LAKE OF FIRE-DEMONIC

LAKE OF FIRE/DEMONIC
Written by Nathan Fairbairn and Drawn by Matt Smith
Written by Christopher Sebela and Drawn by Niko Walter
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Marc Mason

A little talk about two books I’ve been reading and enjoying quite a bit as of late…

We are four issues in to the five-part LAKE OF FIRE and I have to admit to having some very mixed feelings about that. That’s because this thing is so good that I don’t want it to end. LoF is a book that does one of my favorite things: mix genres in a new and exciting way. For instance: we’ve seen any number of alien invasion stories over the years. But have we seen one set in thirteenth century France? Not to my knowledge.

And it is glorious.

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A young knight wanting to do his part for Christendom in wiping out heretics heads for the front lines, whereupon he is sent on a fool’s errand to roust some villagers. But unbeknownst to anyone, the villagers are not madmen or heretics; instead, they are the victims of a vicious alien race that functions off a hivemind and uses humans for breeding purposes. Hilarity does not ensue.

Rather, a series of terrible battles is undertaken, not only against the creatures but against rabidly insane clergy who see the creatures in the most suspicious of light. Yet at the same time, a path for hope is developed and explored in reconciling the prevailing religious classes of the day. It is thematically rich to watch it happen, and raises the book another notch in its execution.

Everything here absolutely works wonderfully. Nathan Fairbairn not only writes the book excellently (the script and characters are outstanding) he also colors and letters it as well. With Matt Smith’s incredible art and gift for smooth storytelling, the book is both a visual and mental feast. This is truly a collaboration between two guys who know how to play to each other’s strengths.

With only one issue still to come, I can only hope that these two are making plans to do something else in the future. It’d be a shame if they didn’t. Highly recommended.

There’s some interesting genre mixing in DEMONIC, too. Cops meets cults meets horror meets psychological thriller meets… well, there’s a whole lot going on here. But damn, it’s good. Dark. Seriously dark. But good.

The cop in question, Scott Graves, likes to think he has put his fucked up childhood behind him, but an encounter with a suspect changes all that. Suddenly it comes rushing back: he was raised in a cult that actually managed to raise a demon (or two). And oh, yeah, there’s one living inside of him that owns him, and now it’s gotten out and is demanding blood. Or Graves’s family will pay the price for his refusal.

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He complies (or there is no series, so this is not a spoiler) but the question lingers: is the demon really there? Or is he just imagining it and actually a serial killer?

That’s something you’ll have to decide for yourself.

But it’s worth taking the ride to find out. There are four issues out of the planned six, and each one has been packed with incredible twists and turns, zesty dialogue, terrifically moody art, and enough intrigue to keep you wanting the next one immediately. I have genuinely no idea where the story is going to go over its last third, and that’s a great feeling to have. This one is maybe not for everyone, as again, it is damn dark, but for those who it is? You’re gonna love it.

ROGUE ELEMENT 134

Rogue Element #134: A ‘Strange’ New ‘Arrival’ of ‘Fantastic’ Films, aka Avril Goes to the Movies

By Avril Kulla

November has heralded a bizarre mixture of weather (70 degrees in Chicago? The Chinese have certainly created a believable climate change hoax), indescribable elation (Cubbies win!) and utter horror (at least for those of us who do not support nominating a racist, sexist, xenophobe who just settled a multi-million dollar fraud suit, and his homophobic, anti-choice running mate who is uncomfortably way more qualified for the top seat). So, what’s a gal to do when she just can’t even? Go to the movies, of course! (Spoiler free reviews below)

Doctor Strange

I am not as intimately familiar with the origins and adventures of Doctor Stephen Strange as I am of other notable Marvel characters. He has made cameos in the books I read, particularly when he started tutoring X-Men character Illyana Rasputin aka Magik in the intricate details of the sorcerous arts, but I went into ‘Strange’ about as blind as I could be. While the trailer appeared rather shiny I was not convinced based on the minimal compilation of clips and dialogue that ‘Strange’ was going to deliver a solid story, and that is ultimately how I felt about the film.

Telling an origin story alongside a good versus evil tale is a challenging undertaking. While I adore ‘Captain America: The First Avenger’ most people feel it is the weakest of the Captain America films (even I can admit nothing beats ‘Winter Soldier’ for sheer awesomeness) partly due to the necessary storytelling aspect of having to introduce the character in a well-paced, believable manner, before setting him on his path of superhero greatness. ‘Strange’ did an excellent job of introducing the protagonist, but it missed several key details when transforming him.

