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From The Beginning: David Bowie – The Man Who Sold The World (1970-71)

Essentials of the Era
Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” – BBC
Width of a Circle
All The Madmen
The Man Who Sold The World
The Supermen

Starting in 1970, David Bowie locked into an album-a-year rhythm he would maintain for nearly the entire decade as he left behind his more folk-influenced sound on Space Oddity and prepped material for The Man Who Sold The World. With this increased pace come necessarily briefer album cycles – Bowie would be on to the next era of material even before the final singles from this LP were released.

The Man Who Sold The World frequently gets lost between retrospective adoration for “Space Oddity” (not so big of a success at the time) and the three-album glam hits-capade that began with “Changes” from Hunky Dory. This marooned album had no terrific singles of its own. Nirvana did more to promote “Man Who Sold” as a song than Bowie did in the period. The period also occupies a peculiar sonic territory, with Bowie’s pre-Spiders band more interested in sounding heavy than glamrous despite Mick Ronson’s membership in both lineups.

The result is that most latter-day Bowie fans don’t know the music from this era especially well. That makes a deep dive into it all the more interesting … and challenging! This took me over a week to digest despite already having a familiarity with the LP.

bowie-1970Before The Man Who Sold The World

This era begins during the last: Bowie made his first appearance with The Man Who Sold band on the BBC on February 5, 1970, as he was still promoting singles from his second self-titled album.

This appearance was a full-length concert, though only about half those tracks are readily available today. Opener “Amsterdam” by Jacques Brel would later be recored on Pin Ups. Here, Bowie attacks it with verve, first singing in a fine theatrical baritone, but gradually growing more frenzied along with the acoustic guitar that drives the track. It’s not as though any of us are at risk of forgetting Bowie was a theatrical nerd (especially with his many alter-egos looming ahead) but it’s fun to think about how surprising this performance may have been to fans of the day. The host certainly seems a bit shocked by it.

“God Knows I’m Good” is less Dylanesque here than on Space Oddity, but its refrain is less indelible. The next sequence is lost – “Buzz The Fuzz,” “Karma Man,” “London Bye Ta Ta” and “An Occasional Dream.” We pick back up with the first of The Man Who tracks, “The Width Of A Circle.” This is a fascinating early glimpse into the track, which would grow to be impenetrable on the album. Stripped to its acoustic trappings it’s much more driving, but Bowie isn’t quite up to the howling vocal here. He warbles and cracks on the higher notes.

We then skip “Janine” and “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” for a vicious version of “Unwashed And Somewhat Slightly Dazed.” Here, the lower-fi sound of the radio session focuses the track’s fury beneath Bowie’s practiced vocal. Unfortunately, there’s no remaster of “Fill Your Heart” or “The Prettiest Star” – both would be fascinating. We do get a sprawling, eight-minute version of “Cygnet Committee” that’s perhaps a bit slighter than the album cut. Bowie’s highs are not as a clear, and his lows not as resonant. Finally, the show ends with “Memory of a Free Festival,” here just prior to its release as a single. However, this is more like the LP version than the fascinating single mix, with unadorned organ until the “sun machine refrain.” (A final take on “Waiting For The Man” is not collected.)

On the whole this session is unremarkable. Bowie is not in his finest voice, and “Unwashed and Somewhat Slightly Dazed” is the only song strong enough to leave a lasting impression. Indeed, it is the band unleashed on “Unwashed” that seems to best presage the heft of the impending LP despite being still months out from its recording.

The band would return a little over a month later, already fused into a more metal stomp. They show it off on a pulsing version of “Waiting For The Man” with nothing of Lou Reed’s strut (which gets a little weary by the close). Mick Ronson, in particular, is in strong form. “Width of a Circle” has grown hugely in the intervening month. Bowie’s vocal is massive and confident, and Visconti and Woodmansey are beginning to lock into the riffing and fills that would appear on the LP without overdoing them. The song had yet to grow its epic tale of gods and demons (more on that below), so this isn’t really a definitive take on it. A plain electric guitar version of “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” feels out of place even after the band kicks in after the “really you and really me” refrain.

The Man Who Sold The World – Released November 4, 1970

The original UK cover.

The original UK cover.

This might be a weird statement to make about a David Bowie record, but I find it hard to enjoy The Man Who Sold The World because so much of it feels insincere.

When is David Bowie ever really being sincere? He’s not known for his confessional lyrics, that’s for sure. Yet, I would propose there is an inherent honesty and weight in how he portrays many of his fantastic characters with real emotion. They matter to him, so they matter to us. Here, Bowie’s narrative creations feel like nothing more than window dressing to a squalling live band of Mick Ronson, Tony Visconti, and Mick Woodmansey, with Ralph Mace on synthesizers. Continue reading ›

From The Beginning: David Bowie – David Bowie AKA Space Oddity (1969-70)

Essentials of the Era
“Space Oddity”
“Unwashed and Slightly Dazed”
“Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud”
“Memory of a Free Festival part 1” (single version)
“London, Bye, Ta-Ta” (unreleased)

This is the third in a series of posts following my listen to David Bowie’s entire catalog from beginning to end. Last time, I listened to Bowie’s treacly full-length debut and discovered several gems (that were not on the album).

David Bowie’s 1969 had an auspicious start – while he recorded an ambitious promotional video to try to generate new label interest he simultaneously ended a serious relationship (perhaps during the actual filming). However, it was something that had happened just before those events that would define his year and even his entire career.

That something was his penning a song called “Space Oddity.”

Before Space Oddity – Early 1969

bowie_1969Early demos of “Space Oddity” from spring of 1969 show it had all the fine skeletal structure that makes it an arresting performance even today – the countdown, the layered “ground control” vocals, the drifting out in a tin can, and the extended break. A notable early demo features a live duo performance with Bowie handling the countdown himself. Yet, this was admittedly another curio – a gimmick song coinciding with increasing attention on the space race. Just as Bowie’s debut album couldn’t be shaped entirely around the theme of a giddy gnome, “Space Oddity” wouldn’t set the theme for the rest of its record.

After the recording of the LP but shortly before its release, Bowie appeared on the BBC for a three-song set. Only “Unwashed and Somewhat Dazed” saw radio play at the time, although its the other two songs that saw later release on Bowie At The Beeb.

“Unwashed” has a similar feel to “Space Oddity” to start with the major-to-minor strumming and chiming high electric guitars. It transforms into something much heavier as the band enters, thanks to a big, rubbery bass and heavy drumming. There is not an obvious hook, but it’s more enjoyable than the entirety of his debut. “Let Me Sleep Behind You” is more driven than the original, but the beat pushes past the distinct melodic hooks on the “let your hair hang down / wear the dress your mother wore” refrain. “Janine” has an southern-rock feel to it, with Bowie even effecting an American accent.

The sound was much hipper than Bowie’s previous incarnation. The band still had not found any special alchemy together, despite their time in the studio.

“Space Oddity” b/w “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud” – Released July 11, 1969

Bowie_SpaceOdditySingle“Space Oddity” is a singularly peculiar song. Everything from it’s slow fade up and wheezing stylophone, to its measured countdown leading to liftoff, to it’s insistent lack of choruses. David Bowie told many fantastical stories in the songs of his debut LP with Deram, but none so dramatic or immediate as this one. It’s the little touches, like the love to his wife and the oscillating flutes behind the “sitting in a tin can refrain.”

It also had the great fortune to see release less than two weeks before man first set foot on the moon. After a series of failed singles and a flop of an album, David Bowie was finally gaining notice on another song that could be accused of being a novelty, though this one thankfully did not include laughing gnome. While the song was not a hit in the US, it reached the top five in the UK.

The B-Side is an early acoustic guitar and cello take on the fantastical “Wild Eyed Boy From Freecloud.” It’s missing its first verse and orchestra to truly set its scope and drama, but this version (long unearthed until the Sound+Vision box set) is simply an astounding performance. I’d hold up Bowie’s “really you, really me” refrain here as one of his finest vocals of all time, and the cello has many intricate little passes to suggest the motion of the later version.

David Bowie AKA Space Oddity – Released November 4, 1969

For as many people who know “Space Oddity” today, few have heard another song from David Bowie’s redebut, which was later rechristened in name of its one hit – more massive in later years than it had been at the time.

The only other single from the album is the peculiar “Memory of a Free Festival,” which bookends the disc with “Space Oddity.”  It starts dirge-like, thrumming on a lone electric organ, perhaps an elegiac memory of the recent-passed summer of love. Continue reading ›

From The Beginning: David Bowie – The Deram Years (1966-1968)

Essentials of the Era
Sell Me a Coat” – David Bowie
Let Me Sleep Beside You (mono)” – David Bowie (Deluxe)
Silly Boy Blue” – The Lost BBC Tapes (bootleg)
In The Heat of the Morning” – Bowie at the Beeb

This is the second in a series of posts following a listen of David Bowie from beginning to end. Last time, I listened to Bowie’s earliest work, including material from before he christened himself “Bowie.”

