STU BEAR

STU BEAR IN THE 25TH CENTURY
Written by Jeff Bushell and Drawn by Beware of the Art Studio
Published by Viper Comics

Reviewed by Marc Mason

The world’s laziest bear winds up with a hibernation he couldn’t have begun to imagine when an avalanche freezes him in ice and he isn’t thawed until 12,400 years in the future in STU BEAR, an odd new graphic novel from screenwriter Jeff Bushell.

Stu likes his honey and he likes his sleep, and that’s close to the extent of his life, much to the dismay of his brother Al. But as much as Al would like to bring Stu around to his way of thinking – that hibernation is unnecessary, and by eliminating it, bears could accomplish untold great things with those four months of their lives back – Al can’t argue too hard because he loves the big idiot. Plus, he has the best-trained and most accurate sense of smell for detecting honey and a built-up tolerance for bee stings. But it’s Stu that gets the surprise of his life upon waking up from deep freeze – his brother is now hailed as a visionary, and animals (particularly bears) have taken dominance over the earth while man has devolved.

There’s a lot of charm in the premise of STU. He’s a cute character, and you can see that Bushell has written him as he would the lead in a kids’ movie. The plot sticks close to family dynamics, even after Stu wakes up in the future, making it an all-ages read. And the art is harmless, if wanting. It’s a little stiff, and the colors make many of the panels and the depth of image look weird, even incomprehensible.

But my primary beef? The title. The interior of the book (page 11) says Stu wakes up 12,400 years later. That’s not the 25th century. The press release says he wakes up 500 years later. That’s not the 25th century, either. Only the back cover of the book gets it right, saying 400 years. A little proofreading goes a long way, fellas.

NUNS WITHOUT GUNS

NUNS WITHOUT GUNS
Written by Jason M. Burns and Drawn by Erich Owen
Published by Viper Comics

Reviewed by Marc Mason

The Church has done many things to fight evil over the centuries, and has many great warriors do battle in God’s name. But Sisters Marie, Francis, Wendy and Bertha are different than most; the majority of religion’s staunch defenders have always been men. It’s a new era in doing the Lord’s work, and these four nuns are just the ass-kickers to do the job. However, when a cult takes a stab at raising the Antichrist, even these mighty soldiers might just have more on their plate than they can handle.

I’ve referred to Jason M. Burns as “master of the high concept” so many times that even I want to slap me, but he truly is and proves it again with NUNS WITHOUT GUNS. Like much of Burns’ work, it reads like a summer tentpole flick put to paper; catchy concept with a clever hook, characters that the audience can quickly and easily identify and root for, slow build to a pulse-pounding finish. All Burns usually needs is an artist that won’t get in the way of his story, and Erich Owen does exactly that. The pages aren’t flashy, the storytelling is solid (if un-dramatic), and the level of detail is mid-level. But nothing here offends the eye, either, and you can smoothly operate your way through the story for max enjoyment.

It’s also reasonably rare to find a modern piece of pop culture that approaches religion without a sense of irony or wariness; there’s a sincerity to NUNS WITHOUT GUNS that you might not expect from its title. That’s played out well on the last page of the book, when, given a chance to allow his leads to break character, they instead respond in the most appropriate fashion possible to their situation. Will this book challenge your perceptions or change the way you think about comics? Of course not. Will it entertain you for the time spent reading it? You bet. That gets my eight bucks every time.

TBIRD AND THROTTLE 0

T-BIRD AND THROTTLE #0
Written by Josh Howard and Drawn by Josh Howard and Otis Frampton
Published by
Viper Comics

Mitchell Maddox is America’s greatest hero. Once, he was merely a brave astronaut, but after a confrontation on the moon with some nasty natives, he wound up with a piece of alien machinery attached to his chest. And upon his eventual return home and a period of intense scientific examination, he was left with a dead wife and a shattered daughter. Now he uses the power of that alien hunk of metal to battle evil and safeguard the world from those that would cause harm. But before he can deal with a potential new threat to the planet from the moon men, he has to deal with something far more difficult: his daughter has just read the comic book they made telling his story, and dad had left out a few details over the years… particularly what really happened to her mother.

If you had to pick the five people who have defined Viper Comics’ actual comics output over the years, you’d pick Josh Howard, Jason Burns, the pairing of Javier Grillo-Marxuach and Les McClane, and Otis Frampton. So seeing two of them on a project together sort of reads like an all-star effort for the company. What surprises is the nature of the project; this book is far from Frampton’s charming kid-friendly magic series ODDLY NORMAL and miles away from Howard’s goth-horror DEAD @17. Instead, it’s a science fiction family adventure, a genre that neither creator has really worked in before. That alone makes it enough of an oddity that you want to keep an eye on it: how exactly will these two men do outside their established genius zones?

