Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Index: The Comic Pusher Review of Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris's Ex Machina

The Run: Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris

In my column, The Run, I review long-form serialized works over multiple parts. Last month I wrapped up my series on Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughan and Tony Harris. Certainly the long-form highlight of both creators' illustrious careers, Ex Machina is an expansive sci-fi post-superhero political thriller, a chronicle of a city, and the terrible cost of Power. Serialized over 54 issues between 2004 and 2010 by WildStorm and published as ten Volumes (or five double-sized Books) by Vertigo, Ex Machina is engaging and rewarding, and a work that changes radically on reexamination.

Below are my reviews of every story in the series, in order.
For my series of reviews of Naoki Urasawa's Pluto, click here. For all installments of The Run, click here. For the full index of all reviews, click here.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Interview: J. Michael Straczynski Talks About Coming Home to the Twilight Zone [The Beat]

This interview was originally published November 3 on The Beat.

This summer, Dynamite announced that they had the rights to do comics based on Rod Serling's legendary anthology The Twilight Zone, and that J. Michael Straczynski will be writing the series. (That's part of the very busy 2014 Straczynski is slated to have, between six titles for his Joe's Comics imprint with Image, a television series with The Wachowskis for Netflix, and more comic and film work.) Joining Straczynski on the first issue, which will be released next week, is artist Guiu Vilanova, and cover artist Francesco Francavilla.

Straczynski is a natural choice for the series. After meeting Serling as a youth, Straczynski would go on to Hollywood, with his well-regarded work on 1980s The Twilight Zone revival being his big break into live-action television. For Straczynski, working on The Twilight Zone is a kind of homecoming.

In October I interviewed Straczynski about his plans for the series, and how Rod Serling and The Twilight Zone changed his life - reposted below. I also talked to Vilanova and Dynamite publisher Nick Barrucci about the genesis of the project and their personal favorite Twilight Zone stories.

Fransesco Francavilla's cover to Twilight Zone 1
First, how did the project develop and how did each of you get involved?

NB: I’ve always been a fan of the Twilight Zone TV show and it’s a license we’ve wanted to tackle for years. We had talked to CBS about it off and on. What we wanted to do was ensure when we got the license we could to it justice. So we kept in touch, followed up diligently, ensuring that we didn’t miss out on the opportunity to throw our hat in the ring, but we were quite clear that we only wanted to do it if we could do it right.

GV: I worked with my friends of Dynamite on the Dark Shadows series and Dark Shadows: Year One miniseries, and I really wanted to do something big. When Joe and Nick offered me this amazing project, I couldn't refuse. 

JMS: Nick and I had been talking about other projects, and he mentioned that he might go for the Twilight Zone title if I had an interest in writing it. Leaving aside that this is an extraordinary compliment, I've always had a strong tie to the Twilight Zone, having worked on the '88 version and growing up a tremendous fan of Rod Serling's work. I even co-wrote a guide to his Night Gallery series for Twilight Zone Magazine.

And in addition to all the Twilight Zone television work, one of the first few comics you ever wrote was a Twilight Zone comic for defunct Now Comics way back in 1991...

JMS: The book was actually an adaptation of the spec script I wrote for the New Twilight Zone that got me in the door to write the script for "What Are Friends For?"

Nick, you approached Joe about working on the book from the very beginning - what made him the ideal candidate?

NB: I've known Joe for years, and I've always wanted to work with him on this level, but there didn't seem to be the right property for us to work together on. Over the years, we've kept in touch, and I've always hoped to work with him. One day I was in the office looking over ideas from one of our editorial meetings for potential licenses, and I was looking at Twilight Zone, and thought, why not ask Joe. He'd worked on it. I knew he was a huge fan of Rod Serling, but wasn't sure if he'd feel like he'd said all that he had to say or if he would like to jump in. Worst case he would say no, right? ... I asked him if he was interested and he enthusiastically said “yes.” What made him the ideal candidate? He brings so much passion and reverence to the property yet at the same time comes in with a distinct voice and I can’t over emphasize how much his knowledge of the property, yet his ability to come up with a crisp story is important. I can honestly say that Joe is the only person we approached, and he is the right person.

Joe, Twilight Zone stories could be everything from expansive science fiction to grounded suspense thrillers. What kind of stories will you be telling in your run?