After his brief but unremarkable sprint on Pye Records, Bowie signed with Deram Records. That’s not a typo of “dream” as I had assumed for years, they were really called “Deram.” The company was a subsidiary of Decca, who Bowie had auditioned for in previous incarnations.

He issued two singles with Deram prior to releasing his first full-length effort, then added some trailing work before being dropped and signed to Mercury to release another self-titled LP, later renamed to Space Oddity.

As a note, I’m using both Wikipedia and the book The Complete David Bowie to guide my chronological listening.

“Rubber Band” b/w “London Boys”

Promotional bio from the "Rubber Band" single. Click to view on the source site, bowie-singles.com

Promotional bio from the “Rubber Band” single. Click to view on the source site, bowie-singles.com

This was one of the first handful of records released on Deram, a close follow-up to Cat Stevens performing “I Love My Dog”/”Portobello Road” (bet you don’t know those two, either). They can be found on the second disc of David Bowie (Deluxe Edition).

Along with the “Bowie” name and the new record contract, there are a few other signs of future Bowie-ness on this A-Side. The voice is there, the low baritone straight off of “Rock’n’Roll Suicide.” Also, while this is still technically a sappy love song, the shift of focus from the girl to a related group that Bowie directly addresses telegraphs a future style to which he’d return frequently.

Rubber band
In 1910 I was so handsome and so strong
My moustache was stiffly waxed and one foot long
And I loved a girl while you played teatime tunes

Dear Rubber band, you’re playing my tunes out of tune, oh
Rubber band, Won’t you play a haunting theme again to me
While I eat my scones and drink my cup of tea

Granted, this is all accompanied by “oom-pah” brass band accompaniment, maybe connected with Bowie’s frequent covering of “Chim-Chim Cher-ee” from Mary Poppins? Who knows. Yet, focusing on the steely, controlled vocal you can easily imagine this as a much later Bowie cut. Maybe less brass, minor key… can you feel it?

B-Side “London Boys” masquerades as male retread of Petula Clark’s 1965 hit “Downtown,” and yet…

You take the pills too much
You don’t give a damn about that jobs you’ve got
So long as you’re with the London boys

A London boy, oh a London boy
Your flashy clothes are your pride and joy

…there is the subtle genius of this song. It sounds like it could be about a girl being seduced by London Boys, but it’s actually about becoming one of the boys. And, let’s be honest here: the seduction angle is still there. Was Bowie beginning to find ways to thread themes of his bisexuality into his work even at this early point?

“The Laughing Gnome” b/w “The Gospel According to Tony Day”

There’s something to be said for having the low-point of your fifty-year career during your third year in the business. This song is the worst. The literal worst. There is no worse song in Bowie’s entire catalog and, trust me, I know I’m going to be listening to some clunkers here and there. Continue reading ›

From the Beginning: David Bowie – The Early Years (1964-1966)

David Bowie, 1966. Photo by David Wedgbury.

David Bowie, 1966. Photo by David Wedgbury.

David Bowie was born on this day, forty years ago.

Not the person, mind you – his birthday was last week on January 8. No, I mean the name. The moniker that bloomed into a legendary persona and universal star. Indeed, David Bowie was first credited on a single called “Can’t Help Thinking About Me” on January 14, 1966. It was his fourth single, but his first as Bowie.

I’m pretty certain you’ve never heard of that song. I hadn’t even heard of it until this week, and I count myself as a rather large David Bowie fan!

It’s easy to fall under the mistaken belief that David Bowie emerged fully formed from his own forehead. If you’re a Greatest Hits fan, or just someone who has never fell down the Wikipedia hole too deeply, you’d be perfectly reasonable in thinking there was some olden-days EP containing “Space Oddity,” “Man Who Sold The World,” “Changes,” and “Life On Mars” and then Bowie as we all love him exploded into being on Ziggy Stardust.

That’s not the case at all. David Bowie spent eight years as a recording artist before the release of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars. He released a pair of glam albums before that. He had an entire folkish pastiche of an eponymous album prior to his more well-known eponymous album in 1969, later rechristened Space Oddity. And, even before that, for three years he issued a string of unremarkable vinyl singles. He began at the tender age of 17.

Thus, that is also where we’ll begin in my epic chronological listen to David Bowie. This post covers his first single in 1964 to material from before his first album in 1967. Continue reading ›

Review: Red One, Vol. 1 – Welcome To America by Dorison, Dodson, & Dodson

Terry Dodson’s art occupies a space between cartoon and cheesecake. His men are muscled and smirking, his woman curvy with cheshire smiles. With his inking wife Rachel adding a slick, bold line on all of his figures his work is positively animated. That makes him a tremendous artist for a prior gig on Wonder Woman, but strange fit for some of the more grounded Marvel titles he’s graced, like Uncanny X-Men and portions of last year’s event flop Axis.

What Dodson hasn’t done much of is creator-owned work – and, why would he with the time restrictions of an artist who is in demand for Marvel’s highest-paying projects!

Yet, here his is, collaborating with French author Xavier Dorison. Together they’re penning a Communist superhero invading America in the late 70s to preserve its hedonism, a take surely inspired by The Americans.

How did it hold up?

Red-One-Vol01Red One, Vol. 1 – Welcome To America 1.5 stars Amazon Logo

Written by Xavier Dorison with art by Terry and Rachel Dodson

#140char review: Red One is a misguided mis-mash of 70s-worship and Cold War fetishizing, supposing the commies would win if we stayed Hedonists. Disjointed.

CK Says: Skip It

There’s a very interesting premise here: The Cold War served the ruling class of Russia as much as that of America, and the best way to extend that was to make sure America was a land of increasingly liberal hedonists. What if America was suddenly gripped by an evangelical vigilantism that threatened to plunge the country into a conservative movement bordering on Neo-Fascism? What if Russia was willing to send in their best agent – Black Widow under another name – to disrupt the trend?

If you think that sounds like an amazing concept, you’re not alone – I think so, too! However, Red One never quite gets there.Xavier Dorison’s script and his direction of Terry Dodson’s animated panel work is disjointed, with word balloons that don’t quite make sense and actions that don’t quite track from panel to panel. What should be a rich mythology winds up a flimsy plot that barely keeps the pages turning in this outlandishly oversized tome – it’s the size of a 70s magazine, like the old format of Rolling Stone.

The size serves Dodson’s artwork well. It is bold and beautiful, with Rachel Dodson using a seemingly-slimmer line on her inks. Maybe that’s the size of the format, or Dodson handling his own colors (which are beautiful). Yet, even this beautiful oversized format has some flaws, among them mis-sized letter balloons and badly fit words – completely uncharacteristic of super-pro Clayton Cowles.

The true problem here might not be bad storytelling, but a flawed premise. While setting this book forty years ago gives it a chance to play in a historical context predating the dissolution of the USSR, the present day would be a better fit for the thematic context. A few touches of same sex relationships, sex-positive attitudes, and polyamory come off as lurid rather than thoughful. Even if you can make the leap to root for the Russian disruptors and against the cultish, prudish anti-hero The Carpenter (yeah, really, it’s that subtle), there’s the implication that Russia likes all this hedonism because it’s bad for America. That puts a oily film over all of it, even though Red One is weirdly okay with it all (because it totally makes sense that Russia’s top agent, trained for 21 years of her quarter century of life, would actually be a total party animal).

I don’t mean this to come off as some form of thought-policing. Your superhero book can be about the downfalls of redefinition of morality and still be good. The problem here is that there is just no nuance to Red One’s chauffeuring of a famous porn director while beating up Neo-Cons on her breaks.

Red One is the boring cartoon fairytales The Americans might tell their children before bed, and not one you should spend your time reading unless you are a prohibitive Terry Dodson fan.

Marvel Now In Hindsight: Every Comic Book Series, Ranked

marvel-now-bannerAfter Avengers vs. X-Men at the end of 2012, Marvel reloaded their entire line save for a handful of just-launched books and dubbed the era of titles “Marvel Now.” There have been a few incremental waves of additional launches since then, but the main spine of Marvel has been telling consistent stories since then – the Avengers and X-Men flagships, their big three Avengers heroes, and Spider-Man.

The stories haven’t only been consistent – they’ve been really good. Unlike the 2011 DC New 52 launch, Now hit the stands with nothing bad in the bunch. Even as some books declined as the period wore on, we got other amazing winners in the intermediate waves.

Now that we’re only weeks away from the next major period of Marvel where every book will be refreshed, I thought it was the right time to look back about what was so awesome about Marvel Now by ranking every book we got along the way – over 70 ongoing titles!

As with my Writer-Rankings last week, being low on the list doesn’t mean a book was bad – just that it’s not my top pick for you to spend your hard-earned dollars on.

