Monday, May 30, 2011

Manga Madness Monday

As is often the case with Dragon Ball, the
cover has naught to do with the content.
This week I get to take a look at one of my favourite instalments of one of my favourite Manga series ever. Now if you've seen the anime series of dragon Ball Z an think the whole thing is just a bunch of guys yelling at each other for 25 minutes an episode, let me tell you right now: the manga has rapid plot progression. Now yes this volume picks up mid-arc, and yes it finishes on a bit of a cliff hanger, but that's the nature of Dragon Ball. The bonus is that Akira Toriyama's best known work is very cheap to acquire (this volume goes for less than $8 US on Amazon), so while it may take a little bit of time to get up to speed, you won't be deeply out of pocket.

This volume is number 16 out of 26 (if you for some reason view DBZ as separate from DB), or more accurately volume 32 out of 42. The story picks up (as summarised at the start of the book) with Tenshinhan pushing himself to the limit to delay Cell from absorbing Android 18 (and destroying Android 16), and goes on to include Goku saving Tenshinhan and Piccolo, Vegeta and Trunks exiting the Room of Time and Space to fight Cell, Krillin passing up the opportunity to deactivate Android 18 (thus rendering Cell unable to become perfect) due to his attraction to her, Vegeta outclassing imperfect Cell, and finally Vegeta's folly of allowing Cell to become perfect, leading to a complete reversal of fortunes.

As for why this is a personal favourite, this volume is all about one key fight, Vegeta vs 2nd form Cell. In my opinion Vegeta stands head and shoulders above the rest of the cast of Dragon Ball, so any time he hits the top of the pile I'm happy. The bonus here is that he's not actually top of the pile (he never is for long) in strength, but his dominant personality lets him over-rule Trunks, and allows Cell to become perfect. It's a frustrating thing to a logical person like myself, but the sheer arrogance is something I can occasionally identify with, and it's one of the things that the manga does far better than the anime: allow the characters personalities to outshine the fighting. Many people like to knock DBZ and it's easy to side with them and the criticism that it's a "meat head" comic for "young boys", however it's also criticism that doesn't ring true if you take the time to read the series. While a lot of page space is dedicated to the action, a lot of reading time is not, and it's the ongoing development of characters that makes the series one to keep reading. The fights are really just flashy (and very addictive) window dressing.

Another regular criticism is that the art doesn't meet the perceived aesthetic of manga (for some people). Which, to me, is a wonderful way of saying that the art is unique, contains more detail in a panel than many people would expect in a page of manga art, and that the person making that comment is happy to pigeon hole an entire genre. I personally love the art, it's not about anatomical correctness (you'd be made to think it was), it's about showing empathy and emotion, it's about showing brutal violence, it's about entertaining people. If you don't understand that, you've likely missed the point of the whole book.

All said and done, this was never going to be a balanced review. The key question is would I recommend purchasing this. My answer is actually no. The reason for that is that jumping in at volume 32 out of 42 is ridiculous. The thing you really need to do is buy this and then buy this. It might cost you a bit, but you'll miss nothing, and have some glorious box art to boot. Also, you get to read a pivotal series in the breakout of manga and anime in the Western mind set.

Next week I'll go back to some DC and review.... this.
Someone said there was another Crisis after this,
but I'm pretty sure this was the last one.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

No More Morrison!

Spoilers. Right there. On the cover.
License to reveal plot details!
Finally (I can say that, right?) I can put the review of New X-Men to rest with this week's review of New X-Men Ultimate Collection Volume 3. Grant Morrison's most notorious abuse of the X-Men comes packaged in this 336 page tome along with a couple other howlers, Morrison's X-Men Manifesto (ie his plan to make X-Men worth reading). Amazon, amazingly, cannot sell this to you directly. Amazon resellers want at least $45 US for a pre-loved copy, and $65 US for a new copy. Interestingly those numbers line up brilliantly with the rough total of the three story-arc collections in this volume (Assault on Weapon Plus, Planet X, Here Comes Tomorrow). The disturbing part of that is the idea that Planet X is the most expensive of the individual trades.

