Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Continuing my Atlas Love Affair...

Entertainment
I'm loving the relaunch of Atlas Comics!  Here I review the final 2 titles in the initial phase of the relaunch.


THE GRIM GHOST #1 
Writers: Stephen Susco & Tony Isabella
Artists: Kelley Jones (pencils) & Eric Layton (inks)
Publisher: Atlas Comics

“It pleased me to know that the last thing you would see before I hanged you would be your lover dangling from her own hangman's noose!” – Braddock

The second book in the big Atlas Comics relaunch is THE GRIM GHOST. My familiarity with the original 70s version of the character is limited to the house ads that ran in other Atlas comic books. I never came across a copy of the actual series. So, as opposed to WULF and PHOENIX, I approached this relaunch without any prior knowledge of what came before. I vaguely remember an image of a hooded man on a horse. That's about it. I can't address at what points this new series is similar to or veers away from the original concept.

When I first got my hands on the comic, I didn't have time to really read it, so I flipped through it to check out the art. I was pleased to see Kelley Jones listed as the artist. If I want a comic book to evoke a dark mood of mystery and horror, and Bernie Wrightson isn't available, Kelley Jones is the guy I would go to. A skilled artist at utilizing shadow and cinematic angles, but also expressive distortion to great effect. His run on BATMAN with writer, Dough Moench, continues to be one of my favorite runs. This series set in an other-dimensional purgatory, co-existent with ours, called "The Fringe" where lost souls continue their existence after death before moving on to heaven or hell is a perfect match for Jones. The Grim Ghost (Matthew Dunsinane) haunts The Fringe attempting to save those lost souls from coming under the control of the evil Braddock and finding themselves sentenced to eternal torment. The Grim Ghost also appears to be quite mad himself after some 200+ years trapped in The Fringe.

The Grim Ghost and Braddock have a yin-yang conflict that stretches back to their former lives. The Grim Ghost himself was a rogue-ish Highwayman from the Colonial days of America who fell in love with Braddock's wife and she gave her heart to him. Braddock murdered the both of them. Now the brutish Braddock and his band of evil demonic thugs haunt the shadows and alleyways of The Fringe looking for souls to grab. The Grim Ghost is locked in an eternal battle to gain souls for his side first...and apparently to put the beat-down on the taunting Braddock whenever he gets the chance.

This was a well-written first issue and a good set-up for the series. I found this to be a good concept for a character that really isn't just another super-hero, but something a bit more interesting.

Once again, a thoroughly enjoyable issue from the all-new Atlas Comics. Well worth your time and money.



PHOENIX #1 
Writer: Jim Krueger & Brendan Deneen
Artist: Dean Zachary
Publisher: Atlas Comics

“What are you doing?! Kill him again!” – Malevolent Alien Captor

It's been like a 1-2-3-Punch! From Atlas Comics the past couple of weeks. Starting with WULF, then THE GRIM GHOST, and now PHOENIX, Atlas is on a solid roll with quality comic books. There's definitely a good retro-feel to the books but with the ramped up pacing, story-arc structure and quality production expected of comics and graphic novels today (including stronger language, graphic violence, and intense storytelling).

I liked WULF and thought it was a good set-up for a first issue. I liked THE GRIM GHOST a little more than WULF and now, I am on board to say PHOENIX is the best of the bunch. WULF is a blend of sword and sorcery with police action, THE GRIM GHOST is a blend of horror and masked-adventurer, but PHOENIX is full-on sci-fi super-hero action.

The original PHOENIX series back in the 70s was very much a product of the times. In a sense, it reminded me of THE SIX MILLION-DOLLAR MAN with aliens. That series centered on an astronaut from Skylab kidnapped by space aliens, who were evil observers of human evolution, and winds up incorporating some of their technology into his flight suit which gives him access to great power. So, of course, the first thing he does is use the power escape from the aliens and save the capital city of Iceland. Yep. Iceland. It was a nice effort of a comic book but while it looked nice, it was dreadfully dull to read. I like the covers though.

