Posts Tagged ‘j. michael straczynski’

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Anybody who “came of age” in the 1980s can tell you one thing — this whole nostalgia trip some folks seem to wallow in for that decade is seriously fucking misplaced. I was there and I can relate, in no uncertain terms,  that the ’80s absolutely sucked. Yuppies wearing Polo shirts with upturned collars. Journey and Air Supply blaring on top 40 radio. The rise of truly repugnant social forces like the Moral Majority and Christian Coalition. Illegal arms sales to drug-running terrorist armies that our government had the nerve to call “freedom fighters.” Skyrocketing federal budget deficits. People so hysterically freaked out by the rise of AIDS that they had the idiocy (not to mention the unmitigated gall) to claim that it was “god’s revenge on gays.” Horrid TV sitcoms like Family Ties and The Golden Girls at the top of the ratings charts. Reagan looming over ever part and parcel of the decade like the grim shadow of death that, for all intents and purposes, he looked like (or probably looked like — it was hard to tell under all that stage makeup he wore).

About the only thing that seemed to offer any hope of escape from the cultural, social, economic, and political death spiral we were stuck in was the deep-seated fear we were all being inculcated with courtesy of the horror story spoon-fed to us by the media, our teachers, and in some cases even our parents,  that those evil Russkies might unload their purportedly enormous stockpile of nuclear missiles on us at any minute and put us all out of our collective misery.

It was all a hustle, of course. The Russian people were starving to death and the Cold War was just a cheap scare tactic being used to prop up our out-of-control warfare — excuse me, “defense” — establishment, but shit : it sure sounded good. A mushroom cloud waking you up in the morning or an alarm clock radio playing “I Want To Know What Love Is” by Survivor — which would you pick?

Of course, I was a young, stupid kid so it all seemed perfectly “normal” to me. And besides — I had comic books, goddamnit, and if there’s one thing the ’80s actually were a good time for, it was being a comics fan.

There were a couple of forces at play that were revitalizing our favorite beloved but beleaguered medium at the time — on the one hand, you had superhero revisionism in full force at DC, with books like Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen redefining the possibilities inherent in the guys-n’-gals-in-tights genre by pointing out, in the most stark manner possible, what a bunch of bullshit the founding pillars of said genre were in the first place, while brewing just underneath that was a booming independent comics scene that was allowing mostly amateur creators to tell — well, whatever kind of stories they felt like, basically. Between the two trends, it honestly felt like the possibilities were endless. As Timbuk3 were telling us, the future was so bright we had to wear shades.

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It all fell apart, of course. The “Big Two” grasped the superficial appeal of the superhero  revisionist genre easily enough without understanding — or even caring to understand — the deeper implications of why those two seminal works of 1986 mentioned earlier were so important, and as a result we got a steady stream of “darker” and “grittier” masked vigilantes that continues unabated to this day, while the “black and white boom” the small press enjoyed soon became a “black and white bust” when the market was over-saturated with a bunch of third-rate, quick-cash-in books that didn’t sell because,hell, they sucked.

Still, a lot of talent that would go on to take the “major leagues” by storm got started in the independent “minors” — maybe names like Adam Hughes, Eddie Campbell, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and Matt Wagner (to mention just a small handful) ring a bell? And plenty of titles from that time hold up pretty well, it has to be said : MageGrendelStrange DaysNexus — all of these are better the 30th (or 300th) time around than most of what’s being pumped out by Marvel of DC these days. Heck, even Fish Police wasn’t too bad.

Maybe it’s just the first sign of my inevitable mid-life crisis, but shit — I really do miss the “anything goes” spirit of some of those indies. Which is why I’ve found myself smiling ear-to-ear through each of the first two issues of Protectors Inc., the latest offering from J. Michael Straczynki’s “Joes Comics” imprint, which seems to have found a new (and hopefully permanent) home at Image Comics.

