Friday, July 31, 2009

My Weekly Dose--Pt 2: The Prescription

The last post was something of an introduction for what should be a regular feature here. The Weekly Dose will be a rundown of quick reviews of the books I picked up for the week. (I have a lot of spare time this week, so maybe not so quick.)

So what'd I get?

Detective Comics #855: I love this book. The artwork by JH Williams is absolutely stunning. I'm getting the issues, but, unless the storyline falls apart or Williams doesn't keep it up, I will be picking up the trade as well so I can pull it out and show off to people for years to come. This is the kind of book that gets new readers interested in comics. From the page layouts to the character designs to the individual panel work, the book is beautiful. The fact that Greg Rucka is writing it doesn't hurt either, but the star of this book isn't the lead character Batwoman or the is absolutely an artist's book.

The New Avengers #55 and Dark X-Men #2: The story of the Marvel Universe right now is the story of Norman Osbourne, who, in the recent Secret Invasion storyline, rose to prominence as the hero of the day (he took the kill shot on the invading alien queen who threatened humanity), and is now in charge of H.A.M.M.E.R., the replacement organization for S.H.I.E.L.D., policing the world's superhero population and having the president's ear. The bipolar businessman, a longtime archenemy of Spider-Man when in his Green Goblin guise, has become the star of the show in the big picture storyline at Marvel, and he is the big bad looming over every book with the "Dark Reign" banner. His rise and inevitable fall is making for some really intriguing action and antics in the Avengers books, since he's basically created his own government sanctioned team of Avengers comprising "rehabilitated" villains and fringe heroes, and now he's turned his evil eye to the mutants, pulling together a team of "Dark X-Men" using the same formula. The Avengers stuff is tight and compelling, but the X-Men portion of the story isn't working. What is exciting and crazy to read in an Avengers book seems out of place and out of character for the X books. While it all feeds the same big picture plotline that I am enjoying, I can't help but feel that the X stuff is not really essential reading. Dark X-Men and the "Utopia" storyline that is threaded through all the mutant books seems like a flop, and I think it is safe to say you should pass on it. As for the Avengers -- I enjoy the writing of series scribe Brian Michael Bendis, but he does get awfully repetitive with his style and his setups. Avengers sit around table talking about their next move while bad guys do the same in a warehouse, someone blows something up somewhere, and everyone gets into a fight. I feel like I've been reading the same issue of New Avengers every month for a year! So, while these books do fit into Dark Reign, they aren't necessarily helpful in selling that storyline to anyone. The best book to pick up if you are as into the Norman Osbourne story as I am is Dark Avengers. Everything else is just kind of messy and not worth the price of admission.

Fantastic Four #569:
Why aren't you reading Mark Millar's run on the FF? I've been reading and hearing people crap on this run from the start--that it is too slow or unbelievable or whatever. I can't wrap my head around people not liking this latest take on Marvel's first family. It is a big story...multiverse-spanningly big. Everyone is in character and the stakes are high. Crazy things happen in this book that grow organically out of exactly what the FF have been about for decades--family, adventure, invention, and Doctor Doom! Yeah, this is the best kind of Fantastic Four story--the kind that is actually about how great a villain Doctor Doom is and always will be. And the reason for this is that, over the course of this latest arc (titled "Doom's Master"), we're put in a position where we're more concerned about the fate of Doom than we are Reed , Sue, Johnny, and Ben. You've got to love a writer who can make you feel for the bad guy who is trying to murder your heroes. Go back to the start of Millar's run and give this series a chance. It has been a fantastic run. (Yeah, I went there.)

A few years ago, Marvel decided to experiment with it's core characters--Spidey, the Avengers, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four--by creating an alternate continuity where they could move the timelines up to the present (remember, they all started out decades ago) and re-examine the early days of these characters in a new, modern, unconvoluted-by-40-years-of-history light. It was a weird, radical move that worked for the most part. Rebooting Spider-Man led to one of Marvel's best ongoing books in years and a far superior take on Spidey than the "real" Marvel Universe Spidey with 600 issues under his belt. The Avengers, now called The Ultimates, reminded readers how great Captain America was, how crazy and scary the Hulk should be, and how entertaining the suave, boozing billionaire Iron Man could be.

