Review: a superhero story with an emotional punch – Ether

The Ether #1,

Matt Garvey, Dizevez

I’ve been hearing good things about Matt Garvey and Dizevez’s The Ether from colleagues in some other FP stores who had managed to get some copies in directly from Matt, so when some arrived in the branch where I’m based I was understandably curious to see what the fuss was about. I am very glad I did.

It’s a strong opening with a very upsetting scene – although one handled visually but Dizevez with some tact, keeping the emotional impact but not using any gratuitous details. Which I was glad of, because it involved the killing of a child, and while that’s a powerful narrative motivation, we really don’t want to see the details, the idea is horrible enough. Dizevez adds nice touches that you don’t notice straight off, attention on the foreground with the detective and a constable standing over shrouded body, but then you notice the light from a nearby doorway in the background and only then realise there’s another officer there, holding himself up by the door frame, shoulder heaving, physically sick at what he’s just witnessed.

Enter our masked vigilante, Ether, in a dapper suit that wouldn’t be out of place on a 60s UNCLE agent or other stylish superspy, but partnered with a daffodil yellow shirt and purple tie (nicely co-ordinated with purple gloves). And topped off by a mask which encompasses the entire head and face, a tight-fitting disguise which appears to have a map of a city printed all over it. The inescapable comparison to any comics reader is, of course, to Watchmen’s Rorschach – suit, gloves, that total head-covering mask. And as Ether offers to help the police find whoever is behind this, and other recent abductions and murders, embarking on a trawl through the local lowlife, asking questions and beating out answers, it reinforces that comparison…

…Except Garvey and Dizevez are obviously well aware readers are going to be thinking that way, and in the latter half we see… Well, actually, I really can’t go into that much because it’s a lovely change in the road that the story seemed to be following. And while I will refrain from describing it because of spoilers, I must say I loved it – it changed the entire tone of the comic and, more importantly, it brought in a very human-level to everything, an emotional engagement (actually a number of them), which was extremely satisfying, and which shattered that Rorschach-clone impression. No more on that, except to say it was brilliant – but you need to read it, not hear a reviewer outline it (and spoil it).

There are some lovely touches here too – there’s that background officer being ill at the sight of the small body I already mentioned, but there are other nicely crafted details throughout. Ether chiding the police for referring to the small body as “the victim”, “Can you both STOP referring to this child as The Victim? Show some respect.” Only to have the detective, his pose the one of a world-weary man who thought he had already saw the worst but had just found a new, lower level of horror, turn to him angrily and explain that he has kids himself and referring to the child as “the victim” is a distancing technique that allows him to process the crime scene and do his job, otherwise he’d fall apart. It’s a good addition to the story by Garvey and a reminder of how many wretched scenes our emergency services deal with (something we were most horrifically reminded of this week), and that for all their calm professionalism, they’re human, and these most awful moments they have to deal with leave a mark on their soul.

That sense of actual humanity is pervasive throughout this first issue and it was a quality which elevated this beyond just another superhero vigilante tale. Dizevez’s art exudes atmosphere, that Noir-esque night-time city, full of nocturnal predators, rain-slicked streets, scenes little by the sickly yellow glow of sodium street lamps, or in a fight in a seedy red-light district the mixture of the hooker-red neon “XXX” sign combined with the sodium yellow casting garish coloured light across the night.  I can’t wait to see what happens in the second issue.

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog. Ether #1 is available in most Forbidden Planet International stores, or you can get it from Matt’s Big Cartel online shop here

Reviews: Thor, Goddess of Thunder

Thor, the Goddess of Thunder Volume 1

Jason Aaron, Russell Dauterman, Jorge Molina

Marvel

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Following the events of Original Sin, Thor has been badly affected – since Nick Fury whispered a secret into his ear, a secret stolen from the Watcher, Thor has not been the same man (or god). Mjolnir, his famous hammer, lies on the surface of the Moon and no-one, not even Thor, can pick it up. The hammer decides who is worthy, and it seems the Odinson is no longer worthy to wield it with the power of Thor. Broken, devastated, he has little idea of what to do, and matters are further complicated with  the return of his father, Odin, who now assumes that his wife Freyja and the council will simply roll over and return control to his arrogant hands as if he had never been away.

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And then as the Asgardians are both weakened and in a demoralised, confused, divided state, a horrible, vicious attack by Frost Giants takes place on Earth, on a deep sea research based owned by the villainous billionaire Roxxon, with much slaughter. Odin shows no interest in defending Midgard. Thor finally snaps from his torpor by his now off-limits hammer, arms himself with a favourite axe instead and mounts his ram to fly into battle. But without Mjolnir he lacks so much of his power, and his added bitterness and anger has unbalanced him. The Frost Giants are being lead by an ally, a scheming Dark Elf who wants something Roxxon has, and who is perfectly aware of the turmoil in Asgard and that Thor no longer wields the hammer. And Thor is no match for him – he loses, and he loses badly, defeated and his bodily badly mutilated. Others try to lift the hammer – including the incredibly arrogant Odin – but none can. And then a slim woman, features concealed by a silver helmet, steps forward after the rest have gone. And she picks up Mjolnir… A hero is always needed, and if the Odinson has been judged unworthy of Mjolnir, then another must step forward to take his place, the hammer lifted, the lightning unleashed.