Dr. Strange was a supremely gifted neurosurgeon until a horrible car accident robbed him of his fine motor control (but really, what did you expect to happen when you’re speeding down a narrow cliff side road while distracted by your phone?). Unable to find assistance in the realm of science he turns to sorcery. He insults The Ancient One until he gets bitch slapped into the astral plane and kicked out of the temple, but somehow proves his commitment to learning by waiting outside for five hours (big whoop; I’ve managed to not leave the couch for two days straight, saving sloth-like trips to the bathroom and kitchen).

His magical training was supposed to be a montage of his evolution from arrogant dickbag to humble sorcerer supreme, intent on using his gifts for good. Instead we just see a few snippets of his struggles but no real ‘Aha, there’s his good, self-sacrificing side!’ moments, find out that he’s a fast learner (but we already knew that) and he breaks the rules to better serve his own goals. Yes, he steps up and battles the bad guys, but only when forced to by being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and when someone else dies leaving him no choice.

The special effects are utterly outstanding and may be worth the ticket price alone, if that’s your thing. When the building and dimensions fold and expand like an accordion I swear I squealed a little, and their travel mode looks way cooler than first class. While the story wasn’t necessarily bad nor boring (the cloak was adorably comedic…yes, you read that right) it also did not feel complete. There are scenes needed to make the transition from smug surgeon to superhero sorcerer more believable, and while the movie was still entertaining I tend to desire a bit more quality and effort from my heroes.

Arrival

Twelve alien ships have landed at random points across the globe, and Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) has been recruited in an attempt to communicate with the creatures. The trailer looked amazingly intense, and once again my initial gut reaction to a sneak peek was spot on, only this time it wasn’t exactly what I expected.

Reviewing this movie without divulging its secrets is incredibly difficult as one cannot talk about the elements of what makes this movie such a fascinating surprise without revealing core aspects of the film. However, there is one piece of praise I can freely give: it is absolutely gorgeous. The cinematography of the scenery is quite well done, but it’s the alien language that really captures the imagination. When the communication first appeared on screen I gasped in shock, awe and delight at the beautiful and brilliant alien writing.

I went into this movie thinking it was a science fiction tale of first contact and in some ways that is entirely accurate, but the true essence of the film is…love. Most first contact concepts are typically centered around humanity banding together, whether it be to repel the alien invasion ala ‘Independence Day,’ or to learn from one another and/or deescalate aggression, in the case of the movie ‘First Contact’ and the Watchmen comics. ‘Arrival’ manages to merge several popular alien landing themes while also taking the plot in a slightly skewed direction and ending up in thought provoking territory. You can agree or disagree with the protagonist’s choices but you will also have to stop and really think about them.

When the movie ended my husband and I both had tears in our eyes (yes, real men do cry) but not necessarily for the same exact reasons. While we typically discuss a movie the whole car ride home, this time we were equal parts chatty and contemplative. I honestly could not say whether or not I truly liked the movie until I had more time to process it, and that unusual delay in turn made me enjoy the movie even more.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

I am a Potterhead. I have read the Harry Potter series dozens of times (with the exception of the last 100 pages of ‘Deathly Hallows;’ still not over Fred and you can’t make me), I attend every Harry Potter trivia night in Chicago (My team Pet My Niffler won FIRST PLACE at the most recent event!) and ever since I stowed away on the Draco/Hermione ‘ship I’ve read almost nothing but Dramione fanfiction for nigh three years. I may be slightly obsessed.

So when my fellow teammates and other Potter fans proposed a group date to see ‘Fantastic Beasts’ on the big screen I was all in. Given how expensive movies are regardless I am all about the added comforts of assigned seating, better screens and the alcoholic option for hydration. Surrounded by fellow nerdlings, being thanked by a ten-year-old for holding a door, having two different people compliment me on my Clinton/Kane button and engage me in pleasant conversation regarding what we can do to keep our heads up and how adorable toddlers are in pantsuits; well, this was the best I’ve felt in over a week. And that was before I saw the movie.

I was actually neutral regarding the trailer; I thought it looked pretty interesting but there wasn’t anything I was totally fangirling over or harshly judging as of yet, and I made a concentrated effort to avoid further exposure to extended clips or spoilers. I haven’t even read the book (though in my defense it is a Wikipedia of sorts regarding different magical creatures; no actual plot or storyline). Essentially I was relatively uninformed heading in, the way I like it, and I was blown away heading out, the way I love it.

‘Fantastic Beasts’ was utterly delightful and fantastical, in every possible sense. The multi-purpose plot included not only adorably awkward explorer Newt Scamander and his suitcase filled with wondrous creatures, but also the complexities of relationships (romantic and otherwise), foreign communications, as well as heavy themes of abuse, neglect and oppression. This film is loaded with story and yet does not feel convoluted or bogged down at any point, and the ‘slow’ bits are studded with amazing CGI magical animals doing their incredibly imaginative thing in JK Rowlings’ unique universe.

