Trade paperbacks, older editions, and miscellaneous for May 2012

Hey, it's that time again, when we hit things hard and we hit things fast and then ... we're gone! We're like ninjas that way!

American Vampire volume 2 by Scott Snyder (writer), Rafael Albuquerque (artist), Mateus Santolouco (artist), Dave McCaig (colorist), and Steve Wands (letterer). $17.99, 132 pgs, FC, DC/Vertigo.

I've gone on the record as not liking Snyder's endings too much, but I have no problems with his beginnings or middles, and as he doesn't need to "end" this series (the individual stories resolve, of course, but they also lead into more stories), so far it's pretty entertaining. As I've noted before, David Brothers has pointed out that Snyder often begins his stories with narration about how the main character's daddy was always there to give him advice, and goddamn if he doesn't do it again in this volume, where after a brief, two-page prologue set in the "present" (1936), we flash back six months to the main character, Cashel, the Las Vegas chief of police. Father-son relationships are wildly important in Snyder's writing, even when the "son" is a daughter, in the case of Felicia Book, who for the 1930s is far more "male" than her peers. It's fascinating and annoying at the same time, because Snyder can't seem to get into a story any other way.

There's not much to say about the main story - it's more Skinner Sweet, more conflict with the European vampires, a big twist that everyone can see coming, and the usual brilliant artwork of Albuquerque. Snyder is building a nice mythology, which he's been good at in other comics, so it's not surprising he's doing it here. In the two-part story that ends the collection, we check in on Pearl and Henry, and of course an old "friend" tries to find them, because no one can ever stay dead in comics. It's a nice story continuing the romance between the two characters (I always like a good romance in comics!), although Snyder cheats a little by letting us think the two threads of the story are occurring at the same time, which artificially increases the tension. Santolouco, who gets better all the time, does a good job with this story (and his art on the first issue of Dial H was even better).

Obviously, this comic works better if you've read the first trade, but it's not bad as a story. Snyder has an interesting idea about vampires, which helps, and he's a good writer when he doesn't have to end things. I am a bit confused about Cashel's son, though. How exactly did that happen? Can anyone explain?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Animal Man volume 1: The Hunt by Jeff Lemire (writer), Travel Foreman (artist), John Paul Leon (artist), Steve Pugh (artist), Jeff Huet (additional inks), Dan Green (additional inks), Lovern Kindzierski (colorist), Jared K. Fletcher (letterer). $14.99, 120 pgs, FC, DC.

I've read a lot of good things about Lemire's Animal Man, and I did enjoy the first issue, so getting this trade (of issues #1-6) was a no-brainer. Maybe I'm just getting too old and cranky, but I don't think this is all that good. The plot feels really familiar, to the point where I'm wondering how much was already done back when Jamie Delano was writing the book 20 years ago. I haven't read those issues in a while, so I suppose I could be wrong, but the idea of the book still feels familiar. Now, plots aren't that important, because most plots have been done, but Lemire doesn't do all that much with the characters, either - Buddy is still a reluctant superhero, Ellen is still a supportive but occasionally annoyed wife, Cliff is still a teenaged tool, and Maxine is still adorably precocious and far more connected to the "red" than Cliff will ever be (why doesn't Buddy wonder if Cliff is really his son or actually the mailman's, given how little Cliff cares about his weird nature connections?). Lemire slots them all into place, and this instantly feels familiar. The plot concerns various avatars of the "red" summoning Maxine (along with Cliff) to aid them in a battle against the Hunters Three, who were once part of the "red" but decided they could do a better job, so they rebelled. Buddy was never supposed to be an "avatar," because that role is reserved for Maxine. The plot is cobbled together from various other comics, from the idea of several protectors of the "red" to the rebellion of the Hunters, and again, the characterization doesn't make up for the fairly pedestrian plot. As it moved on, I actually got angrier at it, because Lemire uses the entire first story to set up a crossover with Swamp Thing. It got more and more frustrating as I realized that this plot wouldn't even be resolved in this comic, and who knows how DC will release the crossover - as one trade, or as two, one for each title? Finally, issue #6 even brings the action to a thudding halt as Cliff watches his father's movie on an iPad. According to the interview at the beginning of the first issue, Buddy is getting "Oscar buzz" for his performance, but the script as written is a bunch of overwrought clichés - down on his luck, alcoholic superhero can't get custody of his kid, tries to regain some past glory, fails miserably, alienates his kid even more - which makes me think the Best Actor category is particularly weak that year. This story is just a lot of same-old, same-old, which is extremely frustrating when you consider that Lemire is a pretty good writer.

