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Category Archives: reviews

Review: Netflix’s Stranger Things, Season One

As with the release of any of Netflix’s “bing it all at once” television seasons, this weekend my social feed went from a stray mention of Stranger Things on Friday to a steady stream on Saturday as more and more people began to sample the eight-episode thriller.

I didn’t want to be a late adopter this time around (or: be spoiled!), so I jumped onto the bandwagon on Saturday night – and wound up finishing the entire show within 48hrs!

That’s not just because I love to binge on TV. In many ways, Stranger Things is Neflix’s most cohesive and successful original work yet. While the performances might not be of the raw caliber of acting as those in House of Cards or Orange Is The New Black, they all work perfecting in the unflinching service of this period 1980s thriller.

Stranger Things, Season 1 4.5 stars 

stranger-things-animated-logoThere are very light, “this is the concept, these are the characters, this happens in the beginning of Ep1” spoilers in the first section; a more spoiler-filled take for those who’ve already seen the show follows, below.

CK Says: Watch it!

Stranger Things is a Netflix original that’s obsessed with the 80s work of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, and Amblin Entertainment. It’s about a hidden horror, a terrifying secret, and how a group of kids bear the burden of both on the behalf of an entire sleepy town.

While Stranger Things is reverent of those influences, the show rarely feels derivative as it unfurls a sci-fi plot that is as human as it is creepy. The focus is always on the characters and rarely on the fantasy, even though the fantastical element are a seamlessly-executed success.

The opening frames introduce us to Hawkins, Indiana in November of 1983. We briefly glimpse a terrified scientist fleeing through the abandoned, flickering halls of a research facility on the outskirts of town before he is captured by an unseen creature.

The rest of Hawkins seems none the wiser to these events – it could not be more average. The geeky kids play Dungeons & Dragons and are obsessed with Star Wars. The teens are shot-gunning beers and talking about sex without consequence. The parents are stringing together jobs and cooking dinner without worrying too much about where their kids are hanging out and with whom. A surly sheriff hasn’t had to deal with any major crime – the last notable one was in the 20s!

Anything past idle teenage vandalism would be notable in this tiny ville. Yet, it’s also idyllic enough that a missing child can be chalked up to a wrong turn on a hike or deciding to take a Greyhound for an adventure to the city. That disappearance is accompanied by the appearance of a seemingly-mute young girl with a shaved head. She’s desperate to escape an anonymous group of men and women in black who want to haul her back to that same mysterious lab. When she encounters a trio of nerdy kids searching for their missing friend, it acts as a flashpoint that begins to unveil the horror that’s been unleashed on the small town. Continue reading ›

Review: Unfollow, Vol. 1 by Williams & Dowling

No one can ever own or end a concept.

I think about that a lot in my constant state of creator’s decision paralysis, stemming all the way back to when I first starting writing my novel as an eighth-grader and then that summer a comic with almost the exact same concept came out.

I was young then, and I thought, “Oh no! Now they own that concept! They’ve done it so well that no one can do it again. They ended it.”

I’ve thought that many times about a lot of my creative endeavors. People have owned being a boy/girl duet band, blogging about Philly, the theme of my novel again, and many other things. Heck, it’s no so different in the start-up world, where at RJMetrics we saw dozens of other companies with similar concepts get funded and join the fray.

Here’s the thing – concepts are very rarely a zero sum game. There’s room in a single theme for many different variations.

The case and point for me is an actual zero sum game – the “many people enter, one person leaves” theme in fiction. Highlander might be the best example of this for us children of the 80s. There can be only one! Many film fans thought Battle Royale was such an innovative, transgressive take on it that no one else ought to bother. Then, of course, came Hunger Games. Some people called it a Battle Royale rip-off, while others thought it was such an innovative, transgressive take on it that one one else should bother. I loved a comic called Avengers Arena, which many people called a Battle Royale and Hunger Games rip-off, and by that point I knew better than to think it should prevent anyone else from trying the same thing.

Unfollow-tpb-vol01People keep bothering. There is something elemental about concept of a zero sum game where the sum is both power and life. No one owns zero sum games, or superheroes, or zombie apocalypses, and no single work on any of those is so prohibitive a mic drop that no one else ought to make an attempt.

All that matters is that your story is good – that your creation is compelling.

Unfollow, Vol. 1 – 140 Characters 4.0 stars Amazon Logo

Collects Unfollow #1-6 written by Rob Williams and drawn by Mike Dowling with Pahek and R.M. Guerra, with lettering by Clem Robins and color art by Quinton Weaver and Giula Brusco

Tweet-sized Review: Unfollow: a comic for tweeters who’d love a real-world Hunger Games about wealth’s abundance rather than its lack

CK Says: Buy it.