JMS: I kind of blended them all together into this one story. It's actually three separate stories told from three points of view that slowly begin to merge together into one larger, meta-story. One is a very grounded thriller, the other is a much bigger, apocalyptic story, and the other deals with time travel. Some folks online have said that the issues should be stand-alone stories, but that misses a very key point: if you extract the amount of script from the average comic book, it's equal to maybe ten or twelve TV script pages. So if you put 3-4 issues together, you have the equivalent of one half-hour TV episode. You can't do a Twilight Zone story in ten pages, or one twenty-two page comic book; you need to be able to establish and develop the character, and that takes time. You could never do a single comic book with the depth of storytelling you'd get in, say, "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," or "The Obsolete Man." So by doing our stories in 4 issue arcs we're doing just what would've been done in one episode.

The other thing about the Zone that sometimes folks tend to forget in the cloud of nostalgia that surrounds the title was that it was a proving ground for all kinds of storytelling, from the prosaic ("Mr. Denton on Doomsday") to the more experimental ("Five Characters In Search of an Exit"). The structure wasn't there in network television to do three seemingly independent episodes that suddenly turn out to have connections to one another, and sew together into a larger narrative. The syndication market at that time aired episodes in any order they liked; it wouldn't have worked. Had this sort of technique been available at the time, who knows whether or not it would've been used, but knowing Serling's tendency toward experimentation, I'd bet good money he'd give it a shot. The Twilight Zone was about looking forward, to the future, to trying new storytelling approaches, not about nostalgia for a long-ago form (except as a subject of stories, natch).

Obviously Twilight Zone is known for its twist endings--

JMS: That's kind of the perception, but if you look at the show as a whole, twist endings ("To Serve Man," "Time Enough at Last") were generally about a third of what was actually produced. They have a lot of impact in retrospect, but there were far more non-twists than twist endings. If anything, Serling seemed to lean away from those later on in the Zone's run, because in time the twist can become predictable. Some of the non-twist episodes include "Night Calls," "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" and "Steel," among many others. So we're not specifically going for a twist ending to the stories, though there are a number of twists and turns that should surprise readers.

What will be the structure of the series and how long is your initial run?

JMS: I'm doing twelve issues in three four-issue arcs, as noted above. Each is built around a protagonist in one specific area, who know or are associated with each other. The stories are told in sequence, each starting from a common point, around that character. In the background of each story, however, we get glimpses of what's happening in the other two stories. (Meaning: in the background of a scene with a Wall Street banker in arc one, we see an investigator from the second arc following a lead.) So in essence, all three stories are happening simultaneously. (It's like telling a story about character A from Monday-Saturday; you finish that story, then rewind the clock to Monday and show what happened to character B during that same period.)

You can print the stories as three individual arcs or, and here's the fun of it, you could conceivably interleave the three stories like shuffling a deck of cards and turn the whole thing into one larger narrative that turns the whole thing around in the end. It's not a structure we've seen a lot before, so it's fun to do, though keeping track of all three stories so that the time-frame is consistent throughout is a bit of a headache.

Nick, are there plans to continue the series after Joe and Guiu's run?

NB: I'm pretty sure we will, especially since Joe will create so much awareness for the series. But time will tell. Right now the focus is on putting out a great series. Let's me put it this way. When Joe and I first started talking about this he was thinking this would be a four issue story arc, and we were elated. Joe writing four issues, that’s great, it helps rebrand the property for the comic and the market, creates great awareness, then the hard part is finding someone to fill Joe’s shoes. Not the worst problem to have, but it’s still a challenge to work with someone who wants to follow Joe up and do as good of a job. It would be tough, but again, not a bad problem to have. Then Joe was so excited he suggested writing the first four issues, we bring another writer on board to script the next four, then he would write 4 more as he had another story. Of course I said yes, there’s no doubt about that. Then he came back and said that he has a story for all twelve issues, "how about I write the first 12 issues." That says it all. That’s what made him the ideal candidate. He kept coming up with more and more ideas that kept growing, adding to the story and he just knocks it out of the park. What can I say?

Joe, what are some of the challenges in bringing the concept to comics?

JMS: As we discovered when I worked on the Zone in '88, people have certain fixed notions about what constitutes a Twilight Zone story, because we've had it in our lexicon for decades... a perception that actually didn't exist at the time because the fun of watching the Zone in its original broadcast was that viewers never knew what to expect next. So we have to address that here as well.

The other challenge is that at its heart, the Twilight Zone was about - as Faulkner said - the human heart in conflict with itself. It wasn't generally about big explosions or action set-pieces. A lot of it was two people in a room talking about really important stuff. So the challenge becomes keeping that dialogue-rich narrative without it becoming dull in comic form.

How has Rod Serling's work and The Twilight Zone specifically impacted your life and career?