The book is saved a little by Travel Foreman's insane art, but even that is weirdly inconsistent. When Buddy and Maxine are inside the "red," Foreman goes nuts with the designs of the past avatars, the Hunters Three, and even Buddy, as his body morphs and distends and turns inside out. When the Hunters enter the real world and stalk Ellen and Cliff, Foreman continues with their crazy appearance, and some of the designs are truly disturbing. Occasionally, however, some of his pencil work looks terribly rushed and sketchy, and I imagine that's part of the reason he's no longer on the book. Foreman at least attempts to make Lemire's scripts seem a lot more bizarre than they actually are, and this style he's using is a nice blend of his more mainstream work and the more oddball stuff he was doing on Iron Fist. It's always nice to see Leon's work, even though he doesn't have a very interesting script to work on.

I'm disappointed by Animal Man, not because it's a bad comic, but because it's so banal. All of the writers on these New 52 books have a chance to put their own stamp on the book, but Lemire is just recycling stuff from years ago, and it doesn't seem fresh at all. It's entertaining, but kind of stale. That's really a shame.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Planet of the Apes volume 2: The Devil's Pawn by Daryl Gregory (writer), Carlos Magno (artist), Nolan Woodard (colorist), Darrin Moore (colorist), and Travis Lanham (letterer). $14.99, 88 pgs, FC, Boom! Studios.

I read the first trade of this title because, last summer, Chip Mosher told me he'd break my arm if I didn't (okay, he didn't, but it's more dramatic that way), and I really liked it. I was kind of surprised, because I've never been interested in the PotA universe, but Gregory and Magno made it work. So I got the second trade, and it's just as good. The first trade was slightly more focused because the plot centered on finding the assassin who killed the Lawgiver, the old ape whose granddaughter is now more or less in charge of the city (Mak) and whose adopted granddaughter is the unofficial mayor of the human section of town. The assassination plot played out against the backdrop of the ape/human tension. When the assassin committed suicide and took some apes along, the tension boiled up into open conflict, and this trade tells how both sides prepare for battle. Therefore, this trade doesn't feel as tight as the first one, but it remains a fascinating look at racial politics and how events get manipulated and turned into something neither side wants. Sullivan, the human, and Alaya, the ape, were children together, but their old friendship can't stop the forces the assassin put in motion. Gregory uses this trade to show how both of them change, becoming harder and harder even though they don't want to. The reader is supposed to be on Sullivan's side, because she becomes more militant as a reaction rather than Alaya's seeming embrace of war, but Gregory does a very good job showing that neither woman is innocent. What's also interesting is that Gregory deftly shows the rifts within ape society itself - the "apes" are different species, after all, so it would be surprising if they were completely unified. In most comics, the divisions in society would be stark and stereotypical. Gregory doesn't allow that to occur, so even the "evil" people on both sides can make reasonable arguments about why they act the way they do.

Magno continues to do a wonderful job with the art. His details are phenomenal, making the divisions in society much clearer because of the way the apes and humans dress and live. The apes are almost Victorian in dress, giving a nice impression of wealth and privilege, while the humans dress in what appears to be home-made garb. Magno does a very good job with the weaponry, too, making it clear that the "new" weapons the humans acquire are much more technologically advanced than the apes' even if the characters don't tell us so. He's marvelous at the battle scenes, as we flash back to a particularly ferocious one that helped poison the well of ape-human relations and Magno turns the war into a vicious street fight for survival that ends in a heart-rending massacre. Magno helps turn Gregory's idea of a stratified society into a disturbing reality, and brings to life the prejudices both sides hold about the other. The one problem I have with Magno's art is that the humans look a little too pretty, especially the women, but that's a minor complaint. Magno's lush art is a huge part of why the book is so good.

This creative team is really doing a wonderful job with this story, and I look forward to the next trade. The only problem one might have with this is that each trade collects four issues, and for 15 bucks, that's a bit much. However, if you consider that four single issues of this book costs 16 dollars, the wait for the trade isn't a bad trade-off. I wish Boom! could charge a bit less for their comics, but when they're this good, I don't mind one bit.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

Marksmen by David Baxter (story/scripter), Dave Elliott (story), Javier Aranda (penciler), Garry Leach (finisher), Jessica Kholinne (colorist), Beny Maulana (colorist), and Bebe Giraffe (letterer). $15.99, 168 pgs, FC, Image/Benaroya Publishing.

Gianluca Glazer sent this to me in the mail, and I always appreciate it when he does that. Occasionally I really like the comics he sends me, so even when they're mediocre, I appreciate him taking the time to hook me up.