Assault on Weapon Plus:
Would have been better with more of this.
This time Grant Morrison teams up with Chris Bachalo (barf), Phil Jimenez (solid), and Marc Silvestri (always been a personal favourite). The plot picks up right where we left off last week: Scott's walked out on the X-Men, Jean is pissed at Scott, Emma's, well, Emma, and the rest of the team are dealing with the idea that there's a traitor in their midst (again, the cover gives it all away). Unfortunately the first arc also deals with Weapon Plus, which means Wolverine. Which means Fantomex. Which means the worst idea ever: The World. The World could have/should have been awesome. It should have been the polar opposite of the Savage Land (although the Savage Land also has wacky evolution device nonsense going on). Instead it's a rubbish time warp organic machine waste of time. And it's illustrated by Bachalo. Again, it's a set-up story that tries to have a cool idea to wrap around, but instead of gripping tight to that slender beam of hope, it falls off and lands in a limp little puddle.
Oh... so that was the spoiler from the cover!
The second Arc is infamous as the MAGNETO IS XORN arc. Rapidly retconned by Marvel to avoid having Xorn no longer usable, and to make sure Magneto wasn't a man that murdered millions of New Yorkers one sunny afternoon in 2004 (I have no idea why they wanted more Xorn, or why Magneto as the ultimate terrorist was a bad thing), this arc is the real payoff of everything on Morrison's run. Jean finally Phoenixes out to save Wolvie (who has to kill her first), and then the world, the loser brigade that includes Beak and Angel finally achieve something momentous, we drop another Cuckoo, and Wolvie guts Magneto (which begs all manner of questions considering what Mags has done to Wolvie in the past). Oh, and, before we flash forward into the future for the start of the final story arc, Jean kicks the bucket again. Nice.
Quire Phoenix. Blerrrg!
Here Comes Tomorrow is the boring story of what would have happened if Scott and Emma did not become a couple after Jean's funeral. In essence John Sublime is revealed as an ancient power that has participated in forcing evolution to progress, and has taken over Beast (revealing the true nature of  Kick). Beast in turn is out for final world domination as a master genengineer (like Sinister would like to have been in Age of Apocalypse), and mutant kind is the dominant species (some how that never works out for the mutants). For Beast/Sublime to cement his victory, they need the Phoenix Egg that formed after Jean's death at the end of Planet X. Though the X-Men are forced to assault Beast (and fail) Jean saves the day as Phoenix by fiddling with the time-stream to have Scott and Emma become a couple. Because that's not creepy or weird. At all.

So what are the real flaws here: Chris Bachalo get's a special nod as the worst artist of Morrison's run on New X-Men, Assault on Weapon Plus is the arc that adds the least to the story (just closely beating Here Comes Tomorrow which established Scott and Emma as the couple they have been for years), and Planet X is revered by the students of St. Something-that-should-not-have-happened's (although personally I like the idea that Magneto is that insidious I don't buy the entire campus being that idiotic). I wish there was something truly defensible in this volume, but there's not. The first volume was comparatively great, and the second volume (while largely filler) introduced some new concepts. This basically tore down all the good that had happened, if not directly, then by Marvel's immediate over-reaction (which shows an considerable lack of faith in your writers, and really confused the matter of who Xorn was).

Would I recommend you buy this? For the price it's running nowadays? heavens no! Would I recommend you get Assault on Weapon Plus and Here Comes Tomorrow in trades? Not really, they aren't great individual stories, and you miss Planet X. Would I recommend you get Planet X? Yes. Absolutely. But not for $25 US. Given everything I'e said that may sound weird, but the truth is that Planet X is comparable to the highly implausible and ultimately unsuccessful robberies in Hollywood movies: it looks common sense (or continuity) in the eye and says "to hell with you, this is what I want to do, and if you end up winning so be it". Which is really the Grant Morrison Trademark. It pisses a lot of people off to see their toys put back in the box worse for wear, but in all honesty I find it preferable to resetting the status quo as though nothing happened.

And with New X-Men done and dusted next week I switch to one of my all time favourite manga series, and to one of my favourite slices in it.
Number of times read: Over NINE THOUSAAAND!

Monday, May 16, 2011

First Relaunch, Then Refocus.

Not as good as the first volume, but not the worst.
This week is the continuing saga of Grant Morrison and the X-Men or, as it is also known, New X-Men Ultimate Collection Volume 2. The Amazon thingo the kids all bang on about can sell it to you for about $23 US which is reasonable value for 360 pages. It's just a pity about some of those pages.

You see, this volume contains a number of stories which have good ideas, but don't quite hit they way they should. It's also fair to say that this volume does most of the real set-up work for what should have been Morrison's final New X-Men story (more about that next week). What you do get are more hot Xorn action (that also give hints about his real identity), the introduction of Fantomex, Beak and Angel forming a relationship, Scott and Emma getting caught psychically cheating (what you thought Scott and Emma just hooked up after Jean died? For Shame!), Polaris in Genosha, the introduction of Dust, the whole Riot at Xavier's story, and the Who Shot the White Queen.