But for all the success of Ultimate Spider-Man and The Ultimates, the X-Men and FF reboots were a mess. All of the books sold well and sparked fan interest at first and there was plenty of buzz for at least a year or two after launch...but Ultimate X-Men and Ultimate Fantastic Four were simply not very good.

The Fantastic Four may not be the best selling book on the stands from month to month, but the concept, the characters, and even the broader continuity surrounding that book is tight. It's what serialized comic story-telling is all about. The reason the Ultimate version didn't really do much for anyone was that the core concept wasn't broken and didn't need fixing. Nothing changed in the Ultimatizing process except for the ages of the characters, and even then, some creators failed to understand that they were writing younger versions of the cast, and simply went on writing regular Fantastic Four stories. So the book wasn't so much bad as it was pointless. Also, they gave Doctor Doom hooves and changed his name from Victor Von Doom to Victor Van Damme. Yeah, no. You don't mess with Doctor Doom (see previous FF review)! The best thing to come from the ultimate FF was the "Marvel Zombies," but that idea has since turned into a Pandora's Box of corniness and out-of-control even that bright spot is a mixed bag.

The X-Men reboot was another story, though. The reason X-Men needed a reboot in the first place was because there were way too many characters in the X Universe and their continuity was a garbled mess. The only approach to a reboot that made sense was a smaller, streamlined team that would focus on the core elements that the X-Men and Marvel Mutants were about, but without the clutter. But what we got instead was a book overloaded with character from the start, convoluted plot points, betrayals in progress, mystery characters, love triangles, deaths and resurrections--all right out of the gate. Decades of nonsense were dumped into the mix from issue #1. Where Ultimate Peter Parker was suddenly back in high school experiencing teen angst and first love again for the first time, the X-Men were already mourning their first casualties in an Earth-threatening war against Magneto and an army of evil mutants. And from there, the creative teams tried to "Ultimatize" every dumb B-list character who ever graced an Assistant Editor's Month cover and every dopey plot twist that had occurred in the core Marvel books into this fresh start. Not even a dozen issues in, the Ultimate X-Men were dealing with Dark Phoenix and the Mojoverse?! It was a disaster, and the book had to be be put out of it's misery.

All of this leads back to Ultimatum--Marvel's apocalyptic reboot of the reboot, where cataclysmic events set off by Ultimate versions of Doctor Doom (mad about his hooves?) and Ultimate Magneto would trash the world beyond recognition, kill off major players, and pretty much force every corner of the Ultimate Universe to finally move away from the familiar ground of the core Marvel continuity once and for all. After Ultimatum, the Ultimate Universe would be a post-apocalyptic wasteland. They got Jeph Loeb to write it, a man who does his best work revisiting old, established characters' earliest days with artist partner Tim Sale, but who has slipped into a new mode of writing big clumsy goofball stories that read like they were spit-balled from the brain of a 10-year-old with ADD (see Smallville, Heroes, Ultimates 3, Red Hulk, Wolverine). Putting the job of destroying a world into the hands of a hyperactive man-child was actually not a bad idea, since he was already responsible for ruining the Ultimates with his trashy, childish, and clumsy third volume, and could just continue the rampage through the rest of the books in the line, like the Ultimate Hulk on a libidinous, radioactive roid-raging feeding frenzy. Marvel needed a clusterfuck, and Loeb is a master of the trainwreck kama sutra.

So what does all of this background have to do with the comics I got this week? Well, Ultimatum was exactly the sloppy, violent, spank-fest you'd expect from a kid handed a box of matches and given permission to set the playroom on fire. How it serves the bigger picture of the Ultimate line moving forward, I don't know. Things do not bode well for the world or for my continued interest in the ongoing story of anyone left in the rubble.