JMS: Jesus, how hasn't it? Growing up I watched every episode of the original Zone scores of times; there are some episodes, like "Little Girl Lost," or "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street" that I've probably seen close to a hundred times. I studied them as a kid, and when I was in high school at a career day held at a local college, the same day that Rod was scheduled to talk, he wandered in and read a couple of my stories, giving me my first validation as a writer. Later, selling a Twilight Zone script became my first live-action sale, and paved the way for me to get the job on Captain Power (which required a minimum of one live-action produced script, which is what that gave me), and positioned me to come on as story editor a year later, where I wrote a new Zone episode based on an unproduced Serling outline. It was the Zone gig that opened up other doors for me in my career. There are more ways even beyond all that in which the Zone has played an important part in my life and my career, but it would take several more screens to tell it all.

So this is far from your first foray into The Twilight Zone. How is your previous work with the franchise coloring your work on the project today?

JMS: I'm trying to let it do so, because I'm not the same writer today that I was in '88. I learned a lot from that experience about what the Zone was and wasn't, and those lessons have had a chance to take root and mature, so my understanding of that now is quite a bit different from what it was then. Also, having run shows gives me a better understanding of what kinds of stories you can do in television, and the constraints under which Rod had to work, so that also informs the storytelling.

I know it's difficult to appraise one's early work, but what are some of your favorite Twilight Zone stories that you have worked on?

JMS: My favorite three would be: "Dream Me a Life" with Eddie Albert playing a man in a retirement home who begins to share dreams with the comatose woman next door, because of how the writing worked out but also because of what Eddie brought to that role... "The Mind of Simon Foster," about a desperate man who begins selling his memories at a special kind of pawn shop and begins to realize the cost of what he's doing... and "Our Selena is Dying," about an elderly woman who begins to draw the life and vitality out of a younger woman, which I wrote based on an outline by Rod Serling. Seeing my name on the same screen as Rod's was a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Guiu and Nick, what does The Twilight Zone mean for you? What are some of your favorite episodes?

GV: Twilight Zone was one of the series that marked my childhood. I saw the first five seasons, long time after the airing of the last episode in the USA. I think in 90's. The first episode I saw was "Time Enough at Last" from the first season, and I really liked the episode "A Hundred Yards over the Rim.”

NB: Twilight Zone means endless imagination for creating new stories, having the right twist from start to finish, being smart with the stories you tell. That’s really what it means to me. "Where is Everybody" is a great one for me, I would say "Time Enough at Last," "Walking Distance," "The Afterhours," "The Eye of the Beholder" and "The Invaders."

The incomparable Francesco Francavilla is doing a cover--

NB: Francesco is doing all the covers and you’re right, he is incomparable. He’s a genius and draws some of the best covers on the market today and we are very luck to have him.

Joe, what does Guiu bring to the table as an artist?

JMS: He brings a very grounded art style that works well with the stories we're doing, especially the first one, as that's the most character-oriented. You can feel the weight of the characters in his art and that's very important for the stories to work.

Bottom line: for me as a writer, but also as a fan of Serling's work, and the Zone, there are few things more exciting than to be able to return to that universe, to that title, and tell another story that pushes the boundaries and delves deep into the important questions that we all have to deal with every day. In a very weird way, writing The Twilight Zone is a lot like coming home....

Twilight Zone #1 (NOV130938) is written by J. Michael Straczynski, illustrated by Guiu Vilanova, and published by Dynamite Comics. It is currently available for order from Diamond Comics and your local comic shop, for a January scheduled release. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

Ordinary Superheroics: Dean Haspiel's The Fox

The Fox 2 by Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid
Red Circle/Archie, 2013
The Red Circle characters (the Archie superheroes) have been around intermittently since the Golden Age. The only really unique thing about Red Circle is that there have been many attempts to relaunch the characters over the last 70 years, attempts that have usually had the impact of a feather landing on snow. DC - as part of their long and recently unsuccessful history of gobbling up dangling superheroes to integrate into their own shared universe (because the existing DCU characters can't cut it, I guess) - were the most recent publishers of the line. But the DC Red Circle, which started out strong with a J. Michael Straczynski-helmed launch, simply fizzled out for the simple reason that the characters - indistinct enough in a crowded superhero landscape, certainly moreso in the densely-packed pre-New 52 DCU - weren't that interesting and no-one really cared.