There must always be a Thor.

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This new Thor has little time to try and come to terms with the vast power of Thor that Mjolnir imbues her with (she even finds herself speaking like Thor, “thees” and “thous”) – how does she even use it to fly? Oh yes, she’s seen Thor do that twirl it around then throw and zooommm. Hel, yes, that works! And it’s fun! Fortunately Mjolnir’s relationship with her seems to be almost symbiotic; this is no mere tool or weapon, the enchantment which allows it to judge who is worthy also seems to work with the new Thor, guiding her, helping her, it wants to help her, wants her to succeed, to be the best hero she can be. And as she arrives at the scene of the Frost Giant invasion she will need all the help she can get, literally thrown in at the deep end into a huge fight against the odds deep under the ocean. And then a partly recovered Odinson, dragged back to Asgard for treatment after his defeat, turns up. And he is not amused that someone else wears the mantle of Thor. Who is this unknown usurper? Now she has a Dark Elf, Frost Giants and and embittered, furious Odinson to deal with. Hel of a first day…

Aaron and Dauterman (with Jorge Molina on art duties for the final part) deliver one of the best Thor story arcs for ages here, giving us not one but two very powerful women who have to use their power and influence while navigating a very male-centric world, both the new female Thor and also Freyja, queen of Asgard. Often wiser and a better ruler than her arrogant husband, and also more understanding of the new Thor. The All-Father sees a thief and usurper – despite the fact Mjolnir chose her and rejected him – but Freyja sees nobility and honour in this new Thor, of a woman who has stepped up because if the Odinson can no longer be the heroic Thor then someone must be. Because Thor is needed. It’s pure, selfless heroism. And to Dauterman and Molina’s credit even when powered up by Mjolnir the new Thor doesn’t suddenly become some ridiculously proportioned uber-Amazonian caricature, she remains the same, slim woman (thank you for not going down the six foot legs, gravity-defying bosom and revealing costume route, this shows far more respect for the character and what she will need to undergo to be worthy of the mantle).

It’s a steep learning curve for this new Thor – she has to learn to control her new powers, to wield Mjolnir effectively (although the hammer seems happy to help her – in fact it does things in battle it never did even for the old Thor, much to his amazement, helping him to start realising that perhaps this woman is no thief but is truly worthy to hold it). She has Frost Giants to deal with, Dark Elves plotting with more clearly threatening to erupt on both Midgard (Earth) and Asgard at any moment. And she has to somehow convince the Odinson that she is not his enemy or an usurper. And then there are the everyday battles a superhero has to fight, including a wonderfully drawn and scripted fight with the Absorbing Man and his other half, Titania. And as well as fighting supervillains she has to fight his condescending, macho, misogynistic attitude too:

Thor? Are you kidding me? I’m supposed to call you Thor? Damn feminists are ruining everything! You wanna be a chick super hero? Fine, who the hell cares? But get your own identity. Thor’s a dude. One of the last manly dudes still left.

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And the female Thor rather satisfyingly beats the living tar out of this chauvinist pig, using Mjolnir in a way he has never seen, making him gasp, “what kind of Thor are you?” And as she punches him in the face she replies “the kind who just broke your jaw!” while in a thought bubble we can see her also thinking “that’s for saying “feminist” like it’s a four letter word, creep.” Titania arrives to bail out her defeated husband, but decides this one time she won’t fight. Call it a superwoman to superwoman nod of respect for the sorts of attitudes they have to face. It’s a wonderful scene an it’s not hard to detect in it a rebuke, not just to sexist attitudes in general and those extra hurdles many women are forced to jump to be successful (like life isn’t plain hard enough already for anyone), but also to the well-known problem of sexism in the comics industry, among publishers, creators and some readers. More than a few male readers howled, outraged at the idea of a female Thor, as if it somehow emasculated them. Goodness knows what they’d make of the actual Norse Sagas where Thor has to dress up as a blushing bride at one point!

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The identity of this new Thor isn’t revealed till a later volume, but it is someone we know well from the Marvel Universe and it is taking a huge toll on her, and yet she will keep doing it because in her innermost core of being she is a hero, and that hero is needed. It’s pure Joseph Campbell Hero With a Thousand Faces stuff, mining the very nature of what makes a hero, the trials, the ordeals, the sacrifices, male or female, and as such it fits the mythic-rich  idea of Thor perfectly, while the gender issues and the politicking in Asgard add more layers (often inter-related layers – would Odin be so outraged if a male hero had been chosen by Mjolnir?), upping the interest and hinting at more to come. I won’t spoil things by revealing who the new Thor is – I’m sure some of you have heard already, but for those coming fresh to this new chapter in Thor’s life I’d rather let you find out at the pace the creators decided. Solid superhero action, strong female characters, slowly building larger story arc in the background, cracking artwork, shining heroism, mythic heroism and as bonus dealing with gender issues in a positive way, this is one of the best Marvel superhero tales going right now.