No X-fan could pass up this cat-fight.
It sounds like a lot to read, but a number of those stories are one or two issues long, and a lot of them can be ignored. The Scott and Emma stuff is great, Riot at Xavier's was solid, but could have been so much more (it did give us some of the more juvenile humour I can recall in an X-Men title in the last decade), watching Jean grow towards Phoenix level powers is great, and Who Shot the White Queen was also enjoyable. But all the Fantomex stuff is so easily passed.

RIIIIOT! All the dweebs are doin' it.
The art varies from issue to issue depending on who out of Igor Kordey, John Paul Leon, Phil Jimenez, Ethan Van Sciver, Keron Grant, and Frank Quietly. Apart from most (there's the odd panel or two that are pure gold) of John Paul Leon's work, there should be no real complaints about the art, so becomes clear that the downside is the writing. The thing is every complaint I have is based on how much better things could have been. How much better Riot at Xavier's could have been if the riot had lasted more than part of an afternoon. How much better Kick could have been explained. How things would have been different and maybe better if Jean had found Scott and Emma earlier (before going on crowd control duties - as I'd like to see her take the same mindset out on the mere humans). Most importantly, I'd like to have seen Quentin Quire take his psychic abilities and do something that is truly apart from the Xavier/Magneto divide: cut mutant hatred out of the minds of humans.

Would I recommend this book. Not really. I don't see any of it as required reading for the current status quo. I don't see any of the plot lines (apart from Scott and Emma getting found out) as becoming classic. I see this as nothing more than a stepping stone on the road to the "stunning conclusion" in volume 3. If you don't intend to read that, don't read this.

If you own this already, would you really re-read it if you weren't reading the whole of Morrison's run? Really? I can't admit that I would.

Next Week I'll polish off New X-Men and allow us all to exhale and get onto something a fair bit different.
100% more controversial than anything reviewed thus far.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Not So New X-Men

Funny how a lot of X-Men relaunches feature
 "X-Men walking towards the camera" type shots.
Grant Morrison's New X-Men is, in my honest opinion, a bit too highly regarded. Yes it has moments of greatness, yes it has moments that are appalling, and yes it has everything in between. What it manages to land at almost every point is "original". There are a number of formats to collect the entire run in be they single issues, trade paperbacks, the huge Omnibus, or the form I chose - the Ultimate Collection of three volumes. The first volume (this week's topic of review) is available from Amazon for around the $23 US mark at present, and contains issues 114-126 and the 2001 Annual, totalling some 376 pages (including bonus covers and sketches).

I need to be up front here and go on record as someone that does knock Grant Morrison. I also need to go on record as saying that whatever you've heard about this book, it's probably true. Because there's plenty of room for interpretation of quality here, and it's not possible to put it down to any one thing. Yes Kordey's art is terrible. Yes Quitely does great art (if you like his style, which I can never seem to decide on). Yes some of the ideas are wonderful. Yes some of those ideas are poorly executed. And, yes, Morrison changed the status quo and moved the X-Men away from the typical plot-lines of "mutants are an analogue for minority x".

I mean, it could have been "Alas poor Yorrick!"
Whether that would have been better or worse is up to you.
That last one is important, because Morrison actually begins to set the Mutant Race up as it's own minority, with its own problems unique to themselves. And it makes sense, because no other minority group in the world has the same powers mutants do. It becomes hard to say "mutants are like gay people" or "mutants are like asian people, or black people or indigenous people" because while mutants may also be those things, they are also powerful enough that they could, for example, take over a nation through force without having numerical superiority. And that's just the logical consideration, without bothering to mention that the old minority issues usage had become tired and played-out decades ago.

As a run down of some of the other sweeping changes that occur, New X-Men sees:

  • Beast's secondary mutation into a leonine form;
  • Genosha's annihilation (it's hard to be a minority when you control a nation);
  • Emma Frost's secondary mutation to have her diamond form (as well as joining the X-Men permanently);
  • No more spandex uniforms;
  • The School for Gifted Youngsters actually functioning as a school;
  • The introduction of Cassandra Nova, Xorn, John Sublime, Beak, Angel, and the Stepford Cuckoos; and
  • The beginning of the end of Scott and Jean.

There's also a decent fight with the Shi'ar Empire, and imagery involving Charles Xavier's conception that really was a bit unnecessary.

