Wednesday, December 30, 2009

I really dig Ultimate Comics Spider-Man

I'll try and keep this short because it's essentially me splooging over a comic my company publishes--and honestly, who wants to read that?

(If that is you, please visit

For years I considered myself what you could call a peripheral fan of Ultimate Spider-Man. I never bought the book when I was in college, though I did check out the early digital comics circa 2001 or so and liked what I saw. When I was at Wizard, I availed myself of the new single issues that came in, but never really bothered to catch myself up in trades; I had at least scanned most of the major storylines and besides, the whole book was about being accesible and seemed to do a pretty nice job therein.

Ultimate Spider-Man was like that old reliable friend who wasn't flashy or demanding of you're time, they're just always there so you know you can get back to them whenever. I guess I took you for granted, Ultimate Spider-Man--sorry about that. I will say that I always respected both that Brian Michael Bendis was able to sustain what seemed to be an interesting and evolving series without having to take a single break in over 100 issues and even more that Mark Bagley (and later Stuart Immonen) was able to produce incredibly high quality work on a more than monthly basis in an era of delays and fill-ins galore.

Anyhow, somewhere around when the Ultimate version of the Clone Saga kicked off, I took more of an interest in USM primarily because much-respected friend and colleague Sean T. Collins pushed it as something important and because we were reading it for Wizard's Thursday Morning Quarterback (RIP) every month. Now that was one heck of a fast-paced thrillride with more cliffhangers than the Sylvester Stallone film Cliffhanger and guest stars and new villains coming out of the proverbial woodwork. Good times.

However, after the Clone Saga wrapped, I resumed my normal half-hearted interest and respect from afar of Ultimate Spider-Man right up through my hiring and first year and a half at Marvel.

Then, something happened.

Specifically, Ultimatum happened, and Ultimate Spider-Man re-launched as Ultimate Comics Spider-Man. I must say I am amazed, immensely pleased and perhaps a little surprised that after a decade at this, Brian Bendis is still finding ways to keep himself invested in this book by never letting up with the status quo rockin' and that as a result of his latest shake-up I am hooked on this title like a fat kid on Twinkies (Too harsh? Not topical? U-Decide!)

This is a comic about super heroes, high school, romance, etc., but at its heart it is about this: teenage versions of Spider-Man, the Human Torch, Iceman and Gwen Stacy living in a house together where Mary Jane and Kitty Pryde stop by all the time and they all eat dinner together!

That is awesome!

Honestly, it's such a beauty of a concept I can't believe it's never been done before--or at least executed so well in recent memory. I mean, I know the "teenage heroes living together" bit has been done and done well before in books like Teen Titans, New Warriors, Legion of Super-Heroes (basically all my favorites) before, but there's something about this particular grouping, the way they play off each other as friends, rivals and lovers, and the way Bendis just gets their shared language somehow that just elevates it so sky high. It's like everything I loved about Legion, about that escapist fantasy of teenagers having super powers and getting to live in a house with no grown-ups (yes, Aunt May lives with them here, but she's cool), except the characters are much hipper and more down-to-earth.

I just dig like crazy that they are this incestuous little Partridge Family who all go to school together and then fight crime afterwards. It rocks.

And the art! Bagley was rad and reliable (still is) and Immonen had (and has) his own inherent cool, but David Lafuente's stuff is just so...different, in the best possible way. There's so much energy on the page that it feels like he just stuffs all the artsy goodness into a bucket then heaves it at the page rather than applying it gently and over time. I love that. And I love that he makes the kids not only look like kids, but like different kids (Bobby is a bit shorter and pudgier, Johnny is taller and thin, MJ is nerdy hot while Gwen is goth hot, etc.). And the fight scenes! And the costumes! They're so raw and rough, but so pretty on the page.

Dig the new villains too. Glad Bendis broke the Goblin habit (even if it involved killing them both) and is going a completely different direction with Mysterio.

But the super hero stuff is almost secondary to the great teen dramedy. I mean, there's a scene in the issue coming next week (my job has its privileges, friends) where over dinner Gwen stands up to loudly declare "Peter is my boyfriend, so I am off limits!" just before Aunt May scolds Johnny to not have any "hanky panky" in her house because she "reads the gossip columns." And this all comes off a narration balloon from Peter taking up the top third of two pages where he's thinking about how Gwen is a great girlfriend, but he doesn't love that she kinda decided they were in a relationship because he needs a "girlfriend breather" and wants to go see if the Black Cat would still make out with him (if she's alive, which he's not sure about).

Phew. So yeah, great book that Ultimate Comics Spider-Man.

And I didn't even mention there is a female clone of Peter who Johnny has a crush on but doesn't know she's a female clone of Peter! Ahh!

Monday, December 28, 2009

Our Comics Decade: 2004

I have a buddy named Kegmeister, who I've written about here before. Once upon a time, Kegs and I were talking about our career choices in life. At the time, he was tending bar but looking in to getting back to school after his B.A. in Chemistry had failed to net him anything relatively close to interesting and challenging work. When I asked him what kind of job he thought he might want, Kegs said, "I don't know, man. I mean...I always kind of felt that after high school you went to college and after college you got a job. You know? Like, there would just be a job there for me."

I'm sure a few people will giggle at that, but damn if I didn't feel the same way to some extent when I got out of school. Originally, Jami and I had planned on moving to Chicago, but when that fell through I was left without much of a plan beyond e-mail applying for publishing jobs in New York to zero response. I ended up spending most of 2004 as a part time substitute teacher and full time darts champion at Mike's Tavern on Fenton Rd. I was living at my mom's house, juggling the threat of literal kindergartner vomit and teenager verbal diarrhea on a daily basis, missing Jami and generally settling into the "lonely failure of a 20-something" cliché nicely. It sucked.

