Sunday, April 24, 2011

If You're Brian Michael Bendis And You Know It, Do A Retcon!

At least the cover isn't a retcon.
Ultimate Origins was intended as the companion bookend piece to Ultimatum in the telling of stories in the Ultimate Universe as of 2008. While Brian Michael Bendis and Butch Guice turned out a great effort, it's more or less meaningless if the continuity of the Ultimate U is not of interest, and ironically it has numerous continuity flaws if you do care. Amazon list it as being a $15 US book at the moment, and for 128 pages that's the same cost per page as Ultimates 3. The value is better, but by the question is by how much.

The story opens with Hulk telling Spider-man that everything is connected, properly confusing Spidey before Hulk has to take off. We then cut to the events leading up to the creation of Project Rebirth, the program that produced Captain America, and the early events in the Project Rebirth and Weapon X programs.  From this point on we skip between the Fantastic Four dealing with the discover of the Watcher artefacts (in Ultimate Marvel they are a set of observational posts, not a big bald-headed guy in a toga) and the history of the Project Rebirth, Weapon X and Project Rebirth II projects, as well as the early dealings of Charles Xavier and Magneto.

Even the sound effects know this is Charles Xavier.
While there are several key reveals throughout this book there's nothing that can be viewed as truly shocking (Nick Fury being the first super soldier, Mutants being "manufactured", Rick Jones becoming Nova, and Wolverine being not quite as old as in the main Marvel Universe), and several aspects that need to be considered in the hard cold light of day as the result of giving Brian Michael Bendis control over the continuity of what is meant to be an existing, cohesive universe.

To fully explain why the problems with the continuity are so annoying it's important to understand that Bendis was instrumental in making the Ultimate line a success (via Ultimate Spider-man), and that the entire universe he was playing in was less than 10 years old. Also, it's not the first time he's done it (Avengers Disassembled anyone). Here are the retcons I've picked up, in order of most glaringly obvious:
  • Nick Fury is the first successful subject of the Super Soldier program after Steve Rogers, (Fury 1943, Rogers 1942). This is made all the worse as both dates are given during Ultimate Origins.
    • While it could be argued Rogers was Subject 22, Dr Erskine is working on Fury, but died during a NAZI attack when working on Rogers.
    • To further muddy the waters of who Subject 22 is, Dugan is shown as a recruitment officer in 1942, and still alive and active somewhere around 1990-1991 (using the Gulf War and Nick Fury's loss of an eye as references)
  • Peter Parker's parent's are killed when he's a new-born (despite Bendis himself writing the Ultimate Spiderman arc in which Peter is shown to be at least a toddler and his parents are alive).
  • Magneto (clearly without grey hair) showing Charles the Savage Land in what can be worked out as 1992, when Ultimates 3 would have you believe that Wolverine slept with Magda (potentially siring the Scarlet Witch) when Magneto had grey hair and then met Wanda as a teenager in the Savage Land (which pat's that at around 2005 at the earliest, by which time Ultimates 1 is taking place). 
Now sure, there's a lot of the above that can be argued as the dates being wrong, or elapsed time not all being accounted for, but from what we are given simple arithmetic shows there are problems internal to the book. And okay, compressing continuity and all that, however it's less than a decade of continuity to keep straight, it's continuity from the same year (in some cases), and continuity he created himself (in others). It may seem excessively anal, but the whole point of this book is that if you want the continuity and backstory of the Ultimate Universe, this is it. The book serves little other purpose.

Don't get me wrong, it's enjoyable, and it's very nice to look at, but that continuity just bugs me.

If you ask me, this book is about a million times better than Ultimates 3, however whether you buy it or not comes down to three things:
  1. Do you really need the history of the Ultimate U?
  2. Are you planning to (or have you ever read) Ultimatum?
  3. Can you handle the retconning that takes place in this book (and that will likely happen to the contents of this book)?
The purtiest way to fight NAZIs
If you can answer yes to two out of those three questions, you probably ought to buy this book. If not, you probably just want a poster of that wonderful splash page of Cap launching himself off of a motorbike.

