Thursday, July 24, 2014

July's Number Ones

The summer has put a great many new series on the stands, and I don't really want to wait for August before covering all of July's entries, so let's do a Part 1 right now. As ever, I take the bullet so you don't have to, and hopefully, these short reviews can help you decide where to spend your dollar.
Grayson by Tim Seeley, Tom King and Mikel Janin for DC. We can debate whether or not it was a good idea to kill off the Nightwing persona and spin Dick Grayson off into a superspy genre book, but I still have to say Dick has been, and continues to be, one of the most coherently characterized characters DC has ever published. From his stint as Batman through the New52 Kyle Higgins stuff to this book feels like an unbroken line. Whatever identity he takes on, he's still Dick Grayson. The set-up is pretty good, with Dick infiltrating (but also having to work for) a shadowy group called Spiral, which gets him into international intrigue and action with lots of opportunities for acrobatics. The new Helena Bertinelli (not-Huntress) is his partner, which adds sexiness for the other half of the population, and they even cover why Dick showing his face isn't an issue. I could have done without the appearance of a certain member of Stormwatch (STOP PUSHING WILDSTORM, DC!), but seeing as Spiral wants an end to the masks vigilantes hide behind, he's not likely to be the last superhero who shows up in these pages. Grayson has all the hallmarks of a self-contained story arc, so fans of Nightwing shouldn't despair; he'll be back in costume in a couple years. In the meantime, I think they'll find their same old Dick continuing his journey in the pages of this book. I know I did.
Keep reading? Yes. Nightwing was the only Batbook I was reading and despite the jarring changes, this feels like its continuation.
Head Lopper by Andrew MacLean for Keness. A barbarian fantasy book with a style that recalls Jeff Smith's Bone, though with more extreme violence, Head Lopper is strong on design and features action I'd compare to Samurai Jack's. In fact, I thought at first the book my be completely silent, before the first battle ended (the white-bearded protagonist vs. a giant sea serpent) and characters started speaking. Norgal the Head Lopper isn't an easily approachable character - stoic, really - but his actions speak louder than his words and it's all very badass. The cast will likely keep a young boy who wants to be his squire and the humanity will shine through him. For now, a well-executed action series with cool, nasty opponents and a cartoony art style I quite like.
Keep reading? Yes, it's a neat little book.
Groo vs. Conan by Sergio Aragonés, Mark Evanier and Thomas Yeates for Dark Horse. I always have a hard time engaging with Conan - and in fact, even though I read all of Brian Wood's Conan, and love all things Van Lente, I can't muster enthusiasm for Conan the Avenger - but if his chocolate isn't to collide with Groo's peanut butter (err--I mean, cheese dip), then I am ALL OVER IT, SON! Aragonés and Evanier keep things fresh in a number ways, and that's a good thing because Groo works on running gags, and those can get a little dull. For one thing, Conan and his world are rendered in a realistic style, and Groo's in Sergio's trademark cartooning. I look forward to seeing how that clash of styles works out across the four-issue mini. The more important innovation, however, is that a large portion of the comic happens in the "real world" where Sergio and Evanier send themselves up. The conceit is that the real world - and the story of a comic book shop in trouble - impacts on the imaginary one, with lots of jokes about the comic book industry thrown in. That couldn't happen in a straight Groo story (even if his straight is most people's crooked) and adds quite a lot to the humor. So in reality, there are three parties in this crossover.
Keep reading? I'll read anything with Groo in it, and this mini has a sharper bite than most.
Dark Engine by Ryan Burton and John Bivens for Image. I'm sticking to sword and sorcery here, but Dark Engine is far from a traditional genre piece. Writer Ryan Burton goes out of his way to create something dark and bizarre, where dinosaurs and demons share the stage, with more than a dash of animistic folklore thrown in. Unfortunately, John Bivens' art is at times too crazy to be understood. It's mostly pretty - if extreme gore can be considered pretty - but the action isn't always coherent, and while I appreciate the writer's wish not to hide too much of it with word balloons and captions (according to the text page), it really needed a little extra to help situate the reader, especially given how alien the world is. I'm not even sure the art is coherent as a style, and wondered if the artist was changing from page to page.
Keep reading? I like the breadth of the creative team's imagination, but they haven't sold me on this world, which needed a lot more set-up than we got.
Black Market by Frank J. Barbiere and Victor Santos for Boom! The premise is definitely interesting: A group in the business of dealing in superhuman DNA with ramifications not yet known. It's also a four-issue mini, so telling a self-contained story, and it does so achronologically, skipping back and forth in time to disclose as little information as possible and keep the mystery going. I hope I haven't spoiled it. I while I don't dislike the story per se, I'm afraid the art has distracting anatomy problems, and I expect more from an established company like Boom. I like the STYLE (as per the cover), and the layouts inventive and well thought-out, but my eye keeps going to oddly-shaped arms or asymmetrical features. Good hook and pretty good characters, but is that enough?
Keep reading? I'm on the fence, which usually means I won't, but the promise of a story done in only three more issues is attractive and may put it over the top.
Spider-Man 2099 by Peter David and Will Sliney for Marvel. I got out of Marvel Comics in 1990, just before it started proliferating into an absurd amount of X-books and lines under different various labels, Marvel UK and 2099 among them. So I've never read a single issue of a 2099 title. But I'll freely admit I've been a big Spider-Man fan since the book went weekly several years ago, and have liked pretty much each of its spin-offs, whether that's Superior itself, Superior Foes, Alpha, or to my surprise, Scarlet Spider. Only the team-up book wasn't to my taste. And since Spider-Man 2099 was reintroduced in the pages of Superior, well, here I am. Miguel O'Hara is trapped in the present, which certainly helps. The reader doesn't need a whole lot of exposition to get his or her bearings. Peter David wrote the original series and is back, so fans will be happy as well. I'd call this a strong start for the off-brand Spidey. His situation is ably recapped, the seeds of several mysteries are sown through his new supporting cast, and David's rif on Terminator is at once exciting, creepy and highly amusing. And watch that Liz Allen, she's a smart character.
Keep reading? Yes, another Spider-Man book makes my pull list. AND I now want to go back and read the original!
Star-Spangled War Stories Featuring G.I. Zombie by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Scott Hampton for DC. Despite the title and the cover, the feature should really be called G-Zombie, or if you will, FBI Zombie. I won't dispute that DC's new undead star wasn't a soldier in a previous life, but this is hardly a war comic. Crime/horror, but not war. Nor is the cover's look indicative of Scott Hampton's interiors, which feel more like Gray Morrow's, with its brilliant penciled shading. That said, it's a pretty good comic. The setting, "Nowhere, Mississippi" is evocative and atmospheric, and Zombie's co-protagonist is a tough and sexy undercover agent. The violence is harsh and properly zombiesque, and the characters have a truth to them. I'm keen on seeing where this goes, and I'm more than a little interested in the revamp of another war comics star announced on the last page. I just hope all the mislabelling won't turn potential readers off.
Keep reading? Yes. DC seems like it's just renewing copyrights with all these anthologies, but the creative teams can do good work within those confines.

