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Friday Freebies, and Other Odds and Ends

by  in Comic News Comment
Friday Freebies, and Other Odds and Ends

One of the perks of being a columnist is supposed to be that people send you free stuff for you to write about. Sadly, this is almost never the case with me.

Seriously. In my ten years writing the video/DVD review column at With magazine, I got review copies of things exactly twice. (One was Dead Man Walking with Susan Sarandon, which was admittedly a real treat, and honestly I’ve forgotten the other.)

Since taking on this column gig here, I have found that my batting average is up a LITTLE bit — I find myself getting more press releases, and last week I got a couple of giveaways. So I thought I’d talk about them a little bit here, because they ARE sort of interesting.

And also because, like our other Greg, my policy is that if you send me your thing, whatever it is, I’ll look at it here. Indies, photocopy ‘zines, anything, I don’t care. I’m interested in everything. I won’t promise to LIKE everything, but if you genuinely want your work reviewed, send it along.

The first one in the pile is The 99: First Light, a preview book from Kuwait-based Teshkeel Comics.

This one’s been something of a nine-day’s-wonder in the mainstream press, because the book purports to be superheroes filtered through the Muslim viewpoint. Creator and Teshkeel head honcho Naif al-Mutawa has gone on at length in interviews about how he really wanted a way to give Muslim kids an alternative viewpoint to the usual hatred of the West, and get actual Muslim values in front of Western eyes in a way that was entertaining, and so on and so on. These are certainly laudable goals, and frankly I’m in favor of any project that has “getting comics to young people” as a stated goal. So absolutely, good on Mr. Mutawi. His heart is clearly in the right place. I wanted to get that part out of the way up front.

However, let’s answer the key question that has gone politely unvoiced in these various newspaper puff pieces in Arts & Leisure sections all over the world: “Yeah, great, but is the book actually any good?”

My opinion is a considered, “Welllll…. Kind of.”

It’s certainly not BAD. Mutawa’s partnered with Marvel Comics in this venture, and he has Fabian Nicieza working with him on the script and John McCrea does a nice job on the penciled art.

Here’s the problem. There’s not a lot that’s new here, at least not to the jaded eyes of Western comics readers. For example, look at the premise of the book, recapped on the inside front cover: “99 gems of power lie scattered across the Earth. These Noor Stones are storehouses for the knowledge of the great city of Baghdad and its illustrious civilization, now lost to time and history. Legend tells of how these gems once empowered a select few with superhuman abilities. Dr. Ramzi Razem has made it his mission to search for these gems and those who would bear them. If he succeeds, mankind may once again be able to usher in an age of peace and prosperity. His years of searching have proved futile. Till now….”

See what I mean? Sounds awfully familiar to superhero fans. Dr. Razem is a lot like Heroes‘ Dr. Mohinder Suresh, who is in turn a lot like Marvel’s Professor Charles Xavier. And of course the first few that find the gems and gain powers are a troubled teenage girl who gets empathic abilities, a good-hearted big guy who gains strength, an angry young man who wants to exact vengeance — and there’s a mysterious government group pursuing them….

And so on. The race is on for the good guys to find the super people before the evil government does. As a vehicle to improve cultural understanding in the Middle East, this may be wildly innovative, but as a stateside comic book, there’s not much we haven’t seen.

This is something that would be worth a look if the underlying Muslim culture comes a little further forward than I saw in this preview book. Right now, it’s barely hinted at — that leaves the generic superhero stuff and we’ve already got lots of that here. We get it. You speak U.S. superhero comics, you’re versed in the idiom, okay, fine. Now that’s out of the way, I’d like to see Mr. Mutawi really show us some of what’s going on in that part of the world. What do Arabic superheroes consider crime worth fighting? If Teshkeel is serious about penetrating the U.S. comics market, they’re going to have to find a newer angle than warmed-over mutant soap opera stuff. Seems to me that showing us the Middle East we haven’t seen in the States would be the one worth pursuing, since it’s apparently the mission statement and all.

Anyway, it’s something to keep an eye on, and I wish them well. I might check in on it again in a few months to see if it’s outgrown the bad case of X-envy that’s dragging down what I’ve seen here.

*

From new Middle East mythology to Old European mythology….

Someone passed along the Comic-Con preview book for the new licensed adaptation of the Beowulf movie, coming soon from IDW.

This actually isn’t the first time someone’s gone to Beowulf as inspiration for a comic, of course. DC took a swing at it in the 70’s…

This was an interesting effort in that DC’s Beowulf took on both Dracula and Satan himself in the course of the book’s six-issue run… certainly, it was trying very hard to not just be another barbarian book, and it was mildly entertaining in a sort of gonzo grindhouse way, but honestly it wasn’t that good and probably deserved to be canceled

Jerry Bingham did a much nicer job of adapting the original poem for First Comics in the 1980’s, I’m told. At any rate, Mike Gold thought well enough of it that he stepped up production on First’s graphic novel line to get it out there.

