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Ex Libris Trade Post: The Highwaymen

March 20, 2014

highwaymen I’ve been reading comics for about 22 years now and, for the most part, that time has been spent reading and absorbing new material, either newly released or new-to-me. When I was actively collecting single issues, it never even occurred to me to go back, dig out a bunch of my carefully organized collection and give them another read. It wasn’t until college that the idea popped in my head and I gave series’ like JSA and 100 Bullets another look.

Around that same time, I got more fully into the idea of collecting trade paperbacks. Since then, the trade has taken over as my main delivery system for comics and I feel like I’ve built a pretty solid library of objectively good comics mixed with some personal favorites. But like my comic collection, I’ve been mainly adding to the trade library without using it as a source of material. Well, apparently I’ve been feeling nostalgic lately what with my recent return to the first volume of The Runaways and a few other ongoing reading projects, so the newly minted Ex Libris titles seemed appropriate.

One of the less well known trades in my collection is a WildStorm/DC joint called The Highwaymen co-written by Marc Bernardin and Adam Freeman with art by Lee Garbett that collects the five issue miniseries of the same name that bowed in 2007. I was reminded of this series I discovered back in my Wizard days as it was coming out when I listened to Kevin Smith and Bernardin’s Batman Forever commentary on a pair of Fat Man on Batman episodes. I dug it at the time and added it to my library when I scored a copy of the trade from somebody’s comps later on down the line. I remembered it as a cool, taut thrill ride set a few decades in the future with some funny moments and a bit of sci-fi.

And I was dead on. The book kicks off with a shadowy government group accidentally setting off a long dormant protocol that alerts a man named McQueen to a threat he’s tasked with stopping along with his former partner Able Monroe. The duo used to be known as The Highwaymen, a pair of black ops guys who became famous. They’ve got to find a young woman named Grace and keep her alive because she’s actually one of the last survivors of government experiments shut down by Bill Clinton when he was president.

I had as good a time reading this book the second time as I remember having when it debuted seven years ago. Garbett does a killer job conveying the huge Bernardin and Freeman-penned action scenes in the book which cover everything from basic gun fights and driving sequences to cyborgs and cars driving out of planes. He also does a lot with facial expressions that convey the quieter moments of the book. Actually, now that I think about it, I don’t usually like car stuff in comics but Garbett does a great job making them seem as visceral as they do on the big screen.

At the end of the day, I enjoyed this comic book in the same way that I love a great, fun action movie from the 80s or 90s. There’s an over-the-top nature to it, but it still always feels grounded, even when it literally leaves the surface, which is no easy balance to achieve. This one not only gets a thumb’s up, but will be going right back on the shelf.

Geek Doc Double Feature: Journey To Planet X (2012) & The American Scream (2012)

March 20, 2014

journey to planet x poster A few weeks back, a friend asked for geeky Netflix documentary suggestions. I rattled off several including King Of Kong, Chasing Ghosts and The Rock-afire Explosion only to find out that they’re not actually on the streaming service any more. Heck, you can’t even get a DVD copy of the latter two. Anyway, I wanted to check out a few newer geek doc offerings and recently knocked out two, one I’d never heard of and one that’s gotten a lot of praise from the horror community.

First up, we’ve got Journey To Planet X, a film that follows two guys named Troy Bernier (left on the poster) and Eric Swain who have joined forces to create a sci-fi short film. Directed by Myles Kane and Joshua Koury, this doc gets into both men’s filmmaking background which revolves around Swain creating short sci-fi and fantasy films on a homemade green screen. Eventually he made friends with Bernier who joined in first as an actor and later as a creative partner. The main thrust of this film follows the pair as they work on a longer form sci-fi film that would not only include a larger cast and longer run time, but alsoutilize better technology and use more practical locations when possible.

I enjoyed this film on several levels. On one hand, you’ve got this story about two guys trying to make an ambitious film. It’s a  different take on things like Son of Rambow and Raiders! both of which I loved. That desire to create something and putting in the work to make it happen is something I can relate to, but also find incredibly admirable.

