OF DUCKS, DAREDEVILS, AND DERANGED DUDES AND DUDETTES
(Not necessarily in that order.)
NEXTWAVE: AGENTS OF H.A.T.E. is an insanely good comic book. The fifth issue is out now, and has Warren Ellis throwing more ludicrously funny notions up against the wall to see what sticks. Thankfully, it all works for me. You need to have a certain sense of humor to fully get this, but if you can find the nearly-malevolent joy in seemingly nonsensical combinations of things, then this book is for you. I'd back that up with concrete examples, but then I'd be spoiling too much of the fun of the issue. There's a collection of the first six issues due out this summer. Pre-order today, if you haven't been keeping up.
CARL BARKS' GREATEST DUCKTALES STORIES Volume 1 is out now, and it's a worthy addition to your collection just after Don Rosa's LIFE AND TIMES OF SCROOGE McDUCK. (The sequel to that fine tome is in this month's PREVIEWS, but I'll have more on that in next week's column.) I've read all the stories this volume contains and have seen all the episodes, but if you're newer to the world of Duck stories than I am, I'm sure you'll find lots of new and interesting reads in here. The stories are a veritable Best Of collection for Barks' work, spanning a period of time from the early 50s to the middle-60s. If you liked the Terrie Fermies, thrilled to the micro-ducks and their corn export business, or loved the lemming who nearly got away, you'll find much to enjoy here. These are six stories on which the creators of the animated DuckTales series based early first season episodes. The episodes are memorable, but the comic stories are even better. Carl Barks' name belongs right up there with Will Eisner and Jack Kirby in the annals of sequential art. Pick this book up to see why.
Thankfully, there's a two page write-up introducing the book from Chris Barat and Joe Torcivia that will help you put it all in historical context, noting the different paths the TV show went on from Barks' comic works. David Gerstein contributes two pages later on going into detail with the differences between the TV series' bible and general Barks lore.
This is an important book and one which should be an easy sell to more than just Duck readers. For those who got the bug from Rosa's LIFE AND TIMES last year, this is the next logical step. These are great self-contained stories in the classic mold that are easily accessible.
The print quality of this book is exceptional. It's amazing what you can get for $11 these days. Gemstone didn't skimp on anything to get the book down to this price point. It's a full-sized full color book, with a solid spine and everything. It sold out at my shop -- get it while it lasts at yours today. Special order it if you must.
If you're looking for something a little more modern, though, I'd point you to last week's issue of UNCLE SCROOGE #354. It features a complete new (to America) story by Don Rosa, "The Black Knight Glorps Again!" This is a sequel to a story Rosa did a few years ago that was wildly inventive, playing with panel layouts and storytelling styles.
The Black Knight is a French thief who chances across a suit of knight's armor with the property to destroy everything it comes in contact with. He can walk through walls or destroy bins full of money, for two examples. The original story was such a thrill for its manic energy, inventive uses of the suit, and the way Rosa drew the Knight careening through panels up and down the page. This story shines for the patter between the ducks and the knight.
The suit of armor is a trick that we've seen before, but Rosa can bring back the villain thanks to some new uses for the armor and defenses against it. In a way, it's a classic super hero plot device -- bring back the villain with nearly unstoppable powers, and defeat him a second time with new methods. But the part of the story that really shines for me is all the wordplay and back-and-forth dialogue between all the characters. Most people think of Rosa as the guy who brought modern superhero tools to the Duck universe, or the one with the detailed art, or maybe (unfairly) the guy who does all the sequels to Carl Barks' adventure stories. I think he's always excelled at the short humor stories that he does sparingly, but this story is the best of both worlds. It gives us a progressing series of action sequences, but also entertains us with witty banter and running gags. The French thief's accent is the butt of most of the gags, but Rosa's timing with them is uncanny. He knows how to layer the dialogue in without wearing out a gag's welcome. Even the "narrator" gets in on the joke at times.
Now, that all said -- don't look at the back cover of the issue until you've read the book. It's an additional pin-up based on the story, and it gives away one major plot element.