This new PHOENIX series is absolutely the opposite of dull though. It is an exciting, fast-paced adventure that is only frustrating in that it ends on a cliffhanger...and that means we have to wait to see what happens next.

Ed Tyler is not an astronaut (at least I don't think so at this point) in this version. He appears to just be a normal guy thrust into an awful situation. While visiting his home town, the entire population was kidnapped by aliens and brought on board their spaceship and killed one-by-one. They are obviously sifting through the people to discover the one-in-a-million human being who can wield the power of these “Phoenix” suits. So, the comic begins with them repeatedly killing Tyler and the suit bringing him back to life. Rather than eventually becoming unable to resurrect, like nearly everyone else in town, apparently, Tyler just seems to get stronger with each resurrection until he finds himself wielding dramatic cosmic power and breaks free from his alien torturers.

We don't know who these aliens are yet, so there's a mystery both as to who they are and what their ultimate purpose is in brutally and dispassionately murdering thousands of people in an attempt to find their “candidate.” Candidate for what is part of the mystery to unfold in the course of the series.

Tyler's reaction to the situation feels real. He is going to be a hero not because of the powers he wields but because he has the character and determination to do what's right and face-down a threat as daunting as these malevolent and much more advanced aliens and their technological superiority.

The artist, Dean Zachary, is a new name to me and a very impressive debut. I really enjoyed his art from start to finish. The art looks like it is reproduced from his expressive and detailed pencil illustrations then painted over it which gives the art a look very similar to the style Eric Powell uses now on THE GOON.

The design of the alien suit that Tyler is bonded to is good. Simplicity in design and believable. It reminds me of some of those 70s Marvel costumes like Capt. Marvel and Capt. Universe. Slick, sleek, and stylish.

The original Atlas Comics attempted to “out-Marvel” Marvel Comics and failed. I think the new Atlas Comics is just trying to make really good, old-fashioned fun, and exciting comic books...and PHOENIX is a great example that proves they are succeeding.




Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Reviews of KEEPING THE WORLD STRANGE and WULF

Entertainment

KEEPING THE WORLD STRANGE: 
A PLANETARY GUIDE 

Editor: Cody Walker
Essayists: Timothy Callahan, Julian Darius, A. David Lewis, Patrick Meaney, Chad Nevett, Ross Payton, Andy Richardson, Peter Sanderson, Caleb Stokes, Kevin Thurman, & Cody Walker
Publisher: Sequart Research & Literacy Organization




 Planetary is a book that is at once both powerfully dense and wonderfully accessible. Everything is familiar yet new. It can be a gateway for new readers and a reward for old-timers, and this is largely due to the narrative hook: super-hero archaeologists search for meaning into the past.
-- From the Introduction by editor, Cody Walker

KEEPING THE WORLD STRANGE is an excursion into the world of the Warren Ellis and John Cassaday masterpiece PLANETARY. Within this book you will find twelve highly interesting essays dissecting and analyzing various aspects of PLANETARY. Have you ever wondered just exactly how many levels of symbolism are inherent in the “snowflake” imagery that runs thematically and visually through the entire series? How about the three one-shots (crossovers with THE AUTHORITY, BATMAN, and an Elseworlds story): Do they square up with the continuity of the series or not? Do you want to delve more deeply into the mystery of the Fourth Man or maybe you really want to know more about the various monsters that appeared in the comic? All this and more are presented in well-thought out essays that do more than just spew opinion. These essays all carry a scholarly weight, but an easy-going style that make them entertaining to read and, if you are a fan of PLANETARY, you will feel much smarter about the series when you are done with this book. If you never quite grasped what everyone else seemed to love about PLANETARY, then this book might just enlighten you, and pique your curiosity enough to give the series another try.