The criteria: I’m a trade-waiter, so books had to release at least one trade by this week. Books from before Now only count if they made it through 2014. No series that were explicitly disclaimed as limited (short series that got cut off by Secret Wars do count). Two volumes of a book by the same author or with continuous story count as one entry – like Daredevil Volume 3 and Volume 4, both by Waid, or Iron Man and Superior Iron Man.

The final trades for these series were too late-breaking for me to evaluate them fairly, but I’ll add them into the order with the appropriate post-dated annotation when I catch up: All-New Captain America, Amazing Spider-Man Vol. 3, Bucky Barnes: The Winter Soldier, Deathlok, Savage Hulk, Silk, Spider-Gwen, Spider-Woman, Unbeatable Squirrel Girl, Uncanny Avengers Vol. 2, Wolverines.

Let’s get to it!

CK Says: Must buy!

Thor, God of Thunder + Thor by Jason Aaron

The pinnacle of what Marvel Now had to offer in every regard. Writing, character voice, plot, art – all of the above were the best they could be in this landmark run on Thor, which gave way to a historic makeover for one of Marvel’s biggest heroes. It’s like watching Thor as it’s own multi-part cinematic epic with a scope as large as Lord of the Rings. It has my highest recommendation.

Start with Thor, God of Thunder Deluxe Hardcover Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Silver Surfer by Dan Slott & Mike Allred

Utter perfection in every issue. A wry love-letter to the totally zany Marvel comics of the 60s, where space contained the most improbable things. It was a delight to see Dan Slott step away from his Spidey-mode and push his storytelling to the limits. It makes me wish he had the time and inclination to start up some indie comics, but this is even better – a classic, never-better take on a character who has gone a bit under-appreciated in the past few years. Oh, plus a dozen issue run of Mike Allred’s art? No way to go wrong there.

Start with Silver Surfer, Vol. 1

Storm by Greg Pak

Sometimes you see fans ask Marvel editors why a certain character hasn’t yet had their own series, and the reply is usually, “No one’s made the perfect pitch.” Greg Pak had the perfect pitch on Storm. This has everything you could hope for from a series starring the weather goddess and Wakandan ex-royalty, from humanitarian missions to hand-to-hand combat to thievery to clashing with the FBI. Pak executed every moment on this high-wire with precision, and artists Victor Ibanez, Alejandro Barrionuevo, and Neil Edwards gave a real world weight to Ororo’s adventures.

Get it all: Storm Vol. 1 and Vol. 2

Superior Spider-Man by Dan Slott w/Christos Gage

Who knew something so bad would feel so, so good? Spider-Man as a reluctant hero and a recovering villain made for some of the most page-turning issues in his recent history. Even as this All-New Peter Parker reversed his infamous Parker Luck, Dan Slott piled on the misfortune for New York City until the scales tipped and our Superior hero had to make some challenging choices when it came to his newfound success. They say that good stories sometimes put their characters through the worst, and never has that been both so enjoyable.

Start with Superior Spider-Man Deluxe Hardcover, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Deadpool by Gerry Duggan & Brian Posehn

I am not a Deadpool fan. I AM REALLY NOT A DEADPOOL FAN. This is a character that induced groans from me in every previous iteration, but Duggan and Posehn found a special magic in decrepit old Wade and turned him into one of Marvel’s most-readable heroes – yes, even with the gags intact. It’s hard to believe. Art from Tony Moore, Mike Hawthorn, and Scott Koblish was consistent, flashback issues were a hilarious bit that never got old, and we even found some weighty highs and lows between Deadpool’s marriage, his friendship with Agent Preston, and the reveal of his lost family. If you like even the idea of the Merc With a Mouth with a half-decayed secret heart of gold you must read this run.

Start with Deadpool Deluxe Hardcover, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Superior Foes of Spider-Man by Nick Spencer

Nick Spencer crafted a beginning-to-end farcical delight that wound up more of a Rubik’s cube than anyone would have guessed at the start. This sort of clever, indie-style book that elevates minor characters into majors is one of the things Marvel does best in the NOW era, and despite declining sales this book was every bit as clever as the similar tone and look on Hawkeye – and usually a lot more fun to read. Primary penciller Steve Lieber was the only real superhero on the book, delivering classy, pitch-perfect, gag-filled art for the majority of issues. Even fill-ins from James Asmus struck the right tone. A major success.

Get it all in the Superior Foes of Spider-Man Omnibus

Avengers Arena / Avengers Undercover by Dennis Hopeless

We all love seeing teens take up the mantle of our favorite heroes, but seldom do we ask, “What’s the price they pay?” Avengers Academy did a fine job exploring their scarring origin stories and PTSD, but it never touched on the vengeance a true villain could wreak on an impressionable generation of superheroes. Who would have ever thought that villain would be Arcade, the carrot-topped constant failure who habitually plagues the X-Men and Spider-Man for no reason other than his own amusement? Dennis Hopeless drew together dozens of disparate characters and themes to craft a Marvel-style Battle Royale or Hunger Games, yet there were twists within beyond either of those two works. Meanwhile, Kev Walker bloomed before our eyes from the steady-eddie from Thunderbolts to one of Hickman’s headline artists on Avengers! If only Hopeless got another 10 or 20 issues to extend his ideas on Undercover! Yet, even the aborted themes of descent and redemption there were crafted perfectly.

Start with Avengers Arena, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Hawkeye by Matt Fraction & David Aja

For all it’s lateness and idiosyncrasies, it’s hard to ignore the heart in Clint Barton as a unloveable screw-up with enough charm to get by and Kate Bishop as an unrepentant A-Student taking a test she can’t study for. Was it worth the wait for every issue? Maybe so, maybe not, but I don’t think anyone wishes that Fraction, Aja, and Wu were pulled off the book at any point to speed things up.

Get it all with Hawkeye by Fraction & Aja Omnibus

Magneto by Cullen Bunn

Here’s the pitch: Magneto, solo *kinda) – but good (kinda), without powers (kinda), and bald (totally) with a serviceable author (Bunn, who has crashed several series to date). Sounds like a surefire miss, right? Instead, it was a glorious, twisted, dark run that breathed life into a Magneto who has been humbled for many years. This run touched many parts of his long and somewhat-mangled history, from surviving the Holocaust in Germany to the genocide of mutants in E for Extinction. I was expecting a X-Men: First Class cash-in, but instead we got some of the best stories every written about this villain.

Start with Magneto, Vol. 1

Secret Avengers Vol. 2 + Vol. 3 by Nick Spencer & Alex Kot

A messed-up superhero story that didn’t quite require you to read every issue but improved if you did. Spencer and Kot were two of the only authors to innovate on a team book in a period of strong solo work across the Marvel line, and they did it by doing the unconventional – creating a team of heroes that couldn’t remember their deeds, and then augmenting the team with MODOK and a living bomb. Also, Deadpool. It was glorious, and the art – especially by latter-run artist Michael Walsh on Kot’s run, had an appropriately slight cartoonish bent (though never so much as the blocky covers).

Start with Secret Avengers, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Daredevil Vol. 3 + Vol. 4 by Mark Waid

As nimble as its title character, Daredevil is a title that hops genres and tones and never gets caught off-guard. A slight bobble at the end of each volume is no reason to be down on this all-time classic book, the first one in a long time to put a shine in Murdock’s smile and a devlish glint in his eye. It doesn’t hurt that the artwork was top-notch throughout, with some truly groundbreaking work from ARTIST at the beginning to define the look of the book.

Start with Daredevil by Mark Waid Deluxe Hardcover Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Loki: Agent of Asgard + Thor & Loki: The Tenth Realm by Al Ewing

Is it blasphemy to love a new Loki other than Kieron Gillen’s? If it is, then Odin is going to strike me down where I stand. Al Ewing’s genre- and gender-bending take on the god of mischief was full of smarts and smirks in every issue, and his artistic collaborators were always on their A-Game. An enjoyable riddle of a book that tapped into Hiddleson’s mischievousness while making Loki more relevant to the onoing story of Asgard than ever.

Start with Loki: Agent of Asgard, Vol. 1

Avengers Assemble by Kelly Sue DeConnick w/Warren Ellis

If Bendis’s multi-year addition to Avengers was giving a soul to a sometimes randomly collected team, DeConnick gave it a heart. There were so many small moments in this run where we saw the human connections that result from battling alongside each other for years. Whether it was the Stark vs. Banner rivalry, the Spider-Woman and Hulk playfulness, the Captains America and Marvel’s exasperation, or Black Widow’s ability to be the subtle social glue to get their best out of a team while never being the obvious “leader.” Every issue and arc here was massively enjoyable, and scratched an itch no other Avengers title has ever before quite hit.

Start with Avengers Assemble: Science Bros or visit the guide.