It’s not that it’s a perfect book, mind you — far from it. But it seems to be taking a fresh angle to the by-now-thoroughly-played-out ’80s trope of super hero revisionism by applying the loose, maybe even amateur (and I mean that as a positive) stylistic trappings  of the ’80s indie boom and the end result is a title that , at least so far, is a hell of a lot of fun to read.

Sure, Straczynski probably has this sucker tightly plotted out from the fist page to the last, but it sure doesn’t feel that way. Some WW II soldier gets super powers, starts calling himself “The Patriot,” and saves the world time and again. But then one day he just disappears. And a bunch of rich people with nothing to do suddenly declare that they, too, have powers beyond those of mortal men, form an outfit called Protectors Inc. (obviously), and take up The Patriot’s mantle of saving us all from — shit, I dunno, ourselves, I guess, because there aren’t any super villains to speak of in this world.

A bunch of good guys with no bad guys to fight — that’s either gotta be the best, or the dumbest, idea anyone’s ever had. I haven’t decided which is the case here yet, but finding out is certainly going to be interesting.

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In the meantime, some ex-spy from the “wrong” side of the former Iron Curtain disappears in a flash of blinding light, there are un-natural thunderstorms every night, and some Chicago homicide detectives are investigating some apparently unconnected murders. Don’t ask me what any of this has to do with anything yet, but again, it’s a blast seeing it all play out. Straczynski seems to be in no hurry here, and that’s a good thing — he’s giving his characters time and space to breathe, to reveal themselves, and even folks you know probably won’t be central figures to the proceedings are provided ample opportunity to develop somewhat distinct personalities. Like the best of those ’80s indies, it all feels very organic, maybe even a little bit “loosey-goosey,” but the book’s core premises are intriguing enough to convince us folks out here in reader-land that we should stick with Protectors Inc.‘s creators and trust that they’ll get us all to wherever we’re all going. Even if we don’t have the first clue as to where that is yet.

On the art side, seasoned veteran Gordon Purcell (who, ironically, I knew pretty well back in the ’80s when he was just starting to break in at DC and worked part-time at the local comic shop where I was known as the loudest-mouthed, most opinionated little bastard who frequented the store — before growing up to become a loud-mouthed, opinionated, not-so-little bastard on the internet — the more things change, the more they stay the same) is handling the pencilling and inking here, and seems to have found a perfect style match for Straczynski’s script. There’s something deliciously eager and enthusiastic about Purcell’s (sorry for calling you by your last name, Gordon, if you ever happen to read this) art here,  and while I hesitate to say that it invokes memories of some of the better, still-not-quite-ready-for-prime-time artists of those ’80s indies I keep blathering on about, it definitely feels more like the work of an ambitious young talent who wants to draw the coolest super-heroes he can think of rather than that of a guy who’s been at the game for well over two decades. It reminds me of the kind of art that used to be in the modules for that old Champions role-playing game, and that’s just plain beyond fucking perfect for the tone and mood of this series. Michael Atiyeh’s atmospheric and sensitive color palette complements the images to a proverbial “T” and the end result is a book that, again, isn’t perfect to look at, but has a kind of raw, vital, youthful energy to it that just can’t be faked.

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All in all, Protectors Inc., at least through its first two issues, is that rarest of anomalies — a comic done by two veteran hands with something like a half-century of combined experience between them that reads, looks, and feels as dynamic, honest, and downright fun as the work of a couple of promising up-and-comers. Sometimes it’s maybe a little too eager to please, and a little scattered or unfocused, but I have faith in these kids, and if their work here is any indication, they’ve both got bright futures ahead of them in this business.

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Remember the first issue of this series? When it looked like, out of all the various Before Watchmen books, this one might be the most relevant? That it might actually fulfill the entire project’s supposed remit of “getting us to look at these characters in a new way?” That it might  have something  to add to our understanding not only of  Dr. Manhattan , but the entire Watchmen “universe” itself? That it might have some genuine ambition? That it might, at the very least, have something to say?