(I haven’t actually seen it but in researching this column I found one cheap on eBay and won it, thus continuing our tradition of ending up spending money on some column-related book almost every week. Anyway, we’ll see if it’s as good as people say.)

So it wasn’t as though the benchmark was set THAT high for IDW doing a Beowulf comic. However, it appears that they’re only doing the movie, which is a shame. There’s really no upside any more in doing a straight comics adaptation of a movie, not when you know it’s going to be available on DVD in six months. This is, I think, some sort of atavistic licensing reflex left over from the pre-home video era, when a novelization or a comic was the only way we had to experience a movie on demand after it left theaters. But it’s really a no-win situation for the publisher today, unless the company is prepared to undercut the movie itself by issuing the book as a sort of graphic-novel spoiler. (This has actually happened once or twice; I recall there was quite a hullaballoo over Marvel’s Return of the Jedi book coming out a few days before the movie was released. It probably really was an accident, as Marvel claimed… but it sure didn’t hurt sales on the thing.)

Likewise, it won’t hurt IDW’s Beowulf comic that Neil Gaiman’s name is plastered all over it, but caveat emptor: he wrote the movie, not the comic book. The comic is from Chris Ryall and Gabriel Rodriguez, and I must say this little preview booklet looked pretty good. I’d like to see them get a shot at continuing the story beyond the movie, assuming the story allows for that.

As it stands, though, this worked more as a tease for the movie than as anything to get a reader excited about the actual comic. Great for the Hollywood folks, but maybe not so great for IDW. The comics adaptation is to be released in four parts, weekly throughout October. One assumes that at $2.99 an issue, you’re out twelve dollars or so for the whole thing… roughly two matinee showings of the actual Beowulf movie, or the price of a standard discounted DVD from Best Buy or Amazon when the movie gets to that stage. See what I mean? Against that, a comics version hasn’t got much of a shot, in today’s market.

It’s not a bad-looking comic, but I have to wonder why they are even bothering. Today, if a licensed book is going to have a chance it pretty much has to be all-new, original material. You’d think IDW of all people would have figured that out by now.

*

I think I mentioned that in addition to free stuff, I also get the occasional press release. Here’s one about David Yurkovich’s Mantlo: A Life In Comics that left me with a big grin. Well done to all concerned. Julie and I were proud to contribute to the project and it’s nice that it worked out so well.

*

And finally, a couple of items that are not technically review freebie things but they are a lot of fun.

First of all, I stumbled across this in a Salvation Army shop last week and I gotta tell you, it’s really a great read.

It purports to be the REAL story of Don Diego Vega, and the THREE people (!) who wore the mask of Zorro in Old California.

Now, as it happens, not too long ago, I read a collection of Johnston McCulley’s original tales, and they’re entertaining enough, but pretty disposable… comparable to Erle Stanley Gardner’s Perry Mason books, more than anything else I could think of. By that I mean there are a LOT of stories, and they are all fun but unmemorable; the stories tend to run together, I couldn’t tell you what any one of them was really ABOUT.

So Isabel Allende’s book fulfills that vague urge for a REAL Zorro novel. Oddly, it feels more authentic somehow than the originals, and I highly recommend it. Especially if you see it used in a thrift shop for $1.99 like I did.

The other minor score this week was a Sherlock Holmes book I hadn’t known about.

The Case of the Missing Martian was Eternity’s follow-up to their other two successful Holmes pastiches, Scarlet in Gaslight and A Case of Blind Fear, featuring Stoker’s Dracula and H.G. Wells’ Invisible Man, respectively. This was the last of the three and it came out in 1990.

This time the crossover is with, obviously, Wells’ War of the Worlds. As I’ve said before, it’s damn hard to find a Holmes crossover idea that SOMEONE hasn’t done SOMEWHERE, and I already had another one on my bookshelf.

Nevertheless, for once the comics version beat the prose one, at least for me. I have to say that in this case Eternity’s version topped the book by the Wellmans. It has a much better use of Professor Challenger, for one, and for another…

…you also get a version of the Ripper story along with the rest. I liked this quite a bit, especially the covers, which is why I’m showing you all four of them here.

The script is by Doug Murray, who comics readers mostly know as the guy who wrote The ‘Nam. Who knew he was such a fervent Baker Street Irregular?

I found this in a quarter bin and enjoyed it a lot. There’s a nice text piece from Murray in each issue, too. I don’t know that I’d pay a LOT of money for this, but getting the whole thing for a buck was impossible to pass up. But certainly worth keeping a lookout for, if you are the sort that enjoys scrounging in back-issue bins. You have to admire Murray for trying the one-stop Victoriana adventure character crossover in comics a decade or so ahead of Alan Moore’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; and if he doesn’t match the brilliance of Moore’s effort, I think he still acquits himself well. A solidly entertaining B-movie-type story.

That was my week. Not a lot to talk about, but, you know, publishers, if you sent me more free stuff, I’d have had more.

I’m just saying.

…see you next week.

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