God of Thunder (and rock and roll*): Thor, the God Butcher

Thor, God of Thunder Volume 1 : the God Butcher,

Jason Aaron, Esad Ribic,

Marvel Comics

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893 AD, the Icelandic coast. The Norse settlement has been bedevilled by a Frost Giant, and had prayed to their gods for relief; the god of the thunder answered their prayers. Thor, the Odinson has already battled and slain the Frost Giant by the time we pick up this story, and is now drinking and feasting (eating more goats than the rampaging giant did, we are told) with the locals as they tell tales of the battle. But this isn’t the Thor we know, this is a much younger Thor, the Thor before he was worthy enough to wield the mighty hammer Mjölnir. This is a much more cocky, undisciplined Thor, overly sure of his own power and ability, and the praise of the local Vikings isn’t exactly dampening his already large ego. But when they spot wreckage and body parts in the sea nearby, Thor’s self-belief may be shaken by what they uncover…

As they gather to examine the remains, most are pulped beyond recognition, save for a head. And from the head they realise this is not some fellow Viking whose ship was wrecked, this is the head of one of the “feathered” natives of the semi-mystic land to the west of Iceland, across the dark ocean, the Vinland precious few Norsemen claim to have visited. An old, wise woman examines the head, but she sees something else beyond the severed head of a man from a distant land. She asks Thor to look into the eyes and say what he sees there. And suddenly Thor is startled from his complacency (beautiful character art from Ribic here) – he sees a god. This is the head of a dead god; a dead god who died with absolute terror in his eyes. The question is, who or what kills gods? But this is just the first taste of deity murders to come.

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We move to the present day, in deep space, the Thor we know today, Mjölnir in hand, answering another prayer, but this time on a distant world. He aids these desperate aliens, bringing a storm to quench their long drought, then asks them (over some of the local ale, naturally) why they didn’t pray to their own gods for help. We have none, they answer, older among them vaguely recall tales from their parents before them of gods, but they are long gone. Curious, since almost all worlds and cultures have stories of gods, Thor investigates, soon finding the sky palace of this world’s gods. And there he finds them butchered inside, every last one. Not just killed, butchered and clearly tortured, their deaths made to last a long time. Thor has a growing sense of unease – he has seen this millennia ago and thought the God Butcher long dead. But this looks like his work, and if he has somehow returned then he knows many more gods – perhaps entire pantheons on every world – will be slaughtered…

Then we glimpse the far future – beyond even the time of Ragnarok itself, towards the end days of the universe. And in a ruined, shattered Asgard only an old and weary Thor remains, grey-haired, one-eyed, slumped upon the throne in the great hall, looking very much like his father Odin once did. His hall besieged by the God Butcher’s creatures, all other gods, even his own kith and kin, gone, fallen. He summons enough energy for one final battle, knowing he probably can’t win, but wanting to die like a Viking, on his feet and in battle. But even this may be denied to him; the God Butcher wants him beaten again and again, but not killed. Much more painful for Thor to live, the very last god in the entire universe of time and space (the Butcher even finds a way to move through time to find and kill more deities), knowing he failed – the God Butcher has kept him till last just to add that extra level of pain upon the Thunder God, to hurt him even more than he could with physical torture. The Butcher has a very “special” relationship with Thor…

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The triple timeline viewpoints Aaron constructs here aren’t just a clever narrative device to allow him to give us overlapping events eons apart, or to remind us that Thor and his fellow gods are to all practical purposes immortal, going on age after age, although they certainly function on both those levels. But that three-part structure also allows Aaron and Ribic to indulge both themselves and the reader by giving us not one but three versions of Thor at different ages. We get the not terribly smart and far too damned sure of himself young Thor, certainly powerful, brave and able, but way too cocksure and smug with it. No wonder this version has yet to prove himself worthy of Mjölnir. The thing is that young version of Thor, in a Viking setting, leading longships of Norsemen on a mission, is terrific fun and the closest to the great Norse myths of the sort of Thor who would fly up north when bored just to pick a fight with a few Frost Giants. But that Thor is also, let’s be honest, grating too, so it is perhaps as well that this tripartite story structure means he never outstays his welcome to go from brash fun to annoying. And the triple timeline approach also gives us a nice view of the Thunder God’s life, from youthful boisterousness to more mature, thoughtful, responsible hero to finally the old king, seeing him across his long lifetime, how he changes through his experiences and responsibilities (and what remains the same).

