Trade Post: Ghost Rider By Jason Aaron Omnibus

GhostRiderOmnibusJasonAaron Ghost Rider The Jason Aaron Omnibus (Marvel)
Written by Jason Aaron, drawn by Roland Boschi, Tan Eng Huat & Tony Moore
Collects Ghost Rider #20-35, Ghost Rider: Heaven’s On Fire #1-6

I’m still not quite sure why I decided to buy the Ghost Rider Jason Aaron omnibus a few years back. It was in the heyday of Thwipster and the deal must have been pretty killer. I’d read the first trade of this comic that my pal Jim Gibbons was a super-fan of during our Wizard days together, but wasn’t sold. And yet, I still got the hardcover collection of his entire run along with the icing-on-the-top Heaven’s On Fire miniseries that concluded Aaron’s run. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did because reading the whole thing, altogether framed it and these characters in my head a lot better.

The key to enjoying this series for me was understanding that it wasn’t just inspired by 70s horror, exploitation, motorcycle and grindhouse fair, but acts as an actual synthesis of those existing pieces of fiction with the comic book format. I think my initial negative reaction to this book came from the fact that I was expecting it to rise above the dirtiness when, instead, the whole point is to dive in with both feet and feel the muck surround you and the characters. A big part of that feel comes from the art by Roland Boschi and Tan Eng Huat (I’ll get to Tony Moore’s stuff in a few graphs). These artists have a style that is exaggerated and maybe a little muddy, the comic book equivalent of screen scratches and over exposed film stock (but clearly done with more intent and skill than using the cheapest film stock you can get your hands on for a three day shoot). Basically, what I’m saying is that Aaron’s Ghost Rider is what I wanted Quentin Tarantino’s disappointing Death Proof to be.

The basic gist is that original Ghost Rider Johnny Blaze has discovered that, as a Spirit of Vengeance, he was actually created by an angel instead of a devil like he’s previously thought. He doesn’t appreciate being lied to and wants revenge for his crummy life, so he’s trying to find his way to heaven in an attempt to kill Zadkiel. In the first arc, Johnny finds a kid who died for a few minutes while being resuscitated and explains that Zadkiel’s waging war on heaven. In the process, Johnny runs afoul of an army of warrior nurses — the angel’s agents on earth — as well as a down-on-his-luck cop and a haunted road.

That general tone continues throughout the rest of the run as Johnny keeps hitting roadblocks on his road to heaven and revenge. One of the biggest happens to be former Ghost Rider Danny Ketch (who’s also Blaze’s brother we’re told). Danny’s lost his marbles as well as his powers and all he wants to do is get them back so he made a deal with Zadkiel. He gets powers as long as he helps kill the other Spirits of Vengeance from around the world.

“OTHER Spirits of Vengeance?” you ask. Why, yes. In a move somewhat similar to the one Ed Brubaker and Matt Fraction took with Immortal Iron Fist, Aaron reveals that the world had many Riders, each reflecting the culture they were sworn to protect. Ketch is being played, though as Zadkiel’s using the power let loose by the Riders to fuel his war against heaven. This leads to a huge clash between Johnny, the handful of remaining Spirits of Vengeance and the new Caretaker and an army of evil angels lead by Danny. It’s pretty epic and, at the end of the day, the good guys don’t exactly come out on top.

This leads to a trio of issues that have a different feel than the others. First and foremost, they’re drawn by Tony Moore whose style is a lot cleaner and crisper than Boschi and Huat’s. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t get grimy and gross when it makes sense, just that it’s got a much different feel to it. These three stories also have more of a one-off feel as the leads have individual adventures with more of an EC Comics feel that pits the individuals against a supernatural threat that, in turn, shows them that they need to get back out there fighting the good fight. There’s a bit of a disconnect from these issues, maybe it’s because the previous arc ends with the bad guy winning and then we just see these guys kind of hanging out, not worrying too much about an evil angel talking over heaven and dealing with other threats. Still, it’s so rad to see Moore draw these characters!