On first reading, I wasn’t completely sold on T-BIRD AND THROTTLE, as I thought it read a little too pat, too safe for my taste. But a second reading gave me a bit clearer look at it. There’s a certain sense of emotional ruthlessness revealed through Maddox’s actions and inferences over the final pages that hint at some depth waiting to be tapped. And the final page’s secret is a whopper. Ultimately, there’s a lot of room for this book to go in the wrong direction and be simplistic and dry, but on the flip side, these two talents have built up more than enough credibility to buy my faith and continued readership.

Marc Mason

VENDOR

VENDOR
Written by Kevin Abrams and Adam Moore and Drawn by Nicc Balce
Published by
Viper Comics

It’s the near-future, and as usual, everything sucks. In VENDOR, it sucks because of Moss. What’s Moss? It’s a nasty, painful, and fatal virus that consumes human flesh. This has left millions dead and millions of others scared of every little germ in the air. It’s also created extremely advanced technology for body part removal and replacement. That gets us to John Vendor, a black market dealer in organs and limbs, always on the search for fresh bodies to score new parts from. But when Vendor is asked to take on a job saving the life of a woman who may have cured Moss, he must deal with a deadly secret from his past and peer deep within himself to see if he has any moral fiber left.

So much of VENDOR works: the premise is fascinating, and it’s a fairly unique dystopian future, which is rare enough in science fiction. Vendor himself is an interesting guy, and the tech that surrounds him is captivating. Nicc Balce is a fine artist, as his own RANDOM ENCOUNTER demonstrated, and he sells the plot and settings well. In short, the foundations are solid. And 85% of the book really works.

But the end? Oi. No… just no. I don’t want to spoilt the climax of the book, but it involves your classic mega-fight between good guy and bad guy, and it’s so ludicrously off the rails that it nearly takes the rest of the book with it. It feels like Abrams and Moore were looking for a way to sexy-up the fight should the movie rights get purchased, but it’s a wrong move. Things were interesting enough, and character-based enough at that point, to carry the story to it’s almost inevitable conclusion. Had they taken a better path towards the satisfying character resolution in the final pages, I’d have recommended the book without reservations. Now my thumbs-up comes with hesitation- maybe you’d like the third act more than I did, maybe you won’t. Caveat emptor.

Marc Mason

ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES 1

ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES 1
Written by Dale Mettam and Drawn by Erich Owen
Published by
Black Mamba/Viper Comics

Traverse City, Michigan is known for many things. Such as… well, okay, not really. It’s more the type of place that gets populated by the Federal Witness Protection Program. It also exists to give Akron, Ohio something to aspire to. But beyond that? Nada. Except Killer Tomatoes. And whether it’s an innocent boy attempting to flee in his wheelchair or a nubile young woman going for a dip in the lake, the vicious vegetables seemingly cannot be stopped on their rolling rampage of death. It’s a feeding frenzy, but this time, it’s the tomatoes turning humans into sauce.

ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES is renowned for being one of the worst movies ever made, but it’s also considered a classic in its own strange way. Ludicrous beyond any ability to take it seriously, it, and the comic it now spawns, must be looked at solely as a comedy. And as it turns out, the comic is pretty funny. Mettam and Owen take the original film and turn it into a series of storyboards that maximize the gags contained in the script- given an actual “budget” (which, God knows, the movie didn’t have), they make the rolling red tide of death a bit more sinister, but they also enhance some of the funnier moments in ways film cannot. They also manage to adjust the timing of scenes and dialogue to give them a bit more “oomph.”

Don’t go into this one looking for story logic or brilliance of any sort- it is ATTACK OF THE KILLER TOMATOES, after all. But if you’re in the mood for a lengthy, absurdist non-sequitor that never lets up from beginning to end, or you’re just a fan of the movie, then I think you’ll dig this.

Marc Mason

THE RABID

THE RABID
Written by Jason M. Burns and Drawn by Guy Lemay
Published by
Viper Comics

Kevin usually has a fairly easy job; he’s a small town sheriff whose day usually revolves around minor paperwork, the occasional auto accident, and perhaps a stray dog. He also has to deal with the fact that he knows his wife has been sleeping with his best friend. But on one fateful afternoon, that ol’ stray dog starts biting the townspeople and the other dogs, turning all of them into raging, marauding, rabid zombies. Now Kevin has to find a way to not only keep his family together, but to actually keep them alive, as the population of rabid folks is exploding and no help is in sight. One by one, the remaining people gets bitten… so how long can they possibly hold out?