Unfollow, Vol. 1 contains the first six issues of a maddeningly intriguing comic that breathes fresh life into the concept of a zero sum game where there can be only one winner, which we’ve seen used to such great success in Highlander, Battle Royale, and Hunger Games.

Part of its delightful conceit is that there really can be more than one. Larry Ferrell, a Zuckerbergian figure, is facing imminent death and has decided to dispense his $17 billion fortune between 140 people. Their selection isn’t entirely random nor is it perfectly deliberate, and it is extremely public. Some of them are potential future CEOs and world-altering documentarians, while others are bored rich kids and god-fearing one-man militias.

There’s a catch: for every one of them who dies, the remainder of the 140 get to split that person’s inheritance of $120 million. That’s less than an extra million each, so there’s not a lot of incentive for assassination – unless, of course, you plan to slim down the ranks considerably. Continue reading ›

Review: Savage Hulk, Vol. 1: The Man Within by Davis, Farmer, & Hollingsworth

Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about audiences and about screaming into the void.

One of my earliest ongoing creative endeavors was writing fan fiction inside the Final Fantasy II (Japan IV) universe. I was writing it just to write it, but then I discovered a few other like-minded folks on the internet and we had a small, shared universe of fiction. Honestly, I have no idea how 14-year-old me put it all together – the details are a blur. It was mostly just that same handful of people who were reading it. No one was writing for attention or exposure. We were all writing for the joy of writing.

The same is true for my songwriting. I spent years writing songs for no one to hear before I started pushing to play them for more people. Even after being in a gigging band for years, to this day the vast majority of my catalog has never been heard outside of our house or this website because I write so darn many songs. I’d have to put out an album a year to keep up and tour constantly.

I have the luxury of doing those things for fun. My fanfic was niche and so is my music, but it doesn’t really matter. I am happy to cast that art out into the void knowing no response would echo back at me.

The problem with doing art for the love of it comes once you’ve actually earned some attention. What happens when more than a handful of people like your writing or your music? Now you have an audience. If you were making art for the love of it, their eyeballs and ears shouldn’t make any difference to you. Yet, it’s hard to avoid their influence, even if you aren’t performing craven acts of fan service to keep them all pleased. Once you’ve seen an indicator that your art is actually being consumed it’s hard to ignore it completely.

Let’s advance that to it’s end state: a popular artist who has followed their own path and pleased fans along the way now wants to do something inherently less popular – or simply something different. I’m not thinking about the dangers inherent in each new release. Instead, consider an independent artist experimenting with a new genre or a big money director wanting to make a decidedly non-mainstream film. J.K. Rowling is a terrific example; after Harry Potter, she didn’t want to write another young readers opus, but that’s what everyone wanted!

It’s a risk. Do they trust fans enough to compartmentalize this work of otherness away from their main oeuvre? You might not be able to afford the detour if it turns too many people off. In Rowling’s case, she released one novel under her own name (The Casual Vacancy) and then another under a pseudonym (The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith). Neither detracted from the fervor for Potter, but the latter earned higher marks from fans and critics, called “a brilliant debut.”

Was it the quality of the Galbraith book that made it more successful, or that it was free of baggage? How would you enjoy the new album from your favorite artist if you didn’t know it was by them?

Savage_Hulk_Vol_1_1_TextlessThese questions occur to me with every subsequent piece of art I purchase or consume from a known artist.

Savage Hulk, Vol. 1 – The Man Within 3.5 stars Amazon Logo

Collects Savage Hulk issues #1-4 written and penciled by Alan Davis, with inks by Mark Farmer and colors by Matt Hollingsworth. Also includes X-Men (1963) #66 written by Stan Lee with pencils by Sal Buscema.

Tweet-sized Review: Alan Davis writes/draws a lovely, clever sequel to X-Men #66, a face-off w/Hulk, in this ode to early-70s Marvel.

CK Says: Consider it.

This Alan Davis Hulk and X-Men story is a love letter to early-70s comic books and it’s possible you simply won’t care. His tale in The Savage Hulk, Vol. 1 – The Man Within branches off from a bash-em-up encounter between the heroes in X-Men #66, the last comic before the hiatus ended by their Giant-Size comeback in 1974.

In a follow-up to that orphaned story, a recovered Professor Charles Xavier feels compelled to design a device that could help Bruce Banner control the Hulk as repayment for Banner’s cure for his mental exhaustion. However, the Hulk is being hunted by the military after causing serious damage in Las Vegas, while Xavier has unwittingly attracted the attention of Hulk’s foe The Leader. Continue reading ›

Review: Paper Girls, Vol. 1 by Vaughan & Chiang

E and I had our first DVD player when we lived in Pine Street, just after I graduated college. I suppose it was in a laptop of hers, because we didn’t have a television and I remember watching movies in bed.

I was excited to reclaim some of the films of my youth long since lost on the beta tapes they were captured on, so between that year and the next I filled them all in. Dark Crystal, The Lost Boys, Labyrinth, and more.