As for Spider-Man: Requiem, a two-part comic dealing with what happens to Spidey and Ultimate New York City after Ultimatum, it was consistent with the quality I've come to expect from the Ultimate Spider-Man series to date, but comparatively weak considering nobody got their head crushed or drowned by a tidal wave rolling down 5th Avenue or was torn to pieces, like in Ultimatum. I'm conditioned now to expect a certain level of gore and severity from the Ultimate books, which is in direct conflict with the pleasantly simple retro feel established over more than 100 issues of Ultimate Spidey. I don't know that I even want to keep up with the ongoing adventures of that Spider-Man in such a dark, broody place as this new, devastated Ultimate Universe.

Ultimatum was a great way to trash an entire line of comics that had lost its way and to put the whole thing to rest on a wild, gross, memorable note. Unfortunately, Marvel isn't planning to put it to rest, so it could all have been a terrible mistake.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Weekly Dose--Pt 1: The Dealer

Just like new music and videos are released every Tuesday, new comics come out on the same day every week. New Comics Day is Wednesday. Commit it to memory. Add it to your calendar. It's the one day of the week when you know where I'll be at lunchtime and, as far as hobbies and habits, my only constant.

While I'm at home recovering from surgery, I'm buying my weekly lot of comics from my hometown shop--Magnum Comics and Cards. This is the shop I started collecting from, and it is a geeky bright spot in a town otherwise filled with Chinese restaurants, banks, and drug stores. But Magnum is only a sometimes store for me. I look forward to my lunchtime escape to the shop too much during the work week to not buy my books in the city. So, these days, my weekly haunt is Cosmic Comics on 23rd Street.

The owner of Cosmic is a famously curmudgeonly crank, to the point that me and my friends have sworn off the store in frustration on more than one occasion. The store's discount policy (a standard feature for the best shops) is a little archaic--they track your credits in a notebook and refuse to do any math if there are more than two customers in the store), and the small shop's stock is severely limited compared with the glossy, automated account-maintaining, slick website-having, embroidered Polo shirt-wearing, walking distance from Marvel and DC home offices-glory of the East and Westside locations of main competitor Midtown Comics. But that's kind of the appeal. It's the same reason I get my morning coffee from the roach coach instead of Starbucks. While the products are similar, the comic shop experience shouldn't be like shopping at Toys R Us or Barnes and Noble. You want a little character, a bit of mystery about what you'll find, a dirty look or two.

I worked in a comic shop many years ago where we had to wear embroidered Polo shirts and greet everyone at the door as if we worked for Disney: "Welcome to Comic Attitudes, how can I help you?!" And we were mandated to "suggest sell" Archie comics to every customer at checkout. "I see you like Spawn...can I interest you in the Betty and Veronica Summer Special? Only $1.99!"

It doesn't hurt that Cosmic is only two blocks away from my job and they've got a 30%-off everything sale going all summer long to sweeten the draw. But it's the overall personality of the shop that has really grown on me and made me a loyal regular. Sorry, Midtown. I'll be back someday, but for now, make mine Cosmic!

Cosmic, Midtown, and a few other popular shops were featured not too long ago on in a piece called "The Secret Lives of Comic Store Employees," so i know I'm not the only person who overthinks his comic shopping experience.

Knowing How It Ends Doesn't Help

Don't worry, this post isn't about mortality. It's about a lousy movie I really wanted to like, so much so, I gave it a second chance this week. I warn you now that I'm going to spoil this movie for those of you who haven't seen it. For those who have, we can agree that it was spoiled from the start: Spider-Man 3.

I revisited the movie by chance--I was flipping channels, and it was on. But more importantly, I was in a hopeful mood and ready to watch this stinker in a new light. I figured knowing how the movie played out, knowing what to expect for better or worse, I'd be able to forgive the obvious negatives and simply enjoy the little things that made it fun. After all, that's the true appeal of comic book movies (and other popcorn/blockbuster/genre flicks)--all the requisite cheese and nonsense can usually be forgiven because the parts are almost always far greater than the whole. A roller coaster can't have all those wild ups without a few jerky downs. And when we look back on a Spider-Man or a Deep Blue Sea or a Matrix, we latch on to set pieces, action sequences, specific characters who pulled us through the story, cool one-liners. These movies strike some nostalgic chord that resonates beyond linear storytelling. You don't really get that with something like...The Reader. Either you like that movie or you don't.