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Yeah, I don’t remember that anymore, either. J. Michael Straczynski took that intriguing cliffhanger he left us with way back at the end of the first ish and followed it up with a second installment that basically took us into Marvel Comics What If —? territory, with Dr. Manhattan filling The Watcher role, then gave us a third that was basically the Watchmen equivalent of (a very condensed) Crisis On Infinite Earths, with “Big Blue” as The Monitor, destroying all other possible realities to save our own, “real” one. Now we’ve come to the “big” finale, and — well, the whole thing just kinda limps out the door with a cheap, gimmicky, completely uninvolving supposed “plot twist” that tries, in a clumsy way, to bridge the variant endings between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series with Zack Snyder’s Watchmen film and ends up doing a disservice to both.

And speaking of cheap gimmicks, artist Adam Hughes — whose work on this project has been, and remains, generally superb — actually resorts to flipping his work upside down halfway through the book when the narrative perspective “flips” from Dr. Manhattan to Ozymandias. I don’t lay the blame on Hughes for this painfully obvious stunt, since it was likely and editorial call, but it’s certainly as dumb as it is unsubtle, and I hope that either the artist himself or at the very least somebody, somewhere behind the scenes kicked up at least a little bit of a stink about it.

Beyond that, there’s nothing much to report here. The alternate covers by Hughes and Bill Sienkiewicz (respectively, as shown) are both fine, even if Hughes’ makes it look like something interesting might be happening in this book when, in truth, nothing is, but that’s just basic comic book hucksterism 101 and again, I’m not gonna lay much blame for that at the artist’s feet when the writer — and editors — are clearly the ones with no vision here.

We finally leave things off with the old “Nothing ends, Adrian. Nothing ever ends” line, and see Dr. Manhattan walking around on his new faraway planet, contemplating the idea of creating some new life form of his own. In other words, right smack-dab  where we started. Which is probably Straczynski’s point, I suppose, but it’s a point that Moore had already made 25 years ago and it renders these past four issues not only totally unnecessary, but meaningless.

Nothing ever ends? Fair enough. But I’m glad this series is over all the same.

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So — this one’s done. J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Kubert’s Before Watchmen : Nite Owl series has been the book fans love to hate, even the ones who didn’t hate the whole BW “concept” from right outta the gate, and why not? Truth be told, it’s been pretty wretched, and while no single subsequent issue has been  the complete waste of paper that the first was, the sad fact is that it would take a pretty remarkable parts 2-4 to make up for that dreadful debut, and “pretty remarkable” is something this just hasn’t been.

Which isn’t to say that this wrap-up is altogether unsatisfying, simply because, well — it satisfies me to know that this series is over, and that JMS will, hopefully, never get a chance to write Rorschach again, because, if we’re honest, that’s been the real problem here : Staczynski’s take on Dan Dreiberg’s “Nite Owl 2.0” hasn’t been all that actively bad, per se, but dear God — his characterization of Rorschach has been flat-out atrocious.

In this issue, we learn that a youthful Walter Kovacs actually — SPOILER ALERT! — killed his own father, while the guy this book is ostensibly about gets relegated to second-fiddle status once again, and ends up with a broken heart to boot by the time all is said and done. Oh, and we also get served up a limp and unnecessary tie-in with a throwaway line from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series after our Nite Owl/Rorschach/Twilight Lady triumvirate brings down the demented preacher who’s been bumping off hookers in grisly fashion, too, that pretty much serves as a textbook illustration of how pointless and ultra-pedantic true “fanwank” can be, and that’s it — we’re done.

On the artistic front, Bill Sienkiewicz takes over on inks for the late (and sorely missed) Joe Kubert in this issue, thus completing his career decline from full-fledged Alan Moore collaborator on Big Numbers to last-second fill-in inker on a book that’s cashing in on Alan Moore’s creative legacy against The Bearded One’s wishes, and to say the results are unimpressive is to be too goddamn generous. Joe’s richly detailed linework, the unquestioned highlight of this series, is sorely missed. The covers aren’t anything too remarkable, either — the Andy n’ Bill combo provides the “main” one shown at the outset of this review, while Ethan Van Sciver is responsible for the variant reproduced immediately below:

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And speaking of wrap-ups, this is gonna do it for Trash Film Guru in 2012. It’s been an interesting year of blogging, and while I certainly didn’t foresee the extent to which reviewing comics would take things over around here, the good news for those of you who haven’t enjoyed this admittedly lengthy side-step (and let me say a very profound “thank-you” to those of you who have) is that 2013 will more than likely see movie reviews rise to prominence around these parts again, although I do plan on finishing out this whole Before Watchmen thing, my sanity be damned.