And around that time, I read Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth for the first time. For some reason that escapes me now, I spent more time hanging out at the local library during that year than I had since I was maybe seven, and amongst the local branch's collection of old Peanuts collections and coffee table books about superheroes, Chris Ware's intricate tome was nestled away, never checked out once by a person who wasn't me.

I'd been a little...God, I guess the word is "afraid" of tackling Jimmy Corrigan up to that point. Although I'd read and enjoyed the Ware-edited issue of McSweeney's from earlier that year as well as a taste of Quimby the Mouse at that point, but I'd never approached the cartoonist's masterpiece both because I'd heard so many people speak about it with a kind of reverence even then (I've had a lot of bad experiences hating things people have raved about to me) and because from my little experience with his work, I wasn't sure Ware would be offering me much beyond a lot of formalism wrapped around clever ideas. Interesting to read, I told myself, but probably not for me.

So yeah...basically I was a fucking idiot. For those who haven't read Jimmy Corrigan yet, the book is more than an emotional gut punch. It's more like an emotional water boarding. Ware is definitely very formal and design-oriented in his approach to cartooning, but the book proves with every page that those aesthetic choices don't hamper it's genuinely human story – more often than not they drive it home in ways that standard drama drawn in standard panels can't begin to convey. Beyond that, there's not much critically I think I can offer about the book. Better writers on comics have tackled this to death if you're interested in that stuff, but really you should just read the damn book before anything else.

Although the one takeaway I do think people don't discuss as often when it comes to books like Ware's is how it came out strong at the decade's beginning and made such a compelling case for the "mammoth chunk of book" presentation for comics. Outside the necessity some artists have for telling one story in three, four or even eight hundred pages of comics, massive books of the artform work so well for a reader...maybe even better than traditional books. Comics are a great thing to be poured over. Most of us have a story about our childhood love of the medium and how we'd read our smattering of drug store-bought titles over and over to the point of disintegration. When you read comics, you can stop to re-check previous scenes or ponder a panel or line of dialogue or just sit and fucking stare at a page for hours on end. Your journey through a text is entirely up to you.

I'm sure I'm not bringing any new points to the table in saying all of this, but since Jimmy Corrigan, more and more truly novel-length comics have hit, and those pleasures built in to the medium's face value only grow when offered a single, gigantic unit through which to experience its building blocks. That same year I read the book, I also worked my way through countless Pogo collections at that library and Blankets in the local high school's library over a week of lunch hours. And all the while, there were a ton of new book-length comics cropping up for people to dig into.

So if you're primary source of comics comes in the regular habit of devouring chunks of story one 22-page pamphlet at a time, do yourself a favor and find a giant comic to work your way through at whatever pace and in whatever spot you like. Reading a book like Jimmy Corrigan may be a little intimidating at first, but if you put your time in to absorb the truly fucking soul-crushing impact of the story, the experience might just pay off by kicking your mopey 20-something ass into finding a career.

2004 was the year it all came together for me in a roundabout and unexpected way—in other words, it was the year of my secret origin in the comics business (and as such I apologize that this entry even moreso than most in this series will be very me-centric, though I do make a lame and ham-fisted attempt to tie a comic to it at the end).

At the end of 2003, my humble little web site—or section of a web site—411mania gave out “Best Of” awards, including one proclaiming my own personal favorite writer Geoff Johns as the number one scribe of the year. I was both shocked and delighted a few days after the announcement that Geoff Johns himself took the time to track down my e-mail address from the article and drop me a line to say thanks and that he dug the site.

As winter wore on and the countdown to my graduation from college kept ticking, I was getting a bit concerned about my future prospects. I had entered Conneciticut College nearly four years earlier angling for a career in journalism, and while I had enjoyed working on the student newspaper, an internship at a local paper the previous summer had been torturous and my enthusiasm for that avenue had waned. Likewise I had zero interest in parlaying my English-Writing degree into any sort of teaching career. Really the only thing I had a tremendous amount of passion for anymore writing-wise was my web site and spreading the gospel of comics; but I couldn’t make a living off of that.

Could I?

That’s the question my dad posed to me over lunch during my spring break. He saw how much work I put into the site as well as how much I got out of it and articulated the thoughts I’d been having about trying to take that to the next level. He also suggested I contact Geoff and ask him what kind of prospects there were for somebody with my skillset within the comics world.

I e-mailed Geoff my situation and awaited his response with intense anticipation in between rounds of Madden 2005 and Melrose Place with my buddy Jordan.

My mom actually was the one who contacted me shortly thereafter asking if I had a “friend named Jeff” as he had called and left a message at my folks’ house in Newton. Since I’d been on break when I first sent the e-mail, I had given Geoff that number rather than my school phone. I e-mailed him again, and got a voicemail from a surfer-sounding dude (apologies if you end up reading this Geoff, but that was my first impression) that I immediately geeked out over and saved on my phone until the day I left school.

(The day I got the voicemail was also the day I first spoke to Megan again after we’d been out of touch for a bit; we started dating again soon after this and today we’re married—I don’t think any of that is a coincidence)

I had to summon up a bit of coverage to call Geoff back (as I told my Mom, “Imagine one of the Beatles called you up”), but I did and he was instantly enthused to be speaking with a fan who had ambitions to get in the industry as he had been in my shoes not long before that and got where he was thanks to the advice and guidance of guys like James Robinson and David Goyer. We spoke several times over the next several weeks and he steered me in the direction of Wizard Magazine, where he had some friends and thought I could be a good fit.

I got my resume (which at that point was a bunch of newspaper clippings and printouts of web articles about why Young Justice was awesome) together, did my best to make it look professional, then shot it over to Geoff’s buddy Matt Seinrich at Wizard. Time marched on, I collected my diploma (actually I didn’t get to collect my physical diploma because of one extremely frustrating French professor and ended up needing to attend a summer course at Boston College though I did get to walk with my class, but that’s a story for another day), and waited.