Don Rosa contributes the text piece on the inside front and back cover to give us all the details of how he created this story. There are some interesting differences between the European and American versions of this story. Panels from both are shown for comparison. For a change, it's the Americans who get the better version.
There's one other point of interest in this issue to mention here. "Passport to Lisbon" is a fun little adventure depositing Donald and the Nephews into Portugal on the hunt for the missing Uncle Scrooge. The coloring for the story is credited to "Egmont and Kneon Transitt." It's different from any other Duck story I've ever seen. The Duck stories use mostly flat colors. You might get a slight gradient in the background when there's no detail in there, but that's about it. This story, though, looks like it was colored by a Marvel or DC colorist. There's some attempts at modeling characters in three dimensions with color choices. Even the beaks of the ducks use more than one shade of orange. Pennyworth's jowls are shaded slightly darker to give him something approaching a 5 o'clock shadow. And the normally flat white rumps of the duck get a little shading in one edge to help them look rounder. I'm not sure this is something that would work with all Duck artists, but I like the attempt to try something different. I wouldn't mind seeing more stories shaded like this to see how it works. I don't think Barks' work needs it, and I think Rosa's work would wind up looking too busy with it, but I think there's room for it in the Duck titles.
Heck, I'd like to see one of today's Marvel or DC colorists handle a cover for Gemstone, just to see what it would look like. It would certainly look different from all the other Duck books today.
Any time there's a brand new 26 page story from Don Rosa, it's an event. This book is no exception, and the $6.95 price tag is no impediment to my enjoyment of it. Sure, the DuckTales book is a better value for the buck, but this issue is enjoyable, as well.
And speaking of coloring in comics --
DAREDEVIL #85 is another great issue. We're too far into the storyline at this point for me to try to sell you on the book. You're either in or you're not. If you're not, I heartily recommend the trade paperback or hardcover that will undoubtedly collect the storyline when it's done. Even without seeing the ending yet, there's enough story in these few short Ed Brubaker-written issues so far to recommend it.
The highlight is Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano's artwork, which cannot be referenced without the coloring of Frank D'Armata. Unfortunately, too much of D'Armata's work lately has been dark, often muddying or hiding the artwork. It doesn't happen that way in this series. Instead, he lends a more painterly feel to the book, using some real world patterns to add texture to the art and the backgrounds. In scenes set up outside, the skies are obviously photographs, but the colors are adjusted to keep them from popping up too much. They blend in seamlessly with the rest of the artwork. It's a very pretty book, especially for one set mostly inside a prison.
X-MEN 3 -- A PLEASANT SURPRISE
After all the unpleasantness surrounding Brett Ratner's assumption of the director's throne, the awkward-looking commercials, and the not very well-received publicity photos of the new characters, the latest X-MEN movie is a pretty good way to spend two hours of your life, and further proof that you really shouldn't judge anything until you've experienced it. Don't lambaste a comic based on the solicitation text; don't bad mouth a movie based on the trailer. Sure, you can use those as guides in your purchasing decisions, and rightfully so. But don't hold court and act like the authority on a matter in which you have no knowledge.
X-MEN 3 is a great comic movie. That's not just because some of the recent comic book-based movies from Marvel have had mixed reviews, but because it stands on its own as a great movie. Sure, it could have gone further with the premise it proposes, but that would have bloated up what was, in effect, a fun action/adventure romp.
Now, if you're a comics purist, you'll find plenty to hate in here. Some characters have different positions in the movie universe than they do in the main Marvel universe, or even the Ultimate universe. Characters are quickly transposed into storylines from the comics to the movie, based on where they are in their respective continuity. Wolverine, for example, fills in for Cyclops in parts of the movie. And while lots of the dialogue is merely serviceable, it's not like I ever went to an X-Men movie or comic expecting recitations of Shakespearian quality -- or even Mamet-ian. Wolverine tosses off some good one-liners, and that's good enough for me.