The main plot, despite the clever three-timeline structure, is essentially straightforward, a seemingly unstoppable and truly vile evil being who goes from world to world seeking gods, any gods (gods of war, gods of poetry, he doesn’t care) and who doesn’t just want to kill them, he takes pleasure in it, even more pleasure in drawing out their deaths. And as Thor uncovers more he discovers from an ancient library that records all to do with every god anywhere, gods and entire pantheons have vanished many times over the life of the universe. And yet until Thor encountered the God Butcher nobody has ever bothered to investigate why – not even Thor. Gods are jealous creatures and care little for other gods, the librarian chides him, and Thor knows it to be true and ponders what this says about his fellow deities. And then realising until his battle with the Butcher he had never given the disappeared gods a single thought, he thinks, what does it say about me?

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It’s a cracking tale, perfect Thor-fodder, mixing high fantasy with ancient myth, just as Thor should. And it’s engrossing, remorseless; we’re driven along, even Thor, by the pace and demands of the relentless God Butcher, chase, pursuit, evasion, battle. But there’s more than hunt and action here, there’s a theme about the nature of gods and those who worship them, and of belief itself, of faith but also hubris. What they are, what mortals think they are and what the gods believe of themselves, and how this shapes the realities of many mortal species on endless worlds.

In one scene we see a brave group of Viking warriors attempt to rescue Thor from the clutches of the God Butcher, who is enraged by the fact that even now these warriors will fight in his name, that they won’t see him as defeated but instead fight to the last to free him. Bravery or faith (real or misplaced)? Both? It’s a fast-paced, visceral (sometimes literally) story, well-constructed, immersive, with both Aaron and Ribic clearly relishing the story (which itself sounds like it belongs in the old Sagas) and in getting to show such different aspects to Thor across the ages. The later volumes expand on this mix of fantasy and myth and draw the reader in even deeper. Thor isn’t always the easiest character to do properly, to balance enough realism against the mythic and fantastical, but here it is done perfectly. One of the finest Thor series in years and, if you’ve been meaning to get back into the Thunder God for a while but were not sure where to start, here is your perfect way in.

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(* = okay, he’s not the god of rock and roll, but some of us can’t say line “god of thunder” without adding that line)

this review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet Blog

Review: Royals – Masters of War, intriguing new alt-history series

The Royals: Masters of War #1
Rob Williams, Simon Coleby,
DC/Vertigo

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I’ve been looking forward to this new Vertigo series from Rob Williams and Simon Coleby for a wee while now – I chatted to Rob a few weeks ago about it (see here) and that just whetted my appetite. First issue hit racks with this week’s new releases and obviously it went straight onto my reading pile.

As you may know if you read the interview with Rob, this is an alternate history tale, mixing superpowered beings with the real events of World War Two. Of course superbeings in WW2 isn’t new – even during the war the Golden Age comics frequently had their characters like Captain America, Sub-Mariner, Superman etc fighting the Axis, more recently Ian Tregillis penned his fascinating Milkweed Triptych, a trio of novels involving an alternate WW2 where British spies fight against a secret Nazi Übermensch, scientifically created beings with powers (much recommended). What Rob and Simon bring to the mix is the eponymous royalty – in this reality there are superbeings, but they are all aristocrats, blue bloods, with the higher ranking, more pure breed being more powerful (so a prince or king for instance, is enormously powerful).

This opening issue takes place in 1940, as the Blitz is devastating British cities, the badly outnumbered RAF, ‘the few’, struggling to hold the might of the Luftwaffe at bay as they try to destroy Britain’s defences from the air as a prelude to the invasion everyone is sure will soon come. Could a few of the Royals use their powers to stop the Nazis in their tracks? Yes. But it isn’t that simple – superweapons rarely are, are they? Whether they take the form of splitting the atom or a superpowered being, there are always consequences, and in the case of the Royals there is an international treaty between ruling houses not to become involved on the battlefields of their nations. Because if one nation’s royals use their powers in a fight, others will join in and an already bloody situation will escalate rapidly to even more dangerous dimensions. Not hard to consider parallels with WMDs like nuclear weapons – used to end one years-long conflict that took vast numbers of lives and caused global destruction, but ushered in an era of ever escalating, finger on the trigger of Armageddon for decades, the promise of an even worse war born from that new power, which we narrowly avoided.

And some royals genuinely don’t care – the eldest son, Arthur, Prince of Wales, is a dissolute prig, happy to not be allowed to become involved (despite his huge powers), content to live a life of drink, women, comfort and who cares if the masses are being burned to death or buried beneath rubble in their own homes as the bombs fall. A prince who wouldn’t have been out of place in Blackadder III, more concerned for the luxuries his station confers than any sense of national duty and responsibility. But some of the young royals take their duty to their country more seriously:

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The East End’s burning, apparently. Although no-one will tell me the full extent of the damage. And there’s always so many more of their planes than the RAF boy… People are dying, Rose. Lots of people are dying, and we can’t do anything… We’re powerless…”

The troubled young Prince Henry borrows an idea from his royal namesake, Henry V, and changes clothes to go incognito among his people. He and his beloved Rose go into the Eest End, he carrying her as he flies over wartime London, a charming scene of two young people drifting through the air, Rose in his arms,  “like Peter Pan” she remarks. But the fairy tale allusions end brutally in grim, blood reality that confronts them as they land. Bombed out ruins that were once homes, fire raging, bodies of the dead burning in the street, exhausted ARP wardens, screaming children… People in agony and despair. Their people. His people. ..