Angela: Asgard’s Assassin by Kieron Gillen & Marguerite Bennett

Kieron Gillen’s parting love letter to Loki and Asgard comes in this brisk single arc exploring Angela’s first solo adventure as a woman without a realm – not accepted within Asgard, and never truly a winged creature of Heven. What results is nothing you’d expect – an unusual tryst, a touch of darkness, and a best friend who is not all that she seems (nor is that sentence). If you’ve enjoyed any of Thor or Journey Into Mystery in the past few years but wished it had more of a female touch, this is it – especially thanks to awe-inspiring art from master Phil Jimenez and the heavenly Stephanie Hans.

Get it all with Angela: Asgard’s Assassin!

Ms. Marvel by G. Willow Wilson

Ms. Marvel was the major can’t-miss-moment of Marvel Now! It’s rare that Marvel creates a new hero from whole cloth, rarer still for them to debut in their own book, and even more shocking to see that book be given so much room to breathe without crossovers and tie-ins. As we roll into a second and third set of stories the bigger villain arc got less interesting and the interpersonal relationships got stronger. It will be interesting to see what G. Willow Wilson does with the next volume to set up a nemesis for Kamala.

Start with Ms. Marvel by Wilson Deluxe Hardcover, Vol. 1 or visit the guide.

Elektra by Haden W. Blackman & Mike Del Mundo

Finally, Elektra who is more than just a killer or just a killer pair of legs and sais! Blackmun’s Elektra was driven by her assassin’s code and a need to be right, and nothing else mattered. While every move seemed to entangle her further in a plot where she had no control, instead of seeing a defeated hero we met one who grew ever more determined. It made for a slick plot and Mike Del Mundo’s art could have been the best interiors of Marvel Now this side of Thor.

Get it all with Elektra Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 and visit the guide for more Elektra.

Keep reading for the books that I recommend and ask you to kindly consider, plus a few I think you ought to avoid.

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Review: Birthright, Vol. 1 – Homecoming, by Williamson & Bressan

Image Comics knows what’s up with finding readers outside of the Direct Market. Valiant, too. Really, everyone except DC and Marvel.

These companies realize that buying the first collection an untested property from an author you may or may not know is a risky proposition, and generally not something you’ll plunk a $20 down for. That’s why nearly every Image first volume trade paperback is a handy $9.99 – which puts it in the five to eight dollar range when you buy it online.

That’s the story of how I wound up with a copy of Birthright, Vol. 1 – a $6 gamble on a book with a beautiful cover that evokes Sword In The Stone with hints of more dire elements along the edges. I was completely unfamiliar with creator Joshua Williamson by virtue of him solely writing for DC after his first pair of creator-owned works, both short-form. That’s changed in the past two years, with Williamson writing a trio of ongoings for Image – Ghosted, Nailbiter, and Birthday (plus Robocop for BOOM!).

When I wrote up Nailbiter in last week’s new comic roundup and decided to grab the first volume (again: $6), I realized I had another Williamson book in my in box (an actual longbox) waiting to be read!

How was it?

Birthright, Vol. 1 – Homecoming 4 stars Amazon Logo

Birthright - Vol01

Written by Joshua Williamson with art by Andrei Bressan and color by Adriano Lucas

#140char review: Birthright is Goonies crossed w/Sword In the Stone plus something sinister, like Harry as an agent of Voldemort. Bressan’s art = perfection.

CK Says: Buy it!

Birthright is a batter of different genre tropes that baked up into something a lot tastier than its individual ingredients.

Birthright is primarily a Chosen One narrative in the Joseph Campbell model, like Star Wars and Harry Potter before it. Where it deviates is that we’re getting the story after the fact, and we see that part of the reason all of those stories end so pat is that the orphan hero tends to make some choices that haunt him after his victory. That’s the case here with young Mikey, who disappeared into the woods on an early birthday without a trace during a game of catch with his dad.

Here’s where creators Joshua Williamson and Andrei Bressen do something a little weird. They spend their start-up issues focusing on the human trauma behind a child who disappears, writing a family drama and a police procedural for a few pages before the fantastic main plot gets underway. It’s a risk. It gets a little too simple at points (random cop dude insists, “He is a security risk.” To what, exactly?). There’s a repeated rubber-band snap as we get yanked out of the fantasy-themed pages we crave and back into a dingy interrogation room. Yet, that tension and genre-hopping is what marks Birthright as not the hero story we’ve come to expect. It’s what makes this book a page-turner even before the biggest twist is unfurled.

The remainder of that success comes from artist Bressen and a remarkable set of colors from Adriano Lucas. Many indie comics are well-executed but don’t achieve the right color palette or gradient shading, but here Lucas breathes three-dimensional life into Bressen’s characters. They nearly leap off the page when they are in motion.

It’s difficult to say more without completely spoiling the super-punch surprises of the plot here. It turns out that the fantasy world has an ongoing relationship with Earth, as represented by several unusual visitors who have crossed over. They are working at cross purposes to each other, and it’s hard to know who to trust – especially if you are a family that has been shattered by grief for the past year. Would you believe anyone who told you what you wanted to hear and offered you a means of putting your life back together? Or, would you be skeptical of everything offered to you after such a tragic loss? How Mikey’s family answers these questions divides them down the middle.

Ultimately, the heroic tale and the familial drama are one and the same, and to enjoy them both you might need to forgive the police procedural portion of its weaker spots. What shines through each element is that the whole Chosen One business is unfair. It picks on kids who don’t know who they are or want to be and it tears families apart by necessity. Every one of the four family members has been damaged in the process, and with so much book ahead of us it’s unknowable whether they can help each other heal or if the wounds will just fester.

The dual-worlds narrative plus a last page reveal might leave you a little cynical that this is very much a post-Saga derivative. I’m optimistic. I believe in Williamson’s easy scripting and the consistently gorgeous visuals from Bressan and Lucas enough that I’m signing on for a full-priced second volumeBirthright has the potential to be a lasting epic if it can keep up the momentum of this first five-issue sprint.

Ex Machina is the worst movie I have seen in 2015

Fuck this misogynist racist bullshit right in its ruddy white male ass. That's my rating.

Fuck this misogynist racist bullshit right in its ruddy puckered white male ass. That’s my rating.

E and I haven’t watched a new movie in a month or more between busy-ness and trying to maintain our new midweek no-screen night policy. Tonight we were excited to relax and watch a new arrival from Netflix. We picked Ex Machina.

I don’t know if I can name any other movie that has made me as angry. At least, not this year. I fundamentally disliked other recent critical darlings like the stupefying Snowpiercer and the ludicrous Gone Girl. In the same vein, Her was terrifically average. In all three cases I left with something to discuss rather than just wasted time and a void of seething rage.

I’m not sure if the rage is due to me finding the movie so awful and downright problematic, or because I discovered that it ranked anywhere from 70-93% approval on critic aggregators. Critics are supposed to dissect this nonsense, not endorse it.

Here I am to dissect it for you. There might be spoilers from here on out, because I really am hoping you’re not going to watch it.

The basic premise is that a reclusive Steve Jobs type of character (the Creator) plucks one lucky winner (the Tester) from his company to visit him in his isolated R&D living space, where he is single-handedly developing and constructing an AI. The lucky winner will conduct a week-long Turing Test to evaluate the success of the current model for reasons that are unclear.

Its an interesting premise if there is somewhere to take it. Will the AI adapt? How does the Creator feel about his creation? Will it make the Tester question his humanity?

Ex Machina feints in all of those directions but mostly stands in one place. The AI doesn’t adapt – in fact, it behaves exactly as the creator expects, every time. The Creator is a one-note always-right asshole from an actor delivering all the nuance of a cinderblock, so there goes the question of his feelings and any satisfaction you might derive from the answer to the first question. And, what could have been a terrific plunge into existential terror for the Tester is addressed by a brief attempted suicide montage that apparently resolves all of his concerns and then we don’t have to keep worrying about it.

If that was all that was wrong with the movie, we could simple call it weak and leave it at that. There is so much more.

First, the movie nails its achievement in CG and production design, but other areas of technical performance are a flatline. The sound design is awful. It wants to be both aspirational and claustrophobic, but it’s just bland and buzzy. The cinematography had consistent problems. There were some weird framing and focus-pulling choices early on that I thought were deliberate, but as they continued through the movie I decided that, no, they were just inept.

However, the biggest technical flub is the acting. It was terrible. The Creator was in mustache-twirling mode the entire movie. I suppose that’s largely the fault of the script, but I still believe there could have been sort of motivation within the asshole rather than playing him like a SNL caricature of the worst boss ever. The AI actress was mushy at best, trying to sketch an arc from stoic machine to perky robot to steely automaton but mostly just mumbling and staring with sleepy intensity. The Tester is a relatively charming actor (Bill Weasley, actually), but he didn’t create much emotional life for his character. When he confesses that his parents died and that’s why he learned to code, the scene is so flat and unaffecting that it could have been cut if it wasn’t part of the awful punchline that tries to gotcha in the final scenes.