Next Week I'll continue to read retcons, but this time it'll be the fault of Warren Ellis, and it'll be in the main (616) Marvel Universe.

If At First You've Kicked Hank Pym...

Mine has a different cover,
but likely the same content.
Well this week was all about getting through the key Ultimates books up to, but not including Ultimatum (I couldn't bear to read it), and this is the point where I got really frustrated and annoyed. Ultimates 3 is written by the (inexplicable) best seller Jeph Loeb, and illustrated by the (explicably) popular Joe Madureira. Amazon will overcharge you by at least $15 US for this 128 page farce. What, biased? Me? Yeah definitely. Look I got this on the cheap (say about $5 US) well after everyone knew it was crap so that I could read it on the off chance I might read Ultimatum. I never got as far as Ultimatum because this book did such horrible things to The Ultimates that I couldn't go back.

Here's a summary of what goes wrong happens in this book: The Ultimates are now funded by Tony Stark (following the conclusion of Ultimates 2) and a sex tape of Tony and the Black Widow has gone public. For no apparent reason Venom attacks the Ultimates, and is dispatched by Valkyrie (who now has actual powers for no apparent reason) and Thor. The team roster also includes Black Panther (though no-one but Cap knows who he is), but no longer includes Giant Man. At the same time as this is happening, The Scarlet Witch is shot by a "DNA seeking" missile by a robot. Not long after that, Brotherhood of Evil Mutants attacks the Ultimates' mansion, and take Wanda's body with them to the Savage Land. Wolverine shows up and, with the Ultimates, goes after the Brotherhood. Back t the mansion, Jan and Hank are attacked by their "teammates" who turn out to be Ultron robots that have advanced from Hank Pym's original designs due to Scarlet Witch's flirtatious tamperings. The Ultimates end up defeating the Ultron robots, and the Brotherhood (by Hawkeye putting an arrow through Pietro), though the final page reveal is that it was Dr Doom behind it all.

If that description has you wondering about writing talents (be they mine or Loeb's) your fears are well founded: this book seems to be nothing more than filler/set-up for Ultimatum, and really that's a waste of 5 issues, and the legacy that Millar and Hitch set-up.

But I've left out some of the worst aspects of the book. Such as the idea that Wanda and Pietro are intimate (which doesn't surprise me really) and that Jan views that as normal. Such as Wolverine potentially being Wanda's father (and that idea going nowhere). Such as Thor suddenly being at peace with himself and now talking like he's from "ye olden days". Such as Venom and Spider-man being in the book at all. Such as Pyro and Mastermind being would be rapists. Such as this being little more than a crappy remake of Avengers Disassembled.

At the end of the day, however much money you pay for this, it's too much. The art is occasionally good, the writing sometimes reaches the heady heights of just plain awful, and apart from the last 5 pages the entire book is pointless. This review feels almost as short as the book does. You'll be amazed that it took a whole 5 issues to labour through this.

If you must have some grip of what happens in this book for you Ultimate Universe collection, I'd recommend you go and print out the plot synopsis from Wikipedia, and stick that on your bookshelf.

It's "Kick Hank Pym While He's Down" Week!

Millar, Hitch, and a lot of pages.
And so the first part of this week's unannounced entry is revealed. That's right, the first part. While this is a great collection, I'd highly recommend getting the smaller trade paperback editions if you want to save a dollar. I think this was one of the last things I got from the LCS that shall not be named, and I paid enough for it. While Amazon no longer have any copies in stock, they do have Amazon sellers that will get you a new copy from $127 US, or used from $79 US. The Ultimate collections (in paperback) on the other hand go for $23 US each at the moment. The difference seems to be some 40 odd pages (880 for the Omnibus, 840 total for the two Ultimate Collections, which is likely the cover galleries, introduction from Joss Whedon and commentary from Millar and Hitch. While those are nice, you have to ask yourself if they (in addition to being a lovely omnibus) are at least $33 worth it. Personally, I doubt it.

