Star Wars: A Long Time Ago Vol. 2 – Dark Encounters

Dark EncountersOrder this bookStory: As Luke struggles to recover from his momentary encounter with the mind of Darth Vader, Leia, Han, Chewie and the droids try to fight and maneuver their way off the Wheel. Their escape from the gambling station is not the end of their troubles – Han still has matters to settle with Jabba, Leia tries to expand the Rebellion to other worlds, and the cyborg bounty hunter Valance is still on Luke’s trail. Throughout the adventures, the Rebel heroes often run up against the agenda of the Tagge family, led by a ruthless baron whose desire for the Emperor’s favor, and for vengeance against Vader, drive him to enact more and more elaborate schemes to crush the Rebellion once and for all. But the Dark Lord is no stranger to scheming, and he has plans for both the Tagge family and young Skywalker.

Review: Dave: Unlike the first volume, I do have some first hand memories of the stories in this collection – at one point in my youth, I had two or three of the issues that dealt with Tagge’s storm corridor through the Yavin gas giant. I remember liking them quite a bit as a kid, and they still hold up pretty well. Now that I read them as part of the bigger tapestry of the ongoing Tagge feud, I’m even more impressed.

One thing I do wish is that that unfolding saga could have led into the events of The Empire Strikes Back a little better. Now, I don’t really know how much lead time Goodwin had to work with, or how much he knew about the overall storyline of the film when he was writing these issues. So I’m not assigning blame here – it’s just something I find a little disappointing. The characters and settings all seem frozen about five minutes after the end of the first movie – Luke’s still wearing his farm boy outfit, the Rebels are still on Yavin, and so on. Outside of a tacked on epilogue that undoes Goodwin’s earlier resolution of the Jabba bounty issue, there’s not much here bringing us to the next stage of the story. And having Luke and Vader face off face to face right before the movie adaptation is supposed to start just strikes me as a bad idea all around. Read More

Star Wars: A Long Time Ago Vol. 1 – Doomworld

DoomworldOrder this bookStory: The first 20 issues of Marvel’s Star Wars series are reprinted in this full color collection. From the adaptation of the film itself, which saw print before the movie’s release, to Luke’s terrifying brush against the mind of Darth Vader, the original Expanded Universe begins here. Luke, Han, Leia, Chewie and the droids encounter space pirates, frontier outlaws, floating cities of saboteurs, and a droid-hating cyborg bounty hunter named Valance while trying to help the Rebels find a new base and stay one step ahead of a Sith Lord searching for the identity of the pilot who blew up the Death Star.

Review: Dave: With the exception of the movie adaptation, I had never read any of the issues in this volume – the handful of Marvel Star Wars comics I was able to get my hands on were all from later in the run. Reading it now, there’s certainly a degree of 70s cheese, especially in the early issues written by Roy Thomas. But what a collection of talent worked on this series! Thomas, who pushed for Marvel to take up the license, is a former editor-in-chief at Marvel well known for his encyclopedic knowledge of comics’ Golden Age. When he got past the adaptation, he didn’t quite feel comfortable with the universe, and it kind of shows – his next story was more of a Magnificent Seven-esque western than a big space opera. So Archie Goodwin, then editor-in-chief and a legend in his own right, took the reins, and things started to take off. Goodwin created new villains, set subplots in motion, and brought a sense of scale and danger to the stories. And when Goodwin needed an assist, there was Chris Claremont, longtime X-Men writer.

On the artistic side, Howard Chaykin was the first penciller, and while he was still a bit rough around the edges, but you can already get a sense of the dynamism that would serve him well later in his career. (Although he was certainly greatly assisted by his inkers in those days – more on that later.) And when Chaykin left, his replacement, Carmine Infantino, was no slouch. Infantino, a former art director and publisher at DC, was well known for his Silver Age work on Batman, Flash, and a host of other heroes. While his facial renderings are sometimes a bit crude, he could definitely pack a lot of energy into his panels, and he and his inkers did fine work on all the technology of the galaxy far, far away. There’s a lot of fun stuff packed into these comics. I can only imagine what it was like to pick up each new installment in ’77 and ’78. Read More

Planetary Book 2: The Fourth Man

The Fourth ManOrder this bookStory: Ever since he joined the Planetary organization, Elijah Snow has helped uncover the secret history of the world – but there a few private mysteries he’d like to solve. What is Planetary’s real mission? Why do others seem to know more about his life than he does? And who is the Fourth Man that bankrolls and orchestrates the team’s adventures? Elijah finally tracks down the truth – and when he does, the rules of the game change completely.