And then there’s the dynamics between Swain and Bernier that I find fascinating. Swain was pretty happy doing things the way he had done them for years until Bernier came in and wanted to up their game. There’s definitely some friction there that isn’t a huge part of the film, but is certainly there. As the film progresses, Bernier becomes a more and more interesting character to me. He takes the project very seriously, which makes sense, but he seems to become more obsessed as it progresses. There’s something of a disconnect for me in this because he’s making a film with some wooden acting and CGI effects that look straight out of an early 90s PC game. But he doesn’t see any of that and considers this film to be a calling card that will move him on into a new realm of success and filmmaking. On one hand, that attitude was probably necessary to get the film finished, shown at a viewing party where it got a lot of unintentional laughs and even a festival appearance, but at a certain point you wonder how connected to reality he is.

Ultimately, though, it doesn’t really matter though, does it? These guys got what they wanted and made a movie that got shown to people. That’s something I wish I could do and will maybe actually make happen in the next few years if I can tap into some portion of Bernier’s passion or obsession or whatever you want to call it. As far as I’m concerned, though, there’s a lot more personal value in Koury and Kane’s documentary about these guys than their movie. Showcasing the struggles of creativity, bringing a film to life and doing their damndest to make it happen is a lot more engaging to me than watching the results of all that. It’s that whole, “life’s a journey not a destination” trip. Plus, the doc filmmakers were clearly working with better cameras than the filmmakers because this film looks fantastic.

The American Scream I decided to watch The American Scream, Michael Stephenson’s doc about three families in a Massachusetts town that build huge haunts in the yards for Halloween because I’d heard a lot about it, but it actually made a solid double feature with Journey because both movies showcase people pursuing their particular arts with varying levels of obsession.

The three Fairhaven-based stars include Victor, a dad who’s something of a haunt perfectionist, father and son team Richard and Matthew and Manny who does it because he knows the people in his neighborhood love it. Manny’s pretty straightforward and seems to do it for the love of the game which means he’s not featured nearly as much as the others. Matthew and Richard have some friction between them which garners more attention, but Victor’s the real star of the show.

Not only does Victor have the most detailed and complex haunt of the group, but he’s also got the most drama surrounding him. Of his two daughters, one’s really into the whole thing and the other isn’t. But there’s some sadness because dad’s desire to keep the yard clear for Halloween lead to them not getting the swing set they wanted. Meanwhile, his wife is very supportive of this whole thing, but it definitely sounds like there’s some rationalization going on there with how much money he spends on this whole thing — we see him drop $200 on a coffin — especially in light of the revelation that he knows he’s getting laid off. I had a real problem with him at this point because that just seems like burying your head in the sand and ignoring your impending problems in favor of doing something you love. But by the end there’s some vindication. I won’t get into it, but I actually gasped when they went back to him after Halloween and revealed his post-lay off plans.

Stephenson not only starred in Troll 2, but went on to create the documentary based on that film called Best Worst Movie. He does a great job of capturing and presenting real scenes without laying any kind of judgement over them. You can argue all day long that the way a doc is edited may or may not convey a certain mission statement from the director in order to present a certain kind of story, but to me it felt like he was just telling this tale and letting the audience judge. Personally, I found myself wishing these guys could figure out a more consistent outlet for their artistic creativity that happens more than once a year, but that probably misses the point to some extent. 

On a personal note, this movie brought back a lot of memories from my trick r treating days. When I was growing up, my neighbor Denny who’s probably 8 or so years older than me used to decorate his garage and get his pals to dress up like various movie slashers. I think the first time I ever saw a version of Leatherface was his friend running out from behind a set of hedges with a chainless chainsaw. Even though I’d watch them prepare, there was still no way I’d go in there. I don’t like being scared in real life and I’m not even that big of a candy fan. No thanks. There was another house further away that I remember coming upon a time or two as well that made an even bigger show of things with items (maybe people) coming down from the trees in the yard.

Batman Trade Post: Batman The Black Mirror & Joker Clown Prince Of Crime

March 19, 2014

batman the black mirror Batman: The Black Mirror (DC)
Written by Scott Snyder, drawn by Jock & Francesco Francavilla
Collects Detective Comics #871-881

After reading the first three volumes of Scott Snyder’s Batman, I’m firmly and solidly hooked. I can’t wait to see where that story goes as it makes its way to trade over time and even more slowly finds its way into my collection. But, while waiting, I figured it would make sense to go back and read the writer’s first attempt at playing in Gotham. Snyder wrote the main feature and back-ups of Detective Comics leading up to New 52. This story features Dick Grayson as Batman, but takes place after Bruce came back in The Return Of Bruce Wayne.