Marksmen, unfortunately, falls into the "mediocre" category. There's nothing horrible about it, but it's basically a post-apocalyptic action/adventure movie that plays out exactly how you expect it will. After the United States collapses (there's an unnecessary prologue added, I think, specifically for the trade that explains how it happens; it's always best to avoid specifics in cases like this, because I very much doubt that American society will crumble so fast that President Obama will have to resign in disgrace), people start living in small, insular societies. The two main (and opposing) city-states are New San Diego, which has a lot of working tech from before the collapse and runs on scientific principles, and Lone Star, which is based in Texas and has become a rigid theocracy. NSD uses various new-fangled energy sources, from solar to wind, while Lone Star is still using oil. The leaders of Lone Star - a man called "the Duke" and Deacon Glenn - have realized that they're running out of oil, so they launch an invasion of New San Diego to claim their energy sources. NSD is protected by a group of high-tech soldiers called Marksmen, and the star of the book, Drake, is the stereotypical "loose cannon" in the Marksmen - he plays by his own rules, man!

That's the basic set-up. Now, imagine every scenario happening exactly as you think it will. Does Drake meet some refugees from Lone Star who save his life and claim they've left because of religious persecution but then it's revealed they're really working for the "bad guys"? Check. Do they have a change of heart after seeing how wonderful NSD really is? Check. Are long-buried secrets revealed about the connections between NSD and Lone Star? Check. Do Drake and his rival learn to respect each other just before the rival gets killed? Check. Do we think several characters are dead, only to find out they're not? Check. Does the bad guy fight Drake mano-a-mano instead of just shooting him in the head like any smart person? Check. Should you trust the woman? Of course you shouldn't! It's frustrating reading this, because you can see everything in front of you, so absolutely nothing surprises you. I know that some people don't care about that, but it would be nice if the writers put a tiny bit of effort into the script instead using "Action Movie Script 101" and just inserting the names of their characters. For instance, early on we learn that Lone Star, as befits its Texas roots, was much more open to new ideas than NSD before it became a theocracy. Just that small dichotomy - that San Diego, for all its success, is turning its citizens into automatons while Lone Star, despite being stuck in the past, is a bit more anarchic - could have made for a far more interesting story. Only at the end does Drake really address it, but it feels like a condemnation of our current society far more than it does of their society - would Facebook really exist anymore? - and the writers only hint at it throughout the book. It doesn't sound as interesting when the people berating the people of NSD for being linked through technology are those who are living under a fanatical religious regime.

In the same way, Aranda's pencils, Leach's inks, and the colors of Kholinne and Maulana are mediocre at best. The line work is competent, the colorists make everything slick and sterile like too many digital colorists do, and the book looks ... fine, I guess. There are a few terrible layouts on some pages, but for the most part, we can figure out what's going on in the story. Aranda does a good job making sure every character is distinctive, because there are a lot of characters in the book and it might be tough to follow them all, but it's not. Aranda also does a nice job with downtown San Diego - obviously, he used photos to get everything right, but he did draw it all, and it's always nice to see someone get a specific place right.

The one thing that, I suppose, is fine about the book is that Baxter and Elliott decide early on that they're going to give us an action movie, and they deliver on that. As much as I would have liked a bit more sociology, that's not in the cards, so the writers crank up the action and never let their feet off the gas. The book speeds along, with action on pretty much every page, and it's kind of impressive how much actually happens in this comic. When we read a lot of trades where characters spend four issues talking about stuff and then two issues actually doing things, Marksmen feels like it's going 100 miles per hour, as the two sides fight a war to the death and whenever we think someone's going to get a breather, more action shows up and the book takes off once again. It doesn't make it a good comic, but it does help paper over the severe flaws in the story. That's something, I guess.

As always, I feel terrible about not liking something I didn't pay for. Marksmen isn't terrible, but it certainly isn't that good. It's just kind of forgettable. Oh well.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Uncanny X-Force volume 3: The Dark Angel Saga Book 1 by Rick Remender (writer), Billy Tan (artist), Rich Elson (artist), Mark Brooks (artist), Scot Eaton (penciler), Andrew Currie (inker), Andrew Hennessy (inker), Dean White (colorist), Paul Mounts (colorist), Richard Isanove (color assists), Sonia Oback (color assists), Cory Petit (letterer), and Clayton Cowles (letterer). $19.99, 134 pgs, FC, Marvel.