The thing about these nostalgia viewings is that you can re-watch the thing you once loved, but it might not produce the same magic. I was so excited to show E The Lost Boys, labelling it as a sort of proto-Buffy as we settled into bed to watch it, but it was laugh-out-loud lame. Yet, there are still new layers to unravel in Labyrinth.

The 80s produced so much of those wonderful coming of age stories, and I don’t think I’m saying that because I was young at the time. Actually, I was ignorant of most of the stuff like Stand By Me and The Goonies, because at the ripe old age of seven I already felt I was too old for their messages. The Lost Boys, at least, had vampires. Yet, looking back there are so many seminal movies in that Amblin Entertainment model set by E.T. and Goonies that are still referenced today, right down to their feel being aped by films like Super 8.

Paper-Girls-vol-01I’ve never seen Stand By Me or The Goonies. I know, I know – it’s sacrilege. Just now I looked them up on Wikipedia to make sure I wasn’t mistaking them for something else.

It’s odd for me to watch this new generation of media being produced by the folks who came of age with the first set – usually a few years older than me, probably old enough to have seen these films in theatres on their own.

The 80s vibe is unmistakeable, but I don’t know all their influences by heart the way I do things that reference David Bowie or Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Paper Girls, Vol. 2 2.0 stars Amazon Logo

Collects issues #1-5 written by Brian K. Vaughan with line art by Cliff Chiang, color art by Matt Wilson, and letters by Jared K. Fletcher.

Tweet-sized Review: Vaughan and Chiang’s Paper Girls tries for all-girls Goonies but maybe foregrounds too many monsters too soon

CK Says: Skip it (for now)

Paper Girls is the newest Brian K. Vaughan jam to hit its first collection, but I think you’d be better off waiting for a second trade paperback before you start reading.

Vaughan is the master creator of critical hits like Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina, Marvel’s Runaways, The Private Eye, and the still-running deeply personal space fantasy Saga, which is currently the biggest independent comic after The Walking Dead. Vaughan is joined on this creator-owned Image Comics series by artist Cliff Chiang, directly from his run on DC’s Wonder Woman, and uber-colorist Matt Wilson, from everything.

Paper Girls promised a return to normalcy after the devious Saga, focusing on a group of girls on their 1988 paper route. Of course, Vaughan would never go full-normal on us – these girls would surely tangle with something fantastical. Continue reading ›

Review: Black Magick, Vol. 1 by Rucka & Scott

I am a contrary person and at times in my life I have totally given up on certain things that other, normal people find it totally okay to engage in with moderation. For example, I went through a period where I felt slow-dances were “boring, rotating hugs,” and used such time to rehydrate for the next uptempo set of songs.

There was a period in my life where I had completely given up on movies. They were necessarily assembled by committee and that meant they couldn’t be perfect. Who would want a story spoon fed to them visually for two hours when they could read the same material four times as fast?

Our movie collection makes obvious that I overcame my discrimination, though if you example that large library you’ll see that the films they largely fall into one of two camps. One is special-effects or period films like Star Wars or Braveheart, which present a reality I could not otherwise witness. The other are the finely coordinated works of auteurs like Wes Anderson. Some are both, like Primer and Donnie Darko, or most of Christopher Nolan’s films.

I still don’t see the point of watching a two hour comedy or drama that it took hundreds of people to produce unless I am watching it for some spectacle, whether that’s visual or in caliber of performance.

Yet, the sheer scope of film cannot be denied. That widescreen window on the world and its beautifully pushed colors – that is a thing to covet and convert to other mediums. It is why television shows and advertisements and comic books yearn for that stamp of cinematicism.

black-magick-vol-01That wasn’t always the case for comics. I’m not sure when it started – perhaps with David Finch’s widescreen take on The Ultimates, which ultimately informed Marvel’s The Avengers film. Now it has infected the entire medium. No more caption boxes or thought bubbles, because movies so rarely have narrators and voice-overs. Massive establishing shots with no text, despite the fact that each panel tells the geography of a scene in miniature. Glossy colors that cram in reflections and lens flares, because only movie magic can help you suspend your disbelief.

Every comic book wants to be its own film, but very few of them actually feel like one.

Black Magick, Vol. 1 4.0 stars Amazon Logo

Collects issues #1-5 by Greg Rucka and Nicola Scott, with color assistance from Chiara Arena.

Tweet-sized Review: Black Magick v1: spellbinding cop procedural w/dose of magical ritual, but only half of Act 1…I want the whole play!

CK Says: Buy it.

Black Magick is an entrancing, deliberately-paced dose of witchy mystery, like Homicide: Life On the Streets crossed with The Craft, by a pair creators at a newfound apex of their powers.