And continued to wait.

Matt did actually get my resume, but unfortunately around the same time he also departed Wizard for a little endeavor called Robot Chicken. I got lost in the shuffle as they rearranged responsibilities.

Undaunted, my friend Tim and I packed our stuff along with a few dozen 411 business cards he made while he was working at Kinko’s and flew across the country to the San Diego Comic Con. We were there to have fun and enjoy the incredible atmosphere, but we—principally me—were also there both to report for the site, and, perhaps more importantly, to network. They probably don’t remember it now, but at that show Joe Quesada, Dan DiDio, Brian Bendis, Peter David, Judd Winick and several other folks I’ve since had extensive relationships with professionally got handed a business card from an overly eager kid named Ben Morse.

I also made sure to spend a lot of time hanging around the Wizard booth making a nuisance of myself to Mike Cotton and Andy Serwin (as Andy would tell me many times later, they “just couldn’t get rid of me”), letting them know I had a resume in somewhere in their offices. Most rewardingly for me, I got to meet Geoff face-to-face and he even took me and Tim out for drinks. Even after we had spoken on the phone quite a few times, I was still pretty intimidated by Geoff (honestly I am to this day even though he’s become somebody I consider a good friend; not because he commands intimidation in any way, but because he’s very much my “big brother” in this business, and I never want to let him down, plus he’s one of the most unflappable dudes I’ve ever met), but we had some really good chats, and as the show drew to a close, I was more confident than ever that my destiny was to work in comics (also, he let me know collecting and reading the original Suicide Squad was a necessity, not an option, and nearly inadvertently got me in trouble on the plane ride home as I was sitting next to a kid travelling alone and accidentally let him read Geoff’s Flash issue about Mirror Master where he reveals he has a cocaine habit; I also met Paul Ryan on that flight and got to talk about the Invisible Woman’s bathing suit costume from the 90’s with him, and he was a really nice guy).

A lot of that enthusiasm faded following SDCC. Wizard didn’t get back to me and I had one interview at DC for an entry-level job it would be overly charitable to call disastrous (I did get to really see New York City for the first time and the DC offices are wicked cool, so it wasn’t a total loss). Through the uncertainty, Megan, my friends and my family remained encouraging—as did Geoff above and beyond any expectation I had—even as I felt myself inching closer to wrting copy for an ad agency.

Then, one day as I was working a part-time gig for my dad re-doing his company’s web site, I got an e-mail from Joe Yanarella to come in an interview for the position of research assistant. I was over the moon, as was everybody I told, including Geoff.

I made the trek up to Congers, New York where Wizard put me up for the night at a nearby motel. The office was nestled kinda in the middle of nowhere, so I did a trial run at like 11 the night before my interview. It’s dumb and cliched, I know, but when I found that building with the big ol’ Wizard logo on the glass outside, I felt like I was where I was meant to be.

With over five years in the rearview, I think I can safely say I nailed the interview. Cotton and Andy had put in good words for me despite my clinginess and Mel Caylo, another pal of Geoff’s (and today of mine as well) was actually the one who fished my resume out of wherever it had been. Geoff had also been in the ear of the man in charge, Pat McCallum, who along with Brian Cunningham and Dan Reilly ended up being one of my major mentors at Wizard.

A couple weeks of relentless bugging Joe over e-mail later and I was headed back down to Congers, this time for good, car packed and all. I couldn’t thank all the folks who had supported me in this crazy endeavor to turn a hobby into a job, from my dad to Megan to Geoff and so on, enough, and I still can’t.

I checked into the sorta motel/sorta apartment complex where Joe had recommended I crash until finding my own place, and after discovering two paper cups filled with used cigarettes left behind by the previous occupant, made my way over to Wizard. I was a day early, so my new boss, Dan, put me in the extensive research library catalouging comics. I had obviously never seen so many comic books and trades in the same place before, so I was overwhelmed and overjoyed. I alternated putting stuff away with flipping through both old books I recognized and all the stuff I’d never been able to find. At the end of the day, Dan told me I could borrow whatever I wanted.

So here’s the comic part.

The first thing I ended up checking out from the Wizard library was the five-volume Onslaught trade paperback collection. Onslaught had been the event during which I left comics, so I figured there was no more appropriate way to mark this momentous chapter in my life/career than picking up where I left off. As I curled up in one of the two beds in my temporary abode (they didn’t have any single bed units available for rental) after getting off the phone with my girlfriend, I cracked open the gold foil-embossed cover and checked out the entire Marvel Universe attempting to thwart Professor X and Magneto evil twin/symbiote/thing.

I thought about how comics had come a long way—and so had I, baby, so had I.

Invincible #10 kicked my ass through my face.

If you have even a passing interest in superhero comics - if you can even spell the word "superhero" - there is ZERO fucking reason you should be skipping Invincible. In 2004, I went on to a second Wizard internship where I met some of my best friends for the first time, and by the end of '04, I was offered a full-time job at Wizard that I declined to take for personal reasons (I eventually joined Wizard full-time in 2005 a few months later before I'd even graduated). But during my 2003 Wizard internship, one of my duties was to help out with the Book of the Month and Secret Stash selection processes, which meant I was exposed to a LOT of books I otherwise wouldn't have been.

One of those was Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker's Invincible series from Image. Somebody at Image had sent over the first four issues in a single batch, and I thought they were pretty rad. Walker's art got me most interested because his layouts and designs had this crisp, angular peculiarity to it that seemed so fresh. Otherwise, the story was (and I think I described it this way to then-Wizard Editor in Chief Pat McCallum, who'd handed me the books) a basic "What if Superboy grew up with Superman as a dad and had to deal with teen angst plus superpowers?" kind of deal.