Which brings us to the script and all of its many faults. It starts with the terrible, stilted exchange between Creator and Tester when the latter first arrives. It’s like writer/director Alex Garland has only ever read about people speaking to each other and never witnessed it for real. (See what I did there? No? Good, that means you haven’t watched the movie.) This disconnect meant every scene between the two men felt like it might finally be the revelatory one where they cut through their awkwardness but, no, the awkwardness was the script, not the relationship. Even when they have their reckoning and we should have felt something between them, it’s still as stilted as ever.

Then, there is the first Turing Test session. It’s a bust. That the Tester didn’t walk out and just say to the Creator, “Sorry, dude, back to the drawing board!” was super-puzzling. Later, the script tries to make some sort of point of this by having the AI ask the same questions of the Tester to watch him stammer through the answers. It was clumsy and self-correcting as if the prior exchange was already committed to film – like a TV show that is trying to retcon an earlier blunder.

It is so attractive to think of the Tester as a potential machine because the script is so bad. If his fumbling suicide attempt had actually taken the movie in that direction, we’d say, “Oh, that’s why!” about the beginning of it and forgive it for Shyamalan reasons. As for why the Tester develops a crush on the AI and then needs to help her escape purely for ethical reasons, that all happens just because it has to happen and because he’s a “good person” and the AI is sure he’s not lying about that. There’s no real reason for any of it. His speech that more or less introduces the Cave Allegory to the AI (who should know about it, she is built on a search engine) goes toward explaining his actions, but all of his reasons are told and not shown.

Now we’re in the middle of a movie with three characters it’s impossible to care about, except for the tiny inkling that the Tester may actually be the AI and that’s what we’re testing here. Ah, but there is a fourth character – a subservient (of course) house-maid and (of course) sex slave who is an Asian female (of course), who is a little clumsy except when she is doing sweet 70s dance choreography or lounging around with her breasts out, as she is wont to do.

Here’s the thing, shitty filmmakers: You can make the argument that the particular awful Creator character would choose to both idealize and abuse a woman of Asian looks (not descent, mind you, as she’s descended from a can-opener), but if you’re NOT going to build that profile into your character then what you’re achieving on screen is just sexist, misogynist, racist crap. The Creator has contempt for everyone, but never once does that come out in him being sexist or racist – which means the hangup is the filmmaker’s, not the character’s.

Oh, and don’t think it escaped me that the one AI model we see footage of the Creator dragging around like an inanimate object just happened to be skinned as a black woman. Total coincidence, right? The first model is nude and blonde with just a polite touch of pubic hair, and we never see her harmed or retired. Then, a Black model never gets a face and just happens to need to be dragged around limply as though she had been beaten to death. A subsequent Asian model with slightly harder features is also defiant but she is kept at a distance and destroys herself in the process. Then the idealized Asian model with delicate features was subservient and perfect in actions – but not in intellect! Back to the white girl drawing board!

We learn about this in a single stomach-churning montage (but, don’t worry – these are objects, not women!) that cuts directly to the subservient Asian model in a sexual pose. We get to ogle the obsolete women’s fully-nude full-length bodies repeatedly for the rest of the film – because of course they still have their full skin and carefully threaded pubic hair and carefully sculpted pubis mounds as they are kept in their closets, and of course the camera must linger on these details carefully. Never you mind that the Creator explains that the brains are really the only thing he is significantly tweaking between models. He’s definitely going to vary the body types and races because, you know, reasons.

Here’s an astounding question – why did any of these models have skin on them enough to show their bare breasts to begin with if they were such early versions? Our main AI character is in a sleek carbon-fiber body that she eventually wraps flesh around, but it’s a massive plot point that she has very little skin. Yes, that’s partially because she’s a bit of a decoy, and the point is to see if the Tester can get past her semi-human appearance (and the human part is specifically modeled on faces he’d react to). However, why did previous models have skin at all? What were they of a race, if not just exploitation and as objects to express violence against? Why were their races varied at all? Why weren’t they colored blue or green?

Here’s the honest answer: Because there is nothing smart or challenging about Ex Machina. It’s main attribute is that it is a white male power fantasy about white men having power over each other and everything else in the world. The AI doesn’t win, as the movie manipulates us to try to feel in its final shots. Really, each of the men won and so also lost, and as a fringe benefit a woman created like Eve from a rib got to enjoy the spoils of their victories by continuing to act out the programming given to her by her Creator – because man always gets his way in the end.

There are myriad ways this movie could have been a thought-provoking success even with its one-note script. A gender or race swap of any character would have made it more interesting even with all the same words because the power dynamics would have changed. Leaving the Tester being AI more open-ended or handling it with more care would have been interesting. The Creator actually having any emotions at all could have helped – you don’t even get the sense he’s very invested in the outcome of his success.

Even without any of that, this movie could have been an enjoyable if it didn’t wear its utter malice towards women of color on its sleeve. Want to see a truly disturbing movie about two people locked in a house and manipulating each other? Try Hard Candy.

Ex Machina – .5 stars

 

Review: Talking Is Hard – Walk The Moon

I am terrified that Walk the Moon are going to be a one-hit wonder.

Let’s be honest – “Shut Up and Dance With Me” is absolutely that kind of song. A “867-5309” or a “Jessie’s Girl” or “Take Me Home Tonight,” an exuberant male anthem of sudden and unrequited affection that might not last past its consummation, complete with a shimmering and anthemic chorus and a quick solo into a refrain. It feels like that.

I’m terrified for them, because it’s clear they did it intentionally. They do it again and again on Talking Is Hard. I added it to my collection begrudgingly to learn the single for our cover band, and after one listen it became the first LP to supplant 1989 in the “unadulterated pop perfection” category that the most earwormy albums scratch for me.

Opener (and new single) “Different Colors” feels very of-this-moment and modern rock-y. You know the thing: snotty vocals, throbbing synths intertwined with guitar, wordless falsetto hook. There’s something about the refrain, “this is why, this is why … we bite the bullet, we know the kids are right.” It’s something more than the now of modern rock. It’s like Third Eye Blind crossed with Duran Duran. They hit the latter harder on “Spend Your $$$” but it also has a certain Talking Heads quality with the repeated breaks into falsetto, with a little flavor of “Psychokiller.”

The lack of surprise is the surprising thing about this album. It’s of this moment, but it’s not about trends. Yes, there’s “Portugal,” where the synths quote the vocals and visa versa so many times that you’ll lose track of which is doing which at what point in the song. Yet, even there is the plaintive, “Take me with you, ’cause even on your own you’re not alone.” Nicholas Petricca’s voice is pliant and sweet, with just the right amount of explosive belt before an able and imperfect falsetto, in the pop-crossover male mold set by Brandon Flowers last decade.

Just as the guitar intro to “Shut Up and Dance” is pure Edge with the churning arpeggio atop a sparking delay effect, and just as it apes those infatuated 80s anthems, the entire album is a careful study in wearing your influences on your sleeve. “Work This Body” pure Paul Simon without the self-awareness of Vampire Weekend, a well they hit again on the chorus of “Sidekick.”Aquaman” is almost a straight up cover of “Sexual Healing” via its canned drums and synths, but there’s something so “In Your Eyes” about each phrase of the melody.

Only occasionally does it get so by-the-numbers anthemic that you could be a little cynical about it – on the very OK Go “Up To You,” the post-Franz Ferdinand “Down In The Dumps,” and the by-the-numbers single “We Are The Kids,” but if those are the weak tracks on your album you are doing something very, very right.

Walk The Moon is doing something very, very right. I stand in the kitchen and debate with spirit what ought to be the next single. Every song is mentioned. I hum and whistle the hooks on my walk to the bus when the songs are not even on. I am still not sick of “Shut Up and Dance With Me” despite listening to it 100s of times to get the rhythms just right for our cover, but it is no longer the song I am most excited to hear on this album.

You can be a band that wants to sound 80s, or you can be band that knows the playbook of a decade so back-to-front that your album feels like a piece of it despite being completely modern as well. That’s what Talking Is Hard is – and it’s an instant classic.

Honestly, I don’t think I need to be too worried about the one-hit-wonderdom of a band who can string together 11 potential singles on a 12 song album. I think I’m less terrified for them as I am for myself, because I need other people to understand how perfect the album is and mythologize it they way they do other single-laden breakthroughs like Jagged Little Pill or Songs About Jane. It’s that good.

Review: The Divine OGN

While I aspire to not judge any proverbial books by their covers, I don’t think it is such a bad thing to find a proverbial book’s cover interesting. That’s how I found so many interesting artists to listen to in the 90s – I’d just buy the CDs with the most interesting artwork.

In this case we’re talking about an actual book – The Divine. It was nothing I had heard of before from creators who were strangers to me and a publisher I don’t own a single book by. The two boys on the cover had a sort of liquidity to their poses, and they also reminded me a bit of Jamie Hewlett’s artwork for Gorillaz. Intrigued, I checked out the description, which ends with this line:

What awaits him in Quanlom is an actual goddamn dragon.