The festivities end with the two Ghost Riders and Caretaker teaming up with a group of other supernatural Marvel characters like Daimon Hellstrom and Jaine Cutter to not only keep the antichrist alive (if he dies, Zadkiel disproves the Bible and ensures his place as heaven’s ruler) while also fighting off an army of Ghost Rider villains old and new. It’s another epic show down with a good deal of twists and turns that I won’t spoil, but felt like a very satisfying conclusion to this epic story.

As a whole, Aaron’s run on Ghost Rider reminds me of how good corporate owned comics can be if the right creative team with a unified vision is in place. It seems like Aaron was basically able to do whatever he wanted with these characters and the result is a story that, like Joss Whedon’s Astonishing X-Men, fits in perfectly with the existing universe and also  brings new elements to the table. You can tell from reading these issues that this story came about because someone had a great idea and a solid vision instead of a need to fill pages. As far as I’m concerned, that’s the way to go with these comics.

By now you’ve probably figured out that I’m a fan of this book. You can get it either as the full omnibus or in individual trades. Either one is cool. The omnibus has some cool sketch stuff in the back, but it might be pretty expensive at this point. If you’re worried that you need to be a Ghost Rider expert to get into the series, don’t. I’ve read the first five issues of the 90s Danny Ketch series, the Rise Of The Midnight Sons crossover and a few of the earliest appearances thanks to the Ghost Ride GIT DVD I picked up, but other than that, I’m pretty far from a die hard Spirit of Vengeance fan and I was still able to enjoy this book thoroughly. Aaron has a way of explaining things in quick bites that are easy to swallow and digest while you’re also enjoying demons fighting angels and ghosts ripping a cannibal apart. Basically, what I’m saying is get off your butt and read this run or, if you’re like me and already have it, give it another look!

Marvel Trade Post: Escape From The Negative Zone & Rick Remender’s Venom Volume 1

Uncanny X-Men/Steve Rogers Super-Soldier: Escape From The Negative Zone
Written by James Asmus, drawn by Nick Bradshaw, Ibraim Roberson & Max Fiumara
Collects Uncanny X-Men Annual #3, Steve Rogers: Super-Soldier Annual #1 & Namor: The First Mutant Annual #1

Escape From The Negative Zone is one of those books I wasn’t super interested in, but I had set up a Swap with someone when it turned out they forgot about trading one of the books I wanted. I scanned the list, saw that this starred a post-Reborn Captain America and thought it might be a fun read. And, luckily, that’s exactly what it is.

I don’t believe I’ve ever read one of Asmus’ comics before, but I thought he did a great job combining superheroes I’m (mostly) familiar with, a situation that’s fun (them trapped in an alternate dimension) and even some prison-escape elements. Basically, Cyclops, Hope, Dr. Nemesis and Namor get accidentally teleported to the Negative Zone where they run afoul of Blastaar. Blastaar wants to kill Reed Richards and asks for him to come to the NZ, but Steve Rogers goes instead. The five of them then need to work together (well, four because Namor’s going crazy without water) to get home as their previous mode of exit changes.

I also like that this is the kind of story you can enjoy without knowing much about the characters. It’s not the kind of story where you get a lot of background — I still know next to nothing about Nemesis or Hope — but you get a good feel for the characters. You might not know what Steve Rogers’ deal is, but you know from the way he’s written what kind of guy he is, same for the other characters. Dynamics and attitudes are shown instead of told in a way that doesn’t feel shoehorned. All that combined with a fun story that never slows down until the end and you’ve got a really fun comic.

Oh and the art is bonkers-good. I don’t believe I’ve read comics by Bradshaw, Roberson or Fiumara before, but I definitely want to moving forward. Bradshaw looks kind of like Art Adams in the amount of detail he puts in but a little cartoonier.  I definitely want to see more of his stuff. Roberson is a different matter all together, his figures are big and bold and everything looks painted, sort of like a far less digital Ariel Olivetti. Then you’ve got Fiumara who’s something else altogether, kind of a cross between Jae Lee and Skottie Young with style in spades. I’m not always a fan of a collection with so many different artists, but I loved this one, specifically because these guys are so good.