Step back in Archie the publisher. Archie has distinguished itself in recent years by upping the company profile with well-produced, entertaining stories with significant crossover media attention, and by taking storytelling and marketing risks that they've never previously taken. It's only natural that they would retake the helm of The Red Circle, beginning with last year's Mighty Crusaders. But despite the line's age, for all intents and purposes these are new superheroes. And at this point in the genre's existence, it goes without saying that new superheroes always have an uphill climb in impacting the neutron-star-dense market of brightly-costumed muckity-mucks. At the very least you can only hope to make good comics and let potential market penetration come later.

Sadly, there's nothing terribly new or fresh or distinct about The Fox, issue two of which came out last Wednesday. The series is written and illustrated by Dean Haspiel with dialogue by Mark Waid, old-school hand-in-hand Marvel-style. Rather than going into origins, the story in issue one dives in with Paul Patton, ace photojournalist, getting into quick trouble thanks to his work as a photog and as his superhero alter-ego, The Fox. Patton is not superpowered but gets dressed up to draw out the story, and much to his chagrin constantly finds himself hip-deep in it. His wife, Mae, and oldest daughter are also superheroes, though Mae seems to be frustrated with Paul's costumed activities. Issue one is a little more straightforward, with Patton put up against a couple of meat-head thugs and a costumed interlude of The Fox against some kind of demon seductress with a new social media website. He easily wins both battles, but finds himself in the cliffhanger kidnapped to some diamond dimension, where we find ourselves in issue two. Issue 2 has a lot of Patton/Fox trying to figure out what exactly is happening, there's a battle with a changeling who he thinks is his wife in her superhero guise as She-Fox, and an exposition-heavy sequence where the power that shanghaied him explaining the whys and hows of the world he now finds himself in.

Patton found himself back in Impact City at series' start to reconnect with his adult daughter and to reignite his journalism career, and finds himself way over his head dealing with superpowered sci-fi magic weirdness. I guess that's the vibe Haspiel is going for: Patton completely out of his league and finding a way to win. He just wins very handily with little suspense or thought of genuine threat. Patton/Fox isn't terribly engaging or entertaining on his own, and the situation he finds himself in, forced to intercede in some alien realm's political drama - and despite the inspired weirdness of the Diamond Queen's disjointed dialogue - doesn't quite gel into an interesting story.

It's hard to peg down the series' intended audience. One the one hand, The Fox is competently produced, straight-forward superhero fare, with an accessible high-impact art style. The storytelling is simple enough with plenty of allusions and references to Red Circle heroes past and present. But the character, a married reporter in his forties with a superhero wife and an adult superhero daughter, just doesn't seem that compelling to your potential preteen audience. If you are an adult who is a fan of the creators' respective accomplishments, then The Fox (so far) is a competent cape comic of little other distinction, one of a hundred out now. But if you are new to the characters and creators, or a kid looking to dive into a superpowered funny book, there is sadly nothing about the book worth picking up. Haspiel's winning Kirbytastic art is a highlight, but simply insufficient to make the book worth it.

All-ages superhero comics have been a hard-sell in recent years. It's unfair to expect The Fox to compete on the same level as a Spider-Man or Batman with little eyeballs staring at a comic rack, a rack that apparently cannot support even popular superheroes in all-ages books. But it's also competing with dozens of other genres having greater effect in all-ages comics. Something needs to pretty special to stand out in any genre and format, and The Fox is distinguished only by its ordinariness.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

(A) Top Ten Holiday Gift Guide for Black Friday and Beyond [The Beat]

Black Friday weekend over at The Beat, I wrote (A) Top Ten Holiday Gift Guide for Black Friday and Beyond. For a pretty good list of some random comic giftables, including Sandman, Pluto, Scalped, Johnny Hiro, Adventure Time, Love and Rockets and more, click here!

As always, follow me on Twitter at @B5Jeff. Like The Comic Pusher on Facebook at  www.facebook.com/ComicPusher and on Tumblr at ComicPusher.tumblr.com. And see the Full Index of All Reviews here.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Change of Art: Looking at CP Smith in Ten Grand

J. Michael Straczynski's Ten Grand had a bit of a road bump in its projected 12-issue first season when artist Ben Templesmith fell off the map a few months ago. Templesmith owned up to it and C.P. Smith came aboard to illustrate starting with last month's issue 5. Templesmith's stuff on the title was some of the best of his career, and I was sad to see him go. The essential feel of the comic was rooted in Templesmith's gritty, dark, twisted grotesqueries, Straczynski's scripting a perfect match for Templesmith's distinct brand of noir supernaturalism. The story - about a dead hit-man who made a deal with some shady aspect of the afterlife to do their bidding in order to see his lost love for a short period of time - had a perfect executor in Templesmith's particular and unique visual voice, a spot-on vision of memorable demons and street thugs, back-allies and demented afterlife. Templesmith, especially on Ten Grand, revels in shadows, not chiaroscuro but the darkness that exists underneath things hidden from the cleansing light of the sun, crawling and worming and indistinct, at the edge of your periphery, scratchy lines in deep reds and browns and highlights of un-light.