So hey, Happy New Year one and all, and I look forward to seeing any and/or all of you back here on the other side of the calendar flip. Stay safe on New Year’s Eve, and if you insist on doing something stupid, please — do it at home, willya?

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One thing I’ve read and heard from many — even his most ardent fans — when it comes to the writing of J. Michael Straczynski is “JMS doesn’t do subtle.” He certainly has proven that to me with his work on the Nite Owl and Dr. Manhattan books, but damn — Before Watchmen : Moloch #2 has gotta take the cake in the “whack-you-over-the-head-with-it” department. He starts with Ozymandias assuming a crucifixion pose on the second page while he implores Edgar Jacobi to “let me save you,” and just ramps it up from there.

Seriously, this book is a case study in completely one-dimensional characterization from start to finish : Adrian Veidt is portrayed as nothing but a deeply pathological megalomaniac, and Moloch is a “heart of gold”-style simpleton —the ultimate irony being, of course, that when it all comes to a head at the end, it will be the simpleton who willingly sacrifices himself to the megalomaniac’s audacious “save the world” scheme, thus completely reversing the roles of savior and saved as depicted in the “come to Jesus” panel I just mentioned.

Again, pretty damn unsubtle stuff all around, here. And ultimately pointless. The trajectory of the plot this time around can only end at exactly the point we know it does, with Moloch’s death as depicted in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series, and since the resolution to that story makes it pretty clear how our pointy-eared friend indeed must have died, all Straczynski and artist Eduardo Risso (who also did the “main” cover, depicted above — the variant, by Olly Moss (by way, it has to be said, of Matt Wagner) is shown below) are doing here is filling in the details.

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All of which isn’t to say it’s exactly a terrible comic — Risso’s art is probably worth the purchase price in and of itself — it’s just, stop me if you’ve heard this one a thousand times already — not in any way, shape, or form a necessary one. Reading it won’t add to your appreciation of Moore and Gibbons’ original work, nor will it detract from it, and that seems to be the editorial endgame strategy that DC is employing on all these titles — just don’t fuck anything up, and we can all get paid, go home, and pretend that none of this ever happened.

And speaking of things we’d like to pretend never happened — John Higgins’ “Curse Of The Crimson Corsair” back-up strip comes, mercifully, to its conclusion here. At first this pirate story was pretty much the best thing about the entire Before Watchmen enterprise, but to say it’s gone off the rails in the last couple of months would be an understatement. While the quality of the artwork has remained consistently high throughout, the story has taken an absolute nose-dive into the most hackneyed territory one can imagine. It wraps up with the most simple and predictable resolution possible, but Higgins’ deeply purple prose renders even this most straightforward of conclusions a garbled, nearly-incomprehensible mess. I thought this strip was going to run all the way to the finish line of all the BW books, but apparently the plug’s been pulled on it a little early, and I don’t think anyone’s really going to mind that in the least.

We’re almost done, folks. Two more issues of Comedian and Ozymandias, one more of MinutemenRorschachNite Owl, and Dr. Manhattan, the Dollar Bill and Crimson Corsair one-shots, and the pain will all be over. What arrived with a bang clearly seems to be heading out with a whimper, as sales for these books have all nose-dived when it became crystal clear that none of these creators had anything to say with any of these characters and were content to merely tread water. It appears that DC has sought to do nothing more with Before Watchmen than strip-mine the initial concept — and the reading public’s good will — for all they’re worth.  If that’s the case, then congratulations — mission fucking accomplished.