There’s a lot going on in this book which finds art chores split between Jock and Francavilla. You’ve got Dick investigating a long-running black market auction for evil objects held in places where terrible things happened as well as the ongoing mystery of exactly who or what Commissioner Gordon’s son James is. All of that is mixed with what’s considered more “comic booky” elements like massive sea animals and a car-filled deathtrap. The two artists have wildly different styles, but they both fit the story so well from Jock’s chaotic lines to Francavilla’s more solid, thick-lined take. Sometimes when artists change in a book like this it can be super distracting, but in each case, they seem perfectly suited for the twists and turns Snyder threw at them and us.

I absolutely loved going on this journey. For me, it’s got a lot of connections to Year One, which I read for the first time in years recently. The thing that struck me about Year One when I gave it a re-read was how much of a Jim Gordon story it is. He’s really the main character and I’d say that’s the case with the majority of these issues as well. I don’t know how he did it or if I’m just pre-disposed to get on Gordon’s side, but I was completely taken and absorbed with the story revolving around his son. I gasped while reading a few times and got uncomfortable at others. It took me several weeks to read this book the first time for various reasons, but I’m hoping the next time I crack it open, I’ll be able to take it in in a much shorter period of time because it really feels like a complete epic that utilizes the history of Batman while also blazing new trials in a similar way that Geoff Johns did with books like JSA, Flash and Green Lantern.

joker clown prince of crime The Joker: The Clown Prince Of Crime (DC)
Written by Denis O’Neil, Elliot S! Maggin & Martin Pasko, drawn by Irv Novick, Dick Giordano, Jose Louis Garcia-Lopez, Ernie Chen, Vince Colletta, Tex Blaisdell & Frank McLaughlin
Collects Joker #1-9

I’d love to say that I chose to read this collection of the Joker’s solo comic from the 70s for deep thematic reasons like the fact that it’s another Bat-book that Bruce Wayne has nothing to do with, but in reality, I just wanted to give it a read. I appreciate that DC’s still reprinting these older tales even though they’re pretty much negated everything about them thanks to the New 52.

These issues debuted between 1975 and 1976 and feature the Clown Prince of Crime going on a variety of adventures that either feature his fellow Rogues Gallery members like Two-Face or Scarecrow or pit him against heroes like Creeper or Green Arrow. There are some attempts to connect these stories like the continued appearance of henchmen Tooth and Southpaw as well as repeated appearances by Benny and Marvin, a pair of former Arkham Guards who repeatedly run into Joker. But, for the most part, this is a monster/her/team-up/crime of the issue type of comic thanks to the mix of writers and artists on board each issue.

Tone-wise, this is an interesting book. When it was coming out you had the more realistic take on the Caped Crusader going on thanks to Denny O’Neil, Neal Adams and company. This book reflects some of that, especially in the art style,as we see Joker murdering a few people here and there, but also carries a comedic tone that presents itself in many ways. Heck, Joker gets out of Arkham with a giant balloon in the first issue and goes on to build a secret base under his cell in the asylum so he can commit crimes more easily. There’s a whole issue where Lex Luthor and Joker accidentally switch personalities and an incredibly complicated way of doing a modern-day Sherlock Holmes story that feels like the kind of longform joke Andy Kaufman would try to pull off, so there’s still plenty of humor.

I do have to say one thing that got under my skin while reading this book was the fact that they referred to Joker’s hideout as the Ha-Hacienda, which is a funny idea, but it should be the Ha-Ha-Hacienda, right? Aside from that, I had a lot of fun reading through this book. I don’t always go in for comics from this era because they’re not super well regarded or original, but this hit a lot of my buttons, including the huge Creeper one hiding in the depths of my comic-loving brain.