If you haven't seen the movie yet, please go do so. If you want to skip spoilers, then don't read the rest of this column. I chose to stick this into the column last this week with just that in mind. I won't even ask you to scroll past it. Just click your back button or move on to the next comics blog you have in your bookmarks. I understand. Come back here after you've seen the movie. Given the huge box office the movie had in its opening weekend ($104 million!), I doubt that'll shut out too many of you.
I'm not going to go over each and every point of the movie. That would be silly. But there are some things that made me smile as the movie went along. This movie resonated for me in much the same way as the first two did -- as collections of moments scraped together from the comic book for the big screen. At least Chris Claremont got his three seconds of screen time on this go-around. It's the very least he deserves for all the "inspiration" his writing on the mutants has been for the screen writers of these three movies.
Yes, this is a dramatically different rendition of "The Death of Phoenix," at the end of it all. Setting the story up on a dark corner of the moon and filling it up with The Watcher and various alien characters wouldn't have worked too well on the big screen. The movie makers would have been laughed out of every theater had they done that. Could you imagine the silliness that would ensure with a giant bald-headed man in a white tunic/dress standing quietly to one side? Ugh. As it was, some moments of the movie did cause some chuckles from the crowd in unintended spots. I think, perhaps, that those were the moments that the comic geeks understood but that would take some explaining to the "civilians," as it were.
In any case, subbing in Wolverine for Cyclops in the grand finale with Jean Grey was inspired writing. Given that the movie version of Wolverine is the true star, it also makes the most sense. I'd think that if you look through the three movies, you'd see that all the best written scenes feature Logan. They're also the most memorable and quotable lines, going back to his popping a single claw up at Cyclops in the first movie and calling him a four-letter word to his lighting a cigar on the burning wreckage of the fight with the Sentinels in the third movie. This Wolverine is more likeable and more entertaining than the comic book version.
The one weakness in the movie is that part of the heart of it is cut out. The big development is that of the mutant cure. This is not a new story for X-Men readers. It's been done multiple times by now. It's something that should provide for strong emotional storytelling, as mutants are forced to come to grips with who and what they are, as well as what they want to be. This movie glosses over it too quickly. The cure is seen from the point of view, mostly, of the king-makers. It's the president's reaction to it we see. Magneto's. Xavier's. Even Storm's. Rogue is the one who chooses to go for it, and that's mostly because she's being a whiney teenaged lovesick girl whose boyfriend is coming very close to cheating on her. That's not her struggling with a decision. That's her reacting to events constructed around her to push her in that direction. It felt like a bit of a cheat. Worse, it doesn't comprise a very large part of the movie. It's an add-on, one mostly seen in Bobby Drake's growing romance with Kitty Pryde. Or is it a romance? Maybe he really is just being a nice guy, right?
With the large box office receipts for this movie, though, do you think there's a Very Good Chance that plans for a solo Wolverine movie might be put on hold while X-MEN 4 can be made? The doors were left plenty wide open for it, as the final two seconds of the movie and the final "cut scene" after the credits reversed two of the most major changes in the mythos to this movie.
Let's talk about that for a second: Did anyone fall for Charles' death, happening as it did practically minutes after his lecture to the class about transferring one's mind to another's body? In comics, this is practically a routine occurrence or, at the very least, not an unthinkable nor unmentionable one. From a theatrical point of view, though, it presents the problem of not using Patrick Stewart in the next movie to play Professor X. His voice might be used in some way during "psychic scenes" or on the Astral Plane, but the body will be very much different. Too bad. On the other hand, the X-Men could just whip up a clone or a Life Model Decoy or a sufficiently advanced android of some sort, or just leave him locked in a room venturing out only through holographic images projecting Xavier's old body.
Oh, dear goodness, but I'm really geeking out right now, aren't I?