My only complaint about the collection is that it’s pretty pricey. Mind you, I didn’t actually purchase this book, I traded for it, but somebody out there is. I appreciate that it’s a hardcover and in the deluxe format, but $20 for a book whose comics would have cost you $12 total is a bit rough. Still, the larger size really shows off that rad art and story, plus they went with a white color for the cover which really stuck out to me for some reason.

Venom By Rick Remender Volume 1
Written by Rick Remender, drawn by Tony Moore & Tom Fowler
Collects Venom #1-5

The complete opposite of EFTNZ, I was actually really looking forward to checking out Rick Remender’s run on Venom. He’s a guy whose work I’m slowly catching up on, but has a real talent for coming up with rad concepts that are sometimes a little too awesome for Big Two comic readers (I’m thinking specifically of Frankencastle). However, I was left a little flat after reading this collection.

If you’re unfamiliar with the concept behind this book, it’s that the government has captured the (a?) symbiote suit and, by using drugs and whatnot, have essentially turned it into living armor for a soldier. In this case the soldier is familiar to Spider-Man fans as Flash Thompson, a vet who lost his legs in service for his country and now uses the suit to take on bad guys while trying to keep control of the suit and not get addicted to it.

My biggest problem with this book is that it seems to have been printed funny. I kept having trouble focusing on Tony Moore’s art in the first issue which was bothersome because I think he’s great. I’m not sure if the lines didn’t come out right or if something was just the slightest bit off, but the whole book had a kind of fuzzy quality to it that I had trouble pinning down. Making matters worse, it’s not a consistent problem throughout the book. I’d be squinting and trying to focus, turn the page and then get treated to some crisp art, but it would be something less than dynamic like two characters talking.

I had a few story problems as well, but I think that’s because I don’t read Amazing Spider-Man or have a deep knowledge of Flash Thompson. For instance, I assumed the Betty that Flash is dating was Betty Brant, but her last name wasn’t actually said until something like the third issue. There’s also a point later on in the book where Thompson says something about his boss being blind, which there was something that came out of nowhere for me. I even went back and looked at his other appearances and saw no indication of him being blind, though it could have been mentioned in the dialog and I missed it.

Aside from those problems, though, this is a really fun idea. One of my favorite What If?! stories has Punisher getting his quite-gloved hands on the Venom symbiote. There’s a lot of that idea here, but instead of Thompson mentally defeating the symbiote, Flash is constantly in fear or losing control, something that I’m not very interested in. That’s your basic werewolf premise and something that’s all over the place in comics. I also could not help but wonder if this idea would have been better serviced as a creator-owned comic. I know it wouldn’t have had the fan wow factor, the pedigree or — I assume — the financial benefits, but I wonder if Remender’s the kind of creator who might wind up working much better outside the set constraints of a shared universe like Robert Kirkman does. But, like I said, it was a fun story that I’m sure Spidey fans dug, it just wasn’t the kind of thing that really got me excited.

Halloween Scene Trade Post: Walking Dead Volumes 1 Through 12

Written by Robert Kirkman, drawn by Tony Moore (#1-6) & Charlie Adlard (#7-72)
I started re-reading Walking Dead while watching the pilot of the new TV show. At first I was just curious to see how the two versions differed, but then, after putting the first book down for a little while, I made a concerted effort to read all the trades I could get my hands on in a short period of time. I already had the first ten, I picked the first volume up while living in Toledo and got the rest while at Wizard and through Sequential Swap. I even went out and picked up Volumes 11 and 12 which is all but the last 6 or so issue of the whole series. So, I read all 12 volumes and 72 isues in about a week. I went in with an eye towards Robert Kirkman’s ticks that bother me: his lack of flashbacks (there are two in the whole series if memory serves) instead favoring long recounts of events in word balloons instead of utilizing the medium’s visual advantages, characters explaining things too much (either being too verbose in the heat of the moment or overly explaining themselves) and his tendency to reuse basic story ideas like the cycle of the group finding a safe place and then having to leave in a hurry and giving Rick strong males to bond with.