Toy Commercial Tuesday: X-Wing & Mace Windu

March 18, 2014

I almost skipped over this Kenner Star Wars Power Of The Force commercial as a TCT entry. Sure, it’s a rad toy that I wish I had, but overall the spot didn’t inspire much of a post. And then you get to that last part. “A new Star Wars movie is coming next summer and a new Jedi master can be yours.” Holy crap, remember how exciting it was thinking about the Prequels? I’m not a Prequel hater, but before the first one debuted there was so much wonder about what those movies would be like.

I actually don’t  remember this deal to get Mace Windu ahead of the film. It’s possible I wasn’t still collecting Star Wars toys at the time because I’m fairly sure I was done with them by the time the Prequels came out. Still, I’d like to add a Sam Jackson Jedi to my collection at some point.

We Want Action: Hit & Run (2012)

March 14, 2014

hit-and-run-poster Sometimes it can take a while for my wife and I to decide on a Netflix offering to watch on a Friday or Saturday night. The main problem is the huge number of offerings and a less than clear idea of what kind of film we want to watch. Last weekend I was flipping around and finally just hit play on Hit & Run. We both watched Dax Shepard (who co-wrote and co-directed the film with David Palmer) on Parenthood and went through Veronica Mars together a few years ago. So, it seemed like a good choice and I’m glad to say my instincts were correct.

The film finds real life couple Shepard and Bell playing a couple in a small California town. Everything’s going smoothly for them until Bell’s character gets an interview opportunity for her dream job in LA. The problem? Dax is part of the witness protection program and isn’t supposed to leave the town. He decides to throw caution to the wind and take her on the trip which reveals more of his past than he intended after Bell’s ex informs Dax’s former partner in crime that his pal is heading back to the City of Angels. Things get progressively crazy from there.

A solid mix of car-based action and comedy, Hit & Run felt like a unique film. There’s just as much relationship talk between Bell and Shepard as there are cool car chases, which puts it in a fairly sparse group of films. In other words, Vanishing Point this aint. After reading a bit about the movie, I started liking it even more because it basically came about because Shepard and Palmer had a cool idea for a movie, got together with their friends and got to work. Shepard even used his own car collection in the film and did a lot of his own stunt driving. In that regard, it reminded me of RZA’s The Man With The Iron Fists because it’s just a person taking what they love and putting it on film and that’s always aces in my book.

Book Review: Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist (2006)

March 13, 2014

nick and norah's infinite playlist

I’ve been pretty scattershot with my book reading choices these days. I’ve given up on the pre-planned Ambitious Reading Lists this year and have just been grabbing things willy nilly from the ol’ to-read pile and my growing collection of Kindle ebooks. In the case of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which I’ve had in a bin for three or four years, it jumped to the front of the pack for one simple reason: it’s short.

Back in 2009, my wife and I checked out the film based on this book co-written by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan. I dug it and when I saw a copy of the novel on sale for a few bucks, snatched it up. But, I knew nothing about it going in, so the fact that the book is actually split between two POVs was a surprise. Basically, Nick gets a chapter, then Norah gets one written by Levithan then Cohn respectively.

The story itself finds Nick, a bass player in a band playing in New York City, asking a stranger to be his pretend girlfriend for five minutes so his ex won’t think he’s a lonely loser. As it happens, the girl is none other than Norah, a young woman who’s also recently broken up and trying to figure her life out. The two weave in and out of each others’ lives for the rest of a long NYC night filled with bands, secondary characters, exes, cab rides, burlesque nuns, Yugos and failed sexual advances as told by the two primary members of this burgeoning couple.

I really enjoyed the back and forth nature of this book and how it relates to relationships. From a writing perspective, it was nice to see each writer give the character such a unique and personal-feeling voice even if Norah gets a little Juno-y at times. But the approach also works well from a storytelling perspective. Obviously, in the real world, you only have your own experiences to go on, so it’s fun in fiction to explore this kind of story where you’re living the same events through two different, very articulate brains. While the movie got more into the adventure of the night by way of finding their favorite band Where’s Fluffy? and a few other devices, this one just gets into their heads and rides out the evening.

Aside from the dual narration and dual authorship, I was surprised by how graphic the book is. I wouldn’t say it’s lude or anything like that, but it’s filled with F bombs and a wide spectrum of sex talk. I wasn’t offended by any of this, mind you, it just wasn’t what I was expecting from a young adult book. Then again, I’ve had very little experience in that realm since I stopped reading Christopher Pike books.