So, having pretty much never looked back at the movie since walking out of the theater a few years back with my nerdy heart broken by it's suckiness, I sat back on the couch and hoped for the best. And you know what? It's a pitch-perfect Spider-Man movie...for about 40 minutes. The Peter/MJ dynamic established in the previous two films is there, recurring characters like Aunt May and Harry Osbourne pick up where they left off, and new characters--Eddie Brock, in particular--step into the mix convincingly. The J. Jonah Jameson-driven plot driver pitting dueling Daily Bugle photogs Parker and Brock against each other to get a shot of Spider-Man showing his "true colors" as a villain, with a staff job as the prize, is right out of the comics, and the tongue-in-cheek tone of the setup translates well to live action. It's fun and hokey and, considering the context, believable. The Sandman origin is also handled really well. I like the way he looks in the movie and I like the way the role is acted. Surprisingly, the action and conflict surrounding Harry Osbourne as "Goblin Jr" is probably the most satisfying part of the movie for me, in that it actually follows through on threads from parts 1 and 2 and, despite some cosmetic changes from what happens to Harry in the funny pages, feels like a true adaptation of Harry's ongoing comic story--right down to the coma, bouts of memory loss, and "dying." I think a lot of people dismissed the Harry stuff because they didn't like the idea of changing "Green Goblin 2" into a hover-boarding, bomb-throwing extreme sports caricature. In retrospect, it's a pretty cool character design and a nice step forward from the Power Ranger-esque Green Goblin in part 1. Without changing all that much, Harry becomes something new for the Spideyverse and, given how things play out in the movie, the kind of slick anti-hero who nearly outshines the hero hero of the piece.

But nobody went to see Spider-Man 3 for Sandman or Harry.

No, Spider-Man 3 was all about Venom--the alien symbiote that latches onto Peter Parker and, in the comics, became an evil, brain-eating perversion of everything Spider-Man stood for. In the comics, Spidey "becomes" Venom in a sense, before Venom becomes his own being, wearing the black alien as a costume while adventuring on another world in a comic plot far too convoluted to translate to film. But seeds had been planted by the filmmakers, so there wouldn't be much trouble altering the origins of the alien in order to bring Venom to movie Spidey's Earth in an exciting but sensible way.

As you'll recall, in Spider-Man 2, Parker's girlfriend MJ was engaged to marry astronaut John Jameson, but she left the poor sap at the alter to be with her web-headed honey. So, when John Jameson went off on his next space adventure, his heart was filled with anger toward MJ and Parker, and this anger drew the alien symbiote to him. A little far-fetched, but still logical within the context of a movie about a guy in tights fighting crime with the proportionate strength and agility of a spider. So, one thing leads to another, and Jameson returns to earth with the alien in tow, feeding off of his anger, and fueling his aggressive urges toward Parker and MJ. This gives him a reason to bring the symbiote into contact with Parker, allowing the rest of the Venom origin to unfold as it did in the comics, and allowing MJ to redeem herself from her runaway bride routine in part 2 by at least suffering some consequences in part 3, a common thread tying the sequels together toward a fulfilling conclusion.

I'm sorry, what is that? The alien just falls out of the sky? The symbiote just happens to come into contact with Spidey because Parker...steps on it? MJ's jilted ex doesn't even get mentioned again?

Oh yeah, right. And that's why this movie sucks. An unlikable love interest who makes the protagonist fawning all over her unlikable by extension, a major villain generated from some random space junk, and not even the slightest attempt to resolve a pretty major character-defining act from the previous film.

Also, about 40 minutes into the flick, we find out that (in the movies, at least) Sandman killed Spidey's Uncle Ben. So, not only are we going to ignore that whole "leaving a good man at the altar" bit from part 2, we're also going to reach back to part 1 and change the tried-and-true origin story that has suited Spidey for decades and across mediums...just to add an unnecessary dramatic twist to the B-villain subplot?

Why don't they just add a dance number, while they're at it?! (They did.)