This trade is kind of a mess, and not in a good way. I'm going to get the next trade, because it's interesting enough that I want to find out what's going on with the whole "Dark Angel" thing, but this isn't the strongest group of stories, unfortunately. I'll get to the writing soon enough, but let's consider how Marvel's policy of overshipping is hurting their product.

So this trade collects issues #8-13 of the ongoing, which is a nice, six-issue grouping. A lot of new trades from Marvel seem to collect four issues, which might make me not even wait for the trades and simply, you know, stop buying their shit, but at least we get six issues in this trade. Marvel was double-shipping these issues, so issue #8 came out in the same month as #7 (which was in the second trade), #9 and #10 came out in the same month, and #13 came out in the same month as #14 (which will be in the next trade) (and this is all according to the Grand Comics Database, so if I'm wrong, blame them). So there's no way they can maintain artistic consistency over the course of the trade. Issues #8, 9, and 10 are as close to stand-alone stories as we're going to get, so the lack of artistic consistency doesn't mean too much, I guess, but the way Marvel and DC use colorists to make their artists' work similar is annoying when the pencils don't really sync up. So in issue #8, we get Billy Tan, and Dean White tries his damnedest to make his work look like Jerome Opeña's, with mixed results. In issue #9, only his second issue, Tan's art looks sloppier and more amorphous, skirting into a low-rent Mark Texeira neighborhood. Rich Elson and his clean, almost cartoony lines show up in issue #10, and the tone of Elson's art is completely at odds with the story of Warren stalking reporters who are going to expose X-Force's existence. The "real" Dark Angel saga begins in issue #11, when the team goes to the "Age of Apocalypse" world, and Mark Brooks takes over on art. White is back on colors, trying to blend Brooks' buoyant lines into something grittier, and Brooks has gotten a lot better over the years, so maybe he's doing that too. Brooks manages to draw three straight issues, but by the end of the book, he, Currie, and White don't, apparently, have the luxury of time, and the roughness of the first issue has been replaced by Brooks' more traditional, Grummett-inspired superheroics. So we get three different primary pencilers, which hurts the artistic continuity that Marvel has been trying to achieve ever since Frank D'Armata showed that he can take a bunch of artists and make them all look like Steve Epting, but we also get the three different pencilers giving us different looks on the pages they're drawing. You'd be forgiven for thinking that six different pencilers worked on this book, and that's just a mess. Part of the reason the first arc was so good was because Opeña drew the whole damned thing, plus they came out monthly. Then Marvel got greedy. I know, shocking.

It doesn't help that Remender kind of meanders around in this trade. In issue #8, he gives us a Shadow King story, for crying out loud, and that's only a taste of the ridiculous nostalgia he indulges in throughout this trade. I'm fairly well steeped in X-lore, and I thought he was being a bit too "secret handshake" in these stories. The Shadow King story isn't bad, I suppose, especially compared to issue #9, in which Magneto shows up and asks - well, begs - Wolverine to kill an old Nazi, which Wolverine does. That's it. That's it? Yes, that's it. It's been 67 years since the end of World War II. I'm just sayin'. Anyway, it's a dull, plodding story that tells us absolutely nothing about any character, so I can't imagine why Remender thought it was a good idea to write it. Then, in issue #10, Warren terrorizes a reporter and his editor who are planning to expose the existence of X-Force. It's an all right issue, because it ties into the idea of Warren losing his grip on his humanity as Archangel takes over. Then the team decides the only way to help Warren is to enter the world of the Age of Apocalypse. Oh dear.

This is where the book goes a bit sideways, because Remender falls into several storytelling traps (including the clichéd romantic triangle), the biggest one of which is relying on other writers to provide emotional back story. Logan's scene with AoA Jean is badly written because there's no connection between them, just what Remender tells us there should be. I realize this is a problem with serial storytelling set within an interconnected universe, and writers use it to take short cuts all the time, but that doesn't mean it's any good, and it's different when you're trying to make two of your characters have a "moment." This happens with Mariko's kid, who would have been Logan's if Mariko of Earth-616 had lived. Unless we've read a lot of pretty old Wolverine comics, we have no idea who Mariko is (we can infer it from this book, of course), so Logan's meeting with Kirika has no emotional resonance whatsoever, nor does Kirika's untimely death. It's this kind of insular storytelling that is really hurting comics, but I guess not enough people care. Oh, and the most skeptical X-people on the planet decide to trust "Dark Beast." Yeah, who saw that going wrong?

The commenters who have read this title in single issues say that the second half of the Dark Angel Saga gets better, and I'm going to get that trade as well, but I really can't believe that Marvel is trying to strangle its most critically-acclaimed series in the cradle by shoving them out there so often. I keep reading that Daredevil isn't half as good as it was for the first arc because of the artist/crossover carousel, and this book is nowhere near as good as it was in the first 5 issues. It's kind of annoying.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. 575 pgs, Viking, 2005.