Master of the high concept, Jason M. Burns, strikes again with THE RABID, this time seeing him dabble in the horror genre. There truly seems to be no end to Burns’ ability to come up with screen-worthy plots. If I had a studio shingle, I’d put him on retainer and chain him to the keyboard. It seems to be Burns’ gift that he understands how to hit the beats on any number of genre stories, never limiting himself to one type of tale, and he never repeats himself. Certainly, THE EXPENDABLE ONE and DUMMY’S GUIDE TO DANGER bear no resemblance to THE RABID. Burns can extend himself.

This time around, he’s aided and abetted by Guy Lemay, who is another terrific find for Viper. Lemay is a true oddity in newer artists; when you look at his inspirational roots, it’s pure Paul Grist- something I really haven’t seen in anyone else. That give the book a really unique look and keeps the storytelling simple and moving at a solid pace.

My one complaint is that the plot to THE RABID sometimes feels a little too paint-by-numbers. Burns can rock the high-concept like nobody’s business, but the character depth here, and the conflicts, don’t set my world on fire. I want to see him stretch a bit more and show me some different tricks on the character end now.

Marc Mason

DUMMY’S GUIDE TO DANGER: LOST AT SEA 4

DUMMY’S GUIDE TO DANGER: LOST AT SEA 4
Written by Jason M. Burns and Drawn by Joe Eisma
Published by
Viper Comics

Alan Sirois and his ventriloquist dummy partner Bloomberg find themselves knee deep in corpses as their latest mini races to a conclusion, but if they aren’t careful, they could find themselves amongst the bodies. A rival ventriloquist and his dummy have taken to slaughtering the passengers on the cruise the boys have been sailing upon, and Alan’s girlfriend Teri is now missing. Punishment is certainly on its way… because Alan inevitably takes some, and he’s certainly looking to dish some out.

LOST AT SEA has been a little inconsistent through its four issues, partially because the supporting cast never quite took hold for me, but it does conclude in reasonably satisfactory fashion. Alan shows a bit more in the way of his true gifts as a detective, and Bloomberg suddenly feels a little more relevant when facing the villain(s) of the piece. Also, by removing Teri from the scene for a bit, we don’t have to ask the question of what the hell is wrong with her for sticking with this madman. The only thing that never really works is the art by Eisma; there’s never really a flow to the art, and the body language feels stiff.

As the book concludes, Burns leaves his puzzle pieces in such a place that you feel like he may be done with the characters, though there is certainly room for another sequel. If asked, I’d advise him to think hard about it; there needs to be a damned good story, especially in light of the game-changing events that close out the volume. Sometimes you have to know when to quit while you’re ahead- for DUMMY’S GUIDE, this may be that time.

Marc Mason

LOST BOOKS OF EVE VOL 1

LOST BOOKS OF EVE VOL 1
Written and Drawn by Josh Howard
Published by
Viper Comics

It is the beginning of creation, and God’s two chosen have been living peacefully in the Garden, not a care in the world. Until one fateful day, that is, when Adam disappears, abducted from Paradise. On her own, and lacking any knowledge of the world outside the Garden, Eve decides that she will go on a quest to find her beloved. Baffled and bewitched, Eve takes on demons, monsters, and other nasties in the hopes of finding her husband. But will the quest require the ultimate sacrifice: eating from the tree of knowledge?

As far as strange concepts for graphic novels go, EVE is right there at the top for recent memory. What Howard has done here is not set out to contradict the Christian Bible; instead, EVE sort of… supplements it. He also splashes in plenty of the Apocrypha to round out his tale. And, in its own strange way, it feels like a distant prequel to Howard’s DEAD @17 series. The difference here is that Eve is not quite a warrior- she knows some things, but she also knows that sometimes running away is the best possible result you can hope to achieve, and that’s quite a rarity in comics.

Eve is also pretty smart, and Howard sort of turns her into a character who defines “growing into her own power” making Eve something of a proto-feminist, even with her obsession about her husband. The book looks good, as Howard has really refined his work over the years. When I read the first issue of this in pamphlet format, it felt too slight, but as a completed story in a graphic novel, it reads just fine.

WULF AND BATSY 1

WULF AND BATSY 1
Written and Drawn by Bryan Baugh
Published by
Viper Comics

Jack and Diane. Bonnie and Clyde. Mickey and Mallory. Wulf and Batsy. Pop culture is replete with young men and women on run, living off their wits and outrageous fortune, and Bryan Baugh’s supernatural version is different mostly because the title duo aren’t lovers who spend their spare time humping the day away. Instead, they’re trying to escape from their own urges and deny who and what they are. Unfortunately, when Wulf frightens a young farmgirl, it’s going to cause untold havoc- some communities are a little more prone to accepting the strange and unbelievable than others.

