Friday, March 4, 2011

Trio of Comic Reviews

I've stayed away from comics for awhile. I've only read a couple things here and there. I'm not sure what happened, but I just gave up on them. I've been re-reading a few series here and there, but I haven't started anything major. Except for these three series. So here's a few hundred words about each series.

1.
Planetary

I started reading Warren Ellis and John Cassaday's series a long time ago, but since it was so plagued with delays, and the first few issues aren't really that good, and my taste for Warren Ellis has gone, so I gave up. But when the final issue came about, and I had the chance to read the entire series, I gave it a go and read it in one sitting.

It's hard to talk about Planetary without any mention to Ellis' style, which is of idea after idea after idea being thrown at the reader, hoping some of it will stick, and the interconnectedness of the entire world. Everything is possible and everything is real, in Ellis' world. Planetary is that very same idea, but populated with comic book pastiches and archetypes. The original characters aren't interesting or unique - they are just riffs on familiar Ellis characters. If you've read Ellis before, you know what you're getting into.

But this makes it seem like Planetary is boring or predictable, when it really isn't. The first bunch of issues are all set up, in done-in-one style issues, but then the grand conspiracy begins to take shape, and Ellis goes nuts with how vast this particular scheme is. The primary twist at the centre of the series is fairly left-field, and fits in with his pet themes. The only reason why I saw it coming is because I was familiar enough with Ellis' style to correctly guess.

The series is good, but it's not great. It's not particularly cohesive, as it tries to balance X-Files-like story arcs and monsters of the week, and the main villains aren't very fleshed out. In fact, you could say that of any Ellis character post-Authority. None of the characters have any depth, and they all simply talk at each other.

The Authority, and to a lesser extent, Stormwatch, represent Ellis' best work, by far. Not only is it cohesive, but it's stunning and populated with sharply drawn characters. Planetary is just a pale imitation, and an imitation of Alan Moore's self-referential stuff.

2.
Ex Machina

I love Brian K Vaughn. I think he's a fantastic storyteller with a great eye for character and for plots. He works best on long form stories, where he can stretch his legs and create a whole universe. In Ex Machina, he's made an alternate history tale, with the world's only superhero giving up and running for mayor of New York City. It's a clearly political work that lets Vaughn showcase his pet beliefs.

Unlike Y The Last Man, Ex Machina isn't so concerned with destroying the world and recreating it (figuratively and literally) as it is with moving specific characters through the real world. What would happen if a superhero really wanted to make political change, is the central thesis.

And of course, the individual who struggles against the system is bound to lose, as David Simon has shown us. Mitchell, the main character, must balance his beliefs and his morals against a larger framework and a multitude of people who would see him lose everything. It's a classic of superhero serial storytelling, but more realistic in setting than Superman.

It's also a love story to comics themselves. Mitchell is a quintessential nerd and makes references all the time to other comics. Sort of like Yorick from Y The Last Man. Yes, there is a bit of repetition between the two series, especially in the rhythms of dialogue. Vaughn only writes a couple different voices, and they are engaging, but tiresome after 50 issues in a couple sittings.

Because it's a political work, I'm going to respond to its politics. Vaughn struggles to sustain a real political atmosphere. He tries to balance the boring bureaucratic stuff with espionage and standard superhero fare, a hybrid if you will. But I would have preferred if Vaughn went all the way with politics. Use the superhero stuff as background, and hint at the mystery a little, just like he did so successfully, but don't use it as a crutch.

The political stuff of Ex Machina is easily the most interesting part. In each situation, in each crazy, but real situation, Vaughn lets his characters do the work, showing not telling (some of the time) and it works. It's engaging and suspenseful. I was always invested in Mitchell, except when supervillains and other powers bullshit got in the way.

Maybe I'm just getting older, and my tastes for standard superhero nonsense is diminishing. God, this theme has been popping up a lot in my reviews.

Ex Machina is a fantastic series, despite its overly poppy dialogue, and its reliance on superhero tropes. A more daring series could have done away with 50 percent of the superhero stuff and remained engaging, topical and awesome.

3.
Gotham Central

Despite the surprises contained within this series being spoiled by every other series, I thoroughly enjoyed Gotham Central. Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker created an amazing cast that uses the established Batman cast and forges its own tone and voice.

It's a police procedural at its heart, and it succeeds mightily. Each little arc is a mystery, and sometimes the solution features a fantastical Batman villain. Sometimes, it's just a sad story about sad little people.

The best part of the book, other than its engaging cast, is the use of Batman. The Caped Crusader is used sparingly, and his appearances are effective and powerful. He's never shown in any other light than supreme badass just materializing out of nowhere in the nick of time. He's also a huge dick to people.

The dynamic between the police and the Batman is very complicated, and this gives the series even more depth. Some cops like him, some cops hate him. They resent that they need Batman to survive such a city. They applaud him for capturing thugs, but they're angry when cops die in the line of duty and Batman does nothing to recognize it.

Of the huge cast, two of the best characters are Renee Montoya and Cris Allen, both of whom go on to bigger things in the future. But their origins as down to earth city cops with real lives and real families and real problems suits them best.

The big surprises are that Montoya is gay, which I've known since forever, and that Crispus Allen gets murdered, which shouldn't be a surprise because he becomes the spirit of vengeance, The Spectre, which is a very boring turn of events for Allen.

Anyways, this series rules, but it suffers from a couple problems. Firstly, the art is uneven after the main artist leaves the book. Secondly, the cast is fairly large, and I had trouble keeping track of everybody and their role in the large police department. But that might be me and not the book.


So there you have it - I read three full series and reviewed them for this blog. The best of the trio was Ex Machina, even with reservations, followed by Gotham Central and finally the not so great Planetary.

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