Thursday, September 29, 2011

Happy 3rd Birthday, Cool Kids Table!

Pretend one of us is named Michael.

It was three years ago today that we started this here blog. We may not post as often as we used to all the time, but we still love doing it and we still appreciate the heck out of you reading our ramblings.

Thanks for everything and here's to more years of Linko!, quarter bin comics, Justice League videos and irrational hatred of Crystal!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Art Attack: December 2011's Coolest Covers

-Ragman has a costume that must be really fun for artists to spin their take on. I'd love to see it done different ways, and animated style is a great start.

-When Joe Madureira said he was having fun drawing Moloids, I had no idea how much!

-Patrick Gleason does a sick job making Batman images that are striking as well as terrifying.

-Ben Oliver is really catching my eye as of late. That's a fresh take on the classic "Batman's costume framing him" shot that's appropriate for Batwing.

-Francesco Francavilla can do no wrong. It's not just his art, but his composition that is dynamite.

-I like Stanley Lau's stuff a lot more when he tones down the painting and just draws.

-Clayton Crain's Carnage USA covers are nightmare-inducing. He and Pat Gleason need to battle.

-Francis Manapul's Flash cover is busy in the right way given who he's drawing.

-What the heck is Li'l Depressed Boy?

-Kaare Andrews is hitting a whole new stride with his Ultimate Comics work.

-How was I to know that Rafael Grampa drawing Uncanny X-Force was what was missing in my life?

-Venom as wallpaper? Nicely done, Tony Moore.

THE ALL-NEW BATMAN: THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD #14 by Rick Burchett & Dan Davis
ANGEL & FAITH #5 by Rebekah Isaacs
ANIMAL MAN #4 by Travel Foreman
AVENGING SPIDER-MAN #2 by Joe Madureira
BATMAN AND ROBIN #4 by Patrick Gleason
BATWING #4 by Ben Oliver
CAPTAIN AMERICA & BUCKY #625 by Francesco Francavilla
CAPTAIN ATOM #4 by Stanley Lau
CARNAGE U.S.A. by Clayton Crain
DAREDEVIL #7 by Paolo Rivera
DEADPOOLMAX 2 #3 by Kyle Baker
THE FLASH #4 by Francis Manapul
THE GOON #37 by Eric Powell
iZOMBIE #20 by Mike Allred
JOURNEY INTO MYSTERY #632 by Stephanie Hans
THE LAST BATTLE #1 by Dan Brereton
THE LI'L DEPRESSED BOY #9 by Steve Rolston
STORMWATCH #4 by Chris Burnham
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS #4 by Frazer Irving
UNCANNY X-FORCE #18 by Esad Ribic
UNCANNY X-FORCE #19 by Rafael Grampa
VENGEANCE #6 by Gabrielle Dell'Otto
VENOM #11 by Tony Moore
VILLAINS FOR HIRE #1 by Rodolfo Migliari
WOLVERINE & THE X-MEN #3 by Chris Bachalo
X-CLUB #1 by Nick Bradshaw
X-FACTOR #228 by David Yardin

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Definitives: The Silver Surfer

The Silver Surfer occupies an interesting place in the broad spectrum of classic characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby during their landmark run on Fantastic Four. Like the Inhumans, he’s an exotic character who makes for an impactful guest star. However, like The Black Panther, he’s also a figure with depth and an intriguing background who can sustain his own mythology to a degree. It’s tempting to write him off as somebody who works better weaving in and out of series starring other folks and existing on the fringe of the Marvel Universe—and he’s not in lousy company in this regard when it comes to many of the Lee/Kirby inventions from said FF stint—but he’s got quite a few quality stories centered around him as the protagonist.

I met the Surfer during his 90’s solo series, so for me, he was a cosmic hero first and foremost and I wouldn’t learn about his earthbound years or even the sacrificial first appearance that defined him until much later. It speaks to his versatility that he can succeed in either environment; however, it’s also perhaps a commentary on his limitations that he gets shuffled back and forth between Earth and space, between opposing Galactus and serving him, as he gets into a rut if his dynamic doesn’t get changed up every now and again.

At his best, the Surfer is a hero, an enigma, a warrior, a philosopher, a savior, a harbinger of doom and more. Here are some stories that showcase his various sides.