So there you have it. I'll be back next week with another 6 or 7 new books out in July. Suggestions accepted. No guarantees given.

Babylon 5 #17: Eyes

"If I kill him, it'll start a war."
IN THIS ONE... Earthforce Internal Affairs investigates Babylon 5, while Lennier helps Garibaldi build a motorcycle in his quarters.

REVIEW: We've seen military witch hunts like the one conducted by Colonel Ari Ben Zayn (and they might at least have found an actor of Middle Eastern extraction for it) on Star Trek, going all the way back to "Court-Martial", and if I invoke TOS, it's because Ben Zayn taking over the station felt a lot like all those episodes where some Admiral, Commodore or Ambassador took over the Enterprise and proved himself a poor leader. Ben Zayn appears to be one-dimensional, but unlike Norah Sati from TNG's "The Drumhead" (another such Trek episode), there's no empathizing with him in the end. He really IS one-dimensional. A ranting, raving villain who wears his jealousy and hatred on his sleeve to the point where you hardly need a telepath to tell us he's crooked. Throw in a comedy sublot in which Lennier overhelps Garibaldi with his vintage 1992 motorbike if you must (JMS, if you're going to do commercials within the show, at least get paid for it - they apparently weren't), but I can't quite muster any enthusiasm. Half the time, it feels like the episode will turn into a clip show, and while Sinclair's solution is his usual "loopholing", the rules aren't set up before being invoked and lack that special something. And where are the Minbari in this? Not trying to protect their pet commander? I even have issues with the direction, which is over-reliant on shaky steadycam walk and talks, creating unmotivated tension in various scenes.

If there's a redeeming feature, it's Jeffrey Coombs as Grey. Coombs is perfect as the atypical PsiCorps member who puts Earthforce duty and honor above the Corps' darker agendas. He's a good guy who just happens to have a creepy job (one he didn't choose nor can get out of). So we feel for him when he unsuccessfully tries to convince Ivanova he won't violate her privacy. We believe him - and ultimately, he saves the day - but this is territory too sensitive for Ivanova, an intrusion on sacred memories shared with her telepathic mother. Though Sinclair is meant to be the dramatic protagonist and Garibaldi the comedic one, it's really Ivanova who's at the emotional center of this. Her properly surreal nightmares (rarely well done on television), her almost reevaluation of Grey, that she would rather quit than undergo mind scan, and the clues as to how she formed that Russian facade of hers, are all good reasons to watch this episode despite the scenery-chewing going on elsewhere. The subplot does make the viewer realize Talia Winters has been M.I.A. now for a long time. Will SF writers never learn that telepaths in the cast always have to be shuffled off-screen because of their plot-breaking powers?

And, of course, even in the weakest of Babylon 5's episodes, one can take some pleasure in the way each chapter is part of a whole, so we have this plot being Bester's attempt at revenge (maybe, he certainly didn't appoint the right Corpsman to Ben Zayn), the Colonel acting on the idea that the Minbari gave the B5 job to someone unworthy instead of him, and the first mention of the Free Mars movement as unrest grows on Earth and its colonies. The science buff in me enjoyed the mention of "Lagrange 2", a reference to a station obviously built at a Lagrange point, places in space that are gravitationally balanced by other astral bodies as to keep them in a stable position. But no matter how much key information is delivered by an episode, the story and acting have to be there for it to have any value.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE:
Jeffrey Coombs would soon become very important to that other show, across the way.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-Low - Watch it for the Ivanova stuff, the rest is just so much cardboard.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Atlas of the DC Universe Extras: More Places

If you enjoyed our podcast about the Atlas of the DC Universe this week, you might wonder what cool maps couldn't be included in the book's 1990 snapshot of the DCU. Well, here's a selection of them pulled from various Secret Files and Origins that have been published since! (Click pics to embigen.)

Opal City (Starman 1998)
Blüdhaven (Nightwing 1999)
The Slab (DCU Villains 1999)
London (Hellblazer 2000)
New Krypton (Superman 2009)
Next week: More HQs!

Babylon 5 #16: Grail

"No 'boom' today, 'boom' tomorrow. There is always a 'boom' tomorrow. What? Someone need to keep some perspective around here. Sooner or Later... Boom!"
IN THIS ONE... A holy man comes to Babylon 5 asking about the Holy Grail and protects the station's resident jinx from a loan shark and his pet memory-sucking monster.

REVIEW: While getting David Warner is always a good thing (though I don't think he's ever said no to a genre TV show), you really have to pair him up with a member of the regular cast for it to mean something. Instead, the other half of his holy man character's double act is Tom Booker's ne'er-do-well Jinxo, and I'm sorry, but I just don't care about one-off characters and their quests or bids at redemption. It's like we're watching a completely different show taking place in the margins of the same universe. Maybe if it these events had more impact on the Babylon 5 world, but they really don't. Aldous Gajic's quest for the Holy Grail is an odd anachronism, unrelated as far as I know to the greater story arc. And Jinxo's contention that he has the Babylon 5 "curse" and caused the destruction/disappearance of the first four stations (highlighting how budgetarily dubious the last decade has been) fails to drum up any real tension at episode's end.