Not a word more can be said for this book without talking about artist Nicola Scott’s grayscale, ink-washed artwork. It is a sight to behold. Black and white major label comics are few and far between, but this isn’t true black and white – her flood of gray inks have tone and depth. They give her figures a sense of texture and weight that would be hard to replicate with typical digital coloring. Chiara Arena contributes only occasional splashes of color – a bloodshot eyeball, a burst of flames, or a green mist of spellwork.

Scott’s world is filled with so much detail and organic motion that panels seem to sweep from one to another like a strip of film passing across the bulb of a projector. At points, I honestly forgot I was reading a comic book with static pictures and tangible pages. Scott’s art transported me. Continue reading ›

Review: The Private Eye by Vaughan, Martin, & Vicente

Lately, I trust journalists less than ever before. Or, maybe I trust them, but I don’t trust the stories they’re telling.


Last week during the gun control filibuster on the Senate floor I compiled the names and demographic information from all the participating Senators, and my friend Lauren created an interactive infographic with the information. I did not read a single media story that named all of the participants after the fact.

I know this is a theme in conservative American politics right now – the bias of the mass media. I’m not talking about bias. I’m talking about facts.

The past few weeks have been full of big new stories nationally (Orlando and gun control) and locally (sugary drink tax and the DNC), and the biggest of those stories have been missing so many facts. They’re all headlines and quick hits. Hot takes with no depth. No quoting from primary sources. Lots of people coming away with incomplete ideas and parroting them as reality.

Those same weeks have also been full of truth. I become deeply invested in last week’s filibuster from the floor of the Senate and did not consume a single pundit’s take on it. I watched it live and was my own pundit. Yesterday’s sit-in in the House circumvented pundits even further – it couldn’t even be broadcast by networks because the House was out of session and cameras were off, so representatives broadcast it directly to the public via Periscope, cutting all all possible middlemen.

Of course, the next day journalism swept in – but, as a first-hand witness to the events in question, I found the subsequent coverage lacking. Where were the names of the participants, the lengths of time they spoke, the information they shared? I put more information together about the filibuster with data visualization from my friend Lauren than I saw from any news site!

I don’t trust journalists or I don’t trust the stories they tell, but I can hardly blame them. After all, I have a journalism degree and I never set foot into that field. I went CorpComm because I wanted job security and a standard of living, and that was before online outlets were effectively subsidizing their print editions and running on pay-per-click ad units. But I still believe journalism should represent unfiltered truth with a neutral point of view, unless it professes itself as opinion. I had a lot to say about the filibuster, but none of it made its way into the data.

What if journalists didn’t have to worry about the funding and the hits, and could focus on terrific journalism? There are some outlets today that fit the bill, and I don’t think it’s coincidence they produce some of the most thorough reporting. I know it’s hard to picture state-run journalism, because so often it’s journalists who expose the flaws in the state, but that’s one version of what I’m talking about. Instead of asking journalists to make personal sacrifices to do what they love and write for maximum eyeballs, imagine a minimum number of reporters guaranteed on each beat, with job security, fair pay, and a retirement plan.

Do you think the journalism would get better or worse? Does it take sacrifice to want to dig as deep as journalists dig? Or, would the skill and commitment increase?

The-Private-Eye-hardcoverThe Private Eye 3.0 stars Amazon Logo

The Private Eye collects the 10 chapters of a complete web comic story by Brian K. Vaughan, Marcos Martin, and Muntsa Vicente.

Tweet-sized Review: The Private Eye finds Vaughan & Martin a bit too clever for their own good; I liked the world better than the story

CK Says: Consider it.

The Private Eye is a much more interesting world than it is an interesting story – and, it’s a pretty decent story.

Private Eye is an Eisner and Harvey Award Winning comic story conceptualized by Brian K. Vaughan and created in collaboration with Marcos Martin and his wife, colorist Muntsa Vicente. It was initially released beginning in March 2013 as a web-only comic via Panel Syndicate, with its 10 chapters released across 24 months. Each chapter was available as a DRM-free as a pay-what-you-will download.

You can still purchase it that way, or you can opt for a gorgeous $50 hardcover version released in December that includes the complete Vaughan/Martin email chain conceptualizing the story and their method of release (complete with fretting over what to call the website and how to make a profit from it).

The story of Private Eye depicts an America where the press has taken over peacekeeping for the police thanks to a landmark omni-leak of every possible piece of data. The event, called “The Cloudburst,” exposed everyone’s online information to everyone else. It wasn’t the leaked account balances or private nudes that did everyone in, but the search histories. It turns out that was as close as you could come to knowing what was going on inside someone else’s head – their deepest fears and desires. A lot of those heads were pretty dark places. Continue reading ›

Review: The Tithe, Volumes 1 and 2, by Hawkins, Ekedal, & Sevy

Sometimes tragedy imitates fiction, and sometimes fiction predicts tragedy. Or, maybe they are both tapped into the same wellspring of inspiration within the collective unconscious.