There’s a lot to like about WULF AND BATSY; Baugh is a pretty decent cartoonist, and he has some Art Adams in his artistic DNA. He also shows a solid gift for detail and demonstrates a grasp on solid storytelling. Also, his attempts to do a little post-modern work on the “villagers vs. monster” tale generally works, and the story gains from its being set in now. Baugh also does his best to give you a reading experience that feels “full”; he doesn’t decompress at all, even when he’s using expository panels to move the plot forward. If I had a single criticism of the book, it would be on the dialogue end; it could use a punch up- these are monsters and nutty locals. Let’s add some wit to the proceedings.

Viper has quietly shown itself to have a gift for finding fine new talent over the past few years, and Baugh (who also drew THE EXPENDABLE ONE for the company) slides into that category nicely. WULF AND BATSY is a fine debut single- should be interesting to hear the rest of the album, ya know?

Marc Mason

THE MIDDLEMAN PILOT EPISODE

THE MIDDLEMAN: PILOT EPISODE
Created and Written by Javier Grillo-Marxuach
Directed by Jeremiah Chechik
Airdate: June 16, 2008 on
ABC Family

Javier Grillo-Marxuach has an extensive background as a screenwriter and producer. His credits include SEAQUEST DSV, THE PRETENDER, CHARMED, THE DEAD ZONE, JAKE 2.0, LOST, and MEDIUM. But in the world of Hollywood, nothing is a given, no matter how good you might be. Javi discovered this many years back when he wrote a spec pilot called THE MIDDLEMAN that didn’t get off the ground. Undeterred, and encouraged by comics maestro Paul Dini, Grillo-Marxuach took the pilot to Viper Comics and turned it into a four-issue miniseries and graphic novel that became one of the biggest indy success stories of the year when it came out. Now, in a glorious bit of “full circle,” the book has been optioned by ABC Family and makes its debut on the home screen next month. The question is: how much of the pilot turned comic made it back into the actual pilot? And the answer is, much to my surprise, about 98%. It’s quite astonishing, really.

The basic story remains the same, of course. Wendy Watson, fresh out of art school, is working a temp job at a DNA splicing company when a nasty monster made up of human body parts escapes and threatens her life. Unfazed by that turn of events, she catches the eye of The Middleman when he arrives on the scene to take the monster down. At the end of her rope, she later finds herself offered the job of becoming his new sidekick, joining his crazy world of battling comic-book evil, bantering with his snarky robot secretary Ida, and keeping The Middleman from putting the moves on her roommate. And her first assignment involves a super-intelligent ape that wants to become a mobster.

What made THE MIDDLEMAN comic so glorious the first time I read it was its sense of fun and adventure; the characters had fun being who they were, and their dialogue was razor sharp and loaded with laughs. At that point, I think I somewhat assumed that perhaps those traits were embellished once the property made it to print, but this pilot episode shows that to be untrue; almost every single line of dialogue from the graphic novel appears here in this episode. At times that can be somewhat daunting, but it comes down to having actors who can pull it off. And Javier and his production team really got lucky- they cast the series very, very well.

As the center of the series, Natalie Morales as Wendy pretty much has to carry the entire enterprise on her shoulders and she proves capable from the first frame of film she appears in. She dryly funny, carries herself with a sort of “jaded” body language, and possesses the keen self-awareness of the absurdity of what happens to her life. She’s also quite adept at whipping through the large chunks of dialogue she’s given. As a somewhat unknown, she also doesn’t bring any baggage to the part, ultimately making her an inspired choice. She made this episode work for me, period.

The Middleman himself is played by Matt Keeslar, and he is an immediate perfect choice from the physical side of things- he’s a dead ringer for artist Les McClane’s take on the character. But early in the episode I had some doubts about him. In his first couple of scenes he seems uncomfortable with what he’s doing, and he struggles with the larger pieces of script he has to deliver, using an odd cadence. It took me a minute, but I realized that it sounded as if he was mimicking Brad Pitt’s mannerisms from the OCEAN’S films. However, as the episode progresses, he seems to become more comfortable and his performance becomes a bit more natural. He also develops some natural chemistry with Morales, making you believe these two really could become close friends and co-workers.

The direction by Chechik is solid, as he does his best to make the pilot look more expensive than it was. He uses a number of effective wide shots to set scene and take the eye away from details that a close-up might jar the viewer. And again, he gets good performances out of his actors, keeping the focus more on the characters than on the odd things that are happening to them.

What is missing or changed from the comic version generally comes down to budget, and nothing really alters the story or the humor, so it does no damage. I was entertained by the episode, as I have been by the three volumes of the graphic novel series, and I was pleased to see something that ages 10-70 could watch together and enjoy. The one real challenge (beyond the Nielsens) the series faces is maintaining the weird; we’re getting thirteen episodes of this wonderful nonsense. Should be a lot of fun to see if the creative team can pull it off.

Marc Mason