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It’s all handled across a couple of pages, a montage of the horrors of the Blitz, with only two speech balloons throughout; most of it comes through from Coleby’s powerful visions of a burning, devastating London (all the more powerful, because we know this scenario isn’t fantasy, it’s drawn from the real history), until the young royals are left in tears at the sheer suffering they witness.

And enough is enough; Prince Harry’s rage and his desire to do his duty over-ride the royal pact not to become involved, and when the next flight of Luftwaffe bombers appears overhead and the RAF rise tiredly to meet them once more, he is at their head, flying right into them, a wrathful superbeing smashing through planes in righteous fury, blasting them from the skies. The papers rejoice at the royal family joining the war effort finally, but the king realises his hot-headed young son may, albeit for the finest reasons, have condemned the world to a much darker, bloodier, more costly battle…

It’s a gripping first issue, introducing the concept of this alternate 1940s and the idea of superpowered royals and the fragile accord that has kept their powers off the international board for years. Coleby’s art is terrific, with a nice eye for period details (those of us who grew up on Commando Books, Warlord, Victor, Battle etc always appreciate an artist who takes the trouble to get details like uniforms or aircraft from the period correct) and moody – the change in visual tone from the Palace to the hellish inferno of the East End is a kick to the senses (as it should be), while the moral dilemma of the patriotic young prince grabs your attention. I mean what would you do if you had those powers and knew you could defend your people from awful harm? But if you intervene then people with other powers in enemy nations will then join the fray, up the stakes…

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Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, and we all know what paves the road to hell… Each issue will take place in a different year and pivotal moment for the war, and I’m looking forward to seeing where this goes, not least because this first issue opened with a glimpse of 1945 before flashing back to 1940’s beleaguered Britain. There’s often something very compelling about an alt-history story, and this is a cracker. Plus we get a superhero story, a good war tale and a touch of alt-history science fiction all in one tale. Bargain!

Review: Jupiter’s Legacy #1

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog

Jupiter’s Legacy #1

Mark Millar, Frank Quitely

Image Comics

There’s been a huge amount of buzz on various comics forums and twitter in the run up to the first issue of Mark Millar and Frank Quitely’s creator-owned new series from Image, Jupiter’s Legacy. The first issue hit racks this week – was it worth all that eager anticipation?

I suppose the answer to that is going to vary depending who you talk to – some of my colleagues loved it, where I would give it a more cautious thumbs-up. Which is to say I certainly enjoyed it, but no, I wasn’t blown away by it and to be honest some elements are a bit familiar to regular capes’n’tights readers, with elements of Tom Strong, Kingdom Come and Authority springing to my mind as I read the first issue (which is not to say there is no merit here, as I said, I did enjoy it after all).

Starting in 1932 we see a failed financier, wealthy family ruined in the crash of ’29 and the subsequent Great Depression. But he is less concerned with the loss of wealth and power than with what the Depression has done to his beloved America, a country now lacking confidence, unsure of its self, many unemployed, homes being repossessed, people literally on the bread line. And in a dream he is called to a mysterious island which promises some form of salvation. Gathering a group of friends who unquestioningly believe his vision, they manage to travel halfway across the world to an island on no charts. We don’t see what happens there, but when they return to the world they are changed, garbed in strange costumes, with awesome abilities and powers which they pledge to use for the betterment of humanity, to help…

Fast forward to the modern era, and the lazy, indolent, self-indulgent children of that first generation of superheroes. They too are superpowered, but more interested in the trappings of fame that come with their powers – money, sponsors, drugs, easy sex, superheroes for the me-me-me, 24 hour celeb-watch media, than in fighting evil (as one smirks, hey, most of the good villains are gone anyway, the older generation lived in a golden age for those kinds of battles). Into this crashes – literally a huge battle with a tremendously powerful being which takes a whole assembly of the older heroes to take down (with little to no help from their offspring, despite requests for aid).

In the aftermath one declares that he is tired of fighting villains – the world they served for the last few decades has again slipped back into economic chaos and moral quagmire, people again stand in line to beg for charitable food help. Perhaps they should be using their powers directly, getting involved in actually trying to change things and organise them at the political leadership level. Or should they remain ‘servants’ of the people and ignore the urge to take charge and try and fix a broken system which repeats the same errors to huge human cost every few decades?