For those unfamiliar with the Ultimates, they were essentially the Ultimate Universe version of Marvel's Avengers. The book opens with Captain America's final mission at the end of WWII, before cutting to Nick Fury (who looks remarkably, and intentionally, like Samuel L. Jackson - just like in the Avengers movies) recruiting the other members of The Ultimates. It's worth noting that while this part already contains Bruce Banner bashing, it's basically the high point for Hank Pym.

The first issue ends with Cap being discovered in the ice, and the second issue follows up with Steve Rogers being introduced to the 21st Century (including a poignant reunion with Bucky who is married to Steve's former girlfriend). Granted it's another couple issues before there's any more fighting, but by that point the character's have been well enough established that they are believable, including Thor's rejection of the idea of working as a cog in the US machine and a discussion about who would play who in a movie about the Ultimates (off the casting choices given, only Sam Jackson got the gig, though my wife would tell you that Robert Downey Jr and Johnny Depp are the same person). Of course, it can't last and Bruce Banner decides it's time to try and shortcut his way through the super soldier problem, unleashing the Hulk on Manhattan, much to my delight (the idea of Hulk as essentially a horny, horny teenager with uber strength just tickles my fancy, and "Hulk want Freddie Prinze Junior!" is gold). The punishing handed to, and by, Hulk here is brutal, not least Cap's unconscious delivering kick to Banner after he's already de-Hulked.

What does that letter stand for?
Now up to this point, Hank Pym has been belittled, he's been trounced by Hulk, and then he does what Hank Pym is renowned for: he beats on Jan. Except that this isn't the Silver Age, and Hank isn't just under stress. He's genuinely a nasty piece of work (also Jan's an egg laying, skin shedding mutant) and he really goes all out this time, which is why it's so satisfying seeing Cap hand him his ass two issues down the road, which is right about the time that the first clues come to light as to what SHIELD are actually worried about: an alien invasion. More importantly, an invasion by Skrulls. If this sounds similar to that other Marvel story from a couple years back, fear not: this came out first. And was done to a higher standard. With that final piece in place, Millar and Hitch unleash the final three issues of Ultimates 1 which is a drag out fight to the end between the people of Earth and the Chitauri (Skrulls). It also includes one of the most popular pages from The Ultimates, and Hulk out to prove just how straight he is (answer: very).

Following the wrap up from Ultimates 1, we get an intron to Ultimates 2 from Jonathan Ross, who seems a bit pissed about just how fantastic Ultimates 1 and 2 were. I think that's fine, but really he should have just had fun reading them.

I'm 19, dress like a tarty Viking...
and want you to dress up as Cap. In?
Given that it's another 13 issues (some of them double sized) in Ultimates 2, here's the highlights: The Ultimates are being expanded in size, and being used against Rogue States, Thor is being portrayed as crazy, Jan and Cap are an item, there's a traitor on the team, Hank Pym is off the team and hits his own low when he joins The Defenders and has sex with a 19 year old girl (who ends up getting powers somehow before Ultimates 3),  Bruce Banner / Hulk is executed after being put on trial for the devastation he wrought on Manhattan, and, drumroll, Loki was behind it all, and Thor's not crazy. Then we get the big fight scene (which our guys win), The Ultimates split from SHIELD, and we get a series of personal epilogues that wrap up each character's story neatly.

For a bit of extra fun after that, we get Ultimates Annual #1 which is really about how Nick Fury is so awesome that he uses himself as bait to take out a hired assassin so good he's an actual security threat. There's not much more to it than that, and I'd be happy to skip it.

So that's a lot to read right? Sure it is, but it's a lot of quality to read. It is decompressed, but it's done well. The fights are made more meaningful because we connected with the characters first. We're also given versions of the characters that aren't just quick summations of their standard Marvel counterparts, and that's something that was lost the longer that the Ultimate Universe has run on. And while it may be a bad reason to recommend a book there are a number of must read points (such as the 8 page spread in Ultimates 2). The commentary is useful and points out a few of the easter eggs throughout the book, and the size of the Omnibus edition is just about perfect (though if some of the bonus materials like the cover gallery and the sketch and script pages weren't included it might have been a tad more manageable.

Basically it's Where's Pietro.