Action, adventure, romance, humor and darkness, all wrapped up in a delightful new Harry Potter series. I refuse to pigeonhole ‘Fantastic Beasts’ as another “chapter” in the Potter universe, because love him though I do, Harry Potter had nothing to do with this story. This was all Newt and Tina and Kowalski and Queenie and the cute as shit creatures and the gigglewater and dozens of other magical moments that make this movie one of a kind. ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is magic at its essence: simultaneously light-hearted and terrible to behold, and utterly irresistible.

If you are like pretty much everyone else regarding your tangible distain for the majority of the shitstorms 2016 has unleashed upon us, then by all means grab some candy from your local CVS, overpay even for a matinee and go hit the theaters, because if you’re into escaping reality then there’s nothing like catching a movie this November.

CHEW 58-59

CHEW #58-59
Written by John Layman and Illustrated by Rob Guillory
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Avril Kulla

Riddle me this, readers: How does a comic book about people with food powers ranging from the badass (such as creating razor sharp chocolate shuriken) to the absurd (psychic gelatin hats comes to mind) who live in a world where chicken is doom and alien writing randomly appears in the sky end up making one ugly cry at the end of an issue? Most riddles have an easy answer, and this one is no different: Damn. Good. Storytelling.

Chew 11 cover

While CHEW has entertained its readers nearly every issue with bizarre abilities, curious crimes and off-the-wall adventures, this comic has also managed to ensnare us all in the emotional lives of the Chu’s and their extended family. After almost sixty issues of busts, break ups, reunions, laughter and heartbreak it is impossible not to care about these characters, but as it often occurs with well-told tales, caring equals crying.

The chicken conspiracy has come to a close. We know what really happened during the so-called avian flu, we know who was behind the deaths of millions of people, and we know why it all happened. These last few issues we learned everything was leading towards preventing the end of the world, and the solution is not easy to swallow. There is no ‘James Bond kills the bad guys and presses the magic button to stave off nuclear war’ quick fix here. Horrible sacrifices must be made for the world as we know it to keep on spinnin’.

While my happy ending-loving heart feels like it was ripped out by Agent Caesar’s mechanical crab claw, and my brain is still whirring with ‘what ifs’ and various ideas of how to make John Layman suffer, I’m not only eagerly anticipating next issue to see how it all wraps up, but I’m also anxious to re-read the entire series from the beginning. There are details about the chicken conspiracy I know I missed here and there, and I’d like to revisit Chu and Colby’s best cases, and I want to catalogue my favorite food powers and background nuggets.

Essentially, despite the tumultuous upheaval my sensitive soul is enduring at this moment, I want to read Layman’s story unfold from a new perspective, and watch Guillory’s art evolve along with the characters. I want to experience it all over again. Undeniably a true hallmark of damn good storytelling.

KILL-SNOT-HORIZON

KILL-SNOT-HORIZON
Written and Drawn by Various
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Three quite interesting new efforts from today’s house of ideas.

I’m a huge fan of writer Ed Brubaker and artist Sean Phillips’ oeuvre; they consistently turn out high quality stories and art, material that engages the read on multiple levels, and comics that do not give the reader and easy way out. They tend to sneer at happy endings, and why not? Why not challenge the reader? Why not lead the story to a natural conclusion, rather than a forced one?

These guys are brilliant at that.

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With that, I have to admit that their previous book, THE FADE OUT, was not one of my favorites. That’s likely unfair on my part, but when compared the one before that – the astounding occult noir FATALE – it didn’t have the same energy. That leads us to KILL OR BE KILLED #1-2, a welcome return to occult noir storytelling, and a book that will set your nerve ending alight in the first few panels and has not stopped across the span of two outstanding issues to date.

The setup is clean and simple: Dylan is kind of a fuckup, and he’s approaching 30 with no signs of his being a fuckup going away. He’s in love with the wrong woman, his prospects are dim, and he pretty much has nothing going for him. So he decides to end it, jumping off the roof of a building.

He does not die (this is not a spoiler).

Instead, clothes lines and utility lines break his fall and he survives. Or so he thinks, until he is visited by a demon who tells him that he allowed him to survive, and in order to continue doing so, he owes a life a month in exchange. Dylan must become a cold-blooded killer in order to have a chance to live on and maybe – maybe – not become a total piece of shit.

Quite the conundrum, wouldn’t you say?