Through them, very little is revealed about the other characters, with the possible exception of the Minbari. We find out they have two ruling castes, warrior and religious, which hardly ever agree on anything (and it's terrible when they do). That they respect "true seekers" like Gajic, and that Delenn considers Sinclair one such person. He looks down on Gajic's hopeless quest, but is it that far from his own? Is universal peace just another Holy Grail? We also get to see how the station's justice system works, but the idea that goons can just grab a judge (or Ombuds) outside his chambers is patently ridiculous and shows Garibaldi to be completely incompetent. Protection racketeer Deuce (and his other brother Deuce) can't be that powerful, can he? After all, the brain-wiping cephalopod Na'ka'leen has only been helping out for 6 months. That action plot must've been brain-wiped itself because it's really badly put together. The idea of impersonating Kosh was a good one, and the creature, especially when it's just a tentacle, is satisfyingly terrifying, but then it all devolves into a shoot-out where Aldous gets one in the arm and dies, after showing some unexplained power over the creature, and Jinxo suddenly turning hero after a lifetime of cowardice... Ugh.

In the (fruitful) comments on one of these reviews, there's been some talk of JMS' comedic skills, or rather, of his contention that his sense of humor is so developed, whatever he finds funny, others would find dangerously hilarious. Though the script is by Christie "Jem" Marx, JMS has taken credit for a couple of comedy bits in this episode, so let's see. The first is the court scene where a human seeks damages from a Gray alien whose grandfather may or may not have abducted HIS grandfather. Amusing and clever, bordering on silly world-breaking, but dangerously hilarious? Then there's Jinxo shrugging off his curse only to board a ship called the Marie Celeste. My sides are literally splitting. Not. Twisted irony that unfortunately makes you ask questions like "who would name their ship after a naval tragedy?". So even if he's not directly responsible for the "cute" end scene with Garibaldi, Londo and Vir with the comedy music, etc., well, it doesn't exactly clash with the rest of the hilarity on show. I don't even see a reason to pretend Babylon 5 can be funny.

REWATCHABILITY: Low - With its focus on all the wrong things and stories that are largely irrelevant to anything we might care about, Grail is a waste of its principal guest actor and of the viewer's time.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Who's Signalman?

Who's This? The eyesore on page 2 in Who's Who vol. XXI.
The facts: This garish-looking Batman villain was created by Bill Finger and Sheldon Moldoff in Batman #112 (1957), reprinted in Wanted: The World's Most Dangerous Villains #1 (1972) in case you missed it the first time. He would then return a few times during the Jack Schiff era (#124, reprinted in Batman Family #5, 1976, and #139, this time as the Blue Bowman), then not until Detective Comics #466 (1976). That appearance gave him a small place in Batman's rogues gallery and enabled him to appear mostly in background and/or costumeless when the rest of the villains got together that year, or with the Secret Society of Super-Villains in the early 80s. In the Signalman identity, he only scored three pre-Who's Who appearances as the main villain.
How you could have heard of him: While he's recently been seen in Forever Evil and Trinity of Sin as a member of the Secret Society of Super-Villains, post-Crisis/pre-New52 appearances have been pretty limited and gone out of their way to be humiliating. In 2006, he's tortured and seemingly killed on video in an issue of Manhunter AND is seen as a drug-addled informant for Black Lightning in Justice League of America #1. His entire role in Final Crisis is getting arrested in his embarrassing costume. And in the Batman Beyond comics, he is found violently murdered in his apartment after he has paid his dues to society and retired. No respect. He also appears in a bar scene in the Brave and the Bold cartoon.
Example story: Detective Comics #466 (1976), "Signalman Steals the Spotlight!" by Len Wein, Ernie Chua and Vince Colletta
The story starts with a terrible crime as the Signalman tampers with train track switch-signals and causes two trains to collide just so he can steal the Heart of Allah, a ginormous gem. No mention of body count, but in the real world this would be mighty murderous. But in the real world, he wouldn't be recognized so easily:
Remember, he may have a distinctive costume, he hasn't appeared in almost 20 years! And only twice! Even with time on sliding scale, that must be some time ago. Train wreck survivor must be an expert or something. Wein is so desperate for us to take him seriously, he actually claims Signalman is "one of [Batman's] deadliest foes". I mean, come on!

But this is perhaps not the most effective version of Batman ever written. When we catch up with Bruce Wayne, he's sitting down to watch baseball and WILD HORSES COULDN'T TEAR HIM AWAY. The bat-signal, however, just might. He'll catch a bit of the game anyway, because S-Man is robbing the stadium. He uses a gas gun to knock out the stadium staff and his special power to "signal" things with signs:
Batman surprises him, armed with nose plugs, and has to throw his bag of money at the Dark Knight, then escape by signaling the jumbotron to say there's a fire. Batman loses him while he's too busy calming a riot down by waving his arms around and shouting. 24 hours later, at police HQ, the "Golden Trophy" is being awarded to the boy who's done the most for the Gotham City Police Boys' Club.
Is it me or are the crimes getting lamer? Signalman does attack Police HQ, I guess that's something, but a Boys Club trophy?! Batman stops him, of course, and there's a fight using the club's athletic equipment that's right out of one of Thailand's most awesome action flicks, Born to Fight (yes, that's a recommendation). Batman's gonna win at fisticuffs eventually, of course, so he uses his signal-flare weapons to start fires, and while Batman is patting down his own cape, Signalman knocks him upside the head. He hauls Batman into the elevator, but cops can't follow because he reversed the indicators (of COURSE), going to the roof while they head downstairs. So while the Bat is unconscious, S-Man could have thrown him off the roof or shot him up full of flares, but no, that wouldn't tickle his signal-crazy psychology. Instead...
Batman to fry via his own signal as soon as Commissioner Gordon tries to call him. The ultimate irony! Except the cops know he's captured the Bat, so what would be the point of lighting the bat-signal, genius? Well, Gordon is gonna help him out by doing something completely illogical. He'll light the signal on the off-chance it'll "spook that symbolic psychotic". Alliteration, yes. Common sense, not so much. In any case, Batman's ripped wires out and manages to bust out of the deadly signal just then, because he's Batman. And because he's Batman, he knows exactly where Signalman is headed to next: Gotham Cemetery for a bit of grave robbing. Have YOU figured it out?
Card suits? Methinks someone's been cheating and looking at the Joker's exam answers.  And what the heck is the deal with the vintage car?! Does that thing even HAVE turn signals?! A real death trap. Literally. Especially when you don't look where you're going.
Now THERE'S the final irony. Hardi-har-har. Sorry Signalman, you didn't justify your existence with this story, so I can't possibly endorse your continued existence. Sometimes it's the costume, but in your case, it's the whole package.