I liked the book enough that when I went back to school in the fall of '03, I picked up Kirkman's first issue of Walking Dead and, again, was more blown away by the art (Tony Moore's) than the story, which I thought was a rip-off of "28 Days Later" (though I've since found out that Kirkman wrote the first issue before "28 Days Later" was released). I let a school buddy borrow the Invincible issues I had, he grew addicted to the series and started buying it monthly, I stopped buying both Invincible and Walking Dead, and eventually just read his Invincible issues. By the time the spring semester rolled around in early '04, I went ahead and started buying Invinicble again with issue #9, because starting with issue #7, I couldn't BELIEVE how awesome each issue's cliffhangers were becoming.

I don't want to spoil it for anybody who hasn't read it, but a major MAJOR character was revealed to be a major MAJOR bad guy in issue #7, and like any regular superhero series, I just assumed the whole thing would be chalked up to a clone or a demonic possession or an evil twin. But in issue #10, it was FIRMLY concluded that this character had, indeed, all along, been a bad motherfucking murderer. And then the REAL insanity started in the series as Invincible set out to stop this bad guy - and failed so miserably at it that he almost fucking died. We're talking game-changer, Superman vs. Doomsday shit in issue # FUCKING 10 of what was top be an ongoing series!!! What could happen next!?

That exciting "anything could happen" mentality and the "each mind-blowing alteration is permanent" promise combined to make Invincible the most unpredictably entertaining superhero book I think I've ever read. It helped me recognize that I'd been missing that magical medley of elements from most of the books I'd read in the past - and I needed more of it in the superhero books I chose to put in my longboxes in the future. But more importantly, I realized that being more discerning in my tastes moving forward was as essential as physically buying a book.

2004 was a brutal fucking year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

2009: A Year of Paragraph Movie Reviews

I sure did see quite a few movies this year, and wouldn't you know it, I wrote about them all.

Before the new decade kicks in later this week, I thought it might be fun to go back through my Paragraph Movie Reviews for 2009 and snag a couple relevant sentences from each breaking down the gist of what I thought.

Hopefully this will help guide you through the use of all those gift cards you got for Christmas or Chanukah or at the very least finally clue you in as to what I thought of He's Just Not That Into You in case heaven forbid you missed it the first time around.

I included links to the full reviews if these teasers peak your interest at all. Also, I realized I start a lot of review pieces out with "This movie" or "This film" and have thusly grown as a person.

My favorite thing about Doubt is probably the way it is shot. There are no quick cuts; every shot is long, deliberate and creates an effect that you need to be paying attention. John Patrick Shanley, who both wrote the play adapted for the movie and directed the film, did an excellent job.

Revolutionary Road
Forget Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm St; if you're a 20-something looking to get married anytime soon, this is the scariest horror movie you'll ever see. That aside, it's one heckuva film and I was thoroughly engrossed for its two hour duration.

I'd describe this film as competently constructed and occasionally powerful, but never quite reaching the level of brilliance it seems to be striving for. [Frank Langella] is a force, physically occupying the figure he is recreating with incredible commitment, and making Nixon aggravating as a foil for the "good guys," yet charismatic and fascinating as well.

Slumdog Millionaire
Boy howdy, this wasn't just an awesome movie, it was an incredible feat. It's been some time where I walked away from a film marveling at not necessarily a performance or a scene, but how well constructed it all was and my hat is off to Danny Boyle for one of the best directing jobs I think I've ever seen. This movie is like a perfect stew or a well-assembled machine in the way it takes so many disparate moving parts and matches them up into a final product that just takes your breath away.

The unfortunate thing for me is that I'd say the bulk of my problems with it come from filmmaking decisions which overshadow a great script and excellent acting performances. The first half of the movie is just badly paced, racing through the early portion of Milk's awakening as an activist and taking all the punch out of landmark events. Once things slow down for the second half after he's established and time is taken to really invest in the workings Milk's life and the political system, it gets good, but your end result is an uneven viewing experience.

Even though most of the lines and scenes are verbatim from the comic, it's simply not Watchmen brought to life ala how most reverent fans would probably like. The sooner you put that aside (I did it around the scene where Dan and Laurie fight the thugs in the alley and it became clear that it was just going to be all the super hero scenes and that's all), the better off you are.

I Love You, Man
This movie has a little more meat to it than some of the other comedies much of its cast has done lately, and that works both for and against it. Me personally, I enjoyed seeing the actors stretch and appreciated a lot of the heavier stuff behind the laughs. On the flipside, I can see where the slightly more realistic tone and reined-in characters could be jarring for somebody expecting another "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" or "Knocked Up."

Rachel Getting Married
Honestly, the last half hour or so felt like I was just watching somebody's wedding video and I'd only get yanked out of it when they showed Anne Hathaway because I wondered when she was going to snap. Speaking of Anne Hathaway, she's absolutely brilliant and I don't think I would have checked in with the rest of what was going on around her if not for her performance.

I have definitely seen films that are more technically proficient, funnier, and flat out better than "Adventureland" pretty recently, but I haven't seen a movie that gave me the kinda enjoyment and satisfaction I got with this one in years. It's a very intangible and hard to pinpoint thing, because like I said I know I've seen plenty of good movies lately, but something about this one just caught and connected with me on a level that made me grin.

Vicky Cristina Barcelona
Stir that all together, mix in some trademark bold Woody Allen camera choices (I presume, having never seen another Woody Allen movie) and narration I personally found grating, and you come out with a movie I didn't mind seeing, but could have done fine without.

Star Trek
I'm by no means a Star Trek devotee, so I think I can say I'm fairly without bias when proclaiming this a really fun, really exciting, really clever and really just all-around well-done movie. Honestly, I hope more action movie writers and directors use this as a guide for how to do their stuff the right way. There was a pretty big ensemble cast but nobody got lost in the shuffle, screen time was well-managed, and while everybody got their moments, there was no doubt who the story centered around.