Clearly, I bought the book.

The-Divine-CoverThe Divine OGN 3.5 stars Amazon Logo

Written by Boaz Lavie with artists Asaf Hanuka and Tomer Hanuka.

#140char review: Divine from 1st Second press…a stunningly illustrated OGN w/dirt beneath it’s nails. I’d’ve liked it more if it paid off more early promises

CK Says: Consider it.

Whatever I was expecting from The Divine, I certainly got something completely else.

It’s a book that unfolds in parts, and you aren’t entirely sure what you’re reading until you are firmly in the middle. It it a story about Mark and his explosives? About his impending fatherhood? About the balance of domesticity and adventure, responsibility and risk-taking? Or, about neglect on an international scale? Or, is it really about a dragon?

Yes to all of that, even if those themes don’t play out so literally as they are introduced in the opening pages (dragon included). Instead, Mark’s trip to the fictional, wartorn country of Quanlom works as an allegory, both in his own life and for the reader. Does it all really happen the way we both witness it, with exploding body parts, clay soldiers brought to life, and fearsome dragons invisible to most men? Or, is that what Mark needed to see? The book gives a clever, blink-and-you’ll-miss it out that lets you consider just how much truth there is to Mark as our limited first person narrator.

All of that comes from a very literal inspiration – an indelible, tragic photo shot by Apichart Weerawong of a pair of Burmese twin boy turned unintended warlords, supposedly imbued with magical imperviousness. Their only magic was in occupying a dark spot in the world’s vision, a space open to intervention but impervious to compassion. (They have since departed, separated, and reunited.)

Photo by Apichart Weerawong.

Photo by Apichart Weerawong.

There is more magic than that in The Divine, and to believe the authors’ note it is out of necessity to give a satisfying narrative to how two boys like these could be put in such a tragic position (because the real story is too terrible to replicate faithfully).

That magic is the magic of the land and of the mysterious and powerful visage of Leh, and they are both imbued with it and in in awe of it. Mark is a creature of destruction but also newly a part of creation – the second is how he reconciles one last massive act of the first before settling down in the deceivingly named Eden. (Says Rachel, “You seriously think they’d call a nice place Eden?”) He finds himself playing out this push and pull as he first negotiates with his lunkhead ex-military co-worker Jason and then later sympathizes with the tiny warlords who have aligned against him.

Divine‘s artwork is – well, I won’t say the obvious, but it’s quite perfect. Despite not looking much like it, it reminded me constantly of Robbi Rodriguez’s Federal Bureau of Physics. I think it’s mainly due to the figures and the details.

The Hanukas’ people are remarkably realistic, sometimes with a slight twist, just as Rodriguez presents a series of verisimilitudinous but mismatched caricatures. This is best expressed by a beautiful and horrific local news anchor who occupies two frames but might haunt your dreams with her broken smile. All of the faces of The Divine have that crooked truth to them. The Hanukas have captured that split-second gawkiness of a face that is handsome when in motion as well as a camera, and that makes their people shine.

The-Divine-InteriorMeanwhile. the surrounding environments are absolutely haunted with detail. In one panel of Mark’s living room my eyes dwelled on the bifurcated plug of a television and a unattractively-placed smoke detector. Later, in the mountainous countryside of Quanlom, their landscapes are liquid. Trees and mountains look like a sluice of melted wax, with highlights dripping across them. As the magical nature of the book increases, so does that liquid, which makes a late change back to reality feel all the more square as a result.

If there is a downside to this quick read it’s that not every detail you pick up on early in the book is paid off in full. Rachel is quickly made into a round character and then left behind, though her actions are crucial to the story. A strangely compelling exchange about a photochromic set of glasses is never recalled. Jason’s cryptic obsession with Quanlom morphs into a scenery-chewing obviousness. Mark’s skill with and fear of explosives is central to the plot, but his facility with them is secondary.

None of that takes away from the experience of the novel. If anything, it will compel you to re-read it, searching for links as you parse the allegory within the allegory. You could spend weeks picking out the fine details of the artwork, but it would be a mistake to not also dissect fine gradations of meaning in the plot. T

his is not a read once and love it kind of book, but if you are willing to let a graphic novel sink in it’s the perfect choice for you.

What came before: from the Hanukas: Bipolar collected as The Placebo Man … from Asaf Hanuka: The Realist … from Tomer Hanuka: Overkill & Philosophy in the Boudoir

You might also like: Federal Bureau of Physics Vol. 1 and Vol. 2 (similar art with low-fantasy sci-fi twist on reality)

Review: Magneto, Vol. 3: Shadow Games

It took 20 years from Magneto to go from his first titled comic to his own ongoing series!

It took 20 years from Magneto to go from his first titled comic to his own ongoing series!

There are certain Marvel characters that you probably assume have had at least one ongoing series after four or five decades, but they can sometimes surprise you. As an example, Black Widow didn’t get her first ongoing series until 2010 despite being around since the 60s.

Magneto falls into that category for me. When his series was announced as “his first ongoing title” at the end of 2013, I did a double-take – fifty years and no ongoing? Yet, my comic collection tells me it’s true: the Master of Magnetism has had a handful of mini-series and one-shots, including his first – a beautiful, foil-covered affair that I have in mint condition somewhere in my attic.

Once that surprise wore off, cynicism wore in. Author Cullen Bunn has been hit and miss with me on his Marvel work, and his hits have been female-driven stories in The Fearless and Fearless Defenders. What could he bring to a Magneto whose motivation and powers were both feeling a little watered down from him playing second string to a resurgent, insurgent Cyclops for the past few years? Would this simply be a movie-fervor cash in with a hunky Fassbender style Magneto staring moodily off into the distance and pulling out people’s fillings?

Yesterday I caught up with the third volume of his edition…

Magneto, Vol. 3 – Shadow Games 45star Amazon Logo

Collecting Magneto (2014) #13-17. Written by Cullen Bunn with artists Javi Fernandez and Gabriel Hernandez Walta and color artists Jordie Bellaire and Dan Brown.

#140char review: .@cullenbunn’s Magneto v3 is must-read! A distinct un-@Marvel rhythm & deep story roots give Mags motivation. Herald of good to come on UXM.

CK Says: Buy it!

Magneto-2014-Vol03This is a chilling, down-tempo masterpiece of anti-heroic deconstruction. The only time I was tempted to put it down is to think about it before I turned another page! Cullen Bunn is making Magneto more fearsome and more human than ever, and it’s a compelling read.

The cleaner of Fernandez’s art in the first issue are a welcome site as the focus is on the mysterious Briar, wherein Bunn plays a Morrison-like game of building a sub-culture around villainy. If there were super-villains in your world, wouldn’t you be scouring flea markets for DVDs of their greatest destructions after the footage was pulled from YouTube as supporting terrorism? Would people be proud of their scars or angry? This is one of those perfect issues that implies those questions without every verbalizing them, and which deepens the suddenly quite-fascinating mystery of Magneto’s mysterious human benefactor.

Afterwards, Walta continues to lend a weariness to Magneto’s chapters with his sketchy lines portraying a certain rough-edged weariness, which Jordie Bellaire has long-since perfected a color pallet to accompany. Here we see Magneto turn on SHIELD after cooperating with them briefly in Uncanny X-Men. What follows is more interesting. Magneto is re-building some semblance of society on Genosha out of a lingering guilt that he’s let his species down. How to even choose the occasion of his deepest regret? Was it the slaughter just perpetrated by The Red Skull on the island? Or perhaps the genocide of millions of mutants in Morrison’s E is for Extinction. Or, were his failures manifest much earlier – during his first overt strike on US missiles during his original encounter with the X-Men and in his guilt for surviving the Holocaust? Some Nazi and Holocaust imagery here is truly nightmarish, but only once does it feel present purely for shock value.

What’s so fascinating is that all of our flawed protagonist’s decisions feel right – it’s what you might choose in the position of a beleaguered former super-villain, right down to the shocking final choice he makes to resolve the volume.

Bunn’s dissection of Magneto’s extended history feels inspired by James Robinson, who carefully disassembles all things Golden and Silver aged to construct his stories. Maybe Bunn was capable of this all along and never had a character with a rich enough tapestry of stories to draw from. Either way, against all odds Bunn has made Magneto both a nuanced character and a must-read series. If you’re not already excited for him to helm the next volume of Uncanny X-Men headlined by Magneto, then you absolutely must read this book!

What came before: Magneto, Vol. 1 – Infamous 30star >> Magneto, Vol. 2 – Reversals 40star

What comes next: Magneto, Vol. 4 – Last Days >> Uncanny X-Men, Vol. 4 (begins in November!)

You might also like:

Ranking Madonna’s Rebel Heart, track-by-track

madonna-rebel-heartAny week that includes the release of a new Madonna album is a national holiday for me, and this past week’s release of Rebel Heart was the most-exciting Madonna holiday of all time.