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Continuing this series’ pattern of being the BW book most determined to exactly ape Alan Moore’s writing style (albeit with only the most limited handle on the quantum physics-related concepts The Bearded One was attempting to explore with the title character), the third issue of J. Michael Straczynski and Adam Hughes’ Before Watchmen : Dr. Manhattan is at least readable, and certainly beautifully drawn, so I’m not going to gripe too much here.

Things kind of took a turn for the duller last time around as we ventured into purely Marvelesque What If —? territory, but in this latest issue Straczynski decides to have “Big Blue” go about the business of consolidating all possible alretnate realities into one (at least apparently) definite one. Which makes the proceedings at least reasonably interesting for the most part, apart from the horrendously predictable decision to make the point at which all realities diverge be — you guessed it, that goddamn fateful first meeting of the Crimebusters again, a scene we’ve seen replayed in just about every one of these prequel series now.

But hey, maybe I’m just feeling the Christmas spirit or something, but I feel like being (mostly) generous with this book. The variant covers by Hughes (above) and Neal Adams (below) are both well-executed and rather striking in their own way, and the interior art continues to impress with Hughes drawing Dr.. Manhattan in a style vaguely reminiscent of Dave Gibbons, sure, but with his own singular stamp. Combined with a perfectly competent script, the overall impression is one of two creators at least trying to bring their so-called “A game” to the project, which is more than you can say for a lot of the others involved with this enterprise (hell, it’s more than you can even say for Straczynski himself when it comes to Nite Owl).

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And yet — the ending to this issue is pretty flat, leaving us off at the point of Dr. Manhattan’s creation yet again, thus ensuring that there’s basically no dramatic tension heading into next month’s wrap-up. We’re most likely in store for the kind of story that ultimately leaves us exactly where we started, which might make for a pleasant enough diversion, but in no way advances an argument for this book’s necessity. Straczynski and Hughes are at least not actively detracting from our appreciation of their title character in the same way that, say, Brian Azzarello is doing over in Comedian, but they’re not adding anything to our knowledge or appreciation of him either. It’s all just so very — there.

So, anyway — it appears that the entire publishing schedule for Before Watchmen has been thrown off a bit lately. We didn’t get anything for two weeks, and next week they’re playing catch-up by releasing the latest issues of Silk SpectreComedian, and Nite Owl all at once. For Silk Spectre and Nite Owl, that’s ll be the end of the road, but until then, we’ve been “given” the first of the two-part Moloch (very) mini-series to mull over — since, ya know, DC apparently feels we weren’t being subjected to enough J. Michael Straczynski already.

I admit, when this book was first announced my reaction was, essentially, “what’s the point?” But then, given that you could reasonably say the same thing about the entire Before Watchmen enterprise as a whole, I guess “what the hell — why not?” is a reasonable enough way to look at this late-comer to the proceedings, as well. And hey — at least it’s got Eduardo Risso art, and I’ve always liked his stuff.

All in all this issue wasn’t so bad as far as these things go, but a word of warning — if the other BW series have felt like useless “professional fan fiction” to you, then this one is going to feel like more of the same only on steroids, since it’s principal character, one-time super-villain Moloch, appeared on a grand total of, what? Maybe 12 pages of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ original Watchmen series? So yeah — we are admittedly, pretty firmly in “fanwank” territory here. And it’s not like there’s bound to be anything too earth-shattering going over the course of a story that only runs two issues. And yet —