Phenomenal characterization, tasty dialogue, gorgeous art, fantastic story… KILL OR BE KILLED is, after two issues, looking like it could be the best Brubaker/Phillips collaboration ever, which is no mean feat. There isn’t a false note to be heard here, just page after page of amazing comics work, the kind that wanders off with a ton of awards. Certainly, if it maintains this level of quality, it will likely wind up at the top of my best-of list for 2016. Can’t recommend it highly enough.

Shifting gears, let’s take a look at another highly anticipated book that recently hit stands. Bryan Lee O’Malley is certainly a name that brings to mind A-list work. The SCOTT PILGRIM books vaulted him to the top of the comics stratosphere, and while the follow-up SECONDS didn’t sell as many copies, it was actually a stronger work that demonstrated just how talented the man truly is. Now he has arrived at Image to offer up his first foray into monthly comics, SNOTGIRL #1-2. What makes this branching out even more intriguing is that he is only writing the book; artist Leslie Hung is handling putting the pictures to paper, and seeing how their collaboration plays out is part of what makes the book so interesting to read.

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Snotgirl is Lottie Person, a fashion blogger with a sharp sense of style and allergies that consistently make her miserable (I can relate to at least one of those things, and it isn’t the clothing). She’s young, attractive, kinda shallow, on a break from her boyfriend, and quite possibly… a murderer.

Not your standard comics setup, for sure.

O’Malley surrounds her with a fabulous cast of characters, each one with their own quirks and personalities, and he’s wonderful at putting them together on the page and seeing where those personalities take them. Aided and abetted by Hung’s incredibly energetic neo-manga artwork, the pages crackle with life and movement. It’s really quite something.

If you had told me of this premise and not told me of O’Malley’s involvement, I would have likely avoided this book like the plague. It doesn’t normally fall inside my interest range. But that’s what talent can do: overcome wariness and create interest out of nothingness. I’ll keep reading SNOTGIRL for the long term, I think, and that should tell you all you really need to know.

In the “best new concept” category, my vote goes to HORIZON #1-2, which spins alien invasion stories on their heads in an outstanding way. The setup: in the near future, Earth has truly hit a point where its resources are shot to hell, so a plan to leave and take over another planet is hatched. That planet, Valius, is not happy about that idea. At all. So a scout force of saboteurs is sent to Earth to make sure humanity’s plans for invasion never get off the ground.

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Told from the POV of the Valius scouts, HORIZON is an excellent piece of science fiction, an alien invasion story that asks you to root for the aliens. And the way that writer Brandon Thomas structures the tale, you don’t mind that at all. Thomas does an outstanding job of making the Valius crew interesting, complex, and heroic. He’s obviously put a great deal of thought into world-building, and it shows. Seeing Valius, and seeing what is will do to avoid invasion goes a long way into developing a rooting interest in the alien crew.

Thomas is partnered with artist Juan Cedeon here, and Cedeon’s work is terrific. His characters are grounded and realistic, his backgrounds and design work are lovely, and his action work is compelling. I liked the look of HORIZON all the way around.

Sometimes it can be easy for a book like this one to get lost in the mad jumble of Marvel and DC flooding the market, so I’m feeling a bit evangelical about it. HORIZON deserves all the eyeballs it can get. Pick up these first two issues, then pass them on to someone else so that they start picking it up. Let’s reward original thinking and good, solid comics.

CHEW 56-57

CHEW #56-57
Written by John Layman, Illustrated by Rob Guillory
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Avril Kulla

After a brief hiatus us food fanatics find ourselves once more emerged in the wild and crazy lifestyle of everyone’s favorite cibopath, but this time the roller coaster ride is nearly at an end. Knowing that all great things must come to an end and experiencing said end are two vastly different monsters, because when something is still so good you believe it will always be so. However, I keep reminding myself that nearly all of my top comic picks have been finite series because they told a wonderful, complex and intriguing story and left it at that, just like they had always intended. With that in mind I have to say I am just buzzing with excitement to find out how CHEW wraps things up.

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When we last saw our beleaguered Tony Chu he’d discovered Mason Savoy’s body and his ever-so-subtle ‘Eat Me’ suicide note. After a few nibbles Chu swiftly discovered Mason’s last revenge: he had consumed beets, the cibopath’s kryptonite, with his last meal, making extracting Savoy’s font of knowledge rather challenging…and chatty.

First of all, seeing Colby’s reaction to Savoy’s last little ‘fuck you’ to Chu was priceless. Getting to read more of Savoy’s lengthy diatribes was an added bonus. Slowly but surely Savoy peels back the intricate layers of the series-long mysteries behind the avian flu, the core conspirators and the alien sky writing. By the end of issue #57 we learn both from food-ghost Savoy and Paneer, the head of NASA and Toni Chu’s mourning fiancé, what exactly caused the so-called avian flu, who was behind it and why, and the intense time crunch our heroes now labor under. Worse yet, Chu is apparently left with an impossible and terrible choice if he is to succeed in his mission.