My reaction? These types of books that hyper-analyze the minutiae of the great science-fiction books or comics series are mental mother's milk for me. I'm the nerd who owned the first edition of the STAR TREK COMPENDIUM, THE DARK SHADOWS COMPENDIUM, THE PRISONER COMPANION, THE TWILIGHT ZONE COMPANION, and more and more. I was a voracious reader and contributor to FARMERPHILE magazine and its spin-off book anthology THE WORLDS OF PHILIP JOSE FARMER. Those, of course, are filled to the brim with scholarly examinations and expansions upon Farmer's “Wold Newton” shared universe concept (itself an inspiration for Ellis in conceptualizing PLANETARY). I've got sitting on my bookshelf here all three Monkeybrain companions for Alan Moore's LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN. So, I admit to a predisposition towards liking a book like KEEPING THE WORLD STRANGE. The surprise for me was how well-written it was and how much better the content was than I expected.

The thing about the experience of reading PLANETARY is that it was one type of experience reading it as the individual issues came out. It was a different experience reading it all in one with the ABSOLUTE PLANETARY edition. And now, after reading KEEPING THE WORLD STRANGE, I look forward to re-reading PLANETARY with this book by my side.

Everyone who wrote for this book did an outstanding job at not only critiquing the work, but quite often brought to light aspects of the work that had not occurred to me yet and, therefore, deepened my appreciation for PLANETARY as a whole. The topic choices are diverse and each writer has his or her own voice which not only keeps the book moving along, it thoroughly covers what I consider the comic series of the decade and easily one of the greatest graphic novels ever.

I hope that this book is successful enough to justify a second volume. Highly recommended.  Check out their Facebook page here.


WULF #1 

Writer: Steve Niles
Artist: Nat Jones
Publisher: Atlas Comics

“Maybe I should have waited for back up.”
-- Detective Lomax


WULF was an interesting experience for me. I'm old enough to remember the first time a WULF #1 hit the stands. Oddly enough, it was a similar experience to read this one.

I can't quite put it into words, but there was a similar feeling. I liked it. But, then again, I was a fan of the original Atlas Comics as well. So there may be a bit of nostalgia involved. I love Marvel and DC, but I also like seeing alternative approaches that are as professional and sharp as those comics produced by the Big Two. Atlas accomplished that for a short blip of time in the 70s and the new Atlas has kicked off their new line this week with an impressively well-done WULF #1.

WULF #1 is a solid 24 pages of story but contains very little in terms of dialogue. This is a comic in which the narrative is driven by the visual and not voluminous text bubbles overlaying every spare inch. For me, that was part of the charm when reading it. There's something about sword and sorcery topics in comics that lend themselves to large-scale illustration and WULF makes good use of it. There are a number of full-page images and wide-vista shots which give a grand sense of scale to the fantasy world of Wulf.

As a first issue, it does a clear job setting up the series. Wulf is a heroic barbarian from a magical time or dimension who chases the sorcerer villain Sanjon into our modern world where he crosses path with hard-boiled New York City police detective Sam Lomax.

Steve Niles knows how to write horror and he appears to be a good choice to weave this almost Cthulhu-like evil into the modern world with the warrior Wulf chasing it down fearless in the face of death. I liked the almost poetic flow of his words while in the fantasy realm and the shift to the more familiar vernacular when the scene shifts to New York. Artist Nat Jones does a good job with the gore (and there's a fair amount) and fantasy realm of Wulf's world. Jones also handles the more mundane world of Det. Lomax (to the small extent we see him) very well.

A flaw inherent in any first issue of a series is the limited space available to fully present the characters and the premise. WULF suffers from that common flaw. Moving the plot and premise along at such a quick pace means that we readers have barely caught a glimpse of the characters at this point, but what I've seen is intriguing enough to stick around and see where it goes from here.

This is a strange but unique combination of genres (sword & sorcery/police drama/super-hero) that pleased me to read it and has great potential.