Needless to say, my viewing experience fell apart fairly quickly. And the thing about already knowing how the movie ended? Well, it gave me license to do the only sensible thing--turn the crap off early.

But fear not, true believers! I was able to cleanse my palate with an episode of The Spectacular Spider-Man cartoon, which happened to be sitting in my DVR queue and featured an infinitely more satisfying take on Venom. If there's any moral to this story, I guess it's that anyone looking for a live-action Spidey fix is better off settling for the far more intelligent cartoon on Disney XD.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

It's Not a Comic (Yet), But Still...

My friend Peat (he of buying me Guitar Hero to help me through my recovery) is a writer. More specifically, he's a fantasy novelist with one very successful debut under his belt and two more books in development, all part of a series called The Demon Trilogy.

Me and about a million other geeks have read book 1, The Warded Man (released six months earlier in the UK as The Painted Man), which is an adult-minded coming of age tale about three kids from very different areas of life dealing with the hardships of a world beset upon by elemental demons, known as corelings. I'm one of only a few who've had the opportunity to read an early draft of the sequel, which expands the world and focuses on the prophesied "Deliverer" destined to conquer the corelings.

It's simple, visceral, exciting stuff that would make for an excellent comic series. It could probably make for an even better movie.

Oh, what's that you say, Hollywood Reporter?

If this plays out like Entourage, do I have to be Turtle? I just hope I get to play a coreling.

It's The Little Things

I just received the first of four pages for one of the two stories I wrote for the upcoming Doctor Dremo's Taphouse of Tall Tales and Short Stories: The Spoils of Crime. I'll post a bigger, more comprehensive post about the ongoing Dremo project, but for now, please enjoy the fine artwork of the lovely and talented Renzo Ventrella:

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Maybe I Should Get Sick More Often

Aside from the giant gash across my throat, the stiff neck muscles, and the constant meds, recovery hasn't been all that bad. I get to sleep all day and stay up all night, if I want to. I'm physically unable to pick up my daughter while I heal up, so that means I can't change her diaper or wake up early to take her out of the crib either. I even got to play the "can't get it wet" card, regarding my stitches, which got me out of showering for a few days. (That last one was actually kind of gross, but it was fun getting away with it.)

The best thing about this whole mess, hands down, has been the gifts. I don't know what it is about cutting out my thyroid that made so many people want to celebrate, but as long as they're sending the goods my way, it's all right by me. My sister bought me a stack of magazines while I was still in the hospital, and my mother took care of picking up my weekly pull from the comic shop. The shop owner Neil at Magnum Comics even threw in a few freebies for me. But when I got out of the hospital, the gifts kept coming! One of my wife's closest girlfriends sent me an Amazon gift card, then a few days later my own best buddy, Peat, sent me a video game. And while I can't exactly monetize the value of my child, my aunt gave us the gift of taking her off our hands for an entire weekend.

And now, a full week after my surgery, an unexpected package arrived at my door from another set of old friends:

The box contained a Dark Victory Batman action figure, a DC Who's Who Mystery Box (mystery was Superman), Red Robin #1, The Incredible Hulk #600, and two issues of Boom Studios' The Muppet Show. How cool is that?

I'm in such a good mood about this geek goody bag that I'm going to refrain from sharing my response to the mediocre Red Robin, and I'm not even going to get into how, thanks to its disjointed, go-nowhere plot, juvenile storytelling, and irrelevant backup features, Hulk 600 was probably my least favorite comic I've read all year. Instead, I'm going to leave you with the wisdom of Statler and Waldorf, which transends all mediums.

Thanks again for the loot!

Scott Pilgrim vs The Next Generation Video Game Consoles

Just read on MTV's Splash Page that word leaked out of SDCC that a Scott Pilgrim video game is in the works. I really fell in love with Bryan Lee O'Malley's mang-ish black-and-white comedy series recently, and I'm actually more excited about the upcoming live-action movie by Edgar Wright and starring Michael Serra than I am anything coming out of Marvel Films or DC Animation.