Who else? Oh we're staying with the obscure villains. The next one won't be so colorful though.

Babylon 5 #15: TKO

"Heard things about you too, Garibaldi." "Believe them?" "Hell yeah!"
IN THIS ONE... A human dares enter the Mutai arena and Ivanova confronts her feelings about her dead father.

REVIEW: Though the title would have you think the alien Ultimate Fighters thing was the main plot of this episode, it's really closer to a 50/50 split between it and the more character-driven Ivanova story. Better grounded in emotion, and following from events set up in Born to the Purple, it's much more memorable and watchable than the boxing plot. Cutting from tears to punching isn't the most comfortable of structures, but I do see how the two threads resonate together. Ivanova is "TKO'ed" by her rabbi, making her finally agree to sit shiva for her estranged father, and Garibaldi's buddy Walker Smith is accused (along with all of humanity) in meddling in alien affairs, just as the rabbi meddled with her life. But it's clunky. It doesn't really say anything about either situation, except maybe that meddling can be for the good, and feels more like I'm doing my English lit student thing and forcing connections where there really weren't any. So lets just take each separately...

Ivanova starts the episode off relatively happy, relaxing with a Harlan Ellison book (he was the show's consultant, so a bit of an inside joke there), when her charming and folksy rabbi shows up, intent on making her adhere to Jewish tradition and let go of her grief through the ritual of shiva. Of course, Ivanova bottles her emotions up and besides, never forgave her father for his own emotional distance (think about it, Susan), so she wants nothing to do with it. Sinclair has a few words of wisdom for her, but still, she believes her emotions are her own and she can deal with them however she likes. I tend to agree. I'm not sure I buy her sudden about-face the way it's presented, with her father's dying apology in her thoughts (after all, this is no revelation, it's footage from one of the early episodes), but the cumulative power of words spoken by the people she most trusts makes her give in. The shiva itself is an emotional affair that allows her to reconnect with good memories of her father (no one is all bad). Claudia Christian is, as ever, effective. It's also quite rare to see a human religious tradition shown and explained in a science fiction show, but B5 here treats the shiva like it (and other shows) would present an alien ritual. Other shows do this kind of treatment on alien religions all the time, which is perhaps why humans are so often atheistic humanists. Their real-world faiths would detract from the science fiction.

In the film noir corner - as this is how I've chosen to understand any Garibaldi story from now on - is a tale of humanity rising to the occasion, and showing it can be as good as an alien. It's essentially Rocky IV. Except, I can't quite root for Walker Smith. For one thing, he's a racist, calling the aliens "snakeheads" and "E.T.", though perhaps he learns something of Mutai honor (a martial code shared by several species, looks like). That's just not the focus of the episode. The point made by one alien that humans are meddling in everything, or he should have said, APPROPRIATING everything is a good one, and perhaps Garibaldi shouldn't be smiling about his friend opening the fighting ring to humans - bound to be some deaths resulting. Ultimately, the effectiveness of this story is impaired by the realities of television production. The martial arts just aren't impressive; no one practices defensive pugilism, so it's basically just people punching each other like 80s TV private eyes. For some reason, it makes for some of the LEAST brutal action featured on Babylon 5. And it ends in a draw? Whatever.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - The Ivanova story is engaging, but the boxing plot doesn't bring a whole lot to the table.

Monday, July 21, 2014

DC RPG: The Hero Points Podcast, Episode 2!

And it only took 10 months! But here it is, a second round of Hero Points, the show that tackles role-playing games set in the DC Universe! This time around Shag and Siskoid (that's me!) chat about THE ATLAS OF THE DC UNIVERSE, from Mayfair Games, a key sourcebook released in 1990. We got to interview comics legend and author of the Atlas, Paul Kupperberg and followed up with an overview of the Atlas pointing out some favorite bits and so on. And of course, we wrap up the show with your Listener Feedback! (So comments definitely appreciated!)

Let's roll!
Be sure to check out DC RPG: THE HERO POINTS PODCAST on iTunes as part of THE FIRE AND WATER PODCAST feed! Alternatively, you can download the podcast by right-clicking here, choosing "Save Target/Link As", and selecting a location on your computer to save the file.

Among other things, we answer the question... WHITHER CANADA?!
Important websites
The Fire and Water Tumblr for images from the Atlas.
Episode 1, covering the 1st edition DC Heroes boxed set from Mayfair.
Shag can always be found at Firestorm Fan where he pays tribute to Firestorm every day. 
Writeups.org can be found here.
The Atlas to the DC Universe online experience (fewer words, but updated through 2001).
This episode brought to you by InStockTrades.

Up next... We leave Mayfair's ruleset (ce n'est qu'un aurevoir) for greener pastures. (Ooh, did I give it away with that clue?) and until then, happy listening!

Babylon 5 #14: Signs and Portents

"Do you really want to know what I want? Do you really want to know the truth? I want my people to reclaim their rightful place in the galaxy. I want to see the Centauri stretch forth their hand again and command the stars. I want a rebirth of glory, a renaissance of power! I want to stop running through my life like a man late for an appointment, afraid to look back or look forward. I want us to be what we used to be! I want... I want it all back the way it was. Does that answer your question?"
IN THIS ONE... First appearance of the Shadows. The raiders attack Babylon 5 and a Centauri seer sees the station one day destroyed.

REVIEW: This one has the same title they gave the season, so it's gotta be important, right? It is! And damn mystifying as well. The biggest mystery is the guy who shows up on the station and asks every alien ambassador what they want. Evidently, he's an agent of the Shadows, the creepy aliens who drive sea urchin-like ships and make their first appearance here, a dark hint of what's to come. What are their intentions? Why the insistent survey? Why isn't Earth included? Neither are the Vorlons, mind you, but the way Kosh warns him off, it raises just as many questions as to HIS species' hidden agenda. If Babylon 5 is "not for" the Shadows, what claim do the Vorlons have on it? Why help Londo retrieve the Eye, his culture's most important artifact, and what kind of favor might they ask of him later? It's all very enigmatic and interesting.

