to violence anyway, like Watchmen is... but that's not true. Or rather, it's a very defanged critique.

One of the primary villains is Carl Thorne, a disgraced LexCorp employee who Luthor has dumped off the docks. But the Black Orchid saves him, saying "too many have died today." But she doesn't do anything with him, leaving the man free to go on to murder people up as he pleases. Huzzah for pacifism? And then, at the end, Lex Luthor dispatches a squad of bad guys to capture the Black Orchid so he can science her up or whatever. Black Orchid doesn't battle this squad... but she doesn't have to, since most of them are conveniently killed by Thorne, and they conveniently kill him. Sure, she lets the last three go and they let her go, but it's hardly a damning indictment of comics violence.

I don't think it has to be, though. In Black Orchid, Gaiman and McKean take an obscure DC character, providing her with a fascinating and strange origin story and killing her off. The Black Orchid we follow is not the original, but another plant-creature grown from the same source, with fragmentary versions of her memories-- plus there's another one, a little girl version of the same. We discover the Black Orchid's origin at the same time that she discovers it herself, but here I think is where Gaiman really shines. The Black Orchid learns her origin story... but that doesn't actually tell her anything. I mean, we all know where we come from, but none of us know who we are either, right? So the Black Orchid (I wish I could call her by her name, but she's a plant-lady-- she doesn't have one) makes her way through Metropolis, Gotham City, the Louisiana swamps, and the Amazon rainforest, trying to find someone who will tell her what she needs to know. But there's no one, and so she (and her miniature clone-self) have to find their own way in the world.

Of course, the own way turns out to be hanging out in the rainforest talking about how great plants are, but I suppose you can't have everything.

The book's plot is disjointed, but it should be, and though Gaiman's villains are a little too thuggish to be interesting (and even his Luthor isn't great), the rest of the characters-- all the Black Orchids, Phillip Sylvain (her sort-of-creator), Poison Ivy, Batman, the Mad Hatter-- feel real. Thankfully, since the story isn't going to get you to the end. And then there's Dave McKean's jarring, gorgeous, disconcerting, brutal, realistic art, a perfect match for Gaiman's similarly so writing. He either manipulates photos or traces them, I don't know, but he's an artist who really makes that work as a technique.

Black Orchid is an interesting and intriguing read, all the more so because it is not an origin story where someone ends up deciding to fight injustice at the end. Once the story's over, the Black Orchid still doesn't know what to do with herself other than that she misses people-- so she returns to civilization. I like that it's open-ended, because it works well with what Gaiman's been doing. The Black Orchid doesn't know what she's up to any more than the rest of us. Apparently, this miniseries spawned an ongoing (not by Gaiman) about the Black Orchid, but I can't see what it would actually be about that wouldn't be hugely disappointing.

08 June 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Y: The Last Man, Part VI: Y: The Last Man: Whys and Wherefores

Comic trade paperback, 166 pages
Published 2008 (contents: 2007-08)

Borrowed from the library
Read May 2011
Y: The Last Man: Whys and Wherefores

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencillers: Pia Guerra
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.

Colorist: Zylonol
Letterer: Clem Robins

Bam! This is it: the end of Y: The Last Man. In my previous reviews, I've tried to allude to general events without being specific, giving the sort of information I wouldn't mind getting ahead of time. (Actually, I rarely mind spoilers at all, so long as I get to choose them, and I very often do.) There's nothing really worth talking about in Whys and Wherefores, though, that doesn't involve given everything away, so SPOILER ALERT. Well, other than that it's nice to finally have a whole book of Pia Guerra art again.

Things That Happen And Opinions That I Have About Them:

1. Alter is back. Again? Even with the backstory filled in for her in the previous volume, she still comes across as unmotivated and uninteresting. She's gonna kill Yorick... because? And something. Also, I hate villains who gratuitously shoot their own subordinates. It makes them stupid. And Alter is really stupid.
2. Yorick finally finds Beth. (There is a lot of aimless wandering around Paris first, though.) Huzzah! This was a very nice moment, even though you knew it had to happen.
3. Beth was going to break up with Yorick the day the plague struck. I knew it! All the same, it was a hugely devastating moment. Poor guy. Poor her, too.
4. Yorick and Agent 355 are in love. I don't buy it. This volume works really hard to sell you on it, but never really succeeds. They act like good friends-- really good friends-- but never really lovers, I don't think. Yorick has this whole speech about how love changes you, and he's a better person for being with 355, who wouldn't have been a jerk to some kid at the lunch table or something? It doesn't convince. How did 355 make him into a better person in a way that any pair of friends who spent five years together wouldn't? I buy sexual tension-- he is literally 355's only option, after all-- but not romantic love.
5. Agent 355 dies. (I told you there were SPOILERS.) Damn damn damn damn. This was devastating. It really works though, even if you don't buy Yorick and 355 as in love, because of the massive amount of time you've spent with the character.
6. Yorick realizes that Alter just wants to die. Okay... She's still stupid.