It’s silly, but the first example I always think about is the third season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The school shooting at Columbine occurred with five episodes left in the season, and by pure coincidence a pair of them featured plot points that echoed elements of that tragedy. The WB decided not to show either of them during the season, instead, airing them months later and out of order.

Buffy was a show that made the horrors of high school literal, so it’s little wonder that any tragedy at a high school would find its mirror in some of its episodes. However, in Earshot, Buffy is the monster of the week (she’s infected with a psychic bug and can hear everyone’s thoughts) while the intended school massacre was planned by a plain old human. It was set to air a week after Columbine.

Similarly, on the premiere of X-Files spinoff The Lone Gunman, the trio find themselves investigating a conspiracy to fly a plane into the World Trade Center. That episode aired on March 4, 2001.

Over 15 years later, a supernatural high school drama probably wouldn’t focus on a school threatened with gun violence and a show about fringe conspiracy theories might not focus on planes flying into buildings. That’s because those tragedies have been rendered too true. They’ve entered the realm of police procedurals, that attempt to rip plots from the headlines – not ones that try to imagine events if which we couldn’t conceive.

Once tragedy and fiction intersect, fiction is never quite the same. It’s the tragedy that keeps on happening.

The Tithe, Volume 1 2.5 stars Amazon Logo  &  Volume 2 1.0 stars Amazon Logo

The-Tithe-Vol-01The Tithe, Volume 1 collects issues #1-4 written by Matt Hawkins with line art by Rahsan Ekedal and color art by Bill Farmer and Mike Spicer.

The Tithe, Volume 2 collects issues #5-8 written by Matt Hawkins with layouts by Rahsan Ekedal, line art by Philip Sevy, and color art by Jeremy Colwell.

#140char review: Difference between Tithe Vol 1-2 is like an x-over from X-Files to CSI: DC. Would you still watch the 1st? Probably.

CK Says: Skip it.

The easiest way I can think to explain the differences between the two volumes of Tithe is this: Volume 1 is like an X-Files inspired cult drama everyone is talking about, and Volume 2 is like a major network police procedural your parents like to watch.

Volume 1 was a blind pick-up for me, and I’ll freely admit it was largely influenced by the title and the captivating stained glass motif on its cover. When I began reading it, I gave a little inward groan when I realized it was about FBI agents and also takedown of organized religion.

I have an internal barometer that triggers when anything is supposed to be “just like real life” or made “to really make you think/feel,” and I was afraid Tithe was taking me to both places.

It did not. It was a clever little puzzle of motivation and technology, unwinding who might be stealing donations from mega-churches and pinning the blame on big time drug dealers and if it would be such a bad thing to let them keep on doing it. The primary FBI agent, Dwayne Campbell, felt like someone real with a deeper story yet to be revealed. Despite a couple of groaner moments, it was brisk and entertaining – I finished in one sitting. Continue reading ›

Review: Spider-Woman (2015) Vol. 2 – New Duds, by Hopeless, Rodriguez, Lopez, & Bustos

If you are lucky (or: extraordinarily talented or beloved) you may start a trend, but most times you wind up following one.

I think about that maxim frequently. It applies to movies, memes, restaurants, fashion, start-ups, and comic books. To me the application where it is most obvious is in the music industry.

Bands making an album always have three choices – be themselves, try to match the current popular sound, or try to invent a new one.

A useful context to consider this within is Amy Winehouse. People were doing throw-back-y, Motown-influenced songs before Back to Black, but they weren’t all that popular. She already had a retro vibe of her own, but it was more jazz and classic R&B influenced, and she was moderately successful in the UK. When she went into the studio with Mick Ronson to make Back to Black, they had a choice: be the same Amy as before, try to ape current radio hits to expand her reach, or try to do something new.

That something new not only meant success for Amy Winehouse. It set a trend. Other acts started following the trend. Existing artists dabbled in the sound. I’m convinced that ten years later its trickle-down effect is fractionally responsible for the success of “All About That Bass” and Nathaniel Rateliff and The Night Sweats.

Whether it’s true of either of those two artists, they bring an interesting subtext to the maxim: what if the trend you wind up following makes you better than you were before? I’d call that a successful pivot, and now we are into start-up territory (or at least, start-up language). Maybe staying the course has proven only moderately successful and you have no idea how to set the next trend. Perhaps the current trend could make you your best self?

This plays itself out in a constant bust and boom in each of the industries I already named. It’s easy to follow with comics, because they are so visual and their success or failure is typically swift and obvious. Marvel had a hit with the “indie-style” Matt Fraction Hawkeye’s starting in 2012 that did nothing like a superhero comic – not the story, the art, or even the colors. Its massive success (and, to a degree, the reception to Mark Waid’s Daredevil the year before) was a reminder that superheroes seen as B-list characters who couldn’t maintain a book might survive by trying something different.