So what do we find out? Well, Londo and G'Kar are really mirrors of each other, and can't both get their wish. G'Kar want revenge (he would call it justice), that the Centauri Empire be ground to dust. Londo wants his Republic to be great again, just like it was before. In both cases, their deepest desires are essentially selfless. They are heroes and patriots to their people, even if we might judge their motivations morally dubious. The Shadows side with the Centauri, apparently, or is the return of the Eye somehow going to lead to the Republic's downfall? I wouldn't put it past JMS. Delenn never gets to state her wishes because of a tremor in the Force; she's apparently attuned to the Shadows and their return, even in another sector beyond a jump point, causes her to break out in hives (or perhaps more embarrassingly, makes her Grey Council tattoo appear). The Minbari still get some love, as Sinclair brings Garibaldi into his investigation of the mission 24 hours and the security chief uncovers that Sinclair was the only station commander they approved for this duty. Is he some kind of sleeper agent? He must be starting to think he is.

While that all plays out as subplots - until revealed as the more important story - the A-plot concerns Londo's recovery of the Eye, and his subsequent dealings with Lord Kiro, a man with his eye on the Emperor's throne. His aunt is a seer who has predicted he would die at the Shadows' hands (and this happens) and in a possible future, the destruction of Babylon 5 itself. As it turns out, Kiro has engineered a raid on the station using the same raiders we previously encountered, faking his own kidnapping to keep the Eye out of the Republic's more official hands. They double-cross the double-crosser, but the Shadows get the final laugh. Fortune keeps changing from minute to minute. Of course, this attack means we get to see some outer space action, and it's the longest sequence we've yet seen. Is it me, or is this episode less blurry than usual? Whatever the case may be, the effects are fluid and well choreographed, with lots of fighters fighting in 3D space (by which I mean these ships turn on a dime and don't always feel like jets) and using the station itself as an environment. The raiders' carrier is also a cool design, and we get a better sense of how "jumping" works. Good stuff.

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE: Prophecy is also an important element in Deep Space Nine.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - A good mix of politics, mystery and exciting action, I would give it a High except that it does tend to repeat certain points several times (the station's possible destruction, for example) where it might have given us something new.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

This Week in Geek (14-20/07/14)

Buys

I got Enemy on DVD, but everything else is Leverage-related: Season 5 of that show on DVD, all three Leverage tie-in books, and after a cursory reading of the Leverage RPG, both of its Companions. I'm all about the con, man!

"Accomplishments"

DVDs: As it may appear, I'm all about feeding my current obsession with grift stories. I thought White Collar would be similar enough to Leverage and/or Hustle to be worth my time, but unfortunately, it's one of those Mentalist deals where an unconventional expert pals around with a law enforcement character and helps them solve crimes. (I've never seen The Mentalist, but I know the formula well through Castle.) Neil Caffrey IS a con man, sure, but perhaps principally a forger, and a lot of his cases with the FBI skew that way. Ultimately, even if he practices cons to get in and out of situations, the structure is strictly cop show and not con job. It's not what I was looking for. Not that it's not a good program. Matt Bomer (who we learned to kind of hate as Bryce Larkin on Chuck) is perfect for the role and has great chemistry with Tim DeKay as his FBI handler Peter Burke. Both characters are very smart, as is the rest of the cast; there's no being talked down to. But it IS formulaic, with the case of the week supported by a seasonal arc about Neil following clues left by his ex-girlfriend, etc. Season 1 was a pleasant enough experience, but I'm no hurry to continue the journey at this point. The DVD includes fair commentary on select episodes (more reactive than enlightening), deleted scenes, a gag reel, and a few short featurettes on casting, costuming and the show's FBI consultant.

RPGs: RPGs: Justice Legion - A Fragile Peace, episode 7 (finale): Armistice. Because our 28th-century DC Adventures campaign ground to a halt last November due to real-life concerns, I decided to scrunch all my plans into a big finale and be done with it. Happily, most of the players who participated could show and it became a good opportunity to bring back characters (it's a Legion, most players got to play different characters throughout the run) and have them be important in scenes occurring "meanwhile". The story - and I'd been mixing superhero scenarios with space opera, specifically the structure of the Star Trek TNG RPG's A Fragile Peace (right), with the Dominators and Durlans taking on the Romulans' role - culminates in a Dominator plan to annex a planet the cusp of United Federation of Planets membership, just as Earth is. Aaron Strange (descendent of you know who) and Green Lantern Br'k (yes, he's a brick) were joined by new members Grundy (Solomon G. as more cultured but no smarter Southern gentleman zombie) and Gordy West (a Federation ambassador with a tiny fraction of his ancestor's speed powers; character sheets below) and stopped a Durlan spy from destroying the planet's unity. Simultaneously, the Question, Wildcat, Martian Manhunter and Oracle were on Earth exposing the new Earth president's murderous VP as a Durlan, while a teaser took care of a long-standing subplot featuring Enigma (a female Riddler) destroying Batman's legacy in Old Gotham, with Fennec (the male Vixen), Plastic Girl, Ferro Man and the Question (he's everywhere) putting her in Science Police hands. It all came together quite well I think, with great conspiracy rants from the Question (could HE be a Durlan agent? he'll never know for sure!), the Green Lantern ring passing to a creature that is essentially Godzilla, the two space adventurers consistently stealing each other's thunder, and Solomon Grundy being reborn on a Monday and leading the resistance on a swamp planet. Thanks for the memories, guys. Next stop: James Bond 007 using the Leverage RPG by way of the Illegitimates comics series.
Hyperion to a Satyr posts this week:
V.i. Ophelia's Funeral - Olivier '48

Babylon 5 #13: By Any Means Necessary

"You should never hand someone a gun unless you're sure where they'll point it."
IN THIS ONE... Dock workers strike. G'Kar needs a holy plant from Londo.