The rest of these points come from the last issue, which jumps sixty years into the future, then fills in the past through flashbacks. There are lots of clones now, of Yorick and others, and the human race is shuffling forward much as it always has.
7. Other Beth's daughter (Other Other Beth?) is President of France. For some reason.
8. The Russian boy is tsar of all the Russians. Awesome! His adoptive mother was probably my favorite recurring character, anyway.
9. Yorick hangs out with a bunch of monkeys in a straitjacket. (He's in it, not the monkeys.) This feels a little too... weird movie-ish, and not real enough. I mean, is this really what you would do with someone?
10. Hero and Beth got together. This is actually a very nice ending for both of them, but especially our troubled Hero.
11. Doctor Mann dies some day. Well, of course she does.
12. When Yorick is an old man, Ampersand finally kicks it. My goodness, now this was sad. This was the moment I felt my eyes watering up. Poor little thing.
13. Yorick escapes one last time. Now the straitjacket thing is kinda dumb, but it's really just to set up this moment, which was awesome.

My only real problem with the ending as a whole is that the unmanned society had stuck around. So much of the series has dwelt on how the women put society back together without men, that to end with the return of men is just a dull status quo revival. Couldn't Vaughan have found some way to keep men out of the picture for good without killing off the human race? Of course he could have; he's the writer.

The only overall flaw of Y: The Last Man is that the individual stories could be repetitive sometimes, and there was some aspects of the big story that were dumb (the Culper Ring and Alter). On the whole, Y: The Last Man was sf of the best sort, combining an intriguing scenario with good characters.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Y: The Last Man, Part V: Y: The Last Man: Motherland

Comic trade paperback, 143 pages
Published 2007 (contents: 2006-07)

Borrowed from the library
Read May 2011
Y: The Last Man: Motherland

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencillers: Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.
, Goran Sudžuka
Colorist: Zylonol
Letterer: Clem Robins

For sheer shock value, the main story of the penultimate book of Y: The Last Man is one of the best of the series. I ain't giving nothing away here, except to say that I think I literally gasped on pages 48 and 51, and the following pages kept up the revelations. There's a lot of answers and explanations, and sometimes it gets convoluted, but it's mostly satisfying. There is an answer of sorts for the plague, but as many reviewers before have pointed out, it's mostly nonsense. It doesn't both me, though, as I never really cared why the plague happened-- as in Mary Shelley's original The Last Man, the answer is unimportant. The plague is just there to reveal things about the characters and the world they/we live in, and it does that spectacularly.

Case in point are the two side stories in this volume, which really worked for me (though one wonders if Vaughan was spinning his wheels a little bit to stretch the whole thing out to sixty issues by putting these just before the climax). "The Obituarist" and "Tragicomic" both show the women, after four years on their own, beginning to build their own post-male world, and they're both good examples of what this series does so well, in trying to suss out what makes women women, and thus men men, and where it all comes from anyway and what we ought to do about it.

Faster than a DC Bullet: Y: The Last Man, Part IV: Y: The Last Man: The Deluxe Edition, Book Four

Comic hardcover, 282 pages
Published 2010 (contents: 2005-06)

Borrowed from the library
Read May 2011
Y: The Last Man: The Deluxe Edition, Book Four

Writer: Brian K. Vaughan
Pencillers: Pia Guerra, Goran Sudžuka
Inker: José Marzán, Jr.

Colorist: Zylonol
Letterer: Clem Robins

The overall plot of Y: The Last Man advances very little in Book Four of the series. The first story, "Paper Dolls," sees Yorick and company finally make it to Australia, the object of their quest-- but as you might guess from the fact that it is only the beginning of Book Four, the object of their quest has changed. Yorick's girlfriend has left the country.

But that's okay, since I am enjoying the series on the whole. Most especially I must give a thumbs up for that old hobby-horse of mine, humor. There's no story of postapocalyptic catastrophe that can't be livened up with a few jokes, and Brian K. Vaughan understands that perfectly. "Paper Dolls" mostly concerns Yorick and 355's efforts to stop a reporter from making off with a photo of Yorick, revealing his existence to the world, and as you might imagine given that the Yorick is photographed in the nude (the first male genitalia in a series that has shown a fair amount of breasts by this point-- what a great moment to save it for!), there are more than enough laugh moments amidst the usual scenes of people untrained in combat somehow getting the drop on the United States's best secret agent. (I think TV Tropes calls this the Worf Effect.) It's good fun.

However, most of the stories in Book Four are side stories to the main plot. "The Hour of Our Death" fills in what Yorick's sister is up to in the States as she encounters Other Beth, "Buttons" gives us the secret history of Agent 355, "1,000 Typewriters" reveals the convoluted history of Ampersand, "The Tin Man" tells us the hidden past of Doctor Mann (seriously, why are none of these people ever just straight with one another?), and "Gehenna" even depicts the story of recurring villain Alter. It's a bit much, especially when I wish the backstory had come out more organically. None of the other characters really know the information we learn from these tales; it's only presented to the reader at useful junctures.

The other tale to actually advance the plot is "Kimono Dragons," which shows us the gang's adventures in Japan. There's a lot of finding-the-monkey nonsense as usual, and a lot of fighting and escaping. To be honest, the main plot, which features a deranged popstar, is not exactly riveting or now. Far more interesting is the side story about Doctor Mann (whoo!) going to see her mother, where we begin to discover there's an even bigger game being played than we'd expected.

The art is good as always, but "fill-in artist" Goran Sudžuka actually pencils nearly half the pages here, making you wonder by Pia Guerra gets her name so much bigger on the cover.