Terminator Salvation
A really good action flick should have a clear endgame established early on and everything that occurs leading up is either a landmark or sidetrack on the road to getting there; with Terminator Salvation, you don't get the sense that there is a long-term destination, just a series of meaningless fights and chase scenes cobbled together without an idea of the big picture.

The Hangover
Ed Helms and Bradley Cooper do what they do best as the dork and the asshole they respectively always seem to play, but that's kinda the clarion call of this movie: don't fix it if it ain't broke. Zach Galifianakis is the breakout here as he has a creepy awkwardness that makes you uncomfortable but also makes you just need to laugh; he really milks every line without being ostentatious about it.

The Proposal
This movie is a textbook example of how good actors can elevate subpar material when they really try. As far as story and script, "The Proposal" is pretty clichéd, not that well-paced and generally lacking in a lot of areas; in other words, it's an average romantic comedy. However, this film is so well-cast that the lean portions are at least watchable and the good stuff that could fall flat in lesser hands really shines through.

He’s Just Not That Into You
I'm shocked that A) Somebody made this movie (ok, not that shocked, Hollywood is crazy), B) Somebody else thought it needed to be over two hours and C) That so many talented actors read the script and still signed on. It's basically 129 minutes of people having the types of annoying conversations about relationship clichés that you fast forward in other movies and avoid in real life.

Despite the fact that it was essentially a movie about fooling regular people and making them look foolish, Borat still had a certain earnestness and sincerity at its core that gave it a sort of uplifting quality that Bruno lacks. There are some truly funny parts of Bruno to be sure, but I noticed most of them involved extreme and graphic sexual comedy, which was more of a rarity and "final level" type deal for Borat, whereas here it feels like they couldn't figure out more subtle but equally funny alternatives.

Married Life
In the end, this film's biggest problem was that it simply wasn't that interesting or captivating, even for 90 minutes, and the good acting, decent jokes and quality camerawork only elevated it to an average piece of work.

Step Brothers
This was less a full-formed movie and more a series of bits that Will Ferrell, John C. Reilly and Adam McKay didn't have room for on Funny or Die. The physical comedy is top notch and some of the scenes and lines are hilarious, but there's no real coherent plot or flow to get caught up in.

Sunshine Cleaning
The premise here--down-on-her-luck single mom and her bad seed sister make cash by cleaning up crime scenes--is a neat gimmick and decent hook, but really more just a clever set-for a group of talented actors to do what they do best. However, as much as this film was more of an actor's showcase to me, I don't want to undersell the script, which did a nice job of balancing dark comedy with some real heavy stuff centered on loss and family.

Bigger, Stronger, Faster*
In the case of Chris Bell's examination of America's steroid culture, the author has intimate ties to his investigation, and as such, he creates a powerful, informative and oft-times heartbreaking piece. The project comes off as earnest because you can sense through Bell he desperately wants to find some logic in the paradoxes that surround him, and his genuine reactions to his findings will hit you harder because he comes off more as an average guy doing a research paper or something as opposed to a polished director angling for awards.

(500) Days of Summer
From the first scene it totally tries to win you over with its cute little home movies, its endearingly witty leads and its wonderful soundtrack, but then somewhere around the 45 minute mark you realize all those narrative and flash-forward portents of doom weren't just the usual empty romantic comedy teases, this is indeed about a very REAL relationship, not a fairy tale, and you get gut-punched watching the couple you just fell in love with have to deal with the same stuff you probably did as you were searching for your soul mate and wondering why it didn't always work out like it did in the movies.

Writer/director Mike Judge tries to graft on some heart and some dark comedy in various places, but it's a forced, awkward fit; "Extract" is ultimately a flick that leaves you wondering with such great talent involved, what exactly went wrong.

Year One
I do have to say that after really getting irritated by Michael Cera the past couple years, his performance here reminded me why I was once a big fan; I really think he's at his best doing pure comedy and farce--as he is here--rather than trying to incorporate dramatic over tones beyond the grasp of that one character he plays.

Mo'Nique is shocking as the abusive mother, delivering a consistent intensity that she is able to manipulate beautifully and make terrifying by using her humor to lull you into a false sense of peace and then jolt you with her most heinous actions; Mo'Nique's final scene is basically what should be listed in the dictionary under "Oscar Clip" (with all due respect to Wayne Campbell).

Funny People
I'm impressed by the inventiveness and sheer endurance of the filmmaker here on a movie that he could have probably cranked out as an hour and a half chucklefest; he certainly had a vision and committed, accomplishing what he set out to do at least in part.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil
It's almost as if [director Sacha] Gervasi wants to delve into these guys' lives as much as is necessary to make them accessible, but then stop short so they can still be characters as well. If Gervasi failed in any respect, it's that he made half of a movie so good that I'm really bummed I feel like I didn't get to see the rest.

For what it's worth, here are my top five of the year in the order I saw 'em: Revolutionary Road, Slumdog Millionaire, Adventureland, Star Trek and (500) Days of Summer (with The Hangover coming in at sixth after a follow-up DVD viewing).

Seeya at the pictures!

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry, Merry...Etc, Etc

Hope everyone who trades gifts with people this time of year got and gave something totally awesome. Obviously, we'll be taking it easy until Monday or so, so if you're on the internet we'd suggest you check out things like Michael Cho's always excellent art blog where we nabbed the above greeting.

Happy holidays, gang!

- The Cool Kids

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Comic Shop Stop: What I Bought This Week

Just like last week, I stopped by Midtown Comics on Wednesday and grabbed some new stuff.