The first time I got caught up with the series it actually made me really mad because it wasn’t as good as it seemed like it should be from the way people were praising it. The pattern of the second volume got on my nerves: them finding a place, thinking it’s safe and then leaving. But, I’ve come to terms with that this time around because, honestly, how else is the book supposed to progress? One of the big realizations I had while reading through the first 72 issues of this series is that, it’s kind of destined or doomed (depending on how you look at it) to always feature Rick trying to find safety and either succeeding or failing. Sure, he’ll experience a few other things and find a place or two that works for a while, but unless the world evolves (actual cities being kept safe, a government in place, etc) that’s all the book will ever be. And, assuming Kirkman wants to keep Rick as the main character, which may or may not be the case, it either ends with him being secure or dead, which is kind of a bummer and makes me wonder if that’s the kind of story I want to continue to reading.

The other big realization I had about the book is that it’s a soap opera with zombies. It’s not a really well crafted drama like Heat or Usual Suspects, it’s a mellowdramatic tale with zombies. In fact, when things start to slow down, like in Volume 7, the seams start to show, the verbal ticks get more annoying (Axel finished 70% of his word balloons with “You follow me?”) and the clunky dialog became more apparent. But, Kirkman is a master of throwing all kinds of problems at our survivors and, for the most part, giving us some rad cliffhangers (though the one in volume 8 with the gun on Lori and the one in 9 with a growling Rick waking up were both pretty cheap in my book).

I still have a whole slew of problems with the series right from the beginning. Why didn’t a zombie come up and eat Rick in his hospital bed? There’d be dead people rising in the morgue, why didn’t they get the meal sitting out for them? Does it really snow that bad in Georgia? Why would the government tell people to go to cities which would have, per capita, more zombies than anywhere else? Why does Andrea’s appearance change from the first to the second volume (the freckled Amy gets bit in Volume 1, but then Andrea has freckles int he rest of the series)? Why do the people in the prison say they know who Otis is when he’s never been to the prison? Why does Hershel go from not caring if his daughter is fornicating and not saying a word about people killing people and then get angry later when his son swears? Why is pretty much every other person they meet a psychopath? How did people with such obvious psychotic problems survive for so long? Why is there little-to-no concern for concerning ammo? Why are they CONSTANTLY talking about how flawed Andrea’s calendar might be? And, most of all, why do they always feel the need to explain their different words for “zombie” and why do other people think it’s SO STRANGE that they have other names?

Really, I think many of those problems could have been solved if Kirkman was working with an editor. I know a lot of people might not like the idea, but I think the relationship between a writer and editor is really important, not in the sense that the writer needs to answer to the editor, but to have someone looking over your shoulder, maybe suggesting not to use the word “story” several times on one page or to be a little more concise with the dialog. According to the credits in the 12th volume, he’s working with an editor named Sina Grace (who is not listed in any of the other volumes), so maybe things will get a little better. The thing about this book is that I really do want to love it. I want to open a trade and love it from beginning to end, but when there’s so many little things rubbing me wrong, that they take me out of the story.

But, like I said, it’s like a soap opera, which means you take the occasional ridiculous plot twist and bad performance with the good. I guess that makes the comic’s jump to television make all the more sense, but I have just as many problems with that version as I do with this one (the dialog on the second episode was absolute shit, we were introduced to a bunch of characters who felt one-dimensional and we’re shown Lori hooking up with Shane now instead of in a flashback, which makes it seem worse even, plus they blew that reveal).