Well, shit, that was depressing.

If you recall, I recently read Diamond's Germs, Guns, and Steel and found it fascinating, and this book, too, is very interesting. But where the first book was about how societies rise, this book is, as its title proclaims, about how societies fall apart. Diamond delves into several, spending a lot of time on two - one modern and one medieval - before focusing on the modern world and what we can learn from societies that have collapsed. He has some optimism that the global society in which we live will figure things out. After reading this book, I'm not so sure.

Diamond has spent a lot of time in Montana, so one of the longer sections looks at that state. Another long section is devoted to the Norse in Greenland, who spent 400 years creating a society only to see it swept away fairly quickly. Diamond also checks in on Easter Island, Pitcairn and Henderson Islands, the Anasazi, the Mayans, Rwanda, Haiti and the Dominican Republic, China, and Australia. Obviously, China and Australia haven't collapsed, but Diamond notes very strong similarities between them and other failed societies, some of which are being addressed and some which, sadly, are not. Diamond points out five factors that contribute to collapse: climate change, hostile neighbors, loss of a trading partner, environmental problems, and failure to adapt to environmental problems. People who arrived on Easter Island and Australia, for instance, saw lots of trees but didn't realize they were very slow-growing, so when they logged them, nothing replaced them, and eventually erosion began destroying the topsoil. In fact, that's a problem with a lot of the societies he examines. Pitcairn and Henderson Islands are ridiculously hard to live on, and when their major trading partner experienced an economic downturn, they were cut off and eventually fell apart (the trading partner, Mangareva, survived, but at a significant lower standard of living). The Norse refused to change their ways and were eventually killed off by the Inuit. The entire book is a litany of bad decisions and tragedies, which makes it hard to get through.

Diamond goes into great detail about why the modern world is both more fragile and better equipped to deal with these problems. The modern world is connected to a degree unfathomable even a century ago, so when China starts experiencing economic problems (as it is now, with an aging population and severe environmental issues), it affects the entire world. The collapse of Easter Island affected only the Easter Islanders, for instance. The collapse of China will have severe repercussions around the world. The damage we're doing to the world is speeding up, as well, because we're better at it. Diamond points out, however, that we're much more aware of the damage we're doing, and therefore we're better at recognizing it and coming up with solutions. Diamond isn't an anti-business wingnut - he understand the necessity of capitalism, but he also makes some very good points about how businesses can still make money yet not destroy the world. He writes about an oil well in New Guinea owned by Chevron that is in the middle of one of the most pristine environmental areas in the country, because Chevron realized it's far easier and cheaper to stop environmental problems before they begin rather than cleaning up afterward. Oil companies are high-profile targets, so Chevron decided that the public relations disasters that oil companies have to deal with weren't worth it. Diamond contrasts this with mineral mining companies, who often destroy the land they're working on and then declare bankruptcy before they have to clean it up - nobody condemns them because they're not as well known to the public. Diamond also gives good reasons why people actively destroy the environment, even if they know they're doing it. Again, it's depressing reading, but the fact that he's able to give many examples of people trying to fix things mitigates it a bit. In some cases, it's amusing how some countries have fixed their problems. The Dominican Republic was run for a good deal of the 20th century by two dictators who decided that they were environmentalists, and they basically killed people for illegal logging and other things that would harm their forests. Japan, one of the world's most densely populated countries, is 74% forested, because the shoguns 300 years ago also imposed harsh penalties on logging. Today, Japan imports most of its wood from places like Australia, which can't afford it. Oh, such a weird world we live in!

Obviously, some people have contested Diamond's conclusions, which is fine. For the most part, he seems to be on the ball. This is the kind of book that will make you think about your place in the world and what you can do about it. It's not a screed, which is why I think it works so well. Diamond obviously has thought a good deal about this problem, and offers some common-sense solutions to small, local issues. Yes, Collapse might depress the hell out of you. But it's also an important book, so it might be something you want to check out!

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆

No new music this month, but I should have some more next month. And if you're wondering why I read books so slowly, well, Collapse is fairly long, so it took me most of April and the first few days of May to read it, and then I started a book that's even longer that I'm trying to get through! After that, I have another long book to read! That's just the way it is right now - everything I have lined up is gigantic. Such is the way when you're reading books in alphabetical order - you're a slave to the process! I'll be back next month with more fun reviews of trades everyone has already read! Won't that be fun?

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