After all of the ups and downs this series has provided, I honestly don’t know what I’ll do if it plays out the way this latest issue is indicating it will. I have faith the creative genius team of Layman and Guillory still have a few unpredictable fastballs heading our way regarding the conclusion, but meanwhile I’m stocking up on tissue and preparing for some self-sacrificing, heart-wrenching CHEWy goodness.

Thankfully they provide some of the best digs known to man to keep things light even when they’re bleak, and these latest nuggets were gems. I enjoyed the ‘Castaway’ nod with the ‘Tom Hanks was here!’ writing on a cave wall just above a red handprint with a face, but my absolutely favorite, possibly of the whole series, was a billboard proclaiming: ‘FDA: We’ll put a wall around chicken.’ Well fucking played, gentlemen, well played indeed. Regardless of how things turn out for the Chu clan, these last three issues are going to be unforgettable.

ROGUE ELEMENT 133

Rogue Element #133: Changes

By Avril Kulla

Change is a controversial topic to say the least. Change can be good, bad, meh and everything in between and outside the spectrum. Hell, change IS the spectrum; it is whatever it wants to be, takes whatever form, breaks through previously impenetrable barriers. Change should never be taken lightly, except for when it should. Change is complicated, simplistic, fun and terrifying to behold. Change is one of the most powerful forces in the universe, right up there with love, because anyone and everyone can wield it. We all certainly experience it, but we can choose how much we actively practice it.

Personally, I’m scared shitless of change, a character flaw I can more easily acknowledge than overcome. “I know what I like, and I like what I know,” a television character once said. Of course she was discussing Mac versus PC whereas I apply those words to almost everything in my life. The unknown is pants-wettingly terrifying, and what’s so wrong with the way things are now? Is change strictly necessary when life is maintaining a decent status quo? What is so special about change?

Everything, and nothing. Change is needed just as often as it is not, and it is welcomed as often it is shunned. However, it has to happen for there to be forward motion. I’ve been discussing forward motion a lot lately; my husband is a big fan of it. As much as I kick, scream, dig my heels in and clutch onto the hallway bannister lest I be pulled into the fiery pits of lava (sorry about that Dad, but it was totally Chels’ fault as well) I have come to accept, embrace and soon practice the idea of forward motion.

Marvel Comics has been floundering a bit lately. Whereas their movies and television shows have reached new heights (suck it, DC), many of the books I read have reached new lows. While I continue to collect my books I wasn’t reading them as often and recently found myself with a large stack of comics awaiting my perusal. When I finally sat down with my various titles surrounding me like a witches’ circle of pretty colors and ‘Pows!’ I felt that familiar tingle: the excitement thrumming in my veins as I prepared to ride along another impassioned adventure in a world of mutant powers, flying heroes and lovable guardians who are saving lives all up and down this galaxy. I was pumped and couldn’t wait to read what happened next.

I cannot say I was disappointed (I’m as horrified of that word, or more accurately provoking that word from my loved ones, as I am of change) because I did still enjoy a majority of my books, but I was slightly disillusioned. My X-Men are not consistently my favorite characters to read at this time, which is discombobulating to say the least. X-Men are the reason I started reading comics in the first place. For years they were all I read, through thick and thin, good stories/art and bad stories/art. It took me years to branch out, because why would I? The X-Men are the best superheroes in the world; the team and their powers are so varied there’s always something new and exciting to read about. Over fifty years old and there are still fresh stories to be told, even with the original team. Sure, three of them are dead (for the moment; as they say in the X-Men, that trick never works) and the other three have gone through more looks and personality changes than Cher and Madonna’s love child, but hey, that’s comics for you.
Point is, I’ve been in a relationship with the X-Men for over twenty years and I’ve seen and put up with a lot of shit, but I’ve kept reading because there are always new writers and artists who can take the characters and stories in unique directions. When they’re on I savor it, when they’re off I ride it out until the next creative team takes the wheel. I’ve always read the X-Men because captivating or crappy, they’ve always been there to read.

Soon, however, they may not.

I recently glanced at an article on a comic website which had a tally of the titles Marvel will be releasing come the fall after yet another revamp of sorts, and there were no specific X-Men titles. Now it did state that this was likely not a complete list, and there are still X-Men out and about (Rogue and Cable are on the Uncanny Avengers team, which will continue in October), but there remains the possibility that the X-Men, as a team and a book, are no more. This change is…challenging for me to accept.