Maybe it’s because this little interlude-of-a-book is so far removed from being actually necessary, or maybe it’s because I was just in the mood for a pleasant-enough little time-waster when I read it, but I actually enjoyed (believe it or not!) Before Watchmen : Moloch #1 (variant covers, as shown, by Risso, Matt Wagner, and Jim Lee, respectively). Admittedly, the framing device of using a confession to a Roman Catholic priest as a springboard for a series of flashback vignettes covering the course of a character’s life has pretty much been done to death, but it generally works here, and maybe because we know so little about him Edward Jacobi’s life story actually makes for fairly interesting reading. We’re not mining overly-familiar territory here as we are in the other books. Heck, as we get to the end of the “origin flashbacks” in this first issue, Straczynski even leaves us with a relatively nifty little cliffhanger, even though it should be anything but a surprise given what little we do know about this character.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that, contrary to the other  BW books that are nothing but random recollections of past “adventures” (I’m looking at you, specifically, Comedian and Ozymandias — as well as Nite Owl  #1 and Minutemen #1), Before Watchmen : Moloch  #1 actually works. Yeah, the Moloch character is uglier and weirder-looking than Dave Gibbons portrayed him, looking a lot more like Neal Adams’s Man-Bat character here, but there might be an explanation for his changed appearance forthcoming in the second issue, or maybe it’s all just down to artistic differences. I don’t much care either way, this is pretty much a throwaway character, and yeah — it’s also pretty much a throwaway book. But it’s a competently executed throwaway book, with a breezy, well-written script and some truly gorgeous art by Risso. What’s not to like?

Still, I have to confess (just to clumsily pick up on Straczynski’s already-clumsy “confession” theme) that the book left me with a nagging question — if a well-done, but pointless, diversion stands out as being one of the better Before Watchmen issues to date, how  absolutely thorough a condemnation is that of the other titles in this series?

After last issue’s stunner of a cliffhanger, there seemed to be several ways for writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Adam Hughes to go with their four-part Before Watchmen : Dr. Manhattan series, and while I was rather hoping for a more out-and-out mindfuck that would positively shake up everything we at least thought we knew about the “Watchmen Universe” (I still have a hard time saying that without gagging), the more conventional “alternate realities” angle that they go down with this installment, first popularized in comics with Marvel’s old What If —? series, is hardly unexpected.

In fact, when we branch off into multiple possible realities about halfway through the issue, as Jon Osterman chooses one doorway over another, etc., one is more or less reminded of exactly The Watcher’s screed delivered way back in What If — ? #1 when he tells us that every decision ever made by every person — whether or not to cross a street, etc., results in a complete alternate reality where the person decided differently. Straczynski tries to give the premise a bit more teeth here by relating it to the famous Schrodinger’s Cat quantum physics scenario, but in truth extrapolating that very same thing out onto a universal scale has already been done in comics before, as well — and quite nicely, truth be told, in Peter Milligan’s criminally-overlooked fine six-issue run following up Grant Morrison on Animal Man.

So, yeah — there’s essentially nothing new going on here. Dr. Manhattan, observing a reality in which he never came into being, is changing it just by looking at it, and it all ends in tears for the particular quantum reality he chooses to hang out in for a bit, one in which he and Janey Slater are happily married and he splits the Gila Flats military test lab for a university teaching gig. Still, it’s all so nicely rendered by Hughes and believingly scripted by Straczynski — he seems to have a real handle on these characters as opposed to the ones he’s working with on Before Watchmen : Nite Owl — that I can’t complain about things too terribly much, even if I wish they’d chosen a — dare I say it? — different, more inherently challenging direction to take their story. What If — Dr. Manhattan Had Never Existed ? is, in fact, kind of a cop-out given all the options available to them, and reading the two issues in succession as I did later only drove that point home all the more plainly, but it’s a well-done cop-out, and as rote and by-the-numbers as most of these books have been, a well-done cop-out stands out above most of the “well, that’s this month’s mortgage taken care of”-type “efforts” we’ve been getting from the likes of Brian Azzarello.

All in all, then, Dr. Manhattan (with variant covers, as shown, this time around provided by Hughes and comics legend P. Craig Russell, respectively) continues to be the high-water mark for the entire BW enterprise, and Straczynski and Hughes have given us another solid cliffhanger with some real possibilities this time around, as well. But I can’t shake the feeling that there’s another quantum reality out there where the story took a really unexpected turn, and in that universe this series really set the comics world on its ear and it’s got absolutely everyone talking.