As I said at the top, it's a big price to swallow for the omnibus, and the only real reason I can give you to get that edition over any other is that it's an omnibus.

The Ultimates 1: The Movie...
Only Not Quite.
Now if you're the kind of person that doesn't like reading, you have the option of skipping Ultimates 1 and watching the Ultimate Avengers animated DVD feature, but keep in mind that it's not quite the same story, and that it misses out some of the important beats (it is for kids after all), and some of the big Hollywood moments. As I did watch it during the week just to verify it wasn't quite the same I must say that I was a little disappointed at how much got cut or changed, and that they changed the look of some of the characters. Again, it was a kids feature, and thus needed substantial editing, but it is disappointing nonetheless.

Well that's the larger part of this week's review, but join me again in a few hours for the second part.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Y Should You Even Read This?

I'll leave The Beatles
jokes alone if you will...

Because it's awesome. End of story. Full stop. Period. The end. Seriously, if Brain K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra can't get you to read comic books, I don't know what will. To top it off this collection (currently US $19.79 from Amazon, down from $20.99) is a lovely 256 page hardcover edition that give you the first 10 issues of Y: The Last Man, along with some of Guerra's sketches for the book.

The setup for the story is simple (if a bit murky) in that one instant the life on planet Earth is going along swimmingly (well as swimmingly as it ever does) and the next every single male on the planet is dead... well almost. There's one human male, Yorrick, and his monkey, Ampersand, remaining. The reasons for the plague are not given (I've not finished reading the whole series yet, and refuse to have it spoiled for me), but there are hints that several things going on at the time may have had something to do with the plague, and Yorrick's survival. The events are:

  • Agent 355 removing an ancient artefact from Jordan (possible link);
  • Dr Mann giving birth to her own clone (possible link);
  • Hero, Yorrick's sister, carrying on with her latest man (unlikely link);
  • Israeli (female) Colonel Alter involved in a gun fight (unlikely link); and
  • Yorrick proposing to his girlfriend, Beth, in Australia using a magic ring he bought (the ring may be linked to Yorrick's survival, but my money is on the monkey);
Oh, and there's also a page of statistics
about what near total androcide means!
From there, the hijinx roll on as Yorrick's plans to go to Australia (fist pump!) to find Beth (his potential fiancee) are derailed by his Congresswoman mother;s and the new President's  orders to go with 355 to find Dr Mann, and aid her in solving the disaster.

Now okay, this is all sounding like a poor Sunday matinee Sci-Fi movie. I know when I started reading I was dubious, and as the book goes on you can see where Vaughn's being clever with his writing, and allowing for implausible situations (such as Yorrick's being an escape artist coming in useful on numerous occasions). But then I hit page 89 and get a simple reference to one of Paul Simon's greatest songs. From that point on the story (and pop culture references) had me hooked.

... because happiness is a warm gun.
Guerra's art does a wonderful job of simply portraying the events and emotions that need to be shown, and getting out of the way of the story. There's nothing over-drawn, and at no point are we given a "constipated super-hero" face. Vaughn's script is occasionally limp (such as the idea that Yorrick gets captured more often than Kim Bauer during a terrorist situation), but his dialog has a knack for covering that up. Ironically the thing that is easily lost in this story is that these characters are all living in a world where a horrific tragedy has occurred, although it is often referred to the mass deaths are rarely shown, allowing the horror of what people have done to themselves to take the stage. Contrasting that to The Walking Dead you get a very different perspective on the world. That's not to say that Y: The Last Man is all flowers and bunnies, but it's definitely not as unpleasant as TWD. One thing I have noticed over the last few weeks is that when you get away from the standard Union Suit books, the material tends to focus a lot more closely on the details of the human condition and how society functions. The thing that interests me more about that, is that as a book becomes more popular it's generally forced away from that kind of introspection (compare the early Lee/Ditko Spider-man - if you can handle the horrible dialog - with the recent junk Marvel puts out and you'll see what I mean), and it seems that the creators (and, yes the publishers) begin to pigeon-hole themselves. Something to mull over before we start rotting out the "Marvel and DC won't let writers tell good stories" line we've feed ourselves since we were 16.