Nothing is finalized yet, but I’m an ‘assume the glass is half empty so if it’s not I’ll be happy and if it is I’ll at least not be surprised’ kind of gal, so I am trying to mentally prepare myself. The truth is lately if I decide to reread a story it’s typically not a recent X-Men title. I’ll read ‘Transmetropolitan’ until I break the spines, I have enough ‘Harry Potter’ in my head to kick ass at trivia (go team Pet My Niffler!) and I may have read ‘Fray’ almost as much as I watched ‘Buffy,’ but there are few recent X-Men story arcs I have a craving to revisit. Older ones, such as Joss Whedon’s run, House of M, the classic ‘90s issues and the first couple years of Gambit’s solo title, I’ll reread the crap outta those comics, so maybe that’s telling. I’ll always have my favorites to dip back into; nothing can take away how those adventures and relationships can still make me feel. Therefore it may not be the worst thing in the world if Marvel moved on from the X-Men for a spell, and in that forward motion they may find each other once more down the road, and build something new.

The X-Men not only introduced me to the marvelous macrocosm of the mutant universe, they introduced me to comics, an entertainment medium I continue to adore. Though it took me a bit of time I did start to explore other aspects of the comic world besides the X-Men one to which I was born, and while I still dig me some superheroes some of my favorite books now are of the non-powered variety.

Forward motion. I’m preparing to commit to the biggest change I’ve ever, and likely will ever, experience, so talking comics may seem a little trivial in comparison, and yet it has its importance as well. I’m not there yet (calm down, everyone) but if all goes to plan someday soon I may be someone’s mother, teaching them about change and love and comics. Nothing lasts forever even though comics can make it feel that way sometimes (Captain America was first printed 75 years ago and that sucker is still going strong), but there’s also no better place to learn about the joy and pains of change then between those glossy pages where anything can, has and will happen. So for now I look for merriment in my forward motion and say with my glass and head held high, cheers to change.

ROGUE ELEMENT 132

Rogue Element 132: Let’s Get Together: Captain America: Civil War vs. X-Men: Apocalypse
By Avril Brown

A well-made, entertaining and successful superhero ensemble film is a tricky beast to tame. As with any movie, the story matters. As George Lucas once infamously said (and later ignored, much to ‘Star Wars’ fans’ dismay): “A special effect without a story is a pretty boring thing.” In this digital day and age, a superhero film is rarely boring judging by special effects alone, but whether it soars or sinks is very dependent on the quality of the story being told.

Part of what makes an ensemble story not suck is the amount and quality of due diligence given to the major players. What is the point of inviting so many people to the party if we are denied an opportunity to see their tricks? A display of power is not the only thing we want to see from the front runners; we need a reason to care about them, so we need an adequate amount of background intel in order to giving a flying fig.

Balance is key, and finding it is like finding Waldo in the middle of a Where’s Waldo cosplay convention. A proper accord must be struck between telling a compelling story, presenting the major characters and providing several extensive fights scenes (these are, after all, comic book movies).

That being said, let’s explore what worked and what didn’t in this years’ biggest ensemble films.

Civil War

The third installment in the Captain America franchise started with a bang; almost too much so, I felt upon initial viewing. Both action and story clipped along at such a rapid pace I found myself wishing they would actually take a beat and let us absorb everything before moving onto the next phase. However, this was actually a slow-burn type of film where by the end of it you can fully appreciate the sheer genius of the understated villain story, and the well-executed hero one.

An important element to remember is this is a Captain America movie, so his ideals, actions and allies are the true core of the story, but Captain America has become an Avenger, and therefore the villain is not after the Cap specifically, but all Avengers. Hence the ensemble. Here is a man driven to vengeance by his losses, and what he seeks is not death but devastation, and in some ways, he wins. Kind of hard to swallow for a superhero movie, yet it works.

Civil War succeeds spectacularly at achieving the main bullet points for a winning team movie. The main characters and their relationships are decently explored (there are some rather adorable scenes between Cap’s besties, Bucky and Sam), the story was well laid out (the twist ending was a gut-wrenching surprise) and there were some kick ass fight scenes, each unique in their own special ways. Plus, the biggest and baddest of the battles was in the middle of the movie rather at the end, but you didn’t feel the movie was lacking because of that particular change up.

That’s not to say the movie didn’t have flaws. You definitely had to have seen ‘Avengers: Age of Ultron’ to understand pretty much every important aspect of this movie, though they did a fair job of trying to catch up new viewers without being redundant. Bucky was a central catalyst to the whole story and yet he had a very muted and lackluster conclusion. The incident which was the final straw for those seeking to control the Avengers, an explosion inadvertently caused by the Scarlet Witch which killed a dozen Wakandan peacekeepers, would have killed possibly hundreds more if she’d let it explode where it was: in the middle of a busy market, and yet no one is pointing out that fact.