Review: Remember how cool I said “Planetary: All Over The World” is? There’s lots more fun to be had in “The Fourth Man,” as pieces fall into place and the book’s central conflict comes into view. Ellis does his usual fine job with characterization and dialogue this time out, using flashbacks to explore the history of the Planetary field team (including Elijah’s predecessor, Ambrose Chase) and their relationships with each other. There are the bitter, sarcastic one-liners (no one does cantankerous like Warren Ellis) but also a lot of warmth. There’s one shot of Ambrose holding up his daughter in which he says, “World, this is my daughter. I want you two to be good to each other. Because it’s a strange world out there, and you both need all the help you can get.” It’s a great line, one that sums up the wonder and optimism that are a part of this world, regardless of the craziness of its more twisted corners. Read More

Planetary Book 1: All Over the World and Other Stories

All Over the WorldOrder this bookStory: Elijah Snow is almost a hundred years old, a witness to many of the strange and awesome events that make up the secret history of the twentieth century. Now he spends his time hiding out in the middle of nowhere, until a woman named Jakita Wagner offers him a million dollars a year to join Planetary, a group of ‘mystery archaeologists’ in need of Elijah’s experience. As part of the Planetary field team, Elijah investigates gateways to alternate Earths, mutant Japanese monsters, the vengeful spirit of a Hong Kong cop, and more before turning his attention to Planetary’s opposite number, the Four, who have been manipulating the world for their own ends for decades…and who seem to know more about Elijah than Elijah himself.

Review: Planetary is one of the most addicting stories I’ve ever read, and one of the few serialized comics I make a point of buying on an issue-by-issue basis anymore. The series is not just a great adventure story with terrific characters, outstanding dialogue and stunning artwork. It’s also a commentary and exploration of the twentieth century’s adventure fiction, including comics, monster movies, pulp novels and more. Read More

Invisibles Book 3: Entropy in the UK

Entropy in the UKOrder this bookStory: Sir Miles’ forces have captured King Mob and Lord Fanny, and Dane MacGowan is hitchhiking his way to Liverpool. Ragged Robin and Boy enlist the aid of Jack Crow and the Invisible agent known as Mister Six in an effort to find and rescue all three. Separate story threads gradually converge for one climactic fight to save the universe.

Review: The book’s opening arc, also entitled Entropy in the UK, is probably my favorite. King Mob is dying from a gunshot wound, and Sir Miles intends to take advantage of the opportunity. Miles doesn’t want to torture information out of King Mob – he wants to break Mob’s will, get him to “voluntarily” give up information about the Invisibles. In a war of ideology, that’s really the only victory worth winning. The battle of wills showcases comics’ unique potential as a medium; Phil Jimenez’s beautiful pencils display the dazzling, chaotic landscape of King Mob’s mind and thoughts, while the narration and script lay out the dizzying ideas and mantras of the two combatants. Text and pictures convey the information better than either could alone. We jump from the interrogation room, to flashbacks of King Mob’s training, to passages from novels that Mob uses as psychic defenses, to Miles’ exploration of Mob’s thought structures. It’s gorgeous, gorgeous stuff, full of adrenaline and enthusiasm. Read More

Invisibles Book 2: Apocalipstick

ApocalipstickOrder this bookStory: King Mob’s Invisibles cell makes its way back to the 20th Century after its retrieval of the Marquis de Sade. Their opponents have moved in for the kill, and a maimed Jack Frost decides to make a run for it on his own. The conspiracy is on the move elsewhere, as a British aristocrat uses the downtrodden as hunting quarry and Chicago corporate leaders get their kicks from killing and re-animating inner-city crack users. Lord Fanny and King Mob’s search for Jack leads them to trouble, and gives Fanny reason to recall her journey from Central America.

Review: In many ways, the three chapters between Jack’s departure and his companions’ search for him are the emotional and thematic core of “Apocalipstick,” even if the “main” characters never appear. It’s very easy to get caught up in all the magic and madness of the Invisibles’ fight against the conspiracy and forget the purpose of that fight, the effort to free the human spirit. The interlude chapters explore the chains that bind that spirit – exploitation of minorities and the poor by the corporate elite, the corrosive effects of fear and hate and ignorance, the struggles of everyday people to achieve their dreams, and the crushing weight of their failure to do so. The best story of the three may be the one with no supernatural elements at all, in which we see a man’s life flash before his eyes through a series of disjointed flashbacks. The layout of this story is very effective, as scenes and fragments blend together before the story reaches its climax and they come full circle. It’s the story of a man who wanted more from life than what he got, and probably deserved more… the injustice resonates, and as a bonus, it reinforces why we want the Invisibles to win. A world this unjust is a world that needs to be remade. Read More

Invisibles Book 1: Say You Want a Revolution

Say You Want a RevolutionOrder this bookStory: The Invisibles are a secret society that has fought for centuries to free humankind from the mental shackles imposed on it by forces of authority and control. The enemy is fond of torture and lobotomies to keep us in line; where that doesn’t work, magic and microwave transmissions will have to do. The turn of the millennium draws closer, and as King Mob, the leader of one Invisibles cell, says, “We’re in the final furlong of a race between a never-ending global party and a world that looks like Auschwitz.” To help turn the tide of that battle, King Mob’s cell recruits a juvenile delinquent as its newest member; after he spends some time being trained (without realizing he’s being trained), the group uses magic to project their psyches back in time to revolution-era France and ask the Marquis de Sade if he wouldn’t mind popping back with them to the twentieth century.