In its Super Deluxe format, Rebel Heart is a 23-track album – Madge’s longest-yet. By itself, that’s cause for celebration – especially given that her early 00s LPs were just 10-tracks a piece! Plus, due to various pre-release leaks, there are another 16 songs from this album cycle in various stages of completeness floating around the internet.

I’m typically not too interested in leaked albums – whether the LP is finished or not, I know I’ll buy it when it comes out, anyway. However, in this case the first leaked tune was the title track, a curious acoustic and strings composition that really piqued my interest for the album as a whole.

With the album in-hand and digested, I realized the final version of “Rebel Heart” was pretty distinctly different than the outstanding leak, and I sought out all the other demos. That’s what brings me to this best-holiday-ever. Not only does that yield 39 total songs – a triple-album bounty – but it’s a rare chance to appreciate Madonna’s songwriting and production process by comparing demos to the final tracks. And, even more amazing – there’s nothing truly bad out of the 39!

(Before you ask: No, I do not have the demos to share with you. Just Google each track name and “Madonna Rebel Heart Demo” and you will find some means of hearing them.)

You should know a three things about me:

  1. I have been a Madonna fan for as long as I can remember, which happens to be around the time of Like a Virgin’s release.
  2. I have been a musician for considerably less time than I’ve been a Madonna fan, but each influences the other.
  3. I have been known to like some of the odder songs in Madonna’s catalogue. I love I’m Breathless and American Life. I love Love Song and Bedtime Story.

Now that you know what you’re getting into, let’s begin.

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Comic Book Review: Marvel’s Infinity #2

Jonathan Hickman and the Avenger’s writing and editorial team are turning linewide crossovers into highly choreographed dance before our very eyes.

From the relatively staid Infinity #1 sprang Hickman’s own Avengers #18 and New Avengers #9 – one a space battle that forged unlikely allies, the other a civil war between Earth’s remaining mighty heroes. From Avengers #18 spun Kellie Sue DeConnick’s two-sided coin of Avengers Assemble #18 and Captain Marvel #15, following two Avengers Quinjets into and out of the battle through the eyes of two best friends separated by the gulf of space.

They were four highly enjoyable comic books. The coordination between Avengers, Assemble, and Captain Marvel was nothing less than extraordinary – each one mirrors scenes from the other to construct a prismatic view of the same battle.

That brings us to the second entry in the main event – Infinity #2. Would it play out yet another dimension of the same space battle? Would it breathe some life into the characters from the prior issue? Would the teenage angst of the art improve?

Let’s find out.

Infinity 0002Infinity #2 of 6  

Script and graphic design by Jonathan Hickman. Art by Jerome Opena & Dustin Weaver. Color art by Justin Ponsor.

Rating: 3 of 5 – Good

#140char review: Infinity #2: The plot picks up as a still impersonal story snaps between Earth & space but it’s Opena’s portion of art that makes this epic.

CK Says: Consider it.

Infinity #2 is a thriller from its opening pages, and writer Jonathan Hickman can’t even take all the credit.

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Marvel needs to back up a Brinks truck to the front door of Eisner-winning artist Jerome Opena to ensure his participation on big event books for many years to come. Surely his highly-detailed, cinematic art takes a steady hand and long hours to produce, but every damn frame of it in this comic book is utterly gorgeous – especially wall-worthy recaps of the battles shown in New Avengers. Justin Ponsor’s colors ground Opena’s lined work, adding to its depth and texture.

I suspect this is the sort of comic art movie-goers are hoping to find when they crack open an issue or buy it digitally. Marvel can’t afford to have this sort of weary realism grace the pages of every book – nor would that be appropriate. But it’s a welcome delight after events handled by the slick, animated style of Coipel and Immonen. When it comes to The Avengers and massive events, readers deserve the best of that style – and right now Opena is its pinnacle at Marvel (along with veteran Mike Deodato on Hickman’s Avengers books).

Not all of the book is Opena – after a low-orbit prologue, he sticks to the space battles, leaving two scenes of Earth-bound action to compatriot Dustin Weaver. Weaver, whose notable slowness has marooned a second series of Hickman’s SHIELD two-thirds of the way through, is in solid form in his two segments if not a match for Opena.

As with Cheung before him, he draws terrific architecture and monstrous aliens. However, he also nails all of the human figure-work and faces – at least, for the men he does. He can’t seemed to decide how to draw Inhuman queen Medusa from panel to panel.

(And, let’s face it – his marquee panel of a determined Black Bolt looks like Grumpy Cat.)

Overall, the art is just a mugging Inhumans away from five-stars, but how does the story fare?

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Hickman is in finer form here than in the first chapter, deftly playing between the scenes of the four tie-in issues that intervened. A brief prologue showing an armed infiltration of a S.W.O.R.D. satellite base is isn’t strictly necessary, but wisely frames the action on Earth that we saw in New Avengers #9 to draw it into the context of this story. Opena’s panel’s of Sydren are perhaps the best he’s ever looked (and I think I own his every appearance so far). Similarly, Hickman and Opena dispatch of the three-issue space battle in a single page that expertly weaves in the action we’ve missed.

Scenes in the Inhumans’ floating city shows why Thanos’s interest have suddenly turned to Earth while The Builders’ obliterate societies across the galaxy, while in the intervening pages we see The Builders’ plot of destruction is not as one-sided as we thought.

In getting there, we view a series of thrilling still-frames from a kinetic space battle that casts our Avengers (and Claremont-created Gladiator of the Shi’ar) as a new pantheon of powerful gods to replace our creators of old. What use does an adult society have with its progenitors? Once we are given life, how long must we show gratitude and deference before striking our own path? The Builders seem to be contemplating these same questions, as they send a sole Ex Nihilo (meaning “out of nothing” – a concept intrinsically linked with creation) on a mission that runs counter to his life’s purpose.

This is the Hickman I know and love – interlacing questions of determinism and theology amidst his punch-ups.

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Yet, even as Hickman hits his narrative stride, he shows that he’s still adjusting to story-telling on comics biggest stage. Both the space battle and the wake of the Nihilo’s action are narrated by a removed speaker, keeping the reader at a distance from the heroes we so desire to get close to. In particular, their humanitarian mission to the victims of the Ex Nihilo comes off as a maudlin waste of pages despite Opena in full gravitas mode. Just a word from Thor’s lips to pair with his actions could have loaned these scenes the narrative heft to match their imagery, but Hickman misses the chance.

A final Earth-bound sequence by Weaver is all exposition to get us to the issue’s big reveal. It’s a doozy in terms of Marvel continuity, but it would have been heavier if we could expect a Secret Invasion style “Who could it be?” surprise in the coming issues. Unfortunately, the mystery doesn’t have a very deep bench of characters to draw its answer from. It would have probably been more interesting to make the subject a mutant than an Inhuman, which would have also made the X-Men more relevant to the event. Alas, Marvel has other intellectual property to flog in 2014, and Hickman dutifully steers the story in that direction.

We end Infinity #2 in a far more interesting place than we began, questioning the motives of a pair of seemingly-unconnected but equally-complex enemies. It’s clear this crossover isn’t going to be the two-front bash-em-up its lead-up suggested. Yet, one-third of the way through the event, it’s a fair question to ask if Hickman will ever make these stunning images and surprising developments truly visceral. For all the barbs thrown at past event-pilots Bendis and Fraction, they each knew how to give voice to fan favorite characters and twist a personal knife amidst the destruction of battle.

Though the story of Infinity has now proven its intrigue, I fear Hickman might stay removed from the action for the duration of this series. Maybe that’s how it should be … maybe that’s how we avoid a disappointing event. Even so, it’s also going to leave each issue slightly unsatisfying as we finish it.

Comic Book Review: Marvel’s Infinity #1

Monthly comic books are a bit like the local nightly news.

Whether a day is exciting or not, or whether you care or not, your local nightly news will find something to say about it. I haven’t seen it for over a decade, but some people watch it daily. Others just tune in when there is a big story to report on.

Ongoing comic books are a lot like that. They just keep happening, issue after issue, while comic book publishers find new things about them to hype every month. Some people devoutly collect each one, while others only buy stories with their favorite characters or creators.

Both in news and in comics, every once in a while there is a big event. A big news event is the kind of thing that causes TV networks to break into their regularly scheduled programming with an update from the national news bureau, and might keep you refreshing Twitter or CNN all day long.

Comic books have the equivalent in line-wide event books. These limited-run titles signal the arrival of a massive, world-altering story too big in scope to contain in a single 22-page issue. However, much like big news events, sometimes comic events are a lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, and after all the breathless coverage you wonder what the big deal was.

Which brings us to today’s topic…

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Script and graphic design by Jonathan Hickman. Pencils by Jim Cheung. Inks by Mark Morales with John Livesay, David Meikis, and Jim Cheung. Color art by Justin Ponsor.