Overall I give this book more thumbs up than I can form with my naturally allotted number of hands, and the cliffhanger at the end is a great setup for the next volume. Like I said above, it's a great book, and it's open for more or less anyone to read (there's a bit of graphic violence, and swearing, but nothing that's not on the TV after 8:30 PM). 

Before I rond out this review, I'm aware of the optioning of this book into a movie, and I have this to say: One it should be a TV series instead, and Two if they attach "The Beef" over, oh I don't know, Nicholas Brendon (if they can turn back the clocks a little) or Jesse Bradford, I'll consider spending my money buying another 3 copies of the whole series instead of seeing the movie.

Next Week we have that whole thing about Easter, and while I may not share the same views as everyone else, I do view it as a chance to relax, catch up with family, eat a whole lot of chocolate, and deliver a surprise to someone. That in mind, there's no teaser image, except I will say this: I've a lot of reading to do, and while most of it is top notch, the last part... is terrible.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Hot Zombie Killing Action.

  If zombie movies are you're thing, this week's book could be right up your alley. The Walking Dead is Robert Kirkman and Charlie Adlard's ongoing zombie survival horror epic and it all starts with this book. If you want this 304 page collection (the first year of the story to date), Amazon are currently selling it for $19.95 US (on sale from the usual $35 price).

I'll be up front about this book: I've read it enough times that I could have avoided re-reading it, however it's good that I did. As an ongoing reader of the series, it's easy to forget how the whole sorry tale of woe all begins. And make no mistake, it is a tale of woe, beginning with Rick Grimes waking up in hospital to find his world over-run with zombies, and his wife and child potentially dead. While it's unclear exactly how long it's been since the zombocalypse hit, it's safe to say that it's about 6 weeks in at minimum. By that point the survivors are few and far between, although some hold out hope of government intervention, and Rick rapidly gets his wits about him and heads to Atlanta to search for his family. After arriving on the outskirts of Atlanta, being saved from the cities undead populace, and reuniting with his loved ones (and "best friend") Rick begins to relax. And plan. Which is important, because it's something we rarely get a glimpse of in zombie movies. Invariably the small camp is abandoned in search of something more secure after a slight problem with local zombies, and at that point things go from bad to worse. As the group numbers fluctuate a little you can see the toll showing on all of them, they all seem to age faster the longer they are on the run, and the all struggle to maintain functional relationships with each other, even those they love. This collection ends with the finding of the prison that becomes the main setting of the book for some time, and at just that point things are looking up.

If I have to tell you what happens next,
you probably don't want to read this book.
The art is all black and white (probably for the best, as colour would likely be hard to use consistently for the zombies), and it's clear it's a comic book (no Salvador Larroca phototracing here). There's the odd strange facial expression that doesn't like quite right, and doesn't need to provide any emotional input, but otherwise, I'm happy with it. Those that want to criticise it should go look at the casting managed for the key characters in the TV series based on this material, and you'll see that the faces depicted here are all able to be found in the general population.

The writing is good (not always great, but always good), although occasionally giving too much credit to Rick (he must have been a zombie movie tragic at some point), but it's genuinely believable. At times the characters seem a little bipolar, but I guess most of us would if every day carried the risk of being turned.

It might seem like I'm recommending this book for all fans of zombies, and any that may just be curious, so here's the key thing with The Walking Dead that you may not get from just this one book: while addictive it's very repetitive, depressing, and ultimately desensitising. As things progress from here, the situations continually degrade, and the audience is given the option to either stop reading (unlikely) or ignore the innate horror of it all and move on, just like the characters. Some people would say that's great writing, and while I'm sure it is, it's also downright creepy when you think about it.

All in all, this volume is a good one. It's reasonably priced, well presented, and looks nice on a bookshelf. That said, it's hard to stop reading this series once you start, and that's doubly so if you enjoy watching zombie movies. I'd recommend it to a few groups then: the zombie movie fans, those that enjoyed Apocalypse Now for the character development, and anyone so freaking happy i would make Mickey Mouse want to puke.