Having Magneto suddenly controlling a metal chess piece at the end, though, I can't explain at the moment. There are ways around it, of course, but nothing was set up in the body of the movie, itself, to explain it. It's a bit of a cheat, really, and a total violation of Chekov's Law. You know, the whole bit about if you fire a gun in the third act of the movie, you need to set it up in the first act? They did that with Xavier. With Magneto, it's just a cheap twist ending of sorts. Unless, perhaps, it points to the cure's lack of effectiveness. We'll see in X-MEN 4, won't we? If so, expect Rogue to get all the juicy emotional scenes dealing with her sudden cure reversal. And then expect more Mystique, not that there was anything left to the imagination after this movie. . .
Some articles spread out a couple of weeks ago about the tech used to de-age Xavier and Magneto at the beginning of the movie. The scene was shot with the actors, whose faces were then de-aged in post-production. No prosthetics or makeup was necessary. The computer smoothed out their faces and removed the wrinkles and sag lines to make them younger. I wonder how close this scene came to the much-discussed Uncanny Valley. For me, they looked too shiny and too smooth. Perhaps it was the screen I watched the movie on or the way it was projected, but their faces seemed to shimmer a little bit during the scene. I wonder if that was my mind trying to adjust for the younger look of familiar older actors, or a deficiency of the technology at use? It's an impressive accomplishment for special effects, right now, but it still needs work.
Back to the movie: Juggernaut crashing through the walls at Kitty was reminiscent of the classic Brood chase from Claremont's run. The fastball special was effective, although it seemed a lot more mundane in live action than it does in the comics. I think that's part of the charm of the comics. In most fastball special sequences, the artist gets to pick a dramatic angle to show the throw from, and then only show the payoff -- Wolverine launched away from Colossus. In the movies, it's necessary to show every part of the sequence right back to Colossus' handling of Wolverine more like a hammer toss than a football pass. That, combined with the obvious wirework of Hugh Jackman hurtling through the air, caused a brief break of the suspension of disbelief. Still, it's the fastball friggin' special up on the big screen!
Sorry. I'm having geek moments again. . .
As a bonus, Colossus was believable. I would have preferred a thicker Russian accent, but not getting one wasn't a deal-breaker. The promo images of him were a bit underwhelming, but that's largely because you can study a still image for a lot longer than you could see the special effect up on the screen in an action sequence. I'm sure some were crying that Colossus can't cover up some other person in steel as he touches them, but I let that one go. It's not completely faithful to the comic, but so what?
Seeing Ororo lead the team is obviously a part of the script written to accommodate an Oscar-award winning actress. On the other hand, it's not the death of the movie. For starters, Ororo became the team leader in Cyclops' absence in the comics. That's what happens in the movie. It's a concept that doesn't seem silly to me. It might be a failing of the movie that we didn't get to see enough supporting evidence for this, but as a comic geek it seemed natural to me. Part of me thought it would have been really cool to freak out the "civilians" in the theaters and have Ororo show up in a leather vest with a mohawk. Sure, she has a new haircut, but it didn't go quite that far. Still, we got to see Ororo in action without any embarrassing frog-referencing lines of dialogue.
In the end, I enjoyed the movie for what it was: an action flic starring a bunch of comic book characters. It doesn't want to be an Oscar-winning movie. It's not trying to redefine the action flic. It's not trying to be artsy. (We saw how well that worked with the HULK movie, didn't we?) It's just a fun, teenaged-friendly action flic with fantastic characters that have long histories behind them. I was entertained. There weren't any really draggy moments in the script, as things moved quickly from set piece to set piece, with a few good Claremontian soap opera moments throw in to good effect. (See mostly Kitty Pryde and Bobby Drake.)
Now, I'm ready for SUPERMAN RETURNS!
Next week, we'll delve back into PREVIEWS and I'll have a couple reviews and previews for you, as well.
Don't forget to listen to The Pipeline Podcast on its own homepage now. It's updated every Tuesday night with a fresh look at the top ten comic releases of the week.
My blog, Various and Sundry, has concludeds its annual hard-hitting analysis of AMERICAN IDOL, and now returns to the general insanity of life, the web, and everything else.
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