REVIEW: Guys, I'm liking Sinclair a lot more than I thought I would. He really thrives in more political episodes, which also happens to be the ones I like best. And though they kind of overdo it with his fatigue in this one - I find it doubtful he would conduct station business unshaven and his uniform undone no matter how tired he was - he still manages to friggin' loophole away problems not once, not twice, but three times. I know loophole isn't a verb, but it really should be. First he loopholes the illegal strike by turning "any means necessary" into a way to give his abused dock workers what they want instead of strong-arming them into going back to work. Brilliant. Then he loopholes G'Kar's holy plant out of Londo's hands invoking laws against controlled substances (and wouldn't you know it, the Centauri have been using to get high). And then, for his encore, he loopholes the light from the Narn sun to give G'Kar another shot at his precious ceremony! He should start every sentence with "Technically..." and all the universe's woes would be over. Big smiles right through the final act over here.

The episode captures the chaos that reigns in an enormous installation like Babylon 5, and deepens the world by showing us how the military is actually dependent on civilian contractors. This isn't some slick world where everyone's part of Earth Force, a well-oiled machine motivated by duty and self-improvement. Instead, Sinclair has to deal with union complaints and budget cuts. As it happens, making B5 work is a lot harder than keeping an eye on four ambassadors. He's been asked to do the impossible and keep this thing running with less than optimal support (i.e. funds) from Earth. Does his homeworld even believe in the project? Likely, Earth doesn't really understand Babylon 5's realities and there must be pressure from certain parts not to send the planet's resources off-world like that. The dock scenes are loud, noisy and full of extras, and you realize it's all a lot more complicated and hands-on that countless shows' "bridge-only" approaches would have us think. Ivanova is directing traffic up top, but real people are doing a heck of a lot of work down below to make it happen.

And remember in "The Parliament of Dreams" when the Narn religion wasn't showcased? Well, G'Kar finally gets his turn. From what we can glean here, the Narn worship their sun (which Londo describes as barbaric paganism, despite the fact he's from a polytheistic culture - it's all a matter of perspective), but can be "followers" of different prophets/wise men/heroes. With Na'Toth essentially describing herself as an atheist, this all brings the Narn closer to humanity. Mostly monotheistic, but with a variety akin to Earth's. Whether G'Kar really believes or is, as Londo cynically puts it, only trying to save face is besides the point. The tradition must be observed and he too feels he needs to use any means necessary (in his case, theft and extortion; though Sinclair doesn't all that to be the resolution) to get what he needs. Londo plays the cruel and callous former overseer in this story, but he's also motivated by revenge for the Ragesh III incident from Midnight on the Firing Lines. These characters have long memories, and slights are not easily forgiven.

REWATCHABILITY: Medium-High - Sinclair as clever political operator and cowboy diplomat will always be something I find watchable. It's closer to what the show should be doing instead of Trek stock plots.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Reign of the Supermen #537: Clark JFKent

Source: Action Comics #309 (1964)
Type: Impostor
Who IS that Clark Kent hanging with Superman and friends if not a robot? Well it all has to do with Superman getting an invitation from the White House to offer a brave astronaut the nose cone of his spacecraft, which he of course must first secure. Here's some Superman vs. Cephalopod action for you, because you've been good and I aim to reward goodness:
But what's that at the top of the page? Perry White plotting with POTUS against Superman? Ooh, conspiracy! The Prez next asks the Man of Steel to get some deep rock for a spelunker and a rare healing plant for a great doctor, and to deliver the stuff to the TV studio where they're shooting "Our American Heroes". But the show doesn't want to honor those lame human heroes, no. It was all a ploy to surprise Superman with a homage of his own! It's basically "This Is Your Life" and while it's appreciated and everything...
...Clark Kent's expected to be there. Oops! Well, he'll just call a Superman robot when the time comes. In the meantime, he just enjoys the parade of friends behind the lead curtain, some even from his Superboy days, and hey, all three of his "L" girlfriends!
Watch the spoilers, narrator! Lori tries to warn Superman that Lois and Lana are working together, which puts the kryptonite-strength dread in him. Yep, they're going to try and prove their mutual suspicion correct with a robot scanner. If and electric Clark Kent gets to the studio, the jig'll be up, and thanks to his super-senses, Superman knows it. So Supergirl, the Super-Pets, Pete Ross, the Kandorians, the Jimmy Olsen Fan Club, the bleeding LEGION... everyone shows up to this thing. These producers have mad booking skills, yo. (The latter required for Element Lad to zap a chunk of power-sapping Gold K the Club was about to give Superman by mistake. THAT would have been embarrassing!) Oh, and Batman, of course. That's too bad, because he's disguised himself as Clark Kent before. But he could still do a little bit of quick-change, right? Wrong.
Because of there's one thing Silver Age Batman loves, it's practical jokes. (Still, the number of times he too has been trapped in secret identity-uncovering schemes, revenge must feel especially sweet.) So when Clark Kent DOES show up, his true identity is a complete mystery.
Have you guessed, faithful reader? (Perhaps my clever clue in the title gave it away.) That's right, it was President John F. Kennedy the whole time.
HOW did he do such a perfect Kent? Presumably just mouthed words as Superman used his super-ventriloquism, or else Superman's got a strong Massachusetts accent we didn't know about. WHEN did Superman have time to contact JFK? That's not quite as obvious. All you need to know is that he makes good on favors owed and that you can trust him with your secret identity.

Of course, we should talk about the time of this issue. Though it's cover-dated January 1964, it actually came out barely a month after Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. It would be crass to say Superman would stay safe, and even more tasteless to wonder if there was a Kryptonian on the grassy knoll. So I apologize for bring these ideas up, just as DC apologized in its letters column (Action #312).

Babylon 5 #12: Survivors

"The universe is run by the complex interweaving of three elements: energy, matter, and enlightened self-interest."
IN THIS ONE... Garibaldi becomes a fugitive when he is falsely accused of sabotage.

REVIEW: It's Garibaldi's turn to get a visit from the past, but I'm afraid Jerry Doyle doesn't have the same range other actors on the show do, and it makes the story come across as melodrama. It's certainly over-written, but whenever Doyle tries to emote, he fails at making those words sound any other way. On the plot level, we find out why he has such a bad reputation - he was blamed for the death of a fellow officer years ago and crawled into a bottle. Garibaldi is an alcoholic, and every time things have gotten rough, he's fallen off the wagon. And it happens again here, when he's framed by what turns out to be the Home Guard for sabotage and the attempted assassination of the pro-alien immigration President Santiago. One difference between Deep Space Nine and Babylon 5 I like is that there are a lot more drinking holes on the latter - the casino, and the dive bar Happy Daze, and that bar right there in the open promenade - which must be torture for Garibaldi on any given day. But even before he starts drinking again, Garibaldi is making bad decisions. Becoming a fugitive, borrowing money from the very person he's accused of colluding with (did... did Londo just "buy" him?), and cutting his friends off in his time of need. Not smart.