Sometimes it's new stuff. Sometimes it's old stuff. Sometimes it'll be back issues or the same ol' thing I got 4 weeks ago. Whatever the case is, here's what I got at the shop this week (lemme know if you wanna borrow anything):

MEZCO JASON VOORHEES 3 & 3/4" FIGURE - I've been crushing hard on 3 and 3/4 inch action figure lines (Marvel Universe, DC Crisis) lately and ever since TJ came home from Toy Fair 2009 with a glow-in-the-dark mask variant of this puppy, I've kept my eyes open for the regular line's release. I spotted one at Big Apple Con a couple months back, but the douche retailer was selling them for $35! Luckily at Midtown, they're only $12. Jason'll be sleeping tonight on my bookshelf sandwiched between my Channing Tatum G.I. Joe and my Sam Elliott Golden Compass cowboy.

INVINICIBLE #69 - I needed issue #38, too, but after being out for only a month, Midtown decided to stock it in the back-issue bin at a 50-cent price increase and my good friend Darren backed my move to pass on the inflated purchase. Thinking back, I shoulda just bought it cause I get a discount there as it is, so those guys have saved me money in the past. Christmas time frugal monsterism just took hold when it shouldn't have, and I apologize to those who were caught in the friendly fire. I'll prolly go back tomorrow for 38.
Still, fuck yeah, Kirkman and crew (and maybe especially editor Aubrey Siterson ?) for getting us so many issues so consistantly this year!

CRIMINAL #3 - Sam's been reading Sleeper, so I'm pretty excited for her to check out THIS series from Brubaker & Phillips, too. Darren bought the deluxe hardcover like a champ and that thing is gorgous, btw. It even has the essays found in the first volume's single issues and whenever a hardcover does away with the dustjacket, I'm always a fan - I can't NOT ruin them, so I feel guilty.

DEAD DUCK OGN - I've never heard of this comedy fantasy about what I think is a zombie duck and his bizarre cast of (from what I saw during the flip-thru) hilarious supporting characters. Reminded me of longer form Liberty Meadows but in color with its animated-as-hell aesthetic, and there's a He-Man parody (!), so since I decided not to buy this other OGN that will remain nameless, I went ahead and bought this. Also reminded me of this comic I used to buy in high school, too.

SUB-LIFE VOLUME 2 - Jesus, try and find a prettier comic, I FUCKING dare you! John Pham's one-man anthology was mostly reprints from his Mome contributions when volume 1 dropped last year, but volume 2 is all new content! The front story reminded me of flipping through old galaxy photo-packed encyclopdias when I was in elementary school, and the glossy - in some places foil/in some places ribbed - covers reminded me that COMICS ARE RAD! Ahhh, buy this $8 steal!

ZOMBIES THAT ATE THE WORLD #7 - This actually came out last week, but I couldn't make it to the shop so Darren grabbed it for me and I never wrote about it. For 3 months or so, I've been having a secret affair with Guy Davis's art on BPRD, but I'd started buying this Humanoids import about the undead before I ever read BPRD. It's like I tried a few raspberrry Skittles from a friend at work and then went home only to realize I'd bought a whole thing of Very Berry Skittles a month ago and it's PACKED with raspberry Skittles! Or zombies.

SILVER STREAK COMICS - This is the second issue in the Image series where creators from today take public domain superheroes and tell throwback stories with modern twists. I shunned the first issue, then tried it, then unshunned it and shunned myself for a few days. And hey, this issue has a Paul Grist super-speedster story, so Merry Christmas. This also came out last week, but I missed it.

CROSSED #8 - I'm behind on my reading, so I bought but haven't read the last 7 issues of this Avatar book, though I trust Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows enough that blindly buying a mass serial killer attack series involving their talents is a comfortable move for me.

How about you guys? Get anything good?

(Quick disclaimer: I borrow a LOT of stuff from Ben each week from Marvel, so I don't always buy single issues of the Marvel books. And I get everything from DC, WildStorm, Vertigo, and Zuda for free, so I never really buy anything from them unless I'm picking up for somebody else. So don't take my exclusion of DC stuff as a sign that the books aren't good enough to buy. They are. So there.)

Our Comics Decade: 2003

By the time 2003 rolled around, I had picked up a lot of the “landmark” comics I had either missed during my hiatus from the medium or that I had never read in the first place because in the early 90’s we didn’t have a great backlog of trade or we did but I didn’t know about them.

However, when I refer to “landmarks,” I’m really limiting my definition as I more or less mean the big super hero comics, and that’s about it.

For a long time, I felt a bit intimidated and even ashamed of my self-imposed ghettoization to the super hero corner of comics books. You have to understand that I was a fan weaned on stuff like X-Force and Superboy circa 1993—no disrespect to those comics, which I love to this day, but I recognize, as I believe the creators would, that they were more in the realm of fun, less in that of high art.

The indie section of my local comic store freaked me out. Fuck, the Vertigo section of my local comic shop freaked me out. The idea of reading something like Sandman or a mini comic just took me back to my Intro to Film class freshman year of college where everybody had these high-falootin’ theories on what the German midget flicks we were made to watch represented and I just thought they were funny because they featured little people.

No, better to stick to super heroes where nobody could make me feel stupid.

So I read Kingdom Come, I re-read Marvels, I tracked down The Golden Age and I picked up The Infinity Gauntlet.

Then I came to Watchmen. That was a big deal. Watchmen was right on the very edge of my “too smart” line, but everybody said it was the best comic ever, so I had to read it. I dug it. It was really really good (still is). But it did somewhat reinforce my fears that I was too dumb for truly intelligent comics as there were all sorts of essays and articles online breaking down every detail and allusion and much like that film class I still just thought it was cool.

I also read Squadron Supreme. And you know what? Of everything it was that book that made me start to think “Hey—I actually do get this stuff. Fuck the haters!”

Why? Because I realized a lot of the high brow, “cutting edge” stuff that people attributed to stuff like Watchmen, Marvels, etc., Mark Gruenwald did them first back in 1985 in the most super hero-ey super hero book of them all.