As with Back to Black, I think we’ll continue to see Hawkeye’s wake sweep through comics for years to come, but at Marvel “The Hawkeye Pivot” has quickly turned into a repeatable blueprint: write a small-ball story about how everything is local; give it some modern-day credibility through language or culture; pair it with an artist who doesn’t draw typically muscly/ busty superheroes; and use flat. less-shiny colors.

Spider-Woman-2015-TPB-Vol-02-promoWhat’s so fascinating about the brief 10-issue run of Dennis Hopeless’s Spider-Woman is that it started out in the most flashy superhero mode possible – mid-crossover, illustrated by pin-up king Greg Land – and then abruptly executed “The Hawkeye Pivot” mid-run.

Did it work?

Spider-Woman, Vol. 2 – New Duds 3.0 stars Amazon Logo

Collects Spider-Woman (2015) #5-10 written by Dennis Hopeless with pencils by Javier Rodriguez, inks by Alvaro Lopez, colors by Rodriguez and Muntsa Vicente, and issue #10 line art by Natacha Bustos with color art by Vero Gandini.

#140char review: Spider-Woman’s New Duds was more than a costume change; Hopeless pivots Jess Drew to new status quo w/Rodriguez art.

CK Says: Consider It.

Dennis Hopeless reinvents Spider-Woman in the vein of former boyfriend Hawkeye and Superior Foes of Spider-Man alongside artist Javier Rodriguez and manages to make it feel like organic character growth.

That’s quite the feat, especially considering both of those series had the ability to start fresh with their more lighthearted tones. Hopeless pulls it off mid-run, going from the high-wire of Spider-Verse tie-in issues with Greg Land to a new look and direction here. Continue reading ›

Review: Wonder Woman – Earth One, Vol. 1 – by Morrison, Paquette, & Fairbairn

As a kid, I never wanted to be in a boys’ club and was always jealous of anything that was exclusively “girls only.”

I can recall many instances of this. Riding in the car, my mother tried to convince me that I might enjoy joining the Boy Scouts. “But, they’re all boys,” I replied, my rejection implicit. Later, when my female friends were allowed to sleep over together after parties while males went home, I rebelled. “Why shouldn’t I be allowed to stay over?” I raged. “They’re all of my best friends!”

It was hard for me to understand the power of either gendered space because, upon reflection, I did not feel strongly aligned to the idea of my maleness. There was nothing about it I particularly wanted – not the strength, or the camaraderie – because I did not have any evidence in my life that maleness could be good or worthwhile. I hated the idea of being a member of the boys’ club. If all you know about being a boy is bullying and irresponsibility – if the only masculinity you witness is toxic – then why would you want to access it?

That’s not to say I was desperate to be a girl. I liked to wear nail polish and own pink things because they were pretty, not out of a sense of gender dysphoria. Upon reflection, I think the idea of a gender continuum , or even simply a third gender, would have been powerful for me to be able to identify with at the time. (So would have a positive male influence, but I think the former would have been more accessible than the latter.)

Instead, I counteracted my boyness by idolizing female influences, none more than Wonder Woman – the only superhero that mattered to me even though Spider-Man shared my name.

Thirty years later, I can appreciate my ability to define my own maleness and that my gender role or expression does not define my gender identity. I also appreciate the power of single sex spaces in certain contexts. At RJ there was a recurring Ladies Night, were all the women would get together for dinner or drinks. Of course, I wanted to attend – these were all my friends out together! Yet, as women in tech, those friends shared an important, connected experience, and even as the most well-meaning male I might interrupt the ability to share that. Also, there may be women who don’t appreciate or benefit from that shared, female-only space.

Now this is a part of my story. Even when I’m accidentally or tacitly included in a boys’ club or male privilege, I don’t experience it in the same way as my peers.

I’m happy about that. I think it’s powerful to be able to access some piece of otherness to influence your viewpoint when you are in the majority. It doesn’t make you The Other, and you still have a lot of work to do to understand the experience of someone who prohibited from enjoying the club or the privilege, but it means you can see outside of your cave into the wider world of sunlight outside.

Oh, hey, and we’re here to review a comic book. Continue reading ›

Review: Heartbreak Quadrant: Phase One by Barrett Stanley

There are three kinds of comic book Kickstarters.

One is from seasoned pros who want to do their own project – perhaps with a set of new intellectual property. A second is from indie creators who have published some work – perhaps digital only – and want to head to print to widen their potential audience. A third is from an unknown – maybe an artist in another medium, or maybe someone publishing their first work.

I’ve pledged to all three kinds of Kickstarters and I’ve seen all three fail. Yet, the first two have a leg up on the third in existing support and goodwill of their audience. You’re not likely to get angry at your favorite creator for telling you their project will be a month late or ten pages shorter than planned.

heartbreak-quadrant-phase-one-coverThe artists in that third category have no leeway, not an inch of slack. To convert you from one-time speculator to long-term supporter they have this single chance to win you over – to impress you on every level.