The Galactus Trilogy (FANTASTIC FOUR v1 #48-50)
Few characters whose first appearance is not also their origin are so vitally linked to that story as The Silver Surfer. The Galactus Trilogy is a classic for many reasons, but setting up the Surfer as a different kind of Marvel hero with a compelling mystique about him is one of the chief among those. He makes his debut as a menacing alien heavy that embodies the idea of “the other” and ends the story as a hugely sympathetic underdog we wish we could be more like. The Surfer’s discovery of humanity, his empathy, and his transformation underscore the big action and amazing art, tying a “when we’re at our best, we’re worth saving” moral to the story.

Not to cross brands here, but the Surfer’s initial 18-issue series from the 70’s, written by Stan Lee and illustrated largely by John Buscema, really is the character’s most essential tales. Out the gate, we get the origin of our hero, how Norrin Radd became The Silver Surfer, sacrificing love and a big chunk of his own morality in order to serve the greater good; that the character went years with this motivation for his actions in his first appearance as a question mark is pretty wild. That opening salvo is followed up by an exploration of both the Surfer’s exile on Earth as well as his past on Zenn-La, including the introduction of Shalla Bal to create one of Marvel’s most unsung (literally) star-crossed romances. You also get the genesis of Mephisto, that legendary first Surfer-Thor brawl with stellar Buscema art, and other classic stuff. Sometimes Lee hits the angle of the Surfer not understanding humanity’s violent ways a little too hard and too often, but when it scores it scores big.

SILVER SURFER v2 by Steve Englehart
The Surfer series that ran through the late 80’s and into the 90’s had him off of Earth and back soaring through the spaceways. I started reading regularly during Ron Marz’s tenure as writer, which had some cool stuff, and I just missed a Jim Starlin run I’ve always wanted to get around to, but the stuff that sticks with me is Steve Englehart’s work at the start. I definitely recall distinctly the period where the Surfer was entering into an awkward romance with Nova (the chick, not the real one), trying to quell intergalactic wars between the Kree and Skrulls, and dressing up as a pirate to go undercover among a crew of lizard people. It was weird, it was wild and it was ambitious—it was everything stories about a shiny demigod riding through space on a surfboard needed to be and presented a nice counterpoint to the claustrophobic 70’s stories where the Surfer couldn’t venture outside his earthly prison. Slick art from the late Marshall Rogers didn’t hurt either.

I’ve got a whole entry on this underrated beauty.

“On the Last Day” (NOVA v4 #13-15)
During the first Annihilation, Keith Giffen made the bold move to put the Surfer back as Galactus’ herald for the first time since his introduction (I think, please correct me if I’m wrong) and this was, to my opinion, the story that best played off that change in status quo. The premise is pretty simple: The Surfer leads Galactus to an inhabited planet and warns the folks living there to evacuate, Nova wants to save said planet from being eaten, Nova and the Surfer fight. There’s another plot about a body-possessing serial killer, but for me that good stuff is writers Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning digging into the psyche of the Surfer when he is not turning on Galactus to save the little people. They do a nice job showing the nuances of the character in part not caring because his value system has again been dulled, but also retaining a shred of that compassion and wavering the slightest bit in his duty. The Nova vs Surfer battle is great as the kind of underdog story I dig—Nova is nowhere near Surfer’s league—and because Wellinton Alves does wonderful work depicting it, but the moral debate and contemplation over the greatest good is the meaty stuff, really showing how complex The Silver Surfer is.

Fantastic Four: The Animated Series
The FF side of the Marvel Action Hour from the mid-90’s had very little going for it aside from a hilarious theme song and Brian Austin Green rapping as The Human Torch, but a pretty spot-on adaptation of the Galactus Trilogy is one of the series’ few treats. The animation is not pretty, but the folks responsible for the show do a very nice job with the story, and this was in fact the first place I experienced it in any fashion, so that’s certainly something worth noting.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Paragraph Movie Reviews: Moneyball

If you don't have plans to see this movie, you can check the spoilers here and then come back.