For those who don’t know, Squadron Supreme is about a group of Justice League knock-offs introduced in the Avengers back in the Silver Age. At first it was just Hyperion (Superman), Nighthawk (Batman), Doctor Spectrum (Green Lantern) and The Whizzer (The Flash), but every time an Avengers or Defenders writer brought them back, they added new members until every Leaguer up through Firestorm had been given a counterpart.

The Squadron had always been played mostly as an in-joke good for a chuckle every couple years or a plot device to prove Marvel’s characters could beat DC’s. However, Gruenwald, who had always been a big JLA fan despite also being a life-long Marvel Zombie, saw potential for more. He saw an opportunity to tell a very sophisticated story about what happens when a group of really powerful super heroes decides the world might be a better place if they were running the show.

Sound familiar? That’s because it’s been done a zillion times since, often quite well, but again: Gruenwald did it first. Also, because the Squadron didn’t live on Marvel Earth, Gruenwald could wreak more havoc on the sights and citizens of their world.

Other stuff Gruenwald did in Squadron Supreme you may recognize? He had the heroes create a mind-control device that they used to alter villains for the “better” but which split the good guys over the ethics. He had the Squadron revealing their private identities to the public and suffer consequences as a result. He had a powerful hero accidentally kill an opponent and agonize over the burden of his incredible abilities. And he wrapped it all up with a “civil war” of sorts between two factions, heroes and villains on each side, over whether superhumans should rule the world or not.

He also had a super-scientist trying to cure cancer and facing a deal with the devil, one “hero” brainwash another into loving him, an evil clone incapacitating his counterpart then “accidentally” killing a senior citizen to win the affection of said old dude’s super heroine mate (basically it’s “What If Wonder Woman stayed with Steve Trevor even though he got super old and then Bizarro posing as Superman suffocated him in his sleep and she still kinda dug him even after?”), a mentally-challenged villain becoming one of the purest good guys of them all, and a lot more.

It was heavy stuff and I’m barely scratching the surface.

The thing is, Mark Gruenwald was a super hero guy just like me. I knew from reading interviews with him that he had that same sense of wonder for simple “guys and gals in tights” stories I did. He wasn’t really thinking about deconstruction of any sort when he wrote Squadron Supreme or anything else, but a lot of times it just kinda happened.

Basically, Mark Gruenwald had big idea and didn’t let the fact that he was “just” a super hero fan stop him. So why should I? Thus another step in my ever-evolving path towards appreciating all comics and wanting to be a part of the machine that made them was taken.

Sadly, Gru died in 1996 at a young 43 from a fatal heart attack. If there’s any guy I regret never getting to meet, work with, or at least talk to in this industry, it’s Mark Gruenwald.

I’d say thanks.

Just beginning my mature love affair with beer and having ZERO FUCKING IDEA what I wanted to do with my life, the summer of 2003 between sophomore and junior year of college was when I started at Wizard as an intern for the first time. I'd been a reader of the magazine since the mid-'90s, so I took a chance and applied along with a few intern programs at places such as Mad Magazine and IDW. Matter of fact, Ted Adams, President of IDW, GAVE me the non-paying IDW internship in San Diego, and I'd accepted and started planning what my dirt poor living situation would be out on the west coast when I got the call from Wizard saying the internship was mine if I wanted it. A family friend lived about an hour north of the Wizard offices near West Point, so I wouldn't have to live off eating cardboard and ice and BAM BAM: I took Wizard.

The internship was amazing, blah blah blah, I may save this story for another time. The important thing is that at the end of the summer, all Wizard interns were flown out to lend a hand at Wizard World Chicago, a show that, at the time, I believe was the 3rd largest in the country. The biggest convention I'd been to at that point was a 12-guy baseball card show at the Ramada Inn off Interstate 35 back home, so when I walked into WWChicago I basically shit myself and then went blind from all the sensory overload and then shit myself again on the hour for 3 days straight.

It was at THAT show that I first met one of my absolute comic book idols (Jim Mahfood) and began my first sketchbook (one of those random jobbies before I realized a theme book was the tippy toppy rad plan) and fainted at the sight of a quarter bin (I'd never seen one before!). But the most exciting thing for me was Artist's Alley. Just the collection of RANDOM-ass creators in one place - most of whom I'd never heard of - totally floored me. That show's crop of exhibitors was a ripe batch of future creative juggernauts, too! From WWChicago 2003, I still own a sketch of an angry anthropomorphic penis from Paul Mayberry (Aqua Leung), a minicomic called Lint that Patrick Gleason (Green Lantern Corps) used to do, and a copy of Meat Haus Volume 7 with contributors such as Nate Powell, Brandon Graham, Dash Shaw, Becky Cloonan and MANY others. RIPE.

But the big get for me came from a publisher I'd never heard of before that show - Young American Comics. Their table was manned by a young nerdy couple with glasses, and being a young nerdy dude, I attached myself to their display and discovered a minicomic called Snake Pit. It was a true-life, daily diary comic that collected 3 months each issue and was about a young rocker kid living in FUCKING Austin. I was from the Austin area! How did I not know about this book?! I grabbed all the issues they had immediately and devoured their 3-panels-a-day genius. The creator, "Ben Snake Pit," lived in a shitty house (the Snake Pit) before moving into a shed in someone's yard in issue #5. His adventures involved daily updates on how drunk/high he would get, what party he was going to, what movies he watched at home from his job at the impossibly eclectic "I HEART Video" video-store in Austin, and other equally inane things. But the FUN he invoked and the spirit of just LIVING and having a good time that welled up inside me when I read the issues was so powerful!

When I got back home, I noticed (and purchased books from) several local artists (including now-renowned poster artist Tim Doyle) who openly borrowed the 3-panels-a-day technique for their own minicomics. So you know what? I did it, too. And for over a full year, I did a book called Diary where I'd just open up and spill the joys and sorrows of being a dude. I eventually went on to submit to the Not My Small Diary series, I grew closer than I've ever grown to another guy with my buddy Josh by working on diary comics together, I did a Diary comic on the Wizard website for a while after I was hired on a few years later, and I generally immersed myself in the style of life Ben Snake Pit lived - a happy one.