It’s certainly interesting enough (and it boasts that lovely Quitely artwork of course, never  a bad thing), and taking element of today’s world problems and comparing them to similar ones from history gives it some relevance, while also working as a mirror to the simpler way superheroes were back in the old days, compared to today’s heroes. But as I said I kept feeling too many elements were familiar – the political aspects of the Authority and Kingdom Come for instance, or the celeb superheroes of X-Statix, as well as the obvious schism between generations which Kingdom Come did so well.

That said I still found it enjoyable enough, if not exactly gripping – and most superhero tales by their nature use and re-use elements of earlier genre tales, so I can’t hold that against Jupiter’s Legacy, really (and it is using some of them to comment on the changing nature of how we want our heroes). Besides it is the first issue and so it is early days – the question is what Millar and Quitely will do with those elements and how they mix them up into something new and uniquely theirs. I may not have been totally blown away with it (and to be fair it had too much hype to live up to, which is a bit unfair to be laden with so much expectation), but it did what a decent first issue should do: it introduced the set up (in a compact but efficient manner, no dawdling), the main characters, already set up some forthcoming lines of conflict and, most importantly, yes, it does make me want to read the next issue and see where the guys take this, and that’s what a first issue should do.

Review: Seven Wonders

This review was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog:

Seven Wonders
Adam Christopher
Angry Robot

(cover artwork to Seven Wonders by Will Staehle, who also did the cover for Adam’s Empire State, published Angry Robot)

So long ago, certain place, certain time
You touched my hand, all the way, all the way down to Emmiline
But if our paths never cross, well you know I’m sorry but…
If I live to see the seven wonders
I’ll make a path to the rainbow’s end
I’ll never live to match the beauty again
The rainbow’s end.” Fleetwood Mac, Seven Wonders

Back at the very start of this year, when I posted my own Best of the Year selection at the end of our weeks-long series of traditional guest slots, in the books section I also flagged up a couple of then-forthcoming science fiction works I thought we should all have been looking to read in 2012. One of those, released right at the start of the year, was Empire State by Adam Christopher, a cracking fusion of the gumshoe noir and a wonderfully 40s styled science fiction, complete with ‘scientific superheroes’ with rocket boots and 40s style power armour, police airships and parallel worlds. Stylish, cool, utterly engrossing, I loved it, but don’t just take my word for it, one of our guest Best of Year posters, Paul Cornell no less, showered praise on it. And here in the last quarter of the same year we have a second novel from Adam coming from the cool Angry Robot gang. And it’s even better.

Adam had science-based superheroes as characters in Empire State, very much in the 1930s/40s Republic serial film style with a nice touch of Rocketeer (never a bad thing). In Seven Wonders, however, he gets to indulge in his obvious love for full-on capes and tights superheroes we know so well – in fact the titular Seven Wonders are the last remaining superteam, operating out of their impressive skyscraper base in San Ventura, the ‘shining city’ on the Californian coast. Also the only city still to be home to a supervillain, The Cowl, and his female sidekick, Blackbird. Despite a team of seven, lead by the nuclear powered Aurora’s Light (it should just be Aurora, but a particularly sneaky former villain trademarked that name so now, legally, he can’t use it), the Cowl remains at large – foiled sometimes, yet always remaining free to terrorise the city, inspiring many street gangs who daub themselves in his insignia and ruin entire neighbourhoods.

Quite why this entire team can’t bring the Cowl in, much less end the gang violence his terror inspires, is beyond some, including one city detective on the supercrime beat, Sam (especially driven after her husband’s death because of the Cowl; the inability of the Seven Wonders to stop that means she has little time for them either) and an ordinary bloke, Tony. The lives of villains, heroes, detective and Tony are going to intersect soon though, and in a very interesting way. Especially when Tony finds himself starting to manifest superpowers of his own.

Encouraged by his new girlfriend Jeannie he begins testing his abilities and powers – bulletproof? Superstrength? Flight? Superspeed? With her support and suggestions he decides he should use his new powers to become a superhero – and do what the Seven Wonders, for many years, mysteriously keep failing to do and take down the Cowl. Hard. Show them how it is done. Be a hero in front of the whole city’s adoring gaze.

Of course, it isn’t quite as simple as he thinks – yes, there are reasons why the Cowl and the Seven Wonders have some bizarre stand-off relationship which leaves them as the only superhero-supervillain show on Earth (the other heroes are largely retired, the villains in a secret UN prison somewhere). And yes, they do play mind games and strike poses for public effect. But there’s a lot more to being a true superhero than the spandex and being able to hold a stylish, photo-opportunity pose when landing from flight, and Tony is going to learn that, the hard way.

But that’s not all, not by a long shot. I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing too much, but Adam starts with a hugely enjoyable but seemingly predictable tale – superheroes who are more show than practical use, new average bloke gets powers, becomes real hero. That’s how it looks like it is going to go. But it isn’t. Adam starts to veer away sharply from the predictable route, the clear cut morals of superhero versus supervillain roles very quickly becoming muddied by real world concerns shoved messily into comic book fantasy. And then he turns it again with a whole new twist which then leads to another development which seems to grow out of nowhere, until you realise he actually hinted very delicately quite early on, planting subtle seeds that grow into a third act which goes as widescreen as any major DC or Marvel crossover ‘event’ comic, in an ever escalating spiral of tense action.

