Friday, January 25, 2013

31 Comics I Dig










GEN 13 #2





















WHAT IF? #46

Sunday, January 20, 2013

10 Reasons X-Cutioner's Song Still Rocks Pt. 2

Three’s Company
At the end of Uncanny X-Men #295, chapter five of X-Cutioner’s Song, Cable heads to the awesomely-named Canadian Intelligence group Department K because who-cares-why, where he runs into Wolverine and Bishop, also there for reasons I don’t remember, and super pissed because they think this dude shot Professor X. The next week in X-Factor #85, it’s a showdown for the ages, as the two X-Men throw fists, claws and energy blasts at Cable’s giant guns, with Jae Lee drawing all the gory details and black blood flowing freely. After Wolverine slices up multiple weapons, the two X-Men agree Cable didn’t do the dirty deed and head up to his space station where they spend the next couple chapters—both Wolverine and Cable pass the time through whittling while Bishop stares out the window and no I’m not joking—before getting bored and going after Stryfe. Years later, Bishop would forget all about this sitcom-ready set-up and spend decades trying to kill Cable and his daughter.

Killer Archangel Moments
There are three instances in X-Cutioner’s Song where Archangel—who I knew next to nothing about as a kid other than that he had an action figure—comes off awesome and totally won my young heart over. The first is when Mutant Liberation Front member Kamikaze tries to sneak up on him from behind, he extends his razor sharp wings to get ready to fly, and unknowingly decapitates the dude (then angsts about it for like three issues). The second is when Apocalypse, his “father,” shows up to cure Professor X, and when the other X-Men think the whole thing has gone bad, he raises up his wings to block them from interfering, making them all think he’s gone evil, until a few seconds later where Xavier is saved. Lastly, on the moon, in the final chapter, after Apocalypse has been beaten nearly but not quite to death by the Dark Riders, he asks his “son” to mercy kill him, and Archangel just walks away like a stone cold bad ass, not willing to give him the satisfaction—harsh!

Crying Havok
I wrote a more lengthy post that covered this already, but Alex Summers got to be a stone cold bad ass during X-Cutioner’s Song. Cyclops usually took command during most crossovers, whether his brother was leading X-Factor at the time or not, and in lieu of that, Storm got the reins, but with the X-Men besieged by so many enemies, some of their biggest guns captured and a personal stake involved for Havok, the reluctant hero had no choice but to step up. With the main teams still in disarray following Xavier’s shooting, Havok keeps a clear head and goes after X-Force, bringing them in and then getting Cannonball to cooperate in the search for Cable (and later Stryfe). His diplomatic skills proven, Alex then has his most rad moment on the moon, where that nasty force field barring anybody without Summers (or Grey) DNA prevents most of the good guys from doing any damage, and leaving Havok to play cavalry and help Cable save the day. Now that he’s leading an Avengers A-squad in Marvel NOW!, the time has never been better to check out Havok’s first major rodeo.

You can have your Magnetos, your Apocalypses, your Sinisters, your Mojos and your Empyreans (look it up!); there was NO X-Men villain more awesome—at least to me in the 90’s—that m’f’n Stryfe, baby. At the time of X-Cutioner’s Song, we didn’t know the guy’s motivation for sure, we just knew he had the most dangerous looking armor ever (how did he walk around without impaling every person he came close to?), the same face as Cable, and the ability to deliver Shakespearean soliloquies that would make Hamlet go “Damn, that’s good.” One of the coolest thing the brain trust behind the franchise at the time did was elevate him to the A-list almost out of nowhere, since he went straight from being a terrorist who gave X-Force a hard time to the guy who took out Professor X, kidnapped Cyclops and Jean Grey, beat down Apocalypse and outwitted Sinister in the course of 12 issues; something about the fact that he had been almost hiding in plain sight to that point just increased his coolness. I also dug that he was arrogant and clearly had a master plan, but no matter how much time he’d put into his scheming, the raw emotional hurt he felt towards Cyclops, Jean, Apocalypse, Cable, etc. could take over at any time and he’d rant away with tears flowing from his eyes; he had incredible power, but you always knew he was about two seconds away from self-destruction, and that kept things interesting. I wish Stryfe had a longer and more enduring shelf life, because I feel like too many people felt like once his full past and relationships were out there he lost his edge, but I disagree and think the intensity of his hatred and his penchant for chaos remain key components to a great villain. There’s a reason you can yell “Stab his eyes!” at any 90’s X-Men fan and get a knowing smirk and nod.