Young American Comics has since VERY SADLY gone out of business, but Microcosm publishes yearly collections of Snake Pit now. You can also get collected editions of the early years here. I eventually met Ben at the first Staple convention in Austin. He just seemed like a regular guy who'd probably be a lot of fun to hang out with. He never accepted my MySpace friend request, but you know what? That's what regular guys do. God bless us.

2003 was unspectacular in the best possible way. I was living off campus for the first time in an apartment complex across the courtyard from my girlfriend Jami, enjoying domestic and comic bliss with little responsibility outside going to class, working 12 hours a week as a tutor and sometimes calling home. Jami made me a decoupage comic box covered on the outside with images she clipped out of an issue of Wizard that included a color shot of Fone Bone and some bad ass old Walt Simonson X-Factor art with Apocalypse on it. Each Wednesday I'd go to the comic shop with the roommate I'd found through the school paper, buy just whatever jumped off the shelf from Johnny Ryan comix to The Sandwalk Adventures to Gun Fu and then go back to Jami's apartment to cuddle up with her and zone out with comics for a few hours.

It was pretty college-y and pretty great.

Somewhere around this time, I really got into Teenagers From Mars from Rick Spears and Rob G, and I'm not sure I can explain why. I mean, it was (probably) the last truly independent, self-published "floppy sized" comic series I followed before that model finally collapsed in favor of OGNs or handmade mini comics. But I wasn't even cognizant of that at the time. More so, I was drawn along by an extremely fun comic that moves with a lot of blatant "Kiss My Fucking Ass" energy.

For anyone who hasn't read the book, Teenagers tells the story of Macon – a comic loving punk rocker who teams up with the girl of his dreams and a coalition of grave-robbing kids looking for Civil War memorabilia to flip to collectors in order to get rare back issues. It wears its influences – from omnipresent middle America comic shop culture references to adolescent zombie art to the Misfits song title – right out on its sleeve. And really, I should've hated that. I've never been a fan of comics that spend too much time up the ass of comics culture or history (example: the whole "dot matrix printing for kitschy flashback effect almost never works for me), and even though I've been a longtime superhero guy, anything that chucks subtly for confessional "this character will say exactly what they mean" dramatics strikes me as frustratingly stupid ("Star Trek" excepted).

Still, following the slow release of this little series that could as new issues landed at 21st Century every few months had me captivated. Maybe it's that from the first issue's opening sequence where Macon throws himself not just into telling his boss to fuck off but slugging the bastard in the face on through, the series knowingly slid into the rarest kind of teenage wish-fulfillment. The characters in Teenagers From Mars act with damn near total certainty in their passion for comics, their belief in young love and their increasingly unrealistic acts of public disruption and vandalism. Though it's meant to be set in a kind of Anytown, U.S.A. setting right down to the power-tripping sheriff's department and the tubby comic shop clerk who grasps on to the Pulitzer win of Maus as a justification for his own life choices, the book could never, ever fucking happen in the real world. It's an outright fantasy whose central thesis is "What if David and Darlene from 'Roseanne' decide to fuck shit up with shotguns," and I dove into the illusion feet first.

Looking back, I'm not sure how the series holds up today, and I just re-read the damn thing. It's certainly more entertaining and engaging that the dozens of other churned out "new mainstream" series meant to drive interest to comics with straightforward stories built around more casual readers (i.e. punk rockers and people passingly familiar with genre entertainment). At the same time, it doesn't carry the innovations or the punch of something like Street Angel, which have carried on over the years and led their creators to wider acclaim. Spears and G have certainly continued to produce comics, but outside the few projects I remember from MoCCA 2006 or so on their Gigantic Graphic Novels label, a Batman backup about Joker's hyenas and that Pirates Of Coney Island book that'll probably never finish, they've definitely receded.

But in that moment, there was nothing more I wanted to do aside from lie on a couch with my feet in my girlfriend's lap and letting a stark page of inky violence entertain me for a minute while I waited for life to get more complicated. Teenagers From Mars ends with a tease of a Bonnie & Clyde-esque sequel, and even then I wasn't sure if the creators were being serious about future installments or just winking at the reader as if to say, "Yeah, we know. It's supposed to be this ridiculous." Still, if it came out tomorrow, I'd buy issue #1, roll back the cover and enjoy the distraction for as long as I could.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Art Attack: March 2010's coolest covers

Just like last month, we now interrupt our regularly-scheduled word-filled programming with pretty pictures of the raddest comic book covers coming our way three months from now by the reckoning of one humble blogger...

AMAZING SPIDER-MAN #627 by Lee Weeks

AZRAEL #6 by Francesco Mattina

BATMAN AND ROBIN #10 by Frank Quitely

BATMAN: STREETS OF GOTHAM #10 by Dustin Nguyen

BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #15 by Robert Pope & Scott McRae


HELLBLAZER #265 by Simon Bisley

HOUSE OF MYSTERY #23 by Esao Andrews

HULK #21 by Ed McGuinness

HUMAN TARGET #2 by John Paul Leon

JONAH HEX #53 by Billy Tucci

MIGHTY AVENGERS #35 by Khoi Pham

PUNISHER #15 by Mike McKone

THE SHIELD #7 by Sami Basri

STEPHEN KING'S "N." #1 by Alex Maleev

USAGI YOJIMBO #127 by Stan Sakai

WEAPON X NOIR #1 by C.P. Smith

WOLVERINE: WEAPON X #11 by Adam Kubert

X-FORCE #25 by Clayton Crain

X-MEN: PIXIE STRIKES BACK #2 by Stuart Immonen