Rating: 2.5 of 5 – Okay

#140char review: Infinity #1: Hickman reveals a long-term plot in steady pulses. As usual, Cheung’s heroes are all thin-lipped teens. Solid (if bland) set-up

CK Says: Consider it.

Jonathan Hickman excels at writing entire forests of plot and motivations, and in the end Infinity #1 is just a single tree.

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You can tell that important plot points are being set up here. You can feel that certain foreboding exposition is actually the punch line of a dark joke we won’t be told for several issues.

Yet, on its own Infinity #1 just doesn’t excite.

Part of this is a heavy reliance on alien concepts (literally and figuratively). While the Giger-eseque alien Outrider and an entire subjugated society of Ahl-Gullo are made from whole cloth, bringing Space Knights back from the brink of obscurity is a delight. However, the resultingly spare speaking panels full of heroes leaves this thick book feeling a bit light on content.

Of those, only Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Bolt get significant screen time here, and none of them are actually significant. The former two feel as though they appear just to appease whiners like me, though Black Bolt certainly makes his presence felt (and heard).

Jim Cheung is drawing both the bookends of this series, and those positions are likely the wisest choice. Cheung excels at creatures, cityscapes, gear, and explosions – all guaranteed in the opening and closing installments. His widescreen alien action will make you realize why comic book movies will never top the sheer audacity of settings and casting of actual comics.

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That said, films do have one up on Cheung: he’s merely average on faces. His heroes are no Robert Downey Jr. and Scarlett Johansson, handsome and distinct. Every last human being has the same thin-lipped, constipated teenager face – Cap’s just has a few extra wrinles. It made Cheung unmissable on Young Avengers and Children’s Crusade, but annoying here. His action is unclear, making the nimble escape of the Outrider a confusing muddle.

The real art-star of this book is colorist Justin Ponsor, who finds middle ground between Dean White reversed-white shading and Marvel’s infamously orange sunset color scheme. From the haunting red of the sunken eye-sockets of a tortured Caretaker to the dusty rainbow of superhero costumes pressed together in a chilly cargo hold, Ponsor finds the right tone for every page. It’s he who knocks it out of the park for the best splash pages of the book – the visceral vibration effect on Black Bolt’s seismic whisper and two full pages of Thanos’s shadowed face.

The lack of thrill in issue one isn’t a mood-killer. Hickman has yet to pen a disappointing arc of comics. The next two artists – Opena and Weaver – are two of the best in Marvel’s stable. And, in addition to five additional issues of Infinity, we’re also due for nine key Avengers issues to expand the plot – so, it’s likely Avengers #18 and New Avengers #9 will fill in the character beats I sorely missed in this issue. Plus, once we’ve traversed the entire forest, this particular tree will probably look much more interesting.

This isn’t a bad comic book, but you probably won’t go wrong simply picking up #2 when it hits in a few weeks.

PS: If you can, pick this book up digitally for a rather impressive Silver Surfer back-up story that isn’t present in the print edition.

Top 12 X-Men Collections of 2011 – New Material

Uncanny X-Men issue #534.1, from Uncanny X-Men: Breaking Point

Today I bring you a list of the best collections of new X-Men material released in 2011, which collect stories originally published over the last 18 months of comics.

Occasionally I wonder if comic collecting as an adult is merely a shameless attempt at recapturing our youth now that we have the budget to appreciate it properly – especially as I and many other fans (let’s be honest) fetishize premiere format reprints of the comics we coveted as a kids. (Last week’s post covered the best of those from 2011.)

Is there anything to this hobby other than rewarding our inner teenage geeks?

If there’s an answer to be found in X-Men comics, it must be on this list. These are the twelve new X-Men stories that captured my imagination like those old issues I still obsess over, and I categorize “the wonder of feeling like a kid again” separately from “trying to recapture youthful feelings with a dose of well-preserved nostalgia.” Read more…

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5. Uncanny X-Force: Apocalypse Solution
Collects Uncanny X-Force #1-4 & material from Wolverine: The Road to Hell

A team of 90s-popular hyper-killers plus a parody of a 90s hyper-killer sounds very … 90s. Right?

Wrong, when they are in the hands of breakout star writer of 2011, Rick Remender. Wolverine is deadly and deadpan, Psylocke and Archangel are both believably in love and reluctant to pull a trigger, Deadpool is simultaneously hilarious and murderous, and Fantomex is like Robert Downey Jr. playing James Bond playing Deadpool as a Frenchman. This opening arc fires on all cylinders and Jerome Opena’s art is beyond gorgeous. (Read my original review.)

Also available in paperback. If you like this, pick up the following arc, Deathlok Nation.

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4. Astonishing Spider-Man & Wolverine
Collects the six-issue limited series. 

Even more Wolverine? And how did this book get on here when I claim to dislike Jason Aaron?

As it turns out, Aaron is at his best when he’s at his most zany, which is maybe why I don’t enjoy him on straight Wolverine books. With Peter Parker as his narrator, a nonsensical cross-time caper as his backdrop, and the best-ever take on a classic scenery-chewing X-villain from artist Adam Kubert, he finds sure success. This book is madcap, requires little or no prior knowledge, and is repeatedly worthy of an actual LOL.

Also available in paperback. If you like this, you need to pre-order Aaron’s forthcoming Wolverine & The X-Men, Vol. 1 ASAP.

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3. X-Men: Age of X & X-Men Legacy: Aftermath
Collects Age of X: Alpha, New Mutants #22-24,  X-Men Legacy #245-247, and Age of X: Universe 1-2 & #242-244 and #248-249

Early previews of Age of X left fans a little cold – another alternate reality with twisted versions of our heroes? Leave it to Mike Carey, departing this month after a 70+ issue run on X-Men Legacy, to surprise us all by turning in a subtle, slow-burning alternate reality tale. Age of X is a quality mystery story that gets deep into the psychology of all of our favorite X-Men, plus features delectable art from rising star Clay Mann.

To fully appreciate the deft, self-contained world of Age of X, you also need the strong Aftermath, which bookends Age of X with a pair of significant stories that both benefit from and add depth to to the mysteriously twisted alternative world. Throughout, Rogue (and, to a lesser extent, Magneto) is star of the show. (Read my original AOX and Aftermath reviews.)

Both Age of X and Aftermath are available for pre-order in paperback. If you like the actual-reality of Aftermath, try X-Men Legacy: Emplate (HC or TPB). If you like the alternate-reality of Age of X, pre-order the massive forthcoming Age of Apocalypse Omnibus.

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2. New Mutants: Fall of the New Mutants
Collects New Mutants #15-21.

Since it’s 2009 debut New Mutants has been a fun read, but its first year of issues read like an overflow pan for plots too periphery for Uncanny X-Men to deal with. Here the book not only gets its own unique story, but it is a gripping, daunting action-adventure with high stakes that stretch all the way back the Inferno saga of the 1980s!

Spider-Man writer Zeb Wells nails the characterization of the entire team (even oft-ignored Karma!) and Leonard Kirk draws engaging comic art without the fussy overly-detailed photo-reference of his peers. Together, they plunge the team into one of their most desperate positions (and that is saying a lot for this group of characters!), which makes the shocking resolution even more satisfying! (Read my original review.)

This directly precedes Age of X (above), and should absolutely be read beforehand if you plan to pick up both. Also available in paperback. If you like this, try X-Infernus (HC or TPB) or New Mutants: The Return of Legion (HC or TPB) – both of which are key setup for this arc.

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1. Uncanny X-Force: The Dark Angel Saga: Book 1 (& 2!)
Collects Uncanny X-Force #8-13 (& 14-18 or 19)

Do not be surprised when every year-end X-Men list names this as the storyline of the year. Or decade. Or “ever, since Dark Phoenix.” Writer Rick Remender finds layers in his kill-squad of Deadpool, Psylocke, and Fantomex that never existed before and somehow finds a way to make Wolverine not the main character, all while crafting Angel into the best villain the X-Men have faced in years (decades?) (since Dark Phoenix?).

Yet, this Saga isn’t all endless piles of over-dramatic continuity porn – it starts off with two killer one-shot issues before beginning its sickening ascent up a rollercoaster of plot that pays off with insane loop-to-loops in the forthcoming Book 2. Together they form the story named by a vast majority of X-Men fans – including your author – as the best of 2011.

Plus: the original Dark X-Man, Jean Grey … but not how you might have expected. 

Just trust me on this one. Both Book 1 and Book 2 are available for pre-order in paperback. If you like this, read The Dark Phoenix Saga (duh).

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Whew! That’s a lot of X-Men comics! For my fellow fans – do you agree? What 2011 new releases have I left off that no true X-Fan should be without? Leave a comment with your reasoning!

I’ll get back to my collections-of-the-week series soon, but first I’ll be back next week with a preview of the best upcoming collections announced for 2012 in both new and reprinted material.