On the face of it, it's not that big a deal, and this volume doesn't contain some of the most talked about points of Morrison's run, however this collection (and the two that follow) are crucial to Joss Whedon's Astonishing X-Men run, which in turn has been pivotal to Matt Fraction's work on Uncanny X-Men.

In the end I think there's a few things to weigh up before deciding on this, the first being if you want to really want to read a well written X-Men book, the second being if you can handle some of the poor art, and finally what format you'd like it in (keeping in mind that the Omnibus now costs an arm and a leg on eBay).

Personally I enjoyed it. I think there's the odd issue (or half issue) here and there that I could skip (really I could probably skip the entire Shi'ar side of things, as I've never found that side of X-Men to be as much fun) without missing too much. But for a fifteen issue collection, it's good value, and also more than a little necessary for reading before next week's review.
Bring it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

I'm A CEO! Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na Na!

1000000% Cleaner and less weird
than the average Warren Ellis story.
This week it's the 2005 reboot of Iron Man from Warren Ellis and Adi Granov, Iron Man Extremis (or issues 1-6 of Volume 4 of Iron Man if that helps). The copy I have is the 160 page, 2007 paperback edition, which now goes for about $15. I'd point out that for a couple bucks extra you can get the 184 page, 2010 hardcover edition from Amazon, but you might have worked that already. While some might say this isn't a reboot, let's be honest, it came directly after the Iron Man tie in arc to Avengers Disassembled where the Iron Man armour tried to kill assimilate Tony in the Borg-iest way possible, and it's the start of a new Volume (a sure sign of the reboot-ness). And it retcons the Iron Man origin. On with the show, I say!

Ellis does a solid job of setting up the story, without giving away any of the details. We have a guy being injected with something, which while not lethal doesn't seem pleasant; Tony Stark under siege from the media, the board of Stark International, and himself; and Maya Hansen, a pharmaceutical engineer at a company that has obviously let something dangerous out of the bag.
From there we see Iron Man handed his butt by the Extremis enhanced Mallen, our villain, to the point where he not only wants to use the Extremis process to provide a better Iron Man, but needs it to survive.
I'm not sure what a medic is going to be able do for a guy
in a futuristic armour suit when he's not in NYC.
As part of the Extremis re-write process Tony undergoes he has flashbacks to the events that caused him to become Iron Man - and they are not the Vietnam War era origin story. Or they are, but updated to be set in Afghanistan, with the same results. The retcon doesn't bother me as it updates the origin story (if we're going to have a compressing continuity, it has to happen periodically) to make it feasible that Tony isn't in his 60s, as well as doing something that a low of retcons fail to do: it recognises that the location and similar details are mere ephemera, and that the important points are Tony's heart injury, and use of Iron Man to escape.
By this point we're more or less done with issue five, and the last issue is Tony demolishing Mallen, and solving the "mystery" of who provided the Extremis dose to Mallen in the first place.

Oh yeah, they retconned it
so this guy still dies.
I know a lot of people really like this book, and I can see why. It's well illustrated, it's simple, and sets up the Iron Man we've had since 2005. It also feels a fair bit like the version of Iron Man we get from the movies. But here's what repeat readings (say five or so) force you to notice:

  • It's very decompressed. To the point you can skip the second issue without missing any real plot.
  • Extremis shouldn't solve all of the problems Tony says it solves. (The hard upper torso elements would still need to be hard, yes?)
  • Granov's art, while pleasing at first, has that "uncanny valley" feel to it that's common of photo-tracing.
  • It all feels so unnecessary.
To be honest, I think that my opinion on this book has changed, slowly but surely, over time and numerous re-reads. There are plenty of books that I could continue to read over and over again, and have my enjoyment at least be the same each time through, if not increase (Ultimates 1 & 2 is one of those), but this is not one of them.
A common praise of this book has been that it's a great starting point for new Iron Man readers, particularly those thinking of reading based on the movies, and to be fair that used to be true a couple years ago. However, with Tony in a new armour, and the plot so very much advanced from 2005 (largely thanks to Matt Fraction) I don't know if I'd even recommend this book on that basis any more.

In the end, I think it's safe to say that my opinion of this book is that it was very much in the zeitgeist of 2005, but it hasn't dated well. I wouldn't really recommend this for many people, unless they're about to try and catch up on Iron Man from 2005 to the present.

Next week I'll start a three week review of an X-Men run that's been largely over looked since it concluded. Because it's easier than trying to retcon it out of existence.