If you haven't read any of the Scott Pilgrim books yet, you're really missing out. (Let me help you out by linking to book 1, Scott Pilgrim's Precious Little Life, available on the cheap at Amazon.) The series is a charming, quirky, goofy, hipster love story set in a video game Canada where everyone knows kung fu and veganism gives you super powers. There have been 5 digest-size books to date, and the series concludes with book 6, due around the same time as the movie in 2010, so it's easy to get on board and catch up.

Monday, July 27, 2009

The (OTHER) Big C

My name is Matt Bergin. You may know me as the co-creator and writer of Division 18: The Union of Novelty Costumed Performers, as the moderator of the Comic Blog Elite toplist, or from my geek-parenting column Pop on Pop over at Forces of Geek. I learned to read from my older brother's hand-me-down comic book collection. I learned about economics by selling those comics to my local comic shop for pocket change. I learned about friendship from Greens Arrow and Lantern, love from Clark and Lois, and responsibility from Peter Parker's Uncle Ben. My sense of humor grew out of Groo, with a hint of Fred Hembeck and a twist of The Tick. I've been reading, writing, and drawing comics for as long as I can remember--not for a living, just because they are my life.

So it was particularly jarring for me when I was yanked out of my escapist Neverland by the news that I have cancer.

There I was, worrying about Dick Grayson's chances as the new Batman and trying to decide whether my almost-2-year-old daughter's first movie should be G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra ; meanwhile, cancerous tumors were growing in my thyroid gland and the surrounding lymph nodes.
Talk about a reality check.

But then about a reality check! Cancer or not, I still want to know how Dick does as Batman. I'm still thinking of taking Alexa to that movie. I'm still curious to see how Dark Reign and Blackest Night play out. I want to know if the resurrected Steve Rogers will take back his shield from Bucky...or if he will just take over S.H.I.E.L.D. And there are so many comic-based movies--animated and live-action--on the horizon that I am not only looking forward to, but counting on seeing.

This is who I am. This is what I do. After all, there is no cure for comics.

So let me clarify a few things about myself and this site to get things started:

1. MY OUTLOOK: I am not dying. I mean, we're all dying, but I'm not dying from this cancer. The specific type of cancer I have is called papillary thyroid cancer, and it is both common and curable. I am at home recovering from my complete thyroidectomy as I write this initial post. The cancer had also spread to some of the surrounding lymph nodes, so I had those cut out, too. But all of the experts involved with my care have told me this kind of cancer is incredibly treatable. In fact, my endocrinologist told me that, if God came up to him (I guess in a bar or at a Yankee game or maybe between sessions at a medical conference?) and told him he had to have cancer but could pick which type, this is the one he'd choose. That is so comforting, right?

Seriously, though, the odds are very much in my favor that they cut all of the bad stuff out of me, and a quick follow-up zap of radiation in a few weeks time should take care of any microscopic hangers on hoping to cause me any continued grief. The bottom line here is that this blog isn't some morbid death trip.

2. MY ANGLE: For weeks after finding out that I had cancer and leading up to my surgery, I really had no idea how dire my situation was or was not, and I had an almost impossible time trying to keep a positive outlook on things. Potentially fatal disease aside, I'd never had major surgery before! Plus, it was almost a year to the day of my father dying that I got my diagnosis, so I was in a particularly strange place mentally and emotionally. The only constant for me during this time, besides my wife and daughter, was my weekly comic jones. But I couldn't just escape into these books anymore. The stakes of my life were too high and my time was suddenly very precious. I was suddenly looking at my weekly pull list with greater scrutiny and deeper cynicism. Did I really need to spend what might be my final days reading about Congorilla's cries for justice? Could I rest in peace never knowing the identity of the Red Hulk or the final fate of Spidey and MJ? Would I have died as happy if I had never lived to see JH Williams' recent work in Detective Comics? Every book I read, I asked myself, "What if this is the last comic I ever read? Is it worth it?" And this is the angle from which I'm going to look at things on this site. This might lead to a lot of snark or a lot of sincere affection...we'll see.

3. MY OPTIONS: Cancer doesn't define me. Neither do comics, necessarily. So, from time to time, I'll post about my own projects or other stuff that amuses me. I may even do some doodles for the site. I've got plenty of time to figure it out.