It’s terrifically enjoyable throughout – the characters all pay homage to genre clichés (the chiselled, remote superhero leader, the spandex clad beautiful superwoman character, the driven detective with a chip on her shoulder) and yet those are there as embellishments, each of them has real characteristics woven in too, and the generic elements, well they are there to give the colour and feel of a superhero comic but in prose. And it is clear from the details Adam uses how much he loves the capes and tights tales – even the most generic elements and characteristics he uses to sometimes poke fun at the OTT nature of superhero stories are handled with a light touch and with obvious love for the classics of the genre; any mockery of the more outlandish elements of superhero tales is gentle and good-natured. It’s a real three act story that you think you know where it is going, before it changes on you several times, keeping you hooked right through to the end, inventive and sparkling, with details and references for the geeks among us to spot and enjoy (and we know we like that!) . And above all – above all, like a good superhero story should be, it’s pure fun, right from the get-go (starting with a fun prologue where the word ‘wonders’ spells out the different team members and their powers in a bit of homage to SHAZAM).

I can tell you this is a cracking read for any fan of SF or superhero tales. I can tell you it has garnered praise from luminaries like Greg Rucka. But perhaps the simplest and most effective recommendation I can make is this: I read a lot of books each year and within ten months I’ve made time to read two by Adam in my crowded reading schedule. And both will be making my next Best of Year list. Read it, enjoy it. And mark Adam Christopher down as a new writer you should be watching out for. I have.

The new DC 52: Detective Comics and Batgirl

I penned this for the FP blog recently as part of the ongoing DC 52 coverage, where we’ve been lucky enough to have several folks kindly pitching in to help review the massive reboot DC Comics is doing of its main line of superhero comics and characters, effectively re-starting the DC universe (DCU as it is called in comic speak) which makes it open and more accessible to readers who are either not familiar with them already (and the decades of continuity and back history – some characters like Batman date right back to the 1930s, after all) or who used to read them but stopped a while back and aren’t up on recent events, meaning new readers can come in at thr ground floor as the characters are largely restarted.

Detective Comics #1

Tony S Daniel and Ryan Winn

It’s pretty rare these days for me to pick up a weekly or monthly comic – I’ve collected them for years, still have boxes of them, still have a lot of love for them, but these days more often than not I tend to pick up the collected editions further down the line, but with all the DC 52 titles coming out and with all the various guest posts that have joined the regular blog contributors (thanks, guys!) to cover this enormous re-launch, I was too curious not to pick up some, so I thought I’d delve into an area that has always been one of my favourites in the DCU – the world of Gotham city.

Detective Comics #1 starts well for me right from the disturbing cover image of the Joker and broken dolls, a suitably appropriate and creepy bit of art, backed up inside by the first page which is slashed into a sort of triptych giving us a jagged, splintered view of this world, while the Batman’s voice over laments the sheer number of deaths the Joker has been responsible for, and how even if the courts can’t deal with him properly, he can and he will (shades of Miller’s Dark Knight and his grim determination to end the Joker’s murderous spree once and for all). He also seems to hold himself partly responsible for those deaths because he has failed to stop the Joker in time, something reinforced later when he tells Alfred, after the Joker has given him the slip, that any further murders he commits since escaping him means blood on his own hands too.

It’s an extreme form of survivor’s guilt, the child who lived when his parents were brutally slain, sworn to try and defend the innocent, to prevent more deaths, feeling endless guilt because he lived and trying to assuage that irrational guilt by saving others, by feeling the guilt of the criminals he tries to stop if he fails to prevent them from harming others. And that’s spot-on for the Batman, it is a major part of his psyche after all, an important part of what drives him to do what he does.

The brutal, casual, almost randomly sparked violence of the Joker is highlighted early on when a strange visitor to his room, clad in some sort of sinister flesh mask, rubs him the wrong way, despite being an invited guest, and the Joker snaps and turns on him, not merely killing him with a knife but stabbing and slashing him multiple times in a frenzy. But he isn’t just an insane psychopath – as Batman trails then battles him (leading to a great throwaway scene where both are on a train, a little girl looks past the Joker and says that man is scary, mummy, her mother tells her not to stare, the kid says, no, not the clown man, the monster bat man. He is scarier to her than the Joker) the Joker tells him that he is too fixed on dealing with him and can’t see the bigger picture, but it’s alright because that picture is being drawn up for him…

I enjoyed this – a well paced piece of work with good, moody art highlighting the brutal nature of Gotham and the grim determination of the Batman. As he pursues the Joker in a train he sees the Joker release some of his gas and clears the innocent travellers out safely but takes a whiff himself in the process. Even with his head reeling though he won’t quit his pursuit of the Joker:

I hold my breath, but the toxin penetrates my pores. Dizzy in seconds. But I can take it. I’m Batman.