I actually just finished a list for Topless Robot (which I used to rationalize the purchase of the latest trades) chronicling some of the more screwed-up moments in the comic and wondering if AMC or Frank Darabont would try to use them in the show. There is some really depraved stuff in this book, from the cartoony, but sickening violence of the Governor (he not only assaults women and chops off hands, but also makes out with his zombie daughter and watches zombie heads float in fishtanks for fun). In fact, most of the other survivors they meet are pretty awful people. There’s the trio of hillbilly murderers/child molesters, the lying scientist who’s gotten people killed and the cannibals. Sure there’s a few nice and normal people, plus your concept of normal has to change with this crazy new environment, but it seems mostly bad. The 12th volume ends with the crew gaining entrance to a walled community, but like the characters, I feel like something bad is just around the corner and probably already happened in the released issues. I guess my point in pointing this all out is that it can be kind of sickening reading too much of this in one sitting. Even the supposed good guys are slaughtering and mutilating people they could have just as easily shot in the head. Part of that is the environment the characters find themselves in, but part of it seems to be Kirkman’s fascination with the worst that humanity has to offer which could easily turn a new reader off (which is to say nothing of the actual zombie violence that is fantastically drawn by Adlard). Also, real quick, the whole “people are the real villains” thing in zombie fiction feels old and boring because I’ve seen it so much, but also well thought out because Kirkman seems to have examined how these events would change people and extrapolate from there. On the other hand, those Chilean miners were in a pretty crappy situation and they didn’t start killing and eating each other. Just saying.

But, I don’t want to end on a negative note because, even given all it’s flaws, this is still a book that I read 72 issues of in a week, which says something about it and me. I give credit to Kirkman for going to some of the places he does because they’re definitely not expected. I don’t think anyone thought he’d do to Lori and Judy what he did. It goes to show that he’s not too precious with his characters, but also that, much like it would be in a real zombie apocalypse, anyone can die at any time. One thing that Kirkman wrote in the first volume’s introduction was that he’s not trying to tell a scary story, but a drama examining humans in an extreme situation. While I’m not sure if I entirely buy that (he is damn good at throwing in scares and ratcheting up the tension), it does seem to fit for the most part. While he’s good at the action, horror and suspense, he’s a master of screwing with his characters to see exactly who they are, what they can handle and, ultimately, what will break them. I also really appreciate how the writer handles the stories. Sure everything happens in the current style of six issue arcs that are easy to collect in a trade, but I don’t think I’ve ever read this many issues of a comic that seem so cohesive and flow so well. The trades don’t even have markers between issues (they also don’t reprint the covers, even in the back, which is annoying) and I’ve heard that the larger collections of the series feel the same way, with one issue leading right into the next into the next into the next and on and on. That’s just impressive.

Halloween Scene: Frankencastle (2009)

I don’t currently read Punisher and don’t have much experience with Rick Remender comics, but I’m pretty excited for the upcoming Frankcastle storyline. Just look at these covers by Mike McKone (Tony Moore’s doing interiors). The interview Remender did over at
doesn’t really get into the plot of the book, but it looks fun. Punisher’s one of those difficult characters to do in a shared superhero universe because, you know, he’s all about killing people and in “reality” he’d kill as many supervillains as possible and probably get put down by one of the superheros also running around NYC. So, why not turn him into Frankenstein and put him with the Legion of Monsters? We’ll see how it does.

Halloween Scene: The Exterminators (2006-2008)

The Exterminators is one of those comics that came out of nowhere, smacked me in the face and demanded my attention. I was working at Wizard at the time and was always looking for a new comic to check out and Exterminators was it for me. Not to toot my own horn or anything, but if you ever read anything in Wizard about this book, I probably wrote it. I think it was Book Of The Month at some point, something I had to fight for. Exterminators is one of my favorite Vertigo comics and probably their best series in a while. I was bummed to hear it got canceled and had unfortunately gotten behind in the issues, so I slowly collected the trades to read all at once at some later date. Well, that later date started last week and carried over to today when I finished the fifth volume. This is another long one, so hit the jump for the full review.

I should probably explain the comic a bit more than just saying it’s awesome. The basic premise is that this dude, our hero, Henry James has just gotten out of jail and is working at his new step father’s exterminator business Bug-Bee-Gone. Meanwhile, there’s something weird going on with Draxx, the latest in bug-killing chemicals. And by weird I mean that it mutates certain kinds of pests so they no longer have the genetic restraints for things like size and ability to procreate. All of which leads to an all out war between man and bugs by the end of the series.