I wanted this movie to be better. It was good, make no mistake, but I thought it could have been great. Brad Pitt is commanding as Billy Beane and turns in what will likely and should be an award-garnering performance full of intensity, charisma and depth. I wasn't so much sold on Jonah Hill and that hurt the film a great deal for me. I give Hill credit for trying to rein in his usual comedic delivery, but I felt like even toned down most of his line readings came off unintentionally awkward and funny, which took me out of the moment more than once; Peter Brand is not supposed to be the comic relief here, he's supposed to be a key part of the story's nucleus, and I was unable to take him seriously. The story was engaging and the script was good, but the pacing jumped around. I liked the juxtaposition of Beane's younger years with his current struggles, but they failed to keep a consistency of how they balanced the two, giving the former a lot of real estate in the first half of the movie and then dropping it suddenly about halfway in only to pull back to it at very random times. There were scenes that were absolutely brilliant--any time Beane is orchestrating trades or dealing with his scouts is, pardon the pun, money--but the glue between them was shaky. The transitions between acts didn't hold up for me; the acts themselves taken alone were very good, but it felt like they were missing a lot of build and just jumping from one key point to the next. The climax to the film was pretty unforgivably over-dramatized; I understand and appreciate the need for theatrics in sports movies (I love Rocky), but the way they frame Beane supposedly jinxing the A's winning their 20th straight was hokey to the max. Chris Pratt was surprisingly good in the sense that he swapped out just enough of his comedic tendencies in a way I wish Hill could have. Philip Seymour Hoffman is a non-factor. I'll still rank this movie highly and recommend it based off things like Pitt's terrific performance, the tight script, solid directing and that the good scenes are really, really good, but it's missing too much in the connective tissue to achieve its full potential as an all-time classic.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Why I never beat X-Men for Genesis

The first X-Men video game for the Sega Genesis came out in 1993, when I was 11. While I didn’t have a Genesis myself at the time, I had at least a couple friends who did and I spent many an afternoon following school holed up in one of their basements or living rooms mooching off their sweet, sweet consoles.

By 1996 or so, I did get a Genesis to call my own. I played it on and off for many years, even bringing it along to college with me—Sonic the Hedgehog 3 got me through finals my sophomore year as I’d just play, write a paper, play, study for a test, play, sleep a few hours, play, and maybe eat once in awhile if the steady diet of gold rings and knowledge wasn’t doing it.

Since most of my friends at least watched the X-Men cartoon even if they weren’t comics-reading full-fledged nerds like me, they had the X-Men game. When I got a Genesis, I think I either bought the game or got it from one of my buddies who had no more use for it.

I present this preface to illustrate that I have been playing the Sega Genesis X-Men game for roughly 18 years now and I have still never come anywhere close to beating it.

I braved an electrical storm and pumped about 30 pounds worth of quarters into the X-Men Arcade Game to beat Magneto’s ass. I rented and polished off X-Men 2: Clone Wars, the sequel to the Genesis game, which would in theory, be tougher, but no.

Let me speak first to the virtues of this game.

The graphics are rad. They were awesome in 1993, and I daresay almost two decades later in the world of 3-D and polygons are whatever they still rock. It looked like the comics I was reading at the time, as if they’d pulled Jim Lee and Andy Kubert’s energy and dumped them into my TV with all the crackle and sexiness therein.

There are a crap load of characters in this game, and given that the X-Men has always been a franchise at its best—in my opinion—when it’s filled to brimming with personas, I dug that. To start, you can play as Wolverine, Cyclops, Gambit or Nightcrawler and can rotate between the four. You also get assists from Storm, Iceman, Rogue, Archangel and Jean Grey. You get to fight Juggernaut, Deathbird, Apocalypse, Ahab and Magneto, to name a few. The levels take you everywhere from Mojoworld to Excalibur’s Lighthouse; it really is a full X-Men experience.

Also, the music was bad ass, both to my 11-year-old ears and in a nostalgic sense looking back. Fletcher Beasley (thanks, Wikipedia) rocked it with a hard-edged techno beat that felt right for the X-Men.

Ok, now to bitch about how impossible this game was/is/will forever be.

Your mutant powers are, on the whole, terrible, or rather your ability to use them is. Wolverine has his claws and an incredibly slow moving healing factor that does you no good against anybody tougher than a generic Savage Land tribesman. Cyclops’ optic blast is so tiny it looks like you are firing the puck from Pong at your opponents. In order for Gambit to actually throw a playing card, you need to execute some elaborate button-pushing sequence more appropriate for Street Fighter or it just hovers in front of you like a pink bug zapper. Nightcrawler teleports into walls. To make matters worse, you have a power bar right next to your life bar, so you have a limited amount of uses of your crappy mutant abilities. You will be longing for Colossus’ angry yell energy spark or even Dazzler’s dainty light grenades by the end of level one.