The head of presidential security, Lianna Kemmer, has reason to mistrust Garibaldi because of their shared past, and I do like that he can't bring himself to resent her for it. Like other female officers we've met, she presents as hard and cold, whereas male officers in B5 are always so much softer. This relates to some truth about women in a man's world, though it's more a reflection of today's world than what you'd expect from the 23th century (unless old biases die hard). While JMS didn't write this one personally, it has his fingerprints all over it, and his idea of what makes a "strong woman" prevails. It's getting a little redundant, frankly. Kemmer will eventually have to trust "Uncle Mike" and agree that her aide Cutter is the real villain (it IS pretty obvious, after all).

But while it's obvious from the first Garibaldi is being framed, and that Cutter is in on it, B5 is as usual, about more than the plot, predictable or not. It's about relationships on both the personal and interstellar scales. Garibaldi's problems make his only friends spring into action, using whatever means they have at their disposal to help him. Sinclair, ever the supportive friend, and Ivanova, perhaps enjoying sticking it to another authoritative woman a little too much. With Londo, it's hard to believe he's really helping Michael out of empathy, because he's the kind of guy who would collect favors, but his point about being odd man out is well made. G'Kar offers Garibaldi a nice little defection, and tries to appeal to his selfishness, which he believes is one of the ruling forces of the universe. We even see the N'Grath, whom I'm very fond of, one of the criminals Garibaldi has made an enemy of. At least the big mantis doesn't start beating on the disgraces security officer like SOME people (and I've said this before, but wow, B5 certainly has some brutal-looking fights). In effect, when something happens on the station, the show proposes we see what each of the characters thinks and would do when confronted with that event. Those that appear, of course. Where was Talia to scan Garibaldi and exonerate him in the first few minutes, huh?

ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WORMHOLE:
On DS9, Starfleet also had problems with dissidents in sensitive positions (the Maquis).

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - Some exciting action and politics, but Survivors reminds me of why Garibaldi has never been my favorite character.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Titan's Eleventh Doctor Comic - Advance Review!

As promised, here's the second first issue I was sent (Siskoid's Mailbox was bursting!), chronicling the adventures of the 11th Doctor in a post-IDW world. Now, I've got to say, while I had problems with IDW's 10th Doctor comics, I really loved their Eleventh. It was quirky, funny, inventive, charming, and occasionally had some big names on it like Andy Diggle and Paul Cornell. Can Titan keep the quality up? You'll find out next Wednesday, but I can give you a little preview (scroll back to yesterday for the lowdown on the 10th Doctor book). Ready? Geronimo!

"After Life"
Writers: Al Ewing and Rob Williams (Ewing currently writes Mighty Avengers and Loki Agent of Asgard, with lots of Judge Dredd under his belt, while Williams is a 2000 A.D.writer with lots of Marvel and Dynamite credits)
Artist: Simon Fraser (also a 2000 A.D. veteran, he is perhaps best known for his Nikolai Dante strip)

Ok, so where is this series taking place? According to the book's recap, just after Amy and Rory's honeymoon, as the Doctor lets them settle into the life of newlyweds. In other words, between Series 5 and 6. This is a comparably young Eleven, before all the Impossible Astronaut stuff started happening. The Ponds are off-stage, but presumably not inaccessible.

As with the 10th Doctor book, 11 is introduced to a new companion. She's Alice Obiefune, a library assistant who has, in her personal life, hit rock bottom. Tragedy and reversals have hounded her and situational depression has set in. She literally lives in a gray world (thanks to sensitive coloring by Gary Caldwell) until she meets the Doctor and color is restored. And a lot of color too. Alice is a clever woman with a big heart, and quick to point out what's wrong with any given picture.
And she's sad. I don't think we've seen someone become a companion because of this before. Boredom, curiosity, circumstance (all those orphans), but not the simple, basic idea that someone would need to reconnect with joy. It's a little bit as if Van Gogh had become a full-time companion, if you like.

Unlike the 10th Doctor book which went for a longer storyline, this is a "done-in-one" story that introduces Alice and has her help solve the problems caused by an alien "rainbow dog" attracted to her misery. The final solution, like the animal, is fanciful, and despite Alice's hardships, the story is geared towards comedy, between Eleven's amusing speech patterns and some silliness in the House of Commons. The art by Simon Fraser likewise straddles the line between cartoon and realism, excellent on facial expressions.

Bonus content! The other book had a humorous photo-comic page featuring Doctor Who toys, and so does this one, but also an indie-flavored "Pond Life" strip by Marc Ellerby that casts Amy, Rory, River and the Doctor as a sitcom family. I hope there's one in every issue. Plus, Doctor Who Legacy players will be able to add Alice to their collection thanks to a special code!

While I was sad to see IDW's 11th Doctor book go, it looks like the franchise is in good hands with Titan, and I look forward to a good long run on both books. Both first issues come out on July 23rd, look for them wherever you buy your comics.

Babylon 5 #11: Believers

"The avalanche has already started. It is too late for the pebbles to vote."
IN THIS ONE... Dr. Franklin operates on a child in spite of his parents' religious objections.

REVIEW: Having a doctor in the cast inevitably requires at least some plots about medical ethics, something I learned long ago from Star Trek. As far as these things go, Believers is a heavy discussion on religious rights vs. medical oaths, and it still very relevant today with the absurdly increasing anti-vaccination sentiment a prime example of belief trumping science and putting public health in jeopardy, though the more obvious parallel is religions that refuse life-saving blood transfusions. The parents in this story refuse their son's surgery because piercing the body will release his soul, and their orthodoxy is presented in other ways the more secular among us will recognize from other orthodoxies. What follows is a 40-minute ethical conversation.