I may be getting a little nitpicky on that last one, particularly since I can say with absolutely no reservations that I loved Civil War and consider it almost on par with ‘The Avengers.’ I also just like to acknowledge that nothing’s perfect. Speaking of…

Apocalypse

Any X-Men fan will tell you that Apocalypse is one of the most formidable of their foes; definitely an extinction-level, multi-chapter, spawning an alternative universe kind of bad guy, so one would expect a lot of large displays of badassery. On that score, ‘Apocalypse’ did not disappoint.

The introduction, though a little drawn out, did its job of establishing En Sabah Nur (aka Apocalypse) as a seriously intense fellow, at least judging by his four horsemen. These trusted disciples are as fierce as their powers, and while we don’t see much of En Sabah Nur’s particular skill set, you’re made to assume he’s packing given what his people are capable of.

Given the early reviews I was expecting a distinct lack of power display, but thankfully this was not the case. We get to see quite the array of amazing mutant abilities in addition to some key background character history. In the comics Apocalypse brainwashes his horsemen in addition to giving them a serious power boost, but in the film they join him of their own volition, so establishing some emotional vulnerability is vital to understanding why they chose this path. The only one who was denied this treatment was Psylocke, and yet she seemed the most committed to the cause. Hm.

Again, with a name like ‘Apocalypse’ you’re to expect quite the emphatic exhibition and they deliver, but most of these are from everyone else besides the big man. Yes, he boosted their powers, and sure, he can melt people into walls, but what is it about this mutant that is so apocalyptic when he seems to gets everyone else to do his heavy lifting?

Things get pretty repetitive towards the end as well; lots of the same speeches, posturing and delaying the predictable. While the teams really come together and the side battle scenes are tight, the main battle is somewhat, well, dull and easily foreseeable. While it was stated early on that Jean Grey was a powerful mutant with a tenuous control over her powers, we were given no substantial visuals to back that up. To really build up a game-changing, pivotal character like Jean, we need to see what it is that makes her so potentially dangerous.

There were many elements of humor which kept the audience laughing; definitely an important factor in a feature film of this length and depth. Quicksilver once again stole the show with his breakout scene, and while one could argue they essentially used the same gimmicks and set up as his debut in the previous X-Men film, the truth of the matter is it worked damn well then and even better now.

Part of the problem with a lot of sequels is they are following a rather tough act, and it is by this successful stick they are measured. ‘Days of Future Past’ was a highly enjoyable film, and everyone was expecting, or hoping, the quality would continue upwards, as it did with the Captain America trilogy. ‘Apocalypse’ was leaps and bounds beyond the last third installment in an X-Men franchise, but that’s not saying a lot. It delivered action, drama, and build up, everything an end of times super powered film should have, but it carried on a bit too much in all aspects and was, therefore, not quite what it could have been.

When you think about it, all X-Men movies are ensemble films, therefore one cannot help but be a harsher critic on the franchise which, in theory, should have this formula for success down pat. So in terms of the box office encounter between the ensembles, Civil War most certainly takes the cake, but Apocalypse has its good points which cannot be discounted. However, when it comes to the next generation of superhero film franchises, as En Sabah Nur said himself, Only the Strong Shall Survive.

HILO VOL 2

HILO: SAVING THE WHOLE WIDE WORLD
Written and Drawn by Judd Winick
Published by Random House Kids

Reviewed by Marc Mason

As good as the first volume of HILO was, the second volume is a quantum leap forward in terms of story, pacing, and art. Judd Winick is attempting to outdo himself, and he is succeeding.

When last we left the robot boy he had achieved a great victory at a high price: seeming destruction and an early exit from Earth. But as volume two gets underway we see him start to find his way back to Earth thanks to his toe.

hilo vol2

If I explained that to you, it would ruin a great gag. Not gonna do it.

Reunited with his pals DJ and Gina, he gets right back to enjoying the fruits of our planet and to experiencing things like trying to eat. But it isn’t too long before trouble starts brewing: rifts start appearing in the air and unusual creatures (and robots) start making their way through. When one of those creatures is a cat-warrior who is something of a samurai, the secret of Hilo’s existence may not remain secret for much longer…

Hijinks, tremendous battles, and incredible amusement follow.

To use Hilo’s favorite word, volume two of this terrific series is outstanding in every way. It is clever, exciting, drawn beautifully, has richer and deeper emotional stakes, and amazingly fast-paced. I continue to be extremely pleased to have this Judd Winick back making comics, not the one who did all those dark and gritty DC comics. This is his wheelhouse. Can’t wait for the next volume.