Remember those guest star assists I mentioned earlier? It’s virtually impossible to beat bosses without them, but also almost as tough to figure out how to execute them. Unless you time it perfectly, Rogue will fly in and punch the air rather than the guy you’re fighting. Archangel is a little better/more frustrating in the sense that he will shoot wing darts at the air three times as opposed to just once. My natural inclination to want to use Iceman after my excitement over seeing him in a video game tends to make me forget he’s only there to make ice bridges and thus useless unless there’s a long jump I want to avoid (in other words, I gave Juggernaut a lot of ice bridges to run across and kill me from). Storm is really the only surefire helper, as she fries everybody on the screen, so of course the enemies tend to flee a second after you’ve called her. And since you burn through these assists the minute you use them and can’t get them back until you die, you better use them right the first time out the gate or memorize them for next time after you’ve sacrificed Nightcrawler to get all your power back.

Also, you can’t die from falling down into pits because Jean Grey comes and retrieves you, though it does cost you a little bit of life each time; this might seem like it’s a kindness, but really it just means if you’re stuck and want to start over without hitting reset, it’s death by a thousand paper cuts rather than being able to run yourself through with a sword.

It’s also hard to jump; really, really hard. Wolverine is short, so he can’t jump. Cyclops is lanky, so he can’t jump. Gambit has a trench coat, so, you know, wind resistance. In theory, being able to jump should be one of Nightcrawler’s chief assets, so instead they have him do some flip thing in the air that, again, makes jumping virtually impossible; also, he does a ridiculous dropkick.

The bosses are incredibly difficult. Juggernaut just runs back and forth, but being unstoppable, you can’t do much to him unless you hit him in the head at the exact right time or use all your assists to get past him (guess which one I did). Deathbird jumps away to the other side of the screen any time you make contact, and, again, you can’t jump too well. Apocalypse can create an impenetrable barrier around himself at a moment’s notice that drains half your life. I hear you get to fight Ahab, Mojo, Magneto and maybe a Sentinel as well, but I wouldn’t know.

Finally, you only get one life with each character, though you are able to swap them out at will, so you can have four guys die in rapid succession rather than be allowed the dignity of just accepting that you can’t get past the Shi’Ar airlock once and putting in Tecmo Bowl. There are, of course, no continues or saves.

To sum it up: I was able to grow up and get a job at the company that makes X-Men before I was able to beat this X-Men video game.

If anybody has beaten the game, I’d love to hear your stories. I’d also love to borrow your Sega Genesis, as my sister’s pet rabbit bit a hole in the plug to mine.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Hulk in Space

I’d wager when asked to picture The Hulk—a bizarre request in everyday life, but totally par for the course if you’re reading this blog, I imagine—most of you flash to a desert or shattered cityscape as your setting, the big guy having either leapt into scene or just finished demolishing an opponent and probably lots of property. Cinematic and television portrayals of the character tend to point him towards either heavily urban areas rife for destruction or the calm of nature for moments of reflection that play against the beast’s violent existence.

It’s interesting to note then that while the default locale for The Hulk would be against concrete or sand, many of the best—and my favorite—stories starring him take place in the far reaches of outer space.

In its way, Planet Hulk is more of a gladiator story, at home on the same shelf as Conan or, well, Gladiator, but science fiction trappings play a pivotal role. Even if Hulk and his Warbound are swinging axes or maces at one another in a sparse arena, technology drives the story, beyond just the explanation of enslavement or means for the villain’s power, but also as bookends that drive the story to and from Sakaar. That The Hulk is an alien unbalances the setting and sets up revolution, but the notions he introduces coupled with the very technology that accompanied him literally and figuratively blow up this exotic setting.

The presence of a diverse cast that varies not just in character but their very species, from the familiar Brood to the races dreamt up by Greg Pak and his conspirators, sits at the core of Planet Hulk. As Pak has said many times, Planet Hulk—and his indeed his entire run with The Hulk—is largely about a monster finding his place and that there’s somewhere for everybody to belong; that Bruce Banner needs to travel light years and associate with bugs who walk like men to find his was a great tale to tell, and the gaining and losing of this enriched the overall lore.