I’ve pledged to all three kinds of Kickstarters and I’ve seen all three succeed. Yet, the third are the ones that most often stun me.

Heartbreak Quadrant: Phase One 4 stars 

Story and art by Barrett Stanley. Buy Heartbreak Quadrant for $15 at the Red Grapefruit online store.

#140char review: Loved the penstrokes & handcrafted colors of Heartbreak Quadrant: 2 women space scavengers in a vivid sci-fi world full of personal touches.

CK Says: Consider it.

Heartbreak Quadrant is a vivid slice of sci-fi crammed with big ideas but primarily about people.

Ida and Kumi captain their own peculiar spaceship resembling a massive red grapefruit through a post-Earth universe full of genetically tampered-with people who covet the simplicity of artifacts of their old planet. Ida is practical, canny, and loyal. Kumi is impulsive, optimistic, and can be dangerous. As they recover from a job that was tougher than they anticipated (“a little trouble with a candy amplifier”), an old contact reaches out with a hard-to-fill request for the most-coveted artifact of all – a baseline human, or “blank.” Continue reading ›

Review: Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 4 – Graveyard Shift, by Slott, Gage, & Ramos

Marvel Comics prides itself on the fact that its stories matter and always will – no major reset or reboots to maintain a set status quo.

If there’s one Marvel hero that doesn’t quite apply to it would seem to be Spider-Man. There’s a feeling among both fans and creators that Peter Parker works the best when he’s a young underdog whose life is full of mistakes and missed changes. Spider-Man is no fun as a perfect guy with a great life that’s protected by thick plot armor. It’s more fun to root for him because things go wrong so often in his life.

That feeling is why so many of Spidey’s cross-media appearances focus on him in high school and college. It’s why Marvel launched an Ultimate Spider-Man that replayed Parker’s origin in the context of the 2000s, and surely a part of him being eventually shuffled to the side for a younger model with Miles Morales.

Back in the main universe, that feeling eventually caused one of Marvel’s biggest retcons ever: erasing Parker’s longstanding marriage to Mary Jane to restore him as a romantic lead and youthen him as a character. Spider-Man definitely surged in popularity in the ensuing years, but many long-term fans never returned as readers.

ASMv04 - Vol04I don’t really have a dog in that fight, but reading Dan Slott’s recent Spider-Man run has me thinking about Peter Parker the underdog, because Slott seems so intent on giving him his due. He’s the CEO of his own company! He’s approaching Tony Stark levels of outwardly expressed genius, and Stark is rarely an underdog.

How does that play out in the final Spider-Man collection before Secret Wars?

The Amazing Spider-Man, Vol. 4 – Graveyard Shift 1.5 stars Amazon Logo

Collects The Amazing Spider-Man (2014) #16-18 & Annual 1

#140char review: Spidey is tired in ASM Vol. 4: Graveyard Shift; it’s all reiterations & wheel-spinning with dodgy art as the pre-Secret Wars clock runs down

CK Says: Skip it!

Dan Slott is amazing at sticking the landing of the crazy concepts he puts Peter Parker through. Everyone turns to spiders! Doc Ock takes over! Every Spider-character ever is hunted down! Yet, here he’s not great at running down the clock on the verge of Secret Wars interrupting his run, even with the assistance of frequent co-writer Cristos Gage. Continue reading ›

Review: Butterfly by Amel, Bennett, Fuso, & Simeone

I’ve always loved the risk/reward of a blind buy.

I’m not talking about buying a new appliance sight unseen here. I’m talking about more subjectively judged products, like music you’ve never heard or heard of or a dish of unfamiliar food of which the only detail you are only certain it is not poison.

If we always seek out what we know and have been recommended, how can we ever be surprised? Some of my favorite albums came from picking something up purely because of a band’s name or their photo, and the vast majority of my indie comic collection came from trying something without knowing a thing about it other than the aesthetics of a cover image or a few lines of promotional copy.

(How sure can you be about art until you consume it, anyway? Did that dance about architecture really tell you how great the building would be?)

That’s nearly all I had to go by on Butterfly. I had read scripter Marguerite Bennett as a co-author with a major favorite, Kieron Gillen, but that didn’t speak much for her on her own. The cover image is stark – the shape of an olive butterfly on a black background formed by the silhouettes of dozens of guns.

Butterfly_HC_coverThere was something about it that made me want to own it.

Butterfly 2.5 stars Amazon Logo

Collects Butterfly #1-4. Story by Arash Amel, script by Marguerite Bennett, illustrated by Antonio Fuso and Stefano Simeone with colors by Adam Guzowski, lettering by Steve Wands.