Lasting Consequences
In the final page of X-Cutioner’s Song chapter 12 (aka X-Force #18), Mr. Sinister has his assistant open a canister from Stryfe that purportedly contained DNA info on Scott Summers and Jean Grey, but it’s empty; Sinister stomps off annoyed, his assistant coughs. What was in the canister? The Legacy Virus. Sinister’s assistant would be the first to die, kicking off a subplot in the X-Men books that last nearly a decade, claimed the lives of many heroes and villains, and ultimately took a tremendous heroic sacrifice by Colossus to stop. More fallout from the story: X-Force breaks out on its own, Rogue and Gambit get together, Archangel starts moving past his depressed stage and Cable becomes an essential part of the franchise—just to name a few lasting consequences.

Also, I became a huge comic book fan and eventually start working in the business; so it was an important story.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

10 Reasons X-Cutioner's Song Still Rocks Pt. 1

I certainly read comics before the fall of 1992, but it was those four months when I was 10 that I daresay transformed mere hobby into passion. As I detailed in a post a couple years back—and have spoken on more than once since—my buddy Matt Corley and I would feverishly ride our bikes to the local collectibles store every Wednesday for 12 weeks to grab the latest chapter of the X-Cutioner’s Song crossover unfolding through Uncanny X-Men, X-Factor, X-Men and X-Force, tear off the polybags, scan the Stryfe’s Strike (was it Stryke?) File card and get engrossed in the sprawling mutant saga that encapsulated everything I came to love about comics as a kid (and still do today).

Last year was the 20th anniversary of X-Cutioner’s Song, and a group of Marvel-employed superfans including myself, Ryan Penagos, Arune Singh, James Viscardi and Nick Lowe were hell-bent on celebrating with all the bells and whistles, but got caught up doing stuff like “our jobs” so the window came and went. I still dream that we’ll do a belated bit of ballyhoo sooner rather than later (Scott Porter said he’d do a podcast retrospective with us and the band Bloc Party agreed to help us write the X-Cutioner’s Song song)…but until then, I’m going to do a bit of my own commemorating with just a small sampling of reasons why this story was the pinnacle of my comic book childhood and remains my high watermark for tales of glorious action and awesome.

Started with a Bang
In the very first installment of X-Cutioner’s Song—which to this day is the only one I don’t own and had to borrow Matt’s Scott Lobdell-signed copy any time I wanted reread the story in its entirety—Professor X gets shot; by Cable no less! It wasn’t like villains hadn’t gone after Xavier before, it wasn’t like he hadn’t been badly injured (or even “killed”) before, but the nature of the attack was so brazen—in public at a Lila Cheney concert for peace—and apparently from one of the X-Men’s own (sort of). It immediately threw things into disarray, complicated by the fact that Cyclops and Jean Grey were simultaneously kidnapped by the Horsemen and thus the X-Men had to function without their “mind, heart and soul,” with the likes of Havok and Storm having to step up while being behind the eight ball from the get-go. I never really thought Xavier was going to bite it, but the tender bedside scenes with everybody from Beast to Psylocke were a nice touch to the thrill-a-minute action.

More than just Magneto
When X-Cutioner’s Song kicked off, the X-Men cartoon had only just begun, so as far as I knew, the X-Men only fought Magneto, Sabretooth and the Sentinels on a loop. From what I’ve since read, much of the genesis of this story spun out of Magneto being temporarily “dead” and the writers asking “what if every other major X-Men villain attacked at once?” Hence you get a crash course on the other big bads of the X-Universe, particularly Apocalypse and Mr. Sinister (in addition to Stryfe, of course, who gets his own entry in a bit). As a kid who only knew Apocalypse as a weird action figure and Sinister as a dude who looked like Colossus, I dug getting thrown in the deep end with them, their scheming, and their impressive shows of ambiguous mutant powers. It all came full circle so that when they did show up on the animated series I was jazzed to see characters I actually cared about brought to life.