Needless to say, in art, C.P. Smith is nothing at all like Ben Templesmith. But, then again, few are. I was skeptical that the title could survive such a drastic midway change. Shuffling art teams happen far too often in mainstream comics, and always as a disservice to the larger story (where there is one). The distinctness of Straczynski's narrative, so rooted in such Templesmithian thematic territory, couldn't really be served by anyone else. So, perhaps a happy structural coincidence, the narrative feel shifts on its axis a bit in issue 5 and C.P. Smith just nails it.

Now, Straczynski isn't exactly breaking new thematic ground here. The horror-magic-noir setting, wedged between heaven and hell, both unreliable and untrustworthy, supernatural forces skittering around a wise and hard-boiled interlocutor (and so on) is far from unique. I don't think the genre has a name, but it exists in many forms. And some of the emotional thematic ground Straczynski touches upon here is also covered in his superb Midnight Nation with Gary Frank. But the overall flavor and execution of Ten Grand's story just works. A frequent (and innacurate) comparison I've seen to Ten Grand is the John Constantine character. But the goals of each book is different, the characters are different. Same genre, certainly.

C.P. Smith doesn't bother with constraining himself to the same stylistic visual territory as Templesmith, instead being true to his own freaky self. His art is a little odd - but the setting of Limbo is appropriately odd. The people caught there are presented as the negatives of weird 3D constructs. Smith uses a lot of these constructs in his art, but it's at least consistent. The story and the art really sinc up about halfway through. After Joe runs into the time-displaced Limbo-trapped version of himself ("I hate quantum existentialism," he says) he comes to a big ole metaphorical river he must cross on Death's canoe.

Death - it's probably Death, though never specified as such -  with visible skull and skeleton hands and feet, is sitting at the edge of the river, in full cloak and hood, wearing an almost glowing yellow reflective life vest over the cloak. He's wearing sandals, but they look like flip-flops on the skully surfer dude wearing a life vest and a hoodie. Death isn't presented as surfer dude, but certainly as disenfranchised, and jaded in his task. He's tired of encountering pathetic people who took the easy road in life, tried to make few mistakes, took no risks. Joe Fitzgerald has a double advantage: he's alive, and he's made so many mistakes, enough to make the trip very, very bumpy. Death relishes the opportunity, and takes Joe on a rough, surf-battered journey across, to the fork in the road between heaven and hell. The art reflects and absorbs and re-presents the potential silliness of the visuals in clever and straightforward ways. And Straczynski, in a very tight space, essentially has Death distill Straczynski's own personal philosophy and a returning theme and leitmotif in his work, that of choice and trying and never accepting and defying convention and authority. All the while foreshadowing a ton of unpleasant stuff to come. The issue ends on a nice twist, though we're certain Joe will find a way out of the predicament. (That said, Straczynski has surprised me by diving right into the all-out big story, unusual compared to his super-delicate pacing style.)

I can easily imagine Templesmith illustrating these sequences, but I can't quite imagine it working as well as it does in C.P. Smith's hands. Another artist altogether could have done better, but it seems unlikely that they could have done it as quickly or as efficiently as Smith does here. His art in these sequences reflect the very cool, slightly off-feeling, casual epicness of the story.  

Ten Grand solidly survives the art change and speeds forward in its story. Issue six is scheduled to come out next week and the trade paperback of the first six issues shortly thereafter.

As an aside, Walking Dead has also recently had the most profound art change in 110 issues with the beginning of the "All Out War" storyline. Joining the usually slapdash Charlie Adlard on pencils is the superb inker Stefano Guadiano. Guadiano gives a weight and detail to the work seen at no point in Adlard's run on the book. Cliff Rathburn's coloring (it is credited as gray tones, but it is coloring) is the unknown all-star of the series and meshes Adlard's defining take of the characters with Guadiano's powerful inking in the best looking story of the series.

[As yet another aside (a postscript!), I completely wrote this review and then somehow it got entirely deleted. Perhaps I angered the writing gods. Anyway, what you read above is a half-assed second go based on my own shifty recollections of my own dodgy writing. Your mileage may vary, especially if you are on the metric system.]