#140char review: Butterfly: an icy spy tale that doesn’t bother to wash the blood from its hands. A less touchy Alias or a less fanciful Mind MGMT. Just okay

CK Says: Consider it.

Butterfly is not at all as delicate as its namesake. That goes for both the book on the whole and the main character, for whom its an alias.

We’re dropped into a mission already in progress with Rebecca Faulkner AKA Butterfly, and from the get she seems like more of a chameleon than a butterfly. She seamlessly slides into character for a dead drop and is just as facile in her initial exfiltration. However, when she discovers her routine contacts have all been disconnected she is forced to rely on a failsafe that puts her on a path to intersect her retired spy of a father, long since disappeared from her life. Continue reading ›

Review: Wolf, Vol. 1 – Blood and magic, by Kot, Taylor, Loughridge, Cowles, & Muller

I’m an increasing supporter of the idea of True Fans as Subscribed Patrons, a mass of individuals who band together to sponsor the work of an artist they trust rather than simply buying it after the fact.

That’s not only because of services like Kickstarter and Patreon taking root, but because it reflects how I actually consume art. Once I’ve decided your work speaks to me, I want it all. Don’t make me keep an eye on release calendars. Don’t let a middleman get a share of my dollar. Take my money whenever you’re feeling the artistic feels and I’ll gladly accept what you deliver as often as you’d like to deliver it.

The beauty (and, let it be said, gratification) of that concept has a single point of failure: editing. Artists who are free to deliver directly to their benefactors run the risk of no longer performing the “Will it float on its own?” evaluation of their artwork. That could lead to unbidden creativity, it could result in fan-pandering, or we could wind up with some half-baked dreck.

Which brings me to author Ales Kot. This is a guy whose brain I’d love to be permanently jacked into based on what I’ve read from him so far. Even if there have been a few duds along the way, the hits are very big hits with me. I’ve exchanged niceties with him on Twitter here and there and a huge part of me simply wants to say, “Look, would you like my $100-a-year up front, because I’m doubtlessly going to buy every damn thing you do.”

He’s doing the utter opposite of that – publishing his creator-owned work through Image, where there is little in the way of advances or guaranteed sales. Every issue he releases is in pure sink or swim mode; every new project must find its own fans until he has an army of auto-buyers like me.

Right now he’s swinging for the fences on every release. I get the impression he wouldn’t have it any other way.

Wolf, Vol. 1 – Blood and magic. 4 stars Amazon Logo

wolf-vol01-tpbCollects Wolf #1-4. Written by Ales Kot with art by Matt Taylor, color art by Lee Loughridge, lettering by Clayton Cowles, and design by Tom Muller.

#140char review: Wolf, v1: pure comics magic. @ales_kot knows the perfect amount of things not to say on the page. I re-read it one second after finishing.

CK Says: Buy it!

Wolf is a powerful work of low fantasy, casting supernatural elements like vampires, ghostly winds, and a tentacle-faced man alongside the stars on Mulholland Drive and the streetwalkers on La Brea Boulevard in Los Angeles. Kot and his collaborators have conjured a bit of true magic with this ouroboros of a tale that forced me to pick it up for a re-read just seconds after I finished.

The book opens with a gut-punch image of a man on fire. Not a superhero or an immolator, but a burning man on a stroll rendered all in reds and oranges. This is Antoine Wolfe, an immortal weary of life who’d prefer not to be set on fire as much as he’d like to stay out of both spooky plots and police investigations – and, especially anything that synchronizes all of those things together.

This is not his story and we’re left in relative darkness about his history and the exact nature of his powers. All we know is that he’s the kind of death-proof, magical guy you hire to look into things that require looking into in a Los Angeles that borders directly on Hell. (Kot is vague on whether that’s figurative, literal, or both.) He’s also a magnet for supernatural trouble, whether that’s his half-Lovecraftian buddy who is late on rent or a strangely-calm teenager in the midst of a murder investigation with an X-Files sort of twist. Continue reading ›

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 tune 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” couldn’t set the theme for the rest of its record alone.

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 the session’s other two songs were released on Bowie At The Beeb.

“Unwashed” has a similar feel to “Space Oddity” to start, with major-to-minor guitar strumming and chiming high electric guitars. It transforms into something much heavier as the band enters, thanks to a big, rubbery bass and forceful drumming. There is not an obvious hook, yet it’s more enjoyable than the entirety of his debut. “Let Me Sleep Behind You” is more driven than the original recording, but that beat pushes too quickly 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 of this session is much hipper than Bowie’s previous incarnation. However, 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 about it is peculiar, 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 that make it memorable, like the love to his wife and the oscillating flutes behind the “sitting in a tin can refrain.”

This single 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. Yes, it was on another song that could be accused of being a novelty, but 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 is missing its first verse and orchestral accompaniment to truly set up its scope and drama, but this version (which went long unearthed until seeing release in 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 ›