X-Force is Awesome
I’d have to say my favorite single installment of the story remains part four, X-Force #16, which if I recall I actually read first, catching up on the first three chapters later. In that issue, the combined X-Men and X-Factor teams track down X-Force, who has been largely on the outside of the story to this point—save for a quick clash with X-Factor—hoping they will lead them to Cable, but instead a kick ass fight breaks out where Cannonball and company are wildly outmatched, but tenaciously keep swinging Rocky Balboa-style and make it a ballgame way longer than it should have been by all rights (I honestly thought Shatterstar was going to at least take out Wolverine). I had been a casual X-Force fan before this, but thought they were kind of lame just because they were basically Cable’s support staff; this is where they broke out and became all kinds of awesome on their own, setting up the run of comics I love where they broke away from their mentor altogether to the degree that when he came back had to basically ask them permission to rejoin the team (as a weird aside, Greg Capullo draws all the X-Force members in this issue covered in splotches of mud because they were in a swamp, but 10-year-old me thought it was some form of villain mind control and that’s why they were fighting the X-Men).

Cannon Fodder
Any big bad worth their salt has the prerequisite group of henchmen, but the ones featured in X-Cutioner’s Song—and most of 80’s/90’s X-Men lore—were a cut above the rest, with cool designs and crazy powers. You had Apocalypse’s Horsemen, at this point consisting of Caliban, Pestilence and War; the Dark Riders, who initially served Apocalypse but after Stryfe kicks his ass they swap loyalties because their whole thing is survival of the fittest; and finally, my personal favorites, the Mutant Liberation Front, Stryfe’s flunkies for the couple years previous who he totally throws under the bus here to get busted while he’s up on the moon. The MLF puts up a helluva fight though, with Strobe blinding Rogue and putting her out of action while Reaper nearly takes out Gambit and Quicksilver (one of the issues ended with the cliffhanger of him standing over them with his scythe and the next issue blurb literally read “Will Reaper kill Gambit and Quicksilver?” to which my 10-year-old self responded “Seriously? No.”); alas poor Kamikaze, who got accidentally decapitated when Archangel literally turned the wrong way with his wings extended (more on that later). This story was only missing Sinister’s Nasty Boys for 90’s X-Men henchmen perfection (I would say the Nasty Boys and MLF were the cut-off, as the new look Acolytes in Fatal Attractions and beyond were the quintessential “complex sounding power that is really just an energy blast” team of 90’s).

Who is Jae Lee?
I had no clue who Jae Lee was in 1992, aside from the fact that he drew nothing like Andy Kubert, Brandon Peterson or Greg Capullo (or Jim Lee or Rob Liefeld) and seemed grossly out of place as guest artist of X-Factor during X-Cutioner’s Song. At the time, I did not care for his work at all and was baffled as to how he got the gig. Of course over the years I’ve come to appreciate Jae Lee as one of the most unique and talented draftsmen in comics capable of work that’s transcendentally beautiful, but also looking back, his X-Cutioner’s Song work kind of kicked ass. The darkness, the use of shadow, the harsh angles—it ratchets up the tension and emotion to take a super hero action story to a very emotional place. His depictions of Xavier puking up techno-organic virus, Wolverine slashing Cable to pieces or Archangel brooding are masterpieces. Needless to say, I’d like to give kid me a good smacking sometimes.