Next week, more end-of-the-world madness.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

It's Like Pretty Woman. With Superpowers. By Garth Ennis.

And if that's not the best way to describe The Pro, I can't think of another. Except maybe "It's 'The Boys' but with a prostitute, no covert ops, and Amanda Conner on art." Still not clear enough? Well, we'll get there soon enough. The Pro is a wonder of Garth Ennis' twisted mind, with Amanda Conner on art, and Jimmy Palmiotti Inks. It's also dedicated to Jim Steranko. Nice. Amazon will sell you the 80 page  2007 printing for $8 US. That includes both the original story, and The Pro Meets The Ho. Seriously. It's called that.

No if you're thinking that comics are for kids, I can only tell you to run far, and run fast, because this book, my friend, is not for you.

Have you gone? Okay, good. The Pro tells the wonderful story of a prostitute, not a very expensive one, who is given super powers by The Viewer (basically a piss-take on Marvel's The Watcher) as a bet with his robot companion. Next morning she wakes up with The League of Honor (a piss-take of the JLA) knocking at her window, inviting her to join. Join she does (there's money in it) ,and proceeds to remove all honor from proceedings (swearing, urinating on enemies, lining up a delinquent john for toturous revenge, punching a would-be robber's jaw off, pleasuring fellow League members, and almost always falling out of her thrown together costume), before sacrificing herself to save people from nuke powered terrorists. The Pro Meets The Ho tells a story in which The Pro encounters another superpowered sex worker (she has 12 hands) who, with her custmers, is pissed at The Pro for giving ultra fast handjobs to local customers. All is resolved peacefully when The Pro lines The Ho up with a job in the animal husbandry wing of the local zoo. While it doesn't last long it's good, if not clean, fun. Those that enjoy The Boys and haven't read The Pro: shell out 8 bucks already.

These covers aren't giving us any nudity!
Makes it easier to sell the book this way though.
Now it's a short book, and I realise that. I also realise that I had a whole week to read the book, and review it. With that in mind I took up another book of similarly adult content. If you darn kids have somehow got this far, and paid for a copy of The Pro using your parent's credit card, grab the thing and order this as well: Scarlett Takes Manhattan (boy does she ever).

Scarlett is another in the adult entertainment industry, however there are no superpowers here, and the time has been dialled back to the 19th century for the John Leavitt penned, Molly Crabapple illustrated story of poor girl whose mother is killed by a randy elephant and goes on to become NewYork's premier burlesque artist. Amazon want $13 US for this 48 page book. Go ahead and fork it over.
The trick with this book is that most everything that happens is by way of accident starting with the death of Scarlett's mother, her becoming a burlesque performer (when she has a complete wardrobe failure during her vaudeville act), to finding out her boss isn't the man she claims, to becoming the talk of the town, and being in the right place at the right time to stop a prohibition law being passed and thus saving her show.

While it's true that the book is laden with nudity and sex, it's not every page, or even every second page, but you will get an eyeful. The art is charmingly simple, the plot is fast paced (it's only 48 pages after all), and it's easy to whip through the entire book in no time at all to be left wondering what exactly that was all about. But read it again, and it's more entertaining as the plot holds water better than you remembered, and you spend more time paying attention to the art, and all the cheekily crude jokes it contains. High art it may not be, but it seems to know its audience (it says right there on the cover that Warren Ellis thought it was 'Disgustingly wonderful.' and that's enough for me), and hits the marks required.

Out of the two books it's hard to pick which I liked more. The Pro is Garth Ennis poking fun at the whole idea of superheroes in the only way he knows how, while Scarlett Takes Manhattan is simply a short (bawdy) story of a poor girl making good illustrated appropriately by Molly Crabapple.

Arguing which is better is like asking a Formula One fan and a Rugby fan which is the better sport out of NASCAR and Soccer: they're both close to what each fan likes, but not quite. In the end I'd call it even, but if you're after something that requires a little more thinking, take Scarlett.

Next week we'll go for something a lot less likely to be optioned by Vivid Entertainment, though it's already in production with AMC.