Review: “Say You Want a Revolution,” the first Invisibles collection, is one of the most truly creative pieces of writing I’ve ever seen. Grant Morrison packs so many ideas in here that there’s almost a palpable sense of your brain going places it’s never gone before – it’s easy to get swept up in the exhilarating rush from one idea to the next and then back again, and the sense of never quite being sure when the rug’s going to get pulled out from under you. Read More

Astro City: Confession

ConfessionOrder this bookStory: A young orphan named Brian Kinney takes a bus from the country to Astro City, determined to make a mark in the world and earn the respect of those around him – something he feels his father failed to do. He works at the periphery of the hero scene, working as a busboy at establishments that cater to the superpowered community. He catches the eye of the Confessor, a nighttime vigilante who agrees to train him, and Brian soon assumed the role of Altar Boy. It’s not the best of times to be a hero, however. A series of unsolved murders in the Shadow Hill section of town has the citizens on edge, and a number of heroes have had run-ins with the media. When the mayor demands that heroes register with the government, he fans the anti-hero sentiment and eventually declares all costumed activity illegal. Brian finds his attention divided between many mysteries, chief among them being: Is there a larger threat looming behind these events? Who is the Confessor, really? Can Brian trust him? And why is he trying so hard to be a hero in the first place?

Review: This six-chapter arc is probably Busiek’s crowning achievement to date on the Astro City series. The complex plot builds well, with several mysteries raised and solved along the way, and readers of the two previous volumes will note payoffs for what may have seemed throwaway events in those earlier short stories. As always, Busiek’s focus in this series is on character, and Brian Kinney/Altar Boy is a good one – a determined, talented and truly heroic young man who might be doing the right things for the wrong reasons. Brian’s dead father, a doctor who offered his services willingly without much thought of his own financial well-being, looms over the story; Brian feels his father let himself appear weak and be taken advantage of, and Brian is determined not to let the same thing happen to him. The son trying to avoid and overcome the mistakes of the father is certainly not a novel theme, but it’s so used so often because it works, and it works because it’s so often true. Certainly, I have no trouble relating to such stories when told by a writer as skilled as Busiek. Read More

Astro City: Family Album

Family AlbumOrder this bookStory: Another set of short stories from Astro City, including two Eisner Award winners. In this volume: A single father brings his two daughters across the country to rebuild their lives in the City. A ten-year-old superheroine tries to escape to a normal life. A thief gets away with the perfect crime – perhaps too perfect. The arrival of would-be heroes from the future forces a present-day inventor and hero to reassess his career. Willed to life by an audience’s belief, a cartoon star finds fame and fortune all too fleeting.

Review: As the American comics industry shifts from a periodical market to a book market, some readers have decried a tendency to “write for the trade,” padding out stories to four, six, or more chapters in order to make a complete volume. This collection of Kurt Busiek’s Astro City proves that collections of shorter stories, connected only by theme or setting, can be more than worthwhile additions to the bookshelf. Read More

Astro City: Life in the Big City

Life in the Big CityOrder this bookStory: This collection of standalone stories illuminates different corners of the fictional universe of Astro City. Among the stories: The city’s leading superhero tries to be everywhere at once, and berates himself for every wasted second as he longs for just a moment of his own. A small-time hood learns a hero’s secret identity, and tries to figure out how to profit from the knowledge. A beat reporter gets some advice from his editor on his first day on the job. A young woman tries to balance the demands of her family with her own hopes and desires.

Review: There are many smart people in comics who argue that the superhero genre is totally spent, stuck recycling old stories and old archetypes and doomed to tell superficial power fantasies, no matter how much the hot new creators of the moment try to dress them up.

Kurt Busiek’s Astro City proves these critics wrong. In Astro City, Busiek, Anderson and Ross have created a wonderfully rich setting, a city with a history and character of its own that feels as real and as diverse as any American city. The only difference is that Astro City is full of superpowered individuals, and has been for at least 75 years. Some of these characters are allegories for established heroes published by DC and Marvel – analogues for Superman, Wonder Woman and the Fantastic Four (among others) appear in this volume. Others are wholly original creations, allowing Busiek to take various archetypes in new directions. Read More