I was also surprised with how the movie informed my reading of this book and at times worked against me. The filmmakers nailed it when they hired Kat Dennings. My mental concept of the actress perfectly reflected this character in my mind. In fact, her 2 Broke Girls character seems even more in line with Norah than my memory of the film. But, Michael Cera as Nick just wasn’t working for my brain. He’s described as tall, dark haired, disheveled and kind of muscular. It wasn’t until I finished the book that an actor really came into play in my head to fill the Nick role: a young, lean Jason Segel with the intensity he brought to the role of Nick on Freaks and GeeksOddly, when Norah’s ex Taj came into the picture, I was kept thinking of Superbad-era Martin Starr because I thought he played the part in the film, but it was really Jay Baruchel.  

Anyway, I not only enjoyed the tale told within the pages of Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, but also appreciate the reading momentum it gave me. It seems like I start and lose interest in books pretty quickly, even if it’s something I really want to read by a favorite author, but finishing a book always makes me want to read another. I’m hoping I can ride this wave back into Neil Gaiman’s Anansi Boys and finish that sometime this month. We’ll see though, I’m always getting distracted by something whether it be a trade or Candy Crush.

Trade Post: Runaways Volume 1

March 13, 2014

runaways-vol-1-hc Runaways Volume 1 (Marvel)
Written by Brian K. Vaughan, drawn by Adrian Alphona with Takeshi Miyazawa
Collects Runaways Volume 1 #1-18

I can’t say for sure, but I believe Runaways was the last comic I decided to check out after reading about it in Wizard. I went on to intern and work there and discovered all kinds of amazing new and old comics thanks to suggestions and coverage, but this would have still been in college before I had any real connection to the mag aside from a subscription. But even then, I didn’t actually start reading until the second volume. At some point I read through those little digests to get caught up, but when it came to actually adding this comic to my trade collection, I wanted to go with the larger scale hardcovers. Eventually, I got my hands on all three of Brian K. Vaughan’s run and have them proudly displayed, but it’s probably been six or seven years since I read this original run.

If you’re not familiar with one of the most beloved Marvel Comics of the past decade, Runaways revolves around a group of kids who find out their parents are supervillains working for giant old gods. They decide to rebel, go on the run and figure out what to do with the new information about their folks they’ve learned. Along the way they also discover they have their own abilities or accessories to help them along the way.

Like a lot of BKV comics (Saga, Y: The Last Man, Ex Machina), this one features well drawn characters with solid personalities and quick wits going through relatable experiences painted on top of a superhero canvas. Each of the lead kids has realistic moments of heroism, cowardice, failure, success, courage, doubt and everything else you feel on a daily basis which means just about everyone can find something to relate to in every issue if not page. They’re just feel them in regards to their parents who may or may not want to kill them. That’s really the key to BKV’s continued success in comics: he keeps his stories fairly simple, zeroes in on character, throws a few twists and turns along the way and just makes great, solid stories that have a low barrier of entry. And most of all? He makes it look easy.

I think Adrian Alphona’s art reflects that seeming simplicity. He’s drawing real-looking kids in some fantastic moments but never loses sight of their human-ness. I will say that some of the earlier issues in this collection seem pretty slight and I think that’s a result of some thin line-work. There’s also some pretty big inconsistencies with the characters from panel to panel and page to page, but you really get a sense of the artist’s growth as these issues progress and then experience an almost quantum leap in quality going into the next volume. Like I said when reviewing The Dummy Line, it can be fun seeing an artist of any kind progress when you’re not looking for “perfection” all the time.

Much like my experience going back and re-reading Y: The Last Man, I found it interesting comparing not only my memories of this book to the actual material, but also the things I’ve heard and read about it since then. BKV gets a lot of well deserved praised in the comics community, but that can distort your perspective a bit when you finally sit down to absorb (or in this case reabsorb) the material. I really enjoyed this reading experience, but I will say that it felt a little too drawn out at times. That might be because I knew the ending and was waiting for it or that I thought one of the the things that happens at the end actually happened much sooner. Whatever the case may be, I still had a great time experiencing this first run of Runaways and feel like I have a more realistic relationship with the work now, which is always a good thing.

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