To be continued…

Monday, January 7, 2013

Paragraph Movie Reviews: 10 Years

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

10 Years is a movie produced by and starring Channing Tatum and written and directed by Jamie Linden (he wrote We Are Marshall and Dear John, neither of which I've seen); it chronicles the 10 year reunion of a high school class, ostensibly centered around Tatum's Jake seeing his old girlfriend Mary (Rosario Dawson) for the first time in nearly a decade, but actually really well-balanced with storylines for just about every member of the impressive ensemble cast given if not equal then respectable and appropriate weight. From what I understand, Tatum doubled as pseudo-casting director, getting his actual wife Jenna Dewan to play Jake's new girlfriend, Jess, and a bunch of his real life buddies to play his group of friends in the movie; all of it makes for great chemistry and a sense that this was genuinely fun and maybe a bit emotional to make, which translates into the story and end product feeling very natural. Honestly, everybody in the movie is good--just seeing the cast list at the end of the trailer is what got me interested in watching--and I could run down each one by one if it didn't violate the core mission statement of my "paragraph movie reviews" (which I already do by making each of them like nine sentences long and ignoring obvious breaks...but I digress). Chris Pratt is a standout as Cully, the "reformed" bully who spends the movie trying to convince his high school victims that he's grown up, but instead gets so drunk he makes everybody around him uncomfortable and thoroughly embarrasses his wife, a put-upon Ari Graynor; what makes Pratt's performance special is he's doing the same goofball, slapstick comedy he does on Parks and Rec and everywhere else, but while it starts off funny, by the end it's just tragic how obviously trapped this guy is and what a mess he's made of what seems on the surface to be a decent life. Oscar Isaac as Reeves, the classmate who became a famous musician, has the genuinely touching love story of the movie with Elise--the always underrated Kate Mara--the outsider girl he's been carrying a torch for since high school and ignores all the people who want his autograph to adorably flirt with all film. There's something for everybody whether you're looking for pathos, romance, comedy or whatever here, and it's all done within the framework of a story that feels real. The little things that bothered me early on to the last got resolved or had a turn that turned me around by the end. Justin Long and Max Minghella's buddy comedy ends up having a heartfelt twist; the weirdness between Jake and Mary that felt a bit overwrought gets totally redeemed by their final scene together; Scott Porter feels marginalized for the first two thirds of the movie as the friend who moved to Japan and seems to just be there to fill another seat in the car (and his character's name is Scott P), then has an awesomely Scott Porter scene and fantastic Scott Porter speech that you realize could only have been given by a character who had been somewhat on the fringe, and it all feels justified. This movie really won me over (as you can probably tell) on just about every level; you may enjoy it a bit more if you're approaching or past your own 10 year reunion (I'm a little over two years past), but I think anybody looking for a well done, entertaining little piece of entertainment with a brilliant, well-utilized cast will dig it.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

XOXO 4 Ever: Ben & Kiel Say Goodbye to Gossip Girl Pt. 2

Previously on Cool Kids Table, Ben and Kiel revealed their roots as Gossip Girl fans, talked about the show's origins, discussed the Blair-Chuck wedding an more. We continue...

Ben: Ok, before we get to the big stuff, let’s talk Dan and Serena. As people were falling in love with the Chuck/Blair pairing season two and beyond, I was the dude sitting there screaming “The show is about Dan and Serena, people!” I stuck to my guns on this one no matter how boring Dan got (in the opinion of others—I always thought Lonely Boy was the best) or how loathsome Serena became; I firmly believed that both characters and their story would be redeemed if they ended the show together, and…I still feel that way.

Kiel: I wasn't assuming or rooting for them to end up together, really. I just wanted to see how they would logically make an ending happen after all the awful shit these people have done to one another. But again, I'll wait to put all my pieces together. Proceed.

Ben: Yes, it’s a bit creepy that Serena ended up with the guy who essentially admitted to being her long-term stalker (which actually makes total sense because she’s a narcissist). Yes, Dan forgave a shitload more than any sane person would have (I still think she got off way too easy for making that sex tape last season; when this season opened she was back to pouting about how everybody else ruined her life when she was a monster and that’s probably the biggest dangling unresolved thread I have an issue with). And yeah, it’s kind of a bummer the way that otherwise glorious flashback scene to the high school (junior high?) party complete Chuck Bass in all his scarf-adorned glory underlined how far they are from the relatively decent people they were at the beginning of the show, but whatevs. Gossip Girl was about a lot of stuff (and also nothing of substance whatsoever), but more than anything it was about the guy from outside getting the golden girl, so yay for that happy ending.

It also made the reveal of Gossip Girl’s reveal beautifully creepy and subversive.

Kiel: Yes. Well, it was creepy by an objective standard, but by the show's logic I'd argue that the reveal actually CONFIRMS its overall "message." But again, you roll with it...

Ben: First off, the identity of Gossip Girl is a sweater you really can’t pull any strand off if you don’t want it to come apart entirely. I can say with near certainty there are scenes of Dan alone reacting to Gossip Girl blasts and being shocked that blow up the whole deal—I’m sure bigger fans than me have already located said scenes and are crying foul. But I don’t care if the continuity adds up perfectly here—it’s fucking Gossip Girl—or if the creators had this planned from day one—I doubt it—as long as the emotional payoff and explanation works, and I think it did, big time.