It also doesn’t hurt that when you move The Hulk out of the desert and away from the familiar tanks and soldiers out into the galaxy where he’s got giant space monsters and elaborate robots to smash, it’s a lot of fun; there is an inner depth to the character, certainly, but an outward joy in his appeal as active protagonist as well.

One of my personal favorite Hulk yarns from my beloved Peter David era was “The Troyjan War,” a mid-90’s mini-epic illustrated by Gary Frank that had Banner and the Pantheon journey to the heart of an interstellar empire to save one of their own from a forced marriage. It was during the “Smart Hulk” era and as such while it shared a setting—albeit a vast and multifaceted one—with Planet Hulk, it was a very different kind of space saga.

Among the many beauties of PAD’s “Professor Hulk” was that he could recognize the absurdity of certain situations, even if that didn’t necessarily mean he would do much to combat said absurdity (like when he had the giant gun and the bunny slippers during “War and Pieces”). When it came to “Troyjan War,” Banner felt out of his element as a guy who solved most problems via punching when he got stuck floating through the cosmos or on the verge of that situation when in space stations he could not cut loose in lest he risk losing gravity’s sweet embrace. PAD and Frank made the most of this for laughs and sight gags, as they so often expertly did, whether it was Hulk sitting on the Silver Surfer’s board to hitch a ride or the goofy visual of him in a giant space suit. There were hard-hitting emotional elements to “Troyjan War” that I would delve deeper into were this post solely about that story, but as with all the crème de la crème of the PAD run, that didn’t stop it from being funny as well.

Speaking of The Silver Surfer, he’s a guest star in both Planet Hulk and “Troyjan War,” as well of course as a recurring ally of the Hulk’s in the Defenders. The Surfer and The Hulk make for an interesting pair as both are displaced “others,” generally separated from the ones they love and lost in exile, though one represents extreme introspection and the other impotent rage at their respective imprisonments. The Surfer’s most noteworthy estrangements from happiness place him physically far from home, whereas the Hulk’s don’t always put literal distance between him and what he wants so much as emotional degrees, making it interesting when the latter does experience the former’s dilemmas in stories like the ones mentioned. They’re similar in some respects, opposite in others and good foils for one another.

I’m not as familiar with the classic Hulk stories set in Jarella’s world or the Bill Mantlo “Crossroads” stuff, but while I know they take place in other dimensions rather than outer space, there’s certainly a common ground there. From what I’ve gathered, in both cases and a lot of others, it’s the Hulk’s durability as a character that can move between genres and landscapes with relative ease given how his demeanor and language is fairly adaptable, that makes him ideal for stories like the ones Harlan Ellison liked to dabble in. You move Spider-Man to the Microverse, there’s a certain amount of incompatibility that demands to be played for laughs just with the quips, but Hulk can grunt and punch his way through a fantasy setting or be darkly clever in sci-fi; green and purple seems to blend.

Outer space and inter-dimensional adventure has become as much a part of the Hulk mythos over the years as strength-based slugfests and psychological examination, and it makes sense to me. For one, The Hulk is at his gamma-irradiated heart a science fiction concept, set apart from the street level Daredevil or mythological Thor by his origin ripped from 60’s atomic nightmares; the stars are the logical extension of his genre. The Hulk is also a force that demands sufficient challenges and for which the stakes must consistently be raised; we can believe Spider-Man would be preoccupied by an old guy with wings, but the Green Goliath needs the caliber or competition sometimes only an interstellar armada or hostile planet can provide.

However, it’s also about breaking beyond the brilliant Jekyll/Hyde dynamic the Hulk’s existence centers around and flipping it on its axis. In stories like Planet Hulk or in the journeys to Jarella’s, we get to see our hero take a break from being the outcast and affirm or question his own values when he’s on the same setting as those around him rather than consumed with being hunted and hounded.

You can tell Hulk stories that are just him beating up The Rhino, you can ruminate on the origins of his dark side for psychological fodder and you can use him as the pivot for great comedy. But you can also drop him into strange settings, post him up against the craziest aliens you can come up with, and do your ode to whatever space opera floats your starship with an undercurrent commentary on the human condition.

For a character still best known as a guy who likes to smash stuff, The Hulk has incredible depth.