FIX – RENATO JONES

THE FIX #1-2
Written by Nick Spencer and Drawn by Steve Lieber
RENATO JONES #1
Written and Drawn by Kaare Andrews
Published by Image Comics

Reviewed by Marc Mason

Two newbies from Image that are deserving of your attention…

Boy, oh boy, is THE FIX a breath of fresh air.
We open with the main character extolling the virtues of being a criminal, and it’s done so in almost depressingly hilarious fashion. As he and his partner rob a senior citizen’s retirement home, you immediately know you’re in for a ride. One, what the hell kind of criminal robs this place yet also acts appalled when the residents aren’t being properly supervised, and two, how many of these old guys tend to have a shotgun in their bed?

TheFix_01-1Cover

One too many, as it turns out.

From there it only gets crazier, as we learn these two gunmen are even more off the chain that you might have guessed… because they’re actually cops. Super, super dirty cops.

Hilariously dirty cops.

Not only that, but they are in debt to even dirtier cops, which causes them to make some… unusual decisions to try and clear the books. To tell you more would be just mean; suffice it to say that the plot goes off in absolutely insane directions, making THE FIX some of the most fun I have had in recent memory when reading a comic. Not once was I able to predict what was going to happen next, and that is a true gift to a reader. Genuine surprise doesn’t happen much anymore.

Spencer and Lieber continue the outstanding collaboration they developed while doing SUPERIOR FOES OF SPIDER-MAN, and the book soars because of it. The creative chemistry here is amazing, and both are working at the top of their talents on every page. I laughed consistently at THE FIX and at the end of each issue I immediately wanted the next one. Highest possible recommendation.

Also…

I was a little dubious when I heard about RENATO JONES. The concept sounded a little too calculated to me: a killer who preys on the 1%. That’s pretty much a meteor directly to the heart of the zeitgeist, and that made it easy to be cynical about it.

But here’s the thing: it turns out to be pretty good.

renato jones 1

Kaare Andrews uses his artistic imagination to do some amazing things in this one, engaging different art styles, multimedia, negative space, and more to tell the story of a young boy who rises from the streets to become a quiet scourge to those who place themselves about the rest of us. It is violent. It is profane.

Yet so are the actions of many of the 1%. There is justice here.

RENATO JONES didn’t set me on fire with its rage and anger, but it did engage and entertain me in a meaningful way. It isn’t like anything else on the stands, and that, for damn sure, matters.

WONDER WOMAN AT SUPER HERO HIGH

WONDER WOMAN AT SUPER HERO HIGH
Written by Lisa Yee
Published by Random House Kids

Reviewed by Marc Mason

A new series of superheroine young adult novels? An easily accessible way for the early tween set to get to know classic comic book characters? Strong characters, good role models, fun stories?

Where has the DC SUPER HERO GIRLS been all my life? I needed this for my daughter a decade ago!

wonder woman at super hero high

That said, I’m extremely pleased to see that it exists now, and the first book of the series, WONDER WOMAN AT SUPER HERO HIGH has dropped and it is a fun little tale of teem bonding, teamwork, social media, and learning how to be one’s best self, wrapped in glorious superheroic trappings.

A teenaged Wonder Woman, chomping at the bit to leave behind the Amazons and see the world, applies to Super Hero High and makes her way to a society that she does not understand and has no experience with. Here we have a Wonder Woman who is completely guileless, lacking even the basic knowledge of sarcasm as she wades into a school full of powered individuals like her. Her naiveté leads to a great deal of confusion as she navigates her new life, especially with Harley Quinn (cast as a Youtube queen here) as a roommate. And of course, traditional school cliques are in play, something else Wondy does not comprehend. What’s great about the way Lisa Yee writes it is that she manages to make Wondy’s experience universal to pretty much any kid experiencing a new school

This is a Wonder Woman who is relatable in ways we have never seen before.

Of course, you have to have genuine conflict, and there is plenty here to deal with. Jealous students trying to sabotage Wonder Woman’s success and get her expelled. A rival school of supervillains. A competition amongst schools with high stakes. All the stuff you’d want to see in this kind of story. Yee delivers in a big way as she creates this genre hybrid, truly putting together the best of both.

My one down note was that the story takes its sweet time getting moving. The first hundred pages, the pacing is slooooooooooow. But the characters are written in such a charming way that you still want to keep moving along and see where the story takes them. That’s good writing right there.

The final page ends on a “cliffhanger” though it is a harmless one. If you didn’t read the next book, you still got a complete story here. But with something this much fun, why wouldn’t you – or the tween girl in your life – want to read the next one?

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