Kiel: I've been meaning to rewatch the Season 1 DVDs that I've got around here to see if there's any way they can justify this ending and say that they "planned it from the beginning" or some such. But until then, I'm going to assume you're 100% right.

Ben: Inverting the entire power structure of the show and making Dan the one who was really in charge all along? Brilliant. It retroactively gives all those schemes particularly from the early seasons where he was left on the outside looking in a renewed punch. I also love the larger message underlining Dan’s speech at Thanksgiving dinner to Serena and really showing what this show is about (not learning a lesson): these people were all horrible to each other, but at the end of the day forgave one another literally anything, so the only way to gain not just acceptance but the sort of unquestioned moral free pass you needed to thrive on the Upper East Side was something like this.

All that aside, I do like that when all is said and done the central conceit of the show was acceptance and gaining power respect and all that, but really a guy trying to get a girl. Was the way he went about getting said girl incredibly creepy and beyond borderline sociopathic? Yes! Absolutely! Was it still kind of sweet? Am I a monster if I say yes? I’m ok with that.

I also don’t think the fact that along the way Dan had relationships with Olivia, Vanessa, Blair, etc. blows anything up, because even if he momentarily lost interest in Serena—as a teenager would—that’s no reason he’d want to give up the intoxicating power of being Gossip Girl.

It was smart of them to cover their bases with the “Jenny knew all along” thing (and made for a hilarious “confrontation” scene demonstrating once and for all how low on the totem pole of respect and relevance Rufus is), but they hammered a little too hard with how Dan shutting down Gossip Girl after Blair and Chuck’s accident made him somehow a good guy; he wasn’t a good guy, but nobody was, so just own it. 

So anyhow, I was thrilled with the Gossip Girl ID. I can’t think of anybody else among the main cast who would have been as satisfying and bringing in somebody from left field would have been fun, but a bit of a cheat.

Kiel: All right. I agree with all of your points in a logistical sense. Dan's reveal made all the right people look foolish and all the the right reasons for his re-acceptance to the crew. I don't mind one iota that his canceling the blog when the car accident happened is a magical forgiveness bullet. I'm down with the "Jenny always knew" thing just because it semi-justifies the way that the characters kept mentioning her once every six weeks for the later seasons when any other show would have just ignored her existence once she was written out. I laughed out loud at the "it's not Dorota" joke.

But what really makes the reveal work is that idea you said about Dan being a monster for hatching a years-long plan to fool this girl into loving him. In anything resembling real life, that's 1000% true. But this is not real life. This is the Upper East Side.

For me, the show has been riding this line for a while where the characters would eventually either err on the side of actual, logical ethical structures (as Blair and Serena often profess to do while making up for the 135th time) or just embrace the evilness of what they are and ride that to its soapy nadir. Is Gossip Girl a series where the pursuit of power and social status is the ultimate moral code? You bet your ass.

I started thinking about this a lot during Season 4 where Sean made the A+ observation on Juliet's reveal as a big villain. She was poor. The poor are the bad guys in this show! For the characters to triumph, they don't have to do what's right. They just have to win the game, and poor people with their petty emotions and sense of fairness never learned to play.

To put it another way, Serena was a goddamned supervillain at the end of last season, and this year they found her out not for revenge but to beg her to rejoin the crew. You follow that through Dan's slow boiling plan of screwing her over so hard that she'd have to respect him (my FAVORITE storyline of the year...and now ultimately the true story of the whole show), and what the writers are showing us is that true happiness for these characters – for this world – is wealth by any means.

And while the reveal feels out of left field in the moment, it feels so right the more you reflect it against any other relationship in the show.

Ben: Speaking of out of left field—those cameos! I love that pics of Katie Cassidy leaked out early so people assumed she’d have a major part in the finale yet Vanessa wouldn’t show up, but instead they both ended up getting the same two-line appearance as Lola and the rest. It maybe would have been nice for them also to get Elizabeth Hurley or Bucky from the Captain America movie (or any of the other male love interests, really), but I was pretty satisfied with what we got. Kristen Bell and out-of-nowhere Rachel Bilson were incredible and made that scene seem more legitimate than it had any right to be; if somebody hasn’t already made a video loop of Kristen’s wink on YouTube yet, there’s your prompt to do so. Nice sneaky touch working in Olivia via Hillary Duff on the playbill for Ivy’s life story in the flash forward as well.