If that sounds dull, it isn't. Noted SF writer David Gerrold wrote this one and really debated the ideas from top to bottom. Obviously, the parents have beliefs we do not share (unless there are "Children of Time" reading this), and if there's a bias, it's that no one else on the station shares them either. We can merely respect them. Or can we? There is bias here, seeing as any religion of the "chosen" sounds supremely arrogant (but arrogance is certainly the theme of Believers), and these loving parents end up rejecting their son when Franklin and his over-acting colleague indeed do operate on him, and end up killing him ceremoniously. Franklin has his beliefs too, and they are in complete opposition to the parents' wishes, but he's right when he asks if his beliefs are any less legitimate than theirs. Except he is outside their culture, and though each ambassador in turn refuses to give the believers' protection for various reasons, some political, some, like the Minbari, appropriately belief-based (and Kosh's bitterness is an especially chilling justification), it's Sinclair's solution that's perhaps the best. He asks the boy himself what to do, and Shon is a product of his culture; he cannot be convinced of another world view and prefers death to losing his soul. Franklin was arrogant to think he could change any of the Onteen's minds, somehow "fix" a culture/religion and bring it in line with his modern science. He embraced the concept of "playing god", so much easier to do when you don't believe in capital "G" God. There's something sweet too about Shon patronizing Franklin about his placebo egg, knowing the truth but not wanting to offend what he perceived as Franklin's beliefs. See, the kid had some wisdom and should act as an example to others, so it's only right Sinclair listened to him and that, in the end, he got the fate he preferred.

The B-plot isn't quite as involving. Ivanova is stir crazy standing by a window all day and begs Sinclair to let her go and escort a lost ship out of a dangerous part of space. She's just lucky Sinclair didn't want to do it himself, that's right up his alley. This thread is also about arrogance, because she leaves her squadron to fight a raider, and ends up in front of a whole armada. And... that's it. Next we see her, she's back on the station safe and sound and so is her squadron and the missing ship. It's like there's a scene missing there (is there a hole in my mind?). I appreciate the need for a little action in such a heavy and intellectual episode, but the subplot just isn't catered to enough to be worth the trouble. And speaking of flaws... I know I said I wasn't going to bring up the DVDs' technical problems every time, but Believers has to be the blurriest episode yet. You see, it's not just the FX sequences. Every time there's a dissolve between two scenes - effects or no - those scenes will be zoomed-in and blurry. And this director loved his dissolves. I hope most episodes stick to hard cuts!

REWATCHABILITY: Medium - A heavy ethical drama that's worthy if a little predictable, but the abortive B-story hardly relieves the viewer of the episode's heaviness.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Titan's Tenth Doctor Comic - Advance Review!

You know, being in the blogging "business", I often get requests to review things that fall somewhere in my wheelhouse. I don't often accept, simply because that's not really what I want to do with my space/time... wait, did I just say space-time?! Yep, sometimes I am sent something so entirely in my wheelhouse, I have no choice but to jump on the occasion. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to...
I opened my "mailbox" this week and found advance preview issues of Titan's new Doctor Who comics. Any sadness over losing the last IDW series - which was frankly quite fun - was quickly dispelled and I vowed to review (with minimal plot spoilage) both new #1s. Today, the Tenth Doctor series. Tomorrow, the Eleventh. Both books come out next Wednesday, these reviews should give you ample notice. So we ready? Allons-y!

"Revolutions of Terror"
Writer: Nick Abadzis (known mostly for 2000 A.D. strips, he's done some relevant comics work for Doctor Who Magazine)
Artist: Elena Casagrande, with Michele Pasta (Casagrande has worked on Suicide Risk, Hack/Slash and Angel)

First, placement in the canon. Not surprisingly, these stories occur after Donna has left, and because she's still in the Doctor's mind, I'd say we're before The Next Doctor.

Second, the companion. Yes, both series introduce new companions, and for Ten, that's Gabrielle "Gabby" Gonzalez, a Brooklyn girl of Mexican extraction (she's a first generation American) who's been roped into working for her father's two businesses at the cost of her own interests. Obviously, she needs to want more from life, that's a key ingredient for a companion.
The first issue unfolds a lot like the new series pilot, "Rose" did. We're squarely with Gabby and her family, with the Doctor eventually intersecting their lives, as he tracks the "supernatural" shenanigans affecting them (everything from ghostly hallucinations to laundromat typhoons to monsters in the subway) on the eve of the Mexican Day of the Dead. So we get to know the companion quite well before the Doctor ever offers her his hand, and she passes that interview process with flying colors. She's smart and dutiful, bored out of her skull, is quick on her feet, and has an extended family that ensures the book can follow in RTD's footsteps. The Gonzalez family, with all its expectations heaped on overachieving Gabby, is closest to Martha's, perhaps, but its circumstances are very different. Martha was never required to work for the family business! What happens when Gabby takes a holiday? I'm sure we'll find out, just as we'll find out why various horrors are being visited on latino New Yorkers. And one somber note: If this is right after Donna left, and the Doctor spends the Year of Specials telling everyone he travels alone now, what is Gabby's final fate? That inference alone makes me want to see where Titan will be taking this series.

A few words on the art, which I find delightful: Elena Casagrande has a soft pencil and excels at expressive faces and body language; this slow (yet incident-filled) set-up really plays to her strengths. Her characters have large eyes that make us care about them, and a realistic look (body types, locations) that grounds to stories in the real world as it might have been shown on TV, with no slavish photo-referenced likenesses which can be the bane of licensed comics. Her Tennant could look a bit more like the real thing, and gets better through the issue, but I don't care about perfect likenesses, so long as the story's good. And this one shows a lot of promise.

Bonus content! You get a bit more bang for your buck with these issues. This one includes a vaguely humorous Sontaran one-pager (I welcome these extras), and a special code for Doctor Who Legacy players to add Gabrielle to their collection! I'm not sure what that means, but it sounds pretty exciting!

So there you have it, folks. A nice start to a new era of Doctor Who comics, with a promising new companion (who couldn't have easily been done on TV given her nationality) and a story that feels pretty packed despite the fact it's not a done-in-one. It comes out July 23rd, give it a shot.

And the Eleventh Doctor book? Come back here tomorrow to see what I thought.