The series (which ran for 30 issues total) reminded me a lot of Preacher. You’ve got a mysterious yet chivalrous hero with his fair share of lady problems (his new girlfriend Page is a literary stripper) dropped into a supernatural problem he knows nothing about, but is willing to fight the good fight. There’s also plenty of corrupt, terrible people around him, though he has a solid group of confidants he grows to rely on. I don’t make the comparison to say that Oliver cribbed from Garth Ennis’ book, I just say that to get you interested if you’re not already. In fact, there’s a physical injury that Henry suffers at the end that Jesse Custer also survived that I probably would have changed if I was Oliver, but it’s not that big of a deal.

I want to elaborate a bit on the place of the supernatural in Exterminators. I wasn’t expecting it because the book seems so firmly planted in the real world what with them killing all manner of creatures from bugs to animals. But, having read it all in a short period of time, it all makes sense and fits. It’s kind of like an Indiana Jones movie where you’re solidly in the real world for most of it and then you’ve got thousand year old Grail knights or guys ripping hearts out through chests. In this case, the supernatural elements stem from Egyptology. I have no idea whether the gods mentioned in the comic are real (I’m guessing so), but everything seemed really well put together and it was ingenious of Oliver to combine these elements with modern day exterminating, big business, a take on environmentalism, Cambodian history and the role a bug called the Mayan hisser had in the downfall of the Mayan civilization (again, something I don’t know about, but totally bought in the context of the story). I think it’s Oliver’s ability to weave these real world elements in with the supernatural ones that makes them make sense within the story.

But a story can’t just be told with creative details, the characters also have to be there. Now, unfortunately, towards the end of the book we lose some of the characters we were introduced to. I’m guessing that Oliver had more story to tell and had to sacrifice some characters like Henry’s mom and her step son in favor of actually finishing the overall arc of the book. Regardless, the characters that are around are very intriguing. Henry’s a lot of fun to read, especially as you learn more about his past. Then you’ve got his bug brother Stretch, a Buddhist with a mean streak and a cowboy hat. Nils, Henry’s stepfather, is of the old school. He’s been in the pest killing biz for years, in fact inheriting the business from his own father who has an interesting past. AJ’s a scumball beyond the pale. Saltoh is a man of science with a very dark past. The list really could go on and on. I can’t think of a single character that wasn’t at least reasonably fleshed out.

And, considering I’m talking about a comic book here, you can’t ignore the artwork. For my money, no one draws a creepier bug than Tony Moore, who can be considered the regular artist on the book since he pencilled 17 of the 30 issues. The other artists do a good job keeping up Moore’s aesthetic while using their own styles, but none of them quite hit the absolute creepiness of the swarms Moore did. I really wish he could have stuck around for the full series, but he had Fear Agent to do, a book I’ve never read, but have heard is very similar to Exterminators (but in space). I know that a few people from back in the day at Wizard couldn’t stomach reading Exterminators because of how gross the bugs look (we used to read new comics at lunch all the time, which didn’t help).

And for anyone wondering whether this book should really fall into the horror category, the book is basically about monsters trying to destroy a city and then humanity as a whole. Oh, plus it’s gross at times. Let’s just say that bugs aren’t the only things that get annihilated.

So, I can’t recommend a self-contained book more than Exterminators. It really is the full package as far as I’m concerned. And, unlike some books that got canceled before their time, it definitely has an ending. Yes, some elements don’t get addressed before the very end (What was the deal with Nils and his son? Who gave Saloth the Draxx information in Vegas?), but it feels complete enough for me. Word on the street (ie Wikipedia) is that Exterminators might be making it’s way to television thanks to Showtime, which is interesting because it started as a TV pitch). My fingers are crossed. Plus, you’ve gotta love a book that uses a quote you wrote on the cover (#10, it reads “With more intriguing plot twists than ‘Lost’, THE EXTERMINATORS seems poised for a long, mind-blowing run.” – WIZARD Magazine). That’s my first (and I believe only) cover pull quote!