So finally, let’s talk about the flash forward. As already mentioned, the Nate thing was perfect in its sublime ridiculousness. I like that Blair and Chuck had a kid—and named him after Chuck’s French alter ego—because it gave them more substance than the destiny junk. Rufus wearing hipster glasses and being with an un-credited, non-speaking Lisa Loeb is more brilliant than words can express. Eric had a better appearance than Jenny—and I like that he made no effort whatsoever to visually move himself back to that character as opposed to the one he plays on Revenge—and I thought it was pretty BS that she got the “and” in the credits when he’s probably a bigger deal at this point. Lastly, Dan and Serena getting married in Blair’s apartment was ridiculous—I loved it.

Kiel: WOW. You caught so many more of the Easter Eggs than I did! I have it on DVR, so I'll have to go back and rewatch the last ten minutes. I had heard none of the leaks beforehand, so all the cameos were surprising and fun for us. The Bell bit was killer.

But what made me really love the montage into the final ridiculous wedding scene was how every little detail drove home what I was talking about a few paragraphs back. When I saw that Lily and William were still together, I loved it. It confirms everything about the Dan reveal. Ivy Dickens was a poor Florida actress (possibly a graduate of the Royal Tampa Academy of Dramatic Tricks) who also had some serious mental issues in the great "obsessive lover" tradition. But she still did a few decent human things in her arc. She was the only person nice to CeCe at the end and so she won that money for being good. And even though she did awful stuff at the end, it was for a so-called "pure" reason – true love for William. And what did she get for it? William scraped her off like she was dog shit he stepped in at the polo match.

Meanwhile, he and Lily go off to live the end of their romance as ultra wealthy assholes. And even Rufus is just like, "Fuck it! I'll marry Lisa Loeb and be rich!" The ending of that crazy cameo implies is that Rufus learned Dan was right in all this.

Even looking at that last scene in a meta sense supports the triumph of the Upper East Side ethos. Why did Taylor Momsen get a special screen credit when that Eric kid has a better career? Because Taylor Momsen is a fucking name in that ridiculous way that readers kind of care about who she is. All the supporting roles in ABC dramas in the world can't buy Taylor's It Girl cred.

And hey. Pour one out for Georgina Sparks. She may have been a shadow of her former self since sometime around the "I went to Christian Camp" storyline, but never forget that her blowing into town at the end of Season 1 was the thing that galvanized this show's themes. Take a bow, Harriet The Spy.

Ben: The final final scene, with Kristen Bell doing the “you may be rid of Dan Humphrey” narration and then explaining how as long as there are social outsiders there will always be a Gossip Girl felt like a freaking horror movie and was a nice “the characters you love are in their little bubble but the world they live in continues to be terrifying and awful” was the perfect way to end the show and one I never would have guessed.

This was a master class in how to do a series finale, in my opinion, be it ever so humble. Josh Schwartz did a great job on The O.C. with this too, so I’m not surprised. His formula of centering a big current event (the Chuck/Blair wedding or the Cohens moving) while also tying up all the loose ends (Gossip Girl’s identity or the relationship drama) then providing a flash forward so you don’t have to spend time wondering how all the characters ended up is a winner.

Kiel: You may find this random, but this reminded me so much Seinfeld finale. SO much. For years we've been watching these people do horrible and crazy things, and we've been perfectly entertained. Now as one last blast of people they've shit on are paraded in front of us, we realize our worst suspicions about them are totally true. But where Seinfeld reestablishes a normal moral universe at its very end, Gossip Girl revels in the triumph of its subterfuge. In this New York, awful rich people who laugh at a fat guy while he's robbed do not go to jail for a year. They go to a rooftop party where they drink for free, buy drugs from the DJ and embezzle from the host.

Ben: My hat’s off to the folks who created this for an exciting and satisfying finale to a show that wasn’t always good, but never took itself too seriously that I couldn’t at least laugh at it and ultimately taught me nothing.

Kiel: You know you love it.

Ben: XOXO!

But wait! There's more! Coming soon to the Cool Kids Table, the one and only Sean T. Collins joins Ben for an extensive interview on his original Gossip Girl comic, The Secret Origin of Chuck Bass!