This Batman is still officially a vigilante, with the cops after him as well as the criminals, on the orders of an electioneering Mayor, much to the disgust of Jim Gordon, who is on his side, at least covertly, and who already has the bat-signal lamp on the police HQ roof, so it will be interesting to see how the obvious tensions that sets up work out. My only quibble here is that frankly it doesn’t feel like a relaunch – this is great stuff, don’t get me wrong, I really enjoyed it and want more – but it is also very familiar stuff to anyone who’s read Batman over the years, not as different or as fresh as say the version of young Superman in Action Comics. But then I recalled a question Grant Morrison was asked at the Edinburgh Book Festival – one reader asked him why in the various reboots and changes to the DCU over the years the Batman was usually the least altered. Grant thought about it and answered that Batman is one of those characters who was so well put together originally that there really isn’t much to reboot without messing up a well running engine and I suspect that’s the case here. In any case it certainly didn’t affect my enjoyment of this first issue.

Batgirl #1

Written by Gail Simone, pencils by Adrian Syaf, inks by Vicente Cifuentes, Adam Hughes cover

Barbara Gordon, my boyhood Batgirl, back in her cape and fighting crime after years in a wheelchair? Yeah, I had to pick up this part of the rebooted Gotham corner of the DCU too. I remember Barbara before her Oracle/Birds of Prey days, I remember when Alan Moore and Brian Bolland’s hideously creepy Joker shot her, quite deliberately aiming the bullet to her spine to leave her crippled but not dead in The Killing Joke. And I am delighted to see her literally back on her feet again, although wondering how she managed it.

Her miracle recovery isn’t explained in this first issue, so I presume we’ll find out as this new universe slowly reveals itself, but her vicious crippling by the Joker is a part of this new DCU history. In fact it plays an important role, the awful memory constantly tugging at Barbara’s mind as she forces herself to move past it, to refuse to stay living with her father despite acknowledging how much the thought of staying there with him where she feels loved and safe (especially as she still suffers traumatic nightmares of that Joker incident), is so tempting, but she knows she has so reclaim her life and so moves out into a shared apartment (luckily her new room-mate works nights!).

The issues starts nicely with a good red herring, as we see a caped figure approaching an old man in his garden. We see this suited figure only from behind and at first the inference is that it is Batgirl or another caped hero, until we find out that this is a new figure, Mirror, and he has an agenda, perhaps some form of brutal, extreme justice? At least that’s what it seemed to me – his first victim seems an innocent old man pruning his roses, but Mirror confronts him demanding to know how it is he is the only one to survive a ship sinking in mysterious circumstances.

Barbara herself is very well handled, as you’d expect from Gail Simone who knows her so well, deftly balancing her reclaiming her personal life as Barbara and her crime-fighting return as Batgirl. She’s as determined in her own way as Batman – she may be using her legs again, but we know Barbara is strong and determined, even being crippled never stopped her fighting the good fight after all. But she is more human than Bruce Wayne in some ways – determined, yes, but she has doubts and she is fighting them as surely as she fights the criminals she is stalking:

I’m not Barbara Gordon. I have to keep remembering that. Tonight I’m not Barbara. Tonight I’m not the police commissioner’s daughter. Tonight I’m the only one who pored over the details of the confidential police reports when her dad wasn’t looking. I’m the one who recognised the vintage costumes you wear.

Tonight?

Tonight I’m Batgirl.”

She has anticipated a group of burglers/serial murderers The Brisby Killers and tracked them to the location of their next planned crime. As a couple are held by the criminals they are taunted, being shown a scrapbook of their previous crimes and what they did to those unfortunate families they encountered before. It’s very nasty stuff, slightly leavened by some gallows humour as the husband protests they don’t even live in Brisby. We’re not geographically constrained, the lead criminal explains, that’s just a media label. And then the window shatters as Batgirl smashes through taking out one of the gang instantly. Yes, that is almost a cliché of a scene, but it fits nicely here and there is something satisfying about our heroine smashing into the scene just in time to protect the innocent.

But all is not well here – we have hints Barbara is still adjusting to being back on her feet, she acknowledges luck as well as her training aided her in this fight, and she’s still not entirely sure she’s really back to her top game, but there is a nice aside where she comments that she has some serious upper body strength, a hint to the arm and shoulder muscles she developed pushing her own wheelchair about previously. But that crippling is still there in her memories and dreams, as I said, and she’s right to be worried about the effect it may have on her, because at some point that hideous memory is going to have a very direct consequence for Batgirl…

Good, strong opening, with Barbara an engrossing combination of the determined, strong hero and the flawed, doubting human being trying to overcome the past and her own fears. And the backstory of how she recovered the use of her legs and how she will deal with the trauma of memories of the Joker’s attack is going to be an intriguing one, I think. More, please.